The selection of always the most difficult for our So Far list, and 2016 is no exception. The artists in the Roots community continually raise the bar for quality as they redefine the traditions in Country, Folk, Bluegrass. Americana, Blues, and Rock. The Top 50 So Far list is broken into two parts. Take a moment and go back to the music released in January, February, March, April, May, and June as we offer the music of 2016 with our Top 50 So Far lists of the best in American Roots music.
26 Tommy Womack (from the album Namaste) (5-20-16) - Tommy Womack is a chameleon through his various musical projects, saving the heart of his stories for solo outings as he presents a life lived on Namaste, his recent album release. Tommy Womack says hello to the world with the ancient Sanskrit greeting, Namaste, as he addresses citizenship in his own world, chronicling life with a happy joy based in the realization that, against all odds, he has made it to 2016.
27 Brad Armstrong (from the album Empire) (1-15-16) - Brad Armstrong experiments with sounds on Empire, his latest solo release. The album experiments Roots music, melodically moving in the darker shades as the music rolls and tumble under the stories of Brad Armstrong. Empire strikes chords mostly played from the hand of Brad Armstrong, with Maria Taylor (Azure Ray, solo) backing on harmonies, and Jason Lucia (13Ghosts, Deadstring Brothers) on drums. Empire brings Jason back together with former bandmate in 13Ghosts, Brad Armstrong.
28 The Monkees (from the album Good Times) (5-27-16) - Not that long ago I would have said The Monkees were a guilty pleasure. The band’s recent release, Good Times, moves aside any guilt to proudly get in line as a fan. Good Times is the album that The Monkees have put together to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary as a band. The three surviving members, Mike Nesmith, Mickey Dolenz, and Peter Tork, put playing and vocals into the album. The tracks that line Good Times are a mix of band originals added into the template that worked on The Monkees early albums of tunes written specifically for the group.
29 The Lumineers (from the album Cleopatra) (4-8-16) - The Lumineers became a Roots music success story with the mega-hit status of their tune “Ho Hey” and healthy chart presence for the following singles. Roots music was in the mainstream, giving The Lumineers a unique position in the Roots music community with a million selling album. Handling success is as much of a challenge as somehow finding the path that gets you there. Cleopatra, the latest release from The Lumineers, stays true to the Roots and Americana that the Denver- Colorado-based trio has honed. The songs were carefully grown and trimmed down to bare essentials, allowing the emotional beauty of the tracks to hold center stage in the words and music. The piano work of Jeremiah Fraites, how also holds down the role of drummer, has a strong presence on Cleopatra. Jeremiah is co-songwriter for The Lumineers, joining music to the words of lead vocalist/guitarist Wesley Schultz. The pair complete the band circle with cellist/vocalist Neyla Pekarek.
30 Sarah Jarosz (from the album Undercurrent (6-17-16) - An album should be a reflection of its artists life in the songs. Sarah Jarosz went into the studio to record Undercurrent with a blank canvas of future. The recording is her fourth release for Sugar Hill Records, and the first since her move to New York City after graduating from New England Conservatory of Music. The album is a time capsule, and like maky of our own lives, takes one step forward, one step back, one step forward in its dance of life. Sarah is satisfied with the flow of Undercurrent, seeing the album as ‘this is the first record I've made since being out on my own and experiencing a lot of changes, and I think that that's reflected in the songs. It's also the first record I've ever made that feels to me like a complete thought, with a beginning, a middle and an ending. It's also the first time I've made an album that doesn't have any covers on it. I wanted it to feel like the rollercoaster ride that is life, so I put a lot of thought into sequencing the songs. It was important for me to start with light, and then go through darker times, and stubbornness and strength and weakness, and then end up on a hopeful note’.
