24. Billy Bragg, Tooth & Nail
It’s fitting that Billy Bragg named his first album in five years Tooth & Nail since that phrase is also a good descriptor for how hard Bragg has fought for recognition over the years. He is the one, after all, who penned an Op-Ed for The Guardian claiming that it was him and his fellow Brits who invented Americana at all. Perhaps it was his role in composing music for some of Woody Guthrie’s unreleased lyrics (See Mermaid Avenue and Mermaid Avenue II & III) that set him thinking about the genre’s origins. Regardless, Bragg’s latest carries on in the steely vein of traditional folk music he helped forge, full of displaced loss and fervent anti-establishment vibes. There’s even some bemused “kids these days” scolding on the excellent “No One Knows Nothing Anymore”—he’s cranky, cohesive and still fighting with all he’s got.
23. Molly Drake, Molly Drake
One of 2013’s most poignant folk releases was recorded in the 1950s. Nick Drake’s mother, Molly Drake, used to record her own original songs at home on the family’s reel-to-reel recorder. The 19 tracks were restored by John Wood — an engineer who frequently collaborated with Nick and is often credited for “discovering” him — and released as a self-titled album by the label Squirrel Things Recordings. They are accompanied by ” a biography written by Molly’s daughter Gabrielle Drake, a custom letter-pressed jacket and family photos. Not only do these songs offer a new starting point as to Nick’s influence, but they also reveal the quietly fierce musings of a housewife in the ’50s, a woman with an artistic soul whose pristine voice and imagist poetry were captured, lost, and then rediscovered.
22. Sam Amidon, Bright Sunny South
Sam Amidon has a folk pedigree — his parents are literally folk music teachers — and he’s married to freak-folk purveyor Beth Orton. So it makes sense that his latest album Bright Sunny South is full of a few ancient folk standards along with his own original ballads and songs. But where he veers from convention are in his covers — Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend” and the unlikely choice of Mariah Carey’s “Shake It Off.” Amidon is a great example of how a second generation of American folk artists are emerging — ones that want to try their own hand at both ancient songs and pop diva ballads (even if the results are mixed, his Carey cover falls flat). But ancient Irish standard “As I Roved Out” gets an upgrade with superb banjo finger-picking and unabashed hoarse phrasing. What draws the album together is the scope of Amidon’s original songs: The superb, softly lowing “I Wish I Wish” with quiet bursts of trumpet or the counterintuitive lament of title track “Bright Sunny South.”
21. Iron & Wine, Ghost on Ghost
Sam Beam’s voice has become an empire in its own right. One phrase from the Iron & Wine frontman’s mouth is like manna to fervent fans, and the more that he continues to expand into digital effects and production techniques, the more power his otherworldly vocals assume. His forays into free jazz haven’t halted since 2011’s Kiss Each Other Clean, and album ender “Lover’s Revolution” feels like it goes full improvisation. It’s the simplest track though, “Joy,” that rounds out this new album, probably because it reminds fans of Beam’s early days singing hushed with just his guitar and a lot of love. The remnants of Iron & Wine’s early years will always haunt Beam’s work, even as he moves forward into more expansive and complicated territory musically.
20. Wharfer, The Rattling
Kyle Wall’s growled, warbly voice immediately sets Wharfer apart from the majority of DIY folk that’s popping up even in urban centers like Brooklyn. Wall is a Scranton native who was immersed in the music scene there for years but recorded his own album The Rattling entirely on his phone. Born out of a necessity to make music, parts of the album were recorded outdoors in McCarren park at midnight, some of it in his backyard, and some in his bedroom. The echoey, DIY recording process feels ancient even though it comes via cell phone. The 75-year-old mandolin he used probably didn’t hurt either. Look for more music coming from Wall in 2014 — now that the floodgates are open, he can’t seem to stop creating these rough hewn modern folk laments.
