10 awesome solo acts that deserve a bigger audience
Last week I shared 10 awesome bands that deserve a bigger audience and asked you to share your thoughts on the list, your suggestions for bands you felt were deserving of that "perfect world" bigger audience. I figured we could do the same thing now with solo acts. Obviously, from time to time, I'll highlight one band or solo act here anyway, such as Courtney Barnett recently on the strength of her debut full-length album. And when I talked about the return of Neneh Cherry due to what I am sure will stay one of the records of the year for me it was in part to do my bit to reintroduce her - she'd taken a lot of time off, many people would have forgotten about her.
But there's so much music and so much of it sits outside of the major-label framework which, despite crumbling, is still the treadmill to get on for mainstream exposure. What about the music that just falls through the cracks, people who have been plugging away for years, never putting a foot wrong? Or the solo artists that seem to just arrive, their act fully formed, or at least by the time of their second album they've cracked it. Those are the sorts of solo acts I want to mention here.
1. Ghostpoet: I was already a fan; his first album was one of my favourites of 2011, ticking all the right boxes for me (Roots Manuva and Gil Scott-Heron obvious touchstones). And then he released what is quite possibly an even better second album. One of my favourite voices in hip-hop - but don't let that genre-name put you off. It's so much bigger - broader - than just the idea of hip-hop, and that of course is a genre (or lifestyle/movement) that takes from so many musical styles already.
2. Amy Speace: Think of Lucinda Williams and Alison Krauss and somewhere in between the two you have Amy Speace. She's been making wonderful music across the last decade or so. Each album that arrives seems to improve on the one previous. The songs continue to get stronger, he writing is so clean, so pure. I'm still enamoured with How To Sleep In A Stormy Boat and there's a new EP already too.
3. Damien Jurado: I forgot about Damien Jurado for a while there - but it all came back with the release of Brothers and Sisters of The Eternal Son. Back when I worked in a music store/back when we had music stores (and they had customers) I would often recommend Jurado's music and I had a great strike-rate, people returning to hear more. But then I dropped the ball, left a few of his albums undiscovered, now I'm going back through the catalogue and finding that he's never really dropped the ball at all. So much wonderful music from this talented writer/player. But the new one, certainly, would be a great place to start.
4. Nicole Atkins: I keep going back to that clip of Nicole Atkins singing a song from her debut album on Letterman. How did that not set the world alight? That's such a stunning performance. Everything about it is right - the singing, the look, the feel, the style, the song, the playing. And yet good as her first record was Atkins crawled out the other side of the industry to pursue music for herself, rather than getting sucked into the label's ideas - which I'm sure included her cashing in on the Duffy/Winehouse/Adele/Norah Jones vibes. Her third album, Slow Phaser, is certainly a good place to start - but she's three for three pretty much. That first album, particularly, is gorgeous and bursts with ideas. And this new one has her rivalling Neko Case at times, touching on some of Suzanne Vega's song shapes, but occupying a space all of her own.
5. Anna Calvi: Again, the first I heard of Calvi seemed good enough, the early reports hadn't lied - and she's played here, been touring the world too. But she's really on another level with her latest album, One Breath; certainly the songs seem to pack such a strong emotional punch now.
6. Angel Olsen: A new one for me. And whilst I like the whole album, side two in particular shows a wonderful songwriter, someone aware now of their own voice. She's been part of Bonnie 'Prince' Billy's band, she's made plenty of music already, but I listen to this and think of the very fine songs of Nina Nastasia and Sharon Van Etten and just when I think I've got her pegged there's a sidestep, next thing I'm listening to the finest damn country torch song I ever did hear. All this and Liz Phair-like rockers - back from when Liz Phair was great - too.
7. Jason Isbell: Okay, so I arrived a bit late to Isbell's latest solo release, Southeastern but it's been the album I've listened to the most just recently. I can't stop playing it - not a dud track (just the one that seems incongruous given the flow of the rest of the album). But the songwriting is up there with Steve Earle on a good day.
8. Zola Jesus: With latest album, Versions, Zola Jesus covers some of her earlier songs with a string quartet. I listen to this and can't imagine why people wouldn't want to hear these songs - and specifically these treatments.
9. Nadine Shah: The other day I read something where Lorde was compared to PJ Harvey. How ridiculous. But then it's (part of) the role of music writers to make ridiculous comparisons. I've made my share - and possibly yours too. But that just seems fundamentally absurd. You need to be very careful with the PJ Harvey comparison, even though she's the sort of touchstone used as liberally as Aphex Twin or Neil Young in other areas of music. I'd like to use my PJ Harvey Comparison Card (you get it free after working for years for next to nothing; it's one of the perks) and apply it to Nadine Shah's extraordinary album, Love Your Dum and Mad. I was too late to this album to list it as part of my best of 2013 - but it was certainly one of the great album releases of that year, a wonderful new discovery.
10. William Tyler: I'm pushing it here - there's no market really for guitar instrumentals outside of The Rock Shop, right? But William Tyler's Impossible Truth is a record that just knocks me out any time I play it. His widescreen, windswept version of Americana is a million miles from the idea that haunts a lot of people when they think - or are forced to think - of instrumental guitar music. In fact Tyler's album is more like looking at a painting, or at least a soundtrack for window-gazing. It's a hard sell suggesting this guy should be playing to huge audiences around the world but I just wish more people knew about him. That's all.
Bonus: I'm sure most readers of this blog know of Bill Callahan - he used to record as Smog and/or (Smog). Since reinventing himself as a solo artist without nom-de-plume his records are continuing to improve, last year's Dream River took the top spot as album of the year in a few publications. And it's not hard to see (or rather hear) why. But I still don't feel he gets the respect he deserves. He certainly didn't when he played in Wellington, opening for Joanna Newsom. I think half the audience thought he was some local - or not Smog anyway, as that was clearly a band-name, right? Well, I doubt we'll ever see Callahan back here - and that's a great shame. He's one of the best contemporary songwriters I've heard.
So what are some solo artists that you feel deserve a bigger audience? Any on this list you'd agree with or are keen to check out?
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