Music trends may come and go, but one constant is the presence of the singer-songwriter. Whether a 13th century minstrel or a 1960s protest singer, the lone musician has been setting word to song for a very long time. The singer-songwriters of 2007 continue that tradition while expanding the influences in their works. They combine elements of folk, rock, country, and jazz, and hints of world music, into the tunes they compose. What unites them is an individual presence—a voice—that is powerful enough to carry an entire album without retreating to the cozy confines of a band. Sure, all of these artists play with other musicians, but they aren’t called backing bands for nothing. The leaders have their names on the CD covers and are telling the stories they want to tell. They stand out. In 2007, these are the 10 singer-songwriter albums that stood out from the pack.
(Shout! Factory; US: 29 May 2007; UK: 28 May 2007)
Sweet Warrior is the consummate Richard Thompson album, featuring excellent examples of all the styles of music he has played over the years. There are wry rockers, bittersweet ballads, strains of British folk, and the fluid guitar interludes that have made Thompson an understated god of the six-string. He’s also a fine wordsmith, whether adopting the mindset of the troops fighting in Iraq in “Dad’s Gonna Kill Me” (“Dad” being short for Baghdad), or taking a darkly comic look at how to mend his soul with “Needle and Thread”. Whatever the message or the mood, the songs on Sweet Warrior are uniformly strong. His best record this decade, this immediately appealing disc is among his most accomplished.
Richard Thompson - Dad’s Gonna Kill Me
My Name Is Buddy
(Nonesuch; US: 6 Mar 2007; UK: 5 Mar 2007)
Over the past couple of decades, Ry Cooder has largely subjugated his own musical identity in order to produce and promote an incredible array of artists and styles from around the world. On My Name Is Buddy, Cooder returns to the crafts of writing and singing songs. Paying tribute to Depression-era pro-labor union folkies, Cooder has created the tale of a cat, Buddy, who’s looking for a scrap to eat during hard times. The influences of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie permeate this record, but Cooder has pulled in many other sounds, too, like the tin whistle of the Chieftain’s Paddy Maloney and accordion of tejano master Flaco Jimenez. Although long-time fans might miss his slide guitar playing, My Name Is Buddy is Ry Cooder’s best album since the mid-‘70s and a delight for all.
Ry Cooder - Goodnight Irene (with Flaco Jimenez)
Miracle of Five
(Zedtone; US: 6 Feb 2007; UK: Available as import)
Perennially under-appreciated singer-songwriter Eleni Mandell’s sixth album, Miracle of Five, is her subtlest and best work yet. From the first a capella seconds of “Moonglow, Lamp Low”, the scene is set. Mandell has largely left behind her country roots, and the lovers she portrays are no longer true. They’re just two broken-hearted strangers, sharing the last slow dance of the night. Torch-singing crosses with sad ‘50s pop and, yes, a bit of vintage country balladry. Eleni gently purrs every note, keeping Miracle of Five quiet and unassuming. But her songwriting is too good to ignore. Along with the excellent opening track, the sly “Girls” and the dreamy “Make-Out King” feel like covers of old-time classics, but they’re 100% Mandell. With this shy little album, Mandell might not be begging you to listen to her music, but I am.
Eleni Mandell - Girls
Diamonds in the Dark
(Sugar Hill; US: 12 Jun 2007; UK: 18 Jun 2007)
With the opening rockabilly riff of lead single “The Day We Met”, it’s clear that Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles are going to deliver some hooky, country-fied tunes on their sophomore album, Diamonds in the Dark. As catchy as that cut is, the retro-‘60s gold of “Stop and Think It Over” has it beat. Borges’s snap-crackle-and-poppy version is even better than Mary Weiss’s. Elsewhere, Borges and the boys set fire to her own “Lonely Town of Love” before sliding into pure country on “False Eyelashes”. Then the Broken Singles create a canyon-full of Americana atmosphere for their pretty interpretation of Tom Waits’s “Blind Love”. Borges’s twang is sweet and supple, and her dedication is infectious, whether to her own material, X’s “Come Back to Me”, or Canned Heat’s “Open Up Your Back Door”. With the compelling Diamonds in the Dark, Sarah Borges shows why she should be a star.
