Henri Texier – “Le Piroguier” (1976)
This is music that can only be called genre-free–spare, pure, feeling equal parts experimental and folk-made, calling to mind only other iconoclasts like Brigitte Fontaine & Areski or Emmanuelle Parrenin in its spooky stillness-through-rhythm. Consisting solely of acoustic and organic sounds–handclaps, wordless vocals, single-note bowed strings, and upright bass played in a whirling fashion–it feels vaguely Turkish or Moroccan. It’s elemental and at the same time futuristic, small and yet suggesting wide-open space. Simply beautiful–and inexplicably out of print, so grab it at the ever-essential Mutant Sounds.
The Carter Family – “Wildwood Flower” (1935)
Music so sturdy, simple, direct, and affecting is rarely achieved, especially that stands the test of so many decades. The clean melodies of the Carter Family are clearly from another time, virtually another world, yet they call forth an elemental, essential musical understanding in any American. And perhaps they tap into the foundational strains of “folk musics” everywhere, and speak universally.
Toumani Diabate with Ballake Sissoko – “Bafoulabe” (1999)
Hearing the kora for the first time was a revelation; that I first heard the instrument in person, live, only made it more breathtaking: a single instrument to the eye, but the sound was that of a harp, an upright bass, the Indonesian kepaci, and a flamenco guitar together. This recording of the most well-known Malian kora musician Toumani Diabate captures the range of the instrument beautifully, without any of the cheesier “world music” fusion-trappings that diminish many a contemporary recording. The shifts in tempo here create a dreamlike feeling.
Beck – “Satan Gave Me A Taco” (1994)
I haven’t followed him closely the last decade or so, but I still think Beck is a pretty great merry prankster for the straight world, a real well-intentioned goofball (apparent Scientology notwithstanding). “Satan Gave Me A Taco” is wonderfully absurd narrative, an exploration of the giddy excesses of corporate Rock And Roll, or, something. It’s lyrically epic in its not-quite-four-minutes.
L.S. Gelik – “Bajing Luncat” [“Jumping Squirrel”] (1996)
I picked up this album (as a Japanese import with much more appealing cover art than I can find online) from an Indonesian-import wood furniture shop owner, and can find next to no information about it. It is an example of a Sundanese form of Indonesian music called “kecapi suling,” created largely using different kecapi, a “zither-like” instrument. To my ears the music sounds something like a cross between Ivory Coast kora and the slower, plaintive varieties of Indonesian gamelan (bell orchestra) music. It’s meditative, hypnotising work, with repeating cycles of sparkling string tones and woodwind notes turning in the wind above. Beautiful and haunting.
Shape Note Singers – “Travelling On” (1959)
Beautifully recorded in stereo by Alan Lomax in 1959, this Shape Note Choir exemplifies the slightly odd, but undeniably stirring sound of shape note hymns. Expressively rhythmic for white European-derived music, the four sides of the choir create a roller-coaster ride of canon-like melodies and harmonies.
Karen Dalton – “Katie Cruel” (1971)
For me, Karen Dalton is at her best when she’s at her most spare, and this might be my favorite: jittery banjo, bittersweet voice, and aching fiddle, knitting a tale of loss and regret. This is where she transcends “folk revival” or “singer-songwriter” (or “Billie Holiday of folk music” comparisons) and simply creates pure American music, out of time, beyond any single persona. [Karen Dalton is featured in a wide-ranging ‘Le Tour du Monde’ mix at Musicophilia.]
Tyrannosaurus Rex – Eastern Spell (1968)
By one of the flukes of buying records without guidance during formative years, I actually heard Tyrannosaurus Rex before T.Rex, and in some ways I still prefer this incarnation of Bolan. Basically in description, everything about them seems just plain wrong: folk songs inspired by Tolkien with fast hand-drumming and male vocals that sound like an old woman. Yet it sounds just. . . so right. Bolan’s melodic tendencies were never stronger. [Tyrannosaurus Rex is featured in more subdued form here in a Miniatures mix at Musicophilia.]
Joni Mitchell – “California” (Live, BBC, 1970)
Singer-songwriter is for me like prog, metal, ska-revival, punk: a whole lot of utter detritus, pierced by moments of absolute brilliance. For me, Joni Mitchell is the absolute pinnacle–‘Blue’ was one of the first albums I ever identified as a “favorite” as a small child (my mother would sing us Joni songs and play her guitar, her hippie youth waning but still vibrant, as lullabies). And it remains a top-10 album, a quarter-century later. Her voice aged well, in my opinion, and at this point I find later albums more “interesting,” and beautiful in their own ways–but ‘Blue’ is a solitary achievement, and it still makes my heart ache in a wonderful way however many hundreds of listens on. Plus, I just love that dulcimer sound.
Huun Huur Tu – “Exile’s Song” (1994)
I don’t know enough about traditional Tuvan throat-singing and instrumental music to tell you if what Huun Huur Tu do is “traditional”. Some is obviously not; this high-and-lonely sounding lament might be; some of the instrumentation and double-note-singing surely is. I do know it’s beautiful, beguiling, and in this meditative, wind-like droning form, it’s emotionally captivating. [Huun Huur Tu can be heard dueting with Luc Ferrari and The For Carnation here in a mix at Musicophilia.]