Tuesday, January 26, 2010


The Magnetic Fields - Realism (Nonesuch)

Anyone who still thinks that Americans don’t get irony should be pointed to the work of Stephin Merritt immediately. In fact, in titling the latest Magnetic Fields album ‘Realism’, Merritt has taken his laconic wit to new levels. As ever, Merritt is being slippery and disingenuous here – there’s no greater level of sincerity or honesty than on previous Magnetic Fields albums, and plenty of familiar wordplay and dry humour.

In packaging design and sonic intent, ‘Realism’ is clearly intended as a flip side to the Jesus and Mary Chain-inspired ‘Distortion’. It dispenses not only with that album’s overpowering swathes of noise, but also with all synthesisers, using only acoustic instruments. There’s an obvious problem here that few critics seem to have observed, namely that Merritt has used this particular sonic conceit before, on the album ‘i’. The two albums are not identical by any means – on ‘I’ Merritt sang every song, whereas here he makes bountiful use of guest vocalist Shirley Simms. ‘Realism’ also pays more explicit debts to folk music, and not every song title begins with the letter ‘I’. The similarities probably outweigh the differences though – and there will be no great surprises here for long term followers of Merritt’s work. It’s probably fair to say that this is symptomatic of a wider malaise. Merritt’s magnum opus ’69 Love Songs’ was both an ambitious undertaking and a massive success. Understandably, he has struggled to know exactly how to better it.

This doesn’t mean that the subsequent Magnetic Fields projects have been bad – to the contrary, there are some excellent songs spread across them. It’s just that none has seemed quite so conceptually and musically compelling, or as uniquely ludicrous. It’s actually Merritt’s side projects, the fascinating ‘Showtunes’ album and the musical interpretation of the Lemony Snicket books as The Gothic Archies, which have provided more original and adventurous takes on his by now familiar songwriting tropes.

‘Realism’, then, is another adequate Magnetic Fields album, albeit one that focuses more on Merritt’s purposeful parodies than on his best pop writing. I always feel Magnetic Fields songs are best when they can be interpreted either as ironic commentaries (as the famously acerbic Merritt no doubt intended them), or as pithy expressions of identifiable and real human experience. ‘The Book of Love’ works like this, hence Peter Gabriel was able to cover it as a disarmingly straight (in more than one sense), string-laden ballad for his forthcoming ‘Scratch My Back’ project (quite what Gabriel song Merritt plans to deconstruct in return is anyone’s guess). The first half of ‘Realism’ favours unashamedly silly, nursery rhyme-esque ditties like ‘We Are Having A Hootenanny’ (‘get the lowdown on our hoedown’), ‘The Dolls’ Tea Party’ and ‘Everything is One Big Christmas Tree’. The latter, hilariously, even has its entire lyric repeated in a high-camp German chorus. They are fun, but the appeal is limited, and the acoustic instrumentation, somewhat inevitably when xylophones and glockenspiels are involved, makes them seem a bit plinky plonk.

Luckily, the front half also includes two prime examples of Merritt’s genius, two songs that pull of the neat trick of somehow being endearing and thoroughly charmless at the same time. ‘I Don’t Know What To Say’ is touchingly vulnerable and drenched in surprisingly effective reverb. With its knowing devaluations of romantic clichés, it could have sat comfortably on ’69 Love Songs’. Even better is ‘You Must Be Out of Your Mind’ (followed in the chorus by the brilliantly chastising, patronising word ‘son’). As other reviewers have already noted, it features one of Merritt’s great lyrics in ‘I want you crawling back to me, down on your knees, yeah/Like an appendectomy, sans anasthaesia’.

The best songs here seem to be the most laconic – ‘Walk A Lonely Road’, ‘Better Things’, the accordion-laden ‘From a Sinking Boat’ and Shirley Simms’ wilting vocal on ‘Always Already Gone’ certainly stand out. Merritt’s attempts to balance these with jauntier moments seem to fall flat. ‘The Dada Polka’ irritatingly and inescapably reminds me of Boney M. Wryly amusing though the lyric is, the mock-baroque stylings of ‘Seduced and Abandoned’ have been repeated ad nauseam by Merritt now.

‘Realism’ is a continuation of Merritt’s dogged, largely unchanging path. He sings of ‘real’ rather than ‘absurd’ birds, accompanying his vocals with cheesy sampled birdsong. This album dependably overflows with lyrical and musical conceits. The most radical thing for him to do now would be to record something completely sincere.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Celestial Dancing

Four Tet - There Is Love In You (Domino)

Kieren Hebden has been so busy over the past few years DJing, remixing and collaborating (notably with improvising drummer Steve Reid), and briefly reuniting Fridge, that it’s easy to forget that it’s been four years since his last release under the Four Tet moniker. His recent path seems to have veered far from the laboured ‘folktronica’ tag with which he has been somewhat unfairly burdened. ‘There Is Love In You’ achieves quite a neat trick by serving as a reminder of Hebden’s skill for crafting a hinterland where electronic and acoustic sounds meet whilst also imbuing his distinctive vision with fresh and absorbing ideas.

We’re familiar with the bright, sparkling, pastoral melodies with which Hebden has long been associated. Unsurprisingly, ‘There is Love In You’ is liberally peppered with them. Yet the album starts with two pieces founded primarily on vocal sampling, a technique that has not traditionally been a Hebden hallmark. It seems possible that Hebden has digested the pervasive influence of his former schoolmate and dubstep producer Burial, to whom the masterful ‘Angel Echoes’ and ‘Love Cry’ bear some resemblance. Yet these tracks are not mere pastiches or facsimiles of the innovations of other producers – the percussive textures and shimmering sound are entirely characteristic of Hebden. Whereas Burial uses the sound of voices to create something claustrophobic and tense, Hebden uses them to create something open, spacious and invigorating. ‘Love Cry’, particularly, feels like a comprehensive synopsis of recent trends in dance music, all filtered through Hebden’s own distinct and confident gaze.

