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December 31, 2011
And here’s the top 10! These are the ten albums I would take if I could only have ten from this year, although why anyone would be so cruel as to only allow me ten albums from any given year is beyond me…
1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi
It’s actually illegal in most countries for the under-18s to listen to albums are sexeh as this one, so be grateful we live in an enlightened nation where a woman cooing/bellowing about desire/the devil over Spanish-influenced guitars and occasional bouts of lush strings is totally acceptable. Oh yeah, this is bloody good. It’s all lyrical gender swapping, and bursts of thrilling sound. Heck, it starts with a guitar solo without making you want to frisbee the record right out of the window.
- ‘Suzanne And I’ – everyone loves big, ambiguous anthems about lesbonics/friendship/who knows.
- ‘Desire’ – ecstatic chorus alert.
- ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’ – kitchen sink outro of joy.
2 Austra – Feel It Break
Do you like a bit of chilly 80s-style synth music? How about it with an ex-opera singer, ex-punk, ex-singer-songwriter in charge? Yes, that is a good plan. That is Austra’s plan. Lobbing lovely glacial synths onto a live rhythm section gives the songs quite a lot of heft and crunch, so even if the album’s a little one paced it’s a good pace, like the march of an army of sad robot penguins. There’s also the matter of Katie Stelmanis’s vocals – it’s pretty standard in chilly synth pop world to have singers who can’t really sing, but she can. So it’s all dizzying harmonies, wordless pizzicato bleeping and big stentorian bellowing, although thankfully none of that diva, singing-more-notes-than-is-necessary shit. Marvellous stuff.
- ‘Darken Her Horse’ – the best ‘big soaring chorus’ of the year, hands down.
- ‘Lose It’ – sounds a little like those Lloyds adverts but is really really good.
- ‘The Beat And The Pulse’ – juddering, Knife-ish, chug, one of the singles of the year.
3 Suuns – Zeroes QC
An ominous drone, a sinister groove, vocals drifting in on a distorted yet still human-sounding wind. Who are Suuns and what do they with our computers and guitars? They’re the twisted, sinister end point for all that indie-electro-dance stuff which has been around in varying degrees of palatability for the last few years, and they have made a damn fine album which isn’t as hard to listen to as it might seem at first. Its ideas are kept brief and breezy, nothing outstays its welcome. It invites us to dance, but in the style of a close second place in the Turing test – these robots have almost made a record which sounds human, but not quite. And that’s why it’s so good.
- ‘Arena’ – a real grower, in that it grows from nothing in a danceable number.
- ‘Up Past The Nursery’ – sparse but still funky, quite a feat in itself.
- ‘Armed For Peace’ – the only track serves as a pretty much perfect introduction to the rest of the album in just three and a half minutes.
4 Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
Gang Gang Dance are one of those special bands who can release an album where the first track is eleven minutes long and mostly ambient noise, and yet the album is still their most poppy. There’s a duet with him from Hot Chip, which sounds like a sad nerd serenading a crazy witch. Y’see, Lizzi Bougatsos has a voice like a tiny, eight year old serial killer, which makes it doubly unnerving when she starts singing lyrics nicked from nursery rhymes or ditties about “mindkillas”. It helps that all the tracks are brilliantly buzzy electro stompers, sometimes with thrilling guitar solos, sometimes with basslines you can feel from space.
- ‘Thru And Thru’ – best closing track on any album this year, bar none.
- ‘Mindkilla’ – shaking the foundations with that bassline.
- ‘Adult Goth’ – a floor-filler from a dimension where floor-fillers are made by super-smart computers not slavering morons.
5 PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
Oh come on, of course this was going to be in here. It’s ruddy, bloody marvellous, with the emphasis on blood because this is one of those albums where EVERYONE DIES! It is, frankly, the best album of the year. Why is it not at #1 in that case? Only because it’s heavy as anything, and I sometimes can’t listen to it for the same reason I am not always in the mood to watch Grave Of The Fireflies. EVERYONE DIES!!! But yeah, you’ve read a million reviews of this, it’s visceral, it’s heartfelt, it’s brilliant.
- ‘All And Everyone’ – the way the track builds and threatens a cathartic release but then… doesn’t. Only more misery. Brutally effective.
- ‘The Last Living English Rose’ – swaggering and proud musically, broken and crushed lyrically, a beautiful juxtaposition.
- ‘The Glorious Land’ – for those painful lyrics – “What is the glorious fruit of our land?/Its fruit is deformed children”.
6 Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes
Yeah, that’s right, a Girls Aloud solo album. Nicola was clearly always the best member of GA, and by making an album with Metronomy, Diplo and Dragonette she’s shown that it needn’t be death by Will.I.Am and auto-tune robot vocals. What Nicola has realised is that all the best pop music is really really sad. And god, taken purely on its words this is a contender for the most misery-filled album of the year, with lots of lovely minor key synth pop and occasionaly shonky piano ballads driving it forward so you don’t end up wanting to kill yourself just by listening.
- ‘Gladiator’ – surprisingly lyrical dexterity and freakiness (Nic can apparently fire bullets from her chest, who knew?) with a nice martial guitar strut.
- ‘Yo Yo’ – top notch sad pop.
- ‘Beat Of My Drum’ – initially disorientating but after a few listens it’s great in a MIA-without-the-edge-or-the-bouts-of-cringey-stupidity way.
7 Young Galaxy – Shapeshifting
Young Galaxy are a bit hard to describe. They’re not really electro but they use a lot of synths to twinkle and parp. They’re kind of indie, in that they make songs of conventional structure and use guitars to jangle sometimes. They certainly like their percussion, and some songs are just a single guitar or synth line over an array of claps, whacks and other percussive sounds (castanets, steel drums). They have moments of small-scale Arcade Fire-ness. Ok, they have quite a few Arcade Fire style moments, albeit with fewer instruments going off at once. Then again they are Canadian. Must be in the water up there.
- ‘Peripheral Visions’ – if only for the big sing-a-long at the end which is quite affecting.
- ‘Blown Minded’ – stately march which nicely shows off the whole epic-but-kind-of-minimalist vibe of the whole album.
- ‘We Have Everything- – unashamedly anthemic.
8 Those Dancing Days – Daydreams And Nightmares
Adorable Swedish scamps who look like a bunch of off duty Brownies and sing sweet little ditties about… threatening violence against crap boyfriends and bitchy girl rivals alike. Wait, that can’t be right. Oh but it is, TDD serve up ADHD nuggets of joyful indie-pop, none of which overstay their welcome. It’s as if they need to wrap it up quickly and get home for tea and biscuits. I always find myself loving one album a year purely because it does a simple trick very very well, and this year it’s TDD. There’s nothing revolutionary here, but they have a scary mastery of their chosen form. Plus they’ve split up now, so no more fun for us. :(
- ‘Fuckarias’ – there’s no way this track should sound as muscular as it does, like being chased by a big pink truck.
- ‘I Know Where You Live pt.2’ – brilliantly huge chorus.
- ‘Can’t Find Entrance’ – breakneck speed sugary indie joy.
9 Washed Out – Within And Without
As the man who spearheaded the terribly named ‘chillwave’ invasion of the music blogosphere a couple if years back, there was a good chance that Ernest Greene, aka Washed Out, might have left it a year too late with this debut. The good news for Greene, and us, is it’s never too late for good albums and this is a very good album. It sounds suitably fuzzy, as if you’re remembering these songs rather than listening to them, with vocals floating around in the ether. But it’s not indulgent, and it doesn’t lack melodies, Greene grasping that lovely sonics mean little if they’re just tapering over a lack of decent tunes. There’s even a couple of sing-a-longs if you can decipher the words. Maybe it’s more fun to sing along in a fuzzy, distorted style.
- ‘You And I’ – simply gorgeous diet with Caroline from Chairlift, which just oozes class.
- ‘Amor Fati’ – gorgeous jangler.
- ‘Eyes Be Closed’ – keyboards splashing around like the ocean.
10 Harrys Gym – What Was Ours Cannot Be Yours
More sad songs from the melancholic Norwegians. Harrys Gym like to bring along a dash of electronics to their eleagic little epics, each building up and spiralling down, like tides. The record is centred around Anne Lise Frøkedal’s beautiful voice, all poised sadness or restrained sexiness, harmonising over herself. It’s an album which seems fixated on the inability of humans to be strong or heroic all the time. Musically there’s a lot of heft to the surroundings, tricks stolen from dance, trip hop and rock are peppered around the place, rhythms juddering or basslines crunching underneath Frøkedal’s latest missive about someone having the spirit crushed out of them by age or feckless partners or the weight of expectation. Heavy and light at the same time.
