#1

November 27, 2010

Joanna Newsom – Ys
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

What an amazing surprise is was to have Ys come along and make an album as accomplished as The Milk-Eyed Mender resemble a developmental step. There’s really no denying that in the two years between her first and second releases, Newsom grew as a Joanna Newsom - Ysmusician by leaps and bounds, and the result of her artistic growth was an album of newfound maturity offset by a familiar flair for creative whimsy. Newsom strengthened all of her minor weaknesses, sharpened her songwriting (it speaks volumes that this is an album of lengthy, vocally driven tracks, which never drags for a moment), and yet still maintained all of her rustic charm, including that marvellous (and divisive!) voice which, despite considerable refinement, has kept all of its precious squawks and lilting inflections firmly intact. Memorable moments pop up regularly throughout the album’s five tracks, as perfectly timed key-changes, subtle style-shifts, glorious crescendos and sentimental vocal turns – the “Why the long face?” interlude on “Sawdust and Diamonds”, the “Be a Woman” segment on “Only Skin” and everything from “Squint skywards and listen” onwards at the end of “Emily” being personal favourites – sweep the listener away time and again. Producer Jim O’Rourke, engineer Steve Albini and composer Van Dyke Parks make valuable behind-the-scenes contributions, and Bill Callahan provides some great backing vocals on “Only Skin”, but this is undeniably Newsom’s album. No matter how the songs are dressed up, they always come back to her exquisite vocals, tender harp playing and enticing storytelling. To me, one of the greatest reasons for Ys success is that its five tracks all have such distinct, individual identities. Even with the album tying together perfectly – and it truly does – it also feels like a series of self-contained “movements”, each with a character all of its own and, more importantly, a listener-response all of its own. The allegorical story-song “Monkey and Bear”,  which sees the titular characters break away from their oppressive confines only the have the former exploit the latter for personal gain, stands out for its juxtaposed midday-matinée strings and nursery-rhyme style; “Sawdust and Diamonds” is unique via its stripped back production – it being the only track sans-orchestra – contrasting it sharply against the lush and elaborate backings of the other tracks; “Cosima” is perhaps the albums most overtly “pretty” track, serving its role as a sleepy, lullaby of a closer, much as “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” did on the album’s predecessor; “Only Skin” is memorable for its huge runtime and multi-part structure, which incorporates several distinct passages of song which could all have been great individual tracks in their own right; and finally, there’s “Emily”, Ys‘ opening track, which stands apart simply for being one of the most completely beautiful songs I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think I can begin to sufficiently describe the effect this song has had on me, so I’ll just say this – there are very few songs in existence that have actually made me stop and wonder if I had discovered my new, singular favourite song of all time, and this is one of them. I’d pick it in a heartbeat as my number one song of the decade, just as I’m picking Ys as my number one album. Absolutely magical.

 

#3

November 25, 2010

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
singer/songwriter, folk
2004

The very first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard, which was way back in the good old days of 2005, was a rather unconventional five-minute ode to a pet dog by the name of “Sadie”. While it took a few listens before I got the hang of her vocal style (honestly, “Sadie” is probably one of the more challenging entry points to her oeuvre), the vivid lyricism, exquisite harp-playing and heartfelt, sentimental delivery took little time to reach me. Several years later “Sadie” remains my favourite song on Newsom’s debut, and when she gently coos “and all that we know is blowin’ like tumbleweed” and her voice trills up high on the work “blowin'” – that bit makes me swoon. The Milk-Eyed Mender is full of such spellbinding tracks, each of which is home to plenty of little fell-good moments such as the one mentioned above. There’s the sleepy beauty of tracks like “The Sprout and the Bean” (who doesn’t love the way she phrases “are y’interested?” to make it rhyme with “break some bread”?), “Cassiopeia” (I think that “and I swim sweetly as a herring through the ether not despairing” is one of the loveliest lyrics on the album), “Bridges and Balloons” (the word-structure behind “a thimble’s worth of milky moon can touch hearts larger than a thimble” is very special) and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” (“your skin is something that I stir into my tea” evokes some incredible imagery). These are balanced out by the small handful of more powerfully delivered cuts like “Inflammatory Writ” and “Three Little Babies”, a couple of no-frills, piano-led belters that see Newsom at her most fearlessly forthright, and “Peach, Plum, Pear”, with its almost overwhelming, “army of Newsoms” multi-tracked vocal. There’s a gentle, old-timey magic in her songs that sees her constantly being aligned with fairies, dragons and other fantasy tropes, but such Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Menderknee-jerk comparisons are ignorant and completely miss the earthy sincerity that’s present in every track (contrary to popular belief, many of these songs are about actual, real-life things), not to mention the sly humour to be found – would ye-olde hippy elf really sing “I killed my dinner … with karate“, as Newsom does in “The Book of Right On’s” disarming opening lines? Even if her songs present the lyrical knottiness and colourful metaphor of a creative writer – an aspect which is, as far as I’m concerned, utterly delightful – everything she sings still rings with honesty and life experience. Newsom really sprung out of nowhere with this release – it stands as an exquisite debut by an artist who truly is one of a kind.

