Arts Desk

The Best Kinda Sorta Folk Albums of 2009


It was a good year to be young and bearded. A good decade, really. The aughts kicked off with the release of O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose soundtrack opened the eyes of at least one generation to the pleasures of underproduced plucking and simple melodies; and ended with three harbingers of the so-called "indie folk" genre joining hands beneath the unqualified Monsters of Folk moniker, using half-century-old gear to produce a beautiful mess of surf pop, spaghetti westerns, and ethereal lullabies. Confusing!

Anyway, whatever folk is, there was plenty made in 2009 that is worth a listen. Here's my top five, in alphabetical order:

The Avett Brothers, I and Love and You

With the addition of Rick Rubin at the switches and a lot of piano, these North Carolina sibs evolved from a twangy string band to what Ben Folds might have sounded like if he grew up listening to Gram Parsons instead of Elton John. This record might be corny if it weren’t so canny.

Best Tracks: “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise”; “Ten Thousand Words”

2. Blind Pilot, 3 Rounds and a Sound

With Justin Vernon’s sojourn into the wilds of Wisconsin still fresh in the minds of flannel-clad twentysomethings and NPR music critics, you might say Blind Pilot’s Israel Nebeker was under some pressure when he dusted off the dog-eared script of self-exile and absconded to an abandoned cannery to pen the songs that would become 3 Rounds and a Sound. The record isn’t as intense as Vernon’s lauded 2008 opus, but it’s small, intimate, and sneakily spellbinding.

Best Tracks: “One Red Thread”; “3 Rounds and a Sound”

(Update: It has occurred to me that 3 Rounds and a Sound was actually released in 2008, and was included here due to the author's cultural jetlag. The plug stays because the album is awesome... but for the purposes of maintaining a full list, I am obliged to give its spot to Townes, Steve Earle's album of Townes Van Zandt covers. Best tracks: "Lungs"; "To Live is to Fly")

3. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love

To listen to the Decemberists' fantastical folk-rock opera is to observe frontman Colin Meloy in his element: Maidens on horseback and lustful shapeshifters; envious forest queens, murderous drifters; dark magic, tragedy, verbose writing—these are a few of his favorite things.

Best Tracks: “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)”; “The Hazards of Love 2 (Wager All)”; “The Hazards of Love 3 (Revenge!)”; “The Hazards of Love 4 (The Drowned)”

4. The Felice Brothers, Yonder is the Clock

The Felice Brothers’ first release as members of the Team Love label was slightly more subdued than its self-titled 2009 album, but this posse of backwater yankees still brings the firewater rain on a few tracks. As for the slower stuff, is there any tool more tastefully emo than a well-deployed cello? Yes: a well-deployed accordion.

Best Tracks: “Penn Station”; “Ambulance Man”

5. Monsters of Folk, Monsters of Folk

I sure hoped indie darlings Conor Oberst, M. Ward, and Jim James (Yim Yames?) wouldn’t disappoint with their long-anticipated collaboration. They sure didn’t.

Best Tracks: “Whole Lotta Losin’”; “Temazcal”; “The Sandman, the Brakeman, and Me”

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  • michael ketover

    thx for the post, steve. i love those earle covers, saw m. ward in DC this year, love that vibe, gonna go check out blind pilot, thx!! i'm curious cuz i put out a CD in 2009 called simple town that itunes characterizes as folk. i'm going with it but wonder if i am really folky or not. happy holidaze.