This time last year, 40 From The Noughties began. Over the course of a month, Just Played examined some of the finer releases from the previous decade. This process provoked a lot of debate and prompted plenty of people to engage a little more with the site. As a result, it seemed logical to offer a more expansive end of year round up this time out and it is this list which commences today. Between now and the new year, you’ll be able to follow the countdown of Just Played’s Top 30 albums of the year, along with various additional round-ups which will look at those bubbling under or released to late to have their full impact. As ever, your feedback is invited and please feel free to disagree vehemently with any (or perhaps all) of this list. 2009’s list can be found with some explanation here or you can quickly skim through it, along with 2008’s list, down the right hand side of this page. Also, if you’d like to look back over the 2010 music covered on Just Played, click here for an index. The first post will appear later today. To keep fully up to date on the countdown, you can either subscribe to the site or follow Just Played on Twitter – @justplayed – so you don’t miss a thing.
If you’re clicking through to the site today from The Guardian’s website, as it seems many of you are, the 6 Music article to which they refer can be found quickly by clicking on the image below. Naturally, I’d be more than a little chuffed if you had a read of some of the other articles posted here, which include interviews with Gaz and Danny from Supergrass and up and coming indie act Tom Williams & The Boat and a countdown of Just Played’s 40 albums from The Noughties.
(More frequent, if less well thought out, comments available by following Just Played on Twitter)
A little late, I know, but it would probably be more accurate if I waited until around March time, by which point I might have fully absorbed the 2009 albums I have. Can’t imagine there’d be much interest by then though, so here it is. As with last year, this is a Top 20 list of albums I’ve thoroughly enjoyed across 2009. I make no apologies for excluding certain albums that have appeared near the top of many media lists and am confident that you’ll simply look at the list as a curiosity that might make you explore one or two titles that you’ve either not heard or not spent long with. As with the 40 From The Noughties list, I fully expect many of you to heartily disagree with this list but all I’m saying is that these are my top 20 of the last year as things stand now. It may well change in time and, if you look at the 2009 albums in the aforementioned 40, you’ll see that some of them have already changed positions since I put that list together. Anyhoo, let’s get on with it, shall we?
20. Super Furry Animals – Dark Days / Light Years
Not sure how it ended up falling so low in the end. Still a wonderful album, it just didn’t have quite the staying power I thought it might have had.
19. The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – s/t
Great fun, from start to finish. Reminds me of when the NME was published on tatty grey bog roll.
18. Atlas Sound – Logos
I was bit late to the party on this one, but was glad I finally made it. Quirky washes of sound. A bit like Animal Collective with more tunes.
17. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career
They don’t make bad records. Every one of them is a gem. This was another quietly brilliant record.
16. Annie – Don’t Stop
The power pop album of the year. Xenomania in full flow and, in the absence of new Girls Aloud, it does the job just fine.
15. M. Ward – Hold Time
Coffee shops and Apple may love him, but that doesn’t mean you can’t. A wonderful sleeper of an album. His entire back catalogue is great and don’t forget to check out ‘Monsters Of Folk’ which just missed out on this list.
14. Magnolia Electric Co – Josephine
One of the first albums I reviewed for Clash and it’s a good ‘un. Jason Molina with his finest album in some time. He also released ‘Molina and Johnson’ this year which is almost as good and would have been No.22 had this list gone beyond a top 20. Well worth listening to both.
13. Pet Shop Boys – Yes
Their best in some time. ‘Pandemonium’ is ridiculously over the top, but in that oh-so-forgivable PSB way. A delight from start to finish and there’s a decent track-by-track commentary on Spotify for free too.
12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
A great overall sound to this one. Hadn’t really bothered with them up until this, but quickly retraced my footsteps and put that right. ‘Two Weeks’ and ‘While You Wait For The Others’ were classic singles. Not on Spotify, but click the picture for the latter of those two singles on VerTube.
11. Sleeping States – In The Gardens Of The North
The first of the Noughty 40 to feature in this list also. A great record, still worthy of plenty of your time. It needs a few listens, but if it clicks, it’ll stay with you.
10. Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers
The most fun you can have with a Manics album in some time. Great packaging, great songs, great performances. Check out the Saint Etienne re-tooling of ‘Jackie Collins’ too. In the aforementioned 40 also.
