I still feel when writing an article of this sort that someone might sneak up behind me and say ‘aha’ and ‘got you’. It lays bare the limitations of my listening. Either I fill in gaps from the past or more rarely I hear something new that captures my ear. Having only just got a Spotify account I have never before been able to expand my education gaps at a touch of a button – and actually, I preferred it when after a long search I found a gem. It’s too easy to be a musical omnivore these days. In reference to a discussion generated by the ‘10 best ever’ article, this is a pretty ‘white’ selection. I’m not going through that discussion again but I would say my selection touches some of the wider extremes of what might loosely be called americana – but then so does the website – so no discrepancies there.
It’s highly likely that I have heard none of the 100 best Americana albums of the 21st century (so far) let alone the best 10. There are gems out there and I don’t even know where they lie, how to find them, the best way to polish them or indeed what they are worth. As a guide to the best americana albums of the 21st century, I am probably as much good as a British Rail employee at knowing when the next train was due.
But – I know what I like! Here are ten albums that have given me a great deal of pleasure and for various reasons draw my admiration for one or more of their qualities – which surely lies at the heart of any best-of compilation?
If it was in my previous ‘Best Americana Album Ever’ feature and it was made in the right century then it can’t be excluded so there are 3 examples here that you may have seen before. Logic suggests there is no apology required. I expect there will be some kind of counting up at the end of it all to find the ‘bestest ever’ so I have put them in order 10 – 1 (pop pickers) but that could change at the drop of a hat depending on what day it is whether United won and such like considerations. If music couldn’t say different things in different ways on different days then it would, in my view, be much less for that. I know – I’m a ‘ten best of’ nightmare.
Number 10: Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2007)
This album grew from the break up of a former band, a failed relationship, illness, 3 months in a cabin in the woods of Wisconsin (something approaching de rigueur these days) and the TV programme Northern Exposure. It’s a tale of a one-man effort with minimal gear and a limited run of CDs that eventually, after word of mouth appreciation, resulted in a mainstream release in 2008 and widespread critical and commercial acclaim. There is, off and on, a band called Bon Iver, but this album is actually all the work of Justin Vernon during his period of recuperative isolation. He has produced a fair amount of interesting music since then but nothing quite like this.
AllMusic describes the album “That became an indie folk touchstone. The gentle strumming of acoustic guitars, subtle arrangements, and Vernon’s swooning falsetto combined to create a mood that felt like backwoods Radiohead recorded by candlelight”. Just when you thought there was nothing that new under the sun something and someone proves you wrong.
Number 9: The Crooked Jades ‘Empathy Moves the Water’ (2018)
I didn’t quite know what would come my way when I started to write for AUK but I did have my expectations – but they weren’t for something like this from a well-established band that I had never heard of and to be honest haven’t heard of much since. They are of long-standing though, having been formed, as far as I can gather, in 1995 and were still gigging in August of last year. They seem to create something of a categorisation dilemma for such as AllMusic who list their influences as “Neo-Traditional Folk, Old-Timey, Traditional Bluegrass, Bluegrass, Appalachian, North American Traditions, Alt-Country and Alternative/Indie Rock”. That’s pretty straightforward – no kitchen sinks then. When I reviewed the album I commented on “How many traditional songs there are that have had new arrangements indicative of the cross-pollination of ideas both old and new…… you can check out the variety of voices individually and collectively. Lisa Berman on ‘Down to the River’ might be a standout or, check out the brief a capella delights of ‘Long Time Travelling”.
This is a California based band that is regarded as one of the most innovative of the ‘latter-day old-time-rooted string bands’. A review on the Folk Radio website sums it up pretty well, “Take in the delights of this album, which migrates from energetic revival songs inspired by early rural gospel blues to haunting fiddle-drenched ballads expressing the isolation and humanity lost in a rapidly changing land. The band is noted for its signature mix of inspired rearrangements of obscure old-time gems and Jeff’s special original compositions, and its unique sound derives from the eclectic choice of vintage instruments deployed, like Hawaiian slide, harmonium and minstrel banjo”.
Number 8: Jarrod Dickenson ‘Ready the Horses’ (2020).
