This is the last instalment of the list I've been making of my favourite albums of 2010. Whilst the list has been in no particular order, the five featured in this post quite possibly constitute my five favourite albums of the year.
Villagers – Becoming A Jackal
For dimly lit haunted rooms encrimsoned which reek of incense and red wine – this is music which feels as though it was written to provide musical accompaniment to a séance. I was expecting folk pleasantries. The reality was much darker and much, much more satisfying. It glows and burns like untended embers.
His voice and style was compared to Bright Eyes. It reminds me more of Grizzly Bear – albeit it's steeped in ghostly Victoriana as opposed to rustic Americana. These tracks are gloomy and brooding, but there's a thrilling looseness to “Ship Of Promises” and such bright choruses and refrains in “That Day” as to have a similar effect to the sun peeking through grey clouds – momentary relief, dries the rain.
The only possible criticism that could be levied is that things sound a little too polished – this is the sort of music which would really benefit from a raw and swampy mix achieved through recording live with but one mic in the room. In this way, the album achieved a status shared with only the finest of releases: after but a few listens I was already yearning for a sequel.
Beach House – Teen Dream
Recently, whilst my brother and I were shopping, some kind of interstellar Sly & The Family Stone jam lilted its way from an instore sound system with such brash energy as to inspire unconscious head-nodding in everyone within earshot. It was followed by Beach House's chiming “Real Love” - which came across as a soft and lilting echo when compared to the freak-out which preceded.
“I love this song,” I said. Because I do.
“I prefer Sly & The Family Stone,” said my brother.
“Well, I prefer this.”
“But,” said my brother. “If you had to listen to just one band for the rest of your life, it would be Sly & The Family Stone, wouldn't it? Not Beach House.”
Well. I'll say now what I said then. Whereas the music of Sly is perhaps objectively better, if, in an unlikely hypothetical situation, I were forced to choose but one band to take with me to the grave, out of the options given I would, without hesitation, plumb for Beach House.
The reason for this is simple. Most of my time is spent sleeping, wishing I were sleeping, trying not to leave the house, drinking tea, writing, reading and sleeping. The music of Beach House, then, might not set my world alight in the way only Sly and his cohorts could, but it's so much more apt and comforting.
Lush, plaintive, melancholic, wistful, desperate, gorgeous. Songs like “Silver Soul”, “Norway” and “Take Care” are exactly the sort of intensely sad, yearning yet redemptive anthems which form my bread and butter. What I'm trying to say is: This is very much my bag, baby.
The National – High Violet
Desperate times call for desperate music – and none sound more desperate than The National. It's the musical equivalent of “just getting on with things” - and, as anybody who's ever witnessed any degree of tragedy second-hand will attest, sometimes there's nothing sadder than “just getting on with things”.
Imagine romantic, cinematic grandeur mixed with such heartfelt pathos which can only come from those who have lived through absolutely everything they so beautifully sing set to exactly the sort of exultant defiance for which Springsteen is adored – in The National we truly have a band to treasure for life. Long may be their reign.
Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
It's the ultimate rebuttal of the tedious “album as dead artform” argument – not just a double but a triple disc set which features absolutely nothing that could be considered as “filler” or as worthy of cutting which flows so beautifully as to make gorging on all three discs in one sitting a desirable and enthralling experience as opposed to a slog or a marathon whilst simultaneously providing such wonderful, endlessly replayable passages that to simply skim the surface is also a very real possibility.
Have One On Me is a gift of a release – the best fifteen pounds one might ever spend – an artefact to be treasured with such a physical presence as to radiate warmth even on those rare occasions where you can tear yourself away for long enough to not listen.
Like the best books I've ever read, this is absorbing and transcendent – not so much heard as inhabited – and I'm at every bit of a loss when proceedings draw to a close. What I love is the way it's paced like all good trilogies. The first disc is perhaps the only one which would work as a standalone album. The second is much darker, much sadder – whilst the third, although providing much in the way of drama, comes to a warm and satisfying conclusion which serves to tie everything up perfectly.
Here you have the most marvellous, meticulous, creative and varied arrangements of the year; the most intriguing, poetic and sprawling lyrics which are all sung so beautifully. The modern world doesn't seem to allow for genius to exist; it seems intent on detecting flaws in everything. Nothing's perfect and everything is to be reduced to cold, hard, scientific logic. To have this album in my life, however, makes me feel as though the world perhaps isn't so base, so cold, so cruel.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
In a year in which so, so many releases have spellbound, captivated and endeared, it felt only right that my list of favourites should be in no order. Be that as it may, were I forced at rapier-point by some kind of curious lunatic to pick one album as my absolute favourite, I think I'd choose The Suburbs.
My reasoning is simple: It's yet to be proven otherwise that every single one of my friends loves this album. After their stunning live sets at the 2005 Reading and Leeds Festivals, the NME, for once, penned something so inspired as to stick with me. They said that the band's set was such a unifying experience that people weren't so much comparing their favourite bands of the weekend as their favourite songs from Arcade Fire's set.
I know that not everyone will consider this their favourite album of the year. Still, however, I feel as though it's created a rare sense of unity. That which really endears me is that everyone seems to have their favourite song. Mine's the sweetly pulsating “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”, but I've also heard variously “Ready To Start”, “Empty Room”, “City With No Children” and “We Used To Wait” identified as standouts and favourites. This is an inevitable result of an album full of sixteen unforgettable, beautifully written, beautifully sung, beautifully played and beautifully realised songs. In one way or another they speak to and for everyone. I cannot think of an album since The Strokes' Is This It which has so apparently enthralled most everyone I know.
The really exciting part is in anticipating as to where they might go from here. Arcade Fire feel like “our” band and, at the moment, they seem immortal, as though they can do no wrong. It is therefore with no hesitation that I dispel the highest plaudits I can think of: That this must be what it was like to be a Radiohead fan in 1997.
TO BE FORGOTTEN
Part four of five of my list of my favourite albums of 2010.
Laurie Anderson – Homeland
An aching, searing eulogy for the American Dream itself; a dark and gloomy concept album concerning the credit crunch; barbed and witty performance poetry set to a backdrop of throat singers, squalling free jazz, keyboard drones, techno beats and a very specially “treated” violin. Whilst young musicians everywhere, apparently horrified by the world around them, are looking inwards and backwards; it takes a middle aged veteran to write such songs based upon the terrible mess that she sees before her. That the album is such a foreboding and confusing listen says it all: The feel to dominate the album is one of unerring dread.
Without a doubt two songs form the gravitational hub of this book of fear and loathing: The eleven minute pitch-shifted drones of “Another Day In America” and the irresistibly catchy pounding “Only An Expert” which features the stellar electronics of Kieran Hebden and the searing guitar work of husband and legend Lou Reed. Somehow, both of these tracks together manage to sum up most everything that's wrong in the western world in 2010.
Yet, despite the chilling apocalyptic nature of the album, Laurie's sense of humour is always present and her tone is one of weariness rather than resignation. That's to say that there's still, apparently, hope. That she's by no means proclaiming us as doomed is something of a comfort – though her plaintive sigh that we're reaching for the stars which she thought indestructible in “Another Day...” is disquietingly ominous.
The ultimate testament to this album's worth, though, is NME's 0/10 review which petulantly moaned that they didn't understand it and that only pretentious and boring people will. Plaudits rarely come higher.
Badly Drawn Boy – It's What I'm Thinking pt.1: Photographing Snowflakes
The Hour Of Bewilderbeast was the first album I ever loved and, since then, I've been following Badly Drawn Boy as closely as is possible without incurring some kind of restraining order. That's to say that I'm a fan.
The news, then, that he'll be releasing no less than three albums over the next year was an almighty boon for me. My excitement only intensified after I became prithee to the sheer quality of the material as can be found within the first part of the imminent trilogy.
Photographing Snowflakes is a magical album. One of the first things sang by the man on the first song on his first album I've always taken as something of a statement of intent - “To put a little bit of sunshine in your life”. Every single one of his albums has, so far, delivered on this promise.
His music possesses a welcoming cosiness – his voice is as comforting as a pair of old shoes. This is, perhaps, the most intimate of all of his releases to date. All is bathed in a hazy reverb which makes the album perfect listening for such nights where it's bitingly cold outside yet warm and glowing within.
Autechre – Oversteps
Every album I've heard by these guys has managed to sound unique not just in terms of their oeuvre but also in terms of music itself. Nobody sounds quite like them, and no two releases sound quite the same. Hallmarks both of a group to treasure.
I found 2008's Quaristice to be stunning – small snippets of rhythmic mayhem and ambient beauty which, combined, made for a fluent, challenging and ultimately rewarding listening experience. All preliminary investigation indicated that Oversteps would prove to be their most accessible album yet. I wasn't quite expecting an Autechre “pop” album, but even so, such claims I initially found baffling.
All first impressions with Autechre are of bafflement. But still, when I hear this album today and am presented once again with such sublime rhythms and textures that would happily soundtrack the parts of my subconscious mind of which I'm proudest – it's hard to believe the extent to which I was initially unimpressed.
Never underestimate, friends, the power of repeat listening. So often has it been said that nobody really “enjoys” the music of Autechre. Rather, they “admire” it. Whilst I've never really found that to be the case (I don't listen to anything I don't enjoy), all the same I can appreciate this sentiment. However, I firmly believe it to be the case that even those most alienated by their past works might find something to “enjoy” here. Hell, they might even find something to love.
It's hardly their most “accessible” album, and it's far from their “pop” album – things are as skewed, machinic and alien as ever. But still, the dark world as conjured by these genius textures is one which I'm happy to inhabit for the hour or so of playing time. So happy, in fact, that a genuine despondency is felt when things finally begin to draw to a close. It's like I don't want to leave.
Never underestimate, friends, the power of repeat listening.
Liars – Sisterworld
The special edition of this album allows for you to peek through the keyhole on the cover to see a stretching vista of trees. Whilst the grim rackets and eerie soundscapes which make up this album are far from pastoral, all the same it seems to be an album about escaping to alternate worlds. The lush forest into which you can gaze inspire yearning once you immerse yourself in the rain-soaked streets, dark attics and crumbling dereliction conjured up by these twisted songs.
From the botched murder of “Scissor”, the stifling, suffocating domesticity of “The Overachievers” to the murderous cleansing in the utterly terrifying “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”, this is a vision of hell. It's loud, dissonant and very, very bleak.
But to escape to the sisterworld as suggested by the title – that's aspirational. That's beautiful. The reason as to why this music never comes across as too ugly or oppressive is because you know that never are they revelling in or glorifying the darkness. Rather, they seem to be desperately attempting to crawl away from it. Ultimately, then, this is an album of transcendence – and transcendence is very nearly achieved on such vitriolic jams as “Proud Evolution” or “Too Much Too Much”.
Combining, as it does, the dark witchcraft rituals of They Were Wrong So We Drowned with the acerbic guitar shreds of their eponymous offering, this is quite possibly the best album Liars have ever produced. Thrillingly dark like binging on horror films with the lights out.
Grinderman – Grinderman 2
The first Grinderman album, sounding, as it did, like a desperate midlife crisis, must have been treated by some as something of a joke. A joke which rocked and rocked hard and good, but a joke nonetheless. I didn't quite know what to make of it in the context of Nick Cave's other pursuits. All I knew was that it rocked and rocked hard and good; and that, with Mr. Cave at the helm, we could depend upon the highest calibre of wordplay and witticisms.
But Grinderman 2 is so good as to suggest a very real depth and longevity to that which might once have been treated as at best a side project and, at worst, a joke. It isn't quite an opportunity for Mr. Cave to let his hair down in terms of volume, aggression or sleaze. This man first came to prominence in The Birthday Party, and his work with The Bad Seeds is littered with such caustic filth as “Scum”, “Stagger Lee”, “Hiding It All Away” and “Hard On For Love”. Rather, it feels like a thrilling exercise in raw spontaneity and improvisation. I hear that Bad Seeds albums are laboured over for months – with most of the songwriting taking place at a desk. Nothing but a cramped and sweaty rehearsal space lit, perhaps, by a red lightbulb could give birth to such vicious storms of throbbing medieval intent as can be found in the first three tracks on this album.
Whilst it's true that there is nothing here as immediately appealing and as endlessly hysterical as “No Pussy Blues”, neither was there anything as at once so utterly bizarre and so strangely touching on the first Grinderman album as “Palaces Of Montezuma”. Also, the searing fire of “Kitchenette” and “Heathen Child” are enough to suggest that these guys are getting better at doing whatever the hell it is they're doing. And they were already the masters. Roman Deities, you could say.
If the next Grinderman album is this good, I just might be forced to start taking them as seriously as I do The Bad Seeds.
TO BE CONCLUDED
This is part three of my list of my favourite albums of 2010. Did I mention that this list is in no particular order?
Prince Rama – Shadow Temple
Utilising little more than intricate polyrhythmic percussion, vintage synths and the utterly transcendent power of the human voice in all its forms (from guttural moans to rhapsodic shrieks), here we have an album of psychedelic incantations so dripping in liquid magick as to be worthy of soundtracking Kenneth Anger's “Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome”.
In too short a space of time chants, melodies and rhythms compete with each other for dominance in a fiery roar of noise which sounds as though it were recorded live from the base of an erupting volcano. You do, of course, get the impression that human sacrifices are being willingly cast into said volcano with the attention of honouring or appeasing some kind of fire deity.
The closest sonic parallels I've yet drawn are the mechanical gotterdemmerung of Magma and the eerie insanity of Amon Duul 2. However, where the jams of both bands radiate the sort of mystic evil which is beyond our simple minds to ever comprehend, Prince Rama instead sound like they're in the throes of ecstasy having witnessed the goddess descending.
The Bees – Every Step's A Yes
I don't think I read a single review of this superlative release which didn't, in one way or another, touch upon the “fact” that few people seem to care for the existence of The Bees. It is one of the gravest mistakes a music journalist can make to assume that all feel the same as they do: This band mean the world to me.
They seem to emerge every few years with the sole intention of injecting a modicum of sunshine, happiness and well-being into the lives of all who care to listen. But I don't just listen. Avidly and willingly I soak it up.
Whilst there are some sonic hallmarks identifiable on every release, all the same it's fair to say that each of their four albums has served to offer a different listening experience. Where 2007's Octopus simmered in the more laid-back waters of Trojan Records, the sublime jams as showcased on Every Step's A Yes for me recall the more languid, pastoral and hazy offerings from such wizards as Donovan and Forest. Nowhere is this better sampled than on the shimmering “Skill Of The Man” or the utterly gorgeous “Silver Line”.
Of course, this being an album by The Bees, it's perhaps to be expected that you'll find yourself prithee to a whole array of glorious sounds which betray a pure and insatiable love of music on the part of the band; be it the swampy blues of “Winter Rose”, the breezy “Pressure Makes Me Lazy” or the uplifting tropicalia of the Devendra Banhart featuring “Gaia”.
Every time these guys release an album, I feel as though I possess instant access to such music which compliments perfectly those baking hot days whilst proving potent enough to instil such balmy happiness on such days otherwise too cold or too wet for sauntering. Take that, cynics.
Forest Swords – Dagger Paths
The origin of this music wouldn't have even registered as an issue were it not so close to home. Hell, it is home. This guy's a Liverpudlian. Had this not been the case, he could have hailed from absolutely anywhere else and it wouldn't have mattered to me in the slightest – because this is music not of our world.
It occupies simultaneously the darkest and dingiest abysses so deep that light has no hope of penetrating their surface and the divine upper echelons of dreams and consciousness. In its cavernous basslines you see at once every rain-soaked street, rubbish-strewn alley, windswept hill, abandoned quarry and mildewy cave you might ever have encountered. Whereas in the various jarring organs, pianos and guitars – so drenched in reverb as to dominate any space in which they're contained – there are human faces, stabs of light, warm embraces or campfires sheltered from the rain.
