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Posts Tagged ‘Richard Hawley’

You can finally exhale: here are my top 20 albums of 2009. Apart from the two top spots, the order is rather random. Ask me in ten minutes’ time, and Grizzly Bear or M. Ward might sit at number 3 and 4. I’ve put sample tracks of each album on a mix; the song titles appear at the end each abstract.

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1. Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter
I didn’t expect Hawley to top his majestic 2005 album Coles Corner. A profoundly soulful pop symphony with accomplished and unusual instrumentation, Truelove’s Gutter may very well be the best album of the decade.
(Open Up Your Door) Homepage

2. Ben Kweller – Changing Horses
Kweller at last finds his sound (changing horses?) with an outstanding country album that provides an antidote to the corporate side of the genre. An absolute joy.
(Gypsy Rose) Homepage

3. Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
Wilco are incapable of releasing a bad album. The eponymous album will probably not go down in the band’s history as a classic, but it’s solid quality.
(You And I) Homepage

4. Brandi Carlile – Give Up The Ghost
It took me a few listens to realise just how good an album this Rick Rubin-produced effort is. Stay-At-Home Indie Pop put it better than I could: “Anthemic, brash, cool… the abc of Brandi, and I could go on to devilish, euphoric, fresh but fragile, and beyond (to gargantuan, hoarse-heavenly, incandescent), but all I want to really do is pathetically declare my love.” But will you still do so when Brandi gets that first clutch of Grammys, Indie-Pop? See if you can guess, without googling, with whom Carlile duets on Caroline.
(Caroline) Homepage

5. Farryl Purkiss – Fruitbats & Crows
The South African singer-songwriter dude returns three years after his excellent full debut with rockier effort. Purkiss draws his influences widely but manages to create his own coherent, late night sound.
(Seraphine) Homepage

6. Elvis Perkins – Elvis Perkins In Dearland
Here’s what I wrote earlier this year: Imagine Dylan as an indie artist, but with an appealing voice. There is a bit of an experimental edge to it, which in the wrong mood can be annoying, but exhilarating in the right mood.
(Doomsday) MySpace

7. Prefab Sprout – Let’s Change The World With Music
Released 17 years after it was actually recorded, this is supposed to be Paddy McAloon’s lost masterpiece. It’s not a masterpiece, but a damn good, and very accessible album, on which McAloon is on a bit of a God trip.
(Last Of The Great Romantics) MySpace

8. Neko Case – Middle Cyclone
Pitchfork calls the New Pornographer “a force of nature”. Hackneyed turns of phrases, even when they intend to pun on an album title, sometimes are just the most appropriate. Case is so much a force of nature that listening to the album can leave the listener exhausted.
(People Got A Lotta Nerve) Homepage

9. Monsters of Folk – Homework
I should love this. Two Bright Eyes guys, M. Ward and the singer of My Morning Jacket, and a batch of very good songs. It’s a fine album, and yet it fills me with a sense of unease, the same vibe I got from the Travelin’ Wilburys (and one song here sounds like a Wilburys track!). And yet, I keep returning to Homework
(Man Named Truth) Homepage

10. Peasant – On The Ground
This deserved more of a buzz. Nicely crafted guy-with-guitar stuff that recalls Joshua Radin and, yeah, Elliot Smith, with a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. A lovely cool-down album.
(Fine Is Fine) MySpace

11. Eels – Hombre Lobo
E offers nothing much new here, but, hey, it’s an Eels album, and does everything you want an Eels album to do. That’s enough for me.
(That Look You Give That Guy) Homepage

12. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Beguiling and frequently surprising. It’s an aural extravaganza. Now, which Ben Folds does Two Weeks borrow its riff from?
(Two Weeks) MySpace

13. Mindy Smith – Stupid Love
Indie-Pop may be in love with Brandi Carlile; I declare my (admittedly promiscuous) love for the likewise deceptively named Mindy Smith. Stupid Love, it must be said, is not as breathtaking an album as Mindy’s debut, One Moment More, but it has Mindy’s beautiful voice and pleasant enough songs.
(What Went Wrong) Homepage

14. Bob Evans – Goodnight Bull Creek
I’m a great fan of Evans’ 2006 sophomore album, Suburban Songs. Like that set, Goodnight Bull Creek was recorded in Nashville. Creek lacks the immediately catchy songs of the previous album, but has a much richer, textured production.
(Brother, O Brother) Homepage

15. Jason Paul Johnston – Willows Motel
Solid country, recalling Prine rather than Twitty. And just when I think Johnstone has settled into predictable country mode, he pulls something that makes me think, “What the fuck was that?”
(She’s A Friend) MySpace

16. Marissa Nadler – Little Hells
Again, to quote myself: I am not acquainted with Nadler’s previous effort; apparently it is gloomier than Little Hells. Well, this one isn’t a courtjesters’ convention of heedless madcappery either. It is, however, a beautiful, hypnotic album which draws much of its inspiration from medieval, cloistered sounds.
(Rosary) Homepage.

17. M. Ward – Hold Time
Here Ward draws from the heritage of country and soul, from the Beach Boys and from Spector — the choice of two covers affirm the retro vibe: an excellent cover of Buddy Holly’s Rave On, a less than brilliant rendition of Hank Williams’ Oh Lonesome Me (featuring Hank Sr’s namesake Lucinda). The production is polished, the sound a lot more mainstream than previous albums
(Rave On) Homepage

18. Loney, Dear – Dear John
Our Swedish homestudio-bound genius returns with another magical multi-layered chamber-pop epic which is at once orchestral and, largely thanks to the man’s voice, intimate.
(Airport Surroundings) Homepage

19. Micah P Hinson – All Dressed Up And Smelling Of Strangers
I am not a big fan over covers albums. Usually they are self-conscious about doing something “different” with a song, or issue redundant carbon copies. Cover albums work when the performer is idiosyncratic, so unique that he or she need not try to make a song sound differently. Johnny Cash pulled it off; and for the most part Hinson does so here, where he takes on the likes of Sinatra (My Way, the ambitious fucker!), Leadbelly, Holly, Dylan, Beatles and John Denver, armed mostly only with his trusty guitar and croaking voice.
(This Old Guitar) Homepage

