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10 Essential Alt-country Albums

: 10 Essential Alt-country Albums

Alt-country music has a rich history that reaches back to Gram Parsons, New Riders of the Purple Sage, and even Neil Young and the Grateful Dead. In truth, alt-country could be loosely defined as most any country music produced outside the Nashville factory. That would include the Sun Records discography as well as the legendary Austin output of the Outlaws in the '70s. Some called it country rock. Parsons called it cosmic American music. The premise was simple -- bring a little hippie to the country music scene, and conversely, bring a little country to the hippie scene. A simple test: If the band you're listening to has a lead guitarist playing a telecaster and not a Stratocaster, there’s a good chance you’re listening to an alt-country band.

In order to give the list a little focus, a starting point, however arbitrary, must be defined. Uncle Tupelo's 1993 album, Anodyne, is an obvious one, because the pairing of Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar kick-started modern alt-country. Though that band's debut, 1990's No Depression, gave a name to both the movement and the magazine that chronicled it, Uncle Tupelo's final album is clearly country music and yet something totally other than pop-influenced mainstream country music.

 

The ten selections for this list are in no way comprehensive. Instead, they offer a selection of music that is just as vital as Anodyne and informed by a similar appreciation for bluegrass, honky-tonk, and country and western music.

 

Special thanks to Matt Cooke, who was invaluable to the ranking process.

10. The Old 97s: Too Far to Care

[Elektra, 1997]

Though the Dallas-based alternative-country outfit endured a millennial pop makeover worthy of Liz Phair, their major-label debut is a masterpiece of cow-punk fusion. Too Far to Care walks a tightrope between the barroom swagger of “Timebomb” and “Barrier Reef” and the quiet prettiness of songs like “Salome” and “Big Brown Eyes.” Extra points are awarded for the Exene Cervenka cameo on “Four Leaf Clover.”

9. DeYarmond Edison: Silent Signs

[Self-Released, 2006]
A hidden gem from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Silent Signs is a sparse collection that makes the most out every note and lyric. Vernon underscores his words with hints of reverb and ambient noise over simple acoustic arrangements. The effect is something like Hank Williams playing on a post-apocalyptic street corner, and Silent Signs is an album that hypnotically draws you back to it.

8. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose

[Interscope, 2004]
Lots of musicians talk about owing something to the artists that influenced them, but Jack White went above and beyond the call of duty in resurrecting Loretta Lynn’s career with Van Lear Rose. Lynn had been relegated to the scrap heap for at least a decade when she agreed to collaborate with White. The songs showcase White’s talent at making traditional music sound as if it were beamed from space, and Lynn proves that pure country music can sound vital even in a modern setting. Though Van Lear Rose is a Loretta Lynn album, White’s presence makes it an alt-country classic.

7. Son Volt: Wide Swing Tremolo

[Warner Brothers, 1998]
Many view Jay Farrar as the ultimate “loser” in the splintering of Uncle Tupelo, but in addition to the mainstream success Son Volt experienced with its first album, Trace, Farrar has been able to quietly develop the musical vision that led to the band’s break-up. Most of Farrar’s solo material (recorded during a five-year hiatus from Son Volt) lists toward a groovy weirdness that he never achieved with the more melodic but sometimes bland Son Volt. Wide Swing Tremolo marries Farrar’s two aesthetics, and his compatriots in Son Volt  create an image-heavy, melodic, and deep listening experience.

6. My Morning Jacket: It Still Moves

[ATO, 2003]
Jim James and company skew more toward the jam band end of the country spectrum, but at its heart It Still Moves is barroom country in the tradition of the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams Jr. The alt-country credentials of It Still Moves are summed up on “Golden,” where James observes “people always told me that bars were dark and lonely and talk is always cheap and filled with air” over a buttery guitar line. If this were the Seventies, there would have been a movie of the week made about it starring the band.

