Here are my picks for the Top 10 folk-rooted or folk-branched albums of 2020. As in past years, I started with the list of hundreds of new albums (including reissues) that I listened to over the past year and narrowed it down to a short list of about 30. I’ve been over the short list several times over the past couple of weeks and came up with several similar – not identical – Top 10 lists. Today’s list is the final one. The order might have been slightly different, and there are several other worthy albums that might have been included, had one of the other lists represented the final choice.
1. Joni Mitchell – Archives – Volume 1: The Early Years (1963-1967) (Rhino). When we first meet 20-year-old Saskatoon folksinger Joni Mitchell (then Joan Anderson) in a 1963 radio station demo session and at a coffeehouse concert the following year, on the first of this set’s five CDs, she was singing traditional songs and a couple of Woody Guthrie classics, accompanying herself on a ukulele. In short order, though, through more demo recordings, radio and TV show appearances, and live sets, we hear her rapid development into one of the most accomplished singer-songwriters of our time and, through her use of open tunings, an influential guitarist as well. Many of the songs would later appear on Joni’s first four albums and some are rarities not heard for more than a half-century.
2. Laura Smith – As Long As I’m Dreaming (Borealis). The untimely loss of beloved folksinger and singer-songwriter Laura Smith from pancreatic cancer in March was one of the first blows in what became a most difficult year. Last year, Laura began work on assembling a best-of collection and, indeed, 11 of the 18 excellent songs on this set are drawn from the four albums – Laura Smith, B’tween the Earth and My Soul, It’s a Personal Thing and Everything is Moving – she released between 1989 and 2013. There are also three superb songs recorded in the 1970s; a poignant version of “Passchendaele,” Tony Quarington’s song inspired by devastating Canadian losses in a First World War battle; a jazz standard; and two sublime new songs, including the title track, recorded just weeks before Laura passed.
3. Bob Dylan – Rough and Rowdy Ways (Columbia). On his first album of new songs in eight years, Bob Dylan, at 79, has given us his some of his most fascinating songs in decades. From the opening song, “I Contain Multitudes,” an exploration of complicated identity, to the final, epic song, “Murder Most Foul,” ostensibly about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but also much about iconic music, cinema and literature, Dylan continues to use a musical foundation drawing on folk music, blues and the Great American Songbook composers to complement his often-spellbinding lyrics.
4. John McCutcheon – Cabin Fever: Songs from the Quarantine (Appalsongs). John McCutcheon spent the early months of the COVID-19 lockdown writing and recording songs that astutely capture, in one way or another, the experiences that most of us have shared in these strange days. Among the highlights of these 17 songs are the poignant “Front Line,” written from the perspective of a healthcare worker on the frontlines during the first few weeks of the pandemic; “The Night John Prine Died,” which expresses the sorrow so many of us felt at the loss, from COVID, of one of our greatest singer-songwriters; and “My Dog Talking Blues,” which gives us something to smile about at a time when something to smile about is desperately needed.
5. Leyla McCalla – Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes (Smithsonian Folkways). This compelling album, an expanded version of Leyla McCalla’s first solo album released by Music Maker Relief Foundation in 2014, includes Leyla’s musical settings of poems by Langston Hughes, as well as other original songs, and several traditional Haitian folk songs. Singing and playing cello, banjo and guitar, Leyla’s powerful performances draw the listener in – whether on pieces like Hughes’ “Song for a Dark Girl,” an explicit exploration of racism and lynching which takes on even more meaning in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, or “Manman Mwen,” a young girl’s lament over an unwanted pregnancy.
6. Eliza Gilkyson – 2020 (Red House). Even though Eliza Gilkyson recorded this album before the pandemic, much of it obviously as food-for-thought in the American election year, the album does capture the zeitgeist of 2020, beginning in the first verse of the first song, “Promises to Keep,” when she sings, “I’ve been crying in the dark of night/I can’t find my way to sleep/Thoughts and prayers will never make things right/And I have promises to keep.” Among the other outstanding songs is “Beach Haven,” which Eliza adapted from a letter written in 1952 by Woody Guthrie, to Fred Trump, his racist landlord, after discovering Trump would not rent to non-whites.
7. Steel Rail – Coming Home (Crossties). Finally, 15 years after their third album, Steel Rail – the trio of Dave Clarke (lead guitar, harmony vocals), Tod Gorr (guitar, lead and harmony vocals) and Ellen Shizgal (bass, lead and harmony vocals) – has released its fourth album combining finely-crafted songs (all three contribute songs, some in collaboration with Lucinda Chodan) with sublime singing and playing from the three-way corner of folk, bluegrass and country music.
8. Lynn Miles – We’ll Look for Stars (Must Have Music). As she sings in “Old Soul,” Lynn Miles “knows how to spot trouble and heartache a mile away. She doesn’t ignore it, she goes and explores it, to see what it has to say.” Indeed, in this set of 11 fine songs, Lynn combines astute observations about affairs of the heart and the state of our troubled world with beautiful melodies and always-gorgeous singing. And, as she reveals in the album’s finale, it’s “because we love,” that it’s all worthwhile.
9. Kronos Quartet – Long Time Passing: Kronos Quartet and Friends Celebrate Pete Seeger (Smithsonian Folkways). To pay tribute to the great Pete Seeger, the Kronos Quartet, for decades among the most visionary and daring of classical ensembles, with help from singers Sam Amidon, Maria Arnal, Brian Carpenter, Lee Knight, Meklit, and Aoife O’Donovan has gloriously reimagined a group of songs from Pete’s repertoire (plus “The President Sang Amazing Grace,” a song they note, “could not exist but for the life’s work of Pete Seeger”). As well, there is the album’s centerpiece, “Storyteller,” an extended audio collage created by Jacob Garchik which uses Pete’s own voice, among others, to tell some of his story.
10. Suzzy Roche & Lucy Wainwright Roche – I Can Still Hear You (StorySound). In many ways, it almost seems as if the mother-daughter duo of Suzzy Roche and Lucy Wainwright Roche is carrying on the traditions of The Roches, the longstanding trio that Suzzy formed with her sisters, the late Maggie Roche, and Terre Roche, in the 1970s. Like The Roches, Suzzy and Lucy give us unique, sometimes quirky songs (and I use the word “quirky” in the most complementary of ways) dressed up in often stunning harmonies. Among the highlights here are Lucy’s title song, which I interpret as a plea, in these COVID times, to remember one another and those we’ve lost; Suzzy’s “Joseph D,” a commentary on an abusive husband that I also hear as an indictment of trumpian behavior; “Factory Girl,” a traditional Irish folk song recorded four decades ago by The Roches; and “Jane,” a previously unrecorded song of Maggie Roche’s.
I will be featuring songs from each of these albums when I host the Saturday Morning program on CKCU on Saturday, January 2, 7-10 am. (The program is now available 24/7 for on-demand streaming at this link.)
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