Making lists of favourite songs or albums has been a fascination since childhood when we used to make up our own ‘Top Tens’ and compare them at school. Less of an obsession as I got older but still interesting to think what albums would make an all time favourites list. Being invited to compile a ‘Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century’ was though, a veritable challenge, and delighted as I was to be asked to contribute I realised I had to really focus the mind. I thought it would be useful to establish some criteria for inclusion.
So, whilst I realise I may have missed many albums which could have been contenders I used three:
- I had to own the physical album
- The album would have that ‘killer track’ which initially drew me to the album
- The album had to have no ‘filler’ tracks, so the killer track could in fact change in time
Many albums would meet 1 and 2 but 3 was the clincher. The following albums all meet all three of my criteria, with apologies to at least 25 others that very nearly made the list, with a specific mention of Ruston Kelly’s ‘Shape and Destroy‘, which would have been equal 10th if the rules had allowed.
Number10: Lori Mackenna ‘Massachusetts‘ (2013)
Lori McKenna, earth mother and one the best singer-songwriters of our age, has released 11 albums, each one a gem of its kind. The consistently high standard of her songwriting is quite amazing, especially as the songs effectively only revolve around the everyday life of a wife, lover, mother and sibling in a small community in New England, where she has lived all her life, through childhood, marriage at 19 and bringing up 5 children. She writes songs of love in all its forms and little homilies that other acts want to record (The Chicks, Tim McGraw, Little Big Town, Alison Krauss, Carrie Underwood etc), and she wins Grammy awards and best song gongs for them. ‘Massachusetts’ initial standout track, a lilting waltz ‘How Romantic is That’ is one of her most beautiful love songs. It describes the things that have permeated a married life and where the light still burns bright despite everything. A glorious chorus follows each verse “And you still want me, you still love me. You still lay there every night beside me, Every time you walk away from me You come running back, how romantic is that?” And then the killer last chorus “Every time I walk away from you, I come running back, how romantic is that“. And if you want an example of the power of her voice, try ‘Make Every Word Hurt’, inviting a partner to be nasty so that she falls right out of love with him/her – “Don’t let the lines blur, If you’re gonna tell me, You don’t love me anymore’ Make every word hurt”. She is a certified treasure
Number 9: Caroline Spence ‘Spades and Roses’ (2017)
The ‘trigger’ track here is ‘Softball’ a brilliant exposé of gender inequality in the workplace but using a sports environment to convey it. “Hey Coach, won’t you put me in? I’ve been working hard, I can catch any pop fly And hit one out of the yard And if there’s one thing that I’m sure of, You can’t win ’em all, And they’ll go to strike you out, And say “Cheer up, it’s only softball!”
This was Caroline Spence’s second album and she has subsequently produced another brilliant album in 2020. But, as you explore ‘Spades and Roses’ you find song after beautiful song about dissatisfaction and hunger, loneliness and desire sung in Spence’s tremulous but equally vulnerable and powerful voice, full of emotion. Each song on the album has been, in turn, a favourite. For example ‘You don’t look so good (Cocaine)‘ about a woman warning her partner of the dangers of using the drug in the title “Now you get so high you can’t come back down, Can’t see what you lose except a couple of pounds, And I’m a broken record, you know what I’m gonna say, You don’t look so good when you do cocaine” – a dark tale disconcertingly sung to one of the more upbeat songs on the album. Destined to be a major star.
Number 8: Patty Griffin ‘Impossible Dream’ (2004)
‘When it Don’t Come Easy’ is one of many great songs written by Patty Griffin, a lot of them appearing on this superb album. A song about unconditional love and support in bad times “I don’t know nothing except change will come. Year after year, what we do is undone.” A slow building song with Ian McLagan’s piano underpinning the first part until Michael Ramos’ trumpet (unusually for her) drives the build up towards the end. It’s a magnificently uplifting song.
‘Top of the World‘ details the regrets of an old man as he faces dying “I wished it had been easier, Instead of any longer, I wished I could have stood where you would have been proud, But that won’t happen now.” Looking back is a regular theme in Griffin’s songs, evoking sadness and regret. Her voice is a thing of wonder, dipping and soaring, dripping with emotion. It is a great shame that she still operates under the radar, even after so many albums and whatever style of music her albums cover: alt- country, rock, gospel, folk, she has done it all. Even her liaison, musical and personal, with the beloved Robert Plant hardly lifted her profile, but she is another treasure and this album represents a pinnacle of her songwriting, and is beautifully produced by Craig Ross.
