Thursday, 20 December 2007

So much better with the past behind you...

Just when you think 2007 is done and nothing new will emerge til the new year, along comes Mike Viola with his new self-released record, Lurch.

Despite staying under the radar most of the time, he's released a record a year for the last few years - 2004's Candy Butchers masterpiece Hang On Mike, 2005's Just Before Dark, 2006's compilation of early Candy Butchers material Making Up Time, and now his new record, which stylistically is a mix of Candy Butchers indie-rock and the 70s singer-songwriter style he's favoured more recently.

Most excitingly, it includes So Much Better, a cracking Beatles-y pop tune that's been streaming on his Myspace page for what seems like years.

MP3: Mike Viola - So Much Better
Buy Lurch

MP3: Candy Butchers - Unexpected Traffic
Buy Hang On Mike

Video: Mike Viola - Number Crunch (right-click and save)
Buy Just Before Dark

And as a bonus, a song I posted last Christmas, but figured it's well worth posting again - one of the finest contemporary Christmas tunes...

MP3: Candy Butchers - Give Me A Second Chance For Christmas
Buy Let's Get Christmas

Friday, 7 December 2007

Best Albums Of 2007

01 - Crowded House - Time On Earth

While not being in the 'Paul-Hester's-not-around-anymore-so-how-dare-they-call-it-Crowded House' camp, I can see why there were doubts as to whether the reformed House could live up to previous highs (this is, don't forget, essentially the follow-up to 1993's masterpiece Together Alone). So does it live up to the legacy? Well, it sounds exactly like the record Neil Finn was always likely to make at this point in time, whether released under his own name or not. Stylistically it's a cross between his own last solo album, 2002's One All, and the wonderful Finn Brothers record from 2004, Everyone Is Here. And if, like me, you found him to be on top songwriting form with those records, there's nothing to disappoint on Time On Earth.

It's mostly mid-tempo ballads, but there are also a handful of tunes where the band ups the pace a bit. Highlights are many: witness the Icehouse-meets-Radiohead stylings of Say That Again, the heartbreaking lyrics of Silent House, the stunning Pour Le Monde and the Don McGlashan-aided lament English Trees. It ends on the marvellously moody People Are Like Suns, which would rank as a fine slice of melancholy any day, but they then went and released a stripped down version on a subsequent single release that took the song to a completely different, much more vulnerable place. An utterly magnificent return.

MP3: Crowded House - Say That Again
Buy Time On Earth

Bonus MP3: Crowded House - People Are Like Suns (piano version)

2 - The Shins - Wincing The Night Away

It looks like the only way is up for The Shins, who've somehow succeeded in making an album that's even better than their fantastic previous one, Chutes Too Narrow. James Mercer is still writing the best lyrics around, but the production values have been upped significantly and the tunes are now gold-plated. Picking highlights is hard, as this is a phenomenal record from start to finish, but Phantom Limb deserves special mention while Sea Legs, Turn On Me and Spilt Needles all push the standards of contemporary indie-pop ever higher.

MP3: The Shins - Spilt Needles
Buy Wincing the Night Away

03 - Josh Pyke - Memories And Dust

Out of the blue, this record appeared on my radar in the first half of the year, and within days of buying it, I was sat in the Faversham in Leeds watching it being played out live in front of me. My initial assessment of Josh Pyke's songwriting - as being a cross between Neil Finn and Darren Hanlon - still holds true; his way with an instant classic sounding pop tune (as on Private Education and the sublime title track) and clever wordplay (best shown on the stream-of-consciousness autobiography of Middle Of The Hill) mark out his place among the great pop songwriters. He does melancholy well too, and makes depression sound positively life-affirming on the glorious Vibrations In Air. Debuts don't come much better.

MP3: Josh Pyke - Memories And Dust
Buy Memories And Dust

4 - Josh Rouse - Country Mouse, City House

The man with the most frighteningly consistent release schedule of the last five years returned this year with another brilliant album (oh, and an EP with his partner under the name She's Spanish I'm American). At a rate of an album and standalone EP every year, you'd think the quality rate of Josh Rouse's output would be dropping by now, and while Country Mouse City House isn't as 100% satisfying as last year's Subtitulo, it does contain a handful of his finest tunes yet. Witness the lazy summer vibe of gorgeous opener Sweetie, the jazzy Pilgrim or standout track God Please Let Me Go Back, which rewrites It's A Wonderful Life, with Josh's afterlife alterego wanting to come back and make amends (or at least see off the guy who's making moves on Josh's grieving girl). Marvellous stuff - and here's to whatever he's got planned for 2008...

