Under the Radar’s Top 10 Americana Albums of 2015
Jan 08, 2016
Americana is a beguiling genre, as vast and wide ranging as the landscape from which it takes its name. Everything from the blues to bluegrass can be incorporated, leaving fans debating for hours on end-over endless sips of whiskey no doubt-about which records count. Compiling a Top 10 list of such works is an equally ramshackle endeavor, especially in 2015, one of the genre's strongest and most diverse years in recent memory. This best-of certainly may not be definitive, but it covers a broad swath of promising unknowns, long heralded up-and-comers coming into their own, and a few time-honored legends who are by no means fully grown. All that and more is explored below in Under the Radar's 2015 Americana Top 10. By Kyle Mullin
Something More Than Free
From the way that the bass and drums flutter together like a vintage projector on "How to Forget," to the faint fiddles punctuating the melancholy of "Hudson Commodore," the instrumentation on Jason Isbell's Something More Than Free is as subtle as the songwriter's lyricism. Chalk that musicality up, in part, to burgeoning producer David Cobb (who helmed recent hits for Sturgill Simpson, Corb Lund, and more). But much of the most beautiful playing on this LP comes courtesy of Isbell himself, who unleashes his guitar in refreshing fashion when compared to his previous release, the more restrained Southeastern. Indeed, the songsmith's guitar sears like freshly forged steel as he solos on "Children's Children." His lyrics are even more deft on "The Life You Chose," as he describes a laborer who proved he's "no one's fool" by settling out of court after an onsite accident. "Speed Trap Town," meanwhile, offers painstaking details about a mourning son in a close knit community. His novelist's approach to lyricism, and journeyman's skill on the six string, helped Jason Isbell write and record the best Americana record of the year.
Sound & Color
Purists might object to Alabama Shakes' sophomore set, Sound & Color, being classified as Americana, insisting that it rocks too hard or contains too many eclectic-and downright offbeat-flourishes. But Brittany Howard's voice is unfettered by naysayers, drawing on southern gospel, southern rock, and everything in between to push Americana into more hard driving and diverse directions. Her bandmates, and producer Blake Mills, fall in step on songs like "Dunes," which features tinny vocals, tin pan alley percussion, and southern fried guitar and "Don't Wanna Fight," what with its bluesy guitar wobble and Howard's squealing soulful delivery. Call it what you like, and gripe all you will about its differences from anything on this, or any other, list. But that distinctive mix is a new alchemy that can keep Americana from ever growing stale.
If I've Only One Time Askin'
Daniel Romano's work is far less accessible than that of his fellow recent New West signee, Corb Lund. Indeed at times Romano sounds downright petulant and uncompromising when addressing the lover that scorned him on "I'm Gonna Teach You" singing: "And you're gonna feel all the pain 'til all of your feelings are through," in a reedy drawl. But that uncompromising quality gives the record a unique, offbeat tone, and makes the LP's moments of beauty-like the accordion notes and poetic couplets on "Strange Faces"-all the more stunning.
Carrie & Lowell
Like a classic Simon and Garfunkel record, Sufjan Stevens' latest LP, Carrie & Lowell, features hushed yet echoing, melodically lilting vocals over instrumentation sparse enough to make the music haunting. But unlike that vintage folk duo, Steven's lyrics aren't wholesome. On "All of me Wants All of You," he sings: "You're not one to talk things through/You checked your texts while I masturbated... I feel so used." Meanwhile, "No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross," finds Stevens mournfully moaning, amongst gentle acoustic strumming: "There's blood on that blade/Fuck me, I'm falling apart." And on "John My Beloved" and "Fourth of July" he sings of mortality-or feeling close to it-in frank, unflinching language. The juxtaposition of that coarse lyricism and the tender music makes for a jarring listen that will leave a deep impression on heartbroken audiences who are aching to be soothed.
