AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century: Paul Kerr

Blimey, this was tough. When the AUK writers were asked to produce their top ten classic albums a while back we had a century’s worth of music to trawl through and now, what, just two decades! Furthermore, back then there was a roadmap of sorts – Dylan, The Burritos, The Band, Uncle Tupelo and all of Texas (the state, not the band) – to guide us. The 60s, 70s and 90s (maybe forget about the 80s) were all documented and classified (fossilised?) and our final top 20 compilation list had just four albums released since the year 2000. My original list was primarily composed of albums which were imprinted into my psyche, engraved on my heart, long beloved over the years. This list, again with the ever present disclaimer that it will change from day to day, is my snapshot of the new millennium and is presented in chronological order. Some of these albums might well be considered classics as the years progress but in the meantime, they are personal favourites which I do think stand tall. You might note that it ends in 2019 but if I could add an appendix, it would consist of The Felice Brothers 2021 release, ‘From Dreams To Dust’. Perhaps too recent for classic status, so, sorry guys.

Number 10: Gillian WelchTime (The Revelator)’ (2001)
Welch’s third album and her first of the new century was preceded by two events. Her involvement in the film, ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ had raised her profile and she left her record label to set up her own, Acony Records. The album was the starkest she and partner David Rawlings had sounded so far and her songwriting had gone up a notch or two. While a song such as ‘Red Clay Halo’ is quite joyous and sounds as if The Carter Family could have recorded it, and the live recording of ‘I Want To Sing That Rock’n’Roll’ is a reaffirmation of the power of music, Welch inserts a wonderful sense of nostalgia and, at times, foreboding, into several of the songs. To follow up their live version of rock and roll with the tender and oh so emotive ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ is a master-stroke as the pair basically exhume one of the giants of rock and roll. Death and tragedy stalk the connected songs, ‘April 14th, Pt 1′ and ‘Ruination Day, Pt 2′ with the sinking of The Titanic and the assassination of Lincoln both invoked while ‘Everything Is Free Now’ is seen by many as Welch’s statement on the death of the jobbing musician as illegal streaming threatened their livelihood. For all the album’s virtues, it’s the closing 15 minute epic of ‘I Dream A Highway‘ which defines it. As the song slowly crawls along, with its chorus repeated numerous times, Welch summons up archetypes and visions of America, the frontier and the violence, death and dying, mentioning Hollywood, The Opry and Emmylou and Gram in the passing. It’s a song the pair rarely play live but it lives on here.

Number 9: WilcoYankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001)
Wilco moved on rapidly from their debut release, ‘AM’, into turbulent waters – more so when catalyst/disrupter Jay Bennett joined the ranks. The raw rock of ‘Being There’ and the lush production of ‘Summerteeth’ were eclipsed by the sheer audacity and experimentation of ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’. Dropped by their label and then re signed via an offshoot of that label (in the meantime, frustrated, they released the album for a short time as a free download), Wilco came up with an album which is quite unlike any other. A montage of pop songs, musique concrete, prepared piano and stolen short wave frequency espionage messages, ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ is an immersive and fascinating listen. The opening song, ‘I Am Trying To break Your Heart’ is like an apocalyptic update of the Beatles’ ‘Day In A Life’ while the following ‘Kamera’ is, quite simply, a fabulous pop song. The dichotomy prevails throughout the album with the experimentation eventually winning out as when they close with the seven-minute mutant Brian Wilson cosmic like wail of ‘Reservations’. The serendipitous juxtaposition of the album cover (featuring the twin columns of Chicago’s Marina Towers , the song ‘Ashes Of American Flags’, and the attack on The World trade Centre allow for some folk to consider the album to be something of an elegy to 9/11.

Number 8: Songs: Ohia Magnolia Electric Co’ (2003)
This is an album which never fails to astonish each time it’s taken out for a ride. It was a transition album for Jason Molina, a step away from the indie folk of previous Songs: Ohia albums into a more cosmic Americana world with his next band, named after this album’s title. And while the slo-mo guitars and gliding pedal steel which define the album do sound quite cosmic, the  spirit of Neil Young’s time in the ditch also looms large. Molina’s strained voice recalls Young’s anguished cries at times and the opening ‘Farewell Transmission’ along with the epic ‘Almost Was Good Enough’ and the charged drive of ‘John Henry Split My Heart’ have that same howl from the soul which abounded on Young’s live album, ‘Time Fades Away’. Spookiness abounds on the classic ‘I’ve Been Working With The Ghost’, a twisted blues wail which approaches Gun Club territory while there are gentler climes on the dusty country rock of ‘Just Be Simple’, ‘The Old Black Hen’ and on the closing ‘Hold On Magnolia’, all harking more to Molina’s previous releases but with just that little more angst and edge. The closing moments of ‘Just be Simple’ are quite heartrending with Molina repeating the refrain, “Just Be Simple Again.” For him, life was never simple and while acts such as Israel Nash have built on from the layered guitars and big production here, there’s a sense that Molina is and was the truest exponent – that he jabbed his pen into his heart to get the ink to write these songs.

Number 7: John Murry ‘The Graceless Age’ (2012)
Several years in the making with John Murry much of the time in the throes of addiction, ‘The Graceless Age’ is, as the original PR blurb said, “A survivor’s tale of savage misadventure in an uncompromising, compelling voice amidst a melange of layered guitars, strings, voices and electronica.” The album stripped Murry bare and then clothed him in a wonderful sonic tapestry that ranges from pained piano led confessionals to sumptuous narcotic pillows of sound that swirl and beguile the listener and Murry has never hesitated in acknowledging the role played by his co-producer Tim Mooney in the creation. That Mooney, drummer with American Music Club, died unexpectedly just as the album was released was yet another burden to be borne by Murry. The most infamous song here is ‘Little Colored Balloons’, Murry’s aching and painful ballad which details a near fatal overdose he experienced and which remains a fascinating and perhaps cathartic element of his live shows. However, there is fear and loathing spread throughout the album. A cracked tolling bell introduces ‘California’ before a pneumatic bass line pumps the song into a druggy rhythm, an aural equivalent of the lassitude induced by heat and sun. Murry’s vocals however rail against this with an anger that unfortunately seems to be fairly impotent as it’s dulled by tranquillisers. There’s a sense of a hypnagogic hallucination weaving throughout songs like ‘The Ballad Of The Pajama Kid’ and ‘Southern Sky’ while ‘Penny Nail’ encapsulates a nihilistic world view with references to Thomas Bernhard’s novel ‘The Loser’ (about artists who when they realise they can never achieve the height of genius they contemplate suicide). The album portrayed Murry on the edge of that precipice and while he teetered there for some after, he seems to have retreated from it of late and for that, we are oh so grateful.

Number 6: Marvin EtzioniMarvin Country!’ (2012)
Best known for his time in Lone Justice, Marvin Etzioni earns his place on this list with the idiosyncratic and fascinating ‘Marvin Country!’ It’s a rambling two disc collection which features a host of guest artists who never stop Etzioni from stamping his personality throughout. Etzioni plays much of the music himself including mandolin, mandocello, bass, drums, synthesiser and mellotron, along with some scintillating electric guitar. But he opens the borders of Marvin Country to the likes of John Doe, Steve Earle, Maria McKee, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson, Gurf Morlix, Greg Leisz and Lucinda Williams on a variety of songs which range from drop dead gorgeous country ballads, to gospel, folk, gut bucket blues and alt-country punk. Most of the guests appear on the first CD (or sides one and two if you prefer the vinyl version) while the second CD is more peculiar – the songs here a touch more weird. On disc one his duets with McKee and Williams (‘You Possess Me’ and ‘Lay It On The Table’) are perfect examples of pained male/female country sad song duetting and there’s a fine nod to Johnny Cash on ‘A Man Without A Country’ while ‘Bob Dylan Is Dead’ cleverly utilises Dylan titles. Disc two has the excellent ecological lament, ‘Where’s Your Analog Spirit?’ along with a moving tribute to Gram Parsons and the hilarious send up of the music business on ‘What’s Patsy Cline Doing These Days?’ – apparently a dig at a record executive who was alleged to have asked this several years after her death. There’s a multitude of gems on this album (well, 22 to be precise) with Etzioni delving into his own past and that of America and doing so quite brilliantly.

