Mark Hamilton's (Woodpigeon) albums of the decade
I’ll admit that I’m not the biggest fan of lists of this type — the act of chronicling the “best” of anything from a particular year or decade makes it seem as though that year has nothing left to offer, that the vaults are closed. I know without question that my favourite albums from the 1990s are different now than they were within that actual decade, so this list is most definitely not definitive and will most definitely change as we grow through the 2010s.
What stands out strongest for me in this exercise is the way music was so tied to certain experiences and travels – buying Interpol’s Antics in Paris, and listening to it on rather constant repeat on my old-school discman as I wandered through Western Europe, or stumbling across CocoRosie in a tiny bar show in Brighton and tearing up at least three times over the course of a single set. Then there was the rather mind-blowing 4-act bill of Iron & Wine / Sufjan Stevens / Mary Lou Lord / Rosie Thomas at the Komedia one night in Brighton which a friend insisted I come and check out. Mind = Blown. (That said, you’ll find none of those folks on the following list, although they’re all personal favourites indeed!).
But all that said, what’s this list about? I’m sure I’ll slap my forehead right after it’s sent in, realizing just how many things I’ve forgotten, and the choices I made were very of-the-moment (I’m actually writing this list on an airplane from Calgary to Montreal, en route to recording an EP at the Hotel2Tango studios). Artists like Radiohead, Sigur Ros, Withered Hand, Wounded Knee, Kris Ellestad, Beth Jeans Houghton, The Neighbourhood Council, The Secret Brothers, Jane Vain + The Dark Matter, Caribou, FourTet, Low, Sketchshow, The Consonant C, Antony + The Johnsons, Blur, Sonic Youth, Bright Eyes (well, just LIFTED, really), The Unicorns, Islands, Basia Bulat (whose new album out in 2010 is pretty amazing, by the way), Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, Frida Hyvonen, Calexico, Final Fantasy, and on and on and on — all made for an exciting decade. So then, enough preamble — here it is in no implied order:
I’d been a long-time Smog lover throughout the 1990s and still to this day, but with Supper, Bill Callahan nails the perfect combination of longing and regret. On later albums, Callahan would finally hit the light at the end of the tunnel, but here he’s still in the darkness, the light just within reach.
My first apartment outside of my parents’ house in Calgary, Alberta, Canada was on Morrison Street in Edinburgh. Throughout my entire first year, my Mother would send me packages of new albums (3 of which are on this list, in fact —Supper by (Smog), The Smell of Our Own by the Hidden Cameras, and this one) in yellow envelopes. Songs: Ohia had always been of interest, but up until Magnolia Electric Co., the full-length albums were a little hit and miss for me. There’s something about the sound of this one (hi there, Steve Albini) that knocks me out — but above all else, the songs are truly incredible. We lived on the top floor, and when the time came to leave for work in the mornings, I’d cue up the album-closer ‘Hold On, Magnolia’ and play it loud enough that I could hear the final strains of it echoing behind me as I walked down the stairwell and out the front door.
When Deerhunter played the Sled Island Festival in Calgary last summer, their performance was long, loud, and ended with a 45-minute noise loop that cleared out pretty much the entire theatre. I’m one of the few who loved every minute of it (but admittedly that might have had something to do with my foresight in bringing along earplubs). Microcastle / Weird Era Cont.is the perfect one-two punch — a distinguished pop album and a scrappy younger sibling side-by-side. I haven’t listened to anything on repeat this often for a long, long time.
For some reason, Devendra Banhart has been a constant soundtrack for my travels throughout the 2000s. The timing just seems to always perfectly line up — I go somewhere exciting, and Devendra releases an album that I buy en route & consume insatiably for the rest of the trip. There’s also an incredible power to Banhart’s earlier work — most often just his voice, guitar, and one other flourish — that truly affected me as a songwriter over the past decade. While Rejoicing in the Hands is still definitely the pinnacle moment for me (I’m afraid he’s pretty much lost me with What Will We Be), Banhart’s music will always be linked with long train rides and sleeper cars, of that never-ending journey to find those moments of happiness.
