Drinking game for you as you read this: take a shot every time I use the word “folk”. I’ll buy all these albums for whoever gets through the entire thing before falling asleep on their keyboard.
(Please don’t actually do this. I’m not about that life- the life of you getting drop-dead drunk or the life of buying twenty-five albums for anyone, even my loved ones.)
Links are to the albums on Spotify.
10. Heatstroke / The Wind and the War by KaiL Baxley: Music has always been a mishmash of genres, though it does seem like it has become more common to fill your sound with the echoes of disparate styles. Baxley’s album (really, a double EP) is an amalgamation of folk, blues, rock, gospel, even hip-hop. Some albums with all these sounds combined may come off as messy. But Baxley’s songs are tight, and the styles he draws from make for a cohesive vision. To paraphrase my good friend, Rust: music is a flat circle; everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.
9. Yeezus by Kanye West: Yeezus could not be more different from the other rap albums on this list. Where Beautiful Eulogy and Drake find their niche in quiet production and thought-provoking lyrics, West doubles down on the latter and obliterates the former. The instrumentation on Yeezus has been dubbed “industrial”, but that’s not quite accurate. A better word would be the one Daft Punk ascribed to it: “primal”. It’s the sound of rap being reborn.
8. Instruments of Mercy by Beautiful Eulogy: Beautiful Eulogy doesn’t sound like much of anything else. There are hints of A Tribe Called Quest in BE’s members and their chill flows, but Beautiful Eulogy are a style all their own. It suits them, the intellectual lyrics combined with the buoyant production. The three members (rappers Braille and Odd Thomas with producer Courtland Urbano) draw from all sorts of genres to fixate you on their honest ideas. The result is a thesis statement of uncommon joy.
7. The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake: Over a year after its release, I can’t help feeling this album was totally underrated at the time. Expectations were high, which, let’s be honest, was Timberlake’s doing, what with the neverending marketing campaign and the pretentious assertions in the media that he was reaching for “great music”. Now that we’re away from the hype machine, The 20/20 Experience sounds like truly great music without the ignominy of a lack of a hit single or the burden of pleasing the critics. It’s a slice of retro-soul with hooks from beginning to end.
6. Desire Like Dynamite by Sandra McCracken: It’s hard not to write about this album in the context of the hard year McCracken has had. She and her husband, Derek Webb (see below), announced their pending divorce in April. This album was released in January last year, over a year before. Webb appears on a few of the songs, and it’s always heartwrenching. But McCracken’s lyrics and beautiful voice are so powerfully focused on Christ’s return and the redemption he promises, it manages to convince you this music is an artistic triumph with effects that will outlast her personal turmoil.
5. Inland by Jars of Clay: Inland is Jars of Clay’s least gimmicky album yet. That’s not to say Jars of Clay has relied on gimmicks before this, only that you can look back on their discography and pigeonhole every single one of their albums: Jars of Clay is the precocious debut, Who We Are Instead is the folk record, Good Monsters is the rock record, The Long Fall Back to Earth is the one where they went electric, and The Shelter is their late-career, collaboration record. I suppose Inland is the mature record? But that implies the rest of them were somehow immature, and you could never say that about Dan Haseltine’s lyrics or the band’s musical prowess. Inland, as a whole, isn’t doing anything different soundwise, and it doesn’t strike me as covering different ground lyricwise. But the band seems less prone to angst, as if they’ve begun to fully embrace their role in providing encouragement to those younger than them. Okay, it’s official: Inland is their grandpa record.4. American Kid by Patty Griffin: Patty Griffin has operated on the fringes of the mainstream for so long, it’s easy to forget the influence she’s had. Artists from the Dixie Chicks to Miranda Lambert have covered her work. Taylor Swift writes Griffin’s lyrics on her arm at her concerts. You could argue the current Americana boom wouldn’t be possible without her; for all the fakers in the scene, her authenticity is responsible for the real deals. American Kid isn’t my favorite record of hers, but it seems like her most personal. Griffin’s father recently passed away, and his ghost is all over the album, directly in “Go Wherever You Wanna Go”, as she celebrates his freedom from this world, and indirectly in songs like “I Am Not a Bad Man” and “Don’t Let Me Die in Florida”, song in which she takes on the persona of a man striving to justify his existence. But nothing haunts this record more than Griffin’s voice; whether she sings from a character’s perspective or her own, her voice commands your attention.
