best-americana-albums-2018

The 20 Best Americana Albums of 2018

The rootsy releases of 2018 prove that Americana is (and always has been) experiencing a Rainbow Wave.

Americana is a peculiar label, isn’t it? Whenever we attempt to identify the most authentically American musical form, the one that most accurately captures the history and culture of the United States, we end up debating all night, just as we do every year here in the PopMatters offices and recreation areas when it’s time to write our year-end Americana list. What we can all agree on is that Americana music ought to be music that incorporates some traditional elements of any number of American musical forms (blues, country, jazz, folk, gospel, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll) and works those traditions into a new roots-based hybrid.

However, too often the contemporary Americana category is limited to twangy (and, let’s face it, white) singer-songwriters strumming acoustic guitars. Or those acts labeled as Americana tend to be country-leaning artists who are either too classicist or indie-oriented to be embraced by today’s country mainstream. But the rootsy releases of 2018 proves that Americana is (and always has been) actually experiencing a Rainbow Wave. Our Top 20 Americana albums of the year is a multicultural, polysexual, cross-genre lineup of cool Americana music that, as with the best parts of the American promise, pays tribute to the musical wells from which they spring but also takes the artform wherever their rugged individualism and talent-rich hearts lead them. (Steve Leftridge)

20. Dom Flemons – Black Cowboys (Smithsonian Folkways)

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Where many on this list are earning their keeps by bringing a contemporary flair to their Americana offerings, acclaimed songster and historian Dom Flemons is more than content with paying homage to where it all began with his new collection of songs, Black Cowboys. Released in conjunction with the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings’ 70th anniversary, Flemons is more than happy with exploring old frontier songs and returning them to the forefront from whence they once came. Performed with a reinvigorating passion throughout, Flemons does wonders in authentically conveying the feeling of traditional compositions as if they were entirely new. He also offers Flemons originals like the stunning blues-laden tale, “He’s a Lone Ranger”, but they are consistently rooted in the life and times of the African-American frontier. On this collection of folk, bluegrass, blues, and spoken-word poetry, the founding Carolina Chocolate Drop excites with his brilliant interpretations throughout. – Jonathan Frahm

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Going Down the Road Feelin’ Bad” / “Steel Pony Blues”

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19. Kaia Kater – Grenades (Smithsonian Folkways)

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Kaia Kater first began her ascent as a household name in Americana for her dedication to the Appalachian revival. Especially with the phenomenal Nine Pin, she made her mark, and now she is moving onto a new set of familial roots to explore with Grenades. Initially based on her father’s origins in Grenada and his experiences during the 1983 U.S. invasion of the Caribbean, Kater adopts a fuller, more contemporary roots sound to express these stories of liberation and finding oneself. Her layered, bittersweet croon offers itself to more subtly-crafted, modern Americana. Kater performs wonders by veering left when others might have expected her to continue building purely upon the old-time craftwork. She succeeds, too, in creating wonderfully emotive work. Already an accomplished artist, Grenades finds Kater fully unfurling her wings. Now, it’s time for her to soar. – Jonathan Frahm

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Grenades” / “New Colossus”

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18. Owen Lake and the Tragic Loves – The Best of Your Lies (Carrier)

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For some country purists, The Best of Your Lies probably sounds like a blasphemous assault on tradition; for the more adventurous, this might just be the album that points to the future of country music. There was certainly no other country music album like it released in 2018. This is space-age country, as Lake and his bandmates twist and loop tradition around electronic sounds, warping the classics into a retro-futuristic cocktail. Classic songs from George Jones, the Carter Family, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton, and Johnny Paycheck are transmogrified into electro-honky-tonk dance-club tracks. The record qualifies as a great Americana album because there is nothing more American than taking an already established form, breaking it, and blending choice fragments with the broken shards of other influences to craft something new. On The Best or Your Lies, Owen Lake has forged a new path for country music that will surprise many, infuriate some, and, more important, inspire others to follow bravely beyond the pulsing horizon. – Ed Whitelock

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “The Best of Your Lies”

