"The Sophtware Slump" (2000) by Grandaddy

The Sophtware Slump, indie band Grandaddy’s second record, is as majestic and grand as it is sleepy and introverted. Similar in style to records such as Radiohead’s OK Computer and Sparklehorse’s It’s A Wonderful Life, Grandaddy’s sophomore effort will both wake you up and put you to sleep at the same time.

Okay, so I know that a comparison to OK Computer is a fairly big claim, but this record is completely deserving of it. Musically, the sleepy and demanding songs, occasionally awkward instruments, melancholy vocal style and production style is very similar to that popularized by OK Computer. The progressive tinge hints towards an early Pink Floyd record. Lyrically, The Sophtware Slump deals with the failure of technology in society, and I’m sure you can make that Radiohead connection all by yourself.

The opener is a 9-minute epic that will blow your brains out. From there, up till about track seven, the album runs slightly-happyish and slightly-optimistic (excluding, maybe, “Underneath the Weeping Willow”), and yet still runs throughout with a melancholy feel to it; however, when we get to the closing four tracks, prepare to end crying. “Jed’s Other Poem” begins with a spoken-word intro, which makes you begin to believe that ‘Jed’ may be an old friend of the band’s who died or something. The creepy interlude after this, followed by the eerie, melancholy and plastically-happy “Miner At The Dial-A-View”, a track in which it’s the lyrics that really impress. The eerie closer, possibly the most Radiohead-y track on the album, ties off the loose ends well; except I simply can’t help but think Radiohead. I know it’s probably my fault, not theirs, but it starts off with an acoustic guitar playing awkward chords and a few dissonant technology-related sound effects, before the vocalist breaks into his best Thom Yorke impression and “No Surprises”-esque chimes enter. Surprisingly, however, when it ends, you’re left not with a cheesy, cringeworthy feeling, but highly impacted upon and emotional. It works. I’m not saying I don’t like the track, but it really has to be heard to be believed.

However I fear that I’m comparing it too much and not pointing out its uniqueness. Because it is unique. And I’m aware that I have just used a conjunctive to begin a sentence three times in a row. The Sophomore Slump is the kind of album that will put you to sleep if you’re not careful enough. Even if it’s playing in the background, it will push itself to the forefront of your senses and demand your attention, then promptly put you to sleep. It’s like Jigglypuff’s song. By no means is this a bad thing, however. The lush and thick texture, beautiful individual songs as well as the flow as a whole record requires that you listen to the album in full, and when you do you’ll want to do it again, and again, until you’re asleep.

Choice tracks: He’s Simple, He’s Dumb, He’s The Pilot; Underneath The Weeping Willow; Jed’s Other Poem (Beautiful Ground); So You’ll Aim Toward The Sky
If you like: Radiohead;  the Flaming Lips; Sparklehorse

"Lost Souls" (2000) by Doves

I heard about this group, um, about three days ago when a friend gave me this record amongst 50 gigabytes of other music while we were sharing (don’t sue). I added it to my 80 other records that I had to listen to to make a credible best-records-of-the-decade list, however I admit that I wasn’t really expecting much.

The first track really impressed me. My friend had tagged the record as ‘indie rock’, so I was expecting a Strokes-esque rocking record. I was completely wrong. Lost Souls is full of lush, string filled ornamentation and thick textures. The opener blew my brain from my skull, not because it was amazing, but because I was totally not expecting it.

The album continues in this vein. The songs seem to be more centered around the instruments than the vocals, but the vocals still play a major part in the work as a whole. The record is really one that has to be repeatedly listened to as a whole to be fully appreciated – it has that ‘epic’ album quality that records by other bands such as Radiohead and Eels possess.

The vocalist’s voice is perfect for this music. He sings powerfully and sounds slightly depressed, adding a melancholy element to the music. In addition, it’s very rare to find a record with no filler, but this one pulls it off near-perfect.

