Paste Magazine recently published its list of the 100 Best Indie Folk Albums of All Time, which at first glance seems like a recipe for disaster. But remember, this is Paste, not Pitchfork, so breathe easy.
Overall, the list was pretty spot on. Between their inclusion of three of my all-time favorite records in the top 10, and their exclusion of anything by the overly pretentious/overrated Arcade Fire, I was pretty satisfied. But as is the case with any good music list, there were some glaring omissions. Sequencing something like this is no easy task–I have a hard enough time making lists with 10 items in them–so you can’t fault the fine folks at Paste for overlooking these. But that’s why I’m here–to refresh their (and your) memories. Without further ado, here are the Top 10 Indie Folk Records that Paste Forgot:
10. The Damnwells / Bastards of the Beat (2004)
The Damnwells may go down as one of the most underrated bands of the last two decades. “Bastards of the Beat” is the first of their five full-length records, and is a perfect amalgamation of alt-country and slightly-90s-influenced rock. Nowadays, those subgenres basically amount to, you guessed it, indie-folk. Frontman and lead songwriter Alex Dezen (who has now moved on to an already impressive solo career) has a knack for writing catchy melodies overflowing with authenticity. This record is a perfect example of a brilliant songwriter at the very beginning of his career.
9. Margot and the Nuclear So-and-So’s / The Dust of Retreat (2005)
If you’ve never heard of this band, the best way to describe them is “an enigma.” Their career has seen four left turns since this stunning debut, only to bring them back (it’s a square, get it?) to a similar subdued musical state for their final record. “The Dust of Retreat” is still their finest output, and one that screams indie-folk. It’s also ahead of its time. In the age of bands like Of Monsters and Men, The Lumineers and The Lone Bellow, this record would fit right in, and more than hold its own. It pulls at your heart strings while simultaneously providing some much-needed comfort.
8. Grace Potter & The Nocturnals / This is Somewhere (2007)
Seven years ago, Grace Potter was seemingly at the top of her game, getting some much-deserved mainstream recognition for her (and her band’s) self-titled release. And then for some inexplicable reason, she took her career in a couple of very strange directions. (I still don’t understand how such a fine songwriter can release such an awful record as 2015’s “Midnight.“) Before all that, however, exactly 10 years ago, she released “This is Somewhere,” a stunning collection of Americana, reminiscent of the rural locale (Vermont) she calls home. The one-two punch of “Apologies” and “Ain’t No Time,” along with the rest of side A, is heartfelt perfection commanding the attention of the average American, not unlike what a certain Boss is famous for.
7. Pinegrove / Cardinal (2016)
It’s hard to deny a band that almost came out of nowhere last year and garnered so much praise so quickly with an eight-song record. Maybe upon first listen this doesn’t strike you as indie-folk. But listen again, more closely. Buried just enough beneath the surface are banjos and folksy harmonies that will make the hair on your arms stand up. The beauty of Pinegrove is they’re able to mesh these elements with fuzzy guitars and lo-fi production in a way that I’ve never heard before. Maybe if this record came out a few years ago it would have been included on Paste’s list, but I guarantee that down the line, Paste will look back on this record with as much fondness as the rest of the records it included.
6. Youth Group / Skeleton Jar (2005)
Youth Group is another one of those criminally underrated bands that broke up too soon. I bought their debut “Skeleton Jar” on a whim because a sticker on the front of it caught my attention. (Remember when bands used to put review quotes on the front of their records?) It read something like “Youth Group is the greatest band in the world” and the quote was by Chris Walla. Being the Death Cab nut that I was at the time (and still am, letsbehonest), I bought it at my local Strawberries (RIP) without ever hearing a note. The record is an indie-rock masterpiece from start to finish. It may not cross too much into the folk side of indie folk, with the exception of some acoustic guitars and folk-style song structures, but it should absolutely be included in a list like this. If you’ve never heard the record, it should grab your attention right from the get-go; “Shadowland” is one of my favorite Track Ones ever.
5. Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins / Rabbit Fur Coat (2006)
Jenny Lewis has quite a lot of quotable lyrics, but “You are what you love and not what loves you back” may be her most beloved. This declaration comes right in the middle of an Americana-focused record that beams thanks in large part to the stunning backing vocal arrangements performed by the Watson Twins. But the songs are pure Jenny Lewis, who at the time was nearing the end of her stint with indie-rock darlings Rilo Kiley. Lewis has always tiptoed…errr…walked…actually, let’s just say ran…down the line of gritty lyrical content, and has never shied away from topics that go as far as discussing the first time she dropped acid (but that was two years later). Songs like the title track and album highlight “Born Secular” certainly fall into that category, and are instantly quotable. To further accentuate her indie-folk cred, she even called up friends Conor Oberst, Ben Gibbard and M. Ward to lend a hand to her addicting cover of “Handle With Care.”
4. Kevin Devine / Put Your Ghost to Rest (2008)
When you think of Kevin Devine, you wouldn’t necessarily label him as ‘indie-folk’. Hell, I don’t know what you’d label him as; it’s not important. What’s important is “Put Your Ghost to Rest” is a damn fine collection of indie-folk songs that cover everything from drug abuse (“Just Stay”) to politics (“The Burning City Smoking”) to mental health (“You’ll Only End Up Joining Them”). If there’s one thing you can say about Kevin, it’s that his songs have something important to say, every time. The lyrics are brilliant and the melodies (which sometimes, endearingly, take a page out of Elliott Smith’s book) are captivating.
3. Frightened Rabbit / Midnight Organ Fight (2007)
Much to my surprise, Paste did include my favorite FR record on their list, the underappreciated (though, maybe not?) 2011 release “Winter of Mixed Drinks.” “Midnight Organ Fight” preceded that record, and while it’s a weaker record as a whole (but very slightly, and only in the sense that it has a couple filler songs) it has stronger standout tracks. “The Modern Leper” and “My Backwards Walk” are two of the best indie-folk songs ever put to tape.
2. The National / Boxer (2007)
I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt on this one. Maybe this fell just outside Paste’s indie-folk qualifications–it does happen to lean a little more indie rock than folk, but I would absolutely lump it in among the other records on their list. (Not to mention, one or both of the Dessner brothers worked on a bunch of the records on their list.) It took me a while to get into this record initially, but once I did, I fell hard. The production is second to none, and [Matt] Berninger’s baritone croon weaves in and out of intricate arrangements in unexpected and creative ways, all amounting to one of the best collections of songs released in the first decade of the millennium. While their 2010 followup (“High Violet”) somehow managed to top it, “Boxer” is still more deserving of a spot on this list if for no other reason than how groundbreaking the record is.
1. Ryan Adams / Heartbreaker (2000)
I mean… like… come on. Ryan Adams’ debut isn’t just one of the best indie-folk albums of all time, it’s one of THE BEST albums of all time. And that’s not just subjective. It’s fact. There’s scientific proof of this. I don’t know where it is, but I’m sure it’s out there. Call up Bill Nye if you don’t believe me. Adams’ tortured state of mind comes through in the most raw, intimate and… ahem…heartbreaking way, and we should be forever indebted to him for it. The fact that this was left off the Top 100 is criminal–Paste should be ashamed of itself. (Totally just kidding–I love you guys.) And with that, I’ll leave you with the album’s anchor, the live show encore, the cherry atop the indie folk sundae… “Come Pick Me Up.”