The 20 Best Folk Albums of 2018
Folk music in 2018 has kept the poignant storytelling elements so intimately knit into its fabric while introducing layers of new sonic and global influences.
As Cecil Sharp once inferred, folk music tends to swell in times of social and political turbulence. Henceforth, it may not come as a surprise that the genre has grown steadfastly in recent years. As the genre grows, folk music continues to broaden its horizons, surpassing and oftentimes subverting expectations laid down for it. Just as Americana continues to distinguish itself as a movement to country music's left, folk in 2018 has kept the poignant storytelling elements so intimately knit into its fabric while introducing layers of new sonic and global influences.
In writing this list, we have forgone many musicians our readers may be expecting—from Brandi Carlile (who features nicely in our Best Americana Albums of 2018) to Joan Baez. In doing so, this list illuminates how folk as a whole is changing while maintaining key elements. It is evident that folk's evolution distinguishes itself from that of Americana and commercialism alike. It's not all just strumming acoustic instruments in the woods—although new releases from Haley Heynderickx and Rebekah Rolland touch on themes of naturalism and preservation betwixt bold confrontations and historical reflections, respectively. PopMatters' first best folk feature could not come at a more active time for the genre. Folk is a movement that highlights valuable stories, platforms worth elevating, and a musical culture to cultivate in scintillating new ways.
20. Mountain Man - Magic Ship (Nonesuch)
Other entries on this list may have earned their spot in no small part due to sonic innovations. As far as Mountain Man's Magic Ship goes, however, it has more to do with straight-shooting. Innocent and unadorned with frills as it may be, the female folk trio's magic comes in their simplicity, as often evidenced throughout their new album. Meeting their strikingly calm delivery with pitch-perfect precision, Mountain Man aims to envelop listeners in an endearing sweetness and subtlety which they effortlessly produce throughout their efforts here. The trio are more concerned with the mundanity of everyday life as it offers itself to lovely tracks as "Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning", and it is indeed magic in how easily they manage to ensnare one with their no-nonsense performances. For an album that spends as much time with its head up in the clouds dreaming of the journeys one could take instead of partaking in them, it captivates with its more straightforward beauties. It's plain in the most positive sense of the word, reflecting on subjects at hand that are more than likely relatable to the listener. It often teases with a sense of looming adventure but is never quite trite. — Jonathan Frahm
19. The Brother Brothers - Some People I Know (Compass)
While not the first band of brothers or acoustic duo to hit the stage in years come and gone, Adam and David Moss arrive on the scene with earnest and charming blue collar folk. Expelling many of the modern amenities that other acts use in making a splash in the folk realm today, the Brother Brothers are straight-shooting, emotionally-appealing singer-songwriters whose sense of innovation comes more in how well they articulate stories - many of them set against the backdrop of their Brooklyn home. Taking on elements of bluegrass, klezmer, and various other folk styles along the way, the twin artists naturally evoke a sense of nostalgic longing in their heart-aching crooning. While comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel are as unavoidable and evident as they are already copious, the Brother Brothers strike a separate sense of intrigue with folk tunes inspired by the likes of gentrification and immigration. There's plenty of love and loss to be had there, too, of course, and the Brother Brothers deliver each separate theme with as much sincerity and care as the next. They may not have quite hit their stride yet, but Some People I Know spells out tremendous promise for the burgeoning brothers. — Jonathan Frahm
18. Banjolectric — So Below (Self-released)
The banjo is a mainstay of the contemporary musical landscape indisputably due to folk music's popular appeal. However, the instrument's use is generally simplified as artists rely on the banjo to add a twangy accent to their musical creations. Yet for Gregory Mulkern, the banjo impresario behind Banjolectric, the instrument is a complex musical machine capable of recasting listeners' expectations.
Banjolectric's postmodern spin to the traditional folk instrument is captured in the EP So Below. Mulkern takes a two-pronged approach to the album. He maintains an identifiable roots sound but then shatters familiarity by including funk, hip-hop, and global music elements. All these components are rendered by the banjo seemingly unimaginable until experienced. But Mulkern is not content with simply keeping the banjo within the standardized stringed instrumentation arena. He also uses the five-string instrument to relay the banjo's unused capacity to add percussion or a steady stream of supportive ambient noises. A skilled musician, Mulkern is also an accomplished songwriter and vocalist. The lyrics throughout So Below resemble poignant ballads while reciting emphatic au courant themes. As such, Banjolectric pays tribute to the instruments illustrious role in folk music history while using the contemporary moment to expand the banjo's sonic capacity. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
17. First Aid Kit — Ruins (Columbia)
First Aid Kit's fourth album, Ruins, extols transformation. The Swedish indie-folk marvels Klara and Johanna Söderberg wield the album to assuage both personal and professional catastrophe and resolution. Coming off the success from their 2014 album Stay Gold, the sisters found themselves at a familial and musical impasse. Further, Klara was recovering from a staggering break-up. Due to relentless touring demands in addition to the infighting and heartache, the two needed space before they could reunite as a creative entity. Ruins, released in January, was the result of the reconciliation.
Arguably, their recovery from devitalization lends itself to Ruins timeless folk energy. The lyrics exemplify a cool disenchantment unquestionably residual from their hiatus between albums. Threaded throughout the album is a steely and twangy honky-tonk energy that finds the sisters crossing over into unsullied country music terrain. The duo's voices are crystalline and sire clarion calls making it hard to believe they were not raised in the southwestern United States. Ruins coalesce ballads, waltzes, and blues thereby accomplishing an absolute vintage vibe. Ruins transcend First Aid Kit from the realms of pop-Americana into full-fledged folk-country musicians. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
16. Carolina Story — Lay Your Head Down (Black River Americana)
Ben and Emily Roberts, the married duo who make up Carolina Story, almost quit the music business citing a feeling of stagnation. Yet spurred by creativity's siren song, the duo released Lay Your Head Down in July. Endowed with intelligent narratives and heartfelt lyrics, the album's use of vibrant melodies and down-home harmonies echoes bygone musical folk eras.
There is a resounding influence from the 1960s folk revival movement heard throughout the album. Carolina Story's use of a harmonica creates a gratifying counterpoint to the euphonious and mellow vocals. In the folk tradition, Lay Your Head Down balances umbrage with optimism. The track "Gold" and "My Feet Keep Moving Still" acknowledge the commonality of ennui while confidently striving towards optimism. For Carolina Story, the search for solace results from introspection but is also inspired by nature. Lay Your Head Down finds Carolina Story evoking natural imagery that melds with their emotive lyrics. For example, in the title track and "Set in Stone", the emphasis on nature exhibits a return to an agrarian existence and a renunciation of mass consumption. Carolina Story's music exalts the belief that optimism and melancholy are not mutually exclusive. Lay Your Head Down meaningfully documents the ability to shift from self-doubt to perseverance to passion. — Elisabeth Woronzoff