AUK’s stellar mission to find the ‘top 10 americana albums of all time’ presses boldly on. We have witnessed many recognised stars in our firmament, with the occasional little known asteroid also hurtling by. Once or twice sight has been made of alien life forms previously not thought to exist in this galaxy. Nevertheless, it has been a fascinating journey throughout. Many able astronauts, a good many cosmonauts and definitely a few space cadets, have taken their turn on the bridge to steer us in a variety of directions. If ever there was someone to don the captain’s hat and steer us on a straight course though, then that person is Mark Underwood.
I’ve been following this feature with interest since it began back in May and one thing I was fairly set on was not to choose albums by artists that couldn’t meet the americana definition under even the broadest of its terms. After all, this is a feature on the top 10 americana albums, not “my top 10 favourite albums of all time” or “the albums that had the greatest influence on me”. Otherwise, dear reader, I’d be opining at length about my huge love for the mighty Cathal Coughlan, Microdisney and The Fatima Mansions – and you really don’t want to be subjected to that.
At considerable risk of overthinking ahead of this feature, the principal difficulty with an exercise such as this – aside from the fact that your personal 10 best is likely to change on a daily basis – is whether you should attempt to winnow down your choices through some sort of categorisation. To be more precise, should you choose the original progenitors of the Americana canon – the key influencers, say – rather than those whose music you might just choose to enjoy? Should personal choice take due account of albums that are massively important to the genre but may not actually be your favourites? Are we not obliged to cover the breadth of styles that go to make up the americana genre rather than having too narrow a focus?
Anyway, enough of being over analytical. A top 10 has proven almost an impossible task when you find yourself having to exclude such luminaries of the genre as Gram Parsons, The Burritos, The Band, Little Feat, Big Star, Joe Pernice/The Pernice Brothers, Jim White, Son Volt, Uncle Tupelo, Peter Bruntnell, Richmond Fontaine, The Delines, Jerry Leger, Neil Young, John Prine, Warren Zevon, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown, Kathleen Edwards, The Jayhawks, Tom Russell, a slew of Bob Dylan albums, Nick Drake, or the more traditional sounding country acts that give me so much joy such as Wynn Stewart, Buck Owens, The Louvin Brothers, George Jones, Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell. That being said, here we go:
Number 10: Joni Mitchell ‘Blue’ (1971)
The album that Elvis Costello is reputed to have worn out he played it so often. Recognised as one of the most candid love albums – it’s also freighted with a sense of sadness and loss. Joni yearning for the child she gave away (‘Little Green’), writing the best Christmas song that isn’t really to do with Christmas at all but is about escape (‘River’) – and the man she can neither live with our without (‘A Case of You’).
Number 9: Sparklehorse ‘Good Morning Spider’ (1998)
The older I’ve got the more I’ve come to better appreciate acts whose music reveals different qualities with the passing of time – the musical equivalent if you like of matryoshka dolls. Lyrics that are sometimes hard to fathom and elliptical – but all the welcome for that – and songs that aren’t always straightforward but are endlessly intriguing. In that vein, there’s no artist quite like Mark Linkous. This is the record he made after he nearly died, his perceptions heightened to a greater frequency than previously. And doesn’t it show.
Number 8: Townes Van Zandt ‘Live At The Old Quarter’ (1977)
Townes’ back catalogue is something of a mixed bag and makes singling out an individual album quite difficult. I was tempted to plump for the 4 box CD set, ‘Texas Troubadour’, issued by Charly records in 2005 to more fully represent the breadth of his recorded output, but that felt like cheating. ‘Live At The Old Quarter’ is rightly considered the Rosetta Stone of Townes’ recorded works and sounds like the aural equivalent of lightning in a bottle. Townes would comfortably make my list of the top three singer-songwriters and rightly stands alongside such legends as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan.
Number 7: Wilco ‘Being There’ (1996)
If you’re going to be marooned on a desert island you might as well take a couple of double albums for company. Very few of them would hold the interest across a full 19 songs, however, this is one of them. Some might plump for ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ as an alternative, which is certainly a more experimental and innovative record in nature, but on ‘Being There’ Jeff Tweedy pays heed to his alt-country heritage while also expanding it in a way no one else has bettered since.
Number 6: Chuck Prophet ‘Homemade Blood’ (1997)
There ought to be the chance to provide a list of honourable mentions in these pieces too. It was probably a toss up here between Chuck Prophet and Nick Lowe for the simple reason that I can’t think of two other acts who have managed to maintain such high creative standards over such a long period. To quote the music writer, David Hepworth, Nick Lowe is almost unique among veteran rock musicians in that he has steadily improved with age. And Chuck Prophet is deserving of exactly the same praise. This was Chuck’s fourth solo album, recorded in just ten days, and marks the start of what has been an incredibly creative period for him over the last twenty three years. ‘New Year’s Day’ is one of the greatest songs he ever recorded. There’s probably no other act that I listen to as often these days as Chuck Prophet.
Number 5: Lucinda Williams ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ (1998)
Lucinda Williams had already been in the music biz for two decades before she released this record. An album that was six years in the making, Williams being such a perfectionist that she recorded it from scratch twice, before making copious other changes such as adding further guest solos and tweaks to the vocals – all designed, somewhat ironically, to make the finished version sound somewhat underproduced. A seminal work and arguably one of the greatest albums of any genre in the 1990s.
Number 4: The Byrds ‘Younger Than Yesterday’ (1967)
So many of these choices have had to be whittled down from a final two – Guy Clark’s ‘Old No.1’or this by The Byrds? How to compare either? In the end I decided that some of these selections had to be from acts that had such a huge influence on so much of the music I listen to nowadays. Where would the likes of REM, Teenage Fanclub, the Jayhawks, or The Pernice Brothers be without The Byrds? This is David Crosby’s favourite Byrds album for a very good reason. A truly groundbreaking record and their most consistent.
Number 3: Gene Clark ‘No Other’ (1974)
Overblown, baroque, overproduced? Maybe. Magnificent? Yes. Ridiculously underrated on its release, so thank heavens it’s getting the belated recognition it deserves. A masterpiece.
Number 2: Bob Dylan ‘Blonde On Blonde’ (1966)
There’s a case for including ‘The Basement Tapes’ in any ten seeing as Bob Dylan and The Band arguably kick started the whole genre, but aside from arguments as to the extent of the material that may not have actually been recorded in Woodstock, it’s too patchy an album to warrant inclusion. The real dilemma has been whether to include ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ as well as ‘Blonde On Blonde’, but for some reason I decided that two albums by the same artist was one too many. Anyway, ‘Blonde On Blonde’ – the first ever double rock LP in history – is arguably one of the masterpieces of western culture and will be listened to long after most of us have gone.
Number 1: Richard and Linda Thompson ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ (1974)
If there’s one thing that’s surprised me since this feature began, it’s been the almost complete absence of British folk and the woefully insignificant recognition of its importance in shaping the americana genre. If this was a top 20 feature I’d certainly have found space for ‘Liege and Lief’ by Fairport Convention, alongside perhaps The Albion Band’s ‘Rise Up’ to give Ashley Hutchings his due. Richard Thompson is simply the best songwriter to have emerged from these islands and you would be hard-pressed to find his equal as a guitar player either, while Linda Thompson’s mesmerising voice is the perfect foil. Their contribution to the genre is excellently summarised in the excellent recent release, ‘Hard Luck Stories 1972-1982’ by Island records, but if you had to single out one album for the uninitiated then it would be the brilliant ‘I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight’ – although ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ and ‘Pour Down Like Silver’ should also be in everyone’s record collections.
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