Friday, 26 February 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [35-31]

35. The White Stripes - White Blood Cells (2001)

I'm fairly sure that I am in the minority when I say that I prefer this album to its more critically acclaimed successor Elephant (from 2003). While I would probably nominate Elephant as the more cohesive of the two albums, this is the one I find myself wanting to return to more.

Why? Because it has the tunes! Yes, Elephant has the wonderful Seven nation army (probably their most well-known song). But I'd controversially argue that Hotel yorba and Fell in love with a girl are better songs.

There's some lesser-known tracks throughout which have amazing melodies, in particular I'm finding it harder to be a gentleman, The same boy you're always known and I can't wait. The chord progression and lyrics of Offend in every way never fail to make me happy whenever I listen to it. We're going to be be friends sounds musically like a lost Kinks song, with its lyrics something that we can all relate to: the nervous excitement of the first day of school.

Then there's the song fragments, like Little room, Expecting and Aluminum. You could argue that they are needless filler, but for some strange reason just add to the charm of this record.

And talking of charm? Dig the middle section of The union forever where Jack White just decides to start singing There is a man from Citizen Kane, a song which was also parodied in The Simpsons. And what about the dynamic theatrics of I think I smell a rat? Wonderful stuff. These moments give the record a fun unpolished feel, making it sound more like an amazing jam session than a record that has been approved for release by a record company.

This is a great garage rock record which doesn't take itself too seriously.

34. Super Furry Animals - Rings Around The World (2001)

The early noughties were an exciting time for Super Furry Animals fans. They had just released 4 albums of quirky Welsh pop: highly acclaimed debut Fuzzy logic (1996), career peak and masterpiece Radiator (1997), eclectic mix-tape Guerrilla (1999) and the gothic folk of Mwng (2000), the latter of which was recorded entirely in their native tongue of Welsh. For those keeping count at home, that's 4 incredible albums in 5 years. That's close to what the Beatles achieved during the 60s.

Then they were signed to a major label (Epic), a well-deserved move for a band who deserved much wider acclaim. Rings around the world was their major label debut. I was already a big fan by this stage (thanks Pete!), so this was high on my "most anticipated" albums list. When I heard that it was going to be the first album to be released simultaneously on CD and DVD (in glorious 5.1 surround sound), the anticipation levels rose even more.

Major label debuts can often be disastrous for bands who don't know how to use the extra money and studio facilities tastefully. Thankfully these quirky Welshmen found a good balance between their earlier DIY sound and pushing forward in new sonic directions.

Every song on this album is a perfect microcosm of what makes SFA so great and what differentiates them from almost every other band on the planet. Book-ended by its two mellowest tracks (Alternate route to Vulcan Street and Fragile happiness), Gruff Rhys and co. take us on an eclectic adventure through a wide palette of sounds: Beach Boys on acid (the title track), bouncy pop vs. caveman death metal (Receptacle for the respectable), dark folk vs. epilepsy-inducing techno (No sympathy), synth-pop re-imagined for the 2000s (Juxtaposed with u), and the alt-country of Run! Christian, run!

Even the songs which sound more wide-screen and accessible than anything they previously released (It's not the end of the world?, Shoot Doris Day, Juxtaposed with u) could hardly be called sell-outs, as they still fit in with their M.O. of delivering quirky Welsh pop to their legions of fans.

The album is gloriously topped off by Presidential suite, their response to the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal of the late 90s. That they are able to juxtapose such a filthy lyric with such a stunning melody is testament to their quirky genius. This song would be the highlight of a lesser band's entire career: here it is merely a cheeky highlight of an album full of them.

33. Something For Kate - Echolalia (2001)

Critics often refer to the concept of a "sophomore slump", where a band who released an accomplished debut album fail to follow it up with a high quality second album. In many ways, I think the 3rd album is more important: you can quite easily forgive a band for resting on their laurels for their 2nd album (they are probably tired from all the touring!) but they better not release a carbon copy for album number 3 if they don't want to feel the wrath of the critics (I'm looking at you, Strokes!1)

Something For Kate were thankfully a band who didn't peak too soon. Debut album Elsewhere for 8 minutes (1997) was a fairly lo-fi and rough affair with a few really great songs (Captain, Pinstripe), but I'd be lying if I said it didn't sound like a debut album.

Follow-up Beautiful sharks (1999) showed how they had matured since their debut, learning how to use lightness and shade to stunning effect. It's an album where you knew that they could go the distance. All ears were open to hear if they could follow it up with an equally impressive effort.

Then they released Echolalia (2001), their first album of the new decade and millenium. From the moment the stunning opener Stunt show started playing on that first listen, all doubts were quickly put to bed. You could hear straight away what gigantic leaps they had made in the songwriting (and particular melody) department.

Beautiful sharks had some superb songs on it, but a lot of the appeal of that album was also in its intangible vibe which grew over repeated listens. Echolalia showed that Paul Dempsey and co. could write songs which stood on their own merits -- in particular, Three dimensions, Monsters and Say something are some of the finest rock songs of the last 10 years.