The abiding mood here is melancholy, but not sad. There’s a sense that private contemplation and reflection can be a comfort and might even result in expressions of joy. In this way, the more languid pace and gentle dynamics of ‘This Unfolds’ make perfect sense in the same company as the insistent, jubilant ‘Sing’. The former is a typically cumulative construction – eventually blossoming into a piece of minimal techno, but with the hazy sensation of its first phase (reminiscent of something from Hebden’s band Fridge) still somehow retained. The latter exhibits more of the physical impetus introduced on last year’s ‘Ringer’ EP. Yet it also has a disorientating false ending before concluding with a more slippery, distant theme.

This combination of the celebratory and the contemplative consistently informs a particularly adventurous, complex and satisfying album, possibly the best of Hebden’s career to date. The music has a rapturous, near-celestial atmosphere, but with the impulsive rhythmic drive of the best club music. It is sensual music in the broadest sense.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A Solipcist's Prayer Meeting

Bill Fay – Still Some Light (Coptic Cat)

I should probably warn at the outset that this is likely to be a somewhat confused and disoriented piece of writing, the British singer-songwriter Bill Fay having been a musical infatuation of mine for a while now. I chanced upon the See For Miles reissue of his two albums originally made for Decca in the early 1970s in my local library some time in the early years of the last decade. I picked it up purely on the basis that I knew nothing about Fay and because the original cover images were striking. Later, when working on a piece on Fay for John Kell’s Unpredictable Same fanzine, I discovered that Fay was also being championed elsewhere. MOJO’s Jim Irvin had drawn attention to these classic, underappreciated albums, whilst Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy had been performing Fay’s ‘Be Not So Fearful’ in his solo concerts, having been introduced to the Decca albums by Jim O’Rourke.

After his Decca contract folded, Fay had not, as many imagined disappeared, but had continued to write and record music at home, away from the commercial imperatives of the music industry. Some of this was released by David Tibet on Current 93 on the excellent, spacious and mysterious ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ set. It’s entirely probable that, much like the home tapes of the late, great Arthur Russell, there may be numerous unheard Fay recordings that are worthy of release.

‘Still Some Light’ contains the first brand new Fay recordings for over thirty years, recorded alone at home. It is packaged, delightfully, with a generous set of demo recordings made between 1970 and 1971 with the superb band that made ‘Time of the Last Persecution’ – guitarist Ray Russell, drummer Alan Rushton and bassist Daryl Runswick. All three musicians play beautifully. Russell, better known as a jazz musician with an enthusiasm for ‘freer’ musical forms makes some dramatic and searing contributions, emphasising Fay’s apocalyptic themes of cosmic battle between good and evil.

A number of these demo recordings are invaluable. There are stripped back versions of two songs from the eponymous debut album, which had been embellished with huge orchestrations from Mike Gibbs. ‘The Sun Is Bored’ has even greater menace with the focus shifted from string section to Russell’s violent bursts of guitar, whilst ‘Sing Us One of Your Songs May’ retains its eccentric charm. Then there is the bulk of ‘Time of the Last Persecution’, in prototype form, but largely faithful to the cleaner recordings that ended up on the album itself. The quality of these recordings is not good – there is plenty of residual hiss from the tape sources and the vocals frequently clip in a way that is not easy on the ear. Fay is honest about this in the sleeve notes, and I would argue that he is right that the feel and atmosphere of these sessions, as well as the quality of the songs and the musicianship, outweigh the limitations of the equipment used. It’s actually a great pleasure to hear these songs in such a raw, pure and direct form.

Perhaps even more notable amongst the demos are those songs that did not appear on either ‘Bill Fay’ or ‘Time of the Last Persecution’. There’s a wonderful ‘Love Is The Tune’, which eventually appeared on ‘Tomorrow, Tomorrow and Tomorrow’ and the charming ‘Arnold is a Simple Man’ seems to be another of Fay’s brilliant character portraits of sympathetic eccentric individuals. It’s a more than worthy addition to his canon. More unexpected is the distorted sturm und drang of ‘There’s A Price Upon My Head’.

The new material is considerably harder to judge. Recorded at home using a Korg keyboard and a basic microphone, it is awash with generic synth pads, facsimile piano sounds, plinky mock pizzicato strings and very basic drum machines. These arrangements will likely present difficulties for those, like me, who love both the lavish Mike Gibbs scores and the excoriating immediacy of the band recordings. It’s quite a similar feeling to listening to those recent low budget albums Leonard Cohen made with Sharon Robinson, although ‘Still Some Light’ rather lacks their sense of irony.

‘Road of Hope’, ‘City of Dreams’, ‘Fill This World With Peace’, ‘Be at Peace with Yourself’, ‘Peace on Earth’ – the song titles certainly offered a clue as to the mood of ‘Still Some Light’. It’s a sincere and earnest collection of songs searching for the spiritual or the numinous in a troubled world. To many people, this may come across as idealistic, spiritual dreaming - to others, the sincere sense of peace, contemplation and devotion may strike a real, personal chord. It’s tempting to suggest, however, that Fay has already written a couple of definitive examples of this kind of spiritual-inspirational song with ‘Methane River’ and ‘Be Not So Fearful’. In those songs, the sentiments were mysterious and eccentric – here, they are sometimes transparently platitudinous. The nadir is probably ‘Hello Old Tree’, a mercifully brief and very whimsical track in which a tired sounding Bill takes a brief pause to commune with nature.

It’s also a challenge to adapt to Fay’s changed singing voice, which may have been diminished by his years of smoking. It’s a weaker instrument now, although much of its conversational, intimate character is retained. Whether Fay’s tepid attempts at vocal treatment – double tracking and reverb particularly – serve to improve the sound of the vocals is a matter for personal taste. I find myself frequently wishing he’d left them dry. Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is the gentle, hushed dynamic, languid pace and consistent muted tone. Over twenty six tracks, it begins to become more oppressive than it is dreamy or peaceful. A little more rhythm would have been appreciated.

Yet, even though the production values are modest, perhaps even bizarre, there are still flashes of inspiration that remind us of Fay’s dignity, compassion and melodic invention. If we try and imagine these songs as home recorded prototypes for a studio recording that might never be, it starts to make a little more sense. Imagine the mysterious ‘City of Dreams’ with a real vibraphone and some dusty, brushed snare drum and it might sound a whole lot more evocative. There’s a humane soul in ‘There is a Valley’ and ‘Road of Hope’, in the frailty of Fay’s voice in the latter and in the expansive narrative of the former. One can’t help but wonder if the Willie who has a dream in the forest in ‘All Must Have a Dream’ is the same Willie of ‘Gentle Willie’ from the debut album. There’s a sense that the benign feeling at the heart of these songs might be a genuine inner peace and tranquillity from which a conscious rejection of conflict and intensity results.

