Once again, it’s been a hard year for the world but a great year for music. In some ways, traditional folk music is insulated from the economic pressures of the music industry, but many trad artists are still struggling now more than ever. With that in mind, here’s my list of Best Trad Music of 2022. This is music rooted in tradition but unafraid to face the modern world head-on.
1. Yahritza y Su Esencia – Obsessed
This year’s most exciting trad release comes from a breakout 15-year-old singer from Washington State. Martínez grew up singing at home and hanging around her father and uncles’ band. Her music usually involves her brothers Jairo and Mando on 12-string guitar and the bajoloche (acoustic bass).
Yahritza blew up on TikTok. Her early covers of popular songs—just her and her guitar in her house—struck a nerve. She became the youngest Latine performer to debut on the Billboard Hot 100 and Obsessed (her debut) launched her into the mainstream of Mexican regional music. Obsessed is polished, but not too smooth. It is part of a red-hot genre of regional Mexican music, sierreño. Coming out of the norteño world, sierreño is strings-based, focused on sad ballads and vocals from young singers.
2. Angeline Morrison – The Sorrow Songs (Folk Songs of Black British Experience)
British singer-songwriter Angeline Morrison’s new album is a blistering reimagining of the entirety of UK folk. Inspired by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s Radio Ballads broadcasts, the album mixes original songs that she wrote and imagined as if they’d been sourced from field recordings in the countryside. She delivers them with ironic, prudish commentary—written by her but based on writings of the time.
There’s a reason that Morrison includes a trigger warning in the liner notes: Some of the history is horrific. “Hide Yourself” is based on accounts of the Liverpool Race Riots of 1919 that saw Black families hiding in homes as mobs attacked houses. The opening song, “Unknown African Boy,” is an ode to a “West African Boy” found washed ashore from a slaver’s shipwreck. It’s tragic that Morrison had to create these songs, but it shows the need for representing very real histories that are often forgotten or covered up in traditional music.
3. Joe Rainey – Niineta
Joe Rainey’s debut album, Niineta, brought together field recordings, powwow song, drumming, and electronic music to create indelible, memorable soundscapes. It is a collaboration between Rainey, a song collector and powwow singer, and Andrew Broder, who made the beats and electronic work. Rainey is Red Lake Ojibwe from Minneapolis, and Broder hails from the same city.
Rainey sang and improvised over Broder’s beats and soundscapes. He fleshed out the album with field recordings of himself and other powwow singers. The combination of his love for field recording and the informal traditions of passing around these recordings meshes well with Broder’s engineering. Yet the album never sounds too intentional. There’s a swing to the music, an informal sense of joy in making music together that leavens even the harshest sentiments and history reflected in the music.
4. Daniel Bellegarde – Pastourelle
The new album from Montréal percussionist Daniel Bellegarde is important because he’s moving the discussion from his roots in Haitian music to a larger understanding of French Caribbean music and, ultimately, a deeply compelling idea of Montréalaise music. A specialist in Haitian country dance traditions, Bellegarde riffs on historical sources to create new compositions. Pastourelle is a masterful blend of many different traditions—most of them little-known. It’s a brand new, very exciting vision for what Montréal trad music can sound like.
5. Pharis & Jason Romero – Tell ‘Em You Were Gold
Tell ‘Em You Were Gold is on this list, not just because of the masterful playing, but also because of the incredible tone of the recording. The banjos practically sparkle with beauty. The intertwined voices make you feel like you’re sitting in the same cozy living room with the artists. The result is an album of near perfectly crafted folk and traditional music with an unparalleled audio quality. Put on the nice headphones and turn it up.
6. The Local Honeys – The Local Honeys
The Local Honeys’ self-titled album is a deeply felt, perfectly imagined vision of Appalachian culture. Linda Jean Stokley and Montana Hobbs write songs from their own experiences, drawing from a larger tradition of hard-hitting topicality in Appalachian music. The album opens with a cover of Jean Ritchie’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore,” but the song taps into the heart of the album–the importance of telling authentic stories to help others understand the struggles of modern Appalachia. Throughout their new album, the Local Honeys show a deft hand as songwriters and interpreters of Kentucky roots—two artists unafraid to sing about the good and the bad of rural, Appalachian life.
7. Bua – Foscadh ón mBáisteach / A Shelter from the Rain
It’s been over a decade since the last album from Bua. The new album, Foscadh ón mBáisteach / A Shelter from the Rain, features traditional Irish jigs and reels, some taken from the tune books of the great Chicago Chief of Police Francis O’Neill, others taken from Irish sources directly. Instrumentally, Bua have always been top flight, mixing the overdriven flute and uilleann bagpipe playing of Sean Gavin with racehorse fiddler Devin Shepherd. Guitarist and bouzouki player Brian Miller draws from his research into Minnesota lumberjack traditions. Riding over all this instrumental goodness, lead singer Brian Ó hAirt has studied the old traditions of Irish song and paid homage to the masters—and he still sounds entirely original.
8. Super Parquet – Couteau / Haute Forme
There’s a fascinating sound in French trad right now revolving around heavy experimentation and long-form trance drones. It comes out of French bagpipe and hurdy gurdy traditions, usually from artists that came up in the trad world but also have ties to noise and experimental scenes. It’s part of a larger movement in France and it’s tied to the Irish music scene as well. The result is a kind of fractured folk that loops traditional melodies, voiced by bagpipes and tenor banjo, cushioned in layers of electronics. Super Parquet, from France’s Massif Central, is one of the most prominent of these bands, and their most current album offers two different ways of experiencing their vision. The first, Couteau, features two traditional songs, presented straightforward but also enmeshed in a drone-heavy soundscape. The second, Haute Forme, is where it really goes off the rails. Intended as one long, unbroken track, the band had to break it in two to put it on vinyl. The intent is a long, roiled landscape, awash in cybernetics. The melodies are transportive. This new form of French trad isn’t for everyone, but there’s no denying it’s a bold new vision for traditional music in an electronic future.
9. Laura Elkeslassy – Ya Ghorbati: Divas in Exile
This is a multimedia, fully online album from Jewish singer Laura Elkeslassy. With Ya Ghorbati, Elkeslassy is uncovering the history of a few specific Judeo-Arab divas who paint a larger picture of Jewish life in the Maghreb (Mediterranean parts of North Africa). For each song, Elkeslassy provides deep background on the diva that originally sang it and a YouTube video of herself performing it. Few traditional artists take the time to foreground their sources to this degree, and Elkeslassy’s approach brings the music, and these hugely larger-than-life historical women, to vibrant life.
10. Tellef Kvifte – The Norwegian Bagpipe (?) Vol II
This completely stripped-back album is just one bagpiper holding forth on Norwegian hardanger fiddle tunes, but the playing is good and the tunes are interesting. Tellef Kvifte’s a fine player, but what he’s doing here is quite interesting too. Norway has no native bagpipe traditions, so much of the music is based on his own vision. He felt that Norway’s hardanger fiddle tunes would be perfect for the bagpipes, since that type of fiddle is based on melodies and drones as well. He’s right. Bagpipes were made for fiddle tunes and fiddle tunes were made for bagpipes.