20 Standout Americana Albums of 2018
Every year when I compile my favorite Americana and roots music releases, I marvel at the sheer number of great albums coming out, but 2018 has been a banner year even by the genre's high standards. Enough so that I expanded my usual 10 favorites to 20 and still had to agonize over leaving past Top 10 artists such as Rosanne Cash, Anderson East, and River Whyless on the outside looking in. 2018 also continued the trend of women leading the way for Americana, as 8 of my top 10 and 14 of my top 20 being either female artists or female fronted bands. Another encouraging sign for the continued health of the genre is the wide range of ages represented here. The oldest artist on the list is 72. The youngest is 19.
20. Nobody's Girl- Waterline
Nobody's Girl is the newest band on this year's list, but the three artists who make it up, Betty Soo, Grace Pettis, and Rebecca Loebe are all veterans of the roots music scene and former Kerryville New Folk Competition winners. Normally, I don't include EP in my year-end wrap but Waterline so impressed that I had to give it a place. There are few albums this year that are as flawless in vocal harmonies and it's obvious all three ladies are having fun with their new adventure.
You can read the full review of Waterline here.
19. Ruby Boots- Don't Talk About It
Ruby Boots has long been familiar to attendees of the Americana Music Festival. The Aussie singer has been a regular part of the Sounds Australia delegation to the festival and it's not hard to see why they'd want her to represent them. With Don't Talk About It, Ruby Boots pivoted to a heavier rock sound. With a vocal snarl that channels Chrissie Hynde while never completely losing its country twang and a heavy guitar base that walks the line between rockabilly and punk, Ruby Boots has found her voice and released an album that sounds like nothing else in the genre.
18. We Banjo 3- Haven
Bluegrass music has a pretty direct line back to Ireland's musical roots. Some of the genre's most beloved songs are derivations of Irish folk standards. While many current bluegrass artists pay occasional tribute to their Celtic roots, no one is as deeply invested in that middle ground between the two as We Banjo 3, who have dubbed their style Celtgrass. The two sets of brothers who make up We Banjo 3 (yes there are four of them. Math isn't a required course for folk musicians) are expert instrumentalists and fearless experimenters. On Haven, they mature their lyrical output but truly shine on instrumentals like “Dawn Breaks” which bounces like a pinball back and forth between Celtic and pure bluegrass sounds until the two blur completely.
17. Tami Neilson- Sassafrass!
The current political and social climate has proven fertile ground for roots musicians and that's especially true for New Zealander by way of Canada Tami Neilson, who mined the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity to great effect on her soulful breakout album Sassafrass! But don't mistake serious subjects for serious music. Neilson puts an emphasis on the “sass” throughout Sassafrass! The result is an empowered and endlessly fun romp that borrows from Sharon Jones and Wanda Jackson equally.
16. Hymn for Her- Pop-N-Downers
Hymn for Her is a duo that has never been for everyone. If there was ever a pure musical distillation of letting one's freak flag fly, Lucy Tight and Wayne Waxing's cigar box guitar, banjo, and kick drum DIY weirdness would be it. But with their new album Pop-N-Downers, Hymn for Her has found enough accessibility to increase their appeal with casual fans while retaining the wonderfully whimsical and off-kilter worldview that has hooked me and other fans for a decade. Whether tackling serious subjects like climate change or sentimental ones like their daughter's dreams, Hymn For Her has notched the best album of their career so far.
15. Sugarcane Jane- Southern State of Mind
While Muscle Shoals gets all of the attention in Alabama's musical scene, Sugarcane Jane has been one of the groups carrying the flag for the Gulf Coast region's own musical legacy for years. The husband and wife duo of Anthony Crawford and Savanna Lee debuted the video for “Campfire”, the first single from Southern State of Mind at Concert Hopper in October. It is a pure shot of nostalgic fun on an album that lays its musical roots bare with songs like the Carter Family-inspired “Cabin on the Hill” and the Southern gothic “Red Flag Warning.”
