Friday, 21 December 2012

Albums of 2012

I love this time of year, as a distraction from the fact that the Christmas shopping isn’t done and there’s more than a few loose ends on the work goals and objectives for the year, do I knuckle down and complete everything that actually makes a difference?  No, as always I rattle up a list of my favourite albums of the year that holds no interest to anyone … I know this, yet I persist.  There will be a name for this syndrome and someone out there will be able to assist but, and it’s a big but … they won’t actually be reading this and the point, Sir, is therefore moot!!!

So, any decent records in 2012 then?  Just a few … as always, my ‘short’ list extended beyond the required 20 and the cull has been difficult, especially as I really couldn’t be bothered with paired comparison analysis this year and have gone with a more ‘fluid’ ranking that had led to lots of chopping and changing.

As always, the rules applied mean that no compilations, live albums, re-releases or new discoveries of old albums can’t make the list. 

On the topic of old discoveries, three biggies for me this year … First, and only missing out by a year, is “St. Thomas” by The Scottish Enlightenment, a mixture of post-rock and classic Scots indie that gets under your skin after a few listens and won’t let go.  Just try listening to “My Bible Is” in a quiet room and not being blown away.

Second old discovery in Talk Talk’s “Laughing Stock” … I had never really dabbled with Talk Talk out with the classics however when I saw a Pitchfork review for this that gave it ‘10 out of 10’ it needed to be explored.  It’s dark, layered, jazz / blues infused structure works for me … I’m not sure it would have had I heard it 30 years ago on release but it certainly does now … on repeat!

Final old discovery of note is “Secrets of the Beehive” by David Sylvian.  I was asked to do a write up on this by someone who has lived with it since release and grown up with it through adolescence, young adulthood and middle age (he’s 5 months younger than me so will rage at the last bit) … I didn’t do the write up as I realised that I could never summarise a man’s life obsession in a few paragraphs and do it justice … I did do the research and lived with the album for a few weeks and love it, still returning to it regularly.

Before the 20, quick note to absent friends, musically … the passing of Beastie Boy, Adam (MCA) Yauch, was not a shock given his illness over the past few years however it was still affecting in many ways … thanks for the memories big man!

So, my top 20 of the year … not yours, not the muso press’, mine … anyone who has listened to any of these and has a comment, feel free to email or comment here.  If you haven’t heard the music, keep your opinions to yourself or the X Factor chat rooms.

20      Sigur Ros – Valtari

          After a few years gap following the mixed reception to 2008 “Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust” and apparent ditched recording sessions since, Iceland’s finest return with an album of two halves.  The first ‘movement’ includes some trad. Sigur Ros structures that continue the dream sequence of the earlier recordings and include the brilliant ‘Varúð’ that pretty much sums up the genius.  The later part of the album explores an ambient drone element that recent converts may baulk at but that makes anyone who has experienced the band live look forward to the lightshow / sub bass spectacular that will no doubt grace many an arena in 2013.

19      Jake Bugg – “Jake Bugg”

          This has to make my list this year by virtue of the fact it ‘inspired’ me to pick up the acoustic guitar again after a long gap and convince myself I could have been a killer singer / songwriter (aside from the lack of song writing talent and no real voice to speak of) … the wee man has the energy and brilliance of the classic singer / songwriters from Dylan and Donovan to Gallagher (Noel) and Oberst. 

18       A Place to Bury Strangers – “Worship”

          Since their eponymous debut in 2007, APTBS have always been a band who cut no new ground but re-treaded paths that were enjoyable to wander down with the volume cranked up.  Industrial, dark-synth, noise-pop … call ‘em what you want, just turn it up loud and start listing the references.

           After listening to this, It won’t surprise you to learn that one of the band’s side project is designing effects pedals … I thinks he probably demos most of them here and many all at the same time !!!

17      Blueneck – “Epilogue”

          Bristol’s Blueneck are never going to win many album of the year votes as most people just don’t know they exist.  Low key, rarely (if ever) playing live and a confused ‘sound’ that never quite seems to progress from one album to the next.

