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Music

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2015

From the old guard reaffirming its status to upstarts asserting their prowess, personal tales voiced by true artists connected on an emotional level in the best Americana music of 2015.

In the introduction to 2014'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 difference. 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

15. Christian Lopez Band - Onward [Blaster]

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

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14. Andrew Combs - All These Dreams [Coin/Thirty Tigers/Loose Music]

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

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13. Thayer Sarrano - Shaky [Guildwater Group]

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

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12. Calexico - Edge of the Sun [Anti-]

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

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11. Allison Moorer - Down to Believing [eOne]

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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10. Lilly Hiatt - Royal Blue [Normaltown]

The daughter of Americana royalty, Lilly Hiatt recalls another famous musical offspring: Rosanne Cash, circa Seven Year Ache. On her own musical merits, Hiatt's sophomore album Royal Blue exposes emotional insecurities ("Far Away"), lingering doubts ("Get This Right") and her own ancestry ("Somebody's Daughter"). While upholding thematic tradition, Hiatt tackles love lost on the lonesome "Your Choice" and revenge on murder ballad "Too Bad", yet casts aside any notion of customary arrangements with synths from producer Adam Landry featured as prominently as guitars.

Accenting the acoustic "Your Choice", ushering in the pedal steel of "Royal Blue" or adding a throbbing pulse to "Heart Attack", the electronic influence and jangly guitars heard on Royal Blue owe more to the Cure than Nashville. With a petite voice and razor-sharp lyrics, the singer/songwriter who'd "rather throw a punch than bat an eye" brings a fresh perspective that's uniquely her own. -- Eric Risch

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9. Gill Landry - Gill Landry [ATO]

Whereas bluegrass mainstays Old Crow Medicine Show, of which Landry is a part of, ride more along the lines of boisterous Appalachian design, and wherein his first two solo outings painting more of a stylized noir setting, he finds himself well-dressed in introspection and contemplation on his self-titled release. He keeps a few tricks up his sleeve, such as in the brass featured on Mexican-inspired "Fennario" and a haunting co-vocal from touring mate Laura Marling on "Take This Body". For the most part, though, Landry keeps surprisingly sparse on his latest album, exchanging ominous thrills for the hearth of traditional Americana storytelling. He allows himself to become a more accessible, relatable persona by further exposure to the lens of truth, and shines because of it. -- Jonathan Frahm

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8. Gretchen Peters - Blackbirds [Scarlet Letter]

From cane fields and ocean basins to manicured lawns and hospitals, Gretchen Peters lifts the veil of tranquility, exposing the dark undercurrents of existence on Blackbirds. Peters, a 2014 inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, is joined by a bevy of artists including Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and Jason Isbell, who help to bring her short stories of plainspoken poetry to life. Be it on the title murder ballad, the suburban nightmare of "The House on Auburn Street" or the personal "Jubilee", Peters does not shy away from the stark reality of death greeting us all. Should it come too early or in due time, Peters endures the pain, reminding us not to forsake our own journeys. -- Eric Risch

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7. Dave Rawlings Machine - Nashville Obsolete [Acony]

Half of the most popular folk duo of the last two decades, Dave Rawlings shifted to center stage for 2009's celebrated A Friend of a Friend. This year, Rawlings' follow-up is the darker, slower, weirder Nashville Obsolete, an album that evokes both dusty old-timey music and the late-night wild horses and moonlight miles of the Stones in country-folk mode. Drifting string backdrops provide plaintive late '60s soft-rock vibes paired with Rawlings' rambling, tangling guitar and his raw, conversational vocals, making for tunes that wouldn't be out of place on the Dead's American Beauty.

As its title hints, the album is happy to say to hell with conventions, as with "The Trip", which drifts along for 11 minutes. Rawlings' musical soulmate Gillian Welch is back to provide fireside harmonies, alongside the Machine's touring ringers, multi-instrumentalist Willie Watson and Punch Brothers bassist Paul Kowert. With Nashville Obsolete, Rawlings has submerged further into the folkie mystic, with all the honest authenticism we've come to expect but chill-pilled with a new modernist wit and a stoner haze. -- Steve Leftridge

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6. John Moreland - High on Tulsa Heat [Old Omens/Thirty Tigers]

As irony would have it, one of modern Americana's quintessential artist's roots are laid unto a foundation of punk and metalcore, featuring prominently as a member of Thirty Called Arson before Steve Earle-fueled inspiration paved the way towards folk inclinations. John Moreland's record as a pure Americana standard holds so true that audiences might just wonder how he can be the bearer of even rawer sincerity come his next work; being the honest craftsman that he is, this is more or less found through the alternative means of exploring unfound avenues upon which to shed light.

