The Best Americana of 2013

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

 

Artist: Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

Album: Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers

Label: Little Sur

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List number: 15

Nicki 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

 

Artist: The Head and the Heart

Album: Let’s Be Still

Label: Sub Pop

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List number: 14

The 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

 

Artist: Sarah Jarosz

Album: Build Me Up from Bones

Label: Sugar Hill

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List number: 13

Sarah Jarosz
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

 

Artist: Ha Ha Tonka

Album: Lessons

Label: Bloodshot

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Ha Ha Tonka
Lessons

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

 

Artist: Holly Williams

Album: The Highway

Label: Georgiana

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Holly Williams
The Highway

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

10 – 6

Artist: Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison

Album: Cheater’s Game

Label: Premium

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List number: 10Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison
Cheater’s Game

Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison have been married for years, but they have rarely recorded together. They have staked out their own careers in a similar musical field by following separate tracks. That’s why it seems so strange that the lovingest couple in Austin, Texas joined together to release an album of cheating songs. Not all the tracks on Cheater’s Game have to do with deceitful behavior or being wronged by a loved one. However, most of them are and several of them were penned by Robison. Don’t get the wrong idea. The close vocal harmonies on the hurting songs (and the happier ones) suggest that the two are still together for the long term. Their voices complement each other in phrasing and emotions. Unlike traditional male / female duets, these two don’t take turns singing. They let each lead on the various cuts and then weave their own voices through the tunes. The effect is that the two sound like one, albeit different voices from the same consciousness. The duo also has good taste in other people’s songs, which they make their own through their distinctive interpretations. For example, Willis turns Dave Alvin‘s “Border Radio” into the lament of the woman left behind, while Robison makes Robert Earl Keen‘s “No Kinda Dancer” into a plaintive celebration of a social world that used to be. The originals and the covers blend together well. The result is a cohesive album, which complements the concept of Willis and Robison joining together as one. Steve Horowitz

 

Artist: Guy Clark

Album: My Favorite Picture of You

Label: Dualtone

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Guy Clark
My Favorite Picture of You

It cannot be said often enough that Guy Clark is a songwriter’s songwriter, one of the trustiest musical craftsmen working in any idiom. You’ll find no cast-offs or filler here — Clark’s songs that carry the distinction of feeling loved, labored over, and lived in. Nowhere on this new album is that approach more evident than on the title track, “My Favorite Picture of You”, a song written for his late wife Susanna, who passed away in June 2012. The picture in question appears on the album’s cover, held up to the viewer by Clark himself. As he describes it, the photo catches Susanna in an emotional moment — having just walked out of their house with the thought of leaving him heavy on her mind. Clark, with inimitable honesty, uses the song to explore the ambiguities of the photo: “There’s a fire in your eyes / You’ve got your heart on your sleeve / A curse on your lips, / But all I can see is beautiful.” Like several of his other great songs, including “The Randall Knife” and “Step Inside This House”, the focus on an everyday object lays bare a much more complex emotional reality. Another picture crops up on “Heroes”, where an Iraqi War veteran keeps not only a picture of him and his buddies who died in the war, but also “a silver star and a pistol in a drawer.” Clark’s well-worn sense of cagey humor also makes an appearance on the album, in particular on the song “Good Advice”, which finds him reeling off observations that sound so intuitive that it’s hard to imagine you haven’t heard them before, notably “Funny thing about good advice / Everybody’s got some.” No advice for you, Guy. You’re doing perfectly well without advice from me. Taylor Coe

 

Artist: The Devil Makes Three

Album: I’m a Stranger Here

Label: New West

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The Devil Makes Three
I’m a Stranger Here

The Devil Makes Three are sort of late bloomers on the Americana scene. The two guitars/banjos and bass trio has been together since 2002, but it wasn’t until 2011’s excellent live album Stomp and Smash that the band really started to grow their audience. Similarly, it wasn’t until this year’s I’m a Stranger Here that the band put together a great studio album. Their three previous studio records all featured good songwriting from frontman Pete Bernhard, but the production kept the band firmly mired in “you’ve really gotta see them live to understand” territory. With veteran roots musician Buddy Miller on board as producer, I’m a Stranger Here crackles with as much energy as the band’s live show.

