AUK’s Features Editor Clint West introduces a new series for 2022 and then sets the ball rolling with his personal picks.
When we chose ‘AUK’s Top 10 Albums Ever’ spread over 2020/2021 we found that a large proportion of our writers’ selections were albums released 30+ years ago, with the 1970s accounting for a particularly disproportionate number. It might be that the 1970s was a vintage decade or it may just simply reflect the vintage of the majority of our writers. Or could it be, as some have suggested, that music takes time to assert its influence and to take its place in history. What might be seen as a very good album today, may well through time assume ‘classic’ status due to the ground it breaks, the influence that it has on what follows, and its sustainability or even growth as a piece of work. If that is true, then clearly it is easier to assess the importance of a record released 50 years ago, than one released a mere 5 years ago. On the other hand, it might be argued that none of that matters as music is a living and ever-changing art form and that what it sounds like now is far more important than how it will sound in the future.
In this new series we turn our attention to those instant or potential classics released since the turn of the millennium to try and discover the ‘AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century’. The format is the same as last time. Each week an AUK writer will offer their personal selections. At the end of the process a shortlist will be compiled from those albums most commonly selected. The writers will then cast their votes from that shortlist to produce our collective Top 10.
Having foolishly volunteered to set the ball rolling, I very soon realised the immensity of the task. My initial long list contained 74 ‘possibilities’, which I managed, after much agonising, to reduce down to 20. That’s where it really got tough, how could I possibly discard another 10? It was like being asked to choose which members of your family to throw overboard – on second thoughts that would be far easier! Before I reveal what made the cut, I’d like to just explain my personal approach to the task.
‘Americana’ will, as has been much discussed, be defined differently by each person (as we will no doubt witness as the series unfolds). For my part, as much as I admire the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, I would argue that if you asked a cross-section of their fans what kind of music they make, ‘Americana’ would be unlikely to be the common response. For this reason, I personally didn’t consider any of their 21st century releases. I also wanted to concentrate on more recent and more distinctly ‘Americana’ artists. I certainly didn’t want this to be a ‘what they did next’ continuation from the previous feature.
If that was a relatively easy call, then the next one was a much greater challenge. Artists like Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and the Drive-By Truckers have produced a remarkably consistent run of albums over the last 21 years, but how do you choose one over another? I could have made an argument for producing a list consisting only of those three artists. Picking 10 killer albums between them could easily be done. However, in the end, I went for none of them, simply because it would have been impossible to nominate just one album from their formidable back catalogues. Twist my arm, and being a complete coward, I’ll squeal – I would have gone for ‘World Without Tears’, ‘Jerusalem’ and ‘Decoration Day’ respectively on the day I was considering it, but probably something different the next day. Just missing out were Ryan Adams, Courtney Marie Andrews, Gillian Welch, Kacey Musgraves and John Fullbright. But without further ado, here are my final choices, which come with the usual disclaimer – ask me again next week and it could all change.
Number 10: Hurray for the Riff Raff “Small Town Heroes” (2014)
Alynda Segarra’s fifth full length release was the breakthrough record for her band. Very well received by critics, including five-star reviews in The Observer and The Irish Times as well as being awarded 9/10 by Uncut, it was the record that marked Hurray for the Riff Raff out as a real force. I saw them tour the album at the Night & Day Café in Manchester and referring back to my notes from the year, I actually placed that night at number 1 in my best gigs of 2015 list. The follow-up, 2017’s ‘The Navigator’ is perhaps a more complete record but it doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor of hearing this for the first time. Segarra has a powerful yet nuanced voice, that delivers her lyrics perfectly. The quality of the songwriting is astonishing, a hard-hitting feminist take on the American folk tradition. The switches between musical styles show not just great musicianship, but also reveal an empathy for the varied musical heritage of America.
