As we get closer to the end of the year the considerations that we make on the music of 2018 become progressively more precise and substantial. As far as folk music is concerned, it is certainly true that 2018 has already been particularly generous: we had already enjoyed a number of excellent records and there were also a few debuts by new artists who promise to delight us with their music for the years to come.
I present in this article a list of the most beautiful folk albums among those I heard this year. They are really exciting records and each of these authors, through his own style, has managed to tell us profound and emotional stories.
Enjoy this chart and don’t forget to check in the folk section of the blog for future updates.
#1) King Dude, “Music To Make War To”
American songwriter Thomas Jefferson Cowgill is one of those artists who likes to range between extremely different forms of expression. In his brilliant musical career he now operates under the pseudonym of King Dude and with such new artistic identity he has already released a good number of excellent pubications. As a matter of fact, listening to King Dude’s discography one may think that’s it is practically impossible for him to publish low quality works and his latest record, Music to Make War To totally confirms this trajectory.
King Dude’s new album looks like as a perfect blend between The National and Nick Cave, in which however the melodic elements of the songs always prevail over the more introspective aspect of the music. The album is plenty of that melancholy tone which has become one of the most recognizable elements of King Dude’s music (what’s sometimes referred to as “dark folk” or “goth folk”) but melancholy is partially alleviated in this album through a lightness of approach and a musical simplicity which become sometimes totally disarming.
Arrived to the seventh record of his great discography, King Dude has succeded in the apparent impossible operation to make catchy and somehow “radio friendly” songs which still convey the emotional intensity and – to same extent – the darkness that we appreciated in his previous and less accessible works.
#2) Sarah McQuaid, “If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous”
Madrid-born, Chicago-raised and UK-based singer and songwriter Sarah McQuaid has explored in her valuable career many shades of folk and alt rock, and listening to her most recent works we can realize how profound and rich this journey has been. Sarah’s last and fifht release, If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous, is for sure her more mature album so far, and the songs of the LP capture the artist in a phase of full confidence in her capacity to meditate over challenging themes and also to evoke intimate and sometimes desolate atmospheres.
McQuaid’s new album is characterized by persistent dark tones and rarefied melodies, so don’t expect to find crystal-clear melodies and danceable songs and, rather, get ready for a melancholic journey where the happy ending is not always guaranteed. The emotions you will experience, though, will be intense and able to make you travel in far away and charming places.
The main feeling that emerges from the songs of If We Dig Any Deeper It Could Get Dangerous seems to be the serene acceptance of human nature and the fact that sometimes we have only a minor role before the regular and imperturbable cycle of life. This cosmic message is partly evoked by the artist’s voice and lyrics, and by the haunting, minimal and evocative music, which is the real added value of the album. We have a few ballads in the classic style of folk, with violins and acoustic guitars, but the peak of the emotions, in my opinion, is reached when the artist is accompanied by only the reverberation of her electric guitar, which sounds like an echo of distant worlds, memories from the past that appear in a corner of our thoughts leaving a feeling of conscious abandonment.
#3) Mark Lanegan and Duke Garwood, “With Animals”
The discography of American iconic singer-songritwer Mark Lanegan has become so full of different and heterogenous entries that there is a specific page on Wikipedia that is dedicated to report all of his releases and appearances, which include many solo albums, a bunch of EPs and a vastity of collaborations with other bands and musicians. As part of this large number of collaborations, in 2013 Lanegan released an interesting record with the English singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Duke Garwood. The album, called Black Pudding, received however mixed reactions from the public and the critics, partly due to the absolutely secondary role that was given to Gardwood (unlike the most successful and definitely more “balanced” collaboration with Isobel Campbell) , but also because Black Pudding, in the end, resulted as an extremely monochromatic and predictable album, with Lanegan anchored to his consolidated formula of dark and bluesy folk.
Five years after Black Pudding, Lanegan and Darkwood have released a second collaborative effort, named With Animals, and it’s clear from the very first songs of the new album that the harmony and the spiritual connection between the two has largely improved. For the casual listener this album could appear quite similar to the last few works by Lanegan, but this is not true if you go beyond the surface.
