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Best Folk Music Albums of 2013

A brief look at the best folk, roots, and Americana albums

By

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.

Jason Isbell - 'Southeastern'

Jason Isbell - Southeastern
© Southeastern Records
Jason Isbell has always been a gifted songwriter, whether he's been writing for seminal alt-country band the Drive-By Truckers or for his own 400 Unit. But, with Southeastern, he seems to have turned a corner, steering his way to take a place among great story-songwriters like Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. These candid songs about life's various struggles - from addiction to cancer and falling in love, and beyond - are equal parts heartbreaking and dripping with undying hope. Then, of course, there's Isbell's remarkable guitar playing and his poet's eye toward the things that matter most. Every critic and blogger interested in singer-songwriter music has been glued to this record since it dropped, and with good reason. It's quite possibly the best of the year.

Aoife O'Donovan - 'Fossils'

Aoife O'Donovan - Fossils
© Yep Roc
Similarly to Jason Isbell, Aoife O'Donovan has always been a remarkable songwriter, albeit a different kind of songwriter. The tunes she penned for now-defunct indie roots troupe Crooked Still showed off her fondness for the creative use of dynamics. But, as her first solo full-length album Fossils attests, she's also quite good at writing catchy songs without choruses. The disc is full of them, beautifully wrought stories and intensely personal reflections, told through delicate and easy melodies, backed by some of the finest grooves from any backing band thus far this year.

Holly Williams - 'The Highway'

Holly Williams - The Highway
© Georgiana Records
Holly Williams's family line is one of the most famous in mainstream country music. From her grandfather to her father, her half-brother and beyond. She scored her own successes on Music Row at the beginning of her career, heading down the same highway traversed by those before. But then there was a car accident and the ensuing time off. She took the reins back from her career and focused her voice on this incredible songwriter disc. A clear departure from her country roots, "The Highway" walks the same line Hank Sr. trod when he borrowed from traditional folk music to come up with some of the most timeless classics. Of course, Holly delivered it all with a slew of polished session players and high-quality production, but the truth inside the songs is impossible to miss. Besides, "Waiting on June" will flat-out break your heart.

Patty Griffin - 'American Kid'

Patty Griffin - American Kid
© New West Records
Patty Griffin is easily one of the finest songwriters of her generation, pulling together elements of folk, pop, gospel, and the blues throughout her many records. But, with American Kid, she turned her keenly, creatively observant eye on her own father, examining his life and ideas after his passing. As a result, the disc grapples with some of the most interesting areas of wonder - from what our parents were like before we came along, to questions of faith and commitment. All of this is written in Griffin's trademark parable-teller way, through her glorious and powerful vocals.

Milk Carton Kids - 'The Ash & Clay'

MilkCartonKidsAshClay.jpg
© Anti- Records

 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. 

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - 'Child Ballads'

Anais Mitchell & Jefferson Hamer - Child Ballads
© Wilderland Records

 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 - 'Build Me Up from Bones'

SarahJaroszBuildMeUp.jpg
© Sugar Hill Records

 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. 

Elephant Revival - 'These Changing Skies'

ElephantRevivalChangingSkies.jpg
Itz Evolving/Thirty Tigers

 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. 

Pharis & Jason Romero - 'Long Gone Out West Blues'

PharisJasonRomero.jpg
(self)

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 - 'Bittersweet'

Alice Gerrard - Bittersweet
© Spruce and Maple Music

 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.

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