Kim Ruehl’s Best of 2021
Well, folks another year has whizzed past, with its myriad world events and, thankfully, an incredible soundtrack.
The accessibility of Covid vaccines has allowed live music to get back on track—thanks to folk and roots artists like Jason Isbell and Rosanne Cash who have demanded venues take up common-sense safety measures. This has granted us all a chance to get back into rooms and fields to experience great music.
In the folk and roots music world, we’ve gotten to see some amazing artists — many who have been around for a while — truly step into their power on a wider stage. As they have done so, they’ve brought others along with them. This year, that means a far more diverse field of artists whose work has found a large audience. Though there is so much work to do to ensure equal airtime and safe spaces in our corner of the music industry, it’s a gift to see especially Black women artists lifting each other up and music journalists beyond our little niche giving so much space to people of all backgrounds. (Even when they get it wrong, it at least makes for a great, necessary conversation on Twitter.)
Speaking of conversations, here are all the folk music things I couldn’t stop talking about this year:
Best Year for a Folksinger: Allison Russell
By her own count, Allison Russell has been a performer for 22 years. Her three bands—Po’ Girl, Birds of Chicago, and Our Native Daughters—have made some of the most remarkable music in the folk realm this whole time. And yet, suddenly, in 2021, Russell is everywhere. With good reason, granted. Her “solo debut” (in quotation marks because she is joined by a full band and, again, she’s been doing this awhile) gained the attention of high-profile outlets like The New York Times and Rolling Stone. The Newport Folk Festival invited her to curate a stage, which resulted in a crowd of extraordinary Black women artists singing “I’m Every Woman” with Chaka Kahn herself. She was handed a string of awards and three Grammy nominations. And, beyond all the accolades, achievement, and attention, she also delivered an album that was simultaneously devastating and transcendent, wrapped in exquisite melodies, haunting vocals, her occasional French, and the comforting embrace of her exquisite clarinet. If Russell’s track record is any indication, there is plenty more where Outside Child’s beautiful array of songs came from. We, as fans, should be so lucky.
Best Folk-Adjacent Albums I Couldn’t Stop Listening To:
* Jon Batiste – We Are
* Yola – Stand for Myself
* Lake Street Dive – Obviously
After the last couple of years of world events, quarantine, and just :gesturing broadly:, it was incredibly affirming to be able to get down with Jon Batiste (“I let go with so much freedom”), shake a fist with Yola (“We know it isn’t … ain’t gonna turn out right / that’s why we gots to fight”), and flirt with Lake Street Dive (“I’ve been writing your name down next to mine”). Thematically, these are extremely different albums, but they are all excellent from start to finish, with just enough truth to keep you honest and just enough groove to keep you sane.
Best Folk Album You May Have Missed: Anna Tivel – Blue World
Anna Tivel writes beautiful songs that feel to me like standing in the grey mist on the Oregon coast, early in the morning. There’s a lot of space in her songwriting, a lot of anticipation, and a lot of lines that you just can’t possibly see coming. Blue World is an album she wrote because she felt drawn to the piano—an instrument she doesn’t even play. As usual, her songwriting will knock you out.
Best Folk Song: Valerie June – “Call Me a Fool”
Every so often, there’s a song that does everything so right, it leaves even long-time music critics without any words. Valerie June’s particular style of music magic is impossible to describe, and this song in any other hands would be a totally different experience. It is a perfect blend of lyrics, groove, vocals, and hook. Turn it loud and let go.
Best Concept Album: Sarah Jarosz – Blue Heron Suite
Sarah Jarosz’s beautiful tribute to her mother features some of the finest songwriting from one of the finest songwriters working these days. If you can get through the whole thing with dry eyes, you are a stronger person than I.
Best School Project: No-No Boy – 1975
Julian Saporiti’s collection of folk songs and multi-media storytelling captured the folk sphere’s heart and attention this year, via a deep-dive into the Asian American experience. His songwriting is the kind of genre-ignoring, story-telling beauty I crave.
Best Folk Book: Woody Guthrie: Songs and Art, Words and Wisdom
Nora Guthrie’s tribute to her father is a stunning collection that reads like a door into his mind. Musicians can marvel over the fact that his most famous compositions seem to have been channeled, no editing necessary. Visual artists can gain inspiration from his remarkably versatile work in chalk, oil, and ink. Writers of all sorts can learn a thing or two from the way he immersed himself in whatever caught his imagination. And curious fans can simply gain insight and inspiration from a man who was so much more than just a guy with a guitar.
Best Artist-Run Podcast: Adia Victoria – Call & Response
It must be said that Adia Victoria’s Magnolia Blues was one of the finest albums in any genre to drop this year. Her songwriting is deeply rooted, emotionally intelligent, and incredibly catchy. She makes music that sounds like nobody else working today and it all deserves your ears. And her podcast, Call & Response, is a remarkable achievement. Part poetry, part conversation, part music, part social commentary, part love letter to the South. If you need to be reminded of what art can do and be, dig in.
Best Conversation Between Great Folks: Anais Mitchell and Margaret Atwood During Folk Unlocked
Who knew we all needed to hear singer-songwriter/Tony-winner Anais Mitchell talk folk songs and writing with novelist Margaret Atwood? This was the keynote conversation I certainly didn’t see coming, but which we all tuned into, sat back, and let our minds get blown. (When Atwood went to her drawer!)
Best Folk Holiday Song: Amanda Shires – “Gone for Christmas”
It is not easy to write a Christmas song that actually feels like a Christmas song, especially if it’s an in-your-face kiss-off. But Amanda Shires has long proven herself adept at spinning numerous musical plates. Holiday music doesn’t often get a shout-out in year-end lists, but this one deserves some hard time on your speakers this year, as you let 2021 fade into the rearview. Point at the whole year (OK, maybe just the bad parts) and sing along: “I want you gone for Christmas.”