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...