Let’s start this in a familiar way! Yes, what an incredibly difficult task it is to make this list. Not just because putting together any countdown of ‘best albums’ is a huge challenge and so dependent on timing and mood, but also because defining americana is so hard – I lost count of the number of times I discussed with friends the inclusion of James as a headliner at this year’s Black Deer Festival! James? americana?!
For me, the American music I most enjoy is a mixture of folk, country, rock, a bit of blues, Byrds’ type harmonies, and some soul and gospel. For me, americana is about British artists- singer songwriters and bands- who combine one or a number of those styles but with a distinctively British spin on the final sound. That’s my definition of americana and I make no apology for it. I do apologise, however, to Emily Barker, who comes very high in this Top 10 but more than likely regards herself as Australian rather than British, especially in these ‘Priti’ awful times to be a Brit. What would music be if it wasn’t a fusion of different backgrounds, experiences, cultures and colours?
So, in the words of Clint West, who set the ball rolling back in January with this Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century feature, “here are my final choices, which come with the usual disclaimer – ask me again next week and it could all change.” I’m quite sure that if you did ask me again next week, I wouldn’t be leaving out Treetop Flyers or Our Man In The Field. Here we go….
Number 10: Dean Owens ‘Sinner’s Shrine’ (2022)
A perfect place to start; the collaboration of Scottish troubadour Dean Owens, The Man from Leith and AUK British Act Of The Year 2021, with Joey Burns and John Convertino from Calexico on the Tex-Mex border. Owen’s always excellent voice and guitar accompaniment joined by pedal steel and brass (the trumpet is fantastic) to create a truly atmospheric soundscape; just listen to ‘New Mexico’. Songs about the desperation of immigrants, such as ‘La Lomita’- “the sinners and the saints, shadows on the trail, border ghosts, all lost souls”- but a hope for a better future too; album closer ‘After The Rain’ focuses on the strength of human relationships- “maybe the sun won’t always shine, and maybe the moon won’t always glow, but if there’s on thing that’s guaranteed, I’ll always be here for you”.
Number 9: Wildwood Kin ‘Turning Tides’ (2017)
Another favourite on account of the atmosphere that they create; the breathtakingly beautiful harmonies of sisters Emillie Whiteside and Beth Key alongside cousin Meghann Loney, reflecting a lifetime singing as a family, first came to prominence accompanying Seth Lakeman on his 2017 album ‘Ballads of the Broken Few’. On this, their debut, released soon afterwards, the voices of the trio from Exeter, not to mention their skills as multi-instrumentalists, evoke an almost mystical sound (try ‘Steady My Heart‘) that perfectly accompanies the wonderful landscapes of Devon- I would still love this even if I wasn’t fortunate enough to live in the north of this stunning county!
Number 8: The Hanging Stars ‘Songs For Somewhere Else’ (2018)
The appropriately named second album from London based quintet The Hanging Stars, on account of their ability to absorb the influences of a range of musical styles and make them their own in quite spectacular fashion. Drawing from traditional country sounds, late 60s psychedelia, mid 70s California soft rock, and the likes of Teenage Fanclub and The Coral, not to mention a small Scandinavian influence, lead vocalist and guitarist Richard Olson writes songs that immediately connect with their memorable melodies and catchy choruses- take ‘How I Got This Way’ featuring the beautiful voice of Miranda Lee Richards and the pedal steel to the fore- but also have the depth to explore through repeated listens, namely ‘On A Sweet Summer’s Day’ with its swooning, jangling guitars and the Ennio Morricone, Spaghetti Western style ‘Mean Old Man’.
