30: The Pretenders – Alone / Alive (2017)
When I finally got to see the Pretenders, at the Cambridge Corn Exchange in 2017, it was their first show at that venue since 1994. Chrissie Hynde marked it on-stage by producing a contemporary copy of the NME, with Liam Gallagher on the cover, and effecting a ladrock-style swagger – she was pretty good at it. But she’ll be well in her 80s if she leaves it a similar length of time to play there again, so I was glad to catch the show. Another point in its favour was that it featured the only other remaining original Pretender Martin Chambers on drums, unlike the album, which was recorded with Dan Auerbach in the States. However, Alone is quite possibly as strong an album over its length as Hynde has ever put together, and I’ve included its follow-up ‘bonus CD’ edition here as it’s a really good example of it, presenting live versions of the key tracks on the album plus effectively the greatest hits – as a one-disc overview of the Pretenders, you could do a lot worse.
29: Kathryn Calder – Are You My Mother? (2010)
This is the only time in this list when I’m going to write about work. In 2009 I started a job at the Motor Neurone Disease Association. At around the same time, news emerged that Kathryn Calder was taking a break from playing with her band, Canadian three-piece Immaculate Machine, to care for her mother Lynn, who was living with the disease. Immaculate Machine persisted with a revised line-up and a final album (and it was a shame to see them go – they were tremendous fun, and you’ll find them in my top 100 for the noughties). Meanwhile, Kathryn worked on this record at home, in between caring for her mother.
Skip forward a few years, and at work we were running an awareness campaign fronted by Alistair Banks, a drummer living with MND who aimed to record an album while he was still able to play. I considered flagging Kathryn to my colleagues, knowing that she had lost her mum to MND, but decided against it – I had no idea whether an invitation to get involved would be welcome, plus there was the Atlantic Ocean in the way, and also it wasn’t really my project to meddle with. So I was delighted when I saw her offer her services on backing vocals via Twitter off her own bat, having heard about it independently, and you can hear her on three songs on the record – which is itself rather decent.
Over the last decade, Kathryn has released a total of three solo albums, another as part of the duo Frontperson, and continued to play with the New Pornographers. There’s a film about her first album and the circumstances of its making, called A Matter of Time and unfortunately still not commercially available in the UK as far as I can tell. I’m plumping for the first album to feature here as it was such an assured debut solo statement, often presenting the songs very simply but with such good judgement that it still adds up to a sophisticated and rewarding listen.
28: Lydia Loveless – Indestructible Machine (2011)
Where to begin describing Lydia Loveless? By disposition pretty indie perhaps, but who came to music through a firmly country route, that she has since veered off? They made an entire film about her, which is worth your time. Of her four albums, the second and third are the most successful over their length – I’ve gone for her second as it’s almost constantly furious, and delivers a satisfying back-of-the-head thwack along with Lydia’s superb and ferocious vocals. Follow-up Somewhere Else was also highly successful as an end-to-end album, and more considered in some ways. Fourth album Real was probably more interesting than both, but did slightly sound like an artist taking a step to a new destination but not having got there yet. Whether that journey is continuing or Lydia is heading somewhere else entirely now I don’t know – divorce and relocation to another city have intervened. Either way, I infer from social media that there is a new record on the way, and I can’t wait to hear it. Hopefully she’ll come to the UK for some tour dates soon too – of the relatively few artists on this list I’ve never caught live, Lydia is probably the one of whom I most want to put that right.
27: Piney Gir – Geronimo! (2011)
She never makes the same album twice does Piney, and for her fifth album she hit on a fairly live band sound, redolent of sixties guitar pop. It’s a bright, confident-sounding record and the quality of the songs holds up throughout – definitely my favourite Piney album so far.
26: Slow Club – Paradise (2011)
What a dreadfully talented pair Charles and Rebecca of Slow Club are. The band’s four album career, viewed now, has a fascinating but slightly sad trajectory. Their debut album Yeah So? (2009) has an exuberance that seemed totally natural and to reflect what they must have been like live at that time, as well as some seriously good songs. This more polished and reflective second outing seemed to me to be the most effective pairing of the two as a unit. It’s probably the Slow Club record on which it’s least obvious which writing contributions come from which band member, and they were regularly putting on stonking live sets at the time too. And then somehow things didn’t go to the next level: the follow-up album Complete Surrender had some excellent songs, possibly the band’s best, and didn’t lack for polish. But it maybe took a year too long to get released, and maybe didn’t work as an album rather than a collection of songs – for whatever reason, it didn’t see them cross over any further than they already had. In fact I rather feared that would be it for Slow Club, and was pleasantly surprised when a fourth album, One Day All of This Won’t Matter Any More followed reasonably swiftly. And while it had the quality of songs we’d come to expect, I found I enjoyed it more when I stuck it on shuffle for some reason, and musically it certainly offered more of a clue to Charles’s future direction than Rebecca’s. The documentary that showcases their last tour suggests they maybe did an album too many – or rather, at least one of them thought so.
