After a week off to catch our breath, AUK’s quest to find the ’10 best americana albums ever’ returns this week with the selections of Alasdair Fotheringham. Each week a different AUK writer offers his or herself up to scrutiny by presenting their personal selections of the top 10. When all have had their say (and you try shutting them up), the most frequently chosen albums will be compiled into a shortlist on which we will all vote to produce the ultimate AUK writers top 10 albums ever. But you knew all that didn’t you? – and if you didn’t, where the hell have you been? Take it away Alasdair!
Probably the key to drawing up this kind of list is the moment when it dawns on the hapless soul trying to create it that this is not a top ten of americana albums, it’s actually the website editor’s cunningly disguised version of Americana-Whack-A-Mole.
That’s because no sooner is one potential list of contenders pinned down than another name or band pops up from underneath the mental floorboards, demanding he/she/they be given their full credit.
The worst thing is all those insisting on their 15 minutes of fame (i.e. being considered for the list) can’t be ignored, because americana is not just a very broad church, but as Nick Cave and Paul Kelly once put it in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek song they co-wrote: ’Everybody’s got a harp in God’s Hotel’. You’re not allowed to be arbitrary in americana top 10s, in other words, just because you feel like it: that would be missing the point – or maybe even the ethos – of a non-elitist genre with such wonderfully blurry frontiers.
So where does that leave us? Basically with the albums that, if they were people, proved the hardest to boot off this reviewer’s private island of americana music. The hierarchy below is very approximate, largely depending on mood/time of day/available beverages/ company/ lack of company/ distance left to drive home. But for some reason, positions tended to get more stable the higher up the list.
However, topping them all is the one album that you could probably best argue is required listening for anybody who says they’re a fan of americana. So, without further ado…
Number 10: The Walkabouts ‘Satisfied Mind’ (1993)
A series of covers by the Seattle band ranging from the Carter Family to Mary Margaret O’Hara and other musicians like Charlie Rich who, like The Walkabouts, in turn had a hugely eclectic series of styles. There’s a review out there in Allmusic that said “’Satisfied Mind’ represents the purest evocation to date of the Walkabouts’ aesthetic and its standing at the crossroads of country, rock, folk, and punk.” And to be honest, there’s not much more to be added to that, except that right up to their untimely demise, The Walkabouts never stopped exploring and expounding radically different styles of music with their same finely sculpted, assured style and often with a rip-roaring electric guitar core. Their covers and influences and interests spanned – literally – the whole globe, all the way from Nick Cave in Australia to Lluis Llach, one of the modern-day Catalan folk music greats. And then there’s their own, equally high-calibre, creations, with the slow-burning epic of ‘Late Train to Mercy’ arguably one of the best ten minute long tracks there is out there. (Time for another top-10 list?)
Number 9: Amy Rigby ’18 Again-An Anthology’ (2002)
“Summertime of ’83, the last time I took LSD, while listening to Patsy Cline, and Skeeter Davis really blew my mind”. Or so sings Amy Rigby on one of the many songs on this album guaranteed to bring bitter-sweet comfort and a wry grin to anybody who’s been there, done that (or wishes they had, anyway) and is now sadly contemplating the remnants of a rip-roaring past and a much more mundane, scarily middle-aged present.
’18 Again’ has got humour so dry that it makes you want to cry and laugh simultaneously and it’s perceptive to the point of being painful – check out the fake lawyer speak on ‘Cynically Yours’ where Rigby draws up a hilariously realistic pre-nup agreement: “I your loving (blank), take you (insert name here) because frankly I’m just too tired to look around any more. You drive pretty well, have most of your own teeth and not much of a prison record so that’s good. Plus you claim to love my arse and I have a tape to prove it.”
So you can’t help putting ’18 Again’ on the virtual timetable again and again, if only because Rigby tells us how it is – or will be – with just the right mixture of punchy, finely crafted rocky americana. Incidentally, it’s kind of by the by, but Rigby also has had a long term personal relationship with somebody who, if not americana, also does a fine line in whole-wide-worldly disillusionment: new wave pub rocker Wreckless Eric.
