Monthly Archives: December 2009

My Real Favourite Albums of 2009

Remasters

Not that the list I posted yesterday was a lie, or anything, but if I’m being brutally honest, then the albums I enjoyed most this year, listened to most this year, and… well, got the most excited about in the run-up-to-release-of this year, were all albums I’ve owned for 15+ years. Which seems like an admission of defeat almost.

And maybe it is; maybe the fact that I took the afternoon off on September the 9th in order to go home and listen to The Beatles very, VERY loud while my other half (a Beatles-disliking Mancunian, lest we forget) wasn’t in is a sign of the fact that I am now 30, and a classic rock fan, and admitting that, well, four-piece guitar-pop bands can never be quite as good as The Beatles were. Because they probably can’t.

The thing is that I’m still not a classic rock fan. I still vastly prefer Orbital, say, to Led Zeppelin, and I still don’t like The Who or The Rolling Stones outside of maybe, if I’m being generous, half-a-dozen songs each. I don’t read Mojo or Uncut, I don’t proclaim Ray Charles as the greatest artist of all time, I don’t, and this is crucial, think that good music ended with The Beatles and their contemporaries, and I haven’t yet, as I hope yesterday’s post proves, finished with now, even if, lacking in a professional interest in keeping up with what’s happening, I’m not as in-touch as I once was, nor as likely to expand my pop music horizons beyond what I accept are often pretty “safe” value judgements in terms of my own taste.

I just get really, really, REALLY fucking excited by the bassline in “Taxman”.

And by the guitar riff in “Day Tripper”.

And by the shift into waltz time in “We Can Work It Out”.

And by the drums in “A Day In The Life”.

And by the weird structural swings in “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”.

And by the tempo and the harmonies and the CLANG of “A Hard Day’s Night”.

It’s a really adolescent excitement, too, as was the act of taking the afternoon off (and a full day the following week), and rushing into town on the day of release to pick up a couple of them that I hadn’t pre-ordered from the jungle, and then impulse-buying another couple more in a supermarket, of all places, and the early ones too, that I always professed not to care about (my favourite period being that astonishing run from late 1964 to mid 1966 that takes in Rubber Soul, Revolver, and that raft of amazing singles from “Ticket To Ride” onwards). Good grief, I even went out and bought, and then read not-quite cover-to-cover but still pretty comprehensively, Revolution In The Head.

I listened to, and thought about, barely any other music for a month. I can’t really remember the last time that happened to me; I’m pretty sure it just didn’t while I was still writing regularly. Who has the time to get obsessed with one artist’s work for so long when reviews have to be written every week? You just can’t.

I loved The Beatles intensely when I was about 14; the first CDs I owned were copies of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour that I nicked from my dad, a singularly un-psychedelic individual. It’s fair to say that The Beatles, and particularly MMT, were massively formative in my love of music. I’ve said elsewhere that the codas, the arrangements, the atmosphere of MMT are all threads I can see running through almost everything I’ve loved since, whether that might be Tricky or Caribou or Miles Davis or any other seemingly unconnected artist. I simply didn’t listen to The Beatles much from being about 17, when I discovered what one might call techno and started to really calcify my obsession with sound. The Beatles, on CD at least, simply didn’t sound good enough for me to bother with very often, even though I loved the tunes and the arrangements to death. Loved them so much that, in many ways, I didn’t need to listen to them because I knew them. I haven’t just been waiting for Beatles remasters for 3 years, I’ve been waiting for them since I was a teenager. The weight and clarity of the rhythm section (proving all the Ringo-naysayers are idiots), the studio-centric strangeness now rendered in perfect psychedelic scale, the thrilling room ambience of the early years… For the first time in my lifetime, The Beatles sound good enough to listen to. Maybe, hopefully, the success of these remasters, one last hurrah for the compact disc though they may be, will trigger a bout of sonic self-esteem in the legion of artists I love but who keep squashing their records into mush.

