It’s been a while since I’ve done a roundup of my favourite things, and if there’s anything that can make you a better musician, it’s listening to other musicians. Tom Waits said:
“For a songwriter, you don’t really go to songwriting school; you learn by listening to tunes. And you try to understand them and take them apart and see what they’re made of, and wonder if you can make one, too.”Tom Waits
That sounds weird coming from me because I do go to a songwriting school, but while there are things to be learned at school, the best music education is undoubtedly listening to other people’s albums and learning covers. (For a long time, I rebelled against the idea of learning other people’s songs instead of writing my own, but there is much to be said in favour of it.)
So, here are some of the records that I’ve listened to over and over again until my ears bled:
Dory Previn is a recent discovery of mine. She is honest and direct, though she sometimes masks pain with irony that makes you want to listen twice. She wrote lines such as “You can read the early paper/ And I can watch you while you shave/ Oh God, the mirror’s cracked/ When you leave/ Will you come back?/ You don’t have to answer that at all/ The bathroom door is just across the hall” in ‘The Lady with the Braid’.
She had a tragic life – a childhood with an abusive, mentally unstable father (which culminated in him keeping the whole family hostage for several months) and a failed marriage that ended with Dory being hospitalised. She wrote through it all, and she wrote fearlessly.
There are lots of reasons to love this album. Lyrics is probably not one of them because most of it is gibberish that sounds good without meaning much. But the feeling in the songs is unmatched, and the story behind the album is one of the best since Thoreau’s ‘Walden’. Bon Iver hid out in a cabin in the woods to write this album after a heartbreak and recorded all of the songs with a shabby SM58. The production, the intimate feel of it, the idea of authenticity imbuing the album…a dream of songwriters everywhere.
This album is on every musician’s list, for sure. For me, there is one song that stands out the most, and it’s an interpretation of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Corpus Christi Carol’. Not only the vocal technique is out of this world, but the feeling in the song washes over me and brings me to tears every time. Jeff Buckley didn’t agree about this, but I think he’s one of the best vocalists that has ever lived.
No one grabs me by the throat as Nina Simone does. She internalises the world’s pain and makes grief universal in songs like ‘Mississippi Goddam’ and ‘Sunday in Savannah’. Knowing everything she risked with these songs takes my respect for her to a whole new level, and we’re not even talking about what a legendary pianist she is and how arresting her voice is. On this album, there are also some live recordings, and hearing her talk in between and during her songs is a gift.
Tom Waits transports me to another world with his songs – to some version of a gritty America where feelings are more intense, beer is more bitter, lonely men sit in diners and women always leave. It’s a testament to the great songwriter he is that he can create a whole world out of a couple chords and some poetry. Listen to the whole damn thing, you owe it to Tom Waits and yourself.
I have always loved Lou Reed’s lyrics, and this album is him at his best. When it was released after his successful ‘Transformer’ album, it was dismissed as a commercial flop (not the first one that turned around for Lou Reed). Maybe it was just Lou Reed being ahead of his time because the album is considered a masterpiece now. It follows the story of two lovers – Caroline and Jim, and is filled with drugs, abuse, and general desperation, but it also has some of the best lyrics and imagery thought up by Lou Reed.
This is one of my favourite albums, but that might have a lot to do with the fact that I loved the film for which it was the soundtrack. There is a sense of freedom in the songs. Maybe it’s the careless strumming, the crack in Eddie Vedder’s voice, the lyrics. The album has pulled me through a lot of difficult times with the sense of hope and space it conveys.
Django is one of the most inspiring musicians I’ve ever heard of. After a terrible fire in the caravan he shared with his wife, the Romani-French guitarist suffered severe burns and lost the use of two fingers on his left hand. While doctors didn’t think he’d be able to play again, he persevered, developed his own technique, and became one of the best jazz guitarists of our time.
There shouldn’t be any discussion about this: Carole King is one of the best songwriters in history. And ‘Tapestry’ brought us ‘(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman’ (check out Aretha Franklin singing it while Carole King watches!!), ‘Will You Love Me Tomorrow?’, and ‘It’s Too Late’.
I love albums that feel complete to me, and ‘Uh Huh Her’ feels like a beautiful whole, with seagull sounds, soft songs, hard songs, instrumental bits. It’s also undeniably PJ Harvey. For a songwriter, it’s a lesson in continuity, comprehension, and lyrics such as “When I was younger/ I spent my days/ Wondering to whom/ I was supposed to pray/ It’s you” in ‘It’s You’.
Everybody knows John Coltrane because… well, he’s a genius. But so was his wife. I was introduced to this album by a nerdy musician friend, and I was sold. Where should I start? First of all, she’s a jazz harpist. But she is also a swamini, an ascetic, and this album is heavily influenced by traditional Vedic chants. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever heard, and if you’re interested to find out more about her, I recommend you read this piece about her in ‘The New Yorker’.