Well, I’ve come this far… Once again, presented without editing or spellchecking:
-Eugh! Straight away I use that horrific and hackneyed ‘So good it’s probably illegal’ line again! I deserve to be spat at in the street…
-I really think I massively undersell quite how fantastic ‘11th Dimension’ is, I don’t even get its fucking name right…
-I don’t remember my writing being quite so obnoxious in 2008’s list, I think 2009 was when I was absolutely worst as a human being, and that’s reflected in some truly horrific writing
-‘Evocates’ Alex, really?
‘…couldn’t be more shocking if he confessed to murdering Jill Dando while doing an impression of Louis Walsh’: that’s an, erm, interesting choice of analogy there Alex
-“…a first taste engineered to make you eagerly await her next move”. To this day I have never listened to another Florence & the Machine release. In fact 2009 was full of artists- Grizzly Bear, Damian Lazarus, Andrew Bird, The Veils, AC Newman, Animal Collective- that I was enthused to be introduced to for the first time but never even listened to another album by. It was a year of brief musical humps that I enjoyed for a while but quickly forgot all about once 2010 started
-However, the top 3 albums are all absolute classics, the best the year had to offer by a ridiculous distance, and obviously even back then I had an inkling which albums were most likely to survive
-“Finn Andrews is probably closer to Miley Cyrus than Sean Lennon in terms of rock royalty”. Is that a really funny line? I’m really not sure, what was Miley Cyrus doing in 2009??
-The Surgical Spirit reference has bamboozled me, it ran from 1989-1995 yet here I am nearly 15 years after it finished describing it as ‘long running’. Bizarreness bordering on the hysterical
-Wow, just as I’m writing this year’s list as a lazy mess I go that extra mile and add an accent to ‘Bublé’
-It is a terribly written list though: clunky prose, dull and endless entries that say nothing, horrendously hackneyed phrases, unfunny attempts at jokes and oh dear GOD so po-faced and humourless in places
-“…the kind of bored disdain usually reserved for Louis Walsh”. Wow, really had it in for Louis this year
-“‘Whatever’s To Be Done With Such a Palaver’, ‘I Wish I’d Never Even Been Born’ and the hit single ‘It’s My Duty To Be Delightfully Despondent Doris’”: my game is strong when it comes to fake Morrissey songs
-I never heard Future of the Left’s first album, nor much of McClusky, but I’m impressed with my blagging. Describing them as ‘one of the most important’ bands in Britain is a bit much though…
-Rare usage of the verb ‘to Geoff Cape’
-“hooks so big you could hang Mussolini on them”: I use that fucking line every year
-“one of the most intriguing recording career in modern British music”, “one of the finest British dance record released this decade”, “One of the finest lyricists this country’s ever produced”…. Enough with the grand statements!!
-“Pigeon Detectives/Scouting for Girls/The Wombats/The Automatic/Jack Penate/The Feeling/etc… they’re all so adverse to character and personality that the only way you could tell them apart is by burning them all alive and then checking their dental records”. Boom! We’re back in the room, this list is saved by that line
-OK, I’ll take the top 3 and Animal Collective’s album, but that’s it, you hear?
-“…the kaleidoscopic possibilities of pop music”: oh fuck off Alex…
-“…dressed like Andy Pandy’s difficult adolescence” the writing is improving nassiveltoward the end, I just think that Andrew Bird review that opens the top 20 is the dullest piece of written word commited to time by human hangs
-Ouch, ragging on Peaches Geldoff? Too soon. Like, way too soon, 5 years at least
-“… it imagines a time in the not-to-distant future when Jack White suffers a nervous breakdown and decides to join a band of travelling minstrels”: yeah, pretty sure that happened in 2011
-“equally admired by the beard-strokers and the whistle-blowers”: nice…
-Just imagine how good the Fuckbuttons album would have to be for me to even consider allowing it to finish ahead of that Manics album!
-You know what? Some of the writing here isn’t all bad…
2010 when I can be arsed!
Strokes man’s debut shows flashes of his band’s breezy melodic charm and- clocking in at a massive eight tracks- their prodigious work rate. ‘Fourth Dimension’ is so good it’s presumably illegal
29. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu
Blind Aborigine folk singer mixes traditional styles with more contemporary western guitar music to create a deeply satisfying experience for anyone who chose to actually listen to it rather than just display it on their coffee table.
Steve Albini produced second effort with enough great songs to just about avoid mid-life crisis classification
Blues revivalists The Black Keys team up with the cream of creditable US hip-hop to create a record that somehow entirely avoids being in any way cringe-worthy. Would be a lot higher if it wasn’t released just a week ago.
26. Various Artists: Cathedral Classics volume 1
Fantastic first retrospective from London label Sonic Cathedral, just don’t call it shoe-gazing Ok?
Mind-blowingly accomplished and unashamedly ludicrous- the best metal album of the year by about six furlongs
Another perfectly great modern hip-hop album, but you get the feeling it’s the kind of solid effort Jay-Z could fart off under his bedclothes without even bothering to roll over. More off the wall efforts like the ingenious ‘D.O.A’ next time please.
Same old story with the Doves: spectacular first single (in this case the gorgeous title track) followed by undeniably accomplished but oddly underwhelming album. However, when their fourth album is good, it’s career best good.
Frequently fantastic, the best hip-hop album of the year is still let down by the inevitable wearisome skits and occasional homophobia that’s so unpleasant it’s almost impressive
No, there isn’t a song as good as ‘Revival’, but while the Soulsavers’ second album with Mark Lanegan doesn’t quite scale the same peaks as the first, it’s a much more complete and satisfying body of work overall.
Top of Form
Everyone loves the Super Furry Animals; it’s just a crying shame that most people don’t seem to realise it. Since 1996’s Fuzzy Logic– and seemingly without asking anyone’s permission- they’ve steadily built up a body of work that fully deserves to be ranked alongside any British band that still likes to think of themselves of a going concern, and yet have never truly threatened to breakthrough and sell any records beyond their devoted admirers (fact- every SFA album so far has sold exactly 172’027 copies each, which is the exact size of their fan base). Their ninth album was never likely to change that- being more of the same peculiarly Welsh brand of fried indie-rock psychadelica which they’ve made their own,-but it’s probably their best since 1999’s Guerrilla (or ‘Their best in a decade’ if you think that would look more eye-catching on the posters) and exhibits the kind of sparkle, energy and ingenuity you’d usually associate with barely pubescent bands who buy their trousers in a can, rather than a disheveled band of cagoule wearing Welshman who generally look like the kind of provincial loners you see on local news being charged with sending threatening letters to Fiona Phillips.
The highlights of Dark Days… are among the highlights of the band’s entire career: ‘Mt’ is a commendably restrained attempt to invent glam-folk, ‘The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ somehow manages to live up to the glory of its title by being a dark-tinged pop masterpiece with a hook on it so large you could hang you cagoule on it, and the album is bookended by ‘Crazy Naked Girls’ and ‘Pric’, two tracks that pull off that rare trick of being psychedelic jams and not making you want to clean out your ears with sandpaper. ‘Inaugural Trams’, however, is the album’s (and, in terms of singles, possibly the year’s) one indisputable classic, and can probably be considered one of the top ten songs ever written about the construction of a German town’s transport system. It’s both admirably insane and endlessly inventive, and in proving that it’s possible to sound deliriously happy without sounding either hackneyed or inane it sounds like the theme tune to the coolest children’s TV show ever. As a bonus, it also gives new credence to that old phrase ‘Why have a guitar solo when you can just rope in the guitarist from Franz Ferdinand for a few lines of German spoken word?’
While the highs on Dark Days… are positively Snowdonian, they do cast a shadow that certain parts of the album can’t help but wither in. While it’d be harsh to call any of the tracks here truly bad, it’s fair to say the skip button on your remote control will be getting a work out as the likes of ‘Inconvenience’, ‘Where Do You Wanna Go?’ and ‘Lilwiau Llachar’ (The inevitable Welsh song) just sound pedestrian and uninventive in their stellar company, giving the album a slightly uneven feel, and hold the record back from being truly great.
