This year’s top 20, in words, with albums 21-40 in lazy list form. People who haven’t been paying attention always say it’s been a bad year. People who buy more CDs than they ought to always say it’s been a good year. I think it’s been a very, very good year.
20. Dan Wilson – Free Life. If this had been available on eight-track cassette in the early 1970s, would my Dad have been playing it in his car alongside Abba and the Carpenters? It’s really that straightforward – a singer-songwriter writing well-crafted songs to sing along to. In the back, the kids sing along too. Nothing not to like about that.
19. The Innocence Mission – We Walked In Song. The reason that The Innocence Mission exist is to provide an aural definition of the word ‘gorgeous’ in the musical lexicon. They haven’t changed their sound in almost two decades, and there’s no reason for them to. Only their sudden conversion to an industrial goth-noise outfit would prevent me unquestioningly buying their perfect and elegiac discs for another 20 years.
18. The Watson Twins – Southern Manners. Imagine two artistically talented twin sisters from the US south making guitar-based music, and I bet you know what this harmonic-Americana eight-song CD sounds like before you’ve even heard it. On its cover the twins pose in silhouettes as a simulated vulva, overtly suggesting a tempting surface of beauty that doesn’t disappoint once you’ve immersed yourself inside. I am enamoured.
17. Laura Veirs – Saltbreakers. Another unsung singer who effortlessly stamps her own identity on successive albums of bitter-sweetness all draped in intricately acoustic guitars. Looks like a librarian, sings like a nightingale. Or a "nattingale", as she so charmingly warbles.
16. Feist – The Reminder. Mrs Stay-At-Home Indie-Pop latched onto Feist after seeing her on Saturday Night Live, and she was all set to buy this until I pointed out we already had it at home. Tsk, she only needed to pay attention a little to the vast pile of CDs by the stereo with the invisible ‘2007’ marker. I sometimes wonder what working women do with their spare mental space. They should stay at home, bake cakes, raise the kids, and make wonderfully dreamy, singalong music like Feist.
15. Tracey Thorn – Out Of The Woods. The first Tracey Thorn solo album, A Distant Shore, came out in 1982, and I used to listen to its solo acoustic meanderings while staring out my bedroom window hoping that the girl from three doors up would walk past, think I was deep and sensitive, then snog me. With Everything But The Girl intervening (between the two Thorn albums, not me and the girl from three doors up), it’s taken a quarter of a century for her second, but amazingly (seeing as EBTG have been, to my ears, largely dull) it’s been worth the wait. Left alone, she’s still an outstanding songwriter, even if now the backdrop’s all R&B arrangements and enhanced production values. So, none of the scratchy guitar and whiny voice that leant her first disc its fresh-girl genius, but a worthy follow-up, even if it’s all grown up.
14. Maria Taylor – Lynn Teeter Flower. A second sweet slice of what I’d happily call cake-shop pop if it wasn’t stranded so high up on the banks of the mainstream by the vagaries of misled taste. If the world was a just place, this kind of music would be going gold. Go on, try it. Honestly, cake’s really good for the soul.
13. Jesse Sykes And The Sweet Hereafter – Like Love, Lust And The Open Halls Of The Soul. No one seems to have heard of Jesse Sykes, yet every time I play her records, people ask me for her name. Her lisping, whispering voice creeps into ears and rests there like a transient and benign underground pleasure you know might just wake up one day and kill you from within. Not that I can think of any better ways to die.
12. Kristin Hersh – Learn To Sing Like A Star. This one had the benefit of a release early in the year, otherwise I’d just have filed it along with all the other mostly stunning Hersh albums on the shelf -- some peoples’ genius you end up taking for granted. But with the benefit of iPod shuffle, it just kept coming back, and getting better and better, and all the paranoid frenzy alternating with soothing bedtime threnodies came through with its usual depth of emotion and sheer, shocking brilliance.
11. Au Revoir Simone – The Bird Of Music. Every year needs a lo-fi, home made electronic album composed by unlikely musicians who just sat down and started harmonizing for the hell of it. Player instructions: start the drum machine, press a synth button, then sing along. Listener’s instructions: sit back and enjoy. Just occasionally, as on this disc, it works almost perfectly.
10. Steve Earle – Washington Square Serenade. One of those discs I bought because it was another Steve Earle album, and I usually buy the new Steve Earle album because I just feel that I ought to. That’s not the best reason to buy a CD, but this time it worked, with this being his best since the mighty collaboration with the Del McCoury Band a few years back. Could be that his sixth marriage, to country singer Alison Moorer, has given him an inspirational kick aside from misery and litigation. ‘City Of Immigrants’ is vibrant, political and celebratory singalong all in one.
