There have been some outstanding albums released since the turn of the new millennium, and many have become at least reasonably successful. But, as in every era, there are those which slip through the cracks and don’t become reach a large audience and are overlooked. There are a variety of reasons why a great album that is also strongly commercial might not sell — lack of exposure is certainly a biggie. Whittled down from an initial list of about 60 to 80 albums under consideration, here are 25 outstanding albums released since 2000 that have been neglected, and deserve a much wider audience. There are many others that could have been included, and indeed it was difficult to narrow it down to 25. Hopefully this will introduce some readers to great music you might not have heard before. Feel free to post your own favorite underrated and undervalued albums since 2000 in the comments section below.
For most Americans, Norwegian trio a-ha is a one-hit wonder of the ‘80s known for their 1985 debut single and #1 smash “Take on Me.” It’s an iconic classic for sure, with that instantly recognizable keyboard riff, and a high note that has endured the indignity of innumerable drunken karaoke renderings over the years. Unfortunately, except for “Take on Me,” a-ha has largely been ignored in the U.S., apart perhaps from their 1987 James Bond theme “The Living Daylights.” Elsewhere around the world a-ha has scored numerous hits over the years, including over a dozen in the U.K., and they maintain a large and devoted fan-base. A-ha finally called it quits not long after the 2009 release of their ninth album, Foot of the Mountain, and it’s hard to imagine going out on a better note. There’s a definite kinship between Foot of the Mountain and their ‘80s work in the shimmering synthesizers, towering melodies and Morten Harket’s typically dazzling vocals, but it’s far from an exercise in lazy ‘80s nostalgia. Songs like “Riding the Crest,” “Shadowside,” “Foot of the Mountain” and especially the enchanting “Nothing is Keeping You Here” are modern and vital; a shame most folks in America never got the chance to hear them. Foot of the Mountain is a-ha at their best, a fitting swansong for a band that’s accumulated an impressive body of work since they briefly became MTV darlings nearly three decades ago.
There is nothing quite like the wild kaleidoscopic sounds, grooves and textures that The Avalanches, the Australian duo of Robbie Chater and Darren Seltmann, stitched together on their first (and so far only) album, Since I Left You. The duo painstakingly mixed countless vinyl samples from just about every source imaginable and wove them together with upbeat electronic grooves to create a uniquely dizzying sonic experience. Swirling keyboards snake around bits and pieces of music and vocals that disappear and reappear, with snatches of rap or repetitive, dreamy female vocals often zoning in overtop the glorious chaos. It’s disco, pop, hip-hop — really a bizarre amalgamation of all three. Since I Left You must be experienced a few times to really wrap your mind around. It’s like an electric acid trip where every bit of music you’ve ever heard in your life fuses together and churns around and around inside your head in perfect synchronicity… or perhaps a vivid dream in which you’re wandering through a gigantic maze with thousands upon thousands of albums and singles lining the walls and floor, and at every corner there is a DJ playing something different, and you hear bits and pieces as the sounds overlap and intersect; somehow it not only fits together seamlessly, it grooves like nothing else you’ve ever heard. Disorienting, eclectic, audacious, wildly creative, joyous… Since I Left You will have you jamming along in the car, under the headphones, or blasting it at a party — stop reading about it and go experience it for yourself; you won’t regret it.
The second album by U.K. band British Sea Power, Open Season is a blast of alternative-rock with a keen sense of melody and dramatic power. Their sound is a bit of a mix between Psychedelic Furs and Arcade Fire. Vocalist Jan Scott Wilkinson has a breathy, pleasantly raspy voice that’s vaguely reminiscent of Paul Westerberg at times, and musically they can range from thickly layered electric guitars to jangly acoustic material. British Sea Power isn’t beholden to any particular era — if you played Open Season for someone and asked them what year it was released, you’d likely get a range of answers anywhere from the early ‘80s through today. There is some terrific songwriting — in particular the enigmatic opener “It Ended on an Oily Stage,” “How Will I Ever Find My Way Home,” and “Be Gone.” The best moment might be the strikingly catchy “Please Stand Up,” which sounds like it should have been in heavy rotation on MTV’s 120 Minutes around the time of “Under the Milky Way” and “So Alive.” It sticks in your head and won’t let go. Open Season did quite well in the U.K., reaching #13, but in the U.S it wasn’t able to penetrate the glut of Indie bands to achieve the widespread acclaim and success it deserves.
