Here we are, folks, at the end of another year. It’s time to take a look back at all the goodness that’s behind us. In our world, that means celebrating the excellent music that’s been made and released throughout the year.
Of course, music is subjective and everyone has their favorites, but it’s a grand tradition among critics and radio hosts to amass a year-end list of the best albums and songs of the year.
So, in the spirit of tradition, the Folk Alley Favorites list has been assembled this year by an array of Folk Alley staff. We have done our best to balance our individual, personal preferences with the frequency with which the music has been played on-air. Though everyone who participated in the poll came out with different lists in the end, we feel that what follows best represents our interests and the folk and roots music that truly rose above the fray.
So, without further ado, we give you Folk Alley’s Ten Favorite Folk Albums from 2022!
1. Jake Blount – The New Faith
Using old songs to address contemporary concerns is one of the deepest, most meaningful traditions in American folk music. In this case, Blount drew from the music of Southern Appalachia to imagine a future community of Black climate refugees who have made their home on an island off the coast of Maine. He didn’t need to change any of the verses of the old songs to make them apply to the theme of climate disaster, but he did welcome a rapper to add some new verses as an update. The result is a tremendous accomplishment of both artistic vision and deeply rooted respect for folk tradition. Besides, taken individually, the songs capture exquisite performances of some terrific old folk songs, featuring Blount’s expert command of numerous instruments. – KR
2. Bonny Light Horseman – Rolling Golden Holy
This second full-length from the supergroup of Josh Kauffman, Anais Mitchell, and Eric D. Johnson, featured some of the finest songwriting on order this year. Mitchell’s eponymous solo album—her first in ten years—turned up on numerous lists as well, and remains well worth your ears. But Bonny Light Horseman’s collective allure was universally beloved here at Folk Alley. – KR
3. Mavis Staples & Levon Helm – Carry Me Home
Carry Me Home is a great album on its own—two legends in the realm of roots music are here, together, making music once again. Some of the finest songs in the form are given deep, soulful treatment, backed by some of the strongest musicians in the field. But it’s also a window into a friendship that transcends time and place. With Helm now gone a decade, his old friend Mavis Staples wanted to honor his memory with one last jam, and boy did she ever. – KR
4. S.G. Goodman – Teeth Marks
S.G. Goodman, the salt of the earth, queer Kentuckian, offers eerie melodies on her sophomore record Teeth Marks. Reflecting the new small-town America—she lives minutes away from her hometown of Hickman, Kentucky—she writes like she’s the Bruce Springsteen of the South. One more thing: you can’t box this lady in. She’ll haunt your dreams on one track and rock your world on the next. – CH
5. Leyla McCalla – Breaking the Thermometer
Leyla McCalla has been one of the most exciting purveyors of folk music in recent memory. Each of her albums has been a stunner, but this year she came out with a collection of songs that tell the story of Radio Haiti. Employing various American and Haitian folk elements, the music on Breaking the Thermometer was originally written for the stage. But with field recordings and other innovations thrown in, the album feels like a living, breathing thing all its own. – KR
6. Mary Gauthier – Dark Enough to See the Stars
Mary Gauthier has made a career on so many sad and dark songs, it was a curious thing that this time she decided to focus on the light. Dark Enough to See the Stars is an album dripping with all the complexity and nuance inherent in hope and optimism, tied up in the exquisitely well-crafted narratives for which Gauthier has become so beloved. Few people can turn a phrase like her, and it turns out few can write a happy song better too. – KR
7. Oumou Sangaré – Timbuktu
Malian singer-songwriter Oumou Sangaré’s Timbuktu was a feast of sounds and ideas. It is an artist’s job to find beauty in chaos, to make complicated things feel surmountable. Stuck in Baltimore during the bulk of pandemic lockdown, Sangaré wrote this album full of songs about longing for home, mourning for political turmoil, worrying for the children, and amplifying the power of women to move through it all with strength and grace. To boot, the grooves are deep, the arrangements are incredible, and—as ever—Sangaré’s vocals hold the center with something like effortlessness. – KR
8. Pharis & Jason Romero – Tell ‘Em You Were Gold
Pharis & Jason Romero’s latest album Tell ‘Em You Were Gold is an artfully crafted collection of original and traditional melodies that transports me into the cozy confines of the old barn in which it was recorded, on their property, deep in the woods of British Columbia. It’s as if I’m sitting right next to them soaking in every swell of emotion they infuse into their music. The record eloquently demonstrates how old-time stringband music is very much a living, breathing art form. – BK
9. Judy Collins – Spellbound
It may have taken Judy Collins 82 years to release an album full of songs she wrote herself, but we can be grateful she got around to it. Collins has built her career as a song interpreter, an exquisite singer able to pile numerous emotions into a single melodic line. But eight decades is a lot of fodder for songwriting. In some ways, Spellbound is a portrait of Judy Collins’s America, and Collins has captured it with beauty and artfulness. – KR
10. Miko Marks – Feel Like Going Home
We were robbed of a decade and a half of Miko Marks, but hell, it’s good to have her regularly releasing barn burners. She quit making records in 2007 but came back on the scene in 2021. This year’s Feel Like Going Home will have both your hands up and possibly also your jaw full on the floor. Miko’s songs this time around tell us where she’s been and what she wants to teach. That voice on top of that band, singing those words of healing and restoration, surely will stir something in your soul. – CH