Contemporary folk music is all about the thread that connects the past to the present. In the last couple of decades, a swathe of talented folk musicians have been both bringing traditional folk songs to life, and bringing elements of traditional music into contemporary compositions.
In this article, we delve into a diverse selection of American and British folk bands (England, Scotland, and Ireland) covering sub-genres from alternative folk, to drone, experimental, psychedelic, dark folk, folk rock, and traditional folk.
This article contains a mix of both traditional folk artists and more boundary-pushing modern folk bands. So whether you’re just discovering the world of folk, or a long-time folkie looking to find something new, this should be a good place to start.
Listen to our folk playlist on Spotify.
Droning, atmospheric, dark Scottish folk, Burd Ellen is a Glasgow-based project featuring Debbie Armour and Gayle Brogan.
Their 2021 release, the chilling ‘High Priestess and the Heirophant,’ is a version of ‘Fair Annie’ which draws on the pair’s fascination with tarot, divination, and their parallels with the interpretation of traditional song.
The critically acclaimed 2020 album Says The Never Beyond is a beautiful record of traditional British and Irish winter folk songs, reimagined with the duo’s characteristic experimental and drone-based arrangements.
Their music is understated, minimal, and spare, and at the same time deeply dramatic, evoking a wealth of history and emotion. Listen now.
Hailing from Nottingham, UK, Keto has been described as offering a distinctly millennial take on English folk music.
Haunting, melancholic melodies float over delicate arrangements with strings, drums, guitars, and keys. Harmonically complex, and at times discordant, Keto calls to mind the freak folk sounds of Vashti Bunyan, and at moments, even the likes of Radiohead.
Her 2018 album Blackened Pool is a fantastically orchestrated record, with rich strings and arresting vocals carefully layered to build eerie, challenging, darkly sublime soundscapes. Listen on Bandcamp.
A true hybrid of classical, electronic, and folk, Bristol-based Stanlæy pushes the boundaries of experimental British folk music.
Beautifully blending strings, harps, electronics, and childlike ethereal vocals, Stanlæy calls to mind Joanna Newsom – but Stanlæy’s voice is softer, her music more delicate, more alien, more ambient, more transportive.
Her 2019 multi-faceted audio visual project, The Human Project comes highly recommended. Her ambient-leaning 2021 solo lockdown releases ‘cloudsong’ and ‘p=arallel u=niverse’ show Stanlæy as atmospheric and otherworldly as ever. Listen on Bandcamp.
Widely acknowledged as one of the great Scottish folk bands of our time, no list of top folk bands would be complete without mentioning Lau.
The trio, named after an Orcadian word meaning ‘natural light,’ are generally loyal to the simple, traditional folk instrumentals of guitar, violin, accordion, and voice, situating them amongst the more ‘classic’ folk bands on this list.
Their 2012 album Race The Loser is a fan favourite, while their 2020 Unplugged gives a taste of the musicianship and wonder of their live performances. Listen here.
Alula Down is an alt folk project of prolific Hereford-based duo Mark Waters and Kate Gathercole, part of the ‘Weirdshire’ alt and psych folk collective.
Their 2021 album Godley Moor, Spring 2021, blends field recordings with improvised and semi-improvised acoustic instrumentals on traditional and original songs.
While many folk artists sing about places, the sense of place invoked by this record is one forced by circumstance – lockdown. Fittingly, Gathercole’s Bunyan-esque delicate breathy vocals elicit a calming, almost chilling stillness. Listen here.
Alternative folk maestro LA Salami’s music is characterised by his poetic storytelling, and gently hypnotic folk rock instrumentals.
His journeying 2020 album The Cause of Doubt & Reason to Have Faith is decorated with chromatic acoustic guitar fingerstyles and reverberating pianos and harmonicas.
At times bordering on the psychedelic, at times gesturing towards hip-hop, his enigmatic, intellectual lyrics and exploratory style make him one of the most interesting not-quite-folk modern folk musicians in the UK today. Check out his latest releases here.
