2019 In Review: The Year's Essential and Outstanding Americana Albums
Unlike some year-end album lists, mine shies away from ranked order or making claims on “best” because I want it to feel more like the way a music fan thinks. What made an impact? What albums had stories that amplified the trends in roots music and that might be landmarks on your journey of discovery? What’s interesting about this year’s roundup though is that if you absolutely made me rank a top ten, it would be albums made almost entirely by women. What a year. The Highwomen was my favorite country album, with stunning vocals and a collection of songs that seemed to draw the best from each of four outstanding writers. Anna Tivel made a jaw-dropping folk record, blending savvy production with lyrics that truly do scan like poetry. Yola turned in a magisterial debut album with a personal and profound take on the country/soul tradition. Madison Cunningham revealed herself as skilled beyond her years as a songwriter, electric guitarist and arranger. It was another excellent year for music in a golden age that just keeps aging well. My annual disclaimer is to say that while I sought input from the Roots Radio staff and hosts and consulted our playlists and the Americana chart, this list is my personal take on the year, grounded in 20-plus years of professional listening and commentary. I hope it celebrates some recordings you loved and introduces you to others.
The Highwomen - self-titled
Feminine energy in country surged again in 2019, making no light brighter than the supergroup teaming Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires, Natalie Hemby and Maren Morris. The writing is profound, the harmonies divine and the attitude assertive without affect. There's plenty of implicit and explicit message here, but it's truly about the music and the special chemistry these friends and creators bring to the project.
Our Native Daughters - Songs of Our Native Daughters
Folk music figurehead and MacArthur fellow Rhiannon Giddens lives an ethos of spreading around what power she's granted by her success, and one form that took was gathering three young women of color to write and record at the Louisiana studio of producer Dirk Powell. Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah collaborated and challenged each other to write truths from their own lives and their family lore. Kiah's lead on "Black Myself" became enough of an anthem that it wound up opening the 2019 Americana Honors and Awards.
Molly Tuttle - When You're Ready
Many were ready for the first LP by this fast-rising singer, songwriter and guitarist, expecting riffs on the bluegrass sounds that distinguished her first projects. What arrived was a sweeping, imaginative songwriter album. Rhythmic tracks, stellar acoustic and electric support and her own pronounced guitar bolstered the main event, which her voice and candid discourse on being a mid-twenty-something pursuing a unique path. This is a dynamic and thought-provoking collection that will stand as one of our era's great debuts.
Yola - Walk Through Fire
As a girl growing up in Bristol, England, she fell hard for Dolly Parton and country music, but the hipster scene in London typecast her as a neo-soul singer, usually in support roles. Only via Americana in the UK and then the US did she find a path to self-determination and producer Dan Auerbach. Together they wrote this magical and original album, recorded with brush strokes of 1970s soul and an assertive progressivism. Captured here is a rare voice, as rich in nuance and dynamics as raw power. There are deep wells of reserve and insight in this important new artist, and now she has four Grammy nominations to prove it.
Tyler Childers - Country Squire
He's churlish about "Americana" and he rarely gives interviews, but the diffident Kentucky newcomer and protégé of Sturgill Simpson sure can write vivid songs. The vignettes include: a hillbilly playa’s memories of school days, a postcard about being lost in the city, a portrait of a relative who guards spent chemical weapons on the graveyard shift, and a love shack he's fixing up in the woods. Wild enthusiasm follows this new country music world-builder for good reason, and this sophomore disc is even better than his stellar debut.
Lillie Mae - Other Girls
This is an album that starts to really work its magic on the third or fourth pass, after you’ve oriented to the reality that Lille Mae Rische doesn’t write like other girls - or boys. Her songs have assymetrical passages and unexpected stops and starts. She thinks like a composer as she frames up candid, self-effacing lyrics. Recorded in RCA Studio A with David Cobb, this has a conceptual completeness and in truth an edge of weirdness that make it a magical, lasting album.
Caroline Spence - Mint Condition
Hovering on the boundary of country music and power folk, this fourth release from Spence (her debut on Rounder Records) is a perfect encapsulation of the new Nashville. Spence brings her crystalline voice to songs about dilemmas, dreams and determination. The title cut is a moving, waltz-time ode to a decades-long love.
Billy Strings - Home
The young songwriter, singer and guitar firestarter doesn’t take sides in the bluegrass wars. He gives old time traditionalists and forward-leaning jam fans alike music to call their own by channeling a blend of Doc Watson, Tony Rice and Jimi Hendrix. This sophomore album is hyper ambitious with sound effects, suite-length songs and an overall arc. When you finish Home, you’ve been on a trip.
