Monday, December 27, 2010

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

1 For a Minor Reflection – Höldum í átt að óreiðu

Hailing from Iceland it is inevitable that For a Minor Reflection will get compared to Sigur Rós. There are plenty of similarities – the beautiful quiet passages which build-up into a wonderful rush of melody and rhythm. Like a more melodic and approachable Mogwai, there are no vocals and this means that you get totally immersed in the music without any words to distract you.

The roaring and rumbling guitars are there, but often counterpointed by sparkling piano runs and strings to produce a remarkably mature and self-assured sound for a bunch of twenty-year-olds. The album opens on a far-off drone which gradually resolves itself into a whirling guitar riff and constantly crashing cymbals, fading back for a moment into a howl of feedback and then careering off back into all out guitar and cymbal overload. One of the best opening tracks I've heard for a long time.

They follow this up with the short, spare and surprisingly gentle Fjara with its beautiful piano base and cello over the top. Flóð then starts out deceptively quietly with some more piano and gentle guitar, later joined by the drums which drive it into more menacing terrain. It is like being caught in a violent storm on summers day.

Dansi Dans is whimsical and poppy in a very Icelandic leftfield way and it seems slightly out of place sandwiched between Flóð and the similarly powerful Andlega Veðurtepptir.

Tómarúm is another delicate piano interlude before we reach Sjáumst Í Virginíu which is the magnificent fourteen and half minute centrepiece of the album. Again it builds from a simple and sparse beginning into a flurry of guitars, drums and piano, before receding back again and then once more intensifying back towards the final crescendo. The music is constantly shifting, but gradually and imperceptibly: like watching the light fade on a landscape at the end of the day.

Next track Átta is what Sigur Rós would sound like if the were a punk band. A Moll returns to the earlier template of quiet start building to a raucous and glorious zenith. Finally he album closes with the almost pastoral Séð til Lands with what sounds like slide guitar over the squeaking of a cart wheel.

The only downside is that you'll probably be hearing all these songs on nature documentaries for the next few years, but at least you'll be able to tell everyone who the music is by, even if you can't tell them what any of the tracks are called.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

2 Darkstar – North

With its cover image of what looks like an abandoned steel works, you can only assume that the North of the title is the post-industrial wastelands of the north of England. Released on the hyperdub label – famous for Burial and other dubstep pioneers – it has less in common with their labelmates than it does with recent Radiohead and Low-era Bowie.

Composed on drum machines and synthesisers the music is chilly, stripped back and totally synthetic. The stark beats and basic melodies produce a haunting atmosphere and convey depth of emotion from the simplest-sounding elements. Oddly though I find this a wonderfully uplifting and beautiful listen – like agnostic hymns to a better future.

Top 10 albums of 2010

3 The National – High Violet
Some people may be surprised that this isn't higher up (me included, probably). Don't get me wrong, I love this album and think it is an amazing set of songs. It's just that there are two others which I think that I've loved even more this year.

First off, just so you know, I am going to try and not use the word masterpiece at all in this post. I have a feeling this album will turn out to be just that, but given how often that word is bandied about in reviews I am going to try and let history make that judgment.

Just like R.E.M. in 1989, they are at the peak of their powers and probably the best band in the world right now. The songs are beautifully crafted, but they still manage to keep the spontaneity and take risks with the songs. You can hear some of the bands processes in action, their quest for perfection at work in each small part of every song. No amount of work and effort will make a bad song good, but what The National do makes goods songs into brilliant ones.

The themes are similar to the ones that Springsteen deals with on Darkness on the Edge of Town – the responsibilities of adulthood and the compromises that they entail – but The National's protagonists are white-collar, internet-era, city-living thirty- and forty-somethings grappling with the demands of parenthood and working in offices. That may sound dull and worthy, but when Matt Berninger's wonderfully off-beat and allegorical lyrics are combined with music like this it is anything but.

It seems unfair to single out any particular songs because they are all wonderful (apart from maybe Lemonworld which grates slightly, but that may just be because it makes me think of U2 and their big lemon tour or whatever it was) and there is just too much good stuff to highlight it all. So let's just take one at random, something like the tucked away Conversation 16 with its menacing oboe (I think) riff and its refrain of 'I was afraid that I'd eat your brains ...' How could you not love it?

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

4 Phosphorescent – Here's To Taking It Easy
The Mermaid Parade is like a maritime version of Mardi Gras. Held on Coney Island every year on the Saturday nearest the beginning of Summer it is, according to the ever reliable Wikipedia, 'well-known for extraordinary marine costumes, and for the occasional partial nudity.' I had never heard of it until I read an article about Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson being the parade's King and Queen this year. It sounds like a blast.

About a week later I was listening to the iPod on shuffle and up popped a song which I didn't recognise, but it which was very definitely about the same event: 'Oh, but I didn't make it to the airport today / I wound up walking out by the ocean today / there were naked women dancing in the Mermaid Parade.' It was a beautifully yearning, melancholy waltz through the singer's calamitous love-life, which manages to  create a whole history from a few beguilingly sketched incidents. Straight away I was intrigued. The track was by a band called Phosphorescent, which it turned out was really just a front for solo artist Matthew Houck. I also discovered that I had another track off the album – the tongue-in-cheek (I presume) It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama), which I had listened to a couple of times and decided that I didn't like.

And that was almost that. Although I love The Mermaid Parade I presumed that it was a one-off and had pretty much decided that it wasn't worth investigating the rest of the album. How wrong can you be? It turns out that It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama) is the exception and the rest of the album is as spectacularly good as The Mermaid Parade.

Houck's voice is instantly recognisable, bruised, world-weary and able to convey a depth of emotion with the slightest intonation. The album title is apt, because the music is mostly easy-going, deep-south rock'n'roll. There are jaunty numbers like Heaven, Sitting Down and I Don't Care if There is Cursing and darker, country and gospel tinged tracks like Los Angeles and Hej, Me I'm Light but all of the songs have a timeless, effortless grace.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

5 Mogwai – Special Moves

'How're you doing? We're Mogwai from Glasgow, Scotland.
It's nice to be here.'

So starts eleven minutes forty-three seconds of the most glorious racket I guarantee you will hear for a long time. They sound so polite in the introduction: like a shy schoolboy chatting to his grandmother's best friend. Just you wait though. The build-up takes about five minutes during which they gradually get into a ferocious groove of drums and bass, with shards of guitar slashing and spinning over the top. Gradually fading back down again until you are left with the most delicate drum beat, a tiny throb of bass and the most exquisite wisps of guitar. About three and a half minutes later you are just adjusting the volume, so that you can catch all the subtleties, when everything explodes back into action destroying your speakers and necessitating a change of underwear. I can't count how many times I've listened to Mogwai Fear Satan, but it has caught me out every single bleeding time. And I still love it.

This is the fourth track into a recording made in Brooklyn (hence the Glasgow, Scotland) in April 2009. With some understated thank-yous they slip into a stunningly beautiful version of Cody, the only song with recognisable vocals in the whole concert, which feels a million times more exceptional because of the scouring and pummelling you've just been through. Imagine what the audience felt like ...

They build things up with the next three tracks, but not quite to the same levels as before, and then confound expectations with a surprisingly lovely version of 2 Rights Make 1 Wrong. The only other words from the stage – thanks for coming – and straight into the last two songs. Like Herod ends with a blizzard of feedback that makes you think it has to be the last song, but in fact resolves itself into a frantic and positively snappy Glasgow Megasnake which then ends as if lightning has just blown out the electrics. Special moves all right ...

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

6 Rose Elinor Dougall – Without Why
Eleven sparky, quirky pop songs. In a world of X Factor and sausage factory, manufactured pop music it is great to find an album like this can even still exist.

