The Arctic Monkeys — Favourite Worst Nightmare
Although they were more hype than substance initially, I was still listening even after a disappointing debut album because, gosh darnit, I love British bands. The first single 'Brianstorm' was more loud tuneless Clash wannabe revival rock and I was a little bummed. But then, hey, 'Fluorescent Adolescent' came out of nowhere and I was genuinely taken aback. It struck me as a layered, thought-out, mourningly melodic classic Brit-pop single; something that truly was an heir to the throne of such greats as the Cure and the Smiths. When the next single was the surprisingly poignant 'Teddy Picker,' I knew something was up. I checked out the album and genuinely loved it from first listen. It's a varied, diverse collection of songs that shouldn't work well together but, for some reason, do. There's a lot of emotion and downright regret and pain in this album and, because of it's loud/pretty/quiet/loud again/pretty again dynamic, it still strikes me as one of the most sincere albums inspired by the early 80's post-punk goliaths to which the Monkeys were initially compared. There's twelve tracks and just about six of those are downright fantastic songs from where I'm listening. The heartwrenching epic breakup narrative 'Do Me A Favour' is the best the Monkeys have yet done —or, indeed, may ever do. A genuine surprise and I still listen to it frequently — despite the fact that I don't consider myself an Arctic Monkeys fan by even the most liberal of definitions. That says something about this album.
Bjork — Volta
'Earth Intruders' is one of the best songs of the decade, without question. But, when that was the pre-album single, my expectations were elevated to unachievable status pretty quickly. There's even better songs on Volta (hi, 'Innocence' and 'Wanderlust'), but this was the first Bjork album, well ever, that I was not blown away by. The bar had been set too unachievably high with the back-to-back combo of Vespertine and Medulla and I just wasn't that into it, besides a few songs. It was too all over the place and seemed to rely too much on people other than Bjork for its creative jumping pff points (seriously, two songs with indie flavor of the monther Paul Hegarty [aka Antony] was necessary?). I guess it goes to show how awesome Bjork is that her 'worst' album still had some stunning moments on it. Overall though, yeah, it's her worst.
Celebration — The Modern Tribe
Super awesome modernness from the revamped 4AD. It's like post-punk meets northern soul meets something I'm obviously unfamiliar with because I don't know what to call it. Blending an undeniable dance-punk drum stop with a distinct Hammond B-3 overtone and Katrina Ford's wailing show-stealing vocals, Celebration truly sounds like the sort of music that the 4AD label should be putting out in the 2000's: genre-bending, undefinable tone poems with dreamy undertones. I didn't get it at all at first. But the more I listened, the more I realized, this is fairly unique music in the current climate. Far too heart-bearing to be considered a dance band, but far too incidentally funky to be considered a traditional indie band. And plus, 'Heartbreak' is a total anthem for the ages. I love this album. It really did hit me without expectation; a rare occurrence in this age of instant information.
The Durutti Column — Sporadic Three
Going in knowing this was basically an odds and ends collection, I didn't expect much, but in true Durutti fashion, it knocked my socks off within the first three songs. Granted, I knew variations of a good third of this material before I knew these renditions, it didn't matter. The 4-track solo demo of 'Big Hole' (retitled here 'Dig A Hole'), the super effected third version of 'Drinking Song' (retitled here 'Drinking Time Version'), the stripped-down (and, let's face it, better) run-through of 'I B Yours' and a redux on the theme of 'Sing To Me' sans vocals (and retitled 'For Loretta'); it was all ear candy of the highest order for Durutti obsessives like me. But that's not to discount the original material. It all kicked off with 'Birthday Present (aka For Cheryl)' which is one of Vini's best solo multi-layered guitar instrumentals for quite some time. Elsewhere, 'Mama and Papa (aka Orphan)' managed to be a mind-expanding meeting of the twentieth and twenty first centuries through sound. Seriously great riff, too. As if all of that weren't good enough, 'Trust the Art, Not the Artist' is one of Vini's best songs period and it all ended with 'For Danny (aka Mavuchka),' which was an outtake from 1981's classic LC album (!) and it totally ruled, despite the (understandably) deteriorated quality. It was uncohesive as hell, but had enough good points about it that I played it to death regardless.
