11: Lambchop - OH (Ohio) (City Slang/2008)
Like UK soundalikes Tindersticks, Lambchop are a perennially misunderstood band. Dismissed for being “miserable” or “depressing”, their songs in reality shine with heartbreaking beauty and are packed with desert-dry humour. It may not be critically considered their finest work, but Lambchop hit their critical peak with their most recent LP. Perfect for night-time listening, this collection of torch songs is stop-you-in-your-tracks astounding. Kurt Wagner is in fine voice, crackling with aching on Hold of You, a track where Wagner’s singing is so attention-grabbing, a mundane opening line (“This pencil’s got a nice feel to it”) is transformed into something otherworldly and full of pathos. Oh, and of course, any album with a track called National Talk Like a Pirate Day is automatically a winner.
12: Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (Saddle Creek/2005)
Fans had always claimed Conor Oberst aka Bright Eyes was ambitious, but until 2005 it appeared they were confusing it with “prolific”, and that’s not always a good thing. Then, Bright Eyes released two albums simultaneously: one of cold electronica (Digital Ash in a Digital Urn) and this alt-country belter. And ambitious it was too - you don’t duet with Emmylou Harris and rework Beethoven’s Ode to Joy unless you have supreme confidence in your own abilities. I’m Wide Awake… shows that confidence wasn’t misguided as this largely acoustic album really packs a punch. The slide guitar melds perfectly with Harris’ voice on We Are Nowhere and It’s Now, and solitude is crystallised in the affecting Lua. It’s also the only Bright Eyes album where you really feel you’re getting an insight into Oberst’s role as reluctant indie poster boy and thankfully, he has the good grace to put some grand instrumentation behind it all.
13: The Postal Service - Give Up (Sub Pop/2003)
Along with the BBC and the NHS, the Royal Mail are a fantastic public service that should never be allowed to die. They strike, they’re often late and they sometimes lose your letters, but if you want to send a postcard 300 miles, see how far you get on less than 50p. Luckily, the American postal service didn’t lose any of the demos and tracks sent back and forth by Jimmy Tamborello and Ben Gibbard which made Give Up. Famously created while its two protagonists were miles apart, Give Up has the smell of obsessive bedroom musician all over it, such is its attention to detail. Every click, tone and buzz sounds like it’s been meticulously pored over for hours and gives an edge to a collection of otherwise unremarkable pop melodies. We Will Become Silhouettes adds a human, vulnerable edge to the robo-pop of Kraftwerk and, along with the rest of Give Up, spearheaded the indietronica explosion in the middle of the decade. Exceptionally popular and enduring (single Such Great Heights was top of last.fm’s most-played chart for nigh on a year), Give Up is a great example of when collaborations really, really work.
14: Belle and Sebastian - Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (Jeepster/2000)
Unloved, neglected, forgotten - that’s the attitude towards the album that no-one calls FYHCYWLAP for short. Admittedly, it’s predecessor - 1998’s The Boy With the Arab Strap - was superior, but Fold Your Hands… is still well-worthy of your consideration. Considerably darker and more morose than the rest of B&S’s oeuvre, it’s the sound of a relationship at its most strained. Isobel Campbell left the band under a cloud after this album but, whisper it quietly, this album contains some of the best work of a fine career and represents the last of their nervous, über-indie records. Nice Day for a Sulk is bouncy, throwaway fun and in stark contrast to the previous track, the genuinely harrowing The Chalet Lines. However, despite its subject matter and behind-the-scenes falling apart, this is an album to cherish and enjoy. The Model showcases that B&S do wry humour better than anyone and There’s Too Much Love closes the album by making you feel it’ll all be ok in the end. Definitely due some kind of re-appraisal, if you let one badly-titled record into your life today, make it this one.
15: Scott Matthews - Passing Stranger (San Remo/2006)
Wolverhampton-based singer-songwriter releases début album of Eastern-tinged acoustic folk? Be still, my beating heart! But Passing Stranger manages to break free from hundreds of identikit men clogging up the music biz through the sheer strength of Matthews' songwriting and love for his craft. Those Eastern influences also give an additional dimension that you don’t often find on albums originating in the West Midlands. Dream Song, in particular, is given a little extra something from a touch of sitar, and the slide guitar which pervades other tracks doesn’t exactly harm them. Like anyone with an acoustic guitar, a suspicion of a folk influence and a touch of soul in their voice, Jeff Buckley and Nick Drake comparisons have been made, but on the evidence of Passing Stranger, that may actually be justified.
