In case you’ve joined us late, or just simply forgotten, here’s just a little reminder of what is going on in this feature. For the last few months the AUK writers have been scratching their heads, whittling down lists before changing them again one more time, in order to bring you their own personal selections of the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’. Once each writer has had their say, a shortlist will be drawn up of the most commonly selected albums from which the writers will then choose our collective choices of the ultimate AUK top 10. This week’s selections come from one of our newer writers, Paul Campbell, who’d like to take you down the pub – if only!
What are the top ten albums? It’s the archetypal pub conversation. Cue joyful disputation, theatrical expressions of dismay and displays of musical one-upmanship. The evening will inevitably cover definition of genre, niche knowledge and groundless value judgements. Glasses are emptied and refilled. Consensus is never achieved and everyone is strangely happy. Here is my contribution. I’ll get a round in – anyone want any crisps?
Number 10: The Civil Wars ‘Barton Hollow’ (2011)
All music lovers will be familiar with the moment when they hear something that plugs into their soul. It becomes fixed in time. In my case, I was pulling out of an Oldham car park into a grey sleety late afternoon when this album came over the car stereo. Two songs later I was parked up in front of a primary school to listen properly to this extraordinary music. ‘Barton Hollow’ has immaculate song writing, voices that meet with sweet, aching tones and restrained thoughtful guitar playing. The songs are mainly ballads, but the title song shows a rocky ability to communicate passion. There’s a slight falling off after the first seven songs, but that run is about as perfect as a series of three minute songs can get. I could go on, but never has music writing felt more like dancing about architecture than in describing this album. You’ve probably heard it already. If you haven’t, I implore you to listen to it.
Number 9: Alison Krauss and Union Station ‘Paper Airplane’ (2011)
It’s easy to say Krauss has a voice you could listen to forever. There is immaculate phrasing, clarity and emotion. The nearest equivalent is Ella Fitzgerald, and there is no higher compliment for a singer. However, a whole album’s worth becomes a bit much. It becomes too rich after a while; it’s a chocolate soufflé of a voice. This is one of the reasons why her collaborations with Union Station are so successful. The band are all accomplished musicians and Krauss’s contributions are interspersed with material led by other group members. In this case the insistent banjo playing of Ron Block and the strident vocals of Dan Tyminski on `Dust Bowl Children’, `On The Outside Looking In’ and `Bonita and Bill Butler’.
It leavens the set and allows a greater appreciation of the stand-out songs of love on this album. The cover of Jackson Browne’s `My Opening Farewell’ sets the scene for the resigned parting of a couple and the version of Richard Thompson’s `Dimming of the Day’ seems to be the aftermath. Krauss’s voice here floats with the rise and fall of the lyrics. It’s entrancing and heart-breaking. The accompaniment is perfect through to the final harmonic touches at the end. I’m lost in it every time I listen.
Number 8: Milk Carton Kids ‘All The Things That I Did And All The Things That I Didn’t Do’ (2018)
Firstly, don’t be put off by the name. Despite their terrible moniker, this music is far from infantile. It’s familiar territory in some ways. An acoustic guitar-based duo expanding their sound with the addition of a band. This is usually the cue for chunky drums, horn sections and any other instruments lying around the studio. In this case, the extra instruments are used sparingly – some slide guitar, drums, piano and bass. Where a fuller band is used as in `Nothing is Real’, the arrangements have been thought through and complement the song. The twelve songs are gentle pieces based around their close harmony vocals. `You Break My Heart’ has an extraordinary vocal performance something akin to the range and expression of an alto sax. The final song deservedly provides the album title. It’s a song that encompasses vulnerability, introspection, regret and bliss. They do this in 4.5 minutes. This album is highly recommended for all adults who’ve had a little bit, or more, of heartbreak. Not recommended for children.
