11. The Divine Comedy – Regeneration

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Out went the suits, out grew the hair and out went the enormous orchestra. Sort of. As the decade began, Neil Hannon had decided that it was time for him to do something a little different with his band, The Divine Comedy. In came increasingly important producer, Nigel Godrich, and a revamp in the band’s sound. It wasn’t for everyone, including Hannon himself. Eights months on from launching the different sound of The Divine Comedy, he sacked the rest of the band and went back to base camp for a rethink. The result of that rethink was the somewhat over-familiar retread of all that had gone before, ‘Absent Friends’.

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Regeneration’ does not deserve to be little more than a footnote in Hannon’s discography as it contains some of his finest songs and some genuinely masterful lyrics. ‘Perfect Lovesong’, while a deliberately cheesy pastiche of mid-sixties Beach Boys and Beatles sounds, is a cracking little pop song. ‘Bad Ambassador’ is one of my favourite Divine Comedy songs of all time, featuring Neil’s voice at full pelt on the ludicrously grand chorus and a musical backdrop which foregrounds the guitars and pares back the orchestra to great effect.

It is in delicious use of understatement where this record really excels and it is something that Hannon hasn’t been known for at any other point in his career. Album closer ‘The Beauty Regime’ is a decent piece of social commentary set to a magnificent tune while ‘Mastermind’ is an indie epic with suitably wry Hannon lyrics, commenting on the bizarre world around him. “We all need reassurance, as we play life’s game of endurance” he sings plaintively over a suitably severe backdrop and yet it hits a charmingly optimistic final note with the lines, “Tell me what the hell is normal and who the hell is sane. And why the hell care anyway? All the dreams that we have had are gonna prove that we’re all mad and that’s ok.” It’s easy to forget how great that one song alone is, tucked at the back of the album, surrounded by other notable tunes.

Likewise, ‘Eye Of The Needle’, which proceeds at the pace of one of the services offered by the institution it critiques, is one of the great lost Hannon classics. The world needs to be aware of this rhyming couplet at the very least:

“The cars in the churchyard are shiny and German
Completely at odds with the theme of the sermon.”

Tremendous stuff. Musically, it’s one of the most interesting things he’s ever done and, while some fans have complained that this is a heinous crime, it features plenty of Godrich’s trademark ‘wooshing’ noises, making it something of a one-off in the context of songs like ‘Something For The Weekend’, ‘National Express’, ‘Come Home Billy Bird’ and ‘Diva Lady’.

12. Lily Allen – It’s Not Me, It’s You

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I was a latecomer to the Lily Allen bandwagon. When she first appeared, with ‘LDN’ and ‘Smile’, I couldn’t really see why she was so noteworthy. I eventually picked up the album when a supermarket was offering it for a few quid and started to think there might be more going on here than I’d previously realised. The way in which ‘Knock ‘Em Out’ is built around a Professor Longhair sample made me sit up and take notice of some genuinely clever pop music being crafted by this intriguing new pop star.

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And few people have deserved the tag ‘pop STAR’ this decade more than Lily Allen. She has been fantastic value when it’s come to outrageous quotes and she has been so refreshingly open and honest about her views on not just music but everything else going on around her that it came back to haunt her when she attempted to engage people in a civilised debate on file sharing and illegal downloads. This seems to have caused something of a retreat from the world of celebrity and potentially music making and you can only hope that it’s a short term break rather than a full-blown retirement, as her second album is one of the greatest pure pop records I’ve heard, well, ever.

When ‘The Fear’, under a different name, first appeared on her Myspace page in the middle of 2008 it was pretty clear that the Lily Allen of ‘Alright, Still’ had made some fairly substantial sonic progress. Beautifully structured, ridiculously catchy and with effortlessly hilarious lyrics, it has been one of the defining songs of 2009. What is all the more noteworthy is the fact that such an enormous single doesn’t actually overshadow the rest of the record, so phenomenally strong is the song writing found within. Lyrically, the album is never less than excellent and often genuinely thrilling. Her consideration of how God might view the world in the 21st century in ‘Him’, is wonderfully written:

Do you think He’d drive in his car without insurance?
Now is He interesting or do you think he’d bore us?
Do you think His favourite type of human is Caucasian?
Do you reckon He’s ever been done for tax evasion?

Of course, that may make you shrug your shoulders and dismiss it as someone trying to be clever, in which case, as the not-so-mighty Cast might say, walk away. It is very much an album to listen to properly. You can’t let the lyrics wash over you – they simply won’t allow you to do it.

