Until recently, I was set on counting down my fifty favorite albums of this decade, as I did for the last one and the one before that. However, given that I’ve spent years writing extensively/exhaustively about favorite albums, including eleven from this past decade, I’m weary of saying much more on these long-players. So, in two weeks I will count down my fifty favorite tracks of the decade instead. I don’t buy into the death-of-the-album hysteria that began with digital downloads and seems to have swelled with online streaming, but I will argue that the technology often allows for a single or an album track to make a deeper, obviously more immediate impact than a thirty-to-seventy-minute-long collection of songs.
More about that in two weeks. I will never stop loving albums and ranking my favorites, but compared to the past two decades, nothing from the 2010s has hit me so powerfully as Automatic For The People, If You’re Feeling Sinister, Apartment Life, Since I Left You and Riot On An Empty Streetdid upon arrival. Of course, I first heard all those records in my 20s and it’s only natural that as I age, I should grow more critical and less susceptible towards the new, especially in how it relates to an already established artist’s body of work.
However, I still firmly believe in the possibility that my favorite album (or song) of all time might be something I haven’t yet heard. At the end of 2009, I knew nothing of Laura Marling, Nicole Atkins, Field Music, The Clientele or Future Islands, even though they all had records out. Then, there are the new talents that emerged and are represented below: Christine and The Queens, Natalie Prass, Michael Kiwanuka, Lana Del Rey, Haim—all of whom I suspect will continue releasing vital music in the next decade.
As for the list below, I struggled a bit with the order, for everything’s prone to change from month to year to day. Thus, I focused on albums I could see myself most wanting to listen to again and again, even after having already heard them dozens of times. Home Counties fulfills such criteria more strongly than anything else I could think of—I’m not sure if it’s even Saint Etienne’s best or second-best (or even fifth-best) album, but its breadth and scope effortlessly draws me in; as a reaction to Brexit, it’s also one of the more timely albums here, certainly up there with Running Out of Love, Record and My Finest Work Yet as something that one could’ve only conceived of in the past three-to-four years.
Some surprises here and there: Edge of the Sun not making 100 Albums but placing so high as it became one of my most-listened-to records ever; Random Access Memories‘ stature in my mind slipping somewhat, as its retro-isms still delight but no longer innovate; a handful of records from the first half of the decade showing up, despite not making my half-decade list in 2015 (most notably Tales of Us, Transference and The Voyager); only three artists (Saint Etienne, Tracey Thorn and Hot Chip) appearing more than once, as opposed to Sam Phillips, who had three slots in the ’00s list.
In any case, at the end of this particular decade, here’s how I’d rank my favorite albums from it:
Saint Etienne, Home Counties
Emm Gryner, Northern Gospel
Calexico, Edge of the Sun
Jens Lekman, I Know What Love Isn’t
Tracey Thorn, Record
The Radio Dept., Running Out Of Love
Roisin Murphy, Hairless Toys
Andrew Bird, My Finest Work Yet
Marina and the Diamonds, Froot
Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can
Christine and The Queens, Christine and The Queens
Raphael Saadiq, Stone Rollin’
Nicole Atkins, Goodnight Rhonda Lee
Natalie Prass, The Future and The Past
Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
Holy Ghost!, Work
Hot Chip, One Life Stand
Field Music, Open Here
Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite
Goldfrapp, Tales Of Us
The Clientele, Music For The Age Of Miracles
Robert Forster, Inferno
Michael Kiwanuka, Love & Hate
David Bowie, Blackstar
Saint Etienne, Words and Music By Saint Etienne
Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel…
Robyn, Body Talk
Imperial Teen, Now We Are Timeless
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Lana Del Rey, Norman Fucking Rockwell!
Pet Shop Boys, Electric
Belle and Sebastian, Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
(My 100 favorite albums in chronological order: #99 – released June 2, 2017)
Track listing: The Reunion / Something New / Magpie Eyes / Whyteleafe / Dive / Church Pew Furniture Restorer / Take It All In / Popmaster / Underneath The Apple Tree / Out Of My Mind / After Hebden / Breakneck Hill / Heather / Sports Report / Train Drivers In Eyeliner / Unopened Fan Mail / What Kind Of World / Sweet Arcadia / Angel Of Woodhatch
After the superlative song cycle Tales From Turnpike House, I couldn’t imagine what Saint Etienne would do next—apparently, neither could the band, at least not right away. Seven years passed before the release of their next album, Words and Music By Saint Etienne. Concerning the rituals and pleasures of pop music itself, the concept seemed ideal for a trio of self-avowed fans-turned-aspiring-popstars; in practice, it worked well enough, widely viewed as a comeback on both sides of the pond. It featured some of their very best singles (“Tonight”, “I’ve Got Your Music”) and, as usual with this group, exceptional album tracks that could’ve easily been singles as well (“Heading For The Fair”, “Last Days Of Disco”, “DJ” and the song this blog takes its name from.)
