It’s been a year the likes of which we’ve never seen. Everyone across the globe was affected by COVID, and musicians, music venues, and folks who work in the music industry were some of the hardest hit financially. 2020 saw major changes in traditional music, not just for the many artists unable to tour and the folk music festivals that had to postpone. We saw trad music move online, from the innovative digital festival that Philadelphia Folk Festival threw, to Pickathon’s 120 day livestream fundraiser that I got to work on. For trad fans, the Quarantine Happy Hour daily livestream on Facebook has brought a huge number of old-time and traditional musicians in the US and around the world together to enjoy the music. Artists got creative this year as well, releasing their albums by surprise (like Sturgill Simpson’s bluegrass album), or from their archives (like Gillian Welch), or on Bandcamp only (like a lot of Irish trad musicians). So much of our musical lives were put on hold that it’s a testament to the ingenuity of artists that they found so many ways to still bring us great music in 2020.
Here are my picks for the Best Trad Albums of the Worst Year.
The surprise album and hands-down the best trad album for me this year came out of a rare and beautiful tradition of music in Western France: Poitevin music. The group, Ciac Boum, is not well known outside the country, but their 2020 album, L’homme sans tête (the man without a head), is stunningly beautiful, filled with old medieval songs and beguiling arrangements. I’ll admit a bit of bias, since I’ve lived in Poitiers, the city at the center of this tradition, and have traced my own heritage in the region, but anyone I’ve played this album for has fallen in love with the music as well. Part of this comes down to the moving vocals of Poitevin singer and Ciac Boum’s bandleader Christian Pacher. He grew up speaking the Poitevin language, a fascinating old dialect of French, which is exceedingly rare. Here he sings old French ballads with a kind of drawl that reminds me of Acadian French, as many Acadian settlers came originally from this region of France. But credit is owed to the great band as well for building scaffolded arrangements that buttress Pacher’s vocals into a kind of audio cathedral. The off-center rhythms and haunting piano chords of my favorite song “Les filles de Noirmoutier” are the perfect counterpoint to Pacher’s rich vocals on this ballad, a love song to the women of the island of Noirmoutier, off the coast of Western France. Ciac Boum take the best innovations of today’s forward-thinking and experimental French trad scene (see also the band Super Parquet who dropped a great album last year), and meld that with a truly beautiful and traditional vision of old French balladry from one of the lesser known musical regions of the country.
One of the absolute best American folk albums of 2020 is not an album and it’s not up on any of the main streaming services. It’s a series of trolling Soundcloud posts from underground fiddler Nokosee Fields. Fields is Native American from Oklahoma and well known in old-time and roots country circles for his fiddling though he usually records as an upright bass player. As a fiddler he’s unparalleled, an absolutely brilliant technician who couples speed and ferocity with a rare and masterful form of subtlety, is a blast at jams, and has a raft of rare tunes, drawn mostly from old-time sources but also some from Native sources like Alaska’s Gwich’in fiddlers. Fields won the prestigious Appalachian String Band Festival at Clifftop, West Virginia in 2019 which is THE proving ground for the best old-time musicians. Without announcing anything, Fields has been dropping bizarre and wonderful “field recordings” to a secretive Soundcloud account (“sourcerror”). Recorded with unnamed guitar and banjo players, the sound’s meant to be like a rough old field recording, or perhaps a warped tape of a home jam that’s been passed around between players looking to learn the best new tunes and now is kind of thrashed. It’s a form of trolling, meant to poke at the old-time community who are usually socially progressive but musically conservative. The tune names are garbled and barely recognizable, meant to be rubrics for listeners to decode, and the pics for each track tap into some of the genius Fields brings to his social media, including a vintage pic of a cop buddying up with a KKK member for the tune “wldhginthwds” (Wild Hog in the Woods). There’s an edge to Fields’ current projects, an edge perhaps from being a non-white musician in a genre heavily beholden to white supremacy (maybe even defined by it), and that edge comes through in this musical project that’s unquestionably brilliant and beautiful. Fields has more projects coming, including new music from his band Hard Drive (a meme’d-out bluegrass band) and the somewhat mysterious Louisiana Fiddle Party with new friend Joe Troop of Che Apalache (also Dirk Powell). Fields told me one of his points in making these new recordings is to show that it doesn’t cost thousands of dollars to make compelling music, and he’s certainly showing what raw talent and a powerfully uncompromising perspective can bring to the table.
