The 10 Best Americana Albums Of All Time
From genre-blending excursions on the fringes of country-rock, to rebellious missives from young bucks, these are the best Americana albums of all time.
Before we recommend the ten best Americana albums of all time, maybe we should define the term. In our mind, Americana is more a spirit than a sound – certainly based in the blending of country and rock, but with a rebellious attitude and probably more respect for tradition than you’d find in a lot of contemporary country-pop. And it doesn’t hurt if the main songwriter has a rugged personality that infuses every track. Put it this way: if the music makes you ask whether you’re sure Hank done it this way, then it’s probably Americana.
So get your s__tkickers on – here are the ten best Americana albums of all time.
10: Creedence Clearwater Revival: Willy And The Poor Boys (1969)
It’s unthinkable to have a best Americana albums list without some Creedence Clearwater Revival. Willy And The Poor Boys was built around the single “Fortunate Son”/“Down on the Corner,” which defined what the band was all about: disdain for the ruling class on one side and a celebration of common values on the other. They sustained that mood across the whole of this album, which was conceptual as CCR ever got.
Each side of the original vinyl had an identical structure: one side of the single followed by a new rock’n’roll song, a country/folk cover, an instrumental, and then a longer, darker piece. The closing three tracks may mark their finest moment: a joyful gospel-esque take on “Midnight Special” followed by a cover of the Booker T & The MGs’ groove “Side O’ The Road,” before the closing “Effigy” finds John Fogerty at his most topical and foreboding.
9: The Flying Burrito Brothers: The Gilded Palace Of Sin (1969)
If you don’t already love this album, Americana just might not be your thing. Widely celebrated as the album that crystallized Gram Parsons’ vision of “cosmic American music,” The Gilded Palace Of Sin wasn’t strictly a country-rock album. For one thing, there was very little rock on it. For another, its two classic non-originals come from the Stax/Volt catalogue.
Otherwise, Parsons (and The Flying Burrito Brothers’ co-writer and co-singer, the eternally overlooked Chris Hillman) forges some timeless country ballads steeped in psych-era imagery and mystery. You tell us: is the “Jesus Christ” in the track “Hot Burrito #2” just an exclamation, or is that who’s talking? The album closer, “Hippie Boy,” is the one track nobody ever mentions, but the one that all future Americana bands have tried to match. To the world’s eternal shame, The Gilded Palace Of Sin barely sold at all upon release.
8: Doug Sahm: Hell Of A Spell (1980)
The late, great Sir Doug was a road trip in himself – and a trip, period. At any given album or show he might be into country music, straight-up Tex Mex, joyful garage rock or anything in between. This 1980 album falls on the rockier side of his spectrum, with a juiced-up horn section; he digs up classics such as Guitar Sim’s “Things I Used to Do” and pens a few of his own. Sahm hated to waste a classic song when he had one, so after “Hangin’ On By A Thread” (a return to the beat-crazy Sir Douglas Quintet sound got largely ignored here) he made it the title track of a Texas Tornados album 10 years later.
7: The Neville Brothers: Yellow Moon (1989)
Before this 1989 release, one of America’s greatest bands never had a hit record. Producer Daniel Lanois remedied that with his atmospheric production, which brought The Neville Brothers’ implicit spirituality to the fore. It didn’t hurt that Aaron Neville had the title track up his sleeve, or that he sang the daylights out of two of Dylan’s weightiest songs. The real coup, however, was pulling “Fire And Brimstone” off a late 60s Link Wray album (one of his eerie, vocal-centric ones).
It became a perfect vehicle for the Nevilles’ voodoo-fied sound. Despite its success – and its continued status as one of the best Americana albums of all time – Yellow Moon was pretty much a one-off in their catalogue; later albums would showcase the funkier sound of their live band. For that, we’d recommend Family Groove, where the material is just as strong but the mood far more upbeat.