Buddy and Julie Miller -Breakdown on 20th Ave. South
They've released some of the archetypal music of the Americana age, separately and together. But they'd not recorded as a couple in 10 years. This satisfying return is true to their past form and sound, but Julie's lyrics and lead singing are among the most confessional of her career. There was some strife in the partnership as Buddy got wrapped up in projects over the past decade, but the "breakdown" implies more an analytical investigation than anything falling apart.
Delbert McClinton - Tall, Dark and Handsome
The R&B elder is on a roll, with an autobiography, an Americana Lifetime Achievement Award and two killer albums in as many years. Tall, Dark & Handsome is a hard-wired, well-written collection of sinewy, soulful, swinging American music fronted by Delbert’s amazing, 79-years-young voice. He’s wise, rascally and so suave that some of this disc comes off as first-rate hillbilly jazz. A master backed by great musicians is all we ever asked for.
Mavis Staples - We Get By
At 80 years old, Mavis is giving a new meaning to third acts, and every new musical gesture she makes is to be cherished and collected. She could sing the IRS code to a good beat and be interesting, but instead she seeks out adventuresome collaborators like Ben Harper who wrote the songs and produced the sessions here. She’s the loving matriarch of roots music, but her 2019 offering brims with youthful protest and passion.
Tanya Tucker - While I’m Livin’
She’s been a wild child for decades, but she’s a living legend for good reason, and a collaboration with co-producers Brandi Carlile and Shooter Jennings is just what it took for Tanya Tucker to make this feisty, confident comeback album at age 60. In an unmistakable voice, seasoned by the years, she expresses a mix of pride and regret while facing the future with grit. Four Grammy nominations further validated the project.
Anna Tivel - The Question
By the time we’re halfway through the opening title track, we know we’re hearing a very rare artist in this Portland, OR songwriter. It’s in the succulent language, the challenging meters and the breathtaking reveals of character. She tackles major issues, but renders them personal, as in “Fenceline.” She rocks and rolls with righteous empathy in “Worthless.” This one should be counted among the waning decade’s folk masterworks.
Kelsey Waldon - White Noise / White Lines
There are many brilliant women making hard country music in the Americana space, but only one who’s from Monkey’s Eyebrow, KY and signed to a record deal by John Prine. On her third album since launching her career as an East Nashville indie, Waldon offers more insight into her story and her home ground than ever before ("Kentucky 1988" is Loretta-style auto-biography), and it’s all set to swooning pedal steel guitar.
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley - World Full of Blues
This duo of a veteran dobro master and a young guitar slinger and stunning singer just keeps getting more refined and funky with time. For their third, Rob and Trey scaled up their band with drums, percussion and horns for the most energetic, driving sound so far, with musical debts to the Allman Brothers, Merle Haggard and Taj Mahal. But wait, Taj Mahal is here, guesting on the title track. They’ve conjured almost an entirely new format of roots ensemble.
Allison Moorer - Blood
After years of personal processing and media curiosity, the Alabama songwriter addresses the core tragedy of her life head-on in a profound and courageous album and companion memoir. She seeks peace with her troubled father and conjures memories of a mother she ought to have known better. Country music is the only musical structure sturdy and cathartic enough to support this dark and complex southern story, and Moorer couldn’t have handled it better.
Hayes Carll - What It Is
Part of Allison Moorer’s healing was her marriage this year to Texas/Nashville songwriter Hayes Carll, and the veteran put out one of his finest and most socially provocative albums. His slow-burn wit skewers plutocrats, merchants of division and “Fragile Men.” He sets his new love story to country rock and roll as well. We and Allison are lucky to have this smart and funny man/musician in our lives.
Will Kimbrough - I Like It Down Here
Kimbrough spends so much time working on the road and in the studio for top tier artists like Emmylou Harris that he doesn’t get to showcase his own songwriting, singing and guitar mastery as often as we fans deserve. This first solo album in five years is more than worth the wait, with keen-witted ruminations on universal themes in southern settings. “Alabama” is an understated tirade against racism, while “It’s A Sin” evokes the imagery of To Kill A Mockingbird with grave beauty.
Seth Walker - Are You Open?
