Welcome once again to the latest selections in AUK’s ongoing search for the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’. You know the format by now: each week a different AUK writer chooses their own personal top 10. When they are all collected and counted, we will draw up a shortlist of the most frequently cited choices. The writers will then vote from that shortlist to reveal our collective top 10. This week the task has been passed on to longstanding AUK scribe and proper gentleman, Keith Hargreaves.
An extended piece of navel gazing that leads to howling at the moon, numerous scribbled lists and a developing neurosis. Such is the horror of trying to dissolve a disparate music collection within a genre to just ten ‘important’ albums. What makes what important? Why do certain albums refuse to go quietly as they drop off the bottom of the chosen ones list? For the purposes of this list only I have only taken albums released in the last 30 years. One could argue those directly spawned or inspired by the alt-country movement ….one could argue but it is not conclusive. I have written about this genre and music generally for years so leaving out Dylan, Young, CSN, Bruntnell, Lambchop, Josh Rouse, Midlake, John Prine, Jason Isbell, DBT, Richmond Fontaine etc. is not a comfortable experience, but so be it. I am also aware that there isn’t a single artist from this side of the pond in my final choices and that surprised and shocked me but…… it is what it is. I have left the exposition for each album short, much better to listen to them. Dive in!
Number 10: Vic Chesnutt ‘About to Choke’ (1996)
A gorgeous album of fragile, gossamer-like paeans that cut deeper with every listen. This release for Capitol Records marks for me a high watermark of his songwriting that, coupled with his delivery, presents a sparse, twisted view of America that is haunted and haunting.
Number 9: Ryan Adams ‘Love is Hell Part One’ (2004)
Ever the traditionalist I eschew the later release of both parts of ‘Love Is Hell’ and plump for ‘Part 1’ with its broad brush strokes from the Coldplayesque ‘Political Scientist’ through the revelatory ‘Wonderwall’ to the hushed, hymnal and heartbreaking ‘The Shadowlands’. This is Adams’ pinnacle, a brilliant refracted touchstone for much of what was to come in the genre.
Number 8: Simone Felice ‘Strangers’ (2014)
One of two showings for this particular brother. Strangers is a beautiful record that gives and gives. The shamanic Simone leads us all through his extraordinary world from the rollicking ‘Molly O’ with its gorgeous chorus to the final kiss-off with ‘The Gallows’ all acoustic guitar and melancholy. The production is exemplary, the songwriting compelling and performances wonderful.
Number 7: Sparklehorse ‘Good Morning Spider’ (1998)
Opening with the squall of ‘Pig’ which becomes the exquisite ‘Painbirds’ ‘Good Morning Spider’ is in some respects Mark Linkous (the titular Sparklehorse) processing his near overdose in London that almost led to him losing his legs and never again having full strength in them. An extraordinary soundscape filled with ambient noises, distorted guitars, mellifluous trumpets, treated vocals and a bunch of songs that bear countless repetition.
Number 6: C.R. Avery ‘Magic Hour Sailor Songs’ (2007)
The performance artist C.R. Avery dropped this album of beatboxing, spoken word, poetry and gutter songs in 2007. An artist with huge imagination and brio touching bases with Tom Waits, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and yet remaining a distinctive and original voice. ‘Prime Minister’s Chair’ is a killer melody, vocal and the beatboxing sounds not only natural but also expected. ‘The Ballad of Charlie Parker and Patsy Cline’ is a string-driven jewel of almost poetic delight.
Number 5: Conor Oberst ‘Salutations’ (2017)
Oberst’s magnum opus with each song filled out from the sketches published earlier in the album ‘Ruminations’. Here the songs have a dynamism missing from that intimate affair. Backed by a stellar line up including Jim Keltner, Ian and James Felice, Gillian Welch, Jonathan Wilson, M Ward, Blake Mills and Jim James to name but a few. This is a songwriter at the top of his game. The songs are arresting and provocative, moving and upsetting.
Number 4: Jonathan Wilson ‘Fanfare’ (2013)
A huge sprawling beast of an album that filters Wilson’s Laurel Canyon obsessions through the lens of Pink Floyd, Moby Grape and Jackson Brown amongst others. The musicality is flawless and the songs, often built around simple harmonies, are layered things that ebb and flow. This is a warm all-embracing piece of work shot through with a blissed-out California vibe. Highlights include the driving ‘Moses Pain’ and ‘Dear Friend’ both of which feature Wilson’s wonderful guitar virtuosity.
Number 3: The Felice Brothers ‘Tonight at the Arizona’ (2007)
If an album summed up for me what americana was/is then this is it. Seemingly borne from the same womb as the Band ( they are certainly spiritually and geographically from the same neck of the woods – Up State New York ) this album, released in Europe by Loose Records feels and sounds both authentic and hardscrabble. Rough-edged, intelligent and deeply felt these are real tales played with simple emotional depth and by doing so they create a profundity beyond the sum of the individual parts. Acoustic instrumentation, whiskey-soaked harmonies, literate and beguiling songs and above all Ian Felice’s cracked vocals bowed by the weight of the world. Stunning.
Number 2: The Jayhawks ‘Sound of Lies’ (European original issue, 1997)
One of the pioneers of the whole alt-country movement Minneapolis band The Jayhawks delivered this melancholy masterpiece following the double whammy of the break up of the original line up when Mark Olson went his own way and the collapse of chief songwriter Gary Louris’s relationship. The influences create an album chock full of melody and charm but with a psychedelic edge and emotional heft. The European issue is essential as it contains the stone-cold classic ‘I Hear You Cry’. Surrender to its charms, you will never leave.
Number 1: Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002)
An album that feels beyond description for the way it changed the listening expectations of the americana fan. A spellbinding Pandora’s Box of wonders both strange and ephemeral. Dissonance and melody vie for attention as aural collages explode into glorious bursts of harmony or fractured feedback. This album spoke to me in a language I had been hearing in my head as I tried to reconcile the love of Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music’ with the love of Drake’s ‘River Man’. An entirely new musical landscape was born with this album and the modern musical universe shifted gently on its axis. Untouchable.