At AUK we are on a quest to find the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’. Over the last few months our writers have been going through an internal monologue of constant torment in 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. After a brief summer hiatus, we are back with an eclectic list from AUK writer Guy Lincoln.
So many decisions so little time. Who’d have thought that the task of foisting your favourite 10 records onto a suspecting readership would be so wearing? I must have played this game at least 248 times over the last however many years but this time it’s for real, someone else might actually pay attention, the burden, the expectation…
So first up; to go bare-bones intro’ and let the list speak for itself or offer chapter and verse on the rationale behind it? The latter of course, why use 50 words when 500 will do right!? A list of anyone’s favourite 10 records says as much about them as it does the music and it has to say the right things in this context. Egotistical perhaps but also honest, I would never trust anyone who claims to go through this process with complete disregard for how other people will respond to the list.
Next up, what process to apply to the compilation, what rules or strategies should be followed? Without some kind of guiding principles this thing could get messy and there may be blood. So what should they be? How should the whittling stick be brandished?
First principle; because I’m still relatively new here and I wanna be part of the gang. One of the things the gang is keen on is to support lesser-known artists. With that in mind I have made a commitment with my top 10 – I am sticking to smaller artists at the expense of more ‘famous’ ones.
As an inveterate consumer of ‘best of’ lists of all kinds since starting with the NME in 1977 I tend to be suspicious of lists that bring up the usual ‘seminal’ albums. Maybe they are always there because they are in fact the best of all time but I remain to be convinced that The Band, his Bobness, Wilco, Gram, Townes, Uncle Neil etc. represent the undisputed peak of Americana. Just because a record is only loved and cherished by me and a handful of discerning individuals around the globe does not mean it shouldn’t be in the top 10. Clearly once everyone with good taste has heard it, it will become world-renowned and assume its rightful place in the pantheon of all-time greats, or then again…
As universally pointed out by previous contributors to this feature, it is nigh on impossible to whittle it down to a top 10 so it makes perfectly decent sense to decide that if I’m going to have to leave some records off the list it may as well be the ones everyone’s heard of. Sorry if this buggers up the scoring Clint and apologies to those ‘biggies’ who I may be depriving of points for the final countdown (‘Bring the Family’, ‘Guitar Town’, ‘Car Wheels …’, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, ‘Gilded Palace of Sin’, ‘Hollywood Town Hall’, ‘Gold’, ‘Ragged Glory’ and the entire extended paisley underground oeuvre (Paisleycana?)
Then there is working out how the list best represents my musical being. A carefully curated, nicely rounded and well-balanced collection or just a bunch of records that I really like, which all sound the same. So I’m going with the second option again – don’t over-think it is the refrain I believe. Given that, I have tried to maintain genre clarity throughout. If an artist or record had even slightly questionable Americana credentials it was removed from the pile immediately, got to draw the line somewhere, right?
So my list which reflects the single point in time at which it was written, tries but fails to avoid the pitfalls of bias and whim but assuredly meets the requirements of representing my ‘taste’ as I wish it to be represented. I may be in danger of over-promising and under-delivering here. Preaching to the Americana choir as I am you may well now be expecting a bunch of obscure unheard rarities that will open your ears to a treasure trove of new music, sorry! I’m sure you will be, at the very least, aware of most if not all the artists featured. Either way if I’m honest it matters not, on any given day these could easily get the nod as my top 10 so here they are.
Number 10: Ted Hawkins ‘Watch Your Step’ (1982)
A tricky one this…As ragged and messy a lonesome moan of a record as could possibly make a list such as this. All that yet still offering up some of the most affecting and uplifting moments on record, anywhere. The whole back story is a symbolic representation of the blues / rock n roll myth; booze, trains, drifting, busking, prison, musical revelations, discovery by wandering musicologists, heroin, disappearances and Andy Kershaw at the BBC. Hawkins had his demons and, it seems, inflicted them on those around him at times too. Listening to this record though all you hear is a voice that seems to be always on the edge of something either wonderful or terrible; wreathed in equal parts compassion, hope and reverent misery. Singing simple yet soulful, bluesy folk tunes with memorable hooks and the most direct communication with the listener possible.
Number 9: Jesse Dayton ‘The Revealer’ (2016)
The low riding, zombie-slaying, guitar-slinging king of country-billy-blues-punk finally gets it down on wax, properly. Every bit of ferocity, sentimentality, joyful piss-taking and riff-laden tune-age amped up to the max. Even if he hadn’t managed to finally do that after 20 plus years he still had to be in here. Mainly because he’s the best live show going, bar none and the last 6 of his shows I’ve seen have been populated by fewer than 200 people, in total. Come on wake up.