Americana’s smoothest blues/folk troubadour has shaken up his outlook by moving every few years, from Austin to Nashville to New Orleans. On his sixth studio album, Walker shakes up his sound with some trance grooves and touches of studio exotica. But the earthy soul and songs are all there, more relevant and easy on the ears than ever. "Inside" is an especially good example of the delicious jams conjured by Walker and producer Jano Rix.
Dori Freeman - Every Single Star
In a year of exceptional country music from women in Nashville, this important artist continues to bring truth and beauty from Southwest Virginia. Her voice is like morning mist but assertive as well, and her path to matters of the heart is direct. Whether it’s melancholy hovering between lovers or her rhapsodies about her child, her sides leave a wake of ineffable loveliness.
Calexico w/ Iron and Wine - Years To Burn
The musically searching southwestern roots rock band Calexico and ephemeral songwriter Sam Beam had partnered up before, but it had been 14 years, so this collaboration scratched a particular itch. “Midnight Sun” is a dreamy single, while “The Bitter Suite” is an extended sonic journey. Americana needs an experimental cutting edge and this is it.
Madison Cunningham - Who Are You Now
There’s still a yearning to find a next Joni Mitchell, and with this 22-year-old phenom, it’s a worthy comparison, because of her overall musical sophistication married with a golden, west coast soprano and lyrics worthy of printing in large fonts on your wall. And she’s a stunning, creative electric guitar player too. An unexpected Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album proves fully justified by a listen through these 10 bewitching songs.
Sturgill Simpson - Sound & Fury
Betting on what Sturgill will do next is a bad plan. But if you did anticipate an EDM-inflected dystopian rock opera with a full-length companion anime, hey, hats off to you. The conceptual and musical reach is audacious. The visuals are jaw dropping, violent and surreal, not to mention expensive. It seems a play to shed all ties to country/roots for an arena rock future, but it is a magisterial work of art.
Josh Ritter - Fever Breaks
In the twenty years since Josh Ritter’s self-titled debut, he’s built an exceptional body of work and devoted fan base without a lot of fanfare. WMOT listeners certainly responded to the juicy, Jason Isbell-produced Fever Breaks, helping the darkly throbbing “Old Black Magic” become WMOT’s most spun song of the year. With hooks and smarts, it’s an organic folk rock album with long legs.
Ben Winship - Toolshed/Acorns
Working out West (based in Idaho), off the typical industry chart and touring circuit radar, Ben Winship is the best neo-folk writer/picker you don’t know enough about. In July he released two extraordinary and complimentary albums. Acorns is an acoustic/grassy disc in the spirit of Tim O’Brien (a big fan of Ben’s), while Toolshed is a groove-laden Americana project. Everything about these albums - the tone and time, the keen-minded lyrics and the easy singing - is world class.
Jim Lauderdale - From Another World
Yes, we are fans and friends of the veteran through Roots-related endeavors, and he releases a lot of music, but as objectively as I can listen, this is still a standout release from Jim. It’s in the daring melodies and swirling psychedelic textures. “The Secrets Of The Pyramids” is another great example of Jim’s penchant for oddball beauty.
Po’ Ramblin' Boys - Toil, Tears & Trouble
The emergence of super-group The Earls Of Leicester proved the bluegrass nation was hungry for the classic 1950s sound, and this East Tennessee band has taken up that mantle for the next generation. On their Rounder Records debut, the boys play it high, tight and blue, with timeless songwriting and keening vocals that keep the spirit of the Stanley Brothers and Jimmy Martin alive.
Ranky Tanky - Good Time
This visionary South Carolina quintet taps the little-known African American Gullah tradition for zesty, jazz-influenced roots music that sounds like nothing else. Lead singer Quiana Parler keeps it earthy, while Clay Ross, veteran of world-roots fusion band Matuto, sculpts a searching and sophisticated sound. The group has leaned mostly on interpreting traditional regional songs, but on Good Time, they write their own Gullah-inspired material.
Steve Earle - GUY
It was long-promised, and no surprise it’s both excellent and very long. Sixteen songs over an hour link Guy Clark classics like “L.A. Freeway” to more late-career selections like “Out In The Parking Lot.” Earle revered Guy in life and in death, and this personal tribute leaves behind a worthy token of that fact.
Charley Crockett - The Valley
This may or may not be Crockett’s best album, but it’s definitely the album he released in his best year so far, a Grand Ole Opry debut for example. The southeast Texas native has lived the life of an authentic country blues man, which is to say traveling, scrounging, singing and songwriting. To hear his autobiographical title track is to set out on a journey with an American master we’ll be listening to for many years to come.