Exclaim!'s Top 10 Folk and Country Albums

Best of 2018

BY Exclaim! StaffPublished Dec 6, 2018

Today (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
(Saddle Creek)

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.
Matthew Blenkarn
9. Elisapie
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.
Alan Ranta
8. Odetta Hartman
Old Rockhounds Never Die
(Memphis Industries)

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.
Daniel Sylvester
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.
Kaitlin Ruether
6. Marlon Williams
Make Way for Love
(Dead Oceans)

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.
Kerry Doole

5. Mount Eerie
Now Only
(P.W. Elverum & Sun)

Now Only marks the second Mount Eerie album since the death of Geneviève Castrée, the first wife of project mastermind Phil Elverum, who died of cancer in 2016. The companion to last year's A Crow Looked at Me, which chronicled the immediate days and months following Castrée's death, Now Only looks further outward, drawing everything from a conversation with Father John Misty at a music festival and a pair of paintings into Elverum's worldview.
There are fewer songs here than on Crow, but they're longer, as the anxious swirl of a major, unexpected life change settles into reality. As Elverum draws more elements, both lyrically and instrumentally, into his palette, the message becomes more clear: grief never truly goes away, but it's possible to let it coexist with life.
While Elverum now lives in Brooklyn with his new wife Michelle Williams and their daughters, it doesn't make the tenuousness of Now Only any less real. If anything, it reveals the emotional complexity of Elverum's mindset.
Matt Bobkin
4. Haley Heynderickx
I Need to Start a Garden
(Mama Bird Recording Co.)

Portland songwriter and guitarist Haley Heynderickx brings an unusually deep sense of being in the moment to her meditative, assured and arresting chamber folk-rock debut, I Need to Start a Garden. With echoes of Canadians like Feist and Julie Doiron in her vulnerable yet ultimately triumphant songs — like eight-minute centrepiece "Worth It" — Heynderickx exorcises self-doubt without losing any of her sensitivity.
Heynderickx attributes her rock-solid rhythm to a year or two of bluegrass guitar tutelage under Oregon's Steve Blanchard, who got her playing to a metronome, yet nothing sounds rigid on I Need to Start a Garden, which from start to end breathes organically with the sound of Heynderickx's warm, plaintive voice and fluid guitar, backed by a sympathetic band in which almost everyone sings. Flourishes like bowed bass, whimsically jazzy trombone and rustling percussion reflect Heynderickx's playful, subtly psychedelic lyrics on songs that bridge the quotidian and the spiritual, and put a fresh magnifying glass up to both inner and outer worlds.
Sarah Greene
3. The Pistol Annies
Interstate Gospel

The best band in country music today — a supergroup comprised of Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley — bring the fire on their third record. A decidedly feminist collection of anthems, rave-ups and ballads, Interstate Gospel moves freely between the front porch, the campfire and the hot soft lights of an East Nashville club. Musically it's about as far from the slick party jams of country radio as you're liable to get these days — surely a welcome relief for Lambert, a bona fide superstar in the Nashville firmament.
Freed from commercial constraints, she and her buddies belt out superior songs about everything from escapist partying ("Stop Drop And Roll One") to aching breakups ("Masterpiece") to D-I-V-O-R-C-E in the 21st century ("Got My Name Changed Back"). A throwback to the spunky brilliance of the Dixie Chicks (to whom they're often compared, a reminder of how rare all-female acts have been in the country game), Pistol Annies have spun heartache, lust, hard-earned wisdom and fuck-you-pay-me into one of the finest Americana records of the year.
Stuart Henderson
2. Jennifer Castle
Angels of Death
(Idée Fixe)

After the massive acclaim that 2014's Pink City brought to her songwriting, Jennifer Castle turned inward on Angels of Death, creating a yearning and extremely open look at how death surrounds one in more ways than may appear. "Tomorrow's Mourning" underscores this feeling, with strong imagery evoking travelling through life on a quiet highway (later revisited on "Tonight the Evening").
"Grim Reaper" is a frank acceptance of shuffling off the mortal coil and aiming to get the most out of each passing day. Its subtle guitar line (courtesy of the Highest Order's Paul Mortimer) is blended with soothing violins — a beautiful reminder of how refreshingly earnestly the album conveys its subject matter. The second half of the title track borrows from esteemed Canadian poet Al Purdy to speak on seeing into the future, waving to our past selves, "as if surprised, to find us still alive." It makes for a stellar piece of country-infused folk-rock.
The soul and gospel influences of "Crying Shame" coat the proceedings with a longing that resonates long after the record comes to an end. Castle has once again outdone herself on Angels of Death, a gorgeous and effortlessly stark reflection on looking your maker square in the eye until they blink.
Josh Weinberg
1. Kacey Musgraves
Golden Hour

In response to a tweet that expressed a hatred of country music but a love of Kacey Musgraves this year, the country star tweeted: "welcome to the yee yee club bitch". Following the release of Musgraves' dazzling and accessible country-pop record Golden Hour, the yee yee club swelled in size this year.

On Golden Hour, Musgraves invites us on her journey of self-discovery. She's in awe of being alive on the vocoder-infused "Oh, What a World" and she's wildly in love and celebrates it on the euphoric "Velvet Elvis" and piano-ballad closer "Rainbow."

Musgraves' road to clarity isn't always lined with rainbows and perfect lighting though. On the warmly twanged "Happy & Sad" and "Wonder Woman," Musgraves strives for balance in love and life; she also has to kick aside a few dud cowboys, as we hear on "Space Cowboy" and "High Horse" — two of the year's best songs. The former includes a top lyrical moment of 2018: a brilliantly timed pause when Musgraves sings, "You can have your space, cowboy." The sensational latter track is anchored by a glamorously groovy disco beat that's so powerful you'll want to buy a rhinestone-embossed, bellbottom nudie suit.

The Texas-born singer-songwriter has been making quick-witted country music and subverting the genre's conservative traditions since her 2013 debut, Same Trailer Different Park, but on Golden Hour, Musgraves perfects her craft and makes a near flawless record. Golden Hour smoothes out the roughness of the world and soothes your soul. Giddy-up. 
Laura Stanley

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