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Heather's Essential Music

My Essential Music’ is a new feature on the FRVPLD blog, continuing our prior exploration of staff favorites, 'My Essential Books.' We'll talk up our favorite music in the hope that you may give these artists a chance, or at least appreciate our passion for the music that has made us who we are.

Photo by spDuchamp, flickr user.

As a life-long music geek, I thought compiling my favorite albums would be much easier than picking out my favorite books.  However, when I started thinking about it, my list kept on growing and growing.  Do I go the nostalgia route and list the albums that influenced me growing up?  This includes a mixture of the Cure, glam rock, and classic Pink Floyd.  Surprisingly, I did not grow up in the 70s. 

Or do I plug the obvious: I’m an obsessive fan of little known folk artists Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.  Perhaps you heard of them?  Blood on the Tracks and Graceland are definitely among my essential listens. 

So I decided to focus on my favorite genre of late--sad lady folk music.  Some of these albums I’ve loved since my angst-ridden teen years, others I just discovered in my thirty-something disquietude:

Joni Mitchell- Blue 

Looking for an album to break your heart?  Check out Joni Mitchell’s forever classic Blue.  I first fell in love with the album when I was a nerdy 15 year-old.  I lacked the life experience to understand its themes.  I was even still too young to have had my heart properly broken, let alone understand the pain and guilt of giving a child up to adoption, living through a failed marriage, or coping with depression. 

Joni is pretty much the paradigm of what sad lady folk music should sound like by my standards.  Her lyrics are thoughtful and still relevant today, though some of the terminology is a little dated. For instance, I would never refer to a former beau as a “mean old daddy,” but the sentiment sticks.  Joni is also a phenomenal singer and guitar player.  You can very easily feel the “blue” mood of the album wash over you from the music. But the album does have its upbeat moments on songs like “Carey,” “California,” and “A Case of You.”  Blue documents the ups and downs of falling in love, and the fragility of basing your happiness on your partner.    

My Favorite Track:  “The Last Time I Saw Richard”-which shows the contrasting views of Joni and her ex-lover (or husband) on the integrity of being an artist rather than selling out. 

Cat Power- Moon Pix

Though I’ve been aware of Cat Power for a long time, I wasn’t really a fan until recently.  This was mostly because I choose the wrong albums to start with, including her super minimalist early albums like Myra Lee or her more accessible, but a little meh, album Sun.  A year or so ago, I checked out Moon Pix from the library during a dreary patch of winter.  It proved to be a perfect soundtrack for my mood and I played obsessively in my car for several months, until it became sunny enough for me to long for something more upbeat. 

Moon Pix is probably one of the bleakest Cat Power albums (which is saying something); the album is spare and haunted sounding.  I definitely recommend it to anyone who may be new to Chan Marshall’s brand of genius. 

My Favorite Track:  “Metal Heart”


Sharon Van Etten- Because I Was In Love

It’s near impossible for me to choose a favorite SVE album because they all have particular tracks that I adore on them.  “Love More” on Epic, “Give Out” and “Serpents” on Tramp, “Tarifa” and “Every Time the Sun Comes Up” on Are We There are among them.  Yes, SVE is awesome!  I went with her earliest album because it’s the least known and most stripped down effort by her.  The whole album is pretty much just her voice and acoustic guitar.  Written in the wake of a terrible relationship, Because I Was in Love is full of post-love angst and tumult.  Most of the lyrics are sung to an audience of one; an unnamed “you.” 

My Favorite Track:  “Tornado”- a heartbreaking listen that demonstrates the emotional turmoil and self-destructiveness a toxic partner can stir up: “You’re the reason I’m a force/ And when you knew/ You were to feel worse/ I’m a tornado/ You are the dust/ You’re all around and your inside” 


Joanna Newsom- Have One on Me

From her occasionally squeaky high-pitched vocals, to her lengthy songs (frequently running past the 10 minute mark), to her densely packed lyrics speckled with arcane language and references; Joanna Newsom is definitely an acquired taste.  That being said, this triple album somehow manages to be her most accessible work, at least for me.  This is partly because it functions as a break up album, marking her split with indie rock lothario Bill Callahan.   So while I might not be able to fully understand Newsom’s references to obscure historical figures like German dancer Lola Montez, I can easily comprehend the emotions behind the album.  In fact, Have One on Me is probably the break up album that hits most closely to home for me.

