#1

November 27, 2010

Joanna Newsom – Ys
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

What an amazing surprise is was to have Ys come along and make an album as accomplished as The Milk-Eyed Mender resemble a developmental step. There’s really no denying that in the two years between her first and second releases, Newsom grew as a Joanna Newsom - Ysmusician by leaps and bounds, and the result of her artistic growth was an album of newfound maturity offset by a familiar flair for creative whimsy. Newsom strengthened all of her minor weaknesses, sharpened her songwriting (it speaks volumes that this is an album of lengthy, vocally driven tracks, which never drags for a moment), and yet still maintained all of her rustic charm, including that marvellous (and divisive!) voice which, despite considerable refinement, has kept all of its precious squawks and lilting inflections firmly intact. Memorable moments pop up regularly throughout the album’s five tracks, as perfectly timed key-changes, subtle style-shifts, glorious crescendos and sentimental vocal turns – the “Why the long face?” interlude on “Sawdust and Diamonds”, the “Be a Woman” segment on “Only Skin” and everything from “Squint skywards and listen” onwards at the end of “Emily” being personal favourites – sweep the listener away time and again. Producer Jim O’Rourke, engineer Steve Albini and composer Van Dyke Parks make valuable behind-the-scenes contributions, and Bill Callahan provides some great backing vocals on “Only Skin”, but this is undeniably Newsom’s album. No matter how the songs are dressed up, they always come back to her exquisite vocals, tender harp playing and enticing storytelling. To me, one of the greatest reasons for Ys success is that its five tracks all have such distinct, individual identities. Even with the album tying together perfectly – and it truly does – it also feels like a series of self-contained “movements”, each with a character all of its own and, more importantly, a listener-response all of its own. The allegorical story-song “Monkey and Bear”,  which sees the titular characters break away from their oppressive confines only the have the former exploit the latter for personal gain, stands out for its juxtaposed midday-matinée strings and nursery-rhyme style; “Sawdust and Diamonds” is unique via its stripped back production – it being the only track sans-orchestra – contrasting it sharply against the lush and elaborate backings of the other tracks; “Cosima” is perhaps the albums most overtly “pretty” track, serving its role as a sleepy, lullaby of a closer, much as “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” did on the album’s predecessor; “Only Skin” is memorable for its huge runtime and multi-part structure, which incorporates several distinct passages of song which could all have been great individual tracks in their own right; and finally, there’s “Emily”, Ys‘ opening track, which stands apart simply for being one of the most completely beautiful songs I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think I can begin to sufficiently describe the effect this song has had on me, so I’ll just say this – there are very few songs in existence that have actually made me stop and wonder if I had discovered my new, singular favourite song of all time, and this is one of them. I’d pick it in a heartbeat as my number one song of the decade, just as I’m picking Ys as my number one album. Absolutely magical.

 

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#3

November 25, 2010

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
singer/songwriter, folk
2004

The very first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard, which was way back in the good old days of 2005, was a rather unconventional five-minute ode to a pet dog by the name of “Sadie”. While it took a few listens before I got the hang of her vocal style (honestly, “Sadie” is probably one of the more challenging entry points to her oeuvre), the vivid lyricism, exquisite harp-playing and heartfelt, sentimental delivery took little time to reach me. Several years later “Sadie” remains my favourite song on Newsom’s debut, and when she gently coos “and all that we know is blowin’ like tumbleweed” and her voice trills up high on the work “blowin'” – that bit makes me swoon. The Milk-Eyed Mender is full of such spellbinding tracks, each of which is home to plenty of little fell-good moments such as the one mentioned above. There’s the sleepy beauty of tracks like “The Sprout and the Bean” (who doesn’t love the way she phrases “are y’interested?” to make it rhyme with “break some bread”?), “Cassiopeia” (I think that “and I swim sweetly as a herring through the ether not despairing” is one of the loveliest lyrics on the album), “Bridges and Balloons” (the word-structure behind “a thimble’s worth of milky moon can touch hearts larger than a thimble” is very special) and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” (“your skin is something that I stir into my tea” evokes some incredible imagery). These are balanced out by the small handful of more powerfully delivered cuts like “Inflammatory Writ” and “Three Little Babies”, a couple of no-frills, piano-led belters that see Newsom at her most fearlessly forthright, and “Peach, Plum, Pear”, with its almost overwhelming, “army of Newsoms” multi-tracked vocal. There’s a gentle, old-timey magic in her songs that sees her constantly being aligned with fairies, dragons and other fantasy tropes, but such Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Menderknee-jerk comparisons are ignorant and completely miss the earthy sincerity that’s present in every track (contrary to popular belief, many of these songs are about actual, real-life things), not to mention the sly humour to be found – would ye-olde hippy elf really sing “I killed my dinner … with karate“, as Newsom does in “The Book of Right On’s” disarming opening lines? Even if her songs present the lyrical knottiness and colourful metaphor of a creative writer – an aspect which is, as far as I’m concerned, utterly delightful – everything she sings still rings with honesty and life experience. Newsom really sprung out of nowhere with this release – it stands as an exquisite debut by an artist who truly is one of a kind.

