[19 December 2011]
If you ask a critic or music fan to define Americana, be prepared for an avalanche of diverse responses of opinion. Is the definition found in the pastoral lyrical sensibilities of a song? If so, then Fleet Foxes, Megafaun, and William Elliott Whitmore certainly qualify. Or is the genre better served by songwriters of a confessional ilk? Then welcome Bright Eyes, Mount Moriah, and Tift Merritt to the fold. Some think Americana acts need be of the downtrodden, sad-bastard variety. If that suits your qualifications, check out the Civil Wars and the venerable Will Oldham. However, if you want to keep things on the sunny side, then there are bands for you too: Del McCoury Band, Those Darlins, and Ry Cooder are there to keep the positivity flowing.
The point of the matter is that Americana is an impossible genre to classify. In the late ‘90s, things seemed a little clearer as Uncle Tupelo, Steve Earle, the Jayhawks, Old 97’s, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams raised the profile of the genre by combining their own immense contributions with the pioneering spirit of elders like the Carter Family, Johnny Cash, Townes Van Zandt, and Gram Parsons. Back then, these artists and many, many more fit neatly under the No Depression umbrella and seemed poised to rule the world. While that takeover failed to materialize, the above-mentioned artists are still serious players today, and, although their new albums failed to make our year-end list, for them 2011 remained a quality year. The style has morphed quite a bit in the last two decades, but there remain some constant instrumental benchmarks, such as pedal steel, fiddle, acoustic guitars. Good songwriting is a must, but if you ask a hundred people for their opinions, then you’re bound to get 100 different answers.
Fortunately, here at PopMatters, there are two of us. While you may quibble with our classification of some of these choices as Americana, we feel there’s no doubt that these are ten quality albums that stand up as some of 2011’s best, regardless of genre or category.
Taylor Goldsmith proved on North Hills (2009) that his L.A. band, Dawes, could do Laurel Canyon rock and Big Pink Americana better than about anybody on the current scene—so well in fact that both Jackson Browne and Robbie Robertson tapped Dawes as their backing band. It’s true that Goldsmith wears his influences—the Band, the Eagles, Neil Young—blatantly; it’s just that he wears them so well, and that he writes with a novelist’s eye for detail and lyrical grace. Musically, Dawes likes to take it easy: That hasn’t changed with their sophomore LP, Nothing Is Wrong, but it’s a more balanced set of songs as Goldsmith continues to write beyond his years both thematically and by way of a powerful collection of wistful, mid-tempo country-rock. Dawes isn’t attempting much in the way of new statements, but with material and performances this unpretentious and strong, it’s a refreshingly direct approach to musicmaking. Steve Leftridge
9Milk Carton Kids
No doubt the Jayhawks are a fantastic band, and that the Americana universe could not exist without their trailblazing contributions. In fact, they even released a nice comeback album this year. However, they were trumped at their own game by Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, a pair of L.A. fellows that go by the name the Milk Carton Kids. The dueling harmonies, the gentle, lilting acoustic picking, and the hauntingly aching ballads sound much like those of Olson and Louris. Hell, their website even bears a fawning introduction by none other than that of acclaimed troubadour Joe Henry, who penned a similar affection for the Jayhawks’ 1991 masterpiece, Hollywood Town Hall. However, rather than sounding akin to a glorified tribute album, Prologue plays out like a singularly focused and realized oeuvre. Perhaps the mellowest of listens on this list, the songs still pack an emotional punch as they take you on a journey through regret, unrealized potential, and hopefully a silver lining at the end of the ride. Shadowy and sinister at times, cautiously optimistic and open-minded at others, these tracks will stick with you long after the disc ends, and will beg for re-examination and further introspection. Jeff Strowe
Pinning down Blitzen Trapper has become a full-time job as the Portland quintet continues to twist through the backwoods of its influences and deliver surprises with a relentless pace of records. On the group’s seventh time out, singer/songwriter Eric Early’s pronounced Dylanology remains intact, but this time the band revs up the kind of roots rock to soundtrack a whiskey-bent, trigger-happy Molly Hatchet fan racing a ’73 Plymouth Duster down a desolate American highway. There’s ample twangy ambiance (“Your Crying Eyes”) and Zeppish riffing (“Street Fighting Sun”) to satisfy your reverence for any country-rock archetype, but Early’s songs are easily strong enough to transcend Southern rock hamming; instead American Goldwing is gutsy, adroit, and justifies its own distinct swagger. Steve Leftridge
Robert Earl Keen is alive and well, and released a new album this year too. However, his sardonic bent and browbeaten character studies have both shuffled down the line to Hayes Carll, a worthy successor to Keen’s domain. On Kmag Yoyo (military slang for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own”), Carll stomps and hollers through 12 tracks of blistering boogie, while also writing some of the sharpest lyrics of the year. There’s some unlikely braggadocio (“I’m like James Brown, only white and taller”), genuine self-reflection (“Chances are I took the wrong turn / Every time I had a turn to take”), and heartbreaking lament (“Now the drunks have turned to strangers and the stars are out of tune”). And that’s not to mention the title track, perhaps the best character study since the “The Road Goes on Forever”, or “Another Like You”, a boozy duet with Cary Ann Hearst that comes across like a lusty old George and Tammy outtake. This year again proved to be a tough one for Americans, what with unemployment, debt, and foreign entanglements punishing the common man. Carll is there to document these times, telling the woebegone tales of those who simply can’t stay out of their own way. Jeff Strowe
