I was very pleased that the first post in this series of my personal top 10 albums for every year of the outgoing decade (depending how you count decades, of course) created such a positive and generous response. Thank you for all the comments; they are always appreciated. I should point out again that I can include only those albums I actually have and know well. So Gillian Welch’s The Revelator fails to make the cut, though I believe that those of my friends who argue for its brilliance might have a point.
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Ben Folds – Rockin’ The Suburbs
The are at least two types of Ben Folds fans: those who don’t think that Folds has ever topped the work he did in union with with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee as the ironically named Ben Folds Five, and those who prefer his more mature solo output. Put me down as belonging in the latter group. While the very funny title track, the driving Zak And Sara, Annie Waits or Not The Same would fit snugly in the Ben Folds Five canon, Folds’ solo debut exhibited a greater empathy for the subjects of his lyrics. On Rockin’ The Suburbs (released on September 11), Folds took the baton from BFF songs such as Brick, Don’t Change Your Plans or Best Imitation Of Myself, musically and lyrically.
Folds is a wonderful story teller. The story of Fred Jones, the old newspaper man whose retirement is going barely noticed by “all of those bastards” who don’t even remember his first name, is particularly poignant. Indeed, throughout the album Folds moves the listener: in the father-and-son relationship of Still Fighting It, in the desperation of the guy still trying to get over a girl in Gone (“the chemicals are wearing off…”), or in the tenderness of the astonishing love declarations on The Luckiest (one of the greatest love songs ever written; alas Folds has since divorced the song’s addressee). The album is not flawless — there is a weak trio of successive tracks in the middle) — but it does suggest that Ben Folds is this generation’s Randy Newman. And that is high praise.
Ben Folds – Fred Jones Part 2.mp3
Ben Folds – Zak And Sara.mp3
Hedwig and the Angry Inch Soundtrack
The first time I saw the Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was gobsmacked. The curious storyline, the intense performances, the incongruous humour (black GIs in East Berlin!), the imaginative setpieces, the animation and costumes, and, above all, the fantastic music, written by Stephen Trask and performed mostly by John Cameron Mitchell as the genitally mutilated Hedwig, which ranges from ballads and punk to Ziggy-style glam rock.
The highlight of the film is the Wig In A Box setpiece, also the soundtrack’s most appealing track. Since I am urging those who have not seen the film to catch up with it, I’ll restrain myself from describing the scene. I expect that many viewers will want to see it repeatedly. I’ll limit myself to posting only one song from each album here (apart from the #1 album of the year), but I also might have posted the gorgeous The Origin Of Love, with its Aristophanes-inspired lyrics, or Wicked Little Town, or Midnight Radio, or the explosive Angry Inch…
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Wig In A Box.mp3
Judith Sephuma – A Cry, A Smile, A Dance
Before the Idols franchise spewed forth disposable singers of debatable ability, at least in South Africa, televised talent shows in the country brought several artists of notable aptitude to the public’s attention. One of these was Judith Sephuma, born in the northern town of Polokwane (then Pietersburg) and a music graduate from the University of Cape Town. Her 2001 debut album is a captivating blend of jazz and Afro-pop which fully met, and even exceeded, the expectations observers had invested in the artist since her performance at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in 1999, a year before she made a huge impression at the misnamed North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town (the local equivalent of the Montreaux festival). If the wonderful Randy Crawford had been South African, this is what she might have sounded like.
Judith Sephuma – Mmangwane.mp3
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Bavarian Fruit Bread
Much as I love Sandoval’s group Mazzy Starr, I struggled long and hard to “get” this album. It’s the sort of ambient set one needs to be in a perfect mood for (perhaps when one is recovering from a bout of inebriation). But when everything is set, it hits home in its quiet way. If Sandoval sounds fragile on Mazzy Starr, here you want to pack her in cotton wool and keep the volume low, just in case she breaks. The result is exponentially mesmerising and ultimately gorgeous. It’s not the sort of album from which one can pick a representative track (though I’ll try here); it works best as a body of music. If one is in the mood.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Around My Smile.mp3
Richard Hawley – Late Night Final
Last month Hawley released a masterpiece, Truelove Gutter. Without wishing to resort to hyperbole, I’ll claim with confidence that it is not only the best album of the year, but one of the best of the decade. Hawley, a former member of Britpop groups Longpigs and Pulp, has produced a series of delightful and always affecting albums that started with his full debut, Late Night Final (it was preceded by a self-titled EP in 2000). The gorgeously melancholy, late night mood of that great triptych of Hawley albums — Coles Corner, Lady’s Bridge, Truelove Gutter — is already evident here. His voice has now dropped a register and the arrangements have become more intricate since Late Night Final (on which Hawley’s country influence is still evident), but the basics of the Hawley sound, and the quality, are already there. The stand-out track is Baby, You’re My Light, which I featured on this mix (which also features Ben Folds’ The Luckiest).
