the-15-best-americana-albums-of-2016

The 15 Best Americana Albums of 2016

This year's Best of Americana list may place the greatest distance between the genre and country music of any list we've compiled in recent years.

This year’s Best of Americana list may place the greatest distance between the genre and country music of any list we’ve compiled in recent years. That’s only notable because it seems that in 2016 there’s little reason to discuss the distinctions. Instead, we need only to get down to listening to the music we love by the artists we appreciate.

Though Billy Bragg’s appearance on an Americana list would not have been unthinkable in the past, it may surprise some and Hiss Golden Messenger, a group more familiar to the underground than the mainstream may be a surprise to various readers. The same might be said for Spain or Mount Moriah.

In the end, we feel that is a good representation of what we, the writers who have covered Americana in 2016 have been listening to. We also hope that it inspires some readers to take a chance on artists they might have otherwise overlooked and maybe a few they’d passed over a time or two.

 

Artist: Spain

Album: Carolina

Label: Glitterhouse / Diamond Soul

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Spain
Carolina

Josh Haden’s Spain returns with a series of songs that take up matters of the heart and history (personal and otherwise). Haden’s gift has long been and remains his ability to tell stories: There’s a multi-generational conflict discussed and revealed in “Tennessee”, though one is left wondering how it finally be resolved; there is the haunting tour diary of sorts (“Saratoga”) and “Apologies”, the most effortlessly beautiful track on the record and easily one of Haden’s best to date. One can feel time both stand still and move in its usual relentless march across this recording, taking the listener from “Tennessee” at the beginning to a disappearing California landscape in “Station 2”. None of those should be missed but the bluesy “For You” is another that cannot remained unmentioned. — Jedd Beaudoin

 

Artist: Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses

Album: In the Land of the Setting Sun

Label: Ronstadt

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Ronstadt Generations y Los Tucsonenses
In the Land of the Setting Sun

Michael J. Ronstadt will be remembered for many reasons, but chief amongst them will be that deep, resonant voice and its way of wrapping itself around new interpretations of American and Mexican classics as he and his sons, Michael G. and Petie, cracked away at Americana for years under the Generations moniker. This is the last release by the band to feature its leader and patriarch, “Papa Mike” — Linda’s younger brother, who passed at 62 earlier this year following a battle with liver cancer. As a final release, it’s also one of his best, with performances of “La Barca de Oro” and “Old Paint” harkening back to his family’s eras-long musical roots in the Southwest. His sons, meanwhile, showcase more fully-developed styles of alternative folk–a dark, jazzy strut on Michael G.’s virtuosic cello performances on “Five” and “Dark Riddles”, and a more auspicious western flare to Petie’s

“Falling Into Place”, inundated by Alex Flores’s sweet sax. Their familial musicianship best culminates in their incredible knack for harmony (“Volver, Volver”) and lively performances of songs like the original instrumental crowd-mover “The Chicago Bar Stomp”. It’ll be interesting to see where the band goes and how it evolves without Mike being able to be there in the flesh for the recording process. With that said, his is a presence that will last with the band for good, and In the Land of the Setting Sun is as grand a send-off for the old man as anyone could have hoped. — Jonathan Frahm

 

Artist: The Handsome Family

Album: Unseen

Label: Loose Music

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The Handsome Family
Unseen

Brett and Rennie Sparks, aka, the Handsome Family have seen their profile rise sharply in recent years due to the selection of their track, “Far From Any Road”, as the entrance music for HBO’s wildly successful drama, True Detective. However, the married duo has been consistently cranking out sharply written and spookily arranged Americana albums for nearly 20 years now. Their winning streak continues with this year’s Unseen, a collection of tunes that covers the Gothic-tinged world of castaways, cranks, and creepers that many of their fellow musicians and writers overlook. The characters presented here often find themselves trapped in dangerous or horribly unique situations. There’s the convenience store customer who suddenly finds himself taking cover in a ditch as a shootout erupts around him. Elsewhere, there’s also a madcap scientist looking to communicate with long-gone spirits, and a seedy gambler risking everything for one last shot at a huge payoff. Each song is an adventure unto itself with a resolution that either comes out of left field or dangles mysteriously as you look to draw your own conclusions. Wrapped in their trademark spaghetti western noir, the songs become even more maddening and perplexing. All in a good way, though, of course. — Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Mount Moriah

