The 20 Best Folk Albums of 2020

Featuring Tyler Childers, Anjimile, Adrianne Lenker and more

Music Lists Best Albums
The 20 Best Folk Albums of 2020

Roots music keeps us grounded—connecting us to a storied musical lineage, while also sparking new memories and joy in our lives. It’s a feel-good genre that helps us unwind, and it also continues to bring raw, unique perspectives from both budding and seasoned musicians. In 2020, we were delighted by newcomers like Boston singer/songwriter Anjimile and Irish artist Aoife Nessa Frances, each releasing impressive debut albums, and we were comforted by familiar favorites like Gillian Welch and Courtney Marie Andrews. Each of the artists listed below helped ease the unfathomable range of emotions we felt in 2020, and we hope they’ll have the same effect on our readers. Scroll down for a selection of our favorite folk albums from 2020.

Adrianne Lenker: songs

Everything Adrianne Lenker puts her name to could very well be the best thing she’s ever done. She’s best known as the frontwoman and songwriter of Brooklyn-based indie-folk band Big Thief, who released their debut album in 2016 and quickly became critical darlings, and Lenker herself became a particularly influential vocalist. When Big Thief’s tour was cut short back in March, Lenker decided to retreat to a cabin in the mountains of Western Massachusetts to record an album. Space and nature, after all, are hugely important to her work. Lenker’s last solo full-length was 2018’s abysskiss, an album where dreams can lie in pillows, wagons can carry desire and time can count us just as well as we can count it. With songs, Lenker hones in on the duality of life. Love can be pure or manipulative, intimacy can indicate separation or closeness, and pain can be soul-crushing or relieving—and all these realities still lurk beneath the surface even when one has more clearly manifested. These tracks are among Lenker’s most striking and emotionally nuanced. While it lacks the musical dynamism of abysskiss, songs’ lyrics are more potent and detailed. Much like Big Thief’s, Lenker’s music emboldens the listener to think about their mother and dig through photos from their childhood, and not out of typical sentimental longing, but a deeper, primal desire to love and be loved. —Lizzie Manno

Alexia Avina: Unearth

Alexia Avina has a restorative voice, and her previous album All That I Can’t See was an ambient folk fan’s dream. She’s now readying her third album Unearth, which is more fleshed out than its acoustic predecessor, but still satisfyingly layered and wispy. It’s also a breakup album—one that grapples not just with the initial resentment and anger, but the lingering existential questions that will remain for a lifetime (“Came in like a raging comet / And I was on the other side of it / Where are all the other roses / And who decides when we’re unfrozen?”). Unearth isn’t background music—it’s a gorgeous, inner retreat. —Lizzie Manno

Anjimile: Giver Taker

On his opulent debut album Giver Taker, Anjimile’s most powerful and enchanting instrument is his voice. The project—which serves as a testament to the different stages of healing—is a sparse nine-track undertaking that reveals just how resilient our protagonist truly is. Anjimile’s story is an uncommon one, but an uplifting one nonetheless: A trans person—in the midst of battling his own demons—excavates the most troubling parts of his past and ultimately seeks out catharsis. Giver Taker is captivating in its detailed storytelling, luscious harmonies and admirable vulnerability. —Candace McDuffie

Aoife Nessa Frances: Land of No Junction

Aoife Nessa Frances’ debut album Land of No Junction, one of the few good things to come out of 2020, doesn’t feel like a first record. With her breezy early ’70s sound, the rich timbre of her voice and atmospheric production, she possesses a world-weariness that few other newcomers can evoke. Frances recorded the LP at Oxford Lane Music Society Studio in Ranelagh, Dublin, accompanied by Brendan Jenkinson (keyboard, engineering and mixing), Brendan Doherty (percussion) and Ailbhe Nic Oireachtaigh (strings). Land of No Junction actually gets its name from Frances’ mishearing of Nugent’s boyhood trips to Wales, she says, “passing through a station called Llandudno Junction… Land of No Junction later became a place in itself. A liminal space – a dark vast landscape to visit in dreams.” —Clare Martin

