Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Lest the Decade Leave You Listless

Thank you for suggestions about albums that should make the list of the best records of the decade. I have done some revising and ended up with a list of twenty. Ordering is always the tough part, but I think I am sufficiently happy about this to post it. A list like this ultimately says more about the person compiling it, in my case someone for whom the time period has coincided with that of my adolescence. The decade started two days after my 14th birthday and now I am 24. I have found that a lot of the albums that still mean incredibly much to me are from the first half of the decade, which was when my musical tastes formed. Several of those records I may not have discovered until a few years after they came out though, so actually I should have listed the year I first heard them. Also, surprisingly many of these bands have become people I have met or in some cases even got to know. Which is a good thing of course, since one's relation to one's favourite albums is a personal one in the first place. In fact there are only seven here that I haven't met a member of, and nine that I haven't seen play live. Here is the list, with a few words about each item.

1. The Clientele - The Violet Hour (2003)
The Clientele have released four albums so far, all in this decade, and they would all deserve a place on here. So them getting the first spot is not solely due to the merits of The Violet Hour. But since I had to pick one album I chose this over the perhaps superiorly recorded and arranged subsequent albums. It was also the first I got to know, having discovered them in 2002, so of course it was exciting to 'be there' as it was released. Another reason is that this is the only album of theirs sporting their 'original' sound. The basic three-piece with some guitar overdubs. Like Galaxie 500, they proved there is so much one can do with this basic setting, when all three musicians work together. It is also the Clientele album that contains their longest song, "The House Always Win", which I have been fortunate enough to hear live, on my own request. I'm thankful I've got to see them four times this decade, got to interview them the second time round, and have enjoyed talking to at least Alasdair and James the last three. The personalities of the band members perhaps shouldn't be allowed to influence this list, but I can't stop it.

2. Camera Obscura - Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (2002)
In 2003, Camera Obscura seemed like a viable alternative to B&S, who had started down the path to a new sound with Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Underachievers Please Try Harder was the first album I got, but I was quick to pick up their debut album as well. Perhaps the songwriting had improved on their second album, but Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi seemed more endearing in its more unified sound and Tracyanne's still undeveloped voice. Furthermore, it was even closer to the early B&S, with whom they had once shared a drummer, and Stuart Murdoch was said to have 'produced' the record, as well as writing the lush string arrangements for "Eighties Fan". What would they have become without this endorsement? I think they released an album at just the right time. They debuted with their If You're Feeling Sinister, if you will. Judging by their early singles, had they released a Tigermilk before that, it wouldn't have been nearly as compelling. The single version of "Eighties Fan" really sounds tame compared to the album recording. The first time I went to Glasgow, I got to meet Gavin who still worked in Avalanche, but it took until the summer of 2006 before I got to see them play, by which time they had stopped performing most of their early material.

3. The Fairways - Is Everything All Right? (2000)
I was relatively late to pick up on The Fairways, well at least until after they had split up. Since then I have been obsessed with all of Kenji's projects, including Skypark, Uni, The Young Tradition and Clayhips. This album is the closest he ever got having a real, organic group around him, the fruit of which was one of the best recorded and most solid albums ever. I would have liked to see Skypark's material recorded in the same fashion, but on this album it is still Kenji's beautifully breathy voice and Leavitt's clear and full lead guitar that take the main stage. I finally got to meet Kenji in July, now strangely enough as Shelflife Records label mates. But unfortunately I will never get to see The Fairways live.

4. Belle & Sebastian - Fold Your Hands Child, You Walk Like a Peasant (2000)
Unlike Reeling At All, who also have this album on a similar list, my relationship to this album is not very problematic. After all, I didn't hear B&S until 2002 I think, and listened to the first four albums with exactly the same expectations and on the same conditions. Naturally, I could only accept things that older B&S fans would find peculiar, such as the ridiculously long album title, the several songs not written and sung by Stuart and the slightly different sound. And although I don't love it as unconditionally all the way through as I do the first three records, it was still immensely important to me. Those four albums had a combined effect on me that I still think is more important than anything that has affected me in my life. Perhaps it is idiotically romantic to call a musical thing the most important thing in one's life, or maybe just selfish. But it is equally impossible for me to rate this album in a rational way. I have been forced to give it a number here, but really that doesn't mean more than giving my right arm a #4 in a list of my body parts, ordered by importance.