Nature’s rubbish isn’t it? It gets all over you, it’s hard to wash off, it’s seemingly 90% composed of shit, it flies up your sinuses, it drops into your drink, it falls from trees with nary a care for who’s supposed to clean it up, it seems to have a irrational phobia of noxious industrial fumes, it grows where you don’t need nor want it and meekly withers and dies when you attempt to meet it half way and encourage it. Chicago multi-instrumentalist (one of those words which are only ever encountered written down, and with good reason) Andrew Bird may not completely agree with this, his fourth solo album is as bucolic as the chewed end of a piece of straw, a sumptuously organic piece of work that evocates the natural world with no little flair. It’s an extraordinarily detailed album, so incredibly layered with violin, clacking percussion, double basses, flutes and dozens more instruments that even nearly twelve months after its release every listen seems to uncover some new device to ignite your attention. This meticulous approach to music making extends to Bird’s lyrics, with words mainly chosen for their sounds and tonal qualities rather than any actual meaning (although dropping lines like ‘The young in the larva stage orchestrating plays/ In vestments of translucent alabaster’ into day-to-day conversation is a great ice-breaker).
If that sounds a little pretentious, then you haven’t heard the half of it. Andrew Bird’s main failing is that he can occasionally lose track of himself in attempting to impress the listener, very occasionally the songs can briefly tumble over the fine line separating ‘very good’ with merely ‘very impressive’. And you can practically see the grin on his face as he contemplates how he got away with opening an album with the line ‘In the salsify mains of what was thought but unsaid/ All the calcified arithmetists were doing the math’. One of the songs is called Nomenclature for Christ’s sake…
However, it seems extremely churlish to bemoan a brilliantly smart and gifted musician just for being aware that he is a brilliantly smart and gifted musician. With Noble Beast Andrew Bird has pulled off the difficult trick of creating a record that is on one hand endlessly inventive and experimental while on the other hand remaining faithful to some of the oldest forms of music known to man, it’s an album that has it’s eyes firmly on the future while and the same time never losing sight of its past. His best album; and I say that with the authority of someone who’s never heard any of the others. A fine whistler too…
18. Grizzly Bear: Veckatimest
While Brooklyn’s Grizzly Bear may not operate entirely in the same ball park as Andrew Bird, they certainly play there for two hours every other Wednesday and frequently drink in the clubhouse. Beloved of Radiohead and other alternative types whose opinions generally elicit sage nods from the general media, their third album Veckatimest (a title I have generally avoided saying aloud) is further proof that artists can make innovative and modern-sounding music without resorting to a Lethal Bizzle guest spot or putting a donk on it. The album manages to splice in elements of psychedelica, chamber music, classical, folk, indie and more, while at the same time never threatening to jeopardize a commitment to melody that actually makes the record one of the most accessible albums released this year (a statement proved by it debuting in the US Billboard Top 10). However, just because the album is likeable enough to be so broadly appreciated doesn’t mean that it’s shallow or one-dimensional, in fact few other albums this year reward the patience of repeated listening and close examination as much, the record’s chief modus operandi of mid-tempo acoustic numbers can on initial listens conceal just how much has been crammed into each song- while the record may superficially sound like one that has been recorded mainly under the influence of folk, it’s actually the stench of prog-rock that more wafts over this album, like Genesis have left the toilet door open a few feet away. What the album most calls to mind is the ultimately unfinished and occasionally radically experimental recordings that Jeff Buckley intended to be his second album (where you can clearly map his influences moving away from Billie Holiday and more to The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway), so you could conceivably give Veckatimest the high praise that it’s the album Jeff Buckley would make if he were alive today.
If Veckatimest has one flaw, it’s that it’s forced me to attempt to correctly spell the Native American for a small Massachusetts island three times in less than 400 words. If it has two flaws however, it’s that the record can be so one-paced and pleasant sounding that it sounds like it’s almost demanding to be played in the background and shies away from close examination. If it were played in a pub while your friends and you fiercely debated the reasons Jaffa Cakes aren’t ‘Jaffa Biscuits’ there would be tellingly few moments (the drums on ‘Southern Point’, the last 90 seconds of ‘While You Wait for the Others’ and ‘I Live With You’…) that would truly prick your ears up and stop listening to your friend describe the baking process. But that may just be nitpicking (and when I’m discussing Jaffa Cakes, occasionally a nuclear bomb won’t stop me having my say), the simple fact of the matter is that is unlikely any other album on this list was as widely liked as Vecktatimest, whether these people were brave enough to attempt to pronounce its title or not.
Perversely, the main drawback of the third album by everyone’s favourite Nina-Simone-voiced-Giant-Haystacks-sized-Sonya-Jackson-look-alike Antony Hegarty is that it’s exactly the album he wanted to make, and achieves precisely what it sets out to do. Amongst all the hoo-ha and accusations that surrounded Antony’s 2005 Mercury Music Prize victory, it’s often forgotten what an absolutely astounding record I Am a Bird Now was, and is, an utterly jarring yet entirely bewitching set of psychosexual baroque pop that should have plenty to say when people start thinking about the best albums of the last decade (‘the noughties’ if you prefer, or ‘the proppa nawties’ if you’re Danny Dyer). It also exposed Antony Hegarty to something dangerously close to fame- not quite Madonna levels of hysteria admittedly, but the kind of fame that prompts Richard Littlejohn to mention you in his Mail column while using the phrases ‘Give me Rod Stewart any day of the week’ and inevitably ‘You couldn’t make it up’- which goes some way to explain the near four year gap between the two albums. In response to the critical and commercial success of that album, for The Crying Light Antony has decided to reign in a greet deal of the flamboyance and drama that used to be pretty much his trademarks- gone are the operatic codas, the wailing torch songs and all the camp and circumstance that defined his greatest work, and as a result the album is so shockingly restrained and slight that in places it barely exists. It’s also wilfully uncommercial, with the great majority of the album made up of just Antony and a piano, with perhaps the tiniest hint of an orchestra, singing melodies so subtle you have to locate them with a magnifying glass. There’s a moment near the end of ‘Aeon’ where Antony suddenly calls out in that astonishingly beautiful voice of his ‘Oh that man I love SO MUCH!’ which honestly couldn’t be more shocking if he confessed to murdering Jill Dando while doing an impression of Louis Walsh, and it takes you a while to realise that it’s because it’s the only point in the album’s entire 40 minutes that the singer lets himself go for even just a millisecond- the rest of the album is repressed, studied and almost psychopathically restrained.
It’s also frequently brilliant and heartbreakingly beautiful (unsurprisingly, as Antony next album could be a track-by-track Oompah Band re-imagining of Aqua’s Aquarium album and he still couldn’t help himself making it exquisite enough to make even Fabio Capello weep), and so far ahead of any of his contemporaries that it’s almost embarrassing. Tracks like ‘Another World’, ‘Her Eyes are Underneath the Ground’ and the title track are so beautifully precious and ornate that you worry they’ll simply shatter if you talked over them. If the record does nothing else it provides further evidence of Antony Hegarty’s title of possibly the most singular and unique musical talent of his generation, even if I wish that his next record didn’t jettison quite so many of the things that made him so special in the first place.
At times last year it seemed that the British music industry was simply desperate for Florence Welch to succeed, she was talked up as the Next Big Thing since around 1987, and all through 2008 as she released a handful of raw and uncommercial singles, they thrust a Brit award at her early this year and named her top of nearly every embarrassingly titled ‘ones to look out for’ polls (along the lines off ‘Tha Freshest Cold Meats Slammed On Tha Counter xx09xx’. That one was on Blue Peter.) and when her debut was finally released in July it was named on the Mercury shortlist within approximately seventy eight seconds, suggesting that it would’ve been nominated even if all it consisted of was recordings of Florence performing her favourite Eddie Large stand-up routines while riding a mechanical bull.