31 Carter Sampson (from the album Wilder Side) (1-12-16) - The words of Carter Sampson are sharp, scenes clear and characters that seem very familiar to those walking between the devils and angels hanging out on your own shoulders. She delivers her tales on the soft roll of Tulsa rhythms on her recent release, Wilder Side. Carter Sampson asks for “Holy Mother” to keep an eye out as ‘me and the girls are going out on the town’, asking for help from above to make sure they do not ‘go home with a guitar man, or anyone else in the band’. Carter Sampson has a knack for penning her words as mirrors, allowing the truths of her life as support within the lives of listeners, particularly those for whom the road is not an option but a default.
32 The Waco Brothers (from the album Going Down in History) (2-26-16) - The Waco Brothers play Country music. The venues suitable for touring behind their most recent release, Going Down in History, offer a wider than net than more traditional Country outlets as The Wacos comfortably plug into clubs catering to fans from punks to posers. While their mix of Country and Punk Rock might not seem really revolutionary in 2016, The Waco Brothers have been knocking back shots of their own branded Alt Country for twenty years, and were among the first bands to proudly grab a stool at the bar between Cash and Clash. Going Down in History crackles with intensity, playing that lets you feel the heat from the amps and every drumbeat/bass thump deep inside your chest. The playing is primal, but never feral. The Waco Brothers are gentlemen gamblers as they deal rock’n’roll from the bottom of a Country deck, slapping smirks and guitar chords down as winning hand.
33 Beth Lee and the Break-Ups (from the album Keep Your Mouth Shut) (5-5-16) - Beth Lee bites bullets on Keep Your Mouth Shut, firing a tease with teeth into the album. Her pen is dipped in done-wrong ink as The Breakups back tales of treachery with rock’n’rolling Country. She manages to be both worldly and wide-eyed in her characters. Beth Lee is a seductress with a snarl as she draws love into her flame far enough to leave a mark as she steps on the hearts trailing her around.
34 The Adam Ezra Group (from the album Songs for a Movie) (5-22-16) - Rhythms rule on Songs for a Movie, the most recent release from The Adam Ezra Group. The album separates from the past for The Group with the use of beats as well as a depth to the story telling and a more intuitive playing from the band, born from touring travel and road performances. While the tracks do not run under any specific films, the tunes open curtains on individual vignettes within the production.
35 Amelia White (from the album Home Sweet Hotel) (2-5-16) - Amelia White unlocks the door and checks into Home Sweet Hotel for her most recent album release. Write what you know might be one of the lessons taught for songwriters taking courses on story content for their tunes. The results are songs about life, taking aim at its loves and losers with words of advice based in experience and observation. Like it sounds, those ideals are text book versions of the singer/songwriter lifestyle. The reality for the traveling troubadour is that lovers at home stay in your heart but the beds that wait for you after a show are empty. Amelia White writes what she lives on Home Sweet Hotel. The tunes on Home Sweet Hotel do not take sides; they are extensions of the issues that roll around in the mind of Amelia White.
36 Hard Working Americans (from the album Rest in Chaos) (5-13-16) - Dedication to the art of a song plays a major role as Hard Working Americans are on-the-job in their second album release, Rest in Chaos. Hard Working Americans bring together musicians whose careers precede them as songwriter/author/ Todd Snider stands behind the microphone with Dave Schools (Widespread Panic) on bass, and behind the boards as producer. Neal Casal (Chris Robinson Band) is on guitar with additional work on electric and pedal steel guitars from Jess Aycock, Chris Stahley (Great American Taxi) handles keyboards, and Duane Trucks sits behind the drums.
37 Sultans of String (from the album Subcontinental Drift) (2-5-16) - Sultans of String offer ragas, reels, and rhumbas in a joyful celebration of song as Subcontinental Drift. The Canadian-based band brings in sitar master Anwar Kurshid, creating a bridge for world rhythms to cross freely. The Sultans Chris McKhool (bandleader/violinist) felt that ‘there is something magical about joining the world music rhythms we play, but with pop sensibilities and forms and lengths, and blending that with the music of the East’. When Chris heard the rumba rhythms in the guitar work of Kevin Laliberté, the Sultans of String were born. Traveling as a duo and band, the group has garnered Juno nominations and Canadian Folk awards with Chris McKhool receiving the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his work in creating community through music.
