Music

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 10-1

Video playlist for albums 10-1.

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!

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 20-11

Video playlist for albums 20-11.

20: Peach Pyramid – Repeating Myself (2017)


I’m pleased still to be feeling the influence of John Peel in my music discoveries. From his championing of Neko Case I found the New Pornogaphers, and through them Immaculate Machine, the band of their member Kathryn Calder, who has gone on to her own solo career and also to found Oscar St Records. It was this connection that brought Peach Pyramid to my ears – often credited as principally the project of Jen Severtson, but really a three-piece band. Sonically Peach Pyramid are at first sunny and tuneful, with plenty of layered harmony vocals and bright-sounding guitars; but lyrically there is uncertainty, doubt and self-reflection on offer, regularly undercutting the poppy melodies. It’s a rich and enjoyable listen, all the more for not being as sugary as its production sometimes suggests it might be. Would Peel have played it? Well, who knows really – but quite possibly he might.

19: Frankie Machine – Frankie Machine Has Been Shipwrecked on a Desert Island (2015)

The 2010s brought two new albums from Rob Fleay, aka Frankie Machine (and erstwhile Validators bassist), with an accomplished range of musical pals in support. As before, the music was acoustic and at times delicate, and the songs telling emotional vignettes – sometimes overtly but effectively sentimental, and increasingly funny from album to album. Of the two records, this and Squeeze The Life Back In (2011), I’m going for Shipwrecked mainly down to the inclusion of the particularly excellent Shilton’s Fingertips and How Great Thou Art, though there’s quality running throughout both.

18: MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Still Valid (2016)


It’s been a hugely prolific decade for Hibbett, but unlike in the 2000s when a Validators album emerged once every three years, with solo outings in between, his output in the 2010s has straddled scripts for stage, screen and radio, at least one novel, four Edinburgh fringe shows and, oh yes, two albums with the Vlads. The first of those was an adaptation of the two man Edinburgh show / rock opera Dinosaur Planet, and the second was a straight-down-the-line Validators record in a recognisable line of descent from 2006’s We Validate! and 2009’s Regardez, Ecoutez et Repetez. Looking at it now, it found Mark in often reflective mode, with songs like In The North Stand (hankies out for that one), Hills and Hollows and The 1980s How It Was, as well as elsewhere pulling off his rare trick of writing songs that are positive and optimistic without being insufferable (20 Things To Do Before You’re 30, Can We Be Friends?, I Want to Find Out How It Ends, (You Make Me Feel) Soft Rock). New Validators material is apparently in the pipeline, though more likely as a series of EPs in 2020 rather than a full album.

17: James – La Petit Mort (2014)


What I liked about this record is that it sounded like the album James would have made if they’d been given access to 2014-spec production techniques back in the early 90s. It certainly didn’t sound like the record of a band of middle-aged men resting on their laurels, but had a certain urgency to it. In restrospect the of-the-moment production sells is marvellously, as a slightly more orthodox ‘band’ sound was deployed on its two successors, which were good records, but not as exciting as this.

16: Misty’s Big Adventure – The Family Amusement Centre (2011)


I bloody love Misty’s Big Adventure. They’re one of a handful of bands where I’d say if you have a chance to go and see them, you should always take it. The number of those opportunities tailed off a bit in the middle of this decade, perhaps partly because at least one key member of the band was living overseas. This album turned out to be their only full release of the decade, though a follow-up is in the pipeline, and there have been occasional releases of non-proper albums (see their Bandcamp, you’ll get what I mean), and even a best-of this year! It completely delivers as a coherent record, culminating in a closing track, A Long Line of People, that is a more optimistic and positive response to their earlier rumination on life and mortality, The Long Conveyor Belt.

15: Half Man Half Biscuit – No-one Cares About Your Creative Hub So Get Your Fuckin’ Hedge Cut (2018)


The mistake with HMHB is to think they’re a funny band, and it’s a mistake that keeps getting worse. Over the past decade, Nigel Blackwell’s songs have, if anything, gone to ever darker and more obscure places. Yes there’s humour and there are outre cultural references, but as comment and satire, Half Man Half Biscuit songs have become even more pointed and complex. No wonder there’s an entire website dedicated to picking over their meaning. Their most recent album showcases this best, and has both a depth and an edge, if it’s possible to have both at once, that was only hinted at in their records of the 90s and early 2000s.

14: Old Crow Medicine Show – Remedy (2014)


The Old Crow carry on their bandwagon of bluegrass with a punk rock sensibility. This was the middle of their three studio albums over the course of the decade, and certainly the one I’d point you towards as a first choice. The songs range from the tender to the exuberant to the acutely pointed, and setting them all so clearly within a coherent musical tradition is a difficult knack that they make sound natural and easy.

13: Dawn Landes – Bluebird (2014)


It’s a terrible thing about liking country music: when a favourite artist gets divorced, you really look forward to the next album. Country music fans, it follows, are bad people. In truth this was the first of Dawn’s records that I really got to know, having encountered her on a joint headline solo tour with the wonderful Sylvie Lewis, and I only found out it was made in the wake of a divorce after the fact – so it’s not an obvious ‘divorce album’, though some of the melancholic songs, which nonetheless look forward positively, make a certain sense in that light. Either way, this is a record with tremendous depth, both in the songwriting and in how the songs are arranged and presented – while Dawn is most readily described as a country singer, she’s towards the independent and more musically adventurous end of that spectrum, and this record can be enjoyed straightforwardly as an excellent showcase of American songwriting. Re-married and with a daughter, Dawn returned in 2018 with a very down-the-line country collection, and a joyous UK tour – a rather different but still hugely enjoyable proposition.