Number 8: The Silos ‘Cuba‘ (1987)
This album came out in 1985 and garnered them prime-time TV slots, Rolling Stone’s ‘best new American band’ accolade, a deal with Elektra and critical acclaim from everyone with ears – including my favourite ever critical comment “they’re so good we’ll tell our grandchildren we were there…’. What the LP didn’t bring in was sales. Seems to have been the story of their career. Walter Salas-Humara has soldiered on gamely with solo performing but to ever-diminishing returns. No matter how long between listens it all greets you like a long lost friend and forces you to swear you won’t stay away as long next time.
Number 7: Tom VandenAvond ‘Common Law’ (2019)
Tom VandenAvond is a genuine songwriting auteur – to borrow someone else’s insight “part John Prine and a bit of Mark Twain”. Honestly I don’t think there is anyone out there doing this simple, pared-back acoustic thing so well or engaging us so directly with both mind and heart. His catalogue is all worthy but ‘Common Law’ stands out for me. For quite a few years now he has been making a film with another fine wordslinger called Willie ‘Tea’ Taylor. The premise of this movie is a search for Guy Clark’s kitchen, as seen in Heartworn Highways. If you don’t know him and want to place VandenAvond then that’s a good place to start, he could fit right in among the down-home debris and singing colossi around that kitchen table. If he ever gets the cash together for some decent studio time and a top producer, look out.
Number 6: Ian Noe ‘Between the Country’ (2019)
… and yet another record with an ultimately world-weary demeanour. Sure it sounds so intimate and welcoming; with beautiful, haunting tunes showcasing cherished stories of unfamiliar friends. Stories whose details trigger memories and highlight difficult truths that are universal to us all. After a couple of spins this record felt like a life-long companion and I can’t imagine a week without it.
Number 5: Lydia Loveless ‘Indestructible Machine’ (2011)
I couldn’t decide between this and Sarah Shook’s ‘Everlong’ so I had a song off between Lydia’s ‘Steve Earle’ and Sarah’s ‘Dwight Yoakam’. Lydia won. Noisy, in-ya-face punk-infused country with serious attitude, tunes by the bucket-load and real smart/funny lyrics. One sentence of tatty description and you just know it’s on the Bloodshot label don’t you?
Number 4: Paul Kelly ‘Gossip’ (1986)
I think if I had to choose one and only one artist to listen to for the rest of my musical being it would be Paul Kelly – as long as I can avoid his ‘Shakespeare album’! His effortless ability to capture the ‘every(wo)man’ concerns of our existence in such an accessible and poetic way and then to gild them with memorable tunes that sound like we have stood with them for our whole lives is unmatched in this, or any other, genre for mine. This LP is the apotheosis of his art, 22 songs of perfect pop-folk-rock-blues at once ephemeral yet eternal, full of yearning, joy and an unimpeachable lust for life. Really though you could select from at least 50% of his catalogue and the choice would be just as good. Also, he’s such a lovely humble fella and he wears a suit really well to boot. He’s also a massive sports fan and writes beautifully about cricket, in fact the one single thing I’d pull him up on is his devotion to the AFL and not Rugby League; the only slight crack of privilege in those everyman credentials. Which brings us to…
Number 3: Perry Keyes ‘Last Ghost Train Home’ (2007)
… another mighty Aussie man of the people and the greatest song concerning rugby league ever written (perhaps the greatest song with a sporting theme of any kind) – ‘The Day John Sattler Broke his Jaw’. It is a five minute encapsulation of everything that Perry Keyes wanted this LP to be about, what he sees as vital and positive about human kind, that which binds us together as a community. The LP is about the pressures that render our blue collar neighbourhoods – burdens that are often financial or political but are always based on ignorance and prejudice. Keyes’ songs emphasise the importance of people’s spirit and their cultural bedrocks and values. They warn of the dangers of neglecting these touchstones and ignoring the people who created them. It is a vital message, presented in supremely melodic, gritty and poetic settings. Don’t let the comparisons to Springsteen fool you; whilst he may be the boss, Keyes is the true beating heart of the working man.
=Number 1: Robbie Fulks ‘Country Love Songs’ (1996)
I’ve waffled at length about this record elsewhere on this site and, funnily enough, it’s still as bloody wonderful a work of neo-trad country stories of soul, salvation and scrapple as when I wrote that piece! Nothing new to say here!
= Number 1. Dwight Yoakam ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc, Etc’ (1986)
This started everything for me. There are some people who think this record is just ‘manufactured, mainstream’ country and would say that it was partly responsible for everything that is horrible and unnecessary about the Nashville conveyor of hat/bro/pop country. Well it isn’t and it wasn’t. I’m sure as hell you know this record and if you don’t please read Clint West’s fabulous exposition on here somewhere, it says everything that needs saying far better than I could.
Note from Clint – You’re too kind Guy – you can find it here:
Phew, done. Just to say that all seems far too quiet. I’ve spent way too much on records and most of them are noisy, electric, fast and packed full of shout-along choruses. This list is none of those things. What the hell happened? Also more than 50% of the records are bought are by women, what the hell happened here, again? If I’d gone with ‘bigger’ records there would have been Lucinda, Nanci and Emmylou at least, but that’s for next time…