This time last year, I bored you all to death with my fifteen favourite albums of 2009. At the time, I suggested my list was not very useful because I had spent much of the year catching up on older music thanks to Spotify.
A year on, plus ça change. A friend told me he was surprised to see Fleetwood Mac extremely high on the list of most-listened to music on Spotify. I told him I was probably the reason behind this.
Nevertheless, for (non)completists’ sake, I shall persist with this probably pointless exercise. It might give you some weird insight into my warped tastes, at least.
Because I don’t wish to look like a slacker, you can also expect me to publish a list with albums I will get round to listening to in the near future.
[Warning – The ‘summaries’ become worrying long from album 19 onwards]
25. White Rabbits – It’s Frightening
Produced by Britt Daniel of Spoon, so they sound quite like his band (suspiciously so – are these Daniel’s cast-offs?). They have two drummers, and their songs are all in-the-pocket tight, wound tautly around impenetrable grooves. My chief concern is that the album sags due to repetition – there’s just not enough variation.
24. The Walkmen – Lisbon
Like a more grown-up version of the White Rabbits album. Lisbon makes no apologies for itself – the instruments are very vintage, the songs are all about failure and resignation (but not in the same way as The National’s High Violet), and Hamilton Leithauser’s voice remains, six albums in, an acquired taste. There’s a song called “Victory” that sounds like it’s about the exact opposite. A subtle mariachi influence permeates through a few of the songs, making them sound like Calexico-meets-the-Strokes.
23. Twin Shadow – Forget
Some will argue that there’s no further need to dish out praise for an album of 80s synth-pop, recorded in a Brooklyn apartment. It took me a long time to get round to listening to Forget, but I’m glad I did, and it’s worthy of the praise I’m giving it. Redolent of Talking Heads, it trades in a breezy kind of funk and chirpy keys but remains surprisingly intimate. Quite often, its creator, George Lewis Jr. strums a guitar with exactly the tone one would expect. Over the top of this affable musical backdrop, Lewis’ has a distinctive, worldly voice with which he revisits dark childhood memories. These anecdotes are reminiscent of Morrissey, but the music brims with the assuredness of, say, Echo and the Bunnymen. Instantly, I thought of Dear Science-era TV On The Radio, albeit about substantially more personal subject matter.
22. Broken Social Scene – Forgiveness Rock Record
This is an album not short of ideas. The downside to this is that it feels at times overstuffed, as totally divergent genres share the same headspace, and orchestral textures collide with brittle synth rhythms, all alongside bona fide rock anthems. When it works, however, this is a glorious album that bears the stamp of all its creators, mastermind producer John McEntire included. Lyrically, I think it’s in another timezone compared with Broken Social Scene’s previous efforts, even if the reassuring vocal presence of Feist is missing. This album is chock-full of beautifully crafted songs that would surely be fixtures on the radio if they didn’t try so hard to destroy their own commercial appeal. And so “Texico Bitches”, which glides along the road to perfection, repeats “bitches” about twenty times, while “Ungrateful Little Father” is similarly explicit and also comes with a three-minute wafting ambient outro. These are decisions that ensure Forgiveness Rock Record will remain an indie concern, and they make for a stunning piece of work.
21. Field Music – Field Music (Measure)
I championed Field Music to the hilt when their chips were down, in the absence of attention that followed the release of their magnum opusTones of Town in 2007. Then, defying expectation, they returned, bearing an apparently generous double album split into four distinct segments. I said Forgiveness Rock Record was overstuffed, but Field Music (Measure) suffers from a different affliction: frontloading. The first disc is a real progression, taking on the songcraft and perfection of Fleetwood Mac and adding a healthy dose of melodrama. This half’s brilliance is not in doubt – not even when they inexplicably lay on the funk in “Let’s Write A Book”. Then, on the second disc, things tail off, and we retreat into what may well be an intentionally pastoral sequence. Occasionally, I listen to this second half and think it fits the bill, but those moments usually occur when I’m sitting beneath a tree in the park.
This album’s ranking is perhaps artificially high – a consequence of my unswerving devotion to the Brewis brothers, who I have followed even through two lacklustre live performances. I’m giving Field Music (Measure) the benefit of the doubt because I wish the band extremely well, and also because the first disc is essential listening. Arguably, the whole thing could have been pruned down to one longer disc, and its position on this list would be more justified. Hey ho.
20. Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz
Well this is rather different from the albums Sufjan Stevens is most famous for. I seem to developing something of a predilection for overblown, overstuffed albums judging by this list. Then again, if they all sound as good as this, then there’s nothing to worry. The Age of Adz, which puts to bed Stevens’ doomed idea of writing an album about every state in the US, is a totally bananas cacophony of baroque orchestration, glitchy electronics, and doom-saying narrative which speaks volumes about the fragility of both its creator and the guy who gave it its artwork and title, the artist Royal Robertson. I’m putting it on this list in quite an arbitrary position, and I’m aware it will be quite divisive, because I’ll admit to not having listened to it enough to form a numerical ranking for it. At 74 minutes in length, this is not wholly surprising. However, I implore people to stick with it, because running through it all is Stevens’ indestructible sense of melody and poise, which stops the whole thing from sounding like an exploded mess.
19. Matthew Dear – Black City
Meanwhile, this is the most sleazy album I’ve heard in a long time. Black City follows a string of musically diverse releases put out by Matthew Dear under a variety of aliases. This one lives up to its title, and then some. Sounding like a cross between Low-era Bowie, slightly sped-up Fever Ray songs, some of those wacky Prince songs where the purple one pretends to be a woman, and the texture of petrol, this is some seriously dark music. Consequently, I shall not pretend that this is an easy listen. Dear’s voice is not a conventionally exceptional one; here, he hides it by layering, pitch-shifting, and phasing it. The resulting sound positively glistens, so oily is it. Alongside this, most of the songs crawl along at a monolithic pace, underpinned by Detroit beats, industrial sound effects, and queasy, discordant melodies. The effect is of a mass of “night”, swallowing you up like a black-hole.
