In 2016, the line between country and Americana (as well as folk and alt-country) felt blurrier than ever. That's not a bad thing, though, because it's given artists the freedom to see possibilities, not boundaries, and led to some of the most vibrant, insightful songwriting of the year.
More importantly, these once-under-the-radar genres have also never felt more embraced by mainstream audiences. Whether it's because of high-profile festival gigs and opening slots, late-night TV appearances or simply constant touring, Americana, folk and alt-country artists are enjoying unparalleled commercial success and critical acclaim.
Below are The Boot's picks for the Top 10 Americana, alt-country and folk songs of 2016.
Sons of Fathers co-founder Cauthen released one of the most interesting, under-the-radar debut albums of 2016, My Gospel. For a good taste of the album's vibe, start with "Still Drivin'," a loping strut with desolate honky-tonk and blues vibes. Cauthen is an expressive vocalist who keeps his rumbling baritone stoic when needed, but he also isn't afraid to exaggerate syllables and lines for emphasis; in other words, when he talks about resilience and forward motion, you know he's determined to head through life with his levity and sense of humor intact.
Shovels & Rope's Little Seeds was a sleeper record that addressed life's vicissitudes — everything from parenthood to dealing with Alzheimer's disease — with grace and vulnerability. If the album has a theme song, however, it might be "This Ride," which refers to life's complex twists and turns: "It hurts and it scars and it aches and it twists / It stalls and it laughs and it balls up its fists," Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent sing around each other, their voices twisting like braided hair, as subtle handclaps and acoustic guitar add color.
Shires' "Harmless" starts off nearly a cappella, with her setting the scene of an important conversation, with "your eyes a shade of wonder / Like if thunder had a color." As the song progresses — and brushed percussion and watercolor guitars chime in underneath her — Shires' voice stays strong and prominent in the mix. In an even tone, and with resignation, she ponders what could have been — until the bridge, when her voice gathers up strength and a sturdy warble, and she ends the song satisfied with (and a little sad about) ambiguity.
What do you get when you cross Buddy Holly with the Everly Brothers? Minneapolis duo the Cactus Blossoms, whose "Stoplight Kisses" is an easygoing, 1950s rock 'n' roll throwback. Co-conspirators Jack Torrey and Page Burkum harmonize with delightful precision, and exacerbate their vintage country-blues vibe with guitar licks curled by a twangy edge. And the song's sweet, chaste theme — sneaking a peck or two while waiting for a light to change — amplifies the romance of car culture: "The rhythm of the traffic sounds like magic / We can make a melody."
Young in All the Wrong Ways might be the finest solo album yet from fiddler and Nickel Creek co-founder Sara Watkins. Exhibit A: "Move Me," a song about yearning to feel and experience things beyond the same worn emotional path. Watkins matches this theme with an urgent, desperate vocal delivery that's forceful and confident: She knows what she wants from someone else, and she isn't afraid to ask for it. Tasteful organ and angsty guitars lurk in the background, but never overpower Watkins' voice.
Houston-based songwriter Ellis has slowly but surely made a name for himself in the last half-decade, thanks to unsparing, evocative songwriting inspired by everything from jazz to honky-tonk. The tense, string-adorned "California" ranks among his best work: Although he's said that the song was inspired by his divorce, the main character is a woman looking to start over.
“In the past, my writing was more fatalistic … now, I’m trying to inject a little hope," Ellis tells Noisey. "The woman in "California" has just gone through something very tough, but now she’s thinking about all the possibilities of where her life can go. Her life has opened up.”
Raitt pulls no punches on this politically driven song: "You say it's workin', it's tricklin' down," she sings, sandpaper-grit on her voice, to start the second verse. "Yeah, there's that trick, 'cause the jobs ain't around." From there, it's more pointed condemnations of election buzzwords and empty promises — all paired with hot-rodding blues guitars infused with jolts of electric boogie and slippery grooves.
Loveless' 2016 album Real continued the momentum that she started gaining after the release of 2014's Somewhere Else. The gritty, slow-burning "Longer" describes deep ambivalence of place — hating where you are, but not sure where else to go — and the feeling of loss associated with romantic separation. Loveless sounds both tough as nails and world weary as she sings about needing to "get a clue" with a melancholic twang in her voice.
Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth is racking up Grammy Awards nominations and year-end accolades partly because of songs such as "Brace for Impact (Live a Little)." The tune has a heavier, bluesier feel, courtesy of smoky organ and guitars with bar-band grit. Simpson's vocal delivery, meanwhile, is bolder and more confident: He's a clenched-jaw cowboy meditating on death — and, eventually, making the most of life while you are alive.
For two decades, the Drive-By Truckers have been writing about life in the American South, with an eye toward chronicling the complexities of the region's history and culture. Although the band's written dozens of insightful songs, "Surrender Under Protest" might be one of its best yet. Musically, the Mike Cooley-penned song sounds like Neil Young fronting a punk band, with its storms of raging guitars and surging rhythms. Lyrically, the song — which was inspired by the battle over the Confederate flag remaining on display in South Carolina, in the wake of Dylann Roof allegedly murdering nine African-American churchgoers — is an incisive, biting look at the cost of maintaining tradition. In a year where disagreement and discontent reigned, "Surrender Under Protest" captures the boiling-over emotions that arise when people change (or make) history.