09. Graham Coxon – The Spinning Top
Another Noughty 40 album and one that splits opinion. I think his voice sounds charming on this record and I would argue that it’s his best by some distance. Beautiful at times.
08. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter
An album which I loved at the start, lost interest in for a bit but have since returned to at some great length and have realised just how spiffing it really is. Should have been in the big list and is probably his second best album to date.
07. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
One of those albums that you pootle along listening to every so often without realising how much you’re enjoying it. When it came to thinking about this list, I returned to it and it all clicked into place. This one has staying power, methinks.
06. Maps – Turning The Mind
I think I may have said enough about this one already. It’s in the big 40, and my review described it as ‘bordering on genius’. Job done.
05. Doves – Kingdom Of Rust
Ok, so it’s no ‘Lost Souls’ but then what is? To be fair, they sound like two different bands. This is the New Order phase and it’s bloody good. CD sounds like shite though. Treat yourself to the deluxe vinyl edition. Made #20 in the 40.
04. Trashcan Sinatras – In The Music
Still not Spotify-able but bloody lovely nonetheless. Gentle, well-crafted and beautifully sung. Just like every other Trashcans record. A welcome return and a great album. Highly placed in the 40 too.
03. The Low Anthem – Oh My God, Charlie Darwin
There are those who’ll bang on about how this is a 2008 album because they self-released it at the end of that year, but the world only really heard it in 2009 and it was only released over here in 09, so I’m having it. A quirky cross between gentle harmonies and Tom Waits honking. Splendid stuff and a Noughties classic also.
02. The xx – xx
Even a couple of months ago, I had no idea how high up the list this one would finish. It crow barred its way in to the Noughty 40 at the last minute and continued to impress all through December, resulting in this placement. It’s hard to define, but I had a go here.
01. Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You
Justifiably highly placed in the big list and the top of this one, ‘It’s Not Me, It’s You’ is the best pop album I’ve heard in years. The lyrics are brilliant and musically it gets every single call just right. I have never tired of it since the day I first played it. There’s a bargainous CD/DVD edition available right now for not all that much cash and I can’t recommend it enough.
What makes for a truly great album? How does it differentiate itself from the phenomenal number of new records released each week, let alone each year? Why do certain albums provoke such profound responses? As with so many things in life, the majority of qualitative judgements we make are grounded in the perspectives we bring to the table. If you already like certain actors in a film, characters in a novel or musicians in a band, then you’re likely to come to things in a positive frame of mind. One might argue that a general state of willing acceptance actually makes it harder for a known quantity to truly dazzle, and that can certainly be applied to a few members of this particular musical collective. The fact that I was hugely excited about this record for several months before it was finally released probably gave it a head start in my affections, but I would like to think that I’m not stupid enough to simply be swept along in a sea of publicity and expectation. Indeed, this album’s position at the top of this list is, I would imagine, a surprise to some. It certainly didn’t romp home in any of the big lists in the national newspapers or glossy music magazines. It did, however, connect with me in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I’m useless when it comes to concentration span these days, partly because of what I consider to be the digital curse. We are so used to being able to flick about as soon as something loses our interest – be it a track on a CD, television programme or web page – that we often don’t spend very long getting to know anything in the media. Add to that the increasing amounts of available entertainment and the ease with which we can acquire something new and the competition for our few hours of unassigned brain time each day is rife. This album defied all of my recent trends and was played very regularly for all of 2007, much of 2008 and on into this final year of the decade. For several months, I played it every single day. That, I would argue, is perhaps a decent enough definition of a great album in the 21st century. Any music that can rise above the excitement of the new and stand firm in its presentation of ideas and moods deserves to be recognised. And so, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ sits atop the 40 From The Noughties list.
Paul Simonon’s dubby bass playing is crucial to the mechanics of this record and, while it is Damon Albarn’s creative genius that truly weaves together a majestic patchwork of twelve beguiling pieces of music, it sets an anxious, slightly paranoid tone to proceedings. For me, this a good starting point for looking at this record. As a statement about Britain in the early part of the 21st century it does a pretty impressive job of capturing the confusion surrounding both cultural and political aspects of everyday life. In ‘Three Changes’, Damon sings of “a stroppy little island of mixed up people” and I can’t help but identify with that notion of Britain. Political consciences were tested, cultural shifts were debated and the right wing media endeavoured to widen each and every little crack in society’s development. That one phrase says far more to me than any house brick sized Andrew Marr effort about the country I live in and for someone who is often strangely insensitive to lyrics, this record has had me hooked for some time.