19. Diane Coffee, My Friend Fish
Foxygen drummer Shaun Fleming beat his folk-rock compatriots at their own game with his solo release My Friend Fish. Fleming’s solo project under the moniker Diane Coffee channels the ’60s folk movement and its ilk with less precision and more spirit than his bandmates — he even managed to get a shout out from hip-hop super producer El-P as one of his favorite new acts. Although this record leans heavy on psychedelia and Beatle-mania, and even gets heavy at points, it still leans more toward fingerpicking and harmonies even amidst rock and roll.
18. Mutual Benefit, Love’s Crushing Diamond
It’s the majesty that Mutual Benefit aspires to that separate them from the hoards of twee-obsessed, harmony bound nü-folkies that have inundated pop culture in recent years. On Love’s Crushing Diamond, Mutual Benefit fall into the same kinds of wide-eyed, romantic, wishful music that has become majorly uncool in 2013, word to Freelance Whales and The Weepies. Yet, despite the backlash against soft melodies, noisemakers and close harmonies, Jordan Lee’s simple, seven song collection has warmed the heart of even the most stalwart critics. Mutual Benefit is basically an acoustic-based band that’s so earnest they actually won the haters back over, and the handclaps, strings and falsetto are anchored by simple, probing lyrics.
17. Night Beds, Country Sleep
Night Beds manage to cover about five genres at once in their initial album Country Sleep. In the end, songwriter Winston Yellen manages to fit most firmly into the folk bent. His airy, flexible vocals have earned comparisons to Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold, but his subject matter is decidedly more country than the Northwest-bound Foxes. After a series of EPs last year, Dead Oceans put out the group’s full-length album this year and it’s a sleeper hit bound for stardom. The building, urge of “Ramona” is a standout on a record that alternates between despair as on “Even If We Try” and haunting memories on “22.” Regardless of subject matter or mood, Yellen’s voice and gentle, campfire-ready accompaniment make this debut feel fresh even when it’s exploring weariness.
16. Willis Earl Beal, Nobody knows.
The story of Willis Earl Beal’s rise from street drifter to folk-song-sorcerer is one that’s well worn by now, mostly because it’s a timeless and beloved rags-to-riches narrative. But beyond that, his karaoke machine-recorded debut Acousmatic Sorcery was entrancing because it had the stirring, lonely edges of his real life homelessness in its sketchy, loose tracks. What would a sophomore album from Willis be like? Nobody knows. answered that with rich, orchestral fullness that still contained plenty of darkness. Including a feature from Beal’s former hero Cat Power, it’s his jagged honesty and skillful sense of composition that has turned his idols into his collaborators.
15. William Tyler, Impossible Truth
Purely instrumental music is a rarity in 2013, but what’s even rarer is to find an instrumental album that’s any good at all. Impossible Truth, guitarist William Tyler’s second record illustrates that it’s not guitar music that’s gotten boring at all — it’s the people who pick up the instrument who have. His supple, urgent songs span from five to 10 minutes, but seem to condense sagas in their passing melodies.
14. Guy Clark, My Favorite Picture of You
Folk music is by and large a genre for the old, not the young. That’s why it often sounds like the old guard are having more fun within the bounds of this style than their fledgling peers. If there’s anyone that belongs to folk’s unsung old guard, it’s the irrepressible Guy Clark, and although My Favorite Picture of You is his first album in four years, he’s lost none of his lyrical deftness or nimble guitar playing. With over twenty albums — including a live collaborative effort with Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle — Clark is representative of the cultural path that Americana has traced over the last 40 years. Incisive, personal and spirited, it seems this Texan’s legacy will never lag. And that picture he’s holding on the cover? It’s his actual favorite picture of his wife of 40 years Susanna, who passed away last year. But despite its heartbreaking nature, Clark turns the song into a joyful, vivid homage.
