It’s always weird writing about yourself in the third person, the ego of me, but then headlines without the accompanying cheery picture might leave people mystified. Anyway, there’s my excuse. What a year it’s been for music, so many great tours and a real vibrancy to the genre – I’ll talk about that more next week when we’ll reveal our collaborative choices for 2018 (and yours too of course). In the meantime, here’s my top albums of the last 12 months. If I’d had more time to create a longer list it would have included terrific albums from people like Jason McNiff, Will Oldham, Jeff Tweedy, Paul Kelly, Great Lake Swimmers and the Jayhawks, plus plenty I’ve no doubt forgotten (we do get a lot of records through…) but these ones stood out enough to make an imprint on my consciousness by the year-end:
Passenger “Runaway” (Black Crow) Passenger is one of those artists that flies under the radar of not just americana fans but the UK media in general, despite the fact that he continues to sell records solidly and perform pretty much sell out gigs wherever he goes. Headlining the first Black Deer came at an opportune moment as he released his first album of americana, recorded across the States (his father is American) and reaching number one in the UK’s official americana chart for several weeks. It’s such a lovely record, gorgeous chord changes, subtle arrangements, just a delight to listen to from beginning to end.
Ruston Kelly “Dying Star” (Concord) Going to see the Wandering Hearts being supported by Ruston Kelly was like going to see Shed Seven supported by John Lennon (to be fair the Wandering Hearts are great in their own right and Shed Seven weren’t all bad) – and it led me late in the year to delve into what’s an absolutely terrific record with songs that sound as good live with an acoustic guitar as they do recorded with a full band. With hints of Isbell and Ryan Adams, and perhaps for me more than anyone a little-known americana singer called Darren Smith, his voice is just incredible. He’ll hopefully be back for a headline tour next year.
Darlingside “Extralife” (More Doug) The absolute highlight of the AMAUKs this year for me was Darlingside, who played over lunchtime in their quartet round a single mic set up and just blew everyone else including all the showcase artists out of the water imho. On stage they’re wildly entertaining – I haven’t laughed so much since ex Broken Family Bander Steve Adams’ monologues – but I also cried a lot as their music, which you might describe as “quiet harmonised americana with bleeps” is just sublime. They’re one of those bands it’s worth seeking out the videos for too, although have some Kleenex at hand.
Bennett Wilson Poole “Bennett Wilson Poole” (Aurora) Harking back to Grand Drive’s mellower days, the debut album from the nicest man in americana™ Danny George Wilson, The Dreaming Spires’ Robin Bennett and Tony Poole is like having the Byrds around at the height of their career while at the same time feeling so authentically British that you really feel like they’re the living embodiment of UK americana – you don’t have to do it by pretending to sing like you were born in Texas, or LA for that matter.
Israel Nash “Lifted” (Loose) Beardy Texas’ genre-bending rock ‘n’ roller Israel Nash has been around for a while now, previously with the “Gripka” appendage, but he’s never produced a record which sounds so full and joyful – featuring, as we noted in our review, every instrument under the sun bar the kitchen sink, the exuberant cover is a giveaway as to what you might expect before you’ve even hit play. Our review also described him as sounding like Neil Young with ELO as a backing band, and if such an album didn’t exist, the world would be a sadder place. Luckily for us, it does. (Also it doesn’t feature a cover of the Lighthouse Family track of the same name in case you’re worried).
Ginger Wildheart “Ghost in the Tanglewood” (Graphite) The former lead singer of the Wildhearts has veered close to an americana sound in the past but this is his big country album, and you’d think he’d been doing it for years – the melodies are stronger than an ox and although the focus of the lyrics is mainly about good old heartbreak and loneliness, it just adds to the americana authenticity (hey, that’s what we do best) and endears you even more to the man. The best Ginger thing since Ron Howard.
The Milk Carton Kids “All The Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn’t Do” (ANTI/Epitaph) Californians Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan are two outstanding musicians who could only be more like Simon and Garfunkel if they called themselves Kenneth & Joey which doesn’t have the same ring as the Milk Carton Kids. ‘ATTTIDAATTTIDD’ as we like to call it in the business is another triumph – melanchony to the point of despair but with guitar work that sets the hairs on the back of your neck upright for the duration of the record.
Lord Huron “Vide Noir” (Polydor) Setting sail and steering a little more towards Noise Island than other recent albums, Lord Huron are difficult to pigeonhole but you could do worse than describe them as cosmic folk-rock, and ‘Vide Noir’ is something of a concept album exploring heartbreak and depression (there’s that theme again) but with melodies and arrangements which belie that nature of the lyrics. They do have some great harmonies too, and have created their own unique space in the genre which takes some doing.
Joshua Hedley “Mr Jukebox” (Third Man) And finally from the most untraditionally country record in my choices to the most traditional, courtesy of Jack White’s Third Man label. The songs sound like they could easily have been recorded in the 1950s, the melodies, the arrangements and indeed Hedley’s superb voice being backed by twangy guitars, honky-tonk piano, and strings. Waiting in a queue in Black Deer and hearing the song ‘Weird Thought Thinker’ play in the background was one of those magical festival experiences you sometimes get – and he wasn’t even there.