          Here, it’s largely instrumental. post-rock, film score fare that requires a dark room and an open mind.

16      The Raveonettes – “Observator”

          Denmark’s Raveonettes never get the credit they deserve for evolving their sound, largely due to the fact that, on first listen, much of their stuff can sound ‘samey’.  Listen closer though and you will witness an evolution from noise pop, through wall of sound in their early days to this wonderfully textured sound that experiments with piano for the first time … it works, it just does.

15      The Soft Moon – “Zeros”

          Back to dark-synth territory with Luis Vasquez’s bedroom project come live touring entity now on their second offering.  I discovered this thanks to the stunning reworking of Mogwai’s ‘San Pedro’ included on their “A Wrenched Virile Lore” remix album this year (go check it out).

          Nine Inch Nails fans should explore this if they haven’t done so.

14      The Mars Volta – “Noctourniquet”

          After ordering my list this year I went back and read my initial posting on this from March which gushed about its brilliance.  I then questioned whether there could actually be 13 better albums than the one I waxed lyrical about.  This challenged be to move this up the rankings several times but I decided to stick with my first thoughts and put this anomaly down to the fact that I just didn’t spend enough time with it.

13      The Unwinding Hours – “Afterlives”

          Remember Aereogramme?  Most of you (anybody?) probably not however they were another of those great (Scots) lost talents who created brilliant stuff but went largely unrecognised and hugely under-appreciated.  I discovered them late and was lucky enough to catch them live twice including their final ever gig at the Connect festival in 2007.

          I discovered this year that Craig B and Iain Cook from Aereogramme had formed The Unwinding Hours and I had missed their eponymous 2010 debut album … not long after finding and loving that did this come along and gave me two brilliant albums to appreciate in one year from a band I never knew existed … happy days!

12       Spiritualized® - “Sweet Heart Sweet Light”

          The first offering in 4 years from the genius that is Jason (Spaceman) Pierce, was borne of a time that Jason underwent experimental chemotherapy for a liver disease and a period that the band had been playing their classic 1997 behemoth “Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space” live in its entirety.   Both factors, in their own distinctly different way, cannot but affect both the song writing, recording and mixing process and, here, the results are outstanding.

11       … And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – “Lost Songs”

          Post-punk-prog Texans Trail of Dead deliver another formulaic contender for closest runner up to 2002’s epic “Source Tags & Codes”? … nope, not this time!  This time we get Conrad et al in full on ‘belter’ mode with next to no ‘filler’ material, nothing much below 100mph and a volume knob average just above 9.5 all the way through.
Those unaware of the band’s music journey, great potential and some false promises may not recognise the importance and value in this album. But, if you’re like me and appreciate that these guys could be perfect but for the regular OTT randomness then the consistency on offer here is the first upside … the fact that we have a collection of angry but brilliantly executed rants makes this a great place to start if you’ve never dabbled.

10       iLiKETRAiNS -  “The Shallows”

          Starting life in Leeds circa 2006 as a post-rock history lesson with their initial epic offerings, iLiKETRAiNS (aka I Like Trains), are maturing their sound into a more accessible but no less rewarding package.  Now almost impossible to categorise, largely due to the distinctive vocal style of front man David Martin, its fair to say it’s a far cry from the uber dark, downbeat, monolithic early days with the addition of tight bass lines, upbeat structures and, well … killer tunes!

09      The Smashing Pumpkins – “Oceania”

          Billy Corgan isn’t a man who would win many personality popularity competitions, especially within his peer group thanks to some of his outspoken views on things he should probably keep quiet on.  Unfortunately this often leads to people pre-judging, or even dismissing, his music.  We have to remember though that this was the man responsible for one of the most important rock albums of a generation, the recently re-released double epic 'Melon Collie and the Infinite Sadness' in 1995.
Much of what has followed has come close to the genius of that offering but never quite …

‘Oceania’ doesn’t get there either but still serves up some of the best new alt.rock  you will have heard in the past few years.

