Thursday, December 31, 2009

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 1 - Wildbirds & Peacedrums - The Snake

"The Snake is a considerably darker album compared to the tender playfulness of their debut, and this smoky sultriness suits the music well. Just as the number of cuts on a diamond determine its brightness, Wildbirds & Peacedrums seem to have absorbed a huge range of musical resources-- from American primitive to jazz to Björkesque experimentalism and even Mongolian throat singing-- and mined them carefully before whittling down the essentials and fashioning 10 beautifully imaginative, contemplative songs.

The Snake comes alive through its imagery, which provides the life source for the instrumentation to be structured around. The opening track, "Island", recalls the journey of a solitary man who swims to Iceland under a canopy of rainbows, and on "Chain of Steel", Wallentin struggles to free herself from the emotional clutches of a female foe. All this deft wordplay makes for some fantastic lyrics, but the real magic lies in their execution. Wallentin hops and skips across her vocal landscape with full control and arresting finesse, demanding that you listen intently to her abstract storytelling. On a track such as "So Soft So Pink" she travels between vocal styles fluidly, from the aforementioned throat singing that blends in with the springy rasp of a Jew's harp before sliding in to soaring, ethereal melodies as she constantly alters her technique to enable the song to expand. It's barely six minutes long, but it feels epic. The way her soulful vocals maneuver across Werliin's percussive background recalls the dark beauty of Nina Simone's "Be My Husband" or Odetta's "Another Man Done Gone", which are all the more compelling for the warmth and passion that knot around the skeletal simplicity of the music. Werliin's sharpness and dexterity is the key to making this work: His rhythmic sophistication is the group's vital glue, and each member depends on the other to reach their full potential. As Wallentin sings on the final track, "My Heart", "I'm lost without your rhythm."

Despite their strong pop leanings, its not surprising that Wildbirds & Peacedrums were awarded Swedish Jazz Act of the Year in 2008. Their equipment may be largely restricted to percussion, vocals, and the occasional embellishment of keyboard, but their ability to fully eclipse these limitations and create music with a strong improvisational pulse and so much vitality is a no small feat, and proves that they are continuing to experiment in magnificent, dynamic ways."

- Mia Clarke, Pitchfork

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 2 - Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

"Two Suns is exactly the sort of music that evokes its own imagery and emotion by simply letting its aural landscape wander though a vacant ear...Take “Glass”. As Khan sings about a dream in which she’s made out of the stuff, it’s a track that wraps itself in darkness among its own sparsely ornate musical world of driving, tribal percussion, creeping synths and haunting vocals. Besides being one of the most evocative and powerful openers in recent memory, it’s perhaps the most fitting theme for an album that so thoroughly premised on its delicate and lavish mix of instrumentation and minimalism. Similarly, “Moon and Moon” chills with the frost of its own extraterrestrial namesake, it’s haunting piano lines draped delicately around Khan’s beautiful voice as choral ghosts creep their way in and around one of the most stunningly delicate songs on Two Suns’ lavish display. And just like everything to come, it’s where all the intricacies of Khan’s songwriting meet that allows Two Suns to shine at its most potent, letting the silences in between speak out in contrast to the drama of its own elaborate setup.

It’s an album that teeters on the edge of its own fractured, fickle, minimalism; threatening to collapse in on itself at any moment. In the hands of any lesser voice than Khan, all of Two Suns’ dramatic instrumental posturing may have well done just that. But with Khan’s voice acting as ether, it’s a complexity bound by the sound of a goddess at work. Yet even when tracks like “Glass” and “Moon and Moon” show off Khan at her most intimate, it’s when she’s at her most forceful that Two Suns leaps out from another ‘beautiful’ album to become a far more provocative and addicting listen. Duality be damned, lead single “Daniel” manages to break out of Two Suns’ light/dark dynamic to channel a sense of 80s synth-pop all the while cloaked within the mystery of Khan’s shadowy call for love. “Siren Song” also allows itself to gracefully slip in between her love of the delicate and commanding, with its climactic double-sweep being one of the most spellbinding and unnerving moments on all of Two Suns as she swoons with the sway of a storyteller behind a veil of strings: “it won't be long to erase your pain, and my broken heart to belong to your body, cause i'm evil, evil....”.

And perhaps more than anything it’s lyrical gems like that which make Two Suns such an absolute mine of wonder, as she sings about love: “I drove past true love once, in a dream, Like a house that caught fire, it burned and flamed” and loss: “When the fires came, the smell of cinders and rain perfumed almost everything, we laughed and laughed and laughed, and in the golden blue cryin' took me to the darkest place”. Its powerful stuff to go with an already powerful mix to work like an otherworldly charm. And for fans of the gothic Broadway musical, it’d be hard to go past the haunting brilliance of Khan’s duet with veteran the musical presence Scott Walker on closer “The Big Sleep”. Two Suns then is everything it could have been – a worthy follow up to Bat For Lashes’ Mercury nominated Fur & Gold… and so much more. Here and now, take a trip, you just may come out enchanted."

- Alex Silveri,

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 3 - A Sunny Day in Glasgow - Ashes Grammar

"The formula the band established with Scribble—that of textural ambience and the Daniels sisters’ dense vocal melodies over conventional rhythm—is here exploded with perfect production to match depth to breadth. The songs hum like electricity and thump like groundswells, surprising and shifting with innovative pacing and dynamics. But they also sound natural and unhurried, seamlessly patched. The sisters’ unidentifiable lyrics are no less engrossing for their incomprehensibility; the preempted mini-pastiche of each short song no less committed to the album’s overall aesthetic. That “Ashes Grammer” is divided from “Ashes Math” makes as much sense as their sum when combined. “Close Chorus” continues Scribble‘s tendency to not only approximate but maybe even improve upon Stereolab’s electro-lounge before to evolves—again, so naturally that it’s almost unnoticeable—into some of the best shoegazing pop to come out this year; and then “Shy” picks it up where “Close Chorus” ends. “Passionate Introverts (Dinosaurs)” shimmies and shivers with trembling ambient noise and melodic techno. And together it’s ineluctable truth: A Sunny Day in Glasgow are writing years ahead of where they should be for such a young band, forming gargantuan records of consistently enjoyable and inventive melodic rock."

- Conrad Amenta, Cokemachineglow

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 4 - Micachu - Jewellery

"Micachu, aka Mica Levi, is a classically trained composer and instrumentalist, but she revels in sounds that are anything but polite and restrained -- in fact, she goes out of her way to turn the most outlandish, seemingly "wrong" sounds into addictively, hyperactively catchy songs. For Jewellery, she teamed up with kindred spirit Matthew Herbert, and together they remind listeners how much more there can be to electronic pop than some lazy loops here and some copy-paste there.

Songs like "Vulture" and "Sweetheart" burn through ideas at a whiplash pace, picking up one sound for a few beats before tossing it aside for something shinier, or more accurately, noisier: the album is filled with distortion, be it crisp or cloudy, but it's used artfully; Jewellery's energy may be reckless, but its sounds are "detailed," as on "Lips," which uses a kiss as a percussion fill (clearly, Micachu brought out Herbert's most playful side). "Detailed" doesn't mean delicate, though -- nearly every element on Jewellery is brash and bold, from Levi's witty tough girl vocals to the buzzing bass that bounces through the album, which nods to Levi's fondness for U.K. garage (and is made all the more interesting when it's paired with a riff that recalls the Champs' "Tequila" on "Calculator").

