AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century: Michael Macy

As previous AUK writers have observed, it’s very hard to pick the best 10 americana albums from the last 20 or so years. For one thing I’ve probably only heard a fraction of them, so the best I can do is to pick ten albums that I have listened to, over and over, or that woke me up, or picked me up or maybe just never let me down. If choosing just ten wasn’t hard enough, actually ranking them in order was nigh impossible, but those are the rules, so here are the ten albums that I keep going back to, at odd moments or just ordinary times made better by the music.

Number 10: The Weepies ‘Say I Am You’ (2005)
There are so many great duos in the americana universe; Civil Wars, Mandolin Orange, The Kennedys, The Milk Carton Kids; but the Weepies made it into this list.  The Weepies were Steve Tannen and Deb Talen and they were a duo for two decades, meeting in 2001 and breaking up shortly after their 2020 divorce. In that time, they wrote and recorded some great music. Their album ‘Say I Am You’ includes some of their best.  While described as “subtly intoxicating folk-pop”, their songs of longing and love are no less heartfelt because of lack of grit. In ‘Gotta Have You’ Talen sings of how “No amount of coffee, No amount of crying, No amount of whiskey, No amount of wine, No, no, no, no, no, Nothing else will do, I’ve gotta have you”. Tannen sings of a day lost in longing and regret in ‘The World Spins Madly On’, “The night is here and the day is gone, and the world spins madly on. I thought of you and where you’d gone, and the world spins madly on.”  The Weepies provided the soundtrack for the first 20 years of the millennium, their songs being used on TV and in movies, and even one of Barrack Obama’s campaign videos in 2008.

Number 9: John Hiatt ‘The Tiki Bar is Open’ (2001)
It was hard to choose a John Hiatt album, but this list needs one. ‘The Tiki Bar is Open’ works. It was released on 9/11, (yeah that one), and it captures Hiatt as he wound up his recording with Vanguard. It’s also his second album with the Goners which gives more of a rock sound than some of his later work.  As with any Hiatt album, there are great lyrics that tell stories of the heart of America; hopeful, longing and joyful. ‘All the Lilacs in Ohio’ is a beautifully written portrait of how a momentary encounter lingers on, while ‘Farther Stars’ is a space jam reminiscent of the Dead.  All in all, a great way to start the century.

Number 8: Rhiannon Giddens ‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ (2015)
‘Tomorrow Is My Turn’ by Rhiannon Giddens is a gem.  It is her first studio album and she pulled out all the stops.  Produced by T Bone Burnett, it has an impressive list of contributors but this album is all Giddens. She has chosen classics but this is not a tribute album. Giddens challenges herself by choosing songs by people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Gesshi Wiley and Dolly Parton and makes each song her own. She takes the Nina Simone standard by Charles Aznavour ‘Tomorrow is My Turn’ and gives it her own depth and clarity. Elizabeth Cotton’s ‘Shake Sugaree’ becomes a slow blues number. Throughout the album one can hear Giddens’ classic training in opera, along with her love of traditional American music. This is a great album that improves with listening.

Number 7: The Antlers ‘Green to Gold’ (2022)
Not everybody would agree that the Antlers’ ‘Green to Gold’ is actually americana, but it evokes a sense of place and time with the authenticity resonant in americana. ‘Green to Gold’ is a departure from earlier Antlers albums, relying more on acoustic instrumentation than on previous albums with their emphasis on electronic sounds. Front man and writer Peter Silberman wrote the songs in his rural, upstate New York home and he said the album is about  “going home, overcoming stubbornness, transitioning from one season to the next, leaving behind the old as a natural way of shedding the past.” And one does hear the ambient sounds of crickets and cicadas.  This is an album I can listen to over and over, always finding some new depth, a different sound and insight in change, as Silberman said in an interview, “Green to Gold is about this idea of gradual change. People changing over time, struggling to accept change in those they love, and struggling to change themselves. And yet despite all our difficulty with this, nature somehow makes it look easy.”

Number 6: Trampled By Turtles ‘Stars and Satellites’ (2012)
Trampled by Turtles’ ‘Stars and Satellites’  was an easy choice for this list. From Duluth, TBT puts poetry to a punk bluegrass sound to tell us about life in the Great North. The opener ‘Midnight on the Interstate’ is a great road song, which is followed by their classic ‘Alone’. And then you get ‘Walt Whitman’, and the fun keeps right on through to the last song ‘The Calm and the Crying Wind’. So, kick the cornstarch off your mucklucks, settle in by the fire with a cold brew and enjoy.

Number 5: Robert Plant and Alison Krauss ‘Raising Sand’ (2007)
‘Raising Sand’ just has to be on this list. Two prodigious talents came together and produced something different than anything either one had done before. I will stop there because there has probably been enough written about this album, but I just had to include it.

Number 4: Mumford and Sons ‘Sigh No More’ (2009)
My brother described Mumford and Sons as “Coldplay with banjos“, and I said “That’s a bad thing?”  Their first album, ‘Sigh No More’ helped launch a revival, which is not a surprise considering Marcus Mumford’s religious upbringing. The first time I heard this album it blew me away. The lyrics flirt with metaphysics with a haunting, yet ringing sound, that brings the past joyously into the future. A great first effort that has brightened up many a moment for me.

Number 3: Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros ‘Live in No Particular Order: 2009-2014’ (2015)
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros shine brightly on ‘Live in No Particular Order: 2009-2014’. This live album captures the magic of the first five years of one the great music collectives of the era. It is joyful celebration of the potentiality of collaboration. ‘Home’ is of course the best known song, but there are real gems here. ‘I Don’t Wanna Pray’ is a masterful modern gospel song. ‘Fog on The Tyne‘ is an orchestral nod to the ‘special relationship’.  This album is uplifting and deserves many your ear. I keep going back to it whenever I need a lift.

Number 2: Mary Gauthier ‘Mercy Now’ (2008)
Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now’ was an easy choice.  Just ‘Falling Out Love’ would be enough to make this a contender, but to follow it with ‘Mercy Now’ clinches it, and the other songs just tightens it all down. ‘Mercy Now’ captures the U.S. in the first twenty years of the new millennium, with all of it pain and blind blundering, that fear of the future engenders.  ‘I Drink’ invites us into a life. It’s storytelling of the finest order. The organ throughout is a joy to listen to. ‘Drop In A Bucket’ has to be one of the greatest songs of love and loss ever written. ‘It Ain’t the Wind, It’s The Rain’ winds it all up. I can’t listen to this album all the time, nor can I not keep coming back to it. OK, that is a triple negative, but it gets it..

Number 1: Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats ‘Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ (2015)
My top choice is ‘Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats’ – damn, this album just ticks so many boxes. It is a joy from the beginning to the end. As has been said, this is “Sam and Dave’ meets the ‘Band”. It’s the product of Rateliff’s gospel upbringing followed by years of touring bars, clubs and living rooms as a singer/songwriter before he found a home with a band. And this band is tight. How can you just sit and listen to ‘SOB’ or not join in on ‘I Need Never Get Old’?  This is the heart and soul of americana; honky-tonk piano, revival rhythms and words that would make Walt Whitman proud.

About Michael Macy 16 Articles
A lifetime exploring American culture with a long misspent youth, work as a seaman and the railroad, and traveling with a professional fool. Degrees in American culture and law, worked a prosecutor, radio talk show host and presenting American culture as diplomat and cultural attaché in London, Riyadh, Delhi, Kabul, Bamako, Port au Prince, Tunis and Valletta.

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