The Best Albums of 2010: 1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Virgin Records

I speak because I can
To anyone I trust enough to listen
You speak because you can
To anyone who’ll hear what you say

-I Speak Because I Can

People will look back at the albums that made 2010 what they were. The albums that captured the moment – like Arcade Fire or Kanye West.

I will look back at 2010 through the lens of a little out of time album by Laura Marling.

It sounds like little else. Her wonderful first album was a folk surprise. But that album was young and romantic. Somehow, this girl of just twenty has returned sounding like she’s 80. As if she has lived a whole life and wants to tell you about it.

There are no pop songs on this record – which may be why it didn’t sell as well as one might have hoped. It’s a tough album. And her remarkable voice – it’s not exactly made for radio. Her songs – about the devil, of loveless marriages and lives wasted – are not exactly “Pokerface”.

She is also the finest female guitar player of her generation. In a Joni Mitchell sense – she plays with tunings and constantly comes up with hypnotic guitar work. Like her vocals and her songs – her guitar has found it’s voice on this album. Something distinctly Laura Marling. And that’s so fucking exciting.

So that’s one thing I want to say about this album. That it’s utterly brilliant but it takes some work. That it’s out of time, which makes it timeless. It’s as good as Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and I will be listening to this album for years.

I loved this album with all my heart. I heard the first track, Goodbye England, at the end of 2009. It was a wee Christmas single in advance of the album, and it is still my favourite track on the album.

These singer songwriter albums – every year there seems to be one great one – are such malleable polaroids. Their directness leads to opening your own heart. In the era of iPods, those musical memories have pictures.

So Goodbye England, which tells of the smart coats and scarves we were in snowy weather – it will always make me think of Hyde Park. Of friends, workmates and lovers, crossing near the pond, on our way to find a pub. Or the winter markets there, drinking mulled wine, in our jackets, scarves and coats.

And that’s what this album does for me. It puts images in my eyes, ideas in my head and feelings in my heart. The album worries – about growing old, of wasted lives, of not expressing oneself. Whether it’s the maid in Made By Maid or the wife in I Speak Because I Can, the album is full of ruminations about life. The dignity of a small one, versus the romance of a big one.

When you have no one else to talk to, sometimes you talk to your albums. I spent a lot of 2010 thinking about life, and what it means to have a good one. Whether to be successful but mute, or humble and loud. Being mute, and speaking, is a big theme of the album.

There’s a fair bit of love on this album. But not the romantic love – but something more rustic. Of living together, or making lives. And there’s plenty of God, Devils and Judgement Days. It’s old timey, in a Gillian Welch sense. These are big themes.

So more than anything else, I learnt something from this album. And it helped push my life in a new direction. To speak, because I can.

Best tracks: Goodbye England, Devil’s Spoke, I Speak Because I Can

Official site – Laura Marling

The official video for the first single – Devil’s Spoke

…and Goodbye England from Jools Holland

The Best Albums of 2010: 2. The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack

2. The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack
Heavenly Recordings

You give it a shot
Give it the time
And be surprised how far it goes.

– Answer To Yourself

2010 was a year of rock, and this little album by this little band lit that fire more than any other.

It’s an easy album to love. I have played this record to many people and from the opener C’mon, it’s all there. Four piece rock, recorded with grit, with big choruses and hooks.

In the end it’s the songs. They’ve managed to make 3 minute rock pop songs sound fresh. Understated lyrics. Light of indulgent solos. Big on Albini style sounds. It’s a little bit Stooges, GBV, the Hives and even Nada Surf (who covered one of their songs on their latest album). But way more than that.

They are a great band, and they don’t play the fashion card. They show a devotion to indie DIY aesthetic – and not in a scenester way. Nerdy, unfashionable guys rocking their hearts out.

It is, in my book, classic song after classic song. Down On Loving is about the best song I ever heard until the next one – Answer To Yourself. Move Along uses a farfisa (I think) to give it a 60s garage rock vibe. The intensity really builds up to the super aggressive Pull Out, and then rests back on the magical Mexico – the only light moment on the record.