Levi and the Shapes even flirt with more widely accessible pop on "Golden Phone," the album's most straightforward song, and "Just in Case," the band's interpretation of Neptunes-style pop production. These songs are so swift and dense that it's easy to feel overwhelmed at first, and Micachu and her crew don't slow down the mischief until Jewellery is almost done. "Turn Me Well" is as close as she gets to a ballad; even though it starts with the sound of a vacuum cleaner, the tempo is slower and the lyrics ("I was told desire had a sell by date/Well, it's rotted and altered but still remains") are surprisingly thoughtful. A wild funhouse of an album, Jewellery is more challenging and idea packed (not to mention more fun) than a lot of self-proclaimed experimental music."

- Heather Phares, AllMusicGuide

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 5 - Fever Ray - Fever Ray

"The lyrics fly by in a blur of disconnected images, in which childhood memories figure heavily, as does obsessive behaviour, and an attitude to domesticity that borders on the psychotic. "I'm very good with plants, when my friends were away, they let me keep the soil moist," she sings on When I Grow Up, in a voice that suggests anyone leaving her in charge of their greenery should be fully prepared to find her ripping the leaves off and eating the soil on their return.

The result doesn't resemble dance music so much as something from the weirder fringes of 80s pop. The dolorous chords and stately rhythms recall the Cure, circa Faith, the glacial pace makes you think of the Blue Nile. There are lots of the synthesised faux-ethnic sounds popular on Fairlight sampler-driven epics such as Peter Gabriel's fourth eponymous album or Kate Bush's The Dreaming: gamelan-like chimes, oriental motifs, talking-drum percussion. Anyone requiring evidence of Dreijer Andersson's unique talent is directed to Keep the Streets Empty For Me, on which she somehow manages to conjure up an eerie, becalmed atmosphere using synthesised pan pipes.

But it's not just the sound that invokes the lost hinterlands of 80s pop, it's Fever Ray's sense of daring and ambition. It's an album that makes the listener work; its melodic richness is slowly revealed, rather than immediate. Furthermore, Dreijer Andersson let slip that her inspirational sleeplessness was post-natal, which suddenly pushes Fever Ray into largely unexplored territory. Like domestic contentment, new parenthood sits badly with rock and pop music. It tends to be avoided as a topic, possibly because there's much empirical evidence that it brings out the mawkish and trite side of even the greatest artists: at the height of his genius, new fatherhood made Stevie Wonder burp out the wretched Isn't She Lovely? Certainly, it's hard to think of another artist who's nailed the weird package of awe and fear that comes as standard with a newborn baby quite as perfectly as Dreijer Andersson does here. "I live between concrete walls," she sings, her voice prematurely aged. "In my arms, she felt so warm.""

- Alexisis Petridis, The Guardian

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 6 - Japandroids - Post-Nothing

"'s easier to describe the physical rush of listening to Post-Nothing than it is to explain its power in musical terms. There's no gimmick that, laid out in qualitative terms, separates Japandroids neatly from either the better second-gen emo acts of the late '90s (Christie Front Drive, Hot Water Music, Get-Up Kids) or the cohort of no-frills noise-rockers that have recently come into critical acclaim (No Age, Wavves, Times New Viking). About the best I can venture is a suggestion that you blast the album from the opening track, "The Boys Are Leaving Town," and marvel at how the righteous noise of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth has been streamlined into a straight-ahead ode to adolescent yearning, then brace yourself for "Young Hearts," which shows the same fuzzy density fused to a propulsive shout-along that transcends its garage-rock production with arena-ready force. Japandroids like to rock with their ambitions scaled low and their hooks set toweringly high, all of it drowned in fuzzy riffs, stampeding drum fills, and some of the best off-key caterwauls to grace any recent punk release.

Though aesthetic simplicity is a huge part of Post-Nothing's appeal, it would be wrong to suggest that Japandroids is a one-trick act. Before the album taps out at the 35-minute mark, King and Prowse throw a few curveballs: "Heart Sweats" alternates a stunner of a chorus with funky, groove-driven verses (they don't even need a bassist to lock the rhythm down), while "Crazy/Forever" runs through an extended instrumental session that uses its freight-train chug to wash down the first half's keening vocals. Moves like this temper King's emoting with gritty, hard-rock swagger; Japandroids always keep their nervy, heart-on-sleeve earnestness in check, ably splitting the difference between the purely melodramatic and the irresistibly anthemic. "I Quit Girls" stretches a simple but eerily resonant lyrical refrain over a five-minute slow-burn—a sighing comedown after an album fraught with hedonistic jams.

Those set pieces aside, Japandroids sound surest when they don't try to be interesting. "Sovereignty" catches them at their best, with King and Prowse wailing over each other in a track whose inarticulate paeans to fuck-it-all immediacy perfectly encapsulate the urgency central to Post-Nothing's aesthetic. To cap off a tune about—what else?—driving around and singing along to the radio, King urges the listener to forget all his or her friends back home, then shouts, "It's raining in Vancouver/But I don't give a fuck/Because I'm far from home tonight!""

- Matthew Cole, Slant Magazine

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 7 - Bibio - Ambivalence Avenue

"The title track weaves bouncing vocals through crisp guitar licks and bouncy flutes; "All the Flowers" is a fey folk gem; the dreamy "Haikuesque (When She Laughs)" is better indie-rock than many indie-rockers are making these days. Summery anthem "Lovers' Carvings" coasts on crunchy, gleaming riffs and upbeat woodblocks, and the autumnal "The Palm of Your Wave" is simply haunting. It's hard to believe that these inspired, moving vocal performances are coming from the same guy who recorded moaning ambiguities like "Mr. & Mrs. Compost". Occasionally, you'll hear a little tremble in the strings and go, "Oh right, this is Bibio," but mostly, detuned atmosphere has been replaced by silky drive.

While these songs are a quantum leap for Bibio, they still reasonably project from the foundation he's laid. But there's no accounting for the remainder of the album, which finds him paddling the uncharted waters of hip-hop, techno, and points outlying. "Jealous of Roses" sets lustrous funk riffs dancing between the stereo channels as Bibio belts out a surprisingly effective Sly-Stone-in-falsetto impersonation. "Fire Ant" spikes the loping soul of J Dilla with the stroboscopic vocal morsels of the Field; "Sugarette" wheezes and fumes like a Flying Lotus contraption. The music feels both spontaneous and precise, winding in complex syncopation around the one-beat, with subtle filter and tempo tweaks, and careful juxtapositions of texture (see the arid, throttled voices scraping against the sopping-wet chimes of "S'vive"). Many songs taper off into ambient passages that have actual gravity, gluing the far-flung genres together. It's the kind of seamless variety, heady but visceral, that few electronic musicians who aren't Four Tet have achieved."

- Brian Howe, Pitchfork

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 8 - YACHT - See Mystery Lights

"The songs on See Mystery Lights-- from the bouncy, burbling you-can't-take-it-with-you screed "The Afterlife" (which plays like a less spastic companion piece to the Mae Shi's "Run to Your Grave") to the roller rink-ready vocoder vocals of "I'm In Love With a Ripper"-- represent YACHT at their most poppy. It's a collection of stone jams that finds the band finally as hellbent on experimenting and expanding the boundaries of its sonic scope as it is on having fun. Built on electronic foundations-- laser effects, skittering computerized beats, and spacey synth lines (or guitar riffs that have been tuned or distorted to sound like synths)-- these new songs are giddy with creative freedom while remaining tethered in service of their melodies. The vocal melodies are bright and buoyant, but delivered (by either band member, or in unison) in a chanted, oftentimes detached monotone that plays up the repetitive lyrics' mantra-like feel and adds a welcome undercurrent of slacker cool to their otherwise sugary optimism.

