1. Making It, Whatever That Means

1. Favourite Worst Nightmare – Arctic Monkeys

Lets look at it this way. Two years ago, my favourite album was a piano album by a dude pushing 40, about kids, loss and growing old. Last year, it was a record by guy 6 albums in, an adult pop record about maturity and love.

This year, my favourite record is by bunch of kids barely 21, rocking the fuck out. It’s a good example of how my life has changed in the last year.

But firstly, the record. So much better than the first, it is one of the best rock albums I’ve ever heard. This is the best band in the world on almost all the levels that matter to me. Let’s tear it apart.

Musicianship. Top notch. They remind me of Uncle Tupelo and Minor Threat, those bands I loved so much in the past. Early twenties working class kids who just PLAYED. Drummer Matt Helders can handle all the freaky changes, the math rock stuff, sudden stops and starts. For pure, grinding musicianship alone, they belong in the pantheon of bands like Fugazi, Minutemen and all. And the devil is in the details. The hint of a riff here, and pause there. Changing rhythms every chorus. Build ups. Slow downs. It is an absolute masterclass of musicianship. No band their age is even close to them in this field.

Songs. If it was just the playing, it would make them a great technical band. Which is great. I love bands like that. Like, the Grateful Dead. It’s all about the execution. But you will never catch the Arctic Monkeys bashing out a four chord rock thing. Stunning riffs. Great changes. I spend all my time listening to songs, and I cannot tell you where these compositions are going. Opener and first single Brianstorm opens with surf drums and fuzz guitar before cutting into the song proper. Then it ends and comes back with the intro for no reason. Well, the reason is because it’s a fucking cool bit.

And for the first time ever, they throw in a ballad, the Only Ones Who Know. And instead of Cast No Shadow, it’s this gorgeous, complicated thing. I can’t describe it. There’s a slide guitar on it but it’s not country. It’s not Beatley. It’s not Oasis-y. It’s Arctic Monkeys.

Tunes. Well sung too. There are a couple of difficult songs on here, but mainly, this is melodic rock. Some of it I find so irresistible. The group all yelling “We are defenders!!!” just takes my breath away. The million words a minute rapping of Fluorescent Adolescent is catchy, and a wonderful way of undermining the poppiest song on the record.

And finally, the lyrics. Gosh. Even if you were good players, with good songs, that weren’t a wank, to have one of the best lyricists I’ve ever heard writing your stuff…brilliant idea really. And I’m a big lyrics guy. And Alex Turner stands with the best of them. And it’s not just a wit and a clever line. The bigger ideas of this record is there too. Turner has made a record about all the outcasts, the wankers, the losers, the villains in his world.

The infidelity of the Bad Thing, the indie scenester in Brianstorm (“we can’t take our eyes off your t-shirt and tie combination”), the older girl who’s lost her youthful passion and sexual excitement (“is that a mecca dobber or a betting pencil?” – it’s a penis line. A betting pencil we all know, and a mecca dobber is that big fat thing you get at bingo)… all paints a picture of weirdos living in a weird world. Reality star wannabes, thugs in balaclavas…they all get their dues.

The sum is greater than it’s parts. And the sum, this record, is one I just kept going back to. I would look at the CD case, and it’s what I always want to think when I look at a CD case. In it is a record I love. A perfect record. And I just kept coming back to it. Every couple of weeks I had a new favourite song.

And it also helps that every interview I’ve read or seen with the band this year, they seem to holding themselves well. They are workers, not rock stars. They are not tabloid fodder like Razorlight. In fact, the one big gripe about this band is that they have no star power. They are boring in person. I LOVE that about them.

This record made me so excited this year. About new music. About guitar music. And even more importantly, it made me look out at the world. It’s probably the most important thing music can do. New to this country, I could see the indie wanker in Brianstorm. The ASBO tragics in Balaclava. The lonely hesitant lovers in The Only Ones Who Know.

It was also exciting to be here as this record ‘happened’. Like being in London for the last Harry Potter book, you could feel something in the air when this record came out, and destroyed all sales records. And to hear the songs on radio, on TV, posters around…this was happening now. And I’m usually so ambivalent to all that.

This is also the only record in 15 months that made me want to play music again.

And even the B-sides are great. The Bakery! Jamie T would kill for a song like that. So would Ray Davies.

So. Record of the year. By a long shot really. An album that has resurrected my interest in new young rock bands.

2008, don’t fucking let me down.

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2. I Survived, That’s Good Enough For Now


2. Sky Blue Sky – Wilco

Let the calls of loyalty buying die down, please.

Thank you.

How does this band keep managing to nail where I am in life? As I come crawling out of that cesspool called the Indie scene, and that dark sky known as the Early Twenties, I have become a happier person. Travelling has allowed me to meet lots of people, plenty of people I would have never had met in my small, closed off life in Sydney.

