AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century: Martin Johnson

Deciding the Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century has proven to be surprisingly difficult, and the list has been through many drafts before crystalising into its published form. I’ve been trying to understand why the list has proved to be so challenging in an attempt to complete the list in a reasonably timely manner. Clearly, there isn’t such a sense of history that was largely associated with the AUK’s Top 10 Greatest Americana Albums Ever, also it can take time for relatively new music to reveal its real and sustained charms. If this wasn’t enough, there is the sheer volume of quality americana music released in the 21st Century. There was then a more nuanced question, a handful of artists had released great albums in the 20th and 21st Centuries, if an artist had been included in my AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums Ever, should they be excluded from this list? Finally, the mist began to clear, and it became obvious that a list of ten albums could not really be a true summation of the variety of music that flourished under the americana tag in the 21St Century, and that any single list can only be a personal view of the music. So that is what we have here, it is simply a personal view of what could be described as the cream of americana in the 21st Century. As with all personal views, not everyone will agree so readers should feel free to highlight any issues, if by chance you happen to agree with anything on the list then highlight this as well.

Looking at the list it is clear how much of an indie influence has crept in, which is not so surprising given the more complex and integrated world we are experiencing in the 21ST Century. There appears to be another common characteristic with all the artists having a unique twist in their music, bringing a modern take on older influences which can be seen as quite subversive. There is one repeat artist from my Top 10 Americana Albums Ever, and  I did challenge myself on this but the music is so good it would have been wrong to arbitrarily exclude it from the list. There are artists who first rose to prominence in the 20Th Century, but have continued to develop their own individual sounds. Clearly, the 21ST Century is a continually extending period, and I have included an album from 2021 that may very well represent part of the future of americana as the century progresses, or as the years provide a longer perspective, it may fade from the popular consciousness. Again, I challenged myself on whether this was appropriate, and again, I felt it would be wrong to simply arbitrarily exclude an album solely on its newness. Mind you, if Clint hadn’t asked me to move my submission forward, it is always possible that the list would have changed again, maybe not radically, but in a more detailed way, such are the varied musical riches we are attempting to deal with.

Number 10: Geraint Watkins ‘In a Bad Mood’ (2008)
It seems only proper to start an Americana UK Top 10 list with a UK artist, and Geraint Watkins is a near-perfect artist. While his day job is sideman to various stars of popular music, including Shakin’ Stevens, Van Morrison, Nick Lowe, Bill Wyman, Dave Edmunds, Mark Knopfler, and Paul McCartney, he has released a steady stream of lovingly played and produced quirky solo records that celebrate not only his musical chops and vocals but also are full of quirky musical jokes and show an abiding love of American roots music. This is an artist who founded a London-based cajun band called the Balham Alligators so you get the picture. Watkins’ ‘In A Bad Mood’ shares musicians who regularly backed Nick Lowe on his late-career resurgence, and the music has that lovely tight but loose feel that many artists seek but few achieve. The songs are all top-notch, and the expanded version even opens with a Carpenters’ cover, and the tunes represent a travelogue of various American musical locales and styles, and all repay repeated listens before revealing all their hidden charms. The fact that Bob Dylan chose to feature ‘Only A Rose’ from ‘In A Bad Mood’ on his radio show is just a bit more evidence of how this Welsh musician has managed to master americana, even if it is with a wry smile.

Number 9: John Murry ‘The Stars are God’s Bullet Holes’ (2021)
John Murry is related by adoption to southern gothic legend William Faulkner, and he was born in Mississippi. Added to this he cut his musical teeth in Memphis, Tennessee, and recorded with cult songwriter Bob Frank. Critical acclaim was there in abundance for his debut solo album, 2012’s ‘The Graceless Age’, which documented his issues with addiction. He released ‘A Short History of Decay’ detailing the breakdown of his marriage in 2017 to similar acclaim. ‘The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes’ is his response to the age-old difficult third album question. The album is a wonder of sound and lyrics, and this time it seems he has reached more of an accommodation with his inner demons. The music could be called indie rock with heavy folk overtones but that fails to do it justice. The sound is cleverly sculptured from various fragments and wisps of sound and can be cacophonous at times, but there is also a developed pop sensibility at work which makes what could be a challenging listen eminently accessible. Time may not yet have brought a perspective to the album, but I am confident it is a beacon for the future development of americana.

