10. Courtney Hartman – Glade [Reckoner]
Courtney Hartman is a real-life folk troubadour and scholar, informed by her travels and the relationships that she’s built through them. Two impressive collaborative albums—with Robert Ellis and Taylor Ashton, respectively—and a solo debut inspired by a 500-mile walk across Camino de Santiago later, Hartman may have released her best work to date with 2021’s Glade. It’s an album made for genuine listeners, with plaintive, palliative instrumentation informing subtly sweeping artistic movements. This much is evident from the get-go, with the first track, “Bright at My Back”, bearing a miraculous buildup from a meditative guitar into subtle, meticulous string work and Hartman’s toying with various vocal production tricks to make a bonafide soundscape.
Glade isn’t quite Bon Iver weird, but Hartman holds a similar knack for innovation that Vernon does. Her crescendos don’t miraculously burst; they bubble up to the surface with a conscience and adoration for musical tones and production elements. The album is a quiet storm. It exists in the space between life’s big moments, with Hartman’s musical menagerie of a mind meeting her heart’s gentle reflections midway.
9. UQiYO – Tokyo Utopia [Namy&]
As UQiYO, vocalist and composer Yuqi Kato has developed an impressive grassroots following in his native Japan. Acclaimed for his offbeat, ambient, experimental, and electronic music, Kato has worked with notable artists worldwide, like J-pop notables Monkey Majik. Although, like a folktronica Mike Rosenberg, 2021 saw the artist creating his first solo work under the UQiYO umbrella. Tokyo Utopia shucks the ambitious experimentation of Kato’s earlier portfolio, streamlining his approach into a still-innovative jaunt into themes of naturalism and unity.
“Soshu Serenade’ might be one of Kato’s most straightforward productions, though the beauty in its traditional melodies is unmatched. Kokyu synth meshes with Kato’s melancholy vocal tone to produce something special. He still leaves ample room to play with his compositions, like in the excellent buildup of percussive synths in reflective opener “Somber” or the fletched vocal production of “Setting West”, making for an unconventional interlude. Rather than take a “throw everything at the wall” approach, Kato strips back his usual production to something more concentrated and cohesive. Tokyo Utopia is a new kind of UQiYO album, and that isn’t a bad thing. Instead, it stands alongside entries from POSTDATA and Hand Habits as among the best folktronica releases from over the last few years.
8. Lord Huron – Long Lost [Republic]
Clocking in at nearly an hour, Lord Huron‘s 16-track Long Lost is their opus. At its length, in less attuned hands, the album would easily be a slog. In the hands of Ben Schneider and company, it’s a tour de force. Their western opera continues, and the group wastes no expense of time or effort in making it their best entry to date.
Swampy, mysterious folk-rock influenced by everything between spaghetti westerns, surf culture, and the passage of time, the album is an ethereal slice of songwriting and production magic. The wispy 1960s acoustics of “Whispering Pines” are put to good use on the album, as always, with pseudo-vintage production adding another layer to the character-driven mystique. Long Lost isn’t just another LP for Lord Huron; it’s an entire event and one that they pull off remarkably well.
7. Amythyst Kiah – Wary + Strange [Rounder]
In Wary + Strange, Amythyst Kiah gloriously reclaims folk’s Black heritage, invoking it with rock ‘n’ roll swagger along the way. The LGBTQ+ singer-songwriter speaks against racial and religious hypocrisy while also touching on other inward-looking, personal interludes. Kiah immediately establishes her vibrant, individualistic identity with “Soapbox” and aptly bookends the album with a folk-soul, slow-jam reprise. In between, she stuns with the shimmering “Black Myself”—which she had previously arranged for Our Native Daughters—and the juxtaposition of dreamy, aural arrangements with darker, deeply personal overtones (“Wild Turkey”, “Firewater”).
Her sincerity with this heavy subject matter elevates a work already held in high regard by her firecracker delivery and incredible musical adaptability. Whether she’s veering more towards folk, soul, rock, or a rolling western, Kiah holds her head high. She may not have all of the answers, but the progress made is noteworthy. Wary + Strange feels like a chronicle of continued self-assurance.
6. Joy Oladokun – in defense of my own happiness [Amigo]
Folk influences whisper down every hall of Joy Oladokun’s cinematic pop triumph, in defense of my own happiness. An album years in the making, its timely 2021 release comes just as the singer-songwriter begins to reach new heights. It’s been a whirlwind year for the Casa Grande artist—from receiving a grant from the YouTube Black Voices Fund, signing with Amigo, touring with Jason Isbell, and more.
Coolly interwoven with R&B and rock influences, for good measure, in defense of my own happiness is thinker’s folk-pop. Production is crisp, and arrangements are easily accessible yet meticulously crafted. It’s Oladokun’s magnificent heart that takes center stage, though, with her songs coming off as her meditations as a Black, LGBTQ+ woman. Her clap-along breakout single, “sunday”, is an uplifting celebration of queer joy and love. On the other side of the coin, “i see america” highlights the unfortunate realities of systemic racism. The most folk-forward track, “heaven from here”, features Penny and Sparrow and beautifully muses on mortality.