On the unique occasions that I listen to contemporary pop radio (usually caused by CPR pledge drives), I'm always struck by the superficiality of the songwriting. The songs aren't always of bad quality, but their priorities lie more with fun, sugary sounds. That's okay, but much like a nutritional diet, balance is key. In case your portion of substantial songwriting is meager, here are ten underappreciated artists just waiting to be discovered at the library.
I go through phases of saturating myself in the canon of older songwriters; Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Nick Drake, Gillian Welch, and Patty Griffin are among my favorites. But I've been fortunate enough to come across great young songwriters of different genres whose words stick with me long after I've turned off the stereo. With binders full of the most atrocious handwritten songs from college as my witness, I know that songwriting is no easy task, but these folks reaffirm my hope that it will continue to be a valuable craft even if they don't receive the recognition (or paycheck) they deserve.
Damien Jurado :: Relentless in his touring and recording, Jurado continues to adapt and develop new sounds and songs. Murder ballads, traveling songs, and unrequited love seem to find their way onto every album, but always with a new spin.
Jason Molina (Songs:Ohia/Magnolia Electric Co.) :: Molina rarely minces words. He at times records with full bands, but his bread and butter songs are dark, sparse, and moving.
Mark Linkous (of Sparklehorse) :: One of my biggest musical regrets is never seeing Sparklehorse before Linkous' death in 2010. I'll always remember hearing his track, Little Fat Baby, on a Grand Rapids local radio station and being in complete confusion and awe of what I'd just heard. Like so many of his songs, it's strangely beautiful and haunting. See selectaroswell's blog post to learn more about his collaboration with Danger Mouse and David Lynch.
Elliott Smith :: Smith reached a limited level of notoriety after earning a 1998 Grammy nod for his songs in Good Will Hunting. His catalog, however, went much further than the heartrending soundtrack to Matt Damon and Minnie Driver's melodramatic love. Like Linkous, Smith's death in 2003 was all too soon.
Joanna Newsom :: Too often people dismiss Newsom as quirky and miss her truly impressive songwriting. I don't know another artist who has combined an alliterative prowess and creative balladry as well as Newsom. If you are offended by shrillness, skip her debut, Milk-Eyed Mender, and try later albums that highlight both her voice and lush harp compositions.
Built to Spill :: For over 20 years, Built to Spill has put out great records and influenced countless bands. Their writing includes everything from the playful to political. My favorite tracks tend toward dreamlike images that typically point toward some poignant piece of the human struggle.
David Bazan (Pedro the Lion) :: For years, Bazan developed a following under the name Pedro the Lion with lyrically forward songs wrestling with spirituality and concept albums focused around hidden hypocrisy. Now, he records under his given name, but his skills and intensity haven't changed.
Mark Kozelek (Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters) :: Kozelek is a man of many talents. Not only does he write lush, acoustic folk songs, but he reimagines other bands' songs (The album, Tiny Cities, is all Modest Mouse covers) and he's a bit of an actor (most notably in Almost Famous as Stillwater's bassist).
Sera Cahoone :: I recently discovered Cahoone's latest Sub Pop release, Deer Creek Canyon, and love it. Come to find out, she's from Littleton (although transplanted to Seattle) and the album title is a reference to her mom's home southwest of Denver.
Robert Ellis :: Ellis is easily the most exciting artist I've been introduced to in the past few years. Playing both folk and honky-tonk country, his songs evoke spirits of Hank Williams and Townes Van Zandt yet written with a unique freshness. There is so much to enjoy on his debut and I'm looking forward to hearing more.
Check out this Spotify playlist* if you'd like to sample these artists.
At DPL, we're always looking for new music recommendations. Who are your favorite underappreciated songwriters?
(*Spotify is a free legal online streaming music service. You need a Spotify or Facebook account to access the playlist.)