Friday, December 26, 2008

Top 10 Alt-Country Albums

Alt-country is such a stupid category. It never had any real definable meaning. I never really got into the whole Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco/Whiskeytown/Ryan Adams thing. Mostly, I find all of these bands boring. Nonetheless, the genre grew in popularity during the 1990s and I guess has some value to describe things that aren't traditional country and aren't exactly rock and roll either. Anyway, I decided to include a list here because I have a lot good albums that fit nowhere else.

This is not in any kind of order.

1. Chris Knight, Chris Knight.
Chris Knight is great. Another person who Lyrad and I have pushed on this blog pretty much endlessley, Knight sings of only a few things. Screwed-up men mostly. Some killing. Losing your farm. Dealing with a fucked up family. Your woman leaving you. That's about it. In another time, he might have been picked up by mainstream country. In fact, this first album did have a Nashville production. But he's a really raw dude who I don't think would have ever fit in the mainstream Nashville sound. All his albums are pretty much the same, but I like this one the best, probably because it was the first one I heard. Also because it kicks some serious ass.

2. The Gourds, Cow Fish Fowl or Pig
Sure the lyrics are pretty much meaningless. But the music is pure Texas--this band mixes everything together: country, rock, tejano, bluegrass, and pretty much everything else. Since the death of the great Doug Sahm, no band has better carried on the best of the Texas music tradition than the Gourds. Which makes me wonder why I haven't gone to see them since I've been in Austin. Sometimes you ignore the great things around you I guess. The Gourds are best known for their cover of "Gin and Juice," which is hilarious and fun but is a bit of gimmick, which I understand they kind of regret now. In any case, to me this is their best album--fun, amazing music, a variety of voices in the band.

3. Lucinda Williams, Car Wheels On A Gravel Road
Lucinda sucks now. Her latest albums are all pretty much terrible. Car Wheels was her last great album. What can be said about this that hasn't already been said? Not much I guess. This propelled her into stardom, probably ruining her future career, at least from an artistic standpoint. Oh well, what can you do? She got deserved kudos for this great album; that she couldn't handle it and keep her artistic vision is a shame, but it happens. Her earlier albums are all really good too, but to me this is one of the great albums of the 1990s in any genre.

4. James McMurtry, Where'd You Hide the Body
It's hard to choose just one McMurtry album. When they are all of a great quality, you just have to go with one. I chose this one because it has his 2 most famous songs--"Levelland" and "Rachel's Song." If you haven't heard McMurtry, you are missing out on one of the 2 or 3 best songwriters in the nation over the last 15 years.

5. Old 97s, Fight Songs
The best album by one of the best alt-country bands. Like a lot of the actual "alt-country" bands, they moved from a more country orientation to rock and roll. This album was the key point in their transformation. "Oppenheimer," "Nineteen," "Let the Idiot Speak," all superb songs. This album also played an important role in a key period of my life and is one of the only good things I took out of that time. So there's a personal thing here too.

6. Gram Parsons, Return of the Grievous Angel
Parsons' finest moment was his last in my opinion. You could go with "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" or the Burrito Brother stuff, but I think he was really starting to come into his own as a songwriter here. "In My Hours of Darkness," "Return of the Grievous Angel," "Hickory Wind"--these are all fantastic songs. He died way too early. On the other hand, if you've ever read his biography, you know that this was a terrible human being. But then, I never wanted to actually know great artists.

7. Gillian Welch, Hell Among the Yearlings
I could listen to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings all day. Why the hell haven't they released an album in 5 years? Soon to be 6! Anyway, I could go with any of her albums and this is the one I am choosing today. "My Morphine" is just about the only song about drugs that actually makes you feel like you are on the drug in question, which is one hell of an accomplishment.

8. Steve Earle, Train A' Comin
Some might scoff at this pick. Including Earle. But this album, thrown together just after he got out of prison for heroin, is actually really great. For I think the only time in his career, he combined covers with originals, including a great version of Townes' "Tecumseh Valley." The originals are first rate too, especially "Tom Ames' Prayer," "Goodbye" and "Ben McCulloch." Much of his later work I've found shaky. Sometimes the political songs are good, sometimes they are really bad. But I think that in 20 years, this will hold up as one of his best albums.

9. Terry Allen, Juarez
I don't know if this is alt-country or not. In fact, I'm not sure what it is. Lyrad talked about Terry Allen in great detail in his Unsung Heroes of Modern Music series, so I'll just link to that.

10. Catherine Irwin, Cut Yourself a Switch
I once saw Irwin, a member of Freakwater, open for Neko Case. The audience had little patience for her dirges; they wanted to have a fun time. I guess Neko provided that, but Irwin is the much better artist. I like her solo album more than the Freakwater stuff, though that is pretty good too. There are many first rate songs here, including "Needle in a Haystack," "Hex," "Cry Your Little Eyes Out," and a really good cover of "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised." She really deserves a lot more publicity.