Tag Archives: Wilco

Top 50 albums of 2009

In last month’s Q magazine, I read with some surprise and not a little disappointment, their (rather early) list of the top 50 albums of 2009. Although these lists are by their very nature incredibly subjective, I found myself taking issue with the vast majority of their choices. Lily Allen at number 7? Kasabian at number 1? The Decemberists skulking around just outside the 50? All quite laughable.

But at least it prompted me to start thinking about my own choices, and encouraged me to compile my list. At the outset, I will explain that it contains several albums that were not released this year – in fact, in at least one case, not even this century. However, they are all albums that are new to me this year, that I had not previously heard until 2009. In the interests of fairness I did try to keep the older ones out of the top 20, and in fact only one managed to sneak in.

I will present the list in full, without comment, and maybe revisit that decision and add a brief note to each one when I have more time.

I’d be more than happy to receive your thoughts on my choices, and your suggestions of glaring omissions.

In the interests of suspense, I will present them in ascending order of merit, from 50 to 1.

50)  Staff Benda Bililli – Tres, Tres Fort

A group of paraplegic street musicians who live in the grounds of Kinshasa Zoo in Kenya, including a 17 year-old performing incredible guitar-like solos on a one-string electric lute he designed and built himself out of a tin can. What’s not to love?

49)  Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

My introduction to the wonders of Wilco – the American Radiohead, according to some.

48)  Vetiver – Tight Knit

One of many new bands I discovered this year, and a pleasant record, but probably not their best. Enjoyed their set in the Big Top at the End of The Road Festival in September.

47)  The Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin

If more of the songs were as good as the title track, this could have been a top 20 contender. An odd mix of lo-fi nu-folk (a la Fleet Foxes) and growly mad stomping blues (like Tom Waits let loose in a potting shed).

46)  The Broken Family Band – Welcome Home, Loser

One of three of theirs in the 50, and full of very fine songs with the trademark BFB witty lyrics and a fab cover photo and title to boot.

45)  Florence and The Machine – Lungs

I resisted this until late November, as all the hype surrounding Florence, La Roux, Little Boots et al and their electro-pop revolution had made we want to give them all a wide berth. However, Florence doesn’t really fit that mould, is clearly the pick of the bunch and this is quite a fabulous album. Great pair of lungs too.

44)  Taylor Swift – Fearless

Stands out from the rest in this list as rather poppy and young, but Ms Swift does write a fine tune and lyric. Although this was purchased for Mrs Cook’s birthday the sheer catchy-ness of these songs has infected me too.

43)  Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Undoubtedly the best album title in the list, and packed with some fantastic songs. As ever with Yo La Tengo, they manage to sound like at least five different bands over the course of the same record. Never a dull moment.

42)  Cat Power – The Greatest

Spurred on by her great version of ‘Amazing Grace’ on the ‘Dark Was The Night’ compilation, I got this for a half price itunes bargain and was not in the least disappointed. Great voice, great piano, and a number of fine songs.

41)  Great Lake Swimmers – Great Lake Swimmers

Haven’t had time to listen to this one as much as the other two in the list by this fine Canadian band, but their debut showed signs of the huge promise that has been fulfilled on the subsequent records. Folky acoustic songs of the highest order.

40)  Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara

This one had me from the opening seconds of the opening song ‘Your Rocky Spine’, discovered on Spotify on my birthday using my new laptop speakers. Was enthralled by this album for most of that afternoon. Sounded even better with the backdrop of the Canadian Rockies that inspired it on our trip in June.

39)  Woodpigeon – Songbook

Another Canadian band, and one of my first Spotify discoveries. ‘Death by Ninja (a Love Story)’, ‘A Sad Country Ballad For A Tired Superhero’ and ‘A Hymn For 2 Walks In Different Cities’ are all quite brilliant songs, in very different ways. Fast becoming a favourite band of mine.

38)  The Broken Family Band – Please And Thank You

Their most recent, and sadly their last album as they split up in October. The usual reliably great tunes, combined with the occasional barbed lyric, this would have been higher but for the fact I haven’t listened to it as much as my favourite of theirs, ‘Balls’, that appears further up the list.

37)  Band Of Horses – Cease To Begin

So much fuss is made of the Fleet Foxes, but I actually much prefer their Sub Pop label-mates BOH: there is more to the music, the instrumentation is better and the songs are a bit more interesting than the Foxes pastoral by numbers. For me, not as immediately satisfying as their debut, which appears higher up, but definitely worth a listen or several.

