Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 40-31

Video playlist for albums 40-31.

40: Johnny Marr – Adrenalin Baby (2015)

I read an interview with Johnny Marr around the time this live album was announced in which he spoke of how keen he was to release a document of his band’s live work, touring his two solo albums released immediately before this (The Messenger in 2013, Playland in 2014). Those two records had found Marr on impressive form, deploying his characteristic guitar style on two driving, insistent sets of songs of a higher quality than many had realised he was capable of on his own, myself included. But if there’s one thing that should be obvious about Johnny Marr it’s that his judgement about his music is very good – consequently, he was totally right about a live album being a good idea. As well as showcasing the recent albums, his live set revisits numbers by Electronic and, most welcome, The Smiths – not only performed much better than Morrissey’s lumpen backing band manages now, but also happily shorn of the racist connotations now so indelibly attached to their original singer. The call and response climax to There Is A Light That Never Goes Out with the Manchester audience is a triumph.

39: Bearsuit – The Phantom Forest (2011)

Bands come and go. And sometimes they come back again. When Bearsuit came back for a number of reunion shows late in the decade, largely associated with Fortuna Pop, it was with the ‘classic’ line-up that had more or less been around for their first three albums. Their fourth and final record had involved a bit of a change though, with remaining members Lisa, Ian and Jan augmented by a new rhythm section of Charlene Katuwawala on bass and Joe Naylor on drums. The outcome was something altogether tighter, funkier and leaning towards the electronic compared to the more earlier ‘endearing indie shambles’ (a style, to be clear, of which Bearsuit were perhaps the finest proponents). The resulting album was presented as a concept piece: an offbeat fantasy about a set of characters thrown together when they survive a train crash in, well, the Phantom Forest. And frankly, this was the version of Bearsuit that did it for me – very much a matter of taste, but I got into this much more heavily than the band’s previous stuff. Though I was perhaps in a minority there. Anyway, although it managed to be both a coherent record end-to-end and a big heap of pop fun at the same time, The Phantom Forest didn’t signal an enduring new era for Bearsuit, with Ian, Jan and Lisa transforming into Mega Emotion, and Charlene and Joe moving on to other projects. And much as I was glad to catch the re-formed classic line-up at Indietracks (with Lisa, startlingly, playing while literally nine months pregnant) and their final ever (probably) show at the Fortuna Pop farewell weekender, I was a little sad that the later era of the band ended up being politely ignored, however understandable it might have been.

38: Grandaddy – Last Place (2017)

It’s hard to discuss Grandaddy’s comeback record without jumping first to the death of their bassist Kevin Garcia aged 41 shortly after it was released, curtailing what had been an extremely welcome reunion in the most tragic way. The album itself however surely stands as the best of their career bar only The Sophtware Slump, with Jason Lytle’s rich melancholia in full flow, and the band’s chugging rock deployed as infectiously as it ever was.

37: Stealing Sheep – Big Wows (2019)

I hope Stealing Sheep film one of their concerts while they’re touring this album, as it seems to me that the live show exists as an equal half of a pair with the record. Musically, it’s a wry indie take on the tuneful synthpop sound du jour, and its playfulness is matched by the stage show. Uniformed outfits, whether catsuits or ponchos, and a clutch of simple but effective stage moves make it an eccentric, fun but well developed show – there’s more than a bit of a Flaming Lips or Super Furries sensibility to it, even if musically the similarity isn’t so strong. The record and live show together add up to a highly satisfying experience, and I want to know what they do next.

