Here’s the thing about lists – whether it’s bucket lists, shopping lists, or AUK best of 21st century album lists, something’s always going to get left off, and there’s always a nagging doubt that it will be the most important thing. So, while I finally made the agonising choice not to include any Civil Wars, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Moreland, Steve Earle, Fleet Foxes, Gaslight Anthem, Bon Iver, Sam Baker, Gregory Alan Isakov, ‘O Brother Where Art Though’ soundtrack – I also can’t help feeling there still may be someone else out there I’ve forgotten. Oh yeah, the utterly delightful hidden gem that is Ireland’s Noelle McDonnell and his ‘Beyond Hard Places’…oh, well.
Small wonder that the advice from the AUK elders was “don’t torture yourself too much”! So after what I would consider an entirely adequate amount of self torture…
Number 10: Patti Scialfa ’23rd Street Lullaby’ (2004)
We all know it’s an unjust world sometimes, so it will likely be Patty Scialfa’s fate to go down in history as being Mrs Bruce Springsteen, rather than as an extremely fine artist in her own right. Releasing three albums to date, the second of these, ’23rd Street Lullaby’, is perhaps the moment when the songwriting, performance and production aligned perfectly. What resulted was a gloriously shiny piece of americana soft rock, full of harmonies, jangly guitars, throbbing bass, big drums and huge choruses. This is music for a Saturday night on the freeway, but with some unexpectedly erudite and touching lyrics thrown in.
Number 9: Sharon Shannon & Friends ‘The Diamond Mountain Sessions’ (2000)
Sharon Shannon, a virtuoso button accordionist, came up through the Irish session tradition, touched the commercial side of music through her association with the Waterboys, and in 2000 made this record, connecting Irish folk with American country and the world beyond. A beautifully realised mix of instrumentals and songs, the musicianship is unsurprisingly fabulous, superlative performances by all concerned, while the ‘friends’ included Jackson Browne, John Prine and Steve Earle. What was surprising, was that this record moved well beyond the normal folk circles. Two songs especially broke out to mainstream radio, firstly Earle’s rambunctious ‘Galway Girl’, and then creating perhaps the most unlikely pop star of all time in the quavering tones of traditional singer Dessie O’Halloran, with the undeniably catchy ear worm of ‘Say You Love Me’.
Number 8: Sam Outlaw ‘Tenderheart’ (2017)
There are very few words to express what a pleasure this record is. The first thing, unusual these days, this is proper country music, albeit rootsier than the glossy Nashville sound – there are steel guitars a-plenty; there is storytelling, often set in small town bars; there is Outlaw’s own tenor voice, which in it’s lightness never distracts from the song being sung; and heck, he even wears a cowboy hat on the cover. This is a record that bucks the modern trend of the inward-looking writer diving deep into their own psyche; refreshingly, Outlaw’s own identity seems to disappear, leaving the songs to speak entirely for themselves, with the freedom even for sweetness (the pan-generational friendship in ‘Bourgainvillea I Think’, the paean to laundry that is ‘Dry on the Line’), while ‘Trouble’ may be the catchiest country tune in years. The title track, meanwhile, is a fantastic song that keeps getting better with each listen. There are some seriously good songs on this lovely and understated record. Sometimes it’s nice to listen to music that doesn’t constantly up the drama to demand your attention, but instead sounds like it just wants to be your friend. Mr Outlaw, you’re always welcome in our house!
Number 7: Jason Isbell ‘Southeastern’ (2013)
Isbell had cut his teeth as the third songwriter with americana behemoth Drive-By Truckers, before striking out on his own. This was his fourth solo record, but possibly the first one he’d recorded sober, after a period in rehab to challenge his well-documented alcohol issues. Isbell and producer Dave Cobb eschewed his back up band the 400 Unit for this stark record (though some songs were broadened out with additional musicians, from that band and elsewhere). However, it should be said, this record is deep, and it is not a place for the faint hearted. It is also extraordinary. For a similar experience, it is perhaps only Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ or the most intense work of Townes Van Zandt that compare. It is not so much the subject matter that Isbell dives into, though this does include sexual abuse, cancer, alcoholism, and death. Rather, it is the depth of the songwriting, the extreme detail that Isbell is able to call on, in the very few words a song allows you. Suddenly, he was at the very top of the songwriting tree, and he has not come down since.
Number 6: Madison Violet ‘No Fool For Trying’ 2009
After several records under the abbreviated moniker Mad Violet, lengthening their name was a precursor to Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac making some sort of breakthrough in the music world. It must have been with mixed emotions for them that they did, as personal tragedy underpins this record. There is a depth to these songs that is undeniable, a keening melancholy that lingers long after the record has finished. Yet, in no way is this a heavy record musically, the lightest of instrumental touches is employed throughout, a folky, bluegrassy concoction which allows the closeness of the vocal harmonies to come through. Beautiful to listen to, sad to contemplate, this is a record that is both brief and lasting.
