One looks back at the last 22 years (we’re allowing 2000 as part of the 21st Century – I know, I know, I feel your pain fellow numerists) and it has to be admitted that there was an upside to the decline of the record label money-spinning music industry. The rise of the democracy of the “talented but perhaps would have previously been overlooked” independent artist, albeit with the partial disappearance of the rock and roll lifestyle has meant that the 21st Century has seen two decades of simply astonishingly good music. A lot of crap too, but then there always was. But I would posit that the 21st Century has been as fine a time for music, new music, as the golden period of 1963 – 1975(ish).
I have a particular admission to make here – as we came towards the end of the previous ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’ it became obvious that we’d collectively been rather 20th century focused. So some bright spark suggested we should have another go after the dust settled but for the second time focus on the 21st century. Yeah, some bright spark. Seemed like a good idea at the time. Looking back again over a few thousand albums it became apparent that this was still folly – the 21st Century could easily have been divided down into decades, or even half decades. We live, we learn, we progress, we rewrite the rules. Yes, rules are there to be rewritten, but no cheats – just a few extra restrictions to make this an achievable task. So, I’m excluding anyone who made the last Top 10 and was a 21st Century release (but I do still love Bradford Lee Folk & The Bluegrass Playboys), and also excluding anyone whose career was well established prior to 2000AD (drokk it!). Funny, and practical, as it might have been to have had a top 10 of Dylan, Neil Young, Springsteen, Richie Havens and Tom Russell what would have been the point? Hence the absence of the likes of Howe Gelb/Giant Sand, Lambchop, Richmond Fontaine (sorry Willy!), Mercury Rev and Chuck Prophet. And the folkier end of the spectrum has been given a rest this time around, which also explains the otherwise inexplicable lack of artists like Carolina Chocolate Drops. I’ve also decided not to have a list made up solely of Felices either within a band or as solo performers, even though that would have been both viable and faintly amusing. In fact, no-one gets two mentions, even though several deserve to do so. And like everyone else I reserve the right to deny this was ever my Top 10, having changed my mind again. And why wouldn’t I? Look at it – no Tift Merritt, no Anna Tivel, no Milk Carton Kids, no Darlingside, no Israel Nash, no Birds of Chicago. No Decemberists! No Laura Veirs (‘Saltbreakers‘ is a hell of an album). It’s a mockery of a list. So – onwards.
Number 10: Devon Sproule ‘I Love You, Go Easy’ (2011)
Devon Sproule at her very finest, mixing hippy optimism with dark speculations on an album which blended folk and jazz stylings with a large side-order of funkiness. Seeing her at The Barbican as part of Canadian Blast – a celebration of Canada Day – was a knocked sidewise experience. The album even features a version of The Roches’ ‘Runs in the Family‘ which achieves that rare feat of making a cover sound completely like the singer’s song.
Number 9: Great Lake Swimmers ‘Ongiara‘ (2007)
Tony Dekker’s folk-rock outfit have a slew of excellent albums to their name, but this was an early favourite. Caught by the striking cover on a CD listening post (ask your parents kids) it earnt itself a listen and an instant need to purchase. It wasn’t meant to be on sale yet, but a (very) little persuasion got around that nicety and it made for the soundtrack of the following week. Ethereal, simple in form and yet hinting at the complexities within the intellectualism of the lyrics. Simply beautiful.
Number 8: Josh Ritter ‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter‘ (2007)
This modern day Dylan has such a fine back catalogue that it’s hard – very hard – to pick just one. It could have just as easily been 2019’s ‘Fever Breaks‘, Ritter’s most political album to date or the twisted folk of ‘So Runs the World Away‘ from 2010. The memory of two storming gigs a couple of days apart which focused around ‘The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter‘ is probably what swung it in the end – high energy and with a band on fire and with songs covering lust, love, nuclear war and a smattering of physics. What more could one want?
Number 7: Miranda Lee Richards ‘Existential Beast‘ (2017)
San Franciscan Miranda Lee Richards threw up her modelling career after finding that that industry’s hub of Paris wasn’t for her – she moved to Los Angeles and took up music. And how. ‘Existential Beast‘ fits the mould of Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter, but it’s a lot more than that. Mixing politics, cultural and environmental concerns with, yes, a certain hippy positivity it brings in rock and psychfolk into the mix. And it’s not afraid of the epic song.
Number 6: VanWyck ‘An Average Woman‘ (2018)
Amsterdam’s VanWyck has four excellent albums to her name, but this was the debut and it was an album that I thought was pretty good. And then, unlike a lot of reviewed albums, I kept listening to it. And it made my Top 10 albums of the year. And I kept on listening to it….so this is a belated apology – I underscored this album. All four VanWyck albums deserve to be heard, but if you haven’t yet then you may as well start here and work through them chronologically. If you love complicated singer-songwriting, with just a slight nod to Cohen, then you’ll surely like this.
Number 5: Phosphorescent ‘Muchacho‘ (2013)
Matthew Houck’s band offer something very different with an often upbeat sounding description of life being, well, not upbeat. There’s a darkness tinging so many of the songs on his albums, and a world weary wasted feel that permeates even the happiest, whoopiest songs. This could just as easily have been ‘Aw Come Aw Wry‘ or ‘Here’s to Taking it Easy‘, albums that share the same doom laden feeling. He cheered up (well, a bit) for the excellent ‘C’est La Vie.’
Number 4: Midlake ‘The Trials of Van Occupanther‘ (2006)
Part of a veritable explosion of superb bands in the early years of the new century, Midlake’s first proper album (even the band at the time were disowning ‘Bamnan and Slivercork‘) was a complex mixture of English folk influenced song and not yet fashionable Fleetwood Mac-isms all wrapping up a story that was part science fiction and part a celebration of a pastoral rural idyll where hard work and a sound roof are enough for a satisfying life – although some might dwell on political philosophy. It was that kind of album – delivered with fine harmonies and electrifying guitar solos.
Number 3: The Felice Brothers ‘The Felice Brothers‘ (2008)
A band so talented that it spawns side-projects and solo albums like they are going out of fashion, and another on this list that could be represented by a couple of other albums just as well. Like a creaky version of The Band with slick playing replaced with a chaotic hurly-burly of sound.
Number 2: The National ‘Boxer‘ (2007)
The premiere purveyors of a louche lounge Americana, The National also have the distinction of a completely unique sound thanks in a large part to the Desseners who bring production (Aaron) and complex compositional (Bryce) skills to the band. Add in that Bryan and Scott Devendorf are a grade ‘A’ rhythm section and that Matt Berninger is a once in a generation frontman and The National are, quite simply, one of the finest bands of the last fifty years. ‘Boxer‘ captured a rootless educated urban population as they acted badly, perversely and unwisely.
Number 1: The Delines ‘The Imperial‘ (2019)
Listen to the emotion in Amy Boone’s vocals, and be swept along by Willy Vlautin’s down at heel tales of those just scuffling by, or not even scuffling by. And then take in that rich musical support that perfectly compliments them both. Considering the band’s travails and noting Willy Vlautin’s other careers it has to be acknowledged that we’re damn lucky to be allowed to hear this.
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