I don't know much about her previous existence as one-third of The Pipettes and came to the single Find Me Out with no real expectations. It is a lovely melancholy, string-driven tune and the way she sings 'my cerebral faculties overloaded' would charm the hardest heart. The rest of the album is mostly more up-tempo, but the lyrics are always intelligent and interesting and she has a gift for matching them with catchy tunes and an idiosyncratic range of instrumentation.

Occasionally it can get a bit polite and not spontaneous enough, but it is undoubtably a well crafted bunch of pop songs which makes you happier to have heard them. And sometimes that's enough, more than enough.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

7 Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
Arcade Fire's first album Funeral was, as the name suggests, mainly about death. But it wasn't about fear of dying, it was about dealing with the death of close friends and family and how the flipside of grief is joy at still being alive. It was also about childhood memories and the myths and legends that everyone creates and carries with them from this time.

Neon Bible was far more angry, raging about all the injustices in the world and much of it seems to be about the fears and paranoia of parenthood. I remember when it first came out, listening to it just after an apocalyptic Melbourne heat-wave which was full of bushfires, power cuts and the fury of the Australian landscape. Needless to say, it seemed to make perfect sense and I enjoyed it immensely at the time, but unsurprisingly it isn't really an album that I return to much. It is just too histrionic and off-kilter to be a satisfying and enjoyable listen.

Third album The Suburbs takes us back to childhood again, but this time it seems to be a very specific teenage period between about 13 or 14 and leaving home, unlike the stories on Funeral which come from an earlier and younger, more innocent time. It is beautifully done, looking back with a genuine, but clear sighted fondness for this phase in life, without being nostalgic. The balance between the music and the lyrics is perfect, and as a recreation of a specific time and place you would be hard pushed to come up with any better examples in any musical genre.

The two standout tracks for me, which have presumably already attained modern classic status – Half Life I and Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains) – are surprisingly reminiscent of my two favourite songs on FuneralWake Up and In the Backseat – appearing at similar points in the track listing and showcasing all the best facets of their craft. It would have been higher up in my list, but for the fact they try to cram too much in and consequently the quality control slips up and lets a couple of howlers like Rococo and Month of May through.

Anyway, no matter where you grew up (small town not the suburbs for me), it will bring back all those wonderful teenage memories and show how reassuringly universal the experience is.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

8 Efterklang – Magic Chairs
I have always had a soft spot for Scandinavian pop and rock. I believe it can be traced back to Abba's The Album in 1977, but over the years it has encompassed a variety of bands, styles and genres (almost everything apart from Norwegian death metal). Most recently it has been The Concretes, Hello Saferide, Sambassadeur, Casiokids, Slaraffenland, The Shout out Louds and now Efterklang. And that's without even counting all the Icelandic nut jobs.

Efterklang are Danish, but seem to sing mostly in English, and they make a wonderfully bizarre mix of post-rock, electronica and chamber pop (not sure if that is a real genre or possibly I just made it up). There are trumpets, strings, gentle ebbs and flows, and moments of whimsy, drama and urgency. A bit serious at times, but never overthought or emotionless. It is hard to find any other band to compare them to and I guess that is a major part of their charm. For Magic Chairs, their third album, they signed to 4AD which is probably the most helpful piece of information I can give to explain what they sound like.

The album starts with Modern Drift – rolling piano high notes, a bit of cello, the drums kick and then fade out. This repeats for a couple of times before everything locks into a lolloping groove, powered along by strings and a chugging trumpet. Alike is more restrained, but with a joyous refrain of 'and it made us feel alike,' which I always mis-hear as 'and it made us feel alive' and some wonderfully improbable wooo-oo-hoos. It's probably my favourite track on the album.

I was Playing Drums runs on a stuttering, sliding bass riff that underpins an eerie story about machines, monsters and faded polaroids. Then sliding into Raincoats and onwards through another seven tracks to end up with the easy going The Dream in Which I Flee it is an album of lush, stately, fascinating music that keeps revealing its treasures and surprises over many listens.

