Every year in recent times I seem to listen to fewer and fewer whole albums – it’s often a time issue, as creating the monthly supporters’ compilations along with trawling through dozens of submissions every week for review means that there really isn’t enough time to them all justice. Or maybe I’m just part of that generation raised on MTV who has the concentration of a gnat. Still, there were some albums which really did make their mark for me. Billy Bragg’s ‘The Million Things That Never Happened’ which mixed thoughts on the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and more broadly the changing political sphere was without a doubt my album of the year – to me it’s the best thing he’s ever done, and the americana vibe to it makes the songs shine. I also fell in love with Icarus Phoenix’s ‘No Tree Can Grow to Heaven Unless Its Roots Reach Down to Hell’ – Drew Danburry’s albums in whatever form they arrive are always a delight and so lyrically inventive. One minute a line will make me laugh out loud, the next he’ll say something so thoughtful it’ll take my breath away. And then there are both of Trevor Sensor’s ‘On Account of Exile’ records, Volumes 1 and 2, which are just incredible – I am genuinely astonished he’s not better known by now. Oh and along with everyone else, the Felice Brothers record of course which made me smile from beginning to end.
Anyway despite the above, I couldn’t come up with a convincing list of my favourite albums of the year, so went for tracks instead. Listening to the richness of submissions we’ve been sent over the last 12 months, it feels like as strong a year as any, despite the madness. And hey, if you’re an AUK supporter you’ll have heard all of them before.
Number 10: Flo Perlin “Baghdad”
It’s fair to say we don’t get too many submissions from Belarusian Iraqi artists here at AUK, but maybe we should have more on this evidence. This short but sweet album is a genuine revelation, and ‘Baghdad’ is perhaps the highlight from it – a beautiful vignette about a woman who longs to return to a place she’s never been but feels she knows from her heritage, full of evocative imagery and carried by her strikingly original voice.
Number 9: Billy Strings “In the Morning Light”
Billy Strings’ album was one of those records which just hit my radar at the end of the year, and it’s fair to say that we don’t feature that much bluegrass here on AUK. But it’s always been an area of americana I’ve had plenty of time for, and Billy Strings’ young age and versatility has given an energy to the genre which should take it to a whole legion of new listeners. His Dan Tyminski type voice and agile playing style carry a fairly long record through to the end without it ever sounding repetitive. The lament of ‘In the Morning Light’ – and that middle solo! – are hugely moving.
Number 8: Kat Wallace and David Sasso “Somes Pond”
And talking of bluegrass, it’s not often that an instrumental makes my songs of the year list, mainly because I have terrible recollection skills for music without words, but the second album by Kat Wallace and David Sasso contains some superb musicianship, best illustrated by the song ‘Somes Pond’, written at Somes Pond, Maine, which is more infectious than Omicron, with a lovely collaborative video presumably shot in lockdown to accompany it.
Number 7: Trevor Sensor “Chiron, Galactus”
Trevor Sensor is one of those artists who makes you sit up when you first hear his voice – it’s so familiar in one sense, with its echoes of the more jagged edges of early Dylan, but so distinctive in another – there’s just so much passion in it. You can hear it on every recording he makes, but on the video to the astonishing ‘Chiron, Galactus’ you can see it too. The way the song builds also highlights one of his real strengths – strong melodies coupled with some really creative arrangements, and not afraid to use keyboards or synths when they can add something. Honestly, this song is a stone cold classic but the album it’s from, and its successor are so good I’d secure my house on them.
Number 6: Lord Huron “Love Me Like You Used To”
Lord Huron are one of those bands that if you’ve watched any US drama on Netflix in recent years you’ve probably heard even when you don’t know you have. ‘Long Lost’ is such a triumph of an album from beginning to end – bits of it remind me of The Sadies or more generally long-forgotten Westerns – but ‘Love Me Like You Used To’ just makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, its chorus and ethereal ambience (supported by a slightly disturbing video in which the band’s faces are blurred out which features some of the characters of the album) sticking with you long after the song has finished playing. Also listen out for album opener ‘Mine Forever’. Maybe miss album closer ‘Time’s Blur’ unless you’re stoned.
