08. Amy Winehouse – Back To Black

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Gilles Peterson took quite a shine to ‘Take The Box’, the standout track on Amy Winehouse’s debut album, ‘Frank’, and gave it a fair bit of exposure on his old ‘Worldwide’ show which was broadcast on Wednesdays at midnight on Radio 1. I used to tune in when I could – as a student it didn’t seem such a ridiculous time to be listening as it does now – and use a minidisc to capture any times when I couldn’t. For a while, it hugely influenced my musical purchases and I remember lapping up his numerous compilations, including ‘Worldwide 3’, on which could be found a fairly stripped back version of that particular Winehouse track. Not the cheeriest of tracks, it somehow ended up soundtracking that summer’s holiday and, while the album as a whole didn’t quite match up, it was clear that there was something special about this particular singer. I had no idea that a retro-soul sound wasn’t far around the corner at that point, but what a revelation that proved to be.

08 Amy Winehouse

I remember being really, really unsure about ‘Rehab’ when it first came out. I couldn’t decide if its nagginngly insistent refrain was genius or overbearing. I couldn’t decide if the soul sound was authentic enough for it to go the distance. It did, however, make me bloody keen to hear its parent album. The first play of ‘Back To Black’ was enough to tell me that she had taken that big step from promising new artist to chart-shagging superstar. It is, as if you need me to tell you, a staggeringly classy collection of soul tracks, delivered with gusto by the Dap-Kings, Sharon Jones’ normal backing band, for whom they do sterling work every time they visit the studio.

The only thing I could find to dislike about the album was the truly appalling mastering on the CD. I’ve previously referred to the ‘loudness wars’ in which record companies and producers alike seemed to decide that volume was the key to making things sound good on iPods and car stereos. This album suffers more than most, with some tracks pop and mushing so much that it often veers on the unlistenable. Thankfully, along came a pretty bloody decent vinyl copy and I’ve not looked back. Cueing up ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’ before lowering the stylus gently into the groove is a great pleasure and one which I’ve been able to enjoy once more whilst writing this.

I’ve also greatly enjoyed bawling, “what kind of fuckery is this?” along with ‘Me & Mr Jones’, in which Winehouse somehow manages to make it sound like the language of all classic soul rather than something that might make Daily Mail readers sweat a little. What with the Motown rip-off, ‘Tears Dry On Their Own’, the aforementioned world-conquering first single and the gloomily great title track, it’s easy to think that this album is all about its singles. What makes ‘Back To Black’ truly great is that, although still sounding vibrantly modern, it hangs together like some of the great sixties soul records and it is really very hard to dig out this album to play one or two songs and not end up going from start to finish.

I’ve no idea if the high placing for this album will confuse or surprise a few of you, dear readers, but in the same way I had no issue with Lily Allen being at 12 with a record that’s only been around for less than a year, sometimes pop is world class. When it’s done well, we have to cherish it and treasure its presence in our record collections. Nigel Godrich may not have been anywhere near this and it was, in fact, largely steered by Mark Ronson – not a man greatly endowed with credibility these days – but it’s a phenomenally strong set of songs delivered by singer, all too fleetingly, at the top of her game.

09. Rufus Wainwright – Want One

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Sometimes you just need something unashamedly huge. Stop sniggering at the back. Sometimes you need music that is unafraid of being called pompous, music that is simply driven by a ludicrous dose of ambition and confidence. Sometimes you want a full orchestra, a classical reference and a track that seems to keep building so much it may actually topple over. To summarise, sometimes you just need Rufus Wainwright and, to narrow it down even further, sometimes you just need ‘Want One’.

09 Rufus Wainwright

‘Want One’ is a spectacular record on which the pace rarely lets up. On the odd occasion when Rufus entertains hitherto alien notions of restraint, he can then have you on the verge of tears without much trouble. He is, for want (no pun intended) of a better phrase, an absolute fucker when it comes to melody. Once his songs claw their way into your head you stand pretty much no chance of escape. I spent three months in 2004 with ‘I Don’t Know What It Is’ as the sole track on my internal jukebox. I can’t say that it was a bad thing, and it played a large part in kick-starting my fondness for all things Wainwright, R (and Wainwright, M for that matter.)

I’ve previously mentioned my belief that ‘I Don’t Know What It Is’ is one of the greatest pop songs of modern times and I stand by that. Just past the three and a half minute mark it gets even bigger than it already is and in that magical moment I think you can hear exactly what makes Rufus Wainwright such an outstanding songwriter. He knows when to go in for the kill. He knows how much his audience can take and he takes them to within a fraction of that threshold. He toys with out ears as much as he toys with out hearts. ‘Want One’ is pretty much a masterpiece and, while ‘Poses’ demonstrated earlier in this very countdown that he has made other wonderful records, it’s hard to imagine him ever topping it.

