I hope to do complete album reviews sometime...
6.0-7.0 Good
7.5-8.5 Very Good
9.0-10.0 Excellent
I'm not really sure how to factor in sound quality, because, clearly, I like some albums a lot more than others because of their fantastic sound. For some, like Julia Fordham's, the sound is not up to par, which makes me wonder about what could have been. Albums with superb sound have a red star , albums with poor sound will have a black star.

Mary Black

When you pick a handsome flower
Don't forget the thorn upon the rose
Its cut is deep and its scar lasts forever
It follows love, wherever love goes

Mary Black6.5
Without the Fanfare6.5
By the Time it gets Dark7.5
No Frontiers8.5
Babes in the Woods8.5
The Holy Ground8.0
I suppose I would classify Mary Black as an alto. She sings folksy tunes including covers by luminaries such as Joni Mitchell ("Urge for Going"). If your Hi-Fi does not allow female voices to breathe, her voice might sound wooden and sometimes monotonous. For some reason, the recording does not have a lot of "air" in them; According to the Mission newsletter, breaths and other environmental effects were added to the No Frontiers album to make it sound more natural.

So she's not a singer-songwriter; I still like her albums a lot. They nice to listen to though I can't really single out any particularly brilliant songs. Songs with minimal accompaniment such as "Thorn upon the Rose", "Song for Ireland" (piano), "Holy Ground" (guitar) are very appealing pieces. Maybe thats because the recording quality of the other busier tracks left something to be desired. Her vocals are well recorded, but the music seems a bit lifeless and muddy. Additionally, I've heard better pianos elsewhere. Perhaps its the result of overdubbing or just that recording technology in Ireland is a few years behind that of the US. I hope I'm not sounding too hard on these basically superb albums, but I think anything recorded after 1987 should be compared to Famous Blue Raincoat, which is after all, a 1987 recording. But so far, only Holy Ground and (later)which is a 1993 albums, matches the quality of FBR. Still, her albums, particularly No Frontiers or Babes in the Wood, can in found in the CD collections of many audiophiles,Hi-Fi stores & Hi-Fi manufacturers; additionally, Japanese pressings of these CDs have also been released (I think they have a bonus track) and despite being Aluminium, they cost more than Chesky Gold CDs. These Japanese audiophiles must be one wacky bunch. Anyway, its all a testament to the fact that the music matters more than the sound quality.

Thorn Upon the RoseOk, so its a mushy sort of song with vocals and piano. Buts when its this well done, can you blame me for feeling warm and fuzzy when I listen to it?
Song for IrelandSinging a song about summer sunsets with piano accompaniment, (Imagine the sibilance), the song evokes vivid images of Ireland and the sea. Her voice really soars in this one, provided you have a decent system. Its an older AAD recording, yet curiously her voice sounds better & less muffled than on No Frontiers. duh. I'm not sure why they didn't retain this sound for her later recordings. Maybe because it sounds a bit too harsh and sibilant on lousy Hi-fi?
Holy GroundVocals with piano this time, this 1993 recording should be what all her earlier albums should sound like.

Amanda McBroom

Some say love
It is a razor
That leaves the soul to bleed

Amanda 6.5
Live at the Rainbow & Stars8.0
Midnight Matinee9.0
The fact that Amanda McBroom appeared in a Star Trek:NG episode predisposes me to liking her. I would classify her as "adult contemporary pop" (whatever that means). She writes most of the songs on her albums and one of her songs, "the Rose", became a hit for Bette Midler. She has a wonderfully expressive voice; it reminds me of Ute Lemper's comment about "enacting" a song rather than singing it. This expressiveness is conveyed wonderfully in all her recordings, along with a sense of intimacy. She often sings closed-miked, and you can hear her mouth opening and closing quite often, but that in no way detracts from the recording. But in my opinion, one of her biggest strengths is her songwriting ability.