Thankfully Lungs contains enough brilliance to just about justify the cement mixer full of hype that it has been saddled with (hey, it’s my list and I can mix as many metaphors as I want to thank you very much), even if ultimately it’s a debut that promises a potentially great career rather than a truly great album in its own right. The album’s highs are generally wonderful enough to paper over its occasional duds, and it’s always great to see an artist as delightfully bizarre as Florence Welch- both in her slightly leftfield musical style and wonderfully odd and occasionally grotesque lyrical imagery- getting such mainstream attention. there aren’t many albums with a better opening one-two than the singles ‘Dog Days are Over’ and ‘Rabbit Foot (Raise It Up)’ (how on God’s green earth did that only limp to number 12 in the charts?! This is a country that gave The Black Eyed Peas two number one singles this year for fuck’s sake), and ‘Howl’ and ‘Hurricane Drunk’ are hit singles in anything resembling a sane world. You know you’re at least partially onto a winner when you have the chutzpah to cover one of the greatest dance songs of the last 25 years (The Source and Candi Staton’s ‘You Got The Love’) and manage not to make it a complete affront to all that’s holy.
There are a few misfires though, ‘Kiss With a Fist’ is a slightly cack-handed White Stripes pastiche that sounds out of place (unsurprisingly, as it was originally released as a single more than a year before the album came out) and disrupts the albums flow, and ‘Girl With One Eye’ ramps the drama up to such ridiculously portentous levels that it makes the last night of the proms sound like a Steve Albini production. In future Florence may also like to consider a dash of subtly every now and then, her singing style, although impressive, only seems to have two settings- ‘belting’ and ‘Shirley Bassey’, and her habit of finishing each and every song by singing the chorus one more time but even louder begins to grate by the albums close.
Debut albums aren’t meant to be perfect though, and these are relatively minor quibbles. As a first taste engineered to make you eagerly await her next move, Lungs does its job to perfection.
It’s amazing that, despite it being approximately 133 years since Elisha Gray first patented the first electronic musical synthesizer (back when Rick Wakeman was still a fresh-faced 28 year old) and 40 odd years since it was first used to make pop records, if your average guitar band decides to utilize the instrument a great section of the music press act as if it’s a staggeringly futuristic gesture akin to announcing your next album will be released solely through sat-navs. The Editors last album, for example, was praised for its modern use of the occasional Moog stab, when in reality all they’d done is moved their sound on from 1979 to about 1982.
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ move to a more electronic sound was actually not that far of a journey, most of their best moments have had at least one eye on the dance floor and their primal rhythmic sound has as much in common with krautrock (what a charmingly offensive name for a genre that is) than it has with the skinny denim of CBGBs. In creating their most polished (TV On the Radio’s Dave Sitek further demonstrates his band’s recent Midas touch on co-production duties) and listenable album-and their best- to date the band have also rediscovered a sense of drive and purpose that was mainly absent from the reserved and meandering Show Your Bones album. Tracks such as ‘Runaway’ and especially ‘Hysteric’ easily rank amongst the band’s very best work and show that underneath their achingly hip exterior the band are more than capable of producing pretty great pop music.
However, if the Yeah Yeah Yeahs ultimate goal is to one day produce music that is as captivating and as charismatic as their front-woman, they fall ever so slightly short once again here. Karen O dominates proceedings almost completely, exhibiting a voice able to seamlessly switch between disco queen, lovelorn balladeer and over stimulated eight-year-old, occasionally on the same line and crucially never stumbling into irritating yelping. The band’s music still sounds ever so slightly plodding- and strangely detached- in comparison, plus Nick Zimmer still has the kind of face past civilisations would have punched for sport, though I accept that second point may well be slightly irrelevant.
It’s Blitz is the closest they’ve yet come though, and most importantly it reintroduces a great sense of fun which initially seemed one of their hallmarks but was largely jettisoned on their last record. There’s a sense of a band actually enjoying the process of making music which can’t help but rub off on the listener- the sense of blissful abandon as ‘Heads Will Roll’ collapses into near chaos is one of the greatest musical pleasures put to disk this year. It’s all more than enough to make you hope they’re still taking as much pleasure out of what they do when they come round to their next album.
As the son of XTC’s keyboardist, Finn Andrews is probably closer to Miley Cyrus than Sean Lennon in terms of rock royalty, but he’s still wise enough to bypass any accusations of industry favouritism by cannily limiting his fanbase to about eight people. His third album (the rest of the band are essentially session musicians that have changed with each record, if it aids your enjoyment of the record in any way feel free to picture him being backed by whoever you want- the cast of long-running BBC sitcom Surgical Spirit for example) was never likely to catapult his band to Michael Bublé levels of fame, but after forty minutes of near exemplary song craft and striking eclecticism you can’t help but wonder why The Veils aren’t annoyingly ubiquitous.
Fortunately, Andrews is so convinced of his music’s importance that his own conviction is the equivalent of at least six million devoted fans, plus perhaps a couple of Grammies and a Nobel Prize for Literature. Sun Gangs is an album utterly convinced of its life-changing potential, and doesn’t think it’d be appropriate to crack a smile in the face of such significance. From the choral-like opener ‘Sit Down By the Fire’ the album is awash with grand gestures and grandiose orchestration, to the point where the atypically underplayed closer ‘Begin Again’ sounds like the entire record collapsing with exhaustion like an athlete after a marathon or, perhaps more appropriately, an enthusiastic forty minute wank.
As irritating as it is to admit, given my proud British commitment to seeing any such self-belief fall straight on its arse, a great deal of Sun Gangs near enough justifies its own confidence. Despite its thick and multifaceted instrumentation, its mostly delicately composed enough never to descend into cheap pomp and bluster, and when at its very best can invest tracks such as the eight minute ‘Larkspur’ and ‘It Hits Deep’ with such elegant splendour that you almost don’t feel embarrassed calling them ‘epic’. The record’s devotion to eclecticism and experimentation puts other bands’ tedious imagination-vacuums to shame, and while it’s occasionally grating and overwrought it’s never boring. It also helps that Andrews is actually a pretty great songwriter, and wisely decides to augment his grand vision with half-decent tunes; ‘The Letter’ and ‘Three Sisters’ are textbook melodic rock songs, and the almost distastefully entertaining ‘Killed by the Boom’ is a riotous high-point. It would be nice if Williams himself chose a more subtle way of portraying emotion rather than singing each line like he was about to burst into tears, but Sun Gangs’ numerous achievements mean it’s more likely you’ll be on his side come the album’s end.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way: Stone-Roses, Stone Roses, Stone Roses, Spike Island, Stone Roses, baggy clothes, Top of the Pops with Happy Mondays, Stone Roses, John Squire, Fools Gold, Waterfall, Spike Island, debut album: hooray!/overrated, second album; boo!/underrated, Stone Roses, John Squire, Spike Island, I Wanna Be Adored, John Squire, Stone Roses.
Can we start now? Good. Along with his Mancunian compatriot Morrissey Ian Brown must have accepted a long time ago that a certain well-loved and influential band he may have fronted in the 80s* will never be truly put to bed, no matter how many times you respond to reunion questions with the kind of bored disdain usually reserved for Louis Walsh.
The issue must be particularly exasperating for Brown, as while Morrissey has generally produced Smiths-lite solo work while gradually sliding more into self-parody (his latest solo album includes the songs ‘Whatever’s To Be Done With Such a Palaver’, ‘I Wish I’d Never Even Been Born’ and the hit single ‘It’s My Duty To Be Delightfully Despondent Doris’) Ian Brown has admirably ploughed a much more esoteric solo path. Even taking into account the consistently high quality of his solo work to date, the sheer quality of the songs on his sixth (that’s sixth!) solo album is still something of a shock. On My Way Brown pushes melody to the forefront of his music like he’s never done since… y’know… and as a result the album is by some distance his strongest collection of songs yet. Brown says he used Thriller as his blueprint for an album where every track was a potential hit single, and it seems to have worked in irradiating the tuneless skunk-fuelled dirges that occasionally marred his previous albums (only the lifeless ‘Crowning of the Poor’- regrettably placed at track two- manages to evade the screening process to become the album’s ‘The Girl is Mine’). Ian Brown has an almost naïve approach to making music where he develops ideas that most artists would reject as being ridiculous at the inception stage (mariachi cover of Zager and Evans’ ‘In the Year 2525’? Motown-esque torch song? R n’B ballads?) and then having a crack at them with such stubborn zeal that the sheer charm of the enterprise mostly fills in any flaws in the music.
