A folk revival is brewing where one sputtered with a clap, a stomp, and a millennial whoop in the 2010s. Some of 2022’s best pay explicit homage to musical traditions, but others continue to push the boundaries of what “folk music” means well into the 21st century. For the staunchest traditionalists, it might still begin and end with a strummy acoustic backdrop to some tale of woe or another. For others, it’s innovating on the actual roots of the genre with a tip of its hat or a dip of its toes into new sonic territory along the way.
Either way, we’re far removed from a time when folk music didn’t have a seat at the table of the most innovating or captivating genres. Why? For starters, a willingness to de-homogenize how we have viewed the whitewashed genre for at least much of the last century. The very best of folk music today acknowledges its Black roots and brings them to the forefront, critiquing modern society through the dual lens of historicity and its contemporary effects.
The face of folk in 2022 is the bright young voices who nod to the old guard while daring to bring something new to the table. Folk music continues to mesh with new influences and branch off in exciting ways. Now—perhaps more than ever—is undoubtedly an excellent time to be a folk fan. PopMatters’ Best Folk Albums of 2022 give a broad taste of the year’s most ingenious, brought to us by long-time notables, indie greats, and newcomers alike.
Watkins Family Hour
(Family Hour / Thirty Tigers)
Sibling folk powerhouses Sara and Sean Watkins return with a new batch of special guests for their second group outing as Watkins Family Hour. Aptly titled Vol. II, the album features the likes of Fiona Apple, Gaby Moreno, Maddison Cunningham, and more as they and the Watkins collaborate on refreshing new takes on some of their favorite songs. The album’s most tremendous success is in its enlivening production, each track bringing listeners right into the studio for their performance.
From there, Vol. II’s quality is hinged entirely on the ingenuity of its performances. Given the pedigree of the Watkins siblings and their collaborators, it probably isn’t a surprise that they deliver this new set of tunes with deserved confidence. Each song shines as well as the last, with album highlights chalking up to personal taste more than a shift in quality or inventiveness. This is a who’s-who of contemporary folk’s best coming together to celebrate music, and they do so across a great selection of styles and sounds.
Age of Apathy
Aoife O’Donovan brings her trademark knack for eloquent arrangements into Age of Apathy. The album is delivered with subtlety and sophistication rarely begotten by mainstream folk releases. It is guided liberally by jazz structure as its songs often wander off the beaten path from its primary melody. Yet, it’s with a knowing that it’s meandering with one long loop—a singular grounding intention that makes these open-ended tunes more comforting than not.
The album haunts where it may or may not be intended, such as in the uncertain confidence of O’Donovan’s soaring vocals on “Phoenix”, where the narrator proclaims themselves above a failed relationship. The gorgeous composition of “B61” is interlaced with the dim truth of growing older, if not more uneasy. All in all, it’s another beautiful thought piece from the revered singer-songwriter.
Deidre McCalla boldly moves forward on her fifth studio album with an optimistic chip on her shoulder. Endless Grace lives up to its name, offering McCalla as a persevering beam of light in times of hardship. The artist brings honest-to-goodness folk-pop songwriting back to the forefront, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other greats like Joan Baez and Vance Gilbert.
The album’s overall theme can be received as a meditation on humanity. For our shortcomings, McCalla offers salvation in the healing warmth and soft gospel tinges of “Nothing to Prove”. Then, she drives us collectively forward with the danceable, Caribbean-influenced folk-rock of keeping “One Foot” in front of the other. Endless Grace is a powerful proclamation of belief in oneself and each other, delivered expertly by a songwriting establishment.
Are You Happy Now?
(Human Re Sources)
Jensen McRae offers possibly the most exciting indie folk debut of the year with Are You Happy Now? Her story is effortlessly 2022, a viral Phoebe Bridgers parody spurring widespread interest in her original music. Her songwriting is the same, striking a chord with younger crowds through relatable, straight-shooting lyricism and gorgeous vocals.
McRae’s soulful voice stands tall and center throughout the album, acting as the perfect vehicle to deliver her moving songwriting to the forefront. Frequent comparisons to Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell are warranted. There’s a fair share of fine musicality on display, bridging gaps between folk-pop and R&B with McRae’s striking delivery.
Madison Cunningham’s keen ear for rhythm and cadence has set her outside of the usual indie folk box from the start. Revealer is a natural extension of this distinctive sound, but now she has more in her toolbox to work with. Sometimes more folk than rock and vice-versa, this makes for Cunningham’s most explorative output yet as she rides the line between genre influences and draws comparisons to a nebulous space between Joni Mitchell and Thom Yorke.
The album’s highest point is Cunningham’s soft-sung ode to her grandmother, “Life According to Raechel”. For all that this new record “reveals”, this heartwarming lament is at its core. Other highlights include the chill, progressive pop of “Sunshine Over the Counter” and the fuzzy, guitar-heavy “Hospital”. Revealer continues Cunningham’s unrelenting forward momentum, elevating her into folk-rock royalty.