It is, for me at least, largely about the music when it comes to Rufus’ music. I include his unique vocal sound within that definition – at times I’m not sure it matters all that much what he’s saying. Not that he’s not a dab hand when it comes to the lyrics, mind. I remember discussing, some five years ago, how romantic the song ‘Vibrate’ is with a female friend who doesn’t often dish out praise. As a metaphor for a relationship, it’s bloody effective and, as a mid-point in an album that swirls and blasts intently, its a wonderful, temporary ebb in all of that grandiose flow.

The other lyrical heavyweight in this collection comes right at the end. ‘Dinner At Eight’ takes his father to task for his less than admirable parenting skills, telling Loudon Wainwright III, “don’t be surprised if I wanna see the tears in your eyes.” As Rufus delicately but passionately intones “no matter how strong, I’m gonna take you down with one little stone,” I defy anyone listening to not feel something. It’s a beautiful moment on an album full of beautiful moments but it’s so starkly placed at the end of the record that all of the joyous noise that has come before is put back in the box and the mood shifts. ‘Want Two’ may be intended to sit alongside ‘Want One’, but it doesn’t quite measure up and ‘Release The Stars’ suffered from a few misfiring plodders. But even if he never manages another great record, I won’t worry too much. There’s so much to love about ‘Want One’ that his legacy is very much secure.

10. Tindersticks – The Hungry Saw

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For many, the release of this album represented the return of a dear old friend. Not quite the case for me as it had taken me far too long to realise that Tindersticks were a band designed for me to obsess over, to listen to intently, to turn to in hours of need and to absolutely love. All of those realisations, and more, have since occurred and they are now firmly installed as one of my favourite bands. I’ve been lucky enough to spend the past month in the company of their fantastic new album, ‘Falling Down A Mountain’, arriving January 25th, which I firmly believe surpasses this effort and is one of the very best things they’ve ever done. With ‘The Hungry Saw’ labelled my tenth favourite album of the past ten years, that should hopefully give you some idea of how impressive the new record is.

10 Tindersticks

But now is all about ‘The Hungry Saw’, an album featuring half as many ‘Sticks-men as the previous release by the band and displaying a little more carefree melody than they’ve been prone to in the past. It is, simply, a beautiful record. It lollops, it bounds, it intimidates, it heartens, it aches and it grins. It runs a gamut of emotions and never grows old. Stuart A. Staples, vocalist and unconventional frontman, is in fine voice but that in itself may be a reason for many to not want to go near this one. His voice is certainly different and there aren’t that many who really sound like Staples does. But, if it works for you (and give it a little time to do so) then it unleashes a world of incredible music.

I have come round to the opinion that any record collection without a copy of the second Tindersticks album (you can hear it here, but it’s got the wrong artwork showing) is never going to be much cop. Having said that, they’ve not released a weak album to date and your money would be well spent on any and all of their back catalogue. This album has echoes of some of their former glories but largely offers a more simplified sound – partly due to the departure of three band members after the previous record, ‘Waiting For The Moon’ – making the album more of a late night headphone listen in the dark of winter rather than an early evening barbecue soundtrack in what should have been summer.

‘The Flicker Of A Little Girl’ and ‘Boobar Come Back To Me’ are the poppiest tracks on the album, almost skipping along, the former inviting some middle-aged arm-swinging, finger clicking action. Both are glorious tunes, sung beautifully and neatly punctuating the two halves of the action. ‘Yesterdays Tomorrows’ and ‘All The Love’ offer the brooding, intense and emotionally exhausting counterpoints to such jollity, oozing moodily with shrugging guitar and insistent organ all playing their part.

Listening to it now, I’m noticing that my vinyl copy seems a little crackly at points, but it seems to rather suit this rather charmingly awkward music. Listen to a song like ‘Mother Dear’ and it’s almost like the song is trying to pull itself apart at times. The fact that you can’t really put a Tindersticks album on ‘in the background’ is a pretty clear indication of how engaging a record like ‘The Hungry Saw’ can be. The fact it sounded like no other record release in 2008 pushed it high up my end of year list but I think I’ve only really come to appreciate its depths in the last six months, returning to it frequently as my anticipation of the new record grew and grew. There’s a risk that the gushing could get out of hand with these last ten records, but I assure you that it’s all entirely deserved. Grab this one now and get yourself fully up to speed for an album I suspect I’ll be writing about in my ‘Best of 2010’ list, this time next year.