08       The XX – “Coexist”

          2009’s “xx” took many people by surprise when it was released as these guys appeared to have come from nowhere and delivered a great album full of modern love songs that everyone from bedsit students to the middle aged could relate to.  Their Mercury Music Prize award solidified the success of the album commercially as well as critically and the band immediately felt the pressure to progress.
‘Coexist’ was the perfect response to the demand for something new.  On first listens, it sound largely exactly the same as its predecessor and its easier to compare and contrast rather than listen and enjoy.
When the time is taken to do the latter, it becomes clear just how much song writing progression has happened in a short time.  Delicately brilliant, I contend this supersedes ‘xx’ on many levels.

07      The Walkmen – Heaven

         The most criminally ignored band on the planet return with another eclectic offering of jazz / skiffle infused indie  made possible by the simple yet brilliant guitar style of Paul Maroon and Hamilton Leithauser’s unique and powerful vocals.
Without doubt there is something here that fans of most music genres would enjoy discovering but few take the time to explore … criminal!
At least I know they exist and love them for it …
No, there’s nothing on here that sounds remotely like ‘The Rat’

06      Human Don't Be Angry – “Human Don't Be Angry”

          So, take half of seminal Falkirk legends Arab Strap, ferment for several years in solo song smith guise and then re-package as a project titled after the semi-literal translation of the German board game that we know and love as ‘Frustration’ and set out to deliver some reflective, largely instrumental, indie-electronica …
Train wreck?
Nope, Malcolm Middleton has been allowed to serve up something with none of the baggage and expectation of his previous guises and, despite sounding initially patch and disjointed, this is a stunningly beautiful collection of tunes, stories and soundscapes that deserves way more recognition that it will ever get.

05     Django Django – “Django Django”

         I think I ‘discovered’ Django Django just before the hype hit … normally I would use that as an excuse to pretend I hated them just because they were getting so much popular press but by that time I had ben captivated by this album that shouts retro, progress and party all at the same time.
As we know by now, the Beta Band influences are not just perceived, they’re genetic with Django’s David MacLean the brother of The Beta Band’s John.

         Similarities are also drawn with Talking Heads and peers alt-J who criminally beat them to the 2012 Mercury Music Prize.

04      Godspeed You! Black Emperor – “Allelujah! Don't Bend! Ascend!”

          Canadian post-rock legends GYBE don’t play by the normal rules.  They release very little, play live sporadically, often in the dark, yet have influenced a wide range of bands since their inception in 1994.

          Ten years after their last album, the band delivered ‘Allelijah! …’ pretty much out of no-where and with zero fanfare.  The fan base and the music press latched on fast and the importance of this offering became clear.

          Its not selling it to say that it consists of 4 tracks, 2 of which are largely drone fillers … but you just have to spend some time with this, preferably with headphones in a quiet room, and allow it to breathe … outstanding.

03     Caspian – “Waking Season”

         Two instrumental, post-rock albums in a row and neither of them Mogwai or Mono?  What’s happening?  Simple answer, Mogwai didn’t release anything ‘new’ this year (remix albums don’t count remember) and the Mono album “For My Parents” simply wasn’t good enough to rank!

         Caspian, from Beverly, Massachusettes, fly under so many radars that its amazing that anyone really knows they exist yet have been allowed to develop from a fairly routine instrumental rock to something that can conceive this incredible album.

          Much of the trad. post-rock formula remains with opening, eponymous, track sounding remarkably similar to Explosions in the Sky however the progress signal is spotted as soon as second track ‘Porcellous’ gets going with the introduction of ambient electronica induced vocals, building to crescendos that some of the aforementioned masters of this genre would be proud of.

          This sets the scene for the remainder of an album that deserves to be heard and appreciated … It may never make your top 10, but you should hear it.

