Every month, we run down the best folk music. We call it ELECTRIC GHOSTS.
January: a time when a whole bunch of new releases are announced, but few actually exist. So, that said, here’s how we are going to do things for January’s column: we’ll talk a bit about the really tremendous new Julie Byrne album, then there’s a playlist, about which I’ll say a few words in general and then a lot more words about three of the tunes on it. It’s a weird setup, but that’s what January necessitates. Settle in- it’s time to talk about the best stuff of the year so far.
I’ve been especially taken lately with Julie Byrne. The slow, steady confidence of her singing and the sparse lushness of her songs sounding especially perfect as the soundtrack for January’s wintery, still mornings. Not Even Happiness is remarkable and lovely for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost is Byrne’s voice, which is haltingly beautiful and which she wields so deliberately throughout, so sure in its power that she never unleashes it fully or wildly, instead calmly and steadily allowing it to tell her stories of travel and love and heartbreak. It’s that restraint that becomes its power, her timbre coercing you to hang on every word of every verse as she shows off the depth and beauty of her voice. The other thing I’ve become entranced by after a number of listens is just how little accompaniment there is on these songs. There are guitars and keys and such, sure, but rare are the moments when the backing instrumentation drives a song or melody more than Byrne’s singing, her voice filling out these sparse songs and making each feel much more lush than they’d appear they could be on paper. This is the first truly special, essential record of 2017.
This playlist contains the best stuff I’ve heard so far this year- the three I’ve loved most have a bit more written about them below- and some singles from albums/EPs coming in the next few months that you should be very excited about. I’ve gone ahead and stretched the definition of ‘folk’ a bit here, but it’s cool- these are all (mostly sad) jams. There’s a lot to be excited about in 2017.
My brain has been working since I first heard “Something” to come up with why, exactly, Julien Baker’s songs had the sort of impact they do. Last year, as I watched her play her songs live in Denver, it hit me: her songs, with all the layers and angles created by loops and pedal effects, hit you like an Explosions In The Sky song that someone’s written lyrics to. “Funeral Pyre” perfectly fits into Baker’s canon; those angular guitar lines and that lush reverb swirling and building around as Baker unfurls a razor sharp tale of a broken relationship. She’s been through a lot, more than most of us probably, but she has such a way with words and phrases that her stories of brokenness and addiction and recovery always sound relatable and empathetic. “Funeral Pyre” will be released with another B-side from the Sprained Ankle sessions in March, but here’s hoping we get a full new album’s worth of stuff from Julien Baker in 2017.
Maybe it’s just me, but it feels increasingly rare in the world of ‘folk,’ whatever that ‘is’ or ‘means’ as a definition, to operate in the present, to talk about things in the direct, frank terms of today without coming across as cheesy, clunky or amateurish. It’s that general limitation that makes Phoebe Bridgers’ “Smoke Signals” seem so refreshing, I think. It’s a sweeping, haunting song about the various aspects and snapshot memories of a broken relationship that makes references to things we’ve lived with (lazy eyes and ‘80s sedans) and things we’ve lived through (the deaths of Bowie and Lemmy), even dropping in a modified “Fuck Tha Police” for good measure, without once feeling forced, tacky or inartful. There’s not a debut album I’m more looking forward to (hopefully) hearing in 2017 than the one Phoebe Bridgers is (hopefully) putting together.
“With You” is, almost a month into 2017, my favorite song of the year so far. There’s a wooziness to the questions about life and love Hannah Reid is searching for answers to that feels awful prescient for this moment in time, and it feels more than a little perfect that this song arrived on New Year’s Day as folks woke up from killing off a tough slog of a year only to realize what lay ahead isn’t all that easy to face, either. These three and a half minutes or so feel like the prettiest and most understanding acknowledgement of the uncertainty of this moment.
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.