As a record by a British band that originated in the 90’s, critics were quick to lump Doves in with the Radiohead +imitators group – such as Travis, Coldplay, etc. Listening to Lost Souls, however, it is hard to see how they can be compared with such bands. Lacking is the angst and edginess contained in Radiohead’s first three records (the ‘rock’ era); instead, it is full of lush instrumental sections and clean, crisp sounds.

Original, underappreciated, lush to the point of nearly shoegaze-y, and well worth a listen.

Choice tracks: Firesuite, Sea Song, The Man Who Told Everything, A House

"A Grand Don’t Come For Free" (2004) by the Streets

Mike Skinner, better known as The Streets, is a distinctive, original, and kind-of decent North London rapper. His hooks are okay, his vocals aren’t that great but they work in the context, his beats are fine but it’s his lyrics that really stand out.

In A Grand Don’t Come For Free, Skinner raps about the struggles of everyday life – and, while a great deal of other rappers do that too, somehow Skinner’s lyrics stand out as being original and unique. And they are. From the hit “Fit But You Know It”, about a girl with way too much self-esteem; to “Dry Your Eyes”, about a guy who has been dumped by his girlfriend attempting to be consoled.

Skinner’s delivery is very rigid and not fluid at all, and while some critics may use this as a con, I believe that it adds to the record’s quirky charm and allows the listener to empathize with Skinner. Even though he has shown his aptitude for kind-of-funny-kind-of-serious songs about alcohol, weed, and life, it’s his emotional melancholy songs that stand out the most in this record. The clumsy vocal delivery and corny string sections should, you’d think, end up in the tracks being very cheesy and almost unlistenable, however the opposite is the case. The events described in the songs are all too familiar, and the clumsy vocals add to the listener’s emotional feeling.

The album runs with a story. It’s a simple story, but a story all the same, and it really works. When you hear Skinner lamenting about his shitty life in the first track, you laugh a little and sympathise with him. This connection then leads you to feel happy when he meets a girlfriend in track two, and throughout the rest of the record you feel along with Skinner as he describes his ups and downs.

While some songs are cringeworthy musically (“Get Out Of My House”), I wouldn’t have them changed for anything. The record takes you on an emotional ride that I haven’t heard in any other rap record, ever. When his girlfriend dumps him in “Dry Your Eyes”, and subsequent and final track describes his state being similar to that in the first track, it really makes you feel sorry and sad. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just a very emotional album, and the fact that one can relate to it adds to the emotions.

From the dialogue filled tracks (“Fit But You Know It”, “Get Out Of My House”), to the emotional ones (“Dry Your Eyes”, “Blinded By The Lights”), A Grand Don’t Come For Free has Skinner let you into his life, and we should all thank him for inviting us. Musically, it’s decent. Vocally, it works. But lyrically, it’s amazing.

Choice tracks: It Was Supposed To Be So Easy, Blinded By The Lights, Dry Your Eyes

"Is This It" (2001) by the Strokes

Is This It is a hard rocking album. Julian’s edgy, slightly distorted vocals and the lo-fi guitar riffs drive this record forward, strengthening it and making it a raw, heavy record.

Is This It could very well be one of the most joyful, rocking, rhythmic and intense records ever. All eleven tracks are powerful and simply good rock and roll songs. This album has reinvigorated rock’s obsession with having a good time, bringing radio’s attention from DJs and pop-tracks of the late 90’s to rock and roll. It paved the way for other bands such as the Libertines and Franz Ferdinand.

There’s really not much more to say about this record. Its hard, edgy rock will blow your face off. ‘Nuff said. Oh, and don’t ignore the title track.

Choice tracks: Is This It, Barely Legal, Someday, Last Nite
If you like: the Libertines; the White Stripes; the Vines

"Together We’re Heavy" (2004) by the Polyphonic Spree

The Polyphonic Spree are a 20+ person band from Texas. They all wear different coloured robes so their clothes don’t attract attention away from their music and so the audience doesn’t judge them. Together We’re Heavy is their first ‘true’ record – their official debut was only intended as a demo and was released due to popular demand. Its tracks are entitled Sections 11-20, with each track having a subtitle, which follows on from their first record’s Sections 1-10 and suggests that all of the Spree’s output is going to be one huge piece. I’ll admit to being one of the many who discovered this group on Scrubs, and I really don’t care, because they are one of the best discoveries I’ve ever made.

