The first question is this: what makes an album "singer-songwriter" in the first place? The answer: uh, you know. Guy or girl playing songs they wrote on a guitar, or a piano I guess. Limited accompaniment. Generally acoustic. And of course a hearty dash of je ne sais pas! These guidelines, of course, are arbitrary and vague. Where does one draw the line? By these measures, Elliott Smith stepped out of consideration around the time of Figure 8. But he was still a singer-songwriter, wasn't he?
Here's the simple answer: within the walls of this blog, an album is singer-songwriter if I say it is. Moving on!
I've never had trouble singling a singer-songwriter album out as the best of its class. Back in 2007, it was rookie Fionn Regan and his lovely LP End of History. I even wrote a review of it! (Once upon a time, I actually planned on writing reviews steadily for this site. Naive!) The next year, Sun Kil Moon edged out Conor Oberst for the top spot. Note that neither of these albums embody the guidelines I previously suggested. Please follow this link to register complaints.
In 2009, we saw the unprecedented achievement of the best singer-songwriter album also topping the general best of the year list. That was Cass McCombs' Catacombs, a beautifully understated effort that lived in my car stereo most of the summer. Last year, full bands offered me far more material of interest, but The Tallest Man On Earth's The Wild Hunt was still among the year's best.
We're over halfway through 2011, and a few solid contenders have emerged with more still on the horizon. So far, Gillian Welch is the gal to beat. The Harrow and the Harvest was our second favorite album mid-year. Kurt Vile's Smoke Ring For My Halo wasn't far behind. Those albums sandwiched Iron and Wine on the list, but I can't consider the present-day iteration of Sam's project "singer-songwriter." Not since before The Shepherd's Dog has Iron and Wine resembled a singer-songwriter act, and I'm sure you'd agree. The same goes for Bon Iver's new album. The band around Justin Vernon has validated its presence. You could say the same for Toro y Moi, although it'd be hard to consider an electronic bedroom producer a singer-songwriter in the first place.
Richard Buckner's new album, Our Blood, dropped recently. It's beautiful, brooding and dark, featuring Buckner's trademark rich baritone over strikingly simple progressions. Look for it to factor in come year's end. I mentioned Fionn Regan earlier: his third album just dropped (I actually never heard his sophomore effort.) Only one listen in, but I like what I heard. His vocals remind me of 29-era Ryan Adams, which I would consider an asset.
Speaking of Adams, the wait is over: his first solo album since 29 drops in October. It's called Ashes and Fire, and early chatter is that it's something of a return to form for a guy who, frankly, hasn't released much worthy material in half a decade. Another upcoming album was announced just today: Cass McCombs will release his second LP of the year in November, Humor Risk. I could never quite get over the hump with Wit's End, so Cass will have a second chance in 2011 to build on the success of Catacombs.
The competition is stiff this year, and that's a welcomed situation. At any given time, a million singer-songwriters shoving their latest heartbreak ballad down your throat. Hell, I'm one of them. It's easy (and often warrantable) to write these guys and girls off as more of the same. But there are those that do it a tick (or a league) better than all the rest, and they're the ones who deserve a listen.
In other pressing singer-songwriter news, Gavin DeGraw got his ass kicked.