Thursday, 31 December 2009

50. I'll Read You A Story, Colleen (2005)

Everything begins here.

April 2005, my first time in New York. Three months earlier, they were here, trying to make stitch and mend. Now I am here, after their knots of their marriage unravelled, trying not to think what we are patching together back home, trying to find my own place in the city. On Broadway, Alex and Welsh Dan are arguing in a clothes shop, and I know I have to get out. I need some time alone. I leave, turn off the busy, bustly sidewalk, wriggle through yellow cabs, pretzel vendors and soapy launderette vents, and weave past NYU. And then, quite by chance, I find the record shop I've been looking for for the past four days. The orange Other Music sign smiles at me from West 4th Street, and its dusty door welcomes me in like an old friend.

And the sounds that I heard as I do...I still struggle to put into words the effect they had on me. I knew I had never felt like this before. It was like I was walking into a dream, or a dense, lovely fog; a warm welcoming bath. Even though I could pinpoint why the music was doing this to me – it had the minimal beauty of Brian Eno's Ambient records about it for starters, especially 1/1 from Music For Airports; it also used the sound of a music box in such a heartbreaking way that it took me back instantly to my grandmother's bedroom in Swansea, and the chipped little girl in her jewellery box doing an endless pirouette among old pearls and bright gemstones – I knew there was something deeper going on here. It was like heaven speaking to me in-between the dusty jewel cases and recommendation labels, the light getting in through the crack in everything. Wide-eyed and slow-limbed, I remember asking someone behind the counter who this was, and he said "a French woman called Colleen", but the album was only on promo, and "wasn't out for two months". I remember the sadness rising in my chest when he said this, the next twenty minutes or so floating around the shop like a ghost, taking in every note of the rest of the record, feeling my mind and body dissipate. I'm still surprised I left on two feet of my own volition, rather than on the shoulders of the staff, or the back of one of my friends.

One week later, back in London, I was still carrying this song with me. I kept wondering what would have happened if I hadn't left Alex and Dan at that moment, walked in that particular direction, not looked up and saw the sign, walked into the shop right at that time. I was still thinking about it at work, opening our reviews post, chatting to Keith and Andrew – tear red tape, open jiffy bag, read press release, shelve sleeve – and didn't notice a cream and black case falling out of the envelope, the feel of jewel case in my hand, then the jolt, the eyes to my hands, the smack of realisation that it was there, there it was.

Colleen's The Golden Morning Breaks, sitting here in my hand, its cover a little girl with wings, being consoled by an unicorn. I have it here with me now, on the desk next to me as write, and the image on the front shouldn't work, but it does. There is something eerie about its composition that cuts through the sweetness, the same sinister sheen in its black, inky lines that ripples through the smallest details in Colleen's music.

I remember taking the album to Dan's the night that I got it, him falling in love with it too, and soon it becoming the soundtrack to that strange summer. The summer where Andrew and I became close in our little flat overlooking Lower Clapton Road; the summer where our Sunday club, The Light Programme, started to focus our lives; and the summer when we laid in one morning, him freelance, me part-time, Tim calling Dan's mobile three times before 10 o'clock, asking him what was wrong with the trains into town, could we turn the radio on, then the young man phoning in, his voice rising with panic, a bus roof exploding in Tavistock Square, us turning it off, thinking he was lying, then the pictures of the road outside my old flat in Edgware Road, quickly becoming a makeshift hospital and morgue, the panicked phonecalls and emails about where everyone was, Barry writing that his boss couldn't find her son, his DNA being found some months later between Kings Cross and Russell Square. Us all meeting, as friends, for drinks again and again over those peculiar days, trying to stay together, just because we could. Dan and I getting back together, keeping each other warm in his tiny flat in Stamford Hill, listening to Colleen to warm our cold bones.

So I haven chosen this track not because it offers a fanfare to finish the decade with a flourish, nor because it is a little-known curio, popped into this place for the sake of obscurity. It is, very simply, the track that I have loved the most from the album that has made me smile, soothed me, lifted me, comforted me, more than any other record in the last ten years. It gets to the heart of me, somehow. It's as though I can see my 21-year-old self in it, the girl with a sad soul starting the decade, and the way she has changed into this 31-year-old woman – the relationships she has had, the things she has done, the way she has grown. This is because of the melancholy in it, I know – moving and surging in huge, cresting waves – and the unbearable tensions before it breaks at 1.53 and 2.46. But there is also plenty of me in the hope it holds, too, the sunlight sparkling at its lovely edges, the magic that pours out of its every tiny movement.

And this song says much more about me, looking back, than if I just looked at my life in chronological form. I could have written a musical history of myself following the places in which I have lived (Edgware Road, 2000; Muswell Hill, 2000-2002; Dalston 2002-2003; Archway, 2003-2004; Hackney Wick, 2004, Clapton Square, 2004-2005; Green Lanes 2005-2006; Clapton Square, 2006-), or the boys I have gone out with (Richard, 2000; Barry, 2001-2004; Dan, 2004, 2005-2008, 2009-), or the various stages of my whirling dervish career (Masters degree, 2000, theology publishing 2000-2001; advertising sales, 2001; NHS secretary 2001-2002; charity worker, 2002-2003; reviews assistant/reviews editor at Word, 2003-2007; website editor, 2008, freelance jill-of-all-trades, 2008-). By themselves, the lists suggest stories too, great narratives hidden behind the peculiar transitions, but without the little details to accompany them they are only rough sketches – odd, disjointed chapters. With songs to give them shape, they become very different things.

And now, it is time to leave all of them behind, in words at least. It has just gone 6 o'clock on the last evening of the decade; I'll Read You A Story is playing again through my Mac speakers; Emily has just come in from the shops, and tonight we will drink cheap wine and eat scotch eggs with old friends as we see in the new year. Dan is coming round in an hour, and I'll put my party frock on in a bit. Still, it's funny to think for a moment about the girl I was ten years ago, sitting in the front room, crying on the phone to Steve, wondering how my life would change. I don't think she'd have believed that my grandfather would die two years later – the lovely, precious man; that her brother would get married and teach at their old school; that she would be lucky enough to end up writing about things that she liked for a living; that she would go through such crushingly low moments and such gloriously high ones; and that her love life would take on so many ridiculous tics, twists and turns.

But when I listen to Colleen, and hear its heavenliness taking me over, I can understand how I got through everything in one piece. After all, there have always been things around – like wonderful, life-changing songs – to help us all on our way. And as I listen to I'll Read You A Story putting its arms around me, rubbing its nose against mine, I can also understand how anything this lovely as my relationship with Dan could get through so much. It tells me that some things can get to you out of the blue and transport you completely; that something that began in the dust and the dirt of the past can survive ruptures and devastations; how the deepest scars can heal over; and how we can face our future together, as husband and wife, our eyes bright and alive.

Music has always been there to give me strength, give me support, give me solace. And in two weeks, after the new decade has made its mark, I will be moving out of here, and in with my boy, where I'll take the vinyl version of the Colleen album with me – something we're getting as a joint engagement present for our new record player. I look forward to setting the stylus on those warm, lovely grooves, letting this track take us into the times that lie ahead. As I do, I will also remember the times that have gone by, treasure their lessons, and keep my old songs singing.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

49. Come With Me, Kathryn Williams and Neill Maccoll (2008)

Nearly there. Forty-nine down, one to go.

Back on November 11, sitting in a hotel room in New York, getting ready to interview the xx for the NME, looking out of the window onto a rainy Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, I realised things had to change. I desperately wanted to write something about what the last decade meant to me genuinely, rather than putting songs into a list of statistics, and the idea for this blog started to crystallise quickly. But as it did, the next fifty days stretched ahead of me slyly, arching their eyebrows, telling me I wouldn't have enough stories to tell. Perhaps they were right too. The stories I've told are little slips of things after all, small glimpses into a life that I don't expect anyone to care about. But as they mean something to me, and we all have things that do, then perhaps that's why people have enjoyed dipping into them. Because when everything else disappears, all of us have songs that speak to us directly for some reason, however potent or pedestrian that reason might be.

Nevertheless, something strange has happened to me over Christmas. As this list has approached its final station, ringing its bell and preparing everyone to alight, more and more songs seem to be rearing their heads at me. Newly bold, lithe and lively, saying "Me, miss, me, miss", the memories they bring with them cresting a little too late, surging back like strong waves, knocking me clean over. I suppose I should have expected it. I hadn't plan this list of songs after all – and perhaps I should have, in retrospect. But I've liked like the way I've just let them come to me – at work, on the bus, on the way to see Grandma in hospital, behind a ranting old woman in the post office queue – asking me to add them to the electronic list on my sellotaped-together mobile phone, where I've looked at them regularly, wondering which one of them would blink at me at that particular moment, which one would seem right on that grey wintry day.

