AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century: Alasdair Fotheringham

If the truth be known, and no disrespect intended, it’s always struck me as a little odd to start a list of ‘Top 10… whatever’ by emphasising the purely personal nature of the choices and the amount of handwringing and brain-racking needed to decide what to include and what to condemn. Suffice to say that if the ten americana albums below hadn’t passed the patented and hugely demanding ‘Fotheringham test of subjective brilliance’, better known by its nickname of the ‘F…hell-that-was-amazing-what-can-I-possibly-play-next-that’s-even-a-quarter-as-good’ 2022 Challenge with flying colours, then they wouldn’t be here. And if they passed that test, what more do you need, or maybe even want, to know?

Number 10: The Dandy Warhols ‘Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia’ (2000)
Deliberately and cunningly placed at number 10 so all the americana purists out there can enjoy the maximum time possible decrying the presence of a britpop? indie-rock? college rock? post-grunge grunge? (I just made that last one up) album pacing the hallowed corridors of an americana greatest albums list. Well, tough. In my defence, there are reviews out there of what is a colossal imaginative, wildly varied collection of 11 indie-rock tracks (the last two of the thirteen are dirge-like messes that contribute nothing to the album at all) that compared  it to bits of Gram Parsons. Secondly there’s a bouncy, bluegrass-flavoured number on the album. But the fact the most famous track, ‘Bohemian Like You’, is described by a band member somewhere as a “hamfisted Rolling Stones imitation” settles it for me. The album itself is built of multiple contradictions, the most important probably being despite the ‘Bohemian Like You’ song being recorded in, erm, wildly spontaneous circumstances (Google ‘the making of…’ and you’ll see what I mean, this is a family-friendly website), it’s pretty obvious that a lot of thought went into making sure every song hits home as hard as possible. To name one minor detail to illustrate this, having the songs sonically seep one into the other without a break means no let-up in a good hour of scruffy, dynamic, (whisper it) drug-tinged, devastatingly laconic rock and pop. Or put it another way, ‘Thirteen Tales from Urban Bohemia’ contains more than enough skilful arrangements, and verve and variety, and damn good tunes every step of the way, to ensure that this is one of those rare beasts of an album where it feels like nothing is surplus to requirements, and nothing has been missed out. (Well, that’s apart from the last two tracks, maybe, but even as ‘Eleven Tales From Urban Bohemia’, this album has a heck of a lot going for it..

Number 9: Jerry Leger ‘Nothing Pressing’ (2022)
From one end of the timespan to the other, Jerry Leger’s latest album appears indirectly courtesy of whoever in AUK put him on their top 10 americana albums and to whom I am forever grateful for introducing me to his music. Being honest, this one and no other is on here because I haven’t got round to buying any more Jerry Leger albums yet, so can’t compare. But as a potential sample of how Leger manages to produce reflective, concise, unpretentious folk pop and rock’n’roll, it can’t be faulted particularly when its partly based on some stunning Roy Orbison-esque arrangements that combine the melancholy (of which there’s a fair bit in this album) and uplifting in one go. This is the kind of americana that adheres to the new wave credo of never over-egging what’s already good and never having anything more than four minutes long. We approve.

Number 8: Shinyribs ‘Okra Candy’ (2015)
Even just penning this album’s name brings a smile to this writer’s face. Kevin Russell’s post-Gourds band Shinyribs have produced one album after another that invariably dredge the depths of swamp pop, zydeco, old-fashioned rock and rock, tex-mex, funk, soul and Lord knows what else to produce a matchless melting pot of musical pleasure. No matter what comes up next on this album, you know it will be unfailingly, ferociously, tightly produced, easy on the ear and (even when they’re doing raucous rockers on this album like the magnificent ‘The Longer It Lingers’), blessed with a smooth undercurrent of disciplined, experienced musicianship. But it’s the lyrics, often borderline surreal, often very humorous and always resoundingly in touch with the everyday, the sacred and the profane (to steal another of Russell’s song titles) right down to a song about the pleasures of eating donuts and tacos that raise this album from the ‘very listenable’ category to ‘addictive listening in the extreme’. Put on one of the Shinyribs albums and it’s invariably so warmhearted, entertaining and musically polished (not to mention amusing) that for 40 minutes it feels like nothing can go wrong in the world. So who’s complaining about that?

Number 7: Mary Gauthier ‘Trouble and Love’ (2014)
Forget about the 21st century, rarely in any kind of americana has the pathway from emotional misery after a breakup to a kind of (but only a kind of) redemption been covered with such gritty compassion as on this album. It isn’t a pretty process, with lines as bleak and telling as “you sit in the rubble, til the rubble feels like home, that’s how you learn to live alone” packing a devasting bunch. Then on the title track (to my mind, the most hardhitting song of them all, and that’s saying something), the images of unadulterated loneliness set in a cheap motel, where the desk clerk doesn’t even notice them any more, and the TV from the room next door drones through the wall and its blizzarding outside, are haunting in the extreme. But what carries it all is the music, switching from Gothic country anthems to lilting semi-acoustic ballads, to gospel numbers and always, always matching the mood of the lyrics down to the last note. It’s a draining listen, to be honest, but you never regret going back to this one again and again.

