Our Best of 2015 albums lists by genre continue today with our staff picks for the 10 best folk and country albums this year.
Click next to read through the albums one by one, or use the list below to skip ahead to your favourites.
To see more of Exclaim!'s Best of 2015 lists, head here.
Top 10 Folk & Country Albums:
- 10. Dave Rawlings Machine - Nashville Obsolete
- 9. Dwight Yoakam - Second Hand Heart
- 8. Lindi Ortega - Faded Gloryville
- 7. Laura Marling - Short Movie
- 6. Jessica Pratt - On Your Own Love Again
- 5. Daniel Romano - If I've Only One Time Askin'
- 4. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free
- 3. The Weather Station - Loyalty
- 2. Joanna Newsom - Divers
- 1. Sufjan Stevens - Carrie & Lowell
10. Dave Rawlings Machine
"The skeletons dance tonight!" announces Dave Rawlings about midway through "The Trip," a dazzling projection through the Americana phantasmagoria. "Bring your bottle and your boots."
Like some cross-eyed uncle in some dusty, gothic Western singing about lies and women and fevered dreams, Rawlings plays the trickster on Nashville Obsolete, welcoming passersby and their crooked looks with a wink. His warm arch-top picking and partner Gillian Welch's haunted harmonies only deepen the effect: this is an album out of time.
Slowly, inexorably, we are pulled into his weird universe. On this strange, mysterious, perfectly executed record, even the inscrutable feels inviting.
9. Dwight Yoakam
Second Hand Heart
Pushing 60 and nearly 20 albums into a career that spans four decades, Dwight Yoakam's place in country music history is secure. The singer has little left to prove, even at a time when the neo-traditionalist brand of country music and high-lonesome nasal croon that made him famous have about as much in common with a glitzy Nashville mainstream dominated by bro-country and power ballads as Nudie suits and Hee Haw skits.
It's easy to take Yoakam for granted, but his singing sounds reinvigorated on Second Hand Heart and his songwriting is as adventurous and vibrant as ever over the album's lean 40-minute running time. If Bakersfield remains a key touchstone ("Off Your Mind" is vintage Buck), the album also finds its roots in '60s Los Angeles and Liverpool (check out the gorgeous harmonies on "In Another World" and "She"). Make no mistake — Gram Parsons may be the father of "Cosmic American Music," but Yoakam keeps finding new ways to perfect it.
8. Lindi Ortega
(Grand Tour Records)
Lindi Ortega's great ability to embody lives she's never lived before makes her a good storyteller, but it's her empathy and observation that make her a great one. "We've chased our dreams into the ground / If disillusion has some hope to kill / Here nobody wears a crown," Ortega sings on the title track, her voice hushed and reverent, as lonesome as the washed-up country musicians she salutes in this Nashville-ready stunner.
There's a bluesy bounce two-stepping with the twang throughout, and it's easy to imagine this record becoming a modern country staple, as likely to be on the jukebox at your favourite dive bar as on the radio, chasing Kacey Musgraves up the charts. And the thing is, Ortega should be there; this is the record that should be her big break. We just hope Nashville knows how lucky they are.
7. Laura Marling
On her fifth album, Short Movie, British singer-songwriter Laura Marling delivers yet another batch of engrossing songs to delve into and discuss through long think pieces — only this time, Marling has reshaped the way we think about her music.
Largely written on electric guitar, Marling delivers 13 tracks that sound cagier, bolder and brasher, not just sonically, but emotionally and spiritually as well. After scrapping an entire album's worth of ideas, Marling headed off to Los Angeles on a spiritual journey that ended up giving her the courage to reinvent her craft, even going so far as producing the album on her own.
Given the new dimensions here, Short Movie is a release that leads one to ask: Is Laura Marling even interested in folk music anymore? But why dwell on such trivialities, when Laura's obviously already moved past them?
6. Jessica Pratt
On Your Own Love Again
California golden child Jessica Pratt has a voice that defies easy comparison, an off-kilter lilt that cuts through the hum of the world; her sound is so captivating that Tim Presley of White Fence was compelled to found his own record label in order to get her self-titled 2012 debut out.
Maintaining the intimacy of her debut, Pratt's haunting voice sits right at the centre of On Your Own Love Again, set against arrangements largely performed herself, anchored by subtle, evocative nylon guitar pickings awash in tape hiss. While the lo-fi aesthetic can often act as a kind of barrier between artists and listeners, clouding intentions and/or affects, in the case of On Your Own Love Again, it works to enhance the feeling of intimacy, with little things like the worn tape slow-down on "Jacquelyn in the Background" and hint of car alarm on "Strange Melody" cementing the bedroom vibe of its dreamy, lo-fi West Coast psych-tinged LP.
