Song of the Day, February 17: Crazy Man Michael by Fairport Convention

fapcollcrazyToday’s song sees a challenge result in a masterpiece. Fairport Convention’s Liege and Lief is best known for pioneering the trad-rock genre. It also includes three smart tracks written by members of the band, songs that capture the traditional folk essence despite their modern composition. One began as a hybrid of the two and emerged as the perfect closer to the disc.

Richard Thompson wrote Crazy Man Michael, a tragic tale of doomed love and dark magic, setting his words to a traditional tune. Fiddler Dave Swarbrick loved the words but thought the tune weakened them. Thompson challenged him to come up with something better, and he rose to the challenge. Composing on piano instead of his usual fiddle, Swarb came up with brooding, haunting tune that suits the lyrics perfectly. The result was one of the handful of Thompson/Swarbrick compositions that mark some of the best of original Fairport.

The band were clearly inspired by the song, turning in one of the tightest performances on the album. Simon Nicol’s acoustic guitar shimmers around Swarb’s magical fiddle lines. Sandy Denny’s vocal is restrained and aching. Daves Mattacks and Pegg support things brilliantly, with a subtle but urgent rhythm. Thompson’s brief turns on electric lead — a solo in the middle and a bright closing figure — provide the perfect note of anguish. The result is a modern song that fits into the traditional settings and a clever closing to a masterful album.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, March 27: Robert’s Desert Island Discs

RBHSJDIDBadgeToday’s entry is something a little different. As I was looking over the almost 200 albums I have featured over the years, I asked myself the question that drives the famous BBC Radio 4 show Desert Island Discs: If I were stranded on an island, which discs would I be sure to have with me?

The task proved more daunting than I imagined, so I established a few guidelines and started over. These parameters made the selection a little bit easier.

  1. Original, legitimate releases only: no bootlegs, re-issues with bonus tracks, or any other chicanery to pad the offerings.
  2. Enjoy every track: If this is all I ever get to listen to, it had better be great. A perfect test case is Rubber Soul: it’s an unquestionably brilliant album, but if I had to listen to Michelle or Girl more than once a month, I’d throw myself into the shark-infested waters.
  3. Balance, balance, balance: I tried to embrace the breadth of my tastes and represent a good cross-section of the artists I love.
  4. When in doubt, favorite artists win: My collection includes several acts represented by one great album. In order to represent the artists whose whole catalogs I appreciate, I dropped the one-only artists. That included the hard decisions to eliminate Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, London Calling, Rumours, Blood On the Tracks, and I Am A Bird Now.
  5. Greatest hits: I pondered banning these as a corallary to rule 1, but decided to take them on their own merits. As it turns out, I didn’t wind up with any of these on the list, although I looked closely at a couple. In the end, rule 2 trumped them.

I set my album allowance at 13. Why that number? I could say that it represents the bad luck of being stranded on a desert island, but honestly trying to get to eight — the BBC number — was maddening. My list, my rules, so if this Gilligan-adjacent experience includes a weatherproof sound system, it has room for 13 discs.

Without further ado, here they are, in the order in which I finalized their placement on the list.

Richard & Linda ThompsonShoot out the LightsHIGH RESOLUTION COVER ARTShoot Out the Lights (1982, Hannibal) Richard & Linda Thompson
Surprising no-one, I’m sure, this was my first choice — brilliant lyrics, stellar playing, solid band, two of my favorite artists on one disc. Harrowing but hopeful, it captures the human spirit better than anything else for me. Linda delivers some of her best vocals and Richard some of his finest solos. If I had to pick 25 songs to take to the island (please, no!), at least four of them would be from this album.

DifferentKindofLoveSongA Different Kind of Love Song (1983, Appleseed) Dick Gaughan
Another easy choice for me, with some of the best protest music ever written. Gaughan is in fine voice and his guitar work is impeccable. It’s a collection of often dark songs with a shining heart beating at its core. The title track sums things up brilliantly, and inspired me to write an essay for Michael’s blog on the importance of looking at the darkness if we want to get to the light.

