I’m not going to do a list of my favourite songs of 2009 because that would be boring and unoriginal, and chances are you’ve probably read about the exact same songs in a million other places. Instead, here’s my playlist containing fifteen album tracks, none of which were released as singles, which I notched up on my bedpost as having loved dearly over the course of the year. When you’ve read through it all, you can also feel their brilliance as nature intended, by hopping over to the superconnected playlist I’ve made over on Spotify (though the Tortoise track will be absent because their oeuvre is not yet available). Continue reading Songs of 2009 – Out of the limelight.
In traditional style, this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist has impressed and confounded me in equal measures. Congratulations are due to Florence & The Machine, Glasvegas, Friendly Fires, Speech Debelle, Bat For Lashes, La Roux, The Horrors, Lisa Hannigan, Led Bib, Sweet Billy Pilgrim… and, I suppose, if pushed, lad-rock terrace-chant favourites, Kasabian. Token surprising commiserations are also due to Doves, Manic Street Preachers, Jarvis Cocker, Patrick Wolf, Future Of The Left (who were never really going to be nominated, but still, I loved their album, and so did plenty of others), and everyone else who may conceivably have had a chance of making the shortlist.
Merely being mentioned in conjunction with the prize often has a helpful effect on sales figures, and of course, winning the prize is often seen as more of a curse than a blessing – after all, what became of Gomez, Talvin Singh and Roni Size? Here, then, is my brief rundown of the list, with some thoughts, feelings, and woeful predictions.
Bat For Lashes‘ sophomore album, Two Suns, is arguably the most consistently enjoyable entry on the shortlist. Musically stunning and frequently emotionally troubling, a victory for Natasha Khan would certainly be richly deserved.
Florence & The Machine has given us Lungs, which is a sonically diverse carnival of Kate Bush-esque gesturing and Bat For Lashes-lite. It’s the bookies’ favourite.
Friendly Fires produced one of the most entertaining albums of this twelve-month period with their eponymous debut, which combines percussive, frenetic, funk reminiscent of Talking Heads with a starry-eyed shoegaze surprise lurking in the guitars and synthesisers. My joint favourite to win, because I loved virtually every minute of it.
Glasvegas were hyped-up beyond all proportion by the most irritating man to ever write for the Guardian, Alan McGee, who said they were “more important than My Bloody Valentine” or some similar nonsense. They’re not. Their self-titled first album hints at shoegazey affectations, but does not marry this aesthetic to any particularly memorable tunes. Also, frontman James Allan’s vocals sound weird, as if they’ve been accidentally Auto-Tuned.
The Horrors have surely committed one of the great acts of musical reincarnation by following up over-hyped pesticide Strange House with this year’s stunning Primary Colours. Their undoubted love of great music has now been translated into a misty-eyed and thrilling set of songs that touch on krautrock and shoegaze as much as they do garage rock. Faris Badwan has also searched around in his cupboard and located his true voice – that of a doomed and tormented Robert Smith-style romantic. Music as miserable as this has never sounded so exhilarating. Along with Friendly Fires, this must surely be my personal favourite to win.
The Invisible have also named their first album after themselves. Unfortunately, it’s not on Spotify and I don’t own a copy of it, so my judgements of it are based on the contents of their MySpace music player, and the myriad interviews and articles they have inspired within the music press. A three-piece comprised of talented and knowledgeable session musicians and collaborators, The Invisible’s songs travel along wildly different vectors, from the hushed jazzy funk of single “London Girl” to the cut-up guitars of “OK”. From what I’ve heard of it, it’s pretty impressive, understated stuff, and these guys could pull of an unexpected victory and take home the prize.
Kasabian, having romped through the glammy electro-rock of Kasabian and Empire, return with West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum – an album of slightly unfashionable glammy electro-rock, now sealed with the production stamp of Dan The Automator. Why oh why?
La Roux have, imaginatively, named their debut album La Roux. A prime example of this year’s crop of female electro-pop artists, Elly Jackson has constructed a somewhat robotic album of new-romantic 80s pop songs, dealing with emotional breakdown and relationship breakups. It’s less cheesy than Little Boots, but boasts some of the biggest-selling singles of the year. Probable winner, much as I’d rather it didn’t.
