Somehow we missed an at the half post in 2007, but with a nod to Charlie from Bloggerhythms, here's my list of the best CDs of 2008, at the half.
1. Shelby Lynne - Just a Little Lovin' (Lost Highway)
Listen to "The Look of Love"
A Superb Piece of Work: No matter how many times I've listened to it, my awe at the quality of this loving tribute to Dusty Springfield continues to grow. Start with the arrangements which are so open that they derive great power from their simplicity - the first sixty seconds of the first song ("Just a Little Lovin'") will stop you dead in your tracks. The song selection is spot on perfect; just the right combination of Dusty's hits with some lesser known songs that she sang, plus one new original by Shelby that totally, totally fits with the other songs which include the cream of the best American pop songwriting.
The sequencing of the songs is brilliant too, a point that became abundantly clear while watching Shelby perform this album in song order at SXSW (please start the song above, then follow this link to see the photos from SXSW). The vocal work by Shelby here is revelatory, she totally inhabits these songs and gives them perhaps their best renditions ever. And finally there's the amazing sound quality of the record (also available on 12" vinyl) which is the result of producer Phil Ramone's genius combined with Shelby's insistence on recording with old-school technology, analog recording on two-inch tape. This album is an artistic triumph on every possible level, definitely in all time top ten territory. Here's my initial review.
2. Chiara Civello - The Space Between (Universal, Import)
Listen to "Night"
Hard to Find but Worth the Effort: Chiara was born in Italy, attended Berklee School of Music in Boston on a scholarship, moved to New York and was immediately signed to Verve and in 2005 made an excellent first album, Last Quarter Moon.Universal released her second album, The Space Betweenlate last year in Europe but it still awaits release here in the United States. Her music is a beautful mix of Brazilian jazz and pop with the songwriting sensibility of our best singer-songwriters. Her voice is beautiful, the production is perfectly suited to the songs, and the result is a set of music that is at once amazingly relaxing and exciting at the same time. On the surface that contradiction makes no sense but I assure you that after a couple of spins you'll see what I mean about The Space Between.A real gem.
In the absence of U.S. release, this album is extremely hard to find. There are currently new and reseller copies available on Amazon UK (expensive), and there is also a download at HMV Japan for ¥1,500 which translates to approximately $14.03 USD, which may be the purchase of choice if there are not international sale restrictions as iTunes has. There is a one version of the CD with a bonus track which I've only so far heard samples of, it's Chiara's favorite song, "Moon River" which doesn't seem to be available on any download site. We seriously need one of the Universal family of labels to step up and put this great CD out here, it might be the best of all potential releases that are all done and ready to go that they are sitting on. C'mon Verve, Decca, Lost Highway, Geffen, A&M; somebody please release this!
3. Swing Out Sister - Beautiful Mess (Avex Japan, Import)
Listen to "Beautiful Mess"
Another Unreleased Gem: As if we needed any further proof that the record labels don't have a clue, this fine band hasn't had a real contract for U.S. distribution since the American Mercury label folded some years ago, also stranding Del Amitri and Texas among others. Beautiful Messis Swing Out's ninth album, not counting live and best-of collections. Mixing rock, pop, soul and jazz, and a fascination with sixties Burt Bacharach and Fifth Dimension style soul/pop, Swing Out Sister have forged a very strong collection of records, every one finely crafted and highly listenable, and Beautiful Messis a more than worthy successor. Corinne Drewery's gorgeous voice hasn't changed at all in the twenty-one years since their first album.
Released in Japan in February with worldwide release intended shortly thereafter, the band initially sold their newest effort by direct mail to their fans around the world for £10.00 to combat import prices being asked as high as $60.00 USD on the internet. The worldwide release is unfortunately still pending, however there is a site called Music-Wow that is currently offering this CD worldwide for £6.99, free shipping, no tax. That equates to $13.86 USD as I write this. Swing Out Sister has remained hugely popular in Japan throughout their career and to hear why you need look no further than Beautiful Mess.
