Category Archives: Top 100 & Something Albums of the 00s

Embrace – Drawn From Memory / Out of Nothing (2000 / 2004)

embracegif“Bands, those funny little plans, that never turn out right.” So sang Mercury Rev’s Jonathan Donohue in 1998, presumably about his own relationship with his band, their problems over the years, and then their ascent to critical and crossover success at the close of a tumultuous decade. Danny from Embrace once said, of Deserter’s Songs, that he couldn’t work out if it was genius or not, but that he was obsessed with “Holes”, the song that lyric comes from. 15 years on, with the benefit of hindsight, it could very easily be about his own band.

In case you don’t know, I have a relationship with Embrace. I wrote about them in my fanzine back in 1997, and their reciprocation, and my affection for them and their music, soon made that fanzine predominantly about them. In 2000 I followed them around the country as they toured, partying backstage and getting my name on the guestlist. In 2001 I was ‘Nick Southall, Embrace fan’ on a Channel 4 documentary about the recording and release of their third album. In 2005 I wrote the sleevenotes to their b-sides compilation. In 2006 I was thanked in the sleeve of their fourth album, not for anything specific, just for being enthusiastic and helping out and emailing them a bootleg MP3 of a song they’d performed live but forgotten how to play in the studio.

In that documentary I described Drawn From Memory as “schizophrenically eclectic”, and it is, from the cartoon Technicolor of the sleeve to the kazoo solo on “Hooligan” to the spiralling riffs of “New Adam New Eve” and the crazy keyboards lashed across almost every track like Day-Glo graffiti.

For a band often maligned as Oasis-lite or lumped in with Coldplay and Snow Patrol there’s a hell of a lot of love for a hell of a lot of music evident in this record (and it’s accompanying b-sides, where many of my favourite songs by them lived); when you’ve listened as closely as I have, read the interviews, conducted the interviews, spoken with band members in depth about what they were listening to in the studio, then it seems obvious, but for some reason the press and public never quite seemed to give them the credit for the eclecticism that seemed so obvious to me. “The Love It Takes” takes moves and ideas from Frank Zappa and David Axelrod; “Hooligan” tried to tie up Jimi Hendrix to Delakota; “Yeah You” is aiming for Shudder To Think; “Save Me” wants to be Happy Mondays playing Sly & The Family Stone. There is a pair of b-sides, called “Brothers And Sisters” and “Come On And Smile”, which somehow crunch up “Gratitude” by Beastie Boys. “I Wouldn’t Wanna Happen To You” pitches itself at the same weightless pop territory as “The Only Living Boy In New York” by Simon & Garfunkel. There’s another b-side (“With The One Who Got Me Here”) which completely deconstructs its own sound-palette and ends up feeling like “Kangaroo” by Big Star as recreated with Pro Tools and a Casio. This album and its next of kin are all over the shop. Psychedelic, you could say.

Out of Nothing is a more straightforward, linear rock beast by far, but no other record has ever made me cry like it. Granted, I was in odd emotional territory for a bunch of reasons in 2004, but songs like “Keeping”, as much as I’ve barely listened to them in the last six or more years, would have me in floods of tears on a regular basis during my train commute that summer, it seemed. I recognise a little, after last year’s Olympics, that the sensation is partly one of seeing people who have struggled to follow their passion suddenly, emphatically knock it out of the park, so to speak. These days I have issues with the mixing, the sequencing, the choices that got left off (b-sides that ripped from Manitoba, Fugazi, “Thriller”, Eno), but the huge emotional resonance this record had at the time was extraordinary. I’ll never forget the comeback gig at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, which I watched mostly from the wings where I could see the crowd’s reaction as much as the band’s. I’ve never really experienced anything else quite like that euphoria.

I had expectations, and ambitions, and dreams, for Embrace when I was 18. I wanted them to somehow both conquer the world, and be the most exciting, innovative, expressive band there had ever been. That weight of unrealistic adolescent fantasy can never, ever be brought to life, not really. Embrace had plans, too. They wanted to be My Bloody Valentine with strings, Ride playing Curtis Mayfield songs, Al Green and Pixies and Otis Redding and Screamadelica and PJ Harvey and The Beach Boys. The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band on acid. Why wouldn’t you?

Wilco – Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (2002)

Yankee+Hotel+Foxtrot+wilcoI remember a conversation with a drama teacher called Chris in late 1996 about how Being There was meant to be the album of the year, which was about the first time I really registered Wilco’s existence. I’d glanced at reviews of Being There in Vox or Mojo or wherever, but I considered them to be magazines for people in their 30s (like my drama teacher) rather than teenagers like me, who were after Björk and Orbital and Aphex Twin and other mind-blowing, envelope-pushing future music. “”? wtf? Who cared?