And yet… as a big fan myself, I found Words and Music not completely up to snuff with the four previous Saint Etienne albums I’ve covered here. For one thing, it has a substantial amount of, well, not filler, exactly, but lesser songs I rarely listen to in isolation (“Answer Song”, “Twenty Five Years”, actual throwaway “Record Doctor”); also, celebrating pop through the prism of London is more or less what this trio has always done, but by making it so explicit and upfront, they almost lessen what’s so singular and special about it. Again, for any band, Words and Music is a good album and for them a shrewd one to make after such a long absence, but it doesn’t add anything new to their catalog in the way, say, Tiger Bay or even Good Humor did.
Fast forward a few more years: there’s another band sabbatical during which Sarah Cracknell puts out a second solo album, Red Kite (solid singer-songwriter folk, and worlds away from the dance-pop of her earlier effort Lipslide) while Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs continue curating compilations of subterranean gems from the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. When the trio commence work on new material in mid-2016, the world in is flux. Brexit has passed and Trumpism clouds the air. Their new songs aren’t especially angry (how inconceivable to think of an incensed Saint Etienne!) but these developments (especially the hitting-closer-to-home Brexit) have no small impact on the direction their ninth album begins to take.
For most Americans and non-anglophiles, the title Home Counties requires some explanation. The two-word term refers to the seven counties surrounding London—in other words, the suburbs. All three members of Saint Etienne grew up there before moving to London as adults; it follows that one can view the record as reminiscent and hyper-specific of a time and place as Fox Base Alpha and So Tough were of early ’90s London, only observed from a great distance instead of documenting it in real time. However, the album transcends childhood nostalgia because of the band’s obvious love/hate relationship with the region, elevated in no small part by that recent specter of Brexit hanging in the air—throughout the actual Home Counties, more people voted to leave the EU than remain, whereas London voted heavily in favor of the latter option.
The result is an intriguing push-and-pull for Saint Etienne: emphatic and celebratory as always, but now guided by hindsight and filtered through a sharper, critical eye. Initially, it resembles Good Humor more than anything else in the band’s catalog thanks to its live-band feel (the winsome yet enigmatic “Unopened Fan Mail” could easily slot into it) and the fact that Cracknell’s, Stanley’s and Wiggs’ coming-of-age years coincide with the AM radio gold the earlier album successfully emulated. However, Home Counties is no Good Humor II: a mosaic of instrumentals, spoken word interludes and tone poems along with the expected three-minute pop songs, it’s the band’s longest (19 tracks in 56 minutes, but they do fly by) and most varied album since Finisterre (maybe even So Tough)—it plays like a thoughtfully, lovingly compiled mix tape that coheres into a shimmering whole after multiple spins.
As you’d expect from a band known for their meticulous, often hand-crafted attention to detail, Home Counties has ultra-specific talismans woven throughout its fabric. It makes ample room for birdsong and a pastoral children’s choir (“Church Pew Furniture Restorer”), a spot-on Northern Soul simulation (“Underneath The Apple Tree”), a little harp and plenty of harpsichord (most prominently on “Whyteleafe” and “Take It All In”), and not one or two but three recreations of vintage radio transmissions, with quiz show “Popmaster” rather tongue-in-cheek in offering such decidedly modern prizes as “a digital radio or a blue-tooth speaker.” For a band whose early albums were liberally sprinkled with sound bites from classic films, this reprises a tradition of dropping references that will go over a majority of listeners’ heads but also lend much distinction and texture to the world depicted within.
Throughout, Saint Etienne can’t help but retain a certain fondness for where they’re from. In one song, Cracknell eagerly encourages us to “Take It All In” over a baroque retro-pop arrangement with a vaguely trip-hop beat, resembling a rather unlikely cross between The Association and Portishead. “Dive” is a memory of the kind of sensual, horn-driven funk workout one could get down to at the local disco or at a backyard, tiki torch-lit house party. With its clarion chorus and propulsive beat, “Magpie Eyes” encapsulates the bittersweet feeling of being young in a small town after summer’s gone with nothing to do but seek hidden treasure among what remains. Along those lines, “Out Of My Mind” further evokes both the euphoria and turmoil of adolescent infatuation, its ebullience and urgency rendering it a proud successor to such past triumphs as “Nothing Can Stop Us” and “Lightning Strikes Twice”.
