The Best Americana/Folk Rock/Alt Country/Whatever of the 1990s

You may have noticed, but the nice guys & girls over at Treble ran an ambitious 2-week series on the best music of the 1990s that just ended last Friday. All the standards and modern classics you’d expect to end up dominating such a list are accounted for - and, really, there aren’t a heckuva lot of surprises to go with them. It’s not like they’re going to go and put OK Computer as the 6th best album of 1997, you know? So if the lists (an 11 album retrospective for each year - over 110 albums in all, with full reviews of nearly every one of them) are predictable at times you have to forgive them - you‘ve most likely seen very similar lists before. No one was trying to re-write the past, despite some continued revisionism (Neutral Milk Hotel’s legend continues to grow, even though few would have called In The Aeroplane Over The Sea the record of the year in 1998). Lists are always subjective entities made to spark debate and nostalgia. They are not definitive - any list of anyone’s favorite (almost) anything is constantly changing.

Articles like Treble’s do a few things for me though. First, they allow me to devise in my head (or on my computer) just such a list of my own. But no one wants to read that except me. They also make me obsessive-compulsive to study it and discover a few things that I’ve somehow overlooked for far too long. As I type this I’m listening to (get ready…) I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One in its entirety for the very first time. Crazy, right? I’ve heard bits and pieces of it over the years, and I’ve loved “Sugarcube” for forever, but I’ve never in my life let it play from start to finish. It’s really good btw. I’m not sure #4 of 1997 good, but damn. And props for recognizing Siamese Dream as the goddamn rock masterpiece that it is, which is another effect of a good list - reintroducing/reevaluating old favorites. I loved that album for years in the early and mid-90s, but the bloated (and stupidly titled) follow up Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness lost me and I never went back. For all the idiocy that is Billy Corgan and his revolving band of misfits, I don’t think there is a better radio-rock record from the whole decade than Siamese Dream, and I hadn’t listened to it in a long, long time.

All that being said, Treble’s lists are so heavy on “alternative” classics, post-rock, Bjork, early indie-rock, Brit-pop, electronica, and Elliott Smith that very little of the decade’s best Americana and alt country appears. The only albums representing either genre are Being There and I See A Darkness - both are certainly deserving of inclusion but are only a teaser as to all the great roots music made during the 1990s. Now, I’m not going dispute the widely revered classics Treble lists - most of which I’ve caught up with since the emergence of the internet over the past 6 or 7 years and agree with their inclusion. I didn’t have my finger on the pulse of modern music while I was listening to little other than grunge in the early 90s, Phish during the middle, and alt country near the end. But I’d like to add a bit of an addendum to it - the Best Americana/Roots Rock/Alt Country/Whatever of the 1990s that was not included in the Treble lists. Perhaps their exclusion is a result of being part of a genre that doesn’t have as much mass appeal, but for my money, any of these records could stand next to the best music of the decade:

Son Volt - Trace
Warner Bros. 1995

Jay Farrar’s first album after the demise of Uncle Tupelo set the bar pretty high for the entire genre. The 11 songs on Trace are an extension of what his former band had worked up to on 1994’s Anodyne - windswept folk ballads and Crazy Horse inspired, driving folk-rock. Trace is about as American as it gets - dusty roads, steel guitars, and spinning wheels - and its easily one of the best albums of the 1990s.

MP3 :: Windfall
(Buy Trace here)
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The Jayhawks - Tomorrow The Green Grass
1995 - American

Though they first made some waves with 1993’s Hollywood Town Hall, it was on Tomorrow The Green Grass that Mark Olson and Gary Louris perfected their unique blend of high harmonies, pop song craft, and chiming folk-rock.

Buy Tomorrow The Green Grass here
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Scud Mountain Boys - Massachusetts
1996 - Sub Pop

Joe Pernice’s whisper-folk predated Iron & Wine by a decade, and may have laid the groundwork for the eventual signing of Sam Beam to Sub Pop in the early part of this decade. Essential homemade American music that gets better with every listen.

MP3 :: Holy Ghost
(Buy Massachusetts here)
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Palace Music - Viva Last Blues
1995 - Drag City

Before Will Oldham became Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and solidified his place in the American songwriter pantheon when Johnny Cash covered “I See A Darkness” he made this lo-fi folk classic, with a number of unforgettable songs, most notably “New Partner” - one of the decade’s very best.