Fast forward six years, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot arrived to a new kind of hype that I wasn’t just reading but actively partaking in – the online kind, of leaks and streams and P2P and webzines. I was just starting to write for Stylus, and feeling a need, a compulsion really, to keep up with what all my American colleagues and contemporaries were getting excited about.

I read the mythology behind Yankee Hotel Foxtrot’s creation with scepticism; record label refuses to release dangerously experimental, modernist LP by formerly classicist Americana songwriter who’s roped-in avant-garde Chicago experimental music luminary to oversee proceedings and add even more creative sonic fairy dust. Major record label subsidiary panics over how to market such a wilful album, and drops them, only for fans to protest and another subsidiary of the same major label, this one specialising in dangerously experimental, modernist music and, sometimes, jazz, to step in and release it after another six months of fevered whispers and illicit streams. The narrative seemed a little too convenient as a hype tool.

Even so, I was intrigued, and having bought, battled with, and almost really enjoyed Eureeka by Jim O’Rourke (the aforementioned experimental luminary) a couple of years previously, I took the plunge. The conversation with Chris the drama teacher didn’t cross my mind.

Actually listening to YHF started out like the wilfully experimental experience it was meant to be, the whirrs, buzzes, cracked percussion flurries, and deliberately obtuse lyrical vignettes of “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart” slowly unfurling over nearly seven minutes, clouds of static and weird, broken fragments of other songs floating through the coda. Four minutes in a rolling piano melody, which has been trying to establish itself for the entire duration so far, finally catches hold of itself, falls in step with the rhythm, and unravels beatifically, a song finally coalescing from disparate musical elements and revealing itself to be beautiful in the process. And then it dissolves in those clouds of static.

But after that, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot treads more prosaic ground. Or at least, it seems to; there are moments of strange, vatic emptiness between and even during songs, more clouds of static and radio interference that overwhelm the songs beneath them, but for the most part this record is the sound of a band playing melody-driven, country-tinged songs together, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums the main instruments even if other textures – organs, keyboards, unidentifiable analogue hums and blips – add space and colour. These decorations are just that; embellishments and garnish, rather than truly experimental foundations that the songs are built from. Apart from “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart”, that is.

Not that this is a problem, particularly, because the songs – even goofy numbers like “Heavy Metal Drummer” – are of pretty fantastic quality, especially the ruminative “Jesus, etc” and “Poor Places”. Why Reprise had a panic attack about releasing Yankee Hotel Foxtrot I cannot fathom; it’s no more experimental than The White Album, and songs like “Kamera” and “Pot Kettle Black” seem like pretty straightforward, radio-friendly alternative country to me, not a million miles away from the likes of REM.

The most remarkable, and possibly experimental, thing about Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is the way it’s mixed. Jeff Tweedy and Jay Bennett had allegedly recorded masses of additional instrumental layers and experimental detours, which Jim O’Rourke stripped back to expose the heart of the band and the record. In the face of early-00s rock maximalism and pop bombast, it’s the delicate, organic, richly textured subtlety of YHF that feels most radical. With hindsight, it was this record, and the similarly sonically rich and not-country-anymore Is A Woman by Lambchop, which subliminally kick-started my decade-and-then-some long fascination with how records sound, and investigation into why they don’t all sound as good as this.

Until the last couple of weeks, when I’ve been thinking of writing about it for this project, I’d not listened to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in a long, long time. In fact, after an initial flush of going through their back catalogue and then a brief, rewarding affair with YHF’s similarly gently experimental follow-up, A Ghost Is Born, I’d drifted far away from where Wilco headed after this record. The fabulous bookends of 2011’s The Whole Love, “Art of Almost” and “One Sunday Morning” won me back to some degree by exploring similar territory to YHF and the more experimental moments of AGIB, so I have to conclude that I like Wilco best, by far, when they’re playing at being wilfully experimental, even if they don’t ever really get close to dangerous. I saw Chris, my old drama teacher, outside one of my favourite record shops the other month. I don’t think he saw me.

Lift To Experience – The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads (2001)

liftjerusalemI was in Rise Records in Bristol the other day, and they have a £1 rack. Most of the stuff in there – all in presumably over-ordered multiple copies – was stuff I’d never heard of, but they also had a dozen copies of this. It’s a double CD, and it’s fabulous. I almost bought copies of it to hand out to strangers, but we had a Swans gig to go to. Come to think of it, Swans fans might like this record.

I met Josh T Pearson before ever hearing his music; in 2007 he supported 65daysofstatic, who I interviewed, and who insisted that I should meet him, so I did. He was genial and erudite, with a fabulous beard, and we talked a little about music, but mostly about the internet and the way people interact online. Inspired, I went out and bought The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads at the first opportunity; I’d heard of it beforehand, was vaguely aware of its legendary status, but didn’t know much about what it would sound like. My Bloody Valentine were mentioned, vaguely, and postrock, and a handful of other things which I liked well enough but not massively.

