Thursday, September 22, 2011
WXPN's 885 Countdown 2011 - Twenty Years of the World Cafe
World Cafe Host David Dye (photo courtesy of WXPN)
This fall WXPN and the World Cafe program celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the show. Produced at WXPN, World Cafe is a nationally syndicated radio show that reaches over 200 radio stations on the NPR network. David Dye conceived the show and has been the on-air host for all of its twenty years. Every day the World Cafe presents two hours of eclectic music that stretches over all musical genres with a concentration on new releases and new upcoming artists. Part of every show is a guest segment lasting anywhere from twenty minutes to an hour, featuring an interview and live performance by the guest.
Every year since 2004 when WXPN moved into their current building, they have done a listener survey and played back the results in the form of a countdown of the 885 best whatever; it started with best songs and since then they've done albums, artists, musical moments, and others. Last year the countdown was the best all time road trip songs which was lots of fun. This year it's the 885 favorite World Cafe artists. Over 4,000 artists have appeared on the program in its twenty years and if you read the abridged list on the XPN website, you'll see that the array of talent is truly amazing.
Every year the listeners are asked to submit a list of their top ten. In this case, I could easily come up with a dozen different lists of favorite artists. I could just as easily come up with another dozen concepts for lists like best country artists, best female singer-songwriters, best rock bands and so forth. I decided that the artists who currently get played a lot on XPN will get plenty of votes and I have not included them in my list, with one notable exception. I decided to restrict my picks to mostly sentimental favorites who seldom or never get played on XPN. My reasons are detailed below in my annotated list. The on-air countdown of the 885 favorite World Cafe artists begins Monday.
1. Del Amitri
Del Amitri came out of Scotland with a straight ahead fresh sound of acoustic and electric guitars, great songwriting and strong vocals. Between 1985 and 2002 they made six excellent albums. Although they had lots of singles success in the U.K., they never caught on commercially in the U.S., but they did develop a small but fiercely loyal following in this country. Their album Twisted is one of my all time top ten favorites.
When their last album came out in England, it didn't sell like the record company expected (it never even came out in the U.S.) they and their record company mutually decided to part ways and the group disbanded. They still get played occasionally on XPN, you may hear Always the Last to Know or Be My Downfall which brightens up the airwaves quite nicely. World Cafe will even break out Driving With the Brakes On sometimes which is about the best love song I ever heard about a dysfunctional relationship.
2. Once Blue
The Once Blue album also resides in my all time top ten. It's a perfect album of exquisite songs, so well sung, played, and produced that it is a delight to listen to, and I still never tire of it. Once Blue was the duo of Rebecca Martin and Jesse Harris. They released their one self-titled album in 1995. They recorded a second album which was never released by their label; after which they went their separate ways.
Jesse went on to work with Norah Jones on her first album; he ultimately won the Song of the Year Grammy Award for writing Norah's breakthrough hit, I Don't Know Why. Rebecca has had an artistically successful solo career by pioneering her own style of singer-songwriter jazz. When Once Blue was first released, the song Stardust and Snow got great airplay on XPN. After that, Once Blue could occasionally be heard on Sleepy Hollow.
3. Norah Jones
Norah Jones has been an XPN favorite ever since her first album came out in 2002. So why does she find herself at number three on this list? The very first time I ever heard Norah Jones was on the World Cafe program, many months before that first album. One of the best things about the World Cafe is that it's adventurous enough to play an artist sometimes before the artist ever makes a record. As you look through the list of artists that have appeared on the World Cafe, you will see many that have rarely or never make the XPN playlist.
Discovering Norah so long before her first album was cool for a number of reasons. I was able to go to her website and order an EP which had some early tracks from her first album. Listening to it gave a nice preview of what was to come; plus it became a valuable collector's item when she hit big. The other reason is that I had the opportunity to see her play in a small New York club before her massive success lifted her up to only perform in theaters and concert halls.
4. Peter Wolf
Peter Wolf could be heard frequently on XPN during 2010 as his duet with Shelby Lynne from his seventh solo album, Midnight Souvenirs, got high rotation airplay. The entire album was consistently great and also featured duets with Neko Case and Merle Haggard. But that's not why he's on this list; it's because when he guested on the World Cafe, David spent almost the full hour talking to him and came away with one of the most fascinating interviews I've ever heard. Sure they talked about the making of his latest album and about the recording of those duets. Peter's resume starts with being the all night disc jockey at Boston's WBCN-FM back when BCN was one of the first FM stations in the country to go rock in the late sixties.
From the late sixties to the early eighties he was the lead singer for the J. Geils Band. When they broke up, he began his solo career which is still going strong. One of the coolest parts of the interview was when Peter gave David a guided tour of the jukebox that resides in Peter's living room. He keeps the juke stocked with classic and hard to find gems of old soul, country, and rock and roll. He played a few selections and explained their significance complete with anecdotes about the recordings. Like no one else I've ever heard, Peter knows almost every record from the beginning of recorded music to now; he personally knows an incredible number of artists as well as people in the radio and record businesses. You can hear this interview by following the link at the bottom of this article to the NPR World Cafe archive.
