Monday, 14 December 2009

Best Albums of 2009

Download the MP3 Sampler (.zip)

1. David Mead - Almost & Always

On the MP3 sampler: Sicily

Top of the pile for 2009 is the latest release from David Mead, a set of breathtakingly beautiful songs that barely break a sweat but leave a huge emotional impact. I know I'm not the only Mead fan who thought he'd peaked with 2004's magnificent Indiana - and, to be honest, the two records aren't stylistically comparable - but here the songcraft appears to have gone up several notches on an already pretty high scale. Almost & Always couldn't be more different from his previous release, 2006's Tangerine - itself not a bad record by any means - if it tried. Tangerine was all bells and whistles, a stab at a classic-sounding pop record more in tune with his first couple of albums. Almost & Always is content to let its not inconsiderable but extremely low-key charms work their way slowly into your subconscious until the none-more-gorgeous melodies take up permanent residence. The arrangements are sparse for the most part, occasional flourishes of orchestration broadening the pallet. But ultimately this is David Mead, so it's all about that voice and how it portrays his timeless melodies.

Initially it looked like Almost & Always wasn't going to get any kind of proper release - at one point it seemed as if the only promotional push was Mead himself posting out promo copies to anyone hosting a widget on their website - which would've been a horrendous shame, but at the time of writing it's now available on CD from the likes of Amazon. Picking highlights is nigh on impossible, but the lump-in-throat Sicily and jaunty Rainy Weather Friend are probably the best places to start. All in all, a masterpiece and artistic triumph; how he's going to top this is anyone's guess.

2. Don McGlashan & the Seven Sisters- Marvellous Year

On the MP3 sampler: Not Ready

Someone else hitting major highs this year, this second solo record from Don McGlashan (well, not strictly solo as the Seven Sisters get equal billing) is surely his best set of songs since the Mutton Birds' high watermark Envy of Angels from 1997. A songwriter who's long since passed into the realms of can-do-no-wrong in my book, songs like Not Ready and You're The Song just go to prove his prowess once again.

3. A-ha - Foot Of The Mountain

On the MP3 sampler: The Bandstand

The second phase of A-ha's career has book-ended the decade nicely, this latest record working as a nice companion piece to 2000's excellent Minor Earth Major Sky. The two in the middle (Lifelines and Analogue) got bogged down in unmemorable MOR slush, so it's doubly surprising that Foot of The Mountain is so strong. The synths are back in force, as are the soaring melodies. Accurately described elsewhere as Coldplay meeting the revived Take That, this is the very definition of grown-up pop. A fitting swansong.

4. Regina Spektor - Far

On the MP3 sampler: Genius Next Door

One of the greatest things as a music fan is the surprise of when an artist who's previously occupied a middling position in your record collection (i.e. they've made a couple of decent-ish records but nothing that makes you desperate for the next release) puts out something utterly wonderful. Launching with the very understated single Laughing With was a fine bit of wrong-footing, as this is on the whole a lush, upbeat tour-de-force. Regina's most beautifully-produced record to date, and containing some of her absolutely finest tunes - start with Eet, Two Birds and Genius Next Door.

5. Nerina Pallot - The Graduate

On the MP3 sampler: Cigarette

Like Regina, Nerina Pallot is someone else who's made some records I've really liked in the past but never hinted at the greatness she's achieved this year. In addition to the brilliant Graduate record (on which she's shown some incredible previously unexplored pure-pop nous, e.g. on the single Real Late Starter), there were a couple of preceeding EPs, both containing moments of staggering beauty. Good to see It Starts from the Buckminster Fuller EP making it onto the album, but where's the spine-tingling Girl On A Wire? And how about the Junebug EP's truly heartbreaking This Will Be Our Year? Ignore the year's big-selling girl pop acts - Nerina's the one to track down.

6. Pet Shop Boys - Yes

On the MP3 sampler: All Over The World

Yup, that'll be Pet Shop Boys AND A-ha in my top ten for 2009. Not sure what my younger self would say about that back in the 80s, but the fact remains, these guys are still making brilliant records. Getting Xenomania in was a masterstroke, creating a collection of sublime pop songs with the kind of hooks that really should have been hanging around the higher reaches of the Top 40. On the downside, some shockingly simplistic lyrics (I'm not laying the blame for that at Neil Tennant's door) jar somewhat with the glorious pop sheen.

