While I am more apt to buy music albums of a group only after consistently liking their style over time, every once and a while there is an album packed with so many radio hits I like that I have to buy it even though I don’t particularly like the other work of the group. Or alternatively, I randomly hear a great song and discover a not-so-popular artist whose music I absolutely love (especially a number of female singer-songwriters highlighted below). In order of release year, the albums below resonated particularly with me for various reasons and are some favorites old and new in my collection.
Jaime (2019) – Brittany Howard
This solo album from the lead singer of Alabama Shakes (see below) gives her a chance to try some different things beyond their catchy bluesy rock. It starts with a fuzzy and funky edge on the opening number, and other songs have elements of old school soul ballads, jazz, and even hip-hop. It is also a very personal album as some of the stories she writes are very specific like an incident of harassment against her biracial family or a soapbox statement of her individual mission. The best song is the effervescent “Stay High” that sounds like a 1970s R&B classic.
The Hamilton Mixtape (2016) – Various
I bought this album almost solely based on a visceral identification with the song “Immigrants (We Get the Job Done)” due to my work with refugees. The popularity of the Hamilton musical also made me interested. It’s not exactly a soundtrack to the musical—instead there are covers of a number of songs from the play but then many others that are just songs that reflect its ideologies. The first surprise was the variety of the songs (not all are hip-hop) and the lyrical strength of the message in some of the numbers. The second surprise was how many of the songs focused on relationship, specifically the two Schuyler sisters who vied for his affection.
Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon (2013) – KT Tunstall
Singer-songwriter KT Tunstall’s style has drifted throughout her career, at times flashy and electric and other times thoughtful and acoustic. While her debut is a good album with great catchy songs, her absolute most artful and creative work is this “double album” that she used to work through the death of her father. The songs are light and dreamy with flowery poetic lyrics and yet somehow is also full of intensity. I can’t say enough good things about this album.
Random Access Memories (2013) – Daft Punk
A Parisian friend tried to introduce me to the dance music stylings of Daft Punk back in the nineties but it didn’t really click with me until they released this 2013 album that is full of disco dance throwback (including the hugely popular “Get Lucky”) that is catchy fun.
Some Nights (2012) – Fun.
I thought Fun. was just another hipster band that I wouldn’t be interested in, but I kept hearing all these songs on the radio with interesting styles and rhythms and was surprised when all of them turned out to be from this album of the group. I was even more surprised to buy the album and find it eclectic and engaging. From a cold open nod to Queen to songs that sound like anthemic sing-alongs to 80s throwbacks, they have great catchy melodies, enormous energy, and very interestingly they unabashedly autotune the heck out of everything and make that particular to their style.
Boys & Girls (2012) – Alabama Shakes
I totally fell upon this album by accident. It was one of several on display in a record shop and I was fascinated at first listen by its slow Southern grooves with bass and organ and lead singer with an enthrallingly intense but ambiguous voice. Check out the wonderfully bluesy “Be Mine”
Blue Ribbon Winner (2011) – Schuyler Fisk
This is a wonderful album from Schuyler Fisk (pronounced like Skyler—and random fact: daughter of Sissy Spacek). It is full of great acoustic melodies that resound with her clear, perfect pitch voice. Whether the achingly beautiful “What Good is Love”, “What if I Leave”, “Tell Your Heart”, or the unexpected stomping fun of “Zombies”, the songs styles vary nicely but center around the genres of country/shuffle/bluegrass. Her previous album “The Good Stuff” is also great though with a bit more of a pop vibe. More recently she’s been recording as part of a duo called FM Radio. In any shape, form, or fashion, please buy this girl’s music!
21 (2011) – Adele
By the end of its release year, there was probably no one who had not heard some of Adele’s music from this album as the songs like “Rolling in the Deep”, “Set Fire to the Rain”, and “Someone Like You” were playing everywhere and Adele was loaded up with Grammy’s galore. They were well-deserved of course—her signature belting voice, passionate performance, old-school melodies, and brazen-in-the-face-of-heartache lyrics make her an undeniable singer-songwriter powerhouse.
Sigh No More (2010) – Mumford and Sons
Though they got lumped into the tide of a passing fad for roots music, Mumford and Sons’ unabashedly authentic mix of Irish melodies and bluegrass sound really resonates as something unique. In this album, their poetic lyrics mix in high elements of Shakespeare and religious imagery and yet somehow still seem to reflect simple themes of rural life and tilling the soil. The album was obviously not patterned to capitalize on radio popularity; though the energetic hit “Lion Man” is what introduced me to their music, not every song is a catchy upbeat rhythm or obvious hook (e.g, “I Gave You All”). Yet the styling and sound are passionate and very true to the source of the music and make for a wonderful listen. Their following album “Babel” is strong as well though more upbeat and radio-friendly.
Lady Killer (2010) – Cee Lo Green
Cee Lo Green has been around a long time but really became widely popular with the release of this album (or more specifically the spotlight song “Forget You” or its less radio-friendly original version). I was really impressed with the smart creativity he shows in production, pulling in styles and instruments from almost any genre, and his willingness to be fun and quirky and not just a ‘cool rapper’. He is really more of a singer than a rap artist anyway and his clear high voice is put too good use on many songs on this album.
