Some of the music most worth listening to is not often played on mainstream radio. Here's some of what I'm enjoying at the moment.
all india radio
All India Radio is Martin Kennedy plus assorted other musicians from time to time. This generally instrumental music can occasionally be a little trite and simple, but more often it is strange, beautiful and haunting ambient sounds. Perhaps best of all is the only vocal album, "Fall", where the strong, expressive voice of Leona Prue fronts some fine Kennedy instrumentation. Right now (Feb 2010) you can get cheap and even free downloads from All India Radio's Myspace page.
These four guys from "somewhere in middle America" (Michigan) play what is sometimes called "space rock" - atmospheric, lush music that is somewhere between rock and ambient. The vocals can be a little weak, but the mainly instrumental music really soars. Check out their music at Myspace.
my brightest diamond
My Brightest Diamond is mainly Shara Worden. Trained as an opera singer, she has toured with Sufjan Stevens (see below) as a back-up singer as well as a performer of her own material. Her music is dramatic, individual and her singing can be electrifying. Her Myspace page will let you listen to some of her music.
Radical face is one of several projects of Ben Cooper, who does just about everything on the superb album "Ghost", including record it in his backyard shed. The music is beautiful and folky soft rock, and the lyrics on this album are based on the fantasy that houses have ghostly memories which remain and may haunt those who move in next. "Down the Road" from this album is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Check out Ben's website.
Possibly the most well known of the bands here, these Icelanders play quirky, anthemic songs with a big sound. Never in a hurry, the music builds slowly, ebbs and flows and contains many surprises. But don't try to decipher the lyrics, they're generally in Icelandic or Hopelandic, an invented mini-language. Here's the Sigur Ros website.
Sufjan may just be the most talented and quirky musician I have ever heard. He writes some of the simplest and best lyrics you'll ever hear (try "Casimir Pulaski Day"), he plays most instruments, does his own gentle singing, and his choral and musical arrangements are sometimes intricate and always creative (try "They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From the Dead!!…") And did I say he has a mad sense of humour and some outrageous song titles? His website sums it up this way: "Sufjan Stevens mixes autobiography, religious fantasy, and regional history to create folk songs of grand proportions." On top of this, he established Asthmatic Kitty records, which is now home to a large bunch of quirky, obscure and talented musicians.
the middle east
The Middle East are a creative bunch of Aussies who can play anything from modern folk to anthemic rock. Recent performances have endeared them to a growing clan of loyal followers. On stage, they are a six or seven piece collective that can on occasion be augmented to include a string section and/or a choir. "Blood" is a moving folky song about family and the hurts that can come with the package. Pig Food live (which has the full string section plus choir) is well worth a listen (though not as tight as on recording - it was on the original "The Recordings of the Middle East", but not on the re-release). I really hope this amazing band is heard by many more happy listeners. Check out their Myspace page.