1       We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace and Magic, Foxygen (Jagjaguwar). California-based singer-songwriters Sam France and Jonathan Rado, both 22, formed this group in 2005. Their first studio album features laid-back pop which their label calls "love letters to vinyl collections." Best tracks: "San Francisco," "Shuggie," "Oh No 2."

     Desire Lines, Camera Obscura (4AD). I continue to be delighted  by the overwrought stylings of Tracyanne Campbell, the lead singer and songwriter of this Scottish group. The album earned them the King Tut's Wah Wah Hut Songwriting Award at the Scottish Music Awards in November, beside which being listed here understandably pales.

  3      Circles Super Bon Bon Sleepless...,  Mike Doughty (Megaforce). New solo versions of songs Doughty sang two decades ago with the group Soul Coughing. Witty poetry chanted to synthesized track, produced by hip-hop specialist Good Goose. Absurd album title is comprised of the combined names of all the songs. Favorite tracks: "How Many Cans?," "Mr. Bitterness," "Circles."

  4      Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros (Vagrant). Alex Ebert's third album with the group is full of wacky, joyous recordings. Also this year, they recorded "I Saw Her Standing There" for a Beatles tribute and "Wooden Indian" for a John Denver tribute. Favorite tracks: "Country Calling," "In the Lion," "Let's Get High."

  5      Nomad, Bombino (Nonesuch). 33-year-old guitarist and songwriter of the Tuareg nationality. He learned guitar while living in a refugee camp in Algeria after fleeing ethnic violence in Niger. His hard-rock sound is redolent of British groups like the Jam. Nomad, his second album, was produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Best tracks: "Aminidinine," "Imuhar," "Aman."

  6      Poor Old Shine, Poor Old Shine (Signature). First album from a five-man group from Mansfield, Connecticut, which formed at the University of Connecticut. Their "alt-Americana" style manages to sound traditional without sounding dated. All ten tracks are solid; favorites are the uptempo "Weeds or Wildflowers," "Punching the Air" and "Tear Down the Stage."

  7      Once I Was an Eagle, Laura Marling (Ribbon). "Take the Night Off" and "Breathe" were my favorite songs on this, her fourth studio album. She wrote all the songs; it was produced by Ethan Johns. When she releases an album called "Laura Marling" we'll know her career is just about over.
  8      La Costa Perdita, Camper Van Beethoven (429). Group formed in 1983 celebrating the Pacific Coast where they've spent most of their career. This is their first album since 2004. Favorite tracks: "Too High for the Love-In," which they describe as a "mini-rock opera," and the long, languorous "Northern California Girls."

  9    Magpie and the Dandelion, Avett Brothers (Republic). More intelligent songs from brothers Seth and Scott Avett from North Carolina. It's their eighth studio album. Nothing on here is quite as attention-grabbing as "I And Love and You" from 2009, but it's a solid effort, and "Open Ended Life," "Morning Song" and "Bring Your Love to Me" are quite good.

      Silver Gymnasium, Okkervil River (ATO). Concept album based on bandleader Will Sheff's memories of growing up in Meriden, New Hampshire, in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They are now engaged in raising money on the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter for a short film of the song "Down the Deep River."


SOURCES:  AllMusic (, Amazon (, WXPN (, and performer websites.


1978    The Rutles (Warner Brothers). Music made to accompany a made-for-TV spoof, "All You Need is Cash," is actually carefully written and produced to sound like the Beatles at various stages of their career. I liked side two which spoofed the 1967-70 Beatles, including "Cheese and Onions," "Another Day," and the walrus-like "Piggy in the Middle."

1979    Spirits Having Flown, Bee Gees (RSO). I was very late to the disco party that was 1978, being preoccupied with the Rutles (see above), and this was, frankly, a pathetic attempt to catch up. The album produced three Billboard #1 singles; weirdly, each of them was followed at the top by the song that had been #1 before it.

Soundtrack from “Xanadu,” Various Artists (MCA). This album is probably not as cool as I thought it was at the time, and the movie is awfully dumb, but it contained some catchy songs from the post-orchestral Electric Light Orchestra, including “All Over the World,” “I’m Alive,” and the title track on which they duet with Olivia Newton-John, whose singing I like, so sue me.