5. Daniel Romano
If I've Only One Time Askin'
(New West Records)
If I've Only One Time Askin' — the fourth full-length from Canadian alt-country songsmith Daniel Romano — is a shamelessly raw, sentimental ode to the kind of timeless heartache that reverberates painfully through the ages. Most of its twangy, melancholy tunes wouldn't have been out of place on the Grand Ole' Opry stage a generation or two ago.
Romano attains that plaintive vintage tone with his reedy voice and, above all, his prose-worthy lyricism. Sometimes those lines are lean and clever, like when he sings, "While she learned to do without so many things / She was slowly learning to do without me," on "Learning to Do Without Me." At other times, his verses are gorgeously elaborate, especially on the LP's best song, "Strange Faces."
These qualities help Romano give a nod to country's rich traditions while also elevating the proceedings past nostalgia. They also ensure that If I've Only One Time Askin' will age nicely, for at least as long as the world still harbours forlorn lovers with tears that need shedding.
4. Jason Isbell
Something More Than Free
With the breakout Southeastern in 2013, Jason Isbell had finally released an album that lived up to the ex-Drive-By Trucker's reputation for being one of the best songwriters in the game. While Something More Than Free doesn't quite match that record's ambition, it's a continuation and, more importantly, a distillation of Isbell's uncanny knack for evoking complex, deeply American snapshots — and economically at that.
The dark and dusty "Children of Children" conjures up the complicated emotions surrounding his birth when his mother was only 15. "Flagship" — about a man pledging to his belle that they won't end up like a miserable couple at the hotel bar he's at — masterfully navigates sentimentality without descending into mush. But the stunner is "Speed Trap Town," a barebones, Raymond Carver-esque tale that uses simple, heart-wrenching language to narrate bittersweet escape from small-town living.
It's Isbell at his underdog best, singing for anyone who ever left somewhere and something behind.
3. The Weather Station
As the Weather Station, Tamara Lindeman has a unique ability to take seemingly ordinary moments and magnify their intimacy and beauty. This skill has only sharpened over the course of her two LPs and two EPs, each of which has been more captivating than the last. On her third full-length album, Loyalty, Lindeman, as she sings in the stunning track "Floodplain," knows her mind even better than before and as a result has a clearer understanding of the world.
Loyalty's strengths lie in Lindeman's evocative, lived-in lyrics: her memories are vivid when thinking back to "the smoky cups of coffee" ("Personal Eclipse"), the placement of shoulders ("Shy Women"), or a look in one's eye ("Way It Is, Way It Could Be"), and the pragmatic self-reflections in "I Mined" and closer "At Full Height" find her trusting herself as much as she does both listener and song subjects.
All built on a warm folk soundscape that jumps from tender to lively at all the right moments, Loyalty is just the latest chapter of Lindeman's remarkable career, and one of the most stunning albums of its kind this year.
2. Joanna Newsom
Praised for her singular, idiosyncratic take on avant-garde folk, harpist and singer-songwriter extraordinaire Joanna Newsom is at the height of her powers on Divers. While Newsom's previous three releases were sprawling, dazzling and at times polarizing, her latest LP takes the best qualities of each album and channels them into a much more digestible format. The orchestral flourishes are all still here, and Newsom's voice sounds better than ever, but Divers is served in more compact doses that each show off different facets of Newsom's talent.
Divers is pretty but never cutesy, elegant but not too polished, and lyrically dense but surprisingly buoyant. And while songs like "Sapokanikan" and "Waltz of the 101st Lightborne" are rife with references to historical events — both real and imagined — they demonstrate just how playful Newsom's compositions can be, despite the weight of her words. Complex yet accessible, winding yet melodic, Newsom's songs here eschew modern trends in favour of a graceful lyrical and compositional style that makes Divers already feel timeless, just months after its release.
1. Sufjan Stevens
Carrie & Lowell
Five years removed from the challenging The Age of Adz, Sufjan Stevens returned to his intimate folk roots for Carrie & Lowell, named after his mother and stepfather. Stevens' seventh studio effort explores themes of life, death, love and loss in relation to both his current life and the strained relationship between him and his late mother during childhood, from which she was absent at times due to struggles with mental health and addiction.
"Spirit of my silence I can hear you, but I'm afraid to be near you, and I don't know where to begin," he gently sings on album opener "Death with Dignity." The short lyric does well in describing the overarching tone of the record. Stevens' poignant words reflect on everything from childhood memories to his quest for meaning in death as an adult after his mother's passing. His lyrical meditations go hand in hand with the album's delicate instrumentation: gently plucked mandolins, guitars and piano that work well alongside subtle electronics in supporting the heavier themes.
Such a deeply moving, autobiographical approach to finding emotional closure plays a major role in helping Carrie & Lowell stand as one of his greatest works to date.