Tag Archives: 2010

Under-informed profligacy – Favourite Albums of 2010

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. Continue reading Under-informed profligacy – Favourite Albums of 2010

2010, Q1 – Album Update

Have I missed you? Greatly. Have I abandoned you depuis longtemps? Too right. Have I been selling my wares on Twitter and Tumblr like a woman of the night? Sadly, yes. Am I back here for good? Let’s hope so.

Enough of the rhetoric. I’ve cherry-picked seven fine albums from the first quarter of this year, and given them a brief bit of spiel extolling my love for them. Oh, and they’re kind of in an order of preference, which, I can assure you, was a challenge.

1. Transference – Spoon. In which the masters of concision pretended to loosen up a little, making a work of carefully considered ragged beauty. From the hesitant organ drone pulsing through opener “Before Destruction”, to the distant, measured funk of “Nobody Gets Me But You”, Transference makes every hyped lo-fi band seem overly amateur in their efforts – Jim Eno and Britt Daniel have laboured night and day to give their latest baby the kind of off-the-cuff aesthetic that only painstaking production can really pull off. Songs end abruptly, mid-phrase; Britt Daniel’s vocals are warped and garbled to heighten our disorientation. It’s an exercise in melancholy as art form.

2. Contra – Vampire Weekend. Gone are the campus tales of fun and frolicking that was the backdrop to my first year at university. In their stead are a range of musically ambitious, lyrically sophisticated compositions that are undoubtedly a bit less fun, but substantially more far-reaching. This, as I wrote previously, is about Ivy League graduates going out into the real world and discovering how out-of-touch they are. It’s there in the wistful, nostalgic tone of “Taxi Cab” and “Diplomat’s Son”; at the same time, Contra also has its fair share of zany pop moments, in the riotous early Police ska-punk of “Cousins” and the typeface-referencing “Holiday”. Contra is probably a superior creation to Vampire Weekend, even if it’s a bit less immediate and catchy.

3. Sisterworld – Liars. Not since their début have Liars made an album so song-focused as this, their self-confessed L.A. record. Sisterworld is sinister and twisted, and boasts the kind of gothic creepiness even Nick Cave shies away from nowadays. It’s scary stuff, especially when frontman Angus Andrew screams “AND THEN KILL THEM ALL!” in the middle of “Scarecrows On A Killer Slant”. Elsewhere, the three-piece explore tight, muscular grooves (which go all motorik on “Proud Evolution”), and then suddenly veer into hazy near-instrumentals like “Drip”. Sisterworld reminds me of a more focused cousin of Deerhunter’s excellent Microcastle, albeit with the shoegazey moments being interspersed more evenly through the record, as opposed to being clumped together in the middle. Throughout, Liars display their usual dark humour that can make the listener wince, and then grin with wild, untamed delight.

4. Plastic Beach – Gorillaz. Possibly the finest Gorillaz album yet – though Demon Days set the bar very high last time round. The tenuous narrative arc is now quite removed from the music (preferring instead to manifest itself through the packaging, the online experience, and every other marketing avenue Albarn/Hewlett/EMI can explore), and the songs are probably all the better for it. Albarn hasn’t made such a startling variety of great pop music for a very long time – at least, not in one single artistic endeavour – and the breadth and depth of Plastic Beach is startling. On “White Flag”, he crosses extremely authentic Arabic orchestral arrangements with 8-bit grime; standout track “Sweepstakes” pits a multi-tracked Mos Def against polyrhythmic vibes and brass. You couldn’t make this stuff up. The only real mis-step is on 80s-synth-pop-by-numbers “On Melancholy Hill”, but even this has its charms, I suppose. The jury’s out on whether Plastic Beach does better when Albarn sings, or when he gets his Rolodex out. For me, I think the two sides of Gorillaz’ craft are now so utterly complete that it doesn’t really matter. This is the kind of intelligent pop music that reassures the chequebooks of EMI bigwigs, and also appeases music critics who were a bit suspicious of Albarn’s doubtless artistic largesse. I’ve said this a lot, but he’s a true polymath, and the proof is plain to see on Plastic Beach.

