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10 Great Albums You Should Not Have Missed

Updated on November 4, 2008

...but hey, it's not too late

You remember the episode of M*A*S*H where Charles Emerson Winchester (the Third) tries to allay the anxieties of the concert pianist whose right hand was permanently damaged? Do you remember where he tried to explain how much he himself wished he could play, something to the effect that "I can make my scalpel sing, but I can't play", referring to the piano? When I saw that I thought, that's me! I have every bit as much music in my soul, but I can't play a lick. It's a tragedy, really, or would be if there weren't so many real tragedies out there. I mean, I'm air-guitar-ready, hands and arms and legs in just the right positions to make a musical point. But I can't play.

Of course, it didn't stop me from making music a huge part of my life. As a child, I sat in front of the parents' console, ear planted against the one ten-inch speaker, soaking up the vibrations of everything from Hank Williams to Enrico Caruso to the Six Fat Dutchmen to Tchaikovsky. Like I said. It was in my soul, and maybe in my genes.

It still is, and the great thing about it is that it is as exciting and wondrous as it ever was. It's a bit harder to find things to vibrate the strings, you understand, but it's out there, and in great quantity. Allow me to run down ten of the best albums I've heard over the past few years and explain how we made our acquaintance. 

Tom Mank and Sera Smolen

Julie Last, Tom Mank, Sera Smolen and Kirsti Gholson--- Four crucial components of Mank & Smolen's "Where the Sun Meets the Blue"
Julie Last, Tom Mank, Sera Smolen and Kirsti Gholson--- Four crucial components of Mank & Smolen's "Where the Sun Meets the Blue"

I almost passed on Where the Sun meets the Blue because it didn't really fit my style, or so I thought. A good friend sang Mank's praises but couldn't really pinpoint a genre, though I do remember mention of Dave Van Ronk. I pictured folkie blues in a smoke-filled coffeehouse amongst talking and laughter and the clinking of glasses. Man, was I wrong! On that CD, he channeled different influences on every track, the most notable being Gil Scott-Heron on an amazing political piece, Keep Crossing That Line. It was a kind of jazz blues, but it was neither jazz nor blues, though it had a Revolution Will Not Be Televised bent. It was just out there.

I wrote a favorable review and when Mank emailed to thank me, he asked if I might like to hear his earlier album with Sera titled Souls of Birds, which he claimed many fans like more than Where the Sun... I couldn't imagine an album recorded three years earlier trumping that one and, again, I almost passed. I'm glad I didn't.

Souls of Birds is certainly no better, but it is less adventurous and, as a result, more accessible. The 60s folk scene is all over the album, but it is far from derivative. Mank is a monster songwriter, right up there with the best, and can paint musical pictures like you can't believe. His voice has an underneath-a-streetlight-late-at-night aura to it that is entirely disarming at times. And Sera Jane Smolen? If you want to hear what difference a cello can really make, this will show you. She is nothing short of masterful, playing everything from standup jazz bass to flowing classical-oriented movements, all on cello. I can't say enough about her playing, but enough is enough.

By the way, if you're fan of folk/psych, Big Red Moon is as good an example as I've ever heard. Close to 11 minute's worth. Do yourself a favor. Check it out.


Gigi Shibabaw

Known mainly and simply as just Gigi, Ejigayehu Shibabaw hails from Ethiopia and probably suffers from marketing as much as lack of exposure.  Her labels file her under World and Ethiopian or African music, but she is way more than that, at least on Gold & Wax.  She has a pure sense of melody which makes her pop as much as anything, yet the rhythms and jazz-tinged backup belies that description.  It is a world of music, for sure, and I cannot imagine anyone not being impressed.

I was driving home late one night when a local NPR station played Salam and it totally knocked me out.  I am a big fan of Britishers 'If' and Zzebra, a band which included 'If's original guitarist, Terry Smith, and what I heard was a hybrid of the two with female vocals extraordinaire.  I repeated the name of the song until I got home so that I could email the station for information.  The reply came and I ordered the CD forthwith.  I was not disappointed.  It's like nothing else in my collection and, as important, my friends love it as well. 

Devon Sproule

Devon Sproule and Danny Schmidt were my introductions to the incredibly vibrant music scene that is Charlottesville, Virginia. The more I hear from there, the more I am convinced that the area is a music mecca. The CDs arrived in the mail simultaneously and it was the proverbial one-two punch. Danny's Little Grey Sheep was solid and Devon's Keep Your Silver Shined was, well, Devon.