The Durutti Column — Idiot Savants
So, if Sporadic Three was the ugly outtakes and odds and ends collection, Idiot Savants was the James Cameron-style labored over and absolutely perfected masterpiece. Good god, this album is awesome. To this day, it's still like a new album to me. I play it relentlessly. Just when I think I've decided that, absolutely for sure, my favorite song is 'Gathering Dust,' I'll hear 'Interleukin 2 (for anthony)' in a different context and it will switch to that song being my favorite (and inevitably back again). It still seems incredibly fresh to me (nearly three years later!), so I really feel like I'm totally biased, but this album is Vini Reilly's late career magnum opus. All great artists have them. This is his. It's especially poignant, as it was probably the last new Durutti material Tony Wilson heard before he passed. Absolutely, positively, without question in my top five of the decade. Two words: Fucking masterpiece. Enough said.
Feist — The Reminder
If Let it Die seemed a little overproduced and reserved in retrospect, The Reminder rectified that within the first track. I don't know what it is —and don't get me wrong, because Let it Die is awesome— but this feels like Fiest's true second album. It's much closer in sonic comparison and overall emotional theme with Monarch than Let it Die was, it's almost like a different musician entirely. And plus, the songs just kicked ass. Just look at the first three songs: 'So Sorry,' 'I Feel it All' and 'My Moon My Man.' Truly, wow. But then there was '1 2 3 4' which was such a huge hit, I often forget that she's now considered a real pop star because of it. 'Honey Honey' is still the highlight for me though. I anticipated a studio rendition of it ever since she played an epic solo version of it live in a tiny pub in Sparks well over a year before The Reminder was released. And the proper version did not disappoint at all. One of the most satisfying albums I've heard in a really long time. And considering my expectations were really damn high, I'd consider this one of the decade's best.
Stephen Fretwell — Man On the Roof
I hated this album on the first few listens. What a load of indulgent tripe, I thought. I just didn't get it, at all, whatsoever. I loved Magpie right away, but that's because I had had a proper introduction to the highlights when he played them live. I had nothing to go on for this album, and it was cluster of intensely personal recollections that I just didn't get. Listened again. And again. And, then, those melodies... wait, is he really talking to KT Tunstall the whole time? Wow, he is pouring it all out there, isn't he? And, before I know it, I'm singing along with 'She' like it's a song I wrote. I said it when I first got hold of the album and I'll say it again here: Magpie was the crowd pleaser, this is the stereotypically 'difficult' second album that hides its melodies behind a mask of earnest vocal performances and willfully difficult subject matter. But the tunes are fantastic and very resonating, evoking an even more riled up Blood On the Tracks-era Bob Dylan, filtered through a distinct Manchester-via-Scunthorpe point of view. Yep, it's safe to say at this point: this is the better of Stephen Fretwell's (so far) two albums. Deep and soul-warming, in an admittedly gloomy way. Love it.
PJ Harvey — White Chalk
Well, at least Man on the Roof wasn't as bleak as this album. But, make no mistakes, I thought it was PJ's best since Is This Desire? It was just very down and very dark, that's all. I still very vividly recall her playing an amazing version of 'Grow Grow Grow' on Jay Leno at the time and thinking how out of place it seemed. She toured very sparingly for this new, piano-heavy material and, for us in America, it seemed like maybe she had all but forgotten the album just a few months after its release. But I still listen to it often. It's not a happy album, even by the most strained of definitions, but I do like it quite a bit regardless. It seems like one of those albums that will be forgotten about in the larger picture of her catalogue, twenty years down the line, but the tunes really are great, in a dark way. It does seem like a bit of autobiography being not so subtly passed off as 'artist speaking in character' narrative. The more I listen, the more I like it. But, as she might say, 'nobody's listening.'
Bobby Hutcherson — For Sentimental Reasons
An all ballads album that betrayed his live repertoire at the time, it was still excellent music because it was essentially a master practicing his craft. His competence at playing ballads was well-established before this album, but the gap between studio records made this satisfying as hell because it was all heart. Really getting into gear on the second half, he tackled mostly standards and made them shine in an intimate quartet setting. Add Geri Allen on piano and the whole thing was just pure class and just emitted endless good vibes (pun recognized, but not intended). I love this album. I love Bobby Hutcherson.