There are, obviously, a couple of other key records in that pile up top, both of them released in the year I turned 10 and then rereleased in the year I turned 30. I didn’t go quite as nuts over either remaster, and in fact approached both with a certain amount of trepidation lest they ruined records I loved by modernising them without a careful hand. I had no reason for doubt, though; both are done justice, even if neither, like The Beatles remasters, are perfect in the kind of absolutist audiophile terms that I am actually just as disdainful of as you. One wish, though; that The Stone Roses’ b-sides and non-album tracks get released on CD in an edition that doesn’t cost £100. There are a handful of those songs, “Standing Here”, “Something’s Burning”, “Where Angels Play”, that number amongst my absolute favourite songs ever.

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The Top 40

Albums of the year

I’d feel bad about the six-week gap between posts if I thought I had any readers.

2008 ended inauspiciously in a “cool” bar/club, surrounded by people with beards. This is Exeter, not Williamsburg. I can’t quite recall, but I don’t think we even lasted till midnight. It was deadly dull. I remember a pair of teenage boys, unbearded because they were probably under 18, sitting in a plush leather sofa upstairs, presumably wondering, like me, when the festivities would kick off, but too worried to kick them off themselves less they get asked for ID. It was the first time we’d been out on New Year’s Eve, apart from to see family, in years, and it sucked. Maybe it was the recession. Maybe this year we’ll get a couple of friends around and play boardgames.

This is all a method of explaining that 2008 was a rubbish year for music. Or rather, a rubbish year for music for me. I’m unsure why; maybe the hangover from Stylus dying took a while to shake off; maybe domestic bliss took over too much, kittens and cooking and career. When I was 23 I set myself a goal of how much money I’d like to be earning by the time I was 30. It wasn’t that ambitious. I made it three months late. Don’t think I’d planned a mortgage and an in-all-but-name-engagement.

I didn’t write much during 2008: a handful of reviews for Drowned In Sound, nothing else. No blogging, no print material. I spent the second half of the year, and most of 2009, describing myself as having “retired” from music writing. Now, as I approach what always used to be my fallow period of December, January, and February, the bleak midwinter months, I’m wondering if I only paused. Em’s family came for dinner the other night night; her 18-year-old brother seemed surprised that I had a handful of grime and nascent dubstep compilations from circa 2004. I was cutting edge once.

It was probably Super Furry Animals who touched a spark alive in my music taste again, which was odd; they’re an act I’ve admired and occasionally really, really liked, but not one I’d ever loved. Dark Days/Light Years struck me, though; it was fun, it was strange, it was sophisticated but not po-faced. It sounded like they’d got younger. Maybe I would, too, in the year I turned 30. And disintegrated a little too. I’ve had two operations this year; nothing major (hernia repair and wisdom teeth extraction), but two more than I’d ever had before – hell, I’d never had a filling or a blood test before. I started playing football again, albeit sporadically. Last Thursday night I scored about 8. We won 21-19. We only had four to the opposition’s five players. Hardly serious.

I am, as you might know if you’ve read stuff I’ve thrown at the internet over the years, not a fan of the Top 40. I’m not a singles person. I love Swygart’s Jukebox – I guess I helped to create it, in roundabout way, by commissioning his original singles column for Stylus many years ago – but I’ve never taken part. I’m an albums dude. I like 45-minute, cohesive bodies of work, as wanky as that sounds. A unified aesthetic. A journey. Rockist, you might say. So this list, and it is a list, oh good grief yes, ought to be of albums. Of cohesive bodies of work with unified aesthetics that take you on a journey. But it isn’t.

Instead, new for 2009, I am going to document the music I have loved through individual songs. They probably weren’t singles. Well, not most of them. For the last three years or so I haven’t had a clue what’s been a single or not. Not since we bought a car with an AM radio and a CD player, meaning I no longer listen to Radio 1 in the car but rather Radio 5 or else cohesive bodies of work with unified aesthetics that take you on a journey. (Generally Gimme Fiction or The Magic Position, seemingly.) But 2009 is the end of the decade, the filthiest, shortest, longest, busiest pop decade ever. A decade of enormo-singles and micro-movements, of iPods and the demise of the record player (reports of the death of the Technics 1210 are much exaggerated).