In his sleevenotes, essentially a history of his career in the form of an embellished acknowledgements list, Fay comes across as a gentle, calm, very dignified human being. It might therefore be unfair to expect any grandstanding musical statements from him now. For all its pleading for hope and peace, ‘Still Some Light’ still seems like an insular and hermetic work. Perhaps it’s all the more interesting for that. Those who have not heard those two incredible Decca albums should certainly start there rather than here – they are wonderful recordings and, honestly, contain some of my favourite music of all time.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Fun with Fangs

Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL)

Pretty much every review and feature I’ve read on Vampire Weekend in the past couple of months starts in the same way – with a lengthy examination of supposed critiques of the band as inauthentic ‘cultural tourists’. I’m still wondering precisely who these detractors are. Every review of ‘Contra’ so far has been at least positive, and it seems as if every journalist is trying to position themselves as valiant defenders of this band against a constant stream of invective that doesn’t really seem to exist. Most of us seem to accept that they are privileged and educated New Yorkers – but this doesn’t stop us from enjoying either their witty lyrics or their enthusiasm for African rhythm and harmony. If this music opens doors to Congolese soukous music or the rich contemporary sounds of Mali, this surely cannot be a bad thing.

‘Contra’ is a typical second album in that it consists in part of laudable attempts to develop and diversify alongside a handful of tracks that could have sat comfortably on their debut. ‘Cousins’, somewhat impressively, is an even spikier and more insistent rewrite of ‘A-Punk’ and ‘Holiday’ is a ska-tinged piece of angular post-punk. There’s nothing remotely surprising on either track, including their inherent infectiousness that borders on irritating.

Late last year, the band already gave clues that the full album wouldn’t be quite that simple by posting opening track ‘Horchata’ as a free download. This track amplifies the African influences to almost dizzying and saccharine levels, with its percussion and thumb pianos. It’s also a brilliant song, with Ezra Koenig’s near-nonsense wordplay operating in excelsis.

Much of the rest of the album downplays the familiar strafing and staccato guitar lines in favour of a lush texture dominated by synths and keyboards. It is, on the whole, a less taut and more expansive proposition. Rostam Batmanglij never seemed like a particularly skilled keyboardist, and many of the parts here are quite minimal. Yet the arrangements and overall sound, in which Batmanglij plays the pivotal role, add up to something invigorating and intriguing. There’s a deceptive simplicity to many of these tracks – the detail often matters more than the fundamental elements.

Initially I wasn’t sure about the excess treatment on ‘California English’ – all vocoder gloss – but the track somehow ends up sounding effortless and fluid. Similarly, whilst on first listen to the epic ‘Diplomat’s Son’, the slightly cloying plinky-plonk piano stands out, repeated listens reveal a plethora of riches, from its unpredictable shifting rhythms to its wonderful vocal arrangement. The most impressionistic moment comes with ‘I Think Ur A Contra’, on which the band manage to craft something emotionally affecting beneath their characteristic archness. Perhaps best of all is ‘Taxi Cab’, an almost-ballad that comes across like a brilliantly imagined hybrid of Salif Keita and early Depeche Mode. On these tracks, not only as the musical context been refined, but Koenig has ironed out some of his more provocative vocal quirks in favour of a more understated and subtle delivery. This is no bad thing – and it helps make the band sound less in thrall to the likes of Talking Heads.

Koenig’s lyrics might well be meaningless, but he certainly delights in the way language can trip off the tongue. On ‘Cousins’, he’s particularly exuberant: ‘Dad was a risk-taker/His was a shoemaker/You, greatest hits 2006 little list-maker’ - it sounds like he’s, ahem, gently parodying nerdy music bloggers. Sometimes the lyrics are just joyfully ridiculous (‘In December, drinking Horchata/I look psychotic in a balaclava’). Yet even on a song where political metaphors abound (‘I Think Ur A Contra’), Koenig is capable of isolated moments of disarming directness (‘Never pick sides, never choose between two, well I just wanted you…’).

Amidst all the cleverness, what really comes across is Vampire Weekend’s mastery of the simple pop song. For all its drive to be more adventurous and sonically diverse, ‘Contra’ is still an album full of memorable hooks. It’s hard to know how many albums of this nature a band can produce before their ideas become formulaic – but, for now, it works just fine. ‘Contra’ is short, but very, very sweet.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Looking Ahead

So, having bid 2009 and the noughties farewell it seems only right and proper to highlight some forthcoming releases for 2010. I don't promise to like all of these at this point however!

It's surprisingly hard to find a good list of forthcoming new jazz releases (not reissues or compilations) - but the Curios and Roscoe Mitchell albums should be particular highlights of 2009 for me. I have only heard of the Motian/Moran/Potter ECM collaboration via some messageboard hearsay - I do hope it's true as that would make for intriguing music. If the one track that has made it online is anything to go by, that 'opera' from The Knife, Mt Simms and Planningtorock might be a strong contender for album of the year. The Vampire Weekend album, pleasingly, is already available to stream from their MySpace.

Vampire Weekend – Contra
Bill Fay – Still Some Light
Spoon – Transference
Midlake - The Courage of Others
Jaga Jazzist – One Armed Bandit
Pat Metheny – Orchestrion
Laura Veirs – July Flame
Hot Chip – One Life Stand
Magnetic Fields – Realism
Sam Amidon – I See The Sign
Beach House – Teen Dream
Dan Berglund - Tonbruket
Four Tet – There Is Love In You
Yeasayer – Odd Blood
These New Puritans - Hidden
Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate – Ali and Toumani
Massive Attack – Heligoland
Peter Gabriel – Scratch My Back
Field Music – (Measure)
Efterklang – Magic Chairs
Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part II: Return Of The Ankh
Curios – The Other Place
Quasi – American Gong
Liars – Sisterworld
The Besnard Lakes – The Besnard Lakes are the Roaring Night
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
Matthew Herbert – One Pig
Roscoe Mitchell and the Note Factory - Far Side
The Knife with Mt. Simms and Planningtorock
Polar Bear – Peepers
The Books – The Way Out
Plaid – Scintilli
Jack Rose – Luck in the Valley
Goldmund – Famous Places
Late of the Pier – Blueberry Pie
David Byrne and Fatboy Slim – Here Lies Love (can’t say I want to hear this!)