A stalwart of the UK’s underground folk scene, Vashti Bunyan’s distinctive music borders on psychedelic folk and freak folk.
Although she is best known for her 1970 album Just Another Diamond Day, her 2014 album Heartleap is one that I can’t recommended highly enough. The record has a beautiful, wintery, melancholic stillness. Built around sparse instrumentation and simple melodies, its ten songs are delivered in Bunyan’s childlike, almost whispering tones.
Bunyan once said that she was reluctant to release music, since she would struggle to live up to the musical accomplishments of Joni Mitchell.
We can all be glad that such a lofty comparison didn’t stop her, because Vashi Bunyan’s music stands on its own as a truly distinctive and beautiful contribution to folk music.
American folk singer Joanna Newsom draws on elements of Appalachian folk music, Americana, and avant-garde to create mesmerising psychedelic folk.
Her 2004 album The Milk-Eyed Mender showcases her eccentric lyricism and meowing voice, accompanied by harp, wurlitzer, and – of all things – harpsichord. The record is, without a doubt, one of the great folk records of the twenty-first century so far. It is bizarre, childlike, and magical, and wonderfully unlike anything else.
Recent years have seen Newsom gain respect as an actor, with her film appearances including Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014).
The gloomy sounds of R Loomes meld reverb-saturated droning guitars with pining, melancholic vocal melodies.
Her 2020 EP Anomie is a case study in doom folk, with each track as unrelentingly dark and atmospheric as the last.
Gloomy it may be, but dreary it is not – the production and delivery make the record shimmer, with Loomes’ vocals glinting as they rise and fall from the soundscapes. Listen here on Bandcamp.
Based in the industrial Tyneside region of Northern England, Richard Dawson’s guitar-heavy singer-songwriter folk music has made him something of an underground cult hero in the UK.
Recent releases Henki and 2020 have seen Dawson move towards the heavier end of folk rock, with absurd humour and esoteric themes cutting through the general chaos and noise.
Like so many folk bands on this list, Dawson’s connection to place is difficult to miss, with his meandering lockdown release Republic of Geordieland paying tribute to the Newcastle region. Check out his discography on Bandcamp.
Beirut is the project of American multi-instrumentalist Zach Condon, and combines elements of indie folk and balkan music.
Influenced by Condon’s training in jazz and his travels around Europe, Beirut’s striking sound builds heavily on brass arrangements and balkan harmonics. Condon named the project after Lebanon’s capital as a place of conflict and colliding cultures.
Beirut’s 2006 debut album Gulag Orkestar is a stunning record. The opening title track sounds like a balkan funeral march. The ensuing recordings – the majority of which were recorded in Condon’s bedroom – comprise one of the most interesting indie folk records to emerge from the 00s.
Make sure to check out Gulag Orkestar. If you enjoy it, dig deeper with the follow-up 2007 album The Flying Club Cup.
Jim Ghedi’s contemporary folk music draws deep from a well of history, touching on themes of social politics and the natural world.
His wonderfully impressionistic 2018 album A Hymn for Ancient Land, instrumental until the last two songs, beautifully evokes rural scenes of the British Isles from the Peak District and beyond.
His 2021 release In the Furrows Of Common Place is a more song-focused, lyric-heavy record, allowing Ghedi’s unusual, evocative voice to take a prominent place atop layers of expert guitar fingerstyle, violin, drums and double bass.
The record culminates with Ghedi’s awe-inspiring rendition of the traditional ‘Son David.’ Listen now on Bandcamp.
Based in Glasgow, Scottish duo Avocet’s subtly psychedelic alt folk is reminiscent of 60s folk and blues.
The band comprises Iona Zajac on harp and vocals, and Sam Grassie on guitar, along with Herbie Loening on the double bass.
