10: Lucky Soul – A Coming of Age (2010) and Hard Lines (2017)
Inevitably, I have a few records mentally filed in the category of albums I would have put on the 2000s list if only I’d heard them in time. Lucky Soul’s debut album The Great Unwanted (2007) is probably foremost among them (alongside Secret Eyes by Cloetta Paris, also from 2007 – I discovered both in the ‘tenth birthday’ indie disco at Indietracks in 2016, and unfortunately Cloetta Paris can’t appear on this list as it turned out to be their only album, and now irritatingly hard to get hold of). Lucky Soul offered well-crafted songs, presented in a broadly-based soul tradition, that managed to sound classic without sounding derivative – a deft achievement for songwriter Andrew Laidlaw. Second album A Coming of Age picked up where its predecessor left off, if anything offering a slightly more focused and punchy version of the same formula. A follow-up finally emerged in 2017, but with a markedly altered sound, presenting a take on disco every bit as coherent as the previous take on soul, and still recognisably the same band – not least with Ali Howard’s tremendous vocals. You could tell it had been a long time in the making – it is full of finely honed detail, perhaps to the point that some of the tracks feel a little like 12-inch edits, and a few more radio versions like the successful cut of No Ti Amo in the video below wouldn’t have gone amiss. Even so, I can’t choose between which of these two very different records should feature on the list, so I’m going to make an exception and put them both on together.
I was so impressed by Lucky Soul that I approached Andrew for an interview, and you can hear him discussing the whole span of the band’s career on this edition of my radio show from 2017.
9: Kyle Craft – Full Circle Nightmare (2018)
I seem to have a liking for songwriters who try to fit slightly too many words in, and make their songs hard for anyone else to sing – from John Prine and MJ Hibbett to Elvis Costello and, now, Kyle Craft. This album is chock full of… well, it’s just chock full. Kyle Craft must use more turns of phrase and striking imagery in a single song than a lot of people go through on an album – it’s amazing he doesn’t run dry of material. Musically, the songs are slung together in a traditional, organic band sound, with horns popping up whenever needed. For some reviewers this approach was overly conservative, but for me the loose and easy swagger of the backing – deceptive of course, as it’s consistently well played – fits the songs perfectly. Curiously enough, Kyle’s next album proved to be rather tighter and more honed, both musically and thematically, but for my taste it didn’t match the appeal of Full Circle Nightmare’s unselfconscious, flamboyant sprawl.
8: Jenny Lewis – The Voyager (2014)
Wow, what a record. It’s funny that when I first saw Rilo Kiley I felt a bit let down, on the basis that their performance was rather more MOR than their indie-sounding album (More Adventurous) of the day, yet subsequently I enjoyed the band even more precisely because they leaned into their MOR tendency so hard. Jenny Lewis’s solo career toured through folk and gospel-inspired territory for her first two albums, to excellent effect, but it’s the undeniably MOR-ish The Voyager that proved her biggest triumph. Produced by Ryan Adams and benefiting from some really excellent songwriting, it ended up being a record I listened to a lot over the second half of the decade. Its follow-up, 2019’s On The Line, was more piano-led than guitar-led, and while strong didn’t quite match The Voyager – realistically, no follow-up was going to. I caught Jenny Lewis live in London last year, for a triumphant set at Koko that was exactly the sort of back catalogue showcase gigs you want, with extensive cuts from all three solo records, and unexpected dips into the Rilo Kiley catalogue – Portions For Foxes, from More Adventurous, was an undeniable treat this time round.
7: Tennis – Yours Conditionally (2017)
To the extent that my tastes have changed over the last twenty years or so – not a very great extent, it’s probably fair to say – it’s that I’ve come to attach much more importance to the overall sound and feel of music, and less to the lyrics. This was possibly my favourite album of 2017, and while the lyrics are fine they’re not the album’s chief strength. Rather, the warm and hazy production, Alaina Moore’s attractive vocals and Patrick Riley’s crafted guitar parts are totally what sells it. It was a step into an almost deliberately more lo-fi sound for the duo, after an increasingly tight and polished-sounding trio of albums, but for all the production on Yours Conditionally was less bright and of-the-moment, it was exquisitely judged. I’ve yet to get bored of listening to this record.
6: Laura Cantrell – No Way Home From Here (2013)
Laura had a few quiet years, musically speaking, in the second half of the 2000s as she looked after her young daughter, but by 2011 she was back in the UK promoting Kitty Wells Dresses, her album of songs by, obviously, Kitty Wells. When No Way Home From Here was released in 2013, it was her first album of original material since Humming By The Flowered Vine in 2005 – a record I never really got to grips with at the time, and which a re-listen more recently confirmed as perhaps over-complicated and obscure, as Laura Cantrell records go. No such problems with No Way Home, however: Laura’s songs (and song selections) typically have a clarity at first glance, with nuance that reveals itself on further listens – much like her voice in fact, which gets ever stronger and more confident. It all added up to a hugely satisfying and attractive record, ranging from the sunny to the downbeat, but always rewarding.
