Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Four

Here they are. The chosen few. The special ones. The Albums of the Year.

Ten albums. Ten excruciating decisions for our panel. Ten necks put on the line.

So who got it right? Let the debates begin...

Ali Mason

Blue Roses - Blue Roses (XL)

Track: I Am Leaving

From the intake of breath which precedes Greatest Thoughts to the resonant piano that punctuates the end of Imaginary Flights, Blue Roses' debut album is spellbinding. The first thing that strikes you is the warmth and purity of Laura Groves' voice, an instrument of real beauty which, incidentally, is every bit as striking live. Equally impressive, though, is her songwriting. She's just as comfortable with three-minute pop classics like I Am Leaving as she is with meandering short stories like I Wish I... - then she throws in charming oddities like Doubtful Comforts for fun. Blue Roses is an album made rich by a rare depth of emotion. When Groves sings "I need the coast of the east of England", you feel her longing and need it too, and she captures perfectly the feeling of being lonely among people. The town of Shipley, until this year probably most notable in musical circles for being the birthplace of John Peel's wife, can now boast one of Britain's brightest talents.

Rory Dollard

Emmy The Great - First Love (Absolute)

Track: MIA

To vote something as your favourite album in a year of many wonderful and varied releases takes a number of factors. Firstly, the record must be seriously, unequivocally good. Secondly, it has to sound or feel undeniably of the moment. But thirdly, and most importantly, it must be something you love blindly, passionately and, for the most part, almost irrationally.. For me, First Love ticks each of those boxes in big red indelible marker. Remarkably dismissed in some quarters as a little lightweight, further inspection reveals a set that packs a real emotional and intellectual punch. MIA is one such example, a deliciously delivered narrative from the scene of a fatal car crash. Lyrically, the imagery is gruesome and heart-breaking, but the melody and the disengaged guitar line make the scenario seem serene. Beautiful, almost. Elsewhere she takes an ingenue’s-eye-view of religion (The Easter Parade), synchs a Motown rhythm with a story of sexual politics (We Almost Had a Baby) and signs off with the devastating City Song.

Dom Farrell

The Arctic Monkeys - Humbug (Domino)

Track: Secret Door

After cementing their place as a generation-defining band with their first two albums, Arctic Monkeys decided to bugger off to the desert with Josh Homme, grow their hair and record a “mature” record. Understandably Humbug caught a few people off guard. There is nothing as instant as Mardy Bum here, or as rousing as A Certain Romance, but persevere and you might just find this to be their finest achievement to date. Homme’s influence on barnstormers like Potion Approaching is clear, but the remarkable factor is the continued development of Alex Turner as one of the decade’s finest talents. Moving away from the wry observational vignettes that have become his trademark, Turner’s lyrics have acquired a depth that is wonderfully menacing on highlights such as Dance Little Liar. Crying Lightning draws on the seductive stylings of fellow Steel City exile Jarvis Cocker, while the majesty and elegance of Secret Door and Cornerstone elevate the Arctics to another level. All of this is powered by Matt Helders’ simply jaw-dropping drumming. Humbug is the sound of a band petrified of standing still, on top of their game and capable of achieving whatever they choose. We should cherish them.

Andy Welch

Noah And The Whale - The First Days of Spring (Mercury)

Track: My Broken Heart

“We shall draw from the heart of suffering itself the means of inspiration and survival.” They’re the words of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill: wise words, and ones seemingly not wasted on Noah And The Whale frontman Charlie Fink. Most people have had this album in their Top 24 so far, so I won’t bore everyone with the story again. I can’t remember hearing a record that chronicles the dissolution of a relationship so well, from the realisation things might be coming to an end, to desperate, I-don’t-know-what-to-do-without-you laments. There’s bitterness, mourning, sorrow and regret, but perhaps most magically, through the layers of high emotion there are green shoots of hope; first that his erstwhile love will return, and later, on the more realistic Blue Skies, for an end to the suffering. “’Cause it’s time to leave those feelings behind. Blue skies are calling, but I know that it’s hard,” he sings, clearly willing himself out of the funk and to think positively. I am already waiting with bated breath for their next collection of songs. Here’s hoping Charlie doesn’t have to endure so much to find them.