5. Ebba Forsberg
In 1998 Ebba Forsberg, a singer-songwriter from Sweden, released her debut album Been There. The album did fairly well in this country and garnered some airplay on XPN. She was also a World Cafe guest that year. My friend Dave (from Direct Current Music) and I both enjoyed that first album. Fast forward to 2006 and we were having one of those "whatever happened to" conversations when Ebba's name came up. At the time, Dave was a record executive with a major label and he decided to try to look her up in Sweden. This led to some email correspondence with both Ebba and her husband/manager.
This connection led not only to a dinner in New York but to the knowledge that her career as a singer-songwriter continued in her native Sweden with several Swedish language recordings. Most importantly we learned that she still makes an English language album sometimes and in 2006 she made a perfectly wonderful album simply titled Ebba Forsberg. That album placed number three on my list of the top ten albums of the year that year. Sadly, for American audiences no U.S. label would release the record and Ebba has not dented either the XPN playlist or the World Cafe since 1998.
6. Elizabeth Cook
I first heard Elizabeth Cook on the World Cafe in the summer of 2010. David played her song El Camino quite regularly for awhile. After a few weeks, Elizabeth appeared as a World Cafe guest. She played live versions of El Camino and other songs from her latest album, Welder. Musically she is a country singer-songwriter who is just as gifted at writing humorous tunes like El Camino as she is at deadly serious material like Heroin Addict Sister which she also played live on the Cafe. Although she didn't want to confirm it in the interview, she has let it be known that the song is based on her sister.
On the fun side, she also does songs like Yes To Booty, Times Are Tough in Rock 'N Roll, and Sometimes It Takes Balls To Be A Woman. This is clearly a girl with a sense of humor. She's also a great singer and musician. In addition to her music career, she is also a country deejay, hosting Elizabeth Cook’s Apron Strings, weekdays at 10am on Sirius-XM Satellite Radio. Once again the World Cafe came through to give exposure to a great artist that would not otherwise be heard on XPN.
7. Holly Palmer
Holly Palmer made her debut in 1996 with a self-titled album released on Warner Brothers. XPN played her that year and she guested on the World Cafe. Warners even made an MTV video for the single, Different Languages. Holly has experienced the downside of big label business; you are signed to a label, you make an album, by the time your record is finished the person who signed you is no longer with the label and your album fall into label limbo. It's a familiar story that many artists could tell; it happened to Holly more than once with Warners and its subsidiary labels.
Holly now has four terrific albums to her credit, three of them wound up being released on her own label, Bombshell Records. Holly is one of the most evocative singer-songwriters I've ever heard. Her songs can take you places you never imagined going, and she can make you feel emotions that you didn't know you had. Sadly, her last three albums have pretty much flown under the radar of most radio stations, including XPN. She lives in California now and can be seen playing the clubs of the greater Los Angeles area. She used to live in New York and play regularly in the clubs around the Lower East Side. Occasionally, she still comes back to New York to play for her cadre of loyal followers.
8. Tanita Tikaram
Tanita Tikaram has had a remarkable career. Raised in England, Tanita is the daughter of Malaysian and Fijian parents and her songwriting first brought her attention when she was just seventeen and was booked to play in some of London's clubs. She was quickly signed by Warner Brothers who released her debut album Ancient Heart in 1988. She got immediate airplay on XPN with the single, Twist In My Sobriety which became a worldwide hit. It was a lovely album full of great songs.
Over the years she has made a total of seven albums and they all are a little different from each other but all have the really personal and tuneful songs she is so good at writing. There was the second album, The Sweet Keeper, which was even better than the first with not a bad track on it. She's always maintained total artistic control. On her third album, she cut her long hair short and let loose her inner Van Morrison. By the time of her fifth and sixth albums, she was no longer being released in the U.S. Ours was the loss because she had updated her sound and made two really great records.
After The Cappuccino Songs, she was apparently in a position that she didn't need to worry about the record business and she could just live the life she wanted and only record music when the spirit moved her. I read that she had taken up residence in Italy. It was a seven year wait for Sentimental, her seventh and latest album which is the finest one yet. It's now been six more years gone by since then and word has it that a new album is done and will be released before the year is out. She just embarked on an acoustic tour of the UK marking her first live performances in over a decade. Most of her fine career has been overlooked by XPN except that every once in a while I hear Michaela play Twist In My Sobriety. Tanita is a really special artist and a longtime personal favorite.
9. Valerie Carter
Valerie Carter's three and a half albums are among the finest I have ever heard. Her talent has been drastically underutilized when you think that this was her complete recorded output over a 35+ year career. When she was a teenager, she was a member of Howdy Moon, a band that recorded one album before disbanding. That album was significant not only because her composition Cook With Honey was later a minor hit for Judy Collins, but more importantly Lowell George of Little Feat produced the record.
