The 100 Best Indie Folk Albums

Music Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

poetry-deed.jpg 75. Frank Turner – Poetry of the Deed (2009)
Despite the acoustic guitar, Frank Turner’s punk roots show on his third solo record, Poetry of the Deed, especially when he spits out the title track’s earnest manifesto: “Pentameter in attack, iambic pulse in the veins, free verse powered of the street light mains / An Iliad played out without a shadow of doubt between the end of the club, yeah, and the sun coming out … Enough with words and technical theses, let’s grab life by the throat and live it to pieces.” The album is full of vivid, passionate, literate punk tunes, but its vim and vigor are made all the more refreshing by a sweet and honest appeal to his parents called “Faithful Son” and a tender love song called “The Fastest Way Back Home.” —Josh Jackson

phos-httie.jpg 74. Phosphorescent – Here’s to Taking It Easy (2010)
In 2009, Phosphorescent braintrust Matthew Houck released a tribute to Willie Nelson featuring 11 covers that avoided obvious hits and sentiments. He and his honky-tonk band obviously learned from that endeavor: The songs on the gorgeously sadsack follow-up, Here’s to Taking It Easy, evoke lost days and lonely nights with keen observations and road-weary melodies. “Baby, all these cities, ain’t they all startin’ to look all the same?” Houck laments on the rip-roaring opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama),” as the horn section roars ahead with trucker’s speed and the pedal steel somehow evokes both Junior Brown and My Bloody Valentine. All of Houck’s Southern eccentricities remain gloriously intact, from his eloquently hangdog vocals to his minimalist songwriting on “Hej, Me I’m Light.” Best of all is “The Mermaid Parade,” an ode to a bicoastal break-up that’ll have you shedding a tear in your PBR. —Stephen M. Deusner

head-animal.jpg 73. Of Monsters And Men – My Head Is an Animal (2011)
Formed in Reykjavík in 2009 out of the remnants of the members’ former solo projects, Of Monsters and Men became a local favorite in their home country after winning a nationwide battle of the bands—Músiktilraunir—in 2010. And the group is at its best when all six instrumental and singing voices are heard. On My Head Is an Animal, Nanna Bryndís and Ragnar “Raggi” Þórhallsson’s harmonies and alternating vocal leads shine in tunes like opener “Dirty Paws” and “Mountain Sound.” The instrumentation, which also features melodica, glockenspiel, accordion and horn flourishes (as exemplified in “Little Talks” and the outro/reprise of “Lakehouse”) keep the band from genre pigeonholes. And the members’ excitement—the unbridled joy of just playing together—that’s felt on each up-tempo song is simply contagious. —Hilary Saunders

be-joyful.jpg 72. Shovels & Rope – O Be Joyful (2012)
Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent are notable singer/songwriters in their own right. Hearst released 2010’s Are You Ready To Die EP through Filter US Recordings, and landed one of its songs—the brash “Hell’s Bells”—on the True Blood soundtrack. But together, as Shovels & Rope, Hearst and Trent share a remarkable chemistry. Her Wanda Jackson wail is so brassy and compelling, it’s hard to imagine a complementary foil, but she finds it in Trent, whose more tempered vocal adds some stability without dampening the impact. —Bryan C. Reed

sve-tramp.jpg 71. Sharon Van Etten – Tramp (2012)
For 47 minutes on her breakout third album, Sharon Van Etten is right there with you, whispering her tortured lullabies into your ear in the most intimate manner. It feels like an artful exchange, a private conversation between artist and listener. Despite vivid, winding melodies; transcendent singing; and a who’s who of indie-rock guest stars (including Beirut’s Zach Condon, The National’s Bryce Dessner and Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner), it’s shocking how minimal, how fragile, these songs are. Though there are dense instrumental textures rumbling in the distance, Tramp is built mostly on sparse acoustic guitar. Its revelations are fixed in that intimacy, that private conversation Van Etten has designed to share with you, and you alone. —Ryan Reed

lumineers.jpg 70. The Lumineers – The Lumineers (2012)
The Lumineers’ debut record is instantly gratifying—and not in the hasty, shallow way often found in pre-fab pop songs. While some records take days or months to properly digest, there’s an instant connection here, and that camaraderie is evident both onstage and on the record. Neyla Pekarek’s graceful strings, the steady roll of Jeremiah Fraites’ on the drums, and the charming twang of lead singer Wesley Schultz generate a sense of warmth and candor that the recent folk revival often misses. The rustic trio marries uplifting jubilee and poetic earnestness with ease. The foot-stomping single “Ho Hey” builds momentum with a tambourine and carries the melody with spirited chants and hand claps, a track so cheerful and exhilarating it seems built for a live stage. The album is overflowing with upbeat Americana gems, but the real power here is found in the more somber tunes. Schultz and Fraites formed the band after Fraites’ younger brother and Schultz’s best friend died of a drug overdose. The pair picked up the pieces and later found Pekarek and the formula for The Lumineers. On their debut, they channel those dark and vulnerable moments in heartfelt highlights throughout. —Alexandra Fletcher