9. Rilo Kiley – Under The Blacklight. Pristine pop. You start off hearing all kinds of semi-familiar tunes from songs you think you know but can’t quite pin down. You end up not caring, because the crystal clarity of Jenny Lewis’ vocal and all that backs her up make you play this disc on multi-repeat. How can a song sung by a woman about a man being seduced by a precocious 15-year-old sound so breezy and innocent?
8. Wilco – Sky Blue Sky. I can never quite grasp Wilco or why people, myself included, tend to deify them. I wouldn’t know where to start in their catalogue of achievement while trying to convert a reluctant listener. I couldn’t, off the top of my head, sing my favourite refrain off ‘Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.’ Yet if I could only take the CDs of one band on an east-to-west coast road trip, they’d be Wilco’s. I could listen to them for four days and four nights and still find something new in every song. At least I reckon I could. I should try it sometime and see.
7. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd’s Dog. A beefed up sound was definitely the way to go for the bearded wonder that is Iron & Wine. There’s the same quasi-mystical aura that surrounds his songs, but there’s more effort to build them up, take them places, and fade them out again. One review I read complained some of the songs went on too long, but for me these songs could meander on their hypnotic way for hours, provided I was in the mood for sitting back, shutting my eyes, and staring at the dark in a world of breathy vocals and weaving guitars.
6. The Shins – Wincing The Night Away. ‘Phantom Limb’ is song of the year, and the problem with producing a song so magnificent is usually that the rest of the disc can struggle to stay in touch. Mostly the distance is close enough to make this a successful, if more expansive and more ambitious, follow-up to previous triumphs. The words are either dead profound or they’re nonsense - either way, I haven’t a clue what these songs are about, but it really doesn’t matter. In pop, context is king.
5. Robert Wyatt – Comicopera. Wyatt shifts our ideas of perceived musical normality and allows us to receive sound across new waves. The crown prince of atonality resides in the town where I was born (Louth, in Lincolnshire) and I like the idea of all this weirdness being conceived in the air where I screamed my first complaints. At times playful, weirdly flat, and jazzy, but mostly just on its own perfectly tempered wold of nasal beauty altogether.
4. Brandi Carlile – The Story. Need a seat on the underground? Try hitting the high notes when you’re listening on your iPod. Passion and pop rolled into one, with more than enough edge to stop songs that could, in the hands of the wrong producer, have lapsed into AOR. Or maybe it is, and that’s what I’m into nowadays.
3. Magnolia Electric Co. – Sojourner Boxed Set. Most boxed sets are compilations, live sets or outtakes. There are very few that are effectively quadruple albums of entirely original material, plus documentary DVD, wrapping paper and forged medallion. On top of that, the quality of its slow-burning melancholy is maintained pretty much throughout, and Jason Molina’s fixation with earth’s orbital muse stands as the most productive man-to-moon relationship in musical history. Ache to Z.
2. The National – Boxer. Vocals that range from a murmur to a growl, backed by a band never short on ways to accentuate the mood within the melody. The National Sound is a national asset that deserves its own listening booth at the Smithsonian.
1. The New Pornographers – Challengers. With more hooks than a hardware shop, this deserves the year’s best album award for its consistently strong songs and its peppy pace. Makes you move, makes you want to sing, deludes you that you’re young. Empowerment pop of the highest order.
21. Jens Lekman – Night Falls Over Kortedala
22. Band of Horses – Cease To Begin
23. Dean & Britta – Back Numbers
24. Mary Gauthier – Between Daylight And Dark
25. Thurston Moore – Trees Outside The Academy
26. Anjani Thomas – Blue Alert
27. Josh Ritter – The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter
28. PJ Harvey – White Chalk
29. Ryan Adams – Easy Tiger
30. Evan McHugh – From The Second Chair
31. Jeremy Fisher – Goodbye Blue Monday
32. Caribou – Andorra
33. Over The Rhine – Trumpet Child
34. Zap Mama – Supermoon
35. Oliver Mtukudzi – Tsimba Itsoka
36. Sonia Leigh – Run Or Surrender
37. Richmond Fontaine – Thirteen Cities
38. Bright Eyes – Cassadaga
39. Of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?
40. Lucinda Williams – West
Other Years: 2006, 2004