Obviously this is no way to judge quality, but I am up to four different copies of this album. I have the original vinyl pressing – which caused me no end of aggro attempting to find one that played smoothly but with minimal joy (although the new stylus seems reasonably happy with it) – the US picture disc vinyl as some kind of replacement, the UK CD which I bought whilst waiting for a replacement of the vinyl and then the recent CD/DVD reissue which features a wonderful acoustic session, some splendid remixes and a bizarrely brilliant cover of ‘Mr Blue Sky’. The DVD’s not bad either, but hardly essential. (This last version is already down to £7.48 on Amazon – treat yourself, go on.) I’ve lost count of how much I’ve played this album throughout 2009. Every time I press play or pop the needle onto the vinyl, it sounds as fresh and downright fun as it did the very first time. It’s joyous, it’s punch-the-air entertainment and it’s one of the finest examples of pop music that this country has produced in years. I make no apologies for this one appearing so high in my list. It really is that good.

13. Trashcan Sinatras – In The Music

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I have Gideon Coe to thank for this. In amongst all of this ‘blah blah of the decade’ list making, he probably deserves a nod for the best radio presence of the last decade. His work on 6music, firstly in the mornings and latterly at night, has been consistently excellent and he is one of those presenters whose enthusiasm for the music is truly contagious. He is hugely personable, engagingly intelligently and archly humorous. On top of all of this, he plays some bloody marvellous tunes. In the early days of his night time show, he played ‘How Can I Apply…?’ by Trashcan Sinatras a few songs from the end of his programme and it had me transfixed. What was this fantastic song? And, once I found out it had come out in 1996, I was sat wondering how such a perfect pop tune had passed me by for so long.

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It didn’t take me long to rectify the situation and, before long, their entire discography was sat on my shelves, being enjoyed in almost equal measure. Having mentioned Teenage Fanclub in the Finn Brothers piece, I’m going to have to do it again here. The Scottish accents make the comparison even easier, but it is once again the case that the two acts have plenty in common, both being remarkably adept at the mid-paced guitar tune with gentle but emotive vocals. If you like one, you surely must like the other. ‘Weightlifting’ and ‘In The Music’ were the only two studio albums from Trashcan Sinatras in this decade and the former is another record which was in the running for a place in this list. It was, however, nudged out of the way by this increasingly spectacular meditation of life, love and loss.

The Trashcan Sinatras formula is essentially, sugary-sweet vocals, plenty of jangle and hooky choruses. It’s been that was for the best part of twenty years and it still works as well now as it ever has done. The album opens with ‘People’, which is reasonably representative of the album as a whole, but it scales remarkable heights with ‘Should I Pray’ and ‘I Wish You’d Met Her’ which can make a grown man well up, so delicately beautiful are their choruses. Not being available on Spotify, I’m forced to find alternative ways to foist this marvellous music upon you, so here’s some YouTube-age.

I’m assuming that this is the moment where you think, “Mmmmmm, I’ll have me some of that.” In which case, well done, you’re a thoroughly splendid person. Treat yourself to the spangly and lovely limited edition – with bonus tracks here or the run of the mill ten track digipack here.

14. Supergrass – Road To Rouen

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I have fond memories of wandering around the old Virgin Megastore in Bristol, incorporated into what was The Galleries shopping centre, looking at all the Britpop albums on vinyl. The shop was always abnormally gloomy compared to most and had an aura mystery which, as an impressionable and cash-strapped teenager, made each visit ludicrously exciting. The displays on the end of racks featured Elastica, Blur, Pulp and Weller, all on vinyl, with the CDs stacked below. At best I would be able to afford one album, but the vinyl was often pretty expensive so I rarely got what I really wanted. I remember, for a number of successive visits, loitering by the display for ‘I Should Coco’, wishing I could get the vinyl and also have a set up decent enough to do it justice. I did eventually buy a vinyl copy of that album, but it was about two years ago from a second hand shop in York. That Virgin Megastore became a Zavvi which, in turn, died and became one of the short-lived Head outlets which will close their doors in a few weeks from now. The idea that that enormous floor space in the middle of Bristol will no longer be occupied by stacks of music upsets me a little and probably more than it rationally should. It was where I began to truly develop my obsession. But I’ve moved on, and so have Supergrass.

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If you’d presented that teenage version of me with a copy of ‘Road To Rouen’ and said “this is what they’ll be doing in ten years from now I don’t think I could have processed such a possibility. I may also have questioned your motives in giving a teenage boy free and exciting gifts. Four years along from its release, it’s still something of a one-off and it seems largely to have been forgotten about, considered to be something of a career aberration. When I spoke to Gaz recently about his and Danny’s side project, The Hot Rats, he told me that the new Supergrass album is “not as sombre or melancholic as ‘Road To Rouen’,” and I think his own description of this record is as good as any. The whole thing – ok, ‘Coffee In The Pot’ aside – simply aches.