As good as those songs are, there really isn't a duff moment on the record. From the dark character study of Jerry, stand up, to the exciting dynamics of Feeding the birds and hoping for something in return, to the understated beauty of closer White, this is a remarkable effort from a great Australian band who showed that they could play in the big league.

1Okay, So First impressions of earth wasn't exactly a carbon copy, but it was definitely a patchy affair.

32. U2 - All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000)

There's a lot of albums which appeal to me because they evoke memories of certain times of my life, and this is one of them. A lot of the songs on this album bring back memories of the early years when my wife and I started dating. Romantic nostalgia aside, this is an album that I still find myself returning to often. While not as innovative as their superb career peak Achtung baby (1991), it has aged a lot better for me than their critical darlings The Joshua Tree (1987) and War (1983), amongst others.

Humility has never been one of Bono's strongest traits, and what makes this album play so well for me is that it eschews the political in favour of the personal. Other than its token cringe-worthy moment (Peace on earth), most of the songs are about things that we can all relate to on one level or another. Almost every song is a highlight -- there's the storming opener Beautiful day, the touching Michael Hutchence tribute Stuck in a moment you can't get out of, the romantic In a little while (with one of Bono's best vocal performances) and the atmospheric story-telling of New York.

This album will go down in history as one of Bono's rare moments of lucidity in a sometimes pretentious discography. You don't always have to change the world.

31. The Libertines - Up The Bracket (2002)

The Libertines (fronted by Pete Doherty and Carl Barât) only released two albums in their short career, and this storming debut remains one of the great indie rock albums of the decade.

Simultaneously powerful and melodic, this album is evidence of Doherty's talent -- if only he could stay off the drugs for a while, who knows what else he could accomplish? Credit needs to be given to producer Mick Jones (formerly of The Clash) who managed to find the perfect balance between their rock (Vertigo, The boy looked at Johnny), pop (Up the bracket, Horrorshow) and more subdued (Radio America) sides. The diversity of the sound which the band and Jones achieve on this album, and its sense of dynamics, is what makes it such a pleasure to return to time after time.

But what makes this more than just "another indie rock album by the latest flavour of the month" is the story-telling ability and vocal delivery of all of the songs here. Like Mike Skinner of the Streets, Doherty and Barât know how to engage the listener: each song is a self-contained gem which puts you (the listener) in the middle of the action. From the "please kill me" refrain in Death on the stairs, to the class struggles depicted in Time for heroes, to the New York (Soho) tribute in The boy looked at Johnny ("everybody goes La de di la de di da diddy") -- there isn't a boring moment on the whole album.

Full of remarkable twists, turns of phrase and more hooks than a pirate convention -- this album is the dog's bollocks.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [40-36]

40. The National - Boxer (2007)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review about a month ago.]

This was one of the most critically acclaimed albums from 2007, which was a great year for music. I came to the party a bit late on this album, finally picking it up last year. I had a fear that it was going to be one of those albums which didn't live up to its hype, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was.

Boxer is a very subdued affair, with only a few songs (Mistaken for strangers, Squalor Victoria) which rock out a bit more. Most of the songs are a vehicle for the baritone vocal pipes of frontman Matt Berninger, who sounds not unlike Nick Cave. But the real star of the show is drummer Bryan Devendorf who lays down some amazing drum patterns which are pushed high up in the mix for maximum impact.

This album has a fantastic drunk-at-3am vibe to it; the lyrics are personal, the vocal delivery is fatigued and the backing instrumentation is generally restrained but not afraid to up the tempo when needed. Highlights include lovely opener Fake empire, ultra-catchy Brainy and lovely ballads Green gloves, Start a war and Racing like a pro.

An album which didn't hit me until about the 5th or 6th listen; this is a grower in the true sense of the word.

39. Kelley Stoltz - Antique Glow (2003)

With his second release Antique glow, American singer-songwriter Kelley Stoltz crafted a lo-fi and understated record. This is not an album which will impress you a lot on first listen; it takes several listens for its subtle hooks to get underneath your skin. But trust me, it will happen.

Perpetual night is an epic opener which lures you into Kelley's world, his lazy vocals and dense instrumentation (including tinkling bells) setting the scene for the remaining 45 minutes. His influences range from Nick Drake (Jewel of the evening), Leonard Cohen (Mean Marianne -- so long, eh?) and even some of the lo-fi work of Bad shapes era Machine Translations (Tubes in the moonlight).

This album of lo-fi folk/blues was recorded on reel-to-reel tape in Kelley's apartment, with the man playing all of the instruments himself. It's a true DIY effort, even down to the limited-edition artwork (shown above) which was also painted by Mr Stoltz.

This is real music recorded with passion and integrity by a quirky tune-smith who knows how to "keep it real", while still toning down his self-indulgences just enough to keep listeners returning to it. Give it some time and love and you too will be able to experience its subtle charms.

38. Loretta Lynn - Van Lear Rose (2004)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review about a month ago.]

It's unfortunate that country music has such a bad stigma associated with it. Yes, there is a lot of really bad commercial country music which has given the genre a bad name. But when done properly, it exhibits a lot of heart, integrity and soul; many traits that are absent from a lot of contemporary music.