 

#4

November 24, 2010

The Microphones – It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water
lo-fi, folk, psychedelic-pop, singer/songwriter, noise-rock, experimental-rock
2000

The Microphones - It Was Hot We Stayed in the WaterWarm, lo-fi instrumentation, intimate vocals, creative songwriting, some delightful guest-appearances by Mirah and exceptional analogue production wizardry by head-Microphone Phil Elverum all come together flawlessly to make this aquatic-themed effort the best Microphones/Mt Eerie album (yes, better than The Glow, Pt 2), and one of the finest albums of the decade. It stands as an eclectic tapestry of sonic concepts that constantly evades easy categorisation no matter how much you try to pigeonhole it, and is emotionally gripping to boot. Elverum is one of modern music’s true visionaries, and this album is littered with such a degree of fine detail and enigmatic character that you can spend weeks in its company and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Meanwhile, when it comes to the album’s production, his bag of tricks is quite awe-inspiring, my favourite example being a point at which he utilises microphone-smothering techniques to make it sound convincingly like his band is gradually sinking underwater while playing. The album has a conceptual sweep that makes it best listened to as a whole, but there’s some amazing individual highlights as well – the strummy, acoustic opening to “The Pull” makes great use of panning to create a lulled atmosphere before unexpectedly launching into a distorted guitar and drums finale, with the two halves of the song being a better fit for one another than you’d expect; the easily overlooked “Ice” is a great little noise-rocker that gives way to an unexpected ambient coda; the reimagining of Eric’s Trip’s “Sand” is a display of gorgeous minimalism; “Karl Blau” is a nod to the titular musician, a label-mate on K-Records, set to the melody of a slow-dancing serenade, which sounds simply beautiful; and “Between Your Ear and the Other Ear” is a cheerfully charming singalong I’d be happy to have circling around my campfire anytime. Then, of course, there’s “The Glow”, the album’s gloriously moving and relentlessly experimental ten-minute centrepiece. Covering an assortment of terrain including singer/songwriter, 60s vocal-pop, lo-fi, post-rock, field-recordings, 90s indie-rock and psychedelia, I’ve simply never heard another song even remotely like it, by The Microphones or anyone else, and it holds a special place amongst my most highly treasured music. It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water is a marvel, an album that appeals not only as an inviting work of deeply human art, but also an awe-inspiring network of musical ideas. On either of those levels, very few albums can match it.

 

#5

November 23, 2010

Josephine Foster – Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
folk, singer/songwriter
2005

Much like fellow folkie Joanna Newsom, Josephine Foster gets unfairly (and sometimes dismissively) bundled into the “difficult voice” crowd of female musicians. While her vocals are a little unconventional when compared to some of the other artists that sprung from the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation (on which, like Newsom, she was featured), they’re certainly not impenetrable. Foster trills and warbles delightfully, singing of secret loves, hidden places and her desire for a man with “rhythm in his waist Josephine Foster - Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead Youand hair on his chest”, and as such there’s a classical beauty and good-natured warmth to her singing which, when combined with the simple, rustic production, bare instrumentation and total absence of pretense, gives the album a displaced quality which makes it hard to initially anchor Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You to a specific time period. Her vocal is totally consistent, and yet I found myself thinking of all kinds of different contexts throughout the album – at times she sounds like a mystic-folk hippie at one with the world; at others she branches into cryptic storytelling that seems to cast her as a bard of some King’s court; “There Are Eyes Above” and “Trees Lay By” sound like traditional lullabies; several songs have a bluesy or baroque tilt to them; and then the gentle coos she uses to farewell “The Siren’s Admonition” and “The Golden-Wooden Tone” have her sounding like the soundtrack to a family matinée from the 1950s. By the end of the album, I felt convinced she could have stepped out of just about any time in the last several hundred years, which is quite a remarkable rarity in music today. Foster plays virtually every instrument on the album, and while her acoustic guitar is the centrepiece on most tracks, she also makes use of a variety of supporting instruments including tambourine, recorder, harp, flute, all manner of clickers, chimes, bells and whistles and even a few playful turns on the kazoo, finally adding in some harmonised-with-herself vocal overdubs that are just sublime. While my own favourites would have to be the lovely opener “The Siren’s Admonition” and the utterly charming “Good News”, Foster possesses the kind of consistent songwriting prowess and distinct artistic identity that will lead every listener to discover their own unique connection to her work. The brilliance of Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You rests on that most personal of intangibles – Foster’s work has a strong sense of sentimentality and … let’s call it “specialness”, something indefinable that makes the album feel like a piece of lost treasure that was created just for you. It shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, and I’ve found myself quite helplessly enamoured.

