Thursday, 23 February 2012

Looking through old photos

 “That there is your granddad again, with David, Frieda and your great grandparents.” Nan hands another photo over to me from the mound on the chair, a small monochrome square with a crease running along one side. Children – David and Frieda – sit on a fuzzy grey lawn in bathing suits, toothy grins coyly poking out beneath eyes turned down from the sun. My great grandparents are behind them, caught midway between smiling and hunching toward the picnic basket to grab something still to be eaten. Over the past ten minutes, I have become steadily more acquainted with their faces, watching them age and rejuvenate with everyone else; my great gran bathing an infant David in a metal tub outside, then framing herself twenty-so years younger for a studio portrait, hair dressed in the contemporary fashion. Now she is kneeling, face ruddier, whilst my granddad beams like a loon between her and his father, the centrepiece of the photo. He is five decades younger than my earliest memories of him, his handsome face still bearing traces of a boyhood I saw a minute earlier, free of the spectacles and lines he wore in my presence. Hair neatly parted, with a careless flick in the fringe, shirt collars splayed out casually. He looks like a movie star lounging at the club one summer’s afternoon.

 I set granddad, David, Frieda and their parents down as nan passes another photo toward me. The man staring back at me is dressed in a double breasted overcoat, the shadow of his brow sitting between a set, bullish jaw and a cap to match the jacket.  

“That’s your granddad’s granddad. So your...great, great grandfather!”

He looks respectable, his face gentler the longer I spend with it, but he remains aloof. There is no one I know present in the photo to anchor the two of us in the same way that David and granddad anchor my great-grandparents, connecting us and making them reachable. I catch myself regarding him as my mother’s great-grandfather, as if she might successfully substitute in the bond I’m trying to capture, but suddenly I’m being passed another photo.

“...and then this is your grandad’s grandmother. He did say she was a great woman, but I don’t know – she looks like Nelson here.”

She does. With her grandchildren decked on either side of her, she leans against a bench, large and swarthy-armed, a bizarre scarf and hat crowning her head that quickly forms itself into the Admiral’s cap. I try again to acknowledge the line between us, but my granddad’s appraisal of her points to a separate life of which I am not a part and can lay no real claim to. I believe him when he says that she was good.

We’ve made our through most of the photos and are about to put them back in their box when nan picks up one more. The film has faded to a dull yellow, the mother and her children bleached out to the point where only the open grins of her boys can really be picked out amongst the shapes. I wait for my nan’s commentary, holding the photo while she studies it. Finally, she turns to me and says, somewhat dismissively,

“I don’t know who they are.” We put the photos back.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Through the winding lanes

Pleasure simple, pursuit divine,
Nothing makes my heart more fine,
My head more clear, my mind at ease,
Than pedaling in the summer breeze,
When the road is long, the asphalt smooth,
Legs may hurt, but cares are soothed,
By simple motion through the world,
Burdens gone and strain unfurled,
And all that's left is empty bliss,
The heart being blessed, the skin sun-kissed.

So come with me, I'll pedal slow,
And through the winding lanes we'll go,
Past quiet farms and sleeping towns,
Our lungs to fill, our hearts to pound,
And not a care on us shall lie,
And we'll be happy, you and I.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Keeping it in the family: Martha Marcy May Marlene Review

  The spirit of the 70s New Hollywood still looms large over contemporary American cinema. Indeed, it’s a sign of how far things have fallen since the heyday of Scorsese, Coppola et al that fledging talents today should continuously hearken back to the ethos and the aesthetic of those filmmaking monuments. Martha Marcy May Marlene, the scarily accomplished feature-length debut of writer-director Sean Durkin, is no exception, alluding in its design and execution to such classics as The Conversation. Like that masterclass in understated paranoia, Marlene uses the template of a psychological thriller in order to pose provocative questions, rather than deliver prepackaged entertainment in the mould favoured by the Shyamalan-inflected mainstream.
  With its detached perspective, critique of the middle-classes, moments of sudden brutal violence and uncompromising ambiguity it’s also deeply indebted to Austrian auteur Michel Haneke. Whilst not as bracingly austere and disturbing as Haneke’s best work, however, Durkin’s suspense-laden script and avoidance of the didacticism that can creep into his European counterpart potentially make it a more palatable experience for regular cinemagoers.