I’m in love. The songs, the sound and lets not forget – the band. Funny and self depreciating in interviews. Could not give a fuck about trends. No big pretentious ideas. Even the album cover is great.

This record did not leave my ears this year. It came out early and I never got tired of it. I am still telling people about it.

I saw this album make a few best of lists online, but not nearly enough. This is not my number 1 album of the year, but it’s my number 1 pick for you. I really don’t know anyone that wouldn’t love it, if you’re a rock fan.

Best tracks: Answer To Yourself, Mexico, Down On Loving

Official website – The Soft Pack

Answer To Yourself – probably doesn’t get less slick than this.

Luckily there’s this awesome thing. I think it’s just a tribute by the Kick Ass guys more than an official thing. So great.

The Best Albums of 2010: 3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever

3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
Vagrant

Heaven is whenever
We can get together
Go into your bedroom
And listen to your records.

– We Can Get Together

I believe in rock ‘n’ roll.

Ever since, just like in the Velvets song, Nirvana taught me the world from my bedroom – and saved a non-English speaking kid from dropping out of high school and being a factory worker for the rest of his life – I believe rock ‘n’ roll can save us.

And it’s rock ‘n’ roll – not music. It’s the fiery, guitar/bass/drums, a killer voice and a message. Of all the musics in the world, rock ‘n’ roll is still the best mix of a punch in the face and a light to the mind. Other music may make more physical impact. Others might be more lyrical.

But rock ‘n’ roll is still the only perfect mix of the two.

2010 was, for me, a deeply personal reclaiming of rock ‘n’ roll. Whether it was new albums Surfer Blood, Titus Andronicus, You Am I, Manics, Springsteen or whoever – it seemed to be a year of rock. Coupled with a rediscovery of many old rock records I loved in the past.

Listening to this music is always dangerous – I find myself making big life decisions a few months later. I certainly did this year.

That is a long preamble to introduce the 5th Hold Steady album – the bible to my rock ‘n’ roll religion. Not only does the band rock, they also believe that rock ‘n’ roll can save you. And they set about proving it.

They set it all up in We Can Get Together – which could well be their greatest achievement to date. They have started to really nail the slow, Stones-y ballads. And in it, singer Finn discusses Heaven – whether it’s the Pavement song Heaven Is A Truck or the UK band Heavenly.  It’s as though the first thing we rock believers think of are songs about Heaven. But the final message is heaven is listening to this music. For a band made on anthems, this could be their greatest.

Every few years a band comes along that feels like it’s just made perfectly for you. For me, the Hold Steady are one. The passion of hardcore. The rock blues licks of the Stones. The smarts of Bob Dylan. And the story of their career has been them getting more tuneful, and giving up some power for beauty.

For the first time they open with a ballad. The slide heavy Sweet Part of the City (the place with the bars and restaurants) sounds like Exile On Main Street. It is a confident move from a band trying to do something different.

But, in the end it’s the rock. Hurricane J. Rock Problems. Weekenders. And more. All come on like a rush, and lifts you from your place. It’s filled with the most powerful messages used in rock. We are damaged but not that much. Life can be better and it’s up to us. I’m having fun and I’m allowed to to have fun. I’m older but the passion is not gone. Messages we’ve all heard before, and love hearing again.

41 minutes. 10 songs. Not a wasted second. It’s a fucking stunning record. One that leaves you believe again. I bow to the Hold Steady for being around. They are the best band at brandishing that ancient fire we call rock ‘n’ roll.

Best tracks: Heaven Is Whenever, Hurricane J, Rock Problems

Official site – The Hold Steady

No clips for this album, but here’s an acoustic version of Hurricane J. It misses the rock power but still a great song.

The Best Albums of 2010: 4. Darren Hanlon – I Will Love You At All

4. Darren Hanlon – I Will Love You At All
Flippin’ Yeah Industries

We weren’t together forever
But anyway what does that mean
One person’s lifetime, the history of mankind
Or the years since I turned seventeen?

– Scenes From A Separation

12 years into his career, Darren Hanlon still manages to pack more ideas and great lyrics into one song than most artists fill in a career. As a fan, there’s always a little worry the well will run dry. If anything, the fountain flows at full strength.