 

#12

November 12, 2010

Nina Nastasia & Jim White – You Follow Me
singer/songwriter, experimental-rock, folk
2007

With You Follow Me, guitarist/vocalist Nina Nastasia teamed with longtime collaborator, percussionist Jim White (of Australian trio The Dirty Three), to deliver one of the singer/songwriter genre’s most idiosyncratic albums. It’s suitable to see White take half the artistic credit on this one – the first time he’s been credited as such after a number of stints as a session musician for Nastasia’s previous albums – as the skills of Nina Nastasia & Jim White - You Follow Meboth participants are highlighted with equal measure throughout the album, making White’s skittering, semi-improvisational drumming just as prominent and central to the album as Nastasia’s vocals and guitarwork. The juxtaposition between their two styles is endlessly fascinating, a blend of control and chaos, and many of the tracks have White’s rumbling percussion sounding like a brewing storm beneath the relative calm of Nastasia’s contributions. The two musicians ride the line between experimentation and accessibility to perfection and have an undeniable rapport that can really be sensed throughout the album. The songs are touching, attention-grabbing and memorable, and are sequenced in a manner that places the highlights – such as “Odd Said the Doe” and “Our Discussion” – evenly throughout the album. With its brief runtime and unassuming tone, You Follow Me is an understated and humble affair, certainly not the sort of thing that self-consciously brands itself as an important album, yet I cannot overstate the impact which it has had upon me, as it leaves me keenly feeling its lasting presence long after it winds to a close. Few albums display such independently gifted musicians so completely in tune with one another, collaborating selflessly to create something so much better than either could achieve on their own. There’s something truly special about this unique and productive partnership – I sincerely hope it continues to flourish.

#18

November 7, 2010

Ned Collette – Jokes and Trials
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

Every music geek has their own little discoveries. When I first got into Ned Collette, he was almost completely unknown. I downloaded one of his songs (“The Laughter Across the Street”, incidentally) after it was recommended on a music site, liked it, investigated him online, discovered he was due to play a live show in my area in the coming days, attended the Ned Collette - Jokes and Trialsgig, loved every minute of it, bought the album and finally became a die-hard fan, preaching his brilliance to anyone who’ll listen. There’s something about that experience, particularly when combined with the intimate feel of the album, that makes Jokes and Trials feel really special to me in a way that transcends musical quality and moves into the realm of something more personal. “Song For Louis” (and its separate-track coda “The Happy Kidnapper”), which opens the album, remains my absolute favourite of his songs, with “The Laughter Across the Street” not far behind, while “A Plea for You Through Me”, “Heaven’s the Key”, “Blame” and lead single “Boulder” are all essential cuts as well. Collette has gained a bit more exposure through two more stellar releases (one of which is Future Suture, which we’ve already seen on this list and I’d concede is probably more technically accomplished), but he’s still woefully unknown in most circles, which is a tremendous shame given that he’s writing some of the smartest and most effortlessly appealing music in the world right now.