Their 2020 album, Lend Your Garden melds soft harp tones, guitar fingerstyle, and a rich double bass foundation with Zajac’s silky vocals luxuriously draped over the top. Listen on Bandcamp.
Hailing from Dublin, Lankum are one of the most-respected Irish folk bands in the world today. Their droning, dark, minimal arrangements stem from traditional instrumentation, featuring concertina, harmonium, violin, guitar, and vocals.
‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money?’ is the opening track to their 2017 album Between the Earth and Sky and serves as a brilliant introduction to the band’s sound – deeply atmospheric, minimal, traditional dark folk.
Their critically acclaimed latest album, The Livelong Day (2019) is a stunning collection of traditional Irish folk songs representing Lankum’s distinctive sound at its most stark and daring. Listen here.
Sheffield-based singer-songwriter Robbie Thompson draws on elements of British folk rock and Americana.
His 2020 release Look Who’s Arriving sees Thompson touch on existential themes of love, loss, choice, and authenticity.
Tightly structured and produced, the neat composition of this record offsets the richly complex, exploratory, and open-ended poetry of his lyrics, delivered via Thompson’s idiosyncratic, deeply textured voice.
Once you’ve checked out Look Who’s Arriving, make sure you turn to his 2017 debut album Between the Industry and the Green for a dose of supremely comforting, and exceptionally well-conceived modern folk songwriting. Listen to Look Who’s Arriving here.
Fleet Foxes are one of best-loved and most-enduring folk bands to emerge from the 00s indie folk scene that swept the US and the UK.
Formed in 2006, the band’s debut self-titled album (2008), and the follow-up, Helplessness Blues (2011) saw the band solidify their unmistakable, earthy, indie folk sound. With a hint of Americana imbued throughout the music, their poignant lyricism, spacious drum textures, and heavy use of natural reverbs create gorgeous sound worlds.
If you’re not familiar, check out the festive fan favourite ‘White Winter Hymnal,’ and the beautifully earnest ‘Helplessness Blues.’ Their 2021 live acoustic album A Very Lonely Winter Solstice is perfect winter music.
Cinder Well is the moniker of Ireland-based songwriter Amelia Baker, whose transatlantic journey saw her find her way from California to County Clare to study the music of the region.
Inspired by the music of Irish pubs as well as Appalachian influences, her dark, sparse arrangements, build on simple layers of guitar, banjo, piano, concertina and voice.
As the name of her 2020 lockdown album No Summer suggests, the mood is muted – not bleak, so much as meditative and still. Doom folk at its finest. Listen to No Summer here.
Leeds duo Sunflower Thieves are contemporary folk-pop singer-songwriters. Their guitar-based ambient sounds are ethereal, intimate, and lush.
The pair have been slowly releasing a string of singles into the world over 2020 (‘Hide and Seek’ and ‘Heavy Weight’) and 2021 (‘Don’t Mind The Weather’ and ‘Sirens’), while we await a debut EP or LP.
See them live for the full experience of their intimate, cosy, heartwarming energy, or listen now here.
The Furrow Collective
The Furrow Collective are a four-piece Scottish and English folk band, comprised of four renowned folk players – Emily Portman, Alasdair Roberts, Rachel Newton and Lucy Farrell.
Their focus is very much on traditional songs of England and Scotland, with the instrumentation of voice, banjo, concertina, fiddle, viola, and guitar reflecting their traditional bent.
The Furrow Collective’s 2018 album Fathoms brings striking freshness to a collection of ancient songs, with minimal, restrained arrangements. Highlights include ‘Davy Lowston’ and ‘Write me Down.’ Listen here.
Me Lost Me
Me Lost Me is the project of Newcastle-based experimental folk artist Jayne Dent.
Transcending genre most of the time, and drawing on diverse instrumentation and composition styles, a folk-thread is nonetheless palpable in Me Lost Me’s music.
