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!