  At the opening of the story, we witness the Martha of the title (played by the ethereal and faintly androgynous-looking Elizabeth Olsen) escape from what at first glance appears to be a remote farming community, only one where a sinister hierarchy exists between the two genders. As we learn later, the self-appointed patriarch of this homestead, Patrick (John Hawkes), has brainwashed his surrogate family of strays and drop-outs – with Martha amongst their number – filling their heads with pseudo-spiritual bullshit in order to convince the vulnerable young women that his criminal activities and abusive sexual treatment of them is actually a form of refined love.  
 Having moved in with her older sister Lucy and her British husband Ted, Martha’s repressed memories of her time in the demented commune begin to surface, muddying her ability to distinguish between past and present and causing her to suspect that she is being stalked by the leaders of the cult from which she has fled.

  Durkin should be applauded for the great subtlety with which he tackles the narrative. Clearly, the manner in which Martha’s self-satisfied relatives Lucy and Ted attempt to make their unwanted patient conform to the standards of bourgeois life, prettifying her with make-up and dosing her with pharmaceuticals, is meant to be paralleled with the more extreme rituals of the commune. Admirably, Durkin never labours the point, leaving it up to the viewer to decide how far he or she wants to equate the oppression of one less orthodox social circle with that of the other.
  He is given enormous help in this regard by the finesse of editor Zachary Stuart-Pontier, who uses disguised cuts and overlapping sound design to segue almost imperceptibly from Martha’s present at her sister’s lakeside property to involuntary recollections of her previous ordeal and back again. It’s an inspired structural decision, working brilliantly to evoke Martha’s unmooring from reality without ever becoming needlessly confusing for the audience. By forcing us to share the subjectivity of Martha, it is also responsible for the film’s disquieting effect. There is one particular moment towards the end where the ambiguous weaving of dream and waking reality intimate ever so insidiously that one character might not be as clean-cut as we’ve imagined…

  Elizabeth Olsen has won the lion’s share of critical plaudits on the acting front, and with good reason: Martha is no straightforward victim, but a far more complex combination of youthful arrogance, misguided idealism and psychological damage. By refusing to soften the character’s enigmatic exterior, Olsen creates a protagonist occasionally hard to sympathise with, but far more engaging and believably imperfect than any dewy-eyed innocent. John Hawkes is also deserving of acclaim: considering his wiry and none-too-imposing physique, he invests the psychopathic Patrick with a remarkable degree of predatory menace.

  Stories this unnerving and anti-escapist may not be what everyone’s looking for at the bleak beginning of a new year (although let’s face it, when are they ever?), but for those who brave its chilling depths it’s certain to leave a lasting impression.  

Monday, 13 February 2012

"Viva Espagna!" Coverage of ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

by Nick Pierce and Tom Dunn

If variety is the spice of life, then judging by the programme at Manchester Cornerhouse’s 18th annual ¡Viva! Spanish and Latin American Film Festival, contemporary cinematic culture in these parts of the world is – ahem – rather hot. With a selection that covers animation, fantasy, political drama and horror, ¡Viva! ensures that audiences experience the full breadth of Latin cinema today, with a number of particular treats waiting in the wings.
If casting one’s eye over the contemporary landscape of Spanish and Latin America cinema can be said to offer any reflections of where the world - and specifically these regions of it - are at in 2012, then the programme of recent films showing at the ¡Viva! Festival seem to allude to the familiar anxieties of our era, with a fear of oppression and its lasting legacy being a key theme across many of the feature presentations.

