Take It Like a Man
Amanda Shires had already firmly shed the “married-to” label as a stellar songwriter, a formidable fiddler, a designer of aural sophistication, and a Highwoman. Now, with Take It Like a Man, the Lubbock Lassie seals the deal as one of Americana’s leading lights. That label does not do the new album justice, as Shires takes a bold new direction by finding her voice within timeless pop-standard traditions caressed with her mix of alluring chanteuserie, jazz-caressing balladry, and harmony-marinated tones and tunes. The songs deal with the bittersweetest topics—broken love, expiring time, hard goodbyes—but through verdant songcraft, aromatically orchestrated arrangements, and Shire’s warm vocal poise (sounding downright Dollyesque at times), Shires takes it like a man, but, man, she slays like a woman.
I Walked with You a Way
The duo of Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson made the Americana debut of the year with I Walked With You a Way, a record full of delights by way of the pair’s authentically stellar execution of the female-central folkcraft they grew up adoring. Indie darling Crutchfield (of Waxahatchee fame) and Texas singer-songwriter Williamson sound like they were born to sing together across confluent harmonies that float atop gentle banjo, dobro, and soft canyon-rock arrangements. They are both sharp-tongued songstresses and hook fetishists held together by Plains‘ mellifluously blended vocal lines, often sounding like a single resonant voice. Mixing universal yearning with astute specificity, Plains sound like roots-music lifers in the traditions of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt—silky voices, lovely songs, and self-determined hearts.
Many longtime Wilco fans (“Dads” as they are called), based on the title of Cruel Country, anticipated a return to the alt-country sounds of Uncle Tupelo at their twangiest (think March 16-20, 1992). Those fans, however, are also accustomed to Wilco defying expectations, and Cruel Country struck some as cruelly not very country at all. Still, part of Jeff Tweedy‘s genius is his ability to rotate rock music just off-kilter enough that listeners are continually challenged but ultimately won over through undeniably great songwriting and creative textures. Such is the case with this double album of some of Tweedy’s sturdiest songs in years. Everyone halved the album into their own A Less Cruel Country playlists, but for twang-hearted out there, there are plenty of country waltzes, loping steels, and Bakersfield guitars to enjoy.Cruel Country by Wilco
Age of Apathy
Aofie O’Donovan is on quite a roll. In a burst of pandemic productivity, she released a string-quartet EP (Bull Frog’s Croon), wrote a women’s suffrage-inspired song cycle (America, Come), recorded her version of a classic Bruce Springsteen album (Aoife Plays Nebraska), and cut a live album (Live From Black Birch). Age of Apathy, her third solo LP, is a ravishing achievement from a singular roots-music voice. Across 11 new originals, featuring appearances by Alison Russell and Madison Cunningham, the Crooked Still singer lends her snow-dappled vocals and sensual songcraft to a seamless collection of elegantly embroidered folk-grass, textured piano-based meditations, and exquisite breeze-borne ballads. It’s a lush musical hybrid nestled within a singularly enchanting tapestry. It’s also her Joni-est album yet; an inspiration made explicit on the sublime title track, which resolves with the haunting echo of the Blue classic “My Old Man”.
Orville Peck is not your typical South African-born, gay, fringed-mask-wearing, classic-country-obsessed, identity-hiding punk drummer. He’s also a horse enthusiast. But the important thing is that Bronco makes it two terrific albums in as many tries for a singer who possesses the vision and the lungs to blow the cowboy hats off the competition and win the great Americana rodeo. Peck composes songs with cinematic sweep and belts them with upper and lower registers as vast as the Western sky, sounding like Elvis singing Jimmy Webb songs for a High Noon sequel. Best line: “She tells me she don’t like Elvis / I say I want a little less conversation.” With vibrato racing, drama building, tympani echoing, Peck preserves the music-star traditions of yesteryear by combining an outsize quasi-mythical personality with rich songwriting, singing, and record-making to justify it.
Miko Marks & the Resurrectors
Feel Like Going Home
Last year, Miko Marks & the Resurrectors topped our Best Country Albums with the shapeshifting Our Country, an album of slide-guitar country blues, soul-funk, fingerpicked folk, Stax punch, and vaudeville piano jazz. Marks and her crew return this year with the aptly-titled Feel Like Going Home, mainly staying in one lane on a genre-focused triumph that revels in rock-gospel glory. Marks stuns with 11 new songs that sound like old standards sung with impeccable fire and tone. The Resurrectors, playing live in the studio, summon the spirit of the Swampers and the Memphis Boys, perfecting the sound Elvis was after in the late 1960s. Like those records, Marks is trying to find peace of mind amid all the pianos and guitars and harmonicas and backing singers, but old-time religion isn’t good enough for her; she takes well-worn gospel tropes—about rivers, jubilees, laying burdens down—and delivers them with an all-new vibrancy and majesty. As timeless as it gets.
The cover art of Tami Nielsen‘s excellent 2021 album Chickaboom nicknamed her “The Hot-Rockin’ Lady of Country, Rockabilly & Soul”, an epithet that certainly fits. With this year’s even-better Kingmaker, the Canadian-born New Zealander extends that moniker by mastering several genres she missed the last time: Tejano, 1960s shag-pop, show tunes, 1970s waterbed quiet-storm, salsa, torchy cabaret, junkyard boogie, and more. And the title cut is the best shoulda-been James Bond Theme of the year. The Pride of Auckland, Tami has a skyrocketing, gasket-blowing vocal presence that is overspilling with personality and range, and she steers clear of any song that doesn’t rush straight to your comfort zone. She namechecks Kitty Wells on the album, but she is a belter that could sit at the table with Patsy Cline, Etta James, Ethel Merman, or k.d. lang. And speaking of legendarily great singers, the dreamy duet with Willie Nelson is a keeper.
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway
Molly Tuttle broke the grass ceiling as the first-ever female winner of the IBMA’s Guitar Player of the Year, blowing minds with her seal-smooth movement around the strings, fleet-fingered fret-fondling, and proximal phalanges nonpareil. She also sings with stunning clarity and style, which she has previously applied to her lush alt-folk and new-age bluegrass albums and a pandemic project of reimagined covers from all over the musical map. This year, she assembled some of bluegrass’s most dynamic and versatile young players as Golden Highway, plus Old Crow Medicine Show, Gillian Welch, and her old roommate Billy Strings, to bust out the hot-shit progressive bluegrass album everyone has been waiting for from her.
The aromatic songcraft and emotional resonance are still intact. But this time Tuttle is having more fun with virtuosic instrumental fire and instant-classic songs about girl power (“Side Saddle”), Music City honky-tonkin’ (“Nashville Mess Around’), growing weed (“Dooley’s Farm”), and sharing this life thing as one sprawling musical family (“Big Backyard’), an uplifting and fitting summary for the year in Americana.