I originally put this page up to rave about the band, Ben Folds Five, a great band led by Ben Folds on the piano, with Robert Sledge on the bass, and Darren Jessee on drums. It's good piano based rock, with great lyrics (which you can check out at their web site). I've been listening to both their albums, Ben Folds Five (self-titled), and Whatever and Ever Amen, continuously for the past 3 weeks. It's also a nice change of pace for a rock band not to be totally guitar-oriented but not lose any of the driving beat that makes rock fun to listen to.
I've also started listening to Ani DiFranco, a "girl-with-a-guitar" kinda singer who takes on politics, sex, and is brutally honest about her views on them. She started her own record company, Righteous Babe Records, when she was 19 years old and seems like generally all around a cool person. So based on net recommendations, I bought her live double CD, Living in Clip, which is very good. I've also got tickets to go see her live on Halloween since I've read that her shows are awesome live.
Another good not-totally-mainstream album is Mickey Hart's Mystery Box. Mickey Hart was the drummer for the Grateful Dead, who's started his own group called Planet Drum which is an all percussion group that's a great group in its own right. On this album, they're joined by the Mint Juleps, a female a cappella group, who provide beautiful vocals above the intricate rhythms woven by Planet Drum. "It has a beat, and I can dance to it."
Another awesome a cappella group is the House Jacks. These guys are absolutely tremendous performers (I've seen 4 or 5 of their concerts), and great rocking musicians to boot. Andrew Chaikin is acknowledged as one of the best vocal percussionists (that's where you make the sounds of a full drum set using only your mouth) in America, and he's unbelievable to watch. The bass, Bert, is also pretty amazing, provoking great envy in a mere baritone like myself. And the other guys are pretty durn good themselves. They've been signed up with Tommy Boy Records, a national recording company, and have cut an album which for unexplainable reasons has not been released yet. In the meantime, their self-recorded album Naked Noise is the one I have and it's a good one that might be available from their web page.
Bach's St. Matthew's Passion is also high on my list. The Stanford Chamber Chorale were part of a performance of the Passion this spring, and it was incredible. We brought in professional soloists, but the 2 choirs, and the orchestra were all Stanford students. It is simply one of the most amazing pieces in classical music, a 3 hour epic denoting the story of Christ, with some of the most beautiful choruses and arias ever written. Bach is an all-time great composer, and this is one of his best works.
Other somewhat offbeat albums which I think are excellent include: