Essential Ukulele Records of the 2000s

When I say ‘essential’, I’m not just talking about records that are nice to listen to. All these records have changed the way I think about making music on the ukulele. They’ve inspired me to try something new, to be more ambitious in my playing or to think about the instrument in a new way.

This is my personal choice. So, if you think I’m an idiot, let me know what I’ve left out (or shouldn’t have included) in the comments and why it deserves to be here.

In no particular order:

James Hill – A Flying Leap

He’s got more tasteful and understated with his recent albums but I love this one for its spirit of , “Hey, Mum, look how high I can swing.” There’s an unrelenting enthusiasm to the entire album. Tunes like Uke Talk and Down Rideau Canal blast along like he’s desperate to play every note on the uke in as short a time as possible. He’s got total command of his ukulele and he’s enjoying every second of it.

With highly skilled players of any instrument there’s a tendency to sacrifice enjoyable tunes for technical wizardry but A Flying Leap doesn’t fall into that trap. Even a quite pretentious idea like the One Small Suite for ‘Ukulele is packed with hummable tunes.

James hasn’t made any secret of the fact he’s a bit jaded with the ukulele at the moment and, really, where do you go after an album like this?

Standout Track: Down Rideau Canal
Buy It: On Amazon
Play: Uke Talk, Skipping Stone and Song for Cheri on Dominator
Read: James Hill interview

The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain – Live in London #1 and #2

If you tour for 25 years, you tend to become a pretty good live act. And there’s no doubt that the UOGB are best experienced live (they’re currently up there with Dillinger Escape Plan and AC/DC as my favourite gigs). These two albums pack in all the hits (with the merciful exception of Smells Like Teen Spirit) along with the atmosphere and jokes as old as the band.

As a nerd, what fascinates me about these records are the arrangements. Most uke groups just have most people strumming the same chord while a couple of flash-Harry’s have at it. But their arrangements are crafted.

Standout Track: Just one? Hot Tamales
Buy It: On their website.
Play: Shaft, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Anarchy in the UK, They’re Red Hot.
Read: Will Grove White interview

tUnE-YaRdS – BiRd-BrAiNs

If someone had asked me a few years ago what I’d most like to hear I’d probably have said, “MIA covering Frank Zappa on a ukulele,” and I would be imagining something a lot like tuNE-yArdDS. Connecting TUne-YArds to those to is the masses of ideas they cram in each track and their ability to combine sometimes wildly avant-guard sounds to make something enjoyable, listenable and popular.

Standout Track: Hatari
Buy It: On Amazon
Play: Hatari
Read: UkeToob’s interview with Tune-Yards.

Miss Jess – Jammin’ at Jackson’s

The Luddite part of me thinks every album should be made this way. Write some great songs, get together a bunch of great musicians, sit them around a single mic and give them a day to produce something incredible. Miss Jess followed that tactic and it paid off spectacularly with this record.

Standout Track: Philadelphia
Buy It: On Amazon
Read: Miss Jess interview

The Bobby McGee’s – S’Amuser Com Des Fous

I liked this EP so much I bought it on vinyl despite not having a record player.

Standout Track: When Father Died Ferrets Licked Away the Tears (aka Forever and a Day).
Buy it: On iTunes
Play: Forever and a Day
Read: Bobby McGee’s interview

Jake Shimabukuro – Gently Weeps

Jake Shimabukuro is idolised by many ukers for his individuality and originality. Which is why they try to play like him.

After the effects- and instrument- heavy Dragon, Gently Weeps is much more open and direct. Other instruments don’t get a look in until towards the end (where they make the sound much more cheesy). The album is the perfect showcase for Jake’s ability and contains some captivating performances.

Jake has such an individual and recognisable style it’s a shame that he inspires more people to imitate him than he inspires to find their own style.

Standout track: No one agrees with me on this but my favourite is Grandma’s Groove.
Buy It: On Amazon

Beirut – Gulag Orkestar

“Yeah, I’m in a band. I play guitar. And Billy’s on drums. And Mike on bass.” Oh, piss off.

With all the incredible instruments in the world it baffles me why 95% of bands just stick with the obvious. By the simple expedient of using brass, ukuleles and accordions, Zach Condon makes music far more interesting and captivating than most of his contemporaries.

Standout Track: Elephant Gun.
Buy it: On Amazon
Play: Beirut tabs and chords

Sophie Madeleine – Life, Love, Ukulele

It’s tricky writing songs that are timeless without being retro. It helps to be an impossibly talented songwriter. And that voice. Being something of a white-trash thug myself, I can’t resist the posh voice.

Standout Track: Take Your Love With Me
Buy It: On Bandcamp
Play: I Just Can’t Stop Myself (Writing Love Songs About You), Take Your Love With Me (The Ukulele Song) (Chords), The Knitting Song, You Are My Favourite
Read: Sophie Madeleine interview.

View Comments

17 Comments

  1. zym July 21st, 2010 7:05 pm

    Gotta include some WIUO, you idiot! ;)

  2. Hello Jodi July 21st, 2010 7:28 pm

    I can’t say anything, as I’ve not heard all these records, but missing: The Barnkickers, Les Chauds Lapin & Melvern Taylor & His Fabulous Meltones. Melvern is #1 in my book.