Once in a while, a record comes along that makes you slap yourself and scream, “How’d they do that?” Where the hell didYs come from? It’s like alien epic folk poems set to a 1950s Hollywood melodrama soundtrack, and every note of the thing works so perfectly. I first heard the songs of Ys at the Botanique in Brussels, one of Europe’s most beautiful venues. played in one room, a round towering room lit mostly by a single mirror-ball, entirely alone with her harp. 16-minute songs flew by as though we’d always known them, and the melodies stayed in my head for over two years until the recorded version was finally leaked to us. (Incidentally, after Newsom’s set, the audience was led down the hallway to another room, where (Smog) performed the headlining set of the night — two incredible performances).
Ryan Doyle is a songwriter from Brooklyn, signed to no label, rarely performing live. He takes his time writing songs — we’ve been planning a collaborative EP for nearly 2 years by this point — but the proof’s in the pudding with this guy.Greatest is a CD-R compilation of the songs he’s written that he thinks are his best (his other records are all available for free download on his myspace, and I suggest everyone picks them up), and in terms of songwriting and lyrical smarts, it’s a disc that I’ve learned enough from to consider it a master class. Ryan Doyle should be spoken of in hushed tones.
While everyone else is losing their mind over Veckitamest, it’s Yellow House that I keep returning to. Another one of those “where did this come from?” moments of the decade, and a definitive record indeed. We opened for Grizzly Bear in a church immediately prior to their stint opening for Radiohead. Watching them from one of the front pews, I simply wanted to put down my guitar and quit. It felt as though these guys had it all figured out and there was nowhere else left to go.
When I was in high school in the 1990s, we all wrote Nirvana, Pixies, Violent Femmes, and The Smiths lyrics in our binders. By University, the mantle of poet laureate shifted to Stuart Murdoch. When I first moved to Scotland, the Belle & Sebastian website listed the need for some party planners, to help put together a large-scale shindig for that Christmas. I immediately volunteered myself and my fellow three Canadian travelers, and Murdoch wrote back saying we had the job. Within a couple of weeks, however, the party idea was canceled. I met Murdoch, however, at the Optimo club in Glasgow one night when Franz Ferdinand were playing the tiny stage. After a 30-minute chat, I made some comment about going “back home” at some point in the future, and Murdoch looked confused and asked, “But you’re clearly Scottish. You’re home already — your accent’s even Glaswegian, isn’t it?” (No-one else has ever mistaken me for Glaswegian, for the record — it must have been the noise of the club). The B-sides are even better than the A-sides with this lot, and that’s saying loads about just how incredible Belle & Sebastian can be.
The day Elliott Smith died, I went to work at Fopp on Rose Street in Edinburgh, and selected that morning’s listening disc — Mr. Smith’s Figure 8. A co-worker came in, shook his head and said, “this guy’s so depressing. Let’s try something else, shall we?” and we took it off. Early in the afternoon, my co-worker Alison came down the steps, crying. The news had made its way to the UK, and Smith was gone. We didn’t put Figure 8 back on the stereo — it would feel too much like rubbernecking at a highway accident. It took a long time before I was ready to listen to him again, but by the time of Basement and New Moon, it was even more obvious how great of a talent we’d lost. I saw Elliott play a show in Vancouver at the Commodore on the Figure 8 tour, and it was a magical night. After the show, I saw him out on the street, hiding in the shadows, smoking. I made strides towards him, but stopped short before interrupting his smoke. The guy had just played an incredible show, but looked as though bombardment by a young, excitable fan was probably one of the last things he wanted at that moment, so I left him be.
One of the records my Mother sent over to me at Morrison Street, and an album I still listen to regularly. Part of my reason for moving to the UK was to live open and honestly as the person I am, and the Hidden Cameras’ gay church folk music felt like a queer revolution I wanted to be a part of. Their early shows were amazingly freeing nights, and I even found myself at one of the group’s parties in Toronto in which a large warehouse-like space had been transformed with black plastic into caves and darkened corners, a make-out zone if ever there was one. A show in Berlin (with Le Tigre, no less) ended with a memorable slow dance atop the Reichstag with a fellow fan — whenever I listen to Smell of Our Own, I wonder where he ended up, and I think of those definitive days of my own coming out. I didn’t quite feel like a complete person until that point, and Smell of Our Own was the soundtrack for all of that. Were you to ask me for just one record from the decade, this would probably have to be it.