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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.