12: Tigercats – Pig City (2018)


It’s been a journey through the decade for Tigercats, and I bloody love them. I first encountered them in 2010, supporting The School at a Christmas show at the Luminaire in Kilburn – the last time I ever went there, in fact. The obvious comparison point for them might have been Television. The line-up has gradually shifted over the years since, with lead singer Duncan Barrett and his brother (also bassist and ever-more accomplished producer) Giles the only consistent members throughout; Laura Kovic had become a lynchpin of the band by the time debut album Limehouse Nights emerged in 2012, while the addition of Paul Rains, sometime and now ex of Allo Darlin’, was another important change in time for second album Mysteries. They’re one of the bands that never makes the same album twice: Limehouse Nights’ playful, scratchy indie guitaring generated the band’s crowd-pleasers, while the altogether more sophisticated Mysteries managed the rare feat of being a captivating record of entirely mid-paced songs. But when the band took the stage at the Fortuna Pop! farewell weekender in 2017, they debuted a third incarnation: playing a set of almost entirely new material, they emerged as the “kalimba-led psychedelic pop” band their Facebook bio now describes them as, and knocked everyone else playing that weekend into a cocked hat. The album eventually followed in 2018, and deployed the new template across a set of at times ferocious and angry songs, capturing the tumultuous times they were written in. If I have one slight qualm about the record it’s that it does use the same formula throughout (bar the very final track), and maybe a touch more variety could have complemented the new approach – but when it’s such a strong formula, that seems a churlish grumble. Next album as soon as possible, please!

11: The Just Joans – You Might Be Smiling Now (2017)


It’s rare that a band produces a song with a chorus so memorable that you can sing it back flawlessly for days or even weeks after hearing it just once, in a live performance. The Just Joans managed it with If You Don’t Pull, which I first encountered on the first full day of my first Indietracks, back in 2010. Being show-offs, they repeated the trick a few years later with I Only Smoke When I Drink. But that first set at Indietracks marked them out as one of my key discoveries at that festival, and probably the most important to me over the following decade. The next day, attempting to describe them to a friend who’d missed them, I came out with “a cross between MJ Hibbett and Arab Strap”. I worried immediately that the Arab Strap comparison was lazy shorthand for ‘Scottish’, but on reflection I stand by it: there’s a frankness about relationships, particularly in the earlier songs, that definitely recalls Aidan Moffat. Equally, the acutely drawn, observational lyrics come with a level of emotional nuance that recalls Hibbett, and at times belies the Just Joans’ reputation as purveyors of miserable songs: If You Don’t Pull seems to start out as an ode to shagging around, but turns out to be about a desire for a more substantial romantic connection; their defining What Do We Do Now appears to wallow in nostalgia, but ultimately rejects the past in favour of looking to the future; more recently, Who Does Susan Think She Is appears at first to be an almost Half Man Half Biscuit-style piss-taking class rant, but reveals itself in the end to be about the insecurities in a friendship where one friend has moved on in her life; and so on.

Another thing I’ve come to admire about the Just Joans is that David writes songs that nobody else has written, and with pop music now well beyond middle age, that’s a hard thing to do. But I simply can’t think of other songs that explore the same topics as, for instance, Five Beer Bottles or What Do We Do Now? Elsewhere, while Kiss And Break Up might be, obviously enough, a break-up song, there are precious few of those that acknowledge the sadness and the change, but look optimistically ahead at the same time.

Curiously, this record is the Just Joans’ only ‘proper’ album of the decade. That’s a misleading statement in lots of ways: for a number of years, the band’s output was made up of EPs / mini albums on the Wee Pop! label, in limited runs of three-inch CDs, each individually packaged – some of the very best-formatted releases in indie music. The CDs are long sold out, but the EPs are available on Bandcamp, and chart the band’s development from a lo-fi bedroom sound through to really quite rich and confident arrangements (see for instance Are You Dancin’, with its woodwind accompaniment, on the final EP, 6.9 Love Songs). Plus there was 2012’s Buckfast Bottles in the Rain, though as it’s a re-working of the earlier Last Tango In Motherwell, I’ve opted for 2017’s You Might Be Smiling Now for this list instead.

In places, it mines seams familiar from the band’s previous work: a semi-comic tale of obsession with an ex (Big Blue Moon); a semi-comic portrait of a gently ageing lush (I Only Smoke When I Drink); a semi-comic episode of high school pregnancy (“They’ve let down their families / they’ve let down themselves / but I’ve let down no-one / thank fuck I’m a virgin” – Johnny, Have You Come Lately?). But elsewhere it presents those distinctive songs: the creeping realisation of being a generation older on a big night out (“I think I might go home / I feel like someone’s auntie” – No Longer Young Enough), or David urging his partner to step into the limelight, volunteering himself for a supporting role (“I’ve nothing much to offer you / but a Fila top, and a heart that’s true” – Sleeperbloke) – in both cases, I’ve never heard anyone else write those songs.

