20 Murry the Hump – Songs of Ignorance (2001)
Ah, Murry the Hump. They could have been the Welsh Bluetones – and I mean that in a very good way. The ground for jangly guitar indie was not fertile in 2001, and MTH didn’t get any further than being Peel and possibly Evening Session favourites (they did a split single with Hefner, fact fans). The songs were deeply tuneful tales of smoking weed in the Welsh Valleys, and occasionally getting laid. Thrown Like A Stone, The House That Used To Be A Ship, Cracking Up… these should be remembered as indie classics… No justice, eh? I returned to this record in a big way in 2009 and enjoyed it even more than I did at the time (when I bought it on gorgeous thick white vinyl – curiously featuring a track running order totally different to that on the CD). What a shame they didn’t include EP track (and eventual B-side) Kebab or Shag. I remember discovering a new student friend had also bought their Colouring Book EP in 1999, and enjoying playing the singles on student radio when they were released in 2001 – cracking. The band re-emerged as The Keys in 2003, and are apparently still going, but sounding alternately more twangy and more noisy. If you prefer a quirky indie jangle, look no further than this record.
19 Fleet Foxes – Fleet Foxes (2008)
There’s not much folk or roots type music on this list: while I like a good bit of twangy country music, acoustic folky type stuff is too often over-earnest and lacking in tunes for my liking. Fleet Foxes’ triumphant achievement is to marry those rootsy sensibilities and traditions with an overpowering sense of melody; the gorgeous four-part harmonies simply deliver the knock-out blow. It can be hard to judge recent records without having much perspective on them in terms of time elapsed; but it seems uncontroversial to have this record high on the list.
18 The New Pornographers – Electric Version (2003)
The New Pornographers are somewhat open to the charge that they just make the same record over and over again; but even if you go along with that critique, you’d have to admit their saving grace is that it’s a very very good record. In fact, it’s a slightly unfair accusation. The band is built around main songwriter AC Newman, with a few contributions per album from Dan Bejar and maybe Neko Case. Newman’s songs are in some ways perfect pop… but very convoluted pop, taking all sorts of unconventional melodic twists and turns. Debut record Mass Romantic grew out of some side-projectesque larking about, and presented Newman’s songs with a dense, aggressive musical backing. By the end of the decade, and their fourth album, the sound had become more mid-paced and clattery, with all sorts of more acousticy instruments thrown into the mix. For my money, their best outing was their sophomore effort, which took the template of the first album and gave it extra pace and sheen: the hook-filled melodies and Beach Boys harmonies really came to life with an urgency that seemed to get a bit lost on subsequent records. Newman himself has also put out a couple of solo albums, on which the songs are recognisable and the backing subtly different. You can credibly start with any of these albums for an idea of what he and the band are about; but Electric Version has a bit of an edge in my view.
17 Doves – Last Broadcast (2002)
Who would have predicted that a band like Doves would emerge from Sub Sub? Although they are a grand and melancholy indie three-piece, perhaps the jump isn’t quite so stark. Doves are, after all, a band whose music inspires feeling more than thought; it is emotionally epic, without necessarily offering the most incisive lyrics. Another key trait is that the band seem to use the studio like another instrument; there is always interesting stuff going on if you want to listen out for it. The Last Broadcast showcases the best of all of this, with riff-laden and anthemic songs like Pounding and Words that seem even stronger now than they did at the time. At the time, of course, the uplifting There Goes The Fear was clearly the centrepiece of the album. But overall it’s maybe unfair to single out individual tracks; The Last Broadcast undeniably works across its full length, and remains probably the definitive Doves album.
16 The Pipettes – We Are The Pipettes (2006)
The Pipettes were one of the first bands I discovered after I moved to London, in a support slot for Quasi in April 2005. To me, their unabashed project to harness the strengths of the classic girl group sound, for no other reason than that it’s Bloody Good and has never stopped being Bloody Good, was utterly irresistible. And what’s more, they did a bloody good job of it: Pull Shapes, Why did You Stay?, Tell Me What You Want, It’s Not Love (But It’s Still A Feeling), and many more, were all joyously brilliant pop songs – there are no pretensions to anything other than good times and girl harmonies here. The album duly delivered in 2006, capturing the band’s sound perfectly, and taking them to headline slots at very respectable sizes of venue like Koko and the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. And then it all fell apart, with line-up changes and false starts to the next chapter in the group’s story. The line-up that briefly emerged in autumn 2008 had a battery of excellent new songs, perhaps moving on slightly from the 50s and 60s to the 70s and 80s, and impressively so – nothing would have disappointed more than a plain repeat of the first album. But more turmoil ensued, and it looks like it will be four years from the release of We Are The Pipettes until its follow-up hits the shelves. But I’m looking forward to that record, and still enjoy this one – win-win, really.
