Today sees us publish the last of our writers’ personal top tens. It’s been both entertaining and educative and has demonstrated the wide range of knowledge and tastes that AUK writers collectively possess. All the selections have been tallied and next week we will reveal the shortlist of 20 albums that our writers will be asked to vote on to generate the AUK top 10 americana albums ever. However, before we think about that, we have one more set of selections for you. I refer, of course, to those of AUK editor Mark Whitfield. I have deliberately saved Mark until last because of the interest that I know his selections will generate – not least amongst AUK writers! So, for the last time in this series, take it away Gaffer.
Like most other AUK writers, pulling together a list of my favourite americana albums of all time is as much an exercise of thinking what to leave out as what to include, and then feeling extremely guilty about it. To be fair, I’ve had the best part of a year to do this, so the list has changed on a weekly basis and if I had to do this next week, it’d change again, but the ten albums I’ve chosen are certainly in the ballpark of all the americana music which bought me to and keeps me connected with the genre. I have to say straight up that I haven’t included my two favourite albums of all time – the first being ‘Sky Full of Holes’ by Fountains of Wayne, fronted of course by the late Adam Schlesinger. Released 10 years ago now, which is a scary thought in itself, it’s a sublime record from start to finish; the other being ‘Horsebreaker Star’ by ex Go-Between Grant McLennan which was a double album recorded with country musicians in Georgia in the mid-90s and a real curveball for him – it still sounds staggeringly good today. Although both have some twangy moments, I think it’d be a push genre-wise to include them in a list of the best americana records of all time.
I’ve also had to leave out some of the most influential albums of my life, one of them being The Adventures’ ‘Trading Secrets with the Moon’ which was my musical awakening into americana really back in 1990, even though they were an Irish band. I’ve missed out albums I positively adore from bands like Grand Drive (‘See the Morning In’), Neal Casal (‘Fade Away Diamond Time’), Alison Krauss & Union Station (‘So Long So Wrong’), Jackson Browne (‘Late for the Sky’), Witness (‘Under a Sun’), Whiskeytown (‘Strangers Almanac’), Dar Williams (‘The Honesty Room’) Passenger (‘Runaway’) The Young Republic (’12 Tales From Winter City’), Conor Oberst (‘Salutations’), Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (‘Into the Great Wide Open’) and Randy Newman (‘Land of Dreams’). All of those records could have easily made the list. It struck me looking at my choices that there is nothing from the 1970s back, and only one album from the 1980s, but my love of americana really grew from records I was hearing in adulthood which started for me in the 90s, although that has sadly left me with a D minus in my americana canon exam. Just count yourself lucky I’m surrounded by writers who all got A stars in the same exam.
Number 10: Laura Cantrell ‘Not the Tremblin’ Kind’ (2000) Laura Cantrell was where americana met the zeitgeist for me, Cantrell having being introduced to many UK listeners by John Peel who she went on to develop a friendship with. Cantrell was a singer-songwriter and DJ from Nashville who left a career in Bank of America to write and record country songs which sounded like lost classics from another era. The topics within her songs covered the usual bases including relationships, alcohol and life on the road, but it was all done in a way which sounded completely convincing and with a tenderness you might find from an early Dolly Parton record, and with production which left it sounding intimate and not bombastic. It was a close call between its successor ‘When the Roses Bloom Again’ but either would be worthy of inclusion.
Number 9: Jason McNiff ‘Nobody’s Son’ (2003) Not long after I first started Americana UK back in 2001, an album by a little known London based Yorkshireman of Irish and Polish descent called Jason McNiff came through my letterbox. I had to admit I was originally drawn to it by the lovely artwork based around an old paperback, but being the exception to prove the rule, you could judge this book by its cover. I’d never really connected with Dylan’s music as much as I wanted to (I know, my P45 is in the post) but here was a songwriter who had basically written some Dylan songs I really liked. One particular song I loved so much that I drove round to my auntie’s in New Brighton and packed her, my mum and other assorted family into my car so I could play it to them, and we sat there for almost 7 minutes in silence, it was mesmerising. The album isn’t on streaming services but well worth rooting out on good old fashioned CD.
Number 8: Great Lakes ‘Diamond Times’ (2006) Probably the least well known artist on this list and not helped by various other bands having the same name, Georgia’s Great Lakes released two absolutely phenomenal albums in the noughties, and it’s difficult to choose between ‘Ways of Escape’ and its predecessor ‘Diamond Times’ but I’m going with the latter since it got there first. It has one of the most incredible starts to a record I’ve heard – a pulsating analogue synthesizer which you probably don’t hear on too many americana records. But hey, they sent it to us for review and with its psychedelic cosmic country twists and turns, and Ben Crum’s incredible songwriting it fitted the site like a well-tailored glove. That vocal too!
