Where tracks are (legitimately) available to download online I've provided links to them, and also to places where you can buy the albums online. Of course, there's no substitute for a great record shop - I know we're spoiled in Brighton, but you should be able to find these in your local.
1 John Grant - Queen Of Denmark (Bella Union)
So much more than the sum of its parts (I was never a huge Czars fan and Midlake's latest left me cold); Grant is on sparkling, cutting lyrical form here, and the boys from Denton remind us why we lauded them for their first two albums. I have not stopped listening to this record since May, when I first heard it. Simply no argument: this is classic songwriting to stand up in the company of everyone from Bacharach and David (popular/accessible) to Mark Eitzel (visceral/cathartic): the understated 'Caramel' is a great example, and potentially lost among the more attention-grabbing (but wonderful) comedy of 'Sigourney Weaver' or 'Chicken Bones' (aside: anyone else reminded - fondly - of Neil Sedaka by this one?).
I'm reminded of how heavily I fell for Rufus Wainwright's Want One, only to realise that the production carried so much of that record. Here Matt Pence is so understated, he is perhaps best referred to in the 'recorded by'/anti-producer terms claimed by Steve Albini. It really is all about the songs. All of them. 'Where Dreams Go To Die' swoons. The stream-of-consciousness 'I Wanna Go To Marz' is downright gorgeous. I could talk about every single one and still struggle to convey how much I love this album. When I listen to it, I listen at least twice through in each sitting. If you haven't already done so, buy it.
Oh, for the record, I do subscribe to Mojo, but I pay for it. Delighted that they made this their #1 too, but I was honestly telling anyone who'd listen in May that this was probably the record of the year. My conscience is clear :-)
Link track: Chicken Bones (mp3, via Dallas Observer)
Buy: Bella Union Store
2 Ninja Gun - Restless Rubes (Gunner Records)
Suburban Home Records in 2009. Hailing from Valdosta, Georgia (hence the 'peachy' cover - that's nothing, you should see the coloured vinyl!), Ninja Gun pack more Big Star, Teenage Fanclub moments into this single album than any acolytes (of either or both) to date.
You might also compare it to early Foo Fighters (always a great pop band as much as anything, to my mind); they're Anglophiles too. Songwriter Jonathon Coody has definitely listened to Pete Townsend and Ray Davies, and the band (quite deliberately) opened their Brighton show with Wreckless Eric's Whole Wide World. Opener and title track, 'Restless Rubes' could have come off 'Who Sell Out' or 'A Quick One'.
Second track 'Eight Miles Out' is nothing less than a power-pop masterpiece, with hand-claps and harmonies to die for. 'Last Cowboy', 'Asking Price' and 'Front Yard Screamers' are all alt-country classics in waiting. Consistently great lyrics ('Darwin Was a Baptist' is a favourite in this respect, managing to work in his religious upbringing and a mention of the Galapagos) and more killer melodies than any single band has a right to.
See, I've sat down to write a quick comment and ended up listening to the whole album! I've no idea what a Rube is. but this is a true diamond.
Link track: Restless Rubes (mp3, via Suburban Home Records)
Buy: UK/EU - Gunner Records or USA - Suburban Home Records
3 Danny & The Champions Of The World - Streets Of Our Time (Loose)
It feels as though he hasn't turned down a chance to play live for the past couple of years, having enough confidence in his songs and his partners to perform as any number of Champ-configurations: The Champion of The World, The "Bluegrass Champs". When you see him (and whomever joins him) on stage, you realise this is where he's at home. Just as happy tearing into one of his own songs as he is to go off on a Springsteen-medley tangent - he even dares to make Dancing In The Dark sound like one of his own.
Relentess gigging (restless feet?) appears to have given Danny a more direct edge as a lyricist - 'Henry The Van' may be an allegory but it's also a great song about (simply) a van breaking down (maybe my own incessant driving helps me identify!). I still haven't found out what 'Parakeets' is about - other than the exotic birds displaced to South London, of course. Now - more than ever - he is the Neil Young of New Cross, Springsteen via Surbiton.
