Monthly Archives: December 2010

Top 10 Tracks of 2010 (not from my albums of 2010)

One last little list, and then I’m out. Because these are all great pieces of music from great records, and you should listen to them.

2nd 5th Heavy – Luke Abbott – Holkham Drones
A little repetitive bleepy thing, I find this to exist in the lovely hinterland between mesmerizing and pretty, which is one of my favourite places for music to live. It’s the opening track on Luke Abbott’s debut album, which, if you’re into that kind of thing, is on the Border Community label, where lots of other music a little bit like this – the noise of computers happily connecting to each other, and occasionally melting – exists. The rest of Holkham Drones is a little more groovy, a little more direct, a little less like Zuckerzeit-era Cluster, and a little more punchy.

Ready To Start – Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I’ve grown less and less fond of what one might call ‘rock’ music as I’ve got older, but occasionally a beat and a chugging guitar can still capture me. This has, for certain. The guitars float above a railway line, sometimes chiming like a spooky doorbell, and Arcade Fire, so often guilty of shouting at you, instead choose to woo you by singing and, just a little bit, exhorting you to action rather than bellowing at you. And the drumbeat! It makes your bottom wiggle and your feet tap.

Colouring of Pigeons – The Knife – Tomorrow, In A Year
Tomorrow, In A Year is a collaborative affair that purports to be an opera about the life and work of Charles Darwin. I can’t say I can tell. It has been performed live, in full, like an opera. This particular song is one of the more normal moments on the album, almost shorn as it is of cackling ululations and experimental techno sonics, and instead embellished with weirdy electropop echoes. However, it is still 10+ minutes long, operatic, experimental, strange, and awesome. Their best ever drum sound. Long may it continue.

Girl I Love You – Massive Attack – Heligoland
A deep, heavy bassline, deadening drums, and Horace Andy’s tremulous, spooky vocals lead up to a maelstrom of guitars and brass, echoing the heaviosity of Massive Attack’s mid-90s peak. Many have tried, but few have managed to sound quite like this – ominous, magisterial, cavernous.

Cry, Cry, Baby – Nina Nastasia – Outlaster
Far more reserved is Nina Nastasia, an alternative American country-chanteuse with a guitarful of heartache and an aching string-section. This is gorgeous, swooning, and slowly dramatic. And if those enormous drums sound familiar it’s because they’re recorded by Steve Albini, legendary grunge producer who made Nirvana sound so ineffable. The juxtaposition is odd, but works.

Life Prowler – No Age – Everything In Between
No Age are a weird little noisy concern, a two-piece comprising just a guitarist and a drummer who epitomize the idea of making music with your best friend in a garage. Their second album starts with this kooky slice of repetitive, swirling psychedelia, part My Bloody Valentine, part annoying teenagers next door learning to play drums.

Happy For You – Polar Bear – Peepers
Time now for some jazz, of the modern British variety. Polar Bear were one of the Mercury Prize’s token jazz nominees a few years ago, and their tuneful, playful, team-working instrumentalism is thrilling and beautiful in equal measure. There’s no room here for honking experimentalism, but at the same time this is a million miles away from the easy-listening grandma-jazz of Jamie Cullum. Listen, there are even some guitars!

White Sky – Vampire Weekend – Contra
Vampire Weekend are privileged Manhattanites who have inherited their parents’ Paul Simon records and a disgusting amount of talent too. This is swooning, sophisticated pop – catchy, accelerant, and youthful. I have a tendency to yelp along with the wordless chorus whilst cycling; I suspect you will too.

Undertow – Warpaint – The Fool
Who doesn’t like girls with guitars? Especially when they groove and harmonise as insouciantly as this? There’s a hint of (very) early Verve, The Stone Roses at their baggiest, the sadly-departed Electrelane, Suzanne Vega (a snatch of melody), Nirvana (another tiny melodic theft), and maybe the shimmer of the Cocteau Twins, too, in this gorgeous, and surprisingly powerful tune.

