Welcome once again to AUK’s ongoing quest to find the top 10 americana albums ever. For anyone new to this (and by the way, where have you been?) Each week a different AUK writer lists their own personal top 10. When each one has contributed we will draw up a short-list of the most commonly chosen albums. The writers will then be asked to vote from that list in order to generate the ultimate AUK writers’ top ten. This week we turn to Cambridge based writer Emily Dongray who confesses a penchant for bending the rules.
Americana is an elusive idea and my top ten plays fast and loose with the nationality of the artists but stays firmly flying a star-spangled banner. Some of this list is old favourites, but others are a bit more obscure. Longfellow said “Music is the universal language of mankind”. In this list the language has a drawl and a twang. Let this list speak to you, I hope it will tell you what, as an ex-ex-pat, I have learned about the genre’s majesty, from sea to shining sea.
Number 10: Dire Straits ‘Brothers in Arms’ (1985)
From the rockabilly licks of ‘Walk of Life‘ and blues trumpet and sax on ‘Your Latest Trick‘, to the national twang on ‘The Man’s Too Strong‘ there is no doubt that this British album is 100% americana. This album showcases Mark Knopfler’s unbelievable guitar playing and is a rare album that is all killer no filler; an album where I would never skip a single track. Lyrics about “Mist covered mountains” conjure both the British highlands and the Appalachians simultaneously. With joyful numbers like ‘Money for Nothing‘ and tearjerkers like ‘Brothers in Arms‘ this album has it all.
Number 9: Colter Wall ‘Songs of the Plains’ (2018)
Colter Wall is young, new, and Canadian, but he appears on this top ten for the simple reason that he does Johnny Cash better than Johnny Cash. From the moment he opens his mouth he holds your ears to ransom, and he doesn’t stop there, his guitar playing, lyrics, and songwriting are exemplary also. The album ‘Song of the Plains‘ is honest, dirty, playful, and earnest. It has historical ballads, songs about running from the law, lamentations about wild women, whiskey, cows and trains; What more could an Americana fan ask for, even if it is technically Canadiana?
Number 8: Neutral Milk Hotel ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea’ (1998)
It was hard to narrow down which of the Elephant 6 Recording Company musical collective to include here as every member and album is a modern folk classic exposing the twisted truths of the American experience. ‘In the Aeroplane Over the Sea‘ warbles and strums and with off-key notes blasts analogy and fuzzes out surreal poetry of Colorado and Louisiana and many states in between. Maybe it doesn’t sound like americana at first, but it is as americana as the broken neon sign outside a motel in the middle of nowhere.
Number 7: Simon & Garfunkel ‘Greatest Hits’ (1972)
It may well be controversial to have a greatest hits album in this list, but it is incontestably the best collection of songs by Simon & Garfunkel which earns the place here, above any studio album. One could even argue it is one of the top ten greatest hits albums of all time. Simon & Garfunkel are rarely referred to as ‘americana’ because their style and instrumentation do not conform to the traditional sound, but their content is solidly and undeniably americana. They sing whole urban landscapes picking out streets and quirky characters; they sing road trips depicting greyhound buses, railway stations, cigarettes and neon lights. ‘America‘ alone earns the duo’s right to be here.
Number 6: Kris Kristofferson ‘Kristofferson’ (1970)
Kris Kristofferson can’t sing but, like many great artists, it hasn’t stopped him. I was a latecomer to Kristofferson’s body of work having only discovered it after the privilege of seeing him perform live at Black Deer Festival in 2018 and watching the film ‘A Star is Born‘ (1976). This album stands out for its all-time greats ‘Me and Bobby McGee‘ and ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down‘ but the tracks in between hit way above their weight. It is the perfect hangover album because Kris has definitely felt worse than you, and the expression of sorrow and regret is a pillar of the americana temple.
Number 5: Townes Van Zandt ‘Townes Van Zandt’ (1969)
Townes Van Zandt is not merely in the top ten, he IS Americana. TVZ inspired all the greats, from legend-in-his own-right Willie Nelson who covered his songs, to relative newcomer Jason Isbell. TVZ suffered from a laundry list of issues including manic-depression, depression and brain damage, and on top of that, he was a chronic alcoholic and heroin user. The songs were not written in spite of these problems, nor because of, nor alongside, but these problems ARE the americana. Every song is a history, both uplifting and demoralising. This album is his personal journey which becomes yours. Stunning.
Number 4: Songs:Ohia ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’ (2003)
This band is a bit off the beaten tracks, the project of cult figure Jason Molina. It is a dirty metallic rustbelt album that really put the idea of americana in my mind as a concept. Molina is from Detroit, not the plains, not a ranch, but the stationary car factories all closed in an economic downturn. The still machinery and silent poverty can be heard in the resonator guitar and lyrics about fossil fires. Dying too soon like so many great artists this album shines on blackly like a reflection in an oil slick.
Number 3: William Crighton ‘William Crighton’ (2016)
I’ve bent the rules a few times with this list, but putting a modern Aussie at #3 seems a bit much; however if you’ve heard William Crighton you will not bat an eyelid. He is tall and deep, and his voice and lyrics are equally tall and deep. The first time I heard his music I cried. I was hard-pressed to choose between the two albums he has put out and only chose this one over the other because the song ‘2000 Clicks‘ is slightly better than the other works of sheer genius on his albums. He sings about Queensland like so many dusty balladeers before on the American continent have done, and that this list has shown americana is a style, not a geographical description.
Number 2: Gordon Lightfoot ‘Don Quixote’ (1972)
Surprise surprise, another non-American in at #2. Gordon Lightfoot is a soft, gentle force to be reckoned with. He is a powerhouse of ballads, most famously being ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald‘. The first time I heard Gordon Lightfoot I was hungover and watching a film when the song ‘Beautiful‘ came on in the soundtrack and I stopped the film and listened to his first three albums in a row until life stopped me. It was incredible then and every listen has remained the same. His fingerpicking is unparalleled, his voice is like maple syrup, and the song lyrics are as clean as Lake Ontario; it is Canadiana.
Number 1: Woody Guthrie ‘Dust Bowl Ballads’ (1940)
If this exploration of americana has shown anything it is that americana is about storytelling. Americana tells the tales of the people, living and dead, joyful or mournful, cheeky or earnest: Woody Guthrie nails this. With a guitar he swapped on a bus, his songs tell every aspect of the great dust bowl; the migration, the poverty, the illness, the prejudice. It is the ‘The Grapes of Wrath‘ in album form. It is not just a historical piece though, it sounds so relevant and vital, it appeals to the humanity in us all. The album is so simple, just one man and his guitar, badly recorded, with the ability to make us laugh, cry and learn something about our fellow man. Perfect.
Honourable Mention – Bright Eyes – ‘I’m Wide Awake it’s Morning’ (2005)