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My Songs Of The Decade, pt I: 2000-2003

I decided that attempting to compile any objective sort of list of the ‘best songs of the decade’ was was ultimately a futile effort, so instead you get this – a vague attempt to recount the songs that not only are great tunes (well, mostly), but in many cases have also had some personal relevance to my life. I’m going to list them year-by-year, so you’ll have to excuse the inevitable fragmentation of my own personal chronology, as I didn’t ‘get into’ many of these songs until years after they were released.

And yes, I’m aware that by this time ‘End of Decade’ lists are “so last decade”, but never mind.

(Edit: I’m a dumbass and got the year of the BRMC track wrong. Oops)

2000

Coldplay – ‘Don’t Panic’ – (Parachutes)

Really, this entry should probably just be the entirety of Coldplay’s first album – which I absolutely played to death on a Club Med holiday in Ibiza. It went pretty much everywhere here me, and thus I can’t hear certain parts of this record without it being shot through with images of that holiday. In particular, the echoy guitar line of ‘Don’t Panic’ reminds me of the lit-up view across the pool at night – permanently associated with warm, relaxed nights.

Elliot Smith – ‘Everything Reminds Me Of Her’ – (Figure 8)

We’ve all been there – well, ok, maybe you haven’t – but the feeling that everything is an inescapable reminder of a lost love is something that Elliot Smith encapsulates perfectly in this song. For me, it’s something that came to a head one night at a ball in Cambridge, where the reminder in question was in fact every single pretty girl in a pretty dress – oh, and I think there was a group calling themselves ‘Between The Bars’ playing too. That last thing might clue you in to the fact that, fittingly, “her” in this case was the person who introduced me to Elliot Smith in the first place. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Linkin Park – ‘One Step Closer’ – (Hybrid Theory)

I contemplated not admitting to this, but well, it’s not like anyone thinks I’m cool anyway. I include this song not because of any particular lasting affection for Linkin Park (Minutes To Midnight was shit, yo), but because it completely blew me away the first time I heard it on the radio. I subsequently remember looking in record shops for this ‘Lincoln Park’ band, and being a little bit put off when I saw they looked kinda scary on the back cover – bear in mind that at this point, my fragile sensibilities had largely been exposed to the likes of Travis and Coldplay. But then ‘Crawling’ came out and, like many angsty teenagers at that time, I took the plunge – thus starting a not-so-brief dalliance with nu-metal and other such related stuff. Looking back, this does imply that my current taste in music could be a hell of a lot worse – I guess I should be thankful.

PJ Harvey – ‘This Mess We’re In’ – (Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea)

Like Elliot Smith above, it wasn’t until years after this album came out that I was introduced to PJ Harvey, and I rued not paying attention earlier in the decade. However, Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea has become a particular favourite of mine, and this fragile, haunting duet with Thom Yorke is one of its absolute highlights. It’s also got a sublime spoken-word section – by the time you get to the end of this list, it’ll be quite clear that I’m a bit of a sucker for them.

Radiohead – ‘Idioteque’ – (Kid A)

On the same Club Med holiday where I spun Parachutes to death, I met a guy called Sam who was obsessed with Radiohead (he also played me part of the first Muse album on cassette, which is as big an indication as any as to how far we’ve come in 10 years) . This may or may not have influenced my decision to buy OK Computer at some point later in time – I honestly can’t remember when I bought it – but it would be nearly 8 years later that I first listened to Kid A. Of course, ‘Idioteque’ had been soundtracking my nights at World Headquarters in Newcastle even before that, I just hadn’t realised what the song was or who it was by – I only knew, instinctively, that it was rather brilliant. If I were to attempt to pick a personal ‘best song of the decade’ in any sort of objective manner, it’s quite possible that ‘Idioteque’ would be it – I do have to stop and wonder where I’d be now if I’d have heard it instead of ‘One Step Closer’ back in 2000…

2001

Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – ‘Whatever Happened To My Rock ‘N’ Roll (Punk Song)’ – (B.R.M.C.)

It may have been a bit of a red herring when compared to a lot of the other tracks on Black Rebel Motorcycle Club’s debut album, but there’s no denying that this was the song that got me interested in the band. Raw, loud and infectious, it hooked me instantly and I’ve been a fan of the band’s output ever since.