 

#4

November 24, 2010

The Microphones – It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water
lo-fi, folk, psychedelic-pop, singer/songwriter, noise-rock, experimental-rock
2000

The Microphones - It Was Hot We Stayed in the WaterWarm, lo-fi instrumentation, intimate vocals, creative songwriting, some delightful guest-appearances by Mirah and exceptional analogue production wizardry by head-Microphone Phil Elverum all come together flawlessly to make this aquatic-themed effort the best Microphones/Mt Eerie album (yes, better than The Glow, Pt 2), and one of the finest albums of the decade. It stands as an eclectic tapestry of sonic concepts that constantly evades easy categorisation no matter how much you try to pigeonhole it, and is emotionally gripping to boot. Elverum is one of modern music’s true visionaries, and this album is littered with such a degree of fine detail and enigmatic character that you can spend weeks in its company and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Meanwhile, when it comes to the album’s production, his bag of tricks is quite awe-inspiring, my favourite example being a point at which he utilises microphone-smothering techniques to make it sound convincingly like his band is gradually sinking underwater while playing. The album has a conceptual sweep that makes it best listened to as a whole, but there’s some amazing individual highlights as well – the strummy, acoustic opening to “The Pull” makes great use of panning to create a lulled atmosphere before unexpectedly launching into a distorted guitar and drums finale, with the two halves of the song being a better fit for one another than you’d expect; the easily overlooked “Ice” is a great little noise-rocker that gives way to an unexpected ambient coda; the reimagining of Eric’s Trip’s “Sand” is a display of gorgeous minimalism; “Karl Blau” is a nod to the titular musician, a label-mate on K-Records, set to the melody of a slow-dancing serenade, which sounds simply beautiful; and “Between Your Ear and the Other Ear” is a cheerfully charming singalong I’d be happy to have circling around my campfire anytime. Then, of course, there’s “The Glow”, the album’s gloriously moving and relentlessly experimental ten-minute centrepiece. Covering an assortment of terrain including singer/songwriter, 60s vocal-pop, lo-fi, post-rock, field-recordings, 90s indie-rock and psychedelia, I’ve simply never heard another song even remotely like it, by The Microphones or anyone else, and it holds a special place amongst my most highly treasured music. It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water is a marvel, an album that appeals not only as an inviting work of deeply human art, but also an awe-inspiring network of musical ideas. On either of those levels, very few albums can match it.

 

#5

November 23, 2010

Josephine Foster – Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
folk, singer/songwriter
2005

Much like fellow folkie Joanna Newsom, Josephine Foster gets unfairly (and sometimes dismissively) bundled into the “difficult voice” crowd of female musicians. While her vocals are a little unconventional when compared to some of the other artists that sprung from the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation (on which, like Newsom, she was featured), they’re certainly not impenetrable. Foster trills and warbles delightfully, singing of secret loves, hidden places and her desire for a man with “rhythm in his waist Josephine Foster - Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead Youand hair on his chest”, and as such there’s a classical beauty and good-natured warmth to her singing which, when combined with the simple, rustic production, bare instrumentation and total absence of pretense, gives the album a displaced quality which makes it hard to initially anchor Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You to a specific time period. Her vocal is totally consistent, and yet I found myself thinking of all kinds of different contexts throughout the album – at times she sounds like a mystic-folk hippie at one with the world; at others she branches into cryptic storytelling that seems to cast her as a bard of some King’s court; “There Are Eyes Above” and “Trees Lay By” sound like traditional lullabies; several songs have a bluesy or baroque tilt to them; and then the gentle coos she uses to farewell “The Siren’s Admonition” and “The Golden-Wooden Tone” have her sounding like the soundtrack to a family matinée from the 1950s. By the end of the album, I felt convinced she could have stepped out of just about any time in the last several hundred years, which is quite a remarkable rarity in music today. Foster plays virtually every instrument on the album, and while her acoustic guitar is the centrepiece on most tracks, she also makes use of a variety of supporting instruments including tambourine, recorder, harp, flute, all manner of clickers, chimes, bells and whistles and even a few playful turns on the kazoo, finally adding in some harmonised-with-herself vocal overdubs that are just sublime. While my own favourites would have to be the lovely opener “The Siren’s Admonition” and the utterly charming “Good News”, Foster possesses the kind of consistent songwriting prowess and distinct artistic identity that will lead every listener to discover their own unique connection to her work. The brilliance of Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You rests on that most personal of intangibles – Foster’s work has a strong sense of sentimentality and … let’s call it “specialness”, something indefinable that makes the album feel like a piece of lost treasure that was created just for you. It shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, and I’ve found myself quite helplessly enamoured.

