In a year that saw Lil Nas X dominate global charts for months on end with his country-folk-rap stylings, as well as new albums from critical darling Sufjan Stevens and the iconic Neil Young, 2019 was also packed with a few standout releases from some more under-the-radar folk artists. From award-winning Australian songstresses to traditional bluegrass and experimental jazz multi-instrumentalist brilliance, these are just three of the artists keeping the folk music scene alive and critically kicking in the modern day.
Julia Jacklin – Crushing
Key Tracks: Body, Head Alone
This New South Wales born singer songwriter’s second album was loved by many music publications, with an 85 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic. Swapping out her earlier very trad country guitar work for a more fleshed out sound with lush basslines, grunge-inspired crescendos and jangly alt rock melodies, Crushing was also praised for its ‘vast emotional depth’ and ‘clever songwriting’.
Rhiannon Giddens & Francesco Turrisi – There Is No Other
Key Tracks: I’m on My Way, Wayfaring Stranger
One of this writer’s favourite folk voices of the modern era, the haunting power of US-born Rhiannon Giddens’ melodious vocals are something to behold – either live or on record.
For this album the Grammy Award winning (as a founding member of bluegrass revival experts Carolina Chocolate Drops) Giddens teamed up with Italian jazz virtuoso Turrisi to create a diverse cover album featuring folk songs taken from a range of global traditions. One standout track is their cover of popular 19th century gospel standard Wayfaring Stranger. As a totality the album apparently aimed to show “the universality of music and the commonality of the human experience” through its exploration of musical history in varying parts of the world. It has an 8.6 rating on Metacritic, as of the time of writing.
Florist – Emily Alone
Key Tracks: Shadow Bloom, M
An interesting concept this one. New York folk-indie-pop trio Florist are actually a full band – having released two albums prior to this – but Emily Alone was recorded entirely solo by lead singer Emily Sprague, hence Emily Alone. The most traditional folk album on this list, most of the tracks here are just Emily’s richly emotional yet floaty vocals as she plays two or three chords on her guitar or piano. But the result, with stellar fundamentals and some truly gorgeous songwriting, is (like a lot of folk music) more than the sum of its parts.
One can also feel the passionate outburst of creative energy in this album, especially when you know the story behind it. Sprague spent much of 2019 in a limbo state of her life – losing her mother and then ending a long-term relationship before moving across the USA to Los Angeles. LA was where she wrote and recorded this album, entirely by herself. The cathartic and confessional outpourings of Emily Alone are all the more bittersweet once you know, and can relate, to the artist’s mind state at the time. Reviewers said Emily Alone had ‘transformative power’ and legendarily harsh critics Pitchfork gave it ‘best new music of the month’ back in July.