There are so many of them left, too. I wanted to write about the time I met Robert Plant in Nashville and what happened after that about the choir and my brother, but no single song from Raising Sand stuck in my head like a totem. I've also left out tons of fantastic pop songs that would easily make my top 50 of the decade (Kylie Minogue's Slow, Madonna's Hung Up, Destiny's Child's Survivor, Beyonce's Crazy In Love, Outkast's Hey Ya!, Kernkraft 400's Zombie Nation) and my list makes me sound much more sombre and weedy than I really am. I'm also surprised that some events in my life don't bring up many musical memories – the death of my much-loved grandfather, Con Jones, in January 2002, for example, in front of the TV, in his sleep, wearing fishing socks, or the weekend in 2003 when Grandma was gravely ill, Jon and I on our own in a coronary care ward in Swansea waiting for Mam and Dad's plane to bring them back from their holiday in Cyprus. But I've forgotten some songs that bring back huge memories too. Until today, for example, I'd forgotten about Midlake's Roscoe, and the heartbreaking loveliness of Low's California, a song that played in my head constantly when they tried to get back together, when he was thinking about heading back to "California, where it's warm".

But songs do this all the time. They creep up, they stretch an arm out, and wrap it lovingly around your shoulders when you're least expecting it. And although I've always known what my last song will be, I haven't been sure what to choose for the one that comes before it, as so many of them could sit here. So I'll go with my instincts. I wanted a song in this place to remind me of the whole decade gone by, and as her voice has carried me through the last ten years, Kathryn Williams stood out.

And this song takes me back to family. Jonathan – or Jon, as he prefers to known, just like me, the big sister who never enjoyed her "ith" – is the older of my two younger brothers, and the person introduced me to Kathryn's music. He was born nine pounds seven, red-faced, with a nose that stretched out all over his cheeks, on Guy Fawkes Day in 1982, the night that the fireworks shone their colours all over Ffordd Talfan, and Grandma put a hot dog in my coat pocket to keep it warm. Now he is 27, short and broad-bodied, his hair raven-black, his eyes doey and sleepy just like our late father's. We got on well enough, with the odd argument and fist-fight when we were growing up, but back in my early twenties and his late teens, I'd thought we were very different, especially when it came to our music tastes. I considered his much more Welsh than mine, all about choirs and great oratorios and his music degree, while me, an English-studying black sheep who had defected to the other country, skidaddled in bright pop and silly indie. I realised I was wrong when I went to his student digs in 2002 and saw three albums by Love – the '60s band I'd fallen in love with the previous summer – and realised I was being a snobby big sister. I asked him to lend me some stuff I might like, he lent me Old Low Light by Kathryn Williams, and that was that.

Kathryn's voice sang to me softly all through 2002, her delicate vocals showing how sharp someone could be when they were playing with subtlety. In 2004, her version of I Started A Joke swam through Dan's house in Bishop's Stortford when we were falling in love; in 2006, Leave To Remain sang through The Word office when times were tough, slowing my pulse and mopping my brow. In 2008, I went to Ullapool, the most north-western city in Scotland, to interview Kathryn as she toured the Highlands and islands with Neill Maccoll – Ewan's son and Kirsty's half-brother – about the wonderful album, Two, that they had made together. And as I watched Kathryn sing Come With Me in a tiny bar in the town, and I knew this was what all music was for – those special, cherished moments watching a musician win over a crowd, capture every heart, and raise all of them to their mouths.

That night, Kathryn and I stayed up 'til 3am, draining the honesty bar of gin and rum as mosquitos buzzed outside, putting the world to rights, setting a friendship alight. Later that year as I travelled through the north, trying to work out what to do about my fading relationship, she suggested I pop in if I passed through Newcastle, and so I did. We spent an afternoon in town, wandering through the Sage and drinking bitter in front of drunk cricket-lovers; making plasticine toys with her son, Louis, around the kitchen table; watching Arrested Development until Kath fell asleep, her husband Neil and I laughing as she snored along to the credits. It was one of those perfect days, when everything seemed right, and she begged me to take one of her paintings for Jon as I left. At his house just before Christmas, a few weeks after I saw Kathryn pregnant at Dingwalls, it was still there as well, next to the glossy wedding photos of Jon and his wife Kerry, as the tree lights blinked happily, and as the snow continued to fall. It sits there, blue and bright, there as a reminder of what music can do, and how it can make things come to life.

The music Kathryn makes, like the music of so many people, has taken me through the decade like a family friend. And whatever happens, I know it will stay there. As this decade ends, and as my last song starts to play, she will join the chorus in my head, helping to take me wherever I must go next.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

48. Surf Song, James Yorkston (2004)

A rainy day in Anstruther, a quiet fishing village on the southern lip of Fife, a bag of vinegary chips on a car bonnet. It doesn't look like mid-summer, and the haar – the Scottish sea-mist – is rolling in forcefully, into our hair, onto our buttoned coats, onto our cold, white faces. James Yorkston is laughing between bites of warm potato, taking me on a little tour of the lovely seaside town where he comes from, to where he has just moved back, telling me not to tell his wife what he had for his dinner. Later, we'll nip to the pub and meet her, heavily pregnant and smiling like a Cheshire cat, at the end of an art fair in nearby Pittenweem, and I think this isn't the way that interviews are supposed to be, but I'm glad that it is – and also how lovely it is to find out that a person who wrote one of your favourite songs of the last ten years is a gentleman, a scholar and a sweetheart.

The first time I heard James Yorkston, I was with Scottish Jude. She had come down from Dunfermline with her red hair and her blue eyes, all shyness and silliness, breaking hearts without knowing it. At first, we were like two sharp-clawed kittens, and then we became friends, and then she moved into the Green Lanes flat I shared with Welsh Dan, on the corner of Clissold Park, full of glitterballs hanging off kitchen cupboards, empty bottles in the fruit box, and drying racks baubled with different coloured underwear.

I remember Jude's CDs tinkling through the kitchen, and James Yorkston's being my favourite, especially a track called Surf Song which shone out at me like a lamp from a lighthouse, bathing me in its beam. It was like all my favourite songs – simple and everyday, but full of tiny details that held a curious loveliness within them – beginning in the quiet corner of a quiet harbour bar, and a conversation between a boy and a girl getting to know each other.

"You told me of your life, and what had brought you here/And we watched the evening tide", he sings, the air alive and electric. Then the atmosphere grows gradually, builds to a fever. "You asked me of my past/And I told you all the truths/I kept hidden inside/What did I have to lose?" – those last six tiny words saying such huge things.

And then come the words that get me every time. "You said you would not hear/Of my life spent with some lady/Who cut deep in my heart/When you'd barely even scratched me" – then that pause – "but I smile and say it's early days."

We two Judes went to see James play soonafter, and at the end of the show I ran up to the stage, bolstered by a misty heart, wet eyes and many plastic pints of cider. I told him how great he'd been, adding for some reason or other that my friend was from Dunfermline which was, you know, quite near to where he was from. James thanked me politely but shyly, desperately trying to hide from a mad, drunken fan, I'd wager – especially because I'd also told him how I loved the lyric about the woman taking off all her clothes and diving into the sea, the photos he'd took of her, and how he joined her in the surf. Three years later, I didn't remind James of the time I'd embarrassed myself, but I did tell him how much I loved Surf Song, and he was happy to hear it. Away from the stage, and on comfortable home soil, he knew the message was meant.

And in the Guinness-fugged evening that followed I remember a friend of his telling me how good James' wife had been for him, how he had suffered sadness in his past, and how she had pushed him on. It made me think of Surf Song again, the way it described those moments in our lives when we know that everything is on the brink of sudden, massive change; how we are, out of nowhere, on the edge of a precipice; and how that realisation feels. When I left the next morning, James texted a lovely, sweet thank you for the interview, and I wished him and his wife luck for the birth of their baby, hoping that Surf Song was about the two of them.

A month later, my phone bleeped with a text telling me their baby had been born. The next April, I was back in Scotland to review the Homegame Festival, and there they were, his two girls, his little daughter gaga-ing happily as her dad played us a song on his banjo in Anstruther Town Hall, standing proudly before the cream buns and teacups, smiling broadly at her. It was a simple, perfect moment, and after the gig finished, I went back to the seafront, now bright and blue, and thought about what music can capture, and what it can do. I felt the haar rolling out as I did so, and the sun pouring in.

Monday, 28 December 2009

47. The Ocean, Richard Hawley (2005)

Oliver and I in the Scala, a warm night in September, a man with the lungs of a crooner but the tongue of a sailor, romancing us, cossetting us, shaking our bellies. The humour and sweetness of his songs and his banter showing how much they could move us, in such very different ways.

I first met Oliver in 2001 when he convinced the gullible, drunken me, at Barry's 25th birthday party, that he used to be in 911, but was sacked for being too tall and too fat. He was from Sheffield, and a year later he started going out with my friend Kathryn, one of the Liver Birds from E8, and we'd spend hours together as couples talking nonsense, watching talking heads nostalgia shows, dancing to Britpop on the carpet after too many drinks, and talking about music until our throats were rubbed raw. We made countless mix-CDs for each other, and Oliver and Kathryn also introduced me to Richard Hawley, especially Baby You're My Light, which memory tells me was their song together.

By 2004, things had changed. Kathryn and Oliver broke up a week after Barry and I did, and the great house swap experiment of that late winter began quickly after it. I left the flat I loved so dearly in Archway to head to Hackney Wick, sharing a double bed with Kathryn for a few months; Oliver heading west in a cab for four sofa cushions on my old living room floor, just as I headed east. We all survived those strange weeks, and it still makes me happy that our friendships have too, as time has spun on, and our relationships have changed – my on-off-on-off-on love-life with Dan finally reaching peace; Kathryn meeting Rupert, doing national tours of charity shop record collections in his driving instructor's car, and getting engaged to him this summer on a journey through Eastern Europe; Oliver getting together with Hyun-Sook a little later, marrying her in 2008, and their four-week-old daughter, Juno, having just had her first Christmas.