On her 1999 album Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, singer/songwriter Cindy Bullens recounts the death of her young daughter Jessie from cancer three years earlier, and expresses the myriad of emotions that accompanies such a tragic journey. She sings of heartbreak and hopelessness and ultimately of strength and resolve as the album ends with the inspirational “Better Than I’ve Ever Been.” It’s a spellbinding listen, a catharsis in a very literal sense. Its follow-up Neverland doesn’t shy away from the topic — the very first line of the album is “It’s been fifteen-hundred days and nights since last I saw your face” — but she doesn’t dwell on her daughter’s death exclusively (although it’s clearly bubbling just under the surface). Bullens veers away in other directions, as if she wants us to know that she hasn’t forgotten and never will, but is managing in some fashion to move on with her life. Neverland is edgier than its predecessor, and Bullens’ songwriting is just as superb. In a sane world, the ominous “Neverland” should have been all over rock radio as the first single, and “Cry to You” would have done the same as the follow-up. But, alas, the real world doesn’t allow talented artists like Cindy Bullens the necessary exposure to get her music to a wider audience who might appreciate it. Cindy Bullens is not quite on the same plane as titans like Lucinda Williams or Bonnie Raitt (but then, who is?), but she’s clearly inspired by elements from both and adds her own compelling story. Melissa Etheridge fans take note — Neverland has a similar vibe to much of Etheridge’s material, and is worth taking the time to seek out… and don’t forget to pick up Somewhere Between Heaven and Earth, but have the tissues ready when you hear Cindy’s duet with her elder daughter Reid on “As Long as You Love.”
The Charleston, South Carolina-based band The Explorers Club dive heard-first into the sounds of the ‘60s and ‘70s on their sublime second album, Grand Hotel. They capture the pop sound of both eras with real verve, and their harmonies are every bit as rapturous as those of bands like The Byrds, The Beach Boys and Eagles. The Explorers Club isn’t operating with a wink and a dose of irony — these guys are obviously genuinely in love with the styles they are exploring. Their careful attention to detail (and the superb songwriting) makes it convincing. Put the breezy “Run Run Run” out in 1971 and you’ve got a smash. “It’s No Use” sounds like something right off the AM dial circa 1968. “Sweet Delights” is twee in that sunny early ‘70s folk-pop kinda way, and instantly brings a smile. “Anticipatin” is ‘70s California-rock during the verse, and then it suddenly jumps back a decade during the sugary chorus. The sunny optimism of Grand Hotel is welcome in an increasingly cynical and disconnected digital world, and maybe that’s the idea. Check out the graceful ballad “It’s You,” perhaps the finest moment on the album. It’s right out of David Gates’ Bread songbook. The title track is an exercise in creating a period piece instrumental — it sounds like a movie theme from about 1967. Each song captures a distinct mood but it all works so well together. Grand Hotel is a sheer delight; flawlessly executed, clever and buoyant. It’s an authentic trip back to another era in music, fresh-faced and guileless.
It seems a strange match from two different musical worlds: the vocalist of moody ‘90s trip-hop trio Portishead and Paul Webb (under the pseudonym Rustin’ Man), former bassist for new wave-turned-progressive rock ‘80s band Talk Talk. The resulting album, Out of Season, speaks for itself: there is no question Gibbons and Webb is an inspired pairing. The result of their collaboration is a lush album of languid torch songs. One can imagine Gibbons and Webb on stage performing these songs in a dimly-lit lounge, thick with cigarette smoke, tables full of jaded and desperate people drowning their sorrows in music and whiskey. Out of Season is mellow, atmospheric and mysterious, with Gibbons’ versatile voice weaving deftly around rich, old-school instrumentation married to modern effects. The album has a darkly cinematic vibe. “Tom the Model” is a genius track with a soaring string arrangement and a madly twirling organ in the background over which Beth Gibbons delivers a phenomenal vocal performance. Sometimes (as on “Show”) Gibbons channels a sorta demented version of Billie Holliday. Other standouts include the theatrical “Romance,” the jazzy “Drake,” and the album’s haunted opener “Mysteries.” Out of Season is an album for after midnight, a glass (or three) of wine, and headphones… or maybe for something a little less prosaic. Leave it up to your imagination.
