20091221

All Is Right In The World




The empire has fallen, and all feels right in the world. How am I celebrating? By obsessively making lists. As usual.

Ladies and gentlemen, here, truncated, is my Top 25 albums of 2009:

25. Orphan Fairytale - Ladybird Labyrinth
24. Zero 7 - Yeah Ghost
23. Broadcast - Broadcast and the Focus Group Investigate the Witch Cults of the Radio Age
22. Blk Jks - After Robots
21. A Broken Consort - Box of Birch
20. Passion Pit - Manners
19. Years - s/t
18. Jonsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps
17. Dead Man's Bones - s/t
16. Girls - Album
15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t
14. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
13. Doves - Kingdom of Rust
12. Mew - No More Stories...
11. Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
10. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic
9. Anthony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light
8. Engineers - Three Fact Fader
7. The Field - Yesterday and Today
6. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast
5. Ducktails - s/t
4. Various - Dark Was The Night
3. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers
2. Dan Deacon - Bromst
1. Animal Collective - Meriweather Post Pavilion



Loses all meaning when not accompanied by a glut of impassioned/aimlessly purple prose, don't you think?


The fun doesn't stop there. Every year I allow for my listening habits to be utterly dictated by the notion that, come the end of the year, I'll put all of my favourite tracks of the year together on a "best of the year" mix CD. I've done the same this year. I'd like to say that this represents a comprehensive "best tracks of 2009", but it doesn't. Favoured tracks are often omitted/suplanted for the sake of running time and/or order. So, here's a mix CD I entitled 2009 - it's not at all available for streaming or download, so I'm just wasting everybody's time, really.

1. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - Stay Alive
2.  Ducktails - Pizza Time
3.  Girls - Lust For Life
4. Wild Beasts - Empty Nest
5. Passion Pit - Sleepyhead
6.  The Field - The More That I Do
7.  Dan Deacon - Build Voice
8. Animal Collective - In The Flowers
9. Years - The Major Lift
10.  Doves - Winter Hill
11.  Intricate Machines - Wooden Roof
12.  Yo La Tengo - More Stars Than There Are In Heaven
13.  Andrew Bird - Anonanimal
14.  Anthony & The Johnsons - Another World
15.  Bat For Lashes - Siren Song
16.  Zero 7 - All of Us

It flows beautifully, you know.

Finally, we shall bring this cavalcade of dull to a dusty flumping close with an approximation of my favourite albums of the noughties. With two exceptions they're all guitar driven. Aside from a couple of starring roles, they're dominated by male. And, with no exceptions, they're white, western. This does not make me a racist chauvinist, but it may make me a twat. I don't know. I'm reluctant to expand my horizons for the sake of expansion. That way madness - and ridicule - lies. So, the best of the noughties, then, in pure, unadulterated list form, for I don't have the time for "in depth", nobody will read it anyway and oh god it's all so droll and crass and predictable: 

1. Radiohead - Kid A
2. Boards of Canada - Geogaddi
3. Animal Collective - Feels
4. Badly Drawn Boy - Hour of Bewilderbeast
5. Super Furry Animals - Rings Around The World
6. Broken Social Scene - You Forgot it in People
7. Arcade Fire - Funeral
8. Grandaddy - The Sophtware Slump
9. Sufjan Stevens - Come On Feel The Illinoise
10. Lou Reed - The Raven
11. The Delgados - The Great Eastern
12. Sigur Ros - ( )
13. The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls In America
14. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Abattoir Blues/The Lyre of Orpheus
15. The Beta Band - Hot Shots II
16. Blur - Think Tank
17. The Field - From Here We Go Sublime
18. Guillemots - Through The Window Pane
19. Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
20. British Sea Power - Do You Like Rock Music


Up next - who cares?


20091212

Finally I am no one - the top five of 2009




After a series of long sighs - finally, here it is, the moment for which absolutely nobody's been waiting, the moment for which I've been yearning, since long ago did I tire of this charade and I hate to leave things unfinished. Here we go, then: the top five of 2009. I don't know why I even bothered.

















5. Ducktails - s/t

It seems obligatory to speak of such odious notions as "the blogosphere" when talking about this album. Neon Indian, too. Well, I'm of the persuasion that the only thing more tedious than writing about music is the writing about writing about music. I have no time for such practises. To anybody for whom such things are important I point out a cathedral which is just begging for a waltz.

Yes, there have been scores of releases like this of recent, and, yes, the reason for their mass upspringing can be attributed to the widespread availability of home recording/producing equipment and the ease of sharing born from the notion that everybody now has a voice, an outlet. One could speak of such things for days and it would be horribly, horribly depressing for everyone. Come 2010, I want out of this game. You find yourself exposed to a lot of excellent music, but I can't stand this culture which praises the position of the critic over that of the musician. I want out. I'm leaving, and I'm taking Ducktails with me.

Ducktails - an album I sampled before slipping and falling into the putrid mires of "debate" - I was, luckily, able to immerse myself fully free of any arguments or stigma - free of any knowledge at all, in fact - I had no idea, for instance, that this album represented a Real Estate spin-off. I wasn't even aware of the existence of Real Estate! I had the music and a single description of "meditative" and I was, therefore, luckily able to judge it on its own terms. And it sounded like memories recorded and set to scratchy old vinyl - warm, hazy, poignant - the sound of blissful yearning nostalgia with song titles evocative of the most beautiful and humble experiences in life - "Pizza Time", "Friends", "Dancing With The One You Love".

Like Ariel Pink covering Boards of Canada - these songs emit a light orange glow and, like the happiest of memories, exist as a complete package of taste, smell, feeling and emotion. You're there - these are your memories - they glow like Blackpool Illuminations as glimpsed through tired eyes and rain-streaked car windows as you munch Smarties from a tube shaped like a sword or walking stick. And, when all's said and done, you can let the languid eleven minute drone of "Surf's Up" to take you to a higher plain entirely. Embrace life.

I didn't let the pretentious and sickening depths of depravity that can be found when cynicism mixes with anonymosity ruin these sweet undulations and I never will. Mixing in such virtual circles forces you to take a step back - "how can I possibly enjoy this when etc. etc. etc." or "let's face it, it's far too derivative of a band NOBODY'S EVEN HEARD OF EXCEPT ME" - fuck you, Quietus, fuck you, Drowned in Sound and fuck you, Pitchfork. Let all music be judged on its own merits and let us not dwell on that which we do not enjoy, rather let us focus on that which we love, that which makes us happy, excited - that which moves us or makes us think of the good times. And let us not think ill of anyone at all as a consequence of whatever happens to move them. That's what this blog's all about - I want it to be an antidote to the horrible cynical sneering masses who seem intent on ruining music just as it's getting better than ever using their bloated diseased tentacles of hatred and debate. Ducktails shall be our soundtrack as we struggle to recapture the very essence of our enduring love affair with music - it's so much more than a mere asset of a lifestyle.

Or have I read too much into things?


















4. Various - Dark Was The Night

If, in 2009, you found yourself to be a fan of a certain style of music which is so obviously unified in its general sound and characteristics but which people are too pretentious and stubborn to label - chances are you'd've found yourself so excited by the "who's who" roster of Dark Was The Night's tracklist that you'd've been moved to liken your feelings to an involuntary emptying of the bladder. Or, you might've found yourself so jaded by the widespread cynicism that exists in such circles that you simply did not allow yourself to feel any excitement at all. "Oh, Dark Was The Night, everyone's on it, how cool." "Are you being sarcastic?" "I don't even know anymore." etc. It probably happened.

I, personally, allowed myself to get very excited. "It's all here," I kept saying. "It's all here". When it came time to actually listen to it, I was far from disappointed. With the majority of the artists featured within making their names for themselves via the morose or the elegiac, I was surprised by how wonderfully sprightly a lot of it sounded. It brightened many an otherwise dull journey to work for three consecutive weeks. The sweet tones of David Byrne backed by The Dirty Projectors kick things off to glorious effect before it becomes apparent that a cover of Nick Drake's "Cello Song" as sung by Jose Gonzalez was, apparently, exactly that which I'd been waiting for all these years.

