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.