The ten best alt-country acts of all time

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Alt-country is the stepchild of the traditional country scene. Born, arguably, when Gram Parsons plugged in his guitar and sang the finest ode to infidelity, "At the Dark End of the Street," or maybe when the Rolling Stones recorded "Dead Flowers," the sub-genre came to be characterized by its decidedly unvarnished, un-Nashville vibe. Later acts broadened alt-country's appeal by integrating punk, and in 1995, alt-country gained legitimacy with the publication of No Depression, a magazine whose title was ripped from alt-country titans Uncle Tupelo's first album (yes, it's also a Carter Family song). Here's a rundown of the ten best alt-country bands of all time.

See also: The ten most brutally honest songwriters

10. Gillian Welch
Like Uncle Tupelo, Gillian Welch sings imagined first-person accounts of some of America's least wanted. The first song on her first album is called "Orphan Girl." Pretty much every song sounds like a John Steinbeck novel put to music and features sparse accompaniment. Welch's music is rewarding and powerful, but not the kind of thing to listen to on a first date. Time: The Revelator is the best of her albums; Soul Journey is the only one that rocks a little.

9. Will Oldham
The man also known as Palace, Palace Music, and most famously Bonnie "Prince" Billy has released more albums than folks have fingers and toes. Oldham's music is best characterized by the title of his 1999 debut, I See a Darkness, one of the sparsest, eeriest records this side of... well, anybody. Oldham has the market cornered on shadowy acoustic music that sounds as if it were made by a gnarled old toothless codger in a cabin in the woods who your childhood friends told you lived on mashed roadkill and beer. Check out Master and Everyone if you're feeling tender; Beware if you're feeling sinister.

8. Neko Case
Neko Case's voice is expressive in a manner that puts her next to Elvis Costello and Marvin Gaye. That good? Yes, that good. She may never be a pop star, though, because she's consistently refused to cash in on her good looks (she once turned down an offer to pose for Playboy), and she's similarly uncompromising in her lyrics. Who else sings songs about what it's like to be a tornado? Fox Confessor Brings the Flood just barely edges out Middle Cyclone as Case's best album, both of which exist in a bizarro underworld where alt-country gets the pop treatment. Get Blacklisted if you want more of the country torch song vibe.

7. The Jayhawks
The Jayhawks are the odd birds on this list. Mark Olson and Gary Louris sing harmonies that even Graham Nash could get behind, and produced some of the greatest non-Prince/Replacements albums to come out of Minneapolis. They were also known for producing some of the slickest, least grimy records in the alt-country universe. Olson left the band circa 1995, leaving his bandmates semi-permanently handicapped. He rejoined the Jayhawks in 2011, but the band's latter day work paled in comparison to Tomorrow the Green Grass and Hollywood Town Hall.

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29 comments
jcharlesmith
jcharlesmith

I agree that Townes and the Band are great but I say not alt-country. The term came from usenet (alt.country). It's true that Townes, Gram and the Band were being discussed but I think that the term should apply to newer groups and artists. And how could you not have included the Gourds? 

Kevin58
Kevin58

Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Richmond Fontaine

Dustin Hahn
Dustin Hahn

I probably would've thrown Jason Molina in here somewhere.

Joshwa
Joshwa

The fact that Lucero is not on this list is a travesty 

John Dalby
John Dalby

I wholeheartedly agree. This list means nothing without the Auto Club on it somewhere at or near the top...

James Miller
James Miller

no SCAC!!?? die in many unpleasant ways!

Jeff Barber
Jeff Barber

I am hoping that Mark Sanders is phoning it in on this one. If not, he should not be writing about music at all. I could do better and I'm an idiot!

Tom Ballard
Tom Ballard

Can't believe Cracker didn't make the list.

Graham Haworth
Graham Haworth

Alejandro Escovedo, Dave Alvin and The Bottle Rockets are worthy of mention as well.

Brett Noecker
Brett Noecker

Uncle Tupelo making it high on the list is very noteworthy. We are all forced to chose sides in the Farrar / Tweedy conversation.

Timothy P. Gregor
Timothy P. Gregor

The extra ordinarily talented and drop dead gorgeous Neko Case only comes in at number seven? Sorry. This list has a major flaw.

apetalk1971
apetalk1971

Robbie Fulks has to have a place on this list. 12 amazing albums. Countless songs from iconic to ironic to hilarious to tragic. An great instrumentalist who puts on a great show every time. He never smoked on PBS, but he has made some of the best music of the Alt-Country era.

Arturo Acosta III
Arturo Acosta III

shouldn't the eagles be on here? they were country and alternative. like hippie country.

Mark Sanders
Mark Sanders

I rolled all 3 together into the same entry, since I didn't want Tweedy/Farrar to account for 33% of my entire list.

Scott McMahon
Scott McMahon

Not that I'm a huge fan, but I'm surprised Old 97's wasn't at least #10

Scott McMahon
Scott McMahon

I'm guessing so since they lumped in Whiskeytown with Ryan. Not the same. BTW the book on Whiskeytown was fantastic

Graham Haworth
Graham Haworth

Does Uncle Tupelo cover Wilco and Son Volt? Regardless, I think Son Volt should be on there.

James Roberts
James Roberts

Where is Ray Wylie Hubbard and James Mcmurtry?

Seth Lichtenstein
Seth Lichtenstein

Good list, but The Band is too low, and if you're calling Wilco an alt-country band, why aren't they on the list?

Rebecca Repp
Rebecca Repp

You missed the two best!!! Lucero and Ha Ha Tonka!!!!

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