The pick of the unbelievably quality crop comes in the form of Sufjan Stevens's incredible ten minute epic "You Are The Blood". Like that point of the film at which, when all seemed hopeless, our hero miraculously draws from previously untapped reserves of brilliance and proceeds to kick ass. We see him striding down the street - battered, but boasting a terrifyingly determined facial expression - nothing can stand in his way - every follicle on the body duly stimulated, you proceed to shiver with excitement and anticipation as Sufjan intones that most inspirational of lines - "You are electricity and you are light/You are sound itself and you are flight/You are the blood flowing through my fingers". Suddenly, anything seems possible, ten minutes is not long enough, and you realise that you're listening to the most powerful piece of music you're ever likely to hear tacked on to the end of the first disc of a charity compilation album.

The second disc is, perhaps, less cohesive, but contains some of the album's finest gems. And they're all sequenced subsequently! Buck 65 rhymes furiously and determinedly a satisfying sequel/response/kiss-off to Sufjan's incredible opus before The New Pornographers' glorious "Hey Snow White" fades into rousing melodic life. Yo La Tengo then dazzle and seduce with their beautifully languid and aptly named "Gentle Hour" - almost in itself superior to anything from Popular Songs. Stuart Murdoch's "Another Saturday" is nice enough, but merely acts as an interlude before the devastating "Happiness" care of Riceboy Sleeps. Heard months before the release of the album, it was not just reason to get very excited indeed - for a spell it was reason enough to continue living.

Things grind to a disappointing halt towards the end of the second disc - that Blonde Redhead/Devastations offering is perplexing, and the Conor Oberst/Gillian Welch and Kevin Drew contributions are downright horrible. Be that as it may, all that came before is glorious - a gift of an album, treat after treat after treat - these closing mis-steps merely prevent the whole affair from being perfect. If it were perfect, it would just be scary.




















3. Wild Beasts - Two Dancers

This was very important - a British guitar band, newly emerged - with - good lord - new ideas! Something to say! I thought such things were a thing of the past! It really has been a while since a NEW band from Blighty has impressed me so much. Of recent I've been getting pretty much all of my kicks from across that icy pond with only the old favourites from the motherland continuing to deliver the goods. But then enter - stage left - Wild Beasts - and suddenly all notions of "landfill indie" and "Gang of Four" appear meaningless. Finally - a band I can relate to.

This was, though - of course - their sophomoric effort. I happen to prefer the sprawling Vaudeville thrills of their 2008 debut, but Two Dancers probably represented for a lot of people their first exposure to Wild Beasts. It certainly did for me, and, god willing, in years to come it will be regarded as their version of The Bends - that is, merely the start of all that was to follow. It's that good - already I'm dying to hear of where they go next - a feeling usually reserved for my old, established, reliable favourites. I don't think I've ever felt that way in regards to a newly emerged band. And it feels wonderful.

The most incredible thing about this band is that - after what must be half a decade of constant repeat formulae and misguided experiments - they manage to wrest a unique sound, very much their own, out of the bare minimum and most traditional of rock music instrumentation. These songs are meticulously arranged, played (and sung) beautifully - nothing happens that wasn't supposed to happen - nothing's there for the sake of being there - it's the Kubrick perfectionist approach to music making - every bit as bleak, spartan - and yet, somehow - warm and human as the most elegiac of his films.

And the lyrics! At once eloquent and colloquial, I really hope that, were the band to go from strength to strength, the sheer literate quality of the lyrics, every bit as effective when read as they are when sung - will do wonders to lift the stigma which still seems attached to poetry. People still don't seem to realise that it's always been the case that poetry looks outwards and speaks of the word around them. The preserve of the everyday - infinitely preferable (and listenable) than the clipped observations of Mr. Alex Turner.

Now, if only they were as good live as they are on record...luckily, they are. Not my new favourite band, rather my favourite "new" band - they've single-handedly restored my faith in the quality of music this grey island's capable of producing.




















2. Dan Deacon - Bromst

Camped out in the middle of a dark forest in a colourful tent which emits its own radiant glow - you spend the night - shivering, freezing, but eventually you fall asleep.

A weird looping humming sound wakes you up and - before you can so much as dress - your curiosity forces you to venture outside and wander towards the source of this sound. It's still freezing, and the morning mist casts your surroundings into an otherworldly grey fog - the indistinct forms of trees resembling foreboding sentinels as their shape is obscured in the dull gloom - but still you continue to walk towards the sound, and, presently, you hear a voice - singing, chanting - joyous. It spurs you on, and the closer you get, the more the voice begins to surround itself with a woodland orchestra of piano, horns, drums - a true forest gospel - and when you finally stumble across their party in a clearing, their leader - a bespectacled dwarf in a tie-dyed t-shirt  - smiles warmly and gestures for you to join in.

And you do - you dance all day and all night to the most hyperkinetic lysergically technicolour music you've ever heard. In no time at all you abandon all inhibitions and find yourself submitting entirely to the sheer euphoria of simply being alive - soon you're chanting along at the top of your voice - not listening to the music, but feeling it.

There's party music, and then there's music for amateur cultists - almost pagan rituals devoted to getting the most out of life. Bromst lies somewhere inbetween - it's music that exists, in fact, inbetween your ears - immersing you fully in a world of ghosts and mountains and of haunted forests lit only by moonlight. I'd describe it as "escapism" - but it's not an escape - it enhances life as it is. Embrace it.


















1. Animal Collective - Meriweather Post Pavilion

The Animal Collective are responsible not only for the best album of the year, but also the best single ("My Girls"), the best EP ("Fall Be Kind"), the best reissue (the "Animal Crack" boxset) and the returning champions for the most consistently thrilling live act - I saw them thrice this year alone, even choosing them over the mighty Neil Young at Glastonbury. That's how important they are for me. Apart from all this, though, they also represent, I feel, my changing attitudes towards music in general. More so than any other band this year they've divided opinion. Unfortunately, they remain an isolated example of a band whose detractors are particularly vitriolic in their hatred. It never seems enough to simply dislike them - people can never leave it simply at not listening - no, the haters seem determined to convince those who dare to like them that they're misguided, stupid - just plain wrong. On far too many occasions I've been made to feel as if I'm simply not allowed to like them as much as I do. I mean, how dare I? But, like I said, I'm getting out of here - I'm going to a place where people like music in en environment free of any pretentious bullshit. Anybody who gives a shit - anybody who folds their arms and sneers with a pathetically punchable look on their face - anybody who seems determined to tell me that I'm wrong, that I'm an idiot - I will point out once again the basilica in the distance beckoning you over for a night of jitterbugging. You're wasting your time.

An album so wonderful that even to glance at its cover is an escape, of sorts - it undulates, forms ridges, waves - stare long enough and you're transported somewhat. It simultaneously provides an escape from all the humdrum and dreariness of day to day life whilst at the same time glorifying and celebrating all that is ordinary. It invites you to consider the warm beauty of the everyday - to look for such things in your own life that could inspire a chorus as defiant and triumphant as that of "My Girls". In "Daily Routine", a simple car journey, undertaken everyday, is transformed into an elegiac epic. "Summertime Clothes" makes a pulsating monster groove out of the intense, oppressive heat of those heady summer nights and creates an adventure out of the simple act of stepping outside to cool down. If done so with somebody else, it's all the better for it. Life, suddenly, no matter how it's lived, is so full of wonder, beauty and warmth that words simply cannot express it.

They've been accused of wielding obtuse lyrics and overblown sounds. I say, if their songs could be expressed in any other way, they wouldn't have been moved to write them in the first place. They're speaking of feelings and emotions so powerful that they're rendered inarticulate - such songs appear to be the only way they can possibly be expressed. Witness "Brother Sport" - in itself an urge for a family member to stop bottling up his feelings concerning a deceased father. When he does open up, it's a rush of anger, pain, confusion - it's intense. Take that and apply it to every other song in their canon and suddenly the genius of the Animal Collective becomes apparent. They're far from "animal". Rather, they're one of the most deeply human of bands I could care to mention.