7. A Camp - Colonia

On the MP3 sampler: Golden Teeth and Silver Medals

I was never a fan of the Cardigans in their twee-pop years, and only started taking notice when they changed direction on Gran Turismo. The couple of records they've put out this decade have been brilliant, a run that continues into the second record from Nina Persson's sideline A Camp. Her voice is still one of the finest in pop, and she gets to put it to good use on late night Radio 2 favourites like Love Has Left The Room and Stronger Than Jesus. The Crowning and Golden Teeth & Silver Medals sound like outtakes from a Broadway musical yet to be written; on the whole, a cracking pop record.

8. The Bee Gees - Odessa (re-issue)

On the MP3 sampler: Lamplight

Christ on a bike, what are the toothsome threesome doing here??? It's very odd to think that less than a decade before their heinous disco reincarnation, the Bee Gees were making glorious baroque sort-of-concept albums worthy of mention alongside the likes of Odyssey & Oracle. Odessa has it all - tunes galore, wonderful harmonies, lovely strings, some rather odd bleating, and in moments like Lamplight and I Laugh In Your Face, songs that can make naysayers completely rethink their opinion of a band. Didn't see *that* coming...

9. Annie - Don't Stop

On the MP3 sampler: Hey Annie

I really feel like I've re-embraced my inner pop kid this year... This is superior pop music, made by someone so far removed from the Britney side of that genre it's almost embarrassing. Straight-up pop masterclasses like Songs Remind Me Of You sit easily alongside quirkier moments like Breakfast Song. It does die on its backside towards the end, but at least the first 6 or 7 tracks here sound like pop gold beamed in from an alternate universe.

10. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

On the MP3 sampler: Travelling Woman

The big initial draw on this, aside from having really liked some tunes off Fur & Gold, was the appearance of Scott Walker actually singing a melody (rather than slapping a side of beef). His contribution is brief but beautiful, and fits perfectly at the end of a set of songs that have accessibility and mystery in equal measure. The vocal acrobatics and tribal drumming on Glass are spine-tinging, offset beautifully by piano ballads like Moon & Moon and Travelling Woman.

Download the MP3 Sampler (.zip)

Also worthy of mention.... Lisa Hannigan's Sea Sew is a beautiful record, but so quiet and polite it's sometimes hard to remember it exists at all. Five years after the last one, Kings Of Convenience made a new record; maybe it'll be a grower, but it doesn't have anything particularly new to add to their already perfect palette, and aside from the brilliant Boat Behind, the songs aren't a patch on those on Riot On An Empty Street. I Concur's Able Archer is a sturdy indie-rock record, full of intelligent songwriting and big guitars. In the year I finally got into Belle & Sebastian, I very much enjoyed Stuart Murdoch's God Help The Girl record, although it's a bit too sweet to take all in one sitting. Neil Finn & co's 7 Worlds Collide should've been amazing - Neil, Don McGlashan, members of Radiohead and Wilco, Liam Finn, Bic Runga and Tim Finn is pretty much my dream dinner party - but somehow fell down due to its own eclecticism. Don's Long Time Gone and Liam's Red Wine Bottle were the picks of the bunch, proving both to be songwriters willing to generously spirit away some of their best work to outside projects. Spent a bit of time on the epic projects released by Sufjan Stevens and the Decemberists; the neo-classical BQE was an absolute treat for the ears, while I must admit I found The Hazards of Love a bit too much. The Second Howling Bells album was a fine beast, building on the sterling work of their debut from a few years back.

Next year.... Even if nothing else, I'm already rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of new albums from Crowded House and Josh Rouse...

Monday, 26 October 2009

Leave those decisions to us...

My mates in I Concur have just released their brilliant debut album, Able Archer. I interview Tim and James for the Leeds fanzine Vibrations - physical copies of the mag are out around Leeds now (find it in independent record stores, Hyde Park Picture House, various pubs and choice locations), but if you don't manage to find one, the content is also online. Head straight to the I Concur interview here.

Here's the video for the single, Sobotka:

The single and album can be bought from the Club AC30 website.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Too many roads bypass my way...

In honour of my car throwing another fit and requiring another day at the garage, here are some motor-related gems...

MP3: Prefab Sprout - Cars and Girls

MP3: The Divine Comedy - Your Daddy's Car

MP3: Citizen Band - Rust In My Car

It's so clear and so true...

Hurrah! The best pop band in Leeds have returned with a cracking new record. Have a look at The Lodger's new vid and then grab the EP from iTunes:

Monday, 13 July 2009

Look over there, you used to say...