Number 9: Dave Alvin “Eleven Eleven” (2011)
When writing ‘The Top 10 Dave Alvin Albums’ for AUK’s ‘Essentials’ feature in August last year, I concluded that “Eleven Eleven is not just Dave Alvin’s most complete work, but its right up there with any album that has been created within the americana genre”. I am happy to stand by that and to include it here for that very reason. I confess to being a massive fan of Dave Alvin and there hasn’t been a record that he’s been involved in that I didn’t enjoy. However, where I argued in the introduction for leaving Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and the Drive-By Truckers out on the basis that there were too many equally good albums to choose from, for me this is Alvin’s standout album by a distance, which is quite something when you look at the quality of his other recordings. For a fuller appreciation click on the link above.
Number 8: Ryley Walker “Primrose Green” (2015)
Possibly my most contentious pick in terms of the ‘americana’ debate as this might be viewed as essentially a folk album and one heavily influenced by British folk music at that. That would miss the point though. US folk in its various forms has always absorbed influences from elsewhere. Here, Walker draws on the likes of Bert Jansch, John Martyn and Van Morrison but equally on American folk guitar innovators like John Fahey and Peter Walker. The result is not a revivalist recreation of a style but very much the emergence of a new talent as Walker channels those influences into his own unique sound that also incorporates jazz, something he would develop further on subsequent releases. Ryley Walker is an enigmatic talent who sets his own course whether it be collaborating with others or experimenting with new sounds and directions. A new Ryley Walker album is always exciting because he is so unpredictable. However, for me “Primrose Green” his second album is the one that announced Walker’s huge talent and is still his best to date.
Number 7: Frazey Ford “Indian Ocean” (2014)
I must confess that as well as Americana I have a deep love of soul music. When the two fuse together to make country-soul, there are very few greater pleasures on earth. Frazey Ford came to prominence as a member of the Canadian folk-country group The Be Good Tanyas. When she went solo, on her first album ‘Obidiah’, Ford moved towards the soul sound that her remarkable voice is so ably suited to. With her second release ‘Indian Oceans’ Ford created a country-soul masterpiece and the best example of the genre in many a year. Recorded in Memphis with the Hi Records Rhythm Section (of Al Green fame), Ford’s accomplished songwriting is embellished by the stirring soulful sounds, surrounding, supporting and snuggling up to her words. Simply glorious.
Number 6: James McMurtry “Just Us Kids” (2008)
Along with ‘Childish Things’, its immediate predecessor, ‘Just Us Kids’ is James McMurtry’s most overtly political album. It wasn’t an easy ride to speak out in Texas about a Texan president (George W Bush) and the whole Iraq war fiasco, but McMurtry, as you’d expect, did it with great eloquence as well as real force. ‘Cheney’s Toy’ is a brutal condemnation of Bush personally whilst ‘God Bless America (Pat MacDonald Must Die)’ looks beyond the flag waving to expose the real interests and motivation behind the war – “Negotiation’s just no fun/And it don’t serve our interests none,/Gonna turn up the heat til it comes to the boil/Then we’ll go get that Arab oil”. That’s not to say the whole album is taken up with just political issues. McMurtry has the ability, much like Guy Clark, to observe and capture lives, moments and emotions. The title track ‘Just Us Kids’ is a perfect example and one of the best songs you’ll ever hear about getting old. Indeed, it’s the perfect balance between McMurtry’s storytelling and his willingness to say what needed to be said at the time, that makes this his most impressive album.
Number 5: Rhiannon Giddens “Freedom Highway” (2017)
Having come to our attention as the lead singer, fiddle and banjo player with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Giddens’ second solo album underlined her already emerging reputation as an artist of considerable stature. Despite the title track being a cover of The Staples Singers 1965 civil rights protest song, nine of the album’s songs were written or co-written by Giddens herself. This marked a significant shift from ‘Tomorrow is My Turn”, her first album, which consisted entirely of traditional songs and covers. It also marked a continuation, in that the themes and subjects of the traditional songs that Giddens had so brilliantly interpreted with the Carolina Chocolate Drops, are again explored but from a modern day perspective. Slavery, racism, civil rights and violence are all fearlessly exposed and challenged. Her use of contemporary as well as traditional musical forms underlines the freshness of her approach. A phenomenal record.