5. The Lucksmiths - Why That Doesn't Surprise Me (2002)
Along with say, B&S, Hefner and Pavement (and yes, probably Bright Eyes as well), The Lucksmiths was among the most important bands to me for a few years. Only months after hearing B&S I borrowed this album at the library in town, where I used to go to take out 10 new cds every other week. It seems forever imbued with the warmth and sunshine of that summer, the uncommonly full bass guitar as round and bouncy as the sand on our local beach. Again, this album was recorded by the time the group had perfected the recording and mixing process, making it sound different than previous, perhaps more popular records among the Lucksmiths fanbase. After all, they'd been together for about 10 years at this point, and not surprisingly they'd left behind that sometimes tinny sound and had muted the outrageous witticisms slightly. While still quite basic, the songwriting here is impeccable and along with the first B&S albums, this is what I looked to when I tried to learn how to play guitar. Luckily The Lucksmiths (sorry, it rubs of easily) like Sweden and I got to see them here three times before their final European tour this year, on which I (incredulously) got to support them twice. It was truly amazing to spend two days together with these guys, who bring a new meaning to 'nice'.

6. Language of Flowers - Songs About You (2004)
2004 was another important year, during which I started uni and pretty much never saw any of my school mates again. A large part of the year was soundtracked by Language of Flowers, whom I had heard started out in Belfast of all places. Like many bands that I discovered at the time, I first heard them through the then essential radio show P3 Pop on national radio, at the time presented by Hanna Fahl (later in Kissing Mirrors). The song was "Tara Mascara", which sounds slightly different than the rest of the album, but perhaps closest to what they wanted to sound like. I vaguely remember The Smiths being mentioned on the radio, and when I later got to interview them (for the student radio) they mentioned The Smiths, Heavenly and (particularly their lead guitarist) Jim Beattie-era Primal Scream as bands they wanted to sound like. It is an archetypal indiepop album, but to me it sounds like neither of those groups. In a review I wrote of the album (maybe the first proper one I ever wrote) I likened them instead to Lush, due to the chorus-tinged guitar sound. Lush was a band I had listened to plenty in 2004 and 2003, and Songs About You (including "Tara Mascara", but excluding "Christmas") could well have been the last Lush album, had it sounded a bit more like Split, but still been as poppy. Language of Flowers was always a band better at drinking than playing live (even though they tried to combine these two practices on occasion), but I much enjoyed both gigs I saw them do. Two of the members have carried on making music, check out Help Stamp Out Loneliness if you haven't already heard them.

7. Vivian Girls - Vivian Girls (2008)
In the future, I predict it will be difficult to justify the prominent position of this record. But at the time (and still now to some extent) VG was just a band I instinctively and wholeheartedly loved, in the same way I had loved The Ramones in high school. There is no question that the album was a watershed, and it was also my natural favourite of last year. Back then a lot of the hip indie music (cf. Pitchfork) seemed caught in an experimenting post-Animal Collective acid-folk soup, and the bread was getting stale. No one can claim that what VG did was new and unique, but it was badly needed. Perhaps they have now played out their role (even though this year's second album is great too) because now not only all the bedroom bands in Brooklyn sound like they have never listened to anything else than The Clean, JAMC and Black Tambourine, but bands across the US and increasingly in Europe as well. I got to see VG twice (during one day!) and I still want them to tour Sweden properly, but they should have done it last year.

8. Pants Yell! - Alison Statton (2007)
Another band I have turned out to form a very personal relationship with is Pants Yell!, who almost came to mean as much to me as B&S during that otherwise unremarkable summer of 2006 when they came to Sweden. We were several eager fans who spent the days of the Emmaboda festival and the subsequent alldayer in Bräkne-Hoby (pictured on the cover of Alison Statton), hanging out with Carly, Andrew and Sterling. Their second album Recent Drama just having been released, expectations on their live show were high. It goes without saying that they didn't disappoint. That was also the first I heard of their new material, which was going to form part of the next album. Alison Statton finally came out at the end of the following year and in my end-of-year list it was only trumped by the majestic God Help the Clientele. It was about twice as ambitious as Recent Drama and I have expounded my love for it at length on here before. It is a very important album in my eyes, and having a song named after one of mine was of course very special.