Number 7: Bob Dylan ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ (1965)
Let us turn to Dylan’s erratic, contrarian, obstreperous, frequently ridiculous talent. ‘Highway 61 Revisited’ is 55 years old and still sounds exciting to me. It’s the sound of a chaotic musical gift and rules being broken. Not only is rock and roll enthusiastically embraced but here we have songs lasting 11 minutes long dispensing with conventions like bridges and choruses. Dylan is transforming lyric writing but also hurling phrases around at random. Let us not forget this record contains the immortal line `The sun isn’t yellow / It’s a chicken’. I suspect he is the only Nobel laureate to have penned this insight.
However, when all these align there are wonderful songs. The sneering `Like a Rolling Stone’, the taunting `Ballad of a Thin Man’ and my personal favourite `Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’. It begins with “When you’re lost in the rain in the Juarez / And it’s Eastertime too”. The story has started, and you’re need to know more. Why is he in Juarez? Where the hell is Juarez? What do they do at Eastertime? The song moves on to tell the story of an exile in collapse. It also contains a harmonica break so bad I literally laughed out loud the first time I heard it. And yet I’m still drawn to it again and again; like spending time with an infuriating but charismatic friend.
Number 6: Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor ‘Appalachian Journey’ (2000)
Genres are, to be blunt, made up. They only exist with the general agreement of a bunch of people about what is in and what is out. The interesting artists, like Yo-Yo Ma, will push at the boundaries of whatever genre they work in. Ma is one of those artists, and also someone who really warrants the word virtuoso. This is someone who played solo Bach cello suites to a capacity Albert Hall in 2015. From memory, for three hours. But Ma also has a love of other genres, including Americana. The album is based around the trio of Edgar Meyer on bass, Mark O’Connor on fiddle and Ma on cello. It was recorded over 3 months with the trio composing jigs, reels and traditional pieces. There are bouncing, pulsing, infectious skirling sounds here and with `Misty Moonlight Waltz’ the sound of a blissful exhaustion at the end of a night of dancing.
The album also features songs with James Taylor and Alison Krauss. Taylor sings and plays on a version of Stephen Foster’s `Hard Times’ with the trio’s backing, and features on his own instrumental piece `Benjamin’. Krauss sings on another Stephen Foster tune `Slumber My Darling’ with that controlled pure voice, complementing the string backing; she also plays fiddle on `Fisher’s Hornpipe’. This is a rich, detailed album that replays listen after listen.
Number 5: Sam Outlaw ‘Tenderheart’ (2017)
Outlaw has a natural songwriter’s gift and it’s displayed beautifully on this album. It ranges from the quiet reflections of `Everyone’s Looking For Home’ to twangy rockers such as `Trouble’. He specialises in gentle earworms as in the title track; a picture of an old man on a barstool and unrequited love.
The songs are often more barbed than the relaxed, rich sound that holds them. `Look At You Now’ is the portrait of someone who has hit an unspecified crisis, but “God isn’t really on your side / You just think he is”. Similarly, my personal favourite is a portrait of the middle classes sedating themselves with alcohol in `Bottomless Mimosas’. In a perfect example of song writing, Outlaw sets the scene in two perfectly judged opening lines “Trading looks and gossip over bottomless mimosas / Start of a brand-new day”.
Number 4: Hot Club of Cowtown ‘Continental Stomp’ (2003)
It’s rare for me to listen to live albums. They’ve been described as the sound of a party you haven’t been invited to. This is true, but equally they can be a reminder of a party that you were invited to. ‘Continental Stomp’ is Hot Club of Cowtown’s fifth album and was recorded live at the Continental Club in Austin, Texas. It reminds me of seeing the band in the more prosaic surroundings of Bury, Lancashire. This is their best album because it gives a feel for their live shows, which is where the music comes alive.
The trio marry the swing of Django Reinhart and Stephane Grappelli’s ‘Hot Club de France’, with an Americana twist. The live performances are powered by Jake Erwin’s stomping double bass driving the band and venue along. It seems like Elana James can convey any emotion in the thesaurus with the fiddle and Whit Smith’s playing has effortless musicality. It’s music to move, dance and smile to.
