Kim Ruehl's Top 10 Folk Picks of 2020 at Folk Alley

Folk Alley Best of 2020

by Kim Ruehl (@kimruehl), Folk Alley

Kim Ruehl shares her Top 10 Folk Picks of 2020!

1. Sunny War, Can I Sit With You? (Harlan Steinberger)

It’s unusual for such a little collection—this one clocks in at four songs, total—to garner such praise. But Sunny War makes music in a way that nobody else does, a rare singular voice in a world full of gifted singer-songwriters. And though she has been churning out great music for years now, this little EP was so meaningful and perfect for the year in which it released, it’s not a stretch to call it the best recorded folk project both in and for 2020.

2. Sarah Jarosz, World on the Ground (Rounder)

Sarah Jarosz has grown as an artist right before our ears, with each album released notching her up another step in her relationship with her gift. Here, she teamed up with one of roots music’s greatest natural resources, John Leventhal, for an album-long rumination on home and place and identity, in general.

3. The Mammals, Nonet (Humble Abode)

The Mammals have long been one of folk music’s staunchest stalwart bands, but their 2020 release Nonet, their finest yet, nailed everything we needed to hear this year. The irony is that it was all written and recorded long before anyone could have dreamed up 2020. But that just underscores their ability to tap into some parallel plane where musical truths are universal and timeless.

4. Della Mae, Headlight (Rounder)

This latest album from one of the best bands in bluegrass was a delightful feminist power-punch. Pegged to the title track, a tribute to Christine Blasey Ford, the album spins through wild women and thoughtful catharsis. But the throughline is always Della Mae’s synergy, the natural collaboration between some of the finest instrumentalists on the scene.

5. Rose Cousins , Bravado (Outside Music)

Putting aside how nail-on-the-head “The Benefits of Being Alone” turned out to be for 2020, Bravado was another beautiful deep-dive into Cousins’s strongest subject matter: feelings. Just when you think there’s no deeper depth of feelings to plumb, Cousins comes back with more layers of capital-T Truth to sing about. We’re all the better for it, to be sure.

6. David Ramirez, My Love Is a Hurricane (Sweetworld)

In the realm of straight-up-great-songwriting, there are few quite like David Ramirez. And while his songs are outstanding when left to their own devices—just acoustic guitar and vocals—My Love Is a Hurricane saw Ramirez delivering them with a lush, beautifully produced collection of arrangements. For what it’s worth, it pairs well with the album before it on this list, as both don’t hesitate to dig as deep as they can into how living can feel sometimes.

7. Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn, Wu Fei & Abigail Washburn (Smithsonian Folkways)

Somehow this album squeaked through without much fanfare, but it’s never too late to dig in. It features what is easily one of the best folk collaborations of recent memory. Here, Washburn pairs her beautiful interpretations of American folk songs with Wu’s masterful delivery of Chinese folk, bringing their years-long, memorable onstage collaboration finally into more tangible relief.

8. Jake Blount, Spider Tales (Free Dirt)

Jake Blount is another artist who has come more fully into his own with every release, but it’s hard to believe he’s got an album in him that’s more suited for the times than Spider Tales. Named for the spider god Anansi, the album spins and weaves into the various traditions of Black American folk music, with utter respect for both history and the present day.

9. The Secret Sisters, Saturn Return (New West)

Sisters Laura and Lydia have perfected their harmony singing and now it seems they’ve fully moved into their “voice” as songwriters. Saturn Return is a sort of coming-of-age album for women unwilling to hold back anymore. The arrangements are perfectly appointed, the production (from Brandi Carlile, worth noting) is beautifully restrained, and it’s just a great album of great songs.

10. Samantha Crain, A Small Death (Ramseur Records)

Samantha Crain has one of those voices like standing on the edge of a sob, and she began her writing career focused on short stories. These two facts together make her singer-songwriter career particularly noteworthy. Though I’ve loved everything she’s put out, A Small Death seemed to have cracked the singer into some new territory. You can almost picture her alone in a desert, singing lullabies to the moon.

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