When I think of these friends, I still think of Richard Hawley, and The Ocean is my favourite song of his by far – so shamelessly romantic, so eye-wateringly lovely, that I can never resist it. It reminds me of that night in the Scala when Oliver and I stood in raptures, then getting into the aftershow party where Oliver asked Hawley for matches for his cigarette, and whether he loved Wednesday or United ("Wednesday, for fuck's sake", being Hawley's correct reply"); of my lovely holiday alone in Barcelona in late 2005, rambling us The Ramblas to the sounds of a very different city; and of the romance in his music in general that keeps glowing on, however our circumstances as friends of people have changed. More than anything, it reminds me that all this time was for us, and we loved each other just because.

Sunday, 27 December 2009

46. Bad Romance, Lady Gaga (2009)

Bad Romance took me back to the first time I heard Lady Gaga, and the way my skin itched, my nose twitched, my brow furrowed. After Katy Perry – all false eyelashes, '50s heels and towering disappointment – all I bloody needed was another brilliant-looking pop star letting me down, banging on about Warhol and disco sticks, falling out of nightclubs wearing sunglasses and knickers. Her songs jagging and blaring out of dodgy car radios reminding me that this wasn't my pop, that this wasn't for me.

And then Bad Romance beginning with that funny Mozart harpsichord flourish, announcing its queen. The imperial chant of rah-rah, roma-ma-mah, Gaga, ooh la lah. The hunger for ugly things, dirty things, for money, for love; the brash, theatrical confidence of a woman wanting to be strong, then desperately trying to hide how sad she could be. And then that incredible chorus, the yearning, all-together-now oh-oh-ohs, full-chested, huge-hearted, the vast melancholy and euphoria that the best pop brings together. Realising how wrong I could be. Watching her bowl over the X Factor dressed like a bat in a bath – feeling that this is what it must have been felt like watching Morrissey on Top Of The Pops, his NHS specs and his hearing aid, his charity shop shirt and gladioli, a weird individual being themselves – then feeling so proud when its so-called spoonfed viewers took her to number one, claimed this odd woman for their own. Knowing this was a song for the end of a decade when pop claimed me back, when the strangest things worked magically, and when anything seemed possible.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

45. The Singer, Teitur (2009)

Two-and-a-half hours north of London, white wings carrying us to the top of the world. Belt on, nose pressed to the window like a curious toddler, watching us slowly descend through the clouds. Sharp-edged islands appearing one by one, arching their spiny backs towards us, looking like no land I had ever seen before. Flying over the cliff, the light bright and long - nose up, nose down - the runway shining underneath us, the wheels touching the ground, the Faroe Islands pulling us in.

When I was young, I didn't care for geography much. When I studied it in school, I only enjoyed the lessons about frothing volcanoes and natural disasters rather than river erosion and glacial moraine – I was all for great physical dramas to match my flighty adolescent ones. But as I got older, I started to get itchy feet and look beyond my blinkers, find lovely things even in the most unlovely places. I also wanted to see new things rather than scoot from A to B, so I did. There were the holidays, obviously – the two weeks from Vancouver to Portland, exploring back streets and murky corners, old cinemas and traffic bridges, the waterfall at Snoqualmie and the ice around Mount Rainier; ten days in Western Andalucia with manzanilla sherry and deep-fried sea anemones, falling into Gibraltar for Steve and Liz's wedding, falling out of the pool at 5am with the boys in our underwear; our big trip to Japan and Korea for Oliver and Hyun-Sook's wedding, the typhoon we ran through and the earthquake we slept through, the temple gates and the bullet trains, the barbecues and the paejeons, the onsens and the ryokans, the national parks and the endless tall towers. Then there were the work trips abroad after my first revelation in Vancouver, my two days in Stockholm, and the weekend in New York with Fountains Of Wayne: an incredible weekend in the perfect tiny town of Denton, Texas with Midlake; Autumn in LA with Band Of Horses; Paris with M Ward and The Feeling. And then my two very different experiences in Germany – hopping around Munich with a posh little chap called James Blunt, playing to a crowd of 11 people in a dodgy industrial park. to watching Portishead blow everyone away in a radio theatre in Berlin, hearing We Carry On take us away on a tidal wave.

And then came the Faroes, and a press trip to see Teitur. I had loved him since early January, when the album cover for The Singer stood out in the pile of CDs on my sideboard. It looked old-fashioned, like the front of a strange curiosity shop, and so it was. I adored Teitur's voice, sweet and pure but slightly skewed, singing romantic, mournful songs alongside sad brass and rich cellos, especially on its title track, a heartbreakingly simple statement of intent. "I always had the voice, and now I am a singer", he began, just as I had always had these hands, and now I am a writer; just as I always had these feet, and now I am a traveller. The simplicity of that conversion, the magic that shone from it.

We spent four days in those magical islands, driving through villages full of houses with green, grassy rooves and brightly-painted wooden walls, the lakes bright blue and silent, the air so clean it made you gulp, gulp, gulp. Teitur playing host to us, cooking us horse mussels from deep under the sea, getting us drunk on Black Sheep beer and whisky, taking us to his studio where he kept strange organ stops, harmoniums and a key under the doormat, and then us joining him the G! Festival, watching him play as the sun set, the sea and the mountains glowing behind him.

Me standing there feeling so lucky to be taking in these sights and the sounds, and then hearing The Singer, a cappella, as he finished the set. Teitur's voice vulnerable, lovely and alone, just like the islands he was singing to.

Friday, 25 December 2009

44. In These Shoes, Kirsty MacColl (2000)

Christmas Day, watching the TV at Mam and Dad's, three weeks after Kentucky, so very far away. Away from my new grown-up life in London as well, no longer 22 and worldly but 12 in pink pyjamas, drinking tea on the settee, listening to Mam's kitchen chorus as I stared at the screen (switched on as always, just like the kettle peeking over the mugs and the teabags). The words on the television – Kirsty MacColl, 1959-2000 – still not looking, sounding or feeling right, a nasty mistake among the baubles and the tinsel and the soft focus smiles.

Fairytale Of New York had made me – and many other people – cry long before Kirsty died. It reminded me of Andrew, a fourth year chemistry student I'd met at university when I was an English fresher, a boy who had fallen off some stairs one night after a drunken college festival, threw up in my toilet, let me give him a new toothbrush, and then sat up and talked to me until the morning came. It wasn't an auspicious start to any whirlwind romance, but what followed was lovely. We went out for eighteen months that we thought would be forever, before I dumped him on a whim, and sat at Digbeth Coach Station in Birmingham on a cold, icy Sunday, listening to David Essex singing A Winter's Tale through the speakers, his voice no longer melancholy, but slyly accusatory.

That Christmas, I listened to Fairytale Of New York on repeat – one of Andrew's favourite songs – and its middle-eight took on new meaning as I tried to justify my actions. To my overly dramatic 20-year-old mind, Andrew had took my dreams with him when I first met him. He thought he'd taken them with him, put them with his own, and built his dreams around me.

Two years after Andrew and I had broken up, after a few ill-advised reconcilations in Midlands bedrooms and London pubs, I'd got to know Kirsty's voice better. I'd bought Electric Landlady on CD with some birthday money, and fallen in love with her warmth and her humour. I'd also heard a few songs from her new record, Tropical Brainstorm, and adored In These Shoes, the strummed harp as it started like a door swinging open. And I listened to its versus and choruses – so exquisite and elegant, so ballsy and wry – I imagined the spirit of Celia Cruz coming through the no-nonsense patter of a Croydon redhead. I loved it beyond measure.

After Kirsty died, I read about how much she had fell in love with the music of Cuba and Mexico, how it had fired her up, made her someone new. And earlier this month, I finally got round to reading the book her mother had written, Sun On The Water, which talked about her daughter's brilliant life, and urged us to remember it. The campaign for justice for Kirsty ended a few weeks later, but many of us will never ever forget her – and this is why, every Christmas, I look past Fairytale Of New York, past its huge, emotional swing and the memories it conjures, especially the memory of those strange days in 2000. Instead, I remember the woman with the sense of adventure, whose songs still make so many people feel strangely alive.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

43. You Know I'm No Good, Amy Winehouse (2006)

When I think of Christmas 2006 and the lead up to it, I think of Amy Winehouse. I think of the album sampler that had been sitting on my desk for two weeks back in August, the moment I finally had time to pop into my CD drive, hearing Rehab burst out, feeling my ears wake up. Convincing the boys in the office to play it on the stereo, their dazed, impressed faces, us all sharing the feeling that this was a big, great pop record waiting to happen. Calling Amy on the phone in early December, in a cab back to her friend's house for a bath – her words, not mine – telling me about her grandmother dying at the beginning of the year, how the death pushed her on, how she wanted a fag and gin, how she'd just done a photo shoot at her old school in Southgate where she'd set off the fire alarm just to piss off the headmistress, and how she lived in Muswell Hill with her new boyfriend, Alex. At the time, I was living here too, for six weeks, in Dan's big, shared house, before we moved in together. Amy and I ranted about the yummy mummies who thought they owned the high street, how crap the buses could be, and how annoying the layout was in Sainsburys. "See you in the crisps aisles, darlin'!" is how she signed off, and I remember putting the phone down, feeling grateful the world had her.