His voice, however, is truly, truly atrocious. The fact that Brown has a voice that frequently resembles the torture of various land mammals, or that in more than twenty years of professional singing he has only ever managed to hit one note (the rarely used key of ‘Naaaaar’), is hardly news, but in the past he has been acutely aware of his limitations of a singer and his solo career and has written songs that rarely required his voice to rise above a growl. Here, the new focus on melody and tunes has exposed his voice like never before, and it’s not too unfair to say that at some points it sounds so bad that a person coming to this album having never heard any of Brown’s work before would surely presume it was a joke. The sheer quality of his song writing occasionally deserves a better voice to do it justice, and the fact that Ian Brown initially wrote lead single (and stand-out track) ‘Stellify’ for Rihanna hints that his future plans may lie in becoming modern R n’B’s most unlikeliest song-writer for hire.
*Is there a more ridiculously over depicted period of music than 1980’s Manchester?? Do we need a new book every week where the bass player from Crispy Ambulance gives ‘his side’ of the story? Is there anyone who doesn’t know that ‘Blue Monday’ lost money on every copy sold?
There’s a song on here called ‘Stand By Your Manatee’. I think that alone justifies this album’s position, but if for some reason you need more reason then read on by all means:
Cardiff’s Future of the left formed following the collapse (I think I’m legally obliged to use the phrase ‘from the ashes’) of the criminally underappreciated McClusky back in 2005 and, to put it frankly, they make the kind of rock music that puts nearly every other guitar band in Britain to shame.
While FOTL’s debut album was undoubtedly impressive in parts its spiky guitars and angular rhythms were still unmistakeably the work of two thirds of McClusky, and as a result it struggled somewhat to establish its own identity as the work of great band in its own right as opposed to just a very good side project. Their second album comprehensively does away with any such concerns though, fleshing out their sound marvellously and presenting a strong case for the band to be considered, at least potentially, as one of the most important in Britain.
Musically FOTL are a thrilling mixture of the dumbest visceral jolts of heavy metal and the high-brow artiness, complex song structures and jagged rhythms of post-punk, all the while still writing tunes that your postman could still whistle as he contemplated his next strike. The sheer joy the band exhibit in making music that’s frequently leftfield and yet never loses sight of the mosh-pit (FOTL are one of those delightfully archaic bands that’s naïve enough to believe that making music their fans may actually enjoy may not be an entirely bad thing), plus the fact that they’re savvy enough to realise that if something’s worth taking serious it’s also worth making a joke out of, positions the band as probably the closest thing this country has produced to the brain-frazzling brilliance of System of a Down, the difference being that those uncultured, stupid and irony-unacquainted Americans have made SOAD one of the biggest bands in the country while Britain’s indifference toward Future of the Left means they’d struggle to sell out their own front room.
Lyrically though, FOTL are simply on a different plane to most of their peers. Singer Andy Falkous can write words that are at once hilarious, profound, nonsensical, crude, sad, joyous, obtuse, blunt, unflinchingly honest and scathingly sarcastic, and proof to any budding songwriters out there that there is some middle ground between meaningless pseudo-emotional guff (‘I climbed the mountain and saw that the storm was too pure/ I need to see your eyes to fly back to the shore’) and over-earnest eulogies on ‘serious’ issues (where every song has to mention a non-specific group of people who ‘Got no home’). Any writer who can wittily articulately deconstruct such diverse subjects as rampant consumerism (‘Drink Nike’), Rupert Murdoch (‘Lapsed Catholics’) and the mundane nature of evil (‘You Need Satan More Than He Needs You’), while never losing track of how important it is to open a song with a line as good as ‘Slight bowel movements/ Preceded the bloodless coup’ deserves all the praise he gets.
Ridiculous as it may sound, is there any chance we may have underestimated the Arctic Monkeys? Yes, we all loved them when they shuffled into the limelight as fresh-faced nine-year-olds a few years back, forgiving them for treating every interview and media appearance with an enthusiasm they usually reserved for their school’s BCG injections, we thrilled to their cheeky tales of fruit machines, chips, and all other sorts of things that conveniently have long been shorthand in large parts of the press for the Northern working class, and we were all charmed by a singer who sung in a voice more usually heard on stage at the end of Blackpool Pier sometime in the 1930s. But did anyone truly expect them to turn into a band of such substance?
Their debut album exhibited an extraordinarily accomplished song-writing ability, and potentially marked out Alex Turner as a truly brilliant lyricist, but it was such a relief to finally find a British rock band that might have an appeal beyond four blokes wearing trilbies in some Camden gastro-pub that it was possibly overrated in some quarters, there’s a strange lack of depth and invention to the music, and there was always the creeping suspicion that this was as good as it was going to get. However, their second album Favourite Worst Nightmare was twice as good and ten times as coherent- and as is traditional with these things sold about one tenth as much- and coming so soon after their debut clearly marked out the band’s intention for their career to follow a more abstruse and musically challenging path than anyone could have initially predicted.
Roping in Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme to produce their third album sent out a pretty clear signal of intent too: this record was never going to be accused of being ‘a bit heavy on the ballads’. Homme’s beefy production injects about 600mls of anabolic steroids straight into the eyeballs of nearly every track, to the extent that most of the songs strain their muscles so much they’re in danger of popping a blood vessel. Make no mistake, this is a heavy album, and at least initially the band’s more muscular and aggressive sound is as surprising as it is exciting. The experiment works a lot better than you might expect, with neither the songs nor Alex Turner’s voice (a lot deeper and devious sounding here than before) rising to the challenge of not being flattened by the sonic onslaught. It’s hard to shake the feeling though that maybe the Monkeys are trying that little bit too hard to prove their brawniness, especially with the coolest kid in school in the recording studio with them. While the sound they make is undoubtedly thrilling and, you begin to wonder how genuine the change in direction is, which can’t help but lead to a slightly detached experience.
There’s also the creeping suspicion that the Geoff Capesing of their sound may have seen the baby being discarded with the bathwater somewhat, as the sledgehammer approach of many of the tracks comes at the loss of much of the charm that was a big part of their old appeal. Once ‘Cornerstone’ slides into view though you simply won’t care anymore- a song so comprehensively lovely that it’s already been invited to be a guest on the Alan Titcshmarch show, and built around a melody that’s so instantly memorable you assume it’s been around since medieval times. The fact that Turner spins so much pathos, beauty and meaning out of what is essentially a tale of getting off with someone you meet in a pub is just one example among many on this record (see also his acknowledgment of the charged erotic potential of Pick n’ Mix on ‘Crying Lightning’) that he is fast growing into one of the greatest lyricists this country has ever produced.
10. AC Newman: Get Guilty
There’s no doubt that, love her or hate her (and I’ve bounced between the two poles so much I could be doing a beep test), Lady Gaga is a brilliant pop star (bear with me here, I’ve decided to tackle this using the scenic route); she’s provocative, ridiculous, completely deluded about her own importance, entirely pretentious while at the same time utterly stupid and totally committed to appearing most unlike a normal person as possible (she’s even got her own ‘removed two ribs’/’12 pounds of semen pumped from stomach’ style urban myths built up around her allegedly being a hermaphrodite- she’s truly in the big leagues now). She’d pretty much be the perfect pop star then, if her songs were actually half-decent. Oh come on admit it; save perhaps ‘Paparazzi’ her music’s absolutely terrible, ‘Poker Face’ especially sounds like a Roland 303 suffering an aneurysm, no sane person would buy that shit if it was released by some personality vacuum like Rachel Stevens.