- ‘Sailing Home’ – specifically at 1:34 when the bass and the drums pile in properly.
- ‘Old Man’ – for one of the most heart rending vocals of the year.
- ‘No Hero’ – the slightly odd pairing of the indie guitars, the wobbling synth bass and the vocals shouldn’t work but does, very well.
December 30, 2011
For part one we have 11-28, the albums which were very good, but not quite good enough. Except for some which were good enough only someone else made something which was even gooderer. Anyway, there are 28, which isn’t a nice round number unless you have 14 fingers in which case it is. Sorry. I couldn’t be arsed to write about any of the other albums I’ve heard this year which means that they either weren’t very good, they were disappointing, or I haven’t heard enough of them (Ghostpoet, Lanterns On The Lake, I Break Horses and Soft Metals need to be filed under this category). Part two with a more numerically coherent top ten is tomorrow. Lucky you. You’re welcome.
11 St Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clarke is a rock queen! No really, she is. She may not be death metal, but she’s throwing some guitar shapes here, alongside the stories about smalltown American scandals, sex, angry young women, sex, and lovers being shitty to each other. And sex. It’s a pretty lush album, each track a little wall of sound in itself, with strings, brass, wobbly electro basslines, and choirs of Clarkes all jostling for space alongside the guitars. Oh the guitars. This is more proof (alongside Wild Flag, below) that you don’t have to play every note on the damn guitar super fast to show you’ve got a mastery over it. Fun, thrilling, primal, sophisticated riffs are allowed too. Maybe it helps being a girl with a guitar, and if so, St Vincent is the head girl.
- ‘Surgeon’ – for that spiralling outro of layered vocals and the dizzying bassline.
- ‘Northern Lights’ – fuzzy chug-a-long rock out.
- ‘Cruel’ – starts orchestral then gets its claws out.
12 Lykke Li – Wounded Rhymes
Lykke Li has the sort of voice you’d expect to hear in an old 60s recording, and there’s a lot of almost retro sounding instruments and songs on display here. “Almost” retro because they’re not. This isn’t yet another album with a tedious obsession with olden days music (as so many of those desperate to touch the greatness of Winehouse have attempted) but one where those old style sounds are moulded into lovely, up to date numbers. It’s classy in the way that everyone pretends pop used to be (it wasn’t) hence why it doesn’t really sound like pop any more. So if you want to pretend that things were better in the old days slap this on and pretend its 1965 and we’re all so hip and happening and things are better. Just don’t look too shocked when she sings about prostitutes and other things which would have ensured this record would never have been released in 1965.
- ‘Youth Know No Pain’ – wurlitzer whirls, everyone gets up and dances.
- ‘I Follow Rivers’ – the percussion on this alone is worth the price of the album (unless you downloaded it for free in which case it’s worth more).
- ‘Sadness Is A Blessing’ – how was this not number 1 all year? It would have been if Adele had released it.
13 Metronomy – The English Riviera
Apparently it’s a concept album about the English seaside except it really isn’t. Instead it’s more falsetto harmonies, more quirky little ditties, and more evolution for the band who still sound like they’re recording everything in their bedroom, in a good way. There’s more heft in the rhythm section this time around which is welcome without detracting from the charm, and it’s a thoroughly well-crafted piece of sophisticated pop elegance. It nicks from 80s smooth pop but without sounding like it should be soundtracking wankers snorting coke in yachts while wearing white jeans. No, it’s geek-indie at its best.
- ‘She Wants’ – sinister slap bass pushing everything forward.
- ‘The Bay’ – smooth as hell pop which strays dangerously close to 80s wanker-pop without falling into those deadly waters.
- ‘Everything Goes My Way’ – all Metronomy albums must have a wonky duet crammed full of charm, this is it.
14 Cold Cave – Cherish The Light Years
You what’s wrong with most 80s influenced bands these days? Irony. Now don’t get me wrong, I love irony, but the best things about 80s music was that everyone took themselves very very seriously, especially the synth pop brigade. Cold Cave take themselves insanely seriously. It’s proper synth pop iconagraphy ahoy with lyrics about graveyards and anguished lovers either facing impossible odds together or breaking up in melodramatic waves sadness. It’s all delivered with the subtly of a North Korean military parade, waves of drums and keyboards and bellowing. There’s not a lot of light and shade, just a juggernaut of seriousness, but the sheet sincerity of it all is infectious and endearing. I can’t resist its silliness and I advise you don’t either.
- ‘Catacombs’ – totally seriousface, very silly to start with, but by the end it’s sucked you in so much that the payoff is quite emotional.
- ‘Underworld USA’ – very 80s, nice guitars, silly serious sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Alchemy And You’ – best use of trumpets 2011.
15 Wild Flag – Wild Flag
Ah, y’know what, let’s not even begin to pretend this doesn’t sound loads like Sleater-Kinney. Wild Flag have Carrie and Janet from S-K, plus mates, and they have made a record which sounds an awful lot like S-K would have done had they decided to follow up The Woods with an album featuring more big, raw rock songs with twiddly (but not fretwanky) guitars, raw and zesty vocals, and retro, kind of 60s sounding keyboards. It is big, it is clever, it is endearingly life-affirming, with blasts of handclaps, 60s girl-group style backing vocals, and a pleasingly punkish edge to everything.
- ‘Romance’ – exactly two minutes in when the music drops out and it’s all handclaps. That.
- ‘Boom’ – for the breakneck crunching guitars.
- ‘Future Crimes’ – the contrast between the track’s general urgent heaviness and the twinkling keys.
16 EMA – Past Life Martyred Saints
Droney, fuzzy, scuzzy, it’s like Past Life Martyred Saints is making a case for “dirgey” to be reclaimed as a positive rather than negative adjective. Quite a lot of the album is heavy, not in a heavy metal way, but in an oppressive and all consuming way, like a humid evening. That’s another word which is appropriate here if we can accept it as a positive not a negative – oppressive. There’s something enveloping about Erika M Anderson’s world, with its tales of small town freaks, angry geeks, and ominous metaphors. There are also plenty of squalls of guitar noise, some of it stately, some of it pure rocking out. It’s shit. Sorry, it’s THE shit. Now there’s a negative adjective turned positive for you.
- ‘The Grey Ship’ – an epic in two parts, a swaying acoustic beginning and a massive rockout ending.
- ‘Milkman’ – distorted glam stomper.
- ‘California’ – fuzzy rant, less a song, more a thrilling sermon with guitar noise.
17 Grimes Geidi Primes/Halfaxa
It was quite odd seeing NME calling Grimes the future of dance music, if only because it’s not that easy to dance to. At all. Yeah I tried. I’m being cheeky and lumping these two albums together which probably isn’t fair. Also she released them as free downloads in 2010, but as they only came out on record this year I am counting them. They’re worth counting too, two albums of dreamy, fuzzy electro. That’s ‘dreamy’ as in the full range of dreams, from twinkling brief half songs, through to terrifying nightmares of sinister little-girl-lost vocals and disconcerting waves of synth. Both albums are hodge-podges of ideas in the best possible way.
- ‘Weregild’ (from Halfaxa) – if only for the bit where the drums kick in.
- ‘Swan Song’ (from Halfaxa) – Crystal Castles if they were dreamy rather than furious.
- ‘Rosa’ (from Geidi Primes) – almost a proper song, twangy guitar and nearly intelligible lyrics, but what’s best about it that it’s groovy.
18 tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
Ah, the unmistakable sound of drums and a car horn. A ragged guitar accompanied by the sound of falling wood. A raw voiced and angry woman harmonising with a police siren. Who knew Little Mix’s album would be so adventurous? Jokes, Merrill Garbus wouldn’t get past the first round of X Factor, if only because rather than some dirgey ballad her audition piece would be like one of the tracks off W H O K I L L, a righteous but often funny rant about the complete shitness of modern life, backed by a percussive cascade. Under Garbus’s command all instruments, including guitars, saxophones and, yes, sampled sirens, are merely shards of percussion to be used like some modern approximation of tribal rhythms.
- ‘My Country’ – a cascade of instruments and vocals, all falling down a hill.
- ‘Gangsta’ – strutting, jerky barrage of noise which somehow resolves itself into a cautionary tale with a sing-a-long chorus.
- ‘Bizniss’ – the lyrical and vocal dexterity here makes it a winner.