I bought Back To Black for my boyfriend's sister that Christmas, and I remember spending our five days in France in the snow and the ice listening to it pouring out of Hannah's mp3 player. Me feeling like an evangelist, wanting everyone to listen.

And for the first time ever – what a lovely coincidence – they did, although I'm still sad that Amy and I never had our rendezvous by the Monster Munch. Six months later, she was leaving Muswell Hill as well as her boyfriend behind, the biggest new pop star in the world, taking over America, getting back together with Blake, getting back into bad ways. I was still at my desk at Word, trying to find the next Amy in the pile of promo CDs, and getting involved with the Mercury Prize, willing her to win.

Even though she didn't, something that still hurts, I still play this song often – her second single after Rehab – and think about how much it changed pop. How Radio 1 finally gave in and playlisted it after so many people tuned in to Amy's talent; how her ripe, sweaty lyrics made people remember what a female pop star could say, as well as be; what a breath of smoky life she really, really was. Her getting "sniffed out like Tanqueray" as we filled ourselves with Christmas spirits, listening to a dirty angel heating up the winter.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

42. Horses, Bonnie "Prince" Billy (2004)

Imagine it, he said. You writing your long, rambling reviews, heading here, going there, and us living together, me making us dinner, you looking out of our windows at the darkening skies as you typed, tap-tap-tap, me looking after you.

We were in Bishops Stortford when he said it, in his Dad's house, ten minutes walk from the train station (out of the back entrance, across the road, down that posh street with the trees past Herts and Essex, out the end, then across, down the drive, and then home). He'd come and get me, in that corduroy coat with the furry collar that Richard Medina had given him in LA, the one that I thought made him look like a World War two pilot, his hair curling onto his collar, his nose pink in the cold.

That night, he made a Thai seafood curry, while I sat at the table, his comfy headphones on my ears, listening to Bonnie "Prince" Billy Sings Greatest Palace Music, writing a page review of it for The Word. I wrote about my memories of Kentucky in 2000, the way I wanted to find him, remembering the bitter cold while sitting in this new warmth. I remember thinking how I never thought I could be this happy.

Four years later, sitting in our flat, him making us dinner, me looking out of the windows at the darkening skies as I typed, tap-tap-tap, listening to the same record. Wondering what had happened exactly to make the songs lose their beauty, for our dream to die.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

41. 1975 Moog Polymoog, Benge (2008)

Click here.

When I was a little girl – three, perhaps four – my father bought a personal computer. This was 1981 or 1982, the very early days of technology weaving its ghostly way into our ordinary lives. I can't remember if the Spectrum 48K was Dad's first system, but it's the one I remember fondly, its black, rubber keys like velvet under chubby fingers, the tape recorder next to it holding games on cassette – football and cricket acted out in stick figures and formulas, space creatures zapped into pixellated glitter by deadly bytes. My father teaching me to rewind these them all to the start, press LOAD, two quotation marks, RETURN. The screen flashing cyan and black like a stormy sky, then yellow and black like a feverish bee, bleeps and beeps bringing their contents to life.

I loved these sounds as much as the programs themselves. I loved the strangeness and sweetness of sine waves, the way they instantly created a very different kind of world. My father taught me how to make my own tunes with them, using the BEEP command on the Spectrum, and I would spend the hours after school sitting on his lap, learning about the pitch and the length of notes, and translating them very slowly into co-ordinates through BASIC, squealing as they came through the speakers when I pressed the keys.

I still think this is why electronic music has always moved me so much, why it tugs at my synapses, why it sets butterflies swirling in my stomach – especially as it reminds me of Dad, who died a few years later. It is my link back to him, to the geeky side of me that often gets forgotten, to the person who always found excitement in new things, who would have adored to see the world developing as quickly as it did.

In my twenties, at the same time as I started thinking about Dad again, I started exploring these sounds again. Electroclash had rekindled my love for the sounds of computer music, and I went a bit silly for 8-bit and minimal techno. Then I fell for Krautrock and prog, the eerie lullabies of theremins and Moogs. I wrote an article for the Guardian about library music, I went down to Wadhurst to visit Ron Geesin and his music barn full of Fairlights and VCS-3s, and I hungered to hear strange machines – to be the receiver for their ghostly, lovely calls.

And then, late in 2008, suddenly living on my own and cocooning myself in sounds, Benge released Twenty Systems. Benge was Ben Edwards, a musician who collected analogue synthesisers, and this was his history of the way they developed, year by year. It killed me. It was warm, soulful and beautiful – I adored the itchy, doomy pulse of 1968 Moog Modular, beginning the album with menace and mystery, and the soft loveliness of 1978 Roland 100M, an instrument the same age as me.

But the 1975 Moog Polymoog was my favourite. In my mind, Benge had set it off gently, its soft sequenced melodies performed by little wooden creatures, its tune like the memory of an Afrobeat song slipping into a minor key. When Dan and I got back together a few months later, he told me that he'd liked this record too, and when I asked what his favourite track was, he said it was this one. This was a good sign, I thought – that something so simple but so sublime, so humble but so heavenly, could strike a similar note in the two of us.

This is still one of my favourite pieces of music from the last ten years, which is strange for something so short and so small; something intended to be shown as a demonstration of the abilities of an odd musical instrument. But when I hear its soft machinations, there is something almost godly at work in it. It is the sound of innocence reasserting its hold on our memories, reminding us that childlike wonder can still be with us as we get older, and how it can still bring people together.

Monday, 21 December 2009

40. So Sorry, Feist (2007)

I've always been doey-eyed about first lines. I pick up novels just to read their opening sentences again, to hear the syllables taking shape, to feel them curl around my tongue, imagine them spinning into life. "Hale knew, before he had been in Brighton three hours, that they had meant to murder him". I like lines like that best – prosaic, conversational almost, before the sentence ends like the toll of a doomsday bell.

Feist's The Reminder begins this way too. It was the first album I wrote about for a series of reviews for The Guardian website in 2007, playing albums in real time, scribbling down thoughts and ideas as I went. I'd not got round to listening to this record before that cold evening, sitting at my desk staring at the black sky hanging over the Lea, a desklamp burning a halo around me to my left, a strong cup of coffee driving me on to my right. I remember putting my CD in the Mac drive, clicking play, and wondering what lay ahead.

Feist's voice – pure, clear, lovely – cutting through the air with precision but prettiness, strength as well as sweetness. "I'm sorry," she sang, "two words I always think/After you've gone/When I realise I was acting all wrong." Its words dancing up the nape of my neck - there was something about the delicate sadness of that opening sentiment, but the ache of regret weighing down its gentle ebb and flow, that I couldn't shake away. I filed the review the next morning, and took this line with me.

I remember listening to it on my iPod a year later, heading down to the Albert Memorial, meeting Welsh Dan for a picnic on a bright early evening, knocking back plastic glasses of wine, trailing our fingers in the grass, going over a friendship of nearly fifteen years, putting the world to rights. And then the ticket he bought for me for my 30th birthday, the great seats under red and gold and white stone and that glorious organ that I'd first fallen in love with when I was seven, watching my mother sing with the Thousand Voices, feeling so tiny, so in awe. And Feist arriving under it, its pipes glowing in different colours, gazing up at it and feeling so much older now. Realising that here I was, listening to grown-up love songs with someone who had known me as a teenager, come with through my twenties, and was still here as my fourth decade slowly spun into life. And Feist singing that song, her first line ringing out as clear as bell, the full stop disappearing, the story moving on.

Sunday, 20 December 2009

39. Wot U Call It?, Wiley (2004)

This takes me back to the Archway flat, our dying days, the new TV in the corner like a beacon of light, its ten billion channels keeping our eyes blinking. Wiley's Wot U Call It? offered us a glimmer of brightness on those cold, dark evenings, the video's sharp colours and briskness making us smile, the boys bouncing around the turntables making us laugh, the two of us lapping up the daftness of the melody at the beginning – a sketch from an Oliver Postgate programme gone wonky, gone harebrained, gone gaga – while Barry sang along, "wot u call it - urban? Ka ka ka ka ka KAAAA!"

Me looking at his sweet little face, feeling a grin light mine up, reminding me why we had started this, even though it was ending, making me glad that we'd been there for each other.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

38. Emily, Joanna Newsom (2006)

A darkening night in 2005, the sun setting sleepily over Clyro, a perfect weekend winding to an end at our first Green Man Festival. The tiny site at Baskerville Hall, the warmth turning the green grass to gold, the feeling of peace and contentment winding through the little fields, the stolen kisses up on the tree trunk in the dark, me getting cider-giddy and buying hippy dresses and daft instruments and falling in love with idea of what a festival could be, the thought that everything could take on a magical glow. And all the musicians pitching up with us – Adem and King Creosote playing gigs after hours around canvas and campfire, while Will Oldham was spotted with mustard on his moustache at the hot dog stand, next to Joanna Newsom, not shrieking and wailing and twanging her harp, but turning out to be a real woman after all.

And then her coming on stage in the Sunday night headline slot, playing new music that I had never heard before. Her songs starting gently, setting alight, becoming long, episodic creatures with no verses and choruses, moving in wild and weird directions. All of them sounding so incredibly beautiful as they whipped and weaved, and the lyrics so strong...listening to them unfold and unravel, knowing I would never forget this hour standing rapt in the light rain, his arm secretly around my middle, listening to her.

