It’s the most wonderful time of the year: The temperatures are falling, the halls are bough-decked, and we gather over Jack-and-nogs to argue over what in the hell Americana music even is. Does the presence of a banjo make it Americana? What separates Americana from the kindred category of country? Country requires a twang-drawled singer, but Americana doesn’t? Does bluegrass count as Americana? What constitutes American “rootsiness”? Are acoustic instruments required? Indeed, any catalogue of the year in Americana inevitably contains a sprawling biome of country, folk, soul, blues, R&B, bluegrass, and roots-rock.
So, amid increasingly vitriolic culture wars, we might ask the question, “Whose Americana is it anyway?” This year, it was a midwestern ragtime/jazz crooner, a Southern-gothic truth-teller, a Manhattan-raised banjo genius, an Oklahoma troubadour, a Black cosmic-folk visionary, a best-selling and fest-headlining Joni disciple, a golden rock god paired with a Grammy-gobbling bluegrass songbird, a biracial/multilingual/queer folk-pop memoirist, an indie-minded Nashville songstress, and a country superstar with two songwriter dudes sitting around a desert campfire. You know, Americana. Whatever it is, all of your roots are welcome here. From California to the New York island, this music was made for you and me.
10. Pokey LaFarge—In the Blossom of Their Shade [New West]
Hailing from old St. Louis, Pokey LaFarge is the gateway to the Western swing, a riverboat ride to vaudeville blues, and a wayback machine to Dixieland jazz. Once again, on the stylishly eclectic In the Blossom of Their Shade, LaFarge pays celebratory tribute to American musical traditions. However, as a singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, he has moved further from tin-type recreation by paring down his sound. Most songs, as befits quarantine time, are built around LaFarge’s guitar. He also continues to shamble into new musical shapes coming from R&B, surf, doo-wop, Caribbean flavors, cowboy folk, and beatnik jazz.
All along, LaFarge sounds light on his feet, writing some of his catchiest melodies to date in a shambling retro-roots stew that combines authentic verisimilitude with buoyant joie de vivre. In a period of prolonged shade, LaFarge provides a blossom of an album full of witty, infectious, uplifting music that harkens back to yesteryear but sounds vibrantly fresh.
9. Jillette Johnson—It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You [Moss Rose]
NYC-trained songwriter and pianist Jillette Johnson is a hook-builder with a classicist’s ear for timeless song structures and the sorghum-sweet voice to inhabit them. A relocation to Nashville inspired Johnson’s shiniest, roundest melodies yet, and amid the lockdown, she chose to focus on gratitude, acceptance, hope, and affection. The result is It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You, her third full-length, a record packed with ten singer-songwriter gems, tunes that somehow sound primed for both smash-hit country charts and quirky bedroom-bard indie-rock.
As the album’s title suggests, it’s a primarily sunny set, as Johnson remembers the phases of her own life (“Many Moons”), gives herself self-empowerment pep talks (“I Shouldn’t Go Anywhere”), and has a conversation with herself as a child (“Forgive Her”). It all works across a winning stylistic canvas that swings from alt-country thumpers (“What Would Jesus Do”) to ’70s-style crossover country-pop (“Graveyard Boyfriend”) to gentle piano balladry (“Letting Go”).
8. Adia Victoria—Southern Gothic [Atlantic]
For her third studio album, Nashville-based singer-songwriter Adia Victoria takes a haunting trip through the American South, both her formative years in South Carolina and the musical heritage that has shaped her unique reclamation of Southern folk and blues idioms. Producer T Bone Burnett keeps things characteristically wrapped in a spare, elegiac haze, complete with chain-gang beats, ghostly strings, and fingerpicked guitars. So the “gothic” in the title is earned in both the album’s uniform mood and the spectral history of living in the South as a Black woman.
Victoria’s soft, vaporous alto is a perfect match for these songs, such as the gossamer meditation “Magnolia Blues”, a track about literal and figurative roots. But even when the blues hit, as on “You Was Born to Die”, she holds her own against Jason Isbell’s searing slide guitar. The closer, “South For the Winter”, a duet with the National’s Matt Berninger, no stranger to murmur-noir, is a song that encapsulates both the South’s inescapable pull and this album’s soughing beauty.
7. Robert Plant & Alison Krauss—Raise the Roof [Rounder]
It took them 14 years to make magic again, but Raise the Roof proved to be worth the wait. As with 2007’s Grammy-winning Raising Sand, producer T Bone Burnett assembled cream-of-the-crop roots musicians (Buddy Miller, Stuart Duncan, Bill Frisell, Viktor Krauss) to lay down an elegant, subdued musical undercurrent to a collection of songs immaculately paired with these two eminent vocalists. It’s still a kick that these two singers—from different generations, genres, and continents—found each other, and it’s a serendipitous marvel that their two voices make for such an exquisite blend.
Plant, at 72, is in resplendent voice, turning in his most Side-Two-of-Led-Zeppelin-III performance in ages. Krauss, for her part, is a marvel, shining brightest on a ravishing version of Merle Haggard’s “Going Where the Lonely Go”. Elsewhere, despite two singers famous for their potent upper-registers, the delicacy with which the two sing together is gorgeous on reinterpretations of Everly Brothers, Lucinda Williams, and Allen Toussaint songs. Raise a glass to this one.
6. Parker Millsap—Be Here Instead [Okrahoma]
Since his debut a decade ago, Parker Millsap has channeled everyone from Delta bluesmen to honky-tonk troubadours to Sun-era Elvis on his way to winning over the y’all-ternative crowd. And while Millsap’s prairie-chapel vocals, adroit guitar playing, and folkish songs have consistently topped Americana charts, 2018’s Other Arrangements found the native Oklahoman breaking out as a rocker, flexing brawnier vocals and louder guitars. This year, with Be Here Instead, Millsap pulls back with a record of gentler paces, floating falsettos, deft fingerpicking, soulful pianos and synths, and melodies that hit on a molecular level.
It’s a superb series of yearning songs that ask questions about vulnerability, presence, and love. Parker begs for connection on the lovely acoustic-based “The Real Thing”, and he howls at the top of his range about life’s purpose on “Dammit”. He crawls into existential angst while splitting the difference between yacht rock and blue-eyed soul on “Passing Through”. Parker embraces romantic insecurity on the ’80s-era McCartney facsimile “Always”. By shedding the character sketches of previous albums to turn inward and be here now, Parker has produced his prettiest, most personal album yet.