20. Laura Gibson – Beasts of Seasons
Pitchfork nailed it when their reviewer called the singer-songwriter Gibson’s music as “far better suited to a fireplace and a cup of warm apple cider than to your local Starbucks”. Beasts of Seasons is bleak and beautiful.
(Funeral Song) MySpace

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More Albums of the Year

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This is the final part of the series of my favourite top ten albums of every year through the ’00s. And to celebrate it, I accidentally wrote 11 reviews. So these are a top 11 then. There is still a link up to my top 20 albums of 2008, which covers that year, and I’ll post a similar mix of my top 20 for 2009 once I have decided which they are. As before, I’m sad to leave out some fine albums from ’07, including efforts by Josh Ritter, Kate Walsh, Laura Gibson, Rilo Kiley, Jens Lekman, Maria Taylor, Rickie Lee Jones, Feist, Billie the Vision & the Dancers, A Fine Frenzy, The National, Brooke Fraser, Foo Fighters, Over The Rhine, Andrew Bird, Josh Rouse, Iron & Wine, Miranda Lambert, Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles, Common, Tim McGraw, The Shins, Abra Moore…

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Wilco – Sky Blue Sky

The Wilco cognoscenti are rather too ready to dismiss the unpretentious Sky Blue Sky, measuring it against the experimentations of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and A Ghost Is Born. This is an uncomplicated album, and does what its creators set out to do admirably. Here, Jeff Tweedy and chums eschew cacophonic innovations for a straight-forward, mellow rock album that channels the ’60s (Dylan, Grateful Dead, Abbey Road-era Beatles) and ’70s (Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, the Eagles, Thin Lizzy) without losing its identity as a Wilco album. Sky Blue Sky is immediate and intimate. Nels Cline’s guitar work is an utter joy. The highlight here is Impossible Germany, with Jeff Tweedy and Nels Cline duelling on a magnificent guitar solo, an integral part of the song’s lyrics, that borrows from Gary Moore (check out Thin Lizzy’s Sarah) and Carlos Santana.
Wilco – Either Way.mp3
Wilco – Impossible Germany.mp3

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Brandi Carlile – The Story

The name Brandi Carlile suggests a fake-breasted airhead straight outta the Playboy Mansion. As the reader may have guessed by dint of her inclusion on this list, that notion is way of the mark. Carlile is a hugely talented writer and singer of solid rock and country-rock songs. I liked her eponymous 2005 debut, which was rather more rootsy than this set. Here Carlile straddles genres, veering from rock (My Song) to folk-pop (Turpentine) to country (“Have You Ever”). Her distinctive voice can whisper softly and soar ferociously (hear the climactic Joplinesque roar on the title track). The lyrics booklet reveals that Carlile wrote some of the songs as a teenager in 2000 or earlier, hinting at a precocious talent.
Brandi Carlile – The Story.mp3

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Loney, Dear – Loney Noir

The bizzarely named Loney, Dear (real name Emil Svanängen) is something of a genius working in his Stockholm bedroom studio, in which he conducts an orchestra consisting of himself. Operating mostly under the cover of earphones so as not to wake the rest of the household, his songs tend to start softly before building up to a multi-layered, orgasmic crescendo. The melodies are pretty — even twee, in the way Belle & Sebastian are twee — and Svanängen’s high and slight voice is appealing enough, within the context of his music. But I have no idea whether the lyrics are any good; I’ve never really listened to them; I rather have the bedroom symphonies wash over me.
Loney, Dear – Saturday Waits.mp3
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Nicole Atkins – Neptune City

Neptune City came out at a time when Amy Winehouse, another artists borrowing from pop’s rich legacy, was absolutely everywhere. I prefer Atkins’ eclectic references over Winehouse’s mannered soul pastiche. Neptune City is, in places, like Petula Clark covering Blondie through an ABBA filter — glorious pop. On other tracks, Atkins does torchsong soul (“The Way It Is”), or goes into ’80s throwback mode, sounding like the B-52s as sung by Sandie Shaw on Broadway (“Love Surreal” or the rousing “Brooklyn On Fire”, which featured here). Elsewhere there are hints of Phil Spector’s production and Edith Piaf and Joni Mitchell. It should be a total retro mess, but it isn’t. It sounds entirely modern. Neptune City may not be an entirely cohesive album, but it is rather fabulous.
Nicole Atkins – Love Surreal.mp3

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Holmes Brothers – State Of Grace

Some time ago I posted the Holmes’ Brothers gospel-blues style cover of Cheap Trick’s I Want You To Want Me (HERE) from this album. That track was my introduction to the Holmes Brothers, who had released nine albums before this one, starting in 1991 — more than three decades after the two Holmes brothers, Sherman and Wendell, started in the music business. The third member, drummer Popsy Dixon, hooked up with them in the mid-’60s. But they did not become the Holmes Brothers until 1979, having spent the interim as a covers bar-band. Covering blues, soul, gospel, country and even a spot of bluegrass, State Of Grace is warm and often surprising, especially in the Virginian group’s interpretation of other people’s songs, which include tracks by Lyle Lovett (twice), Credence Clearwater Revival, Nick Lowe, Hank Williams Sr and Johnny Mathis. Guesting here with the three brothers are Joan Osborne (who championed the Holmes Brothers in the 1990s), The Band’s Levon Helms and Rosanne Cash. Featured here is the Hank Williams song, featuring Cash.
The Holmes Brothers (with Rosanne Cash) – I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You.mp3

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Panda Bear – Person Pitch

I can’t claim to be much of an Animal Collective fan. I’m sure I would be if I had the patience to get into them. I was not going to have patience either with this solo album by Collective’s drummer Noah Lennox. But I was attracted to it by the cover art and a glowing Pitchfork review. For some reason I ended up playing Person Pitch on loop, and was entranced by it. The critics in their reviews invariably referenced Brian Wilson, and coming a couple of years after SmiLE (another album I got into by playing it on loop) was released, that is neither surprising nor inaccurate. Person Pitch is a glorious psychedelic trip, especially the epic Bros, that owes a tip of the hat also to the Beatles.
Panda Bar – Bros.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Lady’s Bridge

