The reason I do this list late in the year is a sentimental one. I like to mull them over, and think about what I was doing, where I was, the colors of their eyes, when I first heard their songs. I want to savor the year and its memories as long as I can before making them concrete.
As we are in the midst of a golden age – l'age d'or, as the French would say – of roots music, it was difficult to winnow this list down to a manageable number. So, two groupings helped me collect and organize my thoughts. As you go down this list keep in mind, as with all lists, it says more about the writer than what is written about.
The Crucial Five
Rhiannon Giddens – Freedom Highway
How does Giddens follow up her first solo album that I, and many others, named the best album of 2015? She returns with something even more substantial, and altogether more significant. Her nine originals, and three covers, take too-often hidden, painful stories of black Americans out of our racist closet and turns them into eloquently written and performed expressions sometimes of love, sometimes acting like a mirror, and sometimes chickens coming home to roost.
Lucinda Williams – This Sweet Old World
Williams has always been an instinctual artist, aware of how to deepen and enrich her music, and it was pretty darn deep to begin with. She took what, in hindsight, seems to be folk songs on SOW, added four more, and made a great blues record. It’s akin to what Billie Holiday did in the 1950s, taking her experiences and using all her considerable powers to make a statement larger than life.
Angaleena Presley – Wrangled
This is not only what country music should sound like, it’s also the best this side of Hank Williams. With Wrangled, Presley debunks every myth that Nashville has proffered to aspirational artists over the years, leaving shattered glass slippers littered all over lower Broadway and bleeding all the dreams out of you. And she takes on high school as well.
Richie & Rosie – Nowhere in Time
Like the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Rothko paintings, their music is a journey without end. Richie Stearns also has the lyric of the year: “Tell me how the West was won in the language of the Sioux.” Who would ever have thought that a banjo and fiddle duo would make the most emotionally textured album of the year?
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – The Nashville Sound
Isbell and band have become the Springsteen & E Street Band of his generation/genre. As Bruce mined the myths and ethos of being a man in the dying industrial North, Isbell does it with the South, while exploring what it means to be white and male in these times.
The Essentials (in alphabetical order)
Chris Barron - Angels & One-Armed Jugglers
From its cover to the music inside, Spin Doctors frontman Barron has made a vaudevillian Americana album that is varied and sophisticated in ways most albums these days are not. On each playing I hear something new, like peeling away the layers of an onion and finding many joyous moments. It’s the antidote for what ails you.
Anna Coogan – The Lonely Cry of Space & Time
Coogan's singular electric guitar is often reflective yet wandering, restrained yet expansive, holding on yet letting go. The songs sometimes ride the waves of an extreme force, sometimes juxtaposing words and music, sometimes putting them on a parallel course, and never being less than intriguing. At its core, this album explores the passage of time and the spaces and people in between.
I Draw Slow – Turn Your Face to the Sun
This quintet, led by vocal and songwriting talents of brother and sister Dave and Louise Holden, are the singular Americana band from Dublin. Their harmonies have been likened to Welch and Rawlings, but with a banjo to boot. Seamlessly, they swap leads, and during their breaks the banjo and fiddle take over, resulting in a sound that, dare I say it, fuses Americana with Irish.
Valerie June – The Order of Time
With her one-in-a-million voice and a banjo, June writes songs that reflect an acute awareness of what's transpiring around her. Sometimes it's minutiae that otherwise goes unnoticed, other times dreams that open doors to other dreams. There is a spirituality, a sacredness to them.
Margo Price - All American Made
Recorded in Memphis, Price ups the stakes in her second solo album and defiantly observes and dives headfirst into a tangle of long nights, hard days, wild women, and cocaine cowboys. Plus, she pushes back with her forthright takes on sexism and politics. She ain't taking nothing lying down.
David Rawlings - Poor David’s Almanack
Where his work with Gillian Welch takes tradition and turns it inward, oftentimes on itself, Rawlings, with the Machine, stretches it and lets it take flight. Sometimes it takes you away from a fickle lover, other times to a hoedown on a Poor Valley Saturday night. Either way, you are in for quite a ride.
Whitney Rose – Rule 62
Meticulous in every respect. Rose channels her inner Bobbie Gentry as her new songs show that same verve, swagger, and self-assurance that I have seen her display live. Rose does not limit herself, or want to be pigeonholed. In other words, Rose has arrived.
Kelley Ryan – Telescope
Ryan turns phrases like "Jesus in a pickup truck" and "golden boy of ecstasy burn me down" and wraps them inside melodies so lush that you are taken away on a wistful summer breeze to a faraway unfettered shore – with a martini in hand and a twinkle in her eye.
Joan Shelley – Self-titled
Shelley does not write songs so much as she inhabits hushed vignettes of bittersweet longing and desire. Aided by Jeff Tweedy, with sparse, layered arrangements, and the most exquisite voice since Sandy Denny, Shelley has delivered the most affectingly album of the year.
The Sweetback Sisters – King of Killing Time
The Sisters take the golden era of country honky-tonk music and add some sweet fiddle swing, which results in a very modern, sophisticated sound. Alternating sublime originals with unexpected interpretations of Marty Robbins and Gram Parsons, this album is like getting your cake, with frosted icing, and eating it too.
Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some
As with the best, Lillie Mae’s strength lies not so much in updating or reimagining country/traditional music as much as extending the lineage that she’s part of. Her themes of lost love and alcohol are familiar ones, but what sets them apart is well-honed, unfettered music that gives them flight. And live, she’s even better.
Margo Price – Live at the Hamilton; Blue Room Sessions; Live at Rough Trade East; and Thanks for Coming: Margo Price Live at the American Legion
Price had four live releases this year, though they were a tad difficult to find. The first two, a two-LP set and a single, were part of Third Man Records Vault subscription series. The other two came via Rough Trade: 1) An EP recorded in the London store with just Price and her keyboardist; and 2) a set recorded at the American Legion in Nashville that's the B side of the cassette version of All American Made. A feast for her fans.
Various Artists–At the Louisiana Hayride Tonight
Twenty CDs and a 200+ page book documenting country music’s best period (1948-1960), featuring country music greats from Hank Williams to a young Elvis to George Jones to the Louvin Brothers. All live and unadorned. It's the album of the century.
Various Artists – Woody Guthrie: The Tribute Concerts
Fifty years after the who’s who of folksingers, including a reclusive Dylan, gathered for two tribute concerts to the father of them all, Woody Guthrie. It’s all here, three CDs, a DVD, and 240 pages of notes, essays, photos, and reproductions of the concert book along with lyrics and notations.
Gillian Welch – The Harrow and the Harvest
You have not heard ND’s Album of the Year for 2011 until you have heard it on vinyl. Analog captures the nuances and beauty of the soul that numbers do not, and likely never will. The interplay of Welch’s vocals and Rawlings’ guitar is to die for.
Lambchop – Lambchop is a Woman
In 2002 Wagner’s luscious countrypolitan sound administered a quiet, yet compelling shock to the system. Now, we have it on vinyl where it belongs.
Now, on to those photos.