Released just after the turning of the clock from one millennium to the next (well, sorta… I guess the millennium technically started a year later, but who’s counting?), Grandaddy’s The Sophtware Slump seems to straddle both sides of the timeline. Recorded almost completely by songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Jason Lytle, The Sophtware Slump is a spacey pop trip with real heart and beauty. The epic, nearly 9-minute “He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s the Pilot,” opens the album with staggering brilliance. It culminates in a long, hypnotic ending in which Lytle repeats, “Are you giving in 2000 man?” over mesmerizing piano and electronics. “Hewlett’s Daughter” and “The Crystal Lake” are the two catchiest tracks, both guitar-heavy pop-rockers. Lytle also dabbles with sonic experiments that seem influenced by progressive rock, like the wistful “Jed the Humanoid,” which sounds vaguely Pink Floyd-inspired. The Sophtware Slump peers into the increasingly digital world for a heart somewhere deep inside the plastic, metal and wires. It’s an album about isolation and trying somehow to connect without knowing how, or why, but with the burning knowledge that there has got to be more than just a surreal fantasy world of diversions and personal obsessions. Of course, these themes have been explored before, most notably three years earlier on OK Computer. The Sophtware Slump is dreamier, more hopeful, less bleak and fatalistic, and perhaps more naive. It’s a superbly crafted album that captures the feel of the turn of the millennium and distills it into a work of progressive pop that is hopeful, poignant and timeless. The album ends with “Miner at the Dial-A-View” and its companion song “So You’ll Aim Toward the Sky,” which features a languid wall of synths over acoustic guitar with Lytle’s lovely voice floating above with lofty grace, repeating the same lyrics over and over like a mantra: “So you’ll aim toward the sky and you’ll rise high today, fly away, far away, far from pain.” Its beauty is wrapped in sadness and resignation and hopes that will never come to fruition, like many dreamers as the centuries turned.
Johnny Indovina is the creative force behind Human Drama, and an impressive one he is. The first Human Drama album, Feel, was released by RCA Records in 1989. RCA didn’t seem to know what to do with it, and despite being a strong collection of highly emotional, introspective alternative rock, Feel did nothing commercially. After parting with RCA, Human Drama recorded a trio of brilliant albums in the ‘90s: 1992’s The World Inside, 1995’s Songs of Betrayal, and Solemn Sun Setting from 1999. On his final album under the Human Drama name, Cause and Effect, Indovina as usual delves deeply into the shadowy human psyche, relationship dynamics, and our place in the world. He is a world-class songwriter of dark, moody rock and delicate ballads, and is a vocalist capable of great nuance. A few of the strongest tracks are “Madame Hate’s Mad Search for Love,” “I Am Not Here,” and “Lonely,” which features elaborately ornate piano reminiscent of Mike Garson’s work on Bowie classics like “Aladdin Sane” and “Lady Grinning Soul.” The best may be “Goodbye Sweetheart,” with its crunching guitars, cunning melody, and darkly intense vocals. Cause and Effect also includes two excellent covers: a powerful take on the Emmylou Harris song “Bang the Drum Slowly,” and a solemn version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me To the End of Love,” which closes the album. Johnny Indovina continues to record and perform with his most recent project, Sound of the Blue Heart. His body of work with both Human Drama and Sound of the Blue Heart is powerful and worth exploring, and Cause and Effect is a great place to start.
Released in the fall of 2008, Hurricane is essential Grace. It was her first new album since Bulletproof Heart in 1989, and is one of the finest of her career. Much of the album continues Jones’ fascination with reggae rhythms and influences that she explored on her previous albums, but she also dabbles in electronic and trip-hop influences (which some of her classic albums had inspired in the first place), giving the album a modern feel without losing touch with her past. Her voice sounds as good as it ever has, and it’s apt that she begins the album with the declaration, “This is my voice, my weapon of choice.” Hurricane combines that aura of sex, glamour and danger that Jones always seems to exude, but the lyrics are often more introspective than one would expect. “William’s Blood” in particular dredges up experiences from her past. A collaboration with Wendy & Lisa, “William’s Blood” features a ferocious blast of guitar during the chorus and culminates with an ever-building mountain of choral vocals before abruptly ending with a snippet of “Amazing Grace.” She can still be scary when she wants to, like on the hellfire finale “Devil in My Life,” and on “Corporate Cannibal” which opens with Grace at her most wicked, drawling in an ominous, throaty voice, “Pleased to meet you, pleased to have you on my plate, your meat is sweet to me.” She’s also capable of absolute beauty, such as “I’m Crying (Mother’s Tears).” The bass-lines are absolutely killer throughout, and the grooves are funky and thunderous. Hurricane is proof that Grace can still bring it when she wants, and when she brings it nobody can match her.