 

#9

November 17, 2010

The Books – The Lemon of Pink
electronic, folk, field recordings, sound collage
2003

When you boil it down to its core ingredients, The Lemon of Pink is essentially a folk record, but the songs here have been chopped, spliced, sampled and rearranged into a sonic collage of delicate vocals, found sounds and a wide variety of gentle instrumentation including guitars, violins, banjos, percussion and more. In a feat not to be overlooked, the duo have managed to create one of the most warm, inviting and human albums I’ve ever heard, amazingly without more than a small handful of actual lyrics, so most of this feeling is carried strictly by the music itself, as well as the snippets of random sampled chatter (including conversations, educational clips, announcements and more) that are littered generously throughout. The whole album is characterised by an inclusive and celebratory tone, which is shown to full effect on some of the highlight tracks, such as the quirky “Tokyo”, the Einstein-quoting “There is no There” and the gorgeous “Take Time”, a track which has endured as a personal favourite throughout the decade, having lost none of its impact over years of repeat listens. To put it simply, The Lemon of Pink is an abstract work of art with a single purpose – to The Books - The Lemon of Pinkwash away your concerns and make you feel content, happy and completely at ease. I’m constantly impressed by the fact that The Books have managed to make an album so satisfying on two extremely different levels – while the album is meticulously assembled, making The Lemon of Pink a real joy to deconstruct and examine for its finer details, against significant odds it’s also one of the most powerfully emotive and affecting albums I’ve ever heard.

 

#12

November 12, 2010

Nina Nastasia & Jim White – You Follow Me
singer/songwriter, experimental-rock, folk
2007

With You Follow Me, guitarist/vocalist Nina Nastasia teamed with longtime collaborator, percussionist Jim White (of Australian trio The Dirty Three), to deliver one of the singer/songwriter genre’s most idiosyncratic albums. It’s suitable to see White take half the artistic credit on this one – the first time he’s been credited as such after a number of stints as a session musician for Nastasia’s previous albums – as the skills of Nina Nastasia & Jim White - You Follow Meboth participants are highlighted with equal measure throughout the album, making White’s skittering, semi-improvisational drumming just as prominent and central to the album as Nastasia’s vocals and guitarwork. The juxtaposition between their two styles is endlessly fascinating, a blend of control and chaos, and many of the tracks have White’s rumbling percussion sounding like a brewing storm beneath the relative calm of Nastasia’s contributions. The two musicians ride the line between experimentation and accessibility to perfection and have an undeniable rapport that can really be sensed throughout the album. The songs are touching, attention-grabbing and memorable, and are sequenced in a manner that places the highlights – such as “Odd Said the Doe” and “Our Discussion” – evenly throughout the album. With its brief runtime and unassuming tone, You Follow Me is an understated and humble affair, certainly not the sort of thing that self-consciously brands itself as an important album, yet I cannot overstate the impact which it has had upon me, as it leaves me keenly feeling its lasting presence long after it winds to a close. Few albums display such independently gifted musicians so completely in tune with one another, collaborating selflessly to create something so much better than either could achieve on their own. There’s something truly special about this unique and productive partnership – I sincerely hope it continues to flourish.

