Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Best of the Decade: 50-41

41: Amy Winehouse - Frank (Island/2003)
Before she overtook Kate Moss as the poster girl of heroin chic and while she still had some meat on her bones, Amy Winehouse was the little diva that could. Unfairly lumped in with Norah Jones and Katie Melua by the critics, Frank was infact a remarkably mature R&B flavoured début that chronicled what it meant to be a 21st Century woman in your 20s in the UK better than Lily Allen ever did. Frank tackles spineless men (Stronger Than Me), gold-diggers (Fuck Me Pumps) and unfaithfulness (I Heard Love is Blind) as if she has the life experience of someone twice her age. Back to Black may have been her breakthrough, but Frank is the real gem with its mix of late-night horns, 50s jazz stylings and contemporary R&B, and deserves to be appraised on its own merits rather than being compared to its more popular successor or reviewing the reputation rather than the music.

42: Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations (Polydor/2005)
Always keen to appear on the outside looking in, Mark “E” Everett appeared to be committing commercial suicide releasing a 33-track double album telling the story of his tragic family history. However, Everett’s attention to detail, keen ear for a melody and gravely, yearning voice ensured that Blinking Lights… was a triumph. Tracks range from sparse and unsettling to rich and textured and - curiously, given its subject matter - listening to it is a life-affirming experience. While the rest of the decade may not have been so kind to Eels, this is Everett’s White Album - a towering, sprawling masterpiece which he’ll struggle to ever match.

43: Charlotte Gainsbourg - 5:55 (Warner/2006)
We can’t all call on Air, Jarvis Cocker and Neil Hannon to help with our album but then again, we don’t all have legendary music pioneer, the late Serge Gainsbourg, as our father. 5:55 may sound a terrible idea full of smug back-slapping on paper, but in fact, it’s the album equivalent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation. Girl with famous father confounds expectations to make beautiful piece of art which eschews traditional formats to tell the story of a mood and a place. While Coppola’s film charts the feeling of jetlag and loneliness in downtown Tokyo, Air’s score for 5:55 mark it as languid music perfect for the feeling of relaxation but still with a lingering suspicion of uncertainty. Gainsbourg’s barely-there, whispered vocals may be an acquired taste, but this gorgeous album avoids the pit-fall of most minimal chill-out albums by being consistently challenging and interesting.

44: Badly Drawn Boy - The Hour of Bewilderbeast (Twisted Nerve/2000)
It may be difficult to reconcile given his decline into virtual obscurity, but at the turn of the century, this Mercury-winning album meant that Damon Gough had the world at his feet. Self-confessed Springsteen devotee and an unlikely looking pop star, The Hour of Bewilderbeast showed what a dedicated student of pop music Gough was. The warm horns which open the album immediately make it stand out from the crowd and are the precursor for Gough raiding pop’s history and the musical box of tricks for an audio thrill-ride. Crucially, The Hour of Bewilderbeast succeeds where all of Gough’s subsequent albums have failed and has an emotional connection with the listener rather than the look-at-me kooky studio wizardry of later releases. Singles Disillusion and Once Around the Block were among the most catchy and best crafted songs of the decade and highlight the fact that it’s a loss for all of us if Damon can’t recapture his mojo.

45: Tindersticks - Can Our Love… (Beggar's Banquet/2001)
Tindersticks live in that odd world of groups who seem to effectively release the same album throughout their career (see also: Stereolab and Cocteau Twins), but what an album it is. If possible, Can Our Love… is even more introspective and brooding than their 90s back catalogue with its long tracks and ruminations on mortality. This, coupled with the prevalent Motown influences, give it more soul than any Tindersticks album before or since. Drums are lightly brushed, strings are dabbed and sounds are gently coaxed out of guitars and organ, Can Our Love… rarely gets above a whisper, but is simply beautiful. Standout track and album centrepiece, Sweet Release, could easily reduce you to tears; if there’s a track - and, indeed, album - which better demonstrates longing and loss, then I’ve yet to hear it.

46: Amanda Palmer - Who Killed Amanda Palmer? (Roadrunner/2008)
Sometimes albums can completely pass you by and you remain unaware of their charms until a much later date. That’s what happened with Who Killed Amanda Palmer?, an album recommended to me by a work colleague who was so convinced of this album’s merit, I was practically bullied into listening to it. With some records, that could have been a case for an employment tribunal, but luckily Who Killed Amanda Palmer? is an absolute blast of an album. Airing your personal issues in public has never seemed so vitriolic yet triumphant and while you’re unlikely to ever hear a more solipsistic collection of songs, its entertainment value cannot be denied. On tracks such as thrilling yelp-along Leeds United (“Who needs love when the sandwiches are wicked and they know you at the MAC store?”), Palmer throws in energy, the piano, all other instruments and then the kitchen sink, before throwing the piano and the kitchen sink at each other, but somehow, like all this album, it all works perfectly.

