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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.

5. The Microphones – Microphones in 2020 [P.W. Elverum & Sun]

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Phil Elverum unearths his former alias The Microphones to record the 45-minute single-track album Microphones in 2020. Regardless of Elverum’s moniker, specific themes emerge across his oeuvre, specifically considerations of existence and the purpose of his art form. Elverum’s penchant for storytelling is sublime, his narratives are circular and sparkling. His lack of drippy romanticism lends credibility to the album’s viscerality. In doing so, he allows his audience to draw their own interpretations of his work. Regardless of if he is performing as Mount Eerie or the Microphones, Elverum provides his audience with a snapshot of his existence, strengthened by mundane details and quotidian musings. For instance, he recalls a memory of his parents holding his naked brother or the feeling of empowerment after hearing Stereolab play the same chord for 15 minutes. “I will never stop singing this song,” Elverum intones, nor will he forget these memories. As usual, Elverum refutes musical gimmicks or any popular trends. Instead, he leans towards an intimate and honest connection with his audience. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

4. Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud [Merge]

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Waxahatchee’s Saint Cloud is an album based on hope. The fifth studio album, from the typically indie-rock sounding Katie Crutchfield, finds Waxatachee’s sound shifting towards a folk aesthetic. Crutchfield intentionally rejects the drudgery that is 2020 to embrace a simple and beautiful world, ensconced in light and bucolic appreciation. Indeed, her first single “Lilacs” presented a necessary form of pastoral escapism as the world quarantined itself. As such, Saint Cloud presents narratives that are hardwired in wisdom. In “Fire”, for example, Crutchfield moves between desperation and emancipation, likely the mindset she developed after getting sober in 2018. But Crutchfield’s songwriting is realistic, never myopic. She understands beauty exists while creating space for anger and anxiety as emotions that underline jubilation. She adroitly finds a balance and uses Saint Cloud as a pathway towards authentic restoration. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

3. Adrianne Lenker – songs/instrumentals [4AD]

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The two-part songs/instrumentals were recorded in a one-room cabin straight to recording engineer Philip Weinrobe’s Walkman. Nine of its songs were written in one swoop, and its back half is comprised of atmospheric instrumental affairs. Yet, it is scintillating. What, purely by description, sounds like a one-off side dish to the main Big Thief course instead bares enough sinew to stand firmly on its own. Lenker has never been more intimate, nor human, in her performance before now. The songwriting is raw and real, capturing Lenker caught up in both the coronavirus pandemic lockdown and in the ache of a recent breakup. That’s all to say that what, perhaps, is most striking is what is left unsaid; in the spaces between music, where the crunch of detritus and lilting birdsong find center stage, Lenker is her most unfeigned. – Jonathan Frahm

2. Jake Blount – Spider Tales [Free Dirt]

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Since his 2019 duo effort in Tui’s Pretty Little Mister, Jake Blount’s mission to unearth the Black and Indigenous origins of roots music has only expanded. Spider Tales is a natural continuation of past work, aiming to perform the aforementioned, while also invoking queer personas back into the folk narrative. Fittingly, then, is the album named after Anansi, a rebellious spirit from West African folktales who is incredibly persistent despite all attempts to quash its momentum. With a full band behind him, Blount’s intent—as an artist, activist, and ethnomusicologist—is more richly realized in his breathtaking solo debut than ever before. Old-time banjo fraying meets triumphant, fiery fiddle work throughout, often held together by rhythm-driving foot percussion from Nic Gareiss and Blount’s own robust vocal dynamics.

On Spider Tales, traditional folk tunes are injected with vibrant and inspiriting new life, from the forward-driving, joyous string-work of Cuje Bertram’s “Blackbird Says to the Crow” to the palpably dark implications of “The Angels Done Bowed Down”. Spider Tales is another fantastic album from Blount, having successfully recaptured and reframed some of yesteryear’s best folk music for a modern audience. This is done all while finally giving credit where credit is due to the people of color who have made the genre. – Jonathan Frahm

1. Tyler Childers – Long Violent History [Hickman Holler]

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Tyler Childers‘ album, Long Violent History, gives voice to the struggles of the oppressed. An album composed of ringing Aplachanican folk music, Childers intentionally leads listeners into a sense of placid complicity. It is the album’s finale that rings his call for morality and solidarity. Childers’ convictions takes the struggles of dominantly white communities to shine a light on the overlap with the fight for racial justice. Childers sets the album on Kentucky’s history with labor disputes, economic disparities, and prominent GOP senators relying on ignorance to perpetuate oppression. But he does not settle on endowing the indignities as entirely a white problem.

Instead, he calls for action on behalf of the Black Americans “constantly worrying / Kicking and fighting, begging to breathe”. In a video concretizing his intent, he invokes the killing of Breonna Taylor. He implores his audience to sees the intersection between racial and economic oppression. In no way is he reiterating the ignorant “All Lives Matter” rhetoric. Rather, he is unequivocally calling out those in power and their use of divisiveness to nurture prejudices and injustices. Long Violent History is a clarion call for active solidarity that enforces equity while dismantling oppression. — Elisabeth Woronzoff

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