Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine – A Beginner’s Mind: You Give Schlocky Movies a Good Name.

Artist: Sufjan Stevens & Angelo De Augustine
Album: A Beginner’s Mind
Year: 2021
Grade: B+

In Brief: This is quite an unexpected return to the hushed, lovely, and sometimes haunting indie folk style that made a lot of folks fall in love with Sufjan in the first place. It’s a surprising outcome for a collaborative project where the inspiration came from the two men being holed up in a cabin watching scary, sappy, and/or vintage movies.

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Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress: Cued to sway forever by the forces of the Lord’s choreography.

Artist: Belle & Sebastian
Album: Dear Catastrophe Waitress
Year: 2003
Grade: B+

In Brief: An indie pop classic that I’m still in the process of slowly falling in love with, a good six years since I first heard it (and three times that long since it was released). This was the moment where Belle & Sebastian made the jump to full-color production values and got a little braver with the stylistic experimentation, with a few of these tracks even being a little funky and danceable, while still maintaining the quirky attention to detail that their songwriting has always been notable for. I’d never heard anything from the band until the record after this one, but Waitress really should have been my jumping-on point.

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Jesca Hoop – Kismet: Seeds of Wonder

Artist: Jesca Hoop
Album: Kismet
Year: 2007
Grade: B+

In Brief: Jesca Hoop’s eclectic debut album is sweet, sassy, escapist, confrontational, and at times, downright romantic. While her songwriting has matured since then and her musicianship has gotten even more experimental, Kismet still stands out as one of those rare examples of a newcomer getting it right on the first try, and winding up with one hell of a tough act to follow.

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Liam Singer – The Ocean: It’s Always Ourselves We Find in the Sea.

Artist: Liam Singer
Album: The Ocean
Year: 2021
Grade: C+

In Brief: It might not be fair to judge The Ocean as though it were a full-length album, since it began life as an EP of loosely related compositions that were conceived in quarantine. You’ll only get three or four “songs” in the traditional sense here, with the other eight being instrumental or spoken word tracks. I could see this working well for a peaceful, meditative walk or drive along the coastline, and I admire the intent behind it, but coming off of the masterpiece that was Finish Him, it’s hard not to feel more than a little let down.

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Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials: Every Color Illuminates

Artist: Florence + The Machine
Album: Ceremonials
Year: 2011
Grade: B+

In Brief: Even though How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful was my entry point into this weird and wonderful band, and remains my favorite album of theirs, Ceremonials might just outclass it in terms of consistency and sheer ambition. It’s the point where the music and lyrics best match the scope of Florence Welch’s hauntingly beautiful voice, with each song rising into the night sky like a weird incantation meant to bring all manner of ghosts and spirits out to play. It’s not every day that an artist can play with spiritual warfare as an aesthetic and have me raving effusively about the results.

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The Innocence Mission – See You Tomorrow: A Million Things Unsaid

Artist: The Innocence Mission
Album: See You Tomorrow
Year: 2020
Grade: B-

In Brief: The Innocence Mission is a reliable band, almost to a fault. The immediate sense of calm that washes over me when I put on their records is always welcome, but the nagging sense of sameness as I tried to dig deeper into their latest one kind of put me off of it for a while. Coming back around to it now, it’s better than I remembered, but there’s honestly nothing here that you haven’t heard on every album they’ve done since the late 90s.

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San Fermin – The Cormorant: I would sing for my life, if I knew the words.

Artist: San Fermin
Album: The Cormorant I & II
Year: 2020
Grade: B+

In Brief: Is it a rock band? A chamber pop ensemble? A composer using whatever instrumentalists and vocalists he has on hand to execute his creative vision? Whatever you want to call San Fermin, they’re quite generous with the orchestral adornments, the natural and mythical imagery, and the diversity of vocal perspectives throughout the 16 tracks on this 2-part record. While much of The Cormorant is a down-tempo exercise in pastoral beauty, there are several moments that will genuinely surprise you.

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The Innocence Mission – My Room in the Trees: Rain or shine, this street of mine is golden.

Artist: The Innocence Mission
Album: My Room in the Trees
Year: 2020
Grade: B+

In Brief: A quiet gem of an album – easily one of the best in The Innocence Mission’s discography – that I’m sad to have overlooked for nearly a decade. The gorgeous opening track alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s a lot more where that came from to help sustain the mood. Listening to this record is like discovering a few rays of sunshine that have just broken through the clouds on a grey, rainy afternoon.

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Elbow – Giants of All Sizes: I’ve the heaviest heart jackhammering in me.

Artist: Elbow
Album: Giants of All Sizes
Year: 2019
Grade: B-

In Brief: After the relative lightness of Little Fictions, it made sense for Elbow to go in a darker, more brooding direction, especially considering the personal losses the band has endured over the past few years. Only problem is, it feels like there isn’t a whole lot of meat to this album since it only has nine songs, and barely half of them are striking me as memorable.

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Sleeping at Last – Atlas: Enneagram – I’m just trying to see myself through someone else’s eyes.

Artist: Sleeping at Last
Album: Atlas: Enneagram
Year: 2019
Grade: B

In Brief: While there isn’t as much interactivity between these songs as I had imagined there might be, the musical diversity and attention to detail in exploring each personality type makes it a worthwhile series of character studies. And with nine tracks exploring a consistent theme, it’s the closest thing to a traditional album that SAL has put out since the Space series during Year One.

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