1. Blur, Think Tank (Virgin)
The exotic inflections of Morocco compensate for the farewell (temporary or otherwise) to guitar stalwart Graham Coxon and Damon Albarn’s golden touch as songwriter, through early Blur to the global stampede of Gorillaz, has not deserted him. Shifting easily from the sweet jangle of the kora to the beefed up soup of a Fat Boy Slim re-mix, from North Africa to North London, Think Tank, proves, as if we didn’t know it already, that in the phoney wars with the Gallagher brothers in the swell of Britpop’s brief ascendancy of the mid-1990s, the arty Londoners were working in a rather different league. “Out of Time” and “Good Song” were majestic but best of all is the final cut “Battery in Your Leg”, maudlin and muscular at the very same time. Eclectic yet utterly confident, this record is rock escaping its urban manacles and going on safari.
2. Suede, Singles (Sony)
Various bands have had to live with the weighty accolade of the next great thing. British groups suffer particularly as the Beatles’ shadow still hangs long and wide. But after the Smiths, the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Sundays, it was Suede’s task to play heir to the throne for a year or two in the early 1990s, during an explosive yet ultimately quite impotent moment when some writers prematurely talked about the new wave of the new wave. In a modest line-up—the Manics were the only other significant players in the end—Brett Anderson and Bernard Butler’s band were certainly the best in the room. When that compositional combination crashed, Suede were never quite as good but this collection is a reminder of why they assumed the role of critics’ darlings after grunge and just before Britpop. “Animal Nitrate” and “Metal Mickey” best document the early period but even the later “Filmstar” retains a louche decadence. Brash, flash and trash, superbly distilled in its 21 selections.
3. Steely Dan, Everything Must Go (Reprise)
This contradictorily titled set actually spreads a quite opposite gospel: everything, in the creative worlds of Becker and Fagen, it seems, must stay. Piquant jazz guitar chords, punchy brass arrangements and sardonic vocalese remain the mainstays of their crisp cocktail funk, served with a sliver of citrus. If civilisation were merely about progress then the Dan would long have been consigned to a walled village where senior pop stars play their favourite chord sequence over and over. Yet, the duo always manage to avoid repetitive strain syndrome, by sticking assiduously to a set of musical rules that seemed on the way out when Bacharach and Dietrich were still a professional item. Great tunes, the highest of production values, and some astoundingly good playing suggest a golden age of Burbank bonhomie. But the lyrics have that stressed hint of desperation, the taut air of commentators on the edge. In their way, B & F have an eye for descriptive detail as sharp as Newman or Waits, but they fold their narratives in lush LA horns and immaculate harmonies. The results—typified by the resigned requiem of the title tune, the sales spiel of “The Last Mall” and the bittersweet warblings of “Things I Miss the Most”—remain enticing.
4. Michael Franti and Spearhead, Everyone Deserves Music (Boo Boo Wax)
Michael Franti, the essential mover in the band called Spearhead, continues to plough his almost unique furrow: an enticing blend of black American styles with Caribbean flavourings, melded by a San Franciscan evangelism that makes you think he might need a genre all of his own—hippie hop, perhaps. Okay, so his messages of peace and freedom seem rather utopian in a world that privileges the power of Bush and the posturing of 50 Cent, but at least someone is still up there saying these things, with warmth, with integrity and often infectiously. If “Bomb the World” is Franti’s heartfelt assault of the merits or otherwise of the Iraq assault, then “Never Too Late” proves that he can do things on human and tender scale, too, while the title tune is simply an appeal for the healing balm of music. A positive, feel good album from a true pop preacher.
5. Chris T-T, London Is Sinking (Snowstorm)
Rising English singer-songwriter T-T continues to win the critical plaudits from the quality press and key radio broadcasters like BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq, and his appearance at this year’s CMJ event in New York confirms his ascent. Four albums in and London is Sinking, inspired by a newspaper billboard slogan, maintains the momentum. A wholesale band change—trio to quintet—broadens the options and the production values of this collection raise the stakes. But it is the songs, rather than technology or virtuosity, that win the day. T-T’s quirky Anglo drawl tells tales about the Thames, a motif that curls through this adventure, but also lends its emotional weight to an indie, anti-war epic, “Cull”, and a re-telling of the Frankenstein myth, “7 Hearts”, as pure a slice pop poesy you’ll hear in 2003. Frail, humane and life-size, this is a CD to treasure.