And then we come to the sex. If the music wasn’t seedy enough, Dear wraps the first half of the album in innuendo-laden smut, which led some critics to see the whole album as some kind of joke. But I rather think it’s genuine. Black City’s predecessor, Asa Breed, was a more bubbly affair, but here Dear sounds unashamedly dirrrty, in a way that would make Ms. Aguilera blush. This crescendo of filth culminates with the album’s centrepiece, “You Put A Smell On Me”, in which Dear beckons the listener to take a ride “in his big black car”. Wryly, he adds, “You decide if you want to come”.
Wisely, after this, Dear backs down a bit, leaving us with four more mellow tracks which display a more innocent sense of humour. Net, Black City is actually pretty entertaining, as long as you’re willing to submit to Dear’s base desires. The album’s press release describes it as “bacchanalian futurism”, and I’m afraid I can’t better that.
18. Four Tet – There Is Love In You
Initially, I expected There Is Love In You to be the senior partner in the coalition-of-music with Caribou’s Swim. As you will observe below, however, my opinion changed as the year went on. That said, there’s a lot to love about what is perhaps Four Tet’s most singular album to date. Honed through successive DJ sets at Plastic People (here honoured in the naming of one of the songs), the album sees Kieran Hebden assemble an extremely cohesive, ostensibly dancefloor-focused set of tracks that remains imbued with his taste for organic and naturally pleasant sounds. And yet, I don’t buy into the idea that this is an album to dance to, truly – I say this having attempted such a feat in the Dalston branch of Oxfam, where Hebden gave a rather unique performance earlier on in the autumn.
All the familiar elements of both Hebden’s œuvre and the palette of dance music are in place – from the former, we get insistent rhythmic patterns, cut-up vocal samples, and twinkling electronics; from the latter, we get epic build-ups, greater use of repetitive synth-led melodies, and songs that run away with themselves. But the end product is too studied, maybe, and is simply too likeable to embrace as an album of dance music. What I love about it is that it’s a glorious album atypical in the Four Tet tradition, because it is so consistent. Apart from a twelve-second recording of a dog’s heartbeat, wedged in between two tracks, the album is seamless (and by this, I do not mean tracks flow into one another). Every track is a highlight, and for different reasons. “Love Cry”, nine minutes in length, is stunning in the way it attracts more and more matter to orbit its backbone, like a miniature solar system in equilibrium. “Sing”, meanwhile, rubs a glitchy central riff against a polyphony of intricate bleeps without ever imploding. Everywhere you look, there are signs of a master at work.
At the very end of the work, Hebden suddenly gifts us with “She Just Likes To Fight”, a surprisingly naïve composition played out by what sounds like a post-rock band. Guitars ping and resonate; the drums evoke the memory of the late Steve Reid, the celebrated jazz musician who Hebden teamed up with on several recordings before his death; near the end, there is a circular keyboard figure that recedes slowly into nothingness, rounding off an album of incredible poise and pacing and, yes, beauty. Dance music never sounded so heartfelt.
17. Shy Child – Liquid Love
I mentioned in the comments that one of my main failings as a budding music critic was spending much of this year listening to Fleetwood Mac. In doing so, I managed to totally miss some of 2010’s key trends and artists – chillwave, glo-fi et al. In their stead, one album I really did grow to love was Shy Child’s relentlessly 80s throwback, Liquid Love, which actually begins with a total rip-off of the intro to Fleetwood Mac’s “Everywhere”. How suitably ironic.
From that point onwards, Liquid Love plays out like a love-letter to various 80s touchstones – disco, soft rock, plastic soul, the new romantics, and yes, late-period ‘Mac. The keyboard tones are predictably lush, the vocals are delivered in falsetto and then coated in studio sheen, and virtually every song is a four-minute excursion in adoring pastiche. That’s not to say it’s wholly unoriginal, which is why it deserves its place in this pantheon. For one thing, the synth-work is exceptional, in its layering and its sequenced perfection, and sounds sufficiently updated as to prevent the whole exercise descending into a Flight of the Conchords episode. For another, occasionally the band let rip and remind us of their jagged past, with rave-y breakdowns and extended song structures; the seven-minute odyssey “Criss Cross” evidences both.
I don’t know how to fully rationalise my love of this album. In a way, it’s the album I wish MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular was – a retro throwback, containing all the constituent elements (check out the impeccable vocal harmonies on every song), assembled lovingly enough to warrant the listener’s attention. This is not an album that means very much, though I guess the refrain in “The Beatles” (“If it feels so right how can anybody call it wrong?”) is most probably about drugs, but I guess that’s partly the point of it – an empty evocation of a fairly empty genre of music. That doesn’t sound like a stunning endorsement, so I guess I’ll end by admitting that my high scoring of this album is once again partly a gesture of goodwill, as with the Field Music album, and partly a reflection on its nerdy, studied aesthetic. I hope that proves convincing enough.
16. Janelle Monáe – The ArchAndroid
Thanks to an early tip-off from a university friend, I have been pretending to dance to The ArchAndroid for much of this year. Sadly, I will never have as much talent and “spunk”, as the Americans like to say, and the Brits like to ironically smirk at, as Janelle Monáe, who channels a fair bit of social commentary through a cyborg-populated futurist lens. So, she’s not in any danger of being an underachiever.