It’s hard to define the sound of this record. On the one hand, it could be argued that it’s a mature indie-pop outing from Albarn and a logical progression from where he was going with Blur’s ‘Think Tank’. But, on the other, is it not a borderline schizophrenic stuttering, jagged collage of different sounds and influences, the like of which I’ve certainly never heard before? I genuinely think it sounds different to everything else around right now. I’m not saying it’s more innovative than, say, Four Tet or more deliberately challenging than Tune-Yards – both of whom produced outstanding music in recent years – but it is decidedly different from its contemporaries. Listen to the drum machine sounds at the end of ‘Northern Whale’. What is going on there? It constantly threatens to fall out of sync with the rest of the instrumentation and it never seems completely at ease. That is a trait found in many of these songs, most noticeably in the aforementioned ‘Three Changes’, which is essentially three different songs, knitted together to form something greater than the sum of its parts.
Although the album contained one radio-friendly single in ‘Kingdom Of Doom’, the first track released was ‘Herculean’, as decidedly anti-commercial a single choice as any Albarn had opted for in many a year. I remember the genuine thrill of knowing that Zane Lowe was going to be giving it a first play one evening in October 2006. I can’t say I loved it, there and then, but it had that certain indefinable something that Albarn’s work tends to have, even aspects of that ‘Monkey’ soundtrack record. As you listen to the chaotic pounding of the piano and assorted cacophonous aural destruction of the surrounding instruments in the closing moments of the album’s final, and title, track, it’s hard not to see this as the album Albarn had wanted to make for a while. He’d put himself in a position in the first half of the decade – two hugely successful Gorillaz albums and another number one album from Blur – whereby he had earned the freedom to take an unexpected turn. Surrounding himself with legendary drummer Tony Allen, Clash icon Paul Simonon and, the admittedly less awe-inspiring, Simon Tong from The Verve could well be classed as unexpected and the resultant album certainly can be. It’s hard to say what everyone thought it would sound like, and it clearly has the feel of a Damon Albarn project due to his distinctive vocals, but the slightly confused response it seemed to be met with would suggest that it didn’t win as many people over as EMI might have hoped.
Although it made a respectable showing in some end of year polls, and a few low-placed appearances in the end of the decade lists, ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ seems to have drifted by without much of a fuss. I don’t think it’s particularly difficult listening and, at the same time, I don’t agree with those who suggest that it’s quite a boring listen. I simply can’t listen to this record and fathom how it could ever be classed as boring. I can hear why people might not like it – and those who have always believed Albarn to be a smug, patronising surveyor of society will be at the front of the queue there – but the notion that it might provoke little emotional response seems incomprehensible. Albarn’s insistence that the name ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ applies to the album title alone and that the band has no name of any sort, while hugely pretentious and all a little bit silly, is a reassuring suggestion that this will stand as a one-off. It was a wonderful experiment and the resultant album is a thing of rare beauty. But it feels like something which, at the risk of sounding trite, truly captured a certain time and I can’t ever imagine myself not turning to this album for genuine enjoyment. And mark that last phrase, because it’s not a comfort blanket, it’s not a record to comfort me through the bad times, it’s just a piece of brilliant music and it’s a delight to listen to it each and every time. Many will criticise Damon Albarn, but few will better him.
It was inevitable. They could have drawn the money without asking any questions and I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid. Pay as much as you like for the download or £40 for a ‘Discbox’ containing the album on CD and double vinyl, along with a bonus CD of extra material and assorted artwork and the like. I didn’t even think it was that unreasonable, after all a high quality double vinyl, 45rpm pressing could easily set you back £20 and then a double CD book edition of a Radiohead album for about "£20 didn’t seem that odd, plus you got the download for free as soon as it was released – what was there to think about.
I remember being a little disbelieving about the whole thing when the first announcement appeared on the internet. We were a good five years or so into a culture whereby the first time people heard new albums was when they leaked, rather than when they were released. Widespread excitement about a certain day on which everyone would listen to a new record was long gone. Reviews had less importance as most records would be floating around the web by the time the reviews appeared in print and anticipation was becoming an increasingly irrelevant part of music consumption. The notion that everyone – including the critics – would hear this album on the same day was exciting.
