Like most of you, I consume a lot of new music. In getting through such a large amount of new material, obviously some things don’t make it into my regular rotation and some do. It was only recently that I realised I have developed my own kind of litmus test for such things: I’ll listen to a couple of songs, see if I enjoy those enough to delve deeper, but even then, things just don’t always ‘stick’. For me, the test is to walk away from a listening session and see if I’m still thinking about that music and wanting to return to it again in the coming days. It surprises me how much that I find initially enjoyable is also almost instantly forgettable.
So, in making this list of my Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century, I’ve applied a similar theory: These are the albums I find myself going back to, again-and-again, year-after-year. These are the albums with songs on them I don’t find myself wanting to skip, even if I’m listening to my entire music library on shuffle. (Before we begin, I’ll just say that the numbering system here could be termed loose at best because I find it really hard to rank one album above another. I’ve also omitted a couple of albums that made it into my ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’ to keep things a bit more interesting.
Number 10: Ross Cooper ‘I Rode the Wild Horses’ (2018)
As far as this album goes, it was pretty much love at first listen for me as soon as I heard the opening title track, but that love grew even more when I discovered that this was a song written by someone who had genuinely lived the life of a cowboy. Every track is great in its own way, but ‘Old Crow Whiskey and a Cornbread Moon’ (written by Ross Cooper with Paul Cauthen) is a special standout about making the best of what you’ve got.
Number 9: Ben Danaher ‘Still Feel Lucky’ (2018)
Having been through a tough period in his life (the death of his father, the murder of his brother, and alcoholism), Ben Danaher poured all this into an absolutely arresting debut album. While this may all sound like kind of a downer, the title and the song it takes its name from, shows that Danaher still sees the sunshine on the rainiest of days.
Number 8: Caitlyn Smith ‘Supernova’ (2020)
Feeling very much like the spiritual successor to her previous album ‘Starfire’, Caitlyn Smith’s ‘Supernova’ was released in March 2020, so it was one of the albums that became very much my soundtrack to lockdown life. Although all of the artists on this list are excellent singers in their own way, there is no singer technically stronger than Smith – and the same could easily be argued for her songwriting.
Number 7: Will Hoge ‘Small Town Dreams’ (2015)
For my Top 10 Americana Albums Ever, I actually chose a different Will Hoge album (‘The Wreckage’), but for whatever reason, in the time since I wrote that list, I’ve found ‘Small Town Dreams’ the album I’ve returned to more. It’s a microcosm of small town American life, each song its own story, and they work together just as well singularly as they do as a whole.
Number 6: Tony Lucca ‘Canyon Songs’ (2006)
To me, ‘Canyon Songs’ might be the definitive Tony Lucca album. As the title suggests, it has that breezy Laurel Canyon sound and it’s paired with some excellently sharp songwriting, nowhere better evidenced than on ‘The Hustler, the Widow, and the Boy from Detroit’.
Number 5: Stephanie Lambring ‘Autonomy’ (2020)
Much to my shame, I discovered Stephanie Lambring and her second album at the very tail end of 2020 (too late to even add to my top picks from the year), but maybe by including it here I can somehow atone for my sins. ‘Autonomy’ is raw and real in a way I’ve very rarely heard. ‘Pretty’ is a sharp punch to the gut on every listen, while ‘Old Folks Home’ and ‘Birdsong Hollow’ will surely bring a tear to even the most hardened of music fans.
Number 4. Brandy Clark ‘Your Life is a Record’ (2020)
While I thoroughly enjoyed Brandy Clark’s first two albums, with ‘Your Life is a Record’ she truly stepped it up a gear. It’s a personal and intimate take on the grief of the end of a long term relationship, and released in March 2020, it was another repeated listen for me during times of lockdown.
Number 3: Aimee Mann ‘The Forgotten Arm’ (2005)
I love a good concept album and Aimee Mann is one of my all time favourite musicians, so this is an obvious inclusion for me. But then who doesn’t love the story of an ill-fated romance with a Vietnam vet turned carnival boxer? OK, so maybe not everyone, but they’re missing out.
Number 2: Ruston Kelly ‘Dying Star’ (2018)
Ruston Kelly’s second LP ‘Shape & Destroy’ was good – indeed, it was up there with my favourites of 2020 – but it wasn’t ‘Dying Star’. I think part of what made ‘Dying Star’ so special is not just the part of Kelly’s life it charts, but also the surprise of coming across a debut album so unexpectedly rewarding in its richness.
Number 1: Father John Misty ‘Pure Comedy’ (2017)
The end of a kind of unofficial trilogy of albums released by Josh Tillman, ‘Pure Comedy’ takes a clever look at the state of the human race. While I’ve always found the idea of picking an all time favourite song nigh on impossible, if I had to choose, the title track to me is just about perfect in both its lyrical content and swelling musicality as a song can be.