Folkadelphia's Fred Knittel Runs Down the Top Ten Americana Releases of 2014
Featuring Sturgill Simpson, Lydia Loveless, Dom Flemons, and more.
Photo of Dom Flemons by Fred Knittel
Folk music thrives on its rich history and traditions perhaps more so than any other style. The past is very much alive and breathing in the present, and acts on musical genesis in different ways. It can prove to be a touchstone, a guiding light, a foundation to build upon, a mirror, and sometimes a common enemy to rally against. At its best, the past becomes a way to move forward, to be used as a template or tool to create a future folk music of new visions and sounds. At its worst, the past becomes a crutch, a safety net, and a stagnant pool musicians are constantly dredging from and rehashing.
Unfortunately, most released music exists firmly in the latter camp, and in the Age of Streaming, where pretty much all of mankind's recorded musical works— from the invention of the Edison cylinder to this very second—are available for the cost of an internet-enabled device and connectivity (less if you steal your neighbor's Wi-Fi), this toothless musical retread of Folk's past raises the noise floor. It clouds the discovery of artists that are taking risks, and those who are releasing truly interesting and inspirational albums. As a radio programmer, I spent the year sifting through the endless barrage of albums, and have distilled it all down into a handful that I find past-influenced as well as forward-thinking. Here's what rose above the noise.
Sam Amidon - Lily-O
The Gloaming - The GloamingNot only is The Gloaming's eponymous record my personal favorite release of the year, but it might also be the most creative and interesting. The Gloaming is something of a supergroup featuring five celebrated Irish, folk, and classical musicians. Together the team finds a fresh form of expression by exploring the combination of contemporary classical-influenced compositions and the rich traditions of Irish poetry, jigs, reels, and marches. Listen while you read this track-by-track look at the album.
Lydia Loveless - Somewhere ElseMy favorite artist to successfully cover a Ke$ha song (no joke). Truly though, Loveless's Somewhere Else kicks my ass with each spin. Whiskey-drenched, wine-drunk, and devoid of giving a shit about what you think, Somewhere Else is a brash and fast listen. It also has some of the most emotional, tender, and human moments of any record released this year. You've heard outlaw country and you've heard no-holds-barred punk rock, now hear Lydia Loveless.
Dom Flemons - Prospect Hill and Leyla McCalla - Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston HughesThe Music Maker Relief Foundation celebrated twenty years of working to preserve "the musical traditions of the South by directly supporting the musicians who make it, ensuring their voices will not be silenced by poverty and time." Two artists they supported this year, Dom Flemons and Leyla McCalla also both happen to have been part of old-time string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops. On Prospect Hill, Dom fully embodies the spirit of the Songster while striking out on his own stylistic path. It's an impressive and vital contemporary folk release. Leyla released Vari-Colored Songs: A Tribute to Langston Hughes, an apt description for the diverse music held within. Drawing from her Haitian heritage, Langston Hughes poetry, Cajun influences, classical cello training, and American roots (and really, so much more), Leyla actively forges new folk traditions from the melding together of the old and the disparate.
Sturgill Simpson - Metamodern Sounds in Country MusicSturgill's Metamodern Sounds in Country Music is one of the big success stories of the year. Who would have thought that a twangy country-rock record would appeal to not only those inside the modern country scene, but to the rock and pop populace? It's partially because Simpson follows in the lineage of legendary badasses like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. It's also because he sidesteps a lot of the common contemporary country lyrical themes (something like love, loss, beer, America, etc.) There's also something unique to Sturgill, a self-awareness, that pushes this sound to new heights.
Tom Brosseau - Grass Punks
After laying fallow for five years and pursuing other musical projects like performing with John Reilly and Lavender Diamond's Becky Stark, North Dakotan singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau returned to the fold this year with a new album. Grass Punks is an album without the maximalist tendencies or dramatic flourishes used by other current troubadours. Space, dynamism, and sparseness allow Tom immense storytelling gift to come to the forefront. We won't have to wait another five years for another release—a new album, Perfect Abandon, comes out in February.
The Haden Triplets - The Haden Triplets
Working with Ry Cooder, Petra, Tanya, and Rachel Haden (you know, daughters of late bassist Charlie Haden and nearly omnipresent musical forces in their own right) released a collection of songs steeped in Americana tradition and history. I imagine this is how it felt in the era of the Carter Family; heck, they even cover the Carter Family's "Single Girl, Married Girl." Perhaps only the specialness of musical families and siblings can breathe renewed life into this kind of constantly reused source material.
If you liked what you heard, catch Folkadelphia on Philadelphia’s WXPN 88.5 each Wednesday from 10-11 PM EST and every Tuesday morning 7-9 AM EST on online and on WKDU Philadelphia 91.7 FM. Check out the Folkadelphia Sessions, too—the Chelsea Wolfe and Angel Olson recordings are especially lovely.
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