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Albums of the Year: 2009

December 22nd, 2009 7 comments

You can finally exhale: here are my top 20 albums of 2009. Apart from the two top spots, the order is rather random. Ask me in ten minutes’ time, and Grizzly Bear or M. Ward might sit at number 3 and 4. I’ve put sample tracks of each album on a mix; the song titles appear at the end each abstract.

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1. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter
I didn’t expect Hawley to top his majestic 2005 album Coles Corner. A profoundly soulful pop symphony with accomplished and unusual instrumentation, Truelove’s Gutter may very well be the best album of the decade.
(Open Up Your Door) Homepage

2. Ben Kweller – Changing Horses
Kweller at last finds his sound (changing horses?) with an outstanding country album that provides an antidote to the corporate side of the genre. An absolute joy.
(Gypsy Rose) Homepage

3. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Wilco are incapable of releasing a bad album. The eponymous album will probably not go down in the band’s history as a classic, but it’s solid quality.
(You And I) Homepage

4. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
It took me a few listens to realise just how good an album this Rick Rubin-produced effort is. Stay-At-Home Indie Pop put it better than I could: “Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love.” But will you still do so when Brandi gets that first clutch of Grammys, Indie-Pop? See if you can guess, without googling, with whom Carlile duets on Caroline.
(Caroline) Homepage

5. Farryl Purkiss – Fruitbats & Crows
The South African singer-songwriter dude returns three years after his excellent full debut with rockier effort. Purkiss draws his influences widely but manages to create his own coherent, late night sound.
(Seraphine) Homepage

6. Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins In Dearland
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year: Imagine Dylan as an indie artist, but with an appealing voice. There is a bit of an experimental edge to it, which in the wrong mood can be annoying, but exhilarating in the right mood.
(Doomsday) MySpace

7. Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change The World With Music
Released 17 years after it was actually recorded, this is supposed to be Paddy McAloon’s lost masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece, but a damn good, and very accessible album, on which McAloon is on a bit of a God trip.
(Last Of The Great Romantics) MySpace

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Pitchfork calls the New Pornographer “a force of nature”. Hackneyed turns of phrases, even when they intend to pun on an album title, sometimes are just the most appropriate. Case is so much a force of nature that listening to the album can leave the listener exhausted.
(People Got A Lotta Nerve) Homepage

9. Monsters of Folk – Homework
I should love this. Two Bright Eyes guys, M. Ward and the singer of My Morning Jacket, and a batch of very good songs. It’s a fine album, and yet it fills me with a sense of unease, the same vibe I got from the Travelin’ Wilburys (and one song here sounds like a Wilburys track!). And yet, I keep returning to Homework
(Man Named Truth) Homepage

10. Peasant – On The Ground
This deserved more of a buzz. Nicely crafted guy-with-guitar stuff that recalls Joshua Radin and, yeah, Elliot Smith, with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. A lovely cool-down album.
(Fine Is Fine) MySpace

11. Eels – Hombre Lobo
E offers nothing much new here, but, hey, it’s an Eels album, and does everything you want an Eels album to do. That’s enough for me.
(That Look You Give That Guy) Homepage

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Beguiling and frequently surprising. It’s an aural extravaganza. Now, which Ben Folds does Two Weeks borrow its riff from?
(Two Weeks) MySpace

13. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
Indie-Pop may be in love with Brandi Carlile; I declare my (admittedly promiscuous) love for the likewise deceptively named Mindy Smith. Stupid Love, it must be said, is not as breathtaking an album as Mindy’s debut, One Moment More, but it has Mindy’s beautiful voice and pleasant enough songs.
(What Went Wrong) Homepage

14. Bob Evans – Goodnight Bull Creek
I’m a great fan of Evans’ 2006 sophomore album, Suburban Songs. Like that set, Goodnight Bull Creek was recorded in Nashville. Creek lacks the immediately catchy songs of the previous album, but has a much richer, textured production.
(Brother, O Brother) Homepage

15. Jason Paul Johnston – Willows Motel
Solid country, recalling Prine rather than Twitty. And just when I think Johnstone has settled into predictable country mode, he pulls something that makes me think, “What the fuck was that?”
(She’s A Friend) MySpace

16. Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
Again, to quote myself: I am not acquainted with Nadler’s previous effort; apparently it is gloomier than Little Hells. Well, this one isn’t a courtjesters’ convention of heedless madcappery either. It is, however, a beautiful, hypnotic album which draws much of its inspiration from medieval, cloistered sounds.
(Rosary) Homepage.

