THROUGH THE LENS: ND Photographers’ Favorite Roots Albums of 2023
Jason Isbell - 2023 - Photo by Rick Davidson
This week 14 No Depression photographers, from the Appalachian mountains to Australia, highlight the cream of the roots music crop released this year. Nearly all the artists are familiar names, especially to readers of this column, but you’ll also see a couple that are not as well known who certainly deserve your attention. Collectively, they comprise a diverse and invigorating playlist of roots music.
While in previous columns two photographers chose the same album, this time three of them selected the same one: Jason Isbell’s Weathervanes, which also topped the ND Readers Poll. Also of note is that three of the albums are by bluegrass artists, more than in any previous year.
Many thanks to our photographers, identified along with their picks, and to the artists whose work made the year such a memorable one.
Jason Isbell – Weathervanes
Taking the giant step of self-producing this album resulted in what many fans feel is Isbell’s best. More guitar-centric than Reunions, Isbell addresses issues of school shootings, addiction, abortion, and family discord. The song “Miles” echoes with nods to Crazy Horse and George Harrison, with the Southern gothic “Cast Iron Skillet” a masterpiece of songwriting. — Rick Davidson
I’m a lyrics gal, but I’ve really enjoyed this rocking release reminiscent of The Allman Brothers and Neil Young. Can’t wait ’til I catch a live show. — Brenda Rosser
On his ninth studio release, and backed by the 400 Unit, Isbell continues to flourish as a songwriter and musician. Lyrically, the record is full of impeccable storytelling, which embraces the hardships, realities, and truths of rural America. Sonically, the self-produced album is among the best sounding in his catalog. Tracks such as “King of Oklahoma” and “This Ain’t It” showcase the wondrous guitar play between Isbell and long-time guitarist Sadler Vaden. — Chad Cochran
Sunny War – Anarchist Gospel
This album, a complex collection of songs and sounds, raised the bar for War. Bringing a mix of folk, blues, and rock, she continues to evolve as an artist. I saw her several times this past year, and the captivated audiences listened attentively. These were truly spellbinding moments. — Peter Dervin
The Rolling Stones – Hackney Diamonds
After over 60 years of treading the boards and recording dozens of albums, this could have easily been an embarrassment. Instead, it’s some of the freshest music the Stones have produced in years. You want rock? Its there. Blues? You got it. The whole album shines a little light in these dark days. — Kim Reed
Margo Cilker – Valley of Heart’s Delight
Produced by my friend Sera Cahoone, Valley of Heart’s Delight blends country, Americana, and folk all into a wonderful album, with “Keep It on a Burner” being my standout track. — C. Elliott
Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway – City of Gold
At first blush I didn’t think this album could possibly capture my heart the way Crooked Tree did, but here it is topping my playlist. Being a native Tennessean who also lived in California, the opposite of Tuttle, may give me a special feel for her music, her ethereal voice, and haunting storytelling. But even if not, this album is an incredible infusion of the spirits of those two musically rich states. — Kelly Shipe
The Mary Wallopers – Irish Rock N Roll
Virtually unknown in the US, The Mary Wallopers are a six-piece band from Ireland that mixes Irish traditional folk, banjo, flute, and uilleann pipes. They’ve been compared to Luke Kelly and The Dubliners. They did a short tour in the US and I caught their show at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. — Liza Orozco
Nickel Creek – Celebrants
Maybe a band should take a nine-year break between albums. This “reunion” album contains exceptional musicianship that explores new, more complex territories while retaining their youthful harmonies. It’s become one of my favorite Nickel Creek albums. — Eric Ring
Abe Partridge – Love in the Dark
Painter, folklorist, and roots musician Partridge released this under-the-radar gem last spring. It’s a wonderfully eclectic collection from an electrifying live performer who’s about to become far better known. My favorite track is a haunting rendition of “When You Go Down.” — Justin St. Clair
Lucinda Williams – Stories From a Rock N Roll Heart
Coming back from a debilitating stroke in 2020, Williams continues to be a force of nature. Backed by Margo Price, Buddy Miller, Bruce Springsteen, and Patti Scialfa, with Stuart Mathis being the only member of her touring band on the album, these 10 tracks showcase her considerable writing and vocal talents. — Boom Baker
Dom Flemons – Traveling Wildfire
After more than a decade of being roots music’s best historian, Flemons does more originals this time. While Black Cowboys had a strong concept album feel, this album lets him stretch his legs into a broader range of topics. — Chris Griffy
Iris DeMent – Workin’ on a World
Written over a six-year period, and with a variety of song forms and sonic textures, this album feels much like latter-day Dylan. Like Dylan, DeMent’s lyrics name-check real people and events along with universal themes, sometimes disarmingly simple, sometimes deceptively complex. Her voice is on a par with Patsy Cline and George Jones: pure, honest, and compelling. — Steve Ford
Bill Evans – Things Are Simple
Opening his album with a guitar and string quartet backing on a gentle duet with his wife it is clear that banjoist Evans values melody and soulful sounds over flashy licks played at supersonic speeds. For decades Evans has demonstrated banjo prowess second to none, but on this album you’ll hear the beauty of the instrument accentuated by the space between notes and how it fits into the ensemble pieces. — Kevin Slick
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.