19 Zola Jesus – Conatus
Lots of heavy percussion, thudding towards the listener like a relentless army of goth girls, each with a cryptic story of vague sadness to impart. And yet, there’s also a lot of arms in the air rave moments, albeit slowed down from the high tempos of dance music, giving the whole album a weirdly underwater mood to it. Dark and mysterious but still inviting all the neighbours around for a party with black cake, black balloons and black party bags.
- ‘Vessel’ – the mechanical percussion is great.
- ‘Ixode’ – spiralling, layered vocals lead to a thoroughly ecstatic conclusion.
- ‘Seekir’ – this could almost be a pure pop song if it weren’t for the weird backing vocals, but when the drums kick in the dancing’s good.
20 Katy B – On A Mission
Ok, so she’s pop as anything, this isn’t edgy dubstep, and there’s the end of the last track where she goes off on one like an Oscar winner thanking her parents, cat, local lollipop lady for making it all happen, but hey, here’s a good dance record in a year of bad dance records. It helps that Katy has a good voice, distinctive even if the lyrics are a little banal, albeit in a sassy way. Thing is, when this album is good, it’s very very good, exhilarating to dance to, and fun to listen to. And yes, it’s not an album of great lyrical insights, but it’s nice that the overall theme is a girl being confident and honest about wanting a good time on her terms.
- ‘Katy On A Mission’ – huge wub wub wub anthem, resistance is futile.
- ‘Witches Brew’ – captures all the worst keyboard parts from late 90s trance and makes them good again using bleepy bleeps.
- ‘Broken Record’ – the last 45 seconds are possibly the best fade out ending in ages.
21 British Sea Power – Dancehall Valhalla
In which British Sea Power make another British Sea Power record. If that means anything to you then it’s an endorsement. If not then let me explain briefly – someone forgot to tell British Sea Power about any and all developments in indie since 2001. Therefore they make quirky guitar led songs about esoteric lyrical themes (this time round is more military themes, more star gazing, and more celebrations of music itself). These songs are then polished with big epic guitar riffs, and occasional deviations into slightly leftfield areas, but always returning to the slightly unfashionable indie underneath. And then they stick an almost 12 minute wigout at the end. Typical.
- ‘We Are Sound’ – top notch outro, classic BSP tactic of piling more and more sheer stuff in til the song pops.
- ‘Mongk II’ – twisted vocals over a driving insistent beat.
- ‘Observe The Skies’ – the most BSP song on here.
22 Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis
Super-sinister, droning, hypnotic, it starts with a 23 second cover of a death metal song, and then soundtracks the most nightmare waltz through a haunted house you could imagine. Even the songs which don’t sound like nightmares are a bit off, love songs about being weirdos freaks. Glacial beauty, but only if the glacier is made of black ice.
- ‘Mer’ – guitar riffs strangely reminiscent of Brand New at their most haunting.
- ‘Tracks (Tall Bodies)’ – the most unnerving love song of the year, without being at all explicit.
- ‘Moses’ – builds around an unending creeping guitar riff into a woozy finale.
23 Bjork – Biophilia
A very sparse album which actually requires some concentration, but it’s worth it for the rewards. Of course Bjork would never do something as dull as simply release an album of songs you can sing along to, and this isn’t really a collection of songs per se, more some interesting sonic experiments with moments of startling beauty interspersed between moments of “WTF?” and “huh wuh?”. Guaranteed not to be to everyone’s tastes.
- ‘Crystalline’ – surprise drum’n’bass outro.
- ‘Cosmogony’ – like a really really weird Disney song.
- ‘Mutual Core’ – I love the ‘chorus’ (insofar as there is one) on this.
24 Neon Indian – Era Extraña
Could Alan Palomo have made it more obvious than starting this album with what sounds like Space Invaders launching? I wasn’t that impressed with his debut, but this follow up is a great slice of electro-pop, layering 80s computer game noises over Palomo’s chillwave-ish vocals. It sounds like a distant Wayne Coyne trying to seduce a room full of retro-gamers, probably unsuccessfully because they’re all trying to beat Donkey Kong and save the princess.
- ‘Polish Girl’ – chillwave with bleeps not woozy guitars.
- ‘Fallout’ – see above.
- ‘Suns Irrupt’ – see above… look, they all sound the same but I like it.
25 Lady Gaga – Born This Way
It’s too long, there’s too much filler, one track sounds like Shania Twain, but in the end there’s a reason the Lady is a pop juggernaut crushing all before her and that’s because when she gets it right, she gets it righter than most. The sheer OTT-ness of the album sometimes works a total treat and it is nice to hear a pop star wanting to talk about more than just being ‘in da club’. We all know what it sounds like, and I am cool with that.
- ‘Government Hooker’ – precision engineered for the dancefloor.
- ‘Judas’ – pop as if made by evil robots who will crush and enslave us all, but in a good way.
- ‘Edge Of Glory’ – we’ll regret it in a few years time when they are everywhere, but here is a sax solo which is great!
26 True Widow – An High As The Highest Heavens And From The Centre To the Circumference Of The Earth
Slowly slowly the downtuned guitars and sludgy bass unfurl into… something. Not really songs because they’re more like funeral grooves, as if someone decided to slow down a load of danceable songs then cover them using only guitars dug from prehistoric times. Whack a load of floating and distant vocals on top and voila. An album of gloom which isn’t oppressive. An album where all the songs seem to sound the same, but they aren’t, and besides too much variation would ruin the mood. Which is one of futile despair. One for dinner parties and social gatherings.
- ‘Jackyl’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘NH’ – for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
- ‘Boaz’ – for the amazing drum and bass meets opera bit in the… kidding, it’s for the droning guitars and spooky vocals.
27 Maybeshewill – I Was Here For A Moment Then I Was Gone
More heavy rock meets post-rock from Maybeshewill, the band who like to make post-rock songs but either cut out the first five minutes of build up and just slam in the bit with the loud guitars and drum fills, or they condense it all down into four minutes. It’s definitely worth it for people who like waves of uplifting guitars to wash over them, and I am one of those.
- ‘Red Paper Lanterns’ – for the best in guitar riff and xylophone interactions.
- ‘Critical Distance’ – the lovely cascading piano could have been Coldplay at their best but instead it gets to play with with skittering drums and big guitars and souds all the better for it.
- ‘Farewell To Sarajevo’ – stately and pretty.
28 Yacht – Shangri-La
DFA’s oddballs return with another album of strangeness which could be self-help motivational indie-dance, or an ironic act of such subtlety that it’s impossible to know who the joke is on. Whatever they’re on (and I think they’re being sincere) they’ve added some decent tunes, all in typical DFA style. It’s not up there with LCD Soundsystem, but in that vein cowbells are whacked, beats are dropped, basslines are wobbled and the pair have a giddy enthusiasm which means you’re about halfway through the album before you realise most of what they’re saying is bollox, but it’s danceable and fun bollox.
- ‘Dystopia’ – for sheer balls at nicking the chorus from elsewhere and the lolling rhythm.
- ‘I Walked Alone’ – for using autotune in a way which isn’t irritating.
- ‘Tripped And Fell In Love’ – the longest track, a Juan Maclean-ish groove.
December 30, 2010
Ok, what’s this here? Two joint number 1 albums? Yeah, I honestly couldn’t call it between them, so different are they in style, place, time and arms-in-the-air-ability, that it was impossible to find a way to compare them in order to establish which, if either was better. So there you go. Just know that both are reasons to conclude that 2010 was a good year for music, no matter how much the charts made us cry hot salty tears of pain. Bah.
=1. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
This is one of many options you can choose unless you’re mental and want to get them all.
Too obvious? Sod that, yeah they might be in almost every top ten of the year, in every magazine and newspaper, but far from being a sign of everyone being unimaginative and boring, it’s for the simple reason that this really is a stormer of an album. And an album it is. I honestly think that the best albums have, at most, 12 tracks worth having. This has 16, and 15 are worthy of a place in an album which works as a cohesive work, one which should be listened to in order and in one sitting. It’s something of a rarity these days, when skip functions and albums packed with ‘singles’ rather than a flowing set of songs are the norm. I’m as guilty as the next person when it comes to finding albums and listening to just the tracks I like best, but this one positively demands to be listened to in order. It’s also classic Arcade Fire, more like their superlative debut than the bitty and slightly dissatisfying Neon Bible which had individually good songs but lacked the feeling of a complete piece. The Suburbs has big choruses in unexpected places, the brief bellow of “Now I’m ready to start” or the jaunty loping “Sometimes I can’t believe it/I’m moving past the feeling”. Less frantic than earlier albums, it unfolds neatly, changing gears but always full of heart, perhaps too much of a slow burner for those seduced by the punch of the first two albums, but worth the time and effort. Lovely.