17. M. Ward – Hold Time
Here Ward draws from the heritage of country and soul, from the Beach Boys and from Spector — the choice of two covers affirm the retro vibe: an excellent cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On, a less than brilliant rendition of Hank Williams’ Oh Lonesome Me (featuring Hank Sr’s namesake Lucinda). The production is polished, the sound a lot more mainstream than previous albums
(Rave On) Homepage

18. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Our Swedish homestudio-bound genius returns with another magical multi-layered chamber-pop epic which is at once orchestral and, largely thanks to the man’s voice, intimate.
(Airport Surroundings) Homepage

19. Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers
I am not a big fan over covers albums. Usually they are self-conscious about doing something “different” with a song, or issue redundant carbon copies. Cover albums work when the performer is idiosyncratic, so unique that he or she need not try to make a song sound differently. Johnny Cash pulled it off; and for the most part Hinson does so here, where he takes on the likes of Sinatra (My Way, the ambitious fucker!), Leadbelly, Holly, Dylan, Beatles and John Denver, armed mostly only with his trusty guitar and croaking voice.
(This Old Guitar) Homepage

20. Laura Gibson – Beasts of Seasons
Pitchfork nailed it when their reviewer called the singer-songwriter  Gibson’s music as “far better suited to a fireplace and a cup of warm apple cider than to your local Starbucks”. Beasts of Seasons is bleak and beautiful.
(Funeral Song) MySpace

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Albums of the Year: 2000

October 21st, 2009 13 comments

Perusing the calendar, I was shocked to realise that the current decade — what some people call the “Noughties” — is almost over; that we’re about to start the 2010s. And here I am still getting used to the idea of the new millennium. So, with this decade coming to an end soon, it seems right to review my top 10 albums of this period. I’ll try to avoid joining the critical consensus (which probably agrees on albums I either never heard of or don’t like), and obviously I can’t list albums I don’t have. So, no Kid A here.

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1. Johnny Cash – American III: Solitary Man

cash_solitary_manIt’s not necessarily the best album in Cash’s American series, but probably the only one that’ll top one of my annual charts. It certainly is a fine album, with an astute song selection (no peculiar choices such as Personal Jesus, which appeared on the follow-up). Cash had previously taken a Sting song, Hung My Head, and entirely appropriated it, leaving Sting’s original sound like a pale, inadequate and ill-advised cover version by an inferior hack. Here Cash repeats the trick with One, lending gravitas to a song that in Bono’s hands sounds overwrought (Bono really meant it, man). But it is what Cash and producer Rick Rubin do with Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat that blows me away. For this album, Rubin roped in a few heavy-hitters, including Tom Petty and Will Oldham. I’m not sure it was necessary to do so.
Johnny Cash – One.mp3
Johnny Cash – The Mercy Seat.mp3

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2. D’Angelo – Voodoo

d'angelo_voodooAfter 2000, I began falling off Planet Soul. Voodoo was the genre’s last high-water mark, even if the likes of india.arie, Erykah Badu and (to some extent) Alicia Keys proceeded to release decent albums (and I suppose John Legend isn’t bad either, even though I own nothing by the man). Before too long, it became a law that soul singers must have uniformly nasal, almost pre-pubescent voices and sing about sex a lot without projecting any confidence that they really know what to do in the sack. D’Angelo, on the other hand, left us in no doubt that he knew exactly how to create a concerto of orgasms.