AbyssiniansAbyssinians (1983, Topic) June Tabor
June Tabor had to be on the list, but picking the album was tricky. This is my favorite by a narrow margin, and includes a stunning cover of a Waterson song, so it won the day. As Elvis Costello has famously observed, if listening to June Tabor’s voice doesn’t move you, give up music. (Bonus fact: She has worked as a librarian and restaurateur, so she covers the bases of my passions nicely…)

Robyn_Hitchcock_-_I_Often_Dream_Of_TrainsI Often Dream of Trains (1984, Hannibal) Robyn Hitchcock
Another artist I had to have on the island, but a tougher choice. The Soft Boys’ Underwater Moonlight and the Egyptians’ Element of Light are co-equal with this disc for me. It came down to the essence of the album. The spare setting of Trains lets Robyn shine through in all his eccentric glory.

LastWordThe Last Word (1992, RNA) Gregson & Collister
Another nice package, with two of my favorites on one album, both at the height of their powers. Clive Gregson’s observations about life and love are timeless, and this set includes a couple of tracks written with Boo Hewerdine, another favorite. Christine Collister has a wonderful voice that sometimes gets over-emphasized on her solo discs. Here, the production is flawless.

MitchellC&SCourt and Spark (1974, Asylum) Joni Mitchell
One of the few commercial successes on my list, it’s a little jazz, a little pop, a little folk, all tied together by the singular talents of Joni Mitchell. It also features her finest vocals, not as airy and bright as her earlier work and not as Cohen-adjacent as her later. All of that, and songs about David Geffen and James Taylor! What could be finer?

Til_Tuesday-Everythings_Different_NowEverything’s Different Now (1988, Epic) ’til tuesday
A sentimental favorite, this is an album I play when I’m feeling lost. It’s a powerful look at relationships and how they go wrong — and right. It landed at just the right time for me, providing insight and outlet as I worked through my own issues. Aimee Mann found her lyrical voice, presaging her later solo work. The band is crisp and smart, lending power to the songs. This is as close to flawless as 80s pop gets.

yaz-you_and_me_bothYou and Me Both (1983, Sire) Yaz(oo)
Speaking of 80s pop… A quick look at my Songs of the Day reveals my fondness for the music of my teen years. As I’ve aged, my favorites tend to be the more obscure music, especially synth-pop and smart dance tracks. Alison Moyet and Vince Clarke perfected both. Their brief collaboration as Yazoo (Yaz in the States) turned out two fine albums. This is the better of the pair by a safe margin. Creative synth work, good lyrics, and Alison Moyet’s rich, wonderful voice — magnificent!

FogelbergInnocentThe Innocent Age (1981, Full Moon / Epic) Dan Fogelberg
Not quite the first album I ever bought — an honor that goes to Helen Reddy’s Long Hard Climb — I consider this the launch of my serious music collecting. It’s also a great collection of songs, singer-songwriter magic at its most compelling. Fogelberg gets pigeonholed as an AC balladeer, but his songs could rock, jig, or soar as well. This beautiful song cycle, created as a cradle-to-grave series, shows off all his talents to great effect. A sentimental and musical favorite, packed with hits.

watersonlOnceinaOnce In A Blue Moon (1996, Topic) Lal Waterson & Oliver Knight
The only reason the extended Waterson family shows up this late is that it was nearly impossible to pick one album. While a stay on Waterson:Carthy island would be delightful, Rule 3 demanded a choice. In the end, a dash of Rule 2 combined with the fact that Lal Waterson is one of my favorite songwriters ruled the day. A brilliant set of songs told in her distinctive style with sympathetic support from her talented son, it’s one of the rare albums that I’ll sometimes put on repeat. As an added bonus, Some Old Salty wraps up the album with a good old family sing-along, sneaking some talented relatives onto the island. Family runners-up included Martin Carthy, Bright Phoebus, Norma Waterson, and Red Rice.

Fairport_Convention-Liege_&_Lief_(album_cover)Liege & Lief (1969, A&M) Fairport Convention
Another tough choice. Fairport belonged on the list (although the Richard Thompson double-dip almost got them cut), and What We Did On Our Holidays is my favorite of their albums. This is a close second, however, and Rule 3 brought it home. A pioneering disc, creating the trad-rock genre, it shows the band at the peak of their powers and adds more traditional British music to my island mix.

FearingIndLulIndustrial Lullaby (1997, True North) Stephen Fearing
Another Rule 3 decision, made with great difficulty. I encountered three very different modern folk talents in the same year (1993) and they form a musical trinity for me. Stephen Fearing, Patty Larkin, and Ellis Paul have unique voices but could easily share a stage. (I’d pay to see that!) Since they weren’t here to play rock-paper-scissors, the decision came down to the sheer poetry — lyrical and musical — of Fearing’s album and its astounding cohesion.