And so here comes an album, a gentle, hushed album, about ambiguity. About life having it’s own plan. About surviving, and how that’s good enough. About going on and on and on, however short or long our lives may be.

Yes, Sky Blue Sky is the sound of six guys going “whatevs…”. Having come off the two highest selling and critically acclaimed records of their career, and hence very little to prove, Tweedy wrote a set of songs for his wife. They played it pretty straight, a tad indulgent-y, and lots of love.

My fave Dylan album is John Wesley Harding. A very talented guy just kicking out some sweet tunes. This record reminds me of that. Sure, 10 minutes of krautrock is interesting. But a tune? Those are awesome.

So once again, the mp3s of this album are well worn on my ipod. It has captured my year, as I walked around the canals of London. As I’ve been bored, alone in the house. It hasn’t been a dramatic year, unlike my last couple in Sydney. No dramas. No heartbreak. No anger. In short. Whatevs.

Favourites? Apart from ALL, I would have to say You Are My Face, which is probably not as straight as some of the other songs. The title track, which is so Grateful Dead-ish, and that all important line about surviving that means so much to me. The silly noodling of Walken. The gorgeous finale On And On And On.

The thing about Wilco is that they don’t stay still for long. My only worry is if they continue making Sky Blue Sky over and over again. Then again, as I get older and older, maybe that’s good enough.

3. A Thousand Different Versions Of Yourself

3. Wincing The Night Away – The Shins

This record came out at the start of the year, and I still listen to it. The Shins, I think, will go down as my favourite band of the decade. Their two previous albums, Oh Inverted World and Chutes Too Narrow have soundtracked the last six years. This continues with Wincing the Night Away.

I have good memories of this record. Walking around Kensington, middle of the night, listening to the opener, Sleeping Lessons, and looking at the open sky above Hyde Park. That keyboard line is the twinkle of stars. James Mercer, that brilliant man, screams out some brilliant nonsense over it.

There are a handful of classic Shins pop songs on here. First single Phantom Limb is the best of the lot, really. It reaches for the sky, with a sadness and again, beautiful nonsense. You kind of do, and you kind of don’t, know what Mercer is on about. Turn On Me, another highlight, is a lot clearer. A goodbye to someone you don’t get along with.

And again, there’s that soundtracking. Which pushes this record, and the two records ahead of it, above the pack. I will listen to this record and forever think of being in London for the first time. I did see them 4 times this year. So Turn On Me makes me think of someone I never got along with. And Girl Sailor, the third of the great pop songs, just nails something I’ve felt. By being wonderfully ambiguous about it.

The rest of the record has some nice slow haunting stuff, and some trippy sampling stuff. All of which is great. It’s a bit hypnotic, this record. Someone could come along and remix it. There are oddities, like the less than a minute long Pam Berry.

So I’ve listened to this record at least once a week since the start of the year and there are still things I’m learning about it. I think Chutes… might just edge it out, but if they come up with another great record before 2010, they will have ruled this entire decade for me.

4. Easy As Humming A Song

4. At My Age – Nick Lowe

Nick Lowe’s last three albums have found him exploring a new sound. Gentle, country-soul, match against his fantastic wit, and songs that sound simple because they are.

At My Age is no different. It’s a subtle record, but it’s a red wine, late night record. It’s country, but with that dash of soul, of jazz and of torch songs too. None of the musicians are showing off here. Everything is second to the song.

Some of Lowe’s best songs are on here.; in the classic heartache mode. Just the titles alone…Rome Wasn’t Built In A Day, I Trained Her To Love Me, Hope For Us All.

It’s not a terribly inventive record. It’s not Radiohead. It’s just a very, very good one. It’s sweet. It’s sad. It’s funny. It’s groovy. It’s smooth. And I listened to it a lot this year.

I don’t actually have much more to say about this record. Or most of Nick Lowe’s albums. Like Paul Westerberg, what he does is just candy to me. I will always go back to this kind of stuff.

5. My Thoughts Keep Returning To You


5. Time On Earth – Crowded House

When I first fell for Crowded House, everything about music was a mystery. I couldn’t tell a bass from a banjo. I couldn’t tell a bridge from a coda. At best, I could tell you a key change is where the song gets a bit more exciting. As a band that I loved in my youth, I hold them dearly, but also see them through a mist of nostalgia.

So it’s lucky that the record is fantastic. It also helps that, as a solo artist, Neil Finn has continued to deliver great records. And if I’m honest, whether this was a Neil record or a Crowded House record, it would mean the same to me.

Don’t Stop Me was such a weird song. Could it stand up with the classics? It was pleasant enough on first listen. And on repeated listens, it really warms up, and you realise there’s something weird going on, lyrically. I’ve had quite a few conversations this year about this song, mostly along the lines of, it’s good, isn’t it? Which is the thing, Neil just let the song talk us into it.