This album received universal acclaim when it was released in 2004. Produced by Jack White (of the White Stripes and Raconteurs), this album was a chance for the 70-year-old Lynn to re-ignite her career with the help of a very popular contemporary artist, hopefully reaching a wider audience in the process.

It could have all gone very wrong, but she succeeded beyond all expectations. The song Portland Oregon (where she trades vocals with Jack White) even got a lot of play on Triple J, an alternative radio station in Australia with a predominantly youthful audience.

Portland Oregon is a highlight on an album full of highlights. This album ticks three very important boxes for me: songwriting, performance and production. The lyrical themes are dark and personal, the performances honest and heartfelt and the production is appropriately minimalistic, allowing Lynn's amazing vocals and the band's subtle instrumentation to shine through.

There are upbeat numbers (High on the mountain top, Have mercy), dark ballads (God makes no mistakes, Women's prison) and touching laments about her past (Miss being Mrs, Family tree). Don't let this miraculous album pass you by; this is one case where you can believe the hype.

37. Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers (2009)

[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review about a month ago.]

While I enjoyed 2007's Send away the tigers, nothing prepared me for how much of a return to form this album was. I'd heard various tidbits in the pre-release chatter: how they were using lyrics left by late founding member Richey Edwards, how they had Steve Albini on board as producer, how it was the thematic and spiritual successor to their masterpiece The holy bible.

I certainly didn't want to get caught up in the hyperbole, but when the universally positive reviews started rolling in, I couldn't really help myself and bought it on the day of release.

And it's an amazing album! The combination of Richey's tortured lyrics and Steve Albini's primal production is a match made in heaven, reinvigorating a band who many had given up on. It's an incredibly well-balanced album, incorporating disparate strands of their 20+ year career: there's the raw punk of their Richey-era (Peeled apples, Marlon J.D.), melodic but dark pop (Jackie Collins Existential Question Time, Virginia State Epileptic Colony) and moments of acoustic beauty (This joke sport severed, Facing page: Top left).

It's a bit too early to tell whether history will put this album alongside the classics The holy bible and Everything must go, but in the meantime I'm happy to call this a remarkably accomplished effort from a band who many had probably given up on.

36. Spoon - Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga (2007)

The late, infamous DJ John Peel once described Mark E. Smith's band The Fall as "Always different, always the same". I think this quote could quite easily apply to Texas indie-rock band Spoon too.

Over the course of the noughties, they released 4 excellent albums of minimalistic and funky indie rock/pop: Girls can tell (2001), Kill the moonlight (2002), Gimme fiction (2005) and finally Ga ga ga ga ga (2007). Each album followed a fairly similar formula: incredibly catchy piano based melodies, tight rhythm section, all topped by Britt Daniel's nasal rock-star vocals. Each album could almost be considered interchangeable with all of the others, but they always evolve in subtle ways between records to keep things interesting.

Ga ga ga ga ga is probably their most accessible, diverse and pop-oriented record, a musical response to those who criticised Gimme fiction for lacking diversity and losing quality on the 2nd half (myself included).

They mix it up a lot here, adding Motown horns to introduce a new-age soul sound (Cherry bomb, The underdog), an almost-acapella vocal experiment which works as a show-piece for Britt's fantastic pipes (The ghost of you lingers) and more densely produced numbers which would make George Martin proud (Finer feelings, Black like me).

Always the same? Their critics may have a case there. But as long as they can continue to fine-tune their sound in subtle ways between records, they will never commit that cardinal sin of bands who simply refuse to break up: becoming boring.

Friday, 19 February 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [45-41]

45. Beck - Sea change (2002)

Beck surprised most of his fanbase when he unleashed this dark and melancholic piece of work in 2002. Prior to this album, Beck's work could best be described as quirky folk-pop which mixed elements of lo-fi (Mutations), 80s-era Prince (Midnite vultures) and everything-but-the-kitchen-sink (Odelay). While he had received a lot of critical acclaim (the overrated Odelay is one of the most revered albums of the 90s), this was the album which to many will probably stand the test of time.

Inspired by the breakdown of a relationship, this was Beck's Blood on the tracks or Pink moon. Minimal, yet quietly melodic, its subdued mood rarely lifts over the course of the album. While some songs are bordering on depressing (the beautiful Round the bend), the foundation of the album is built on indie folk of the highest order: The golden age, Guess I'm doing fine and the stunning Lost cause are some of the finest songs of his career.

This album is completely timeless; when the flavours of the month are past their use-by date, it will remain a compelling piece of work.

44. Muse - Origin of symmetry (2001)

I have known to be quite critical of Muse in the past few years, but this album of progressive space-rock remains an impressive piece of work, and has passed the test of time for me.

While their debut Showbiz was a collection of (sometimes) great songs (in particular Muscle museum and Cave), it didn't quite gel into a cohesive album for me. Their sound was very developed for a debut album, but they couldn't sustain the quality over all of the tracks (especially towards the end).

