Welcome once again to AUK’s perilous expedition to identify the top 10 americana albums of all time. The process has generated some debate along the way, most recently concerning what actually constitutes ‘americana’. As far as this series is concerned, that has been left to individual writers to determine. No ground rules or parameters have been set other than the editor and myself reserving the right to ask writers to reconsider if we think that they have gone completely off course. So far, despite checking with each other about a couple of selections, everything has gone through without interference. However, just in case someone decides to chuck in a Pere Ubu album (as good as they are), we still reserve that right. Luckily this week’s AUK writer Jim Finnie, has thrown no such spanners into the works. I’m also delighted to see that his number one choice has finally been recognised in these lists. Over to you Jim….
I’ve only had six months’ notice that my attempt to define the top 10 Americana albums of all time was due. Now here we are, the deadline is looming and all these albums that I have been holding in my head for this straightforward assignment are suddenly spinning around my now addled brain. I’m unexpectedly wracked with doubt and fear as the magnitude of the task. As these first hesitant words start to appear on my computer screen, I feel a cold sweat start to break out on my now furrowed brow….
OK, let’s take a deep breath and think about this logically for a minute I tell myself. Do I have a list? Yes I do – but the list is now too long! Stop fretting – it’s easier to prune the list than to be scrambling to fill it, isn’t it? Yes it is. OK, that’s a good start, but what if the readers don’t agree with some of them? Even worse, what if they don’t agree with any of them? Stop panicking, I say to myself once again, there is no such thing as a top ten, never can be, never will be, you can only pick what matters to you, what moves you. As that realisation begins to sink in, the atrial fibrillation that was threatening to overwhelm me starts to diminish and my heart settles back into something resembling a normal sinus rhythm. I can do this, I really can, just breathe.
OK, that was maybe a little bit dramatic but this task is harder than it seems at first glance but what you are going to get here is a combination of albums have a decent shot at making it to the final shortlist, combined with a few that almost certainly won’t, but these albums all mean something special to me and they are in my top 10 because…..well because this is my list and it would be a dull old world if we were all wired the same, especially when it comes to music!
Number 10: Buffalo Springfield ‘Buffalo Springfield’ (1966)
This album has to be on here if only for the top 10 single ‘For What it’s Worth’ which was essentially a protest song, often associated with the Vietnam War, but was in fact written in response to police brutality during a riot that happened following the closure of Pandora’s Box nightclub on Sunset Strip. The album though contains some other cracking tracks such as Stephen Stills ‘Go and Say Goodbye’ and ‘Out of My Mind’, one of only two tracks where Neil Young takes the vocal lead. Given the musical legacy that spun out of Buffalo Springfield and the influence they had at the time, this has to be on the list.
Number 9: Kate and Anna McGarrigle ‘Kate & Anna McGarrigle’ (1975)
Inaugural albums just shouldn’t be this good and arguably this self-titled debut from the Montreal sisters was by far their best work, but given they have Lowell George, Tony Levin and Steve Gadd in the mix it shouldn’t be surprising. However, this album’s success isn’t due to that stellar backing cast, it works because of Kate and Anna and their perfect harmonies and crystal clear vocals. The songs cover the full gamut of human emotions
Number 8: Paul Kelly ‘Gossip’ (1986)
I have our illustrious editor, the award-winning (how’s that for shamelessly ingratiating yourself!) Mark Whitfield to thank for forcing me to look more deeply at Aussie hero Paul Kelly when he asked me to review “Nature” in 2018. After loving that album, I dug deeper into Kelly’s back catalogue and unearthed a treasure trove of musical gems. His 1986 album ‘Gossip‘ set the scene for what was to come, and the musical world should be forever grateful to Michael Gudinski of Mushroom Records for taking a chance on a 31 year old single dad with an ongoing heroin habit. The rest, as they say, is history and here to celebrate is a treat for all Melburnians out there.