=1. Robyn - Body Talk
Robyn is the first pop star made of car air freshers.
At a time when every American pop and r’n’b star seems to have decided to put a bit of the Euro-pop thing in their records, it takes an actual European from the nation which pretty much owns pop, Sweden, to do it better than anyone else. Robyn’s grand experiment, releasing music as it was ready rather than to anyone else’s schedule has paid off in style. Body Talk is a pop record which pop fans can use against any accusations levelled at it. Shallow and plastic? How can you argue with the way she stalks and cries her way across the dancefloor during ‘Dancing On My Own’. Empty and meaningless? Try telling me that ‘Call Your Girlfriend’ isn’t packed with years of experience and insight into that most difficult of actions, breaking up with someone. Formulaic collaborations with bored rappers in a bid for credibility? ‘You Should Know Better’ is probably more a case of Robyn giving Snoop Dogg a credibility kick than him bringing her one. It’s also one of the funniest songs of the year. That’s what this album’s all about, the songs are either sad ones with arms-in-the-air moments, or smart arse ones which genuinely smart lyrics. Messing with the form when it suits (the metronomic ‘Don’t Fucking Tell Me What To Do’ isn’t far removed from a psychedelic drone record) or just doing something simple (‘Hang With Me’, ‘Indestructible’, most of the others). Plus it contains the lyric “I gotta lotta automatic booty applications” which is some sort of twisted genius. No really. It is.
3. Warpaint - The Fool
Ooooh, a mystical magic eye.
There’s little more tedious than guitar-bored asserting that girls can’t play guitar as well as boys. Give them this album. Give them the sparkling riffs, the intricate interplay between the guitars and bass. Give them Warpaint, who’ve melded the reverb soaked, fret climbing, late-night jangle of Interpol with the harmonious-but-tough girly vocals of Au Revoir Simone. But with better drumming than either. They’re the sort of band that make a mockery of the “radio edit” versions of singles. Yeah, so their songs are long and often take a while to unfold, but this is music for those who have time to invest in songs with layers and intricacies. Beautiful songs. Songs to lose yourself in. The guitar riff which kicks in part way through the eponymous ‘Warpaint’ the outro to the slow burning ‘Undertow’, the vocal interplay during ‘Composure’, these all give the impression of band who like to take their time in coming up with something special.
4. 65daysofstatic - We Were Exploding Anyway
Wait, neither of you are in the band! Get a room!
They’ve been mixing postrock guitars with techno rhythms and synths for a while now, but 65daysofstatic might just have done something very retro – making a truly great third album. Remember when bands were allowed three albums to get it right? Well it might not be the industry norm anymore, but this is evidence that it maybe still should be. Enormous tunes come crashing through the record; so confident are the band that they feel able to leave an excellent Robert Smith (yes, of The Cure) collaboration, ‘Come To Me’, towards the end of the record, and indeed the last track, ‘Tiger Girl’ might well be the best of the bunch, a thumping techno undercarriage bringing stabs of guitar along with it. Postrock without the slow build (the quiet bits) might sound like it has robbed the music of the essential contrast which gives it heart, but 65daysofstatic have found a way around this, via the dancefloor.
5. Foals - Total Life Forever
It’s important indie bands learn how to swim in time for the next downpour at Leeds fest.
If there was one complaint you could make about Foals’ pretty damn good first album Antidotes it’s that it was a bit cold, a bit remote, a bit hard to relate to emotionally. Enter Total Life Forever which is warmer, more ambitious, more elaborate and more intricate. Just more. Unafraid to let songs build from quiet, almost silent openings (‘Spanish Sahara’) Foals have taken all the elements of postrock which 65daysofstatic have discarded, and applied them to their jerky indie template. The result is lush guitars, bouncy rhythms, and expansive sonics. Oh, and nice vocal harmonies everywhere. And it does a fantastic line is endings. I love a song with a great ending, one where the whole song has been building towards that last minute or so. It explains my love of postrock in general. Total Life Forever has the best endings of any album this year. If we were judging albums solely on the last minute of each track then this would be top – ‘Black Gold’, ‘What Remains’, ‘Spanish Sahara’, all end in awesome crescendos of sound. If only this tiny review had a comparably good ending. But it doesn’t. Bah.
6. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles II
Emo kid finds no sympathy from the dead.
My mate Bun hates this lot. He likes the Eagles and other beardy guitar bands, so it’s not really a surprise. And his main complaint, that Crystal Castles trade in ear bleeding noise, aren’t quite as fair on this album as their were on the first one. Yes, two of the first three tracks – ‘Doe Deer’ and ‘Fainting Spells’ – do sound like the first album’s main formula of throwing an Atari down the stairs onto a banshee, but it’s the track they sandwich, ‘Celestica’, which is more typical. It is, surprisingly, beautiful, ethereal, floaty… it’s not what you’d expect after listening to ‘Alice Practice’. It’s a good formula too, bringing dreamy, crackling synths, but still keeping some of the menace of previous records. ‘Year Of Silence’ perfectly sets the mood, taking one of Sigur Ros’s more upbeat vocals and layering them over a martial synth thud. It’s all still as unintelligible as ever – Alice certainly sounds like she’s singing “This is your potato” on ‘Baptism’, a track which sounds like something the KLF would make today – but if that puts you off then you’d probably prefer the clear diction of the Eagles, and that’s no fun.
7. Sleight Bells - Treats
Bet you didn’t know cheerleaders grew on trees.
Sleigh Bells could have been a sweet, melodic lo-fi band with a cutesy sounding lead singer, in the vein of the many boy-girl bands around at the moment peddling whispy but jaunty tunes. They could but for one thing – apart from Alexis Krauss’s cheeky, chirpy vocals, everything is loud to a point which would cause sonic nerds to collapse into gibbering heaps. That guy complaining that the age of the Loudness War http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loudness_war is causing music to become distorted and painful? He will hate this. So will most people, but it’s actually a thing of beauty, noise twisted in on itself until it because pure pop again. Kind of like what Crystal Castles did on their first album, only with electric guitars and a singer who wants to lure you in, not batter you over the head and rip your limbs off. Oh yeah, and then there’s ‘Rill Rill’ where they show they can do a quiet but beautifully tuneful number, as if to prove that they know what you’re thinking – “All noise and no tunes? No, we have tunes, you just have to come to them, we won’t serve them up to you so easily”. Worth every sore ear.
8. LoneLady - Nerve Up
“Where’s the feckin’ light switch?”
If there’s any downside to the ever expanding cloud of success which has enveloped The xx it’s that they might have occupied too much of the same space as LoneLady to give her a chance of getting heard more widely. Sparse instrumentation, lyrics loaded with abstract emotional punches, and the voice of a vulnerable angel, ingredients which might sound familiar to those who follow the Mercury Music Prize winners, but Julie Campbell is no copyist. LoneLady constructs her songs with just a few pieces, a voice, a guitar or two, some drums. No bass, no fripperies. Just her sparkling cross of minimalistic indie, PJ Harvey and the terse atmospherics of many of the historic totems of Manchester music. Yes, it seems trite to bring her hometown into it, but this really is the most Manchester album released in quite some time, if by Manchester we mean the forward looking Manchester of the early 80s, not the retrogressive lad-rock bilge of the 90s. Deceptively danceable, music made for Julie Campbell by Julie Campbell which conveniently manages to be awesome for those who aren’t Julie Campbell.
9. Caribou - Swim
More mystic bollocks. Seriously, mystics have multicoloured bollocks, check it out next time one flashes you.
Ah, sad dance music. Kind of. Is this really dance music? Sure it can be danced to, but it’s almost a surprise to find it’s not from DFA such is that label’s formula of sad vocals, thumping bass, and arms in the air like you just do care in evidence here. That Dan Snaith decided to give away opener ‘Odessa’ as a free download earlier this year is impressively ballsy as it’s a strong contender for best song of the year and frankly if people won’t pay for something this brilliant then we should abandon money and live in a hole in the ground. Whilst listening to ‘Odessa’, natch. It’s all fairly similar in a sense, hypnotic and rhythmic, songs loop around themselves and wind their way to wistful places where bits of percussion float in and out of hearing on waves of sound. Yes, I know this makes me sound like a wanker, but it really is that good. Songs about divorce and upheaval never sounded so good.
10. Kelis - Fleshtone
Kelis takes her defeat to Janelle Monae in Hat Of The Year stoically.
