8. The Devil Makes Three – I’m a Stranger Here (New West)
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
7. Alela Diane – About Farewell (Rusted Blue)
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 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
6. The Band of Heathens – Sunday Morning Record (BOH)
After the 2011 departure of co-founder Colin Brooks and the pursuant departure of the Band of Heathens‘ 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 backward but don’t necessarily want to return there. – Taylor Coe
5. Son Volt – Honky Tonk (Rounder)
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
4. Patty Griffin – American Kid (New West)
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 1996 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
3. Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (Anti-)
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 a 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
2. Jason Isbell – Southeastern (Thirty Tigers)
Jason Isbell‘s semi-confessional 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-1970s 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
1. The Lone Bellow – The Lone Bellow (Descendant)
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 instrumentalism, 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
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 10 December 2013. It has been updated and reformatted for modern browsers.