You can hear my interview with the Just Joans (plus a track from their forthcoming album) on this edition of John Kell Vs Satan, from August 2019. This video of David, Katie and Fraser in the merch tent at Indietracks 2016 got many, many more views than any other video I uploaded from that weekend.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 30-21

Video playlist for albums 30-21.

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.

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.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 50-41

Video playlist for albums 50-41.

50: John Prine – The Tree of Forgiveness (2018)


By 2018 it was time for the decade’s album by John Prine. Thirteen years on from Fair and Square, Prine’s voice is even lower and more gravelly, as showcased particularly well on the comic scat of Crazy Bone. Elsewhere, the album plays a line in deftly-handled sentiment, as on Summer’s End, while on closing track When I Get To Heaven that reflective streak is combined with Prine’s more traditional hell-raising humour. The latter stages of his career have been a lesson in quality over quantity, and I very much hope we get an album from him in the 2020s as well.

49: Hospitality – Hospitality (2012)


Was I drawn to this because the lead single was titled Betty Wang? Well, maybe. But it led to a very excellent debut album – pretty no-nonsense indie, verging on Indiepop. Hospitality could easily have been booked for Indietracks, though to date in fact they never have been. A somewhat tighter follow-up album a couple of years later took the band slightly in the inevitable synth-pop direction, though they didn’t go all that far along it and the end result was still very enjoyable.

48: Basia Bulat – Good Advice (2016)


My Morning Jacket are one of a handful of bands that have taken a direction that hasn’t worked for me, so while I enjoyed their earlier records their more recent stuff hasn’t done much for me (Quasi would be another). But I’ve still been interested to see Jim James popping up as a producer for other people’s stuff, as he did here, with good results – Basia’s songs are presented attractively without competing with them for attention, with enjoyable arrangements that often contain very little guitar but still very firmly have a live band sound. Add in the craft of the songs themselves and Basia’s attractive vocal delivery, and you have possibly my favourite record of 2016.

47: Pixies – Indie Cindy (2014)


Above all it was a relief that the new material from the Pixies, a decade after they got back together, proved to be so good. If Kim Deal was indeed the block on going back in the studio, you’ve got to feel her departure was the right trade-off. The format of the releases worked well too, with the EPs gently introducing the new material to the audience, rather than a ‘big bang’. It proved, if anything, what a substantial contribution Joey Santiago and David Lovering make to the Pixies, as this surely eclipses Frank Black’s solo work (which certainly has its strengths) all over again. Kim Shattuck’s recent death makes this phase of the band’s history a bit sad to reflect on at the moment, not least because of her rather shabby sacking – though her phlegmatic public response whenever asked about it was hugely to her credit. I’ve enjoyed the subsequent two Pixies albums, though as with their original run of records there seems to be something about the early material that has a freshness and zip that fades out subequently.

46: The Wave Pictures – Long Black Cars (2012)


It took me until I saw them live, at the 2012 Winter Sprinter, before I got the Wave Pictures (technically I’d seen them during their stint backing Darren Hayman in 2007, but that’s a different proposition – though I do remember thinking the guitarist seemed pretty handy). It was something of a revelation, and I’ve since come to regard them as surely one of the greatest rock’n’roll bands in the country. In my defence, their recorded output at the time sounded quite different to their live sound, being much more acoustic. Over the course of their many albums across the decade, the heavier live sound has come to be reflected on record – 2016’s Bamboo Diner In The Rain and the Wild Billy Childish-produced Great Big Flamingo Burning Moon were also particular highlights, but I’ve gone for Long Black Cars, which still provides several key songs in most Wave Pictures sets.

45: Anais Mitchell – Hadestown (2010)


This record was a heck of an achievement. A suite of songs built loosely around the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, transformed into an America-set stage show of the same title, it’s a curious choice to have garnered so much acclaim and been so widely listened to. The key is, of course, that the songs are accessible and listenable in their own right, with all sorts of political resonances (which have perhaps faded a bit given the subsequent tumult in American politics, but still) – you can listen to this to try and follow the story closely if you like, but it’s much better enjoyed as an album in its own right.

44: Chris T-T – 9 Green Songs (2016)


By the time Chris T-T finally caved in and produced a sequel to 2005’s 9 Red Songs, fate had dealt him a slight blow by ejecting the Conservative-LibDem coalition from office in favour of a majority Tory government. This immediately overtook its predecessor for the title of Worst Government Ever (the opening track), and the judiciously-aimed kick to the collective Lib Dem eye Love Me, I’m A Liberal also seemed to hark back to past times as soon as it was released. Which was a real shame, as they are a tremendous opening brace of tracks for the album. Elsewhere, the environmental angle of some of the songs makes them seem to grow in relevance and prescience by the day, and A Hard Rain might just get my vote as Chris’s most acute song ever, as well as melodically one of his prettiest. In fact 9 Green Songs turned out to be Chris’s last new album, at least as far as his 20-year run from 1999’s Beatverse is concerned. His retirement was one of those decisions that seemed totally unexpected from the outside, but made total sense as he explained it. If he ever does return to music, he will be assured of a warm welcome back.