Ben Seretan: Youth Pastoral

“You will always be hungry / For something you can’t hold,” Ben Seretan sings in the opening minutes of his latest LP, an undeniably dynamic examination of how human beings seek meaning, whether in a higher power or in each other. The California-born, New York-based multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter longs for community on slow-blooming opener “1 Of”; “[prays] to the breeze / with asphalt in his knees” on the pedal steel-accented “Power Zone”; yearns to properly honor a lover and/or deity on stunning centerpiece “Am I Doing Right by You?”; harmonizes with his late friend, artist Devra Freelander, on the open-hearted “Shadow” (and others); and recalls being baptized on “Holding Up the Sun.” Youth Pastoral is a stunning album that draws its power from Seretan’s Neil Young-like vocals, his evocative, soul-baring songwriting, and a rustic, reverent hum befitting of its heavenward gaze. —Scott Russell

Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman

If you Google “oldest known musical instrument,” you’ll find that the answer is the flute: 42,000-year-old fragments of the instrument carved from bird bone and mammoth ivory were discovered in a German cave a decade ago. But the cheekier, less scientific answer to that query is the human voice. It makes logical sense: As long as there have been humans, they’ve surely used their voices to sing. In other words, it’s not just the material that’s timeless on the new self-titled album from folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman. It’s the voices—of decorated singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and Fruit Bats leader Eric D. Johnson, especially—that make Bonny Light Horseman more than just another rehash of traditional songs. The trio, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (The National, Josh Ritter), came together during two 2018 festivals connected to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner—Eaux Claires in Wisconsin and the 37d03d Festival in Berlin. There, Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman zeroed in on their goal: to give ancient songs a contemporary twist, and to surround the timeless feelings expressed in those songs with drop-dead gorgeous string and vocal arrangements. —Ben Salmon

Clem Snide: Forever Just Beyond

Produced by The Avett Brothers’ Scott Avett (and featuring him throughout), Clem Snide’s recently released album Forever Just Beyond follows a tumultuous season of life for singer/songwriter Eef Barzelay. His marriage, money and band all fell apart within a matter of years, and he turned around and channeled his anguish into an album of thoroughly thoughtful, beautiful and imaginative indie-folk songs. On “Roger Ebert,” Barzelay ponders the film critic’s “dying words,” allowing his metaphor to take a much larger shape. “There is a vastness that can’t be contained / Or described as a thought in the flesh of our brain,” he sings. “It’s everything, everywhere, future and past / Dissolving forever in an eternal flash.” —Ellen Johnson

Courtney Marie Andrews: Old Flowers

At the time of May Your Kindness Remain’s release, Andrews already had three excellent records under her worn leather belt. But this call for compassion solidified her as a lyricist with more empathy than she knew what to do with. On Andrews’ new album Old Flowers, that benevolence is abundant yet again, even though she wrote it following the messy disintegration of a nine-year relationship. While it occasionally loses itself in the past, Old Flowers doesn’t rely solely on nostalgia for its power. Andrews never wallows. She is somehow able to be both full of regret and gratitude at the same time. But Andrews is singular because she’s unafraid to look back on past loves with ample forgiveness. Old Flowers might make you cry, but it’s also an eloquent reminder that grace is always possible. —Ellen Johnson

Field Medic: Floral Prince

The second proper album from Kevin Patrick Sullivan’s freak-folk project Field Medic released on Run for Cover Records, Floral Prince was billed as “part mixtape, part album, part collection, part musical patchwork quilt.” However, the follow-up to 2019’s fade into the dawn is far more cohesive than that description would suggest, collapsing several years of songwriting and recording into a half-hour of candid, consistently arresting lo-fi folk. Sullivan’s output to date has been defined by its honesty and intimacy, thanks to his insistence on a “full-time freestyle” approach that rejects studio wizardry and obscure lyricism, opting instead for songs that sound—sorry, but it’s true—straight from the heart. Throughout Floral Prince, Sullivan reckons with the changes in his life, facing everything from romantic yearning (“i want you so bad it hurts”) and the struggles of sobriety (“it’s so lonely being sober”) to the emotional and physical pains of aging (“before your body goes,” “older now (it hurts)“) with wry humor and hard-fought wisdom. Bookended by the almost Mumford & Sons-esque banjo and bass drum stomper “-h-o-u-s-e-k-e-y-z-” and plaintive, confessional closer “TRANQUILIZED,” the album has a case for being Field Medic’s best yet, wrapping his heart-on-sleeve catharsis in folk to soothe the soul. —Scott Russell