Number 8: Hayes Carll ‘Trouble In Mind’ (2008)
Any Texas singer-songwriter who pays his/her dues to both Tom Waits and Ray Wylie Hubbard on the same album has got off to a good start. And on ‘Trouble in Mind’, from the moment Carll kicks off with a swirl of violins and “I got a woman, she’s wild as Rome” on Hubbard’s ‘Drunken Poet’s Dream’ to the closing ‘Amen’ on the hilarious, subversive ‘She Left Me For Jesus’, there’s never a dull moment – which in 14 tracks is saying something. ‘Trouble In Mind’ was Carll’s third full-length album, he’s hit warp speed in terms of creativity and it’s bursting with energy and ideas – one minute grimly acerbic and evocative lines about a musician scraping by in crappy venues on ‘I got a Gig’, the next brutally honest self-analysis of a relationship gone wrong in ‘Knocking Over Whiskeys’. Waits fans may cry foul at this point, but you could even argue that his version of ‘I Don’t Want To Grow Up’ leaves Waits’ original for dead. For one thing compared to the original, you can actually understand the lyrics when Carll is singing – although given how ferociously pessimistic this song is, part of you somehow wishes you couldn’t.
Number 7: Shinyribs ‘Gulf Coast Museum’ (2013)
Swamp Rock? Austin Soul? Texas Funk? All of the above label are probably applicable to Shinyribs’ style of music, a band formed out of the ashes of the late lamented – and equally maverick and idiosyncratic – band The Gourds. It’s truly hard to sing this band’s praises loudly enough: their lyrics are a wonderful mixture of the surreal, the painful, the darkly humourous, and the plain fun about modern-day living, their singer Kevin Russell is a deeply gifted performer as well as being an incredibly versatile musician, the band itself are a hugely disciplined collective of individual virtuosos, and on this album at least there isn’t a single song you wouldn’t want to hum (or bawl) to yourself in the shower.
Back in the day the Gourds were famous for doing a boogie bluegrass version of rap song ‘Gin’n’Juice’ and Shinyribs broadened and improved that inherited tradition of combining the most unpredictable ingredients to produce one top-notch musical concoction after another. Just by way of example, if you’ve never heard ‘If You Don’t Know Me By Now’ played on a ukelele and have always wanted something to get Simply Red’s mawkish massacre of the same song out of your head then look no further than ‘Gulf Coast Museum’.
Number 6: Paul Kelly ‘Wanted Man’ (1994)
A late arrival on the island and one that is all AUK’s own fault, after getting introduced to Paul Kelly’s music through his greatest hits album ‘Songs From the South’ when it came up for review for the site last January, and subsequently being mesmerised by almost anything the Australian folk-rock singer has ever done. Which, which in a career spanning five decades, is quite a lot.
‘Wanted Man’ was Kelly’s first solo album after his second group, the Messengers, disbanded in the early 1990s and although his band work was anything but weak, the change seems to have allowed Kelly to move up another gear. Ever since releasing ‘Gossip’ back in the mid-1980’s, Kelly’s hugely perceptive and unpretentious lyrics are central to his work, but on ‘Wanted Man’ it’s like he’s flexing his musical muscles with a whole, stunning variety of different styles to boot. And we can only be grateful.
Number 5: Richard Thompson ‘guitar, vocal’ (1976)
Back in the 1980’s, I bought this album for 15 pounds – at a time and in financial circumstances that meant it was a seriously hefty amount to pay for an LP – in a second-hand record shop in Brighton without knowing more than a single track. But rarely have my worries that I could have been risking my cash on a duff album been so totally misplaced.
