See: 35-31, 30-26, 25-21
R.E.M. - Out of Time
It's hard to take this album seriously. It sounds like they sat around throwing together melodies, lyrics, and vocals, and had a ball. Earlier R.E.M. albums have an earnest, youthful intensity; later ones have a melancholy seriousness. This one is just goofy. What can you say about a song with lyrics like "Throw your love around, love me love me / Take it into town, happy happy / Put it in the ground where the flowers grow / Gold and silver shine"? Say what?
Somehow, maybe by accident, they hit on some really catchy alternative pop tunes. Combined with their signature upbeat guitar sounds and Mills' and Stipe's snide business-like vocals - with the unexpected, uncharacteristic, yet fantastic female vocals of Kate Pierson (The B-52s) - you get something that's so fun and so aware of its own joke that you just have to go along with it. And I'm not even a huge fan of the album's hit song.
For other good R.E.M. albums, don't miss Reckoning (early college sound) and their followup to this album Automatic For The People.
5 star songs: Near Wild Heaven, Shiny Happy People, Belong, Half a World Away, Texarkana, Me In Honey
Dar Williams - The Honesty Room
College music was never more collegiate than Dar Williams on this album.
Dar Williams' debut album (after two self-published cassettes with limited distribution and generally weak songs) rocked the independent folk music scene (and impressed the likes of Joan Baez, who covered Dar's tunes and then went on tour with her). Dar is brutally honest here in a way that she (unfortunately) never was again: about gender roles and discrimination, about youth and maturity, about suburbia and relationships. Her poetry is so good that you could read it in a book and not know it for song lyrics.
She plays some fine finger-style guitar and sings with a gorgeously aching vulnerability, while still conveying strength and determination, while still being totally fetching. She sings like a little child (literally, on When I Was a Boy and The Babysitter's Here), like an intimate lover (In Love But Not at Peace), and like a concerned activist (The Great Unknown). And she still finds time to be funny (Alleluia and The Babysitter's Here), nostalgic, and deeply feminist.
5 star songs: When I Was a Boy, Alleluia, The Great Unknown, The Babysitter's Here, You're Aging Well, In Love But Not at Peace, This is Not the House That Pain Built, i love i love ( traveling II )
Sarah McLachlan - Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
The first of four Sarah albums on this list, this was her first great album. (I can't help but notice that this list contains a number of Canadian women).
Sarah has a stunning, ethereal, haunting voice ... ok, so do Enya and Loreena McKennit; they are fine musicians, too, with some great albums. Unlike Enya and Loreena, whose songs are like theatrical performances, Sarah's songs are contemporary, raw, and penetrating. Despite the repeated lush synthesizer overlays, she sounds naked, vulnerable, always one step away from complete mental or emotional collapse:
"Hold on, hold on to yourself, for this is gonna hurt like hell." "The ice is thin, come on dive in, underneath my lucid skin, the cold is lost, forgotten" "My body aches to breathe your breath, your words keep me alive" You just want to hold her - or yourself - after experiencing her music.
And then there's Ice Cream; who doesn't want to hear that his or her love is better than ice cream, chocolate, and anything else that is known?
5 star songs: Possession, Plenty, Good Enough, Mary, Elsewhere, Ice, Hold On, Ice Cream, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
[Until now, all of the albums had two or three filler songs (unless noted). Albums 17-12 have only one filler song each; all other songs are very good (4 stars) or essential (5 stars)]
Cindy Kallet - Working on Wings to Fly
Here is Cindy's debut album, a synthesis of masterful finger-style guitar, clever catchy riffs and melodies, assured singing, a rich deep steady voice, and lyrics about the sea, harbor, and environment. Many of her songs - which she wrote - sound like they are centuries old.
From the opening chords of Nantucket Sound to the final notes of Shores of Africa with its unexpectedly lovely harmonies, there is little to complain about. The introductory chords of Blackberry Downs are so beautiful it makes the heart ache. This is the standard in contemporary folk-music excellence.
5 star songs: Nantucket Sound, Wings to Fly (Crow), Three-Masted Schooner, Blackberry Downs, Roll to the River, We Rigged Our Ship, Far Off of the Mountains, Out on the Farthest Range, One for the Island, Shores of Africa.
Lynn Miles - Slightly Haunted
This was Lynn's "debut" (her third album, actually). This album has a bit of engineering and other instrumentation - Chalk had almost none. Just enough to add the slight haunting at the appropriate places.
This may sound familiar by now, but here is another collection of haunting, aching, beautiful songs. Some are raw, sad, and naked (Loneliness); others are carefully constructed masterpieces (I Loved a Cowboy, The Ghost of Deadlock). The melodies, together with overlays of strumming guitars, are full of melancholy. Maybe it's the Canadian in her, but each song feels like winter is coming soon: time to go home and cuddle up under a blanket until spring. In Last Night she even pays homage to, and channels, Joni ... just a little.
5 star songs: You Don't Love Me Anymore, I Loved a Cowboy, Loneliness, The Ghost of Deadlock, Last Night, Big Brown City