Tuesday, 21 December 2010

My Albums of 2010

… and yet again I sit in front of a PC, sorry scratch that, I’m all iMac and that these days, to write some nonsense about the music I’ve discovered, enjoyed and raved about during the year.

I don’t claim for a second that the following represents the best of the year, it’s my list of my favourite stuff which is a pretty important distinction as it immediately means that your opinion of my list doesn’t count !!!

So, my 2010 in music …

First, the stuff that didn’t qualify for my top 20 … this falls into 2 camps:

1. Stuff that I discovered in 2010 that was technically released in 2009

2. ‘Best Ofs’ and live albums (because Stephen Currie says these don’t count !!!)

There was lots of stuff that I found in 2010 that didn’t make the list for the reasons above, but I have to highlight 2 albums from 2009 that just can’t be ignored … both of which were found by exploring strangeglue.com’s (RIP?) top 50 of 2009.

Late Discoveries

There Will Be Fireworks – “There Will Be Fireworks”

I still remember the first time I heard this masterpiece … from the opening sonics and spoken word intro of “Columbian Fireworks”, it was clear that this was worth some serious attention … when the opening track opens up into a Mogwaiesque wall of sound and then falls away into the structured beauty of “So the Story Goes”, it’s clear something special is playing.

The (now) wife of a friend apparently described this as ‘Murphy music’ given the Scottish accent vocals and clean indie sounds that I appear to gravitate to and it’s fair to say that the whole structure and sound of this ticks lots of my musical boxes … the references here are many and varied given the eclectic structure of the album and I defy anyone to listen to “Guising” & “Off With Their Heads” and not be blown away by the genius and maturity of the experience.

I’ve lived with this album for almost a year now and I’d seriously have to say that if someone asked me now to list my top 10 albums of all time, this just might make it … its stunning !

And it has to be considered that these guys recorded and distributed this themselves with no recording deal … currently working on album no.2, I just hope it comes close to the brilliance of the debut. Regardless, I will always hold this piece of work up as a reference point … I thought I was getting too old to be blown away by new music … thanks guys !

The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Hometowns”

Debut from the Canadian alt country / indie outfit that stands out for its consistency across 13 tracks that never lets up in its power, impact and longevity.

If listening for the first time, it’s worth pointing out that the opening couple of tracks can be fairly hard going and don’t initially signal the quality of what’s to come … but if you get as far as “Don’t Haunt This Place” I guarantee you’ll stick with it and won’t be disappointed.

Also currently recording album no.2, I really hope I can list that in next year’s list !

Best ofs & Live Albums

Mr Currie confirmed some months ago that best ofs and live albums don’t count so I have to state here and now that the following albums would have made my top 20 without question had they been allowed:

Mogwai – “Special Moves’

The album to accompany live film “Burning”, the world’s most sonically stunning combo define their career to date with a collection of live tracks that can’t fail but blow you away.

If exploring Mogwai for the first time, start here and make sure you get the version that includes all 17 tracks or else you will miss out on some the highlights.

Regardless, I defy you to make it all the way through “I’m Jim Morrison, I’m Dead”, “Hunted by a Freak”, “You Don’t Know Jesus” and “I Love You, I'm Going To Blow Up Your School” (quality hi-fi gear required) and not be physically and emotionally moved … if you do, all I can say is “see you, your dead inside!!!”

Mono – “Holy Ground”

Recorded in New York in 2009 with full orchestra, Japanese instrumental post-rockers display that maturity and brilliance that brings them on par with Mogwai and Godspeed You Black Emperor … leaning heavily on 2009 studio album “Hymn to the Immortal Wind” (my no. 2 album of last year) this performance takes things to a new level for the band.

I caught them in New York earlier this year minus the orchestra and have to say the experience was unreal but the added dimension of the ‘classical’ backing appears to add something special to this type of sound and typified perfectly on this occasion … buy it, immerse yourself and be all the better for the investment!

Elliott Smith – “an introduction to …”

I don’t have the time or talent to summarise the Elliot Smith story for those who don’t know it but to call him another tortured genius that was ‘taken’ too soon would tell about 10% of the story.

Elliot died in 2003 (a week after my wedding, I remember hearing the news during my honeymoon) from stab wounds to his chest. His girlfriend claimed the wounds were self-inflicted and like many great music industry deaths, I suspect we’ll never know.

Although a ‘best of’ could never do the great man’s recording history justice, it’s a great place to start … ‘singer / songwriter’, ‘man with guitar’, ‘intelligent balladeer’ … however you want to describe Elliot Smith, it won’t even come close!