This is a concept album, in which robots are the repressed, and must rise up against their human masters through the power of music. I’m serious. And clearly enough famous musicians also think she’s being serious, because the two-suite album features guest spots from Big Boi, Of Montreal and the poet Saul Williams, and is executive produced by Sean “Diddy” Combs.
In spite of Monáe’s hip-hop-aristocracy backing, the album is musically extremely diverse (sorry, I think that’s at least the second time I’ve used that phrase in this whole onanistic exercise), flitting between James Brown-style funk, pastoral folk, R&B, soul, and big-band jazz. For good measure, each of the two suites begins with an orchestral overture, complete with cinematic flourishes. Once again, she doesn’t exactly set the bar low.
That the whole thing isn’t a pig’s ear is frightening, for such a young talent. She’s got big ambitions, and the chops to match. Though the frenetic pace lets up a bit in the second part (which is actually Suite III – the first suite came via an EP three years ago) – only a small disappointment – Monáe gathers it all together for the breathtaking final track, “BabopbyeYa”, which journeys through about five mini passages over the course of its nine-odd minutes. Taken as a whole, it’s hard not to come away impressed by Monáe’s guts and balls regarding the overarching concept/narrative – and then you realise how catchy and insistent the songs are too.
I really hope she gains more recognition, because I know she’s probably capable of replicating The ArchAndroid‘s brilliance several times over.
15. Foals – Total Life Forever
Just as with These New Puritans (see below), few people expected such a caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation to occur with Foals. Luckily, the quintet blocked out all the hype that had followed them since their inception, and de-camped to Gothenburg, there to make an album of peculiar fragility and unease. Where their début was held back by flavour-of-the-month math rock and the kind of pained yelping that saw them fit in with the Skins crowd, Total Life Forever was a richer and more mature work, taking in a greater variety of styles and not falling back on vector-cum-stick-insect guitar trills.
Perhaps most important of all, this was the record on which frontman Yannis Philippakis learnt to sing. OK, his voice isn’t going to set the world alight, but he imbues surprisingly personal lyrics with just enough emotion (weariness and guilt, primarily) to give these songs heart. Opener “Blue Blood” sets the tone perfectly: over disarmingly simple guitar pings, Philippakis exclaims, “Of all the people, I hoped it’d be you!” to a mystery soulmate who has showed him “where I belong”. This is ‘hearth and home’ stuff, and it sounds thrilling.
There are two further surprises later on in the album. “Spanish Sahara”, an early blog hit, gathers volume and substance over a four-minute build which emerges from the sound of lapping waves and sparse acoustic strums. The next three minutes are golden, as intertwining guitar lines wail above a motorik beat and Philippakis once again sings something earnest. Three tracks on, “After Glow” is indebted to Talking Heads in its global-leaning funk, but this is no thankless pastiche. Instead, we get a civil war of competing guitars, synths and backing-vocal intonations, all delivered with a bit of a strut to boot.
In many ways, Total Life Forever succeeds through its lack of groundbreaking, definition-busting b/s. Though more in thrall to other bands, it ended up sounding a far more genuine statement than any of Foals’ previous material, and it provided me with the great guitar album of 2010.
14. These New Puritans – Hidden
I wasn’t totally convinced by all the Fall comparisons that were aimed at These New Puritans upon the 2008 release of their début, Beat Pyramid. Yes, that album was wiry and shout-y and edgy. But it was also extremely self-aware, and was built up out of an intriguing palette of sonics and samples that stretched far beyond the average post-punk release. And now, it seems, my fervent belief that their frontman Jack Barnett was worthy of a bit more attention has been vindicated, becauseHidden is unlike any other album I have heard before.
Put simply, it is the conjunction of the dancehall of Diplo, and the choral and orchestral works of Benjamin Britten. And yes, it is every bit as mental as that description suggests. Barnett’s own arrangements for woodwind collide with tinny synth brass presets. His brother George’s fearsome drumming (Liars comparisons are inevitable) is wrapped around filthy, MIA-worthy beats. Sub-bass tones drag the listener kicking and screaming through the marshlands and wastelands of Essex, while Barnett’s ideally monotonous and sinister vocals make you the audience to a nonspecific environmental calamity. This is epic music to admire, but it is also music to enjoy – not so much a guilty pleasure (Muse, I’m looking at you), but a Hadean pleasure.
A few songs stick out in particular. “We Want War”, which was the world’s first taste of this album, is a seven-minute martial meltdown which sees apocalyptic brass pitted against tribal drumming and, at one point, the sound of a sword being drawn. A little later, “Drum Courts–Where Corals Lie” sets the words of Richard Garnett’s 1859 poem to a woodwind drone and delightfully skipping drums in 6/8. The closer, cryptically titled “5”, brings out polyrhythmic xylophones which are gradually consumed by a children’s choir and one of the most achingly sad orchestral arrangements ever committed to tape. It’s like witnessing the death of a magnificent creature; the last of its kind.
Critics complained that Hidden is unbearably pretentious and inaccessible. I disagree. Barnett’s sense of melody is no longer inchoate, but bears the mark of a burgeoning force in orchestral composition. The production is indebted to urban music only where absolutely necessary, allowing the foreground elements a degree of clarity that demands repeated listens.
13. Liars – Sisterworld
I can just about understand why Pitchfork declined to include Sisterworldin their actual rankings for the top albums of 2010, instead giving it an honourable mention. Every Liars release is a challenging listen, and this one is no exception. In the past, the three-piece have played havoc with listeners’ heads through a series of conceptually difficult albums that also explored the outer limits of palatable music. Then, with 2007’s eponymous Liars, they made what could almost pass for a conventional album. As a follow-up, Sisterworld is an album that intends to chill. Intended as a document of the band’s ruminations on Los Angeles, and recorded while the band was living in one of the city’s rougher neighbourhoods, Sisterworld is by turns aggressive, leering, unpleasant, and disturbing. It is these qualities that make it such a guiltily enjoyable listen.