5: Neko Case – The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You (2013)
In some ways this felt like the record Neko had been building up to for the previous decade and a half. It was a relatively long time in the making, and when it emerged showcased her most furious and powerful songwriting, and vocals. A complex and gripping record.
4: Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold (2019)
I’m still pinching myself slightly that they came back. The reunion of Sleater-Kinney, plus new album and world tour in 2015, seemed to come out of nowhere but had in fact obviously been well planned out. No Cities To Love was a convincing update and continuation of where they had left off, again working with regular producer John Goodmanson – it was so reassuring that the comeback album was a worthwhile new chapter in the band’s development, and so good in its own right. In many ways it was their third bottom-end album, adding to One Beat and The Woods, making a trio of albums that stand more convincingly apart from the band’s treble-y first five albums for having a third added. But it seemed even better that they would be working with St Vincent for the follow-up – really, I’ve always relished the albums made with ‘guest’ producers (The Hot Rock and The Woods) in particular. Aaaand of course the sting in the tail was Janet’s departure just before the album’s release. That’s been picked over elsewhere, but when I finally heard the album I could see why Janet felt less involved: there are certainly moments where she gets to strut her stuff, but the production takes the band into territory that somehow manages to be both more mainstream and in some ways more interesting than their past beat. Perhaps what I mean is that very often this album presents Sleater-Kinney’s most four-square, direct songwriting – or, perhaps, it’s the presentation of the songs themselves that is newly direct compared to how it was in the past. It remains to be seen exactly how the new chapter for the band, without Janet, will play out – their UK dates next year are an exciting prospect. But this album on its own stands as a mighty achievement.
3: Robert Ellis – Robert Ellis (2016)
I don’t know why, but there are some artist where I only really get on with every other album. Robert Ellis, massive talent though he undeniably is, seems to be one of them. This album’s successor and immediate predecessor are both firmly shaded, to my ears anyway, by his self-titled outing, which has emotionally acute songs, a well-judged but still shiny production on top of a coherent sound from his long-term band, plus strong tunes and vocals. It seems to be another of those country divorce albums that work so well – fortunately for the listener, unfortunately for the artist.
2: Ex Hex – It’s Real (2019)
Sometimes I just wanna hang out with Mary Timony. She just seems awesome. After her time in Wild Flag, she was back within a couple of years helming power trio Ex Hex – though that’s to understate the contribution of Betsy Wright and Laura Harris. Certainly by the time of this second album Mary was less clearly the lead singer (and indeed, when playing live they were no longer a three piece, with Betsy on guitar and vocals, her bass-duties back-filled by a Sleeperbloke who wisely doesn’t say anything on-stage). But the change was stylistic too: where debut album Rips had a new wave influence running through it, It’s Real is more expansive, heavy and strutting. Its hooks, riffs and harmonies combine to irresistible effect: for the straightforward joy of listening to it, little beats this album – it’s not as immediate as its predecessor, but once you get into it the reward is immense. Lyrically it’s a bit Noel Gallagher in places, but it doesn’t matter in the slightest when it sounds this good.
1: Shrag – Canines (2012)
There are quite a few bands on this list who followed the classic three-albums-and-out trajectory. With Allo Darlin’ it was a pretty warm and happy exit; perhaps a bit less so for Shrag. There’s no doubt the ‘Art’ in Sussex Heights Roving Art Group was important to what the band did, with Helen King’s literate and emotional lyrics delivered in half-song, half-speech, and an agreeably noisy clatter from the rest of the band, not least Bob Brown’s central guitar parts. The whole thing was more carefully arranged than their early noisy squall might tempt one to think, and by their third album they had developed a sophistication worthy of a fuller production job – with Andy Miller, producer of the sole album by Life Without Buildings (totally non-coincidentally another arty, angular band with half-spoken lyrics, and number 34 on last decade’s list). The suggestion that it was ‘Shrag going melodic’ wasn’t really true apart from on the title track and possibly closer Jane With Dumbells, but it certainly stands as their best work. But watching them promote it to a half-empty room in a pub in east London on a Saturday afternoon, I realised they weren’t going to cross over any further than they already had (barely at all), and they launched 2013 with a kick in the nads by announcing their imminent split live on 6 Music during a session with Marc Riley. Their final show was marvellous though, and frankly a reunion is overdue. Come back guys, we miss you!