Fleet Foxes: Shore

There are several elements that make a Fleet Foxes album great. Layered vocals, daring instrumental swells and vibrant, at times anxious, lyrics are all present throughout their catalogue, from the assured folk-pop of their 2008 self-titled debut to the magnificent existential ramblings on 2017’s Crack-Up. These signifiers are all present on their new album Shore, but the effects are much more nuanced. Fleet Foxes remain a quintessential millennial band, and, on Shore—which dropped with only a day’s warning—they’re once again tapping into the millennial psyche, this time with a little more optimism. Upon first listen, Shore lacks the immediacy of Fleet Foxes and 2011’s Helplessness Blues—at least from a sonic standpoint. But frontman Robin Pecknold’s astonishingly thoughtful lyrics quickly bring the listener back up to speed, at times recalling the grandiose scope of Crack-Up’s more cheerful moments, even if the indie-rock stylings are lagging a bit. —Ellen Johnson

Gillian Welch: Boots No. 2, The Lost Songs, Vol. 1-3

Gillian Welch is a beloved figurehead of American folk, with each of her songs tapping into well-worn traditions, but also inspiring a whole new generation of musicians. Her raw heart and bare songwriting always leave their mark, so any discovery of unreleased material is sure to be a treasure trove. Lucky for fans of roots music, three-volumes-worth of her material surfaced—including home demos and reel-to-reel recordings—and they were released as a box set titled Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs. The songs were recorded by Welch and her musical partner David Rawlings and put out by the duo’s own label, Acony Records. These tunes’ bluesy wisdom and melancholy yearning are heartwarming, but it’s their patience that really puts them over the top, allowing listeners to briefly stop time, appreciate simple pleasures and process the pain that’s built up for one reason or another. —Lizzie Manno

Johanna Warren: Chaotic Good

Johanna Warren’s self-produced fifth album, Chaotic Good, is a grim, inspired portrayal of the longstanding effects of toxic relationships. Warren gracefully articulates how it feels to disregard your own needs in favor of someone else’s, particularly someone who doesn’t deserve it and decides to run wild with this power. She illustrates this perfect storm of manipulation on the haunting acoustic opener “Rose Potion,” when she sings, “Now I see you’re not a perfect prism / Just the perfect foil for my masochism.” Throughout the record, Warren wrestles with how to simultaneously forgive herself and heal, as well as vent about the pain inflicted by a partner’s cynical wrongdoings. With touching piano-led tracks and outbursts of creepy, occasionally unhinged folk, Warren utilizes her unique melodic flow to capture the mess of emotions that festers after an unhealthy relationship is reduced to ashes. —Lizzie Manno

Laura Marling: Song for Our Daughter

Midway through “Held Down,” the lead single from Laura Marling’s surprise-released seventh album, the English singer/songwriter gives a cheeky little hint for anyone considering writing about her: “You sent me your book which I gave half a look / But I just don’t care for and I cannot get through / But you’re writing again and I’m glad, old friend / Now make sure you write me out of where you get to.” It’s an interesting inclusion here as Marling has made a career of ever-so-subtly writing about own personal relationships and breakups, be them about famous exes or not, but cloaking any autobiographical details underneath multiple levels of metaphor or imagery. She always writes from an extreme approach, either from the perspective of a character of her own invention or an obscure one deep in literature, rarely, if ever, giving any hints to what is real life or not, sometimes frustratingly so. As a result, her albums are centered around specific characters—Once I Was An Eagle’s Rosie, A Creature I Don’t Know’s The Beast and Sophia (the Greek goddess of wisdom)—or around a looser subject (Semper Femina’s look at femininity or societal gender roles on I Speak Because I Can). Perhaps that’s why Marling isn’t seen as the legendary singer/songwriter that she truly is: It’s hard to latch onto her albums because she hides herself under handfuls of different characters and perspectives, never truly allowing herself to shine through. But, like Bob Dylan before her, this is also her greatest strength, as impenetrable as her lyrics may be. —Steven Edelstone