We had seen Newsom before, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall back in Spring. A date that started at lunchtime on a Saturday at a fancy restaurant, a long walk along the river, my wrap dress whipping up in the wind showing my tights to all-comers, our laughs deep from our full bellies, the walk across Waterloo Bridge with the gold of Westminster to our right, the silver of Canary Wharf to our left, and then the concert, weak with wine, our held hands, her invitations. And now, on the Welsh Borders on this cooling night in August, watching her moving on, as we followed her lead.

Emily floated into the night like a peculiar, modernist poem, studded with internal rhymes that I couldn't shake from my mind ("The rusty light by the pines tonight"; "the yoke and the axe and the old smoke-stacks"). Then the images that hung in my heart for hours, the meanings running through them well worked-out and whittled (the mud-cloud made by the skipped stones "like the sky'd been breathing on a mirror"; the "furrows, curling back, like a match held to a newspaper"; the peonies that "wetly bow"); the search for a midwife "who could help me find my way back in"; the crackle of death that gave darkness to the song's sweetest moments, the idea of ships sailing away, poppies growing "knee-deep", the lines "fading in my kingdom".

This was Newsom's own Waste Land, full of pharoahs and pharisees, stars and dirt-red bullets, revealing itself to the skies and the stars and to us. And me standing in that field thinking that this is what it must've been like to hear Dylan in the '60s, to hear someone creating their own particular poetry, rhythm and metre, making music that sounded like nothing else, that reinvented the wheel. A complete world calling us in, asking us to fall in love with it, as we did again with each other.

Friday, 18 December 2009

37. I Need Direction, Teenage Fanclub (2000)

By summer 2002, I knew I had to do something. I was working as a medical secretary at the Tavistock Centre, a mental health trust nestling between Swiss Cottage, Hampstead and Belsize Park, a statue of Freud glowering at patients outside it. I'd fell into the job, really, taking a temp position after a gruesome six months doing advertising sales – something I'd quit that when they stuck me in an Westminster office with only a box of calling cards and a racist, bottom-pinching boss, as low-flying planes over the Houses Of Parliament reminded me what had just happened in New York City. After that, I loved the Tavistock dearly, even though being there wasn't what I'd planned to do with my life. I really loved our office – sitting with Sheila and Alana, gossiping and filing and typing as I administered files for the family therapy team, Capital Gold and Magic FM giving us Foreigner, Mr Mister and Phyllis Nelson on the half-hour, another cup of tea, yes please, my foot on the audio pedal, tip-tap, tip-tap, learning about other people's lives, itching to write about them properly.

But one night at home, I started to cry. I knew where the tears were coming from. I'd wanted to be a journalist, I told Barry, and now it was too late to try again. When I was 16, I worked at the Llanelli Star, writing about old people's memories, magistrates court cases, and the latest goings-on down in Stradey Park, and I'd gone to a short magazine course, run by Mojo editor, Mat Snow, and he'd liked my writing. But then university came, and my confidence left me when I went to the student papers – too many bright, sparkling stars whooshing and whirring around The Oxford Student corridors, my fingers freezing on the keys when I thought about what to write. I got into Students Union politics and the idea of being a lecturer instead, and as the tears fell that night, I still hadn't forgiven myself. Because now, here I was, 24 years old, owner of a Masters degree with distinction, spending my life every day writing about how parents and children were torn apart by divorce and civil war, alcoholism and mental illness, doing a job I could've done straight after my GCSEs.

I had no idea I could change my life at this point. I was doing something worthy, I knew that. But deep down, I knew that it wasn't for me, that I was coasting along, that there was something inside me dying to be set free.

That summer, out of nowhere, I had the idea for Smoke. Matt and I had become friends the previous winter, when I'd met him at a gig for his label, Shinkansen Records, and we'd become email friends, sharing titbits and silly stories about the city I was now falling in love with. One morning it hit me – we could turn our ideas into a magazine. We met in The Lamb in Lamb's Conduit Street, swirling pints of heady bitter, and I told him my idea. We saved money for months, wrote half the first issue ourselves, and I slowly gained confidence. I got a new job, working for a small children's charity, and by March 2003, we were printing the first 1,000 copies of Smoke, letting it out into the world, two proud parents letting their baby roam free.

While Smoke was my little piece of heaven, the charity job was hell on earth. The first day had seemed magical – me in my new red, funnel-neck coat, walking up the fire escape, like a homecoming queen, the promise of a PA position in the House Of Lords pushing me on – before I got redeployed, asked to work one-to-one with young people instead. Young girls coming here from Afghanistan, after being raped, recovering heroin addicts, surly boys with no hope in their hearts for any kind of future. My boss, Captain Chandran, even more unpleasant than the man in Westminster, leering at my chest every day; calling Ahmed, the lovely Muslim graduate who worked with me, Osama; faking statistics; not offering me any training or support; my chest tightening so much on one particular morning that my still very dear friend Heather called me a cab, whisking me to Hammersmith for an ECG, where a particularly bold doctor told me this life had to stop.

But then Smoke was sent to the printers, sparking up a glint of light on the murky Acton horizon, and suddenly I had reason to go forward, go on.

And then, something incredible happened. In February, the same month that we were getting Smoke ready for the printers, I'd spent a weekend in Swansea, and was now at the train station, about to head home. There it was. A new magazine, a picture of Nick Cave on the cover, seducing me from the shelves, calling me over. It was called Word. I remember looking at the cover lines and my heart starting to heave again, an old rush of magazine love returning to my bones. This was just like that moment in Morgans in Gorseinon when I was 10, a magazine called Smash Hits next to Look-In and Hi!, Brother Beyond on the cover with surfboards, begging my mother for 48 pence, taking it home, my life changing, the world opening up, the people writing for it becoming my heroes.

And now, I felt the same again. I was hooked. Every month after that, I'd take the 207 bus to Ealing on the second Thursday of the month, rush into WH Smiths, quickly buy my bounty, and take it back to the office, my lunch hour nearly gone. It had a magazine of the month slot in its front section, and when Smoke came back from the printers, I had an insane idea – we would send some to Word. A few weeks later, I got an email from David Hepworth, saying he loved it, asking if he could interview us. And the next day, Paul Du Noyer sending another, asking me if I'd like to write for him. That night in The Angel, Matt and I, David Hepworth and editor Mark Ellen, the dictaphone, the long-hand notebook, my voice starting to crackle with confidence. A week later, in purple Primark sandals in a posh bar with Paul Du Noyer, talking about what I could write, talking about what I could do. So exciting, so unreal, like a dream coming true.

In Issue 5 of The Word, Smoke was magazine of the month. In Issue 6, my first review glowed in its middle – a piece on Teenage Fanclub's recently released best-of, as part of a feature on great records and books for summer. I still remember touching the page with amazement, imagining that my words and my name were going to disappear. I played the album more and more at home to keep it real, and I Need Direction was the track I loved the most.

Every time I play it now, it still brings back so many memories, every chiming guitar string setting off another. Two months later, taking a train and a lift from Uncle Mike to a Travelodge in Leicester to interview Billy Bragg. A week later, lying about having a meeting with some young mums in Southall, and sneaking down to Hammersmith to interview the Stereophonics' Kelly Jones instead. And then Paul Du Noyer asking me if I wanted to be his assistant over the phone, my face gazing out at the rainy Acton skyline, my smile giving it light. Getting the 207 – not to Ealing, but Shepherds Bush – having a drink with Mark Ellen, the offer letter over the table. The wonderful realisation that something had happened, that something was happening, that this was my new life, that I had made it myself.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

36. Young Folks, Peter, Bjorn and John (2006)

It all started with Keith running into the office, quick quick, radio on, coffee on, volume up, they're playing it again, yes they are, yes they are, pararapa, pararapa, pararapa, pa-pa, drumbeat, rustle of shaky egg, drumbeat, rustle of shaky egg, the bassline kicking in, put your lips together and blow. Those first few times like being in on a secret – my God, have you heard it, can you feel it, can you whistle it? – before it went out into the world and came something bigger than rattles and breaths.

Listening to it now, it still sounds like a freak of nature, a tiny song that did something extraordinary, a success story out of nowhere that suddenly was everywhere. It makes me think about seeing the band in the Barfly early on in the single campaign, when the fuss was in its first flushes, Peter sitting in the bar wearing a red shirt and jeans, looking absolutely terrified. I think about going to Stockholm, my second ever job for The Guardian, interviewing every Swedish band but them (they were in America by then) about the rush of indie pop taking over our radio stations two days dashing from cafe to office to all-night outdoor party, everyone blonde and lovely under luminous baubles. I think about the moment when every advert and ident was swept up in its magic, and the time Kanye West turned it into something quite different.

But more than anything, I just think of me and Keith, in the office bright and early in the morning, like two partners in crime, in our own secret club, playing it louder and louder, trying to drum and push air from our mouths, the song rushing on and on.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

35. Lay All Your Love On Me, Susanna (2008)

Sunday night. The train back from Cardiff, the sky turning black, the realisation that he hadn't done what I asked him to. Outside Kings Cross station, gulps of breath, stinging eyes, the phonecall, protestations, no apologies, my voice raising and raising and the finger on the cancel button, the fuck you as I did it, the storm whirling me up York Way. Emily meeting me at Kings Place, the friend I'd give anything for, the friend who knew exactly how it felt, the dark room, the cold seats, Susanna and the Magical Orchestra slowly digging their fingernails into us, lifting our hearts out, cutting them up with the shining piano strings, her ghostly voice and the silence our surgeons for the night.

