The 10 best folk albums of 2020

Folk artists this year drew inspiration from China, south Asia and the wildness of the sea on the way to making stirring and vital music

10. Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn – Wu Fei and Abigail Washburn

Behold the Banjo Guzheng Pickin’ Girls, as goes the title of one the many joyous collaborations here, bringing together diverse traditional music from China’s marginalised communities and the clawhammer banjo style that began in west Africa before being claimed by the American south. In many tracks – such as the gorgeous Water Is Wide/Wusuli Boat Song, a weaving-together of a Scottish ballad with a Hezhe traditional – this record is a constant celebration of how music can help us explore common ground, and freshly discover it together.

9. Linda Buckley – From Ocean’s Floor

The legacy of the Gaelic sean-nós singing style returned in two gorgeous albums this year: Craig Armstrong and Calum Martin’s The Edge of the Sea, and this more experimental affair from Linda Buckley. The voice of Iarla Ó Lionáird from folk group the Gloaming swells and falls around the strings of Irish contemporary chamber group the Crash Ensemble, creating a hypnotic aural manifestation of the sea. The mood pulls you towards a timeless sad song cycle about love and loss, and a tradition that still has a profound effect, carrying with it many centuries.

Alasdair Roberts.
Alasdair Roberts. Photograph: Andy Catlin/Alamy

8. Alasdair Roberts – The Songs of My Boyhood

Roberts is so prolific, it’s easy to forget how fantastic he is. A gorgeous, stripped-down collection of Scottish songs, Fretted and Indebted, also came out this year, but this album revisiting his earliest recordings, under the pseudonym Appendix Out, felt particularly affecting, especially as he had just become a father. Without some of the more experimental flourishes of the originals, Roberts’ distinctively high, keening voice becomes the star of beautiful songs such as the shimmering Autumn and Arcane Lore.

7. Sam Lee – Old Wow

Produced like a soul album by Bernard Butler, Old Wow is a warm, polished tribute to the powers of nature. At times, it feels speckled with fairy lights, especially on the gorgeous duet with Liz Fraser, The Moon Shines Bright, which Lee learned from late Romany singer Freda Black, and on the many moments when Lee’s voice is allowed space to roam. When he sings “for your heart is heavy gold / for your precious hand to hold” on Worthy Wood, you feel every syllable in your bones.

6. Burd Ellen – Says the Never Beyond

A set of stunning versions of winter songs dripping with strangeness and unease, as our pandemic year deserves. Burd Ellen bring warmth to the season with their direct, vocal harmonies, but ice in the enveloping sonic experiments that surround them: shuddering synthesiser drones, treated guitars and shivering zithers have never been better deployed. Best are a startling five-and-a-half-minute version of Hela’r Dryw Bach (Welsh carol Hunting the Wren) that sounds primed for an award-winning indie horror film, and a version of the Corpus Christi carol which rings loudly with both sadness and brightness.

5. Cinder Well – No Summer

Born in California but long living in County Clare, Amelia Baker has soaked up the rich, raw weather of the current Irish folk scene. Her voice and songs hold small echoes of the work of Lisa O’Neill and Lankum, but also the sharp simplicity of alt-folk artists that emerged in the early 2000s such as Laura Veirs and Diane Cluck. Recorded in a church with sparse accompaniment, her version of Jean Ritchie’s The Cuckoo is beautiful and bare-boned. Dark love letter The Doorway, a Baker original, also burrows you into a moment of lost love.

4. Bróna McVittie – The Man in the Mountain

Beginning like a lost soundtrack from a late 60s folk film, The Man in the Mountain eddies into a whirlwind of gentle, pastoral psych. Its centre point is an astonishing seven-minute version of Irish traditional The Lark in the Clear Air with improv trumpeter Arve Henriksen, which opens up like a blossoming wildflower shot in slow-motion.

3. Jake Blount – Spider Tales

A glorious collection of Black and queer roots music that thrums with an urgent, almost punky energy throughout. Blount’s banjo, fiddle and voice are lusty and mellifluous, but the images he casts often feel brutally of the moment: the blood running down the streets in Mad Mama’s Blues, the men being killed in The Angels Done Bowed Down. Blount’s version of Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night?, now a yearning plea from a man to his man, feels feverishly new.

2. Shirley Collins – Heart’s Ease

In the strange summer of this year like no other, it was especially stirring to hear Shirley Collins enjoying traditional and family songs she has loved all her life. Proud of prow among the thickets of guitar, dobro and hurdy-gurdy, her voice has grown in confidence, a stable life-raft in the stormy sea. Wondrous Love and Crowlink are the album’s extremes, the former full of pink-cheeked, wide-eyed wonder, the latter stately, ghostly magnificence.

1. Yorkston/Thorne/Khan – Navarasa: Nine Emotions

This third album from James Yorkston, Jon Thorne and Suhail Yusuf Khan takes its title from Bharata Muni’s principle of the nine emotions that together represent the scope of human expression, then explores them through nine constantly searching, expansive tracks, connecting Scottish folksongs, Khan’s incredible sarangi-playing and qawwali-influenced singing, and Thorne’s dextrous improv double bass. A consistently enriching, giving record.

• What were your favourite folk albums of the year? Share your tips in the comments below.


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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