SLATE: Where Do I Start With Richard Thompson?
2/18/2013 (updated 2/18/2013)

Where Do I Start With Richard Thompson?

Richard Thompson released Electric, and the early buzz is that it’s his best album in a decade, full of the great songwriting and stunning guitar that has characterized his entire output. This will probably not do much to increase his fan base, though: Thompson, despite tremendous critical acclaim and a decent-sized following, has never become a big-time star. His last album, Cabaret of Souls, was a musical play about a talent contest in the underworld. That this didn’t seem like such an oddity to Thompson fans may explain both why he has never managed to achieve broad recognition and also why his followers remain so devoted.

A stellar musician - in 2003, Rolling Stone named him one of the top 20 guitarists of all time; Nick Hornby has a character in High Fidelity call him "England’s finest electric guitarist" - and a songwriter whose tunes have been recorded by (among others) Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt, and R.E.M., Thompson has always been known for his variety. At 18, when he helped form the hugely influential English folk-rock band Fairport Convention, he was already a virtuoso; producer Joe Boyd signed the band after seeing Thompson liven up the group’s Dylan covers with solos that quoted from Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian. His albums have featured rock, jazz, Middle Eastern, rockabilly, Celtic, British music-hall, and country. When, in 1999, Playboy asked Thompson to come up with a list of the best songs of the last millennium, he quickly realized the question was really about the last 40 years - then obstinately took them at their word. The result was a popular live set, and later album, known as 1000 Years of Popular Music, which includes medieval and Renaissance songs along with Gilbert and Sullivan, Stephen Foster, The Who, Prince, ABBA, Hoagy Carmichael, even Britney Spears. In addition to the two dozen or so albums he’s recorded, he’s done soundtracks (most notably for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man), session work (for Nick Drake among others), and collaborations.

All this makes it especially difficult to come up with a 10-song list for the uninitiated:
"Matty Groves" from Liege and Leaf (1969)
"End of the Rainbow" from I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1974)
"Dimming of the Day/Dargai" from Pour Down Like Silver (1975)
"Wall of Death" from Shoot Out the Lights (1982)
"Tear-Stained Letter" from Hand of Kindness (1983)
"From Galway to Graceland" from Watching the Dark (1993)
"Beeswing" from Mirror Blue (1994)
"1952 Vincent Black Lightning" from Rumor and Sigh (1991)
"Al Bowlly’s in Heaven" from Daring Adventures (1986)
"Cooksferry Queen" from Mock Tudor (1999)

Jesse Sheidlower, Slate