50 The Coral – The Coral (2002)
I’ve a feeling I once spurned a chance to see this band’s first gig under the name The Coral, in favour of seeing… something else, can’t remember what now. In fact I never ended up seeing them live, and am not really sure if they’re still going. That’s not bad research: it’s because I don’t really care. From 2003, The Coral became an incredibly boring band, with bland arrangements exposing their crass and rubbish lyrics that made me think maybe Cast weren’t all that bad. What a shame this often seems to be the great weakness of Liverudlian bands. Still, this shouldn’t be allowed to obscure what a brilliant album their debut effort was: clattery and ramshackle, with everything including numerous kitchen sinks thrown at it, it was a charming and infectious album. The song Thinking of You was widely regarded as an indie classic for a few years afterwards; I suspect that now, as far as most people are concerned, it’s in the category of song you’ve not heard for ages but are really glad to hear should it ever come on the radio. But there was more to the album than that, and producer Ian Broudie’s decision to rein in the harmonies, jangly guitars and demented key arrangements for subsequent material robbed the band of much of their charm. Still, it’s recorded for posterity on this record.
49 Piney Gir – Peakahokahoo (2004) and Hold Yer Horses (2006)
Piney Gir is an American singer, based in London. I first encountered her providing additional vocals to the Broken Family Band’s 2006 album Balls, but by that stage she had already released her first album, Peakahokahoo. It is a record that does not for a moment suggest a country and western singer, even though with the BFB she seemed the definitive example of such a being; rather, it is an electro-pop album, and a bloody good one. Piney herself had by this point put together her own Country Roadshow, and with them was playing a solo set of country originals, including bold adaptations of some of her electro material. The 2006 album Hold Yer Horses showcased that side to her music: they are both so good, yet so different, that I’ve cheated and included both rather than trying to separate them out. Unfortunately, some of the re-worked material from Peakahokahoo seemed to squeeze out some of Piney’s live favourites with the Country Roadshow, which as far as I know have still yet to be released. Still, that’s a niggle. A follow-up album eventually emerged in the form of 2009’s The Yearling… which was a bit of a mish-mash of Americana, electronica and pop, and didn’t really convince at any of those things, despite having some lovely songs on it. Still, you could do much worse than track down this fascinating pair of records.
48 The Long Blondes – Someone to Drive You Home (2006)
When Andrew Collins reviewed The Long Blondes’ second album, 2008’s Couples, he contrasted it to their debut by saying that, unlike the earlier album, it had some tunes. To this day, I suspect he had in fact not heard the first album before, and had somehow for the two mixed up when preparing for the review. The follow-up was heralded by the single Century in which the band took an unexpected electronic direction; the rest of the album, however, was a more traditional guitar album, but a rather thin, scratchy and self-absorbed one. The next and final chapter in the band’s story was deeply sad – guitarist Dorian Cox suffered a stroke and the band dissolved when it became clear he would not be able to play again for the foreseeable future. Skip back three years and I first encountered the Long Blondes supporting Sleater-Kinney at a secret gig at the Barfly; they were rubbish. Later, I thought I’d just misjudged them on the basis that I didn’t know the songs; but when they wheeled out the old “favourites” (ie B-sides and early EP tracks) in the encore of a gig promoting the first album, they were indeed a big let-down after they’d played the album. Because – and this is where I’ve been getting to – Someone to Drive You Home is tremendous. Perhaps the fact that Cox wrote most of the lyrics that Kate Jackson sings adds a certain dark, close to pornographic, edge. Musically it’s very early-80s, with lots of scratchy and jangly guitar, but without the crap amps that make so many of those early indie records sound rubbish now. Jackson herself sings powerfully and with conviction throughout, and established herself as a charismatic and sexy frontwoman. The production is more subtle and less straigtforward than it first seems – Steve Mackay arguably presided over a more consistent album in this than any of Pulp’s. Perhaps this was really the only record the Long Blondes ever really needed to make; they certainly couldn’t follow it up convincingly, and however sad their end was, we at least have this record to remember them by.
47 Gillian Welch – Time the Revelator (2001)
This is an uncompromising record, and all the better for it. It features only Welch, David Rawlings and their respective guitars, plus some lovely warm reverb. It therefore has a purity and consistency that its successor, 2003’s Soul Journey, lacked. It showcases classic-sounding songs that command the attention, and plenty of old-time American ambience. Despite its quietness and slowness, I can spend a lot of time listening to this record and maintain my focus on it – quite an achievement.
46 Lambchop – Is A Woman (2002) and Nixon (2000)
This is another cheat, as with the Piney albums, but I think it’s a justified one: Lambchop’s first two albums of the decade were very different beasts, but both excellent, so rather than trying to choose between the two I’m going to put them both in the list. Nixon was a lush and soulful record, while Is A Woman was sparse, restrained and at times obscure. Both are underpinned by Kurt Wagner’s descriptive lyrics, at times acutely observed and at times wonderfully figurative, and of course his captivating delivery, gruff yet clear and measured. Lambchop released some more good records during the decade, but none was quite so fascinating as either of these.
