This week we bring you our penultimate set of suggestions for the top 10 americana albums ever. Our second US based writer, Tim Newby, has served up a tantalising cocktail of proven ingredients complemented by a sprinkling of lesser known flavours which we know you will want to sip and savour. Tim’s selections have been added into the count and the long-awaited shortlist of albums that this process has generated will soon be revealed. From that list writers will vote to choose our ultimate top 10. Over to you Tim…
I don’t know what has been more fun (or more difficult), putting together my top ten or figuring out exactly what constitutes americana? Trying to make any top ten list is tough enough, then throw in the often ambiguous term americana and you have gone down a whole other rabbit hole. What is americana? The term has been used in some context since the 19th century to describe American roots music, but it had not really been used in a modern-music sense until the mid-eighties. Bands that emerged at the time began to incorporate roots-based music – bluegrass, country, old-time, blues, folk – into what they created, but with a modern, often punk-edge and delivered in such a way as to push forward the rich tradition of those styles into a new generation. This allowed us to retroactively look backwards and label bands from prior generations as such and allowed us to understand the idea of alt-country or the modern use of americana. It can also be argued that we use the term americana because modern country music has consistently become exclusionary along political and social lines, and much of what used to be called country would no longer fit into that narrowing title.
What does all that mean? It means that no matter how good an understanding we may have of the term americana it is still an almost impossible task to try to whittle down any list to just ten. Long days and late nights of internal debate and soul-searching left me agonizing all those albums and bands I love, but had to leave off, Son Volt’s ‘Trace’, the Allman Brothers, Widespread Panic’s ‘Ain’t Life Grand’, Palace Music ‘Viva La Blues’ and countless others that crushed me to leave off. This list is by no means definitive, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and one’s man’s number one album is disliked intensely by another man. So here’s hoping this list does what all best of lists do: provide some understanding, stir up some debate, and introduce you to some new music.
Number 10: The Bridge ‘National Bohemian’ (2011)
Baltimore’s The Bridge decade long-run came to end in 2011 (launching the career of Cris Jacobs), but before they called it quits they left us with this Steve Berlin produced masterpiece that is the perfect culmination of their years on the road crisscrossing America. All the elements that The Bridge were known for shine brightly on ‘National Bohemian’, a sound born in the backwoods and the mountains, but that was raised on the streets of New Orleans, intense guitar work courtesy of Jacobs and heartfelt songwriting. While not as well known as other albums on this list, it is no less vital or important.
Number 9: Little Feat ‘Dixie Chicken’ (1973)
What needs to be said about this album, that has not already been said? From start to finish it is a classic. ‘Dixie Chicken’ and ‘Fat Man in the Bathtub’ have rightly taken their place in the pantheon of classic American music, while ‘Two Trains’ and ‘Roll Um Easy’ are just as good. The inclusion of guitarist Paul Barrere and percussionist Sam Clayton (as well guest guitarist Fred Tackett), helped push the band into a new sonic realms that trended to the Crescent City and a pulsating New Orleans funk feel. The cover of Allen Toussaint’s ‘On Your Way Down’ solidified this connection.
Number 8: Drive-By Truckers ‘Decoration Day’ (2003)
Let’s call this one the Allman Brothers slot. It would have been easy to include any number of Allman’s albums on my list, but that seemed like the easy way out, so this is the one way out. The Drive-By Truckers embodied the best of the Allman’s deep south, southern rock sound and mashed it together with the Muscle Shoals soul that is the home of the Truckers (Patterson Hood’s father was the longtime bassist at Muscle Shoals), and delivered it with a biting-edge and a sharp, critical eye of the societal ills, family issues, and daily troubles we all face and in our lives. Hood has admitted that the album is “pretty dark,” most notably the opening track, ‘The Deeper In’, which references the true story of the brother and sister who are the only people in the United States serving prison time for consensual incest. The addition of Jason Isbell, who makes his first recorded appearance with the Truckers on ‘Decoration Day’, adds further depth and emotion with three songwriters now jockeying for space. The result is pure southern-rock perfection.
