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.
01 Sturgill Simpson (from the album A Sailors Guide to Earth) (4-15-16) - Well-deserved adjectives of praise have been heaped onto Sturgill Simpson for his recent release, A Sailors Guide to Earth. As a producer, Sturgill puts his own voice in as an instrument, a compass confidently pointing to the safety of land as Sturgill Simpson navigates a world of adventure hitting foreign shores ‘like a pollywog turning nineteen’ in “Sea Stories”. Sturgill Simpson has created an immediate desert island disc, wisely including an old world map as part of the booklet on the physical album ‘cause if the water starts to get high, keep A Sailors Guide to Earth handy.
02 Elizabeth Cook (from the album of Exodus of Venus) (6-17-16) - Emotion pours from Exodus of Venus, the recent release from Elizabeth Cook. The album is her first in six years, and the time between recordings gave Elizabeth plenty of pain and tragedy to stage her stories. A half dozen years of death and divorce, rehab and reconstruction build flesh and bone characters that walk the audio streets on Exodus of Venus. The tales use personal experience to expose their drama. Elizabeth Cook gets dubbed a Country Outlaw. Given the title, it would seem that living without laws includes telling truths in real time in an effort to circumvent huge holes of hard times and work through life’s crippling challenges.
03 The Record Company (from the album Give It Back to You) (2-12-16) - A snaking Blues riff is the pied piper drawing anyone within ear shot in to “Off the Ground”, the opening salvo from Give It Back to You, the Concord Records debut from The Record Company. The L.A.-based band are a three piece in the power trio style of Mountain, ZZ Top, and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble. The Blues has been receiving attention in releases honoring the roots of the genre. The Record Company go a different route by bringing The Blues back into Rock’n’Roll. Having only three members does not limit the band as TRC double dip on the talent of its rhythm section.
04 Charles Bradley (from the album Changes) (4-1-16) - Charles Bradley titles his recent third album release Changes. Charles’ life has seen Changes in the past five years, skyrocketing the Daptone Records artist from a bleak existence on the streets of NYC into two triumphant album releases and becoming the subject for the 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America. Changes is another step for Charles Bradley as he ascends that ladder of Soul, backing his songs with players from the Daptone Records talent pool, including members of Menahan Street Band, Budos Band, The Dap-Kings, and Charles’ touring band, The Extraordinaires.
05 The Avett Brothers (from the album True Sadness) (6-24-16) - As the career star of The Avett Brothers rises, providing hope and light for Roots and Americana peers, their musical output continues its path of comfort with thought-provoking rambles and easy rhythms. The Avett Brothers expand on their sound with True Sadness, bringing the production into the band’s catalog seamlessly, offering heavier studio touches on an equal footing with their natural take on acoustics. The Avett Brothers have grown from the original core of two brothers, Seth and Scott Avett, into a larger stage group, expanding on the players and sound, filling out the family and recorded output organically from their base in North Carolina.
06 Margo Price (from the album Midwest Famer’s Daughter) (3-25-16) - On the album opener for Midwest Farmers Daughter, Margo Price goes back to the origins of Country Hardships and heartaches line the walls of Midwest Farmers Daughter though the stories that are framed do not show worn or broken faces. Margo Price’s voice is a trumpet call shouting out trip-up’s and triumphs as her stories battle with bottles and with the men still found floating at the bottom of the glass. Margo Price left her Nashville mailing address and headed a little further west to record Midwest Farmers Daughter at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee.
07 Hayes Carll (from the album Lovers and Leavers) (4-8-16) - The voice is still the same. Hayes Carll grabs the notes going low to give edge, breaking a little as the moods bend. His latest album release, Lovers and Leavers, uses voice as an instrument to poke and jab, prying into corners where emotions hide as the pens that script Lovers and Leavers put humanity into their songs. The voices of the characters vary from past releases, however, as they speak their mind with straight-forward lines throughout Lovers and Leavers.
08 The Jayhawks (from the album Paging Mr. Proust) (4-29-16) - It has been over thirty years since The Jayhawks formed in 1985 Minneapolis, hitting a stride with their American Recordings debut in 1992 (Hollywood Town Hall). Musically, The Jayhawks stayed true to the Country Rock sound they represented with their initial releases. Band break-ups and re-formings occurred over the years, and the current Jayhawks line-up for their recent release, Paging Mr. Proust, contains members of the 1997 touring group. Founding member Gary Louris still drives The Jayhawks train and he pulls off a sound shift with Paging Mr.Proust that allows the songs of the band to grow and expand, pushing the sonic boundaries in ways that the soft Country Rock and Americana of previous release could only experience as hints and touches. Paging Mr. Proust honors a sound that The Jayhawks minted and offered as influence to a legion of bands that followed.
09 Parker Millsap (from the album The Very Last Day) (3-25-16) - With his songwriter status confirmed by NPR and Wall Street Journal acclaim, Parker Millsap uses The Very Last Day to stretch his musical potential, staying true to the Folk music that swept across the Oklahoma of his youth while giving his songs a contemporary feel through the modern observations of his characters. The backdrop for The Very Last Day became the landscape surrounding Parker Millsap as he crafted the stories. He told that he ‘was living in Guthrie (Oklahoma) when I wrote a lot of these songs. Oklahoma in the winter looks post-apocalyptic. We don’t have evergreen trees, and the grass turns brown to the point of colorlessness. Everything looks like skeletons and grayness’.
10 Robert Ellis (from the album Robert Ellis) (6-3-16) - Robert Ellis asks ‘how can you call it art when you’re sticking to a dotted line’ in “Elephant”. The story speaks to confronting issues within a relationship, hinting at a touring musician on one side of the line. Robert’s question seems a little random within the discussion, though it does speak loudly to the self-titled Robert Ellis release on New West Records. As a singer/songwriter, Robert Ellis seemingly has the ability to not edit his songs to fit format, mainstream or backwoods. The album is meeting place for the Folk, Jazz, Country, and Pop music common ground that Robert Ellis deems equal partners for his words, an extension ladder to reach his emotions.
11 Daniel Romano (form the album Mosey) (5-27-16) - Daniel Romano continues to remind Country music that it is a living, breathing art form. Daniel joins fellow artists (Sturgill Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, Chris Stapleton) who plug in and play Country music as they hear it. Mosey is the sound track for dreamy reveries, spaghetti western strings, and Indie jangle (“Maybe Remember Me”). Daniel Romano is a prolific performer, his album releases perfectly capturing each mood and theme that he brings into the studio as muse. His work in other mediums requiring attention to details, such as his leather work and graphic design, is brought into his songwriting as each track builds with subtle infusions of emotion and swatches of sound.
12 Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub (from the album Meridian Rising) (2-26-16) - The steps taken between an idea and the results can vary. For some, one or two paces is about as far as they get from the kernel of an idea to jumping in and hoping for the best. Paul Burch had an idea form in his mind for a tale, an audio biography of Jimmie Rodgers, the singing superstar of the late 1920’s and one of the first American musician to successfully blend various styles into hybrids. To put flesh to the plan, Paul dug through rare archives at the Country Music Hall of Fame, discussed Rodgers’ life with his biographers, and backed the stories with the music of his lifetime; the sounds and rhythms that came through Meridian, Mississippi, the hometown of Jimmie Rodgers. Paul Burch and the WPA Ballclub take the lead in Meridian Rising, an imagined autobiography of Jimmie Rodgers, the Blue Yodeler, the Singing Breakman.
13 Eli Paperboy Reed (from the album My Way Home) (6-10-16) - Eli Paperboy Reed was on a rocket ride career path when he made a name in the Boston Soul scene with flash fire live performances, recording with local powerhouse Q Division in 2007 before hopping through major label deals with Capital and Warner Brothers. His trajectory hovered when he lost his major label deal in 2014, turning the switch back on with his recent Yep Roc Records release, My Way Home. The album was tracked in four days, utilizing the analog gear of drummer Loren Humphrey (Guards, Cults), who assembled the collection of in his Brooklyn, New York loft‐turned‐recording studio. My Way Home puts gospel into its vintage rock’n’roll, salvation into its stories. The songs are infused with spirit, Eli Reed not seeing the subject as for any particular religion or creed. Eli feels that ‘the idea of salvation doesn't have to mean salvation in terms of finding God. My goal is just to make good music that moves people and meets them wherever they are. So for me, salvation in this case is about getting out of a bad situation, about finding yourself in a tough spot and trying to find your way through it. It's about not letting yourself be pulled down by negative influences’.