Link track: Restless Feet (stream, via hypem.com)
Buy: from Loose Records' shop (for a ridiculously cheap £7!)
4 Damien Jurado - Saint Bartlett (Secretly Canadian)
That’s not to suggest I don’t like what Swift has brought to the party - quite the opposite. Opener 'Cloudy Shoes' has wonderful Spector-ish production and yearning call-and-response vocals: wonderful! 'Arkansas' has a similar feel, although you can still imagine it as a Jurado song of old. He (or perhaps both of them – I’m sure it was a collaboration they enjoyed) know when to keep a lid on the studio tricks though. They let 'Rachel And Cali' stand alone, coming over like a song Raymond Carver never wrote, and 'Beacon Hill' shines for similar ‘hands-off’ approach. The album weighs in at just over 36 minutes, betraying the brevity of the majority of the songs. They may be short, but there’s nothing slight about any of them.
I’d love to have seen the two of them performing together on their recent tour, but at least I got to see Damien play solo in Groningen, Holland. On a Take Root bill that also featured Wilco, David Rawlings & Gillian Welch, Chatham County Line, Old Crow Meh-dicine Show and the awesome Black Mountain, Jurado completely (and I mean completely) stole the show. I realized then that I’d never seen him play unaccompanied before – I’d urge you to do so first chance you get.
Aside: they let their indulgence reign free on a companion album of covers, tantalizingly called Other Peoples Songs: Volume One (suggesting there’s more fun to come). Comprising songs originally performed by everyone from Yes to Kraftwerk via Chubby Checker, it’s available FREE from their tumblr page: http://otherpeoplessongs.tumblr.com/
Link Track: Cloudy Shoes (mp3, via Secretly Canadian website)
Buy: Secretly Canadian (US)
5 Old Man Luedecke - My Hands Are On Fire (Black Hen)
My Hands Are On Fire (great title for an album by a fearsome banjo player like Luedecke!) follows a similar template to previous release, Proof Of Love, employing numerous musicians to flesh out the melodies of his songs, but (I’m pleased to say) allows his banjo playing to shine throughout. He also has the distinction (along with Alicia Keys) of daring to rhyme ‘fridge’ with ‘bridge’ on 'Machu Pichu' (I heard my daughter listening to Empire State of Mind and almost choked on that couplet… had to reassess my scorn when I heard OML do the same!). In his defence, he’s far less earnest about it, as the song has an almost comical feel:
“I was climbing the stairs at Machu Pichu,
Found my cellphone and tried to reach you,
Sun went down on Macdonald Bridge,
I found your carrots in my fridge.
There was never a song that I couldn’t sing my way out of”
See, a classic Prine trick: humour to cover the tracks of the real emotion. Brilliant. He does this again, devastatingly so, on 'The Palace Is Golden': a song essentially about a couple struggling to conceive a child. It’s one of the most heart-wrenching songs you’ll ever hear.
Track link: The Rear Guard(mp3, via Black Hen Music)
Buy: Black Hen (Canada/US) or Amazon (UK)
6 Audra Mae - The Happiest Lamb (Side One Dummy)
Even a first glance at her biography tells you Audra Mae is an interesting case: she’s signed to Side One Dummy (a label better known for its punk affiliations) but she’s best known (if at all) for writing a song for X Factor phenomenon, Susan Boyle. Touring with Chuck Ragan’s Revival Tour just adds to the mix. it doesn’t let up, with Audra’s spine-tingling, haunting belter of a voice (a more theatrical Neko Case maybe?) front and centre, backed up by unfussy instrumental arrangements. Stand-out among all the great songs has to be 'The River': she opens with “I’ve been a bad girl, it’s ok…” and you’re hooked. She does it again with 'Sullivan’s Letter', telling the story of a soldier killed in the American Civil War.
Despite writing her own incredible songs, she’s not averse to a cover too: the album has a (straight but superb) reading of Dolly Parton’s 'Little Sparrow', and Audra’s already recorded 'Forever Young' for the Sons of Anarchy TV series. Her next release will be a covers EP, I hear.