There’s such a rich and fascinating tradition behind New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians that it’s a wonder we hear so little about the music. A historic African-American masked tradition, the costumes are mind bendingly spectacular, huge architectural constructions of glittering rhinestones, feathers, and beadwork, and feature prominently on most looks at the Big Easy, but the music’s a bit rougher. Call and response battle vocals, heavy percussion, basically music for marching and music for calling out opponents or opposing tribes. 79rs Gang took this music and blended in New Orleans hip-hop roots, building a sound that’s new and old at the same time. The album is an absolute revelation of Black New Orleans culture and should be required listening for anyone interested in the culture.
Canadian songwriter William Prince has received much acclaim for his recent music, but 2020’s gospel album was a real surprise. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt look at the traditions of Christianity in Native American and First Nations communities, specific to Prince’s home region in Manitoba but also a meditation on the church’s influence on Indigenous identity. Prince comes from the church, growing up playing music with his father who traveled as a preacher. Prince’s goal here is not to spread the gospel, indeed he doesn’t even identify as Christian now. He’s come to understand that white colonialists used the Christian church (and continue to use it) as a way to eradicate Native identity. But he also sees the power of the gospel to help people, and is able to hold both of these ideas in his music and art at the same time, which can be a rare thing to find in an artist. “This record leans much more toward the Jesus who would have been out there right now,” he explained in an interview with American Songwriter Magazine, “helping the people who are suffering to pay rent, and dealing through this crisis, and people that are sick, and ‘bring me your weak,’ and ‘bring me those that need my attention,’.” The album is richly complex, powerful and poignant, and very moving. It’s easily one of the best albums out this year.
They may have started out as a precocious teen stringband in Seattle, but oh buddy have The Onlies arrived with their new, self-titled album. This is heart pumping, blood racing old-time stringband music, the kind that keeps you up all night at Clifftop, unable to sleep from wanting to hear just one more tune. Great singing as well, they’ve got it all. Individually they’re some of the best old-time musicians in the country, but the whole album is just such a blast to listen to. Their cover of the classic “Diamond Joe” is worth the price of admission alone. Definitely one to share with your friends.
Dirk Powell’s always been one of the best trad musicians in the US, heir to a rich vein of Appalachian old-time music and tied to the central family of Louisiana Cajun music. He was basically Joan Baez’s backing band on recent tours, and he’s a noted music producer for other great roots musicians. But Dirk’s got a roving mind and consistently finds new and interesting sounds and ideas to his music to push the tradition forward. His new album on Compass Records is no exception, moving between Appalachian and Cajun roots, touching on folk rock, and building out a new feminist anthem for the tradition with “I Ain’t Playing Pretty Polly”. Dirk makes it all look easy, and he makes it all seem like his own traditions.
One of the truly great American traditions, Texas conjunto music is unfortunately rarely covered in the national media. I’ve a great love for this accordion-fueled music from the Tejano communities of Texas, where the accordion is king and accordion players are revered. Even so, it was a great surprise to find this album of all instrumental accordion music from one of the biggest Tejano bands. Grupo Intocable is known for blending Tejano songs with Mexican norteño music, two traditions that can be somewhat hard to tell apart by outsiders (myself included). But here, Intocable’s bandleader and accordionist Ricky Muñoz goes deep into the Tejano tradition to pull out old accordion dance tunes and plays them with amazing gusto. It’s seriously fun music and you’ll find yourself wanting to dance along. Most of the tunes on the album come from Ruben Vela, a legend of Tejano accordion born in San Antonio, though a few are original and one is from the original legend of Texas accordion, the great Narciso Martinez. If all you know of Tejano roots music is Flaco Jimenez or Los Texmaniacs, that’s a good start already, and this album will show you the humble dance roots this accordion-driven music comes from.