02      The Wedding Present – “Valentina”

          I’m open to accusations of nostalgia influencing my views on this one given that The Wedding Present are probably my longest running music obsession and have lived with me, supported me and frustrated me since 1986.  There may be technically better albums in this list but it’s my list and I’ll say where the best indie band in the world ever go, right!  And what’s a musical obsession without a large dollop of nostalgia anyway???!!!

          I blogged early in the year about “Valentina’ after hearing it once … I gushed (nostalgically) and make no apologies for it.  I’m not going to comment on where this rates relative to other offerings by the great David Gedge (alter ego Cinerama cannot be separated in the discussion) but suffice to say that what we have here is a great Wedding Present album which should be enough to get it into most top album lists of 2012 … I bet it doesn’t, and that’s a shame, not for me or the legions of long standing TWP fans or David himself who appears very comfortable in his skin these days.

          If you do happen to discover the band from this album, make sure you take the time out to find the previous classics ‘Seamonsters’, ‘Take Fountain’ and ‘Torino’ (Cinerama) … you’ll be glad you did.


01      The Twilight Sad – “No One Can Ever Know”

         Where The Wedding Present are oft accused of all the songs sounding the same, no-one could accuse The Twilight Sad of a lack of progression.  Did anyone believe when they were introduced to the torrents of crafted noise emanating from debut album “Fourteen Autumns & Fifteen Winters” in 2007 or the wall of sound from 2009’s “Forget the Night Ahead” that we would even conceive of a dark-synth / electronica direction shift that would actually be an improvement?

          A combination of great song writing, James’ passionate Scots brogue and creative production from Andrew Weatherall take this direction shift and presents us with an album that could and should be being spoken about in ‘classic’ terms in years to come.

          From crafted “Alphabet” through the dark streets of  “Dead City” via the stunning beauty & angst of “Sick”, the belters keep on coming … culminating in “Kill it in the Morning” which succeeds in closing the loop back to the early days of the band while retaining the new found aura of confidence and progression.

          James admitted this year that they missed out on several festival appearances in 2012 that could have promoted this album to the masses as organisers thought they “weren’t a festival band” … this is more a reflection on modern day festivals unfortunately and their desire to play to the X Factor audience more and more (T in the Park, hang your head in shame).  The downside is the lack of exposure of a band in its prime, the upside is that we know that we’ll be appreciating The Twilight Sad long after most of ‘the festival bands’ have gone.

          I met James briefly in New York a few years ago just after he came off stage supporting Mono (he was humfing his own gear) … if I ever get the chance to do so again (or if your reading this), just want to say ‘thanks for this and everything you’ve done so far … appreciate it!'


OK ... if you haven't heard some of the above, here's a Spotify playlist with choice tracks from some of the albums.  Spotify doesn't have them all so there's one or two missing.

If you like 'em ... buy 'em!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Mars Volta – “Noctourniquet”

When Omar and Cedric 'broke up' At the Drive in, one of the most under rated bands of the past generation, many including me couldn't fathom it ... They had just delivered the seminal "Relationship of Command' and clearly had more in their locker ... Why?

We then established that the follow up project, The Mars Volta, would be more experiential, more complex, more rewarding ... Some hope, most (read ‘me') thought ...

Then the debut "De-Loused in the Comatorium" landed in 2003, it was complex, it was challenging, it was a bit mental to be honest!  But, and most importantly, it was clearly borne of shear genius and the realisation of the limitations of the ATDI 'sound' became clear ... This was special (a tad prog, but special none the less).

The follow up, 2005’s "Frances the Mute" took 'mental' to a new level but confirmed the genius of the 'project'.  Subsequent releases lost the element of shock and awe but largely retained their quality and on 2009’s "Octahedron", things were starting to sound "normal" with the band becoming accessible to the average Joe.  The fear was that edge had gone and the announcement earlier this year that ATDI were to reform for some gigs hinted at an abandonment of the avant-garde progressive mission.

Then we quickly hear that The Mars Volta were to release "Noctourniqet" before ATDI were planning to play Coachella just to confuse us all that little bit more ... And here it is, but what do we have?  Complex prog or accessible normality?

