Listen to our Best of 2011: Folk & Country playlist on Rdio by clicking here.
1. The Decemberists
2. Dan Mangan
3. Laura Marling
4. One Hundred Dollars
6. Gillian Welch
7. Richard Buckner
8. The Deep Dark Woods
9. Daniel Romano
10. The Barr Brothers
11. Sunparlour Players
12. Nick Lowe
13. Ryan Adams
14. The Jayhawks
15. Hayes Carll
16. Jenn Grant
1. The Decemberists The King Is Dead (Capitol)
On the one hand, it's easy to wonder if the Decemberists' The King is Dead was so beloved because a) it wasn't the prog-rock mess that was their previous album, The Hazards of Love, and b) it was the kind of R.E.M. and Tom Petty record that neither artist has made in at least 20 years. Let's instead take The King is Dead for what it is: Colin Meloy putting his lifetime's worth of songwriting talent into nine concise country-pop songs, brilliantly performed by his seasoned band and augmented by the towering harmony vocals of Gillian Welch (who had more than a rather good year herself).
2. Dan Mangan Oh Fortune (Arts & Crafts)
Dan Mangan has evolved tremendously since his modest folk debut, 2005's Postcards and Daydreaming. His embrace of melody on 2009's Nice, Nice, Very Nice lit up the skies at music festivals worldwide and set the stage for this year's blast of grandly ambitious folk pop. Oh Fortune builds on Mangan's previous achievements in songcraft and doubles down with rich and layered full-band arrangements that pulse and writhe like an orchestra on acid. The album flows seamlessly through a variety of styles and tempos, never breaking stride when it changes course. Inspired by the story of Gertrude Ederle, the first woman to swim across the English Channel, Oh Fortune explores dark themes ― fleeting fame, fear of death, yearning, despair. But sonically, the album never sinks to the lows suggested by its lyrical substance. From the loose, waltzing rhythm of the opener, through the frenetic guitar-freakout of "Post-War Blues," right down to the brassy swing that wraps up the final track, Mangan and band never let the futility of it all get them down. Even down-tempo numbers like "Daffodil" flirt with feedback and distortion, keeping the mood a shade or two lighter than morose. And despite the grandiosity of the album's orchestral trimmings, Mangan's warm voice and epic likeability always shine brightly though the din.
3. Laura Marling A Creature I Don't Know (Domino)
A Creature I Don't Know affirms that Laura Marling is no Brit wallflower, rallying tortured souls as some nu-folk flavour of the month. Her past work was without doubt compelling (compelling enough to deserve two Mercury prize nominations) but what she has given us with her latest release does more than suggest a listen, it makes her album one of the indispensables of the year ― not just within her genre, but for anyone interested in the sound of 2011. The delicate flowing rhythm that characterized Marling's guitar picking, like her singing, previously concealed the hesitancy of a novice, and her records, the predilections of her producers. Having made great strides with every record, A Creature I Don't Know is her best work to date, and the one she owns most fully. On it, Marling's guitar playing and vocal delivery reaches an exciting new peak of expertise and creative boldness. The unhurried outlines of her song verses contain within them an unpredictable ebullience, occasionally taking on a dramatic flair that is always in just measure and perfectly anchored to the record's concept. This album is another one of Marling's heady reflections on the good and evil extremes of human creatures; a theme she hasn't tired of ― and neither do we. Perhaps her beast is tamer for it, and ours as well.
4. One Hundred Dollars Songs of Man (Outside)
The production might be cleaner this time around, but there's plenty of grit within Songs of Man, the best record yet by country purists, One Hundred Dollars. Led by primary lyricists Simone Schmidt and Ian Russell, the Toronto band continue to write deep, pointed songs about people and how they relate to one another. An undercurrent of punk activism informs Schmidt's perspective, writing for and about under-represented, marginal voices with a purist's ear for artful storytelling and subtle politics. Beyond her rich, impassioned voice, One Hundred Dollars' songs are presented with this loyal musical acumen that's respectful of stormy, emotive country styles, subtly scratching out the "alt-" that so many independent country bands get saddled with. Free of fashion, Songs of Man will prove to be a timeless document of truly thoughtful, uncompromising songwriting that panders to no one.