And that such transcendent music should harbour such local names as “Hoylake Mist” is remarkable. At once world-embracingly cosmic yet reassuringly intimate, this music is every bit as familiar as it is alien. It is, therefore, quite unlike most anything else I've heard all year.
I Am Kloot – Sky At Night
I bought Elbow's Leaders Of The Free World a few days before I first moved to Manchester some five years ago. Tracks such as “Station Approach”, written about the very streets on which I was in the process of finding my feet, soon became the soundtrack to the part of my life which I have since termed the “coming of age” years.
Well, this fruit's not so much soured as over-ripened. That's to say that it's become too heavy for its branch and has fallen from the tree. It is to fall to such a place which, whilst being close to its roots, is not necessarily once again amongst them. There it will rest awhile before being picked up and taken to further exciting new climates.
And recently, whilst travelling by night on a bus route which has become far too familiar, I used I Am Kloot's Northern Skies as my soundtrack. Specifically during “The Moon Is A Blind Eye” - unquestionably my favourite track – as I passed by for what I then understood to be one of the last times such familiar places and saw such familiar yet heart-rending scenes as smiles and embraces at bus-stops – I remember thinking – I love this city tonight.
So, where Elbow soundtracked my coming to this city, I Am Kloot have soundtracked my going. It's fitting, then, that the music within should be so wistful, yearning and desperate for both something familiar and something new.
Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
I'm strongly opposed to any argument which states that “the album”, as an art form, is “dead”. Yes, there are many joys to be had in loading every song you own into an MP3 player and listening in shuffle mode. But how can people continue to hold this misguided view when, year after year, scores upon scores of musicians release work which comes across as more of a “cohesive whole” than as a “collection of MP3s”?
Albums by Flying Lotus strongly support the claim that there's life yet left in “the album” through proving impossible to play by any means other than as a continuous whole. On Cosmogramma, the album is divided into “tracks” seemingly more because it's a done thing than because there exists on this album something as arbitrary as a “track”. Everything blends and bleeds into each other with such mercurial insanity that to even attempt to pick a “favourite song” is something of an impossibility.
Sure, there are standout “moments” amidst the maelstrom – not least Thom Yorke's ghostly turn on “...And The World Laughs With You” - but these are only “moments” in the same way that one recalls certain scenes or lines of dialogue from a film. Rarely will you consume a film in anything other than one sitting. Cosmogramma is no different. It's a journey; an experience; the soundtrack to the best film never made – and every other cliché dished out to particularly transcendent works such as this. In reference to the latter, though, stuff this crazily hyperactive and intense would be fit to soundtrack nothing less than the whoozy and soul-destroying drug-addled spiritual epic “Enter The Void” - but even those retina-searing visuals would be so tame for these sounds that one would feel the need to add the dreadful suffix of “on acid” to proceedings in order to even come close to the desired effect.
“Like the cosmic soundtrack to Enter The Void – on acid” is my terrible, hackneyed summation of this album, then. I'm not proud of such a asinine remark, but little else seems to do in the face of such a kyperkinetic rush of space-addled insanity. This packs more ideas than Coldcut's seminal 70 Minutes Of Madness Mix into a shorter space of time and ultimately offers a far more rewarding listening experience. And it's all the work of one man. Fear him.
MORE NEXT TIME.
Part Two of my list of my favourite albums of 2010 which, I repeat, is in no particular order.
Roky Erickson & Okkervil River – True Love Cast Out All Evil
So intensely personal that things, at some points, become more than a little disquieting. Nowhere is this more true than on the opening “Devotional Number One”. Recorded on equipment so lo-fi as to be outstripped by a wax cylinder, it features a scratchy backing band culled from Roky's inmates during his stints in care. Amongst their ranks, it is reckoned, is a serial rapist and some guy who threw a woman off a bridge. It sounds like an illict transmission from the darkest corner of the world – and yet, undeniably there's plaintive hope in his voice – before all becomes swallowed by overpowering feedback – as openings go, this one leaves me feeling cold, perturbed and uncomfortable.
The following “Ain't Blues Too Sad”, however, is a short but sweet hand on the shoulder which has an identical impact as a warm cup of tea after a walk through a storm. Roky's voice ages some thirty years between these two tracks. As it sounds today it's rich, cracked and heartbreaking.
This album is devastating, but that's not to say that it's to be avoided should you find yourself in a fragile state of mind. In Roky's poignant, plaintive laments you'll find very real comfort, for never is hope far from the equation; not even when he's desperately pleading, presumably on his knees, before the dock in the stirring and affecting “Please Judge”.
Okkervil River act more as curators than as collaborators. I've not heard much of their music, but their polite, unobtrusive and simple backing tracks (and brilliantly insightful liner notes) act as something of a dusty canvas on which Roky can daub enough of himself to ensure that this is his story, nobody else's. Though occasionally they allow for feedback and white noise to interfere with the prevailing beauty, rather than ruining affairs this merely acts as something of a reminder that these are the thoughts of a most troubled mind indeed. In no way can we even begin to relate to that which Roky's endured, but the turmoil is there and impossible to ignore. That it's all but overcome by hope and positivity is miraculous, life-affirming stuff.
Gil Scott-Heron – I'm New Here
The liner notes request that you listen all the way through, without distractions. It would be rude not to. In doing so, you're treated to a listening experience which might be short (just shy of even thirty minutes), but is nevertheless brutally honest, stirringly intimate, uncomfortably claustrophobic yet ultimately redemptive. Its brevity merely ensures that immediate repeat listens are something of a necessity.
I picture our esteemed orator sat on a stool before a microphone in some back-alley jazz club lit only by neon cast in a blue haze on account of the chain of cigarettes through which he's ploughing. His face is a deep frown as he reads aloud from crinkled papers yellowed from his prison stints. It's possible to read in his gravelly voice such experiences only otherwise betrayed by such deep crags as can be found in the faces of those who have seen too much. Yet our esteemed orator's not done yet. No matter how tired he might sound, there's still a vibrancy in his growls and a bite in his words which is such that all sat before him are rapt to the point that they neglect their lit cigarettes which, unsmoked, burn right down to the filter unnoticed.
Where did the night go, indeed? I don't think I ever want to leave.
Pantha Du Prince – Black Noise
In a year full of fantastic collaborations – Lou Reed with Gorillaz, Thom Yorke with Flying Lotus – it's Noah Lennox, alias Panda Bear, whose turn on "Stick To My Side" might make the least amount of noise but, for me at least, has the greatest impact. You see, this is music which I hear in my sleep. It seeps inside almost unnoticed – a benevolent audio virus if ever there was one – and stews and throbs in the part of the brain apparently most dedicated to wistfulness and nostalgia. Pantha Du Prince plants the seeds, but it's left to the listener to allow for them to grow.
These delicate, minimalist and meticulous compositions seem specifically tailored for headphones, incense and darkened rooms, and it's in such contexts that they sound best. However, the mind cannot help but conjure such vistas which, though contained, stretch for miles: Caverns lit by crystals glowing blue; light stabbing through lush green canopies and all but failing to penetrate all the way to the forest floor below through which you pace so tentatively. You can almost taste the fresh pine-scented air – and it's such air that's so fresh as to cold-sting your city-choked lungs.
This is pure escapism, and few retreats from the chaotic pace of modern life with which I so struggle to keep pace are sweeter than the gorgeous “Welt Am Draht” - a piece whose muted chorale sounds come across as an ancient ode to a mercurial forest spirit – essential in every sense of the word. I need music this distanced from everything else. I need transcendent music to live.