So it proves that the cosmos does occasionally like to even these things out that the year’s best pop record came via the second solo album from a 41 year-old erstwhile front man of The New Pornographers whose visual style generally just suggests that he’s been painting the back bedroom. Regardless, Get Guilty is a master-class in punchy choruses and hooks so big you could hang Mussolini on them, each of its twelve tracks is a mini-masterpiece of no-flab song-writing so tight it’s actually quite obscene to look at from some angles. ‘Catchy’ isn’t necessarily a positive description when it comes to pop music, even the sound of badger cubs been rhythmically thrown against a bus shelter will probably have you tapping your toes by around the two minute mark, but Newman rescues the word’s reputation by managing to craft songs that manage to be certified crowd-pleasers without ever resorting to pandering to the lowest common denominator. There were few more immediate songs released this year than the likes of ‘The Palace at 4am’ and ‘The Changeling (Get Guilty’, but beneath the surface of sledgehammer power pop each song is actually rather delicately put together, with surprisingly nuanced string arrangements complimenting the blitzkrieg of the central instruments.
Lyrically Newman generally deals in oblique impressionistic statements that are either intriguingly complex riddles that display an admirable respect for the listener’s intelligence, or garbled rubbish lazily masquerading as deep meaning, depending on what side of bed you got out of this morning (although personally I can’t help but admire anyone with the chutzpah to open an album with a lyric as arch as ‘There are maybe ten or twelve things I could teach you/ After that well I think your on your own/ And that wasn’t the first line, it was the tenth or twelfth/ Make of that what you will’).
Get Guilty doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it offer anything particularly new or innovative, but it never purports to, and as an uncomplicated and honest (isn’t it a pisser when you get a dishonest album? I once had a Tom Petty album that kept drinking my milk and then claiming it was my flatmate) collection of pop songs it’s pretty hard to beat
The Most disappointing albums of 2009
5. Deadmau5: Random Album Title
Fantastic album of course, but it would have walked into this list if it I hadn’t only just found out it was released in November 2008. Curse my admirably strict selection policy
After the great strides made on 2006’s Empire, this just seemed like a bit of a step back into half-hearted psychadelica and tired sixties imitation.
Natasha Khan follows her excellent debut with an overproduced second that sounds so in thrall to her influences it occasionally lurches into pastiche.
Better than the almost fascinatingly awful Encore, but still the strained and underwhelming efforts of a once essential and important artist with nothing else to say; ‘My mom, I’m bet you’re sick of hearing about my mom’-well… yes, frankly
Terrible. If her last album, the fantastic Begin to Hope, occasionally threatened to slip into radio-friendly blandness, Far dives right into the deep end, completely shedding all traces of her personality in pursuit of the Starbucks dollar. Worse, every time she attempts to inject a modicum of her trademark weirdness it comes out as the sort of self-consciously ‘kooky’ crap that the writers of Friends would reject as being too eye-gougingly irritating; ‘We built ourselves a computer/ Out of macaroni pieces’- Aaaaaaaaaaarrghh!!!
You have to question the work rate of the average student nowadays when 21 year-old Mika Lee aka Micachu seems to have enough spare time from studying composition at Guildhall School of Music to not only build up a reputation as one of the country’s most promising remixer/producers (including a production spot on Speech Debelle’s Mercury prize winning debut) but also form a band to record this beguilingly bizarre debut album. God help us if there’s a war. Another war that is.
It’s hard to think of a more peculiar and idiosyncratic debut album released in recent years, Micachu’s fearless experimentation and refusal to accept any accepted song writing rules firmly marks her out as a worthy heir to the likes of Captain Beefheart, although musically is difficult to trace any significant musical influences at all. In fact you could go as far as to say that Jewellery sounds like the work of people who have never actually heard music before, but have read an article about it in the Independent on Sunday and have gamely decided to give it a whirl. The infectious speed-punk of ‘Just In Case’ and the delightfully summery single ‘Golden Phone’ are probably the only songs on the album that makes some sort of concession to conventional song-structure, even if it’s a song-structure so frenetically unhinged that it’s sectioned under the mental health act before it can reach three minutes, otherwise the record is a dizzyingly avant-garde collection of songs that delight in completely subverting and rejecting any accepted musical rules, and shows that doing something completely wrong can sometimes seem so right.
Of course, making wilfully contradictory music can be the easiest thing in the world if it’s just done for the sake of it (no one was rushing to call me a genius when I released my album of looped train station announcements backed by the sound of two food processors. And yet I still managed to convince Busta Rhymes to appear on a track), the most impressive thing about Jewellery is how it demonstrates how unwavering invention and individualism doesn’t have to come at the expense of writing brilliant pop songs. Songs like ‘Calculator’ and ‘Vulture’ may sound at times like radio-waves picked up from other dimensions, but they’re still deliciously infectious pieces of music, just as likely to beckon you onto the dance floor as they are to illicit sage nods and much stroking of chins with a delightfully erudite time signature. Despite all it’s quirks, bells and whistles, Turn Me Well is actually a ballad for Christ’s sake, and I for one believe a campaign should be started to install it as the ‘X Factor’s winner’s song (they can decide themselves whether or not to include the vacuum cleaner solo. That’s not a joke).
Whether you like the record or not, surely everyone agrees that we need albums like Jewellery to arrive every now and then if only to remind us that there still exists an outlet and a platform for artists attempting to push music’s boundaries and explore possibilities outside the accepted norms, and that there are still record companies willing to take risks on such artists, even if it’s unlikely to sell more than a few thousand copies (thanks once again to Geoff Travis and Rough Trade). The omission of possibly the year’s most inventive and unique album from the weakest Mercury shortlist in years was puzzling to say the least, but it’s hard not to see Micachu submitting many, many more extraordinary records for consideration over the course of what promises to be one of the most intriguing recording career in modern British music.
A wise man once declared that ‘ridicule is nothing to be scared of’ (and to be fair to Adam Ant you could never accuse him of not walking it like he talks it) and you imagine Kendal’s Wild Beasts, a band that almost actively encourage small-minded scorn and derision, have the quote taped to the inside of their lockers.
One of the more disheartening developments of the latter part of this decade has been British indie music’s listless descent into possibly the least daring and innovative music being made on the planet. There were points in recent years where it seemed almost every genre of music- from underground hip-hop to ‘throwaway’ manufactured pop- were ripping up music’s rulebook and creating music that was at once unfathomably weird and entirely fabulous, while all the while British indie elected to stay sipping watered down snakebite in the same Camden pub while trying to pluck up the courage to talk to Graham Coxon. It’s not just that Pigeon Detectives/Scouting for Girls/The Wombats/The Automatic/Jack Penate/The Feeling/etc released music so dreary and uninspired that their Cds actually suck the inventiveness and excitement out of any other record in a four foot radius, it’s that they’re all so adverse to character and personality that the only way you could tell them apart is by burning them all alive and then checking their dental records.
Thank God for the Wild Beasts then; a British indie band that sees music as a universe of endless possibilities rather than a dilapidated shed of restrictions and rules. Their 2008 debut Limbo Panto was an ideal introduction to a band whose layered and rattling indie was at once theatrically antiquated and strangely futuristic; who possessed a singer whose piercing falsetto could disrupt telephone signals; and who aren’t too po-faced to turn down song titles as brilliant as ‘Brave Bulging Buoyant Clairvoyants’ and ‘Cheerio Chaps Cheerio Goodbye’. Most importantly it gave the impression of a band that valued the importance of standing out in a crowd above all else, which could only be immensely refreshing.
