Last week Paste Magazine released their list of the 50 best alt.country albums of all time. It’s a really solid list and I tip my hat to them. This is the first (or one of the first) lists like this from a major publication. Alt.country (Americana) stretches back 25 years or so now and it’s nice to see the subgenre getting recognition.
If I agreed with everything on the Paste list then I wouldn’t be making this post. First, it’s important to understand the stipulations Paste put on their list. They put a limit of two albums per artist, which I like, and they say they focused the list on artists with country elements that are operating outside of mainstream country.
My first objection is to the amount of major label, or mid-major, that are really Americana artists. There is a big difference between alt.country and Americana. In my opinion alt.country is country music that has been fused with the edge of rock music and most notably the spirit of punk rock. Americana is a much larger umbrella. Americana is an industry term that has a Grammy award, a radio chart, a gigantic yearly conference, and more. Alt.country embodies an independent spirit and a raggedness that many albums on the Paste list doesn’t have. I’ll talk briefly why I think this matters after the lists.
Go read Paste’s list HERE
These are the albums that I would absolutely remove, primarily for not being alt.country and not being amazing.
Shelby Lynne – Identity Crisis
Lyle Lovett – Joshua Judges Ruth
KD Lang – Ingenue
Rodney Crowell – The Houston Kid
Rosanne Cash – The River & The Thread
Julie Miller – Broken Things
Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig
Joe Henry – Kindness Of The World
Emmylou Harris – Wrecking Ball
Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose
Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake
Patty Griffin – Living With Ghosts
Avett Brothers – I And Love And You
Avett Brothers – Emotionalism
There are three albums that I absolutely love but I don’t believe fit into my definition of alt.country but are certainly good enough to make a list like this. I totally understand if you disagree with this section of my pulls. (These removals are also why I wouldn’t add John Moreland’s In The Throes to my list.)
Gillian Welch – Revival
Jason Isbell – Southeastern
Gillian Welch – Time The Revelator
The most glaring artist left off the Paste list is Whiskeytown. Their absence is so obvious that I believe that it was an editorial mistake and not an intended absence. To make room for Whiskeytown I would also remove Ryan Adam’s Jacksonville City Lights album from the list.
So that gives me about 16 spots to fill. Here’s what I would add. (In no particular order)
Old 97’s – Fight Songs
Lucero – Tennessee
Whiskeytown – Stranger’s Almanac & Faithless Street
Blue Mountain – Dog Days
Alejandro Escovedo – (I’m not sure which album I would pick)
Slobberbone – Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today
Drive-By Truckers – Southern Rock Opera
Drag The River – Closed
Hank III – Risin’ Outlaw
James McMurtry & The Heartless Bastards – Live In Aught Three
Johnny Cash – American IV: The Man Comes Around
Lucinda Williams – Lucinda Williams
The Gourds – Ghosts of Hallelujah
The Legendary Shack Shakers – Believe
Marah – If You Didn’t Laugh You’d Cry
So there’s 16 albums that I would add. Of course there is more debate to be had. Did Paste or I get the right Uncle Tupelo albums, or should we have had a Jon Langford album by one of his bands other than the Mekons? I left 35 albums on the Paste list and I welcome your agreements and disagreements about the Paste list. Let me have it!
I’m sure some of you are wondering why I think this is important. This style of music has been around long enough now that it will be apart of the history books. At the peak of the popularity of alt.country almost all of the bands playing that style of music had to work really, really hard to get any recognition. Most of them didn’t get enough attention to make a living, though they sacrificed a great deal. Think about Slobberbone, if they’re not on a list of alt.country bands they are not going to be anywhere. Rosanne Cash, Rodney Crowell and Lyle Lovett all recorded country music but when the mainstream country music world started to ignore them their publicists and record labels re-branded them as Americana. That’s fine but it isn’t alt.country. In my opinion there are three bands at the pinnacle of what alt.country is; Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown and The Old 97’s. They played twangy music in dingy rock’n’roll bars and were so damn good that rock fans accepted some country elements but they worked hard for that acceptance and paid all the dues they had. So if you’re going to talk about alt.country you need to recognize the contributions of people who invited the style and never got the recognition they deserved in their time.
So that’s my take. Now I want to hear yours. And go listen to some music.