So, we all love the concept of the cohesive overall album, but sometimes you just gotta have that mixed tape playlist, especially for a road trip on the Americana Highways. Here’s mine from this year, with a few words of what’s amazing about each one of these songs. Also, with an acknowledgement that any attempt at categorization inevitably creates overlaps and deviation, these are categorized under three broadly general types. They are in no particular order, and there’s a playlist at the bottom; play it on shuffle and have a peaceful holiday season! Click on the song titles for more info. Also feel free to share your own list in the comments section!
1) Inspirational, Uplifting, Emotional:
Nathaniel Rateliff’s “Hey Mama.” Much has been said about “now” being the proverbial “day in the sun” for women in Americana. This song contributes by adding the influence of a mother on her son to the cannon. With her powerfully motivating advice to never give up, the lyrical protagonist tells him: “You ain’t gone far enough to say, at least I tried,” all over incredible build-up grooves. Plus, sax and horns. I could play this every single morning. And, maybe I do.
Cedric Burnside’s “We Made It” is the Hill Country blues, with its amazing proud lyrical autobiographical tale of making it up out of severe poverty right here in America. Burnside is multi-talented as a multi-instrumentalist and a deeply emotive lyricist, and this song will shock your sense of comfort while it simultaneously grooves your blues away. “I came from nothing.”
Lori McKenna’s “A Mother Never Rests.” Becoming a mother caused a realization that in the sea of great songs there are few that laud that experience, and there are even fewer by women. “She bit her lip and didn’t cry the day your hatchback left.” McKenna’s lyrical songwriting is moving superlative genius, and between the songcraft and her vocal delivery good luck not being a crumpled up mess of catharsis from the very first lines of this song. And loving it.
Brent Cobb’s “King of Alabama” is a glorious sidewinder of a Georgia southern rock song, as well as a heart wrenching tribute to a musician who was murdered. This song creates emotion in a very keen, southern country style. “I keep his chain in my pocket, his son in my prayers, every stage I’m on I can feel him there.”
John Prine’s “Summer’s End” is the saddest most loving song imaginable, and the video brought it all home. It’s a true masterpiece of songwriting and perfectly suited music. It’s topped so many lists this year for good reason. “You don’t have to be alone.”
Lucero’s “Among the Ghosts.” Ben Nichols’ growly voice and the band create deep emotional tension here. The tone connotes a dark macabre setting even as the song is lyrically about a slightly less sinister theme of traveling and missing home. It’s a very complex darkness and a deep lowdown vibe. “The first word she said to me was ‘good-bye’.”
2) Musical Innovation/Kickass Music:
J.D. Wilkes’ “Fire Dream.” Hands down the most incredibly innovative single musical creation this year was J.D. Wilkes’ album “Fire Dream.” Like a musical conglomeration of Foley effects, this song unfolds with creepy clicks and the brilliant line “lithe undulations in the dead of the night…” Produced by Jimbo Mathus and Bruce Watson, with Dr. Sick, and Wilkes’ southern gothic genius style, this is on nonstop rotation.
Sarah Borges’ “Get as Gone Can Get” is Borges’ duet with Eric Ambel and the fast paced, call and response vocals are as skilled as they are catchy and fun. “I was drinking whiskey, he was drinking wine.” The music rocks with the coolest licks and punctuated timings imaginable, all culminating in a wild upsurge. Also, it’s an example of how great drumming can rock you hard without that constant din of cymbals.
Ry Cooder’s “The Prodigal Son” (traditional song) has layers of music to love, layers to spiral all around and get lost within. Joachim Cooder’s offbeat drumming is a dream come true for any lover of rhythms, plus there’s a gospel overlay and some glorious pedal steel along with Ry’s virtuoso guitars and wry lyrics.
Shemekia Copeland’s “One I Love” is a kickass frenzy leading to that ultimate buildup with Will Kimbrough on guitar, Copeland’s soaring vocals and then J.D. Wilkes busting out over the top on harmonica. And it was written by Kevin Gordon, what d’ya know. Pure joy.
Austin Lucas’ “Immortal Americans.” What is it about this song with its “Sha-la-la, Ooh-la-la” crescendo that creates instant nostalgia for a high school reunion — even if you never once went back? I can’t put my finger on it but it’s addicting. And a fantastic mid-western ballad — Lucas is a master songwriter.
Tom Freund’s “Abandoning the Ship.” The music starts out as a casual frolic but before you know it, it’s drawn you in and shown you true innovation. It’ll disarm you up front but by the end resistance is futile; your head will be bopping along in the layered fractals of music with all manner of strings making unpredictable sounds. Plus — Ben Harper on high harmonies.
Ben Harper & Charlie Musselwhite’s “When I Go” opens with the sound of hushed meditative vocals seeming to ring out in a big room and you’ll be instantly quieted inside. It’s a deep bluesy song, with heart-gripping tones, a loping rhythm and fluid, solemn harmonica. This one is a therapeutic banishing of stress.
Kevin Gordon’s “Saint on a Chain” is weaving, entwining imagery of struggle, mortality, endings, loss and a tale of recovery from his mama’s death and the St. Christopher medal she gave him to protect him on dark twisted journeys: “Every river’s a daughter of a dirty rain, see how it shines … like a saint on a chain.” All of this over sustained grooves, serendipitous leads, and uncanny, attentive jams. “The angel of death has no headlight.”
Ben de la Cour’s “The High Cost of Living Strange” is a great song all around, with shuffley and bluesy gruffness, and man oh man, de la Cour can sing. There’s also a real flair in his vocal delivery’s sense of timing, and a twisted darkness in his lyrical depictions: “when they told me I was in on the ground floor, they never told me they were talking about the goddamn basement.”
Will Stewart’s “Sipsey” grows on you emotionally and is nostalgic and endearing as hell. Something about the mournful key, the pedal steel, and Stewart’s voice draws you in like a soothing elixir and keeps you coming back. “Drove all night lost and free my friend…I’d do anything to find that feeling again.”
3) Profound and Chilling Wake-Up Calls:
Alejandro Escovedo’s “Footsteps in the Shadows.” You can’t hear this song and not get powerful chills as Mexican-American-Texan Escovedo calls out directly to you: “I need you more than ever, we’re runnin’ for our lives… there’s refuge in your heartbeat.” It gets real, real fast, about the current situation and climate surrounding migrant families, immigrants, fear, walls, and people of color over heartbeat rhythms.
Gretchen Peters’ “Witchita” is a compelling, heavy sad song that tells a tale about a twelve year girl who ends her abuser’s life, with powerful music to back up the powerful theme without pussyfootin’ around it. Peters has a strong ability to weave a detailed story into a sad song that stays in your head for weeks. And that’s a good thing.
Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke.” This tackles ugly group mentality, and mob bullying, on so many levels and is another build-up, stunningly profound song– lyrically, vocally and musically. “I let them laugh while they can… let them scatter in the wind.” The joke’s on them.
Will Hoge’s “Gilded Walls.” This song is chilling and brave as it bluntly lays the current administration bare, from the Detroit water crisis, to the entitlement of inheritance, to school shootings and gun violence. “I don’t believe in the devil, but you might make me go and change my mind.” Plus Will Hoge rocks like crazy.
Listen to these and share, here: and if you made a playlist, share it in the comments!