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17. Charlie Crockett – Lonesome as a Shadow – Son of Davy

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The first thing you notice about a Charlie Crockett record is Crockett’s thicker’n-gumbo Texas-Gulf-Coast vocal idiosyncrasies. You also can’t miss that he’s a fine singer and purveyor of a fragrant amalgamation of southern blues, country, and Cajun music. Always a hardcore traditionalist, Crockett pivoted this year from the honky tonk of his previous record and headed down to Memphis to cut Lonesome As a Shadow, summoning the Delta ghosts of the past and incorporating those echoing sounds into his own unique dust-and-drawl frequency. The result is an album that adds sweet Stax-style drumming, bawling trumpet, swampy keys, capering accordion, etc., to set of soul-country winners. If the best Americana is an inspired blend of genres, this former Big Easy busker released one of the year’s best examples of the Americana’s broad embrace of authenticity and influences. – Steve Leftridge

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “I Wanna Cry” / “Lil’ Girls Name”

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16. Birds of Chicago – Love in Wartime (Signature Sounds)

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Married duet JT Nero and Allison Russell’s Love in Wartime is the latest installment in their Birds of Chicago catalog, and it’s their greatest to date. Opening prelude “Now / Sunlight” alone establishes the album’s myriad of roots influences straight away, featuring sunny, gospel-tinged piano, subtle, rhythmic banjo, and a deeply soulful melody richly hummed out by Russell. It’s a cool piece of work in that the album simultaneously meets and subverts expectations as an Americana release. It features folksy old-time facets and an uncluttered production.

Beside that cleanness is an inherent knack for conceptualizing grooving new means to build up their alt-country foundations. Strummy, clap-along rhythms are met by passionate falsetto and riveting modulations that would more naturally be felt in the realms of funk and soul, roots-based genres one doesn’t see as often as folk or blues in Americana. At one point, they bring a full-on key-synth bridge to the table in “Travelers”, a natural evolution on the innovative path that they take, deftly blending as many influences as they do into their brand of Americana and reminding us of how expansive the genre can truly be. The passionately-crafted LP is not your conventional release, and it’s all the better for it. – Jonathan Frahm

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “SuperLover”

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15. Shemekia Copeland – America’s Child (Alligator)

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Shemekia Copeland represents some of the year’s best articulations of the American spirit, both musically and thematically. Copeland is a towering singer, with a knack for telling deeply-felt stories and finding bone-deep grooves that add fresh vitality to her traditional forms. On America’s Child, the sentiments of tolerance and inclusion and let’s-all-stop-yelling-at-each-other are nice reminders of the American dream even while acknowledging how far we are from the American reality. And speaking of diversity, Copeland may be known primarily as a blues artist, but with John Prine, Rhiannon Giddens, and Emmylou Harris on board, America’s Child is, yes, an Americana album, borrowing from a range of American musical traditions and refusing to be bound by any genres or ethnic lines. How American. – Steve Leftridge

LISTEN: Spotify

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14. Adam Faucett – It Took the Shape of a Bird (Last Chance)

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Where his previous album (2014’s Blind Water Finds Blind Water) was a sparse, singer-songwriter affair, It Took the Shape of a Bird finds Adam Faucett accompanied by a full band and cooking up a racketous stew that skirts the boundaries of folk-rock and blues. What hasn’t changed, though, is his storyteller soul. Faucett’s Southern gothic songs land hard emotional punches through economic narratives and poetic realism. Take, for instance, “Dust”, a heartbreaking narrative of holding on while everyone and everything else around you breaks; no song this year better addresses our current mental health crisis and its attendant issues of drug abuse and suicide. Or there’s “King Snake”, on which Faucett sings from the perspective of a young woman, orphaned and abandoned to cousins who form the first in a long line of abusive men. Faucett’s characters are people living threadbare lives with raw nerves fully exposed, short of fuse, and quick to violence, though that violence is as likely to be turned on the self. Faucett is growing into one of our great songwriters right before our eyes and ears. – Ed Whitelock

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “King Snake”