It is this album’s misfortune to be chronologically sandwiched between Hawley’s two masterpieces, 2005’s Coles Corner and this year’s Truelove’s Gutter, two of the decades finest albums. Lady’s Bridge may not quite reach the heights of those masterpieces, but it gets damn close. It is a very, very good album, with no weak point. It is mostly a sad collection. The gorgeous opener, Valentine, will move the vulnerable listener to tears, or close to it, especially when the strings swell and the drums emphasise the anguish. A couple of rockabilly songs and the upbeat Tonight The Streets Are Ours lighten the mood before suitably gloomy (and very lovely) songs called Our Darkness and The Sun Refused To Shine close the set.
Richard Hawley – Tonight The Streets Are Ours.mp3

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Missy Higgins – On A Clear Night

Where Missy Higgins full debut album The Sound Of White (with its astonishing title track) was mostly plaintive in sound; On A Clear Night is more accessible and upbeat. Higgins invests her intelligent lyrics with evocative vocals. The Sound Of White dealt much with trauma and depression; On A Clear Night is frequently life affirming, talking of escape, healing and self-assertion. Thankfully Higgins’ toned down her distinctive Australian accent which previously came perilously close to making her sound like an Aussie wicketkeeper. This is the kind of album that may at first seem slight, but its depth reveals itself after repeated listens. Crowded House’s Neil Finn makes an appearance on the album, contributing guitar to Peachy and backing vocals to the lovely Going North. That’s what it says on the booklet; I can barely hear the guy.
Missy Higgins – Going North.mp3

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Bright Eyes – Cassadaga

In 2005, Bright Eyes’ I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning was by far my album of the year. It was an immediately accessible album in ways its predecessors were not. Cassadaga is not as easy to fall in love with as I’m Wide Awake. It is a grower which requires a few spins before its full beauty reveals itself. Songs that at first do not seem much creep into the ear slowly, and then take root. It is a richly textured, and cohesive album. Connor Oberst’s poetic lyrics are delivered here with greater self-assurance and less of a quiver than on preceding albums. At times, the album overreaches in its ambitions, and another spoken intro on the first track is simply pretentious. For this album Oberst roped in guests such as the marvellous Maria Taylor, Gillian Welch and Rilo Kiley’s Jason Boesel (whose backing vocals on the excellent “If The Brakeman Turns My Way” provide an album highlight).
Bright Eyes – If The Brakeman Turns My Way.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – These Friends Of Mine

Rosie Thomas’ fourth album is her most consistent. It’s for albums like these that the hackneyed phrase “achingly beautiful” was invented for. On These Friends Of Mine, she is supported by her friends Damien Jurado, Denison Witmer and Sufjan Stevens. The lyrical thread running through the album is love and New York, sometimes both together. Recorded as live, the album is engagingly intimate. The sparse, moving “Why Waste More Time?” is preceded by an appealingly giggly count-in. The cover version of R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, nice though it is, seems redundant, but Tomas’ interpretation of Fleetwood Mac’s “Songbird” captures the intense delicacy of the original. The highlight, however, is “Much Farther To Go”, a love song in which the arrangement, harmonies and lyrics coalesce to create an evocative hymn to deep yearning (like Nicole Atkins’ Brooklyn’s On Fire, it featured here).
Rosie Thomas – If This City Never Sleeps.mp3

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Colbie Caillat – Coco

Like Lily Allen and Kate Nash before her, Colbie Caillat launched herself into the pop charts on the strength of Internet buzz. Releasing her music first on MySpace, she was soon picked up by the music blog community. Her debut album, titled rather cornily after her childhood nickname, is breezy folk-pop of the sort usually associated, by way of deceptive shorthand, with the rather more boring Jack Johnson. In sound Caillat is much closer to Tristan Prettyman, her fellow Californian who burst on to the scene equally unexpectedly in 2005. This is summer music, agreeably laid-back yet effervescent, and, crucially, not banal.
Colbie Caillat – Battle.mp3

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My top 10 albums for 2008 (not a vintage year) were:
Jay Brannan – Goddamned
Ron Sexsmith – Exit Strategy Of The Soul
Tift Merritt – Another Country
The Weepies – Hideaway
Jenny Lewis – Acid Tongue
Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers
Conor Oberst – Conor Oberst
Ben Folds – Way To Normal
Hello Saferide – More Modern Short Stories…
Neil Diamond – Home Before Dark

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More Albums of the Year

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It was a great year for fine albums, though only one merits to be remembered as a stone cold classic. I’m sorry to omit a number of very good efforts released in 2005, such as those by Brandi Carlile, Iron & Wine, Damien Jurado, Death Cab for Cutie, Maria Taylor, Andrew Bird, Emilíana Torrini, John Frusciante, Colin Hay, Kathleen Edwards, Nicole Willis and the Soul Investigators, Kevin Devine, Eels, The Cardigans, John Prine, Kate Earl, Richard Thompson, Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, Blue Eyed Son, Sarah Bettens, Antony & the Johnsons, Beck, Tristan Prettyman, The Magic Numbers, Hot Hot Heat, Charlie Sexton …

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Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

On the same day as Conor Oberst and chums released their best album — and one of the decades finest — they also released what I think is their worst, Digital Ash In A Digital Turn. It was wise that they did not take the option of releasing these two entirely distinct albums — one alt.country, the other electronica — as a double album. I’m Wide Awake, which features Emmylou Harris on a couple of tracks, has Oberst in a restrained, though not necessarily tamed, form. The indisciplined excesses from previous albums have been ironed out, but not at the expense of that most essential Oberst quality: the feverish intensity. It certainly is the most consistent Bright Eyes album. Every song here is beautiful, especially First Day Of My Life and We Are Nowhere And It’s Now, on the latter of which Emmylou harmonises.