High on Tulsa Heat sheds light on Moreland's perception of his own career and persona on "Heart's Too Heavy" and "You Don't Care Enough for Me to Cry" while continuing his role as an interpreter of love, yearning, and condemnation as a whole. It never comes across as priggish; Moreland's human, and he isn't afraid to show it. -- Jonathan Frahm

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5. Lord Huron - Strange Trails [Iamsound]

Ben Schneider continues his masterful tales of worldly exploration and intrigue as would be delivered on his Lord Huron debut Lonesome Dreams, but this time with more of an edge towards the other-worldly. Toying with undead fashions and gothic architecture, Lord Huron ensnares listeners in an innovative piece that at times plays more like a well-fashioned storybook than a traditional music album, wherein the instrumentation takes second fiddle to the lyrics and how they are fashioned around a carefully-articulated, seamless arrangement.

Work like Schneider's opens up the dialogue on what Americana represents significantly, veering more towards the realm of developing a strong story than relying on convention, and creating a haunting, ominous world within which the story can flourish. In a sense, Lord Huron is to overarching Americana what Chris Thile is to bluegrass, and Schneider shows it in spades here on his impressive sophomore release. -- Jonathan Frahm

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4. James McMurtry - Complicated Game [Complicated Game]

One of America's most consistently fine troubadours, James McMurtry continues a career stride by following 2008's excellent Just Us Kids with the roaming, masterful Complicated Game. McMurtry has never sounded more focused and has never sung better than on these dozen songs about working, loving, enduring characters who face up to hard-bitten reality, holding on to whatever's left to help them pull through.

With unfussy, tastefully embroidered production (C.C. Adcock and Nathan Napolitano), the album feels like a casual meander through the backroads of America to provide close-up portraits of hunters, ex-soldiers, crabbers, drifters, dancers, dreamers — all who've come to know a few things and learned to accept even more. Less overtly political than previous work, Complicated Game nonetheless gets to the real beating heart of a nation by way of meticulously observed lives told with four thousand words of enthrallingly sharp colloquial poetry. -- Steve Leftridge

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3. Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free [Southeastern]

2015 found Jason Isbell facing the challenge of filling his own sizable boots after 2013's phenomenal Southeastern, an album that solidified Isbell's reputation as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. His response was to double down on the spare, emotionally complex sketches of loss and hope, regret and redemption, within songs packed with resonant beauty. Once again, Isbell goes spleen deep on a series of first-person sketches full of tightly observed details from characters who contemplate when to stay together ("Flagship"), when to split up ("How to Forget"), and when a boy's last dream and a man's first loss are the same thing ("Speed Trap Town").

Isbell takes a few chances here, adding some melodic variations around his chord progressions, as with the deceptively jaunty opener "If It Takes a Lifetime", while everything on the record benefits from producer Dave Cobb's light touch and keen use of instrumentation. All told, Something More Than Free is the work of an American troubadour still finding new heights within a remarkable peak period. -- Steve Leftridge

LISTEN | WATCH

2. Rhiannon Giddens - Tomorrow Is My Turn [Nonesuch]

Roots bona fides secured via her work with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens followed up her groundbreaking performance at T Bone Burnett's 2013 one-night concert staging of music from the film Inside Llewyn Davis with her solo debut, Tomorrow Is My Turn. Aided by Burnett, Giddens reimagines the spiritual "Round About the Mountain"; polishes up Dolly Parton's "Don't Let It Trouble Your Mind"; transforms "She's Got You", a song popularized by Patsy Cline, into a soulful number; upping the energy of folk standard "Black is the Color"; and adding menace and stomp to Jean Ritchie's "O Love is Teasin'".

Having earned Album and Artist of the Year nominations at this year's Americana Music Association awards, it's Giddens' covers of Odetta ("Waterboy"), Sister Rosetta Tharpe ("Up Above My Head") and Libba Cotton ("Shake Sugaree") that illuminate the societal progress yet to be made while keeping us wondering about her artistic potential. A deft interpreter, Giddens' lone contribution to Tomorrow Is My Turn, the thankful "Angel City", hints at her own entrée into the canon of American music. -- Eric Risch

LISTEN | WATCH

1. Patty Griffin - Servant of Love [Thirty Tigers]

Mesmerizing and unadorned, Servant of Love from Patty Griffin is an amalgam of influences. Featuring jazz, blues, folk, ballads and Middle Eastern rhythms, Griffin unfurls inner pain on torch song "You Never Asked Me" while relishing in the primal urges of "Gunpowder". Capable of riding the blues promise of "Hurt a Little While" with its chorus of "One of these days I'm gonna smile again" all the way home, Griffin does sultry just as well on the bar room jazz of "Noble Ground", pouring out her heart into the dark night. Commenting on social issues, Griffin turns the simple lyrical fragments of "Everything's Changed" into a veiled environmental indictment while addressing police violence on the murder ballad "Good and Gone". With a career that's spanned nearly two decades, Servant of Love illustrates why the inimitable Griffin is an American treasure. -- Eric Risch

LISTEN

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This article was originally published on 10 December 2015.

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