So what does it sound like? Like Kitchens of Distinction in a desert, possibly; that huge, “no one played keyboards” wash of guitars and star-scraping, epic melancholy and anxiety at the modern world transplanted from urban London to the middle of nowhere, the howls of marginalized sexuality replaced with howls of pained agnosticism or collapsing faith, or something in between the two.

It opens with thrashing chords and crashing drums and a bizarre, spoken-word vocal about how “the USA’s at the centre of Jerusalem”, delivered in an almost disinterested, detached mumble. Eventually, after a moment or two, the guitars start to spiral upwards like twisters, and Josh T Pearson ceases the mumbling and opens his vocal chords. Which are fulsome…

The song titles are designed to be read together, and form a strange, bible-esque stanza: “Just as was told / down came the angels / falling from cloud 9 / with crippled wings / waiting to hit / the ground so soft / these are the days / when we shall touch / down with the prophets / to guard and to guide you / into the storm”. It’s clearly deliberate, and though the record is long (11 tracks lasting 93 minutes over two discs), it feels designed to flow together; individual songs don’t clearly separate from each other, but rather segue through clouds of distortion and shimmering half-melodies.

“Ladies and gentlemen we are playing with one guitar” announces the sleeve; it’s mixed by Simon Raymonde and Robin Guthrie from Cocteau Twins, and shares a certain otherworldliness with that band. The cover and inner sleeve are some kind of late 90s / early 00s cheap design software abomination, but it doesn’t really matter, because the music is so rich and spacious and intense. Sometimes it collapses into near-silence for long periods; at others points it rages and squalls like elemental forces ravaging huge topographies. It’s not about melodies or hooks; it’s about seismic shifts that sweep you up and carry you away. Pearson’s lyrics tell strange, lucid-dream stories about a mystical America, painting impressions of railroads and desert towns and people struggling with religion and emotion and reality, embarking upon epic, poetic, biblical allegories and picaresque fantasy.

The Texas Jerusalem Crossroads isn’t an easy record to partake in; it doesn’t suit casual listening, commuting, cars, or being chopped-up into little bits and scattered across playlists, and as such it doesn’t come off the shelves and into the CD player all that often. But when it does… what a ride it is. It took Pearson a decade to follow up, with an album of strangulated, acoustic songs of love and lust gone bad. Singular.

Phoenix – Alphabetical (2004) / Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (2009)

phoenixWhen I reviewed Alphabetical for Stylus a decade ago (a decade!) I littered the piece with references to Guy Debord; Situationist, Marxist, and author of the revolutionary 60s text The Society of the Spectacle, which basically posits the idea that society is going to hell in a handbasket because authentic social life has been replaced with its own representation, because relationships between commodities have replaced relationships between people, because of “the decline of being into having, and having into merely appearing”. As a third year undergraduate studying postmodern theory and writing essays about online communications I found it scintillating, terrifying, and prescient.

13 years from first encountering them, and every day in every way I feel like Debord’s ideas are being born out more and more. God knows what he’d have made of the internet. Imagine how he’d react to Buzzfeed. It doesn’t matter what you are, or even what you do; it only matters what people think they see you do. Online, it doesn’t even matter that people see you do anything; they only need to come across the digital ripples in your wake.

Where the hell does a French indiepop band fit into this?

I’m not entirely sure. I like Phoenix, a lot, but they walk a tightrope and occasionally fall of it for various reasons. I love their pointillist arrangements and non-sequiturs, their breezy lightheadedness, machine-tooled precision, English-as-a-second-language sense of ‘otherness’, and hook-friendly, sophistipop approach to songwriting.

I don’t like Phoenix when they’re trying to be an indie band and chugging at guitars, when they mix and master their records aggressively and end up sounding dreadful. It’s Never Been Like That isn’t on this list because the opening track pumps the guitars out of the way like a Daft Punk record, and sounds dreadful for it, and the deliberately sloppy approach to the rest of the album really does not suit them. Bankrupt! almost certainly wont end up on the ‘noughteenies’ equivalent of this list because it rams all the synths into the red for no reason. United doesn’t get onto this list because it’s simply too inconsistent; two great singles, a lovely ballad, and various stylistic deviations which go nowhere fast.

Thankfully, though Alphabetical and Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix don’t exactly sound like Scott Walker records in terms of the pure sonics, they both deploy arrangements that seem to make the most of what they’re doing. If I was to try and assign a USP to Alphabetical to differentiate it from other Phoenix albums, I might say it’s their R&B album; it’s certainly the record where they seem most informed by early 00s hip hop and R&B sounds and techniques, and as such it’s loud but bearable like a Neptunes production; each element has oodles of space around it temporally, if not spacially.