TriffidsCalentureCalenture (1987, Island) The Triffids
I had five albums left on my list, and the Triffids dark masterpiece won the final spot. This album is the least like anything else on the list (with Yaz coming in a close second), a strong rock sound with a uniquely West Australian perspective. Urgent and compelling from start to finish, it’s one of the strongest Rule 2 albums in my collection. It didn’t hurt that the title refers to hallucinations caused by too much time at sea.

There you have it, my island playlist is complete. Before I close, I’d like to acknowledge the many amazing artists that bring me musical joy who stayed safely on dry land: The Bats, Peter Blegvad, Nick Drake, the Finn Brothers in all their incarnations, Jethro Tull, the extended McGarrigle – Wainwright family, Stephin Merritt and his many projects, Oysterband, R.E.M., Spirit of the West, those mentioned above, and many more. I’m VERY glad that I don’t have to make this choice as anything but an interesting exercise.

Finally, a note of farewell to my Album of the Week feature. I truly enjoy writing these pieces — and there are certainly more albums to explore — but the limits of my time, collection, and budget demand closure. It seemed fitting that I bookend the regular features with two Richard & Linda Thompson albums and close out these posts as my Jukebox celebrates its fifth anniversary. I will continue my Song of the Day every weekday and Saturday Time Capsules; I may also add an album now and then as inspiration strikes.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, the music of my island is calling…

Song of the Day, October 29: Poor Murdered Woman by Shirley Collins and the Albion Country Band

CollinsSPoorMurderedToday’s song is the beautiful closing track to the British electric folk masterpiece No Roses. When Ashley Hutchings and Shirley Collins joined forces they crafted an impressive set of folk tracks with a dizzying array of supporting artists. For this track, Hutchings basically reassembled his old band, Fairport Convention, with his bass work joining the guitars of Simon Nicol and Richard Thompson and the drumming of Dave Mattacks. With lovely concertina playing by Dave Bland, this tight unit provides a solid backdrop for Collins’ compelling vocals.

The song is a true story, taken from a news story published in England in 1834. A local lord, winding up a fox hunt, came across a woman’s body hidden in the bushes. The body was never identified and was buried in an anonymous grave in the local churchyard. The simple, tragic story caught the public’s attention, and the story became a folk song.

Collins delivers the sad lyrics with a beautiful simplicity, offering a compassion that never descends into pathos. It’s a perfectly balanced performance, with the whole musical team turning in a perfect closing moment for a classic album.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

BONUS: The BBC revisited the song and the story in a 2013 broadcast.

Song of the Day, September 14: Sloth by Fairport Convention

FapCoFullSlothToday’s song is a powerful anti-war statement from Richard Thompson’s last album with Fairport Convention. Full House finds the band’s fifth lineup record their fifth album, reduced to a quintet. The loss of singer Sandy Denny to a solo career made it an all-men’s club, with four of the five sharing vocal duties as things settled into a new groove.

Sloth was written by Thompson with Dave Swarbrick, a potent team that contributed two great songs to the prior disc. At over nine minutes, it’s one of the longest tracks in the band’s catalog, a slow build of rage and danger. It opens with the martial line “Just a roll on your drums”, heralding the grim advance of dark forces. The band are in fine form, making the most of the opportunities provided in the song. New bassist Dave Pegg — who went on to be one of the longest serving Fairport members — merges seamlessly with drummer Dave Mattacks, providing just the right propulsion.

Enjoy this powerful song today.

Song of the Day, June 4: Zimmerman Blues by the GPs

GPsSatZimToday’s song is a wonderful moment from a short-lived offshoot of Fairport Convention. For the band’s annual reunion concert in 1981, rhythm section Dave Pegg (bass) and Dave Mattacks (drums) hooked up with former band member Richard Thompson (guitar, vocals) and long-time friend Ralph McTell (guitar, vocals). Initially called the Grazed Pontiffs after a tongue-in-cheek suggestion by Mattacks following an attempted papal assassination, they settled on the GP’s. Intended to be a live pub band, they specialized in eclectic covers seasoned with a handful of original Thompson and McTell songs. Pegg recorded the band’s August 14, 1981 show and released it on his Woodworm label.

