The 20 Best Folk Albums of 2018

Music Lists Folk Albums
The 20 Best Folk Albums of 2018

Celebrating the 50 best albums of the year always has us comparing music that spans the spectrum. But we also love to dig deeper in particular genres like jazz, blues and folk. And 2018 gave us a wealth of folk/Americana albums to enjoy. From folk icons like Joan Baez and old-timey virtuosos Old Crow Medicine Show to indie folksters like Courtney Marie Andrews and Haley Heynderickx to twangy singer/songwriters like Brandi Carlile and Lori McKenna, the folk and Americana traditions are in good hands. This may be one of the harder categories to define, but it was one of the easier to find worthy albums, so we expanded this edition from 10 to 20. There was just too much good stuff we couldn’t ignore.

Here are the 20 best folk albums of 2018:

laura-v-lookout.jpg20. Laura Veirs: The Lookout
Laura Veirs is probably not the first person who comes to mind for socially conscious music, but there’s a careful vigilance about her new album that feels intertwined with the present cultural climate of unease and suspicion. Sentries stand watch on more than one of these new songs, guarding against a vague foreboding just beyond the horizon. Set within Veirs’ pastoral lyrics and courtly folk arrangements, the effect can be unsettling, as if the watchers on the edge of some vast wilderness are themselves being watched. But The Lookout is by no means a gloomy album. In keeping with Veirs’ aesthetic, it’s often pensive and sometimes wistful, but there are moments of deceptive brightness, too. The title track is one of them: the loping beat and Veirs’ double-tracked vocals sound almost festive as she sings the troubling couplet, “I can’t read these people/ I can’t read their eyes,” to someone she’s glad to have found (husband/producer/drummer Tucker Martine, perhaps?). There’s a weary triumphalism in album closer “Zozobra,” which finds a measure of hope amid reverberating electric guitars and vocals from Veirs that are almost serene. —Eric R. Danton

marissa-nadler-crimes.jpg19. Marissa Nadler: For My Crimes
Marissa Nadler doesn’t get nearly enough credit for having a sense of humor. Her wit is as dry as it as subtle on her eighth album, a collection of songs that are also disconsolate and foreboding. Those traits are how the Boston singer is more generally known, and for good enough reason: Nadler favors a harrowing folk sound that she calls “slow music,” full of spectral, minor-key musical arrangements that emphasize guitars, piano and strings. She rarely uses drums, which sometimes gives the impression that her songs are untethered to anything more than her voice. Nadler’s vocals are at once soft and steely on lyrics with a poetic, sometimes gothic streak. It’s a very intentional, stylized approach, which makes her flashes of wit all the more startling. Yet there’s a droll undertone to parts of For My Crimes, along with its darker themes. —Eric R. Danton

first-aid-kit-ruins.jpg18. First Aid Kit: Ruins
It’s been almost four years since Stay Gold, the critically acclaimed album full of Cosmic American Music-tinged folk, put Swedish sisters Johanna and Klara Söderberg, aka First Aid Kit, on the map. But as fans eagerly awaited a follow-up, the sisters slowly broke down. Ruins, written largely in Joshua Tree, where the sisters hunkered down after the dissolution of Klara’s engagement, is a more mature record. Not that it’s darker per se; their gorgeous, blood-close harmonies and the sunny streaks of pedal steel guitar keep it from ever feeling too morose. Instead, there’s a gentle weight of experience that permeates the album’s lyrics, a freshly sharpened edge of cynicism. —Madison Desler