15 The Broken Family Band – Balls (2006)
I first encountered the BFB as a support act for Chris T-T at a small gig in the Champion of the Thames in Cambridge, in earlier 2003. Only when they played a storming set at that year’s Strawberry Fair did I realise that’s who it had been. From then on, they became the live act I’ve seen more than any other bar MJ Hibbett (I think). The last of these occasions came in October 2009, after they had announced their imminent split. They are therefore a band that to alarge extent defines my musical listening over the decade, and their demise represented the death of another link with my time as a student. As you might infer, they were a tremendous live proposition, thanks not only to utterly committed playing from all band members, but also to Steve Adams’ sardonic, comic and often grotesquely rude onstage presence; undoubtedly he is one of the best frontmen of any British band of recent years. And also one of the best songwriters – while it’s hard to pin down any central theme to the BFB’s songs, ups and downs of relationships are prominently in there, and unpicked in a brutal and often unexpected way. Then again, drugs, robots and religion seemed to keep cropping up as well. Initially the band were known for a rough alt-country schtick, but they eventually evolved a sound that was superficially more of a straight indie-rock effort… but it was still unmistakably the Broken Family Band. This album, their third (coming in a run of three albums and two mini-albums from 2002 to 2007, before a final LP in 2009), catches them on the cusp of the transition, with the superb opening trio of You’re Like A Woman, It’s All Over and I See How You Are straying a long way from the world of country. The Americana returns elsewhere on the record, not least in the hilariously bile-filled (but ultimately slightly misogynistic) ballad Alone In the Make-Out Room, a duet with Piney Gir. Other BFB records tended to be a mix of superb songs and Merely Very Good ones (and don’t get me wrong – these are Very Good Songs of the type that most bands would kill for), but every cut on here is absolutely top-drawer. If you only buy one Broken Family Band record, make it this one. But really you should buy them all.
14 MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Regardez, Ecoutez et Repetez (2009)
Hm, where to start with this? I reviewed this record more extensively than I do with most when it was released, and have probably written at greater length about it than any of the others on this list. So I’m going to cheat and refer you to that review. Well, I reckon that’s at least regardez-ing and repetez-ing, innit?
13 Immaculate Machine – Ones and Zeros (2005)
One of the best examples of finding a favourite band through a support slot: Immaculate Machine were the support act for the New Pornographers’ first ever show in London, in 2005 – Dan Paton and I both thoroughly enjoyed their set, despite not knowing any of the songs or anything about the band. They were at this point a three-piece, comprised of drums, guitar and keyboards (also supplying basslines), with all three on vocals – though principally the songs were led either by guitarist Brooke or keyboardist Kathryn. The energetic, clattery and tuneful set reproduced, it turned out, the band’s albums to that point. Subsequent album Fables presented a tighter, more concise sound, and perhaps slightly less interesting; by 2009, the line-up had changed at least once into a more conventional five-piece, and at the time of writing still seemed to be somewhat in flux. Still, Ones and Zeros stands as probably the most compelling record from the band – top-quality songs played with fabulous skill and conviction, it’s another one of those pesky albums from Canada that nobody in this country seems to know about.
12 Amy Winehouse – Back to Black (2006)
The distasteful circus that Amy Winehouse’s life became in 2007 and 2008 shouldn’t be allowed to detract from the achievement that this record represents. Half its strength lies in its production, for which Mark Ronson perhaps deserves all the credit, but the songs are devastatingly well-written, and perfectly suit Ronson’s treatment of them in producing an old-fashioned no-nonsense soul record. The fact that the love triangle detailed in its lyrics eventually resolved itself with Amy marrying and divorcing the ‘ex’ figure here perhaps robs the record of a bit of its sharpness… But it shouldn’t. And Amy did, after all, tell us she was trouble… This is one of the few records that manages to live up to the hype borne of its critical acclaim, its commercial success and of course its extra-curricular promotion by its author in the tabloids. The trouble is that even a singer in good shape would struggle to top this; Back to Black may well stand as the high-water mark of Amy Winehouse’s creativity. But let’s hope not – if she can develop further from this record, imagine how good the next album could be.
11 Half Man Half Biscuit – Trouble Over Bridgwater (2000)
Although they re-formed in the ’90s, this was the decade in which Half Man Half Biscuit finally seemed to find their feet, thanks to the internet. From playing the smaller student union venues in the late ’90s, they graduated to the likes of the Manchester Academy and Shepherds Bush Empire by the mid-2000s. This was the first of four excellent albums, any of which would have dignified this list with their presence. I’ve chosen this in preference to the others partly because it was the album that got me into HMHB, and partly for the bouncy chorus consisting purely of the line “I’ve been in a mental hospital” over and over again, which to me still represents unparallelled genius.