In terms of soul, D’Angelo fused all that came before, plus a strong dose of hip hop and a shot of Hendrix in one album, creating a whole new, exciting and intensely sexual sound. It had taken him five years to follow up the gorgeous Brown Sugar, and I believe a new album is imminent. Whatever happened before or will happen, Voodoo is Michael Archer’s masterpiece. Had Marvin Gaye lived, this is what he’d have sounded like.
D’Angelo – Untitled (How Does It Feel).mp3

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3. Elliot Smith – Figure 8

elliott_smith_figure_8Smith’s final album in his lifetime — he died three years later — may not be his best, but even then, it is lovely and affecting. It could have done with some trimming, and the cover is unattractive. You don’t pick up an Elliot Smith album to cheer you up, but the charge of miserablism often levelled against seems unfair to me. There is beauty in Smith’s sadness — made all the more poignant by his apparent suicide (there are theories that Smith didn’t actually kill himself). We owe Smith a huge voter of thanks for his part in inspiring so many of the great acoustic artists that emerged in (and, perhaps, from) his wake.
Elliott Smith – Somebody That I Used To Know.mp3

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4. Colin Hay – Going Somewhere

colin_hayThe solo albums of the former Men At Work frontman tend to be frustrating; amid the near-perfect gems there is so much indifferent filler material. Best, really, to put together one’s own compilation. But then one would not find that some of the mediocre stuff is actually pretty good, but required a few more listens. Going Somewhere does not suffer from this. It is one of two albums on which Hay re-recorded his better songs and a couple of new ones, here mostly acoustically. And it works wonderfully. Highlights include opener Beautiful World (which features the brilliant line “where a man can still be free — or a woman if you are one”), I Just Don’t Think I’ll Ever Get Over You, Looking For Jack (about an encounter with Mr Nicholson), Waiting For My Real Life To Begin and Lifeline.
Colin Hay – Lifeline.mp3

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5. Jill Sobule – Pink Pearl

jill_sobuleSobule kissed a girl and liked it long before Katy Perry did so — and Sobule meant it. Sobule is an engaging lyricist dealing with often unexpected subject matter, ranging from anorexia to the case of a teacher who had sex with her pupil. In turn she can be insightful, funny, ironic, cute, tender and daring. Her music is neither particularly challenging nor bland, and some of the tracks on Pink Pearl are excellent, especially the Bacharach-via-Spektor-sounding Rainy Day Parade. But it’s for the lyrics that I return to it. This, from the also outstanding One Of These Days, always makes me laugh: “One of these days I’m gonna touch the sky. Like that awful song ‘I Believe I Can Fly’, [pause for effect] I believe I can fly.” Download free Jill Sobule tracks from her website
Jill Sobule – Rainy Day Parade.mp3

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6. Lewis Taylor – Lewis II

lewis_taylorI’ve read that Lewis Taylor has retired from the music business because his albums didn’t sell. That is a pity. Lewis II (which, you will have worked out, was his sophomore album, following the more psychedelic self-titled debut) is a likeable soulful and funky effort. When white soulsters arrive on the scene, they tend to be matched with their likely influences, invariably from the ’60s and ’70s (usually Curtis Mayfield with a bit of Motown). London-born Taylor escaped such labelling, or at least its accurate application. He drew from the treasury of soul through the ages and created his own unique sound. The album features a fine cover of Jeff Buckley’s Everybody Here Wants You.
Lewis Taylor – The Way You Done Me.mp3

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7. K’s Choice – Almost Happy

ks_choice_almost_happyIn my view, Almost Happy is the Belgian brother-and-sister act’s best album. The title track and Another Year are most affecting, beautiful songs dipped in sadness but not despondency. Both of these, and other K’s Choice songs, find an echo in the music of the wonderful Weepies (another female/male singing and songwriting combo). The stand-out track is the almost gothic (though not goth) Shadowman, a song about depression.
K’s Choice – Shadowman.mp3

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8. Ben Kweller – Freak Out…It’s Ben Kweller

ben_kweller_freak_outI know, EPs aren’t albums. But I’m not going to list my favourite EPs of the decade (hmmm, or maybe I should), so Ben Kweller’s debut on disc gets in. And what a debut it was. The stand-out track here is In Other Words, which features a few duff lines (including references to passive-aggressive butterflies) but has a tune and, especially, an arrangement that one might not expect from an 18-year-old. The piano and banjo interplay in the song’s climax is exquisite. Kweller later re-recorded In Other Words, as well as the brief How It Should Be (Sha Sha), for his first full album, 2002’s Sha Sha. Both songs are superior on this eight-song EP.
Ben Kweller – In Other Words.mp3