MP3: Josh Rouse - Sweetie
Buy Country Mouse City House

05 - Jens Lekman - Night Falls Over Kortedela

This third full length album from the scarily talented Swedish troubadour Jens Lekman takes in Scott Walker-like orchestration (And I Remember Every Kiss), twee europop (Into Eternity), Motown-influenced pop (The Opposite Of Hallelujah) and what resembles 70s disco (Sipping On The Sweet Nectar). And that's not even mentioning the skewed genius of Your Arms Around Me (how many other pop songs released this year deal with the subject matter of slicing off a fingertip?) and the stunning Postcard To Nina, in which our hero poses as his lesbian penpal's boyfriend at a family gathering. At times heartbreaking, but mostly just euphoric, this album need to be heard to be believed.

MP3: Jens Lekman - The Opposite Of Hallelujah
Buy Night Falls Over Kortedala

06 - Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full

While 2005's Chaos And Creation In The Backyard had a nice bit of sonic magic courtesy of producer Nigel Godrich, this year's follow-up (although apparently for the most part recorded before Chaos) is very much back to basics - great songs and great performances. Obviously being Paul McCartney, certain expectations will always abound, but seriously, for anyone with a back catalogue as impressive as his to still be adding to it is pretty damn amazing. Dance Tonight is naggingly brilliant in its simplicity (and kudos to Sir Paul for getting Natalie Portman to appear in the video), while Ever Present Past and See Your Sunshine sound like classic Wings. And then there's the great character piece Mr Bellamy, which is what a modern-day Beatles record would surely sound like. Forget all the tabloid nonsense, this is why everyone should still be talking about Paul McCartney.

MP3: Paul McCartney - Mr Bellamy
Buy Memory Almost Full

07 - Field Music - Tones Of Town

One of the more pleasant surprises of the year was this January-released second album from Sunderland's finest pop trio, Field Music. Trying to categorise it is hard, but the brilliant Closer At Hand and Place Yourself touch on chamber-pop while Give It Lose It Take It is a belting prog-pop opener. Three wildly different but equally jaunty singles were taken from the album, including the string-laden A House Is Not A Home and the edgy guitar-driven In Context, but check out if you can the title track, which is a multi-sectioned mini epic that clocks in at just over 3 minutes.

MP3: Field Music - Closer At Hand
Buy Tones of Town

08 - Liam Finn - I'll Be Lightning

As if one member of the Finn family in the top ten isn't enough, here's Neil's eldest son Liam with his debut solo record. While the couple of albums he released with Betchadupa were patchy at best (teenage angsty rock usually winning the battle over the more overtly melodic fare of the kind his dad knocks out), I'll Be Lightning is a fine collection of highly hummable songs. He sounds most like his dad on the acoustic strums of Fire In Your Belly and Gather To The Chapel, but he really comes into his own on the eccentric arrangements of Second Chance and Energy Spent. Not a perfect record by any means, but his family history suggests the best is almost certainly still to come.

MP3: Liam Finn - Energy Spent
Liam Finn's Myspace

09 - Fountains Of Wayne - Traffic And Weather

While it's fair to say that a merely 'good' Fountains Of Wayne still trounces 99% of most other bands' best work, this, their fourth album, is more than a little disappointing. It's their own fault of course - their first three albums, along with 2005's round-up of b-sides Out Of State Plates, pretty much defined what a power-pop act should be doing in this day and age: classic sounding singalong melodies, inventive lyrics, a wry sense of humour and yet a fully functional set of emotions. All of these elements are here - '92 Subaru, Yolanda Hayes and This Better Be Good are up there with the best of the back catalogue. And then there's the brilliant Fire In The Canyon, vocally aided by the always dependable Mike Viola. But then there are the songs that don't really go anywhere - the title track and Strapped For Cash are nicely played out scenarios but lacking in tunes, and Planet Of Weed is abysmal. Luckily the good outweighs the not so good, but they must try a bit harder next time.

