Best of 2019: Elena See's Favorite Folk and Americana Albums of the Year

by Elena See, (@Elena See), Folk Alley

Folk Alley Best of 2019
photo: Amber Estes Thieneman


I don’t know if Charles Dickens said it first, but I’ll argue that he said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.” 2019 brought all the feels, didn’t it? And 2019 brought all the music to go along with the feels, too. Below, and in no particular order, my list of some of the musical standouts of the year.

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Over the Rhine: Love and Revelation: Celebrating 30 years of music making in 2019, this Ohio duo still shines when it comes to compelling harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, and a deep-down belief that love can and will always, ALWAYS, win in the end.

Stand out track: “Love and Revelation”

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Mary Bragg: Violets as Camouflage: Who is going to champion your life if you aren’t willing to do it? Take a chance, take a risk – BE BRAVE. That’s what Mary Bragg is saying with this record (that’s how it sounds to me, anyway).

Stand out track: “The Right Track”

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Joan Shelley: Like the River Loves the Sea: Kentucky musician Joan Shelley describes her 5th solo album as “a haven for overstimulated heads in uncertain times.” If you read that and think: mellow, soothing, and straight-forward, you’re right. But, true to form, Shelley doesn’t skimp on the thought-provoking lyrics, either. This might be a mellow record (for the most part) but don’t confuse “mellow” with “boring.”

Stand out track: All of them. No kidding. Ok, try “Coming Down For You” or “When What It Is.”

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JS Ondara: Tales of America: JS Ondara might be a young new voice in the folk world, but he’s a guy with an old soul. This Nairobi native moved to the US, to Minnesota, of all places (I say that with love; it’s my home state … but moving there in the middle of a frozen winter? No), partially because he cites Bob Dylan as one of his biggest influences. The move inspired a debut album earlier this year, Tales of America. Can’t wait to hear more from this voice and this soul.

Stand out track: “Good Question”

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Billy Strings: Home: I continue to be impressed by this young bluegrass phenom. He’s got incredible guitar skills, which the IBMA took note of earlier this year, and those skills are perfectly complemented by a clear, authentic voice, one perfectly situated for solid storytelling.

Stand out track: “Taking Water”

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Keb’ Mo’: Oklahoma: Short and sweet: this is a record that takes on the serious issues in the world in a straightforward, matter-of-fact way. In a world that’s increasingly full of noise and nonsense, I respect that. A lot.

Stand out track: “Don’t Throw it Away” (featuring Taj Mahal)

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Patty Griffin: Patty Griffin: Patty Griffin consistently reminds me to keep my heart and mind open. And, at the same time, she reminds me that I’m the one who gets to be in charge of me. This is a message she’s been sharing since I first started listening to her and it’s a message I always need to hear. She sounds amazing. She sounds human. She sounds like me.

Stand out track: “River”

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Yola: Walk Through Fire: I’m consistently impressed with Yola (Yola Carter, who now goes by her first name, professionally). She’s from England and she found herself, at a young age, inspired by one of the greats in American country/Americana/folk music: Dolly Parton. Inspired by Madame Parton as she may be, however, Yola has her own stories to tell. And YOU want to hear them.

Stand out track: “Faraway Look”

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Tinariwen: Amadjar: This band will do anything to make music. Death threats don’t phase them. Cancelled tour dates don’t stop them. They just keep on going, spreading music from the Western Sahara to the world beyond. Their dedication, not to mention their abundant talent, astounds.

Stand out track: “Takount”

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Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen: If You Can’t Stand the Heat: This band interests me. There’s something about their sound that instantly captures my attention and I’m not sure what it is, to be honest…the interplay in the instruments – there’s some really nice back and forth? The gruff-voiced lead vocalist (yes, it is mandolinist Frank Solivan)? Or the idea that the project was inspired by connections between music and food? I don’t know. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this band’s sound grabbed my ears from the first moment I heard it…and still does at the end of the year.

Stand out track: “Crave”

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