The low-quality mp3 files were quickly unzipped after a surprisingly rapid download time but I didn’t have time to actually play them after a manic day at work. So, in attempt to get to hear the album as soon as possible, it was burnt to a CD-R and put on in the car during the next morning’s journey. Sadly, a combination of shit bass on tinny speakers and poorly encoded music meant that it all fell a bit flat on that first play. I was a little underwhelmed and wondering what the fuck was going on. Over the next week or two, I started to identify ‘Reckoner’, ‘Weird Fishes’ and ‘Nude’ as pretty impressive tracks, while the rest of the album continued to grow on me. But it hadn’t smacked me round the face. Or punched me in the ear. Or kicked me in the cobblers. Or whichever tortured analogy for realising an album is great you wish to use right now.
In fact, ‘In Rainbows’ didn’t really make much sense to me until the box arrived. The 45rpm double vinyl pressing is an absolute delight and, if I ever need to demonstrate the power of a decent vinyl setup to somebody, it’s one of the albums I reach for. I still play the CDs from time to time, but they simply can’t match the out and out euphoria I experience at certain points in the album when listening on vinyl.
Take ‘Reckoner’, for example. That is a truly brilliant track whatever format or system you listen to it on; the wide-panned percussion is impossible to ignore. But when the bass starts to really creep in around the lyric, “you are not to blame for bittersweet distractor” it is genuinely mesmerising. By the time the strings are weaving in and around proceedings, it’s a thing of sublime beauty. Forgive me if this sounds like typical Radiohead fanboyism, but this record is above and beyond such naive chit-chat. It is, frankly, a masterpiece and this wonderful song sits stunningly in its midst.
‘15 Step’ is a similarly superlative performance, also built around innovative and jaw-dropping drums and percussion. It’s an insistent and bold opener and I can’t really imagine now how I didn’t spot that, even on a crappy car stereo. I know I’m at risk of sounding like some hi-fi snob, but this album really does deserve a decent pressing and a decent playback. It’s no less brilliant a record if it doesn’t get that, but it’s something just a little bit special when it does.
‘All I Need’, ‘Faust Arp’ and ‘House Of Cards’ can sometimes be overlooked at the expense of some of the other, more instant tracks surrounding them, but this also marked the return of Radiohead’s simple beauty, something they’d touched on with ‘Sail To The Moon’ on ‘Hail To The Thief’ but which hadn’t really been seen since 1997’s ‘OK Computer’. Gentle, simple pop-rock songs of this ilk were a revelation and it only served to prove that they hadn’t lost their ability to melt your heart, they’d simply been avoiding do it for a little while.
That said, my absolute favourite track on the album, and one of the songs that means most to me in my entire record collection, is ‘Weird Fishes / Arpeggi’. The whole song is pretty much perfect – from the direct pace set from the off by Phil Selway’s drumming, through the introduction of a gently weaving bassline and on to the wonderful vocal from Thom, it is a magnificent piece of music. But, where it really gets me, and by this I mean every single time I hear it, is when Ed O’Brien’s backing vocals kick in, essentially wailing ‘ahhhhh’ at the end of each line in the third verse. There is something about the combination of each line sung by Thom, followed by that brief addition from Ed that is as close to a perfect moment in music as I can honestly put my hand up and say I know about. I can’t put my finger on why that is, and I think if I could it probably wouldn’t be that special anymore. So, I might just leave it be and continue to love it. Next time you listen to the album, pay close attention to it and hopefully you’ll hear what I’m on about.
I truly adore ‘In Rainbows’. It is my favourite Radiohead album. I’m not going to say ‘OK Computer’ just because that is the conventional viewpoint. I’m not even going to opt for ‘The Bends’, because that’s what everyone who doesn’t want to seem obvious by saying ‘OK Computer’ says. ‘Kid A’ is great, and so is ‘Amnesiac’. But for me, all of their innovation and jarring, thought-provoking styles and textures are put into stark perspective by this perfect collection of ten songs. This could quite easily have topped this list. It is, sonically, the best album of the decade and one which I suspect will only get better with age.
