6. Rose Elinor Dougall–Without Why

Best of 2010Cerebral, shimmering, pinpoint precise pop is the order of the day on ‘Without Why’, a remarkable solo debut record. The fact that Rose Elinor Dougall used to be a Pipette is no secret and several tracks on this record hark back to such girl group greatness, but there’s plenty more going on here too. Opener ‘Start/Stop/Synchro’, classic pop with a thin Eighties-indie sound, made for a cracking standalone single when the album was in the early stages of its creation, but also functions fittingly as a curtain-raiser.

Rose without

By the time woozy, textured single ‘Find Me Out’ emerges, it’s pretty clear that this isn’t going to be a set of songs cast from one mould, but actually an exploration of an impressive record collection. When Just Played spoke to Rose prior to the album’s release she was genuinely thrilled about doing things her own way, commenting that “putting ‘Find Me Out’ out as a single was, in a lot of people’s minds, fucking stupid because it’s four minutes long and really slow, but actually I really loved doing that and what’s to stop me?!” That carefree approach, born out of having to record the album when time, funds and studio space allowed, appears to have liberated somebody tired of the constraints of the pop treadmill. Such freedom has resulted in an album of observational lyrics set to intricate arrangements and occupying a variety of styles, none of which fail to hit the spot.

The burbling electronic sounds of ‘May Holiday’ have a hint of Stereolab to them, whilst ‘Another Version Of Pop Song’ is like a deconstructed version of her former band, replete with handclaps and harmonies but offset by a charmingly fragile refrain wobbling its way through the track. The soundstage of the album is quite something, instruments floating right across the speakers and songs left to breathe. In an age of incessant compression, the production is instantly striking.

The defining moment of ‘Without Why’ is ‘Watching’, a supremely sinister song which dates back to times spent working in a pub to make ends meet as the album slowly emerged and observing those who were passing their evenings on the other side of the bar. Dougall takes up the story: “I’d never really written a song like that before which was really based on a drone and using the voice in a different way, with choral harmonies and things. It’s kind of about when you’re involved in a sort of destructive relationship of some kind. There’s something a little bit of sinister about just watching, and there is something sort of creepy about when you watch the object of your affection just kind of move and walk around you find yourself involved in just their physicality.” The disembodied vocals which hover above the aforementioned drone deserve the headphone treatment, whilst the stuttering drums ensure that the sense of paranoia is maintained. A staggering achievement, it will make clear in only four minutes why this album is quite so high up the end of year list.

You can read the full interview with Rose Elinor Dougall here.

8. Steve Mason–Boys Outside

Best of 2010Although much of this album has an insistent throb of one kind or another, it’s the delicate touches that really make it something special. The specks of acoustic guitar dotted through opening track, ‘Understand My Heart’ make my ears prick up each time they go past, despite the really rather magnificent piano shudder on which this fine tune is built dominating proceedings. By the time ‘Am I Just A Man’ has ushered in all kinds of favourable comparisons to prime Beta Band magic, it’s clear that Steve Mason’s ‘Boys Outside’ deserves its position as one of the stand out releases of 2010.

Steve Mason Boys Outside

Mason’s voice, pitched in an almost permanently resigned tone, has never sounded better than here, aided by some beautifully crafted songs. The slow-burning, rain on the horizon, brooding opening to ‘The Letter’ is a masterclass in restraint. When the chorus hits, the refrain of “could it be that you don’t love me?” is all the more heartbreaking for the sensitively deployed strings and solitary piano keys floating, spectre-like, in a great blanket of melancholy. It is one of many highlights on the first of Mason’s records to not find him hiding behind a pseudonym or concept. The honesty and openness runs right the way through the lyrics also.

Lost And Found’ has more than a fleeting echo of his former band and is another example of glacial piano floating across a drum pattern that wouldn’t be out of place on a laid back modern soul song. It makes for a forceful end to side one and, at the risk of becoming somewhat predictable, I have to urge you towards the vinyl pressing of this tremendous collection. The winding, twitching, roaming bass on some of these songs is beautifully rendered on the larger of the physical formats.

I Let Her In’ is perhaps the most starkly brutal observation of a failed relationship on the record, with some hugely affecting lines. “I wake up every morning with a new broken heart” is almost sunny when put alongside “to the children that I never had, here is the love, I was your dad.” It’s a rock and roll cliché that the best music is born out of romantic trials and aching souls, but it’s a cliché that is given further credence by this spellbinding record. 

