AUK’s quest to identify the top ten americana albums ever continues. Each week one of our writers chooses their own personal selections and when they have all contributed, a short-list will be drawn up, from which they will be invited to vote for our ultimate top ten. This week Mark Nemadic brings a healthy dose of cynicism to the process, not to mention some bloody good records too.
The power-hungry, slave-driving monsters at Americana UK have insisted that I compile for them my top ten americana albums of all time. However, dear reader, I must share with you a secret that those monsters at AUK can never know. This is really just a list of ten great records. Some of them might only loosely be considered as americana records. One of them I can’t find my copy of. Another of them I misplaced my copy of for years, until a house move unearthed it behind a sideboard. Many of them are very well known, popular records that little more need be written about. Many of them probably wouldn’t even be my top ten americana records if I wrote this tomorrow, next week or next year. The order would certainly change. It might even change before I finish writing.
Only a damned fool would suggest that these are the greatest of the greatest, top ten americana albums of all time. Luckily for you, dear reader, I am very much the damned fool that this situation warrants. So, hastily rated from one to ten, here we go..
Number 10: Laura Cantrell ‘When The Roses Bloom Again’ (2002)
The one where I can’t find my copy. Beloved of John Peel, and probably more lauded here in Blighty than in the USA, Laura Cantrell has the sincerest, purest voice you could ever imagine. She sings (and looks) like an educator; she’s a music scholar. Steeped in country and folk traditions, she mixes her own songs with vintage gems and new classics from emerging artists. Listen and despair at the sadness that flows from the tragic, traditional, titular track. Laura is always beautifully understated; never brash or overcooked.
Number 9: Cowboy Junkies ‘The Trinity Sessions’ (1988)
A bunch of folky Canucks huddle around a single mike, in a church where the natural echo is ‘quite good’. Sometimes happenstance makes a great record. Their interpretations of ‘Sweet Jane’, ‘Blue Moon Revisited’ and ole Hank’s ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ all overflow with painstaking beauty and grace. Margo Timmins’ voice is so velvety smooth in its sad knowingness. Love does indeed hurt.
Number 8: John Prine ‘John Prine’ (1971)
Pathos and wry humour made Prine an essential listen. Growing up in Illinois, he heard and saw Dylan and thought ‘I could do that’. So he did. ‘Sam Stone’ informs of the plight of many abandoned Vietnam vets. It’s heartbreaking. ‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Any More’ is as pertinent today as it was then, perhaps even more so, given the re-emergence of disheartening idiotic nationalism far and wide. Prine succumbed to ‘the virus’ earlier this year. He was loved and is sorely missed.
Number 7: Rosanne Cash ‘The List’ (2009)
A teenager’s dad gave her a list of songs he thought she really should know. Thirty-five years later, after her dad had died, she recorded a few of them. That’s the story in a nutshell. Rosanne Cash has recorded many great records, and stands distinct from her father with a voice far more versatile than he could summon (though Johnny did pretty well with his limited baritone, admittedly). Listen to her takes on ‘Sea Of Heartbreak’ or ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’ (recast as a jazzy lullaby) and her love for the very bones of country music (and for her father) pours out of the songs. Anyone with a soul would weep at the beauty.
Number 6: Joni Mitchell ‘Blue’ (1971)
There’s not much more to say, is there? “Carey”, “California”, “River” – all sung with that swooping, flighted voice and played with simple yet sublime dulcimer, guitar and piano. The best folk album ever.
Number 5: The Rolling Stones ‘Let it Bleed’ (1969)
Of the Stones’ quadrilogy of truly great albums, ‘Let It Bleed’ as probably the darkest. As befitting of a band mired in the death of Brian Jones and the gruesomeness of Altamont. ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Midnight Rambler’, ‘Let it Bleed’ – a mix of blues and country – it’s the band at it bleakest and best. These plucky Brits listened to some good records and did alright for themselves.
Number 4: Gram Parsons ‘Grievous Angel’ (1974)
Parsons was a rich, spoilt brat. He died of a heroin overdose at a cheap motel in the Californian desert, before this record could be released. A short, miserable life of just twenty-six years. However, one might reasonably argue that Parsons pretty much ‘invented’ Americana. His short recording career, with The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers and ultimately as a solo artist (backed by Elvis’s Vegas era band!) culminated in genre-defining tracks such ’Brass Buttons’, ‘$1,000 Wedding’ and ‘Hickory Wind’. He called it ‘Cosmic American’ music. He may have been the epitome of a feckless musician, but who are we to judge?
Number 3: Neil Young & Crazy Horse ‘Rust Never Sleeps’ (1979)
The one where I lost my copy down the back of the sideboard. Our curmudgeonly Canadian chum is at his best when he counterpoints gentle, acoustic folk with the paint-melting, blistering heat of ‘the Horse’. From ‘Pocahontas’ to ‘Thrasher’; then ‘Powderfinger’ to ‘Welfare Mothers’. As is usual for Young, the whole thing was written and recorded in half an hour or so. Bookended by the acoustic ‘My My, Hey Hey’ and its reverse, jet scorched, proto-grunge ‘ Hey Hey, My My’. Over the last half-century Young has released a plethora of albums – some of them pretty uninspiring. Then, out of the blue (excuse the pun) a record drops that defies the mediocrity and explodes with passion and relevance.
Number 2: Johnny Cash ‘At Folsom Prison’ (1968)
A live album. The sound isn’t that great. Some of the performances aren’t that tight. Some of the songs are jokey, throwaway numbers. It’s okay.
Number 1: Elvis Presley ‘The Sun Sessions’ (1976)
Released in 1976, but recorded in 1954-55. The work of a dopey young truck driver and two older workaday musicians, messing around in a cheap studio, looking for an interesting, marketable sound. Jamming on a few old blues and bluegrass tunes, the kid whooped and hollered and the three of them played at a rattling pace. The studio owner liked what he heard, pressed the record button, and things kind of snowballed from there. ‘That’s Alright’, ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘Baby Let’s Play House’, plus the rest, are truly stunning. Six singles were released on Sun Records, then no-one really knows what happened to the Presley kid..
So, that’s a top ten, isn’t it? If you’re not familiar with any of these records, I heartily recommend that you acquaint yourself with them. I could, and probably should have included Willie Nelson, Porter Wagoner, maybe Margo Price and surely Hank Williams.
My older brother used to play me Johnny Cash and Elvis records when he was a teenager and I was a primary/elementary school kid. Which was a long time ago – three TV channels, joining the EEC, decimal pounds and pence – that’s all we had and that’s how it started for me.
Hopefully this article will satisfy the demands of those Americana UK ogres for a few hours.
Sweet dreams, dear reader.