The summer of 2013 will be remembered as the peak of the so-called neo-folk movement, one that brought acoustic guitars, banjos, and rousing harmonies to the top of the rock charts. Mumford & Sons led the revival to massive success and paved the way for the Lumineers and Of Monsters and Men and any number of imitators who put on the vests and derby hats hoping to ride that wave. The folk trend has some presence on our list this year, just as it continues to reverberate in the larger culture—banjo dealers are reporting record-high sales and the Coen Brothers train their lens on folk music in their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, with a Marcus Mumford-led soundtrack.
Yet all along, artists have continued to make soulful, diverse roots music that stands apart from any trendsetting. After all, Americana music is inherently knitted to roots traditions, not any passing rage, and the wide range of musical diversity prompts an annual discussion of what exactly Americana means anyway—where the genre overlaps with country, folk, blues, roots rock, and bluegrass, and which albums this year offer a distinct character best branded as Americana.
Our list, as a result, is predictably diverse, ranging from progressive newgrass to tradition-minded country to old-time acoustic to California canyon rock to psych folk to singer-songwriter and all points between. Beyond genre distinction, then, the year’s best Americana music came down, as always, to great songwriting, as these artists delivered the year’s most evocative, absorbing melodies, some in thrilling debuts, others in career-capping returns to form. In any case, it’s a genre overflowing with troubadours producing extraordinary new music. Here are the top 15 of 2013. Steve Leftridge
15Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers
Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers
It’s been a breakthrough year for Nicki Bluhm and her slick-picking band, the Gramblers. The band takes its musical and fashion cues from ‘70s sweet-country-lovin’ and trucker-craze-era icons, but Nicki and talent-rich hubby Tim have been at it long enough that their musical alacrity on a variety of styles is refined and authentic. So a self-titled release feels like both a fresh start and a culmination for a band that knows how to synthesize the Band (“Little Too Late”) and Fleetwood Mac (“Ravenous”) with your favorite ‘70s country-pop nostalgia, a dash of Olivia Newton-John, a shake of Juice Newton, and a bushel of denim-and-sunburn fun. Everybody Gramble! Steve Leftridge
14The Head and the Heart
Let’s Be Still
It may not matter to the casual listener that “Another Story” addresses the Sandy Hook massacre. What matters here is that the grief and hope expressed in that four-minute elegy is a rare gift. With Let’s Be Still, the Head and the Heart deliver a smart and gorgeous follow-up to their remarkable debut album. Given the banality of mainstream country music, it’s a relief that this Seattle band can showcase the depth and power of traditional American music. Brilliant songwriting coupled with the three-part harmonies of Johnson, Thielen, and Russell reveal a sonic alchemy. Just listen to “My Friends” and then sit back in awe at the unearthly beauty that’s rendered. Moments of bliss ring throughout Let’s Be Still. With two albums yielding two lightning strikes, the Head and the Heart have arrived, and not a moment too soon. John Grassi
Build Me Up from Bones
Sarah Jarosz is a romantic and a realist. She sincerely expresses her desire for true love one minute and then conceals the details of her deeper thoughts the next. Jarosz writes, sings, and plays mostly acoustic, traditional-sounding, old-time country as well as futuristic, way-out-there compositions. The playing can be austere and the singing plain, but there is always something strange and wonderful going on. The album is somewhat divided between songs that follow the normal structural patterns and those that do not follow conventional narrative and chord progressions. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to say that they range in style somewhere between the two extremes found in the two songs she covers: Bob Dylan‘s “Simple Twist of Fate” and Joanna Newsom‘s “Book of Right-On”. She captures the sadness of a one-night stand so that cellist Nathaniel Smith’s plucking resembles a tourniquet or even a noose more than any simple twist. The narrator may be lost, but the song goes somewhere. That’s not true of harpist Newsom’s “Book of Right-On”, which goes in that which never close and whose lyrics make more associative sense than straight storytelling. Jarosz turns the tale into a joyful excursion where there is something magical in the ordinary. Her performance endows the tune with the spirit of adventure. The original material is often poetic and sui generis She knows we cover up our desires with pride, wild things grow beneath the shadows, and the moon is just a fingernail scratching the back of the night. She doesn’t know if anyone is listening, but she can’t help but hang out the truth in the air. It’s a wild ride. Steve Horowitz
12Ha Ha Tonka
As more than one critic has observed, the making of the next Yankee Hotel Foxtrot has become the great white whale for Americana artists looking for the next big thing. Everyone dreams of doing it, no one ever will, yadda yadda yadda. Ha Ha Tonka has not, of course, done it (nor were they necessarily shooting for it), but they have still put together an album full of brilliant moments. There’s the delicate back and forth between lush, Fleet-Foxes-harmonies and crunchy, prog-rock guitar on “Arabella”, moving back and forth from identity to identity as if it were no more than a switch being toggled. There’s also the snarling guitar chords that comprise the climax of “Staring at the End of Our Lives”, before lead singer Brian Roberts and the rest of the band break into climactic oohs and ahs. The triumph of this album is the ability to weave indie rock ambition into roots instrumentation: the plucky mandolin that leads “Rewrite Our Lives”, the weaving piano lines of “Pied Pipers”, the insistent rhythm guitar of “The Past Has Arms”. Compared with the more straightforward Southern-flavored Americana of their past two albums, Lessons finds Ha Ha Tonka reaching for new territory. Surprising for a band that claims on this album’s first track, “Dead to the World”, “I can make coffee and I can make small talk / But who wants to try something new?” Ha Ha Tonka does, that’s who. Taylor Coe
On her third album, and first in four years, Holly Williams has created a stunning hat-trick of excellent country-folk records. And if her first two albums helped suppress suspicions that Williams was merely riding the success of her famous family, The Highway obliterates such claims. It’s her strongest set of songs to date and her most assured, impressive vocal performance. Independently released (on her husband and bandmate Chris Coleman’s label), the record features crisp arrangements of 11 Williams originals that allow for the kind of sonic breathing room wholly absent on country radio. The songs cover familiar ground—drinking, loving, leaving, dying, picking, touring—but the melodies and Williams’ honey-and-bourbon singing are nearly perfect throughout. The fact that such gems as “Gone Away from Me” (featuring Jackson Browne), “Waiting on June”, and the superb title track are ignored by mainstream outlets is absurd, but these days it only means that Williams’ songs are too timeless for trends. This highway goes on forever. Steve Leftridge