Last one for this bit, with the remaining ten(ish…) getting a page to themselves. And thank the stars for that, as it’s such a bugger to go on about ten things at the same time whilst trying (and probably failing) to remember which adverbs I’ve already used. What I’ve found interesting so far whilst doing this and looking at the many emerging lists from other sites and proper media (and confirmed during a brief conversation with a friend on Twitter earlier today) is that while there’s been a lot of good, very good and great albums out this year, nobody seems to be agreeing on pretty much anything – the standard this year is of a very high average, with little common ground as to what is considered essential. This may sound as if this state of affairs is anything but a very good thing indeed, but the opposite is true; musically-independent artists have been coming up with their own visions without consideration to what anyone else is up to and largely without interference from marketing, in a direct inverse to what is going on in a mainstream seemingly happy to strangle itself with its own banality. There seems to be more and more little labels springing up all over the place, and there are more and more cheap/free ways for artists to reach an audience than ever before. It’s like 1976 and 1987 all over again…
20. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
It’d been a while since I bought an album of theirs (by my reckoning, I’ve missed out on nine of them), so it was about time I dipped my toe back into the waters with this lot. I’m glad I did, as this collection of absurdist impotent rage from the cheerfully miserable Merseysiders hits all of its targets just as accurately and witheringly as they ever did. The myriad references to the animated works of Gordon Murray may be behind them now and their brand of 1980s indie-punk may have slid into slightly comfier musical slippers, but the clever sense of humour remains intact and it’s nice to see that age hasn’t cheered them up any.
19. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
With recent news hinting at the possibility of an end to Sonic Youth, I’m feeling rather guilty at thinking “well, if it means more of this sort of thing, then I’m all for it”, as this strongly reflective collection of slightly psyche-influenced pastoral acoustic is amongst some of the best work that Thurston has ever come up with. Aided in no small part by the Robert Kirby-channelling string arrangements of Beck Hansen it naturally evokes the spirit of a modern day Nick Drake, albeit with a sunnier view of goings-on both past and present. Hopefully this is a herald of a new direction rather than a one-off whimsy from Moore.
18. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
Gospel goes all big, mad and jazzy thanks to this corker from Sam Beam. A record full of lovesongs to all things ordinary and brilliant, it’s a moving and spiritual off-kilter look at life arranged as 1970s indie-cinema funk hymns, and there’s not much that could ever go wrong with that mix. Written, arranged and sung by someone sounding so happy, it’s hard not to leave Kiss Each Other Clean in the same mood as it was apparently recorded.
17. Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing
Somewhat more straightforward than last year’s Destroyer of the Void (as the cover rather handily indicates), this is a very tightly-arranged and carefully-layered record created with an expert eye for all the best bits of the sort of countrified rock that used to grace the soundstage of The Old Grey Whistle Test before the New York Dolls turned up and it all went a bit odd. Highly evocative, and incredibly catchy tunes to raise roofs and spirits alike.
16. Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
Any album that begins with the words “There’s a head on the bed” is going to provoke a bit of interest, and this one just gets better and better throughout. Interspersed with genuinely unsettling instrumentals, Creep On Creepin’ On has a knack of subverting Fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll by the addition of haunting, reverbed vocals over the top of ever-so-slightly nightmarish arrangements that remind me of the visuals of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. And then there’s the lyrics, a succession of romantic threats that veer from merely slightly stalkerish to positively murderous. The spirit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins has been well captured by this trio, and is probably in a jar in their cellar.
15. Joe Lally – Why Should I Get Used To It
While there are (rightly) plenty of echoes of his time spent in Fugazi on this record, it’s a much less caustic and far more groove-laden affair on this, his third solo album thanks to a sparing use of noise and Lally’s softer vocal delivery than that of his bandmates. This isn’t to say that the anger’s gone – it’s there in droves and as focused and pointed as ever – it’s just presented (with the odd exception) in a more laid-back fashion than fans of his previous shenanigans would expect. Really good, intelligently-performed punk.
14. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
For those weeping at the demise of REM this year, there is plenty of solace to be taken from this record that – intentionally – could have come direct from Athens’ finest in the mid to late 1980s. It’s not all Georgian-indietastic though, with one of the tracks (and indeed the album title) riffing on The Smiths, so older fans becoming increasingly weary of defending Morrissey’s increasingly bizarre rants about anything he sets his mind to will find a happy home here also. And in all honesty, there’s little more fun to be had on a record this year than the jauntily-delivered “we heaved relief as scores of innocents die” during Calamity Song, one of the finest pop songs to grace the airwaves for many years.
13. Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome
As soon as I heard about this collaboration and what Brian and Daniele had in mind for it, I was bouncing around in anticipation. This is the sort of record that only complete obsessives could have conceived, arranged and produced – not only paying tribute to the music of Ennio Morricone (and, by extension, the films of Sergio Leone), but doing to to the nth degree by using the same recording techniques, studio, and even performers (not least the incredible Ella Dell’Orso whose voice graces the original Ecstasy of Gold back in 1966 and who still sounds wonderful during her parts here) from the original genre-defying/defining scores. Even the more contemporary elements (provided courtesy of Jack White and Norah Jones) retain a veneer of dustbowl psych moviemaking, whilst feeling right at home in the 21st century. Fans of the films can pick out tiny little bits from their favourites, those who previously weren’t fans will be straight off to buy the Dollars Trilogy boxsets as soon as the record’s finished. Huge in cinematic scope, and breathtaking just for the notion that this is about as complete a single idea translated to music that I can ever recall hearing.
12. The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
Greg Dulli takes his Twilight Singers into pastures new yet again. Never satisfied to settle into a single groove, his ongoing project takes on board everything he’s done before and continues to accelerate onwards, taking the ideas and sounds that have been central to his outlook since the early days of the Afghan Whigs and shaping them into something new by absorbing new influences and raising his own bar, almost as if just to see what would happen next. The result in Dynamite Steps is something that completely and utterly sounds like The Twilight Singers from start to finish, but at the same time providing surprises with each song’s naked emotional heart. Dynamite Steps almost feels like a rite of passage, as if Greg has faced his shadows and cast off those which he needed to, whilst embracing and absorbing others.
11. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
I have no idea what this record’s about, other than bookending mentions of cattle driving and the titular apocalypse. Whatever happened to the drover in the intervening songs, he still seems quite contented to dismiss the events by closing his story with the album’s title and catalogue number as if to simply file it away. Which no sane person would do, as even though the whole thing sounds as if was being recorded as it was all occurring to him (or maybe because of that), Bill Callahan has created an incredible work of poetry that evokes images of little thoughts in vast landscapes and making one just as important as the other. Even when the barbs come out slightly in America!, it’s all done fondly and gently and with an evident love of the place he’s poking at. The perfect album to listen to while travelling, as even the shortest journey will feel like a cheerful odyssey with this piping you along.