Though the US and Russia are not likely to find much common ground in the years to come, that doesn’t mean that the Russian or American people are to blame for the actions of their leaders. Russia is a vast cultural world, and there’s been some really powerful folk music coming out of there recently, music that taps into a very old vein of tradition. Vedan Kolod is one of my new favorite Russian folk bands, and they specialize in the wild shaman music of Siberia. Because Siberia is so close to Mongolia and the Altai Mountains, shamanism is a long held tradition in the region. Vedan Kolod are from Siberia and have spent years studying this music, bringing it new life with their new album Wild Games. It’s haunting, spectral, mystical music made in the deep deep winter and endless forests of one of the most beautiful places in Russia.
It’s a shame that there’s so little musical interaction between American and Chinese traditions, both between artists from each country, or between artists born and raised in this country. Chinese folk music has much in common with American folk music, all the way down to the instruments that are often tuned in similar ways (the Chinese pipa is tuned like a mandolin, for example). China also has a number of great jamming cultures reminiscent of old-time jams or Irish jams, and there’s a long, almost totally undocumented, history of Chinese music in America that must have influenced American traditions in some way. Yet still, clawhammer banjo master Abigail Washburn is one of the few artists to actively promote these connections. She’s done this tirelessly, from her earliest projects to her most recent, this collaboration with Chinese guzheng (zither) master Wu Fei from Smithsonian Folkways. The two know each other well and take great delight in melding Chinese and American folk traditions together, so the album’s quite fun, and sometimes funny, to listen to. The instruments mesh beautifully too, each resonant in its own way and complimentary. What sets this apart are the liner notes from Chinese ethnomusicologist Xiaoshi Wei which take an honest look at the recent history of folk music in China. Though certainly the dominant culture in both countries has shaped the formation of folk music, in China folk music has been perhaps more closely tied to the state, and therefore the concept of folk music was shaped in very specific ways. Xiaoshi Wei explains the key principle that the music of China’s ethnic minorities has been shaped to reflect a national culture. It’s an important point that’s rarely discussed, but Xiaoshi’s notes carefully break down each song, examining how each culture views their own traditions.
I know a new reworking of Marvin Gaye’s classic album What’s Going On may seem like a strange choice for best trad album of 2020, but hear me out. Gaye’s album is almost 50 years old now (1971), and still feels as fresh and timely today as it did when it was released. Which is particularly moving, since Gaye’s album looked unflinchingly at everything from police brutality to rampant racism. Nashville artist Devon Gilfillian has made a career of pushing Americana in new directions, but with this album he wanted to pay homage to the timelessness of Gaye’s work. In 1995–fifty years after Monroe formed up his Blue Grass Boys in 1945–modern artists like Alison Krauss and Bela Fleck were creating great bluegrass albums, along with elder statesmen like Ralph Stanley, Earl Scruggs, and Doc Watson. All the bluegrass made at that time would now be considered pretty traditional, and yet it was only fifty years out from the genre’s entire creation. Gilfillian, like many artists, grew up with the music of Gaye, and this music has been passed down from generation to generation in families for two to three generations now. Tradition doesn’t take that long to become tradition. In any case, Gilfillian’s reworking of Gaye’s entire album with other great artists like Jamila Woods, Ruby Amanfu, and Jasmine Cephas Jones (of Hamilton), is a fitting homage to a powerful, seminal album that unfortunately still has so much to say about modern inequities. Gilfillian heard a message in the music that he wanted to pass on, and what’s more traditional than that?