If there's any single running theme emerging from American folk music this year, it's storytelling. Granted, the genre is never wanting for great stories, but past years have seen artists dabbling in sweeping soundscapes and experimentation, with large lineups and commentary on the world outside their door. This year, there's a definite trend of truth-telling songwriters delving deep into their own hearts and minds, the things affecting those closest to them, and singing from a place which exposes the common struggles of all of us. From grappling with addiction to cancer, figuring out who your parents were, finding your voice, aging, and learning how to move on...the folk music that made a mark this year was incredibly personal.
Milk Carton Kids have been building themselves a pretty solid career since bursting on the scene, offering all their music for free from their website, and setting out for a couple of world tours. Their music hasn't ventured beyond two voices and two guitars; they've simply gotten stronger and better at what they were aiming for all along. The Ash & Clay cements their place as far more than just a promising up-and-coming band. These days, they're far more easily considered a force in the millennial folk boom, because of the arresting honesty and simplicity of these beautiful songs.
The ballads collected by Francis James Child have been done many times before. There was nothing particularly stirring about the fact that Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer dug them up for another round of reinterpretations. What was astonishing about this disc was the care with which they delivered the old stories, the dangerously tight harmonies, and their straightforward, well-considered arrangements. As far as traditional folk music goes, this year there was no finer release.
Sarah Jarosz is a major talent, and her third album on Sugarhill Records was, unsurprisingly, exquisite. From navel-gazing coming of age tunes to whimsically mysterious tunes of exploration, to straight-up eyebrow-raising instrumentals, this recording got everything right.
Borne of the very different, energetic music scenes of Oklahoma and Colorado, Elephant Revival is apparently all about variant, energetic music. They're another band who's built itself on a firm foundation of tight harmonies and layers of acoustic instruments. But, where previous efforts have verged more on the jam band side of things These Changing Skies was a more solid, personal artistic vision. And, what's more, it suits just about any mood.
While the rest of the world waxes on and on about the folk music boom and Americana music, gushing over what can be done with acoustic muisc, artists like Pharis & Jason Romero are getting oddly overlooked. This collection of story-songs was full of introspective, beautifully executed straight-up folk music. Evoking images of the old west, the husband-wife duo delivered a collection of tunes that represent the new west, in all its booming, breezing, guitar-toting glory.
Alice Gerrard is, without question, one of the great artists of contemporary folk history. From her time as one-half of the illustrious duo Hazel & Alice, to her contributions to the old time music community over the past several years, until this, her first ever full-length recording of all original songs. But the fact that she's already made remarkable contributions to folk music isn't the reason she made this list. Bittersweet is full of one great song after another, all catchy and heartfelt and heartbreaking at once. There's not a single bad moment on the disc.