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13. Courtney Marie Andrews – May Your Kindness Remain (Fat Possum)

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They say misery loves company. Not sure if that’s true, but the characters who inhabit Courtney Marie Andrews’ latest release live miserable lives by conventional standards. They find what happiness they can in the company of others. As Andrews notes, it takes love to make a house a home, not the amenities one finds in the real estate ads. That may be a cliché, but it’s still true. Andrews’ talents as a singer-songwriter lie in her ability to bring the basic facts of life into an artistic perspective so that one finds the beauty in our common humanity. Her empathy for others comes from her heart and mind. She suggests compassion as the alternative to cynicism in dealing with the modern world. Love may not be the answer, but kindness may be enough. Andrew sings in a sweet voice and producer Mark Howard lets the notes ring in the air like that of a church choir. Life circumstances may have beaten you down and scarred you for life. But Andrews reminds us by example that people can also lift you up. Her music provides needed solace. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Kindness of Strangers” / “May Your Kindness Remain”

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12. Blackberry Smoke – Find a Light (3 Legged Records)

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Blackberry Smoke is one among a handful of kickass American bands stubbornly performing a sometimes thankless service: keeping Southern rock alive in an era when their home region has become an ideological battleground. Confederate monuments, bathroom bills, flag controversies, voter fraud or suppression (depending on your party), the South’s messy history has only gotten more muddled in recent years. But this is a band that doesn’t just rise above it all, they remind us that the South, for all its contradictions, is a necessary ingredient in the American stew. Country, blues, rock and roll: None of it would exist without the South’s myriad facets. From barnburners like “Nobody Gives a Damn” and “The Crooked Kind” to somber, end-of-the-line numbers like “Let Me Down Easy If You Can”, Blackberry Smoke binds up all of the South’s beauty and contradictions into one of the most confident and accomplished records of their long career. – Ed Whitelock

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Best Seat in the House” / “Medicate My Mind” / “Run Away From It All”

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11. Old Crow Medicine Show – Volunteer (Columbia Nashville)

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Does anybody love roots music as much as the Old Crows? These guys jam all day, play a marathon show, and then pass the instruments around all night afterwards. More than ever, Old Crow Medicine Show are mainly an expression of the fire in Ketch Secor’s belly. The frontman brings a range of old-time/folk/bluegrass styles to exuberant life, and he’s now molded these familiar sounds over the last 20 years into a singular brand of the music unique to Old Crow. Moreover, as passionate as the band is about their influences – they covered Blonde on Blonde in its entirety last year after all – they prove more than ever on Volunteer that their own original material is also worthy of the great canon. And with the help of Americana producer of the year, Dave Cobb, Volunteer finally captures the energy (“Flicker and Shine”) and beauty (“Homecoming Party”) of the band’s legendary Medicine Shows on an OCMS studio album. – Steve Leftridge

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube

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10. Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis – Wild! Wild! Wild! (Bloodshot)

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The pairing of Robbie Fulks and Linda Gail Lewis is an inspired idea. They both have roots in the pure crazy music of the American South and aren’t afraid to take things too far. So when Lewis sings about being married “Until Death”, Fulks supplies her with lyrics about murdering her cheating mate in a slow, tortuous manner and ends the song with a gunshot. The two share a wicked sense of humor and also love to boogie. They can stretch out on slow country blues like “Memphis Never Falls From Style” or speed things up such as on the rockabilly title track. Fulks wrote over half the songs on the album, and the duo make the other tracks their own through their idiosyncratic interpretations. They have the instrumental chops to take the songs on magical side trips via Lewis’ piano and Fulks’ banjo and guitar licks (not to mention the assistance of Redd Volkeart on electric) and distinctive voices that can take their music to places that cross over to insanity, in a good way. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify | WATCH: “I Just Lived a Country Song”

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9. Parker Millsap – Other Arrangements (Okrahoma)