...while YACHT clearly share influences with (James) Murphy's gang (Eno, Ferry, Neu!, ESG, etc.), their positive, futuristic jams actually sound most closely related to Tom Tom Club. Perhaps that's because, like Tom Tom Club's first self-titled album, which was recorded in Barbados, See Mystery Lights was recorded in a sunny, faraway locale-- in this case, far from the band's native rainy Portland, Oregon, in Marfa, Texas. The vibe of the album is relaxed and sun-soaked-- especially "Psychic City (Voodoo City)", which features an elastic groove built on a dubby, reggae-ish keyboard melody inspired by the bassline of Althea and Donna's "Uptown Top Ranking"."

- Rebecca Raber, Pitchfork

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 9 - Worriedaboutsatan - Arrivals

"It retains post-rock's long stride while jettisoning its typical palette, blending it with a variety of moods-- dub's spaciousness, trip-hop's sullenness, ambient music's austerity, and minimal techno's grid-based pitter-patter, all seamlessly rolled together in alert modulations of intensity.

The bass on this album is so distant and ruminative that it seems partially submerged, like the back of an immense sea-creature rhythmically slipping above and below the waves. The percussion is manicured yet spritzy, with the baroque cadences of spitting rain. Periodic vocal samples are hung about in hazy washes, making it sound a bit like Burial for English-Lit majors. The structures are crescendo-based, but arrive by such creeping degrees that we're never jarred, only soothed, lulled.

This is consummate mood-music that glints with striking details. There's the high, held tone cycling through the nocturnal drive of "I Am a Crooked Man", with its nearly visual wobble. There's the telegraphic progression of "Pissing About", a stable axis in a prismatic blur of texture and rhythm. There's the strangulated glitch-melody of "History Is Made at Night", seeming always on the verge of breaking into lush glissando. Who needs guitars when you've got string-like themes scudding majestically above rippling sonar blips, scratchy-record percussion giving form to rushing waters and howling winds?"

- Brian Howe, Pitchfork

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 10 - Telepathe - Dance Mother

"'s doubtful anyone could have anticipated anything as wonderfully poppy and accessible as the material on Telepathe's sublime debut Dance Mother, especially for those who were already familiar with the girls in their earlier incarnation as purveyors of the dark and dense drone sounds that dominated their Farewell Forest release. Of course, with TV on the Radio's Dave Sitek on board as producer, this isn't pop as we know it, rather it's an avant-garde distillation, twisted and transformed into something genuinely exciting and pleasantly challenging but which thankfully never veers into the impenetrable.

Fans may already be familiar with the slow-build codeine balladry of "I Can't Stand It," and the endearingly naïve future-funk of "Chrome's on It," both slightly spruced up here, but with their new material the girls have unexpectedly managed to trump those songs that already garnered them so much attention, coming up with songs that possess the kind of expansive thoughtfulness that eludes so much of the dance genre: "The Devils Trident" builds on a mystifying incantation of intriguingly obtuse stream-of-conscious words and crescendos, with the girls' united voices seemingly rising as if to battle the brass that unobtrusively elevates the song into a thing of transcendental wonder; "Lights Go Down" is a tense, skittering gem that rides on an arching synth line possessed of a strangely regal malevolence; while "So Fine," with it's propulsive electro beat, swooning vocals, and devastatingly simple melody, should become one of the year's defining songs."

- Robin Carolan, Slant Magazine

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 11 - Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion

"Influenced by dub and hip-hop, the album adopts deeper bass than before, wrapping each minute in synth washes and electronic bleeps. It exudes fullness — of ideas, of sounds, of emotions — that, like the emotions they’re dealing with, can be occasionally exhausting, as if restraint had been tossed out the window after Feels. Still, it’s quite remarkable that the emphasis on loops, samples, and electronics can convey such primal ecstasy, further dissolving the constructed wall between electronic music and "authenticity" (in this day and age all recorded music is electronic music).

...While Avey Tare’s songs have usually stood out on Animal Collective albums, Panda Bear’s tracks are the most indelible this time: "My Girls" and "Brothersport" are already fan favorites, while "Guys Eyes" and "Daily Routine" give the album much needed variety. Panda continues his emphasis on lyrical and structural repetition, singing about being a father and, on "Brothersport," a brother. On this track, he consoles his brother over their father’s death: "You’ve got to open up your throat/ Support your brother." I get chills every time the band harmonizes "Matt!!" Meanwhile, Avey emphasizes more conventional pop, slightly taming his melodic flexibility and reigning in his structural explorations. He’s at his best on the more moody tracks, like album opener "In the Flowers" and penultimate track "No More Runnin’," singing "On back porches with the torch of a firefly lit tree/ It’s what I hope for."

Change has always been a topic of contention for critics; bands are faulted for both shifting styles and retaining the same one. Animal Collective aren’t necessarily growing toward anything in particular; they’re just growing, with their aesthetic changing, dynamically and organically, alongside their mindsets. It wasn’t that long ago we were calling them ‘noise rock’ and ‘psych folk.’ Yet no matter what mode they’re in, the band members amazingly channel the same infectious energy, even when their lives are being shaped by family rather than aesthetics. Indeed, family hasn’t become a reason for Animal Collective to stop doing "art"; family is their art. And on Merriweather, their art reminds us that immersion in Western tropes need not be met with scorn, that not all of its idioms have yet been exhausted, that embracing optimism and melody can still be so relevant — and it aches in the most soulful of ways."

- Mr P, Tiny Mix Tapes

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 12 - The Horrors - Primary Colours

"Numerous bands have staged unlikely comebacks and taken surprising changes of direction over the years, but The Horrors seemed dead and buried by the end of 2007. The contrast between Strange House and their startling comeback single, “Sea Within a Sea,” is comparable to My Bloody Valentine’s shift between the buzzsaw pop of “Strawberry Wine” in 1987 and the following year’s “You Made Me Realise.” Somehow, at the precise moment when the odds stacked against them seemed insurmountable, The Horrors dug deep, broadened their scope of influences, and produced this remarkable album.

Like their debut, those influences are still keenly felt, although they do a much better job of transcending them on Primary Colours. If the band members were held under the considerable sway of the Nuggets boxed sets during their formative years, they’ve now replaced those with a clutch of shoegaze and krautrock records. Guitarist Joshua Third demonstrates his affinity for Kevin Shields’ “glide” guitar style as opening track “Mirror’s Image” unfolds, and he often returns to it throughout the album.

Third really takes that sound and makes it his own on one of the strongest songs in this set, “Scarlet Fields.” The track is initially reminiscent of the creepily quiet early Cure records, only with great surges of heavily trebled noise puncturing the silence, with Third delivering short bursts of backward guitar as singer Faris Badwan supplies a perfect baritone drawl. It’s not just the guitar noise that ties Primary Colours to the shoegaze movement, it’s the overall sound. Like Ride or Slowdive, The Horrors produce a wash of sound, in which Badwan’s vocals are no more or less important than the other instrumentation."

- Andrew Winistorfer, Prefix Magazine

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 13 - Passion Pit - Manners

"You can dig below the sweet falsetto of vocalist/songwriter Michael Angelakos, the rollicking and joyful tunes, and the glittering, shiny surfaces that the group and producer Chris Zane painstakingly create and absorb the insights and feelings of Angelakos' words or not, because the record is satisfying either way -- especially if a record that combines Animal Collective's twee-est moments, Mercury Rev's most cotton-candied jams, the paisley-fied soul of Prince, and the synth pop hookiness of New Order sounds like a good idea to you. As if that weren't enough, they also bring '80s funk influences on the super catchy "Little Secrets" and a slick and pleasing '80s pop sound on a track like "To Kingdom Come" (which would have sounded perfect wedged between Peter Gabriel and INXS on a modern rock radio playlist back in 1986), and made sure to include the song from the previous EP that made people take notice of the band in the first place, the otherworldly "Sleepyhead." Add lots of glitch-pop sound manipulation for a modern sheen, live drums for a human heartbeat under all the Technicolor wall of sound, and a children's choir on a couple songs for extra innocence, and you have a record that could have been a total clustercrash of influences and sounds that ended up sounding hollow and pointless. Instead, thanks to the meticulous production values, the insane catchiness of the hooks, and the pure and true emotional underpinnings below all the gloss, the album is a total success of both sound and vision."