#27

October 28, 2010

Matt Elliott – Howling Songs
folk, singer-songwriter
2008

I love it when an album paints an engaging mental picture. It might not be intentional on the part of the artist, but when I throw on a CD and it starts feeling like the soundtrack to some imagined situation, it can be an incredibly rewarding and transportative experience. Howling Songs is one such album. With its dank, gloomy aesthetic, accentuated by morose strings and reverberating, overdubbed guitars which drip with sinister gravitas, I can’t help but imagine it as the backing for a scene in some Matt Elliott - Howling Songsdimly lit, seaside tavern, populated by morose drunks and cutthroat scum. Several are adorned with scars and eye-patches, they all have (mostly) concealed weapons, and at least two-thirds of them are banking on a fight breaking out before closing time. For the time being, however, the atmosphere is still, tense and moody. That’s the picture that Howling Songs, with all of its Balkan-folk-blended-with-post-rock stylings and Elliott’s brooding vocal presence, paints in my mind. The opener, “The Kübler-Ross Model”, is stunning and epic, with an astonishing crescendo launching its second half, and Elliott made a brave move opening the album with its longest (and arguably finest) track, but the payoff is immense – a prolonged musical euphoria that’s improbably kept afloat by further branches of brilliant, dramatic songwriting. The pensive subtlety of “Something About Ghosts”, the grand-scale narrative of “I Name This Ship The Tragedy, Bless Her & All Who Sail With Her”, the pure vocal viscera of “The Howling Song” and the surprisingly malevolent closure of “Bomb the Stock Exchange” – they all add their own invaluable brush-strokes to that wonderfully evocative image.

#32

October 22, 2010

The Mountain Goats We Shall All Be Healed
singer-songwriter, folk

2004

With such an expansive body of output, it’s not surprising that The Mountain Goats are one of those groups (or people, more accurately) whose catalogue doesn’t feature a universally agreed upon peak. Some listeners love the bare-bones, confessional songwriting and polished arrangements of The Sunset Tree, while for every person who most enjoys the bleak humour and storytelling of Tallahassee there’s an old-school purist who digs the lo-fi days of Sweden and The Coroner’s Gambit. I find it pretty tough to pick a favourite, but while Talahassee and The Coroner’s Gambit are close contenders, I keep coming back to We Shall All Be Healed, an album I consider to be vastly underrated. The record is frequently overlooked, neighboured by the popular Tallahassee and the critically lauded The Sunset Tree, which I think is a tremendous shame, as it displays impressive development in Darnielle’s songwriting, a combination of ultra-sharp guitar-work and thoughtful lyricism, a “much more subtly conveyed than his The Mountain Goats - We Shall All Be Healedother releases” theme of the perils of drug addiction and what I consider to be his most consistently high-quality output on any release. Darnielle’s songs rarely sink to the level of filler, but his albums often come across a little cluttered, with obvious highpoints plainly standing out. We Shall All Be Healed is different, though, and when I go to pick a favourite track I have to weigh up fantastic cuts like “Slow West Vultures”, “Palmcorder Yajna”, “Letter From Belgium”, “The Young Thousands”, “Your Belgian Things”, “Home Again Garden Grove”, “Cotton” and “Quito”, all of which could stake a reasonable claim to “best on album” status. Tough decisions are rarely that enjoyable.

 

#70

August 19, 2010

Tom WaitsAlice
singer/songwriter, experimental
2002

Emotionally driven and lyrically quite beautiful, Alice presents a side of Tom Waits that’s remained reasonably well hidden over the years. Certain unavoidable idiosyncrasies remain in place – Waits still sounds like he subsists on a diet of cheap liquor, cigarettes and gravel – but they’re harnessed in new directions that make this album something of an Tom Waits - Aliceunexpected delight. Those looking for grimy, “The World Died Screaming”-esque songs and clunky, kitchen sink instrumentation can find them on the same-year companion release Blood Money (another great album), which leaves Alice mostly populated by dignified story-songs and tender ballads of surprising sincerity. There’s an abundance of great material here, including the fantastic title-track, the authentic tear-jerker “I’m Still Here”, the grand-yet-slightly-uneasy “Lost in the Harbour” and the demented “Kommienezuspadt”, one of the album’s few madcap stompers. It’s a must for fans, but as something of a departure from his usual sound, even detractors may find something they enjoy.

#75

August 11, 2010

Carla Bozulich – Evangelista
singer/songwriter, avant-folk
2006

Evangelista kicks off with the lengthy “Evangelista I”, which is simply one of the most gut-wrenching, intense and emotionally powerful songs of the decade. It opens the album with such force and conviction that all the remaining tracks – wonderful as they are, particularly centrepiece “Baby, That’s the Creeps” – can initially feel like something of an afterthought. Carla Bozulich - EvangelistaBozulich’s brand of gothic folk/country is immediately unique, taking a select few recognisable influences and then submerging them in a dark wash of spare guitar melodies, drifting organs, distant, brush-based percussion, psuedo-industrial sound collaging, liberally applied distortion and spacious, labyrinthine song structures, all of which lend the album a constant sense of dislocation and unease, as though the songs might be swallowed up by darkness at any moment. Bozulich’s ghostly vocal style wavers along the various stages between a barely-there, etherial whisper and a gutsy, attention-holding howl, making for an amazing performance, as she purges her deepest emotional turmoil on every track to create something that’s often harrowing, yet also strangely beautiful and moving. What it boils down to is that Evangelista is one of the decade’s most idiosyncratic, unforgettable recordings – this is music that stays with you long after the album rolls to a close.

