Welcome to a brand new feature. At AUK we are on a 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. So whilst we all have sleepless nights whittling the whole history of Americana down to just 10 albums, you can sit back and cast a critical eye. Both nods of approval and sighs of incredulity are fully expected. We welcome your comments and observations in the box provided at the bottom of the page.
Bravely or foolishly putting his head on the block to kick off the series is Clint West.
NUMBER 10: The Jayhawks ‘Hollywood Town Hall’ (1992)
The Jayhawks’ third album saw the band reach a peak that was nudged a few times during a remarkably consistent career, but never quite surpassed. Rolling Stone called it “their definitive statement”. The Mark Olson and Gary Louris partnership worked perfectly on the album and however brilliantly Louris reinvented the band following Olson’s departure, this for me remains their finest hour (or at least 42 minutes and 36 seconds).
NUMBER 9: Townes Van Zandt – ‘Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas’ (1977) Although it was released in 1977, the album was actually recorded in 1973. By this time Townes had written most of his best songs, spread across six albums. But whereas some of those albums were overproduced, this sparse live album captured the real essence of Townes at his peak. A wonderful testament to a genuine legend.
NUMBER 8: The Byrds – ‘Sweetheart of the Rodeo’ (1968) Gram Parsons had to be represented here. I could just as easily have picked The Flying Burritos ‘Gilded Palace of Sin’ or Parsons’ own ‘Grievous Angel’ but in the end I had to go to the birthplace of country-rock. However, it is not included just for its historical importance, it also happens to be a really great album that still sounds fresh today.
NUMBER 7: Green on Red – ‘Gas Food Lodging’ (1985) The introduction of guitarist Chuck Prophet and a move away from their early garage psychedelia style, to a more country influenced roots-rock sound, led to Green on Red producing their definitive statement. On ‘Gas Food Lodging’ the band round up a host of influences, from the Doors to Neil Young, inject a new post-punk energy and produce an edgy hybrid, bursting with power and intensity.
NUMBER 6: Wilco – ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’ (2001) Like Sturgill Simpson more recently, Wilco have over the years picked up Americana, reinvented it, and placed it down somewhere completely different. ‘Being There’ in 1996, a tremendous record itself, began this process, but never was it more fully realised than by this, their masterpiece album. Rolling Stone ranked it at number 3 in their ‘100 Best Albums of the Decade’ – only two out by my reckoning.
NUMBER 5: Iris DeMent – ‘Infamous Angel’ (1992) The first time I heard this record I fell instantly in love with it. It’s been a love affair that has endured over the years and is a record that I still regularly return to today. The confessional nature of the songs, the stark honesty of the lyrics and a voice of unregulated beauty knit together to produce a magnificent album. It is totally devoid of commercial consideration. Moreover, it reflects Iris DeMent’s musical upbringing: gospel and the old-time country of the Carter Family. Simply beautiful.
NUMBER 4: The Flatlanders – ‘One Road More’ (1989) With the solo success of former band members Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock, interest in their original band began to grow. In 1989 their long lost 1972 recordings were released by Charly in Europe. The New York Times stated that “While it would be a shame if [they] stopped recording, it seems doubtful that they could top the timeless blast of fresh air that they provided their first time out” So, as much as I love the work of each of Ely, Gilmore and Hancock, nothing for me, beats this collection of their earliest work.
NUMBER 3: Creedence Clearwater Revival – ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ (1970) With such a wonderful catalogue of music to choose from it’s hard to pick just one Creedence album. However, for me ‘Cosmo’s Factory’ wins by a nose from ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’. I could easily have included both albums in my 10 but wanted to recognise as many artists as possible. The band’s fifth album was their most commercially successful, as well as their greatest achievement. Now how often can you say that?
NUMBER 2: Terry Allen – ‘Lubbock on Everything’ (1979) Terry Allen’s monumental second album reflects both his affection and his disdain for his West Texas home town. Recorded in Lubbock itself with Joe Ely’s band, the record was alternative country, long before the advent of the alt-country genre. Allen’s trademark clanking piano and almost spat-out vocals are the perfect mode of delivery for his outsider songs. Great musical backing and Lloyd Maines’ simple production add zest to the record.
NUMBER 1: Guy Clark – ‘Old No.1’ (1975) When appearing on the TV programme ‘Room 101’ the comedian Alexei Sayle nominated “the general public” to be be banished, adding “what a bunch of tossers”. The fact that Guy Clark was never a mega-star in the same way as Dylan or Springsteen, for me seals his argument. On his debut album Clark set a standard that he largely maintained throughout his life. Ten expertly crafted songs, each one a short novella with perfectly observed characters. Clark’s ability to draw you into his songs is unrivalled. Every word is perfectly chosen and blended with the next. Those words are often simple rather than complex, but pieced together they paint the most sublime pictures.