43: Traveller – Western Movies (2018)


This is one of those albums that appears not to have been released on CD. In this case it’s possibly because it was one of those side-project / super-group outings that occasionally emerges, in this case featuring Robert Ellis (my entry point to it), Corey Chisel and Jonny Fritz. It’s also one of those records that deserves a bit better than to be written off as a side-project, as it managed a degree of coherence you wouldn’t necessarily expect with three songwriters each bringing their own ideas. Their contributions are distinct, for sure, but it all slots together rather nicely, its title track being a particularly charming love letter to, well, western movies, that convincingly sells their appeal even to those of us who don’t tend to watch them. I’d definitely welcome a follow-up outing for Traveller some time in the 2020s, if the three amigos’ schedules allow it.

42: Help Stamp Out Loneliness – Help Stamp Out Loneliness (2011)


Something of a tangled web here. Incorporating a clutch of members from the recently-split Language of Flowers, but also pulled together by songwriter Bentley Cooke, HSOL looked set to become another staple band among the established Indietracks favourites. Their debut album was confident and polished, anchored by D Lucille Campbell’s classic-sounding vocals, just as their live sets were anchored by her captivating presence on-stage. I saw them twice in 2011, their Indietracks set being one of my all-time favourites (on a sunny afternoon complete with hot air balloons drifting across the site), and their immensely sweaty set at the Bull and Gate in the early autumn being probably the best gig I ever saw there. But by Indietracks 2012 the skies had darkened: trudging round the rain-soaked site that year, I heard reports that HSOL had split amid some acrimony, which I hoped weren’t true. But it turned out they were – I don’t know about the circumstances, but as recently as 2018 Bentley left a comment under their one official video on Youtube: “This still cuts deep – it took years for me to put this song and band together. Now, all we have is this horrid video. Thanks internet, thanks a lot.”

EDIT, February 2020. While I was compiling this list, I missed the terrible news that Bentley Cooke died on October 29th. You can donate to the charity The Smile Train in his memory.

41: I Am Kloot – Sky At Night (2010)


Back in 2000, as I probably wrote somewhere in the top 100 for the last decade, five acts seemed to emerge fairly close together from Manchester: Badly Drawn Boy, his one-time backing bands Doves and Alfie, and Night and Day Cafe alumni Elbow and I Am Kloot. Of these, Kloot were probably the most spiky and seemingly niche, but as they went on a gradual musical journey together they became a slow-burning success story. By the time of this, their fifth album, they had grown into rich production values and augmented arrangements that might not have sat well with them earlier on, but turned out to complement their distinctive music, and John Bramwell’s dark but romantic lyrics perfectly. The swift follow-up, Let It All In (2013) was every bit as good, but I’ve plumped for this Mercury-nominated record for this list – as when Badders won the prize a decade earlier, and Elbow only a couple of years before, it was lovely to see another of those Manchester acts get recognised with a nomination. Kloot were bloody great live as well, and I’m sad I’ve not seen them for nearly a decade now. Maybe one day they’ll pop up again.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 60-51

Video playlist for albums 60-51.

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.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 70-61

Video playlist for albums 70-61.

70: The Pipettes – Earth Vs The Pipettes (2010)


My hot take on the Pipettes: their second album is a better record, end to end, than their debut. Now, to be sure, by the time Earth Vs The Pipettes was released the group had travelled a long way from their exuberant, barnstorming girl group incarnation that I enjoyed so much during my first few years living in London in the mid-2000s. And it was a rocky road for them at times, eventually releasing the new record with just Gwenno and Ani on vocals, two successive other Pipettes having come and gone amid some apparent acrimony. And certainly 60s girl groups are more my taste than space-themed disco – the very best songs of the group’s first incarnation do have the edge over anything here for pure enjoyment, for my preferences. But with Martin Rushent on board as producer, and some songs with a bit more heft than 60s-style bubblegum – though still clearly pop, make no mistake – the Pipettes turned out a thoroughly classy sophomore album. It’s a shame their moment had passed, really – I’m not sure where they had left to go, but this was a much better final leg to the journey than often seems to be recognised.

69: Angel Olsen – My Woman (2016)


I suppose this sits in the middle of a Venn diagram where the circles are labelled ‘singer-songwriter’, ‘punk rock attitude’ and ‘alt-country’. Or maybe that’s unfair to every genre referenced and to Angel Olsen as well, I can’t decide. It’s very good though. There seems a constant tension between tight, hook-based songs and loose, noisy playing, that somehow maintains a perfect balance all through the record. In the songs, Angel hits you hard with her feelings, and you know about it.

68: Garbage – Strange Little Birds (2016)


There are a few bands on this list that tend to keep making the same record, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s a very good record. Somehow, the combination of talents involved produces music that flows along particular and distinctive channels. Garbage are one such, and this outing from 2016 is one of their very best expressions of their sound – much as 2012’s Not Your Kind of People was a decent record, the songs and production both have a punch here that I didn’t really hear on the earlier album. If you wanted a quick introduction to Garbage, you could do a lot worse than simply listening to their earliest and most recent albums.