Still, they just as often firmly (if considerately) resist suburbia as the utopian ideal. “Whyteleafe” may imagine an alternate universe where David Bowie never left home for London, settling into an ordinary life as a local businessman (Cracknell singing, “His sweet mu-ni-ci-pal dream” over a surging synth is one of the album’s most indelible hooks), but it’s merely a clever “what-if” scenario (and, a year after his death, a refreshingly unconventional Bowie tribute.) Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Something New” is desperately searching for “a sound that she knows could be fun”, and the song’s electric 12-string guitar and Mellotron-aping synth lends her support, especially as it gives way to the resolve and warmth of a brass coda. “Train Drivers In Eyeliner” sweetly advocates for more flamboyantly attired, Whitesnake-listening conductors in an attempt to gently shake up the status quo: “All over this land, that’s our plan,” Cracknell coos, as if stumping for the idea at a Town Hall meeting.
As Home Counties proceeds, it further scrutinizes suburbia, putting aside any notion of rose-colored lenses. Its primary hues purposely turn darker beginning with “Breakneck Hill”, a gorgeously drowsy instrumental that sounds straight out of Twin Peaks. Its spooky female sighs and Eno-esque ambient drone set the scene for “Heather”: a Hitchcock film in miniature, it recalls a neighbor or a childhood friend. Maybe she’s a ghost now, for “She comes and she goes like the warmth in the daylight.” Near the end, Cracknell repeats, “This house is haunted” as the sputtering but insistent rhythm and minor key synths swirl around her, almost fortifying her claim. Perhaps, this tale’s ghost is the narrator herself, wrestling with her past and present selves.
A few tracks later, laden with sweeping, urgent strings, “What Kind of World” fully acknowledges this identity crisis in relation to its milieu. “This is my home but I don’t feel at home tonight,” Cracknell declares before suggesting, “Let’s find another country / a better one,” and it has a thunderbolt’s impact—for many, the suburbs are a place to escape from due to their isolationism, conservatism and provincialism; Brexit enables the suburbs to uphold these tenets, legally cordoning off the outside world. It’s an easy explanation as to main reason why the members of Saint Etienne left the Home Counties, but it doesn’t necessarily shed light on why some people stay.
“Sweet Arcadia” makes an effort to elucidate on this. Opening with another talisman, a watery electric piano of the kind heard on such ‘70s hits as “I’m Not In Love” and “Just The Way You Are”, it’s another Cracknell spoken word piece in the tradition of “Teenage Winter” and “Over The Border”: “The trains took us away from the smoke,” she begins, narrating a travelogue through obscure, self-contained locales with names like Benfleet and South-End-On-Sea. A fetching, suitably locomotive rhythm moves us along as she recounts how the modern suburbs came to be. Over aching chord changes, she recites, “We built our own cinemas, we named our own houses,” charting the ever-forward march of progress until she concludes, “We took your land, and made it our land. Sweet Arcadia.” Her narration disappears halfway through this nearly eight-minute-long epic, consumed by extended flute and soulful organ solos as the beat slows to a wavering ebb-and-flow as if hovering on water.
After Cracknell mournfully sighs the song’s title repeatedly at the close, we’re left not with a resolution but unease. Saint Etienne have offered us plenty of reasons to both love and loathe suburbia; such a mass of contradictory feelings is more true to life than art that would either merely bask in the glow of its idyllic landscapes or only reveal them to be nothing but a cultural wasteland. And as much as this trio has forged a career on songs about transcendence and escape, Home Counties is a step in another direction, observing the world not just as it could be, but also as it is.
And why can’t we consider both simultaneously? If the penultimate “Sweet Arcadia” is to Home Counties what “Hello Earth” was to Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love, closing track “Angel of Woodhatch” is this album’s equivalent to “The Morning Fog”. Its gentle woodwinds and sparkling wind chimes potentially suggest promise and renewal; here, with no lyrics to guide us toward a particular opinion, they could simply infer calm and stillness—a sweet surrender to a complex world with so many moving parts. Home Counties is Saint Etienne’s “mature” album for sure, but its richness and teeming ambiguities gives that off-derided term a good name.