Number 7: Yola ‘Walk Through Fire’ (2019)
Great songs, a great retro 60s sound, and above all a great voice! With the majority of the album composed by Yola and producer Dan Auerbach, along with seasoned songwriters such as Dan Penn, the fusion of soul and country, of styles old and new, is uplifting and upbeat. The musicianship throughout, including slide guitar, fiddles, pedal steel, organ and horns, is of the highest order, but it is the voice that is the centrepiece. Yola has the ability to be smooth, sensitive and subtle- take the ballad ‘Shady Grove’- and then blow the roof off, in a dramatic Dusty Springfield meets Mavis Staples sort of way, as in the chorus of ‘Lonely The Night‘. Her debut album is a triumph!
Number 6: Pete Gow ‘Leo’ (2022)
Recording began on Pete Gow’s third solo album, ‘Leo’, in early 2020, and during the lockdowns that followed, alongside multi-instrumentalist and producer Joe Bennett, a piece of work of epic proportions was developed that finally saw its release in April 2022. It was well worth the wait; songs that tell wonderful stories, characters that come to life through the lyrics – “I’ve got ‘this’ and ‘that’ tattooed across my knuckles, I’ve got the names of both my kids on the inside of one of my wrists”– and orchestral and brass arrangements that perfectly complement the thoughtful words and soulful vocals. Enjoy how ‘Side III Of London Calling’ is used as a metaphor for the perfection of the unattainable woman being pursued, and the seven-and-a-half-minute centrepiece of the album, ‘Leonard’s Bar’, with its tempo changes as the drama unfolds- has shades of Springsteen’s ‘Jungleland’. A phenomenal album.
Number 5: The Dreaming Spires ‘Searching For The Supertruth’ (2015)
Another great album that features the wide-ranging skills of Joe Bennett, who this time demonstrates his highly accomplished musicianship alongside brother Robin. It also features contributions from, among others, Tony Poole (Starry Eyed And Laughing) and St Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, and draws on the influences of jangling 60s American country rock, classic 60s pop and elements of indie rock. There are distinctive harmonies in the tradition of The Byrds or The Everly Brothers, and at times the sound has the anthemic qualities of Big Star or Gram Parsons, as on the obvious standouts, ‘Searching For The Supertruth’ and ‘All Kinds Of People’. Taking its title from cosmic evolution theorist Rich Blundell, this, The Dreaming Spires second album, is “our quest for a greater meaning in life and our place in the universe” according to Joe. And it is superb!
Number 4: Ben Glover ‘Shorebound’ (2018)
Ben Glover is a superb songwriter, deservedly very highly regarded among his contemporaries both in his native Northern Ireland and in his adopted home, Nashville Tennessee. On this, the album that marks a decade of releases for him, he decided to surround himself with the voices and the musicianship of those that had influenced his career thus far. Neilson Hubbard’s production throughout is assured- the Orphan Brigade vibe is perfect- and the playing and singing is excellent. Ten of the twelve songs are collaborations, and include duets with the likes of Amy Speace, Gretchen Peters, Angel Snow, Ricky Ross and Robbie Vincent- there is a great gender balance. They transport the listener through varying moods, through darkness and light, from the murder ballad ‘Catbird Seat’ with Mary Gauthier to the catchy, sunny ‘Northern Stars’ with Malojian and Matt McGinn to the upbeat and optimistic ‘Ride The River’ with Kim Richey. The highlight though, is Glover alone, stripped back with solo acoustic guitar on ‘Kindness’, a song for these dark times. “May you be without anger, may you be without hate, may you be without jealousy, may you be without shame, if the world gets lost in sadness, may you find a prayer of hope”.
Number 3: Emily Barker ‘Sweet Kind Of Blue’ (2016)
Regardless of her British or Australian nationality, Emily Barker’s time spent at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Service in Memphis in the summer of 2016 resulted in this wonderful americana album; the legacy of the environment and the sounds of others who have recorded at these studios most definitely inspired this beautiful set of songs. Working with top Memphis musicians Dave Cousar (guitars), Rick Steff (B3 Hammond Organ, Wurlitzer), Dave Smith (bass) and Steve Potts (percussion), with production by Matt Ross-Spang, different styles are explored in a magical way, from the soulful, smoky ‘Sister Goodbye’, a tribute to the gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the RnB groove of ‘Sunrise’, the intimate and tender love song ‘No.5 Hurricane’ opening with just acoustic guitar and voice, to the 60s soul-pop stomper ‘More’. I am a huge Emily Barker fan, and this is the album in which she shares the soul, blues and country influences that first inspired her to become a singer songwriter.