MP3 :: New Partner
(Buy Viva Last Blues here)
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Old 97s - Too Far To Care
1997 - Elektra

I’ve said it before - this is one of my favorite albums to crank up and shout along with. On Too Far To Care an impossibly charismatic Rhett Miller sings a series of youthful anthems documenting heartbreak, drunkenness, and a handful of (very) short love affairs. Musically, the band’s rousing shuffle beats and memorable riffs come on like a runaway train. Too Far To Care is the perfect synthesis of the barreling speed-country of Wreck Your Life with the more traditionally pop-inspired songcraft of Fight Songs and Satellite Rides.

MP3 :: Nite Club
(Buy Too Far To Care here)
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Uncle Tupelo - Still Feel Gone / March 16-20, 1992 / Anodyne
1991 & 1992 - Rockville, 1994 Sire

Take your pick here. Still Feel Gone is my favorite though, and it’s usually thought of as the red-headed stepchild of the Uncle Tupelo catalog. Not as groundbreaking as No Depression, traditionally compelling as March 16-20, 1992, nor as accessible as Anodyne, Still Feel Gone works simply because it is their best recorded representation - a bracing collection of punk-country anthems that work best loud and with the company of a few cold ones.

MP3 :: Postcard
(from Still Feel Gone. Buy Uncle Tupelo albums here)
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Richard Buckner - Devotion & Doubt
1997 - MCA

Devotion & Doubt may be the least known record on this list, but might be one of the best. The quiet, dusty folk and Buckner’s unmistakable baritone make for a startlingly emotional listen - one that explores the ups and (mostly) downs of a relationship with a Blood On The Tracks-like intimacy.

Buy Devotion & Doubt here
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Steve Earle - I Feel Alright
1996 - Warner Bros.

His first record after his release from prison may have been the acoustic Train A Comin’ (another essential!), but it was on I Feel Alright that Steve Earle boldly reasserted himself as one of America’s best songwriting voices. His tales of redemption have never been as consistent or fully realized as they are here - on an album with about 6 or 7 of the best folk-rock songs of the decade.

MP3 :: Feel Alright
(Buy I Feel Alright here)
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I’m sure I’m missing a few important records, but that’s all I can think of right now. What am I missing in your opinion? Lists spark thought, discussion, and debate, and my take on Treble’s Best Music of the 90s lists is that it is pretty damn good. I do however have other gripes with a few exclusions, but no more time today to spend typing. Check back later in the week for more albums they somehow overlooked…..

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10 comments:

Mark C said...

Great list. I would add these: Whiskeytown's Strangers Almanac and Faithless Street. Robert Earl Keen's A Bigger Piece of Sky.

James said...

Hey Mark - I thought about adding Stranger's Almanac, but in the end I find it too hit or miss. Some of my favorite alt country songs ever are on there - "Excuse Me..." and "Avenues" especially - but there are too many terrible songs to be considered a truly great album, I think.

The only Robert Earl Keen album I'm familiar with is Gravitational Forces, and I like it quite a bit, but I think it's from this decade. I'll have to check out his old stuff.

Jeff said...

If it makes you feel any better, I personally voted for The Old 97s and Palace, but consensus preferred more Bjork albums...

in any case, nice choices!

James said...

I have absolutely no problem with Bjork or Elliott Smith being on any best of the 90s list - though I've really only spent time with POST and Either/Or. I intend to do more backtracking with their other albums soon. I just used their names because they came up 3 or 4 times each.

I think my biggest complaint is no Tupelo representation. Damn.

But I've been back to Treble multiple times over the past 2 weeks - overall I love it! You guys did a great job.

Kelly said...

Robert Earl Keen's Picnic is from the 90's and great. Any Bottle Rockets discs from the mid-late 90's would be good also. Waco Brothers helped usher in "alt-Country" with the 97's and Buckner as an actual genre in the mid-nineites...I guess you could pick any bloodshot records artsits in the mid-ninties and not go wrong...

Shotgun Majors said...

I'd have to throw in a personal favorite: Blue Mountain's Dog Days.

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