Hey up, Kelis has discovered dance music. She’s got the chops for it, or specifically the voice for it, her husky tones languidly poured over some good quality dance. This isn’t David Guetta teaming up with some second division American r’n’b diva to do a big poo in your ear canal, this is at times understated, at times thumping tunes for waving your arms around to. There are songs addressed to her newborn which don’t make you wanna throw up (‘Acapella’ although I’ve heard people reckon it’s about God), and even some old school Kelis shouting (‘Emancipate Yourself’). ‘4th Of July’ is certified sultry dancefloor banger, even giving pounding house piano a good going over. Funny how it took an American to show European dance music how to occupy the dancefloor without being diabolical, although I’m not sure it’s quite enough to erase memories of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, damn you Black Eyed Peas!
11. Marina And The Diamonds - The Family Jewels
Do you think she thinks she’s sexy? Is she?
Self referencing in the first song on your debut album? That takes some stones, and Marina Diamandis would appear to have those. Diamonds in fact. Whilst not the best pure pop album of the year (it’s two, maybe three tracks too long), this is a good debut made by someone unafraid to be both pop and smart. Clever clever wordplay, some of Kate Bush’s best vocal tics, and a great way with a song, she’ll wind up some, but for fans of pop with personality this is a definite album of the year (in years where Robyn doesn’t release records).
12. Delphic - Acolyte
Defy the smoking ban, get dropped from a building.
You know what, I couldn’t be bothered being clever clever and not referencing Manchester when talking about LoneLady, and I’m not going to try here. This sounds like a modern take on New Order. I bloody love New Order. And in parts I bloody love this. Yeah, like other albums here, it’s a bit too long and could lose a track or two, but my goodness they have some bangers up their sleeves. The only weak point is the slightly nondescript vocals, but when so many of the songs make you wanna swoosh your arms around why complain?
13. Yeasayer - Odd Blood
Horrible 80s graphics are horrible.
Confession, I really didn’t wanna like Yeasayer. They looked like twats and were pretentious as hell in interviews. But they’ve also made an album which dared to take all the worst bits of 80s music – slap bass, bad drum production, over emoting vocals – and make a good album from it. Loping and louche, it doesn’t seem to care how cheesy it is in parts, which is pretty much how you should revive the 80s, shamelessly.
14. Fan Death - Womb Of Dreams
Hmm, elephants do have very long pregnancies, it’s true.
It’s not often that NME’s habit of saying all new bands sound like x + y (and yes I am aware that I’ve already done an x + y comparison in this post) but they actually managed to get it spot on with Fan Death = Florence And The Machine + Hercules And Love Affair. It’s disco night down the goth club, and all the girls in floaty lace dresses are singing paeans to lost or impossible love (one song’s about Jesus and Pilate’s wife, but not in a blasphemous way) over stomping disco beats and stabby disco strings. Tastefully groovy.
15. Holly Miranda - The Magician’s Private Library
Why are you sleeping? We have Stella Artois for you.
Girl sings swoonsome modern folk songs as walls of sounds ebb and flow? Possibly, but it’s also quicker to say girl sings TV On The Radio songs. Ok, so Ms Miranda wrote these herself, but with Dave Sitek’s producer paws all over, this is a TV On The Radio album in many ways. What Holly Miranda has going for her is a willingness to let Sitek be a dictator and infuse her songs with a hum that is at times sad-happy (‘Forest Green, Oh Forest Green’, apparently not about the non-league football club), sad-sexy (‘No One Just Is’, the album highlight with its eastern strings), and sad-sad (pretty much everything else). She has a great voice and some great friends.
16. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
James Murphy can also defy gravity.
Why mess with the formula when you’ve cracked it? Sure, this isn’t as good as its two predecessors, but I would be using the fingers of just one hand if I had to list albums from this century which are better than Sound Of Silver. Instead James Murphy serves up more of the same where the same is brilliant dance music, wry lyrics, and occasional doses of dancefloor heartbreak where hearts are broken not by partners but by the sheer elation of waving your arms in the air until you have to leave. And with that LCD Soundsystem leave us. Sniff.
17. Two Door Cinema Club - Tourist History
Generic indie band 2010 imagery #1 – a bloody cat.
TDCC don’t do anything revolutionary, and if their influence list includes anything beyond Franz Ferdinand, The Futureheads and Bloc Party then they’re lying. But they just so happen to write really good songs. Simple 00s style indie, it is probably easy to hate if you don’t rate the hit-hat friendly rhythms and wiry guitars, but I like that sort of thing when it’s good, and this is. ‘I Can Talk’ is one of the songs of the year, fact.
18. School Of Seven Bells - Disconnect From Desire
Runic bollocks. No really, they look like bollocks.
Swooshy guitars and punchier percussion than last time around, this isn’t a great leap forward, more a purposeful step in the direction of yet more lush soundscapes and indeed Lush soundscapes (mid 90s indie, not lovely soaps, duh). And if it occasionally sounds less like those mystical shoegaze and more like Donna Lewis’s ‘I Love You Always Forever’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7NV52UApGY (I’m looking at you ‘I L U’) then that’s grand, a lazy summer afternoon in album form. Nice.
19. Skream - Outside The Box
Have I got this wrong? Am I supposed to like Magnetic Man more? Well I don’t. I do like that album, but this one’s just a bit more engaging, especially the superb run of tracks at the end taking in ‘Listening To The Records On My Wall’ and ‘Finally’, the latter being one of the best things La Roux has done. Ok there’s no Katie B, but she’s only on a couple of Magnetic Man’s tracks anyway.
20.Beach House – Teen Dream
Zebras, Elton John style.
Bare with me on this as I admit now I might well be wrong. This could be much better than this placing. I came to it late, but it’s lovely, all dreamy but with hints of steel underneath. And Victoria Legrand has a great voice, which raises it where sometimes it feels like it might float away. So yeah, perhaps with more time I’d have placed this higher up. Sorry. Despite all evidence to the contrary I can’t listen to everything. Sadface. (A same conundrum exists with Janelle Monae’s album, which also sounds quite fab but which I need more time with).
December 29, 2010
21. La Roux and Major Lazer – Lazerproof
Ripping off Iron Man is the quickest way to good artwork.
Huh, a remix album mashing up La Roux’s debut with Major Lazer’s arsenal of sounds, raps and tunes? Well yes, and it’s better than the sum of its parts. No really, sticking together the two has produced mashups like ‘Keep It Fascinating’ which are less shrill but still tense and nervy. Plus it can be downloaded for free – http://sub.maddecent.com/lazerproof/
22. Blood Red Shoes – Fire Like This
That’s a lot of hair gel.
In pretty much the same way as their debut, Fire Like This shows Blood Red Shoes only really have one trick, but it’s a good one. Frantic guitars and drums, you wonder what they have to do which is so urgent that everything has to be played at breakneck speed. Is the oven on? No idea, but the wide eyed mayhem of ‘Don’t Ask’ and ‘Heartsink’ rush along with glee regardless.
23. KT Tunstall – Tiger Suit
Washed out photo = srs bsns.
Confession: I’ve been hoping for this album for a good while. Y’see ever since that performance on ‘Later…’ I’ve suspected that Ms Tunstall has had a genuinely good album in her. Not a whimsical female singer-songwriter-fest as with both her previous albums. She’s got a great voice, and seemed in touch with the idea of looping and fiddling with her acoustic sounds. So rejoice, here’s an album which is 66.67% what I’ve been waiting for! Ok, it tails off a bit into mimsying, but the opening barrage of tracks – ‘Uumannaq Song’, ‘Push That Knot Away’ and ‘Fade Like A Shadow’ in particular – are punchy and danceable whilst still being largely acoustic. Nice one growly-voice girl.
24. M.I.A. – /\/\ /\ Y /\
M.I.A. is watching you watching Newport on repeat.
Hmm, it’s a bit like the LCD Soundsystem record again, listening to this I cannot help but think “The previous albums were better”. Still, in ‘XXXO’ she has an electro pop anthem which Gaga, Rihanna et al would kill for, and the balls to leave it unattended on an album of shouty noise pop (‘Born Free’) and unexpected shifts in gear. It’s disjointed but worth the effort. ‘Space’ is pure beauty.
25. Hundred In The Hands – Hundred In The Hands
Did you let a child fingerpaint over your photo again?
It happened again! Another late one, but this is lovely stuff, a little bit Fan Death, a little bit Warpaint, a little bit Beach House, it’s girly voiced indie but with a wide ranging remit and a strong melodic touch. And lastfm justifies its existence with one recommendation. I’m listening right now, in fact.
26. Everything Everything – Man Alive
Oh shit, that fox is about to get run over!