alela-diane-cusp.jpg17. Alela Diane: Cusp
Not counting Cold Moon, her austere 2015 collaborative album with guitarist Ryan Francesconi, it has been a while since we last heard from Portland songstress Alela Diane. Her last true solo LP was 2013’s About Farewell, a mournful collection of stark tunes that seemed to lack the warmth and grander sonic ambitions of earlier releases such as To Be Still. In the years since, Diane became a mother, something reflected deeply in the writing of Cusp, which is a return to form in more ways than one. There’s a sense of healing and of rebirth on this album, which takes the pace and relatively stripped-down instrumentation of About Farewell and marries it to a more soaring, emotive set of vocals. All its finest points are captured neatly in “Ether & Wood,” undoubtedly one of the year’s most achingly lovely tunes, in which Diane reflects upon motherhood itself with a sense of wonder: “Next thing I knew, her spirit called/she took shelter in my womb/and I felt her tiny feet/kick me from the inside.” Buoyed by these songs, Cusp feels like equal parts creative breakthrough and reclamation of a lifelong calling. Here’s hoping we see more of Diane touring in the U.S. outside her hometown in the future, rather than simply the beautiful performances she regularly puts on in the U.K. and France, where her fan base seems much more steady. —Jim Vorel

caroline-says-fool.jpg16. Caroline Says: No Fool Like an Old Fool
The sound of Caroline Sallee’s music seems to be rooted in whimsy. Yet, for Sallee, who makes music with her band as Caroline Says, making her sophomore record No Fool Like an Old Fool was no light-hearted task. She recorded much of the album in her dingy basement apartment, dodging noisy upstairs neighbors and simultaneously working three jobs. It’s miraculous, then, that No Fool should feel so bright and light, despite the circumstances and often dark subject matter. Before writing the record, the Austin-based musician returned to her hometown of Huntsville, Ala. only to discover a frustrating sense of complacency among its residents, which inspired much of this album, according to Caroline Says’ bandcamp page. The lo-fi digital folk is destined to exist both in the nether regions of bandcamp, plattered for solo listening, and on portable speakers, to be played at sunny picnics and outdoor respites. Album standout “Sweet Home Alabama” marries ’50s doo wop to enchanting folk, all while delivering a dark storyline about what happens when your hometown isn’t your home anymore. “I used to love this town,” she sings. “What has it done for me / except lead me around?” On “Mea Culpa,” Sallee ushers in breezy vibes à la She & Him’s soul-inspired surf and implements clever wordplay, singing, “I’m like a stream that’s conflicted but can’t split in two.” While No Fool Like an Old Fool is slightly less purist-folk than her 2017 debut 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong, it’s still a broad display of Sallee’s acoustic leanings, especially on the haunting “First Song.” Like with lots of great folk music, Caroline Sallee’s creeps forward and flirts with fairytale, leaving you both with a grim sense of what’s real and a fresh breath of warm, bare-bones compositions. —Ellen Johnson

mount-eerie-now.jpg15. Mount Eerie: Now Only
Mount Eerie’s album Now Only is devastating in the way that most albums aren’t. The latest album by Washington-based songwriter and producer Phil Elverum centers on the sickness and death of his wife Geneviève Castrée. The album has an understandably ruminative, somber core. The passing of his wife made Elverum reflect on his own eventual mortality and the often unfairness of death. On “Distortion,” he recounts the moment she passed with a raw bleakness, “The second dead body I ever saw was you, Geneviève / When I watched you turn from alive to dead right here in our house.” He also recalls a conversation where he told his mother of a desire to make his own life mean something to people after his death (“To echo beyond my actual end”). This isn’t the type of record to turn darkness into sunshine and rainbows or to later forget these deep, complex thoughts, but instead to fully process those thoughts and keep chugging on. Elverum doesn’t try to place her death into a cutesy narrative to ease the pain—he arrives at a brave, uncomfortable human truth that people often deny (“People just living their lives / Get erased for no reason with the rest of us watching from the side”). —Lizzie Manno

