Top 5 Folk/Americana Albums of 2023 to Make New Friends and Keep the Old
Year-End Top 5
Americana, an amalgam of shared musical traditions, continues to churn out new artists and records. The key ingredients haven’t changed—folk, jazz, gospel, etc.—but the new recipes are piping hot and delicious. These five albums demonstrate that discovery has a leg up on invention. We don’t need to abandon what we love to make something new.
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway
City of Gold
Molly Tuttle and Golden Highway = David Grisman + Taylor Swift
If technical mastery is the barometer, Molly Tuttle and her backing band are undeniably the leaders of today’s bluegrass festival circuit. The group’s latest work is City of Gold, an album of soothing ballads and blistering breakdowns that walks the line between conventional arrangements and that new, new, newgrass.
Inspired by a childhood field trip to learn about the California Gold Rush, the album is thoroughly laced with West Coast imagery. Hinting at the iconic bluegrass refrain “Eight More Miles to Louisville,” Tuttle instead sings “How many more miles to Yosemite?” with Dave Matthews on backup vocals. Disgruntled purists can rest assured: Tuttle’s flatpicking licks will make you forget all about Earl Scruggs.
Cut Worms = Buddy Holly + The Everly Brothers + Sam Evian
For devotees of the last remaining oldies radio stations, the idea of music recorded after 1972 raises major eyebrows. This year’s collection from Cut Worms—the project of singer-songwriter Max Clarke—might just fool your grandma into thinking you’ve discovered a stash of long-lost Buddy Holly recordings.
From the crinkly tone of the album’s production to Clarke’s lilting guitar work, Cut Worms is pure, nostalgic, easy listening. Don’t be fooled, though; the Brooklyn-based crooner doesn’t rely on doo-wap-shoo-bops. Lyrically, this album errs on timeless themes like lost love and growing old, but it’s still clearly written by a Gen Z-millennial cusper.
Sunny War = Gillian Welch + Yola
Between a Ween cover and multiple guest features from roots guitar phenom David Rawlings, Sunny War’s Anarchist Gospel is full of unexpected crossovers. War (born Sydney Lyndella Ward) has been synthesizing delta blues, gospel devotionals and punk guitar riffs since at least 2018, but this year’s Anarchist Gospel fully establishes her place among the most intriguing new artists in roots music. Standout tracks include “Whole” and “No Reason,” but in truth, this lengthy 14-track collection serves up raw, pristine spirit from start-to-finish.
Mapache = Jerry Garcia Band + Allen Toussaint
Just as the Grateful Dead channeled John Coltrane and Ravi Shankar to hone their sound, Mapache channels the Dead to hone theirs. This LA-based duo possess a laid-back aura that harkens back to the melodic, folksy sentiment that pervaded California in the late ‘60s.
Swinging Stars is a loosely woven patchwork of catchy tunes, lullabies in Spanish and pleasing solos from the pedal steel, flute and vintage telecaster. It’s bottled sunshine; a good-hearted transmission from a land where t-shirts are optional and you can learn how to play the guitar on vibes alone.
Califone = Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-era Wilco + Silver Jews
You might have to squint to view Califone’s Villagers as Americana. If you’re willing to expand your perspective, think of the genre as any music that exists in response to the experience of being American. This album certainly fits the bill.
Frontman Tim Rutili’s lyrics read like an Allen Ginsberg poem, replete with mentions of “the sex lives of saints” and “an uncertain prayer intoned in heat.” Villagers recalls Wilco’s acclaimed collaborations with Sonic Youth’s Jim O’Rourke, with the city of Chicago being the common thread between the bunch. Folks from the windy city may discover a familiar kinship with the album’s metropolitan and cacophonous sounds.
Read more Year-End Top 5 Reviews from past years here:
Top Five Bedroom Pop Fetish Albums of 2021
Top 5 Folk/Traditional Albums That Kick Up New Dust