Why so low? I was a bit disappointed with this album. Having caught them live a couple of times and been very very impressed with the rush of ideas and silly vocals, and then hearing the brill singles ‘Suffragette Suffragette’ and ‘My Keys, Your Boyfriend’, it was a bit of a shame that the album seemed to lack… something. Hard to say what really. Individually most of the songs are strong, ‘Photoshop Handsome’ is hilarious, so it’s not a bad album. Oh well, best just see them live again.
27. Janelle Monae – The ArchAndroid
Hat of the year.
As I mentioned, I think this is probably a lot better then its placing suggests but I am, for shame, a late comer to it. Forgive me. On the other hand it means I do get to listen to it now, with its rich imagery and captivating variety of styles. ‘Cold War’ is great too. Give me time. For now be reassured that it sounds good on first listen and we should all stick to it. It’s about robots, forcrissakes, it cannot be bad.
28. Fight Like Apes - The Body Of Christ And The Legs Of Tina Turner
With a title like that the cover could have been totally shit and it wouldn’t have mattered…
I didn’t really like this when I first heard it, it felt like a disappointment after the debut. My main complaint was that all the songs sounded like two tracks off that debut – ‘Tie Me Up With Jackets’ and ‘Battlestations’. Of course all I needed to do was remember that those two tracks are ace, and an album of sound-a-likes, whilst not as good as the debut, was still good enough for me. And that’s the best album title of the year, nay ever. Ever.
29. Jonsi – Go
In which he… sings in English. It feels so wrong, the elves shouldn’t be singing in the same tongue as Liam Gallagher. Ah well, here’s a bunch of songs which sound like Sigur Ros speeded up, right down to being slightly higher pitched than those roaring postrock guitars. It’s all very sparkly, if a little lightweight, but good fun all the same. Put it on your ipod when you so to Mt Doom to dispose of troublesome rings.
30 Salem – King Night
Possibly trying too hard.
It’s hard to listen to more than a few tracks without the dark sludginess leaving you in need of some light, but if for no other reason than the title track this is worth dipping your toe into the darkness for. Vocals rinsed through a million evil effects, everything slowed down to a lurch. Embrace the darkness, if only for a track or two at a time. Rarr.
December 28, 2009
Join me and my New Year’s Resolution to go to at least one gig every month of 2009.
Yey! Did it! One musical resolution kept even if it was by the skin of my teeth sometimes. And what a good way to end the whole shebang, with a homecoming (ish) gig by one of the most underrated bands of the decade – Doves. Not just a homecoming, but an over-the-top, bells and whistles extravaganza, featuring big screens and multiple cameras, suggesting that it might just be possible to relive this experience again. Surely this will be coming out as a live DVD?
If not it’ll be a wasted opportunity, that’s for sure. It’s really saying something that the Super Furry Animals were outdone in the props and tricks department. With a relatively short half hour slot, there wasn’t time for the full range of SFA tricks, but they did kick off ‘Slow Life’ with a man in a John Lennon mask waving signs reading “Applause” and “Woah” at the audience who, to their credit, applauded and woahed on request. It was mostly bigger hits on display, and they still possess the almighty cathartic tune which is ‘The Man Don’t Give A Fuck’ – a track which never seems to lack relevance, sadly.
And so to the main attraction – a band who seemed more delighted and overwhelmed than perhaps any other I have eve encountered live. The three Doves – Jimi, Andy and Jez – all grew up in one of Manchester’s many commuter (i.e. bitch) towns, and headlining the 10,000 capacity venue that they stubbornly refer to by its old (i.e. proper) name of GMEX, clearly meant a hell of a lot to them. Thus they cracked out a wide ranging and excellently chosen set.
Tracks like ‘Jetsteams’ and ‘Kingdom Of Rust’ from their latest albums sounded as familiar as the older stuff, and were just well received. The latter, the band’s self described “country song” even inspired a moshpit which surprised Jez into comment. Then there was ‘Black And White Town’ – a song which perfectly captures living in those satellite bitch towns. Few songs sum up my own teenage years so effortlessly. A beered up, enthusiastic Mancunian crowd is one of the most exciting you can find yourself in, and fortunately Doves don’t seem to attract the total dickheads which the more laddish likes of Oasis and The Courtneers attract.
Certainly those laddish bands would never even consider enlisting the London Bulgarian Choir, whose presence gave soaring harmonies to the already utterly wonderful likes of ‘The Cedar Room’ and the usually instrumental ‘Firesuite’ which sounded quite simply epic. Leaving the choir to perform in he gap between the main set and the encore was a masterstroke as they held the audience’s attention through their interweaving harmonies and the sheer passion of their performance.
And exactly the same could be said of Doves themselves. They’ve not quite achieved the break through that fellow (almost) Mancs Elbow managed last year, but it doesn’t matter – on home terrain they rule like kings, and it was an excellent show, one which has reignited my love for them (a love which has lapsed a little recently) and which demonstrates that bands who care, about their music and about their fans, can sometimes get what they deserve.
December 20, 2009
I can’t be arsed to rank them, so this is a playlist comprising of the songs in a reasonably coherent order. On track per artist. To my eternal shame I actually really enjoyed not one, but two Black Eyed Peas songs this year. Sorry.
- Lady Gaga – ‘Poker Face’ (just shading ‘Bad Romance’)
- Black Eyed Peas – ‘Meet Me Halfway’ (despite having some of the worst rapping I have heard from them, and that’s saying something – ‘Boom Boom Pow’ was also enjoyable)
- Shakira – ‘She Wolf’ (howling in pop songs, brilliant)
- Florence And The Machine – ‘Drumming Song’
- Marina And The Diamonds – ‘Mowgli’s Road’
- Dizze Rascal – ‘Bonkers’
- Deadmau5 ft Rob Swire – ‘Ghosts ‘n’ Stuff’
- Royksopp ft Karin Dreijer Andersson – ‘This Must Be It’
- Little Boots – ‘Remedy’ (would have been number one most of the year if Girls Aloud had released it)
- La Roux – ‘Tigerlily’ (cannot work out why this wasn’t released as a single)
- Peaches – ‘I Feel Cream’
- Kap Bambino – ‘Dead Lazers’
- Fever Ray – ‘Dry And Dusty’
- The Juan MacLean – ‘The Simple Life’
- Au Revoir Simone – ‘All Or Nothing’
- Miike Snow – ‘Silvia’
- Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Zero’ (dancefloor tune of the year)
- Ladyhawke – ‘Magic’ (cheating perhaps as this was on her 2008 album, but it was released as a single this year, and might just be my favourite song)
- Passion Pit – ‘Eyes As Candles’
- Muse – ‘Undisclosed Desires’
- Doves – ‘Jetstream’
- Patrick Wolf – ‘Oblivion’ (there are few songs which wouldn’t be improved by copying this one and including Tilda Swinton giving the singer a bollocking)
- Franz Ferdinand – ‘Lucid Dreams’
- The Phantom Band – ‘The Howling’
- Empire Of The Sun – ‘We Are The People’
- The Big Pink – ‘Dominos’ (it probably helps I don’t watch too much TV as I believe this has been hideously overplayed on adverts)
- Metric – ‘Gimme Sympathy’
- The xx – ‘Intro’ (never has an intro been so brilliant, and I include ‘CV’ from Robyn’s last album in that)
- Bat For Lashes – ‘Pearl’s Dream’
- The Cribs – ‘We Share The Same Skies’ (aka Match Of The Day 2’s goals song)
- Cymbals Eat Guitars – ’...And The Hazy Sea’
- Manic Street Preachers – ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’ (surely the song title of the year?)
- Brand New – ‘At The Bottom’
- Future Of The Left – ‘Arming Eritrea’
- Mono – ‘The Battle To Heaven’
December 17, 2009
Wherein ten excellent CDs get gushed over.
1 Fever Ray – Fever Ray
Wow. Just wow. It’s impossible to talk about Fever Ray, aka Karin Dreijer Andersson, without mentioning her other band, The Knife. On one level Fever Ray is The Knife minus the beats, but there’s slightly more to it than that. It’s a dark, claustrophobic and intimate record, less a collection of songs than a collection of moods into which the listener is plunged. But these songs are also really bloody good. Really really good. Dreijer’s use of pitchshifted vocals is her trademark, and here it is used to astounding effect, monstrous and roaring on tracks like ‘If I had A Heart’, which makes the use of her (almost) untreated vocals on ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’. If anyone ever tells you electronic records aren’t emotional play them this – either they’ll admit they are wrong or they don’t know what they are talking about.
Best bit The moment when Dreijer shifts from treated to clean vocals on ‘Dry And Dusty’ – heartwrenching.
