AUK’s top 10 americana albums ever: Number 1 – The Band “The Band”

Capitol Records, 1969

Well we have finally arrived at the finishing post and here it is, our choice as Number 1 in the AUK quest to find the greatest americana album ever. At the bottom of the page you will see the full top 20 and the number of votes that they each received. Whilst perusing that list you may be nodding your approval or raging at our folly – either way we hope that you have enjoyed the series and next week it’s your turn as we ask our wonderful readers have their say. But before that, the final word comes from Martin Johnson, who placed our overall winner top of his own personal list, and now offers a compelling vindication of his and our choice.

The greatest americana album as voted for by the Americana UK writers is a heavy load for any album to carry and such a distinguished title can, in itself, be off-putting to some listeners. This is particularly the case with the ‘The Band’ by The Band as it is now over 50 years old, surely there must have been better albums released in the years since 1969, even if the men with grey beards don’t think so? The iconography of The Band as a group and the cover photography of Elliot Landry for the album ‘The Band’ supported this view of music from an earlier age, played by musicians who did look like they had been transported from that earlier age and yes, beards are in evidence. The fact it is also referred to as simply ‘The Brown Album’ is just part of this continuum. Hang on though, this view ignores the quality of the songs and the performances, and completely overlooks just how innovative the album was at the time of its release and how those innovations still chime with today’s americana music scene.

The album is really a concept album by a bunch of Canadians about the American South, with the support of an actual American southerner, Levon Helm, who was born and raised in Arkansas. Though they didn’t realise it at the time, the Band’s debut ‘Music From Big Pink’ was probably the first americana album with its mix of country, blues, soul, rock, folk, classical and R&B and the added value of three former boss Bob Dylan’s then-unreleased songs from the Basement Tape sessions. When it came to recording that all-important second album, they settled on going for the Woodstock “clubhouse feel” of the first album by installing a studio in the pool house of a Hollywood mansion once owned by Sammy Davis Jnr. Guitarist Robbie Robertson took more control of the album writing or co-writing every track on the album and taking more interest in the overall sound, which was an early indicator of his later soundtrack work.  However, this is not a Robbie Robertson solo album backed by his bandmates in Ronnie Hawkins’ Hawks, because while Robertson may have written most of the material, the sound and delivery of the individual songs reflects the telepathic interplay the musicians had developed, and while everyone plays for the song, their individual musical characters are given full reign and can be heard for all to enjoy.

With the odd exception, ‘The Band’ could function as The Band’s greatest hits with no filler tracks and it includes their greatest songs including ‘Across The Great Divide’, ‘Rag Mama Rag, ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, ‘The Unfaithful Servant’ and ‘King Harvest Has Surely Come’. The songs are largely about the American South of the 19th century and the music is a mix of American roots music, in fact,  potential early names for the album had been ‘America’ and ‘Harvest’, later used by follow Canadian Neil Young a few years later. The earthiness was maintained with the album’s subsequent nickname, ‘The Brown Album’. The Band was blessed with three lead vocalists in Richard Manual, Levon Helm and Rick Danko who provided near-perfect vocals for the roots-based music. Additionally, all members ensured the music breathed and blended to a single whole, despite featuring mandolins, fiddle, acoustic and Curtis Mayfield inspired lead electric guitar, various keyboard and horn sounds, and one of the finest rhythm sections to drive a funky country soul beat.

Why was ‘The Band’ so innovative despite invoking a bygone timeless age? The first answer is that it is not real but a construct, produced by ex-patriot Canadians, with an American southerner to add extra seasoning, and this meant that from now on you didn’t have to be born in the South to play authentic music inspired by the South. While the music invoked that of an earlier time, it mixed and matched snatches of genres in one song in a way that hadn’t really been heard before. Some of the sounds were also new, Garth Hudson used his clavinet with a wah-wah pedal to produce the sound of a Jews harp on ‘Up On Cripple Creek’ and this instrument configuration was picked up by subsequent ‘70s funk musicians to become a ubiquitous sound of the decade.  The biggest innovation was that ‘The Band’, and in particular the track ‘The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down’, presented an alternative and more complex view of the South at the end of the ‘60s that challenged the view that it was solely populated by redneck racists and members of the Klu Klux Klan. This meant that the music and culture of the South could be explored and enjoyed by people without the fear of supporting and propagating the racist legacy of the American Civil War. It is this final point that is the essence of why ‘The Band’  aka ‘The Brown Album’ can stake its claim to being the greatest americana album of all-time.