3. Once I Was an Eagle by Laura Marling: It’s nice to have mystery in life. You’re not supposed to know everything about people, even the ones you love the most. You need a certain distance in order to remain relevant. Laura Marling lives in that distance. It’s the area between people who think they’re in love, but who learn they never really knew each other in the first place. It’s the space between the people in a one night stand after they’ve realized what they did together wasn’t worth the subsequent awkwardness as they lie in bed. It’s the nothingness at the center of the rolling stone’s many transient relationships. You wish for stability and steadiness for Marling. But then you worry she’d lose her poignancy, and you lose yourself in her album’s spare beauty.
2. Beyoncé by Beyoncé: I was going to write about Beyoncé when she first released it, but I struggled with what angle to take. It’s easy to write about anything you love, but it’s difficult to write about something you’re not sure you should love. But I already addressed my issues with the album’s sexuality in my Best Songs post, so I’d much rather take up this space with my love for the album. When Beyoncé was released out of nowhere last December, it felt like the purest pop statement imaginable, which is impossible considering how much money the Carter family is making right now. But Beyoncé eschewed the regular format for releasing an album, making it clear that this was hers; even if she didn’t write the songs, the full product, the album as a whole, the songs in their collected form (including the explicit videos, which I haven’t seen), are her statement. It’s a statement of feminism, yes, and a statement of a woman owning her sexuality, and a statement that pop music has taken a step back and it’s time to go forward. But more than that: it’s a statement that no one is going to unseat her as the queen.
1. Southeastern by Jason Isbell: Listen to an album enough times, and you begin to see the seams. The machine shows its gears a little bit at a time, and you sometimes lose appreciation for the song as you discover how it’s managed to hook you. This can’t happen with Southeastern. There’s nothing to hook you on this album. I supposed it has the allure of the Americana megalith that has become the new “alternative” to mainstream music, but Jason Isbell is outside of that. He had his break in Drive-By Truckers, which is an outfit full of people who couldn’t care less about trends; they made songs and whole albums about dead classic rockers during his tenure, as an example. Southeastern does have a convenient narrative- Isbell made it having been relatively newly sober and non-relatively married. But Isbell addresses his cleanness only once, in “Stockholm,” as he laments being enamored with his captor (in this case, addiction). The rest of the album is preoccupied with death, loss, and the end of things, with at least two songs about his funeral, at least two that address the deaths of the people around him, and one about a province in Australia. Closer “Relatively Easy” ties a bow on those themes, but not a pretty one; you come away from Southeastern supremely moved, and “Relatively Easy” is Isbell’s reminder not to get too worked up about death. Compared to the rest of the world, our lives are easy. Compared to the rest of the world, our deaths are probably easier too.
Another Fifteen (alphabetically by artist)
Doldrums by Andrew St James: Like early Bob Dylan if his home base was the Bay Area? I’d rather compared him to Van Morrison. His style is far more free-flowing and melodic than Dylan’s early-period, straight-laced protest folk.
Reflektor by Arcade Fire: One of the more obtuse albums of the year, and the most divisive. My feelings on Reflektor go back and forth; I’ll love it one listen, then feel ambivalence on the next listen. Regardless, Reflektor is an ambitious statement of a rock album that tackles subjects other bands are really willing to face head on in songs like “Porno” and “Afterlife”.
The Civil Wars by The Civil Wars: Civil Wars, we hardly knew ye. Who knows what really happened to Joy Williams and John Paul White, but whatever it was, you can hear it all over their self-titled second album. Spite, regret, and general darkness are just dripping from their words as they expand the depths of their acoustic folk sound from their first record with slow-roasting production.
The Rooster by David Ramirez: Your EP better be super good for me to include it on this list. Ramirez is an Austin singer-songwriter, specializing in blunt folk that either excoriates himself or certain trends he finds reprehensible, which is kind of what folk used to be if you think about it. Over the past year, his songs have connected with me with a consistency like no one else’s; if he had transferred this quality to a full album, it surely would have been near the top.
