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

A list of the best albums of the 21st Century was always going to be a challenge, to whittle down the releases that have that special quality and to justify their presence on such a collection. Looking back at the last twenty-two years of albums, it’s fascinating to see my list and how many are from the first decade, and not many recent ones. Maybe that’s just the way the mind works – but the first decade of the millennia was an absolute golden period for quality music.

My taste tends to veer away from the obvious big names, which some may find heinous in the extreme. Over the last twenty years or so, I have been part of a small group of three like minded music fans, who meet around three times a year over some fine wine and equally fine food. We share tracks we think each other would like. Without hesitation, the ten tracks here have been played on those glorious evenings and my memories of these tracks are inevitably linked to those heady evenings of joyous musical reverie. I love a good tune and all of these albums contain some of the finest tunes, to my ears, of the last twenty odd years. It’s been a joy to compile this list and here’s to the next two decades.

Number 10: Thea Gilmore Liejacker (2008)
One of our finest performers, the immensely talented Thea Gilmore has been making stupendous music since her 1998 debut, releasing over twenty albums since then. ‘Liejacker’ was released in 2008 and includes a duet with Zutons frontman Dave McCabe and one with Joan Baez. The album features this fantastic song ‘Dance In New York’ which is one of her best. As Stephanie Merritt in The Observer said at the time it’s “simply a beautiful, deeply affecting piece of work”.

Number 9: Joe Purdy Only Four Seasons(2006)
Joe Purdy is an Arkansas based musician who since 2001 has built a really strong reputation over fourteen albums. He made his UK live debut with Tom McRae; has played with Pete Townshend; toured with Steve Earle; and had his songs featured in numerable US TV shows including ‘Lost’, ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ and ‘House’. His 2006 album ‘Only Four Seasons‘ was a more complete sounding album for him, with a full band – and all the better for it. ‘Andrea’ is a stand-out track.

Number 8: Mary Gauthier Mercy Now (2005)
Realising that Mary Gauthier didn’t write her first song until she was 35 is astonishing – but then she had a challenging life prior to her music career, coping with major addiction problems. She also ran away a lot and even became a successful Cajun restauranteur. But her musical career has been a glorious one, building with each album, until her masterpiece ‘Mercy Now.’ Gurf Morlix provides most of the instrumentation and this title track is gorgeous.

Number 7: The Ashtray Hearts ‘Perfect Halves’ (2005)
Minneapolis band The Ashtray Hearts have only released three albums to date. They describe their music as apartment music and they love the singer-songwriter aesthetic of early 1970’s Asylum Records artists. Their songs are mostly downbeat, with vocalist Dan Richmond providing suitably laid back delivery. But there’s something simply wonderful about their music and this track ‘On The Wires‘, from their second album ‘Perfect Halves’ perfectly demonstrates their fantastic musical ability.

Number 6: Over the Rhine ‘Drunkards Prayer’ (2005)
Being a couple as a band will always have it’s challenges. Pianist/guitarist/bassist Linford Detweiler and vocalist/guitarist Karin Bergquist have slimmed down from a band to a core duo in recent years. Over the course of sixteen albums their beautiful and haunting music has simply got better and better. They’ve shared the stage with Bob Dylan, John Prine, Squeeze and toured as adjunct members of The Cowboy Junkies. This lush and beautiful song is taken from their 2005 album of the same name and it soothes me every time I listen to it. Really special.

Number 5: Jeff Finlin Epinonymous (2004)
I’ve been following Jeff Finlin’s music ever since his debut and he’s a really talented guy. He’s a singer, songwriter, drummer, producer, poet, yoga enthusiast and all round witty guy. His songs look at the every man’s struggle against life and have a really literate feel to them. He also has a knack of writing killer tunes and this track ‘Forever Evergreen’ from 2004’s gloriously titled ‘Epinonymous’ album has a really distinctive and memorable feel, with his wonderfully raspy voice. I once produced a radio show where he was a guest and I gave him a lift back to where he was staying and it was one of the most hilarious and enjoyable car journeys I’ve ever had.

Number 4: Jim Bryson The Occasionals(2000)
Canadian musician Jim Bryson has been making cracking music since his solo debut back in 2000. He works extensively with Kathleen Edwards and has also recorded an album with The Weakerthans. His debut is a simply stunning collection of songs that culminates with album closer ‘One Cigarette’ – that after some lovely ‘dooby-do’s’ ends with some truly classy guitar rocking.

Number 3: Phil CampbellAfter The Garden (2008)
Scottish singer songwriter Phil Campbell has had a modest but notable solo career before going wild and becoming the force behind blues rockers The Temperance Movement, until his departure in 2021. He now fronts another rock band – The Byson Family. Originally though he was an aspiring solo artist with a wonderful voice and this album ‘After The Garden’ was hoped to finally give him the recognition he deserved. It didn’t quite happen, but this album contains a corker, in love song ‘Maps’ (which The Sunday Times at the time said was “one of the best love songs of the year”).

Number 2: Geraint WatkinsA Rush of Blood (2019)
I’ve been following Welsh pianist Geraint Watkins ever since he released the Andy Fairweather Low produced ‘Geraint Watkins and the Dominators’ album in 1979. It’s still one of my favourite albums of all time and ever since then he’s released a series of splendid solo albums, as well as going wild with the cajun band The Balham Alligators in the eighties. He finally made his best record (other than his debut) in 2019 with an album of songs produced by none other than Basement Jaxx’s Simon Ratcliffe. It’s a masterful album mixing haunting, laid back songs with some up tempo rockers. But this track ‘Heaven Only Knows‘ towers over the others and is one of my favourite songs of the last decade.

Number 1: Marah Kids In Philly(2000)
Brothers Dave and Serge Bielanko are the core of Philadelphia based band Marah and with truly astonishing musical accomplishment released a series of blistering albums starting in 1998 with the wonderfully titled ‘Let’s Cut The Crap & Hook Up Later On Tonight’. This, in turn, gave them the confidence to make their masterpiece ‘Kids In Philly’ in 2000 on Steve Earle’s label. Their musical influences shone bright on this album, including hints of Springsteen, Phil Spector and roots rock generally. Author Nick Hornby loved the album and a track off this album is on his Desert Island Discs. For me, though, ‘Round Eye Blues‘ is one of the most stirring, joyous and memorable americana songs ever recorded. It’s got a youthful exuberance of chutzpah that never dims. They perform this song live in the round now, acoustically, with the audience surrounding the two brothers and it makes me almost cry with joy every-time I see it performed.

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Cool list….some discoveries here!

Graeme Tait

Interesting list there Paul, including a couple of names new to me which I will go and check out.

Graeme Tait

There’s actually three Paul. Joe Purdy, Jeff Finlin, and Mariah, all from the first six years. Think I must have been hibernating or something, lol. Seriously though, one of the greatest joys is discovering great music that had somehow slipped under my radar. I will certainly be checking them out, so thank you.

Bob Wright

Kids in Philly is sublime.