Favourite albums of 2009: General roundup



Yes, it’s that time of year when us journo types all decide to compile lists of our favourite albums of the past year.

I know what you’re thinking – he should really make more of an effort and write a list of his favourite records of the decade, but I really haven’t got that much time on my hands – sorry.

Some of you will already have read the in-depth articles I’ve posted on a few of the albums that I fell in love with in 2009 – namely Richard Hawley: Truelove’s Gutter (my favourite album of the year), Soulsavers: Broken, Pet Shop Boys: Yes, Morrissey: Years of Refusal & Orphans and Vandals: I Am Alive and You Are Dead (my favourite debut album of the year).

There are, however, plenty of other releases that I adored this year, so, here, in no particular order, are a few of my favourites:

Wilco – Wilco (the album) : ‘Alt.country experimentalists add a welcome shot of sunshine Beatlesque pop to the mix’.

Dot Allison – Room 7 1/2:  ‘Scottish chanteuse teams up with Paul Weller and Pete Doherty for battered guitar pop tunes, plus country, soul and a Scott Walker cover – what’s not to like.’

Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career: ‘Spectoresque pop perfection – as warm as saxophones and honey in the sun’. 

Raveonettes – In and Out of Control: ‘Danish garage-rock duo on fine form – fuzzy, addictive, sugar-sweet,yet deliciously dark. Boys Who Rape (Should All Be Destroyed) anyone?’

Postmarks – Memoirs At The End Of The World: ‘Florida band who mix the sound of the Beachboys with John Barry for a swish, cinematic ’60s sound’.

Girls – Album: ‘Scuzzy, lo-fi Teenage Fanclub-meet-Jesus-and-Mary-Chain’indie guitar thrills from San Francisco. Hellhole Ratface was prom night pop of the highest order’.

Dave Rawlings Machine – A Friend of A Friend:  ‘Debut solo album from the Nashville guitarist has echoes of Dylan, a bluegrass cover of a Ryan Adams tune and the mighty, slow burning ballad Method Acting, which segues into a version of Neil Young’s Cortez The Killer. One for the dads.’

Shirley Bassey – The Performance: ‘Dame Shirl’s big comeback album – with a little help from some contemporary songwriters.  Don Black and David Arnold’s No Good About Goodbyes was the best Bond song that never was, the Manics’ Girl From Tiger Bay was epic stadium pop-rock, Richard Hawley’s After The Rain tugged at the heartstrings and the Pet Shop Boys’ grandiose The Performance of My Life was Shirl’s very own My Way’.

Shirley Lee – Shirley Lee: ‘Debut album from front man of cult London indie types Spearmint – soppy loser guitar pop never sounded better. Has plenty of songs about girls and also name checks The Lemonheads, banoffee pie and Brighton beach.’

And finally…… a nod to two of my mates – Louis Eliot and Alex Lowe, who both releasednew albums in 2009.

Louis Eliot & The Embers – ‘Kittow’s Moor’: ‘Officially released in Feb 2010, although available at gigs during 2009, the former Rialto mainman combines the thrill of the fair with Celtic folk influences. Loaded with rural imagery and poetic lyrics, the songs deal with love, loss, childhood memories and,er, drinking to excess. Mike Scott meets Morrissey. My favourite song on the album is just simply one of the best things Louis has ever written. Opener Runaway Night manages to capture some of Rialto’s tawdry, nocturnal melancholy and romantic longing (‘To the broken tune of an ice cream van, I wrote a song for you on the back of my hand. If you follow me, we can jump the lights, of a seaside town on a Saturday night. And when you hold me tight, it feels just like when you close your eyes on a motorbike.”) Wonderful stuff.’

Alex Lowe – ‘Hoboken Girl’: Alex Lowe’s fourth solo album, Hoboken Girl, saw him turning his back on the raw, rootsy Americana sound of 2006’s Step Forward All False Prophets and, instead, embracing classic pop influences.This time around, the former front-man of ‘90s indie-rockers Hurricane#1 wore his heart on his sleeve, rather than dragging it through a dusty desert town. Incredibly, Hoboken Girl was written in four days and recorded in only three. Largely acoustic, but complemented by co-producer Steve Ransome’s rippling keyboards and warm Hammond organ, it is Lowe’s most soulful record yet – simple, timeless melodies with lush, spacious arrangements.’