Lyrically, Oberst is in fine form: tender, resigned, confused, hopeful, angry. When he sings on At The Bottom Of Everything about capital punishment, he rightly hectors: “Into the face of every criminal strapped firmly to a chair, we must stare, we must stare, we must stare.” And on Old Soul Song, about an anti-war protest in New York, has some beautifully poetic lines: “We left before the dust had time to settle, and all the broken glass swept off the avenue. And on the way home held your camera like a bible, just wishing so bad that it held some kind of truth.”
Bright Eyes – Old Soul Song (For The New World Order).mp3
Bright Eyes – We Are Nowhere And It’s Now.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Coles Corner

From the moment the melancholy strings strike up on the album’s opener, the gorgeous title track (featured HERE), this album captivates the listener. A more even effort than 2003’s Lowedges, Hawley tries to capture a mood of 1950s balladeering, drawing from country, pop and rockabilly with a healthy dose of torchsong crooning. One can almost imagine Hotel Room being reworked as a doo wop song. The orchestration is lush, scoring Hawley’s warm baritone beautifully. Besides the title track and the countryish Just Like The Rain, the standout track here is The Ocean (not the most encouraging title, it must be said) which starts off quietly and slowly builds up to a dramatic crescendo. I’d gladly call Coles Corner Hawley’s masterpiece, but he has topped it with this year’s Truelove’s Gutter.
Richard Hawley – The Ocean.mp3

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Jens Lekman – Oh You’re So Silent, Jens

Jens Lekman featured with his debut album in the 2004 list; here he returns with a compilation of single and EP tracks — and Lekman has an extravagant catalogue of EPs, some of which he made available on his site for free downloading a while back. So it is suitable, and doubtless intentional, that the opening track would be called At the Dept. of Forgotten Songs. Lyrically and musically it’s all very quirky, but nowhere as much so as A Sweet Summer’s Night on Hammer Hill, a song that is at once funny and wistful (and which gets the release date of Warren G’s Regulate wrong and fails to credit Nate Dogg), recorded with probably not entirely sober pals who improvise the backing vocals and at the end shout out requests (the woman who requests Black Cab gets her wish on the album). Lekman channels Morrissey and The Byrds on I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration, muses on the use of the F-Word, and forges the punchline to childhood jokes. In a sequence of three songs, Lekman assumes the alter ego Rocky Dennis (the name of the facially deformed character played by Eric Stoltz in the ’80s film Mask), whom he finally bids farewell at the end of the trilogy. It’s a thoroughly likeable collection of songs.
Jens Lekman – I Saw Her At The Anti-War Demonstration.mp3

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Wilco – Kicking Television – Live in Chicago

I’m ambivalent about live albums. Much of the time they are a letdown: the songs don’t sound as good as they did on the studio album, the live atmosphere is not captured and so on. Some live albums work because the artist’s stage presence or audience vibe translates to record. And some live albums work because the performer adds something new to the songs. Kicking Television satisfies at least the latter requirement (I’d argue that the vibe is there, too). Take Misunderstood. A weedy, proto-emo number on 1996’s Being There, here it’s a dramatic monster — I’m among those who love the repeated “Nothing”s. There’s humour as well. Following the mid-tempo Wishful Thinking, Tweedy announces, laughingly: “Let’s get this party started…with some mid-tempo rock”. True to his word, the band eases into the mid-tempo Jesus etc. With the great Nels Cline in the line-up and Tweedy having polished his guitar work, there’s much to be had by way of axemanship, most notably on At Least That’s What You Said.
Wilco – Misunderstood.mp3

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Hello Saferide – Introducing…Hello Saferide

Like fellow Swede Jens Lekman, who gets a namecheck in the wonderful The Quiz on Hello Saferide’s 2006 EP, Annika Norlin (for she is Hello Saferide) benefits from a quirky sense of humour, an attractive Swedish accent and the fact that English is not her first language. The latter is not a handicap as she manoeuvres her way around conventions to create novel lyrical ideas that are often cute but never twee. Norlin’s mind is fascinating: expressing her affection for a friend, she wishes they were lesbians; she wishes her boyfriend illness so that she can take care of her “teddy bear on heroin”; getting in touch again with an old pen pal, she admits to having told lies; as a high school stalker in the very funny song of the same name she breaks into the dentist’s office so that the object of her desire won’t need braces and then has coffee with his mother. The upbeat tunes are catchy, and the slow numbers are saved by almost invariably great lyrics and Norlin’s lovely, vulnerable voice.
Hello Saferide – Highschool Stalker.mp3
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Neil Diamond – 12 Songs

God bless Rick Rubin. Having re-established Johnny Cash as relevant artist, he resurrected Neil Diamond, redeeming him from the lame-jacketed crooner reputation. The title 12 Songs became a misnomer with the belated introduction of two bonus tracks (a rip-off, surely it’s the initial purchasers of an album who deserve a bonus), one an alternative, upbeat version of Delirious Love, a song featuring Brian Wilson that appears in more muted form among the original dozen tracks.. That song is the closest Diamond comes to his late ’60s pomp, the bonus track’s arrangement in particular. Most of the album is reflective, pensive and acoustic. It is beautiful. And it’s tempting to give Rubin all the credit. That would be unfair to Diamond, who wrote the songs and for whom the acoustic arrangement is not foreign, as fans of his ’60s albums will know. More than equipping Diamond with a new sound, Rubin harnessed the man’s strength and, perhaps more importantly, by association made him, like Cash, relevant again.
Neil Diamond – Save Me A Saturday Night.mp3

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Common – Be

I can think of very few albums on which the three closing tracks may be the set’s best. Ziggy Stardust comes to mind as a contender (though its best song, Starman, is on Side 1). This is certainly the case here. Modern hip hop, especially the leering misogyny and swaggering materialism expressed by dentally adventurous people in whose company I would not want to spend a minute, leaves me largely cold. Kanye West’s album of the same year had its moments, but I never feel prompted to play it. West did, however, produce most of Common’s album, which is good, and appears on many of the tracks, which is not so good when he makes those idiotic high-pitched noises. This certainly is not a hip hop album that’s representative of the contemporary genre. As much of Common’s work, it is thoughtful and socially conscious. It draws as much from Public Enemy as it does from the great era of politically aware black music, the early to mid-1970s. There is more than a hint of Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott-Heron on Be, and the Last Poets even appear on the album, as does John Legend, one of the few current non-nasal R&B crooners whose music is rooted in the ’70s soul scene (slightly unexpectedly, John Mayer also pops up). Common, in short, is the Marvin Gaye of hip hop.
Common – It’s Your World (Part 1 & 2).mp3

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Josh Rouse – Nashville

On his fifth album, the Nebraskan Rouse said goodbye to his temporary domicile of Nashville before moving to Spain. Where his previous album, 1972, sought to capture the vibe of the year of the title, on Nashville Rouse revisits 1980s indie pop through a country lense. It’s cheerful, catchy stuff for a warm summer’s evening (even if one track is called Winter In The Hamptons), admirably coming in at under 40 minutes, like LPs used to. The lyrics aren’t very memorable here; some are decidedly pedestrian. The album’s most powerful song, Sad Eyes, is also its least jovial. It starts slowly as Rouse observes a woman’s melancholy and builds up to a, erm, rousing climax as he offers encouragement. Alas, it’s followed by the set’s one clunker, the rocker Why Won’t You Tell Me What.
Josh Rouse – Sad Eyes.mp3

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Ben Folds – Songs For Silverman

Ah, the album the hardcore Foldsians love to hate. Granted, there’s some forgettable guff on here. Much as I love Ben Folds, I would not be able to tell you a thing about Time or Sentimental Guy. And, as I’m getting all my irritations with Silverman off the chest, the tribute to Elliott Smith, Late, has some really poor lyrics. But then there is the vintage Folds stuff. Bastard, ostensibly about young Republicans in old clothes, packs a decent groove. Give Judy My Notice has a great West Coast rock vibe. You To Thank has a superb piano break, and the break-up songs, Trusted (“She’s gonna be pissed when she wakes up for terrible things I did to her in her dreams”) and Landed (“Down comes the reign of the telephone czar”), are among the best work Folds has done, musically and lyrically. And having just listened to Time and Sentimental Guy for the purpose of this project, well, they are not bad songs.
Ben Folds – You To Thank.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – If These Songs Could Be Held

The title If These Songs Could Be Held seems apt; there is fragility in Rosie Thomas’ songs, emphasised by her beautiful, sad voice. You want to hold her and the songs. Her family and friends help out again, with Ed Harcourt duetting on the unpretentious cover of Let It Be Me (featured in The Originals Vol. 24). The arrangements are more complex than a casual listen would suggest. Hear the almost martial bass drum in the opener Since You’ve Been Gone. The lyrics range from perceptive introspection to sophomore poetry, but expressed through the medium of Rosie’s gorgeous voice, even the more inopportune words are entirely forgivable.
Rosie Thomas – If These Songs Could Be Held.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

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Before we move to my Top 10 albums of 2003 — a purely subjective choice of albums from that year which I enjoy, rather than an attempt at a best-of list — let me apologise for the confusion created by wrong links in last week’s two posts, and thank the kind people who alerted me to them. It was a little negligent of me not to test the links first. I have worked out what the trouble was: on Mediafire’s infuriatingly redesigned site, the “copy link” button is seriously wonky; instead of copying the link for the requested file, it copies the link of the first file in the upload folder (in last week’s instance the Iron & Wine song). So, here’s an urgent message to Mediafire, Facebook and all other services: please don’t innovate yourselves into oblivion. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

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Josh Rouse – 1972

josh_rouseTo mark his 30th birthday, Josh Rouse decided to record a concept album intended to evoke the year of his birth. I’ve written about the cover before here. In that post, I wrote the following about the album itself. 1972 might easily have turned out as a pastiche of the worst clichés. Happily, it didn’t: the sound is contemporary. Rouse evokes rather than recreates what he imagines were the sounds of 1972. Imagine the concept as the subtle but essential spice in a delicious meal. The album borrows its influences wisely: James, a song about alcoholism which appears on the first Any Major Flute mix, is a psychedelic soul workout, with Jim Hoke’s excellent jazz flute and Rouse’s falsetto positioning the song closest to 1972. Elsewhere, swirling strings and saxophone (also by Hoke), handclaps and Latin percussions serve as a marker for the ’70s influence being filtered through Rouse’s sound.
Josh Rouse – Rise.mp3
Josh Rouse – Love Vibration.mp3

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Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language

lloyd_coleLloyd Cole used to get such a bad rap back in the day. I could never understand the charges of Cole being pretentious. Even Easy Pieces, the second Lloyd Cole & the Commotions album which Cole has virtually disowned (on account of having been rushed by the record company to prematurely complete it), has many great and not particularly pretentious moments. Having broken up the Commotions after three albums, Cole’s solo career didn’t really take off. That is a shame. On Music In A Foreign Language, Cole continued on the acoustic trip he began on the previous album. Here it’s just him, his guitar and minimal backing music, with Lloyd singing his melancholy, beautiful songs straight on to his computer. The whole exercise is so intimate, listeners may be forgiven if they feel like they are intruding on a private moment. Lyrically he is on introspective top form. I don’t listen to this album nearly often enough.
Lloyd Cole – Music In A Foreign Language.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – Transatlanticism

death_cab_transatlanticismThis is the album where Death Cab for Cutie crossed the line from oddly-named Indie group to serious rock band. Transatlanticism is something of a rock symphony; it’s not rewarding to pluck out its songs in isolation, except perhaps the excellent opener, The New Year, and the acoustic coda, A Lack Of Color. It’s the kind of lush album one must hear in full, preferably with headphones while in a kicked back mood, being immersed in the sound. Lyrically it has its moment, such as the story of the protagonist in Title And Registration who finds a forgotten photo of an ex-girlfriend after being pulled over by a cop (it also features the annoying line: “The glove compartment is accurately named”; thanks for pointing that out, Gibbard).
Death Cab for Cutie – A Lack of Color.mp3

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Colin Hay – Man @ Work

man@workThe title of the album is an obvious reference to the Australian band with which Scottish-born Colin Hay had some chart success in the early ’80s. Here Hay revisits some of his best songs from his solo repertoire as well as the Men At Work catalogue. None of these re-recordings do their originals injustice. The acoustic versions of the three big Men At Work hits — Down Under, Who Can It Be Now and Overkill — are strikingly remade and worth the price of the CD alone, especially the far superior interpretation of Overkill. There is also a more faithful reworking of Down Under, with brass replacing the flute; and fine remakes of Men At Work’s Be Good Johnny and It’s A Mistake.

