Friday, 25 December 2009

My Favourite Releases This Decade

I haven't really had time to consider whether these are my definitive favourites of the decade - turns out being busy doesn't rest at Christmas. However, these are the very favourite releases I came up with, the ones that have weathered best over time in my CD collection.

The Libertines - The Libertines (2004)

The Libertines - The Libertines

I have often said that Up the Bracket (2002) was the better Libertines album. I still agree with myself there, because it shows the Libertines for all the potential they had, all the pace and energy and raw talent they had as young men, where the eponymous second album is more a window to the fractured romance and the imminent collapse of the band. For all that, there is something lasting, something honest and original about The Libertines. While the chords are recycled from 60s beat pop and later punk, the words are decidedly more intelligent than much of the pointless punk-rock released in the early 00s. Amidst many others, wry references to Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray, old classic comedy series The Likely Lads and Rudyard Kipling novels, show The Libertines' very British heritage, and literary intelligence. Opener 'Can't Stand Me Now' is one of the most hailed and beloved post-punk gems of this decade, tearing open and bearing to the world the tethered hearts of frontmen Pete Doherty and Carl Barât. Their tale is not only perfect fanfiction material, but also much more serious, warning of the dangers of hard drugs and the risks of a friendship as frenzied and intense as theirs was. The Libertines tells the final chapter of the story so perfectly, it just cannot be ignored. Aside from being a romantic historical record, The Libertines is more importantly a collection of really good punk rock songs, with the stylish guitar playing of Carl Barât, the unusual voice of Peter Doherty and the skilled and powerful rhythm section of John Hassall and Gary Powell forcing the music along. This is an album to be young to, no excuses, and one I have sought solace and escape in for many years.

Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse (2004)

Sonic Youth - Sonic Nurse

2004 looks to have been a good year for music. 20 years into their career, Sonic Youth were still releasing amazing albums. Sonic Nurse is one of their most atmospheric releases, though all their albums have an atmosphere of their own. The artwork of Sonic Nurse sums up the atmosphere very well - warm and dark, ambiguous and slightly disturbing. 'Pattern Recognition' is textured and intense, with Sonic Youth's traditional noise guitar in the background. The feel changes at track two though, with a much more mellow and rich sound coming through, lyrics considered and melancholy. The threat of an explosion of Sonic Noise never leaves though, with gently pounding guitar and drums insistent throughout the album, briefly losing control in shrieky 'Kim Gordon and the Arthur Doyle Hand Cream', and then coming to beautiful and unsettling fruition in the not-to-be-listened-to-late-at-night thriller 'Paper Cup Exit'. Throughout the album, the listener feels as if they are caught in some perfect balance, which could be tipped at any point, as brittle as it is expansive and all-consuming. This mood could be created by the very rich timbre of the guitars, the threatening lyrics or the precise use of silences and dynamics. Whatever it is, I chose Sonic Nurse over excellent predecessor Murray Street (2002) and more radio-friendly but brilliant follow-up Rather Ripped (2006) because I can get lost in Sonic Nurse and never find anything I'd want to change, or skip, and the atmosphere is so wonderfully crafted.

Babyshambles - The Blinding EP (2006)

Babyshambles - The Blinding

Every track on The Blinding is... blinding, if that is excusable. The lo-fi rambling and ranting that makes up endearing first album Down in Albion (2005) is nowhere to be seen on the EP that followed, being replaced by eclectic and polished indie delights. Every track is worth mentioning. Sexually charged 'The Blinding' is probably about heroin, and it's power to make you 'happier than you've ever been'. The song's angry but captivating chords can only be played loud; the sultry bassline teases you, walking you gradually but decisively to the police car of the chorus: there the chords are more subdued, worried, as the questions come into the lyrics. "What will you do if she runs out of time for you?" But no! You run and escape, with a scream and a guitar solo that sounds like scrapyard metal being torn through rust, but tunefully. And so the cycle repeats, straight into the unexpected richness and tenderness of 'Love You But You're Green'. The lyrics are wonderful, talking of angered imaginary lovers in a fuzzy past. 'I Wish' changes the mood again, the ska-reggae impossibly bouncy and summery, boasting the fabulous, stubborn Pete Doherty line "It's not the same old story. It's new to me." which is, despite protestations, a very good point. 'I Wish' openly admits to the writer's smoking crack, his empty wallet, his lacklustre approach to life on drugs. But it's unbelievably happy with it, and summery because of the offbeat major chords. 'Beg, Steal or Borrow' is like a preview of the second Babyshambles album, but still has its place on The Blinding, upbeat and uplifting, yet with a melancholy tint to the lyrics. Finally: ah, 'Sedative'. From start to finish, 'Sedative' is a work of art, the chords perfectly rounded, the voice perfectly off-key, the tempo ideal, the gently undulating guitar an escape I could only have dreamt of before hearing this song. I've gone on too much about this EP. You get it.

Blur - Think Tank (2004)

Blur - Think Tank

The last album Blur recorded together, I have probably summarised Think Tank pretty well in my Rough Guide to Blur at The 405 (plug plug), so I shall try and explain why I chose it as one of my favourite releases of the decade instead. This album manages to be summery and uplifting as well as sad, in almost every song. That juxtaposition of emotions seems to be what I look for in music: I like it when you can rise above being miserable and look in on it, escape it, rather than wallowing in it, which is what typically sadder music offers. Think Tank is definitely about more than introspection though. 'Crazy Beat' is a crazy beast, a dancefloor filler and a rocker. 'We've Got a File On You' is an unexpected bit of shouting to wake you up, 'Brothers and Sisters' a quirky, sultry commentary on the State of Things, and several of Blur's best beautiful tender love songs are on this album. Maybe I love Think Tank because it never fails to make me feel like the sun's shining.

I can see that's a very mainstream top 4. The Libertines are generally regarded as a typical knocking-on-the-door-of-twenty-year-old's favourite band, Blur sell to adoring millions all over the world, Sonic Youth have their lower portions firmly on the thrones of revolutionary rock royalty, and Babyshambles are famous for dubious Dohertian reasons. The point is, these bands are big because they deserve it. There are plenty big bands who don't: I'm not plugging Coldplay or U2. I genuinely believe that these are amazing albums, and I'm not giving my decade's favourites to some little band just because no-one's heard it, so no-one can argue. No, these albums are fantastic, if a little quieter than I expected my favourites to be, on average.

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