Four Tet – There Is Love In You
Not since the curious “No More Mosquitoes” on Pause have vocals played such a large role in Four Tet's music. Sweetly looped female sighing croons form almost the entirety of the melody of the opening “Angel Echoes”. Like the dusty opening monologue of an Oliver Postgate show, they instantly pull the shutters down on the world around and and instead invite you into a warm, cosy, intimate and subdued universe in which to spend any amount of time is enough to restore your sanity in the face of all that apparently strives to rid you of it.
It's hard not to think of the album in terms of the stunning nine minute alien broadcast that is “Love Cry”, but all that comes after offers thrills that might be less visceral but are no less vital – be it the sweet cyclical arpeggios of the aptly named “Circling” or the soft and scratchy jazz of “This Unfolds” which serves to leave the sweetest possible taste in the mouth.
But it took a tired yet buzzing mind in a cramped room full of surging bodies to recognise that the likes of “Sing” and “Plastic People” are veritable club anthems every bit as potent and galvanising as the finest offerings from Orbital. It would sound fantastic accompanied by lasers before an adoring crowd of thousands on a pyramid shaped stage – but the almost clandestine feel of the live experience as it stands is perhaps a lot more appropriate.
Caribou – Swim
To say that Caribou have “gone electro” would be every bit as inadvisable as saying that Neil Young has, over the years, moved away from guitars. Mathematically considered electronic composition has played a huge role in every Caribou release – be it the organic motorik industrial jazz of The Milk of Human Kindness or the sun-drenched psychedelica of Andorra.
So, no, this isn't Caribou's “electronic” album. It is, however, their most club-orientated offering to date – the album to which its easiest to dance. Hell, it's not just “easy”. Rather, it's almost impossible to resist. Who are you to refrain from at least nodding along with an immense grin plastered across your glowing face whilst grooving to the propulsive and transient “Sun” which radiates as much warmth and well-being as the entity from which it takes its name? Who are you to even attempt to refrain from churning with eyes closed so blissfully to the strummed harp which transforms, as if by magic, to a peal of bells in the too-good-to-be-true “Bowls”?
Conceived as an attempt to record music which sounded as though it was underwater, there is a melting fluidity and mercurial quality to these meticulous compositions which is, apparently, exactly what I've been looking for all along in music. To suddenly stumble across it in such lush and glorious technicolour was such a shock to the system that my initial reaction was never going to be anything other than bemusement. However, as the title suggests, these are sounds in which it's necessary to immerse yourself completely in order to fully appreciate. This is exactly the kind of energising electronic music which so often serves to make life feel not just bearable, but positively joyous.
TO BE FURTHERED
Yes, I'm about to write about my favourite albums of 2010. This is a terrible idea and I really should quit now while I'm ahead. I did this last year and nearly lost it completely – so to speak. It wasn't so much that I was dreading the notion that people might disagree with my choices (for that I'd need a readership). Rather, I was terrified of coming across as lordy or judgemental or sanctimonious or pretentious or – well. I was, essentially, terrified of coming across all Quietus or Pitchfork on you. You know what they're like - “We're right, you're wrong. This is the way things are and if you disagree, not only are you wrong, you're a mutant. Go die in a fire.”
To that end, I'm prefacing this episodic list with the same disclaimer I affix to most everything I write: Nothing I ever say, do, think or dream will ever be “definitive”. These aren't “the best albums of 2010”. They're my favourite albums of 2010. Few of them are “in”, almost none of them are “cool” and I've long since given up on even vaguely attempting to capture anything approaching a “Zeitgeist”. No, let's leave all that to those for whom music must, for whatever reason, perform functions beyond, you know, entertaining or enthralling or escapism. These are albums which, in one way or another, I loved. OK? OK.
And because I'm finding myself increasingly pissed off by the notion that something as personal, objective, universal, mercurial and beautiful as music can be defined by such tedious earthly notions as categorisation and ratings (how the hell do Pitchfork justify the decimal places in their scores?), this list is in no order. I am merely writing about the albums as they come to me – in instalments of five. At the very least, this saves me the headache of deciding which albums are the “more betterer”.
Right. That's the catchphrases out of the way. Let's go.
Oceansize – Self Preserved While The Bodies Float Up
If not the best opening trio of songs on any album of the year, few pack more of a punch. “Part Cardiac” is a pummelling torrent of sludgy doom which suggests that the band have spent the past few years immersed in the Southern Lord back catalogue. And yet, it sounds not like some kind of cheap imitation. Rather, it's so worthy a homage that they'd do well to consider an entire album's worth of such brooding gloomy intensity.
“SuperImposer” is more standard Oceansize fare – which is to say that it sounds quite unlike anyone else out there. Loose and sprawling yet so tight and densely layered that whilst on initial listens it sounds like a soupy mess, repeat listens reveal such patterns and structural nuances that it soon becomes apparent that this is a most beautiful soup indeed. Then comes the blizzard fury of “Build Us A Rocket Then...”, in which drummer Mark Heron proves himself the worthy successor to Neil Peart's title of “most ridiculously proficient drummer” through effortlessly pounding out such rhythms by hand as Autechre painstakingly create using their malevolent machinery.
With the exception of the hypercharged and brilliant “It's My Tail And I'll Chase It If I Want To”, the remainder of the album offers a more sedate pace to this opening barrage. “Oscar Acceptance Speech” shifts from its plodding trip-hop leanings into such lush strings that recall nothing less than “Purple Rain” itself. It's every bit as transcendent. “Ransoms”, in its sparsity, would be identified as a career highlight were it to appear on an album by Low.
To sum up, whilst all that came before might accurately be labelled as “prog”, this is, without question, progression.
Vampire Weekend – Conta
Through offering an uninterrupted succession of endlessly listenable, life-affirmingly happifying and insanely catchy songs, Vampire Weekend's debut these days for me plays like the greatest hits collection of a band so inventive as to offer a genuine breath of fresh air amongst the prevailing stodge.
It isn't uncommon for debut albums to offer such listening experiences. It's rare, however, for this to be every bit the case with sophomore offerings. But Contra delivers, and does so to such an extent that I think I can be forgiven for deploying such an American collegiate term as “sophomore”. Especially since this is Vampire Weekend we're talking about.
But in making a reference to American colleges, I did that which one is apparently obliged to do when writing about Vampire Weekend: I brought class and privilege into the equation. For some, such notions are enough to render their entire oeuvre unlistenable. Well, it's their unfortunate, pretentious and misguided loss: with music this energising and vibrant, such tedious trappings shouldn't matter. And they don't. They really, really don't.
But it's live where these compositions really shine. Their shows come across as a dazzling party to which all have been invited. Rather than watering the experience down with filler (as subsequent releases can do), the release of Contra has only served to ensure that their parties last longer than they did previously. Which, obviously, is a very good thing indeed.
The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
Upon its release, I got the impression that critics were willing for this album to be terrible. It would have made for such interesting copy: After a tentative debut comes a string of three albums which can arguably be identified as classics, after which the bubble could be said to have burst. The departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay would have made such boring rhetoric all the richer – they could have labelled him as “the one with all the tunes” and blamed the subsequent slump on the loss of his influence.
But instead we were treated to yet another album of such anthemnic rock literature that perfectly soundtracks all that is important about life – love, music, friends, alcohol – with gusto, aplomb and fiery passion. Apparently not knowing what to make of it, the critics lazily bandied about such terms as “one trick ponies” and moved on.
However, I kept listening. I allowed, once again, for The Hold Steady to soundtrack my life. And, once again, I found it to be a most enthralling and empowering experience. Yeah, maybe they have got but one trick in their bag, but I stand firm in my conviction that there are few contemporary lyricists more accomplished than Craig Finn. His words are at once tragic yet hilarious and are targeted directly at the part of the brain labelled “right there, man; right there”. My lyric of the year can be found in "The Weekenders": “The theme of the party was the industrial age/You came in as a trainwreck”.
