Best Folk Albums of 2023
Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

The 15 Best Folk Albums of 2023

The best folk albums of the year are an eclectic lot brought to us by long-time notables, indie greats, and artists taking folk music in new directions.

15. The Milk Carton Kids – I Only See the Moon (Far Cry)

The Milk Carton Kids’ I Only See the Moon is a true album – each track knows about the other songs around it, gently pushing and pulling at their lyrical and instrumental angles. Subtler connections, like a recurring notion of the past and the future being as fragile as the present, run throughout I Only See the Moon. Sometimes, this is something to rejoice in (“North Country Ride”), sometimes it presents an impending catastrophe (“Will You Remember Me”), and sometimes it signals eroding hope (“One True Love”). The idea is visible from multiple angles, shapeshifting depending on the narrative perspective and instrumentation: a genuine examination of the loneliness produced by fleetingness.

I Only See the Moon‘s highlight is “Wheels and Levers”. The vocal harmony is already something to write home about, with Pattengale using his falsetto to add drama to Ryan’s humble delivery. But the marquee event is the instrumental break, in which Ryan’s accompaniment trends downwards as Pattengale’s solo endlessly and fruitlessly fights Ryan’s gravity as it climbs the minor scale. At the end of the solo, Pattengale scoots back down the ladder, giving up in time for a verse about love fading in time. – Jeremy Levine

14. Bonnie “Prince” Billy – Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You (Drag City)

Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You is ultimately a record of arguments and counterarguments drawn from wisdom earned through marriage, not through wanderlust as in Will Oldham’s past. “I am singing destruction, I’m happy today,” he says in “Like It or Not”, disclosing an approach of holding two opposing thoughts simultaneously. Backing female vocals frequently enhance the familial quality of this LP, which are in turn counterbalanced by lines like “The end of the world isn’t going away.” Indeed, the pleasantness of the music often stands in contrast with the lyrics, unlike his earlier recordings, where they tended to overlap.

“Everyone walks to a certain point, then turns around” is the first line of Keeping Secrets Will Destroy You. “How far you go just depends on the time that you’ve got.” Oldham may be messaging a set of artistic limits, perhaps even a growing sense of his mortality. It may also relate to the life restraints we willingly succumb to. This record isn’t about the old, weird America but is partly about the normie, suburban America that pervades places like Louisville and our present more generally. – Christopher J. Lee

13. Hannu Saha & Pakasteet – Taas kerran, äkkiä (Bafe’s Factory)

In the hands of Hannu Saha, the kantele–a five-stringed lap harp from Finland with a history that may span millennia–is as contemporary an instrument as it is traditional, whether in one of his solo compositions or in collaboration with other artists. Electronic duo Pakasteet, meanwhile, does work that spans both genres and media. Made up of musician and producer Jussi Lehtisalo and film director and visual artist Mika Taanila, Pakasteet make avant-garde sound art with synths, tapes, and the odd zither, among other things. On Taas kerran, äkkiä, Saha and Pakasteet bring their complementary styles of innovation together in making five electrifying tracks, each one a unique permutation of elements old and new. The results are dazzling. – Adriane Pontecorvo

12. Beirut – Hadsel (Pompeii)

Beirut‘s Zach Condon first saw the organ in the church back in 2019 on the Norwegian island of Hadsel, when his life was in a valley. Or, more appropriately, a fjord. He says his time there was marked between each simmering, “hours-long” twilight. Over the last four years, he’s taken those initial ideas born from his time spent on the island and composed full arrangements, resulting in Beirut’s sixth studio album, Hadsel. In the time and records since Beirut’s 2006 debut, Gulag OrkestarCondon has grown the project into a multi-member recording and touring outfit. Hadsel marks a return to Beirut’s singular origins, with Condon writing, playing, and recording every sound and instrument across the album’s 12 tracks. 