As a result it sounds experimental in the same way as the first side of Low by Bowie does; i.e. that the songs are still ‘pop’ songs, built of hooks, catchy, singable, hummable, but they also sound like the result of experiments; asking “can we do this?” and seeing what comes out of the other end. The question asked may have been “can we run an indiepop song through a filter of R&B shapes, sounds, and precision”, and if it was, I’m glad. It’s got signifiers of delicacy and urgency, intimacy and encompassing reach, and it works amazingly well.

Likewise Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix keeps arrangements incredibly taut and hooks almost unbearably tightly packed. And what hooks; from the opening seconds it’s a barrage of blinking riffs and catchy choruses. If I was assigning USPs again, then it’s their *pop* record. Except that all their records are *pop*, of course.

Back to Debord: if there’s a nagging doubt about Phoenix it’s that they’re all surface, no feeling, as the Manic Street Preachers might put it. A whole bunch of signifiers and no signified. The short-sighted sonic approach to some of their records, despite their seeming perfectionism, weighs as evidence as far as I’m concerned. They work with fashion designers, marry moviemakers, literally sing in a language that isn’t their own, and (when it comes to drummers, at the least) bring in session musicians to do the actual work while they take the credit. But they’re so good to listen to, to sing along with mindlessly as you cruise down the sun-drenched highway. Debord would have a field day with them.

Bows – Cassidy (2001)

bows-cassidyLong Fin Killie are, to me at least, the great lost band of the 90s. Supple, subtle, and progressive, the Scottish post-rockers fired out three glorious records in three short years during the mid-90s, and then disintegrated. Bows was the next musical project embarked upon by their leader, Luke Sutherland, who sadly probably remains most famous for occasionally playing violin and guitar with Mogwai; his own bands are far more musically interesting to me. (He’s also written three novels, as if he didn’t have enough creative talent already.)

Where Long Fin Killie were a definite band in the classic four-piece mould – guitar, bass, drums, voice – even if what they did with those ingredients was well outside the spectrum of most guitar rock, Bows were something else; a loose collective, perhaps, an entity that people pass through and contribute to, Sutherland and friends experimenting and creating together, calling on whomever could help realise an idea best.

So Bows features singers Signe Høirup Wille-Jørgensen and Ruth Emond, former Long Fin Killie bassist Colin Greig, Duncan Brown (briefly of Stereolab), drummers Pete Flood and Howard Monk (from Billie Mahoney), and guitarist Debbie Smith (Curve, Echobelly, Snowpony) as well as Sutherland himself, who is credited as playing guitar, violin, 808, ‘Gizmo’, and ‘Machines’, whatever those last two mean.

The sound Bows make could be read, and dismissed, pretty easily as nothing more than post-trip-hop, with the shared, sensual sumptuous male-female vocals and dance-derived beats. But there’s an intense musicality and deep intelligence here, as there was with Long Fin Killie, which makes whatever it is they’re doing worth considerably more to my ears. The songs are impressionistic, eschewing easy choruses and obvious beats, instead favouring long builds and luxurious releases, swirling half-grooves that displace you and tease your senses.

“Cuban Welterweight Rumbles Hidden Hitmen” is nothing more than Signe’s voice and licks of Sutherland’s guitar, whilst “B Boy Blunt” takes a slew of DJ Shadow-esque beats and breathy, distracted vocals, and pulverises them beneath huge crunches of guitar. “Luftsang”, “Ali 4 Onassis” and “Man Fat” are luscious, brooding concoctions, with stabs of deep bass, waves of shimmering guitars, string loops and drums that could almost be jazz. “Wonderland” is almost a dub take on shoegaze, endlessly subdued rolls and shimmering horizons decorated with quasi-drum’n’bass fills.

I came to Bows through Cassidy after being obsessed with Long Fin Killie in the early 00s; like so many records I discovered at that time it was via fleeting mentions on I Love Music and follow-up research at AllMusic; I’d read up on things during quiet moments in the library during the morning, then rush into town and buy them during my lunchbreak, or download them in the evening if they were hard to find. I have little sense of what opinion is regarding Bows, or Cassidy in particular, in the outside world, and I don’t much care.

Cassidy is an incredibly indulgent, enveloping record. If some music is made for dancing, some for rioting, some for listening closely to and yet some more for singing along in the car with or doing the dishes to, then it’s quite possible that Bows made music for making love to. It certainly seems, like My Bloody Valentine, to capture a certain type of distracted sensuality. I don’t play it when I’m in the company of anybody but my wife.

The Strokes – Is This It (2001)

IsThisItIn the pub with Paul before seeing My Bloody Valentine the other week, we talked about how XTRMNTR felt like the moment when the 90s ended, and Paul, who’s younger than me by a few years, suggested that sometimes he thinks of Is This It, some 18 months later, as the moment when the 00s began. With hindsight and a semblance of objectivity, I can see what he means; their stylishly dishevelled take on late 70s NYC postpunk, all metronomic rhythms and choppy guitar riffs and insouciant vocals, certainly opened a door for a huge amount of stuff that followed, established trends and set precedents, setting a flavour for almost all ‘alternative’ ‘rock’ over the next ten years at least.