Guy Atkinson

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

Track: This Love Is Fucking Right!

As ludicrous as it might sound I genuinely bought this album purely on the basis of the band's name, which is frankly stunning (such an emo). While this might not be the most cutting edge or original album I've heard this year, its unrelenting ability to inject fuzzy rushes through my veins every time I listen to it means it thoroughly deserves its place at the summit of this list. This collection of irresistible indie-pop anthems soundtracked my summer and with any luck will do for many more to come.

Pranam Prabhakar

Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest (Warp)

Track: Cheerleade

Like Ian, the first I heard of Grizzly Bear is when they released the Friend EP. A folk-influenced band signed to Warp? I was curious. And like Ian again, the video of four men singing a song in a bathtub had me intrigued and enthralled in equal measure. Friends did not agree. No matter because man, were they wrong. Grizzly Bear have blossomed. I love Veckatimest because it sounds like an album conceived in the old school classic sense of the term – something it has in common with all my top ten entries. To quote Dory, the tracks ‘wildly cohere’ though they may be different to each other in style, and there’s a mood and soundscape that lingers throughout the whole. Veckatimest has soundtracked my year – from hearing Two Weeks for the first time in spring, to watching them perform live with the LSO in autumn, and finally seeing them again with Ian when the played at Manchester Cathedral in November. I think album track Cheerleader is about as sublime as music gets. Enjoy.

John Skilbeck

Frida Hyvonen - Silence Is Wild (Secretly Canadian)

Track: Dirty Dancing

Perhaps that Strokes debut and Sleater-Kinney's One Beat would pip it my personal album of the decade rundown, but I'm not so sure. I love this record. I'm all over it, and so too is Frida Hyvonen's sometimes tormented, often lovelorn, highly sexualised, ever passionate soul. Hyvonen, from northern Sweden, is an elegant pianist, masterful even, but that alone would not have sealed the deal. Her lyrics can switch from brutal to witty, line to line, nowhere more obviously than on the harrowing 'December', documenting the precise, painstaking and quite devastating detail of an early-morning trip to the abortion clinic. Hyvonen manages to render dark humour to the story which ends with shared laughter between partners for whom the occasion marks the death of their relationship - "a relief in the grief", she concludes. Elsewhere Hyvonen is playful amid pain, and 'Dirty Dancing' had her relating her teenage lust for a boy named Jimmy to the 80s big-screen romance after meeting again later in life when he, now a chimney sweep and father-of-two, visits on his rounds. "I guess you do the dirty now and I do the dancing," she tells him, "and once we were Baby and Johnny." On London she recalls the "beautiful boys in exquisite fabrics" and wishes: "I want to be like them/I don't care if they are men/I want to be rich, I want to be fine and dandy." And I could go on but I'll leave you plenty to explore instead.

Matt Collins

The Leisure Society - The Sleeper (Willkommen)

Track: The Darkest Place I Know

There is probably no better song to hear while ill than The Last of the Melting Snow, the Ivor Novello nominated single from the Leisure Society's debut, Sleeper. A heartbreakingly simple piece of songwriting, a theme echoed throughout the rest of the album, which makes great use of their expansive line up by including everything including the kitchen sink. Ukuleles, cellos, flutes and triangles all sit snugly alongside acoustic guitars and organs, which take lead singer Nick's songwriting to happier places than the title track. Underneath the prettiness lies a collection of truly great songs.


The XX - XX (XL)

Track: Crystalised

For an album that sidled onto my iPod so modest and understated, it seems pretty contrary to be shouting it's praises so loudly now. But teen quartet the XX produced an album of such simple, unfettered joy that to ignore it just seems perverse. Surprisingly for such a young band, this is a masterpiece of economy and that only makes the cute lovelorn lyrics cut to the bone more directly. It tops my list by virtue of being the only album that ends just as I'm getting in to it, prompting repeat plays every time.


Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears - Tell 'Em What Your Name Is (Lost Highway)

Track: Sugarfoot

Wow. That was my first reaction to hearing Black Joe Lewis when his Gunpowder single was streamed on the Lost Highway website late last year. Wow. That was my reaction to hearing the EP in full when it came out in January. And, then, well, wow. That was the album in full when I got hold of it in March. BJL's brand of 'garage soul' will grab you by the lapels and shake you off your feet. From the opening bars of the explosive Gunpowder through the irresistible sweetness of Sugarfoot and past the raw power of Big Booty Woman and joy of Get Yo Shit, there's not a duff moment on one of the most exciting records I've heard in many a year. With his sound firmly rooted in the likes of Otis Redding, Black Joe Lewis may be stuck in the past, but he should have a rollicking future.

And there we go, folks. The final door is open. But we're not quite done. Moments ago I posted the compiled list of all 10 top 24s, specially designed to embarrass those members of the panel, me included, who had glaring misses on their lists. It's certainly worth checking back for a quick look.

Then, join us tomorrow, just before you get stuck into the turkey, for a special top 10 of the year, compiled using a complex scoring system, to determine the panel's collective albums of the year.

Oh, and, have a very Merry Christmas.


  1. May I be the first to say a big thank you to Ian for making all this gubbins possible. Personally, I've come across loads of great stuff that I'll be shelling out a fair amount for in the new year.

    Today's number ones haven't disappointed - great selections.

    Also, I think it's positive that the Ragged Glories advent calender has today provided the means for Rory Dollard to admit that he is an irrational person. Hopefully this is the start of a long, painful, but ultimately rewarding process.

    Merry Christmas one and all.

  2. Amazing. No surprises really, and apart from Mr Skillbeck's album, of course, all of the others have appeared in most other lists I think. I would hazard a guess the Top 10 won't look too different to this tomorrow.
    I'm actually sad this is over, but the massive amount of Toberlone I have to get through will more than make up for it. I hope.
    Happy Christmas.

  3. Time to reassess Grizzly Bear then...
    Another big thumbs up to Ian for starting this great project, and thanks to everyone else for making time to write such entertaining and enlightning reviews of your favourite LPs of the year. I've already explored some of the choices and look forward to getting hold of plenty more.
    For the record, the Frida song is Dirty Dancing rather than Talk to the Left (which was the Shrag song yesterday).
    Have a great Christmas, and maybe we'll do this again next year.

  4. Hello, I chanced upon this blog through Iparky's twitter account, cant remember how but i'd hazard a guess it was a random search for the felice brothers.
    Anyhow, i'd just like to say i'm glad i did, thanks to you all for such a great 24 days. This advent calendar was a genius idea.
    Like all you guys involved i'm now planning to buy a lot of albums i'd previously either ignored, or in fact never heard of.
    i personally would love it if you did it again next year.
    Is there any albums you guys couldn't include cos they came out too late? I'm currently obsessed with Jesca Hoop's Hunting My Dress, but it's only been out a few weeks.
    By the way my album of the year would be Camera Obscura.

  5. Hi John (this could get confusing...).
    I'd have had the Lightning Dust album in my top 10 but only started listening to it in mid-November.
    Sweet melody and vocals from Black Mountain side-project, not a world away from Camera Obscura in fact.
    Glad you've enjoyed our picks! Have a good Christmas sir.

  6. In case anyone wonders why the tracks for my top two albums sound similar, it's because Ian's put up the same track.
    But this isn't necessarily a bad thing, because you can watch Frida perform my chosen song (Dirty Dancing) instead.



    And here's the jaw-dropping 'December':

  7. i've been out of action for a while guys based on a very busy festive period and best manning at a wedding on Dec 22. But i;ve enjoyed everyone's selections a lot and AM starting to think i got grizzly bear all wrong.

    To our follower John - thanks for your kind words...I got the jesca hoop album too and loved it - especially the fact that she was Tom Waits' former nanny! Maybe you should join in the fun next year?
    Oh, and happy Christmas all