Number 8: The Sadies ‘New Seasons’ (2004)
Canadian musicians such as members of The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot to name a few are part of the foundations of americana so it should not come as any surprise that Canadians have continued to develop the genre in the 21St Century. The Sadies’ joint bandleaders  Travis and Dallas Good are part of the legendary Canadian country family The Goods,  and therefore have country in their musical DNA. However, they also enjoyed surf music and garage rock, and with the help of Steve Albini recorded their debut album for the legendary Chicago record label Bloodshoot Records in 1998. With 2004’s ‘New Seasons’ the Sadies finally managed to match their legendary live reputation in the studio, with songs that managed to equal their undoubted instrumental skills. The level of twang on the album courtesy of the Good brothers means that this is not just country rock for the 21St Century, but for the ages.

Number 7: Jeb Loy Nichols ‘Now Then’ (2005)
Expat American singer-songwriter, producer, artist, novelist, and currently Welsh resident Jeb Loy Nichols’s career has been the textbook definition of an independent artist. The country soul that came out of Memphis and Muscle Shoals in the sixties and early seventies is part of the DNA of what is now called americana, and Jeb Loy Nichols has kept this genre alive from his base in Wales.  Just in case anyone thought he was simply a musical curator he has added his love of rhythm, including reggae, trip-hop, and echoes of Philly soul to his musical mix, and he will also emphasise the folk and blues elements of country soul when the mood takes.  ‘Now Then’ was recorded in Nashville and London, with a guest appearance by the great Dan Penn. It doesn’t contain any wasted notes or instrumental flourishes, and it is the pure essence of country soul. While Nichols is an artist who manages to achieve a remarkable consistency across his releases, ‘Now Then’ could be his greatest recording, and while it may celebrate old school sounds, it is also timeless. Unlike some artists, Job Loy Nichols is blessed with a voice that fits his music perfectly.

Number 6: Rhiannon Giddens ‘Freedom Highway’ (2017)
As a founding member and front person for The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rhiannon Giddens reset the historical view of folk and roots music by emphasising the black string band influence on early music. The Carolina Chocolate Drops succeeded in taking a largely traditional repertoire firmly into the 21St Century with performances that were anything but museum pieces. The Carolina Chocolate Drops went into hiatus when Giddens went solo with 2015’s album of covers, ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’, but it was 2017’s ‘Freedom Highway’ that showed her talents to the full.  The album comprises self-written songs and co-writes which manage to echo the past but musically and in their message reflect the present. It is not often that such relevant lyrics have been set to such warm musical accompaniment that fits perfectly with the American roots music continuum. Part of the success of the album is due in no small part to the significant contribution of producer, engineer, and multi-instrumentalist Dirk Powell made to the album. This is protest music for the 21St Century.

Number 5: Chuck Prophet The Age of Miracles’ (2004)
At the start of the 21St Century, there were high hopes at New West Records that Chuck Prophet was going to achieve a commercial breakthrough in the American market. That the ex-Green On Red band member didn’t achieve a commercial breakthrough had nothing to do with the quality of his recordings that have been remarkably artistically consistent, if stylistically varied even within individual albums and sometimes songs, up to and including 2020’s ‘Land That Time Forgot’. 2004’s ‘The Age Of Miracles’ could be said to be a near-perfect example of roots music for the modern age in that the earthiness is there, but the individual song structures mix and match influences and sounds, helped no doubt by ex-Captain Beefheart collaborator Eric Drew Feldman’s role as co-producer. Be clear, Chuck Prophet is a very accomplished songwriter who can stand comparison with writers of the calibre of John Hiatt.