Each AUK writer was able to vote for five albums in order. Their number 1 choice got 5 points, Number 2 got 4 points etc

The Top 20 with votes

1. The Band – ‘The Band’ (1969) 59
2. Neil Young – ‘After The Goldrush’ (1970) 46
3. Lucinda Williams – ‘Car Wheels on a Gravel Road’ (1998) 39
4= Gene Clark – ‘No Other’ (1974) 35
4= Jason Isbell – ‘Southeastern’ (2013) 35
6. Bob Dylan – ‘Blonde on Blonde’ (1966) 34
7. Johnny Cash – ‘American Recordings’ (1994) 31
8. Uncle Tupelo – ‘No Depression’ (1990) 25
9. Townes Van Zandt – ‘Live at The Old Quarter, Houston, Texas’ (1977) 24
10. Wilco – ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001) 23
11. Joni Mitchell – ‘Blue’ (1971) 22
12. Cowboy Junkies – ‘The Trinity Session’ (1988) 21
13. Grateful Dead – ‘American Beauty’ (1970) 20
14. The Flying Burrito Brothers – ‘The Gilded Palace of Sin’ (1969) 18
15. Dwight Yoakam – ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc Etc’ (1986) 17
16. Gram Parsons – ‘Grievous Angel’ (1973) 16
17. The Civil Wars – ‘Barton Hollow’ (2011) 15
18. Laura Cantrell – ‘Not The Tremblin’ Kind’ (2000) 14
19. Paul Kelly – ‘Gossip’ (1986) 12
20. Emmylou Harris – ‘Roses in the Snow’ (1980) 9


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About Clint West 211 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,

11 Comments

  1. I think your website needs some young blood. The number of your greatest albums of all time to come from 1966-1977 is ridiculous. 9 of your top 16! Was this really a statistically freakish period of incredible music? More great albums in 11 years than in the 44 years since? Is this just the period that your voters remember fondly?

    As a genuine question, what is the average age of your voters? You mentioned that there was a paucity of females in the top ten but didn’t even recognise the fact that most people listening to Americana today weren’t even born when the majority of your top 10 albums were made. Surely this should ring some alarm bells? I can’t imagine any collection of 20-40 year olds would make such a list. For the sake of transparency can we see a list of voters ages please?

    I don’t think that you are bad at what you do but I don’t think you represent what Americana is now and that’s a shame. It seems to be an old boys club talking about their favourite artists from yesteryear, rather than a website on the cutting edge of modern Americana looking to the future.

  2. Hi Rob. I think these lists inevitably focus on older artists as they’re the ones over time that most people have heard. Some lists like my own contained very few albums from earlier than 2000. We will be running a series later in the year focussing on the best Americana albums from this century, and we do feature new artists on the site every day. Take your points on board though so thank you for making them.

  3. I’ve never been a fan of lists or ‘Top Tens’, at least not those shared by magazines and web sites from time to time, almost certainly because I’ve never agreed with them. They’ve invariably, to me, been about popularity rather than merit. I guess their main point is to generate some sort of discussion or argument. After all, they can rarely be produced objectively and they’re simply an opinion or broad consensus of a few well-informed individuals.

    Having said all that, it’s hard to resist shouting ‘But what about….?’ and then producing your own ‘Top Ten’ or whatever. I’m a fairly recent arrival to this party so maybe I missed the definition of ‘Americana’ and the rules for this list. Was it about artists and bands rather than the breadth of the music? And there seems to be no recognition of the influence an album or artist might have had. I hesitate to say it but it almost seems like ‘Americana’ is used as an alias for ‘White (largely male) Country Rock’. I have several of them and I’ve heard most of them, but there’s not much variety.