Favourite albums of 2009: Richard Hawley – Truelove’s Gutter



If there was one album I kept on coming back to this year, it was Richard Hawley’s exquisite late night masterpiece, Truelove’s Gutter.

Sheffield’s son of sadness made his darkest and most experimental work to date – Truelove’s Gutter was by no means an instant record – in fact it was quite difficult to deal with at first.You had to work at it, get to know it and explore it, but it was well worth the effort.  

Forsaking Hawley’s usual rockabilly stylings for lengthy instrumental passages, guitar solos and strange sounds (including a glass harmonica and musical saw), this was a moody, cinematic album with a sad, haunted, world-weary feel.

Opener As The Dawn Breaks set the scene perfectly – creeping up on the listener like the first rays of sunshine on a frosty winter morning. Hawley sings of ‘roofslates, hope hung on every washing line and a songbird’s melody’ – pure poetry.

The spiralling Remorse Code dealt with cocaine addiction, Soldier On sounded like Roy Orbison fronting Spiritualized (when the wall of guitars and strings kicks in at 2:45 is simply one of my favourite musical moments of 2009) and Don’t Get Hung Up In Your Soul was shadowy, melancholy country with an eerie undercurrent, thanks to a zither and David Coulter’s saw playing.

On a lighter note, the beautiful Open Up Your Door was a big orchestral pop ballad and first single,For Your Lover Give Some Time sounded like a standard from the ’50s or ’60s. Man, it could have been sung by Matt Monro or Sinatra.

Over a simple, sparse arrangement of just acoustic guitar, cello and violin, Hawley crooned this gorgeous, yet pithy, love song that he wrote especially
for his wife, Helen.

When he promises to drink a little less, give up cigarettes and come home early every now and then, it makes me weak at the knees.

In a press statement issued at the time, Hawley said: “I use a load of odd sounds on this album that are not heard on many other records.

“The sounds in my head on a lot of the tracks – I didn’t even know what they were called! I wanted it to be a listening experience from start to finish, where you couldn’t just pause it and go off and watch Coronation Street or
whatever. Sonically, it flows. It’s not jumping all over the place. It just has a mood that goes through the whole thing.”

It certainly does.

Favourite albums of 2009: Soulsavers – Broken



Soulsavers’ latest offering Broken was by no means an easy listen, but
it was one of the most atmospheric, haunting and downright brilliant
records I’d heard in a long time.
The third album from the English production duo of Rich Machin and Ian
Glover saw them reunited with gloom-monger Mark Lanegan (Screaming
Trees, Queens of The Stone Age) who lent his whiskey-soaked and
nicotine-ravaged vocals to the majority of songs.
Sheffield baritone Richard Hawley also put in an appearance, as did
Jason Pierce (Spiritualized), Mike Patton (Faith No More) and Gibby
Haynes (Butthole Surfers).

Yep, it was one hell of a (funeral) party, soundtracked by sinister
pysche-rock, sombre ballads,edgy trip-hop and spiritual soul and
gospel – an album that was both unsettling and beautiful.

You Will Miss Me When I Burn, written by Will Oldham,
was a piano and strings lament, with Lanegan crooning,
“When you have no-one, no-one can hurt you.”

If it didn’t move you, then truly you did not have a heart.
The twilight country shuffle of Shadows Fall (with Hawley on backing
vocals) was one of the highlights – all Midnight Cowboy harmonica and
‘weeping’ strings, while Pharoah’s Chariot (with Pierce) was a deathly
Nick Cave-esque track – with a mournful orchestral arrangement and
murderous twangin’ guitar.

There was also an epic take on Gene Clark’s Some Misunderstanding,
with some ragged Neil Young-style riffing.
Sometimes when I’m playing Broken I have an unsettling feeling that
maybe I’m listening to the sort of music that serial killers have on
their headphones when they’re going about their business.
Then to lighten the mood, I just look at the sleevenotes; ‘Recorded in
Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, London, Berlin, Sydney &
Stoke-on-Trent’. . .