I remember being almost hypnotised by the vocals on initial plays of ‘Dr Baker’, one of the great, early Beta Band tracks. Something about that understated though epic, simple though enthralling vocal performance resonated with many when ‘The Three EPs’ first emerged. That same special feeling occurred when I first heard ‘All Come Down’, which contains a moment where Mason’s voice seems to actually head skywards, soaring quite magnificently across a shimmering, euphoric backdrop that can, in equal parts, make you grin deliriously and blub like an emotionally charged teenager.

The title track has a ridiculously simplistic chorus, built around the refrain “noise outside, boys outside” but it’s up there with ‘The Letter’ as one of the genuinely great songs on ‘Boys Outside’. The drums slowly gather momentum as things develop to an anticipated crescendo around a line telling us that “the things I’ve seen in my life will make you cry” only for the backdrop to fall away, leaving just the beat and Mason’s vocal to quietly, and serenely, bring things to a halt. ‘Hound On My Heel’ offers a hopeful wash of sound to round out the album, even if the lyrics would give the manager of Hallmark a coronary.

If the ramshackle musical collage of the King Biscuit Time project didn’t quite convince you or the squelching dance tones of Black Affair weren’t quite what you were expecting, don’t allow any such dislikes to cloud your judgement when it comes to this record. Whether you were a fan of The Beta Band or not is largely irrelevant. Put simply, if you’re a fan of music, then you really should investigate this outstanding album.

9. Beach House–Teen Dream

Best of 2010This time last year, the buzz was already building around ‘Teen Dream‘. How good could it really be? Was it worth all of the Internet whispers? Could it possibly live up to the hype. Very, yes and yes, as it goes. The woozy album of the summer made its debut in late January and still managed to sound exactly like the record of the moment. It is possible to become a little addicted to parts of ‘Teen Dream’ thanks to its irresistible combination of exceptional earworms and frankly decadent helpings of melody. It’s a gorgeous pick-me-up and a pristine way to unwind. It even sounds surprisingly effective when the temperature’s hovering around the -10 mark.

beach house

Whether it’s the delicious harmonies of ‘Used To Be’ or the quite deliberately wonky slide guitar effect which runs through ‘Norway’, this album is imbued with a hugely endearing playful side. And that’s not simply a polite way of excusing the lyric, "black and white horse, arching among us" in ‘Zebra‘.

Like the Beach Boys playing through gauze – and with a female vocalist – Beach House can be almost too saccharine on the first encounter but, as with Teenage Fanclub, Trashcan Sinatras and ‘Rubber Soul’, sometimes you need that endorphin packed rush on standby. You’ll be wanting to file ‘Teen Dream’ somewhere close to ‘Songs From Northern Britain’.

This album also demonstrates Beach House‘s capacity for the epic. ‘Real Love’ may begin with a simple piano line but as soon as Victoria Legrand launches into a startlingly impassioned vocal, things move up several gears and it feels like you’re listening to an obscure vintage soul outtake. Is a flooring performance and a neat trick to have tucked up the ‘near-the-end-of-album’ sleeve. No drop off in quality on this little beauty.

*Apologies for departing from the usual cover image shot above but ‘Teen Dream’ barely shows up on a white background so I’ve opted for this rather than make it look like I’ve somehow fucked it up. Again.

10. Our Broken Garden–Golden Sea

Best of 2010Bella Union could easily pull off the strapline “we release records which sound ace in the snow.” It’s not hugely artful and it lacks more than a little bit of class, but it is true. There have been plenty of opportunities to put this theory to the test of late, and one of those which best proves the point is ‘Golden Sea’. ‘When Your Blackening Shows’, their debut outing, made it to eleven in Best of 2008 list off the back of some magnificently floaty vocals and this second offering manages to go one better. Ignore the chronically primitive artwork and read on.

our broken garden

The word ‘glacial’ is entirely appropriate for describing Our Broken Garden’s sound, particularly the voice of Anna Brønsted. An occasional keyboard player for Efterklang, Brønsted, to all intents and purpose, is Our Broken Garden, accompanied here by several friends to flesh out the sound. And what a sound. Talking to Simon Raymonde of Bella Union about the record prior to its release he described it as “like Royksopp played on real instruments” and, while it’s not entirely representative of the sound of the album as a whole, I can see what he means. The intricate beats and cinematic strings which elevate some of Royksopp’s slower tunes towards the stratosphere are in evidence here to great effect.