Largely eschewing traditional folk instrumentation, Me Lost Me has a strong electronic leaning, with her work combining original compositions with improvisation and reworkings of traditional songs. Check out her 2021 release, The Circle Dance.
Sufjan Stevens is one of the essential folk artists to emerge from the transatlantic 00s indie folk scene.
Banjos and acoustic guitars form the sonic foundations for his sweet and serene 2004 album Seven Swans, a key record in establishing Sufjan in the indie folk movement.
The 2005 album that followed – Illinois – stands as one of the best indie folk records of the era. Blending Americana and folk with experimental elements and even a touch of minimalism, the record is an ambitious, and brilliantly realised adventure.
Later years have seen Sufjan turn far more experimental. A far cry from his indie folk foundations, Age of Adz (2010) is one of his best records.
Folk fans will be sure to enjoy his later album, Carrie & Lowell (2015). This beautiful album is a musically simple, and heart-wrenchingly powerful collection of songs exploring complex family relationships.
Hailing from Ballyhaise, County Cavan, and now based in Dublin, Irish singer-songwriter Lisa O’Neill’s folk songs are sparse, raw, and hard-hitting.
Her potent, nasal tone, and the directness of her delivery is arresting.
Simple, spare arrangements create space for the striking purity of her songs, with original and ancient music seamlessly merging in her repertoire.
Her most recent album, Heard A Long Gone Song (2018) is dramatically engaging from the opening acapella ‘The Galway Shawl.’ The record is 44 minutes of understated power.
A Paranoid King
A Paranoid King draws on a deep English folk tradition rooted in his homeland of Shropshire.
Self-described as ‘rural pop from heathen Salop,’ A Paranoid King combines elements of traditional folk, folk rock, DIY and even hip-hop in releases such as ‘The Strife Aquatic.’
Ancient and contemporary worlds collide as an obsession with place, heritage, and rootedness is melted down with bright guitar strumming, drum machines, saxophones, autotune, and a rawly soft and warm vocal delivery. Check out his discography on Bandcamp.
Maja Lena is the moniker of Marianne Parrish. Formerly a member of alt folk band Low Chimes, her 2021 record The Keeper is her debut solo album – a sensitive, soothing indie folk soundworld.
Her gentle, playful vocal delivery faintly evokes an English Joni Mitchell, with soft alternative folk instrumentals and layered vocal harmonies underpinning the sound.
Her lyrics reflect on the passing of time, growth, self-doubt, and acceptance. This is no ordinary debut album – it’s clear that Maja Lena is a project that’s been brewing for some time. Enjoy it via Bandcamp.
English folk artist Nick Drake is one of the gems of English folk music. An artist whose talent was not fully recognised in his day, Nick Drake has gone on to reach cult status since his untimely death in 1974.
Pink Moon (1972) stands as his best-loved album. This stunning, simple record holds a mysterious, magical calm. Distinctive and brilliant guitar fingerstyles form the instrumental basis for the subtle, psychedelic atmosphere of the record, with lyrical themes ranging from isolation to wonder.
If you enjoy Pink Moon, then delve deeper with Five Leaves Left (1969) and Bryter Layter (1971). These records feature more complex compositions with string arrangements, bass, and drums.
With elements of jazz creeping in, these records showcase both Nick Drake’s songwriting and technical prowess.
And one more…
Looking for more? Check out Future Folk: Friendly Faces; Different Spaces.
This excellent compilation of alternative, experimental, and indie folk bands, pulled together by The Slow Music Movement Label, features a lovely selection of underground folk artists including Alula Down, Ben McElroy, The Howard Hughes Suite & Geir Sundstøl, Bróna McVittie, Scott William Urquart, Me Lost Me, Tracy Chow, Pete Thompson, Avocet, Jeffrey Silverstein, Andrew Tuttle, El Conejo, and Black Brunswicker.
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Fantastic list. I need to do a little diving and make a playlist. Thank you! So glad I was digging for interesting music in London. I’ll be following you from the states.