Spitting and snarling, frontman Angus Andrew takes us on a journey through hedonistic excess, sordid crime, pitiful yuppies with hybrid cars, and plenty more grimness besides. He leaves it ambiguous as to whether he is criticising, endorsing or just reporting on the events that he recounts, thereby giving the listener’s imagination a field day. During album highlight “Scarecrows on a Killer Slant”, which sounds like the equivalent of a scouring pad, Andrew says that of creeps, we should “stand them in a street with a gun / AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” It’s hard to tell whether he’s being ironic or genuine.
“Scarecrows…” aside, Sisterworld is actually rather pretty, instrumentally. Opener “Scissor” dawns upon us with a gothic-lite arrangement (before delivering a gut-punch of a guitar riff halfway through), while something like “Drip” manages to sculpt and carve a fragment of feedback and industrial interference into a harrowing drone. The closing pair of songs attain a transcendental ambience: first, “Goodnight Everything” sees a mournful fanfare play out over stuttering electronic sound effects; then, “Too Much, Too Much” dredges out a fumbling collage of chiming guitars, vocal yearnings, and assorted samples which converges to a stunning conclusion. This is truly music operating on a higher plane – something quite different from the paraffin-like concoction I had grown to love Liars for.
So Sisterworld is both deranged and beautiful, but for me what really lifts it above the crowd is the sense of fun that you can see glinting through all the muck. It’s there in the cautionary tale of “The Overachievers”, in which Andrew recounts: “I bought a house with you / We settled down with CATS / There wasn’t much to do…” and then pokes fun at a “bio-car” that “sounded like a walrus… with ulcers”. And it’s also there whenever you hear the trio shredding their instruments, the better to use them as weapons in the urban landscape they do battle with. Theirs is a pretty unique picture of LA, but it’s one worth investigating for yourself.
12. Antony and the Johnsons – Swanlights
Swanlights continues the connection between queer culture and environmentalism forged on Antony and the Johnsons’ last album, The Crying Light. Like the last, this album sees Antony contemplate on life and death, regeneration and disintegration, but the tone of the music is lighter, more deft, more pared down.
Surprisingly though, this also makes Swanlights even less accessible than its predecessor. Songs ebb and flow, emerging from instrumental mists before receding into them anew. A few songs run into particularly unforeseen waters: the title track, with its backmasked vocals and droning instrumentation, achieves a harrowing ambience that words alone cannot replicate; “I’m In Love” casts Antony’s unrivalled moaning against a creaking circus organ, upright bass, and fluttering woodwind. These are typically plaintive songs, but composed and arranged with such devotion (frequently with the assistance of wunderkind Nico Muhly) that they appear transformed. The cyclical nature of some of the melodies helps in this cause; in particular, Antony lets the piano parts run away from the other instruments, furthering the imagery of nature and a thawing.
But for all the pastoral side to Swanlights, the album’s most impressive moments are also its bleakest. The closing two songs are cases in point. First, the fairytale strings of “Salt Silver Oxygen” are eventually consumed by a chorus of Antonys (“Elect the salt mother / For she’s a selective Christ” is a characteristically dramatic pair of lines) and throttling blasts of brass. Then, atop cautious piano, “Christina’s Farm” digs up lyrical gems from elsewhere in the album to provide a comprehensively mournful account of the whole work. As Muhly piles on juddering strings and unsettling percussion, the cycle is completed, with Antony repeating the perplexing line “Everything is new / Every sock and shoe”.
The story behind the artwork of Swanlights is an odd one: it refers to a polar bear hunted to make dog food out of. As its heart is pierced, its spirit escapes, and this is ‘swanlights’. The music on this album may be less dense than on its predecessor, but it is no less distressing, and certainly lives up to the back story. Antony once again plays nature’s martyr, experiencing personal wish fulfilment only to see his world swallowed up. It may be a melodramatic context, but it provides for some of the most intriguing and sophisticated songwriting all year.
11. Grinderman – Grinderman 2
Less sophistication is to be found on this unflinching and hilarious document of onanism, middle-age, and all things sinful. Like its predecessor, it’s an absolute romp, but what really sets it apart from the original Grinderman is, to paraphrase its creators, that this time, they actually tried to play their instruments properly. That still doesn’t makeGrinderman 2 a particularly subtle record. In fact, it’s frequently brutal, as on the howling shrieks of guitar that pierce through lead single “Heathen Child”, and the juddering steam-train rhythm that sets “Evil” in motion.
This is a an album of the blues to enjoy every day; it’s also surprisingly well-formulated lyrically, if you look beneath the surface. The imagery and metaphor rivals the lyrics Nick Cave pens for Bad Seeds songs, while the roll-call of iconography on “Palaces of Montezuma” (sample: “The spinal cord of JFK / wrapped in Monroe’s negligée”) is basically beyond criticism. Where the quartet that makes up Grinderman had previously laid down some off-limits subjects for this side-project, now they slide into religion et al. like a willing bedfellow. It’s clear they’re having a whale of a time on Grinderman 2 – in particular, multi-instrumentalist Warren Ellis conjures up a swamp of sounds from his mandolin and bouzouki. What’s more impressive is that even over forty minutes, the whole thing doesn’t collapse into a joke.
The dividing line between the Bad Seeds and Grinderman got a whole lot more blurry when the former released Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!! in 2009, and I would imagine this release will pull off the same stunt again, injecting Nick Cave’s day job with new fervour and drive, even as they continue to advance in years. Being 53-years old has never sounded like so much fun.
10. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
Bradford Cox has slowly been proving to the world that he’s a writer of great pop songs, and the squally first side of 2007’s Cryptograms is no longer an accurate mission statement for his day-job as frontman of Deerhunter. As evidenced by the steady output of new material on his blog, Cox has matured into someone very special, a unique force in songwriting who retells emotionally raw stories through increasingly polished pop compositions. As Cox’s sense of melody has become keener, Deerhunter’s music has become less… cryptic, and while that may be a problem for some die-hards, who favoured the band’s earlier, feedback-drenched material, there’s no doubting the completeness of some of the songs offered here on Halcyon Digest.
Providing a firm foundation for the album’s more prototypical moments, here we find numerous anchors, from the frazzled folk-rock of “Revival” and “Memory Boy”, to the Strokes-meets-Fun-House of “Coronado”. Sketchily lurking between these are also two of Deerhunter’s most naked compositions to date – the barely-there wooziness of “Sailing”, and the charming “Basement Scene” – but these too are blessed with innate melodic resolution that brings to mind Young, or even Dylan.
And then there are the album’s most out-there moments: the songs that book-end it, and the startling ballad “Helicopter”. These are songs about which I could eulogise for a day – the emotional depth that resonates through them; the choices made in the arrangements which give them their particular moods; the sophistication in their structure which confirms Cox’s genius.
Even at the risk of describing every single song on the album, I feel I cannot omit mentioning “Desire Lines”, which sits in the middle ofHalcyon Digest. This is near-seven minutes of perfection; like a director’s cut of the Spoon song “I Saw The Light”. Three minutes of guitar-led anthem, followed by a peerless four-minute instrumental coda. And, just like the best thing on Deerhunter’s previous albumMicrocastle, “Nothing Ever Happened”, it’s not even written by Cox. Instead, guitarist Lockett Pundt takes the reigns for what may stand as Deerhunter’s apogee.
No Deerhunter album has ever been particularly cohesive. Cryptogramswas made up of two distinct sides, each recorded months apart, and each symbolising the polarised moods of Bradford Cox. Its follow-up,Microcastle, contained a batch of far catchier songs, but at its centre was a quartet of rustling near-sketches, and the album was bookended by a brace of bizarre, retro waltzes that recalled the Everly Brothers. Halcyon Digest is no less strange and bewildering in its structure, but by almost eliminating the band’s more kosmische influences, Deerhunter have created an absolute gem with virtually no hard edges. Bradford Cox must now surely be heralded as a great force in pop songwriting, who has embraced his sweet side to laudable effect.
9. Flying Lotus – Cosmogramma
As I understand, Flying Lotus is basically the big daddy of what is known as the Low End Theory club. But obviously I’m way too out-of-the-loop to know what any of the club’s other artists sound like. Gaslamp Killer. Gonjasufi. Deadelus. These are all names I’m not cool enough to recognise.
But what I also understand is that you don’t need to know about all these movements that Steven Ellison has sparked off in order to appreciate the astral opera that is Cosmogramma.
Here is an album that is unafraid of lifting things from its creator’s personal history, and melding them into a unique and inimitable sound. So, we hear harps redolent of Ellison’s great-aunt, Alice Coltrane, lurking alongside post-Dilla unquantised beats. Thundercat’s peerless slap bass rubs up against equally illustrious vocal samples. Experimental electronica meets free jazz in a four-dimensional video game.
Rather than pander to that mortal concept of ‘songs’, Cosmogramma is an album intended to be enjoyed as a cohesive whole. Track names and numberings quickly become irrelevant. Particular arrangements and motifs crop up in several locations, as if transported through a wormhole, Star Trek-style. This album pays its dues to music of the past, without feeling it needs to follow the common elements of music. Consequently, Ellison is able to literally worship and evoke the transcendentalism of his great-aunt’s music without conforming to that era’s strictures. The resulting piece of music is forty-five minutes of aural bliss, and it’s pretty tricky to sum it up in a three-dimensional world.
The most useful thing I can really write about Cosmogramma is that it conjures up the addled experimentation of the free jazz age, using the tricks and tools of the 22nd century. In this context, even the hallowed voice of Thom Yorke’s becomes just another instrument, to be warped and tampered with along with everything else. This could have been a chaotic fug of noise with neither beginning nor end, but in the hands of a humble master like FlyLo, what we get is a work of devotion that defies meaningful comparison. As the triumphant, uplifting orchestration of “Galaxy in Janaki” spirals into the ether, Cosmogramma leaves you aching for more. The only choice is to press repeat.
8. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
This is probably an unnecessarily high ranking for the third proper Gorillaz album, but I want to emphasise just what a wonderful carousel of music Plastic Beach is. Freed from the pretence of fronting a ‘cartoon band’, Damon Albarn has written the best bunch of pop songs he’s dared to create for years, possibly even since Parklife. There’s still an overarching concept – nominally, these are songs depicting an island made out of landfill, a kind of alt. product of environmental chaos – but it’s essentially redundant, given the quality of the songs on offer.
Guest stars come and go like a roll-call of the greats – Snoop Dogg here, Mark E. Smith there – but the one constant, Albarn, is also the album’s greatest asset. It’s no surprise that he reserves his own voice for the most out-and-out pop moments – tracks like “On Melancholy Hill” and “Rhinestone Eyes” may lack the gimmicks and flourishes of other songs, but they carry strong enough melodies to book a place in the canon of great Albarn songs.