This one is a personal favourite partly because it’s a total mishmash of bits of Thompson’s early career, almost all of it live or previously unreleased tracks that didn’t make it onto his early albums from Fairport Convention onwards to the mid 1970’s. As such it simultaneously points you in a lot of the different directions taken by Thompson in his mindbogglingly lengthy, varied career, all of it with his painstakingly deft, genius-level guitar playing at the centre of it.
Of the many highpoints, there’s a version of ‘A Heart Needs A Home’ featuring Linda Thompson that blows the original out of the water, and that’s far easier said than done. Plus there’s a rare, gut-wrenchingly heartfelt version of ‘Easy Rider’ with Sandy Denny at the height of her vocal powers. On top of that, you could throw around a lot of adjectives or phrases like majestic, tour-de-force and technically (if maybe not technologically) unflawed, for the two long live versions on the album, ‘Calvary Cross’ and ‘Night Comes In’. Both allow Thompson acres of space to rip it up with some typically blazing, no-holds-barred, guitar solos and both were recorded on a single concert in Oxford Poly on one November night in 1975 that must have been very special indeed – particularly given it included another song on this album, the break-neck blast out of ‘Sweet Little Rock’n’Roller’.
Number 4: Gillian Welch ‘Revival’ (1996)
If you want some historical background, there’s a fair amount of critical comment out there about how Gillian Welch’s 1996 album ‘Revival’ maybe marked the point where alt.country as per 1990’s Uncle Tupelo, broadened out into mainstream americana. The jury’s still out on that one, but whatever kind of landmark status it’s got, Revival’s ‘listenability’ never gives out. That’s because there’s a purity of tone in the hammered-out, hollowed-out, spookily beautiful sound that not only makes it instantly identifiable as Welch’s work, it creates a kind of unique addiction.
Number 3: Kirsty MacColl ‘From Croydon To Cuba: An Anthology’ (2005)
Kirsty MacColl started off creating a mixture of finely formed power pop and pub rock’n’roll with song titles as memorably evocative as ‘There’s A Guy Works Down The Chip Shop Swears He’s Elvis’, but the middle of her career in particular she moved off into a much rawer, folky version of americana. If there’s one thing that underlined MacColl’s music it’s not just how well constructed most of it is (she was as gifted a producer as she was an artist in her own right), or how emotionally communicative she was as a singer, but also how hugely humane – and humorous – she could be in her writing.
On this album, a triple whammy of her greatest hits and lesser-known moments, there are some telling down-home examples: ‘Bad’ is the tale of a woman judged as a failure by society but bent on some serious revenge; ‘Other People’s Hearts’ has MacColl contemplating the pieces of a broken relationship, in ‘Caroline’ she’s morassed in the moral quandaries of having a secret affair with her best friend’s partner, and in ‘Don’t Run Away From Me Now’ she finds herself unwillingly observing her partner’s disintegrating family: “Your daddy’s gone looking to find him a job, your grandmother’s sent all her welfare to God, your brother’s been taking it out on the dog…” Even if it’s a whopping 60-something songs long, there’s a couple dozen MacColl tracks missing from here that deserve their space – to name but one you’d be hard pushed to find a break-up song as graceful and witty as ‘Autumngirlsoup’ off ‘Tropical Brainstorm’ – and two or three that are clunkers. But that’s only to be expected in what is a wonderful opportunity to ease your way into appreciating a massive span of MacColl’s 30-something years of music, brutally curtailed by a still unresolved boating accident.
Number 2. James McMurtry ‘Where’d You Hide the Body’ (1995)
Probably best-known for one of McMurtry’s most enduringly popular songs, ‘Levelland’ – written by McMurtry, and not Robert Earl Keen, as McMurtry invariably reminds listeners in his concerts who are maybe more familiar with Keen’s cover version – ‘Where D’You Hide The Body’ contains much, much more.
