I’m not going to lie. I was, shall we say, apprehensive about putting this list together. I had thoughts of, ‘Have I picked the kind of artists I should choose?’ but then, ultimately I came to the conclusion that one of the (many) perks of writing for AUK is that when these feature pieces come up, we are allowed to be completely self-indulgent. Yes, there are a lot of legendary and more often seen in these kinds of things that I do enjoy, but these are the artists I come to time and time again because I can rely on them for quality; I know that something about their music always hits the right spot – whether I’m having a good, bad or indifferent day – and there is a tremendous comfort in finding that.
I feel, however, that should prefix this by saying that this list is by no means finite: Part of the joy of being a music lover is always discovering wonderful new artists, so who knows who might be on here in a year or two. But regardless, for now I’ll leave you with this list and say that even if some of these may not be “cool” or fitting with what is expected, they’re what I love and that’s the highest praise I can offer.
Number 10: Stephanie Lambring
I’ll be honest, Lambring makes this list mainly for her 2020 album ‘Autonomy’ since her previous release (‘Lonely to Alone’) almost a decade earlier is only available as odd tracks these days (for me anyway since it passed me by at the time) and she doesn’t have any other officially released material, but oh boy, what an album ‘Autonomy’ is. I think it’s probably the most instantly connected and moved I’ve felt by music in a long while and that’s really very special – so much so that I am certain I will love whatever Lambring gives us next.
Number 9: Brandy Clark
I really liked Clark’s first two albums just fine, but it was my love for ‘Your Life is a Record’ that gave her the advantage when I was making this list (perhaps partly due to the fact it was released 6th March 2020 and well, you can fill in the rest of the gaps). Unlike her previous records, this one is all from Clark’s own life, the very personal and honest portrait of the breakdown of a long term relationship, and it’s all the better for it.
Number 8: Ruston Kelly
If I’m being honest, Kelly’s latest album ‘The Weakness’ probably ranks last for me in terms of enjoyment out of the three albums he’s released (maybe my expectations were a little high for a post-divorce album), but then ‘Dying Star’ is so good that he could release 12 albums solely consisting of the sound of tractor engines and still make it into my top 10. For my money, there aren’t many better album openers in recent years than ‘Cover My Tracks’.
Number 7: Will Hoge
Given I’ve written an ‘Essentials’ article on Hoge, it is not surprising that I felt the need to include him here. He’s an immense talent in all the key areas (vocals, lyrics and musicianship), never missing the mark when it comes to releasing an album, but more than that, he’s an electric live performer than can still be seen at venues with a wonderful intimacy (even if he arguably deserves more) and you’d be a fool to miss him.
Number 6: Jeff Buckley
Maybe my only pick that might go into the ‘legendary’ category, but the impact he made with one studio album really proves his talent. Sure, it’s his incredible vocals you might first be taken by, but step back and you’ll see that his songwriting is like no one else’s either. ‘Dream Brother’, a song about the damage generational hate and prejudice causes, is sadly just as relevant now as it was upon its release in 1994.
Number 5: Brandi Carlile
I stand by my statement that Buckley is the only legendary artist on this list, but then Carlile feels like she is sliding into the spot of living legend seamlessly as she produces album after album of exceptional quality. Her vocals are peerless, their power demonstrated nowhere more skilfully than on ‘Right on Time’ from 2021’s ‘In These Silent Days’.
Number 4: Tony Lucca
He may not be a name well known around these parts, but he was one of my first breaches into the world of americana and I’m enormously thankful for such. But more than that, he’s someone whose lyrics never fail to make me feel, and really isn’t that what the best music does? If you’d like an idea of his talents, I truly think ‘The Hustler, the Widow, and the Boy from Detroit’ ranks as one of the best pieces of lyric writing that I’ve heard.
Number 3: Father John Misty
I debated a bit whether Josh Tillman was americana enough to make this list, but given the often long winded storytelling he does (see ‘Leaving LA’) and the fact he was once part of stalwart americana act Fleet Foxes, I think he’s earned the right to be included. If you’re looking for the most genre-friendly of his work, ‘God’s Favorite Customer’ is a fine piece of seemingly autobiographical storytelling about a crisis in a relationship that borders on being a concept album.
Number 2: Jason Isbell
What can be said about Isbell that hasn’t already been said? It feels like everyone who considers themselves a fan of americana considers themselves a fan, and for good reason. I’m not sure anyone else would be able to work with the dark subject matter of shooting the father of an abused girl as masterfully as Isbell does on ‘Yvette’, let alone somehow manage to add biting humour to the heart wrenching and personal tale of a friend dying of cancer that he does on ‘Elephant’.
Number 1: Lori McKenna
It’s not just McKenna’s repeated excellence album after album of her own that made me put her at the number one spot, but also the amazing breadth of material she has written with and for other artists (often, but not always, with the Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose under their self styled Love Junkies moniker). Mainstream Nashville country, Texas country, folk and americana, she can do it all and she does it with grace and aplomb time after time – writing a murder ballad like ‘American Revolver’ just as masterfully as she might any love song.