Music has always been central to us here at Paste. The music staff covers all they can when it comes to the popular music of the day, but personal preference is still inevitable. Indie rock in particular has always been embraced here, but for just a moment let me campaign for a much more traditional set of recordings. At a time when the likes of Mumford & Sons or The Lumineers can become global mega-stars by layering acoustic instruments on a pop-rock foundation, it makes all the more sense to explore the more unadulterated side of folk music.
These albums, for the most part, were all released in the last 15 years, and highlight the incredible diversity of artists working within the contemporary “progressive folk” scene. Consider adding a few to your indie rock collection—you never know when murder ballads might explode into popularity overnight.
20. Tim Obrien – Traveler, 2003
Perhaps the most brilliant album of progressive bluegrass music, top-to-bottom, to come out in the last 15 years, Traveler is one of those very rare recordings that is literally without a bad song. O’brien’s high, reedy voice and masterful songwriting are both in fine form, with songs that span a range of emotion from hopeful to contemplative, morose to enraptured in love. It begins with a song about going on a long journey, and closes with one about the artist learning how little he truly needs to be content in life. The record is a self-contained lifetime.
Standout track: “Another Day” is one of O’Brien’s masterpieces, a rumination on his encroaching age and mortality. It’s incredibly macabre-sounding for a bluegrass song, as O’brien sings “Some days you fall, some days you fly, but in the end we all must die. Our rotting flesh and broken bones, feed the ground that we call home.”
19. Airdance – Flying on Home, 2003
A truly obscure recording to be sure, Airdance was/is a “contra dance” group fronted by fiddler Rodney Miller. In short, contra dance is an English style of country folk dancing that came to America with British settlers and was essentially a precursor to the advent of American square dancing. The musical style blends traditional English dance tunes with Irish and Scottish influences, including riffs on a number of famous jigs and reels such as “Tam Lin.” It alternates ably between driving, foot-stomping reels and tender waltzes and airs that will melt your heart. It’s gorgeous, instrumental dance music.
Standout track: “Tamlin/Devil in the Strawstack/Farewell to Chernobyl” is a blistering set of jigs and reels that starts out fast and then just gets more beautifully intricate from there. They call it dance music, but I can’t imagine doing anything but freezing in place to watch the band, if they uncorked a gem like this in a live, dancehall setting.
18. Barton Carroll – The Lost One, 2008
Barton Carroll is one of his generation’s best, most underappreciated songwriters, perhaps because he possesses an unusual, nasal voice and doesn’t look much like John Mayer. Many of his albums seem to dwell on a deep sense of loss, and The Lost One is no exception, but it features some of his very best songs. A track like “Those Days Are Gone, And My Heart Is Breaking,” composed in the form of a letter from a repentant, deadbeat dad to a childhood friend, are at the heart of what folk music is all about.
Standout track: “Certain Circles” was the first song I ever heard from Carroll, and it remains my favorite. Combining his deft guitar picking with an unexpected and sudden backing of violin, its evocative lyrics will sweep you away. As he puts it, “I’ve learned wisdom way too slow and I’ve lived way too fast…my closet overflows with voices from the past.”
17. Great Big Sea – The Hard and the Easy, 2005
Great Big Sea is a folk-rock band from Newfoundland, the easternmost province of Canada, known for their exceedingly energetic modern folk and covers of traditional Canadian folk music. The Hard and the Easy is the latter, a stand-out album comprised entirely of the band’s adaptations of traditional tunes. Newfoundland is a maritime culture, so that means some wicked sea shanties such as “Captain Kidd” and bawdy songs like “The Mermaid,” which deals with that classic pop-culture trope, the mermaid problem.
Standout track: The driving, galloping beat of “Old Polina” will not be denied. A song that could be as much as 150 years old in its earliest form, it’s a chronicle of the Scottish whaling fleet’s race to Newfoundland to pick of the most experienced crewmen. In Great Big Sea’s hands, it sounds more like a rollicking pub song.
16. The Wailin’ Jennys – 40 Days, 2004
Listeners to Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion” radio show are likely familiar with the Jennys, a Canadian folk trio who’ve conquered the bluegrass charts with their beautiful harmonies and contemporary, original songs. Their first album 40 Days is still one of their best, with a startling variety of songs, from adaptations of traditional songs such as “The Parting Glass” to unexpected covers of Neil Young’s “Old Man” or John Hiatt’s “Take it Down.”