From the opening piano arpeggio of New born, you can hear the growth on this follow-up album. Every song has something to say, from the modern Pink Floyd of Bliss, the air-guitar riffage of Plug in baby, the crazy operatic vocals of Micro cuts, the note perfect cover of standard Feeling good (made famous by Nina Simone), and the grandiose scope of Citizen erased and Megalomania.

This is pretentious noughties prog-space-rock at its very best.

43. The Soundtrack Of Our Lives - Behind The Music (2001)

Noel Gallagher fuelled the hype machine when he called this "the best album to come out in the last six years". Counting back 6 years leads us to 1995, the year that (What's the story) morning glory? was released, which we can only assume was the benchmark Mr. Gallagher was using. Cocky bastard.

While this album from the 6-piece Swedish outfit is certainly a product of its influences (Pink Floyd, The Who, Beach Boys, The Beatles), they meld them all into a thoroughly entertaining 60-minute album where every song has something to say and sounds unlike any other song on the album.

As good as the songs are, it's those special moments that make the album for me -- the way Ebbot Lundberg sings "You're such a lightweight after all" on Broken imaginary time, the gorgeous vocal performance and piano on Tonight, the way it all goes crazy at the end of The flood and the ethereal humming during In your veins. And it's all topped off by Nevermore, one of the greatest Beatlesque anthems of the decade.

42. Joanna Newsom - Ys (2006)

Joanna Newsom's debut album (The milk-eyed mender) was an impressive effort, but it wasn't too far removed from the work of some of her contemporaries in the freak-folk movement (Devendra Banhart, Will Oldham, et al.) From the moment that the Ys opener Emily hits your speakers/earphones, it is the sound of your expectations shattering.

This hour-long 5 track album is more than just an album: it is a world of Joanna's creation to inhabit and immerse yourself in. The shortest song of the album (Cosmia) is 7 minutes long; the longest (Only skin) is 17 minutes long. Epic is a word which is often used to describe the sound that artists achieve on albums, but the widescreen palette that Joanna employs here justifies (more than any other album of recent memory) the use of such a word.

None of the songs follow any sort of conventional structure, each consisting of multiple movements with different lyrical themes, time signatures, instrumentation and moods. Take a listen to Emily, which sounds like something from Alice in Wonderland before it goes off on a tangent, returning to the recurring theme of meteorites, meteors and meteoroids. This is sheer bloody poetry set to some of the most exquisite music imaginable.

Produced to perfection by the legendary Van Dyke Parks, and engineered by none other than Steve Albini, this is a lush musical time capsule which rewards repeated listens more than any album of recent memory. Call it generation Y's Astral weeks, if you may.

41. The Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)

I'm pretty sure that this album wins the award for the most critically hyped album of the decade. The music industry had started to get into a rut in the mid-2000s, and we needed an album like this to show that there was still vitality and creativity in what appeared to be a stagnating musical landscape.

There's a certain sort of romanticism to it all: debut album with a tragic back-story, seemingly coming from nowhere, from a relatively unknown band from Montreal. Many critics and fans included this in their top 5 albums of the decade, while opinion of its follow-up Neon bible generally falls into the "It's no Funeral" camp.

So, does it live up to the hype for me? Well, as you can probably tell from the position on this list, not quite. Don't get me wrong -- there are some fantastic songs on this album (Tunnels, Laika, Wake up and Rebellion all get 5-star ratings on my iPod). There's also a great conceptual flow to the record, with the whole Neighborhood suite on the first half and its nostalgic themes of childhood and adolescence.

My problem is simply that not all of the songs work for me. I've never quite loved Power out as much as everyone else does; it seems to be missing that special something which other kick-ass indie anthems like Wolf like me and Banquet have. Kettles and Haiti don't really seem to go anywhere for me, although Haiti has definitely taken on a deeper meaning in light of recent world events. Une année sans lumiere is a decent interlude in the Neighborhood suite, but it seems to be more of a breather between the rocking numbers than a self-contained song of its own.

The great songs on this record are really, really great. If only some of the lesser songs were a little more developed, this album would have been much higher in the list. Still, a very impressive debut album.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

My 50 favourite albums of the 2000s [50-46]

Since it's currently the flavour of the month to be releasing lists of the albums of the 2000s, I figured that it was a timely opportunity to post my list. Yes, pedants, I realise that the decade doesn't end until the end of 2010; that's why I said albums of the 2000s, not albums of the decade.

I unconditionally recommend any album from this list. If the description sounds interesting, don't be afraid to pick up the album (legally) and support the dying music business.

50. Bob Dylan - Love and theft (2001)

This was the 2nd episode in his so-called "comeback trilogy" (beginning with Time out of mind from 1997, and concluding with Modern times in 2006). I guess that makes this the Empire Strikes Back, Back to the future II or Godfather 2 of the trilogy; but while those movies are definitely the darkest of their respective trilogies, the opposite is true here: this was Dylan at his chirpiest we had heard him in years. Of course, it helped that the previous album was one of his darkest, both lyrically and musically.