That said, it’s hard to know where to look, so densely packed is the talent on offer, whether instrumental or vocal. Frequently, both elements spin on totally different axes but still coalesce perfectly. On “White Flag”, a Lebanese orchestra indulges us in an Arabic motif, while atop, the two grime MCs Bashy and Kano have a verbal joust. This isn’t even the stuff of your wildest dreams, but somehow the low-key puppet master Albarn pulls it off.
This is the best Gorillaz album because it’s the album that pursues the most simplistic pleasures of pop. It may have attracted interest at its launch due to the heavy roster of hip-hop talent (and it’s true, Mos Def almost steals the show whenever he takes the mic), but in the end its most gorgeous, universal moments occur either when Albarn is centre-stage, or when that role is instead taken up by another pop great, Bobby Womack.
The author Jonathan Franzen bemoans the internet and cable TV for having no focus or centre. Plastic Beach is an entirely selfless, ego-less work, but therein lies its appeal. Albarn was questioned on Radio 4 as to why he had allowed the ‘band’ to promote a new version of Microsoft Internet Explorer, a web browser, assaulting Spotify with a cartoon-fronted ad campaign. His answer was telling: Gorillaz are a travelling circus funded by a major record label, thus such artistically-empty gestures were sometimes necessary if the next barrier-breaking cultural feat was to be feasible. The evidence speaks for itself: earlier on in the year, the Gorillaz roadshow became one of the first Western acts to travel to Syria, where they put on a concert brimming with talent from the Arabic world. Just like how Rage Against The Machine chose to fund their ‘revolutionary’ exploits by signing to Sony Epic Records, so have Gorillaz been able to bring their unique post-ideology party to wider audiences by remaining on EMI/Parlophone. On the back of Plastic Beach and its associated performances, I’d say it was a decision worth taking.
7. Vampire Weekend – Contra
I’m getting a bit bored of writing phrases like “great pop music” in this lengthy, narcissistic monologue. Nonetheless, it would be disingenuous of me to deny that Vampire Weekend’s second album is anything but aforementioned phrase. At the time of its release, I wrote of the melancholy that pervades quite a bit of it, and I stand by that observation. Looking back in the annals of pop history, it’s clear that melancholia and regret are not anathema to this genre, and VW have managed to execute this combination like an absolute pro. Songs like “Taxi Cab” and “I Think Ur A Contra” are beautifully nostalgic and weary whilst also peddling highly memorable melodies.
Alongside these, Contra also has its fair share of summery moments – perhaps I didn’t pay these songs enough attention owing to the album’s midwinter release. “White Sky” and “Run” in particular celebrate the joys of youth, discovery and escape in more universal terms than the band’s début dared. This, I think, is the key to Contra‘s crossover success: where previously they specialised in an extremely campus-oriented lexical set, now Koenig seems happy to stretch his wings and show just how much he knows about the world outside, warts and all.
Whether it’s the retelling of an urban getaway in the company of a belle amie, or simply a broad-stroked yearning for freedom, Contra sees the band writing songs that appeal to everyone, without dumbing down their musical calling-cards. There are more electronic textures this time round, but these are always employed in the most tasteful way: “Giving Up The Gun” re-appropriates a song from Ezra Koenig’s comedy-rap project L’Homme Run and wouldn’t sound nearly as good without the collage of digital percussion and FM chimes; the catchiness of “White Sky” hinges on its indelible bleepy melody. But the band, and in particular keyboardist/producer Rostam Batmanglij, save their best tricks for the penultimate song, “Diplomat’s Son”, which rides in on a clever, relatively obscure M.I.A. vocal sample. Over the course of six minutes, Batmanglij indulges us in reggae, dancehall and ska, even dropping a Toots & The Maytals interpolation at one point. This is a gift of a song; the kind that most bands would spend a lifetime hoping to write. I wouldn’t be surprised if Vampire Weekend continue to serve up such treats throughout the remainder of their career.
Vampire Weekend works on so many levels: as a brand, as an advert for Ivy League education, as a pop quartet with boyish good looks. Luckily,Contra proves that behind all of that, they had the ability to move forward and develop as songwriters, without losing the charm that made us love them in the first place.
6. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
In which Arcade Fire make a resoundingly solid album about revisiting childhood memories, rooted in a particular type of society, and a particular type of ennui. Version two.
The Suburbs isn’t quite as personal or as tragic or as innocent asFuneral, and it’s incredible to think the band have enough memories and feelings from the same stretch of time to fill two very different albums. You’ll notice I’ve not mentioned the band’s second album, Neon Bible: this isn’t because I have disowned it in the way many critics appear to have; rather, I think this new album has much less in common with it, both thematically and musically.
This is a wonderfully engaging and humane album, even when Win Butler’s slagging you off for being a hipster whose tastes “divide us into tribes”, as he mutters on “Suburban War”. The emotions he sings about are of relevance to anyone who has grown up in the suburbs, whether in Texas or in London. The music that backs him is streamlined, familiar and well-constructed. I’m still curious to know what it would sound like if produced by James Murphy, but I guess we’ll have to wait till their next album for that particular pleasure. In the meantime, we are left with a definitive, if lengthy, account of a certain kind of childhood, filled with ugly housing developments, an endless sprawl of shopping malls, and the open road. References to driving are so numerous you could invent a drinking game around them, but even this kind of occasional clunkiness of Butler’s turn of phrase is forgivable when the vast majority of the album is of such reassuring quality.
I can now see Arcade Fire taking over the world in the way that Springsteen previously did, churning out a steady stream of albums that are thematically self-contained and difficult to find fault with. They may not be very surprising or revolutionary albums, but they’ll all have something to say and a kind of gusto behind the words that you would have to be very heartless not to fall madly in love with. And the record that might spark off that kind of trajectory is The Suburbs – it doesn’t do anything too ostentatious (bar the giddy baroque of “Rococo” and the stunning electro of “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)”) but what it does, it does extremely well.
Maybe I’m being a little hard on The Suburbs. There’s real love for Arcade Fire’s brand of magical realism, which seeks to embellish the eminently shareable experiences we all remember, which seemed to stretch into eternity when we were young. It’s not their fault they’ve figured out how to tell these stories in such an ‘economical’ way. I shall finish by borrowing the conclusion I used in my review of The Suburbs which appeared in print back in October:
Sometimes I get bored of hearing wired Brooklynites coaxing a tropical cocktail of sounds from a collection of electronic devices. If you feel the same, on occasion, I encourage you to get in touch with your (probably unfulfilled) childhood and immerse yourself in Arcade Fire’s career-best.
5. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
Having had a career filled with moments of absolute electro-pop perfection (on a ratio of at least two songs per album) and chunks of glaringly inconsistent filler, Hot Chip have knuckled down, got in touch with their romantic side, and written the most lush and unflappable pean to love, monogamy, and the joys of companionship imaginable. Some listeners may lament the passing of the band’s funny side (no more twenty-inch rims on their Peugeots, I’m afraid), but it’s not as if they’ve suddenly gone po-faced. One Life Stand is an album that should not be compared to the great electronic albums – arguably, with such strength in depth and intrinsic melodicism, the actual arrangements are a bit trivial – but to the great pop albums. Think McCartney, Madonna, Prince, Wonder. It really is that good.
Where Hot Chip used to bounce their two vocalists off each other for humorous effect, now Alexis Taylor and Joe Goddard seem more resolved, displaying the same fraternal instinct they wax lyrical about on “Brothers”. That song is one of three gushing masterpieces that make up the emotional core of this album. Together with the aptly-titled “Slush” and the snuggle-up-to-your-mum of “Alley Cats”, this trio is just the most perfect transmission of altruism and generosity in musical form. As lyricists, Hot Chip are still far from verbose, but they’ve trained their concision well, with the gaps between words and the pregnant silences conveying the requisite bonhomie.
Luckily, One Life Stand is no slouch musically either. It doesn’t wage war on your speakers like Hot Chip albums of old (no “Shake A Fist”-style rave, no “Over And Over” chanting), but that’s fine, because the band no longer need to prove that they’re not all “laid back”. Instead, they make the best use of their expanded personnel, including some truly unforgettable cameos for steel pan virtuoso Fimber Bravo, who sprinkles the title track and “I Feel Better” with some tropical good times, and sound like they were born to be a proper band, rather than a geeky duo operating out of a bedroom.
In short, One Life Stand completes the transformation of Hot Chip. On their last album, Made In The Dark, it sounded like they were clutching at straws a bit, unsure of whether they wanted to write white-boy soul or hallucinogenic rave. In hindsight, that album seemed like a necessary struggle, while they figured out their next move. Now that journey is (I hope!) complete, and they’ve recorded a weak-at-the-knees magnum opus, comfortable with their idiosyncrasies but not reliant on over-egging them. What an inspirational album!
4. Spoon – Transference
Spoon’s last album was their most commercially viable. Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga had Jon Brion-arranged horns, the blue-eyed soul of Get Happy !!-era Elvis Costello, and only one song longer than four minutes. So it’s not at all surprising to find the Austin, Texas four-piece in a defiantly indie mood on its successor. Transferencesounds like a parody of Spoon on first listen, taking many of the familiar elements of the band’s sound and pushing them to extremity: instruments are suddenly isolated, Britt Daniel’s vocals are frequently tampered with, and some songs are so concise as to peter out mid-phrase. But you soon realise that all this discomfort and sonic aggravation is a) totally intentional, in that it serves to emphasise the emotional turmoil of the album, and b) meticulously produced to sound ragged. Once you understand this,Transference is a slow-burning joy.
It took me a year to figure out the term that encapsulates Spoon on this record. Unfortunately, it’s in Italian. Sprezzatura refers to the almost uniquely Italian talent of concealing one’s art; of carefully constructing the air of casual nonchalance. You can see sprezzatura in the way that many Italians dress, and you can also hear it throughout Transference. It’s there on the opener, “Before Destruction”, on which Daniel quotes biblical Proverbs in a studiously hoarse voice, atop rickety keyboard drones and elegantly primitive drums. It’s still there forty minutes later on the shuffling funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, which sees the band doing battle with a collage of industrial clattering and seemingly unplanned piano figures.
Transference is a work of disconcerting beauty; its singular musical vision conveys perfectly the psychoanalytical confusion that Daniel is writing about. You might think it lacks the cohesion of previous Spoon albums – after all, two of its songs appear in their original demo form, recorded in a sonically challenging basement – and, for sure, it’s not an album gunning for the charts. But somewhere amidst the sparseness and the economy, it is possible to locate the unique mind behind all the madness, and for this,Transference is an album that demands and deserves attention.
3. Caribou – Swim
Just like Four Tet, this year Caribou (re)discovered the dancefloor, forgoing sunny psychedelia and droning krautrock alike for a pruned, honed and sleeker aesthetic. Swim is supposed to sound like dance music made out of water, and it’s true, there is a fluid quality to many of the sounds on it, from the expressive bassline on opening track “Odessa” to the insistent bells and percussion of “Bowls”. Beyond that initial premise, Swim opens up to a world of discovery that belies its straightforward exterior.
I said that the Four Tet record was too orderly for really dancing to; meanwhile, the Caribou record is too wilfully strange to be suited to terrestrial nightclubs. There are passages suited to the mirrorball and the world of shadows, but these will suddenly transform into far weirder movements. On one of the album’s most complex and bewildering songs, “Hannibal”, a Christmassy groove morphs into a mournful brass fanfare, then into a spacey final segment which allows Dan Snaith’s wondrous and unconventional voice rare breathing space. On another song, “Found Out”, a brand of menacing house music is punctuated by unnervingly brutal, overloaded percussion, and then festive sleigh bells. It makes for an exquisite production, brimming with little details that elevate it above the disco and into the clouds.
When Swim does hunker down and give us an anthem, Snaith has another trick up his sleeve. “Odessa”, with its almost comic sound effects and elegant house structure, is emotionally undone by a troubling tale of marital strife and divorce. “She’s suffered him / For far too many years of her life”, Snaith intones in his best Arthur Russell impression. Elsewhere, he integrates themes of addiction and loneliness into otherwise innocuous compositions – “Leave House” could pass for Hot Chip were it not for the references to stalking and relationship breakdown.
This is an endlessly repeatable and loveable record that unravels over time. Swim is deceptively simple: its charm is immediate, but only later do you realise all its gifts. Snaith has crafted a masterpiece of concision, piecing together organic and synthesised sounds, along with his beloved patchwork of percussion, into a cohesive but continually surprising package. This is music that flows, sparkles and delights just like its titular element. Dive in.
2. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
Is there anything left unsaid about this album? Roughly four thousand words of analysis later, there are probably Trappist monks who know how much I love this album.
It should suffice to say that James Murphy has provided a fitting epitaph for a musical project that began as an elaborate joke, and ended up being the restorer of faith in the emotive and physical power of art rock, punk, and dance music.
This Is Happening is a stylish but pained account of a man struggling to balance the music that he loves so much, with the people who matter the most to him. It takes in familiar reference points (Bowie, Eno, Velvet Underground) but gushes forth not a reckless pastiche but a loving homage.
At times primal, but at other times refreshingly guarded, this album is a fine example of musical self-excoriation – Murphy depicts himself as both tormentor and victim of musical fashions, relationship kriegspiel, and universal emotions.
The uninitiated may be puzzled or turned-off by things that sound a bit skew-wiff on this album, but these are merely the signs that it was human beings who sculpted this masterpiece. Wailing guitar sounds and detuned synths that are too high in the mix. Sudden discontinuities in volume. A lesser mind would have ironed them out, made them more homogenous. But Murphy and his acolytes know how to convey deeper meaning through different methods. Some songs (“One Touch” and “Drunk Girls”) have an urgency about them that connotes the reality that this album marks the terminus of LCD Soundsystem. By contrast, other songs (the rest of them, essentially) take longer than is typical to settle into a groove, thereby showing every process that occurs in crafting an LCD Soundsystem song. The closer, “Home”, is gloriously laid back, suggesting that Murphy doesn’t want this dream to end.
It is this mix of grown-up retrospection and punkish energy that makesThis Is Happening musically more divergent than its forebears, both of which attempted to capture the ambition of 70s art rock with the irony of the 21st century. Is this album better than Sound of Silver? Legacy will dictate. But even in the space of a year, this third act already feels vital and definitive.
1. The National – High Violet
When I consider all the hype and hyperbole that surrounds many of the albums on this list, it’s easy to forget why I chose this album to sit above all others. True, High Violet was released to some fanfare, but only really to those who had something invested in the band that wrote it. The National, a five-piece comprising two sets of brothers and one borderline alcoholic singer with a baritone voice to die for, have been steadily beavering away for years, making subtle and unshowy albums that appealed to subtle and unshowy people. Their last album, Boxer, was described by Pitchfork as “a drummer’s album”, but only because all the other instruments sounded so shy and retiring.
But we knew all along that the classical training behind the band’s two guitarists, Aaron and Bryce Dessner, would someday shine through. High Violet is that day. Here is an album that is quietly triumphant, that revels in its own miserableness and even pokes fun at it, all the while specialising in a rumbling, shadowy form of alternative rock that is heavy on build-up and light on release. When the orchestral filigree threatens to turn saccharine, as on the closing track “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, singer Matt Berninger throws in a winningly self-deprecating line capable of totally disarming the listener. At other times, the instruments match the mood of the piece perfectly, as with the restless guitars that penetrate “Bloodbuzz Ohio”, which was the album’s lead single.
The National record hundreds of different versions of each song, and on previous records they have disagreed with the final choice even after its release. On High Violet, I can think of no disagreement. It is telling that the standout track “Lemonworld”, in which Berninger puzzles with the couplet, “You and your sister live in a lemonworld / I want to sit in and die”, exists on record in its original demo form. All the embellishments ultimately pruned and trimmed away, what survives is the smouldering soul or essence of the song. Elsewhere, the band can sound alternately victorious, paranoid, or smug, which fits neatly with the tales of suburban woe that Berninger mumbles his way through.
With High Violet, The National place themselves within the canon of American literature so elegantly mastered by Raymond Carver. When all you want to do is leave your dead-end job, kick back on the couch with a six-pack, tune into the football (American, of course), and forget about your mortgage, The National will be there to ruin your day. On another album highlight, “Conversation 16”, Berninger deadpans, “I was afraid / I’d eat your brain”, but he’s not talking about the deleterious effects of inane modern culture. In digging up the workmanlike sufferings of the liberal elite, the football mom, and the subway commuter, he strikes upon a rich vein. When you have a tooth pulled out, and you can’t stop tonguing the place where the recently vacated chopper used to lie, that’s when you appreciate what The National have done.
High Violet is perhaps the ideal album for our times. Some may want escapism or perfection from their music, but when austerity bites, it’s best to face the music.