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Simultaneously, the digital age reduced album sales to obsolescence, while those savvy enough to harness the power of the online market postured and prospered. ~ Jonny Sweet
Radiohead stole the alternative rock music headlines in this particular period with the first ever pay-what-you-want release of ‘In Rainbows’, which, by all accounts, was a fantastic success both in terms of profit and publicity.
According to Music Ally, “the fact that Radiohead had made more money before ‘In Rainbows’ was physically released than they made in total on ‘Hail to the Thief’ is surely evidence enough that the initiative was a tremendous success.” While the stunt might not have revolutionised the music business, it was certainly a striking indicator of which way the wind was blowing.
However interesting this discussion on downloads, it ignores the most important issue here – that ‘In Rainbows’ was Radiohead’s finest album to date, continuing their remarkable record of releasing new and different music every time, with each album surpassing the last.
Meanwhile, The Black Keys also perfected their formula with ‘Attack and Release’ and ‘Brothers’, while The Flaming Lips followed up the excellent ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ with ‘At War with the Mystics’, and Foals burst onto the scene with not one but two excellent albums.
Elsewhere, these five particular bands were rocking my world. Were they rocking yours, too?
Essential Album(s): ‘Alligator’ (2005), ‘Boxer’ (2007), ‘High Violet’ (2010)
“I made a mistake in my life today // Everything I love gets lost in the drawers // I want to start over, I want to be winning // Way out of sync from the beginning.”
The trio of albums released by The National in this five-year period cemented their place as one of the most prolific and accomplished alt rock artists; indeed, all three ranked on NME’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time (as well as 2013’s ‘Trouble Will Find Me’).
Matt Berninger’s unmistakably lilting vocals tie together the energy and fluency of the band as a whole, while their lyrics provide a never-ending source of intrigue and entertainment. These three contain more great tunes than would be fair to enumerate here (indeed, there’s hardly a mediocre song on any of them), but ‘Baby, We’ll Be Fine’, ‘Slow Show’ and ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ are personal favourites.
Essential Album(s): ‘Carnavas’ (2006), ‘Swoon’ (2009)
“Locked and loaded // Still the same ‘ol decent lazy eye // Straight through your gaze // That’s why I said I relate.”
Reminiscent of a new-age Smashing Pumpkins (complete with the same initials and syllables), Silversun Pickups adopted their name from a liquor store named Silversun from which they would regular ‘pick up’ the evening’s supply of disco whizz. Their music is equally intoxicating, especially on 2007’s ‘Carnavas’ which is jam-packed with vigorous rabble-rousers, interspersed with the odd bout mellowed introspection.
‘Lazy Eye’ is perhaps the most famous of their anthems and undoubtedly the best, but ‘Future Foe Scenarios’ and ‘Common Reactor’ are other stand-outs. ‘Swoon’ does not quite reach the same heights and nowhere near a similar consistency, but ‘The Royal We’ and ‘Catch and Release’ are addictive enough in their own right.
Essential Album(s): ‘All Hours Cymbals’ (2007), ‘Odd Blood’ (2010)
“It feels like being tranquilized // I know the separation kills us so // But I won’t stop falling like raindrops // Because I like it when you lose control.”
The double single of ‘Sunshine’ and ‘2080’ announced Yeasayer’s arrival onto the scene as harbingers of “Middle-Eastern-Psych-Pop-Snap-Gospel”, in their own half-joking but weirdly appropriate words.
The complex arrangement of melodies is down to the band’s unusual makeup; instead of one principal composer and one frontman, Anand Wilder and Chris Keating collaborate both vocally and compositionally, with the whole band being involved in the song-writing process.
Their follow-up in 2010 earned them their place as the most blogged-about artist of the year according to The Hype Machine, and the first half of the album in particular is outstanding in its quality. ‘Ambling Alp’, ‘Madder Red’ and ‘O.N.E.’ are true delights of the genre.
Essential Album(s): ‘Sing the Greys’ (2006), ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ (2008)
“I’m drunk, I’m drunk // And you’re probably on pills // If we’ve both got the same diseases // It’s irrelevant, girl…”
Scottish outfit, Frightened Rabbit, crept onto the periphery of the scene with their underappreciated debut, containing some excellent (if a little sprawling) reflections on relationships. Their sophomore album, whose name has been understandably interpreted as a euphemism for sex, took the theme of romantic involvement and breakup and magnified the focus and intensity by a million.
Though the majority of the songs deal with sexual themes and often contain expletives or provocative language, they steer well clear of schoolboy smut and instead communicate deep messages. “It takes more than fucking someone you don’t know / To keep warm” and “Well we can change our partners / This is a progressive dance but / Remember it was me who dragged you up to the sweaty floor” are a taster of the visceral lyrics on offer.
As Josh Modell of The AV Club writes, “it’s Hutchison’s utterly believable desperation and frank lyrics that push the whole thing from good to great. It doesn’t make for easy listening, but nothing this flatly honest and powerful ever is.”
Essential Album(s): ‘Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Autumns’ (2007), ‘Forget the Night Ahead’ (2009)
“And your red sky at night won’t follow me // It won’t follow me now // I’m going where you should…”
From one powerfully emotive Scottish act to another, The Twilight Sad’s deeply moving debut fascinates and intrigues in equal measure. Singer James Graham has been purposely enigmatic surrounding the meaning behind his sometimes bizarre, always stimulating lyrics, maintaining that he prefers to keep the enigma intact because the most important ones are mysteries even to him.
(Incidentally, for some interesting musings on the significance of their words on this album, and for an insight into parallels with Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel ‘The Virgin Suicides’, check out this article.)
When performing live, the energy and intensity of Graham’s performance often drowns out the complexity and rhythmic beauty of his songs; as such, they should be first enjoyed in a silent room – or better yet, with a good pair of headphones.
‘That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy’, ‘Mapped by What Surrounded Them’ and ‘Cold Days from the Birdhouse’ are particularly impressive from their debut, while ‘I Became a Prostitute’ is one of the highlights of the second album.
In other alt rock news, many established artists took time out from their normal projects to pursue secondary (or tertiary) pursuits.
Damon Albarn added to his already impressive repertoire by pioneering the album ‘The Good, the Bad and the Queen’, while legends of the spectrum Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones put their heads together and dreamed up ‘Them Crooked Vultures’.
Meanwhile, Jack White outdid them all by embarking upon not one but two side projects, releasing a brace of albums apiece with both The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. What an industrious lad!
Can you be just as industrious?
Help a brother out by listing some of your own personal favourites from the era in the comments section below.
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