The 100 Best Indie Folk Albums

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kortedala.jpg 25. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala (2007)
That string-soaked introduction. That syrupy baritone. A sense of drama and a sense of humor. “I will never kiss anyone / who doesn’t burn me like the sun.” From the elaborate construction of Night Falls Over Kortedala’s opener, “And I Remember Every Kiss,” it’s clear that Jens Lekman favors a little pomp and circumstance. But it suits the talented Swede. Lekman’s always been an excellent songwriter, combining the wit and charming carelessness of Jonathan Richman with the alternately lovelorn/loveable aesthetic of Morrissey and Magnetic Fields, and Kortedala finds the bard’s talent at its most fully-realized, all samples, horns, beats and just a touch of kitschy grandeur. —Austin L. Ray

akron-family.jpg 24. Akron/Family – Akron/Family (2005)
When Akron/Family emerged from their then-home base of Brooklyn in the early ’00s, they were caught up, for better or worse, with the wave of artists getting herded underneath a freak folk/anti-folk banner. Not a bad spot for them to be when listening to the band’s folding of psychedelic ambience into their often-hushed, mostly acoustic sound. But unlike many of their brethren, there was nothing twee or precious about this group. Under the guiding hand of then-former Swans leader Michael Gira, the band was able to travel down darker paths and shade their work with electronics, finding the perfect spaces to let their clattering percussion drive to the fore. This self-titled debut becomes then a push-pull between grand gestures and those intimate, close mic’ed vocal performances that aim to draw you closer. The perfect tension between the two is palpable and exquisite. —Robert Ham

glow.jpg 23. The Innocence Mission – Glow (1995)
Although Glow was a slight departure from its dreamier predecessors, there’s no mistaking Kerin Paris’s unique voice in the first strains of “Keeping Awake.” That uniqueness extends to her lyrics and her husband Don’s guitar. The songs are like a modern-day Diary of Samuel Pepys, snippets of everyday life in America. In the hands of producer Dennis Herring, domesticity never sounded so lovely. ——Josh Jackson

ghosts-great-hwy.jpg 22. Sun Kil Moon – Ghosts Of The Great Highway (2003)
After six ethereal Red House Painters albums, three solo sets, an AC/DC cover collection, and an acting role as Stillwater’s bassist in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous Mark Kozelek arrived at Ghosts Of The Great Highway, the surreal metal-meets-Americana bow of his project Sun Kil Moon. No one probes the recesses of memory, of lost time and lost relationships, better than Mark Kozelek. He’s Marcel Proust with a guitar. Those memories and relationships form the warp and woof of his worldview, and the tapestry he weaves is stunning in its longing and beauty. Musically, Kozelek alternates between gentle acoustic picker and Neil Young Godfather of Grunge mode, unleashing winding electric solos. But the longing, the yearning, is a constant, and it is a palpable reminder of why he is one of the most distinctive and worthwhile artists of the 21st century. —Tom Lanham & Andy Whitman

damien-rice-o.jpg 21. Damien Rice – O (2003)
O is a stunning document of fragile eloquence that glides seamlessly from hushed ruminations to cinematic balladry. Artistic without being pretentious, Rice’s craft is anchored in melody and articulate arrangements, yet tests the listener’s honesty with dramatic turns that distinguish the record from other mostly acoustic fare, all without abandoning its cerebral core. His voice yearns with brittle emotion on “Amie,” wavers with restraint on “Cold Water” and “Cannonball,” and soars with theatrics on “Cheers, Darlin” and “Eskimo,” the epic closer that saunters from coffeehouse to opera house with moody bravado reminiscent of a toned-down Rufus Wainwright. Lyrics soaked in such heart-on-sleeve honesty have the tendency to come off too contrived, but Rice’s delivery is pure and sincere. And though songs like “I Remember” weren’t written as duets, the spirited accompaniment of Lisa Hannigan makes it hard to imagine them otherwise. The character and chemistry she brings to nearly every selection—siren-like harmonies here, co-lead vocals there—elevate Rice’s passionate prose to a lovers’ waltz. —Jay Moye

feeling-sinister.jpg 20. Belle & Sebastian – If You’re Feeling Sinister (1996)
After a limited-run debut and a handful of singles, Belle & Sebastian emerged as a fully-formed artistic entity with 1996’s If You’re Feeling Sinister. Between Stuart Murdoch’s literary story-songs and the band’s sedate and ornate folk-rock instrumentation, Sinister‘s appeal quickly expanded past twee indie-pop kids and ensnared anybody interested in mature, intelligently crafted pop. Sinister is still the high water mark for what’s been a brilliant career stretching into the 21st century. —Garrett Martin

