Due the increasing popularity of indie folk, the folk genre has made a bit of comeback in the mainstream eye. While there were a number of indie folk albums released in 2010, traditional folk, neofolk, and even freak folk had a representative earn a spot on this guide.
There’s a lot to like about Hadestown, the fourth album from folk singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. There is a ton of ambition on this record, partly due to the surprisingly deep story based on Greek mythology. However, what is most responsible for the greatness of Hadestown is the dark atmosphere that Mitchell creates for her emotional lyrics and strong vocals to take effect, making the storytelling just as effective as the story itself. There is quite a bit of variety, as well, throughout the 20 tracks, helped by a number of different indie folk guests. The most notable is Justin Vernon, best known as Bon Iver, who sings on a whopping seven tracks.
Northwest singer/songwriter Damnien Jurado has been a local favorite since his magnificent debut in 1997. Now on his ninth studio album, Jurado has improved with each successive release. While still a solid album, Saint Bartlett breaks that trend. At times, this album sound like a watered down version of Damien’s older material. To new listeners, the songs here will likely sound a lot better, as much of the album’s problems can be traced to covering old ground. However, there is still a great deal of emotion to the music, and Jurado’s excellent songwriting still shines through, even if it’s not quite the masterpiece he’s been building up to.
Light of a Vaster Dark
The unsung kings of modern freak folk have returned with an album that only Faun Fables could create. This weird psychedelic work of art is par for the course for Faun Fables at this point, and fans of the band and listeners who enjoy the more experimental side of folk will be at home here. Light of a Vaster Dark is an album that could only come out in modern times, which is a bit or rarity for such a simple genre. That in and of itself makes it worth listening to, but the multilayered lyrics and almost avant-garde arrangements make it a must for folk and experimental fans.
Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat
Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Wood
Despite the band’s strange name, Kiss the Anus of a Black Cat actually write some beautiful music. Hewers of Wood and Drawers of Wood isn’t the most poetic folk album out there, nor is it the most emotionally gripping. Still, there is a lot to like here. Neofolk is rarely this gorgeous or accessible, and the band certainly deserves praise for not falling into to the lyrical traps of the genre. This is the kind of neofolk album that could actually appeal to fans of more traditional folk music, while still being enjoyed by the metal fans who found the neofolk genre through Death in June’s lyrical similarities to that of black metal.
I Speak Because I Can
I’ve written many times about the “human element,” an integral part of music that proves to the listener that there is a genuine human being behind what they are hearing. In folk music, it’s pretty much essential. Folk is a genre where two people can play the exact same song in the same way, and evoke completely different reactions from the listener. For every indie folk artist who has that element, there are 30 that ruin their music with effects and forcefully catchy hooks that take that element away. Laura Marling is an artist who has the human element. It just so happens her music is also catchy. Marling plays a very simple style of indie folk, one that any folk fan has heard before. She can occasionally be heavier than her contemporaries (as on “Devil’s Spoke”), and she plays with tension much better than most. However, what really sets her apart is the passion in her music. The listener knows that there is an human being putting a piece of herself into this music, and in folk that’s often the most important thing an artist can do.
The Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree
The Soup & the Shilling
The Soup and & the Shilling comes packaged with two discs, the first of which compiles the band’s first two EP’s. Both EP’s are great, but it’s safe to say that anyone who has heard those will be more looking forward to the band’s first full length album. The second disc is that full length album, and while it’s a little tamer than the experimental psychedelic folk of the first disc, the new songs are mostly excellent. There are a variety of different styles and moods at play, something that isn’t always easy to do on folk records. It’s actually quite amazing that this band is as obscure as they are, as their sound is both unique and accessible. The Magickal Folk of the Faraway Tree have established themselves as an excellent group that should appeal to both fans of folk and experimental music.
The Boy in the Back
The Boy in the Back is an album I discovered through a forum thread posted by Pickering Pete himself. Online plugs from unsigned artists aren’t often the most effective way to discover quality music, but The Boy in the Back is an exception. This criminally brief (under 30 minutes in length) folk album may be a little slow for some, but Pickering Pete has put a large part of himself into these tracks. There is undoubtedly a human being behind this album, and one that is not afraid to display who he is. It’s really quite refreshing to hear, and as such it’s an extraordinarily gorgeous album.
The Golden Archipelago
The Golden Archipelago is beautiful. It may not be as catchy or original as other Shearwater albums, but there comes a point where simple beauty can make up for an album’s shortcomings. It has strong atmospheric quality rarely found in indie folk, and but again, The Golden Archipelago is more about the feelings it evokes than anything else. The lyrics aren’t always up to what Jonathan Meiburg is capable of, and it’s certainly not as original as 2008’s Rook. Regardless, this is a great album, assuming that you’re willing to just sit back and enjoy the music.
Strand of Oaks
Folk singer/songwriter Timothy Showalter can be a little deceptive. On first listen, Pope Killdragon sounds like a fairly generic folk record. It’s slow, even a little boring at times, and there’s really nothing new on the surface. However, Showalter has incorporated subtleties into his music that reward careful listening. His lyrics take surprising twists, and there are some genuinely haunting and atmospheric moments. Again, it’s nothing new, but listeners willing to focus on the lyrics and how they contrast with the music will find a find surprising deep experience here.
The Tallest Man on Earth
The Wild Hunt
Possibly the most hyped folk album of 2010, the sophomore album from The Tallest Man on Earth is absolutely worthy of the attention it’s been getting. This Swedish folk artist (real name Kristian Matsson) has a voice strikingly similar to Bob Dylan’s, but the man’s real talent lies in his ability as a songwriting and lyricist. His lyrics reach the rare level of working on their own, even outside of the music, but they’re even better in context with Matsson’s musical arrangements. He’s a talented and varied guitar player, but he shows his skill by writing parts that work with the lyrics and changing as the mood of those lyrics changes. He doesn’t succumb to the instrumental simplicity of the genre, as he’s willing to branch out and play some very complicated riffs when the song calls for it. The Wild Hunt is a little on the short side, but there is so much talent and emotion packed into these 35 minutes that it’s an absolutely essential listen.