European readers are probably wondering why this album is mentioned here. But as hard is it is to fathom, Katy B’s Mercury Prize-Nominated On a Mission has made little commercial impact in the U.S. She’s had four Top 10 and seven Top 30 hits in the U.K. but is basically a complete unknown here in America. Hopefully that will change with her new album, the just-released Little Red. Her debut On a Mission is one of the smartest, most energetic and irresistible dance-pop albums of the decade. Opening track “Power on Me” is a spare, sophisticated and elegant electronic groove adorned by Katy’s soulful vocal performance. The dubstep-flavored “Katy on a Mission” is funky and tight, and “Witches Brew” ranks among the best pop singles of the decade by anybody. There are no weak links; On a Mission is Lisa Stansfield meets Kylie with a light sprinkle of Britney or Katy Perry just for the spunky edge. “Lights On,” with its pumping bass, is made for blasting in a club, as is the slinky “Easy Please Me” which drips sexuality. The album closes with the smokin’ groove “Hard to Get,” another great track on an album that’s loaded with them. Katy B is a talented young artist to watch, but even if she never breaks through in America she can claim without question a tremendous debut album.
Tropical Brainstorm is a bittersweet album. It’s brimming with Kirsty MacColl’s innate charm and talent, her wit and gift for melody, but it’s also a reminder of her tragic death. She was killed during a boating accident in the Caribbean that inspired this album only nine months after its release. MacColl left behind a strong legacy of great records and fine songwriting from her two decades in the music industry. She never really had much of a chart impact in the U.S.; the closest was in 1983 when Tracey Ullman’s take on her early single “They Don’t Know” charmed its way into the Top 10. The Latin-inspired Tropical Brainstorm had been Kirsty’s first album in seven years. It melds Kirsty’s pop sensibilities with the Latin American rhythms that had inspired her from her time spent in the Caribbean. “In These Shoes?” is the standout; MacColl delivers the clever lyrics with a wickedly sexy verve, and the rhythm makes it impossible to sit still. “Treachery” is another highlight, with one of the stronger melodies on the album. She touches on a variety of different Latin American styles and there is an overriding sense of joy — it’s fun, breezy and exuberant. Listen to “Us Amazonians” and try not to smile, or better yet, dance (chair-dancing counts). Tropical Brainstorm is a soundtrack for partying with good friends outdoors on a warm night (preferably at the beach), with plenty of strong, icy, fruity drinks, lots of dancing and laughs. Kirsty MacColl’s final album is a celebration of life and music — as she sings on the album opener “Mambo De La Luna”, “I know a land where they live for today, ‘cause tomorrow is too far away.”
Around the end of the ‘90s and into the 2000s, a particular breed of somewhat lightweight melodic guitar-rock erupted in the wake of “Brit pop” and the ascension of bands like Radiohead and Blur. Travis, Keane, Coldplay, and Snow Patrol were all in this group, among others. The Motorhomes were in that neighborhood, but on a plane several notches higher. They were a Swedish band that got very little play beyond their home country, which is indeed a shame because both of their albums – Songs for Me (and my baby) and its 2002 follow-up Long Distance Runners — are outstanding. Vocalist Mattias Edlund has a beautiful, dreamy voice and his band-mates provide restrained, lush dreamscapes of blended acoustic and electric guitar, keyboards and a steady rhythm section as a backdrop for Edlund’s often pensive but exquisite melodies. “Into the Night” was the major single, and it’s a beauty. Particularly affecting is the melancholy “Don’t Die Young,” a brilliant recording with a stunning vocal and a rich sound that fills up a room. Other high points include “Heaven Sent,” and the hard-rocking “It’s Alright.” All of these songs, given the opportunity, the right promotion and exposure, should have been hits. The Motorhomes broke up after their second album, and Songs for Me (and my baby) is now fourteen years old, but it sounds like it could have been released yesterday. There’s nothing overly original or earthshattering about Songs for Me (and my baby) — it’s just an exquisitely crafted album of great songs. Can’t really ask for more than that.