Plus albums expected from:
Andre 3000
Arcade Fire
Beastie Boys
Big Boi
Broken Social Scene?
Cee-Lo Green
Devo - Fresh
DOOM and Ghostface
Fleet Foxes
LCD Soundsystem
Mystery Jets
New Pornographers
Paul Motian/Jason Moran/Chris Potter
Jay Phelps
The Avalanches
Panda Bear
Band of Horses
Amy Winehouse?!?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Review of the Decade Part 2: Best Albums

I've tried to do something a little different with this list. Instead of writing reams of text on all these albums, many of which I've already written about anyway, I've tried to come up with a pithy justification for why I think they are important and merit inclusion here. Anything I couldn't justify in one sentence has missed the cut. Also, I've tried to stop myself from including more than one album per artist. There are some exceptions when two albums are substantially different but of similar quality (Dirty Projectors, Lambchop and Elvis Costello all have two entries). However, such cases are rare and there are a number of albums I really love (Emmylou Harris' 'Stumble Into Grace', Wilco's 'Yankee Hotel Foxtrot' to cite just two examples) that I don't include as a result of these restrictions. Also, a number of artists who have stayed with me over time (Flaming Lips, REM, Keith Jarrett's Trio, Neil Young) are conspicuous by their absence because I don't feel they've produced their best work over the past decade.

I'm quite sure if anyone can really be bothered to refer back to my old albums of the year lists that I am open to the charge of inconsistency. I don't really care - this list is a snapshot of the albums that have, for me at least, best endured. It is of course personal and subjective.

Also, as I think John Kell also mentioned when publishing his own list, this might be the last time I get to do this, if the digital revolution really means albums become a thing of the past. I'm sceptical as to whether this will happen, but that's a subject for another post...

200. Sylvie Lewis - Translations (2007)
Included for its clever, empathetic songs that grow with every listen and for Lewis' delightful, understated voice.

199. Scott Colley – Architect of the Silent Moment (2007)
Included for its collection of contemporary American talent (Taborn and Moran!), for its flowing, sophisticated melodies and for its gentle groove.

198. The Broken Family Band - Cold Water Songs (2002)
Included for creating the unlikely Cambridge country sound, and for neatly combining raucous humour with an underlying sensitivity.

197. Stefano Bollani – I Visionari (2006)
Included for Bollani's virtuosic technique at the piano, for his deep understanding of music - and for his fusion of different musical worlds.

196. Sleater-Kinney - The Woods (2005)
Included for proving my intial judgment about Sleater-Kinney to be wrong, and as a great example of raw, heavy, blues-infused rock.

195. Elvis Costello and the Metropole Orkest - My Flame Burns Blue (2006)
Included for brilliantly encapsulating Costello's improved vocal prowess and neatly summarising his work outside the conventional rock ensemble.

194. Broadway Project - Compassion (2001)
Included for its murky atmosphere which, in spite of its title, seemed full of menace.

193. The Avalanches - Since I Left You (2000)
Included for its inventive, playful and humorous use of sampling.

192. Johnny Cash - American III: Solitary Man (2000)
Included for Cash's stark, powerful but vulnerable delivery and its intriguing choice of material.

191. Roots Manuva - Run Come Save Me (2001)
Included for its successful and distinctively British take on rap, and for its affinity with dub soundsystem music.

190. My Morning Jacket - It Still Moves (2003)
Included for being a colossal rock behemoth.

189. Rufus Wainwright - Poses (2001)
Included for finding the profundity in banality and vice versa.

188. Aphex Twin - Drukqs (2001)
Included for gradually making a peculiar kind of sense as the initial confusion subsided.

187. Blur - Think Tank (2003)
For finding a new and intriguing sound in the absence of Coxon - it's a shame they failed to build on it.

186. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (2006)
Included for its adventurous production values and distinctive sound.

185. Jason Moran - Facing Left (2000)
Included for confirming a major piano talent and for combining superb reinterpretations (especially Bjork's Joga) with sophisticated compositions.

184. Shivaree - Rough Dreams (2002)
Included for its gently meandering impulse and sophisticated songwriting.

183. The Field - From Here We Go Sublime (2007)
Included for its engaging combination of austerity and warmth.

182. Immaculate Machine - Ones and Zeroes (2005)
Included, at least in part, to allow me to champion some wonderful underdogs and for its bounding, zestful songs and crisp playing.

181. Two Lone Swordsmen - Tiny Reminders (2000)
Included for making an art form from bleeps and bloops.

180. Gas - Pop (2000)
Included for its overarching influence in the world of atmospheric dance music, and for its depth of imagination.

179. Tomasz Stanko - Lontano (2006)
Included for its deceptive calm and haunting, eerie beauty.

178. Aesop Rock - Labor Days (2001)
Included for its forceful, compelling rap language.

177. CocoRosie - Noah's Ark (2005)
Included for sounding thoroughly mesmeric - like clockwork musical theatre.

176. The Hidden Cameras - The Smell Of Our Own (2003)
Included for its bold subversion in combining unreserved and sexually candid lyrics with sugar-coated, highly infectious melodies.

175. Air - 10,000 Hz Legend (2001)
Included for being a record that only I seem to really like - at least in part for its sense of parody.

174. Grouper - Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (2008)
Included for its desolate, unsettling mood.

173. Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy (2005)
Included for being a dark, merciless and compelling song cycle and also for considering the presentation so carefully too - superb artwork!

172. Beirut - Gulag Orkestar (2006)
Included for its rowdy, bawdy choruses, drunken emoting and for its incorporation of Eastern European folk music.

171. Erin McKeown - Grand (2003)
Included for McKeown's effortless subsuming of the great American songbook within her own charming musical personality.

