While American hitmakers like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift climbed the British charts in 2009, here in the U.S., we saw a serious influx of great music from the U.K. You wouldn't necessarily call these bands chart-toppers, either here or there, but they do add up to something resembling a British Invasion.
So while early British Invaders Paul McCartney and Ray Davies rehashed and released their signature songs, and the established likes of Coldplay, Oasis and Franz Ferdinand did their thing, it was possible to strike gold by digging a little deeper. Notably, many here have an uncannily American sound — a sign, if ever there was one, that invasions go both ways.
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The Best British Bands Of 2009, From WFUV
These Walls Are Coming Down
The Walls Are Coming Down
Fanfarlo took its name from a Charles Baudelaire novella, which may provide a hint about the band's wordsy lyrics. But there's more to Fanfarlo than its songwriting. All the band's members are multi-instrumentalists, which makes for a spectacular variety of sounds. Their energetic live performances include mandolin, trumpet, melodica, accordion... even an instrument they call the "fanfarlophone."
With the help of New York indie producer Peter Katis, Fanfarlo managed to translate its alt-folk/baroque sound onto vinyl with its debut album, Reservoir. After causing a stir at South by Southwest this year, and offering its album online for $1, Fanfarlo has since signed with Atlantic Records, and quit its assorted day jobs. As long as there's enough space on stage for all of the band members and their instruments, their future prospects are wide open.
Richard Hawley is a music-scene veteran from his early days playing guitar with the Britpop band Pulp. I've been a fan of his solo work, with his distinctive old-time-crooner style, since the beginning. He's a Sinatra for our age, and he knows how to make great-sounding records. This new one, Truelove's Gutter, is an evocative masterpiece. The arrangements drip, his voice is emotive and the lyrics, his darkest yet, are compellingly sad.
Hawley hails proudly from Sheffield, and nearly all of his albums reference his hometown. In fact, Truelove's Gutter refers to an 18th-century Sheffield innkeeper named Thomas Truelove. But the title also works in the sense that the songs are full of heartbreak. "Remorse Code," at more than 9 minutes long, is not likely to be a big radio smash, but it's honest and artful.
Florence Welch's childhood dream was to be Ariel from The Little Mermaid. It's clear that she loves to dress up and play, and as frontwoman for Florence and the Machine, she puts on one of the most exciting live performances around. (And, yes, I'm including comparisons to fellow extroverted English artists such as La Roux and Little Boots.)
It's easy to compare Welch to Kate Bush, with her booming voice and the nature references, but Welch is a modern woman, putting her voice, songs and visual image together into a package that can't be denied. Welch started out playing drums, and still beats a floor tom in concert; that driving rhythm propels "Dog Days Are Over" and much of Lungs.
Jack Peñate delivers the grooves right out of the gate on his second album, Everything Is New. The songs are instantly likeable, well-crafted and danceable, referencing everything from Philly soul to Brazilian Tropicalia to Jamaican dub to disco.
I was pleasantly surprised when I first heard it, as it's a real departure from his mellower, more introspective debut. It seems I'm not the only one, as Penate has been getting great reviews for this album. He's got quintessentially English style and dashing good looks, which aren't going to hurt him any, either.
At home and in their music, the five guys in Gomez have roots on both sides of the Atlantic, merging a distinct ear for British pop with a deep respect for American blues and roots music. While both of those wide-ranging influences have a wealth of history to draw from, Gomez just starts there, using those core sounds as a jumping-off point and taking listeners on a harmonious and heady trip. From the band's Mercury Prize-winning 1998 debut to today, it's never failed to combine foundation with experimentation.
Longtime fans know that each new album feeds another serving of lyrics and melodies into the magical Gomez live-performance process, and that when the band hits the stage, it'll further transform it all into a sweaty celebration. "Little Pieces" and "Natural Reaction" already possess healthy doses of depth and funk, while "Airstream Driver" is a full-on sing-along.
A smart London-based quartet with serious imagination, One eskimO knows how to connect listeners to childhood and the freedom of a wandering mind, to the private magical universe inside their own heads.
Led by Kristian Leontiou, a gifted singer who had a Top 10 hit in the U.K. back in 2004, One eskimO combines great vocals with dreamy melodies, for which Leontiou has produced animated visuals. The songs combine electronic and organic instrumentation, sounding fresh and new but still solidly human.
Remember Wood? Those of us who fell in love with the band's decade-old debut album, Songs From Stamford Hill, have been waiting in vain for a follow-up for years. But lead singer and songwriter James Maddock has finally made his way back.
Sunrise on Avenue C arrives by way of the classic '70s James Taylor/Van Morrison style, with well-crafted songs sung from the heart. Maddock's story has been one of pain and persistence: Ten years ago, the brass ring was within his grasp. He relocated to the U.S., got married and made another record for Columbia. Then it all fell apart. His personal and professional life unraveled, and he found himself in a new country, newly divorced; to add to the insult, Columbia decided not to release the album. Maddock has been kicking around the Lower East Side music scene since, quietly crafting this heartfelt collection of songs.
Here come more Americana sounds from the U.K., with an acoustic quartet that knows how to rock its roots. Mumford and Sons' members come out of a tight-knit London folk scene that also includes Laura Marling and Noah and the Whale. Their debut album, Sigh No More, comes on the heels of a few very successful buzz-building EPs.
It's all about smart songwriting for these guys: In fact, Mumford and Sons has a book club on its Web site. The group's live show is an energetic affair, with members switching off on instruments, and they're all excellent players, too. "White Blank Page" is a quieter, poetic tune, featuring stunning vocals from Marcus Mumford. The album will officially be released in the U.S. in February, but I couldn't resist cheating a little on this 2009 list.
What a treat to love a comeback album from the legendary '80s pop/ska band Madness. The Liberty of Norton Folgate will surely rescue this seminal band from any novelty hole it may have gotten lost in here in the U.S., although in the U.K., it's always been an arena-filler. This new album is a mature, upbeat collection of tunes, and one of the best things Madness has ever done. It'll be interesting to see if an American audience will show up and appreciate it.
The Liberty of Norton Folgate is one of those concept records that does not require actually keeping the concept in mind to appreciate the songs; this is happy stuff that plays great from start to finish. Regardless, you can't underestimate the influence Madness has had on both British and American music, and songs like "Dirt Devil" demonstrate why. Put it on at a party; it's a real crowd-pleaser.
Jon McClure has justly earned his Reverend status for the devotion he engenders from fans, though he's quick to point out that he more likely earned it from always "running at the mouth." To be sure, the Reverend is an outspoken free thinker, and his story is as interesting as his music. Look him up.
Like their friends in Arctic Monkeys and the aforementioned Richard Hawley, these guys are from the musical hotbed (and mining town) of Sheffield. Reverend and the Makers endeared themselves to giant headliners like Oasis by warming up the crowd in the parking lots of arena shows before even getting into the building. They've got friends in high places, so it's a matter of time before the rest of us catch up. "Silence Is Talking" is a great first listen, with its familiar riff from the classic War tune, "Low Rider."