Seeds is a funky time warp — an ingenious hybrid of vintage, ‘70s-style R&B, reminiscent of Chaka Khan or Sly & The Family Stone, with modern experimental electronica. It runs a tight thirty-four minutes, which is similar in length to an album that might have been released in the early ‘70s. Muldrow’s glorious vocals are at times free-form, as on the spectacular bass-heavy funk-jazz hybrid “The Birth of Petey Wheatstraw,” and other times she follows a somewhat more traditional song structure, as on the fantastic opener “Seeds,” which features strings and piano that weave around the complex vocal arrangement. Muldrow delivers stellar vocals throughout, but she’s especially stunning on “Kali Yuga,” which boasts a truly wicked, stripped-down groove. The trippy “Husfriend” is another ace track, with scratches and pops in the background as if you’re playing an old, long-forgotten 45 that’s been sitting in a box on a shelf. “Best Love” is a disco-influenced jam that’s made for grinding close on the dance floor. Muldrow delves into her lower register on “Wind,” and once again demonstrates her versatility as a vocalist. “There is a wonderful fluidity to Seeds — it feels open, fresh and free-flowing. Seeds is a mash-up of styles and time-periods that works to perfection — pick it up, turn it up, and press the repeat button as you groove late into the night.
Rock icon Stevie Nicks has put out some great solo records, but In Your Dreams ranks right there near the top. She collaborates with Dave Stewart of Eurythmics, which proves to be a shrewd choice. Stewart is a master in the studio as well as an ace guitarist and songwriter, and one of the best producers in the business. Like Nicks, Stewart works best with a strong collaborator, as he did for so many years with Annie Lennox. In Your Dreams has some truly breathtaking moments, like the wistful ballad “For What It’s Worth.” One can’t help but imagine what some of these songs would sound like with Lindsey Buckingham and Christine McVie harmonizing along, but that’s just a testament to the strength of the material. The title song is another winner, and first single “Secret Love” is a strong opener. Dave Stewart’s blazing guitar takes center-stage on the excellent “Wide Sargasso Sea.” It’s a shame that In Your Dreams didn’t do better commercially. It did reach #6 in the U.S. upon its release (although with first-week sales of barely over 50k), but quickly tumbled down the charts. There seems to be a tendency by fans of older artists to ignore the newer stuff, and that’s a shame. This is still the same Stevie Nicks who wrote and sang classics like “Dreams,” “Landslide,” “Sara,” “Gypsy,” “Stand Back,” “Nightbird” and so many others.
Pedro the Lion is the project of Dave Bazan, a Seattle-based singer/songwriter with a gift for using his acute power of observation and dry wit to create music that is often melancholy and cynical, but enthralling nonetheless. Control is ultimately about the question most of us ask at some points in our lives — what defines happiness and success? Control combines piercing lyrics sung by Bazan in his note-perfect deadpan voice and an aural assault of tumultuous guitars and pounding drums. It’s essential to follow the lyrics while listening to fully appreciate the greatness of Control. “Oh, look you earned your wings. Are you an angel now or a vulture?” Bazan asks on “Magazine,” and that’s really the central question of the album. What we value, how we relate to each other as human beings, Bazan covers all the big questions on Control. He cuts to the heart of the human experience. “If you really want to make it, you had best remember this: if it isn’t penetration, then it isn’t worth the kiss,” he sneers on “Penetration,” one of his most cutting and incisive tracks. Control is an indictment of a society obsessed with consumerism and materialism at the expense of humanity, the “every-man-for-himself” attitude that infects our world. Bazan can be pointedly direct, like on “Indian Summer” when he deadpans this withering couplet with virulent contempt: “All the experts say you ought to start them young, that way they’ll naturally love the taste of corporate cum.” The emotional centerpiece of the album is the somber “Priests and Paramedics,” about the death of a man at the hands of his wife, and how ultimately it’s easy to give up hope in the face of all the cruelty and pain the world collectively faces on a day to day basis. It ends with a priest musing aloud at the man’s funeral some very unexpected words: “Lately I have been wondering why we go through so much trouble to postpone the unavoidable and prolong the pain of being alive.” Not what you’d expect to hear at a funeral. And yet we are still here.