Album: How to Dance

Label: Merge

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Mount Moriah
How to Dance

The trio of Mount Moriah — Heather McEntire (vocals), Jenks Miller (lead guitar and keyboards), and Casey Toll (bass guitar and keys) — have, on their third release, made some odd and surprising choices in the service of this beautiful record. First, they pushed McEntire’s vocals back into the instrumental mix to create a more band-centered sound, a gutsy move considering the Dolly Parton-like crystal clarity of her voice. Further, McEntire’s lyrics are even more personal, spiritual, and place-centered than on previous records. She may have stepped back into the mix, but listeners find her even more exposed therein. And the album’s title is hardly ironic, with Miller and Toll supplying a sometimes raucous musical bed for McEntire’s musings. They are songs that seek cathartic release for the body and salvation for the soul, and they rise up from a well of fierce independence. As she sings in the album’s title song, “Gotta lot of people telling me how to dance.” McEntire doesn’t listen to them; rather, she follows her own heart. Listeners will find deep reward in sharing the journey. — Ed Whitelock

 

Artist: Luke Winslow-King

Album: I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always

Label: Bloodshot

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Luke Winslow-King
I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always

That King’s latest echoes something, even in its title, significantly less ebullient than previous releases isn’t just in the name of taking a step in a new artistic direction. Moreover, the oft-times glum and mourning nature of I’m Glad Trouble Don’t Last Always comes from a very real place, following a divorce with musical partner and ex-wife Esther Rose between its release and the album prior’s. Born and raised with Cadillac roots and a New Orleans soul, perhaps it was never a surprise that King would have a real knack for writing and singing the blues once he got cracking away into this whole music thing. With that said, pure, gritty heartbreak has its way of further refining the most polished stones, and it does so with Luke here. His straightforward, sweet everyman’s vocals marry themselves to telling lyrics and evocative guitar licks that bring him closer to the heart of blues than he ever has been before. — Jonathan Frahm

10 – 6

Artist: Billy Bragg and Joe Henry

Album: Shine a Little Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad

Label: Cooking Vinyl

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Billy Bragg and Joe Henry
Shine a Little Light: Field Recordings from the Great American Railroad

Our greatest songwriters are charged not only with creating, in their best moments, new classics but also and of equal importance, with keeping the American song tradition alive through new interpretations of the old classics. Billy Bragg and Joe Henry, each a highly acclaimed songwriter, bring their well-worn and incisive perspectives to this collaboration. Few themes are as classically American as the train song. This collection revisits 13 well- or lesser-known classics from both the traditional and contemporary songbook, recorded live “on the rail” by Bragg and Henry in assorted train depots during a journey between Chicago and Los Angeles (with one detour to San Antonio’s Gunter Hotel, to record within the same walls that echoed Robert Johnson’s most famous recordings). Some might, on the first impression, find Bragg’s British accent curious on these American folk standards, but then, the working folk who would have sung the 19th and early 20th century songs collected here would have done so in a variety of accents (current political paranoia aside, the USA is a country built by immigrants, and our musical heritage is equally international in its roots). Bragg’s rough baritone blends well with Henry’s sweeter tenor, their voices merging amidst the echoes and bustle of the halls there they recorded these songs in such a way that they even make the two Gordon Lightfoot songs they’ve chosen sound timeless. — Ed Whitelock

 

Artist: Hiss Golden Messenger

Album: Heart Like a Levee

Label: Merge

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Hiss Golden Messenger
Heart Like a Levee

The most important tool available to all purveyors of great music lies in simple honesty. Good ol’ MC Taylor once again has it in spades as he puts the anxiety and guilt that comes with touring away from family under the microscope for all to hear. Hiss records have always carried a stroke of ironic genius to them upon even the shallowest examination of album material compared to the cosmetic vibe of his decided stage name—many critics would tell you that they’ve almost always been vested in what faith can’t bring humanity, and they wouldn’t be wrong. For a guy like Taylor, a release like Heart Like a Levee is almost business as usual while he writes his heart out and shoots it out into a musical space for anyone who would like to lend an ear to listen. If the vibe you want is to be invited straight into an artist’s tour vehicle and hear them tell their story to you in song, just between the two of you, then you wouldn’t feel slighted with this one. — Jonathan Frahm