3. St. Vincent, “MASSeduction”
“One of our great female eccentrics,” I wrote about Annie Clark on her last album—a handle she still maintains, even if it now feels like a reduction. She promised a game-changer of a fifth album, and she makes good on that claim, though not in the way I expected, which is of course exactly why she clinches it. More accessible and outgoing, yes, but also just as arch and in control, MASSeduction (only she could get away with that title) features a seven-song sequence (from “Pills” to “New York”) as breathless as anything I’ve heard, a Prince pastiche that nearly outdoes him (the title track), an euphoric rush of a sexual conquest where she nearly outdoes herself (“Sugarboy”) and a bold closer (“Smoking Section”) that suggests she’s far from done pushing her own artistic boundaries.
2. Nicole Atkins, “Goodnight Rhonda Lee”
Previously, Atkins struck me as an incredible, tremulous singer in search of a voice, capable of an occasional great song (“Maybe Tonight”, “Girl You Look Amazing”) but nothing more. Oh, how her fourth album proves me wrong—deliberately, unfashionably out-of-time, it successfully repositions her as a genre-inclusive torch songstress as likely to co-write retro-rock laments with Chris Isaak (“A Little Crazy”, the title track) as she is to evoke the likes of Dusty In Memphis (“Darkness Falls So Quiet”) and Make Way For Dionne Warwick (“If I Could”). What’s more, Goodnight Rhonda Lee smoothly sprints from high to high, its eleven songs all of a piece. Still, I would be remiss not to single out “I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t)”, a smart, ultimately devastating expression of how miserable and simultaneously content one can feel.
“I Love Living Here (Even When I Don’t):
1. Saint Etienne, “Home Counties”
At 19 tracks in just under an hour, it’s their longest long player; also their most musically diverse since Finisterre (if not So Tough.) Citing Brexit as a jumping-off point, Bob, Pete and Sarah present a concept album about the London suburbs they grew up in and continue to have a love/hate relationship with. Even more deeply felt than the pop-timism of 2012’s Words and Music, this one instantly locates that sweet spot the band’s always depended on, finding great inspiration in the mundane. Proceeding from typically immaculate three-minute singles (“Magpie Eyes”, “Out of My Mind”) and AM radio gold (“Underneath the Apple Tree”, “Take It All In”) to moodier stuff like instrumental “Breakneck Hill” and the beguiling, ominous “Heather”, all its disparate parts eventually form a gestalt, culminating in “Sweet Arcadia”: another in a series of Saint Etienne epics going back to “Avenue”, it evokes this world in exquisite detail via time, memory and such talismans as its gorgeous, watery electric piano straight out of 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love”. Home Counties is easily my record of the year, and one of this venerable trio’s very best.
Say what you want about 2017 being shit so far, ‘cause it decidedly is not where music’s concerned (or TV, for that matter—consider Twin Peaks, Legion and The Americans, just for starters.) In the unlikely event that I come across no other good new albums between now and December, the ones listed below from the year’s first half would make for a pretty darn tootin’ top ten.
Of course, some gurls are better than others. I admire Stephin Merritt’s quintuple-LP opus more than I ever get around to playing the damn thing, and while the Mann record is easily her best since Bachelor # 2, I have to be in a certain mood for it. I’m genuinely surprised at how much I enjoy Goths (perhaps because it’s far more Donald Fagen than Robert Smith?) and Hot Thoughts, although I shouldn’t be because I tend to love exactly every other Spoon LP for some reason (see: Transference, Gimme Fiction and Girls Can Tell.)
Predictably, the Saint Etienne is my favorite so far. Even though I’ve had less than a month to live with their growing-up-in-suburban-London opus Home Counties, my god, what a month… Not only is it already better than the very good Words and Music, I’m thinking this might end up… their best yet? Will this ultimately ring true or will I eventually burn out on it? Check back in six months—in the meantime, enjoy the sublime “Out of My Mind”, which at the very least deserves more than only 300+ YouTube views.
My favorite 2017 albums so far, in alphabetical order:
Aimee Mann, Mental Illness Alison Moyet, Other Future Islands, The Far Field Goldfrapp, Silver Eye Jens Lekman, Life Will See You Now Laura Marling, Semper Femina The Magnetic Fields, 50 Song Memoir The Mountain Goats, Goths Saint Etienne, Home Counties Spoon, Hot Thoughts