It was a banner year for Americana artists, and especially gratifying to see some who have been grinding it out for years finally getting some mainstream recognition. Although young artists still command the attention of most critics, the abundance of fantastic records by noteworthy veterans was an encouraging sign that great music is everywhere if you’re willing to do a little digging. Here are 10 albums I reviewed that stunned me this year, and can hopefully provide some inspiration for your own explorations.
Jolie Holland – Haunted Mountain (Cinquefoil Records)
Fans of Vancouver’s The Be Good Tanyas (and the various solo careers the group spawned), should be keenly interested in this latest effort from founding member Jolie Holland, her first collection since the 2017 collaboration with fellow former Tanya, Samantha Parton. Having spent much of her career based variously in San Francisco, Austin, and New Orleans, Jolie has always existed on the cutting edge of experimental Americana, and the nine-track Haunted Mountain finds her back in top form, drawing from her itinerant lifestyle to conjure a sense of total freedom. That’s certainly the spirit of one of the album’s highlights, “Highway 72,” a song that could have just as easily been written in 1923 as 2023. The difference between Jolie’s songwriting approach as opposed to peers like Gillian Welch is that there’s never any question of its purity. As Jolie sings in the title track, “All of my life I’ve been a rounder,” and that indeed is true. And although it may be a stretch to say Jolie is Americana’s Billie Holliday, there’s a good case to be made after hearing the sparse “Orange Blossoms,” on which Jolie’s voice weaves its way through a dark forest of emotions, emerging at the end scarred but smarter.
Margo Price – Strays II (Loma Vista)
It’s truly fascinating—and heartening—how so many progressive Americana artists are playing with the traditional album format. When Margo Price released Strays at the start of 2023, much was made of the influence of hallucinogens on her songwriting, and more specifically how it added new twists to what could have been just another homage to the 1970s El Lay sound. Fans of Strays should therefore be excited by its sequel, nine new tracks separated into three, three-track “Acts.” The first, subtitled “Topanga Canyon,” is a blast of more of those sunny, SoCal vibes, with the songs “Strays” and “Malibu” conjuring images of hitting the highway with the top down and Tom Petty on the radio. Of course, the presence of Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell adds a lot to that, although he makes his mark more prominently on “Unoriginal Sin,” part of Act II: Mind Travel, which sees Margo firmly veering off on a more experimental path. Her journey reaches its apogee on Act III, which begins with the Beatles-esque “Homesick” before shifting to the breezy country of “Where Did We Go Wrong” and culminating with the spooky, Stevie Nicks-ish “Burn Whatever’s Left,” on which she pleads, “Make me believe in magic again.” We might not be able to do that, but Margo Price has certainly made us believe in the creative possibilities of country music again.
Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit – Weathervanes (Southeastern)
As American roots and country music has fought to become more inclusive over the past few years, Jason Isbell has certainly been leading the charge, being among the few to call out right-wing Nashville hypocrisy and publicly support new voices such as Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and others. In part, it’s a result of a lot of personal growth he’s experienced after dealing with his addictions, and with that now seemingly behind him, Jason has emerged as one of the most consistently heart-wrenching lyricists of his generation. That’s on display out of the gate on Weathervanes with “Death Wish,” a cry from the heart from a man dealing with a woman on the brink of losing everything. Another pseudo-intervention occurs on “When We Were Close,” a song about watching helplessly as a friend slips away into the void. The depth of Jason’s storytelling is stunning overall, but what makes Weathervanes one of his greatest triumphs is the The 400 Unit’s performances, captured in a warm production that demands repeated listening.
