Our unrelenting quest to identify the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’ moves unstoppably on. We have more road behind us than is left in front, but the last miles are set to be as thrilling and enthralling as anything that has gone before. No doubt we will see familiar and celebrated landmarks and the journey is also sure to unearth some little known beauty spots too. Only when this adventure is completed will we be able to look back, count the miles and pick out the highlights. Taking the wheel this week is Russell Murphy who drives himself around the bend, whilst expertly guiding us to some fascinating destinations:
Man, I was dreading this, almost to the point of hating the idea. Ten records?? How on earth is anyone supposed to put together a top 10 albums of all the great music we love? Unlike some of my colleagues I couldn’t even decide an approach to this. Should I be subjective or objective (objective about music – yeah, right!)? Should I go for popular albums or deliberately show off my love for obscure Belarusian folk and choose one of these? Should I go old or new? And on and on….
But then of course, warming to the whole idea, driven largely by re-listening to some of the best music ever recorded, I realised that I should just go with the heart and select ten simply wonderful albums. (Which of course is the whole purpose of the exercise!) As with some of my colleagues these wouldn’t necessarily all make it to the desert island with me, the borders would have to be a little wider, genre-wise. And I know the second I submit for publication, I will scream “Noooo! I haven’t included anything by His Bobness, or The Byrds or Jason, how could this possibly be??” But that’s OK, maybe next time.
Number 10: Warren Zevon ‘Excitable Boy’ (1978)
This album is almost a marker for its time….produced by Jackson Browne, who also appeared, along with Mick Fleetwood, John McVie and Linda Rondstadt. Songs of light and shade about the CIA and mercenaries in the Congo, and of course, those werewolves of London, this is a truly diverse album highlighting Zevon’s astonishing songwriting capability, lyrically excellent and full of earworm hooks.
Number 9: Little Feat ‘Little Feat’ (1971)
Not a huge commercial success on release, the debut album nevertheless set the path for Lowell George and the boys. It has a rawness not evident in much of their later work, which got a whole lot funkier, but that’s what helps to make this album special. And it also has ‘Truck Stop Girl’ and ‘Willin’’ – complete with Ry Cooder’s slide – to enjoy. One of the bands that helped to popularise the genre with perhaps one of the founding albums.
Number 8: Indigo Girls ‘Swamp Ophelia’ (1994)
There can be few better examples of complementing vocal and songwriting styles than Emily Saliers and Amy Ray, and Swamp Ophelia highlights this in spades. Consistently high quality of songs throughout, powerful, emotional folk juxtaposed with rocky guitars and horns, a superbly balanced and thoughtful production, and harmonies to die for.
Number 7: Emmylou Harris ‘Roses In The Snow’ (1980)
The record label really wasn’t keen on releasing a bluegrass album at this time but took the risk and went with it. Which turned out well, as the record reached #2 on the Billboard Top Country chart. With a mix of traditional Appalachian and contemporary songs (including Paul Simon’s ‘The Boxer’) and guest players including The Whites, Ricky Skaggs and Johnny Cash, this bluegrass, gospel and country fest is an absolute treat.
Number 6: Tom Petty ‘Wildflowers’ (1994)
A change in producer to Rick Rubin (the first of three joint efforts) resulted in unquestionably – for me – Petty’s finest work. The range of material on Wildflowers far exceeds any of his other, perhaps rockier output, lighter, more stripped back. It was considered to be quite a long record by his standards, but consequently this feels less rushed, more expansive. And utterly brilliant.
Number 5: Son Volt ‘Trace’ (1995)
Amazingly – with the power of hindsight, of course – another fantastic recording that wasn’t a great commercial success. Jay Farrar’s first effort after Uncle Tupelo is quite simply sublime, all beautifully constructed songs, weaving majestically between quite deeply moving melancholy and good old rock n roll. And still sounds as relevant as when it was released.
Number 4: Justin Townes Earle ‘Harlem River Blues’ (2010)
From the opening modern gospel title track, through Latin, rockabilly, folk and country rhythms, returning to a traditional gospel rendition of that same title track to close, this album simply reminds us of the immense sadness of JTE’s passing all too soon earlier this year. A real troubadour’s album.
Number 3: Dwight Yoakam ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc, Etc’ (1986)
This was one hell of a debut from Yoakam as ‘Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc, Etc’ had a profound impact on country music’s direction in the mid-80s, almost single-handedly killing off at a stroke the ‘urban cowboy’ sound that dominated so at the time. Yoakam’s ‘hillbilly rock’ vibe with fiddle, twangy guitar and dobro aplenty proved to be an absolute game-changer and is still regarded as just about the perfect party starter. Perhaps a similar impact to today’s country chart sound wouldn’t go amiss ….
Number 2: Bruce Springsteen ‘A Letter To You’ (2020)
Is it right and proper to include an album that is but a few months old in such a list, I hear you ask? It’s OK, I asked this myself, several times. Surely an album needs to be out for years and years, to mature, to grow in listeners’ minds and record collections and to be played and discussed for aeons before being accepted as a great/classic? Well, perhaps. But for me this is an instant classic. (Please forgive the cliché). If The Boss can knock out this kind of quality at 71, there’s hope for us all. As my colleague Clint West wrote in his review of the album in these very pages “…the resultant collection (of songs) is an unashamedly fan-pleasing return to the classic Springsteen and E Street Band sound.” Just one of the many reasons it is included, a true top tenner.
Number 1: Will Hoge ‘Blackbird on a Lonely Wire’ (2003)
Roots rock at its best, Will Hoge produced an album that has songs packed with superbly catchy melodies, thoughtful and playful lyrics and blue-collar – think Springsteen or Petty – emotions shot through, with rising strings and organs in among all the rousing guitars. Every song is strong, memorable. An unforgettable album to make the heart soar.