mountain-man-magic.jpg14. Mountain Man: Magic Ship
Not since their 2010 debut Made The Harbor have Mountain Man released a record and toured, but, after each member found herself living in North Carolina following years of pursuing separate hustles, the three women—Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, Molly Sarlé and Sylvan Esso’s Amelia Meath—reignited their friendships, followed by their music. They officially rebooted the band at Justin Vernon’s Eaux Claires music festival in Wisconsin last summer, on a tiny stage in the middle of the forest, a perfect location for exhibiting Mountain Man’s campfire harmonies and gentle folk ballads. Their Wisconsin woods performance was serendipitous, validation that Mountain Man would be once more. “The magic felt as strong as it did the first time we sang together, and I think we were all really moved by that,” Sarlé says. Magic Ship feels as good to the listener as it does its makers. The eleven originals and three covers comprising the album feel like private poetry, but you’ve managed to sneak into Mountain Man’s secret clubhouse, just long enough to indulge in their soothing stash of acapella anthems and mellow mountain hymns. You can feel the bond between the three women. It’s there in the soft storytelling and playful commands of “Stella” and in their ultimate ode to comfort on “Underwear.” It’s there on “Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning,” which is as pleasant as it sounds, and in the soulful carol “Bright Morning Stars.” Cozy and uncomplicated, Magic Ship is the album you’ll want to listen to both in quiet solitude and in the company of friends. The delightful dinner-party-set video for “Ring Tang Ring Toon” pretty much sums up all of Magic Ship’s warm and fuzzy feelings: Friends dance in a field, dine by candlelight and offer to help each other with the dishes. As on the record, harmony abounds. —Ellen Johnson

lunasa-cas.jpg13. Lúnasa: CAS
After more than 20 years of fiery virtuosity, there’s little doubt that Lúnasa has become the most respected of all modern Irish acoustic folk bands—seeing one of their live shows is akin to a religious experience for devotees of this particular branch of the folk family tree. Likewise, each of the band’s seven albums released before 2018 showed off the group’s masterful skill in composing sets of jigs and reels, and their eighth LP, CAS, is no exception. It roars to life immediately with the immaculately arranged “Tinker’s Frolics,” a set of eclectic, slowly morphing tunes that recall classic Lúnasa arrangements such as “Morning Nightcap” off The Merry Sisters of Fate. Suffice to say, there aren’t many players alive who can hang with the likes of Seán Smyth or Cillian Vallely when it comes to the uilleann pipes or tin whistle. After two decades, this is a traditional folk band that is still clearly at the height of its powers. —Jim Vorel

innocence-sun.jpg12. The Innocence Mission: Sun On The Square
The entrancingly beautiful folk-pop that Karen and Don Peris have been releasing for the past three decades under the name The Innocence Mission is a monument to a simpler way. The band’s 11th album, Sun on the Square, starts off lovely and never lets up. Along the way, we get an extended peek into Karen’s evocative wordsmithery, which is heavy with references to the natural world (light of winter, gentle lions, leaves on leaves, darting birds), streaked with color and shot through with an ever-present sense of wonder and exploration. When you scan the lyrics for Sun on the Square, you realize just how often she is posing a question. All told, the album feels like a hand-crafted work of art, put together carefully by its creators, charmingly imperfect but much preferred over a mass-produced piece with no stitch out of place, and no soul to match. —Ben Salmon

tomberlin-weddings.jpg11. Tomberlin: At Weddings
Sara Beth Tomberlin’s debut album, At Weddings, is an ode to the uncertainty and overall dishevelment of your late teens and early twenties: bogged down by self-doubt, seeking validation from others, rebelling against unsolicited religious beliefs that were pressed upon you as a child (the 23-year-old singer/songwriter was born to strict Baptist parents) and longing for someone even though you know they’re a bad influence. Featuring only an acoustic guitar and various keyboards and effects, the record centers on Tomberlin’s Joni Mitchell-esque pipes, loud in their softness and tenderness and unsuspectedly moving you to your absolute core. The naked instrumentation mirrors the transparency of her lyrics and while the songs consist of just a few elements, her overflowing emotions make the tracks feel full and warm. At Weddings is filled with such a powerful, saintly aura that even the most ugly subject matters can spur flawless, beautiful results. —Lizzie Manno

