Welcome to another set of wonderful albums as our writers continue to seek out the top 10 americana albums ever. As we approach the festive season we can begin to look forward to the climax of this process in the early part of 2021. It is then that our collective selections will be whittled down to a shortlist from which the ultimate top 10 will emerge. However, before we reach that point, there are still a number of writers waiting patiently to add their suggestions. This week Jason McDonald takes up this daunting challenge – and knocks it out of the park.
Depending on who you ask there are either 2,110,005 albums which could be considered to be americana or there are only 12 of them. With such an elastic possible number of releases, there is no way of producing a list of the definitive 10 best. Until now that is.
Actually, my list is a personal one which is the work of a small-town boy from Canada nearing the middle of his life which I hope you dear reader/listener will kindly consider in the spirit it is offered up. I feel fortunate enough to have been able to see most of these artists live at least once (with one exception) which have only added to the pleasure I get from listening to them. Feel free to share your views about my choices but I hope that you will either seek out some of these musicians to listen to them for the first time or delve into them again. In the time that it will take you to do this there will be another 150 records released to consider.
Number 10: Ani DiFranco ‘Puddle Dive’ (1993)
Ani DiFranco may not be an obvious choice for an americana top ten list but to me, she embodies many of the qualities of americana music. ‘Puddle Dive’ is her fourth album which she released on her own record label (Righteous Babe Records) which she created when she was 19 years old. DiFranco has used her status as a musician to highlight social issues, human rights and does so while alternating between musical styles including folk and rock. ‘Puddle Dive’ is full of observations about American society mixing politically-themed missives with personal songs about identity and culture. Her experiences as a female musician and relationships are scattered throughout the album. The lyrics to ‘Willing to Fight’ sum up the album (and probably much of DiFranco’s musical themes throughout her prolific musical life.
“you’ve got your whole life to do something and that’s not very long so why don’t you give me a call when you’re willing to fight for what you think is real for what you think is right.”
Number 9: The Tallest Man on Earth ‘There’s No Leaving Now’ (2012)
The Tallest Man on Earth is actually Kristian Matsson, a Swedish folk artist who has been releasing music since 2006. ‘There’s No Leaving Now’ was my introduction to The Tallest Man on Earth and although I love some of the songs on his other albums individually this one, his third album is the most cohesive of them all and one that I found myself listening to on repeat before seeing him live at the Green Man festival in Wales in 2012. Matsson prowled the stage, smiling and creating an electric atmosphere in the crowd that day solidifying my love of the music he makes. Matsson noted in interviews at the time that he wanted to create music that sounded large but also sounded like it was verging on falling apart, which is an apt description of the songs on this album. He has been compared to Bob Dylan at times which makes some sense given some of his more folk-based offerings and feeling of connection and community which he creates on this album.
Number 8: Laura Marling ‘Once I Was An Eagle’ (2013)
Laura Marling’s fourth album cries out to be listened to in its entirety as she herself has noted that there is a cohesion to the songs on the album divided into three movements across the 16 songs on it. This is an album that takes hold of the listener from the first batch of songs flowing easily into one another. The songs appear simply presented but actually ebb and flow and give up new observations on repeated listens. Marling rightly is noted for the strength of her songwriting generally but on this album moves into a higher level matching not only her peers but those that have influenced her such as Joni Mitchell.
Number 7: Micah P Hinson ‘Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress’ (2004)
Hinson’s first record begins by imploring you to “Close your eyes and don’t you make a sound there’s no worries now” and ends with “Here’s all that I have to give, I’ll admit it’s not a lot, But it’s all that I’ve got” on the last song ‘The Day Texas Sank to the Bottom of the Sea”. When I first heard Hinson’s debut album I wasn’t aware of his personal circumstances or much about Michael Paul Hinson himself. It is a dark, moody, heartfelt collection of music teetering between restraint and passion. The music has an otherworldly feel to it which is similar to Mercury Rev ‘Deserter’s Songs’ with shimmering moments of beauty amongst the brooding reflections of Hinson.
Hinson had experienced homelessness and substance misuse prior to this being released. His demo recordings were being touted around by John Mark Lapham (from ‘The Earlies’) who he had befriended and who was an early supporter and who produced this debut. Hinson has experienced further tragedy when he was in a car crash in 2011, following which he spent a long time recovering his ability to use his arm let alone play his guitar. ‘and the Gospel of Progress ‘ is an album for dark nights of the soul which if you haven’t heard it before deserves a listen and if you haven’t heard it lately you should definitely reacquaint yourself with it as well as his subsequent releases.
Number 6: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers ‘Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ (1976)
Tom Petty’s first album with the Heartbreakers (one of the finest group of musicians of all time) feels like the cool older brother you never had. It deserves to be included on this list for two of the finest songs ever written ‘Breakdown’ with one of the coolest intros ever and ‘American Girl’ but the rest of the album should not be overlooked as the songs are filled with enough hooks to hang up all of your coats. Petty’s vocals stand out but they are superbly backed up by the rest of the band with Mike Campbell’s guitars ringing out, Benmont Tench’s keyboards driving the songs on and the rhythm section of Ron Blair and Stan Lynch holding down the beat. Tom Petty had recorded so many songs with the Heartbreakers and on his own before his death, that will be enjoyed as they feel timeless, passionate, and full of joy and wit.