14 Lucinda Williams (from the album Ghosts of Highway 20) (2-5-16) - Lucinda Williams first road crush was Highway 20, now Interstate 20, a stretch of road that runs for 1500 miles from South Carolina to Texas. The Ghost of Highway 20 joins the road with the spirits of venerated white lines such as Route 66 and the Pacific Coast Highway. The stories see no borders as they cross from the life of their author and into the lives that line the highway. On the personal side, Lucinda Williams passes by childhood homes, the final resting place of her mother, and the crossroads that became signposts on her further journeys. Lucinda Williams sees the road as ‘it is literally a map of my life in a lot of ways. We were driving between shows and between cities, and I kept seeing things that brought me back to times and places in my past. Like when we played Macon, Georgia, a place I lived when I was five or six years old. I got out of the bus and I was transported back to when I saw this street singer, Blind Pearly Brown. It was like nothing had changed. All these things started percolating in my brain, and the songs just came’.
15 Carrie Rodriquez (from the album Lola) (2-19-16) - Carrie Rodriguez is building an altar of song on her recent release, Lola. The candles she lights are in honor of Lola Beltran, held by Mexico as their most popular ranchera-style singer. Based in Mexico City, Lola Beltran became known as Lola La Grande (Lola the Great), playing for world leaders from the U.S., performing before presidents from Eisenhower through Nixon, as well as heads of government in Russia, Spain, France, Yugoslavia, and many more. Carrie Rodriguez performs Lola as a bilingual project, and welcomes guests Bill Frissell and Raul Malo in the spots on the album. For an English-only audience, Carrie translates her Spanish language vocals with emotion.
16 The James Hunter Six (from the album Hold On!) (2-5-16) - James Hunter has been building a career steadily for the past decade. The mission that James has taken on is Soul music, and over the course of four studio recordings, he has been fine-tuning the songs. The James Hunter Six serve up tracks minted in a Vintage sound for a Modern era, successfully presenting analog warmth for digital times on tunes that wear their cool as a badge of honor. The latest release from The James Hunter Six, Hold On!, is the band’s first on Brooklyn’s Daptone Records. The band went to Daptone in-house producer, Gabriel Roth, to helm the recording which was done live to 8-track tape. It was the second time the band worked with Roth, giving James Hunter a comfort level in the studio, satisfied when he realized that ‘“The great thing about working with Gabe is that he can get our tunes on tape exactly the way I heard them in my head when I was writing them’.
17 Penny and Sparrow (from the album Let A Lover Drown You) (3-11-16) - Lush, gorgeous, luminescent….all words that fit for the vocals of Penny and Sparrow on the duo’s third album release, Let a Lover Drown You. Voices harmonize, blend, weave, and wander together in song as they try hard to fit or somehow line up naturally. Kyle Jahnke and Andy Baxter met as roommates at University of Texas and their vocals found a home in the deep thought Folk of artists such as Bon Iver, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Swell Season. Musically, the pair are surrounded by the sounds of music that blends as well as the harmonies on Let a Lover Drown You, the album produced by John Paul White (The Civil Wars) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes). The album title Let a Lover Drown You is a big clue to the more poetic lean to the lyrics of Andy Baxter as Kyle Jahnke matches words to music. Penny and Sparrow offer a listening experience with Let a Lover Drown You, offering moods in its melodies and time for both trouble and triumph in its stories.
18 Toronzo Cannon – The Chicago Way (2-26-16) - Toronzo Cannon takes a cue from guerilla warfare with his guitar playing. His riffs are quick hits, snake bites of notes, snapping out and back before you can feel the sting. Toronzo’s riffs are like razors accenting his words on The Chicago Way, his recent debut with Alligator Records. His playing is based in the Chicago tradition where he has developed and grown over the past ten years. His stories mirror the lives around him, culled and crafted from working as a bus driver on the West Side where he had a traveling fishbowl view of the life around him. The Chicago Way showcases the force that is Toronzo Cannon. The album (co-produced by Toronzo and Alligator Record head Bruce Iglauer) stacks stories that slash and cut with the same efficiency as the guitar playing.
19 Wild Ponies (from the album Radiant) (5-13-16) - Some words are special, almost magical in the way they present as images in our minds. Radiant, the recent release from Wild Ponies, is one of those words. By definition, Radiant is ‘sending out light; shining or glowing brightly’. Pretty description, and the tunes of Wild Ponies can certainly be beautiful, like the way they let the title track drift on clouds on electric guitar notes before the beat arrives through open the window facing the night sky. Digging a little deeper into Radiant defines the word as ‘a point or object from which light or heat radiates, especially a heating element in an electric or gas heater’. That nails it for Radiant as the Wild Ponies play the soundtrack coming directly from venues throughout their East Nashville neighborhood, as the album makes as little distinctions as the bands as to what is Rock’n’Roll, Country, Blues, Folk, Americana, Soul, and their hybrids.