The songs reflect this, each track a sonic rumination built mainly out of organ chords and anchored by the beat of ancient analog drum machines. Condon’s now trademark slightly-askew choir harmonies and uniquely compelling trumpet and ukulele pairings are all here, propelling these ruminations toward something like a resolution. Whether or not Condon gets there is uncertain, but the journey is undoubtedly one worth hearing. – Avery Gregurich

11. Josh Ritter – Spectral Lines (Thirty Tigers)

The prevailing mood of Josh Ritter‘s latest album could be accurately described as haunting. From the initial “ooooh” that opens to the final lingering chord and silence that closes the record, and everywhere in between, the ambiance is ethereal. There’s something mysterious going on between the Spectral Lines.

The ten songs are musically linked in tone but not necessarily in the stated topic. The lyrics are poetic and metaphoric. The narrator is frequently on the run, atop a horse, floating on a boat, or zooming in on a rocket. He’s in a field of “Sawgrass”, in the ocean or out in space. There are no specific clues as to when everything takes place. Still, there are references to the past, present, and future. Time is important, as in time passing and what’s ahead, but not the details of another world. – Steve Horowitz

10. Gia Margaret – Romantic Piano (Jagjaguwar)

Gia Margaret refers to her musical style as “sleep rock”. There is truth to this description, given that her compositions are mostly instrumentals played in an unobtrusive manner. In contrast to rock pianists who overcompensate through raucous playing (Jerry Lee Lewis is the paradigm here), Margaret dials it way down, approaching Erik Satie in tone and volume. In terms of theme, Romantic Piano is about the restorative power of solitude. She references the German word waldeinsamkeit (“the feeling of being alone in a forest”) to explain her approach.

The result is an album so modest that it risks obscurity. However, when listened to attentively, it illuminates a forgotten world. Field recordings of a rainstorm, a person walking, birdsong, children playing, and cicadas at night accompany her piano melodies, hovering like memories. A rare vocal track like “City Song” is quietly show-stopping. Romantic Piano unfailingly reveals the numinous in the everyday. – Christopher J. Lee

9. Fränder – II (Nordic Notes)

Based in Sweden, Fränder are an excellent example of one of the newer acts to join this more globally-minded Northern European folk contingent. On their second album, Fränder II, they bring a kaleidoscopic perspective to the scene by braiding together Scandinavian and Baltic traditions with substantial global folk-rock in contemporary arrangements that are, if not entirely unprecedented, heartfelt and fresh.

With the exception of an intricately rearranged Estonian folk song (“Õhtu õrna”, where Fränder’s vocal harmonies fully come together), the texts here are all original works on familiar themes of love, longing, heartbreak, and home, with rich nature imagery. Wind, rain, and sun represent anguish on the whirlwind opening track, “Evigt regn”, while a moonlit lake sets the scene for a triumph of patience on the blissful closer, “Under ditt hjärta”. Passion reigns across the record. Album highlight “En sommerkväll” builds slowly, lust boiling over into bittersweet swirls of flute and fiddle as Gabbi strums his låtmandola with growing resolve. The two-part suite “Kom till mig, jäg väntar” is thick with it, the hazy, bass-laced desire of the first part shifting into a frenzy for the second. – Adriane Pontecorvo

8. This Is the Kit – Careful of Your Keepers (Rough Trade)

This Is the Kit’s latest Careful of Your Keepers is no exception to the outstanding music that Kate Stables and primary bandmates, drummer Jamie Whitby-Coles, bassist-singer Rozi Plain, and guitarist Neil Smith, have consistently created since the start. The wide-open beauty of Stables’ voice, the cleverness of her lyrics, and her finger-picked guitar (and banjo) charm anyone who listens.

One of Careful of Your Keepers‘ singles, “More Change”, in particular, keeps a steady jazz pace with the support of drummer Whitby-Coles, who is reminiscent of John Densmore of the Doors on the track. The lyrics muse about a friendship that seems to bump up against the complication of something more: “If we’re holding hands, will anybody see? If we’re holding hands, will we walk at the same speed? If we’re holding hands, will we manage not to laugh?” – Joanna McNaney Stein