Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Best of the Decade: 10-1

I've decided to run down my Top 50 albums of the decade that's just passed. I love a list as much as anyone (in fact, probably more) and it was something to focus on in the dearth of new music post-Christmas. Some of the paragraphs are in the style of press releases, some attempt to put into words what makes an album so special, others have a personal experience that make them important to me and any could have spelling and grammar mistakes. It really was a case of go with what you feel on this one...

1: The Dears - No Cities Left (Bella Union/2003)
Maybe not an obvious choice but one I’m more than willing to stand by. Occasionally part of a song is fantastic and will stop you in your tracks, on rarer occasions it’s an entire song which is truly exceptional, but then there’s that time where an album catches you in the right place at the right time and truly floors you. The Dears never really captured the imagination of the UK; frequently being judged as inferior to the similar-sounding Blur or The Smiths. However, No Cities Left is simply magical from start to finish. This is a sound of a band putting their blood, sweat and tears into a record and is surely their creative peak. Head Dear Murray Lightburn croons his way through twelve tracks that range from the beautiful and timid to the all-out crunching riffs and wall of guitars of Lost in the Plot. It’s not difficult to see where the Smiths comparisons come from, as Lightburn does his best Morrissey impression on The Second Part (“It rained all day/I don’t… have a raincoat… of my own”) but this record is far more than the sum of its influences. 22: The Death of All the Romance charts the heartbreaking end of a relationship and pours salt into its still-raw wounds, Expect the Worst/’Cos She’s a Tourist takes in pizzicato string quartets before melding them to dream-like woozy pop and Pinned Together, Falling Apart begins in what is apparently an explosion in a drum factory. Startingly ambitious, never dull and far, far better than ever given credit for, No Cities Left is a treat for the ears and should be investigated further by everyone, me included. It always offers something new on each listen, it really does run that deep. Forget everything else you may know of The Dears or may have heard since, No Cities Left stands alone as true genius, a masterpiece, a perfect example of why music is so loved and, undoubtedly, the finest record of this past decade.

2: Radiohead: In Rainbows (self-released/2007)
What with all the hoopla surrounding the “honesty box” method of payment and means of distribution for In Rainbows, it’s surprising the music got a look in at all. Radiohead being Radiohead, however, had an ace up their sleeve and had put together their best album of a long and distinguished career. The Bends is too straightforward, OK Computer often leaves me cold, but In Rainbows is the definitive Radiohead record, combining the rock of their 1990s work with the experimentalism of Kid A. From the scattergun drums of opening track, 15 Step, it’s clear this is no ordinary record. Thom Yorke’s lyrics may be a collection of half-phrases, idioms and proverbs but here it suits the nature of the music to perfection. Bodysnatchers is the finest straight-up rock song Radiohead ever wrote, and Nude is curiously uplifting and deeply affecting with its backwards sections. Whilst All I Need displays vulnerability and a glimpse into Radiohead’s world, Jigsaw Falling Into Place is the star of the show, morphing from claustrophobic riffs into a loose but thrilling track. It’s interesting to note that for all their concepts, patterns and tricks, the career-defining Radiohead album is the one where they simply wrote a collection of indisputably amazing songs.

3: The Decemberists - The Hazards of Love (Rough Trade/2009)
It shouldn’t work: in the age of single-track downloads and short attention spans, The Decemberists release a concept album with a complex narrative arc, repeated themes and no gaps between the tracks. It shouldn’t work, but my word, it most certainly does. From an unremarkable beginning, The Hazards of Love builds and builds into something truly extraordinary and unrelenting. When you think the music can’t build any more, in comes a riff, a vocal, a drum fill or all three to confound your expectations. In typical Decemberists’ fashion, the lyrical themes fixate on death but there’s loss, regret and haunting thrown into the mix here too. The Rake’s Song tells of a man’s decision to murder his offspring following the death of their mother in childbirth, propelled along by the most thumping percussion you’ll hear in music today. Backing vocals transform The Wanting Comes in Waves/Repaid into something ethereal and majestic while (spoiler alert!) the villain getting his comeuppance in the end is as satisfying and thrilling as any book or film. That’s what The Decemberists do best - take the literary and set it to thrilling music and here, they’ve never done it better.

4: Radiohead - Kid A (Parlophone/2000)
It’s all been done, right? The Beatles wrote the rule book, smashed the system and then a handful of innovators have truly done something completely new in the field of popular music. That may have looked the case but Kid A was something even the most fervent Radiohead fan couldn’t have anticipated. There’s a school of thought that says this album is more influential than listenable, more to be appreciated than enjoyed, and it’s difficult to totally refute that - you wouldn’t put it on to impress a date, for example. But Kid A truly transcends the boundaries of popular music; it’s the sound of being alive in the 21st Century. Clocks tick, hearts beat, there’s the sturm und drang of industry, clicks, glitches, warmth, and there’s also melodies too. Some of the sounds made on this record seem perfect to soundtrack film of foetuses on the womb, so the appeal of this album could somehow be evolutionary, but repeated listens show Radiohead know what they’re doing and they remembered to include songs to go with it. Idioteque is beguiling, stark and primal, How to Disappear Completely swirls and sucks you in, while Everything in Its Right Place seems to invent patterns of chords and notes you’ve never heard before. Of all the records on this list, Kid A will be the one that sounds most relevant, fresh, vital and ground-breaking in fifty years’ time, just like it does today and just like it always has done.

5: Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid (Fiction/2008)
Nice guys don’t always have to finish last, and here’s the proof. Years of slog and toil and three albums of being nearly-men all seemed to be worth it when Elbow really hit the big time with the release of The Seldom Seen Kid. Critical acclaim, sales and the Mercury prize followed and general consensus said it couldn’t have happened to nicer people. Of course, that’s not particularly pertinent to the record's overall quality, but it certainly makes for a better story. What separates Elbow from the crowd is Guy Garvey, with his sweet, sentimental voice and extraordinary way with a phrase - he has a knack for saying what you’ve always felt, but never even knew you wanted to express. The Seldom Seen Kid displays naked emotion from the opening of Starlings (cautious build-up followed by the best horn stabs this side of disco) and oddly, makes you root for the band you’re listening to. Windswept and carrying the battle scars of life, The Seldom Seen Kid is a lament to a lost friend, a beautiful union and inspirationally wonderful.

6: Arcade Fire - Funeral (Rough Trade/2005)
Well, they repeatedly play this one note for a few bars, then it breaks into the whole band singing la-la-la. Have you ever tried to explain to someone why the beginning of Wake Up is so uplifting? The moment the voices break through is one of those moments that gets you every time, yet the ingredients that make it up are so simple. This is why Funeral is so peculiar; there’s nothing in its make-up that suggests it should be one of the albums of the decade, but Arcade Fire are clearly playing because they love it. And also, why is an album fixated on death and loss so life-affirming? Maybe it’s because Arcade Fire sounded like the gang you wanted to be in, they’re the Not-So-Secret Seven and it’s them against the world with their harmonies and baroque pop from another time. You get to know them and the bittersweet ending of Funeral, In The Backseat, peels back any barrier that may still remain and becomes one of the most gut-wrenching songs you’ll ever hear. A stellar album, victory was theirs, and we were there to enjoy it with them.

