Welcome back for a listen to ten more talented singer-songwriters – you can read part one here.
As before, Google’s dictionary defines singer-songwriter as “a person who sings and writes popular songs, especially professionally.” The term’s come to have a more specific meaning – I interpret it as artists who record as solo acts, who write their own self-examining songs, and accompany themselves on piano or acoustic guitar.
Here are ten more excellent singer-songwriters:
After leaving powerhouse folk-rock ensemble Fairport Convention, Denny explored a more contemporary sound with her solo career. Denny accompanied herself on piano and acoustic guitar on early 1970s records Sandy and Like An Old Fashioned Waltz, allowing her sumptuous vocals to shine.
I’ve always lived in a mansionSandy Denny, Solo
On the other side of the moon
I’ve always kept a unicorn
And I never sing out of tune.
Nick Drake‘s pretty finger-picking and gentle vocals presaged the indie of the early 21st century. All three of his studio albums – 1969’s Five Leaves Left, 1970’s Bryter Layter, and 1972’s Pink Moon – are masterpieces.
I never felt magic crazy as thisNick Drake, Northern Sky
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.
Kansas born singer-songwriter Freedy Johnston sold the family farm to finance his second album. Fortunately 1992’s Can You Fly, was a huge critical success – Robert Christgau anointed it “a perfect album”. Johnston continued making strong albums, especially through the 1990s. He’s notable for his distinctive lyrical touch, where he can tell an evocative story in a few expertly-crafted words.
Well I sold the dirt to feed the bandFreedy Johnston, Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know
Falling right through my hands
Mark Kozelek first emerged as the leader of slow-core band Red House Painters in the early 1990s. He’s charted an erratic path through popular music ever since, from an acoustic AC/DC cover album to his recent rough hewn stream-of-consciousness style. But he’s capable of gorgeous acoustic beauty – 2008’s ‘Lost Verses’ is written after the passing of his former muse, who also inspired the lovelorn ‘Katy Song’ from 1993’s Red House Painters. Ben Gibbard contributes beautiful harmony vocals, while the song ends with a Neil Young-style electric freak out.
I feel you, oh so near
When morning doves appear
And gusts of April rain
Echo the refrain
Soon finding a place
In these lost verses
They fill the foggy dayMark Kozelek, Lost Verses
They hide the hills away
That steal our time
They are the picturesque night
The casting city lights
On the bay flowing into the ocean glowing
The late John Martyn is unfairly obscure. Born Iain David McGeachy and growing up in Glasgow, he started his career in folk. His distinctive slurred vocals and his interest in guitar effects – U2’s The Edge later cited him as an influence – gave him distinctive tools. 1973’s Solid Air is an acclaimed singer-songwriter album, 1977’s One World experiments with dub, while 1980’s Grace and Danger is an emotionally affecting divorce album.
It’s not the letters that you just don’t writeJohn Martyn, Sweet Little Mystery
It’s not the arms of some new friend
It’s not the crying in the dead of the night
That keeps me hanging on, waiting for the end
Just that sweet little mystery that’s in your heart
Just that sweet little mystery makes me cry
It may seem premature to include New Zealand’s Nadia Reid on this list, but she’s already made two very strong records – Preservation was rated as 2017’s second best album by Mojo magazine. Reid’s writing is economical and evocative, as though she sees the world differently than everyone else.
Richard liked the sound of his own voiceNadia Reid, Richard
By the kitchen in the mirror
It extracted all of our teeth
Filled the sink with blood
Nebraskan Josh Rouse emerged in the late 1990s, but would have fitted in more comfortably a couple of decades earlier. One of his best-loved albums is 1972, a throwback to the mellow grooves and melodious flute of the singer-songwriter era. The story arc of 2002’s Under Cold Blue Stars and 2005’s emotionally charged Nashville are also fine records. Rouse’s music is breezy but memorable.
She was feelin’ 1972Josh Rouse, 1972
Groovin’ to a Carole King tune
Is it too late baby?
It it too late?
Cat Stevens started his career as a teen idol and dabbled in different styles, but his legacy is centered on two albums he recorded in the early 1970s – Tea for the Tillerman and Teaser and the Firecat. Both are singer-songwriter classics, and full of hits like ‘Father and Son’, ‘Morning Has Broken’, and ‘Wild World’.
I built my house from barley riceCat Stevens, Into White
Green pepper walls and water ice
Tables of paper wood, windows of light
And everything emptying into white.
Not related to Cat Stevens, Detroit-born Sufjan Stevens is excellent at low-key heart-wrenching acoustic songs. He’s made stunning singer-songwriter albums, particularly 2015’s Carrie and Lowell. Stevens’ love of the minimal music of composer Steve Reich informed albums like the expansive 2005 album Illinois.
I should have wrote a letter
And grieve what I happen to grieve
My black shroud
I never trust my feelings
I waited for the remedy
When I was three, three maybe fourJosh Rouse, Should Have Known Better
She left us at that video store
Be my rest, be my fantasy
Be my rest, be my fantasy
Zevon subverted the usual LA soft-rock cliches, marrying a smooth sound to deeply disturbing lyrics. He’s inconsistent, but 1976’s self-titled record and 1978’s Excitable Boy are full of great songs like ‘The French Inhaler’ and ‘Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner’.
How’re you going to make your way in the worldWarren Zevon, The French Inhaler
When you weren’t cut out for working
When your fingers are slender and frail
How’re you going to get around
In this sleazy bedroom town
If you don’t put yourself up for sale
Did you favourite singer-songwriter miss the list? Any suggestions for part three?
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Aphoristic Album Reviews is almost entirely written by one person.
Graham Fyfe is probably the only music blogger to appreciate both Neil Diamond and Ariana Grande. Based in Fleet Street (New Zealand), he's been writing this blog since around 2000. Aphoristic Album Reviews features reviews and blog posts across a growing spectrum of popular music.
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