The album runs through an array of acoustic styles, but Bernhard’s distinct vocals and lyrical outlook make the record feel cohesive. Thus the Preservation Hall Jazz Band-assisted call-and-response of “Forty Days” isn’t too far away from the classic country stomper “Hallelu”, since the two share a Biblical appreciation served with a side of suspicion for those who purport to follow its teachings. The down-and-dirty blues of “Worse or Better” can sit comfortably next to the bright and bouncy “Spinning Like a Top” because both songs share a rueful nostalgia for being young and making bad decisions. Yet the two songs come at the topic from completely different angles. For his part, Miller knows exactly when to sweeten the trio’s sound with touches both subtle (kick drum and snare doubling the bass and rhythm guitar) and overt (electric guitar and fiddle solos) without pulling the focus off of the band itself. The end result is an album that’s both smart and a hell of a lot of fun. Chris Conaton

 

Artist: Alela Diane

Album: About Farewell

Label: Rusted Blue

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Alela Diane
About Farewell

Alela Diane‘s Hemingwayesque vocabulary lets you know the vulnerability of her narrators without having to spell out the emotions. And like Hemingway, Diane also holds forth about whiskey and having too much to drink. Alcohol frees her characters to feel — good and bad — about their relationships. Mostly, they feel lost and overwhelmed. “Some things are best if kept in darkness,” she sings, and notes that one only tells fibs when awake. Sleep and alcohol keep one honest, and honesty is a virtue. It’s our conscious behaviors and motivations that are not to be trusted. The simple and spare acoustic musical arrangements reify her sincerity. So does her hauntingly beautiful voice. Diane went through a recent divorce and it is easy to see these songs as self-reflective, but who knows or cares if this is true. The music here stands apart from her biography. The stories she delivers, the details she provides, and the manner in which Diane carries it off seduces the listener into empathy. The pain itself comes off as convincingly real, and more importantly, so does her resolution to move forward. After all, this album is entitled About Farewell. Diane acknowledges what’s been left behind on songs like the wistful “Before the Leaving” and the gorgeous “Lost Land”, but she’s looking ahead. The title song in particular is more than a song about goodbye. The narrator knows not to look back. Instead, she describes the past as the foundation for what is next. Steve Horowitz

 

Artist: The Band of Heathens

Album: Sunday Morning Record

Label: BOH

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The Band of Heathens
Sunday Morning Record

After the 2011 departure of co-founder Colin Brooks and the pursuant departure of the band’s rhythm section, remaining Heathens Ed Jurdi and Gordy Quist were faced with some serious band rebuilding. Thankfully, the two were able to more than just put the pieces back together, coming out the other end of the near-dissolution for the better and turning out their best studio album yet. The opening track, “Shotgun”, says it all: pairing a warm, folksy melody to an ingenious set of time changes, common time verses against a waltzing chorus. Boasting a clean and polished sound, Sunday Morning Record is as smooth as Americana gets, harking back to the days when “AOR-ready” would have been just the right description. Strains of circa-1972 Eagles simmer under the surface of these songs, though Jurdi and Quist often do the original soft-rockers one better, digging into a thoughtful and serious vein of nostalgia that would have caused Don Henley to turn tail and run. The acoustic apology, “Since I’ve Been Home”, offers a bruising look at the itinerant lifestyle, the narrator observing as he settles back into being home, with all the sad weight of retrospection, “You know we almost had it good / We break like bad habits never could.” All in all, this fixation on retrospection serves them well — Jurdi and Quist look musically backwards, but don’t necessarily want to return there. Taylor Coe

5 – 1

Artist: Son Volt

Album: Honky Tonk

Label: Rounder

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List number: 5Son Volt
Honky Tonk

After 18 years of listening to crowds go crazy for “Windfall”, the country-laced classic from Son Volt‘s 1995 debut Trace, Jay Farrar finally figured it was time to make a whole album of songs like that. So, ditching the sonic experimentation of his most recent records, Farrar brings out the fiddles and steel guitars for the appropriately titled Honky Tonk. Inspired by playing with a classic country cover band in St. Louis, Farrar embraces his No Depression legacy, draping his warm moan over songs like “Wild Side” and “Bakersfield”, thereby making his own influences explicit. The songs adhere to Farrar’s typical instinct to slow things down, but with these cozy consistently fine songs and with lovely playing from multi-instrumentalist Gary Hunt and pedal-steel ace Brad Sarno, Honky Tonk is the twangy treat that Uncle Tupelo nostalgists have long been waiting for. Steve Leftridge

 

Artist: Patty Griffin

Album: American Kid

Label: New West

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Patty Griffin
American Kid

Patty Griffin fans have had plenty to celebrate in the last few years — a gospel covers album, Downtown Church, which topped PopMatters‘ Best Americana list in 2010, and an album and tour as Robert Plant‘s lemon-squeezing folk-soul-mama duet partner. But Griffin’s biggest admirers couldn’t help but notice that she hadn’t released an album of original material — her real bread and butter — in six years. So does American Kid find that Patty’s powers have waned in the interim? Please. As a song cycle built on biographical sketches of her recently deceased father, the album is a triumph, one gorgeous song after another that moves easily among meditative folk, Irish balladry, ethereal duets with Plant, scorched-earth blues, and pint-hoisting hymns. Each is a marvel, as is Griffin’s vocal prowess, as unadorned here as on any record since her ’96 debut. The years have added a crackle to her voice that complements these songs’ reflections on personal history, aging, and mortality. Several songs here rank alongside Griffin’s best, most compositionally ambitious tunes — the dreamy “Ohio”, the lovely “That Kind of Lonely”, and the meditative album-closing “Gonna Miss You When You’re Gone”. Steve Leftridge

