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Best Americana albums of 2014: First quarter

Rosanne Cash's "The River and the Thread" is one of the best Americana albums of the first quarter of 2014.
Rosanne Cash's "The River and the Thread" is one of the best Americana albums of the first quarter of 2014.
Photo by Rick Diamond

The first 3 months of 2014 has flown by and, while most of America has been frozen for much of it by the polar vortex, it's already been a hot year for Americana and roots music. Three months in, there are already a couple dozen amazing Americana albums vying for your attention and your disposable income. Narrowing it down to the 10 best was a difficult task and we can only imagine what trying to winnow down an end of the year list will look like if this pace keeps up.

Here are the 10 Americana albums we consider the most essential for the first quarter of 2014:

10. The Dirty Guv'nahs- Hearts on Fire

After years of being Knoxville's best kept secret, The Dirty Guv'nahs burst onto the national music scene with 2012's "Somewhere Beneath These Southern Skies." Their new release, "Hearts on Fire", sees the Guv'nahs pivoting away from the boozy Southern rock bombast of that album and into more soulful and introspective territory. While it doesn't come off as satisfying top to bottom as its predecessor, standout tracks like "Morning Light" and "Slow Down Easy" are still enough to make this one of the best albums of the year so far.

9. Jamestown Revival- Utah

Any doubts about the strength of Americana music goes out the window when you hear "Utah", the debut album from Los Angeles by way of Texas-based duo Jamestown Revival. Their close harmonies will remind some listeners of fellow West coasters Milk Carton Kids, but with a pop sensibility that shines through on rollicking songs like "Revival." We look forward to seeing what these youngsters have to offer in the future.

8. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings- South

Canadian songwriter supergroup Blackie and the Rodeo Kings made a big splash with 2011's ultra-collaborative "Kings and Queens." With this year's "South", they offer a more stripped down album that moves the focus back from the dazzling guest parade of "Kings and Queens" to the stellar musical skills of the band's principals, Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson.

7. Lake Street Dive- Bad Self Portraits

One of the more uniquely creative Americana acts to come along in recent years, Lake Street Dive blends country, jazz, and R&B into a mix that sounds like nothing except Lake Street Dive. "Bad Self Portraits" is anchored by the old-school vocal sounds of Rachel Price. But don't mistake the retro hair and clothes and the Dusty Springfield meets Candi Staton vocals for a throwback band. Lake Street Dive takes all of these old elements and makes something brand new and absolutely fresh.

6. St. Paul & the Broken Bones- Half the City

If you're a fan of the more R&B and soul influenced corner of the Americana scene, 2014 is shaping up to be a very good year. One of the biggest breakout artists of the year so far looks to be St. Paul & the Broken Bones, who had built a significant cult following before the release of their full-length debut "Half the City." The Alabama-based band's Stax influenced sound, their high energy live theatrics, and the huge and soulful voice of Paul Janeway translated well to the studio environment, making "Half the City" one of the best party albums in a good while.

5. Parker Millsap- S/T

20 year old Parker Millsap is the latest in a long line of youngsters making a huge splash on the Americana scene. Millsap's raspy vocals give him a time-worn sound that belies his years. But it is his strong skills as a songwriter that reel you in. Millsap's songs are short stories about firebrand truck driving street preachers, broken lovers, and whiskey soaked losers, every character rendered with a loving realism.

4. Will Kimbrough- Sideshow Love

While Will Kimbrough spent much of 2013 and early 2014 recording and touring with Americana supergroup Willie Sugarcapps, he still found time to write and record a new album of solo material, "Sideshow Love." Lucky for us. If you're a fan of Kimbrough's work, "Sideshow Love" has everything you want from one of his albums. The dazzling guitar work that has garnered him multiple "Best Instrumentalist" nominations from the Americana Music Association, the self-deprecating humor that makes Kimbrough such a blast live, and the slightly askew world view that makes his lyrics so compelling. This is Kimbrough's best solo album since 2006's "Americanitis."

3. Hurray for the Riff Raff- Small Town Heroes

New Orleans-based Hurray for the Riff Raff were one of the biggest Americana breakout groups of 2013, riding a wave of highly reviewed festival appearances to a much increased audience. Now they're back in studio form with "Small Town Heroes", their 5th album. Alynda Segarra and crew serve up a surprisingly playful dose of Southern gothic music. From self-aware murder ballad "The Body Electric" to the weary road warriors' tale of "Crash on the Highway", this is an album that should propel Hurray for the Riff Raff even further into the public eye.

2. Hard Working Americans- S/T

What happens when you take the lovingly crafted poetry of songwriters like Will Kimbrough and Randy Newman and run them through the filter of jam band instrumental geniuses like Widespread Panic's Dave Schools and Chris Robinson Brotherhood's Neal Casal? You get Hard Working Americans, the brainchild of Schools and Americana madman Todd Snider. The success of Hard Working Americans comes not only from the strength of the songs and the players but also from Snider's decision to focus on covering artists' best songs, not necessarily their most popular. Add to that a strong thread of blue collar populism and you've got one of the most refreshing albums in a long while.

1. Rosanne Cash- The River and the Thread

When Rosanne Cash took the stage at the Americana Music Festival in September to do a front to back debut of her forthcoming album "The River and the Thread", every fan in attendance left knowing they'd just heard a 2014 album of the year candidate. Cash's first album of original music since 2006, "The River and the Thread" is a loose concept album, exploring the various threads of her family tree, from her father's childhood home in Arkansas to a Cash family ancestor who died in the Civil War. On the whole, it's Cash's most successful record in decades and a welcome return to original music for the daughter of one of Americana music's trailblazers.

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