At AUK we are on a quest to find the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’. Over the last few weeks our writers have been going through the mental anguish of trying to narrow the whole history of americana down to just ten albums. When every writer has had their say, a shortlist of the most frequently chosen albums will be drawn up and voted on, in order to generate the definitive AUK writers top ten. This week we turn to one of our most senior writers. During a recent AUK writers zoom meeting, collective jaws dropped as he told us all of having seen The Beatles and The Rolling Stones within four days of one another! Enjoy the selections of Alan Fitter.
Over the years I’ve often listened to ‘Desert Island Discs’ and thought that I was glad that I wasn’t famous enough to be invited to go on the programme and select just eight records to take with me to the desert island – how did anyone manage to make a list like that? Then last week, I was invited to be next up in this website’s ‘top 10 americana albums ever’ series – how does anyone manage to make a list like that? Now whilst I had two more records to choose (is that easier or harder?), I also had to limit the list to just americana, a genre that has been heatedly debated on other pages of this site. What exactly is americana music? Whilst there was an increase in the number I could select, they would have to be from a form of music where no-one really knows the parameters! Looking at some of the top 10’s from fellow writers, I see there are albums from the likes of Teddy Thompson, Kathleen Edwards, Thea Gilmore and Van Morrison – none of who I personally would have thought of as ‘americana’, so that shows how hard is to describe the genre.
So, what to do and what albums to choose? I’ve been buying records since 1958 (giving my age away now), the first one was a Buddy Holly EP featuring ‘Rave On’ as the main song of the four. For a few years, using my pocket money and record tokens given to me for my birthday and Christmas, I only bought singles. Then the Beatles came along, and then the Rolling Stones, and I started buying albums by both of those bands until I discovered Chuck Berry and starting buying any albums by him I could afford (not that many). As I started working and had some more money, my album collection expanded, and I discovered a whole new world out there most of which was music from America and Canada although it wasn’t called americana back then – just folk and rock (and sometimes folk-rock).
Now, many years later, I have to make a list of ten albums that I think are the best ever – an impossible task. So, what I decided to do was list ten albums that for one reason or another meant (and mean) a lot to me. There’s nothing after 1984 which is not to say that music after that doesn’t mean anything to me, on the contrary, it means a lot even as I meander into my eighth decade. There could have been hundreds of my ‘top 10’ lists and they would have been a movable feast, changing like the weather depending on which day of the week I was writing this. I haven’t stopped listening to new music (and hopefully never will) and if I was compiling a list of the top 10 americana albums I’ve listened to in the past month or so, the artists on it would be: Margo Price, Courtney Marie Andrews, The Jayhawks, Texas Gentlemen, Town Meeting, Emily Duff, Fretland, Ana Christina Cash, Kalie Shorr and Larkin Poe – very few of whom I’d heard of before I listened to their recent albums.
So, here’s my top 10. I haven’t dissected them or described the music and the lyrics, it’s just what I remember about them when I first discovered them. In a number of cases they’re the first albums by the artist although in most cases, I went on to buy all their albums and to get to see them play live. I present a list of my top 10 americana albums – today.
Number 10: Dr. John, The Night Tripper ‘GRIS-gris’ (1968)
This is an album that seemed to come out of left-field. I had no idea who Dr John was and the same went for gumbo, gris-gris, Mama Roux or guilded splinters. But the rhythms were exotic and intoxicating, the lyrics mysterious and mesmerising and I yearned to go to New Orleans which I did fifty years later but by then the wonderful Malcolm John Rebennack Jr. had left us for another world somewhere beyond Louisiana. Amazingly the good doctor never made another album quite like ‘GRIS-gris’, but I followed Dr John’s career slavishly and loved what he did not only with his own songs but also the tribute albums he did towards the end of his life. He lived an amazing and often drug-fuelled life, but he made music that will be around forever.
Number 9: Grateful Dead ‘Workingman’s Dead’ (1970)
I never really took to The Dead. I always thought you needed to take copious amounts of drugs to enjoy their improvisational, psychedelic ramblings and tracks that took up one side of a double or possibly triple album. People said you had to see them live to appreciate them properly, but I never did and wasn’t particularly bothered. Then in one year, 1970 they released two albums, one in June (‘Workingman’s Dead’) and one in November (‘American Beauty’) that were basically full-on country rock. They took me totally by surprise and when I heard the first track ‘Uncle Johns’ Band’ on the former I was shocked by, and at the same time totally hooked by, the amazing harmonies. Apart from the superb vocals, there’s pedal steel, banjo and even harmonica on the record – could this be the very first americana album?
