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The 25 Best Singer-Songwriters Currently Working

List Of The Day

Conor Oberst, Mr. Bright Eyes to most of you, made my select list of 'Most Annoying Singers' and now he's back to taunt me with his new solo album. I know he didn't make it specifically to get under my skin and if I decide to listen to it, maybe I'll like it. It's happened before. But for now, he's not making this list.

Picking the future stars of tomorrow has never been my strong suit. I pick losers. Seriously, want to sell very few albums? Make a record I would like. I thought the Arcade Fire were a waste of time. I heard the Strokes and said "So what?" Vampire Weekend sounded like a bad joke. The Dave Matthews Band would never catch on. I heard all these acts before their albums were released and I was WRONG.

But there is a weird plural minority that agrees with me, who share my interests, who buy albums based on my recommendation and still talk to me. We aren't many, but we are strong! 

My criteria here was a little weird. You could be old but not too old. You had to be active, but you might not have made an album in some time. You could be pop, but you couldn't be too pop. Or you could be. I even thought of putting Sheryl Crow on the list just so people would know who I was talking about. But in the end, I stuck to these relatively unsuccessful people. Why? Because I like them. Because their records interest me. Because I could.

Are they up and coming? Sure, if you don't mind that some of them have been around for DECADES!

25) Jarvis Cocker: As the main guy in Pulp, it was only a matter of time before he exploited his solo identity. When you write the songs that make all of England cry, you eventually aim to keep all the money. He likes to sing of class consciousness and politics and he's getting older in an industry that doesn't like its pop stars to get old. The man's a rebel.

24) Tori Amos: She lost the Kate Bush routine years ago and has since become one of the weirdest piano playing concept-album recording chanteuses in the business. I think she's been improving over the years, or I'm learning how to listen, which is apparently in a large chair with fluffy pillows, a lyric sheet and headphones. From there, it's like a trip to the other side.

23) Ray LaMontagne: He's got a third album coming soon. Gossip In The Grain starts off as if LaMontagne's going to rock but then he soon retreats to his usual quiet ballads and dreamy musings that probably sound pretty alive to people in Maine.

22) John Frusciante: As the guitarist in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, he's stuck in line behind a bunch of real showoffs. On his own, he gets weird and jammy, playing Krautrock and psychedelic pop with a free hand. Has released more albums and EPs than the Chili Peppers proper and continues to find new noises and should ditch his main gig but the money's probably too good to pass up.

21) Damien Jurado: Has a new album called Caught In The Trees coming out soon and once again he writes the songs that other songwriters don't. Juradomania may never catch on as it should, however, this Seattle-based dude continues to write about bloody murder and bad, bad people with a sincerity that's more Southern Gothic than any post-ironic hipster spin.

20) Antony (And The Johnsons): Antony has a voice that makes you very nervous. Nervous for him. Nervous for the human condition. He sounds like he's about to break down and that he is too gentle for this world. Too broken. Waiting for his next album is turning into a Godot sighting. Don't hold your breath. Unless you're David Blaine.

19) Liz Durrett: Liz debuted as Athens, Georgia' Vic Chesnutt's niece, at a not legal age playing her stringed instrument behind her irascible uncle. Now, she's all grown up and releasing albums on her own. Outside Our Gates comes out in September and it's in sepia-tone!

18) John Darnielle (Mountain Goats): If anyone might qualify for the modern day Randy Newman Award for most songs written by unreliable narrators, it might be this gentleman. He's written some pretty amazing tunes from a point of view that is clearly not his own. Unless he really is an old, drunk couple living in Florida staring at one another and half-hating each other's existence. In which case, he needs some new photos.

17) Jason Molina (Magnolia Electric Co.): Jason has a penchant for choosing band names that just don't stick. Would you name your band Songs: Ohia and then follow that up with Magnolia Electric Company? One's as bad as the other. But Molina can write songs with two chords that accomplish more than people who know three chords. And he does so with a voice that either encourages you to leave the room or stick around because you also love Neil Young and know there's something about a guy who sounds like he died on the side of the highway.

16) Gillian Welch: I've heard all kinds of complaints from people that she isn't actually from Appalachia and that she's inauthentic. Lead Belly didn't like performing in prison garb but those Lomax brothers thought it was a great marketing tool. Fact is, of all the many alt.country folk who keep showing up to shovel the coal, Welch is one of the few who gets it done wearing sensible shoes and really ingesting the deadly fumes.

15) Fiona Apple: Everything she does kind of sounds the same after awhile. But it's just off-speed enough to make me want to hear it. She plays the piano like she's angry at the world and she sings with a voice much deeper than you'd ever expect coming out of such a slight person. She'd beat the hell out of me if she could find me. But I'm hiding out at my mom's.

14) Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy, Palace): By the time you read this, there's a good chance Will Oldham will have adopted another stage name and acted in another movie where he says about fifteen words. He's an odd communicator and some of his music is flat out horrible. But that's partly because he takes risks. He challenges himself and others on what a song can consist of. And that Johnny Cash version of "I See A Darkness" is worth its weight in whatever we weigh things now with the sinking dollar.

13) Sam Beam (Iron And Wine): Man has a nice beard. And though I think sometimes he gets a little too fancy for my tastes, when he nails he it he's as melodic as they come. Just about all of Our Endless Numbered Days is worth taking home and humming and if I had had the chance, I wished I could've taken a film course with him back when he was teaching college.

12) Lucinda Williams: Lucinda's been around forever. She finally brought through in 1998 with an album she recorded three times. Car Wheels On A Gravel Road was a very good album. And every record she's made since then has been haunted by that fact. She sometimes sounds like she's parodying her own sound. But then she'll write something like "Fancy Funeral" and you realize no amount of anti-depressants can stop this woman.

11) Bjork: I have a thing for weird Icelandic women. Well, Bjork is the only one I know. So maybe it's not what I think it is. Who would have thought back when she debuted with the Sugarcubes that anyone would still hear of her two decades later? And that she'd have a boxed set that looks so "important" sitting on my shelf. Life is weird, man.

10) Ron Sexsmith: Some people around here think he sounds too much like Tim Hardin. But how can you sound like too much of a good thing? That would be like saying that a dessert like "Death By Chocolate" is too much chocolate, when there clearly is no such thing. No, Sexsmith is Canadian and that's where people are afraid. They know it's just a matter of time before they smash through our borders and make us listen to this music whether we want to or not. Me? I joined the Canadian Mounties a long time ago and got that cool hat for my troubles.

9) David Berkeley: A household name at his parents' house for sure. Allegedly, he has a third album in the can just waiting to be released. I don't know what the hold-up is but if you judge the man's record based on his previous two albums, The Confluence and After The Wrecking Ships then you're as annoyed as I am about having to wait. This isn't Heinz Ketchup here people. We need more great songwriting and we need it now. Now? NOW!

8) Frida Hyvonen: Ah, Frida from Sweden where lots of notable singer-songwriters are suddenly coming from. She's taking too long to make the official follow-up to her 2005 album Until Death Comes but then I'm sure she has her reasons. As the Animals once said, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good, oh lord, why must I be misunderstood?" And the lord said, "I burn down your cities...blah, blah, blah.."

7) Mia Doi Todd: Todd sings in a voice that sounds so cultured that you can practically smell the graduate degree. But just because she's better and more refined that you are is no reason to hate her. Hate her because she writes better songs than you do. Listen to Gea or The Golden State and see if it isn't true. If it isn't, go directly to your nearest record company and demand a recording contract. You deserve it.

6) Robert Forster: Forster was in a band called the Go Betweens who were pretty swell considering they were from Australia, a country that may or may not exist. (It's a "Southern Hemisphere" thing). But then Forster went solo and regrouped his group, but then his buddy and partner Grant McLennan died and he was forced to go solo again. Not exactly the reason anyone wants to go solo, but if life gives you lemons, you make a solo album.

5) Nick Cave (And The Bad Seeds): Cave indulges in the "dark arts," that is he sings like he's ditchdigging for a living. Cave could sing Happy Birthday and make it sound grim. 'Oh, no, not your birthday! Anything but that.' Opinions differ on which of his albums best represent him. That happens when you make over a dozen and pretty much watch your fanbase turn over as they get married and send their younger brothers and sisters to your shows while you prep the kids for their eventual induction into the cult.

4) Isobel Campbell: Whether she's keeping Mark Lanegan in line, or working on her own dreampop, Isobel has one of those voices that sounds like it should've happened back in the 1960s. As if a voice could belong exclusively to an era. Maybe it can.

3) Patty Griffin: Griffin is a songwriter where I can tell she's sad before I even read the lyric sheet. She emits sorrow the way a basketball player emits sweat. And then you get a hold of the lyric sheet, it's like Townes Van Zandt and Paul Westerberg got together and decided to hold a swinging party.

2) Mark Oliver Everett (Eels): His father discovered Quantum Physics and he writes songs. You know which I think is more valuable. You don't see me writing for Science Digest or whatever it is that those science people read. I don't like science. It's smarter than I am and completely wrecked my GPA when I was in high school and in college. However, listening to albums by Eels have made me a better person--or at least have kept me quiet for long periods of time. Which my friends are very thankful for. "Why don't he just shut up?"

1) Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon): Once the leader of Red House Painters, now the leader of Sun Kil Moon, this cult leader may never attain the true status of superstar if only because he likes to mumble as much as he likes to play his guitar real loud. And he isn't one for people pleasing. He writes what he feels and if you understand then isn't that just great. Otherwise, you can move along. This sticking-to-the-plan stubbornness has led him to write very long songs that cause people to wonder about why their own lives are such a mess. I know why mine is. It's because I refuse to clean up after myself. Too much trouble. The dust likes me.

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