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9. Richard Ashcroft – Alone With Everybody

ashcroftI’d include this for Brave New World alone. And I‘ll cheerfully admit that I don’t really like about half of this album. But the other half is better than most music he created with the Verve. From his former group, we knew Ashcroft was rather given to kitchen-sink productions, and there’s little here that could be described as sparse (quite in contrast to Elliott Smith). At times the onslaught of instrumentation is sumptuous, at other times one yearns for some respite. Not a great album, but one with great moments. I’d recommend You On My Mind In My Sleep, A Song For Lovers and On A Beach; and strongly advise against Money To Burn, which I think was the lead single.
Richard Ashcroft – Brave New World.mp3

10. Badly Drawn Boy – The Hour Of The Bewilderbeest

badly_drawn_boyThe album title merely hints at the punnery Damon Gough engages in here. I like the wordplay in Badly Drawn Boy’s lyrics, even if I find them unnecessary in songtitles (Everybody’s Stalking!). Like almost any studio double album (and how audacious to release a double album on debut), there is a lot of unnecessary music here, and the brief interludes are annoying. But in the day of WinAmp, one can happily re-sequence an album according to one’s tastes. And doing so with this set is a very rewarding experience.
Badly Drawn Boy – The Shining.mp3


Any Major Love Mix 2009 Vol.2

March 31st, 2009 3 comments

I posted a mix of songs about being in love last year, for Valentine’s Day, with a view to facilitating loads of romantic seductions (or something). That mix got deleted by ZShare. Responding to a request, I have revised the tracklisting, dropping a few songs, adding a few new, changing the track order. The Jonatha Brooke song I owe to Barely Awake In Frog Pajamas blog. So here is Any Major Love Mix Vol. 2.

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1. Jets To Brazil – Sweet Avenue (1998)
‘ Now all these tastes improve through the view that comes with you. Like they handed me my life, for the first time it felt worth it, like I deserved it.’

2. Michelle Featherstone – Rest Of My Life (2007)
‘ How ’bout that? Waking up every morning with me. Spend our time drinking coffee, speaking softly as the days go by.’

3. Mindy Smith – It’s Amazing (2004)
‘ It’s amazing what you do to me: took my heart and made me feel things I never felt before. It’s changing me, Which direction so certainly; shook me up and threw me around. When we learn to breathe it all in.’

4. The Weepies – Gotta Have You (2006)
‘No amount of coffee, no amount of crying, no amount of whiskey, no amount of wine — no, nothing else will do. I’ve gotta have you.’

5. Richard Hawley – Baby, You’re My Light (2001)
‘But I believe in you and now I’ll show it. And as life goes on you know you don’t have to hate all you find. Baby, you’re my light.’

6. Ron Sexsmith – Whatever It Takes (2004)
‘The sun alone will never do, without your love to shine on through’

7. Ben Kweller – Falling (2002)
‘We could talk if days weren’t so fast, and mistakes just leave it so unsure. Wanna hold you like never before ’cause we’re falling and I love you more and more.’

8. Hello Saferide – Get Sick Soon (2006)
‘ Oh, I love you! I wish you got the flu, you’re the cutest thing I’ve ever seen — like a teddy bear on heroin … You can lay your weight on me and I’ll be your backbone. Lay your weight on me, you won’t have to worry.’

9. Ben Folds – The Luckiest (2001)
‘And where was I before the day that I first saw your lovely face? Now I see it everyday, and I know: I’m the luckiest.’

10. Bright Eyes – The First Day Of My Life (2005)
‘ Yours was the first face that I saw, I think I was blind before I met you. I don’t know where I am, I don’t know where I’ve been, but I know where I want to go.’

11. Iron & Wine – Such Great Heights (2004)
‘I am thinking it’s a sign that the freckles in our eyes are mirror images, and when we kiss they are perfectly alligned.’