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Number 5: Sturgill SimpsonMetamodern Sounds In Country Music’ (2014)
Simpson’s rock hard debut, ‘High Top Mountain’, announced him as a honky tonk avenger, ready to take on the new Nashville stars who were way too fond of autotune and brolicious partying. This follow-up, bravely titled with a nod to Ray Charles’ groundbreaking 60s album, ‘Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music’ was a much more daring adventure which was nominated for a Grammy as Best Americana Album (it didn’t win although Simpson’s next album, ‘A Sailors’ Guide To Earth’ won a Grammy for best country album – go figure). The baseline remains the tough outlaw country sounds of Waylon Jennings and the likes but Simpson goes off base with a couple of songs which pull in aspects of psychedelia and elements of philosophy, most famously on ‘Turtles All The Way Down’. The song is introduced by Sturgill’s grandfather’s ancient crackled voice before a Kristofferson like dusty tale of transcendental encounters ambles into view like a cosmic cousin to ‘Sunday Morning Coming Down’. As the song progresses the lyrics get weirder as “reptile aliens made of light cut you open and pull out all your pain” and Simpson litanies a pile of hallucinogens before realising that love trumps the pills. As he recites this, some wonderfully old fashioned sonic gimmickry such as phasing and mellotron whoosh in giving the song a feel of The Byrds in their psychedelic phase as The Notorious Byrd Brothers. There’s also ‘It Ain’t All Flowers’ with backward tapes and flanging as the song mutates into a country cousin of The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ with stereo panning and all sorts of psychedelic stew thrown in. Reinforcing his hard as nails outlaw credentials, ‘Living The Dream’ is a fiery tour de force with Laur Joamets’ guitars on fire while Simpson transforms ‘The Promise’ (an eighties synth pop confection originally by When In Rome and which featured at the end of the movie, ‘Napoleon Dynamite’) into a stone cold country ballad which sounds as if it was written by the aforementioned Mr. Kristofferson.

Number 4: Carrie Rodriguez + The Sacred Hearts ‘Lola(2016)
The romance (and danger) of Mexico has long been a constituent part of Americana with songs, sometimes whole albums, based upon the various rhythms and varieties of Mexican music. On ‘Lola’, Carrie Rodriguez dives deep into her heritage to deliver a set of songs which were originally recorded in a golden age of Mexican pop music, interspersed with contemporary songs about being a Mexican in the modern USA. Her kick off point was the discovery that her great aunt, Eva Garza, was a popular singer in Mexico in the 1940s, leading Rodriguez to investigate others such as Chavela Vargas, Lydia Mendoza, Javier Solis and Lola Beltran. Rodriguez covers several of their songs on the album aided by her band The Sacred Hearts who are quite sublime with Bill Frisell on guitar particularly outstanding. But it’s Rodriguez’s passion which really elevates the album. Her voice and violin on ‘Frio En El Alma’ are a tour de force and her duet on the Merle Haggard themed ‘Que Manera De Perde’r ( in English, ‘What A Way To Lose’, written by Cuco Sanchez) with Luke Jacobs is quite heartbreaking. In fact, many of the songs here are soaked in tears and sumptuously so. On a more contemporary note, the intimate ‘The West Side’, Rodriguez’s reminiscence of being considered as “different” in her schooldays, reminds one that barriers are still all around us while ‘Llano Estacado’ captures the plight of Mexican immigrants with a terrifying degree of authenticity. ‘Lola’ is the perfect album to listen to if you are searching along that borderline.