6: Drive-By Truckers: Alabama Ass Whuppin’ (1989)
For many years this was the Drive-By Truckers’ album you just couldn’t get. The limited-edition live set was finally reissued five years ago; it precedes the celebrated Southern Rock Opera and the Truckers’ long run of widely-praised albums (Jason Isbell hadn’t joined yet, either). But this album shows how alt.country really began, with a lot of heart and more than a little irreverence. “The Living Bubba” remains one of Patterson Hood’s greatest songs; the true story of a musician battling with AIDS is kept gritty but still inspiring. Elsewhere, “Lookout Mountain” and “18 Wheels Of Love” both hint at the epic scope of later Truckers albums, while Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died” shows their punk roots.
5: The Long Ryders: State Of Our Union (1985)
Unlike many of the best Americana albums on this list, this album wasn’t a big hit, nor did the band ever have one. The Long Ryders were well aware that they were crying into the wilderness. The 80s just weren’t a great time for a band that revered Gram Parsons and Buffalo Springfield, but that’s precisely what gives State Of Our Union its urgency.
The other big element in their mix was full-throttle garage rock, and it all comes together on the 12-string-driven “Capturing The Flag.” Without exaggeration, it’s as great a song as Springfield and the Burritos ever wrote. Another high point of the album is the celebratory “Looking For Lewis And Clark,” which namechecks Parsons, Tim Hardin, and “Louie Louie.” In the last-laugh department, The Long Ryders have reunited and have a new album on the way.
4: Los Lobos: Kiko (1992)
Kiko is now such a certified classic that it’s easy to forget how profoundly weird it sounded to Lobos fans in 1992. Who’d have thought that this would be the band to revive psychedelia? Fuelled by Mitchell Froom’s kitchen-sink production and some genuinely offbeat material, Lobos let their imagination flow with sound collages and non-linear narratives, all of which made perfect sense after a few plays. Along the way, there were also some searing blues jams and at least one great, Costello-esque pop number (“Short Side Of Nothing”). If you like this, note that the band got even more psyched-out on their next album, Colossal Head, before gradually coming back down to earth.
3: John Hiatt: Bring The Family (1987)
Hiatt’s breakthrough album, Bring The Family is at least two concept albums in one. It’s a celebration of his new-found love and sobriety but it also doesn’t ignore the turmoil that led to his rebirth on songs such as “Thank You Girl” and especially “Stood Up.” It’s also a classic on-the-road album. If “Memphis In The Meantime” and “Lipstick Sunset” don’t make you want to head south with the windows down, then nothing will. Bring The Family also introduced one of the great studio bands, consisting of Hiatt, guitarist Ry Cooder, bassist Nick Lowe, and drummer Jim Keltner. While the group’s later album – recorded as Little Village – is often disparaged (mainly because of its much lighter emotional tone), it’s one of the best Americana albums that shouldn’t be missed either.
2: Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road (1998)
Car Wheels On A Gravel Road is not the only essential Lucinda Williams album, but arguably it’s the most accessible. From the elegiac “Drunken Angel” to the proudly sexy “Right In Time” and the road song “Metal Firecracker,” it covers all the bases. And it doesn’t hurt that the title track has one of the most memorable chorus hooks Williams ever penned. This album’s troubled birth got plenty of press at the time (she recorded it three times before it was just right) and led to the perception that Williams was a difficult artist. She has long since had the last laugh, having been on a prolific creative tear ever since, releasing some of the best Americana albums in the cannon.
1: Steve Earle: Copperhead Road (1988)
Before this album appeared, neo-traditional country was cool, and flag-waving Southern rock was not. Steve Earle just pointed out how absurd it was to keep those two things separate. Copperhead Road was a stone-cold country album that rocked up a storm, and, with all due respect to Earle’s current status as a sober elder statesman, he sounded great here as a hell-bent young buck. Having given up on Nashville at this point, Earle freed himself to do whatever he pleased musically – whether that meant using The Pogues on one track or doing a Springsteen homage on “The Devil’s Right Hand.” The result was a record that easily tops this list of the best Americana albums of all time. Often overlooked is the closing track, “Nothing But A Child,” a reverent Christmas song without a hint of cheap sentiment.