MP3: Fountains Of Wayne - Fire In The Canyon
Buy Traffic and Weather

10 - My Friend The Chocolate Cake - Home Improvements

A welcome return for Melbourne's My Friend The Chocolate Cake, who are still mixing pop and folk in such a way that it falls slap bang in the middle of those genres whilst sounding completely and uniquely like no one but themselves. This is their strongest record since the 1994 masterpiece Brood, and finds David Bridie and friends on absolutely top form. As always on Chocolate Cake albums, sprightly pop songs rub shoulders easily with folky instrumentals, the former best exemplified by Pentecostal Girl, She Dreams All Different Colours and the brilliant title track, the latter by the dramatic and beguiling Opus Lagarulin. Add to that Bridie's knack of nailing a gorgeous melancholic ballad - shown here on Hymn For The Carnies and Let's Go Walk This Town - and you've got something very special indeed.

MP3: My Friend The Chocolate Cake - Home Improvements
My Friend The Chocolate Cake's Myspace

And the best of the rest...

While I can take or leave his self-titled debut, the last three Rufus Wainwright albums - Poses, Want One and Want Two - suggested an upwards arc towards producing something that would not only blow the rest of his back catalogue out of the water but truly make the breakthrough to superstar status. Release The Stars is not that album. It's not without its great moments - Going To A Town is a rousing call to arms, and Nobody's Off The Hook sounds exactly like what Woody Allen needs to soundtrack a future film. On the other side though, Not Ready To Love goes on forever without actually going anywhere, and Between My Legs pushes the boundaries of good taste. Following the Want records was always going to be a challenge, so here's hoping the next one sees him back on track.

Similarly disappointing was Feist's follow-up to the brilliant Let It Die. Despite giving her a massive UK hit single with the excellent 1234, there's really not much more on The Reminder to entice more than a couple of listens.

As amazing as it seems, it's been a whole 8 years since the last full length Jason Falkner record, the power-pop masterpiece that was Can You Still Feel. I'm pleased I wasn't waiting patiently all that time (only discovering him about 4 years ago) as I'm OK You're OK is something of a letdown. In 2004 he released a brilliant EP, Bliss Descending, but the album that's limped out three years later (in Japan only, at this stage) really is a missed opportunity. It's got some great songs of course - NYC, Anondah, Hurricane and I Don't Mind rank up there alongside his best, but Can You Still Feel Pt.2 this definitely isn't. Maybe he should try and tone down his perfectionism and get records finished quicker - a set of demos from 2002 that were doing the rounds show a much more focused collection, and while he's had issues getting the right record deal, there are other options for getting stuff out nowadays that he might want to look into...

Not having been a Suede fan, I can safely assess Brett Anderson's self-titled solo debut without the weight of his former band's back catalogue. Which is nice, as this is as far removed from glam indie-rock as it's possible to go without getting the lute out. It's full of slow-to-mid-tempo ballads, mostly string-laden, piano based mini-epics that go to make up something completely and utterly satisfying. There's nothing fancy, just straightforward laments which in cases like Song For My Father really tug at the heart strings. Even better is the dramatic To The Winter, complete with a string section straight out of am as yet unmade James Bond soundtrack.

A young British female singer with a decidedly retro musical outlook, Candie Payne must be seething that it's Amy Winehouse's motown-lite that grabs all the headlines while her own Dusty Springfield-inspired pop doesn't get a look in. It's probably down in part to the fact that Winehouse is living the rock & roll tabloid lifestyle while Payne is the sweet girl-next-door. Whatever, I Wish I Could Have Loved You More is a great debut album, from the trippy title track to the classic pop stylings of All I Need To Hear and the Mark Ronson-produced single One More Chance.

