Last week the Americana Music Association released its year-end list of songs that got the most airplay on Americana radio, and in the next few weeks No Depression and other like-minded music websites and mags will publish their own music polls. If I were a betting man, I’d lay down a few hundred dollar bills that there’ll be little variation or surprises between them. Ever since the term roots music has morphed into a more definable mainstream “Americana” tagline, diversity has seemed to have left the building. While you won’t get much disagreement from me on the quality of music on AMA’s list since virtually all of the artists are located somewhere in my digital jukebox, it seems that lately I find myself taking the road less traveled.
Every year I designate much of my listening time on studying music from the past, and this year I dipped deeply into the catalogs of Norman Blake, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, The Delmore Brothers, Doc Watson, and a lot of jazz: Lucky Millinder, Chick Webb, and several anthologies from the 1920s and ‘30s culled from lost and found 78s. For a few weeks this summer I blasted through the box set This is Reggae Music: Golden Era, which covers only 15 years beginning with 1960, and breaks it down into mento, rocksteady, ska, R&B, early reggae and the birth of roots. Good stuff.
As for albums released in 2016, I’ve come up with a short list of my own favorites that somehow have failed to make the “official” Americana chart, and consequently may be missed in this endless parade of polls and lists that’ll stalk the internet with killer click bait titles. I’m choosing to call it Un-Americana … and that’s a name and a genre descriptor that just might stick.
The Handsome Family – Unseen
“Unseen finds Brett and Rennie Sparks two years after an unexpected spike in popularity due to True Detective fame, while simultaneously finding the duo displaying an outward reverence for the genre and subsequent fan base that has bolstered them to alt-folk antiheroes … one would be hard-pressed to find more true-blue progenitors of the darker side of American music who are still working hard to get you to question a bump in the night.” Jake Tully/Elmore Magazine
Jack and Amanda Palmer – You Got Me Singing
“Amanda Palmer has long been divisive – dedicating poems to bombing suspects, dressing up like a conjoined twin, doing things that make outraged thinkpiece writers jiggle with glee. Her latest album, however, a collection of folk, blues, country, and contemporary covers with her once-estranged 72-year-old dad, Jack, strikes the right chord.” Kate Hutchinson/The Guardian
Marissa Nadler – Strangers
“Marissa Nadler, the galaxy-gazer of American somni-folk, is not of this world. She is an extraterrestrial unloved, a wanderer nonplussed, an inhabitant of a realm that aligns dissonance with wonderment. She is ethereal, moody, and dark like early morning, and with Strangers, Nadler’s seventh full-length album, our indelicate eyes are able to adjust to her clear, clairvoyant lens.” Cassidy McCranney/Slug Magazine
Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms – Innocent Road
“On their new album Innocent Road, Caleb Klauder and Reeb Willms stake a claim as two of the finest traditional musicians in America. Their sound is a throwback to the heyday of rural American dance-hall music.” Jerad Walker, NPR Music
Tom Brosseau – North Dakota Impressions
“Tom Brosseau’s unique tenor is instantly recognizable, and it imbues his songs with a palpable feeling of loss, regret and nostalgia. His phrasing, the emotional quiver in his voice and the bare-bones production evoke the feeling of a late-night, working-class living room with friends sharing their most intimate secrets.” j. poet/Magnet
Kaia Kater – Nine Pin
“The banjo’s recent return to favor has seen the likes of Otis Taylor and Rhiannon Giddens reclaim the instrument as part of African America’s musical roots. Twenty-three-year-old Kaia Kater from Québec studied mountain music in West Virginia and writes songs from the here and now. Her second album manages to triangulate bluegrass, Nina Simone, and Toni Morrison.” Neil Spencer/The Guardian
Dori Freeman – Self-titled
“For the love of God just let the songs speak out and choose their own path, and that’s what happens in this self-titled release. The sentiments are so naked and pure, and as potent to stirring the spirit as the smell of a baby’s head that it awakens more than just an appreciation for music, it awakens an appreciation for life.” Trigger Coroneos/Saving Country Music
Freakwater – Scheherazade
“The darkly austere alt-country group Freakwater has kept their simple, gothic sound consistent through the years, but on their eighth album they overhaul it almost completely. It’s their most cinematic album yet, with the music functioning almost as a soundtrack to their short, violent songs.” Stephen M. Deusner/Pitchfork