The 2 must-have albums must be Dreaming and Midnight Matinee. Dreaming hardly needs any introduction as it took the hi-fi world by storm when it was first released as a gold CD. It is to be eternal regret that I didn't get it then, as currently, I can't find the gold version -- its a Hong Kong pressing. I might have to content myself with the normal version. Anyway, I think I've heard Dreaming often enough in Hi-Fi demo rooms to say that it is a superb album. Midnight Matinee is just as wonderful. Of course, Dreaming is sonically superior even though its a 1986 recording! Well, at least in terms of the richness of Amanda's voice, pretty amazing. Also, in Midnight Matinee theres quite a bit of noise from the mike, coupled with the noises you here from Amanda singing closed-miked. Don't get me wrong though, its still superbly recorded. Compare this to the limitations of the Sheffield Labs 1996 remaster "Amanda" (a gold disc), comprising 12 of her old songs. Her voice has that rich and warm sound that Midnight Matinee lacks, but theres so much hiss. "The Rose", her most famous song I suppose, is a mainly quiet piano/vocals piece. Yet, I've learnt to live with the hiss, it doesn't distract me now from what must be one of the best singles of female vocals ever recorded. Yes its that good. Buy the entire disc just for this rendition of "The Rose", the one in Dreaming has too much synthesisers, & the one in the live album has too 2-dimensional souding. 1986, a time when synthesisers (and Fender Rhodes pianos) were new and novel things. Speaking of which, the live album is real fun as it records her chatting with the crowd and reveals her sense of humour. Great DDD recording as well, and wow, it clocks in at 60:50 (including her banter).

Suzanne Vega

And she said, "I've swallowed a secret burning thread
It cuts me inside, and often I've bled"...
And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
The battle
Continued on

Suzanne Vega9.5
Solitude Standing8.5
Days of Open Hand6.5
Nine Objects of Desire

If Joni Mitchell invented neo-folk, Suzanne Vega was the one who revived it. Bursting into prominence with her pop-sounding "Luka", the little ditty "Tom's Diner", and "Left of Centre" which was in the soundtrack of Pretty in Pink, she introduced the rest of the world to the Greenwich Village folk scene. Her voice is very unique and ethereal in quality; it draws you in and hypnotises you. As an introduction to her music, I strongly recommend her first album, it doesn't have the slick production values of the later albums, but its clearly a diamond in the rough. Its filled with brilliant songs such as "Marlene on the Wall" and "The Queen and the Soldier". Days of Open Hand is probably her weakest album; that she plays the Fairlight CMI ['Computer Music Instrument' or something like that - shudder] on some of the tracks might point towards the reason for its weakness -- a departure from her acoustic roots in search of a sort of Philip-Glass like sound. Suzanne stated that she wanted to leave the mushy love songs from Solitude Standing behind her, and she finally did this successfully in 99.9F. With improved sound quality, the listener gets to hear the uniqueness of her voice and the subtle inflections that weren't as clear on the earlier albums. In addition, I like 99.9F because of its relatively sparse musical accompaniment which lets her voice cut through more clearly. I do not like the wall-of-sound approach to making singles. If theres a space created because the piano is not playing, you do not have to stuff some synthesised strings or whatever to fill it up. Exceptions exist, of course. In fast, noisy numbers like "Heroes Go Down", also in 99.9F, are so brilliantly arranged that her voice never gets crowded out by the music.
The Queen and the SoldierA lovely story/poem written and sung by her.
Marlene on the WallA song inspired by Marlene Dietrich, I would classify it as an enigmatic love song, and typically Suzanne Vega.
Heroes Go DownSure shes a folksie, but can she swing? Sure she can. A fun and energetic song compressed into 2 minutes of solid music.
LukaWell, I had to mention this, right? A big hit for her, she appeared on the Grammys to sing it in Spanish. Anyway, check out Shawn Colvin's backing vocals. When A record review stated that Shawn was the backup singer on Luka, I knew immediately which voice they were referring to, so outstanding is Shawn's voice.

Sara Hickman

Equal Scary People
Necessary Angels7.5
Suzanne Vega with a more overt sense of humour. Sara is another talented singer-songwriter-guitarist whom I'm reluctant to classify as neofolk; well, maybe neofolk in the widest sense possible. A more standard sounding voice (if there was a standard), she has a good range and expressiveness. Whats also important is that all these are captured in her excellent recordings.