The highlight is an old McTell song, Zimmerman Blues. Inspired by the complexities and contradictions that make up the life of a public figure, he focused on Bob Dylan, using the folk legend’s birth name to spotlight the person rather than the performer. It’s a wonderful meditation, remarkably bittersweet given how early in McTell’s career it was originally written. (It features on his fifth album, 1972’s Not Till Tomorrow.) The track is a perfect fit for the group as well. Thompson was on the cusp of breaking up with wife Linda while between labels, Fairport were on indefinite hiatus, and McTell was looking for new ways to express his talents — joining the GP’s as the first band of his career.

McTell is in fine voice and the band provide stellar support, making this rare gem a highlight of four great music careers. Enjoy this wonderful track today.

Album of the Week, April 19: Liege and Lief by Fairport Convention

FapCoL&LRBHSJDIDBadgeFairport Convention had a very busy 1969. They released their brilliant second album — the first to feature vocalist Sandy Denny — in January. Singer Ian Matthews left shortly after that, not interested in the band’s musical direction. In summer they released Unhalfbricking, which featured the traditional song A Sailor’s Life, folding Denny’s interest in folk music into the mix. A van crash traumatized the band, killing drummer Martin Lamble. They regrouped, bringing in powerhouse percussionist Dave Mattacks and adding veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick who had guested on Unhalfbricking. Bassist Ashley Hutchings was fascinated by traditional folk and began digging for material that would suit the band. Lead guitarist Richard Thompson was writing more of his own songs and adapted his style to fit the traditional tone of the pieces Hutchings and Denny were providing. Rounding out the sextet, stalwart rhythm guitarist Simon Nicol — who would become the single constant in decades of changing lineups — shared his bandmates’ enthusiasm. The result was a set of eight songs that adapted traditional material to the group’s solid rock foundation and added smart originals that fit in seamlessly.

Title Liege & Lief
Act Fairport Convention
Label A & M Release Date December 1969
Producer Joe Boyd
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  17
Tracks
  1. Come All Ye
  2. Reynardine
  3. Matty Groves
  4. Farewell, Farewell
  5. The Deserter
  6. Medley:
    The Lark In the Morning
    Rakish Paddy
    Fox Hunter’s Jig
    Toss the Feathers
  7. Tam Lin
  8. Crazy Man Michael

Come All Ye is one of the smartest opening tracks in rock. It’s a stirring dance march, introducing the band members one by one and inviting the listner to the party. Traditional in tone and structure, the Denny/Hutchings composition shows them taking what they found in the archives and making it their own. Everyone joins in, building a stirring, joyous celebration.

Denny provides a stark, haunting vocal on the traditional Reynardine, a staple in British folk circles. She captures the dark essence of the lyrics nicely as the band provide subtle, sympathetic backing. It’s a masterpiece of dramatic restraint, showing just how much the group had grown as a unit during their busy year. Another trad standard follows, the lust / betrayal / revenge epic Matty Groves. The first half is a stirring, urgent recitation of the story, with another fine Denny vocal. After that, Swarbrick and Thompson take over, weaving electric guitar and fiddle into a frenzy of musical power. The song provides the finest example of folk rock on the disc, clearly respecting the original material while making something distinctly new.

Side one ends with the lovely Thompson original Farewell Farewell. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet track that finds him coming into his own as a writer. The band create a quiet backdrop for Denny’s poignant delivery, perfectly suited to the folk themes of the disc.

Side two opens with another traditional track, The Deserter, an ironic look at betrayal, freedom and authority. Swarbrick provides a perfect fiddle line to hold the track together while the rest of the band simmer with barely restrained tension. Denny’s vocal is stately and almost detached, a nice touch that fits the lyrics and shows off her varied sonic palette. An instrumental medley follows, a fun romp through a variety of traditional dance tunes. It’s smartly sequenced, amping up the energy while staying true to the spirit of the proceedings.

Tam Lin is another mini-epic, a traditional tale of magic and true love. While it lacks the brilliant frenzy of Matty Groves, it’s an equally important statement of folk rock, fusing the two together in a beautiful, compelling package. Swarbrick’s fiddle is much more traditional but no less compelling and Thompson shows off his virtuosity with a lead line that embellishes without dominating. Mattacks really comes into his own as well, with his drumming providing a critical element to the glorious mix. Thompson and Swarbrick collaborated on the final tune, the tragic Crazy Man Michael. Thompson wrote a lyric that fits into traditional themes of magic and lost love nicely, setting it to a traditional tune; Swarbrick thought the tune weakened the song and rose to Thompson’s challenge to write something better. The result is a fine piece of acoustic folk rock and a perfect ending to a stirring musical journey.

