I don’t know about you guys, but for me there’s no better time of the year than late January to sit back, contemplate and assess the year that just ended four weeks ago. January isn’t a time for new beginnings, it’s a time to look back and reflect before the year starts proper.
With that creed in mind, here’s some of my favourite albums of last year.
10. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Phoenix have been around for quite a while apparently; this is the first album I’ve heard of them. As it’s their… fourth studio album and their… fourteen year together as a band, I’m not sure why this album sounds as vital, fresh and adolescent as it does. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is the kind of album that gets made by scrappy teenagers straight out of the blocks, full of ideas, full of drive; bands of Phoenix’s age are usually steadily marching into their grave or trying to experiment their way through mid-career identity crises with varying levels of success; this album is pure, concentrated pop with not an ounce of fat on it. Sure, there’s ‘Love Like A Sunset’ parts I and II, an initially beguiling, mostly instrumental suite that would appear more like a rehearsal room jam if it weren’t so immaculately structured, mechanically driving to a crescendo and plateauing in the songs blissful ‘sun-set’ – but it’s forgiven for how breathtaking it is; it also serves as a handy palate cleaner, a brief respite preparing you for another twenty minutes of synth-rock pop perfection.
9. The Horrors – Primary Colours
This album really shouldn’t be this good. I know the NME heralded it their album of the year, but no one takes them seriously anymore. This was a genuine surprise to me. When I was a young music
snob critic, The Horrors were one of those bands who I took much pleasure in ripping into, partially because of the lo-fi ‘amateurishness’ (I was in the depths of my Pink Floyd obsession) of their music, partially because of the prefabricated, Hammer-Horror costumes, partially because of the faux-rebellious nature of their ‘riotous’ and ‘anti-establishment’ shows, and, perhaps mostly because of their rabid backing by the NME, who always seemed to be present at these riotous and anti-establishment shows. They were a joke.
But I’m man enough now to admit that this sophomore effort is more than good enough to take 10th place in my end of year list. I’m sure they’ll be overwhelmed by the news. I was initially won over by the sprawling Krautrock of Sea Within a Sea, but, convinced it was a flukey success in genre tourism by a band who had grown tired of aping The Cramps and had just received a Can record as a Christmas gift, I left the rest of the album largely unlistened to.
It wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I properly gave it a chance, sure – Krautrock stylings aside – the album as a whole can be criticised as a Shoegaze genre exercise in the same way the original was with theatrical punk; the band copying My Bloody Valentine in the same way they used to Birthday Party, but it does it very, very well. And, perhaps more importantly, it does it earnestly and respectfully. A surprising record.
8. The xx – xx
I missed this band at Reading for Lethal Bizzle. I’m not sure how I allowed this to happen. In my defence, their down-tempo, minimal tones aren’t exactly afternoon festival fare; it’s more the soundtrack of the nightbus home, coming down from the highs of the night before, bleary eyed and tired. But still, Lethal Bizzle. I made a mistake there.
I once heard this album described as ‘the kind of music you listen to when you don’t know what you want to listen to’. That sort of description probably paints a more negative image of the band that it intends, but it rings completely true. Like another album on this list, it’s a record that is perfectly summarised by its album art; is it a white cross on a black background, or a cross shaped whole filled by a white background? The music is a blank canvas, a Rorschach ink splatter; there’s reams and reams of notes that aren’t being played, a universe of silent space between the meticulously trimmed guitar notes, a multitude of contradictory feelings and thoughts drawn from the same muted, reflective vocals. Sex (and ‘love’) is clearly the topic of conversation here, but these aren’t smushy love songs, declarations of love or anything typical like that. It’s more basic, raw, and universal than that, or at least I think it is. It’s music that succeeds by giving away as little as possible. It’s what you want it to be. A daring burlesque striptease rather than a cheap lapdance.
7. Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca
It’s a bit busy. It’s a bit much at times. It’s the sort of album you’d like if you’re the kind of person who has to have all the toppings on their pizza. Dave Longstreth would have probably been that annoying kid who was a straight A student and also the star striker of the school’s football team; he’s that unbearably talented polymath that everyone hates.
Prog-pop seems like a contradictory genre name, but it’s really one of the only ways to describe what’s going on here. Its baffling contradiction also goes some way to describing the creative mess that is Bitte Orca. And I mean that in the most sincere and complimentary way.
This rewarding, exhilarating effects of this awkward synergy are best exampled in the soaring ‘Stillness Is The Move’ in which bassist Angel Deradoorian’s vocals are transformed into those of your every-day R&B superstar. There’s the typical octave tourism, the indulgent trills and wordless crooning usually associated with the Leona Carey and Mariah Lewis’s of the world. But here, unlike most of those try hards on X-Factor, the acrobatics really do work in expressing the sentiment of the song: the fear of settling down and a relationship stagnating. Combined with a crisp, mid-tempo drum beat and the skittish, West-African influenced guitar lines that interlace throughout the song, it somehow works and sounds like a thoroughly forward looking record that balances ably between the often alienating complexity and general indulgence of prog, and the stale derivative nature of ‘pop’ music. And, for the most part, so does most of the album.
6. Mastodon – Crack the Skye
A concept album about – and I quote:
‘… a paraplegic and the only way that he can go anywhere is if he astral travels. He goes out of his body, into outer space and a bit like Icarus, he goes too close to the sun, burning off the golden umbilical cord that is attached to his solar plexus. So he is in outer space and he is lost, he gets sucked into a wormhole, he ends up in the spirit realm and he talks to spirits telling them that he is not really dead. So they send him to the Russian cult, they use him in a divination and they find out his problem. They decide they are going to help him. They put his soul inside Rasputin’s body. Rasputin goes to usurp the czar and he is murdered. The two souls fly out of Rasputin’s body through the crack in the sky(e) and Rasputin is the wise man that is trying to lead the child home to his body because his parents have discovered him by now and think that he is dead. Rasputin needs to get him back into his body before it’s too late. But they end up running into the Devil along the way and the Devil tries to steal their souls and bring them down…there are some obstacles along the way.’
And it’s actually still really good.
5. Dan Deacon – Bromst
Oddball, nutty professor-type, acid-trip, psychedelic electronica. There, I gave a succinct description of this guy’s music my best shot. Even before the epic and terrifying 11-minute music videos for 5 minute songs and the wonderful, drama-workshop-cum-rave live show, the music of Dan Deacon posed a pretty imposing problem for music writers. How exactly do you explain it? What is it?
It could be part of what makes his music so appealing; the completely overwhelming nature of it all. Regardless, Bromst is a warm and euphoric album full of genuine emotional sincerity that is wrapped up somewhere beneath the initially baffling layering of samples, chipmunk vocals, machine-gun piano runs and tribal drumbeats. Po-faced, acoustic guitar-wielding rock stars wish they could write a song with half the spine-chilling intensity of Snookered.
4. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!
With the connotations that are drawn to mind by the title, that iconic album art and the band’s already considerable reputation, you would be forgiven for expecting something a little grittier, a little messier than what we got.
It’s still thoroughly New York, of course, just a different kind. The sparkly new-wave that comprises most of the album is so far from where the band originated; it’s more dance-floor, more disco than sweaty moshpit or basement rock venue; more Blondie than Ramones, but it works. It’s Blitz! isn’t a disappointing album, far from it; it’s easily the best they’ve ever done.
3. St Vincent – Actor
Look at the album art for a moment (you probably were already, but bare with me). What do you see? You probably see the lovely Annie Clark standing infront of an stark, orange background; the Beyonce of the hipster universe. But examine that face a little more closely this time. Notice the slightly unheimliche, glazed over, plain look on her face? Unsettling, right? The album cover is the perfect representation, the perfect metaphor for the album itself. A sinister bent lies behind all of St Vincent’s softly crooned lyrics, those orchestral, filmic strings are very Disney, but it’s a Sleeping Beauty or Wizard of Oz sort of technicolor rather than The Little Mermaid. There’s a barely concealed element of violence, deviancy and darkness not far beneath the surface. On the cover of her debut, Marry Me, she just looks pretty. She still looks rather inviting here, but so do poisoned apples.
2. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
And the winners of 2009′s best Beach Boys tribute band are…
A little unfair, but I did describe album highlight Two Weeks as one of the ‘most morish slices of bittersweet baroque pop since The Beach Boys‘ and it’s a observation that still holds true of the track and the album as a whole, even in the deepest depths of Winter those melodies are so rich, warm and stirring.
‘Veckatimest is an album that begs to be listened to whole, and not because the album has been constructed with segues that link the songs together, but because it largely shares the shame lyrical themes, moods and is painstakingly crafted to be listened to as a single movement. The album is relentlessly written in the minor key, it is mid-tempo and it’s all rather stately chamber-pop. Acoustic guitars intertwine with their electric cousins who are distorted just enough to shimmer on top of the warm fuzz of the bass guitar creating a hazy, autumnal swirl… ‘
And Jay-Z likes them, too.
1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
Ok. So this isn’t really a surprise. Even if I’d done this list in the middle of Summer it wouldn’t have been. If I’d declared it on the day of the album’s release, you’d probably shrug your shoulders, arch your eyebrows and nod acceptingly; it’s just that good. I’d only passing heard of the Baltimore band before this album, now they’re comfortably established as one of my favourites. A wealth of more erudite and lucid prose has been written in tribute to this album, so I don’t really know where to start or to begin. So perhaps I won’t.