- Tim Sendra, AllMusicGuide

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 14 - Future Of The Left - Travels With Myself and Another

"While there are plenty of songs that uphold the traditions of FOTL's previous incarnation and Curses -- "I Am Civil Service" and "Land of My Formers"' self-aware studies in isolation and violence are still too impassioned, too heavy to be merely acerbic, and Andy Falkous still channels irony and fury through his clipped vocals and raspy screams -- the band's jagged din sounds fuller and more muscular (if a shade less frenetic) than before. They spend just as much time expanding their music as they do underscoring its strengths: "The Hope That House Built" puts their fondness for slogans for lost causes and failed ideals to a bracing oompah beat and a layered coda; "Yin/Post-Yin"'s keyboard stabs and bouncy guitar reveal a more overtly playful side to Future of the Left than Mclusky ever showed. The band's sardonic storytelling is also at a peak, especially on "Throwing Bricks at Trains," the tale of two military officers who might be Wild West terrorists (and opens with the attention-getting line "Slight! Bowel movements!")."

- Heather Phares, AllMusicGuide

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 15 - Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca

"Bitte doesn't actually switch up the Rise Above formula that much: Intricate (if roomier) full-band arrangements abound, Longstreth largely sticks with his clear King Sunny Ade-meets-Jimmy Page guitar acrobatics, and he's still singing his strange, loping songs with that voice. But it whittles down the jarring time signatures and off-kilter arrangements and vocal bleats (er, for the most part) to create a triumphant art-pop record destined to please longtime fans and win him a whole slew of new ones. The key is that, rather surprisingly, Bitte Orca is one of the more purely enjoyable indie-rock records in an awfully long time; remarkable by any means, but even moreso considering the source. It's breezy without a hint of slightness, tuneful but with its fair share of tumult, concise and inventive and replayable and plain old fun. It is the sound of Longstreth the composer and Longstreth the pop songwriter finally settling on a few things together after years of tug-of-war between the two.

...Songs run the gamut from Zeppelin III-style swirl (sorta-title-track "Useful Chamber") to delicate balladry ("Two Doves", a dead ringer for Nico's cover of Jackson Browne's "These Days" and no less gorgeous for it) to R&B bob-and-weave ("Stillness Is the Move", which owes a great debt to the dearly departed Aaliyah-Timbaland braintrust) to adult-contemporary pop (no shots, "No Intention"). Apart from the ultimately transitional whoosh of the brief "The Bride", the run from "Cannibal Resource" to "No Intention" is as solid and variegated a display of songwriting acumen and instrumental virtuosity as any you'll hear this year. But it sure doesn't feel as heavy as that sentence might have you believe."

- Paul Thompson, Pitchfork

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 16 - Florence & The Machine - Lungs

"When Welch restrains herself a little, or manages to write a tune sturdy enough to support those lungs, the results can be electrifying. "Dog Days Are Over" sounds just as exciting as it did last summer, with its storm-blown unpredictability, while her debut single, the rudimentary garage rock of "Kiss With A Fist", is as powerful, direct and troubling as its title.

Other stand-outs include the dance-inflected, surging "Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up)", the fantastically titled "Hurricane Drunk" and the growling melodrama of "Girl With One Eye". This last song also showcases another of Welch's most obvious talents, her ability to write lyrical images that cling to your mind like dirt."

- Jaime Gill, Dot Music

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 17 - Martyn - Great Lengths

"'s two tracks that leap out on first listen: "Right?!Star" and "These Words." This duo, both appearing in the album's first half, are the ones receiving repeat canings from dubstep DJs, and rightly so: They're both not only catchy, but also warm and uplifting as well. "Right!?"Star" is anchored by an enormous bassline that feels like it was made out of 800-fill goose down. "These Words" steps harder, and is combined with D-Bridge's extraordinary vocal, which tells a rueful story of love and loss in the album's most delicate moment.

...But Great Lengths provides more than that: It's a complex, organic and compelling alternate world. It has preserved the sheer joy taken by the most reduced dubstep, and combined it with the ephemeral pleasure of house. In a climate dominated by competent singles that are rightly forgotten soon after their release, Great Lengths is an album that expands in stature with every listen."

- Colin Shields,

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 18 - Real Estate - Real Estate

"...while the Jersey Shore has clearly become the beating heart of their current aesthetic, Real Estate captures a rock band several lengths ahead of the fuzzy beach bums with which they pine. Real Estate share tones with North Jersey indie rock titans Yo La Tengo and the Feelies, pouring those influences through warm impressions of oldies radio. Riffs are cyclical and massaged, harmonies familiar. Each song is dunked in reverb and delay, though always with serious restraint. Most importantly, all boast architecture that still allows for swaths of jamming, the feeling that every measure's unfolding as easily as life ought to.

"Atlantic City" is a fitting entrance point, an instrumental that lopes along on a humid bass line before Courtney and Mondanile (the mind behind the cassette adventures of Ducktails) begin gently braiding together strands of trebly surf guitar over Mexican güiro. Single "Beach Comber" keeps things light as Courtney looks for meaning in the sand while Mondanile pokes around with his Strat. The bedrock here (see "Fake Blues") is almost krautrock-y in the way each layer repeats itself, a bent that might prove too drowsy for some. But as is the case for much of the experience, Mondanile adds classic rock sugars throughout, taking off on a solo at the three-minute mark that unbuttons everything really gracefully."

- David Bevan, Pitchfork

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 19 - Manic Street Preachers - Journal for Plague Lovers

"The most obvious echoes of The Holy Bible lie in the feral lunge of "Peeled Apples", the murky swamp of "She Bathed Herself In A Bath Of Bleach" and the splenetic, kinetic "Marlon J.D.", as metallic and abrasive as the edge of a rusty razor blade. But some of the softer songs pack just as much gut punching impact: just hear the chiming, childlike refrain of "Jackie Collins Existential Question Time" or the aching vulnerability of "This Joke Sport, Severed". This record knows as much about sadness as it does about fury.

Inevitably, much attention will be paid to Edwards' rescued lyrics, which showcase both his formidably eclectic intellect (the searing "All Is Vanity") and his weakness for slogan-happy showboating ("Pretension/Repulsion", as ungainly and blustery as its title, and with music to match.) But the most moving moments are when the music resonates in perfect sympathy with Richey's worldview, as on "William's Last Words", where the awkward sentimentality of the lyric and the even more awkward Nicky Wire vocal somehow create something both beautiful and truly, truly heartbreaking.

A record as sincere, complex and emotionally loaded as "Journal For Plague Lovers" probably warrants lengthy polemics and dissertations as much as the snapshot of a pop review. Well, they will come along soon enough: for now just know that this is something unique, often flawed and often flooring, and as fine and fitting a memorial for its lyricist as could be imagined."

- Jaime Gill,

Albums of the Year, 2009 : 20 - Alec Ounsworth - Mo Beauty

" anyone who has been there can attest, New Orleans is not really the best place to be sad. It is a better place to rage, either like a Mardi Gras amateur stripper or a seersuckered epicurean with whiskey and meunière sauce stains trailing down the front of his shirt. Ounsworth falls into the latter category of partygoing on the darkly propulsive rockers like "Modern Girl (...With Scissors)," "Bones in the Grave," "That Is Not My Home (After Breugel)," and "Me and You, Watson." The moment in "Modern Girl" where Ounsworth lingers over the lyric "All this useless beauty" with his characteristic wail before making way for a smoky saxophone solo is emblematic of the record's strengths. Or take the nourish "Bones," in which the singer narrates a grotesque tale while riding a snaky guitar line provided by Berlin. Here and elsewhere Ounsworth incorporates New Orleans's unique energy into his own vision, a kind of sweet spot at the intersection of Dylanesque folk-rock, 1970s funk, and classic indie-rock."