5. Snailhouse Sentimental Gentleman (White Whale)
Having put in time re-drawing the boundaries of independent post-rock with seminal Ottawa outfit the Wooden Stars and acting as atmospheric guitar slinger for fellow Canadian acts Kepler and Bell Orchestre, Mike Feuerstack has steadily committed his most personal material to record as Snailhouse all the while. This year's Sentimental Gentleman feels like a culmination of sorts, containing Feuerstack's strongest collection of songs to date. His roots as a folk storyteller inform the basic structure of these pieces, with "Great Storytellers" acting as a kind of statement of intent, careful finger picking and conversational lyrics at the forefront. Elsewhere, Feuerstack builds elaborate layers of psychedelic guitar sounds around sophisticated chord sequences and picking patterns containing hints of classic pop and world folk without straying too far from a roots music base. Graceful slide guitar supports beautiful vocal phrases, with wry wit balancing yearning romanticism in Feuerstack's stories. In some ways, Sentimental Gentleman is most comparable to Wilco at their least pop-orientated. Few artists can so comfortably marry the musical ideals of classic Americana with wildly inventive and exploratory instrumental manipulation and Feuerstack accomplishes that here with aplomb, creating an album of such melodic strength that it should appeal to anyone who loves great songwriting, regardless of genre.
Scott A. Gray
6. Gillian Welch The Harrow & the Harvest (Acony)
Welch may have taken the risk of vacating her Americana country-folk throne by taking eight years between records, but the superb The Harrow & The Harvest found her right back at the top of her game. Her eloquent if sometimes bleak narratives make a perfect soundtrack for these recessionary days, and that clear as a mountain stream voice has never sounded better. The decision to record live off-the-floor with her constant creative comrade Dave Rawlings also proved an astute artistic decision. The album was brought to compelling life in the duo's Toronto show, a highlight of the year's concert calendar. During Welch's absence from the recording spotlight, a plethora of rootsy songstresses attempted to fill the void, but she remains Queen Gillian.
7. Richard Buckner Our Blood (Merge)
Richard Buckner is back after a five-year hiatus, the interim spent struggling with disappointment, frustration, and the horrors of becoming a suspect in a gruesome murder case. As a musical homecoming, Our Blood is predictably dark. But more surprising is its return to the quieter acoustic Buckner sound of a decade ago. 2006's fuller and faster Meadow was representative of the country-tinged rock that Buckner has played with since the early 2000s. But here, once again, acoustic guitars are accompanied by touches of pedal steel, organ and vintage keyboards. And this time, electronic seasonings give the songs a sparkle of modernity and elevate the album's emotional timbre. Buckner's deep blue voice, smoked with alienation and sorrow, sits at the forefront of these songs the way it did in the days of Devotion and Doubt and The Hill. In fact, these songs rival the best in his catalog for rawness and immediacy. Lyrically, there's more abstraction than there was in Buckner's emotionally devastating early work, but, overall, things are as deliciously bleak as ever; the subtle vocal melodies and some unsettling vocal harmonies deliver the same desperate tug. No artist can be faulted for exploring different palettes, and Buckner has given us much to admire and enjoy over the past ten years. But it's a supreme joy that he's returned to his acoustic origins for the latest instalment in his nigh-on 20-year-long career.
8. The Deep Dark Woods The Place I Left Behind (Six Shooter)
It has been a pleasure to watch the consistent artistic growth of such Canadiana favourites as Cuff the Duke, Elliott Brood, and Sunparlour Players. All released fine work in 2011, and Saskatoon's Deep Dark Woods merit inclusion in that group. Their fourth album, The Place I Left Behind, is again built around the eloquent songwriting and rich resonant vocals of Ryan Boldt. His voice is perfectly suited to the melancholy mood of most of his songs, while a couple of numbers from bassist/vocalist Chris Mason helps add variety. Balancing the pedal steel and guitar-led sound is the fine work of keyboardist Geoff Hilhorst on piano, Hammond, and mellotron, while guests Kendel Carson (fiddle) and Old Man Luedecke (banjo) add to the wide-screen atmospherics of the album.
