Music

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

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/s/spain_carolina_cover_lp_350.jpg

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List number: 15

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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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List number: 14

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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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List number: 13

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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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List number: 12

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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

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