Fire-Power – These New Puritans – Hidden
The album this is from, of course, would be in my top 10 LPs of the year had I got it together in time. Oh well. Nonetheless, this is bonkers, clattering, angry, fiercely intelligent and borderline apoplectic too. Dizzying drums, electronic buzzing, nonsensical vocals and an undertow of streaming, subversive guitars are slowly subsumed into an enormous, ponderous brass band cavalcade. These New Puritans have just been awarded NME’s coveted ‘album of the year’ award, which for the last few years was enough to out me off listening to something, but seems now to mark out interesting, challenging, rewarding records. At least this year.

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My Top Ten Christmas Songs

Predictably, after a morning and afternoon spent dining and playing Monopoly with my in-laws, I spent Christmas Day evening watching Die Hard for the umpteenth time. In my chocolate and prosecco addled state I noticed, for possibly the first time, the way that the score interpolates melodic passages from various well-known Christmas songs, twisting them slightly to make them sinister or dramatic as required by the scene; yet another way in which Die Hard is a masterful film.

I’d love to use that as a way in to this post, but seeing Die Hard didn’t get me thinking about Christmas songs – I think about them every year in December – even if the closing moments and credits do feature one of my favourites.

In fact this year I was thinking about Christmas songs even before December; it was in November that I remembered my annual hunt through Exeter’s record stores for a copy of Vince Guaraldi’s excellent A Charlie Brown Christmas. I’ve had the MP3s forever, seemingly, but every time I remember to look for a real copy it’s been too late to order it online in time for Christmas and I’ve never spotted it in a shop. Not so this year; I found it online for under a tenner in late November and promptly ordered it.

That wasn’t the only Christmas record I bought this year though; the influence of my boss (and the presence of a Fopp in Exeter) crept into my purchase on Christmas Eve of Sufjan Steven’s 5 CD set Songs For Christmas. The box, replete with stickers, songbook, and other seasonal gifts, is a cornucopia for indie Christmas fans, featuring evocative, banjo-and-sleigh-bell-laden versions of numerous Yuletide standards as well as reams of Sufjan originals, many of which are very, very fine indeed. At times it gets a bit much – there are 5 CDs after all – especially when he starts singing about all the cutesy animals that came to visit baby Jesus in his manger, which makes me want to slap the twee out of him, but for the princely sum of £12 it seems churlish to moan. After all, tomorrow morning it’ll get shelved and not darken my CD player again until December 2011, affording me ample time to get over the twee. And if you can’t be a little twee at Christmas, when can you be?

So, inspired by Die Hard, Sufjan, and Vince, I have decided to concoct a list of my Top Ten Christmas Songs; after all, random googlers love a top ten list, even if this one is a week or so too late to profit my blog with hits.

Just a quick note; there are no rules for this list beyond my usual arbitrary caveat of only one song per artist, or, in this case, seasonal album. These are just my favourite songs about, or that I associate with, Christmas. So here we go, in reverse order.

10. Stop the Cavalry – Jona Lewie
Not originally intended as a Christmas song at all, but the universally emotive hook at the end of the chorus, happenstance, and something about the brass arrangement and vocal delivery of this tune have combined to make it a lesser-exposed Christmas favourite. “Wish I was at home / for Christmas” Lewie opines, not anticipating Chris Rea but empathising with all those who’ve ever found themselves serving their nation (or someone else’s) in conflicts abroad over the festive season. Stop the Cavalry must be the only Yule tune to reference Churchill, nuclear fallout, and the First World War.

9. Little Drummer Boy
I don’t care whether it’s by Low, or Sufjan Stevens, or Vince Guaraldi, or Lindström, or the Harry Simeone Chorale, or The Supremes, or The Dandy Warhols, or Destiny’s Child, or pretty much anyone else apart from New Kids On The Block or Westlife; this song is almost always lovely, and manages to evoke Christmas in pretty much every incarnation I’ve come across.

8. Cocteau Twins – Frosty the Snowman
Liz Fraser’s vocals add a chilly sense of wonder, unsurprisingly, to this standard kids’ song, but Robin Guthrie’s chiming, silvery guitars make a huge amount of sense in this context too. Of course, I can barely make out a word, but the melody is timeless and recognisable enough to make this instantly familiar even if the arrangement is pretty far away from your usual Christmas fare.