5. Wilco: Being There

[Sire/Reprise, 1996]

Wilco achieved legendary status as a rock band with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost is Born, but Jeff Tweedy and company lived another life entirely as the more country offshoot of Uncle Tupelo. Though the band’s art-rock destinations are hinted at on songs like “The Lonely 1” and “Misunderstood,” Being There marks Wilco’s high point working in the alt-country genre. The bluegrass-tinged “Forget the Flowers” is not only one of the greatest break-up songs ever written, but it's also a fitting goodbye as Tweedy moved on to rock icondom.

4. Lucinda Williams: Car Wheels on a Gravel Road

[Mercury, 1998]
Listen to one verse of a Lucinda Williams song and there is no doubt that her voice is authentic. When she sings about longing, a break-up or a bar fight, it’s not in the metaphorical sense. Though her album West was compared to Exile on Main Street and 2003’s World Without Tears may be her most lyrically adventurous album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road is a striking rebuttal to the testosterone-fueled genre of country music.

3. The Jayhawks: Hollywood Town Hall

[American, 1992]
Though the Jayhawks most perfect song is the exquisitely sad “Blue” (which retained every ounce of its impact despite being utilized on the “good-bye” segment for MTV’s The Real World), Hollywood Town Hall captures the band at the height of its power, including the best tracks from their debut, Blue Earth, and originals such as “Waiting for the Sun,” “Crowded in the Wings,” and “Take Me With You (When You Go).” Hollywood Town Hall is melancholy without being maudlin, giving a literary description of the stark landscapes and isolated characters of the Midwest.

2. Whiskeytown: Stranger’s Almanac

[Outpost, 1997]
Before Ryan Adams became the new hardest working man in show business, he fronted the fondly remembered Raleigh outfit Whiskeytown. While some critics declaimed the band as merely a soap opera for the alt-country set, there is no arguing with the genuine beauty of Adams' lyrics ably backed by the vocals and violin of Caitlin Cary. Though both have gone on to produce excellent solo albums, neither has been able to capture the magic of songs like “Houses on the Hill,” “Avenues,” and “Dancing With the Women at the Bar.”
    
1. Steve Earle: El Corazon
[Warner Brothers, 1997]

Though Earle’s prodigious run of essential albums has shown recent signs of coming to a halt, the man’s post-prison artistic production is nothing short of legendary. Earle’s songwriting talent has cast him variously as a bluegrass traditionalist, political activist, and confessional troubadour of worthy of Blood on the Tracks-era Dylan. Though any one Earle’s remarkable albums could justifiably be included on the list, El Corazon offers the best view of his scope as a musician. The political conscious is there on “Christmas in Washington,” and Earle offers pure country gems such as “The Other Side of Town” and “Fort Worth Blues,” but the real power of El Corazon is in the collaboration. Earle pairs with artists as diverse Seattle’s Supersuckers and legendary bluegrass artist Del McCoury on songs that show the vitality and diversity of the alt-country genre.

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I'm really happy to see Whiskeytown at #2 here. Right on. And pretty excellent list! A pleasant surprise.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/prefix/no-user-pic.gif noise redux

nice list man, but Trace is far superior to Wide Swing Tremolo. Also, Richard Buckner's Devotion + Doubt needs to be on there. And how can you make an alt-country list without Uncle Tupelo?

/site_media/uploads/images/users/acb/01bigblacktomb.jpg acb

Nice to see Old '97s make it on the list, even if it's at n0. 10. Also dig the Jayhawks choice.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/mrblackw/skyprint1.jpg mrblackw

old 97s? pffft. no neko, tift, or kelly willis?

/site_media/uploads/images/users/chris/pony.jpg chris

Great list, some truly vital albums there. Add Neko Case's Furnace Room Lullaby, Blacklisted or Fox Confessor and it's perfect.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/brucescott/IMG_7307.JPG brucescott

Ramsay Midwood "Shoot Out at the OK Chinese Restaurant"

trust me. this should be #1 ... go look it up

DipDip

Any list like this without a mention of Neko Case has very little credibility.

john

I gotta agree that a Neko Case album should be here.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/daba/me-bermudajpg.jpg Daba

But I still like the list.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/daba/me-bermudajpg.jpg Daba

I think it's a pretty good list. 10's are hard. "sometimes you have to get cut."