Franz's absence is perhaps worst felt in the synthesised choirs at the end of the title track (he would have thought of something better), but this is forgiven: The central conceit of the song - and, indeed, of the album itself – is beautiful: “Heaven is whenever/We can get together/Lock your bedroom door/ And listen to your records”. Aw. Right there, man; right there.
Steve Mason – Boys Outside
So many of the singers from my favourite bands released a solo album this year. Steve Mason's Boys Outside I anticipated the most, and I don't think I've ever been less disappointed.
Some treated this as his first solo offering – in doing so completely disregarding his work as King Biscuit Time and The Black Affair. This is, however, his first release under his own name – but such a move was apparently only made in the interests of simplifying matters when Mr. Mason realised that he had three or four Myspace profiles operating at once.
Though sonically it's got more in common with his Beta Band roots than has anything he's done since 2004, this is, without a doubt, the most mature album he's ever released. That's to say that it's utterly heartbreaking. Witness his pleas to “the children that [he] never had” in “I Let Her In”, or the plaintive lament that “the things I've seen in my life would make you cry” in the devastating title track.
But, like all of my favourite music, it's always possible to drop back a layer and simply allow for things to wash over you – to bask contentedly in such warm and blissful washes of beauty as “All Come Down”. The choruses of “Am I Just A Man” and “Lost and Found” instil a feeling which is akin to nothing less than familiarising yourself with an old friend thought lost.
To truly appreciate these songs, though, I believe it's necessary to catch Mr. Mason live. I would, in fact, welcome a stripped down, “unplugged” mix of this album, though “Boys Outside Naked” sounds a bit too homoerotic. We'll just have to settle for the imminent dub mix, then, which I'm sure will be awesome.
Kudos also to the cover art – plain black plastic on which it's impossible not to leave your own fingerprint blemishes ensure that no two copies of this album will be the same – a perfectly fitting move for such an intensely personal album.
Massive Attack – Heligoland
Most of the criticism of this album seemed to stem from the fact that it sounds too much like Massive Attack. In their typically asinine way, Pitchfork seemed to pan it for failing to embrace dub-step.
All failed to appreciate the fact that such music as offers instant gratification soon stales. I believe that the best music is that which keeps its tricks hidden – the sort of music with which only prolonged stewing will reveal the brilliance within. This is certainly the case with Massive Attack. Perhaps the reason as to why such long periods exist between their releases is because the band consider that such extensive spells are necessary to fully appreciate their work.
And so, some eight months or so beyond its initial release, all that initially bemused or disappointed now sounds fantastic. They remain peerless. Even “Splitting The Atom”, which I originally found to be plodding and unfocused, now serves to perfectly evoke a sinister haunted pier-end carnival drenched in a thick and ghostly fog. Similarly, whilst I attribute a lot of my subsequent appreciation of “Psyche” to its spectral video (my favourite of the year), even stripped of its visuals its mournful arpeggios create exactly the sort of melancholic unease in which I take great pleasure languishing.
I would have said that it'll never compare to the heady highs of Protection and Mezzanine had I not once thought exactly the same of the criminally underrated 100th Window. In fact, at this juncture, the only misstep seems to be the Guy Garvey collaboration “Flat Of The Blade”, if only because it too closely resembles Thom Yorke's excellent “Cymbal Rush”. But that's what repeat listens are for – it, like all of the album, remains thrillingly hazy, cinematic, tense and claustrophobic. It's like they never went away.
TO BE CONTINUED
They're a band from the 90s. Unlike most bands, there are only five possible ways to react to their existence:
1. You used to be in Sleeper and, as such, you view them either with the same rose-tinted bleary eyes with which you'd view an old flame with whom it was just not to be, or you find yourself shirking in cold sweats at the mere thought of Sleeper like you would whilst recalling a particularly dehumanising job which is now acting as the standard by which the rest of your life is judged. Things are either much better than Sleeper or much worse than Sleeper.
2. You dismiss Sleeper as Britpop also-rans. Maybe Sleeper had a few good songs but were nothing special. Or perhaps Sleeper are representative of a style of music which screams of excess and wilful idiocy and, as such, Sleeper deserve the relative obscurity in which they exist these days.
3. You really liked Sleeper and, truth be told, you still really like Sleeper. In fact, you have a theory that everyone of a certain age has “their” Britpop band who they are convinced should have been as big as – nay, bigger than – Oasis. You are convinced that Sleeper have more talent in their collective pisspot than Oasis displayed over the course of their entire career.
4. You have never heard of Sleeper.
5. You vaguely remember Sleeper and, were you to today hear a Sleeper song, you might not necessarily recognise it as a Sleeper song, but, all the same, you might find yourself remembering the song itself or otherwise appreciating it for whatever reason. Sleeper for you are by no means bad, but they're nothing special.
Well, friends, I would have been number five. I wanted to be number five. But the world won't let me. The universe won't let me. In fact, I am almost entirely convinced that there are cosmic forces at play preventing me from ever giving Sleeper the time of day. Put simply, I am not allowed to listen to Sleeper.
Don't believe me? Let us weigh up the evidence.
I first came across Sleeper on this compilation album:
This compilation is, of course, awesome. It involves a giddily euphoric trio of songs in the form of Cast's “Beat Mama”, Blur's “Chemical World” and Supergrass's “Going Out”. It opens with Space's “The Female Of The Species” and, in featuring Pulp's “My Legendary Girlfriend” (as opposed to, say, “Common People”), it can hardly be labelled as “predictable”. Finally, in that halfway through the track listing you'll stumble across Grandaddy's “Summer Here Kids”, instantly there's scope to market this collection as a sort of aural prozac capable of lifting the spirits of even the most curmudgeonly of moping sorts. I'd go as far as to say, in fact, that it's simply not possible to harbour a deep admiration for guitar-based music and feel unhappy whilst listening to Suburban Hymns. It even features Monaco's “What Do You Want From Me”!
Anyway, between twelve and twenty-four months ago, I again came across Suburban Hymns whilst sorting through my room. Or, maybe my brother picked up a copy for nostalgia's sake. Eitherway, I found myself listening again after abstaining for eight years or so. And guess what? It still rocked. However, whilst as a listening experience I was expecting a flat yet rollicking deep soak in warm and familiar waters, instead I found myself having something of a revelation.
I once read – or, I was once told – of Brian Wilson's experiences of first hearing “Be My Baby” by The Ronettes. He was driving when it came on the radio. Phil Spector's Wall of Sound had a devastating, debilitating effect on him. It engulfed him with almost unbearable happiness to the point that he had to pull over until the song finished.
A song so good that Mr. Wilson had to either give it his complete and unadulterated attention or risk death. Any lover of music will surely be able to relate. Such experiences are rare and, whilst mine with Sleeper's “Nice Guy Eddie” wasn't quite as life-affirming as Mr. Wilson's, still. I mean, have you heard this song?
My experience was basically one of wondering as to why that song hadn't stuck with me from my initial listening to Suburban Hymns. It's so good.
Now, I'm not going to pretend for one second that instantly a need to hear more Sleeper was induced. Rather, I found myself listening to “Nice Guy Eddie” with a frequency only reserved for those very special of songs. Those which break through my outer layer of “appreciating the pretty sounds” into my inner core of, for want of a better word, “feeling it, man”.
Be that as it may, a – shall we say – academic interest in their 1996 album “The It Girl” was created. “Nice Guy Eddie” was a single released from “The It Girl”. Music fan logic dictates that if said album contains at least one song even half as good as “Nice Guy Eddie”, then said album will almost definitely be worth owning. Then I remembered having seen said album on more than one occasion in the music sections of various charity shops, everywhere. So! It'll simply be a case of me snapping it up next time I come across it! Enlightenment will thus inevitably ensue. And, if not, well. For the three pounds or so it will set me back, well – who's complaining? Simple.
Would that it were. Would that it were. Before long it would become apparent that fate simply would not have me hearing Sleeper's “The It Girl”.