While many Dylan albums are a product of their cohesion and sequencing, this one is more about individual moments than anything else. There's a lot of diversity on this album, from the upbeat country & western of opener Tweedle dee & tweedle dum, to the nostalgic folk-rock of Mississippi (later covered by Sheryl Crow) and the traditional blues of High water. Bob even throws in a few curve balls, with the breezy Bye and bye and crooning torch song Moonlight being unlike anything he had ever released.

While it's possible he still has another classic album in him (I'm one of the few who found his follow-up Modern times very overrated), this may turn out to be the last great album from one of the best songwriters of the last 50 years.

49. The Delgados - Hate (2002)

Scottish indie band The Delgados had a remarkable run-rate in the 2000s, releasing 3 albums (The great eastern, Hate and Universal audio) to high critical acclaim. I got into their music in reverse chronological order, which turned out to be a good move; Universal audio is probably their most accessible (or poppy) album and a great entry-point into their catalogue.

Hate (as its title suggests) is a much darker album; it lives in its own melancholic world which is both enchanting and strangely hopeful. Lead vocal duties are shared between Alun Woodward and Emma Pollock, which adds diversity to the sound and keeps it interesting over repeated listens. The instrumental tracks are lush and complex, augmented by minor-key piano chord progressions and strings to suit the mood of the songs (the eerie backing vocals on Woke from dreaming sounding like something from one of Kate Bush's more experimental albums).

The first 6 songs in particular (The light before we land through to Child killers) are some of the most beautifully subdued indie folk songs I have heard in many years. Lyrically dark and musically symphonic, this album is highly recommended to anyone who likes intelligent indie music.

48. Spoon - Kill The Moonlight (2002)

Spoon were one of the most critically acclaimed bands of the 2000s. Review aggregator website Metacritic recently gave them the crown of the top overall artist of the decade, based on the average score for all of their albums released in the noughties.

Kill the moonlight was their 4th album, and their 2nd release of the decade. If you've ever heard a Spoon song before, there's nothing particularly surprising here. The album alternates between more catchy melodic numbers -- the perfect pop of The way we get by, the beat-boxing of Stay don't go -- and more groove-oriented affair like Small stakes, Paper tiger and You gotta feel it.

Britt Daniel's nasal rockstar vocals is their biggest asset, but it's the fusion of his delivery with the tightness of the rest of the band which makes them one of the greatest bands of recent years. This is minimalistic indie rock/pop music at its best.

47. Badly Drawn Boy - About A Boy (2002)

2002 was a big year for Damon Gough, a.k.a. Badly Drawn Boy. He released his 2nd album proper (Have you fed the fish?) which was a decent indie pop album, but most would agree that it was overshadowed by his soundtrack to the film adaptation of Nick Hornby's About a boy.

Alternating between some very catchy songs (with Gough on vocals) and lush, melodic instrumentals (about half of the album is score), this soundtrack is incredibly cohesive and consistent. Some of his finest songs are on here -- Something to talk about, Silent sigh and A minor incident, which is possibly my favourite BDB song. The instrumentals are often equally stunning -- the lush I love N.Y.E. and upbeat Delta (Little boy blues) being the highlights.

The album also has the right amount of quirk and schmaltz (File me away, A peak you reach), demonstrating Damon's offbeat sense of humour without going overboard like he did on some of his later albums.

This is one of those rare soundtracks that works equally well out of the context of its parent film; music fans will be enjoying these tunes when the film is a distant memory.

46. Ed Harcourt - Here Be Monsters (2001)

My first memory of Ed Harcourt was hearing the opening song from this album, Something in my eye, on the radio. A few days later, I heard Hanging with the wrong crowd. When his name was back-announced, I realised that both songs were by the same artist.

I immediately made note of it and did some research on him. It turned out that his debut full-length album was highly acclaimed by critics, and was even nominated for the Mercury Prize. That was enough to convince me to pick it up at HMV in the city.

What I like about this album is that it doesn't sound like a debut. All of the songs are fully formed (granted, rough drafts of some appeared on his prior Maplewood EP); the composition and craft on display here sounds like the work of a songwriting veteran, not a 24-year-old releasing his debut album.

This is an album of 3 parts. The opening 6 tracks (Something in my eye to Apple of my eye) are the more accessible songs, with the gorgeous Those crimson tears in the middle to add a bit of darkness and shade. God protect my soul is the undisputed highlight of this section, and the album.

Beneath my heart of darkness and Wind through the trees provide a 15-minute breather, or mood piece, in the middle of the album. They take a while to grow on you, but eventually their beauty shines through after many listens. Ed's vocal resemblance to Glenn Richards (from Augie March) in the last minute of Wind through the trees is eerie.

Finally, the last 3 songs (Birds fly backwards to Like only lovers can) return to the accessible and melodic sound of the opening songs, book-ending the album nicely.

There isn't a dull moment on this 52-minute album -- one of the great debuts of the decade.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

2009: A Year in Music [Part 4: Re-evaluation of 2008 list]

Time to re-evaluate my top 5 albums of 2008, just over a year later.

