2013 was a spectacular year for roots musicians, filled with innovative albums that harken back to the greats of old and push the boundaries of the genre into new territories. Here are ten fantastic roots albums that might have flown beneath your radar this year. In addition to watching the videos below, you can also hear these artists on this Spotify playlist.
Valerie June, Pushin’ Against a Stone
Valerie June’s album is an amalgamation of all the sounds that inspired her when she was growing up in small-town Tennessee: everything from old-time country and blues to soul. Her rich, warm voice glides seamlessly among these tracks. With lyrical portraits of love and loneliness, poverty and wealth, sin and salvation, this album showcases the breadth of June’s musical talents.
Jason Isbell, Southeastern
Southeastern is a departure from Jason Isbell’s earlier work: pared down, with gentle guitar backing brilliant vocals. His voice, reminiscent of Paul Simon’s but with a rougher quality more akin to that of Steve Earle, paints a rich tapestry of lost and impoverished souls struggling to find meaning in a lonely and bitter world. Whether these songs are confessions or fantasies, they harken back to a darker tradition in folk music, and they’re captivating from start to finish.
Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer, Child Ballads
These old English ballads recount the lives of kings and queens, peasants, and courtly love gone awry. Mitchell’s and Hamer’s harmonies soar above subtle accompaniments, giving each narrative a fresh feel and reminding us that these ancient ballads are still worth a good listen.
Joy Kills Sorrow, Wide Awake
At once percussive and gentle, the instrumental arrangements on Joy Kills Sorrow’s new EP Wide Awake are balanced and reminiscent of the Punch Brothers. Lead singer Emma Beaton’s vocals sound a bit like those of Aoife O’Donovan, but they have more body. Beaton shifts from sounding soft and airy on the band’s brilliant cover of the Postal Service’s “Such Great Heights” to bright and soulful on “Working the Devil.” A pleasant album that will suit most moods, this is definitely one worth checking out.
Pharis and Jason Romero, Long Gone Out West Blues
A collection of new and old tunes, Pharis and Jason Romero’s album rings with warm blues and country influences. Playing on old guitars and handmade banjos, the duo show a deep respect for roots music and create a seemingly effortless and timeless sound. Long Gone Out West Blues transports the listener to a simpler world with wanderers, loners, workers, and lovers. The Romeros’ elegant harmonies are perfect for humming throughout the day.
Richie Stearns and Rosie Newton, Tractor Beam
Clawhammer banjo master Richie Stearns and fiddler Rosie Newton create a rich earthy sound on their debut collaborative album. Their vocals compliment each other with delicate harmonies and clever lyrics but the real show-stoppers are the instrumental arrangements like the bright “Shirt Tail Boogie” and the lilting “Take It or Leave It.” More rustic than some, this album lives up to its roots pedigree without sounding dated.
Elephant Revival, These Changing Skies
Reining in their jamming tendencies, the multi-instrumentalist group’s third album incorporates ethereal vocals with dazzling acoustic arrangements, weaving together Celtic sounds with roots traditions from the U.S. to create an album filled with lush music that makes you want to dance under the moon.
Sarah Jarosz, Build Me Up From Bones
Acclaimed 23-year-old Sarah Jarosz presents a contemplative album with extraordinary instrumentation and warm vocal harmonies. The album maintains an ethereal quality—sometimes dark, on songs like “Mile On the Moon”; other times light and cheeky, as in Jarosz’s cover of Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right On.” Throughout, Jarosz’s musicianship shines through to produce a lustrous and irresistible sound.
Pokey LaFarge, Pokey LaFarge
While many of his contemporaries busy themselves with exploring old-time and folk traditions, Pokey LaFarge follows a different tradition, creating albums rich in swing and big-band influences. With lyrics that echo those of Cole Porter and arrangements that feel plucked from the 50s, this fun album is a reminder of how widely classic American music has ranged.
Noam Pikelny, Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe
Pikelny’s third album is a brilliant homage to historic bluegrass greats, filled with fresh new arrangements of classic tunes. Each arrangement is exquisite and the performers play each song with astounding care, savoring and teasing out the notes of “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz” and, later, joyfully picking brighter tunes like “Big Sandy River.” In short, this album is as much a masterpiece as the tunes that inspired it and it deserves a home on the shelf (or playlist) of every lover of traditional music.
Mallory Guinee is a blogger, a harpist, and a French major at Carleton College. She loves traveling, long chats over tea, and listening to great music while lying on the living room floor.