Number 7: Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001)
I struggled mightily with including two albums from Jeff Tweedy. Is he that good? Is he that influential? Who the hell knows the answer to those questions, but I do know this, both of his albums on this list are that good. One, ‘No Depression’, showed what was possible in modern americana music, the other, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ reinvented the genre and showed a whole new way forward. The opening line of the album, “I am an American aquarium drinker/ I assassin down the avenue,” alone guarantees this album eternal greatness.
Number 6: Los Lobos ‘Kiko’ (1992)
Los Lobos is one of the most criminally overlooked bands of the last forty-years. Their catalogue is a non-stop barrage of greatness, and ‘Kiko’ is the greatest of them all. Americana is a wide and encompassing ideal, and ‘Kiko’ expands the notion of what is americana with their inclusion of New Orleans and Afro-Caribbean rhythms to their usual palette which digs deep into the well of American roots music and relies heavily on the Tex-Mex sound at their core. Little known fact about Kiko’, it is one of the greatest, all-time, road-trip records, providing the perfect soundtrack for long-drives. At least that is my experience.
Number 5: Leftover Salmon ‘Nashville Sessions’ (1999)
What’s more americana than a band born from a bluegrass and Cajun-jug band background in the mountains of Colorado, who learned how to rock as they become one of the pioneer’s of the jamband scene and innovator of jamgrass, who then went to Nashville and recorded an album based on an updated concept of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legendary ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’, by recruiting producer Randy Scruggs and guests and friends from all walks of musical life, including Del & Ronnie, McCoury, Col. Bruce Hampton, Waylon Jennings, Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas, Taj Mahal, Sam Bush, Widespread Panic’s John Bell, Lucinda Williams, Jeff Coffin, Bela Fleck and many others. The ‘Nashville Sessions’ is a mature statement from a band, not always known for mature statements and a grand celebration of the roots of American music with the way effortlessly brought a cornucopia of styles into their always welcoming late-night party.
Number 4: John Hartford ‘Aereo-Plain’ (1971)
To many John Hartford was just the guy who wrote the massive-hit ‘Gentle on My Mind’ and who played banjo on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour show, but Hartford was much more than that. For nearly fifty-years Hartford toyed with the fabric of bluegrass and americana music, stretching and pulling it until it was almost unrecognizable, but in that same instant becoming something even more beautiful. On ‘Aereo-Plain’, Hartford, took the staid bluegrass genre and placed it on its head. With a hippie look that repulsed many of the more traditional fans, and a sound that borrowed just as much from rock ‘n’ roll as Bill Monroe, ‘Aereo-Plain’ created a new template that is still being followed today.
Number 3: The Band ‘The Band’ (1969)
‘The Band’ is not only a history lesson dressed up in song, but a look at the soul of a troubled American past, as it incorporates the themes, traditions, people and places that identified with a traditional view of americana. The Band inhabits those characters and themes in their music. The album is the archetype for americana Music. It set the table for what the genre would and could become.
Number 2: Grateful Dead ‘American Beauty’ (1970)
Even though they are best known for their psychedelic flights and inspired jamming, the Grateful Dead may have done more than any band to introduce American roots music to a wider generation. While their music did not always adhere to what could be thought of as americana, the way they incorporated blues, bluegrass, jazz, and old folk traditions seamlessly into what they did brought attention to a number of long forgotten artists. Their inclusion of traditional tunes brought those roots musical styles to a larger audience. They were not just covering those songs they were part of their DNA and this was best exemplified on ‘American Beauty’.
Number 1: Uncle Tupelo ‘No Depression’ (1990)
Some people might say ‘Anodyne’ or ‘March 16-20, 1992’ are better albums. Those people would be wrong. Nothing captures the angst and bleakness that was Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s Midwest landscape more accurately than ‘No Depression’. ‘No Depression’ is the sweet spot of americana, the fulcrum between the old and the new. It perfectly encapsulates the roots of the music, distilling all those rural flavours that go into what defines as americana. It hints at blues and folk and tells old time tales, yet at the same time it sets the table for the future as it reshuffled the deck of roots music for a whole new generation.