#18

November 7, 2010

Ned Collette – Jokes and Trials
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

Every music geek has their own little discoveries. When I first got into Ned Collette, he was almost completely unknown. I downloaded one of his songs (“The Laughter Across the Street”, incidentally) after it was recommended on a music site, liked it, investigated him online, discovered he was due to play a live show in my area in the coming days, attended the Ned Collette - Jokes and Trialsgig, loved every minute of it, bought the album and finally became a die-hard fan, preaching his brilliance to anyone who’ll listen. There’s something about that experience, particularly when combined with the intimate feel of the album, that makes Jokes and Trials feel really special to me in a way that transcends musical quality and moves into the realm of something more personal. “Song For Louis” (and its separate-track coda “The Happy Kidnapper”), which opens the album, remains my absolute favourite of his songs, with “The Laughter Across the Street” not far behind, while “A Plea for You Through Me”, “Heaven’s the Key”, “Blame” and lead single “Boulder” are all essential cuts as well. Collette has gained a bit more exposure through two more stellar releases (one of which is Future Suture, which we’ve already seen on this list and I’d concede is probably more technically accomplished), but he’s still woefully unknown in most circles, which is a tremendous shame given that he’s writing some of the smartest and most effortlessly appealing music in the world right now.

#27

October 28, 2010

Matt Elliott – Howling Songs
folk, singer-songwriter
2008

I love it when an album paints an engaging mental picture. It might not be intentional on the part of the artist, but when I throw on a CD and it starts feeling like the soundtrack to some imagined situation, it can be an incredibly rewarding and transportative experience. Howling Songs is one such album. With its dank, gloomy aesthetic, accentuated by morose strings and reverberating, overdubbed guitars which drip with sinister gravitas, I can’t help but imagine it as the backing for a scene in some Matt Elliott - Howling Songsdimly lit, seaside tavern, populated by morose drunks and cutthroat scum. Several are adorned with scars and eye-patches, they all have (mostly) concealed weapons, and at least two-thirds of them are banking on a fight breaking out before closing time. For the time being, however, the atmosphere is still, tense and moody. That’s the picture that Howling Songs, with all of its Balkan-folk-blended-with-post-rock stylings and Elliott’s brooding vocal presence, paints in my mind. The opener, “The Kübler-Ross Model”, is stunning and epic, with an astonishing crescendo launching its second half, and Elliott made a brave move opening the album with its longest (and arguably finest) track, but the payoff is immense – a prolonged musical euphoria that’s improbably kept afloat by further branches of brilliant, dramatic songwriting. The pensive subtlety of “Something About Ghosts”, the grand-scale narrative of “I Name This Ship The Tragedy, Bless Her & All Who Sail With Her”, the pure vocal viscera of “The Howling Song” and the surprisingly malevolent closure of “Bomb the Stock Exchange” – they all add their own invaluable brush-strokes to that wonderfully evocative image.

#32

October 22, 2010

The Mountain Goats We Shall All Be Healed
singer-songwriter, folk

2004

With such an expansive body of output, it’s not surprising that The Mountain Goats are one of those groups (or people, more accurately) whose catalogue doesn’t feature a universally agreed upon peak. Some listeners love the bare-bones, confessional songwriting and polished arrangements of The Sunset Tree, while for every person who most enjoys the bleak humour and storytelling of Tallahassee there’s an old-school purist who digs the lo-fi days of Sweden and The Coroner’s Gambit. I find it pretty tough to pick a favourite, but while Talahassee and The Coroner’s Gambit are close contenders, I keep coming back to We Shall All Be Healed, an album I consider to be vastly underrated. The record is frequently overlooked, neighboured by the popular Tallahassee and the critically lauded The Sunset Tree, which I think is a tremendous shame, as it displays impressive development in Darnielle’s songwriting, a combination of ultra-sharp guitar-work and thoughtful lyricism, a “much more subtly conveyed than his The Mountain Goats - We Shall All Be Healedother releases” theme of the perils of drug addiction and what I consider to be his most consistently high-quality output on any release. Darnielle’s songs rarely sink to the level of filler, but his albums often come across a little cluttered, with obvious highpoints plainly standing out. We Shall All Be Healed is different, though, and when I go to pick a favourite track I have to weigh up fantastic cuts like “Slow West Vultures”, “Palmcorder Yajna”, “Letter From Belgium”, “The Young Thousands”, “Your Belgian Things”, “Home Again Garden Grove”, “Cotton” and “Quito”, all of which could stake a reasonable claim to “best on album” status. Tough decisions are rarely that enjoyable.