I bought ‘The Cedar Room’ just as a relationship fizzled out. Not the most sensible seven minute solution to feeling shit, it must be said. But what a fucking song! I’d first heard it in 1998 when the original 10″ version was released and Adam Walton played it a lot on his short lived but absolutely essential Radio Wales weekday evening show. For some reason, I never chased down a copy at the time so, when I heard it was to be re-released ahead of Doves’ debut album, I was pretty chuffed.
We were both on the same sixth form trip and I, rather than skulking around the group attempting to look moody, opted to bugger off to Our Price instead of having lunch. I recall buying ‘Kill All Hippies’ at the same time – a glorious purchase on reflection – but it didn’t get played for days. ‘The Cedar Room’ went on a pretty much constant loop, just as its parent album would a few weeks later.
James, the unassuming muso who ran Dominion Records in Chepstow, had to order a copy of ‘Lost Souls’ in for me and it was due in on the Thursday after it was released. I can still remember dashing into town for it and then virtually jogging home, clutching the small carrier bag like it contained one of my vital organs. Despite all of this, it still managed to live up to expectations. With the possible exception of ‘Catch The Sun’, it is an album that creates a specific atmosphere, evokes a certain mood. All of the songs simply fit so well together. They’re not samey, just from the same place.
The album was a long time coming, appearing out of the traumatic end of the band’s previous incarnation as Sub Sub who were largely famous for ‘Ain’t No Love (Ain’t No Use)’ the 1993 chart hit but who were also responsible for a curious dance/indie hybrid album, now as scarce as you’d imagine, entitled ‘The Delta Tapes’. This record featured Bernard Sumner and Tricky and compiled the various bits and bobs that might have formed their second album had the band’s relatively short lifespan not been brought to an abrupt halt by a fire which destroyed their studio in 1996. Sensing that the omens weren’t great, a rethink was on the cards and 1998 marked the first, tentative steps as Doves, though the scars of recent years remained on this debut album.
The creeping uncertainty of ‘Firesuite’ is fully explored in ‘The Cedar Room’, the fragmented melancholy of ‘Break Me Gently’ has plenty in common with the never entirely comfortable ‘Rise’. When you think that Doves’ initial three releases, all put out essentially by themselves were the aforementioned seven minute masterstroke, plus ‘Sea Song’ and one of my all-time favourite songs, ‘Here It Comes’, it seems hard to believe that the band didn’t become huge. Those three songs alone are enough to get this record into the top twenty of this list but ‘Lost Souls’ needs to be heard in its entirety to really hit you. It might not seem all that striking at first, but if you spend some time with it soundtracking your life, its remarkable powers never leave you.
There was a time when Later… was worth watching from start to finish. This then morphed into a time when it was worth taping so that you could skip the odd poor performance. These days, it seems a programme well suited to Sky+, so sporadic are the truly captivating performances in any one series of the one remaining music show on telly. One Saturday morning in November 2007, I was flicking hastily through the previous night’s episode so as to find the two songs performed by Richard Hawley. I must have been in a charitable mood as, for those artists I didn’t really know, I was allowing each song about thirty seconds to impress itself upon me before I pressed down on the fast forward button again. So utterly beguiling was Laura Marling’s performance of ‘New Romantic’ that by the time the song was finished it was actually rewind that my thumb was hovering over. I played the performance again before grabbing the good lady to confirm that this was indeed something pretty special. I completely forgot that I was waiting on a second song by Richard Hawley and went charging off to the computer to attempt to find anything and everything that featured this stunning voice.
It wasn’t long before the ‘My Manic And I’ EP dropped through the letterbox and went straight on the turntable. ‘My Manic And I’ and ‘Night Terror’ were clearly both terrific, stirringly atmospheric pieces even then but it was that one song, ‘New Romantic’, that I was fixated with. Twice in the song, Laura sings, “and I’m sorry to whichever man should meet my sorry state. Watch my sturdy, lonesome gait and beware: I will never love a man, ’cause love and pain go hand in hand, and I can’t do it, again.” There’s just something about the way she delivers it that surely makes every man listening to her there and then wants to prove her wrong and make her reconsider.
I have never seen an artist captivate a room in quite the way Marling did in Nottingham’s Rescue Rooms last year. The hushed silence between songs as she languidly meandered through the rigmarole of structured chat with the audience was palpably electric. Everyone was hanging on her every ‘erm’ and as she offered us an early listen to what would, some thirteen months later, be her next single, ‘Goodbye England’, the same reverence being meted out to the songs we all knew was present. No chit-chat during the new stuff, no dashing off for a piss. She had us all captivated, and I suspect she knew it. Some performers just have that indefinable something and Marling has more of that something than most.
‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, the album that appeared in a slightly gaudy cardboard box in February 2008, was every bit as good as anyone had any right to hope it would be. I was initially dismayed to find that ‘New Romantic’ hadn’t made it, but it was pretty quickly clear that it wouldn’t have sat well with the more fleshed out sound of the album. I rather like that it’s out there to be found by those who love the album but missed the early singles – a very special treat in the wilderness. That fleshed out sounding album is a remarkable feat by anyone’s standards, but that idea that this is the sound of an eighteen year old making their first record is plain intimidating. The rich, textured voices belies the lack of living and the music is a complex web of folk, pop and rock that delights at every unexpected twist and turn.
‘Night Terror’ comes with its own brooding sense of foreboding and really manages to get under the skin like well-crafted songs can sometimes do. ‘Cross Your Fingers’ is, conversely, an upbeat, chipper pop track that confirms a more interesting musical palette than most of Marling’s contemporaries. ‘You’re No God’ builds to a strangely euphoric singalong, while hidden last track, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, offers a message for life with its, “work more, earn more, live more, have more fun,” refrain.
I could easily sit here and list each song’s defining (and fabulous) characteristic, but I think your time might be better spent with the record itself. A brief word about packaging. The initial version of the album came as a ‘Songbox’, with wrapping paper, a board game, several postcards and a beautiful lyric booklet and a gig ticket that sadly went unused. I’ve since added in the ‘My Manic And I’ book that came out at the same time as the EP and is worth tracking down, along with a pack of Laura Marling branded playing cards, which are rather less essential. This unique approach to releasing a record only served to further endear her to her target audience and we lapped it up. Similarly, there are two different vinyl pressings available – UK and US, though both are now quite hard to find – with one providing a CD containing a live performance at London’s Union Chapel and the other a DVD with a tour documentary. Both are well worth the cash outlay and the (UK, in particular) vinyl pressing quality is superb. It really is a remarkable debut and Laura Marling really does have as stunning a voice as I suggested at the start of this piece. She is beguiling, bewitching and in possession of a beautiful sound. She is surely capable of great things. Indeed, ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ is the first of such great things.
Alternate weekends during my time at university were spent travelling across the country on either National Express or Virgin Trains in order to see the good lady and these almost equally miserable journeys were livened to varying degrees by whatever music I had chosen to accompany me. Even though I had one of those shitty zip up wallets that housed about sixteen CDs – and, coincidentally, also scratched sixteen CDs – I often found myself rueing the fact that I hadn’t picked quite the right combination of tunes for that particular journey.
I can still vividly remember crawling through Sheffield as the gloom was beginning to descend, running alongside the tramlines in the outskirts of the city, as ‘Jets’ finally clicked. It is, by some stretch, the most unusual track on ‘Think Tank’ which, considering that ‘Think Tank’ is, by some stretch, the most unusual Blur album, makes it a relatively ‘difficult’ track by their standards. Jazzy and masterfully close to sounding directionless, it marauds around for over six minutes, creeping into your subconscious, laying siege to the space normally reserved for insistent but probably shit chart fodder. The only real lyrics are, “jets are like comets at sunset”. This, not especially profound, mantra whirls in and out across the whole track and it is, on the face of it, a completely nonsensical and inconsequential diversion. Despite this, I still find it great. And, as it’s probably my least favourite track on the album, it’s fair to say that the rest of ‘Think Tank’ means an awful lot to me.
Of course, all of the initial attention was given over to album closer, ‘Battery In Your Leg’, as it was the only track to feature the now ex-Blur member, Graham Coxon. It’s a beautiful and emotionally wrought way to bring things to a close but there’s a more remarkably emotive track on the record. ‘Out Of Time’ is simply one of the greatest songs of this disappearing decade. Heartbreakingly tender, beautifully sung and so deceptively simple, it is one of the band’s great singles and, while it is still cherished by many, I wonder if it might become one of those ‘Buried Treasure’ records that magazines for people with beards and American Express cards write about in twenty or thirty years from now. The record’s other singles, ‘Crazy Beat’ and ‘Good Song’ have little in common other than their home album. ‘Good Song’ lollops along, a sweet and sincere love song, Damon cooing, “you seem very beautiful to me.” ‘Crazy Beat’ was intended as the ‘pop smash’ on the album and it duly obliged by bulldozing its way past the competition to the heady heights of Number 18. Perhaps the top five placed ‘Out Of Time’ demonstrated that the Blur audience had grown up a bit and wanted something a little less noisy. Perhaps it confirmed that ‘Crazy Beat’ wasn’t quite as good as it should have been. Whatever, it sounded like (say this next bit in a Captain Darling voice) enormous FUN just now and I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it, despite knowing it wasn’t really prime Albarn fodder.
