2020 is a hellscape, but, in terms of Americana music, we’ve been blessed by abundant wealth. “Americana” is used here as a blanket term for all the American-favored, typically acoustic-based genres like folk, country, bluegrass, roots and rock. It’s just been a good year for Americana! But these last few months have been especially fruitful, so we decided to gather a few of our favorite must-hear Americana songs that have passed through our ears lately. Again, these songs might fit into other branch genres like country and folk, but they’re all apples tumbling from the same tree. Fans of country, folk and acoustic music in general: come hither and enjoy this list!
The Avett Brothers: “Victory”
The Avett Brothers recently announced that the third album in their Gleam series is on its way. The Third Gleam is out Aug. 28, and earlier this month, the band shared the first single, titled “Victory,” and an accompanying video. Scott and Seth join forces for this stripped-down folk song, whose harmonies and gentle guitar certainly harken back to The Avett Brothers’ early material, which includes The Gleam and The Second Gleam. If “Victory” is any indication of what’s to come, The Third Gleam could be some of their best work in years. —Ellen Johnson
The Chicks: “Sleep At Night”
It should come as no surprise that The Chicks are consistently resilient on their relentless fifth LP Gaslighter. The same Natalie, Martie and Emily who threatened their best friend’s cheating husband on “Goodbye Earl” are fired up on every Gaslighter song, particularly “Sleep At Night,” where Maines asks, “My husband’s girlfriends’ husband just called me / And how messed up is that? / It’s so insane that I have to laugh,” before adding, “But then I think about our two boys trying to become men / there’s nothing funny about that” and recounting the instance where her husband brought the aforementioned side piece to a Chicks show. How does he sleep at night, indeed. —Ellen Johnson
Courtney Marie Andrews: “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault”
On her new album Old Flowers, Americana singer/songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews stares heartbreak in its ugly face. However, it sounds really beautiful when she does it. On this buoyant single from the album, Andrews scrambles to avoid the pain of an old relationship, searching high and low for contributing factors beyond her own control that may have contributed to the breakdown. She says she feels like she’s gone “crazy,” “Like the women in my family usually do / We can’t seem to keep our heads on.” But, really, she just sounds like a woman running away from continued heartbreak. —Ellen Johnson
John Prine: “I Remember Everything”
Earlier this year, beloved folk legend John Prine passed away after contracting COVID-19. A livestream tribute was held for him later on, with appearances from many famous celebrities, and his estate shared his final song “I Remember Everything.” The nostalgic ballad was produced by Dave Cobb and co-written by Prine and his longtime collaborator Pat McLaughlin. Its lyrics are as beautiful as any John Prine song: “I remember everything / Things I can’t forget / The way you turned and smiled on me / On the night that we first met.” Break out the tissue box, and watch Prine performing “I Remember Everything” in a living room below. —Danielle Chelosky
Lori McKenna: “When You’re My Age”
McKenna co-wrote “When You’re My Age” with her longtime partners Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose (collectively, the trio is known as the Love Junkies), and the same goes for “Two Birds,” a sprightly and cleverly written song about a love triangle that falls apart. “When You’re My Age” is a striking piano-driven ballad built around McKenna’s hopes for her kids’ (and, someday, her grandkids’) future. It’s the kind of song that could come off as treacly in less capable hands, but McKenna imbues it with the generous tenderness of a seasoned parent: “They’ll outgrow their shoes. They’ll outgrow their beds. They’ll outgrow that house and you can’t stop it,” she sings, her voice nearly cracking with emotion. —Ben Salmon
Margo Price: “Twinkle Twinkle”
“Twinkle Twinkle” is a blaring rocker, where country singer Margo Price offers a vivid account of paying dues on her long, circuitous route to stardom. “Playin’ dives, tryin’ to stay alive / Twinkle, twinkle little star,” she sings over rowdy guitars. In that sense, Price has definitely upended expectations, by gutting her way through the disappointment, self-doubt and financial peril of a musician hoping for a break. She’s earned hers, to be sure, but her new album That’s How Rumors Get Started suggests that she’s still getting her bearings after such a tumultuous ride. —Eric R. Danton
Mary Chapin Carpenter: “American Stooge”
Veteran folk singer/songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter strapped on her boots for a new album called The Dirt And The Stars (out Aug. 7), and so far the singles have been promising. That includes “American Stooge,” a classic Americana rocker about a jaded all-American guy who can’t quite find the right avenues for his cynicism. Or, as Carpenter puts it, “‘American Stooge’ is a song dedicated to those experts in sycophancy who roam the halls of Congress and government, attaching themselves to any powerful interest that suits their need to be relevant and feeds their appetite for power.” —Ellen Johnson
