Looking back over some of the other articles in this series it’s a little reassuring to see that many of my fellow AUK scribes have struggled a bit with this one. As several have noted, choosing a Top 10 for the 21st Century, when we’re little more than 20% of the way through it, is challenging. What will stand the test of time? How well will some of these records hold up in five, ten, twenty years’ time?! When we chose our original Top 10 lists it was still difficult but this was music we’d grown old with and we knew that, to our ears, some of the records from the 70s and 80s still sounded as fresh today as they did when we first heard them.
I decided the only way I could approach this was to go by what is currently played most often in my own home. These are ten albums that regularly get played in our house and which, I think, I’ll continue to play over the coming years, so this is my Top 10 of the 21st Century at this particular point in time. As always, it could be completely different next week….
Number 10: Robert Plant “Band of Joy” (2010)
In 2007 Plant and Alison Krauss released the outstanding “Raising Sand” album. Plant credited this, and working with Krauss, for opening his ears to americana music and the potential it offered. So, he assembled a band that included singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, multi-instrumentalist session man, Darrell Scott and all-around americana genius, Buddy Miller, and set out to make his own americana album. While I was never a Led Zep fan, I’ve become a great admirer of Robert Plant in recent years. This is a man who really never needs to work again and, if he did need a few bob at some point, could just team up with the remaining ex-members of his old band and pretty much demand any amount they wanted, secure in the knowledge there would be a queue of promoters willing to pay. But Plant remains a man in thrall to the challenge of producing good and interesting music, a challenge he has continually risen to and with continuing success over recent years. While I enjoy his albums made with Alison Krauss this is his standout americana album for me. His version of the old Louvin Brothers standard ‘Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down’ and his reading of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘Harms Swift Way’ are the best tracks for me but the whole album has a shimmering beauty that makes it an almost gothic version of americana and a true attempt to bring something different to the genre.
Number 9: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “Live from the Ryman” (2018)
I do like a good live recording and this is a great record. It’s hard to imagine that you could have a Top 10 of the 21st Century, especially at this point in the century, and not include Jason Isbell. Since he left the Drive-By Truckers back in 2007 he seems to have gone from strength to strength and his band has to be one of the best live acts around these days. ‘Live From the Ryman’ captures all the excitement of Isbell and his band in full flow. There’s something about the Ryman that always pulls great performances from a band so it’s a perfect venue in which to make a live recording. I’m a particular fan of Amanda Shires’ fiddle playing and Sadler Vaden plays some superb guitar. Isbell himself is on fine form and the whole band plays out of their skins on every track, and the track selection is just perfect. If you only ever buy one live album from the 21st Century, it should be this one.
Number 8: The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow” (2011)
This album just secured a place in my original ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’ list, creeping in at number 10. On that list I described their fantastic harmonies as “lightning in a bottle” and nothing has changed that view. John Paul White and Joy Williams were that rare pairing of two voices that complemented each other perfectly and I still find this album a real pleasure to listen to. Since the duo went their separate ways, I’ve continued to listen to White and he has produced some excellent solo recordings but nothing quite as soul-stirring as his work with Williams. It should be remembered what an impact this album made when it came out. It won two Grammy Awards and the duo picked up a host of other awards and award nominations. The BBC said of the album “A timeless, anachronistic record, Barton Hollow could be from 30 years ago, or it could be from 30 years hence. What’s certain, though, is that you truly feel it in the here and now,” which, for me, perfectly sums up this recording.
Number 7: William Bell “This Is Where I Live” (2016)
If anyone had told me, back in 2000, that the man who sang ‘Private Number’ and co-wrote ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ would, one day, be in my Top 10 americana albums of the 21st Century, I would probably have wondered which illicit substance they were on. The fact is that this is a terrific album – one that was good enough to win Bell, at the age of 78, a Grammy for the ‘Best Americana Album’ of the year in 2017. An award he shared with his producer, the ever-brilliant John Leventhal. This is as fine a slice of country soul as you could wish to hear. From the haunting, autobiographical title track to the sucker punch of ‘Poison in the Well’ and the countryfied take on ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’ this album is proof that good musicians don’t fade with age but seek new directions and different challenges. And that voice is such a glorious instrument in its own right.