Number 4: Peter Rowan and Tony Rice ‘You Were There For Me’ (2004)
The ‘60s folk revival ensured that recorded music from the early part of the 20Th Century was given an unexpected value and was therefore maintained for future generations. This music also provided a repertoire and inspiration for emerging young musicians. Two such musicians were Peter Rowan and Tony Rice who have since become icons of the folk and new acoustic movement, Rice with his innovative bluegrass guitar and Rowan with his songwriting. Though their paths had crossed many times, ‘You Were There For Me’ was the first time they had recorded as a partnership, and it is a near-perfect example of all the promise of the folk revival with music that, while honouring that tradition, is modern music. The songs are all written by Rowan, and as Rice was already suffering from MTD, the vocals were by Rowan as well, which allowed Rice to focus on his guitar playing which may be the best of his recorded career. While both musicians have had long and varied careers, and both helped develop new forms of music, ‘You Were There For Me’ is a highlight of both their careers and shows the power of acoustic music which is a key component of americana. It is also a nice companion to Rice’s ‘Manzanita’ which I included in my ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’.

Number 3: Drive-By Truckers ‘Decoration Day’ (2003)
The Drive-By Truckers are a product of founders David Hood and Mike Cooley’s determination to make the music they wanted to make, despite the challenges of trying to make music that reflected their liberal views and punk influences in the American South. The band came to wider attention with 2001’s ‘Southern Rock Opera’ which examined three Alabama icons, Ronnie Van Zandt, Bear Bryant, and George Wallace, and brought Patterson Hood’s “duality of the Southern thing” to public consciousness.  However, it was ‘Decoration Day’ that became the real Truckers’ manifesto for anyone who thought they were just a Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band. The album featured the then new songwriter and third guitarist Jason Isbell, and the songwriting from Hood, Cooley, and Isbell was superb and stands with the best of their respective careers. It also honestly and openly examined life in the American South, with all its inherent contradictions. Even the title, ‘Decoration Day’, which references the original practice of decorating the graves of fallen Civil War soldiers was not what you would necessarily expect from an alt-country come rock’n’roll band in 2003. The Truckers have released a number of great albums since ‘Decoration Day’ but it is still probably their most representative album with a mix of southern roots music, punk, and indie rock’n’roll.

Number 2: Wilco ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2002)
Nobody can doubt the influence of Uncle Tupelo on the development of alt-country and americana, and when Wilco rose from the ashes of that band they added a broader palate to their sound, referencing influences from the Beatles to New York’s new wave. However, no one could have predicted that the band’s sound would be stretched as far as it was on ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’, which now regularly features in lists of the greatest albums of all time. The recording and release of the album were fraught, resulting in the loss of drummer Ken Coomer and their then record label refused to release the album.  After it was streamed on the band’s website Nonesuch Records finally gave it an official release in 2002 and the rest, as they say, is history. It is still Wilco’s best-selling album and ensured that Wilco had a distinct musical persona from Uncle Tupelo. The songs were strong, though internal conflicts meant that songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett left the band immediately after the album was completed. With ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ Wilco didn’t throw out their previous influences and approach to music, they added to it, ensuring their long-term future, and the anticipation that always surrounds a new release, even if subsequent records haven’t always scaled the heights of their defining album.

Number 1: Gillian Welch ‘Time (The Revelator)’ (2001)
It was hard enough deciding on which albums I should include in my Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century, but that was nothing compared to the arguments I had with myself on which album should top the list as all ten albums legitimately were in contention.  What finally swung it for ‘Time (The Revelator)’ was not just its musical qualities but that, to my mind, it is an almost perfect example of postmodern music, and americana as a genre is very clearly postmodernist. Gillian Welch looks and sounds like she has just walked out of the rural ‘20s, but she was born in New York and lived in Los Angeles from the age of three.  She learnt her old-time music from records having enjoyed rock’n’roll music as a teenager. She attended the Berklee College of Music to study songwriting where she met her life and musical partner, Dave Rawlings. ‘Time (The Revelator)’ was recorded and released after the success of ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ and was produced by Rawlings in RAC (Studio) B maintaining the sense of country music history. However. while the look and style were still the same, the songs referenced more rock’n’roll influences. The production,  while difficult, was closer to Welch and Rawlings’ vision, so much so their own studio is a copy of Studio B. This is why Gillian Welch has been such an influence on the likes of Robert Plant and Robyn Hitchcock, her ability to evoke the look, feel, and sounds of the past while bringing a rock’n’roll filter and modern cultural issues to her songwriting. She is a perfect example of americana, and ‘Time (The Revelator)’ is the best example of Gillian Welch’s music.

About Martin Johnson 417 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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