This was my top 5 list as published in that post:

1. Brian Wilson - That lucky old sun
2. Al Green - Lay it down
3. Elbow - The seldom-seen kid
4. Augie March - Watch me disappear
5. Oasis - Dig out your soul

Recent 2008 purchases

I'll now talk about the 2008 albums which I have purchased since making that list.

Nick Cave – Dig, Lazarus, dig!!
This is a very solid late-period Nick Cave album. It finds a nice balance between his late-career rockier material (We call upon the author, Lie down here) and his trademark balladry (Hold on to yourself, Jesus of the moon). All up, it's pretty much Nick Cave by numbers; there's nothing particularly new or innovative here, but it's still an enjoyable album.

Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes
This album has received rave reviews since it was released. Did it live up to the hype? It's definitely a remarkably solid album influenced by The Beach Boys, Love and many other late-60s/early-70s bands who knew how to use harmonies to great effect. Is it innovative? Not particularly; they are definitely a sum of their influences. But there is no denying that there are some fantastic songs on this album -- stand-outs for me include White winter hymnal, Ragged wood, Tiger mountain peasant song and He doesn't know why (make sure you check out the awesome video clip for this one).

Pete Molinari – A virtual landslide
Your opinion on this album will come down to whether you like Pete Molinari's voice. He's got that early Bob Dylan whiny nasal folk voice down perfectly, and in an alternate universe this album would have been pretty big in 1962. It took me a few listens to warm to this album, mainly due to his voice, but eventually the gems started coming out of the woodwork.

People certainly don't write or record songs like this anymore, and that alone makes it worth investigating. My favourite songs include the gorgeous One stolen moment, catchy Look what I made, longing Sweet Louise and the stunning Dylan-esque protest song closer Lest we forget.

My Morning Jacket – Evil urges
I'm a big fan of My Morning Jacket (you may recall I saw them in concert a year ago). I got into their discography backwards, starting with the breakthrough album Z, and working back through the amazing It still moves, career highlight At dawn and debut album The Tennessee fire.

I wasn't in a hurry to pick up Evil urges when it was released, mainly because the reviews from critics and friends weren't that great. I finally got it, and I would call it a minor disappointment. There's some nice songs on here, but it's a bit all over the shop musically; it sounds like they threw all of their influences into a blender and poured the result on to CD.

There are definitely stand-out moments: Touch me I'm going to scream (Parts 1 & 2), I'm amazed, Sec walkin and Librarian are all decent songs, but they don't gel into a cohesive whole. And what's the deal with Highly suspicious? What were they thinking?

The Notwist – The devil, you + me
An album only let down by its remarkably talented older brother (Neon golden from 2002), this album had pretty big shoes to fill to be in the same league as that stupendous album. Of course it wasn't as good, but saying that is doing this album a disservice. All said and done, this is a beautifully produced and performed album from this highly underrated German band.

While Neon golden was an album of individual moments which combined together into an amazing whole, this album is less about individual stand-outs and more about sustaining a mood over a 45-minute album. I struggle to remember which songs I like from this one by the titles alone, but Boneless is a beautiful number.

The Walkmen – You & me
This album hasn't had a chance to grow on me properly, but it sounds very promising. I already had their debut Everyone who pretended to like me is gone (which never hit me as being amazing). I am also a huge fan of rock monster The rat from their 2nd album Bows & arrows. This is a very subdued effort overall, and it has a great late-night vibe to it. Highlights from initial spins are On the water, In the new year, Canadian girl, The blue route and the stunning I lose you.

Paul Weller – 22 dreams
Many critics raved about this album. Like the Walkmen album, the jury is still out on this one. It's a very long listen (70 minutes) where Weller mixes and matches heaps of genres and musical styles ranging from rock, soul, jazz, blues, spoken-word and pop. You could say it's his "White album", if you want to borrow a reviewer cliché. While not all of it works, it hangs together quite nicely; you have to admire his ambition here. I'm suspecting that this album will grow on me more over time.

Updated top 5 list

With all of the recent purchases in mind, this would be my updated top 5 albums of 2008:

1. Brian Wilson - That lucky old sun
2. Elbow - The seldom-seen kid
3. Al Green - Lay it down
4. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
5. Augie March - Watch me disappear

In summary:
  • Elbow moved up to 2nd position (it really is a fantastic album)
  • Al Green moved down to 3rd position (still great, but it was elbowed-out...sorry)
  • Fleet Foxes snuck in at 4th position
  • Augie March got pushed down to 5th position (it hasn't aged for me as well as their first 2 albums)
  • Oasis finally got given the boot (it wasn't really that good; it was just filler on the previous list because I hadn't purchased enough albums)
I hope you have enjoyed my musical summary of 2009. A belated happy new year!

Friday, 5 February 2010

New music discussion forum

Just writing to let you know that I have set up the Wireless Cranium discussion forum as a companion to this blog. You can find it at the following URL:

The mission statement of the Wireless Cranium forum is:
A discussion forum for music lovers all over the world. If you have passion for listening to music of any form, please join and contribute to this community.
So really, anything goes; just keep it music-related. The emphasis of the forum is more the appreciation of music than the playing of music.

