2020 In Review: Day 9 – Folk and Country

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2020 In Review

1. Introduction + Best Album Art
2. Song of the Year
3. Album of the Year
4. R&B and Soul
5. Rock and Alternative
6. Rap and Hip-hop
7. Dance and Electronic
8. Pop and Ballad
9. Folk and Country
10. Jazz and Blues
11. Crossover and World
12. Best Collaborative Work
13. Rookie Artist of the Year
14. Artist of the Year
15. Other Recognition
16. Concluding Remarks

2020 was a banner year for folk, perhaps the best in the 10-year history of our series. Artists delivered an embarrassment of riches throughout the year, ranging from head-turning rookie efforts from Ye Ram and Siot and Breeze all the way to the triumphant return of a nearly 40-year veteran in Jo Dongik. This relatively small folk scene produced both our Album of the Year and the runner-up, and also our Song of the Year; at least five other albums probably had a claim to contend. It’s hard to imagine a stronger showing.

Note that Jeongmilla – CheongPa Sonata, Jo Dongik – Blue Pillow, and Lang Lee – The Generation of Tribulation will not reappear in today’s post, as these have been recognized in the Album of the Year and Song of the Year posts on Days 2 and 3.

The “next-best ten” and honorable mention lists are sorted by artist name.

The 2020 Pop and Ballad Spotify playlist is here and also embedded below:


Best Folk and Country Album 2020

Ye Ram – 성 (Castle)

Castle felt like it should be somebody’s greatest hits collection, if there ever was a subdued and unassuming kind, and yet it was Ye Ram’s first ever LP. With a keen ear for creative, engaging melodies, she put together a fiercely unique relay of powerful tracks. The album’s melancholia was propped up by an unlikely groove (“Take a Taxi in My Dream”, “Red Flowers”), while a tinge of traditionally Asian sounds and rhythms (“Over the Sea”, “Night in Seoul”) set it apart stylistically from most folk fare. The vivid and often metaphorical lyrics lamented and wished and wondered, as Ye Ram journeyed through a wilderness of solitude and eventually arrived at the narratively satisfying self-discovery of “Castle”. It was the year’s most imaginative folk album, and had us holding our breath for every new track.

The Runner-up

Kim Sawol – 헤븐 (Heaven)

Speaking of melancholia, Kim Sawol’s third album was (naturally) awash in it as well. Heaven was a bit of an oxymoronic title: Kim told vignettes of a world distinctly broken and imperfect, writing with sharp vulnerability as well as aggressive expression (“Disposable” and “Fugitive” being some of the more colorful examples). The forlorn melodies and Kim’s characteristically breathy, brittle singing seemed to glow in these empty sound stages, and that’s the setting we’ve known and loved. But Heaven‘s best moments might actually have been when those profoundly sober tales sparked livelier arrangements: the synth keys popping into the hearty climax of “Fugitive”, the ringing distortions of “Ray”, and the psychedelic outro of “Key” were just as intrepid (and effective) as those strings of Suzanne once were. If Heaven were merely a collection of Kim’s poignant stories, it would been well worth the while; instead, it was also perhaps her most viscerally enjoyable album yet.

The First Ten Out

Big Baby Driver – 사랑 (Love)

Jeon Yoo-dong – 관찰자로서의 숲 (Forest as an Observer)

Jo Dong-hee – 슬픔은 아름다움의 그림자 (Sadness Is the Shadow of Beauty)

Kim Il-du – 꿈 속 꿈 (Dream in Dream)

Lee Gwon-hyeong – 터무니없는 스텝 (Absurd Step)

Meaningful Stone – 꿈에서 걸려온 전화 (A Call from My Dream)

O So-young – 어디로 가나요 (Where You Go)

SellinSellySelline – 연가 (A Love Song)

Siot and Breeze – 샘 (Spring)

Sujin – 안으로, 밖으로 나의 날개를 찾아서 (Finding My Wings)


Best Folk and Country Song 2020

Sujin – 밤, 울음소리 (Night, Crying Sound)
Written/arranged by Sujin
Composed by Sujin, Lee Ki-jung

Sujin’s 2020 was filled with experimentation, perhaps none further out there than this one. “Night, Crying Sound” featured a cavernous sound built on echoing pads, a lonesome guitar to stick close to the melody, and boldly distorted synth instruments. The instrumentation moved slowly but impactfully, each string hit and bass note landing with unmistakable presence. Sujin sang with noticeable punctuation: indeed the lyrics were sometimes more like a list than a narrative, setting a rainy and earthy scene rather than telling a clear story.

And yet there was still a real sense of discovery to the song, as we gradually learned that this cryptic scene was about Sujin herself (in the best use of third-person self-reference in recent memory), and after she began to weep and sing this “night crying sound”, the arrangement exploded into fanfare: the volume and pitch of the synth rose to a stirring fever, becoming nearly unbearable by the end. To me it remains a difficult track to decipher – especially the surreal final stanza – but “Night, Crying Sound” was an overwhelming experience, even if you only got a piece of it.

The Runner-up

Jo Dong-ik – 날개 II (Wings II)

“Wings II” really felt like the heart and soul of Blue Pillow, our runner-up for Album of the Year. Picking up on the motif of “Wings I”, it allowed that simple but beautiful melody to play out over seven and a half minutes, and somehow that didn’t even feel long. Flowing strings and ambient whistles led us into the contemplative first act, where Jo reminisced on the natural sights and sensations he had once known and longed to return to. The track entirely opened up about four minutes in, as the strings and muted drums returned to stay and Jo’s whispering narrative became prayers for liberation.