Richard Hawley – Love Of My Life.mp3
Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album
Death Cab For Cutie is one the most stupid band names in modern music. It evokes the image of shouting and wailing nu-metal emo types, or perhaps a death metal outfit that failed in conjuring a suitably satanic-sounding moniker. Death Cab are nothing of the sort, of course, nor do they deserve to be dismissed for featuring so prominently on the teen drama-soap The O.C. (which was actually quite good for a couple of seasons and featured some excellent music that otherwise would not have received wider exposure). The Photo Album is Death Cab’s transition album, still drawing from the Indie rock of the earlier albums but preparing for the almost symphonic feel of 2003’s Transatlanticism and last year’s Narrow Stairs. It lacks the diversity of 2005’s Plans, but like Plans and more than Transatlanticism, it does have tracks that stand on their own. This is solidly guitar-driven, ambient Indie rock, but more accomplished (or, purists might say, polished) than the four preceding Death Cab albums.
Death Cab For Cutie – I Was A Kaleidoscope.mp3
Rilo Kiley – Take-Offs & Landings
In 2004, Rilo Kiley released a brilliant album in More Adventurous. The preceding two albums are more patchy. Take-Offs & Landings borrows its influences widely, blows some alt.country over it, and voila. Sometimes it works, and there is nothing here that is really objectionable, but this is very much the work of a group still finding its way. Likewise, the wonderful Jenny Lewis is still discovering her voice, which here is still banking on its cuteness before it became the sexiest voice since Julie London’s. If all this sounds half-hearted, then that is not quite fair on an enjoyable album. It suffers not on its own merits, but in comparison to what the group and Lewis as a solo artist produced later.
Rilo Kiley – Plane Crash In C.mp3
Alicia Keys – Songs In A Minor
At a time when soul music is dying a gangrened death at the hands of dancing corporate muppets and sexless nasal whiners, we ought to be grateful for the few artists who still refer to the rich heritage of the genre. So I find it difficult to sympathise with those who dismiss the artistry of Alicia Keys. OK, she’s not quite all that which the hype claims her to be, as a pianist or as a singer. Much of her material is bland. It’s safe to say that she cannot compare with, say, Roberta Flack. Judging only from her appearances at the Grammys (which I still watch for reasons I cannot comprehend; probably only for the In Memoriam section), I find her a bit smug, a bit corporate, a bit too convinced of her own genius. And yet, her albums includes a clutch of tracks which, had they been recorded 35 years earlier, would be noted as fine contributions to the canon of soul music, celebrating the derivations of her material as reflecting an astute choice of influences. Despite all the caveats I have raised, I’m glad that Alicia Keys is around.
Alicia Keys – A Woman’s Worth
The Shins – Oh, Inverted World
Playing the song New Slang from this album, Natalie Portman’s character in the fine film Garden State promises Zach Braff’s protagonist that it will change his life. Without wishing to spring spoilers upon the reader who unaccountably have not seen the film, it indeed does so. The Portland, Oregon-based band’s debut thus broke out from the ghetto of Indie cult on the back of Braff’s championing. If the Kinks had been Americans recording their music in the ’00s, this is what they might have sounded like. I have quite enjoyed The Shins’ subsequent albums, which are musically accomplished, perhaps more than Oh, Inverted World. But if I want a fix of The Shins, it’s the debut I turn to.
The Shins – One By One All Day.mp3
Weezer – Green Album
What is it with all those people who are so quick to dismiss every Weezer album because it isn’t Pinkerton? It seems to be accepted wisdom that Pinkerton, one of the great albums of the 1990s, set some kind of standard that Rivers Cuomo and the other three chaps must live up to. The trouble is, by the time the Pinkerton evangelists listened to the other Weezer albums, they were no longer of an age when they locked themselves in their bedrooms because school and parents and jocks sucked and listened to Pinkerton in the recovery period between wanks. The Green Album is a fine album; it has some great tunes, it’s fun, it doesn’t challenge you; it does everything you’d want from a Weezer album. Island In The Sun is my cellphone ringtone, by the way.
Weezer – Island In The Sun.mp3