rosie-small.jpg 69. Rosie Thomas – When We Were Small (2001)
It’s hard to fathom that the same label that introduced the world to Nirvana also brought us Rosie Thomas. Her SubPop debut was a quiet, sublime album of intimate and earnest songs, but her simple arrangements of piano and strings received airplay on college radio next to Sleater-Kinney and Blackalicious. Thomas’s soulful voice sounds like a pile of white goose feathers and satin sheets, somewhere you can curl up and find comfort and rest. The album opens with the sweet, shuffling “Two Dollar Shoes,” a guardedly optimistic song of lasting love that transitions into the somber lament “Farewell,” as Thomas sings, “I was wrong I guess / I was wrong I confess / I miss the way / I miss the way you sing with me,” layered over sparse piano. By track three, she’s already building back into a hopeful and carefree contentedness on the beautiful “Wedding Day.” The rest of the album bursts with more beautiful sadness—for losing love in “Lorraine” and “Finish Line,” for missing the joys of childhood in “I Run,” and for an abused wife in “Charlotte”—with Thomas’s resolute strength always filtering through. On the closing track, “Bicycle Tricycle,” she yearns for her tricycle, her strawberry-red flower dress and her roller skates to protect her from “every boy that falls in and out of love with me.” The arrangement of piano, cello, guitar and drums builds and fades and builds and fades, as audio clips from her childhood reveal the Thomas family gathered in warm conversation. —Josh Jackson

blue-guitar.jpg 68. Red House Painters – Songs for a Blue Guitar (1996)
Before Mark Kozelek performed as Sun Kil Moon and gained a late-career reputation for mouthing off at unassuming festival bill-sharers (cough The War On Drugs cough), he fronted San Francisco mope-rock project Red House Painters. Songs For a Blue Guitar is a standout, comprising acoustic-led ballads that run the gamut from somber to upbeat (and always contemplative). Between emotive camp-fire singalongs (“Have You Forgotten,” “All Mixed Up”) Kozelek hits the distortion pedal on the propulsive “Long Distance Runaround.” Songs is, above all, though, one of Kozelek’s most accessible works (i.e., what you’ll like if you’re not here for his rantier, more recent records), overflowing with memorable couplets like “You are the dark in my soul / And it’s your love that I steal / And you’re my cuts that won’t close / And this I’m certain.” It’s rainy-day music at its finest. —Rachel Brodsky

break-it.jpg 67. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself (2012)
Andrew Bird follows the same definition of “quirky” that people use for Wes Anderson movies —his interests are certainly idiosyncratic, but somehow the definition feels too overreaching, like using Instagram and “hipster” in the same breath. But his seventh solo album, Break It Yourself, fits those dreaded descriptors, from the titles onward. There are references to Greek mythology, to horrible international tragedies. There’s a fake palindrome (how meta!). There is, per usual, quite a bit of whistling. It is, however, a bit more reserved than the earlier Birds. Gone are the rapturous flourishes of “Fake Palindromes” and even further the weird but awesome swing revival phase in which he participated as a Squirrel Nut Zipper. What we’re left with is a guy with a violin, an embouchure of pure steel, and a set of sweet, gentle jams that will come to you with good intentions. Break It Yourself greets its listener like a friend-turned-lover making the first move: sitting on opposite ends of the couch, inching closer and putting its arm around you. By the end, you’re curled up together. —Lindsaey Eanet

the_civil_wars_barton_hollow.jpg 66. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (2011)
The Civil Wars  seems like the moniker for a band exploring overt, loud disagreement. But the longing, melodic chamber-pop and folk from the duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams puts the emphasis on “civil”—“courteous or obliging; polite.” Barton Hollow approaches relationships and life dissatisfactions with a subdued presence reminiscent of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ duets. But the tranquility dissipates as the songs peak, with White and Williams escalating the volumetric power of their playing and singing, taking full control of the songs’ directions. They have no problem transitioning from tempered introspections to fiery declarations, at times within a single song. War has never been so pleasant. —Nathan Spicer