Daft Punk – ‘Aerodynamic’ – (Discovery)

If you tell me that you hate Daft Punk, then you’re a liar – either that or the most stony-hearted creature in existence. That’s not to say that everyone is in fact a massive fan of them – but you know full well that you’ve danced to this (or one of Discovery’s other singles) at least once in your life. It only takes the most casual appreciation of the French duo to realise that they’ve made some of the decade’s most feel-good party tunes.

Gorillaz – ‘Clint Eastwood’ – (Gorillaz)

Even before Blur finished their last album, Damon Albarn was already embarking on a new project that would set him on course to become one of the decade’s biggest musical innovators. Collaborating with Jamie Hewlett to create a fictional band pretty much gave Albarn licence to do whatever he wanted – as evidenced on the band’s twisted, hip-hop influenced early single. It does seem a little bit wrong to pick out just one song for praise though – the best thing about Gorillaz is the sheer extent to which Albarn and his collaborators have embraced their creative freedom.

Muse – ‘New Born’ – (Origin Of Symmetry)

Origin Of Symmetry saw Muse take the angsty alt-rock of their debut and take it up to the next level – which would become a recurring theme throughout the decade, with each successive album becoming increasingly overblown. While this strategy eventually faltered with this year’s The Resistance (in my opinion, at least), the likes of ‘New Born’ remind us not only how far they’ve come, but also how bloody good they were in the first place.

The Strokes – ‘Hard To Explain’ – (Is This It?)

Love them or hate them, it’s impossible to deny that the arrival of The Strokes had a profound effect on ‘indie’ culture in the decade to come – both musically and in terms of the hype that surrounded the band. While ‘Last Nite’ is arguably *the* perennial Strokes tune, I’m including ‘Hard To Explain’ here because I actually prefer it. Sue me.

The White Stripes – ‘Fell In Love With A Girl’ – (White Blood Cells)

There’s not really a lot to say about this one – it’s raw, it’s simple, and it’s utterly infectious. Absolutely one of the decade’s finest tunes – and despite various side-projects and further ambitious efforts with The White Stripes, I’d still say that White Blood Cells is my favourite thing involving Jack White to have been created this decade.

2002

Idlewild – ‘A Modern Way Of Letting Go’ – (The Remote Part)

People say they went soft after 100 Broken Windows, but Idlewild still showed flashes of that fire on their subsequent records. The Remote Part was probably better known for its sweeping, emotional epics, but this raw, sub-three-minute blast of guitar angst is probably one of my favourite tracks on the album – and one of my favourite Idlewild songs, period.

The Music – ‘Take The Long Road And Walk It’ – (The Music)

Let’s put aside the fact that the band went AWOL for several years while combating problems with drink and drugs, and concentrate on  the fact that The Music’s debut album was pretty damn good. Happily, they would eventually recover and produce more euphoric dance-rock anthems like this one – although this, one of their earliest tracks, still remains one of their best.

Red Hot Chili Peppers – ‘By The Way’ – (By The Way)

Yes, yes, you might say they haven’t done anything good since Californication, but that album was released in 1999 so whatever dude. ‘By The Way’ (and by extension, the album of the same name) makes this list because it served as my first real introduction to Red Hot Chili Peppers – and if a new album causes you to check out previous work by the same band, then surely that’s a good thing, right?

The Streets – ‘Weak Become Heroes’ – (Original Pirate Material)

I’ve never actually been on drugs, but I like this song nevertheless – Mike Skinner’s observations are razor-sharp here, even if I can only pretend to relate to them. Also, I would one day like to be able to respond to the greeting “pleased to meet you” with “likewise, a pleasure” in the slim hope that the person I’m talking to realises what song I’m referencing. I’m such a geek.

2003

The Electric Soft Parade – ‘Bruxellisation’ – (The American Adventure)

Hats off to you if you know this one – any attention surrounding The Electric Soft Parade seemed to quickly subside after debut effort Holes In The Wall, but this melancholy beauty from their second album is one of the best things they’ve ever done. It also contains the following vocal sample:

Woman: “What are you doing?”
Man (presumably Tom or Alex): “Recording the street noise.”

I found it hilarious, for some reason.