Number 7: Neil Young ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)
I’ll let you into a little secret! There are some writers here at AUK who are not the greatest Neil Young fans – but that’s OK, I forgive them! For me though, it was music like this that started to open my eyes to other musical genres as I came to realise that there was indeed musical life beyond Deep Purple and Ten Years After! Although he has created some execrable garbage over the years, he has also crafted some of the best singer-songwriter music of all time and although some would place ‘Harvest‘ at number one, ‘After The Gold Rush‘ is simply his best output.
Number 6: Warren Zevon ‘Warren Zevon’ (1976)
Luckily this was an easy choice and fellow AUK writer Tim Martin picked this album as part of the Classic Americana album series (Tim clearly has great taste) but the downside is he picked ‘Mohammed’s Radio‘ as one of his videos for that article and I don’t want to choose it again so soon. That’s not a problem though as the album is crammed full of classic tracks and despite Jackson Browne’s glossy production, it can’t hide the bitter soul embedded in many of the songs with none better than Carmelita and its tale of two struggling addicts.
Number 5: Mary Gauthier ‘Mercy Now’ (2005)
My AUK colleague David Jarman also picked `Mary Gauthier in his Top 10, unfortunately for David, he picked her second-best album ‘Between Daylight and Dark’ and as stunning an album as that is, it’s 2005 predecessor just pips it as her best. It’s often hard to tell, especially given her back story, whether Gauthier is singing about others or telling stories about herself, but it doesn’t matter, what does matter is that she is a master storyteller who has the knack creating songs and atmospheres that fearlessly dive into the darker corners of life.
Number 4: Johnny Cash ‘American Recordings’ (1994)
‘American Recordings’ was Johnny Cash’s 81st (yes 81st, that’s not a typo) album and as the wise readers of AUK will know this collaboration with Rick Rubin brought Cash back into the mainstream and reinvented him as something of hip folk-rocker. This was the introduction to what was essentially the third phase of Cash’s career following his introduction with Sun Records in the ’50s and Columbia and the ’60s and 70’s. ‘American Recordings’ saw Rubin take Cash back to what made him famous in the first place, the simplicity of an acoustic guitar combined with that superb, world-weary voice. There is an innate sadness in Cash’s singing that carries through almost all of the Rick Rubin period releases and although his delivery clearly isn’t as strong an in his heyday it more than makes up for it in pure, raw emotion.
Number 3: Hayes Carll ‘Flowers and Liquor’ (2002)
Hayes Carll really started to make a name for himself with his excellent 2005 album ‘Little Rock‘ but for me, the 2002 debut ‘Flowers and Liquor’ remains his best work. The simplicity of the arrangements allows both Carll’s easy vocals (with the undoubted influence of Townes van Zandt) and the clever, artful lyrics to be heard at their best. Picking a single track is challenging but in the end, I opted for the song I keep coming back to, as Hayes paints a picture of two troubled central characters whose unconnected lives almost, but never quite cross.
Number 2: Bob Dylan ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966)
This was tough. Mr Zimmerman had to be on this list but once again, which album to choose and in the end, it came down to ‘Blood on the Tracks‘ or ‘The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan’ but ultimately, it has to be ‘Blonde on Blonde’. Dylan was producing prodigious quantities of material around this time and it all came together as he combined incisive guitar riffs, sharp piano, wonderfully inventive, almost organic organ and even brass band sounds (on ‘Rainy Day Woman #13 and 35’). I was tempted to select ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands‘ but at 11 minutes plus in length, that would have been a bit indulgent, so instead, we’ll leave this short piece with a sublime love song.
Number 1: Steve Forbert ‘Jackrabbit Slim’ (1979)
There can only ever be one choice for me as the greatest americana album ever. I remember buying this album when it was first released. No, not the 1996 CD version but the original vinyl version in 1979. I still have that copy, I still play it and I will be playing until they close the lid on me. Forbert lucked out when Barbra Streisand “stole” his planned producer (Gary Clein) and he ended up with John Simon and between them, they have produced some of the most forthright sounds ever laid to tape. ‘Jackrabbit Slim‘ is a work of genius and I have ‘Sadly Sorta Like a Soap Opera’ playing in the background now as I type this. 41 years on and it still makes me cry. Only 9.5k views for this on YouTube while some random furry animal videos have millions. The world is badly screwed up!