Posts Tagged ‘music’

Top 10 Albums of the Decade

Inspired by the perverse choices in the Observer’s top 50 albums of the decade (Franz Ferdinand, Jamie T or Gorrillaz, anyone), I thought I’d have a scratch around my CD collection and see whether I could come up with a more refined and credible alternative. The only consideration for the list was playability, so while Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest is a decent, technically accomplished album, I would struggle to muster the enthusiasm to listen to it all in one sitting and therefore it won’t make the cut. I thought about eliminating any album that Pitchfork has awarded a score of 8 or more to, but realised that would leave me with few entries on the list; nothing against Pitchfork per se as it is still a must-go in terms of new music, but it’s unhealthy pre-occupation with the average-at-best Animal Collective is difficult to tolerate. I have attached some video links to songs by each artist, although not necessarily from the album in question. Honourable mentions for those not on the list include: The Decemberists, Andrew Bird, The Black Keys, Cat Power, Bon Iver, Arctic Monkeys, At The Drive In, Arcade Fire, Okkervil River, Flight of the Conchords, Wilco, Grandaddy, The Hold Steady, Jeffrey Lewis, Sufjan Stevens, Tom Waits,  Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, Rachel Unthank, Feist and Rik Waller (ok, not really).

10. Lil Wayne – Tha Carter III [2008]

On the basis of name-checking former WWF wrestler “Macho Man” Randy Savage in the Jay-Z aided Mr Carter, and seamless rhyming the words “yeast infection” and “geese erection” in Dr Carter, Lil Wayne’s ludicrous, multi –award winning Tha Carter III already deserves a place on this list. However, after a few listens, it is clear that this latest product of Lil Wayne’s surreal imagination is a beast of an album in its own right, a kind-of X-rated Alice in Wonderland where Cheshire cats and Mad Hatters are replaced by guns and bitches, and logic, order and reason devoid of place or purpose. Showy opener 3 Feat is an indicator of what is to follow as the self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive revels in his lyrically absurdity (“abracadabra I’m up like Viagra”) amidst a hypnotic mix of strings and irregular drum loops. As the tracks skip by, future sounds are mashed together with little regard for genre while the lyrical lunacy never lets up (“blind eyes could look at me and see the truth, wonder if Stevie do?”). The results are both laugh-out-loud funny and seriously accomplished. Album stand outs include A Milli and Dr Carter, both of which feature Lil Wayne’s trademark staccato phrasing, while gospel-driven thumper Let The Beat Build does exactly what it says on the tin.

9. Doves – Lost Souls [2000]

Back in 2000 when Lost Souls was released, music resembled a CJD-riddled beast standing in line for the abattoir; the airwaves spewed out nu-metal, the worst musical genre of all time, and people still listened to The Charlatans and Shed Seven (or Shit Seven, as I liked to call them). Just as I was ready to throw in the towel and put on Cigarettes and Alcohol, I heard radio saviours Mark and Lard play The Man Who Told Everything from Doves’ first album Lost Souls, and I almost wept with relief as my faith in music was restored. After buying the album, I was – and still am – amazed at how fresh it sounded, from ethereal slow-burner Firesuite and the folky hypnotism of Sea Song to the rampant celebration of The Cedar Room. The album is also far looser and experimental than its successors, but hints at the layered sound that would become the band’s hallmark in successor albums Last Broadcast and Some Cities. Following the underdog performance of The Seldom Seen Kid last year, many critics are tipping Doves as the next Elbow i.e ready to attain greater mainstream success. Perhaps rather selfishly, I hope they remain favourites of the informed, rather than the masses.