1981    Long Distance Voyager, Moody Blues (Polydor). Admittedly not up to their bold orchestral arrangements of the late 1960s and early 1970s--this ain't no Seventh Sojourn--the group from Birmingham, England, nonetheless produced two memorable singles, "Gemini Dream" and "The Voice," as well as "Talking Out of Turn" and "Painted Smile."

1982    Daylight Again, Crosby Stills and Nash (Atlantic). Largely a collaboration of two members of the trio, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash, the popular album contains the folky, tightly-harmonized "Wasted on the Way" and "Song for Susan" (both written by Nash), as well as the evocative hit single "Southern Cross."  It was their only studio album between CSN (1975) and American Dream (1988).

1983    The Distance, Bob Seger (Capitol).  The first single from this album was the surprisingly folky "Shame on the Moon," co-written with Rodney Crowell.  It was followed by "Even Now," featuring Seger's more typical rock sound.  But the best of the bunch was "Roll Me Away," with its terrific western imagery: "Just then I saw a young hawk flying, and my soul began to rise..."

1984    Eyes That See in the Dark, Kenny Rogers (RCA).  An interesting collaboration between the veteran country singer, pop sensations the Bee Gees who served as co-producers and occasional backup singers, and Dolly Parton, who duets on the #1 pop and country hit "Islands in the Stream."  My favorite cut is "Evening Star," featuring the Gatlin Brothers on backing vocals.

1985    Centerfield, John Fogerty (Warner Brothers).  Fogerty's comeback album after a decade lost to copyright wrangles with his former manager Saul Zaentz.  The former leader Creedence Clearwater Revival got two memorable hit singles out of this, "The Old Man Down the Road" and "Rock and Roll Girls," as well as the baseball standard "Centerfield." 

1986    Graceland, Paul Simon (Warner Brothers).  The most memorable of the three albums in which he collaborated with a variety of instrumental styles.  This one featured a number of South African musicians, including Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  My favorite cuts: "You Can Call Me Al", "The Boy in the Bubble," and the Cajun-flavored "That Was Your Mother".

    In the Dark, Grateful Dead (Arista).  This album produced the Dead's highest-charting single, "Touch of Grey," as well as the dark (and more typical of their work) "Hell in a Bucket" and "When Push Comes to Shove."  All but one cut is 5:00 or longer, giving the listener a sense of long Deadish jams.

1988  Songs From The Southside, Bruce Hornsby and the Range (RCA).  On my favorite of the three albums he did with the Range, Virginian Hornsby combined jazz piano licks with socially conscious folk-style lyrics.  The album produced top ten singles "The Valley Road" and "Look Out Any Window," as well as "Jacob's Ladder" which was a hit for Huey Lewis.

1989  Shooting Rubberbands at the Stars, Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians (Geffen).  This band with the anguished intellectual sounds had a huge hit with "What I Am" and a worthy follow-up in "Circle."  After two well-regarded solo albums and marriage to Paul Simon, she reunited with the group for the 2006 release "Stranger Things."
1990 An Attainable Love, Christine Lavin (Philo).  New York based folk singer/songwriter most famous for her humorous songs ("Sensitive New Age Guys," "Shopping Cart of Love: The Play") but she can be strikingly tender, as in "Venus Kissed the Moon."  This was the last "album of the year" I bought on LP, and it wasn't easy to get.

1991 Ragged Glory, Neil Young (Warner Brothers).  The veteran Canadian rocker seemed to recover his old spark with the CSNY project "American Dream."  This is a powerful record, both lyrically and in terms of volume.  Best cuts: "Country Home," "Days That Used To Be," "Mansion on a Hill."

1992 The Visit, Loreena McKennitt (Quinlan Road).  The third album by a Canadian woman who plays the harp.  There are some instrumentals ("Tango to Evora") but also some orignal songs ("All Soul's Night") and striking settings of old texts, including Tennyson's epic poem "The Lady of Shalott."

1993 The Future, Leonard Cohen (Columbia).  Poet-turned-folkrocker from Montreal.  Cohen's best songs are so unremittingly morose that they can't fail to cheer you up.  His voice isn't much, but the beat's infectious.  Best songs:  "Democracy," "The Future," "Closing Time."