 Pa Negre (Black Bread) for one is a perfect illustration of our continuing preoccupation with the troubled history of the 20th century and the lingering spectre of European fascism. A companion piece of sorts to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, it tracks the rude awakening of fresh-eyed innocent Andreu (Francesc Colomer) to the compromise and complicity of the world of adults with Franco’s oppressive regime. As a narrative, it’s arguably bleaker and more ethically complex than Del Toro’s magnum opus. Some of the grown-ups in that dark fairy tale resembled knights in shining armour, standing courageously and steadfastly against the broadly-drawn evil of fascism. In Pa Negre however the apparent knights – particularly Andreu’s Communist-sympathising father – prove errant, their armour of moral superiority to Spanish government concealing a degree of hypocritical accommodation with the regime that exposes it to be flimsy as tin-foil.
  It is surely significant that in the case of both of these examinations of Spain’s past, the central protagonists should be children. These babes in the woods effectively function as substitutes for the eyes of the new generations of Europe, looking back on the actions of their ancestors with bafflement and incomprehension, much as a child might struggle to fathom the decisions of its parents. Of course, whether this incomprehension can be taken at face value is another question. It might be interpreted as a means Europeans have used of distancing themselves irresponsibly from the past, as it is much easier to classify 20th century atrocities as an aberration of previous generations than to engage honestly with their causes and possible recurrence. To his credit, director and screenwriter Agustí Villaronga addresses this through the increasingly skewed moral development of Andreu, intimating thereby that the innocence of new youth need not necessarily overcome or avoid the errors of the past. The drama cleaned up at the Goya Awards in its homeland – including becoming the first ever Catalan-language winner of the award for Best Picture – and it’s certainly hard to imagine a similarly ambiguous and haunting dissection of American history receiving the same treatment from Oscar.

  También la Lluvia (Even the Rain) on the other hand transpires to be a somewhat more conventional melodrama in the Hollywood mould: well-made and often gripping, but ultimately falling short of its worthy ambitions. It documents the production of a period drama by Mexican filmmaker Sebastián (Gael García Bernal) and his right-hand man Costa (Luis Tosar) intent on recreating Columbus’ first voyage to the New World and his subjugation of the native population. Filming in South America’s most impoverished country Bolivia, the crew hire locals to play the parts of the indigenous folk exploited by the Spaniards, paying them a pittance. Predictably enough, the filmmakers’ ruthless, unethical behaviour begins to mirror the story they are telling and the evils of Columbus and his cronies. This allows the film to make an unsubtle if thought-provoking point about how the emotional pornography manufactured by Tinseltown may in fact help to conceal contemporary injustices, rather than merely condemning those of the distant past.
  Unfortunately, Lluvia somewhat blunts its core message by having Costa undergo an implausible moral u-turn at the last minute, assisting the locals in their fight for the water supply to their village against the oppressive Bolivian government. In effect, by giving the film industry this easy exit screenwriter Paul Laverty undermines the ostensible aim of the picture, and Lluvia transforms into one of those examples of exploitative Hollywood-esque fluff the movie criticises. Of course, one could interpret the last act as an ironic commentary on the self-aggrandisement of the motion picture business, which is often obsessed with bigging up its own social consciousness, but the prevailing tone of po-faced seriousness makes that hard to believe.
  However, as a piece of pure entertainment it performs efficiently, carried for the most part by the solidly charismatic performances of Bernal, Tosar and Juan Carlos Aduviri as Daniel, a Bolivian native cast in Sebastián’s picture and committed to civil disobedience in protest to the government’s actions.  
  Lluvia draws its plot from the recent history of the water crisis in Bolivia, and the presence of the past also makes itself felt in the moving animation Arrugas (Wrinkles), albeit in an altogether different fashion. Here the ‘past’ manifests itself in the elderly characters living out their days in an efficient yet impersonal nursing home. The problem the movie raises is precisely how these ‘clients’/inmates have been relegated to the realm of the past by society: forgotten by their families and handled like defunct objects. With the unavoidable fact of an ageing population in Europe, this subject matter is certainly timely, and perhaps even a little uncomfortable. Director Ignacio Ferreras steers clear of polemic in favour of the personal, however, with the blossoming friendship between Emilio, a new resident succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease, and the cynical, streetwise Miguel who spends his days fleecing the other patients of their money taking centre-stage. Although the themes offer little fresh insight, it succeeds through its poignant marrying of black comedy and tender emotion. Alongside the works of his peer Sylvain Chomet, Ignacio Ferreras’ melancholy rumination on obsolescence and compassion suggests that there remains a promising future for hand-drawn animation in providing a more thoughtful, adult alternative to the whiz-bang pyrotechnics of computer-animated kids’ flicks. One small warning: if you’re of a sensitive disposition, come the end Arrugas may well have reduced you to a blubbering wreck.