Hanlon seems to have been on tour for ten years, and that sadness of leaving and things ending has become an enduring theme in his work. And while singing about love, life and loss, he never loses sight of the details. He’s a master lyricist, on the level of Elvis Costello. Heck, he’s better.

He’s moving further and further from his early, Jonathan Richman-y joke songs into something more thoughtful. Scenes From A Separation, the best song on here, is a series of vignettes about a divorce and hints at Bob Dylan’s Tangled Up In Blue. It’s a rush of images, and a overall mood of resigned regret. Powerful, smart and lets not forget tuneful.

There’s a couple of very big songs on his album. House – the story of walking by place once shared with a lover – unfolds over about 100 verses. Folk Insomnia is shorer but it’s a million words a second – a lyrical hurricane of mad images.

Those show pieces aside, some of Hanlon’s sweetest songs are on here. Opening track Butterfly Bones and the first single All These Things should be busker classics.

Production wise, it sounds a bit like everything else he’s done. Very functional arrangements, recorded in a fine manner. With his pop smarts, I wonder what he would sound like if he went for the same sound as say, Bob Evans. It’s probably not in his vision, being the simple travelling balladeer that he is. Although this is his first album on big US indie Yep Roc, so maybe that will lead to other things.

If you’ve not heard Hanlon, this place is as good a place as any to start. It really is a tremendous album, full of the charm, with and heart that fill all his albums. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll marvel at his rhymes.

I thought this album would be my number 1 album this year. The only thing keeping it at four is that this album exceeded my expectations – the next 3 smashed them to bits.

Best songs: Scenes From A Separation, Butterfly Bones, House

Official site – Darren Hanlon

The clip for the one and only single thus far All These Things

But here’s a lovely version of Scenes From A Separation made by the fine folks at Shoot the Player

 

Darren Hanlon: Scenes from A Separation from shoottheplayer.com on Vimeo.

House

For Bec

 

I sometimes dream of a house.

I know I lived there but I don’t remember when.

Maybe when I was really young, I lived there with my parents.

Maybe it was a relative, and we used to stay there over night.

Maybe it was a friend’s house, and I use to stay after school.

Maybe I moved in there on my own for a short time, between the large number of places I’ve lived.

Maybe it was in Hong Kong. Or Australia. Or London.

Or maybe it’s somewhere I stayed for a little while abroad.

It’s not clear.

What is clear is the house.

I can draw you the exact layout without missing a beat.

The colours of the walls and the sofas.

One of four town house apartments in an old building.

Long – the living room at the front, the kitchen at the back, with one stair separating them.

Two bedrooms upstairs along the railings, and the bathroom at the end.

The slither of concrete yard at the side, where the bins live.

The grassy, wooden fence that leads to the back, where I can see flats from the neighbours.

I can even see it from the outside – it’s on a busy street with a traffic barge in the middle. Free standing and old. And near the water.

Thing is, I never lived there.

We could not a afford a place that big in Hong Kong, nor could anyone we know (and that architecture did not exist).

Same goes for in Australia, until the point I was old enough to remember, and it never happened.

Since I moved out of home I lived in several places. I have tried to find six months where maybe this place existed, maybe in Ashfield or Randwick or somewhere. But no gap in time exists.

Although I can see London people I know in that house, I think it’s my dreams playing tricks on me. I have diaries of where I was almost every day.

As the morning carries on and the dream fades, the more I realise how impossible it is that this house exists. But when I’m dreaming it’s right there.

Last night I dreamt I was trying to find this house. People who must have come around or visited were questioned. Each one thought, even in my dreams, I was mad.

Then I asked you and you said “sure”. You knew the place. Described it well and knew where it was. Then you said we should go drive by it and have a look, which we did.

And that is how I feel about you.

The Best Albums of 2010: 5. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

5. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
DFA

Tell me a line
Make it easy for me
Open your arms
Dance with me until I feel all right

– I Can Change

In my own little corner of the world, there are few records that are as important to me as Sound Of Silver, LCD Soundsystem’s awesome 2007 album. So my expectations were high and the follow-up, This Is Happening, did not let me down.