7: Tindersticks - Waiting for the Moon (Beggar’s Banquet/2003)
Tindersticks’ first three albums (two called Tindersticks and one called Curtains) were so critically acclaimed, it seemed everyone was suffering from Tindersticks fatigue afterwards and they’ve been largely ignored since. It’s a crying shame; Waiting for the Moon was the album that introduced me to Tindersticks and has become one of the great lost records of the 21st Century. Admittedly, they don’t break the mould - the women are still always glamorous and unobtainable, the cigarette always lit and the glass (of whiskey, naturally) always half-empty, but it doesn’t mean Waiting for the Moon is anything but a work of staggering beauty. The album creeps in almost unnoticed with Until the Morning Comes, where Stuart Staples sounds half on the verge of tears and half of the verge of murder. 4:48 Psychosis is deeply evocative and unsettling and Sometimes It Hurts is a lush ballad fit to stand along career-highpoint, Buried Bones. Where Waiting for the Moon really comes into its own, though, is the seven-minute epic, My Oblivion. It’s classic Tindersticks; it’s languid, it’s drenched in strings, it’s mournful, it’s yearning and it’s utterly, utterly breathtaking.

8: Kings of Convenience - Riot on an Empty Street (Source/2004)
If producing an album of largely acoustic, quasi-pastoral pop, you need to have a trick or two up your sleeve just to keep it interesting. In which case, Kings of Convenience proved that they’re veritable magicians with the release of Riot on an Empty Street. Bubbling with intrigue and mystery, the understated, almost disinterested vocals of Erland Øye and Eirik Glambek Bøe (and, on occasion, Feist) are perfectly married to the delicate sunshine melodies and intricate finger-picking. Understated, sparse and gorgeous, Riot on an Empty Street is 45 minutes where you can get lost and just absorb what’s coming out of the speakers. Reminiscent of Simon and Garfunkel in their pomp, whether performing lingering ballads (The Build Up) or uptempo, perky pop (I’d Rather Dance with You), Kings of Convenience are always compelling.

9: Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther (Bella Union/2006)
Fleet Foxes took a host of plaudits for their eponymous début and while it’s a fine album, it’s hard to not feel like Midlake had been cheated somewhat. Two years before Fleet Foxes was The Trials of Van Occupanther; an album which also expertly blended the folk-rock of Crosby, Stills and Nash with the 21st Century, but did so with stronger melodies, finer song structures and more evocative lyrics. Case in point, the corking opener, Roscoe, which chugs along on a steady piano and guitar base before throwing in drum fills and angular licks that give it a whole new dimension. Witness also Head Home, the best 1970s country-rock classic there never was and Young Bride, with its sweet melody that comes from nowhere and its repeated vocal coda accompanied only by strings. At its heart, though, was a distillation of everything great and good from its influences, leading to an album with an irresistible pull. Someone once said that they best bands live in their own universe, and on the evidence of The Trials of Van Occupanther, Midlake’s 19th Century America is a fantastic one to inhabit.

10: Dan Le Sac vs. Scroobius Pip - Angles (Sunday Best Recordings/2008)
It doesn’t quite seem right that the most inventive, witty and interesting hip-hop album of the decade came from darkest Essex, but maybe Dan Le Sac and Scroobius Pip (they tend to collaborate rather than face-off, despite what their name suggests) were simply more hungry than everyone else. Pip certainly seems so as he furiously spits rhymes on The Beat That My Heart Skipped; a track whose tempo seems to suit his flow to a tee as he veers from quintessential Englishman to hip-hop connoisseur, sometimes in the same couplet (“Oh, Good God, damn, and other such phrases/Haven’t heard a beat like this for ages”). Angles isn’t afraid to take on the topics not often covered in rap either - there’s religion (Letter from God to Man), suicide (Magician’s Assistant) and, of course, the life and death of Tommy Cooper (Tommy C). These can pale into insignificance though, when compared to what is possibly the single of the decade: Thou Shalt Always Kill. Detractors will point to the fact it’s contradictory (it provides a list of stars whose names are not to be taken in vain in one verse, and instructs you not to put stars on pedestals the next) but it brought something back into pop that’s been sorely missed - humour. Endlessly quotable lines (today’s favourite is “thou shalt not express your shock at the fact that Sharon got off with Brad at the club last night by saying, “is it?””), heavy beats and a helping of bleeps that sound as if they come from a Nintendo Game Boy circa 1992, it’s the peak of a fantastic album and above all, FUN!

No comments: