Since we’re nearing the end of the year and this is a countdown of the best stuff that came through my speakers during it, I’ll say what I've said all 2016: you can say a lot of things about this year, but the thing I think we can all agree on is that it’s been a really strong year for music, but especially folk. Below are the 20 Best Folk (or something resembling it) Albums of 2016 and while they are in some sort of order, outside of my #1 album you could talk me into any of the other 20 being #2 depending on the day. Here’s hoping 2017 provides us with as much good music as 2016.
It’s easy to buy the storyline of Andy Shauf’s concept record The Party because we’ve lived each of these angles in our teens and twenties- we’ve all been the kid that’s been too early to the party, or the one trying to make an ill-advised move on someone we shouldn’t, or, if we’re really lucky, the one that stumbles into a potential connection through no skill of our own. The other reason it works? Shauf is a master storyteller, anchoring each song-story in the sort of fumbled romanticism that seems to thrive at parties and accompanying them with everything from lush, bouncing pop to delicately plucked guitars.
It still takes me by surprise each time I put on Michael Kiwanuka’s sophomore album that he waits five-plus minutes before singing at all. He can do whatever the hell he wants, frankly, if he’s gonna play the hell out of the guitar and take giant steps forward as a songwriter like he does here. There’s a lot of space on Love & Hate, Kiwanuka allowing the songs to swirl and build and break at their own pace, never rushing but never letting it play for too long, either. This is an album full of hurt and searching for oneself in a heartbreaking world, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound great while it brings you down.
There’s a lot to be blown away by with My Woman- such as Olsen’s ability to try a smattering of styles and approaches without a single misstep or moment when it doesn’t work or feel sincere- but the thing I keep coming back to is the song "Sister." On paper it shouldn’t work, being that it’s almost eight minutes long, but it does, because she is a master of her craft, one that makes eigh minutes feel like a standard-length pop song, one that’s taken a huge step forward as an artist and maybe is better than we thought/knew she was (and we all thought she was damn good). It’s quite a thing, that song, but then again all of My Woman is.
Sometimes an album’s title serves as a guide for the listener as to when the best time is to listen. In the Magic Hour is meant for those moments early in the day as the sun rises and late in the day as the sun sets, those moments when everything is tinged with gold and it’s most beautiful, those moments when the light outside is the same as in those old photographs you love that stir up all those feelings. O’Donovan’s beautiful, melancholic songs play out like those old photographs you have that you love so much, the ones that always seem to have been taken during those golden hours, the ones that make you remember so much and miss so much and ache for so much.
Sometimes records are just fun and good, and you like them. Sometimes records morph from a thing that sounds sun-soaked and perfect for summer to sounding hazy and golden, like a late-fall afternoon. Sometimes you stop trying to compartmentalize or rationalize why you like something and just go ahead and enjoy it because it is fun and good and enjoyable and you like it every time it comes on, no matter the situation. This is one of those.
There’s a line in the title track of Julia Jacklin’s debut album that goes, "I’ve got a feeling that this won’t ever change: we’re gonna keep on getting older, it’s gonna keep feeling strange," that gets me every time I hear it. It’s a perfect, true line, one I’m sure we can all relate to, and it perfectly sums up what this stunning album is about: growing up is awkward and uncomfortable for everyone, and it’s best just to embrace it and own it instead of pretending you’re too cool to feel it.
You could go ahead and write this off as "dad rock" or whatever you want, but that would be silly. 10 albums in and Wilco are still just doing their own damn thing, going relatively sparse, wary, heartfelt and straightforward with the minor chords after all the fuzz of Star Wars, showing they are still able to write better folk/Americana/whatever you want to call dudes with guitars and feelings songs than most of the young’ns doing it today.
There’s something about the voice of Kym Register that gets me each and every time through Sweet High Rise, usually around that second verse of "Folk Hero." Her voice is warm and welcoming and affecting, sounding genuine in moments of positivity and love and also middle fingers and defiance, allowing her to both embrace and question with equal impact. It’s a special quality, and it takes these songs to another level at every turn.
I want to say a lot of very nice things about Absolute Loser, because Eric Johnson is one of the most underrated songwriters doing business today and this is an absolutely stunning collection of songs about deep, deep personal loss and how one rebuilds from that, but mostly I want to say the following: thank you, Eric, for writing a song about the Midwest that is a) damn good and catchy and b) not trash. As someone who has moved out West and misses a great deal of the charms of where I grew up, that’s really hit the spot this year (especially as I watched the Cubs, the team I’ve loved since I was old enough to love a team, win the World Series.)
There’s a moment each time through "Dorothy" that I’m pretty sure Kevin Morby could write a full album’s worth of Springsteen-esque anthems and I’d happily buy 35 copies and post every day on the internet about how great it is and make it #1 on every year-end list I put together, both in that year and the following year. It’s a silly thing to think, certainly ("Dorothy" doesn’t even sound Springsteen-y, if we are being honest) but it’s true and I really do think he could pull it off if he tried. Anyhow, Singing Saw is a triumph, the sound of Morby not only trying out a multitude of styles and angles, but showing mastery of each while finding a little more of who he is and what his voice is and means with every passing verse.