Led Bib have secured this year’s token jazz vote with Sensible Shoes, a noisy and raucous offering. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and come on, it’ll clearly never win, but, being an outsider to the world of modern jazz (the closest recent album I can testify to owning is Antibalas’ thoroughly excellent Security), I’m not really in any position to suggest an alternative to this. If the judges wish to nominate a jazz album every year, why can’t they at least give one of them the prize, which would provide some level of vindication?
Lisa Hannigan, formerly backing singer for Damien Rice, spent two weeks making Sea Sew, and it’s a predictably lulling, folksy listen. Hannigan’s voice is particularly honeyed and soothing, in an agreeable, likeable way. The music is reminiscent of a more minimalist Belle & Sebastian. Without wishing to sound cynical, this is the token folk nomination, but it sounds like a lovely album of laid-back, idyllic music with interesting orchestral flourishes.
Speech Debelle has an interesting back-story that has been talked about elsewhere, and she draws on her childhood experiences in Speech Therapy, which is presumably the most exciting thing in British hip-hop right now, if you can look past the mainly tawdry offerings of commercially viable grime. At times, the backing music veers into lift-music territory, and her choice of words may sometimes seem a little platitudinous; again, I’m not really possessed of enough knowledge of the genre to suggest a better hip-hop album.
Sweet Billy Pilgrim‘s bewildering Twice Born Men is actually available on Spotify. Just like The Invisible, the band is comprised of three session musicians; unlike The Invisible, which was produced by avant-garde meister Matthew Herbert, Twice Born Men was cobbled together in a shed with some duct tape, one microphone, and a laptop. The album is surprisingly polished, but in a breathy, close-mic’ed way, and it takes in a variety of acoustic genres. I haven’t really had time to formulate a definitive opinion on it, but I’d be willing to bet that I won’t prefer it to some of the other albums that have missed out on this year’s shortlist – Further Complications, The Bachelor &c.
So, if you’re a betting man, you’ll probably want to go and place money on Florence & The Machine’s Lungs. I’m not, but come September 9th I will be sitting at home rooting for Friendly Fires and Primary Colours. I think Two Suns is probably a more accomplished album than both of those, but I personally was more entertained and emotionally moved by the first two. We’ll probably all be proven wrong though, and the world will have to face up to the fact that Kasabian are apparently bona-fide album artists.
I think it’s been a pretty good year for British music, so far. While it’s certainly true that there have been fewer knock-out juggernauts emerging from these shores than from the US, the 12 month period beginning last July has seen a decent crop of albums bearing influences as diverse as chugging hardcore, electro-funk and krautrock. While we can’t win on quantity, the British albums that I’ve enjoyed this year have been of a very high quality, displaying a continued interest in the album format, and a willingness to break free from prior expectations and defy preconceptions.
Monday (I think!) sees the release of this year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, and it’s inevitable that despite my wishes to the contrary, there will be some examples of female electro-pop albums not authored by Bat For Lashes. While I’m not at all averse to empowerment of such artists – and it’s definitely more welcome to my ears than last year’s trend towards female soul-singers – I do truly believe that very few of these artists have created consistently rewarding albums, and such should not merit a place on the shortlist. I would be naïve to think, however, that they would be ignored by the judges. Music industry pressure being what it is, the judges would be loath to omit a token nomination from the Florence-Roux-Boots brigade.
Here, then, is my predicted list of nominations, in solely alphabetical order. You’ll note that I’ve only suggested ten albums, which is two shy of the actual number – this is because I can’t claim to be any kind of authority in the jazz universe, and there’s also always an unpredictable wild-card for some long-haired middle-aged folk artist who lives in a hippy commune, communicates with the outside world by morse code, and creates music combining the sound of crashing waves with an unpronounceable wind instrument from Switzerland. I can’t begin to imagine who will occupy this spot this time round.
Bat For Lashes – Two Suns. Natasha Khan came close in 2007 with Fur & Gold, and I’m willing to bet that this year’s sophomore effort, with its retro-glossy production and further inventive arrangements, is a dead cert for the shortlist. Not to mention the fact that the songs themselves bear evidence of improved writing talent from Ms. Khan. Whether she’s wailing from behind a piano, or bashing exotic percussion whilst plucking an autoharp, the quality of the songs on Two Suns never lets up, and the album is unified by an intriguing conceptual theme that explores the outer reaches of duality and difficult romance.
