At AUK we are on a quest to find the ‘top 10 americana albums ever’. Over the last few weeks our writers have been going through the mental anguish of trying to narrow the whole history of americana down to just ten albums. When every 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. With 10 writers now having had their say we are a quarter of the way through and we hope you agree that it’s been a fascinating series. Straight on to number 11 then. This week’s selections come from Bristol’s very own Tim Martin.
Everybody loves a list. AUK’s quest for the ultimate top 10, unlike a lot of magazine best-of lists, is being carried out before a live audience. Reading my colleagues’ choices as they have appeared has been enlightening. The point of all this for me is to discover something wonderful that I haven’t heard before. Back in May, Richard Phillips asked the question: “Will I be listening to this top ten in ten years?” While there are a couple of fairly recent entries here, I like many other people, have been listening to my top 10 albums for years and can’t see any reason to stop now.
Narrowing this down from a starting list of around 4 million albums means that by the time I’ve finished typing it I will want to change my mind, in fact I have already. But that’s the beauty of a list, it will change depending on the day, weather, and what you had for breakfast. Interestingly when I read back to my contribution to our ‘What Is This Americana Thing Anyway…?’ series I have been remarkably consistent. So perhaps these really are my top 10 albums, and all the soul searching the last few weeks could have been better spent drinking tea…
Number 10: Emmylou Harris ‘Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town’ (1978)
In what will be recognised as a theme, I’ve picked the album that introduced me to Harris. Not always one that gets a lot of attention, I put in the underrated gem category. The credits are longer than a Marvel film, and contains names like James Burton, Glen Hardin, Rodney Crowell, and Willie Nelson. For me, the star of Harris’ music at this time was Albert Lee. It may be that being British he brings a slightly different set of influences to the party. He’s always distinctive and is a great foil for Harris’ cut-glass voice.
Number 9: Gene Clark ‘No Other’ (1974)
One of those albums that if you were lucky enough to discover became one of those records you could immerse yourself in and just be happy to have found it. I read John Einerson’s biography of Clark and found myself angry at the waste of talent and opportunity that his life represented. Then I started listening to the music and discovered gold. It’s become a “great lost album” meaning multiple reissues. The most recent a lavish multi-disc thing with everything that went on tape included. For me, the best is the 2003 reissue which has a few added extras but keeps the focus on the magic of the original album. If you are new to Clark’s music the compilation ‘Flying High’ is a good place to start, but you will end up wanting everything so don’t spend too much on it.
Number 8: Flying Burrito Brothers ‘Gilded Palace of Sin’ (1969)
When I read in Martin Johnson’s list that this wasn’t an RIAA gold record I was surprised, but then on reflection this was so ‘out there’ in 1969 that it may never have picked up the casual sales that get that honour. Like the Velvet Underground in alternative rock, this became the album that marked you out as one of the cool kids. I found it though at the start of the Americana “boom” in the mid/late 90s and play this and ‘Burrito Deluxe’ regularly still. A great album for a car journey. I’ve never listened to anything the Burrito Brothers in all their myriad forms have done since these two records and found anything I felt was worth replaying. A meteoric rise and fall then.
Number 7: Gram Parsons: ‘Grievous Angel’ (1974)
In Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’, the main character lists ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’ as one of the best side 1, track 1’s ever and I’m not going to argue. The combination of Parsons’ and Emmylou Harris’ voices are as good a reason as I have ever found to believe in divine intervention. The perfect duet combination. If you have any interest in Parsons reading ‘Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and his Cosmic American Music’ is essential. Don’t be put off by the pompous title, it is a fascinating look at how the man got to be the legend. Then go back and listen to this album again. I can guarantee that you will still be playing it in ten years.
Number 6: Little Feat: ‘Waiting for Columbus’ (1977)
Like the Emmylou album earlier in this list. I heard this at the height of punk, played by John Peel. I splurged a lot paper round money on it the next day and have seen no reason to regret that decision. The 2002 “Deluxe edition” adds all the remaining material recorded on the Washington DC dates and is my choice for best live album in the universe, ever. On a good night Lowell George was the equal and better of any guitarist. I defy anyone to sit still to ‘Spanish Moon’, or ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’. The very 70s synth solos add period colour but are my least favourite bit of an album I have now bought four times.
Number 5 The Band: ‘The Band’ (1969)
Spoiler alert. I’m going to be writing about this album for the Classic albums series on AUK shortly, so will say here that to my shame I didn’t listen to this until a piece praising it to the skies appeared in one of the monthly magazines, again in the late 90s when Americana was getting going. ‘Rag Mama Rag’ with its brass bass is still one of those great happy-making songs. ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’ is one of the most revealing tales about the ‘American Dream’ you can hear.
Number 4: Over the Rhine ‘Ohio’ (2003)
I first heard Over the Rhine on a beach in Spain on a free magazine CD. The song was ‘Show Me’ and it was just different to anything else I was hearing then. Since then they have become one of my favourite bands, but the album I joined the party on remains one of my most played records. A few years ago, I went to Ohio, and felt like I had known it all along through the words, particularly of the title song. A double album that defies convention by having not one piece of filler. Karin Bergquist is keeper of one of the best voices in any style of music. They continue to mature as a group, with their latest album among their best, but this is the place to start.
Number 3: The Civil Wars ‘Barton Hollow’ (2011)
If ever a band was well named, this was it. I saw them live towards the end of their journey and it was pretty clear that Joy Williams and John Paul White wanted to be anywhere except in each other’s company. They still turned in a magical show though. The creative tension that fuelled that night is present in their first album. The second great americana duet after Parsons and Harris. The gothic feel to their songs is offset for their penchant for a disco cover. ‘I Want you Back’ being the best of those. Their second album feels like a breakup album in the same was ‘Shoot Out the Lights’ does, although I’m not sure they ever got to physical fights on stage like the Thompsons.
Number 2: Judee Sill ‘Heart Food’ (1973)
A late entry. I was reminded of just how good Sill was by writing about Karen Dalton recently. They share a ‘tragic life story’ but have little in common musically. Sill’s songs are full of religious imagery, although it seems she was not particularly religious herself. ‘The Kiss’, ‘Down Where the Valleys Are Low’ and ‘The Vigilante’ all represent a different side of the americana tradition. Reflecting a mystical, almost pagan view of the world as a dark, fearful, elemental place. The best way to acquire this album is on ‘Abracadabra: The Asylum Years‘ a double CD which combines Judee Sill and Heart Food with bonus tracks. You may not play it often but when you do it will stay with you.
Number 1: Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers ‘Damn the Torpedoes’ (1979)
I bought this the week of its issue and have played it regularly ever since. One of those albums that transcends its time and place. Not a duff song on it, and in ‘Louisiana Rain’ my introduction to more overtly ‘country’ music. The combination of Mike Campbell’s lead lines and Benmont Tench’s Hammond organ, is one of the most brilliant noises in rock music. Jimmy Iovine’s crisp production helps the music leap out of your speakers and demand your attention. In later years for me Petty’s music got a bit flabby, but the opening bars of ‘Refugee‘ are still thrilling. Another great side 1 track 1.