170. Manitoba - Up In Flames (2003)
Included for its very contemporary take on psychedelia and for its great explosion of percussion.

169. Craig Taborn - Junk Magic (2004)
Included for being one of the best examples of electronic jazz and for Taborn's feverish imagination and technique.

168. Grandaddy - The Sophtware Slump (2000)
Included for the human warmth beneath its technocratic sheen.

167. Gang Gang Dance - God's Money (2006)
Included for its primitive party vibe.

166. Electric Masada - At The Mountains of Madness - Live in Europe (2005)
Included for its stamina, savage intensity and gleeful recklessness.

165. Max Richter - The Blue Notebooks (2004)
Included for its languid grace and sensitivity.

164. M Ward - Transistor Radio (2005)
Included for its understanding of and love for a bygone era when broadcast radio had both power and magic.

163. Beatundercontrol - Cosmic Repackage (2008)
Included for being a staggering, mind-blowing recording without respect for genre restrictions that hardly anybody in this country noticed.

162. Efterklang - Parades (2007)
Included for continuing to grow on me nearly three years after its release, and for having a wider profile that also refuses to stop growing.

161. Liam Noble - Romance Among The Fishes (2005)
Included for the empathy and adventure of the ensemble and for Noble's highly distinctive piano language.

160. Junior Boys - Last Exit (2004)
Included for its quiet, unassuming reinvention of the synth-pop wheel.

159. Curios - Hidden (2007)
Included for its attention to detail, highly attuned group interaction and its sophisticated, quietly affecting themes.

158. Doves - The Last Broadcast (2002)
Included at least in part for helping me through my university exams, but also for its careful balance of the melancholy and the anthemic.

157. Pat Metheny/Brad Mehldau - Duo/Quartet (2006/2007)
Included for providing two albums' worth of effortlessly flowing ideas, the result of a meeting of truly brilliant minds.

156. Bobo Stenson Trio - Cantando(2008)
Included for its serenity and quiet exploration.

155. Missy Elliott - Miss E...So Addictive (2001)
Included for being Missy's most strident and confident album and for including some of Timbaland's most adventurous production work.

154. Tord Gustavsen Trio - The Ground (2005)
Included for its spirituality, serenity and strong sense of purpose.

153. Loose Fur - Loose Fur (2003)
For being one of those great records that should have been so much more appreciated - how could Tweedy, Kotche and O' Rourke together be anything other than great?

152. Solomon Burke - Don't Give Up On Me (2002)
Included for being one of the very best of the soul survivor comebacks during the decade, delivered authoritatively without any crass attempts at modernisation.

151. Matmos - A Chance To Cut Is A Chance To Cure (2001)
Included for its radicalism and insightful comment in making engaging, meaningful music from surgical procedures.

150. The Postal Service - Give Up (2003)
Included for its winning combination of shimmering melody, detached production values and meaningful heart, all achieved in separate processes over distance.

149. Paul Burch - Fool For Love (2003)
Included for the warmth in Burch's understated vocals and the delicate, zesty swing in his songs.

148. The White Stripes - Get Behind Me Satan (2005)
Included for its unusual instrumentation, therefore making it the most daring and unexpected of their albums and the only one to affect me strongly on a personal level.

147. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver (2007)
Included for allowing pensive reflection to invade the party spirit, and for capturing the dilemmas of the ageing hedonists.

146. Andrew Hill - Time Lines (2006)
Included for capturing the great piano player in full creative flow just before his death and for reminding us of his hugely important, and still somewhat underrated contribution to jazz.

145. Myra Melford - The Image Of Your Body (2007)
Included for introducing me to a new, distinctive and questing musical voice.

144. The Decemberists - The Crane Wife (2007)
Included for its compelling narrative drive, considered structure and thrilling musicality.

143. Calexico - Feast Of Wire (2003)
Included for the relaxed drama of Calexico's border sound, and especially for 'Not Even Stevie Nicks', increasingly one of my favourite songs of the decade.

142. Isolee - Wearemonster (2005)
Included for its light propulsion and immersive atmospheres.

141. Hot Chip - The Warning (2006)
Included for its daring combination of the satirical, the sinister and the saccharine.

140. Chris Potter - Underground (2006)
Included for its muscular energy and exuberance.

139. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (2009)
Included for its rich orchestration, lush harmonies and thoroughly involving sense of construction and care.

138. Herbert - Bodily Functions (2001)
Included for the smoky sophistication in Dani Siciliano's vocals and the intelligent radicalism at the heart of Matthew Herbert's sonic and political manifesto.

137. Deerhoof - Offend Maggie (2008)
Included simply to represent one of the most adventurous, maverick and off-the-wall bands to have dominated the alternative music landscape of the decade.

136. Tim Whitehead/Giovanni Mirabassi Quartet – Lucky Boys (2006)
Included for being a personal source of encouragement and inspiration.

135. Queens Of The Stone Age - Songs For The Deaf (2002)
Included for its sheer hard-hitting vitality.

134. John Scofield – Time On My Hands (2000)
Included for the sheer brilliance and versatility of the ensemble (Scofield, Charlie Haden, Jack De Johnette, Joe Lovano).

133. Orchestra Baobab - Specialists In All Styles (2002)
Included for bringing them back to international prominence with a set at once righteous and elegant.

132. Joshua Redman - Compass (2009)
Included for being Redman's most assured, spacious and versatile collection of the decade, a substantial achievement that seems to have been somewhat neglected in the UK jazz press.

131. Salif Keita - Moffou (2002)
Included for its maturity and sense of craft.

130. The Bug - London Zoo (2008)
Included for its unflinching, uncompromising aggression and confronational agenda and for its snapshot of an urban Britain in fear and division.

129. Patricia Barber - Mythologies (2007)
Included for being a contemporary vocal jazz album I can wholeheartedly embrace for the allegorical depth of its songs and the weight of experience in Barber's breathy voice.

128. Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Twice Born Men (2009)
Included for its seamless flow and masterly construction.

127. Soweto Kinch – Conversations With The Unseen (2004)
For providing a distinctly British and positive take on American forms.