Hugely out of step with what people in tight jeans called ‘the scene’ and not especially similar to anything else I’ve heard this year, ‘Golden Sea’ has made only a minor mark on the world but I can’t helping thinking that if more people heard this stuff they might actually buy it. ‘Seven Wild Horses’ and ‘The Feral’ make beautiful use of orchestration while ‘Nightsong’ is a fluttering echo of an epic dream from a cold wintery night gone by. I could continue making tortured metaphorical references but I think you get the picture.

In case you don’t, let me point you to one song in particular. ‘Garden Grow’ is the bands finest song to date and, to my ears, utterly irresistible. Kicking off with a bit of a Goldfrapp glam strut, it soon builds into something far grander than Granny Alison could ever dream of. Strings sweeping in and out without overplaying their part, solitary piano notes hover over the beat while Brønsted’s voice surges like an orchestra, having been left to its own devices in the verses. The chorus is amongst the most joyous experiences of my year – every single time I hear it. And then, just to top it all off, at 3:36 a ragged guitar part creeps in which, in its rather brief twenty second cameo, will make every hair on the back of your neck stand on end.

I genuinely believe that this record deserves rather more recognition and all round love than it has had thus far and if you can find 41 minutes in your life this Christmas to give it a listen, I think you’ll be more than satisfied.

(If you decide you love it – I can’t imagine why not – the beautiful vinyl pressing is currently down to a tenner direct from Bella Union)

11. Efterklang–Magic Chairs

Best of 2010As the Green Man festival came to a close, the rain had returned, Tindersticks had helped to erase the memory of Mumford and most people had donned their waterproofs and pitched up at the main stage for Joanna Newsom. There were still a select few of us wise enough to be tucked away in a tent, watching Efterklang provide one of the performances of the weekend. At one point, a seemingly rather well refreshed chap dressed as Batman leapt on the stage and was embraced by the band, keeping him on stage for the entire song as he whipped the crowd up into a state of rapture. It was a magical way to round out a distressingly damp weekend and, as we shuffled out through the Newsom masses, I knew ‘Magic Chairs’ was going to receive rather more attention than it had up to that point.

Efterklang_Magic_Chairs

Awkward, angular and euphoric, the third full-length outing by Denmark’s finest is a resounding triumph, coming close to capturing the chaotic utopia of those live performances. ‘I Was Playing Drums’ belongs on everybody’s Best of 2010 compilation for its curious combination of strident bass, twitching drumbeat and swooning vocals. It wilfully scorns most conventions of pop and yet still emerges as a delicious little earworm.

Like a sing-song in a broken lift, ‘Magic Chairs’ is both a record to revive flagging spirits and to claustrophobically fuck with your mind via a decent pair of headphones. Stuttering beats, melodious layers often bordering on drones and bold orchestration raise tracks like ‘Alive’ and ‘Scandinavian Love’ out of safe territory into somewhere altogether stranger. Having released a CD/DVD set of their last album performed with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, ‘Magic Chairs’ is undoubtedly enriched by that experience and is their best yet. Picking up from where the rightly lauded ‘Parades’ left off, the songs here are boldly orchestrated and take some time to fully reveal themselves. It’s a courtship to cherish.

12. Laura Marling–I Speak Because I Can

Best of 2010How do you follow a debut record of such quality, such depth and such beguiling songwriting that nobody was able to believe you were still in your teens when you made it? With relative ease, it would seem. At the risk of getting repetitive, it’s hard to believe she made this record whilst still in her teens too.

laura marling i speak

I Speak Because I Can’ was largely recorded live to tape, Laura Marling and her assembled band rattling through these tunes in one room under the guidance of the esteemed Ethan Johns. It should be noted that there’s a little less jangle than on the debut and this is a rather more intense affair. Opener ‘Devil’s Spoke’ is an all out folk assault, before the quieter textures of ‘Made By Maid’ and ‘Blackberry Stone’ move into view, the latter a rather more fulsome rendering than the b-side incarnation which previously accompanied ‘Cross Your Fingers’. Between these two sits the first of the album’s true gems, ‘Rambling Man’. A fine example of how to build a song slowly but surely, with no need for epic strings or ludicrous guitar breaks, it is also home to one of Marling’s best vocal performances to date. She languidly curls her larynx around the opening verse, gathering in intensity as the band come shambling in and yet still holding back until the final renderings of the chorus. This transcendent vocal flourish follows a quite startling breakdown in proceedings in which, with almost eerie conviction, Marling tells us that, “it’s funny how the first chords that you come to are the minor notes that come to serenade you. It’s hard to accept yourself as someone you don’t desire, as someone you don’t want to be.” The song seems to suggest that the character in the song, be it autobiographical or otherwise, is happy to not fit in, provided they be accepted for who they truly are. The almost euphoric chorus, reminiscent of ‘Blue’-era Joni, belies the rather more complex undercurrent.

