10. Swell Season - Strict Joy
Success for Glen Hansard was a long time coming. After years plugging away as frontman for Irish folk-rockers The Frames, it was his starring role in the charming musical film Once
that led to the widespread exposure his songs richly deserved. Hansard teamed up with film co-star Markéta Irglová, both romantically and professionally, to become The Swell Season. Just as the movie, and associated album, mirrored their real-life love story, Strict Joy charts the relationship breakdown. What sets this apart from the countless heartache-filled breakup albums is that we hear both sides of the story - and the result is a very real and raw record. The moments of “joy” are few and far between, especially after the soaring heights of the piano-driven “Feeling the Pull,” but the vocal chemistry between the pair remains. The relationship may have crumbled but their creative output is stronger than ever.
9. The Avett Brothers - I And Love And You
Dedicated Avett Brothers fans have whinged that I And Love And You is a shameless attempt from the North Carolina trio to crack the mainstream. With the ditching of the banjo in favour of piano-aplenty and the choice of Rick Rubin as producer, it’s a claim that’s hard to counter. But, so what? I And Love And You is a collection of beautiful songs that are shamelessly sentimental but very well crafted. Rubin’s restraint serves the trio well, as cuts like the title track could so easily have been overproduced. Instead, the gorgeous vocal harmonies supplied by the two brothers are allowed centre stage -- with just the right amount of strings added to the piano backing to take the track to goosebump-inducing heights. And that’s just in the first five minutes of the record.
8. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
There’s no doubt a method to Andrew Bird’s madness - and madness is the right word - as the whistling troubadour clocks in with his fifth solo album. It’s filled with his trademarks: whistling, obtuse wordplay, memorable melodies... and some more whistling. Yet Noble Beast is Bird’s best work to date, despite the fact the lyrics border on the indecipherable at times - words are chosen more for their sound than meaning at points - and that the album lacks the melodic accessibility of 2005’s The Mysterious Production of Eggs. Unlike Eggs, parts of Noble Beast needs repeated listenings to be fully appreciated - but from the moment I heard the gorgeously simple violin riff that forms the basis of “Natural Disaster” played live at a solo Bird gig, aided by looping, it was clear Noble Beast would be something special. And it is.
7. Noah And The Whale - First Days Of Spring
Another break-up album, though in Noah And The Whale’s sophomore record we only hear lead singer Charlie Fink’s side of the story (perhaps Laura Marling’s second album, due out next year, will contain her riposte). The musical maturity displayed in First Days of Spring seems a far cry from the twee, borderline annoying, “Five Years Time” - the song that gave the band a taste of commercial success. It’s hard to feel too sorry for Fink if having his heart broken is what was needed for him to produce songs of this quality, but from the brooding and brutal honesty of “Stranger” - recounting a post-relationship fling - to the lavish arrangement of “Love Of An Orchestra,” this is a far more accomplished effort than their debut.
6. Regina Spektor - Far
While Andrew Bird was ramping up the strange, Regina Spektor elected to go the other way. There’s never been any doubt about the fact this Russian-born singer-songwriter possesses plenty of talent, but Spektor’s attempts at quirkiness often ended up grating. Not so on Far. There’s still plenty to set Spektor apart from the legions of female vocalists pumping out cookie-cutter pop (at one point on Far she imitates dolphin noises), but there’s a polish to her songs here that previous records have lacked. Straddling the line between experimental/eccentric and radio-friendly pop is where Regina belongs, and it’s no more obvious than in “Dance Anthem Of The 80’s.” The vocal tricks and flourishes are still present, but not to the point where her supreme ability as a songwriter is overshadowed.