126. Roy Hargrove Quintet – Earfood (2008)
For its glorious, clean sound and for its infectious jubilance, suggesting that jazz can still be a music of the people.

125. Sparks – Lil’ Beethoven (2002)
Included for its riotous sense of humour and its playful irony.

124. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood (2006)
Included for being the most consistently involving example of her peculiar, eerie and vital world.

123. Scott Tuma – Not For Nobody (2008)
Included for its golden mix of folk tradition and contemporary innovation.

122. Portishead – Third (2008)
Included for not settling for repetition of past glories and therefore being much better, and more adventurous, than anyone expected.

121. Laurent Garnier – Unreasonable Behaviour (2000)
Included for its combination of insistence, repetition and expression.

120. Olafur Arnalds – Eulogy For Evolution (2008)
Included for its spare beauty and lingering sadness.

119. Cee-Lo Green – Cee-Lo Green Is The Soul Machine (2004)
Included for its madcap, exhilarating and vibrant explosion of ideas.

118. Leila – Courtesy Of Choice (2000)
Included for its sleek, modern conception of bedroom soul.

117. Cinematic Orchestra – Every Day (2003)
Included for continuing to reveal previously hidden subtleties and for the power and determination of Fontella Bass’ vocal contributions.

116. Elbow – Asleep In The Back (2001)
Included for Guy Garvey's compassion and humility and for being the best of their albums that didn’t win the Mercury.

115. Leonard Cohen – Ten New Songs (2001)
Included for coming down from the mountain in the most unhurried manner, armed with the twin forces of wisdom and reflection.

114. Jaga Jazzist - What We Must (2005)
Included for its adventurous spirit, lush arrangements and rhythmic precision.

113. Pat Metheny – The Way Up (2005)
Included for Metheny’s glorious chiming melodic sound and his sustained compositional ambition.

112. James Blackshaw – The Cloud of Unknowing (2007)
For introducing me to this extraordinary talent and his dense, hypnotic twelve-stringed tapestries.

111. Dirty Projectors – The Getty Address (2006)
Included for its cut-up orchestral wizardry, very different from subsequent DPs projects – and for its utterly bonkers premise – a concept album affording Don Henley prophetic status.

110. Carla Bley – The Lost Chords (2004)
Included for establishing an inspired new working band for Bley, an artist whose combination of fun and musicality continues to provoke.

109. Xela – The Dead Sea (2006)
Included for its unpredictable movements between brutality and calm, resulting in an effective, uneasy symbiosis.

108. Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble – Exile (2003)
Included for its unconventional and controversial handling of its theme and for its masterful fusion of jazz with Middle Eastern music.

107. Charlie Haden Liberation Music Orchestra – Not In Our Name (2005)
Included for capturing the prevailing political mood of the times in something close to a folk language.

106. Dizzee Rascal – Boy In Da Corner (2003)
Included for its individuality, spark and brilliant juxtaposition of the confrontational and celebratory – a far cry from the banal forms with which he now sadly preoccupies himself in the aim of increased sales figures.

105. Mouse On Mars – Idiology (2001)
Included for being dance music you’d only be afraid to dance to.

104. Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Abattoir Blues/The Lyre Of Orpheus (2004)
Included for showing us that the great man obsessed with sex, drugs, darkness and death had a sense of humour all along.

103. Four Tet – Rounds (2003)
Included for being the album to best capture Kieren Hebden’s beautiful, lingering pastoral electronic sound.

102. Subtle – For Hero:For Fool (2006)
Included for taking the surrealism of the Anticon anti-rap and placing it in a radically different context, making it something visceral and thrilling.

101. J Dilla - Donuts (2007)
Included for Dilla’s wide-reaching posthumous influence, and for crafting a coherent vision from a piecemeal, scattershot approach.

100. Hans Koller – London Ear (2005)
Included for its powerful, imaginative arrangements and marvellously swinging feel and also for capturing the final recorded moments of Steve Lacy.

99. Panda Bear – Person Pitch (2007)
Included for its resplendent, overwhelming synaesthesia of sounds and ideas.

98. Boom Bip and Doseone – The Circle (2002)
Included for its disorientating, stream-of-consciousness surrealism.

97. Bill Frisell – Blues Dream (2001)
Included for its brilliant achievement in conjuring up precisely the mood its title suggests.

96. Vijay Iyer – Reimagining (2003)
Included for its rhythmic complexity and compelling group dynamic, although it’s worth noting that any of Iyer’s albums this decade could have been included on this basis.

95. Jim O’Rourke – Insignificance (2001)
Included for its rock classicism – which in O’Rourke’s hands sounds fresh and exciting.

94. Plush – Fed/Underfed (2003, reissued 2008)
Included for the sheer commitment and scale of the former, and the emphatic melodic qualities of its de-orchestrated counterpart.

93. Quasimoto – The Unseen (2000)
Included for being the work of hip hop’s greatest mavericks.

92. Colin Towns – Orpheus Suite (2004)
Included for being an outstanding example of big band composition that both fulfils and transcends the brief of its original commission.

91. Mu – Afro Finger and Gel (2003)
Included for Maurice Fulton’s radical, wild production, the perfect backdrop for the uninhibited vocal eruptions.

90. Khonnor – Handwriting (2005)
Included for its adolescent sadness and blissful anonymity.

89. Nick Lowe – The Convincer (2001)
Included for being unafraid of maturity, taste and understatement.

88. Polar Bear – Held On The Tips of Fingers (2003)
Included for being unconcerned with what constitutes ‘jazz’ and, as a result, producing an improvised music that is at once ingratiating and challenging.

87. Elvis Costello – The Delivery Man (2004)
Included for being the highlight of his career revival so far – a loose concept album filled with songs of barbed insight and sly magic, delivered in his strongest voice.

86. Super Furry Animals – Mwng (2000)
Included for the idisyncracy of singing in a language few can understand and the accessibility of playing it in the international language of pop.

85. Kurt Rosenwinkel – The Next Step (2002)
Included for its exuberant, playful twists and turns, driving intensity and for Rosenwinkel’s total mastery of the fretboard.

