The album art for Sufjan Stevens' Illinois.
Interlochen Arts Academy Instructor of Singer-Songwriting, Courtney Kaiser-Sandler knows a thing or two about the music industry. With multiple albums as both a solo artist and with her band, the Kaiser Cartel, and with collaborations with John Mellencamp, Sufjan Stevens and other high-profile recording artists, Kaiser knows her voice and knows how to help others find theirs.
Below, Kaiser walks you through 19 albums that she believes are imperative listening for any aspiring singer-songwriters.
Albums are arranged in chronological order.
1. The Beach Boys | Pet Sounds (1966)
Brian Wilson is the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds was an exit from the Beach Boys’ iconic surfer-pop material. It is considered to have changed the course of pop music, and to have been the first "rock" concept album. The listener can feel Wilson’s inner turmoil throughout the record, starting with an innocent childhood mindset to the challenges of his personal life and disenchantment of adulthood. The recording features the use of the echo chamber, which is also important to note.
2. The Velvet Underground | The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967)
This album gives the listener the feel and influence that Andy Warhol's 'The Factory' had in New York City in the 1960s. Nico's vocals give the “I don't care vibe” on top of Lou Reed's experimental sound. Mo Tucker also shows us how a female can rock the drums, standing up and playing heavily on the toms. Super moody with lots of attitude!
3. Beatles | The White Album (1968)
If you think you’ve heard enough of the poppy Beatles songs that everyone knows, this is the record for you. The band leaves the world they have been in and just get weird with themselves. Each member has moments to share their individual genius, which results in a collective group of amazing songs (although the album was written by John Lennon). There was a lot of drama in the making of this album; the Beatles had just finished transcendental meditation, and each band member, including producer George Martin, were experiencing personal drama. “Happiness is a warm gun” is a sentiment that's very sad, but interesting nonetheless.
4. Joni Mitchell | Blue (1971)
Joni Mitchell is one of the best singer songwriters in the world. She has an incredible ability to present lyrical ideas, and her music can stand on its own.
5. T-Rex | Electric Warrior (1971)
Marc Bolan was at the forefront of the psychedelic folk scene which became the footprint for glam rock in England. His guitar playing is incredibly interwoven with melody. This album is considered to be the first glam rock album, preceding David Bowie and Brian Eno.
6. Led Zeppelin | Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
I think everyone knows this band and this record, but just in case you don't, this is a great one to start with. Again, great vocals here, and the writing is epic. I assume that the inner band communication was solid. Each player is lost within themselves, reaching the performance Shangri-La we all want to obtain, but are conscious enough to know where they are within the song.
7. Nick Drake | Pink Moon (1972)
A great album that shows good writing and how important it is that a song be able to stand on its own with only one voice and one guitar.
8. Prince | Purple Rain (1984)
Prince is probably the most incredible musician I have ever seen live. He could play every instrument backwards and forwards. It was hard to choose one album from him, but I chose Purple Rain because it's the first album where he credits his band, The Revolution. Watching live performances of Prince are essential to seeing what great showmanship really looks like.
9. The Staple Singers | The Best of The Staple Singers (1986)
While the Staple Singers were basically a cover band, in my mind, nobody does it better than this family. Mavis Staples is one of the most incredible singers in the world. The day could be grey and a storm could be brewing, but the sun will always start shining when you hit play.
10. Sinead O'Connor | Lion and the Cobra (1987)
Sinead's vocal range and ability to set mood and passion through melody and dynamics is featured on this release. The album draws upon her Irish roots, blending with a modern viewpoint in the writing.
11. My Bloody Valentine | Loveless (1991)
My Bloody Valentine are the masters of the shoegaze movement. The amount of amplification and pedals that are used by this band is incredible. The lyrics are tough to decipher, but to me, they don't even matter: It's all about the mood and emotion a wall of sound can create.
12. Bjork | Debut (1993)
Another incredible vocalist, Bjork uses not only range, but also vocables, to replace lyrical content. She is a smart writer, teaming up with incredible musicians from all over the world to create obscure instrumental arrangements.
13. Gillian Welsh | Revival (1996)
Gillian Welsh is one of the quintessential artists to listen to for raw, Appalachian-style folk music. She and David Rawlings are a dynamic duo, taking turns on lead guitar and singing brilliantly together.
14. Lisa Germano | Excerpts from a Love Circus (1996)
Lisa Germano is who all the women of the ‘90s were listening to as they were making their records, but is less well-known than some of her counterparts. She began her career as a violinist for John Cougar Mellencamp, who was on popular radio in the 80s, but even while she was playing with Mellencamp, she was making these weird, artsy records on her own. Her lazy-feel vocals, along with interesting instrumentation and recording techniques, make this a must-listen album. This is her sixth release.
15. Elliott Smith | Either/Or (1997)
This is a beautifully written album, creating a verbal and musical landscape of melancholy. Smith struggled with mental illness, which resulted in him leaving way too soon. I often wonder what his music would sound like if he had been able to rise above his personal demons. Much of this album was included in the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting, a brilliant movie!
16. Radiohead | Ok Computer (1997)
This band has been incredible from the start and continues to put out great music. Thom Yorke is an incredible vocalist using his range in all the best ways. The music on this album interweaves so many melodies and incredible arrangements that each song is a mini-masterpiece. I had to buy this album four times because I played it so much the CDs would begin to skip.
17. Johnny Cash | American IV (2002)
Johnny Cash was an incredible writer and traditional country artist. I could easily recommend some of the first records he made, because often, for the most famous artists, the first albums they released are the best. This is because these albums existed before the industry got their hands on them. But for Cash, American IV is an incredible blend of his writing along with the writing of other artists. The song 'Hurt' written originally by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Cash's ability to use the words of another to share his own life is an exemplary way to show new artists how to cover a song right!
18. Calexico | Feast of Wire (2003)
This is a great album to show how arrangement can be used in interesting ways. It is, in my mind, a "landscape" album, which I define as a musical album that allows its listener to let go of the present and go deep within for self-reflection and journey. A great album for a road trip!
19. Sufjan Stevens | Illinois (2005)
Stevens is a modern-day Mozart in my mind. He scores his own music, and thinks on a grand scale about his arrangements. Stevens decided to start writing concept albums and claimed he would write one for every state in the U.S. He still hasn't completed this large task, but there's still time. Stevens is also an alumnus of Interlochen Arts Academy!
Want to study with Courtney Kaiser-Sandler? Apply to the singer-songwriter program at Interlochen Arts Academy.