Timo Lassy — The Soul and Jazz of Timo Lassy
From the second I heard this album, I've said the same thing over and over: he sounds like Cannonball, but on tenor. It was most obvious on the samba/funk/soul/jazz cut 'Sweet Spot' — highly rhythmic music that genuinely recalls days passed. Soul and funk oozing from this dude who is undeniably technical. Man, such great stuff. 'African Rumble' was not a surprise because I knew it from a Schema records sampler earlier in the year, but its impact was not muffled here as the album's last track. If there were ever any doubts that soul jazz was not alive and well in the twenty first century, look no further than this album. It truly sounds not of its time — and I mean that as the highest of compliments.
Grachan Moncur III — Inner Cry Blues
It should be well-established by this point that new albums by past masters are a shoe-in for mentions. Inner Cry Blues is no exception, but it sticks out because it was Moncur's first proper album in over two decades. It was firmly routed in post-bop and, considering his classic out-looking Blue Note albums, staunchly conservative. But listen to the album twice and you'll hear the nuances in the tunes reveal themselves and then it will hit you: this is a deeply spiritual affair. Not spiritual in the CCM sense, but more so in the Charles Mingus sense. Then ten minute long title track, for instance, recalls the most emotional of searching 1960's post-bop somewhat-ballads in the most sincere of ways. For an artist as associated with the free jazz and 'new thing' scene as Moncur is, Inner Cry Blues was a stunningly conventional update for a musician that, at this point, had nothing to prove. Refreshing and consistent are two words that come to mind. The guy was already an established legend years before this was released, so he was basically just having fun. And, for such a fun album, it's mighty heavy. But, on the other hand, for such a heavy album, it sure does satisfy and have a little fun every now and then.
Thurston Moore — Trees Outside the Academy
If there were ever any indications in the past that Neil Young had been a big influence over Thurston Moore, they were perhaps a bit obscured. Until this album, that is. But, as Thurston was playing incredibly tuneful, acoustic guitar driven songs, it never felt like a ripoff, but a really logical extension. As the emphasis on electric guitars was toned down and a good portion of the album was accented by a live string quartet, the album was (perhaps inherently) pretty; especially for a Thurston Moore record. Guest spots from Steve Shelley and J Mascis cemented it as one of the year's best and the happy outlook of the material makes for one of the most unlikely feel good albums I can think of. Pure awesome, but with such low-key presentation that you may not realize you're hearing some of his best material ever. THERE.
Radiohead — In Rainbows
There was a strange feeling in the air. They had been playing new material on the road for years, but there was absolutely no chance of a new record because they were not currently signed to a record contract. But then, all of a sudden, damn a record contract and damn the idea of a record sale. Want to pay nothing for a new Radiohead album? Go ahead, pay nothing. It's a kickass new album by one of the most interesting bands of all time, but yeah, go ahead, pay the less than a dollar credit card fee and nothing else. Why? Because Thom Yorke loves your cheap ass. As if the hype surrounding the album weren't enough, the actual music was a stunning synthesis of OK Computer's poppiest moments and the electronica-obsessed layers of Amnesiac. Arguably the most listenable of all Radiohead's albums, it had two mammoth highlights that are just about up there with anybody's best: 'Weird Fishes/Arpeggi' was the sort of guitar-effects heavy, super layered, post-shoegaze mini-epic that seems to be quintessential Radiohead by this point; while 'Reckoner' was like the future in real time. There was a bonus disc and it had some stunners, too. Overall, an understated and humble masterpiece that is quite possibly the most Radiohead-esque album to date. Satisfying as hell and proof that Radiohead probably isn't as overrated as their critical praise makes them seem.
The Sea and Cake — Everybody
It was their longest ever album to album break between this and One Bedroom, so there was a sense of a triumphant return and the mandatory anticipation leading up to this album was pretty thick for yours truly. When 'Crossing Line' was the pre-album teaser song, I just kind of blacked out. Sorry to get kind of personal here, but I remember it kinda felt like my first orgasm all over again. And guess what? The album was a surprisingly lowkey, modest affair that ditched almost all of the electronics and focused back on the straight pleasant dual jangly guitar attack of the band's first two albums. Instances of pedal steel, increased Archer Prewitt harmony vocals and focus away from post-production made this album feel like the band's best set of songs since the Fawn. If nothing else, it was the reassertion of a guitar band getting back to their roots and presenting some no-nonsense, concise material for the first time in roughly a decade. It may not be their best album, but it's easily in a tie for second place. Wonderful stuff. And easily in my picks of the decade.