1994 Singer Songwriter Beggerman Thief, Five Chinese Brothers (Prime CD).  This is actually copyright 1992, but must have been caught in indie hell because it didn't get airplay here til spring '94.  Best cuts:  "Paul Cezanne," "Stop Talking," "All I Need."
1995 Lost Dogs and Missed Blessings, John Prine (Oh Boy).  A veteran singer-songwriter from Melrose Park, Illinois, has penned some memorable songs including "Ain't Hurtin' Nobody," "He Forgot That It Was Sunday," "Lake Marie," and "Leave The Light On."

1996 Matapedia, Kate and Anna McGarrigle (Hannibal).  The first album in six years from the singing sisters of Montreal, but less dark and more folky than "Heartbeats Accelerating" was.  Even "Why Must We Die?" is done with their old wryness.  Other outstanding tracks include the title and "Goin' Back to Harlan."

1997 The Book Of Secrets, Loreena McKennitt (Quinlan Road).  Another remarkable set of compositions by this harpist-singer/songwriter/musicologist from Stratford, Ontario, reflecting Celtic and Middle Eastern influences.  Favorite tracks:  "Skellig," "Night Ride Across the Caucasus," "Mummer's Dance."

1998 Mermaid Avenue, Billy Bragg and Wilco (Elektra).  The folk music event of the year--Woody Guthrie lyrics, heretofore rotting in an attic, set to music by English Marxist folkrocker Bragg.  What's amazing is that the songs don't sound dated in the least.  I don't know whether that's due to Bragg's contemporary settings or Guthrie's timeless lyrics.

1999 Morning Light, Paula Joy Welter (Starry Sky Music).  This is drawing outside the lines--the album is copyright 1995--but it was released privately in California and only made it to Iowa this year.  A gentle singer with superlative songs, including "Each Brings A Light" and "Long Ago."
2000 Red Dirt Girl, Emmylou Harris (Nonesuch).  Wonderful songs about people, many of whom have seen pretty tough times.  But sung in Emmylou's gentle way, they suggest that they have achieved some kind of requiem.  Best cuts:  title, "Bang the Drum Slowly," "Michelangelo."

2001 Essence, Lucinda Williams (Lost Highway).  Very intimate songs from a singer-songwriter from Lake Charles, Louisiana.  Her first album appeared in 1978.  She wrote all the songs on this album, which was produced by Bo Ramsey.  "Lonely Girls" and title cut are good, but "I Envy The Wind" could grow hair on a cement post.

2002  Looking for the Moon, Tom Paxton (Appleseed).  This veteran folksinger turned 65 in 2002, but celebrated by releasing some of his best songs yet, with the mix of warmth (title, "Early Snow"), humor ("My Pony Knows The Way"), and poignancy ("The Same River Twice") his fans have come to expect.   My son Eli really likes "The Bravest" about firefighters responding to 9/11.

2003 The Mavericks, The Mavericks (Sanctuary).  Latin-influenced country band featuring lead singer and songwriter Raul Malo.  Confusingly, their first, independently-released album had the same name.  This one is an enjoyable listen from beginning to end.  Best tracks:  "Would You Believe" and "I Want To Know," as well as "Time Goes By" which features Willie Nelson.  

2004 Lonely Runs Both Ways, Alison Krauss & Union Station (Rounder).  Krauss is a 33-year-old fiddler born in Champaign, Illinois, who records solo albums as well as group efforts with Union Station.  She does lead vocals on 10 songs, guitarist Dan Tyminski on three, and guitarist Ron Block on one.  Other members are Barry Bales (bass) and Jerry Douglas (dobro).  Production, by the group, is incredibly clear and vibrant.
2005 Country Man, Willie Nelson (Lost Highway).  One from the vaults, recorded about a decade earlier but only in 2005 did any record company realize that an album of Willie Nelson singing reggae songs would be a genuine contribution to Western civilization.  The collaboration with Toots Hibbert on Johnny Cash's "I'm A Worried Man" joyously soars.