iron_and_wine_kiss_each_other_clean.jpg 65. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (2011)
From the first notes of the fantastic, reverb-soaked “Walking Far From Home,” it’s clear that Kiss Each Other Clean picks up where 2007’s The Shepherd’s Dog left off. Sam Beam takes another step away from his lo-fi origins and experiments with more layered sounds. But the subtle power of Beam’s voice never gets drowned out or dominated by the organs, flutes and percussion. Even with a handful of new elements, the album fit comfortably into the ever-transforming Iron & Wine catalog. It may be miles away from the stripped-down beauty of 2002’s The Creek Drank the Cradle, but it’s the fruition of a series of gutsy moves by an artist who doesn’t need to whisper anymore. —Bonnie Stiernberg

califone-roots.jpg 64. Califone – Roots & Crowns (2005)
This is the Califone album that almost didn’t happen. As the band’s leader Tim Rutili tells it, he had moved from his longtime home of Chicago to Los Angeles and was feeling uninspired about writing music. But upon finding a mix CD that writer Mike McGonigal gave him and hearing the opening track, Psychic TV’s “The Orchids” (covered by the band on this album), he was infused with new inspiration and hope. The music that poured out of him and his bandmates feels as lush and purposeful as the tune that was Roots & Crowns’ catalyst but cut through with Rutili’s experimental leanings. It’s folk music as filtered through a faltering sampler that keeps spitting out small intrusions of field recordings and snippets of strings and jangling percussion. —Robert Ham

anais-hadestown.jpg 63. Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown (2010)
A musical for way, way off Broadway, Anais Mitchell’s stunning folk opera succeeds on many levels. It’s a brilliant recasting of the Orpheus and Euridice myth. It’s a pointed political commentary on what may be the downtrodden, cash-strapped America of 1933, or the downtrodden, cash-strapped America of 2010. And it features some wondrous ensemble singing, from Mitchell as Euridice, from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon as a seductive Orpheus, from Ani DiFranco as Persephone, and, most notably, from gruff-voiced folkie Greg Brown, who imbues the lord of the underworld with both maniacal glee and Dick Cheney’s calculus of pragmatic death-dealing. —Andy Whitman

cripple-crow.jpg 62. Devendra Banhart – Cripple Crow (2005)
For all the instrumental trappings draped atop Devendra Banhart’s songs on Cripple Crow—electric guitars, strings, pianos, and drums—it remains Banhart’s stylized approach that first attracts the ear. His voice—a pinched, warbly, nasal thing—simultaneously strikes as hyper-affected and unselfconscious (and might turn a listener off instantly if heard as the former). His songs glide on an ever-shifting bed of gentle fingerpicked cross-rhythms. Cripple Crow is stacked—22 tracks across 80 minutes. Banhart seems the kind of prodigious songwriter who effortlessly breathes material. Cripple Crow resembles a dream journal of half-remembered morningtime fragments. When it succeeds, as on the surreal, utopian near-rag of “Some People Ride the Wave” (“Me, I ride the wave of never-gonna-drown!”) and the 59-second tone poem “Dragonflies,” Banhart taps a magically easygoing energy that seems drawn from San Francisco in the mid ’60s (or maybe just the late ’90s). There’s some chaff here, but Cripple Crow also reveals an embarrassment of riches. —Jesse Jarnow

seryn_we_will_all_be_changed.jpg 61. Seryn – This Is Where We Are (2011)
With mostly acoustic instruments—ukulele, banjo, accordion, violin, cello and trumpet—and soaring choruses, this Denton, Texas, quintet builds nearly every song into a joyful crescendo adding voices—and urgency—as it progresses. That’s never more apparent than on “We Will All Be Changed,” which gets exponentially better with every decibel you turn it up. The band went on indefinite hiatus in 2016 after moving to Nashville, but left behind this near-perfect snapshot of a time when anything was possible: three multi-instrumentalist buddies living together in a college town, playing house shows, and figuring out what was possible in the studio. Their optimism lives on in every vinyl groove. —Josh Jackson

head_heart.jpg 60. The Head and the Heart – The Head and the Heart (2009)
Scruffily handsome folkies are a dime a dozen in Seattle. What differentiates The Head and the Heart from the rest of the flannel-wearing pack, beyond the band’s unnaturally speedy climb from dive bars to main-stage festival spots, is its penchant for mixing rootsy Americana with orchestral, chest-swelling chamber-pop. Violin and piano help elevate the songs beyond their earthy origins, and three-part harmonies—anchored by co-frontmen Josiah Johnson and Jonathan Russell, and boosted by the Cat-Power-gone-Appalachian crooning of violinist Charity Rose Thielen—sweeten the deal. —Andrew Leahey

