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in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' Ben Howarth provides an alternative and personal list of Albums of the Decade
As I alluded to in this space a month ago, it has been a cracking year for music (or at least for my kind of music - 'The X Factor', I hear, has been of a lower standard than usual).
As it is December, the urge to compile a list of favourite album has swelled up inside the nation’s music journalists again (it doesn’t hurt that a list of this kind takes up lots of space, but doesn‘t require any real work). As it’s the end of a decade as well, that urge has become especially urgent.
I admit, its taken up most of my waking thoughts for the past few weeks, and I doubt I’m alone. Look around you - during December, people of your acquaintance will be stumbling through seemingly normal lives, buying presents and getting blind drunk at office parties, while at the back of their minds one small, insistent question lurks: what are the albums of the year? And that’s just the beginning, soon we have to know more: best reissue? best track? best live show?
Online and in print, the urge has not escaped anyone. Long lists, with remarkable levels of consensus, have already appeared in 'NME', 'Uncut', 'The Observer' and at the square-eyed bible 'Pitchforkmedia'. The best album of the decade, therefore, might be the Strokes’ debut; the White Stripes’ ‘White Blood Cells’ ; the Streets’ ’Original Pirate Material’ or Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’. Or it might even be my own choice, Lambchop’s delightful ‘Nixon’.
Fun as all this is, I can’t help but feel that something is missing. These lists aren’t identical, but they are remarkably similar. The same faces keep popping up in every one. It is sad to think how many albums of equal merit are being written out of history because they didn’t barge their way into the critical consensus.
So, I present to you my own alternative list of unassuming albums, perhaps not fashionable enough for professional critics and accordingly left out of the album of the decade polls, but far too good to be forgotten by listeners. It’s a personal selection, and it may very well not match yours, but here goes:
First up, comes Drever, McCusker, Woomble’s ‘Before the Ruin’ (2008), on which Idlewild’s Roddy Woomble teamed up with guitarist Kris Drever and multi-instrumentalist John McCusker on an album of rich, lush folk songs. This record demonstrated the remarkable strength of Britain’s modern folk scene - generally ignored by indie fans in favour of dippy hippies with acoustic guitars and some stolen Tyrannosaurus Rex songs. ‘Before The Ruin’ was honest and delicately beautiful.
Another folkie, Kathryn Williams, produced a consistent run of lovingly produced acoustic ballads. But her best was an album of covers, ‘Relations’ (2004), on which she rediscovered her love for music by adding her own touch to a brilliantly selected set of songs, taking in Leonard Cohen, Pavement, Ivor Cutler, Jackson Browne, Nirvana and Tim Hardin. She proved, in one swoop, that covers albums could be as adventurous as playing original songs.
The beneficiaries of the 90's alt-rock boom had to shuffle gently out of the limelight during this decade, but many produced work that far surpassed their hits. The Eels combined their distinctive quirks with the sadness of E’s family life on ‘Daisies Of The Galaxy’ (2000), sounding like no one else. Pearl Jam gave up trying to please metal fans on ‘Riot Act’ (2003), producing an understated gem that was never likely to get great reviews, but pleased a certain kind of listener immensely.
Mark Lanegan drew plaudits for his work with Isobel Campbell and Queens of the Stone Age, but the real gold came on his collaboration with ex-Afghan Whig Greg Duuli as the Gutter Twins. ‘Saturnalia’ (2008) was dark and smoky, but surprisingly tuneful. It ranks as the highlight of Lanegan’s already impressive career.
There were also some bands that nobody seemed to notice who lit up my decade. Lorna, who record their albums at home in Nottingham, merged lovely little pop songs with film soundtrack lushness. More people should have bought their second album, ‘Static Patterns and Souvenirs’ (2005). Meanwhile, the Beauty Shop, who didn’t survive to make a third album, took the simple option of merging Nirvana with blues-country. With melody and wit, their second album ‘Crisis Helpline’ (2004) has never sounded tired.
There were a few sparkling moments in genres I don’t much care for anymore. The Beastie Boys were apparently guilty of looking backwards when they made ‘To The 5-Boroughs’ (2004), but it didn’t bother me. It avoided all the usual hip-hop pitfalls, and sounded lively, human and (most importantly) fun. Emo crashed and burned but, before that, it did allow the magnificent, unlucky Rydell to make two great albums: ‘Per Ardua Ad Astra’(2001) was the more tuneful of the two, while ‘Hard On The Trail’ (2003) allowed them to celebrate their memories of the British hardcore scene. Things might have been different had their US tour not been due to start on September 11th 2001.
But, the most consistently inventive and likeable music of this decade came from one man: Neil Hannon. He was vindicated this year by the deserved acclaim for his charming set of cricket songs as part of the Duckworth Lewis Method. But critics still seem unable to look his past his walk-on roll in the tail-end of Britpop.
Don’t make the same mistake. ‘Regeneration’ (2001) was a perhaps-mistaken return to his indie-rock roots, but his lyrical scope far outreached Travis or Coldplay. Take, for example, this couplet on organised religion - “the cars in the churchyard are shiny and German; completely at odds with the theme of the sermon”. Next, ‘Absent Friends’ (2004) saw the string-section return, and his most natural set of tunes was the result. ‘Victory for the Comic Muse’ (2006) was simply outrageous, combining chart-pop, mournful ballads, new-wave, prog, Krautrock, show tunes and opera into an astonishing song cycle. How he dreams this stuff up, I can only imagine.
Thanks Neil, and thanks to everyone reading, Have a good Christmas, and I shall be back in the new year, when - so the rumour has it - a new Divine Comedy album will finally be ready. I can’t wait.