Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The Great Works of the Alt-Country Middleweights

I've used the term "alt-country middleweights" (sadly not one I coined myself) several times on this blog down the years, and each time the post has received almost record low pageviews - so here goes again. Something about the term must be utterly offputting to the casual reader.

But I persevere - because Alt-country middleweight is, despite feints towards eclecticism, my abiding taste in song, and very fine it is too - all those American men and women now in their 40s who really know their way round a song - this is the apotheosis of Uncut music.

It's a loose term, and I've been loose with it in compiling this list of what are my own 25 masterworks of the genre. Is an alt-country middleweight defined in their weight category only against other alt-country artists? Surely Wilco would be alt-country heavyweights if so? But none of these have ever sold more than a few 100,000 records, none of them are really household names, so I let'em all in.

Are they all really even vaguely country? No, not at all. I only excluded blatantly urban bands and artists like The Walkmen and Vampire Weekend, The National's midwestern roots just about let them in.

And it's very personal, there's no pretence at objectivity - the likes of Smog, Gillian Welch, Giant Sand, Mark Eitzel, Felice Brothers, Low, Yo La Tengo would all feature heavily for others.

But these, looking back, are 25 albums I've loved wholeheartedly across a period of almost two decades. I've allowed only one per artist. Wilco, as you no doubt know, would probably have four of five albums if not.

No particular order at all. Too many men, really. No Newsom - somehow a whole different genre, though she's as country as some of them.

Micah P Hinson and the Gospel of Progress
A one-off, aided by The Earlies, a raging, brooding melodrama with some epic sounds which lent themselves well to Hinson's doomy growl. Key tracks: Don't You, Patience
Lapalco - Brendan Benson
A perfect album of power-pop from a class songwriter. Not a song out of place. Key tracks: Tiny Spark, Eventually
Nashville - Josh Rouse
A world-beater in a different world, the definitive alt-country middleweight. 1972 has equally great songs, but is more pastiche, this is the perfect Rouse collection, a lovely cohesive album. Key tracks: My Love Has Gone, Sad Eyes
The World Won't End - The Pernice Brothers
More utter perfection, a chamber-pop summer swoon, which you well know contains my favourite song of all time. Key tracks: She Heightened Everything, Bryte Side
Nixon - Lambchop
Soulful and funny, Kurt Wagner switches between croak and falsetto to devastating effect. Curtis Mayfield and Johnny Cash rolled into one. Key tracks: Up With People, You Masculine You
Benji - Sun Kil Moon
Grumpy misanthrope tells it like it is. Personal vignettes told with humour and pathos, one of the best albums of the last few years. Key tracks: Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes, Ben's My Friend
Yankee Hotel Foxtrot - Wilco
What can be said? An altogether great, triumphant album, a career highest of highpoints amongst many. It's great when you communicate ... yeah. Key tracks: I Am Trying to Break Your Heart, Jesus Etc
Alligator - The National
Still my favourite National album, and not as urban as their later works (still, who am I kidding that it's anywhere near alt-country). Monstrous drama and great drumming. Key tracks: Mr November, Abel
More Adventurous - Rilo Kiley
An album to fall in love with, flies between indie-pop, balladry, soul, folk and a country stroll. The best songs Jenny Lewis wrote. Key tracks: I Never, More Adventurous
I'm Wide Awake It's Morning - Bright Eyes
Mainstream but not too mainstream, this album contains a couple for posterity. Key tracks: Lua, The First Day of My Life
Cease to Begin - Band of Horses
One of the best of those archetypal Neil Young voices, a fantastic collection of rock songs with slight country tinge and great guitars. Key tracks: No One's Gonna Love You, Is There a Ghost
The Shepherd's Dog - Iron and Wine
Beautiful allegorical story-telling, cleverness and hushed beauty abounds. Key tracks: Resurrection Fern, Flightless Bird, American Mouth
Queen of Denmark - John Grant
Formerly of the Czars, big-voiced hero makes grandly bitter heartbreak album with the help of Midlake. Key tracks: Sigourney Weaver, Queen of Denmark
Van Occupanther - Midlake
One of the best of the lot, a world of its own, a nostalgic sad unrepeatable epic of an album, pastoral and mystical. Key tracks: Roscoe, Branches
Heartbreaker - Ryan Adams
Almost the definitive alt-country album and probably still Adams' best work. All the tricks. Key tracks: To Be Young (Is to be Sad, is to be High), Come Pick Me Up
I Am Shelby Lynne - Shelby Lynne
Very country, doused in southern soul. One of the best singers going, a heady album: Key tracks. Your Lies, Dreamsome
Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Almost too big for this, what an incredible sound they made when they came out, the coming together of all the sounds, almost too clean at this stage but still glorious: White Winter Hymnal (check out Josh Tillman hatching his wicked plans at the back), He Doesn't Know Why
Something More Than Free - Jason Isbell
Formerly of Drive-by Truckers, a beautiful recent collection: Key tracks: The Life You Chose, To a Band That I Loved
American Band - Drive-by Truckers
The first time I really fell for this band (though their song Danko/Manuel is also a pretty definitive song of the genre). Music to unite a divided country. Key tracks: Ever South, What It Means
The Crane Wife - The Decemberists
Folk-rock-country-prog, or whatever, this glorious mad collection is their finest moment. Sons and Daughters, man, Sons and Daughters Key tracks: The Crane Wife 3, Sons and Daughters
A Sailor's Guide to Earth - Sturgill Simpson
Great when a country artist goes alt. Key tracks: Welcome to Earth (Pollywog), In Bloom
Natalie Prass - Natalie Prass
Bit of a toss-up between this and Matthew E White (who produced this album). Combines country and southern soul Key tracks: My Baby Don't Understand Me, Violently
Stereo/Mono - Paul Westerberg
One of the godfathers of alt-country and americana, and one of the great voices, this is my favourite solo collection of his, a ragbag, messed up little masterpiece with more stinging lines than most folk ever think of. Key tracks: Baby Learns To Crawl, Only Lie Worth Telling
case/lang/veirs - case/lang/veirs
A modern supergroup, and one of the best albums of 2016 - just chose this over a Neko Case solo album. Key tracks: Song for Judee, Best Kept Secret
The Sophtware Slump - Grandaddy
Well, if i'm going to have this, I should have Mercury Rev and Flaming Lips, I suppose. Well, shoot, too late now. Uncomfortably beautiful masterpiece. Key tracks: He's Simple, He's Dumb, He's the Pilot, Underneath the Weeping Willow

I've tried to choose live tracks where possible, just because, you know, that's more fun, albeit some of them are well ropey.

Anyway, these are some of the cosmic geniuses of modern music. At festivals, we used to play a game when we saw an game of saying "We'll have to formulate another one" whenever we saw an extravagant beard. Well, there were a lot of other ones formulated to these sweet, check-shirt, beardy sounds