4. Sia - Some People Have Real Problems (Hear Music)
Listen to "Day Too Soon"
Worth the Wait: In the four years since Sia's last CD, she often seemed to bring the wacky a little more often than not, including an incomplete live album (her awesome live show would have fit unedited on the CD), Lady Croissant.Considering all that, I'm happy to report that Some People Have Real Problemspicks right up where Colour the Small Oneleft off, with even more consistently great songwriting by Sia.
Production and arrangements are great, and despite the apparent goofiness of TV appearances in black light wearing black suits with the crayon graphics of the CD artwork, this album is a work of quality from start to finish and it gets better with repeat listening. Sia's live show was one of the highlights of SXSW (follow link to see photos), and the new songs worked perfectly in the context of live performance alongside her older more familiar tunes, which is a further testament to the quality of Some People Have Real Problems.
5. Duffy - Rockferry (Mercury)
Listen to "Rockferry"
More Than Just the Girl of the Moment: It's something of a mystery how exactly one becomes the next British "It Girl" (I'm not sure K.T. Tunstall or Lily Allen even know), but this year we have two, Duffy and Adele, and if this were a top six list, Adele's 19would be next. If you haven't heard these two fine singer-songwriters, disregard anything you read that calls them "the next Amy Winehouse"; they each have large musical talent that will not likely be outweighed by self-destruction in public anytime soon.
Dusty Springfield is mentioned most often as a reference point for Duffy, and that's an easy but apt media target, considering Duffy's look and the sensibility of sixties soul/pop that permeates her songs. But as great a singer and an interpreter as Dusty was, she wasn't a songwriter. Duffy co-wrote all but two of the songs on Rockferry,and from listening to her interviewed, it seems that she is a very driven songwriter, even in a collaborative setting. With Rockferryshe has made a most impressive debut. Duffy's performance at SXSW was another one of the highlights of the festival (follow link to photos).
Best New Artists, at the Half:
................Shayna Zaid ...................................Annekei
Hold Two Spots in the Top Ten: The two best new artists I've heard in the past year, Annekei and Shayna Zaid are both currently recording the songs that have been delighting audiences at Rockwood and the Living Room. Based on what I've already heard, there will need to be a spot waiting for each of them on the top ten, when these songs finally make it to CD.
Interestingly, these CDs will mark the U.S. debut for each, even though they both already have successful careers in Asia, three CDs for Annekei in Japan and Korea, and two for Shayna including number one singles in her native Malaysia. This is some majorly exciting and hugely enjoyable music from two amazingly talented artists. There's nothing better than when music totally grabs you by the heart and won't let go and these two artists can do exactly that.
More 2008 Releases with Top Ten Potential:
Adele - 19
Priscilla Ahn - A Good Day
Jessie Baylin - Firesight
Walter Becker - Circus Money
Olivia Broadfield - Eyes Wide Open
Solomon Burke - Like a Fire
Coldpaly - Viva La Vida
Coryell Auger Sample Trio - CAST!
Brian Culbertson - Bringing Back the Funk
Tina Dico - Count to Ten
Julia Fordham - China Blue
Goldfrapp - Seventh Tree
Al Green - Lay It Down
Shannon Haley - Someday Soon
The Hooters - Time Stand Still
James Hunter - The Hard Way
Sonny Landreth - From the Reach
k.d. lang - Watershed
Greg Laswell - Three Flights from Alto Nido
Leona Lewis - Spirit
Sharon Little - Perfect Time for a Breakdown
Kathy Mattea - Coal
Hilary McCrae - Through These Walls
Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim
Tift Merritt - Another Country
Marcus Miller - Marcus
Carrie Newcomer - The Geography of Light
Pacifika - Asunción
Beth Rowley - Little Dreamer
Venissa Santi - Bienvenida
Ryan Scott - Smoke & Licorice
Anna Ternheim - Halfway to Five Points
The Watson Twins - Fire Songs
The Weepies - Hideaway
Steve Winwood - Nine Lives
Great Advance Previews on These:
Annekei & Jack Lee - Letter (Import, Korea)
Susan Enan - Debut Album
Rebecca Martin - The Growing Season
Mutlu - Livin' It
Jacqui Naylor - You Don't Know JACQ
Joan Osborne - Little Wild One
David Sanborn - Here and Gone
Sharleen Spiteri - Melody
Natalie Walker - With You