Fairport Convention didn’t really invent folk rock. One form was already brewing in the U.S., where the singer-songwriter tradition — already one step removed from traditional songs — was being fused to rock forms by the Byrds, Dylan and others. What Fairport did on Liege and Lief was create something distinctly British, crafting the first full outing of trad-rock. They invigorated the burgeoning traditional folk revival, stirring interest in acts that stayed truer to the original material and also provided a template for building on those traditions within a rock framework. The trail they blazed resulted in many other acts adapting original material while inspiring others to write rock songs that used traditional folk elements.

Awarded the distinction of “Most Influential Folk Album of All Time” at the 2006 BBC Radio Folk Awards, Liege and Lief was truly something old and something new. It was also the last work of a classic lineup as the headstrong, independent talents began to pull in different directions. Bringing a close to a powerful, tumultuous year, Fairport Convention proved their talent, dedication and vision and left a stunning legacy.

Song of the Day, March 27: I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye

GayeGrapevineToday’s song is I Heard It Through the Grapevine, the R&B classic written in 1966 by the superstar team of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. House writers for Motown at the time, the pair intended it for the Miracles but were asked to tighten it up. Gaye recorded his version, which was relegated to album track status, and Gladys Knight and the Pips had the first major hit version [#2, #1 R&B for six weeks]. When Gaye’s album In the Groove came out, however, DJs picked up on his interpretation and started playing it. Berry Gordy finally relented and released this version as a single. It was a massive success, topping both charts for seven weeks almost exactly a year after Knight’s success.

It’s one of the most famous Motown songs, a classic track of betrayal and simmering anger. Gaye’s strong voice is a perfect fit as he manages to be both smooth and searing at the same time. Whitfield, who also produced the single, had him sing in a higher key, providing a nice edge to the vocal. With a menacing rhythm track from the Funk Brothers and great counterpoint harmoines from the Andantes, it’s a masterpiece of studio work.

Enjoy this brilliant classic today.

BONUS VERSION: Grapevine has been covered dozens of times by a wide variety of artists and even managed to top the R&B charts a third time. Folk rock legends Fairport Convention, fond of an uexpected musical turn, provided attendees at their annual Cropredy festival with a special treat in 1995. They turned in a rousing cover of the song, with former Fairport member Richard Thompson providing a delightful lead vocal.

Song of the Day, January 14: Leonard Cohen’s Bird on the Wire

CohenBirdToday’s song is Leonard Cohen’s personal touchstone, the magnificent Bird On the Wire. He began writing the song while living in Greece in the mid-60s, inspired by his girlfriend, Marianne, to compose as a way out of his depression. He refined it in California just before recording it and has noted that it is a permanent work in progress.

I always begin my concert with this song. It seems to return me to my duties. It was begun in Greece and finished in a motel in Hollywood around 1969 along with everything else. Some lines were changed in Oregon. I can’t seem to get it perfect.

Cohen included it on his 1969 album Songs From A Room and it is considered one of his signature songs. Kris Kristofferson has famously said he will have the opening lines included on his tombstone (and Cohen has noted that he will be hurt if it doesn’t happen).

Like a bird on the wire,
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free.

A song of rugged determination, it has been covered dozens of times over the years, by artists ranging from Kristofferson’s ex-wife, Rita Coolidge to k.d. lang, from Joe Cocker to Tony Carey.

FapCoBirdMy favorite interpretation was recorded by Fairport Convention. As they emerged from their California-inspired light folk phase and entered their creative peak in the late 60s, the band included a number of inspired covers in their live shows, including songs by Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. A version of Bird On the Wire was recorded on December 2, 1968 in BBC Studio 2 for the Stuart Henry Show. Bassist Ashley Hutchings included the track on a cassette of BBC covers that the band sold at shows, eventually released in 1987 as the great snapshot album Heyday. Sandy Denny and Ian Matthews work their vocal magic with the song, creating a stunning rendition.

Song of the Day, November 18: Matty Groves by Fairport Convention

FapCoMattyToday’s song is one of the most compelling moments in the early days of the British folk rock movement. Matty Groves is a very old traditional British ballad (Roud 52, Child 91). There are references to it dating back to 1613 making it likely that it’s been around since as early as the 14th Century. It’s a classic murder story, which accounts for much of its appeal, and exists in multiple versions with the names of the players changed but the basic events surviving surprisingly intact.

