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. This time we turn to AUK deputy editor Jonathan Aird for our weekly shot of americana greatness:
The quest for the ultimate list of classic americana albums is a noble one, worthy of Gawain, Perceval and Bors – the only worry is that there’s no Galahad here who’ll achieve the ultimate destination and enter into Castle Corbenic and be rewarded. For, as it was foretold, the thirty-five or so writers for Americana UK are a contrary bunch and at the end of this great proselytising we’re going to have a shortlist of approximately 350 titles to pick from. Well, so it goes. This is definitely a Top 10 – the only bad thing about it is that it’s a Top 10 with too many old favourites in it. Where’s Devon Sproule? Where’s The handsome Family? Where’s Pharis and Jason Romero? Where the hell is The Band? Don’t think I didn’t consider putting in ‘The Last Waltz‘ soundtrack album, which would have filled so many gaps – Joni, Van the Man. Perhaps I should have.
I had also considered limiting myself to albums released post-2000, and that made for a damn good list: many of the previously mentioned plus Richmond Fontaine, various combinations of Felice, Dr John’s superbly angry ‘Locked Down‘. But it was as false a list as one chock full of hoary classics. Other Top 10’s existed where Dylan had all 10 slots, there’s a Top 10 of Ol’ Neil too. Time is a great help – this final list got firmed up due to a deadline for completion – and it is 10 great americana albums. Most would make the list on any given day – which is fair enough. So it goes.
Number 10: Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys ‘Somewhere Far Away’ (2014)
Bluegrass is great, but to take it into the 21st century as a vibrant and significant musical form it needed a radical new sound. Now, you might say that guitar, banjo, mandolin, fiddle and bass is hardly a revolution – isn’t that Bill Monroe? Isn’t that Flatt & Scruggs? But listen to the lyrics across this album and there are dazzling images “Look at my hand – spans a thousand acres of land / The tiny specks that mean the world to me.” And there’s an honesty to songs like ‘Wood Swan‘. First play was enough to know that this was special – and it just grows in status with each play.
Number 9: Tom Russell ‘Hotwalker’ (2005)
Could have been any one of a number of albums by Tom Russell, but ‘Hotwalker‘ is something special – Russell’s history of American popular
music and the Beat Poets that celebrates outsiders, alternative views and an America full of real music actually played by people. What a concept. It’s also heavy on the autobiographical, as on the evocative ‘Van Ronk‘. But enough chat, “play that goddamn thing again Andrea, play it, now listen to this goddamn thing you people, listen to this goddamn song you people.”
Number 8: Grateful Dead ‘American Beauty’ (1970)
To put out two albums that are classics of the genre in a single year is remarkable, but The Grateful Dead were that good in 1970. ‘American Beauty‘ and ‘Working Man’s Dead‘ are a perfect pair, hard to distinguish between for sheer quality – but ‘American Beauty‘ has that sparkling opener, the Cosmic American Music embodied in ‘Box of Rain‘. Add in the edgy ‘Candyman‘ the mystic ‘Brokedown Palace‘ and the electric blues swagger of ‘Truckin’ ‘ and you have some album.
Number 7: John Stewart ‘California Bloodlines’ (1969)
John Stewart doesn’t usually get the attention he deserves – fortunately Paul Kerr has recently written this album up, thereby shining a much
needed light on one of the finest Americana albums of all time. It has everything – but ‘Mother Country‘ shows Stewart at his mercurial best, a song that covers a lot of ground but never loses sight of the nameless heroic pioneers that founded a new nation- “boys, hell they were men“.
Number 6: John Phillips ‘John the Wolfking of LA’ (1970)
A cover so striking that Dylan stole the look for ‘Desire‘, and songs that are often quite brutal in their honesty. John Phillips more than escaped the bizarre phenomenon of the acceptable cuteness of The Mamas and the Papas – really, does no-one ever listen to the lyrics? Seems not as The Mamas and The Papas were far from all about sweetness and light and John Phillips went on to push that darker side to the extreme on his solo debut. As harsh on himself as anyone else, ‘Someone’s Sleeping‘ paints memorable scenes “I remember a market place in Tangiers standing there beggars all around her legs and she looked like an angel / From a second story window caught a glimpse of someone’s life and it was mine and my face was dark and dirty and I’d been crying“. But the album could also be upbeat, as on ‘Mississippi‘ although, of course, still with a darker undertone.
Number 5: The Byrds ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers’ (1968)
Oh, any of the first five Byrds albums could be here, but ‘The Notorious Byrd Brothers‘ encapsulates The Byrds’ special blending of psychedelic rock, folk, jazz guitar riffs, and country-rock. And even without Gene Clark there’s still that wonderful vocal blending and harmonisation. They’d become, with this release, the band that The Beatles could only aspire to be. There were wonderful things still to come, but who knows what they might have gone on to achieve, if they could have just kept Crosby in the fold?
Number 4: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young ‘Deja Vu‘ (1970)
‘Deja Vu‘ was CSNY’s debut, and they never equalled it again. A bit of a hybrid – there’s a CSN album hiding in here with a couple of augmented Neil Young songs. Not that that is a fault since each song is solid gold – and it gained again from the use of so many songs in the film of Woodstock. It’s magic caught in vinyl. One slight cheat here – this is the long version of ‘Almost Cut My Hair‘ from the CSN Box-set. You do need to hear “the weird shit” in full.
Number 3: Bob Dylan ‘Blood on the Tracks’ (1975)
What can one say about Bob? There’s never been a time without Bob, he’s my earliest radio (false?) memory. Is ‘Blood on the Tracks‘ the apotheosis of his writing? Certainly there are albums as good – in many different ways – but for consistency it’s hard to beat ‘Blood on the Tracks‘. Is ‘Idiot Wind‘ the angriest, cruellest song he’s ever written? It’s certainly got some competition, but for spite and contempt and – important this – self loathing, what would this song be without “we’re idiots babe, it’s a wonder we can even feed ourselves” it is without equal, and ‘Blood on the Tracks‘ is a masterpiece.
Number 2: Manassas ‘Manassas’ (1972)
On a good day for Manassas this would be number 1, it oscillates with the current number 1 record. What can I say that I haven’t already said at greater length here?
Number 1: Gene Clark – ‘No Other’ (1974)
Perhaps the most underrated on its release album of all time – although ‘Forever Changes‘ runs it a close second in those unfortunate stakes. Now often feted – there’s an excellent review here – and quite rightly so. Gene Clark brought a mysticism to his masterpiece, singing songs that felt like they’d been carved on tablets of stone just for him. Of course every song is just perfection, but the bold imagery – and alliteration – of ‘From a Silver Phial‘ just begs for repeat listening. There’s something important in here, and one could spend a lifetime trying to figure it out. And that’s the definition of a classic.