#76

August 6, 2010

Iron and Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days
folk, singer/songwriter
2004

This entry could have just as easily been for either of Iron and Wine’s other albums, The Creek Drank the Cradle or The Shepherd’s Dog, because, honestly, Sam Beam is one of those musicians who seems to be incapable of writing a song that’s anything less than really pleasant. The quality of songwriting plateaus at a consistently high level throughout his catalogue of albums and EPs, something that I’ve always found really impressive. However, Our Endless Numbered Days always seems to come out on top as my personal favourite Iron and Wine album. I think the crisper, cleaner production works really well with Beam’s particular brand of sweet, subtle folk music, such that it lifts this album a couple of notches above the already lofty standard set by more spare sounding The Creek Drank the Cradle. I’d single out “Sunset Soon Forgotten”, “Love and Some Verses”, “Sodom, South Georgia” and “Naked as Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered DaysWe Came” (easily Beam’s best song up to this point) as my favourite tracks on the album, all of which create a wonderful, sleepy vibe of contentment that’s really prominent throughout Our Endless Numbered Days (a vibe which, incidentally, matches perfectly with the drawing of a relaxed-looking Beam which can be seen on the album cover). Like I said, though, the man is the very definition of consistency, so consider this a recommendation that you check out his entire body of work.

#86

July 19, 2010

Neko Case – Blacklisted
alt-country, singer/songwriter
2002

All the gusto, confidence and vocal prowess that made 2000’s Furnace Room Lullaby such an immense delight were delivered two-fold on its followup, the exceptional Blacklisted. On her earlier works, it would’ve been a ridiculous understatement to claim that Case’s voice “showed promise”, yet Blacklisted saw her surge upward to an unexpected echelon that fewNeko Case - Blacklisted vocalists ever reach. With Case’s voice demanding such attention, however, it’s important not to overlook the instrumentation and song structures upon which it’s anchored, with lonely slide guitar, banjo, acoustic strums and ghostly percussion providing a lush, Southern twang that’s filled with nostalgia and warmth, yet also a hint of noir. Case’s songwriting has definitely taken a step upward as well, with songs like “Deep Red Bells”, “Lady Pilot”, “Stinging Velvet” and her lovely covers of “Look for Me (I’ll Be Around)” and “Running Out of Fools” displaying an impressive grasp on the craft, often trading in twisty melodies and multi-part complexity, while still retaining their accessibility and a full emotional charge. “Deep Red Bells” deserves special mention for being possibly a career-best performance.

#96

July 5, 2010

Smog – A River Ain’t Too Much to Love
singer/songwriter, folk, country
2005

After carving out a prolific niche as a subdued, lo-fi, singer-songwriter type, A River Ain’t Too Much to Love was enough to make you think that Bill Callahan had been a lonesome cowboy his entire life. The folksy, country boy schtick fits him perfectly, with Bill’s ultra-deep, charismatic vocal being surprisingly reminiscent of Johnny Cash, even if he does stick mostly to spoken-word delivery, letting his guitar do all the melodic heavy-lifting. It’s really refreshing to hear Callahan sounding mellowed-out and content – even happy at times – as Smog - A River Ain't Too Much to Loveit makes for an interesting contrast against the often dark themes and stark production of his previous works. A River Ain’t Too Much to Love feels like a comfortable album, arguably the most natural fit of Callahan’s career, but I also consider it his most accomplished. The production is sublime, retaining Smog’s usual minimalist style but making it sound dense and layered, which allows for those distant, wistful touches that can be a lot harder to nail when everything sounds equally “up-front”. If you combine that with the best songwriting of his career – “Palimpsest”, “The Well”, “Rock Bottom Riser”, “I Feel Like the Mother of the World” and “Let Me See the Colts” are some of the best things he’s ever written – you get Callahan’s true masterpiece, and it’s an under-acknowledged one at that.