/site_media/uploads/images/users/prefix/no-user-pic.gif noise redux

pshaw. At the top should be the Blood Oranges. Criminally overlooked...I saw Uncle Tupelo open for them in NYC...where are they now!!!???

dave

steve earle sucks

Taylor

Man, I guess that starting point is correct, but seeing any list involving alt-country albums and not seeing the Mekons (s/t or Fear and Whiskey) hurts my brain.

/site_media/uploads/images/users/Ethan/nirvana-corporate-rock-whoresjpg.jpg EStan

what about the album that invented modern alt country...No Depression???

joe

bottle rockets anyone??

jason

DRAG THE RIVER. Jon Snodgrass & Chad Price's alt.ego county romp. Certainly deserves a mention. www.dragtheriver.com

KnowhereMAN

Bottle Rockets - The Brooklyn Side, or maybe Brand New Year if you want the really loud, harder rocking stuff

Allan

Vigilantes of Love were supremely overlooked but highly influential. Any one of the following 3 VoL albums are far superior to any listed above: Killing Floor (1992), Welcome To Struggleville (1994) or Blister Soul (1995).

Sean

ANYONE WHO SAY'S STEVE EARLE SUCKS HAS'NT GOT A CLUE ABOUT MUSIC. STEVE CAN HOLD HIS OWN IN ANY CATAGORY.HE WORKS HARD AND BELIEVE'S IN HIS MUSIC. ONE OF THE GREATEST SONG WRITER'S OF OUR TIME, AND HIS MUSIC WILL BE AROUND FOR MANY GENERATONS TO COME. KEEP PUNCHNG PAL.

larry vallentyne

Amen to Neko being a big oversight...given the list's slant towards the country rather than the alt, I'd go with Furnace Room Lullaby...but Blacklisted is also essential. Other than that, I agree this is pretty good list to get folks started down the alt country path.

Chris

Apparently you guys don't get out much.......In no paticular order...."the 10"

1. Steve Earle
2. Blue Mountain
3. Lucinda Williams
4. John Eddie
5. The Drive by Truckers
6. John Hiatt
7. The Silver Jews
8. The Waco Brothers
9. James McMurtry
10.The Gourds
10a. The Iguanas

Hell could do another 10 but these just off the cuff...enjoy.

M. Acedo

Cool list, but we need 1-50 to list all the cool stuff.
I was thinkin the The Long Ryders should get some ink.

Cliff

You tell em Larry. Not a clue!! I got front row tickets on 9/11 in Ithaca. Can't wait.
I'm glad to see Lucinda on the list too. She rocks

Dave aka Rowski

No Neko? No Cred!

Pit Bull

Cliff is righyt, the Long Ryders are underappreciated.

Fred

must include neko, blue mountain, say tzuzu, farmer not so john.
cg

cameron

Larry from Brooklyn:
Add: Waco Bros. Cowboy on Fire
Anything by Iris Dement
Yes, Fear and Whiskey too
And there must be a space for
Robert Earl Keene

Larry from Brooklyn

The most fun part of top ten lists is to recoil in horror over who was unjustly excluded. As such, I nominate Will Oldham

lolMatt

Bottle Rockets- 24 Hours A Day
Slobberbone- Barrell Chested, Everything You Thought Was Right Was Wrong Today
Uncle Toupelo- Anadyne
James McMurtry- It Had To Happen
Fred Eaglesmith- Drive-In Movie
Ryan Adams- Heartbreaker
Drive-By Truckers- Dirty South
The Jayhawks- Sound Of Lies, Tomorrow The Green Grass
Guy Clark- Cold Dog Soup, The Dark
John Prine- Souvenirs

Just a few that weren't mentioned...

Heeler

Ronnie Elliott - any one of his masterpieces but, particularly, Poisonville, with its ode to Sid and Nancy, "Room 100", which represents the quintessence of the fusion between "alt" and "country".

Traumata

Forgive my ignorance. I do own at least half of these records, but I get a bit confused about the alt. country label. Seems it applies to anything that ain't Toby Keith or Big and Rich. In other words - anything that sounds a bit country and is good! :-)

So I'm missing something from Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch/Dave Rawlings on this list. And for anyone who remembers, the Good Brothers were a fine Canadian band. Their kids are called the Trews and their keeping it reall too.

