10 The Crimea – Tragedy Rocks (2004)
This album was released in two different versions: the first, in 2004, was home recorded (to a high standard) and self-released by the band; the 2005 version was a major label effort, with half a dozen of the same songs. This only tells half the story of the complications around this band and album. Some of the tracks on it were first performed by predecessor outfit The Crocketts (who I saw by chance at Leeds festival in 2001 and perhaps unfairly dismissed as shouty rubbish); singles Lottery Winners on Acid, White Russian Galaxy and Baby Boom were released in 2002-3, and the middle of those was released for the third time (I think – I lost track a bit) in 2005. Overall, the band spent a massive amount of time flogging this record, to very little effect. Which was indeed a tragedy: in both editions, it is crammed with brilliant pop songs, quirky and memorable lyrics from Davey MacManus and straightforward but brilliantly effective playing. It’s easily one of the best indie pop albums of the decade, and if its lack of success at the time was sad, the band’s fortunes subsequently were deeply so. Follow-up album Secrets of the Witching Hour was released online for free, but it simply didn’t have the tunes, and if the band hoped to make money from gigs, their attendances seemed to be dropping off. Myspace evidence suggests Macmanus’s mental condition is deteriorating; assuming it’s not a purely cynical schtick, his “problems” seem to be going beyond the point of artistic usefulness. A new album was reported to be in the can at the time of writing – much as I’d love it to be a brilliant record that catapults the band to well-deserved success, it doesn’t look likely. Tragedy Rocks looks like proving to be a brief glimpse of what might have been – if you don’t own it, track it down.
9 M Ward – Transistor Radio (2005)
M Ward is one of a few artists on this list whose music has been on a journey during the decade, but was at its best at the turning-point from one style to another. Earlier records were acoustic in style, driven by Ward’s finger-picking guitar; latterly a slightly broader production pallette and the same laconic Americana have made for an intermittently enjoyable combination. But in 2005 Ward struck a brilliant balance of mid-twentieth century American musical styles, with some brilliantly simple (and at times a bit similar) pop tunes, rounded out by some brilliantly warm, fluid and twangy guitar. Almost the only album of American music you’ll ever need.
8 Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
This is perhaps an obvious choice, but it’s one of the few albums that married critical success with good sales, while at the same time being good as far as I’m concerned too. I was aware of it very early on thanks to Dan Paton, who was recommended it on import in a shop in 2004 (hence I’m counting its 2004 North American release for a date, not its 2005 UK issue); the following spring, we saw the band’s first show outside North America. In that sense, it soundtracked my move to London, both in terms of listening to it on numerous train journeys between Manchester and London, and with that gig representing the sort of opportunity that’s available in London and nowhere else in the UK. As for the album itself, is there much more to say? The band wrung great music from grief to tremendous effect – it seems to be one of those albums that could only have been made by exactly those people at that time, as the mixed nature of follow-up Neon Bible seemed to demonstrate (its good reviews were mostly really reviews of this record by journalists who were slow to catch on first time round). Whether or not the band goes on to greater success, Funeral deserves to be remembered for many years as a truly great record.
7 Elvis Costello and the Metropole Orkest – My Flame Burns Blue (2006)
Costello is one of the few artists whose output is so diverse that I felt I could justify giving him multiple entries in this list. This album in particular is so strong because it showcases much of that diversity in a coherent form on one disc. It’s a live recording of Costello performing with the Metropole Orkest, taking in a range of his older songs, his dabblings with jazz and lounge, plus some less obvious choices from his back catalogue. The whole thing is accessible and vibrant, and is the perfect overview of Costello’s “non-guitar” work. Almost needless to say, this superb record received virtually no attention on its release and sank without trace. Scandalous.
6 Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out of This Country (2006)
Camera Obscura are a band of the noughties and no mistake: the first album emerged in 2000, and new instalments have followed at regular three-year intervals. If the first album seemed to be a good stab at the Belle and Sebastian sound, they developed massively with the next two: 2003’s Underachievers Please Try Harder was full of gorgeous lovelorn ballads, mostly in the best indie tradition but occasionally straying into doo-wop and Leonard Cohen. Its successor is, to my mind, the band’s masterpiece: ten tracks, all flawless. The production is lusher than ever, and for once this really serves the songs: string arrangements are put to just the right use, the songs are upbeat in feel and heartbreaking in detail. Closing track Razzle Dazzle Rose is one of the greatest final tracks to an album I’ve ever heard. The band were reliably excellent live throughout the decade too. Much as 2009’s My Maudlin Career is a gorgeous sounding record, the band’s musical journey seems to have finished, as stylistically it is a retread of Let’s Get Out, which surely stands as one of the great indie albums of the decade.
