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Highly Recommended Music, Volume 2

Since a lot of people have been asking me for music recommendations recently, it seemed like as good a time as any to type up Volume 2 of:

Highly recommended music. For just about anyone.

(listed in no particular order)

1) Sigur Ros - Agaetis Byrjun

Label = Fatcat
Released 2000

    Just in case you didn't happen to see my 'Best of 2000' list, I it was worth mentioning Sigur Ros one more time. If I told you that there's a good chance that you would really quite enjoy a CD recorded by a bunch of kids from Iceland, orchestrated with ample use of strings and bowed electric guitar, sung not just in Icelandic, but also in parts in a made up dialect based vaguely on Icelandic, sung by a half-blind male vocalist in an eerie angelic falsetto - you would think I was off my tree (perhaps moreso than usual). This is a really beautiful album. Trust me. I hear that at their live show in New York City earlier this year, people in the audience wept - apparently we're made of stronger stuff here in LA...we just sat around with our jaws agape.

2) Breakestra - The Live Mix part 2

Label = Stones Throw
Released 2000

    There are two albums on this list which are fast becoming the soundtrack to my summer this year. Breakestra's 'Live Mix part 2' is the first. I was in a record store earlier this year, and heard the wet, slathery sounds of vintage funk dripping out of the store's sound system like butter coming off a hot biscuit. Only, much to my surprise, it wasn't vintage at all - it was, in fact, a fresh recording from the LA-based troop Breakestra. The album is essentially one loooong nonstop 43 minute funk jam comprised of snippets of 27 different tunes, spun seamlessly together. It is an instant party in a single package. It is WD-40 for the hips. It is impossible to listen to funk and not be happy.

3) The Green & Yellow TV - As performed by...

Label = Records
Released 2000

    The second album which seems to keep getting stuck in my CD player as we spin into summertime is a recording by a local band called The Green & Yellow TV. There are so many bands that try to be pop rock, but just end up all perky and no place to go. But there are few who can take great harmonies, wed them to catchy tunes, thoughtful instrumentation, and still rock, thunderous drumkit and all. The Green & Yellow TV is one of those bands, and let's all hope that someday it's easier to find their CD. As I see it, the only problem is that you can't actually buy their CD currently (they ran out and haven't printed more). Until they get more pressed, you can either 1) download MP3's of the songs from their website (, or 2) email me, and I can work out a way to get a copy to you.

4) Calexico - The Black Light

Label = Quarterstick
Released 1998

    Sometimes, the heat penetrates you so deeply that your skin becomes the cracked red soil, you feel the searing lonliness of a traintrack stretched out to forever in the desert, and you search the horizon for a hint - just a hint - of the seven lost cities of gold. And then you wake up. And you realize that the wind echoing with maracas, the twang of acoustic guitar, accordion, and mariachi horns was just the Calexico CD you were playing. I love most everything they've recorded - but 'The Black Light' is my favorite - it is a southwestern masterpiece.

5) Kelly Joe Phelps - shine eyed mister zen

Label = Rykodisc
Released 1999

    As the audience started to trickle out of McCabe's Guitar Shop earlier this year, I heard someone mutter "I thought I could play guitar, but now I feel like I just suck." It's easy to have that reaction after hearing Kelly Joe Phelps ravage an acoustic guitar - from the bluesy treatment of his smoothly zippy slide work, to the downpour of plucked notes with guitar snugly under arm. On 'shine eyed mister zen', he pulls together a really nice collection of his own pieces and a few old traditional numbers which he reworks a little bit.

6) Madredeus - Existir

Label = EMI Brazil
Released 1993

    I can say all sorts of nice things about how Madredeus have updated the traditional Portuguese musical style of "fado" - literally 'fate' in Portuguese. How their arrangements for acoustic guitars, cello, and accordion are evocative of blah, blah, blah, blah. But all of that is secondary to Teresa Salgueiro's voice which I think can quite literally break hearts. Songs about fate are one thing - but when she sings them, everything just sort of stops. like. that.

7) Nick Drake - Pink Moon

Label = Hannibal
Released 1972

    Were it not for a Volkswagen commercial which used his song "Pink Moon" a few years ago, it's possible that Nick Drake's fans would have been an intensely loyal, but sadly small, group. Drake recorded just three albums back in the late '60s / early '70s, and "Pink Moon" was his final complete recording before succumbing to devastating depression and committing suicide (though there is some debate over the circumstances of his death). It is a very simple affair, only about 30 minutes long, with Drake's warm papery voice and the busy little bee of his acoustic guitar strumming - and interestingly bears little to no evidence of the depression that was troubling him. Thank goodness for those German car companies.

8) Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel - Things to Come

Label = Sighlow
Released 1999

    I will keep this writeup simple. "Things to Come" is quite simply the best rocking country album I have heard in a long, long time. For people who typically fear twang - have no fear, as this is a real recording from the heart, without the hopeless affectation that pollutes so much of what gets pandered on modern pop country radio these days. The only thing I can't figure out is how it can possibly be that so few other people appear to have caught on to how fantastic this album is. Well, I don't mean "nobody" - there's this guy named Johnny Cash who told Ms. Fermin that she had a "real pretty voice". And when it comes to country, I tend to trust his opinion. (Note: Hard to find. Your best bet is to order from

9) The Handsome Family - In the Air

Label = Carrot Top
Released 2000

    Brett and Rennie Sparks, who are the Handsome Family, have this ability to sneak up on you. I think it's a kind of Trojan Horse approach - I mean, you'd hardly expect a country band with lovely twangy melodies and deep warm voice like Brett's to run around singing about smuggling a bottle of gin into a showing of "Singing in the Rain", or about a melancholy milkman who falls in love with the moon, or about a fellow who gets seduced by the ocean and falls asleep in the green salty water. Yes indeed, all these tales and more are waiting for you on "In the Air". A testament to the power of Macintosh - the album was recorded in their living room on their G3, and quite frankly, you'd never know the difference...

10) Ahmad Jamal - Live at the Montreal Jazz Festival 1985

Label = Atlantic
Released 1986

    People sometimes complain that jazz is a little hard to "get into" because so many recordings spiral off into challenging improvisation. One of the things I love about Ahamad Jamal's piano interpretations is that even when he wanders off into the weeds, he doesn't lose sight of the melody. When it comes to jazz piano, I'm really a fan of the "traditional" trio format of piano / upright bass / drums, so I was initially turned off by the fact that this recording featured quite prominently an electric bass (and it's actually a quartet, as there is an additional percussionist). But the performance that Jamal and his crew put forth has so much energy that it's become my favorite recording over his roughly 50 years of material.

11) DJ Andy Smith - The Document

Label = phase 4
Released 1998

    The first time I saw DJ Andy Smith, he was opening for the British noir trip hop group Portishead. And I really didn't like him. At all. So I all but wrote off his mix CD which came out shortly thereafter...until I was at a restaurant in San Francisco having dinner with my friends Dylan and Bruce, and our of the stereo poured this genius mix of hip hop, funk, and soul, jumping smoothly from the Jungle Brothers to Barry White to Marvin Gaye to Grandmaster Flash to the Spencer Davis Group. Turns out I probably happened to catch Mr. Smith on an off night. While this has become a favorite to listen to when I run, it's an even more fantastic party album.

12) Glucklich III (compiled by Rainer Truby)

Label = Compost
Released 1999

    I'm convinced that Rainer Truby does only 3 things in life: 1) record songs with friends Christian Prommer and Roland Appel under the moniker Truby Trio, 2) DJ at clubs, and 3) dig through mounds and mounds of records at lots and lots of record shops. If you aren't lucky enough (or can't afford to stay up until 3am) to see him spin vinyl at a club from his extensive collection of Brazillified jazz and Brazilian-fueled electronic tunes, you can enjoy the fruits of his labor on the Glucklich compliations which he's been putting together since 1994. My personal favorite is the third installment from the series, which features less of the Brazilian-fused jazz from the 70s/80s from the first few releases (which are quite good in their own right), and more of the Latinized downtempo electronic tunes from the 90s, which are just wonderful.

13) The Pogues - If I Should Fall From Grace with God

Label = Island
Released 1987

    While the selection of 'Best Pogues Album' will oft be argued over many a pint of Guinness, the claim I will stake is that their third album, 'If I Should Fall From Grace with God', found the Pogues at their pinnacle. It was one of the final albums featuring Shane MacGowan before he quit / was sacked when on tour, and it was I think their best-sounding recording before Shane's exit. It's a great blend of traditional Irish tunes and the band's own Irish folk-rock songs. Never mind that you can't actually understand Shane more than about 50% of the time. It will all make much better sense after that pint of Guinness.

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