The Norman Cook influenced ‘Moroccan Peoples Revolutionary Bowls Club’ and ‘Gene By Gene’ are surprisingly effective and have something of a late period Clash feel to them. I should say that this theory has been met with some confused looks in the past, so if you think I’m talking utter bollocks right now, it might be best to just skip to the next sentence and forget I said it. This record seems more dependant on repetition than any Blur album before it and yet I would argue that it works to its advantage. Two of the album’s standouts, ‘Ambulance’ and ‘Caravan’, both take a fairly circular route to getting the job done and create a spellbindingly hypnotic soundscape in both cases. The latter features some of Damon’s finest singing on the whole record, particularly the drawn out section when he explains that, “when it comes you’ll feel the weight of it.” While the band clearly took great musical strides on this album, critics too often overlook the extraordinary vocal performance from Albarn across these thirteen tracks.
It’s not a perfect album. I think that’s clear even from this glowing piece. ‘Blur’ probably edges it for me. At times, ‘Parklife’ still delivers that phenomenal hit it did all those years ago while ‘13’ is a record for very specific times in life. Despite all of this, ‘Think Tank’ is essentially my ‘adult’ Blur record. It’s the only one of their records to be released once I was out of my teenage years and the only one to truly soundtrack important events. The recent reunion was a joy and the euphoria I experienced as one of several thousand very sweaty people in Wolverhampton’s Civic Hall in late June will take some beating, but it runs the risk of almost writing this incarnation of Blur out of the history books. ‘Think Tank’ deserves much better.
If I had to pick an artist of the last decade, Richard Hawley would be a strong contender. ‘Lowedges’, ‘Late Night Final’ and ‘Truelove’s Gutter’ were all close to being included in this list and only really missed out because of how much they split the non-existent vote, if you’ll pardon the rather crude expression. This album is so heart-meltingly perfect that it leaves the others a little way behind and, as such, they tend to be grouped together in my affections and harder to separate out for placings in the lower thirties or somesuch. Putting this one straight in the top ten was a far easier decision.
My final year of university was spent largely in the Headingley area of Leeds, occasionally venturing onto campus to do some work. After halls and the always imminent danger of the hideous block of flats where I lived for my second year, the final year was like a suburban paradise. In amongst the not really all that interesting retail options in Headingley could be found the charmingly untidy Polar Bear record shop. It had a brother in the city centre which offered better stock and seemingly better prices, but its convenience meant that I often found myself wandering over for a bit of quality browsing time. With such vast swathes of time set aside to intricate exploration of a fairly limited stock, I wasn’t far from having a pretty clear idea of exactly what they had for sale. When I found myself hugely taken with ‘The Nights Are Cold’ by Richard Hawley, on a free Uncut cover CD, I was pretty certain that I’d seen his album in Polar Bear for £7.99. At the next available opportunity, I was back in the shop, handing over the somewhat exhausted Switch card for yet more music before spending the next twenty four hours or so absorbing the beautiful music found therein.
I was already sold on his knack with a tune, but I somehow didn’t realise at the time, or when ‘Lowedges’ appeared for that matter either, quite how much I would end up loving his music. It was the release of ‘Coles Corner’ in September 2005 that suddenly slotted everything into place. The dearly departed (and much written about already) Reveal Records in Derby had it on in the shop when I popped in on the Saturday after release and it sounded magnificent. On this occasion, their excellent choice of music-to-shop-to was irrelevant, as that was the exact album I’d come in to buy in the first place, based on several gushing broadsheet reviews ahead of its release.
