Americana’s Important Albums of 2012

Photo by Marina Chavez

Which Americana albums, songs or performances seemed particularly important this year? Were there any surprises?

Those were questions CMT Edge posed to three journalists who often cover Americana music. Since it’s become the expected thing to close the chapter on a year with a list of best albums, we asked these three to take it a step further and weigh in on what caught their ears and why:

Barry Mazor: Some of the very strongest albums in the field this year were from women we don’t hear from every day — albums that proved to be varied, fresh, original in conception and featured some extraordinary singing. I’m talking about the long-brewing return of Iris DeMent, with her astonishing, emotional gospel and country epics; the coming of age and into her own of Sara Watkins via quite surprising, melodic originals that show more indie rock than bluegrass influences; the jazzy, nuanced vocal dexterity of Kelly Hogan; the deep South sardonic matter-of-factness of Chelle Rose; the happy return of everyone’s favorite star journeyman blues woman Bonnie Raitt; and the much-noted vocal directness of Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. Attention must be paid. (Mazor writes for the Wall Street Journal and Engine145.com.)

Marissa Moss: Well, however you feel about Mumford & Sons, it’s rather incredible to see an acoustic folk band sell over 600k records in its first week on the charts. Though roots music has clearly been enjoying a mainstream resurgence, it really seems that this was the year where strings and harmonies not only found a place in the venues of Brooklyn but solidly in the mainstream. This is made even more evident by the success of the Lumineers — a band on an indie label who, in 2011, were only known to a tiny fan base in their hometown of Denver and proved that the popularity of the Civil Wars wasn’t a fluke. Now “Ho Hey” is becoming nearly as sticky as “Call Me Maybe.”

Even American Idol got in on the fun with winner Phillip Phillips‘ first single “Home,” striking in its Mumford-aping melody. It says a lot that once Simon Fuller decided to stray from cheesy power ballads and move to a sound that was clearly more of the time, and both roots- and acoustic-inspired, the song became a crossover hit.

I did find it interesting, however, that few Americana albums crossed over critically into the indie rock arena (i.e. the Pitchfork world). There wasn’t a Fleet Foxes-type release that was universally and critically beloved. Alabama Shakes was probably the biggest success in that area. Instead, it really seemed that this year the roots/Americana records that were able to gain recognition from all sides of the press corps and blogosphere were the old masters: Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bonnie Raitt, Dwight Yoakam.

Though primarily rising within the niche of Americana, there are a few acts that are sure to acquire larger fan bases in 2013: Shovels & Rope had an excellent record as did Rayland Baxter, and Jason Isbell continued his 2011 success. I think the biggest surprise is that it’s no longer surprising to hear young roots artists as the soundtrack to commercials, on the radio or nominated in major Grammy categories. (Moss writes for American Songwriter, Filter, Nylon, Nashville Scene and LockelandSpringsteen.com.)

Craig Shelburne: Dwight Yoakam’s 3 Pears struck me as a cool country album. Although since it’s done incredibly well on the Americana airplay chart, I feel like it’s worth mentioning here. He’s just one of many veteran artists is still making music worth hearing. I feel like it’s important to remember and respect the ones who paved the way in country music as well as Americana.

Quite a few of my enduring favorites in the world of country music made notable albums this year — Billy Joe Shaver’s Live at Billy Bob’s Texas and Gene Watson’s Best of the Best: 25 Greatest Hits, to name a few. (Yes, these men draw on their deep catalog but these new recordings feel fresh.) Wanda Jackson’s Unfinished Business and Bonnie Raitt’s Slipstream are exceptional, too. When they sing, I believe them. That’s important.

In a few months, I’ll be inundated with dozens of new albums from unfamiliar artists. This happens every spring. Sure, I’ll get to them all eventually, but there will be times when I need to take a break and fall back into my comfort zone. The albums I mentioned above will be the ones I reach for. (Shelburne writes for CMT.com and CMTEdge.com.)