I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You by Derek Webb: This one hurts, though I won’t pretend to have any special insight into Webb’s relationship with McCracken (see above). But it’s hard to hear Webb sing so clearly about relationships with what sounds like wisdom and joy. Even so, the songs speak for themselves, and I Was Wrong is full of great ones.
Nothing Was the Same by Drake: He’s a better rapper than most of the rappers and a better singer than most of the singers; put that together, and what have you got? One Aubrey Drake Graham, whose Nothing Was the Same may not have been the cohesive thesis statement that Take Care was. But Nothing does have the greatest album cover of all time (arguably).
Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner: You could describe Turner’s sound pretty accurately as folk-punk, but this was the best pure rock album of the year. Turner sounds like the kind of man who needs to parse through his relationships’ demons by letting loose a little bit. If so, this album probably did the trick.
Quiet Frame; Wild Light by Golden Youth: Gungor released only one album last year, but you’d be forgiven for confusing Quiet Frame for one of theirs, especially since it’s better than I Am Mountain. Where Gungor found themselves caught up in abstract ideas rather than the straightforward gospel-sharing from their first two albums, Golden Youth keep it simple. In only seven songs, Quiet Frame celebrates all the ways God blesses us in this life.
The Electric Lady by Janelle Monáe: No one does Prince like Monáe these days, especially not even Prince. The Electric Lady is a continuation of the android concept from her brilliant ArchAndroid. As devoted as she is to that concept (and maybe after a third album she’ll have it beaten into me), her devotion to kinetic R&B is what keeps me coming back.
Trouble Will Find Me by The National: If you hate consistency, you’ll loathe The National. They aren’t concerned with things like “changing our sound” or “growing as a band”. They’re content to make the same brand of soft rock till they die out, puncturing relationships with indelible images on album after album, and Trouble Will Find Me is no exception to their greatness.
Meet Me at the Edge of the World by Over the Rhine: Over the Rhine are a group from Ohio who have received this blog’s praises before. They’re a lot like Patty Griffin: operating outside the mainstream, but influencing a ton of people in their genre. Meet Me at the Edge of the World is their most subdued album yet, and it projects serenity from beginning to end.
Muchacho by Phosphorescent: If you like Kurt Vile, you’ll love Phosphorescent. That is, of course, unless you don’t like your songs to have energy or sound like they’re full of life. Where Vile fully embraces the stoner sound without actually lighting up, it’s easy to imagine Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck with a joint in one hand while he skydives into an abyss.
Talented 10th by Sho Baraka: The most underrated album by a Christian last year, probably because Sho drops a bunch of N-words on one of the songs. But focusing on the profanity is missing his point. Talented 10th is a front-to-back dissection of life within black culture from a Christian perspective, and Sho came so close to unseating Yeezus from the top ten that you have to give this a listen.
Nobody Knows. by Willis Earl Beal: This was the peak of Beal’s troubadour powers. He’s backsliding into self-parody at this point, but Nobody Knows. was a full album’s worth of his best material. He does meandering folk better than anyone, and it’s my hope that he gets back to this level soon.
W.L.A.K. by W.L.A.K.: Grantland’s Jalen Rose and David Jacoby held a bracket for who has was the best hip-hop group of all time. Seems like they overlooked one, #amiright? W.L.A.K. (Alex Faith, Christon Gray, Dre Murray, and Swoope) are new, but they make quite the impression on this album that made the best of all their distinct styles.
Previous Top Tens
Andrew Peterson: Light for the Lost Boy
Frank Ocean: channel ORANGE
Japandroids: Celebration Rock
David Crowder*Band: Give Us Rest or (A Requiem Mass in C [The Happiest of All Keys])
Bruce Springsteen: Wrecking Ball
Fiona Apple: The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do
The Olive Tree: Our Desert Ways
Benjamin Dunn & the Animal Orchestra: Fable
Kendrick Lamar: good kid, m.A.A.d. city
Gungor: Ghosts upon the Earth
Over the Rhine: The Long Surrender
Bon Iver: Bon Iver
The War on Drugs: Slave Ambient
Fleet Foxes: Helplessness Blues
Drake: Take Care
Raphael Saadiq: Stone Rollin’
Matt Papa: This Changes Everything