The songs on Constant Stranger touch on a whole lot of things you and I think long and hard about on our daily commutes, as though Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster has been sitting next to you wondering and worrying about the same things. These are songs about family and friends and love and The South and travel and God and how it all ties together, and how messy that makes each of our lives. It’s a testament to Kinkel-Schuster’s songwriting chops that these songs don’t grind the listener down, but instead engage and play out like a long overdue conversation with an old friend.
It’s impossible to think or talk about What Will Destroy You without thinking or talking about the last album Kyle Morton penned, Typhoon’s White Lighter. While What Will Destroy You doesn’t fixate on sickness and death like that album does, it grabs the strands of love and sex that were sewn throughout White Lighter and pushes them into the spotlight and deals with them with the same uncomfortable honesty that’s been a hallmark of Morton’s writing for years now. We’ll get a new Typhoon record next year, but for now we have this, an album that furthers the narrative and asks the same of us as Morton’s other work: take a good long, honest look at life and bask in it all, even the uncomfortable parts, even the parts that get under your skin, because it’s all we’ve got.
What makes an honest life for each of us, and how do we go about achieving it? With that stunning, comforting voice, that are exactly the questions Courtney Marie Andrews tackles on her latest album. It’s an album that feels both well-worn and refreshing, the kind that draws on past inspirations but doesn’t borrow so much that it feels like a pale imitation. That voice helps, sure, but so does the fact that Andrews is a tremendously gifted songwriter.
This record gets into your bones in the same way a stiff winter breeze does, staying with you long after you’ve warmed up and moved on. It’s the most haunting, vulnerable record I heard in 2016, Kristine Leschper’s distinctly fragile vocals and lyrics poking at all of the soft spots in your psyche at once but somehow managing to never be too much to handle. This is what all your self-doubt and internal debates would sound like in their most beautiful forms.
Straight talk: "Empire Builder" is the most devastating song I heard this year. It’ll clobber you if you’re not prepared, and probably even if you are. All those scars and ghosts of past lives? They’re coming out during it’s 5 minute-plus runtime, no matter how happy or content you are with the current life you’ve built or the current love you’re in. As for the rest of the album: it’s real damn good, Gibson showcasing a deft ability to verbalize those quiet moments of our lives in a way that’s honest, kind and real. Bonus: if "Empire Builder" didn’t do enough to really gut you, throw on "The Last One" right after it to really feel every last thing you’ve tried to work past/through.
We can have a lengthy discussion about whether a live album that contains only one new song among its 11 tracks is eligible for these kinds of lists, but I’m just going to go ahead and put this here because it remains the most beautiful album I’ve heard this year by a wide, wide margin. Isakov’s songs were already studies in beauty and the power of dynamics, but the backing arrangements provided by the Colorado Symphony take each song to new, more dynamic, more moving places. Oh, and that new song ("Liars")? It’s tremendous.
There’s an ease and confidence to the warm, wordy songs Lucy Dacus writes that belies the fact that she just turned 21 this year. Recorded over the course of a day for a friend's college project, No Burden showcases Dacus’ ability to not only weave complex ideas and stories in relatable ways, but also bring an energy to her playing and singing that’s uncommon for most artists a few records in, let alone on someone’s first try. This album is something extremely special.
At the end of the day I don’t need anything fancy, I just want to listen to good, well-written songs. Donovan Woods writes just such songs, and his fourth full-length is his finest collection yet, full of sharp observations, quick-witted confessions and the types of melodies and choruses that stick deep in your brain. For a guy who writes songs with and for others, it seems Woods kept a whole batch of his best stuff for himself.
At its core, Cardinal is about dealing with and working through the guilt of growing up. It’s about the allure of new friends and relationships versus the comfort and ease of your old friends. It’s about hometowns and traveling and if leaving where you grew up is worth it. It’s about loving your family and friends, knowing you’ll screw it up as you go, and hoping those you’ve surrounded yourself with will understand. It’s about being honest with yourself about how hard it is to figure out who you are.
The thing about an album like Heart Like A Levee is that it’s something that lives with you, something you don’t notice has woven itself deep into your brain until you put it on one day and realize that not only do you know all the words, but you’ve lived a good portion of them, too. These aren’t songs about growing up, these are songs about what happens after you’ve done that, after you’ve lived your wild days and the dust has settled and you find yourself in a committed relationship staring down bills, obligations and twists in life that you couldn’t have seen coming. These are songs about real life, about real struggle, about what it is to be a human and screw up sometimes but know that your partner and family is there to pick you back up, about the weight of wanting to provide for those in your life you love the most and the fear that you might just not be able to. It’s about adulthood and trying to find those glimmers of hope when times seem toughest. It’s about you, and it’s about me.
Adam Sharp is a midwesterner who, like everyone, now lives in Colorado. He's a music hoarder who likes sad songs, pop music and late 90s/early 00s emo. His folk column, Electric Ghosts, appears every month on Vinyl Me, Please. That about covers it.