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
15. Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers – Nicki Bluhm & the Gramblers (Little Sur)
2013 was a breakthrough year for Nicki Bluhm and her slick-picking band, the Gramblers. The band takes its musical and fashion cues from 1970s 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 1970s 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
14. The Head and the Heart – Let’s Be Still (Sub Pop)
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 reveals 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.
13. Sarah Jarosz – Build Me Up From Bones (Sugar Hill)
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
12. Ha Ha Tonka – Lessons (Bloodshot)
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
11. Holly Williams – The Highway (Georgiana)
On her third album, 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. Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison – Cheater’s Game (Premium)
Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison were married for years, but they 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 most loving 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
9. Guy Clark – My Favorite Picture of You (Dualtone)
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 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