- Wilson McBee, Slant Magazine

2009 : Singles* of the Year

No particular order, although Dirty Projectors take first prize.

Dirty Projectors - 'Stillness is the Move'

Burial & Four Tet - 'Moth'

HEALTH - 'Before Tigers' (CFCF remix)

Times New Viking - 'No Time, No Hope'

Joker - 'Digidesign'

Yo La Tengo - 'Gentle Hour'

Beach House - 'Norway'

Darkstar - 'Aidy's Girl's a Computer'

Zomby - 'Tarantula'

Animal Collective - 'What Would I Want? Sky'

HEALTH - 'Die Slow'

Lil Wayne and Grizzly Bear - '2 Weeks 'til Prom'

Toro Y Moi - 'Blessa'

Riceboy Sleeps - 'Happiness'

Here We Go Magic - 'Tunnelvision'

Ganglians - 'Blood on the Sand'

Martyn & D-Bridge - 'These Words'

Small Black - Despicable Dogs'

Lovvers - '100 Flowers'

Tune-Yards - 'Hatari'

Wildbirds & Peacedrums - 'My Heart'

Ratface - 'Fruit an Veg'

* obviously, the word 'singles' is pretty irrelevant these days so far as its original meaning goes, but the intention has been to avoid including album tracks that haven't been 'released' individually.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Irish Albums of the Decade: 1 - Ash - Free All Angels (2001)

When Ash followed up their wildly successful debut 1977 with the dreary dirges and second-rate Stooges imitations of Nu-Clear Sounds, many feared that the young Downpatrick band had burned out too soon. Main songwriter Tim Wheeler went to ground for a while as he tried to get back in touch with his inner mojo, and the band brought it all back home by deciding to write and record in the same garage where they had made their first steps.

The result was the triumphant Free All Angels, which recaptured the wide-eyed punk-pop vibe (see the bittersweet summertime homage of ‘Walking Barefoot’ or the irrepressible‘Burn Baby Burn’) that first marked them out, while adding a vital dose of maturity (the sublime ‘Sometimes’ perfectly captures the sadness of a break-up with minimum self-pity) and world-weariness (the Spectoresque ‘Someday’) along with some pleasing curveballs (‘Candy’ samples The Walker Brothers to superb effect). ‘Shining Light’ landed Wheeler an Ivor Novello award, and was later covered by Canadian artist Emm Gryner, who threw the song’s classic pop melody into even sharper relief. The album went straight in at number 1, dislodging Janet Jackson: it prompted drummer Rick McMurray to ring her record label and leave his own version of Outkast’s ‘I’m sorry Miss Jackson’ on their answering machine. Good times.

Irish Albums of the Decade: 2 - JJ72 - JJ72 (2000)

"The fact that JJ72 sound completely unfazed even when they screw it all up is what makes this roaringly ambitious debut so captivating...sweltering, emotive crackles of indie guitar thunder that succeed in being as innocent and powerful as any song influenced by the greats. Truly, the magnificence of JJ72 is that they're on top form even when they don't seem to know what they're doing...With a lyrical mash-up of abstract imagery ("Short sleeves and warm skin/losing coins calling next of kin") and glorious bursts of confessional euphoria -- somewhere in between the Sex Pistols and the poems of John Keats -- album peaks like "Oxygen" are extraordinary."


Irish Albums of the Decade: 3 - Gemma Hayes - Night On My Side (2002)

She may have lost her way in recent times, with her music increasingly characterised by bland alt-country arrangements; but debut album Night On My Side marked Gemma Hayes out as a special talent, one that called to mind influences as diverse as My Bloody Valentine, PJ Harvey and Lisa Germano. It’s a captivating record whose strength lies not just in its individual songs but in the impressionistic spell cast by its melancholic atmosphere, discordant guitars and Hayes’ delicate, yearning vocals.

The Tipperary native possesses an extraordinary voice that couldn’t fail to impress if she was singing the contents of a phone book, and the music here ranges from the bleary Americana of ‘Day One’ (as gorgeously understated an opening track as you’re likely to hear anywhere) to the anguished drone of ‘Tear In My Side’ and the churning guitar rhythms of ‘Hanging Around’. The aching minimalism of ‘What a Day’ and the still incredible-sounding ‘Back Of My Hand’ (has there been a better Irish single released in the last 10 years?) epitomise the edge that she’s been struggling to recapture ever since.

Irish Albums of the Decade: 4 - Jape - Ritual (2008)

"Purveyor of the dreamiest, catchiest and most refined electro-rock you're likely to hear this year, Egan's songwriting science has never been exacted as fluidly as it is here. Injecting a dose of wry Dublin wit into his lyrics - often biographical vignettes of his Crumlin childhood (see zappy Korg-tastic pop tune 'Streetwise'), there's a healthy division of bouncy indietronica ('Christopher and Anthony'), anthemic dance-pop ('Apple In An Orchard') and sweet-to-bittersweet acoustic numbers: 'Phil Lynott' is a simple, smile-stimulating tribute to the Thin Lizzy star, while 'At the Heart of All of This Strangeness' supplies a comforting measure of melancholy.

Despite there not being a single duff track here, there are two tracks that go above and beyond their counterparts. 'I Was A Man' treads a blurry line between electro-trad, hip-hop and downbeat pop and is one of the best Irish songs of the past ten years, while closer 'Nothing Lasts Forever''s atmospheric, almost William Orbit/DJ Shadow-esque vibe ends the album on a spine-tingling high."

- Lauren Murphy,

Irish Albums of the Decade: 5 - Emmet Tinley - Attic Faith (2005)

"Against a low-key backing of muscular guitars and graceful strings, Tinley sings these sweetly wistful songs in an aching falsetto that's often strikingly reminiscent of Jeff Buckley. And while the melodies are not the sort that overwhelm you on a first listen, repeated plays reveals this album to have an emotional depth that most of his contemporaries can only aspire to."

Andrew Lynch,

Irish Albums of the Decade: 6 - Ten Speed Racer - 10SR (2003)

"An album of rollicking, propulsive rock songs and slower, pensive mid-tempo tracks like 'Overcast' and the utterly gorgeous 'Fifteen'..."

- Ken Fallon,

Irish Albums of the Decade: 7 - David Geraghty - Kill Your Darlings (2007)

"Whether it's the jazzy allure of 'Delgadina' or the Nebraska-sounding 'Cracked Skull', Geraghty shows he's a master of atmospherics, his take on the downbeat intoxicating throughout. With the exception of recent single 'Fear the Hitcher' and the piano-driven 'Kaleidoscope', Kill Your Darlings avoids the uptempo - if you're a fan of slow songs, you'll be in no hurry to go anywhere else."

