Last week we were considering the wide diversity of tastes that our writers have shown in their selections. As if to emphasise the point Manchester based AUK writer Mark Johnson has produced our first list where all ten artists are either female or partly female. The under-representation of female artists in these lists has been debated before and there are legitimate historical reasons for it. In a nutshell, women have for far too long been under-represented in all forms of music and americana is no exception. Therefore there are simply fewer female artists to choose from. I suspect that if we were to choose the top 10 albums of the 21st century there would be a far greater female representation and Mark’s list, all taken from the last twenty years, reflects that. It also goes a little way towards addressing another common criticism that there have not been enough more recent releases included, but that’s a whole different debate….
I strongly suspect that these choices will be apart from the usual. As a Manc of a certain age, my music taste was formed from the triumvirate of Peel, NME and Hacienda. Before streaming, you either heard something played by a man with taste, written about by people with pretention or absorbed it collectively whilst dancing. Anything rootsy/ C&W/acoustic was either ignored or mocked. Then as middle age and the millennium approached, life started to fall apart, and suddenly clearly sung, high talent songs about heartbreak and loss seemed perfect, reflecting my soul. What was all this stuff? It wasn’t country exactly. That first Uncut compilation described itself as “the best of alt-country” in 1998, but by the second volume in 2001, it was “the best of americana”. AUK was created around this time, and for me, americana is 21st century. That’s when I discovered it, when the genre found its name. Two decades later, I’ve listened to everything from the 1920’s on, and of course they can be retrofitted into americana, a stunning body of work. My americana though is music bought on release, most of it concentrated in a burst of obsession in the first few years of this century with open ears and absorbent heart.
The only criteria other than that is that they are reachable. They can be respected, influential, admired but if I have an hour, these are the ones I’d pick off the shelf, IKEA or digital, and put on to listen and enjoy.
Number 10: Hazeldine ‘Double Back’ (2001)
All four albums are gems, but they were getting better each time. This is the last before lack of traction made them give up. Starting as part of the US ‘No Depression’ movement, the sweet harmonies of Tonya Lamm, Shawn Barton and Anne Tkach complimented their melancholic jangle perfectly. This album was perfectly produced by Chris Stamey, and contains their greatest song ‘Smaller’ an elegy to the reduction caused in break-up. Mainly forgotten now, none of their albums are streamed, and even the YouTube clips are mainly their (classy) covers.
Number 9: Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell ‘Begonias’ (2005)
Duets used to be a country staple, americana not so much. These two voices compliment each other perfectly. Cary has the edge that reminds us that there was more than one member of Whiskeytown, to which Cockrell brings his baptist stylings. ‘Please Break My Heart’ had been croony on Cary’s previous solo album, but here it is broken with regret. Almost every track here has love gone astray. The nearest americana has to Gram and Emmylou.
Number 8: Mojave 3 ‘Excuses For Travellers’ (2000)
Shoegaze was one of my favourite genres, so this is the one act on the list I already followed. When Slowdive wound down, Rachel Goswell and Neil Halstead continued producing songs of beauty and ennui, but looked up, quietened down and included twang. Slowdive had been heading away from noise anyway before demise, ‘Rutti’ off their last album is about atmospheres, and a natural partner for ‘Bluebird Of Happiness’ from Mojave 3’s fourth album. ‘Excuses For Travellers’, their third, is probably the most accessible, full of lovely songs, and contains possibly their best track, the gorgeous ‘In Love with a View’?
Number 7: The Wailin’ Jennys ‘Bright Morning Stars’ (2011)
Found this by fortune rather than research when I took a patient on home leave to pick up some stuff. She put this on and as their magical take on the spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sail High’ developed into exquisite three part harmonies, it was one of those rare moments when you urgently ask “who is this?”. Later that day, I bought it and this gem of an album is regularly on.
Number 6: Lula Wiles ‘What Will We Do?’ (2019)
All graduates of Berklee School of Music, and it shows with their high class guitar/fiddle/bass underlying the three part harmonies where their soprano/mezzo/alto combination works magic. There is something postmodern in this LP that lets a very traditional setup become hugely inventive. A catchy, exciting and infectious album.
Number 5: Soundtrack ‘Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?’ (2000)
I can sense grumblings, but this is a glorious collection, curated by T-Bone Burnett with a perfect mix of old and new. The retro tracks were new to me then and so eye opening, but it was fresh voices that astonished me. In this brilliantly creative adaptation of The Odyssey, as the Sirens lure Ulysses and his companions into the water, I knew I’d be heading straight from the cinema to the record shop to see who was singing. Naively, Alison Krauss, Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris were new names to me, but I determined then and there to see all three live, which I managed within 6 years. This album spread so far and gathered so many awards, that there is an argument that it opened ears to ‘our music’ more than any other release.
Number 4: Nickel Creek ‘Nickel Creek’ (2000)
The Watkins siblings Sara and Sean met Chris Thile as small children at music classes then went on to make magic as a group, before all three had solo careers. Chris Thile is often considered the world’s best mandolinist – check out his solo Bach Partitas – but its the combination with Sara’s fiddle and Sean’s guitar overlain by their three distinctive voices that makes their especial, progressive style. They cheekily asked Alison Krauss to produce this debut album, which brought the magic. Full of memorable tracks, ‘The Lighthouse’s Tale’ is one of the saddest songs ever, bring tissues.
Number 3: Laura Cantrell ‘Not The Tremblin’ Kind’ (2000)
Famously said by John Peel to be “my favourite record of the last ten years and possibly my life”, Cantrell’s profile immediately shot up in the UK. Not previously known for much favour towards country stylings, Peel and Cantrell became close. Her soft clear tones remind you of Kitty Wells, the music twangy, the songs down home, simple but beautiful. Somewhat overlooked nowadays, His Bobness chose her gorgeous cover of “The Whiskey Makes You Sweeter” in his recent Theme Time Radio Hour, which should re-boost the profile nicely. Also likely the only (ex) Vice-President of a large merchant bank to be featured in these lists?
Number 2: Lucinda Williams ‘Live At The Fillmore’ (2005)
More grumblings. “Live LP’s are just greatest hits.” Not in this case, where she draws almost exclusively from her two most recent albums, which were laden with bad life experiences. In the studio they were fine, but live they became incendiary, rarely can an artist have wrung such emotion through her raw yet tuneful words. A stunning ‘Changed the Locks’ is followed later by a quite staggering segue from ‘Righteously’ through ‘Joy’ to ‘Essence’, the latter oozing sex (and/or narcotics!). Why this album truly excels though is her phenomenal three piece band, the guitar extraordinary from Doug Pettibone, raw, fuzzy, the string bending making it weep and wail like a wounded animal to perfectly feed off Williams anguish. As Williams shouts between ‘Joy’ and ‘Essence’, “we got the mojo working tonight”. A career high for all involved.
Number 1: Gillian Welch ‘Time (The Revelator)’ (2001)
I’ve listened through this endlessly, but still get new feels from the sounds. Of course it’s her partner David Rawlings album as much as hers, their harmonies, melodies, guitar duets. All ten songs are strong, memorable, meaningful, beautiful. As close to perfect as americana can be?