Ruston Kelly: “Radio Cloud”
“Radio Cloud” is the Nashville singer/songwriter’s third single from his forthcoming album Shape & Destroy (out Aug. 28). It’s a cathartic country-folk ballad, following the release of the very Elliott Smith-influenced “Rubber” and “Brave.” The album is sure to be an enchanting, emotional masterpiece. —Danielle Chelosky
Samantha Crain: “Holding to the Edge of Night”
Choctaw-American roots singer/songwriter Samantha Crain recently released a lovely new album called A Small Death (which is a lot more hopeful than it sounds). One standout track from the record is the lo-fi “Holding to the Edge of Night,” which finds night-owl Crain questioning “What’s that silence inside me that expands into the dark?” Morning people won’t relate to this lovely tune, in which Crain describes herself as coming to life at nighttime: “And as the moon floats above her, she unfastens all the fear.” —Ellen Johnson
Taylor Swift: “invisible string”
It’s been quite a while since Taylor Swift could reasonably appear on a list about “Americana” music or any roots-based songs. But on her surprise-released wonder album folklore, she sinks comfortably back into acoustic music like falling into bed after a long, hard day (while still cranking out beautiful pop songs, too). “invisible string” is the pluckiest of them all, though, as Swift creates a lush landscape with Iron & Wine-esque acoustic guitar while Aaron Dessner offers bustling instrumentation underneath. Thematically, “invisible string” is about two people’s parallel timelines weaving in and out of each other. But it also finds Swift in a satisfied state, making peace with past relationships: “Cold was the steel of my axe to grind / For the boys who broke my heart,” she sings. “Now I send their babies presents.” Maybe time really does heal all wounds. —Ellen Johnson
The War and Treaty: “Five More Minutes”
The War and Treaty, the powerhouse married soul duo made up of Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter, will release their new album Hearts Town on Sept. 25. Lead single “Five More Minutes” is, like so many of their other songs, a hopeful and uplifting ballad about savoring every moment with a loved one. Through Michael’s eyes, it’s actually about the life-saving powers of love (sung to a groovy, piano-based beat): “After years of falling in and out of financial and mental depression, I had finally had enough,” Michael said in a statement. “I was ready to take my own life. But in my darkest moment, where I was ready right then and there to end it all, my wife Tanya asked one last thing of me: ‘Just give me five more minutes. Stay with me. Just five more minutes to love you.’ And something in her eyes, something in her hands convinced me to give her that five more minutes.” Apologies if you can’t hear the song over the sound of my sniffles. —Ellen Johnson
Originally featured @ PasteMagazine.com. Listen to the Americana Songs You Need To Know playlist @ Spotify!
The 50 Best Albums of 2020
9. Adrianne Lenker: songs
Everything Adrianne Lenker puts her name to could very well be the best thing she’s ever done. She’s best known as the frontwoman and songwriter of Brooklyn-based indie-folk band Big Thief, who released their debut album in 2016 and quickly became critical darlings, and Lenker herself became a particularly influential vocalist. When Big Thief’s tour was cut short back in March, Lenker decided to retreat to a cabin in the mountains of Western Massachusetts to record an album. Space and nature, after all, are hugely important to her work. Lenker’s last solo full-length was 2018’s abysskiss, an album where dreams can lie in pillows, wagons can carry desire and time can count us just as well as we can count it. With songs, Lenker hones in on the duality of life. Love can be pure or manipulative, intimacy can indicate separation or closeness, and pain can be soul-crushing or relieving—and all these realities still lurk beneath the surface even when one has more clearly manifested. These tracks are among Lenker’s most striking and emotionally nuanced. While it lacks the musical dynamism of abysskiss, songs’ lyrics are more potent and detailed. Much like Big Thief’s, Lenker’s music emboldens the listener to think about their mother and dig through photos from their childhood, and not out of typical sentimental longing, but a deeper, primal desire to love and be loved. —Lizzie Manno
12. Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit: Reunions
Jason Isbell isn’t the kind of guy you’d think of as haunted, but he’s surrounded by ghosts on his new album. Some of them are the literal shades of people he (or his narrators) once knew who are gone now. Others are figurative: past selves, maybe, lingering in the shadows that memory casts. Together, they’re the spirits that constitute Reunions, Isbell’s latest LP with his band The 400 Unit, and the follow-up to his 2017 release The Nashville Sound. It’s not surprising that Isbell would find himself in the company of specters. It’s a function of getting older and realizing how much you, and the world around you, have changed over time, of discovering that parts of life that once loomed large in your mind aren’t as big you seem to remember. Isbell turned 41 this year, young enough that his formative years still seem closer than they really are, and old enough for the