One half of a lavishly packaged 2CD set of the Go-Betweens' songwriters' solo outputs between phases 1 and 2 of the band, the Grant McLennan disc from Intermission: The Best of the Solo Recordings 1990-1997 shows that even away from the band, he was capable of knocking out classic pop songs. I was always more a fan of his straightforward pop songs (this is, after all, the man who wrote such utter classics as Streets Of Your Town, Bachelor Kisses and the more recent Finding You) than of his erstwhile partner Robert Forster's more arty output, so this is a nice way of being able to separate the two and see how they worked when left to their own devices. Highlights of this collection are many - the brilliant Haven't I Been A Fool and Easy Come Easy Go kick the collection off in fine style, before taking in the Paul Kelly-like Lighting Fires and possibly the pick of the bunch, the wonderful No Peace In The Palace: "Now that you have gone for good / There is no peace in my palace now". Nice one Grant, RIP.

Sondre Lerche's Phantom Punch is the power-pop record that Jason Falkner probably wishes he'd made. Building on the promise of his Two Way Monologue record from a couple of years ago, he's turned in a fantastic set of singalong hits-in-waiting. Pick of the bunch is the brilliant Say It All, although The Tape, Well Well Well and the action-packed title track also pack quite a (phantom) punch if you're into the Elvis Costello school of clever lyrics and punk-pop musical persuasion.

Fields released a strong debut record, Everything Last Winter, doing the boy/girl vocal thing perfectly and ticking all the right boxes along the thin line between great songs and noisy dynamics. Song For The Fields was re-recorded from the early version that had been floating around the web for ages, with even more gutsy guitars, while Schoolbooks finds a mellow port in the storm. Skulls And Flesh And More and Charming The Flames both build to brilliant crescendos, while the equally fantastic Feathers ends in a cyclone of controlled guitar chaos.

I don't think Radiohead's In Rainbows requires any more column inches than its release has already received, but I'm pretty sure the current fawning praise will die down in the weeks ahead when it'll slot into its natural place in the Radiohead catalogue - better than the last two or three albums but not a patch on OK Computer. Having said that, Reckoner and 15 Step are almost certainly among the finest tunes in their occasionally mighty canon.

Forget ELO or the Bee Gees - my guilty pleasure band are Hard-Fi. I know I shouldn't like them, but I can't deny that Richard Archer knows his way around a tune, best shown on Once Upon A Time In The West by the brilliant Tonight and The King. Suburban Knights is a great big dumb pop song with a naggingly catchy chorus, and while the rest of it is pretty good, it's maybe not as strong as the majority of their debut from a couple of years ago.

Having seen her support Sufjan Stevens in '06 and been very impressed, it was great to see St Vincent turn in a great debut album, Marry Me, full of skewed pop songs like the brilliant Paris Is Burning and abrasive Your Lips Are Red.

Song of the year comes from Okkervil River's The Stage Names - Savannah Smiles (MP3) is a heartbreaking ballad about the passing of time.

A great find was the 2005-released Room Noises by Eisley. A bunch of young Americans with a knack for sublimely gorgeous melodies and similarly wonderful harmonies, it's an absolute knock-out collection. The follow-up, Combinations, released this year, doesn't sound quite as promising.

It was a pretty good year for my home turf of West Yorkshire too. The Lodger's debut album Grown-Ups was one I was very much looking forward to, and it didn't disappoint. Leeds' finest exponents of the 3 minute pop song have seemingly perfected their art on these 14 tracks, which includes the stellar singles Many Thanks For Your Honest Opinion and Let Her Go. There's not much variation instrument-wise (aside from some nice brass on Let Her Go), but The Lodger's shtick was never about musical experimentation - it's all about Ben Siddall's tuneful tales from the bedsit, exemplified brilliantly on Unsatisfied, Simply Left Behind and the frantic Watching.

A shining light in Wakefield's burgeoning singer/songwriter scene, Will Richards released his debut album Ready To Talk Now, which is well worth checking out if well-crafted Jeff Buckley-inspired tunes are your bag.

Leeds mainstays Shatner returned with the stellar follow-up to 2005's Energise, Thirteen O'Clock, with frontman/songwriter Jim Bower proving once and for all that he's one of the finer pop songsmiths around - think 80s-era Squeeze for a pretty accurate comparison (and try and not be put off by the ultra-proggy titles of Space Cathedral Parts 1 and 2).

Kaiser Chiefs also released their second album, Yours Truly, Angry Mob, which was a mix of classic-sounding Britpop - Heat Dies Down and Thank You Very Much - and a worrying amount of distinctly average cuts that reek of difficult second album syndrome.