At AUK we are on a quest to find the ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’. Over the coming weeks and months each AUK writer will in turn, present their own personal selections. When each writer has had their say, a shortlist of the most frequently chosen albums will be drawn up and voted on, in order to generate the definitive AUK writers top ten.
This week’s AUK writer laying down his cards is Martin Johnson, who presents us with his personal selections for readers to debate, celebrate or castigate. Please share your views in the ‘Comments’ box at the bottom of the page.
NUMBER 10: John Hiatt’ Bring The Family‘ (1987)
You can make a case that americana, as a genre, was made for John Hiatt. He was always able to write a good song but struggled to establish an audience being considered too country for rock’n’roll and too rock’n’roll for country. With ‘Bring The Family’ he was able to write his most mature set of songs to date having tackled his drink dependency and he recorded them over a 4 day period with a dream band of Ry Cooder guitar, Nick Lowe bass and Jim Keltner drums. The songs ranged from roots rockers to perceptive ballads and the short recording time ensured the performances were fresh and alive. Also, this gets Ry Cooder into my top 10 list by proxy.
NUMBER 9: Tony Rice ‘Manzanita’ (1978)
Bluegrass is like marmite, it invokes strong reactions in listeners. While it is a genre in its own right it has had a major influence on americana. Developed in the late ‘30s by Bill Monroe, pushed into decline by rock’n’roll, given fresh credence by the folk revival it enjoyed a major revival in the ‘70s with progressive musicians who understood the traditions established by Bill Monroe but who were also influenced by contemporary folk, rock and jazz music. Key players of progressive bluegrass are on Tony Rice’s ‘Manzania’, David Grisman mandolin who played on ‘American Beauty’ by the Grateful Dead and was leader of the instrumental David Grisman Quintet, Sam Bush mandolin from the groundbreaking Newgrass Revival and dobro player extraordinaire Jerry Douglas. Tony Rice brought a new jazz informed sound to bluegrass guitar as he built on Clarence White’s example and he has a sublime voice, if a questionable taste in shirts. The songs range from contemporary to traditional tunes. Finally, for those readers of a nervous disposition, this is a bluegrass album that does not include any banjo.
NUMBER 8: Los Lobos ‘Kiko’ (1992)
Los Lobos are one of the greatest American bands of the last forty years irrespective of genre. They came out of the LA post-punk music scene with a plethora of influences and their music is a seamless blend of country, rock, blues, R&B and the Latin sounds of Mexico and South America. A key influence was the folk-rock of our very own Fairport Convention. Every member of the group adds something special to the overall sound with no grandstanding despite the formidable instrumental skills on offer. Their songwriting matches their instrumental and vocal skills making them a self-contain unit that has ploughed their own furrow over the decades. Also, unlike most of their contemporaries, their output has not shown any significant decline in quality over the years. ‘Kiko’ from 1992 added a new sonic palette to the Los Lobos sound with help from producer Michael Froom and it is special even for Los Lobos. Without it, it is difficult to see Wilco recording their groundbreaking ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ album and shows that all genres need to progress.
NUMBER 7: Guy Clark ‘The Dark’ (2002)
Guy Clark is the songwriter’s songwriter and his debut album ‘Old No1’ is often listed as his best album. While there is no denying the quality of the songs on his debut he continued to write brilliant songs until his death in 2016. While he was revered as a songwriter, and many of his songs were hits for other artists, he never actively sought hit records himself preferring to present his songs in the best settings and arrangements to allow the songs themselves to shine through. ‘The Dark’ has a simple production with minimal accompaniment from the likes of Shawn Camp, Tim O’Brien, Gillian Welch, Verlon Thompson and Darrell Scott with a selection of largely co-written songs with everyone from Camp to Terry Allen and the ubiquitous Townes Van Zandt cover ‘Rex’s Blues’. The album is a perfect representation of Guy Clark’s songs, performance and his ultimate artistry.
NUMBER 6: Nick Lowe ‘The Impossible Bird’ (1994)
While Nick may be British he has had a big influence on the alt-country artists of the ‘80s and ‘90s due to his undoubted songwriting skills and new wave credentials. ‘The Impossible Bird’ was recorded after he received his seven-figure royalty windfall when his song ‘What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love And Understanding’ was covered by Cutis Stigers on the ‘Bodyguard’ soundtrack album. At the time Nick’s career was in decline and he was without a major record deal. He used the money to record a new more mature styled album with a new sound to go with his maturity. The album became the blueprint for the second half of his career and ensured he remains a current and valid artist to this day. The album is a mix of country, R&B pre Beatles pop and country soul and includes significant Nick Lowe songs such as ‘The Beast In Me’, covered by ex-father-in-law Johnny Cash, to a cover of Percy Sledge’s ‘True Love Travels On A Gravel Road’. While the country quotient is high on ‘The Impossible Bird’ you are never in doubt that Nick himself is from Brentford rather than Nashville.
