Wednesday 5 January 2011

another year over......

2010 was something of a strange year for me musically: I spent so much time away from home that I didn't really have all that much opportunity to keep up to date with many new releases, and I didn't go to as many gigs as I normally would.  All of this made putting together a top ten for the year somewhat problematic.  Still, I had a go for the annual list that was pulled together over at the Auditorium in the run up to New Year by our very own LB.

My ten chosen records are mostly pretty predictable, with a few late running wildcards from purchases I made right at the back end of the year.  I think they're all pretty good albums, but since I wrote the list I was inspired to try a bit harder to catch up with some new music and downloaded the albums by Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Sleigh Bells and Steve Mason.  I also spent a bit more time listening to new albums that I bought some time ago, including the two mini-albums released by James and Vampire Weekend's latest.  All very good, and given more time and a fairer listen, I think several of them probably deserved to make the list (the Steve Mason album in particular is fantastic).

Still, for reference, here's my top ten albums of 2010:

10.  “Contra” – Vampire Weekend

2008s “Vampire Weekend” was a joyous affair, introducing us to the band’s glorious “Upper West Side Soweto” style of music, with delirious singles like “Oxford Comma” and “A-Punk”. “Contra” is perhaps a little denser and is maybe a little less immediate. Essentially though, Vampire Weekend are offering us a new album of much the same kind of stuff as last time. There’s some experimentation here, but not too much. And you know what? That’s okay with me. It might get boring if they haven’t moved a little further by the time they record their next album, but you know what? For now this will do just fine. It sounded pretty good as we drove across the Southern Alps in New Zealand, I can tell you that.

Listen to: I Think Ur A Contra

9. “Tron:Legacy OST” – Daft Punk

Perhaps it’s premature to include this album on this list, but I can’t resist it. I’m not even sure that I’m going to go and watch the film - as I remember it, the original was a confusing mess – but the soundtrack to the sequel is amazing.

I wonder who came up with the idea that Daft Punk should do the soundtrack first: was it the producers or the band themselves? The Frenchmen are such an obvious choice; it’s as though they only existed as a result of the first film and were born to soundtrack the second. Their whole robot “look” is perfect for outlining in blue neon, and the music they’ve always made is ideal for a film set inside a computer world (albeit I imagine there isn’t a guy in a dog costume with a ghetto blaster featuring in the film anywhere, more’s the pity).

I’m not really sure how to describe this album: it sounds exactly like a film soundtrack, but it also sounds exactly like a Daft Punk album. Does that work for you? Mind you, I should add too that, in places, it also sounds quite a lot like the Blade Runner soundtrack…. Perhaps inevitable with any synth-drenched film score.

Still. It’s an odd choice perhaps, and not a record that will be filling many dancefloors in the years to come, and I’m very much including it here on a whim, but it’s still a very satisfying string and synth-drenched listen. 22 tracks, few much over two minutes long and very clearly a film score. I’m not sure it should work or, even if it did, that I should like it. But I really do.

Listen to: Derezzed.

8. “American VI: Ain’t No Grave” – Johnny Cash

What an amazing journey. Obviously for Cash, whose amazing journey would make an X-Factor judge’s eyes water; but also for the listener. We’ve been with Johnny Cash what seems like every step of his amazing journey from the cotton fields of the Deep South to a disembodied voice from beyond the grave. Cash died in 2003, and released some seven years after his death, this album was always going to be a step too far for many people. Bit for me, the legacy is undamaged by the release of these tracks. When Cash recorded these lyrics, he was pretty close to death, and the listener might fancy that they can hear it in his voice; that reedy whisper is a ghost of the mighty bass it once was and every single note sounds like a struggle from a man literally at death’s door.

For some artists, that might prove to be more than the music can stand, but Cash somehow manages to rise above, and it almost seems that the weaker his voice becomes, the more authoritative his statements on life and upon death.

Make no mistake, this is probably the least impressive of all of the American Recordings that Cash made with Rick Rubin, but this still represents the culmination of a formidable body of work by an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime artist. A true one-off.

Listen to: Cool Water

7. “I Speak Because I Can” – Laura Marling

Laura Marling recorded her debut, “Alas, I Cannot Swim”, when she was 18 years old. Although it was a wonderfully fully formed and accomplished record for someone of her tender years, it drew a large part of its charm from its lack of guile. Take “Night Terror”: are we really supposed to believe that this tiny, slip of a girl would fight anyone, nevermind a nightmare? Bless.

Marling had reached the ripe-old age of 20 years old by the time “I Speak Because I Can”, and had already been the unwitting muse of a breakup record (the fantastic “The First Days of Spring” by Noah and the Whale) and perhaps also the inspiration behind one of the great success stories of the last 18 months (“Sigh No More” by Mumford and Sons). Was Marling going to be better known for the music she inspired from other people than for the music she produced herself?

In a word, no.