5 Sleater-Kinney – The Woods (2005)
Sleater-Kinney started the decade apparently threatening to go in ever-decreasing circles: after their outing with Roger Moutenot in 1999’s The Hot Rock, they returned to previous producer John Goodmanson for the more stripped-down All Hands On The Bad One in 2000, rounding off a trilogy of three superb albums in three years. But 2002’s One Beat, much as I enjoyed it, seemed to be the same thing with a few superficial bells and whistles added to the production. What an impressive relief it was, then, that the next album marked a raising of the band’s game and a concerted effort to take the sound to a new place, with Dave Fridmann at the production helm. The record erupted with Janet’s drums more furious than ever and feedback squalling everywhere. Bar the prog segue towards the end it was perfection, and captured the band’s reliable ferocity live. Sleater-Kinney albums always contained a bucket of good songs, but with this they made a truly great album as a whole for the first time. Then they split up. Tsk.
4 Junior Boys – So This Is Goodbye (2006)
Hard to explain my love for this record: techno, electronica, hip-hop and whatever else this might get bracketed with are not usually up my musical street – the hard, clipped and artificial sounds turn me off, and even when that’s not a problem the tunes are lacking. But here is electronic music with warmth and atmosphere: the synth sounds offer a seductive late-night atmosphere, and the songs and vocals are compellingly melancholy. It has become one of the records I keep turning back to when I can’t decide what else to listen to.
3 Frankie Machine – Francis Albert Machine and Friends (2002)
Frankie Machine, aka Rob Fleay, late of White Town and and erstwhile Validators bassist, released three utterly brilliant albums in the first half of the decade; any of them could have sat here credibly. For some reason, the name suggested noisy indie verging on metal to me, so I was utterly blown away by the delicate, acoustic vignettes of heartbreak and misery – in the best possible way. These songs aren’t ballads, they don’t sound much like The Smiths and they’re certainly not folk; rather, Rob has carved out a fabulous niche of acoustic indie. I’d like to hear Rob producing some other acts as well (further to his Validators production duties), as there’s a wealth of great detail on here – lovely arrangements, samples, guest instrumentation, all sorts. I’ve selected the first of the three albums for the list, as it works so well as a unit overall:essentially it’s a sequence of “proper” songs interspersed alternately with shorter, often highly, inventive numbers – it’s brilliant. Follow-up I Love You And I don’t Want You To Die compiles singles, B-sides and tracks from compilations, and works much better as an album than most compilations of this sort usually do; 2004’s Re-Unmelt My Heart was a more expansive effort that also gave me a huge amount of pleasure. Unfortunately for us, Rob seems to have cheered up a lot since then, and a further album is not on the horizon as far as I’m aware. I hope there will be another in the future.
2 Erin McKeown – Grand (2003)
I had owned this record for probably over a year before finding out it was a concept piece about the life of Judy Garland – if I do have a gay side, I suppose it must be deeply buried. Perhaps I was distracted by the comparisons between McKeown and Elvis Costello. In truth they are a bit dubious: musically they are perhaps not that close together, but they do have a couple of things in common; they both write top-quality songs, and both resist the temptation to repeat themselves. Grand was an altogether more lush and varied affair than McKeown’s debut proper, the alt-country-ish Distillation, and 2005’s follow-up We Will Become Like Birds was different again, showcasing a more ‘live’ rock band sound. An album of showtunes followed in 2006, and a (slightly disappointing) live album in 2007, before Erin finally released a new album of original material with 2009’s Hundreds of Lions – sadly it turned out to be disappointingly boring, which is deeply unusual for her. I’m happy to treat it as a blip. It’s hard to say whether Erin is getting appropriate recognition in her native USA for this remarkably diverse and accomplished body of work, but she sure as hell isn’t getting it in the UK. Back on the subject of Grand, I’m not sure I need to say much more: if you’ve waded through the rest of this top 100, you’ll have an idea by now of what I enjoy in a record, and this one has those qualities in abundance. It’s a record of well-crafted songs with great lyrics and great tunes that doesn’t put a foot wrong; while it might take La Garland as its starting-point, in truth it has resonance much beyond this theme, and its war references seemed particularly striking after the invasion of Iraq. In that sense, this is a record that was at ease in its times, but will stand as a great achievement even when separated from this context for decades to come.
1 Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co (2003)
Listening to this record is like taking a bath in warm, dusty melancholy. I’m not normally prone to dubious similes like that. But this record demands it. I’d hesitate to pin the ‘alt-country’ and ‘Americana’ labels on it, as they don’t do it justice; but you could apply both fairly accurately. Jason Molina put together an ensemble for this record that included some of the most melodic and atmospheric pedal steel and fiddle playing you’ll ever hear, along with some guest vocalists to add variety to the songs. They adorn his aching and bittersweet lyrics perfectly, and the result is a perfect set of eight songs. Curiously, I’m much more ambivalent about much of the rest of Molina’s canon: this record came after a period of making more sparse acoustic recordings, and was followed by a period of more chugging aggressive country-rock that lacked the depth and finesse on display here – even though he adopted this record’s title as the new name of his recording and touring band. Magnolia Electric Co finally produced a record of similar dexterity with 2009’s Josephine, although some of the themes and imagery were by now a tad well-worn – I love a song about ghosts and midnight, but you can have too much of a good thing. This 2003 outing remains, for my money, his definitive work, and is one of those records I keep going back to. A perfectly judged record.