THROUGH THE LENS: The Best of Everything in 2023
Bella White - The El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles 2023 - Photo by Liza Orozco
What a tremendous year it has been for roots music. With so many stellar albums, it was an especially difficult task to winnow them down to any singular list. But the more I listened, the better I was able to hone it down to those essential records that spoke to me, regardless of genre or who their creators were.
Looking at my selections now, several things stand out. First, four of the artists (Bella White, Whitney Rose, Bahamas, and Tami Neilson) are Canadian-born. Second, five are country albums (White, Rose, Bahamas, Jon Byrd, and Neilson) and two (Robbie Fulks and Kelly Hunt) lean more toward bluegrass.
But there was also a sad note to the year, as Rose and Karen Pittelman (Karen & the Sorrows) were sidelined by illnesses that prevented them from substantially touring to support their releases. This undoubtedly resulted in their not garnering the press they might have otherwise received.
1. Bella White – Among Other Things
Only 22, and with an unassuming, beguiling presence, White was ND’s Spotlight Artist for April 2023. She’s Canadian, but if you hear a lot of Appalachian roots in her music, especially her voice, she comes by it honestly, as her father was a bluegrass musician from Virginia. Once you hear this album, or catch a show, you will not be able to get her out of your head.
2. Whitney Rose – Rosie
Rose, who has been at least the equal of many familiar, bigger names in Americana for years, delivers a country music album for the ages. This has to be the most overlooked album of the year.
3. Nellie McKay – Hey Guys, Watch This
This album takes us a on a boat ride down a lazy river shaded by overhanging trees, letting the current gently glide us home. Not to be confused with Holly Golightly, the album is her own personal “Moon River.”
4. Hello June – Artifacts
As ND said in its review, this album “is weather beaten and worn around the edges, full of regrets and truths that should have been told much sooner.” As good Sarah Rudy’s previous successes were, this one has gotten her international attention.
5. Robbie Fulks – Bluegrass Vacation
After listening to this record, one has to wonder why it took Fulks, the epitome of alt-country, 30 years to make a bluegrass record. Contrary to its title, he’s not just dipping his toes into the genre, he encompasses it.
6. Maia Sharp – Reckless Thoughts
Alternating between writing in the first- and third-person, Sharp hones her confessional chops, infusing these songs with a great sense of empathy that deepens their quiet vitality.
7. Bahamas – Bootcut
Canadian Afie Jurvanen recorded this album, his sixth, in Nashville, and it is a knockout. With a languorous and laidback feel, his introspective, homespun tales have never been so vivid. Some have called this a country record; it’s a compliment.
8. Beth Bombara – It All Goes Up
This album is a clear-eyed look at love, life, and the whole damn thing. As ND said in its review, “Like curtains being swept open to let in shafts of light, these sonic equivalents sparkle.”
9. Jon Byrd – All Your Mistakes
Joined by Paul Niehaus on pedal steel, Byrd takes me back to the honky-tonks my parents took me to as a kid. Without irony or a hint of nostalgia, this album is what used to be called country music.
10. Kelly Hunt – Ozark Symphony
As our sibling publication Folk Alley noted in its review, “Strumming percussively on her five-string banjo and creating swelling rolls of sound, Hunt builds an elegant symphonic sound on these songs.”
Cécile McLorin Salvant – Mélusine
This collection of five originals and nine other songs, dating as far back as the 12th century and mostly sung in French along with Occitan, English, and Haitian Kreyol, demonstrates Salvant’s uncanny ability to deftly infuse the roots traditions of divergent cultures into her music. It also helps that many, including myself, feel she is the finest vocalist of her generation.
Stacey Kent – Summer Me, Winter Me
What the world needs now that we are deep into winter is a summery record, one that turns the overcast grayness into a shimmering light and that makes you want to get up and dance.
Tami Neilson – Kingmaker Live With the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra
While many albums with an orchestra tend to mask a singer’s deficiencies or are a vanity project, Neilson, who regularly performs in this configuration, uses it to bring an even more ferocious immediacy to the cinematic scope of songs from her 2022 album Kingmaker, which was my favorite album of last year. There are also three additional songs, including one of my favorites, “Manitoba Sunrise.”
Karen & the Sorrows – Why Do We Want What We Want
In a voice much like Dolly Parton’s had she never left Little Pigeon River, and with a mournful dobro, Pittelman digs deeper into familiar territory, an ethos of gothic queer country ghost stories.
Rosanne Cash – The Wheel (30th Anniversary)
When this album was originally released, I was struck by how much Cash’s use of language reminded me of Henry James and Edith Wharton. With music to match, it turned me from being a casual listener into a diehard fan. Knowing now the album’s backstory of her falling in love with producer John Leventhal during its recording makes the songs even richer and deeper. The deluxe version contains a selection of live performances.
Martha Scanlan & Jon Neufeld – Buckbrush/XO
This double-sided single (not on an album) is a pair of love songs, one original and the other by Beyoncé. They are passionate, swirling, vulnerable journeys of the temporal, the indefinite, the mysterious.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.