Number 5: Icarus Phoenix “All the Same”
Icarus Phoenix is Utahn Drew Danburry’s latest project, someone who’s featured on AUK’s pages a lot over the years, and while Drew’s stuff is unfailingly involving, the second album proper by Icarus Phoenix ‘No Tree Can Grow to Heaven Unless Its Roots Reach Down to Hell’ is undoubtedly to these ears the highlight of his career so far. His songs are best experienced with his hand-drawn visuals. Exhibit A is the personally reflective ‘All The Same’ – with observations such as ‘What is wisdom? Is it similar to faith?’ he sometimes feels like a thinking man (or woman)’s version of They Might Be Giants. Admittedly it’s a push describing this as americana in the purest sense, but it’s my kind of americana and as a singer-songwriter, he never fails to hit the mark for me. Every time.
Number 4: Jason McNiff “Dust of Yesterday”
Another artist who has been a long time favourite here at AUK Towers is of course the lovely Mr Jason McNiff and the title track to his latest album ‘Dust of Yesterday’ is just one of the best songs he’s ever written. The melody and arrangement are just exemplary – not for the first time in this list there’s the spirit of Knopfler running through it – just listen to that guitar at 2.12 in which is one of my favourite instrumental breaks of music this year. So long as Jason is still making music, the UK americana scene is in a healthy place.
Number 3: Toad the Wet Sprocket “Hold On”
Toad the Wet Sprocket, the band named after a Monty Python sketch about Bob Harris, have been around for over three decades now, and despite their music veering closer to college-rock than alt-country, it has always had an americana vibe to it, as evidenced by lead singer Glenn Phillips playing the AMAUK festival in previous years. For me the new album was mixed but had some real highlights, one of which is the best Toad song in *years* (in 9 years at least) in the form of ‘Hold On’ which feels just as classic as something from their ‘Fear’ or ‘Dulcinea’ heyday. Again there are hints of Knopfler at points with the guitar, and the message hits home hard: “It’s not the end of the world, it’s not the worst of your fears… Its just the price for the last 500 years”.
Number 2: Billy Bragg “Mid-Century Modern”
I love two songs from the new Billy Bragg album so much that in the end I couldn’t decide on only one of them, and also couldn’t face them being anywhere in the list but at the top. I stood in Manchester’s Albert Hall last month with my dad while he played this song – my dad whose favourite bands are Cradle of Filth and Sepultura and who used to take us on CND marches when we were little – and he looked at me afterwards and said “God that really did make me think”. As someone myself who’s had deeply held lefty beliefs for most of my life, hearing Billy reflect that “I find it hard to think that it might help if I just stepped away” is tough. He never should of course. It also contains the classic line “Freedom’s just another word for acting with impunity” which applies to anti-Vaxxers, cancel culture, you name it – such an astute observation. And the song’s reference to kids pulling statues down reminds you that 2020 was about so much more than Covid. So much tbh in one song to think about – and that’s before we even get to the tune! What. A. Tune. Basically my song of the year, except for…
Number 1: Billy Bragg “Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained”
Written with his son about the perils of the internet, the title of ‘Ten Mysterious Photos That Can’t Be Explained’ comes from one of those links to articles that you see at the end of something you’ve been looking at, probably quite shit, almost certainly a disappointment, but 100% solid gold clickbait – which might seem like a trivial subject for a song, but actually it sums up so much of why developed nations’ populations teeter on the edge of progressive politics and online nihilism in which no-one is trusted, least of all anyone with any expertise on anything. It’s such a warm, funny song though – some of the most killer lines Billy has ever come out with: Try “There’s a downside if you have a curious mind, it’s like heroin for autodidacts” or how about “I’ve been down rabbit holes, I’ve seen the rabid trolls, Cackling in the twilight of the Age of Reason.” It also begins by name-checking a lesser known Orwell novel. The melody and the way the song’s rollicking arrangements move it along – it’s just a joy to behold from beginning to end, and a song I imagine I will never hear of tiring to my grave.
And as a bonus, although it’s not really americana, if you press play, this is my favourite 40 odd seconds of music of the year – and an incredibly powerful video to accompany it. Midnight Oil have always been ahead of their time on the environment, but as they point out, time is what we don’t have any more. 2050 really is too far way. Up the Oils!
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