 

Artist: Neko Case

Album: The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Label: Anti-

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Neko Case
The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You

Neko Case‘s most accomplished album since 2007’s Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (if not her most accomplished ever), The Worse Things Get… makes a good argument for her being one of the best singer-songwriters of her generation. Although it’s fun enough to cite this album as Fiona Apple-worthy simply by virtue of its lengthy title, Case demonstrates that the album is also Apple-worthy in the sense of its emotional depth and artistic heft. Though it is not quite Case unhinged, this album shows a zanier and more emotional side of Case than anything else she’s done before. The furious and rollicking “Man”, buoyed by searing guitar work from M. Ward, finds Case swearing and sneering at perceptions surrounding gender: “And if I’m dipshit drunk on pink perfume / Then I’m the man in the fucking moon / ‘Cause you didn’t know what a man was / Until I showed you.”

Though Case’s lyrics are indirect to the point of being enigmatic more often than not, several of the songs on The Worse Things Get… find her in an honest, nearly straightforward mood. In particular, the mostly a capella “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” reflects on an episode of verbal abuse between a mother and her child, witnessed by Case at a bus stop in Hawaii. Reaching back through time to comfort the child, Case explains, “I just want to say that it happened / ‘Cause one day / When you ask yourself, / ‘Did it really happen?’ / You won’t believe it, but yes, it did / And I’m sorry.” The track that follows, “Calling Cards”, reflects on the travails of a long-distance relationship, culminating in the piercing (and sadly funny) snippet of telephone conversation, “‘Blah blah blah blah blah blah’ / They talk about,” sounding off as an echo of the stark and unforgettable (and yet, as Case points out, potentially forgettable) anger of the mother in the previous song. This thoughtful play with notions of memory and identity, paired with Case’s dangerous consistency, makes this one of the year’s most affecting albums. Taylor Coe

 

Artist: Jason Isbell

Album: Southeastern

Label: Thirty Tigers

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Jason Isbell
Southeastern

Jason Isbell‘s semi-confessional disc Southeastern tells the conventional story of a man whose dissolute behavior causes him great distress before he is saved by the love of a good woman. The tale is so common that it’s a cliché, except that Isbell tells it so creatively and with such passion that he makes it fresh again. Isbell also takes on other topics that may seem hackneyed or trite in the hands of a lesser artist — like death by cancer or the need for human companionship — and expresses the details of deep human feelings in simple terms whose intimacy seems simultaneously urgent and timeless. When he croons, “There’s one thing that’s real clear to me / No one dies with dignity,” anyone who has ever witnessed the death by disease of a loved one cannot help but bow one’s head and say amen. Instrumentally, the sparse production often works to blunt the impact of the rough subject matter. In Neil Young terms, whose mid-’70s country rock sound Isbell often evokes, this is more On the Beach than Tonight’s the Night. Isbell finds the dark humor in just being alive whether he’s joshing about teaching dogs card tricks or being so high that even a prostitute won’t take his money. Being funny is just one way of beating the demons and gives him perspective on how lucky we all are just to be breathing. Steve Horowitz

 

Artist: The Lone Bellow

Album: The Lone Bellow

Label: Descendant

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The Lone Bellow
The Lone Bellow

What if a band took the two-guys-and-a-girl harmonies and big choruses of modern country and paired them with neo-folk’s acoustic instrumentalsim, loud-quiet dynamics, and rolling, heart-swelling crescendos? Enter the Lone Bellow, a trio of Brooklyn transplants led by primary songwriter and singer Zach Williams alongside mandolinist/singer Kanene Doheney Pipkin and guitarist/singer Brian Elmquist. To suggest, however, that the Lone Bellow is a product of focus grouping is to undercut how authentically great an accomplishment the group’s self-titled debut is. These 11 tracks showcase a group that sounds fully developed on its first time out. Some of those moments reflect a gentler acoustic folk, but this is one band that can’t wait to go for the gusto — nearly every song finds them building to aorta-exploding vocal climaxes, the three singers pushing the top of their ranges in often-gorgeous harmonies. Every song here is a showstopper, but the gospel-soul heartbreak of “You Never Need Nobody” is one of the real ringers; starting with a placid piano and a round chorus, the song achieves carnal liftoff, making quite a racket before a gentle landing, although you can’t keep these kids from big-throated belting for long. It’s a terrifically sung affair, but the group also stretches out with country-picking flash and banjo-laced glory. Overall, the Lone Bellow may be tagged this year with inevitable comparisons, but the songs and the performances on their debut are simply too good to need any qualifying. Released in January, The Lone Bellow was the year’s first great Americana album, the one to beat. Nothing else in 2013 ever did. Steve Leftridge

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