7. Hey Guys! It’s Christmas Time! – Sufjan Stevens
Despite only having heard it for the first time this year (just the other day on Christmas Eve, in fact), this slice of fuzzy, guitar-driven indie rock has leapt into this top ten. Maybe it’s the sleigh bells; maybe it’s the guitars; maybe it’s the repeated refrain at the end of every line (“because it’s Christmas time”); but probably it’s the backing vocals hitting those delirious “fa-la-la-la-la la-la-la-lalas” while all the other ingredients pile up like presents under an awesome tree. There are several pseudo-ironic or faintly miserablist indie originals to choose at Christmas, from Fountains of Wayne’s I Want an Alien For Christmas and Flaming Lips’ Christmas at the Zoo to Mogwai’s Christmas Song, but the earnestness and joy on display here trumps them all.

6. Christmas Wrapping – The Waitresses
My wife’s favourite Christmas song, this has become one of mine over the last 10 Christmases too. None more New Wave, none more cool; how can you not love a Christmas song that starts with “bah humbug” and finishes with a wry smile and an implied eggnog hug? Especially when it has those horns in the middle. Chris Butler’s songwriting and restrained riffing are faultless, but really it’s Patty Donahue’s delivery that makes it irresistible. Amazingly, Waitresses records are pretty much impossible to get hold of on CD in the UK. Please, someone, a timely December reissue in 2011.

5. Just Like Christmas – Low
Most of Low’s Christmas album sounds like a slow suicide – I can only assume from the clues given by the tempo and inflection that the leftover money referred to in One Special Gift is just enough to afford some strychnine. But this opener, from the beginning drum hit to the closing fade, actually manages to capture some of the magic of Christmas alongside the melancholy (“it wasn’t like Christmas at all”). The hazy, pseudo-Wall-of-Sound production and big kettle-drum-roll add a Spector-esque sheen that’s come to signify the time of year somehow too. Speaking of Spector…

4. Santa Claus is Coming to Town – The Crystals
No list of Christmas songs would be complete without at least something masterminded by the spooky bipolar murderer who ruined Let It Be. The lyric “he knows if you’ve been bad or good / so be good for goodness sake” takes on an extra level of discomfiture and unease when one knows that Spector would hold women at gunpoint if they attempted to leave his house. But still! Those pounding drums! That melody! The momentum! Spector’s Wall of Sound approach fits perfectly, and while the whole album is a bit much for an audio snob like me to take in all at once, this 3-minute snatch is perfect. Incidentally, A Christmas Gift For You was originally released on 22 November 1963, the day JFK was assassinated, and was a flop. Figures.

3. Let it Snow, Let it Snow, Let it Snow – Dean Martin
Die Hard contains many, many awesome Christmas songs, both interpolated into the score and played in their own right. I was so close to picking Christmas in Hollis by Run DMC (consider it this list’s number 11 choice, with Lennon’s Happy Xmas (War is Over) at 12), but really, you can’t beat Dean; the swooning strings, the romance, the images of warm fires, roasting chestnuts, and comfortable jumpers. Awesome.

2. Christmas is Coming – Vince Guaraldi
Guaraldi’s piano jazz Peanuts OST is the Christmas album I return to most of all; the classiest, most evocative of all Christmas albums, infused with familial warmth, seasonal cheer, and daylight-savings-melancholy all at the same time. It’s almost impossible to choose just one cut, because the whole thing flows together seamlessly, but if pushed I’d probably pick this composition, which seems to combine all the elements in one neat 3-and-a-half-minute package. Beautiful.

1. Troika – composed by Sergei Prokofiev
The fourth movement of the score to the 1934 film Lieutenant Kijé (directed by Aleksandr Faintsimmer and based on the novel by Yury Tynyanov), this gets used every time a TV or movie producer or director wants to evoke snow and movement and the urge to get home. Having never seen or read either version of Lieutenant Kijé I have no idea of the original context at all, but this piece of music to me evokes everything wonderful about Christmas. It’s an aural equivalent of The Box of Delights, painting landscapes not just snow-covered and foreign but magical too. Sadly, the only version I possess, by the Royal Philharmonic, is a little overblown and seems shorter than my mind recalls from childhood, but at least it’s not Keith Emerson’s ridiculous synthesizer aberration. Nonetheless, Christmas doesn’t feel like Christmas until I’ve heard this.