This forum utilises the superb Stack Exchange framework, a generic platform created by the founders of Stack Overflow, a programming Q&A website. Stack Exchange is currently in beta, which means that they want people to try it out for free before its public launch (and before they start charging to use it).

If we can build up a nice following, I might consider registering it when it goes out of beta.

Unlike the Stack Overflow trilogy of websites (which includes the system-admin focused Server Fault and general computer focused Super User), I don't expect most questions on the Wireless Cranium forum to have a definitive answer.

While subjective questions are generally discouraged on the Stack Overflow sites, the focus of the Wireless Cranium forum will be subjective questions.

Note that the voting system still applies:
  • Voting up a question means "I find the question interesting".
  • Voting down a question means "I don't think this question adds much to the community".
  • Voting up an answer means "I agree with this answer".
  • Voting down an answer means "I disagree with this answer".
Registration is optional, using Open ID. While you can do many things on the forum without registering, doing so will allow you to participate in other aspects of the site.


Thursday, 4 February 2010

2009: A Year in Music [Part 3: Musical discoveries (ii)]

I'll continue my summary of 2009 with more of my musical discoveries of the year.

Morrissey - Vauxhall and I

I already had a few Morrissey albums before this one -- Your arsenal from 1992, and the more recent You are the quarry from 2004. Your arsenal in particular is a very solid album that has grown in stature for me over time. I did some research and a lot of fans picked this follow-up album from 1994 as one of his best albums, so I decided to pick it up.

It's a much more subdued effort than the glammy Your arsenal; an immaculately produced album with just the right amount of sonic eclecticism to keep it interesting over repeated listens. Opener Now my heart is full gives Morrissey a chance to show off his amazing vocals; Why don't you find out for yourself is one of his most melodic moments; Lifeguard sleeping, girl drowning is a fantastic mood piece; epic closer Speedway is one of finest songs he has ever released, up there with some of the best songs by The Smiths.

A classy effort all around.

The National - Boxer

This was one of the most critically acclaimed albums from 2007, which was a great year for music. I came to the party a bit late on this album, finally picking it up in 2009. I had a fear that it was going to be one of those albums which didn't live up to its hype, but I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was.

It's a pretty subdued album overall, with only a few songs (Mistaken for strangers, Squalor Victoria) which rock out a bit more. Most of the songs are a vehicle for the baritone vocal pipes of frontman Matt Berninger, who sounds not unlike Nick Cave. But the real star of the show is drummer Bryan Devendorf who lays down some amazing drum patterns which are pushed high up in the mix for maximum impact.

This album has a fantastic drunk-at-3am vibe to it; the lyrics are personal, the vocal delivery is fatigued and the backing instrumentation is generally restrained but not afraid to up the tempo when needed. Highlights include lovely opener Fake empire, ultra-catchy Brainy and lovely ballads Green gloves, Start a war and Racing like a pro.

An album which didn't hit me until about the 5th or 6th listen; this is a grower in the true sense of the word.

Fred Neil - Bleecker & MacDougal

Fred Neil is best known for writing the classic Everybody's talkin', a song which was made famous by Harry Nilsson when it was included on the soundtrack to the classic film Midnight cowboy. I picked up a 2-for-1 CD that included the albums Tear down the walls (a collaboration with Vince Martin) and Bleecker & MacDougal, Neil's 2nd solo album. While Tear down the walls has its moments, it's also quite dated in parts (mainly due to Martin's vocals). Bleecker is definitely the pick of the two albums.

Fred Neil has an amazing baritone voice not unlike Johnny Cash, and this album is an incredible amalgamation of folk, blues, country and rock which has very little filler on it. Almost every song has something to say, and it's all done with integrity and lots of heart. The highlight is probably Other side of this life, which has become a bit of a folk standard since this album was released.

This is very soulful music from a very talented songwriter, singer and performer.

Pearl Jam - Ten

Talk about coming to the party late -- about 18 years too late! Of course I already knew a lot of songs on this 1991 album, mainly through radio play but also because my brother was a big fan at the time and I was constantly exposed to this music in my teen years. I had a few of their other albums (Vs and No code) but I finally decided to pick up their debut album.

A lot of people criticise the production on this album as a bit dated, but I for one love it. Yeah, there's a bit of reverb on Eddie Vedder's voice which makes it sound a bit late-80s, but I love the wide open feel to this album; certainly a far cry from much of today's rock music which is over-compressed and too loud. That doesn't mean this album isn't powerful; quite the contrary. Turn the volume up and it rocks!

This album has more than its fair share of classics: Even flow, Alive and Jeremy being the most well-known. Then there's gorgeous ballad Black which I always knew but didn't quite realise how amazing it was until I bought the album. What elevates this album to make this list is some of the lesser-known tracks, the hidden gems if you will. In particular, the anthemic Garden, moody Oceans and epic closer Release all do a lot for me.

