JC’s Top 10 Americana Albums of 2015
In relative ranked order, subject to change.
In January, I predicted a banner year for roots music in 2015, and back in June I highlighted a few albums showing early promise. I have not been disappointed. In part I tried to pay more attention to new releases again, thanks to Spotify streaming on my iPad (there is just no way I could purchase every new release showing up on the Americana Radio Chart, not to mention the Freeform American Roots charts). In part, despite another move this year, I just paid more attention. Like keeping up with email spam in your spam filter it pays off. And in part, independent artists (and a few studio-backed musicians) delivered the goods.
Once again, the top of my top albums of the year list is topped by Corb Lund. The release starts out strong with the catchy “Weight of the Gun” then into “Run This Town” (with an artsy video release). “Sadr City”, a veterans’ tale of remorse, caught me on the first try, and the subtle “Alice Eyes” on the second. Yet it was “S Lazy H” that reeled me in with a classic tale of the Good Son, who stays at home to run the family farm then is cut to the wolves when the family falls apart—this song should be the new anthem of Farm Aid. Canadian Corb Lund is putting the Western back in Country & Western, and the Country back in Country music.
T. Bone Burnett delivers again, as Rhiannon Giddens delivers a powerful solo debut proving her magic with Carolina Chocolate Drops was no flash in the pan, and well-deserving of a GRAMMY nomination for Best Folk Album. “Last Kind Words” by 1930s bluesman Geeshie Wiley opens the album, followed closely by Dolly Parton’s “Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind” which opened 1969’s In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad). The collection features her broad repertoire from Hank Cochran’s “She’s Got You” to several traditional folk and blues adaptations. Her 5-song EP Factory Girl, released late in the year, is pretty awesome, too.
As Waylon sung, Bob Wills is still the King of Country Music, whether you’re in Texas or not. And the GRAMMY Awards recognized it with a nomination as Best Recording Package for this collaborative project featuring the likes of Amos Lee, Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett, Merle Haggard, Ray Benson, Old Crow Medicine Show, Willie Nelson, Del McCoy, The Time Jumpers, George Strait, Elizabeth Cook, Brad Paisley, Carrie Rodriguez, Robert Earl Keen and more. While not the first tribute Asleep at the Wheel has put together for Bob Wills, this release rises to the top of my post-played list simply because it’s jam-packed with 20 tracks. It also rises to the top of my best-of list simply because of truth-in-advertising: Bob Wills is Still the King.
Fear and Saturday Night, Ryan Bingham‘s 5th major release, came in January early in the year and the dozen original songs seem to have gotten lost in the haze of awards season. The pop-ish single “Radio” was, obviously, made for radio, as a nice foil for the first track “Nobody Knows My Trouble” which features Bingham’s trademark gravel washed in borderlands tequila. Thank you, Señor Bingham, for a fun romp for a night out at the honky tonk or under the West Texas stars.
Like Steve Earle, I hate James McMurtry‘s politics, but I absolutely love the man’s songwriting. And by that, I mean both the songs and the writing—both men know how to tell stories, and how to match music and melody to those stories. This year, McMurtry clearly beat out Earle’s fine release Terraplane with a memorable collection worthy of a repeat setting on the disc changer. I’m terribly impressed by the nuance and craftsmanship, every phrase carefully chosen and every note in place from the deer-soaked pickup bed in “Copper Canteen” to the been-there, done-that Veteran’s lament in “South Dakota”. McMurtry has penned several anti-war and anti-Conservative screeds, but in the profanity-laced “South Dakota” he sets that aside, or moves beyond it, or something such that he puts us in the place we all know without beating us over the head with it. “It’s not our day, just our time.”
There is just no way that Jason Isbell could have lived up to his 2013 breakout album Southeastern, but he did a heck of job anyway. If you are new to Isbell, as a solo artist or in a group setting, Something More Than Free (GRAMMY-nominated for Best Americana album), would be an excellent introduction and only pales in comparison. The first two tracks, “If It Takes a Lifetime” and “24 Frames” (GRAMMY-nominated for Best American Roots Song) set the tone for a mature album—an album, more than a collection of songs—that offers a promise that Isbell is in the performing songwriter game for the long run.
Boulder girl made good in Nashville, Gretchen Peters delivers a poetic album with Blackbirds. Like Isbell’s release, it also only pares in comparison to her stunning previous release, Hello Cruel World. And like Isbell (who contributed backing vocals), Peters brings us a curated collection wherein the sum is greater than the individual songs. Ben Glover co-wrote the title track and two others, while Matraca Berg and Suzy Bogguss get co-writing credit on “Black Ribbons”. Murder ballads, addiction, natural disasters, everything evil and beyond understanding gets washed in the light.
The Rose of Roscrae is two-disc Folk Opera, a bookend on an epic trilogy on which he embarked with 1998’s The Man from God Knows Where and 2005’s Hotwalker. The story is the story of America and the American West, from Ireland to the cowtowns and ranches of the great wide open. The title track was co-written with Gretchen Peters and her husband Barry Walsh, with numerous guest artists and historical artists like Walt Whitman and Lead Belly edited in. It takes work to get the most out of this creation, so take a weekend, leave the TV off, and run through this trifecta instead.
Several albums over contended for the mid-majors among my favorite albums this year. I enjoyed The Mavericks before their year 2000 hiatus, and February’s release Mono was in the right place at the right time as a fun, high-energy album. And I’m including them here despite their Grammy nominations for Best American Roots Song (for the opener, “All Night Long”) and Best Americana Album. It’s not that any one track clearly contends for ear-worm status. It’s more that it’s just really pleasant to listen from one to twelve, start to finish.
The one-time Barefoot Band chanteuse brings us a dozen original songs on her third solo release. Despite myself, I really like the high-energy track “I Don’t Care.” It’s all a bit more pop-country maybe than I usually allow on the string-band side of my music library, but what the hay. Wake up and smell the Nora.
Other Highlights of the Year: I can’t say I was disappointed by the albums I highlighted in June, like Justin Townes Earle‘s Absent Fathers or Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell‘s The Traveling Kind (also GRAMMY-nominated), but the releases above rose to the top. I also liked Patty Griffin‘s Servant of Love (GRAMMY-nominated), a nice melodic release, and Charlie Parr‘s Stumpjumper full of high-energy blues. Chris Stapleton‘s Traveller, GRAMMY-nominated for Album of the Year, dropped off my list after he embraced rap-music on network TV, but it’s pretty good for what it is. You wouldn’t go wrong checking ’em out.
I also know I would love Brennen Leigh Sings Lefty Frizzell (On the cover of the December 3rd Coast Music w/4 stars & Top of the FAR chart) if I had got off my lazy butt and ordered it. Brennen Leigh, a Fargo-Moorhead girl made good in Austin, was the first artist to send me music to play on KRFC back in the day. [Edit: Look what I found on Spotify!
I can understand why she hasn’t put it on Spotify, but….] something to put on my XMAS List, hint, hint.