So yes. I’m going to write about some songs. 40 of them. A Top 40, if you like. My Top 40, because I’ve always been a solipsistic bastard: it comes from growing up at the edge of the sea, I think. These are they. In no particular order.

Delphic – “Counterpoint”
I’ve not been excited by a new band in… three years? Maybe. I assumed I’d got old, perhaps. Even 2007, when I got really excited about all sorts of things, didn’t really see me flipping out about the new gang in town. Battles don’t count because the constituent members have been around in the public ear for an age, even if that combination and nomenclature was new.

But Delphic… a friend from Manchester had a little rave about them at me a couple of years ago, when they were REALLY new, but I kind of ignored him because we weren’t really in touch for some reason. I kept hearing things every so often; tantalising things like the fact that, thought they’re kids, they’re big Orbital fans, which is not something I’ve heard a “guitar” band claim to be in… probably forever.

Then I saw the album cover a few weeks ago (it’s due in January) and couldn’t decide if I really liked, or really disliked, the aesthetic. And I’d heard talk about “Counterpoint” being very good, and of live shows being awesome. So I investigated, and acquired “Counterpart”, and “This Momentary” too, and I was struck by something somewhere in-between the aforementioned Orbital and also Bloc Party. Which you could deductively deride as “oh, New Order then”, except that it’s not quite, thought there’s a clear lineage from that particular Mancunian family tree, too.

Whatever; this is a November hope, a promise of the first great album of the next decade.

Fuck Buttons – “The Lisbon Maru”
Fuck Buttons – “Surf Solar”

I avoided Fuck Buttons dude to their disgusting name, and then they got Andrew Weatherall to produce their second album. So I downloaded it from one of the Stylus guys, and I played it on big expensive headphones, and “The Lisbon Maru” (and “Surf Solar”, the opener) blew my tiny little mind in a way I’ve not had it blown for ages. So I rushed out on the day of release and bought Tarot Sport and I adore it. “The Lisbon Maru” is so simple; it’s a little like The Field, or something off Merriweather Post Pavilion only stripped down to just the least burbles and drones possible, and given this amazing, shuffling, perpetual, militaristic beat, and then made to swell and swell and swell until it fills the horizon. Monolithic.

If you’re wondering what title of “The Lisbon Maru” refers to, it was a Japanese freighter used as a prisoner-of-war ship and sunk, along with 800 prisoners of war, by US forces in 1942. Not a very uplifting story, but somehow, amazingly, magnificently, an astoundingly uplifting piece of propulsive dance-as-noise / noise-as-dance.

Grizzly Bear – “Southern Point”
Grizzly Bear – “While You Wait For The Others”

Beardless whipping boys for kneejerk-inverse-hipsters who hate anything with beards they might be, but Grizzly Bear still get a pass from me. Yes, there are sections of Veckatimest that are a little too long and uneventful, especially the middle third, but even when they’re boring they’ve interesting, if you get me. And when they’re not… well, sod “While You Wait For The Others”, which is fine and dandy and great, if not quite the perfect 10 Pitchfork proclaimed – “Southern Point” is the best track on the album, an awesome, enveloping opener that tumbles and gallops and eventually breaks free into cascading loops of psychedelic guitar. And drums! The drums!

Japandroids – “Young Hearts Spark Fire”
“Beat up / beat down / wet ground but too drunk to feel it / OOOOOOOH / we used to dream / now we worry about dying”. Some guitars, some drums, some yelling, some tunes. Oh god I’m glad that people still do this as well as Japandroids do. It makes me want to be an American teenager.

Phoenix – “Lisztomania”
Phoenix – “Love Like A Sunset Part 1”

“Lisztomania” is what would happen if you put some Venn diagrams together and had a panel of geniuses come up with the best Phoenix song ever; it’s perfect pop, hooky, catchy, rhythmic, fun, fantastic in the car and great on your headphones too. “Love Like A Sunset Part 1”, though, is something I’ve not heard Phoenix do before; an instrumental, built from nothing into everything. When it becomes “Part 2” the destination is revealed, but, as Robert Louis Stevenson said years ago, to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.

