By Noah W. Bailey
Picking the best folk and Americana records of the year isn't nearly as hard as discarding those great records that just didn't feel right stuck in the category.
Releases by Calexico and DeVotchKa felt far too worldly to pigeonhole as folk or country, for instance, while Blitzen Trapper's fantastic Furr smells more like the Kinks than Neil Young. [Editor's note: That's why we put it on our indie-rock list.] We likewise discarded Shearwater's near-masterpiece Rook, despite the fact that the album's instrumentation includes both banjo and a hammered dulcimer. And while we certainly returned to releases by Bon Iver and Bowerbirds throughout the year, we actually heard both records last year, when they were first independently released.
After this arduous vetting process, these are the records that survived: ten releases that dabble equally in meat-and-potatoes alt-country, soft-focus '70s pop folk, and the old, weird America of Greil Marcus.
As a Zooey Deschanel character once put it, long before she ever met M. Ward: "Listen and light a candle, and your future will become clear."
BONNIE PRINCE BILLY
Lie Down in the Light
Perhaps even besting his 1999 high-water mark I See a Darkness, Lie Down is surely the most diverse and listenable outing of Will Oldham's lengthy career, with a sweet, playful side not often found on the Bonnie Prince's earlier records. From the Dead-does-country of opener "Easy Does It" to the earth-shaking duets with Canadian Ashley Webber (sister of Black Mountain's Amber Webber) on "So Everyone" and "You Want That Picture," the album is proof positive that Oldham is only getting better with age.
Seattle's Fleet Foxes were the critical darlings of 2008 -- and rightfully so, given how artfully the band farmed the rich soil of Laurel Canyon with the harmonious folk rock of its self-titled debut. Sure, the reverb-heavy production resulted in eye rolls and cries of "My Morning Jacket," but while Jim James toyed with soft rock on this year's Evil Urges, Robin Pecknold and company perfected it, making a much better record in the process.
SHE & HIM
Zooey Deschanel's debut outing with M. Ward gave record nerds the same crush movie fans have been dealing with ever since the actress dumped her vinyl off on Patrick Fugit in Almost Famous. Just don't be surprised if these lovely folk-pop ditties outlast her good looks: "Sentimental Heart" and "This Is Not a Test" could have been huge hits for the Shirelles or the Ronettes, while "Change Is Hard" would have fit perfectly down the dial nestled next to Loretta Lynn and Bobbie Gentry. If your mom loved Carole King's Tapestry, this should be her favorite album of 2008.
All Is Well
Vermont native Sam Amidon traveled to Reykjavík, Iceland, to record this collection of public-domain folk standards, which were reinvented with the help of arranger Nico Muhly. Using horns, strings and noisy percussive elements, Muhly and Amidon bring these ancient songs kicking and screaming into the future, with Amidon's sweet tenor conjuring Damien Jurado or Nick Drake on devastating tracks like "Saro," a nineteenth-century immigrant's ode to lost love.
You May Already Be Dreaming
Omaha indie rockers Neva Dinova have dabbled with country on previous releases, like their 2004 split EP with Bright Eyes. But Dreaming is the band's deepest foray into alt-country yet. From the Crazy Horse jam of "Clouds" to the Paul Simon-indebted "Squirrels," it's readily apparent that singer-songwriter Jake Bellows knows his way around a melody. We'll even let him slide on using the verb "Google" in the lyrics of "Supercomputer." The fact that it's all more memorable than Conor Oberst's solo album is just icing on the cake.
The Living & the Dead
Warbly songstress Jolie Holland flirts with a more polished sound on her fourth LP, largely forgoing the ghostly parlor music that is her hallmark. M. Ward stops by to play Byrdsian twelve-string on the title track, a catchy folk-rock ode to Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, while Tom Waits axman Marc Ribot pitches in on spookier numbers like "Fox in Its Hole" and the soulful "Palmyra" (which sounds more like Car Wheels on a Gravel Road than anything on Lucinda Williams's much-lauded and overrated Little Honey).
THE TALLEST MAN ON EARTH
While it seems unlikely that the tallest man on earth would hail from Sweden, singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson's nom de plume doesn't seem so outlandish once you've experienced the simple beauty of this debut LP. And while the disc garnered a slew of Dylan comparisons thanks to Matsson's deft finger-picking, feverish strumming and rough, nasal croon, Shallow Grave is the rare album that actually deserves the comparison. It's filled with devastatingly simple tunes that sound so immediate and familiar you'll swear Matsson pulled them out of an issue of Sing Out!
The Island Moved in the Storm
(La Société Expéditionnaire)
This exquisitely produced concept album folds images from singer-songwriter Matt Bauer's Kentucky childhood into a dark narrative following the fate of "Tent Girl," a Jane Doe found dead in rural Kentucky in 1968. Bauer's quiet, gravelly voice and banjo playing -- imagine Sufjan Stevens's Seven Swans sung in a lower register -- lend themselves perfectly to such dark material, while eerie vocal contributions from fellow folksters Alela Diane and Mariee Sioux on highlights like "Barn Owl" and "Rose and Vine" help him raise the dead from the grave.
House With No Name
(Kill Rock Stars)
Singer-songwriter Justin Ringle's songs bear all the great influences one would expect from a modern folk artist, from the bare-bones balladry of Springsteen's Nebraska to the quiet, indie-pop sensibilities of Iron and Wine or Holopaw. But it's the violin and cello of siblings Peter and Heather Broderick that really make House With No Name soar, turning what could have been just another indie-folk album into a near-symphonic statement to file alongside your Andrew Bird and Dirty Three albums.
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Only as the Day Is Long
Former Band of Horses drummer Sera Cahoone made the straight alt-country record of the year with this collection of haunting shuffles, which are alternately reminiscent of Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter or Whiskeytown's 1997 opus Stranger's Almanac. With her bandmates' haunting pedal steel and quiet banjo perfectly underscoring her smoky vocals, Cahoone delivers a set of well-crafted laments perfect for dimly lit bars and late-night drives through the pines.