Is This It also, alongside Rudy Giuliani’s zero-tolerance clean-up of New York, and, ironically and painfully, Osama Bin Laden’s plane-hijacking acolytes, helped trigger a rebranding of the entire city of New York (and thus almost all Western alternative culture, or so it seems on some days), tidied the city up, gentrified previously dodgy areas, pushed the freaks and weirdos out and invited the vegan artisan soap makers and trust-fund hipsters in, everybody stylish, everybody well-funded, everybody beautiful, everybody with a brilliant, marketable idea. Possibly: I’ve only been to NYC once, for a few days, and we barely got out of Manhattan. I thought it was amazing. But the record shops weren’t quite what I’d hoped for.

I bought The Strokes’ debut single, The Modern Age EP, when it came out, because for a few years I was incredibly good at being there when important bands started; I’d made money buying debut 7”s by the likes of Doves and Coldplay in the 90s and selling them on for huge profits when debut albums raised their stock. The Strokes was probably the last time I did that with a new band. I liked The Modern Age, more than Coldplay’s debut but nowhere near as much as The Cedar EP, but it never, ever struck me as the future of anything; I had Television and Talking Heads and Velvet Underground albums, and this was just that all over again, but neutered, wasn’t it? A shamelessly self-absorbed pretty boy singer moaning about getting drunk and screwing up with women, cursing being a dick but not motivated enough to ever stop being a dick, because, you know, handsome rich dicks get away with being dicks because they’re handsome and rich. There was no sign of the actual future at any point, of anything new.

So when the album came out, tight and taut and incredibly short (11 songs done inside 36 and a half minutes), with its suggestive cover and its taunting, knowing title and platonic essence of cool logo, a ‘consultant’ credited in the liner notes, the band in tight trousers and scruffy little denim jackets, I shrugged a little, confessed that the slinky bassline of the opening track was delicious, that “Hard To Explain” and “Someday” and “Last Night” were brilliant, snotty, attitude-laden pop singles, and decided that, maybe, this was the time when I got off the bus a bit. By 2002 I’d taken myself online to find new music almost exclusively, given up on the British inky music press, and started writing myself because no one else was writing what I wanted, or so it seemed.

I have a crazy notion that the human race is on, or rather should be on, an upward-swinging bell-curve of evolution; that we’re journeying together through space to some peak moment of discovery and bliss. When I think about it logically and weigh up the evidence of child-abusing priests and money-obsessed politicians and sexism and racism and homophobia and everything else, I’m pretty certain that this is, in fact, not happening at all, and that we’ve barely evolved psychologically and emotionally and spiritually in tens of thousands of years. But it’s a nice fantasy to have, perhaps. As a result, the greatest music, in my mind, has to have some element of that discovery, of progress, of evolution, of progress and of beauty intrinsically embedded within it. All of those things are absent from The Strokes.

Impeccably tasteful, impeccably bored, impeccably attired, Is This It shirks meaning and responsibility (“Oh dear can’t you see? It’s them it’s not me”), wants nothing more than to get into your apartment and drink your booze and take off your clothes and fuck you, half-heartedly, and leave before morning. It’s the moment when I started to feel old, started to feel that the generation coming up weren’t going to take advantage of what had gone before and use it as a springboard to achieve greater things, but were just going to repeat the easiest, most shot-term, short-sighted bits of instant gratification that everyone else had been guilty of. Say what you like about the babyboomers of the 60s going on to become the establishment they’d once stood in opposition to; at least they’d had some sense that things needed to improve, to change, at some point, even if they went on to betray it, take everything and let the markets take over. This lot, The Strokes and their ilk, had nothing to betray because they didn’t care about anything except themselves. Maybe it’s the best way to be; maybe it’s the best way to succeed. But I suspect not. It depends how you define success.

Sometimes I listen to this record and I enjoy the fact that it’s just 11 great scuzzy pop songs. And sometimes I listen to this record and think it’s an ideological black hole, a vacuum, a vortex, an evil, dark, empty, hollow, selfish, greedy, solipsistic thing, the death of culture, and that it shouldn’t be allowed.

St. Vincent – Actor (2009)

stvincentactorIt starts with a moment of heavenly choir, which collapses into woodwind, a repetitive beat and layers of Annie Clark’s vocals, painting a black hole, warning a lover from a distance, until fat shards of buzzsawing electric guitar flit around the edges as the woodwind swirls, and then erupt into lashing, unholy noise. It’s thrilling and discordant and beautiful all at the same time. This is St. Vincent.