Number 8: Los Lobos: ‘How Will The Wolf Survive?’ (1984)
The band from East LA’s second album, it proved what a powerhouse and versatile band they were and still are. The eleven tracks vary from the full-on rock of ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ to the jaunty, accordion lead, polka ‘Corrido #1’, the rockabilly ‘Evangeline’, to the Mexicali sound of ‘Seranata Nortena’ and finishing with the superb title track. This album and those that followed show how multi-talented the band are swapping effortlessly from pure Mexican sounds to hard rock to gentle plaintive ballads and even some off the wall music which can be heard on albums such as ‘Kiko’ and ‘Colossal Head’. Amazingly after nearly fifty years the band are still going strong with almost the same line-up throughout although there have been times when they looked like they were going to split, but thankfully they haven’t and continue to release great albums (apart from possibly the ‘Goes Disney’ album) and play live on a regular basis.
Number 7: Judy Collins ‘In My Life’ (1966)
I didn’t really like Judy Collins’ early albums as they were just a bit too ‘folky’ for my musical taste at that time. But then I heard ‘In My Life’ and I was hooked. It’s an album of covers, but what covers they are. There are songs by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Randy Newman and Lennon & McCartney. Her interpretations of ‘Tom Thumb’s Blues’, ‘Suzanne’, I Think It’s Going To Rain Today’ and ‘In My Life’ are probably the best covers of those songs and they’ve all been covered hundreds of times since. However, very few can live with Judy’s interpretations. Her ability to pick a song and a songwriter is second to none and she’s credited with jump-starting the songwriting careers of Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Sandy Denny and she gave composer Stephen Sondheim his only hit with ‘Send In The Clowns’. Her crystal-clear, cut-glass voice has hardly diminished although she turned 81 in May. I saw her live at Cecil Sharpe House in January 2019 and if you closed your eyes, you’d have thought you were listening to a young girl rather than a grandmother!
Number 6: Kate & Anna McGarrigle: ‘Kate & Anna McGarrigle’ (1976)
Once again I have no idea how I first heard of the McGarrigle sisters but I’m so glad I did, as it lead me on to not only loving their music but the music of their children Rufus and Martha Wainwright, eldest sister Jane and their niece Lily Lanken amongst others in the McGarrigle’s extended family. Their first album the eponymous ‘Kate & Anna McGarrigle’ is a joy from start to finish with twelve sublime tracks highlighting their very special sibling harmonies. There are two tracks that went on to become standards, ‘(Talk To Me Of) Mendocino’ and the much-covered ‘Heart Like A Wheel’ the title song of Linda Ronstadt’s Grammy-nominated 1974 album. In February 1977 I got to see the sisters live at the Royal Festival Hall and what a delight it was. At times they didn’t know what song they were singing next and what instrument they should be playing but it was terrific fun and a superb never to be forgotten evening. Sadly, Kate died in 2010 after a long illness but she left a wonderful legacy of amazing songs and superb albums.
Number 5: Emmylou Harris ‘Pieces Of The Sky’ (1975)
Not Emmylou’s first album, but her second and what a wonderful album it is. Her relationship with Gram Parsons had exposed her to a lot of country and western music that she hadn’t been aware of and with some of Nashville’s finest musicians such as James Burton, Byron Berline, Ben Keith and Glen Hardin backing her, she gave country music a spit and a polish and a contemporary slant and also a brand new audience of people who like me wouldn’t have dreamt of listening to anything from that genre. At that time Harris wasn’t writing a lot so nine of the ten tracks were covers from the likes of Lennon and McCartney, Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton although the best song on the album ‘Boulder To Birmingham’ was co-written by Harris and Bill Danoff. There’s a strong Parsons influence in the song although he had died just a year or so before it was recorded, and it recounts her grief after the death of her lover and mentor.
Number 4: Neil Young ‘Neil Young’ (1969)
I’d discovered Young from his days with Buffalo Springfield and thought his weird voice and off the wall songwriting came from a different planet. I’d never heard anything like ‘Mr Soul’, ‘Expecting To Fly’ and in particular the six minutes of ‘Broken Arrow’ with its opaque lyrics, tempo changes and calliope sound effect in the middle. So, it was with great excitement that I awaited his first solo album, but when I listened to it there was something wrong. The songs were wonderful with classics such as ‘The Old Laughing Lady’, ‘The Loner’ and ‘The Last Trip To Tulsa’ but it sounded odd. It wasn’t until years later that I found out that they had used some brand-new technology doing the mix and something went wrong -even Young himself said “The first mix was awful”. However, it didn’t put me off the man and his music and his second album ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ redeemed him in my eyes and I went on to buy all of the albums he’s released since then – even the ones that really didn’t warrant a second listen!
