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Highly Recommended Music, Volume 1

A lot of people have been asking me lately "Hey Richard, I'm looking for something new to listen to - what would you recommend?" So I've tried my best to put together a list CDs which I could recommend to the broadest possible audience. Maybe some things you haven't heard before - and hopefully you can discover something new. Thus, I present Volume 1 of:

Highly recommended music.
For just about anyone.

(listed in no particular order)

1) Belle & Sebastian - fold your hands child, you walk like a peasant

Label = Matador
Released 2000

    I never really pictured Glasgow, Scotland as a bright, sunny place, but Belle & Sebastian's latest album has me re-evaluating my theories (that's where the seven members of the group are currently from). Something about the swooping background string section and cheery trumpet makes me think of some pleasant retro breeze from the 60s or 70s. On the whole, I think 'fold your hands...' is almost a perfect soundtrack to summertime. And the kind of thing that would keep you warm in the wintertime, too. In my opinion, this may be their finest album ('If you're feeling sinister' is a close second).

2) The Magnetic Fields - 69 Love Songs

Label = Merge
Released 1999

    If you heed none of my other recommendations, please consider this one. I will make it easy: The Magnetic Fields' '69 Love Songs' is so brilliantly, wonderfully done, so well-written, so well-conceived, so well-performed that it could very easily become a classic if only enough people hear it. While it wanders musically across just about any genre you'd care to name (country, 1980s synth-pop, acoustic warbling, crooning ballads, a capella numbers...), the unifying theme is the quality of the songcraft - beautiful tunes that I find myself singing along to whether I mean to or not.

3) Up, Bustle and Out - One Colour Just Reflects Another

Label = Ninja Tune
Released 1996

    The core members of Up, Bustle and Out grew up in the Bristol, England electronic scene that brought us such "trip hop" bands as Portishead (mixing mellow hip hop grooves under filme noir-esque music), Massive Attack (lately mixing mellowish beats under big washes of sound), and Tricky (mixing mellow beats under weird rapping). Up, Bustle and Out collect sounds from around the world (on this album, Peru, Bolivia, and Turkey - but more recently Cuba), some jazz, some funk, and blend those together with the beats of their native Bristol. Again, I think this one's tops in their collection.

4) Soul Coughing - Ruby Vroom

Label = Slash / Warner Brothers
Released 1994

    It pains me to talk about Soul Coughing in the past tense - they truly developed a unique sound which no one else has been able to duplicate since. Their mix of upright bass, clever drumming, unusual sound samples, and near-spoken word beat poetry lyrics perfectly evokes a smoky East Village club with all its funky vibe. I find this album works well either as a groovy background for a party or as a backdrop to make my apartment feel much hipper.

5) Johnny Jenkins - Ton-Ton Macoute!

Label = Capricorn
Released 1970

    File under "great blues albums that have undeservedly slipped through the cracks". Interestingly, this album was intended to be Duane Allman's solo album, but after he had recorded several of the basic tracks, he became too busy with the Allman Brothers Band to finish things up. In stepped Johnny Jenkins, guitarist in the band that Otis Redding was singing in at the time, and the album had a new man at the helm (though some of Duane Allman's guitar and dobro work still appears on the recordings). It wasn't until I bought the album that I realized that the Beck had sampled the drumbeat and dobro twang of the first song for his hit 'Loser'. Who knew?

6) Gillian Welch - Revival

Label = Almo Sounds
Released 1996

    Unless I explicitly mentioned "Gillian Welch grew up in LA", you would never know from her dry twang which sounds more honest than any created by the dreaded corporate Nashville country machine. And then there's the harmonized, occasionally gospel-tinged bluegrass that she sings with partner David Rawlings. Nevertheless, while you wouldn't associate simple, acoustic twang with Los Angeles, every time I've seen her here, she's sold the place out.

7) Dead Can Dance - spiritchaser

Label = 4AD
Released 1996

    Dead Can Dance's sound changed quite dramatically over their lifetime - from the very dark gothic sounds of their debut, to the medieval styled 'Aion', to this their final album. And perhaps, although I love almost all of their earlier works, things come together best here in the end - Brendan Perry's voice blends with Lisa Gerrard's otherworldly votive lyrics better here than elsewhere, and the rolling percussion and ancillary ethnic instrumentation seem perfectly balanced. I think this album could be the ideal intro for those unfamiliar with this sadly now-no-longer-with-us band.

8) Kruder & Dorfmeister - The K & D Sessions

Label = STUD!O K7
Released 1999

    It's easy to get a negative impression of electronic music - whether it's the annoying twit that drives up next to you on the street with the bass on his stereo cranked up to 11 or whether it's the press seemingly all over the widespread growth of ecstasy and other recreational drug use in the teenage crowd that frequents the rave scene. Thankfully, there are other (positive!) flavors of electronic music - like the downtempo jazzified sounds coming out of Europe these days. Austrian DJs Kruder and Dorfmeister really set a milestone in that scene with this 2CD collection of songs they have remixed into a blissful mellow melange.

9) Yo La Tengo - And then nothing turned itself inside-out

Label = Matador
Released 2000

    People seem unable to talk about Yo La Tengo without mentioning the word "jazz" - though it's not really the instrumentation that does it (guitars, drum, and bass make up the core of the band) - it's really more a frame of mind, I think. There is a mellow looseness to their songs - which don't have so much an actual structure, but a context - a general zip code in which they meander. Interestingly, some of the drumming on this album reminds me of the feel that a number of Kruder & Dorfmeisters's remixes generate.

10) Cowboy Junkies - The Trinity Session

Label = BMG Music Canada
Released 1988

    Recorded in a single day in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, Canada, this album may best capture the Cowboy Junkies' laid-back rolling twang as the guitar, harmonica, accordion, and Margo Timmins's voice echo around the room and slide like so much butter dripping off a hot biscuit. Their cover of Lou Reed's 'Sweet Jane' (which got a lot of radio play a few years ago) appears here, as well as their versions of Hank Williams' 'I'm so lonesome I could cry', a few traditional numbers, and their reworked update on 'Blue Moon'. But it's their own song 'Misguided Angel' that gives me goosebumps every time I hear it.

11) Cat Power - The Covers Record

Label = Matador
Released 2000

    I think this album does a wonderful job of capturing Cat Power's (aka Chan Marshall) quiet bluesy warbling which absolutely makes me melt - unlike her live shows in which she frequently succumbs to what I can only assume is stage fright, her studio performance here whether on solo guitar or piano is thankfully without distracting interruption. Incidentally, the album is called the "Covers Record" for good reason - all but one of the songs are cover versions of other peoples' songs - for example, Bob Dylan, Michael Hurley, and Nina Simone - but perhaps most interesting, the Rolling Stones' '(Can't get no) Satisfaction', in which she removes the titular refrain, which gives the song a surprisingly original feel.

12) Low - I Could Live in Hope

Label = Vernon Yard
Released 1994

    No, I'm not actually going to write about Low for the 20 millionth time. Yes, they are still my favorite group. Yes, this is still my favorite album of all time, and I've just about worn out my copy. The one thing I will say is that their version of 'Sunshine' (you know..."You are my sunshine, my only sunshine...") is one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard.

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