Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Three

Some people say second place is first loser. Idiots.

Clearly, they've never heard any of our No. 2 albums of the year.

Ali Mason

Nancy Elizabeth - Wrought Iron (Leaf)

Track: Divining

There's nothing showy about Nancy Elizabeth. Cairns, the instrumental opener to Wrought Iron, must be as low key a beginning to an album as it's possible to produce. When they kick in on Bring On The Hurricane, her unpretentious, sincere vocals won't blow you away like a number of other singer-songwriters around at the moment. But I challenge you to find a more gripping collection of songs released in 2009 than this. Each one is an understated masterpiece, from Divining, with its gently insistent piano riff, rising brass and barely-there heartbeat drums, to The Act, a hypnotic, sweaty drawl wrought from two crudely-played guitar chords and some lazy harmonica. Her 2007 debut Battle And Victory was a fine folk record, but this is a serious development of her talent. How it went largely unnoticed is beyond me - it's the sort of record that makes you evangelical. Buy it. BUY IT.

Rory Dollard

PJ Harvey & John Parish - A Woman, A Man Walked By (Island)

Track: A Woman, A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go

With each new release Polly Jean Harvey looks more and more an artist of lasting substance. Her punk outsider credentials were already well established when, with Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, she proved in a mere flick of the wrist her credentials as straight-up indie icon. Then she recast herself as a Bronte-era Kate Bush with 2007’s haunting White Chalk. All of which brings us to her most fun incarnation yet: a sexed-up, whisky-soaked female Nick Cave. Grinderwoman perhaps. Here she croons,swoons, barks and berates in what is her most sonically diverse set to date.

Dom Farrell

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - The Pains of Being Pure At Heart (Fortuna Pop)

Track: Come Saturday

The Pains of Being Pure At Heart is one of those records you listen to and want to tell everybody about immediately. Buzzsaw guitars churn away merrily underneath sugar sweet boy/girl harmonies and addictive melodies to create ten delicious slices of irresistible indie pop. Unashamedly rooted in the 1980s alternative tradition, it is an album of numerous highlights. The energy bouncing out of and coursing through Come Saturday demands to be turned up louder, and Young Adult Friction and This Love Is Fucking Right are pitched in a similarly glorious vein, before the shimmering centrepiece Stay Alive provides a stunning hit of anthemic euphoria.

Andy Welch

Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More (Island)

Track: Dust Bowl Dance

They only formed about two years ago, but in that time Mumford & Sons have gone from sometime backing band of Laura Marling to genuine stars of 2009 with their sincere, powerful blend of traditional English folk and American bluegrass. It makes a refreshing change to see a band grow and then actually capture some of their riotous life performance on record and, with the help of Arcade Fire producer Markus Dravs, even expand upon it. Every component is essential, from Marcus Mumford’s oddly Irish-sounding howl and the four-part harmonies, to Ben Lovett’s skilled piano and Country Winston’s banjo playing, which propels many of the songs here along. Debut of the year without a doubt.

Guy Atkinson

The XX - XX (XL)

Track: Night Time

There's very little left to say about this album that hasn't already been covered by the endless amount of praise already heaped on it. Put simply, it's just astoundingly good. The myriad of influences are harnessed so effectively that they conspire to create a sound that is uniquely their own. This has soundtracked numerous late-night boozing sessions for me and my mates this year and almost everyone that has come into contact with it has fallen under its magical spell. In truth, if I was submitting my list now this would probably be number one.

Pranam Prabhakar

The Horrors - Primary Colours (XL)

Track: Sea Within A Sea

SP put it perfectly when reviewing this album on day 16. No one saw it coming. Primary Colours is a thrilling ride from start to finish. Should producers Chris Cunningham and Geoff Barrow take some of the credit for turning this band into 'Album of the year material'? Perhaps they are the unsung heroes here. I've chosen this track because I love how it morphs from a garage-rock kraut-inflected guitar odyssey, into a Delia Derbyshire synth rave-up for the post-club generation. Bliss.

