The vastness of folk music is the perfect escape from anything pandemic-related. While we may be confined to the indoors (or at least to strict solitude) right now, music is a kind of journey that doesn’t require any movement at all. And, as it happens, many of the songs on this list can be best enjoyed in stillness. Sit down, pour yourself a hot beverage and just listen. But the folk music that occupies this list isn’t just coffeehouse music you can tune out and work to—it’s thought-provoking, hearty music for curious listeners. While popular “folk” music has long evolved past its 1960s definition and is one of those genres that becomes more and more difficult to define with every passing year, there are still plenty of artists who undeniably fall somewhere on a venn diagram containing its base sounds and characteristics. Some of these artists may lean more country or rock, or maybe bluegrass or old-time, but, together, they make a list of folk songs. It’s far from comprehensive, but this list seeks to highlight some of the many wonderful songs released during a strange year. Here are the best folk songs released in 2020 so far.
Listen to our Best Folk Songs of 2020 playlist on Spotify.
Angelo De Augustine has always been Sufjan Stevens’ successor in a way, so to hear their voices raised up together in this song is heavenly. “Santa Barbara” is a gently strummed tune, featuring the same pointy acoustics Stevens so frequently puts into play, and it’s quietly beautiful in a way we haven’t heard elsewhere this year.
While this song was technically released as a single at the tail-end of 2019 (ahh, remember when?), “Here in the Dark” is a standout piece from Aoife Nessa Frances’ lovely new album Land of No Junction, released in January. Brooding singsong floats along as chiming keys and guitar roll underneath. Frances seems to be singing to herself as she observes, “All around birds fly / I’ve been thinking of paradise / The skies won’t fall / over things we’ve said.”
For the recently released EP Bull Frogs Croon, folk singer and I’m With Her/Crooked Still member Aoife O’Donovan matched up with a string quartet for a collection of truly stirring acoustic songs. The sort-of title track, “Bull Frogs Croon: i. Night Fishing,” is nothing short of magical, the sort of transportive folk tune that lends itself fully to your imagination so that you might daydream, even if just for a moment, that you’re dangling your feet off a dock somewhere, pointing a fishing pole at the rippling water.
It’s not worth the time it would take to fully define the music of Will Oldham’s Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It’s innovative and energetic, and his most recent project, I Made A Place, jumps from one mood to another so many times it’s hard to keep count. Album opener “New Memory Box” is certainly not a characteristically folk song—there are traces of hip-hop, a staggering trap beat and even some honky-tonk persuasion—but the rhythm of the banjo and a fiddle keep the song going. If you’re ready to throw away any expectations of genre, check out I Made A Place at the soonest opportunity.
“Deep In Love,” from supergroup Bonny Light Horseman’s (Anaïs Mitchell, Eric D. Johnson, Josh Kaufman) self-titled album, is as entrancing as anything on the release, but it’s actually an old Fruit Bats draft. Johnson wrote it for his 2019 album Gold Past Life, but it’s arguably more at home among these swirling songs of old. This one in particular features a beautiful harp. “Don’t you break my heart,” Johnson sings over and over. It’s less of a threat and more of a gentle warning, plastered on the outside of a fragile package.
Conor Oberst has a way of always sticking to his guns while simultaneously folding in interesting new sonic elements whenever he gets the chance. As for “Persona Non Grata,” a hearty indie-folk song that runs on keys and steady drums, the bagpipes are the most unexpected surprise—but a nice one nonetheless. The pipes give the song an anthemic feel as Oberst spits his familiarly sad and smart verses. It’s an expectedly wonderful return from a group who rarely trip.
At first pass, North Carolina-based Americana duo Chatham Rabbits sound like the next The Civil Wars. But listen a little closer, and you’ll hear how singular they really are. Like the halves of The Civil Wars once were, Chatham Rabbits’ Austin and Sarah McCombie are husband and wife, and they’re creating the kind of lush harmonies only achievable by someone as close as a married couple. “Oxen,” a single from their forthcoming album The Yoke is Easy, The Burden is Full (out May 1), is charming in the simplest way, a flourishing conversation between slide guitar, fiddle and mandolin.
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.”
“Burlap String” is in no hurry whatsoever. As Americana/folk singer Courtney Marie Andrews paints this heartbreaking picture in soothing pastels, she sounds full of regret, singing, “If I could go back now / I’d pick you wildflowers / Tie ‘em in burlap string / Tell you what you mean to me.” But it’s ultimately a restorative song, as Andrews describes her newfound maturity, even if that means some added cynicism: “I’ve grown cautious, I’ve grown up / I’m a skeptic of love.”
Daughter of Swords’ Alexandra Sauser-Monnig (Mountain Man) has been quietly establishing herself as a folk-pop frontrunner over the past year or so. Following the release of her 2019 album Dawnbreaker on Nonesuch, she shared a gorgeous one-off single, “Prairie Winter Wasteland.” Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced and recorded the song at the Wilco Loft in Chicago, but this song’s natural rhythms are far away from the hubbub of the city. Full of pastoral imagery and quietly droning drums and strings, this wintry ballad works like a anti-lullaby for coaxing spring out of its slumber.
