The 40 Best Folk Albums of the 2010s

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itsthegorfeinscat.jpg 20. Oscar Isaac: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
Another Coen brothers film with T Bone Burnett at the musical helm, the soundtrack for 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis includes a wide selection of traditional folk songs, many of which are performed by lead actor Oscar Isaac. While Isaac’s interpretations of folk ballads like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)” stand well on their own, this soundtrack’s most impressive feat might just be introducing audiences to the music and story of Dave Van Ronk—the film’s not-so-subtle muse. —Hilary Saunders

tallest-wild.jpg 19. The Tallest Man on Earth: The Wild Hunt (2010)
Kristian Matsson plays to his strengths on The Wild Hunt, his second album. He keeps it simple, finger-picking strings to propel his gristly vocal melodies, which feel simultaneously cavalier and carefully wrought. Though his acoustic guitar often thwacks like a snare, his songs are uncluttered by percussion, harmonized vocals or the orchestral ornaments that are so prevalent in alt-folk. The clean, galloping banjos and guitars spotlight Matsson’s pristine snarl, which slips down into powerful bass notes and reaches up and yelps on key, accentuating his ambitious, second-language lyrics: “I wasn’t born, I just walked in one frosty morn / Into the vision of some vacant mind,” he sings on “Burden of Tomorrow.” If Sondre Lerche were a bluegrass-loving goblin, he might sound a little like this. —Brian Howe

18. Fleet Foxes: Crack-Up (2017)
After Fleet Foxes’ rustic self-titled debut took off unexpectedly in 2008, frontman and creative force Robin Pecknold poured himself into its excellent follow-up, 2011’s Helplessness Blues. Then he moved to Portland and dropped out of public life, seemingly willing to check out for good. Thank the heavens he didn’t. Crack-Up is at once sumptuous and ambitious, a serpentine journey from the center of harmony-drenched folk-pop out to the edge of Pecknold’s brain and back. It is lovely, strange and generous, and ultimately a very welcome return for the Seattle band. Crack-Up sounds like a band that has become perfectly comfortable with its wanderlust. The evidence comes early, as opening track “I Am All That I Need / Arroyo Seco / Thumbprint Scar” is three songs in one, evolving from yawning anti-tune to orchestral gallop to a collage of cozy vocal ooohs, sloshing water and found sounds. —Ben Salmon

methemountainman_bum.jpg 17. Mountain Man: Made The Harbor (2010)
Mountain Man have steadily been gaining notoriety since the release of their brilliant, bare-bones debut Made The Harbor. The three women who make up the trio—Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Molly Sarlé and Amelia Meath—each have tremendous musical expeditions beyond their friendship folk project. Sauser-Monnig released a whimsical folk-pop LP under her Daughter of Swords alias in 2019, as did Sarlé under her own name. Meath keeps busy as one-half of the electronica-pop duo Sylvan Esso. But the three women sound most powerful when they sing together, and no where is that more clear than on Made The Harbor, a quiet, thought-provoking sit-back-of-a-record that meets you halfway, even if raw old-time music sounds strange on your modern ears. In songs about nature, humans, the South and the way they all interact, Mountain Man achieve a soft-spoken masterpiece in Made The Harbor. It’s certainly not the flashiest folk music you’ll hear from this decade’s crop of roots experimenters, but it may just be the most earnest, the most leveled. Mountain Man don’t even need instruments to make music—many of their songs are entirely a capella. You’d hear more noise in the deepest parts of a forest. —Ellen Johnson

stranger_main.jpg 16. Phoebe Bridgers: Stranger in the Alps (2017)
“Jesus Christ, I’m so blue all the time,” Phoebe Bridgers sings in “Funeral,” one of the best songs on her incredible debut album, Stranger in the Alps. “And that’s just how I feel. Always have, and I always will.” No doubt about it: Alps is, at its core, a collection of sad folk songs, presented with nifty sonic accoutrements (mournful fiddle here, electro-noise there) and clever references (David Bowie, Jeffrey Dahmer) that give them added dimension. But it’s Bridgers’s plainspoken lyrics and airy, inescapable melodies that make Alps not just one of 2017’s best debuts, but also one of that year’s (and this decade’s) best albums by anyone at any stage of their career. At 23-years-old, she already had a masterpiece under her belt. —Ben Salmon