There’s no getting away from it: this is a folk album. Folk is fashionable at the moment, but for Marling it is no passing trend, but a way of addressing issues of love, sex, death, depression and heartbreak. With her lovelorn, heartbreakingly clear voice, she’s starting to be compared to artists of the calibre of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake…. Prematurely, I would say (although remember that Drake only recorded three albums before he died), but another couple of albums like her last two and they won’t be far off the mark. She hasn’t produced a perfect album yet, and this certainly isn’t it, but she’s still so young and clearly still has so much more to offer. A wonderful album by a wonderful talent.

Listen to: Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)

6. “Plastic Beach” – Gorillaz

Their headline performance at Glastonbury this year may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. True, it probably helped that I knew who Mark E. Smith was and recognised Lou Reed as soon as he took to the stage for his four-minute cameo… but I thought that, for a cartoon band, Gorillaz made a surprising amount of sense as a live band. Once the ever-so-slightly tiresome pretext is dropped, Damon Albarn is freed up to really flex his musical muscles, helped by his famous collaborators, but rarely overshadowed.

Plastic Beach is a fantastic album by a band who have rarely sounded more coherent, even as the cameos become ever more diverse and more stellar. Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def and… er… Mark E. Smith are all simply the icing on the cake of an engine that delivers a surprisingly coherent set of songs. Perhaps the album doesn’t have a standout single along the lines of “Clint Eastwood” or “Feelgood Inc”, but it’s their best album yet.

Listen to: Stylo feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def.

5. “Hurley” – Weezer

There’s a Facebook campaign trying to raise $10m to persuade Weezer to retire from music because “Every year, Rivers Cuomo swears that he's changed, and that their new album is the best thing that he's done since 'Pinkerton', and what happens? Another pile of crap like 'Beverly Hills' or 'I'm Your Daddy'. This is an abusive relationship, and it needs to stop now.”

Well, it’s certainly true that 1996s “Pinkerton” remains Weezer’s critical highpoint, but it’s a little harsh to suggest that they’ve done nothing worth listening to since then. Not even “Islands in the Sun”? Anyway, whisper it quietly, but “Hurley” may just be the best thing they’ve done since Pinkerton. The cover glories in a picture of Jorge Garcia, Hurley from Lost, and the album pretty quickly settles down into what Weezer do best: quick, punchy power-pop that can all be timed at something less than 3 minutes. So, maybe the lyrics aren’t as good as we know the band are capable of, but this is a fantastic, fun sounding record. Hell, we even get a passable cover of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” as a bonus track at the end of the album. What’s not to like?

The Facebook campaign, incidentally, has raised about $100. Weezer, true to form, have offered – if a target of $20m is reached – to do the “deluxe” breakup. I don’t think we have to worry too much.

Listen to: Memories.

4. “Interpol” – Interpol

Not many bands do atmosphere like Interpol. Tense and edgy on their majestic debut, “Turn on the Bright Lights”, Interpol have matured with each successive album, polishing their icy, detached style with an air of definite menace to greater and greater commercial success. Bono’s back injury may have put any plans the band may have had for world domination on hold (Interpol were the support on U2’s cancelled tour), but I’m not sure that stadiums are Interpol’s natural habitat. They’re creatures of the night for sure, and they need to be heard in dingy, darkened clubs (and they were good again at Rock City last month too).

Interpol will always likely be judged by the impossibly high standards they set themselves with their debut record, and in that respect, their fourth record falls short again. There’s no shame in that, though, and this is still a fine record with much to recommend it: “Memory Serves”, “Summer Well” and “Barricade” are easily as good as almost anything the band have done, and the album as a whole has a sustained atmosphere of bleakness and depression. Right up my street. Not as good a record as Interpol have done, but still a very fine record indeed.

Listen to: Summer Well.

3. ‘Postcards from a Young Man” – Manic Street Preachers

You could probably argue that Manic Street Preachers have been two completely separate bands in their career: in the early days, they were an urgent, wordy, punk band driven on by the slogans, lyrics and restless intelligence of Richey James Edwards. After Richey’s disappearance, they became a different band: a much more anthemic band writing wistful rock songs that gained them huge commercial success. Of the two bands, I have always preferred the edgier earlier work. “Everything Must Go” is a fine album, but for me “The Holy Bible” has always been their masterpiece.

Predictably, when the band returned to Richey’s lyrics for 2009’s “Journal for Plague Lovers”, I was hooked, loving the densely packed, elliptic lyrics of songs like “Marlon JD”, where every line seemed almost like a cryptic crossword puzzle packed with references and significance. “Postcards from a Young Man”, by contrast, is an album by the other Manic Street Preachers, a return to the more considered, audience friendly music of all their finest work as a threepiece.

I still prefer the other Manics, but there’s much to recommend this album: the band have now got nothing to prove to anyone. They’re comfortable in their own skins, and they sound it. This is a grandiose, sweeping album, drenched in strings and big gestures. Nicky Wire said he was aiming for a sound like “Heavy Metal Tamla Mowtown”. Well, I don’t know what that would actually sound like, but if it does sound like this album, then it sounds pretty good to me. I do wish Wire would stop taking lead vocals on songs though. We all love him to bits, of course, but he’s not half the singer that James Dean Bradfield is.