2006 The Seeger Sessions, Bruce Springsteen (Sony).  Minus the E-Street Band, using a group of musicians assembled specifically for this album, The Boss gives the Springsteen treatment to traditional fok songs as a tribute to Pete Seeger, the man who may have done as much as anyone to keep that tradition alive.  Best tracks:  "Old Dan Tucker," "Oh Mary Don't You Weep."

2007 Djin Djin, Angelique Kidjo (Razor & Tie).  Ebullient 12th album by a native of Benin now living in France, effectively fusing traditional African music with contemporary pop.  "Ae Ae" makes an irresistible opener; another good track is "Emma."  "Sedjedo," a duet with reggae star Ziggy Marley, is my favorite among a number of collaborations.  The disc concludes with "Lonlon," a vocalization of Ravel's "Bolero."

2008 The Stand Ins, Okkervil River (Jagjaguwar).  Will Sheff, originally of New Hampshire, now of Austin, Texas, is annoyed by people of lesser talents using their connections as springboards to success.  But when complaints rock like this, I have no objection.  This is their fifth full-length album; the group's name is from an actual river in Russia.  Best tracks: "Singer Songwriter," "Lost Coastlines," "Pop Lie."

2009    The Silver City, Jeremy Messersmith (Princess). Singer-songwriter from Minneapolis, whose second album is a collection dealing with metropolitan life. It begins ("Welcome to Suburbia") and ends ("Light Rail") hailing the promise of progress, but the songs in between--"Skyway" and "Dead End Job," for example--detail the struggles of the individual in this putative paradise.

2010    Do You Want the Truth or Something Beautiful, Paloma Faith (Sony). My guilty pleasure of the year, because her burlesque roots make her somewhat redolent of Lady Gaga, but this theatrical young Britisher writes songs that are as clever as they are danceable. Best tracks: title, "Upside Down," "Play On."

2011    Alexander, Alexander (Vagrant). Californian Alex Ebert, late of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and before that of Ima Robot, returns with a solo album of similar hippie-ish ebullience. In contrast to the Zeros’ gigantic ensemble, he plays every track here himself. I missed Jade, though. Top tracks: “Let’s Win,” “A Million Years,” “Truth.”

2012    Be the Void, Dr. Dog (Anti-). Philadelphia group led by songwriters Toby Leaman and Scott McMicken have been releasing albums since 1999. Their joyous, wacky music is enhanced by overdubbing, maybe less so on this one. Best tracks: "Lonesome," "Warrior Man," "That Old Black Hole," "Over Here Over There."




1978   King Tut, Steve Martin and the Toot Uncommons
1979   Ships, Barry Manilow

1980   Romeo's Tune, Steve Forbert
1981   Rock 'n' Roll Dreams Come Through, Jim Steinman
1982   Memory, Barbra Streisand
1983   Total Eclipse of the Heart, Bonnie Tyler
1984   Had A Dream (Sleeping With The Enemy), Roger Hodgson
1985    One Night in Bangkok, Murray Head
1986    Everything Must Change, Paul Young
1987    Touch of Grey, Grateful Dead
1988    Time and Tide, Basia
1989    The Living Years, Mike and the Mechanics

1990    Heartbeats Accelerating, Kate and Anna McGarrigle
1991    Country Home, Neil Young
1992    Summer of '88, Spider John Koerner
1993    Democracy, Leonard Cohen
1994    Like A King, Ben Harper
1995    My Winter Coat, Roches
1996    The Christians and The Pagans, Dar Williams
1997    Jane, Brooks Williams
1998    Honey Child, Peter Case
1999    Shimmering Star, Marcia Griffiths

2000    Keys to the Kingdom, Nields
2001    One Cold Street, Elliott Murphy & Iain Matthews
2002    Jerusalem, Steve Earle
2003    Talkin' Al Kida Blues, Dan Bern
2004    Eggs of Your Chickens, Flatlanders
2005    Air, Erin McKeown
2006   Love Is My Religion, Ziggy Marley
2007   Stay On The Ride, Patty Griffin
2008   Love is Free, Sheryl Crow
2009   I and Love and You, Avett Brothers

2010   Only a Song, Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore
2011   Hard Out Here, Hayes Carll
2012   Emmylou, First Aid Kit
2013   Same Love, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis
(featuring Mary Lambert)

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last update: 12/31/13