1. “The Devil Bird” – Albert af Ekenstam. An unhurried, expansive acoustic-led song reminiscent of Leif Vollebekk or Gregory Alan Isakov’s work.
2. “The Beast That Rolls Within” – Dietrich Strause. A troubadour’s confident vocals, abstract lyrics, and gently rolling guitar make Strause an artist to watch in the vein of Joe Pug and Josh Ritter. This song is excellent.
3. “I Love Immigration” – This Frontier Needs Heroes. Refocuses the talk of immigration by pointing out that unless you’re a Native American, literally everyone in this country is the relative of an immigrant. As Brad Lauretti and I are both descended from Italian immigrants, I felt a special resonance with this charming, shuffling, upbeat acoustic pop tune with a deeply important message.
4. “Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin” – The Chairman Dances. The finely detailed lyrics of the Mountain Goats paired with indie-pop that has a wider range, from dreamier at one end to more formal and Beatles-esque at the other. But there’s still a great “hey!” thrown in. Always a good yawp, you know. Highly recommended.
5. “A Lonely Road” – Jordan O’Jordan. It’s hard to make rattling banjo chords sound delicate, but O’Jordan’s oh-so-sweet voice tempers the rough edges and creates a warm, immersive song. (Toss-up on the “ahs” section: some people are going to think it’s lovely, and some are going to wonder what just happened. Just so you know.)
6. “Fingers Crossed” – The Marrieds. Bright, clear, female-led acoustic-pop with a little more Americana than the Weepies but not as much as the Civil Wars. It’s remarkably pretty, especially when the strings come in. You could dance to this at a wedding.
7. “Suite pour Justin” – Yves Lambert Trio. Traditional Quebecois folk music includes accordion, fiddle, guitar and percussion, in case you (like me) didn’t know. It sounds sort of like a mix of bluegrass and Zydeco, which is incredibly rad. The rest of the album includes vocals in French; this one’s instrumental. The musical quality is elite, so if you’re an adventurous listener I would highly recommend checking the whole album out.
8. “Generation, Love” – Jon Reynolds. Doo-wop, Beach Boys harmonies, and old-school rock’n’roll vibes come together to be pleasantly, nostalgically retro, while yearning for love instead of hate (a very modern concern).
9. “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” – Courtney Marie Andrews. This woman has the female version of Jason Isbell’s voice. I kid you not: the stress on certain syllables, the swoops in volume, the vocal strain on the fronts of lines…it’s all there. It’s awesome. The songwriting is a great trad-country vibe, but whoa. That voice. Check this out.
10. “Brink of Love (ft. Ladysmith Black Mambazo)” – Vian Izak. While we’re on the topic of love, why not indulge in a adult alternative acoustic tune that includes a hugely famous African choir? (You may know them from Graceland, only one the best albums of all time.)
11. “The Other Side” – VACAY. A romantic folk-pop song with some solid falsetto; a little less Lumineers and a little more adult alternative.
12. “the fall” – Andrea Silva. Somewhere between haunting and lilting, Silva’s vocal performance is an enigmatic, engaging figure over an acoustic guitar.
1. “County Line” – Susto. Susto is one of the very best alt-country acts working today, and if you don’t know that you haven’t heard their stuff yet. Let this nigh-on-perfect tune serve as your introduction.
2. “King” – The Amazing Devil. This incredibly intense song wrings every last drop of emotion out of dramatic vocal performances, a cinematic lyrical set, and a churning full-band acoustic performance. Cello has rarely sounded so incredibly vibrant and necessary in folk-rock. The video that accompanies the tune is equally impassioned; it’s a rare thing that the video enhances the experience of listening to the song, but this one totally does. Highly recommended. Their album comes out Monday, so if you’re in London you should check their release show out. If it’s anything like this video, it promises to be a wild affair.
3. “Window” – Stephen Douglas Wolfe. Saxophone and French horn are not common inclusions in a woodsy folk tune, but Wolfe makes them sound totally natural. Between them and the bassist going absolutely bonkers (you go!), this sounds almost more like Anathallo than it does Bon Iver, but fans of both will find much to love in this tune.
4. “Dancing in the Dark” – Josiah and the Bonnevilles. This song is infinitely coverable: I would listen to almost anyone cover this tune. The fact that Josiah and the Bonnevilles are my favorite new band of the year makes it even more excellent.
5. “Standing” – Melody Federer. This singer-songwriter/indie-pop tune has a melodic maturity that stands up against Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Watkins, and Sleeping at Last. It has gravitas while still remaining light; it’s a very rare balance that is to be celebrated.
6. “Why Don’t You Call Home” – Deni Gauthier. Sometimes all you need is a great falsetto and a tiny guitar riff to steal hearts.
7. “Sunset Road” – Kathryn Overall. Here’s a folk-pop tune about contentment, local beauty, and home played in a low-key, no-frills, earnest way. I broke into a smile, and I think you will too.
8. “Under a Rose” – Dylan Addington. Always space in my heart for a folk-pop tune with a catchy vocal melody and stomping percussion. Fans of The Lumineers should be all up on this.
9. “The Captain” – Adam Topol. Fans of the easygoing acoustic joy of Dispatch and Guster will find a lot of love in Topol’s swaying, airy, summery tune.
10. “Catch Your Fall” – The River South. The iconic shuffle-snare is employed to great effect here, providing the backbone for a delicate love song. The keyboards, bass, and dual vocals fill in the warm, comforting vibe.
11. “White Sky” – Lilla Clara. A solemn, emotionally powerful tune that sucks all the air out of the room.
12. “Between the Bars” – Andrea Silva. Elliott Smith cannot have very much added to him, but reinterpretation keeps a legacy alive. This cover features a great vocal performance, too.
13. “Once Upon a Child” – Eleanor Murray. Tape hiss, nylon strings, room reverb, and an arresting alto vocal line come together for a deeply affecting tune.
14. “Loss” – Paul Sweeney. This contemplative solo guitar piece has a consistent motion in the melodic line that makes the song both evocative and emotional.
15. “Improvisation I” – De Martenn. This solo piano piece explores a dark blue mood; it feels like the street corner late at night, when you know no one is around but it still feels like something is going to happen. It’s peaceful but not serene; there’s some undercurrent going right there under the surface. You look twice; no one is there either time. You’re a little disappointed, but but also relieved. You walk home. You sleep well.