Best of Alt. Country, Americana, or Whatever You Like to Call It
by Scott Long
For quite awhile now, I've been planning on doing my best of lists for different genres of music. Since I try to be as complete as I can, it takes me double digit hours to get it done. This has caused me to put it off. Well, finally I've finished my first one.
I chose alt.country as my first style to cover, as I figured being a more select genre, it would take less time. I was wrong. For my lists, I'm only making eligible what is in my MP.3 player. Since I'm a bit of a completist when it comes to collecting music I like, this covers a wide selection. Don't worry about me leaving too many deserving artists out.
Explaining alt.country is not an easy thing to do. If you want a really good explanation go to wikipedia's entry. I describe it this way. It's classic country music, with a rock attitude. Kind of folkish, but with a punk edge.
While for awhile, alternative music lost it's true meaning, as much of it wasn't alternative anymore. Alternative country music has always been separate from the country mainstream. None of the artists I will list get much radio airplay on any type of terrestial radio. It's almost like a badge of honor for these artists, though I'm sure many of them wish they could get paid like the second-rate performers who dominate the current country charts.
Gram Parsons is often referred to as the Godfather of alt.country. As much as I love this genre of music, I have never been able to get into Parsons. Weird. I think the greatest alt.country performer is Neil Young, though when he was producing his greatest music, he wasn't doing it thinking "I'm creating some kind of new genre."
The term alt.country took off in the 90's, with the band, Uncle Tupelo being the group that contributed the most to the scene. Squabbling between bandleaders, Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy went their own separate ways, with Farrar moving onto Son Volt, while Tweedy establishing Wilco. When compiling my list, I made the rule that I would take only one song from a performer and that it had to have been recorded after 1990. The top 5 of the genre are the Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt, Steve Earle, and Ryan Adams. They have numerous songs that could be on the list, so I highly recommend exploring their complete catalogues.
I consider the Jayhawks to be the greatest alt.country band. The best alt.country album is Son Volt's debut, Trace. The following 40 songs I have listed I think are all worth downloading.
Blue by the Jayhawks- This is one of the most beautiful songs ever recorded. Harmonies that CSN&Y would kill for. Hard to pick just one by this great band, but Blue is the best the genre has produced.
Effigy by Uncle Tupelo- This band was better served by breaking up, as both debuts by the new groups that came out of their wake were superior to anything Tupelo had done. Effigy is a great cover of a CCR song. Creedenece could legitimately be considered the first alt.country band.
Windfall by Son Volt and Damn Shame by Jay Farrar- Cheating here a bit by including 2 by Farrar, but since one is a solo work I thought I would fit it in. When Trace came out, I was completely blown away by the mood it created. While Farrar has been a bit spotty over the past 10 years, Damn Shame is him at his best. Many forget that after their first releases, critics were hailing Farrar as the genius of Uncle Tupelo, with Tweedy being kind of an afterthought.
What's the world got in store by Wilco- While other albums by them have gotten more attention, Being There I think is the band's best offering. Wilco has produced a lot of work that goes outside the alt.country label, but the weary sound and vocals Tweedy creates on this song are near-perfect.
More than I can do by Steve Earle- Over the past 20 years, no one has put out more consistently good records on the alt.country scene than Earle. I picked the song I did because I think it is his most catchy tune and the Beatlesque hooks are impossible not to tap your foot to.
Jacksonville Skyline by Whiskeytown and New York, New York by Ryan Adams- Another sneaky addition, with Adams being the creator behind both songs. Whiskeytown was a good band, but it has been since Adams went solo that all of his talents have been allowed to truly shine. Adams quite possibly is the most prolific major artist of this decade. By putting out so much it has been an overall detriment to his career, as more editing would allow the best stuff to not get lost. His versatility is pretty amazing, though, as Adams can write songs it seems in most any genre and make them quality offerings.
Buick city complex by Old 97's and Come Around by Rhett Miller- Right behind the alt.country artists I've lsited, the Old 97's are at the top of the next tier. Led by singer Miller, who looks like a model/rock star, has a great pipes, and writes great hooks, it would seem like the Old 97's would have everything needed to be big successes. They also happen to be a great live band, as Will Carroll and I (name dropper) found out in person at a show in 2005.
Fiona by Lyle Lovett- I'm not sure if I consider Lovett a true alt.country artist, but I do think his body of work is as good as anyone on this list. This song has a great bluegrass feel to it and shows off his wonderful voice. I have seen more brilliant live shows by Lovett, than any other performer. I happened to be at the show when he had just gotten married to Julia Roberts and I can tell you that he was so great that night, there were few women in the audience who didn't understand what Julia saw in him.
Winona by Matthew Sweet and These are the days by Paul Westerberg- Few have put out more great music over the past 20 years than these 2 artists. Both have always had an alt.country influence to their music and on these songs it really shines through.
Electrolite by REM- Hard to argue that REM's classic albums Murmur and Reckoning weren't alt.country, as the Byrds jangle was essential in its core. In more recent times, their country influence has faded, but on this beautiful song, it makes a strong return.
So. central rain- Grant Lee Phillips
Western sky- Freedy Johnston
Dressed up like Nebraska- Josh Rouse
Girl in the war- Josh Ritter
Frst day of my life- Bright Eyes
We can make it here- James McMurtry
Let's kill Saturday night- Robbie Fulks
Basement home- Jesse Malin
Talking Seattle blues- Todd Snider
Twin Rocks, Oregon- Shawn Mullins
All 10 of these singer songwriters make great music. Johnston and McMurtry have a bundle of great songs they have recorded that I highly suggest you check out.
Welfare music-The Bottle Rockets
Holding on to my life-The Silos
Euro trash girl- Cracker
Soul sister- Blue Mountain
When in Rome- Nickel Creek
Boondocks- Little Big Town
While each of these bands have different styles, they all have in common an alt.country influence running through them.
Back to Me- Kathleen Edwards
Not Forgotten You- Kelly Willis
You Got the Car- Kasey Chambers
Can't Let Go- Lucinda Williams
Hard Times- Eastmountainsouth
Silent House- Dixie Chicks
Absence of God- Rilo Kiley
Rise Up the Fists- Jenny Lewis
Hold On, Hold On- Neko Case
Edwards, Willis, and Chambers are great singer/songwriters who are criminally under most radar-screens. The Kiley and Lewis offerings were 2 of my favorite singles of 2006.
Rusty Cage by Johnny Cash- Not sure if Cash truly qualifies as alt.country, but his work with Rick Rubin definitely possessed the spirit of the genre. I can recall that the first time I heard him cover this Soundgarden jam I couldn't believe how great his deep baritone meshed with the lyrics.
I finish my alt.country mix-tape with 2 choices from the Deadwood soundtrack. The theme by David Schwartz is a dynamite bluegrass instrutmental, while the clip from Al Sweargengen titled In Life is a pretty good summation of life.
In Life you have to do a lot of things you don't want to fucking do. Many times, it's the fuck what life is...one vile fucking task after another...but don't get aggravated...then the enemy has you by the shorthairs.