30 Calexico / Iron and Wine – In The Reins (2005)
Arguably this short album is the highlight of the careers to date of both sides of the collaboration: Sam Beam’s subtle and evocative lyrics and unerring melodies are backed up by Calexico with a wonderful sureness of touch. High-calibre songwriting; anyone with doubts about the alt-country tag could do a lot worse than start here. A real thoroughbred record.
29 Laura Cantrell – Not the Tremblin’ Kind (2000)
John Peel’s championing of this record was one of the things that ultimately interested me in country music during the first few years of the decade. Its great asset is Cantrell’s delightfully clear, controlled and sweet voice, not to mention good taste – she selected here, as on her subsequent two albums, a set of classy songs, mostly ballads, played with minimal fuss but still some lovely arrangements. To me, it’s more or less the quintessential country record; Somewhere, Some Night is certainly the textbook explanation of how to use a pedal steel guitar on a record. If you have your doubts about country music, start here.
28 Alfie – Crying at Teatime (2005)
Back in 2000, five bands suddenly seemed to emerge from Manchester: Badly-Drawn Boy, Doves, Elbow, I Am Kloot and Alfie. Somehow Alfie, despite being a former BDB backing band like Doves, seemed to turn into the runt of the litter. Their initial output of plinky, folksy and scruffily twee indie somehow didn’t engage the critics in the same enduring way as the arguably more heavyweight – in different ways – material of the others. Which was a heck of a shame: after a first album that collated their initial EPs, and a debut proper in much the same vein, Alfie’s next two albums took an interesting turn. 2003’s Do You Imagine Things took on seventies influences, both pub and prog rock in places, while 2005’s Crying At Teatime was the real deal: n fully rounded-out, utterly lovely Alfie record, giving a wonky and endearing look at the world and its weird ways. It was a record with buckets of charm, and I was really struck by how well it stood up when I returned to it four years later. A fabulously shambolic and endearing set at the Scala in the autumn of 2005 seemed to confirm the band’s genius, but the fact that the venue was half-empty should have told me there was trouble on the way. The band announced their split shortly afterwards, mainly on the basis that nobody was especially interested – criminal.
27 Tender Trap – Film Molecules (2002)
Among the fanzine circles I inhabited in the late 1990s, just in time to see them before the internet rendered them extinct, Amelia Fletcher was still revered as a goddess. She had made a return with Marine Research – essentially Heavenly with DJ Downfall taking the place of her late brother Matthew on drums – and their smashing album Sounds from the Gulf Stream. Late one night in 2000, DJ Downfall began downloading one of my brother’s MP3s on Napster, and in the ensuing chat revealed that relationship trouble between the couples in the band meant they had split. La Fletcher returned in 2002, with Tallulah Gosh / Heavenly / Marine Research survivor Rob Pursey and DJ Downfall. The trio embraced technology as a way of adapting to reduced numbers, and the loops and samples used to create Film Molecules, along with some moments of more traditional guitar indie such as O Katrina, mark it out as possibly the best and most creative record from this particular stable. I’m not sure if it’s because my tolerance for twee has diminished in my 20s, but I’ve been less convinced by subsequent offerings from Tender Trap: 2006’s 6 Billion People was much more conventionally-recorded, and less interesting for it, while an expanded five (or six? I was drunk when I saw them, sorry) piece line-up seemed to be ploughing an already well-ploughed furrow to me. Still, it would be churlish to accuse Amelia Fletcher of being in any sense the emperor’s new clothes – you can’t deny the affection in which she’s held by (the now middle-aged sections of) the world of indie.
26 Hefner – We Love The City (2000)
Probably the definitive Hefner album; Darren Hayman’s songwriting seemed to strike a rich vein of form with these city-inspired tales of the sordid and sublime, while the dabs of orchestration gave it both colour and character. Hefner’s Maida Vale session for the Peel show was surely among the finest live sets he broadcast – check out the album of it that emerged in 2006 under the title Maida Vale for proof. Would it be going too far to suggest We Love The City represents the best and truest example of genuine indie? Probably the best and truest on this list, anyway. Its sequel Dead Media took such an unexpected and different direction for Hefner that both albums warrant inclusion on this list.