Their second album came out barely a year later, and shows a remarkable amount of progression for such a relatively short period of time. While slightly muted first single ‘Hooting and Howling’ (the slowest of slow burners which makes much more sense as an album track) may have been a bit of red herring, Two Dancers is a slightly more restrained album than its predecessor, with the songs taking a more insidious approach than Limbo Panto’s occasional aural blitzkrieg. This unsurprisingly means its impact isn’t as immediate, and on the initial listens you can’t help but yearn for the less subtle bombardments of their debut. It’s a gamble by the band that richly pays off when Two Dancers eventually reveals itself not only to be an infinitely more coherent and accomplished album than their debut, but brilliant enough to see the band promoted tentatively into British rock’s premier division. It’s a wonderfully cohesive and deliberate record where songs seem to be included and sequenced according to mood and lyrical themes rather than picking names from a hat- there’s a definite underlying theme of sensual pleasure, from the lush and occasionally dreamy music to the lyrical tales of sex, gluttony and dreams. However, any fears that the band’s more polished and accomplished sound may have been at the expense of their more idiosyncratic tendencies are thankfully unfounded; there are few other bands that would open an album with the line ‘This is a booty call/ My boot, my boot up your arsehole’.
About once a year, usually around early Autumn, music writers and critics the world over down tools and seemingly come to an agreement to praise one certain album to such a unanimous and admirably consistent extent that not only would casual observers be forgiven for any assumptions of chemotherapeutic capacities on the record’s part, but also that the album’s merit become less about subjective opinion and actually enters the realm of scientifically proved fact. Last year the music press mysteriously decided en masse and apparently spontaneously that The Fleet Foxes’ debut was the only thing missing in our sad and fetid lives, and this year they elected to shower admiration on the ninth album by a Baltimore collective you could only previously imagine earning this level of mainstream attention by collectively punching the Queen. Of course when faced with this geyser of fawning praise any rational and level-headed human being will take it upon themselves to track said record down and start hating it as soon as possible.
And there are things to dislike here if you’re willing to look, and I was practically booking days off work, but Meriwether Post Pavilion (even the title just begs you to hate it) is such an impressive and charming slice of progressive pop that to force yourself not to like it would be practically self-abuse. Put simply no other album this year was as utterly smitten with the kaleidoscopic possibilities of pop music. Not content with just referencing every genre and style of music, there are moments on Meriwether… where you’d swear the band were determined to include every possible honk, bell, whizz, zoom or simply every possible noise that could be made by recorded sound. There’s a the sense of hyperactive excitement of a group of eight year olds finding the keys to the sweet shop, and initially it sounds just as chaotic- the sheer depth and vivaciousness of the musical onslaught, from the choral harmonies to the aggressive tribal drumming, at first just leaves the listener craving a lie down. Eventually though the album reveals a set of captivating songs and sweetly delicate melodies hidden within its sonic tapestry that makes it a record always intended to appeal to more than just the hipster crowd.
However beneath all the wit, invention and infectious sense of playfulness there remains a curious lack of heart here that renders the album a difficult one to truly love. It’s the musical equivalent of a Spike Jonze movie- there’s a delightful sense of good-natured anarchy and an admirable devotion to stretching the boundaries of their respective mediums, but there’s a sense of arch quirkiness and emotional-detachment that makes it very hard to envision truly taking it to heart.
Essentially though the album’s only real failing is that it was perhaps a bit overenthusiastically received (both the album and its opening track ‘My Girls’ were even featured in the top ten of several critics lists of the best albums/songs of the decade, which is dangerously close to being clinically hysterical), to not be utterly charmed by such a good-natured, blissful and occasionally almost childlike collection of pop songs would be a curmudgeonly act akin to not liking Susan Boyle (you know who you are you black-hearted bastards).
There are not many things in life more disheartening than when one of your favourite artists makes a bad album. Not an interesting but ultimately flawed attempt at experimentation, or one that perhaps doesn’t push their sound forward as much as you’d hope, but an album that’s simply, unequivocally bad. Uninspired, overlong, so dull it induces tears, lacking in wit, invention, or indeed any apparent idea of what made them so great in the first place, you practically spend the next couple of years pacing the room nervously awaiting their next album to see if this one stinker was a blip or the start of an inexorable decline. This feeling of helplessness and confusion though is nothing to the conflicting emotions that arise when an artist you absolutely despise completely fucks you over by releasing an album that’s indisputably fantastic.
There are few bands in existence that stimulate my spleen quite like The Horrors; they arrived in a blizzard of hype a couple of years ago dressed like Andy Pandy’s difficult adolescence, their music was a laughably incompetent facile of the Birthday Party with any sense of irony or chaos surgically removed, they bragged that on tour they would have competitions to see who could stay awake the longest seemingly unaware that such boasts are not so much typical of Hammer of the Gods-style rock n’ roll debauchery as they are of an eight year-old sleepover, and they generally acted like a bunch of public school boys playing at being in a goth band. Because they were. The singer went out with Peaches Geldof for Christ’s sake!
And on top of all that they have the impudence to then make an album as brilliant as Primary Colours, where do they get the nerve? Their second album is such a stratospheric improvement on their debut that it’s almost unfathomable, they entirely ditch the affected pseudo-punk incompetence of their first album in favour of an almost Kevin Shields-esque wall of sound, their clattering garage rock sound exchanged for an ambitious and daring mix of the best parts of synthesiser-led 80s Goth and the rhythmic slow burn of Krautrock. A band willing to take the enormous risk of alienating their fan base (and The Horrors do have a substantial cult following. It’s a following evidently made up of idiots, but it’s a following all the same) in order to pursue a more ambitious musical calling is impressive enough, but what’s really startling about Primary Colours is how natural the change of direction fits the band, and how accomplished it sounds from start to finish. ‘Who Can Say’, ‘Scarlett Fields’ and the title track are simply thrilling rushes of music, you’d have to be clinically dead not to be stirred by their squealing synthlines and unrelenting velocity, and yet the band also demonstrate that they aren’t afraid of slowing the pace- the funereal cello drone of ‘I Only Think of You’ and the epic ‘Sea Within A Sea’ (who would’ve previously thought The Horrors were capable of a seven and a half minute gig, never mind a song?) are among the most ingenious pieces of music released this year.
While there haven’t been many more enjoyable albums released this year, the fact of the matter is that the record is merely a very, very good approximation of other artist’s sounds, from Joy Division to the Cure to Echo and the Bunnymen, and while the songs are uniformly fantastic, being heavily influenced by a slightly different era of music does not equal true invention. Still, Primary Colours is an absolute blast, and you have to give the Horrors (and a lot of credit must also go to Portishead’s Geoff Barrow on production duties) their dues- I still think they’re bunch of arses, but at least now I can accept their right to exist.
Of all the almost countless changes to music being brought about by the continuing rise of music downloading, perhaps the most significant and enduring is the considerable shift in power towards the consumer and away from the producers. Not only are the record companies in the ignominious position of practically begging each customer to pay for something that’s widely available for free (that anaemic Groove Armada remix b-side just doesn’t seem to cut it any more), but they no longer have the means to dictate to the customer how they receive their music. This not only means that the centuries old practice of hand-picking singles as promotion for albums (great first single, not quite as good second, rubbish ballad third, anonymous forth that limps to number 38) is now obsolete (if next week 500’000 people suddenly felt the urge to purchase ‘Cross My Heart’, the opening track from Ultrasound’s criminally underappreciated 1999 opus Everything Picture, then it would be number one), but also that people are going to start picking and choosing tracks off albums rather than experiencing it as a whole. While blind optimists have suggested this may spell the end of weak tracks on albums (artist’s don’t tend to make intentionally bad tracks, Morrissey didn’t listen to an almost finished version of The Queen is Dead and said ‘It’s lacking a certain naffness to it don’t you think? I do have this song called ‘Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others’…’), it may well make albums like The Hazards of Love even more rare than they are now.