I only have Shortstop and Necessary Angels, and on a head to head I think that Shortstop wins out. It should be the first Sara Hickman album you buy. Necessary Angels sounds more like an intelligent pop album, whereas Shortstop evinces more folkish roots, and contains 2 of my favourite songs. Recording-wise, maybe its the simpler, less noisy music, but Shortstop sounds better than Necessary Angels overall. Granted that the acoustic guitars in Necessary Angels appear to have more "bite", its not enough to compensate for the fact that it all sounds quite muddy, perhaps a result of overdubbing, excessive reverb, and all the annoying things that you find in pop albums. Her voice isn't really allowed to shine in the later album.
In the FieldsThis track sounds awesome on great Hi-Fi. Singing about love and seperation with a tiny touch of humour, its a musical tour de force. It alternates between soft and louder movements, almost whispered lines to full-bodied singing of the chorus. The instruments are placed superbly with the guitars clearly defined on the listeners left hand side. The percussion on the right doesn't have that much to do, so the recording might seem a bit slanted to the left, but if thats the way it is, thats the way you should hear it. The recording is clear and not at all harsh, with individual instruments discernable. Amazing. These Americans really know how to get good sound.
ShortStopAnother delightful track. Listen to the wonderful clarinet -- an interesting change from the standard saxophone, the hose whirled about the head, and the cello. The lyrics are delightful. Its a simple circle, beginning with the her noticing the light filtering through the trees and ending through the light fading from her sister's eyes (I'm guessing).

Rebecca Pidgeon

The Raven9.5
The New York Girl's Club9.0
One day, while looking for a Mary Black CD, the storeowner recommended The Raven to me. I listened to "Kalerka" and was hooked. Her music in general, can be descibed as adult contemporary, with a jazzy feel to it (listen especially to the piano); however, her the songs she writes are clearly not traditional jazz fare, so I guess we'll have to call her a neo-folkie as well (just kidding).

I was also pleasantly suprised that despite being a gold disc, it was almost the same price as the normal disc. Anyway, whatever the price, The Raven has to be one of the best discs of this genre out there. She has a sweet voice with a subtle expressiveness to it. Its definitely not one of those disembodied voices with bad diction. With a voice like that, she could be very successful just releasing covers, but I'm glad she writes her own songs.

Anyway, all the songs on the album are gems. The songs were written by her in collaboration with her husband, except for the cover of "Spanish Harlem". The soundstaging, the volume balance, and the imaging all contribute to make this one of the best studio-recorded albums around.

Her follow-up album, the New York Girls Club, is almost as good. But maybe thats because the first album dealt with lighter, mushier, subject matter that makes for pleasant sounding music. For the second album, you have to think a little. At least she has the ability to move beyond mushy love songs. Her competence in songwriting is never in doubt, and there aren't any duds, but shes outclassed in this area by the rest. Yet, thanks to her supporting musicians, her songs as a total musical package are something special.

KalerkaAs the first track, this song establishes the feel of the sound: light, sweet, jazzy vocals. She sings about journeying and arriving and asks plaintively:

Were you with us at the crossing
To guide or counsel or oversee
Our long awaited journey
To the place?

Seven HoursHer version of a familiar theme which I like a lot. Listen to her voice in the opening and listen to the details in that beautiful voice, including the slight, subtle strain. This is then followed by some superb guitar and percussion. As in all the tracks, you can imagine her present in the room.

Julia Fordham

It wounded deeply the scar is here to stay
Opening up at the little things I do or say
You always want things to be as before
So I make you angry and you bleed a little more

Julia Fordham7.5
Porcelain 8.0
Falling Forward6.5
A lady with a most unique voice, Jules is yet another talented guitarist/singer/songwriter. She's a contralto and I think "fruity" is a possible way of describing her voice. Her first 2 albums are the most memorable. I think her singing and songwriting are always of a consistently high standard, its just that in the first 2, have something special. Breathtaking closed miked singing in songs with piano accompaniment in songs such as "Towerblock" and "Invisible War".

Shawn Colvin

Steady On9.5
Fat City7.0
Cover Girl10.0
A Few Small Repairs9.5
One of the most talented singer-songwriters in existence, Shawn Colvin is one of the unfortunate few that MTV thinks is too old to appeal to the youth of today. I heard Steady On when I was 16 and was amazed then by beautiful lyrics.