It was a victim of the culture of early internet leaks, appearing well in advance of its release date and receiving plenty of criticism from the one-listen-masturbators, desperately trying to beat each other (if you’ll excuse the unfortunate timing of that unintended pun) to be first to comment. Considered viewpoints eventually arrived but by that point that album was pretty much stillborn and it fell from the chart almost as quickly as it had arrived. I asked Gaz whether this very early leak had upset him and the band and if he thought it was partly to blame for the sales of the album:

“I remember being told a few months before that a couple of songs were available, I think Mick told me. It is kind of weird, I guess artistically you want to present it as an album, you don’t want the odd little tune filtering out. It’s such a bleak record, you can’t really split it up. As far as the sales kind of thing, the sales are quite often more for the press and appearance, it’s like a status thing. Do I personally feel that it’s changing the output of quality songs? I don’t think it is. It’s just the way the market is and it’s just the way the fans grow up and get into another band and you have to wait for the younger fans to rediscover your band and it’s just a whole process.

“I’ve always been of the opinion that if we can enough cash together to make another record, it’s ok. I’m under no illusion that bands are going to sell, like we did at one point, seven or eight hundred thousand physical releases. Because, I think Arctic Monkeys sold 150,000 copies of their new album which is unbelievably low for such a great band. So, it’s realistic that people are going to download it for free, but as long as enough people buy it or download it from iTunes so that it’ll fund the next album, that’s kind of the idea, I suppose.”

‘Road To Rouen’ will never be the retirement nest egg, the one from which the royalties continue to flow in. It’s a fan’s album, I would argue. If you’ve been there through ‘Sitting Up Straight’, ‘It’s Not Me’, ‘Shotover Hill’ and ‘Evening Of The Day’ then something a little more mature and considered was no great shock. If you were hoping for another ‘Alright’, ‘Going Out’ or ‘Pumping On Your Stereo’ then it was like being kicked in the nuts. If your nuts were in your ears. And someone had a very high kick. But you know what I mean. It needs playing from start to finish and it needs playing at least five times. And after those five listens, if you don’t genuinely think that ‘Tales Of Endurance’, ‘St. Petersburg’ and ‘Low C’ are some of the most beautiful guitar songs you’ve heard in some time then you’ve lost the ability to feel.

15. Finn Brothers – Everyone Is Here

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I once had it put to me that I had to moderate my tastes in order to protect my status as a sometime reviewer of music. Admittedly, this scurrilous and unfounded allegation was put to me by a Kula Shaker fan, so we shouldn’t take it to seriously, but the very idea baffled me. I like what I like, whether it’s by Robert Wyatt or Ronan Keating*. It has been some time since Crowded House were considered what we might laughably term ‘cool’ and I’m not sure the work of the brothers Finn, either solo or in tandem, ever achieved that status. Thankfully, that doesn’t actually count for anything and ‘Everyone Is Here’ is one of the most perfectly crafted albums of the decade.

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As we all know (because Wee Dermot told us all last week) Paul McCartney pretty much invented music, but Neil and Tim Finn are true masters of harmony and that other often neglected art: backing vocals. I’ve mentioned previously how Nick Hornby so perfectly described Teenage Fanclub as the musical equivalent of comfort food in his delightful tome, ‘31 Songs’, and I would put this album into a similar bracket.

A raucous record, this is not. Occasionally, their upbeat pop sensibilities break through such as on ‘Part Of Me, Part Of You’ and ‘Anything Can Happen’ but it’s the more reflective songs, which seem all about building layers of sound in order to create a mood, rather than going for an immediate pop fix, that really take this album towards greatness. ‘Luckiest Man Alive’ chugs along but the various guitar sounds drifting in and out save it from simply being a good MOR tune, while album opener ‘Won’t Give In’ is a perfect downbeat singer-songwriter number, straight out of the drawer marked ‘classic Crowded House album tracks that not many people know because they don’t mention the weather’.

This album made a few ripples on its release but never really seemed to grab the attention of anyone outside of fans of their old band. It’s a great shame as there’s much to love on ‘Everyone Is Here’ and all twelve songs truly sound like they belong together. I couldn’t imagine this album not being on the shelf now, even though I don’t reach for it too often. Whenever I need it, it’s always there and it does its job just as well every time.

*It’s never by Ronan Keating.