best-folk-albums-2020

Image by joshuaianclark from Pixabay

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.

10. Sarah Jarosz – World on the Ground [Rounder]

img-489

While Sarah Jarosz’s musical world continues to grow exponentially outward, World on the Ground finds the artist looking inward for answers. Steeped in elements of folk, bluegrass, country, blues, and Americana alike, the singer-songwriter has seen weighty success in the roots scene from all angles; as a soloist, as part of a band alongside Aoife O’Donovan and Sara Watkins, and as the composer of “The Blue Heron Suite”. Here, though, Jarosz is humbled reflecting on oneself and the world around her with a thorough, acerbic wit. A masterful storyteller, she incorporates vivid imagery when comparing oneself to a bird in flight. In spite of what philosophical questions remain following this captivating, multi-sided meditation, Jarosz is ready to further soar. – Jonathan Frahm

9. Julian Taylor – The Ridge [Howling Turtle]

img-490

With as profound a portfolio as his, it’s no wonder that Julian Taylor is often regarded as Toronto’s very own musical chameleon. The artist has successfully ventured into rock’n’roll and R&B without missing a beat; in 2020, he’s wearing his folk and Americana hat. One would never assume that Taylor is a first-time folkie with the way that he delivers on The Ridge. Its titular opener tells the real story of his upbringing in a captivating fashion, with ominous fiddle, sweeping lap steel, and subtle flourishes of piano throughout. Taylor, ever the consummate frontman, navigates the remaining seven songs on The Ridge with just as much of warm, heartfelt familiarity. He innovates with the spoken-word meditations of the closing track “Ola, Let’s Dance”. It feels like a call for healing, bearing a much-needed message in times as uncertain as these. – Jonathan Frahm

8. Ondara – Folk n’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation [Verve Forecast]

img-491

Ondara, formerly J.S. Ondara, arrived in the U.S. from Nairobi in 2013. Establishing his base in Minneapolis, he released his acclaimed debut, Tales of America, just six years later. From the perspective of a new American, Ondara is often critical of the American dream ideology, with his music centered in between self-reflection and socio-political commentary. Folk n’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation sets out to document a specific space and time: the COVID-19 pandemic. Written entirely while in quarantine, he finds moments of sweetness as he imagines isolation dating but also the difficulty in creating human connection when social distancing. There are barbed moments, especially as he sings to the working-class and reminds them to stay vigilant of false-idols and empty promises. Folk n’ Roll Vol. 1: Tales of Isolation’s ultimate strength lies in the portrayal of isolation’s effect on the individual. He summons the ghosts of those forgotten, those who have passed away, and those that will escape the pandemic with trauma. As such, Ondara provides a thought-provoking history of a devastating time. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

7. Arlo McKinley – Die Midwestern [Oh Boy]

img-492

Die Midwestern, Arlo McKinley‘s debut album, is a brash and honest account of ennui. McKinley centers his lens on the Midwestern rust belt towns, economically depressed and seemingly forgotten about by the rest of the country. In relentless pursuit of his musical dreams, McKinley gained the attention of the legendary John Prine, another songwriter familiar with midwestern ennui. Signed to Prine’s label, Oh Boy Records, McKinley’s album feels more like a character sketch of an individual desperate to discover any avenue leading towards success. He details lifeless employment, addiction, depression, suicide, and the fear of being stuck in a rural Ohio town for the remainder of his days. Whereas hopelessness and anger are apparent throughout, the album reads more like a confessional rather than an emotive plea for sympathy. McKinley’s narratives are honest, and relatable across geographies and experiences. Die Midwestern is a timeless album, written by an artist simply trying to make sense of his circumstances. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

6. Tré Burt – Caught It from the Rye [Oh Boy/Thirty Tigers]

img-493

We may have never heard of Tré Burt without dearly departed John Prine’s influence. His label, Oh Boy Records, had their ears perked when Burt first dropped Caught It from the Rye in 2018. Refreshed by the label for a 2020 reissuing, the album is as relevant as ever. Burt’s jangling, fine-drawn disposition recalls the Greenwich scene more candidly than many of his contemporaries, finding a temperament adjacent to the world-worn Van Ronk through his performance. He doesn’t shy from protest, either, attacking the racist, imperialistic structure of the U.S. government head-on in tunes like “Undead God of War”, whose most biting divulgences are all too sadly true (“And Mother Nature, I guess she caters/To those with white skin”). Also worthy of an ear is “Under the Devil’s Knee”, a standalone single released by Burt this year in response to police brutality and systemic racism. It features other Black roots artists, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell, and Sunny War. – Jonathan Frahm

FROM THE POPMATTERS ARCHIVES
PopMatters