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The 20 Best Folk Albums of 2020

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.

15. Gillian Welch – Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1, 2, and 3 [Acony]

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Gillian Welch‘s Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1, 2, and 3 tips this list from a top 20 to a top 22. Welch and husband David Rawlings recorded these songs in one weekend in 2002 to fulfill a publishing contract. For years, they sat on the unreleased materials until they decided to revisit the collection while in quarantine during the pandemic. As a collection, Boots No. 2 circulates through anxiety, despair, and anger. A likely outcome from the war cries undulating after the newly shocking and painful 9/11 experience. In contrast, all three volumes capture moments of jubilation. Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1, 2, and 3 balances lightness and darkness, weaving joy into melancholy’s fabric. For example, Volume 1 celebrates rebellious women while Volume 2 acknowledges mistake making but purposely pushes towards betterment. As such, Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1, 2, and 3 are enchanting stories shifting between honeyed despair and exemplary festivity. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

14. Brigid Mae Power – Head Above Water [Fire]

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As Brigid Mae Power puts it, Head Above Water is “a continuing tale of everyday survival”. Often is it that her ethereal vocals are juxtaposed directly against earthbound lyricism that tells it straight. As far as that world-worn wit goes—not to be critical, as it is evergreen—Power’s latest is more of the same. Sometimes, she comes at it with more of a bite—unsuspectingly so, for instance, when wrapped in the warm country psychedelia of the opening track, “On a City Night”. More often, though, it is business as usual for Powell as she leaves room for the dreamy and open-ended. Where Head Above Water strikes a different chord is in its musical composition, replete with instruments and influences alike that fill in more palpable space than the open-air throes of previous releases. Overall, it is another quality release that sees the Irish singer-songwriter continuing her musical ascent. – Jonathan Frahm

13. Bonny Light Horseman – Bonny Light Horseman [37d03d]

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Bonny Light Horseman formed casually but have since evolved into a folk supergroup. Fruit Bats‘ singer Eric D. Johnson, veteran instrumentalist Josh Kaufman, and singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell teamed up to explore ancient folk songs. This endeavor turned into one of the best and important folk albums of the year. On their self-titled debut, the trio unearthed a collection of folk standards that recontextualized traditional folks as reflections of the contemporary fractious political climate. “Mountain Rain”, for example, revisits the standard John Henry ballad to echo the lament of workers who did not want to jeopardize their lives in the name of capitalist-driven progress. Without question, the same protestations were heard across the country as businesses remained open during a pandemic for the sake of their bottom line, thereby sacrificing the health and safety of their employees. Bonny Light Horseman’s power is derived from their ability to enshrine folk, ultimately proving great songs will withstand obscurity. The album maintains folk music’s resiliency in spite of the century in which the songs are dusted off. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

12. Sally Anne Morgan – Thread [Thrill Jockey]

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Whereas some artists have found their footing steeped in something of a traditional folk revival, Sally Anne Morgan incorporates folk standards as embellishments of a higher cause. She’s a grand innovator, interweaving sections of Appalachian ancestry with modern musical elements; clawhammer banjo and electric guitar tones share the same space on opening track “Polly on the Shore”, Morgan’s ethereal voice itself seeking a realm between realms through her centered delivery. Elsewhere, “Sheep Shaped” takes the back-and-forth of traditional folk fiddling and renovates it into something of a modern string band jig. Morgan’s acknowledgment of folk standards is a scintillating benefit, informing her more contemporary artistic conscience instead of bogging it down into a 20th century do. – Jonathan Frahm

11. Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers [Fat Possum]

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“I’m alone now, but I don’t feel alone,” sings Courtney Marie Andrews on the title track of her album Old Flowers. At its core, Andrews’ album contextualizes a break-up. She captures the destruction of a burned-down relationship while focusing on the flickering embers, signaling the promise of a rebuild. She is alone, and in isolation must untangle the questions informing her fragility. Andrews is methodical in her delivery as she deconstructs her break-up to focus more on grief and loss. As such, Andrews admits the title track extends to the pandemic consciousness. Mass vulnerability and collective mourning will eventually lead to healing and growth. Old Flowers documents Andrews’ shifting mindset and eventual arrival at restoration. This is the mirror Andrews’ holds up for her listeners. It is from her compelling songwriting that she records an authentic testimonial even if the majority of her audience isn’t ready to live the reality just yet. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

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