In my most cynical moments, I’m sure that the Zach Braffs and Starbucks of the world have rendered the singer-songwriter bloodless, toothless, and simple. That they merely produce fodder for producers of cheap television drama, to either remind us what we already know—that we’re in a pregnant moment—or to do the emotional work their lazy scripts avoid. This, in darker moments, is how I see the singer-songwriter of the new century.
But to give in to these lazy thoughts is to give those faceless corporations too much sway over how we react to and define our art. A singer-songwriter album is not all acoustic guitars, fey vocals, and easy confessions, as the overhead system at the organic foods store downtown might have you believe.
Neither, however, is it a product that comes solely from descendents of the Greenwich Village protestors and traditionalists, as purists might declare. That is a part of the legacy, surely, but there are also brilliant singer-songwriters operating in all sorts of genres, making plenty of vital sounds. And 2009 found the best singer-songwriters in all corners of the musical world. This year did yield great “traditional” singer-songwriter albums—ones that you could play at Starbucks if you wanted the Bluetoothed businessman waiting for his decaf macchiato to melt into tears. But there’s also a country singer crafting love letters to his hero. Or a woman bedding down in the abyss, rather than patrolling its edge. There’s dreamy power-pop, and sharp-fanged industrial pop. And there’s the clear, low rumble of a long-brilliant songwriter penning his swirling, expansive, hopeful masterpiece.
We got it all in 2009. And here, we have the ten best singer-songwriter albums—each a sharp, shining reminder that the bloodless voice, the one filling up corporate compilations and demographic-friendly TV soundtracks, isn’t real. It’s fabricated, and can be dismissed as such. The stuff right here—this is singing, this is songwriting. It lives, it breathes, and it bites. Hard.
Molina and Johnson
(Secretly Canadian; US: 3 Nov 2009; UK: 2 Nov 2009)
Jason Molina and Will Johnson are two of the best songwriters in American music today, period. But they are also two of the most solitary, and when they get together on this record there’s no feeling of coming together. In fact, the two may sound even more isolated working with each other. On these creaking, whispered songs, both guys craft some of the strongest songs of their careers, from the shuffle of Johnson’s “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” to the piano balladry of Molina’s “Each Star Marks a Day”. The record is almost uncomfortably personal all the way through, with a quiet that falls over the record and draws your finger to the volume button, your ear closer to the speaker. And once there, they deliver words that cut to the bone, laid over barren landscapes that stretch over Molina’s Midwest and coat themselves in the dust of Johnson’s Texas. This isn’t the hardscrabble rock of their daytime bands, but it is, in its hushed way, just as powerful.
Know Better Learn Faster
(Kill Rock Stars; US: 13 Oct 2009; UK: 13 Oct 2009)
Thao had a party on her last record, We Brave Bee Stings and All. But now, she’s got to deal with consequences and hangovers and regret. Luckily for us, she tackles heartbreak with the same fervor with which she cannonballs into swimming pools. Her guitar work here is unsurprisingly stellar, although the dusty plucking of the last record is replaced here by hazy, overcast phrasings that keep the record bright while steeping it in just enough melancholy. That sadness, though, there’s nothing self-pitying or navel-gazing about it. Thao is, as always, on fire in these songs, whether she’s pissed at an ex-lover—“What am I”, she demands, “just a body in your bed?”—or herself on the title track. She isn’t hoping to get past regret on Know Better Learn Faster, she’s fighting through it tooth and nail. And the sound of it is as vital and seductive as it is brokenhearted. That lonesome feeling never sounded so good.
To Be Still
(Rough Trade; US: 17 Feb 2009; UK: 16 Feb 2009)
Maybe this would be just another dusty folk record, you know, if it weren’t for Alela Diane’s devastating voice. Sure, this is built on fragile acoustic guitar and confessional lyrics. But To Be Still isn’t like any singer-songwriter album you’ve heard. Diane’s voice, with its emotive rasp and deep range, is a marvel. And with it she lilts through effortless melodies, crafting songs with roomy haze that still feel under control. And her confessions are built on odd and affecting details. “I’d like to see your teeth lined up in perfect rows”, she proclaims on “Dry Grass and Shadows”, and you start to think Diane knows something you don’t. That she’s willing to admit things you won’t. Diane wants to go back, to a time before some big hurt. But she also knows she can’t. “I won’t strike my feet”, she sings, “in whatever dirt you’re tracking”. You can feel that pull—that she really wants to—if only to feel close to that person again. It’s on this fragile tension and jagged honesty the whole album is built. It doesn’t give us easy answers, instead it raises questions beautifully from start to end. So, no, this won’t fit over the closing montage on those TV dramas. Alela Diane leaves too much of the obvious out. Which is what makes her album brilliant.
It’s not as lo-fi as Vile’s other albums, but Childish Prodigy gets dragged through plenty of sonic muck. His low howl, coated in reverb and rust, injects each of these scuzzy songs with a deep soul. And whether he’s channeling blues-rock or folk, Vile is pitch-perfect through the whole record. He can break your heart with the finger-picked “Blackberry Song”, or he can work you into a wild-eyed frenzy with the epic spazz-out that is “Freak Train”. In nine songs, Vile covers more ground than most can in twice that—shifting tempos and moods while still holding onto the grasping, fuzzy tension that drives it all. He may be young, but this is his most complete statement, and the defining document from a new, white-noise Americana movement spearheaded by Vile and some of his Philly friends (we’re looking at you, War on Drugs). Watch out, because on Childish Prodigy, we find out just how tough it is to ignore this washed-out stomp. If Kurt Vile has anything to say about it, Americana may never be the same.
Michael Lerner writes catchy power-pop tunes. Propulsive drums, crunchy guitars, sweet melodies, and hooks that get deep in the skin. There’s no new innovation to be found in his songs, no eccentric touch to make them stand out over all the other power-pop acts out there. And it is that purity that makes Telekinesis! so damn good. It isn’t interested in affectations. These songs are tight and unabashed in their sweetness. All through the record, Lerner is dreaming and wishing. He wants to be in Tokyo; he wants to fall in love; he recalls imaginary friends and awkward kisses. But none of it comes off as naïve, as each bright track is coated with just enough bittersweet haze to make it seem as honest as it is shamelessly optimistic. Like so many great Merge artists before him, Lerner is concerned with making a great song, free of pretension or trendy flourishes. So while the ease with which we can get so much music over the Internet might make us all think ourselves above pure pop, Telekinesis is here to remind how deep it can seep under your skin when it’s done right. And you can work up quite a sweat dancing to it, too.