  By comparison Terrados, a low-key tale of unemployed thirty-somethings coping with Spain’s job crisis by escaping from this bleak reality via spending their days hanging out on the rooftops of their city, fails to engage. The time is definitely ripe for artistic explorations of the social impact of the economic downturn, but the characters and their situations are far too sketchily drawn to fit this bill. Aside from the dramatic weight afforded by the breakdown of the relationship between stuck-in-a-rut Leo and his ambitious girlfriend Ana, it comes across as Clerks without the laughs or likeability. At other points it has a disconcerting habit of filling the mouths of its cast with unwieldy chunks of information about the economic iniquities of the country’s leaders. Believe me, as a currently jobless graduate I wasn’t exactly unsympathetic with the characters’ plight, but I couldn’t escape the realisation that the slight premise was too underdeveloped to sustain its length.

Diego Lerman’s La Mirada Invisible instead applies the microcosmic approach to the bloody introduction of democracy into Argentina, as the country’s military junta loses public favour in the Falklands War. An adaptation of Martin Kohan’s 2006 novel, Moral Sciences, the film follows the fall of Marita (Julieta Zylberberg), a young, withdrawn teacher in an intensely restrictive private school. As the lecherous head professor, Biasutto (Osmar Nunez), lectures Marita on the “cancer of subversion” that is spreading itself through the school, it soon becomes clear that this austere environment, bathed in silence when not in the hymns of the nation, is a metaphor for the regime the people are fighting against outside the school’s formidable walls. Whilst this initial premise is perhaps rather too obviously handled, the film makes apt use of its material through its study of Marita, whose increasingly obsessive surveillance of the student body disguises a far more destructive infatuation with a male pupil. When coupled with Biasutto’s attempts to ingratiate himself in Marita’s colourless life, the film’s outcome is rather straightforward, being as it is an exercise in simple metaphor. Zylberberg’s performance however, at once frosty and vulnerable, is spellbinding, her depiction of Marita’s downfall unflinching without submitting to melodrama. This, in conjunction with Alvaro Gutiérrez’s clinical cinematography, elevates the film’s standing and provides an engrossing piece of cinema.

In contrast, a sense of weariness abounds whenever the topic of revolution rears its head – and it does so frequently – in Juan de los Muertos, famous for being Cuba’s first zombie picture. Whilst this might be the case, Alenjandro Brugues’ take on the genre finds itself well entrenched in the familiar staples of the field; the zombies allegorize the long shadow of unrest in the state, with Juan (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) and his buddy Lazaro (Jorge Molina) functioning as much more mercenary renderings of Shaun and Ed. Through the crisis, Juan is inevitably provided with a scenario so removed from day-to-day reality that, with the aid of his misfit pals, he is able to redeem himself in the eyes of his daughter and emerge a fuller man. If it’s not Shaun of the Dead, then, with its pointed accusations toward the US, it’s certainly The Host, and the narrative threatens to buckle at the midway point under the weight of well worn ideas. Thankfully, the film is carried through its punctuations of, at times, genuinely inventive black comedy. Whilst this might not be the most original zom-com you’ve ever seen, it’s certainly one of the most outrageous, sporting gross-out humour when gross-out gore can’t be provided. Villegas and Molina’s pairing is refreshing, their characters largely lacking the core morality we would expect of our protagonists in favour of a thoroughly commercial (and highly sexual) mindset. It is a testament to Juan’s sensibility that he ensures a steady, if seemingly redundant, source of income from the zombie outbreak and the pest control opportunities it affords, with Villegas thriving in the role. Whether this can be said of the entirety of the cast is debatable, but Juan de los Muertos proves itself to be worth a gander for genre aficionados, with its grab-bag appropriation of tropes.