Together We’re Heavy is a very upbeat, happy record. It makes you smile and dance and sing. You can just tell that the band are having fun while they play this music, and those feelings ooze onto you. I’ve seen footage of them live, and you watch them all jumping around and dancing and you just can’t help but smile. This record uses common instruments – you know, drums, guitar, etc – as well as some much more obscure ones like the theremin and harp. There really is no other way of describing this record – it’s epic, happy, inspiring and uplifting.

I know that the whole track-section-idea-thingo is a little self righteous and pretentious, as is the robe-idea. I don’t care though. It’s just good music. Some critics call them ‘artificially happy’, but from the first track to the last track, these 57 minutes of music will leave you beaming and inspired. This record is well worth a look, but you might be hard pressed to find it in a record store; I imported my copy. If you need something to lift you up and make your day, this is for you.

Choice tracks: Section 12 (Hold Me Now), Section 14 (Two Thousand Places), Section 19 (When The Fool Becomes A King)

"Roadsinger" (2009) by Yusuf

Cat Stevens is magnificent. Brilliant. A genius. Now that we’ve agreed on that, I want to bring up his 2006 return to pop music after a 30 year hiatus – an album entitled An Other Cup. While good, it was very preachy and not very Catty.

Roadsinger (To Warm You Through The Night) is Yusuf’s second record since his return to pop music. Now this is a real comeback. It is amazing. All the songs are lyrically and musically brilliant, and the whole record just oozes with Cat’s charm.

When I first slipped this into my PlayStation (my dedicated CD player is broken) and the first track started, I uttered a sigh of relief. Yusuf’s powerful, gritty and instantly recognisable voice pushes to the front, accompanied by his distinguishable acoustic guitar, a sparse drumkit and a few other instruments that I can’t be bothered to list. This song is traditional Cat, with a few new elements, and, to be honest, the new elements add, they don’t detract. The lyrics and melody are simply brilliant.

As the album progresses, it doesn’t let down for a second. At a mere 30 minutes in length, it seems that Yusuf is still in the vinyl era – I don’t mind though, as the album just works. Song after song, I was gobsmacked. This is really Yusuf at his best. Longtime Cat fans will recognize the intro to “Be What You Must”, and, honestly, I liked it – he’s allowed to steal from himself, right? And it’s just an intro anyway. It really helped cement the idea that this record is a jolt from the past from the same man as Cat Stevens, and not a complete different artist.

He blends his old, folk style with a new element, adds some lemon zest and produces a masterpiece. 

"Hymn To The Immortal Wind" (2009) by Mono

Mono is a Japanese post rock band. Since they formed, they have defined post rock as we know it today. Hymn To The Immortal Wind has Mono do what they know best again. It is brilliant post rock, but sounds a little too similar to their previous albums – however, one could argue that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. Yet another guitar-driven crescendo-laden post rock album.

Beautiful sweeping guitars and ever thickening textures make this album brilliant. But really, nothing differentiates it from Mono’s previous efforts. You really could just be listening to One Step More And You Die again. *soft guitar* *another soft guitar* *bass guitar* *slow drum beat* *drums get louder* blah blah blah *everything gets more dramatic* *boom! climax*. You know the drill.

It’s not bad, but. While, objectively, the album is pretty stock standard and unoriginal, subjectively it is another brilliant, emotional and beautiful record from one of the high priests of post rock. Apparently people go to Mono concerts and cry, and the beauty of their latest effort shows that the band are keeping that emotive response in their music. Again, if it’s not broke, why fix it?

If you’re a Mono fan, then this album is for you. If not, then it’s not. If you have never heard of them, this may be a good place to start. This is the post rock that I fell in love with.

Choice tracks: Pure As Snow, The Battle To Heaven