A few days ago an email arrived in my in box from one of Ameircana UK’s editors reminding me that it was my turn to do the “AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century” feature. It was a timely email as I’d totally forgot I was next in line and I only had a few days to think about it! So not only did I have to find ten albums that came out in the last twenty two years, they had to fit into the americana category and that argument has been going on for a lot longer than twenty two years. So after a lot of soul searching and some trolling through both my physical and digital collections, here’s my Top 10. That’s for today, as it could change considerably tomorrow! Oh and if you don’t think they’re americana, then let me know what your definition is.
Number 10: Jason Isbell & Amanda Shires ‘Performing Reunions: Live At Brooklyn Bowl Nashville’ (2020)
Recorded during lockdown to promote and celebrate Isbell’s ‘Reunions’ album with his band The 400 Unit, this features the couple’s wonderful harmonies and Shire’s sublime violin. It has all ten tracks from the band album in the same order but hearing the stripped-down version gives the listener a chance to concentrate on the lyrics and it’s considered by some as the better album of the two. The full concert can be viewed on YouTube, but not individual songs, so here is similar acoustic duo performance to give you a flavour of what to expect.
Number 9: Dion ‘Son Of Skip James’ (2007)
Dion has been around forever and has a number of incarnations from 50s doo-wop singer with The Belmonts onto 60s pop star before moving onto singer-songwriter into the 70s and onwards. Then in 2006 he reinvented himself as a blues singer with the release of ‘Bronx In Blue’ and followed it up a year later with this album which featured cover versions of songs from Chuck Berry, Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, Skip James (of course) and three Dion originals.
Number 8: Emmylou Harris & Rodney Crowell ‘Old Yellow Moon’ (2013)
Harris and Crowell have known each other for years and have worked together on a number of occasions but this was the first album they made together after forty plus years of friendship. Produced by Brian Ahern, the twelve tracks feature the sublime harmonies of the two who go together like strawberries and cream. There are songs from Crowell himself, Roger Miller, Patti Scialfa, Kris Kristoferson and a wonderful version of Matraca Bergs’ ‘Back When We Were Beautiful’. It won a Grammy in 2014 for Best Americana Album.
Number 7: Steve Earle ‘Townes’ (2009)
Steve Earle was a good friend of Townes Van Zandt who was also his mentor, so much so that he named his son Justin Townes Earle after him and Justin appears on the album on ‘Mr Mudd & Mr Gold’. The album contains fifteen tracks consisting of most of the best known Van Zandt songs such as ‘Pancho & Lefty’, ‘Lungs’ and ‘To Live Is To Fly. There’s also a DeLuxe edition where an extra disc contains stripped down versions with just Earle’s vocals and acoustic guitar on eleven of the tracks from the original record. The album won a Grammy for ‘Best Contemporary Folk Album’.
Number 6: Sam Baker ‘Mercy’ (2004)
It’s a miracle that Baker was around to record this album or any album for that matter. In 1986 he was on a train in Peru when a bomb in the luggage rack above him exploded killing the three people sitting with him. Baker sustained numerous injuries with his left hand mangled so much that he had to re-learn to play the guitar left-handed. He’s a wonderful songwriter with a unique singing voice (possibly due to the injuries sustained to his hearing) and this is probably the best of all his albums. You only have to listen to the first track ‘Waves’ to realise what a wonderful talent he is.
Number 5: Brandi Carlile ‘The Story’ (2007)
I have to come clean and say that Brandi Carlile is probably my favourite artist of those I’ve discovered in the 21st century, up there in the pantheon of great female singer-songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro. Her songs have great strength in both the lyrics and melodies and her voice has a superb timbre. This album, her second, was produced by T Bone Burnett in Vancouver and features Tim and Phil Hanseroth the twins who have been with her throughout her career. The album is highly regarded that there’s even an album of covers of the songs featuring the likes of Dolly Parton, Indigo Girls and Pearl Jam.
Number 4: Bruce Springsteen ‘We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions’ (2006)
There’s a very strong argument that Springsteen is a rock singer and can’t be categorised as americana but there’s no doubt that this is an album that can, and in fact should be. It’s his interpretation of thirteen traditional American folk songs such as ‘John Henry’, ‘Shenandoah’ and ‘We Shall Overcome’. With a band made up of some top musicians playing banjo, pedal steel, upright bass, violin and a superb brass section, this is traditional American music at its very best. It also won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album.
Number 3: Mavis Staples We’ll Never Turn Back (2007)
When Mavis Staples made this album in 2007 she was 68 and hadn’t lost any of the power she had in her voice when singing gospel with the Staple Singers years before. This album, her seventh solo album, is a mixture of gospel, spiritual and protest songs from the likes of J B Lenoir, Ry Cooder, Staples herself and a number of traditional songs such as ‘We Shall Not Be Moved’. Ry Cooder played on and produced the album along with his son Joachim who played percussion.
Number 2: Our Native Daughters ‘Songs Of Our Native Daughters’ (2019)
In 2019 four amazing women of colour, Rhiannon Giddens, Leyla McCalla, Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah got together to record an album of songs that addressed American historical issues of slavery, racism and sexism. Each of the four are superb singers and instrumentalists in their own right and together they play guitar, banjo, cello, fiddle and clarinet as well as adding their amazing voices to the thirteen tracks. They’ve all written tracks on the album, sometimes together, sometimes solo and there’s also a cover of Bob Marley’s ‘Slave Driver’. This is probably the most powerful and moving protest album of the 21st century so far.
Number 1: Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer ‘Not Dark Yet’ (2017)
It’s impossible to listen to this album without the sister’s backstory resonating throughout. In 1986, when Lynne was 17 and Moorer 14, their father shot their mother before turning the gun on himself and Lynne was the first on the scene and that sadness permeates the album. Both sisters have had long and successful careers as solo artists but this was the first album they collaborated on. There are cover versions of songs from some of the darkest songwriters of the recent past such as Townes Van Zandt, Kurt Cobain and Nick Cave but the song that sums up the melancholy feel and texture of the album, is the title song, Dylan’s ‘Not Dark Yet’.