joan-baez-wind.jpg10. Joan Baez: Whistle Down the Wind
Joan Baez’s new record, Whistle Down the Wind, boasts two tunes written by Tom Waits and his wife Kathleen Brennan: the title track and “Last Leaf.” “I’m the last leaf on the tree,” Baez sings on the latter. “They say I’ve got staying power here on the tree. I’ve been here since Eisenhower, and I’ve outlived even he.” It’s true. Baez performed at the first-ever Newport Folk Festival in 1959 as an 18-year-old and recorded her first solo album, Joan Baez, in 1960, both while Dwight Eisenhower was still in the White House. Flash forward 59 years, and the 77-year-old singer is one of the few leaves clinging to the mostly bare branches of the folk-revival tree. “Last Leaf” originally appeared on Waits’s 2011 Bad as Me album as a duet with Keith Richards, a reluctant meditation on the tail end of life, the tally of victories and losses reflected in the magnificent ruin of the two voices. As she has so often in her career, Baez transmutes a ragged male growl into a sweeter, more evenly phrased, more palatable rendition. What she’s lost in vocal virtuosity, she’s gained in nuance. The album also includes two more songs by Josh Ritter, a writer she’s been covering since 2003. For this project, he wrote “Silver Blade” specifically for her, as a kind of sequel to the traditional folk song “Silver Dagger” on her debut disc. There are always good songs to be found if you’re willing to look for them, she claims, even if there was something about the ’60s that no subsequent decade has managed to duplicate. —Geoffrey Himes

anna-sl-river.jpg9. Anna St. Louis: If Only There Was A River
The first single on singer/songwriter Anna St. Louis’s debut LP If Only There Was a River was the song “Understand,” and it’s about what you’d expect: wanting to understand, wanting to be understood and the aha moment when you finally do/are, as well as the frustration in not understanding. “Untangled, finally,” St. Louis sings. “Put it all out on the table/ Understand me, do you understand?” If Only There Was a River, released in October on Woodsist/Mare Records, carries on in that same tone throughout its 11 tracks, one of comfort, low-lighted by the kind of delicate, spare acoustics that inspire deep and thoughtful respites. St. Louis, who’s making her full-length debut with the record, often retreats to a similarly soothing zone for her songwriting, which she’s only been doing for about five years now. Although, after spending time with If Only There Was a River’s carefully contrived ebbs and flows and smartly observed lyrics, you’d never know she was a spring chicken. If Only There Was a River would certainly please any folk fan, and it bubbles over with natural, woodsy energy. St. Louis couldn’t have picked a better time for its release: It seems to usher in all the crispness and change we’re so desperate for in October after a long, steamy September. Nature creeps beyond the album’s treeline in pockets of sunlight and smoke. From the looseness of the album opener “Water” to St. Louis’ ample fingerpicking on the mostly instrumental “Daisy” to its winding title track and kicker, If Only There Was a River is laden with quiet, warm music for a loud, cold world. —Ellen Johnson

old-crow-volunteer.jpg8. Old Crow Medicine Show: Volunteer
While some outfits might opt to broaden their base and alter their approach as their star rises, Old Crow Medicine Show take the opposite option on their latest record, choosing instead to go back to basics. Volunteer, which was recorded at RCA Studio A in Nashville and produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson), is an album that projects its rustic references, all etched with nostalgia and songs that offer reasons for return to the pleasures of front-porch existence. “Child of the Mississippi,” “Dixie Avenue” and “A World Away” celebrate the joys of home and the hearth, and the sheer celebration that comes with knowing there’s a place where one belongs. —Lee Zimmerman

lori-m-tree.jpg7. Lori McKenna: The Tree
Every Lori McKenna album has at least one song that will make you cry—and depending on who you are, and where you are in life, it could be any of them that gets you choked up. It’s not that McKenna is trying to put a lump in your throat. The Massachusetts songwriter is just singing the truth as she knows it, which is well enough: she’s a mother of five who has been married to the same man for 30 years and still lives in the town where she was born. She has a well-informed perspective, then, on growing up and growing older and watching the world change around you. Like most of her work, McKenna’s latest is a family-centered collection of rootsy folk songs, and as usual, she finds profundity in the ordinary moments of everyday life. McKenna’s attention to detail, and the way she makes universal sentiments suddenly, and piercingly, specific, are why her songs are special enough to have earned the deep respect of her fellow folk singers, and to have caught the ear of the big-ticket country stars who have recorded them, including Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Little Big Town. Wistful songs about love and family would be deeply uncool in the wrong hands, but McKenna seems more interested in being honest than hip. Her voice is warm and frank, and her understated, mostly acoustic musical arrangements never overshadow lyrics in which she almost always manages to say the right thing. —Eric R. Danton