Number 4: Nick Lowe “The Convincer” (2001)
Basher at his very best. It’s tempting to leave it at that, because in many ways that’s reason enough to include it here. Anybody that can’t relate to Lately I’ve Let Things Slide” or “I’m A Mess” has clearly lived a very different life to most people I know. Lowe’s ability to capture universal emotions and experiences with simply but perfectly constructed words set to a catchy melody, is his genius. Whether it be the elation of new-found love in “She’s Got Soul” or the bitter regret of “Homewrecker”, every song on the album sounds like an established pop standard penned by one of the great songwriters – but that’s hardly surprising because Nick Lowe is one of the great songwriters, and this is his most complete and faultless set of songs.
Number 3: Laura Cantrell “Not The Tremblin’ Kind” (2000)
Famously described by John Peel as “my favourite album of the last ten years, possibly my life”, Laura Cantrell’s debut album has endured and grown with time. Evoking the 1950’s/60’s country sounds of Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn, Cantrell polished up the style and reinvigorated it for a new generation. It was fresh and sounded new to those only familiar with women country singers on the folk side of the genre like Emmylou Harris and Nanci Griffith or from the contemporary alt-country scene represented by Neko Case and Sally Timms. A mixture of both originals and well chosen, but quite obscure covers, the record established Cantrell’s talent for writing catchy songs in a classic style, but perhaps more than that, her ability to select and interpret the writing of others far beyond what they might have themselves envisaged. Listening recently to ‘Kitty’s Choice’ a 1960 Kitty Wells album, I was struck by just how fresh and timeless it still sounded over 60 years later. I suspect that Cantrell’s equally timeless debut will also still sound great when it reaches a similar age. Unfortunately, I’m unlikely to be around to test out my hypothesis.
Number 2: Wilco: “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2001)
Jeff Tweedy and Wilco have made some exceptional music over the last two decades, but like Dave Alvin at Number 9, there is no doubt in my mind as to Tweedy’s finest hour. I included ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ in my ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’, so it will come as no surprise that it features so highly again here. I wrote on that occasion “Like Sturgill Simpson more recently, Wilco have over the years picked up Americana, reinvented it, and placed it down somewhere completely different. ‘Being There’ in 1996, a tremendous record itself, began this process, but never was it more fully realised than by this, their masterpiece album. Rolling Stone ranked it at number 3 in their ‘100 Best Albums of the Decade’ – only two out by my reckoning”. I see no reason to revise that assessment now. If anything, like any true classic, it just keeps getting better.
Number 1: Sturgill Simpson “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (2014)
I’m not sure that you can say that one particular album is better than anything else from the last 21 years, but as that’s the task at hand, then Sturgill Simpson’s second album is probably it. Like the aforementioned Jeff Tweedy, Simpson has taken Americana to new places, some of them not always comfortable ones; his 2019 synthesised psychedelic blues-rock album ‘Sound and Fury’ certainly divided opinion. However, ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ was a much more widely appreciated and lauded record, although no less radical in many respects. Following his debut of high quality, but fairly straightforward Jennings and Haggard style country, Simpson’s follow-up was a bolt from the blue and immediately set him apart from most of his contemporaries. This dude it appeared, was anything but a conventional country singer. Yet at the heart of Simpson’s work are his songs, something that keeps him firmly rooted in the traditions of country music. Despite, the change in approach, the songs on the album retain a disciplined and orderly format. References to ‘trip-country’ owe more to Simpson’s exploration of spiritual and metaphysical themes in his lyrics here, than to any improvisation or diversion from a solid song structure. ‘Metamodern Sounds in Country Music’ is an important record, not only for announcing the emergence of a major new mover on the Americana scene, but for opening up new avenues for country music, taking the genre on a journey forward to destinations previously unvisited, whilst simultaneously respecting and incorporating its true traditions.