John Skilbeck

Shrag - Shrag (Where Its At Is Where You Are)

Track: Talk To The Left

Huggy Bear and Bikini Kill might be long extinct but thankfully there's still a flickering flame in the burning embers of riot grrrl and the DIY ethos. Brighton-based Shrag, three girls and two guys at the time of this album's release (but two girls, three guys now after a line-up change), put out their debut album in January on the very excellent Where It's At Is Where You Are label (Comet Gain, Love Is All). It has marked them down as potential British figureheads of the reinvigorated movement promoting and encouraging female creativity despite the apparent prejudices of music industry whose male domination is rarely questioned. Check this advent chart - boys with guitars are everywhere, girls not nearly so prominent. On 'Shrag', the politics were pro-feminist, the guitars and keys were noisy and the overall sound called to mind underrated bands like Bangs, while the lyrics, sung/screamed by Helen King and Steph Goodman, were often as hilarious - intentionally - as they were biting. 'Talk To The Left' was a splendid slapdown to a lousy lover which promoted an altogether different brand of DIY, 'Pregnancy Scene' sneered at the young-mum culture, 'Different Glue' took a swipe at the leering touchy-feely menaces giving all men a bad name, and 'Forty-five 45s' was a one-way discussion about the sudden meaninglessness of records once central to a dead relationship. Shrag released a corking brand new single in December, Rabbit Kids. It capped a great year for them.

Matt Collins

Blue Roses - Blues Roses (XL)

Track: Doubtful Comforts

I don't normally go in for the Kate Bush wailing about the sea as a metaphor for love school of songwriting, but this album has too many intelligent constituent parts to be ignored. The combination of instruments is gorgeous, from the familiar yet expertly played acoustic guitars and piano, through to thumb pianos and swirling harmonies. And despite playing the multi-movement-love-song trick that's normally quite irritating, for some reason they seem to fit together very nicely. But it's the quality of the songwriting that really shines through; intricate and therefore all the more refreshing when standout track Doubtful Comforts gently breaks through.


Mos Def - The Ecstatic (Downtown)

Track: Supermagic

Who knew? After years spent messing around with Jack Black, Bruce Willis and Tim from The Office in Hollywood films of varying quality, Mos Def sauntered back on stage and scored the year's best hip hop album to boot. The influence of world music andtense 1970s thriller soundtracks loom large, with Mr Def railing against the hypocrisies of the world in a smooth, continuous flow. Supermagic adds Eastern guitar licks to urgent effect and was the highlight of his Forum gig last month.


The Felice Brothers - Yonder Is The Clock (Team Love)

Track: Run Chicken Run

I've adored everything about the Felice Brothers ever since I first stumbled upon pre-release copies of Tonight At The Arizona in Rough Trade two and a half years ago. Comparisons with Dylan and the Band abound, and you know I'm all over that. Regular readers of this blog will know they appear on here more often than anyone else, in some form or other - and anyone who gets more mentions that Neil Young is clearly on to something. Yonder Is The Clock is their most complete work to date, from the riproaring Run Chicken Run to the understated beauty of Cooperstown (already lauded on this blog as the finest song about baseball I've ever heard). This is officially album number two, but the Felice Brothers also have two others, Tonight At The Arizona, and Mix Tape, out there, and the one consistent fact is simple: they just keep getting better. In a day and age where we see too many bands flame out after a couple of long-players, that would be the most exciting thing about the Felice Brothers were it not for their live shows - incredible, effervescent events that should not be missed.


  1. Excellent choices today, particularly from Rory. PJ and Parish fully deserved to be in my top 5 but somehow didn't even make my top 24.

    To quote Cher 'If I could turn back time...'

  2. After riling Ali with a Twitter swipe at Elbow, I can now salute the fact his music taste is not all terrible.
    The Nancy Elizabeth album is a stark but splendid thing, I discovered today, and certainly it's in season as the snow continues to fall.