Favourite albums of 2009: Orphans and Vandals – I Am Alive and You Are Dead



My favourite debut album of 2009 came from the best new band in London, Orphans and Vandals, who combined the epic feel of My Life Story with the tawdry, lo-rent glamour of Pulp, the cynicism of The Auteurs and the art-rock of the Velvet Underground.

Oh, and, more importantly, they had a female string section.

Orphans and Vandals are fronted by`singer/songwriter Al Joshua. Imagine Lou Reed, but if he was stuck between the boroughs of Camden and Islington, rather than walking the mean streets of New York.The five-piece had me transfixed at gigs throughout 2009 – and their album didn’t disappoint – perfectly capturing the edgy atmospherics of their live shows – an elegant, yet twisted, pop tour de force.

I was drawn in by Al’s tales of bed-sit dreaming, wet nights in New Cross, dirty sex with both men and women, Parisian nightlife and seaside cottage getaways in order to escape the loneliness of his King’s Cross box room.

Album highlight  – the beautiful, epic, poetic and unashamedly romantic Argyle Square – was one of my songs of 2009 – a twinkling Belle and Sebastian- style story song, with violin, glockenspiel, clarinet and a Dylanesque harmonica solo thrown in for good measure.

Liquor on Sunday was another favourite – all whoozy harmonium and faded gin palaces.  

Al talked his way through the songs in a Jarvis Cocker-esque delivery, or spat and snarled like Luke Haines. During the staggering, colossal Mysterious Skin, he even sang about someone ejaculating all over him.

So, if you were looking for a grandiose, seedy, yet beautiful, soundtrack to modern London life, then Orphans and Vandals had it, ahem,covered.

Favourite albums of 2009: Morrissey – Years of Refusal


Everyone grows out of their Morrissey phase??? except Morrissey.
That???s what comedian Sean Hughes once said, but I???m afraid I don???t agree with him. I???m 35 and I???m still in love with the Pope of Mope ??? perhaps more now than when I was, err, ???16, clumsy and shy???.
Yes ??? I???m throwing my arms around Morrissey. Why? Because he???s one of the only truly English pop eccentrics and great performers left – and he???s still making music that matters, courting controversy and dishing out pithy quotes like Manchester???s answer to Dorothy Parker.
My favourite recent one is: ???It will be worth being dead, just to get away from Victoria Beckham.??? I think we can all agree with those sentiments.
The last thing Chris Martin got het up about was probably the fact that he couldn???t get organic vegetables on the band???s rider. Whereas fellow vege Mozzer is still proclaiming meat is murder: ???Where would we be without it? The scent of dead animals. Death into your body. Hamburgers, yuk!???
Ah, it???s the way he tells ???em.
Seriously, in these dark times of retro-electro nonsense and lumpen indie-by-numbers, we need Mozzer more than ever. And quite frankly (Mr Shankly), his??latest studio??album, Years of Refusal,??was??one of his finest ever ??? the best thing he???s done since 1994???s Vauxhall and I ??? his solo masterpiece.
Unlike his last effort, the patchy Ringleader of the Tormentors, it was??more focused, urgent and direct ??? and, err, it didn't??feature any choirs of school kids.
It did, however, on the cover artwork, feature a creepy looking baby boy being held by a surly Mozzer, who appeared to be wearing some kind of, god forbid, hip-hop style markings on his arm. *Shudders*.
So, what about the music? Well, Mozzer, who, by the way??was 50 this year, (did he have an Unhappy Birthday?) sounded revitalised and rejuvenated.
On Ringleader, he sang of having ???explosive kegs between my legs??? ??? and this time around it sounded as if they???d gone off.
US alt.rock producer, Jerry Finn (Blink 182) who also worked on You Are The Quarry, gave the record plenty of balls. It started as it meant to go on, with Something Is Squeezing My Skull ??? a thrusting, turbo-charged rocker that could have come from Your Arsenal ??? his other solo career highlight.
???I???m doing very well,??? proclaimed Mozzer, over cranked-up guitars, on this ode to anti-depression drugs.
Next up, we were plunged straight into another full-on piledriver, Mama Lay Softly On The Riverbed, albeit with a thundering drum tattoo that sounded like an army marching into battle.
???Bailiffs with bad breath, I will slit their throats for you,??? promised Mozzer. Like a gentleman ganglord out to settle some old scores, he was??back in
business and he was??taking no prisoners.
And so it??went on, with more and more cracking, no-nonsense pop tunes that never overstayed their welcome.
Years of Refusal almost sounded like it could have been a Mozzer Greatest Hits collection, as most of the tracks would have??been great as singles.
When was the last time you heard anyone say that about a Morrissey studio album???Well, it was me, actually ??? in a pub in Camden in 1994, probably.
There was lovelorn melancholy (???I???m Throwing My Arms Around Paris???), Spaghetti Western-meets-???60s-death-disc (???When Last I Spoke To Carol???), epic balladry (???It???s Not Your Birthday Anymore???), creepy psych-rock (???Black Cloud???) and a rampant rockabilly blowout as a fitting finale – ???I???m OK By Myself???.
Who??were we to argue?
OK, to some, Mozzer is a past his sell-by date pantomime act, who???s retreading his former glories (And let???s face it, if you???ve never liked him, you???re not going to start now, are you?).
Well, I don???t believe that he???s now purely ???end of the pier??? – (although, in a stroke of genius, he did play a gig on the end of Great Yarmouth Pier ??? it was my favourite concert of 2009).
Mozzer is still a vital force in British pop music and one of our Greatest Living Englishmen.
He hinted in a recent interview that this album could be his last. Let???s hope not.
???You???re gonna miss me when I???m gone,??? he growled on the wonderfully arrogant new song All You Need Is Me.