EDIT.
I’ve literally JUST been made aware of this – CAN doing a vaguely drone-disco version of Silent Night. Had I heard this 2 hours ago I think we can safely say it would have been in this list.

Water, water, everywhere; but it’s all bloody snow

What a Boxing Day.

I was talking with someone a couple of days ago about a miserable Christmas they’d had; the oven had broken and they ended up barbecuing the turkey in the garden. It seemed like the worst Christmas ever, merry hell instead of merriment, but it’s the best remembered one now, the Christmas they all tell stories about.

I’ll tell stories about today in future, I think. At 8am I got up and went downstairs, turned the tap on, and watched a feeble dribble quickly stifle into nothingness. I checked the upstairs taps. Emma checked the weather app on her iPhone. -14 degrees outside. Frozen pipes. I checked with our elderly neighbour, and she too had no water; faint relief that it seemed as though it might be the mains rather than our own pipes, and thus the water company’s problem and expense. The people in numbers 3 and 4 (we are 5, our neighbour 6) had water. 7 and 8 did not.

At 10am I drove to Sainsbury’s and stocked-up on bottled water for our elderly neighbour and us. I gathered two bucketsful of snow and left it to thaw in the hall, intending to use it to flush the toilet. And then we sat, unwashed, unable to wash, and fretted for the next 8 hours; checking the temperature every hour or so and watching it slowly, slowly climb. At midday it was still -8. At 6pm it finally reached 1 degree above freezing. I tried the taps on the off chance. Water!

But no water for our neighbour, who spent the day at her daughter’s house. When she got back just now we investigated her stopcock and water meter; the meter is under the stairs to her front door, exposed. The water in it had frozen and shattered the meter. I don’t think South West Water ever expected it to be exposed to -14 degrees. I have certainly never experienced such cold in this country. Nor do I ever want to again. I don’t remember ever being without running water like that before in my life either. The emotion that ran through me when the tap spouted forth this evning can only be described as absolute elation.

I was going to blog about Christmas music today; about Sufjan Stevens and The Waitresses and Vince Guaraldi. That can wait until tomorrow now.

I hope your Boxing Day has been less worth retelling as a story than mine.

Coming to terms with your own mediocrity

Push for attention

A thread with the same title as this post was started on ILX the other day. The first post was a bit Fight Club-esque; I am not a beautiful unique snowflake, we’ve been raised to think we can all be rockstars or moviestars, what if I never write that zeitgeist-defining novel, etc etc etc. It was more than a little navel-gazing.

I used to be afflicted with such thoughts from time to time, with the desire to be important and known. In some ways I probably still am but not to the extent that it causes me any degree of existential angst anymore. What are the passages in Nausea? “I am moved, my body is a precision tool at rest… I have plunged through forests… Loved women, fought with men… It has all lead me here, to this bubble of light filled with music.”. And the other, about protagonists being blind to stories while in them, how stories only become stories in hindsight, and before that they are just the relentless succession of circumstance. These used to be my favourite passages of any book. When I was 20.

I wrote the next paragraph at 6am on Christmas Day, using my iPhone, in bed, as a reply to that ILX thread.

“Enjoy the things you do. Do the things you enjoy. Make conscious time every day in which to do this. Try and make it so you enjoy your job and are connected to your outputs (the fruits of your labour). I cook, I listen to music, I cycle, I talk, I write from time to time, I take photographs. I’m not exceptional at any of these but I’m good enough to please myself and feel proud every so often. Take compliments; consider whether you compliment others meaninglessly or as a lie and if you don’t, I doubt you do, apply that thought to everyone else’s compliments. But mostly, love people. Whether it’s a deep romantic lifelong passion and companionship or just taking pleasure everyday in the things people around you do, love people. Being a rock star or a lauded writer won’t make you happy. We’re not here to do that. We’re not here to do anything other than exist, so we owe it to ourselves to make that existence happy (and I don’t necessarily mean delirious at every turn). Get over yourself. Enjoy doing things. Love people. Laugh. Breathe clean air and appreciate it. Whether I’m mediocre or not seldom if ever crosses my mind these days. Why should it? I can eat tiramisu that I made myself, I can stroke my cats, listen to beautiful music, cycle till my legs ache, love my wife, walk through a beautiful snowy landscape, and enjoy the company of my friends and family and colleagues.”