If life were not unfortunate
And reason blew like
Summer through the trees
I would stop to let you catch me
But I would think that you would find me on my knees

Her delicate and fragile voice is an ideal complement to her songs. Her voice is can be described as silky smooth but with an angst-filled edge to it, however, as pointed out by Time Magazine, she's too polite to scream. Many of the standard themes are covered, but throughout, you get the sense of struggle, and how one must endure and survive. The album title "Steady On", is very apt indeed.

The sound quality of all the albums is extremely high throughout, but special mention must be made of the album "Cover Girl", which contains several tracks with the "tingle" factor. They're live recordings where basically its her and the guitar with minimal accompaniment. Her voice cuts through the silence like a knife as it soars from a whispered "I'm O.K." to the highs of the chorus. Hi-fi systems that cannot adequately deal with sibilance will have a problem though. Theres lots of low level detail to be found on the live tracks. Its just amazing what these microphones can pick up, though you have to listen hard. Also, the sound of silence in these tracks is simply amazing. Its not exactly silent of course, as there are always tiny echoes in a small hall.

Tori Amos

So you found a girl who thinks really deep thoughts
Whats so amazing about really deep thoughts
Boy you best pray that I bleed real soon
Hows that thought for you?
Little Earthquakes8.5
Under the Pink7.0
Boys for Pele7.0

A classical pianist turned pop star, Tori Amos for some reason has a huge following of teenaged girls. Maybe she's just a brilliant live performer. When it comes to songwriting, she's no slouch either. When I first heard her, I immediately thought of the queen of sublime songwriting, Kate Bush. But she's no imitator, having through 3 successful albums marked out her own path. Furthermore, in all the albums, the good recording allows her voice to shine. Her voice to fixed solidly in the centre of the soundstage with an almost palpable presence. In many of her closed-miked songs, you can lose your eyes and imagine she's in front of you. She favours Bösendorfer's, and she does play the piano well; but I just wonder why the recording loses the characteristic tone of the Bösendorfer's (which I think is slightly less bright than a Steinway).

"Silent all these Years", which won an MTV award is one of my favourite songs. The quotation above is from this song, in which she sings about a relationship/marriage that slowly disintegrates. She's the victim who suffers in silence, though she wishes for the world to able to scream out loud

My scream got lost in a paper cup
You think theres a heaven where screams have gone

; when she half-whispers "silent all these years", the desperation and helplessness of someone trapped in a hopeless relationship is conveyed through her delicate, beautifully miked voice.

The Cranberries

Probably the noisiest sort of music I listen to. I'm still not sure whether Dolores O'Riordan can actually sing, a thin voice (I suspect massaged in the mix), basically not much vocal range to speak of, minimal expressiveness -- in singing slower songs, she grunts the same way she grunts in faster songs. But still, their CDs sound pretty good on occasion. I have to give credit to the band for writing some very listenable songs. And yes, I do like "Zombie". The songs are all quite bright, I just wonder how those with excessively harsh systems deal with them. If I listen to a Cranberries song without letting my system warm up for a few hours, I run for cover after a few seconds! When I get a new CD player, I'll follow up further on the role of CD players in contributing to the awful harsh sound that grates your ears. The Sony X229ES is no slouch, but its no 7ES either :)

As for the first album to get, I suppose No Need to Argue contains a lot of familiar hits, so that should be the first choice. All 3 albums are pretty good which is suprising, because quite a few artistes fade after the first 2 albums.

Badi Assad

Shes more of a guitar player who performs scat vocals in her pieces. If you like the sound of acoustic guitar, you're in for a treat, because there are so many superb guitar recordings out there. Listen to the detail in the plucking of the strings. The sound is basically awesome. With digital recordings, you hear no analogue hiss, so besides the guitar, the silence (never total, in especially recordings like this, in a Church) throws into relief the music.

If you're into sheer virtuosity, you may not find it in Badi. If you're looking for someone with rhythm and who swings with it, you're at the right place. Also, I don't like recordings where the microphones are too close (actually, Mary Black's guitars are miked at 6 inches..duh), too much of a metallic twang, so I find the guitar sound here particularly pleasing. There are some recordings that sound more up-front, its entirely a matter a taste.