Well yes – what an enjoyable challenge! I was perhaps unusual in having six of my top 10 americana albums of all time from 2000 onwards, so consistency and laziness could have coincided and just left me four to choose. No fun there of course, so I’ve only kept my number one album, which as my desert island keeper just couldn’t be lost –‘This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark’.
As Clint noted in his season opener, picking your top ten is a reminder of just how much great music in our favourite genre has been released in the last couple of decades, reflected in how hard it is to leave some albums off the top ten list. By starting my list afresh I lose Johnny Cash, Mary Gauthier, Old Crow Medicine Show, Ryan Adams, and Mark Otis Selby from my previous top ten, and notable near misses for the new list include Darlingside, Caitlin Rose and the Hacienda Brothers.
Much of my listening for pleasure comes in journeys long and short in the car, and the rationale I settled on is my favourite driving companion albums, from my favourite artists.
Number 10: Kathleen Edwards ‘Failer’ (2002)
I’ve been a fan of Kathleen Edwards ever since this, her first release, cemented by seeing her and band perform a memorable set in London (from my memory at Dingwalls, but I can only find a date at the Borderline – anyone else there?) on her tour promoting the album in 2003. I love every song on the album, ‘Hockey Skates’ and ‘Westby’ are particular favourites but for sheer driving pleasure ‘Six O’Clock News’ can’t be beaten!
Number 9: The Long Ryders ‘Psychedelic Country Soul’ (2019)
The Long Ryders left a brief but glorious legacy from their golden years of 1984-87 with their three albums, re-released in 2016 with demos and extras including live recordings from 1985 radio performances as a four CD set. A European tour the same year, including a fine London show at Under The Bridge, raised hopes of new material and when ‘Psychadelic Country Soul’ was released in 2019 it did not disappoint. From album opener ‘Greenville’ the listener is treated to high energy, big riffs, jangly guitar, fine harmony vocals and well crafted songs which more than live up to the band’s legacy. Its twelve songs are all originals, with the exception of a fine cover of Tom Petty’s ‘Walls’, and there is even a sensitive ballad ‘If You Want to See Me Cry’, but my choice off the album here is the title track, the six minute ‘Psychadelic Country Soul’, which does exactly what it says on the tin.
Number 8: John Paul White ‘The Hurting Kind’ (2019)
I came late to appreciate the great song writing and distinctive vocals of John Paul White, earlier one half of the highly regarded duo The Civil Wars, my introduction being the beautifully bitter solo release ‘Beulah’, and my dilemna here was whether to choose this or his follow up ‘The Hurting Kind’. The latter has won out, but only by a nose in a photo finish, and both would be in my top 20 post 2000. Equally beautiful as ‘Beulah’, but with songs taking us to uplifting heights both vocally and lyrically. Outstanding tracks include ‘James’, a sensitive depiction of dementia, ‘This Isn’t Gonna End Well’, featuring Lee Ann Womack, and title track ‘The Hurting Kind’, but my selected track here is album closer ‘My Dreams Have All Come True’, with its soaring and emotion drenched vocals.
Number 7: Gillian Welch ‘Boots No. 2: The Lost Songs’ (2020)
Another dilemna: this triple CD release of no fewer than 48 songs recorded over a single weekend in 2002 or ‘Time (The Revelator)’, featuring Welch and life and musical partner Dave Rawlings? The former wins, but again only by a nose, as it has an extraordinary depth of material, recorded with simple guitar and vocal arrangements, which take you straight to the folk and hill country roots of their music. I say simple guitar, of course Dave Rawlings is an extraordinary acoustic guitarist, perhaps the best in this genre, but here he plays in a subtle understated way, always gently embellishing these finely crafted songs. Hard to choose from so many gems, but today my choice is ‘Valley of Tears’. And yes this is still a driving favourite, for a long journey when I’ll happily play all three volumes in succession.