Number 5: Ron Sexsmith ‘Cobblestone Highway’ (2002)
Almost from the start, Ron Sexsmith seemed fated to be a ‘songwriters’ songwriter’. Despite the vocal support of A-listers such as Elvis Costello, Elton John and Chris Martin, destiny decided that fame and money would not follow him (perhaps inevitably, given his lack of film star looks or alpha personality). However, for those of us fortunate enough to discover him, he has given the world lyrics of the deepest empathy, beauty and poignancy, wrapped in exquisite Beatles-esque melodies, and he seems to draw from a well that never runs dry. I picked this album because it has the perfection that is ‘Gold In Them Hills’ on it, but really, pretty much every album is a match for the last, and if Ron worms his way into your heart (and he really should), a whole treasure trove of music is waiting for you.
Number 4: Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women ‘Dave Alvin and the Guilty Women’ (2009)
Dave Alvin is likely to be well known to many AUK readers, and he has rightfully had a retrospective dedicated to him on these hallowed pages. Although perhaps less celebrated than some, this remains my favourite of all his albums; for alongside the expected quality of the songwriting, the superlative musicianship and his rich baritone voice, it contains the one ingredient missing from most of his oeuvre…fun! Surrounding himself with a band comprising of women (and as an aside, isn’t it interesting how changing the backing band name from ‘The Guilty Men’ to ‘The Guilty Women’ carries such a different connotation?), he kicks off the shindig with a kicking Cajun-style version of one of his greatest classics, ‘Marie Marie’. The new songs, meanwhile, maintain the standard we would expect from Alvin, with some career highlights such as the driving ‘California’s Burning’, the good time nostalgia of ‘Boss of the Blues’, the acoustic intensity of ‘These Times We’re Living In’, and closing it out, the treat we never knew we wanted, a rocking version of ‘Que Sera, Sera’!
Number 3: Charlie Dore ‘Sleep All Day (and other stories)’ (2004)
Probably best known for ‘Pilot of the Airwaves’, and then as a jobbing songwriter with a hand in several big hits, Charlie Dore decided somewhere in the early 2000’s that it was time to really put her muse to work. This extraordinary record was the result, a sharp eyed, wry, incisive album, that was unremittingly honest in its depiction of the characters within. All this coupled with incredibly detailed yet playful music, and a wonderful voice, too, at times soaring, at times whispering secrets and truths. Oh, and also, this is an unusually funny record, sometimes in that world-weary, upturned eyes style, sometimes in laugh out loud slapstick. Really, it seemed like no one was doing what Dore was doing. Did it make her a star? Of course not. She’s carried on making records of similar quality ever since, but this remains a high water mark.
Number 2: John Prine ‘The Tree of Forgiveness’ (2018)
Oh, how John Prine is missed! There’s something about his art that kind of creeps up on you unawares. His unassuming voice. His extremely limited guitar skills. He didn’t have a broad melodic pallet, his songs are unlikely to make you punch the air or dance around the room with uncontrolled abandon. And yet, and yet…now the adding up time has come, and we only have his work to reflect on, suddenly it seems clear he was one of the very best. Dylan, Hank, Joni, Cohen, Young, Springsteen, Kristofferson, and yes, Prine. His words somehow capture beauty and magic in normality, paint our faults, foibles and imperfections in perfectly nuanced character studies, and as Iris Dement notes, “sing them back to us…ennobling us”. This record arrived unexpectedly, and even more unexpectedly, was just an utter joy from start to end, classic Prine and then some, using his (sometimes) goofy, aw shucks persona to provide insights of immeasurable depth, while at the same time giving us a little inward, knowing smile, at ourselves, and the rest of the crazy, mixed up human race around us.
Number 1: Patty Griffin ‘1000 Kisses’ (2002)
An absolute masterclass of songwriting. Perhaps no more than we’d expect from Griffin, who is one of the most lauded of all current songwriters by her peers. What sets this apart from her other records is the beautiful production, a stripped back acoustic record that wraps you in a richly detailed warmth. Oh, and the songs, always the songs. Nothing misfires here, there are no misfits. Every word nuanced, each song perfectly placed – don’t engage the shuffle on this one, it’s a proper record, meant to be listened to in order. Every song a stand out – the gossamer ‘Be Careful’, the storytelling tapestry of ‘Chief’, the emotionally charged ‘Long Ride Home’, the killer retro classicism of the final two tracks ‘Tomorrow Night’ and ‘Mil Besos’. Oh, and a cover of one of Springsteen’s finest, most haunted songs in ‘Stolen Car’, which sits easily amongst everything around it, not overshadowing, just complimenting. Griffin has made many great records, but in its economy of style, this may be her crowning achievement.