70 Super Furry Animals – Mwng (2000)
This was the Super Furries’ last project before they got their hands on a bigger recording budget. The results, 2001’s Rings Around the World, was lovely in places and produced some great singles, but overall lacked focus. Mwng in fact was the superior record, with lo-fi and folk-ish arrangements a bit reminiscent of Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, and the band’s usual knack for a tune. I’ve no idea whether the lyrics were any good or not, but it really doesn’t matter.
69 Gossip – Standing in the Way of Control (2006)
Did I ever tell you about the time I saved the Ladyfest Tour 2001 from disaster? Oh, I did? Well, the bit of the story I often miss out is that I still didn’t get to see the Gossip that evening – indeed, it wasn’t until early 2007 that I finally saw them live, in a much bigger venue, after the success of their Standing in the Way of Control album. The band had been on quite a journey since then, moving on from shouty punky garage to something more funky and more soulful – whether you prefer the earlier or later Gossip is a matter of taste, but I’m with the latter. The biggest shift seems to have arisen from a decent drummer joining the line-up… Beth Ditto is prone to making ‘statements’ that tend not to need making, and the follow-up album was something of a re-tread, but never mind – it was still great to see the band getting some well-deserved and long-awaited recognition with this record.
68 Calexico – Carried to Dust (2008)
Calexico’s first album, hot Rail, came out in 2000 and since then they have carved a pretty recognisable niche for themselves, mixing country music with Tex-Mex and mariachi stylings. It’s almost a shame their sound is so distinctive, as it is easy to overlook just how good the songwriting is too. Each album seems to have seen them grow in confidence, and pretty much any of them would sit credibly on this list. Carried to Dust is the most recent record, and therefore probably the best refinement yet of their sound; it was a characteristically long record, and a return to the dusty western sounds after a slightly heavier and more rock-driven outing with 2006’s Garden Ruin. Much as it would be nice to see them taking further interesting detours, we’d have no cause for complaint if Calexico stick around and produce a few more records along similar lines – they’re pretty much guaranteed to be excellent.
67 Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers (2007)
I should probably own more Laura Veirs albums than I do, but at least this situation has the virtue of making it an easy choice over which to include on the list. I’m not sure I’d use the words ‘pretty’ and ‘compelling’ to describe the same record very often, but it’s a combination of adjectives that fits well here. Veirs perhaps started out in acoustic, slightly roots-y territory, but established a more rounded sound with this record, which is consistently lovely and well-written. A follow-up is on the way for 2010, and I’m looking forward to it.
66 The Raveonettes – Pretty In Black (2005)
You only really need one Raveonettes album in your collection, and it should probably be this one. All their songs, apparently come in under two and a half minutes, and all are in the same key. If this sounds limiting, it kind of is; but it doesn’t alter the basics: top ’50s tunes, twangy guitars, tons of reverb and girl harmonies. Can’t go wrong. Until they added sheets of distortion on top of the same formula for 2007’s disastrous Lust Lust Lust, but like I said – you only need the one Raveonettes album.
65 The Frightened Prisoners of the Kraken – Man Car Plane (2001)
The first time I met MJ Hibbett he was playing a gig in the Heaton Chapel area of Stockport, supporting this band – who were just superb. But also very hard to describe. They had the sort of northern clubland humour that underpinned Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights, but tied to something a lot seedier. They had a conventional band line-up, plus horns, and the songs were often built around analogue synth riffs. Utterly tremendous, and genuinely unique – I remember playing opening song Turquoise Hope On A Liquid Splendid (sic) on my student radio show, and someone took the trouble to email in to comment on my ‘strange’ taste in music. The songs were occasionally surreal, often funny and above all, I think, wry. Actually, this is deeply frustrating – I’m not sure any of that even gets close to describing them. Wonderful though a follow-up album would be, it has long seemed unlikely: from what I can gather, one of the band members died some time early in the decade, and there was a big family-related falling-out between two of the brothers in the band, one of whom was the singer. Latest reports were that some bridges have been mended and the band may get going again… I do hope so.
64 Blue Roses – Blue Roses (2009)
I normally find acoustic singer-songwriters interesting only up to a point: there’s only so much strumming or picking I can take before I lose interest, however pretty. This album, the debut from Laura Groves, stands out, however: not only are the tunes more ambitious than is often the case on records of this type, but the instrumentation is layered up in captivating and powerful arrangements. The overall effect is quite compelling: while some singers seem to give it a go because they can as much as anything else, Groves evidently knows very clearly what she’s doing and why. An arresting record by any standards, and all the more remarkable for a debut.
63 Elvis Costello and the Imposters – The Delivery Man (2004)
This is a really excellent record that seemed under threat of being defeated by the weird and confusing PR that surrounded it. As the first album credited to Costello with the Imposters (= the Attractions with a different bassist), it invited a lot of comparisons to the back catalogue; its recording in the American South and pedal steel trappings apparently put it in Almost Blue territory. Unless you actually listened to it, in which case the dense and noisy playing of Blood and Chocolate or Brutal Youth seemed a much better comparison point; on tour meanwhile, it was material from My Aim Is True that seemed to be picked to sit alongside it. All very odd, but the album itself was top notch. Ostensibly it was a song cycle telling the story of a handful of characters, although this element rather seemed to fade, the final few songs not including it. Probably Costello’s best rock album of the decade, although both 2002’s When I Was Cruel and 2008’s Momofuku were welcome returns to singing noisy pop songs as well.
62 Black Box Recorder – The Facts of Life (2000)
I had to check whether this came out in 2000 or 1999, but it just qualifies for this list. Luke Haynes has always struck me as not being as smart as he thinks he is; the line on Englishness he usually peddles was somewhat muted here, but re-emerged in this album’s deeply disappointing sequel Passionoia, and in his subsequent work. Another flaw of Passionoia was that it all sounded too cold, from the synthesised beats to Sarah Nixey’s overly-mannered vocals, yet it’s hard to pin down why it failed then but works so successfully on this record. Maybe it’s just that the tunes are better; maybe it’s the more successful lyrical territory of innocence slipping away, first kisses and romanticised criminality. It may or may not be the only Luke Haynes album you’ll ever need; it’s certainly the only one I’m interested in owning.
61 Steve Earle – Jerusalem (2002)
Here was the intelligent musical response to 9/11, with Steve Earle trying to see all sides in the clash between America and Islam and largely succeeding. How far he had come from his earlier days as the ‘next Springsteen’, or later days in the grips of heroin addiction; this and its sequel, The Revolution Starts Now, will stand for years as collections of songs that mark out Earle as a great political songwriter, but also as fascinating documents of peculiar and troubling times. This album might come to look increasingly odd as it recedes into the past – I certainly hope it doesn’t come to look increasingly prescient – but it’s a great set of songs if you’re able to see beyond the date-stamping topicality.