Number 6: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss ‘Raising Sand’ (2007)
Truly a marriage made in heaven, two voices so well suited to sing together, with ‘third person in the marriage’, in a purely musical sense of course, T-Bone Burnett. Critically acclaimed, with justification, a firm Jarman family favourite (not all americana choices meet this test!) and now at last leading to a follow up ‘Raise the Roof’. Again too many great songs to choose from, ‘Gone Gone Gone’ originally recorded by the Everley Brothers and ‘Please Read the Letter That I Wrote’ are the family favourites, but here I’m choosing the gentle charms of ‘Killing the Blues’.
Number 5: Lucinda Williams ‘Essence’ (2001)
It’s hard for me to contemplate any top 10 without Lucinda Williams featuring, and ‘Essence’ has been a firm favourite ever since its release. Despite facing strong competition from later releases by Williams, the strength of her writing and the sometimes gentler arrangements still set it aside from the rest. This can be heard on ‘Lonely Girls’, I Envy the Wind’ and ‘Blue’, my choice for today, a moving depiction of dealing with depression, with its great opening line “Go find a jukebox and/see what a quarter will do”. The album still features some great rockers too, notably ‘Get Right With God‘, a staple of her live set ever since.
Number 4: Dan Hicks and the Hot LIcks ‘Beatin’ the Heat’ (2000)
Indeed, my top five albums feature my personal top 5 artists over the years and Dan Hicks has been the artist always relied upon to raise a smile on even the darkest days. A respected talent amongst fellow musicians ‘Beatin’ the Heat’ features guest appearances from Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Bette Midler, Ricki Lee Jones and Brian Setzer. It has his trademark humorous take on life delivered in his unique blend of western swing with West Coast stoner stylings with impeccable musicianship throughout. Included in the 15 tracks are a re-recording of perhaps his best known song, ‘I Scare Myself’, great covers of ‘Boogie Woogie Shoeshine Boy’ and Tom Waits’ ‘The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me)’ and my choice ‘I Don’t Want Love’.
Number 3: Ry Cooder ‘The Prodigal Son’ (2018)
Making great music with a political and social edge at its heart has always been a tough ask, but one that Ry Cooder has achieved consistently over his 60 plus years at the forefront of americana. If I can pick a moment when the genre we now know and love first came into my sights it would be his 1972 release ‘Boomers Story’. His trademark reinvention, with love and respect, of songs with a message and of supporting the downtrodden shines through and still sounds fresh today. ‘The Prodigal Son’ does the same, with Cooder in fine voice, and revisiting the fine harmony vocals which characterised another of his golden eras from the late 1970s. Gospel tinged throughout, my personal favourite is his rendition of ‘Straight Street’.
Number 2: Nick Lowe ‘The Convincer’ (2001)
In my humble opinion the greatest living songwriter, Nick Lowe will always have a place in any top 10, and hard to choose a single album to reflect his talents. He still continues to write and record at the top of his game, with top tracks on recent EPs including ‘Blue on Blue’. But as an album reflecting his combination of songwriting of the highest calbre and an ability to pick covers to reinvent with deeper meaning, ‘The Convincer’ stands with the best. Also picked in Clint’s top 10, with his cover of ‘Only a Fool Breaks His Own Heart’ my choice is ‘Lately I’ve Let Things Slide’ with it’s killer line “That untouched takeaway/ I brought home the other day/has quite a lot to say”.
Number 1: Various Artists ‘This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark’ (2012)
The sole survivor from my ‘Top 10 Americana albums Ever’, I simply couldn’t lose this one. Sensitive reinterpretations of many of his best songs, Clark’s ability to reflect on what it means to be human shine through, in his observations of everyday life and the deepest of emotions. Highlights too numerous to list include Steve Earle (‘The Last Gunfighter Ballad’), Emmylou Harris and John Prine (‘Magnolia Wind’) and Ron Sexsmith (‘Broken Hearted People’). Last time out I picked Terri Henrix’s rendition of ‘The Dark’, this time its ‘Homeless’ by Shawn Camp, but everyone of the 30 tracks is a winner.