Folk music is a diverse feast. This year has seen the genre bend and stretch in more ways than ever before. “What is folk?” is a decidedly 21st-century question informed by earlier contemporaries, before Gillian Welch or Elliott Smith, the Kingston Trio, and Joan Baez set records and staged revivals on the United States’ coasts. Before them, Elizabeth Cotten, Lead Belly, and countless other Black artists laid the base for American roots music at large. Even then, this goes without mentioning the foundational folk music of cultures worldwide—like mariachi, gagaku, or waila.
So, to call 2021 the most diverse year for a scene predicated on its roots sewn the world over is saying something. Whether it be a fist outraised against forces of sociopolitical strife and destruction or a meditative sanctuary for reflection and healing, it’s a humanistic thread that unifies folk music in all of its interpretations. We find common ground in our musical narrator’s anthems and ballads, driven by a search for respite and enlightenment. The path that each listener takes will differ, but the intent behind the music remains the same.
Folk has seen outrageous musical evolution and growth in 2021. At the forefront, Black singer-songwriters are continuing to reclaim their folk music heritage in exciting ways. Some long-time innovators of folk-rock, folk-pop, and folktronica are forging new paths—and in some cases, producing their magnum opus. On top of it, one would say that this isn’t your grandparents’ folk music, and in some cases, they’d be wrong. More traditional folk music has seen a resurgence, from high-profile projects like a Woody Guthrie tribute album to the continued rise of string bands and the uncanny, TikTok-fueled sea shanty revival.
Folk influences are being better felt in pop and vice-versa. When Lorde broke the internet with Solar Power, it was with primarily alternative folk-leaning sounds. The plaintive pop of Birdy’s Young Heart is similarly reflective—if not better grounded—and even Paramore’s Hayley Williams took a folksier route with Flowers for Vases / Descansos.
All said, PopMatters’ Best Folk Albums of 2021 intently veers from radio sheen into the sinew of organic, masterclass songwriting. These 15 works are our favorites because they represent folk’s expanding roots while best serving that unifying underlying hope.
15. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers [Fantasy]
Decades on, Valerie June continues her artistic ascension. The Moon and Stars is a sweeping production. One of its most significant moments comes in the lead single “Stay”, which opens proceedings and sets the tone for a sonically ambitious album that hits much more than it misses. Neo-soul piano and string flourishes effortlessly meld with a folk-rock drumline and June’s unmistakable Appalachian soprano to form something uniquely listenable—and that’s just the first track.
The Moon and Stars impresses with its through-line. Energized by its emotive core into a multitude of branching musical paths—even rocking trap (“Within You”) and disco (“Smile”) beats with aplomb—it still manages Zen-like cohesion. At its center, June triumphantly looks inward. It’s a self-assured acknowledgment that, although she took rockier roads along the way, she’s still come out on the other side.
14. The Felice Brothers – From Dreams to Dust [Yep Roc]
From Dreams to Dust might well be the most consistently exciting album from the Felice Brothers since their self-titled debut. As they delve more into corners of offbeat rock and Americana, their folk spirit remains strong. One spin of “Jazz on the Autobahn” is enough to verify the claim—Ian Felice rambles like Van Ronk or Ives or Dylan. Their delivery always just slightly aslant, From Dreams to Dust posits the Felices in a euphonic position parallel to Okkervil River—like their more nebulous, peppier cousin.
From Dreams to Dust is a listener’s album, too, regardless of its neat bells and whistles. The album is a dark and witty folk-rock trek that slips halfway between the mundane and not-so-much. The off-kilter charm of their closer, “We Shall Live Again”, is a tremendous final sell for the band’s cunning. Drawing parallels and contrasts between individual circumstances, their dreamlike dive sees them matching “Francis of Assisi” to “fans of AC/DC”. There’s a donkey thrown in there somewhere, too.
13. Watchhouse – Watchhouse [Tiptoe Tiger]
Eleven years since the release of Mandolin Orange‘s Quiet Little Room, Watchhouse’s Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin opted for a name change. The change came with the married duo being someplace else than where they were over a decade ago. Still, all eyes and ears were set towards their reboot’s upcoming self-titled album upon release. It’s unusual for a band of such acclaim to rebrand after so long under their past moniker.
Of course, their efforts were successful. Watchhouse is a beautiful collection of lush, slow-burn folk songs that beckon one’s ear. Produced by Bonny Light Horseman’s Josh Kaufman, Watchhouse presents Frantz and Marlin accompanied by guitar, bass, and drums. The result is a more textured soundscape for the duo to explore. Musically, it’s a masterclass in subtle, textured beauty. Thematically, it exists within the mixed warmth and wryness that we have come to love of the duo.
12. AHI – Prospect [Thirty Tigers]
Prospect bursts with a timelessness in its songwriting that’s more immediately reminiscent of vintage soul than folk inclinations. Although, folk roots are sewn throughout the Canadian singer-songwriter’s third album. “Full Circle” thrives with a fingerpicking style that calls to mind the 1960s Saratoga scene, while sweeping pedal steel meets the warm gravel of AHI’s vocals to give it an Americana tint. Other tunes, like “Say It to Me”, see a gospel choir join AHI up to its impassioned crescendo, while “On Your Way” strips things back into a gentle, cosmic folk-pop melody.
Multifaceted musicality aside, what stands as most impressive is AHI’s innate ability to fuse these various influences into an overall cohesive, intimate project. He plays with clever rhythms and lyrics (“Coldest Fire”) and sells other arrangements with the sheer validity of his inspiriting, identifiable grit (“Lift Me Again”). It might shine most on its familial, soul-stirring title track or in its earnest call for justice against gun violence in the hit single “Danger”. All in all, AHI glows brightly throughout the brilliantly directed Prospect.
11. The Brother Brothers – Calla Lily [Compass]
The aptly named Brother Brothers have finally hit their stride. Calla Lily speaks to the promise that the sibling duo first began to strike with such reflective numbers as “Red and Gold” and “Siren Song”. David and Adam Moss have struck gold with the instantly charming Calla Lily. The opening moments of “On the Road Again” are enough to melt the hardest of hearts, and its nostalgic allure continues from there. Follow-up “Sorrow” could be a lost Everly Brothers tune with its slick harmonies and 1950s-era reverbing refrain, and that’s a “ditto” for songs like “Waiting for a Star to Fall” and “My Holy Way”.
The aforementioned “My Holy Way” bounces with percussive modernity and twinges of brooding electric guitar as it builds into its crescendo. Elsewhere, “A Poquito Doina” is a stunning minute-long instrumental interlude that throws their trademark cello and fiddle in alongside a B3 organ and a layered timbre without feeling overstuffed. The brothers flex their performative muscles like they never quite have before, and it makes for a fabulous release that feels new and familiar all at once.