Spoon – “Got Nuffin”
Stripped even for Spoon, to little more than guitar, bass, drums, voice, “Got Nuffin” is a taster, a teaser, for Transference, which lands in January. It makes Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga seem lavish and overblown. I just love what they do.

Temper Trap – “Sweet Disposition”
Feel vaguely bad for liking this, given its ubiquity as a soundtrack to adverts for UK summer festival footage. And also the dude’s truly horrific moustache – hopefully charity will benefit from his perpetual Movember. But, y’know, it starts like Disco Inferno, and there’s something about the rattle into the chorus, the way that I can’t quite make out the words but there’s something about how it “won’t stop till its over” and it makes me want to be 18 and in a field in the sun and unsure but alive, and that weird, clench-in-your-gut jealousy of the freedom and beauty of youth is something I quite like, even though I shouldn’t.

Animal Collective – “My Girls”
Animal Collective – “Brother Sport”
Animal Collective – “What Would I Want? Sky”

Oh but I hated them in February, having been given a headache by Strawberry Jam and only had it compounded with sinus congestion by Merriweather Post Pavilion. Years of trying, since I first heard, and almost thoroughly enjoyed, Sung Tongs. Then came summer, came sunshine, came open windows, came my brother-in-law spilling water drunkenly on my hi-fi, and me having to test it having not used it properly for months. Came blasting this loud, came falling in love with the surging nuclear-family love rushed through the layers and hysteria of “My Girls”, came the crazy, speaking-in-tongues climaxes of “Brother Sport”, came me becoming a bona fide Animal Collective fan, under duress. For a while I thought they might have made my favourite record of the year; they didn’t, but from hating to liking a lot is still pretty impressive.

Micachu & The Shapes – “Vulture”
Micachu looks like a sullen teenage boy, but, with Matthew Herbert’s onomatopoeic production, her tunes are revealed as brilliantly weird nests of hooks, clattering earworms that take pop and… not so much deconstruct it as melt it under intense heat. You can recognise the colours, but the shapes are completely new.

Noah & The Whale – “My Broken Heart”
We saw Noah & The Whale, bearded folk fucks that they are, live at Exeter Phoenix. Their earlier material had made me feel a little sick in my mouth, happy-clappy twee indie-folk bollocks. But the 2009 iteration is a miserable, elongated, blood-sapped beast, psychotic with broken romance. On record I was struck by the attention to detail, by the almost-dangerous phalanx of guitars that consume the final quarter of the tune, by the tambourine and the horns. Live, despite having had their gear nicked only a few days before, they, amazingly and unexpectedly, turned into The Bar Kays during this song, which closed the set; I suspected and hoped that the lock-groove they set their chins into would last forever. The rest of the album’s not too shabby either.

Radiohead – “These Are My Twisted Words”
A krauty diversion, less concerned with the reacquainting beauty that typified most of In Rainbows than it is with just shuffling very proficiently. I’m coming to like Radiohead more and more as they get jazzier / krautier.

Super Furry Animals – “The Very Best Of Neil Diamond”
Thank you, SFA, for getting me back into music. Thank you, also, for this song; possibly their best ever moment, a tuneful, rhythmic, intriguing, bonkers paean to a bombed city soundtracked by one lone surviving radio cassette playing a knackered tape of Neil Diamond. Other moments on Dark Days/Light Years stand out almost as much – the beatific streamlined Krautrock-shoegaze of “Cardiff In The Sun”, the guitar+hip-hop exploits of “Crazy Naked Girls”, the closing motorik of “Pric” – but this pips them all, especially when it gets doomy amongst the oddness. Makes me thing of episodes of Family Guy when not-so-natural disasters level Quahog. I’ve no idea why.

