21. She & Him – Volume One

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I was very, very late to the party on this one. Every year, just prior to Christmas, we tend to pop up to Leeds for a bit of festive shopping day during which I invariably manage one or two actually presents and a few, not inconsiderably proportioned, bags of records. This time last year, give or take a day or two, I found myself rifling through the racks in the delightful Jumbo Records, looking for any number of different things that I’d been meaning to check out at some point, only to have my attention drawn to the simple but beautiful cover of ‘Volume One’, the debut offering by the double act of M. Ward – a splendid solo artist in his own right and a Folky Monster when given the chance – and Zooey Deschanel, a successful actress and a person with a funny name. I was partly drawn in due to the similarities between this cover and that of one of my all-time favourite albums, Nina Simone’s ‘Here Comes The Sun’ and partly as I’d seen the covered posted a number of times on some of the ‘Now Playing’ threads on a couple of music-themed message boards I visit. Something about it clicked and, having little knowledge of what it actually sounded like, on to the pile it went.

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As we slowly crawled our way along a gridlocked motorway, it was smiles all around as this delightful little record warmed our hearts and soothed our souls. Twice, as it happens, as I was so keen to hear it again as soon as it finished. It made a late showing in last year’s top 20 list, but it really should have been higher and would have been had I not bought it late in December! Sounding partly like a sixties girl group, partly like an upbeat Joni Mitchell and partly like a lot of M. Ward songs performed by a female vocalist, it’s a wonderfully chipper wash of music performed simply for the love of it.

I’ve since realised that it makes a bloody good summer record but, playing it now, it also seems pretty well suited to cold winter nights with its general aura of festive cheer. There’s a hint of the majesty of Karen Dalton on some of the slow songs, particularly ‘Got Me’, while ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here’ is one of the most perfectly crafted pop songs you could ever wish to hear. There’s a second volume due out fairly early next year and I’m genuinely rather excited. If you’ve not allowed this gem of a record into your life yet, it might be time to do something about it. Now, time to plan the trip to Leeds to find something that I’ll later realise should have gone in this list.

22. Maps – Turning The Mind

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I remember getting back to the house one evening late in July to find a jiffy bag in amongst the post, in which I found the promo for this particular album. I was due to review it for Clash but it meant rather more than that. The debut album by Maps is a true favourite of mine (of which more at some point soon) and so to have the follow up more than two months before it would appear in the shops was a reason for celebration. It went straight into thee CD player and, having adjusted the volume to suitably radiator-rattling proportions, I sat back in the reasonably comfy chair by the stereo setup and let it do its work.

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I’ll admit now that the first few listens, while satisfying, were not quite as joyous as I’d imagined. It was different to the debut. It sounded bigger than the humble origins of that first record and I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing. However, as I mentioned earlier, I had one of my most eagerly anticipated records of the year two months before I otherwise might have done so I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to simply keep playing it because I could. It came on holiday with us, soundtracked the long journey and a few warm evenings sat with a good book and a warm beer. It was everywhere for a week or two and the next time I consciously thought about my actual opinion of it – about 24 hours before my deadline – I realised just how addicted to it I had become. And rightly so. It’s a triumph and forgive me if, terrible though this is, I quote myself for the next paragraph.

Tracks like ‘Let Go Of The Fear’ and ‘Love Will Come’ are the most upbeat Maps material to date. James Chapman’s increasing musical dexterity ensures a heavy wash of sound with twinkling synths, euphoric loops and the uncanny ability to build and build a track to an ecstatic point of air-punching triumph. Best listened to from start to finish, ‘Turning The Mind’ is both the thinking-man’s pop album of the year and the perfect soundtrack to the witching hour. Bordering on genius.

I stand by every word. I remember being amazed that the phrase ‘bordering on genius’ wasn’t removed before it went to print. Such a bold statement is not often looked on kindly by reviews editors and the accompanying 9/10 rating did put this one up on a pedestal. Amusingly, it didn’t figure in their enormous end of year list but I won’t let it bother me if you don’t.

23. Elbow – Asleep In The Back

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Our first Christmas. Sat in a little cottage, beside a roaring log fire in a cold but beautiful part of West Wales, the good lady hands me a CD as one of my presents. This is long before the days when it has been acknowledged that buying me music is a risky business as I’ll probably have already bought it by the time it’s actually given to me, and I have absolutely no idea what will be inside the wrapping paper. As it slowly emerges, I recognise the blue cover and note the ‘Mercury Music Prize nominee’ sticker on the case. While it wasn’t top of my ‘must have’ list, I am pleasantly surprised by this choice and rather impressed by the good lady’s judgement.

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My early listens were largely positive, although I found it a little heavy going at points. My musical reference points weren’t quite what they are now and I didn’t have the setup to do it true sonic justice but, even with all of this needless negativity, I still realised quickly that there were a number of beautiful songs on this lengthy album. When the album’s title track was released as a single – it wasn’t originally on the album, later reissues from 2002 onwards had it added in – I dutifully picked it up as I wasn’t going to buy myself a new copy of the album just to have that song added in. But, what a song. The swirling opening of acoustic guitar and piano is majestic and the way the drums don’t so much enter as just happen to be there where previously they weren’t – it is one of their most musically simple but effective pieces to date.

The mantra-like feel to ‘Any Day Now’ has since become one of my favourite album openers while genuinely arresting songs like ‘Powder Blue’, ‘Red’ and ‘Newborn’ have lost none of their charm. It’s a remarkably powerful debut record and, as is so often the case when a band has had some time to perfect their initial offering, there is little sign of filler material.

The album comes to a close with ‘Scattered Black And Whites’, a beautiful track which I’m not sure I properly appreciated until it cropped up in the latter stages of a gig of theirs I attended in Leeds last year. Something about the mood it left across the room was suitably special and I soon dug it our for further investigation. The musical backdrop, with its distant backing vocals and pitter-pattering drums, is as homely as the lyrics themselves, talking of how Guy Garvey’s “sister buzzes through the room leaving perfume in the air”.

The recently issue deluxe edition is highly recommended and a link to purchase is embedded in the picture above as this one’s not on Spotify. But, whichever version you end up with, turn it up loud. It never sounds to loud, almost like it doesn’t have the capacity to disturb, only to soothe.