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.
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
15. Gillian Welch - Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs, Vol. 1, 2, and 3 [Acony]
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]
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]
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]
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]
"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
10. Sarah Jarosz – World on the Ground [Rounder]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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
5. The Microphones - Microphones in 2020 [P.W. Elverum & Sun]
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]
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]
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]
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]
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