It can be easy to wallow in the past with so many classic albums to choose from, but as my much younger colleague Kimberley Bright pointed out in her entry in this series, so many artists that are regarded as ‘established’ have only recorded in the last twenty years. Having said that it has also been a golden time for more established artists. In the end when I sat down to compile a list, it largely wrote itself, with only a couple of fights that squeezed out a few more recent albums that haven’t quite taken root yet.
Number 10: Nick Lowe ‘The Convincer’ (2001)
Interestingly this has already featured in a couple of other lists, and there’s a reason for that, it’s a fabulous album. A distillation of Lowe’s career with elements that go all the way back to Brinsley Schwarz and beyond. Mature, mostly fairly gentle, songwriting that clearly speaks to those of us of a certain generation. Pop, country, and soul blend seamlessly to create one of the standout americana albums of any century. Songs like ‘Poor Side of Town’ and ‘Homewrecker’ are wryly observational, and then ‘Has She got a Friend’ is a classic rock and roll song that would site with any of the classics.
Number 9: Bob Dylan “Rough and Rowdy Ways” (2020)
The album that finally convinced me on Dylan. Proving that after nearly 40 studio albums he still has something to say. Recorded on the back of what were reported as some of the best shows on the ‘Never Ending Tour’ in years. New blood in his band, and a new vigour to his writing. That he can come up with lines like; “I sleep with life and death in the same bed”, in a song called ‘I Contain Multitudes’ after having said so much over the decades makes him truly one of the wonders of the musical world.
Number 8: Emma Swift “Blonde on the Tracks” (2020)
The album that opened my mind to Dylan’s songwriting. I heard this at about the same time as the new Dylan comparing the two versions of ‘I Contain Multitudes’ was educational to say the least. By avoiding some of the obvious options I’m sure Swift has brought as many fans to Dylan as to her own music. With the Byrds style arrangement of ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ and the Roy Orbison guitar on ‘Simple Twist of Fate’ she lets the songs speak for themselves by placing them in their ideal settings.
Number 7: Ric Hordinski “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” (2003)
As the guitarist in Over The Rhine for many years Hordinski contributed the signature sound of many to their best songs. As the core of Karin Bergquist and Linford Detweiler moved towards a more acoustic based sound, he took the original more indie rock-oriented blueprint and created a magical album that sits halfway between the folk leanings of his former band mates and The Cocteau Twins. Indeed, Robin Guthrie has followed a similar path in his recent releases. Atmospheric electric guitar flows through the whole album, and it comes as no surprise to find that he has worked extensively in film. If you don’t know this album, then it’s definitely time to rectify that.
Number 6: Tift Merritt ”Home Is Loud” (2005)
While Merritt has mostly been on the more electric side of americana her studio albums tend to the highly produced in some cases. So, this live much rawer take on some of her early songs was a welcome surprise. Less country, more rock and roll. The harder sound suits her voice, and the punchier arrangements help some of the songs that had drifted past me on record. I know some people are not big fans of live albums, but for me they can often up open up a different view of an artist’s work. The Santana style guitar solo on ‘Ain’t Looking Closely’ is the best bit of a great album.
Number 5: Elizabeth Cook “Exodus Of Venus” (2016)
When she was interviewed by NPR about this album Cook said it; “took six years to make, after deaths in the family, divorce, rehab and a whirlwind romance”. The dark words, “I’ve been livin’ on pain” she cries on a song called ‘Dyin’ are reflected in the music, full of Hammond organ and biting guitars. Any album with a song called ’Broke Down in London on the M25’ which turns out to be more about mental turmoil than the physical pain of that awful road needs your attention. You wouldn’t wish the experiences that brought these songs to life on anyone, but it is a great record.
Number 4: Robert Jon and the Wreck “Last Light on The Highway” (2020)
One of the benefits of writing for AUK is that you get to hear some albums that would pass you by otherwise. Equal parts, Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers, and Southern soul, this album brightened 2020 considerably. My tickets for their tour in May are already bought and I can’t wait to see them live, as this and it’s follow up have turned them into a new favourite band.
Number 3: Kate Rusby “Hand Me Down” (2020)
For one of the leading contemporary English folk singers, Rusby takes herself less than seriously. As a “lockdown project” her singy songy sessions were one of the few things I followed consistently. Like many musicians she made a virtue out of necessity and turned out an album that was a wish list project. Rusby says that these were the songs she grew up with. Yes, it is more pop than her usual work, but she makes them her own. Yes, the videos verged on the twee, but who cares when the (clearly recorded for her daughters) version of Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake it Off’ is this good.
Number 2: Emmylou Harris “Stumble into Grace” (2003)
The shift in direction ‘Wrecking Ball’ represented was the start of a journey that took Harris to this record. Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Buddy and Julie Miller had become regular collaborators in both writing and playing. Gentler than the 1995 album it reconciles her folk roots to the country music that Gram Parsons led her to. Producer Malcolm Burn records her sympathetically and her own songwriting has grown stronger. This may be where the ghost of Parsons was laid to rest.
Number 1: Over The Rhine “Meet Me At The Edge Of The World” (2013)
My favourite band, bar none. Their second double studio album after ‘Ohio’ songs just pour out of Karen Bergquist and Linford Detweiler it seems. The quality is so unfailingly high that you have to wonder how they achieve this and what ends up on the cutting room floor. The intimate soulful songs on this album and Joe Henry’s atmospheric production make this their best album this century. Although ‘The Long Surrender’ is close behind. When they last toured here in 2017 ‘Our Favorite Time Of Light’, and ‘Earthbound Love Song’ stood alongside older classics like ‘Latter Days’.