1. Caitlin Rose – Own Side Now
Too often a debut album can be over-praised: what is merely a pleasant and promising first offering is hailed as some sort of revolutionary breakthrough. Strictly speaking, Caitlin Rose’s Own Side Now is not her debut – preceding mini-album Dead Roses holds that honour – but nonetheless it is her first full-length release, and demonstrates a fully-formed and total mastery of her chosen form. The form in question is the country ballad in the Parsons / Ronstadt tradition, which Caitlin renders with truth, honesty, and at times brutality. Throughout her remarkable voice – all the more remarkable from coming out of someone who’s only 22 – articulates the soft but often tragic songs beautifully. In some ways, it’s the country equivalent of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black – though I do hope Caitlin doesn’t extend that parallel into her extra-curricular life. Even if you think you don’t like this sort of music, you should at least have a quick listen. And failing that, the stripped-down approach of Dead Flowers – much more obviously appealing to UK music critics, and without which Own Side Now might not have found such favour – might be more to your liking. Own Side now is, however, a flawless record that begs one question: where on Earth can Caitlin Rose go next?
2. I Am Kloot – Sky At Night
It was a great joy for me to see Manchester’s I Am Kloot finally get wider recognition this year. Although they perhaps had to soften their appealingly hard edges in order to do it, the results were much more rewarding than I ever would have expected a lushly-produced Kloot record to be: far from overshadowing the songs, the production was deft and admirably free of cliché, complementing them supremely. Probably the only thing that stopped me putting this at the very top of the list was the inclusion of Proof, a re-tread from the band’s second album considered by many fans to be a lost classic, but considered by me to be Kloot’s most annoying song. It’s a tribute to the rest of the album that it very nearly doesn’t matter at all.
3. Shrag – Life! Death! Prizes!
Band of the year in many ways for me: I’m a bit late to the Shrag party, but deeply enjoyed their shouty whirlwind of a set at Indietracks. Beneath the clattery guitar attack, there’s a sense of melody to Shrag that a lot of shouty indie bands lack (as well as shouting that a lot of melodic indie bands lack). Add to that lyrics that actually stand some scrutiny and thought, and you’ve got a masterly record, albeit one that’s maybe one track too long. Small quibble though – this is one of the records I’ve kept coming back to when I can’t decide what else to listen to this year.
4. Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother?
I feel like I’ve been going on about Kathryn Calder for ages… so much so, in fact, that I somewhat tripped myself up with this record. Via Myspace or free download I’d already heard half of these songs, and I diluted the experience of listening to the album for myself as a result – the record still falls into ‘new songs’ and ‘old songs’ for me. So even now I’m probably underestimating just how good it is. The songs are superb: intimate and deeply personal; melodic and engaging; and never adhering slavishly to convention, with wordless choruses and quiet-loud bits that don’t quite go as you’d expect. I hope Kathryn comes to the UK in support of this record next year and gets a decent PR push at it: it’s a really great album that deserves to be heard more widely. If you’re reading this, you’ve no excuse not to buy it. Seriously. Come back when you’ve ordered it, I don’t mind.
5. The School – Loveless Unbeliever
Perfect pop music, and no autotune in sight. This album seems to have been a long time coming, but as the various EPs leading up to it (and, I gather, containing most of it) totally passed me by, the impact of the album when it arrived wasn’t lost on me. For those unfamiliar with The School, Camera Obscura seem the best reference point, but with a somewhat more upbeat attitude, a more overt quest for the perfect pop form, even if the content remains slight, and a bit more of soul stomp going on in places. At times when listening to this record I think, “hm, do I really need another one of these admittedly enjoyable little pop songs in my ears?” And then beat starts up, the hooks hit home and it turns out that I very much do.
6. Kort – Invariable Heartache
The most ‘muso’ choice on the list? Perhaps. Seeing Kort live, what really took me aback was just how animated Lambchop’s Kurt Wagner (for it is he, in partnership with Nashville songstress Cortney Tidwell) was on-stage, despite generally sitting immobile when playing with Lambchop. On record, this collection of songs is in some way a textbook for students of Nasville country…or at least the good stuff, the proper, emotional, gripping, heartbreaking and dirty Nashville country. What a smashing record.
7. The Like – Release Me
In a comment that continues to mystify me slightly, Dan Paton (whose top 100 – yep, 100! – albums is a much more catholic and adventurous selection than this little effort) once remarked that what he liked about my podcasts was that they mostly consist of me remarking that I hadn’t particularly liked a band or record but, having listened to them some more, now do. I’m not sure that holds very well as a generalisation, but he might have a case with reference to The Like, whose 2006 debut was a decent enough indie record, and certainly better than I gave it credit for at the time, but is totally outclassed by their 2010 comeback. This is probably down to three things: a slight line-up change; a shift in style to a self-conscious girl-group sound (pastiche?), produced by Mark Ronson; and a shift from songs that attempted to be “about stuff” to relatively straightforward and perhaps slightly contrived pop songs. Calculated it may be, but it’s remarkably sure-footed: incredibly tuneful, and with enough substance to bear repeated listens. Though the connection I occasionally make mentally to This Year’s Model-era Attractions is probably just down to the deployment of a similar-sounding organ, the presence of Tennessee Thomas on drums and the fact they once covered You Belong To Me.
8. Tender Trap – Dansette Dansette
Going out on a limb: is this the best record to date of Amelia Fletcher’s career? Certainly it’s the one that I’ve gone back to the most: a slightly echoey but very muscular production, with a nice line in both jangle and twang from the guitars, instantly elevates it above the band’s too-straightforward predecessor, and the songs manage to be direct, affecting and memorable without straying into twee. Well, no further than you’d expect from an Amelia Fletcher record, anyway. Lovely, just lovely.
9. The New Pornographers – Together
The New Pornographers adopted a rather brash and crunchy approach for their fifth album, probably under a bit of an AC/DC influence, abandoning the clatter of predecessor Challengers. Beyond this stylistic shift, it’s unmistakably a New Pornographers record, with AC Newman’s twisty and complex melodies plus oblique lyrics backed up by a more whimsical take on a similar thing from Dan Bejar. I’m not sure they’ve ever recorded a duff song, now I come to think about it; there are certainly none here, which might just be my favourite of theirs since 2003’s Electric Version.
10. The Pipettes – Earth Vs. The Pipettes
Perhaps I’m slightly breaking my own unwritten rules here, but I’m including this record in my top ten partly because, well, not many other people are going to. And somewhat unjustly: The Pipettes could have expected quite a positive ride from the press if they’d come back in 2008 with a re-tread of their 2006 debut. But instead, not only did lineup turmoil delay their return, but they opted to veer off in a new direction – always the kiss of death as far as our mainstream music press is concern. The shift actually bore some pretty engaging fruit, with a take on disco every bit as affectionate and engaging as their previous efforts at the 60s girl group sound. That said, in ways that are hard to pin down, this version of the band doesn’t quite manage to be as enjoyable: perhaps it’s because I simply like 60s girl groups more than I like disco; perhaps it’s because they seem to have excluded the songs that are most like their previous ones, such as live favourite Boo Shuffle; perhaps it’s because a few songs here have verses that are better than the choruses; or perhaps it’s because it just doesn’t have the sense of humour that its predecessor had at times. That said, I defy you to try to claim that Stop the Music, I Vibe U or I Always Planned to Stay – or, indeed, pretty much any of the other tracks here – are not top-notch pop songs. A lovely record, from a band that it’s good still to have around.