Answer is that it's largely the latter but with a caveat, that being that I would contend that most first time listeners to the band would still consider this collection downright weird!

The reality is that we have a loosely themed collection of great tracks that hang together superbly to deliver a work of some genius that will likely not be fully recognised due to the aforementioned "mentalness" of it's predecessors.

Take the first half trio of tracks "Dyslexicon", "Empty Vessels ..." and the Jack White sounding "The Malkin Jewel" ... These would not sit well on "Comatorium" or ""France's" but match anything on them from a quality perspective IMHO.

This is, to any standard, a stunning album ... I completely appreciate that a certain wing of the Volta fan base will disagree and I understand why, but any fan who thinks the band lost their way on recent offerings should revisit the genius, it has restructured, but it's still genius.

Anyone who has let The Mars Volta pass them by up to now should give this some serious ear time ...

... And if At The Drive In play anywhere near you this year, think yourself lucky, go see them and then feel free to challenge my contention that "Relationship of Command" should have been bigger than "Nevermind" as it was clearly the better record.

9.5 / 10

Saturday, 10 March 2012

The Wedding Present - "Valentina"

Firstly, it has to be said that The Wedding Present are up there as one of my top 3 favorite bands of all time and I augment that with the fact that I've been a fan since I heard the jingle jangle guitar indie-perfection of "Anyone Can Make A Mistake" on Radio Scotland's 'Friday Rock Show' circa 1986.

I've also seen the band live more times than I can remember, have enjoyed mosh pits that range from the Reading Festival main stage to Aberdeen's Tunnels and have spoken to David on many occasions with the confidence of a nervous teen meeting their idol for the first time.

There's a lot of crap written about the band and main man David Gedge's catalogue since the debut “George Best” in 86, mainly based on theories of 'all the songs sound the same', lack of progression etc.  Anyone who has lived and breathed this band for as long as I have (and there are many) will laugh in the face of such accusers in the sound knowledge that they haven't really listened before they commented and such behavior is unlikely to be limited to Mr. D Gedge esquire ie ‘see you, your opinions means nothing to me’ :-)

Now, this isn’t intended to be a justification of the band, it's an (early) comment on the latest offering.  For those who do appreciate the musical nuances of Gedge’s chronology, it's important to comment on where this collection sits relative to its predecessors.  I contend that we are listening here to the first true Wedding Present album since 1996's "Saturnalia” ... Justify you say?  OK ...

When David first put the band on hiatus after “Saturnalia”, he embarked on his new project, Cinerama, with a view to changing direction and exploring new musical dimensions to accompany his now legendary indie-angst songwriting ability.  Cinerama delivers all this and more (see what I did there?) and progressed significantly within its 3-album discography.  When The Wedding Present 'returned' in 2005 with “Take Fountain”, it was really the fourth Cinerama offering given the fact that the lineup was basically the same as those who toured Cinerama’s brilliant third offering  "Torino" ... Musically and lyrically this claim stands up, what also stands up is the clam that it is one of Gedge's career highlights, paralleled only by 1991's behemoth "Seamonsters" IMHO.

2008s "El Rey" sounded confused, David knew he was making a Wedding Present record but the subtle beauty of Cinerama just wouldn’t let go; hence leaving a nice but messy offering.

So, to “Valenina” ... What we appear to have here is the natural progression from “Watusi” and “Saturnalia” but with a fair bit of the edge and enthusiasm that the latter in particular missed ie it really is a Wedding Present album, and a bloody good one at that!

Many of the chord progressions and arrangements we've heard before but there's something new here 'You Jane' aside, which is not really a signpost for the album despite its choice as lead 'single'.

From the opening phase shifts of "You’re Dead" to the stunning (really, really stunning) closer “Mystery Date”, we are offered a potential classic from Mr Gedge.  I don't often say such crazy things on the first date but when I first met my, now, wife some 16 years ago I knew instantly it could have longevity; I'm thinking “Valentina” might just stick around a while too !!!

9.0 / 10 (first listen qualified)