But as noted, top ten lists are damned hard.

Sean

What about

Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball????

Ollie

EXCE

Loreta Lynn's Album Van Lear Rose
& Stranger Almanac of Whiskeytown, itsss in my personal opinion two of greath greath albums of the all times.

GREATH GREATH!!

arkturo

Yeah Drag the River really shoulda made the cut but oh well. Bottle Rockets too I suppose. Lucero somewhere in the 11-20 range I hope.

Whiskey Tango

See: Robertson Davies - "The Myth Of Sincerity" ,and apply it as needed to this "genre" - that is, sans Steve Earle who is one of the best artists I've heard...Wilco? what a joke! a mall band!

bob

I agree with the commenter on Old Crow Medicine Show and Gillian Welch
Also Robert Plant and Allison Kraus - Raising Sands.
Josh Ritter's Golden Age of radio also deserves to be there.
What about Mary Gauthier - Drag Queens and Limosines
I haven't heard lots of the albums on this list though;

Eamon

The Good Brothers sons are in the Sadies not the Trews. And they are great.

Scott

Neil young - Everbody Knows This is Nowhere
Bob Dylan - John Wesley Harding, Nashville Skyline
the jonnies - songs from the resistance volume 1
The Band - Music From Big Pink

Pjd

Lists are lists - but for me Lucinda Williams (self titled) over Car Wheels and absolutely Trace over Wide Swing...

Where are Guy Clark (old Number 1) and Townes van Zandt (anything really)?

etc

etc

Tom

Neko Case, Alejandro Escavedo, John Langford!?

Jake

Why not make a Top 100 Americana list?!

Joe Dutchways

Jason and the Scorchers...Anyone? Buhler?

Also, the first Beat Farmers album (ah, yes...vinyl) was tough to beat.

NSP Dave

Any of your lists that don't include WILCO are completely worthless

TLW

Cowboy Junkies, anyone?

Sherrine

Hmmmm...no Townes Van Zandt? No Robert Earl Keen? No Guy Clark? No Gram Parsons?...and the list could go on of important artists. There are some good choices represented here, but how come most of these albums were made in the last 10 years or so?

chris edwards

Saddies are awesome(ask Neko)...Neil Young,Bob Dylan,The Band, while personal
favorites are still pre-alt anything...They paved the road along with poco,the eagles,csn,the stone poneys
the flying buritto brothers,gram parsons. wrecking ball again in my opinon is pre alt. cowboy junkies are early alt country..maybe...

DAMSAM

Everything mentioned is pretty good music, but I think that Ryan Adams is Alt Country...Punk rocker playing country cause its too hard to sing...genius.

DD Engineer

lambchop : How i quit smoking
Iris dement : the way I should
Drive-by truckers: Decoration day
Johnny cash :American recordings
smog : knock knock
Haysedd dixie :A hot piece of grass
Elvis costello : Delivery man
Mountain goats : Coroners gambit
Dolly parton : Halos and horns
Merle Haggard : If I could only fly
(perhaps the last 2 don't count as "alt" , but I was never convinced of the need for "alt" , country is about attitude, true grit, not instrumentation,so garth brooks and shanai twain aint country)

cadwern

Not one person mentions Lucero. They should definitely have an album on a top 10 list of this nature.

Brandon

I don't tend to think of Steve Earle as Alt-Country... More Cake, Drive-by Truckers, Drivin' and Cryin', and Ween. But I'm not the one making the list, and I think the author of this list should resent those who say, "What about..."

Bucky

I love Too Far To Care.

todd

where the heck is rank and file sundown i love most albums named but this is a cow punk classic

steven

Where the hell is Mojave 3?

Chris

List is nothing without Jason and the Scorchers. I know you're starting with Tupelo, but you gotta give credit where credit is due.

isaac

Steve Earle? That guy is a joke. In fact, me and my buddies used to laugh at how trite and ridiculous the song, 'Copperhead Road' was. Laughable. I put him right up there with Weird Al Yankovic.

Scratch

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