Published Dec 06, 2018Today (December 6), Exclaim! presents the best folk and country albums of 2018 as part of our Best of 2018 coverage.
Did Kacey Musgraves finally get her due? Where did the Pistol Annies end up? Read on to find out, then take a glance back at our list of the Top 20 Pop & Rock Albums of the year.
Top 10 Folk and Country Albums of 2018:
10. Adrianne Lenker
Released less than two weeks after the Autumn Equinox, Adrianne Lenker's latest solo album conveys all the stillness of a fall afternoon. Shedding the dynamic arrangements of her folk-rock band Big Thief, abysskiss is frail and spare, carefully shifting her songwriting from finely drawn character pieces to abstract, fragmentary missives.
Where Lenker used to include names and other vivid details to evoke specificity, her new material rarely delves into the particular, allowing her to shade in meaning through performance. Her singing is consistent yet finely tuned to the tenor of her songs, bringing a dizzy awe to "Out of Your Mind," a soft defiance to "Blue and Red Horses" and a hushed reassurance to "Cradle." The music is just as quietly versatile: fingerpicked acoustic guitar and synthesizer ambience trace a delicate line from birth to death on "Terminal Paradise," while a droning melody enhances the heady verses of "Symbol." With abysskiss, Lenker has made the rarest of solo albums: one that stays true to its creator's voice while making it sound new.
The Ballad of the Runaway Girl
Most of us talk, but some voices truly need to be heard.
Documentary filmmaker and singer-songwriter Elisapie Isaac had so much to say that she used three languages on The Ballad of the Runaway Girl. Harnessing the romance of French, the personal nostalgia of English and the resilience of Inuktitut, she created such a profound statement with this record that the Juno Awards should nominate her for Breakthrough Artist of the Year again.
Not only does her third solo album and first since 2012 have openly impactful lyrical chops, exploring heartfelt themes of internal strength and spiritual growth, its sounds and arrangements are lush and diverse works of understated beauty. It's orchestral Americana indie-pop, sounding somewhere between Bob Dylan, the Hidden Cameras and Tanya Tagaq, but in a distinctive way that solidifies her role as a major player in the ongoing Indigenous Renaissance Jeremy Dutcher spoke of in his 2018 Polaris Prize-winning speech.
8. Odetta Hartman
Old Rockhounds Never Die
If freak-folk is dead, then Odetta Hartman must be Lazarus. As the resurgence of straight-faced traditionalist folk has reached its nadir with Mumford & Sons and the Avett Brothers, Hartman dared to craft something vividly modern with her sophomore LP. As she says on "Sweet Teeth": "I have to live up to the legend of my name."
Odetta breaks the mould on Old Rockhounds Never Die. Across 15 tracks, the Manhattanite mixes electronic beats ("Dettifoss"), R&B vocals ("Smoke Break") and wacked-out samples ("Misery") alongside beautifully haunted banjo tunes to craft an album that shouldn't work — but that would suggest that Hartman gives a flying fuck about how regular albums are supposed to work. As mood pieces like the 32-second "Auto" make as much of an impact as the complex four-minute "Carbon Copy," Odetta Hartman's eccentricities permeate every moment here, proving that the spirit of folk is alive and well… and freaky.
7. Neko Case
Neko Case returns wielding flaming passion on her seventh album, Hell-On. The record was written before a fire took the artist's Vermont home, borne of blazing outcry for the Earth we inhabit. Loaded with pop choruses and duets that ring with chemistry, Hell-On fights — fervent but fairly — with kinship, poetry and no shortage of wildness.
Case took more control over the recording of this album than ever before and it pays off: her production choices shimmer. From the rise and fall of the title track, which speaks from the voice of the Earth, to the strings-accented melody of "Oracle of the Maritimes," to the organic percussion takeover of "Last Lion of Albion," each facet feels polished enough to be clear, but never ostentatious.
Hell-On sparks and flits as it progresses; this is an album that declares its presence with every beat and breath.
6. Marlon Williams
Make Way for Love
There is no shortage of "break-up albums" out there, but few chart the arc of a broken relationship as poetically and convincingly as Make Way for Love. Kiwi troubadour Marlon Williams is an eclectic singer/songwriter, capable of shining on everything from blues to bluegrass, but his split from fellow artist Aldous Harding resulted in his most stylistically coherent album yet.
Its songs cover a full range of emotions, from jealousy to anger to desperation to sadness, and Williams' rich and passionate voice is a perfect delivery vehicle. He's unafraid to sound vulnerable, as on "Can I Call You" and the heart-rending ballad "Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore," a lush duet with Harding recorded after their breakup. It's a lovely work that leaves a mark.