Number 6: Josh Ritter: ‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter’ (2013)
It’s all too easy to be bedazzled by Josh Ritter. Few singer-songwriters can rattle off so many different shades of folk-rock as effortlessly and with so much sheer virtuoso grace, to the point where more than an artist, it’s like ‘Ritter Music’ is an entire genre. Yet bizarrely enough the ease with which he moves from rowdy, semi-distorted folk ditties to deeply reflective acoustic numbers, to huge orchestral numbers, to poppy bubbly singalongs, sometimes reduces their memorability, with the musical fireworks and charm of each number, each so beguiling it somehow wipes out what’s come before.

‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter’ isn’t quite like that. It’s not got songs like ‘Kathleen’ (on the equally recommendable ‘Hello Starling’) that leave you floored with a single punch and make you wonder why he bothered with all the other songs on the album. Nor yet is it as deeply rooted in one particular place or moment in time as some of his other work. Rather this is a sustained, long-distance effort and from the ridiculously cheerful, heartwarming ‘Right Moves’ with an electric guitar and brass ensemble solo that all but blow the roof off, to the manic chaos of ‘Long Distance Call’ to the surreal knife edge between love and death in ‘Temptation of Adam’ about a love affair in a nuclear weapons silo, all of them are unmissable. Talking of which don’t miss, either, the added bonus tracks off ‘Historical Conquests.’ There’s a couple there, ‘Wildfires’ and ‘Naked As A Window’, that are so striking you really wonder why they were left off the original main album.

Number 5: Hayes Carll ‘Trouble In Mind’ (2008)
To be honest, Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll has produced a couple of albums that are a wee bit patchy content-wise, but ‘Trouble In Mind’ most definitely wasn’t one of them. Equally ‘She Left Me For Jesus’, the last track of 14 and a satirical and very funny take on religion, might be the best known. Yet the dark humour, huge compassion for human failings and lyrical ingenuity that make Carll’s brand of rugged folk rock so memorable are present on all of the previous 13 as well. There are bleaker moments for sure, like the cover of Tom Waits’ mixture of disillusionment and anger about the adult world, ‘I Don’t Want to Grow Up’, and moments of severe self-doubt in ‘Don’t Let Me Fall’. But they mix perfectly in Carll’s blend of hell-for-leather party music and the sensitive reflections, the way-out scenarios, the sharp social observations and the all-too-familiar emotional let-downs.  Put it all together and this album never loses its edge, or its appeal.

Number 4: Guy Clark ‘My Favorite Picture of You’ (2013)
The last album Guy Clark ever made, ‘My Favorite Picture of You’ sums up much of his entire career. The title track is a fine example of how Clark takes something utterly everyday (in this case a snapshot taken of his partner having a meltdown because he’s come home blind drunk) and turns it into something way deeper. There’s unburnished anger at human injustice on ‘Coyote’, there’s some crushing self-analysis of male ego trips on ‘I’ll Show Me’ and some pleas for sympathy for those marginalised by unthinking society on ‘Heroes’. And for cautionary, knowing, tales on why not mix up with raffish musical folk like Clark, ‘Rain in Durango’ tells it how it is. You can’t help feeling how much of a pity it is that Clark is no longer with us when listening to this. But listening to an album like this, it’s clear Clark went out when he was still on top of his game.

Number 3: James McMurtry ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ (2021)
There was a long wait for James McMurtry’s latest album after ‘Complicated Game’ appeared in 2015, but the six year drought (as the title of one of his previous songs happens to be called) was fully worth itt. His gift for getting inside the heads and perspectives of some radically varied individuals and making each line of their backstory or life-philosophy feel both profound and hugely familiar remained more than intact on the 10 tracks of ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ and so too did his capacity for fusing the heart-rending, the drily humourous and the everyday with plainspeaking, captivating elegance. If ‘Complicated Game’ dived up multiple different stylistic pathways, ‘The Horses and The Hounds’ stuck mostly to a rootsy rock’n’roll path. There are a couple of most notable sidetrails, style-wise, ‘’Vaquero’ (which has a touch of tex-mex and sections in Spanish) and ‘Ft. Walton Wake Up Call’ (probably the least conventional of all the tracks, and which sounds like rap meets Van Halen-style rock, to their mutual benefit). But both have compelling, if very different takes, on the album’s theme of aging and handling an increasingly unsympathetic present-day world as best as one can: the former a hugely moving lament for a friend, the other a hilarious, pithy, analysis of being the wrong side of middle-aged aged trying to handle modern technology and expectations.