14. Mandy Barnett- Strange Conversation
Mandy Barnett came to prominence while still a teenager, portraying a young Patsy Cline in the musical Always... Patsy Cline. While helping her reach a wider audience, that role also typecast her as a musical traditionalist and made it difficult for her to get her original voice out there. With September's Strange Conversation, Barnett has finally moved completely out of Cline's shadow. The album's songs run the gamut from searing jazzy ballads to dark cabaret numbers like her cover of Sonny and Cher's “A Cowboy's Work is Never Done” and a fun retooling of Tom Waits' “Puttin' on the Dog.” In interviews, Barnett has always said she identified more as a “torch singer” than a country traditionalist and Strange Conversation plays that well, sounding like Barnett belongs in a smoky bar in the middle of a Bogart film.
13. Phil Madeira- Providence
Phil Madeira's a name a lot of roots music fans don't know, but an artist whose work is most likely somewhere in their collection. Best known as the literal “right hand man” for Americana goddess Emmylou Harris as a long time member of her Red Dirt Boys, Madeira traded in his usual guitar for a piano and his easy country-blues amble for a jazzy turn on Providence. The album's collection of autobiographical songs tell of Madeira's upbringing in Rhode Island, the siren's call of Nashville's music scene, and his adjustment to Southern living with a lyrical deftness that allows anyone who ever felt like a stranger in a strange land, succumbed to the lure of a dream, or found the forbidden less enticing in practice than theory to transplant Madeira's story onto their own experiences.
12. Sawyer Fredericks- Hide Your Ghost
At 19, Sawyer Fredericks has been alive for less years than some artists on this year's list have been professional musicians, but there's a weight to his songs that belie his youth. Hide Your Ghost is Fredericks' first independent release since walking away from the Republic Records contract he signed after winning The Voice to pursue what he calls “free range folk.” It was a bold choice for a young artist who could have ridden his television fame until the tank ran dry to value his artistic muse over monetary gain, but the bluesy, soulful, and often searing songs on Hide Your Ghost show Fredericks is exactly where he needs to be.
11. Dom Flemons- Black Cowboys
At its best, music can entertain and educate at the same time and no artist is more adept at walking that line than Dom Flemons. As a member of The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Flemons helped shine a light on the long forgotten black roots of string band music. Now, in his debut for historical titans Smithsonian Folkways, Flemons is doing the same for the Western song, reminding us that, while the cowboys of old television and movies were all white and wearing suspiciously dirt-free clothing, real working cowboys were often black. Throughout Black Cowboys, Flemons tells their compelling tales, from a cattle wrangler so skilled his name spawned mythic stories to the former slave who many feel was the real-life inspiration for The Lone Ranger. Each story is told with Flemons' trademark affability and wit, making education more fun than it has any right to be.
10. American Folk- Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Amber Rubarth and Joe Purdy are both artists who have appeared on my list of favorites in the past so their soundtrack to the film American Folk, which they also starred in, was an easy inclusion. Save for a pair of catalog songs from John Prine and Jerry Garcia, Rubarth and Purdy carry the entire musical load on this soundtrack, mixing their interpretations of folk classics with four new songs. Each artist contributed two new songs to the film and Rubarth's “Townes” and Purdy's “This Old Guitar” are among the best Americana songs released in 2018.
9. Erin Rae- Putting on Airs
Erin Rae has been around for a few years, but Putting on Airs is her undeniable breakout. The album's title, a Southern pejorative for anyone whose education or beliefs put them at odds with the traditions of their community, provides the backdrop for Rae's own tales of being an openly lesbian progressive in a deep red state filled with people happy to condemn her. Rae found the perfect partner in Single Lock Records, the Alabama-based label owned by John Paul White that has specialized in balancing the musical heritage of Muscle Shoals while challenging societal traditions.
8. Brandi Carlile- By the Way, I Forgive You
For an artist who has been lauded as one of Americana's most gifted lyrical poets since her debut in 2005, calling an album the best of her career carries additional meaning. But By the Way, I Forgive You is just that. Exploring themes of forgiveness and absolution, the album finds Carlile more subdued than on past efforts, but more eloquent for it. “The Joke” is an ode to bullied kids everywhere. “The Mother” is Carlile's ruminating on the things lost and gained through motherhood. Singing “The first things she took from me were selfishness and sleep. She broke 1000 heirlooms I was never meant to keep” but later noted “all the wonders that I've seen I'll see a second time, from inside of the ages through your eyes.