Cex in Liverpool circa The Matthew Street Festival 2009 – we pop in to kill time between distressingly mediocre bands. Their downstairs music section is woefully cluttered – rock mixes with pop mixes with Jazz and what have you. Alphabetised? In your dreams. Nonetheless, I find it – “The It Girl” by Sleeper. For a pound! Fantastic. Mission accomplished.
But did I mention that this is the day of The Matthew Street Festival? The place is rammed with people who're drinking in excess – this being the one day of the year that you're allowed to drink legally on the street in broad daylight without being arrested all are slugging cheap lager from grubby plastic bags. One particularly inebriated woman is holding up the whole Cex queue through attempting to flog a small black box to the perplexed sales assistant who has about as much idea as to the exact function of this box as the woman dressed in an egg-stained black tracksuit who's trying to sell it – battered box covered in foreign writing and all. He can't give her anything for it. He doesn't even know what it is! But she's not having that. She's the sort of person for whom every word that leaves her mouth escapes through a scowl to be delivered in a snarling biting tone with an accompanying violent jab of the finger. When even regular conversations sound like an altercation, on such occasions as this – when she's being denied something she wants – she sounds livid; murderous even.
This queue's going nowhere fast and I'm right at the back. Even if she were to suddenly give up on her designs of selling her mysterious, probably stolen black box, there would still be about fifteen people to be served before me. And, what's more, there's some chirpy ska-rap outfit taking to the stage in a few moments! Mission abandoned, I'll buy it another time. Hastily, I leave the shop.
Now, at this early juncture my alarm bells are in no way ringing. After all, it was under my own accord that I abandoned my designs to make my purchase. And when I return a few days later, when it's a bit quieter, with every intention of finishing the job I'd started the other day – only to find that it's gone, someone else has bought it – well, why not? Who wouldn't want to own “The It Girl” by Sleeper?
This is some months later and it's in the Crosby branch of Oxfam. Slightly more expensive than last time – at £2.99 – but there's nobody else in the stop, cash in my pocket, and absolutely nothing standing between me and the till. Hassle free I this time succeed in purchasing my second hand copy of “The It Girl” by Sleeper.
But then I get home, excitedly open the case and find – “The Very Best Of Sister Sledge”. They'd put the wrong disc in the box. An easy mistake to make – the disc harboured exactly the same shade of red as the box. A few days later I return to the store and point out their error. They make the sort of noise which says “well, that explains it, then”. It seems that a copy of “The Very Best Of Sister Sledge” had recently been returned by a disgruntled individual complaining that they'd found the wrong disc within. Only, try as they might, they can't find the right disc for my box. “The It Girl” is nowhere to be found.
They thus urge me to pick out something else in store to the value of £2.99. They have another Sleeper album. Fitting, I think.
But by the time I get home, I haven't got the heart to listen to it. Still haven't. It's just sitting there. Mocking me.
Again, it's only in retrospect that I'll view these events with anything approaching suspicion. No. Things only start to get mysterious after Attempt Three.
This is the weird one. The album this time is found in a charity shop in Clitheroe. Exactly which one has now escaped me, even though we're only talking a month or two ago. I end up with a recycled bag containing a collection of George Gershwin numbers, a record full of German drinking songs (why not?) and, hey hey, a pristine copy of “The It Girl” by Sleeper. Having bought it I check to see if they've put the right disc in the box – I'm not falling for that one again – and, yep, they have. Then I check the disc for scratches. It would be just my luck were I to get home to find the disc to be unplayable. But, like I say, pristine. I'm also endeared to find the receipt for the original owner's initial purpose inserted into the sleeve. He or she had bought it from a Virgin Megastore in 1997, seemingly as part of a five-for-fifty-pound deal. (Five-for-fifty-pound! How things have changed). You see, then, that this particular copy of “The It Girl” wasn't just another copy of “The It Girl”. It's a historcal artifact.
But then the weirdest thing happens. My bag vanishes. It just vanishes. Nowhere to be found.
At first I suspect that I might have left it in the delightful cheese deli where we lunched that afternoon. But no – I remembered having demonstrated the German drinking record upon getting back to my dad's in Bolton – where I was, at that point, staying.
So obviously I left it there, right? Only, it's nowhere to be found. Of course it isn't. Nor is it in the last possible place where it could be – in the back of my girlfriend's car. It's just gone. It's vanished. Without a trace.
This was, remember, the third time I had attempted to purchase “The It Girl” by Sleeper. I am, therefore, inclined to at this point feel suspicious and more than a little paranoid. It is at this juncture that I'm able to conclude that there are certain forces at play preventing me from ever hearing this album.
Of course, the woman in that Liverpool branch of Cex had been instructed to make so much of a fuss that I'd abandon my designs on buying the CD.
Of course, the staff at the Crosby branch of Oxfam had “accidentally” placed the wrong CD in the box before “accidentally” misplacing it entirely.
And, of course, my bag had “just gone missing”. Of course it was “just one of those things”.
And, of course I could order the album from Amazon for a penny (plus p+p) – but that's exactly what they want me to do. And, besides, I just know that my package would get “lost in the mail”, or that there'd suddenly be a postal strike or something. The imminent snow storms? Let's just say that I'm dismissing them as far too convenient.
As it stands, then, I'm convinced that the world simply does not want me to hear this album.
THINGS WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN WHEN FINALLY I GET ROUND TO HEARING “THE IT GIRL” BY SLEEPER:
1. The skies will open and fire and brimstone will rain down upon the unrepentant sinners whilst the devout, the humble and the meek will ascend from the hell which hath erupted on earth.
3. Localised lightning strike to the centre of my chest.
4. New favourite band.
5. Supremely underwhelmed, but still enamoured with “Nice Guy Eddie”.
7. Robot/zombie uprising.
8. Wonder - as to what all the fuss was about.
9. Disillusioning reunion tour.
10. Resonance cascade.
But it's never going to happen, is it? The world won't have it.
As an opening gambit, the following may initially appear to be somewhat convoluted, self-serving, pretentious, meaningless drivel. But please, bear with me. I'm going somewhere with this.
Recently, I had to write an essay on whether History can act as a useful resource for novelists. Before writing it, I had quite an argument with my mum. To sum up, she thought it to be a stupid question: Of course “History” is a useful resource for novelists. Even to write a book in the past-tense is to set it in “History”, surely?
You'll notice, though, that I've chosen to capitalise “History”. On three occasions now, I've even placed it in inverted commas. This is important: “History” is a completely different entity entirely to “the past”.
Briefly, let me explain. “The past” is a loose way of referring to “anything that happened before the right here, the right now”. That cup of tea you made this afternoon. That's a product of “the past”, but, by extension, is it “History”? Well, potentially.
The writing of essays, the theorising, the arguments, the debate, the points of view, the endless rhetoric – that's History. Put very, very, very simply, “History” is any attempt to interpret or make sense of the events of “the past”. That cup of tea you made in “the past”. If scholars later argue that, had you not made that cup of tea, life itself as we know it would today be unrecognisable – then it would become History.
The above question, then, wasn't asking me to consider as to whether novelists could find inspiration from “the past”. Rather, it was asking me to consider as to whether these “Historical” arguments and debates (mainly, arguments) could be of any use to Johnny Writer. Can a fresh interpretation of Event X make for a good novel? That sort of thing.
It got me thinking. A lot of things do. The conclusion I've come to is that everyone – in all walks of life – attempts to make “History” out of anything. Even if they don't themselves realise that they're doing it. This, of course, is just a fancy way of saying that “people are going to argue”. Well, yes. But on a much deeper level is a search for meaning, for definition, for order.
You'll find it everywhere. Nothing ever exists in a vacuum. That cup of tea, for instance – what does it say about you? What does it say about your attitudes toward globalisation, imperialism, nutrition, breakfast? Everything is instantly suggestive of about a thousand other things. In order to make sense of this, people look for patterns.