    But, then again, in a duel, I take retro over timeless.

  3. Woodshed July 21st, 2010 7:59 pm

    zym: I think The Dreaming EP was the only thing they released in the 00s. Even so, I think they’re going to be releasing better stuff in the future.

    Jodi: They’re nice records but that’s not really what I was getting at with this post. You made me go back and add to the post, so thanks for that.

  4. Armelle July 21st, 2010 8:00 pm

    Good selection there, Al, and great idea for a post.
    I would add to the list:
    - Craig Robertson’s latest CD, Better Liar
    - Thomas Fersen’s CD ‘Gratte Moi la Puce’
    - Galapaghost : Our Lost Generation
    - Tripping Lily : Ukulily

    and I’m probably forgetting quite a few. Of course this is totally subjective.

  5. Ron Hale July 21st, 2010 11:02 pm

    Re James: You can tell he’s jaded with the instrument just by watching videos of recent performances at various ukulele festivals and gatherings. The withdrawn and vaguely sullen attitude he displays is a tipoff that a break is needed. The laptop experiment is getting old (my opinion) and never amounted to much in the first place (my opinion, again).

    Perhaps it’s time for him to expand his role in music beyond that of the ukulele virtuoso. I suspect that the instrument by itself is not enough to keep him happy and satisfy his musicality any longer. Producing albums (of all sorts) could reignite his flagging enthusiasm. Interesting contrast, the enthusiastic happiness of the beginner (or relative beginner) with the
    been-there done-that ho-hum of the vastly experienced player. Makes you think…

  6. Shobs July 22nd, 2010 8:36 am

    Brilliant post! Uke albums had been something I’ve been considering myself for a while. I agree with your choices of Sophie Madeleine and tUnE YaRdS (correct capitalisation?). These are artists that not only excited me as a uke player, but produced music good enough to stick on my ipod; they’re beyond novelty value.

    Yes, I too discovered Jake early on and he made me realise that the uke can be taken seriously as an instrument; but as a player, he tends to scare the hell out of me.

    James Hill: Ron Hale (above) says it all. And I definitely agree with you, Ron on the laptop experiment. Chopsticks and uke? Not worth repeated exposure in my humble opinion.

    Anyway, I’m late for work now which has reduced my pontification. I blame you, Al… ;-)

  7. Jill Carter Cobb July 22nd, 2010 3:05 pm

    I’m excited about this post and I haven’t even read/listened yet!

  8. Humble Jeff July 22nd, 2010 3:41 pm

    A big one for me was John King’s Solos and Duets for the Ukulele which is a song book that comes with a CD of Hawaiian Fingerpicking tunes that are amazing.

    I also like the Lyle Ritz / Herb Ohta CD called A Night of ukulele Jazz. It combines two master musicians.

    Lastly, a local favorite and extremely talented musician, Steven Strauss, has a CD called Ukebox in which I think he shows himself to be one of the most masterful and unique sounding ukulele players in the world. (You can hear a sample on YouTube.)

  9. Hello Jodi July 23rd, 2010 3:03 pm

    Now that I read what you added, I completely understand :) Thanks for this: you always send me to people I’ve never heard of and fall instantly in love with.

  10. Woodshed July 24th, 2010 6:24 pm

    Armelle: If it was totally subjective I wouldn’t have included Jake. But I get your point ;)

    Ron: Yeah, I’d definitely support him moving on to other instruments if that reignited his fire.

    Shobs: Always happy to make people miss work.

    Jill: Hope it doesn’t disappoint!

    Jeff: I did think about including John King. But I do find his arranging more inspiring than his actual records.

  11. Travis McKee July 29th, 2010 8:45 pm

    I have to throw in a plug for Sleeping At Last’s “Storyboards”. A guitar band in a former life, they have become obsessed with sounds more so now. And cohesive songs. The lead songwriter in the band got a uke on accident and has fallen in love with it. About 6 of the songs are written on uke. Not the flashiest uke playing but still something with amazing sound.

  12. Lorraine Bow July 31st, 2010 8:53 pm

    Purrrrr. Nice ukulele music. Thank you!

  13. Woodshed August 3rd, 2010 4:50 pm

    Travis: I’m not familiar with them. Can you recommend one of their uke tunes (couldn’t find one myself).

    Lorraine: You’re welcome.

  14. Ryan Hargis August 9th, 2010 1:25 pm

    you forgot nevershoutnever!’s me and my uke – EP!!

  15. Woodshed August 10th, 2010 8:18 pm

    Ryan: No, I didn’t.

  16. John December 11th, 2011 11:12 pm

    Loudon Wainwright’s “Ukulele” simply must be seen to be believed.

  17. Daniela Francesca Glemme December 14th, 2011 11:11 pm

    OH…I ran out and bought my first ukelele after listening to Eddie Vedder’s solo album Ukelele songs.
    I just survived a brain tumor and am writing my first own album with songs using a ukelele to write the chords. Thank you for a great site! I look forward to using your resources to get jamming while recovering from surgery. Love, Daniela in Sweden

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