This may be the year that goes down in music history—as much as anything does these days—as the year when everyone dropped their pandemic lockdown album. The songs were either written during lockdown or recorded during lockdown, or the release was held until enough time had passed in Covid lockdown that the artist could get back on the road and tour behind it.
As a result, we were given a lot of songwriting that ruminated on purpose and deep emotional vulnerability, moreso than usual. Some of these projects were more ambitious than perhaps the artist would have trusted themselves to create before the pandemic. All those hours with nowhere to go gave them an opportunity to follow an idea to its natural conclusion.
In some cases, the songs in these albums were written about other times and circumstances but, by the time they found their way out into the world this year, they meant something else altogether. (Anais Mitchell told me during our podcast recording that “Real World” was a song she wrote in reaction to social media, but it developed new meaning with everyone stuck at home so long.)
Music of all styles can offer catharsis and emotional release, but folk music is specifically, uniquely positioned to do this.
Some folk artists draw from deep tradition—songs that have been around so long, their survival is proof that we humans can and will surmount the present moment. Others may create something new inspired by the old.
But at either turn, the effect is similar: A reminder that we are in this together, that we can do this together, that music is a vehicle toward peace and transcendence of both the personal and collective variety.
With that in mind, I give you my ten favorite albums this year:
1. Jake Blount – The New Faith
The whole point of the folk process is for each generation to add their own voice to the choir. Add a verse, tweak the melody, bring in instruments that haven’t played that song before.
In Jake Blount’s case, he made an implicit rhythm explicit, brought in a rapper (Demeanor—Rhiannon Giddens’s nephew) to write some verses inspired by the tradition. All of this serves an original narrative that is relevant to the past, present, and future of humanity, to which Blount bent the old songs.
Folk songs exist because many generations co-write them together over the course of time. Blount added his touches and passed it on down the line—but not before also building a new world around it.
This project was inspired and inspirational—easily the finest thing anyone did with folk music this year.
2. Leyla McCalla – Breaking the Thermometer
McCalla made this album to commemorate a live musical piece that she created on commission from the University of North Carolina. She employed field recordings and archival footage, atmospheric soundscapes, and music that bridges the musical traditions of Haiti and the Haitian immigrant experience in the U.S. Close your eyes and you can almost see the dancers. The result is a deeply stirring rumination on what humans are capable of, in the realms of activism, justice, friendship, and love.
3. Anais Mitchell – Anais Mitchell
Anais Mitchell’s first solo album in ten years was, it turns out, well worth the wait. It sees the songwriter—one of the best of my generation—emerging from the tangled artistic experience of developing a Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical. No small feat. What makes Hadestown such a treat is that it centers around her exquisite gift for intertwining the personal and the universal, and she did even more of that here. The songs are occasionally uncomfortably, vulnerably personal, but her willingness to go all the way there allows her audience to experience an emotional release they maybe didn’t even realize they’d been needing.
4. Anna Tivel – Outsiders
Our parent company, FreshGrass, awarded Tivel its singer-songwriter award a few years back, and with good reason. She is a remarkably gifted writer, able to balance the intimate with the accessible. Through her hushed, exacting vocal performances, she portrays characters who are somehow equally troubled and full of wonder. We follow them along, through the elements, toward all their little epiphanies.
5. Aoife O’Donovan – Age of Apathy
Aoife O’Donovan is one of the most interesting singers in the folk world. Her instrument is almost freakishly nuanced, traveling from a whisper to a belt and back, like a well-tamed horn. Here, she manipulates it around various turns, whether riding a city bus or a rocket to Jupiter. Her lyrics are dripping with intellectual and emotional curiosity and her arrangements are lush and often surprising. This is some of the finest work of her career so far, not that there’s a dud in the bunch.
6. Mali Obomsawin – Sweet Tooth
Obomsawin’s solo debut was an exploration of the way her Abenaki traditions fit—and don’t—into modern America. An activist in the “land back” movement who came of age playing bass in bluegrass and “new acoustic” groups (her band Lula Wiles split kind of unceremoniously during the pandemic), Obomsawin told me this year that she has a singer-songwriter album to release in the near future but felt the need to delve into this tradition first. The result is a musical masterpiece that marries Native tradition, field recordings, and free jazz with stories and ideas that have been passed down for centuries. It is full of joy and rage, and everything in-between.
7. Amy Ray – If It All Goes South
Amy Ray has been playing with her live band for about a decade now, and the synergy they’ve developed on the road comes to a head on this exquisitely tight new album. With more than 30 years of songwriting under her belt, Ray has come to understand a thing or two about how to do this job. Her songs are wrapped with the punk energy that inspired her in the first place, tied together with elements of folk and country and anything else she sees fit. Her lyrics are emotionally intelligent, calling us together regardless of our differences. Even where she calls out hypocrisy, she does it with love and compassion for the individuals. It’s not as easy as it looks.
8. Punch Brothers – Hell on Church Street
The Punch Brothers are innovators in the field of contemporary stringband music. Five players who are all among the best technicians in the field. Luckily, they are also among the finest artists. This time, they decided to pay tribute to their late hero, Tony Rice, by recording his Church Street Blues album in its entirety. But, they did it their own way, bringing their own brand of musicianship into the mix. Rice would be impressed and thrilled with how they handled it. I know I was.
9. Pharis & Jason Romero – Tell ‘Em You Were Gold
Pharis and Jason Romero’s music deserves far more attention than it gets beyond the folk realm. The husband-and-wife duo set out to make an album where they play all the banjos that Jason has been making in his workshop, and they did not disappoint. Their lyricism is always packed with little surprises, and their connection as players goes beyond the typical family band. There is a warmth and a familiarity to their music that makes you feel welcome to come on in and sit down, grab an instrument, join in.
10. Allison de Groot & Tatiana Hargreaves – Hurricane Clarice
Simply: This album is just full of great music, played beautifully, by two of the most talented old-time players on the scene these days. There are old songs and new originals that sound like they’ve been around for generations. There is swing in these arrangements, tight effortlessness in the vocals, and their selection of songs to record is interesting and compelling. For folks looking to discover traditional music, this is a tremendous gateway album. I can’t wait to hear more from these two.