I’d managed to miss St. Vincent’s debut album, Marry Me, in 2007, amidst the tumult of great music that came out that year. So when I noticed Actor riding high at Metacritic, attracting plaudits left, right, and centre, I had little idea who she was. Being a man, and an idiot, I was hesitant about an unknown female singer-songwriter, especially as the reviews, though glowing, seemed unable to clue me in on exactly what was so good about her and this record. But come the summer I was too curious to hold out anymore, and I bought Actor completely unheard, with the thought that perhaps Emma would enjoy it. By winter, after dozens and dozens of plays by mutual consent, it had seeped its way into our brains and bodies so much that we both loved it unashamedly. For what it’s worth, I’d have anointed it as my favourite record of 2009, had I anointed any record with that dubious title.

Throughout the record Annie’s melodies are sweetly subtle and addictive, her arrangements forward thinking, intricate, and just a little bit threatening. Her songs are compelling and accessible, but ever so slightly, and brilliantly, warped. Lyrics are clearly intelligent and precise but often oblique; she writes about love and lust in faintly disconcerting ways, metaphors just a little too concerned with damage and dirt and loss and the thrill of delicious pain (“I’m a wife in watercolours / I can wash away / What seventeen cold showers / Couldn’t wash away”). “Marrow” runs through the geography of the body, squalls of digitised brass and almost unrecognisable guitar noise obliterating the topography, pulling apart yet another celestial chorale.

Had the sonic richness and oddness of Actor been conveyed better in those early reviews, I’d have bought it straight away; insistent, pulsing rhythms, slashing guitars, and lilting “ooohs” drive “Actor Out Of Work” and preface yet more buzzsawing guitar, the tension ramping up and up before it can’t be contained anymore, and it explodes briefly in filthy, compressed torrents. “Just The Same But Brand New” is swooning and dreamy, before huge pillars of percussion parade through the song’s final movement. But it’s not all jarring juxtapositions of sweetness and savagery; “The Bed” and “The Party” are delicate throughout, content to be beautiful without needing to be disruptive.

We saw St. Vincent live a couple of years later, in support of Actor’s follow-up, the jazzy, shifting, sophisticated Strange Mercy. In the flesh Annie Clark is striking, with enormous, luminescent eyes and pearl skin and jet black hair, but her guitar playing is far more notable than her appearance; her fingers barely seem to touch the strings yet summon forth torrents of notes and feedback and wired, wailing riffs and solos. I don’t know much about guitarists but to my ears she sounds like Robert Fripp, extravagant and exciting, virtuosic but not arrogantly so. Part Prince, part Black Flag, part Bowie, avoiding pigeonholes with consummate ease, Annie Clark is obviously, brilliantly talented, and her music is intriguing and compelling in equal measure.

LCD Soundsystem – Sound Of Silver (2007)

lcdsoundsystem_sound_of_silverIf any band defines or describes or embodies or typifies or captures the spirit or whatever of the 00s, for my particular transatlantic faux-hipster white-boy lower-middle-class web-savvy music geek demographic, then it’s LCD Soundsystem. From the moment I heard “Losing My Edge”, well over a decade ago now, with its litany of tongue-in-cheek, cooler-than-though boasts and name-drops, I was hooked; the references I got excited me and made me feel cool, and the references I didn’t made me want to go and listen to them.

Now that LCD has passed, dissipated into the ether, James Murphy’s schtick is even more patently obvious than it was at the outset: talent borrows; genius steals. His techniques may have been different, and the references he stole from slightly uncommon with, but, with LCD Soundsystem, he was essentially doing something very similar to early hip-hop; taking familiar, established pieces of music and putting his own stamp on them; it’s just that he used a band and a synthesizer to do it rather than a sampler.

So instead of sampling and looping James Brown or Buffalo Springfield or Incredible Bongo Band or Steely Dan or Curtis Mayfield or Sly & The Family Stone, he’s apeing Brian Eno’s vocals, copying Talking Heads, ripping off “Jamaica Running” by The Pool, nicking the chords and the drums from “Dear Prudence”, surfing on a song named after Daft Punk, stealing bits of Detroit techno, and heaven only knows what else. Someone once said of another band that “the original bits aren’t good, and the good bits aren’t original”; I vaguely suspect that with LCD Soundsystem, if you look hard enough, there aren’t any original bits. But that’s all good.

For those early singles and the eponymous debut album, being the coolest record collector and musical thief on the planet was enough. But there’s only so much mileage in being a name to drop, and with their second album, Murphy managed to inject a dose of emotional heft into LCD Soundsystem’s work; not too much that it became self-serious or uncool, but enough that their music was able to take the step-up from fashionable to genuinely rewarding.