12. Mason Jennings – Ballad For My One True Love (2000)
‘And all the while I ‘m dreaming of the ballad for my one true love, searching for the perfect way to say: I love you sweetheart, this is my dream come true.’

13. Joseph Arthur – Echo Park (2004)
‘ The fire never understands the spark, the way it is with you and me.’

14. Kate Walsh – Your Song (2007)
‘I knew I was wrong to jump straight on into this picture so pretty, but he is so pretty to me.’

15. Colbie Caillat – Realize (2007)
‘If you just realized what I just realized, then we’d be perfect for each other, then we’d never find another. Just realized what I just realized, we’d never have to wonder if we missed out on each other now.’

16. Jackie Greene – Love Song; 2.00 am (2006)
‘ Should your mind forget me, regret me, or even do me wrong, you’ll always live here in my heart, ’cause, baby, that’s where you belong.’

17. Jonatha Brooke – Because I Told You So (1997)
‘Could you see it like me and believe what I see? Could you listen, and remember that i love you, only because I told you?’

18. Peter Mayer – Now Touch The Air Softly (1999)
‘And I’ll love you as long as the furrow the plow, as However is Ever, and Ever is Now.’

19. Bob Schneider – The World Exploded Into Love (2001)
‘The world exploded into love all around me, and every time I take a look around me, I have to smile.’

20. Jens Lekman – You Are The Light (2003)
‘Yeah I got busted, so I used my one phone call to dedicate a song to you on the radio.’

21. Liz Phair – Good Love Never Dies (2003)
‘ Tell me what can I say to keep you in my life, all the words slip away when I look in your eyes, because I can never relax.’


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Any Major Love Mix 2009 Vol. 1
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Five from 2009 (March)

March 8th, 2009 4 comments

I don’t cover nearly enough new music, so here’s an undertaking that I will do so at least occasionally. I have not heard the new U2 album, and I most certainly will not. The new single is just horrible — what sort of quality control do these guys employ? — and as for the album, I shall be guided by Mr Agreeable’s magnificent review. I think Mr Agreeable is being admirably restrained when he asks: “F***ing Bono – how much worse is this self-important f***ing channeller of the f***ing flatulence of Satan going to get? Read more…

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Any Major Love Mix 2009

February 10th, 2009 11 comments

Amid all the heartbreak and unrequited love (with lovelessness and death still to come) we are looking at this month, we need a respite from the gloomy tears and instead frolic in the calm waters of true love reciprocated — which in itself, as some of the lyrics here suggest, is a source of anxiety and uncertainty. And, well, perhaps some lucky person might need a decent mix for Valentine’s Day which does not include the unlovely horrors perpetrated by Chris DeBurgh, Jennifer Rush, Peabo Bryson, Céline Dion, Engelbert Humperdinck, Stevie Wonder and, of course, Michael Bublé – and who prefer to do without “edgy” comps featuring the love musings of Coldplay, U2, Avril Lavigne and James Blunt. As always, the mix is timed to fit on a CD-R. It might be a good alternative to an overpriced VD card (and if anybody tries that, please let me know if it was a good idea).

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1. Donny Hathaway – A Song For You (1971)
You taught me precious secrets of the truth withholding nothing, you came out in front and I was hiding. But now I’m so much better and if my words don’t come together, listen to the melody, ’cause my love is in there hiding.

2. Carpenters – I Won’t Last A Day Without You (1972)
When there’s no gettin’ over that rainbow, when my smallest of dreams won’t come true, I can take all the madness the world has to give, but I won’t last a day without you.

3. Ben Kweller – Sundress (2006)
I don’t need a smile from a mannequin, I just want to hold you in my hands. I do everything you want me to…for you.

4. The Weepies – Happiness (2004)
Friday 13, lights go red, green, in a coffee shop. I’m giving you the look while someone else is fingering your wallet in my pocketbook. It’s a mean town, but I don’t care. Try and steal this! Can’t steal happiness.