Lay All Your Love On Me finished me. The lyrics – spread out against the sky, anaesthetised upon a table – the words of a woman, grown-up, asking for one last chance, her desperation moving into numbness, a cold blast of acceptance. The reminders of our insane early days ("I was sitting like a shooting duck/A little smalltalk, a smile, and baby, I was stuck"). The madness when I met him ("I still don't know what you've done with me" – the "with", rather than a "to", showing how completely your mind can be taken away). The need for him to be there ("don't go wasting your emotions/lay all your love on me"); the soft, icy terror of it ending again ("I feel a kind of fear/When I don't have you near"). Turning round to Emily, her seeing my eyes, us both knowing what was coming.

Six weeks after I told him to go, there I was, in the back of a minicab, coming home to an empty house after a Christmas party, and suddenly ABBA's original was coming out of the radio. I heard hope in its heart for a moment, hope springing eternal, until the magic started to fade, and the real world returned. Then the fare, the closed door, my return to our ghosts.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

34. Shake A Fist, Hot Chip (2008)

One afternoon, I did it. I left the flat, took the bus to Bethnal Green, and took the tube to Wanstead. I'd been dreaming of Wanstead. Odd, really, because I'd never even been there. In these dreams, it was a little piece of heaven on a red square loop, a soft, grassy wonderland on the edges of the city, wiggling its nose at me at the end of the Central Line. Just close enough to town be lively, distant enough for escape. It called me, and I came.

On the double-decker, as the train doors hissed shut, as the cold Wanstead air swept me towards Starbucks and out again into the light, Hot Chip carried me, insistent and urgent. Shake Your Fist was my favourite track from Made In The Dark, and I remembering playing it four or five times on repeat as I walked, its rhythms pounding the streets like a jackhammer. It was a song about a person in a new strange environment – a festival, I'd guessed, not a twee London suburb, its visions shaped by psychedelic drugs rather than an Extra Shot Latte. As I whirred past the charity shops and estate agents and pubs, I realised what a strange song it was – Todd Rundgren popping up with a game in its middle, cowbells accompanying synth-noises that sounded like alien beings, someone shouting "argh!" as I sped towards Snaresbrook. As I tried to escape, it filled my ears with new, strange sounds.

And as I stood outside Judith Of Wanstead, a peculiar old ladies' clothes shop in the middle of the high street, I also realised how strange I was being. Wanstead wasn't for me, and I wasn't its keeper. I was a Hackney girl, as part of its playgrounds and park benches and Turkish grocers and community churches and swimming pools and Irish pubs and dirty bus stops as anyone else who had lived there for so many years. As the song pounded sense into me, I also realised I needed to escape from something else. New dreams made in the dark were one thing. New decisions made in the daytime, as the sun shone, were another entirely.

Monday, 14 December 2009

33. Can't Get You Out Of My Head, Kylie Minogue (2001)

The first time , I was 10. She was on Top Of The Pops, sailing through Sydney in an open-top silver car, wearing a black and white stripy top, her blonde curly hair swirled around by the wind, tall concrete buildings and bridges shooting by behind her. I thought she was the most glamorous person I had ever seen, and I remembering my mother if I could have a perm. She said no, and I sulked.

The second time, I was 16. We were in Martha's, a dodgy club in Swansea, sneaking in, underage. I was drinking a Malibu and Coke – I liked the coconut, but not that strange taste beneath it – and I remember my mascara feeling stiff on my eyelashes. A video screen was playing above the bar, above the crowds of grown-up boys, and I remember looking at it nervously. She was on it, looking like a brightly coloured cartoon character, wearing red lipstick, yellow fur, with lilac, glittery eyelids. "Lonely?", asked the video. "Do You Hurt?" "Sad?" I remember the song's strange, Indian strings shimmering through the bar, me sucking on my straw, letting them soothe me.

The last time, I was 23. It was a bright, Saturday morning in the summer, and we had got up late, drinking tea in our dressing gowns, watching CDUK. She was in a car again going across a bridge – but this time it was yellow, and she was moving the gears. La la la, la la la la la. I called Barry in from the kitchen – quick, quick, quick, this is brilliant – just as she appeared in her white robes, split to here, there and everywhere, and I still remember his wide eyes, our laughs echoing around the living room, our ears alert and alive.

I still love the way that a favourite song can come into your life when you're least expecting it. That the moments that they come be simple as these, as profane as they are profound.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

32. Take Me Out, Franz Ferdinand (2004)

This is the taste of bourbon, gold spilling out of a bottle, swirling around glasses, tickling our tongues. A dark, dusty living room, old sofas, crinkled corners, a television blinking at us through the fog of the night. That strange, lovely spring, the two of us staying up until it was light, talking and laughing and kissing and drinking, MTV2 oblivious to our new lives. This song was its theme tune. This video, all angles, colours and shapes, its reason for being.

I still have my thin-cased, promotional copy of Franz Ferdinand's first album. Even when most of my CDs sit glowering at me now, asking me why I never pull them out of their shelves and unsleeve them – their digital cousins being my usual companions – this one sits there smugly, knowing it is still loved, knowing it is still played. Take Me Out is the reason why. Its first chord like a clarion call, spurring me into action, reminding me why music was there, reminding me what it could do. The repeated bass notes straight after it, like the thuds of a drum, a soldier marching his troops into war. The deceptively slow pace of the song at its start, its stately, slow build-up, its military might. The arrival of the crosshair, the boy who is "just a shot away from you", the brilliant double meanings that give this song its power. "I know I won't be leaving here with you" – a phrase just at home at the nightclub as it would be on the battlefield; "I say, take me out" – the idea of submission, surrender; by his fire, in his arms.

The song exploding into its second section, and me sitting there with him, far away from anyone we knew. A new couple in hiding, a girl with her head marked, letting these words become her new language. They told me I was lonely, and he was here waiting for me. They also told me if I moved, then this could die.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

31. Run, Leona Lewis (2008)

Two in the morning, this time last year, Neil asleep on the sofa, as always, dead to the world, the same Neil that Barry and I couldn't wake all those years ago as we woke up on the nightbus, daylight shocking us into consciousness, the 259 heading north-east to Waltham Cross, so many miles from home. Now, he snores gently, the backing track to Lucy, his girlfriend of so many years now, and me, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, white wine filling our livers, slowing our drunken limbs, lifting our voices as we flick through the music channels, looking for Leona Lewis.

We found her that night, and that dark, ghostly video, hearing her soft, smoky voice doing something remarkable to that Snow Patrol ballad over and over and over again. Hearing the way she turned it into a strange, doomy requiem, the way she sung that second line – "and now I really have to go" – giving it a sadness and weight that it had never had before. And me sitting here, a friend's arm round my shoulders, in the flat that he had left, all his things still around us, getting some sort of comfort from it. Lucy's arms holding the pieces of me tightly together as everything else cut me through.

Friday, 11 December 2009

30. Spiders (Kidsmoke), Wilco (2004)

This is March 2005, the motorik beat taking me towards the Hammersmith Apollo, the motorik beat giving the room a warm, steady pulse, the motorik beat taking me towards him again. The beers, the eye contact, the bus home, the unscheduled stop. The six months of watching, waiting and hiding, then saying and doing.

This is March 2009, two girls in Seattle about to broach the West Coast. That motorik beat – three times on the radio in only two days, charging around our twin room at the Ace Hotel, our cases spilling with colours, Belltown buzzing outside, pushing us out towards the Public Library, all yellow neon escalators and ruby red rooms, to Ivo's House Of Clams, shot glasses glimmering with oysters, to the Public Market, the Redwood, the Bauhaus, the Space Needle.

It returning briefly in Portland, like a happy echo. A motorik beat saying so much about him and the life I once had, and the life, once again, that I was about to take back.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

29. Ghost Hardware, Burial (2007)

The sound of winter. Cold winds. The walk from Penton Street through the N1 Centre, my wet feet on grey paving, a silver crown of thorns suspended in the air. The bus home, the sky black, the voices cutting in, swirling into my ears like water into a plughole. An album so chilly but also comforting, bleak but also bracing, stitching all the sounds from the city effortlessly together, and this track in particular, the one Rob and I would play every morning in the office before it filled with clatter and noise, now taking me home. The two-step rhythms the sound of an approaching train on the North London Line, the swooshes its doors opening, the ghostly vocals in its corners the angels on my shoulders, taking me into the crowd, holding me closely, taking me to the East.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

28. Come On Let's Go, Broadcast (2000)

I bought The Noise Made By People when I lived in 76 Alexandra Gardens, the first home in London that I loved. It was a strange ground-floor four-room flat on a steep, angled road in Muswell Hill – just across from the palace, down the road from The Green Man – and I adored it more than life itself, for some reason. It was tiny and poky and the kitchen smaller than a stamp, but it had little things about it that I just got lost in. The fairylit bedroom that I mentioned earlier, with a brick-built fireplace in the corner holding a wicker basket of fake sunflowers. The fridge full of Steve's leftover pizza from La Porchetta, which Alex and I would nibble like rabbits. The three little steps down to the living room that she would jump down, bang-bang-BANG, the big Casablanca poster we got framed for too much money, which broke as we used it to fight against the wind on the journey home. The sofa where the three of us would squish through that summer of 2000, watching This Life on repeat and the first series of Big Brother, the same sofa where Alex would sit alone one year later, on an afternoon in September, watching two planes endlessly crashing into two silver towers.