It’s a worry that if I don’t include a man with a Stetson, a beard and a direct gaze that I might get drummed out of the AUK corps. Well, no worries here’s a disc that I gave a very rare (ok quite rare) 9/10 to when I reviewed it in 2020 (see I’m not wholly stuck in the past) which does come up against my self imposed dictum that music has to settle for a while before it can be truly judged – but when I listened to it again for this article I was forced to admit it’s bloody good. My original conclusion was that here is an album that could be a 10/10 but for the limitations of the lyrics but as is so often the case, words when set to music can sound a whole lot better. It’s well recorded to my ears and contains plenty of quieter moments to balance out the more forthright tunes. Then as now, the press release was right on the money, “Dickenson is known for his soulful vocals and ability to blend a variety of instruments and influences into one signature sound”. No arguments with that nor the thought that the spirits of Stax and Muscle Shoals hang heavy in the background – no anaemic parps from the horns but full-throated ear-catching playing as in, ‘Take It From Me’. As I listened to the album there were times when I could hear the roistering ghost of Leon Russell. As well as the horns the Hammond organ playing is worth a mention – and that moustache!
Number 7: Slaid Cleaves ‘Still Fighting the War’ (2013)
We all have a particular fancy that there is an artist special to us who should be huge except for some unfathomable mistake by the general public. Cleaves has a good voice, plays perfectly passable guitar and writes exceptionally good songs. I’ve seen him a number of times, he never disappoints and I could have chosen any one of his records – but I chose this one because its got a really witty song on it – and you don’t hear many of those, that play so adeptly and expertly with words in a way that say, Gilbert did for Sullivan’s music. Words that give a feeling of sensual pleasure as they roll so easily off the tongue. Let me quote some:
“You got Bellaire class and Dallas style / Austin soul and a Luckenbach smile / For you I’d trade my truck in for a Lexus / You smell as sweet as the piney woods / I’d marry you if I thought I could / I love you even more than I love Texas”
“You’re the barb on my wire / The spark in my camp-fire / Let’s head out west where nobody can text us / I promise you I’ll never cheat / Or you can throw me out in the old mesquite”
Compare that to this by someone called Elton John, which came up by pure chance when I googled ‘Texas Love Song’,
‘I heard from a friend you’d been messing around / With a cute little thing I’d been dating up-town / Well I don’t know if I like that idea much / Well you better stay clear I might start acting rough’
I mean! I could hear Benny Hill singing that – and John and Taupin wrote some good songs.
And by the way, don’t get me wrong we aren’t talking about some kind of comic act here. ‘Still Fighting the War’, is a title that tells you all you need to know about the subject matter.
Number 6: King Creosote with Jon Hopkins ‘Diamond Mine’ (2011)
It might be considered strange given the nature of this website but I do have a weakness for people who sing in their own vernacular rather than adopting the traditional mid-Atlantic rock growl – be it the Proclaimers or in this case the king himself, Kenny Anderson who with Jon Hopkins created this little gem. I’ve seen Anderson live and I am wholly drawn to his self deprecating wryly amusing performances. I am also drawn to Scotland – perhaps not so much the East Neuk more to the west coast and the highlands nonetheless these 30 minutes evoke so much of what I perceive to be Scottishness. I am not naturally drawn to electronica, found sound, field recordings or whatever but Hopkins adds very well to the whole – right from the first snatches of conversation and on, in a subtle way, throughout.
It took 7 years from genesis to final revelation and that’s under 5 minutes a year which is slow going for someone as prolific as Anderson who has recorded 40 plus albums in his career. In 2012 a jubilee edition was released with an additional 20 minutes or so of music. I have never heard it and often ‘extra’ music can seem a cynical disappointment. This little beauty seems enough and I can file it under roots, in fact, deep roots, so it can proudly take its place as it tells tales of a fisherman’s month at sea, the process of ageing and a brief but sincere love letter to a daughter.
Number 5: Stornoway ‘The Farewell Show’ (2020)
My confession has been made – it’s rare that I catch up with the current zeitgeist – but Stornoway did catch my attention at the point where their career began though I can’t actually remember how I hooked up with them. I felt I had not heard anything so joyful since I watched The Proclaimers sing about going to watch Hibernian on match day. Just sheer abounding joy expressed so literately in virtually every song. If Brian Briggs was called Luke Leatherpants the 3rd and lived in Laurel Canyon then I am sure he would be a megastar. Instead, he retired from music – and still is as far as I know – and went bird watching – again not something that happens in Laurel Canyon as far as I know. I love Briggs’ strident English rural sensibilities and as I wrote then (and pleasingly it makes sense now) “his songs are littered with images of the countryside and its contents. Oceans, seas, birds, rivers, horses, foxes, chickens, the seasons, night and day, rain, trees, bracken, gorse, the wind – and endless hopes of flying. At times it feels like you might have stumbled into some lost work by a happier than usual Ted Hughes”
I had the pleasure of reviewing this farewell hometown show on this website in 2020 – a recording from 2017 and gave it a 9/10 – another rare occurrence I assure you. That review carried this little story courtesy of Wikipedia, that still makes me laugh, “Radio presenter Tim Bearder was an early champion of the band and was suspended from work after barricading himself in the studio and playing an hour of Stornoway songs from their demo EP, ‘The Early Adventures of Stornoway’.”