charlie-darwin.jpg 59. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin (2008)
Charles Darwin hasn’t taken this much abuse since the days of William Jennings Bryan. But while creationists fight the theory of evolution in schools, this Rhode Island band attacks the societal applications of “survival of the fittest.” “And who could heed the words of Charlie Darwin,” Ben Knox Miller laments in a lovely, layered falsetto, “The lords of war just profit from decay.” If The Low Anthem’s argument is for community and collaboration, Exhibit A is the gorgeous chamber folk this trio of multi-instrumentalists crafted on its third album. Following the path cleared by Nick Drake and Tim Buckley, The Low Anthem is at its best composing songs fit for a hipster orchestra, with Knox’s delicate vocals backed by an assortment of quirky instrumentation. After two tracks of quiet intimacy, the band erupts into a pair of foot-stompers, grounding an album that otherwise might get blown away by the slightest breeze. Jack Kerouac-by-way-of-Tom Waits tune “The Horizon is a Beltway” and the roadhouse rumpus “Home I’ll Never Be” wouldn’t sound out of place on an Avett Brothers’ record, and they balance the quieter tracks. Whether soft or loud, these 12 songs are exquisite. —Josh Jackson

rsz_16_horsepower.jpg 58. 16 Horsepower – Folklore (2002)
Few albums truly exhibit the inscrutable mystery and inescapable desperation of the world as Folklore. Somehow, David Eugene Edwards and his band explored the edges of those vanished territories of the American folk-music tradition, channeling the fear of now lost pastorals.The most meditative, haunting release of 16 Horsepower’s Holy Ghost-haunted catalog, Folklore takes further the shiver-inducing despondency of past releases, here relying on droning cellos, wheezy accordions, spindly banjos and Edward’s eerily double-tracked vocals to create an atmosphere of despair and impending doom. Stripping away most of the electric guitars and rhythmic drive of their previous work, the album rarely breaks from the dirge-like ruminations on God, judgment, love and murder. That only four of the 10 tracks are original doesn’t inhibit the authenticity with which they’re presented. Folklore speaks with the earthward metaphors of those who lived in the shadow of unseen pursuers and confronted their worst suspicions with music as their weapon. —Matt Fink

walkin-pretty.jpg 57. Kurt Vile – Wakin on a Pretty Daze (2013)
Kurt Vile  sings his first line some 40 seconds into the first song of i>Wakin On a Pretty Daze, and the crispness and clarity of those words let you know that something is different about this album. While his early releases were more a collage of loose ideas organized around a singular, murky sound, Daze presents 11 carefully composed tracks with beginnings, middles and ends. Vile was always a contemplative songwriter, but here his lyrics became more ponderous and worldly rather than navel-gazing. Themes of movement and escape are the bedrock, providing a calming balance—lyrically, thematically, sonically. It closes exactly as it begins, with a long, winding, peaceful melody—one of the prettiest Vile has ever penned. “In the night when all hibernate, I stay awake, searching the deep, dark depths of my soul,” he says. He describes his process of finding that one moment, the “golden” tone. It’s a beautiful song about—what else—the nature of writing a beautiful song. —John Hendrickson

shehim-two.jpg 56. She & Him – Volume Two (2010)
She & Him’s debut was a simple affair. Zooey Deschanel’s homespun grace and M. Ward’s unobtrusive production made for a winning combination—which means they risked a lot by making a follow-up album as complex and ambitious as this one. On Volume Two, swirling strings and lush backing vocals underscored Deschanel’s increasingly sophisticated songwriting. She plays the dewy-eyed ingénue a bit too faithfully at times, but there is no denying her legitimacy as a tunesmith, divvying her set between bouncy piano-pop, folk-flavored sing-alongs and orchestral anthems. In lesser hands, the American Graffiti-styled themes of star-crossed lovers and summer nights would drown in their own sincerity. Here, they provide a pleasant escape to a mythical America of endless horizons and youthful resilience—not such a bad place to be. —Matt Fink

