Lists such as this are always agonisingly difficult to compile. There’s the aching self-doubt, the lingering sense that you have forgotten something or someone important and regrets over who has been left out. The decisions made today are not those of yesterday or tomorrow. Indeed, yesterday’s version of my top ten featured The Felice Brothers, Cowboy Junkies, Gillian Welch, Gregory Alan Isakov, Valerie June and William Prince. Peter Cooper made an appearance at some point, as did Danny Schmidt and Carrie Elkin. By listing all these artists off, I’m cheating of course, making sure that these very deserving folks get a mention. Ask me again in a few years time, and my list may well include the likes of Our Man in the Field and Ferris & Sylvester. But all of the albums below offer the essential ingredients of classic americana: fine musicianship, thoughtful lyricism, beautiful melodies and, above all, songs that move you.
There are some significant omissions from this list. When AUK writers were originally asked to consider the best americana albums of all time a couple of years ago, the majority of albums on my list were actually from this century. The purpose, surely, of creating a new list for the 21st century is not to repeat or rehash my recommendations from the past with a handful of new selections thrown in. So I have consciously avoided albums by artists that were in my all time top ten: Johnny Cash, John Prine, Bruce Springsteen, Rosanne Cash, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss (as a duo), Jason Isbell, Lucinda Williams and Rhiannon Giddens. How easy it would have been to just copy and paste them across here! For me, the point was to look again, with fresh eyes and ears, and explore some different possibilities. I hope you find as much pleasure in these selections as I enjoyed navigating my way through the process and the record/CD/download/streaming library.
Number 10: Amy Speace ‘How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat’ (2013)
Amy Speace is a deserved award-winner, an artist who should be recognised as one of the greatest songwriters around today. Her songs are incredibly honest, authentic reflections of her life, particularly the recent ‘There Used to be Horses Here’, which draws on personal themes including the death of her father. ‘How to Sleep in a Stormy Boat’ is just a beautiful album, full of well-crafted songs that continue to grow with each listen. Amy Speace is a poet and this album features vivid narratives and intriguing metaphors. The highlight is the collaboration with John Fullbright, ‘The Sea and the Shore’; their voices are so well matched and both possess a timeless grace. If you’re just getting to know Amy Speace, start here.
Number 9: Jarrod Dickenson ‘Ready the Horses’ (2017)
This is an album with which I fell in love immediately. Though the connection was instant, the pleasure of it has not dimmed with repeated listening. Indeed, the more familiar Jarrod Dickenson’s voice becomes, the more intimate the album feels. His vocal performance is excellent – it is warming, like a deep amber whisky, and it carries us through a selection of songs that blend blues, country and folk. Following the powerful ‘Faint of Heart’ and ‘Take it From Me’, we’re then absorbed by ‘Your Heart Belongs to Me’, the utterly romantic duet with his wife Claire, in which the back and forth words and voices are perfectly timed and judged. It’s an album-opening trio of songs as strong as any. Across the album, the quality remains consistent though the other song to really take note of is the more experimental, Tom Waits-like grit of ‘Gold Rush’. ‘Ready the Horses’ deserves an audience.
Number 8: Josh Ritter ‘Hello Starling’ (2003)
Produced by Robert Odlum of The Frames, this album is remarkable in its easy, warm, familiar-sounding melodies and lyricism. It is just so well crafted and put together with every note and instrument in just the right place. Ritter’s vocals are smooth and understated, wrapping around the joyous melodies. Stark at times, gloriously layered at others, the songs were instant classics, timeless and perfectly formed. I’ve written before about the precision of his well-chosen words, particularly in the swirling, soaring romanticism of ‘Kathleen’: “All the other girls here are stars – you are the Northern Lights // they try to shine in through your curtains – you’re too close and too bright // they try and they try but everything that they do // is the ghost of a trace of a pale imitation of you.” It’s impossibly, brilliantly, unselfconsciously romantic. Over the years, amidst all the noise and competition, this has been one of the albums I’ve returned to most.
Number 7: Alison Krauss & Union Station ‘Paper Airplane’ (2011)
Winning her first GRAMMY in 1991 (at that time, the second youngest winner ever), Alison Krauss has stacked up awards and followers in the intervening years. For this album, Krauss reunited with her old band Union Station and all the songs are characterised by outstanding musicianship. As ever, Krauss’s voice is pure and angelic. Unsurprisingly, ‘Paper Airplane’ topped the country and bluegrass charts but also managed a huge level of wider commercial success, peaking at number three on the Billboard 200. Two of the highlights are the Peter Rowan-penned ‘Dust Bowl Children’ with the voice of Dan Tyminski and a stunning cover of ‘Dimming of the Day’ by Richard and Linda Thompson. Best of all, the beautifully melodic title track captures the sweet resignation of love: “Our love is like a paper airplane flying in the folded wind // Riding high, dipping low // And innocence is fair game // I’m hoping I can hold it in // Our love will die // I know.” Krauss’s vocal range is impressive as she lets her voice fly high on the currents of love.
Number 6: Dawes ‘Nothing is Wrong’ (2011)
If you get the chance to see Dawes live, don’t hesitate. They are one of those bands that can deliver a performance of incredible precision: tight, focused, together. In the studio, this album was where they hit their peak. Every single song is a tuneful delight that feels like a familiar friend even on the first listen. It’s full of catchy hooks, the sort of music to stomp your feet and sing along to. From the upbeat rock of songs like ‘Fire Away’ to the gentler balladry of ‘Moon in the Water’, the album has plenty of variety. There’s quality throughout but it’s the album closer ‘A Little Bit of Everything’ that stops you, forces you to listen and earns the place on this list. There’s such power and clarity in the lyrical opening: “With his back against the San Francisco traffic // On the bridge’s side that faces towards the jail // Setting out to join a demographic // He hoists his first leg up over the rail.” By the time those lines are finished you’re involved and invested in the song. This tiny but huge narrative is followed by two more snippets of characters’ lives and by observations like: “I think that love is so much easier than you realise // If you can give yourself to someone, then you should.” A guitar solo rises out of the melody, perfectly placed and growing out of the song rather than feeling like an addition as solos often do. Great songs performed fabulously well. What more do we want from an album?
