BEST OF 2023 The Best Folk Albums of 2023 By James Gui · December 15, 2023

The invocation of folk music as a genre can bring to mind a certain demographic of artists and listeners, but to me, folk feels like an approach to making music that highlights the relationships of people to each other and the land they live on. Just as “punk” is as much an attitude as a genre, consider the following question: What might listening with a “folk” attitude toward music sound like, with an expansive and critical view of who and what the “folk” entail? These 10 records best embodied a folk attitude in sound in 2023.

Minhwi Lee
미​래​의 고향 Hometown to Come

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South Korea’s preeminent contemporary folk artist and film composer Minhwi Lee made a long-awaited return this year with 미​래​의 고향 Hometown to Come, seven years to the day after her award-winning debut 빌린 입 Borrowed Tongue. In those years Lee has kept busy, scoring films, starting a jazz trio, and occasionally playing bass for sludge metal group Gawthrop, but it’s her prolific soundtracking work that comes to the fore in this record. Hometown to Come is as cinematic as folk gets, with swelling string arrangements and imagistic lyrics that explore how the notion of “hometown” changes for the peripatetic: “If we were able to stay/ Would we be able to call ourselves ‘we’?” (간혹 머물 수 있다면/ 우리는 우릴 우리라고 부를 수도 있을까) she sings in the title track. It’s this sense of disjuncture that has characterized her work, from her exploration of empathy as ventriloquism on Borrowed Tongue all the way back to her iconoclastic approach to Korean tradition with Mukimukimanmansu. But this record is Lee at her most refined, one whose meditations on longing and belonging are influenced by films like Sicilia! (1998) as well as her own experiences studying in New York and Paris.

False Lankum

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Lankum earned much praise this year not only within folk circles but also with the wider listening public for their refashioning of the dark balladry of the Irish tradition on False Lankum. While their 2019 release The Livelong Day was an earlier step in the experimental direction they take here, there’s something about False Lankum that’s especially arresting. “Go Dig My Grave” opens the record with a bleak rendition of the traditional tune, droning tones and textures enveloping Radie Peat’s croon. “Master Crowley’s” begins as a relatively straightforward interpretation before thundering percussion opens up a desolate chasm, the rest of the tune barely audible from its depths. With original compositions by Daragh Lynch (“Netta Perseus” and “The Turn”) alongside centuries-old tunes, False Lankum is a rupture in Irish traditional music, one which will surely have influence beyond 2023.

Live at Café Oto

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Oki Kano made a double contribution to Ainu music this year. One was helping reissue the late Umeko Ando’s 2003 album Upopo Sanke. The other was dropping Live at Café Oto. The record reimagines the tonkori (a five-stringed instrument meant to be played “open” rather than fretted) and mukkuri (a plucked bamboo idiophone similar to a jaw harp) with an understanding of the power of rhythmic repetition to generate a psychedelic, trancelike atmosphere. But instead of his usual Dub Ainu Band, he plays with his wife Rumiko and son Manaw alongside bandmate Takashi Nakajo. The familial camaraderie extends to the audience in “Kon Kon,” with Kano inviting them to “Sing it!” The fact that the record was recorded during the London Jazz Festival (you read that right—jazz!) is also significant. Taking Ainu tradition across national and musical borders, Kano’s family band might be a living embodiment of “folk” as an attitude.

Dom Flemons
Traveling Wildfire

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Given the excellent output of Smithsonian Folkways this year, I could potentially craft a Best Folk list solely consisting of the label’s releases—records like Return to Archive and Nowruz, in wildly different ways, reimagine the folk tradition in a productive way. But Dom Flemons’s Traveling Wildfire is a different kind of reimagining, one that re-centers the history of American roots music around the Black musicians who contributed to its formation, and brings that legacy into the present day. He crafts what he describes in the liner notes as “an audio impressionistic painting that is based on my personal epiphanies, spiritual evolution, and real-life experiences” during the overlapping precarities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the George Floyd uprisings. Playing no fewer than 15 instruments that trace the contours of 100 years of American folk song, Flemons takes us from the Mississippi Delta to the Piedmont and back.

No-No Boy
Empire Electric

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Julian Saporiti completed his PhD in Ethnomusicology at Brown University with a focus on race, memory, and immigration, and Empire Electric is firmly ensconced in American folk idioms with an awareness of their historical entanglements with imperialism. Growing up in Nashville down the street from a member of the Lomax family, Saporiti’s deep relationship to American roots music commingles with musical traditions from Asia, painting a nuanced picture of Asian America.

马木尔 Mamer
成​为​切​尔​铁​尔 X​ê​rt​ê​rmin / Sherter Solo

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“If I stop working as a musician in the future, I’ll just get a sherter and play it by myself,” says Kazakh multi-instrumentalist Mamer, quoted in the liner notes for 成​为​切​尔​铁​尔 X​ê​rt​ê​rmin / Sherter Solo. “This is the instrument that’s the closest to me. I don’t know why, but maybe it’s because its sound is so lonely.” While the two-stringed dombra is regaled as a Kazakh cultural symbol, the three-stringed sherter has humble origins as a shepherd’s instrument used to accompany folk tales. Here, Mamer pours his spirit into a wordless, 40-minute improvisation, teasing out the instrument’s lonesome effect with practiced skill. It’s a rare solo performance on an instrument that typically plays a secondary role to the dombra in ensembles, the cavernous reverb of Shenzhen’s B10 Live performance space sublimating its tones into unearthly atmosphere.

Raja Kirik
Phantasmagoria of Jathilan

On Phantasmagoria of Jathilan, Indonesian duo Raja Kirik (Yennu Ariendra and J. Mo’ong Santosa Pribadi) explore the intersection between jathilan, a Javanese horse dance, and the noisier side of electronic dance music. In traditional jathilan, dancers enter a trance state and accomplish superhuman feats like eating glass; in one account, these dancers represent the cavalry of Prince Diponegoro in the fight against the Dutch during the Java War. With singer Silir Wangi and performer Ari Dwianto, Raja Kirik emphasizes jathilan as a representation of anticolonial resistance, melding industrial electronics, gabber kicks, and traditional Javanese vocals. The result is a five-act epic telling a story of resistance and triumph.

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