-Harry Guerin,

Irish Albums of the Decade: 8 - Republic of Loose - Aaagh! (2006)

"If there's any justice in the world, this is the album that should see RoL make the transformation from scruffy bums to scruffy megastars. It takes their unique style - a fusion of hip-hop, rap, rock, reggae and soul - and brings it to a new plateau; one that's sleek, impeccably-produced, superbly-crafted and terrifically, inspiringly innovative. Chock-full of funky basslines, intricate riffs and enough attitude to terrify a tracksuit (new collective noun) of gurriers, Aaagh! flits from slinky r 'n' b ('The Translation') to incitements of 80s synth-pop ('Somebody Screamed') and Jamaican Dancehall/ragga ('Na Na Na Na Na Na'), while catchy retro ditty 'Mary Caine' could quite reasonably soundtrack The Kids of Degrassi Street. 'Break!' is like nothing they've ever done before; a throbbing latino/flamenco assault that's interspersed with both a female vocalist's shrill refrain and Pyro's sleazy riposte of 'You like it rough, right?' Indeed, Aaagh! is a sleaze-filled minefield and abounds with tales of temptresses, sexual encounters and promiscuity. The thing is, Pyro's soulful, wiseguy croon is so charmingly coarse that he just about gets away with opening lines like 'Now you're scratchin' your balls, it's 'round a quarter to three..'. His voice, evoking shades of Prince, Michael Jackson, Al Green and even Howlin' Wolf at times, has come into its own here; and with a band providing such accomplished, polished backing tracks, it's given ample opportunity to. The singles in particular leave a marked effect; the streetwise funk-pop of 'Comeback Girl', the old-skool soul of 'Shame' and the sleek production of 'You Know It' epitomise both the diversity and competence on display here."

- Lauren Murphy,

Irish Albums of the Decade: 9 - Bell X1 - Music in Mouth (2003)

"A hugely self-assured collection of intense yet fragile love songs, Music in Mouth impresses on just about every level. And while Paul Noonan's songwriting contains echoes of everyone from Radiohead to Talking Heads, his erudite lyrics and Irish cultural references give Bell X1 a character all of their own." - Andrew Lynch,

Irish Albums of the Decade: 10 - Damien Dempsey - Seize The Day (2003)

Bookended by two songs that sound like extracts from a self-help book, this is the kind of album that could fail spectacularly, but it doesn’t: Dempsey’s positive, anti-cynical stance is perfectly measured, helped by the fact that he doesn’t shy away from dark topics like heroin addiction (‘Ghosts of Overdoses’), street violence (‘Factories’) and institutional abuse (‘Industrial School’). His distinctive Donaghmede accent and singing style isn’t to everyone’s taste; but to these ears it’s a formidable instrument in itself, bringing a much-needed novel angle to a singer-songwriting genre that was already becoming overpopulated when this album was released.

While his more politicised, topical songs tend to suffer sometimes from lyrics that are unsubtle and even a little trite, it’s the more personal, philosophical ones where Dempsey really comes into his own - such as the sublime ‘It’s All Good’ (which features terrific backing vocals from Sinead O’ Connor) and the reggae-tinged ‘Negative Vibes’. There’s also evidence of a quirky sense of humour on ‘Jar Song’, which imagines drinking sessions with a list of Irish literary figures, while ‘Apple Of My Eye’ is an enchanting tribute to New York as the safe haven to many an Irish emigrant. You could draw all kind of inferences from such a song appealing to a demographic who were becoming increasingly intolerant of other cultures, but that’s beside the point: this was an album that disarmed any cynicism and exhorted you to ‘love yourself today’. Good advice.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Irish Tunes of the Decade

I'd forgotten just how much great Irish music has been released these last ten years until I started looking back. Again, one song per artist, list in no order, not a definitive list etc...

So Cow - 'Shackleton'

Waiting Room - 'Return My Rabbits'

The Chalets - 'No Style'

The Frank and Walters - 'You Asked Me'

Snow Patrol - 'An Olive Grove Facing The Sea'

Republic of Loose - 'Comeback Girl'

David Kitt - 'Song From Hope St (Brooklyn, NY)

Damien Dempsey - 'It's All Good'

Codes - 'Magnetic North'

The Immediate - 'Fashion or Faith'

JJ72 - 'Always and Forever'

Ham Sandwich - 'St. Christopher'

The Thrills - 'Big Sur'

U2 - 'Kite'

Gemma Hayes - 'Back of My Hand'

Ten Speed Racer - 'Overcast'

Fight Like Apes - 'Do You Karate'

Simple Kid - 'The Commuter'

Joe Chester - 'Safe Place To Hide'

Fionn Regan - 'Be Good or Be Gone'

The Frames - 'Fighting On The Stairs'

Roisin Murphy - 'You Know Me Better'

Cathy Davey - 'Sugar'

Ash - 'Sometimes'

Jape - 'Floating'

Damien Rice - 'Cannonball'

Bell x1 - 'Next To You'

And So I Watch You From Afar - 'Clench Fists, Grit Teeth...Go!'

Duke Special - 'This Could Be My Last Day'

Ann Scott - 'Start'

Nick Kelly - 'New Star'

David Geraghty - 'El Nino'

Si Schroeder - 'A Little More'

Autamata - 'Postscript'

Future Kings of Spain
- 'One Look'

Giveamanakick - 'Hatch 77'

Emmet Tinley - 'Come To Life'

Tunes Of The Decade

By no means a definitive list, but each one of these is a stone-cold classic. Limited to one per artist. These tracks are not in any order whatsoever.

Check back for a Spotify playlist, will post it pretty soon.

Grouper - 'Heavy Water/I'd Rather Be Sleeping'

Yo La Tengo - 'Our Way To Fall'

LCD Soundsystem - 'Someone Great'

M.I.A. - 'Paper Planes'

Arcade Fire - 'Haiti'

The Knife/ - 'Heartbeats'
Jose Gonzalez

Basement Jaax - 'Romeo'

Hot Chip - 'The Warning'

Sigur Ros - 'Hoppipolla'

Franz Ferdinand - 'Take Me Out'

Beyonce feat. Jay Z - 'Crazy In Love'

Beirut - 'Postcards From Italy'

The White Stripes - 'Fell In Love With A Girl'

Sonic Youth - 'Rain On Tin'

Interpol - 'PDA'

Kanye West - 'Jesus Walks'

The Killers - 'Mr. Brightside'

The Streets - 'Let's Push Things Forward'

MGMT - 'Time To Pretend'

Feist - '1234'

Grinderman - 'No Pussy Blues'

Kelis - 'Milkshake'

Dirty Projectors - 'Stillness Is The Move'

The Strokes - 'Last Nite'

Broken Social Scene - 'Shampoo Suicide'

The Libertines - 'Don't Look Back Into The Sun'

The Go! Team - 'Ladyflash'

Doves - 'The Sulphur Man'

Bon Iver - 'Re: Stacks'

No Age - 'Escarpments'

Mogwai - 'My Father My King'

PJ Harvey - 'Horses In My Dreams'

Elbow - 'Scattered Black and Whites'

Florence and the Machine - 'Dog Days Are Over'

David Kitt - 'Song From Hope Street (Brooklyn, NY)'

Bloc Party - 'This Modern Love'

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - 'In This Home On Ice'

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band - 'The Rising'

Gemma Hayes - 'Back of My Hand'

Fountains of Wayne - 'Valley Winter Song'

Super Furry Animals - 'Run! Christian, Run!'

Foals - 'Ballooons'

Kevin Drew - 'Backed Out On The...'