Nadia Reid: Out of My Province

New Zealand singer/songwriter Nadia Reid released Out of My Province, her debut LP for Spacebomb Records, earlier this year, and it’s one of the most eloquent, shockingly overlooked folk-pop releases from 2020. Reid cites Joni Mitchell and Rufus and Martha Wainwright as influences (especially for her song “Oh Canada,” which serves as a tribute to the country and Mitchell, the Wainwrights and all its many musical exports), and it’s not such a stretch to hear little bits of those accomplished lyricists in Reid’s soft-spoken inflection. These are the kind of songs you might fancy listening to over a cup of coffee in the morning, or maybe moodily by a window during a summer rain shower. This is all to say they have a lovely vintage bent to them and will make you feel things. Reid can shift from sharply written soft rock (“High & Lonely,” “Other Side of the Wheel”) to contemplative folk (“Heart to Ride”) to wistful radio pop à la KT Tunstall or Colbie Caillat (“Best Thing”) at a moment’s notice, and all together, Out of My Province displays an artist gracefully establishing her sound through the art of genre-mixing. —Ellen Johnson

Sturgill Simpson: Cuttin’ Grass, Vols. 1 & 2

What do you get when you cross one of country music’s finest storytellers, a crack team of bluegrass’ best players and a lawnmower? The best dang hootenanny of the whole dang year, that’s what. Modern-day outlaw Sturgill Simpson is owner to a discography of idiosyncratic country tunes, from his breakout, psychedelic-inspired Metamodern Sounds in Country Music to 2016’s soft spoken roots record A Sailor’s Guide to Earth to last year’s aggressive country-rock/anime package SOUND & FURY. He’s been breaking rules and beloved for nearly a decade now, but who knew that he’d make some of his best work recreating songs he’d already recorded? Simpson recruited a cast of star bluegrass musicians like Tim O’Brien and Sierra Hull to re-record songs from throughout his career in a series of sessions at Butcher Shoppe Recording Studio. The result is the cleverly titled Cutting Grass Vol. 1 and, as of just a few weeks ago, Vol. 2. These records have been two of the year’s greatest surprises. Containing bluegrass recreations of some of Simpson’s best songs like “Breaker’s Roar,” “Turtles All The Way Down” and “All The Pretty Colors,” the Cuttin’ Grass records provide something so rare and entertaining: an artist covering his own songs. It’s the perfect soundtrack for a lonely 2020 day: unabrasive, uncomplicated—but never sleepy—folk music, sung by its creator and his fiddlin’ friends. Simpson probably could’ve cut the tracklists in half, but who is he if not dedicated? Don’t fight the sheer volume of these records: just throw ‘em on, maybe pour a drink or two and sail away on Sturgill Simpson’s lawnmower. —Ellen Johnson

The Microphones: Microphones in 2020

The last recording released under The Microphones’ name was 2003’s Mount Eerie, a precursor to Phil Elverum’s creative shift. The notion that The Microphones disbanded is something of a misconception, because even though he collaborated with other musicians on the project throughout the years, the Microphones name is really synonymous with Elverum himself. Since assuming the Mount Eerie persona, he’s proven incredibly prolific, releasing 10 studio albums under his new name between 2005 and 2019. Elverum slipped back into The Microphones for a performance last summer, and when the stirrings around this choice picked up, he began toying with “what it even means to step back into an old mode.” The result is Microphones in 2020, the sprawling, one-track album lasting nearly 45 minutes. Microphones in 2020 contains some of the year’s best, most reflective and probing lyrics. Elverum’s mastery of language is impressive thanks to his ability to capture an intangible, fleeting feeling without coming across as pretentious or out of reach. It’s honestly worth sitting down and reading the lyrics along with the song, consuming the words as poetry. His descriptions of nature are some of the most soul-stirring moments of the album, which isn’t surprising considering his lifelong sense of unity with the flora and fauna around him. “I started making my own embarrassing early tries at this / thing that sings at night above the house, branches in the wind bending / wordlessly, I wanted to capture it on tape,” he says of his early musical intentions. —Clare Martin