George went on to become Valerie's mentor until his death. He produced her first album in 1977, Just a Stone's Throw Away. That album featured the cream of the L.A. music scene including Jackson Browne, all of Little Feat, and all of Earth, Wind, and Fire. The title track stands as one of the best Little Feat songs ever, with vocals by Valerie. City Lights was one of the best ever EWF songs, again with vocals by Valerie. George wrote about half the tracks on the album, Valerie co-wrote a handful, but all the songs are universally beautiful.
In 1978, she released her second album, Wild Child, which is one of my all time top ten favorites. That album was produced and co-written by James Newton Howard long before he became the go-to composer of film soundtrack music, a position he has held for a long time now. Wild Child was pure pop/rock at its finest. Valerie sang and co-wrote half the album. When CDs replaced vinyl albums, this was my holy grail to find on CD for many years until I finally found a Japanese import one day while perusing a Montreal record shop. It was in 1978 that I got to see Valerie give a great concert performance at Philadelphia's Bijou Cafe.
After Wild Child Valerie disappeared from the music business for a long time; I remember hearing at the time that she had serious medical problems. Happily, she resurfaced in 1996 with her third album, The Way It Is, which was another great record with another serious list of top artists backing her. Mark Goldenberg produced the record which featured several songs co-written by Valerie but most of the album was cover versions of songs by the likes of Neil Young, Van Morrison, Tom Waits, Bill Withers, and Jackson Browne. Since the World Cafe did not exist at the time of her first two albums, I would think that she probably appeared as a guest on the World Cafe in 1996 to promote The Way It Is.
In 1998 an EP, Find a River, was released in Japan only. Also produced by Goldenberg, this was a beautiful record of exquisitely chosen cover songs; she sang Neil Young, Prince, two songs by the Blue Nile, and one from Little Feat. In the nineties, she also did a bit of background singing on several tours by Jackson Browne and James Taylor. There have been no more records, however, several years ago she inexplicably showed up for a month long residency at The Living Room in New York with a great backup band lead by Jerry Marotta on drums. Her voice had not changed and her live set was so good that it sparked hope for a new record. I'm still waiting.
10. The Trashcan Sinatras
I like a lot of Scottish artists. I could easily do an entire top ten list of favorite artists from Scotland. Topping the list would be Del Amitri (above), followed in short order by Texas, The Average White Band, Dougie MacLean, Eddi Reader, and The Trashcan Sinatras. I've been listening to singer-songwriter Eddi Reader for many years. In 2003 she recorded a tribute album to Robert Burns, Scottish poet and songwriter (Auld Lang Syne) who lived in the 1700's. All the songs on the tribute album were by Burns except for one. Eddi explained that the premise of including a song not written by Burns was that it represented how the spirit of Burns comes down through the generations to inspire young songwriters. This song she included was called Wild Mountainside, an incredibly beautifully song that was written by her brother, Frank Reader.
Frank is a founding member of the Trashcan Sinatras. That's how I found my way to the Sinatras. Over their 25+ year career they have produced five brilliant albums of which In The Music is the latest. With no American airplay, at least not in Philadelphia, I was happily surprised to find Philadelphia's Tin Angel completely packed, the two times I've seen them there. The main thing to know about this group is that they write great songs and their records are characterized by lush ear-friendly vocals combined with an instrumental sound that consists of nice clear guitars, both electric and acoustic, mixed with keyboards to make indie pop/rock at its finest.
Tuesday 9/27 Update: The countdown began at 6am yesterday morning. They played from #885 down to #681 and nobody from my list has been played yet. It was a great day of radio with hour after hour of interesting artists that you don't normally hear on the radio.
Wednesday 9/28 Update: On Tuesday they counted down from #680 to #481. Tanita Tikaram came in at #500, and they played I Might Be Crying, good choice. It was another great day of radio with lots of cool songs.
Thursday 9/29 Update: On Wednesday they counted down from #480 to #279. Del Amitri came in at #331 and they played a World Cafe performance of Roll to Me. Peter Wolf placed at #299 with a spin of Tragedy, the Shelby Lynne duet. It was another good day to be listening to the radio.
Friday 9/30 Update: On Thursday they counted down from #278 to #120. No one from my list made the cut but I expect we'll hear from Norah Jones today, pretty high up in the countdown.
End of Countdown Update: On Friday they counted down from #119 to #1. The end of the countdown was appropriately hosted by David Dye in the 4-7pm slot. Nora Jones came in at #53; I would have thought she'd have placed higher. She's the quintessential World Cafe guest, she's been on many times. You can view the entire list at the WXPN 885 countdown website, link below. Number one was Adele which was no surprise, considering the relentless overplay of Adele on XPN ever since 21 was released earlier this year. In fact I think that if you had a list of the ten artists who have received the most airplay on XPN over the past twelve months, it would look exactly like the countdown top ten. I won't draw the conclusion of what that says about the majority of the XPN listeners, but the playback on Friday as the countdown neared completion sounded a whole lot like XPN's normal everyday programming. We at Music and More appreciate the rest of the XPN listenership who were responsible for the last four days of eclectic and amazing radio.
World Cafe Website
World Cafe Archive on NPR Website
WXPN 885 Countdown Website