The past year has brought us so many kinds of reckonings in so many forms, and the realms of folk and roots music are no exception.
Indeed, the best music this year has presented us with artists at culminating points in their career—whether their career has been long or is only beginning. Much of the music is topical, though not always in the most direct or obvious way. Much of it asks for us to do some digging—either into the lyrics or subject matter, alongside the artist, in order to appreciate it fully. This call for participation has reflected the society we’ve been living in—the most basic job of art, in the first place.
There have been stunning efforts well beyond this list, notably by Anna & Elizabeth, Punch Brothers, and Gregory Alan Isakov, though there are many others. But the albums that rose to the top of my list all seemed to have in common the fact that the artist found some way to tie together their influences, experiences, and ideas in a way that they seemed to be saving for just this moment in time.
Kaia Kater – Grenades
Grenades is a stirring, provocative, evocative exploration of Kater’s roots and the many directions they stretch. It is a comment on migration and humanity at a time when people around the world are debating how to respond to migrants and refugees. It’s a love story between a woman and the traditions she’s inherited, her relationship with her father and extended family, what it means to be both Canadian and Grenadian, and some new combination of those two things. It raises some of art’s boldest questions: How do we reckon with where we’ve come from? How do we choose where to go from here? Kater has displayed, at the age of 24, not only that she is unafraid of the big questions, but that she is willing to address them with such artistic curiosity. Besides, not for nothing, the music is smooth, memorable, and easy to enjoy. For all these reasons, Grenades is easily the finest folk album this year. Amazon – iTunes
The Mammals – Sunshiner
Sunshiner is an inspired, arresting exploration and celebration of nature, mortality, and preservation. Its music swings from quiet and navel-gazing to free-spirited and danceable, and back again. Every song it contains has its own little spirit, and together gives us a sense of what we’re capable of when we work together. To boot, it’s 55 minutes of straight-up good harmonies and progressions. Amazon – iTunes
Birds of Chicago – Love in Wartime
Love in Wartime is an optimistic disc that finds hope in the ups and downs of interpersonal relationships, that finds beauty in the darkest moments and the way love works its way in the world. The album’s instrumentation takes us from folk to disco to something close to gospel, and beyond, balancing Allison Russell’s smooth, crystal clear alto and JT Nero’s gravelly tenor. The whole thing seems to be reaching toward one conclusion: love might just save us all. Amazon – iTunes
Pharis & Jason Romero – Sweet Old Religion
The Romeros never disappoint—their music is beautiful, simple, and just feels good. Their vocals are clear and on-point. Harmonies feel familiar, but then Jason slips into his falsetto or Pharis goes low and their voices cross like a pair of ice skaters on a pond, working together toward a figure-eight. They make it look easy, though it very much is not. Thematically, Sweet Old Religion calls us back to the basics—the very job of folk music. Amazon – iTunes
I’m With Her – See You Around
Not since the Traveling Wilburys has a band formed that so solidly creates a new sound, rather than coming off like a glorified song swap. Separately, Aoife O’Donovan, Sara Watkins, and Sarah Jarosz’s music compliments each other. But together, they push and pull into even more unexpected modulations, daring unison sections, sparse instrumentation in odd time signatures, where there’s so much room for error and yet they never lose their balance. See You Around is ripe with exquisite craftsmanship and sounds like nothing else you’ll hear this year. Amazon – iTunes
Jeffrey Foucault – Blood Brothers
With Blood Brothers, Foucault slides into the empty shoes left behind by the late, great Guy Clark. Granted, Foucault still has some room to grow into Clark’s shoes, but Blood Brothers is an exquisite record. If its songs don’t give you chills, you’d be well advised to check your pulse. Amazon – iTunes
Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You
Brandi Carlile once told me that her goal was not to nail any single album, but to grow steadily, project over project. By the Way, I Forgive You is somehow, at once, big and intimate and honest and deep-digging, ambitious and humble. If Carlile keeps growing like this, we should all be grateful for the opportunity to stand by and listen in. Amazon – iTunes
Amy Ray – Holler
Full disclosure: I wrote a promotional bio for this release.
On Holler, Amy Ray seems to have at last found the sweet spot of how best to coalesce her various influences. Her songwriting chops are strong after decades of honing across her six “solo” albums and dozens of Indigo Girls discs. Her band is crazy-tight, augmented by an exquisite horn section and a handful of guests. Granted, Holler is much more rock and roll than folk, but Ray’s array of musical roots—punk, folk, country, gospel—come across loud and clear. Amazon – iTunes
Dom Flemons – Black Cowboys
In addition to being a great collection of excellent songs, Black Cowboys is a tremendous contribution to our understanding of traditional American music. Some of it we’ve heard before in other forms (“Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad,” for example), but Flemons’s choice to include such songs here indicates to what extent celebrated white artists have borrowed from, or fully appropriated, black traditional music. We’d all do best to listen and learn. Amazon – iTunes
Rosanne Cash – She Remembers Everything
Rosanne Cash has long been a master of narrative, and She Remembers Everything shows us a musical storyteller who has learned from every twist and turn her career has taken. Here she incorporates each learning experience into her art, shape-shifting through musical styles as if they all belonged together in the first place. Amazon – iTunes