67: Mikey Collins – Hoick (2018)


This could easily come out sounding wrong, but I was truly impressed by just how good this album from Allo Darlin’s drummer Mikey Collins proved to be. With something of an indiepop supergroup backing him up, Mikey delivers a suite of tuneful and emotionally acute songs. There’s more than a dash of Elizabeth Morris’s observational, storytelling style about them, and it would be totally natural for her influence to be at play here. But it’s just one ingredient, and there’s plenty else going on. While it might seem like a big call to put this ahead of the Allo Darlin’ album on this list, as an album considered over its entire length, this came out fairly comfortably on top for me.

66: Adam Green – Engine of Paradise (2019)


Bands and songwriters can follow differing trajectories, can’t they? Some start off producing their best known and most widely-liked music, and somehow never manage to top it. Others might start with music that gets attention, but with a decade or more’s hindsight appears simplistic compared to what they are later capable of – even though it might still be their most popular output. Adam Green is firmly in the latter camp, and I’ve no hesitation including his most recent album in this list on the basis that he just keeps getting better and better. While musically this still has recognisable echoes of is New York anti-folk origins, being attractively arranged without being overproduced, his style is now more that of a 60s pop crooner, verging even on some Jacques Brel stylings at times. Green’s deeper and more rounded voice has emerged as a characterful vehicle for his reflective and tuneful songs. Lovely.

65: Crybaby – Crybaby (2012)


Perhaps because I missed it at the time and never saw it toured, this album seems to stand perfectly alone to me. As Crybaby’s only album, it doesn’t fit into any story of a band’s development. Instead, Danny Coughlan seems to have turned up with a clutch of finely crafted heartbreak ballads, dumped them on the world and left us all to deal with it. The misery is unrelenting, and he seems quite happy to have turned it into our problem and not his any more.

64: Victoria and Jacob – Victoria and Jacob (2013)


This is one of those rare electronic records that hits the spot for me. Quite what this electronic duo were doing on the Indietracks circuit, complete with an album release on Where It’s At Is Where You Are, was never totally clear to me, but it definitely worked. While the synth backing is restrained and considered, it can deliver a hefty kick when one is needed, and Victoria’s ethereal vocals drift in and out of it alluringly. The release by WIAIWYA was particularly strong too, with a striking but simple range of visuals, and more than an album’s worth of remixes released alongside the album and various singles from it, some of them very strong and still tracks that I turn to from time to time.

63: Sink Ya Teeth – Sink Ya Teeth (2018)


Another record in electronic and dance traditions, this one, but I’m not sure you would straightforwardly call it electronic or dance music. There’s a strong indie lineage to the outfit too, and the phrase ‘post-punk’ gets bandied about in reference to them. Gemma Cullingford is a veteran of Norwich’s indie scene (also originator of Magoo, Bearsuit and others) as a member of KaitO. The music often involves relatively sparse but well crafted arrangements, with Maria Uzor’s vocals sometimes achieving a feel that recalls the soul vocals that crept into both house music and the pop mainstream in the years either side of 1990, and at other times offering a much harder, even sinister edge. Describing the sound of such a distinctive band, who are so literate in such a diverse range of music, turns out to be rather hard! But it’s a great listen.

62: The New Pornographers – Together (2010)


For what started out as a supergroup-cum-side project, the New Pornographers have established themselves as an enduring behemoth of Canadian indie. They’ve always been purveyors of quite a distinctive, twisty-turny and technical type of songwriting, mostly coming from AC Newman but quite closely matched by contributions from Dan Bejar and Neko Case. With a line-up that has changed only slightly and gradually, they have always combined to make records that have a very distinctive sound. I was impressed at how many records they managed to produce without the formula hitting diminishing returns, but being frank I felt 2017’s Whiteout Conditions was when they reached that point. It was followed very quickly by In the Morse Code of Brake Lights in 2019, and I got rather more enjoyment from that, but the contenders for entry on this list are 2010’s Together, and the somewhat more polished Brill Bruisers from 2014. You can’t fit a cigarette paper between them, really, but I have a soft spot for the earlier one in particular.

61: Just Handshakes – Say It (2013)


Formerly Just Handshakes (We’re British), this was a curious band from Leeds – curious mainly because they apparently just stopped, after a tour in 2014 if their suddenly silent social media is to be trusted. Still, whatever happened they left a highly interesting album, which is either distinctive and hard to describe or just descended from music I don’t know anything about. An unusual but agreeable lead vocal style marks them out, but there’s a lot going on musically as well, which emerges with a close listen. Not the usual guitar-based four-piece sound that might be found elsewhere on this list, but their sole album is well worth its entry here.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 80-71

Video playlist for albums 80-71.

80: Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi (2011)


With her operatic voice, sharp stylings and steely guitar licks, Anna Calvi isn’t quite like anyone else out there. She clearly approaches her work seriously, and the results are never less than interesting. I’m plumping for the first of her three albums, as it clicked with me a bit more than the others – maybe it’s just a bit more direct, as Anna has developed her craft over the decade and always offers a rich and interesting serving of music. Personally I’d like to hear a record full of guitar shredding from her, as she’s brilliant at it.

79: Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True (2012)


This third album from Sylvie Lewis got a much more low-key release than its two predecessors in the 2010s, but was no less lovely for it. It was her tour with Dawn Landes early in the decade that introduced me to the latter, and I was delighted to find her supporting Dawn a couple of UK tours later in 2014, Sylvie having returned to the UK from living in Rome (I think). I really must see her again.

78: Evans the Death – Evans the Death (2012)


I once overheard Sean Fortuna Pop! talking about how he’d been glad to work with a band made up of young people, who wouldn’t be stymied when arranging gigs by having to find babysitters. Trouble was they mostly couldn’t drive and had no money, so it was every bit as difficult to arrange for them to go anywhere. Apologies all-round if I’m mis-remembering any of that, but I’m pretty sure that was the gist. Anyway, Evans the Death were a band that grew noisier and heavier over the course of their three albums, each one honing their sound and making it more and more uncompromising. My preference was always at the poppier end of their work, so I’ve gone for their first album here – as throughout their time, the songs had a reflective lyrical side to them that cut through the artful noise. In the end, Evans the Death hit the end of their ‘three albums and out’ cycle at around the same time as Fortuna Pop shut up shop, so the last time I saw them was at the Fortuna Pop farewell weekender – under-rehearsed and Katherine’s voice shot, but chaotically enjoyable.

77: The Futureheads – Rant (2012)


I did slightly worry for the Futureheads by the time they’d released their fourth album. Had they taken their template as far as it could go? Maybe they had – certainly 2019’s comeback album was an enjoyable return to their familiar approach, though still helped by offering an excellent set of songs. But I was glad that they took a different approach for this record, jettisoning their instruments to deliver a mix of covers and originals, all entirely a capella. The live renditions were more varied musically, with some acoustic instruments coming in, and occasionally verging on skiffle. And there was perhaps a sense that this might be the band’s last record – and for a while it was. It was nice to see them go out (temporarily) on such a distinctive and worthwhile high note.

76: Tracyanne & Danny – Tracyanne & Danny (2018)


This was an unexpected and hugely enjoyable collaboration, marrying the musically sunny if lyrically sad approach of Camera Obscura, with the equally miserable but equally tuneful instincts of Danny ‘Crybaby’ Coughlan. A delightful and massively listenable record, my one complaint about it is that the video for showpiece single It Can’t Be Love Unless It Hurts was shot in black and white, when musically it’s surely one of the sunniest and most colourful things you’ll ever hear.

75: The Cornshed Sisters – Tell Tales (2012)


I can’t be alone in having got into the Cornshed Sisters by virtue of one of their number being Marie from Kenickie, but in fact they’re a product of a broader milieu of Sunderland music, linked (by marriage) to Field Music among others, and seen touring this album in support of the Futureheads, who were promoting Rant at the same time. The album reflects the band’s live performances fairly closely – arrangements based around piano or guitar, with tons of luscious four-part harmonies. Absolutely delightful. The band stepped things up a bit for the follow-up album Honey and Tar, with a more conventional band set-up both live and on record – it certainly had its up-sides, but the directness of the debut record’s approach is hard to beat.

74: The Leisure Society – Alone Aboard the Ark (2013)


In some ways The Leisure Society remind me of the Bluetones – the melodies are so strong and the songwriting so deft that you almost feel there’s got to be a catch somewhere. But of course, there isn’t. Everything about this release was just so nicely judged, from the deco-ish artwork to the attractive arrangements of the chamber-folk-pop instrumentation.

73: Rose Elinor Dougal – Stellular (2017)


I was mighty impressed by seeing Rose tour this record, for which she had transformed into a full-on, proper pop star. Her second album totally lived up to the task, too – disco-inflected and synth-heavy, it’s a completely convincing pop creation. So I was impressed again, in some ways, when its follow-up, 2019’s A New Illusion, went much more into overt singer-songwriter territory, with more acoustic instrumentation, lushly arranged – it’s a deeply interesting and sometimes challenging record. Though while I admire that, I feel a bit sad Rose didn’t keep the pop star momentum going and charge out a bit further into the mainstream – she was awfully good at it, and would surely have had further success there. On the other hand, with her refusal to repeat herself, I’m certainly looking forward with interest to the next record, whenever it emerges.

72: Pure Bathing Culture – Moon Tides (2013)


Funny band, Pure Bathing Culture. This debut album (mini-album?) uses the 80s-ish pop dynamic that seems to have been the decade’s key musical touchpoint… but does it in a slightly lo-fi, indeed low-key, way. I found the results hugely appealing – Sarah Versprille’s alluring vocals play a big part in this. Live, by contrast, they present a much more overtly 80s soft rock proposition, with Daniel Hindman throwing out Knopfler-ish riffs and solos – quite different, but no less up my street. The two full-length follow-up albums were both more refined and polished, and maybe you could argue technically better, but there’s a charm about this little record that’s led me to return to it many times.

71: The Go! Team – Rolling Blackouts (2011)


I might be wrong, but this album seems to have surpassed their debut as the go-to, flagship record in the band’s catalogue. Certainly it’s the one whose singles still seem to pop up on 6 Music from time to time. The structures and production of the tracks was that bit clearer and punchier than on previous records, and the band remain a joyous blast to watch live.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 90-81

Video playlist for albums 90-81.

90: Art Brut – Wham! Bang! Pow! Let’s Rock Out! (2018)


Art Brut’s second album of the decade, and first for seven years, was a schizophrenic affair: in places, reflections on big life changes, life in a new city and brushes with mortality; and elsewhere a rediscovery of the zest of youth – though Eddie Argos these days is in borderline territory age-wise in terms of whether that counts as a mid-life crisis or not. The expected raucous backing, albeit more musically accomplished than anyone involved would dare admit, gives it a winning charm. It’s bloody good to have them back.

