AUK’s Top 10 Americana Albums of the 21st Century: Sean Hannam

Choose my top 10 americana albums of the 21st century? Tough call. To make it easier on myself, I tried not to deliberate too long on what would make the cut  – there was no whittling down from a lengthy list of contenders. Instead, I opted for records that had had a big influence on me – those that first got me into the genre – some that I’ve played a lot over the past few years and even a release from 2022 that is up there with the best of ’em. Let the pub arguments commence…

Number 10: Quiet Loner Spectrology’ (2010)
‘Spectrology’, the second album by UK singer-songwriter, Matt Hill, the artist previously known as Quiet Loner, was recorded in rural Leicestershire, during one bleak midwinter. It’s stark, stripped-down, skeletal and very atmospheric – a collection of haunting country-folk songs about love, life, death and ghosts. Hill’s voice is high in the mix – when he sings, it’s as if he’s sat right behind you. Spooky stuff.

Number 9: My Darling Clementine ‘How Do You Plead?’ (2011)
The debut album by husband-and-wife UK country duo Michael Weston King and Lou Dalgleish. Clearly in the tradition of great male and female country duets by the likes of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, but also inspired by the deft songwriting of Elvis Costello, ‘How Do You Plead?’ is wry and witty, and sometimes sad and moving, but it’s always classy. There’s a tear in My Darling Clementine’s beer and, every so often, a tongue in their cheek.

Number 8: The RailsCancel The Sun’ (2019)
Another record by a married couple… For their third album, ‘Cancel The Sun’, The Rails – James Walbourne and Kami Thompson – moved away from their folk-rock roots – no fiddles or songs about sailors – and cranked up the electric guitars. Their trademark harmonies were still firmly in place, but this time around we got power-pop and new wave (‘Call Me When It All Goes Wrong’,Ball and Chain’,Waiting On Something’); ‘60s-tinged country-soul (‘Something Is Slipping My Mind’), and Beatlesy psychedelia (the title track). This big-sounding record was produced by Stephen Street, ( Morrissey, Blur, The Cranberries), Apparently, The Rails are currently on hold, as guitar hero Walbourne concentrates on his rock ‘n’ roll duo, His Lordship. It’s a shame, but, in the meantime, we still have Cancel The Sun, which is dazzling.

Number 7: Dead Flowers ‘Midnight At The Wheel Club’ (2013)
Recorded late at night, in wintry conditions, ‘Midnight At The Wheel Club’, the debut album by now defunct, London-based alt-country band, Dead Flowers, is an intimate and dark record – full of confessional songs inspired by gravel-voiced frontman/ singer-songwriter Ian Williams’ travels through New York and Montreal. Take a trip to a deserted Coney Island fairground (‘Wonderwheel’), cry your eyes out to the mournful piano ballad, ‘Supernova’, which, to quote a lyric from the song, is sadder than a dying star, or gaze wistfully out at the ocean for the funereal, but redemptive, sea shanty, The Beach. If you like Mark Lanegan, try this.

Number 6: The Hanging Stars ‘Hollow Heart’ (2022)
The most recent entry in my Top 10 is a record from this year. The Hanging Stars are one of the best americana bands around and ‘Hollow Heart’ is their greatest album yet. Decamping to Edwyn Collins’ studio in the Highlands of Scotland with producer /musician, Sean Read, (Soulsavers, Dexys Midnight Runners), London’s kings of cosmic country made a brilliantly cohesive and immersive record that’s their first for the Loose label. Its influences include Big Star, The Velvet Underground, The Byrds, Fairport Convention and The Flying Burrito Brothers, but The Hanging Stars’ shimmering sound still shines through. Is it folk? Is it country? Is it psych? Who cares? It’s all of those things and more. Wonderful.