The Flaming Lips – “Convinced Of The Hex”
The mad over-use of compression at this stage is just something you have to accept with The Flaming Lips; it’s part of their aesthetic now, and there are dynamics, at least, even if at time things are so crunchy and blurred and indistinct as to become near-unlistenable. At least, with this and most of their gargantuan latest album, they veer wildly further towards freaky weirdness than wide-eyed schmaltz, which makes the cracking, disintegrating sonic approach somehow more bearable. That and the fact that you can’t tell this is Wayne Coyne singing; his crumbling asthmatic voice disguising by the cacophony.

Califone – “Giving Away The Bride”
Califone – “Ape-like”

A new Califone album is like… it’s like making a cake to a recipe. You know the ingredients and the proportions, the routine of making it. You know it’s going to taste lovely, because you’ve made it before. Sometimes, though, you make cupcakes and bake blueberries into them before you make the vanilla-cream-cheese icing, and then you sprinkle biscuit crumbs on top, and it’s still a wonderful, light, inviting cake, it’s just a little different. Better? Maybe just the novelty. “Giving Away The Bride” is a 7-minute Califone opener; feedback, country, noise, whirrs, layers, Tim Rutilli’s singular, salty-like-anchovies voice, and a refrain that emerges and disintegrates periodically. “Ape-like”, though, is 2:22 of awesome, freaky hoedown, driven by a big bass drum and a little floating organ, a chant, a circle. A blueberry cupcake when you expected a vanilla muffin with chocolate chips.

Bill Callahan – “Eid Ma Clack Shaw”
Bill Callahan – “My Friend”

I ignored him until he stopped ignoring his own name, and since then Bill Callahan’s two honest solo albums have beautifully struck me. At some point I’ll have to investigate his Smog alias, but in the meantime the pulsing drums and tuneful economy of “My Friend”, and the awesome gibberish melody-overload storytelling of “Eid Ma Clack Shaw” will do me fine. Awesome songs from an awesome album.

Ash – “Return Of White Rabbit”
In which Ash, living in NYC, discover The Rapture, and possibly ketamine too, and make music like the young people were doing in 2003. And it works, probably because Ash, though they’ve been around for what seems like forever, are actually still young men themselves.

Yo La Tengo – “Here To Fall”
Another accomplished record from Yo La Tengo, this time driven by organs and Motown, only instead of being feted because of a perceived return to vitality like I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Kick Your Ass was, instead they gave it the most preposterous sequencing I’ve ever experienced, and thus laid themselves low. This is the opener; it probably shouldn’t be. And the three REALLY long tracks shouldn’t be last. “Here To Fall” grooves as well as “Moby Octopad” did, just differently.

DJ Sprinkles – “House Music Is Controllable Desire You Can Own”
Hutlock and Finney alerted me to this from diametrically opposed positions; Hutlock the crate-sifting Detroit techno (and everything else) historian, Finney the Australian sensualist-aesthete-intellectual. They’re both right, though; the album this sublime piece of so-deep-it’s-almost-ambient house comes from is a wondrous, bottomless waft of polemic and love, as Terre Thaemlitz sideswipes Madonna and countless other appropriators of a scene by producing a beatific, classy homage / tribute / summation. I can’t pretend to know anything about house; I don’t need to pretend to find this awesome.

Acoustic Ladyland – “Glasto”
After the envelope-shredding experimentalism of Skinny Grin, I guess Acoustic Ladyland didn’t really have anywhere left to go. Apart from Rock. And “Glasto” is one of the most Rock things I’ve heard all year. From a jazz band.

The Invisible – “Time Waits”
A fifteen-minute spring fascination, this supposed supergroup of British jazz/dance/some-guy-no-one’s-heard-of promised much and delivered a little. Matthew Herbert produced, and claimed they were better than Radiohead. The Mercury panel feted them too, as well they should; all the forward-thinking alternative-rock buttons that get pushed by TV On The Radio get pushed here too, but there’s something about the A.R. Kane-lite vocals and London-centric lyrics that made the appeal not last as long as it should. Good grief though, the guitar, the bass, the drums; these dudes can play.

Gui Boratto – “Take My Breath Away”
Beautiful opener to a lacklustre album. This is arguably why I’m not doing a proper albums list.