It came out in January so has been with me all year. Before that I, like many others, had caught tantilising glimpses of these songs at previous live shows, so right from the start I felt familiar, at home. Then there's all the experiences that come as part and parcel - the aformentioned Glastonbury set, for instance - as good as it was, it wasn't a patch on the time when, out in Liverpool, "Summertime Clothes" was played and I was able to let myself go in the treasured company of exactly the person with whom I'm so keen to walk around. When down, they were there for me. When elated, they were there for me. When I was drawing a blank, seemingly unable to conjur up any enthusiasm at all for anything - within moments I had found something to love.

And now, as detached as I feel from everything that matters, I am able to once again find inspiration - I too yearn for the wild abandon of the dancer with the flowers in her hair. If I could just leave my body for a while, I'd be able to be closer to those who really count. I could even leave flowers on their windowledge. And how would it feel? I don't know - but the moment at which "In The Flowers" really takes me off - then in come the harmonies, gets me every time - I have some idea.

20091211

From here we go sublime - 10-6



Here's the first half of my top ten albums of 2009. You might ask, if you're so aware of how pointless is this endeavour, why have you even bothered taking it this far? Or, you might say, how assumptiousof you to consider that people will even read your insipid little blog, let alone harbour an opinion concerning it. Indeed. There may not even be a "you" out there. I have become Ian Malcolm. Let's just get this over with.




 10. The Flaming Lips - Embryonic

When this first came out, the makeup of everybody who could conceivably have heard it seemed divided neatly in two. On the one hand there were those who'd been there from the start, man, who'd thought that At War With The Mystics was a fraud of an album; that they'd lost their way. For these people, Embryonic was sweet relief - they've still got it. They're still shocking. But shocking for whom? Those inhabiting camp two. Those "on the other hand" - they loved The Soft Bulletin, they loved Yoshimi - they even had room for At War With The Mystics! Well, these people were horrified. The Flaming Lips, they believed, had lost it. Gone were the life-affirming symphonies of yore - they'd been replaced by something loud, ugly, sprawling, dissonant and more than a little scary.

Well, what of those whose experience of The Flaming Lips fell somewhere inbetween? Those who cut their teeth with Clouds Taste Metallic before finding themselves utterly seduced by Yoshimi and The Soft Bulletin, only to find unbelievable levels of meaning and euphoria in Hit to Death in the Futurehead, Turn It On, A Priest Driven Ambulance...those who count Zaireeka as more akin to a force of nature/religious experience/justification for existence itself than a mere album - and yet - all things considered - still actually quite liked At War With The Mystics? After all, it's impossible to hold in anything approaching contempt an album featuring both "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song" and "Pompeii am Gotterdammerung".

Well, for these people (me - oh, yeah) - Embryonic hammered home a point - long suspected, now confirmed - The Flaming Lips can simply do no wrong.

What I love is how I'm still uncomfortable and still uneasy with several moments - it still hasn't fully revealed its workings for me. Yet, what I love is how, whereas with some albums I'm peturbed and disappointed with my inabilities to gel, there exist some for which its apparent impenetrability is a decidedly Good Thing. Like Tool's Lateralus, that Embryonic is as puzzling and dense as a Chinese puzzle box excites me. I love how it's likely that a year down the line I'll still find myself taken by surprise by some aspect of Embryonic.

I am the mountaineer hospitalised by a tragic fall viewing Everest from his hospital bed - the window affords a commanding, intimidating view - I need to conquer it. Conquering it will complete me. That I've not yet done so justifies, I reckon, the comparatively low placing. Still, top ten - here's to the adventure. It's proof that even bands as established and beloved as The Flaming Lips - bands who, to all intents and purposes, can, if they choose, rest on their laurels, who have nothing left to prove - are still able to break their barriers and variously shock, intrigue, puzzle, offend, entice and surprise even their longest-standing of fans. It's also proof that even in these days of mass-downloads and appalling X-Factor homogeneity, there's still room for adventure and sprawling space-jazz epics about death. It need not all be about the single, about the apparent search for the musical equivalent of le mot juste, about pandering to those for whom music is but a disposable commodity - there are still people out there who'll devote over seventy minutes to one album. Imagine that!



9. Antony & The Johnsons - The Crying Light

Early in the year I had to read a book by Helen Dunmore called "The Siege"; historical fiction concerning itself with the siege of Leningrad. A large portion of it took place in a single room in which a fractured family huddled together in order to survive against the perpetual onslaughts of General Hunger and General Winter. Lots of people die, lots of people freeze or starve to death, some resort to cannibalism - it's grim, depressing. Very, very depressing.

Yes, I listened to The Crying Light whilst reading The Siege. The former was in no way depressing, you understand, but it still acted as the perfect soundtrack. Throughout The Siege burned an ember of hope which simply refused to die. Hope in the face of absolute adversity and the devastating force of nature - perfect. At the end of "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground" everything gives way to a double bass drone which instilled a brooding dread. As if made for each other, as this ominous note yawned into life, the events of The Siege took on a suitably dramatic turn - General Winter descended, or something. Or a fresh snowfall began - certain doom for thousands. I often find that certain music reminds me of whatever book I happened to be reading when I first listened. The Grateful Dead's "Dark Star", for instance, is linked intrinsically to The Great Gatsby. It's a fantastic little arrangement.

Be that as it may, it was "Another World" which provided the key for my initial penetration of this album. It was very late last year - when it featured on a stunning EP of the same name - and, as usual, it was very late at night. I was drinking wine with my girlfriend, and we had MTV2 on. We weren't really watching, but you know when you're confronted with something and, suddenly, everything else seems to disappear? It was the video for "Another World". And I. Was. Stunned. As early as then I knew that Antony had achieved that which seemed impossible: he had topped I Am A Bird Now.

The Crying Light's 2005 predecessor wins so many points being, as it was, so many people's first exposure to that voice. It had an impressive array of guest-stars too. They had me at Lou Reed. However, this multitude of voices made for a listening experience which, in retrospect, was somewhat patchy. By no means lacking - just patchy. The Crying Light, on the other hand, feels more complete, more unified. More orchestral! Ever been lost for words? Go watch Antony, live, with an orchestra. That Manchester International Festival really spoiled us, didn't it?


8. Engineers - Three Fact Fader

How ace does it feel to live in a world in which the Engineers release sophomoric albums? I thought they'd left us! I thought they'd just disappear completely! I thought that an incredible debut, a lush mini-album and vague yet warm memories of one hazy festival slot and one underattended Night and Day gig would prove to be their legacy. But no! They returned! And not even the second coming of Christ Himself could've made me happier. Didn't really like the cover art, though.


It has an immense sound - imagine a canyon with walls comprised of skyscrapers built of obsidian. The opening "Clean Coloured Wire" buzzes with electronic hums before the biggest, most gargantuan urban god drums POUND and REVERBERATE - the song MARCHES on, you're stalking through the streets of the sprawling cityscape on the back of your very own benevolent bipedal death robot - and just when things can't get any bigger, in comes the dense blindingly glowing wall of guitars - the chorus! Blinding like the desert sun singes the corneas of the subterranians. And yet - for some reason - I don't know why - all this magnitude and glory and curviness - why is it my natural impulse to simply gaze at my shoes?

Yes, music with curves, not edges. Right down to the song titles ("Sometimes I Realise", "Be What You Are", "Crawl From The Wreckage") - we're very much back in the scene that celebrates itself. I'm very happy to be part of this insular celebration - the loud, effects ridden guitars, the drenching of everything in echo and reverb, the hushed, distant vocals, the vague, barely-audible lyrics - it's all so, so good. Best of all is "Emergency Room" - chugging, furious guitars, wailing electronics, brooding horns - it's apparently supposed to simulate an ambulance, desperately speeding through some twilit Scandinavian city. Like Purple Rain, the song ends in a downpour of defeatist, all-encompassing strings - the shoes from which you cannot tear your eyes are now filled with water. I love music.


















7. The Field - Yesterday and Today

In "From Here We Go Sublime", we were treated to that rarest of things: A debut album so inconceivably complete, so endlessly replayable, so subliminally infectious - that - fuck, how could they ever follow it? Having thrown down his own frosty gauntlet,  Mr. Willner upped his ante and - unbeliavably - topped his previous unprecedented best with - two words - live instrumentation. Yes. It's almost too simple.