Into the West is the slightly reconfigured American version of Canadian band Pilot Speed’s second album, Sell Control for Life’s Speed. How this band wasn’t huge is a complete mystery. Their sound is reminiscent of an updated version of War-era U2 merged with perhaps a touch of Radiohead circa The Bends, but with a bit more of a groove. Maybe throw a little Maroon 5 in there for their keen melodic sensibilities. “Barely Listening” is the standout, starting with a tight, kinetic groove that turns aggressive and hard-rocking, building steadily to a massive crescendo of guitars and Tom Clark’s enormously powerful vocals. It’s a song that, with the right opportunity and exposure, should have been a major single. “Into Your Hideout,” “Alright” and the frenetic “Ambulance,” are all outstanding. Pilot Speed’s sound is massive — one can only imagine how the thundering bass-line in “A Kind of Hope” or the soaring chorus in “Over-Ground” would sound pumping at full volume in an arena. It’s one of those strange mysteries in rock music how certain bands, through a combination of talent and good fortune, are able to break through to a larger audience while a band like Pilot Speed, which is every bit as good as just about any rock band that’s hit the charts in recent years, remains largely unknown. Fortunately the music is still there to discover, and Into the West is an album highly worthy of picking up.
The biggest question many fans have about Poe is this: where has she been the last 14 years since the release of Haunted, her ambitious second album? Because of the ever-shifting landscape in the music industry, she was dropped from her record label not long after Haunted’s release, and record company and legal troubles entangled her for a decade. It’s a shame because Poe is a singular talent. Her sound is a smart and sexy mix of edgy alternative rock wrapped in bits of electronica. Haunted, a companion piece to her brother Mark Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, is epic in scope and has a darkly cinematic vibe. Songs like “Wild,” “Hey Pretty” and “Not a Virgin” are top-quality and worthy of comparison with artists like PJ Harvey, Tori Amos and Fiona Apple. At eighteen tracks Haunted is a lot to take in, but it’s a wild ride and worth spending the time to really absorb. Despite positive reviews, Haunted reached a dismal #115 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, in large part because it was essentially abandoned by her record label. Something has completely derailed in an industry when an album as accomplished as Haunted is followed by more than a decade of near silence because of legal wrangling, none of which is the artist’s fault. An absolute shame, and hopefully Poe is able to overcome those challenges and make a comeback with new material soon.
Since his ‘80s heyday, Prince’s output, while prolific, has been hit-and-miss. He’s released some tremendous records like 3121 and The Gold Experience, but too often his albums almost seem like afterthoughts. On tour he plays his hits and long extended jams, and the new albums are generally neglected. He’s no longer tied to a major record label and comes up with creative ways to get his music to the fans. For his 2009 release Lotusflow3r he also included a second disc of Prince material called MPLSound and a disc with vocals by his protégé of the moment, Bria Valente, called Elixer. The 3-disc package was only available at one particular department store. There are some strong moments on MPLSound, although Elixer is mostly uninteresting. The main disc of the three is by far the best, and arguably one of the Top 3 albums Prince has released since his last ‘80s masterpiece, 1989’s Lovesexy. Lotusflow3r is a rock album and it’s loaded with strong material, like the blues-rockers “Colonized Mind” and “Dreamer.” “Wall of Berlin” is classic Prince, an air-tight, sizzling funk rocker. “Feel Better, Feel Good, Feel Wonderful” is old-school funk, and “$” should have been Prince’s biggest single in years. Lotusflow3r did debut at #2 on the Billboard Album Chart, but it fell rapidly after die-hard fans picked up the album, and none of the tracks ever really made an impact nationally — a shame. There is a lot to love about Lotusflow3r, and it’s good to know that Prince can still bring it when he wants to.
The Rapture’s third album, In the Grace of Your Love, is a melding of New Romantic/synth-pop artists like Visage, O.M.D. and Ultravox with post-punk pioneers Wire and Gang of Four, but with a contemporary sheen. The songs are built on thick layers of pulsing synthesizers, with spiky guitars punctuating the shimmer and buzz of the electronic soundscapes. The instruments sound alive — the production work by Philipe Zdar of the duo Cassius is marvelous. The intense and often darkly pensive songs are stellar. Context is often important when considering an album, and in this case it’s particularly vital — lead singer Luke Jenner had left the band, then returned following the birth of his first child and the suicide of his mother. Following Jenner’s return, bassist and co-writer Mattie Safer left the band. The songs seem to reflect this turmoil and change, and reflect an almost desperate, searching spiritualism. “I Look away, I see sadness, I see pain, but with you I see home,” Jenner belts out in “Sail Away.” First single “How Deep is Your Love” is a cry to heaven: “When I cry you heal my pain, help me come to you” Jenner pleads, and the protracted ending consists of repeated cries of “How Deep is your Love?”, “Let Me Hear That Song” and “Hallelujah” as a manic saxophone ratchets up the tension until it fades to black. That’s typical of In the Grace of Your Love, an album that’s at once deeply potent and massively entertaining, and is a significant maturation for the band in all aspects. It only managed a peak of #125 in the US and #93 in the UK. It’s a powerful album both sonically and lyrically that deserves better.