The Secret Sisters: Saturn Return

The Grammy-nominated Secret Sisters are the underrated success story of 2020 country. The Alabama-born duo—actual sisters Lydia and Laura Rogers—collaborated with Americana vet Brandi Carlile for their latest album, the dynamic Saturn Return. It’s not strictly country; the Rogers sisters have always occupied an alt-folk space. So while some of these songs lean more towards bluegrass or even rambling country-rock, there’s undoubtedly a Nashvillian energy to them all. On Saturn, they tackle aging, perhaps in response to losing both grandmothers in the process of making this record (“Silver”), motherhood, childhood and so much more. The mystical “Water Witch” features some truly stirring harmonies (which Lydia and Laura always excel at), and the thoughtful piano ballad “Hold You Dear” recalls loves lost. There’s so much warmth and wisdom to be found in these songs, which beg repeated listens, unveiling more thought-provoking messages each time I hear them. —Ellen Johnson

Told Slant: Point the Flashlight and Walk

The third full-length from Told Slant has all the intimacy of a bedroom album—it was, indeed, written and recorded in one—but it also boasts all the grand ambition of a career highlight. In their return from a four-year layoff, Brooklyn songwriter Felix Walworth eschews the stripped-down, guitar-centered sound of previous Told Slant releases in favor of more diverse instrumentation and sweeping emotion, with added emphasis on meticulous production, unexpected arrangements and soul-baring songwriting. As evidenced by the four singles already released, including “Family Still,” “No Backpack,” “Run Around the School” and “Whirlpool,” Point the Flashlight and Walk finds Walworth examining the ties that bind us, weighing what we put on the line when we dedicate ourselves to one another and deciding, “When there’s no one you’re afraid to lose, you lose.” —Scott Russell

Tyler Childers: Long Violent History

As his career in country music has taken off over the past few years, Kentucky-born-and-bred singer/songwriter Tyler Childers has proven to be a bit of a tough nut to crack. On his two excellent first albums—2017’s Purgatory and 2019’s Country Squire—Childers sings eloquently about drinking and drugs, making music, missing his woman, raising hell and living the hillbilly lifestyle. He’s a top-shelf storyteller, but if you’re looking for lyrics that reveal how he feels about certain issues or current events, you’re out of luck. All of this is perfectly fine, of course. There is no rule that Childers must express his opinions through song or dance around on stage to prove he’s having fun. His style is his style, and it has worked well for him as he has quickly built a sizable nationwide fanbase of people who connect with his authentic twang, working-class anthems and credible perspective on life in the rural American South. But even Childers is done playing it close to the vest after the year we’ve had. It’s not immediately obvious on his new album Long Violent History—surprise-released on Sept. 18—but to ensure absolutely no one misses the main point, Childers released a six-minute-long video along with the album to act as an introduction to the work. —Ben Salmon

Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud

In 2017, Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfeld quite literally blew the music world away. Her record Out in the Storm, which we named one of the best albums of that year, displayed a whole new side of the singer. Gone were the fortified bedroom pop of 2015’s Ivy Tripp, the rock-tinged freak-folk musings of her 2013 stunner Cerulean Salt and the brainy lo-fi recordings of her 2012 debut American Weekend. Out in the Storm sounds like its title suggests: loud, windy, chaotic and emotionally intense—a tried-and-true breakup album and a throwback to Crutchfield’s punk roots. If Out in the Storm was a tornado of sound and emotion, Saint Cloud, Crutchfield’s fifth album under the Waxahatchee alias (released Friday, March 27 on Merge Records) is the calm that comes afterwards. In some ways, it possesses little pieces of all the musical lives Crutchfield has lived before: punk-y vocals à la her once-upon-a-time rock band with Allison, P.S. Eliot; searing, Dylan-esque vocal delivery; chiming guitars straight off Out in the Storm; pastoral folk not unlike that of her 2018 EP Great Thunder. The songwriting remains impeccable. Within 10 seconds, you know—without a doubt—it’s a Waxahatchee album. Yet it’s different from anything she’s ever released before. Saint Cloud is Crutchfield’s country/Americana record. It runs on twang, jangle, truth and wide-open spaces; on the album cover, Crutchfield, dressed in a billowy baby-blue frock, sprawls across an old Ford truck bearing a license plate from her native Alabama. “Can’t Do Much,” a single released ahead of the record, possesses that old-time lilt and a head-over-heels chorus that sounds like something Lucinda Williams may have spat out on Essence. Saint Cloud is a whole new world. —Ellen Johnson

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