47: The Shins - Oh, Inverted World (Sub Pop/2001)
Get past the look-at-me-I’ve-read-books Marx-quoting album title and the minimal sleeve art and you’ll find The Shins have a released a straight-up, perfectly-formed pop album. In fact, that’s pretty much what The Shins did in this decade, and better than anyone else to boot. Oh, Inverted World may be bursting with 3-minute verse-chorus-verse pop songs with killer hooks, but that doesn’t mean that The Shins aren’t afraid to take risks and try something new. There’s no sugar coating on the disorienting squeaks that back Caring Is Creepy and on the peerless New Slang, The Shins are content to let the strength of the song and the melody speak to itself. Not a record that will initially blow you away, but one you find yourself coming back to again and again, and each time it’s more rewarding, revealing subtle nuances and quirks of arrangement that show The Shins know exactly what they’re doing.

48: Lewis Taylor - Lewis II (Island/2000)
How we could do with Lewis Taylor back right now. Taylor quit music and severed all ties with the industry part-way through the decade, presumably fed-up with the being hailed as the future of British soul music. The biz being the way it is, though, means this only adds to the myth and he remains as popular as ever, if not more. However, it’s the music where you should really be concentrating, as Lewis II is a remarkably assured piece of work, showing that it wasn’t out of the question that Lewis Taylor could be as good as Stevie Wonder. Sexy, sultry and confident, Lewis II displays the strut typically synonymous with his American contemporaries, such as Maxwell or D’Angelo and like them, he’s not afraid to transcend genres. There’s an awful lot of rock in, what is essentially, a soul album and he dovetails wonderfully with his backing singers to produce spine-tingling harmonies. Every track has a twist and every twist is worthwhile; now all we need is to track him down and ask him to reconsider his self-imposed exile.

(Can you find a YouTube video of Lewis Taylor? I certainly can't)

49: Incubus - Morning View (Epic/2001)
Music can be a remarkably personal experience, and chances are everyone has a landmark handful of songs or albums in their life which are pertinent to them for reasons that transcend the quality of what’s on the disc. For me, this is one of those albums. Morning View was released just as I was starting to get into music (I’d just turned 15) and was the right album at the right time. I took it to my heart immediately and listened to practically nothing else for the first three months I owned it. Several friends of mine had the same musical epiphany and we often reminisce about this time and its accompanying soundtrack. Now, not for a second would I claim Incubus are better than Radiohead, for example, but they’re unfairly maligned in my eyes, and lazily lumped in with the nu-metal shoutniks by critics. Morning View has plenty of straightforward hard rock, but there’s more to it than that: the funky bass on Are You In?, the lazy, irresistible riff of Just a Phase and the prog-like timing of Nice to Know You suggest greater forces at work. It may not be the decade’s defining masterpiece but it’s certainly worth revisiting from time to time, and not just for the nostalgic smile it gives me.

50: Hadouken! - Music for an Accelerated Culture (Atlantic/2008)
Like its similarly-doomed 21st Century forebearer, electroclash, “grindie” (a cross between grime and indie, as any fule kno) never really took off. Mainly due to the fact it was all hyperbole and no trousers, but in its short-lived day in the sun, it did produce one great album. Music for an Accelerated Culture is just that - a soundtrack for the Skins-generation and the perfect companion for gatecrashing a party you saw advertised on Facebook. It’s a relentless assault on the senses and completely thrilling, if a little exhausting for those of us out of our teens. Despite its hard-hitting attitude and bravado, it’s actually a charmingly naïve album and, as these things often are, so of-the-zeitgest that it already seems out-of-date in places (no-one goes on MySpace any more, granddad). It’s also a truly British album that includes insults such as “wally” in between expletives, sirens and crunching guitars. It’s debatable whether Hadouken! have any staying power, but they’re following a very British tradition of marrying cutting-edge innovation with a modern, everyday take on life. The real strength is that Music for an Accelerated Culture gives you the addictive, visceral rush that 99.9% of music fails to do and when you experience that, it‘s difficult to care about much else.

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