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’s tortured soul is Andrew Frolish.
Being asked to select the top ten Americana albums of all time is a sure-fire way of starting an argument. And that’s just with myself before anyone else even reads it. So, what am I looking for from the best Americana albums and artists of all time? There are some key ingredients: exceptional lyrics, like poetry in musical form; engaging narratives, rich in detail; characterful, distinctive vocals; more than masterful musicianship, we need songs that feel genuinely crafted, feel complete. It’s no good being able to play beautifully if the song-writing isn’t there. Also, as we’re talking about albums rather than artists or songs, I’m looking for consistency and something coherent, something that hangs together as one piece of art, sonically and thematically, across all the album’s songs. So, I’m not asking for much.
I feel bad for all the great albums I haven’t included here. What follows is what poured out of me on the day. When I finished, I actually sat back with a smile and then said out loud, “Shit! I forgot Neil Young and ‘Harvest’.” Also, the album I’ve listened to most since I finished compiling has been Son Volt’s ‘Trace’. But I decided not to change the original list because it almost makes the point that if I did this again tomorrow, it would probably be different again. Even within the list, I kept chopping and changing the particular albums representing each artist. The selections from Jason Isbell, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Townes Van Zandt were not their albums that I started writing about. And that’s a sign of how great those artists are – multiple albums could have made the list. Inevitably, the list is mostly taken up by classic albums and familiar artists. There’s no attempt here to come up with anything obscure! However, I would also like to nod my head towards current artists who didn’t quite make this list yet (but ask me again in a few years): the likes of Josh Ritter, JS Ondara, Jarrod Dickenson, Danny Schmidt and Courtney Marie Andrews. May such artists be on our lists in future years. Rhiannon Giddens got that final space in the end, seeing off competition from Ryan Adams and Levon Helm. That was an anguished battle.
Number 10: Rhiannon Giddens ‘Freedom Highway’
This is a remarkable album from a remarkable, multi-talented artist. ‘Freedom Highway’ is Giddens’ second solo album and won the International Folk Music Awards Album of the Year. A worthy winner, the album is an incredibly coherent, consistent piece of art. Lyrically, these songs are defiant poetry: “You can take my body, you can take my bones // You can take my blood, but not my soul,” and are full of evocative imagery and narrative detail. And Rhiannon Giddens writes well about subjects that matter. In the years ahead, this will stand up as a culturally significant statement. In terms of musical merit, the songcraft is excellent throughout. Giddens has the purest of voices with a wonderful range and she manages to find vocal melodies that feel familiar yet unexpected. She also happens to be excellent with the banjo and fiddle. Over the years, she has won or been nominated for multiple awards, either solo or with the Carolina Chocolate Drops or Our Native Daughters. But, for me, this album is the highlight of a career that is already extraordinary.
Number 9: Lucinda Williams ‘Good Souls Better Angels’ (2020)
After 40 years of music, Lucinda Williams’ 14th album is so purposeful and intense that I believe it’s her best work to date. The sound and tone are moodily cohesive as Williams moves away from the more personal narratives she’s famous for and surveys the world around her more broadly. The message is brutal at times, as on highlight ‘Man Without a Soul’, but the album is ultimately built on resilience and hopefulness. When she sings, “Don’t give up, it’s going to be alright,” the disarming simplicity amidst all the darkness is magical. The songcraft and musicianship is of the highest standard, providing a frame for the controlled grit of Williams’ characterful voice. There will be many listeners who cannot conceive of a Lucinda Williams album that surpasses ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’. But I believe ‘Good Souls Better Angels’ is a powerful statement that draws upon her previous work to fashion something better. Of its time yet timeless. There will always be something to rebel against.
Number 8: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
Jason Isbell is a remarkable songwriter and the challenge is in choosing which album to include in this list. ‘Southeastern’, produced by Dave Cobb, feels deeply personal throughout, from the title (which relates to the tool shop where his father worked) to the moving song about cancer, ‘Elephant’. Every song is masterful: concise, complete, tight. It feels effortless although it must have been anything but, recorded after a stint in rehab. If anyone is new to Jason Isbell (anyone?), this album is where I’d start.
Number 7: Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ‘Raising Sand’ (2007)
The 2007 collaboration between two of music’s most enduring singers and songwriters was a critical triumph and rightly so. Immediately familiar, it felt like Plant and Krauss had been harmonising for years. covering a range of roots styles, ‘Raising Sand’ is an album that exudes quality. Perhaps the fact that the pair never released a follow-up and it stands alone helps it to stand out as one of the best Americana albums of all time. The heartfelt ‘Please Read the Letter’ is a lesson in songcraft and performance.
