Features Editor Clint West writes: Today we complete our writers’ choices of the ‘Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century’ with the selections of our founder, editor and guru Mark Whitfield. It’s been a fascinating series and next week after some serious number-crunching, we will present you with our shortlist, from which AUK’s writers will then collectively choose the final Top 10. Take it away skipper….
A while ago I was asked to pull together a list of my favourite americana albums of all time which I described as much an exercise of thinking what to leave out as what to include, and then feeling extremely guilty about it. One thing that I did notice about my list from subsequent discussions was the amount of albums from the 21st century which appeared on it (all but two), in contrast to many of our writers. I think that’s partly a reflection of the time this website has existed for (it started in 2001) which has been for obvious reasons the most enriching period of my musical life. I think it’s also due to the fact that I often admit how bad my knowledge of the americana canon is – much of that canon rests on albums released long ago, and I guess that’s the nature of a “canon” of any genre. Some of today’s albums will be thought of as essential listening in the future but we might not recognise their impact yet. But for me, some of the best music of my life – in fact most of the best music of my life – has been recorded this century. I’m sure it’s someone’s advertising slogan, but it really does just keep getting better. So basically, a lot of this list is the same as the last one, but can anyone really remember anything longer than six months ago these days?
Once again I have to say straight up that I haven’t included my favourite album of all time – ‘Sky Full of Holes’ by Fountains of Wayne, which The Washington Post described as “an unofficial tribute to The Jayhawks”. As much as I like that description, I think it’s maybe pushing it a bit. But there is a vibe to the album and an intimacy that breaks my heart every time I listen to it. I cannot believe it’s 11 years old already.
I’ve also had to leave out some stone cold classics, some of which aren’t really americana (any of Icarus Phoenix’s first three albums, either of The Tyde’s first two albums), some of which would have made the list on another day (Woodpigeon’s ‘Die Stadt Muzikanten’ which remains one of the most ambitious records I’ve ever heard – hey it has a gay pirate song on it, and Quiet Loner’s ‘Greedy Magicians’) and Sam Outlaw’s ‘Angelino’ (has there ever been a stronger opener to an album than ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’), and some like Great Lakes’ ‘Diamond Times’ which made the top 10 last time and was released in the 21st century but just got shunted down so I could include another album which wouldn’t have made the 10. Oh and Aimee Mann’s ‘The Forgotten Arm’ which I do absolutely love and which also made the list last time but which on reflection feels only tangentally an americana record to my ears. Such is the cut and thrust of lists.
As Clint will have no doubt mention in the preamble, this has been a fascinating series to dig into over the last year – probably to my ears even more interesting than our top 10 of all time. As we end with my small contribution to the series, I am as much in the dark as everyone else as to what will make the final 10. Probably none of the below but that’s the extra frisson of excitement you get with lists which make people think more. The diversity can be a challenge but it’s a chance to discover lost classics which you won’t even know are classics yet.
Number 10: Grand Drive ‘See the Morning In’ (2002)
Grand Drive was kind of like my gateway soft-drug into americana, the magic mushrooms of the genre if you will by way of their sound which to me always kind of felt like a UK take on The Jayhawks (or the pre-2000s Jayhawks – in fact from memory they once supported The Jayhawks, and when I told someone I thought they were in fact better than The Jayhawks they told me I was mad and stopped speaking to me) – but with seventies songwriter influences such as Gene Clark too, and even The Beatles at times. ‘See the Morning In’ is a funny one as it doesn’t get mentioned as much these days as ‘Road Music’ or ‘True Love and High Adventures’ but it’s probably the most americana album they recorded, and for me it was the pinnacle of everything I loved about them as a band. I feel incredibly lucky that we now have Danny George Wilson as an almost figurehead for UK americana with his various musical guises. You never know what’s round the corner next but you always know it’s going to be great.
Number 9: Josh Rouse ‘Nashville’ (2005)
Josh Rouse is one of those artists who’s now been around for what feels like forever – he was another of those acts who first appeared on one of the Uncut New Sounds of the Old West CDs – but back in 2005 he was still a relatively unknown quantity to me, that is until he released ‘Nashville’ which was my album of the year by a country mile. Some of the reviews were kind of critical of it – one noted that it was only saved from David Gray territory by his more astute observations (and anyway ‘The One I Love’ is an amazing song). For me though it’s Rouse’s melodies and arrangements which are the killers, the best example of which is the just staggeringly lovely ‘Streetlights’. Subsequent releases haven’t really hit the same giddy heights for me which probably says more about me than him, but ‘Nashville’ will always be a record which takes me back to the early days of AUK and just how happy I was to be wrapped up in this genre.
Number 8: Alison Krauss and Union Station ‘Paper Airplane’ (2011)
Alison Krauss doesn’t appear to make albums with Union Station these days which is a great shame as to me the combination of her voice and Union Station as a band produced some of the best material of her career, certainly a cut above her sometimes anodyne solo material (her Robert Plant records being something else altogether). It’s difficult to disentangle her voice from the songs although the interplay between Krauss and Dan Tyminski as lead vocalist throughout the record serves to balance proceedings, with the introspective lament of songs such as the title track set against the picked up pace of ‘Bonita and Bill Butler.’ It’s the most sombre record they recorded by some margin, although that bit after the first chorus in the title track still kills me on every listen.
