Writing this list was tricky. Thinking about music in terms of its release date is all well and good, but I tend to think of things as before and after 1980, not 2000. In fact, that’s how I split my record collection. As I searched my heart and music collections for music, it became clear that I had missed so many new albums. This is the bane of the music lover’s life: there isn’t enough time to hear them all. Half of the artists I did collate here do not hail from the States, which arguably could be a pedant’s prerequisite for any americana album. It will be self-evident from the list that I am not into pedantry, but I am into slide guitar and pedal steel. Performing the task of ordering this list in order of quality took weeks. Is the titan of the telecaster “better” than the rust-belt bard? Lastly, please excuse the continued use of the word “legend” throughout the list, but I think it makes considerable sense given this is a top ten.
Number 10: Juanita Stein ‘America‘ (2017)
Before I was an americana journalist, I was an indie DJ, and I would love to put Aussie band Howling Bells here. Lead singer Juanita Stein struck out on her own after three cracking Howling Bells albums, and it’s quite frankly a haunting acoustic masterpiece. Her voice is disarming, and the steel guitar is as big and dusty as it comes. It makes me wonder if I should’ve put Lana Del Ray’s album ‘Born to Die‘ on this list.
Number 9: Jack Broadbent ‘One Night Stand (Live)‘ (2018)
The Cambridge Folk Festival can take the credit for this entry. I have seen countless bands perform at this, one of England’s finest weekends of music and this set was an all-time stand out one for me. I could put any of his four studio albums here, but the live one showcases what he’s capable of. His shows are replete with cheeky banter with his ex-bass-player-from-the-Band Dad and warm stage presence. Live albums rule out “cheating” overdubs or multiple takes, and Broadbent can really play and sing the blues.
Number 8: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss ‘Raising Sand’ (2007)
Two legends for the price of one! This album would also belong on ‘Top Ten Duets’ should we ever do one. Moreover, together they become more than the sum of their parts. Led Zepellin meets Union Station in a once in a lifetime way. The pair have recently released another record this year, and once I listen to it properly, it may well bump this one off the list; the bar has been set pretty high, though.
Number 7: Bill Kirchen ‘Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods’ (2007)
This is one of the records I have to thank Americana UK for bringing into my life. Formerly of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, the ‘Titan of the Telecaster’ is a guitar-picking force to be reckoned with. While many artists keep going into their 70s, not many put out game-changing relevant records during their later phase. Kirchen tours the blues effortlessly and shows skill utterly unrivalled. The album is both a masterclass in chicken-picking and a welcome blues revival. ‘Hammer of the Honky Tonk Gods‘ may be a lesson in Telecaster, but it would not be what it is if not for legends Nick Lowe on bass, Geraint Watkins on the keyboard, or Robert Trehern on drums. It is, quite frankly, a perfect storm of skill, material, and musicianship.
Number 6: Martha Wainwright ‘Martha Wainwright’ (2005)
Daughter of folk legend Loudon Wainwright III and brother of gay icon Rufus, Martha’s debut album tore a hole in my heart the first time I heard it and surpassed her family history. The album itself is steeped in her family history, and she details life growing up in the shadow of her father and the expectations laid upon her. However, the stories are universal, a daughter wanting approval and to make her mark. I don’t know about the approval, but she’s certainly made her mark.
Number 5: Bruce Springsteen ‘Western Stars‘ (2019)
While many have been lauding Springsteen’s latest reunion with E-Street Band as a musical triumph, I feel that he did not need to go back to go forward. ‘Western Stars‘ is quiet, honest, and raw. His 19th album is pleasingly and openly influenced by 70s California artists such as Glen Campbell and, while it shows the maturity one would expect, is still clearly by The Boss
Number 4: William Crighton ‘Empire‘ (2018)
I have many reasons to thank the organisers of the Black Deer Festival, and William Crighton is one of them. None of Crighton’s albums is better than any of his others, but a choice had to be made, and on this album, he covers Eric Bogle’s heartwrenching ‘And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda’ which edged it for me. He is another singer-songwriter who will make you cry with stories of growing up in tiny towns, only this time it’s the outback, and the accent isn’t American.
Number 3: Colter Wall ‘Songs of the Plains‘ (2018)
Colter Wall I discovered in a pocketful of weekly new releases I was trawling through for a radio show. Suddenly it was like Johnny Cash had passed the reins to this astoundingly young Saskatchewan boy, and excitingly we were alive to hear it. The album was released when he was only 23, meaning he hadn’t smoked or drank long enough to sound as sonorous as he did, nor had he lived long enough to have his heart broken that much. ‘Songs of the Plains‘ bucked probability, and this incredibly talented Canadian, upon shoulders of giants, took his place as country-folk’s latest titan.
Number 2: James Elkington ‘Ever-Roving Eye‘ (2017)
I was so pleased that I got to review this album for Americana UK because it is one of the best things to happen to my ears in the last few years. A pupil of Richard Thompson, this Chicago-based Brit has somehow been generally overlooked by the public. Pandemic has meant postponing of tours and stalled what I have no doubt will be a very successful career. You heard it here first. The music is epic, haunting, honest, and the guy can play the guitar like he’s had 40 years more practice than he has.
Number 1: Songs: Ohia ‘Magnolia Electric Co.‘ (2003)
I would be amazed if this didn’t appear on other writers’ lists. Jason Molina’s plaintive tribute to growing up in the Rust Belt is the epitome of americana. This album made me think about how a musician’s location shaped the songs and forever changed my music listening. Every artist is a product of their culture, and that is intrinsically linked to the places they grew up and resided. Molina’s music is steeped in the now silent machinery of Detroit, the failing economy around him, and the sad lack of mental health funding in the US during his life. It’s not just an album, it’s an illuminating snapshot which is one fantastic thing about his music and music generally.
Nice list, thank you. Know some of this music already, and it encourages me to listen to that which I don’t. Looking to see William Crighton next week, was also witness to his extraordinary performance at Black Deer. Songs:Ohia, such an intense experience, even on occasion hard to listen to Molina’s deep pain. He is sorely missed.