I’m tired of people telling me that despite the hype I should be listening to Duffy (Chipmunks..or should that be Chipettes?), Adele (gobby sourpuss) or any number of the young female singers falling off the industry conveyor belt – bin the lot of them in favour of Audra Mae: she’ll knock 'em all into a cocked hat! She should be huge, if only people get to hear her. Where's the record? Where's the press?! Maybe there's a grand plan...hope so; we'll see. (Update: since writing this, only a week ago, I found real live copies of the CD in two Brighton record shops! OK, both of them were promo copies (technically not for sale), but it's a start... Side One Dummy, I think you need a new press team).
Link track: The River (ok, you have to join SOD’s mailing list: it could be worse!)
Buy: try Side One Dummy for stockists (other than second-hand shops flogging promo's, that is).
7 Glossary - Feral Fire (Liberty & Lament)
Released on Liberty & Lament, the label formed by buddies, Lucero, this gave Glossary a chance to reach a new and bigger audience. They start the album like they mean business, giving us both barrels with opener 'Lonely Is A Town’ followed by 'Save Your Money For The Weekend' – that Lizzy tribute evident here more than any other track…dual guitar lines and everything… magnificent! I don’t think they’ve started an album so strongly since How We Handle Our Midnights.
I've got four Glossary albums and (cards on the table) I LOVE them all: Feral Fire though, has (forgive the pun) a fire in its belly - as if the band were intent on making a great Southern rock record. They succeeded.
'No Guarantee' is the first of two Todd Beene songs, giving the album a more collaborative ‘band’ feel (generally, historically, singer Joey Kneiser writes the songs). They really are a tight unit, everyone playing for 'the band' rather than themselves. I only sense anyone stepping into the spotlight towards the end of the album. It’s not all rockers either: 'Your Heart To Haunt', 'Sweet Forever' and 'Pretty Things' demonstrate their slower side. Not downers though: like the man says, “nothing kills you slower than living with regret”.
Previous album Better Angels Of Our Nature ranked on our Festive Fifteen for 2008, and is *still* available for *free* download: http://www.glossary.us/downloads/ . It’s now accompanied by free copies of two solo efforts by Joey and Kelly Kneiser. Glossary - the band that keeps on giving... and I can’t get enough.
Link track: Save Your Money For The Weekend (mp3, via www.ninebullets.net
Buy: via band (not sure where you'll get it in UK)
8 Chatham County Line - Wildwood (Yep Roc)
Recorded at Echo Mountain in Asheville, North Carolina, the band took the decision to produce this one themselves – the last two albums produced by Chris Stamey. It has long been CCL’s ambition to be viewed as more than a bluegrass band, and Stamey definitely added a ‘pop’ sheen to the arrangements on Speed Of The Whippoorwill and IV. The band themselves take things a step further here with the introduction of (gulp!) drums: well, that’ll upset some bluegrass purists for sure! But far from simplifying their sound, the drums allow the other instruments to really take off (typically at least one of them would have held down a beat: John Teer’s restrained, percussive mandolin “chopping”, for example, is still evident on 'Heart Attack') while the others weave the melody. More than on previous records, I’ve become aware of Greg Readling’s pedal-steel and piano contributions (especially on 'Crop Comes In' and 'Out Of The Running'). Maybe this is the next stage of development for the band: bring in more instruments to the live set-up?
I’ve blogged already on how good I think this album is: 'Crop Comes In' still has me drooling over Chandler Holt’s banjo playing, and over the months other songs have also become firm favourites - an over-all stronger set of songs than IV, if that was possible – and consequently, they are still one of the most exciting bands (on stage and on record) around.
Link track: to follow...
Buy: Yep Roc (US)/
9 JBM - Not Even In July (Partisan)
Luckily, it eventually caught the ear of Partisan Records (Dolorean/Deer Tick) and gained a ‘proper’ release in 2010, which caused me to revisit an album I’d already enjoyed. Nick Drake opening (sounds like the ‘Introduction’ to Hazey Jane), then his voice comes in – high, lonesome and drenched in reverb… Jim James meets Nick Drake: what’s not to like!?