People in Charlottesville love Devon Sproule and I now know why. The more I listened the more I wanted and it wasn't long before she dominated the CD player. She has elements of folk and jazz and blues and a whole range of other influences, but what it comes down to is that she's Devon. Her childlike, unassuming voice puts you at your ease, her songs are simple and direct and make no mistake, when she plays she is a member of the band. Wait till you hear her jazzy guitar on Stop By Anytime. It's amazing.


Kane Welch Kaplin

I remember Kieran Kane from The O'Kanes' first album for Columbia Records years ago. The guy was a topnotch songwriter and had a nice textured voice. The label kept saying they were country, and they did have a country twinge, but they did not quite fit the niche. Getting Conway Twitty and Willie Nelson fans to listen to The O'Kanes sounds totally workable these days. Back then, it was a tough sell.

Today, Kieran Kane shares the stage with singer/songwriter Kevin Welch and master musician Fats Kaplin, with help from Kieran's son Lucas. They call what they do 'groove roots music', a way of saying that they play what comes naturally. It is a hybrid which reaches back to the old blues and folk and rock roots and, no, it doesn't sound authentic in terms of those genres. It is, however, authentic. Kane and Welch reach deep for their songs, laying themselves out for all to see and hear, and while they may not always be pretty, their music is. They don't have to sell their songs. They sell themselves.

While Kane Welch Kaplin is their third album, one gets the sense that it is the first as a bona fide band. They have obviously reached a comfort zone, and having the light shuffling rhythms of Lucas Kane and the expertise of multi-instrumentalist Fats Kaplin shows you why. 'Groove roots', indeed.  

Audrey Martell

A couple of years ago I opened my inbox to an email from Audrey Martell, who had read a review I'd written for the Folk and Acoustic Music Exchange. She asked if I would write a review of her new CD, Lifelines, and I was reluctant. Writing on assignment is one thing, but writing at the request of an artist can be brutal. Still, she seemed such a nice person (and mildly persistent), so I relented. I am glad that I did.

Unknown to me, Audrey had a track record as a background vocalist with some of the biggest names in R&B, Luther Vandross and Mary K. Blige to name two. Her credits were in fact as long as my arm but truth be told, her resume (impressive as it was) was superfluous. One time through the album convinced me that Audrey Martell was special.

She had headed into the studio with producer Mattias Gustafsson to ostensibly lay down modern R&B. What she came out with was an R&B/Pop mix that steamrolled me. I figured she had a decent voice, having sung background on some outstanding tracks, but I had no idea. It is magnificent. Add to that the stunning songs which came out of the Martell/Gustafsson collaboration, the immaculate production, and Gustafsson's unerring touch as musician (with only a few exceptions, he is the backing band) and you have to wonder what it takes to make it these days.

Half the songs on this album could easily have been hits, but weren't. It doesn't mean that they didn't deserve it. Absolutely outstanding stuff here, especially the ballads. If this is what they played on radio, radio wouldn't be dying.

Kirsti Gholson

Kirsti Gholson is one reason I love the CDbaby concept.  In the old music industry, when the major labels passed on an album it was more than likely consigned to purgatory.  One wonders how many good albums were thrown into the incinerator by a system dominated less by music than money.  But I digress.

Working late one night, I logged into CDbaby's inventory and began searching.  Somehow I came upon Kirsti's 2001 self-titled solo album and, while reading comments posted by friends and fans, decided to sample a few tracks.  It didn't take much.  I ordered it, something I seldom do due to my self-imposed poverty line (writers don't get paid as much as people seem to believe and, for some ungodly reason, I want to write).  It turned out to be one of those gifts to myself which I will never regret.

If you recognize Kirsti's name from the earlier picture of Tom Mank and Sera Smolen at the beginning of this piece, you get a gold star.  She is, in fact, a reason I embrace those artists so wholeheartedly.  She is under my skin.  Well, her music is.

I give you Strange and Marvelous, a song which is, ironically, both strange and marvelous.  Strange in that Gholson combines her beautiful, airy voice with harmonies all her own, right down to the stunning aah-aah-aah's at the end.  Marvelous in that my heart beats faster every time I hear it, it strikes so deep.  This is music which turns my bad days good, my hectic days mellow.

There are other great tracks on this album.  I Got the Message has a light top ten flavor to it.  Ways To Kiss the Ground is a beautiful song as well as being a production masterpiece.  This Is Your Home (Circe's Song), the favorite of some commenters on CDbaby, has that Gholson flair.  I could go on, but this is neither the time nor place.  This is not a review, but a heads up.  So... heads up. 