 

#37

October 15, 2010

Rokia Traoré Bowmboï
African folk music, singer-songwriter
2003

Malian Rokia Traoré’s self-produced third album, the lovely Bowmboï, is a collection of African folk songs delivered via classical acoustic guitar, traditional African instrumentation and Traoré’s remarkable voice. Singing in her native Bamana language, she delivers a ten track set that is calm, relaxing and beautiful in its simplicity. The Rokia Traoré - Bowmboïmusic is fleshed out through some earthy percussion and fine string augmentation (courtesy on two tracks of The Kronos Quartet) which gives the album a bustling, spritely sound, which feels quite active and vibrant, but never steps over the line into any degree of tense urgency. The percussion in particular is highly impressive – dynamic, multi-layered and very nimbly performed, it is nonetheless carefully tempered such that it never overshadows any other element of the music. Most importantly, it doesn’t overshadow Traoré’s incredibly beguiling vocal, one of the most gorgeous and transfixing I’ve heard all decade. There’s something undeniably transportative about the music, such that I find myself swept up and totally immersed in Traoré’s world every time I press play. As far as highlights go, the album is bookended remarkably well. The opening four tracks provide a feast of brilliant material, with “M’Bifo”, “Sara” and “Köte Don” making for a lively trio and the exquisite “Mariama” featuring a lovely guest vocal from Malian legend Ousmane Sacko as a counterpart to Traoré, while the title-track closes the album with exceptional grace.

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#41

October 13, 2010

Greg Ashley Medicine Fuck Dream
folk, singer-songwriter, psychedelic-rock
2003

Greg Ashley, the talented young Oakland-based singer/songwriter and leader of critically acclaimed side project The Gris Gris, was just twenty-one years old when Medicine Fuck Dream, his debut album of sleepy psychedelic folk, was first released. I usually try to exercise a bit of caution when it comes to praising debuts by young artists, as there’s a culture of “next big thingism” in online music criticism that, as far as I’m concerned, tends to do more harm than good, burning out promising groups with unneccessary hyperbole and unreasonable expectations for followups that’ll never measure up. Having given Medicine Fuck Dream plenty of time and attention, however, I can honestly say this is one of the best debuts of the decade, and Ashley really deserves to be getting a lot more attention than he currently receives. Combining stripped-back, acoustic instrumentation with authentic vintage recording equipment, Ashley has achieved a very well-realised tone on this album, creating a warm, gauzy sound that’s immediately reminiscent of first-wave psychedelic acts of the mid-1960s, such as Skip Spence and The Thirteenth Floor Elevators. What’s important to note, though, is that this approach doesn’t completely tie the record down to a particular time-period. There’s a lot of personality and creativity in this music, and the result is an album that actually sounds quite displaced and timeless. Medicine Fuck Dream commences with the quartet of “Karen Loves Candy”, “Medicine Fuck Dream”, “Mona Rider” Greg Ashley - Medicine Fuck Dreamand “Deep Deep Down”, all drowsy numbers that sound very contemplative in their lysergic slumber and combine beautifully to establish a desolate, late-night atmosphere. The remainder is divided between comfortable psych-folk cuts (the breezy “She” and “Legs Coca Cola” both sound like long-lost classics), a detour into dusty country balladeering with a lovely cover of Hank Williams’ “Lost Highway” and the contrasting levity of “I Said, ‘These Are Lonely Days'” and “Apple Pie and Genocide”. Worthy of special mention is the title-track, which includes a memorable arpeggiated guitar riff and some nice ghostly harmonica touches floating in the background. It’s definitely my favourite track on the album and one of the decade’s finest psych-folk songs.

 

#45

October 8, 2010

Ned Collette Future Suture
folk, singer-songwriter
2007

Ned Collette - Future SutureFuture Suture feels like a logical progression from Collette’s debut, Jokes and Trials. Retaining that first album’s sense of intimacy and warmth, Collette expands his sonic palate, fleshing out his guitar-based sound with extra instrumentation – not merely touches of strings, woodwind, brass, etc, though these are present, but also with full-band arrangements that give these songs a really broad, vivid sound, pushing the album in a more outward-reaching direction that makes for an interesting variation from the more insular approach of his debut. The recording is also significantly more crisp and professional, and this complements the fuller sound well. As with Jokes and Trials, Collette’s Cohenesque lyricism is a major selling point, and lines like the slightly sinister “Until you show your cards we’ll sing your praises” (“Show Your Hand”) and the weary resignation in “I’ll swap with you right now a good plan for a fling” (“Sell Your Life”, also my favourite track) are really sharply affecting. With just nine tracks – perfectly sequenced and without the slightest dip in quality – Future Suture is very pleasingly economical, and with its poetic lyrics and the fine musical details littered generously throughout, it’s one of the most highly replayable albums of the decade. I’ve had a lot of time for Collette’s work over the last five years, and Future Suture is further evidence that he stands out as one of Australia’s finest musicians, and a leading light in the singer-songwriter genre.