I don' t think Pearl Jam will ever top this amazing debut.

Pet Shop Boys - Very

I feel like I have to preface this review by saying it's a "guilty pleasure", and not the type of music I normally listen to. But why do I need to do that?

I already had their fantastic compilation Discography, and liked it so much that I decided to get one of their albums. Reviews told me that this album from 1993 is considered by many to be their finest effort, and it also had no overlap with Discography (which was released in 1991). This made it a very attractive purchase.

If I had to describe this album to the uninitiated, I would label it a perfect pop album which finds the ideal intersection of dance-ability and melancholy. From the moment the opening synth riff of Can you forgive her? kicks off the album, you know you're in for something special. The melodies never cease, with the AIDS lament Dreaming of the queen and the (erm) theatrical sound of The theatre adding just the right amount of emotional depth to stop the album becoming too sickly.

It all ends with their amazing cover of Go West by The Village People. How can you go wrong?

Prince - Dirty mind

The Prince albums I had before this one were the critically acclaimed ones: Purple rain and Sign 'o' the times. This album is nowhere near as high profile as the aforementioned albums, but it gets a lot of love from those who know it. Which makes it a bit of a "cult classic" when all is said and done; just my type of album.

This was Prince's 3rd album, released in October 1980. Like Michael Jackson's Off the wall album released a year earlier, it found the perfect fusion of funk, pop, rock and dance that allowed him to appeal to a wider audience. When it was released, it was described by Rolling Stone as being "one of the most radical 180-degree turns in pop history". They were referring to the change in sound from his previous album, the more commercial Prince.

For an album released in 1980, this album still sounds amazingly fresh. Unlike a lot of albums released at the time, this wasn't overly embellished with dated synth sounds which would have aged it must faster than it has. The title track in particular is minimalistic funk. When you were mine is a classic pop song, which was later covered by Cyndi Lauper. Then there was the controversial Head and Sister, whose lyrical themes dealt with oral sex and incest respectively.

There isn't a wasted note on this 30-minute album; put it on and get the party started.

Josh Rouse - Nashville

Josh Rouse is one of those unsung heroes of indie-country-pop. He releases quality albums every few years to little commercial success, but he still has a loyal fanbase awaiting his next release. Nashville, from 2005, is considered by many to be his finest release to date.

This is a great album of emotional honesty with just the right amount of musical diversity to keep it interesting. The triptych of It's the nighttime, Winter in the Hamptons and Streetlights is one of the greatest opening runs of recent memory. Later highlights include the emotional My love is gone and the gloriously epic Sad eyes.

While there's nothing particularly innovative here, Josh Rouse does this sort of music better than anyone else in recent memory.

Sigur Ros - Ágætis byrjun

An album which has been on my list for a long time, and I finally picked it up in 2009. In fact, by sheer coincidence I picked it up in the same week that Stephen said he was going to cover it in the next episode of the Classic Albums Podcast.

I already had their album ( ), which is an amazing soundscape, but one which I feels tails off a bit towards the end. Its predecessor Ágætis byrjun is remarkably consistent all the way through, and it's one of the greatest musical achievements of the past decade.

I recall Stephen describing this album as "glacial beauty" (sorry if I misquoted you here Stephen, but I definitely remember the word 'glacial' being used). This is a better description than I can come up with, so I'll borrow that from him. This is an album of epic, experimental, adventurous, progressive music which sounds like it was made by people from a different planet, all sung in a fictional language called Hopelandic (because no other language could do the music justice).

The album is of a piece and it's difficult to single out tracks, but special mention needs to go to the cinematic Sven-G-Englar, stunningly beautiful Starálfur and haunting Hjartaõ Hamast (Bamm Bamm Bamm).

If you are in any way becoming jaded with modern music, buy this album and be blown away.

Matthew Sweet - Girlfriend

I already had a Matthew Sweet album before this one -- 100% fun (1995), which I have always considered to be a great mid-90s pop album. His third album Girlfriend (1991) is often mentioned by critics as his best album and one of the defining albums of power pop, so of course I had to pick it up.

It took me a long time to warm to this album; while some tracks jumped out at me on the first few listens (I've been waiting in particular), it seemed to be a bit all over the shop musically and I didn't feel like I had anything to grasp on to. That it opens with Divine intervention, a five-and-a-half minute rock song with a weaker melody than most of the other tracks, didn't help its case either.

Eventually the charms of this album started to reveal themselves, both from a melodic and lyrical point of view. Underneath the power-pop exterior, there's quite a few dark lyrical themes here; the album also has an emotional arc throughout the track listing, ranging from the initial infatuation at the start of a relationship (I've been waiting), to the final break up (Nothing lasts). In between are just over a dozen pop gems with just the right amount of darkness and shade to cut through the (sorry) Sweet-ness of it all.

Highlights are the folky Winona, the gloriously catchy Looking at the sun, the mid-album darkness of Thought I knew you, You don't love me and I wanted to tell you, and the stunningly intimate Your sweet voice.

This is an incredible album from an artist at the top of his game.