36)  John Martyn – Solid Air (Remastered)

Sadly I’d never heard any of John Martyn’s music until after he died earlier this year – this remastered version of one of his most popular records was a great starting point. ‘May You Never’, ‘Over The Hill’ and ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ are all stand-out tracks and I love his distinctive guitar playing style.

35)  The Acorn – Glory Hope Mountain

Checked this out after a very good set they played at the End Of The Road Festival: intriguing acoustic rock – a bit of a grower.

34)  Cage The Elephant – Cage The Elephant

Brash, noisy, full of energy and highly enjoyable.

33)  Bill Callahan – Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle

Love the cover, love the title, love his voice, adore ‘Rococo Zephyr’ and this would have been higher except one or two tracks are a bit too weird for my taste.

32)  Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Think I need to give this more time, especially as many people have raved about it, but it is a step up from her debut and contains some great moments.

31)  She Keeps Bees – Nests

Another itunes bargain following a sterling closing set at the EOTR Festival, this is well worth checking out. A band to watch out for.

30)  The Decemberists – The Crane Wife

My ultimate discovery of the past year, as regular readers will know, Portland, Oregon’s finest are very much my favourite band these days. This was the first album of theirs I heard and there are a number of outstanding tracks here, such as ‘Crane Wife 3’, ‘The Shankhill Butchers’, ‘O Valencia’ and ‘Yankee Bayonet’. A good starting point for new listeners, but not my favourite, as will become apparent.

29)  The Duke & The King – Nothing Gold Can Stay

Would have been much further up the top 30 if every track had been as good as ‘If You Ever Get Famous’, one of my favourite songs of the year. Sadly, only one or two other tracks come close to matching it, although I suspect this record’s a grower and I need to give it more time. They were fantastic live at the End Of The Road Festival in September when they added a lot more punch and panache to these stripped-down songs.

28)  Conor Oberst & The Mystic Valley Band – Outer South

Any record featuring Conor Oberst’s distinctive vocals and trademark lyrical dexterity is always going to get in my top 30. This year he manages it twice with two different, new bands. Haven’t given this one as much of a listen as The Monsters Of Folk, but a good set of songs as ever.

27)  Regina Spektor – Far

As with so many of the albums in this list, this one started as a speculative Spotify selection, and over the course of several listens to this captivating set of songs and Spektor’s quirkily endearing vocals, I grew too fond of it to only have access to it via my computer. Well worth a listen if you’ve never heard of her before, and not only for her dolphin impression on ‘Folding Chair’ and beat box ending on ‘Eet’.

26)  The Broken family Band – Balls

I discovered this album in the middle of the Summer and just couldn’t stop listening to it. Some of the most acerbic and barbed but hilarious lyrics I’ve ever heard are matched to some of the most beautiful, perky and downright hummable tunes. ‘It’s All Over’ and ‘Alone in the Make-Out Room’ are absolute solid-gold standouts but there really isn’t a bad track here. If you’ve never heard this record, Spotify it immediately!

25)  First Aid Kit – Drunken Trees

OK, so strictly speaking this is an EP, but with 8 tracks and 3 bonus videos on the download version, I think it merits inclusion. One of the acts I’m sad to have missed at The End Of The Road Festival, these Swedish sisters have a great way with harmony, are talented instrumentalists and write their own interesting songs. Having said that, the best track here is their stunning cover of Fleet Foxes’ ‘Tiger Mountain Peasant Song’.

24)  Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Many high profile musicians claim Grizzly Bear as their favourite band, which always makes me a bit skeptical. Having tried and failed to get my ears around their previous album ‘Yellow House’ on Spotify I held out for a while on this, their latest, despite reading many rave reviews. When my resistance was eventually worn down by a very good track included on one of the free CDs from ‘The Word’ magazine and a Spotify test drive I started to see what the fuss was all about. A bit like ‘Bitte Orca’ by Dirty Projectors higher up this list, this is a record that challenges the listener and broadens your musical perspective as a reward.

23)  Band Of Horses – Everything All The Time

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m indebted to one of my brother’s friends for recommending Band Of Horses, and they turned out to be one of my favourite discoveries of the year. This is their first album, and my favourite of the two so far. Lots of great songs to choose from here, but the guitar riffs in ‘Weed Party’ are sufficient on their own to make me want to learn how to play that elusive instrument despite my complete lack of musical skill.