38 Rebekah Long (from the album Here I Am) (5-20-16) - One listen to Here I Am, the recent release from Rebekah Long, gives a fast track understanding of her love of Bluegrass and the ability to put that passion into her playing. For any non-believers, she has credentials in the form of a BA in Bluegrass and Music Education garnered from her 2002 studies at the Glenville State College Bluegrass Certificate Program. The title track for Here I Am is authored by the album’s producer, Donna Ulisse, who joins husband/bandmate Rick Stanley and Rebekah as co-writer for many of the cuts included on the release. The LUK Records release keeps Rebekah Long’s co-writers with her at the microphone as Donna and Rick lend vocals, backed by an A-list cast of players, including IBMA banjo player of the year, Scott Vestal, five-time IBMA bass player of the year, Mike Bub, and two-time IBMA mandolin player of the year, Jesse Brock.
39 The Cactus Blossoms (from the album You’re Dreaming) (1-22-16) - The Vintage Sound of The Cactus Blossoms provides effects like those ideally presented by a cup of chamomile, a meditative journey inward or an Indica hit of Girl Scout Cookies. Sonically, You’re Dreaming, settles you on a massive audio cloud that tumbles and rolls as it covers the album, successfully capturing analog warmth in a digital world under its canopy. Produced by JD McPherson, You’re Dreaming, frames the harmonies of brothers Jack Torrey and Page Burkum against a sound that refers to another time in Country music without ever date stamping the tracks.
40 The Relatives (from the album Goodbye World) (4-29-16) - The Relatives offer Gospel Funk as a foundation for their music, and expand on the natural electric groove of the band with their recent release, Goodbye World. The Relatives are players and pioneers for the 1970’s Psychedelic Funk that is the bed for their message. The Relatives lost their mentor and leader just before the recording of Goodbye World was completed. Reverend Gean West had produced two vocals for the album before he became too ill to record, becoming unconscious for twelve days. He rallied to lay down vocals for more tracks on the album.
41 Kalyn Fay (from the album Bible Belt) (6-10-16) - The Oklahoma Room was the hot ticket for Folk Alliance 2016. Kalyn Fay was one of Tulsa talents that played, and played, and played throughout the weekend. The musicians mixed and mingled, backing one another and stepping to center stage as needed. The sound that Kalyn presents on her recent Horton Records release, Bible Belt, once again showcases the music of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and its family of musicians. Kalyn Fay passes over her stories with an easy vocal, her voice landing on the music bed to tease the tales by stretching out the notes to the edge of the rhythms. Bible Belt whispers secrets in its title track as Kalyn sings of childhood, still calling home a place she has left behind long ago.
42 Whitehorse (from the album The Northern South, Vol 1) (5-6-16) - Whitehorse define their sound as Intergalactic Blues grooves meet the full force of guitar gravity. That is true, the music is other-worldy, a virtual graveyard sound given birth in a studio. Whitehorse successfully trace a line back in their Blues that honors its southern birth with the latest release from the Canadian husband and wife duo, The Northern South Vol 1. The album spits and snarls, the guitar is feral, biting as much as riffing.
43 Quaker City Night Hawks (from the album El Astronauta) (5-20-16) - Coming off tour runs with Chris Stapleton, Lucero, and Leon Bridges, Quaker City Night Hawks update Texas Boogie on their recent release, El Astronauta. Quaker City Night Hawks sparkle notes over the hard drive of “Liberty Bell 7” as they “Beat the Machine” on an assured rhythm, throw feedback across the gentle audio waves lapping against “The Last Great Audit” and funk the fire of “Something to Burn”. A darkness shakes the ground in “Duendes” as Quaker City Night Hawks sink the track in a rabbit hole of fractured sounds and hard hitting beats.