Most of that emotional heft comes from a brace of tracks back-to-back at the centre of the album that deal with mortality and rebirth. But I’ll come back to them in a moment. Elsewhere it’s business as before, but just a little bit better. So “North American Scum” is a rocking dancefloor cry not unlike “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”, but just a little more raucous and fun, a little bit cleverer (“New York’s the greatest if you get someone to pay the rent” basically distilling Lena Dunham’s Girls into twelve words), while “Us V Them” finds a groove just a touch more sophisticated and compelling than anything on the debut, and “Get Innocuous!” is the most strutting, brilliant Bowie-meets-Talking-Heads-in-Detroit moment imaginable. The title track, meanwhile, is a semi-ludicrous but incredibly self-referential piece of meta-house, which seems to comment explicitly on the very emotional reactions that the rest of the record is inspiring in the listener. The whole album just sounds that little bit better than the debut, too, a little more natural space and room to breathe in the mastering, a little more physicality in the timbres of the instruments. It’s sonically delicious.

And then there are those two songs in the middle: the plangent acid pads of “Someone Great”, and the effervescently profound krautrock of “All My Friends”. The first ruminates on mortality, specifically the death of someone close, personal observations colouring a picture vividly but with essential narrative details left out, which, when combined with the (mostly) detached vocal delivery, allows the listener to project oneself deep into the song’s emotional core. If it matters, for a while I thought it was about the death of a child, but time and interviews and a little digging suggest it’s actually about the death of a therapist – which is perhaps why the narrator can’t talk about it with anyone else. Musically, a relentless synthetic hum and thump is juxtaposed with an incredibly delicate and simple glockenspiel melody working over the top, which creates an analogue safety space for the emotional narrative to play out in. It started life, crazily, as part of Murphy’s 45:33 composition for Nike; literally a running soundtrack. Wow.

“All My Friends” on the other hand is a skittish, febrile, accelerant trip through growing out of one’s youth, jitteringly repetitive piano chords and distracted high-hats and drum rolls backing observations about growing older, accepting responsibilities, one last big night out before stepping into middle age. Possibly. It’s a touching reminiscence, a greying hipster looking back at his irreclaimable youth and deciding against regret. One of my favourite things about music is the ability it has to instil in you a deep sense of nostalgia for emotions and situations you’ve never quite felt, and these two songs do that in spades.

Six years on, Sound Of Silver is still an amazing record. I don’t get it out all that often now, but that’s largely because I listened to it so much and identified with it so hard at the time that I’ve internalized it. Yes, of course, it’s a total homage to James Murphy’s favorite music, but the man has good taste and it’s a surprisingly, disarmingly moving homage that frequently eclipses its influences, both emotionally and physically.

Idlewild – 100 Broken Windows (2000)

idlewild-100-Broken-WindowsIt’s fair to say that I was pretty intense during my first year at university. And my second. But particularly that first year, which started with a 6-week bombardment of Marxist cultural theory designed, seemingly, to make anyone who thought they’d picked a ‘Mickey Mouse’ course drop out (and the drop out rate was massive). Those of us who ‘got it’ found it incredibly profound, swore allegiance against capitalism and never to take jobs in media sales (which felt like the only employability option open to us, other than teaching other people Marxist cultural theory).

I bought a Sony Minidisc Walkman for £250 within about a fortnight and discovered the computer room and internet access, reasoning that if I spent 15 evenings in there talking crap on the chatroom and listening to music and splurging my thoughts onto various music forums that I’d save maybe £20 each time by not going to the pub, and thus be better off. But I ended up drinking during the day instead, so that failed.

There were a lot of late night walks around campus and across the town, headphones on, soundtracked by Minidisc compilations. “You Just Have To be Who You Are” from Idlewild’s debut mini-album, Captain, pummelled me at insane, tinnitus volume on many of them, Roddy Woomble’s closing screams of “And what is important? / And nothing is important!” feeling like the most profound thing ever to a stranded 19-year-old, used to being a big fish in a small pond and now cast onto a huge desert.

Idlewild felt back then as if they’d learnt the same things as us, seen the truth we felt we were seeing, and exploded in incandescent rage, 1000-mile-an-hour songs desperate to spill semiotics and Althusser and Marshall McLuhan through Nirvana-shaped scar tissue. I think I’d read that they’d formed at university and quit their studies. Because, I assumed, they’d been made aware of a fissure into something pointless and true that society was conspiring to ignore. Or so it seemed to me. I listened to “Annihilate Now!” and “I Am A Message” and “A Film For The Future” and “When I Argue I See Shapes” and identified. I’d never been one for overtly heavy, aggressive music particularly, grunge hadn’t spoken to me at all, but this did. Roddy seemed to sing from those first steps into adulthood when you realise that actually, you don’t have a place set at the table, you don’t have a slot to fit in, and that’s precisely where I felt I was.

