PopMatters By Steve Leftridge
2010 was a splendid year for Americana releases; then again, that’s something you can say about any year given the sprawling range of sub-genres under Americana’s vast umbrella, a point reinforced again by this year’s Top Ten. If there was a single defining trend this year, it was that things got even more vintage than usual; in some cases—as with T Bone Burnett’s analog fetish—a precise simulacra of yesteryear. But other roots artists got hazy as well, as lo-fi indie-rock aesthetics created a circle of influence throughout the year’s roots-rock recordings.
As always, such efforts to authenticate or to sand away studio polish among alt-country recordings seem to be, in part, a reaction to mainstream country music’s increasingly glossy pop sheen. Moreover, the kind of heartland or roots-influenced rock that formerly felt at home on rock radio has in recent years been utterly banished from the pop charts. As a result, instead of making any attempt to assimilate, legendary artists like John Mellencamp and Robert Plant are mining the minimalist sounds of American roots history. Of younger acts, woodsy rock bands like Blitzen Trapper and Band of Horses released two of 2010’s best overall albums, but each drifts far enough from their indie-folk beginnings that we ruled them out for this year’s Americana list.
2010’s most mercurial Americana act was, interestingly enough, the British folk-grass quartet Mumford & Sons. Their album Sigh No More (first released in the UK in October 2009 and therefore not considered for this list) was a worldwide smash in 2010, and a barnstorming sold-out tour of the States in the summer included scene-stealing sets at Bonnaroo and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. One other late-2009 nod (UK 2009/US 2010) was Deadstring Brothers’ bristling beauty Sao Paulo, pound for pound their strongest collection to date. They’ll never escape those Exile on Main Street comparisons—oops, did it again—but why should anyone have a problem with that sound?
The year in Americana was dominated by two producers—T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller. Both men landed two records each on this year’s Top Ten list, and in Burnett’s case, it wouldn’t be a stretch to fill this list with his records alone. When is the last time any producer had a year as rewarding? In addition to the Crazy Heart soundtrack, Burnett presided over albums by Jakob Dylan, Willie Nelson, John Mellencamp, Robert Randolph, Ryan Bingham, Elton John & Leon Russell, and Elvis Costello, each of whose albums were sterling achievements near the top of the artists’ catalogs. Buddy Miller, one of Burnett’s favorite musicians, was less prolific, obviously, but hit long homers with the two albums he produced and thereby helped define the year in Americana.
#2 John Mellencamp
No Better Than This
John Mellencamp never wanted to be no pop singer. Of course, he became one anyway. But after decades as a hall-of-fame hitmaker, Mellencamp has, for three albums over four years, been peeling back the sonic layers to become a scorched-earth folk singer. 2008’s Life Death Love and Freedom, produced by T Bone Burnett, was Mellencamp’s leanest and best album in forever. Now, No Better Than This goes even further, as Mellencamp and Burnett go ghost hunting at Sun Studios, a historic church in Savannah, and Robert Johnson’s hotel room in Texas. The singer’s lived-in rasp is a perfect match for the vintage recording technique, everything cut live and recorded on reel-to-reel tape with no overdubs. Mellencamp’s new originals songs are also terrific, making for a rewarding set of blues, rockabilly, swing, and folk songs about fighting for dreams amid dark realities. Ain’t that Americana?