Number 6: James McMurtry “Complicated Game” (2015)
This was a really difficult choice. I like McMurtry’s work a lot and there were three contenders for this slot. 2005’s ‘Childish Things’ was a real consideration, as was his most recent album ‘The Horses and the Hounds’, which I reviewed for AUK when it came out. In the end, after listening to them back to back, it’s ‘Complicated Game’ that shades it for me. It’s an album that tends to divide people, and I quite like that. It’s also generally considered to be a return to McMurtry’s more downbeat nature and I like that too. For me, he’s one of the great laconic lyricists of americana. I love the way he constructs his songs and the way he can tell a story so economically. Songs like ‘South Dakota’ and ‘Copper Canteen’ are a bleak portrayal of rural American life that leave you in little doubt of where his political affinities lie. It’s a reflective album and there’s not a lot of joy here but few artists do moody as well as McMurtry and, of course, it has the glorious ‘Forgotten Coast’ and ‘These Things I’ve Come to Know’, two of my favourite McMurtry songs. It’s a fine representation of one of americana’s best songwriters.
Number 5: Hannah Aldridge “Gold Rush” (2017)
This is another album I reviewed for AUK and it’s one that has stayed with me and which I go back to time after time. When I reviewed it I gave it a fairly miserly 8/10 and I have to say that, if I were to re-evaluate it now, it would be a solid 10/10. At the time I summed Aldridge up as “A veritable star in the making – the future Queen of Southern Gothic.” ‘Gold Rush’ has everything I love in americana music: great songs, a terrific voice that drips with southern sass, and excellent musicianship. That man Sadler Vaden is there again, ripping out some superb guitar riffs and the production is top-notch. It was a great album when I reviewed it and it’s an even better one after five years of listening to it. She will be a big star one day.
Number 4: Billy Strings “Renewal” (2021)
The most recent release in my Top 10 but I have no doubt about Billy Strings’ longevity as an artist and the enduring nature of this album. He is, as many have noticed, a phenomenal player, but this is, in my opinion, the album where he stepped up and became more than just a fast bluegrass guitarist. There’s a maturity to this recording that belies Strings’ 29 years and it is loaded with good songs and outstanding musicianship. Billy Strings is an artist with his feet firmly planted in the traditions of bluegrass but with his head and heart focused on the future potential of the genre and that makes him a very exciting musician indeed.
Number 3: Gretchen Peters “Hello Cruel World” (2012)
My top three really are separated by the thinnest of margins. This is an album that also made my original ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’ and it gains a couple of places due to the concentration on 21st-century releases. I think this is an outstanding album from an artist who, in my opinion, has never made a bad one. I only recently wrote about Gretchen Peters in my ‘I Write the Songs’ series and I highlighted this as an important album for her. Her writing is always top-notch but this album features so many good songs, all beautifully delivered, that it has to be her standout album to date, though I don’t doubt there’ll be more and possibly better. Simply one of the best songwriters in this genre.
Number 2: Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer “Not Dark Yet” (2017)
What a superb album this is. Fellow AUK writer, Alan Fitter, had it as his number one album and it came so very close to taking that spot on my list. I’m a long-time fan of Shelby Lynne. She has such a good voice and is a beautiful interpreter of songs. Her ability to get into a song and pull all the emotion to the surface is the mark of a special singer. Allison Moorer came to prominence, for me, when she worked with her then-husband, Steve Earle. Since separating from Earle she has emerged as a strong musician in her own right and seems to go from strength to strength as a performer and writer. Coming together for the first time on record, this album shows what a tour de force their combined talents can be. Their sound is one of both fragility and strength and the darkness of their back story, combined with the choice of tracks on this album, shows an ability to tap into emotions that few would be brave enough to tackle. Credit should also go to Teddy Thompson for the excellent production; it would take a very good album indeed to keep this from my number one slot.
Number 1: Steve Earle “Ghosts of West Virginia” (2020)
And this would be the very good album in question. For me, Steve Earle is the outstanding americana artist of his generation. His early work showed a very special talent but, since the turn of the century, Earle’s recordings have grown in artistry and quality. When I did my ‘Essential Steve Earle Albums’ list, this didn’t place so highly but it’s one of those albums that just grows and grows. While I like his recent albums focused on the work of his mentors Earle is, first and foremost, a songwriter and this, in my opinion, is the pinnacle of his writing to date. Every one of these songs resonates with me. My own family has history in the mining industry in the UK and I know, through them, what a tough job mining is. Earle brings those difficulties out through the songs on this album but he also brings out the sense of community and heritage that are attached to the industry, through songs like ‘Union, God and Country’ and ‘It’s About Blood’, as well as the terrible consequences of life down the pit, through the outstanding ‘Black Lung’. It’s a beautifully realised set of songs about a way of life that transcends the mines of West Virginia and can be applied wherever men descend into the seams of coal to make a living. Perhaps it’s appropriate that my top americana album of the 21st century is about a way of life that will likely be extinct long before this century is over. Americana music is often about documenting our lives and the lives of those around us. Nobody does that better than Steve Earle and this album shows exactly why.