Some might think that Richard Thompson would be ready for a break after three decades of nonstop creation: he formed Fairport Convention in the 1960s and then spent the 70s and 80s recording emotionally intense and musically dense albums with his then-wife Linda. Yet Thompson didn’t let up when the 90s came – maybe it was the chance to release an album for major label Capitol (remember, back in 1991 “major label” still meant something), or maybe it was just his recent stream of stellar material, but something led him to make a career record with Rumor & Sigh.
The album was perfect for the beginning of the singer-songwriter decade, with dark and at least slightly-twisted lyrics veiled by easy production – if you don’t really listen to the words, songs like “Read About Love” and “Break Somebody’s Heart” might breeze right by. Thompson coiled his often lengthy guitar breaks into tight knots to fit the songs, and hit an artistic peak with “1952 Vincent Black Lightning,” his masterpiece of a modern folk ballad.
In 1992, Los Angeles roots band Los Lobos – already five albums into a respected career – pushed their creativity into overdrive with the album Kiko. Two factors were at play here: Firstly, the band worked with producer Mitchell Froom, whose facility with tape loops and other fringe sounds became a launchpad for future experimentation from the group’s core. Listeners can hear such sounds in songs like Cesar Rosas’ "That Train Don’t Stop Here Anymore", where the composition;s loping shuffle veers off onto the side streets; and they are certainly evident also on the irresistible title track, "Kiko and The Lavender Moon".
Secondly, the creative combination of drummer Louie Perez and guitarist David Hidalgo really came into their own as a team with standouts like “Reva’s House.” The two wrote together on the previous English language album The Neighborhood, but Kiko was the junction where they began an artistic exploration that would continue with their next album, Colossal Head, and the spinoff band The Latin Playboys.
Disclaimer: I picked Automatic For The People weeks before the band announced they’d called it quits. So, no sentimentality here. But it’s tough to choose one particular album from an artist that had multiple releases out during the “World Cafe Years.” Which Radiohead album? What Spoon release?
Some albums transcended and epitomized their era – Automatic For The People did just that in 1992. Here is the critical and popular pinnacle of the band’s career: front-loaded with four huge songs, from “Drive” to “ Everybody Hurts,” that showed the artistic breadth of the mature band. These songs were everywhere from Walkmen (!) to shopping malls… not what one would have predicted after hearing Murmur almost a decade before.
Exile in Guyville was just as much a cultural phenomenon as it was an album: Liz Phair created an indie-rock feminist manifesto that was fun to listen to! Guyville operates on so many levels: a shot across the bow of the male-dominated Chicago indie-rock scene, a purported song-for-song response to the Stones’ Exile On Main Street, an in-your-face display of sexual candor honoring girl-lust. But none of that would have worked without phenomenal songs.
Go back, listen – it’s not simply the lyrics that drive these numbers. Did she ever equal this? Maybe not, but it provides us with a moment to hear it all again… All Hail Liz Phair!
As debut albums go, Sheryl Crow made quite an entrance with 1993’s Tuesday Night Music Club. The Midwest product incorporated enough SoCal boho into her esthetic to capture the times. You see, there really was a Tuesday Night Music Club of guys, including David Baerwald, that Sheryl worked with after her over-produced first stab at a debut was rejected.
The informality of the arrangements served the songs well: “All I Wanna Do,” with its Stealers Wheel nod, was a hit – Sheryl’s enduring career was underway. In 1993, Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville spoke to one part of the dividing audience; another, older part heard Sheryl Crow loud and clear.
Few debut albums made their power as immediately apparent as the 1993 debut from Counting Crows, August and Everything After. Listen to Adam Duritz on the opening track “Round Here”:
“Step out the front door like a ghost/Into the fog where no one notices/The contrast of white on white.”
The poetic mystery of Duritz’s very first lyrics announces his talent, and the listener is off running with one of the 90s’ most rewarding albums. With all the classic-rock-songwriter poetics of Leonard Cohen or Bruce Springsteen in place, and an underlying pop sense, August introduces one of the last of the classic bands with their roots in the 70’s. The album has its pop side with songs like “Mr Jones,” which actually brought the band to hit radio, and “Anna Begins.” Alongside these are more impressionistic pieces, like “Raining In Baltimore” and “Perfect Blue Buildings.”
The album also helped solidify the commercial credentials of producer T-Bone Burnett, who would subsequently mold a hit out of The Wallflowers’ similar album Bringing Down The Horse, later in the decade.
Dave Matthews Band
Hard to believe that the Dave Matthews Band was once a fledgling regional phenomenon in the Southeast. It was the success of their live shows and their self-produced live record that paved the way to a signing with RCA records; this was followed by the release of Under the Table and Dreaming in September of 1994.
Matthews has always been a charismatic singer, but it is the interplay of this band of equals – captured exquisitely on this album – that has filled arenas. Under the Table is packed with the songs that continue to attract entire stadiums of Dave Matthews devotees.
In 1997, Beck’s Odelay topped the Village Voice’s Pazz and Jop critic’s poll, then it won a Grammy. Why did we choose Odelay, out of the 8 major albums the California-based artist released during the “World Cafe” years? The answer is simple: the songs, the variety, the production, and the sheer creativity.
Odelay was the first of a string of remarkable releases that showcased the increasing diversity of Beck’s work. After the left field success of “Loser” and the album Mellow Gold, Beck took his time making Odelay – there is even a story that the title was really “Oh Delay.” The album introduced us to “two turntables and a microphone,” and then turned around to hint at quieter material that Beck would explore further on Mutations. It’s a classic.
Buena Vista Social Club
The Buena Vista Social Club phenomenon – the album and subsequent Wim Wenders documentary – was a major cultural development of the end of the last century. In 1997, Ry Cooder ventured down to Havana’s Egrem studios to record African musicians with their Cuban counterparts. This endeavor ran into trouble that led Cooder to find overlooked singers and musicians from Cuban music’s golden years – and he decided to record these instead.
The result was Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Reuben Gonzales singing and playing their way into America’s heart. These gentle offered heartbreaking stories to accompany their skilled musicianship: “Chan Chan,” for example, initiated the original Buena Vista disc and has since become a classic. Gonzalez’s incredible romantic jazz stylings on piano touched hearts; the album as a whole was nostalgic and exotic. It was perfect..
Lucinda Williams was the first poster-girl for the music played on The World Cafe, but her career was underway before the Cafe was born. To be honest, her unaffected self-titled Rough Trade debut would have been our pick if it had been in the time frame; yet that was not the album that broke Lu to a wider audience. That album was Car Wheels on A Gravel Road, and, boy, had we been waiting for it.
Meticulous and self-critical Lucinda took her time crafting the record, wearing out more than one producer – including Steve Earle. She proved the wait worthwhile, as Car Wheels emerged with its rough honesty glimmering through the shiny surface. It’s what she had been hearing all along.
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!