honeybear.jpg 55. Father John Misty – I Love You Honeybear (2015)
Josh Tillman’s creative persona feels like a natural extension of his sprawling and strange backstory: He’s part cultural provocateur, part hippie-rock satirist, part soulful balladeer. What’s most surprising about I Love You, Honeybear is how it balances that cartoonish character with the real-life Tillman. Honeybear thrives on the knife’s edge of that enigmatic split personality, as he attempts to reconcile the love-swept optimist with the world-weary wise-ass. Fittingly, the LP’s most striking moments meditate on the sublime and deeply complicated art of sharing life with a single partner. The title track is an apocalyptic love song submerged in waltzing, Spector-styled orchestrations—with Tillman embracing his wife, at peace as they drown. Sonically, Honeybear finds Tillman in a ruminative mood, favoring lavish strings, sweeping layers of voices and acoustic guitars. But he still has a knack for unexpected flourishes, like the psychedelic guitar solo on “Strange Encounter.” With I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman wrestles with a lot of heady subject matter: modern narcissism (“Bored in the USA”), his tendency to doom personal relationships (“The Ideal Husband”), the general downfall of mankind (“Holy Shit”). But the less he strains, the more his songs resonate. On threadbare closer “I Went to the Store One Day,” his voice skirts into falsetto over hushed fingerpicking and strings, as he croons about buying a plantation with his wife and letting the yard grow wild—and how that dream originated from a chance parking lot hello. —Ryan Reed

rsz_julie_miller.jpg 54. Julie Miller – Broken Things (1999)
A little girl voice that hols ages, “Broken Things” offers redemption as well as deep love for those damaged by life. For Julie Miller, salvation is always peeking through the cracks of songs. Beyond the divine, there is the charismatic “I Need You,” the Appalachian dirge “Orphan Train” and the percussively minor-keyed creeper “Strange Lover,” an homage to—of all things—cocaine. Emmylou Harris would record the shimmering “All My Tears” and Lee Ann Womack would embrace “Orphan Train” and “I Know Why The River Runs” further broadening Miller’s reach. But the songwriter with a dexterous voice that does many things—howl, coo, caress and throttle—remains her own best interpreter. “I Still Cry,” a straightforward elegy, suggests the way some people linger in unlikely ways long after they’re gone, with the sorrow profoundly transparent in her tone, bringing both naked vulnerability and intuitive playing that exemplifies the best of Americana. —Holly Gleason

Veckatimest.jpg 53. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest (2009)
After spending 2008 opening for Radiohead and appearing on late-night TV shows, Grizzly Bear was suddenly ubiquitous—even without a new album to promote. But while they were on stage they perfected the material that would comprise their third full-length release, and Veckatimest sounds like the final product of a meticulous and exacting evolutionary process—one that adds depth and color to their swooning chamber pop arrangements, crispness to their intricate rhythms and intensity to their careful performances. Their group mind pulsating in unison, the scrappy quartet are wistfully plaintive on the gorgeously swaying “Two Weeks,” pristinely longing on the spectral “Dory” and haunting on the darkly lunging “I Live With You.” But underneath the orchestral flourishes and children’s choirs, beneath even the frequent textural shifts and melodic detours, are a set of melodies that find novel ways to cut straight to the listener every time. —Matt Fink

sea-split-peas.jpg 52. Courtney Barnett – The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (2013)
When it comes to storytelling, Courtney Barnett is as clever they come. The Australian singer/songwriter garners her share of giggles and smirks with songs that tackle subjects as diverse as amateur gardening (“Avant Gardener”) and drunken dreams where artists “made their paint using acid wash and lemonade” (“History Eraser”). For every whimsically stoney lyric on The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, there are as many moments of sheer shred-ability from Barnett’s left-handed tail-spins on the guitar. A combination of two earlier EPs, this was our introduction Barnett’s catchy, endearing musings. She finds ways to loop guitar solos into poppy verses, yet she avoids extremes. On “Are You Looking After Yourself,” she opens with a twangy guitar into her isolated vocals and arrives at a full-on-folk implosion that’s utterly danceable. She repeats the pattern as it intensifies with the existential proclamation of “I don’t need to 9-to-5, telling me that I’m alive!” There’s a confidence in place that make Barnett’s American debut one of the most flat-out-fun records of the past few years. —Adrian Spinelli

BeirutRipTide.jpg 51. Beirut – The Rip Tide (2011)
Zach Condon’s Beirut is in a funny position. He cut his teeth on staunchly outsider Balkan folk, but he’s also one of the premier indie-Billboard crossover successes. His band spans 11 members, but he primarily composes lighthearted, three-minute pop songs. He’s got all the trappings of a critic’s darling, but his pedigree never quite positioned itself in the auteur company of singular songwriters like Justin Vernon and Will Oldham. With that propulsive buzz, one might have expected The Rip Tide to be a towering statement, but that isn’t the case. Not only is it the shortest item in the Beirut catalog, it’s also the breeziest; sounding confidently assured in its identity—which unsurprisingly makes it Condon’s most immediately enjoyable record. —Luke Winkie

ShareTweetSubmitPinMore