 

Artist: Sturgill Simpson

Album: A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

Label: Atlantic

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Sturgill Simpson
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

A “life-lessons” song cycle directed towards his young son, Sturgill Simpson’s third album, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, trades some of the country influence for that of heartfelt soul and funky R&B. With a robust string section and brassy horns (courtesy of the Dap-Kings) anchoring the stellar opening track “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”, it’s clear that Simpson’s influences were a bit more wide ranging here than they even were on his prior releases. The remaining eight tracks drive this point home. Whether he’s quietly seething at dishonest governmental policies (“Sea Stories”), skeptically offering forth life advice (the soulfully propulsive “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)”, or gussying up an old Nirvana tune (“In Bloom”), Simpson brings a diverse musical direction to each track. Just as his lyrical perspective keeps listeners sharply attuned to clues, so does the musical direction. It’s a breezy, yet trippy 39-minute journey into the mind of one of modern music’s most clever songwriters. — Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Hayes Carll

Album: Lovers and Leavers

Label: Hwy 87

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Hayes Carll
Lovers and Leavers

Hayes Carll is in an abundantly different place from where he’d last left us with 2011’s KMAG YOYO, let alone since the debut of Flowers & Liquor way back in the throngs of a hot June in 2002. As a Grammy nominee, a father, and an artist who let so much time sit between his current and last records that the previous label he was signed to is now defunct, his latest in Lovers and Leavers is decidedly an authentic look in through the window onto the personal thoughts and feelings of a man with umpteen more significant life experiences, good and bad, left right out on the table. Plaintive in its mostly acoustic makeup, Carll opts to tell his story in as simple, and subsequently effectively moving, way as possible. His display of unbridled humanity in his work has always maintained something weirdly uplifting in its innermost workings, and it’s the same here. Even in the context of what is easily his most emotionally contemplative record to date, it’s good to be listening to something that makes you feel vindicated. — Jonathan Frahm

 

Artist: Robbie Fulks

Album: Upland Stories

Label: Bloodshot

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Robbie Fulks
Upland Stories

Robbie Fulks continues working in a country-flavored manner on this collection with all the colorful flair and keen observations we’ve learned to expect from him. With minimal musical trappings Fulks’ words come to fore via “Alabama at Night”, “America Is a Hard Religion” and the poignant, heart-melting “Needed”. These portraits of American life rendered with an authenticity and concern that make them seem like they’ve always been with us, whether those mentioned above or “Aunt Peg’s New Old Man”, “Sarah Jane” or “Katy Kay”. Fulks has never given less than his best but this record suggests that his best may be better than we imagined. — Jedd Beaudoin

5 – 1

Artist: The Devil Makes Three

Album: Redemption & Ruin

Label: New West

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The Devil Makes Three
Redemption & Ruin

Blending elements of bluegrass, rockabilly, and old-time this Santa Cruz, CA based three-piece makes quite the raucous noise on Redemption & Ruin, their fifth official studio release. An old-fashioned two-part album consisting strictly of cover material, it takes a religious path on the first half with songs steeped in the rich gospel tradition while the second half veers into sin and temptation. Hence, the title: Redemption & Ruin. Form the hopped-up frenetic take on Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” to the freight-train boogie of Robert Johnson’s “Drunken Hearted Man”, all the way through the achingly sweet version of Hank Williams’ “The Angel of Death” there’s much to dig into. Emmylou Harris, Tim O’ Brien, Jerry Douglas, and Duane Eddy all stop in to lend a hand, but all are careful to serve more as bonus attendants consciously choosing not to get in the way of the firestorm served up by members Pete Bernhard, Lucia Turino, and Copper McBean. Not your typical cover album, Redemption & Ruin hits the band’s musical sweet spots while also offering freshly spirited takes on some classic source material. — Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Parker Millsap

Album: The Very Last Day

Label: Okrahoma

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Parker Millsap
The Very Last Day

