When considering some of the new folk and Americana albums due out in 2011, it's easy to see the variant styles and directions modern folk music has gone. We have everything from straight-up bluegrass to indie folk, singer-songwriters, and traditional-style country music. It's also full of exciting new artists, whose names may not yet be familiar to you. So, make a note of these hot albums to watch in 2011.
The Decemberists - 'The King Is Dead' (Jan. 18)
Portland-based indie folk troupe the Decemberists have been one of the greatest trendsetters, and most visible bands, in the ongoing evolution of indie folk. Pulling largely from a traditional storytelling style and rural imagery, the Decemberists make folk music palatable to the indie rock crowd. The King Is Dead is said to be a collection of simple country-infused tunes. Appropriate, considering so many indie folk bands seem to have rediscovered the folkiness of old country songwriters like Hank Williams. No doubt this will be a critics' favorite in 2011.
Amos Lee - 'Mission Bell' (Jan. 25)
It's been a bit of a while since Amos Lee has made waves in the folk world, but his 2011 release is sure to turn more than a few heads. Just considering the list of guest artists who appear on the disc, is enough to churn up interest: Lucinda Williams, Willie Nelson, Sam Beam (Iron & Wine), Priscilla Ahn, Pieta Brown, James Gadson, and backing band extraordinaire Calexico. Throw all that together with Lee's signature soulful vocals and passionate lyricism, and this is definitely an album to watch for.
Iron & Wine - 'Kiss Each Other Clean' (Jan. 25)
Iron and Wine started as the brainchild of singer-songwriter Sam Beam with a series of hushed, whispery contemporary folk EPs, and has evolved into a full-band exploration of various styles of American music. According to Beam, Kiss Each Other Clean will veer a little from his singer-songwriter beginnings, roping in some synth and horn sounds, and leaning toward a more '70s-style easy rock flair. It might scare off some of his folkier fans, but then again, may also reach an ever wider audience.
Bobby Long - 'A Winter Tale' (Feb. 1)
English singer-songwriter Bobby Long follows the long tradition of the contemporary folk singer-songwriter, easily drawing comparisons to folks like Jackson Browne and Cat Stevens. Now on ATO Records (the folks who bring you Patty Griffin), Long is poised to be a darling of the 2011 American folk circuit.
Todd Snider - 'The Storyteller' (Feb. 1)
It will have been two years since Todd Snider released his critically acclaimed latest album of new material, The Excitement Plan. This new disc, however, will be a double-live recording featuring the wryly-witted singer-songwriter doing what he does best: performing live in concert. Whether or not you've ever caught a Todd Snider show, no doubt this album will be a solid investment.
Hayes Carll - 'KMAG YOYO' (Feb. 15)
Texas-based singer-songwriter Hayes Carll earned the Americana Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2010. Though he's been around for some time, it's a nice little stamp of approval and an underscoring of his excellent songwriting. No doubt KMAG YOYO will pick up where his previous release, 2008's Trouble in Mind left off. Which is to say it'll be full of stirring story-songs replete with candid imagery and truthful humor.
The Low Anthem - 'Smart Flesh' (Feb. 22)
The Low Anthem's 2009 release, Oh My God, Charlie Darwin, was one of the most buzzed-about indie folk recordings of the year, so it almost goes without saying that critics will leap at the opportunity to discuss Smart Flesh. The disc was apparently produced by Mike Mogis of Bright Eyes fame, and is sure to build on the inventive soundscapes the band asserted on their Nonesuch debut. If you missed the Low Anthem the first time around, don't make the same mistake again.
Cave Singers (Feb. 22)
The Cave Singers are easily one of Seattle's finest exports - another band (like the Decemberists) who could be considered entry-level Americana for the indie rock crowd. The trio's live shows are some of the most energetic and infectious I've seen of late, and the material from their forthcoming release (the title of which has not yet been released) is considerably more unleashed than their last, Welcome Joy. If you've yet to cotton to the Cave Singers, you won't want to miss this release.
Lucinda Williams - 'Blessed' (Mar. 1)
Lucinda Williams has always been known for writing some of the most scathing and honest heartbreak and sad songs around. These days, though, she's found love, and her music has started reflecting the life and times of a happy, blessed woman. Her forthcoming disc Blessed will no doubt continue on that slightly-more-optimistic trend. A deluxe version of the album will also include a bonus CD, featuring home recordings Lu made the day these songs were written. Definitely a deluxe album worth springing for.
Town Mountain (March)
Asheville, NC-based Town Mountain is one of my favorite up-and-coming bluegrass bands that I've seen a couple of times at the annual Pickathon festival in Portland, OR. They straddle that fine line between traditional and contemporary bluegrass, all the while delivering sharp and dexterous instrumentation. No specific date or title yet on this release, but it'll be worth looking for come March 2011.
Zoe Muth (April)
Listening to Zoe Muth's classic country-flavored music, you may be surprised to know she was born and raised in Seattle. She came up listening to John Prine, Bob Dylan, and the Louvin Brothers, and writes some of the most clever twangy story-songs you'll hear. Newly signed to Signature Sounds (the folks responsible for Eilen Jewell and Crooked Still...so she's in good company), Muth will release her sophomore album sometime in April. In the meantime, if you're curious, her self-titled, self-released debut is well worth a listen.
Fleet Foxes (unspecified 2011 release)
The Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut was widely considered one of the best albums of any genre by critics and fans far and wide. It'll be big shoes to fill for the Seattle-based quartet, but I have a sneaking suspicion they'll deliver. No doubt the disc will be full of more choral-like lush harmonies over simple arrangements and thoughtful lyrics. The disc doesn't yet have a title or a specific release date, but hopefully we'll get to hear it sooner than later.