Taken out of the context of the album the vast majority of the seventeen tracks on the Decemberists’ fifth album make very little sense, some are little more than minute long bursts of melody, others replicate the tunes of previous songs almost unerringly, recurring themes and motifs that surprise and delight when the album is listened to in its entirety merely confuse and irritate if taken in isolation. Not to mention the lyrics, which are elaborate and bewildering enough when they’re listened to in their entirety. This is an album designed specifically to be listened to from start to finish- in effect the record is one epic and ever-shifting song cut into bite-size chunks (understandably, as the prospect of a 40+ minute track would put the fear of prog into most right-thinking people) – it’s an album unafraid to be a tour de force; brazenly pretentious, frequently ludicrous and obscenely entertaining. Musically it imagines a time in the not-to-distant future when Jack White suffers a nervous breakdown and decides to join a band of travelling minstrels, as antiquated melodies and instruments are occasionally defibrillated with Zeppelinesque heavy guitar licks, which should seem as ridiculously out of place as Beowulf talking a quick timeout to update his Facebook Status but is pulled off so expertly – and electrifyingly- that the seams don’t even show. It purports to tell an elaborate tale of enchanted maidens, mischievous shape-shifters, ghosts, mad queens and sodding level 12 Cyber-Ogres for all I can fathom, but following the album’s labyrinthine and occasionally absurd completely isn’t a necessity, the ride is so much fun you won’t even notice that you don’t care. No album this year was so dedicated to creating a true listening experience, and while it’s far from perfect (some of the lyrics are straight out of ye olde rhyming dictionary- you constantly feel you’re only one step away from a ‘hey-nonny-noo’- and it does occasionally feel like maybe three melodies stretched out over seventeen tracks) but its uniqueness, invention and ambition- not to the mention the occasional ultra-gnarly guitar solo- more than merits its inclusion in the year’s top five
As a former A&R man, a successful underground DJ for the best part of a decade and the founder of the Crosstown Rebels record label Damian Lazarus has been calmly making a bit of a name for himself in the kind of circles you and I would never be invited into over the past few years, while all the while garnering a reputation (mainly through his impeccable mixes on the City Rockers label) for eclectism and being generally unsatisfied with the restrictions of mainstream dance music. Still his debut album took everyone by surprise (well, everyone of the four dozen people who actually gave a shit), not just because of just how diverse and original the record was, but also because it’s probably one of the finest British dance record released this decade.
Smoke the Monster Out is an immense achievement, a demonstration of the kind of invention and risk-taking we should be demanding from a genre that once prided itself on being the sound of the future. While far from flawless, it frequently scales heights rarely achieved by any dance music in recent years, and even when its experiments occasionally don’t quite come off they are frequently interesting enough failures to merit inclusion anyway. What’s perhaps most impressive is that an album that showcases such a constantly shifting variety of styles (you have to applaud any album that finds room for both a gothic floor-filler built around a sample of Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’ and a straight cover of Scott Walker’s ‘It’s Raining Today’) manages not to sound disjointed or incoherent. While superficially the album’s style may seem inconsistent and occasionally contradictory, there’s a constant underlying theme of unseen horror and a creeping dread of unknown- and incomprehensible- danger first suggested in the album’s title that has led some critics to declare it almost an aural companion to the film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ in terms of exploring the darker extremes of human imagination.
The first three quarters of the record is a collection of tracks of unrelenting excellence and unshakeable purpose that almost floor you on first listen. The title track is a chilling instrumental that sets out the album’s stall perfectly, ‘Memory Box’ is a near-nauseating depiction of undirected rage, ‘King of Fools’ descends from a pleasantly inane opening into brilliant insanity and ‘Come and Play’ and ‘Neverending’ are simply four minute dance tracks of undeniable quality that would be equally admired by the beard-strokers and the whistle-blowers. The second track ‘Moment’ is undoubtedly the album’s piece-de-résistance however, and stands alone as one of the year’s most astounding musical achievements, starting off sounding like a close relative of Spiritualized’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space’ it builds to a truly astonishing cacophony of sound and voices and contains more genius and ambition in its eight and a half minutes than 99% of dance bands manage in their entire career.
However, listening to the album is like watching Usain Bolt slowing to a canter over the last quarter of the 100m- you can’t help but think ‘If you’d kept that pace up you would’ve really blown everyone away’. Smoke the Monster Out struggles to maintain its breathless velocity right to the album’s end, until it’s audibly wheezing past the finish line with twee garbage like ‘Bloop Bleep’ which almost completely wrecks the album’s deftly cultivated theme. It’s this bizarrely careless corrosion in the album’s quality that prevent the record from being a true modern masterpiece, the likes of which you wonder if Lazarus will ever come close to making again.
Other Things What I Done Liked This Year
Emmy the Great: We Almost Had a Baby
The latest in a long and distinguished line of pop songs that marry an impossibly sweet melody to a lyric that takes you until the tenth listen to realise may actually be about being raped.
Black Daniel: I Love You but Don’t Touch Me ‘cos You’re Sick
A contender for the ‘They-don’t-make-‘em-like-this-anymore-although-they-quite-obviously-do’ file, this Mudhoney referencing sinewy rocker was possibly the catchiest 180 seconds of the year.
Jordin Sparks: Battlefield
Power balladeering par excellence that somehow managed not to be number one for about six months, again demonstrating the shocking unreliability of the general public. Came with a video featuring the singer in a field surrounded by fireworks, which you just don’t see enough of nowadays
Marina and the Diamonds: Obsessions/ You Are Not a Robot/ Mowgli’s Road
Almost impossibly good debut trio of singles from the Welsh/Greek singer who seems all set to become Britain’s most interesting pop star when her (inevitably crushingly disappointing) debut album is released early in 2010
The Unthanks: The Testimony of Patience Kershaw
Gorgeous stuff from the country’s finest purveyors of Geordiefolk
The Wildbirds and Peacedrums: My Heart
Aural loveliness that proves yet again that the steel drum is the most criminally underused instrument in pop. Go on, try and name one bad song with a steel drum on it. You can’t can you?
Tegan and Sara: Sainthood
Superb album that would have walked into this year’s top ten if I hadn’t first heard it a week ago and could be arsed rearranging the entire list.
Susan Boyle: Wild Horses
It’s fucking great you bunch of ingrate snobs you
The Knife are a funny old band. Not just for the way they shield their identity with almost religious zeal or that they’re both very probably certifiably insane (not in an eccentric ‘I think I’ll paint my face pink and buy myself a loudhailer!’ way either, more a ‘did I show you the shoes I made from the skin from my mother’s breasts?’ kind of insane), but also for the way that their body of work seems to be split almost exclusively into breathtakingly ingenious modern electro pop and the kind of cheaply produced pop slurry that Lithuania wouldn’t even consider entering into Eurovision, with pretty much no middle ground. I only mention this as the debut solo album from one half of The Knife (Karin Dreijer Andersson to her accountant) is so consistently sublime that serious questions have to be asked of her brother and band-mate Olof. One can only presume he owns a van.
The Fever Ray album is not only a better and far more complete record than anything Andersson has released in her day job, it also bears little similarity to the piercingly angular post-pop that The Knife tend to trade in, instead it’s a glacial and resolutely atmospheric record. Sonically it frequently bears more than a passing resemblance to Leftfield’s mid-90s masterpiece Leftism, especially in its frequent use of heavily synthesized and distorted ethnic music styles, be it Oriental motifs or the odd smattering of panpipes (so deftly used you even forget that panpipes are so abhorrent that even Satan’s disowned them), but on the whole it’s a work of outstanding individuality. The dark synthesized drone that underlies much of the album- coupled with Andersson frequently distorting and deforming her voice to the point where it begins to sound like a David Lynch attempt to rewrite Cher’s ‘Believe’- is at times jarring and even slightly nauseating for the listener, but this only adds to the effectiveness of a record designed to take you out of your comfort zone. Andersson has mentioned sleep deprivation as one of the main themes of the album, and there’s a lethargic unreality to tracks like the unsettlingly alien sounding ‘Concrete Walls’ that anyone who’s found themselves watching Live Casino on Channel 5 at 3am will immediately recognise. Having her first child shortly before writing the album (well that’ll explain the sleep deprivation) also provokes Andersson to write possibly the first songs ever about childbirth that don’t immediately make you want to introduce compulsory sterilization (see: ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ by Stevie Wonder, ‘Boy’ by John Lennon’, ‘Awwwww, Aren’t Her Feet Tiny?’ by Steely Dan etc), electing wisely to concentrate on the struggles to comprehend the innate strangeness of childbirth, and her entirely human fears for the great unknown of her child’s future (on album highlight ‘When I Grow Up’ she even synthetically distorts her voice in an attempt to sound like a child- albeit that child with a strange habit of stapling earthworms to their arms that your mum would run out of the house to stop you playing with).