89: Arctic Monkeys – AM (2013)


I never really bought into the hype around Arctic Monkeys in the mid-2000s, but somehow it crossed my radar that they’d produced en extremely well-rounded album with this one, and it’s a record I’ve returned to a lot.

88: Shy Child – Liquid Love (2010)


Was this synthwave before synthwave was invented? It sounds a bit like it to me. Following on a more lo-fi, keyboard-bashing album from 2007, Shy Child got somewhat ahead of the curve with 80s-style synth-heavy production on this record, which remains convincing and funky pop.

87: The Hector Collectors – Remember the Hector Collectors? You Won’t Believe What They Sound Like Now! (2018)


For reasons I now can’t remember, and quite possibly didn’t know at the time, in around 2003 or 4 Adam J Smith sent me a seven-inch single called Quest for Web of Fear 5. I didn’t know then that at around the same time he was encouraging his old school pal David Pope to take the nascent Just Joans further, or indeed that Web of Fear 5 would in fact turn up within the decade. Instead, truthfully, I struggled to get past the four-track production values and, shall we say, unabashed vocal technique. So this is the very opposite of an “I preferred their earlier stuff” review, as the Hector Collectors’ first studio-recorded album was an absolute blossoming. It’s not just that the songs are tightly constructed, but their observation of modern life, particularly online, and a range of cult TV references that even I struggle to keep up with, takes them into territory comparable with Half Man Half Biscuit. Comparable, yet somehow also nothing like them. But at the same time, indispensable.

86: The Understudies – If Destroyed True (2019)


I wouldn’t necessarily have expected a record like this when I first encountered the Understudies, probably at one of the excellent Daylight Music shows at the Union Chapel. I had them down at the time, not unfairly, as a likeably tuneful jangly indie band with an appealing romantic streak and the occasional lurch into 50s stylings, in terms of both guitars and hair. If Destroyed True goes to another place, though – the songs are not merely romantic, but truly dramatic, sometimes quite long and often piano rather than guitar-led. It’s hard to judge such recent records for a list like this, and I feel like I have many more listens of this album ahead of me, but even so it already feels like a real accomplishment.

85: Charles Watson – Now That I’m A River (2018)


This is an album of woozing, bluesy, almost slacker rock, and also one of those records that resolves itself pleasingly into its individual songs after a few spins. It rewards a lot of listens, and makes a lot of sense as an evolution of where Charles had got to with Slow Club by the time they split.

84: Mattiel – Mattiel (2017)


Mattiel Brown has been blessed with a powerful and characterful voice, and her debut album emerged seemingly fully-formed, offering an array of 60s garage-y numbers. The tighter and more deliberate Satis Factory (2019) was a strong follow-up, but there’s something effortless about this record that gives it an appeal over many listens.

83: Laura Veirs – July Flame (2010)


This is Another Very Good Laura Veirs album, which is no small thing to be. I’ve put this on the list rather than its successors because I particularly like the clarity and directness of the arrangements – which they achieve without merely being sparse – though any of them would sit happily here.

82: Jane Weaver – The Silver Globe (2014)


It’s rather melancholy to reflect on how things have panned out for the group of exciting and idiosyncratic artists who were associated with the Twisted Nerve label in the late 90s and early 2000s, from Badly Drawn Boy’s fade out of prominence to the incredibly sad death of Dave Tyack. It might have been a surprise to some in c.2002 that perhaps the most enduring and acclaimed career of the group would be that of Jane Weaver, whose 2014 album was a beguiling tour through electronic music, clearly drawing on huge knowledge of and enthusiasm for it, and presenting it in a digestible way for non-aficionados like me – often by putting it in a structure of the sort of wonky indie pop that Jane’s husband Andy Votel often oversees from the producer’s chair. Then again, it might not have been a surprise at all to anyone in the know. Is this the only Piccadilly Records Album of the Year on this list? Might be…

81: Chvrches – Love Is Dead (2018)


I half-seriously like to say that Chvrches are just Bis but fifteen years later. It’s not really true, but if you swap out Bis’s DIY punk sensibility for Chvrches’ more pure pop one, you’d probably find the other ingredients for each of the Glaswegian three-pieces are pretty similar. The other big difference is in their timing: while Bis’s 80s-inflected Social Dancing would doubtless have done much better if it had been released in 2009 than 1999, Chvrches’ sound matched and captured their time exactly. There’s not much between their two records, but overall the second one does what a second album should, but doesn’t always, and develops the band’s sound convincingly.

Top 100 albums of the 2010s: 100-91

Video playlist for albums 100-91.

100: Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense (2012)


It feels odd that the decade is ending with a McLusky reunion, and it perhaps risks overshadowing Future of the Left a bit. The latter were the more prolific band in the end, with Andrew Falkous’s ferocious imagination and knack for unexpected imagery giving both bands their distinctive identities – that, and a very great deal of noise. The title of this record turns out to have foretold the path of British politics with chilling accuracy.

