Before we recommend the 10 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 10 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 crystallised 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 band’s 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. Mike Cooley’s explanation of the album title is worth the price in itself.
5: The Long Ryders: State Of Our Union (1985)
Unlike many of 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 by any means, but arguably it’s the most accessible and is packed with obvious classics. 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.
Listen to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rosanne Cash and Ryan Adams, plus tracks from the best Americana albums, on our Americana Highway playlist, here.