22)  The Decemberists – Picaresque

Of all the albums in this list you’re unlikely to find one with a better or more flamboyant opening track than Picaresque’s ‘The Infanta’. From the initial rumbling jungle sounds, to the tenor warbling at the grand finale this song is a master-class in showing-off.

21)  The Airborne Toxic Event – The Airborne Toxic Event

20)  Joyce, Nana Vasoncelos & Mauricio Maestro – Visions Of Dawn

19)  Monsters Of Folk – Monsters Of Folk

18)  Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

17)  Great Lake Swimmers – Lost Channels

16)  Woodpigeon – Treasury Library Canada

15)  Muse – The Resistance

14)  Slow Club – Yeah So

13)  Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

12)  Wilco – Wilco The Album

11)  The Leisure Society – Sleeper

10)  Emmy The Great – First Love

9)  Joe Gideon & The Shark – Harum Scarum

8)  Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

7)  Loney Dear – Dear John

6)  Various Artists – Dark Was The Night

5)  Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

4)  The Cave Singers – Welcome Joy

3)  Loney Dear – Loney, Noir

2)  Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

1)  The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

GBA, GAB!

Happy 4th July! God Bless America (GBA).

God Bless America!

God Bless America!

It’s Independence Day, so to celebrate and mark the occasion, today’s focus is on Great American Bands (GAB).

I’ve said before that the vast majority of my favourite bands hail from the North American Continent, and leaving the Canadian contingent aside just for today, here’s my ten of the best from the US of A.

The Decemberists

The Decemberists

The Decemberists

No surprise there if you’ve read the previous post. Hailing from Portland, Oregon, a simply brilliant band who make intelligent, beautiful music.

Finest Hour: The Hazards of Love, though Picaresque and The Crane Wife run it close

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady

Feted by many as ‘The World’s Greatest Bar Band’ and often compared to Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, this bunch originally formed in Minneapolis but are currently based in New York. I would love to see them live more than just about any other band.

Finest hour: Boys and Girls in America, but last year’s Stay Positive is also excellent.

Wilco

Wilco

Wilco

I was a bit late discovering Wilco, often described as ‘The American Radiohead’ but I’m very glad that I caught up. Am enjoying working my way through their back catalogue, and very impressed by their latest album which I’ve listened to for the past two days on Spotify and will be buying soon. As well as sounding great, the cover features a photograph of a camel in a party hat. You just don’t see that often enough.

Finest hour: Wilco [the album], their latest, but Yankee Hotel Foxtrot and Sky Blue Sky are also very good.

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

Bright Eyes

Sadly no more, but singer songwriter Conor Oberst has moved on to join forces with his new Mystic Valley Band. His vocal stylings are musical Marmite, but he sure has a way with words and writes fine tunes to match.

Finest hour: Either I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning or Cassadaga – the first made a big impression on me, but the second possibly has the better songs.

Midlake

Midlake

Midlake

From Denton, Texas, this band are nowhere near as well-known or popular as their music deserves. They’ve only made two albums in almost ten years together, but the most recent of which, recorded in 2006 is a rare gem: one of those albums you play again and again and never get tired of. For me, its mellow sounds will forever be associated with happy memories of driving through the Rocky Mountain National Park in Sept 2007.

New album should be released later this year.

Finest hour: The Trials of Van Occupanther – classic album, genius cover.

Interpol

Interpol

Interpol

I first saw these New York rockers on TV, playing Glastonbury in 2005, and they really blew me away. Sometimes overshadowed by fellow NYC band The Strokes, I reckon this lot deserve much wider acclaim. I harbour a fond dream of seeing them play live in New York one day – they’ve never been touring whenever I’ve been there.

Finest hour: Antics will always be my favourite album, but Our Love To Admire is also well worth a listen.

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Kings of Leon

Finally this year, people in the USA have realised what a great band these guys are. I remember excitedly showing their first album to some American friends in 2005 and asking them what they thought – they’d never heard of the band and I was really surprised. It soon became apparent that they were much better known in the UK, something they celebrated in the song ‘Fans’ on their third album ‘Because of The Times’. Thanks to the huge success of their fourth, Only By The Night, America has now caught up.

Finest hour: Youth and Young Manhood – the first and the best. Only By The Night has some great songs, but has suffered from radio overkill.

Spoon

Spoon

Spoon

Another Texan band, and another group who deserve much more acclaim and success. Six albums in, and they’re not anywhere near as well known as many of the others listed here, particularly outside the States.