Standout track: “Arlington” is one of the prettiest songs The Wailin’ Jennys have ever released, a longer track that starts out slowly and solemnly before blossoming into the band’s trademark, three-part harmonies. Most people simply can’t sing like these women, who are hiding behind not an ounce of studio magic.
15. Sarah Jarosz – Follow Me Down, 2011
Jarosz was only 20 when this sophomore album dropped in 2011, a bona fide folk music prodigy skilled beyond her years as both a vocalist and picker of various stringed instruments. Already she’s embarked upon the path of most prodigies in the mold of Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile, branching out from traditional folk into both experimental and pop music territories, which suggests a day will come when her music isn’t labeled “folk” at all. Follow Me Down catches her at a period where there’s still quite a bit of traditional reverence in her work, while also hinting at the genre-bending experimentation we would hear in 2013’s “Build Me Up From Bones.”
Standout track: “Annabelle Lee” has the odd distinction of being adapted directly from the final poem published by Edgar Allen Poe. Fittingly, it’s a beautiful, macabre-sounding, minor-key rumination on death—vintage Poe.
14. John Gorka – Land of the Bottom Line, 1990
It’s pretty hard to mistake the voice of Gorka once you’ve heard it, as one of the throatiest baritones the folk world has ever heard. This early album from the man Rolling Stone dubbed “the preeminent singer-songwriter of the New Folk Movement” is a good selection of his typical work, flush with gritty love songs and story songs with a country twinge. But really, given Gorka’s voice, I expect there would be a lot of people who would enjoy listening to him sing the phone book.
Standout track: “Raven in the Storm” is seminal Gorka, a menacing track with a man exploring some of his persistent demons. The lyrics are positively spooky: “I’m the darkness in your daughter; I’m the spot beneath the skin; I’m the scarlet on the pavement; I am the broken heart within.”
13. Crooked Still – Shaken by a Low Sound, 2006
Crooked Still’s singer, Aoife O’Donovan is the sort of vocalist who gets around because everyone who’s anyone in the folk world wants to sing alongside her, and for good reason. Her band has been one of the more recent luminaries in progressive bluegrass, and Shaken by a Low Sound is one of the better albums in that genre to come out in the last decade. It’s mostly filled with fantastically reimagined arrangements of traditional tunes, with a smattering of the band’s originals and a creative cover of Dylan’s “Oxford Town” thrown in for good measure.
Standout track: “Little Sadie” is the quintessential American murder ballad, dating from at least the early 1900s and covered by hundreds of artists since then. Even Johnny Cash got a piece, re-recording it as “Cocaine Blues.” In the hands of Crooked Still, it receives a totally new take that sounds both antique and modern at once, backed by O’Donovan’s breathy vocals.
12. The Duhks – Migrations, 2006
It pains me to even narrow down the best album by The Duhks to one, but if I’m choosing, it’s Migrations. This Canadian progressive folk group truly takes “eclectic” to heart, and its original lineup tells you everything you need to know about their inspirations: Irish-style guitarist, French Canadian fiddle player, Appalachian claw hammer banjo player, Latin American-style percussion player and gospel music singer. Fuse all of those elements into a whole and you end up with an album of modern folk that touches on gospel spirituals, traditional sets of Irish reels and jigs and even a Tracy Chapman cover. There’s not a bad song on the entire album.
Standout track: All of them, honestly, but the lead gospel track “Ol’ Cook Pot” sets an upbeat, bouncy tone (despite the fact that it’s about going hungry) and shows off the dynamic lead vocals of singer Jessee Havey. It’s impossible to not be tapping a toe by the time that 2:35 is over.
11. The Wind Whistles – Window Sills, 2008
This may very well be the best album I ever got for free. Canadian indie folk duo The Wind Whistles released this album online without ever asking a penny for it, and it’s still available for free download today, six years later. They have a truly unique sound, one that blends a playful, indie-rock sensibility with a twist of rootsy soul. Both Tom Prilesky and Liza Moser have unusual voices that help the band stand out immediately—the best description I ever heard was “The Decemberists meet The Moldy Peaches.” Prilesky in particular is a really talented vocalist on tracks such as “Communication’s Dead” or “River,” capable of a subtle sprechgesang before exploding into voice-cracking highs. Very sincere, honest-sounding folk music.
Standout track: There’s a lot of great tracks here, but “Ballad of a Jailbreak Wedding” is particularly cute. A story song about a good friend trying to spring his buddy from jail in time for the wedding, it’s simply great writing.