The best albums this year have accomplished what folk music has always sought to accomplish: trouble the waters to challenge the hidebound political and social viewpoints of a culture that too often maligns the other out of fear that grows into hatred. Some of the artists on the list have been writing and singing such songs for over 50 years, while others have emerged only recently and sung their innovative anthems so powerfully that they have called us once again to a reckoning and to ask: which side are you on?
Allison Russell, Outside Child – feature track, “Persephone”
Russell’s first solo album bristles with anger, grieves over loss, shimmers with hope, rejoices jubilantly over love, and soars blissfully with fervor in a collection of songs that plumbs the emotional depths of the ragged desolation of our lives and the heights to which our spirit is lifted by redemption and reconciliation.
Della Mae, Family Reunion – feature track, “These Songs”
Every song on Family Reunion is a little gem of perfection. They shine brightly in all musical facets, with every note in its place but often leading us down unexpected paths. We listen closely to these songs so we won’t miss those astonishing and enchanting moments of musical genius that Celia Woodsmith, Kimber Ludiker, Vickie Vaughn, Avril Smith, and Maddie Witler drop so effortlessly into every measure.
Jackson Browne, Downhill from Everywhere – feature track, “Still Looking for Something”
On his first album in six years, Browne demonstrates that he’s still testing the waters, refusing to accept the inequities that marginalize others, and asking probing questions about the human condition in poignant lyrics and soulful and exquisitely rendered music.
Adia Victoria, A Southern Gothic – feature track, “Carolina Bound”
Victoria’s raw and fiercely brilliant album subverts the traditional story of the South and present the stories of her South—the South she experiences as a Black Woman—in funky, soul-baring songs that in their brutal candor challenge and discomfort us, urging us to look around us and change the world around us, telling our own stories and not someone else’s that we have inherited.
Valerie June, The Moon and the Stars – feature track, “Call Me A Fool” (featuring Carla Thomas)
Prescription for Dreamers—Dreamy, spacious, ethereal, and soulful, June’s collection of songs inspire and offer just the right prescription for our hearts and souls as we seek solace and comfort and strength in the clutter of our daily lives.
Justin Moses, Fall Like Rain – feature track, “Fall Like Rain”
Multi-instrumentalist Moses shines brightly on this stunning collection of dazzling instrumentals, high lonesome ballads, and innovative takes on standard bluegrass phrasing, running the frets of his guitar, dobro, and mandolin and delivering all the right notes in all the right places.
Hayes Carll, You Get It All – feature track, “Nice Things”
Carll’s new album displays him at his songwriting best; musically and lyrically these songs reveal Carll’s insights into the raggedness of relationships, the dashed hopes and fervent dreams of individuals dancing together through life, the hollow loneliness of physical and mental loss, and the soul-shattering and redemptive moments we find in love’s embrace. We certainly get all of Carll as he bares his soul in this album.
Chris Thile, Laysongs – feature track, “Won’t You Come and Sing for Me”
Thile is a musical genius who restlessly explores the boundaries of bluegrass, classical, and jazz in this stunningly innovative suite of songs and tunes that explore the permeable boundaries of the physical and the spiritual.
Rachel Baiman, Cycles – feature track, “Wyoming Wildflowers”
Cycles washes over us with bracing shivers of truth and cleansing quivers of vulnerability and hope. Baiman knows well the faltering rhythms of the human heart and its resilience in shuffling through life’s passages, and her lyrics convey the jagged ways we move from hope to loss and back again.
Emily Scott Robinson, American Siren – feature track, “Things You Learn the Hard Way”
Emily Scott Robinson’s crystalline vocals reverberate vibrantly in the songs on her new album as they pluck the emotional filaments that bind us to one another. Robinson inhabits her songs of loss and love with an effortless grace that illumines the shadows that sometimes haunt us to reveal the gleaming facets of our lives that we often overlook.
One of the best still to come in 2021:
Barry Waldrep & Friends, Barry Waldrep & Friends Celebrate Tony Rice – feature track, “Why You Been Gone So Long” (feat. Jimmy Hall)
Waldrep gathers an all-star cast of musicians—including Jim Lauderdale, Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, John Jorgenson, among others—to pay homage to the great flatpicker Tony Rice, who influenced many diverse guitarists and musicians and who died on Christmas morning one year ago. (The album releases on December 24, 2021.)