25 Super Furry Animals – Hey Venus! (2007)
It’s been quite a decade for the Super Furries, and amid all the clamour to proclaim Radiohead the ‘band of the decade’, Gruff Rhys should perhaps get a nod both for being incredibly prolific and for the range of projects he has successfully pulled off, both solo and as half of Neon Neon. Among SFA albums, there is a lot of choice, but for the best overall it’s surely between this and 2003’s Phantom Power. Some of their output is long-winded and self-indulgent, and for all their good ideas and tunes, 2001’s Rings Around the World, 2005’s Love Kraft and 2009’s Dark Days / Light Years don’t hold my attention across their full length. The NME’s choice of Ring Around the World as the pick of the bunch is especially mystifying; the best explanation I can come up with is a young set of writers feeling nostalgia for their teens. Hey Venus, however, is the perfect Super Furries album: it doesn’t try to do anything too clever, but just dumps tune after tune, whimsy after whimsy, in a ruthlessly controlled and measured way. There’s no flab on this album, which is what I like about it, but there’s a richness to it at the same time that most bands can never deliver.
24 I Am Kloot – Gods and Monsters (2005)
When I did my final student radio show before graduating, a few people emailed in asking if I was going to play records by certain bands. Nobody said Elvis Costello or Sleater-Kinney, oddly, but a couple of people did as about I Am Kloot. I’d first encountered them at the same rainy D:Percussion festival in 2000 where I first saw Elbow, and championed them somewhat during my time on student radio. By the time I left in 2003, they were about to release their second album, and student stations had copies several months in advance (so I did play them on that show, of course). My pick of their four studio albums is the third, although any would be credible: what I particularly like about Gods and Monsters is the roughness of the recording, which captures the edge of menace that Kloot often put across in their consistently excellent live shows. Their debut album, produced by Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Craig Potter, seemed a bit muted in that regard – their fifth will have the same production team, so it will be interesting to see how that turns out. Albums two and four were rather more smoothly produced, and I very nearly put 2008’s Play Moulah Rouge on the list… But you’ve got to make a choice eventually, and if someone wanted to know what I Am Kloot are about, I’d tell them to listen to Gods and Monsters.
23 Sylvie Lewis – Tangos and Tantrums (2004)
Sylvie Lewis – daughter of newsreader Martyn, fact fans – put out a couple of smashing albums around the middle of the decade; nobody took much notice and last time I looked it was all quiet on the Sylvie front. Her PR portrayed her as a chanteuse in the best continental style, and deservedly so: both albums showcase her utterly beautiful and accomplished voice – it’s clear Sylvie is a singer who thinks hard about how she is going to sing a song, and knows how to get the best out of it. She also proved on both albums – this and 2007’s Translations – that she is a brilliant songwriter, capturing all shades of romance with a delightful finesse. This collection perhaps has the slight edge as far as I’m concerned because it contains slightly more of my personal favourites, not least All His Exes and Promises of Paris – I might be wrong, but Sylvie seems to write on both piano and guitar, and I prefer the piano compositions (if that’s what they are) slightly. I very much hope there is more music to come from Sylvie Lewis over the next decade.
22 Neko Case – The Tigers have Spoken (2004)
I’ve really struggled to pick a single Neko Case record to include here. Over the course of the decade she has taken a journey from country balladry into country noir, and out the other side, into something rather more pastoral and optimistic. This album of live recordings, however, catches her more rollicking live form, taking in her own songs and numerous covers; as an overview of Case’s music it’s probably as good as you’ll get (if only someone would release her amazing Maida Vale live set for John Peel in 2000 – I’ve still got my home-taped recording of that, and it was truly astounding). Neko has established herself as one of the most distinctive and impressive voices – both literally and figuratively – in North American music, and no record collection can be taken entirely seriously without at least one of her albums.
21 Morrissey – Morrissey, You Are The Quarry (2004)
By the time Morrissey released this album, he had gone for longer without releasing any new material than he had spent in the Smiths. It’s hard to forget now that it was a bit of a surprise he was releasing another record at all; his career really did look becalmed. But what a triumph the return was. Morrissey albums always seem to contain a mix of blindingly good songs and somewhat lesser ones, but this collection is probably the closest he’s got to an album that’s consistent all the way through. Among its highlights, however, were songs that instantly took their places alongside the highlights of his solo career to date, particularly Irish Blood, English Heart and First of the Gang To Die – I still remember being amazed that Irish Blood, in particular, heralded Moz’s comeback with such a confident, hard-edged and contemporary sound; it could, after all, have turned out to be embarrassing. He was still a bit prone to going on about the court case, but never mind; the whole comeback, both album and live shows, was done with such aplomb that you have to feel a bit sorry for him being denied number one in either the single or albums charts.