The Top 10 Folk And Americana Albums Of 2013
The best folk music released in 2013 was, almost without exception, of the intensely personal variety. These remarkable albums struggled with addiction and death, coming of age, faith and the unstoppable rhythm of change. Three of these releases came from well-loved artists making music in ways that nobody saw coming. But all of the recordings listed below challenged us to open our minds and consider things differently, find beauty in small places and discover possibility in life's many challenges.
Jason Isbell, 'Southeastern'
Jason Isbell was one of three songwriters in the beloved alt-country band Drive-By Truckers before striking out on his own with The 400 Unit. He's been hailed as one of the Americana world's finest songwriters and guitarists, but with the release of Southeastern he finally unleashed the true heart of his songwriting talent. The songs on this disc are honest and painful, raw and revelatory, cathartic and compassionate, often all at once. The ones that don't shake your soul will rock you hard. From the stark, stunning empathy of "Elephant" to the rock 'n' roll desperation of "Super 8", Isbell's creation flows seamlessly from difficult thing to difficult thing, tying it all together with poetry delivered through his unpretentious, innately melodic Alabama drawl.
Elephant Revival, 'These Changing Skies'
Elephant Revival is another group that established itself anew this year with this collection of entrancing, soulful music. The idea of confinement doesn't usually go along with the freedom and expansiveness of jamgrass, but it turned out that when Elephant Revival put aside its jamming inclinations, some exquisite songwriting appeared. This troupe of remarkably dexterous multi-instrumentalists delivered some of the most creative and lyrically beautiful string band music this year.
Aoife O'Donovan, 'Fossils'
With the life of a well-loved band (Crooked Still) behind her, Aoife O'Donovan launched her solo career with a bounty of expectations from her fans. All were surpassed by this collection of imaginative arrangements and instrumentation that was somehow both minimalist and lush at the same time. With producer Tucker Martine (The Decemberists, Neko Case) at the helm, O'Donovan was free to weave together her strange bedfellow musical tastes — everything from trad folk to new jazz, gospel, bluegrass and pop — into a dreamily cohesive album.
The Milk Carton Kids, 'The Ash & Clay'
This Los Angeles-based act has grown steadily since their separate singer-songwriter careers fused into one of the most enthralling duos on the folk music circuit. With harmonies so dangerously close they almost sound like one voice harmonizing with itself, The Milk Carton Kids released this bittersweet collection of social commentary and love songs. From the bubbly "Honey, Honey" to the ruminative "Memphis," the pair demonstrated a knack for contemporary folk songwriting which belies their relative newness.
Sarah Jarosz, 'Build Me Up From Bones'
For the past couple of years, Sarah Jarosz has been touring with fiddler Alex Hargreaves and cellist Nathaniel Smith as one of the most impressive trios on the folk circuit. On Build Me Up from Bones, she shifted her focus to this trio, taking her jazz-improv-and-folk-infused compositions a step up. Lyrically, the disc is heavy on coming-of-age themes, wrought with exploration, discovery and fresh insights. With this disc, Jarosz, at only 22 years old, has firmly established herself as one of the finest, most promising artists in her field.
Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer, 'Child Ballads'
Anais Mitchell is on a winning streak. Her 2012 release Young Man in America was among the best folk releases last year. She followed it with this stunning EP, collaborating with singer-songwriter Jefferson Hamer on a handful of tunes from the traditional collection of Francis James Child. These are old English folk songs that have been recorded by giants of the genre like Richard Thompson and Joan Baez, but Mitchell and Hamer delivered them as if they'd written the songs themselves. What's more, their tight harmonies and some tiny lyrical edits turned these centuries-old songs into compelling contemporary gems.
Mandolin Orange, 'This Side Of Jordan'
It's hard to explain how magic happens when two talented songwriters fit perfectly together. Mandolin Orange (Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz) seem to just sit back and ride their intuitive harmonies and languid lyricism through songs about faith and life's little unpredictable changes. Marlin's lyrics flow into each other, making the melody feel like something that happens on its own. It all feels so effortless and beautiful, you don't even realize you've been sucked in until the songs reach in and tug hard at your heart.
Pharis & Jason Romero, 'Long Gone Out West Blues'
Pharis & Jason Romero may not be widely known beyond a small community of folk song devotees, but their approach to contemporary songwriting is quietly powerful. On Long Gone Out West Blues, the couple sounds like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings ran away with an old-timey rodeo, or perhaps how a tumbleweed and coyote might sing together if someone handed them a guitar. With tight, intuitive harmonies and a weeping cowboy quality in their vocals, the Romeros reminded us of the music inherent in the wide-open West.
Guy Clark, 'My Favorite Picture Of You'
Guy Clark has built a career of writing starkly honest story-songs. He's one of the finest living songwriters in American folk music, holding up the legacy of his late friend Townes Van Zandt. With My Favorite Picture of You, he delivered an album that tackled the impossible, complex emotions that came with burying his wife and moving on. Susanna Clark was a songwriter and artist, a devoted wife and frequent muse, and these songs pay beautiful homage to her memory with devotion to match, so raw it's often heartbreaking.
Patty Griffin, 'American Kid'
Many of the songs on Patty Griffin's American Kid were inspired by her late father, beginning with "Go Wherever You Wanna Go," a convincingly optimistic song about letting go and embracing death. Though songs like "Ohio" and "Wild Old Dog" might seem incongruous on the surface (about the slave trade and religious propriety, respectively), Griffin makes them fit. After all, American Kid is about more than just her father; it tackles the ups and downs of the characteristically American commitment to freedom and how one man managed to fit into that big story. It's an ambitious theme for an album, but Griffin, one of our finest songwriters, was clearly up to the task.