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