Hollywood still has some way to go when it comes to matching the likes of Balada Triste de Trompeta (The Last Circus), however. Opening with a Republican Militia recruiting circus performers as impromptu fighters for the Spanish Civil War, Alex de la Iglesia’s idiosyncratic feature quickly begins a waltz of absurd cruelty that dances its way merrily through to the film’s conclusion. Javier (Sash Di Bendetto), gawky son of The Funny Clown, a man begrudgingly become war legend, has forever been scarred by the tragedy the Civil War thrust upon him, and as such, can only function as a Sad Clown. Joining his latest circus, he quickly meets his match in Sergio (Antonio de la Torre), a violently unstable drunk who also happens to be a damn good joker and the alpha male of the big tent. Infatuated with Sergio’s headstrong lover, Natalia (Carolina Bang), Javier decides to stand up against the abuse of the so-called Happy Clown and prove himself a true gallant to his paramour. What follows is a tit-for-tat battle for supremacy that quickly escalates into something exquisite in its savageness - at once hilarious and horrifying. White paint gets swapped out for sodium hydroxide, cream pies for bloody trumpets, as Sergio and Javier give in to their individual psychopathic tendencies, with Natalia caught in the middle like a rabbit in headlights. Beautifully rendered through the eye of Kiko de la Rica, Iglesia’s feature – heavy on visual metaphor – moves beyond grindhouse parody into something a little more fantastical, and a lot more European. The Last Circus is undoubtedly one of the festival’s highlights.

Speaking from a country still gripped by armed conflict, Jairo Carrillo’s animated documentary, Pequeñas Voces, gives voices to Colombian children affected by a generation of violence and war. The film, having recently won both the Grand and the Special Jury prizes at the International Gold Panda awards, adds to the variety and breadth of ¡Viva!’s programme, though is perhaps a little too worthy for its own good. Carillo’s feature takes a series of monologues related by children affected by war, and marries them to a single cartoon world; rather than merely produce distinct, anecdotal animations for each story, the narrative moves between speakers whose generic characters (sometimes embodying a number of no doubt unrelated speakers as a single child) interact through mime and monosyllabic utterances during transition sequences.  It’s a strange stance to take, in that it produces a pseudo fiction that at best comes to feel forced, and at worst, disingenuous, particularly during several emotional climaxes that are clearly added for the purpose of drama. There is too great a disparity between the spoken word and the filmmakers’ additions for the two to unite and suspend disbelief. That said, the film’s use of actual children’s drawings as figures in this landscape is a smart move, well conveying the paradoxical innocence the likes of child soldiers and war refugees still enjoy, and is something Carrillo should have extended toward his three protagonist figures. The tale of said child soldier is a particularly harrowing reminder of the realities that permeate guerrilla warfare, and is perhaps the standout narrative of Pequeñas Voces.

Unlike Juan, we needn’t fear the walking dead just yet: if there’s one thing this year’s line-up proves, despite the absence of international brands like Del Toro or Almodóvar and the predictions of gloom ‘n’ doom surrounding art-house filmmaking, it’s that Spanish and Latin American cinema is still alive and kicking.   


Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mina Harker

“And then when he comes the moon is high and it looks bloated and hazy through my window like the head of a cherub with too many haloes so that its all distorted and fat and ugly, but the sky around is clear and blue cold like the sea. John took me to Brighton once the sea was like it there too, it had mass blue black mass but froth danced on the top but was dragged back under and it was nauseating to stare at too long. I felt sick when he came too, many different sicknesses sick with hunger sick in the pit of my stomach like a sickness I wanted more of it was warm and cold all at once. And when this sickness came he came and he gave me kisses. Kisses that touched like cashmere on my lips and it felt like red velvet, red velvet all around me lifting me and touching me all over. He made me feel red velvet, and he held the red velvet and controlled it, knew exactly what he was doing and just went with it. John, on the other hand, thinks about what he’s doing too, but he’s fretting like a hand a finger picking at a stray bobble on the velvet instead of just diving into it and so it always feels like a little breeze crosses between us he’s always so restrained. I love him but sometimes I hate it.

