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 Gone were the life-affirming symphonies of yore - they'd been replaced by something loud, ugly, sprawling, dissonant and more than a little scary.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.