In the introduction to last year’s Best Americana feature I noted the distinctions between Americana and country becoming blurred. This held true in 2015, with country artist Sturgill Simpson being named Americana Artist of the Year while roots-oriented musicians Jason Isbell and Blackberry Smoke both topped the country charts.
While derived from the same roots, you can spend 30 seconds listening to country radio to discern the diference. Remember #saladgate? Not beholden to radio consultants, focus groups or time constraints, in Americana, artists — male and female — are free to explore, experiment and expound. A story-driven genre, this year’s artists draw from a diverse well of influences, traditions and history. Blues, gospel and jazz are represented; murder ballads have come back in fashion. Bearing its requisite share of heartache and acoustic guitars, Americana in 2015 also includes social commentary and forward-thinking electronic touches.
From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists continue to connect on an emotional level. Be it a new blossom or timeless reinterpretation of rings formed decades earlier, the artists that released this year’s Best Americana albums spoke from our collective nature, furthering the examination of the human condition while adding their own branches to the tree formed from the roots of country music. Eric Risch
Christian Lopez Band
Christian Lopez is the type of young guy that should be the teenage heartthrob of modern music, taking inspiration from honest-to-goodness artists such as the Avett Brothers and forgoing the pop industry machine to inhabit the same world that umpteen homegrown singer-songwriters and musicians set out to create. While he and his band’s debut full-length, Onward, attempts not to reinvent the Americana wheel in any fashion, what it does do is hearty, approachable folk-rock that relates itself to people in 19-year-old Lopez’s own age trajectory. He does well to disparage the predisposition that with his youth comes unpolished songwriting, wherein his shortcomings and his hopes are injected into the soul of his music. On its own, this paves the groundwork for a memorable affair that speaks well for his future as an artist.—Jonathan Frahm
All These Dreams
Texas singer-songwriter Andrew Combs is a throwback to ‘70s countrypolitan whose new album is brimming with material that sounds like Jimmy Webb or Harry Nilsson classics. But this set of elegant melodies was written and performed by the 28-year-old Combs, whose All These Dreams, his second full-length, goes down extraordinarily easy, full of gentle guitar patterns, ocean-wave organ, poignant lyricism, and Combs’s seabreeze vocals. Producers Jordan Lehning and Skylar Wilson paint exquisite aural colors that serve as unremittingly lovely backdrops to songs that Mac Davis would have loved to have written. Take the Kristoffersonian “Strange Bird” with its fingerpicking guitar that gives way to a whistle solo and then a weeping steel-guitar ride. Or the piano-based “In the Name of You” with its melancholy string arrangement and the expressive ache in Combs’s voice. Or the wine-and-motel-room swirl of “Month of Bad Habits”. Or “Suwannee County”, a steel-laced transcendentalist hymn that provides a fitting cap to an album full of cohesive, crafted pleasures.—Steve Leftridge
With a voice that could fill churches, singer/songwriter Thayer Sarrano opts instead to conduct the sermons of Shaky, her third solo album, in the swamps of southern Georgia. Canopy-blackened woods serving as her hunting grounds, harpy Sarrano intones her lyrics over tribal rhythms (“Crease”) and overdriven guitars (“Aim”) hanging in the native humidity, beckoning souls to a séance of shadow dancers (“Shaky”) and steady discord. Appearing as both an apparition in white (“How Can I Wait”) and invisible temptress (“Touch My Face”), Sarrano can morph from angel to devil in the same song. The looming atmosphere of dread and submission conjured on Shaky turns over a new page in Southern Gothic storytelling.—Eric Risch
Edge of the Sun
As far as consistent releases are concerned, it’s been a long time coming, but Calexico has finally hit the nail on the head when it comes to pulling their myriad musical influences into a cohesive place. Altogether a musical bombardment of styles and collaborations, the Tucson-based band has matured to the point that they can now echo flavors of Latin, folk, pop, and rock influences at once without befuddling syntax or misguided showboating. In any case, they come across as distinctly Americana in proving that hard work and time in the industry pays off; by all means, Edge of the Sun plays out much like the sum of their consummate past amalgamated into a single statement. It’s a lush soundscape that only this particular group of talented composers could come to develop, inundated by a progressive sound that feeds the looming idea that something new and exciting is consistently on the horizon.—Jonathan Frahm
Down to Believing
Saddled with the “divorce album” label (she recently split from fellow alt-country tunesmith Steve Earle), Down to Believing finds Allison Moorer in any case lyrically resolute and musically razor-sharp. On the the best album of her career, Moorer expresses the far-flung emotions of anyone hitting middle age and taking stock of the past and assessing where it’s left us. As a document of Moorer’s own psychological temperature goes, she’s at turns destroyed (“I Lost My Crystal Ball”), accepting (“Like It Used to Be”) indecisive (“Down to Believing”), tenacious (“I’m Doing Fine”), and all of it at once (the gorgeous piano ballad “If I Were Stronger”). Part of moving on for Moorer is in reaching back: For Down to Believing, she reconnected with Kenny Greenberg, who had produced Moorer’s first two albums. The result is an album of driving, shimmering Americana that makes the most of the radiant beauty in Moorer’s voice.—Steve Leftridge
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