Number 5: Mercury Rev ‘Deserter’s Songs’ (1998)
An album that was nearly never made, borne out of troubled times in the band and leap years ahead of their previous albums (as enjoyable as they were for different reasons). Please see this previous article for a more in-depth consideration, but suffice to say ‘Deserter’s Songs‘ is a timeless slice of americana with the involvement of members of The Band.
Number 4: Gene Clark ‘No Other’ (1974)
My introduction to this album came about at the End of the Road Festival (the finest festival ever in my humble opinion) had as the headliner a group of musicians who were performing the album in full. When I first heard that this was happening I had only really heard of Gene Clark as part of the Byrds. I initially was not sure if it would be any good so dutifully bought a copy of the album which opened my eyes to the genius of Gene Clark’s solo work. This is another album that demands to be listened to as a whole flowing between musical styles in an easy manner. The album feels like it was delivered from the heavens to us to soothe our souls. Watching the performance of the collective of musicians and the joy as they played the songs on the album was a festival highlight. Reading about how it was made and the fact that it apparently only made number 144 on the Billboard album chart reminds me that sometimes it takes time to recognise genius. The album was reissued in 2019 with all of the bells and whistles including multiple versions of the tracks on the original. Search it out (if you haven’t already heard it) and spread the gospel according to Gene.
Number 3: Hayden ‘Everything I Long For’ (1995)
Hayden Dresser is a native of Toronto, Canada and ‘Everything I Long For’ is his debut album which was released on his own record label Hardwood Records (distributed by Sonic Unyon). It is a sprawling release that included a variety of styles of music showcasing his baritone vocals, guitar, piano, and harmonica that led to some Neil Young/Bob Dylan comparisons. When I saw him live (in a church) in Toronto early on, the screaming of his fans (female and male) was overwhelmingly intense when he wasn’t singing and tapping out the rhythm with his feet but dead quiet while he was performing. His songs covered tragedies (‘Skate‘ – a song about a man buying skates to search for a drowned wife by skating on the river to find her) and unrequited love were the perfect combination for me at the time I first heard this. He has continued to release a number of further albums that have matured in refining his songwriting but this first raw release is the one I come back to most often. The lyrics to ‘Stem’ a folky shorter songs sums up for me the feeling of the album which is about wanting to reach out to someone but not quite being able to.
“I bought a rose
To give to you
A windy day
The petals flew
From the stem
Onto the street
I tried to catch them
With my feet
I got to your door
You looked to see
Through the peep hole
Right at me
You let me in
And I just froze
I gave you a stem
That was a rose
That was a rose“
Number 2: Cowboy Junkies ‘The Trinity Session’ (1988)
Recorded in a church in Toronto which they named the album after in 1987 the Cowboy Junkies created their second album which was a mixture of their own songs and covers in their own style. Margo Timmins vocals are hushed in places, the music a mixture of country, folk and blues, creating their own unique space in the Canadian music scene. The original songs are as strong as the songs they have covered by Lou Reed and Hank Williams on ‘The Trinity Session’ with Margo and Michael Timmins writing some of the most sensitive lyrics here and throughout their ongoing releases. One for late nights of the soul or early mornings.
Number 1: American Music Club ‘California’ (1988)
My introduction to American Music Club came via a cassette (remember those things – apparently they are back in fashion again) given to me by a friend. The cassette was of American Music Club’s ‘Everclear’ which came out in 1991 and led to accolades for Mark Eitzel (singer) being dubbed Songwriter of the Year by Rolling Stone magazine. Although I wore out that cassette it was only the springboard into the rest of their music and I can safely say that American Music Club and Mark Eitzel as a solo performer are the band/person I have seen most over the years. The album which I have most returned to, that I most hope Eitzel may play songs from live, is ‘California’ the third release by American Music Club in 1988
‘Firefly‘ opens the album with a gentle country song which sets the high standard for the rest of the album with lyrics about the impermanence of beauty.
“C’mon beautiful we’ll go sit on the front lawn
We’ll watch the fireflies as the sun goes down
They don’t live too long, just a flash and then they’re gone
We’ll laugh at them and watch the sun go down”
Just typing this makes my eyes water a bit.
American Music Club (and Eitzel) write sad songs that make you feel happy because they are so damn beautiful and true. The rest of the album contains songs that jockey each other for position as among my favourites. Sometimes it is ‘Western Sky’ with Eitzel crooning with the best of them with the lines
“So I’ll take you in my two weak hands
And I’ll throw you so high
Watch you fall forever in the western sky”
Currently, it is ‘Blue and Grey Shirt‘ another weeper of a song with lyrics about waiting for someone who never arrives and the feeling of hope before realizing they aren’t coming.
“I sat up all morning
And I waited for you
With my blue and grey shirt on
Yeah that’s my favorite one”
Eitzel’s songwriting talents are matched by the rest of the band’s contributions with the addition of Bruce Kaphan playing pedal steel to the rest of the line-up. Although I continue to love Eitzel’s solo work where he has carried on writing songs that make my heart ache at their absolute beauty this album remains my favourite. If you ever have a chance to see Mark Eitzel live you should grab it. You may see me there with a big smile on my face occasionally weeping with joy.