05. Blur – Think Tank

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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.

05 Blur

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.

06. Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

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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.

06 Richard Hawley

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.

07. Maps – We Can Create

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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.

07 Maps

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.

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.

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’.

11 Divine Comedy

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’.