9. Daniel Romano Sleep Beneath the Willow (You've Changed)
"I almost only listen to George Jones; it's becoming a bit of a problem," Daniel Romano told Exclaim! this past spring. "I don't think I've gone a day without listening to George Jones in over a year. He's the best country singer ever and he picks the best songs." Even a cursory listen to the orchestral country production and dark, hangdog lyrics of Sleep Beneath the Willow bears Romano's devotion out. The outlaw nature and raw emotion within country surely appeals to the punk rock kid in Romano, who made his bones with Attack in Black and gradually discovered the roots of hardcore in outspoken folk music. It's therefore not such a stretch to find him worshipping after Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Lee Hazlewood and indulging in a tradition that marries cheery, AM radio-ready arrangements, and angelic female back-up singers with a paradoxically snide and sardonic lyrical edge. "That's my favourite thing about country music," Romano admitted. "I don't know when that started happening. It's like really brutal lyrics to major chords, or the sarcastic, pretending-to-be-naïve lyrics, like 'She Thinks I Still Care' by George Jones. I'm just such a sucker; I love that so much. I can't think of a genre that's as clever as country music. That's why I'm so deep into it."
10. The Barr Brothers (Secret City)
Brad and Andrew Barr aren't the first people to undergo a cultural awakening after spending a significant amount of time in Montreal. After seven years residing in the city, it's resulted in the brothers from Providence, RI producing a debut album containing many recognizable textures of the Montreal scene to complement their already solid folk and blues foundation. Those who have already discovered the album's beauty can credit a freak twist of fate for its mere existence. The Barrs' previous band, the Slip, had a Montreal gig end with the club catching on fire, with Andrew meeting his future wife during the ensuing melee. The next several years saw the brothers fully immersing themselves in Montreal's musical community, and while they are responsible for most aspects of the Barr Brothers, the sounds that have become associated with the city, such as Jace Lasek and Howard Bilerman's widescreen productions and the late Llasa de Sela's genre-defying mysticism, are the album's most distinctive features. More simply, though, few other Canadian releases in recent memory have so deftly bridged the gap between guitar/drums blues stomps with fragile acoustic balladry without even pausing for breath. To have a first-time listener eagerly anticipating such surprises with each track should probably be the goal of any artist, and that is at the very least what the Barr Brothers accomplished on this stunning debut.
11. Sunparlour Players Us Little Devils (Outside)
Sunparlour Players' evolution from Andrew Penner's solo effort to three-part collective with Michael "Rosie" Rosenthal and Dennis Van Dine hasn't been seamless, but the disparate influences and inspirations are what make the band's third album, Us Little Devils, so great. It's the sound of three people moving in harmony ― but that doesn't mean they arrive at the same place every song. In fact, the little devils themselves take huge pleasure in deviating with whiplash speed from any expected alt-country trajectory. There are wild detours into punk and metal-lite, gospel, soul and even the rough waters of a sea shanty. These unexpected journeys might be disorienting at first, but isn't it nice as a listener to be surprised and even a little freaked out? It's disorienting but awesome to stumble from the Kings of Leon-esque environmental plea "Green Thumb" to the aggro-rock attack of "Like an Animal" before going all aflutter on the lilting "Damn All You," which is both sexy and mournful thanks to gentle percussion and creaky piano. This is the right kind of devil's play.
12. Nick Lowe The Old Magic (Yep Roc)
No, "the old magic" does not refer to Nick Lowe returning to the power-pop sound he helped write the rulebook for back in the '70s. Instead, it means the 61-year-old performer reminds you what magical songwriting spells an old coot like him can still cast. Sure, the entire album has a '50s supper-club vibe that sounds like rock'n'roll never happened, but that's just Lowe acting his age. After all, he's a "Sensitive Man" with a "Restless Feeling" who boasts, "I Read A Lot" and worries about his "Checkout Time." All those titles are delivered with a gentle wink, but there's nothing ironic about anything here. Clever, yes, but Lowe never sounds anything less than completely sincere. This old magician is a guy you can trust to never let you down ― and there's not a single note anywhere here that dares to disappoint.
