You're going to be seeing a lot of lists in the next few weeks. Lists of bests and worsts of year, lists of disappointments, lists of dance mixes and YouTube clips. We figured we'd begin our weeks of lists with one that captures not the year in music, but one aspect of the decade in music: new weird American folk. – Editor
From 19th Century Appalachian murder ballads to the acid-fueled Laurel Canyon scene, folk music has always possessed an element of strangeness, one that sprouts from many different backroads of America. New York may have birthed the urban folk movement, but Los Angeles has spawned a number of its most genre-pushing works, from Love's Forever Changes to the Byrds' seminal Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Another strand of modern folk music, it could be argued, was born in Athens, Georgia, when Neutral Milk Hotel burst folk's limits wide open with the release of its second album, 1998's In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, a psychedelic lo-fi masterpiece that doubled as a concept album about Anne Frank.
Its mystery has only deepened in the decade since. Frontman Jeff Mangum entered self-imposed exile in the ensuing years, participating in the music world only sporadically. (He popped onstage at Elephant Six gatherings this summer in New York City.) Though a new century has brought profound technological change, it hasn't stopped the '00s from being perhaps folk music's weirdest yet. Want proof? Check out this string of masterful 21st century folk. – List and Text by David Greenwald
Devendra Banhart – Rejoicing in the Hands (Young God; 2004)
Freak folk's patron saint sings with an untrained vibrato and plays with a casual intimacy that recalls the tossed-off feel of Laurel Canyon-bred classics like David Crosby's If Only I Could Remember My Name. Serious-minded folkies may find him off-putting — and his recent dalliances with paparazzi culture/the world's most famous Shins fan haven't helped — but Banhart plays with warmth and heart that's hard to deny.
Various Artists – Golden Apples of the Sun (Bastet; 2004)
The Banhart-curated compilation identified and defined the then-budding “freak-folk” movement led by the long-hair himself. Boasting tracks from harpist Joanna Newsom, guitar droners Six Organs of Admittance and '60s British folkie Vashti Bunyan, this collection was also a mission statement for Arthur magazine, which became the mouthpiece of the movement by sponsoring album releases and curating the highly influential Arthurfest. (This year Arthur relocated its headquarters to Brooklyn.)
Grizzly Bear – Yellow House (Warp; 2006)
Since this album's release a mere two years ago, Grizzly Bear has risen from playing Spaceland to Walt Disney Concert Hall. The band's remarkable ascent is no doubt thanks to the sheer charisma of Yellow House, an album of blissful, sepia-toned lullabies and volcanic bursts of distortion ably directed by singer/songwriters Ed Droste and Daniel Rossen.
Animal Collective – Sung Tongs (Fat Cat; 2004)
The defining experimentalists of the decade, Animal Collective have also become one of underground folk's most imitated bands. Their more recent works curb their ADD leanings in favor of more traditional pop structures, but the band's relentless energy is in full force here on songs such as “We Tigers,” blending Beach Boys harmonies with fuzzy, red-lining acoustic guitars that would make Neutral Milk Hotel proud.
Chad VanGaalen – Infiniheart (Sub Pop; 2005)
This list's only Canadian entrant is also one of its most obscure, despite Sub Pop's high profile. But VanGaalen probably isn't for everyone. He is not only a home recordist, but one who makes his own instruments, and whose science fiction-informed lyrics touch on the dystopian nightmares of The Matrix and Ray Bradbury's surrealism. Still, he's got a way with a melody, imbuing songs with a Neil Young-like innocence.
Joanna Newsom – Ys (Drag City; 2006)
With string arrangements by Brian Wilson's SMiLE collaborator Van Dyke Parks, production from Steve Albini and mixing by Jim O'Rourke (the ex-Sonic Youth member behind the boards on Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born), Newsom assembled an all-star supporting cast for her ambitious second album. Despite the overflowing talent, however, Newsom herself shines brightest of all, offering lyrical epics that extend as long as 16 minutes, all delivered in her inimitable squawk.
Akron/Family – Akron/Family (Young God; 2005)
Akron/Family were discovered by Michael Gira of Swans and Angels of Light, whose Young God Records also released Banhart's Rejoicing in the Hands. But Akron's unpredictable debut album owes little debt of influence to their labelmates: Akron/Family is a feast of found-sound samples, Garage Band electronics and sensitive, tempestuous songs as likely to tenderly address a lover (“I'll Be on the Water”) as they are to balloon up to Radiohead-like proportions (the mind-boggling “Running, Returning”). Disconcerting track by track, the album is much more than the sum of its parts.
The Microphones – The Glow, Pt. 2 (K; 2001)
Phil Elvrum (who has since renamed himself Phil Elverum for reasons unknown) is an enigma, a seemingly naïve musician who writes albums about mountains – and sometimes has to bum rides down the coast from his native Washington to play shows. He does, however, manage to run his own record label. The recently reissued The Glow, Pt. 2 documents the existential plight of man's insignificance, and does it with multi-tracked guitars and his trembling, nasal voice. A bedroom epic built for headphones.
Bonnie 'Prince' Billy – I See A Darkness (Drag City, 1999)
As prolific as Dylan in his prime, Will Oldham has averaged over an album's worth of songs under one moniker or another every year since his 1993 debut, The Palace Brothers' There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You. The jewel in his formidable crown is I See a Darkness, his first reinvention of himself as the Bonnie Prince. Johnny Cash covered the title track on American III, but not even his baritone could match the reverb-soaked fear and loathing of Oldham's dread.
Neutral Milk Hotel – In the Aeroplane Over the Sea (Merge; 1998)
Ten years later, Mangum's opus remains unparalleled. With good reason: Who among today's talent could match the explosive feedback of “Holland, 1945” or the sickly sexual imagery of “Two-Headed Boy?” Even now, the album is too passionate, too focused a statement to match. Perhaps someday Mangum himself will emerge from his cave to deliver a successor, but until then, Aeroplane flies highest.