99: Juanita Stein – Until the Lights Fade (2018)


After their debut album, I suppose I was a bit unclear about what type of band Howling Bells were, or were trying to be. They released a succession of decent records with some great songs, but nothing seemed to cohere, or capture critical acclaim, quite like their first album. Juanita Stein’s solo career has had a clarity to it that contrasts with that: both albums have had a distinctly American sound, the first more overtly country-influenced and this second one more clearly rock, and produced with quite a sheen. Almost in a Springsteen tradition in places? Maybe faintly. The effect is pretty grabbing, either way, and Juanita’s voice is showcased to good effective both as a singer and as a writer.

98: Edwyn Collins – Losing Sleep (2011)


One of three albums released this decade, along with Understated (2013) and Badbea (2019), Losing Sleep was Edwyn Collins’ first album written and recorded after the cerebral haemhorrage he suffered in 2005. I saw his now semi-legendary headline slot at Indietracks in 2011, when the extent of his physical limitations was very evident. But his voice retains a hugely pleasing depth and timbre, that anchors the songs here delightfully. Really, any of those albums could happily have gone here, but on a repeat listening I found myself most drawn to this one, by a smidge.

97: Phantastic Ferniture – Phantastic Ferniture (2018)


Julia Jacklin came to prominence as a major talent in the second half of the decade, and has released two good albums. For me, I really connected with about half the songs on each and quite liked the rest, so there’s a great album’s worth of material there, but that’s not how this list works. Instead, this side project band with two friends seemed to enable Julia to hit the highs really consistently, at least to my taste – it’s an enjoyable record with plenty of oomph, and a slight slacker rock sound that’s absent from Julia’s solo work but really suits the songs.

96: The Loves – …Love You (2011)


Going to Indietracks for the first time felt in many ways like re-connecting with the music I’d followed closely around the turn of the century and had kept only partly in touch with since I’d graduated and John Peel had died. The Loves were the most direct embodiment of that – a Peel-supported band that I’d never seen at the time, and who were in fact gearing up to release their final album ahead of a long-planned split on Valentine’s Day 2011. This is a short record – under half an hour – but listening back to it, it’s got a striking hit rate in terms of the quality of the songs.

95: Black Kids – Rookie (2017)


It seemed hard to believe it was ten years since Black Kids had released their bouncy, jangly heartbreak single I’m Not Going To Teach Your Boyfriend How To Dance With You… and it seemed even harder when Rookie emerged, and they didn’t sound a day older in either their sound or their subject matter. For all that they’re not rookies any more, this is still lyrically a set of songs from and about young people, rather than reflecting any sort of changed outlook as you might expect after a decade. And really, I liked it all the more for that – ten years on, and still an irreverent bunch of fun.

94: Badly Drawn Boy – It’s What I’m Thinking Pt.1 – Photographing Snowflakes (2010)


Ten years ago my write-up of Badders’ decade was a pretty sad one: having loved his shows around the time of Bewilderbeast, and the record itself, I watched as he tried and repeatedly failed to achieve the same alchemy again, each time falling short by a seemingly longer distance. I haven’t dared see him live since 2007. By 2010 he had done more soundtrack work and reportedly recorded and then ditched an album’s worth of material, so this record seemed like a somewhat tentative toe back in the water of ‘full’ albums after a bit of a gap. In the event, it turned out to be probably his most successful record, artistically anyway, since The Hour of the Bewilderbeast, with some charming and reflective songs, attractively arranged – all a bit understated, but well crafted for that. It boded well for the second and third instalments of the apparently planned trilogy of albums… which then didn’t emerge. Since then, Badders has continued to play live, done a bit more soundtrack work, traded on some nostalgia for his debut album, and gone grey. It might seem like a bit of an underachievement, but let’s not overlook the strength of this album.

93: PJ Harvey – Let England Shake (2011)


It’s hard to know what to make of art that focuses on England right now. By association, it feels like it must be guilty of… something. We didn’t have a de facto English nationalist government in 2011 though, so it wasn’t quite so much of an issue. And to be fair, Polly Harvey’s England is often as faded and tattered as it is enchanted and beguiling. She pulled off a neat trick here of making music that was distinctive and idiosyncratic, but at the same time accessible rather than alienating. The only Mercury-winning album on this decade’s list.

92: Hard Skin – Why Do Birds Suddenly Appear? (2013)


Bit of an oddball record, this one – but curiously endearing. As a twist on their new record, On The Balls, Damaged Goods punk veterans Hard Skin released a second version of the album with a variety of female punk and indie singers performing the lead vocals. The result includes Beth Jeans Houghton and Manda Rin showing off their potty mouths.

91: Allo Darlin’ – Allo Darlin’ (2010)


Indiepop was accelerating into a strong phase at the start of the decade, and this was the album that confirmed there was something going on. Allo Darlin’ leapt fairly immediately into the status of poster child, with a run of main stage Indietracks appearances that culminated in a memorable headlining set in 2014. This record’s songs were the mainstay of their sets throughout, and with a few exceptions were seldom bettered by tracks on their subsequent two albums. The band crossed over a bit, with some decent support slots and fairly regularly popping up as background music on Bargain Hunt for a while. Er, I’ve been told. But they clearly got as far as was possible on the redoubtable Fortuna Pop!, and their final show at the end of 2016 was a convincingly joyous farewell.