Back in May when this series started, I kicked it off myself on the basis that you can’t ask colleagues to go through this hell without doing it yourself first. Looking back at that top 10, would I still pick the same records today? Some of them most definitely, others possibly not. Not because they are not great records, but because there are very many more great records that I would equally have been at home with including. Each writer has taken a different view on what to include; should it be a widely recognised classic or that personal record that may not have been so widely recognised, but does it for you? There are no wrongs or rights here. What is for certain, is that its been a fascinating process and frequently an education.
This week’s selection comes from AUK writer Sean Hannam. The first thing I noticed when I received it, was that despite having a record collection that is obsessively large, Sean’s list may well be the first so far, where I actually also own all of the records that a fellow writer has chosen. That shows, not only Sean’s impeccable taste of course, but more importantly, the wide diversity of knowledge and tastes that the AUK writers have between them. Each list has been unique and taken us on different journeys. So readers, sit back, pour yourself a large one, and enjoy yet another diverse and fascinating set of selections. Take it away Sean….
When I was sent a reminder about writing this piece, I was given some advice – ‘don’t agonise too much.’ Obviously I chose to completely ignore it and spent ages deliberating on what would make the cut – so much so that on the day I had to file the article, I actually discarded several albums that were on my original list and replaced them with some that I felt were more deserving. Why? Well rather than just include some classic americana records that I like, I suddenly decided that I wanted to it to be a much more personal and meaningful selection. All of these 10 albums have played a massive part in my life and are also important milestones on my journey through the americana genre. So saddle up and come along for the ride.
Number 10: Quiet Loner ‘Spectrology’ (2010)
I first stumbled across UK singer-songwriter Matt Hill – aka Quiet Loner – in a dark Brighton basement bar during the summer of 2001. He was supporting US act Chris Mills, of whom I was a big fan (see number 4 in this top 10), and I was instantly drawn to his songs, which were a mix of americana and clever, Elvis Costello-like wordplay. ‘Spectrology’ – the title refers to the study of ghosts – is his second album. Recorded in rural Leicestershire, during the depths of winter, it’s stripped-down, stark and skeletal. Several of these intimate, atmospheric and sometimes unsettling, folk-tinged songs concern themselves with mortality. ‘Spectrology’ is a haunting listen in more ways than one.
Number 9: Wilco ‘A.M.’ (1995)
It may surprise a lot of people that I’ve chosen Wilco’s rootsy, raw and no-frills debut album rather than one of their more well-known and critically acclaimed records like the sprawling ‘Being There’, the Brian Wilson-style orch-pop of ‘Summerteeth’ or the edgy and more experimental ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, but ‘A.M.’ is the one I always go back to. It’s full of great, kick-ass rock ‘n’ roll songs – ‘Casino Queen’ is pure Stones circa 1969 – and bruised and beaten barroom ballads, like ‘Pick Up The Change.’ When it comes down to it, I like Wilco best when they’re doing country rock rather than Krautrock.
Number 8: Pernice Brothers ‘Overcome By Happiness’ (1998)
In 1998, Uncut magazine gave away a compilation CD called ‘Sounds of the New West – The Best of Alternative Country.’ It set me off on a path, or rather a long, dusty road, that lead to an obsession with all things americana. One of the highlights of the collection was ‘Crestfallen’ by the Pernice Brothers – the sad, yet swoonsome opening track from their debut album, ‘Overcome By Happiness.’ Frontman Joe Pernice was a former member of American alternative country band Scud Mountain Boys, but on this record he turned his back on twangy guitars and instead embraced his love of orchestral arrangements and classic ‘60s and ‘70s songwriters like Brian Wilson, Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach, as well as cult power-poppers Big Star. Just listen to the yearning ‘Wait To Stop’ – it’s a master class in how to write the perfect melancholy pop song. Misery has never sounded so beautiful.
Number 7: The Byrds ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (1968)
The Byrds are one of my favourite bands of all time, but I actually discovered this revolutionary album quite late. My first exposure to them was through their early jangled-up Dylan covers, which my dad used to play in our house when I was a young lad, but it wasn’t until I got into americana in the late Nineties/early Noughties that I listened to 1968’s ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ and found out how and why it was such an important record, sowing the seeds for the Flying Burrito Brothers and influencing so many alt-country/americana acts. When it was released, it wasn’t really appreciated as either a country or a rock album. Now it’s considered a country-rock classic and it still will be, er, 100 years from now.