16: The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike (Memphis Industries/2004)
The music industry is a hype machine; a big, fat, stinking hype machine. But every now and then, something comes out of nowhere and reminds you why you fell in love with the art of organised sound in the first place. Enter Thunder, Lightning, Strike - a cut n’ paste album which is simply tremendous FUN! Horns parp, samples fit together seamlessly and the tracks sound as if they would be played on a never-invented 80s children’s TV show (though maybe that train of thought comes from the fact one track is called Junior Kickstart). This is dance music that isn’t self-conscious, hip-hop that doesn’t acknowledge gangsta rap (surely one of the weakest genres of recent years in terms of real quality) and absolutely joyous. Head rapper Ninja sounds as if she’s having the time of her life as she dispenses rhymes about… well, not much, really, but that’s all part of the appeal. Stand-out track Bottle Rocket encapsulates The Go! Team ethos. It’s concerned with nothing but having a good time, it’s ultimately meaningless, it sounds like a riot in an instrument factory and it’s all in glorious, glorious technicolour.
17: The Sleepy Jackson - Lovers (Virgin/2003)
The best albums have your attention from the word “go”. Now, normally that means something like a great opening chorus, or a spine-tingling middle-eight but occasionally an album takes just two seconds to achieve greatness. The best opening of the 20th Century was The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin and so far, there’s nothing to touch Lovers in the 21st Century. Two strikes of a drum in quick succession precede the most uplifting note - slide guitar and strings combine to shatter any reverie you may be in and immediately pin you to the seat. Numerous listens fail to diminish its effect and I’ll say it again: the opening seconds of Good Dancers on Lovers represent the best opening to any album of the last ten years. Happily, the rest of the album is pretty darn good too. Luke Steele takes his cue from the 1970s and although he may sail close to pastiche on occasion, the quality of the writing sees him through. Tracks like Come to This and Rain Falls for Wind are truly irresistible and it’s one of those all-too-rare albums that seems to have a beginning, middle and end. Shame everything else he’s released since has been terrible then.
18: Portishead - Third (Universal/2008)
Has a track ever been more appropriately named than Portishead’s Machine Gun? It’s the musical equivalent of onomatopoeia; with the rapid-fire repetition of guitar sounding positively nihilistic. It’s examples of this appreciation of the minutiae that really mark out Third as something special and a world away from the dinner party trip-hop of Portishead’s 1990’s incarnation. There’s something curious at work, as the sounds that emanate from your speakers somehow seem to resemble language, expression, phrases and the phenomenon of life. It may sound horribly pretentious, but this record breathes. It’s a rare thing, electronica which is neither cold nor inhuman, but seems more organic than the majority of music untouched by electricity. Beth Gibbon’s fragile vocals are ideal, another instrument adding emotional fuel to the mix and when that synth riff comes in two-thirds of the way through The Rip, it’s game over. Sign me up for Pseuds’ Corner - I don’t care. Third is an example of what human artistry is capable of and what music can achieve.
19: Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador/2006)
As Yo La Tengo represent everything hipster in the NY music scene, it’s easy to forget they actually make records and, on occasion, fantastic records at that. Never content to rest on their laurels, I Am Not Afraid… tackles myriad musical genres expertly while never succumbing to pastiche; something incredibly admirable considering the range of styles on display. Opening with the ten-minute feedback-drenched no-wave of Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind, you’ll be treated to horn-fuelled jaunty pop (Beanbag Chair), electro shoegaze (The Room Got Heavy), energy-fuelled garage rock (I Should Have Known Better) and piano-led ballads (Sometimes I Don’t Get You). Credit where credit’s due - this album never seems disjointed and the changes in style never forced. Inventive while maintaining pop sensbilities and easy to love - isn’t that what we all want from a record?
20: St. Vincent - Actor (4AD/2009)
St. Vincent frontwoman Annie Clark is a paradoxical figure. On one hand she seems porcelain-brittle, all cheekbones and a tiny pale frame with a sweet voice. However, put a guitar on her, and as a song builds, she transforms into a thrilling prospect; all jerky movements and discordance - a mirage you can’t take your eyes off. It’s this contrast of ideas that makes Actor the record it is; apparently the musical heir to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It seems sugar-sweet on the outside, but fall down the rabbit hole and it’s a bewitching, transfixing mix of nightmare strings and unexpected notes, but all sitting side by side with fantastic pop melodies and unavoidable hooks. Single Marrow was possibly the track of 2009; a dream-like opening that floated in from nowhere before giving way to Clark’s desperate pleas for salvation soundtracked by a filthy horn riff. It sounded like Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough in a fairground hall of mirrors and like most of Actor, far better in practice than in theory.