Folk music is as old as the wind. For as long as people have gathered, they’ve made noise, told stories and passed those tales down through the generations. We have certain ideas about what traditional folk music should sound like now, but it’s so much more than what Bob Dylan and Joan Baez played at Newport in the ’60s. Folk music didn’t stop after Dylan plugged in that electric guitar—folk artists have adapted to the times throughout the decades. That doesn’t make it any easier to categorize—many artists on this list could easily fit into a bluegrass box, or maybe Americana, country or roots, or maybe even rock or indie-folk. But they all carry the spirit of folksy storytelling, and they all bring acoustic instruments to life in new and exciting ways. Each of these albums arrived in 2019, making it a glorious year for folk and folk adjacent sounds. Read on for 10 essential folk albums out this year.
1. Anna Tivel: The Question
Portland, Ore. artist Anna Tivel immediately sets the scene on her new album The Question with the words, “In my dream you were beautiful, backlit, noble / in the lowlight of the window you were leaning on the edge.” My first reaction is to call this folk music, but, like so many of the wonderful sounds emerging from roots and Americana circles these days, it transcends that identification. Tivel’s detail-oriented compositions reveal mini universes complete with their own complicated characters and storylines, each of which is embroidered with some distinct sonic embellishment—in the case of “Anthony” and “The Question,” the exquisite strings arranged by multi-instrumentalist Shane Leonard. On the album version of kicker “Two Strangers” those strings are restrained, almost more special for their spareness. In the Paste studio, however, Tivel opted to perform those three songs alone with her guitar, and it’s not surprising they hold up in a solo acoustic setting. The Question is an album of daring, bold, complicated arrangements, but Tivel’s lyrics are strong enough that they require no extra fuss. She writes a lot of songs while on the road, which would explain the diversity in content, and the aforementioned “Two Strangers” takes shape in the “city lights” of New York. —Ellen Johnson
2. Bedouine: Bird Songs of a Killjoy
Isolation can be both enjoyable and insufferable. Azniv Korkejian (aka Bedouine) explores both kinds of confinement in these Bird Songs, first the frustrating loneliness of “two people never getting together” on swirling album opener “Under the Night,” then the startling freedom of separation on “One More Time,” where she basks “on an island with no one else around.” On “Bird,” she warns “that it’s you against the rain” and dotes on some sweet, flightless creature before leaving it alone to “sing.” Early in the record she mournfully quips, “You love how much I love you / when you’re gone.” All these verses point to a complicated, ever-changing relationship with space and separation. While many of these songs are concerned with flying solo, Korkejian is still an expert on “Matters of the Heart,” a sly and jazzy tune that uplifts side B of this record. When she sings, “Call me like a phone / Just ring to me, baby” Korkejian sounds like the same woman who said, “I like watching people make out to my songs so I encourage consensual… anything, really,” at a Bedouine show earlier this year. She who values alone time can still yearn for company. I treasure both, and I would like to curl up inside Bird Songs of a Killjoy and live there forever. —Ellen Johnson
3. Big Thief: U.F.O.F.
New York indie-folk outfit Big Thief have been touring constantly for four years in conjunction with their first two full-lengths—2016’s Masterpiece and 2017’s Capacity—and their third album U.F.O.F. was largely informed by their relentless touring schedule and the band’s heightened personal and musical synergy. Some of the songs were recorded just hours after they were written, while others were “perfected moments of dynamic feedback and spiritual, rhythmic togetherness.” As a result, this album’s blustery whooshes contribute to an otherworldliness not yet wholly strung together on a Big Thief album. The sonic wisp of “Contact,” the celestial lyrics of “U.F.O.F.” and the cacophonies that close “Cattails” and “Jenni” all contribute to an incorporeal sheen. On U.F.O.F., Big Thief embrace their more subtle and mystical sides while capturing a wider array of landscapes—the cosmic (“U.F.O.F.”), bucolic (“Cattails”), domestic (“From”) and urban (“Betsy”). —Lizzie Manno
4. Florist: Emily Alone
There is transformative power coursing through the 12 songs on Emily Alone, the new album from indie-folk project Florist. It’s not loud or showy or self-serving or generous. It’s just there, simple and plainspoken, waiting to be engaged and willing to move through anyone who needs it. Presumably, that’s what happened to Emily Sprague, the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter named in the album’s title. Last winter, she wrote and recorded Emily Alone during a period of isolation and personal reflection spurred by the unexpected death of her mother and a move across the country, away from her collaborators in Florist (the band’s home base is still listed as New York on their Bandcamp). On Emily Alone, Sprague strips down her songs to their barest elements, leaving only her voice, words and plucked acoustic guitar (plus an occasional exception) to carry the message. What’s left is not just bedroom-recorded confessional music, but pure introspection, confusion, revelation and emotion rubbed raw and exposed to the world. These songs are not sad so much as they channel the ebbs and flows of life lived inside a human brain with startling accuracy. Perhaps you have to be in the right place—emotionally, spiritually, spatially or whatever—for Emily Alone to impact you fully. But if you’re there, you’ll feel it. And if you’re not there, that’s okay. When you’re ready, Florist will be there waiting for you. —Ben Salmon
5. Lula Wiles: What Will We Do
Lula Wiles are provocateurs of the best kind, rabble-rousers with the purest intentions. One of the brightest recent signees to Smithsonian Folkways, the Smithsonian Institution’s nonprofit record label, Lula Wiles are a Boston-based folk trio made up of Isa Burke, Eleanor Buckland and Mali Obomsawin, and it seems like they’re hellbent on stirring up country conventions for the better. They make traditional roots music stacked with warm harmonies, acoustic expertise and the occasional electric element, but there’s nothing antiquated about the subject matter of their songs. The three women, who were swapping songs at summer camp in Maine long before they attended college in Boston and became a band, sing with distinctly American voices, but they’re not afraid to question every single thing it means to be just that. To that end, one of their most in-depth tunes is “Good Old American Values,” a single from their label debut What Will We Do, is a striking critique of country music’s and American pop culture’s repeated abuse and misrepresentation of indigenous culture. Elsewhere on the record, Lula Wiles tackle small-town tribulations on “Morphine” and “Hometown,” love’s selfish side on “Shaking As It Turns” and crushes gone wrong on the witty “Nashville Man.” Even as they play raw, old-time melodies and whittled-down folk arrangements, they’re sharing honest, modern music told from a refreshingly smart millennial perspective. —Ellen Johnson
6. Mandolin Orange: Tides of a Teardrop
The duo is a well-worn model for making folk music, but it works. Americana lends itself well to duets and harmonies, so very often, pairs just make sense. Mandolin Orange, made up of musicians Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, have successfully mastered the art of the partnership. Partly because they’re seasoned collaborative instrumentalists, and partly because, after almost a decade of playing together, they’re so open with one another—and, therefore, their listeners. On Tides of A Teardrop, the North Carolina duo’s fifth studio album, Marlin and Frantz leave it all out to dry—loss, pain, heartbreak and the process of emerging from it all in one piece—in a way that feels more comforting than confessional. Tides of A Teardrop is a cozy cradle of acoustics and anecdotes on grief and love. Marlin and Frantz, who share instrumental and songwriting duties, know how to draw maximum emotion from a song. On the very first track and second single, “Golden Embers,” they’re already seeking pathos and exploring nostalgia, greeting us “just like an old friend, kinder than expected.” It’s a track about making room for memories, even as grief abides (in Marlin’s case, the death of his mother). Later on the song, they proclaim, in a wizened sigh, “Loss has no end / it binds to our connection.” “Golden Embers” is a beautiful way of looking at life’s dark moments—maybe those pitfalls brings us closer together. —Ellen Johnson
7. Molly Tuttle: When You’re Ready
Acclaimed bluegrass guitarist and singer/songwriter Molly Tuttle released her debut full-length album, When You’re Ready, this year on Compass Records. It’s exceedingly bright, honest and energetic and features artists like Jason Isbell, Rachel Baiman and Sierra Hull (Tuttle’s childhood friend who she’s been collaborating with for years). Tuttle may have gotten her start in bluegrass and roots circles, avenues where she’s still wholeheartedly embraced, but When You’re Ready is a sonic leap forward—Tuttle tries on both pop and rock sounds throughout. Tuttle visited the Paste Studio earlier this year where she treated her internet audience to four songs from the record: driving roots number “Take The Journey,” the suspenseful “Messed With My Mind,” the melancholic and melodic “Sleepwalking” and “Light Came In (Power Went Out),” undoubtedly the album’s centerpiece and one of the most beautiful folk-pop blends in Tuttle’s catalogue. —Ellen Johnson
8. Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi: there is no Other