Number 6: Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra ‘Nancy & Lee’ (1968)
This album was never far from my dad’s hi-fi when I was growing up and it made such an impression on me – particularly Lee Hazlewood’s dark and distinctive baritone voice, which was astonishing. It started off my lifelong love of singers with similarly deep vocal styles, such as Scott Walker, Richard Hawley and Mark Lanegan. When Hazlewood’s whiskey-soaked croon is contrasted with Nancy Sinatra’s sultry tones, it makes for extraordinary listening – particularly on the erotic and narcotic cowboy psychedelia of ‘Some Velvet Morning’ and the haunting and dramatic ‘Summer Wine‘, with its lush, John Barryesque string arrangement. I can often be found sinking deeper and deeper into this richly rewarding and sublime ‘60s country-pop classic. As Hazlewood sings on the album’s final song, “I’ve been down so long, it looks like up to me.”
Number 5: Whiskeytown ‘Strangers Almanac’ (1997)
I’d never heard of Whiskeytown until I discovered Ryan Adams’s wonderful ‘Heartbreaker’ in 2000 and worked backwards from there. ‘Strangers Almanac’ is the second album by Adams’s cult alt-country-rockers and it’s their masterpiece. The band wear their influences on their cowboy shirt sleeves – Gram Parsons, The Flying Burrito Brothers, The Replacements, Son Volt and Springsteen to name just a few – but there are so many great songs on here that sound like they’re long-lost country standards that were picked up from the floor of a dark and lonely dive bar after a heavy drinking session, rather than swept out with the ashes in the morning. ‘Everything I Do’ is aching country-soul with Stax-style horns, and ‘Houses On The Hill’ is a nostalgic and tear-jerking ballad: “Well I found a bunch of letters / That were written for the fellow who broke your momma’s heart.” Until I came to write this piece, I hadn’t listened to this album in ages. Now I can’t stop playing it. Excuse me while I break my own heart tonight.
Number 4: Chris Mills ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ (2000)
In the early days of my tawdry love affair with americana, there were two albums that I played to death: ‘Heartbreaker’ by Ryan Adams and this one – Chris Mills’s ‘Kiss It Goodbye.’ Both records were miserable as sin and fucked-up, which, as an angst-ridden twenty-something, suited me down to the ground. Opening song ‘Brand New Day’ is a wake-up call for someone leaving behind a failed relationship – defiant, anthemic power-pop, and the brutal and unsettling ‘Napkin In A Wine Glass’ deals with domestic violence. On the atmospheric closer, the epic torch song ‘Signal/Noise’, Mills recreates Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, albeit in a lo-fi style, and asks the question: “Does it make you happy to see me so sad?” If it means he makes albums as great as this, then, quite frankly, yes.
Number 3: John Murry ‘The Graceless Age’ (2012)
Just like the album that’s made number 2 on my list – spoiler alert, it’s Ryan Adams’s ‘Heartbreaker’ – I also discovered John Murry’s 2012 masterpiece, ‘The Graceless Age’, through the pages of Uncut magazine. Earlier this year, I wrote a Classic Americana Albums piece for AUK on this record – that’s how much it means to me. From Murry’s harrowing, near-death experience that’s documented in the stunning, piano-led, 10-minute epic, Little Colored Balloons, to the brooding psych-rock of ‘Southern Sky’ and the Dylanesque ‘The Ballad of the Pajama Kid’, these intimate and confessional songs with their layered arrangements and rich, sonic textures are the perfect soundtrack for a dark night of the soul.
Number 2: Ryan Adams ‘Heartbreaker’ (2000)
This was one of the first americana albums that I truly fell in love with, so it will always have a special place in my (broken) heart. In 2000, I was 26 and living in a flat share in Brighton. After reading a review in Uncut magazine, I picked up a CD copy of Ryan Adams’s solo debut – it was hardly off my cheap stereo for the next 12 months and accompanied an emotionally distressing period in my life. ‘Heartbreaker’ is an album I always return to – despite the disturbing allegations that Adams is currently at the centre of. I’ve got three versions of it – that first CD I bought, plus two vinyl reissues, one of which is a box set. It’s his best record – please let me wallow in its beautiful misery and then come pick me up.
Number 1: Bob Dylan ‘Nashville Skyline’ (1969)
I’m a Dylan obsessive and ‘Nashville Skyline’ was one of the records that triggered off my fascination with him. A school friend made me a cassette of the vinyl copy his parents had in their record collection and I was smitten. This isn’t my favourite Dylan long-player – that honour goes to ‘Highway 61 Revisited’– but it is my favourite americana album, and it’s impossible to ignore how important it was in kick-starting the genre. Dylan had been to Nashville before to make music – 1966’s seminal ‘Blonde On Blonde’ and 1967’s ‘John Wesley Harding’, but the underrated ‘Nashville Skyline’, from 1969, saw him immersing himself in the city’s country music – Johnny Cash guests on ‘Girl From The North Country’ – but also mixing it with elements of rock ‘n’ roll, blues and soul, to create a laid-back, sometimes throwaway, but always gorgeous, warm, country-rock sound that’s perfect for a Sunday morning, when you’re coming down.