 

#47

October 7, 2010

David Thomas Broughton The Complete Guide to Insufficiency
singer-songwriter, folk
2005

There aren’t many albums which sound like The Complete Guide to Insufficiency, for a few reasons. To start with, the entire forty minute set – consisting of 5 lengthy tracks – was recorded in a continuous single take, which allows for a very smooth and consistent flow that makes single-sitting listenings very rewarding. Secondly, the recording was done inside an empty church, meaning that there’s a very spacious quality about the sound, allowing Broughton’s vocal to really echo through the recording space in a way that’s quite haunting, David Thomas Broughton - The Complete Guide to Insufficiencylending the album something of a gothic, chamber-folk angle. It beautifully augments his soft, acoustic guitar playing, the vast expansiveness perfectly enveloping the very sparse play-style, spotlighting Broughton’s aptitude for crafting highly delicate, memorable guitar lines – structured around the use of loops and slight variations on repeating themes – that really manipulate the listener into a particular emotional state. Really, though, the main reason that there aren’t many album’s like David Thomas Broughton’s debut, is because absolutely nobody sounds like David Thomas Broughton. The man’s singing is simply a marvel to behold – soulful and deep, yet blessed with impressive range, he delivers his songs in a near-operatic style which is melancholy and beautiful and utterly absorbing, making use of cryptic, repeated phrasings that fascinate you and get stuck in your head, tempting you to dissect and interpret them at every turn. From the first moments of “Ambiguity” – which opens the album and stands as its finest track and one of the best songs of the decade – I find myself absolutely hypnotised by this wonderful, idiosyncratic artist.

 

#48

October 5, 2010

Charming Hostess Sarajevo Blues
avant-folk, experimental-rock, Jewish music, a cappella, beatboxing
2004

Charming Hostess are a Californian group, consisting of Jewlia Eisenberg, Marika Hughes and Cynthia Taylor, who describe themselves as “nerdy hippy commie folk.” Active since the mid-90s, they used to be part of a strong avant-folk, genderfuck, performing arts movement located out of Oakland. 2004’s Sarajevo Blues is their second studio album, and is an adaptation of a book of poetry (of the same name) by Semezdin Mehmedinović, which was first released in 1992 and detailed Mehmedinović’s day-to-day life, hardships and extraordinary experiences during the Bosnian siege. The music here is a fascinating, idiosyncratic brew of traditional Jewish songcraft, contemporary rock music, a cappella and eastern-European folk, and draws strong influences from Balkan, African and Sufi musical styles. Comparison points are really hard to come by, although the group cite Meredith Monk as an influence, which is evident from the experimental, diverse and extremely dynamic vocals employed by the trio, all three of whom sing. Throughout Sarajevo Blues, they touch on classical, syncopated funk, frantic breath-heavy delivery and even attention-grabbing beatboxing, something that initially seems sharply out of place, but starts to really enhance the album the more you hear it. The vocals are gorgeously executed throughout, and I especially love the moments in songs like “Viva Orduenya”, “War” and “Death is a Job” where they adjust key to take a more bluesy turn. The nature of the album gives way to some very candid and forthright lyrics, with powerful verses on everything from the nightmare Charming Hostess - Sarajevo Bluesof entering Sarajevo by an underground tunnel (“There’s not enough air. I lay in a wide spot made to put aside dead, so the live can pass through”) to a striking commentary on wartime photographers (“If a bullet hit me they’d get a shot worth so much more than my life that I’m not even sure who to hate: the sniper or the monkey with a Nikon”). It’s a constantly fascinating album – and a surprisingly catchy one – that sounds quite unlike anything else I’ve heard before.