13. Brianna Lea Pruett, Gypsy Bells
It’s easy to fall head over heels for Brianna Lea Pruett — just listen to the gently defiant “No Diamond Ring” that came out late this fall. Her album Gypsy Bells pays tribute to her Cherokee descent and mixes the ancient tunes and lyrics that her family have orally passed down with her own creative impulses. The result is a truly stunning album full of grace and tentative rebellion, one of my favorite of the year. It never borders on contrived, but rather, feels like art that must be made for personal reasons, not art that’s designed to please anyone or anything else.
12. Steve Gunn, Time Off
The quick-fire repetition of a Gunn guitar lick is what makes his music so mesmerizing and so easy to get lost in, and Time Off encapsulates the blithe freedom of escape. In just six songs, the indolence of summers past, kicking off your shoes and gazing at the stars is somehow condensed into spooling guitar lines and sketched out lyrics.
11. Samantha Crain, Kid Face
Her album is called Kid Face, she’s a 26-year-old from Oklahoma, and she put out one of the best music videos of the year with “Never Going Back.” Every frame of this video was hand drawn, cut and filmed in a single shot. It’s a brilliant marriage of old world artistry with a digital twist, and helps sum up Crain’s whole perspective. The singer is of Choctaw descent and routinely gets mistaken for being much younger than she is— hence the album title. But the songs on Kid Face are robust and mature, melding plucky bluegrass with ominous organ and bassline-heavy slow burners.
10. The Head and the Heart, Let’s Be Still
The Head and The Heart’s sophomore album Let’s Be Still proved that for some nobodies scattered along the west coast, heart does indeed make the difference. For anyone who’s actually seen the open mic nights at Seattle’s minimal pub Conor Byrne — where the band first began playing live shows — the level that they have risen to is exciting. It’s a tale of discovery that’s like something out of the past, lending Seattle a bit of the mythos that normally surrounds New York or Los Angeles. After local record store Easy Street sold out of the band’s initial self-burned debut, Sub Pop signed them and re-released the self-titled record to even more acclaim. So their follow up had a lot to live up to, and luckily, it bears the weight. Let’s Be Still does an excellent job of balancing pop and folk, filled with harmonies, earnestness and enough artsy appeal to keep things interesting. A meld of musical tradition and modern conundrums, the record explores life’s nuances with an easy grace.
9. Jason Isbell, Southeastern
It’s hard to shake the past, as former Drive By Truckers member Jason Isbell well knows. On his latest solo effort Southeastern, Isbell seeks to throw off his trucker hat for a more subdued, rarefied sound, as his subject matter circles the narrowing of his future. This is a backward-looking, nostalgic album that finds Isbell recalling, regretting, and rebuilding. For a man who openly admits to his past alcoholism, it’s only on this album that he seems to really have grasped how to channel the pain of addiction and recovery into his music. This record is bluesy, with determined story-songs edged with regret and delivered with determination — it’s an excellent study in starting over.
8. Cass McCombs, Big Wheel and Others
Cass McCombs’ massive seventh album Big Wheel and Others unfurls to embrace the expansiveness of Americana with no regard for region, genre or sentiment. Relying on his signature, off-kilter chord progressions and penchant for grooving in dissonant minor keys, McCombs weaves lyrical patterns that are seemingly non-linear, cobwebs of emotion and observation. From audio clips of a drug-hazed four-year-old in a San Francisco enclave, to the guest vocals of recently passed film legend Karen Black, this album rolls across American time and space unchecked. Big Wheel’s 22 existential, loping tracks veer Cass towards the ranks of America’s greatest songwriters.
7. Alela Diane, About Farewell
Alela Diane is an under-the-radar Portland artist who nonetheless released one of the year’s best folk efforts. Her 2011 release was called Alela Diane & Wild Divine and included her then husband Tom Bevitori and father in the backing band. Now, she and her husband have gotten divorced and she’s newly in love with a brand new baby — plus her previous label Rough Trade dropped her at the end of last year. With all these sudden shifts, Diane self-released the record, and the publicity for About Farewell certainly suffered as a result. But this gut-wrenching, stripped back album that chronicles her vision of a failed marriage is a testament of renewal.