The Sea and Cake — Anybody EP
If Everybody was the straight modest re-presentation of the Sea and Cake's classic sound, the Anybody EP was another entry in their predictably unpredictable EPs. It started off with 'All in Throws' which they played when I saw the tour (also told Archer I loved him and he winked) and which was one of those songs that was so good that it should've been on the album. The other two tracks, 'Breathless' and 'Mis,' recalled OUI and One Bedroom, respectively and, overall, the iTunes-only release was more than worth three three dollar price tag. As a companion piece to Everybody, it was a little schizophrenic, but 'All in Throws' was so good, it didn't matter. I would love to see a physical release.
Trembling Blue Stars — The Last Holy Writer
"The song on the radio makes you shiver and curl into a ball. It makes you want to be seventeen and forget the future." Even though it wasn't the first song on this album, Beth's 'Idyllwild' is arguably her best song ever and easily the best semi-opening song on a TBS album. And that's a good foreshadow for the rest of this album. I was a little hesitant initially, but now I've no problem calling this the band's best album. In a decade that saw the 'comebacks' of 80's alt-rock gods the Cure and Morrissey, Bob Wratten had none of the of the fireworks that those other records somehow justified, but with Seven Autumn Flowers and this album (and the coinciding EPs), Bob modesty and yet, overwhelmingly made the transition from 80's alt-rocker to 21st century songwriter extraordinaire. And, with his partner Beth Arzy in tow, they were able to make one of those rare late-period albums by a veteran who is just hitting a creative renaissance and rebirth for the second (or third) time. And not to mention, with songs like 'This Once Was An Island' and 'The Coldest Sky', he managed to do the Cure better than they were able to do it themselves (yeah, I said it). It was a bit of a miracle manifested that he wrote 'November Starlings' for this album, as it was not only his best song in several albums, but it was so reminiscent of the Field Mice, I had a hard time initially believing that it wasn't an old demo or something. In a time when reviving 80's rock cliches was the cool thing to do, one of the unsung pioneers of the entire scene came through and showed the kids how it was done with a vintage number. A classic for the ages, if you ask me. Oh yeah, it's also got 'The Tenth of Always' (with the epic uplift of a lyric: "If you think you've gone too far, just keep going") and an eight minute masterpiece dedicated to Oscar Wilde at the end. Absolutely a top album. Disappointingly, but in an expectedly dramatic fashion, Bob swore off live performances leading up this album. I guess, with records this good, he figured, 'Why bother?'
Trembling Blue Stars — Exploring the Shadows Extended Play
Beth fired another winner right away on this EP with 'Beautiful Blank,' a wonderfully catchy power-popper that you would swear should be a huge hit. The rest of the EP's other three songs were Bob's and while 'As Easy As Being Alone' was another terrific uber-pop jangle gem, the other half of the disc was quite dark and isolated. The contrast between sides 1 and 2 was immediately apparent, just like the contrast between jumpy and downtrodden was on Last Holy Writer. Because the EP followed the full length by just a matter of weeks, it was hard not to see it as an extension of the album. And, in that respect, it just made a great thing even better.
Windomoto — The Travels of Windimoto
I should preface this by saying that I am not really sure of the validity of my inclusion of this disc on my list because I am quite biased. I've traded conversations for years with both members of Windimoto on the Okayplayer.com message boards and I would have never even checked out the album were it not for my personal connection with the band members. That being said, I'm far from a dance music expert, but I do know that this music, while certainly being dance-focused, has a strong sense of melody and songcraft in it (perhaps, in comparison to its peers and my disinterest in them for the most part). 'Don't Let Me Leave Alone' and 'A Place For Us' are just great songs, no matter which set of ears you're hearing them with. The instrumentals showed a continued dedication to more than just a nice groove and actually had developed themes that went somewhere. The remixes were, in some cases, better than the originals and overall, I found myself enjoying the hell out of it as music for music's sake. There's something to be said about a distinctly genre-specific album like this that can have that sort of effect on an admittedly novice listener.