The songs on Parker Millsap’s third album The Very Last Day seem to have been composed with the express purpose of stocking the jukebox at the Apocalypse Bar & Grille, figuratively located along some parched Oklahoma road as it disappears into a gray horizon. Having grown up required to attend thrice-weekly services in a Pentecostal congregation, those early lessons have stuck with the now 23-year-old songwriter and serve to populate the imagery that fuels the 13 songs collected here. Millsap yowls and pants through “Hades Pleads”, offering up a cheeky, flesh-obsessed version of the Greek god of the underworld. “Pining” smartly brings a Stax-influenced soul into the Americana stew. “Jealous Sun” proffers a celestial body that steals away the singer’s lover during the daylight working hours, but plays as well upon a pun on the Son, evoking a metaphysical tug-of-war between the singer’s hold on his lover’s physical body and the Savior’s possession of the spiritual soul that he can never touch. The album’s title song as well as its closer “Tribulation Hymn” prepares us for whatever waits on the other side of the honky tonk door, eternal peace or the perpetual flame that burns without light. Only the recently departed Leonard Cohen has crafted work comprised so smartly of the sacred and profane. The Very Last Day builds upon the promise of Millsap’s previous works and promises so much more to come. — Ed Whitelock

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Artist: Margo Price

Album: Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

Label: Third Man

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Margo Price
Midwest Farmer’s Daughter

We often greet a collection of songs this heartfelt and autobiographical with hints of skepticism. Listeners can often find themselves engaged more in measuring authenticity than in the act of enjoying songwriting. Not so much with Margo Price. Nine of the ten tracks on her 2016 Third Man Records release were all penned or co-penned by Ms. Price, and they tell quite the tale. Anchored by the six-minute “Hands of Time”, one of the most knockout confessionals ever to put to tape, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter is a master class in storytelling. From inside tales of shady country music business dealings to the follies associated with misguided attempts at love to celebratory odes to the power of the bottle, Price and her ace backing band successfully honor the traditional ideals of country music while still delivering something modern and refreshing. It’s an album that speaks to all music lovers and one that will surely place Price’s name near the top of most year-end lists as 2016 comes to a close. — Jeff Strowe

 

Artist: Lucinda Williams

Album: Ghosts of Highway 20

Label: Highway 20

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Lucinda Williams
Ghosts of Highway 20

Lucinda Williams delivered a double set of meditations on a disappearing or perhaps now forever disappeared America. Filled with haunting, meditative songs that take their time getting to where they’re going, this is among the best that Williams has offered to date. Joined by players such as Bill Frisell, Greg Leisz and Val McCallum, Williams sings like she has rarely sung before, with an ache and conviction that carries pieces such as “House of Earth” (with lyrics from Woody Guthrie), “Death Came” and “Dust”, the latter featuring lyrics adapted from the writing of her late father, Miller Williams. A cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory” goes down nicely as well, a reminder that in the 32 years since that song first appeared and now, the precarious fate of this nation and its people remain the same. — Jedd Beaudoin

 

Artist: Shovels & Rope

Album: Little Seeds

Label: New West

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Shovels & Rope
Little Seeds

Little Seeds is a culmination of a period of significant personal and musical growth for Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent. The couple welcomed their first child but also suffered some losses among family and friends; accordingly, an awareness of mortality and life’s fragility haunt this album. That doesn’t mean, though, that Little Seeds is a somber affair. Quite the opposite. “I Know” and “Botched Execution” open the record with a noisy one-two punch. Meanwhile, “Mourning Song” and “St. Anne’s Parade” each offers sweet reflections upon time’s passage without stooping to nostalgia. The sparse, harrowing “BWYR” is among the most direct and affecting statements on the USA’s ongoing racial strife made this year in any genre. The album ends with the passionate, beautiful tearjerker “This Ride”, encapsulating all the lessons of love and loss that have come before, made explicit in the voice of a recently departed friend’s mother and her words of hope amidst despair. Hearst and Trent are at the top of their game here, playing all instruments and with excellent self-production from Trent. Raw and alive, it’s a hell of a ride. — Ed Whitelock

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