Number 3: The Band ‘Music From Big Pink’ (1968)
This was another life-changing album. Like most of the albums on my list, I can’t remember when I first heard The Band although I’m sure I knew they were Dylan’s backing band. With its primitive cover art from Bob, the eleven songs make for not only a perfect album but also almost a greatest hits compilation with the likes of ‘Tears Of Rage’, ‘This Wheel’s On Fire’, ‘I Shall Be Released’ and the ubiquitous ‘The Weight’. With three of the best singers in any band ever, Levon Helm, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel, they not only gave us wonderful lead vocals but also sublime harmonies. The sleeve notes told me that the songs were mainly written by the band members, but Dylan had not only contributed the cover art but three songs – one co-written with Manuel and one with Danko and one on his own. ‘Music From Big Pink’ is a definite contender for the best debut album of all time.
Number 2: Joni Mitchell ‘Song To A Seagull’ (1967)
I have no idea when and where I first heard Joni’s wonderful voice and unusual guitar playing, but the moment I did, I was in love, an affair that has carried on for the past fifty-plus years (my wife knows all about it). I love the way her voice swoops up and down the octaves and if I was a musician, I would have known that her sublime guitar sound comes from using unusual tunings, although I have no real idea what that actually means. It inspired me not only to buy every album she’s ever recorded but she ignited a passion for ‘girls with guitars’ as I discovered Judy Collins, Linda Ronstadt, Laura Nyro, Emmylou Harris and many, many more. There are some sublime songs on the David Crosby produced album with ‘I Had A King’ and the title song the standouts. Probably not her finest album but without it I might not have discovered the delights of Roberta Joan Anderson.
Number 1: Bob Dylan ‘Bob Dylan’ (1962)
After only buying albums by The Beatles, The Stones and Chuck Berry, a friend introduced me to Bob Dylan and my life changed forever. I had no idea music like this existed as it wasn’t played on the BBC Light Programme (the precursor of Radio’s 1 and 2) and the pirate ships hadn’t started yet. When I put the stylus gently down on to the vinyl and heard ‘You’re No Good’, it was a eureka moment. I didn’t know that it was written by Jesse Fuller or that Dylan was doing a masterful impression of Woody Guthrie (who was he?). Then listening to the next track ‘Talkin’ New York’ was like listening to a new language for the first time – where did this music come from? The other eleven tracks were all wonderful and I played the album constantly much to my parent’s disgust. How could I listen to someone who they said, “Had the worst voice they had ever heard” and compared to someone like Frank Sinatra who they loved, Dylan must have sounded odd. So much so that they made me take the family record player up into my room. The irony was that over fifty years later Dylan was releasing albums of Sinatra songs that I find hard (no impossible) to listen to!
As you say Alan a personal twist on the top 10. All these artists have meant something to me as well over the years. My bone of contention though is over your comments on Dylan’s American Songbook albums. While no one would say they are in contention for his greatest album, I viewed them as Dylan repaying a debt of honour. Dylan with the Beatle rang the death knell of the professional songwriter who wasn’t also a performing artist. For a while it was cool to write your own songs even if you couldn’t. Time has shown how great the Songbook is. Willie raised its profile over forty years ago and Dylan with his take on the songs, finally recognised their influence and greatness. Miles Davis regularly raided the Sinatra playlist for songs in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and he was at the time probably the coolest person on the planet. I don’t expect you to change your view but I just had to have my say on this one.
mpj55 you’re entitled to you opinion of course and thanks for commenting. The main reason for me disliking Dylan’s “Sinatra” albums is purely the fact that whilst I appreciate Sinatra’s voice, i rebelled against most of the music my parents liked – well I was in my early teens. So listening to Bob singing the songs of my parents just went against the grain! I do have a problem with “rock” singers doing the Great American Songbook – just has never worked for me. I can listen to Frank, Ella and Miles doing the GAS but not anyone who I would call rock. However, both Willie and Dr John have the right kind of voices for the GAS and love what they do. As you said, just a personal twist – I’m still a 17 year old boy but in a 71 year old body I guess!
I agree on this point.