As regular readers will know, Swede Kristian Matsson is a personal favourite of this blog, and his spectacularly good début album is truly one of the great first records. With a complex fingerpicking style which is more melodious than interfering, Matsson’s voice – reminiscent of a young Bob Dylan – soars through track upon track, from the brilliant opener ‘I Won’t Be Found’ to closing number ‘This Wind’. His songwriting ability belies his relative newness to the music world, with some brilliant lyrics over the melody of the guitar, most notably in ‘Into The Stream’ and the aforementioned opener ‘I Won’t Be Found’: I’m gonna fly up in the ceiling/I built a levee of the stars/And in my field of tired horses/I built a freeway through this farce. An extremely under-heard and underappreciated record, but a necessary one for any list and any listener.
Sickest tracks: ‘I Won’t Be Found’, ‘Honey Won’t You Let Me In’, ‘Into The Stream’.
The finest gospel record in a generation, There Will Be A Light is Ben Harper’s unfortunately one-off collaboration with the very old school Blind Boys, who as their name suggests are a sight-impaired band of old geezers from the American south. These octogenarians have had hard lives, seeing racial strife and massive changes in the Deep South, but their voices are simply astonishing. Covering every range from the highest tenors to the richest deep bass, the group provide a choral accompaniment of the highest quality. The songs, sounding like old gospel standards but in fact mostly written by the excellent Harper, ring out with a passion and fire uncommon on any record. Harper himself, a multi-instrumentalist who takes lead vocal and offsets the Blind Boys exceptionally, clearly has a gift for the genre, and it’s a shame that this is the lone album by this superb combination. Even sadder, though, is that several of the Blind Boys have passed on since this release, and I for one hope they find the eternal peace that they so wonderfully sing about. A sublime album.
Sickest tracks: ‘Take My Hand’, ‘There Will Be A Light’, ‘Where Could I Go’, ‘Pictures of Jesus’.
8. Funeral – Arcade Fire (2004)
Unbelievably, this classic record is not on Spotify, outrageous. Anyway, Arcade Fire’s first album is, to date, their best, and one of the finest records you’ll hear anywhere. The Canadian seven-piece’s debut is a joy to behold, full of power and lots of noise. Third track ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’ is a strong contender for best song of the decade, and one of very few songs that actually gets better the louder you play it. The band’s unorthodox combination of instruments – you’ll hear organs, accordions and violins amongst other things – combines to create a thoroughly unique sound which is as memorable as it is good fun. The band, a fantastic live act if you get the chance to seem them, are like the batshit-crazy but endearing cousins who you know are gifted and deserve of a lotta love. Superb record.
Sickest tracks: ‘Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)’, ‘Neighbourhood #2 (Laika)’, ‘Wake Up’, ‘Haiti’.
Probably the most singular artist working today, Sufjan Stevens is less of a rock, pop or folk singer, and more like a classical composer. His 2005 concept album is his best, full of orchestral arrangements overlapping more conventional instruments. Stevens is a gifted songwriter, the sort who you can just tell gets an idea in his head and then translates it to music effortlessly, and his multi-instrumental gifts are exceeded only by his ingenuity. The portrait he gives of the American state is fully fleshed-out, from the rough regions (‘Jacksonville’) to the fantastical occurrences (‘Concerning the UFO Sighting near Highland, Illinois’) to the ghosts of a chilling past (‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’). The Michigan-born songwriter has put together his opus here, and this is an essential listen, ingenious, interesting and inimitable.
Sickest tracks: ‘Come On, Feel the Illinoise’, ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr.’, ‘Decatur’, ‘Chicago’.
Justin Vernon’s first record under his now-famous pseudonym Bon Iver is one of the best folk records of recent years, and an excellent listen start to finish. Recorded almost entirely in a Wisconsin cabin, this is an album about missed opportunities and bittersweet emotions. The force of Vernon’s voice rings through the record, his unique falsetto gloriously echoing through each and every track. ‘Skinny Love’ has gained many of the plaudits, but the entire album is just as good, with no tracks feeling out of place or lacking in quality. A magical record of haunting vocals, reverberating guitars and a feeling of isolation which has never been better communicated on record. Absolutely sensational album, and a necessary listen.
Sickest tracks: ‘Skinny Love’, ‘Creature Fear’, ‘Blindsided’, ‘Flume’.