The wife of a nobleman takes advantage of his absence to invite a young man (Matty Groves) to share her bed. A servant overhears their plans and runs off to warn his master. The master returns and catches the pair in flagrante, challenging Matty to a duel. After allowing the young man to dress, lending him a sword, and giving him the first strike, the master kills Matty, only to find that his wife still prefers the dead man. He kills her in a rage and orders the pair buried together, but with “my lady at the top, for she was of noble kin.”

Fairport Convention were in a period of significant transition when they took up the song. Drummer Martin Lamble had been killed in a van crash that injured the rest of the band; the brilliant Dave Mattacks came on board to replace him. Singer Ian Matthews departed, not interested in the band’s move toward traditional music. Veteran folk fiddler Dave Swarbrick joined full-time after pitching in on the second album. Vocalist Sandy Denny, bassist Ashley Hutchings, and guitarists Richard Thompson and Simon Nicol kept the push for more traditional songs, with Hutchings doing significant research before the recording sessions. Wedding that music (plus some very folky originals) to their growing rock confidence, they created the masterpiece album Liege and Lief.

Matty Groves is perhaps the finest track on the disc, a perfect merger of a beloved song with long traditions and the band’s superb chops. The rhythm section of Hutchings/Mattacks/Nicol is amazing, propelling the whole song along with a driving beat. Sandy Denny is in fine voice, a clarion call of urgency as she tells the tragic tale. Thompson, already known for his guitar pyrotechnics, found the perfect foil in the brilliant fiddling of Swarbrick. The two coil around each other, adding a sneaky, sinister groove to the track. After the story is complete, things break into a three-minute jam with Thompson and Swarb’s instrumental work rivalling Denny’s vocal delivery on the first half. It’s folk rock at its finest, establishing Fairport as a force to be reckoned with.

Enjoy this musical masterpiece today.

A Richard Thompson Chronology: All the Albums 1968 – 2013

RTChronElectricRTChronFCAs I was drafting an overview of two Richard Thompson albums for an upcoming Album of the Week feature, I pondered my strategy for writing the FURTHER LISTENING section at the end of the post. With a career spanning five decades, RT has a large, rich catalog; as a look at one of my favorite performers, simply noting a title or two didn’t seem feasible.

Instead, here is a single-feature overview of the many albums credited to – or significantly featuring – the incomparable Richard Thompson.

A Note on Grading: The grades assigned to each album are (of course) my personal estimates of how each work stacks up in RT’s catalog. Frankly, other than a couple of the side projects, even a C+ by Richard Thompson holds up pretty well against most of the music of the past five decades. Your mileage may vary.

The Fairport Years: 1967 – 1970
albums recorded as an active member of Fairport Convention; all credited to the band

  • Fairport Convention (1968, Polydor) A solid, if tentative, debut from a talented young band. [B-]
  • What We Did On Our Holidays (1969, Island) A quantum leap forward; one of the finest folk-pop albums of the era. [A+]
  • Unhalfbricking (1969, Island) Critically lauded but a bit uneven, with some moments of true brilliance, notably Who Knows Where the Time Goes? [A-]
  • Liege and Lief (1969, Island) One of the cornerstones of traditional folk rock and a powerful disc that stands the test of time. [A+]
  • Full House (1970, Island) RT’s last disc with the group on a solid set that presaged the all-male trad/cover blend that would serve Fairport well for most of the next four decades. [B+]
  • House Full (1986, Hannibal) Recorded in 1970, the only official live Fairport album with RT as a member of the band; a good overview of the powerful live sound, notable for a stunning version of the Thompson/Swarbrick song Sloth [B]

The Linda Years: 1972 – 1984
albums recorded from his Fairport departure up to his return to the major label;
mostly recorded with wife Linda Thompson unless otherwise noted

  • starring as Henry the Human Fly – Richard Thompson (reprise, 1972) A fine solo debut that shows RT’s skill at blending the uniquely English with rock traditions. [A]
  • I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (Island, 1974) A luminous gem with RT’s writing leaping forward and Linda’s vocals adding just the right note. [A+]
  • Hokey Pokey (Island, 1975) A fun mixed bag with a few real delights. [B+]
  • Pour Down Like Silver (Island, 1975) Dark meditations and songs of quiet power as the Thompsons prepared to retreat into a Sufi commune. [A]
  • First Light (Chrysalis, 1978) Overproduced and cluttered in spots, but a fine return with a handful of great songs. [B]
  • SunnyVista (Chrysalis, 1979) Trying too hard to shove the Thompsons into 70s pop, well-meaning producer Gerry Rafferty created their weakest disc of the decade. [B-]
  • Strict Tempo! – Richard Thompson (Elixir, 1981) A fun side project between labels, an all-instrumental set of mostly traditional favorites. [B]
  • Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal, 1982) Simply one of the finest albums ever made. Harrowing yet hopeful. [A+]
  • Hand of Kindness – Richard Thompson (1983, Hannibal) RT becomes comfortable as a solo act and bandleader, presenting one of his most consistent and often fun sets. [A-]
  • Small Town Romance – Richard Thompson (1984, Hannibal) A flawed live album of solo acoustic sets that shows off some rare tracks but was eventually pulled. [B-]

The Major Label Years: 1985 – 1999
albums recorded for Polydor and Capitol as he emerged from cult status and received some alternative radio airplay

  • Across A Crowded Room (1985, Polydor) A stirring set of songs that set the stage for RT’s growing fame. Wonderful songs, great music, strong band. [A-]
  • Daring Adventures (1986, Polydor) The first of RT’s albums with mixed-bag producer Mitchell Froom; a more subdued outing with some fine moments. [B+]
  • Amnesia (1988, Capitol) The least Froom-y of the series, ten songs without a dud but also without a strong standout. [B]
  • Rumor and Sigh (1991, Capitol) Some of RT’s best writing of the 90s and his commercial breakthrough (such as it was); the best songs worked better live and stripped down. [B+]
  • Mirror Blue (1994, Capitol) A few great songs, some ideas that don’t quite click, and the most intrusive Froom bag of tricks. A couple of gems, but arguably his weakest regular solo album. [B-]
  • You? Me? Us? (1996, Capitol) A fun two-disc set split between acoustic and electric songs. Edited down to one disc, it might have been brilliant; as it is, a very fine release. [B+]
  • Mock Tudor (1999, Capitol) Three mini-suites of strong songs about life in the post-industrial age, bracketing this period with his finest outing in years. [A-]

The Recent Years: 2000 – 2014
albums recorded since leaving Capitol, building on his reputation as an eclectic veteran musician and musical historian

  • The Old Kit Bag (2003, Cooking Vinyl) Unbound by big label expectations, RT’s work feels looser and more direct, with a nice set of songs. [B+]
  • 1000 Years of Popular Music (2003, Beeswing) A delightful concert disc showcasing his approach to the “Best songs of the past Millennium” challenge. Smart, funny, and brilliantly played, a great showcase of RT the music historian. [B+]
  • Live From Austin, Texas (2005, New West) A decent glimpse at the power of a live RT show. [B]
  • Front Parlour Ballads (2005, Cooking Vinyl) One of his finest sets of songs, very English folk rock with a smart, dark edge. [A]
  • Sweet Warrior (2007, Shout! Factory) Another set without a dud but without a strong standout. [B]
  • Dream Attic (2010, Shout! Factory) Continuing the trend, some fine work. [B]
  • Electric (2013, New West) New life and energy, taking the lead from the last two discs but moving with renewed passion. [A-]

Side Projects, Soundtracks, and Collaborations
albums from all of Thompson’s career that feature him as a part of a special project or in partnership with other musicians

