2010 was a splendid year for Americana releases; then again, that’s something you can say about any year given the sprawling range of sub-genres under Americana’s vast umbrella, a point reinforced again by this year’s Top Ten. If there was a single defining trend this year, it was that things got even more vintage than usual; in some cases—as with T Bone Burnett’s analog fetish—a precise simulacra of yesteryear. But other roots artists got hazy as well, as lo-fi indie-rock aesthetics created a circle of influence throughout the year’s roots-rock recordings.
As always, such efforts to authenticate or to sand away studio polish among alt-country recordings seem to be, in part, a reaction to mainstream country music’s increasingly glossy pop sheen. Moreover, the kind of heartland or roots-influenced rock that formerly felt at home on rock radio has in recent years been utterly banished from the pop charts. As a result, instead of making any attempt to assimilate, legendary artists like John Mellencamp and Robert Plant are mining the minimalist sounds of American roots history. Of younger acts, woodsy rock bands like Blitzen Trapper and Band of Horses released two of 2010’s best overall albums, but each drifts far enough from their indie-folk beginnings that we ruled them out for this year’s Americana list.
2010’s most mercurial Americana act was, interestingly enough, the British folk-grass quartet Mumford & Sons. Their album Sigh No More (first released in the UK in October 2009 and therefore not considered for this list) was a worldwide smash in 2010, and a barnstorming sold-out tour of the States in the summer included scene-stealing sets at Bonnaroo and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. One other late-2009 nod (UK 2009/US 2010) was Deadstring Brothers’ bristling beauty Sao Paulo, pound for pound their strongest collection to date. They’ll never escape those Exile on Main Street comparisons—oops, did it again—but why should anyone have a problem with that sound?
The year in Americana was dominated by two producers—T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller. Both men landed two records each on this year’s Top Ten list, and in Burnett’s case, it wouldn’t be a stretch to fill this list with his records alone. When is the last time any producer had a year as rewarding? In addition to the Crazy Heart soundtrack, Burnett presided over albums by Jakob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Robert Randolph, Ryan Bingham, Elton John & Leon Russell, and Elvis Costello, each of whose albums were sterling achievements near the top of the artists’ catalogs. Buddy Miller, one of Burnett’s favorite musicians, was less prolific, obviously, but hit long homers with the two albums he produced and thereby helped define the year in Americana. Here now, the Top Ten.
Hold You Like a Lover
Theodore, a quartet from St. Louis, combine effects-heavy guitars, upright bass, flanged-out harmonica, and mariachi trumpet into a singular altered-state twang. From an area rich in alt-country history—Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar grew up just down the road—the boys in Theodore make a play for the national scene with Hold You Like a Lover, a hypnotic set that melds country, blues, and jazz into complex characters at war with themselves in a heartland of darkness.
Here’s to Taking It Easy
Matthew Houck may be into taking it easy—he proved it on last year’s chill-pill tribute to Willie Nelson—but his new record sounds like his most earnest effort yet, as he works his rippling lo-fi indie-folk into a dense froth. This thoroughly entertaining stew represents Houck’s furthest foray into sun-baked country rock, drenched as the songs are in twin-guitar reverb and thick washes of pedal steel. Houck lends his casual vocal warble over shaggy road songs and blissed-out drifters, favoring repetitious song structures that are as much Blonde on Blonde as Red Headed Stranger.
Truth & Salvage Co.
Truth & Salvage Co.
With the Black Crowes announcing a long-term hiatus, Truth & Salvage Co., based on their hook-filled debut album, are the most promising applicant to fill the void. After all, the record was produced by the Crowes’ Chris Robinson, and it contains all the hallmarks of patchouli-scented classic country-rock, shambling along the middle ground between Eat a Peach and Music from Big Pink. Originally from North Carolina and now based out of LA, you can hear both locales in these songs—‘70s canyon-folk harmonies couple-skate with southern-rock melodies, all threaded with deft, intuitive playing on one first-rate song after another.
Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses
(Lost Highway; US: 31 Aug 2010; UK: 6 Sep 2010)
After winning the Oscar for “The Weary Kind” from last year’s Crazy Heart, Ryan Bingham’s skyrocketing profile had him primed for the big-time, fully licensed to capitalize with a commercial monster. We should have known that the scrappy West Texan songwriter would go the other way. Sticking with his Crazy Heart collaborator, T Bone Burnett, Bingham returned with a batch of desolate songs about lost souls wandering through the witching season. On Junky Star, Bingham’s scratchy voice is a marvel—both muscular and deceptively poised on these dream-logic narratives. Backed by rolling acoustic guitars and stark harmonicas, Bingham settles into the role of the rambling searcher, whispering in the elements, the poet who sees the world—the lonely and the wasted—and writes it all in his own blood.