Music like this - from Boards of Canada through Fennesz via Nathan Fake - works on an almost telepathic level. The music is abstract yet deeply poignant - concerning itself with nothing in particular, the listener is, instead, obliged to attach their own meanings - and soon you find that the music acts as a soundtrack to your dreams, your memories, your childhood - it's hazy and sepia-toned, its rhythms synchronising uncannily with your heartbeats. Yesterday and Today works on this level, but, being more organic/analogue than its predecessor, it's more human. From Here We Go Sublime could, at times, come across as a little too icy - almost clinical. Yesterday and Today - not so much. It's warm. As fitting a soundtrack for the blazing summer months as the bleakest winter months - the air is always so crisp it's almost painful to breathe.

Then comes the eight and a half minutes of "The More That I Do". Sampling The Cocteau Twins, its initially as airy and majestic as a misty glacier under deep blue sky. Halfway through, however, with an almighty machinic rip, those clipped, looping guitar chimes echo across the ether and - with a bass rumble - we enter phase two - easily the most transcendent piece of music of the year. 

Finally we get "Sequenced", supposedly a live jam in which Willner proudly boasted required no subsequent electronic processing - just him, his sequencers, the drummer from Battles and, by the sounds of it, a guitarist stood contemplating an intimidating array of effects pedals. Things start off robotic, inhuman, mechanical - icy washes, machinic drumming - but by the time we approach that closing section, suddenly a quarter of an hour simply isn't long enough. From here, we go divine.


















6. Andrew Bird - Noble Beast

A faithful friend of an album who was always there for me, even though I didn't always give it the attention it deserved. But, always understanding, it was never one to feel neglected. It greets me with a smile every bit as comforting as that which so warmed me the first time we met.


And, like a very good friend, I have variously found myself endeared to different aspects of its personality. Which is, of course, my obtuse and pretentious way of saying that, over the year, almost every song has had a chance to shine in my estimation. Initially it was, of course, "Not A Robot, But A Ghost". Being one who's obsessed with both robots AND ghosts, this was always going to be a favourite. Indeed, I loved how the tinsmith percussion and buzzing guitars of the first half sounded like a robot whereas, after some dramatic chords on a dusty-sounding piano, the second half's wind and banshee violins shounded like a ghost. Wonderful!

Next I was drawn to the near seven minutes of "Masterswarm"; in which, after a sorrowful acoustic mourn of an introduction came an almost bossa-nova rhythm over which violins soared both bowed and plucked. Andrew has a gorgeous voice and writes the most curious and peculiar lyrics. "So they took me to the hospital and put my body through a scan/What they saw there would impress them all for inside me grows a man/Who speaks with perfect diction as he orders my eviction/As he acts with more conviction than I." Beautiful. There is nobody else currently writing lyrics like this. Even more amazingly, it actually means something.

The enduring favourite, though, has always been "Anonanimal" - one of those songs which is devastating enough on record but which must be witnessed live in order that one can truly - well, he adds a saxaphone part. And the bit towards the end, the bit at which, suddenly, jazz is achieved - it's louder. On record, though, all is beautifully understated: A yearning for release which is never quite achieved. That ending is desolate - moving in ways which almost justify the human condition itself. I know what I mean. Here's music which would feel very much at home in soundtracking your darkest hours. But, as Andrew himself would remind us, we must soldier on. If we don't, there's no hope for any of us.


UP NEXT IS THE TOP FIVE.

20091208

Second half of the first half of the top twenty - 15-11



I waste no time. Only opportunities. Onwards:



















15. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - s/t

I'd like to believe that no matter what happens, there will always be music like this. Ignoring any and all cries of "C86" and "Jesus and Mary Chain", let us judge this on its own terms. Here is an album of ten gloriously loud, perfectly formed, endlessly replayable solid indie-pop songs.

Seeing them live can be exhausting - songs are played at apparently double speed with no room to breathe inbetween - a relentlessly deafening and exhilarating solid wall of joy. Were they to add confetti cannons and technicolour hijinx it would be a hyperreal experience to rival that of The Flaming Lips.

But they're not like that. The music's there, as it is - shorn of distractions, of flourishes - wholesome, honest, and very, very special. A perfect thirty-four minutes acting as a reminder - or reassurance, as if it were needed - that pop music need not start and end with Callow and his Cronies.




















14. Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

One of many releases this year which gives weight to the argument that "the album" - that is, as I understand it - a collection of songs which work together to form a cohesive whole - is neither dead nor dying. For somebody who's never shuddered upon hearing the term "concept album", the idea of a unified theme of yearning for absent love was not only irresistably enticing, but also utterly devastating in its relevancy in these times of long-distance relationship. "Painful" doesn't come close - listen to the chorus of "Siren Song" if you're in need of an insight.

I have some friends who followed Radiohead seemingly right across Europe on their In Rainbows tour, for which Bat For Lashes acted as support. Early reports indicated that she'd "gone electro". I despaired - surely not another Goldfrapp; in that the heartfelt, cinematic, atmospheric debut would give way to electro sleaze? But no. Synths play a much more prominent role than they did in her debut, but rather than driving the songs they serve to add colour, texture, mood. Case in point - the spooky medieval feel of "Sleep Alone" finds itself invaded by what sounds like the theme to a futuristic hospital drama. The juxtaposition between the retro-futurist and the almost swords & sorcery creates an overall feel which is approaching steampunk. Elsewhere, the pounding drum machine rhythm and ghostly strings of "Daniel" evokes the heartfelt scores of countless epic film scores of yore.

The aforementioned "Sirens Song", in terms of its ability to reduce grown men to tears, represents a highlight not just for the album; nor merely for the music of 2009. Rather, this piece represents a high-point for music in general. In many ways, it really does not get any better than this.















13. Doves - Kingdom of Rust

2009 was, in terms of the album, the year of the "strong opening trio of songs". With many of the best releases this year, the first three songs were stellar. In the finest cases, they were but a taster - the best was to come.

Strange, then, how for one of the finest albums of the year, the first three songs sound like mis-steps. "Jetsream" certainly does kick things off to thrilling effect with its flittering synths, plaintive vocals and crunchy riffs. The problem is, the song takes off, soars majestically, but then comes into land again. Which leads to the title track. Again, stunning, with its noirish spaghetti western feel, and once again, strings are allowed to soar like choirs of souls lost on their way to heaven. But, again, so far, so low key. Things faded out feeling unresolved. Then comes the third and final curve-ball - "The Outsiders" rudely bursts into life with its jarring synth arpeggios and driving grimey guitars - this abrupt shot of angry adrenaline after a couple of morose mood-pieces makes for a most disjointed listen.

However, the beatific chiming guitars of "Winter Hill" make way for a truly affecting, endearing and touching chorus, and suddenly we all remember as to why we fell in love with Doves in the first place. And where do we go from here? "10.03" boasts a slow start, a tense breakdown and an explosive finale; the likes of "Spellbound" and "The Greatest Denier" simply could not have been written by anyone else. "Birds Flew Backwards" provides needed mid-point respite, "Compulsion" boasts an infectious quasi-funky bassline and  the Northern Soul stomp is provided by "The House of Mirrors", before affairs are tied up perfectly with the starbound "Lifelines".

Then, on repeat listens, you come to the realisation that the jarring inconsistencies of the opening trio set a precedent which proves to be one of the album's strongest points. These days, there is a tendency for music (particularly, for some reason, guitar music) to find itself polished to the point of dull uniformity. Kingdom of Rust, as an album, never settles down. It refuses to be streamlined, to be compressed into radio-friendly nuggets and, as a result, plays like a mix-CD as constructed using the prompt "murky poignant hope". And, apart from anything else, this messiness in sequencing demands repeat listens. Repeat listens reveal depth, lyrical integrity and glorious melodies, middle-eights, breakdowns and other flourishes which, somehow, went unnoticed on the first listen.

An investment in a Doves album is, apparently, an investment for life. Lord knows I'm still getting endless mileage from their debut; which has now been part of my life for at least five years. I will still be listening to Kingdom of Rust come 2020. I know it. The only thing is, doubtlessly they'll have set a new career high by then, and this humble 2009 release will merely represent the seeds of what amazing fruits were to follow. Long may be their reign. Reign - kingdom - reign - I'll be here all week.


