Number 3: Songs Of Our Native DaughtersSongs Of Our Native Daughters’ (2019)
This 2019 release addresses the past and the present (even more so now than on its release) as it reclaimed the forgotten Negro roots of Americana and hit out powerfully against the insults and injustices suffered especially by black slave women. The quartet – Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Amythyst Kiah and Lela McCalla – are just astounding, each bring their own voice and experience to the project with a passion. There’s little else to say here about the album other than that it should reside in everyone’s collection. Ms. Giddons sums it up saying, “There is surely racism in this country—it’s baked into our oldest institutions—just as there is sexism, millennia old. At the intersection of the two stands the African American woman. Used, abused, ignored and scorned, she has in the face of these things been unbelievably brave, groundbreaking and insistent. Black women have historically had the most to lose, and have therefore been the fiercest fighters for justice. This album attempts to redress the balance and it does so with a mighty voice.” It has been gratifying to see Allison Russell and Amythyst Kiah’s solo careers take off since this album was released but we do long for a follow up from the quartet.

Number 2. Ian NoeBetween The Country’ (2019)
As a generation of valued and supremely talented singer/songwriters are leaving the planet at an annoying rate, we are sorely in need of their successors and this debut album from Kentucky’s Ian Noe places him at the forefront. It’s one of those rare albums which absolutely knocks you out on a first listen – surely it can’t be this good – so you play it again, and then again – and it is this good. Recalling The Band and their successors, The Felice Brothers, at times, the songs are sepia stained tales of hardship and woes, addiction and criminality, many influenced by tales from his native state. There’s the Band like delivery of ‘That Kind Of Life’ with its rolling organ and liquid guitar while the muddy ‘Dead On The River (Rolling Down’) slouches brilliantly over its five minutes. ‘Letter To Madeline’ is chilling, and ‘Junk Town’ is a perfect distillation of the enervation which accompanies a habit. ‘Meth Head’ takes this a step further as Noe describes a dystopian landscape populated by addicts. By the end of the album, the listener might be quite devastated but, like some of its subjects, begging to have another dose of it. For a debut album it’s quite spectacular and the follow up, due later this month, is eagerly awaited with fingers crossed that Noe can carry it off again.

Number 1: Colin Linden & Luther Dickinson with The Tennessee ValentinesAmour’ (2019)
What makes a great album great? I’d hazard that it’s one you continually return to, that you can’t get enough of and you really want to hear more. Well, that’s my relationship with this disc. If you reckon that John Hiatt’s ‘Bring The Family’ is the best loose limbed slice of humbucking rock’n’roll released, allow me to introduce you to a rival, an album which you can just wallow in, sucking in the juicy grooviness of it all. Linden (of Blackie & The Rodeo Kings) and Dickinson (North Mississippi Allstars) took a ragbag of vintage love songs, plucked from blues, country, soul and rock’n’roll and recorded them with an ace band. There’s a warm and inviting old fashioned feel to it – loose limbed with echoes of Sun studios and Memphis wax woven throughout. It’s raw in parts but elsewhere they explore the sonic possibilities of their guitars as on the closing ‘I Forgot To Remember To Forget’ where Linden and Dickinson are listed as playing “outer space!” The opening number, an instrumental version of ‘Careless Love’, is another opportunity for the pair to show off as Linden’s electric Dobro and Dickinson’s electric guitar slide and burn, recalling the spookiness of Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Dark Was The Night’ before the familiar melody eventually surfaces. They’re at their scariest on Bo Diddley’s ‘Dearest Darling’, the rawest song on the album. Linden sings the song as the pair scrub and flail, their guitars sounding primitive as hell. With some stunning vocals from Ruby Amanfu and Rachael Davis on many of the songs – ensuring this is not just a guys with guitars fest – this is joyous from start to finish.

About Paul Kerr 422 Articles
Still searching for the Holy Grail, a 10/10 album, so keep sending them in.
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Your list leaves me reeling and going out to research the group of mostly unknown to me material. See Keith Hargreaves review 2019 AUK of Chance Meyer and The Bloody 98’s ‘Ashdown’ Album and see if you don’t have another shot at the Holy Grail.