25: Jessica Lea Mayfield – Sorry Is Gone (2017)
It’s been quite the decade for Jessica Lea Mayfield. I saw her live twice, once in 2011 and once in 2018, both times at the now sadly closed Borderline in London. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen two such different performances from the same artist, still less in the same venue. Back in 2011 she was touring her second album, an intoxicating brew of lust and apparent hinted self-destruction, scaffolded in a rich alt-ish-country musical backing. It was a fun show, if more or less what you’d expect. By 2018, she was touring with one drummer rather than a full band, and instead of her elegant dress and poised performance, Jessica offered an out-and-out comedic set, with a rich and mischievous comic streak barely hinted at the previous time I’d seen her – but the songs still pointedly delivered in between the goofing. Between the two shows had been some dark and testing times, with an abusive marriage and some difficult music borne of it. But 2017’s Sorry Is Gone had seen her emerge in more upbeat territory, the country twang often giving way to something more akin to an indie jangle. I still rate Tell Me as a tremendous record, but Jessica’s rightly outspoken testimony about what was going on in her life now makes it an uncomfortable listen, and certainly rules it out for inclusion on this list; but Sorry Is Gone thoroughly merits its place.
24: The Hidden Cameras – Age (2014)
Another act never to make the same album twice, The Hidden Cameras’ Age sticks in my memory as a relatively dark, hard-edged exploration of their habitual themes. Certainly their next album, 2016’s Home On Native Land, could hardly have been more different, being a foray deep into country music territory. But I’m picking Age for this list as it is so uncompromising – at just eight tracks, it makes every song count, and it surfs different genres while managing to present a coherent sound.
23: Steven James Adams – Old Magick (2016)
Conveniently for this list, the Broken Family Band split up at the end of 2009, so we have a neat decade’s worth of Steve Adam’s solo career to look back on (following his 2005 Singing Adams album). It started with two albums as the band Singing Adams, heading more into the ‘band sound’ territory of the BFB’s final album, with much less of the country influence. I enjoyed Everybody Friends Now a great deal, while its follow-up Moves was undeniably a bit bleak and pessimistic lyrically, though still a strong record. Two albums as Steven James Adams followed, though the first of those, House Music (2014) wasn’t obviously full of the “hey nonny-nonny” folk songs that Adams claimed had prompted him to lose the band. 2016’s Old Magick was a different kettle of fish, though: more acoustic and in places stripped back, with Adams entering extremely reflective territory, about both personal issues and society as it was shaping up in the middle of the decade. Events since then seem to have justified its at times bleak outlook, as well as reinforcing the need for the warmth, humanity and optimism expressed elsewhere on the album. Amid some stiff competition I’d say it’s his strongest musical achievement of a very strong decade. (To complete the narrative, a new album and new band, the French Drops, followed in 2018 – equally coherent, but very much Adam’s most down-the-line rock album to date. Where next?)
22: Polychrome – Polychrome (2018)
I think I need to get into synthwave. My ears have always found electronic music a funny beast: cold and uninteresting at its worst, but sometimes managing to have a warmth and energy that other sounds can’t match. A generation of musicians slightly too young to remember 1980s aesthetics the first time round have seized on them and deployed them to good effect across various genres, and synthwave is perhaps the most pop-like end of it. I say perhaps because there’s no shortage of amusingly pompous articles attempting to define the genre and rule this or that artist in or out of it. Polychrome are self-styled champions, and have handily put together an assortment of playlists and recommendations on their social media channels. Their own debut album hits the mark almost uncannily for me: the synths are warm and enveloping, the bass driving but not hammering, and Vicky Harrison’s vocals hypnotic. It sounds resolutely urban to me, which is totally at odds with having been recorded in a rural retreat-type studio. What does make more sense to me is that Vicky (ex of Victoria and Jacob) and partner in music Oliver Price (of the Bronze Medallists) say they set out to make something that was not overtly ‘song-based’, but more redolent of the chillout phase of a night out clubbing. Given how little that means to me, it’s curious I find this record so appealing, but it just works.
21: Caitlin Rose – Own Side Now (2010)
Caitlin Rose might offer the first of many examples of where I can’t for the life of me remember how I came to find out about her, other than that it was somehow through the internet. But I know it was the year before she put out her debut album Own Side Now, which presents her startlingly strong songs, mostly of heartbreak and regret, against an accomplished but unfussy country-rock backing. Her band in the early 2010s, with which she came to the UK multiple times, featured guitarist Jeremy Fetzer and pedal steel player Spencer Cullum Jr to particularly good effect, and I enjoyed catching her shows, her voice doubly impressive when heard live. It wasn’t alt-country, but it was indie country for sure. The follow-up record, 2013’s The Stand-In, had a much smoother production and new musicians on-board, which in principle I rather welcomed – there’s a fine tradition of lush production in country music, and it’s good to see an artist moving on. But in practice it didn’t flatter the songs, to my ears at least – an EP of alternate versions recorded live with a different backing band brought them alive rather more for me. And then… nothing. Caitlin has an excellent Twitter game and is clearly still performing music, but for whatever reason a further album is yet to emerge. I’m looking forward to it, whenever it comes.