12. Mew - No More Stories...

This album has not a title in the traditional sense - rather it has a poem. Quite a sad poem at that. I don't want to type it all out. It would take too long. Also, those mildly disturbing clown/egg faces on the cover themselves act as substitutes for two different track titles. The opening "New Terrain", when played backwards, forms a new song entirely. There's a run of six songs in the middle which, together, form something approaching a suite. One of them's entitled "Silas The Magic Car".

I could go on. To sum up - this album is different. It's ambitious, adventurous, touching and beautiful. It plays tricks on you - see "Introducing Palace Players", whose opening bass riff is unbearable in its looseness. It almost sounds unfinished, lazy almost - but it's a trap! The song picks up, dusts itself off and launches into glittering nirvana - within seconds this baffling bass mishap is but a distant memory.

Melodies twitter in the distance, only to surface again later, and it's - where have I heard this before? In your dreams, of course. Where else? See - the poem that is the album's title sounds exhausted, defeated - in apparent mourning for the lack of joy and wonder in the "grey" world today. The album itself, then, was presumably conceived as a means of injecting a little colour into those drowning grey masses. Good work, Mew.

They're right - sometimes life isn't easy. So long as they're around, though, you sort of feel that things will be ok in the end.



















11. Yo La Tengo- Popular Songs

At first it happened like this - "Here To Fall" was stunning - it screamed of defiant, nocturnal romance - its interplay of bass, organ and strings penetrated right to the heart of all that is exciting and enticing about music and dug really fucking deep. Later, "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" represented my favourite nine minutes of music in 2009 - chugging, driving, warming guitar riff, simple lyrical refrains, dancing feedback at the end - this is how love feels. "The Fireside" - in which chiming notes are plucked and allowed to echo for as long as is necessary to achieve wistfulness - induced wistfullnes. And the closing "And The Glitter Is Gone" was exactly the sort of fifteen minute long "Sister Ray" meltdown for which we have come to depend upon Yo La Tengo - they deliver each time.

For a while, between these two stunning bookends (one of which, admittedly, stretched for thirty six minutes of bliss) existed little more than a no-man's land of songs which, as sweet as they were, did little to seduce me. The trick, of course, was to listen.

Try as I have, again and again and again - I can find nothing but irritation in the saccharin "If It's True" and in the grating organ funk of "Periodically Double of Triple" (as fun as it was live). But nothing is perfect, and so strong are the remaining ten songs that forgiveness was never in question. They called the album Popular Songs for a very important reason - it really does feel as if there's something for everyone here. If you like music, chances are you'll find something to love on this album. It plays like a greatest hits collection for an impossibly gifted and eternally restless band who, though dabbling in a dizzying array of style, retained exactly that which made them so special throughout their varied career.

But, of course, it's not. Instead, it's the fourteenth release of a band who have done nothing but stun and stun again. It's completely true that there is no single "great" Yo La Tengo album compared to which all others pale in comparison. Rather, it depends not only upon the point at which you entered (for me it was "And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out"), but also upon how you're feeling in the right here and the right now. No matter what's eating you from the inside out, Yo La Tengo have something for you.

And so much of it can be found on this album, right here. When, in decades time, they've achieved a Dylanesque back catalogue which appears impenetrable for a newcomer, Popular Songs will most probably be identified as the perfect starting point. If not, it will certainly be identified as an example of how to do music, and, moreover, how to do it right.


NEXT - The top ten! (part one of)

20091205

Moving swiftly on, it's 20-16










After two by no means interesting days, finally we arrive at the top twenty. How exciting. Moving swiftly on, then:




















20. Passion Pit - Manners

The intial experience was one of mild disappointment. Soon, however, I discovered that it sounds much, much, much better when you're drunk. In my experience I was drunk and alone. It probably sounds even better when you're surrounded.

It wasn't until we reached the Autumn, however, and during multiple walks in the park the spiralling cascades of falling leaves acted in perfect synchronity with the glittering synths which punctuate every single track - only then was the true beauty of Manners realised.

In a year full of outstanding opening trios of songs on albums, Manners probably had the best of the lot. "Make Light" swirls and swings and stomps all over the place. It's the sound of a desperate party enjoyed with friends who you know you may never see again - it's not a celebration, but then it's not a funeral. It's at once joyous and deeply poignant. Next comes "Little Secrets", which for me harbours a wonderful Sesame Street funkiness - it's all innocence and vibrancy and seems to concern itself with one of the biggest of life's adventures - that of growing up. In fact, one thing the music of 2009 has taught me is that choirs of children, when deployed correctly, are anything but cheesey or manipulative.

"Moth's Wings" is huge. I am loathe to use such adjectives as "anthemnic", but nothing else seems to fit. This is the moment in the film about your life at which you ignore all the shit you've been dealt and instead strive to appreciate all the love and joy that can be found absolute anywhere.

It's the sort of album which must be approached in the right context and in the right frame of mind. Saying that, is this not the case for any piece of music, ever? Few releases this year have achieved such a sustained mood of vibrant, lysergic joy. Were I the sort who went out more or who attended a greater number of parties, Manners probably would have fared much higher. As is, though, these past six months I've seldom left the house and I've drunk a seemingly endless succession of hot cups of tea. It only serves, then, as a reminder that there's a whole world out there. Which, of course, is very important.

The only problem is "Sleepyhead". Hearing that for the first time represented one of my only "what the hell is this?!" moments of the year - deeply moved, terribly excited. The version on the Chunk of Change EP delivered, but on the album? All that's changed has been the removal of a single cymbal strike at the point at which we enter the "chorus". Without this one single percussive sound, overall the whole piece sounds comparatively flat. What were they thinking? My theory is that this new version acts as a gift for those for whom notions of "indie credibility" matter. People can say "I preferred the EP version myself" and MEAN it. Thanks, Passion Pit.




















19. Years - Years

Known by some as Ohad Benchetrit, or "him from Do Make Say Think and Broken Social Scene". My brother's apparently met him. He signed his ticket with "Hello friendly boat", a subtle reference, no doubt, to "Goodbye Enemy Airship". What a guy.

 I heard it described as "Godspeed! You Black Emperor on Prozac", as "Microphones in a funny mood". I usually ignore such tired, lazy descriptions, but a likening to "Four Tet circa Rounds" really caught my eye, and in no time at all, life without this album was inconceivable. Twelve instrumental pieces representing a diverse range of style unified by a cohesive feel of cosy frontier romance. I was always going to give the time of day to an album containing a track entitled "Hey Cancer...Fuck You."

"Are You Unloved" represents an early highlight - over six minutes electronics glitch and bubble, guitars tense themselves, horns bray mournfully. Affairs keep threatening to explode into some kind of hackneyed post-rock crescendo, but never do, and the track is so much better for it, so much more thrilling. Here we have an insight into how 65daysofstatic might sound were they to abandon their unfortunate and apparent love for Pendulum and replace it with a sense of subtlety.

The best moment, though, is the penultimate "Major Lift". Here, as if for the first time, the horns are allowed to soar and everything is let loose. It's as rousing as a biting cold sleigh ride, as exciting as Christmas morning was when you were seven, and endears somewhat like realised fantasies of passionate vows exclaimed in New York's Central Park on a crisp New York winter day. Here, your face is red and raw and you can see your breath before you, but you're wrapped up so warm and feeling so good about everything that, inside, you're glowing.

Post rock side projects, then - Four Tet, Belle Orchestre, Years - here's where the real beauty lies. See also, below.

















18. Jonsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps

Like, I imagine, a lot of people, I was completely floored by "Happiness", the track included on the brilliant Dark Was The Night compilation. Its frosty ambience, twinkling flourishes and lush, undulating strings - it swallows you and induced a state of acute wistfulness which has not as of yet been lifted.

When I first got it I played it so loud that my disgruntled sister told me to turn down my "church music". In a way, she had a point there, though I wouldn't go as far as to liken it to a "church". Rather, this is music of a purity so otherworldly that it feels ancient, somewhat divine.