5. One Life Stand – Hot Chip. One criticism levelled at this fourth album from the south London electro-geeks is that it’s too saccharine; too lovestruck. To me, that’s a strength, not a failing. Yes, the in-jokes were dead funny on their previous three albums (“I’m sick of motherfuckers tryna tell me that they’re down with Prince” was one particularly witty lyric), but this time round, Hot Chip have finally realised that they are the true inheritors of our long heritage of great songwriters – to the list that includes Paul McCartney and Robert Wyatt, we can now append the names Joe Goddard and Alexis Taylor. One Life Stand is built around a middle triplet of songs that are, yes, slushy, but that shouldn’t take away from their undoubted beauty and heartfelt emotion. They write great love songs, and they just so happen to perform them with predominantly electronic instruments. Why should that be so irreconcilable? And why don’t more bands use steel drums to such great effect?!

6. There Is Love In You – Four Tet. Not an album of dance music per se, but certainly an album of music you can tap your feet to, and swivel about in your office chair. The last album I said that about was Battles’ Mirrored, and indeed, Kieran Hebden’s long-awaited fifth LP shares with that album a sense of playfulness and joy at the primal essence of being alive, and connected to technology in a totally organic way. There Is Love In You practically bounces through your headphones, so enraptured is it with the thrill of existence.

7. Field Music (Measure) – Field Music. If you go on hiatus because you feel your music probably has too limited an audience, it’s generally considered surprising to return with a 70-minute double album that decants late period Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan into a heady cocktail. Nonetheless, this is what the brothers Brewis have chosen to do, and, happily Measure just about pulls it off, bearing testament to their vaulting ambition and artistic integrity. There are definitely weaker bits (the final quarter is overly bucolic and pastoral, if I’m being picky), but when Field Music shift into the correct gear on Measure, they really are at the top of their (admittedly niche) game. Songs like “All You’d Ever Need To Say” and “The Wheels Are In Place” are taut and structurally complex, and yet still fit into miraculously brief passages of time. The musicianship is unparalleled, the vocal harmonies are typically glistening, and it’s wonderful to have them back.

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp

I like the fact that Yeasayer appear on Bat For Lashes’ thoroughly excellent Two Suns LP, even though I’m still not exactly sure what they contributed to the album. Both artists are big on percussion; both major on otherworldly sounds that creep into memorable melodies. Now, as a taster of Yeasayer’s second album, Odd Blood, we have the free single “Ambling Alp”, whose title captures perfectly the loping, jaunty rhythm of the song.

“Ambling Alp” emerges from a pool of electronic gurgling and ethereal, percussive cries of joy. The beat is triplet-heavy and rolls about between the channels; Chris Keating’s vocals recall a bygone era of impassioned pop music, occasionally breaking into a spectrum of harmonies. The chorus benefits from parps of brass, and the repeated couplet of

Stick up for yourself, son; Never mind what anybody else done

is going to be sticking around in my head all week. Unsurprisingly, it’s a blast. As the song rides out on a turbocharged tropical melody, I was left relentlessly upbeat and perfectly content with the freezing cold weather outside. Yeasayer have brought the summer back to the world, even in the harshest depths of winter. Can we ask for anything more satisfying?

Yeasayer – Ambling Alp

Hot Chip – One Life Stand

Much as I enjoyed Hot Chip’s third album, Made In The Dark, I’ll admit that it was a slightly cluttered, claustrophobic listen. There was a lot going on in some of the tracks – “Shake A Fist” and “Don’t Dance” in particular – and though this was offset by the sparser, more low-key numbers (the title track, for instance, was  a masterpiece of concision), the overall vibe was very busy and slightly unfocused. Which is why I’m very excited by the literature surrounding the band’s forthcoming fourth album, entitled One Life Stand because a range of sources have suggested that it will be a more stripped-down and focused affair – an album’s album, if you will.