Too bloody right we are.

Favourite albums of 2009: Pet Shop Boys – Yes



The Pet Shop Boys’ tenth studio album Yes was their best since 1990’s Behaviour, itself one of the finest records of that decade.

No-one does intelligent pop better than the Pet Shop Boys, and Yes was their poppiest album since 1993’s Very.

In fact, Yes was, ahem, very Pet Shop Boys. Never mind Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat, on the anthemic recent single All Over The World, they actually (see what I’ve done there) mixed rave bleeps with a Tchaikovsky sample. Very Pet Shop Boys, indeed, but then that’s the essence of PSB isn’t it?

When Neil Tennant’s clever, cultured approach collides with Chris Lowe’s love of the dancefloor, it creates the wittiest pop songs since The Smiths. The Queen is Dead meets queens of pop, if you like.

Which brings us neatly to Johnny Marr, who famously years ago described himself as, ‘the Carlos Alomar of the Pet Shop Boys’. He cropped up playing guitar and harmonica on several tunes from Yes – the ‘60s psyche-pop of Beautiful People (Mamas and Papas doing the theme from Midnight Cowboy, anyone?), the jangly riff on Did You See Me Coming?, which must (J Arthur) rank alongside Love Comes Quickly and So Hard as one of the best PSB innuendoes yet, and the HI-NRG Pandemonium – originally written for Kylie and based on Kate Moss and Pete Doherty’s stormy affair, it was the perfect mix of PSB, Stock, Aitken & Waterman and Motown.

Bolstering the PSB’s indie credibility was Owen Pallet, string arranger for Arcade Fire and Last Shadow Puppets, who worked his orchestral magic on Beautiful People and the epic Legacy – a grandiose closer that was inspired by Tony Blair’s departure and featured techno noodlings and a bizarre rant about a Carphone Warehouse salesman.

The largely commercial, chart-friendly sound of Yes wasn’t surprising, considering it was produced by Girls Aloud hit maker Brian Higgins/Xenomania, who also co-wrote three of the songs.

My own personal highlight, the moody The Way It Used To Be, is easily one of the greatest songs in the PSB’s vast canon of work. A melancholy tale of love gone wrong, it sounded like it could have come off Abba’s The Visitors album, albeit with a New York house music makeover.

PSB meets Girls Aloud? Ooh, it’s like The Sound of The Underground – the London Underground. That’ll be West End Girls Aloud, then.