Every Time My Mind Runs Wild
This criminally overlooked LP, from fledging Canadian songstress Terra Lightfoot, has it all. There's full fledged, heart wrenching guitar riffs akin to J.J. Cale's "Magnolia" on Lightfoot's own "Moonlight." There's skeletal piano playing and raw throat singing on "Splinter." There's swaggeringly stomping drums on "No Hurry," and, better still, swaying organ notes on "Home to You." This record has a song for every moment or occasion, and Lightfoot unveils that versatility masterfully.
Tomorrow Is My Turn
This solo debut, by the front woman of string-based trio Carolina Chocolate Drops, features numerous covers of country standards. But Giddens' makes each and every tune sound wholly her own, thanks to her elastic phrasing and expansive vocal range. Her smoothly swaying singing gives "She's Got You"- an aged classic that was one of Johnny Cash's favorites to cover-a jazzy lounge undertone. She does a complete 180 on "Waterboy"-an even older folk standard-howling bombastically like a rockslide in a canyon. The vintage notes are even a gritty-yet-eloquent treatment by none other than legendary producer T Bone Burnett, who has found a kindred spirit Giddens. Here's hoping that they continue to mine the Americana songbook-judging by Tomorrow Is My Turn, they turn up diamonds every time.
Things That Can't Be Undone
Corb Lund has spent years as Canada's unofficial prairie poet laureate, enthralling throngs with his cowpoke odes. Now he's poised to tame the American frontier as well, thanks to this signing on New West Records (home to Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams and more). Nashville producer David Cobb (of the aforementioned Jason Isbell LP) provides a widescreen soundscape that Lund immediately uses in John Ford-fashion on opener "Weight of the Gun," about a guilt stricken outlaw. He also delves into modern Americana, with climactic guitar riffs and lyrics about Iraq war vets on "Sadr City," which may very well be the best country song of the year. This grimmer fare is the perfect way for Lund to introduce himself to a wider audience who have too long yearned for a serious songwriter of this caliber.
Head Heart Hand
Call her the Lady MacBeth of alt-folk. Indeed, this rising U.K. songstress has enchanted enough fans and critics to prompt the BBC to bestow its Young Folk and Horizon awards on her. Her latest LP, Head Heart Hand, should help her earn plenty of new accolades, thanks in no small part to her wide range of styles, from the new LP's brash gypsy-esque opener "Love/Loathe" to the gurgling horns that give "Garden" its added hoedown waltzy sway. But Henwood's true asset is her lyricism, which is unfussy and fiercely efficient, especially during her vivid account of lost virginity and irreversible guilt on "Our Little Secret." These aren't mere tunes-Henwood pens gothic folk sagas.
Steve Martin and Edie Brickell
Esteemed comedian Steve Martin isn't goofing around on this LP, his second with gloriously gifted songbird Edie Brickell. Indeed, he's left the punchlines and standup mic behind for well over a decade now, quietly releasing acclaimed, banjo laden blue grass albums with remarkable consistency. Those efforts culminate with So Familiar, his best musical turn yet, thanks in no small part to Brickell's deft vocals. Indeed, the singer is equally adept at sincere romanticism (on "I Have You" and the title track) and sly cheekiness ("Won't Go Back" and "Another Round"). This is an LP that is by turns gently moving and gleefully grooving. On So Familiar Martin and Brickell bring the best out of each other to thrilling, touching, and charming effect.
Through-and-through roots music fans have a few gripes about Coming Home, Leon Bridges' accomplished and highly accessible debut LP. For one, it skews far towards the blues and vintage southern soul end of the Americana spectrum, sounding out of place in a genre dominated by banjos and alt-country flourishes as of late. But, more glaring, nearly all of its tunes are as Top 40 ready as a single by Adele, Jake Budd, or other current A&R groomed acts who make no effort to hide their bygone influences. But the snobs are wrong. Yes, this LP's carefully sanded off production makes it ideal fare for Starbucks background music. Yet that very quality augments, instead of diminishes, Bridges' earnestly molasses thick singing. He's not exploiting the oldies, but reinvigorating them for the masses. And that just means the snobs will have to stop hoarding and get used to broader crowds having taste as good-or better-than theirs, for a change.