As he repeated the words “For my hope and my passion // To melt down like salt // For my wound and my anger // To melt down like salt”, these instruments and the additional background vocalizations seemed to enact his wish into reality, transcending the vagaries of emotion and congealing into serenity. Throughout this album but particularly in this song, Jo guided us into being awed by music once again.

The First Ten Out

Jeongko – You and Me Versus Them

Jeongmilla – 광장 (The Square)

Jeon Yoo-dong – 이끼 (Moss)

Kim Il-du – 뜨거운 불 (Hot Fire)

Kim Jin-ho – 도착 (Arrival)

Lee Gwon-hyeong – 파티멤버 (Party Member)

Moments Yumi – 바람 (Wind)

Park So-eun – 고강동 (Gogangdong)

Siot and Breeze – 살아있는 것들 (Living Things)

Susan – 빗소리의 소리 (To. Rain)

Honorable Mentions


Arttichoke – 탕탕! (Tang Tang!)
Big Baby Driver X Ehyeji – 사랑, 끝이 없네 (Love, It’s Endless)
Budung – 잡아라! (Chasing)
Chabitna – 차빛나 1집 (Chabitna 1st Album)
Electric Mat – 동애 (Love the Same)
Hangsuk & Boogiemonster – 블루스브라더빅쇼 (Blues Brother Big Show)
Hidden Maze – Ep.01
Hwang Puha – 우리집 (My Home)
Jeongko – Neverland
Lee Ji-sang – 나의 늙은 애인아 (Dear My Old Lady)
Moments Yumi – Dive Into You
Ohelen & Choisol – Oh
Siwa – 다녀왔습니다 (I’m Home)
Yoo Ji-yeon – 트루바도 (Troubadour)


Ahn Jung-ah – 내게 남은 여름 (Summer Night) (Feat. Soohyun April Jang)
Arttichoke – 그냥 난 웃을래요 (I’ll Just Smile)
Arttichoke – 이상한 사과 (Strange Apple)
Big Baby Driver X Ehyeji – 갑자기 생각나네 (Suddenly)
Budung – 낙수 (Overflow)
Budung – 칼 (Sword)
Charlie Bean Works – Spring
Cokejazz – Gone
e_so – 성당에서 (In the Cathedral)
e_so – 파도 (Fado)
Earip – 마중 가는 길 (The Way to Meet)
eundohee – Dissolve
Hidden Maze – 목련 (Magnolia)
Hidden Maze – 십이월 (December)
Hwang Puha – 외부인 (Speculator)
Hwang Puha – 인테리어 (Interior)
Jeon Yoo-dong – 무당벌레 (Ladybug)
Jeon Yoo-dong – 미네르바의 올뺴미 (Minerva’s Owl)
Jeongmilla – 서울역에서 출발 (Departing from Seoul Station)
Jo Dong-hee – 슬픔은 아름다움의 그림자 (Sadness Is the Shadow of Beauty)
Jo Dong-hee – 초생달 (Crescent Moon)
Jo Dong-ik – 그 겨울 얼어붙은 멜로디로 (Frozen Tunes from That Winter) (Feat. Jang Pil-soon)
Jo Dong-ik – 그래서 젊음은 (So Youth)
Jun Doohee – Desire
Kim Chang-wan – 노인의 벤치 (Old Man’s Bench)
Kim Dong-hee – Butterfly
Kim Hae-won – Mago: Music for Photography (Feat. Kim Sawol)
Kim Il-du – 아침 해 (Morning Sun)
Kim Na-eun – 오리 (Ducks)
Kim Sawol – 도망자 (Fugitive)
Kim Sawol – 사랑하는 사람들에게 가장 상처 주는 키를 우리는 모두 가지고 있어 (Key)
Kim Sawol – 확률 (Ray)
Lee Gwon-hyeong – Time
Lee Gwon-hyeong – 코발트블루 (Cobalt Blue)
Lee Sang-eun – 쉬어가리 (Just Chilling)
Meaningful Stone – 꿈에서 걸려온 전화 (A Call from My Dream)
Meaningful Stone – 작은 종말 (Small Death) (Feat. Jungwoo)
O So-young – 당신의 모서리 (Your Edge)
O So-young – 홀가분 (Being Free)
Ohelen & Choisol – Summer
Sagong – Footprints
Saram Tto Saram – 혼잣말 (Soliloquy)
SellinSellySelline – 젊음의 서 (Sentence of Youth)
Siot and Breeze – 생각 생각 생각 (Thought Thought Thought)
Siwa – 다녀왔습니다 (I’m Home)
Siwa – 아무 일도 일어나지 않아 (Indecision)
Sujin – 새 (Bird)
Sujin – 언덕 (Hill)
Sunju Jung – 너의 밤엔 (At Your Night)
Surim – 네 덕분이야 (Thank You)
Voyeur – VVe (Feat. Corduroy)
Xeuda. Sun – 가시 (The Thorn)
Xeuda. Sun – 그리고 나는 댄스 (And I Dance)
Ye Ram – 꿈에 택시를 타 (Take a Taxi in My Dream)
Ye Ram – 서울의 밤 (Night in Seoul)
Ye Ram – 성 (Castle)

All album art from Bugs Music. Sujin header image from Sujin YouTube.

Read our past series:

2019 In Review

2018 In Review

2017 In Review

2016 In Review

2015 In Review

2014 In Review

2013 In Review

2012 In Review