5. Mindy Smith – Falling (2004)
When I’ve almost had enough, something about you draws me back again. When I’ve almost given up, something about you pulls me in. And we’re falling…

6. John Prine with Iris Dement – In Spite Of Ourselves (1999)
She thinks all my jokes are corny, convict movies make her horny. She likes ketchup on her scrambled eggs, swears like a sailor when shaves her legs. She takes a lickin’ and keeps on tickin’. I’m never gonna let her go.

7. Moldy Peaches – Anyone Else But You (2001)
Here is the church and here is the steeple, we sure are cute for two ugly people, I don’t see what anyone can see in anyone else but you.

8. Simone White – The Beep Beep Song (2007)
(Yeah, the one from the Audi commercial) Despite all the warnings I landed like a fallen star in your arms.

9. Curtis Mayfield – So In Love (1975)
This love affair is bigger than we two. Lose our faith and it will swallow you. Loving you is what I’ll always feel, never ever doing things against our will. Loving means, never require any kind of test … Ya got me so in love.

10. Aretha Franklin – Baby I Love You (1967)
If you want my lovin’, if you really do, don’t be afraid, baby. Just ask me, you know I’m gonna give it to you. Oh, and I do declare: I want to see you with it. Stretch out your arms, little boy, you’re gonna get it – ’cause I love you.

11. Ron Sexsmith – Never Give Up On You (2006)
I’d never give up on you because I know you’d do the same for me. Never give up on you because you take me as I am, how I’ll always be.

12. Mary Chapin Carpenter – Grow Old With Me (1999)
Grow old along with me. Two branches of one tree face the setting sun when the day is done. God bless our love. (Beautifully sung by Carpenter, the real poignancy of this song derives from its authorship: written and demoed by John Lennon shortly before his murder in December 1980, it first appeared on his posthumous Milk And Honey album)

13. Tom Waits – Falling Down (1988)
For she loves you for all that you are not …You forget all the roses, don’t come around on Sunday. She’s not gonna choose you for standing so tall; go on and take a swig of that poison and like it.

14. Alexi Murdoch – Love You More (2006)
Love you more than anyone. Love you more than anyone. Love you more in time to come. Love you more. (That’s the complete lyric…)

15. Finley Quaye – Dice (2003)
I was crying over you. I am smiling, I think of you. Misty morning and water falls, breathe in the air if you care, you compare, don’t say farewell. Nothing can compare to when you roll the dice and swear your love’s for me.

16. Dexys Midnight Runners – This Is What She’s Like (1985)
“Well how did all this happen?” “Just all at once really. The Italians have a word for it.” “What word what is it?” “A thunderbolt or something.” “What, you mean the Italian word for thunderbolt?” “Yeah, something like that. I don’t speak Italian myself you understand?” “No.” “But I knew a man who did. Well, that’s my story. The strongest thing I’ve ever seen.” (Single version)

17. The Cure – Lovesong (1989)
Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am home again. Whenever I’m alone with you , you make me feel like I am whole again. Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am young again. Whenever I’m alone with you, you make me feel like I am fun again.

18. Jens Lekman – I Saw Her In The Anti-War Demonstration (2004)
And the skies were clear blue skies, and her eyes were clear blue eyes, and her thighs were about the same size as mine, and we were walking in the anti-war demonstration; it was a sweet sensation of love.

19. Kacy Crowley – Kind Of Perfect (2004)
The last few years have been much harder than we ever thought they’d be. I know you hate it when I say I’m sorry, but I’m sorry. There was never a point in our love that I didn’t love you; not a point in our love. I always did, I always will, I always do, love you still, I always would, how could I not? Just look at us baby, we’re kind of perfect.

20. Joshua Radin – The Fear You Won’t Fall (2007)
I know you’re scared that I’ll soon be over it. That’s part of it all, part of the beauty of falling in love with you is the fear you won’t fall.

21. Nina Kinert – Through Your Eyes (2004)
All the time I stood here holding dandylions and chocolate for you. Tumbleweeds and fireworks go by. It’s hard to keep them still for you to see, nut you know that I try. I want to see you watching what I see, now that you’re mine, through your eyes.

22. Sarah Bettens – Grey (2005)
Will you be my everything? Maybe just this time we can really think that I am yours and you are mine; I am yours and you are mine…

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