Antje Duvekot

Like Mank and Smolen's albums, I almost passed on Antje Duvekot's Big Dream Boulevard. Close call. Duvekot is so far ahead of most folk rock artists, it's amazing. When the really good ones come along, they're easy to spot. That's why I mark Duvekot a name to watch. She is on her way up.

Her music has a commercial quality which is not at all commercial, if that makes any sense.  Hooks, melody, harmonies. Add to that a voice all her own, a perfect mid-range vibratoed breath of fresh air, and you have a combination hard to beat. If she wanted to, she could sell pollution to an environmentalist. Lucky for us, she doesn't.


Greg Laswell

Being a celebrity, or in Greg Lawell's case being associated with one, is both a blessing and a curse. Celebrity exposes one to a wider group of fans, true, but it also exposes one to scrutiny. Since Laswell started dating Mandy Moore, his music undoubtedly found new ears but one wonders who's listening. Critics have spent more time debating Moore's taste in dating partners than discussing the projects and talents of either.

Laswell was mostly unknown and struggling when he recorded Through Toledo. When his wife left him, he locked himself in a darkened bedroom and suffered. What is the saying? Sometimes out of suffering comes good things? So true. When the bedroom door opened, Laswell re-entered the world with a briefcase full of astonishingly good songs and the urgent desire to lay them down. Maybe it had to do with putting things behind him. Maybe he just knew what he had. Regardless, this under the radar album is amazing.

There is a bit of Jackson Browne in Laswell, except more. He somehow reaches into that private place we all go at the worst of times and creates magic. The songs, the harmonies, the feel--- they're nothing unique and yet they are. This is music you have to hear to understand. Not many artists can pull off a wall-of-sound downer, but Laswell does it with delicate touch and power to spare.

This album is pure genius. It is also a personal track record of emotional destruction and recovery. I will never drive up San Francisco Bay again without hearing Through Toledo in my head.  

Carrie Biell

Carrie Biell is one of those artists you have to virtually drag your friends to see, yet when you do, they end up dragging their friends. Her voice mid-range, a bit husky and breathy, she creates an environment with her phrasing that is hard to resist. Ringing is rin(hard 'g') in(again, hard 'g') and h's are forced and at times she breathes rathers than sings, but what breathing!

When Your Feet Hit the Stars is not her first album, but it has to be her best. To be honest, this album hit me so hard I'm afraid to backtrack. Biell's life has not been easy. She was born to a deaf mother who soon began losing sight as well. When you're someone's eyes and ears, you become close. There is that bond which goes way beyond. Her music seems to come from that same place, or one as deep. 

She inhabits her own corner of the world in which Neko Case, Cat Power and others live. It is an almost secret and alone place and there are moments when you feel like you are intruding, but that is the magic. This is not just music by Carrie Biell, it is music for you. It really does feel that way. 

Jess Pillmore

Jess Pillmore came my way through her father, Bill Pillmore, who was a founding member of country-rockers Cowboy.  I tracked Bill down for an interview and he happened to mention that his daughter had an album in the works.  He promised that as soon as copies were available, he would send one.  He did. 

Jess Pillmore's Reveal was and is my choice for album of the year in 2005.  Her previous album, Slightly Skewed, was a solid folk rock effort and a good album, but I'm still trying to figure out how she got to Reveal from there.  It is a huge step forward.  Huge.

I credit Dan Phelps for part of that.  He worked with Jess preparing for the recording sessions and did a masterful job of producing.  He also cornered drummer Matt Chamberlain and bassist Viktor Krauss for a few guest appearances, most notably on the jazz-rapper Atlanta.  That one will be an automatic for a Krauss retrospective one day, I am convinced. 

Maybe his most important role, though, was forcing Jess to find her voice.  Every track comes from a different place, some from opposite ends of the spectrum, and Jess had to really work to get it right.  She did.  Front to back, this album is pure adventure. 

NOTE:  This is real music.  Not for the squeamish. 

And now, a word from our sponsors...

Look, music fans, you don't have to tell me how tough it is to find new music out there, and I'm talking the under-the-radar-off-the-beaten-path kinds of things which make music exciting.  There is little radio worth hearing outside of satellite, and even that is dwindling.  You can hardly rely on the music channels, music now an afterthought to reality TV, whatever that is.  Record stores are disappearing faster than fish at sea and even iPod downloading leaves much to be desired.  There are ways, though.  There are websites and MySpace and Facebook and most have tools for sampling.  A small percentage use those tools now.  It's easy.  And it's worth it. 


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