The E.N.D. (2009)
The Beginning (2010) – The Black Eyed Peas
This pair of albums by the Black Eyed Peas really appeal to me as a whole package. Most of the songs are simply upbeat dance-infused pop-rap. It doesn’t matter that many times the lyrics are clunky—it’s more about the feel of the albums as they blast through catchy hooks and melodies with tons of synthesizer, autotune reverb, inventive vocal twists, and other production touches. Highlights include: Boom Boom Pow, Imma Be, Rock That Body, Out of My Head, Now Generation, Don’t Stop the Party, Light Up the Night, The Time
Plainsong (2009) – Susan Enan
A UK born artist now based in the US, Susan Enan is an independent acoustic singer/songwriter with a strong clear voice which she puts to good use on her simple punchy melodies. I first saw her at a small performance at a local venue in Atlanta and waited nearly a decade for her to release an album. She finally did so in 2009 after her career received a boost when one of her songs featuring Sarah McLachlan was featured on the TV show “Bones”.
Rockferry (2008) – Duffy
She apparently doesn’t like the often cited parallels to Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark that people make of her work, but the comparisons are very apt for the artist Duffy on her debut album. Her pouty yet lilting voice is used to sing strong catchy melodies that talk about break-ups and heartaches in a swinging London sixties style. Her follow up work is much more modern pop and loses some of the charm so Rockferry is definitely the one to get.
Back to Black (2006) – Amy Winehouse
Though the vulgur, drug-promoting lyrics may be too much to handle for some, it is hard to deny that this album is quite an impressive foray into neo-Motown sound. Winehouse could really belt out both mournful regret and sneering swagger. Several songs on the album are literally laid over famous Motown hooks and the whole thing has a great feel of girl groups gone tough. It’s unfortunate that the songs highlighted a struggle that eventually took Winehouse’s life.
American Idiot (2004) – Green Day
Green Day was a punk band that did not hold much interest for me until I was pulled into this album as several melodic radio hits kept rising from it (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams”,”Wake Me Up When September Ends”) What I discovered when I finally bought the album was even better. Taking their cue from past super-groups of the 70s, American Idiot is a full-concept album—tying several disparate songs together into a kind of rock opera with a smart and strong anti-war message. More particularly, some of the songs are grouped together into medley movements that jump between a variety of styles in perfect recreation of the Who’s “A Quick One While He’s Away”.
Hopes and Fears (2004) – Keane
The purely keyboard-based music of Keane’s first album made an unexpected appearance on the landscape. Obscure lyrics and somewhat wandering melodies make the album an unusual favorite given my usual interests, but the songcraft is quite nice and the bright and engaging voice of the lead singer pairs wonderfully with the heavy piano chords throughout. Skip the later guitar heavy follow up album.
Get Born (2003) – Jet
This brash Australian band is like a resurrected Rolling Stones but it is their Beatlesque “Look What You’ve Done” that really caught my attention. Their album jumps from hard rocking numbers to flowing melodies to seventies-styled anthems.
The Spirit Room (2001) – Michelle Branch
This Michelle Branch album is just full of good radio-friendly melodic songs that are perfect examples of start of the millennium female rock. Michelle Branch’s voice is sweet and pouty yet super strong to match the heavy guitar sounds throughout her album. Many of her songs were anthemic soundtracks for the time like “Goodbye to You”. For good measure, she suddenly closes the album with a totally unexpected deviation of ethnic rhythm and electronica sound making thealbum all the more interesting.
The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998) – Lauryn Hill
After she helped to propel the Fugees’ project to fame, Lauryn Hill put her creativity into her own solo album that spawned many nice, widely popular numbers. From the old school-inspired “DooWop” and remix of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to the modern “Everything is Everything” and the hardcore “Final Hour”, she successfully mixes her ability to use her strident yet beautifully clear voice to sing hooks and ballads while still spitting out her hard-edged but intelligent rap lyrics.
Stunt (1998) – The Bare Naked Ladies
While BNL is famous for a long career of notably humorous but clever songs, Stunt is the pinnacle of their songcraft in terms of excellent production, and personality. It’s a fun album to listen to—some of the lines still can make be laugh out loud–but they made sure the melodies and rhythms were quite catchy as well.
Still Waters (1997) – The Bees Gees
The Bee Gees had a sudden and unexpected resurgence in popularity in the modern age, especially with the single “Alone”. This album is full of their signature falsettos and harmonies, but the production is particularly rich and dripping with their charisma and soulful sound. I love the closing song “Smoke and Mirrors”. It’s one of the only comeback albums of old artists that I’ve really considered a favorite.
Ray of Light (1997) – Madonna
Though I grew up in the era of eighties Madonna, I was a bit too young and innocent to be a fan. Still, it was impossible not to know her catchy songs and see her constantly changing flashy pop image. It was somewhat of a surprise during my college years, therefore, to hear her music suddenly mature enough to began getting critical appreciation. The height of this was her album Ray of Light. The varied and well-crafted songs here are more than simple pop but instead have interesting structures and sounds that play with Eastern influences, techno, and such.
Sheryl Crow (1996) – Sheryl Crow
I remember Sheryl Crow first rising to prominence with the laid-back “All I Wanna Do” but this album is her best. The whole recording is chock full of her signature sweet yet slightly hoarse voice and some amazing pairing of acoustic guitar with fuzzy electric grit. It is full of great melodies with vividly image-laden lyrics. “If It Makes You Happy” is a huge favorite of mine.
The Score (1996) – The Fugees
It was Lauryn Hill’s sassy sweet hooks and covers like “Killing Me Softly” that made their songs stand out to me at first, but I also liked the masterful use of ethnic rhythm and sampling by Wyclef Jean evident in the Fugees’ music as well. When I got curious enough to buy the entire album, I was struck out of my comfort zone by some of the rawness and language, but I also could appreciate how all of its elements were an artwork woven together into an angry but meaningful message.
Jagged Little Pill (1994) – Alanis Morissette
Alanis Morisette burst on the scene as ‘that angry girl’ and it’s true that this debut album does capture that vibe. Still, almost every song on the album is catchy and clever and it spawned many hits that still remind me of my college days.