Finest hour: Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, album number six, released in 2007 and well worth checking out if you’ve yet to discover them.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Back to New York, and the only band in my top ten to feature a female singer. But what a singer. Karen O is quite a force of nature, particularly live, and clearly born to lead a band. Have reaped rave reviews for their latest album, and rightly so, it’s a real humdinger and one of the best this year so far.

Finest hour: It’s Blitz! But also worth checking out Fever To Tell.

Vampire Weekend

vampire weekend

Vampire Weekend

The youngest and newest band on the list, they also hail from New York, having formed whilst at Columbia University. OK, so they’ve only made one album so far, their self-titled debut in 2007, but what an album. Mixing intelligent indie rock with African musical styles, it’s a happy, upbeat celebration and was one of my favourite albums of last year.

Finest hour: Vampire Weekend

Well, that’s my ten. I’m sure you’ll have your own opinions, and be flabbergasted that I missed out whoever. Feel free to let me know via the comments facility. And if you discover just one of these great bands for the first time after reading this, I’ll be delighted.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

Spotify update

It's fabulous. And free!

It's fabulous. And free!

In the past week several people have informed me that they have downloaded and are using Spotify as a result of reading this blog, which is really pleasing. At least one brave soul had also been listening to some of my recent recommendations – thanks Jim! As a result, I thought it was about time to write another article updating you with the latest developments surrounding the Swedish streaming sensation.

At the end of April there was an interesting interview on the Guardian’s Digital Content Blog with Paul Brown, Spotify’s new UK managing director. Worth a read, but some of the main points he touched on were:

  • There are now more than a million registered users in the UK
  • A “decent proportion” are paying for the service (either £0.99 per day or £9.99 per month)
  • They have launched a partnership with 7 Digital to sell downloads which is likely to expand
  • They are looking to extend the range of quality content available, including things like Peel sessions that were locked up by radio contracts
  • They are looking seriously at portability and specifically, paid services available on the iphone.

Spotify and I

From a personal viewpoint, using Spotify for the past two months has transformed my relationship with music, in terms of how I listen and what I listen to.

For a start, it’s proving to be a solid gold ‘try before you buy’ tool and more effective than any other I have used. For the record I have actually bought more albums than usual during that period (although that’s partly due to birthday vouchers etc) so listening to streamed music for free has not stopped me buying music, it has just helped me make even better choices.

I roadtested and later purchased the following excellent albums:

  • Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
  • The Decemberists – The Crane Wife, Picaresque
  • Great Lake Swimmers – Ongiara, Lost Channels
  • Vetiver – Tight Knit
  • Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
  • Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, Being There
  • Staff Benda Bilili – Tres Tres Fort
  • Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

On the other hand, I chose not to buy a few others after giving them a Spotify spin (U2 and Doves take the walk of shame – although I did download “Kingdom of Rust”).

It is also a fantastic way to discover bands you’ve not heard before. Before Spotify I was not really aware of The Decemberists, Great Lake Swimmers, My Morning Jacket or Wilco and had never even heard of Cara Dillon or Staff Benda Bilili. The first couple have fast become two of my very favourite bands and I’m gradually working my way through their impressive back catalogues.

Spotify is also a fast and efficient record identifier. Last week Nic mentioned a couple of times that she’d heard a song on the radio she really liked and wanted to download it from itunes. Only problem was she had no idea of the artist, only a rough idea of the title. Thankfully that was enough, and within about 20 seconds I’d discovered the song in question. In the days before Spotify it would have taken a great deal longer to track it down and may have been quite a frustrating process.

If you’re a new user you might be too spoilt for choice to decide what to listen to, faced with such a huge array of great music. If that’s the case, help is at hand. There are a number of web sites where people are sharing the playlists they have compiled, and two of the best are Spotify Playlists and ShareMyPlaylists. Once you’ve got the hang of it of course, you can join in the fun by sharing your own selections.

I haven’t got that far yet, as I’m still wading my way through all the albums I have identified from reviews in Q and The Word magazines.

What price freedom?

I’m beginning to wonder what we ever did without Spotify to be honest, and I can’t believe that (at least for now) it’s still free. The adverts have become slightly more irritating but an occasional 15 seconds of Iggy Pop shouting on behalf of an insurance company is a small price to pay for so much great music.

However, as the company explores more revenue streams and looks to develop its business model they will undoubtedly try to tempt more of us to pay for the privilege. Back in March if you’d asked me if I’d pay £9.99 per month for the premium service I would have resolutely said “Never!”. But if that price were to cover an ad-free service and unlimited downloads as is the current rumour, I’d have to give the proposition some serious thought.

And so would Apple!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,