Welcome to our weekly feature in which AUK writers in turn make their selections for the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’. When all have contributed we will then draw up a shortlist and ask them to vote to decide the overall AUK writers top 10. This week Netherlands based writer Ljubinko Zivkovic takes up the baton and guides us down the back straight with a scintillating run of albums, a number of which are definite podium contenders when this particular race is finally run.
Number 10: The Schramms ‘Walk to Delphi’ (1990)
The Schramms are probably one of the more unlucky bands that fall under the label of americana, with their original label falling apart just as they were about to get noticed. Even with their experience playing with the likes of Yo La Tengo and Peter Stampfel, and the quality of their songwriting and playing, they never regained momentum, no matter how good they were. But a band that is able to write a song to fit with an Emily Dickinson poem (‘Out of the Earth’), certainly deserves to be on my list.
Number 9: Giant Sand ‘Tucson: A Country Rock Opera’ (2012)
If there is one single artist that can be labelled as a modern americana trademark it is Howe Gelb, the man behind Giant Sand and quite a few other incarnations that brought into americana everything from free jazz to flamenco and a gospel choir. Tucson is in a way a story of Gelb’s musical life, recalling more or less all he has done musically up to that point, including showing Calexico, one of his offspring, how it really should be done.
Number 8: Skip Spence ‘Oar’ (1969)
If there was anything that could be labelled as wacky Americana, then this Skip Spence masterpiece is certainly it. Recorded in a few days by a man practically deaf in one ear and in and out of mental institutions, it became proof that if you have talent and imagination, you can overcome any obstacle when creating. Calling saints and chasing demons. Literally, and all by himself.
Number 7: Gram Parsons ‘Grievous Angel’ (1974)
Sometimes it is very hard to take Gram Parsons’ music separately from the curious story of his life and times, but then, the two are possibly not to be separated anyway. It is strange how in such a relatively brief career an author like Parsons was able to leave such a body of so dense and consuming songs. This is particularly evident on this, his premature swan song with compositions like ‘Brass Buttons’, ‘Hickory Wind’, and the telling ‘In My Hour of Darkness’ still ringing strong.
Number 6: Lucinda Williams ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ (1998)
It took Williams six years to come up with this album that many rightfully consider her best. It is Lucinda Williams at her songwriting, singing best, and the detailed production some critics complained about actually make the album as current as it was back in 1998 when it first came out. Williams was able to tell the story of the Deep South and her vision of it in the best possible manner.
Number 5: The Grateful Dead ‘American Beauty’ (1970)
It so happens that this, one of Grateful Dead’s studio masterpieces is getting its anniversary reissue at these times. In many ways, its title reflects in full on not only the beauty of the songs it contains, but also the genre it can so proudly represents. No wonder that practically every single song on the album were a staple of practically every Grateful Dead show, with ‘Ripple’ and ‘Truckin’ also becoming some sort of unofficial Dead anthems.
Number 4: Dillard & Clark ‘The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard & Clark’ (1968)
Gene Clark was always a country boy from Arkansas that fell in love with The Beatles and had an almost perfect knack for a good melody. A combination with bluegrass virtuoso Doug Dillard didn’t simply push him deep into his roots but brought an extra touch to his almost impeccable songwriting talent. Songs like ‘Train Leaves Here This Mornin’ and ‘She Darked The Sun’ would be the pinnacle of anybody’s career, but on this album they were just two out of nine extraordinary tracks.
Number 3: Neil Young ‘After The Gold Rush’ (1970)
This is an album that can, along the two that are just above it, equally share the title of the best. Neil Young had many musical metamorphoses in his career but this is an album when his songwriting might have been most focused and productive, coming up with songs that he himself has been returning throughout his career and giving his fans an album that is always somewhere close to the top of whatever playing medium they are using. No wonder, since songs like ‘After The Gold Rush’ itself and ‘Southern Man’ still have their relevance 50 years on.
Number 2: The Band ‘The Band’ (1969)
Certainly one of the timeless albums of out of any genre of modern music. It is very hard to say who inspired who – Dylan/The Band, or the other way around. In both cases the results are remarkable. For their part, on their self-titled album The Band came up of a unified set of songs that firmly established americana as a genre, even before that name came up as being mentioned. Whilst Robbie Robertson wrote all 12 songs, it still sounds as if all the members were thinking and playing with one mind. Pines are still whispering.
Number 1: Bob Dylan ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (1966)
Bob Dylan did not only end his so-called ‘electric trilogy’ with this album, but ushered the era of electrified roots music, what became americana as such. Yes, Nashville session musicians had a lot to do with the sound of ‘Blonde on Blonde’, but all types of roots music always lived in Dylan and they are all evident on this album, that represents some of the best songs he ever wrote, whether he came with them to the studio, or whether he wrote them on the spot in the spur of the moment, like he did ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’. An absolute classic in any shape or form.