With Animals is a solid and inspired album, where all the songs are linked and correlated by a sort of spiritual connection, something which makes you feel like venturing into the darkest and most disturbing areas of your inner self. Darkness, restlessness, impotence. These are the feelings that emerge when you listen to the songs of With Animals, and in this case we can finally say that such stong emotional charge doesn’t come only from the raspy and baritone voice of Lanegan, but it derives also from a stronger contribution by Darkwood and his hypnotic guitar loops. The music, in many moments of the album, reaches peaks of absolute beauty and in a few rare cases it even takes the lead over Lanegan’s voice.
if you’re not discouraged by the minimal arrangements, the slow rhythms and the dark and oppressive atmospheres, With Animals can become a valuable companion to your moments of reflection and relax.
#4) Grant-Lee Phillips, “Widdershins”
After the relatively short but intense experience with the Grant-Lee Buffalo, American singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Grant-Lee Phillips started a solo career which has already led him to publish a significant number of records. Between some inevitable high and low, this artist has managed to achieve a respectable role in the modern music scene, although perhaps the charm and success of his initial band remains unattainable.
Widdershins, which is Grant-Lee’s last record, is a solid album full of energy and positivity, that results extremely enjoyable to listen and where we can appreciate the unique capacity of the artist to balance – in a perfect and maniacal way – both intimate and more sardonic moments.
Widdershins, in its essence, is a classic folk album based on guitar and voice, maybe the most “classic” among the list of albums that we have in this chart. The author doesn’t want to impress for innovation or creativity. He’s singing is sweet and beautiful songs, letting us forget the tasks of our daily routines and allowing our spirit to take a break from the troubles of our life. And that’s what we like in his music.
#5) Ellen Starski, “The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants”
Tennessee-based singer-songwriter Ellen Starski released in 2018 her solo debut album, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants, which basically collects the folk songs that she wrote over the course of the last 12 years. The release notes of the LP explain,
The album highlights the many influences that contributed to define her style of music: stripped-down and melodic folk ballads that are reminiscent of the the early works from Bob Dylan, Tori Amos, Patti Smith and to some extent also Paul Cohen.
A special mention is necessary for Ellens’ emotional voice, which is often the real added value of the album. Throughout the songs of the LP the artists sings of her homeland, personal anedoctes, the beauty of nature, with a style that is both an homage to the masters of the past and also a celebration of the magic of folk.
Taken as a whole, The Days When Peonies Prayed for the Ants features a very valuable and enjoyable collection of indie-folk songs, some of them particularly exciting, and we expect good things for her future, ideally with a style that will become, with the years, even more unique and particular.
#6) Heather Taylor, “Undercurrents”
I came across Heather Taylor almost by chance one day that I was browsing into the new releases in Bandcamp. As soon as I listened a few songs from Undercurrents, which is Taylor’s last and newest album, I was immediately captured by the delicacy and the charm of this record.
The release notes of the album say that Ms. Taylor is a singer-songwriter from North Carolina, in the U.S.A.. She was classically trained in flute but eventually developed a special connection with Appalachian folk, which is the special version of music that developed in North America through the fusion of the different styles and musical traditions that were brought into the New World by the various immigrants that arrived in the eastern side of the U.S. starting from the 18th century. And in fact, in absolute continuity with the legacy of Appalachian folk, the music composed and played by Taylor features really many different influences including americana, blues, and country.
From a musical point of view the arrangements of Undercurrents are simple but effective: the majority of the songs are built only on the combination of the beautiful voice of the artist with her octave mandolin and the slide guitar played masterfully by Sean Jerome. Such a basic instrumentation gives a lot of consistency to the record, which is gifted by a couple of really spectacular songs that et us foretell a brilliant career for this talented artist.
If you enjoyed this chart, you will also appreciated the playlist MODERN SONGWRITERS that I mange on Spotify. Follow it because it’s updated with periodically with new songs and it feature all of the artists that were mentioned in this article.