The success of David Gray’s album White Ladder was something that took everyone by surprise. For those of us on the Cafe, he was one of those artists we loved but could never imagine gaining runaway popularity. His early songs were tough lyrical nuggets that came alive on White Ladder.
Initial credit for the album’s success goes to the astute singer-songwriter fans in Ireland who flocked to it devotedly – we couldn’t believe the videos of full theaters singing along. White Ladder was such a phenomenon, in fact, that when Dave Matthews heard it, he founded ATO Records to release it in the States.
Another album from a band that came of age during the World Cafe era. It was the British band’s 2000 debut, and it spawned four hit singles while going platinum and beyond in almost every country around the globe, quite a start.
This was the world’s introduction to Chris Martin’s remarkable voice, and the group’s otherworldly way with melody. Coldplay’s admitted influences – most notably the Scottish band Travis – are apparent, but this was an album for the quartet to build their own sound. The critical naysayers throughout Coldplay’s career seem to have been a driving force in the band’s urge to build on each release – and it all started with Parachutes.
We were invested in Norah Jones’ career well before the release of her debut album Come Away With Me: first by hearing of her from NYC-based musician friends, and then from her early EPs and singles. While nobody could have predicted the unprecedented sales of this debut – thirty million plus worldwide – neither could anybody deny her talent once they’d heard her voice.
Norah’s sound, encompassing jazz, soul and country, was in a perfect place for The World Cafe audience to embrace. What she may have lacked in tempo, she accounted for in a soulful delivery and sympathetic backing. Looking back on the World Cafe years, it is difficult not to place this album at the top of the list.
Remember back in 2001, when Wilco’s label refused to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the band responded by defiantly streaming the album on their website. In 2002, Nonesuch Records solidified its image as an artist’s label by releasing the orphan album, which subsequently garnered the best reviews of the band’s career – topping the 2002 Pazz and Jop Poll. That’s the shorthand version of the turmoil surrounding Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. For the full version, check out the documentary film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.
Foxtrot was the beginning of major line-up changes that led to what Wilco is today; it was also a far cry from what the band looked like at the time of its debut, AM. Here Wilco’s creativity bursts from the seams, with the intricate drumming of Glen Kotche and expert mixing by engineer Jim O’Rourke. Foxtrot also marks the last time Jeff Tweedy and the late Jay Bennett worked together. Was it worth the angst? Only with perspective can we judge that Foxtrot remains Wilco’s masterpiece.
O was one of the most extraordinary albums ever released. It started from the outside, with its textured cover – more like an art edition of a novel than an album. Then you get to the music inside, where Damien and co-vocalist Lisa Hannigan sing with such unabashed intimacy that it takes your breath away.
Damien is from Ireland and had some early success with the band Juniper, which contained the members of what has become Bell X1. When he set out to make O, he said he wanted to do it on his own – fearing that intervention by any record company would compromise the art. Maybe he was right; you can’t imagine a record label approving an album so acutely personal . The opening run of “Delicate”, ”Volcano”, “Blower’s Daughter”, and “Cannonball” is otherworldly.
Looking back, O remains Damien’s stunning achievement – while meanwhile, shy Lisa Hannigan has grown into the more prolific of these partners in song.
I wonder if RCA Records knew what they had when they signed Ray LaMontagne. Certainly they knew he had an extraordinary voice, but did they know they had signed a true artist?
Ray Charles LaMontagne, a former mill worker from Maine, was an unlikely star: a recluse plopped up on stage and out on the road to endure countless interviews and less-than-attentive audiences. The work he has done since this first album, from 2004, has also been extraordinary. His voice reminds many of an American Van Morrison; his phrasing owes much to the R&B and the singer/songwriters he must have listened to in his youth. This album is important because it introduces an artist that brought impressive maturity of vision even to his debut.
And, of course, he wrote some great songs.
Death Cab For Cutie
This is yet another band with so many releases during “The World Cafe years” that it’s nearly impossible choose one. Plans was Death Cab For Cutie’s leap from indie Barsuk to major label Atlantic. That fact initially overshadowed all discussion of this fine release, but such discussions seem pointless in hindsight: how can anyone argue with the quality of Chris Walla’s production on this album? He made Death Cab sound warm in contrast to the equally wonderful, but more brittle Transtlanticism.
We have a soft spot for these songs, a love for their flow. Looking back, it is easy to see how embracing releases like this – and The Postal Service that preceded it, and so many more like it to follow – represent the World Cafe’s expanding vision
Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
I do remember the first time I heard an inkling of the Robert Plant and Allison Krauss Raising Sand project. Months before its release, someone played their version of “Killing The Blues” at a convention I was attending. I thought that it was just gorgeous, and said, “This makes a lot of sense.”
We’ll spread the credit for this one around, because Robert had to have the original idea; then he had to pair up his voice with the extraordinary Allison Krauss, and T Bone Burnett provided the much-needed perspective to tie it all together. Raising Sand won the 2009 Grammy for Album of the Year, and led to such popular tours that both artists were forced to put their own projects on hold. The best artists, perfect song selection, and flawless performances add up to the poster album for The World Cafe!
Brothers has obviously been a break-through for The Black Keys; Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach have been at it as a duo since they made The Big Come Up in 2002. They tried two different approaches to expanding their sound on their last two discs – first with the Danger Mouse-produced Attack & Release, and by recording Brothers at least partially in the soul-music Mecca of Muscle Shoals. What made the difference was the Auerbach solo album Keep It Hid in between: I think being out of that loop energized the drummer Carney, and certainly Dan as well.
Brothers is an inventive leap that makes many references – including the music of T Rex – without sounding anything but current. It’s hard not to like these guys when they sound this good.
I know, I know. How do your pick one from the output of Arcade Fire over the last decade. In some ways I picked The Suburbs because of its breadth. This album explores the concept of Suburbs from musical angles unexpected for a band that made a first impression with more bombast. Plus these songs are just so smart and true to the suburbs most of us experienced.
Resolved : There has to be one Arcade Fire album in any over-view of the past 20 years because you can’t pick one of their live shows!