6. Jaco Pastorius, Punk Jazz: The Jaco Pastorius Anthology (Warner Bros.)
I saw Pastorius a couple of times with Weather Report and this young musical genius, who’d impetuously hustled his way into a band that featured two giants of 20thC jazz in Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul, never seemed out of place or out of his depth. His death in 1987, at the age of the 35, after a fatal brawl outside a Florida night club, robbed the musical world of the Hendrix of the bass. This wonderful two album celebration of Pastorius, before he sank into a draining nether world of drink and drugs, reminds us of what could have been. His collaborations with a galaxy of major figures—Pat Metheny and Joni Mitchell among them—are recognised here but it is on the staggering compositions that first graced Word of Mouth, the 1981 debut solo set, that are the jewels. “John and Mary” and the title tune from that LP, are stand outs in an array of brilliance.
7. Radiohead, Hail to the Thief (Parlophone)
“Are you such a dreamer,” asks Thom Yorke, “to put the world to rights?” as Hail to the Thief begins its trawl through the subway of life, crawling on its belly through a mire of broken hopes. Oxford’s Radiohead have earned the tag as the pessimists—the arch realists, perhaps—of the contemporary West. But wrapped around their messages of bleak pragmatism are some of the most affecting rock’n'roll sounds of recent times. Nor is there any sense of monotony or repetition in their approach—distorted fuzz guitar on the title, electronic beeps and washes linking tracks, strident blues duelling on “Go to Sleep”, even the death march of “We Suck Young Blood”. But in a collection of high and consistent worth, the tune that takes the prize is “There There”, deliciously complacent by name, darkly marvellous by nature. A perfect soundtrack for our neuroses, from the major to the minor.
8. Dashboard Confessional, A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar (Vagrant)
I guess we should really regard A Mark, A Mission, A Brand, A Scar as the second album proper from this Florida-based four-piece after their Swiss Army Romance debut and a water-treading Unplugged set. And it’s a record that reveals a maturing style: a fulfilling marriage of indie and grunge, some sweet melodic hooks and confident vocal leadership from Chris Carrabba. The collection brings together the anthemic guitar romp—“Rapid Hope Loss”—with the tender—“As Lovers Go”, a nifty romantic inter-change based around a conversation, that reminds me of a snippet of early, Asbury Park Springsteen, the quirky acoustic stylings of “Carry This Picture” and the stark, Cobain-like angst of “Ghost of a Good Thing”. In short Dashboard are that satisfying beast: a rock band in possession of both a heart and a head, who don’t just follow the old, predictable trail. This set isn’t a world-beater just yet but it’s a reminder that boys with guitars can rise above the straitjacket of three-chord tricks and bolt on more than a modicum of lyrical intelligence, too.
9. I Am Kloot, I Am Kloot (Echo)
If Seattle is known as Raintown in the US, Manchester fulfills a similar role in the collective psyche of the British. In these times of climate change, however, Manchester isn’t producing rain clouds on quite the legendary scale of old. But if the storms have moved on, the phlegmatic Manc songwriter has not: Morrissey, New Order, Noel Gallagher, Richard Ashcroft from the Verve and Guy Garvey of Elbow form an enduring tradition. And now John Harold Arnold Bramwell comes along to more than live up to the length of his name. Branwell’s combo I Am Kloot remind me a little of a great unsung Manchester band of a decade ago called World of Twist. But Kloot are more eclectic than Twist: the three-piece bring a brigade of musical reinforcements to their flat-northern vowels, with Latin colours on “Untitled#1”, Spanish guitar strums on “From Your Favourite Sky”, hints of jazz on “A Strange Arrangement of Colour”, then the simpler folk-pop pleasures of “Proof”. The results are usually surprising, sometimes disorientating—blue collar blues, street-life tales, stretched over promiscuous rhythms. Strangely strange but oddly normal and well worth checking out.
10. Hot Hot Heat, Make Up the Breakdown (Sub Pop)
Okay, so the Manhattan beehive has been buzzing to the sounds of the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol—all genuine contenders—but the band making most of re-interpreting the city rhythms and vocal nuances that shook CBGBs a long quarter of a century ago are a group perched on the other side of the North American land mass, clinging on for grim life in the western Canadian wilds of Vancouver. Urban and urbane, jerky and quirky, the Heats have even managed to hook up with Seattle’s ultra-cred Sub Pop to lend a grungy grain to their profile. Yet, while the group’s signature tunes—“Naked in the City Again” and “No, Not Now”, for example—bring memories of Jonathan Richman, Television and Talking Heads, the quartet are just as quick to pay homage to the goth pop of Robert Smith and the Cure, so their style, driven by a gorgeously cheap organ ripple, spans several times and several places. And who can help but dig the jewel case which holds the debut set—round corners make it the year’s container of cool.