80 The Futureheads – The Futureheads (2004)
Sometimes there’s nothing wrong with being a bit one-dimensional, provided it’s a good dimension. The Futureheads are a case in point: their angular guitar Gang of Four schtick doesn’t really stand much embellishment or development, but it’s enjoyable. At first they seemed a more edgy Franz Ferdinand (however lame that band now looks, one can’t help but think their ascent opened the way for some more interesting bands to come to prominence); latterly, Maximo Park seemed a more accessible poppy version of the Futureheads. Both comparisons are probably very unfair. But no matter: the Futureheads’ debut remains their essential record; 2006’s News and Tributes tenatively tried tempering the formula here and there, and was probably less consistently enjoyable as a result; 2008’s This Is Not The World went back to a full-blooded and ever-more-noisy attack. I’m not sure I need a fourth Futureheads album in my life, but I’ll always have a soft spot for their first.
79 Ryan Adams – Demolition (2002)
I struggled for a long time to like Ryan Adams: he was a darling of the music press in the first half of the decade, but came across as a bit obnoxious and over-hyped. In fairness, I probably didn’t really get country music at the time he got rave reviews for his debut post-Whiskeytown album, Heartbreaker. Even so, I ultimately came to prefer this album to the more delicate Heartbreaker: it rocks harder, but it can also do the delicate stuff. And I can certainly now see why Adams’ aching songs of heartbreak and loss found such favour; he’s not really the saviour of country music or anything like that, but he probably deserved the acclaim he got more than I realised at the time.
78 Chris T-T – The 253 (2001)
Half-way through this decade, Chris T-T looked like establishing himself as one of the pre-eminent English singer-songwriters, but somehow after he ‘turned professional’ in 2003 it didn’t quite happen – which is not to say he hasn’t continued producing a lot of good stuff. His first few albums were low-fi indie, showcasing dry humour, whimsy, righteous outrage and strong political views. With 2005’s 9 Red Songs he produced a striking acoustic set of political songs, before in 2007 Capital took the politics into louder, angrier and more dense territory. That album was the third part of a ‘London Trilogy’ (though T-T had by this point moved to Brighton). My favourite of his albums, however, was the first leg of this: The 253 found T-T still in full indie mode, and contains many of his most charming songs such as The English Earth and Build A Bridge, Burn A Bridge. I remember playing those songs on student radio, when an American listener happened to have chanced on the station via the internet; he was very taken with them, but had to email in several times to discover the name of the artist because either my accent or my diction was unfathomable to him. Overall, though, I feared at one point that T-T’s moment might have passed, with a thin crowd at his Luminaire show to promote Capital being a bit of a surprise and his more strident political views being a bit hard to stomach (for me, anyway). But he’s got two or three new albums due out in 2010, and the snippets I’ve heard live recently show Chris is still writing high-quality, surprising songs that demand your attention. I hope they bring him the recognition that he’s long deserved.
77 Old Crow Medicine Show – Big Iron World (2006)
A bluegrass sextet with true punk spirit. I encountered them supporting Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (with the latter, an early champion and producer, performing in the line-up) in Manchester in 2004, and I was due to see them again on July 21st 2005, when the failed terror attacks in London succeeded in disrupting the transport system enough to thwart me. I finally saw them again in 2008, when, standing in a line along the stage and holding acoustic instruments, they drove the crowd at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire into an appreciative frenzy – amazing stuff. The music is delivered raw and uncompromising: it’s about hedonism, excess, narcotics and gambling as much as it’s about the more conventional Americana subject matter of travelling across the plains, being an honest working man and all that. You could credibly start with any of their records, but after a perhaps slightly too homely-sounding debut, this was the first to get the kick into the sound that they manage to put into their live performances.
76 Magnet – On Your Side (2003)
A rich singer-songwriter record from Even Johansen, under his admittedly rather rubbish Magnet alias. I bought this in December and associate it with train journeys across cold winter landscapes bathed in low yellow sunlight. It’s shot through with yearning and melancholy, and verges on the soaring at times – am I alone in detecting a slight similarity between his voice and Matt Bellamy’s? Yet the follow-up album, 2005’s The Tourniquet, was uninteresting and overblown and I’ve not heard of Johansen since. Pity.
75 Beirut – Gulag Orkestar (2006)
Classic example of a band where I only like one album: after this, Beirut went down a more conventional-sounding route, succumbing to the lure of synths and drum machines as the decade drew to a close in a maelstrom of 80s revivalism. Also at the end of he decade, Mumford and Sons ripped off the sound of this album shamelessly: it’s a curious blend of eastern European folk melodies, with lots of trumpets and backing vocals. It really sounds like nothing else on this list; admittedly the trademark sound of the ensemble is so strong that the songs start to sound pretty similar, but over one album that doesn’t matter too much.
74 The Knife – Silent Shout (2006)
A rare bit of electronica for this list. Somehow this seems to have a warmth and a drama that other electronic music lacks – perhaps it’s the vocals somehow.
73 Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
Ah, Kid A – the point after which Radiohead’s musical development stopped taking radical strides. It’s ironic that, having spent so long trying to come up with a sequel to OK Computer that sounded nothing like it, that Radiohead have essentially been mining the same musical seam ever since, to mixed effect. I seem to be in a minority in thinking Hail to the Thief was, bar a few higlights, rather poor; and Amnesiac was self-indulgent toss in its second half – which rather diminishes Kid A, given their origins at the same sessions. That said, I also seem to be alone in thinking Knives Out is one of the best things Radiohead ever did. Anyway – In Rainbows eventually restored my faith in the band after an early-decade wobble, but Kid A remains as the grandaddy of them all. For all its musical inventiveness, however, there’s no escaping the limited quality of some of the songwriting, which is probably why I’ve got it lower on my list than a lot of other compilers no doubt will.
72 Hot Chip – The Warning (2006)
I’ve not seen Hot Chip play live since 2002: at the time they were still a Cambridge student band, featured Dan Paton on drums and were playing the now long-closed Boat Race. Ironically the current line-up features two alumni of my old Cambridge college rather than Dan’s, who I never knew at the time although I remember them working the bar one evening and playing some great funk records while they did. Hot Chip’s story really got interesting after all of that however, as they emerged as a disco/electro band that was instrumental in making that type of music fashionable again, and that still had the warmth of ‘proper’ instruments and DIY recording to stop the records sounding clinical and sterile. Third album Made in the Dark was over-long, but at its best when venturing into soul and chillout territory; The Warning stands as probably their most consistent album overall to date, but there’s undoubtedly much more to come from this band over the coming years.
71 Ron Sexsmith – Retriever (2004)
I’d heard of Sexsmith before, but first heard him properly when this album was played on loop between bands at a John Prine gig at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire in late 2005 – still less than a year after I’d moved to London and the first time I’d ever been there, I think. I was really struck by the song Imaginary Friends, which seemed to do a Morrissey-esque miserablism with a country edge, like a cross between Moz and Paul Burch. I succeeded in googling it the following day, and acquired this album soon after. Sexsmith has been championed by Elvis Costello, and as a songwriter is not too far off; but the thing that really marks the two out is that while Costello takes pains never to repeat himself, Sexsmith tends to make the same record over and over again. That is, brilliant songs, perhaps slightly – but only slightly – too smoothly produced, by Mitchell Froom in this case. 2006’s Time Being was also lovely, but a carbon copy of Retriever. Still – you need a Ron Sexsmith record in your collection, and you could do a lot worse than make it this one.