Fever Ray is a brilliantly idiosyncratic piece of work, not to mention the always welcome sound of an artist making no concessions on their individuality and yet still making music that is gloriously listenable. It offers more proof that Scandinavian artists are currently light-years ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to cutting-edge pop music.
Anyone out there still mystified as to what exactly it is that marks The Manics out as more than your average beat combo could do worse than consider ‘Peeled Apples’, the opening track from the band’s ninth studio album- there might possibly be another band that would furnish their album’s curtain-raiser with a chorus of ‘Rudderless horses on Chomsky’s Camelot/ Bruises on my hands from tearing my nails out’, but The Manics are certainly the only band who would do so while cribbing the melody from Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’.
If there were such thing as a typical Manics album though, Journal for Plague Lovers certainly isn’t it. Easily their most significant album since 1996’s Everything Must Go saw the band attempt to come to terms as life as a three piece- possibly even more so- it sees the band attempt to put music to the last lyrics left behind by ex-band member Richey Edwards for the first time, a full 14 years after his still unsolved disappearance. When the record was first announced it couldn’t have sounded more like career suicide if they’d announced that the working title was ‘Paedomuslim’ and that one track would be a duet with James Corden- why on Earth would you leave yourself so open to accusations of mawkish sentimentality from one side and shrill calls of ‘it’s not what Richey would’ve wanted!!’ (as if they know themselves- I happen to know for a fact that Richey wanted the next album to be a lot more Nordic skiffle influenced) from the other. Yet against everyone’s better judgement Journal… turned out to be one of the musical success stories of the year, and the most critically well-received record of their career by a country mile.
While the temptation must have been to conceive the album as merely a respectful presentation of Richey’s last works*- perhaps it could have been the first album released solely through Microsoft PowerPoint- the band chose to simply write songs that were both worthy of the words and mirrored their tone. The end result is that Journal… contains the band’s most complex and adventurous music to date, to such an extent that the kings of passionate anthem rock have accidentally made a post-punk masterpiece. Perhaps inspired by Richey’s unstructured approach to prose many of the songs take a slightly more relaxed attitude to the accepted rules of structure and pace than they have done in the past, while at the same time exhibiting a subtly and sparseness rarely heard in their previous work- Steve Albini was an inspired choice of producer, giving the album a disarmingly raw and naked feel, so crisp and clear that at certain points you can even hear the band’s sweat. Above all though, it’s still the Manics- James Dean Bradfield’s knack for melody is so instinctive it’s almost a nervous twitch- the songs are as fantastic as ever and the choruses may even embarrassingly result in involuntary fist pumping.
While comparisons to The Holy Bible (a creative high watermark for both the band and Richey’s writing) are as predictable as they are stylistically incorrect (only hidden track ‘Bag Lady is even remotely similar musically to The Holy Bible’s malicious and merciless tormenting of the senses, and compared to the 1994 masterpiece’s commendably bleak worldview the tone here is practically at Christine Bleakley levels of relentless optimism), making Journals… was obviously a cathartic exercise for the band- if ever a album had demons that needed exorcising it was The Holy Bible. Perhaps it marks the closing of a chapter in their, maybe after two decades of naively maintaining that music can occasionally do something more than convey the emotional impact of the latest DFS sale, or that maybe it isn’t so ridiculous that a band can genuinely mean something to some people even in the face of a culture that has increasingly cowered away into irony and insincerity they’ve finally decided that it’s time for that long-awaited Mark Ronson collaboration. If so Journal for Plague Lovers stands as a fitting tribute to not just Richey Edwards, but to the band themselves.
*I’ve avoided touching on the lyrics to any real degree- I didn’t want it to turn into ‘Richey Edwards, We Hardly Knew You’, and besides this piece was already in danger of becoming a novella. In a nutshell they’re great, they’re surprisingly light-hearted and optimistic in places, and they mention Giant Haystacks. That is all
1. Fuck Buttons: Tarot Sport
There’s nothing easier than making unconventional music, or even making music that’s completely original. I, for example, would find it quite hard to write The Stereophonics’ ‘Pick a Part That’s New’, scientifically proven to be the least original and most doggedly conventional song of all time, and yet I wouldn’t even have to leave my seat to record a Blockbuster card going through a shredder while I recite the eight times table in Kurdish, and no-ones called me a ground-breaking musical genius for, oooooh, weeks now. Even if I played it to my friends and then rejected their criticism by claiming that that the only reason people don’t like it is that they weren’t intelligent or open minded enough to get it, and that the song requires a knowledge if at least conversational Kurdish to be enjoyable, it would still be rubbish, and I’d still be a bit of a twat. Never trust any artist who states that people just didn’t ‘get’ their last album; it’s pop music, not that joke about the two nuns in a bath, if people didn’t like your last album it’s probably less to do with their tiny minds being blown by seven minutes songs and the occasional use of a keyboard and probably more likely to be the fact it was two hours long and contained a song about your mum played on a lute. True greatness lies in making music that manages to be breathlessly innovative and ambitious while still aware of the things that make music great in the first place- to move or even obliterate pop’s boundaries rather than ignoring them completely.
Fuck Buttons’ debut album Street Horrssing suggested that the band couldn’t decide whether they wanted to make challenging yet rewarding music that expands the horizons of pop music’s possibilities, or whether they would rather eke out a living burping into the microphone to see if anyone would buy it. It was certainly innovative and challenging, but just when it seemed on the cusp of something extraordinary it would lose its nerve and take the easy option of simply turning unlistenable, or songs would ratchet up the anticipation to almost unbearably degrees with an expertly crafted introduction before seemingly realising they’ve got no place to go and meekly descending into a repetitive drone, like the best man realising at the last minute that he’s left his much trumpeted speech in his other jacket and electing to start rabbiting on about train timetables in the hope that people would eventually get bored and return to their tuna steaks.
For their second album the band did something extraordinary and peculiar: they identified the weaknesses of their sound and attempted to eradicate them, while bringing their strengths more to the fore- perversely, it seems to have worked. Tarot Sport is a simply brilliant album, and as near as damnit a fully blown modern masterpiece, it’s such a quantum leap forward (perhaps even for dance music in general) that their debut doesn’t even feel like a dress rehearsal for it, in fact I came home last week to catch Street Horrssing packing its suitcase, tearfully telling me it knows when its not wanted. Fuck Buttons still make music like no-one else- colossal, mind-bending instrumental electronica with scant disregard for pop’s conventions- the difference is that on their debut you were just glad such unconventional music was still being released, while after a few listens of Tarot Sport you start to wonder why all pop doesn’t sound like this. Handing production duties to Andrew Wetherall- the most bizarrely underused and undervalued producer in Britain, nearly 20 years since Screamadelica– was a masterstroke, and his experience in acid house euphoria is sprinkled Tarot Sport, which loses all of the cynicism of the debut in favour of something a lot more communal and warm. Perhaps the most radical change has been just how beautiful some of it sounds; there are moments on the record that are genuinely moving, most notably during the astonishing 10 minute long ‘Olympians’, and generally the band aren’t afraid to show how dance music can convey the gamut of emotion (they’d previously only covered ‘fear’ and nausea’) as successfully as any other genre. Tarot Sport was just the pinnacle of a year that’s seen dance music start to regain its relevance after years in the wilderness- if Damian Lazarus demonstrated the variety of sounds you can cover and still sound consistent, Fuck Buttons have shown how you can make music so uncommonly inventive it sounds like a transmission from 2258AD and yet still beautifully human: Bizarre as this may have sounded twelve months ago, no album this year had as much soul as Fuck Buttons’. To think the most affecting song on their debut was a monkey screaming for four minutes.
Now they just need to do something about the name.