Defeating X

I’m conflicted over X Factor. I’ve watched it start-to-finish for the last three years (something about owning a house impels one to spend Saturday nights in, I suspect) and have been known to get a little dewy-eyed at some performances. I have a certain amount of professional respect for Simon Cowell, who masterminds the theatre of the whole thing very well (even if, after 3 years, the narrative of both the whole series arc and most individual contestants is now crushingly obvious from the beginning). He does what he does very well.

Speaking of which: I’ve always maintained that watching other human beings do something they really, truly excel at is one of life’s great pleasures. Some X Factor contestants sing very well. Some of them.

But I am also a semi-retired aggro little bastard, and as such love to see the best laid plans of men get absolutely spannered by happenstance and discord and willful troublemaking. So, much as I’m not a Rage Against The Machine fan, I loved it when the applecart was upset last Christmas. Joe McElderry, after all, is such an obvious West End musical theatre boy, rather than a pop star, that he should never have won.

But this year’s attempts to stop Matt “Corset” Cardle from winning have been all wrong. Which is why they failed.

The Cage thing is too clever, too conceptual, and thus lacked any kind of visceral momentum. As intriguing as four and a half minutes of silence may be (and I love the original concept), it’s very hard to imagine people in any great numbers getting behind the idea of buying… nothingness. Even if it does piss off Simon Cowell.

Billy Clyro’s own attempt to push their original version ahead of Cardle, meanwhile, is too literalist, too obvious, too childish, and is dangerously close to acknowledging what a clever song choice it was by Cowell. Plus it smacks of a little too much ego; Clyro could have just sat back, raked in the royalties, and said, in punkish fashion, “so what if Cardle ruined our song? he’s bought us new houses”.

So that leaves Surfin’ Bird. Which actually probably is surreal enough, and fun enough, to have gained momentum sufficient to topple Cowell & Cardle. Except for the fact that Rage’s success last year means that everyone knows about Facebook campaigns now, and that has two consequences. Firstly, it means you get multiple campaigns emerging, and subsequent vote-splitting, lessening the impact of any single contender. Secondly, and most importantly, it means that no one sees this idea as being NEW anymore; raging against X Factor’s Christmas chart dominance is old hat, everyone did it last year, and this year we’re too busy making snow angels and listening to Take That.

Someone over at The Guardian suggests that next year we should get behind just one alternative to Cowell, possibly the magnificent Windowlicker by Aphex Twin. Having once stood and applauded after a lecturer played the video for Come To Daddy to prove a point about Althusser, I would probably wet myself if that actually happened. But there are going to be a billion different things trending between now and next Christmas, and in 12 months we’ll all have forgotten.

Or will we?

I’m putting it in my diary.

My Christmas albums

Just a little snow in Exeter today.

At 4am I fed the cats and it looked like there might have been an inch. By 8am, when I left the house, there was 6-12 inches covering the city. My two-mile trudge into campus was beautiful and eerie and surreal and fun all at once. I saw the above snowplow, plowing snow! I have never seen such a thing in my life before.

Anyway, onto what I was actually going to post.

Every year I buy what I have come to term my “Christmas album”. It is the last new CD I buy myself each year, and there are two caveats: it must be by an artist I have never bought music by before, and I must be bale to buy it in person in a record shop in Exeter. Simple.

This loose tradition began in 1995 when I bought Grand Prix by Teenage Fanclub on Christmas Eve 1995 in the now sadly defunct Solo Music. Every year, bar one notable exception, I have made a similar purchase; Wild Beasts last year, Death in Vegas in 1997, Deerhunter the other day. But I have never kept a note of what albums I chose.

So last night I sat down with NME’s albums of the year lists from 1995 onwards (you can see them all here, handily), as this was, for the first 6 or 7 years of the tradition, a big influencing factor in determining my choice.