Kevin Patrick Sullivan’s fingerpicking handiwork continues to impress on this new single, which is part of the loosely-organized Floral Prince project, an intended collection of one song released during each month of 2020. ”-h-o-u-s-e-k-e-y-z-” is the April jam, and, like Field Medic has continually made in the past, it’s part warm-folk-bath and part chaotic emo rant. Either way, it’s beautiful.
An Americana supergroup of sorts, Hawktail is made up of Paul Kowert from The Punch Brothers, violinist/fiddler Brittany Haas (Crooked Still, Steve Martin), mandolin player Dominick Leslie (The Deadly Gentlemen) and guitarist Jordan T. Their instrumental arrangements are searching and precise, yet they feel so untouched and flowing. One such piece is “Dandelion,” a classically smooth folk song that feels like it could stretch on for miles.
On the first song from her 2020 album Thirties, Nashville-based singer/songwriter Jill Andrews asks, “You’ve never been sorry / are you sorry now?” You get the feeling that whoever she’s addressing is the kind of person who’ll say “Sorry” but never truly apologize, but somehow Andrews turns this dead-end into something vaguely empathetic, singing “You’ve been so broken / Forgot what we were all about,” like the unraveling of this relationship was just a mishap of nature rather than something for which someone can be blamed.
As is a typical makeup for Kentucky songwriter Joan Shelley, “Blue Skies” is stripped down to the bare minimum. But Shelley doesn’t need any extra instrumentals when she has her golden-toned voice, which she uses to record two different harmonies on this breathtaking little tune released in the middle of the pandemic.
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While Laura Marling has been a fixture in the folk and folk-adjacent worlds for nearly a decade now, she has never sounded perhaps more like the forefathers and -mothers of folk than on her new album, Song For Our Daughter. She recalls a host of Jonis and Joans as she meanders through a forest of melancholy folk music. The standout tune is “Alexandra,” a sweeping Laurel Canyon-esque folk-pop song that would’ve fit right in on a Newport setlist from the 1960s. It’s that good.
Phoebe Bridgers is one of those artists who frequently walks the line between folk and rock, but “Garden Song” is one of her more rustic renderings—even if its music video and undertones are decidedly weird and modern. “Someday I’m gonna live in your house up on the hill / and when your skinhead neighbor goes missing,” Bridgers sings. “I’ll plant a garden in the yard, then / they’re gluing roses on a flatbed / You should see it / I mean thousands.” It has a slightly cryptic Alice in Wonderland feeling to it, as well as an undeniable warmth.
Folk singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Jarosz has proved herself to be a consistently great artist, and this year she’ll release another solo album, World On The Ground (out June 5 on Rounder). The lead single “Johnny” is just the right amount of wordy and soulful. “You might not get what you pay for / You know that nothing’s for sure,” Jarosz sings with the wisdom of an aging matchmaker. “And an open heart looks a lot like the wilderness.”
The end of childhood and slow entry into adulthood can be so very bittersweet, but The Secret Sisters’ contemplatively pretty song “Late Bloomer” finds both the bitterness and the sweetness in growing up a little slower than most folks. It’s more of a slow-burning country-soul tune than an all-out folk one, but Alabama’s Laura Rogers and Lydia Slagle certainly know their way around folk’s intricacies. They come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really matter how long it takes you to get where you’re going or when you get there—it just “matters that you do.”
“I avoided the cure but it found me anyway,” Sara and Sean sing in sweet harmony on the album opener from Brother Sister, “The Cure,” a song about hitting rock bottom and rising back up even without meaning to. Sara has always been a gifted singer and fiddler, and she sounds more comfortable than ever with her instrument here—like the violin is her other sibling.
The lead single from her stellar 2020 album Saint Cloud, “Fire” is Waxahatchee’s ode to the road. Like many songs on this list, it evades a resolute description, but “Fire” is undoubtedly rooted in hearty Midwestern folk. It starts out with a gentle groove, but before long, it’s an ambling sermon, with Katie Crutchfield riding wisp after wisp of her carefully crafted poem. “Give me something, it ain’t enough,” she sings with a sense of longing, but also peace. “It ain’t enough.”
Ace guitarist and former Silver Jews member William Tyler is the man behind the soundtrack for First Cow, one of A24’s 2020 titles. The story takes place in the untamed American Northwest, so Tyler’s bare-bones compositions are very fitting of the film’s rusticity. “Arrival” is one particularly spirited bit. It feels ever so slightly tinged with an Irish or Scottish lilt, but it’s mainly the sound of pure, American folk music.
Listen to our Best Folk Songs of 2020 playlist on Spotify.