Critics scoffed, of course: called it pretentious, meaningless, bloated; joked about how it was like Sigur Ros but even more boring etc. etc. etc. What sad and unfulfilled lives they must lead. Whereas Passion Pit's album I could appreciate as a suggestion that the good times are out there, this I could appreciate as a reminder that no matter what bullshit comes my way, there exists out there something beautiful enough to render such bullshit as meaningless. In short, there's more to life than this endless routine of internet, humiliation, unemployment, tedium, boredom and migraine. There really is. Riceboy Sleeps is music which helps me to care. And I can't be the only one.




















17. Dead Man's Bones - Dead Man's Bones

Were I prompted in late October, no question this would have featured within my top ten, perhaps even top five. I had to laugh, actually, when round about this time somebody complained that Halloween was becoming "too commercial"; as if to suggest that in this country it had ever been celebrated in an innocent and wholesome manner.

No, what they probably meant was that Halloween's becoming a bigger deal over here. I can't begin to tell you how happy that makes me. However, one thing I didn't expect was for the trimmings of this particular holiday to become every bit as sacred as those of Christmas. I wouldn't ever consider giving "The Fairytale Of New York" a listen mid-July. Similarly, I can now see myself only ever listening to Dead Man's Bones as we approach the witching hour. Oh yes. Here we have an album so good that I feel it will become ritualistic listening in years to come.

Put simply, it sounds like (and was, apparently, originally conceived as) a school Halloween pageant. It's got it all - songs about werewolves, bumps in the night, ghosts, amateur musicianship, out-of-tune pianos, untrained singing, an avoidance of such staples as electric guitars and, best of all, a children's choir and triumphant cries of "My body's a zombie for you!"

I always knew that it would be something very special indeed. What I didn't expect, however, was for it to be, at times, genuinely creepy. The grave intonations at the end of "In The Room Where You Sleep" sent a very real chill down the old spinal column. Admittedly, it was the same sort of feel that used to be (and still is) felt confronting spectres I know to be fake in theme park haunted houses and ghost trains. But still, were not such reactions treasured, Halloween probably wouldn't be such a big deal in the first place.

Truly brilliant. I know I won't listen again until roundabout October 2010, but that's the point. 




















16. Girls - Album

I can pinpoint the exact moment at which I realised, when listening for the first time, that I was currently prithee to something very special indeed. "Hellhole Ratrace" was the song, and there was a point at which the tortured, mournful spartan arrangement was all but enveloped by a sweeping guitar crunch which served to bring things to another level entirely. It's a very old trick, but it still works. It's good to know that such things still move me.

Timeless melodies, lazy vocals, whooziness - forty-four minutes and seventeen seconds dripping with yearning regret. It's somewhat like those summer days which are so hot that to simply wander through the city is a psychedelic experience - your mind escapes you, content to drift, and people comment and tut and ask if, you know, are you like, constantly stoned, or something. Not at all! It's just really hot, and I get quite tired.

I suppose a lot of people hear sunsets in these hazy chords. Golden suns setting over Californian horizons, on the beach, with beer and - oh yes - lots of Girls. A nice image, I grant you. A very appealing tableau, I'll give you that. For me, however, it's the sound of four in the morning. Either there's a full moon illuminating all in a deathly glow or my bedroom lamp's struggling to provide adequate illumination. Whatever the case, I'm tired. I'm exhausted. Each successive cup of jet black saccharin coffee makes my mind race faster but my eyes droop heavier. My head is pounding, demanding sleep, but I'm absolutely determined to stay awake. And why? I've no idea. All I know is, to sleep is to surrender.

And that's the appeal of Girls, for me. If I could explain it in any clearer terms it probably wouldn't fare so high in my estimation.


UP NEXT - 15-11




20091203

Start of Something Pointless




Look. There's about four weeks left of the year. Anything that's released within the next month will not stand a chance to penetrate my consciousness to the extent that an inclusion is warranted within my "best of the year" list. No, it's not too early. And, yes, you guessed correctly. I am commencing my "best of the year" list, right here, right now. The "top 25" to be precise. Run for the hills. I know I would. What's worse than some bloated publication or institution insisting upon the ultimate numerical sequencing of something as personal and subjective as musical taste? I'll tell you: someone with no weight at all behind their position doing exactly the same. Apart from the inclusion of Zero 7's Yeah Ghost, the only thing that seperates my list from any other is the notion that nobody cares what I think. This list is beyond pointless. It shares all of the same "pointless points" as every other list out there but manages to rise above the rest in levels of pointlessness through being born out of so little amount of esteem that it goes as far as insisting that you don't read it. What's the point?

I do this every year. The only difference is that I now have a blog. It feels right. That's it. I'm not doing this for any other reason. In fact, fuck it. The plan always was to do it in instalments - twenty-five albums is quite a lot, my writing's wordy to the point that any messages I could ever have wished to convey are drowned - to do them all in one go would take so long that I'd be forced to assess as to exactly why I'm not chipping away at that novel I'm supposed to be writing. So, five posts, five albums in each, counting down from 25-1. Counting down, yes. Now, reading any list in descending order - no matter what's being listed - adds an element of suspense to any proceedings. I'd hate to assume that anybody would check back religiously in order to find out what this insignificant has placed at the number one spot. Well, in order to dispel any ounce of intrigue which might ever have been born from my ramblings, I'll say it now: my top pick for 2009 has always been Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective.

See? A safe option to be shared by about 60% of the lists out there. I suppose mine will be a little different in that I've still not heard Veckatamest in full. Aside from that, though, you're about to be treated to exactly the same entrants as everywhere else, albeit in a perhaps slightly different order (and, of course, a solid case for Zero 7's Yeah Ghost). All this coupled with willfully obtuse wordiness and worthiness. If I were you I wouldn't even bother.

I will say this, though - the multitude of lists which sprout up at around this time of year in conjunction with such sprawling and ambitious outputs by the likes of Mew, The Flaming Lips, Mastodon and The Decemberists - well, it acts as reassurance for me that, no matter how hard bands like Ash and The Black Eyed Peas might try, there will always be room for the album. Of course there will. Why try fighting it?

Here we go, then, from 25-21. Check back soon for the rest. Or, don't.





















25. Orphan Fairytale - Ladybird Labyrinth

It's ever bit as inadvisable to judge an album by its cover as it is a book. But look into the desperately horny eyes of that terrifying Yoko Ono/Laurie Anderson love-child.  In this instance, this is exactly what you get. Things start innocently enough with the alluring "Phantom Shapes" - a drifting ambient piece as floaty as anything from Eno's Apollo Soundtracks. After this things get a little unnerving - "Happy Go Lucky" is a little too close to Aphex Twin's terrifying "Radiator" for comfort.

These opening gambits, however, merely serve to ease-in the listener. That which follows is horrible, absolutely horrible. "Crybaby Needs a Hanky" might last just under six minutes - but those gentle chimes coupled with the hysterical cries of children induce a hellish state of mind in which one feels trapped in a nightmare. What are they doing to those children?! By the next track, however, "Bubble Memory" - these children appear to be laughing at you. What follows is a most disquieting piece in which the rituals of Wickerman are set to the drones of Eraserhead. The closing "Glorious High" sounds like the soundtrack to the funeral of a ballerina who died, at too young an age, of consumption. Horrible stuff.

Ladybird Labyrinth makes the list because it manages to sound infinitely more creepy, disturbing and inhuman than a thousand hours of doom metal without resorting to extreme volumes, uncomfortable frequencies or shock tactics. Be that as it may, I never, ever, ever want to hear it again.



 24. Zero 7 - Yeah Ghost

For no reason in particular, I've not invested in any of their post "Simple Things" albums. Said album, however, remains one of my first picks in times of hangover. Zero 7, then, have always been close to my heart.

So there I was, aimlessly wandering the dimly lit corridors of limbo (HMV), when music so divine is piped through the PA that I'm forced to ask the guy at the counter what's playing. "It's the new Zero 7," he says. He looks as surprised as I am.

