Folk music alone is not capable of dismantling the powerful or subverting the oppressive. Nor is it capable of healing the sick or mending the beaten. Folk music’s offering is its monumental reflection of social consciousness. The artists in this year’s list all use their music to create a sense of unity. Whether it is the acknowledgment of shared oppression, or in contrast, the visibility of identity, Best of Folk Music 2020 is defined by its ability to form a musical common ground. As these artists look inward to share their emotional, social, and cultural states, they position folk music as a potent contributor to solidarity.
These artists, in particular, endow the contemporary consciousness with a strand of hope. As public figures spout vitriol, media outlets fearmonger and the pandemic grows in magnitudes, there is so little room to cultivate bliss, physical/emotional wellness, and social progression. Collectivity, these artists use their albums to define cultural spaces where joy is apparent, healing is emphasized, and society is equitable. They celebrate humanity while acknowledging the need to work towards rebuilding society. More so, they share our collective sorrow and ennui but remind listeners to honor individual and shared experiences. Whether it is coming together for a performance, a lockdown date night, or joining in protests, these artists present the shared experiences that cultivate human connection. The albums enumerated below serve as poignant reminders that the current state is temporary. A respite is approaching, but it is ultimately achieved through advocacy, empathy, and solidarity.
20. The Sweater Set – Fly on the Wall [Independent]
Recorded with a live audience of 50 lucky fans—something that would be nearly unthinkable at the time of this piece’s publication—Fly on the Wall is cleverly named as such after its attendees. Giving it a listen, now, then, offers an ironic nostalgia for the fairly recent. More prevalent than that, though, is the optimism with which the Sweater Set navigate their set. Performing with a buoyant and unabashed hopefulness feels nearly uncalled for in the current era. It’s a reminder of the positive moments to come following a period of transition. Times like Fly on the Wall, shared between the Sweater Set and their most dedicated listeners, will once again be feasible, at some point. In the meantime, the inimitable duo have unintendedly invigorated us with what has become a sweet reminder of unity. – Jonathan Frahm
19. Pharis and Jason Romero – Bet on Love [Lula]
On its surface, Bet on Love looks, feels, and sounds like a bucolic reflection of their small-town life. Stripping back the veneer, however, reveals a cautionary tale. At its most hopeful, the husband-and-wife duo leave us to wonder if that hope finds its warrant. The acoustic ambiance of their performance recalls a country-folk sound reminiscent of Gillian Welch’s origins in mono, but with the presence of a full-bodied duo dynamic. Pharis’ vocals soar like they quite haven’t before, and Jason meets her with harmonious aplomb. Musically, it’s any folk fan’s gift, with wistful tones of mandolin, bass, and guitar. Dark as its undertones may be, Bet on Love finds solace in a head held high and towards a brighter tomorrow. – Jonathan Frahm
18. Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter [Chrysalis]
Laura Marling‘s Song For Our Daughter can be is easily conflated with a collection of vignettes. Inspired by Maya Angelou’s book Letter to My Daughter (2009), Marling sings to an imaginary daughter relating a myriad of roles women play in society. Many face unbearable oppression, others are enraptured by love while others wallow in the shine of faux-wokeness. Some of her songs are written with a post-trauma lens, as others question individual resilience. Marling’s album is heavily centered on popular culture. For example, “Alexandra” finds Marling considering Leonard Cohen’s understanding of women. More, “Blow by Blow” pays homage to Paul McCartney while “The End of the Affair” is a reference to Grahame Greene’s novel. Song For Our Daughter is certainly a multilayered cultural artifact but without distracting from Marling’s musicality. Throughout, her harmonies are elegant, her melodies are lush as her songwriting is astute. As such, Song For Our Daughter is a vivid recording created by an enthralling artist. — Elisabeth Woronzoff
17. Kris Drever – Where the World Is Thin [Reveal]
In a time when most of the world is looking inward, so does Kris Drever. Reliably so, Where the World is Thin is another matured collection of songs from the Scottish folkie. Perhaps it is also his most intimate. Chockablock with warm introspection of both the lyrical and musical kind, the whole affair is humbly canny. Drever’s fingerpicking is as quick and subtle as ever, his lilting voice a fine vessel for wistful folksongs. He innovates, but with the reliably gentle pace that listeners have come to appreciate him for, with movements into atmospheric synth and wayfaring jazz on tunes like “Scapa Flow 1919” and “Hunker Down / That Old Blitz Spirit”. Telling of the sinking of the German High Fleet at World War II’s end, the formerly mentioned tune showcases Drever’s knack for pursuing adroit accuracy in his lyricism and is a highlight of his overarching portfolio. – Jonathan Frahm
16. Shirley Collins – Heart’s Ease [Domino]
After Shirley Collins‘ 38 year departure from the music scene, her return is celebrated. Indeed, the previously released Lodestar reacquainted Collins with the music industry and recast the spotlight onto the honored artist. But her 2020 album, Heart’s Ease, enshrines her position as a legendary folksinger while affirming Collins’ musical prowess. Heart Ease recenters folk’s early legacy by revisiting tracks that have been a part of Collins’ songbook for decades. She first heard “The Merry Golden Tree”, for example, in Arkansas while conducting field research with Alan Lomax in 1959.
On the same trip, she first recorded “Wondrous Love” at a Sacred Harp Convention. Heart’s Ease rejects ahistorical readings of folk music and narratives while delivering unequivocal descriptions of humanity. Collins keenly uses music to demonstrate a multitude of human emotions and rejects the portrayal of a singular standpoint. In this way, Collins’ album concretely connects the past to modernity. This album and Collins’ contribution to folk music, in general, is a celebration of her prowess. — Elisabeth Woronzoff