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The Best Americana of 2014

Eric Risch, Taylor Coe, and Steve Leftridge

If forced to define Americana, it's the one genre where honest craftsmanship is required, respected, and rewarded, something the best of 2014 lived up to.

10 - 6

Artist: Hiss Golden Messenger

Album: Lateness of Dancers

Label: Merge


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Hiss Golden Messenger
Lateness of Dancers

"I might get a little crazy", M.C. Taylor sings on "Saturday's Song", a fair warning that the California-bred singer-songwriter is interested in letting off some steam. Taylor's Hiss Golden Messenger has dedicated four records to dusky folk songs about the weary-hearted, but on Lateness of Dancers, his first album on the Merge label, Taylor crafts the sound of fighting through the muck and shambling into some soul fortification through sensual embraces: dancing, a beautiful woman, a glass of whiskey. Taylor has relocated to North Carolina, and his immersion into the South has helped to produce a vibrant new sound that incorporates '75 Dylan, twisted Appalachian balladry, Waylon-country thump, the Band circa Stage Fright, and some jam-leaning soul-blues. The spiritual sway in Taylor's smart, groove-infused songwriting and crackling arrangements invokes new-day possibilities among a hybrid of American musical traditions. Steve Leftridge

Artist: Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis

Album: Our Year

Label: Premium


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Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis
Our Year

Husband and wife duo Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis throw back to pure country gold on Our Year, their second album recording together. Composed of covers and originals written separately by Robison and Willis, the duo draw from the wellspring of '60s and '70s music, with Willis tackling Jeannie C. Riley's cheeky "Harper Valley PTA" and the pair transforming the Zombies' piano-driven "This Will Be Our Year" into a banjo and pedal steel duet of heartfelt devotion. More than another recorded coupling of spouses, rather, the songs on Our Year recall Janie Fricke's pairings with the likes of Vern Gosdin and Moe Bandy on Robison originals "Carousel" and "Anywhere But Here", with Willis providing harmony vocals, and the two trading verses on T Bone Burnett's "Shake Yourself Loose", reviving the flat, one-sided original into a touching yet contentious conversation between two lovers. Like the Ira Allen/Buddy Mize-penned "A Hangin' On", Our Year is as much a love letter shared between Robison and Willis as it is to the songs and artists covered on the album. Having no place in today's commercial landscape, Robison and Willis delight, demonstrating the timeless quality of traditional country music with ease and grace. Eric Risch

Artist: Roseanne Cash

Album: The River and the Thread

Label: Blue Note


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Roseanne Cash
The River and the Thread

Much like William Faulkner's examination of the American South through his character Quentin Compson in Absalom, Absalom!, Rosanne Cash revisits the region's polarizing history on The River and the Thread, her first collection of original songs in eight years. Based in New York for more than two decades, Cash takes in familiar sights in locales like Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee with fresh eyes, assessing race relations on "Money Road", the Civil War on "When the Master Calls the Roll", and religion on "World of Strange Design". Cash delivers a veiled meditation on our shared American experience, where, despite our collective progress -- sides once divided along black and white lines are now split into red and blue -- divisions remain, sadly serving as the thread that connects us all. As with music, rivers like the Tallahatchie provide a certain rhythm to life; singing on "Money Road", Cash notes, "You can cross the bridge and carve your name / But the river stays the same," subtly reminding us how little things have actually changed. Eric Risch

Artist: Rodney Crowell

Album: Tarpaper Sky

Label: New West


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Rodney Crowell
Tarpaper Sky

Now 64, Rodney Crowell has been giving the world indelible melodies and graceful lyricism for 40 years. Lately, though, the Nashville Songwriting Hall of Famer has been content with collaborations, with Mary Karr in 2012 and with Emmylou Harris last year, without an album of his own originals in six years. Tarpaper Sky ends the drought with a set of terrific tunes that are both meticulously crafted and wholly relaxed. Crowell's lived-in vocals front a crack band of veteran Crowell cohorts on a wide range of styles: the rockabilly of "Frankie Please", the golden-age rock of "Somebody's Shadow", the sax-abetted two-step gospel of "Jesus Talk to Mama", the country-folk waltz of "I Wouldn't Be Me Without You". It's an album of familiar wit and tenderness to longtime Crowell fans, but Tarpaper Sky also proves that the legendary troubadour still packs plenty of surprises. Steve Leftridge


Artist: Hurray for the Riff Raff

Album: Small Town Heroes

Label: ATO


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Hurray for the Riff Raff
Small Town Heroes

Spanning multiple American time zones and musical epochs, Hurray for the Riff Raff's Small Town Heroes is a collection of smart and spirited tales of lives spent wandering while always yearning for a sense of home. Incorporating a variety of styles and forms, Alynda Lee Segarra and band work with flavors local to their now-home base of New Orleans, Louisiana, drawing inspiration from and giving voice to those unable to speak for themselves on the feral folk of charged protest songs "The Body Electric" and "St. Roch Blues". A former musical vagabond, Segarra and Hurray for the Riff Raff's previous recorded output hopped various genres and incorporated the influences of their musical forebearers; on Small Town Heroes Segarra's true voice rings profound, having found its ultimate sense of purpose and home in a world of still-disparate peoples. Eric Risch

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