The song in question turned out to be the closing "All of Us" - which has somehow managed to retain its transcendent, uplifting beauty even after countless plays. Initially, getting there wasn't too easy. The album seems to have been structured like some kind of MP3 playlist; with a diverse range of styles rubbing shoulders with each other united only by a sustained nocturnal feel. "Mr. McGee" and "Medicine Man" attempt a sassy late-night jazz-bar vibe. In "Swing" and "Pop Art Blue" you've got your hushed, chilled acoustics. "Everything Up" supplies the motorik, and in "Ghost Symbol" you get a moody, clipped, slightly unnerving rumble which I believe can be described as dub-step. After a few listens it clicked - it all works - and I realised that here we have one of the most consistently diverse and, for want of a better word, pretty releases of the year. It sparkles and broods.

Zero 7 were part of that wave of downtempo soul which came to be classed as "chillout" music. I can't for one moment comment upon their two previous releases, but with "Yeah Ghost" there's an edge (an edge!) which cannot be ignored. No more "chillout", I'm now happy to refer to this simply as "music" - and it tastes fabulous.







23. Broadcast - Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witchcults of the Radio Age

An absolutely irresistable prospect - our warped, retro creep heroes teaming up with Ghost Box's finest in order to conduct an investigation of witchcraft invoking seances, mirrors,  mediums, drugs and group therapy. The results were never going to disappoint, but they were always going to freak somebody out. Late at night, in the dark, on headphones - that somebody was me.

On Geogaddi, Boards of Canada's haunting masterpiece, there are frequent occasions at which all structure and control is apparently abandoned in favour of haunting, drifting, ethereal sound collages - content to just float in space. It's like detuning a radio and accidentally stumbling across a phantom broadcast. You're hearing that which cannot be unheard, but you're too petrified to tune your way back to sanity. Broadcast's latest harbours the same feel, albeit without the clipped rhythms and reassuringly lush soundscapes which served to add a sense of grounding to proceedings for Geogaddi. The effect is one of total disorientation - a seemingly freeform audio nightmare with few distinguishable forms.

So drifting is it - so without apparent focus - that it sounds like - and is - more a soundtrack than a conventional album. But without the accompanying visuals, how does it fare? The only difference is that one is forced to create their own images. Not so much a soundtrack to a film waiting to be made (as such releases are often lazily described), more a soundtrack to a twisted art-circus yet to be summoned from beyond. It doesn't so much evoke the feel of a haunted house as trick you into feeling as if you're own house may be haunted. What is hiding in the shadows?



















22. Blk Jks - After Robots

In order to fully understand certain recorded music, it is wholly necessary to witness it live. Leeds seemed like an unlikely venue to host the blistering dub-blues fury of Blk Jks - to entered that darkened room dripping with sound was like finding yourself in a lush, hazy and druggy swamp having just stepped  from, well, the streets of Leeds. Like the best live music it was a tangible, palpable presence. You could feel it, you could taste it. The thing that struck me was just how dangerous it seemed to feel. Not threatening, just without grounding. This was music which, it seemed, could go anywhere it wanted without losing its intoxicating allure. I'm getting the most delicious taste in my mouth just thinking about it.

Revisiting the album after seeing them live, one is struck by its tightness. Live, Blk Jks are liquid. On record, they sound so in control of their dizzying whirlwind blues that it's genuinely tense - here's music that could explode at any moment. It frequently does.

Its effect is largely lost in these bleak winter months. I long for the summer, and for a midday festival slot in the scorching sunlight. Next year, I want to lose myself completely in these swamps. Until then, however, we're left with a recorded output which achieves the inconceivably brilliant middle ground between Tinariwen and The Mars Volta.



















21. A Broken Consort - Box of Birch

A cursory, half-arsed listen makes it sound like the screeching ambience on which Nick Cave's "Hold On To Yourself" drifts shorn of its accompanying song. At an adequate volume, however, and granted with adequate attention, it sounds like the perfect aural evocation of the English landscape. Lancashire in particular, apparently.

Originally conceived, we are told, as a tribute to a departed wife. Was she, perhaps, a fan of long, solidary walks across such landscapes? Suddenly a signifcant amount of weight is added to these textures. Their effect is devastating.

This music sounds at once ancient and timeless - in these drones we see bleak, windswept hills - ravaged variously by storms, by drizzle, by industrial progress, by battle, by Patrick Wolf's "wired electricity". We see generations of humanity suffering through pointless endeavour whilst the land on which they live remains a grave constant. Listening to this music it's hard not to be made to feel somewhat insignificant - a square mile of field can render one as dwarfed as the entire vastness of space. An impossibly bleak, endlessly moving experience.


COMING SOON -  20-16

20091111

As Of Now And Now Only (Hopefully)



As of now and now only, hopefully - I do hope so. The idea is that, one year from now, I'll look back on this and say - what was I thinking? It takes time for things to settle in. It always does. Inevitably, some things will take longer than others. More often than not, though, it will happen eventually. And, believe me - I really, really, really hope that it does happen. You never know, do you? Six months down the line, for want of something else - anything else - pop on that which didn't quite make sense last time and - suddenly - it makes perfect sense. It has to happen.

See, these are albums about which I was really excited. They're albums I tried and tried and tried and tried - listen after listen after listen - albums with whom I've burned that midnight oil in a vain attempt to find something - anything - to love. Hoping against hope time and time again that this time - this time - only now will I truly hear what they wanted me to hear.

And yet, I never did. Albums I wanted so badly to love but didn't. I'm not writing them off. It's just that, I've put so much in already and got very little so far in return. One year from now I fully expect to feel completely differently. Right now though - there are slow burners, and there are albums with which - oh I can't bring myself to say it - albums which - just - might not actually be - any good.

Here, then, are my three biggest disappointments of 2009. Painful stuff.



















1. Super Furry Animals - Dark Days/Light Years

I abjectly refuse to even toy with the notion that their time has come. Hey Venus was an album of short, colourful pop songs - ludicrously accessible - and yet I never succeeded in penetrating its glossy surfaces. After 2/3 of the first three tracks invoked the dreaded Truck Driver's Gear Change, I simply had difficulty in continuing. Even now, two or three years later, I am hard pushed to recall any moments over than the chirpy chorus of "Show Your Hand".

It was perhaps with trepidation, then, that I approached Dark Days/Light Years. The early signs were promising. "Inaugural Trams" refused to leave my head for days after the inaugural listen, and it was nice to see a return for Pete Fowler's unmistakable artwork. I found Keiichi Tanaami's efforts for Hey Venus to be far too cold and clinical for such a soulful band - they left a sour taste in the mouth. Granted, his mark is also upon this release, but Fowler's input ensured that this at least looked like an SFA album.

Then came the first listen. "Crazy Naked Girls" was an excellent start. "Cardiff In The Sun" immediately stood out and remains to this day one of the album's few saving graces. Apart from that though...

It's not as if the music is in any way inferior. Far from it. They remain one of the most consistently innovative and downright interesting bands operating in the world today. I know that these are dense masterpieces of freaked out genius, the likes of which no other band could ever dream of creating. The thing is, it's now been part of my life for well over six months and it still feels as if I'm missing something. Usually with this band, by this point I'm well and truly in and I find the music gently lilting through my dreams. Of course, with any music of any substance it's to be expected that multiple listens will be a prerequisite. But I look to Hey Venus and I shudder. What if I never break through?

What the album lacks, I think, is consistency. Everything they've ever put out has been a diverse affair, but there's usually a subtle overarching theme - barely perceptible but impossible to ignore - which serves to achieve cohesion overall. Here there are tracks that drift aimlessly and blissfully, tracks that threaten to tear apart the very grooves on which they rest and tracks seemingly culled from hypercharged late-night jamming sessions - all bustling for room over variously light and bouncy/dark and menacing pristine electronic pop. I repeat, it's all good. But having come to expect from these guys albums that stand out as more than mere sums of their parts, it can't help but disappoint. Rings Around The World, Phantom Power, Radiator - three listening experiences. Dark Days/Light Years, though, has never felt like anything other than a collection of songs. Bloody good songs, granted. But from this band, I expect much, much better.

By no means am I writing off either the band or the album. There's every chance that, someday soon, it'll click. As of now and now only (hopefully) - here we are, and I'm left feeling cold. There'll be further new material from them next year. It promises to be orchestral. I hope, by then, I'll either have come round to these psychotic jams or that the new release is so good that all - by which I mean, their preceding two albums - will be forgiven. Dark days indeed. We all have them. They can be forgiven. There's still hope.