6. Kurt Vile, Wakin on a Pretty Daze
Kurt Vile is a perfect example of how folk, rock, grit and grunge are being swept into one great pile of indolent guitar songwriting. His latest and arguably best effort Wakin on a Pretty Daze, reveals an outsider with the decency to explain his isolation. Vile is terrific at collecting influences, but he’s even better at breaking them down into small enough parts that when rebuilt, they’re another beast entirely. If the folk rock stars of today like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers are decried for some version of selling out, Vile seems to skate this line with a kind of easy confidence that negates doubt. His songwriting skirts between accessibility and profundity, and while he gains momentum there’s not a hint of sell-out in his grungey, drawling collections of acid-washed jams.
5. Hiss Golden Messenger, Haw
Hiss Golden Messenger, part of local label Paradise of Bachelor’s expansive folklore and guitar-based roster, quietly released a boisterous, bluesy, country-rock project emphatically called Haw this year. HGM’s heartbeat and leader is M.C. Taylor, a musician with a graduate degree in Folklore from UNC, where he periodically teaches. Prolific, prophetic and palpable, Haw blows most of its inner-genre competition out of the water with each creaking, curveball track, but “Red Rose Nantahala” blooms especially vivid. A follow-up cassette-recorded project is already scheduled for release in January 2014, entitled Bad Debt.
4. Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
In some ways, it felt like Valerie June emerged out of nowhere, but the Tennessee native has been involved in music for over ten years. Her rugged, crackling voice made her a local legend in Memphis, but wary of signing to a label, her profile rose after a successful Kickstarter campaign helped June raise the money to record a studio album. Interest from producers like Kevin Augunas and Dan Auerbach yielded the final effort Pushin’ Against a Stone, a fleshy and pious album that ceaselessly fulfills its epic Sisyphus obligations. Boasting a cast of players that includes the likes of Booker T. Jones and Jimbo Mathus, it’s still June who emerges as the driving force behind each colossal song. If anything, June’s emphasis on her own folk and country sound helps disintegrate the line between blues and folk as racially charged genres.
3. Phosphorescent, Muchacho
It can be argued that Matthew Houck made the most beautiful song of the year with his brittle take on love “Song for Zula” — a track that still manages to come off as a lullaby. Muchacho is his sixth record as Phosphorescent, and it seems to be the one in which Houck finally hit his groove. His music dances between country, rock and folk, and on Muchacho, it channels the easy spirituality of rural, forgotten landscapes. But attitudes of awe and humility spar with a self-reliant, brazen determination, making this record feel like an emotional coin toss that’s tempting fate in 10 blazing and breezy tracks.
2. Bill Callahan, Dream River
In the long line of powerhouse folk artists, Bill Callahan is a late bloomer. Slowly but surely emerging from his Smog-induced shell and transitioning into a brighter, primal solo artist, Callahan has managed to hang onto his own strange aloofness. Dream River, his 2013 late delivery feels wholly disconnected from the rest of this year, an entity shamelessly wrapped up in itself. While the dimension that Callahan works in is decidedly folk in nature, his true calling often seems to be in the poetry. Because it’s nearly impossible to describe the words he strings together as mere lyrics, or to take them out of the context that Callahan’s cadence instills them with. Much like its namesake, Dream River is unconcerned with what’s happening on the banks, and the surface is only half the story — what lies at the bottom remains obscured.
1. Laura Marling, Once I Was an Eagle
The sparse, acoustic setting of Laura Marling’s Once I Was An Eagle is quickly filled with her hushed, honeyed voice. Bereft and broken, then, suddenly soaring to take a bird’s eye view of the future, Marling manipulates her voice with the skill of a veteran. Of any record released this year, Marling’s captures the essence of what acoustic, lyrically-driven music should be: Wholly personal and wrought from intimacy that was both wasted and worth it. Once I Was An Eagle belies Marling’s mere 23 years, suggesting a soul that’s not only old, but a level of skill that has been honed to near perfection.