84. Cornelius – Point (2002)
For its perfect dreamy heat-haze.

83. Broadcast – Ha Ha Sound (2003)
For its retro-modernist austerity.

82. Low – Things We Lost In The Fire (2001)
Included for the haunting quality of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker’s voices and for the harrowing, stark minimalism of the songs.

81. Jamie Lidell – Multiply (2005)
Included for having the audacity to follow a glitchy electronic debut with an album of white-boy soul, and for making it irresistibly brilliant.

80. Steely Dan – Two Against Nature (2002)
Included for returning and sounding like they’d never been away, with Becker and Fagen’s quirky irony and musical sophistication thoroughly undiminished.

79. Supersilent – 6 (2003)
Included for further developing their original, already influential language of improvisation.

78. Ry Cooder – Chavez Ravine (2005)
Included for being as much a historical and socio-political documentary as vibrant song collection.

77. Est – Seven Days of Falling (2003)
For its subtlety, grace, and unhurried intelligence and, of course, for bringing European jazz to stadium audiences.

76. Radiohead – Kid A (2000)
Included for being a provocative record that I alternately loved, hated and then learned to love again.

75. Scritti Politti – White Bread Black Beer (2006)
For being a home-recorded songwriting masterclass, and for the honey-drenched wonder of Green Gartside’s voice, which remains unchanged from Scritti’s 80s heyday.

74. Steve Coleman – On The Rising of the 64 Paths (2003)
For its rigorous adherence to the groove and Coleman’s understanding that rhythm and time are music’s fundamental elements.

73. The Knife – Silent Shout (2006)
For its sinister sense of malice and cruelty.

72. Amy Winehouse – Back To Black (2006)
For the refreshingly candid songs and the sublime delivery which will hopefully outlast the lurid tabloid-baiting.

71. Daft Punk – Discovery (2001)
Included for its sheer ubiquity in the good times and for being impossible to resist.

70. Joe Lovano – Streams Of Expression (2006)
Included for Lovano’s splicing of personal story with tradition - his understanding of where jazz has been and where it still has to go.

69. Ellen Allien – Berlinette (2003)
INcluded for making brutalist, mechanistic precision sound beautiful.

68. DJ/Rupture – Minesweeper Suite (2002)
Included for defining an art for the DJ mix album.

67. Mark Kozelek – What’s Next To The Moon (2005)
Included for taking the macho swagger of AC/DC songs and exposing their vulnerability, perhaps a greater achievement than having written them in the first place.

66. Alice Coltrane – Translinear Light (2004)
Included for its inner peace and contemplation and for being a comeback of immense dignity.

65. Warren Zevon – Life’ll Kill Ya (2000)
Included for being one of the best expressions of Zevon’s inimitable black humour, one where the production is not intrusive, and where Zevon's wit and melodic strengths can cut through clearly.

64. John Abercrombie – Class Trip (2004)
Included for Abercrombie’s masterly fluidity and the languid atmospheres of the music – a class act.

63. The Bad Plus – These Are The Vistas (2003)
Included for their iconoclastic approach in building a new standard repertoire and for developing a power trio with playful sophistication.

62. Michael Brecker – Pilgrimage (2007)
Included for being so much more than just a last will and testament and, against all odds, standing tall as one of the highlights of a tremendous and justly revered catalogue.

61. Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker (2000)
Included for a pure expression of romantic songwriting, before his restlessness and complacency destroyed his artistry.

60. John Surman – Coruscating (2000)
Included for its beautiful, hymnal merging of reed instruments and string quartet – an ensemble that transpires to be both serene and immersing, somewhere in the hinterland between composed and improvised music.

59. Prefuse 73 – One Word Extinguisher (2003)
Included for its fragmented and futuristic vision.

58. Ornette Coleman – Sound Grammar (2006)
Included for not resting on his considerable laurels and continuing to push the envelope.

57. Kenny Garrett – Beyond The Wall (2006)
Included for capturing a palpable sense of the East in a largely Western language.

56. Califone – Roots and Crowns (2006)
Included for making the wayward sound coherent and for making the arcane sound contemporary.

55. Konono No. 1 – Congotronics (2005)
Included for subverting expectations of what African music is all about, and for its irrepressible energy.

54. Feist – The Reminder (2007)
Included for her psychological and emotional insight and for her beguiling voice, which here appears adaptable to a wide range of musical settings.

53. Scott Walker – The Drift (2006)
Included for fearlessly shining a spotlight on the terrors and violent extremes of recent human history.

52. Mirouslav Vitous – Universal Syncopations (2003)
Included for Vitous’ deep, resonant bass sound and for its powerful combination of lyricism and daring flight.

51. Yo La Tengo – And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000)
Included for its graceful melancholy and for so brilliantly redefining the group’s sound that they left little space for anything more beyond dependable consistency.

50. Keith Jarrett – Testament (2009)
Included for capturing the performances, delivered towards the close of the decade, which summed up a lifetime’s creative endeavour.

49. Burial – Untrue (2007)
Included for finally justifying the use of the word ‘urban’ as a genre classification.

48. Steve Lehman Octet - Travail, Transformation and Flow (2009)
Included for being the next major voice in jazz, if I were to get my way...

47. Madvillain – Madvillainy (2004)
Included for uniting the two greatest eccentrics in hip-hop, with predictably thrilling and imaginative results.

46. The Microphones – The Glow pt. 2 (2001)
Included for its exquisite musical landscape, attention to detail and imaginative sonic manipulations.

45. Terence Blanchard – Flow (2004)
Included for the singing presence of Blanchard’s lines, the considered pacing of his music and for its ultimate joy.

44. Alasdair Roberts – Farewell Sorrow (2003)
Included for effortlessly connecting the Scottish folk tradition with contemporary songwriting and for the rich quality of its language.

43. Bob Dylan – Love and Theft (2001)
Included for its hilarity, its magpie borrowings and for sounding both as old as the hills and as fresh as the daisies.

42. The Books – Lost and Safe (2005)
Included for its distinctive artistry in reimagining the world from found sounds and samples.

41. El-P – High Water (2004)
Included for making ‘jazzy’ hip-hop something to be both feared and admired.

40. Bon Iver – For Emma, Forever Ago (2008)
Included for its perfect isolation and for simply being every bit as beautiful and moving as everyone says it is.