    Bob and Neil both get included. I’ve never considered them Americana as such, at least not solely, and if they are, why not Van? He’s celebrated for Blues, Country and Jazz, has a more recent ‘Americana USA’ award and Tupelo Honey certainly covers all the bases. But that’s a focus on a person, not the music, and it’s the music – with its main influencers – that’s the thing. So I’d have expected to see the Harry Smith anthology in there (maybe including the B sides). It’s arguably the music that kicked off Americana as it is and a lot of the songs are still included in set lists by many contemporary artists. Or maybe American Epic, all eight magnificent discs covering the time and breadth of everything that became and continues to be Americana (plus Elton John! And I wish they’d issue the film in a European format). And there’s Joe Bussard’s five disc FonoTone collection, including John Fahey and Mike Seeger. For something more concise, what about Will The Circle Be Unbroken? – all three volumes. You hear the development of the music over time, as if the baton gets passed down through the years. Or maybe O Brother, Where Art Thou? Maybe responsible for making so many aware of American roots music (and you get John Hartford and Ralph Stanley).

    Thing is, that only scratches the surface and, given the breadth and depth of the music, and the time it’s been around, everybody has their own opinions. I couldn’t produce a Top Ten of albums by just artists and bands. I’d end up arguing with myself. There’s a raft of artists, bands and albums I can think of – The Blasters, Dave Alvin, Ry Cooder, Little Feat, Dr John, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers and so on, and I’d probably take Billy Strings two ‘solo’ albums over most of the published list – but one album I’d find it hard to be without is The Many Sides of Fred Neil. Greenwich Village in the late 50s and early 60s is a main historical focal point for Americana, and Fred Neil was arguably the main player. Besides, how can you ignore somebody who thought Bob Dylan was worth a shot?

    • Harry Smith’s anthology was one of my picks but, while it undoubtedly influenced numerous artists, it remains today something of a niche discovery. We’ve covered the NGDB’s Circle elsewhere on the site and we have the hugest respect for the likes of John Hartford, Ralph Stanley, Fred Neil and others. But, ultimately, this is a top ten. Familiarity and popularity are the primary movers here.

      • Thanks for getting back Paul.

        While I wouldn’t regard the Harry Smith set as ‘niche’ given its significance to the genre, your last sentence answers my primary question: influence isn’t a factor.

        It’s a bit ironic: a lot of my friends say my musical tastes are weird because they’re NOT familiar or popular.

  4. Thanks a lot for the list, makes for really interesting reading. I think some of the comments are very harsh though I do agree that I often find older albums favoured and recommended here that don’t really float my boat. But I appreciate the great job everyone did presenting their choices and for someone like me, I feel if I’m introduced to some great music out of it, then it’s a worthwhile exercise. My tastes favour newer stuff but I realise that’s not everyone’s bag. Thanks anyway for all the interesting articles, keep up the good work.

    • Oh, and I will say I’ve been introduced to absolutely lots of new music in other parts of the site so thanks for that, your reviews are terrific

  5. As I have always struggled to explain “Americana” to friends and family, I quite understand that it often means different things to each of us. My personal journey came through buying an alt-country sampler then seeing Iris Dement on the Country music channel on satellite in 1991. This whet my whistle and I delved under the surface only to discover that my all-time favourite, Jackson Browne, could also fall into this new genre as it included singer-songwriter stuff too. All those Uncut CD helped too. My tastes are as selective as everyone elses but I do possess 5 of the “Top Ten” but only 1 other from 11 to 20. Whole chunks of Americana leave me cold but I can understand why others love them. e.g.To my great shame I find Gram Parsons difficult but readily acknowledge his influences over later musicians.
    Thanks to all the team who contributed to the lists as I have found some new, to me,artists and looked forward each week to finding the next list. Please continue the good work.

  6. Are we completely certain about ” Curtis Mayfield’s inspired lead electric guitar” on The Band?

  7. Hi, yes we are. When Robbie Robertson first came to prominence with the Hawks he was wailing with the best of the then emerging guitar shredders. By the time we have Music From The Big Pink and The Band his sound had changed and he is on record as attributing this change to listening to Curtis Mayfield, and also Steve Cropper, and he got off “the wailing wall” as he put it. Mayfield’s guitar style is spare and has space which is exactly the key characteristic of Band-era Robbie Robertson that wasn’t there with the Hawks.

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