otr-ohio.jpg 19. Over the Rhine – Ohio (2004)
In the liner notes accompanying Over the Rhine’s gloriously self-indulgent double-disc, Ohio, co-founder Linford Detweiler, writes, “We grew up in small coal mining towns in the Ohio Valley, listening to music that could have only been unearthed in America.” The songs here feel gritty and real, unpolished and perfect. Just like people. All the artifice (both musical and emotional) has been carefully dismantled, traditional instruments—upright piano, pedal steel, acoustic guitars—have been dusted off, arrangements have been simplified, windows into souls have been propped open a bit wider. In stark contrast, Karin Bergquist’s voice never felt as undressed and painfully honest as it does in these songs, as if she’s opened her gut and tugged the melodies out. This process is partly masochistic, partly exhibitionist, entirely self-consuming, but such is true art. Ohio, is more than simply a dense, rich, vulnerable collection of songs; it’s a dirt-road companion on that difficult journey inward, upward, homeward. —Jason Killingsworth

chutes-too.jpg 18. The Shins – Chutes Too Narrow (2003)
A long time ago, the notion of this band changing your life was less the stuff of cringe-inducing Zach Braff screenplays and more plain truth. Today the idea seems just as unlikely as meeting your soulmate in a psychiatrist’s waiting room, but by some odd musical alchemy, all of Chutes Too Narrow’s unassuming parts—those tweaky guitars, bedroom symphonics and James Mercer’s wobbly self-harmonizing—gelled into the kind of album that demands to be proliferated by forcing headphones upon friends (and, yes, quirky potential lovers). —Rachael Maddux

picaresque.jpg 17. The Decemberists – Picaresque (2005)
On Picaresque, Colin Meloy zeroes in on characters—usually those struggling in the throes of concealed, unrequited or otherwise ill-fated love—before shifting his focus to setting. “The Infanta,” all galloping guitars and pounding drums, contrasts the ornate coronation of a Portuguese princess with the placid simplicity of her dreams. The quiet lament “Eli, the Barrow Boy” relates the tale of a heartbroken ghost—Sisyphus in corduroy pushing his barrow in eternal penance. Meloy even ventures into an American present as outlandish as his imagined past. “The Sporting Life”—which interleaves a swinging, jaunty beat with swelling organ flourishes—relates the humiliation of an injured soccer player who fails to fulfill his father’s athletic aspirations. The shimmering, upbeat stomp of “Sixteen Military Wives” conflates the American invasion of Iraq with the Academy Awards ceremony. —Brian Howe

sea-change.jpg 16. Beck – Sea Change (2002)
For a man so used to wearing musical masks, Beck lais himself bare on Sea Change. It’s the most aching, honest album he’s ever made, a musical breakup memoir on par with Blood on the Tracks or Shoot Out the Lights. To say his heart is on his sleeve here doesn’t capture the emotional nakedness; his heart is speared on a record spindle, and he lets us listen. And why wouldn’t we? With a full stock of golden melodies, crafty string arrangements, and career-best vocal performances, Beck is maybe the best American songwriter of his generation. —Steve LaBate

rsz_bonnie_billy.jpg 15. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – I See a Darkness (1999)
If Johnny Cash covered one of your songs on his final albums, it automatically meant it embodied some sort of country spirit however musically disguised. Cash, of course, interpreted the title track from this 1999 record the following year on American III: Solitary Man. I See a Darkness is dark, yes. It is gothic without being goth. Yet, its confessional cries and distant, discordant layering (especially on tracks like “Nomadic Revery (All Around)”) are also subversive in a way that honors the subgenre. —Hilary Saunders

1000-kisses.jpg 14. Patty Griffin – 1000 Kisses (2002)
After showing promise on her sparse mid-’90s debut, Living With Ghosts, and then delving into more rocking territory with Flaming Red and then-unreleased Silver Bell, singer/songwriter Patty Griffin pared back, recording most of 1000 Kisses live in the studio and delivering what remains the album of her career. Her voice flat out slays, its beauty and power on display whether she’s performing her own compositions or interpreting others’. And the songs display a mastery that places her alongside Dylan, Cohen, et al. Griffin mines the mundane and finds the rich meaning in its details. On “Making Pies,” when she sings, “Did I show you this picture of my nephew / Taken at his big birthday surprise?”—she transforms clunky conversation into poetry. —Tim Regan-Porter

wilco-being-there.jpg 13. Wilco – Being There (1996)
After Uncle Tupelo’s split in 1994, fans turned their attention to Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s new groups. And after the success of Son Volt’s debut Trace the following year (along with the lukewarm critical response to Wilco’s AM), it seemed like Farrar had emerged from the break-up the clear victor to those keeping score at home. Enter Being There. Wilco’s 1996 double-LP was everything a sophomore effort should be; it saw the band experimenting beyond their alt-country roots with stellar tracks like “Misunderstood” and “Hotel Arizona” while simultaneously staying true to their aesthetic. In short, it was the beginning of the Wilco we know and love today. —Bonnie Stiernberg

neko-case-fox-confessor.jpg 12. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (2006)
The guest list for Neko Case’s fourth proper studio outing is a good indication of the diversity of her output. Gracing this project are locals Howe Gelb, and Calexico, plus out-of-towners Kelly Hogan, Dexter Romweber and Garth Hudson, to name a few. Case, of course, still approximates a Northwestern Patsy Cline with a graduate degree, and while the stories she tells are mournful, her delivery remains buoyant. If an old spiritual (“John Saw That Number”) doesn’t reveal her hand, you couldn’t be blamed for thinking Case was working to establish a new kind of magical-realist gospel, or Optimism Gothic. She delivers a country-noir set that draws on mythic folk archetypes, providing strange details and raising intriguing questions with each listen. —William Bowers

animal-years.jpg 11. Josh Ritter – The Animal Years (2006)
After the latter third of the 20th century became littered with “new Dylans,” it became obvious that no one could ever fill that role. So when Josh Ritter made his first few strummy, literate records, there were few lofty expectations to keep him from developing his talent and fanbase. After three promising albums, the masterpiece arrived. Recorded with producer Brian Deck, who stretched Ritter’s rootsy folk in more ambitious directions, The Animal Years is bookended by a pair of epic ballads—“Girl in the War” and “Thin Blue Flame”—which helped secure his place at the table of great songwriters without ever having to live in anybody’s shadow. —Josh Jackson

fear-fun.jpg 10. Father John Misty – Fear Fun (2012)
Josh Tillman’s first album under the moniker Father John Misty often recalls his old band, Fleet Foxes. But it also recalls John Denver, Neil Young and, at times, The Band. It’s also the best realization of that old, forgotten genre descriptor “freak folk”—something a little stranger and more imaginative than his old group, but with the same big-sky atmospherics. Leaving his given name and self-serious songwriting behind freed Tillman to embrace his acerbic wit, and a relocation to Hollywood freed him to embrace a little more theatricality. The result is a collection of a dozen clever, gripping songs that haven’t gotten old after countless listens. —Josh Jackson

emotionalism.jpg 9. The Avett Brothers – Emotionalism (2007)
Much as The Band’s earnest roots rock helped topple nonsensical hippie credos like “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” The Avett Brothers did their best to combat modern-day hipster detachment and pseudo-coolness with Emotionalism’s simple, poetic story-songs and bittersweet, introspective laments. The album—down to the title itself—is a celebration of unselfconscious passion. It’s also a huge step forward musically: The relative sonic polish works magically in contrast to the Avetts’ jagged edge; they go beyond their core of acoustic guitar, banjo and upright bass (a change foreshadowed by Four Thieves Gone’s “Colorshow”), adding piano, B3, drums, electric guitar and mandolin. The vocals feel more carefully arranged, relying less on energetic screams and shouts and giving the melodies room to breathe; and the influences peeking through are more varied than ever, the music sporadically reminiscent of everything from Help!-era Beatles to Chopin nocturnes. —Steve LaBate

im-wide-awake.jpg 8. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (2005)
With Wide Awake, the one-time prince of emo finally grew up, and—as much as any one artist could during a decade of such cultural fragmentation—became the inadvertent spokesman for his aimless generation. The poetry of Conor Oberst’s lyrics captured the hearts of fellow twentysomethings with their urgent, exhausted, lovesick and thought-lost wonder. It felt like he was collectively singing our own minds—asking the big questions, confronting a culture of fear, searching for new beginnings, wrestling with God and truth and innocence lost. —Steve LaBate

for-emma.jpg 7. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
Not since a creek drank a cradle in 2002 had anyone so quietly overtaken the indie-music community as Justin Vernon did in 2008 with Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. This lonesome post-break-up album is drenched in the kind of melancholy that feels a lot like joy, and sounds just as vivd. Rather than wallowing in loss, Vernon’s otherworldly falsetto and warm acoustic guitar provide a hopeful contrast to lyrics like “Saw death on a sunny snow.” It was less like the end of a relationship and more like the promise of a new beginning.—Josh Jackson