If you’ve never stepped outside and taken a close look at the world we live in then the line Conkers shining on the ground”, will mean nothing to you. If you have marvelled at that wonderful shade of brown you will know exactly what I mean. It’s a rough bit of film but what a marvellous moment. Of course, it sounds better on disc – but it feels better here.
Number 4: Leonard Cohen ‘Live in London’ (2009)
How does it go? Am I alone in thinking’…..? that I was a little unsure about someone who, having ignored his fans for years on the live front, suddenly bobs up short of money, charges an arm and a leg for tickets and then can’t stop gigging? Only saying!!!
And yet this live album probably serves as the perfect encapsulation of, and epitaph to, a marvellous career. The material is well-chosen (I mean all his ‘hits’ are there) and the playing is spot on. Aside from his female muses/helpers/lovers who have been many throughout his career, the band are people who by and large I have never heard of – but what a performance they put in. The tunes are recognisable (none of that playing silly buggers with them as some do) with an occasional twist or flourish that adds a great deal. To me, Cohen found his voice (literally) in his later years and whether it was spoken, crooned or some other form of unique vocalising he never sounded better. In his own way, few have matched his ability to be in control of his voice and write songs to embellish its limitations so skilfully. Above all, he truly had a poets sensibility and so many other lauded writers just don’t hold a candle. Hallelujah.
Number 3: Gillian Welch ‘Soul Journey’ (2003)
On first hearing, I was so taken with Welch that I bought nearly everything she had made. I was amazed to discover that despite her background, she had the ability to sound as though she had been steeped in a barrel of Jack Daniels for 20 years. Of course, there has been much debate about authenticity in the work of a city girl drawing on the roots of a music and a community of which she has no real experience (see Randy Newman). You could go right back to The Band, the Beach Boys (never really part of the surf culture) and beyond to find plenty of similar scope for debate. That word timeless springs to mind and Welch is ably supported by her partner in music and life Dave Rawlings. My choice of ‘Soul Journey’ marks a slightly different approach from the sparse acoustic nature of earlier records, but they are all contenders.
Number 2: K.D. Lang ‘Hymns of the 49th Parallel’ (2004)
What makes this album stand out? The singer and the songs basically. Lang, now seemingly less than enamoured with music, has the most marvellous voice and stands as a yardstick for any female vocalist. Whereas after her beginnings with producer Owen Bradley she veered off toward a blander choice of music this album highlights Canada’s best, Cohen, Mitchell, Young, Jane Siberry, Ron Sexsmith and Bruce Cockburn – we don’t often hear about them as a group – with Gordon Lightfoot, The Band and The Cowboy Junkies hopefully waiting in the wings. Interpretive singing, perfectly acceptable in jazz circles, sometimes gets poor press on the basis that they ‘don’t write their own songs’, which of course is nonsense.
Number 1: James McMurtry ‘Childish Things’ (2005)
McMurtry is a lyricist supreme, socially conscious, observational, political, whimsical and downright funny at times. Not possessed of a great voice, though it seems wholly apt for his music, and if sometimes musically a little stolid all is forgiven for the power of the songwriting. It may well be in the genes. McMurtry is not as cynical as Randy Newman (but then thinking of his earlier material who is?) but he has a way with economic use of the language that is just wonderful. Check out his June 2020 AUK interview here.
There are a number of albums I might choose but my introduction to McMurtry was 2005’s ‘Childish Things’, so I will plump for that – which as much as anything shows the range of his writing. The apparently childlike view of ‘See the Elephant’, the retrospective ‘Childish Things’, the award-winning take on the times that is ‘We Can’t Make It Here’, the hidden nightmares of ‘Holiday’, the domestic puzzle of ‘Bad Enough’, or the humour of ‘Slew Foot’ (you’re right, it’s not an original) – it’s all there.