Looking for more? Discover the underrated Americana albums you need to hear.
May 3, 2018 at 11:12 am
Uh no beach boys….pet sounds….your lis lacks credibility.
May 4, 2018 at 12:28 am
Seriously? Pet Sounds isn’t Americana.
August 27, 2018 at 6:09 pm
When Brian Wilson was composing Pet Sounds he had the vision that it would be an amalgam of different types of American Music. He even called it Americana at the time. Later it was used by critics to describe The Band and the albums other artists did that were influenced by them (Grateful Dead, Elton John). Since then the term has been wrangled into a catchall for artists who do not want to be associated with their genre (Mainly country artists).
May 3, 2018 at 1:11 pm
What no Ry Cooder. ” Into The Purple Valley”
May 3, 2018 at 2:25 pm
Any article about “Americana” that doesn’t include The Band is apple pie without apples. Just sayin’…
May 3, 2018 at 3:09 pm
What about Hotel California – probably one of the best “American” bands & you forgot about Tom Petty’s Full Moon Fever – sorry your list needs a lot of improvement!
May 3, 2018 at 4:02 pm
Without a single mention of The Band this article is completely fraudulent. Shame on the writer for such a horrid lack of scope and research.
May 3, 2018 at 6:51 pm
One knowledgable writer’s really good list (although the commenters about The Band are right — the second album really belongs here). I’d argue that Native Sons is an even better album than State Of Our Union, but I’m so happy to see the Ryders called out here at all that this will do.
May 3, 2018 at 11:16 pm
Great idea for an article. Americana is a very slim category. Flying burrito bothers..credence clearwater revival, definitely.
May I suggest, Everly Brothers – Roots
Greatful Dead – Working Man’s Dead – American Beauty
Gene Clark – any album will do
Bob Dylan – Nashville Skyline
May 4, 2018 at 12:27 am
Obviously no one knows the definition of Americana. Where’s The Blasters?!?
May 4, 2018 at 4:08 am
Useless list without The Band or Uncle Tupelo or Son Volt.
June 29, 2018 at 4:39 am
No Jason Isbell Southeatern…..
July 6, 2019 at 9:04 pm
How could you leave The Band off the list? I see others have pointed this out.
November 5, 2019 at 7:18 am
I second The Grateful Dead, though American Beauty before WMD. The Band, Songs from the Big Pink, of course. This might get some push back, but for a newer recording, I really liked Strangers Almanac, Whiskeytown.
Willem van Frankenhuijsen
December 6, 2019 at 2:21 pm
There are absolute better Doug Sahm “americana”albums than the one you picked out….try “Texas Rock for Country Rollers” for example….
September 26, 2021 at 8:22 am
Wow, this not representative of Americana music. Also, the writer (and commenters) seem to have no idea that Americana is a genre that came about in the 90s, birthed by Uncle Tupelo and the like.
September 26, 2021 at 4:25 pm
No way is this list complete without The Jayhawk’s “Hollywood Town Hall”.
not a man
September 26, 2021 at 9:51 pm
so, i guess women don’t play americana? maybe you’ve never heard of lucinda williams or bobby gentry?
July 2, 2022 at 1:13 am
#1: Son Volt’s album “Trace”
July 2, 2022 at 1:15 am
#1 is Son Volt’s “Trace”
September 13, 2022 at 11:35 pm
You missed what I would consider one of the earliest and most significant Americana albums…John Stewart’s “California Bloodlines” from 1969. If you don’t know it, listen to it and I think you will agree.
September 14, 2022 at 7:12 am
Townes Van Zandt!
September 14, 2022 at 6:51 pm
I wouldn’t buy whatever it is you’re selling.
The Band and The Dead can not be left off any list of Americana music.
September 17, 2022 at 6:47 am
Dave Alvin’s “King of California “ absolutely is a must. Even more so than his original band The Blasters.