Listen to: (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love

2. “The Defamation of Strickland Banks” – Plan B

I didn’t even think this album was worth listening to. Why would I bother with an album by a British rapper, no matter how well received it seemed to be? Plan B just didn’t sound like something I would be interested in, so I gave it a miss. In fact, I only listened to the album at all because of a song recommendation by the guy who sits at the desk next to me. Gary doesn’t really strike me as much of a music fan: he’s from Blackburn and he’s mates with a guy in Ian Brown’s band, but aside from a love of all things Manchester typical in a man of his age, he’s not exactly cutting-edge. I don’t know why, but he recommended that I listen to “Love Goes Down”. Conscious that I’ve been out of the country for large portions of 2010 and have missed loads and loads of good music, I reckoned I didn’t have much to lose by giving it a go.

Oh my goodness. This was NOTHING like I expected. I’d heard rumours that this was more of a soul than a rap album, but I didn’t believe it until I listened to the whole album. It turns out I had heard bits and pieces of it before, but would never in a million years have connected it with Plan B.

Odd though it sounds, the last time this happened to me was when the Streets released his debut album, and in spite of thinking it would be the last record in the world that I would be listening to, never mind buying, I found myself sucked in by the energy displayed in a single track that I heard playing in Selectadisc to the extent that I had to ask what it was and had my preconceptions of both the music and of what I would and would not like shatterered.

This album is staggeringly good. I’m sure it works beautifully as a concept album, with a story that flows from one end to the other, but to be honest I’m just revelling in each song as it comes. This isn’t rap, this is Northern Soul, for goodness sake. The surprise of the year for me. I love it.

Listen to: Stay Too Long

1. “High Violet” – The National

2007s “Boxer” is one of my favourite albums of the last ten years, without a shadow of a doubt. I was slow to latch onto The National, but once I found them, there was something about them that chimed with me almost immediately: I’ve always been a sucker for gloomy guitar bands, and Matt Berninger’s deep bass baritone seems to suit the mood almost perfectly. Where fellow New Yorkers Interpol have a singer who sounds like an undertaker reading from a legal textbook, Berninger has the bruised, weary voice of the hopelessly and perpetually disappointed romantic. I love it.

There’s no great progression in sound here, no great leap forward from “Alligator” or “Boxer”, the two amazing albums that precede this one. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the band is that this doesn’t seem to matter. They’re doing the same sorts of things that they were doing before, only better and with far, far greater intensity. These are personal songs, almost claustrophobically so, and the band aren’t compromising for anyone. This isn’t an attempt to be a BIGGER band, it’s an attempt to be a BETTER band, and I think they do such a great job that they may very well end up with both.

2010 was also the year where I finally got to see the band perform live. They’re a band to be listened to in a darkened room if ever there was one. Somehow though, even in the middle of the afternoon at the hottest Glastonbury anyone can remember, the band still pulled it off. Brilliant record. Brilliant band. One of the best.

Listen to: Anyone’s Ghost


Biggest surprise from that lot was definitely Plan B..... it just gets better with every listen.

And for fans of lists (i.e. me), here's what my Last FM thinks are my top played artists/songs/albums of the last 12 months.

1. Johnny Cash
2. The National
3. Vampire Weekend
4. James
5. Interpol
6. Elbow
7. Daft Punk
8. Eels
9. Fleet Foxes
10. Flight of the Conchords

1. "Ring of Fire" - Johnny Cash
2. "I've Been Everywhere" - Johnny Cash
3. "Les Champs-Élysées" - Joe Dassin
4. "Afternoon Delight" - Starland Vocal Band
4. "Ready for the Floor" - Hot Chip
6. "Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)" - Peter Sarstedt
6. "Oxford Comma" - Vampire Weekend
6. "The Fear" - Lily Allen
6. "New York State of Mind" - Jay-Z
10. "Handlebars" - Flobots

1. Johnny Cash - "The Man In Black"
2. The National - "High Violet"
3. Vampire Weekend - "Vampire Weekend"
4. Daft Punk - "Tron:Legacy OST"
5. Elbow - "The Seldom Seen Kid"
6. Band Of Skulls - "Baby Darling Doll Face Honey"
7. Vampire Weekend - "Contra"
8. Gorillaz - "Plastic Beach"
9. Fleet Foxes - "Fleet Foxes"
10. James - "The Best of James"

....Flight of the Conchords still hanging around just outside the top 10 of songs/albums too.  I'm so not bored of them quite yet.

[cautionary note: although interesting, this isn't an exhaustive catalogue of what I've listened too as Last FM doesn't catch everything]

Hmmm.  Interesting.

Anyway.  Now go and find out what LB and Bedshaped put in their top 10 lists for the year over at the Auditorium....

[/pointless lists] 

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