Alabama-born singer to have discovered that taking the longer view helps ease the sting of all those hard-learned lessons that can pile up in early adulthood. That is, if you’re lucky enough to come through it with your wits intact and with enough perspective to see the journey as something more than a bumpy ride over rough terrain. Isbell has both smarts and perspective, and each seems to increase a little bit more from one album to the next. He’s always been an empathetic songwriter with a distinctive willingness to see the world from a point of view other than his own. Like any good storyteller, Isbell creates characters, and he has a storyteller’s ability to bring them to life by infusing them with enough of his own experiences, be it sobriety or fatherhood, to make their struggles and small triumphs resonate. —Eric R. Danton
23. Bob Dylan: Rough and Rowdy Ways
It’s tempting to see Rough and Rowdy Ways as one of those late-career ruminations on mortality that often seem to come from musicians of a certain age, or a full-circle accounting that reconnects Bob Dylan, now 79, with his early days as a folk singer with a socially conscious bent. On the surface, the album could be either of those things, or both: After all, he gives over nearly 17 minutes of his 39th studio LP to a single song about the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated, in 1963, when the singer was 22. Yet the idea that he’s revisiting his youth, or settling his affairs, is too simple, too predictable, for a wily contrarian like Dylan. Since when has he ever done the obvious thing? Indeed, his latest comes after three albums spent rummaging around in the American songbook, an exercise that amounted to a gracious courtesy call from a guy who knows a few things about writing songs that endure. It’s hard to say what effect, if any, burrowing into those touchstone tunes has had on his own writing. Rough and Rowdy Ways simply sounds like Dylan, at his most Dylan-esque. These 10 tracks are steeped in American history, classical symbolism and biblical imagery, to say nothing of the literary asides, pop-culture references and musical allusions, from Shakespeare and William Blake to Ginsburg, Corso and Kerouac, Indiana Jones to Altamont, Chopin to Charlie Parker to “them British bad boys, The Rolling Stones,” as Dylan puts it on opener “I Contain Multitudes.” —Eric R. Danton
27. Fleet Foxes: Shore
There are several elements that make a Fleet Foxes album great. Layered vocals, daring instrumental swells and vibrant, at times anxious, lyrics are all present throughout their catalogue, from the assured folk-pop of their 2008 self-titled debut to the magnificent existential ramblings on 2017’s Crack-Up. These signifiers are all present on their new album Shore, but the effects are much more nuanced. Fleet Foxes remain a quintessential millennial band, and, on Shore—which dropped with only a day’s warning—they’re once again tapping into the millennial psyche, this time with a little more optimism. Upon first listen, Shore lacks the immediacy of Fleet Foxes and 2011’s Helplessness Blues—at least from a sonic standpoint. But frontman Robin Pecknold’s astonishingly thoughtful lyrics quickly bring the listener back up to speed, at times recalling the grandiose scope of Crack-Up’s more cheerful moments, even if the indie-rock stylings are lagging a bit. —Ellen Johnson
34. Bonny Light Horseman: Bonny Light Horseman
If you Google “oldest known musical instrument,” you’ll find that the answer is the flute: 42,000-year-old fragments of the instrument carved from bird bone and mammoth ivory were discovered in a German cave a decade ago. But the cheekier, less scientific answer to that query is the human voice. It makes logical sense: As long as there have been humans, they’ve surely used their voices to sing. In other words, it’s not just the material that’s timeless on the new self-titled album from folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman. It’s the voices—of decorated singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell and Fruit Bats leader Eric D. Johnson, especially—that make Bonny Light Horseman more than just another rehash of traditional songs. The trio, which also includes multi-instrumentalist Josh Kaufman (The National, Josh Ritter), came together during two 2018 festivals connected to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron Dessner—Eaux Claires in Wisconsin and the 37d03d Festival in Berlin. There, Mitchell, Johnson and Kaufman zeroed in on their goal: to give ancient songs a contemporary twist, and to surround the timeless feelings expressed in those songs with drop-dead gorgeous string and vocal arrangements. —Ben Salmon
Full list @ PasteMagazine.com.
PasteMagazine.com provides in-depth coverage of music, books and comics as well as topics like TV, movies, games, comedy, politics and craft beer. From the best albums to stream each week to the latest Game of Thrones recap to the 50 best horror novels of all time, the site covers all your pop-culture needs. You can also watch live-streams of bands performing every day in the Paste Studio in New York at the Paste YouTube channel or directly at PasteMagazine.com, or stream the entire Daytrotter archive.
More recent posts include:
Photo Credits: (1) Courtney Marie Andrews, (2) John Prine, (3) Ruston Kelly, (4) Jason Isbell, (5) Joni Mitchell (unknown/website).