Besa’s Best: Top “Americana” Albums of 2018 & Playlist

Reviews

Somehow, around the middle of May, I got into writing for this online publication and haven’t looked back. In doing so I’ve been able to cover some bands/artists that I love and broaden my exposure to a few others I otherwise probably wouldn’t have  discovered. It’s hard for me (and I’d assume most of us) to give you a strict list of my top albums in order, so I’ve set them into two “tiers,” with some honorable mentions at the end. BUT, there is one album I believe was the best in this genre….

….and it’s easily Amanda Shires’ To the Sunset. When it first came out I felt that this album went in a very different direction than her previous outings. After further listening I’m starting to think it’s more of the amazing storytelling and lyricism we’ve come to expect from Shires (not surprising, considering Shires received a Master’s degree in Poetry in 2017), just with a few different colors or shades mixed in. It’s what Americana can be if you learn all the rules but decide to go with your gut when the time comes. Who knew the 80’s Smiths/Cure vibe on “Take on the Dark” or the lush arrangements of “Break Out The Champagne” could mix so well with more “traditional” forms of Americana? Welcome to the shitshow.

Tier One

Lucero’s Among The Ghosts. These guys have continually held critical acclaim for their previous works, especially their first three albums. I love most of their back catalogue, but this is the first one that hooked me in from start to finish. I think front man Ben Nichols’ called it one of their darkest albums, but it may also be one of their catchiest, as I often found myself humming along to a guitar or vocal line, most often on “Everything Has Changed,” “Long Way Back Home,” “Bottom Of The Sea,” and the title track.

Murder by Death’s The Other Shore. This is a band that continually pushes themselves — always reinventing the wheel and always up for the task. The Other Shore is more proof of that. They can somehow make a “space western” album (which may seem far-fetched or just plain bizarre), yet still successfully bring you into their realm; you can and want to relate to the characters Adam Turla sings about. Good luck listening to “Atlas,” “Stone,” or “Space” without being sucked in.

Marcus King Band’s Carolina Confessions. Marcus King is in that rare realm of amazing songwriter, singer, and guitarist. Find any short video clip and you can easily tell he’s way beyond his years in terms of his singing and, obviously, his knowledge of the fretboard. This may be the one where his songwriting gets its share of the limelight, especially on tracks like “Where I’m Headed,” “Homesick,” and “Autumn Rains.”

Tier Two

The Wild Feather’s Greetings From The Neon Frontier. I’ve been hooked on these guys since their 2013 debut (which I still think is their best), and they continue to deliver. While maybe not as ambitious or consistent as the albums listed above, it’s hard to say no to a band with three principal songwriters and vocalists, and each member (including touring guitarist Brett Moore) is more than adept at their instrument. Key Tracks: “Quittin’ Time,” “Wildfire,” “Every Morning I Quit Drinkin’”

Pistol Annie’s Interstate Gospel. As you may have noticed, most of my picks are towards the rock and roll/blues/folk end of the Americana spectrum. My countrified kryptonite? This (super)group. I may slightly cringe at a phrase or two, but the songs range from playful and funny to more serious and solemn, and the three Annies excel throughout. Key Tracks: “Stop Drop and Roll One,” “Got My Name Changed Back,” “Masterpiece”

Honorable Mentions

Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’s Live At The Ryman. Look, I’ve heard enough discussion of the tracks selected on this album and the mix. Yes, I wish they chose more or different songs than are selected here. Yes, there’s a song or two where I think the mix is a little off. But it doesn’t deter from the fact that it captures Isbell and Co. in their element, and shows how they can stretch out some songs to be even better than the album versions, which is what any live album should strive for. I’m putting it under “Honorable Mentions” since I’m not sure how I feel about live albums being towards the top of a year-end list.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreaker’s An American Treasure. Like live albums, I have similar feelings for box sets. But this box set is one of the few where there are gems a plenty: from an alternate version of “Here Comes My Girl” with an amazing outro solo by Mike Campbell, to “Keeping Me Alive,” which still leaves me wondering how it never made an album, and all these amazing live cuts, outtakes, and demos that I can’t stop spinning.

Blackberry Smoke’s Find A Light. If I had to choose a few bands that carry on the Southern rock/Skynyrd/Allman Brothers torch, it would be these guys, the aforementioned Marcus King Band, or my last Honorable Mention below. Charlie Starr and co. still got it and continue to evolve (“Flesh and Bone” is one of their heaviest tracks and one of my favorites), and any guitar fanatic will feel right at home on this one.

Bishop Gunn’s Natchez. I was late to the table with these guys, and really only heard of them a few weeks ago. I’m definitely glad I did. They mix the best of soul, old school R&B, and power trio rock and roll with a heavy Southern (specifically, Muscle Shoals) influenced twist. Many cited the late Chris Cornell as one of rock’s greatest vocalists, but in a few years some may be calling singer Travis McCready as the next heir.

Here’s a 25 track playlist that includes some of the songs mentioned above:

 

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