As 2019 winds down and we enter the 2020s, I wanted to take a moment to look back on the artistic accomplishments of this decade. Americana thrived this decade with the Southern gothic subgenre coming to popularity in a new way. Although Southern Gothic had first risen to prominence through Rick Rubin’s Johnny Cash albums, in this decade Rubin’s vision for Americana began to garner a new audience for Americana.
10. Death to My Hometown by Bruce Springsteen (2012)
Wrecking Ball was Springsteen’s greatest work since 1987’s Tunnel of Love and this song proves it. Taking what he learned in 2006 when touring with The Sessions Band and applying it to his rock sensibilities he achieved something greater than either. With possibly the best musical use of cannons since the 1812 Overture, “Death To My Hometown” is a powerful anthem damning the economic inequality we face in this decade with anger and vigor. One of The Boss’s most powerful message songs, this song cements itself in history as part of the great Springsteen comeback album.
9. Living the Dream by Sturgill Simpson (2014)
The most traditional country tune on this list, “Living The Dream” comes off of Sturgill’s breakout album Metamodern Sounds in Country Music. The organ adds a lot to this otherwise conventional song, complementing the two guitars well. The lyrics truly shine as well. “It’s like making a big old pot of coffee when you ain’t got no cream” may ring hollow to the black coffee drinkers in the audience, but you cannot deny the beauty of “I don’t need to change my strings, cause the dirt don’t hurt the way I sing.”
8. Your Turn To Cry by Black Pistol Fire (2014)
Black Pistol Fire is not an Americana act per se, but this track off Hush Or Howl definitely stands out as an Americana song. The reverb infused banjo with Eric Owen on spoons definitely makes for a compelling country-esque tune. The contrast between the slow section and the speedy picking makes for a great western interlude.
7. Long Drives by Brian Fallon (2016)
I was skeptical when the first singles off Painkillers were released. It wasn’t until the 4th single, “Smoke,” that I got on board. But Brian Fallon’s first effort away from Gaslight Anthem proved to be better than I could have dreamed. An Americana detour from his rock efforts with Gaslight, Painkillers’ crowning achievement may have been “Long Drives.” This potent lament about meeting “a girl with a taste for the world and whiskey and rites of spring” and her descent into addiction is a haunting masterpiece in Fallon’s discography.
6. St. James Bed by Bones of JR Jones (2014)
From probably the greatest Americana album of the decade, Dark Was The Yearling, “St. James’ Bed” is a chilling soundscape with heavy rhythm under a haunting vocal track with stellar harmonies and a deeply frightening banjo riff. This terrifying song, just under four minutes long, also has some of the most beautiful lyrics about death on this list.
5. Redesigning Women — The Highwomen (2019)
The most recent release on this list, The Highwomen’s debut album may well be the best Americana/country release of the year. This lead single off of it features beautiful harmonies, a lovely slide guitar, and enchanting use of a Hammond organ. An empowering feminist anthem, featuring lyrics like “changing our minds like we change our hair color,” “Redesigning Women” was a great way to signal the beginning of this country supergroup.
4. In Hell I’ll Be In Good Company by The Dead South (2014)
Perhaps the most iconic song on this list, The Dead South’s Southern Gothic anthem off their debut album ranks as one of the finest works of Americana this decade. The gritty voices that haunt this track combined with the eerie banjo and drone like bass line create a compelling soundscape of ghost towns and dead cowboys. The Dead South truly prove that Canada is the new capitol of Americana.
3. The Governor by Gary Clark Jr. (2019)
The hands down bluesiest song on this list, “The Governor” is an amazing little tune that it’s hard to not clap along to. Although This Land was mostly an RnB album, “The Governor” feels like sitting on a back porch of a shack in Louisiana with Son House and Mississippi John Hurt in 1946. The slide solo is beautiful, the rhythm intrudes into your mind, and it’s only two minutes long so it leaves you wanting more.
2. Daddy’s Lessons by Beyoncé (2016)
Bey is not someone you’d expect to have on this list, but this low key track off Lemonade is undeniably an amazing Americana track, to the point where even the Country Music Awards recognized it and had her turn it into a New Orleans dirge with The Dixie Chicks at them (Which is the definitive version of this song, in my opinion). Turning country music’s sometimes problematic obsession with guns on its head by having a black woman sing about it (“girl it’s your second amendment”) this track off one of the best albums of the decade is also one of the finest Americana pieces of it.
1. The Devil Wears A Suit and Tie by Colter Wall (2015)
Emblematic of the Southern Gothic movement, Colter Wall’s Imaginary Appalachia emerged as the definitive work from the genre. This track, along with “Sitting on a Blacktop” stands as one of the finest pieces of songwriting to emerge out of the genre this decade. The disturbing rhythm, bare bones production and arrangement, and chilling breakdown between the chorus and verse make for a beautiful if frightening piece that became the greatest Americana song of the decade.
Elizabeth von Teig is a musician and author living in Brighton, Massachusetts. Her expertise is classic rock, folk punk, and the blues.