2. Athlete - Black Swan

This one I'll admit took me quite by surprise. Casually browsing the net was I one day when I happened - happened! - upon it - happened to come across it, on Amazon - there it was - and, suddenly, "gracious!" A new Athlete album!


So, no, I hadn't been waiting for this one with baited breath. Be that as it may, I love Athlete. There was once a point at which Vehicles and Animals was a big part of my life. If prompted I probably would have identified it as one of my favourite albums, ever. Of course, my ears were younger back then, and granted I'd heard comparatively few albums overall. But that said, it would still have represented quite a plaudit.


I knew, however, that I could truly describe myself as "dedicated" when, upon hearing their sophomorphic Tourist for the first time, I was already excited as to where they were going to go next. I remember thinking there and then as to how unfair it was that I should have to wait up to three years for the follow up. And when it did arrive in the shape of Beyond the Neighbourhood, the wait felt very much worth it. Some gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous songs on that album. "The Athlete Sound" - as tasty, affecting, reliable and warming as a cup of tea. It was love.


Then came Black Swan, and, yes, I was unprepared. It was easy to write off that dismayed first listen as "unprepared". The second listen, too. But the third? The fourth? The fifth? What happened to them? Where was absolutely everything I'd grown to love for the past six years? Where had it all gone? Was I listening to the same band? Undoubtedly. But - what was missing?


The sad thing is, I've still no idea. These are low-key, understated and deeply troubled songs sung, as it sounds, very much from the bottom of the heart. They soar alright, but in doing so serve to sail right over my head - a head, mind you, which is very, very keen to listen. And yet, listen as I might - I never did, never could - connect. The connection is key. Always is.


A disgusted passer-by, scowling with offence at the syrupy drones emanating from the room, wrote it off as "too American". And he's absolutely right. That's just it. Athlete's sound was always crisp and radio-friendly, but never has it been so lacking in essential feeling. Before, it sounded reasurring. This time, it simply sounded as if it was desperate to be of no trouble to anyone. As if - as if it were meticulously groomed to inspire nothing but apathy.


The big kiss off is, as usual, that right now, even having listened countless times, I cannot recall a single note from any of the seventeen tracks (I had the two disc special edition and everything). The saddest part is that with the baffling announcement of a greatest hits collection to be released early next year coupled with the none-too-subtle hint in the album's title (Black Swan - SWAN - SWAN SONG) - well, all signs are indicating that this might be the last we ever hear from good old Athlete. I care not what anybody says, it will truly be a great loss.




















3. Jason Lytle - Yours Truly, The Commuter

This one perhaps stung worst of all. When Grandaddy suddenly and unceremoniously disbanded after 2006's Just Like The Fambly Cat, a part of me died. Shut up. It did.


It felt great to have him back. Finally. Pretty much wholly responsible for most everything on the aforementioned album, I was confident that the first Jason Lytle solo album would sound like - well, a Grandaddy album. And it did. It felt like listening to a new Grandaddy album. On that first listen it was easy to forgive even that which must be the worst album cover of the year. Look at it.

So I was happy. On repeat listens, though, it suffered, and suffered very badly indeed. The lifeless drums, listless synths, weary vocals and defeated lyrics - this was a very depressing listen. Parts of it sounded awful - cheap, tacky - I love home recording, but from a songwriter as so obviously talented as Lytle I expected so much more than the amateur synth string washes which dominate the proceedings here.


Then came the worst part. I relistened to ...Fambly Cat. "Jeez Louise", "Rearview Mirror" - some of it was excellent, verily. Most of it, though, sounded just as flat and plastic as that which would follow. Then it occurred to me. The blandness of ...Fambly Cat I could forgive because the album was presented as a dignified death. I clung to it like one would cling to a dying relative. You forgive such horrible cusses when one is on their death bed. It's to be expected when they're in so much pain. With ...Commuter, though - well, it was supposed to be a glorious return. And with a sound as overall limp as that of ....Fambly Cat - my reaction was, unfortunately, one of "Is that it?"




I REPEAT - I hope against hope that each of these albums will, in time, endear themselves to me. As of now and now only, though - disappointed. Very, very disappointed. Must try harder.

20091110

Slow and British




The year is drawing to a close and, like everybody else for whom music represents an obsession, I'm obsessively cultivating those sacred "year-end" lists.

My "best albums of the year" will be exactly the same as that of pretty much everybody else but with two very important differences:

1. Nobody else liked Zero 7's "Yeah Ghost".
2. Nobody else cares about my opinion. My ultimate list will not be discussed, spat upon, torn to shreds nor used as a basis of what to buy, what to hear. I can but dream. Oh fuck off.

But there are other lists to be compiled before that one. First, here's a list of albums I "dug" that were released elsewhere last year that I only heard this year because I'm slow and British.





1. Empire Of The Sun - Walking On A Dream
 
When this was first released over here, earlier in the year, most everyone seemed to be spouting exactly the same. The "E" word and the "M" word. The "E" being "Eighties", the "M" "MGMT". I took issue with both. Synths and drum machines have been a fixture of pop-music since the 60s. Why, then, are any musicians who peddle a vaguely electronic sound these days instantly painted/tainted with the "eighties" brush? And MGMT? Luke Steele had been doing the whole lysergic psyche thing for years before those Friends of Fridmann, but nobody likened MGMT to The Sleepy Jackson, did they?

But that was all immaterial. For two solid weeks it formed the soundtrack to my dull and drizzly journey to work through dreary Northenden and deadly Wythenshaw. Every day was damp and grey. And yet, every day the sun was shining. This album offered perfect escapism - it rendered those depressing streets positively dazzling and ensured that I was in something vaguely approaching a "good mood" upon arriving at work.

To me, much of it sounds like the soundtrack to a technicolour, hyperkinetic Japanese videogame. Think Game Cube, Dreamcast - think Puyo Puyo, Puzzle Bobble, Outrun or Super Monkey Ball. Listen to those steel drums at the end of Half Mast - that's what I'm thinking. Even has lyrics about hotels in the hills with carousels. Pure, joyous escapism. Never got along with that last track, though.



2. Women - Women

This came out very late last year overseas and seemed to come out here very early this year. As such, I can't help but view it as being somehow removed from time and space. I mean, it's important to not link music to whichever year it happens to be released - and when visiting established albums it's a lot easier - but when you're coming across music as and when it's released, well, it's difficult - for about five years after their release albums feel like little more than products of their time.

So it's unusual for me to find an album released so recently that feels so detached from everything else. The music helps, of course. At any one moment it sounds at once a product of grimy log cabins, of sodden pine forests and of shady crack-alleys. What's a crack-alley? An alley in which crack is taken? What in tarnation? An anus.

Yes, it sounds filthy, dangerous - but also vast, fresh and dripping. The album drips as it sizzles and not one vocal is discernible from the scalding mix. There are, of course, moments of creepy sweetness - but the full descent into feedback noise madness at the end leaves a lasting feeling of disquiet and discomfort. Short, at little over half an hour, but a listening experience somewhat akin to taking that short-cut home through the graveyard at night.



3. School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms

I loved The Secret Machines. I still do. I love The Secret Machines. And yet, I never got around to listening to their third album. Thing is, Benjamin Curtis apparently left as a consequence of finding himself disillusioned with the fact that his band were beginning to dabble in territory too conventionally rocky for him. Citation needed, indeed.

"And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes/I'll see you on the dark side of the moon" - for Mr. Curtis, the dark side of the moon was The School of Seven Bells; an airy, curvy haven with air so crisp it's bitingly cold. I'm not usually a fan of describing music solely in terms of bands of whom I'm reminded. However, when I heard these sweet Mellow Candle harmonies over music as otherworldly as The Cocteau Twins (albeit with less dated production values) - well, all of a sudden that third Secret Machines album didn't seem so appealing. No. I still very much want to hear it. It's just that, I always liked Curtis's work, and if he was finding them too - pedestrian? - and took all his good ideas here - well, the urgency was lost, you know?

Alpinisms. Makes me wish I could ski. Or, at the very least, that I lived in the mountains. A glorious album with which it is by no means a bad thing that it causes me to fall asleep.

NEXT - Three disappointments of 2009. Oh no!