5. Rhiannon Giddens – They’re Calling Me Home (with Francesco Turrisi) [Nonesuch]
It’s been around two years since Rhiannon Giddens and her partner, Francesco Turrisi, first moved to Ireland. Inspired by their new Irish digs, a reflection on their respective roots in America and Italy, and the stunning reality of pandemic era living, their new LP is a stunning representation of home. Aptly titled They’re Calling Me Home, Giddens’ operatically trained vocals are front-and-center throughout this traditional folk album, composed of classics and new works. Turrisi, an accomplished multi-instrumentalist, also shines alongside Celtic musician Emer Mayock and guitarist Niwel Tsumbu.
Listeners will gravitate towards their adventurous reinterpretations of “Amazing Grace”, “Waterbound”, and “O Death” as original multifaceted compositions work their way up their ranks. The gorgeous layers of “Avalon”, for instance, stand toe-to-toe with these folk staples. For all of the folk couple’s incredible technical prowess, it’s the earnestness that makes this release truly soar.
4. Sarah Jarosz – Blue Heron Suite [Rounder]
Sarah Jarosz‘s ambitious Blue Heron Suite started its life after receiving the FreshGrass Foundation Composition Commission some years back. She debuted the movement at the 2017 FreshGrass Festival and has since been proud to tout it at a number of her live shows. Since her debut, Jarosz has been consistently applauded for her musical intuition and versatile, soothing vocals, and her Blue Heron Suite sees both elements in high form. Where it might stand a step above her previous work stands in the composition’s fluidity from one tune to the next and the emotional power that drives it.
Blue Heron Suite is inspired by Jarosz’s life in 2017, where she had dealt with the one-two personal tumult of her mother’s breast cancer diagnosis and Hurricane Harvey desecrating Port Aransas, Texas—one of her family’s go-to spots. Jarosz and her mother would often walk on the beach and observe blue herons together, hence the name. The album just about begins and ends with the heart-stirring tune “Mama”, and ends with a gorgeous, soaring title track that leaves a long-lasting impression.
3. Tré Burt – You, Yeah, You [Oh Boy]
Tré Burt shines with soulful folk luster on his sophomore album, You, Yeah, You. He notably pays beautiful homage to the legendary songwriter, John Prine, with “Dixie Red”, calling back to a bevy of his works on the charming, heartfelt tune. The album’s remainder bears the same storyteller’s heart but is often set in drearier circumstances. Kicking off with an offbeat gospel tinge, Burt’s “By the Jasmine” is a tragic mid-tempo scorcher that spotlights the realities of being Black in America. Burt is unafraid of highlighting serious issues like white privilege, police impunity, and the effect that these racist constructs have on Black lives. It’s with songs like these where he’s at his unvarnished best. However, this isn’t all that makes You, Yeah, You tick.
Perhaps its overarching theme is a commentary on everyday life. Each song is a vignette woven by Burt. Whether focused on the philosophizing drunk (“Me Oh My”), the burnt-out activist (“Carnival Mirror”), or the young man who loved John Prine, Burt thrives with a razor-sharp focus on lyrical punch and what’s coming to be regarded as his trademark nostalgic delivery. Burt is a fine choice to carry the legacy left behind by his famous labelmate while also paving a way that’s all his own.
2. Sunny War – Simple Syrup [Hen House/Org Music]
Sunny War immediately grasps with her world-worn lilt. Billed as folk-punk, War’s Simple Syrup is that and more. A big, heartful authenticity meets her artistic versatility. That’s felt in the acclaimed single and album opener, “Lucid Lucy”. War’s warm vocals wrap around vibrant guitar and cello like a dance, the intricate dreamer’s number lulling listeners into a sense of familiarity before the singer-songwriter bends around with the walloping “Mama’s Milk”. The arpeggiate arrangement holds men responsible for their own decisions and mental health.
Her forthright nature on the track establishes the “punk” in folk-punk with no punches held. War carries this same attitude and awareness into songs that might veer more on folk, punk, blues, jazz, or funk and does so with enough understated artistic elbow grease to easily hold it all together. War is a natural in her genre-bending, poetic lane. Along the way, she tackles potent themes like post-war neglect (“Deployed and Destroyed”) and virus conspiracies (“Its Name is Fear”). The brooding Simple Syrup is her best effort to date.
1. Chris Pierce – American Silence [Pierce]
The crux of Chris Pierce’s American Silence is its heart-piercing truth. Pierce immediately kicks the door between blissful ignorance and uncomfortable truth down with the album’s titular opener, spotlighting the country’s preservation of capitalistic, carceral, racist infrastructure. Many Americans turn a blind eye towards the injustice their country is founded upon and still keeps upright. His intent is to highlight this.
Pierce’s straight-shooting, conversational lyricism never misses and is perfectly driven by his soulful, emotive vocals. A no-frills call-to-action, Pierce captures the inspirational tinge of classic folk protests in a modern frame. We do not have an inordinate amount of time to recognize our privilege and stand on the right side of history, and American Silence is a meticulously crafted, thought-provoking acknowledgment of the fact. Pierce boldly gives us all of the tools to unearth the irony of the American dream and does so with an undefeatable spirit.