9. Pipas - Chunnel Autumnal (2000, reissued 2006)
Pipas' A Short Film About Sleeping was probably the first indiepop 7" I bought, must have been 2004. It left a lasting impression on me to say the least. When they came to Sweden later that year (with Alice of Arthur and Martha in tow), we were quick to attack them with microphones - and even convinced them to record a couple of tracks in the radio studio. I must see if I can find them, the version of "Amsterdam" was heartbreaking! Chunnel Autumnal had come out on their own microscopic label Long Lost Cousin and had sold out well before 2004. So I guess I didn't hear it until 2006, but that only meant I cherished it all the more. Because all Pipas records, except perhaps A Cat Escaped, would merit a place here. Another Pipas record feels unlikely, but then again the brilliant Sorry Love was recorded long distance.

10. The Saturday People - The Saturday People (2001)
The first Slumberland release on the list and the first band I have met no members of, although we used to see Ara around a bit when he was studying in Lund. And of course I have seen Terry Banks' old band St. Christopher after their comeback. A true allstar indiepop group and I won't even bother to list the other bands these guys have been in. The main songwriters seem to have been Banks and Greg Pavlovcak, and admittedly they sound a bit like Tree Fort Angst and a lot like The Castaway Stones. But this group is greater than the sum of its parts and the 15 tracks on the album skillfully blend clattery Slumberland vintage with 60s garage sounds. They do a masterful take of Jan & Dean's "Lullaby In the Rain" and manage to match its beauty with the original "Working For the Weekend".

11. The Aislers Set - The Last Match (2000)
The Aislers Set is a band I have neglected the last few years. Perhaps I never got over the fact I missed my only chance to see them live, was it in 2003? But whenever I listen to their records I am reminded of how much I liked them and 12-string guitars before I could recognise the sound of one. I prefer this record to the other one they released this decade, How I Learned to Write Backwards. And they still seem strangely overlooked by the kids, even though half the new bands on Slumberland and Captured Tracks sound like them.

12. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (2009)
One of the best things I have done is to put on a gig for this band in Malmö, and the whole thing happened more out of luck than anything else since they had already far outgrown gigs of that size. But unlike Vivian Girls, it had taken a while for POBPAH to catch on. When their first ep came out in 2007 it seemed unlikely that they would go further than other bands on Cloudberry. The Metric Mile that Peggy played with before are still virtually unknown. But clearly, we weren't the only ones who liked their instantly appealing pop songs. People had lived with these songs a long time by the time the record came out, its release probably delayed by all the touring. And we can argue about the production of the album, whether the ep versions sounded better etc, but they are still the same songs, and they are still great. It will be interesting to see if they can follow it up, without trying to please as many people as possible.

13. The Relict - Tomorrow Is Again (2003)
This might be a surprising choice, or merely a way to get more Clientele on the list. But I just love Innes Phillips' songs, The Relict being the vehicle for his songwriting after leaving The Clientele (before they released their first single). It usually includes members of said band and other London scenesters and in fact, a few songs have been released as both The Relict and The Clientele songs (cf. the latter's It's Art Dad demos compilation). One of the joys of the record is hearing two of the best female voices in indiepop harmonising together: Lupe from Pipas and Pamela from The Pines etc. The album followed a string of 7"s and splits and contains some of the same songs but in new versions with vastly improved sound quality and the added benefit of Mark Keen's metronomic drum sticks. And the record label Vegas Morn is clearly a reference to Felt. Any more Relict material has not appeared since - did Innes move to Australia?

14. Louis Philippe - An Unknown Spring (2007)
Philippe (or Auclair in real life) has worked with The Clientele since Strange Geometry, and for An Unknown Spring Alasdair and Mel returned the favour. It was his first album since The Wonder of It All in 2004, when I first encountered his music. The new album was similarly financed (by subscription) but couldn't have been more different. The Wonder of It All didn't impress me much and it took a couple of years for me to work through his back catalogue, starting at él Records in 1986 (at least for his solo recordings). The Louis Philippe of the 90s verged sometimes on cheesiness in his polished sound, but An Unkown Spring avoided the wince-worthy keyboard sounds and was also his most complex and ambitious work since 1989's Yuri Gagarin. It is so much more accomplished than most popular music it almost feels out of place on this list.

