Today, 16th October, is National Album Day and this year’s theme is all about celebrating women in music.
With so many influential female artists and producers to pick from, explore the albums we’re revisiting today and why.
Sandy Denny, Gold Dust (1998)
Released 20 years after her passing, this live album was recorded in late November 1977 at what is now the Peacock Theatre on Portugal Street, London. It marked a return to live performance for Denny after a two year absence but sadly was not released during her lifetime due to technical problems with the master tape, and was eventually picked up by a different label with various guitar and backing vocals parts re-recorded.
While this may imply the end product is overly processed, the recording sounds seamless and it’s Denny’s voice and delivery that that make this album so mesmerising. While some say Denny’s soaring vocals aren’t as evident compared to her earlier solo material and that with Fairport Convention, on this album there’s a raw honesty and vulnerability to her voice that’s simply mesmirising.
I’d challenge anyone to listen I’m A Dreamer and The North Star Grassman and not get goosebumps
Björk, Debut (1993)
Hearing Björk’s Debut album for the first time fundamentally changed my understanding of music and the kind of music I now listen to, challenging my imagination and emotions.
This year marks the album’s 25th anniversary and it seems an unfeasibly long time ago since I clearly remember a friend saying, “you have to hear this” back when it was released. Björk’s wide-eyed vocal style along with the album’s kaleidoscope of sounds woke me up and catapulted me into a brand-new world of music. I became transfixed by the magic and brilliance of the Icelandic performer and as I listened to each song’s lyrics for the first time, I was moved to tears when I heard Play Dead. The sheer complexity and scale of the recording still sounds outstanding to me to this day. I am still captivated by Björk’s performances and output but Debut is her album I return to the most and it continuously reminds me of the moment when my music outlook changed forever.
Tori Amos, Little Earthquakes (1991)
Amos’ debut solo album was released at the end of 1991, after an unsuccessful attempt at 80s big hair pop-rock a few years earlier.
Little Earthquakes charts the many facets of womanhood: coming of age, tenderness, changing paternal relationships, love and heartbreak, and sexual assault. The album had five singles released in the UK, Silent All These Years, Me and a Gun, Crucify, Winter and China.
Spare instrumental textures, delicate piano accompaniment, a sparse, often absent, rhythm section, and haunting vocal and string overdubs. The musical content is highly original, set against lyrics that are just as confrontational, if not more so, than that other great 90s feminist tract, Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill.
Sometimes uncomfortably bare in its directness, (“Look I’m standing naked before you, don’t you want more than my sex?”), the album as a whole manages to tread a careful balance between subtlety, confession, directness with well-placed sprinkles of black humour.
Amos trod similar ground with great effect up to and including her seventh release, Scarlets Walk (2002) but I find most of her work since to be less convincing.
Nevertheless, this is a great introduction to this most underrated singer/songwriter.
Amy Winehouse, Frank (2003)
Like many people, I first heard about Amy Winehouse when she released her second album Back to Black with its big hit Rehab which catapulted her into super-stardom and introduced us to one of the most powerful voices and talents of a generation.
After receiving Frank as a birthday present on vinyl I fell in love with it straight away. She was aged just 19 when she released it through Island records and from the start you feel like you’re in one of the small clubs that Amy used to play in early on in her career. A more personable and stripped down album in comparison to the blockbuster follow up, it’s a heady mix of soul, funk and jazz showcasing her talent, even from a young age, as a songwriter and vocal artist, with her attitude, strength and independence evident even then.
Ten years after her death I revisited it and fell in love with it all over again. Songs such as You Sent Me Flying, Fuck Me Pumps and Stronger Than Me stand out, and as an overall piece of work it is the first chapter in an incredible musical story and a way to remember her before the fame and what followed.
Joni Mitchell, Blue (1971)
Joni Mitchell’s career has been something of a journey through personal experience and genre. First came the innocent folky Joni plucking out the thoughtfully melodious sounds on her Clouds and Ladies Of The Canyon albums. Then latterly there was the more sophisticated sounding Mitchell recruiting the cream of the mid-70s folk-rock and jazz rosters to accompany her unique chord structures and 60 a-day deepened tones on follow up albums Court And Spark, Hejira and beyond. Between those two points was the masterpiece that was Blue.
Less of a transition and more a pause to wring out emotional turmoil before moving on, the arrangements remain paired down and simple, but the writing provides a level of life hardened introspection, not seen in her previous work. For example, we find a reflective Mitchell, lamenting a lover who has moved on in life in The Last Time I Saw Richard to reminiscing over the feelings of giving up her baby for adoption in Little Green. Even in more joyful moments she still fears impending loss such when she sings “but when he’s gone the lonesome blues collide, the beds too big, the frying pan is too wide” on My Old Man, masterfully combining the sadness of the experience with its effect on the mundanities of life.
Sparse but not austere, reflective but never sentimental, and as nakedly confessional as any recording in rock’s ever expanding universe, Blue stands the test of time with its relatable and beautifully naked honesty and proves (if proof were needed), that the journey is always more important that the destination.
Gold Dust (Sandy Denny) cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Island Records, or the graphic artist(s), Callt at Antar.
Debut (Björk) cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, One Little Indian, or the graphic artist(s).
Little Earthquakes (Tori Amos) cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Atlantic, or the graphic artist(s).
Frank (Amy Winehouse) cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Island Records, or the graphic artist(s), Michael Nash Associates.
Blue (Joni Mitchell) cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Reprise Records, or the graphic artist(s).