Number 5: Bennett Wilson Poole  Bennett Wilson Poole’ (2018)
In 2018, supergroup Bennett Wilson Poole – Robin Bennett (The Dreaming Spires) Danny Wilson (Grand Drive, Danny and the Champions of the World) and Tony Poole (‘70s rockers Starry Eyed and Laughing – ‘the English Byrds’) –  released their seriously impressive debut album. Produced by Poole – the king of the 12-string electric Rickenbacker guitar – in his home studio in rural Oxfordshire, it’s a totally cosmic trip that’s high on harmonies and brimming with glorious melodies. This is a set of instantly memorable and brilliantly crafted songs that are steeped in classic ‘60s and ‘70s rock/pop, but don’t shy away from tackling contemporary social issues. I wonder when its follow-up will come out?

Number 4: Jerry Leger Nonsense and Heartache’ (2018)
Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s breakthrough album in the UK was a double affair. Produced by Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), the first half – ‘Nonsense’ – showcased his love for raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll, while the second record, ‘Heartache’, was stripped-down alt-country, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle. Put them together and you have an album that is easily as good as those classic early Ryan Adams long-players, ‘Heartbreaker’ and ‘Gold’. Leger has just finished a UK and European tour – him and his band, The Situation, were on fire, and it was great to hear some of the songs from ‘Nonsense and Heartache’ in the set. He’s one of my favourite americana artists and this was the record that got me into him, so it had to make the list.

Number 3: Chris Mills ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ (2000)
Along with Ryan Adams’ ‘Heartbreaker’, which came out the same year – 2000 – ‘Kiss It Goodbye’ is one of the best break-up albums of all time. Both records where released when I was 26 and having a hard time emotionally  – they were hardly off my stereo that year and were my gateway into alt-country. From defiant power-pop (‘Brand New Day’), painfully honest and aching country (‘Watch Chain’), the brutal and unsettling, ‘Napkin In A Wine Glass’, which deals with domestic violence, and lo-fi Phil Spector (‘Signal/Noise’), this is a remarkable collection of songs. Speaking to AUK about the record in 2020, Mills said: “My twenties were a terrible mix of alcohol, anxiety and low self-esteem. I think a lot of the songs are a pretty accurate reflection of that.” I’ll drink to that.

Number 2: John Murry The Graceless Age’ (2012)
When it was released in 2012, Tupelo-born singer-songwriter John Murry’s stunning solo debut, ‘The Graceless Age’, made Uncut, Mojo and The Guardian’s albums of the year lists and he was compared to similar tortured artists like Mark Lanegan and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. Dark and disturbing, with the shadow of death hanging over it – just listen to the piano-led, 10-minute epic, ‘Little Colored Balloons’, which was written about a near-fatal drug overdose – it’s also, at times, a very beautiful record. Murry made The Graceless Age’ with his musical mentor and co-producer, Tim Mooney, (American Music Club) who gives these confessional and intimate songs a warm, almost symphonic feel, but also creates some genuinely unsettling moments. Recently reissued on vinyl for Record Store Day, it’s an essential americana album.

Number 1: Ryan Adams ‘Heartbreaker’ (2000)
Ryan Adams’ debut solo album and still his best – although 2020’s ‘Wednesdays’ – a return to his country roots – gives it a run for its money. ‘Heartbreaker’ is one of the records that kickstarted my love of americana and alt-country, when I was 26 and going through a difficult and dark time in my life. ‘Come Pick Me Up’ is one of the greatest songs ever written. All together now: “Take me out, f*** me up, steal my records, screw all my friends. They’re all full of shit.”  When he’s doing country, Adams is brilliant – when he’s doing ’80s soft rock, metal and power ballads, he’s best avoided.

About Sean Hannam 76 Articles
Freelance journalist, editor and presenter. Digs retro specs,The Smiths,Dylan,Cash,Richard Hawley, Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood, country / Americana and '50s/'60s pop.
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This list is a total head scratcher. Feels more like a nostalgic walk down the author’s pasts (which he acknowledges) vs a list of list of influential and impactful albums (with the exception of heartbreaker). Why not just call it MY favorite americana albums of the the 21 century .