Most years I mean to review albums on here as I go along, but never manage to. So this is the now-traditional end of year scramble. There will be three posts: the second has individual reviews of albums that I think merit it, and the third will round up records I’ve less to say about; but to start with, here are my ten favourite albums. To a hear a track from each one, in order, you can listen to this 8tracks mix.
1. Jessica Lea Mayfield – Tell Me
This is a terribly bland title for an excellent record. My pick for album of the year in 2010 was Caitlin Rose’s Own Side Now, whose songs of heartbreak and misadventure were presented in the style of Gram Parsons and Linda Ronstadt. If Caitlin Rose is the young darling of indie country, Jessica Lea Mayfield is her alt-country counterpart, wrapping her songs in screaming guitars and apocalyptic clanking piano. The songs themselves are bleak, up-front about sex and infidelity and riddled with self-doubt, self-loathing and sleaze. It takes a good few listens to get into it, but it’s a dark, seductive world.
2. Misty’s Big Adventure – The Family Amusement Centre
I had a bit of an epiphany about Misty’s Big Adventure this year when I saw them live for the first time in about three and a half years: what was I doing only seeing a band as good as this at massive intervals? The new album didn’t veer off in any unexpected directions, but it perhaps provided the best realisation of the band’s approach to date: after a couple of lyrically downbeat offerings with 2007’s Funny Times and 2008’s Television’s People, The Family Amusement Centre offers a more balanced outlook. There is a rich vein of melancholy in the album, often coupled with a contemplation of mortality: Queen Betty is one such track, while album closer A Long Line Of People explores the same territory as 2007’s Long Conveyor Belt, but with warm reflection rather than bleak humour. Elsewhere there are upbeat moments, albeit shot through with annoyance at modern life: Mickey Mouse and Aggression fit the bill here. Other highlights are General Confusion, featuring a cameo by Patrick Moore and two of the most consoling, uplifting pop songs I’ve heard in years, Cheer Me Up and Just Another Day. Rather like Madness, Misty’s are musically much stronger than they’re often given credit for: all of the songs here have rich, interesting arrangements with an abundance of lovely detail and seldom any obvious choices. Above all, it’s a record made with great judgement and taste – I hope anyone reading this who hasn’t already will support the band and pick it up, or go to see them when they next get chance.
3. Kathryn Calder – Bright and Vivid
Kathryn Calder’s second album followed quickly on from her first, last year’s Are You My Mother, but it’s a big departure in terms of sound and if anything even more impressive. While her debut presented the songs with straightforward but well-judged and effective arrangements, Bright and Vivid is much more rich and adventurous. On the basis of lead single Who Are You I had feared that it would be a bit over-busy, but in context on the album the track works perfectly. Kathryn’s voice seems to get lovelier with each record, and she delivers the highly personal and emotional songs fabulously. Ultimately, I think what I like about this record is that it is mature, grown-up music for adults: musically strong, emotionally involving. A real achievement – I hope she comes to the UK again to promote the record further, as her European tour last year included the End of the Road festival as its only UK leg; by next year it will be five years since I last saw her play live, as part of Immaculate Machine.
4. Slow Club – Paradise
It’s a bit hard to understand how the endearingly bluff semi-shambles that Slow Club present on-stage can be the same band that produced such a well-judged and honed album as Paradise. There seems no choice other than to conclude that Charles and Rebecca are simply blessed with buckets of talent each and know how to use it to good effect. Paradise isn’t for the most part a happy album, and not unlike the Jessica Lea Mayfield album, I suppose, it draws on young love, failed relationships and romantic misadventures, presenting a picture of raw emotion with consistently memorable tunes. I’m really looking forward to seeing what Slow Club go on to do over the next decade, whether as part of the current duo or in separate careers – there is surely a lot more intriguing music to come from both of them.
5. Help Stamp Out Loneliness – Help Stamp Out Loneliness
How nice to have another great band come out of Manchester. HSOL’s sound at first seems a little dense and cluttered, but after a few listens the songs resolve themselves clearly into slices of top-notch indiepop, all sung with disarming clarity by D Lucille Campbell. Of the ‘current’ crop of indiepop bands, HSOL have established themselves alongside Shrag among my great favourites both live and on record.
6. Herman Dune – Strange Moosic
Herman Dune have apparently undergone something of a re-founding, with the departure of one of the two singer/guitarist brothers and addition of a bassist. The first album of the new era is something of a departure from the band’s back catalogue, which generally involved them going into a studio somewhere in the world and bashing out their latest twelve songs live. Strange Moosic, by contrast, is a relatively produced record, offering a spacious rock-pop sound, perhaps recalling Crosby Stills and Nash. Live they offer a more hard-rocking formula as showcased at Indietracks, though their more delicate side is apparently still on display if you catch them at the right venue. A confident record and a well-judged one.
7. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
Obviously a new HMHB album is going to be in this list. 90 Bisodol (Crimond) is probably their best record, start to finish, for a good long time. It contains no end of quotable lyrics of course, but as well as being funny it’s also extraordinarily dark, with a teenage suicide and delirium-induced necrophilia forming the basis for two of the cuts, not to mention the joke about Dignitas. I will say however that one of my favourites lyrics is in fix It So She Dreams Of Me, about the girl who “rolls her eyes at the Gok Wan acolytes”.
8. Bearsuit – The Phantom Forest
Armed with a new rhythm section, Bearsuit returned in 2011 with a sharper, tighter, funkier sound than anything they’d previously presented. The Phantom Forest is a concept album about a group thrown together when their train crashes in the forest, and perhaps it’s this through-line that gives the album more focus than past outings, which I’ve always found a bit much for one sitting. Not only is this one of those records where every track could be a single, but the first five all got released (all with rather splendid videos as well). New material is apparently on the way, so I hope there will be an equally strong follow-up before too long.
9. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
I ummed and ahhed for a good while over what should take this slot in the top ten – as will be clear from the main reviews post, there were numerous contenders. I went for the Anna Calvi record in the end because it is so well considered as a work overall: true, its singles Desire and Blackout do immediately jump out, but it bears repeated listens all the way through. Calvi’s operatic vocals and distinctive guitar make her hard to pigeonhole: on first seeing her in 2010, supporting Kort, the best I could come up with was kraut-goth-alt-country-noir. I was very glad when the album took her to a Mercury nomination and headlining big venues like the Shepherds Bush Empire, and I will be fascinated to see where she goes next.
10. MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Dinosaur Planet
This album simply had to be on the list: very technically it is released in 2012, but that is a bit of a delay from the original plan, and I’ve been so involved with it for so long that leaving it another year would simply seem wrong. Of course, where to put it in the top ten is a tricky one, as I’m not a dispassionate listener to this: not only did I work with Mark Hibbett on a screenplay version of the album (still available for option!), but I’m actually on the record as part of the dinosaur chorus. So it seemed fair to put it in at number ten rather than try to assert a totally biased case against any of the other contenders. If you’re not aware of Dinosaur Planet (how, exactly?) it’s a concept album about what happens when the dinosaurs return to Earth to invade, featuring songs about dinosaurs, robots, and best practice in academic research. It’s GRATE.