Patrick Wolf – ‘Demolition’/’London’/’Paris’ – (Lycanthropy)

There are two reasons I’ve grouped these three songs together – 1) Because I couldn’t possibly pick between them, and 2) Because they run together in this order on Patrick Wolf’s debut album Lycanthropy, and form one of the best three-song runs you’ll find on any album this decade. The desolate mournfulness of ‘Demolition’ leads into a wistful peon to Patrick’s hometown as he prepares to leave London… and then the sadness finally gives way to hope as he arrives in Paris and realises that he has the power to write his own future… ” it’s all in the palm of your hand”. Individually, they’re already fantastic songs, but considered together they’re absolutely wonderful.

The Rapture – ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’ – (Echoes)

The Rapture certainly know the key to making people dance, and this is easily their most seminal tune. Not only did ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’ have enough cowbell to satisfy even Christopher Walken, it also had an unavoidably funky bassline – these factors combined meant you had no other choice but to get down.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Maps’ – (Fever To Tell)

In the midst of Fever To Tell’s garage-rock noisiness was this simple, beautifully emotional gem. Inspired by Karen O being away from her boyfriend while on tour, ‘Maps’ not only delivers an arresting sentiment (“Wait… they don’t love you like I love you”), it then has the genius to follow it up with a cathartic blast of guitar that you can let everything out to. This one goes on the objective ‘best songs of the decade list’ for sheer tear-jerking brilliance.

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My Favourite Songs Of 2009, In Five Words.

I do appreciate that my posts can be very wordy, so I thought I’d impose a challenge on myself – describing some my favourite songs of the year in no more than five words. These are purely in alphabetical order – let’s go, shall we?

Animal Collective – ‘My Girls’

Album? Meh. Single? Utterly brilliant.

Bat For Lashes  – ‘Two Planets’

Makes any moment instantly cinematic.

The Big Pink – ‘Velvet’

Epic shoegaze meets emotional sensibility.

Dinosaur Pile-Up – ‘Summer Hit Single’

Feelgood hit of the summer.

Editors – ‘Papillon’

Monolithic synth-lead floor filler.

Fever Ray – ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’

Bleak, beautiful and simply stunning.

Grammatics – ‘Double Negative’

“HEY SUGAR! What d’you say?”

(Recorded version is on Myspace)

HEALTH – ‘Die Slow’

Convulsing, pounding, disco-noise headfuck.

The Horrors – ‘Sea Within A Sea’

Utterly compelling – a fantastic transformation.

Johnny Foreigner – ‘Criminals’

Their most vital song yet.

Los Campesinos! – ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future’

Thoughtful, epic, and heartrendingly emotional.

Pulled Apart By Horses – ‘I Punched A Lion In The Throat’

Rage against the animal kingdom.

(Recorded version is on Myspace)

The Temper Trap – ‘Sweet Disposition’

Heart-swelling, uplifting indie-pop.

The XX – ‘Crystalised’

Sparce, intimate late-night confession.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Zero’

Instantly infectious and deliriously uplifting.

I could probably pick many more than these, but that’ll do for now I think.

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Obligatory End Of Year Megapost, pt I: Albums of the Year: 20-10

Well, it’s pretty much the end of the year, and so it’s time to make some sort of definitive list of what I considered the best albums of 2009. Yes, I already touched on this briefly here, but subsequently some re-evaluation has gone on in my mind. The first part of my end of year series covers albums 20-10 in my top 20 list.

20. The Temper Trap – Conditions

The Temper Trap - Conditions

When it comes to describing music, ‘epic’ is an overused word – and yet, I’m struggling to think of a better catch-all term to describe The Temper Trap. So perhaps I should try to pin down what I mean when I describe Conditions as ‘epic’. It’s not a pure instrumental epic like something by Explosions In The Sky – although that’s not to say that the instrumentation doesn’t pack a punch. But this is primarily an ‘epic’ record in the way it conveys emotion – making the simplest sentiment sound huge, life-affirming even. ‘Sweet Disposition’ is the perfect example, a shimmering, impossibly feel-good tune that can’t help but tug at the heartstrings. Then there’s ‘Love Lost’, which swells with so much joy and relief that it sounds like it’s going to burst by the end of the song. ‘Science Of Fear’, on the other hand, conveys a racy, infectious sense of paranoia, and ‘Drum Song’ provides a pulse-pounding instrumental finale. Even if they don’t end up going on to bigger things, The Temper Trap sure as hell sound like they should do – this stuff feels made for big stages.

19. Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor

Patrick Wolf - The Bachelor

After witnessing Patrick Wolf’s wonderful show at the London Palladium, it occured to me that perhaps I had been a little bit harsh in leaving his latest album out of my initial list. Yes, ‘Vulture’ was a bit of a mis-step, ‘Battle’ is unarguably the worst thing he’s ever recorded, and ‘Theseus’ gets tarnished by Tilda Swinton’s over-zealous contribution.

But apart from that it’s actually rather good – ‘Hard Times’ easily matches the greatest pop moments on The Magic Position, ‘Count Of Casualty’ is one of the best fusions of his classical and electronic influences since ‘Paris’, and ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ ranks among the most moving songs Patrick has ever recorded. Add the high drama of the likes of ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Damaris’ and a collaboration (with Eliza Carthy) that actually works on the title track, and on balance you have a winning formula. After making three wonderful records, for Patrick Wolf to produce an album that’s merely ‘good’ is a noticeable drop in quality – but judged on its own merits, it’s a worthy record.

18. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

As much as it’s good – necessary, even – to be challenged by the music we hear, sometimes you just want something that’s easy to listen to. There’s nothing wrong with a record being instantly catchy, and Phoenix‘s fourth album is exactly that – scour the year’s releases and you’ll struggle to find a more immediately appealing record than Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. From the dance-around-your-bedroom fun of ‘Lisztomania’ to the wistful longing of ‘Rome’, it’s a great pop record without ever seeming throwaway. Indeed, the band seem to deftly succeed at whatever they try their hand to here – even the slow-building instrumental ‘Love Like A Sunset Part I’ not only works in its own right, but also within the context of the album as a whole. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a finely-crafted, yet understated gem of a record – the only thing that you’ll find a challenge is trying not to like it.

17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

Panicked reports that that the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record “DOESN’T HAVE ANY GUITARS ON IT!!” proved to be premature – you only have to get as far as the second track of It’s Blitz! before the trusty six-string returns to the mix. But make no mistake, for most of the record guitars take a back seat – whether on big floor-fillers (‘Heads Will Roll’), or fragile ballads (‘Skeleton’), synths are unquestionably the driving force behind this record. There’s no better example of this than first single ‘Zero’ – a pulsating electro-disco anthem which pretty much only sounds like a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song because of Karen O’s characteristic vocals. The closest the band come to the sound of their first two records is on ‘Dull Life’, but it’s the only moment on the record where the guitar truly reclaims the spotlight – the rest of the time, guitar lines find themselves either engaged in a constant tête-à-tête with synth lines, or end up being displaced by them entirely.  The real triumph of It’s Blitz! is that the band have made a record that, despite being a marked departure, still manages to sit naturally alongside their existing body of work. This is, without doubt, still very much a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record – and it’s a very, very good Yeah Yeah Yeahs record.

16. St. Vincent – Actor

St. Vincent - Actor

The first impression I got of this album was one of disarming innocence – thanks largely to the soft, pretty tones of Annie Clark’s voice. But Actor (her second album as St. Vincent) quickly reveals its darker side – whether it be through fuzzy blasts of guitar or sweetly-sung yet yet troubled lyrics. ‘The Bed’ sounds like a childish tale of hiding from monsters under the bed, but quickly takes a sinister turn (“Don’t move/Don’t scream/Or we will have to shoot”), while ‘Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” sees Clark come to the bleak realisation that “All my old friends aren’t so friendly/All my old haunts are now haunting me”. Even ‘Actor Out Of Work’, the record’s most upbeat track, sees her listing the faults of a potential suitor before eventually concluding “I think I love you, I think I’m mad”. It’s the lyrical and musical juxtapositions that make Actor an album of surprising depth – St. Vincent mixes the pretty voice of Feist with the instrumentation and tone of Patrick Wolf to create a beautiful album with a dark heart.

15. PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By

PJ Harvey & John Parish - A Woman A Man Walked By

Having embraced a very minimal, piano-based instrumental style on previous album White Chalk, PJ Harvey decided to step away from the responsibility of writing music entirely by teaming up once again with long-time collaborator John Parish. The resulting album, A Woman A Man Walked By, is surely one of the most diverse bodies of work in Harvey’s back catalogue. The most conventional (but nevertheless brilliant) thing you’ll find here is darkened guitar stomper ‘Black Hearted Love’, and from there the record veers all over the place. From haunting White Chalk fragility (‘Leaving California’) to raw Rid Of Me filth (‘A Woman A Man Walked By’), the album encompasses a whole range of emotions – snarling madness, poignant sadness, the burden of having loved and lost. Certainly, the sparse, focused nature of White Chalk was utterly brilliant – but it’s equally gratifying to see PJ Harvey seizing the opportunity to experiment a little as well. Crucially, however, A Woman A Man Walked By is as consistent in its quality as it is varied in its ideas – and that makes it one of the year’s most engaging and interesting records.

14. Dananananaykroyd – Hey Everyone!

Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone!

Sometimes, less is more. With Dananananaykroyd, on the other hand, more is definitely more – you can almost guess as much from the name, never mind the fact the band have two drummers. As such, bar the disarmingly poppy four minutes of ‘Black Wax’, Hey Everyone! is basically a riotous, thousand-mile-an-hour cacophony. There’s so much going going on in any given song that it’s amazing how ordered the band’s chaos sounds – rather than trip each other up in a frantic dash to the finish, the components of a song run alongside each other in a seemingly effortless fashion. The overall effect is a record that constantly feels like it’s going to throw up with sheer excitement at its own existance – it’s big, it’s loud, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

13. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

“Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide, we won’t crack or compromise…”

Remember that line? Arctic Monkeys continued to prove that they weren’t kidding around with that statement of intent with their third album Humbug – an album that makes the sonic departures on previous record Favourite Worst Nightmare look like mere baby steps. There’s little room for concession here – the closest we get to a ‘Mardy Bum’ or ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ is quirky strum-along ‘Cornerstone’, and lead single ‘Crying Lightning’ proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. The overall sound of Humbug was at times even darker than that song suggested – the guitars swathed in reverb, the lyrics far more cryptic. But if the band had churned out second and third records that were just re-treading old ground, would people still care? Actually, they probably would – so it’s to the band’s credit that they’ve chosen to push hard in a new direction and hoped that their fans will follow them, rather than letting their style be dictated by what the public supposedly wants.

12. The Big Pink – A Brief History Of Love

The Big Pink - A Brief History Of Love

On the strength of their first three singles alone, The Big Pink looked to be on to a winner – ‘Too Young To Love’ swirled and churned itself into a gloriously hazy blur, ‘Dominos’ contained one of the year’s most colossal choruses, and ‘Velvet’ struck a sublime balance between fragile emotion and powerful noise. Happily, there’s a lot more to A Brief History Of Love than its singles. The dirty, hypnotic noise of opener ‘Crystal Visions’ sounds like early BRMC (and by extension, The Jesus And Mary Chain), ‘A Brief History Of Love’ is a reverb-laden yet touching ballad, and ‘Tonight’ might as well just have a big sign slapped on it saying “I AM THE NEXT DOMINOS” (it’s not *quite* as good, but still). If it’s colossal, emotionally-charged walls of sound you’re after, this album is exactly what you’re looking for.

11. HEALTH – Get Color

HEALTH - Get Color

I saw HEALTH live when they were touring their first album, and despite the fact they put on an impressive, powerful show, I found it difficult to connect with their music. Second record Get Color adds the missing ingredient to the mix, tempering their blistering noise with persistent melodies – both in the form of vocal lines and instrumental hooks. Things feel a lot more structured this time round, and the results are nothing less than fantastic – in particular ‘Die Slow’, which underpins its splurges of noise and echoy vocals with a convulsing guitar line and relentless drumming. HEALTH have created a record that manages to be unsettling, yet appealing at the same time – and without compromising what made them interesting in the first place. Take ‘Severin’ for instance – the stop-start chaos of the first 30 seconds is utterly brutal, and yet the song’s main guitar riff isn’t a million miles away from something you’d hear on a Bloc Party record. It’s this sort of contrast that makes Get Color feel almost morbidly compelling – this album is a masterclass in uneasy listening.

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