45 Thomas Tantrum – Thomas Tantrum (2008)
When I first encountered Thomas Tantrum on Marc Riley’s 6Music show, I instantly thought of Life Without Buildings, purely on the basis that both bands feature lead singers that sound like rather annoyed little girls. In fact even this comparison is unfair: LWB offered essentially spoken word stream-of-consciousness, while the Tantrum’s songs are actually more like, well, proper songs. Musically, LWB were arty, while Thomas Tantrum are pure angular indie; even if you ignore Megan’s breathless vocals for a moment, there’s plenty of interest to be had in the twisty guitar lines. Overall, a better comparison might be Kenickie: not because they sound similar, but because although at first glance they sound like throwaway shouty grrrlpop fun, in truth there is a lot more going on. These are proper songs, and bloody good ones – the second half of the album in particular offers some introspective and claustrophobic lyrics. Combine that with the enjoyably noisy music, and you’ve got an album I’ve listened to more than most on this list. I’ll be fascinated to see where Thomas Tantrum go from here.
44 Le Tigre – This Island (2004)
Le Tigre will probably always be best remembered for their debut album, but it came out in 1999 and so isn’t eligible for this list. Its follow-up, 2001’s Feminist Sweepstakes, was a startling drop in form – feminist ranting has its place, but it really needs some tunes to go with it, and the band seemed to have left those out. So I very nearly didn’t bother with This Island – can’t remember what changed my mind now, in fact – but it would have been a mistake. With this album, Le Tigre produced the politically-charged but classy pop terrorism they had always threatened. Iraq and the 2004 Presidential election fired up many American artists to good effect – Steve Earle was one, Kathleen Hanna was another – and while that may now date the record a bit, it’s still comfortably Le Tigre’s greatest achievement.
43 Paul Burch – Fool for Love (2003)
Paul Burch is a country singer, and someone who got me into the genre. Burch is the real thing: you won’t find him doing smoothly-produced soft-rock with the vaguest twang, but you will find him in the less salubrious honky-tonks of Nashville, or immersed in historical accounts of American folk traditions. Fool for Love was his fifth album, released in the UK on the ever-reliable Shoeshine records, and recorded without his usual backing band the WPA Ballclub. In truth any of those five albums could sit happily on this list (barring that the first two were released in the late ’90s); this is top-quality songwriting and the wary listener shouldn’t be put off by the genre. In some respects you could happily call it lo-fi indie. But I particularly like this album and its predecessor-but-one Blue Notes because they have a lot of heart and feeling. Its successor, 2006’s East to West, was rather too smoothly produced (under Mark Knopfler’s influence, I infer), while its more authentic-sounding follow-up, 2009’s Still Your Man, was just a bit dull. It almost seems as if domestic happiness has blunted Burch’s songwriting edge a bit. Still, never mind: he’s never less than enjoyable live and I hope he comes to the UK again soon; in the meantime, there are riches to be found in his back catalogue.
42 Badly-Drawn Boy – The Hour of the Bewilderbeast (2000)
I was initiated into the cult of Badly Drawn Boy by my early gig-going companion Jim, who soon referred to him as Badders. I followed, and the nickname now persists among several people who’ve never met Jim, but at least one of whom has met Badders himself. Harsh though it might seem, this album has probably been diminished by Badders’ seeming inability to recaptue his mojo over the rest of the decade. The About A Boy soundtrack was a worthwhile side-step, while Have You Fed The Fish was perhaps a bit smoothly-produced and arguably had a running order that masked its quality somewhat, but was still a creditable album. By 2003, Badders was promising to head back to his roots, producing the new album in Stockport with long-time collaborator Andy Votel. Yet for some reason, One Plus One Is One seemed not to work: its arrangements seemed lifeless compared to the live renditions of the songs either by Damon solo or on the subsequent tour; lyrically, they seemed a bit suspect at times too. By 2006, Born In The UK seemed like a rather pointless record of sometimes interesting music but almost uniformly terrible lyrics; the domestic happiness that blossomed for Damon around the time of Bewilderbeast seemed to rob him of his creativity a few years down the line, and he appears to have been in an indecisive limbo ever since. His live form also suffered: his long shows at the start of the decade were undeniably joyous, but by the time I saw him in 2007 the set seemed to be a plodding parody of former glories. In that context, The Hour of the Bewilderbeast has suffered a bit: it’s now harder to overlook that the lyrics are often twee and verging on the banal. But the tunes and the arrangements have held up extremely well; the record has an open and warm sound that Damon has struggled to replicate since, and Once Around the Block – admittedly a song from 1999, really – is for my money one of the best-arranged recordings ever to be made in the UK. But the very strengths of this album have dogged Badders: all he has done since has been judged against almost impossible standards, and found wanting.
41 The Maccabees – Wall of Arms (2009)
My blog review from earlier in the year. This is a record with a lot of listens in it – it has established itself on my MP3 player as the thing I listen to when I can’t decide what else to listen to. Comparisons to Arcade Fire without all the strings would be obvious. It’s played pretty hard and straight by a superficially conventional guitar-band line-up of sounds, but for all that, it has a real sense if driving purpose. I was actually surprised to learn, after listening to it for the first time, that it was produced by Markus Dravs, the man who presided over the disappointment of Arcade Fire’s curiously muted and muffled-sounding Neon Bible. I’ve also been grappling with the curious cover to this record: I think I’ve concluded it’s a good cover, but not for this album, which seems to me to demand artwork more abstract and dense if it’s to fit the music. Overall, though, it’s an impressive outing from a band I’d previously lumped in with all those boring white male guitar bands whose names I get mixed up. Their Glastonbury set strongly suggested it’s a big step on from their debut, whose material sounded pretty uninteresting by comparison.