Which was surprisingly difficult. But here’s what I think I may have chosen, each year for the last decade and a half.

1995 – Teenage Fanclub, Grand Prix
1996 – Sparklehorse, Vivadixiesubmarinetransmissionplot
1997 – Death in Vegas – Dead Elvis
1998 – Boards of Canada, Music has the Right to Children
1999 – ???
2000 – PJ Harvey, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea *
2001 – ???
2002 – ???
2003 – Patrick Wolf, Lycanthropy
2004 – Six.By Seven, 04 **
2005 – Matafix ***
2006 – Ghostface Killah, Fishscale ****
2007 – Voice of the Seven Woods
2008 – Family Guy DVD *****
2009 – Wild Beasts, Two Dancers
2010 – Deerhunter, Halcyon Digest

* Yes, I know it’s crazy, but this was my first PJ record.
** Not my first 6×7 record, and may not even be what I chose for this tradition; but I definitely got it around Xmas, and I’m damned if I can remember anything else.
*** This is the only choice I have ever returned. A last-minute panicked ILX recommendation. I wont even dignify it by looking up the title.
**** Not my first Ghostface record, so broke the rule here, if this is indeed what I chose; I can’t think of anything else from 2006 that I might have, though, and strongly recall buying this in HMV on Christmas Eve.
***** So weak and feeble was 2008 for music (see for yourself) that I reneged this year, and bought a DVD instead. Dark days.

I really can’t recall what I might have bought for 1999, 2001, and 2002. Any ideas?

Hidden (until now)

This is why I hate lists.

I knew about Hidden, the second album by These New Puritans, in February. I knew that it was ambitious, orchestral, experimental; that it tied post-punk to dubstep to English classical; that the singer was… an acquired taste. But something, somewhere, made me resist buying it. I’m not sure what.

Then, by internet happenstance, I found out that it was produced by Graham Sutton of Bark Psychosis, who I’m a massive fan of and who I interviewed, once upon a time, for Stylus. During that interview Graham explained that he didn’t always get turned on by the music he produced for other people, but that, like a gynecologist, that wasn’t an appropriate professional response anyway. The talk of dubstep and Elgar in relation to Hidden made me wonder if he might have enjoyed working on this particular album more than, say, the second Delays record though.

So I bought it, and listened to it, and sure enough, was wowed by the massive Japanese taiko drums, by the subtleties in the mix, by the space, the ambition, the redolence of late-period Talk Talk, even by some of the hooks. But I didn’t fall in love with it immediately.

Then it got made NME’s album of the year, and even though I wasn’t in love with Hidden, it struck me as very clearly being the most exciting choice by NME since they anointed Spiritualized’s Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space in 1997. Further kudos followed; no other polls were topped (that I’ve seen; and I’ve seen a lot), but it was getting plaudits left, right, and centre pretty much.

So I decided to pay it more attention.

And now I’m wishing I’d risked my £10 on a whim back in February, because Hidden actually is astonishing, front-to-back. Had I acquired it and given it the attention it deserved sooner, it would have been up with Caribou and Four Tet in my top ten for the year. A couple of internet music geek associates of mine are talking about it in terms of being the best album of the last few years. I need to give it more time. There’s a lot to explore.

Because Hidden takes in everything. It seems to combine MIA’s repetitious futurist polemic with the dark modernist classicism of Scott Walker’s fascinating, avant-garde The Drift; Talk Talk’s latter day soarings into new hinterlands of ambient/blues/classical/jazz/noise territory with Wire’s Escher-like side-step post-punk songwriting; it combines the hooks and physical punch of noughties digital dance music with the drama, delicacy, and dynamism of beatific, edge-of-chaos string and brass arrangements; it seems to do all this very well indeed. I put it on last night and slowly edged the volume up a little until it enveloped the house and freaked the cats out. Fire-Power’s combative electronic+percussive pummeling, seemingly clearly referencing MIA, suddenly switches into some kind of colliery band elegy.

Someone arrived at my blog the other day by googling “kanye west dark twisted fantasy compression”. I’ve been thinking about ‘remastering’ my old Imperfect Sound Forever article, and I suspect that Hidden has just given me the impetus to do so.