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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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More Albums of the Year

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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Have Song, Will Sing Vol. 1

July 27th, 2008 6 comments

Last year I did a series of Songbirds which seems to have been quite popular, showcasing female artists who fall within the singer-songwriter genre which unaccountably has acquired something of a bad name among the critics. In my view, the genre has not been in a more fertile state since the 1970s. Indeed, it is probably more varied now than it was then.

I’ve thought of doing a similar series on male singer-songwriters (which I might call “Singers with names like schoolteachers”, borrowing a great dig from the Welsh music writer Simon Price). In the meantime, here is a collection of some of the male singer-songwriters I hold in high esteem. What they have in common is that they write the songs they sing, and are broadly, if not invariably, acoustic performers. But the mix transcends such narrow characterisations. Their sensibilities range from folk (such as Mason Jennings) to pop (Bob Evans, Benji Cossa) to indie (Jens Lekman, Josh Ritter) to soul (Amos Lee) to country (Joe Purdy) to rock (Charlie Sexton, Scott Matthews). Most are American, but other nations are also represented, such as Australia (Evans), England (David Ford), Sweden (Lekman) and South Africa (the excellent Farryl Purkiss).

Some are well-known (such as Damien Jurado or, again, Ritter and Lekman), others are without a record contract. Josh Woodward, whose previous album I enjoyed very much, has made his new, very good double set titled The Simple Life available for free download on his website. If you like the sample track on this mix, download it and share it widely. TV viewers will recognise the Steve Poltz song from the Jeep ad, while Landon Pigg’s voice is used to advertise diamonds (albeit with a different, very beautiful, song).

My shortlist is not exhausted. If this mix proves popular, I intend to compile a volume of Songbirds and then a co-ed one. Let me know what you think.

As always, the mix should fit on a standard CD-R.

1. Steve Poltz – You Remind Me (from Chinese Vacation, 2003)
2.
Bob Evans – Friend (from Suburban Songbook, 2006)
3.
Farryl Purkiss – Ducking And Diving (from Farryl Purkiss, 2006)
4.
Mason Jennings – Which Way Your Heart Will Go (from Boneclouds, 2006)
5.
Landon Pigg – Can’t Let Go (from Coffee Shop EP, 2008)
6.
Joshua Radin – The Fear You Won’t Fall (from Unclear Sky EP, 2008)
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Jay Brannan – Can’t Have It All (from Chinese Vacation, 2003)
8.
David Ford – Cheer Up (You Miserable Fuck) (from I Sincerely Apologise For All The Trouble I’ve Caused, 2005)
9.
Josh Ritter – Wait For Love (You Know You Will) (from The Historical Conquests Of, 2007)
10.
Damien Jurado – Simple Hello (from On My Way To Absence, 2005)
11.
Charlie Sexton – Cruel And Gentle Things (from Cruel And Gentle Things, 2005)
12.
Griffin House – Just A Dream (from Lost And Found, 2004)
13.
Josh Woodward – History Repeats (from The Simple Life, 2008)
14.
Jens Lekman – I Saw Her in the Anti War Demonstration (from Oh You’re So Silent Jens, 2005)
15.
Kevin Devine – Probably (from … travelling the EU EP, 2003)
16.
Joe Purdy – Why You (from Only Four Seasons, 2006)
17.
Amos Lee – Long Line Of Pain (live) (from Supply And Demand, 2006)
18.
Elvis Perkins – Ash Wednesday (from Ash Wednesday, 2007)
19.
Scott Matthews – Passing Stranger (from Passing Stranger, 2007)
20.
Benji Cossa – The Show Is Over Everywhere (from Between The Blue And The Green, 2007)

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