Number 5: Levon Helm ‘Electric Dirt’ (2009)
The drummer and vocalist from The Band, Levon Helm will need no introduction to AUK readers. Helm’s great comeback album ‘Dirt Farmer’ earned him a GRAMMY in 2007 and recreated the feel of his ‘midnight ramble’ concerts with musical guests at his home in Woodstock. The follow-up, ‘Electric Dirt’, won the first ever GRAMMY in the newly-created americana category. ‘Electric Dirt’ makes this list ahead of its predecessor because of the way it captures a mood so completely – it’s joyous, a celebration of music and camaraderie. This is exemplified in the song ‘When I Go Away’, which is such a fitting song for Helm’s final studio album. Sonically and lyrically delightful and upbeat, this song must be on any americana fan’s funeral song list. This album is full of heart and soul. Helm’s voice may be weathered but it isn’t weary – it’s strong and vital. Great album.
Number 4: Beachwood Sparks ‘The Tarnished Gold’ (2012)
‘The Tarnished Gold’ was the third full-length release from Los Angeles band Beachwood Sparks and it represents everything the band were about. The songs are dreamy and absorbing, music to lose yourself in, full of sonic layers that reveal themselves over time and gorgeous harmonies that drift up high into the cosmos like sparks from a late-night fire. The engaging melodies take us right back into the experimental sounds of the 1960s, back to some of the roots from which today’s americana grew: the likes of Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers. It’s adventurous country, with sweeping, swirling cosmic psychedelia stirred into the songs, guitars and voices. Highlights include the rhythmic ‘Earl Jean’ and the vocally impressive ‘Sparks Fly Again’. The overall feel is relaxing and soothing, hypnotic and trance-like, especially when the twanging guitar flies high. This is an album to listen to in its entirety, to absorb the mood, the feel. Do check it out.
Number 3: Ryan Adams ‘Gold’ (2001)
Famously prolific, Ryan Adams has produced music at a startling rate throughout his career while managing to maintain the consistency in quality that other artists wish they could emulate. The atmospheric ‘Love is Hell’ is probably the album I played most; it’s lyrical and musical intensity matched the intensity with which I played it. I also frequently returned to the material Adams recorded with The Cardinals and his debut solo record, ‘Heartbreaker’, is rightly lauded by critics. But it’s ‘Gold’ that earns a place on this list because, even on its release and before the songs were familiar, it somehow felt like a greatest hits record. I remember listening to it back in 2001 and thinking, in fact, that it must be a ‘best of’ and that I had somehow missed something. The songs are just outstanding and bear listening to again and again. A number of them have appeared in film and television soundtracks or have been covered by other artists. Leading to to three GRAMMY nominations, the album was commercially and critically successful, featuring classics such as ‘New York, New York’, ‘When the Stars Go Blue’ and ‘Answering Bell’. The variety is staggering, with fire-crackers like ‘Firecracker’ through to slow, sombre ballads like ‘Sylvia Plath’ via the extended epic ‘Nobody Girl’. This was Ryan Adams at the height of his inspirational song-writing powers.
Number 2: The Delines ‘The Imperial’ (2019)
Now, it might well be that the latest album from The Delines, ‘The Sea Drift’, will ultimately surpass ‘The Imperial’. It’s a remarkable album but needs a little more time to prove itself a classic. In the meantime, ‘The Imperial’ can be left to represent this outstanding band. Amy Boone’s achingly emotional voice is perfect for these narratives, for these slices of American life, and she finds a weary melody with which to engage and take us with her. Willie Vlautin is such a talented writer that he can condense an entire story, a character’s whole life, into a few compelling lines in a song. His use of language, with the careful selection of fine story-telling details, is exquisite and results in songs with a truly cinematic feel. However, he also decides what to leave out, allowing us to connect with the characters and their situations, to find the space between the lines and participate in their imagined lives. There’s everything here: captivating tunes and tales and timeless class. The soulful balladry of ‘Cheer Up Charley’ and ‘The Imperial’ are highlights on an exceptional album. Enjoy.
Number 1: Courtney Marie Andrews ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ (2018)
I believe Courtney Marie Andrews is one of those rare artists that we’ll still be listening to decades from now. There’s a timeless quality to her music and her honest portrayals of love, loss and life. Her breakthrough album, ‘Honest Life’, was excellent, full of memorable tunes. But ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ was even better. Themed around the lives of disenchanted people who have been striving for unattainable goals, it could have been bleak and stark. Instead, it’s infused with a hopeful spirit and a quiet resilience. That’s especially true of ‘Kindness of Strangers’, an uplifting heartfelt hymn to finding support in one another when we struggle: “How do you dive deeper in a shallow riverbed // When the current pulls you further from what you shoulda said? // Getting by on the kindness of strangers.” In ‘Rough Around the Edges’, Andrews finds the strength to accept herself as she is: “I see the flaws in all the in-betweens.” And then, she accepts the imperfections of her lover in ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’. These are songs with their foundations in reality, authentic musical pictures of what it means to be human and to love. In the end, that’s what we need for the best albums: heartfelt renditions of reality and mirrors in which we see ourselves. It helps that she knows how to write a fine song and she sounds amazing.
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