Hay fans will have their own views on which versions here eclipse the original. Looking For Jack is vastly improved here, but I prefer the less dreamy version of Beautiful World on Going Somewhere to that reproduced here from 2002’s Company Of Strangers. Hay does recycle enthusiastically; the recording of Waiting For My Real Life To Begin here is the same as that on Going Somewhere; he recorded a rockier, inferior version for 2005’s Topanga, named after the California town where he now lives.
Colin Hay – Overkill (acoustic).mp3

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The Minus 5 – Down With Wilco

minus5The title of The Minus 5’s fifth album notes the involvement of Tweedy and pals in its production, not an antipathy towards Chicago’s finest (and the group was doubtless aware of the title’s gag). A project of songwriter Scott McCaughey, leader of The Young Fresh Fellows and touring bassist for Robyn Hitchcock, this incarnation of Minus 5 also includes long-time collaborator Peter Buck of R.E.M. and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. The sound borrows heavily from White Album period Beatles, early Byrds and the Hollies (Life Left Him There sounds more than a bit like Jennifer Eccles), filtered through an ambient alt.country colander. Wilco’s mark is evident but not overbearing, and Tweedy’s voice is welcome when it pops up. There is a joy in the sound which suggests that the collaborators had great fun recording it. This is an upbeat album that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Minus 5 – Where Will You Go.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Lowedges

hawley_lowedgesAll of Richard Hawley’s five full albums will feature in my Top 10s of the ’00s. All of five of them are superb; all are beautifully orchestrated with Hawley’s attractive baritone giving life to his fine, often melancholy lyrics. So when I declare that Lowedges is my least favourite Hawley album, I am being somewhat unfair to what is a fine album. The songs on Lowedges are as affecting as any; one wants to live inside them. Don’t Miss Your Water, On The Ledge, The Nights Are Made For Us or the dramatic Run For Me are as good as almost any Hawley songs. Lowedge’s The Motorcycle Song probably is my least favourite Hawley song; and even that is not terrible.
Richard Hawley – The Nights Are Made For Us.mp3

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Damien Rice – O

damien_riceO, but Damien was one overwrought lad. You fear for him in what must be a terribly fragile state. But, goodness, there are some beautiful songs on this album, and some heartwrenching lyrics. Rice is not a very good singer, so all the happier the moments when Lisa Hannigan supports him (although, typically, only to make poor Damien even more heartbroken). There are no clunkers on this set, and a bunch of quite brilliant songs, particularly The Blower’s Daughter, Volcano, Eskimo (with the operatic interlude), and Delicate. And Cannonball, which eclipses all of them. The album’s inclusion in this post is something of an anomaly. O was released in Ireland in 2002; after slow-burning success which eventually took the album into the UK top 10, it was released internationally in 2003.
Damien Rice – Eskimo.mp3

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Rosie Thomas – Only With Laughter Can You Win

rosie_thomas_laughterOf Rosie Thomas’ four albums (excluding last year’s Christmas effort), this is the one on which she is most explicit about her Christian faith. That is good news, of course, for the believer, but should not put off the religious sceptic, for her brand of Christianity — like that of her frequent collaborators Damien Jurado and Sufjan Stevens —bashes no Bible and does not glorify or moralise. Mostly, she is asking God how the hell she is supposed to live this life. Indeed, the evangelical fundamentalists might well call Rosie a Maoist Osama Nazi, as is their objectionable wont, should they encounter lyrics like this, on Tell Me Now: “How am I to tell them if they never follow Christ that heaven doesn’t hold a place for them…when I’m no better than them.” Christ is periodically present; and He should be: the album was recorded in Detroit’s 19th century St John’s church.

The music, as on all Rosie’s albums (which is another way of saying predictably), is intimate, delicate and entirely gorgeous — but there isn’t much by way of the victory-aiding laughter in the title. Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam makes an appearance on Red Rover, alas the weakest track on this album, which is also the weakest of in the Rosie Thomas catalogue — though here I hasten to invoke the Hawley doctrine.
Rosie Thomas – I Play Music.mp3

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The Darkness – Permission To Land

darknessWas it all a glorious piss-take, lending heavy rock all the camp that Queen fans so routinely denied in their group because the band’s name provided absolutely no clue? The cover of Permission To Land even aped the sexism we occasionally encountered in Queen (remember the Fat Bottomed Girls poster that came with the Jazz album?). The debut, unlike the follow-up, borrowed its influences more broadly than merely Queen, of course. The Darkness swigged copiously from the vats of hair metal, Van Halenesque CocRock, and AC/DC. Singer Justin Hawkins camped it up in striped spandex trousers, while bassist Frankie Pullain played the straight man. It was all a bit Spinal Tap, and if not quite a spoof or wind-up, then certainly rock music performed with a wink and a nod. And yet, the Darkness was not a novelty act; they took their music seriously and wanted the listener to have fun with it. They even gave us a damn good power ballad, featured here.
The Darkness – Love Is Only A Feeling.mp3

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eastmountainsouth – eastmountainsouth

eastmountainsouthBefore there were The Weepies, there were the shift- and space-bar boycotting eastmountainsouth. Discovered by Robbie Robertson, the folk-pop duo released only this one album, before Kat Maslich Bode and Peter Bradley Adams went their own way. That’s a pity; the album is lovely. It does not spring surprises on the listener; indeed, played in the wrong mood, it could be considered boring. The songs don’t go beyond mid-tempo, and they don’t always engage as immediately as those of fellow folkie Rosie Thomas. But the harmonies are exquisite, the vibe is warm. This is an album to savour on a lazy, preferably rainy weekend over a cup of coffee.
eastmountainsouth – Ghost.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

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iris

Very occasionally a group of people get together on the Touchedmix blog and post mixes on a particular theme. Last week, the theme was HEADS, with their features and their functions. I thought readers of this little corner of the music blogosphere might be interested in the two mixes I banged together.

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OVER MY HEAD MIX
1. Aztec Camera – Head Is Happy (Heart’s Insane) (1985)
2. Crowded House – Pineapple Head (live) (1996/2006)
3. Johnny Cash – Mean Eyed Cat (1996)
4. The Dillards – I’ve Just Seen A Face (1968)
5. The Holmes Brothers – Smiling Face Hiding A Weeping Heart (2006)
6. Paul Anka – Eyes Without A Face (2006)
7. The Undisputed Truth – Smiling Faces Sometimes (1971)
8. Justine Washington – I Can’t Wait Until I See My Baby’s Face (1964)
9. The Flamingos – I Only Have Eyes For You (1959)
10. Mississippi Sheikhs – I’ve Got Blood in My Eyes For You (1938)
11. Robert Mitchum – Mama Looka Boo Boo (Shut Your Mouth-Go Away) (1958)
12. Emile Ford & the Checkmates – Them There Eyes (1960)
13. Lewis Taylor – Blue Eyes (2000)
14. Andrew Bird – A Nervous Tic Motion Of The Head To The Left (2005)
15. Nada Surf – The Way You Wear Your Head (2002)
16. The Sweet – The Lies In Your Eyes (1975)
17. Ben Folds – Doctor My Eyes (2002)
18. Josh Ritter – One More Mouth (2006)
19. Kaki King – Saving Days In A Frozen Head (2008)
20. The Lilac Time – The Darkness Of Her Eyes (1991)
21. Thomas Dybdahl – Pale Green Eyes (2009)
22. Ryan Adams – Halloweenhead (2007)
23. The Cardigans – Give Me Your Eyes (2005)

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Justine Washington is better known as Baby Washington; this is the original version of the song covered to good effect by Dusty Springfield.

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SENSES WORKING OVERTIME MIX
1. David Bowie – Can You Hear Me (1975)
2. Tim Buckley – I Can’t See You (1966)
3. Herman Düne – I Wish That I Could See You Soon (2006)
4. Devics – If We Cannot See (2006)
5. Richard Hawley – Can You Hear The Rain, Love (2001)
6. Scott Walker – You’re Gonna Hear From Me (1967)
7. The Righteous Brothers – See That Girl (1965)
8. Chris Montez – The More I See You (1966)
9. Cass Elliot – I’ll Be Seeing You (1973)
10. Blind Boy Fuller – What’s That Smells Like Fish (1938)
11. Smiley Lewis – I Hear You Knocking (1955)
12. The Supremes – I Hear A Symphony (1965)
13. Jim Messina – Seeing You (For The First Time) (1979)
14. Baby Huey – Listen To Me (1971)
15. The Jesus and Mary Chain – Taste Of Cindy (1985)
16. K’s Choice – A Sound That Only You Can Hear (1995)
17. Mull Historical Society – Watching Xanadu (2001)
18. Ron Sexsmith & Don Kerr – Listen (2005)
19. Rosanne Cash – I Was Watching You (2006)
20. The Magic Numbers – I See You, You See Me (2005)
21. Paul Anka – Smells Like Teen Spirit (2005)

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I was very pleased that the first post in this series of my personal top 10 albums for every year of the outgoing decade (depending how you count decades, of course) created such a positive and generous response. Thank you for all the comments; they are always appreciated. I should point out again that I can include only those albums I actually have and know well. So Gillian Welch’s The Revelator fails to make the cut, though I believe that those of my friends who argue for its brilliance might have a point.

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Ben Folds – Rockin’ The Suburbs

ben_foldsThe are at least two types of Ben Folds fans: those who don’t think that Folds has ever topped the work he did in union with with Robert Sledge and Darren Jessee as the ironically named Ben Folds Five, and those who prefer his more mature solo output. Put me down as belonging in the latter group. While the very funny title track, the driving Zak And Sara, Annie Waits or Not The Same would fit snugly in the Ben Folds Five canon, Folds’ solo debut exhibited a greater empathy for the subjects of his lyrics. On Rockin’ The Suburbs (released on September 11), Folds took the baton from BFF songs such as Brick, Don’t Change Your Plans or Best Imitation Of Myself, musically and lyrically.

Folds is a wonderful story teller. The story of Fred Jones, the old newspaper man whose retirement is going barely noticed by “all of those bastards” who don’t even remember his first name, is particularly poignant. Indeed, throughout the album Folds moves the listener: in the father-and-son relationship of Still Fighting It, in the desperation of the guy still trying to get over a girl in Gone (“the chemicals are wearing off…”), or in the tenderness of the astonishing love declarations on The Luckiest (one of the greatest love songs ever written; alas Folds has since divorced the song’s addressee). The album is not flawless — there is a weak trio of successive tracks in the middle) — but it does suggest that Ben Folds is this generation’s Randy Newman. And that is high praise.
Ben Folds – Fred Jones Part 2.mp3
Ben Folds – Zak And Sara.mp3

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch Soundtrack

HEDWIGThe first time I saw the Hedwig and the Angry Inch, I was gobsmacked. The curious storyline, the intense performances, the incongruous humour (black GIs in East Berlin!), the imaginative setpieces, the animation and costumes, and, above all, the fantastic music, written by Stephen Trask and performed mostly by John Cameron Mitchell as the genitally mutilated Hedwig, which ranges from ballads and punk to Ziggy-style glam rock.

The highlight of the film is the Wig In A Box setpiece, also the soundtrack’s most appealing track. Since I am urging those who have not seen the film to catch up with it, I’ll restrain myself from describing the scene. I expect that many viewers will want to see it repeatedly. I’ll limit myself to posting only one song from each album here (apart from the #1 album of the year), but I also might have posted the gorgeous The Origin Of Love, with its Aristophanes-inspired lyrics, or Wicked Little Town, or Midnight Radio, or the explosive Angry Inch…
Hedwig and the Angry Inch – Wig In A Box.mp3

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Judith Sephuma – A Cry, A Smile, A Dance

sephumaBefore the Idols franchise spewed forth disposable singers of debatable ability, at least in South Africa, televised talent shows in the country brought several artists of notable aptitude to the public’s attention. One of these was Judith Sephuma, born in the northern town of Polokwane (then Pietersburg) and a music graduate from the University of Cape Town. Her 2001 debut album is a captivating blend of jazz and Afro-pop which fully met, and even exceeded, the expectations observers had invested in the artist since her performance at the inauguration of President Thabo Mbeki in 1999, a year before she made a huge impression at the misnamed North Sea Jazz Festival in Cape Town (the local equivalent of the Montreaux festival). If the wonderful Randy Crawford had been South African, this is what she might have sounded like.
Judith Sephuma – Mmangwane.mp3