brandi-c-forgive.jpg6. Brandi Carlile: By The Way, I Forgive You
Brandi Carlile is back with her best album since The Story, and maybe 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

paul-kelly-nature.jpg5. Paul Kelly: Nature
A brilliant though decidedly underrated songwriter and storyteller, Paul Kelly’s positioned himself as an adroit Everyman for most of his more-than-four-decade career. Averaging nearly an album a year, this Aussie native still manages to create beautifully memorable melodies that ring with universal truths. Nature is no exception—a rapid follow up to 2017’s aptly titled Life Is Fine, it finds him offering up simple, shared sentiments, typified by titles like “The Trees,” “With Animals” and “God’s Grandeur,” without posture or pretense. Ironically, even when he veers from his amiable persona on “A Bastard Like Me,” the otherwise harsh refrain is underscored by the singular strum of acoustic guitar. More to the point, the soothing “Seagulls of Seattle,” “Morning Storm,” Mushrooms,” and “The River Song” find him maintaining that easy allure through meandering melodies and nuanced narratives. Effortlessly affecting, Nature offers further examples of Kelly’s conviction, credence and compassion. —Lee Zimmerman

see-you-around.jpg4. I’m With Her: See You Around
Their band name may remind you of a particularly turbulent election season, but their music, which is punctuated with warm harmonies and bare-bones acoustics, recalls a relaxed hootenanny rather than a televised debate. Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, Crooked Still’s Aoife O’Donovan and folk songstress Sarah Jarosz began collaborating as I’m With Her back in 2015—prior to the launch of Hillary Clinton’s identically named presidential campaign slogan—but See You Around is the bluegrass supertrio’s full-length debut. Their fortified voices, plus Watkins’ fiddle, O’Donovan’s guitar, and Jarosz’s mandolin, mesh in a familial way—it’s a wonder they aren’t sisters. Plucky and purposeful, See You Around is at once soothing and sweeping, a testament to practiced musicianship and the power of collaboration, a chief value in bluegrass/acoustic scenes. During performances, the three women gather around a single microphone, like a family sitting down for supper. On the record, similes and other clever lyrical nuggets are woven into a hearty 40 minutes. See You Around creeps to start with a gentle crescendo and resounds to a close with the hymn-like “Hundred Miles.” Though still in their infancy, I’m With Her are pros, and their ability to effortlessly freshen bluegrass sounds while maintaining musical mastery marks them as one of the best working supergroups, in Americana and beyond. —Ellen Johnson

lenker-abysskiss.jpg3. Adrianne Lenker: abysskiss
Big Thief singer Adrianne Lenker excels by tapping into the core of the human soul in the most tender, gentle and vivid way possible and her new solo LP, absysskiss, is no exception. Through just vocals, acoustic guitar and intermittent keyboards, Lenker conjures up something magical and weighty with so few elements. The 10 songs that make up abysskiss toggle from intoxicating love to somber grief and it spans many feelings in between. Lenker uses nature metaphors to tackle heavy subject matters like mortality, love, birth, friendship and youth, but she doesn’t hide behind these metaphors. She uses them to boil down complex topics into something familiar, immediate and sentimental. The album’s two singles, “Cradle” and “Symbol,” are highlights with the candid, understated beauty of the former and the haunting, hypnotic mysticism of the latter. Fans of Big Thief should latch on to this record as Lenker’s evocative storytelling, oneness with nature, unique vocal tones and her ability to arouse grandeur from the mundane are all apparent on this record. Lenker has proved herself to be one of the most captivating songwriters, not just in indie-folk, but of the present day. Providing newfound comfort and warm familiarity, abysskiss is a record that will quickly find its way into your heart and slowly caress your soul. —Lizzie Manno

haley-h-garden.jpg2. Haley Heynderickx: I Need to Start a Garden
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

cma-kindness.jpg1. Courtney Marie Andrews: May Your Kindness Remain
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 new 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

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