Second Annual Terrible Summation of Creeping Dread

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.


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