36: Tender Trap – Dansette, Dansette (2010) and The Catenary Wires – Red Red Skies (2019)

I seem to have been saying all decade that Amelia Fletcher is writing the best songs of her career, and it’s true. And quite a decade it’s been: Amelia and Rob Pursey began it in Tender Trap, their jangly indie guitar band that continues a recognisable line of descent from Tallulah Gosh onwards. The band’s third and fourth albums, Dansette, Dansette and Ten Songs About Girls offered fully-formed, classic-sounding songs, both melodically and lyrically. Mid-decade a personal and musical shift saw them leaving London and the plugged-in band format, creating the sparse and acoustic outfit The Catenary Wires. The songs took a melancholic and even at times dark turn – or at least, emotionally stark. Their debut mini-album Red Red Skies was followed in 2019 by Til the Morning, an album made once again with something more like a full band line-up, though still built around an acoustic sound. On top of that, in 2014 Amelia was given an OBE in for her services to indiepop, though there seemed to be a mix-up with the citation, which focused on her sideline as an economist for some reason. There’s hardly anything to choose between these records, so given the contrast in sound between the two bands I’m including two on the list, though could equally well have crowbar-ed all four in; but as they are so closely related, I’m putting them together as one entry.

35: Jeffrey Lewis – Manhattan (2015)

The ever-wonderful Jeff Lewis is firmly in the category of someone who keeps getting better, so I’m plumping for his most recent album for the list (and he’s also in the list of songwriters I like who often seem to put slightly too many words in their songs so that nobody else can sing them). Though this is only Jeff’s latest album in the sense of ‘proper’ studio albums – there are many additional albums with his live band in between, primarily made for selling on tour. Manhattan has possibly the most ‘produced’ feel of any Jeffrey Lewis album to date, though – it’s by no means overly smooth, but has a well considered sound that sets off the songs nicely. The loose theme of the title runs through the record rather agreeably too, with a song about one of Jeff’s school days contemporary Scowling Crackhead Ian, and the Sad Screaming Old Man living in his building.

34: St Vincent – St Vincent (2014)

You could tell Annie Clark had just come off the back of working with David Byrne when she released this album. She spoke in interviews of realising that there was something to be said for making music people could dance to, and the finely honed pop she presented on this record certainly achieved that. The visual presentation of the songs, on video and in live performance, also has the sort of simple yet sideways dynamic that Byrne excels at. Her second album Actor is definitely one of the records I’d have included in my last top 100 if only I’d heard it at the time – curiously though, it’s only her even-numbered albums I seem to get on with, as both Strange Mercy (2011) and Masseduction (2017) were a bit obtuse for my taste.

33: The Crimea – Square Moon (2013)

Large parts of this record have roots stretching back into the last decade. When I compiled my last Top 100, the Crimea’s debut album, Tragedy Rocks, was very high on the list, but I worried that the band’s moment might have passed. Davey MacManus popped up in the comments with a link to a download of the band’s newly completed third album, Listen To The Seashells, They Know Everything. Somehow, that never emerged into a full release, and the bulk of it made up the first disc of this double album, released as the band’s swansong. Happily, the pop tunes of the first album were back in force, and it makes for a hugely listenable bunch of songs. A final gig at Camden’s Jazz Club was the kind of sad-but-joyous last show you want from a band.

32: Ultrasound – Play For Today (2012)

It seemed like an unlikely comeback at first – after all, Ultrasound had only been with us long enough to record one album and then fall apart. But their comeback record is an absolute belter, and much more like what everyone was expecting their much-hyped debut to be. When I saw them in 2018, it was notable that it was this record, not their first or third and most recent, that formed the backbone of the setlist. It’s the Ultrasound record you always wanted.

31: Withered Hand – New Gods (2014)

Dan Wilson aka Withered Hand was another early-decade Indietracks discovery who I ended up seeing live, and listening to, a lot. This album, his second, is in many ways a flip-side to his debut, Good News – and not just the near-reversal of the title. Where the first record had an acoustic sound, and its songs grappled with Dan’s upbringing as a Jehovah’s Witness, New Gods has a full, live band sound, and its songs are more upbeat, confident and worldly. The two work together as a fascinating pair. I wonder where next for Withered Hand, though – when I saw him this year at Indietracks, for the first time in a while, he presented essentially the same set as when I’d last seen him, with highlights of the two albums. It was hugely enjoyable to revisit them, but I’m curious to see what new material from Dan will be like, whenever it emerges.

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