Number 2: Bennett Wilson Poole ‘Bennett Wilson Poole’ (2018)
An amazing album, a real musical delight! The eleven-track debut – the follow-up can’t come soon enough from Robin Bennett (Goldrush, The Dreaming Spires), Danny George Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny And The Champions Of The World) and Tony Poole (the Rickenbacker maestro). It’s full of songcraft of the highest calibre, wonderful melodies, glorious three part vocal harmonies and twelve string guitar riffs. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young have clearly been in the background, but the sounds are completely fresh and the lyrics address very current issues. There is the paradox of the self-centred behaviour of some in a world where others are simply trying to survive in ‘Lifeboat (Take A Picture Of Yourself)’; the soul tinged and beautiful ballad ‘Hide Behind A Smile’ focuses upon mental health; whilst ‘Hate Won’t Win’ and ‘Find Your Own Truth’ bring hope in a world full of toxic politics and politicians. Bennett, Wilson and Poole are so clearly enjoying making this music together, something that really shines through on the album, and if, like me, you were fortunate to see them live, you will know just what fun it was to have an evening in their company. This album will always remind me of great nights at The Betsy Trotwood, The Railway Inn Winchester and St Barnabas Church in Jericho.
Number 1: Danny And The Champions Of The World ‘Los Campeones En Vivo’ (2021)
Which all leads nicely to this; americana music is about favourite albums, obviously, but it’s also about, where possible, enjoying the music played live. As life experiences go, attending a gig by an artist you really like is pretty hard to beat. When it comes to your favourite live band ever, Danny And The Champions Of The World, it just doesn’t get any better! Yet I was nervous about the release of this album, capturing what Danny describes as “a magical night in the mountains” from March 2018 when the band visited Asturias, Spain; nervous because I feel that it is incredibly rare for any live album to genuinely recapture the scene, the music and above all the atmosphere of the real thing.
Well, I needn’t have been nervous. This double live album absolutely captures the excitement of the night. Drawing mainly on material from the highly acclaimed ‘Brilliant Light’, along with ‘greatest hits’ such as ‘Every Beat Of My Heart’, ‘Clear Water‘, the always inspirational ‘Space Rocket’ and the wonderful seven minute set closing ‘Restless Feet‘, the superb musicianship of a band on top form shines through. From Paul Lush’s spine-tingling guitar solos to Henry Senior Junior’s cultured pedal steel to Tom Collison’s ‘wall of sound’ keyboards, anchored by the ever-dependable rhythm section of Steve Brookes and Chris Clarke, the Champs hit all the right notes. And front man Danny, relaxed, funny and keen to try out his ‘Sutton Spanish’, has never sounded better; the emotional, soulful and beautiful ‘Brothers In The Night‘ is surely one of his finest vocal performances ever, and without a doubt the highlight of this wonderful album for me. My number one ‘Americana Album of the 21st Century’!
How different and refreshing to read an all UK americana Top 10 list Graham – allowing for Emily as the token Brit of course (it’s just a shame that her and husband Lucas are moving back down under in November). You’ll get no argument from me about that Danny & The Champs album heading up your list. Sit back, close your eyes, turn up the volume, soak in Paul’s hair-raising guitar solo on ‘Coley Point’ and it feels like you were right up there in the mountains with them.
David, thank you so much for taking the time to comment and for your supportive words. They are hugely appreciated as this was my first ‘feature’ and seemed to take an age to write! Hopefully bump into you at a Champs gig sometime in the future!!