60: Emma Pollock – In Search of Harperfield (2016)
What a strong record this is – 2010’s The Law of Large Numbers never clicked for me at all, so the sheer amount of interesting detail on this album was a joy. The strands of authobiography laced through it add both interest and a likeable authenticity.
59: Emmy the Great – Second Love (2016)
Second love, third album. This took a good while to emerge – I remember playing first single Swimming Pool on my radio show at the end of 2014, but the full album only came out in 2016. It was worth the wait, though – for all that there’s quite a well defined ‘sound’ of production-oriented albums this decade, Second Love is one of the very best examples. For some songs, Emmy’s earlier folk-y stylings creep into vision quite pleasingly, but overall it’s a hugely contemporary-sounding record. It will age well because the songs are so good.
58: The School – Wasting Away and Wondering (2015)
I remember the day I first encountered The School. It was the spring of 2010 and the first of (I think) two demonstrations outside Broadcasting House to keep 6 Music and the Asian Network open had happened earlier in the day. A band I’d not heard of before called Allo Darlin’ had done one or two songs with an acoustic guitar, and it had rained quite heavily. By the evening I was at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush, where that band Allo Darlin’ were supporting The School, both bands about to release their debut albums. Allo Darlin’s star quickly ascended, but The School have proved a steady presence on the scene ever since, with Liz Hunt’s 60s girl group-style songs adorned by small-scale orchestral flourishes. Loveless Unbeliever was a strong debut, but one of those records that is almost worse for having a superb single on it, in the form of the wonderful Let It Slip – unfairly, it overshadowed the other songs a bit. Its follow-up was in very much the same vein, and while this third album isn’t exactly a radical departure, there’s something subtly different about it. Maybe here and there the songs are a bit darker, creeping into ‘death disc’ territory at times; even elsewhere, the songs might still be sunny, but they’re fractionally less sugary sweet than in the past. And that turns out to the the perfect balance.
57: Wild Flag – Wild Flag (2011)
It’s interesting listening to this album now, knowing what would follow in terms of both the reunion of Sleater-Kinney and the emergence of Mary Timony’s Ex Hex. It was a joy to see Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss back on-stage together again, and Timony added perhaps a more direct rock edge than Sleater-Kinney ever had (all of which feels a bit unfair on keyboardist Rebecca Coles, who no doubt made a vital contribution but isn’t associated with a bigger act so gets less attention – sorry Rebecca). It was a pleasant surprised to find just how well the record still stands up – I felt at the time that the project could easily have run to a second album, but sadly it wasn’t to be.
56: Iron and Wine – Ghost on Ghost (2013)
It’s been another reliably excellent decade for Sam Beam, with three full Iron and Wine albums and collaborations with Jesca Hoop and Calexico, plus no doubt more stuff I’ve missed out. I’m going for Ghost on Ghost as my favourite pick: the songs are as well crafted as ever, and they’re presented with a mostly warm, live band style of backing – involving, and highly listenable.
55: Lightning Dust – Fantasy (2013)
The 2010s were a decade when a lot of guitar bands put out synth records. And while there were times when it prompted a sigh – “oh, this band is doing this too? OK, I guess…” Lightning Dust’s venture down this road was particularly rewarding. Perhaps there was something about their loosely country-ish melancholy that translated well into the form, enabling the synth backing to carry more emotion than it often can. I dunno. But it’s an absorbing album that holds the interest over its duration.
54: TeenCanteen – Say It All With A Kiss (2016)
OK, I’ll admit to being confused by the title for this record. I’d swear to God that when it was crowdfunded and released to backers it was titled Sister, but subsequently it seemed to be made available under this title. Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. But whatever it’s called, it’s dead good: the songs are of sisterhood and solidarity, as well as your more traditional themes for pop songs, and all hold the attention. The record also stands distinct in subtle ways from Carla J Easton’s solo output (debut album Impossible Stuff, and collaborative project ETTE) – it’s all tuneful and emotionally acute, but there’s a musical punch here that makes it my favourite, presumably the result of the band having a reasonably stable line-up and playing together for a long time. It’s not clear whether there will be any more from TeenCanteen, but it would certainly be nice.
53: Self Esteem – Compliments Please (2019)
This is an album resolutely about modern living and how hard it can be. Not on the outside, but on the inside. Insecurity and self-examination abounds across Compliments Please, and after everything has been dismantled it is more often than not put back together in a more confident, self-affirming shape. Everyone wondering what Rebecca Taylor would do after Slow Club will have heard this and thought: “Ah yes, that’ll be it.” Except it’s even better than I had expected – to be frank, I’m not sure if its pop polish is really good, or just sounds impressive to me because it draws from a load of music that I don’t listen to. But it puts the songs across with a punch, and Rebecca continues to match that in live performance. I hope this is the start of a career that brings her the success she so clearly deserves.
52: The Secret History – Americans Singing In The Dark (2013)
Curious band, The Secret History. A bit like Help Stamp Out Loneliness, their line-up rested on the foundations of an earlier band, and in both cases their eventual split was followed by a reformation of the previous group – in this case, My Favorite. Unfortunately I rather preferred The Secret History, with Lisa Ronson’s vocals and some accomplished jangly guitar work setting off the songs to great effect. This, their second and last album, is one of only a few records on this list where I’d describe the music as dramatic, verging on melodramatic even – there’s certainly a lot of light and shade here. It’s great stuff.
51: Darren Hayman and the Long Parliament – The Violence (2012)
Towards the end of the last decade, Darren Hayman’s solo career was taking a clear shape, with records on well-defined themes, his ongoing commitment to doing things in what he felt was the right way, and an ability to alight on unexpected topics. In the decade since, that career has blossomed into one of the most interesting endeavours in popular music. Darren’s records have often formed accounts of times and places, whether directly through their lyrics or more obliquely, such as on his instrumental album about London’s lidos. It might not be unfair to call him a modern folk chronicler of English life – or some of its more interesting corners, anyway. His recent Thankful Villages project, spanning three albums, live shows, artwork and a Radio 4 documentary, epitomises that most clearly. But it can also be seen in his Trains EP and on January Songs. But he has trodden some historical paths too, with 2015’s Chants for Socialists setting the words of the successful capitalist William Morris to music, and my personal favourite, 2012’s The Violence – the final album in his Essex trilogy. Unlike Pram Town and the Essex Arms (plus companion record The Green and the Grey), it addresses not contemporary Essex, but the Essex of the witch trials and civil war.