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If you’ve caught Parker Millsap in concert in recent years, you know that he makes clear that, while he might be an Oklahoma country kid, he has a rocker in him eager to bust out. He has in the past channeled Delta bluesmen and Sun-era Elvis and flashed some impressive prairie-chapel vocals, but the title Other Arrangements and the Fender Bronco on the cover are signs that he’s ready to evolve into a meatier, less-twangy sound. You certainly hear it in the vocals, as he spends a lot of time in an impressively mesospheric register. Which classic rocker’s tone does he most call to mind when he’s up there? Robert Plant? Steven Tyler? Tom Keifer? The songwriting has progressed, too, as Parker continues to stretch the perimeters of his styles and structures. He emerged on the scene as a preternaturally skilled performer; he’s now a stylist and shape-shifter of the first-order and is fast evolving into one our sharpest songwriters. – Steve Leftridge

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube

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8. Ruby Boots – Don’t Talk About It (Bloodshot)

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Ruby Boots is an Australian belter who supplies a Perthy drawl and a smoky rasp at the edges of her lyrics to this commanding set of stellar roots-rock songs. The songs work fast, whether she’s ramping up the chorus-laden guitars and bullet-mic vocals or dialing down the amps to allow roundly melodic and cortex-massaging songs like “Break My Heart Twice” to flow free of the fuzzy embroidery. Ruby knows her way around heartbreak, as her songs express regret and resolve with both a sweet, melody-caressing register and a take-no-shit rock sneer. As a whole, Don’t Talk About It is a rich, tough alt-country-rock record from a gal taking some sonic chances without compromising the assured songwriting voice she established on her 2016 debut. – Steve Leftridge

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify | WATCH: “Believe in Heaven” / “Don’t Talk About It”

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7. John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness (Oh Boy)

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It’s been 13 years since John Prine released an album of new material, but the familiarity of his voice and sensibility on The Tree of Forgiveness make one feel as if he’s never been away. His gruff voice always made him sound like an elderly veteran, even on his first album when he sang about old people growing lonesome. At 71 years of age, Prine’s voice hasn’t changed that much despite surviving surgeries for both lung and neck cancer over the years. He still sounds like that cranky old guy in the garage yelling at the neighbor’s kids and fixing up an old Ford. The ten new songs show Prine still knows how to tell a tall tale, engage in outrageous wordplay, and convey the pleasures of living in a big old goofy world. From the silly hijinks of “Egg & Daughter Nite, Lincoln Nebraska, 1967 (Crazy Bone)” to pondering mortality in “God Only Knows”, Prine understands that we need to be more kind—even to “syphilitic parasitic” music critics. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Summer’s End” / The Road to The Tree of Forgiveness

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6. Mary Gauthier – Rifles & Rosary Beads (Thirty Tigers)

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Songwriting With Soldiers pairs wounded veterans with established songwriters to help them find a voice to express their experiences and, through their sharing, to work towards emotional and spiritual healing. On Rifles & Rosary Beads, Mary Gauthier guides a group of veterans through the composition of 11 highly effective and deeply affecting songs that capture the complexities not just of modern warfare, but of the difficult transitions our veterans face upon their return to their homes and families. This is a raw, beautiful, and important record. Simply put, anyone who claims to care about those serving in America’s armed forces should listen to these deeply personal stories that transcend petty political positioning. – Ed Whitelock

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Brothers” / “Bullet Holes in the Sky” / “Rifles & Rosary Beads”

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5. The Jayhawks – Back Roads and Abandoned Motels (Legacy)

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Back Roads and Abandoned Motels is an unusual departure from the Jayhawks’ business as usual, presenting a collection of songs bandleader Gary Louris had previously written with and for others now recorded by the band. Louris also takes the opportunity to step back and let other band members take on lead roles. The exercise re-energizes a band that has already been enjoying one of the most active and creative periods of their long history. In his songwriting, Louris has become a master at crafting dreamy harmonies that mask the bitter medicine of lessons learned from traveling life’s broken paths. Heartbreak, mortality, fair-weather friends, failed dreams, and missed opportunities: These are the highway markers that define the Jayhawks’ long-traveled landscape. Yet on Back Roads and Abandoned Motels, they find new ways to refine and expand their beloved sound. – Ed Whitelock