Everything about it is perfect. The cover art is beautiful, the blurred elderly couple in the background making the lonely Richard in the foreground seem even more alone and anxious. And the songs. Oh, the fucking songs! The attention to detail is phenomenal and the effect is utterly beguiling. One of the album’s strongest songs is put right at the front and its title track is quite some way to set out your stall. Grandiose, eloquent and lyrically full of romantic expectation, it perfectly captures that feeling of incipient affairs of the heart.
‘Just Like The Rain’ canters along, effortlessly sounding like a sixties classic that somehow escaped the public’s attention the first time around, while ‘Hotel Room’ is one of the least annoying, and therefore one of the best, songs written about rock stars and drug addiction. It’s a far from ‘woe is me’ as it could possible be and manages to make an awkward subject matter strangely compelling. ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ made for a splendid single choice and ushers in side two of the album perfectly, the trademark soaring guitar break doing some of its best work on the album around the 2:30 mark.
The aforementioned title track slugs it out with ‘The Ocean’ to be the very best track on the album. ‘Coles Corner’ just edges it in my book, but the latter track is so good Hawley pretty much remade it on his latest, ‘Truelove’s Gutter’, as ‘Open Up Your Door’. It swoops, it soars and if it involved a bit more beef-slapping and box-thumping it could be a Scott Walker classic.
As I said earlier, plenty of his records were contenders for this list and I don’t hesitate in recommending each and every one of them to you. I would also urge you to catch him in concert at some point, provided you’re a bit of a muso and can delight in having the hairs on the back of your neck stood to attention by some delicately deployed percussion. There are those who reckon his stuff is a bit samey and that each album is a retread of the last. I don’t really buy that, and the one aforementioned remake aside, his most recent release is a really step on from 2007’s ‘Lady’s Bridge’. He’s never going to a chart-shagging superstar but I can’t imagine he’d ever want to be. Just so long as enough of us keep parting with our cash for his sublime songs that he can keep putting them out there, I think the bequiffed one will be perfectly happy. I know I will be.
We had just moved house and it had taken the best part of two weeks to get the internet up and running again. After an hour or so spent attempting to convince myself that it was actually possible to somehow catch up on fourteen days worth of missed internet access, I finally gave up and pootled over to the Norman Records website. This particular online record shop had slowly been winning me over, having first visited when hunting for an out of print Magnolia Electric Co release. Packed with quirky reviews, curious items and a tremendous supply of vinyl, the Norm site has become increasingly important to me in recent years as a result of all of my local independent stores dying. It is where a sizeable chunk of my new music is now purchased from now – although that may change with the abolition of the invaluable reserve option – but back in April 2007 I was just starting to get the bug.
As I sat there, browsing new music in the hope of taking my mind off the still unfiled stuff everywhere around me, I noticed that Norm were banging on about a new album that they’d been given some upfront copies of that they thought was pretty bloody good. It didn’t take much longer for the hyperbole to kick in and next thing I knew I was putting together a small order on their site. That Saturday, ‘We Can Create’ by Maps turned up and I now can’t imagine what my record collection was like before that crucial day. (Ok, that’s yet more hyperbole – without that album, and its subsequent impact, there’d be a few less CDs in the racks and a small gap along the vinyl shelves)
I became more than a little obsessed with this record. The CD was played over and over, for weeks on end. When the novelty of that wore off, I purchased the double 10” vinyl edition and proceeded to do much that same with that. I even found myself, some months later, winning an auction on eBay for an unmastered, slightly different version of the album just to hear those minor differences and pore over what might have been. ‘We Can Create’ was the first album I’d been truly geeky over in the best part of ten years, but I loved every second. I’ve talked, at great length, about the music on this album in the past so I’m hoping the irrepressible enthusiasm is enough to get you to listen if you haven’t previously done so. But, having just said that, I should conclude by saying a few things about this remarkable, beautiful and hugely unassuming record.
The almost whispery washes of vocal sound throughout this album make it perfect for late night journeys or contemplative hours sat by a rain-soaked window but the euphoric synths and expertly manipulated electronic patterns can soundtrack those lost hours equally effectively. It’s been called a 21st century answer to shoegaze and compared to aspects of Spiritualized’s classic, ‘Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space’, but I genuinely haven’t heard another album like it. It’s infectious, it’s charming and it’s great from start to finish. If you have somehow ignored my recommendations up to this point, either do something about it now or find somewhere else to receive your mildly interesting musical commentary.