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Date: 1968 (recording)
Release: Capitol #11362
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“And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love;
And these black bodies and this sunburnt face
Is but a cloud, and like a shady grove.
For when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear,
The cloud will vanish; we shall hear his voice.”

William Blake, SONGS OF INNOCENCE

Award-winning composer, arranger and producer, David Axlerod was responsible for a number of great jazz, rock, funk, and soul albums made by Cannonball Adderley, the Electric Prunes, Lou Rawls and others for Capitol Records during the ’60 and ‘70s. For his own self-produced recordings, Axlerod developed an original sound that innovatively combined large-scale orchestration with loudly microphoned and heavily effected drum grooves. After almost three decades of neglect, his early solo records were rediscovered and sampled by such electronica figures as DJ Shadow, DJ Cam and DJ Honda, putting Axlerod and his music back on the map.

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Date: September 1998
Release: MATADOR # 311
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After two stunning albums and a string of strong EPs, word of mouth ravings had elevated Belle & Sebastian to the deserved status of cult icons. Despite high expectations, fans and critics have every right to be shocked by the higher brilliance achieved by the Scottish septet on their third album, The Boy With The Arab Strap. From the ecstatic “Dirty Dream No. 2″ to the Smith’s-like elegance of “It Could Have Been A Brilliant Career,” leader Stuart Murdoch’s potent mixture of kitch, yearning, innocence, and wit has never been more fully realized. These are fascinatingly catchy songs of the gentlest texture, resonating with delicate vocals and lush melodies of incomparable depth and power. Fellow members Isobel Campbell and guitarist Stuart Jackson are thankfully given room to make their own memorable contributions on three of the albums tracks.

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Date: 2006
Release: Light in the Attic #018
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It has been an angry week. Most music will do for soothing the more banal stresses of work and relationships, but these early months of ’07–with their pre-election madness, shooting madness, war madness–calls for something explosive, emotional and flat-out enraged. I pulled The Black Angels‘ 2006 release Passover off the shelf and have since had it on repeat to let it all out.

Formed in 2004 in Austin, Texas, the Angels rock a heavy mix of Velvet Underground moodiness, layered percussion and politically charged lyrics. With song titles like “Young Men Dead,” “Black Grease,” “Bloodhounds on My Trail,” and “Call to Arms” (all standouts), the band delves into some serious shit. But what could be a tedious exercise in self-righteousness instead becomes passionate, cathartic rock ‘n’ roll.

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Date: 1971
Release: Virgin #21899
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Eleven finely crafted songs from Bowie’s short-lived long-haired days. This album, with its breakthrough hit “Changes,” represents the closest thing that this musical chameleon ever came to fitting somewhere within the singer-songwriter tradition. It features clear and deliberate nods in the direction of Neil Young and Bob Dylan, as is obvious on “Song for Bob Dylan.” Still, this album was by no means derivative or one dimensional in sound and vision. “Andy Warhol” is a classic example of the arty-weirdness that Bowie would further explore in his groundbreaking collaborations with Brian Eno later in the decade. “Eight Line Poem” and “Quicksand” are crammed full of impossible to grasp lyrics of unmistakable genius. Glam is given a pre-punk make-over in “Queen Bitch,” a hard-edged epic vaguely about a femme-fatale transvestite, while homosexuality itself is practically paraded out of the closet in “Oh! You Pretty Things.”

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Date: 1994
Release: Columbia
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If Grace (and Jeff Buckley‘s premature death, for that matter) teaches us one lesson, it’s that music has the boundless potential to impassion performers and listeners alike! Buckley’s career as a solo artist started back in the early ’90s in New York’s smaller clubs and coffee houses. Word of his diverse and captivating performances—in which he deftly peppered sets of his own songs with those from artists as distinct as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and MC5—buzzed about town, garnering him an avid enough following to support the release of his solo EP Live at Sin E in 1993.

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Date: 1969
Release: Columbia #65150
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Fans of the Byrds’ psychedelic brand of folk-rock were left baffled by the band’s sudden about face in the direction of country music on Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Many wondered how the same band that recorded the ’60s drug anthem “Eight Miles High” could suddenly end up singing “I Love The Christian Life” without any hint of sarcasm. Even the 1968 radio ad promoting the record features a disbelieving fan insisting, “Naw, that ain’t the Byrds,” after hearing only a few song snippets. Ahead of its time, Sweetheart of the Rodeo was a groundbreaking act of rebellion away from the classic rock sound of its day, entirely different from anything the Byrds (or anyone else) had recorded before.

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jjcale-really

Date: 1972
Release: POLYGRAM #810314
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Laid-back, Southern-tinged, white-boy groove music from the early 70s. Cale is best known for having penned a string of hits covered by Eric Clapton, including “Cocaine” and “After Midnight.” His own recordings have largely been overlooked and forgotten. This album captures Cale in his most creative period, and reveals why his obscure sound is so often imitated by those in the know.

Really flows like an album should, with its own distinctly mellow vibe. This is music perfect for creaky old porches, rocking chairs, and hound dogs. The band shuffles along with a grooving country-blues edge that defines Cale’s unmistakable sound. His nimble guitar playing and mumbled singing style blend soulfully together on such songs as “I’ll Kiss the World Goodbye” and “Right Down Here.”

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Date: 2000
Release: MATADOR OLE 426-2
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Like the blues itself, Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) is a soulful product of the Deep South. Her voice is charged with aching strains of gospel, soul, blues, and country-folk. The Covers Record is her quiet storm, a stripped down affair, featuring nothing more than her captivating voice coupled with a lone piano or guitar. Without any contrived nostalgia, her covers of mostly contemporary songs sound as if they could have come from Alan Lomax‘s Great Depression field recordings.

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Date: February 15, 2005 (release)
Release: Nettwerk #30414
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Aside from the occasional Air song, I don’t consider contemporary French music worth the effort. You can spend unreasonable amounts of time wading through stacks of mindless hip-hop or slick and unsoulful pop in order to find the very few hidden gems of the French music scene. That said, you can imagine my surprise at uncovering such talents as Benjamin Biolay, Keren Ann, Carla Bruni and Coralie Clément all within the space of a year.

The last mademoiselle remains my true favorite of the bunch.  Fans and detractors alike cite her whispery voice that can give instant mood to whatever song she sings as the key to her sound.  The sexy then twenty-one-year-old first used it to near perfection in “Salle des Pas Perdus”, a jazzy, bossa nova inflected album of sweet, wistful songs that make for perfect listening as you sip your Friday evening apéro.

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Date: 2001 (release)
Release: Merge #487
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One of my favorite “Sixties” bands, the Clientele didn’t even cut a record until three decades after the passing of the Summer of Love. With a vintage sound almost entirely outside of contemporary music, the Clientele’s exquisite pop conjures up a pastoral age of hazy psychedelic dreamscapes splashed with soft sunshine, swirling leaves, hopeful longings, and just a little bit of rain. Even if you were born too late, their wistfully nostalgic melodies will lull your mental clock into believing it’s 1968 again.

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