13. Ryan Adams Ashes & Fire (Pax-Am)
Ryan Adams is never one to lets fans down in terms of the quantity of his creative output. The quality isn't always so consistent, but this year's Ashes & Fire marked an admirable solo return from North Carolina's alt-country poster boy. Having ditched the Cardinals and briefly retired from making music due to his struggle with Ménière's disease, it's somewhat of a miracle that Ashes & Fire even got made. Fans of Adams can not only breathe a sigh of relief because he's capable of recording and touring again, but will be relieved to hear an impressive offering of new songs. Ashes & Fire falls on the quieter side of Adams' discography, inviting a lot of early speculation that it would come off sounding quite a bit like 2000's near-perfect Heartbreaker. It just seems like he's less sad these days, though Adams' voice on cuts like "Come Home" and "I Love You But I Don't Know What To Say" will still break hearts. Album opener "Dirty Rain" plays like a vintage country song, while the bluesy title track picks up the pace of the album. Ashes & Fire was beautifully produced by Glyn Johns (the Beatles, Bob Dylan) and features appearances from Norah Jones, Benmont Tench and Adams' wife Mandy Moore, but it's Adams' gorgeous, quivering voice that provides the unifying touch throughout an album that, like the best of his work, toes the line between hope and despair.
14. The Jayhawks Mockingbird Time (Rounder)
Reuniting founding members Gary Louris and Mark Olson for the first time since 1995, this is the album fans of the influential alt-country have been hungry for. The magnificent interplay between their two voices as they harmonize is still the cornerstone of the band's appeal. Opening track "Hide Your Colors" crashes with Beatles-esque majesty, but on most of the album, it's a pastorally focused version of the Kinks that comes to mind with songs that rely on subtle sophistication as much as triumphant melodies. To be sure, Louris's lead guitar work owes plenty to George Harrison's knack for memorable note phrases, but on Mockingbird Time, it's a bit more subdued than on past releases, leaving more space for the arrangements to breathe and the songs to stand on their own merits. And merits are plentiful among these 12 tracks. It's inspiring to see a late-career resurgence yield some of Louris and Olson's most immediately engaging songs to date, and as a whole album, it's at least as strong as any of their previous efforts. Further incorporating classic folk rock touchstones into their sound and the renewed partnership of two great musicians have widened the appeal of a band that already set the standard in their field.
Scott A. Gray
15. Hayes Carll KMAG YOYO (& Other American Stories) (Lost Highway)
With each album, it appears more and more that Hayes Carll just doesn't give a fuck. "Appears" is the key word, since although his music keeps getting increasingly ragged at the seams, doing ragged properly is a skill that most singer-songwriters don't possess and never will. Call it a reaction to being criminally underappreciated for too long, but on KMAG YOYO ― a U.S. military acronym for "kiss my ass guys, you're on your own" ― Carll pulled out all the stops, resulting in his best album to date. While in Americana circles, Carll has been rightly praised as a leader among the new generation of honky-tonk heroes, the songs on KMAG YOYO possess an immediacy that is rare within a genre that often to its detriment pays too much reverence to the past glories of its founding fathers. However, few others aside from Carll could have written, for example, the title track, which blindingly tells the tale of a drug-dealing soldier who ends up getting shot into outer space, or "Stomp And Holler," which rhymes its title in the chorus with "I'm like James Brown, only white and taller." That's not to say that Carll's main concern is to rewrite the country music rulebook, but many other songwriters could certainly benefit from looking to him for direction.
16. Jenn Grant Honeymoon Punch (Six Shooter)
The faltering steps before you somersault down the rabbit hole of love are sometimes the only clear moments one can remember during the hazy, heady first six months of a new relationship. And as good as that feels ― that promise, those elements of surprise and intense attraction, a hint of something special ― it's everything that comes next that's the stuff of real love songs. Jenn Grant's Honeymoon Punch details every moment of that kind of next-level shit: the moment you both realize that you're in it to win it with all the hope and humour and occasional heartache that entails. Album opener "Oh my Heart" remembers those moments with a kicky, pop love letter while "Baby's Been Away" finds our lovers struggling with priorities against a twinkly one-two shuffle. "Paradise Mountain" is that bittersweet moment where you debate whether it's mean to be, longing to get back to the beginning. It's a brave collection that celebrates real, true, transformational love with lots of momentum from helpful sources: a bass clarinet, synthesizers, and playful forays into '50s pop rhythms, soul and even a little riot grrrl defiance. But true to form, despite the album's often upbeat nature, it's impossible to know for sure if Grant will let her lovers have that happy ending. The final track, "Stars to Waves," is a beautiful, crazy, two-parter (soft, sweet lament and triumphant, instrumental frenzy) that, wisely, lets the listener choose his or her own ending.