The album’s release is being preceded by a digital release of the title track which, in truncated form, occupies a radio-friendly three-and-a-half-minutes. And it’s a great pop song, in the catchy mould of “Ready For The Floor”, albeit with an added jaggedness and bite. “Tell me where you’ve been… where you’ve been staying” whispers Alexis Taylor in his most conspiratorial tone, backed by clattering steel drums and a synth line rich in overtones. After a time, synth-wizard Joe Goddard pipes in with a somewhat supernatural moan which continues throughout the chorus, followed by one of the most glorious, buzzing synth melodies I’ve heard in a long time. “One Life Stand” is foreboding and seductive; its relatively simplistic structure belies the love of pop music beating at its core. It’s a wonderful addition to the band’s catalogue of cult classics, and I really do expect it to break high into the charts.

Hot Chip  – One Life Stand (embedding disabled by Parlophone, joyless souls that they are)

These New Puritans – We Want War

UPDATED: The stunning video for the song has been released to YouTube.

I thought there were a pair of comparable albums to come out of the post-Klaxons beats+thrashy guitars+searing synths movement. The first, released in 2007, was These New Puritans’ Beat Pyramid; the second, Late Of The Pier’s Fantasy Black Channel, exhumed from some twisted nightmarish grave in 2008. For me, Beat Pyramid was the superior beast, displaying a lot less cheese, an attempt to tackle disparate conspiracist topics like numerology and doppelgängers, and generally coming across like the work of artists with a little more focus and sensibility. Fantasy Black Channel was more messy and sprawling and clumsy, while Beat Pyramid tried out some interesting conceptual manœuvres (refrains, lyrical and music themes that re-surfaced elsewhere on the album, intra-album remixing) that they pulled off with some aplomb.

And so I’m rather glad that These New Puritans are back, this time wielding a seven-minute-plus single called “We Want War”, which precedes the 2010 release of Hidden, their sophomore album. “We Want War” is undoubtedly a more ambitious and high-budget affair, boasting woodwind arrangements, choirs, and the actual sounds of warfare. It’s also lost some of the DIY charm of the band’s previous work – where before they had beats that sound like they’d been punched in the chest and run over by an articulated lorry, this new material rides in on suspiciously crisp taiko drumming. Though the tone is supposed to be foreboding and doom-laden, it’s actually much less harrowing and brutal than songs like “Infinity ytinifni”.

For all that, it’s still a storming track, boasting several sudden shifts in tone and pace, and a combination of samples and loops and kitchen sinks that thrills and astonishes me. They’re clearly a band of wild ambition and excess, but key to “We Want War”‘s appeal is that it reins in any really extraneous excess, and we end up with a long, long song, that doesn’t outstay its welcome. The comparison I imagine will be made will be with Massive Attack – this song shares that Bristol group’s unnerving sense of dread and apocalypse. “We Want War” also rides along the same kind of lazily terrifying beat as Massive Attack’s “Inertia Creeps”. Expect Hidden to be a less unkempt album, but certainly no less indicative of the band’s manifold talents and experiments.

These New Puritans – We Want War

Spoon – Written In Reverse

I wish I had grown up listening to Spoon. I’ve written on several occasions about the way their precision-engineered intelligent pop music gets to the point in just the right length of time, with witty, insightful and intellectualised lyrics coupled to hooks and grooves that are sparse, but catchy as anything. I defy anyone to listen to “I Turn My Camera On” or “Don’t You Evah” and not have their hips swinging within the first thirty seconds.

And my, how they’ve grown. It’s startling to think that the same band that produced a work of such brooding melancholy as Kill The Moonlight has since gone on to create a sparkling gem of a pop song as The Underdog, laden with parping brass arranged by Jon Brion. Their 2007 LP, Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, was a masterpiece of concision and emotion. In January, they will bestow upon their adoring fans a new creation, which will be called Transference – possibly in honour of the psychoanalytical phenomenon involving the unconscious redirection of emotion from person to person.