Around this time, I met a man. I forget his name now, but I remember he had a bowl haircut, thick glasses, and was a bit older than me – no, it wasn't like that. I can't remember how we met either, but I remember he wanted someone to sing in his new band. We both liked Broadcast and late '60s music, so I thought that was a good sign, and then he asked me to make a tape of me singing some songs.

I still remember how odd that felt. I didn't know what to do. This was something that other people did – people in proper bands, people with confidence. I picked up my mum's guitar – dusty, lovely and strong, as it still is, its lovely 1969 strings slowly bruising my fingers. I strummed along to something by Portishead, I think, and also this song, making sure every note was perfect. It felt weird and wayward, so I hid behind my fringe to press record, and shyly press stop.

I sent him the tape. Some weeks passed. Then some more. And then he finally replied, saying that my guitar-playing style suggested I didn't understand real music, and no one else would think I did either. So when I look at my mum's guitar in the corner of the room now – its strings reaching middle age this year, the dust even thicker – I still apologise to the poor, beautiful thing. But I also still sing this song in the shower every now and then, hoping the man with glasses and bowl hair has seen my byline picture in the Guardian, and I blow him a raspberry.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

27. Shelter, the xx (2009)

Because it's sometimes too simple to look back and look far. Too easy to forget the songs, and the feelings, that have come into life lately. A dark room in the ICA, four shy teenagers, their music so spacious, every tiny part of it shining with magic, with light, and with power. The album in the kitchen, again, again, again, the first one for years to have that sort of impact, the sad, country guitar sounds, the electronics, the darkness, the sink filling with water, over my hands, over the sides, to the floor, as I stood there, captured by it, letting it in.

Sometimes I think that music is an agent of witchcraft, a spell – it can wipe our minds clean, it almost will us to merge with it. It makes me feel just like Shelter suggests – "Could I be? Was I there?/ It felt so crystal in the air". Hearing it in my kitchen, in Dan's living room, on my headphones, in the Hoxton Hall, in the Village Underground, in the Bowery Ballroom, and it taking me away, burrowing me inside it, every time. Hearing Romy singing, "Please teach me gently/How to breathe", my chest rising for her.

Monday, 7 December 2009

26. Starlings, Elbow (2008)

The day I got a phone call from the people behind the Mercury Music Prize, I thought somebody was having a laugh. We'd like you to be a judge, said the nice chap on the phone, but first you have to meet me for a pint in a pub. Surely this was a wind-up. But then I met the lovely Kevin over lagers and cheese and onion crisps, he said why they wanted me, he said what it involved – listening to mountains of CDs for no money, but for other glorious rewards, like a great time, free records, and a lifetime being slagged off by people on newspaper comment boards – and this woman, bowled over, gave a huge, beaming yes.

2007 was a strange year to start. New-rave was fluttering its brightly coloured sleeves at the time, and the Klaxons scooped the prize, to mixed reviews – and yes, the album I loved belly-flopped before the final hurdle. A year later, however, the opposite happened. The Seldom-Seen Kid leapt over it elegantly, smiled at the crowd, and made the finishing line with a big, burly flourish.

The record still gets better every time I hear it, each track holding its own, special magic, but Starlings is the song that still grabs me by the scruff of the neck. The fluttering beat, like a heart waking up, those thick vocal harmonies rising up slowly, and the soft, simple piano figure whirring the song into action, before brass is suddenly shaking us, BLASTING US into life. Then the story unfurls beautifully. There's the humour of Guy Garvey's complaints about the Premier ignoring his invitations; the way he says "bunch" in that big, Bury gulp; the dreams about marriages in orange groves; the brilliant idea of asking your beloved to "back a horse that's good for glue", and the perfect rhythms of one of the sweetest couplets ever committed to melody – "You are the only thing/In any room you're ever in".

Then the flocks of starlings circling as he looks into her eyes, the understated perfection of the murmured "Darling, is this Love?", that blast again, suddenly louder, more true. The idea of romance infused with reality being so much more romantic; the language of love, plain, dirty and simple, flavoured with alcohol and cigarettes, blood, sweat and tears.

When Elbow won that September, everyone was overjoyed. I had to talk on TV for ten seconds about how wonderful they were, so I babbled a bit, full of happiness and wine. I then watched the band speak to Lauren Laverne, and as they walked off – me being bolstered by booze – I grabbed Garvey by the arm. I told him I was a judge, that I was over the moon, and could I give him a hug – such a terrible, embarrassing fan-girl thing to do. Thankfully, he said yes. He cuddled me back like a big, lovely bear, but dropped his wine glass as he did so, and I was asked by an official, passing by, to get him another.

I can still see Garvey defending my honour, even more full of happiness and wine than me. "SHE'S A JUDGE", he sang brightly, sounding even more precious than he did on record. "She can do whatever she FUCKING WELL LIKES". Not exactly "Come with me, sweetheart, to an island made for two", but a defence nonetheless, and one that he finished with an extra squeeze of my arm, another kiss on my cheek. Thinking of it now, I'm still smiling, the starlings still circling, and the victory lap is still ours for the taking.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

25. Finisterre, Saint Etienne (2002)

In 2007, I was starting to get sick of the city I loved. I was bored of endless bus journeys, tired of long trips on the tube, dreaming of the kind of life that I could have outside it. Less noise, less clamour, less sirens, less everything. So one day, I didn't stop at my bus stop in Hackney. I didn't run down the steps when I reached Bethnal Green either. I looked straight ahead, and I kept on walking.

I fell in love with London again by finding it on foot. I fell in love with London again by making it mine.

It was like watching the world open up in front of me. I found gorgeous places in Angel, minutes from where I had worked for four years at The Word, which I had never seen before. I looked more closely at buildings, shop fronts and street corners; I would catchy new specks of life along rivers and canals; I would find secret shortcuts along little lanes, and I felt like these were my secrets that I was weaving within. Soonafter, I started listening to music to accompany my journeys. I would dig out old albums from dusty shelves in my living room, trying to find songs that matched the rhythms of my feet, the thrum of my pulse, the soft, forward motions of my big, soppy heart.

And while I was walking, I found Finisterre again. I'd never really got on with the album it came from the first time around, but its title track made sense on those cold, wintry mornings on the way to edit pages, my earphones snug in my lugs, carrying my big belted coat through the wind and the rain. Those looping, meshing pianos and harps as it started, weaving a web of romance and excitement; that strange synthesiser melody coming straight after it, like the welcoming embrace of a '70s educational programme; Sarah Cracknell standing alone, speaking for us.

As I pounded the pavements, she was speaking for me. "Sometimes I walk home through a network of car parks just because I can", she said, lifting wonderful freedoms from the everyday. She loved "the feeling of being slightly lost/Defining spaces, new routes, new areas". Like me, she also believed that music, "in the long run, straightens out most things"; in "love over cynicism"; in skyscrapers, Electrelane, Beau Brummell and Bauhaus; the "notion of a perfect city" revealing itself.

As the song ended, Sarah would sing, "I want to know the whole of the city with you", a bright beaming sound among the noise, clamour and sirens. I would take these words with me as I walked through the city I was slowly remembering. I would watched them blaze in the streetlights, and in the dark sky, for all of us.

Saturday, 5 December 2009

24. Aero Dynamik, Kraftwerk (2003)

After I'd left, we went on with our lives, meeting only once or twice before my long trip to Brixton, a strange, solo journey down the Victoria Line. Kraftwerk were the guardians of our new identities as friends; a strange fate for one of the first groups that had bound us together. Their Tour De France Soundtracks – an album released the previous sweltering summer, and one I hadn't as loved quite as much as I'd wanted to – jetting through my ears for the week leading up to it, sounding like a new record, taking me through my city, giving every movement a silvery sheen.

That night, they were wonderful. And he had met someone new, someone lovely, someone much better suited, and his eyes seemed to shine in a whole different way. I was moving on too, and these songs from our past seemed to beat with fresh energy. Numbers dazzling me, Man Machine gleaming, but Aero Dynamik standing out, holding youthfulness within it, a special kind of brightness. It was the sound of a band doing new things, a soundtrack for people being transported to new places.

Friday, 4 December 2009

23. The Girl From Brownsville, Texas, Jim White (2004)

Play here.

Before I left, before Will Young, this is what happened.

We'd just moved to Archway. The summer of 2003 was the hottest in years, the weather hanging over the city like a heavy blanket. The previous summer had been sunny and perfect, every stall near our flat in Ridley Road lit up for the World Cup. Most of them had two flags – one for England, the new homeland, and one for the old country, whether that be Senegal, Cameroon, Nigeria, Croatia, Tunisia. And this being Dalston, there were thousands for Turkey. When they got to the semi-final, the noise was unbelievable, cacaphanous, euphoric – an orchestra of car horns, cheers and klaxons turning our part of town into an Anatolian concert hall.

By 2003, everything had changed. Heat was rotting the meat, flies were circling like vultures. One early morning, a consignment of huge snails fell off the back of a truck on the market, winding up the tarmac, slowly trying to escape. Around this time, we decided we should move on.