That being said, the album is not merely a “break up” album, but a huge musical achievement.  The album clocks in at just over two hours, though it’s spread out among three discs allowing to the listener to enjoy the album in smaller, more digestible chunks.  Newsom’s songs are influenced by both folk and gospel.  Mood of the songs range from the joyous “Good Intentions Paving Company” to the dark “Go Long,” but it is definitely not a depressing listen overall.

My Favorite Track:  I’m cheating for this one and choosing three songs that are interconnected: “Easy,” “In California,” and “Does Not Suffice”- these songs trace the arc of a relationship from early idealism, to a rocky middle, and finally the end, packing up a house after a break-up:  “The tap of hangers swaying in the closet/ Unburdened hooks and empty drawers/ And everywhere I tried to love you/ Is yours again and only yours.”  

Laura Marling- Short Movie

Laura Marling is a fantastic British folkie that everyone should check out (unless, you know, you only listen to death metal or whatever).  I wrote about her excellent new album on this blog before, but wanted to fan girl again by highlighting her spectacular 2015 record Short Movie.  Though the album has a folk sensibility, Marling primarily uses electronic guitar, giving the sound a rock edge to it.   Written after a period of moving to Los Angeles and soul searching, Short Movie has its share of mid-twenty something angst.  “Is it still okay that I don’t know how to be alone?” Marling asks on “False Hope,” about a panic attack during a NYC blackout. 

One of the things I really related to in Marling’s lyrics is her fiercely independent, cat-like nature.  She constantly struggles with the idea of giving up any independence to be in a relationship, whether romantic or platonic.  A conflict played out both on “Warrior” (about a horse refusing to go into battle with a would be knight) and “Strange” where Marling rejects the advances of a married man, not because he married, but because she doesn’t want to be tied down: “But should you fall in love with me/ your love becomes my responsibility/ and I can never do you wrong/ Do you know how hard that is?” 

My Favorite Track:  “Walk Alone,” which has Marling confronting a former partner who accuses her of being incapable of feeling love.  It also shows her conflicting feeling towards relationships: “I was doing fine without it/ Now I can’t walk alone.”   

Julie Byrne- Not Even Happiness

I have to thank Pandora for introducing me to Julie Byrne.  I went through a period of obsessively listening to the Angel Olsen station because it had the best mix of artists that I didn’t need to skip over (Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros, I’m looking at you).  Usually, I’m happy just to tolerate songs on a station, but once I heard Julie Byrne’s song “Prism Song,” I became officially obsessed.  Byrne has two full length albums, but her first album, Rooms with Walls and Windows is harder to get a hold of.  While her first album has several excellent standalone songs on it, Not Even Happiness works better as an album and is by far my favorite of the two.    

Byrne has a phenomenal singing voice; a mixture of an on-key Nico with latter day Joni.  Much of the album is consists of just her vocals and acoustic guitar filtered through reverb.  It gives the album an intimate and warm sound to it.  It’s a quick listen at just 33 minutes long. Throughout the album, Byrne wrestles with autonomy in relationships (“I’ve been called heartbreaker/ For doing justice to my own,” she croons on opener “Follow My Voice”) as well as her chosen life of being an artist constantly on a road. 

My Favorite Track:  “Sleepwalker” is a love song, but one also rooted in living an otherwise solitary and nomadic life: “I lived my life alone before you/ And with those that I’d never succeeded to love/ And I grew so accustomed to that kind of solitude/ I fought you, I did not know how to give it up.”

Angel Olsen- Burn Your Fire for No Witness

Olsen’s music has a timeless quality to it; this album channels 90s Nirvana-style grunge, 60s psychedelic garage rock, and the gloomy stylings of Leonard Cohen.  Olsen is accompanied by a full band on the album, and her style skirts the line between rock and folk.  She has a gorgeous voice that conjures rage as well as sadness, complementing the album’s themes.  Lyrically, the album focuses on living with life’s hardships- disappointment, heartbreak, and loneliness.  However, the album has an inspirational quality to it, as Olsen seems to largely find peace and beauty within the darkness. 

My Favorite Track: The spare but powerful “White Fire,” from which the album gets its name: “If you got some light in you/ Go before it’s gone/ Burn your fire for no witness/ It’s the only way it’s done.”