Cowboy Junkies – Such Ferocious Beauty (Latent Recordings)
It seems odd to say, but lately I see Cowboy Junkies almost like AC/DC — bands that found a unique sound at the outset of their careers and haven’t felt any compulsion to alter it. Of course, in Cowboy Junkies’ case, that sound is built upon the highly sophisticated songwriting of guitarist Michael Timmins, and how his words are conveyed by sister Margo. While their creative relationship has encompassed varying degrees of darkness and light over the years, digging into a new Cowboy Junkies album now comes with a weight of expectation often reserved for the publication of a new novel by, say, Cormac McCarthy (RIP). Such Ferocious Beauty is no different, and even after the first listen it can easily hold a place on the darker end of the spectrum of the group’s body of work. Opening track “What I Lost” sets the tone with a narrator who could be viewed as having dementia, trying to hang on to rapidly fading memories. As songs like “Knives” and “Throw A Match” further play out this theme, it’s hard not to feel a palpable sense of Michael’s fatalism, even though it’s been present since they were doing Robert Johnson and Lighting Hopkins covers. The problem is that it’s almost impossible for anyone not to be fatalistic these days, and the album drives that point home in the most direct way with “Hell Is Real,” a song Johnny Cash would have surely covered if he were still around. And although the title of closing track “Blue Skies” might suggest a sense of hope, it is a hope that will forever remain just out of reach. Such Ferocious Beauty is not easy listening, but those of us who have accompanied Cowboy Junkies on every step of their incredible journey for the past 35 years wouldn’t have it any other way.
Chris Stapleton – Higher (Mercury Nashville)
Since its emergence as a predominantly rural form of music, country has been in a perpetual identity crisis. Artists within the genre who seek mass acceptance have always been forced to adapt and experiment, leading to country’s reinvention every 10 years or so. Historians are likely to point to the 2010s as one of those periods, when country ultimately usurped rock and roll as the soundtrack to the lives of a large portion of North Americans. Chris Stapleton was there leading the charge with his Grammy-winning debut, Traveller, an album that seamlessly blended the songcraft of Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson with the fire of southern rock, all tied together with Chris’ powerfully soulful voice. Surprisingly, he kept things fairly low-key with a trio of follow-up releases that clearly emphasized his art rather than his brand, a move that strengthened the notion that Chris and peers, Sturgill Simpson and Jason Isbell, were truly committed to changing Nashville’s culture. On Higher, Chris continues to impress with his musical range; in some ways, the 14-song collection sounds as if it were a classic ‘70s Al Green-Willie Mitchell collaboration, although the first single, “White Horse,” still proves Chris can summon the spirit of Ronnie Van Zant better than anyone. Alternating between these two worlds is Chris’ greatest strength, and the sound he’s achieved in the studio with his longtime producer, Dave Cobb, and wife/musical partner, Morgane Stapleton, is designed for close listening rather than stadium chants. In this sense, Chris may be the true heir to George Jones, as the combination of his voice with emotionally charged songs such as “The Bottom” and “The Day I Die” captures the true essence of country music as one of the purest forms of artistic expression.
Great Lake Swimmers – Uncertain Country (Harbour Songs)
On their first album since 2018’s The Waves, The Wake, Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers sound more confident musically than they ever have. Conversely, the band’s creative centre, Tony Dekker, seems preoccupied with questions none of us have been able to answer over the past five years. On “When The Storm Has Passed,” Tony sings, “Things are changing, maybe for good, I would hold on if I could.” It’s a powerful statement within a song that advocates for reconnecting with the natural world, although the tension generated between that uncertainty and the fuzzy folk-rock that drives this song—as well as the expansive opening title track—makes for some of the most exciting sounds the band has ever put on record. Other standouts, such as “Swimming Like Flying” and “Flight Paths” nod to classic Radiohead, while “Moonlight, Stay Above” and closer “Am I Floating In The Air” stay true to Tony’s almost orchestral approach to folk with choirs and strings. But what makes any Great Lake Swimmers project emotionally resonant is a connection to something we can’t experience living in the city. After our lockdown years, it’s time to have that experience again, and Uncertain Country offers a map to find it.