2 Fight Like Apes – Fight Like Apes And The Mystery Of The Golden Medallion
Neither innovative nor original, who sodding cares! This is condensed fun. Mad Irish kids, wielding synthesisers (no six strings here), hilarious lyrics, yelping and playing reallyreallyreallyfast. FLApes are lovable. They write songs to fire band employees, sing about characters from Saved By The Bell, shout a lot, and write songs that are eight seconds long. I don’t care that hardly anyone seems to have given them a scrap of attention in this country, I love them and this is a superb album.
Best bit MayKay mangling multiple nursery rhymes in ‘I Am Beginning To Think You Prefer Beverley Hills 90210 To Me’.
3 The Juan MacLean – The Future Will Come
I’m one of those geeks who will buy a CD just because it has come out on the DFA label, but to be fair as home to LCD Soundsystem, Hercules And Love Affair,Yacht, and (in the USA) Hot Chip, there are good reasons to expect quality. The Juan MacLean are no different, indie electro with heart. This album of duets rolls out warmly, despite the synthesisers and monotone vocals. Echoing laments to love lost and found, it’s also eminently danceable. MacLean is a clever writer, his eight minute epics fly by, wrapping themselves around the listener, whilst the short, sharp, shocks carry humour and pathos in equal measure. The robots have souls, it seems. DFA business as usual.
Best bit ‘One Day’ sums up the whole review above in one short dose.
4 Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
I really liked half of Natasha Khan’s first album, but it kind of fizzled out into whispiness towards the end. Fortunately for Two Suns this has been well and truly stamped out. Beefier, even in its quiet moments. It suits Khan, her voice is fragile when exposed but suits the chunky basslines in ‘Pearl’s Dream’ or ‘Daniel’ as much as the plaintive piano of ‘Moon And Moon’. Yes it sounds like a lot of other acts (Fleetwood Mac, Bjork) but only their best bits, and these are blended together neatly and engagingly. Best of all it holds the attention to the end, even throwing in a bonus Scott Walker for those who are willing to listen.
Best bit The bass on ‘Pearl’s Dream’.
5 Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers
Taking Richey’s unused lyrics and promising a return to The Holy Bible, Manics fans weren’t in the least bit surprised when it didn’t sound much like that at all. In fact it sounded like a pretty good, fairly timeless indie rock record with lyrics that, despite being at least fifteen years old, managed to be strikingly relevant. It was also a bit more humourous than expected. James wrestles some excellent riffs from his guitar, and is in fine voice. It is what it is, Manics fans love it (and they’re a picky bunch), most others probably won’t care. Like it should be.
Best bit The outro to ‘Jackie Collins Existential Question Time’. Actually scrub that, it’s the title of that song.
6 Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
Synths instead of guitars? Well yes, but there are also guitars which sound like synths, courtesy of the decade’s most underrated guitarist Nick Zinner. As with all YYYs albums there are your dancefloor bangers like ‘Zero’ – possibly the dancefloor tune of the year – and the quieter, emotional moments like ‘Skeleton’ where Karen O’s versatile voice is given a chance to shine. We fretted when there was talk of getting rid of the guitars. We needn’t have worried.
Best bit “Off off off with their head!”
7 Mono – Hymn To The Immortal Wind
Mmm, twelve minute epics about cosmological wars in the skies? Yes please! Japanese post-rockers Mono like to aim for the big, slow-building post-rock anthem with unerring accuracy, start from tiny twinkling guitars, then build up until all the guitars on earth were crashing through a wall made of mountains whilst meteors rain down. Post-rock really does work best when described entirely in metaphors. But Mono are just better at it than most others and Hymn To The Immortal Wind is both utterly faithful the post-rock formula, and thunderously ear caressing at the same time.
Best bit Any drop into the loud guitars, although ‘The Battle Into Heaven’ does it best.
8 Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself And Another
That’s what we need, loud, angry, funny and fast. Future Of The Left are the band Britain doesn’t realise it needs, so it’s convenient they exist anyway. In many ways this second album isn’t significantly different to the first, it crunches along with Andy Falkous’s guilty pleasure lyrics spat out – “I only hit him cos he made me angry, I only hit him cos he made me mad”. No absurdity too ridiculous to be overlooked, this is intense and satisfying. You need to shout along to this.
Best bit The lyrics, as with anything Andy Falkous touches.
9 The xx – xx
Never has sparsity sounded so dense. Ok, that’s not true, it regularly does in the world of dubstep, but the twanging country guitars and murmered vocals of Oliver and Romy add a more human layer to the darkness. Each individual component sounds so simplistic, yet together these parts echo around each other in a beguiling dance. A close and intimate record, one for long dark nights… convenient we get a lot of those, eh?
Best bit ‘Intro’ is so much more than that title suggests.
10 Metric – Fantasies
Simple, effective indie pop, Fantasies will make no shakes, it won’t be seen as trendy or innovative, but damn it’s catchy like a cold. Just more enjoyable. It helps that Emily Haines has always had one of the most appealing voices in indie, warm but capable of anger (‘Gold Guns Girls’) or menace (‘Front Row’) as called for. It chases a more pop vein than previous albums, but by adopting a simple approach it yields direct and enjoyable pop songs. They even recognise as much in the chorus of ‘Gimme Sympathy’ – “Who’d you rather be? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” – we’re not talking ‘Revolution 9’ here.
Best bit “Who’d you rather be? The Beatles or the Rolling Stones?”.
December 16, 2009
I do love end of year music lists, especially the ones arrogant enough to declare their contents the “Best” albums of the year. It’s wonderfully arrogant enough coming from magazines, to see it on blogs is just hilariously self-inflated, and I recognise I am guilty of this myself. I didn’t even do one of these lists last year so convinced was I that it was a purely futile use of my time.
But this year I have decided I will play the game, because people I know, mates who want to share music, share tips, and flat out mock me for my seemingly endless ability to listen to music which sounds like “a thousand Sega Megadrives dying simultaneously” (that’ll be Kap Bambino you’re thinking of, Ben), I will do it, I will make a list of my favourite albums of the year. That’s right, favourite.
My second favourite album of the year is a good example of what I mean – it is derivative, relatively lightweight, doesn’t push the boundaries of music, and makes no grand statement. However it is also the most fun and outright good-mood inspiring CD I have acquired in a long time and it’s mere existence makes me happy, so it outranks in my affections the more serious, weighty and innovative stuff on the list, with one exception.
Anyway, too much waffle. Here’s 11-25, cos no one wants all 25 in one go.
11. Passion Pit – Passion Pit
In midst of this 80s revival we are enduring it’s odd that the most 80s band of all hasn’t really been tarred with that brush. Perhaps looking like hairy indie kids of the sort which was endemic this decade, rather than painted New Romantic peacocks (emphasis on cocks) has rescued Passion Pit. But the truth is there – they use synthesisers to create pop songs. They want to write pop hits. They are the Pet Shop Boys but hairy and American and not as camp. And verily, Passion Pit did create an album of excellent pop. Synths squiggle with a life of their own, and they have more variety of sound than most of the 80s revivalists because they are tied only to their desire for melody, not authenticity. One of those albums where every song could be a single, and that’s high praise.
Best bit The lurching chorus to ‘Eyes As Candles’.
12 Franz Ferdinand – Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
Three albums in and Franz are still making virtually no effort to possess any depth or soul. However they do possess tunes, and now some old synthesisers too. They’ve done well to apparently find synths that adhere to their austere, post punk previous, and like the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs album, the synths slot in rather than feel like a zeitgeist chasing failure. That and Alex Kapranos is still a king when it comes to writing choruses you can sing along to without having heard before. Not the radical departure they talked of, but better than the second album, and possibly not far off the first.
Best bit ‘Lucid Dreams’ which has a nicely sinister chorus, and that squelchy extended outro.
13 Au Revoir Simone – Still Night, Still Light
More synthesisers? Did I even hear a guitar this year? Well yes, but not from Au Revoir Simone, who made the prettiest synth music of the year. Really pretty. They also threw in some lovely girly harmonies, and a wonderfully wistful atmosphere which envelopes the listener like something fluffy with a mechanical, metronomic heart. Unassuming but all the better for it.
Best bit The staccato vocals of the chorus to ‘All Or Nothing’.
14 Cymbals Eat Guitars – Where There Are Mountains
If you’re going to cross breed two bands, Arcade Fire and Los Campesinos! sound like a good place to start. Wailing vocals and wall of sound guitars, minus the kitchen sink instrumentation, coalesces into a gleeful riot. In a year when it felt like everything listenable was loaded with synths, here was proof that guitar bands that can still be exciting, tuneful and charming at the same time.