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Gonna Be a Darkness” / The Story of Back Roads and Abandoned Motels

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4. Brandi Carlile – By the Way, I Forgive You (Elektra/WEA International)

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Not quite as strident as The Fireman’s Daughter nor quite as full of the same hook-laden verve as releases prior, Brandi Carlile’s By the Way, I Forgive You, represents a crossroads. Thematically, it is perhaps Carlile’s deepest dive into open, introspective songwriting to date. Clever perspicaciousness still abounds, as in songs like the jangly “Sugartooth”, in which Carlile reflects on the life of a generous but drug-addled old classmate. Better yet, everything comes full-circle with impeccable frankness as she reflects on motherhood in “The Mother”. Amid such quality lyricism comes quality production; Carlile soars among symphonies here, and to no minor applause. Her powerful, vivacious vocal dynamics have always been a staple of her performances, and they do more to impress here out of sheer heartfelt passion than anything we’ve ever had from her. Despite her relative newness to the music-making business compared to legacy artists like Dolly Parton, Carlile is an artist whose songwriting commands respect even from those legends, and By the Way, I Forgive You is yet another exemplification of why that is. – Jonathan Frahm

LISTEN: Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “The Joke” / “The Mother”

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3. Amanda Shires – To the Sunset (Silver Knife)

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The irony of selecting To the Sunset as one of the best Americana albums of the year is that Amanda Shires deliberately set out to make this a “non-Americana” record. It’s true that the more rural sound of her previous work has been transformed by her and producer Dave Cobb into something more contemporary. This gives Shires a large palette from which to create. The music veers into hard rock one moment, sugary pop the next, then a sly waltz or even a less distinct echo of past styles. On the surface this may seem less like Americana, but at its heart and soul the music shares the same values of tradition and discovery. Shires sings with sincerity. She can howl or seduce as needed. The lyrics are personal poetry. She sings of the cost of not paying attention, celebrating life amidst death, and what she sees in the mirror as a way of letting us know we are all okay—and those are good lessons to remember. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Eve’s Daughter” / “Parking Lot Pirouette”

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2. Sarah Shook & the Disarmers – Years (Bloodshot)

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When PopMatters reviewed Years earlier this year, writer Ed Whitelock hailed it as “a new country classic” right in its headline. Even a cursory listen of the band’s sophomore effort would prove the validity of such a claim. Shook brings an unvarnished, unapologetic audacity and frankness to her performances that you can’t help but root for the unabashed character she evokes in each of her tunes. Backing her up is a stellar collective of ace musicians, offering a further richness to the latest installment in their catalog between easy-going, jangly guitars, grooving bass, and darn cool melodies busted out over pedal steel. Shook & the Disarmers make crafting impeccable Americana look as easy as riding a bike, and each song is as cohesive and truly timeless as the next. They have managed to craft an album that could just as easily be from 1968 as from 2018. – Jonathan Frahm

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify | WATCH: “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” / “Good As Gold?” / “New Ways to Fail”

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1. I’m With Her – See You Around (Rounder)

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Americana fans consider the relatively young talents Sarah Jarosz, Aoife O’Donovan, and Sara Watkins as old pros because they have been creating quality music separately for more than a decade. The three are friends and would often jam with each other at festivals before finally releasing See You Around, their first full-length album. The results exceed the high expectations for the supergroup. The musicians don’t just take turns singing and playing, they fully collaborate. The trio wrote 11 of the 12 the songs together while holed up in a Vermont farmhouse. Their lyrics share a common theme of motion—not settling down but moving forward.

This idea is manifested in their sound as well. Something is always happening. Their voices can blend in a rarified harmony or detach and let one member soar solo. They are also gifted players: Each band member performs on two different instruments and warmly interacts with the other or disconnects for unaccompanied jams in service of the material. See You Around offers much more than technical proficiency. The music allows listeners to feel the love and respect the trio have for each other. – Steve Horowitz

LISTEN: Bandcamp / Spotify / YouTube | WATCH: “Little Lies” / “See You Around”

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