By 2000 I was, perhaps, a little calmer. Or at least intense in different directions. Idlewild’s second album, 100 Broken Windows, seemed similarly to have calmed a little, but not too much. More mature, but not too mature. They could still barely play, or so it seemed to me compared to the likes of Miles Davis, who I was discovering concurrently; Bob Fairfoull a faintly brutal, bludgeoning bassist, completely sans sophistication, but utterly right for what Idlewild’s music demanded, a determined, relentless momentum beneath the pseudo-profundity of Roddy’s layered vocals and Rod Jones’ lashing, buzzing, thrumming guitar. If Fairfoull had been a more sophisticated musician, Idlewild wouldn’t have worked. Later in their career, Fairfoull left, and was replaced by a more technically proficient musician, and I didn’t give a damn for Idlewild. We saw them live circa 2007, and left early, bored by over-long, duelling guitar solos wrought from listening to too many Neil Young albums. It was a very different experience to gigs circa 2000 or 2003, when Roddy would roll around the floor, screaming and hollering, invisible unless you were in the front row.

I don’t know what these songs are about particularly, with their references to Gertrude Stein and Hugh Miller and talk of maps and pageants and graves. All I know is that the nonsense repetition (“pretend it works a while / it’s transmitted live”) and lonesome violin coda of “Idea Track”, and the humming keyboard riff through “These Wooden Ideas”, and the urgent backing vocals of “Roseability”, and the plangent acceptance of “The Bronze Medal”, and the nostalgic, realist romance of “Let Me Sleep (Next To The Mirror)” seemed to mean a lot to me at the death of my adolescence. And when I put this record on again now, they still do.

Junior Boys – Last Exit (2004)

junior_boys_last_exitA lot of (seemingly intelligent) people said a lot of very, very crazy, hyperbolic, rabidly excitational things about Last Exit around its release in 2004. “Junior Boys have done no less than singlehandedly re-imagined a future for white pop,” started one review from an online music magazine (a very good online music magazine at that!). At the time I was a little bemused; I’d seen their name talked about in whispered reverence online for a few months as early EPs and singles crept out, remixes by the likes of Fennesz and Manitoba (now known as Caribou) who I loved and who seemed to turn everything to gold as far as my ears were concerned.

But when I actually listened to Junior Boys, with the expectation of great- nay, ASTONISHING things – nothing less than a future for white pop, perhaps – and I was left feeling shortchanged.

Because what I heard was… minimal to the point of vapidity, shy to the point of solipsism, so empty and desiccated and cold and uncommunicative that it seemed like the opposite of pop, rather than a reinvention thereof. Which isn’t to say that it was bad – it just wasn’t at all what I thought I was being sold by the discourse.

Many years on, I still find Junior Boys, and Last Exit in particular, much easier to theorise than to love, much easier to talk about than singalong with. There are some great, subdued melodies here, of that there is no doubt (“Birthday”, “High Come Down”), and some delicious grooves too (“Under The Sun”), plus enough moments of vatic beauty (the coda of “Teach Me How To Fight”) to stir the soul. But were there really tunes, hooks, choruses, actual pop thrills? You know, the things that would be necessary for a “re-imagined future” for “white pop”? I wasn’t sure.

A lot of people in those early days talked about how Junior Boys had interpolated ideas and rhythms from the likes of Timbaland, who I was obsessed with back then, and other r&b and mainstream pop, but I wasn’t hearing the necessary energy and communication of real pop in Last Exit. It didn’t push buttons in the same way as Sugababes or Justin Timberlake or Nelly Furtado or Missy Elliott or Aaliyah; it sounded like a ghost of pop music, as if someone admired the technique but didn’t quite love the feeling.

So I listened to Last Exit a dozen or more times, didn’t quite hear whatever it was that had so inspired a handful of people, and put it away. I bought their next album, So This Is Goodbye, a couple of years later, gave it a cursory listen, and then left them both on the shelf.

Last September, Tom played Last Exit at our record club, and I was intrigued all over again. He played it on vinyl, which, obviously I’m normally not keen on, but after being so used to MP3s and then a CD, the warmth and hum of vinyl, which usually feels like a veil over details and excitement to me, helped Last Exit make more sense to me, made it more human.

I’ve played it quite a few times since then, and I feel like its skeletal, atmospheric songs – which are less songs, really, than vignettes, a lot of the time – make more sense to me now, the way they avoid the obvious hook, the way such sparse arrangements and such unassuming (for want of a better word) vocals pack such emotional resonance into such seemingly clinical spaces.

Intriguingly, the second half of the record, which is largely absent of the influence of Johnny Dark, one half of the initial Junior Boys partnership with Jeremy Greenspan, is the half I like best; it’s arguably the more linear, obvious half, but we’re talking the politics of small differences here. Dark, who, as far as I can tell, was an unusual character, left halfway through recording and was replaced by Matt Didemus, who’d been the duo’s engineer. Didemus and Greenspan have continued as a duo, and made a handful of records since; all well received, but none fawned over or in receipt of such hyperbole as this. I like So This Is Goodbye well enough, and there are occasional remixes by and for the likes of Caribou which are always worth checking out, but I’m not in love with anything by them. Still, there’s something very special, and perhaps unique, about this record.