Blog: Helen’s Album Round-up 2010

When I was an undergraduate we would sometimes play the ‘would you rather…’ game. Andy and Maggie play it in Extras (‘Would you rather be a penguin who’s a bird but can’t fly or a flying fish that’s a fish that can fly a bit?’, for example). I once asked the table (all literature or drama students) ‘would you rather never read books or never listen to music ever again?’ and (I may be wrong, we were all a few vino collapsoes the worse for wear) everyone chose music. Books have been incredibly important to me all my life, but there’s something music does that just can’t be replicated.

Here are my musical highlights of 2010:

January: Beach House – Teen Dream

This brightened up the post-Christmas sadness of January 2010 no end. ‘Zebras’ is one of the most beautiful opening tracks there’ve ever been, and it really is actually a bit about zebras. It’s an ambient, smoky wonder of an album and it was a good pal throughout 2010. Anika says very very good things about it here.

February: Broadcast 2000 – Broadcast 2000

This was my out-and-out favourite album of 2010. Joe Steer (the heart and soul of Broadcast 2000) writes extraordinarily original music: I know of nothing that sounds like it. He also wrote it all by himself and made loads of the noises himself when recording it, which is especially amazing when you see how many people it takes to replicate the sound live.

His lyrics can be cynical and melancholy, but I find this album so incredibly uplifting. The double-tracked vocal harmonies are stunning, the extensive use of glockenspiel is inspired, and it’s just utterly brilliant. The broken glass noise on ‘That Sinking Feeling’ is brilliant, too. I once listened to it on a sunny walk from Old Street to the Southbank and it was one of the nicest hours I’ve ever spent.

March: Caitlin Rose – Own Side Now

Speaking as a sincere and devoted life-long Dolly Parton fan, I can’t really begin to explain how wonderful it is that Caitlin Rose even exists – she’s a young, fresh, twenty-something who knows her way around country music backwards and upside-down. There’s nothing remotely cheesy or outdated about her lyrics, and yet they fit beautifully over what is undeniably very traditional country music. She writes witty words packed with verve and intelligence, all set alight when she sings with the most gorgeous Tennessee drawl. [Exerted from my review, which you can read in full here if you so wish].

April: Anaïs Mitchell – Hadestown

Deeply dark, drenched in atmosphere, heavy beats and whining guitars, this is a folk-opera of an album set in the netherworld. Mitchell has a unique voice – high-pitched yet soft, and she’s built a mythology of her own from the old-school story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) sings Orpheus’s lines, which adds another velvety ribbon of gorgeousness to this big, big triumph of an album.

May: The Miserable Rich – Of Flight and Fury

I am almost irrationally in love with the 12th track of this 14 track album. ‘Let it Fade’ is about a break-up. Not a difficult break-up, but a slow, careful, heartbreaking one. It’s made me cry before, and songs don’t often make me cry. I didn’t even cry at Bambi (which I realise is not a song).

The whole album’s very well put together and I love the lead singer’s name (James de Malplaquet) almost as much as I love his voice. This is proper 21st Century folk music. It’s about taking your make-up off your boyfriend’s bathroom sink when you leave for the last time, dreary hang overs and train trips and it’s great.

June: Sea of Bees – Songs for the Ravens

Jules Baenziger is one of the singularly most fascinating, warm, delicately-voiced performers I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching interact with a guitar. Her songs are full of pain: wails, sighs, and half-sung gasps of words. This album’s a beautiful work of art: a journey of sorts without even approaching the corny with a barge pole. I wish I’d had it when I was 13.

July: Kristin Hersh – Crooked

Kristin Hersh understands her fans so perfectly. This album was initially released as a hardback book. You bought the book, followed the instructions inside, filled in a few ‘passwords’ online and gained access to various downloads, blog posts, videos and images. It was a treasure hunt, an album, and a beautifully intense book of poetry in one wonderful bundle. (I’m seeing Ms. Hersh live this month. I’m TOO excited).

August: Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Hawk

This is an album of bluesy, soulful country duets that covers unconditional love, misery, jealousy, anger and attitude. Lanegan’s voice is less of a drawl on this than their previous collaborations, but the juxtaposition with Campbell’s ethereal vocals is just as strong as ever.

Willy Mason also appears with Campbell on two of the tracks, the best of which is ‘Cool Water’. It’s so gentle it’s almost breathless, and it holds you on the brink for three and a half extraordinary minutes. Gold.

September: Edwyn Collins – Losing Sleep

Part of me worries that Collins (of Orange Juice fame) might be sick of people mentioning his stroke in reviews of his music, but it’s just so bloody relevant I can’t help it. When he was insanely young (46) he suffered a series of strokes that left him with right-sided weakness and speech difficulties. He practised drawing intricate pictures of birds with his left hand to improve his motor skills, and managed to regain his speech. Then he recorded an amazing album. It’s melodically astounding, lyrically frank, and unabashedly honest about his astonishing comeback.

October: Belle and Sebastian – Belle and Sebastian Write About Love

I love Belle and Sebastian. Everything they do. I especially wanted this album because it’d been such an incredibly long wait (FOUR years) for a fabulously varied, witty, beautifully executed record. ‘I Want the World to Stop’ got played almost to death on 6music and I still love it.

This is shimmering guitar pop and harmonies at their best, and no one does it better than Belle & Sebastian. No one.

November: Jenny and Johnny – I’m Having Fun Now

Magnificently honest, jangly, up-beat pop-rock full of scissors, test-tubes, complications and surreal distortions. Not unlike most relationships, I’ll admit, but the day-to-day of this pair is especially fascinating. ‘Just Like Zeus’ is especially fabulous: imagining Mount Olympus as a ‘pile of trash’ and the mercury in thermometers as a drug. This is the most up-beat album I’ve liked in ages.

December: Regina Spektor – Live in London

This is the closest I’m yet to come to seeing Ms. Spektor live. It’s a recording of a gig she did in Hammersmith to a large room full of very lucky ladies and gentlemen, and it bursts with strength, unassailable personality and beauty at every turn. As the years pass, Regina continues to be utterly amazing, and this was a fantastic Christmas present with which to round off 2010.

This album doesn’t just prove this woman’s talents as a live performer: it forms a retrospective of her wildly oddball writing skills and her full armoury of vocal ticks. Lynn says correct things about it here.

Click the images for links to the albums on Spotify, where available.  You’re welcome.

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