Number 6: Kris Kristofferson ‘Kristofferson’ (1970)
This 1970 debut album was filled with familiar songs, already released by other artists. But on here, Kristofferson demonstrated that he’s a brilliant performer as well as a masterful songwriter. In ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, ‘Help Me Make it Through the Night’, ‘For the Good Times’ and ‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’, Kristofferson wrote four of the best country songs of all time. And they’re all here on one record. And did I mention that it was his debut?
Number 5: Rosanne Cash ‘The River & the Thread’ (2014)
I selected ‘Seven Year Ache’ for my classic Americana album review earlier this year because I feel it was Cash’s most significant, breakthrough album when she announced herself to the world as a great songwriter, particularly with the memorable melody of the Cash-penned title track. However, her style has developed and changed over the years, becoming more sparse and rootsy. Cash’s 2014 Grammy-winning album, ‘The River & the Thread’, is compelling, spellbinding and remarkably consistent. Cash’s song-writing ability has continued to mature and this is poetry in musical form.
Number 4: Townes Van Zandt ‘Our Mother the Mountain’ (1969)
That clean, clear voice. That finger-picking guitar. Those stories. There had to be a Townes Van Zandt album on this list. Although my two favourites aren’t here – ‘Pancho and Lefty’ and ‘Flyin’ Shoes’ – I opted for this 1969 release because of the consistency of song-writing and performance across the entire record. Songs like ‘Be Here to Love Me’, ‘Kathleen’ and ‘Tecumseh Valley’ find Van Zandt at the height of his musical and lyrical powers. If you want to explore American folk, start here.
Number 3: Bruce Springsteen ‘Nebraska’ (1982)
Famously recorded at home on a four-track tape recorder, the songs that make up Nebraska just didn’t work when presented to the E Street Band for the full treatment. The intimate, character-driven narratives were simply more effective left as stark, spare, haunting recordings. The tone and mood of the lyrics and the sound are a perfect match for one another. The chosen subject matter and the depth of detail in these tales of loss, broken relationships and criminality are ambitious. The stories are so good that one of the best, ‘Highway Patrolman’ inspired a movie, Sean Penn’s ‘The Indian Runner’. This song and ‘My Father’s House’ are heart-breaking pieces about family ties crumbling or being torn apart that are laid out in such a simple, straightforward fashion that they feel like factual accounts. For all its darkness, though, the album ends on a hopeful note in ‘Reason to Believe’. It’s worth noting that many of the songs from these sessions did work well with the full band and formed the bulk of Springsteen’s follow-up, the huge ‘Born in the USA’. So, it was a fairly fruitful period of song-writing.
Number 2: John Prine ‘Souvenirs’ (2000)
Recently, so much has been said about Prine’s humour and wit and storytelling ability. His talent for creating beautiful songs was a rare gift but, most importantly, those songs have an emotional resonance that has influenced so many artists. This album from the year 2000 contains re-recordings of earlier, well-known songs but I chose this because of the wonderfully characterful vocal performance. Prine’s voice improved with time, age, experience and at this stage it was so warm and welcoming. He joked that his voice improved after surgery in the 1990s. When I listen to this album, I feel like he’s in the room telling me stories. Songs like ‘Souvenirs’, ‘Angel From Montgomery’, ‘Sam Stone’ and ‘Hello in There’ are Americana perfection. And ‘Christmas in Prison’ is my favourite song title of all time.
Number 1: Johnny Cash ‘American V: A Hundred Highways’ (2006)
It was always going to be a Johnny Cash album for number 1, just a question of which one. The collaborations with Rick Rubin on the ‘American’ series were all breathtakingly good, often transforming familiar songs into something entirely new and beautiful. But this album is the one for me, so coherent, such a sense of identity. In ‘Like the 309’, it has the last song Cash ever wrote. Right to the end, he was writing such emotionally resonant material, sitting alongside perfect cover choices. The album opener, Larry Gatlin’s ‘Help Me’, makes me want to weep. It wasn’t the first time Cash had recorded the song but, as with many of the other songs on the album, it feels like he was letting us into the deepest, most human parts of himself. There’s a rare intimacy throughout. Many of the best songs out there are preoccupied by the passing of time and inevitable death, the fundamentals of the human condition. As his voice cracks with age, experience, emotion, Cash tackles it all here: life, love, death, legacy. And it’s never been done better. Fact.