Best Folk of 2006

2006 was a banner year for folk music. Sunday editions of major newspapers like the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune featured lengthy articles on the resurgence of the genre, while more underground publications like the Village Voice and Pitchfork Media ran stories about the up-and-coming folk movement. Big box stores and independent outlets alike displayed CDs by fresh young folkies and old-timers as sales of the various artists climbed.

In fact, three of the most important folk rockers from the ’60s released new music to much acclaim: Bob Dylan’s Modern Times (Columbia), Neil Young’s Living With War (Reprise), and Paul Simon’s Surprise (Warner Bros.). All three are fine albums but none made it to this list, not because of their quality but because these discs owe much more to rock than they do to folk. This is not to ignore the fact that these three musicians have probably influenced almost every artist who did make the list. Ironically, one of rock’s most celebrated artists went folk this year, and his record (Bruce Springsteen’s The Seeger Sessions) is certainly worthy of note.

Defining just what constitutes folk music has become more difficult than ever. Critics have thrown around terms like country-folk (Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins’ Rabbit Fur Coat), freak folk (Joanna Newsom’s Ys), indie folk (The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife), alternative folk (Beth Orton’s Comfort of Strangers), folk pop (Vetiver’s To Find Me Gone), anti-folk (Regina Spektor’s Begin to Hope), and singer-songwriter folk (Thea Gilmore’s Harpo’s Ghost) to describe mostly acoustic music that owes a debt to folk music but whose hearts certainly belong to various rock subcultures. These artists and their fans would be unlikely to consider themselves true folkies, so why should I label them as such? Therefore, these wonderful albums are not included in the list of top ten folk CDs of 2006, although all of them could easily be included in a general top ten albums of the year list (and several made mine).

Then there are the twin phenomena of ethnic folk that is music of a non-English speaking culture, and country music. The first, usually referred to as world music, has yielded some fantastic records (Ali Farka Toure’s Savane) as well as bizarre recreations (the imaginative homemade fake-folk of Beirut’s Gulag Orkestar). World music’s disparate roots make it unfair to compare with the tradition of Western folk music. It’s like comparing apples and pomegranates. The differences between country and folk are trickier to distinguish. The two have always shared much in common despite their separate audiences. Think of Joan Baez singing the Carter Family songs one minute, and then poking mean fun at country music fans (i.e. “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man”) the next. Today, musicians who work in traditional country, (like Vince Gill, who released These Days this year) and country blues (Solomon Burke’s Nashville) seem to straddle that line, but no doubt their fans do not consider them folkies. And let’s not get sidestepped into the two thickets of Texas and bluegrass music. Let’s just say fine artists and albums like Butch Hancock’s War and Peace and/or the Duhks’ Migrations don’t quite fit in with the others presented. Comparing these would be more like likening whiskey and wine, and while they are each alcohol-laden spirits, they are not akin.

So without further ado, here’s the top ten folk records of 2006:

Artist: Ramblin’ Jack Elliott
Album: I Stand Alone
Label: Anti-
US Release Date: 2006-07-11
UK Release Date: 2006-07-10

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List number: 1

Tradition means a lot in folk music, and this guy has got it spades. There aren’t many people left who can claim to have hoboed America with Woody Guthrie and later toured with Dylan, but this isn’t why the 75 year-old Elliott heads the list. His latest record is a triumph in many ways, from its brilliant mix of talking blues, topical tunes, train songs, and strange, silly one-offs to Elliott’s hard-plucked guitar playing that sounds like a carpenter hammering nails on a frosty morn. At the center is Elliot’s pickled-in-whiskey voice, which reveals a crusty personality that’s seen and done it all and is ready to experience everything again. Whether he’s singing a love song with Lucinda Williams, clucking over Jean Harlow, complaining about arthritis, or moaning for his dog, this ramblin’ man knows that it’s important to suck all the marrow out of life that you can, even if it’s a funny bone you are sucking on.Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: I Stand Alone

Artist: Isobel Campbell
Album: Milkwhite Sheets
Label: V2
US Release Date: 2006-11-07
UK Release Date: 2006-10-23