Song for Sunday

Circle Pit – Another Trick

Band/artist of the week: The Rural Alberta Advantage
Song of the week: Laura Marling – Rambling Man

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

9 Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

I know, I know: now we are a day behind and I will have to slot two entries into one day. Blame work and a more enjoyable Christmas party than expected ...

There seems to have been a lot of folk music around this year. Normally I wouldn't notice, especially from this far away in the antipodes, and would be unlikely to care. Mostly I react to folk music with an instinctive suspicion, but then actually quite enjoy a very small proportion of what I am reluctantly exposed to. Usually it just isn't noisy or tuneful enough for me, but every so often I find something or, in this case, someone that torpedos all those preconceptions.

Laura Marling seems to have suffered a bit of a backlash in a lot of the end-of-year best-ofs, mainly I suspect because people are embarrassed by how much they hyped her at the beginning of the year. The funny thing is that it is a brilliant album and outstanding by the standards of any genre. Her songwriting is fantastic and, more unexpected for me, the melody and arrangements are wonderful with piano, strings and full on rhythm section on some tracks.

The faintly sinister and foreboding Alpha Shallows ('the grey in this city is too much to bear and I believe we are meant to be seen and not to be understood ... and I want to be held by those arms') was my hook into the album, followed by the plaintive voice and soaring chorus on Rambling Man ('oh give me to the rambling man, let it always be known that I was who I am'), and on through the beautiful Goodbye England (Covered in Snow) into the enticing depths surrounding.

And the best bit? The louder you play it, the better it gets.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Top 10 albums of 2010

10 Bruce Springsteen – The Promise

A bunch of discarded songs from a 1978 album: how could this be one of the best albums of the year 32 years later? I did have to wrestle a bit with my principles before including this in the list – normally re-issues, best-ofs, live albums, etc. are discounted immediately. However, technically this is a new release studio album, albeit of material recorded so long ago that colour TV hadn't been invented (in Scotland anyway). But then I decided, it's my list and who's going to argue?

You may know some of the story, but I'm going to recount it again anyway. After Born to Run was released in 1975 Springsteen became embroiled in a dispute with his manager, which meant that he could write and record, but not release any new material. The dispute went on for three years and by the time it was resolved Springsteen had shifted a long way from the 26-year-old 'future of rock and roll' hailed after the release of Born to Run.

Darkness on the Edge of Town, the 10-track album he chose to release as its follow-up reflected this and, although it was critically acclaimed, in commercial terms it was bit of disaster. For many fans (myself included), though it is the high-point of Springsteen's career. The 10 songs have a strength and purity that would never be recaptured and it perfectly embodies his artistic vision. As Springsteen put it himself, it was 'a reckoning with the adult world.' It was 'rebellious adult music' that tussled with the realisation that 'life is no longer wide open. Adult life is a life of compromise. And there are some essential things you don't want to compromise. And it's working those things out. There's a part of life you can never compromise with, or you lose yourself.'

The recording sessions for Darkness were paradoxically once of the most creative periods of Springsteen's career and the songs just seemed to keep coming. Some of these unused tracks were given to other artists – Patti Smith got Because the Night, her biggest hit, and the Pointer Sisters got Fire – others were reused and repurposed by Springsteen himself and many of the melodies, lyrics and phrases here have turned up on The River and later albums.

Some of the songs just didn't fit with the mood on Darkness, some would have fitted perfectly. Many have since become live favourites and some achieved near mythical status, traded on bootlegs between die-hard fans. It is fascinating to get a chance to hear all these songs at last and to get an insight into how Darkness was put together, but what is most surprising is how well this works as an album on its own terms. There is a lot more variation in style and subject matter than you would expect from hearing what was released and this has been carefully considered in constructing a running order that means you forget the roots of these songs and get lost in the story that the album tells.