7. Kaia Kater- Grenades
Kaia Kater has been an artist who has quietly built buzz around her career through standout performances at festivals such as the Americana Music Festival but Grenades is the album that finally should bring her to a well-deserved wider audience. The Canadian singer explores her father's immigration from Grenada and her own story as a child of two worlds. Her father's stories of revolution and flight intersperse Kater's own observations on standout songs like “New Colossus” and “Hydrants”, the latter an a cappella number that showcases Kater's understated vocal talents.
6. Parker Millsap- Other Arrangements
There were a lot of Americana artists who chose 2018 to stretch their electric legs, but few as successfully as Parker Millsap. The young Oklahoma singer who was nominated for an Americana Best Emerging Artist Award in 2014 for his playful acoustic lyrics that pulled equally from his religious upbringing and the nursery rhymes he learned at his mother's knee chose on Other Arrangements to take a page from Nigel Tufnel and go to 11. Millsap's blues-rock swagger on songs like “Some People” and the title track are a fairly radical departure from his past acoustic work. But songs like “Come Back When You Can't Stay”, an attempt to subtly discourage a friend with benefits looking for more, retain the playful lyrics that made him a fan favorite at a young age.
5. I'm With Her- See You Around
If Sarah Jarosz, Sara Watkins, and Aoife O'Donovan had released solo albums this year, there's a good chance they all three would have been on this list. All three women are among the best vocalists in Americana music and celebrated instrumentalists with enough awards between them to have their own room. All three have made a long career of collaboration and it pays off in spades on See You Around. All three ladies get their share of lead vocals, with the other two falling into an easy, and perfect, harmony. There hasn't been a vocal trio this flawless since Welch, Krauss, and Harris mesmerized with “Down to the River to Pray” from the O' Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack.
4. The War and Treaty- Healing Tide
Sometimes a new artist comes on the scene and it's clear that they're destined for greatness. That was what happened when Michael and Tanya Trotter, known collectively as The War and Treaty, got their big break filling in for a sick Buddy Miller at Americanafest 2017. The buzz coming out of that show, and their 2018 Miller-produced album Healing Tide, has only cemented that The War and Treaty are the future of Americana. Front to back, the album is pure kinetic energy, daring any listener to get through it without dancing. But the real magic is in the Trotters' own electric connection, which gives every song an almost taboo feeling of reading someone's private love letters.
Since 2013, Shires has either released or collaborated on my favorite album every year except one. This year she can claim two of the top 3 slots, guesting on the year's best album but also nearing the top with To the Sunset. It's a fairly radical departure for Shires, a lush, electric, and pop-tinged masterwork from an artist best known for her acoustic balladry. Shires' effects-laden fiddle and Jason Isbell's electric guitar lay down a wall of sound through which Shires weaves the best lyrics of a career already notable for its lyrical complexity.
2. Mary Gauthier- Rifles & Rosary Beads
Of the 20 albums on this year's list, none is likely to endure as timelessly as Mary Gauthier's Rifles & Rosary Beads. While plenty of songs have been written about the horrors of war, few songwriters have gone as far as Gauthier, who worked with a Nashville charity to connect with combat veterans and their spouses to tell a story of war from the inside. It's a jarring mix of patriotic pride and hopeless despair, of almost unfathomable resilience in the face of unspeakable horror and aching vulnerability in the face of the psychological toll, of a war at home that the news doesn't report and of the equally brave spouses who fight a war no one sees. With the help of Gauthier's deft pen, these stories are given life without varnish. It makes Rifles & Rosary Beads a tough album to get through at times, but one made all the more important to hear for it.
1. John Prine- Tree of Forgiveness
Even if Tree of Forgiveness had been a mediocre entry in John Prine's storied career, he would have likely made a lot of year-end lists just by virtue of being John Prine. But instead, Prine's first album of original material in 13 years is his best since 1991's Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings. All of the wit and wisdom that has been the hallmark of Prine's career is brought to bear on Tree of Forgiveness, from his gentle poke at those who constantly lament the loss of tradition on “Lonesome Friends of Science” to his ruminations on aging on “Summer's End”, to his barroom sing-along “When I Get to Heaven”. At 72, Prine sounds like he's having the time of his life, less a man capping a long and successful career than someone who is just getting warmed up for a barnburner of a third act.