Robert Finley – Black Bayou (Easy Eye Sound)
The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach has been doing admirable work with his Nashville-based studio and record label to shine the spotlight on some underappreciated artists, with arguably his most successful reclamation project being Louisiana-born blues singer Robert Finley. Black Bayou is their third collaboration since 2017, and another big step toward Robert transcending the blues genre. Of course, a lot of that has to do with Dan’s trademark production style, which helped launch The Black Keys to international superstar status, but it’s perfectly suited to Robert’s songwriting approach, which on Black Bayou doesn’t take itself as seriously as on previous records. That playfulness is palpable on “Sneakin’ Around,” (which echoes the classic Otis Redding/Carla Thomas duet “Tramp”) and the down-and-dirty “Miss Kitty.” Overall, each track on Black Bayou is built upon an unshakeable groove, with Jeffery Clemens and Dan’s Black Keys partner Patrick Carney sharing drum duties. Matched with Dan and Kenny Brown’s interwoven guitars, the effect is truly swampy, making closing track, “Alligator Bait,” a humorous childhood reminiscence, an entirely appropriate ending.
Glen Hansard – All That Was East Is West Of Me Now (Anti- Records)
Although not exactly a household name in North America, Glen Hansard has still had the kind of career most singer-songwriters dream of, having figured out how to blur the lines between music, film and the stage. It’s allowed the Dublin-born artist to form some unlikely alliances, from Eddie Vedder to Ed Sheeran, while never wavering from his aspirations to match the work of his “holy trinity”—Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Leonard Cohen. It’s easy to view Glen’s work through that lens, but like some of his Dublin predecessors (Bono, Sinead, The Waterboys’ Mike Scott), he’s followed the pattern of making music intended to inspire listeners to overcome life’s greatest obstacles. On his fifth album, Glen seems intent on using extremes to get that message across, opening with a barrage of distorted guitars on “The Feast Of St. John” and “Down On Our Knees,” before settling into the dark romanticism of “Sure As The Rain” and “Between Us There Is Music.” The quieter shift causes the pace to drag slightly, but the soaring “Short Life” brings the album to a satisfying conclusion before it overstays its welcome. Glen Hansard writes the kind of earnest, intense songs few people seem to have the capacity to do much these days, and All That Was East Is West Of Me Now is arguably his most complete solo collection to date.
Lydia Loveless – Nothing’s Gonna Stand In My Way Again (Bloodshot Records)
Since she escaped her rural Ohio town as a teenager in the mid-oughts, Lydia Loveless has consistently delivered uncompromising roots rock albums that seamlessly blend country and power pop. Although she’s often been overshadowed by peers like Neko Case, it’s fair to say that aspects of Lydia’s six-album body of work can be heard in the current generation of female singer-songwriters such as Phoebe Bridgers and Julian Baker. Now with Nothing’s Gonna Stand In My Way Again, it feels as if Lydia is pushing in all her chips, from the title and provocative cover photo on down. The songs—fueled by a relationship breakdown—certainly back up that assertion. In particular, “Sex And Money” and “Toothache” burn with the anxiety and frustration so many artists face in their 30s, the time when they’ve found their voice but can’t expand their audience without making concessions. The answer lays in staying true to the craft, which is precisely what Lydia does, resulting in nearly every song on Nothing’s Gonna Stand In My Way Again containing instantly memorable melodies and lyrics that cut deep without becoming maudlin. Her best record to date.
Buddy & Julie Miller – In The Throes (New West)
Although they’ve been married since 1981, In The Throes marks only the fifth album Americana stalwarts Buddy and Julie Miller have made together, a cause for some sort of celebration. The combination of Julie’s unflinching songwriting and Buddy’s instrumental and production prowess remains as powerful as ever; no matter which of them is singing lead, the depth of emotion within the performances is often overwhelming. That’s particularly evident on the lament “The Last Bridge You Will Cross,” “Tattooed Tear” and “Don’t Make Her Cry,” the last inspired by a story Bob Dylan told about what the father of one of his gospel-era backup singers said to him before they headed out on tour. Of course, its inevitable that any new project by the Millers will be compared to the great records Richard and Linda Thompson made, but by this point, their body of work stands tall on its own. This is music made by people who continue to experience almost everything life can throw at them, and they still manage to find beauty in it.