8. John Smith – Map or Direction [2009]

I have a lot of things to thank my girlfriend for; a well-honed loathing for American teen dramas, amateur theatre productions and Radio 1, to name but a few. On the plus side, however, she did introduce me to her old school friend, John Smith. An innovative acoustic guitar player from the buzzing hood of Dartmoor, John marries the virtuoso finger-picking styles of the late John Martyn and the evergreen Bert Jansch with the raspy soul of Ray Lamontagne. Map or Direction is John’s second album and was recorded in weird and wonderful places in Hicksville America, including a forest, the side of a lake and a motel toilet. The locations enhance each song, with sublime opener Invisible Boy underscored by whistling trees and chirping cicadas, the result as beautiful as two kittens wrestling (platonically) on a blanket of morning snow. The draw of John’s music is the sheer range of his ability, from frantic banjo-led lament Watch Her Die (recorded under a Louisiana church) to the percussive, conversational folk of Axe Mountain. Even songs which should have a more mainstream feel, such as A long Way For A Woman, standout with inspired chord progressions and tight fret work. Unsigned by choice, you can buy his CD safe in the knowledge that not a penny goes to the Man. 

7. The National – Alligator [2005]

I first listened to this record driving across the Hover Damn en route to Vegas, readying myself for a feverish night of irresponsible gambling, overpriced bourbon and crystal meth. From memory, we crashed at midnight, stone-cold sober although we lived the dream in a tenuously vicarious manner, after seeing Vince from Entourage bungling three top-heavy blondes into a taxi outside the Bellagio, and some guy who may or may not have been Kanye West leading a ho-train through the MGM Grand. Anyway, back to the music. At first, I refused to take the band seriously in view of their terrible name, however one full listen and I swiftly back-tracked on my original thoughts. Key to the band’s appeal is the hang-dog baritone of vocalist Matt Berninger, a man with a voice so deep, he makes the late Barry White sound like a ruddy-faced pre-pubescent. While Berninger’s monotone but emotional delivery is a constant, the music is a lush feast of varying styles, with preppy indie-rock (Lit Up) rubbing shoulders with understated acoustic (Daughters of the Soho Riots), all exquisitely produced and arranged. The big surprise of the album is the raucous closer and stand-out, Mr November, driven by furious off-beat drumming and gorgeous scaling guitars, while Berninger finally cuts loose with his vocals, proclaiming in desperation to be “the great white hope” who “used to be carried in the arms of cheerleaders”. It’s at once affecting and uplifting, and the sound of a band at the top of their game.   

6. M Ward – Post-War [2006]

Finger-picking solo artist and member of the decade’s latest supergroup, Monsters of Folk, M Ward has spent the past decade honing his languid country sound to the point of legal patent. Listening to Monsters of Folks eponymous album, for example, it doesn’t take much more than a few seconds to identify M Ward creations such as Baby Boomer and Slow Down Jo, which feature his trademark top-string shuffles and bluesy chord changes. For his fifth studio album, Post-War, M Ward decided to broaden his sound by using a full-time backing band, and inviting cameos from alt-country stalwarts Jim James and Neko Case. The resultant record is tighter and more musically diverse than its predecessors, but no less celebratory. Opener Poison Cup is classic M Ward, a gorgeous slow-burning love song showcasing his cracked vocals amidst swirling strings, while later offerings such as Chinese Translation and the beautifully lazy Rollercoaster prove that easy-listening doesn’t necessarily mean Radio 2-friendly cack. However, the most fun is to be had in the up-tempo band numbers, such as To Go Home, a thumping celebration of life and love’s limitations with M Ward promising “to be true to you forever, or until I go home”, and the almost childish joy of Magic Trick, a short, throw-away ditty about a woman who disappears. Arguably, The Transfiguration of Vincent is a finer technical album, but Post-War shades it for sheer optimism and energy.