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Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Bavarian Fruit Bread

sandovalMuch as I love Sandoval’s group Mazzy Starr, I struggled long and hard to “get” this album. It’s the sort of ambient set one needs to be in a perfect mood for (perhaps when one is recovering from a bout of inebriation). But when everything is set, it hits home in its quiet way. If Sandoval sounds fragile on Mazzy Starr, here you want to pack her in cotton wool and keep the volume low, just in case she breaks. The result is exponentially mesmerising and ultimately gorgeous. It’s not the sort of album from which one can pick a representative track (though I’ll try here); it works best as a body of music. If one is in the mood.
Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions – Around My Smile.mp3

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Richard Hawley – Late Night Final

HAWLEYLast month Hawley released a masterpiece, Truelove Gutter. Without wishing to resort to hyperbole, I’ll claim with confidence that it is not only the best album of the year, but one of the best of the decade. Hawley, a former member of Britpop groups Longpigs and Pulp, has produced a series of delightful and always affecting albums that started with his full debut, Late Night Final (it was preceded by a self-titled EP in 2000). The gorgeously melancholy, late night mood of that great triptych of Hawley albums — Coles Corner, Lady’s Bridge, Truelove Gutter — is already evident here. His voice has now dropped a register and the arrangements have become more intricate since Late Night Final (on which Hawley’s country influence is still evident), but the basics of the Hawley sound, and the quality, are already there. The stand-out track is Baby, You’re My Light, which I featured on this mix (which also features Ben Folds’ The Luckiest).
Richard Hawley – Love Of My Life.mp3

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Death Cab For Cutie – The Photo Album

dreath_cabDeath Cab For Cutie is one the most stupid band names in modern music. It evokes the image of shouting and wailing nu-metal emo types, or perhaps a death metal outfit that failed in conjuring a suitably satanic-sounding moniker. Death Cab are nothing of the sort, of course, nor do they deserve to be dismissed for featuring so prominently on the teen drama-soap The O.C. (which was actually quite good for a couple of seasons and featured some excellent music that otherwise would not have received wider exposure). The Photo Album is Death Cab’s transition album, still drawing from the Indie rock of the earlier albums but preparing for the almost symphonic feel of 2003’s Transatlanticism and last year’s Narrow Stairs. It lacks the diversity of 2005’s Plans, but like Plans and more than Transatlanticism, it does have tracks that stand on their own. This is solidly guitar-driven, ambient Indie rock, but more accomplished (or, purists might say, polished) than the four preceding Death Cab albums.
Death Cab For Cutie – I Was A Kaleidoscope.mp3

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Rilo Kiley – Take-Offs & Landings

rilo_kileyIn 2004, Rilo Kiley released a brilliant album in More Adventurous. The preceding two albums are more patchy. Take-Offs & Landings borrows its influences widely, blows some alt.country over it, and voila. Sometimes it works, and there is nothing here that is really objectionable, but this is very much the work of a group still finding its way. Likewise, the wonderful Jenny Lewis is still discovering her voice, which here is still banking on its cuteness before it became the sexiest voice since Julie London’s. If all this sounds half-hearted, then that is not quite fair on an enjoyable album. It suffers not on its own merits, but in comparison to what the group and Lewis as a solo artist produced later.
Rilo Kiley – Plane Crash In C.mp3

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Alicia Keys – Songs In A Minor

alicia_keysAt a time when soul music is dying a gangrened death at the hands of dancing corporate muppets and sexless nasal whiners, we ought to be grateful for the few artists who still refer to the rich heritage of the genre. So I find it difficult to sympathise with those who dismiss the artistry of Alicia Keys. OK, she’s not quite all that which the hype claims her to be, as a pianist or as a singer. Much of her material is bland. It’s safe to say that she cannot compare with, say, Roberta Flack. Judging only from her appearances at the Grammys (which I still watch for reasons I cannot comprehend; probably only for the In Memoriam section), I find her a bit smug, a bit corporate, a bit too convinced of her own genius. And yet, her albums includes a clutch of tracks which, had they been recorded 35 years earlier, would be noted as fine contributions to the canon of soul music, celebrating the derivations of her material as reflecting an astute choice of influences. Despite all the caveats I have raised, I’m glad that Alicia Keys is around.
Alicia Keys – A Woman’s Worth

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The Shins – Oh, Inverted World

SHINSPlaying the song New Slang from this album, Natalie Portman’s character in the fine film Garden State promises Zach Braff’s protagonist that it will change his life. Without wishing to spring spoilers upon the reader who unaccountably have not seen the film, it indeed does so. The Portland, Oregon-based band’s debut thus broke out from the ghetto of Indie cult on the back of Braff’s championing. If the Kinks had been Americans recording their music in the ’00s, this is what they might have sounded like. I have quite enjoyed The Shins’ subsequent albums, which are musically accomplished, perhaps more than Oh, Inverted World. But if I want a fix of The Shins, it’s the debut I turn to.
The Shins – One By One All Day.mp3

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Weezer – Green Album

WEEZERWhat is it with all those people who are so quick to dismiss every Weezer album because it isn’t Pinkerton? It seems to be accepted wisdom that Pinkerton, one of the great albums of the 1990s, set some kind of standard that Rivers Cuomo and the other three chaps must live up to. The trouble is, by the time the Pinkerton evangelists listened to the other Weezer albums, they were no longer of an age when they locked themselves in their bedrooms because school and parents and jocks sucked and listened to Pinkerton in the recovery period between wanks. The Green Album is a fine album; it has some great tunes, it’s fun, it doesn’t challenge you; it does everything you’d want from a Weezer album. Island In The Sun is my cellphone ringtone, by the way.
Weezer – Island In The Sun.mp3

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More Albums of the Year

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After the break-up comes the longing for a love lost or forfeited. Or so it seems with this bunch of singers.

B.J. Thomas – Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song (1975) (more…)

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