Number 3: Simon and Garfunkel ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ (1970)
Does it count as Americana? I’m not sure myself but it is at the apex of American popular song. It is best to move quickly past the things that don’t gel on this album. `So Long Frank Lloyd Wright’ is inoffensive but bland, `Why Don’t You Write Me’ is forgettable and the live version of `Bye Bye Love’ is marred by the distracting sound of the audience clapping along throughout; it sounds like an out of time synth drum from the 80s. However, the music that does work displays Simon’s uncanny song writing gift at his creative peak. These are songs that sound like they were always there. Clever, witty, allusive and whistleable at once. Pieces that are loved by adults and, in my experience, picked up instantly by children. `Keep the Customer Satisfied’, `El Condor Pasa’ and `Cecilia’ are so catchy it feels somehow indecent. `The Boxer’ builds to a glorious climax with the “Lie la lie” refrain and the duo’s voices meld perfectly together.
The title song is a genuine classic. I suspect this is one of the pieces that will last from the 20th Century. A glorious take on gospel music with the ideal setting for Garfunkel’s voice. It’s the recording of this song that has never been equalled. Many artists, from Johnny Cash to Aretha Franklin, have attempted this song and every time you want to hear the original. I also love it for the 1 minute 50 seconds of `Song for the Asking’. It was my daughter’s favourite when I picked her up from school. It filled the car with guitar, strings and voice, and for about 2 minutes the joyless hell of the East Lancashire Road in Salford didn’t exist.
Number 2: Gram Parsons ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ (1974)
This is the album that made me think again about that country, pedal steel sound. Prior to this, all the connotations were negative. It was the setting for sentimental, mawkish, unconvincing soupy songs. Yes, my friend, I have sinned. I probably rolled my eyes at the first few bars but by the end of the second song, `Hearts on Fire’, I had recanted and was heading down the path of righteousness. For who could not? The up-tempo tunes are unalloyed pleasure. It’s hard to listen to `Cash on the Barrelhead’ and `Ooh Las Vegas’ without feeling that the band members are smiling as they play.
However, the pairing of Parson’s and Harris’s voices are best featured in the slower pieces as in `Hearts on Fire’ and a cover of The Everly Brothers `Love Hurts’. The latter takes a song of shallow adolescent pain, slows it down and turns it into adult resignation. The album finishes with `In My Hour of Darkness’. It was penned by Parsons and Harris but has a timeless air. On first hearing I assumed it was a folk song; surely one of the highest compliments for any songwriter.
Number 1: Joni Mitchell ‘Blue’ (1971)
We have centuries of songs about romantic love. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of love songs. It’s the stock in trade of popular music but the majority of them struggle to genuinely convey the contradictory emotions. ‘Blue’ is the sound of Mitchell’s own struggle with love. This isn’t music to please an audience. Part of the fascination lies with listening to an artist lost in self-expression; the album covers devotion, dismay, pain, joy and self-delusion. There are some excellent conventional songs here. In `Little Green’ the voice is regulated and pure and `Carey’ has a beat and sense of fun. However, it’s in the less controlled, more freewheeling pieces we find something remarkable.
`A Case of You’ is deservedly much talked of and may last like great poetry. The affair is over, but the emotions and addiction remain; “You’re so bitter / Bitter and so sweet, oh / I could drink a case of you, darling / Still, I’d be on my feet”. In an aching, tender couplet she sings “Part of you pours out of me / In these lines from time to time”. `My Old Man’ is a song of devotion with prosaic moments of loneliness ; “The bed’s too big / The frying pan’s too wide”. The album finishes with `The Last Time I Saw Richard’. This layered song contrasts differing approaches to the search for love. Richard cuts himself off from the lies of the romantic ideal, but finishes in a cold suburban statis. Mitchell sets the scene with a masterful vignette: “Richard got married to a figure skater / And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolator / And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on / And all the house lights left up bright”. However, the song’s protagonist is left with a hopeful, ambivalent dream of love to come “Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings / And fly away”. Mitchell’s voice doesn’t always sound beautiful to me on this record but it doesn’t matter. The album was her creative peak. These are love songs that come from the gut and leave you quietly dazed.