At AUK we are now well into our quest to find the ‘Top 10 Americana Albums Ever’. Over the coming weeks and months each AUK writer will in turn, present their own personal selections. When each writer has had their say, a shortlist of the most frequently chosen albums will be drawn up and voted on, in order to generate the definitive AUK writers top ten. This week’s writer placing his head on the block is Paul Villers.
Our man Clint West bravely suggested that all of Americana UK’s writing team compile their individual all time top ten “Americana” albums and at the end have a tally up and see what comes out on top. Well one person’s ‘brave’ is another person’s ‘foolhardy’ (although you’ve got to admire the ambition) but we plough on regardless. What we can be certain of is that it won’t come to fisticuffs because we all have a certain respect for each other (and our readership) that comes from a shared passion – some might say unhealthy addiction – to good music and banging tunes. This time I get to have my say. It’s all good because I have my tin-foil hat and bullet proof vest close at hand.
Number Ten: The Gourds “Heavy Ornamentals” (2006) If someone had said to my teenage self that an alt-country record by some blokes out of Austin, Texas playing traditional acoustic instruments would be one of my favourite albums I’d have probably poked them in the eye. But you grow up…eventually. There are other offerings out there which might have made the cut but this has humour, tight-as-a-ducks-arse (and that’s watertight) playing and an ‘I don’t care’ quality which hits the spot.
Number Nine: Bernard Fanning “Tea and Sympathy” (2005) The Australian guy who used to be in the band Powderfinger (ref: Neil Young but I’m not sure why) released this as his first solo record. Nothing before or since in his output can match this for songwriting, playing and singing ability. Just a shame that people who I mentioned it to tried to correct me to saying Bernard Manning. That’ll never leave me.
Number Eight: Ryan Adams “Gold” (2001) This guy was probably at the top of the list as regards entry to the modern Americana genre for me. Produced by Ethan Johns who has a track record in producing fabulous records (most likely thanks to inherited genes from his dad Glynn who can pretty much be regarded as ‘production’ royalty). Adam’s star has since fallen personally and professionally, obviously, but that was after my discovery of him.
Number Seven: Bob Dylan “More Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits” (1971) I have the vinyl version of this double album. Maybe because I have the actual ‘record’ it’s called what it is. I believe that subsequent CD releases (which omit ‘Positively Fourth Street’ on the tracklisting) are called ‘Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume Two’. I prefer my stated nomenclature. Sadly neither analogue or digital versions include ‘The Man In Me’ which is why I was tempted to go for the ‘New Morning’ album. But this is Dylan at his absolute, imperious best and I don’t care if people get ‘sniffy’ about “Best Of’s…”
Number Six: Van Morrison “…His Band And The Street Choir” (1970) On an alternate list for an alternate website in an alternate universe Van could quite possibly occupy five of any top ten places in my affections. There’s only room for one here however and it has to be this. George Ivan Morrison pays his dues to American music and it takes its place in my hall of fame. The breadth and depth of his appreciation of music from across the Atlantic whilst maintaining a peculiarly homespun (possibly even parochial) touch pushes my buttons like no other.
Number Five: The Miserable Rich “Twelve Ways To Count” (2008) Most who have heard this collection of tunes would take me to task questioning, as we music aficionados are wont to do, whether it ‘fits’. Is it ‘on genre’ Paul they say. Does it ‘fit’ Paul, they shout. My response is this: I got sent it to review under the auspices of Americana UK, I did my reviewing duty and it got my first (and a very rare) ten out of ten. Listen and love. As we never tire of saying: ‘It’s a broad church’. Acoustic chamber pop folk country doesn’t even get close by way of description. Fabulous does.
Number Four: The Kinks “Muswell Hillbillies” (1971) Who is the best songwriter ever in the history of songwriters, do you suppose? Answers will doubtless be included on a postcard. Maybe Ray Davies could be on that list? He’s in with a shout from my perspective. This was the record which was supposed to allow The Kinks back into America following a ban by what was the US equivalent of The Musicians Union back then. It failed. But, as an historic document of pale, fey English boys trying to do ‘American’ it stands not only the test of time but the test of whether it was any good. It is good. Proto-country rock, vaudeville, music hall, Tin-Pan Alley…it is all here for those with eyes to see and ears to listen.
Number Three: Neil Young “Zuma” (1975) Have you ever woken up on a Sunday morning thinking “What The Actual Fuck Did I Do Last Night? I feel very poorly. I hope that my mum doesn’t find out. I mean I can’t actually put my finger on what it was that I did wrong but I feel a bit guilty. My head hurts. I’ve no money left in my wallet. And only three fags left in my packet. No problem: I’ll spin some tunes until I recover.” Three fags used to see me through ‘Zuma’ which, with its mix of acoustic loveliness, snarling guitar and sheer noise (cf: “Cortez The Killer”), was enough to convince me that I wasn’t dead and I could go out and do it all again next week (or, at a push, that Sunday night).
Number Two: Nicolai Dunger “Tranquil Isolation” (2002) To lay my cards on the table I am a Dunger ‘uber-fan’. The Swedish wunderkind has done all sorts from avant garde folk-jazz to skewed-pop to country-techno-blues. You pays your money and takes your choice. This collaboration with Bonny Prince Billy and his brother is just one facet of his extraordinary ability. The voice/vocal performance makes me melt. The production (for which read: “someone turn the recorder on would you”) is as authentic as you’ll ever here. I’ll be that puddle in the corner if you need me.
Number One: Wilco “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” (2001) You might not think that I know much about defining genres. You might not think that I know much about defining specific genres such as ‘Americana’. I do know that I have been involved with Americana UK for fifteen years or so. I also know that this is the best ‘Americana’ record I have ever heard in those fifteen years. Take a bloke in Jeff Tweedy who was at the cutting edge of taking and defining a genre who then takes that genre and sits it on its head. Completely redefines it pretty much single handed. Bizarre. Extraordinary. I’ve thought about it long and hard but I don’t think genius is too strong a word. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is one of the best popular music records ever made.