15. Slipslide - The World Can Wait (2003)
Matinée was the first indiepop label I got into, primarily due to the generous offerings of their sounds page. Two of the first mp3s I downloaded were Slipslide's "Eden" and "Baked Alaska". I had no idea the former was actually a new version of the Eva Luna song. Since then I have grown to love all of Graeme Elston's previous groups, including Eva Luna. Compared to his teenage group Love Parade, the sound of Slipslide's only album is very grown-up. But at the time it was the best album Matinée had put out. It's got a very nostalgic sound, the 12-string guitars somehow reminding me of watching tv as a child. It is actually quite similar to the first Stone Roses album, without the 'hits'. Graeme's voice sounds better than it ever did and the production is spot on. Slipslide proved they still have the knack to bash out jangly goodness with "Let Things Fall Apart" on The Matinée Hit Parade from a couple of years ago, but I am quite content if they remain a one-album-wonder - much like The Bodines, whose "Slip Slide" single they might feasibly have culled their name from.

16. The Motifs - Away (2007)
Now here's a problem for you list makers: The Motifs released their first album Dots in 2006 (50 copies made), Away was released in Japan the next year, featuring the same songs plus 10 more! Are they both individual albums? Last year their first release back home in Australia came out, a 23-track lp featuring songs from all previous releases and three new songs. I decided to call the latter a compilation, and since Dots was only a limited cdr I have put Away on this list. That The Motifs should even be on the list is indisputable of course. I like them as much as I have ever loved Pipas, and I cherish the four songs I got to hear live in Melbourne a few months ago.

17. The Airfields - Up All Night (2008)
I am certain the first album from The Airfields impressed everyone who heard it. Sure, the Laneways 10" was great, but to me Up All Night keeps a first class standard all the way through in a way not even The Field Mice managed on their full lengths. It came out at the perfect time of year as well, winter. This year has been sadly lacking in Airfields action - when is the next single coming out? It does not look probable that I will go to Canada in the next decade, so I hope they will come to me (or at least somewhere a bit closer).

18. Pocketbooks - Flight Paths (2009)
Neither Pocketbooks nor POBPAH got the first spot in my best-of-2009 list (coming soon), but out of all the albums released this year, I think Flight Paths is the one of the most enduring quality. A timeless album in other words. Lyrically compact, perfectly recorded by Simon Trought, I can't see myself tiring of it. Pocketbooks as a band have improved at an incredible rate since 2006. They have perfected their craft and I am greatly looking forward to the next album, and hopefully more gigs in Sweden. I admit I might be biased here, but getting to design the sleeve was purely an honour.

19. Niza - Canciones de Temoporada (2002)
With the amount of Spanish pop I have been listening to the last two years, this list must inevitably include something of Spanish origin. I didn't discover Niza until late last year I think, but immediately I started searching for a copy of their only album, released by Elefant. The record is indeed as classy as Grego Soria's cover art suggests, and actually sounds more like a Siesta production. Madrid-based Uke is their new project and I wanted play with them on A Smile and a Ribbon's summer tour, but unfortunately we never got as far as Spain. And, if you still haven't seen this video, you simply must.

20. The Autumn Leaves - Long Lost Friend (2008)
And the last spot goes to The Autumn Leaves, who made an unlikely comeback last year with their first album in 7 years. Treats and Treasures is one of my favourites of the 90s and this their third and last album is just as good. Their Byrds/Leaves-inspired folkrock works perfectly because the songwriting is so strong. They also manage the best Bee Gees cover (and you know there are many) I have ever heard. This is hardly an indiepop record, but essential for any lover of acoustic and Rickenbacker 12-strings. It doesn't have to be done differently than it was in 1966 to be of interest in this decade, which is hereby over.


brogues said...

Whit?! You could borrow The Lucksmiths from your library? Sweden truly is a pop paradise :) The best I could find in the Kilmarnock library growing up was a Wedding Present 7" and a Loop cd...

A layer of chips said...

Glad that the Slipslide album gets a mention. It's a great record.

Ace post, Kris.

The Boy and the Cloud said...

guess laz must've cleared it of pop hits during lunch breaks...

thanks, layer!

Matt said...

such a great list, kris! i'd love to do the same, but I dont think it could compare to the lovely things you've written!

joe said...

"It is a very important album in my eyes, and having a song named after one of mine was of course very special."

One of your what? Why 'of course'? I'm afraid the comment is not self-evident enough for this last phrase to apply.

Girl who dosen't care said...

this sucked do better blogs like freaky princess or moms