Best bet The ambition, whilst still remaining accessible.
15 Peaches – I Feel Cream
When it felt like every female in the charts was surfing there on an electro pop wave, it was a bit of a surprise that the best example of the genre was Peaches. Yes, her of the smutty, clattering electro rap, Merril Nisker decided to out do the crowd with an album of well produced, big bangers. With smutty lyrics. Some truly filthy basslines were on offer too, in an album that managed a consistency which was lacking in more high profile girls-with-synths releases. Plus the video to ‘I Don’t Want To Lose You’ is hilarious.
Best bit The title track’s middle eight dropping back into the chorus. The lady can actually sing!
16 Miike Snow – Miike Snow
Studio bods with pop hits to their name (‘Toxic’ primarily) decided to indulge themselves on an album which acts as the downbeat side of what Passion Pit were doing. The best adjective to use is chiming, every instrument on this album appears to chime, from the pianos on ‘Silvia’ to the percussion on ‘Black And Blue’. A more restrained sort of indie-electro, there was almost something folky in its introspection.
Best bit The vocodered (Autotuned?) vocals on ‘Silvia’ which managed to use the most irritating musical trend of the year to genuinely emotional effect.
17 The Cribs – Ignore The Ignorant
Wherein The Cribs recruit Johnny Marr and make an album which sounds like The Cribs featuring Johnny Marr. The surprise is that it suits them, it suits the Jarman brothers to have someone else to jangle with, and it sets up their most mature album, with all the connotations that means. The riffs are expansive, if a little less urgent than before, but overall the slight polish it infers suits them.
Best bit Can’t argue with Match Of The Day on this one, got to be the riff from ‘We Share The Same Skies’. Marr, of course, although it’s Ryan Jarman’s suit in the verse.
18 Little Boots – Hands
There’s something not quite right at the heart of this album. On the one hand there are a good half a dozen truly excellent synth pop tracks, including two (‘Stuck On Repeat’ and ‘Remedy’) which are amongst the very very best of the year. But it just doesn’t seem to sustain itself over the course of the whole album, running out of steam slowly but surely. Whilst it does have momentum it’s a vindication of the hype, with some nice lyrical turns contained within the shiny exterior.
Best bit The lyrics to ‘Mathematics’ which manage to reference Pythagorous and algebra in a singalong manner without sounding stupid.
19 Memory Tapes – Seek Magic
Whispy, whooshy, sinister and chilled. The music (synths again) is richly textured, half buried vocals sound like flowing water, and there’s a general air of being trapped in some sort of futuristic rainforest, although without the diabolical New Age-y connotations that might bring to mind. One for blocking out the world and getting lost in.
Best bit The spooky, half buried vocals.
20 The Phantom Band – Checkmate Savage
Seemingly a bunch of Scottish folk musicians who have stumbled across electronic drones and a widescreen worldview to enticing effect. Singer Rick Anthony has one of the most enchanting voices of the year, all broad Scottish brogue and rumbling authority, telling stories from rainswept streets and shores. Not that it’s as wanky and pretentious as I am making this sound, trust me, it packs a punch to head and heart.
Best bit Rick Anthony’s voice, as mentioned.
21 Muse – The Resistance
Oh dear. It starts promisingly, it ends ambitiously, but jeez, what’s with the saggy middle? The Queen ripoffs, shapeless dirges and, perhaps worst of all, ‘Guiding Light’ in which they rip off themselves (‘Invincible’) in such a way as to sound worse than their younger selves. Still, there’s enough good songs, whether they ripoff Goldfrapp and the Dr Who theme (‘Uprising’) or r’n’b (‘Undisclosed Desires’) or classical music (the ‘Exogenesis’ symphony) to make it enjoyable. Definitely not a band who should be allowed to self produce their albums.
Best bit Making slap bass almost bearable with ‘Undisclosed Desires’ – truly a feat in itself.
22 La Roux – La Roux
A classic case of overkill, the massive overexposure the singles garnered meant for most of this year the thought of even listening to this album was just too much to bear. As it turns out this was unfair, the album tracks show a little bit more depth than the singles, especially the overlooked ‘Tigerlily’. There’s a lot people won’t like, it’s the most 80s of the 80s revival, and Ellie Jackson’s voice is an acquired taste, but dammit, I did find myself really enjoying it.
Best bit ‘Tigerlily’, even with the cheesy ‘Thriller’-style voiceover.
23 Brand New – Daisy
Not as expansive as The Devil And God… but still not back to the poppy punk of earlier times, Daisy is a nicely dark rock record with the typically perverse tracklisting which throws samples of old time warblers, depressing slowies to kick things off, and screaming explosions of rage when least expected. Cranky but great.
Best bit The always explosively shocking way the first track bursts in over the sample.
24 Empire Of The Sun – Walking On A Dream
Another one which runs out of steam, but Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore’s marriage of twinkly indie and dressing up as twats is enchanting in parts. Personally I really like Steele’s voice and it works well with the music as it loops through a wide variety of odd noises and fairly nonsensical lyrics.
Best bit The artwork – not to do the music down, but it really does have to be seen in all its widescreen madness.
25 Howling Bells – Radio Wars
No massive shakes, merely a continuing evolution of their dark and moody first album’s themes into tracks which are dark and moody and little bit more intricate and accomplished. At times dense, others sparse, and always feeling like it should be soundtrack a murder in a western, this is an underrated gem.
Best bit Juanita Stein’s voice.
December 14, 2009
Join me and my New Year’s Resolution to go to at least one gig every month of 2009.
I have a confession. Well, less a confession, more a statement which many many agree with, yet strangely it feels somewhat wrong to admit to it. Y’see, I really don’t like ‘United States Of Eurasia’. The one off the new Muse album which sounds like Queen. And when I say it sounds like Queen I mean they excavated Freddie Mercury’s corpse, extracted stem cells, injected them into mice and got those mice to write ‘United States Of Eurasia’.
It isn’t the worst Muse song, and it’s not the worst Muse song to get played at the Echo (echo echo) arena, an honour which falls to ‘Guiding Light’. But ‘…Eurasia’ really isn’t very good. Naturally then it has the best light show and visuals.
This only captures a fraction of the lasers involved – full gallery http://www.gigwise.com/photos/53350/13/Muse-Blitz-Liverpools-Echo-Arena-On-Bonfire-Night—-PHOTOS
You see, Muse live isn’t just about the music (man), it has always been about the visuals. Crack out that copy of their debut Showbiz and look in the booklet inside. There in the centre is the band as youthful newbies, just starting out. Look at how huge their banner is. No band just starting out ever had such a big banner. The sense of the ridiculous and enormous, the sort of attitude which makes Muse the Dubai of the music world, has always been there. So a space like the Echo (echo echo) arena, shiny, new and big, was always going to be filled by the most insane lights and visuals Muse could find. ‘…Eurasia’ had a brilliant mock up of the world map as divided into Eurasia, Eastasia and Oceania as dictated by Orwell (albeit managing to attribute Britain and Ireland to Eurasia, not Oceania as they should be), along with swooping lights, flashing words, lasers, sharks, badgers and the strange sense that actually the whole song is rather enjoyable.
And then snap back to reality and it isn’t.
It kind of sums up Muse live. An entire superstructure which is extremely enjoyable in the moment, even when individual elements aren’t actually all that good. Except ‘Guiding Light’ which was crap at the time too.
Muse’s show currently consists of three massive, rotating, video screen covered pillars. Like “St Simeon”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simeon_Stylites but with musical instruments. The comparisons with Spinal Tap are so obvious (apart from the flawless functioning of the pillars) that you can only suspect that Muse know the whole thing is mad. Whilst Fever Ray used lasers to create a claustrophobic and intense atmosphere, Muse use lasers because they are big, bright and there. Boys with toys, it works because the toys are really cool.
Oh, and the songs are mostly really very good too. Not all the new album is a write off like ‘…Eurasia’ and ‘Guiding Light’ – ‘Uprising’’s mix of ‘Dr Who’ and Goldfrapp is a slinky treat and ‘Unnatural Selection’ is a heavy-arsed mother of a tune. And as a special treat for being so good we even got a piano version of ‘Cave’, although as ever it was a case of one song off the first album and no more. Perhaps the lasers and visuals don’t like the first album.
There’s surprisingly little one can say about Muse live that hasn’t already been said (although I defy anyone to find another Muse review which references St Simeon). The daftness, the deftness and the spectacle of it is to be expected. They’d have to come back with a stripped down acoustic show to truly shock, but in all honest where would the fun be in that?