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.
The fourth AUK writer putting himself through this tortured process is Rick Bayles. Drum roll please…
Ah, the madness of trying to select an Americana Top 10! A task of Herculean proportions and one which is doomed to fail! I can hear the sharp intakes of breath and the rolling of many eyes even as I start to type. Apparently, to compound the folly of selecting a Top 10, I also have to rank my selections. I’ve gritted my teeth and done so but it has not been easy and if you ask me to do it again next year it could be very different – well…a bit different…
Number 10: The Civil Wars ‘Barton Hollow’ (2011) Having heard a lot of music over the years it gets harder to hear something new that really grabs me, but I loved the sound of this duo as soon as I heard them. The combination of that Southern Gothic approach to the songs and two voices that complimented each other so perfectly was a heady mix. Lightning in a bottle. That it couldn’t last seemed inevitable and also fitting.
Number 9: Little Feat ‘Dixie Chicken‘ (1973) Combining southern rock, country and New Orleans style R&B with some of the best guitar licks in the business this is the first record from what became the band’s classic line-up, adding the great guitar work of Paul Barrere to Lowell George’s already formidable slide playing and bringing in percussionist Sam Clayton. The title track alone makes this a great album but the groove throughout is terrific.
Number 8: Linda Ronstadt ‘Heart Like a Wheel’ (1974) Linda Ronstadt did much to contribute to the country-rock sound coming from the West Coast in the 70s. Her original backing band, the Stone Ponies, had morphed into The Eagles and Ronstadt put out her first solo album “Hand Sown…Home Grown” in 1969, but “Heart Like a Wheel”, her fifth solo album, was the major break-through recording of her career. Her first number one album and winner of a Grammy award it included songs by J.D. Souther, Moman & Penn, Phil Everly, Lowell George, and Hank Williams.
Number 7: Gretchen Peters ‘Hello Cruel World’ (2012) I’m a big fan of good songwriting and I believe Gretchen Peters is one of the very best songwriters around today – and she keeps getting better! Her recent output is all good but this album, from 2012, is just superb. She’s one of the great storytellers, as this track perfectly demonstrates.
Number 6: John Hiatt ‘Bring The Family’ (1987) Backed by the band that he would later record and tour with as Little Village – Ry Cooder on guitar, Nick Lowe on bass and Jim Keltner on drums – Hiatt’s breakout album, recorded after he’d quit the booze and generally cleaned up his act, showed a new maturity and honesty in his writing. This album is simply dripping with great songs. Recorded in L.A. in just four days it is a storming album littered with great musicianship and Hiatt’s signature growl.
Number 5: The Band ‘The Last Waltz’ (1978) Hard to make the decision between this and ‘Music From Big Pink’; in the end it came down to this album because of the sheer breadth of the collaboration and the artists involved. Something I’ve always liked about Americana music is that willingness to collaborate with, and learn from, others and I think the Last Waltz project was a great example of that – and it produced some fantastic music.
Number 4: Lucinda Williams ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ (1998) I’m pretty sure this will be on a few lists. This was Lucinda William’s first Gold Album and remains her biggest seller to date. The assembled talent on this recording is just amazing – Roy Bittan, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Charlie Sexton, the incomparable Buddy Miller – the list goes on and on. An outstanding album drenched in the sound of her native Louisiana.
Number 3: Gram Parsons ‘Grievous Angel’ (1974) I could easily have put all Gram Parson’s recorded output in this list and I’m sure the likes of The International Submarine Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and GP era Byrds will feature on other lists. He was such a hugely influential figure that any one of his recordings is rightly considered to be significant. He was a great writer but also knew how to draw from the best and put his own stamp on a song. I’ve opted for his final studio album partly because it allows me to include the wonderful Emmylou Harris but also because, for me, it’s his most complete recording; no filler, every track a prime cut.
Number 2: Steve Earle ‘Copperhead Road‘ (1988) Another hugely influential figure and, again, it could’ve been one of a number of albums from Steve Earle, but there’s always been something about this recording that stands out for me. It’s the album that is recognised as the point where his sound became harder-edged and started drawing more heavily on rock – he himself has described it as “the world’s first blend of heavy metal and bluegrass”. Along with the great title track, the album boasts the amazingly energetic collaboration with The Pogues, ‘Johnny Come Lately’ and the powerful Springsteenesque ‘The Devil’s Right Hand’ – but then you also get the gentle simplicity of a track like his Christmas song, ‘Nothing But a Child’. His third gold album in a row, for me this is the album that said he was always going to be a force to be reckoned with.
Number 1: Nitty Gritty Dirt Band ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ (1972) The only record that could keep Steve Earle off the top spot! This is an album that has always epitomised Americana for me. At the time, NGDB were a young, West Coast Country Rock band but they wanted to acknowledge the roots of their music and the older generation of musicians that inspired them. All the tracks were recorded live and in one or two takes, giving a raw sound that was so different then but is at the heart of so many modern recordings. Along with a really fantastic selection of songs you get some of the dialogue between the musicians (they ran the recording tape continuously just so they could capture this interplay) and this gives the album a warmth and personality that is rarely heard on record. This album should be in every Americana collection.