Number 7: Gretchen Peters with Tom Russell ‘One to the Heart, One to the Head’ (2009)
It was a real challenge picking an album by Gretchen Peters because any number of her albums might qualify for inclusion. She stands up there with Patty Griffin and Lori McKenna as the pre-eminent female singer/songwriters of the last thirty years with a consistently high quality throughout that time. But one track ‘Guadeloupe’ stands above all else, simply because of her vocal performance; a beautifully nuanced and emotional reading of a quite brilliant song by Tom Russell. ‘Guadalupe’ tells the story of a non-believer who sees the blessing of crowds of Catholic children in a Mexican town by the mysterious Our Lady of Guadeloupe. It has the most exquisite tune and chorus “Who I am to doubt these mysteries, Cured in centuries of blood and candle smoke, I am least of your pilgrims here, I am most in need of hope”. This is an album where Peters did not write a single song but her beautiful expressive voice and the gruff tones and harmonies of Tom Russell have brought to life images of the old American south west, with a song selection so uniformly excellent, starting with a lovely evocative instrumental by Barry Walsh ‘North Platte’ (the only other new composition apart from ‘Guadalupe‘ and followed by interpretations of songs by some of the best songwriters around, that you can imagine film-makers using them as soundtracks to films about the Old West. Songs by Bob Dylan, Townes van Zandt, Mary McAslin, Ian Tyson, Rosalie Sorrels, Tom Dundee and Stephanie Davis are all covered, and the backings are beautifully evocative of the old desert landscapes, with particular kudos to Joel Guzman on accordion. This album is such a fantastic achievement that one hopes Peters will go for a second bite at this particular cherry.
Number 6: Turnpike Troubadours ‘Goodbye Normal Street‘ (2012)
The Troubadours are one of the truly great country roots bands and under the leadership and songwriting skill of Evan Felker produced a number of superb albums (until an enforced three year or so lay-off kept them out of the recording studios). The song that caught my ear was ‘Good Lord Lorrie‘ but as per the criteria, there is not a duff track on this album. The aforesaid Lorrie appears on a number of songs on various TT albums. In this track she is a girl from moneyed parents who is loved by the singer, but who ends up breaking off the relationship for reasons not entirely clear (could be social mismatch, could be drink). Full of little details about the relationship, pretty much like all the songs on the album chronicling the ups and downs of love “Well D’Queen’s dry so I bought us both a bottle, In Downtown Broken Bow, Lorrie’s got a buddy with a double wide trailer, They were shakin dominoes”, and then the kicker “Well good lord Lorrie, I love you, Could it go more wrong“. Country instruments dominate the album – fiddle, mandolin, banjo, flat-picked guitar, steel guitar but this is no ordinary country band. Very independent of mainstream country and lyrically worlds away in its descriptions of love gone wrong “Well the sun’s gonna rise in the east, and I’m bound to stumble on a Saturday night, Well passion is painful but it’s free, Love is a mean hateful business sometimes” from ‘Gone, Gone, Gone’ A worthy inclusion, and hopefully the recording lay-off will relight the fire and drive them to even greater things
Number 5: Will Hoge ‘The Wreckage‘ (2009)
To these ears ‘The Wreckage‘ is Will Hoge’s highpoint so far. Song after song of storming melodic roots rock, interspersed with ballads of the highest order, the highest of which was ‘Goodnight/Goodbye’, a bittersweet song about a failing relationship where the partners are unable to end it “We both know, everything has changed, But it all still looks the same, from the outside looking in, We both know it’s never gonna last, This ship is sinking fast” – most glorious chorus and additional vocals by Ashley Monroe. Similar sentiments in ‘Where Do We Go From Down‘ or ‘Favourite Waste of Time‘, “How did we end up here, How did everything good just disappear, How could I change something I don’t know” Great jangly guitars and some cool keyboards and synths pervade the album. It’s not surprising that Springsteen is a fan. Will Hoge was nearly killed in an accident about a year before this album, he therefore had plenty of time to write and refine the songs on the album, which is probably the most autobiographical of his career and a standout American album.