15. Jessica Pratt: Quiet Signs (2019)
The worst assumption you can make going into Jessica Pratt’s Quiet Signs is that there won’t be much there, that minimalism isn’t for you. Knowing the folk singer/songwriter’s aversion to bells and whistles (and taking into consideration the album’s telling title), I myself feared a hollowness, but I was delighted to find the singer/songwriter somehow brings a maximalist energy to a record so subdued you’ll refrain from speaking during its quivering 27 minutes, for fear of disturbing the peace. Quiet Signs is a convincing argument for simplicity. Pratt has a very, very restrained way of supplying strength and relief during our hectic moment. Her songs are so quiet they almost don’t even exist, but maybe that’s how we need to feel for just a moment—like we’re just air. These tracks aren’t immediately satisfactory. They emit tranquility only if you’re willing to devote your full attention—and perhaps repeated listens. In under 30 minutes and in just nine songs, Pratt produces a warm, bewitching alternate dimension—but not the kind you fall into in a nightmare or thriller. The universe she’s fashioned for herself is more paradisal. And if you take a moment to find a quiet space and just sit with this record’s hollow parts, embracing them for the condensed elements they are, you might just find your own slice of heaven. —Ellen Johnson

14. Patty Griffin: Silver Bell (2013)
Silver Bell is an object lesson in how radically and thoroughly the music industry has changed in the 21st century. Coming off two very critically acclaimed yet commercially unspectacular albums, Patty Griffin recorded her third album in 1999 at Daniel Lanois’ New Orleans studio, with the understanding that A&M Records would release it just as it had released her 1996 debut, Living with Ghosts, and her 1998 follow-up, Flaming Red. However, the label had recently been purchased by Universal Music, which shuffled the imprints and upended the hierarchy. A&M canceled the release and shelved the album indefinitely. Griffin took it in stride: She finagled her way out of her contract, signed to ATO Records, recorded a string of excellent albums, won a Grammy, toured (and shacked up) with Robert Plant, and currently reigns as the uncrowned queen of the roots rock movement. During that time she re-recorded a few of those Silver Bell songs, but the album persisted as a bootleg passed around between her devoted fans.. Thirteen years later, Silver Bell finally got an official release—from Universal, no less. Silver Bell is generally best when it’s quietest, when Griffin’s vocals don’t have to compete with a denser sound. On “Sooner or Later” she could be backed by an ace R&B outfit ca. ’72; with a sharp guitar keeping time and a low organ setting a dusky mood, it’s the kind of slow jam that prizes ambience and leaves the details up to your dirty mind. “So Long” is an old-time benediction, an apt closer that could have appeared on American Kid. Griffin is mostly confident in her musical breadth. —Stephen M. Deusner

iron_and_wine_kiss_each_other_clean.jpg 13. 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

sprained-ankle.jpg 12. Julien Baker: Sprained Ankle (2015)
She may be uncomfortable talking about her substance abuse, a near-death experience and failed relationships, but Memphis singer-songwriter Julien Baker uses her music as a safe space to examine her past. Baker’s skill lies in her narrative songwriting, which pierces her experiences to the bone. Now, sober, having quit even cigarettes, Baker works out her troubles on Sprained Ankle, a collection of beautifully arranged folk songs using mostly her voice, a guitar and reverb. After playing in a post-rock band in high school, she began to rein in her demons and write on her own. Out came lyrics about wrapping a car around a streetlamp, having more whiskey than blood in her veins, time spent in ambulances, of an unbearable break-up with her girlfriend, and facing mortality. These songs were more personal than her earlier efforts, and rather than take a poetic look at her misgivings, Baker is brutally honest about the ugliness she faced. Her lyrical battles are not only with herself, but also with God, like Jacob wrestling the angel. —Roman Gokhman