Gorgeous, subtle moments abound. Nobody Wants To is so relaxed, it’s like a Whiskeytown ballad. Pour Le Monde, although sounding a bit like Coldplay’s The Scientist, is full of confidence. Slow burning (and long, for CH), it’s a song about the current war. Which makes the only really poppy moment, She Called Up, stand out all the more.

And yes, there is a stench of death on this record. If not directly taken from Paul Hester, the theme of losing people here. Most of the record is steeped in sadness, but not in a whiny, woe-is-I way.

My favourite song, and very much not indicative of the album, is You Are The Only One To Make Me Cry. Recalling Tim Finn’s All I Ask from Woodface, it’s a string laden jazzy ballad. No one can touch this guy when he wants to write a really song-y song. This is pretty much showing off for such a master songwriter. And like most Finn songs, I don’t know who he is thinking of in that song, but I know who I think of when I hear it. Oh, the power of songs.

I can’t think of another reunion album I’ve liked as much. But again, I’ve bought an album by Neil Finn every couple of years anyway. And I don’t care who’s name is on the cover, I just, as always, look forward to some more songs by Neil Finn.

6. Now I Have To Start All Over Again


6. Angie Hart – Grounded Bird

Some facts-y stuff: Angie Hart was the former singer for Australian pop band Frente. They had one massive hit (Accidentally Kelly Street), then burnt out after their second album (Shape, 1996, a personal fave). She then left Australia with her husband, musician Jesse Tobias, and formed a second band, Splendid. They did one album, one of the best I ever heard, called Have You Got A Name For It. Some tracks are in the Buffy TV show but otherwise, her career ended there.

So did her marriage. A couple of rare EPs and things since, Angie, single again, has moved back to Australia and has decided to take her first steps as a solo artist, some 15 years after she was first heard.

At first, I missed the guitars. Without Jesse Tobias or her Frente backing band to rock out behind her, it seemed like something was missing. But this IS a slow record, but it’s also a beautiful one. It has the keyboard-y, trippy sounds that made Beth Orton’s early records so great. It’s maybe a bit rock, and a bit heavier than that. Still, it’s a hushed, Sunday morning album.

And the voice! The record starts with a short blast of harmony. And ends with one of the best tracks of the year, Start My Day, which is built on a sample of Angie singing;

Get back up when I fall off

Then layers on top, verse after verse of beautiful, simple, life affirming stuff. It’s a mantra, mixed in the thoughts of modern life. Bits of feedback drop in and out and all, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever heard, except maybe Spiritualised’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space track.

And the songs, usually co-writes, are top notch. Lyrically, Angie is on top her game. The heartbreaking album centrepiece is ‘Kiwi’, the wingless bird, capped off my the fantastic line;

If I don’t set my sights too high
I can fly

Every song ticks every box for a wonderful song. Thoughtful lyrics. Wonderfully sounded. Heavenly singing. Smiley moments. Sad moments. A place to start is the current single ‘Care’. Although it’s pretty straight compared to some of it.

It’s the newest album on this list. I’ve had it just over a month and I’m looking forward to spending more time with it. And I’m so glad to have her back.

7. The Devil And John Berryman


7. Boys And Girls In America – The Hold Steady

The name that gets dropped with this band is Springsteen. They mix that urban poetry, that hopeless romance, that growing old feeling, with grinding guitars and rapid fire lyrics.

But many have done this before (hello, Marah) but the Hold Steady have gone for the throat. The album is called Boys And Girls In America for fuck’s sake. Let’s put aside the freakiness of a 37 year old (lead singer/songwriter Craig Finn) singing about teenage girls, and celebrate a doomed youth.

Most of the songs have to do with the great unwashed, and how beautiful that is. Chillout Tent is about being taken out of a festival and catching the eye of another outcast of the opposite sex (and never meeting). You Can Make Him Like You is about a girl who is seeking boyfriend who comes from a better school.

I love the album cover. Just a bunch of kids partying. And how those weekend nights will add up to their life. And how important it is to them, to us. And the title of the album, declaring that they are going mass market. Indie band is going for the suburbs. It’s all there in the standout, Massive Nights, about liquor runs, fights, girls with something to prove, and one of my favourite lines:

“Everyone was funny, everyone was pretty
And everyone was heading to the centre of the city.”

This has got to be the getting-ready-to-go-out record of the year. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s the best record to feel nostalgic about the times when you did that.

The best song on the record though, the one that’s gotten the most talk, is the opener, Stuck Between Stations. An inflated, overly romantic retelling of John Berryman’s suicide. It imagines his depression, walking with the devil over Washington Bridge, the moments before his suicide. And hidden not very far below the cleverness and the wit, is a big fat slab of riff rock.

The perfect record for a massive night.