39. Peter Gabriel – Up (2002)
Included for combining meticulous organisation with sensitivity and devastating human feeling and also for simply being his only new material of the whole decade.

38. Max Tundra – Mastered By Guy At The Exchange (2002)
Included for its madcap, relentless ‘anything goes’ spirit and for the unsurpassed musicality and intelligence that comes with it.

37. Godspeed You Black Emperor! – Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas To Heaven (2000)
Included for enthusiastically embracing the apocalypse.

36. Sufjan Stevens – Greetings From Michigan (2004)
Included for meshing delicate, charming songs with ornate, intelligent arrangements and for capturing both the despair and resilience of the great lake state.

35. Emmylou Harris – Red Dirt Girl (2000)
Included for its haunting, elegiac sound and for displaying a new confidence in songwriting, based on compassion and hard experience, late in her career.

34. Herbert – Plat du Jour (2004)
Included for its unflinching political conviction and for creating a new brand of music concrete from food production processes.

33. Tom Waits – Alice (2002)
Included for its theatrical poignancy and sense of longing – and simply because I underrated it considerably on first listen.

32. The Notwist – Neon Golden (2002)
Included for its drifting atmosphere, textured sounds and sense of space and time.

31. Branford Marsalis – Braggtown (2006)
Included for Marsalis’ conviction and stablility in developing one of the longest running and most impressive ensembles in contemporary jazz, reaching a pinnacle of interaction and expression in the process.

30. Arcade Fire – Funeral (2004)
Included for creating not just a set of songs, but an entire world and cast of characters and for connecting so readily and passionately with their audience.

29. Songs:Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co (2003)
Included for making some unfashionable influences sound raw and righteous and for establishing a distinctive lexicon, one that Molina may now have exhausted.

28. Broken Social Scene – You Forgot It In People (2004)
Included for its stylistic diversity, collective ethos and genuine love of sound.

27. Gillian Welch – Time (The Revelator) (2001)
Included for its spare, delicate purity, wisdom and insight.

26. Antony and the Johnsons – I Am A Bird Now (2005)
Included for the complete and wondrous exposing of a unique soul.

25. Dave Holland Big Band – Overtime (2005)
Included for the adaptability of Holland’s formula, in using his formidable quintet sound as a springboard to a cliché-free set of big band charts.

24. Cannibal Ox – The Cold Vein (2001)
Included for presenting the harsh reality of America’s urban centres without machismo, bravado or glamour and for combining it with an appropriately heavy, abrasive sound.

23. Evan Parker and Transatlantic Art Ensemble – Boustrophedon (2002)
Included for pushing Parker away from his comfort zone in its subtlety, sympathy and precision.

22. Acoustic Ladyland – Last Chance Disco (2003)
Included for its evangelical fervour in making jazz as physical and insistent as club music and as immovable and immediate as punk.

21. David Torn – Prezens (2007)
Included for making an uncategorisable music of paradoxes – at once furious and elegant, confrontational and inviting, brutal and serene.

20. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion (2009)
Included for its sheer sense of joy and its curious asymmetry.

19. Outkast – Stankonia (2000)
Included for bringing celebrity, flamboyance, insight and humour to a too often po-faced genre and remembering the virtues of funk.

18. Robert Wyatt – Cuckooland (2003)
Included for the staunch principles and beliefs of the artist and the dignity of his art.

17. Lambchop – Is A Woman (2002)
Included for getting to the core of Kurt Wagner’s songwriting artistry and for its pervasive subtlety.

16. Fennesz – Endless Summer (2001)
Included for producing a fuzzy, all-enveloping warmth from ostensibly cold and atavistic ingredients.

15. Boards of Canada – Geogaddi (2002)
Included for their unique, trademark sound, arguably at its best here - sinister, bewitching, uncomfortable and compelling.

14. Iron and Wine/Calexico – In The Reins (2005)
Included for Sam Beam’s regal prose-poetry, the exquisite border flavour and some overwhelming songs of love and loss.

13. D’Angelo – Voodoo (2000)
Included for creating a smouldering, sensational and resilient new soul music and then audaciously refusing to do anything else for the entire decade.

12. Bruce Springsteen – We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (2006)
Included for demonstrating the continued relevance of the American folk tradition to the turbulent geo-political issues of this decade and for Springsteen’s conviction and empathy.

11. Wildbirds and Peacedrums – Heartcore (2008)
Included for its unrestrained emotion and explosive physicality, brilliantly explored through the tension of the percussion-vocal duo dynamic.

10. Derek Bailey – Ballads (2002)
Included for daring to go where avant-garde artists usually fear to tread (the standard repertoire), and for making the familiar sound disconcerting and unusual through doing so.

09. Lambchop – Nixon (2000)
Included at least in part for its recontextualisation of Curtis Mayfield but also for its hope, charm and poetic non-sequiturs.

08. Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure – In The Heart Of The Moon (2005)
Included for establishing a musical relationship of supreme empathy and for expressing something clear, beautiful and meaningful in the simplest of terms.

07. Boredoms – Vision Creation Newsun (2001)
Included for its primal urgency and potency and for its considerable creative risks.

06. Arthur Russell - Calling Out Of Context (2004)
Included for Russell's becoming, sadly posthumously, the artist of the decade and for this album being the closest the collections of his previously unheard material got to sounding like a coherent album.

05. David Sylvian – Blemish (2003)
Included for being genuinely difficult, rather than merely obstinate, and for finding a distinctive, personal form of catharsis.

04. Dirty Projectors – Rise Above (2007)
For respecting the visceral thrill of hardcore punk and the imperatives of formal composition, redefining the parameters of the rock ensemble in the process.

03. Wilco – A Ghost Is Born (2004)
Included for introducing alchemy, spontaneity and adventure into what is ostensibly traditional rock music.

02.Wayne Shorter – Alegria (2003)
Included for not only reaffirming the pre-eminent status one of contemporary music’s greatest talents, but for igniting a whole new phase of adventure in the twilight of a long career.

01. Bjork – Vespertine (2001)
Included for its intimacy and sensuality (a bizarre combination of iciness and warmth) and for Bjork’s innate understanding of the timbre and shape of human voices.