  • Rock On – The Bunch (1970, Island) Fairport alumni and friends cover hits of the 50s; fun all around and a few magical moments. [B]
  • Morris On – Morris On (1970, Island) Former Fairport bassist and trad folk guru Ashley Hutchings’ all-star tribute to Morris music. Not for everyone, but brilliantly selected, sequenced, and played. [A-]
  • Live, Love, Larf, Loaf – French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson (1987, Rhino) Four musical friends with little obviously in common turning out an eclectic, delightful outing with some real highs and a couple of clunkers. [B+]
  • The Marksman (music from the BBC series) – Richard Thompson and Peter Filleul (1987, BBC) A great showcase for the more subtle side of RT as he creates a strong musical backdrop for the TV program, just not a very strong Thompson sampler. [B-]
  • Invisible Means – French, Frith, Kaiser, Thompson (1990, Windham Hill) Lightning didn’t strike twice. Some fine moments, but not as magical as their first disc together. [B-]
  • Hard Cash – various artists (1990, Special Delivery) Modern work songs crafted for a BBC documentary series on the British working class. Co-produced by RT with Peter Filleul, featuring two strong RT performances and 12 other powerful songs by his friends and colleagues. [A-]
  • Sweet Talker – Richard Thompson (1991, Capitol) The disc that made him swear never to do another soundtrack, a very mixed bag of mostly mediocre mood music with one track that turned into something special later, the Tim Finn collaboration Persuasion. [C-]
  • Drunk With Passion – The Golden Palominos (1991, Restless) RT’s one outing with Anton Fier’s revolving door superstar experiment, a solid and predictably unpredictable journey. [B]
  • Live at Crawley – Richard Thompson with Danny Thompson (1995, Flypaper) The first of RT’s efforts to stave off bootlegs by releasing live work through his website. Of particular note since it’s all acoustic renderings by a brilliant duo that shows off some of the Rumor and Sigh material to its best advantage.
  • Industry – Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson (1997, Hannibal) A concept album about the end of the industrial age, nicely carried off and lovingly crafted. [B]
  • The Bones of All Men – Mr. Phillip Pickett with Mr. Richard Thompson and the Fairport Rhythm Section (1998, Rykodisc) An instrumental outing featuring two musical historians on an eclectic set of tunes compiled by Pickett. Intriguing and often dazzling. [B]
  • Grizzly Man – Richard Thompson (2005, Cooking Vinyl) Working with Werner Herzog got RT to do another soundtrack, and this one is his best, a truly evocative set of soundscapes. [B+]
  • Richard Thompson’s Cabaret of Souls (2012, Beeswing) A fascinating long-term project with compelling narratives and unexpected music. [B]

Compilations, Retrospectives & Tributes
albums compiling previous material, unreleased gems, and cover collections

  • (guitar, vocal) (1976, Island) Some lost gems, alternate versions, and live performances from Fairport through Pour Down Like Silver; a mixed bag with some must-have material. [B+]
  • Heyday: The BBC Radio Sessions – Fairport Convention (1987, Hannibal) 12 tracks recorded by the classic 1968 lineup, featuring some lovely covers and a transcendent take on Leonard Cohen’s Suzanne. [B]
  • Watching the Dark (1993, Hannibal) Three discs providing a full career retrospective (up to that point), with some alternate versions, unreleased material, and live tracks. A decent summation and a nice source of rare material for fans. [A-]
  • The World Is A Wonderful Place: The Songs of Richard Thompson (1994, Green Linnet) The quirky tribute album with offerings from less famous acts and some fairly daring reinterpretations, plus a lost Richard and Linda track. More solid than most of the mid-90s tribute fare and worth the price of admission. [B+]
  • Beat the Retreat: Songs by Richard Thompson (1994, Capitol) The big guns tribute disc, with R.E.M., Bonnie Raitt, and others. Much less consistent but better produced than its oddball colleague. June Tabor, Maddy Prior, and Martin Carthy shine, as do Raitt and Bob Mould. Most of the rest is curious filler. [C+]
  • The Best of Richard and Linda Thompson: The Island Records Years (2000, Island) More a quick introduction to four albums with one alternate and one live version. Buy the originals. [A for content, C for usefulness]
  • Action Packed (2001, Capitol) A great overview of RT’s Capitol years, with a handful of worthwhile outtakes to boot. [A-]
  • RT, the Life and Music of Richard Thompson (2006, Free Reed) RT gets the five-disc Free Reed treatment in a loving, exhaustive box that is loaded with alternate and live versions. Too many poor recordings and not enough material from the source albums make this a collection for completists. [B]
  • Live at the BBC (2011, Universal) A stunning three-disc, career-spanning set of live-in-the-studio performances, showing off the RT’s diversity and the flexibility of some of his best songs. [A]
  • Walking On A Wire (2009, Shout! Factory) A four-disc overview of all of RT’s career from the first Fairport release through Sweet Warrior. Somewhat scorned for having no unreleased content, it is in fact a stunning retrospective and a great collection for casual fans. [A]

Note: This list does not include most of the many boutique releases (mostly live) available through Thompson’s fan club or website, nor does it include the dozens of albums on which he has provided session work. A reasonably complete list with these and a few other additions is available on Wikipedia.

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