5. The Streets – Original Pirate Material [2000]

“Brace yourself, ‘cos this goes deep; I’ll show you the secrets to Sky and the birds, actions speak louder than words; stand by me my apprentice.” Original Pirate Material is probably the only album on this list that sounded unlike anything I had heard previously; a bizarre mix of chav philosophies and observations, lo-fi music samples, garage/rap/jungle influences and soaring ambition, which – bizarrely – come together to produce an intelligent, innovative and endlessly enjoyable record. Laughs are aplenty, from fights in kebab shops (Geezers Need Excitement) and the perils of over-reliance on spirits (Too Much Brandy) to crucial social questions, such as the appropriate time to send a text message to a bird you’ve shagged the night before (Don’t Mug Yourself). When taking these tracks in isolation, it would be easy to dismiss the album as one dimensional lad-speak, however the beauty of OPM is Mike Skinner’s ability to thoughtfully address pertinent issues, such as the futility of ecstasy addiction (Weak Become Heroes) and the illogical restrictions on cannabis use when judged against the adverse effects of alcohol abuse (The Irony of it All), without losing any musical impact. The unfortunate irony of it all as far as Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) is concerned, is the swift decline in the quality of his musical output since OPM, which leaves his boast, “give me a jungle or garage beat and admit defeat” somewhat hollow; however, it is testament to his talents that I still get a shiver down my spine and feel a wave of euphoria when walking with my Ipod at full volume, and Turn the Page reaches it’s climax. As Skinner himself would say, tune’s heavy.

4. Bonnie Prince Billy – Summer in the Southeast [2005]

Bonnie Prince Billy aka Will Oldham has spent his near twenty-year career as a self-imposed alt. folk pariah, fearful of interviews, happiest when depressed and only ever dabbling with the mainstream through artist acknowledgment and cover versions of his songs, most notably by Johnny Cash (I See A Darkness) and Rachel Unthank (an odd yet beautiful use of the chorus from Minor Place as a lullaby in her debut album). Picking a favourite Oldham album is a bit like asking a fifteen year-old which member of Girls Aloud he’d like to fornicate with i.e. any, but preferably all and so the obvious choice has to be live album, Summer In The Southeast, which captures early Oldham songs released under his Palace aliases, as well as his later BPB offerings. Where most live performances are plod-along rehashes of existing material, most of the songs on Summer in the Southeast are unrecognisable from their studio counterparts, which is perhaps a reflection on Oldham’s restlessness. Opener Master and Everyone, for example, is transformed from a whispered lament on lost love to a raucous celebration of freedom, while Oldham standard I See A Darkness has an intensity and a level of emotion lacking from the album version, Oldham’s voice cracking as he bellows the refrain “Oh no I see a darkness, did you know how much I loved you” at the final chorus. The whole album feels like a long and loose jamming session in front of a handful of friends, with each whoop and “yeh” from the audience contributing to the atmosphere, and Oldham as weird as ever (“I’ve got clown in my eye!”). Anyone who doesn’t own this is missing out. Big time.

3. Belle & Sebastian – Dear Catastrophe Waitress [2003]

Many years ago, my friend and I decided that a sound indicator of whether or not a girl/woman was suitable for courting (yeh, COURTING, we’re old school here) was her attitude to B & S; if she was a fan and also a bona fide female then it could be a goer; if, on the otherhand, Take That was more her speed, it was time to select the appropriate cut-off line and make the difficult call. Shallow? Surely a more inclusive test than looks, I would counter. The reason for the test boils down to the simple fact that B & S are cool, in everyway that society would deem them un-cool: a collection of curduroy-wearing, wussy indie kids who write bookish lyrics set to pop songs (“I’m not as sad as Dostoevsky, I’m not as clever as Mark Twain; I only buy a book for the way it looks, then I put it on the shelf again”). While arguably not as great as career-high If You’re Feeling Sinister, Dear Catastrophe Waitress is as perfect a pop record as you could wish for, and still as satisfying now as it was on first listen. All styles are here: catchy 70s drum-stomping (Step Into My Office, Baby), imperious acoustic fare (Piazza,New York Catcher), beautiful harmonies (Asleep on a Sunbeam) and the best pop record of the decade – I’m A Cuckoo. This album marked a new change of direction for the band, from the subtler, more acoustic/piano-led sounds of Tigermilk and If You’re Feeling Sinister to bolder guitar hooks and dominating harmonies, a theme carried through into the most recent The Life Pursuit album. When talking about the best modern songwriters in Britain, it’s hard to look past the reluctant Stuart Murdoch, although I get the impression that he’s not that interested in being talked about: “this is just a modern rock song, this is just a sorry lament; we’re four boys in our curduroys, we’re not terrific but we’re competent.” Lovely.

2. Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning [2005]

Each Bright Eyes album begins with a deliberately frustrating, long introduction designed to ward of the fair-weather listener, an odd tactic, you might think, for someone who presumably wants to sell a lot of records, and I’d agree. However unlike all albums preceding I’m Wide Awake… the start of rollicking opener At the Bottom of Everything is a minute long rambling, yet captivating, narrative delivered by Oberst (while sporadically sucking on a milkshake) about a man trying to comfort a delusional woman before they die in a plane crash. Just as you’re about to press “next”, Oberst slaps his guitar, counts to 3 and plays what must be one of the most beautiful, up-tempo songs about the end of the world ever made, featuring beautiful work on the mandolin by long-time cohort Mike Mogis, and inspired backing vocals from My Morning Jacket’s Jim James (also see M Ward, above). From then on, the album rattles by while the quality of the writing never relents; We are Nowhere And It’s Now is an epic slow-burner, quietly addressing Oberst’s reputation as a booze hound (“where the waitress looks concerned, but she never says a word”) with Emylou Harris’ husky vocals the perfect compliment to Oberst’s higher pitch; First Day of My Life recalls Dylan and early Ryan Adams in terms of simple playing and confessional lyrics – a tender, almost childish plea for love (“yours is the first face that I saw; think I was blind before I met you”); Land Locked Blues is a remarkable, world-weary ode to past times and the futility of war; and album standout Lua perfectly captures our inability to infuse beauty with permanence. It’s hard to believe that Oberst wrote an album of this quality when he was just twenty five, and it is an album that genuinely stands up alongside anything else that goes before it and will go after it. With the success that he’s enjoying with Monsters of Folk, here’s hoping Oberst’s best is yet to come, and not already in the past.   

1. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker [2000]

It’s hard to belief how swiftly Ryan Adams has fallen. Back in 2000 with the release of Heartbreaker and its successor, Gold, he was a hard-drinking romantic and musical prodigy, rightly being talked about as the natural heir to Dylan and Young and enjoying recreational time with some of the finest woman Hollywood had to offer (Winona Ryder – check the credits in Gold). However recent years have seen his reputation plummet following the weak and horribly named Easy Tiger and the much-maligned Cardinology, the only Adams’ album I haven’t bought because of the savage reviews. However no matter what else follows in the future, Adams can always lay claim to writing the definitive break-up album, Heartbreaker, and for my money the finest album of this and any other decade. Perhaps what makes it stand out from other records – musical and writing ability aside – is its honesty, the sound of someone’s tears, joy, dreams, fights, macabre thoughts and long goodbyes all laid out in their naked truth, putting the listener directly into Adams’ world with nowhere to hide; with the end of haunting closer Sweet Lil Gal heralding the departure of a troubled yet talented friend. Each song is exceptional but picks include opener To Be Young (is to be Sad, is to be High), a rampantly upbeat musing on the simplicities of teenage years (being sad then getting high) which still excites ten years on; Oh My Sweet Carolina, an affecting and sparse song about Adams’ longing for his hometown, and featuring the always magnificent vocals of country queen Emmylou Harris (see Bright Eyes, above); Come Pick Me Up, possibly Adams’ finest, being a good humoured yet moving tale about a relationship ruined by a cheating girlfriend (“I wish you would,  come pick me up, take me out, fuck me up, steal my records, screw all my friends, they’re all full of shit, with a smile on your face, and then do it again, I wish you would”);  and the desperately bleak Call Me On Your Way Back Home, the sound of a broken man calling out to a woman he left long ago (“but you love me and I love you, call me on the way back home dear, cause I miss you, and I just wanna die without you”). If you have any money and don’t have this album, buy it; if you’re poor and don’t have enough money, rob your granny, it’s worth it, and when you feel guilty while listening to the CD late at night with the curtains drawn, you can have a little cry and Ryan will too.

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