But then he lets the velvet slip away and stops playing puppeteer, and he kisses me again but it’s on my neck, and this time it doesn’t feel like velvet and I feel another sickness come it’s nausea and I can taste it in my mouth it makes everything murky and half there and I become aware of just how dark it is again. He kisses me but it feels like wind blasting under a bridge the sound wind makes when it comes through a bridge and takes all the hats off the dark masses moving in front of you. But it’s louder it hurts the wind comes from me I can feel it rushing from my neck into the tunnel and so I try to breathe in because all I can think of is to get new wind to fill my body and replace all the stuff he’s taking out of me, but its never enough air and soon my fingers feel cold my face like ice but I sweat all the same, ringlets of water down my face like an army I can’t make out reaching somewhere, but my face is already cold and blue, it feels blue, I can’t understand why. Jonathan never did this to me, he kept the velvet away and part of me finds that hard to forgive now that I’ve felt the velvet, like grandma’s wedding dress in the attic on the mannequin, it always looked murky and eerie in the distance but when you walked up to it and took grandpa’s bowler hat off it suddenly all the children came out and wanted to feel the soft lovely fabric between their fingers and watch it ripple across their hands. But then mother would come and you could see her candle light bobbing in the distance like a buoy just off the mainland at night or like Jonathan in a crowded room of masses and that was it. He kept the velvet away from me but he let me keep the wind inside me, he never took it and never would unless I made him but he wouldn’t because my wind blows across him and makes things clearer for him like his wind calms me and puts things under the light. But now everything is so dark and everything feels so strange, I’m ill and slow like wading through darkness and then he goes through my window and again I’m alone on my bed and I don’t know what to do but Lucy I keep remembering Lucy.”

My Year in Lists: Albums and Miscellany

It may be coming so late that it's almost certainly no longer relevant, but I've invested a little too much time in this not to publish at this point. But at least the month that has elapsed between 2011 and now has given me chance to take stock a little, and bring what I really like to the top of the pile. Spotify playlist here.

15. Cliff Martinez – Drive OST
A resounding success with both critics and audiences this year, Nicolas Refn’s Drive depicted a stylistic view of the 80s that probably never existed in reality. Likewise, much of the movie’s soundtrack sounded distinctly neon-retro, but you’d be hard pressed to name a single group from the 80s that sounds much like anything on here. Cliff Martinez’s score is accompanied by five other remarkably cohesive tracks, including the excellent Real Hero by College. False nostalgia never sounded so good.

14. Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
Mogwai are now 15 years deep into the post-rock game and are unlikely to win the mainstream over with their own particular brand of soaringly epic but difficult guitar music. As such it’s easy to dismiss any new record by the band as “just another Mogwai record”, and this is probably why 2011’s preposterously titled Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will is so criminally underrated. I’m determined that this record should be paid its dues – it’s subtle yet powerful and stands up to repeated listening as much as any record Mogwai have ever produced. Plus any album with a song named Thatcher Square Death Party deserves no small amount of praise. Album highlight is undoubtedly the glorious How To Be A Werewolf, which is the sonic equivalent of flying over the Grand Canyon on a massive fucking eagle.

13. Katy B – On A Mission
Is Katy B dubstep’s poster girl? Possibly, yes. But she’s also much more than that. On A Mission is one of the really great pop records of the past few years, simply because it’s obvious that Katy B wants to be something more than just a pop star. She may have attended Brit school, but Katy has also been a feature on the dubstep and pirate radio scenes in London for some time. That she has managed to convert the grimy London underworld into an excellent pop record is testament to both Katy B herself and the producers she has worked with, creating beats for a wider audience without compromising themselves. It’s certainly better than the Magnetic Man debut, which attempted to do very much the same thing. Bleuch, that was just kitsch.

12. Yuck – Yuck
This was a record where all of the laziest and most obvious comparisons were also the most true. Yup, Dinosaur Jr., My Bloody Valentine and Pavement were all there; to have garnered comparisons with so many lofty names speaks well for Yuck. This debut was a distinctly guitar filled album in a year where guitar music was supposedly dead, but what it shows is that certain things never go out of fashion. There will always be moody boys who like to play with a shedload of distortion whilst staring at their shoes. So be it when it sounds this good.