Elsewhere, he reminds me of Peter Bruntnell in his quieter moments or Damien Jurado ('Cleo’s Song') - and elsewhere will do me just fine while we await the new release from Dolorean ('July On The Sound'). Ultimately these influences are broad enough to allow the album to shine on its own terms. The run of the last five songs on the album (from 'Going Back Home' onwards) is arguably as fine a sequence of music and atmosphere) as any on this list.
There’s little change from the steady, ambling pace of the first few songs (if anything, it slows down) so that by the end you’re so relaxed you almost feeling like you’re breathing along to the songs. Now you just need to recover the energy to get up and start the CD over again.
Link track: In A Different Time (mp3, via artist's website)
Buy: Partisan Records (US) - http://www.partisanrecords.com/artists/jbm/store/
10 Salter Cane - Sorrow (self-released)
This is a local affair, recorded at Brighton’s renowned Metway Studios, but made available to the world in general thanks to a Creative Commons licence, which means that the whole album is free to download provided you credit the songs to Salter Cane. There’s a ‘real’ CD too in case you pine for the days of holding your music in your hands – but really this deserves nothing less than a leatherbound, embossed, triple-gatefold sleeve with a pop-up paper guilloutine in the middle. It’s gory stuff: imagine The Decemberists' The Tain retold by Cormac MacCarthy, or the swamp-borne demons of John Connolly’s The White Road forming a band. Yes, there are still inevitable comparisons to Nick Cave, but I don’t think even the band themselves would deny his influence.
The dynamic romp of title track ‘Sorrow’ showcases songwriter Chris Askew’s powerful lyrical imagery: evocative of wind-swept, barren landscapes, peopled by characters probably best left confined safely in the words of a song. Stand-out tracks ‘Black Swollen River’ and ‘The Truth Is Nothing’ are a perfect marriage of his lyrics/vocals to thrilling foreboding music, the latter culminating in a menacing chant refrain that sounds like all hell broke loose in the studio.
Link track: Track? Download the whole album - free! http://saltercane.com/sorrow/
Buy: Physical CD from band at shows or from CDBaby (US)
11 Mark Olson - Many Colored Kite (Ryko)
For want of a better word, there’s a ‘prettiness’ to the album that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea: I know some Jayhawks' fans who aren’t ‘getting’ it (that said, there are plenty who won’t be happy with anything less than an Olson-Louris Jayhawks reunion – looks like they may get their wish). 'Bluebell Song' is a song just waiting for The Jayhawks.
Apparently the album was almost called 'Beehive', and that song for me is the centerpiece of the album. Gorgeous string arrangements (courtesy of Michele Gazich) give way to Olson simply reciting the two-syllable title over acoustic guitar. The recent live shows (just Mark and Ingunn) were simply stunning - I honestly didn’t want the Brighton show to end, I was so lost in his/their performance (aside: watch out for a broadcast of part of the show on the Gilded Palace radio show very soon).
Guests abound: Jolie Holland comes on all Sandy Denny on 'Little Bird', wherein Neal Casal plays guitar (neat!) and Vashti Bunyan steps in on 'No Time Too Live Without Her' (again hard not to draw associations with Mark’s past), but overall he and Ingunn Ringvold are the core of a beautiful life-affirming record. Mojo, you were so wrong on this one...
Link track: no legit mp3's so here's a video shot in Belgium...
12 Zoe Muth & The Lost High Rollers - s/t (self-released)
First I heard of Zoe Muth was when this CD arrived early in the year, and as soon as the first song started I knew I was in for a treat. 'You Only Believe Me When I’m Lying' may be the strongest track on the album, but it’s so good that’s no slight on the rest of Zoe’s songs. You just know immediately that you’re listening to great musicians getting stuck into a brilliant song. Her voice is reminiscent of Iris Dement (especially on closing track, 'Never Be Fooled Again' - a show-stopping 8 minute epic) or Nanci Griffith. In other words, it sounds like she was born to sing country. And the band really are superb: dobro, fiddle, guitar all shine – and there’s some incredible mandolin and pedal steel. If you enjoyed Caitlin Rose’s album, you’re going to love this – and if you couldn’t get over Caitlin-mania, then maybe this one’s for you (hey, you can get in before she becomes “cool” :-P)
In the meantime, Zoe Muth has been signed to Signature Sounds, a label already enjoying positive press via Eilen Jewell, so I expect Muth to do well in 2011 too. I’m not sure if a new album will be released, or whether they will give this one a full(er) release. Either way, she’s a name to watch.