Jape - 'Floating'

Stars - 'Sleep Tonight'

Maximo Park - 'Going Missing'

Buck 65 - 'Wicked & Weird'

Burial / Four Tet - 'Moth'

Albums Of The Decade : 1 - Broken Social Scene - You Forgot It In People (2002)

In a decade when so much great music emerged from Canada, this 2002 album from the Toronto-based collective was the point where all that untrammelled creativity reached its glorious peak. Rousing, swelling, superb indie anthems like ‘KC Accidental’, ‘Stars and Sons’ and ‘Cause = Time’ are hook-laden and danceable, the tunes never suffering despite the arsenal of instruments thrown into the mix. It was a sound that cleared the way for Arcade Fire and influenced much of what was to follow, but it’s the more subdued moments that really seal YFIIP’s classic status. ‘I’m Still Your Fag’ is desolate, hypnotic minimalism; the majestic ‘Shampoo Suicide’’s trance-inducing ambience gives way to a haunting, multi-layered climax; while on ‘Anthems for a Seventeen-Year Old Girl’, a sublime banjo-and-strings backdrop frames a gorgeously-sung (by Metric’s Emily Haines) lament for lost youth: "Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me...". There’s also time for detours into garage squall (‘Almost Crimes’), bleary dream-pop (‘Looks Just Like The Sun’) and a sun-kissed instrumental jam (‘Pacific Theme’), yet at no point does the album lose its irresistible flow. Eclectic, adventurous and exhilarating, it’s a record to lose yourself in.

Albums Of The Decade : 2 - Arcade Fire - Funeral (2004)

There’s been so much written about this album since its release in 2004, yet still it’s hard to know where to begin. The novelistic, post-apocalyptic imagery? The poignant themes of death and lost innocence running through the record? The dynamic, intense baroque-pop arrangements? The way that the record’s awareness of mortality and grief makes for cathartic, euphoric music? You could probably write a book about all the factors that contribute to Funeral’s status as a modern-day masterpiece, but suffice to say here that this is one of those albums where your favourite track changes every day, whether it’s the stirring ‘Wake Up’ (“If the children don't grow up/Our bodies get bigger but our hearts get torn up”), the beautiful folk ballad ‘Neighbourhood #4 (7 Kettles)’,the fervent, swelling opening track ‘Neighbourhood #1 (Tunnels)', or ‘Haiti’, Regine Chassagne’s haunting lament for her homeland. Many artists past and present have tackled the big issue of death, but rarely have they made such uplifting music in doing so.

Albums Of The Decade : 3 - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah - Clap Your Hands Say Yeah (2005)

The all-encompassing internet buzz that surrounded Clap Your Hands Say Yeah’s emergence may have well-and-truly died down by now, with the band on possibly permanent hiatus and frontman Alec Ounsworth’s impressive debut solo album released this year to next-to-no-fanfare, but their debut LP serves as an ample reminder of what got people into such a lather over the band in the first place. ‘The Skin Of My Yellow Country Teeth’ would have been enough on its own: sounding like a delirious, skewed modern take on New Order’s ‘Temptation’, it was at once anthemic, fiercely original and eminently danceable. On most records it would stick out like a sore thumb, but here it’s simply another stunning track on an album full of them: the chiming, loping glide of ‘Over and Over’, the ragged, harmonica-led rave-up of ‘Heavy Metal’, the giddy, bluesy sway of ‘Gimmie Some Salt’...All brilliant, but perhaps the best moment of all is halfway through the sublime shoegaze bliss-out of ‘In This Home On Ice’, where there’s a mini-breakdown before vocals and instruments lock back in in a moment of sheer sonic ecstacy. At which point you realise that sometimes, the hype is bang-on.

Albums Of The Decade : 4 - The Libertines - Up The Bracket (2002)

An album so shambolically brilliant that no amount of lurid tabloid exposés or drug-fuelled misdemeanours on the part of Pete Doherty could sully its reputation. Doherty and his songwriting partner Carl Barat took cues from The Smiths (some devastating lyrical wit), The Strokes (the laconic vocals and swaggering attitude), The Buzzcocks (a penchant for addicitive hooks) and their heroes The Clash (the adrenalized punk energy, not to mention the fact Mick Jones produced the album) and created a record that revitalised British guitar-rock and gave rise to a whole host of imitators. Their vision of Albion was by turns highly romanticised and cuttingly realistic, reflecting the love and poison of London and referencing all manner of post-war British cultural influences. As for the ragged glory of the music itself, tunes like ‘Death On The Stairs’ and ‘The Boy Looked at Johnny’ burned with a raucous garageland energy that occasionally threatened to collapse in on itself (on the latter, Barat and Doherty abandoned conventional vocals altogether halfway through and resorted to simply hollering over the guitars), while there was also room for mid-tempo, Kinks-ian strums and measured melancholia. Running through it all was a passion and energy that could perhaps best be summed up by that enduring line from ‘The Good Old Days’: “If you've lost your faith in love and music/Oh the end won't be long”.

Albums Of The Decade : 5 - Sufjan Stevens - Illinois (2005)

His supposed mission to write an individual album for each of the 52 states may have been abandoned, but Illinois stands as testament to Stevens’ singular talent and vision. For all the musical and thematic twists and turns of this epic work, it all hangs together and works perfectly, from the chilling ‘John Wayne Gacy, Jr’ to the tuneful sweep of ‘Chicago’, or from the grief-stricken, banjo-led elegy ‘Casimir Pulaski Day’ to the sinister horror-movie-theme of ‘They Are Night Zombies!!!...’. Folk may have been the dominant idiom that Stevens kept returning to and putting his own unmistakeable twist on, but at any given moment he was liable to mix things up, be it with technicolour, choir-backed pop-rock, evocative drones or exuberant big-band arrangements. It’s an album so stunning in scope that the man himself seems unsure of where to go to next.

Albums Of The Decade : 6 - Bloc Party - Silent Alarm (2005)

While it’s equally – nay, more - valid to criticise bands for refusing to change their approach, Bloc Party’s erratic post-Silent Alarm output provides the perfect example of a band trying too hard to be progressive and losing the essence of what made them such a great band in the first place. It’s all there on their debut album – the tense, insistent guitars, the icy instrumental washes, the urgent, angst-ridden vocals, the dreamy soundscapes, the flashes of romance (‘This Modern Love’), the propulsive, supple rhythm section; for a debut record by a young guitar-bass-drums combo, it was both remarkably danceable and eerily atmospheric, and it was little wonder a remix album followed. Tracks like ‘Banquet’ and ‘So Here We Are’ retain a sense of soul that their subsequent experiments with electronics and social comment have sorely lacked, but as long as Silent Alarm reminds us of their abilities, we’ll be patient with them.

Albums Of The Decade : 7 - Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)

With their two previous albums, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and Summer Sun, Hoboken-based indie legends Yo La Tengo seemed to be settling into a late-career holding pattern of understated, downtempo arrangements and twilit balladry. The electrifying noise-rock freak-outs that made their name seemed to be a thing of the past, and consequently many a critic dismissed them as a band past their best. And then along came I Am Not Afraid of You. As if to back up the titular taunt, the record opened with the blissful rave-up ‘Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind’, which laid down a solid, repetitive groove and allowed Ira Kaplan to shred the living hell out of his guitar for the track’s ten-minute duration. But the true strength of this record is in its eclecticism: it rivals and arguably tops previous highpoint I Can Hear The Heart Beating as One in its sheer range and mastery of styles. There’s a delightful Memphis soul-style workout (‘Mr. Tough’), atmospheric ambience (‘Daphnia’), garage-rock trash (‘Watch Out For Me Ronnie’), and soulful balladry (‘I Feel Like Going Home’), while it’s all topped off by the self-mythologising, noise-soaked closing track ‘The Story of Yo La Tango’, twelve of the most glorious minutes of their considerable career. An outstanding record from one of the all-time greats.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Albums Of The Decade : 8 - Broken Social Scene - Broken Social Scene (2005)

After the sustained excellence of 2002's You Forgot It In People, sprawling Canadian collective Broken Social Scene returned with a third album that was defiantly non-commercial, leader Kevin Drew telling MTV "We made a dirty-sounding, right/wrong record. We [eliminated] the catchiest singles from the record. We don't live up to what label and promotion people want us to be — we're not about that". The production on Broken Social Scene was overwhelmingly dense and cluttered on first listen, layer upon layer of instrument upon instrument smothering whatever tunes existed underneath and resulting in a melange of disorientating sonics. However, as one stuck with it, the genius of the album began to emerge: tracks like 'Hotel' and 'Bandwitch' lay down haunting, evocative rhythms that owed as much to electronica as post-rock, 'Swimmers' and 'Major Label Debut' created a hazy, dreamy mood, 'Ibi Dreams of Pavement' and 'It's All Gonna Break' rocked out in shambolic fashion, while the extraordinary 'Handjobs for the Holidays' began sounding like an out-of-focus, brass-infused Dinosaur Jr track and ended sounding like a long-lost track from Loveless. You know, I don't believe I have any higher praise.