Sarah Borges and the Broken Singles - The Day We Met
1970s pub rocker and Elvis Costello pal Nick Lowe has become something of a country gentleman in his later career, but he hasn’t lost his pop sensibilities or his acerbic wit. At My Age continues the Americana trend Lowe began with 1988’s Pinker and Prouder Than Previous and which he cemented on 1994’s excellent The Impossible Bird. This new album is a tuneful collection of songs with an early country feel, often recalling the stylishness of the unheralded Floyd Tillman. Lowe comes off like a class act, but he shows his sinister streak on “I Trained Her to Love Me”. Later in the album, Lowe reveals his humble side by proclaiming, “If even I can find someone / Then there’s hope for us all”. Mixing sly humor, tenderness, and treachery, Nick Lowe is still the Jesus of Cool.
Nick Lowe - I Trained Her to Love Me
(Lost Highway; US: 13 Feb 2006; UK: 19 Feb 2006)
Sweetly sour-voiced singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams’s latest, West, is a brooding album. She sounds pissed-off at times, soul-crushed at others. Eclectic producer Hal Wilner and his buddy, beyond-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, accentuate Williams’ beautifully bad mood with perfect string arrangements and silvery atmospherics, lending this disc a unique sonic timbre. Some of her hardcore followers probably won’t know what to make of West, but it’s an excellent meditation on, with occasional outbursts against, loss, betrayal, and the overarching stab of disappointment that follows both. It is a little dark, but a few easily likeable tunes will reel you in, and the rest will keep you hooked.
Lucinda Williams - Come On
Happy Songs from Rattlesnake Gulch
(Rack ‘Em; US: 6 Feb 2006; UK: Available as import)
One of the three key members of super-group the Flatlanders and a superb Texas singer-songwriter with 30 years of solo albums under his belt, Joe Ely offers his best album since the latter half of the ‘90s, when his popularity peaked with Letter to Laredo and Twistin’ in the Wind. On Happy Songs From Rattlesnake Gulch, Ely shows that his writing is as sharp as ever and his performances as impassioned. Though pigeonholed as a country artist, Ely’s music ranges too wide for easy classification. This cracklin’ good album boasts Southern-tinged rockers, boogie-woogie, swaying tejano, swampy blues, and an anthemic reworking of the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. Joe Ely infuses each track with vigor and swagger, making Rattlesnake Gulch one of his best.
Joe Ely - Gallo del Cielo
Children Running Through
(ATO; US: 6 Feb 2007; UK: 26 Feb 2007)
Patty Griffin has crafted yet another very fine album with Children Running Through, finishing her first decade of recordings on a high note. In his review earlier this year, Andrew Gilstrap observed of this record: ““Burgundy Shoes” reinforces Griffin’s status as a lyrical time machine, recalling the sunny days and bus seats of childhood. Similarly, a pink dress catches the mind’s eye in the Springsteen-folk of “Trapeze”, the story of a woman who takes to the high wires rather than love…The brushed snares of “You’ll Remember” evoke a smoky club, while the oblique, metaphoric bus trip of “Stay on the Ride” features funky horns, and the horns of “No Bad News” sound like Calexico slipped in the back door.” My favorite is the roots rocker “Getting Ready”. Patty Griffin is overflowing with strong songs. A dozen of these can be found on Children Running Through.
Patty Griffin - No Bad News
The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
(Sony; US: 21 Aug 2007; UK: Available as import)
Mixing Bob Dylan homages with indie-rock, Americana, and folk, Josh Ritter weaves his serpentine lyrics around his most musically adventurous set of recordings yet. Despite the variety of influences, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter holds together well as an album. The shadow of another great icon, John Lennon, falls across the poppy and piano-driven “Right Moves”. The insistent rocker “Real Long Distance” features Neutral Milk Hotel-like off-kilter horns in a glorious bout of noise making. A few bits of filler cool off what is otherwise an excellent record, but The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter is still flush with great songs.
Josh Ritter - To the Dogs or Whoever
The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard
(New West; US: 6 Feb 2007; UK: 5 Feb 2007)
The always restless Rickie Lee Jones returns with The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard, a sprawling album that melds the chugging minimalism of the Velvet Underground with the twisting, turning explorations of the new freak-folk vanguard (Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, et al). Jones’s sermon is obscure, and the path it takes is more like a winding lane than a wide-open boulevard, but that just makes the journey more intriguing. The album is meant to be absorbed as a whole, but catchy tunes like “Falling Up” and “Circle in the Sand” leap out of the mix. Those accustomed to her tidy pop songs may require a couple of listens to adjust to this disc, but the effort will be worth your while.
Rickie Lee Jones - Falling Up (live on David Letterman)