Big Thief Capacity Art.jpg 11. Big Thief: Capacity (2017)
Big Thief may have emerged in the latter half of this decade, but they’ve quickly become one of its most authentic and moving acts around. Fronted by the extremely warm-hearted, wise and nonjudgmental Adrianne Lenker, Big Thief thrive on the magic they unearth seemingly from a past life. Lenker delivers poetic lines about nature that never appear trite with a voice that ranges from gentle to fierce, always with a mother-like comfort. Their second album Capacity draws on earth’s passing moments that are taken for granted—“the money pile on the dashboard fluttering” (“Shark Smile”), “Shrapnel and oil cans, rhubarb in the yard” (“Mythological Beauty”), “The sugar rush / The constant hush / The pushing of the water gush” (“Mary”)—but it’s grounded in humanity’s brightest and darkest tendencies. Their tender, evocative indie-folk transcends any musical categorization—it’s dirty, heartbreaking, trustworthy, gorgeous and armed with a childlike wonder and well-worn sagacity. While their 2016 debut Masterpiece offered raw charm, 2017’s Capacity has a keener eye and an intoxicating richness. —Lizzie Manno

the_civil_wars_barton_hollow.jpg 10. 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 formerly 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

lauraaaa.jpg 9. Laura Marling: Once I Was An Eagle (2013)
Throughout Laura Marling’s excellent 2011 album A Creature I Don’t Know, the British singer/songwriter refers to someone—or something—called The Beast. And in true Marling fashion, we never quite know if the story of The Beast is autobiographical in nature (“I’m nothing but the beast,” she sings on “The Muse,” one of the few times she embodies that monster). But on the song named after that character, “The Beast,” Marling describes him as a man: “Tonight I choose the beast / Tonight he lies with me.” Which is why the first line of Marling’s next album, 2013’s Once I Was An Eagle is so stunning: “You should be gone beast / Be gone from me / Be gone from my mind, at least / Let a little lady be.” Opening with a gorgeous 16-minute suite—accompanied by one of the most dazzling videos of the decade—Marling, if we take her first person lyrics at face value (she frequently writes from other perspectives, and on many of these songs on this record, she takes on the persona of a woman named Rosie), treats this as her break up album, an honest and daring account of the aftermath of a failed relationship, presumably with ex-boyfriend Marcus Mumford. But this is no ordinary breakup album: Once I Was An Eagle is sometimes gorgeous and pleading (“Today I’ll feel something other than regret / Pass me a glass and a half smoked cigarette / I’ve damned near got no dignity left” from “I Was An Eagle”), other times angry and accusatory (“I am loathe to say that I have been to stay / I’ve been with the devil in the devil’s resting place” from “Devil’s Resting Place”), but always somehow simultaneously vague and specific, poetic and free-flowing. Every word is here calculated—even the guitar tunings, which separate the albums into thirds. Once I Was An Eagle is nothing short of a masterpiece from one of this generation’s best talents, a career highlight in one full of them. —Steven Edelstone

cma-kindness.jpg 8. Courtney Marie Andrews: May Your Kindness Remain (2018)
After breaking through with a batch of restless, itinerant songs on Honest Life in 2016, Courtney Marie Andrews longs for something more permanent on the follow-up. The Seattle singer spends much of May Your Kindness Remain exploring ideas of home and what it means to have roots on 10 tunes that are lusher and more expansive while leaving plenty of room to showcase her astonishing voice. Andrews and her band recorded May Your Kindness Remain with producer Mark Howard, whose voluminous credits include albums by Lucinda Williams, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and Emmylou Harris. Howard’s understated aesthetic suits Andrews, who pushes herself toward bolder musical arrangements and a fuller, more soulful sound than the traveling-woman-with-guitar feel of Honest Life. On the folky waltz “I’ve Hurt Worse,” she displays a lacerating sarcastic streak on lyrics mock-praising the loutish behavior of a suitor (or lover). Still, as the album title suggests, kindness reigns here. Sometimes Andrews is singing about it explicitly, as on the title track or the upsurging “Kindness of Strangers.” Sometimes the people in her songs are simply doing their best to embody the idea that kindness matters. After all, it takes more than an empty house to feel like home. —Eric R. Danton