Number 7: Lightspeed Champion ‘Falling Off the Lavender Bridge’ (2008)
Lightspeed Champion aka Dev Hynes has written songs you will definitely know if you have anyone who listens to Radio 2 in your household, writing as he has for Kylie, Mariah Carey and Blondie among others, but he’s also written for Haim and has some definitive country bones in his body which are most evident from an album he recorded under the Lightspeed Champion moniker back in 2008. Hynes flew to Omaha, Nebraska early the previous year to flesh out the songs that he’d written with Mike Mogis, resident producer for Saddle Creek records and a member of Bright Eyes. He stayed there for several months in a guest house decorated by Mogis and Conor Oberst and recorded the album with a variety of musicians. In the process he created a quirky edgy masterpiece. Having my dear mum at one point sing along to the line “as we kiss I’m sick in your mouth” was a sign of how he could make the most provocative wry lyrics feel as safe as a pair of slippers. And it was the first sign of his knack for a melody which would lead him onto bigger things in later years, but in my judgement none bettered this record.
Number 6: Laura Cantrell ‘Not the Tremblin’ Kind’ (2000)
Laura Cantrell was where americana met the zeitgeist for me, Cantrell having being introduced to many UK listeners by John Peel who she went on to develop a friendship with. Cantrell was a singer-songwriter and DJ from Nashville who left a career in Bank of America to write and record country songs which sounded like lost classics from another era. The topics within her songs covered the usual bases including relationships, alcohol and life on the road, but it was all done in a way which sounded completely convincing and with a tenderness you might find from an early Dolly Parton record, and with production which left it sounding intimate and not bombastic. I can’t think of a record which is more empathetically fragile at times.
Number 5: Jason McNiff ‘Nobody’s Son’ (2003)
Not long after I first started Americana UK back in 2001, an album by a little known London based Yorkshireman of Irish and Polish descent called Jason McNiff came through my letterbox. I had to admit I was originally drawn to it by the lovely artwork based around an old paperback, but being the exception to prove the rule, you could judge this book by its cover. I’d never really connected with Dylan’s music as much as I wanted to (I know, my P45 is in the post) but here was a songwriter who had basically written some Dylan songs I really liked. One particular song I loved so much that I drove round to my auntie’s in New Brighton and packed her, my mum and other assorted family into my car so I could play it to them, and we sat there for almost 7 minutes in silence, it was mesmerising. Jason has ended up a long time friend of AUK and I still extol his virtues to anyone who will listen.
Number 4: Passenger ‘Runaway’ (2018)
Passenger aka Mike Rosenberg is one of the most prolific UK artists around but is only known by many for his song ‘Let Her Go’ which fast became one of the most watched YouTube videos of all time. Although I’d argue much of his stuff crosses over into americana genre, it was his ‘Runaway’ album from 2018 which was actively promoted as an americana record and for me was the album of the year despite it being criminally overlooked by the subsequent year’s awards. Rosenberg didn’t just manufacture this all out of thin air either – as he told us in an interview at the time “I’ve been going to the States since I was 2 years old, my dad grew up in New Jersey and I’ve still got tonnes of family around that sort of East coast area so yeah it feels like a kind of second home to me.” It’s as accessible an album as you could ask for for an americana audience, and a singer-songwriter’s record in the true sense.
Number 3: Peter Bruntnell ‘Ends of the Earth’ (2003)
It’s a disconcerting thing when you chat to an artist about your favourite record they’ve released and they go on to tell you they don’t think it’s their best work and even actively dislike at least one track on it – that happened to me a couple of years back at the AMAUKs when I was gushing to New Zealand born but UK based Bruntnell about his ‘Ends of the Earth’ album from 2003, but to me it’s still my favourite record of his by far – and that takes some doing since the album which came before it ‘Normal for Bridgwater’ is outstanding in its own right. The melodies above all else just make the record fly. It’s my go to comfort blanket of an album when I’m feeling sad (which is still more often than not – americana is not a genre for optimists).
Number 2: Ruston Kelly ‘Dying Star’ (2018)
About 6 years ago I got review tickets to see The Wandering Hearts, mainly because I liked one of their songs in particular, but ended up walking away from the gig just being bowled over by not them but their support act, Ruston Kelly (sorry Wanderers). ‘Dying Star’ is one of those records that just blows me away time and time again, and I can’t think of another voice in music now that I like as much. His voice and self-penned songs have some of the weariness of the best Ryan Adams records from years gone by, although ‘Faceplant’ is better than any song Adams has written. His follow up for me was a bit of a disappointment (sorry Ruston) but a couple of tracks are evidence that at his best, he’s one of the best songwriters around today, with or without Kacey Musgraves.
Number 1: Beachwood Sparks ‘Beachwood Sparks’ (2000) Many years ago I interviewed LA’s Beachwood Sparks for this site and they told me they hated the term ‘americana’ to describe their music which was a good start to the interview. But looking back now, there was something about their sound in terms of the production and energy in it that I think is missing from some of the big names in americana these days. It had that Laurel Canyon country-rock feel of bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield but didn’t feel derivative. There was a buzz about it – the album felt messy but at the same time exciting. And the songs were just crazily good. Those first few bars of opener ‘Desert Skies’ still make the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Even the cover is one of my favourite album covers of all time. Thank God they were reincarnated into GospelbeacH, but nothing will beat their debut – it’s a record I can’t imagine ever tiring of hearing.
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