In anticipation of this, Spoon have treated us to an early indulgence, in the form of a new single, entitled “Written In Reverse”, which hits digital retailers tomorrow, but can be streamed from NPR Music right now. Unsurprisingly, I’ve already given it a spin on your behalf. It’s an interesting beast, somehow more reminiscent of their Gimme Fiction-era work, riding in on parlour-room piano and an almost criminally lazy drum beat. The bass is throbbing and occasional; Britt Daniel’s vocals are sandpaper-hoarse and multi-tracked like a choir of Tom Waits clones. Unlike some of Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s best surprises, there’s a return to the wandering, night-time feeling that characterised the two albums before it. 3 minutes and 20 seconds in, you think there might a dose of levity in a surprising chord change on the keys, but the respite is fleeting, instead leading into an exquisite interplay between piano triplets and gurning, insistent guitar moves. The protracted false ending could be another comedy gesture, were it not for the claustrophobia that envelops the actual ending.

“Written In Reverse” is expansive and sophisticated, and certainly the song I predicted would follow sneak-preview single “Got Nuffin'”, released earlier on in the year in a three-song EP. That song had a quick-limbed motorik groove; this song is more lumbering and sleazy. Which is no bad thing, because no band this side of The National does reflected sleaze and grease better than Spoon – the way Britt Daniel can paint a character’s portrait is wonderfully enriching. It’s a grower of a track, then, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it ended up being etched into my brain before long, like so many of the band’s previous creative apogees. For sure, I expect Transference to be nothing short of a magnum opus.

The return of Field Music!

Back in 2007, I got very very obsessed with the sophomore album from Sunderland’s Field Music, a 30-minute progressive punk art rock odyssey into the mundanity of small-town life. In borrowing the least lifestyle elements of Steely Dan and fusing them to a jerkiness that recalled Wire, the then-trio (comprised of the two brothers Brewis, and their friend Andrew Moore) created a masterpiece that provided concise chunks of song that packed in a multitude of musical ideas – from Billy Joel-esque piano, to crisp beatboxing. Tones of Town was magnificent, and its lack of fame was nigh-upon criminal. When the band announced they were going on hiatus, I practically cried myself to sleep.

Well now, via several intriguing side projects, they’re back. And in a more expansive mood, clearly, because their forthcoming third album, entitled Field Music (Measure), is a double album, with twenty songs that aren’t afraid to be less cohesive, in a manner apparently styled after Tusk and The Beatles. Predictably, I’m very excited, especially since the band (now a four piece, sans Moore) are whetting our appetites with two choice cuts from the album.

The first, “Each Time Is A New Time”, cruises in on a liquid bassline and some pretty FM-rock guitar, backed up by typically intricate drumming. When the vocals come in, the way they harmonise and interlock is sophisticated and aurally pleasing. Halfway through, the song cuts to a stripped-down passage that builds back up with insistently mellifluous guitar figures, wordless chanting and military percussion, before breaking straight back to the original riff. And then, in true Field Music style, it’s over.

The second sample, the title track, “Measure”, explodes from a suitably baroque string arrangement into a clanging, rustling, piano-led groove. The band has not lost its knack of combining the ancient with the modern, as the vocal interplay and hand claps (which sit alongside the strings, and some very steely guitar) will testify. The mood is wistful and meandering, interspersed with occasional shouts that recall Steely Dan and Fleetwood Mac. As the song fades out to looped strings and a thrumming beat, I can’t help but feel a wave of relief that the band has stretched away from the brilliant style they had previously perfected, in order to explore new ground.

Both songs are little gems, and, wonderfully, both are available for free, from the band’s charming website. Field Music (Measure) is released 16th February 2010, on Memphis Industries, and promises to be one of the year’s most intriguing albums, not only in terms of scope and scale, but also in terms of the fascinating, filigree-like music it will contain.