As has become our custom on a Thursday, we bring you the latest (the 28th in fact) of our writers’ personal selections in our attempt to seek out the top 10 americana albums ever. Now this unenviable task falls upon Diccon Johnston, whose selections will be added to those already made by those that have gone before him, to produce a shortlist of the most frequently chosen albums. We will then publish that shortlist before our writers then cast their votes to produce the ultimate top 10. But that friends, is for the future, so for now enjoy Diccon’s great selections which had me nodding in hearty approval as I read through them, and which will certainly elicit many more approving nods out there in AUK land. All yours Diccon…
First a confessional – I don’t like lists; to reduce our experience of the world in such a way feels insufficient. The thing I am obsessed with today may be reduced to a fond, fleeting memory tomorrow. But here it is, the deadline that has patiently been waiting in ambush all year has arrived. The shortlist was initially whittled down to a mere twenty-nine, then a new list was made with only fifteen albums that just had to be here, leaving only five pieces of my soul that had to be surgically removed to achieve the final ten. So, just in case there is any doubt – by the time you read this, I may already disagree with this selection.
So many of these artists have multiple contenders, it seemed appropriate to only include a single album by any given artist which left some agonising decisions somewhat akin to “would you rather chop off your right leg or your left leg?”
The criteria for selection appears to be that each of these albums has been my number one on a different day. In truth I could have put these albums in hat, pulled them out in random order and felt pretty happy justifying the result. It seem a bit ‘classic’ heavy, but what the hell, there is a reason they are classics. As for those hidden gems in the more obscure corners of americana, go out and find them, that’s half the fun.
Number 10: ‘Anthology of American Folk Music’ (1952)
This collection of 84 songs arguably played a big part to kickstarting the folk music revival in the fifties and sixties. A sprawling, weird immersive experience that is clearly a reference point to so many that have followed. It was re-released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in 1997 as a 6CD set with the original liner notes and an additional booklet. Being penniless at the time, I had to import a copy from the US, as the cost of buying it in the UK was insane. This is not a regular listen but a deep dive whenever it re-emerges, so much contemporary music starts right here.
Number 9: Townes Van Zandt ‘Live at the Old Quarter’ (1977)
I had the good fortune to be first introduced to Townes records many years ago and picked up a copy of this album before becoming familiar with his earlier studio recordings. This is the perfect snapshot, it’s stripped back beauty showcases his best works without embellishment. The modest stage chat, bad jokes, moving chairs and audience coughs serve to emphasise the strength and space in his work. No better place to start for one of the very finest of songwriters.
Number 8: Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2008)
The legend of his self-imposed isolation in a winter cabin in Wisconsin is well known. It conjured a transformation in Justin Vernon’s method of songwriting and composition. A finer output resulting from internal reflection through depression and illness is hard to find. It occupies a private and magical world to which few others are comparable.
Number 7: Steve Earle ‘El Corazon’ (1997)
The high point in a whole run of albums that constitute the sweet spot in Steve’s canon – that point on the journey where everything he did just worked. The album contains a whole range of styles from folk, to rock and bluegrass but the confidence in his songwriting carries it off without ever sounding eclectic or inconsistent. Any album that opens with ‘Christmas in Washington’ and closes with ‘Ft. Worth Blues’ is going to be hard to beat.
Number 6: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
This is the most recent album on the list, which I was obligated to track down after seeing a live version of ‘Cover Me Up’ by another artist which totally blew me away. His intimate songwriting combines with the direct, exceptional vocal to make the whole album so personal it’s painful. I still don’t know how he can perform ‘Elephant’ live without breaking down.
Number 5: Gillian Welch ‘Time (The Revelator)’ (2001)
A gem of an album that doesn’t stray far from perfect throughout. The delicate combination of great acoustic guitar and tender vocals just makes this album a delight to listen too. Dave Rawlings is equally essential to this work. The songwriting takes history and make it personal. Simultaneously new and instantly classic – the beating heart of country folk music.
Number 4: Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002)
I was already a full badge owning Jeff Tweedy fan club member before this “career-ender” of an album was available. Shortly after purchase, I played it to a more trad. oriented musician friend who succinctly recommended I “get this shit off”. This record single-handedly changed the scope of alt-country.
Number 3: The Band ‘The Band’ (1969)
This is a whole chunk of the map that defines Americana. I have copies of the original album, the remastered version and I then had the opportunity to review the 50th Anniversary edition for AUK. I would have scored it 10, but the Live at Woodstock second CD pulled it down in my view. The original album is a musical masterclass.
Number 2: Neil Young and Crazy Horse ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ (1969)
The raw spontaneous burst of creativity in this album is like an explosion. They are all present in the moment, this is not the sound of a band trying to make an album, they are simply exploring the limits of their sound. It is flawed and messy and all the better for it. Literally half of the songs are still regarded as being among his finest against some serious competition.
Number 1: Bob Dylan ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965)
My family exposed me to Bob Dylan from birth, each and every album constitutes a part of my life. I carried a tape copy of ‘Blood On The Tracks’ in my pocket for about a decade. ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ was the song in my head when I stood by the side of the road as a youth, hitching a ride to somewhere, with only my bag of things in the world. This is the album that literally electrified folk. So much of what followed could only take place because this exists. A madcap, genius album without restraint. Imperious stuff.
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