Number 7: Aimee Mann ‘The Forgotten Arm’ (2005) Aimee Mann can only really be described as americana very tangentially but she did record what was broadly an americana record in ‘The Forgotten Arm’, a concept album released back in 2005 about two characters John and Caroline who run off with each other to escape their problems, but end up in lots of trouble, and themed around boxing which gave rise to some of the album’s beautiful and award-winning artwork. The record is full of imagery setting it within a particular time and place in the US. She did get some criticism from some quarters: one writer said that the record “reveals how straight-up dull Mann’s country-tinged songs can be” but journalists do occasionally makes mistakes (!) As a sign of its strength it was considered for a musical before Rocky the Musical came along and there was sadly only room for one boxing musical in the ring. Still, very few writers have Mann’s knack for sardonic wordplay married to tunes you would knock someone out for.
Number 6: The Jayhawks ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ (1992) So difficult to pick a Jayhawks album, particularly since ‘The Sound of Lies’ is just superb still and breaks my heart on every listen, but in general I was always a fan of the Olson era of the band more and their third studio album ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ is perhaps the most cohesive of all their records. With influences ranging from Gram Parsons to Neil Young, actually it’s the harmonising between Mark Olson and Gary Louris that makes the record not just outstanding but have a distinctive sound all of its own. I just love winter too and the cover makes me feel cosy looking at it even though it’s a picture of them foolishly sitting on a sofa outside in the snow.
Number 5. Paul Kelly (and the Coloured Girls) ‘Gossip’ (1986) Australia’s Paul Kelly is my favourite singer-songwriter of all time, his music just being a mix of the personal and small-p political which I was affected by from the first time I heard it almost 30 years ago now. His back catalogue is so extensive stretching back as it does for over four decades, and he’s covered that many genres, that it’s a job pinning down the essence of him in one record, but the double album ‘Gossip’ released back in 1986 with his then band the Coloured Girls is probably the best example of all that’s good about his music, the bridge between his earlier scratchy material and his more produced later output (of the next 3 decades to be fair). He’s one of those rare artists whose songs sound better when they’re performed by just him with a guitar, and many of the best tracks on ‘Gossip’ have had a new lease of life in different guises in more recent years.
Number 4: Ruston Kelly ‘Dying Star’ (2018) About 4 years ago I got review tickets to see The Wandering Hearts, mainly because I liked one of their songs in particular, but ended up walking away from the gig just being bowled over by not them but their support act, Ruston Kelly (sorry Wanderers). ‘Dying Star’ is one of those records that just blows me away time and time again, and I can’t think of another voice in music now that I like as much. His voice and self-penned songs have some of the weariness of the best Ryan Adams records from years gone by, although ‘Faceplant’ is better than any song Adams has written. His follow up for me was a bit of a disappointment (sorry Ruston) but a couple of tracks are evidence that at his best, he’s one of the best songwriters around today, with or without Kacey Musgraves.
Number 3: Peter Bruntnell ‘Ends of the Earth’ (2003) It’s a disconcerting thing when you chat to an artist about your favourite record they’ve released and they go on to tell you they don’t think it’s their best work and even actively dislike at least one track on it – that happened to me last year at the AMAUKs when I was gushing to New Zealand born but UK based Bruntnell about his ‘Ends of the Earth’ album from 2003, but to me it’s still my favourite record of his by far – and that takes some doing since the album which came before it ‘Normal for Bridgwater’ is outstanding in its own right. The melodies above all else just make the record fly. It’s my go to comfort blanket of an album when I’m feeling sad (which is all the time these days).
Number 2: Teenage Fanclub ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ (1997) I was quite late in the day discovering the Fannies – ‘Sparky’s Dream’ from the album ‘Grand Prix’ was the theme to a Channel Four sitcom I’ve now forgotten the name of, but it led me into their world of melodic powerpop. And then ‘Songs From Northern Britain’ came along, perhaps their most jangly and Byrds-like album from their whole catalogue. I remember Mark and Lard making ‘Ain’t That Enough’ their song of the week on the Radio 1 breakfast show, and to hear music like that on national radio was perhaps one of the very rare times I felt like I wasn’t entirely culturally disconnected from the great British public. Of course Mark and Lard soon got booted off, Radio 1 moved on to Steps and the country returned to its usual state, but it was a brief period for me of beautiful optimism, and this record will always remind me of it.
Number 1: Beachwood Sparks ‘Beachwood Sparks’ (2000) Many years ago I interviewed LA’s Beachwood Sparks for this site and they told me they hated the term “americana” to describe their music which was a good start to the interview. But looking back now, there was something about their sound in terms of the production and energy in it that I think is missing from some of the big names in americana these days. It had that Laurel Canyon country-rock feel of bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield but didn’t feel derivative. There was a buzz about it – the album felt messy but at the same time exciting. And the songs were just crazily good. Those first few bars of opener ‘Desert Skies’ still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Even the cover is one of my favourite album covers of all time. Thank God they were reincarnated into GospelbeacH, but nothing will beat their debut – it’s a record I can’t imagine ever tiring of hearing.