We were only in Archway together for six months. I loved that flat tenderly – three floors of tiny rooms, all stacked up like a Jenga tower. Highgate Woods within ten minutes, Highgate Village over the hill, the Parkland Walk round the corner, Archway Video next door, our local, The Worthington, doing curry half and half, Luigi Pizza up the road doing free limoncello, and a rent that was stupidly, brilliantly cheap. We would sit in the kitchen, beaming at our good luck, but still something wasn't right, something wasn't there, the last piece of the jigsaw wasn't slotting into place. It wasn't him – he was lovely – but it wasn't me either. I didn't know what it was.

But then, the new year arrived. Looking back, I'm still so sorry about what happened, and the way that I had become. And if you're reading this, I'm still sorry too. Thank you for still being my friend, and for being one of the greatest people I have ever met.

Before I left, we'd bought the Rough Trade Country compilation. We played it on the same dusty CD player that we'd had in Dalston, the same player which would blast out The Streets. But by now, it was winter, that winter where that gorgeous Will Young song was playing over the radio every day, every hour, reminding me, painfully, just what I should do.

He would put this compilation on in the kitchen, and I would wait for the song by Jim White, an early demo of a track that would be released the following year. He would play it as he made spaghetti bolognese, as he boiled the kettle, as he smiled as beautifully as he always had. When the CD finished, and he would head upstairs, I would go back and play this track again, looking for it to speak to me, as people always do in times of deep sadness. It said, "My history of dreams is a scandal/Of back-assward schemes and romantic disasters", "Lord, you dealt me more cards than I could handle", "I know only one cure for a permanent tear in your eye". Listening to it now, it seems like a song lost in time, a song from another world entirely. It is a song from a time when I took leave of my senses, when I took leave of everything, when leaving was the only thing I knew.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

22. Leave Right Now, Will Young (2003)

Because I had to. And because I did.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

21. Far Away, Martha Wainwright (2005)

Two words, that's all it took. A female voice, alone, at the start of a record, all sweetness and smoke, its softness frayed to rough edges.

Three seconds, that's all it was. I still find it astonishing that voices can do this, out of nowhere, out of nothing.

Martha Wainwright's Far Away, like so many of the songs from these fifty, was a song I first heard at my desk at The Word magazine. At that point, we would've been in the room on the second floor with the industrial portholes – it felt like our own little tugboat, set sail on the sea of Pentonville Road. Later, like imperial conquerors, we would ascend to the top floor, and I would tuck myself into the back, left-hand corner of the ship, my wall covered with posters and flyers, surrounded by mountains of books and CDs, cooling cups of coffee and Keith Drummond's sweet wrappers.

But Martha came to me before that, when we hadn't yet risen, when I was sitting next to Dave, by the sofa on which Mark would curl up like a cat, pretending to have an afternoon nap.

I'd play this song over and over – when I was trying to write, trying to edit reviews, when I was proof-reading chromalins, my hands and my arms, somehow, covered with ink. I don't know why this song calmed me down, especially given that its lyrics are so agonised, so intense. The part where Martha sings, "I have no children/I have no husband/I have no reason to be alive, oh give me one", in particular, still sticks out from the song like the cry of a wounded cub. But somehow it manages not to sound needy, only desperately sad. It still cuts me completely, right through to the bone.

Three years later, now no longer tucked into my corner, I met her. We had spoken on the phone for a few hours, so I could write a short biography for her record company – a job I couldn't quite believe I'd been asked to do. Then she played a gig to promote the new website I was editing, which I couldn't quite believe either. I remember standing on stage in a bright green dress I had bought from a vintage shop, announcing her set from her microphone, my palms clammy with nervousness, and her coming on, planting a kiss on my cheek.

And then she played Far Away. The whole world seeming to stop in the gaps between her notes, until her voice made it spin again.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

20. Once Around The Block, Badly Drawn Boy (2000)

New Years Eve, Manchester, 2000. A year after the day when nothing went right. Now, a cold car snaking from Swansea to the North on treacherous, snowy roads. The cold burn of a winter after a summer in which anything, anything, seemed to be possible.

I had fallen for him – WHACK – between the students' union bar and the Star and Garter, the two of us kissing at Smile as if it we'd invented it, a weekend in a daze, my whole life all mapped out. His name in my head constantly like a neon sign, blazing as brightly as his bleached, blonde crop, the halo of it protecting me for the next week. And then, five days later, him arriving in London. Smoking cigarettes by the sculpture at Euston while I waited for train, his sweet face arriving, the woozy wander home, wrapped up in each other, giggling ourselves daft. Sharing falafel at Holborn that we could barely afford, sharing whisky at a Turnham Green bus stop to keep ourselves cosy, listening to Badly Drawn Boy when we got home to my basement room, my housemates not seeing us for days, not wanting to escape, not wanting to leave, until he had to go home, until he made the call.

It had only been a fortnight. He came back after his exams, like a homecoming soldier, for two more attempts, for two misty weekends. The first – his face at another train station, his kiss on my forehead, his bony, skinny body back in his messy bed. The second – the Glastonbury Festival, the £2 Tiny Tea Tent truffles, everything unravelling, Black Box Recorder singing for us about a girl in the wreckage. Him going home, me moving to Muswell Hill, a tiny, fairylit bedroom with barely enough space for a folded-up futon, endless tears on the shoulder of my best friend, Alex, our legs dangling out of the window to our overgrown garden, cigarette ashes on the windowsill, red wine dulling the pain.

And now, six months later, I was returning. Welsh Dan driving a car of us up to Richard's new house, far away from Longsight, far away from our short time together. He teased me, he mocked me, he put tinned spaghetti on my cheek like a madman, he grinned when I cleaned it, when my eyes welled up. And then we went to the concert. In the Castlefield Arena it was minus three degrees, and no cornershop Scotch could keep my bones warm. He disappeared into the crowd just before Badly Drawn Boy came on, and when Once Around The Block began, Welsh Dan held my arm, and my cheeks iced with tears.

When midnight finally came, just like the year before, there were no fireworks for me. But as the minutes ticked by, something had to change. I grabbed a policeman on my way out for no particular reason, and gave him a big snog to general merriment. It made me smile for the first time it ages. It also made me realise that if I wanted to go on, then I couldn't go back.

I fell asleep in my clothes, and woke up with a purpose. Later that day, my train pulled into Euston, I left his ghost on the platform, and I knew I had made the right decision.

Monday, 30 November 2009

19. Let's Push Things Forward, The Streets (2002)

A kitchen in Dalston that we'd painted yellow, a dodgy CD player gathering dust, and the skinny half of the pair of us flailing around between the spaghetti bolognese he'd take four hours to cook, and a sink full of dishes – my skinny boy with sideburns and a Seventies shirt, a ladle in one hand, a tea-towel in the other. When anybody mentions The Streets, l hear the opening horns of this song, and the years peel away. I'm taken back to Barry, the 26-year-old boyfriend of 24-year-old me, and the flat that we shared on the dark side of town.

We thought Ridley Road was wonderful. We lived in Regal House, a white and blue building that would've looked spick and span if was on a sunny riviera, had been rubbed free of griminess, and had a view of bobbing fishing boats rather than the North London Line. But it was ours, it was cheap to rent, and we loved it. We loved the noise of the stalls on our street and the cheap food we would buy from them; the calypso that would soar from the food vans and record shops; the buildings we'd see rising up from the gloom of the city, including the Gherkin transforming from a root to a rocket; and even the rumble of the nuclear train every night at 10.30, drowning out the telly with its rattle and hum. We also loved the way the empty marketplace looked at night-time, a forbidding, shadowy avenue strung with tiny, glowing lights. For some reason, It made me think of Spaghetti Westerns, and I would often stride through it, in the dark, on my own, pretending I was Clint Eastwood (Good God, I was braver then). Although I'd have a Mr Bagels' veggie special between my teeth at that time, probably, instead of a toothpick or a sexy cigar.

Original Pirate Material was an album that we couldn't stop playing over that perfect year. It whirred as we painted our new home in all sorts of silly colours, and it entertained the mice that we hadn't known about just as much as us. It was also a great place for parties, and the best that we held there was on that New Years' Eve. The fancy dress theme, as these parties always had then, was the album sleeve. I went as the girl on Saint Etienne's Foxbase Alpha – my sign immaculate in red and black fit tip, before my rosé bloody ruined it – while Barry, a fan of The Wedding Present, went as George Best. There were two Live Through Thisses, two Parallel Lines (one male Blondie, one female), a couple as the White Stripes, an Aladdin Sane who fell asleep and smudged her zig-zag, a Meat Is Murder who kept looking at someone she shouldn't have, a Wish You Were Here who filled the flat with orange tissue paper, an inventive Sticky Fingers – with a literal large carrot down his trousers – and a blonde female friend transformed into Craig David with a goatee, headphones and beanie.

The costumes I remember most fondly, however, were the Original Pirate Materials. Guy in a t-shirt covered with yellow neon stickers – a lit-up block of flats disguised as a real human boy – and Lucy walking around in a big cardboard box, windows drawn on her sides, a pirate hat on her head, a peacock on her shoulder. I remember Guy drawing a scary rabbit in one window, and Lucy tapping her fag on him, before everything got a little hazy. Apart from us all flailing around to Let's Push Things Forward, half-drunk, half-asleep, without a care in the world.