11.  Wavves – Life Sux EP
It seems like I was the only person who really wanted to give this a favourable review of this EP, but I give absolutely no apologies for it whatsoever. The blend of Weezer, Blink 182 and Dinosaur Jr. was an addictive one, that stood up surprisingly well to repeated listening. Fucked Up’s Father Damian makes an appearance, as does Wavves’ girlfriend, Best Coast singer Bethany Constantino. No matter how good this EP is though, he’s not quite good enough for her.

10. Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver
It’s a Bon Iver album, what honestly were the chances it wasn’t going make this list?

9. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It & See
Suck It & See was something of a return to form for Arctic Monkeys after the lacklustre tones of 2009’s heavy Humbug. Now longer with Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme on board as a producer (though he does guest on a few tracks here), this effort from the Sheffield scamps is an altogether breezier affair, though it still retains some of their last record’s 70s-indebted rock pomp (see Brick by Brick). The focus here is squarely on songcraft, possibly as a consequence of Alex Turner’s role as folky busker man on the soundtrack to 2010’s Richard Ayoade film, Submarine. The album still features the dry wit and excellent wordplay that Turner made his name on, albeit in a more obtuse package (“home sweet home, home sweet home, home sweet booby trap” anyone?). Suck It & See is the sound of a band not allowing themselves to be pigeonholed and making a great success of a slightly different direction, so sing another fucking shalalala if you please.

8. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
The curse of the Mercury Music Prize used to state that anyone who won the UK industry prize was henceforth banished to obscurity. This has not been the case of late and this year PJ Harvey became the first artist to win the award on two separate occasions, this time with her study on human conflict, Let England Shake. Exploring the personal stories of soldiers throughout the ages, the record was bleak but permeated by a lonely, tragic beauty (I refuse to use the phrase “achingly beautiful” for anything these days, I’ve read The Stool Pigeon). The album was different to anything released by Harvey before, largely as a consequence of her decision to write most of the record on an instrument known as an autoharp. The effect, whilst a world apart from her earlier punky blues work, was powerful, but perhaps not subtle, leading to accusations of heavy-handedness from some quarters. The music, however, worked perfectly as a metaphor for the lyrical content, which came on similarly strong (“soldiers fall like loaves of meat”, Harvey sings on The Words That Maketh Murder). It might not be pretty, but it sure is beautiful.

7. Jay-Z and Kanye West – Watch The Throne
That a record celebrating impossible wealth and improbable decadence did so well both critically and commercially in the year of austerity is testament to how great the record actually sounds. After the commercial success but critical failure of Blueprint 3, Jay seems to have discovered his mojo somewhat, trading lines with Kanye in an addictive call and response manner that’s been missing from commercial hip-hop for some time. The exuberance of both artists shines through, as they take on beats covering everything from soul (Otis, which is essentially a piece that says: “look at the samples I can afford!”) to commercial dubstep (Who Gon’ Stop Me). Quite which of them gets to sit on the throne I’m not sure, but I’m confident that collectively they’ve claimed it.

6. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
M83 have never ceased to be ambitious; their synths set to “epic”, their guitars to “soaring”, and their spiel? Well, either grandiose or pretentious, depending on your perspective, after all, M83 claim that every record they produce is created as the soundtrack to some imaginary movie. It will come as no surprise then, for those familiar with the work of Anthony Gonzales and his cohorts, that their latest album comes in the form of a two-disc song cycle about the nature of dreams and contains a song, narrated by a child, about a hallucinogenic experience brought about by the poking of a frog. Strewth, this album is beginning to sound more like a creation of some 70s prog behemoth rather than a group most recently known for appealing electropop and songs about teenage love. Some would have suggested that M83 had overreached themselves in the creation of such a record, but the band really have managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with an album that manages to be simultaneously joyous, epic and tuneful.