Washburn has always been something of a shape-shifter, with a furious curiosity and an impressive alacrity for roots music styles. But City of Refuge is an unprecedented marvel, a picaresque work that repurposes her clawhammer banjo for a world-hopping pastiche of radiant beauty. Along with co-writer Kai Welch, Washburn employs global influences—primarily ancient Chinese music and storytelling—as a means of celebrating folk, bluegrass, and roots traditions. Songs like “Bring Me My Queen” and “Chains” blend Eastern textures with sumptuous folk-pop melodies, and atmospheric dreamscapes such as “Bright Morning Stars” showcase Washburn as a formidable vocalist. The meticulous craft within such experimentation makes the record’s accomplishments obvious, but it’s the majesty in the seamless fusion of elegant folk songcraft and explorative multiculturalism that makes City of Refuge a crippler. Steve Leftridge
5Ha Ha Tonka
At this year’s Wakarusa Music and Arts Festival, there was a Backwoods Stage that turned out to be exactly what its name suggested: an off-the-beaten-path setup far removed from the crowds and sweltering Arkansas heat that dominated the weekend affair. With some welcome shade and a well-suited low-key environment, it was there that my friend and I first encountered Ha Ha Tonka, a four-piece outfit from nearby West Plains, Missouri. Since then, neither of us can get enough of Death of a Decade, an album that chronicles the uncertainty and loose footing that accompanies the growing up process, where the familiar is left behind and young men grow up and take an attempt at making something worthwhile of themselves. Over a bevy of mandolin, acoustic strum, driving bass lines, pulsating drums, and harmonic harmonies, the four men of Ha Ha Tonka make a racket of sound that lends credence to the chaos of the “coming-of-age” story. Their Ozark heritage and penchant for provincial aphorisms help them stand out from some of their likeminded contemporaries, and set them high atop a list of artists to watch over the next few years. Jeff Strowe
It’s been a long eight years since Soul Journey, the last Gillian Welch record. The Harrow and the Harvest is, thankfully, worth the wait, as the sonic experimentations of her last album give way to the unadorned interplay between Welch and her musical soulmate David Rawlings, who produced the record. Rawlings, for his part, plays with virtuosic flair and subtlety, and these two artists have never sounded as intuitively connected as they do here—check out the harmonies on “Dark Turn of Mind” and “Tennessee”, for instance. It’s a plaintive set that offers hard truths about “The Way It Goes” and “The Way the Whole Thing Ends”, songs that find Welch stitching American gothic imagery to her trademark rustic folk with the kind of patience and richness that has made her unique even within ancient traditions. Steve Leftridge
Hailing from Durham, North Carolina is Mount Moriah, an ambitious young outfit led by singer Heather McIntyre and guitarist Jenks Miller. Forget the haggling over the semantics of Americana; when the gorgeous whirl of pedal steel opens the album on “Only Way Out”, it leaves no doubt as to the country-tinged influences McIntyre and company hold dear. “If you would’ve stayed, then I would’ve stayed / But the only way to love you now is to walk away” is also as fine of a sentiment as possible for a list of this type, and the remainder of the album follows suit, as McIntyre deftly explores the fragility and delicacy of discovering and perfecting the art of love, loss, and self-knowledge. Her characters are still figuring things out, and the longing in her voice and the attention to detail in her songwriting hint at shades of autobiography as only one who has experienced these ups and downs can honestly attest to. This is a genuine and honest album that continues to reveal new nuances and layers with each listen. Jeff Strowe
If Fleet Foxes frontman Robin Pecknold had his way, he’d probably still be futzing with the aural densities of his band’s sophomore record. Indeed, it’s Pecknold’s perfectionism and the album’s jam-packed instrumentalism—marxophones, zithers, dulcimers, what have you—that make for such a mesmerizing trip through the Foxes’ indie-folk virtuosity. More sonically ambitious than their 2008 debut, Helplessness Blues mines British psychedelia and ‘60s folk-rock on a euphoric set, containing waltzes, raga gambols, Beach Boys harmonies, baroque pop, Flamenco guitars, a capella vocal turns, and much more, all within intricate arrangements of harmonies, ethereal landscapes, and inspired mini-suite constructions. As dizzying as it all sounds, the record remains gorgeous in its complexity, and each listen is exponentially rewarding. In 2011, the Fleet Foxes pull off a rare feat in expanding their horizons with a relentlessly busy album that somehow manages to be perfectly graceful in its execution. Steve Leftridge
After a couple epically grandiose albums, the Decemberists scaled things back this year and saw their greatest chart results ever. With a stripped-down pastoral feel, Colin Meloy and Co. made a glorious, joyful album accentuated with a harmonious conglomeration of pedal steel, fiddle, harmonica, and organ fills. Meloy’s lyrics still stand a bit on the gaudy side, but due to the rollicking accompanying rhythms, the songs on this album don’t feel forced or strained. Instead, when Meloy sings lines like, “April all and ocean away / Is this the better way to spend the day / Keeping the winter at bay,” it’s easy to bask in the glow of his wordcraft. The energy is infectious: this album is the sound of a band at peace and having a blast out in their Portland barn studio doing what they do best, while providing an amazing set of sing-a-longs for grateful listeners. Jeff Strowe