Albums Of The Decade : 9 - Maximo Park - A Certain Trigger (2005)

Arguably the last of the great guitar bands that sprung up during the new wave revival (see also Bloc Party, The Futureheads, Franz Ferdinand), Maximo Park shared a taste for spiky hooks and angular guitar work with their peers, but in frontman Paul Smith they had a vital selling point: Smith's distinctive (Northern) accent and phrasing, allied to his bookish wit, saw him compared to messrs Morrissey and Jarvis. And then there were the tunes - oh boy, the tunes. On the frantic 'Apply Some Pressure', Smith sounds like he's about to explode with desperation before he reaches a moment of clarity - "What happens when you lose everything?/You just start again" and repeats it like a mantra. The superb 'Going Missing' combines chiming guitars with a contagious chorus despite some biting lyrics, 'Limmasol' uses a recurring, skewed synth line as a springboard for adrenalised punk anger, while 'Acrobat' throws a curveball with an elegant, wistful synth backdrop framing Smith's lovelorn spoken word lyric. They may have floundered a bit since, but A Certain Trigger should still go down as a classic, quintessentially British debut album.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Albums Of The Decade: 10 - Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights (2002)

Following hot on the heels of fellow NYC sensations The Strokes, Interpol were a more austere, moody bunch, creating a dark, claustrophobic atmosphere on their debut album. The levels of tension rarely let up throughout, from the stabbing guitar lines and urgent vocals of 'Obstacle 1' to the frantic, Smiths-referencing squall of 'Say Hello to the Angels' to the menacing-sounding closer 'Leif Erikson'. 'PDA' remains the group's finest moment, a relentlessly sinister rocker that gives way to a glorious coda around the three-minute mark, although not far behind it is the graceful, elegiac sweep of 'NYC', a conflicted paean to their hometown.

Albums Of The Decade : 11 - Eels - Daisies Of The Galaxy (2000)

When it was released at the turn of the decade, one critic described Daisies Of The Galaxy as being to previous eels album Electro-Shock Blues what the Manic Street Preachers' Everything Must Go was to The Holy Bible: in other words, Daisies represented the breaking of sunlight through the clouds after the harrowing subject matter of its predecessor (Electro-Shock Blues dealt with the terminal illness of E's mother and the suicide of his sister). While it's not quite that black-and-white (ESB had its moments of hard-won optimism), it's a pretty useful comparison. Daisies is remarkably light-on-its-feet throughout, even when picking through the bones of a break-up ('It's a Motherf**ker'). The first couple of tracks lay out the gentle, folky vibe that permeates the album, with lyrics like "A roomful of dust and a broom to sweep up/All the troubles you and i have seen"
all the more poignant given their context. There's a rousing, bouncy homage to his mother ('I Like Birds'), the odd, nightmarish rhythms of 'Flyswatter' and the found-sounds collage of 'Estate Sale', but the dominant tone of the album is summed up by the wistful, sublime title track.

Albums Of The Decade: 12 - The Go! Team - Thunder, Lightning, Strike! (2004)

The feel-good album of the decade, Thunder, Lightning, Strike boldly pitched up in the midst of the still-strong new-rock-revolution with an electric mixture of cheerleader chants, action-show-theme homages, old-school hip-hop/funk influences, infectious horns and irresistible hooks. All-conquering dancefloor-slayers like 'Ladyflash', 'Bottle Rocket' and 'Huddle Formation' add up to pure sonic bliss, while the riding-off-into-the-sunset finale of 'Everyone's a V.I.P. to Someone' provides the perfect closer. Five years on, this remains an utterly joyous record.

Albums Of The Decade : 13 - Doves - The Last Broadcast (2002)

The Last Broadcast saw Mancunians Doves follow up the muted atmospherics of debut album Lost Souls with a more anthemic, expansive sound, although the cinematic qualities of their music remained. It's a stunningly ambitious work, summed up by the extraordinary 'Sulphur Man', a mini-symphony with an anti-drugs message. Elsewhere, there's the soaring, aptly-named anthem 'Pounding', the gospel-influenced 'Satellites', the windswept atmospherics of 'Friday's Dust' and the savage riffing of 'N.Y.'. It marked a peak that they've only sporadically looked like matching since.

Albums Of The Decade : 14 - Animal Collective - Sung Tongs (2004)

Surely the runaway favourites for indie/blogosphere darlings of the decade, it was somewhat gratifying that the final year of the noughties would see Animal Collective troubling the mainstream after ten years of often sublime experimentation and creativity. 2004's Sung Tongs was a breakthrough of sorts, introducing glorious melodies and technicolour arrangements to a previously abstract brew. 'Who Could Win a Rabbit' and 'Leaf House' exhibited a harmonic yet hyperactive pop sensibility, 'The Softest Voice' added wistful melancholy, while the second half of the album challenged the listener with formless, strangely hypnotic improvisation.

Albums Of The Decade : 15 - Flying Lotus - Los Angeles (2008)

A record that still reveals new layers and textures months after you’ve first heard it, Los Angeles, the second LP from Californian Flying Lotus (aka Steven Ellison) is an utterly addictive blend of liquid, ambient grooves, smoky hip-hop beats, off-kilter percussion, skittering electronica and crackling background static. It’s an album you can lose yourself in, with each track – be it the woozy, disorientating ‘GNG BNG’, ‘Golden Diva’’s subaquatic ambience or ‘RobertaFlack’’s hazy trip-hop – bleeding seamlessly into the next, until the gorgeous, hypnotic ‘Auntie’s lock/Infinitum’ provides the perfect curtain-closer.

Albums Of The Decade : 16 - Buck 65 - Talkin' Honky Blues (2003)

With Talkin' Honky Blues, the man who's been referred to as the 'hip-hop Tom Waits' created a concept/road-trip album of sorts, painting compelling portraits of strange, sketchy characters cut off from society, dwelling by the riverbed, seen through the eyes of a nomadic, non-comformist narrator who 'runs with the bulls and swims with the pool sharks'. As Christgau put it, "it's hip-hop, all right, only with vocals white as Hank Snow...dense, bassy beatbeds built the old-fashioned way, from handmade scratches and anonymous samples tweaked and tortured. These nods to tradition are overshadowed by his gravelly murmur, his Jimmy Stewart accent, his single steady cadence, his guitars without a trace of funk--and above all by his independence of hip-hop orthodoxy".

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Albums Of The Decade : 17 - Bat For Lashes - Fur and Gold (2006)

One of those magical albums that seems to inhabit a world of its own, Fur and Gold's fantastical, escapist aesthetic would later be taken into the mainstream by Florence and the Machine, but Natasha Khan's twilit compositions are far more subtle and haunting by comparison. The striking promo video for 'What's a Girl to Do?' provided a perfectly surreal gateway to the album for many, yet the atmospheric incantations of tracks like 'Trophy' and 'Tahiti' were arguably trumped by the moment where she decided to play it straight - the wonderful 'Sad Eyes'.