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List number: 2

This cello-playing Scottish lass sings and plays traditional English and Scottish ballads and self-penned ones that sound like authentic old tunes with a bittersweet smoothness that makes one want to head to the heather and lie down and dream. Campbell understands the importance of quiet and simple arrangements to the creation of intense thoughts and feelings. She often lets her cello plead her case and sings in hushed tones, often about yearnings of the heart. Campbell knows that her gentle expressions yield an intimacy, whether she’s telling a fairy tale-like story about a romp in the woods with a wild wolf or performing an instrumental narrative of eros that defies the boundaries of what mere words can say. The disc is a masterwork of understated beauty.Isobel Campbell: Milkwhite Sheets

Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Album: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions
Label: Columbia
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US Release Date: 2006-04-25
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24

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List number: 3

When the Boss first started his recording career, he complained loudly that his first album was mixed to make him sound like a new Dylan instead of a rocker. This time, the comparisons between Springsteen and early Dylan are more deserved as the New Jersey native selects a baker’s dozen of Pete Seeger-associated songs, gets a band of rowdy players, and lays down some serious folk tracks like “Old Dan Tucker”, “Erie Canal”, and “John Henry”. The results suggest that a good time was had by all. There’s not a trace of sanctimonious self-righteousness, but a lot of banjo pickin’, off-kilter singing, and wild tempos that tend to veer towards the ragged-but-right school of playing. Springsteen and company even transcend the seriousness of “We Shall Overcome” by performing the protest song as a hopeful psalm rather than its more common arrangement as a martial dirge.Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions

Artist: Chris Smither
Album: Leave the Light On
Label: Signature Sounds
US Release Date: 2006-09-19
UK Release Date: Available as import

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List number: 4

This New Orleans native’s roots in the blues serves him well. He spins yarns about everything from the origins of life to the dangers of consumer culture with verve and wit while he fingers his acoustic guitar like the blues players from the past that he emulates, especially his hero, Lightnin’ Hopkins. This gives his songs a deep emotional resonance that complements the clever ideas expressed. Smither has been doing this kind of thing for several decades and has a slew of fine albums on various labels, but this one is particularly notable because the self-penned songs are especially well written (“Diplomacy”, “Origin of Species”) and the covers (Peter Case’s “Cold Trail Blues”, Dylan’s “Visions of Johanna”) are particularly well performed.Chris Smither: Leave the Light On

Artist: Bert Jansch
Album: Black Swan
Label: Drag City
US Release Date: 2006-10-17
UK Release Date: 2006-09-18

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List number: 5

Neil Young once called Bert Jansch the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar, but the UK musician had all but disappeared from scene during the last few decades. Thanks to the persistence of his young admirers he has released a new album in America that features him performing a variety of folk and blues styles with panache. He can play slow, rich notes that linger, as on the title cut and the spiritual “Bring Your Religion”, and fast and clean as on the playful solo “Hey Pretty Girl”. Guest stars like Beth Orton and Devendra Banhart join Jansch on several cuts with much success, especially the haunting tale “Katie Cruel”, but the Scottsman and his guitar are really the stars here.Bert Jansch: Black Swan

Artist: Greg Brown
Album: The Evening Call
Label: Red House
US Release Date: 2006-08-08
UK Release Date: 2006-08-14

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List number: 6

This Iowa child may have moved to Kansas, but he’s still a Midwesterner and that perspective on the world still allows him to see things with a stubborn vision. He searches for meaning in his genealogy and the stars above, the open road and marital bed, and finds something useful everywhere he looks. That’s because he’s a natural observer who knows how to see things in ways that rise above their mundane contexts — or more precisely, he understands nothing is ever really mundane, whether it’s a watermelon seed or a cloudy sky. Brown’s gravelly voice expresses the richness of just plain living on the planet, like the thunder before a rainstorm. He takes you to places you’ve always been and already left and back again, especially on the six-minute travelogue “Eugene”.Greg Brown: The Evening Call

Artist: Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy
Album: Adieu False Heart
Label: Vanguard
US Release Date: 2006-07-25
UK Release Date: 2006-07-24