On her newest endeavor, the album there is no Other (out now on Nonesuch), former Carolina Chocolate Drops frontwoman and banjo whiz Rhiannon Giddens, along with the Italian multi-instrumentalist Francesco Turrisi, tracks the movement of people—and their music—across cultures and centuries, particularly in regards to their respective areas of expertise: Giddens knows inside and out the African American influence on roots, acoustic and old time music; for Turrisi, it’s a deep knowledge of Arabic music and its imprint on Europe and beyond. The album is grounds for a smaller world, a beautiful narrative convincing us of our similarities, not our differences. The stories in these songs can act as hymns, folktales or dispatches from some lost time or place, but it’s really in the instrumentation where the album’s deepest messages—a condemnation of “othering,” the social practice of ostracizing those considered outsiders, and a campaign for the similitude of human experiences—come to light. If instruments from different parts of the world can work together so seamlessly, why can’t people? —Ellen Johnson
9. Tim O’Brien: Tim O’Brien Band
With more than 30 albums under his belt, collected under a panoply of different bands and projects, it’s not as if there’s anything more to prove in the bluegrass world, as far as Tim O’Brien is concerned. He’s worked with every legend, and mentored practically every legend in the making for the last two decades. He’s performed at every venue that would ever put a bluegrass band on stage. And he’s written a ridiculous number of songs along the way. And yet, Tim O’Brien persists. At 64-years-old, he keeps right on plucking those banjo strings, and he keeps churning out the new tunes. In recent years and recent albums (2015’s Pompadour, 2017’s Where The River Meets the Road), those tunes have increasingly felt a bit rote, and perhaps O’Brien has been aware of this feeling of entropy. For whatever reason, he returns to us now in 2019 with the first offering from a project both technically new and comfortingly familiar: The simply titled Tim O’Brien Band. Flanked by collaborators Mike Bub, Shad Cobb, Jan Fabricus, Patrick Sauber and Bryan Sutton, they’ve crafted a shared collection of songs that benefit less from sonic exploration and more from air-tight execution. We have to ultimately tip our caps to the guy—the world keeps turning, and O’Brien finds a way to turn with it. Perhaps that’s what he’s try to evoke by inserting a reprise of the 2008 song “Crooked Road,” which makes reference to the day when O’Brien will finally “say goodbye.” Given his output here, we hope that day is still comfortably far off. —Jim Vorel
10. William Tyler: Goes West
Goes West is indie-folk guitarist William Tyler first new album since 2016’s Modern Country and arrived in January. The intricately woven, guitar-based instrumental “Fail Safe” feels like a journey, with his acoustics as star of the show. The strings layer, growing through the track’s end, giving it a sense of restlessness and excitement—of choosing not to stay stagnant but also embracing the change. Whatever downsides moving cross-country to sunny California may have, the impact on Tyler’s music certainly isn’t one. In a statement about the album, M.C. Taylor (of Hiss Golden Messenger) described the “emotional clarity” of Tyler’s forthcoming album. “It offered up a model for what I wanted my head to feel like,” Taylor said. “Goes West marks a sort of narrowing of focus for William’s music; it sounds as though he found a way to point himself directly towards the rich and bittersweet emotional center of his music without being distracted by side trips.” —Emma Korstanje
NoiseTrade Joins Forces with Paste
Originally featured @ Paste Magazine Sep. 2019 (www.pastemagazine.com). PasteMagazine.com provides in-depth coverage of music, books and comics as well as topics like TV, movies, games, comedy, politics and craft beer. From the best albums to stream each week to the latest Game of Thrones recap to the 50 best horror novels of all time, the site covers all your pop-culture needs. You can also watch live-streams of bands performing every day in the Paste Studio in New York at the Paste YouTube channel or directly at PasteMagazine.com, or stream the entire Daytrotter archive.
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5. Silvaner Perfect with: Folk Recommended listening: I’m With Her, Haley Heynderickx, Justin Townes EarleIf you’re looking for the wine equivalent of a Sufjan Stevens track, you might find it in Silvaner, an understated yet somehow extremely satisfying little will-o-the-wisp. It has a light, down-to-earth quality and a storied tradition. Silvaner and folk both value simplicity but will stay with you long after the final chord is struck or sip is taken. It’s fresh and green and brisk, and it tends to invite comparisons that are not to fruits and flowers at all, but to cloudscapes and weather and Sunday mornings in spring. Crystalline, with a vein of intriguing bitterness at its core, an almost colorless “Nature’s first green is gold” kind of tone, Silvaner is a paean to the beauty of simplicity.
Photo Credits: (1),(4) Mandolin Orange, (2) Anna Tivel, (3) Lula Wiles, (5) Molly Tuttle, (6) Rhiannon Giddens, (7) Tim O'Brien, (8) Justin Townes Earle, (9) Mandolin Orange (unknown/website).