Number 4: Molly Tuttle ‘Crooked Tree’ (2022)
Molly Tuttle has been known for some time as an outstanding flat-picking acoustic guitarist – ‘Guitar Player of the Year’ twice running attests to that, and numerous YouTube videos evidence her prowess. But now she has found her voice, once hidden behind her guitar and now front and centre in a baker’s dozen of bluegrass brilliance. It is strong, emotional and clear (check out her yodelling on ‘Nashville Mess Around‘, or her country blues growl on ‘Dooley’s Farm‘). Her new band is marvellous and, because she is no egotist, is allowed to shine in bursts of stunning solos. Even Jerry Douglas, dobro master and co-producer with Tuttle, is allowed a moment or two, and I am pleased that my favourite all-time instrumentalist has made an appearance in this list. The title track ‘Crooked Tree‘ is the initial draw, a brilliant song about being different and not being afraid to be so. “Oh can’t you see? A crooked tree won’t fit into the mill machine, They’re left to grow wild and free, Oh I’d rather be a crooked tree” The production is without peer, creating a vivid soundstage so that the instrumentals are as clear and forward in the mix as her vocals. But it is the songs that surprise, all co-written by her and a fiery mix of murder ballad, commentaries on female independence and gender diversity, reflections on growing up in California etc. and each contained within about three and half minutes. Molly Tuttle is on her way to superstar status, and her first all bluegrass album is a major stepping stone. This is an instant classic.
Number 3: Ryan Adams ‘Heartbreaker’ (2000)
One of the greatest songwriters of the 21st Century despite subsequent events that have tarnished his reputation. Ryan Adams solo debut just makes it in timewise as it was recorded and released in 2000. And it is a masterpiece, an emotional album of songs of love and hate, despair and optimism, allegedly based around his breakup with Amy Lombardi (track 4 is called ‘Amy‘). The devastating ‘Come Pick Me Up‘ is a killer track. Debates at length about its meaning only serve to reinforce the quality of the song and the mysterious, yet poetic writing permeates the entire album. Such as this from ‘Oh My Sweet Carolina’, “I’ve never been to Vegas, but I gambled up my life, Building newsprint boats I race to sewer mains, Trying to find me something but I wasn’t sure just what, Funny how they say that some things never change”
Brilliantly produced by Ethan Johns and with superstar support from David Rawlings, Emmylou Harris, Kim Richey and Gillian Welch. This album served to confirm that talent the Adams showed as leader of Whiskeytown. Adams has released 19 albums since then (and a live solo from Carnegie Hall) and written some of the outstanding songs of the 21st century, but his debut is in the round a cohesive and quite brilliant achievement, with not a duff track on it.
Number 2: Emily Scott Robinson ‘American Siren’ (2022)
Wow, Emily Scott Robinson. What an album she produced in 2019 ‘Traveling Mercies‘, which gained prominence largely due to ‘The Dress‘ a song about a sexual assault she herself experienced several years previously. But her voice, her songwriting, the instrumentation combined to produce the best album of that year. And now we have her third album (her first after signing for John Prine’s Oh Boy! Records), where the track ‘Let ‘em Burn‘ is an absolute stunner, a song with just Robinson’s piano and her devastating voice both soft and powerful, growling and pining. It is a song which reflects Robinson’s own description of this album, being about exploring our shadows and asking deeper questions, being open to change. I’m on the edge of somethin’ wild. “On the edge of somethin’ free, On the edge of somethin’ reckless, Yeah, I get down on my knees, If you don’t recognize me, When I come back around, It’s cause all the things I thought I’d beI let ’em all burn to the ground”, The whole album has less instrumentation than the previous one, allowing her voice and the songs to dominate. She is a brilliant songwriter, so good that she can rightly be compared with Lori McKenna who she resembles lyrically and vocally, writing about the everyday life and loves of everyday people and sprinkled with some lovely insights – “Don’t get married in a church, Called Mother of our Sorrows, ‘Cause if it don’t feel right today, It won’t feel right tomorrow” from ‘Things You Learn The Hard Way‘. Three albums in and superstardom beckons.
Number 1: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
Maybe a bit of a cliché as this album is constantly voted a favourite by so many people, but the quality of the songs and the musicianship throughout sets this album as one of the greatest in modern rock history. It includes two bona fide classic songs, ‘Elephant’ about the anticipation of the death of a friend from cancer, “She said Andy, you crack me up, Seagrams in a coffee cup, Sharecropper eyes and her hair almost all gone, When she was drunk she made cancer jokes, Made up her own doctors’ notes, Surrounded by her family, I saw that she was dying alone”.
But the song that is now regarded as one of the most iconic in pop music is ‘Cover Me Up’, a most emotional love song to his wife Amanda Shires who is credited with saving him from drink and drugs. “Days when we raged, we flew off the page such damage was done, But I made it through, cause somebody knew I was meant for someone, It’s cold in the house, and I ain’t going out to chop wood, So cover me up and know you’re enough to use me for good”.
I challenge any empathetic person to keep their emotions in check listening to these two songs, especially the live versions. And even if these two songs were not on the album, it would be still be a classic. Isbell is a modern poet, has a great voice and is a very proficient guitarist. There is no one better in americana music right now.