The one track that appears on both Darkness on the Edge of Town and The Promise is Racing in the Street. Possibly the quintessential Springsteen song of cars and girls and fading dreams it perfectly encapsulates the reckoning with the adult world and the battles between youthful freedoms and adult responsibilities that is such a feature many of Springsteen's songs. The version on The Promise is a slightly more bombastic and epic, the original version more weary and less certain, but no less devastating in its final reckoning:
Tonight my baby and me,
we're going to ride to the sea
and wash these sins off our hands
Tonight, tonight the highways bright,
out of our way mister you best keep,
because summer's here and the time is right
for racing in the street ...

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Best Albums of 2010: Not actually from 2010

Metric – Fantasies
I first heard the song Twilight Galaxy early last year and it was on a couple of playlists that I used to whittle down my favourite tunes of the year. It didn't make the final cut, being a bit downbeat and one-dimensional, but a few months ago I found the album in our local library (rock'n'roll!) and was sufficiently intrigued to pop it into the pile along with the kids books, Futurama comics and quilting titles. It turns out Twilight Galaxy isn't really that representative of the rest of the album which is mostly infectiously catchy, polished, indie-electro-pop with female vocals. A bit like MGMT fronted by a skinny Holly Valance i.e. quite hard to resist.

Phantogram – Eyelid Movies
Phantogram mine a similar seam to Metric, but come at it from a more leftfield, less polished, trip-hoppy direction. When I'm Small was on the stereo a lot last year and it did end up making it on to my 2009 best of, but for some reason I wasn't sure if the rest of the album would live up to its scratchy, languorous yearnings. Of course it doesn't, but even so it has plenty more tricks up its sleeve. From the slowed down dancefloor moves of Mouthful of Diamonds through the Portisheadesque As Far As I Can See to the gentle, piano fade out of 10,000 Claps it is an album that burrows into your brain and reveals new treasures on every listen.

The Rural Alberta Advantage – Hometowns
One of my favourite finds of 2010, The Rural Alberta Advantage are a trio who, as their name suggests, grew-up in rural Alberta. Hometowns would have been well up the list in my top 10 albums of the year if it wasn't disqualified on age. But by any measure it is a great album – the 12 tracks rip past in an unusually hasty 42 minutes, leaving you pining for more as it ends. The beautiful, cello-driven melancholia of Don't Haunt this Place first caught my attention, but pretty much every track is a gem. There are acoustic foot-stomping numbers, punky lo-fi like The Dethbridge in Lethbridge and lots of unfeasibly catchy stories of small hometowns, heartbreaks and getting out for the city.

We Were Promised Jetpacks – These Four Walls
Not sure why it took me so long to catch on to These Four Walls, but it was about two weeks too late for the 2009 best albums list. Which is a shame because it certainly would have aced it if I had been a little bit more on the ball. I don't know how they have managed it, but twenty-something years too late they have written the soundtrack to my teenage years. Obviously not the soundtrack I listened to at that time, but pretty much exactly what growing up in small town Scotland sounded like in my head. Joyous, scared, petrified, confused, uncertain, frustrated, hopeful: it is all there and it is pure genius (as I would probably have said at the time).

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Best albums of 2010: Just missed the top 10

Here we are again, almost the end of another year and time to rundown the best albums (in GoH's humble opinion) of 2010. But first! As a special bonus (and to heighten the already uncontrollable excitement) I thought it would be fun to start off today with some of the albums that just missed out on the top 10. Tomorrow we'll do my favourite albums that were actually released last year, but if I had heard them earlier would probably have made the 2009 list. And then once that's out of the way we can start on Thursday with number 10 on the list, counting down one a day after that to arrive at the number 1 album at precisely 2.55pm on Christmas Day. (Although the time zones will muck it all up, that is of course the time that Top of the Pops traditionally reveal their number 1 single of the year. Do they still do that? Does Top of the Pops still exist?)

So, anyway, in no particular order here are five albums that just missed out on the top 10 albums of 2010.

Malcolm Middleton – Long, Dark Night
Malcolm Middleton – Live in Zurich!
I have to admit these haven't actually arrived yet. I think Malcolm has been snowed in or too busy watching X Factor or something to send them. Anyway, thanks to the wonders of modern technology I have listened to them both on his bandcamp page and can confidently guarantee that this will be the best full-band and solo live album package released in 2010 by any 36-year-old Scottish bloke who used to be half of a critically acclaimed but under appreciated indie duo. Or as it says on the cover of Long, Dark Night, 'Scotland's second favourite arch-miserablist.'

If that intrigues you click one of the links above and have a listen. If you are quick and order your own copy before the 25th you might even get a Christmas card from the great man himself.

Venice is Sinking – Sand and Lines
Recorded live to two microphones over five days this sounds like a band out of time, some sort of AM transmission lost in the ether from anytime over the last forty years. There is a laid-back, deep-south feel that sounds like a stately afternoon wedding reception; full of faded glamour with a wistful longing for glory days long gone. In short it is beautiful and wonderfully affecting set of songs that transport you to a different place and era, and one which you may not want to leave.

The Morning Benders – Big Echo
In the tradition of hazy west-coast American surfer pop – full of sunny hooks, big choruses and a loping easy-going rhythm backbone. It's one of those joyous albums that you put on and immediately feel better about the world. There are some downbeat and melancholy tracks lurking towards the end, but they are lovely as well and provide to balance and anchor that stop it from floating away over the sea depicted in the sunny beach scene on the cover.

Manic Street Preachers – Postcards from a Young Man
An Everything Must Go to Journal for a Plague Lover's Holy Bible? It isn't surprising that everyone has made the comparison, but it isn't quite that simple. Everything Must Go had a desperate, cathartic, need to find an escape from the gravitational pull of Richey. Postcards from a Young Man is far more at ease with their history and, although this means that it doesn't have the dizzying highs of Everything Must Go, it does sound like a band having a lot of fun, oozing confidence and happy to be still writing and playing these songs. The politics and social commentary is all present and correct, but I have always found their moody Welsh Manics versus the world works so much better when it is combined with a belting chorus and soaring string section ...

Frightened Rabbit – Winter of Mixed Drinks
It is definitely a step forwards from Midnight Organ Fight – the tendency to schoolboy, yucky lyrics are toned down, the music is more sophisticated and there is a lot more happening in these songs. There are plenty of moments of pure beauty and joy, but mostly the tempo has dropped a notch and their new-found maturity has definitely meant the loss of some of their charm. When I do put it on, I remember how good it is, but not having standout tracks like a Fast Blood or a Heads Roll Off it probably doesn't get as many plays as it should. I am not doing a very good job of selling it, but have a listen to Nothing Like You, Living in Colour or the heart-wrenching Yes, I Would if you need convincing.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Song for Sunday

Darkstar – Gold

Band/artist of the week: For a Minor Reflection
Song of the week: For a Minor Reflection – Fjara

Child 44

A serial killer is on the loose in the 1950s Soviet Union, but the authorities don't want to know. Individual police forces pin the crimes on marginalised outsiders – the mentally ill, homosexuals – or cover them up as accidents and there is no coordination between different jurisdictions. By-the-book cop falls out of favour with his superiors and gets exiled from his privileged position in Moscow to the wastelands of a factory town hundreds of kilometres to the east. Unsurprisingly he is the only person to connect the murders and, fighting against the system, he manages to unravel the crimes and find the killer.

I am being a bit unfair: there are lots of interesting aspects to the story. For example, the way the police's function is to protect the interests of the state apparatus without any pretense of protecting its citizens and the problem of reconciling the existence of crime within in a theoretically just and equitable society.

Unfortunately, too much time has been spent thinking through the twists and turns of the story, and not enough time spent on the writing. The suffering and hardship (of which there is plenty ...) doesn't feel real and the awful events don't connect emotionally. It reads like he wrote it as the screenplay for a movie. The plot and the action is all there, but the characters are lacking in depth and personality, as if waiting for the actors to add this dimension to the story.

Sunday, December 5, 2010