Singer, songwriter and versatile multi-instrumentalist Tony Rich scored a massive hit in 1996 with “Nobody Knows,” an achingly beautiful ballad from the excellent Words. The single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, earned Rich a Grammy nomination and Words went platinum. Unfortunately none of the other singles from Words managed to make a significant chart impact, and “Nobody Knows” would end up being Rich’s only hit. A shame, as Rich is an exceptional talent who has released some terrific records, the best of which is 2003’s Resurrected. Released on a small independent label, Resurrected sees Rich bursting free of the limitations imposed by his former label, and it’s an astonishing display of virtuosity. A blend of R&B, pop and rock with a strong psychedelic vibe, Resurrected is a mature and impressive work. The funk rock “Future Daze” is a strong opener, and it only gets better from there. The richly melodic “Free” should have been a hit single for certain. The strongest track is the bitter, beautiful ballad “Don’t Call Me”– it features an utterly phenomenal lead vocal by Rich, wonderfully layered background vocals and exquisite guitar-work that never intrudes on the lead melody. “Don’t Call Me” is one of those songs that you sometimes hear and wonder how on earth it’s possible that it wasn’t a #1 hit. Rich wrote, produced, played most of the instruments and even mixed and engineered Resurrected. It didn’t reach its audience upon release — without the big dollars of a major label advertising machine behind a project, it’s hard to get through. Resurrected is an album that deserves just that — a resurrection. Tony Rich is still recording, and in 2013 he released two singles — “Breaking Glass” and “Fade Away” — from a forthcoming album Speak Me, which can be heard on his website but doesn’t seem to have been officially released as of yet. Hopefully it will see the light of day soon and Rich will receive some of the success and recognition that he deserves.
Alternative-rock titan Siouxsie Sioux finally got around to releasing her first ever solo album with 2007’s Mantaray, and it’s an outstanding effort. Siouxsie sounds as fierce as ever. Mantaray is a tremendous collection of songs, and the production is top-notch. Album opener and first single “Into a Swan” is vintage Siouxsie with a modern twist; it has that mysterious power that infuses her best work with The Banshees. The slinky, sinuous “Here Comes that Day” is one of the best tracks on the album. “Loveless” is an intense mid-tempo rocker with a terrific vocal, and the haunting “If It Doesn’t Kill You” sounds like it should be played during the opening sequence of the next James Bond film. “They Follow You” is another standout, an uptempo track with a bit of a Bowie vibe. Mantaray was essentially ignored in the U.S. upon its release, and it didn’t do much better in Siouxsie’s native England. Its lack of success is really a mystery, because it is arguably the most accessible collection of songs she’s ever released. Mantaray combines the electronic elements of The Creatures’ Anima Animus with the edgy rock sound of The Banshees and is highly accessible. It’s an essential addition to Siouxsie’s immense musical legacy, and a must-own for fans of The Creatures and The Banshees, as well as fans who just love edgy and intense alternative pop/rock.
Singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Van Hunt released the follow-up to his outstanding self-titled debut with 2006’s On the Jungle Floor, and it marked a big artistic leap forward for the uber-talented but sadly overlooked artist. On The Jungle Floor is more diverse and confident than his debut, veering from the sexy rock/R&B strut of “If I Take You Home” to the funky mid-tempo R&B groove of “Character.” The influences here are ‘70s R&B and revolutionaries like Prince, Stevie Wonder and Rick James, but Van Hunt never sounds like he’s imitating. He’s gifted at blending old-school sounds like the tight rhythm and horn section on “Suspicion” and bringing them into the present. “Hole in My Heart” is a terrific ballad on which Van Hunt sings his excellent falsetto. He duets with Nikka Costa on the ballad “Mean Sleep,” and even takes an old Iggy Pop nugget “No Sense of Crime” and turns it into a mean, lean funk workout. On the Jungle Floor is long and deep, and never boring — it’s far better than 95% of what gets played on pop radio today.
