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.

7. Gregory Alan Isakov – Appaloosa Bones (Dualtone)

Gregory Alan Isakov is a South African-born musician, now based outside of Boulder, Colorado, where he maintains a farm and helps grow produce for CSA members, local restaurants, and an area food bank. It’s on this property where his home studio is located and where Appaloosa Bones was conceived. Certainly, there are lovely country and folk touches dotted all around his music. But his somewhat dark, atmospheric arrangements are reminiscent of another low-key singer-songwriter, M. Ward, and his intelligent, eloquent songwriting seems to recall Josh Ritter (the latter a friend of Isakov’s, who he’s toured with extensively). Call Isakov the ultimate antithesis to boneheaded bro-country, if you will. Gregory Alan Isakov hasn’t reinvented the wheel – his style has been implemented by plenty of artists before and currently – but as Appaloosa Bones proves, few artists can do it as well as him. – Chris Ingalls

6. Pony Bradshaw – North Georgia Rounder (Independent)

Pony Bradshaw writes literate story songs set in the Deep South, where he comes from and currently lives. He poetically depicts the precise details without shining them up. Bradshaw doesn’t romanticize the towns, woodlands, and people as much as he exposes their unvarnished reality for a higher purpose. The same is true for the way he puts the words to simple melodies whose hooks lie in the way they seem unfinished and compel the listener to wait for the next line.  

That appeal can also be found in his rich baritone drawl. Bradshaw lets the words out slowly to give them a warm resonance. He’s a storyteller as much as he is a singer. He doesn’t strain for notes he cannot reach. Instead, he phrases his verses to add emphasis and drama to narratives about the people who inhabit the region. These aren’t stereotyped yokels but include the changing population of a region that doesn’t change as much as decay. – Steve Horowitz

5. Sunny War – Anarchist Gospel (New West)

As the oxymoronic album title suggests, Sunny War’s latest album is full of paradoxes. The blues, folk, country, punk, and rock artist finds that uncertainty in life is what gives living its flavor. The contradictions between what is meaningful and what is hopeless coexist. War sings about the dualism without necessarily taking sides. As someone with anarchic tendencies, she doesn’t assign hierarchies as much as to illustrate the connections between things like life, love, and other people. Her original tunes, such as “Love’s Death Bed” and “Test Dummy”, fit in well with covers of Van Hunt’s “Hopeless” and Ween’s “Baby Bitch”.   

War’s voice has a coarse edge with a slight drawl that suggests her rough past as a homeless drug addict in Southern California before returning to her native Nashville. She articulates each word to show the importance of details in the story songs that she sings. War also brilliantly plays the acoustic guitar in a variety of styles. There is a powerful directness in her music. The album was produced by Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff), who purposely accentuates the spaciousness of the sonics. Anarchist Gospel never sounds forced or hurried. – Steve Horowitz

4. David Dondero – Immersion Therapy (Fluff and Gravy)

David Dondero‘s “Immersion Therapy“, the title track of his latest record, imagines the singer being left alone “down at the bowling alley social anxiety immersion therapy group meeting”. Dondero’s long been a master of the ever-accumulating, lingering lyrical line, running chords down to their very last gasp just before they finally change. The whole of Immersion Therapy, like all Dondero records, is built with sparse and devastating songs, mostly three-chord affairs that are usually only dressed up with an occasional harmony or a Wurlitzer solo. And that is their brilliance, loaded equally with anxiety and altruism, all delivered with Dondero’s road-hewn warble.

On Immersion Therapy, David Dondero elegizes those moments of melancholy ever-present in our shared modern times. This is music for desolate days and hidden if dwindled optimism. And just like that harmonica on “Nacre Pericardium”, it’s sweet and sad and kind of perfect. – Avery Gregurich

3. Sufjan Stevens – Javelin (Asthmatic Kitty)

Over 20 years and a dozen or so albums, songwriter Sufjan Stevens has explored an array of sounds, usually stemming from his indie-folk center but traveling into electronica, baroque pop influences, and more. For Javelin, he draws on this wealth of experience for an album that uses every necessary tool over its short course without ever sounding overstuffed. The certainty of the music allows Stevens to follow a sort of quest, even if he avoids the sort of concept album he’s so often written. He looks for transcendence in a variety of places, knowing the hurt that comes in the search without relinquishing hope, a point brought home by his excellent cover of Neil Young’s “There’s a World”.

Part of the journey comes directly through asking questions, as in the beautiful and mature “Will Anybody Ever Love Me?” That song combines the hope and hurt that builds the album, but the tension appears almost immediately with “Goodbye Evergreen” as Stevens says farewell without relinquishing the love he holds. The song itself blends delicacy with abrasion, somewhat to mirror its emotional content but also to build the expansive platform the album requires. Javelin can be both uplifting and demanding, often simultaneously, but it never stumbles regardless of where it looks. – Justin Cober-Lake

2. Julie Byrne – The Greater Wings (Ghostly International)

Singer-songwriter Julie Byrne‘s first album in five years is her best work yet. Recorded with her long-time musical partner and collaborator Eric Littmann, The Greater Wings went unreleased after his untimely death. Finished last year, the record is a beautiful tribute to love and grief. 

Byrne writes folk music with a contemporary and minimal edge, pairing lush acoustic guitar with soft-spoken vocals and richly contemplative lyrics. The Greater Wings has all the same charms of her earlier work but goes further, incorporating strings, harps, synths, and an often epic scope. The effect is personal and worldly, grounded yet spiritual, and above all else, profoundly affecting. “I drank the air to be near to you, voices widen through the room, distant galaxy moon, I’m not here for nothing,” Byrne sings on the opening title track, demonstrating such ambitions in the album’s first lines.

The Greater Wings is sublime and difficult to fault. Fans of Byrne will be delighted and moved to hear her grow even further as an artist and songwriter, not least in her coming to terms with grief and pain. New listeners to Byrne will surely find an artist of great pathos and empathy whose talents may now get the wider hearing they deserve. – Alex Brent

1. Joy Oladokun – Proof of Life (Amigo / Verve Forecast / Republic)

Joy Oladokun offers inspirational anthems for a better world. She lights the light forward to a spiritual and material place where there is room for everyone. Oladokun grew up in a small town in Arizona, the daughter of pious Christian parents who were Nigerian immigrants. The influence of the church is clear in her music. She preached and led religious services while still a teenager. Her songs are infectious whether they move to an African beat, gospel call and response rhythms, or solo acapella. The lyrics are personal, heartfelt, and literate.  

Oladokun has experienced the pleasures and pain of life. On her fourth album, Proof of Life, the singer-songwriter declares the importance of being true to oneself.  As a gay, black woman from a rural pious municipality, the singer often felt isolated. Now she’s in her 30s, Oladokun sings confidently about her path. “I hate change / but I’ve come of age / and I’m finally finding my way,” she boldly sings in a straightforward voice. She may have learned her lessons the hard way, but the 16 cuts on this release provide proof that she can lead us all to be joyously together as individuals within a community. – Steve Horowitz