Now, music journalism. This search for something – anything – it's rife in the world of music journalism. It's not enough to just report. Ever. Beyond (and within) the previews, reviews, reports, musings and interviews is a seemingly endless search for patterns, for trends. And, whilst this search is taking place, there's a few individuals who – perhaps as part of their own attempt to make sense of things – will look for trends amongst the search for trends.
That's me. Hello. The “History” of music goes far beyond the simple chronology of who wrote, released and recorded what. Like all Histories, nothing is canonical. As much as the likes of such publications NME and Pitchfork would like you to believe, nobody's “take” is ever doctrinal. For example, take the chronic debates concerning genre. This in itself is often a nightmare for anybody with more than a passing interest in music. For some reason, it's important that people know whether the music they're listening to is rock, punk, punk-rock, alternative, alternative rock, indie, indie-rock or dub-step.
The real headache, though, is in deducing as to how these billions of sub-genres came to be. Some could argue 'til they're red in the face over the evolution of just one branch of the lush tree of rock music. Metal – does its roots lie in the distorted staccato riff of “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks, or in the blistering sonic assaults of Blue Cheer? Or, we're all bands simply lacking balls before Deep Purple, Sabbath, Zeppelin? And then what? How could one ever, for instance, ever argue that if you start with a single Kinks riff and take it from there, eventually and inevitably you'll always end up with Napalm Death?
Napalm Death: Picking up directly where The Kinks left off.
The biggest question though, is “does it even matter?”. What difference does it make if you're into rock, pop, classical, jazz, anything? It's all music, surely? You listen to what you like and leave it at that. But it doesn't end there. No. Always the search for new genres, too. The more they come to define our times, the better. Ironically, though, the more widespread and accepted become these new terminologies, the more meaningless such terminologies eventually become. Indie music – any music created by anyone not signed to a major label? This has never been the case. I'm sure those legions of post-grindcore skin-heads who fill the bills of countless “unsigned” band nights the world over would have something pretty caustic to say were you to dare describe their music as “indie”.
I once thought I had it. I asked myself, what is “pop music”? I concluded that, pop meaning “popular”, all music is “pop”music seeing as the only alternative would be “unpop music”. Unpopular. And who listens to that? Nobody. Therefore, all music is “pop music”,as all music is in some way “popular”. This argument, however, died on its arse the second a part of me asked, “what about Gary Glitter?”.
No, the only reason any of these debates ever takes place – the only reason we're ever so argumentative in regards to genre – is because of the crucial question of identity. We define ourselves in terms of the music we listen to. It never suffices to just say “I like music”, because everyone likes music. No shit! What sort of music do you like? I need to know, because I need to know as to whether you count as a human being.
This is why the aforementioned NME is so keen on identifying “new” genres. The more trimmings, the better. Every time they “identify” a new “movement”, it always comes hand in hand with an entire lifestyle. Often – that is, always – the lifestyle will come to be more important than the music itself. Who cares about music? It all sounds so similar anyway. The clothes, though – the clothes! - and the drugs, and the glow sticks, and the attitude – the attitude, man – that's where it's at.
Over the past decade, the NME has been desperate to find a “movement” which would define a generation as succinctly and effectively as had disco and punk in the '70s, Acid-House and Britpop in the '90s. Every year there seemed to be something new. It began, if I recall correctly, with the “New Rock Revolution”. The Strokes. The White Stripes. Rock music was exciting again! Suddenly everyone pretended that they'd only ever admitted to listening to Travis for lack of anything better to listen to. However, this “New Rock Revolution” didn't seem to last. I'm not sure why. Perhaps the rehashed garage-rock was too sonically similar to a lot that had come before. Whatever the case, they were in no time at all looking for something new.
Then came 2003. Remember 2003? They proclaimed it to be “the third summer of love”. The first revolved around Woodstock, Hendrix, LSD; the second around 808 State, ecstasy. Well, third times a charm! Once again the NME had identified a cluster of bands who seemed to have a similar agenda – sunshine! Hazy, summery psychedelic music. The Bees, The Polyphonic Spree, The Thrills. They even had a unifying drug of choice – mushrooms. Well, maybe not The Polyphonic Spree. Or The Thrills. Or...anyone. Probably not even The Bees. Nevertheless, though, that third “summer of love” was recognised as the high-point for this new “shroomadelica” movement. Psychedelic music made on mushrooms rather than LSD, you see. I kid you not.
Well, this didn't last, either. Goddammit, must have shouted the NME. How are we supposed to define ourselves or anyone if music continues to insist upon being so transient? Lucky for them, though, after an extremely short lived “summer of ska” - (which consisted of nothing more than an album by a Liverpool band called The Dead 60s and a new brass section for The Ordinary Boys – both of whom opened for Morrissey. Now that's a movement!) - came a slew of cool new British bands.
This was very important. A new revolution! The already, by this point, ridiculed “New Rock Revolution” was pretty much solely an American affair. Now, though, there were suddenly British bands to care about. Franz Ferdinand. The Futureheads. Maximo Park. Bloc Party. The Kaiser Chiefs. Gang of Four were suddenly, it seems, the most influential band of the past ever. Everyone sounded so angular, so post-punky. All guitars were trebly and tense, all vocals yelped. I don't think the NME ever got round to giving this exciting new movement a name. Or, if they did, it's escaped me. I think they were just too excited by the notion that all of these bands were British. It was “cool” to be British again. But the term “Cool Britannia” had already been used to describe Britpop. And, no matter how compressed and “anthemnic” became the sound of The Kaiser Chiefs, the NME apparently could never bring themselves to declare that we were in the midst of a Britpop revival. No, man. It had to be new! We can't define ourselves in terms of the last decade! We need something of our own. I'm reminded, at this point, of the scene from Jarhead, the Gulf War drama, in which a passing helicopter blasts out the haunted strains of The Doors' “Break on Through”. “We haven't even got our own music”, laments Jake Gyllenhall's character.
Pictured: British music scene circa 2004
Concurrently, a little band called The Libertines were making the rounds. The NME were quite muted in their coverage of this band. I think they described them as “the most important band in the world” or something. I don't know. But, apparently under their noses, this little outfit became impossibly popular before disintegrating in a scummy brown puff of heroin and rancid sweat. They were gone. And, in their wake, came suddenly the search for “the new Libertines”. Cue countless identikit bands who slurred in regional accents half-arsed lyrics about bouncers and nights out over jangly, detuned guitars – barely standing, eyes half-open, soaked in gin, sweat and piss. Heroin chique. Abhorrent. The absolute low-point was an album by a band called Little Man Tate. They called their album “About What We Know”. Music, suddenly, didn't really seem so exciting.
All this, however, was just paving the way for a monumentally successful outfit with a stupid name and permanently bemused facial expressions. The Arctic Monkeys. They took the sound and energy of The Libertines but replaced the slurred heroin nonsense with...well, some people call it poetry. Some rate singer Alex Turner as a lyricist on the level of Dylan, Cohen, Morrissey. Well, I'm not going to argue with that. To each their own, it takes all sorts etc. But, forgive me, at this point I dropped out.
See, it was 2005, we were halfway through a new decade, and it seemed that the NME had found their “defining” band. It wasn't necessarily ambivalence towards The Arctic Monkeys which made me jump ship, though. In their constant search for meaning – their constant making of their own History – the NME were also constantly in the process of rewriting History. It's to be expected, I know. Like I said, nothing's doctrinal. Ever. But when they made a list of “The Most Important British Albums of All Time”, placed the Arctic Monkey's debut at no.2, and left no room at all for the grandiose sonic adventures of the likes of Pink Floyd, Genesis and Yes – well, that was the last straw. Frankly, I didn't even want to be part of a generation which defined itself on such terms that ignored the importance of “The Dark Side Of The Moon”.
Amen, brother. Amen.
I think I got out just in time, too. Remember what came next? 2007? Day-glo, glow sticks, strobe lighting? No? The Klaxons? That ring any bells? No? You want me to say it, don't you? OK. I'll say it. But God help me. You know not what you ask of me...