Listening to The Waterboys’ A Rock in the Weary Land is like traveling to a cold rocky island where a small fisherman’s village rests, perpetually battered by the crashing waves of the North Atlantic. It’s haunted by ghosts and old folklore, and blanketed by a dense fog which makes everything sound strange and mysterious. You run into a local preacher and poet, his grasp on sanity tenuous at best, who rants at you in cryptic parables set to eerie, fuzz-toned guitar-rock. While all that might not sound particularly appealing, the fact that Mike Scott is one of the most accomplished rock songwriters of the last thirty years certainly helps. A Rock in the Weary Land is a long and ambitious album that sounds like nothing else The Waterboys have done from a production standpoint, but still retains their uniquely passionate vibe. The haunting, slow and complex “Is She Conscious?” followed by the simple, driving rocker “We Are Jonah” shows both sides of a band that has really been undervalued over the years. The malevolent bitterness of “His Word is Not His Bond” is worthy of Dylan and his Mr. Jones. Listen to how Scott spits out lines like “deliver him… to the gallows.” It’s high drama from start to finish. Listen to that thin line of eerie keyboard weave above the dense guitars and Mike Scott’s raspy vocals on “Let it Happen” — typical of the careful attention to detail that went into this album. The sound is vast, sometimes almost impenetrable, but ultimately worthy of taking the time to let it unfold. A Rock in the Weary Land ranks alongside Fisherman’s Blues and This is the Sea as among The Waterboys’ best work.
With his strong melodic hooks and sweet, sincere voice, Derek Webb became the standout songwriter for Contemporary Christian band Caedmon’s Call, with whom he delivered some absolutely top-notch compositions (check out his work on the band’s 2001 album Long Line of Leavers, especially the remarkably poignant “Dance” and “Can’t Lose You”). Since leaving Caedmon’s Call, Webb has become a prolific solo artist, releasing eight studio albums since 2003. Stockholm Syndrome is a huge departure for Webb, whose primary musical vehicle is the acoustic guitar. On Stockholm Syndrome he swerves away from his usual style and experiments with electronic sounds and textures. He also takes a stand that one might not expect from an artist in his arena as he tackles virulent anti-gay hatred among some Christians on the stunning “What Matters More.” Webb takes a directly confrontational tone with the opening couplet “You say you always treat people like you’d like to be, I guess you love being hated for your sexuality” before accusing some of being “so damn reckless with the words you speak” and then chastising them for obsessing over gay rights rather than helping the poor and the hungry. Somewhat predictably, Webb’s record label refused to include “What Matters More” on copies of Stockholm Syndrome sold in stores, so the uncensored album is only available online via his website or at his shows. Webb has the balls to risk alienating his fans by embracing an entirely different musical direction, and then call out many in his own religion despite the risk of backlash; the music industry needs more artists with his fearlessness. Stockholm Syndrome is a first-rate album, built around inventive textures, electronic rhythms and ingenious songwriting. Standouts include the somber ballad “The State” and its provocative companion-piece “The Proverbial Gun,” as well as outstanding tracks like “I Love/Hate You,” “The Spirit vs. the Kick Drum” and the strangely hypnotic “Black Eye.”
Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin made significant contributions to some of Prince’s finest work. After The Revolution split in 1986, the duo decided to stay together as a musical entity. They’ve released a number of albums over the years, as well as movie and television scores and collaborations with other artists. Their self-titled 1987 debut, featuring the singles “Waterfall” and “Honeymoon Express,” is superb. So is their most recent release, White Flags of Winter Chimneys. It’s a densely atmospheric album, with the vocal harmonies often heavily layered and rich. The songwriting is inventive and complex, the melodies subtle. It takes a few listens for it to sink in, but ultimately it’s worth the investment. “Balloon” is a beautifully somber track sung by Lisa Coleman, her vocals soft and deep in the mix. “Invisible” is a remarkable creation with a fuzz-toned guitar and a powerful vocal by Wendy Melvoin that builds to an epic climax. “Salt and Cherries” is one of the more straightforward tracks, but even it has an aura of experimentation. The duo uses a variety sounds and textures for effect throughout, and the arrangements are unpredictable and exciting. It almost sounds like progressive rock at times, and musically they juxtapose classic rock elements with modern electronic samples and sequences. White Flags of Winter Chimneys is an oddly beautiful record, challenging and surprising.