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. AUK doesn’t have enough female writers and we would love more. However, what we lack in numbers, is at least partly compensated by the quality of those women that we do have on the team. This week we turn to the first of them. Step forward Helen Jones.
Being given the task of selecting a definitive top 10 americana albums of all-time is pretty daunting. I had to remind myself that these are my personal selections and they don’t have to necessarily reflect what anyone else may feel is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ (even if my choices are quiet obviously the right ones…). I’m probably showing my age given that the bulk of my selections are from the 21st century, but I’ve thrown a few classic albums in there too, for good measure. So without further ado, I present you with my top 10:
Number 10: Will Hoge ‘The Wreckage’ (2009)
Will Hoge has an extensive back catalogue, so trying to narrow it down to one choice is difficult, but in the end I went with the one that shows the most sides of him. Partly recorded in the aftermath of his near fatal scooter accident, the title of ‘The Wreckage’ is a subtle wink to the trauma that has little mention elsewhere. ‘Goodnight/Goodbye’ – with gorgeous harmonies by Ashley Monroe – gives us a taste of the themes of worn out love that he would later cover more fully on ‘Anchors’, and ‘Even If It Breaks Your Heart’ (made famous by Eli Young Band) is a solid reminder to never give up on a dream.
Number 9: Teddy Thompson ‘Separate Ways’ (2005)
All of Teddy Thompson’s albums feel completely authentic and largely drawn from his own experience, but nothing has felt quite so confessional as the songs on ‘Separate Ways’. I’m not sure I’ve ever personally connected with a song as much as I do with ‘I Should Get Up’, but then ‘Everybody Move’ – a tale so familiar to any introvert on a night out (“Sat in the corner you could pass for dead / Get up on the floor shake your head”) – comes a close second.
Number 8: Kathleen Edwards ‘Voyageur’ (2012)
Given that I wrote about this album in glowing terms in my AmericanA to Z piece on Kathleen Edwards, it was an obvious choice for me to include here. It’s sad but true that a lot of the best music is born out of heartbreak, and that’s the case with this album which was recorded on the back of divorce. Songs like ‘House Full of Empty Rooms’ and ‘Pink Champagne’ are gut-wrenching, listen-after-listen and year-after-year, which is a true testament to how great they are.
Number 7: Townes Van Zandt ‘Rear View Mirror’ (1993)
The back catalogue of Townes Van Zandt is both so rich and so vast, it felt impossible to pick a definitive album for this list; so I made the (slightly cheating) choice to go with this live recording. A good selection of his songs are played here (including some of my favourites like ‘Waiting Around to Die’ and ‘For the Sake of the Song’), and it has the added benefit of the warmth and atmosphere given by the live setting.
Number 6: Joni Mitchell ‘Blue’ (1971)
What to say about ‘Blue’ that hasn’t already been said? ‘A Case of You’ is not only one of the greatest songs ever recorded, but surely featured the best opening lines ever: “Just before our love got lost, you said / ‘I am as constant as a northern star,’ and I said / ‘Constantly in the darkness / Where’s that at? / If you want me, I’ll be in the bar’”. It’s also got maybe the only Christmas themed song (‘River’) that is listenable at any time of the year, even to anyone averse to festive music.
Number 5: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
Generally considered to be Jason Isbell’s “mainstream breakthrough”, ‘Southeastern’ is a worthy and fantastic body of work. It delves not only into some dark places (a friend dying of cancer on ‘Elephant’ and a classmate suffering sexual abuse on ‘Yvette’), but to some hopeful ones too for the newly sober Isbell. ‘Stockholm’ is about finally having someone you want to go home to, while the new classic ‘Cover Me Up’ is about wanting to languish in the arms of the one you love.
Number 4: Aimee Mann ‘The Forgotten Arm’ (2005)
The fact that ‘The Forgotten Arm’ is a concept album based around the story of a Vietnam veteran and boxer running away with his girlfriend, the ensuing ill-fated romance that follows might sour some before they even give the album a listen; but these tightly constructed tales work their way into your brain and create vivid picture. The only shame is that Paul Thomas Anderson hasn’t had the sense to turn it into a film in the way he did using Mann’s songs for ‘Magnolia’.
Number 3: Ruston Kelly ‘Dying Star’ (2018)
Confessional albums don’t come much more frank and honest than ‘Dying Star’: “I took too many pills again / Blacked out for a week / Didn’t eat, didn’t sleep / Came to, did it all again,” sings Kelly on ‘Faceplant’. The record is a look at a man turning his life around and living with the shadows addiction has left behind. It’s a stunning thing to behold that is still in my regular rotation some two years after its release.
Number 2: Father John Misty ‘Pure Comedy’ (2017)
Do you ever listen to an artist and instantly feel like you’ve been listening to their music for your whole life? This was me when I got on the Josh Tillman train – like many – during the release of ‘I Love You, Honeybear’. While the aforementioned album is a great one, for me, ‘Pure Comedy’ has it all: sarcasm, razor-sharp observations on life and religion (“Oh, their religions are the best / They worship themselves yet they’re totally obsessed / With risen zombies, celestial virgins, magic tricks”), and of course, the 13-minute long opus that is ‘Leaving LA’.
Number 1: Jeff Buckley ‘Grace’ (1994)
Anyone who read my ‘Classic Americana Albums’ piece on this album won’t be at all surprised that I’ve included it here. Jeff Buckley’s voice is simply transportive and his lyrics are never to be forgotten. ‘Lover, You Should’ve Come Over’, with its third-person lyrics, is a sprawling seven-minute epic of a song. It’s the only full studio album Buckley would ever release, but it’s a damn fine one.