#67

August 25, 2010

Jack RoseKensington Blues
American-primitivism, solo-guitar, folk, instrumental
2005

Jack Rose pretty clearly establishes himself Jack Rose - Kensington Bluesas a disciple of John Fahey on Kensington Blues, his fifth and best known album of American Primitivism. The fascinating instrumental guitar style, a traditionally vocalless method which combines neo-classical and avant-garde approaches with country/blues finger-picking techniques, was invented by Fahey in the 1950s, and Rose makes an exceptional contribution to its continued development. He does a terrific job straddling that fine line between the style’s melodic aspects and it’s more “musically academic” ones, making for an album that’s quite breezy and easily listenable, yet at the same time impresses with its complexity, masterful playing (Primitivism often showcases some pretty nimble fingers, and this album is no exception) and attention to detail. The three-minute title track opens the album, and serves its purpose beautifully as an accessible, concise introduction and a taster of what’s to come, with the remainder of the album shifting between self-contained songs of similar brevity and longer passages of more overtly ambitious work. Rose suddenly and unexpectedly died in late-2009, at just 38 years of age, bringing premature closure to a career that had already delivered one masterpiece and certainly had the potential to deliver more. Kensington Blues ensures that he will always hold a place in the upper-echelon of players of American Primitivism, and of guitarists in general.

#73

August 13, 2010

Kandia KouyatéBiriko
African folk music, Malian
2002

Kandia Kouyaté is widely considered to be Mali’s best female pure vocalist, and verges on being a national treasure for it. Biriko is a near-exhausting showcase of her profound ability, as Kouyaté unveils passage after passage of simply amazing vocal-work across the album’s eleven lengthy tracks (only two of them clock in at less than five minutes), ranging across Kandia Kouyaté - Birikofragile melancholy, soulful grooves and robustly commanding hollers. The backing instrumentation – played almost solely on traditional African instrumentals – is pleasingly melodic (sometimes playfully, sometimes more restrained), yet is subtle enough to avoid distracting the listener, allowing the focus to remain solely on Kouyaté’s vocals 90% of the time, the remaining 10% being composed of finely played instrumental introductions or interludes. For fans of exceptional vocal showcases – regardless of their attitude towards “world” music – Biriko is downright essential.

#76

August 6, 2010

Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days
folk, singer/songwriter
2004

This entry could have just as easily been for either of Iron and Wine’s other albums, The Creek Drank the Cradle or The Shepherd’s Dog, because, honestly, Sam Beam is one of those musicians who seems to be incapable of writing a song that’s anything less than really pleasant. The quality of songwriting plateaus at a consistently high level throughout his catalogue of albums and EPs, something that I’ve always found really impressive. However, Our Endless Numbered Days always seems to come out on top as my personal favourite Iron and Wine album. I think the crisper, cleaner production works really well with Beam’s particular brand of sweet, subtle folk music, such that it lifts this album a couple of notches above the already lofty standard set by more spare sounding The Creek Drank the Cradle. I’d single out “Sunset Soon Forgotten”, “Love and Some Verses”, “Sodom, South Georgia” and “Naked as Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered DaysWe Came” (easily Beam’s best song up to this point) as my favourite tracks on the album, all of which create a wonderful, sleepy vibe of contentment that’s really prominent throughout Our Endless Numbered Days (a vibe which, incidentally, matches perfectly with the drawing of a relaxed-looking Beam which can be seen on the album cover). Like I said, though, the man is the very definition of consistency, so consider this a recommendation that you check out his entire body of work.

#96

July 5, 2010

Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much to Love
singer/songwriter, folk, country
2005

After carving out a prolific niche as a subdued, lo-fi, singer-songwriter type, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was enough to make you think that Bill Callahan had been a lonesome cowboy his entire life. The folksy, country boy schtick fits him perfectly, with Bill’s ultra-deep, charismatic vocal being surprisingly reminiscent of Johnny Cash, even if he does stick mostly to spoken-word delivery, letting his guitar do all the melodic heavy-lifting. It’s really refreshing to hear Callahan sounding mellowed-out and content – even happy at times – as Smog - A River Ain't Too Much to Loveit makes for an interesting contrast against the often dark themes and stark production of his previous works. A River Ain’t Too Much to Love feels like a comfortable album, arguably the most natural fit of Callahan’s career, but I also consider it his most accomplished. The production is sublime, retaining Smog’s usual minimalist style but making it sound dense and layered, which allows for those distant, wistful touches that can be a lot harder to nail when everything sounds equally “up-front”. If you combine that with the best songwriting of his career – “Palimpsest”, “The Well”, “Rock Bottom Riser”, “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” and “Let Me See the Colts” are some of the best things he’s ever written – you get Callahan’s true masterpiece, and it’s an under-acknowledged one at that.