5. Nicolas Jaar – Space is Only Noise
Nicolas Jaar’s debut is electronic music, certainly, but dance music? Probably not. Although indebted both in terms of sonic influence and distribution channels to techno, house and UK bass music, this record is just too weird, too stuttering and downtempo to be danced to. It’s funky, laced with squelchy beats and interesting rhythms, but it won’t be soundtracking clubs any time soon. This is more like the music you listen to after the club; it’s the comedown, but by no means in the cheesy manner of late 90s chillout compilations. This is head music, beast heard in headphones and with an open mind. If the world was fair, Nicolas Jaar would have replaced James Blake as 2011’s weird but beautiful electronic music buzz boy. Perhaps the weirdness was just too much.

4. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres
Merely the first entry in a cycle of albums telling the story of an 18th century slave through avant-garde jazz and beat poetry, Coin Coin is as uncompromising as its description suggests. Bleak but somehow beautiful, it reflects the same pain and anguish found in Charles Mingus’ 1963 opus Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Permeated throughout by Roberts’ visceral cries and chilling spoken word narratives, this is an uneasy but thoroughly rewarding listen. Building to climax after climax using repeated phrases, both musical and vocal, Coin Coin’s main strength lies in how it completely absorbs the listener into the main character’s world, the music evoking spectacularly well the tone set by the narrative. If you challenge yourself to listen to one avant-garde jazz album this year (why wouldn’t you?) then you’d struggle to do better than this sublime effort from a talent with a singular vision.

3. The Jezabels – Prisoner
The Jezabels have found themselves occupying a special place in my heart, as anyone who read my live review of a few months ago will know. Is it any surprise then that this album made the list? Well, yes it is actually. Initially I was disappointed and underwhelmed with their debut, which lacked the instant appeal of their swirling, gorgeous EPs. Fast forward six months, however, and I’ve fallen head over heels in love with them again. The brooding sounds of Prisoner burrowed their way into my ahead and my iPod’s top 25 most played list, and I now proclaim it as a triumph, epic yet still anchored in the best pop songwriting. Fantastic musicianship and production? Check. Choruses a mile wide? Check. A singer to die for? Checkmate.

2. Real Estate – Days
Over the past couple of years Real Estate have quietly and unassumingly carved themselves a niche in producing meticulously crafted but breezy sun-kissed west coast melodies, despite coming from New Jersey. This, their sophomore record trod much the same path as their 2009 debut, though in a much more refined and cohesive manner. Echoes of much of the last fifty years of melodic guitar music can be heard in this record, which channels Pavement as much as it does Teenage Fanclub or The Byrds. Thematically, Days is concerned with the rose tint that youthful halcyon days acquire only in retrospect; “our careless lifestyle, it was not so unwise” lead singer Martin Courtney croons on Green Aisles. Understated but not simplistic, Days celebrates an idyll that all of us have yearned for at some point. If we never truly achieve it again, we can at least take comfort in knowing that Real Estate can take us there for a few short moments.

1. The Weeknd Trilogy
It’s very rare these days that artists arrive fully evolved into the public consciousness. In the current climate where the next big thing is suddenly last week’s old thing, many artists arrive without having had the time they need to develop and find an identity. It was incredibly refreshing then to come across Toronto’s Abel Tesfaye & co, aka The Weeknd. House of Balloons seemed to come out of nowhere in March, riding a wave of internet hype that was, for once, fully deserved. The record was an astonishing accomplishment for such a young artist, and one with such an unusual spiel; complete amorality and dubiously consensual sex isn’t often met with such approval. The beauty of Tesfaye’s voice was contrasted sharply with the seedy ugliness found in his lyrics, backed by beautifully produced beats that transcend the genres of hip-hop and r&b of which they were borne. That Tesafaye managed to follow up House of Balloons with two more excellent full lengths within the space of nine months was simply breathtaking. Whilst the two subsequent records, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, didn’t have the same surprise factor, they were both equally well crafted takes on unusual contemporary r&b, each with a subsequently darker bent. The Weeknd are in my opinion the act of the year, and I simply can’t wait to find out where they go next, even if it is deeper into the recesses of hell.

There are a few other things I want to mention that I haven't written about, so here goes:
Wild Beasts – Smother (album) – Cumbrian shriekers calm down, discover synths and stuff.
Two Inch Punch – Love You Up (EP) – UK bass remixer wants to steal your woman
Wu Lyf – