Listen to “Valentine,” the cut track on the Matador artist Snail Mail’s latest album, and you feel transported back to Lollapalooza’s early years, if not earlier. The song opens with waves of ’80s synth and staccato bursts of cop-style guitar, then turns into a crisp power-pop chorus that Billy Corgan could have scripted.
Snail Mail grew up in suburban DC as Lindsey Jordan. She is 23 years old. She’s definitely not a Billy Corgan fan. You ask anyway.
“I have a Smashing Pumpkins tattoo,” she replies. She holds it in front of the Zoom camera.
Spin the latest Lindsey or Marissa Nadler or Shannon Lay albums, and you’ll hear the fruits of a modern singer-songwriter movement, a series of masterful recordings by young artists, mostly women, who grew up listening to their parents’ records, and who values songcraft above all else.
Lindsey Jordan has absorbed influences as diverse as Lana Del Ray, Prince and the Church. Shannon Lay, a former punk rocker from Redondo Beach, California, was inspired early on by the Backstreet Boys and the Spice Girls before exploiting her “weird” gene and discovering Elliott Smith and the Velvet Underground. Marissa Nadler, a self-taught Boston finger picker, progressed from Madonna and Abbey Road to Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Nina Simone.
And what is a singer-songwriter? Dylan, the Beatles and Curtis Mayfield, among others, pioneered the practice of filling full albums with music they wrote and sang, going against a long tradition that had separated the performer’s writer and padded the long performers with endless, redundant covers. Their work inspired the so-called era of singer-songwriters, a generation of artists in the 1960s and early 1970s who wrote observational and confessional songs on acoustic guitars and pianos and presented them on albums with few ornaments. by Joni Mitchell Blue album arguably marked the peak of the movement.
The era of singer-songwriters eventually faded, but the art of songwriting continued through successive generations of artists who enjoyed melody and harmony, chord inversions and the counterpoint, from the guttural growl of Tom Waits to the harrowing waltzes of Elliott Smith to the chilling strings that end. “Purple rain.”
The best new singer-songwriter channels all of these artists and more. They’re mostly women, a refreshing trend after decades of the Guyville music business, a sea change that Joni would appreciate.
Here are six standout albums from the new singer-songwriter movement. Three were recorded and released during the pandemic, a sort of global timeout that has blessed all of these artists with the precious gift of time.
valentine, Post mail (2021)
Lindsey Jordan has been recording and releasing music since 2015 when she was in high school. valentine is his second long-player.
The title track builds on a shimmering chorus that’s as catchy and melodious as any Smashing Pumpkins single. It’s his triumphant concert overture, the kind of song that will still be buzzing in a listener’s head on the subway ride home.
The album unfolds on a warm power-pop atmosphere. “Headlock” unfolds around such an open string on Lindsey’s prized Fender Noventa Jazzmaster. The charming chorus, raucous arpeggios over a progressive bass, sounds as melodic as Andy Partridge of XTC in his prime. Channels “Forever” Andy Summers, Prince and Avalon-Roxy Music era with sleek 80s synth patterns and muted guitar beats. Throughout, Lindsey embraces and envelops the listener with her voice, warm, ragged and passionate.
valentine pushed Lindsey into the big leagues of indie rock. She credits the pandemic, which gave her time to breathe.
“I had barely written about Valentine. When the pandemic hit, I had three songs,” she recalls. A year later, she had one of the most beautiful albums of 2021.
Geist, Shannon Lay (2021)
After five albums, Shannon Lay remains an accomplished independent artist, her email address printed directly on her webpage. If the pandemic has allowed Lindsey Jordan to breathe, it has given a ray of inspiration to Shannon.
“I felt called to try to explain what I was going through,” she says, “because I felt a lot of other people were going through it as well. I felt that there were so many people who needed to hear this message: keep going.
Geist features some of the finest folk guitar figures put on vinyl since Nick Drake picked up his last. “Rare to Wake”, the opening, warms the soul like a pastoral sunrise. Shannon’s angelic double-track lullaby glides over a hypnotic, cycling fingerstyle riff over his Córdoba acoustic, anchored to a simple jazz bass and adorned with splashes of Fender Rhodes keyboard.
Track two, “A Thread to Find,” features a jaw-dropping melody over a simple guitar motif, enlivened with loops, Eno-style keyboards, and a hint of Nick Drake strings.
The title track is perhaps the most beautiful musical statement on the album. Shannon’s distinctive guitar, tuned two full steps to C, resonates with an earthly calm.
the path of the clouds, Marissa Nadler (2021)
Marissa Nadler has been recording records for nearly two decades. She recorded many beautiful songs, but The Path of the Clouds may be his most accomplished album.
Like Shannon and Lindsey, Marissa found herself with extra time when the pandemic subsided.
“I recorded most of the record by myself at home and emailed people I like to work with,” she says. “After hearing how all the instrumentation was going, I decided to redo everything.”
Clouds boasts dense layers of instrumentation and sublime vocals. The standout cut, “If I Could Breathe Underwater,” began as a finger-picked ballad in open Joni Mitchell tuning. “I had so many snatched ballads in my long discography,” she says, “I felt it was time to try something else.” The song came across as a masterpiece on many levels, posing Marissa’s beautiful, breathless vocals above the pulsing waves of synthesizer and soft-marching drums. Muddy guitars pull the listener into the dreamy title track, which unfolds to a Quaalude-y beat.
“Pink Floyd was my favorite band growing up,” she explains.
Titanic Rising, Blood of Weyes (2019)
Weyes Blood is Natalie Mering, raised primarily in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Like Shannon, Natalie has followed a circuitous musical path, dabbling in noise rock and once fronting a band called Satanized, no doubt much to the delight of her Pentecostal parents.
With Titanic Rising, her fourth album, Natalie celebrates the lost soft-rock splendours of Karen Carpenter, David Gates and Harry Nilsson. Everything on Rise of the Titanic shouts “difficult”, from the funeral title to the artist’s name to the cover art of Natalie drowning in her bedroom. But you won’t find a more listenable album recorded in this prodigious pre-covid year.
The eerie piano chords that open “A Lot’s Gonna Change” take the listener back fifty years, to a time “when I had the whole world gently wrapped around me.” From Natalie’s mighty contralto to lush orchestrations and ethereal piano, this is a consummate work of songwriting art.
“Andromeda” sounds like a lost ’70s classic, channeling George Harrison’s tearful slide guitar and Carly Simon’s Mother Earth vocals. “Everyday” sounds like a buried treasure from Nilsson, or an exit from Sergeant Pepper.
Reward, Cate Le Bon (2019)
Cate Le Bon sang her first EP in Welsh. His recorded output challenges and entertains by turns. Gruff Rhys, lead singer of Welsh band Super Furry Animals, described one of Cate’s early singles as Bobbie Gentry and Nico fighting over a Casio keyboard.
Reward, Cate’s fifth album may be her masterpiece. “Miami”, the first song, unfolds like a symphony of counterpoint, a compositional feat almost on the scale of Philip Glass. When Cate performed the song as her opening number at Black Cat in Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2019, the crowd received her in hypnotized silence. At the end, someone in the back shouted, “You’re amazing,” capturing the mood.
As Gruff deduces, Cate Le Bon on Reward sounds a bit like Nico, the vocalist of Velvet Underground, leading a band led by Brian Eno and creating music that playfully pushes the boundaries of pop. “Daylight Matters” navigates edgy guitar lines and warm major seventh chords on the piano. “Home to You” sounds like Japanese pop from a parallel universe.
Song for our daughter, Laura Marling (2020)
Laura Marling is thirty-two years old but has been making music in Britain for half her life: she is Snail Mail, ten years later. Like Marissa Nadler, Laura has released several highly acclaimed albums. Yet nothing in its past catalog approaches the magnificence of Song for our daughter, his seventh album.
“Alexandra”, the opener, may have dominated FM radio around 1973. The song opens with an acoustic guitar figure on the neck, like the ones Crosby, Stills & Nash played. It settles into a warm 70s pop groove, Laura’s majestic melody hovering over steel guitar flourishes and tumbling drums. “Held Down”, the second song, opens with a beautiful soaring melody answered by a cascading three-part harmony. The bitter title track offers painful lessons for the next generation.