Link track: You Only Believe Me When I'm Lying (mp3, via KEXP Song Of The Day)
Buy: via artist
13 Caitlin Rose - Own Side Now (names)
Daytrotter session to break the deadlock. And - later - watching a number of (semi-acoustic) shows, I realized how great some of these songs are (regardless of hype).
So, to the album, and the glittering arrangements that raise the material to real show-stopping heights. Granted it is an “expensive-sounding record” (© Matt Eaton) but when at it’s best it produces a lifetime-great song like 'For The Rabbits', who’s complaining? She also toured her bloody socks off this year (was it three tours of the UK and Europe?), and still I don’t tire of hearing the best of these songs. Very excited to see what comes next: the band assembled for the recent UK tour around Jeremy Fetzer and Spencer Cullum Jr (superbly intuitive guitar/pedal-steel interplay between these guys) could be the foundation of an excellent second album – no matter how much is written about it.
Link track: Song For Rabbits (For The Rabbits demo) (mp3, via You Ain't No Picasso)
Buy: Rough Trade (w. exclusive bonus disc)
14 Ben Weaver - Mirepoix And Smoke (Bloodshot)
on tour in the UK and Europe in February: I can’t wait to see him perform these songs. He explains the approach to this album here. Listening to it after the album, I think more artists should write their own press releases – and record them too.
Link track: East Jefferson (mp3,via Bloodshot Records)
Buy: Bloodshot Records shop ...vinyl too!
15 Dinah Brand - I Can Walk Through (Transduction)
This album puts me in mind of bands like Bitter Springs or sophisticated indie-pop like much of Sarah Records, Pale Fountains (without the Bacharach fetish) or Prefab Sprout; there's an 80's feel about it. I'm thinking the easy, polished feel of the slower moments on Rattlesnakes (Lloyd Cole & The Commotions): what the heck, there's a lot of 80's reverie around in the pop/indie mainstream, it's about time the less-celebrated bands of that era had a resurgence.
Highlights: apparently absurd lyrics like those of 'Go Inside', discussing an irrational fear of HP Lovecraft and a mistaken delusion of parenthood. Then there’s 'Seacats', about taking the Ireland-England ferry: probably not the subject of a song you’d normally get excited about... think again. Lyrically they remind me of another Irish artist I heard for the first time this year: Mumblin’ Deaf Ro (maybe he’ll figure on the list next year, when he releases his next record). Musically, the arrangements are delightful and nowhere more memorable than on 'What's Required of A Person' (link below), its horn refrain beautifully underpinned by Stephen Ryan's e-bow(?) guitar and harmonies lifted straight from Smile. Utterly gorgeous - I hope people get to hear this record.
Link track: What's Required Of A Person (mp3, via Transduction Records)
Buy: Transduction Records Shop
Gig Of The Year: The Sadies at Brighton Coalition, December 2010
Reissue Of The Year: Miracle Legion: Surprise, Surprise (Mezzotint) (download from their site)...just pipping Drag The River's Closed (Suburban Home)
Those that are missing: if you like, numbers 16 and on…
Two Cow Garage, Furnace Mountain, Besnard Lakes, Wolf People, The Sadies, I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House, Steve Wynn And The Miracle 3, Adam Carroll, Chip Robinson and Yarn... all released damned fine albums, but just missed the cut. And Charlie Parr will be in consideration (a cert, I'd say!) for 2011, when the new album gets a UK release.
For the record, I haven’t been obtuse in excluding more well-known artists: I genuinely did not ‘get’ Robert Plant’s Band Of Joy, for example. Maybe others didn’t either, but maybe others still need to start listening further afield, away from the hyped releases… with the number of excellent independently-minded blogs writing about otherwise obscure releases, there really is no excuse. I’ll make it my New Year’s Resolution: to find a new source of music each month – I’m open to suggestions as to where to start.