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List number: 7

Linda Ronstadt has successfully recorded many different musical styles from country and rock to jazz and show tunes and Latin, so it may not have seemed a big shock to hear her go Cajun. Ronstadt’s pairing with Ann Savoy, who is well-known within the Cajun music community, makes sense. But what is surprising is just how exquisitely their two voices blend together and the wonderful and odd selection of material they cover. Not only do the two beautifully harmonize on the Cajun songs, but they render British artist Richard Thompson’s “Burns Supper” and “King of Bohemia”, bluegrass king Bill Monroe’s “The One I Love Is Gone”, the gospel inflections of Texas singer Julie Miller’s “I Can’t Get Over You”, and the Left Banke’s classic ode to love lost, “Walk Away Renee”, into folk songs with sweet singing and big open spaces between the notes.Linda Ronstadt and Ann Savoy: Adieu False Heart

Artist: Slaid Cleaves
Album: Unsung
Label: Rounder
US Release Date: 2006-05-23
UK Release Date: 2006-06-12

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List number: 8

Slaid Cleaves has proved himself a talented songwriter over the years. He’s composed artful and literate tunes with strong melodies that showcase his intelligence and sense of humor. The same can be said of the material here, but with one big difference: He didn’t write any of these songs. On this disc he pays tribute to other folksingers by recording some of his favorite tracks that he didn’t write. The individuals and songs are largely unknown, but these cuts reveal that this is not because of their lack of talent. Cleaves has a great ear. Each selection is a winner, but especially notable are Chris Montgomery’s indignant ode to working class life, “Call It Sleep”, the wistful sadness of Peter Keane’s “Another Kind of Blue”, and the faded romance of Karen Poston’s “Flowered Dresses”.Slaid Cleaves: Unsung

Artist: The Be Good Tanyas
Album: Hello Love
Label: Nettwerk
US Release Date: 2006-10-10
UK Release Date: 2006-10-09

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List number: 9

With three female singers who don’t harmonize together as much as just sing at the same time, the Be Good Tanyas consistently defy expectations. That’s not because these women don’t have good voices. When they sing solo, as Frazey Ford does on the title cut, the result can be breathtaking. And at times, they do let their voices merge as one to good effect. But the Be Good Tanyas usually take a different approach. They are more interested in creating a raw sound, not as in punk rock, but as in unvarnished wood, an effect which is complemented by their acoustic instrumentation and uncomplicated lyrics. Individually, the three have penned some good songs here, and the one they wrote together (“Ootischenia”) is the best of the bunch. The band also performs an interesting choice of covers, including everything from Mississippi John Hurt’s weepy “Nobody Cares for Me” to Prince’s modern equivalent “When Doves Cry”.The Be Good Tanyas: Hello Love

Artist: Josh Ritter
Album: The Animal Years
Label: V2
US Release Date: 2006-04-11
UK Release Date: 2006-03-20

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List number: 10

Because Josh Ritter sings with such an earnest voice, it’s easy to overlook how strange and surreal his lyrics can be. This makes sense for a man unafraid to invoke the spirit of Laurel and Hardy, not to mention proffer a nine-minute-plus, two-chord rant called “Thin Blue Flame” whose collaged subject never really gets clearly defined. Yet Ritter manages to pull things off simply because he comes across so sincerely, whether he’s singing about what’s on the car radio (“Monster ballads and the stations of the cross”) or changing his life (“I gave up a life of crime / I gave it to a friend of mine”) or just howling over and over again, as in the magical “Wolves” where he repeats the lyrics “So long / So high” like a mantra to the open sky.Josh Ritter: The Animal Years

Honorable mentions: M.Ward, Post-War (Merge); José González, Veneer (Hidden Agenda); Jolie Holland, Springtime Can Kill You (Anti-); Damien Rice, 9 (Vector); Old Crow Medicine Show, Big Iron World (Nettwerk); Dan Bern, Breathe (Messenger); Chris Thile, How to Grow a Woman From the Ground Up (Sugar Hill); Mason Jennings, Boneclouds (Sony); the Handsome Family, Last Days of Wonder (Carrot Top); Maria Muldaur, Heart of Mine (Telarc); Will Kimbrough, Americanitis (Daphne).