Right, onto my top 20 … no detailed reviews of each as I don’t have the time and no-one will be particularly interested!!! Just a comment or two to justify why I’ve included it …

Top 20 of 2010

20 iLiKETRAiNS – “He Who Saw The Deep”

Despite most previous output from the Leeds outfit being based around history lessons in a post-rock (with vocals) stylee, “He Who Saw The Deep” is a much more accessible, if ultimately shallower, experience that takes some time to get into gear.

Advice for the uninitiated is to head straight for “These Feet of Clay”, “Sirens” & “Sea of Regrets” before judging the album … if you don’t like those, forget it !

19 Belle & Sebastian – “Write About Love”

Exemplars of twee indie pop return after a four and a half year hiatus with arguably one of their strongest albums to date.

This is a grower that takes several listens to appreciate … I had written it off after first listen and only a positive review on a website made me take a second ‘look’ … some beautifully crafted tracks as always … still twee !

18 Pg.lost – “In Never Out”

No top 20 of mine would be complete without an obscure post-rock / instrumental offering.

Sweden’s Pg.lost follow up the inconsistent, yet superb, “It’s Not Me, It’s You!” with a much more considered album that, again, takes a significant investment of time to fully appreciate.

The opening minutes of “Prahanien” make you wonder if this album I ever going to get going but by the time it closes with the 12 minutes of “Gomez” the urge to hit ‘repeat all’ is overwhelming .

17 Foals – “Total Life Forever”

Not as ground breaking as “Antidotes” but probably more consistent … the bar was so high it was always going to be difficult to match expectations.

Then again, anything that has “Spanish Sahara” on it can’t go unrecognized can it?

16 Malory – “Pearl Diver”

German electronica / dream pop / shoegaze outfit deliver an hour of genius that takes you in many directions that are all ‘nice’ … opener “Floating” typifies what’s to come by weaving around a central concept while firing off in several directions over its 7 minute duration.

Record label Club AC30 really does look like one cool place to be right now!

15 The Radio Dept – “Clinging to a Scheme”

More Swedes !

This time retro-indie tunesmiths with a smattering of pure pop / dance thrown in for good measure.

Think ‘Belle & Sebastian’ meet ‘The Field Mice’ meet ‘Badly Drawn Boy’ meet ‘Beats International’ (seriously, check out the beats on “Never Follow Suit” !!!).

14 These New Puritans – “Hidden”

I don’t have the talent to describe this piece of work in any way other than to say stunning experimentilisation that just works on every level …

The official line is:

"Six-foot Japanese Taiko drums, a thirteen piece brass and woodwind ensemble, sub-heavy beats, prepared piano, a children’s choir, Foley recording techniques (including a melon with cream crackers attached struck by a hammer, used to simulate the sound of a human head being smashed), and the ethereal voice of Heather Marlatt from dream-pop group Salem."

Only issue I have with this description is the flawed genre definition of Salem as ‘dream pop’ ??!!!

13 Gorillaz – “Plastic Beach”

What do you get if you take Damon Albern’s art project and add a dash of Snoop Dogg, Gruff Rhys, Bobby Womack, Mos Def, Lou Reed, Mick Jones, Mark E. Smith, Paul Simonon, Kano, Little Dragon and the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and the concept of the end of the world?

… second on of the day is “Where’s North from here?”

12 Interpol – “Interpol”

Saying that the latest Interpol offering is ‘darker’ than previous output would suggest that we are talking about a place where even night vision wouldn’t cut it … and that would be unfair (just) …

Largely slated by the great and the good of the music ‘press’ I would argue that this is Interpol’s most complete album to date.

Yes, it’s inconsistent and bleak but this is Interpol … you won’t see next year’s X-Factor winner having a go at covering epic “Lights” will you? … not a bad thing … not a bad thing at all !!!

11 Air Formation- “Nothing to Wish For (Nothing to Lose)”

The return of shoegaze was exemplified in 2010 with Air Formation’s fourth (and strongest) offering.

If you can get past the first couple of minutes of opener “Three Years Pass” that make you think you’ve put The Cure’s “Disintegration” on by mistake followed by Matt Bartram’s opening vocals sounding like either he can’t sing or he forgot his in-ear monitors that day … you’ll be treated to a wave of sound that transport you back to the golden days of Ride, Slowdive and Chapterhouse.

Too many stand out tracks to mention with a level of consistency that deserves way more recognition than it got.

10 Wild Nothing – “Gemini”

Jack Tatum’s one man collective goes all retro indie and shoegaze on us in this with more Belle & Sebaistian, Field Mice and Ultra Vivid Scene references than you can shake the proverbial stick at!!