51hTUSQ7jqL._SL500_AA300_.jpg 6. Nick Drake, Pink Moon (1972)
Few albums from the 1970s have aged as well as Nick Drake’s final album from 1972, recorded in a pair of post-midnight sessions with just Drake and producer John Wood. The simplicity of acoustic guitar, subtle piano and whispered vocals could have been recorded four decades later—and indeed many more copies of Drake’s albums have sold since his death in 1974. And, of course, the heartbreak of which he sings will never become irrelevant. Beauty and melancholy have seldom meshed so completely as on songs that tackle longing, despair and the slimmest rays of hope.—Josh Jackson

revival.jpg 5. Gillian Welch – Revival (1996)
Gillian Welch  and her musical partner David Rawlings hail from Los Angeles and Rhode Island, respectively, but they arrived on the indie folk scene in 1996 as if they’d just melted out of Depression-era Appalachian Mountain ice. The tales of moonshiners and brothel girls matched the old-timey twang of Welch, and didn’t seem forced in the least. It’s no surprise that a debut like Revival marked the beginning of a spectacular career. —Josh Jackson

endless-numbered.jpg 4. Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (2004)
It’s rare that a debut album rolls around as lovely and original as Iron & Wine’s The Creek That Drank The Cradle, but for his sophomore effort, Sam Beam managed to improve upon the basement-tapes sound of his new Americana without sacrificing its intimacy. He enlisted producer Brian Deck (Modest Mouse) to give musical depth to match the haunting lyrics of songs like “Sodom, South Georgia,” “Cinder and Smoke” and “Naked as We Came.” —Josh Jackson

either-or.jpg 3. Elliott Smith – Either/Or (1997)
Smith’s music consisted of wispy, weary vocals alongside a solitary acoustic guitar, an all-too-apt representation of his desolate and twisted emotional states. Although he had a fragile opinion of himself, one listen to Either/Or reveals him to be an exceptional talent. Even as Smith was buckling under the weight of depression and addiction, the album expanded his sound, intertwining his acoustic foundations with electric guitars, bass, keyboards and drums—all played by Smith. Three songs were included in the soundtrack for the Oscar-winning Good Will Hunting. —Nathan Spicer

neutral-milk-aeroplane.jpg 2. Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (1998)
Neutral Milk Hotel  made a timeless record by taking a snapshot of a reality that never existed. Lyrically, Jeff Mangum imagines ghosts and circus freaks and Jesus Christ dancing around burning Nazi propaganda, and the damaged sonic treatment furthers the vision; those horns on “Holland, 1945” sound like an imaginary Dr. Seuss-drawn instrument realized. But the most mythical character to develop from In The Aeroplane Over the Sea was Mangum himself, who avoided the limelight for a half decade following the album’s release. When “King Of Carrot Flowers Parts 2 and 3” erupts from an acid-fueled Sunday morning revival into an otherworldly fuzz-punk song, who isn’t ready to strap on the Nike Windrunners and follow Jeff Mangum to the gates of Heaven? —Ryan Wasoba

sufjan-illinois.jpg 1. Sufjan Stevens – Illinois (2005)
In 2005, when Sufjan Stevens released Illinois, the second album in his at-least-two-state project, American pride was sagging, much as it is today. The death toll in Iraq was steadily climbing, and we still had George W. Bush in charge of it. Meanwhile, Stevens was beginning to seem brilliant enough to fulfill his ambitious 50-state plan. His music pushed boundaries between pop and classical, and the emotional weight of his lyrics grounded his feather-light voice. There was a distinct peculiarity about Illinois and Stevens himself, who gave his songs titles like “To the Workers of the Rock River Valley Region, I Have an Idea Concerning Your Predicament.” Critics embraced the mystery and declared the album a masterpiece. Stevens and his band, the Illinoisemakers, wore cheerleading costumes onstage to promote the record, and once its success took them to larger venues, Stevens switched to giant, colorful bird wings. His band was a spectacle, their performances magical. Thousands of fans gathered in theaters across the country to behold this winged creature and rally behind his songs about America’s heartland. It was a new, weird kind of patriotism. Stevens collected facts and anecdotes about the great state of Illinois, stringing them together in ambitious rhyme schemes and wrapping them in meticulous arrangements. “Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother” is superficially a song about a city, but beneath the textbook trivia is Stevens’ story of reconciling with his father’s wife. The gut-wrenching “Casimir Pulaski Day” is about a friend dying of bone cancer, and “The Seer’s Tower” looks at idol worship from the perspective of Chicago’s tallest building. And then there’s “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.,” the hushed, nightmare-inducing acoustic song about the rapist and serial killer who preyed on teenaged boys, stashing their bodies under the floorboards in his Chicago home. “His father was a drinker and his mother cried in bed / Folding John Wayne’s T-shirts when the swing set hit his head,” Stevens sang, referencing a true story. But the song’s conclusion is what got people talking: “And in my best behavior, I am really just like him,” Stevens half-whispered as the music quieted behind him. “Look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid.” It was a startlingly confessional sentiment at the heart of the best indie-folk album of all time. —Kate Kiefer