‘Alpha Shallows’ appears in a more concise and haunting fashion than its previous outing on the ‘Night Terror’ single quite managed, while last year’s Christmas single ‘Goodbye England’ is not hindered by its festive associations and the refrain about never loving England more "than when covered in snow" seems more than a little prescient at this end of 2010. ‘Hope In The Air’ continues the moody and intense celtic folk tones first established by album opener, ‘Devil’s Spoke’. ‘What He Wrote’, on the other hand, tells the haunting tale of separated lovers over a sparse acoustic backdrop. ‘The waves came and stole him and took him to her’, sings Marling, and by God she sounds every bit the wronged wife. It is this subtle but quite magnificent vocal dexterity that sets ‘I Speak Because I Can’ apart from ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’, in the same way that that debut was a subtle, but notable, shift on from the sound of her early demos and EP. Progression is obvious, but in a fashion that I can only imagine will win favour with devotees of that stunning initial outing.

‘Darkness Descends’, replete with beautiful, double-tracked vocal, has a levity of touch that is welcome after the intensity of ‘What He Wrote’. The galloping drums are back on what is perhaps the most obvious indication of the album having been recorded with the whole troupe playing together in the same place. There’s a gentle, rough-around-the-edges feel to the arrival of some of the backing vocals and the halting of bits of percussion that is utterly, utterly charming. You’re probably smiling by this point. Album closer, ‘I Speak Because I Can’ quickly puts paid to that, opening with the line, “my husband left me last night, left me a poor and lonely wife.” The title track builds to a suitably wrought conclusion before simply stopping and bring the album to an atmospheric, anticipatory and downright amazing conclusion.

‘I Speak Because I Can’ is a less immediate record than ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’ and it is a step on from that record’s sound also, but it is a superb second offering and of a consistently high standard. While it doesn’t scream instant classic at you, after a dozen or so listens you’ll feel like there was never a time you hadn’t heard it. And that will make you feel good.

13. Belle & Sebastian–Write About Love

Best of 2010After an excursion into glam with 2006’s splendid ‘The Life Pursuit’, followed by a considerable period of time during which things went rather quiet on the Belle and Sebastian front, ‘Write About Love’ marks something of a retreat towards their ‘home’ sound. Few and far between are the joyless ear-haters for whom the Trevor Horn produced ‘Dear Catastrophe Waitress’ and some aspects of that polished swing-pop are in evidence here, particularly on relentlessly cheery opening track ‘I Didn’t See It Coming’.

belle_and_sebastian_write_about_love

The old lumbering jangle which made them so adorable in the Jeepster days makes a welcome appearance on the enjoyably titled ‘Calculating Bimbo’, which never rises above a saunter, while some vintage forlorn trumpet sits neatly on ‘The Ghost Of Rockschool’.

‘I Want The World To Stop’ is the real tour de force on this record and one of my songs of 2010, with its buoyantly taught bass line, swirling strings and epic finale. What’s not to like? And yet, as with Massive Attack, there seems to a group of people who begrudge the band for not still sounding exactly like they did prior to signing to Rough Trade, an era which, we should remember, ended with a whimper not a bang. Yes, this album has Norah Jones on it, but she has a delightful voice which works far better with Stuart Murdoch‘s than I would have expected, especially when put across an organ heavy ballroom number such as ‘Little Lou, Ugly Jack, Prophet John’.

‘I’m Not Living In The Real World‘, built around a delicious ‘ooooh’ backing vocal line, is one of guitarist Stevie’s Jackson‘s occasional outings and an absolute pop monster, secreted early in the second half of the album. Murdoch also takes a backseat for ‘I Can See Your Future’, which is sung and arranged by Sarah Martin, both roles, but for a slightly clunky breakdown, she handles with aplomb. Things are rounded out with the glazed guitar sound of ‘Sunday’s Pretty Icons’, a slightly muted conclusion which is a nevertheless wistfully pleasant way to leave things. ‘Write About Love’ is not perfect, but it’s a great album which works best when digested in one sitting. Yes, you can extract a couple of tracks to terrific effect for compilation purposes, but I can see how otherwise cursory listens will leave people a little cold. For me, it’s a cracking vinyl record – warm, wilfully vintage and neatly split into two halves. It works for me.