44 Willie Sugarcapps (from the album Paradise Right Here) (4-15-16) - Willie Sugarcapps deliver album number two with Paradise Right Here. The band is made up of Roots music players with credentials including Jimmy Buffet, Neil Young, Emmylou Harris, and Steve Winwood as well as their own careers. It was in lower Alabama at Blue Moon Farm that Will Kimbrough, Grayson Capps, Sugarcane Jane (Anthony Crawford and Savanna Lee) and Corky Hughes played together at a musical gathering called The Frog Pond. Paradise Right Here was produced by Willie Sugarcapps with Trina Shoemaker (Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, Dixie Chicks) and recorded over three days at FAME studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The second outing for Willie Sugarcapps wears the confidence of touring as a band in its songs. The tracks are unified within the band’s sound brand while the pens of its members walk with more definition.
45 Mark Erelli (from the album For a Song) (4-8-16) - Mark Erelli gives the answer immediately on the album title for his recent release, For a Song. The questions spring from his touring schedule being a solo musician and recently backing Lori McKenna, playing Royal Albert Hall backing Josh Ritter, and working with Paul Cole. Why do this to the lives you love back home? Where does it end? The questions came from different points and all led to the same answer, For a Song. Mark Erelli remembered ‘that’s been the answer to almost every question I’ve asked myself for quite some time’. He sings out a life with that focus in the title track on a story littered with post cards to young lives back home, warning the ‘road is not your friend, just a means to an end’ as a way of explaining absence.
46 Derek Hoke (from the album Southern Moon) (4-22-16) - Derek Hoke took to the road to create the first takes of the songs on Southern Moon. The tunes took their form on late night drives with a voice recorder in the passenger seat. To complete the pre-recording process, Derek used audience response from his weekly $2 Tuesday residency at East Nashville’s The 5 Spot to fine-tune the tracks. Southern Moon welcomes Elizabeth Cook into a duet with Derek on “Still Got Time”, featuring backing vocals on the album from Chuck Mead and Robyn Hitchcock as well as Mickey Raphael on harmonica.
47 Willie Nile (from the album World War Willie) (4-1-16) - Willie Nile pretty much just has to stand in one place with his standard uniform of black leather jacket, sunglasses, and revolutionary stance to let you know his politics. Just in case anyone missed the look or the four decades of Rock’n’Roll testimonials from his pen, Willie Nile paints his persona across the cover of his most recent release, World War Willie. The cover image is of Dresden after bombing in WWII. Willie stands in front the desolation with his guitar, stating that ‘for me rock’n’roll, at its best, helps to make some sense of the world. There can be a redemptive quality to it. I guess it’s me trying to make some sense of the world with rock’n’roll’.
48 Grant-Lee Phillips (from the album The Narrows) (3-18-16) - The sound of The Narrows is dusty and wide open. It is the one souvenir that Grant-Lee Phillips took when he left California in 2013, following the worldwide that leads back home to Tennessee. Born in the San Joaquin Valley, Grant-Lee spent time by The Bay in San Francisco and made his home in Los Angeles since the age of nineteen. While the music maintains Grant-Lee Phillips’ Western Roots, his parents claimed southern ties. Nashville felt like a missing piece for his music, and The Narrows goes wide and deep to sink in Roots.
49 The Bo-Keys (from the album Heartaches by the Number) 4-29-16 - The Soul of The Bo-Keys is a pure one. The band naturally inhabits a sound that is a cottage industry for their base in Memphis, Tennessee. Their recent release, Heartaches by the Number, puts the band behind stories of love and loss as the tracks are surrounded by a Vintage warmth buried deep within the sound. The Bo-Keys recorded Heartaches by the Number onto analog tape at Electraphonic Recording in Memphis. Produced by bandleader Scott Bomar (bass, percussion), the album is the third release from The Bo-Keys since forming in1998.
50 Dori Freeman (from the album Dori Freeman) (2-5-16) - The purity in the vocal of Dori Freeman is a combination of her heritage with a natural confidence in how her voice tells its tale. Dori is a daughter of Appalachia, and the mountains dig roots into her own growth as a singer. Dori Freeman makes use of geography, adding a slow drawl to her delivery that fits well with the natural bends and gentle twang in her voice as it reaches up to call out notes cradled in the arms of the mountains as they climb to their highest peaks.