How do you compile any list? Or in this specific case, how do you compile a list of the top 10 americana albums of the 21st century – a century when americana started getting more and more diverse, began cropping up all over the world, and became more encompassing than ever? Essentially, there are two basic principles: you can copy somebody else’s or use them as an inspiration, or in the other instance, use that rule of the thumb principle – the first ten that come to your mind. In both instances, it is usually those albums that you remember the best, the ones that you have listened to most.
Number 10: The Felice Brothers ‘From Dreams To Dust’ (2021)
It was actually great fun listening to (and watching) how The Felice Brothers grew from their early days and initial inspiration from The Band’s prime years, into, well, an extension of the road The Band took when they were fascinated by the deep south, its themes and music. Through the years, The Felice Brothers not only took the same road but somehow gave it a modern-day veneer, something best expressed on this album and in the below introductory track.
Number 9: Giant Giant Sand ‘Tucson: A Country Rock Opera’ (2012)
If there ever was an artist that tried his utmost to expand the musical boundaries of americana and at the same time keep it thematically grounded in its lore, it is Howe Gelb in his many musical and solo or band incarnations. Here, he is paying homage to his home city of Tucson, Arizona, the desert and sand that creeps in everywhere. With ‘Carinito’ he reminds Joey Burns and John Convertino who made it big with Calexico, where they actually learned their trade.
Number 8: Lucinda Williams ‘Essence’ (2001)
It is a particularly daunting task for even the best of artists to come up with a credible follow-up to their masterpiece. Lucinda Williams did. She followed the masterful ‘Car Wheels On A Gravel Road’ with yet another masterpiece – ‘Essence,’ with exactly what the title implies, essence of the best in americana music. At the same time, this subdued, often dark album, shows the vulnerable, emotional side of Williams.
Number 7: Phosphorescent ‘Pride’ (2007)
With Mathew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, there is definitely a close call to which is his best album, ‘Muchacho’ being a strong contender with something we can call americana pop. Houck was always at the top of the list of americana innovators, and ‘Pride’ tops the cake of the so-called ambient, ethereal americana, where this album, and particularly the below track, is a prime example.
Number 6: Bonnie “Prince” Billy ‘Sings Greatest Palace Music’ (2004)
If there’s an americana artist that you can call a true musical chameleon, then Will Oldham is certainly the prime example with the plethora of musical and name guises that he has employed. Yet, he always keeps his lyrical self firmly in those dark, often gothic, realms of americana. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is the guise he used the most so far, and here in that guise, he covers his more experimental Palace guises, presenting himself as your ‘standard’ Nashville crooner, with his dark lyrics getting yet another meaning in that setting.
Number 5: Kacey Musgraves ‘Golden Hour’ (2018)
It might not have brought many surprises when The Grateful Dead, turned their psych, drug-fueled excursions into subtle folk, americana work on ‘American Beauty’ and ‘Workingman’s Dead,’ which many consider possibly their best studio work. Yet when a rising country star Kacey Musgraves used practically the same approach on this album, it caused shockwaves in the entrenched mainstream Nashville circles and produced probably her best album so far.
Number 4: The Delines ‘The Imperial’ (2019)
Willy Vlautin is an excellent composer and an even better wordsmith, both his lyrics for Richmond Fontaine, his novels and his short stories that speak of his Richard Carver influences, bear testimony to that fact. Yet when he decided to relieve himself of vocal duties with The Delines, handing over to Amy Boone, his songwriting got yet another extra dimension, probably best expressed on this album.
Number 3: Bon Iver ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ (2008)
Bon Iver’s debut might be Justin Vernon’s least musically experimenting album but still rings as his most impressive work so far, possibly for the emotional element involved and the manner in which Vernon expressed his emotions here. It also might be one of the most impressive break-up albums, and not just in americana.
Number 2: Rhiannon Giddens ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ (2015)
Rhiannon Giddens is not just one of the most impressive vocal and instrumental talents, but also an artist that is able to bring all the traditional strains of americana music and present them to modern audiences. On her solo debut, masterfully produced by T-Bone Burnett, she is able to strike that thin balance line between traditional and modern and at the same time present all the vocal and instrumental skills she has.
Number1: Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002)
Jeff Tweedy and his Wilco cohorts might not have been the first americana ‘experimenters’ but certainly are among the best, practically affirming this concept with this turn-of-the-century masterpiece. All of Tweedy’s best songwriting concepts are presented here in the best possible manner and an album that goes beyond being just the 21st century americana classic.