Here's Don McGlashan performing one of the finest songs in existence:

(Envy Of Angels, performed live on Good Morning (NZ TV), 10th July 2009)

Thursday, 28 May 2009

Cassingle Revival: Seven - Inside Love

Hadn't really thought about uploading random old cassingles before, but I had this song in my head today and figured other people might, at a push, remember it too. This is from somewhere around '89/'90-ish (it surely couldn't be from any later???) and was a single I absolutely adored, and played to death at the time. Think I may have even had the poster-bag 7" version too. I guess musically it hasn't stood the test of time, but as a tune it still pretty much rules.

Not sure what made me think of this song today, but a little bit of searching turned up the video on Youtube:

The audio on the MP3s below is from the cassingle, so probably not the greatest sound quality ever (but better than on that Youtube version...)

MP3: Seven - Inside Love

MP3: Seven - Till Then

Thursday, 7 May 2009

It's a balancing act...

I've become a bit obsessed with Nerina Pallot's new Buckminster Fuller EP. It doesn't appear to have been promoted much outside of her Myspace, which is a shame as it contains some of her best tunes to date. It Starts is just musical perfection, a fragile statement of intent which sets the tone for what's to follow. Best of the bunch is Girl On A Wire, where the modern-day-Joni vocals and piano are unexpectedly joined halfway through by a synth, to fantastic effect. Some gorgeous chords and the kind of melody that instantly sticks in the head all add up to a dreamily wonderful three and a half minutes. The EP's title track may well (consciously or not) melodically reference Regina Spector's Samson, and try listening to the synths in Better Than Today and not smirk if you're familiar with the theme music from the BBC spoof comedy Look Around You, but all in all this is a fantastic set of songs. Fingers crossed the long overdue album is as good...

Links to buy the EP can be found on Nerina's Myspace page

MP3: Nerina Pallot - Girl On A Wire

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

You shall go to the ball...

Vested interest aside, here's a quick plug for the new March Greens EP, You Shall Go To The Ball. People say it's in a similar ballpark to Belle and Sebastian, so give it a listen if that's your bag. The whole EP is streaming over at, and it can be bought on iTunes and various other places - check out for all the info you could possibly need.

Friday, 24 April 2009

My 90s: Pulp - Dishes

Paul, my housemate during my second and third years at Uni, was (and possibly still is) a huge Pulp fan. I knew the hits (how could anyone in their teens in the mid-90s have missed Common People?), but listening to Paul's vinyl copy of This Is Hardcore on many a drunken night when it came out in 1998 was a revelation. "I am not Jesus, though I have the same initials / I am the man who stays home and does the dishes," sang Jarvis on what is surely one of his finest songs, 'Dishes'. A song with a guitar solo so brilliant yet so simple even I could play it. A tale of domestic drudgery which moves up a gear to the glorious ending: "And aren't you happy just to be alive? Anything's possible!"

MP3: Pulp - Dishes

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Feels like a storm's coming...

Don McGlashan is one of a very small handful of songwriters who occupy the highest strata of my music collection. A lot of this is due to the 1997 album he made with The Mutton Birds, Envy of Angels, a peerless collection of perfectly produced pop songs and the kind of melodies you can only dream of.

Following on from last summer's in-depth interview, I had the great pleasure of seeing him play in London last month, one of what were apparently his first ever solo shows, which is astonishing in itself given his lengthy career. At the show, a fine selection of Mutton Birds greats was pulled from the bag, interspersed with selections from his brand new album. I was lucky enough to get my hands on the new one, Marvellous Year, a few weeks before its NZ release date of 2nd March. To say it's a fantastic piece of work would be to downplay it, so here goes nothing: I think it's his finest collection since Envy. This is not to say the Mutton Birds' swansong Rain, Steam & Speed wasn't a fantastic album, because it truly was (and songs like Last Year's Shoes and Winning Numbers are grade-A pop tunes and will continue to be so), and it's not to say that Warm Hand, the intriguing solo debut from 2006, wasn't a satisfying bold new direction (largely eschewing the pop songs of yore for lengthier, more textural compositions) - it's just that Marvellous Year takes the best elements from all sides of his songbook and the result is truly stunning.