...New Rave. Yeah. The overall worthiness of a “scene” or “movement” can, I find, be judged in terms of the speed at which people cringe at its mentioning. I think there are even people born after the arrival of The Simpsons who'll harbour embarrassing New Rave memories. Still, though. At least it's not Nu Metal. Remember Nu Metal? It was the worst music ever. Objectively speaking. I know.
Anyway, like I said, it's all to do with identity. Even “History” - as in, proper “1066 and all that” History – all the debates seem to take place in the interests of better understanding ourselves. Indeed, things come full circle the second one begins to use an era's Historical writings as a means of exploring the ethics and attitudes of the era in which it was written. The Historians of Ancient Rome, for example, as well as providing fascinating insight into such cultures who never got round to actually, you know, writing things down – also happen to tell us about issues much closer to our be-toga'd friends' hearts.
They always used to begin their “Histories” with dedications to the current emperor and with summative contemporary accounts of whichever nation or people they were writing about. It doesn't take a Historian to understand just how useful this would prove to anybody trying to garner an insight into Ancient Roman attitudes and understandings. They understood the arch importance of writing their own History. The Roman Empire, then – the NME of its day, public executions and all.
Conor McNicholas circa AD30
All of the above, though, might only make sense to a current (or former) reader of the NME. At the very least, I suppose, an awareness of who they are and what they might represent would be necessary. But that, my friends, is the whole point.
For the entirety of the past decade, so many people seemed to view preceding generations with desperately jealous eyes. They had their Woodstocks, their Orbital raves, their Sex Pistols, their loon-pants and their discos – they had it all! And what did we have? Nothing. Worse than nothing! Too much – all of it transient.
But, don't you see, it's that “too much” which, itself, acts as the defining “trend” of the past-decade. Thanks to the internet, music quickly became a lot easier to obtain than it had for any previous generation. More importantly, it became a lot cheaper to obtain. Suddenly it was possible to hear everything – as much – or, as little – as you wanted.
And therein lied the problem for a generation who not only had such an abundance, but also knew things to be no other way. Of course we would initially attempt to define movements and trends in such familiar terms as had worked for previous generations – what else had we to go by? The result of this, though, was not some kind of defining “movement” or “scene” for an entire generation. Rather, it was a mess of genres, sub-genres and fly-by-night notions of “cool”.
And that's it. That's how the music of the first decade of the twenty-first century will be remembered. Not via some catch-all term such as “punk” or “new-wave” or “Britpop”. Rather, via a distinct lack of anything so definitive.
Instead, I believe that as a decade (and a generation) – in future years the noughties will be remembered not by a defining set of bands or genres. Rather, it will be remembered in terms of exactly the means which served to make so much music so very accessible and exciting in the first place. I'm speaking of the inevitable products of such a confusing array of genres, sub-genres, movements, themes and trends. Unwittingly, people already tend to define themselves as such.
Think of youth-culture. Think of punks, of hippies, of mods, of rockers, of metalheads, emos or whatever. Well, pretty soon, to this list we'll be adding such disparate clans and tribes as “The NME Reader”. “The Pitchfork Reader”. “The Blogger”. “The Quietus Collective”. “The ATP attendant”.
To put it succinctly, to that list we'll soon be adding “The Scenester”.
(Thunder, lightning, etc.)
The World Cup's nearly over. I think.
I'm going to keep my opinions on football to myself. Be that as it may, even the most insane of face-painting, wig-wearing, wife-beating, lager-swilling “footie nut” must agree that football, when mixed with music, is about as appealing a prospect as white supremacy mixed with music.
I could compile a list of examples of the worst offenders (which would include an honourable mention to the maudlin fan-chants which drone out of televisions nationwide whenever a match is played by anyone, anywhere – there really is no escape) but, seeing as this would involve not just listening once more to such things I promised myself I would never hear again, it would also involve dignifying the output of such “musicians” through the obligation to search for details concerning whoever the hell shat out such unlistenable monstrosities in the first place.
But life's too short. And anyway, in the face of countless online resources seemingly dedicated to saying just how shit is absolutely everything, the whole point of this blog was to make it seem like not such a taboo to, you know, enjoy things. Which is why, in this instance, I'm going to keep my opinions concerning football to myself.
However, please try to imagine my reservations and dread when I came across this:
Match Of The Day. The album. Third only to “Jeremy Kyle – The Album” and “Loose Women – The Album” in “Television shows I find utterly abhorrent for which a soundtrack album must surely represent a low point for human endeavour to date”.
And yet, take a look at the track listings as taken from Play.com:
Kasabian - Fire
The Killers - Human
The Temper Trap - Sweet Disposition
Doves - Jetstream
Vampire Weekend - Cousins
Calvin Harris - I'm Not Alone
Friendly Fires - Jump In The Pool
Keane - Spiralling
The Stone Roses - Fools Gold
Broken Bells - The High Road
Just Jack - Embers
Iglu & Hartly - In This City
The Courteeners - You Overdid It Doll
Passion Pit - Sleepyhead
The Cribs - We Share The Same Skies
Glasvegas - Geraldine
Leftfield featuring Afrika Bambaataa - Afrika Shox
The Clash - This Is England
The Dallas Guild World Cup Team - Rainbow Nation (Soviet Science Mix) (BBC World Cup Theme)
U2 - Beautiful Day
Black Eyed Peas - I Gotta Feeling
Mumford & Sons - The Cave
Scouting For Girls - This Ain't A Love Song
Owl City - Fireflies
Stereophonics - Dakota
The Charlatans - The Only One I Know (From Cadbury's Dairy Milk TV Ad)
Manic Street Preachers featuring Nina Persson - Your Love Alone Is Not Enough
The Ting Tings - Be The One
The Big Pink - Tonight
Delphic - Counterpoint
Bloc Party - Banquet
Primal Scream - Loaded
Editors - Papillon
Darwin Deez - Radar Detector
Kids In Glass Houses - Matters At All
Pixies - Isla De Encanta (From Visa Football TV Ad)
Rik Mayall - Noble England
Journey - Don't Stop Believin'
Baddiel, Skinner & Lightning Seeds - Three Lions '98
OK, OK – there is rather a lot of landfill indie toss on there. And, granted, Black Eyed Peas, Scouting For Girls, Owl City, Just Jack, Iglu & Hartly – yeah, exactly the sort of music which makes me wonder as to why I've vested such interest so far in a medium capable of being spun for such evil means.
Beyond that, though, there's plenty of brilliance, wonder and joy to which I'd actually want to listen. Leftfield featuring Afrika Bambaataa. Passion Pit. MGMT. Doves. Broken Bells. Darwin Deez. Pixies. Vampire Weekend.
Beyond even that, though, the song choices – as arguably pedestrian and middle-of-the-road as they might be – are actually pretty good songs – the sort for which it would be churlish of me to even pretend not to like. You have my favourite respectable songs by U2 and Stereophonics, an undeniable populist classic by Primal Scream – and the opening trio of the first disc? Well, they might not be the best songs ever written, but they're all exactly the sort of anthems which could be happily embraced by stadia full of people who previously shared very little indeed in common.
OK, it's awful that certain songs require parentheses detailing the adverts in which they appeared, but still. Even the token “football songs” are more than tolerable. The pair of them would have been identified as “worthy exceptions” had I gone and made my aforementioned petty and infernal list of hatred and resentment. If you've not yet heard Rik Mayall's Noble England, well. It's rousing even beyond the football context in which it's written.
But why is it this year's Susan Boyle? Well, remember when Boyle first belted out with that voice and Ant (or Dec) turned to the camera and exclaimed “weren't expecting that, were you”? That's exactly what my brother said to me when he first demonstrated this particular compilation to me.
Also, whilst I can appreciate this compilation and am able to at least consider that it could be much, much worse – all the same I don't think I'd ever actually sit down and listen to it, let alone buy it. Just like with Susan Boyle!
Rejoice: For things are sometimes not as bad as you think they're going to be.