NUMBER 5: J J Cale Troubadour’ (1976)
J J Cale is best described as an enigma. He first came to popularity in the early ‘70s and his music was seen to epitomise the dusty back porch pickin’ of Oklahoma. However, this ignored the fact that his albums were superbly engineered and used the latest technology to get their sound. He claimed to dislike his own voice which resulted in it being buried deep in the mix of his albums. While he had worked in LA as an engineer and session musician and understood the workings of the record business he refused to promote his records preferring them to be a set of demos for other artists to select their hits from. His albums are the perfect distillation of the Tulsa sound which includes blues, R&B, jazz and country and are of such a quality they could be seen to be interchangeable. ‘Troubadour’ has a very full sound and an excellent set of songs, including ‘Cocaine‘ recorded by you know who, and as such is probably the best representation of Cale’s music.
NUMBER 4: Terry Allen ‘Lubbock On Everything’ (1979)
Not really a country artist more a multimedia and visual artist who just happens to like performing and writing country songs, Terry Allen bridged the gap between ‘70s outlaw country and the emergence of alt-country. He was part of the Lubbock music scene that included Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his songs were championed Lowell George and David Byrne. Just in case anyone thought he wasn’t a serious songwriter he also co-wrote a number of songs with Guy Clark later in his career. ‘Lubbock On Everything’ is his masterpiece and it was recorded in Lubbock with Lubbock musicians including Joe Ely and Lloyd Maines and engineered by Don Caldwell. It is Joe Ely and his musical cohorts that bring the right musical backing to Allen’s songs that make this album such an overall winner. The album isn’t a celebration of Lubbock but more a cynical view by someone who is now an outsider. This cynicism is what drives the whole album and it gives it its lasting influence while also capturing a musical moment in time.
NUMBER 3: Dillard and Clark ‘The Fantastic Expedition of Dillard and Clark’ (1968)
This album by ex-Byrd Gene Clark and former Dillards banjo player Doug Dillard is one of the first fully formed country-rock albums and was a contemporary of the Byrds’ ‘Sweetheart Of The Rodeo’. In fact, it is an even better album than ‘Sweetheart’ though it did not receive the same long-lasting acclaim and eventual sales. Gene Clark was by far the best songwriter in the original Byrds and he was a superb singer. Part of the reason he left the Byrds was the simmering jealousy of David Crosby over the royalties he was receiving as well as his much-touted fear of flying. Dillard and Clark formed their partnership through jam sessions in LA. They went into the studio with musicians that included then Byrd Chris Hillman, on mandolin, and future Burrito Brother and Eagle Bernie Leadon. The songs are top-drawer and are all Gene Clark originals or co-writes with the exception of a Lester Flatt tune. There is a significant dollop of bluegrass in the music reflecting Doug Dillard’s background and that of Hillman and Leadon.
NUMBER 2: Flying Burrito Brothers ‘Gilded Palace Of Sin’ (1969)
What can you say about an album that is (hopefully) recognised by every americana and country fan but even now is not an RIAA gold record? It is the perfect distillation of everything that was special about Gram Parsons, supported by the discipline and musical knowledge of Chris Hillman following their departure from the Byrds. Parsons called it cosmic American music, some have called it hippie soul but whatever it is, it brought a rock’n’roll spirit and attitude to country music and things would never be the same again. Some of Gram Parsons’ best songs are included but interestingly they are all co-writes with Chris Hillman and bassist Chris Ethridge, including ‘Sin City’, ‘Wheels’ and ‘Hot Burrito #2’. Lest we forget, it also includes two Dan Penn country soul tracks ‘Do Right Woman’ and ‘Dark End Of The Street’. ‘Sneaky’ Pete Kleinow brought instrumental interest through his steel guitar playing and Chris Ethridge’s bass playing was obviously from south of the Mason Dixon Line adding to the Burrito’s sound.
NUMBER 1: The Band ‘The Band’ (1969)
The Band’s first album, ‘Music From Big Pink’ and their second, ‘The Band’ (also known as the ‘Brown Album’) are really of a piece and the choice of which is best is much more down to personal preference rather than artistic evaluation. While the music shone a light on the past, this was not musical archaeology as the songs were largely written by themselves, with input from Dylan on ‘Big Pink’, and mixed genres even within the same song. They were a true band due to their years of playing together and could interchange instruments bring variations to their sound. They were blessed with three great vocalists in drummer Levon Helm, bassist Richard Danko and pianist Richard Manuel. Guitarist Robbie Robinson could shred with the best but preferred to serve the song and became the primary writer. Garth Hudson on keyboards was their musical secret weapon creating new sounds and textures with his innovative use of emerging electronic instruments. ‘The Band’ just edges ‘Music From Big Pink’ because of the track’ The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’. Not only is it a great song, covered by everyone from Jerry Garcia to Joan Baez, it also marks the start of a reappraisal of the American South. The South had long been seen as the home of rednecks and bigots, a view reinforced by the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King. However, this song presented another view of the South and one closer to the truth and better represented the culture that developed the great music that is the bedrock of americana.