5. The Mountain Goats - The Life of The World To Come
One of John Darnielle’s most loved tracks contains the triumphant refrain “Hail Satan!”, so he was not the most likely candidate to compile an album based entirely on Bible verses. Yet that’s what The Life Of The World To Come is; though in many cases, aside from the name, the biblical link isn’t always easy to spot. 2008’s Heretic Pride was Darnielle’s most adventurous record musically, boasting complex - by his standards - arrangements, yet The Life of the World To Come is a return to the simplicity of his early recordings. From the surging “Psalms 40:2” - its refrain of “He has fixed his sign in the sky / He has raised me from the pit and set me high” is delivered with an uneasy intensity - or the sparse but devastating “Matthew 25:21,” recounting the loss of his mother-in-law to cancer, every second of this record is compelling.
4. Lisa Mitchell - Wonder
It’s good to know the TV pop Idol franchise hasn’t just served to line the pockets of the big record companies. It’s also given Lisa Mitchell, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter from Australia, the platform to build a career. Mitchell finished sixth in the 2006 season of Australian Idol despite it being clear she was infinitely more talented than the eventual winner. Her debut EP earned her a deal with a Sony subsidiary but a full LP didn’t arrive until this year. Wonder manages to be both refreshingly light-hearted and a work of surprising maturity for a girl so young. Lead single “Neopolitan Dreams” is so catchy it’s now the backing tune for a washing powder advert, while the wistful and sweet “Coin Laundry” is even harder to erase from your brain. But it’s songs like the emotion-filled “Love Letter,” where Mitchell laments a love lost due to her touring schedule, that suggest this girl is something special indeed. An Idol judge labeled her, at sixteen, as the “future of Australian music.” She’s on her way to proving him right.
3. The Decemberists - Hazards Of Love
“A 17-song suite that tells the tale of a woman named Margaret who is ravaged by a shape-shifting animal; her lover, William; a forest queen; and a cold-blooded and lascivious rake.” That’s how the press release introduced The Decemberists’ Hazards of Love - a bold project, even for them. It had the potential to go horribly wrong, yet it ended up being the strongest album yet from the five-piece. And it is indeed an album, best consumed in its entirety - this rock opera of sorts is linked by constantly repeating and developing motifs, and as with most musicals the plot is secondary to the music. Hazards sees The Decemberists try their hand at metal and prog rock, as well as the pretty indie-folk they’ve offered up in the past. The album’s centerpiece is “The Wanting Comes In Waves”: a six minute epic, made up of three distinct parts. A bit pretentious? Yes. But also utterly brilliant. Even better when performed in its entirety live, as Colin Meloy and co. did on tour.
2. Switchfoot - Hello Hurricane
Jason Warburg summed up the perfection that is Switchfoot’s Hello Hurricane far better than I could, calling it “the culmination of everything they’ve ever aspired to.” It is hook-filled, ambitious and surprisingly relatable, despite the fact that the band has been nominated for a Grammy in the gospel category. The Christian themes are still as strong as ever but, like U2 before them, the San Diego five-piece are careful not to alienate secular fans. But really, who cares what religion inspires Jon Foreman to write songs if they’re as good as this? Foreman, clearly a deep thinker, has always produced some of the best lyrics in alt-rock, and he’s in career-best form on Hello Hurricane. This time, however, the accompanying music is just as good. The album is bookended by the declaration that “we are once in a lifetime” - first as part of the pulsing rocker “Needle And Haystack Life,” then as a coda to the ballad that closes out the album. This is music at its finest, as not only does it rock, it inspires.
1. Fun. - Aim & Ignite
Those who mourned the demise of The Format last year needn’t have bothered. Lead singer Nate Ruess started a new band, Fun., who have managed to outdo even the best work of The Format with their first attempt. Aim & Ignite lives up to the promise of the band name: showy arrangements and hooks aplenty provide the backing for Ruess’ lyrics - which are still sharp, despite losing some of the cynicism that characterised Dog Problems. “For the first time, in a long time, I feel alive,” he declares in “Barlights” - and, as with Hello Hurricane, the joy is infectious. The enthusiasm that bursts out of the speakers provides a nice contrast to my favourite of 2008, Bon Iver’s bleak For Emma, Forever Ago. Ruess has seemingly re-discovered just how, erm, fun life can be... and it ensures the decade ends on a high.