Weird though it might sound, the one song that maybe fails to live up to the remainder of the album a little is the title track, which roars and thunders away with some crunchy guitar riffs but at such a slow pace it does’t quite lift off like the others do. Yet this is quibbling: “you can’t be young and do that” McMurtry sings in the opening song, ‘Canola Fields’, and this album, wise beyond its years and cogent and arguably one of his top three creations ever, is maybe a case in point.

Number 2: The Chicks ‘Taking The Long Way’ (2006)
After two records that both sold more than ten million copies, anything created by The Chicks (Dixie Chicks as were), was pretty much garanteed to generate mountains of anticipation, but ‘Taking The Long Way’ had even more publicity as it was the band’s first after generating a huge backlash in conservative US circles  for their anti-Iraq war declarations. So it’s not surprise that one song on it ‘Not Ready To Make Nice’, specifically revisits those events . Yet in fact the album has long out-endured that historical context, not to mention the harsh accusations in some reviews of their alleged fixation with the Iraq controversies. That’s particularly true given there was a clamourous failure in said reviews to appreciate how great a rallying cry this album is against intolerance of all kinds, not just political bigotry of the most repellent variety the Chicks faced.

Anyway, so much for the background, but whatever the social and political fallout, the layer of soft rock sounds made for one key difference to their more traditional country style and among their hardcore earlier fans created a certain degree of disappointment. But to my mind, that broader approach is exactly what gives ‘Taking The Long Way’ the edge on their earlier albums, because after being declared outcasts from the usual music ‘system’  it’s as if they are totally experiment with combining other styles to what was already some great country music. And boy is it effective.

The soul/funk backbeat in ‘I Like It’ is one classic example, but so is the pop blast-out of the title track, and so is the shimmering ballad of ‘Easy Silence’. Oh and then they go nuts on ‘Lubbock or Leave It’ with a kind of alt-country churning guitar and mad banjo picking produces a restless, nervous backdrop to a ferocious attack on the less tolerant varieties of Christianity. People slammed this album for not being ‘harsh enough’ or being too diffuse, but apart from some stunning melodies, the anger is there if you want to hear it. Yet its refusal to be cowed by expectations and move in the directions it wanted (not to mention produce some fine songs in the process) all push one of americana’s greatest bands towards a milestone album. It’s not just about tolerance towards the band, but also their tolerance that comes under scrutiny, towards the long-term ill (‘Silent House’), towards the dimming of a longstanding relation and the impossibility of motherhood (‘So Hard’) and toward themselves and past choices (‘Stepping Out’ and ‘The Voice Inside My Head’). But that independence of thinking and taking their own options, right the way down to the title track of ‘Taking the Long Way’, is present throughout and gives the album an integrity and longlasting power than other far more dated protest albums.

Number 1: Rodney Crowell ‘Fate’s Right Hand’ (2003)
Maybe it’s just getting old (er), but an album like ’Fate’s Right Hand’ ticks every box for me. Rather than the dwelling on his childhood as per ‘The Houston Kid’, the previous album, this time round Crowell, dives forwards and looks at his 50-something present and future. But this battle with age is not one he loses, rather the music is delivered in as unfaltering and assured a style as usual. This album also makes number one because Crowell himself is one of the key pieces in the americana jigsaw. You’ll see him on that legendary documentary ‘Heartworn Highways’ with Steve Earle and Guy Clark back in the 1970s which shows you some of the outlaw country founders playing some great, if chaotic, music round Clark’s kitchen table. Then in the 1980s he was what fellow americana website No Depression memorably called “the King of Nashville Progressivism”. Dig deeper, you’ll discover he’s played with almost every top name the genre has produced (and there’s a fair few of them on this album, including Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. Most importantly, you also find after a somewhat bland period when his music was too sweetened up to be truly likeable, in the 2000s and afterwards, he got harsher, rootsier and rockier, but kept the faultless lyrical values, the deep concerns with the environment, both ecological and human (as per the harrowing ‘It’s A Different World Now’ on ‘Fate’s Right Hand’), and by the time he reaches 2003 and this particular album, all the different strands fuse together faultlessly. No dud tracks, like on a fair number of the other albums in this top 10, and lyrics that have wit, grace and searing insight, not to mention about 101 life lessons. Just to quote one (and if the guy from No Depression is reading this, apologies for using the same lines as he did, but it sums up so much about Crowell) the list of people who make him keen to go on living on  ‘Earthbound’ include Tom Waits, Aretha Franklin, Mary Karr, Walter Cronkite, Seamus Heaney, Ringo Starr, Dalai Lama, Charlie Brown and they all seem pretty good reasons too. As it happens, ‘Earthbound’ was Crowell’s last single to make it onto the charts, according to Wikipedia. But for me this entire album can only remain at the top of mine.

About Alasdair Fotheringham 53 Articles
Alasdair Fotheringham is a freelance journalist based in Spain, where he has lived since 1992, writing mainly on current affairs and sport.

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