Song of the Day, August 5: We Sing Hallelujah by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonHallelujahToday’s song is a modern working class anthem. When Richard Thompson left Fairport Convention, he wanted to build on the traditional music the band was exploring while pursuing his own distinctive vision. The result was a charming blend of English sensibility, wry humor, and timeless themes. After one solo disc, he and wife Linda began a decade-long musical collaboration, starting with the amazing I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight.

The disc is a lively mix of songs that look at the concerns of the everyday person. Themes of work and toil run through much of the music. We Sing Hallelujah is a smart update of the worksong. Calling on the season cycle, the Thompsons channel the endless nature of daily work. They infuse it with joy, however, celebrating a job well done and the pauses in the cycle that signify accomplishment. It’s a fun song, uplifting but tied to the mundane, a tricky balance that the singers and band carry off with aplomb.

Enjoy this delightful song today.

PS – With this entry I’m wrapping up regular posts on Music and Meaning. It’s been a lot of fun sharing my favorite music, but finding the time to write good posts regularly is increasingly challenging. I hope to pop new things into the virtual jukebox from time to time, but daily posts are done. It seemed fitting to end with a track from a favorite album (also my last regular Album of the Week post) by two of my favorite artists. Thanks for listening!

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Song of the Day, April 20: For Shame of Doing Wrong by Richard and Linda Thompson

R&LPourShameToday’s song is a standout from a turning point album. After three years of marriage and two albums together, Richard and Linda Thompson moved into a Sufi commune, intending to set aside their musical careers. They owed Island records an album, however, so they struck a deal, balancing four tracks that were based on Richard’s meditations about the divine with others that were more of a piece with previous work. The finest moments transcend both categories, notably For Shame of Doing Wrong.

A song of mourning for lost love, it’s a powerful testament to emotion. Linda delivers a stark vocal, supported by an unusually restrained guitar from Richard, creating a darkly evocative track. Often re-titled I Wish I Was A Fool For You Again from the repeated chorus line, the song is one of Richard’s most covered, including versions by Sandy Denny, Peter Blegvad, and Yo La Tengo.

Enjoy this amazing 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…

Album of the Week, March 20: I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight by Richard and Linda Thompson

ThompsonBrightLightsRichard Thompson and Linda Peters met in 1969, while he was still in Fairport Convention and she was working on a folk music career. With mutual friends including Sandy Denny and Simon Nicol, they spent occasional time together, finally working on joint projects in late 1971. With many Fairport members and alumni they were part of the Bunch, recording fun covers of a dozen 50s hits for the album Rock On. The couple toured with Simon Nicol as Hokey Pokey, and Linda provided backing vocals on Richard’s solo debut, Henry the Human Fly, released in 1972. They married later that year and began working on their first project as a couple. The result, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, set a high bar for both their careers.

Album I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
Act Richard & Linda Thompson
Label Island Release Date April 1974
Producer Richard Thompson and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. When I Get to the Border
  2. The Calvary Cross
  3. Withered and Died
  4. I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight
  5. Down Where the Drunkards Roll
  6. We Sing Hallelujah
  7. Has He Got A Friend For Me?
  8. The Little Beggar Girl
  9. The End of the Rainbow
  10. The Great Valerio

The album featured vocals from both partners. As with Henry, Richard played guitars, mandolin, dulcimer, and a variety of other instruments. His guitar work is more restrained than on many of his other recordings, but no less powerful for it. The rhythm section of Timmy Donald (drums) and Pat Donaldson (bass) — both part of the Bunch — provided a solid backing, and a sizable lineup of folk friends pitched in as well. Building on the distinctly English folk-rock of Richard’s work to date, the ten tracks shimmer with modern energy while steeped in something deeply traditional.

Things start off aptly with a journeying song. When I Get to the Border features Richard’s best vocal to this point as he describes an effort to escape the mundanities of life. He may literally wander the dusty street or simply push the borders by drowning “in a barrel of wine”, but he’ll find a way to transcend the tedium. It’s a fun, grim, almost optimistic song, hinting at the lyrical themes that would become RT staples. The Calvary Cross is a darker, mystical song, reminiscent of his writings with Fairport fiddler Dave Swarbrick. Linda takes the lead vocal on Withered and Died, a mournful song of loss that gains humanity and tentative warmth from her sympathetic delivery.

The title track is a masterpiece, another bit of escapism with more hope and determination. A bright horn section gives it delightful energy, and the Thompsons almost frolic through their demands for a great night on the town. Continuing the masterful sequencing, Down Where the Drunkards Roll looks at those whose fate after the bright lights is less than giddy. With a stunning harmony vocal from Trevor Lucas (soon to join Fairport), it wraps up side one in powerful — if dark — style.

Side two opens with another song of transition, celebrating the “turning of the year.” We Sing Hallelujah is a secular hymn, a hope for better days, given power by the interweaving of the Thompsons’ vocals. Linda turns in a gorgeous lead on Has He Got A Friend For Me? a song of longing that would have fit perfectly among the hits of Linda Ronstadt. Quietly aching, it’s one of her finest performances — no mean feat. The Little Beggar Girl is a smart bit of modern folk propelled by John Kirkpatrick’s sprightly accordion. A delightful celebration of the strength of the oppressed, it gains power from Linda’s fun vocal.

Richard goes to one of his bleakest places — also no mean feat — on his anti-lullaby The End of the Rainbow. A dark reflection on the pain and suffering in the world, it’s a cheerless warning to a small child, brimming with humanity but offering little hope. Things wrap up in stunning fashion with The Great Valerio. A stirring acoustic number, it features a powerfully subtle guitar line from Richard and an enchanting vocal from Linda. A metaphor for living life fully and honestly, it’s a standout in both catalogs and a perfect closer to a great album.

FURTHER LISTENING: Spending a couple of years away from music in Sufi communes in the 70s, the Thompsons only released six albums in just under a decade before their marriage detonated. All six are interesting, although the results are curiously inconsistent. After Bright Lights, they released

  • Hokey Pokey (1975), a decent follow-up that is fairly consistent but never rises to the level of its predecessor.
  • Pour Down Like Silver (1975), the first album to openly embrace Richard’s turn toward Sufism, eight stunning tracks without a falter.
  • First Light (1978), their return to music, an amiable set with some great songs and some unfortunate production.
  • Sunnyvista (1979), interesting and adequate, but largely uninspired. Richard and Linda never recorded a bad song, but this is their weakest set.

After this, they lost their label and recorded a disastrous set with Gerry Rafferty producing; the results were mercifully shelved. Long-time friend Joe Boyd signed them to his tiny start-up label, Hannibal, and helped them salvage that material, resulting in one of the finest albums ever recorded, Shoot Out the Lights (1982). The couple famously imploded both on and off stage during the following year before splitting for good. Richard has maintained an impressive solo career, racking up honors and critical acclaim while pursuing his distinctive musical and lyrical vision. Linda started a solo career as well before vocal problems sidelined her for years. She continues to turn out occasional, lovely albums. Two of their children — Teddy and Kami — are also in the business, often working with one parent or the other. Richard has provided guitar work on a couple of Linda’s songs, and the whole family got together for an amazing album in 2014.

Song of the Day, November 16: Love’s For Babies and Fools by Linda Thompson

LTWontBabiesFoolsToday’s song is one of Linda Thompson’s finest compositions. After a six-year wait (short by her standards), she turned out the lovely Won’t Be Long Now in 2013. The opening track is Love’s For Babies and Fools, a song she began composing for friend Rufus Wainwright. It got derailed until Rufus’ mother, Kate McGarrigle, heard it shortly before her death and encouraged Thompson to finish the song. As the singer notes,

[Kate] wasn’t much given to compliments, so I did as I was bid.

It’s a bittersweet song of the pain that love can bring, held together with a fragile thread of hope. Thompson’s wonderful voice is more brittle than ever as she tells the story, adding character to the proceedings. The only accompaniment is a rare collaboration with ex-husband Richard Thompson, whose electric guitar adds a wistful note.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, July 6: Perhaps We Can Sleep by Thompson

Linda_Thompson_photographer_Annabel_VereToday’s song is a standout track from the Thompson family’s 2014 collaboration. Teddy Thompson curated the ten tracks submitted by his parents, siblings, and nephew, building a wonderful testament to their diverse talents. Aptly titled Family, it features some of the strongest songs in their impressive catalogs.

Teddy wrote this song with his mother, Linda. She turns in one of her finest vocals ever, quite an accomplishment. Fragile but strong, it’s a quietly moving track, driven by Teddy’s sympathetic piano. In a family that’s had its share of public drama, the song is cautiously optimistic, hoping for a resolution to past troubles and dreaming of a brighter future.

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Last year was a good one for music, producing more truly enjoyable albums than I’ve heard in a while. Here are the seven discs that rose above the pack for me — a nice mix of veterans, newcomers, and acts settled into a solid groove.

OysterDiamondThe champ of the year was Oysterband with their stunning Diamonds On the Water. Together in various forms for over 35 years, the Oysters released their 25th album early in the year. I was delighted to hear its energy and power. Maybe reuniting with June Tabor a couple of years ago gave them a shot in the arm; it certainly gave her some great new energy too. Whatever the case, this is the band’s finest work in 20 years. Smart lyrics, tight playing, social commentary, and music with real heart all combine over 12 tracks without anything close to a dull moment. Highlights include the moving Steal Away, the anthemic Spirit of Dust and the haunting Palace of Memory.


The other six offer very different musical approaches, each with its own distinctive charm.

ColeStandardsLloyd Cole – Standards: Another long-time favorite resurfaces with his best album in many years. Cole has turned out a steady stream of quality albums; his more recent offerings have been more acoustic, folky discs. For this ironically titled disc (all but one song are originals), he plugs back in, reuniting with collaborators Fred Maher, Matthew Sweet, and Blair Cowan. The result is a fresh, inspired set that finds the acerbic sage at his witty finest. Highlights include the John Hartford / Mama Cass cover California Earthquake, Myrtle and Rose and Opposites Day.

GEzraVoyageGeorge Ezra – Wanted On Voyage: A fresh new talent from England, George Ezra Bennett moved to Bristol, dropped his surname, and launched a promising career. He landed on the BBC Introducing stage at Glastonbury and parlayed that success into a record deal. After two promising EPs, he assembled a team that helped him pursue his musical vision. Gifted with an almost surreally deep voice, he knows how to use it to great effect, exploring his range while presenting a nice set of pop songs. Highlights include the frustration ode Cassy O’, the gospel-tinged Did You Hear the Rain? and the clever pop gem Blame It On Me.

IngridLightsIngrid Michaelson – Lights Out: Michaelson has been turning out charming, often quirky folk-pop for a decade, working hard to maintain her independence while receiving signficant airplay through TV and other venues. Her sixth album sees her take a quantum leap, with stronger lyrics, more varied soundscapes, and more confident vocals. She invited a number of friends to the party, and the half-dozen co-credits enhance rather than distract. Kicking off the release with the brilliant Robert Palmer inspired video for her best song ever, Girls Chase Boys, Michaelson has emerged as a unique, mature artist. Other highlights are the wistful Stick and the boisterous regret anthem Time Machine.

PerfumeGeniusTooBrightPerfume Genius – Too Bright: Mike Hadreas’ first album was the quietly promising Learning, followed by the stunning Put Your Back N 2 It. For his third release as Perfume Genius, he really diversifies the sound. The result is much more uneven than the previous discs, and that inconsistency almost kept Too Bright off my list. When it’s on, however, it’s a powerhouse, and he deserves praise for stepping out of his comfort zone and experimenting with his sound. It’s also much less introspective, a nice evolution in writing and perspective. Highlights include the bold, angry anthem Queen; the eerie worldbeat tale Longpig; and the stirring, jarring Grid.

RailsWarningThe Rails – Fair Warning: Kami Thompson and James Walbourne have two impressive but very different resumes. She’s the daughter of folk rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson who has eased into her own impressive career. He’s a talented guitarist and songwriter who has been a member of Son Volt and the Pernice Brothers. Each performer released a fine solo album before they began collaborating. They got married and started a band, and their debut joint effort is stunning, a powerful mix of folk-pop, traditional songs, and grim rock. Highlights include the gripping Panic Attack Blues, an enchanting version of the traditional William Taylor, and the quietly urgent Breakneck Speed.

ThompsonFamilyThompson – Family: Thompson and Walbourne had a busy year, also participating in this aptly named project. Curated by Kami’s brother, Teddy, the album features contributions from all three talented performers as well as parents Richard and Linda (sharing their first full album credit in over 30 years), brother Jack, and nephew Zak Hobbs, plus James’ brother Rob on percussion and occasional moments from other family members. The result is a delightful assortment that is remarkably cohesive. Highlights include Teddy’s rave-up Right, Linda’s fragile Perhaps We Can Sleep, Kami and James’ Careful (which sounds like a brilliant Rails outtake with extra energy from the family), and Richard’s rousing protest number That’s Enough which features a nice singalong chorus from the extended family.

Song of the Day, December 12: Can’t Stop the Girl by Linda Thompson

LTCantStopToday’s song is Can’t Stop the Girl. After Richard and Linda Thompson split up during the tour for their brilliant 1982 album Shoot Out the Lights, Linda had to regroup and consider her career. She got together with producer Hugh Murphy and his wife, Betsy Cook, creating her first solo recording after nearly two decades of work as a singer. Cook and Thompson hit it off and wrote a number of songs together, including this strong tune that became the opening track of One Clear Moment.

A driving anthem of independence and determination, it captures the spirit of her career renewal beautifully. Thompson is in fine voice, delivering each declaration with charming energy.

Enjoy this fine song today.

Song of the Day, October 14: Strange Affair by Richard and Linda Thompson

RLTFirstAffairToday’s song is Strange Affair by Richard and Linda Thompson. After recording three albums together, the duo took a brief hiatus while focusing on their life on a Sufi community. They returned in 1978 with First Light, an uneven, fairly subdued collection that includes a handful of real gems. One of these is Strange Affair, an unusual song in their catalog. Atypically for Richard, it features only the most minimal guitar work and no solo. The instrumentation is mostly keyboard and oboe, weaving a quiet, fragile backdrop for Linda’s vocals. It’s one of the best showcases of her singing on the couple’s albums, allowing her particularly crystalline delivery to shine. The lyrics of isolation and despair are not unusual Thompson fare, but the imagery is particularly strong, underscored by the gentle delivery. Richard’s harmonies and subtle guitar and mandolin touches make this one of his least visible contributions to a Richard and Linda album, but it works brilliantly, making the most of their partnership in a new, compelling way.

Enjoy this darkly beautiful song 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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