I love this band. I love every time I listen to James Murphy talk about music. And the themes that run through their albums – growing old, what being cool means, listening to music – are big calling cards for me. They also blasted down my prejudice against electronica by mixing the wit of Elvis Costello with the physicality of the Ramones. Head and hips covered.

As a fan, this record came with an extra story – this is to be the last LCD Soundsystem album. Just when making it huge seemed like a possibility, Murphy will be pulling the plug on the full time LCD Soundsystem. So This Is Happening can be read as a last statement.

Not that it ever gets that heavy. No, it’s still a lot of fun. You Wanted A Hit has it’s tongue far in cheek. Pow Pow is a great bit of nonsense. Drunk Girls – derided by everyone I know – is fun but light. But it’s all designed to make you move, and the beats and rhythms hit and hit hard.

This album doesn’t reach some of the highs of Sound Of Silver, but they come close. I Can Change is the real stand out on the album. Murphy has stated this was his attempt to write an 80s synth pop song in the style of Yazoo. He nails it, with his best vocal to date.

The other songs on this album include Home and the rather large Bowie tribute of All I Want. Knowing it’s the last album makes it even more powerful.

There’s only 9 songs on this album. Maybe in retrospect, it wasn’t the grand statement we were hoping for with the follow-up of such an important album, or their last album. Which is a perfect thing for a band who put out an EP called “Confuse the Marketplace”.

What is left is a lovely goodbye. Like drinks with a friend who is moving on. Some laughs, some music, some heart, no sadness.

Goodbye LCD Soundsystem. I saw a couple of amazing gigs of yours. I loved every album. See you maybe one day.

Best tracks: I Can Change, Home, All I Want

Official site: LCD Soundsystem

There’s no proper film clip so you don’t get the fantastic studio version, but here’s I Can Change from Jools Holland.

The Best Albums of 2010: 6. Dr Dog – Shame, Shame

6. Dr Dog – Shame Shame
Epitaph

Or you could be twisted or you could be insane
Pushing the envelope against the grain
Just playing along

– Shadow People

What an album. I quite liked 2007’s We All Belong. I liked 2008’s Fate even more. And that’s three fantastic albums in a row with Shame Shame, their debut for Epitaph.

Maybe the big label changed them because the first three songs just scream “single”. Their country-rock-meets-Teenage-Fanclub has never had catchier bits. Stranger and Shadow People open the album with the best one-two punch this year. Huge choruses, big sing alongs, and a pretty awesome band rumbling around the back. Then comes Station, a great “ballad single”, if such things still existed.

The band still sounds like a 70s band, recorded with 50s equipment. They are stunningly out of time. They maybe could have been alt-country. They should have been lumped in with the harmony folk of Fleet Foxes. Or the retro thoughtfulness of Midlake and John Grant. But I guess they are too straight for those scenes, and too weird as people. They are probably not ambitious enough either.

There is a vintage sound that I just love. And it’s not retro in a White Stripes way. It doesn’t sound like a 70s record. The harmonies are spot on. Like Fanclub, they are blessed with a band of great singers. Enoigh studio trickery to keep it interesting too.

Back to the record. It’s number 6 on the list so you know for me there’s not a dud track on here. Plenty more blissed out country pop gems and fragile ballads. Try Mirror, Mirror or I Only Wear Blue. And it ends well too – the title track is weird, sinister and a perfect goodbye from a record that seems to come from nowhere. I really can’t say enough about the songwriting.

I just kept coming back to this album all year. I liked it a lot on first listen. Repeated listening, it holds up. On shuffle, each individual track also holds up. And I’m still listening to it. You should too.

In some years this would be a top 3, if not the number 1 album of the year for me. Nothing in the record is keeping it at 6, other than, in a miracle of music, there are 5 albums even better!

Best tracks: can’t beat the first three – Stranger, Shadow People and Station.

Official site – http://www.drdogmusic.com/

Great song. Great clip. What more can be said? Fucking love it.