100 Mark Knopfler – The Ragpicker’s Dream (2002)
The decade and a half after Brother In Arms seem, with hindsight, to have been tricky in some senses for Mark Knopfler. A final underwhelming Dire Straits album in 1991 and a debut solo record in 1996, plus some film soundtracks and his Chet Atkins collaboration, added up to a relatively low-key catalogue of output. With 2001’s Sailing to Philadelphia he got back into a more regular release schedule: The Ragpicker’s Dream followed in 2002, Shangri-La in 2004, All The Road Running with Emmylou Harris in 2006, and Kill To Get Crimson in 2007. To an extent this body of work has re-established Knopfler as a quality songwriter, eclipsing the showbiz nonsense that surrounded him after Dire Straits took off. But it has also shown up his limitations: he’s not the most versatile vocalist and his melodies tend to run around the same limited range. He seems allergic to guitar solos these days, and more interested in acoustic picking, with only occasional guitar licks that threaten to descend into self-parody adorning the songs – frankly, I knew without listening to it exactly what the Emmylou Harris duet album would sound like, and although it was rather nice it was arguably a bit of a waste of Harris’s talents compared to some of her other collaborations, for instance with Elvis Costello. The albums themselves can be divided into two groups: the high-gloss numbers (the awful Sailing to Philadelphia and much better Shangri-La) and the more earnest attempts at something more folksy and stripped-back (The Ragpicker’s Dream and the deeply disappointing Kill to Get Crimson). The Ragpicker’s Dream is really quite decent however, with Knopfler successfully trading on some of the old-style American sounds that informed his listening as a child, while also throwing in more conventional rock efforts not least the Auf Weidersehn, Pet theme Why Aye Man. Knopfler’s first solo album, 1996’s Golden Heart, remains his best: the songs were great, and the playing lovely. For all of his albums however, the production is always too damn smooth. Shame. Still, he’s a talent it would be wrong to dismiss, and The Ragpicker’s Dream is certainly a record that deserves not to be overlooked.
99 Bis – Return to Central (2001)
Bis are probably remembered as a band of the late 1990s, and most accurately remembered as a band who should have been successful and well respected, but became whipping boys for the music press instead. Their 80s retro approach for their excellent second album Social Dancing was ten years too early. By 2001 they had developed a more hard-edged techno / synth-pop sound, and produced a great mini-album in 2000 called Music for a Stranger World, followed by this album in 2001. Nobody seemed to care very much, which was deeply unjust: it was a dense and sophisticated pop record, and a good lesson in how a band’s sound should develop by album number three. They split after this, re-forming for the occasional show in the later part of the decade, after an abortive reunion band with a live drummer – sadly Data Panik never got past a couple of singles. I went to one of the reunion shows in 2007 though, and it was brilliant – like being 17 again, but more tiring.
98 Red Hot Chili Peppers – By The Way (2002)
RHCP have probably descended into self-parody these days: I’m reliably informed that the lead singles from their last two albums had the same chord structures and were in the same key, and they seem to have found a comfortable slice of the mass market that they can reliably exploit each time. But By The Way was nonetheless a quality record, and if it catapulted the band into an era of slightly bland repetition, who particularly cares? It’s the only RHCP album I’ll ever own, I expect, but it still works for me.
97 Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight (2007)
Funny band, Rilo Kiley. 2004’s album More Adventurous won praise for its emotional storytelling songs at the time, but with hindsight frankly seems very soft rock; their live appearances at the time struck me as deeply MOR. This album goes even further in this direction: it is highly polished soft rock, with at times awful lyrics… But actually it’s brilliant: striving for credibility seems not to be on the agenda, and we get some straightforwardly fun tunes instead. Live the band seemed to be playing with more force and finesse – perhaps owing to the augmented line-up they enjoyed at the time – and I’d happily take this version of the band over their More Adventurous incarnation any day.
96 Shy Child – Noise Won’t Stop (2007)
Electronic music is scattered through this list in modest quantities: mostly I find it cold and awkward to listen to, lacking warmth. When a way round this can be found, however, it can engage me: the use of live drums helped the duo Shy Child to get through. The songs are almost punky little vignettes – not many electronic bands are interested in volume (guitars are better suited), but Shy Child apparently are, and the result is a jerky and enjoyable racket.
95 Loretta Lynn – Van Lear Rose (2004)
Around the middle of the decade, Jack White seemed to have the music world at his feet – and to his credit, he did some interesting things with this privileged position, not least produce and co-write this album with Loretta Lynn. It showcases White’s no-nonsense approach to music, while still respecting American traditions; the result is a delightfully twangy but still robust sound, and Lynn’s reflective and at times sentimental songs. The two balance each other out nicely and produce a highly successful record.
94 Charlotte Hatherley – Grey Will Fade (2004)
I usually found Ash rather annoying, not least when Charlotte Hatherley was in the band. This wasn’t her fault; rather, Tim Wheeler’s naif teen-rock schtick didn’t really work any more, and lyrically they were coming up with rubbish like Shining Light. So Hatherley’s first solo album was something of a revelation, with its crunchy guitar, twisty-turny songs and, most refleshingly of all, some really lovely vocal performances. Mystifyingly, her next album was a dense and obscure set of challenging guitar indie, and 2009’s New Worlds was somewhere between the two. Grey Will Fade, however, remains top-rate grrl-guitar indie pop.
93 Cerys Matthews – Don’t Look Down (2009)
This record shows that there’s sometimes something to be said for a smooth production, where the songs are strong enough to take it and it’s not intrusive. The result is a lightly soulful effort, with some lovely breathy vocals from Cerys and some aching melancholic ballads thrown in. It’s also notable for being released in a Welsh version at the same time, although I’ve not heard that one. Accomplished, in the best way.
92 Blur – Think Tank (2003)
Blur’s only album of the decade, and if it’s the last thing they ever record it will serve as a footnote that at least rounds off their recording career in a more dignified and interesting way than the wretchedly self-indulgent 13 could manage. Frankly, Coxon wasn’t really missed – the “ethnic” angle might have been overplayed at the time, but the stripped-back nature of the record makes it one of Blur’s most interesting.
91 Dave Tyack – Rip Van Winkle (2002)
A curious but utterly charming record, this. Tyack was briefly a stalwart of the Twisted Nerve record label run by Badly Drawn Boy and Andy Votel. In the early 2000s he played in his own Dakota Oak Trio, plus Misty Dixon and other projects. The Twisted Nerve website at one point described him as a “genius whose attention to detail was non-existent”. This mini-album presents a suite of ‘music for Rip Van Winkle’, mostly soft and warm electronic, and the final track presents Malcolm Mooney reading an abridged version of Washington Irving’s short story over the same music, complementing it brilliantly with his soft American tones. As charming a record as has been released all decade. Tyack himself vanished while on holiday in Corsica not long after it was recorded, and was later found, after two years of uncertainty, to have fallen to his death while walking on a mountain. Although at the time of its release Tyack was known only to be missing, Rip Van Winkle turned out to have been issued posthumously.