20 Dave Cobb (from the album Southern Family) (3-11-16) - Initially, the idea for a concept album left Dave Cobb pretty flat. The Nashville-based producer paid attention when the light bulb went off to give the album a wider scope. Southern Family is a collection of artists that Dave has worked with on production, offering songs they authored or cover for the project. The album focuses on growing up in the South, times with friends and family. As a producer, Dave Cobb is as much a part of whatever new sound fans here in the music of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings, and Chris Stapleton. His work on albums such as Traveler (Chris Stapleton), Metamodern Sounds in Country Music (Sturgill Simpson) and Something More Than Free (Jason Isbell) put Dave Cobb at ground zero for a shift in music. He has become family with the artists he works, and they return the favor on Southern Family.
21 Bonnie Bishop (from the album Ain’t Who I Was) (5-27-16) - The career of Bonnie Bishop was stripped down to the skeleton as she left Nashville for her family home in Texas. Friends at Thirty Tigers suggested she get in touch with producer Dave Cobb (Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson). Dave saw, or more precisely, heard the Soul that was left after Bonnie’s dreams of working in Country music had shut the door. Ain’t Who I Was is the most recent release from Bonnie Bishop, the result of the pairing with Dave Cobb sitting in the producer’s chair. Bonnie’s training in Gospel as the only white in a black choir and her natural ability to dig into the emotional heart of a song, make the Soul transition seamless as Ain’t Who I Was shows the change in words and music. The Country Soul of the title track is subtle with soft strings and warm organ chords as guitar notes weave and wind underneath a vocal with Bonnie Bishop standing tall, owning the past and embracing the future.
22 Charlie Faye and the Fayettes (from the album Charlie Faye and the Fayettes) (6-10-16) - The easiest way to explain Charlie Faye and the Fayettes, the self-title release from an Austin-based trio is to talk about the band. The three women of Charlie Faye and the Fayettes put harmony and heart into every song, using a Vintage 1960’s audio glow to warm the sound track. They are samples of a world culture with Jewish, Korean, and African-American heritage, sharing height, standing at 5’1” in pre-heels. Charlie Faye takes the lead, stepping in with more of a crooner role than her previous Roots releases. She is joined in girl-group harmony by two established solo artists and background vocalists, BettySoo and Akina Adderley. Charlie Faye and the Fayettes uses the Vintage sound of 1960’s Pop to seduce with a sonic sweet spot on the recent release. Charlie Faye was drawn to the harmonies in the music from the era, set against a moving rock’n’roll beat that welcomed touches of Soul, and Twang in the music of Darlene Love, Dusty Springfield, The Ronettes, and The Shirelles.
23 Darrell Scott (from the album Couchville Sessions) (5-13-16) - Darrell Scott has a peaceful presence that translates into audio waves on his most recent release, Couchville Sessions. Being in the middle of a constant music stream could cause less hands-on captains to allow the current to carry them. Darrell Scott steers his personal life with the same care he gives to placing notes and words in songs, building a sustainable lifestyle outside of Nashville on the Cumberland Plateau. Darrell cares for his family by heating with wood, utilizing solar energy, and growing their own food. The tracks on Couchville Sessionsreflect the way Darrell lives; they are a natural product of his unapologetic approach to making music and living life.
24 Yarn (from the album This is the Year) (5-27-16) - This is the Year and this is the album for Yarn. Blake Christiana has stitched together comforters for kiss-off goodbyes, bad decisions, and rocky romance since Yarn’s 2007 self-titled debut. The band was Brooklyn-based through five album releases, carving out a name, a fan base with its own flag as Yarmy, and a spot on the Americana bandwagon since it was just a hayride. This is the Year reflects the pen of Blake Christiana, and his characters still have a smirk and a smile, happy to make a joke of where they land on the ladder to take out the sting of life. There is a change, however, to the mood in the tales that is a new breeze in the songs of Yarn. As they band sets up base in North Carolina, This is the Year reflects an optimism that strides through the title track on a confident beat as a snaggly guitar line waves a flag for new beginnings.
25 Levi Parham (from the album These American Blues) (6-24-16) - Levi Parham follows two successful E.P. releases (An Okie Opera, Avalon Drive) with his first full length, the Music Road Records release, These American Blues. Levi strides into the songs with confidence. These American Bluesstays true to Tulsa time with its groove as Levi Parham spreads Soul over the tracks with his vocals.While his voice has a natural Soul delivery, Levi Parham works magic with multiple touches of Folk, Country, and Blues on These American Blues.