As has been said by others tasked with making this list, it has been really difficult. It’s an utterly subjective list and tomorrow I might feel quite differently about what albums did or didn’t make the cut. I’m happy to admit that I’m of an age where most of my favourite albums come from the 60s and 70s, with a few from the 80s and 90s. However, early in the 21st Century, I found a thread of new, young, or at least younger, singer/songwriters that has given me a deep appreciation of modern alternative-folk, indie and americana. The seeds for this were sown by some great bands of the 1990s that haven’t quite made this list: The Jayhawks, Silver Jews, Whiskeytown and Grandaddy to name just a few. I’ve tried to focus on artists who launched their careers in last twenty years or so, rather than already established artists who happened to make great albums during that period.
Number 10: Big Thief ‘Masterpiece’ (2016)
They blipped onto my radar with the title song from this album, and like many others, I was immediately hooked by Adrianne Lenker’s haunting voice. With innovative guitarist and former partner, Buck Meek, a major factor, Lenker and the rest of the band established a powerful but still fragile sound that managed to be different to anything else. A superb live band, their popularity continues to grow around the world, and they’ve consistently developed their unique sound across each new album.
Number 9: Jason Molina and Will Johnson ‘Molina and Johnson’ (2009)
I could have picked any one of Will Johnson’s fabulous albums, but this one has the advantage of adding some more of Jason Molina to my list, so even better! Johnson had already had some success with his much-loved band, Centro-matic, before launching into a solo career of minimalist, alternative folk powered by his rich, gravel-gargling voice. Across his solo outings Johnson demonstrates a command of stripped-to-the-bone minimalism that can even hold with Molina’s gift for beautiful gloom. It’s not the best Will Johnson album, and it’s definitely not the best Jason Molina album, but it has its own magic, with two talented songwriters working their different approaches to music through their close friendship.
Number 8: Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2007)
Love it or hate it, this album introduced a whole generation to the power and beauty of stripped-down, lofi, grungy folk. I was steered towards it by a friend shortly after it was released on Jagjaguwar and loved it from the first time I heard it. I was intrigued by the story of Justin Vernon recovering from serious illness and, disillusioned by his previous involvement in music, heading off to live by himself in the woods and messing around with minimal equipment to make his own music on his own terms. Self-released by Vernon with zero expectations that anybody would even want to hear it, I guess I’m not the only one who was taken aback by just how much of a global success it became. Whenever I listen back to it, I still love it.
Number 7: Hiss Golden Messenger ‘Haw’ (2013)
‘Haw’ was the first Hiss Golden Messenger album I heard and right from the outset it blew me away. The band was formed by Mike (MC) Taylor and Scott Hirsch in 2007 and there are a string of fine albums to listen to. ‘Haw’ may not be the best of them, but it’s still my favourite and it gives a very solid introduction to Hiss Golden Messenger’s seductive mix of spiritually-influenced indie-folk, gentle southern rock and americana. MC Taylor manages to pull off that neat trick of not really sounding like anyone else. He’s a fine lyricist and an engaging live performer and he has that other neat trick of surrounding himself with great musicians.
Number 6: Waxahatchee ‘Saint Cloud’ (2020)
I’d been aware of Waxahatchee, aka Katie Crutchfield, for a while, by way of another tip from a well-connected friend who’d been living and working in Portland and seeing an enviable number of great bands starting out. I’d enjoyed Waxahatchee’s earlier punky-indie albums, but I was completely unprepared for the leap she made with her 2020 album, ‘Saint Cloud’. The album was written after a decision by Crutchfield to go sober, straighten herself out and refocus on the things that really mattered to her. The album is a reflection on where she’d been and where she was going with her life. The end product is one of my favourite albums of recent years.
Number 5: Jeff Tweedy ‘Warm’ (2018)
Maybe I could have gone with ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ or another Wilco album, but I have a soft spot for Jeff Tweedy’s solo albums, and ‘Warm’ in particular. It seems a particularly personal album, perhaps not surprisingly as the album came together alongside his very open and revealing autobiography. Tweedy writes about his own struggles with addiction, with balancing family life with his life as a successful musician. The songs are stripped down to bare bones, they feel loose, unstructured and raw… just the way I like it.
Number 4: Sparklehorse ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (2001)
Okay, it doesn’t really belong on this list. Released in 2001 it just scrapes into the 21st Century, and it’s not even my favourite Sparklehorse album (I prefer the two earlier albums where Mark Linkous was left to his own devices and playing pretty much everything himself). It’s very debatable that it even qualifies as americana, but other writers at AUK I particularly admire have been happy to include Sparklehorse, so that’s good enough for me. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is a fine album, and Linkous and Sparklehorse created something beautiful, sad, weird, impenetrable and otherworldly that led me towards so much of my favourite music over the last twenty-odd years that I have to include them on this list.
Number 3: The Felice Brothers ‘Tonight at the Arizona’ (2007)
Having just seen them play a truly memorable show in Glasgow, The Felice Brothers are currently my favourite band. Like others on this list, they’ve got so many great albums that it’s tough to choose one over the others, but for me there’s something special about ‘Tonight at the Arizona’. There’s definitely something of Bob Dylan and The Band around aspects of the album, from Ian Felice’s vocal delivery to the sprawling, mythic narrative in songs like ‘The Ballad of Lou The Welterweight’ and ‘Rockefeller Druglaw Blues’ but, at least as far as I’m concerned, that can only ever be a good thing.
Number 2: Bright Eyes ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ (2005)
I was late to Bright Eyes and Conor Oberst too, and ‘I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning’ was already Oberst’s sixth studio album with Bright Eyes. He started writing songs at an astonishingly young age, and with the support of his elder brother, released his first solo album when he was just thirteen years old. Oberst was one of many young songwriters to be labelled with the ‘New Bob Dylan’ tag and he’s mentioned before that his early influences included Dylan along with Townes Van Zandt and John Prine. However, other than both being great singer/songwriters who sometimes play acoustic guitars, I’ve always felt Oberst and Dylan were poles apart. As a songwriter, Oberst seems to make no attempt to shield himself, and his work endlessly exposes his vulnerability. Including some of his best songs on what already is an almost thirty-year, highlight-packed career, this remains a very favourite album. His favourite band is The Felice Brothers and Emmylou Harris sings on three tracks. I rest my case.
Number 1: Songs: Ohia ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’
So, to the number one spot. At the very last moment, I swapped out other Jason Molina album – I almost picked ‘The Lioness’, for no other reason than it’s a very beautiful album and because it was recorded in Scotland, or the very excellent, ‘Didn’t it Rain’, or another favourite, his heavily Neil Young & Crazy Horse-inspired, ‘What Comes After the Blues’. But in the end, it was hard to ignore his final Songs: Ohia album and the one that transitioned him into the band he named after the album, Magnolia Electric Co. The album is packed with some of his finest songs and performances and demonstrates his ability to turn up the volume and rock with the best of them.