haley-h-garden.jpg 7. Haley Heynderickx: I Need to Start a Garden (2018)
We’re not hurting for great singer/songwriters here in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. For years now, it’s been one of our greatest exports alongside bacon maple bars and pizza named after metal albums. But if we were to get into the game of ranking these musical talents, I daresay that Haley Heynderickx would surely take the top spot. There’s just something about the understated grace and humor mixed with an abundance of spirit that serves as a vital corrective to the sometimes self-important airs that her peers sometimes put on. This comes through quite beautifully on her debut album, I Need To Start A Garden. As lush and scenic as its title suggests, the album is a thoughtful collection, painting vivid, personal portraits of quirky characters, as well as intimate self-reflection. Album opener “No Face,” inspired by a bar fight Heynderickx witnessed, stars a mysterious figure plucked from a Hayao Miyazaki film; on the ecstatic “Worth It,” Heynedrickx turns inward, repeating: “Maybe I’ve been worthless/ Maybe I’ve been worth it.” —Robert Ham and Loren DiBlasi

6. First Aid Kit: Stay Gold (2014)
On their major label debut, Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg finally grew into their voices. First Aid Kit’s vocal magic has been undeniable since their cover of Fleet Foxes’ “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” became internet-famous in 2008. Six years later, the sisters displayed a confidence that channelled both beauty and pain in songs of bold proclamations and frank confessionals. That emotional growth on Stay Gold manifests itself in the entire songwriting process. First Aid Kit’s take the Americana influences so marked on The Lion’s Roar and continue to integrate them musically through simple acoustic guitar strumming over swishing brushstrokes on a snare drum. However, First Aid Kit’s storytelling now focuses inward. The simple rhymes of past hits like “Emmylou” have been replaced with darker and more introverted poetry of personalities in conflict and dreams unfulfilled. The singular beauty of the sisters’ singing is bolstered only by the album’s strong production. Recorded in Omaha, home of producer (and Bright Eyes founding member) Mike Mogis, Stay Gold features lush arrangements created by Nate Walcott and performed by members of the Omaha Symphony Orchestra. These layered sounds, so intricately woven to complement the sisters’ voices, create a completeness that realizes First Aid Kit’s musical maturity. —Hilary Saunders

brandi-c-forgive.jpg 5. Brandi Carlile: By The Way, I Forgive You (2018)
In 2018, Brandi Carlile returned with her best album since The Story, and also her best yet. By the Way, I Forgive You features cover art by one of the Avett brothers, photography by Pete Souza (who documented the Obama White House), string arrangements by the late, legendary Paul Buckmaster, and production by Shooter Jennings and country producer du jour Dave Cobb. That Carlile remains the center of gravity in this star-studded universe is a testament to her considerable talents. Here she ably navigates a batch of songs that range from folk, country and blues to symphonic pop and rock pieces that would sound at home on a Broadway stage. No matter the backdrop, Carlile sounds completely in control. —Ben Salmon

4. Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me (2010)
Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me was the finest two-hour, harp-driven, three-disc opus of the 2010s. Newsom—still your best possible icebreaker at a dinner party of hipsters, Renaissance Fair staffers and woodland creatures—released her last solo record, Ys, in 2006 to a response that ranged from gleaming to marry-me-I’m-begging-you. But if that sophomore album was a vivid glimpse into her weird little world, this sprawling sequel, conceived in flagrant defiance of conventional logic, is legitimately bananas. It’s like tumbling into her world and getting lost for weeks. Devotees thrilled to Newsom (who produced the record, with Jim O’Rourke intermittently mixing) emptying her quiver of tricks here, and the results are indeed glittering. The title track is a serpentine fairytale of harp, mandolin, piano and other elfin instruments. A jaunty piano opens the fantastically titled “Good Intentions Paving Company,” which briefly spirals off into diner pop. Best of all is gossamer showstopper “Baby Birch,” which will shut down your world for nine and a half minutes. The album is not for the fainthearted. It’s also not for anyone with a tendency to bristle at resolute self-indulgence. But over the course of the album, a weird thing happens: Her flutters and flourishes become comfortable, even at their saddest, and her babygirl voice takes on a grand assuredness. It’s difficult to imagine another situation in which plinking pixie sounds, recurrent madrigal noises and radiant folk poetry could be categorically described as honking huge, but for all its girth, Have One On Me is packed with magic. —Jeff Vrabel

3. Bon Iver: Bon Iver (2011)
  Bon Iver starts off quietly with a lovely little guitar riff on “Perth,” but a keyboard wash and military drums kick in before we hear Justin Vernon’s falsetto. Three-quarters of the way through, the song has swelled to its peak, something he and his bandmates Michael Noyce, Sean Carey and Matthew McCaughan became masters of while touring behind the Bon Iver debut. By track two, the band is highlighting Colin Stetson’s guest saxophone (magnificent later on “Michicant”) and Greg Leisz’ pedal steel, along with Vernon’s vocal range—he begins with a deep baritone before breaking into falsetto and then using his high natural register. And that’s what makes Bon Iver one of the most satisfying responses to a hyped debut. It retains the beautiful melancholy of For Emma, Forever Ago, but in nearly every way, it’s just more. More layered, more diverse, more interesting. He brings in collaborators to do what they do best, but never at the expense of his sound and vision. It treads into new sonic directions without getting lost. For Emma could be oblique at times, but the lyrics on Bon Iver often border on non-sensical: “Ramble in the roots, had the marvel, moved the proof be kneeled fine’s glowing / storing up the clues, it had its sullen blue bruised through by showing.” A majority of song titles reference places, but most meaning for the listener will come through the cathartic choruses: “Still alive who love you.” “Never gonna break.” “I could see for miles, miles, miles.” And this one from “Calgary”: “So it?s storming on the lake, little waves our bodies break / There’s a fire going out, but there’s really nothing to the south / Swollen orange and light let through, your one piece swimmer stuck to you.” These all come as the music builds and emotions rise, and they’re the moments on the album which linger throughout the day. —Josh Jackson

helplessness-blues.jpg 2. Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues (2011)
After their eponymous debut album earned a well-deserved standing ovation from critics, Fleet Foxes set the bar high for their sophomore album. Helplessness Blues is sweet and comforting at its worst and inspiring at its best. The foundations of many tracks are similar—the band frequently returns to the strumming, “ohhs” and “ahhs” that define opener “Montezuma”—but Fleet Foxes know how to layer sounds to add depth and make each song distinctive. The album is often about love—and the emptiness that can accompany its euphoria. —Ani Vrabel

carriesufjan.jpg 1. Sufjan Stevens: Carrie & Lowell (2015)
Carrie & Lowell was in no way what I wanted or expected from the next Sufjan Stevens album. I wanted something daring and sweeping—a musical progression from Age of Adz in some way. Instead, what we got was a quiet, moody set of songs not unlike something you’d find on a Sufjan Stevens album from the early 2000s at first blush. But there is also something fundamentally different about this album. It’s urgent and spontaneous—the kinds of songs that are written in a rush of cathartic emotion on whatever instrument happened to be laying around. No three-minute orchestral intros to be written or historical facts to be researched. It’s more Elliott Smith’s XO than Illinois—and like XO, it has its eyes focused squarely on death. It stares straight into the hospital rooms, regrets, cloudy memories, and empty bedrooms—and dares to sing a quiet song about it all. Perhaps that ended up being more ambitious than another “State Project” album could have ever been. —Luke Larsen

Listen to our Best Folk Albums of the 2010s playlist on Spotify right here.

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