Picking highlights is tricky. Parts of Not Ready seems to hark back to one of the Mutton Birds' most sadly overlooked triumphs, No Telling When. You're The Song is a disarming ballad that on first listen sounds too easy but on subsequent plays makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end. Everything's Broken; Life's So Sweet is just downright awesome. Then there's Bad Blood, one of the story-songs he's so good at; this one finds him travelling on a bus with an unwanted fellow passenger who may or may not just be a malevolent alter-ego. 18th Day is a momentous piano ballad which sees Neil Finn provide beautiful layered harmonies. Don even chucks in his own version of Bathe In The River, after having had such huge success with the Hollie Smith-sung version from the 'No.2' film soundtrack. Radio Programmer flies out of the speakers at a pace even the Mutton Birds rarely hit, a tongue-in-cheek self-referential piece about how the titular programmer works out what's going to sound good on the radio: "Take for instance this one / By the Seven Sisters / It's gonna be a tough call..." Which reminds me, this album isn't strictly a solo record, it being billed as 'Don McGlashan and the Seven Sisters', the collective of musicians he's been backed by in recent years.

All in all, it's a phenomenally good record, and one that's going to continue to get a good thrashing on my stereos this year. Hopefully it'll build on the huge boost to his profile that his recent work with Neil Finn in both Crowded House and the recent 7 Worlds Collide project have given him.

Marvellous Year is released on Arch Hill Records in NZ on 2nd March. Get pre-ordering here. Hear Bad Blood on Don's Myspace page.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Crystal moon, the autumn leaves

A few items of interest...

Firstly, an album that passed under my radar - it only having been released in NZ, and on a tiny independent label at that - and only brought to my attention recently by a friend with exquisite taste and a good pedigree of recommendation :) Graeme Humphreys and Peter Keen were previously members of NZ indie-rock band the Able Tasmans, but in 2006 made an album as Humphreys & Keen. Called 'The Overflow', it's a truly astounding record, full of the kind of melodies that get under your skin and burrow in deep. Each song seemingly contains a whole barrage of hooks; even when you think you've got it sussed, another melodic twist comes along to sweep you off your feet. The songs are mostly based around a musical bed of rich piano, but wonderful arrangements - augmented by strings here and brass there - ensure a consistently brilliant and shifting musical outlook throughout. It really is a dream of a record. After a couple of months of constant listening, it's still revealing new secrets on every play, different songs establishing themselves as firm favourites. A selection from the album can be found at their Myspace - if you only stream one song, go for You Too, with its gorgeous strings.

If you need any further convincing that this album is an essential buy, here's an MP3 that'll seal the deal:

MP3: Humphreys & Keen - The End Of The Golden Weather

Buy The Overflow

Apologies to anyone who knows me, as the following statement will shock: I've been listening - voluntarily - to the BEE GEES. Oh yes. But wait, it's not what it seems. The ever-brilliant All Songs Considered podcast from NPR (an increasingly reliable source of fantastic new musical finds) played a tune from the Gibb brothers' 1969 concept (of sorts) album 'Odessa', which prompted an immediate purchase from 7digital (given that the only physical release appears to be a £30 deluxe box set - how deep is my love? Not £30 deep, that's for sure). The opening title track is probably the best - and strangest - song on the album, and worth buying on its own, but the rest of it is pretty fantastic. Hints of the Beatles, Love, the Beach Boys, the Zombies and the Kinks nestle alongside a very identifiable early take on the Bee Gees' trademark harmonies. I'm not venturing any further into their catalogue, mind, as I'm well aware of the disco horrors that lurk about a decade further on.

MP3: Bee Gees - Melody Fair

And finally, it's always fantastic when a favourite artist returns with some new material, and even more so when it's with an album so wonderful it puts most of their already-impressive back catalogue to shame. It appears David Mead's big push to be a big player on the indie scene with the potential pop crossover of 2006's Tangerine didn't work out, leading to his latest, Almost & Always, being pretty much given away digitally for free (well, in exchange for some email addresses). This isn't a musical last gasp however - Almost & Always is the classic-sounding album he's been hinting at for years. It's at once recognisably Mead while at the same time going somewhere completely different. Occasionally conjuring up the kind of musical imagery Gershwin provided for Woody Allen, this is a complete and utter triumph of songwriting. As opposed to Tangerine's everything-and-the-kitchen-sink production, Almost & Always sees stripped-back arrangements leaving space for the lush melodies and vocals to shine through. A fellow Mead enthusiast suggested that after just one listen, it was up there with Indiana in terms of being pinnacles of his discography. There's a good chance that after a few more plays it may even surpass that fantastic record. An utter beauty, and an early contender for album of the year.

MP3: David Mead - Little Boats