I kinda went with a bunch of under-talked-about folk-ish records.
Trees Community, The Christ Tree (2007)
A group of Christian hermit musicians who lived in New York in the 70s and claimed to have learned a lot about different world musics via prayer as opposed to actually listening to them. I believe it, for better or worse. This album, which is really really long, is almost too pretty, too emotionally and spiritually on to not be inspired directly by God. The harmonies, changes, arrangements, lyrics… when they all start singing together, on the first song, “where is, now, your God?” I could just melt.
Smog, Doctor Came at Dawn (1996)
This is one of Bill Smog's lesser known albums it seems, but it's my favorite. I think it's Emily's too. It makes other breakup albums look like jokes, more or less, with lines like “the most beautiful thing you've ever seen spits bile into your eye” and “between the two of you, could not come up with enough compassion… enough compassion not to screw.” Musically, it's the sound of someone who can't bring him or herself to get out of bed, can't stop thinking about what went wrong, can't figure it out. It's unbelievably haunting in its relate-ability. You'll wish you'd been through a terrible break up just to be able to plum the depths of this record.
Cynthia Dall, Untitled (2006)
This is kind of a companion record to Doctor. Bill Callahan sings on a couple songs on it. I've literally never heard another person talk about this album, which is really frustrating. Cynthia's voice is kind of like Jennifer Tilly's, which might immediately turn some people away, but she pulls it off. A voice like that fits lines like “what are you buying me for Christmas? It better be good” pretty damn well. There's a way in which this album makes having really weird issues feel completely normal. It doesn't wallow in its neuroses, it doesn't freak you out. It makes you feel good to remember how messy it is being human. And there's a part where I can't tell if something is bagpipes or a guitar, which is pretty cool.
Fuck, Conduct (1998)
Not exactly a folk album in any real way, though there are a few songs like “Drinking Artist” and “Blind Beauty” that could definitely pull of the tag. I remember hearing a lot about this band in the late 90s and don't really anymore, which bums me out. I met them once in 2001 and they were so nice. Anyway, these are pretty simple songs, often really poppy and playful, but the delivery, both vocally and instrumentally, is so full of pathos it's pretty unbelievable. This is my favorite record by a band I wish were massive stars. I'm still not sure how they get their bass sound either.
Joan of Arc, Live In Chicago (1999)
So many people hate this band, and this record specifically, and it makes no sense! I understand Tim Kinsella's vocals can be a bit yelpy, and his lyrics maybe a bit ridiculous sometimes, but if someone can give me a better example of music sounding exactly like getting out of school for Thanksgiving break, with leaves everywhere on the ground, please send me an email letting me know, right away. I kind of think of this album as an ambient folk jazz album that's still not fusion.
Jars of Clay, Much Afraid (1997)
Growing up going to church in the 90s you couldn't avoid these guys. For reasons I'll never understand, I need to listen to this album at least once a year or so, and when I do, I always feel better. It's very finger-picky and overproduced, but it never gets old to me. I really do like this album a lot. This is said with zero irony.