Fever Ray – “If I Had A Heart”
Doomy, repetitive Scandinavian electronic minimalism. Almost certainly objectively exquisite. The whole Knife aesthetic isn’t a million miles away from what Dubstar were doing in the mid 90s though, is it? Come on, be honest.

Dirty Projectors – “Stillness Is The Move”
In which an “indie” “band” make an “r’n’b” record. Solange Knowles covered it, and with good reason. As performed by Dirty Projectors, though, it’s a weird thing, as is most of Bitte Orca; I’m not sold on their aesthetic / quality, although I recognise Longstreth’s talent. There’s something I find uncomfortably mechanistic about the album as a whole, even though the vocals and lead guitar playing often seem spontaneous.

PJ Harvey & John Parrish – “A Woman A Man Walked By/The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go”
Polly concludes her strange journey through the 00s; it’s the latter section that gets me here. Parrish may not be the songwriter that Polly is, but he’s an awesome arranger.

Sufjan Stevens – “You Are The Blood”
I can’t decide whether this 10-minute odyssey through the history of American music, which starts backwards with electronic bleeps before working its way through ornate horns, rocking drums, squalling guitars, solo jazz piano, and plenty more besides, is some kind of ambitious genius or egotistical folly. I’m not a Sufjan fan – I’ve never listened to one of his albums all the way through – but I have to applaud this enthusiastic contribution to the Dark Was The Night charity compilation just for sheer chutzpah. For all its ambition, genre-hoping, and chronological girth, though, “You Are The Blood” is a little lacking in genuine tune…

Wilco – “Wilco The Song”
This is the only song I heard by Wilco in 2009 that I enjoyed. And it’s still only 25% as good as “Company In My Back” or “Can’t Stand It” and 5% as good as “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”. It’s jaunty. It’s about listening to Wilco on your headphones and feeling alright, which isn’t something I do much anymore.

Patrick Wolf – “Hard Times”
Patrick Wolf – “Oblivion”
Patrick Wolf – “The Bachelor”

At the London Palladium in mid-November “Hard Times” got the entire seated crowd, the stalls and both tiers, on their feet and down the front. Such was the exuberance and Mr Wolf’s joy at causing it that he rearranged the set in an attempt to harness and exploit that momentum. He didn’t quite manage it, but it was still one of the best gigs I’ve been to. The Bachelor as an album is perhaps a touch too ornate, too long, but this three-song sequence at the start is absolutely unfuckwithable; the skittering beats, streaming violins and spectral guitars of “Oblivion” are perhaps the highlight.

The XX – “Infinity”
Chris Isaak as reimaged by goth/chav minimalists. Assuming they’ve ever actually heard “Wicked Game”, that is. They may not have; it may just be coincidence. I’m not quite as sold on these dubstep/indie/pop kids as some, but there’s definitely something here.

St. Vincent – “Marrow”
Actor arrived to lavish reviews from pretty much everywhere, but St. Vincent was barely on my radar, so when I picked it up it was half-heartedly, with the thought that my other half would probably like it. First listen, and second, and third, and probably fourth and fifth and sixth too, didn’t do a great deal to sway me from this lack of excitement. But slowly, slowly, it started seeping into me, and over the last six weeks or so I’ve been realising that Actor might be my favourite album of 2009, and that “Marrow”, with its extraordinary textures and creeping/exploding riffs, might feature my favourite sounds of a year filled with awesome sounds. A gorgeous voice, lyrics I remember for the right reasons, and songs that you want to play over and over again on top of wonderful production; fantastic.

The Field – “Sequenced”
Axel Willner’s first album gleaned massive acclaim for its hybridisation of shoegaze and… house, trance, techno? Who knows. The beats and the haze together, though, were irresistible to some. I found it rather flat over the course of a full-length album, longing for a bit more textural and rhythmic variation. “Sequenced”, the 16-minute closer of Willner’s sophomore long player, provides both in spades, and is probably my single favourite piece of music of the year. Maybe it’s John Stanier’s drumming, maybe it’s the beatific final 3 minutes, maybe it’s the sheer size of the groove. The rest of the album doesn’t live up to it, but not much could.