That’s partly because McMurtry’s gift for outlining grim personal predicaments and hardscrabble lives on the edges of society with lightning rapidity, deftness and a kind of quiet compassion has seemingly gone into overdrive here. The standout example is maybe ‘Rachel’s Song’, the heart-wrenching portrait of a single mother and her complex relationship with her son and the missing father. But that relentlessly hammering out of the raw, ragged-edge nature of people’s existences is also true on WDHTB’s far less well-known songs, like the opener ‘Iolanthe’. Fro the very first lines “Your mother used to take the cure/She kept plastic on the furniture in the living room/You used to tell your friends/If you never saw that place again it’d be too soon”, McMurtry demonstrates his trademark elegant terseness of phrase while nailing down personal drama in the most vivid and sometimes harrowing of lights. And it’s not just the rural world, either, where he pulls no punches: a couple of tracks later we can be pulled into a classic tale of world-weary urban disillusionment and defiance in ‘Down Beyond The Delaware’ where the grind of city life sees a couple up sticks and quit, but with the narrator promising to return to give this town another crack at me. However before that, in just a couple of lines in one verse “Small talk over take-out pizza. Post-it notes. Opposite shifts” McMurtry lets you know exactly how much of an emotional toll that life has already taken, and could take again.
It helps, maybe, that on his third album, musically speaking McMurtry broadens his scope massively, partly thanks to producer Don Dixon, who played a lot of the backing instruments as well. Whatever the reason, there’s also a rip-roaring rocker of ‘Ray O’Light’, and some thundering R’n’B blues – both genres which have never really been visited by McMurtry before or since – to back up the mournful acceptance of times and dreams long gone in ‘Lost In the Backyard’. As for the title track, it’s a tale of confrontation with a guilty party/partner that crackles along with humour and despair.
If there’s an over-riding theme on ‘Where D’you Hide The Body’, it’s probably about the conflict between different generations, like the incredibly sinister image of the father staring malignantly at his daughter, clinking his Bourbon-filled glass as she practices her piano scales on ‘Iolanthe’. Within that, McMurtry looks hard at how time has worn everything down, like the mother’s Sunbeam car that repeatedly left her stranded “but you could do that then” on ‘Fullerbrushman’ or the grandad who grew “dry-land wheat” in ‘Levelland’ before “his mind got incomplete and they put him in a home.” What gives this album so much life of so many kinds, in fact, is how hard McMurtry’s clearly worked beforehand on producing razor-sharp points of view that are definitely not his, like in the dialogue between those who’ve moved on from the bleak “one-light town” in ‘One More Winter’ and those left to eke out a life there. But however long he’s spent in the album’s engine-room, it was clearly worth it – because this vehicle flies like a dream.
Number 1: Leonard Cohen ‘The Best of’ (1975)
Think of Leonard Cohen’s song and you probably think of deeply concentrated shots of unconventional, melancholy wisdom, dry-as-a-bone humour, vivid but strange mental landscapes that veer between the surreal and the real in an instant. But – to give it an americana slant – country musician Charlie Daniels, who played on several of Leonard Cohen’s early albums, once said in an interview he had never previously heard music that was so “very, very fragile”.
He might well have added, maddeningly incomprehensible at times, sung by somebody with a voice so gravelly and harsh it almost hurts to listen to it, and musical structures that, at least in the early albums, tend to be reduced to as simple a form as possible.
But these are all elements that blindside the listener, and as a result, they leave you more exposed and receptive too, to whatever Cohen is trying to tell us. But if Leonard Cohen sails into the number one spot on this list with no Whack-A-Mole opponents even remotely trying to lift the floorboards from underneath him, it’s because no matter what mood you’re in when you approach Cohen’s music and no matter how many times you come back to it, it’ll always give you something new, something unexpected and something instantly relevant. Or as Cohen himself once famously wrote, “We are ugly, but we have the music.”
Just a brief footnote: if you’re wondering why this album’s got a date on it (1975), it’s because of what happened in 2009, when ‘The Best Of’ was revamped to include four songs from Cohen’s later work, when he dialled up the mystical, quasi-religious elements so high it felt a shade over-indulgent. (See ‘Hallelujah’) and the album paid the price.
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