Doves – Kingdom Of Rust. A lot has been said of Doves being this year’s Elbow – perennially under-appreciated Manchester auteurs finally receiving the attention they deserve. Much of this is utter nonsense, because most of Doves’ albums have occupied hallowed ground at the top of the charts, and also because the two bands inhabit very different musical territory. But what does connect with me is that with their fourth album, like Elbow, Doves have crafted their most consistent, unerringly enjoyable beast. While the band themselves describe Kingdom Of Rust as “schizophrenic”, there’s a pleasing undercurrent of commitment to lush production and a kind of nostalgic romanticism that flows right through the album. They do arena-rock anthems far better with Coldplay, and with considerably more meaning and spirit, yet when they push out to more experimental ground, as on “Compulsion” and “The Outsiders”, they reveal just as much songwriting prowess, as well as a natural gift for musicianship that no-one ever doubted.
Florence & The Machine – Lungs. I’m not even going to pretend that I’ve listened to this album in full, but Michael has already expressed some admiration for it and, having seen her live, opening for Blur at Hyde Park, I got the impression that she’s a kind of cut-price Bat For Lashes, all crazy costumes and mad gesticulating arm-waving. As for her music, I understand that it’s getting a fair bit of airplay on the radio, and from what I’ve heard of it, she clearly has a playful ear for interesting textures. Whether the songs themselves successfully underpin the production is up for debate, but I can definitely see her fitting into the judges’ mindset.
Friendly Fires – Friendly Fires. Dating back from last year, this debut album from St. Albans three-piece has been a slow-burning success on the charts, but I think it’s unashamed pop music at its best. Taking more than a hint of Talking Heads-style funk (check out the additional percussion on “Jump In The Pool”!) and combining it with the kind of new-romantic emoting fashionable in the 80s, the band is tight in its instrumentation, and Ed MacFarlane has constructed a well-fitting collection of catchy pop songs that are unafraid of letting rip with a beautiful palette of shimmering and groaning guitar sounds. I loved every minute of this concise, exhilarating album (perhaps one criticism is that the pace never lets up, lending it a slightly frantic feel), and this could be the unexpected dark horse that romps to victory.
Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself And Another. Something of a wildcard prediction, in that most people haven’t even heard of this Welsh supergroup-of-sorts, and their witty, militantly angry breed of rock. Back in 2007, their debut, Curses, set out their stall pretty effectively: brutal guitars, battering keyboards, a rhythm section that’s tighter than a London parking space, and this year’s follow up confirms their talent with twelve songs that pound harder, scream louder, crack more jokes, and, crucially, show a step up in songwriting. Songs like “Arming Eritrea” take unexpected twists and turns; songs like “You Need Satan More Than He Needs You” take one great idea and pummel it into your brain for just the right length of time. People will probably be surprised that I like this sort of thing, but it’s only one step further than the kind of minimalist hardcore I adored in Shellac and Fugazi.
The Horrors – Primary Colours. Talk about confounding expectations! When Strange House landed a couple of years ago, padded out with a mountain of NME hype, no one was surprised that it was jolly awful. But lurking beneath that cringe-worthy goth aesthetic was a band full of surprises, with exceptional taste in music. The question was, could they translate their intellectualism into actual good music? This question is answered, and then some, on Primary Colours, which shows off a predilection for shoegaze, krautrock and psychedelia, set within a set of compositions that are earnest, hopelessly romantic (in a failed romance kind of way), and surprisingly affecting. Along with Friendly Fires, this would be my other dark horse prediction to take the win. Some of the songs may stretch a single idea for a tad too long, as on the never-ending, slightly plodding “I Only Think Of You”, but their intentions are clearly well-meaning, and the quality of the remainder of the album more than makes up for these minor gripes. Songs like the opener, “Mirror’s Image”, are perfectly constructed, sonically wondrous, and far too enjoyable given the depressing nature of their aesthetic forebears. Meanwhile, the closer, “Sea Within A Sea”, is ideally placed, with nigh-on eight minutes of loping krautrock ending the album on an ideal note. Throughout, Faris Badwan has found his true voice in a gloriously tragic timbre that is part Robert Smith, part Ian Curtis, and hopelessly mournful always.
Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications. The first of two Steve Albini-engineered albums on this list. I didn’t actually think Jarvis’s debut solo album was all that great – its primary emotion was pretty downbeat; it was musically pretty lacklustre; it lacked that special sense of humour that made Pulp so great. Which is why it’s so refreshing to hear Jarvis re-discovering his musical mojo on what must surely be called a break-up album. Re-invigorated by the cut-and-thrust, no-nonsense set-up of Albini’s production style, Further Complications is an almost brawling set of songs, where guitars sound like double-barrelled shotguns, the rhythm section is locked-in like a homing missile, and the lyrics fire out puns and asides like a machine-gun. Then, just when the barrage of entertainment threatens to get out of hand, Jarvis pulls off a masterstroke, with a closing brace that is lush and awash with romance, rivalling the closing pair on Pulp’s final album, We Love Life, for emotional charge. I think it’s pretty fantastic.
La Roux – La Roux. I said before that it’s inevitable that this year’s shortlist would contain at least one chart-friendly female electro-pop artist, and I reckon La Roux will gain the upper hand on Little Boots because their (for this is a duo we are dealing with) album is a slightly edgier, less poppy affair. La Roux is definitely in thrall to the synth pop of the 80s, and Elly Jackson matches the new romantics for complex and audibly breakdown-inducing lyrics. Without falling head-over-heels in love with it, I enjoyed the album, and felt it was the best representation of its genre, much in the same way that Klaxons’ Myths Of The Near Future was a cut above most of its nu-rave ilk. It’s catchy; it’s very lucrative, and I hope it gets a nod ahead of Little Boots’ more school-disco friendly Hands.
Manic Street Preachers – Journal For Plague Lovers. Just like with Jarvis Cocker, the assistance of Steve Albini has breathed new life into the Manics, which is ironic, given that the other primary addition to the band on this album is the lyrics of the deceased, Richey Edwards. Taking a step back from the arena-friendly alt-rock of recent albums, Journal For Plague Lovers is an aggressive, propulsive creation that spits venom with its lyrics, and breathes a kind of icy fire with its music. This could well be the swansong for the band, given that I don’t think Edwards had any other lyrics floating around in a folder, so it would be rather appropriate to nominate this thought-provoking, energetic album.
Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor. For all the months of brewing anticipation, which have seen Patrick Wolf toying with novel, record-company defying financing methods, and dipping into harsh, experimental forms of music, The Bachelor is an unashamed stab at an album of dark pop. If The Magic Position was a slightly disingenuous attempt at skewed, weird, happy, pop music, its follow-up is rather more violent and digital, with Wolf adding layer upon layer of synths, drum machines, strings and vocal chants over his bewilderingly beautiful vocals. He is clearly a prolific songwriter – this album is long, and feels long too, and it’s only the first half of a preconceived double album – but somewhere along the line, this album feels a little low on instant classics. Which is not to say that it’s a bad album – if it was, then it wouldn’t be on this list – just that it’s not his magnum opus. But I really do hope it gets a nomination, which would make up for the absence of recognition for all his previous albums, and would also salute the brazen experimentation that Wolf moulds into his soaring odes to romance and morality and goodness knows what else is lurking in his crazy-genius mind.
So that’s my prediction. Feel free to add your own suggestions, omissions and corrections, and bear in mind that many of the albums I thought were foregone conclusions (Kala, Third) for the shortlist last year didn’t get a mention at all.
After five weeks of idle procrastination at university (exams were over; the weather was good, Central London was there for the taking), I have arrived back in the suburbs and am primed for blogging action. In true Nick Cave style, my intention is to be at my desk every morning at 9, ready to fill up my timesheet with a whole shed-load of posts. In all probability, because I’m not even 10% as cool as Nick Cave, this plan will fail. But it won’t be for want of trying.
I will try and elaborate on the following things:
- Blur’s Friday night Hyde Park extravaganza;
- Synecdoche, New York;
- Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
- Wilco – Wilco (The Album)
- Spoon – Got Nuffin
- Future Of The Left – Travels With Myself And Another
That’s a whole lot of jazz.