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Best Folk and Americana Albums of 2011

A look at some of the best new folk and Americana CDs


Folk/Americana artists dropped new albums at a ridiculous rate in 2011. We saw the return of great long-time favorites like Gillian Welch and Paul Simon (who released two collections into the world this year - an album of new material and a box set). There were also some incredible debuts by newer artists like the Milk Carton Kids and formidable releases from artists who are just beginning to hit their stride (like my number one pick for the Best Folk Album of 2011). So, without further ado, I give you the Best Folk Music CDs of 2011...

1. Abigail Washburn - 'City of Refuge'

Abigail Washburn - City of Refuge
© Rounder

Abigail Washburn has spent the last several years gathering a considerable following across the world, through various different projects. Working with the likes of Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, and Ben Sollee (as the Sparrow Quartet), not to mention her collaboration with Kai Welch on City of Refuge, has only added to the complexity and artistry she seems to naturally embody. Washburn's collaboration with Welch combines of folk, old time, Chinese folk music, indie pop, and various other styles into one cohesive artistic statement which is compelling from the album's opening note to its last. It's for that reason exactly that City of Refuge stayed on my speakers for months after its release, and is likely to be one of the only folk releases of 2011 to which I'm likely to return in the coming years.

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2. Various - 'Note of Hope: A Celebration of Woody Guthrie'

Note of Hope - A Celebration of Woody Guthrie
© 429 Records
2012 will be a year full of celebration in the folk music world, as it would be Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. To kick things off a little bit early, though, the fine folks at 429 Records pulled together a remarkable cast of some of the best American folksingers to pay tribute to the genre's greatest troubadour. Here are performances and spoken word pieces featuring everyone from Pete Seeger and Ani DiFranco to Studs Terkel and Chris Whitley, and beyond. It's a tremendous collection of Woody's songs and stories, and a fitting celebration of his life and legacy.

3. Paul Simon - 'So Beautiful or So What'

Paul Simon - So Beautiful or So What
© Concord Records
Paul Simon's 11th studio album demonstrates what it is which separates this hugely influential singer-songwriter from the scores of other artists forging a path in contemporary folk music over the past half-century. Pulling together musical elements from around the world, Paul Simon's lyricism is, as always, front and center. So Beautiful was one of two releases from the storied songwriter in 2011, but it was one of his most artistically successful collections since Graceland dropped more than two decades ago. The songs from So Beautiful could be taken on their own, for sure, but as individual parts of a more cohesive album, they're emotionally stirring and provocative. Easily one of the finest statements of the year.

4. Sarah Jarosz - 'Follow Me Down'

Sarah Jarosz - Follow Me Down
© Sugar Hill Records
Sarah Jarosz's 2009 debut, Song Up In Her Head, was a surprisingly mature and creative statement from an artist who was, at the time, barely at the end of her teen years. The disc's follow-up, Follow Me Down, takes a more daring direction, veering from her traditional roots. But, the result is an imaginative collection of richly personal songs. It's also easily one of the year's finest Americana recordings.

5. Gillian Welch - 'The Harrow & the Harvest'

Gillian Welch - The Harrow and the Harvest
© Acony Records
It's hard to approach a review of Gillian Welch's The Harrow and the Harvest with anything resembling objectivity. For one, I'm a fan. Also, her last studio recording - Soul Journey - dropped in 2003. That disc was fantastic, but not as critically acclaimed as its predecessor Time (the Revelator) (widely considered not only Welch's finest effort to date, but also one of the best of that decade). It's been eight years - a remarkably long breath between releases, given the amount of new music most fans consume in the course of any given month. But, it's worth the wait.

6. Milk Carton Kids - 'Prologue'

Milk Carton Kids - Prologue
© Milk Carton Kids
It was Prologue which moved me to place the Milk Carton Kids atop my list of the Best New Folk Artists of 2011. Similarly to the work of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, the Milk Carton Kids construct their entire artistic vision using only two voices and two guitars. What they create using such simple tools is music which is rather emotional without being sappy; surprising without gimmicks; and stirring without stirring up shmaltz.

7. Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings

Buddy Miller's Majestic Silver Strings
© New West Records
Majestic Silver Strings, Buddy Miller and his band of Americana all-stars dip deep into the annals of country and western music, reviving songs which have, in some cases, been all but forgotten by modern country. On hand are Bill Frisell, Marc Ribot, Greg Liesz, Patty Griffin, Julie Miller, Emmylou Harris, and more. That Buddy Miller happens to have impeccably talented friends is both a testament to and a reflection of his artistic prowess. Either his guitar, voice, songwriting, or producing skills (any or all of the above) have been behind many of the most notable projects out of this field in recent years.

8. Wailin' Jennys - 'Bright Morning Stars'

Wailin Jennys - Bright Morning Stars
© Red House Records
The Wailin Jennys have long been a fixture on the folk festival circuit, bringing beautiful three-part harmonies to their original contemporary songs. On Bright Morning Stars - their fourth studio album - the trio's emotionally daring lyrics traverse the precarious terrain of heartbreak. Fans of the Jennys will appreciate the beautiful arrangements and intimate lyricism, paired with adept, emotional instrumentation.

9. Chris Thile and Michael Daves - 'Sleep With One Eye Open'

Chris Thile & Michael Daves - Sleep With One Eye Open
© Nonesuch
Most folk fans would know Chris Thile either from his formative years with power trio Nickel Creek or from one of his various collaborations since. But, over the years, Thile's work has diverged ever and ever farther from his bluegrass roots - perhaps to the chagrin of hardcore mandolin pickers who prefer the instrument be used for Bill Monroe's music. Then, this year, Thile teamed up with Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Michael Daves for a duo album of traditional bluegrass tunes. It's hard to argue with playing this adept and harmonies this strong - a fact which no doubt pleased bluegrass traditionalists and contemporary fans alike.
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10. Matraca Berg - 'The Dreaming Fields'

Matraca Berg - The Dreaming Fields
© Dualtone Music

When she first appeared on the scene, Matraca Berg was one of the most promising up-and-coming singer-songwriters in Nashville. Her songs were heartbreaking and raw, honest and unapologetic, opening up to something so many artists don't have the courage to explore. But then life happened, and she wound up taking more than a decade off before her next full-length album. After that long "break", Berg returned this year with The Dreaming Fields - an emotional and intimate collection of starkly honest songs. There are few words which desribe this album more than "beautiful." 

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