9 The National – “High Violet”

They said it would make the “Alligator” v “Boxer” debates redundant by blowing them both away however, for the record, I still believe that Boxer remains the better, erm, ‘record’

Having said that, this remains a great album by a band rising in stature by the day … I can envision R.E.Mesque status in a few years … I just hope they don’t go the same way creatively!

8 LCD Soundsystem- “This is Happening”

So is this really James Murphy’s swansong? If so, it’s not a bad way to go!

Not an album that grabs you from first listen but repeated exposure reveals structure and complexity that rewards more and more with every visit.

As always, the Talking Heads references are present and correct and supported by clear Daft Punk and Velvet Underground influences.

7 Steve Mason – “Boys Outside”

Ex-Beta Band man Steve Mason bears his soul on the depression years in the first album recorded in his own name after dabbling with other solo personal such as King Biscuit Time and Black Affair.

Must have been a tough process to write but is an example where facing the demons can produce the best results … “Let Her In” typifies the intensity with lines such as “ … and to the children I never had, here is the love, I was your dad … there is a reason that I never got to hold to hold you tight but what it is I’ll never know …”

Not an album that will cheer you up after a bad day but one that should be explored by everybody that want’s more from their music than a good tune.

6 Beach House – “Teen Dream”

Third album by the Baltimore duo that also falls into the ‘dream pop’ genre (I must be mellowing in my old age !!!)

A top choice of many of the music mags in 2010, standout track “Norway” provides a good reference point for what this is all about.

Perfect winter chill out stuff.

5 Frightened Rabbit – “The Winter of Mixed Drinks”

Selkirk’s Scott Hutchison’s once solo project continues to expand and deliver more and more intense indie angst. There’s not many who could deliver a track about suicide contemplation in an upbeat indie pop style such as “Swim until you can’t see land’.

Anyone who hasn’t seen the band live yet has probably missed out on the sheer impact they can have in small venues where they hold silent audiences in the palm of their hand … reports from the recent sold out Barrowlands gigs are that their increased popularity has brought the trendy ‘NED’ brigade that can often ruin the experience for most. The price of success I suppose but I hope it doesn’t shift Scott’s focus from continuing to deliver what he does so brilliantly.

4 Arcade Fire – “The Suburbs”

How to follow the brilliance of “Funeral” and the overblown pomposity of “Neon Bible”? MMMmmm … how about a full-blown concept album about the experiences of growing up in the ‘burbs?

Summed up by the line “If I could have it back, I’d like to waste it all again” most people will relate to at least some, if not most, of Win & William Butler’s references.

Musically consistent and a lyrical masterpiece … “The Suburbs” is a great way to respond to the criticism of “Neon Bible” but will be a hell of an act to follow.

3 The Fall – “Your Future Our Clutter”

The NME review of ‘YFOC’ referred to The Fall as “the best new band in Britain” which, on first read, seems a bit mental considering that they have been around for 35 years and churned out 28 studio albums in that time! The review clearly referred to the continued reinvention of the band by Mark E Smith which sometime delivers and often doesn’t.

‘YFOC’ delivers, big time!

Definitely the best Fall album since 2005’s “Fall Heads Roll”, possibly the best since 2000’s “The Unutterable” and in ‘Bury Pts. 1 + 3’, probably track of the year !

2 The Walkmen – “Lisbon”

As for many, my intro to The Walkmen was being blown away on hearing “The Rat” around 2003 … I immediately bought their only album available at the time (2002’s “Everyone Who Pretended to Like Me is Gone”) only to find that:

· it didn’t have “The Rat” on it

· none of it sounded remotely like “The Rat”

Initial disappointment was dispelled when I realised just how good that album was.

The follow up album “Bows + Arrows” did include the “The Rat” but by that time I was hooked on the more angular and raw sound that these guys appear to make out of next to nothing.

Pretty much everything they’ve done since has been up there with the nest for me with (2008’s “You & Me” was #2 in my list for that year).

“Lisbon” doesn’t disappoint and stands up with the best of the band’s output.

Possibly an acquired taste … but I suggest you get acquiring !

1 Warpaint – “The Fool”

OK, so where the hell did this come from?

LA, all girl, alternative rockers who have been messing around since forming in 2004 end up pulling this masterpiece out of nowhere.

An album all about layers of sound, similar to the post-rock genre but topped off with the stunning, ethereal vocals of Emily Kokal and track that build and drift off in all directions.

I’m not sure exactly what it is about this that makes it my top choice by far for 2010 … but I guess I have a bunch of musical buttons that this happens to press ... mostly all at the same time !!!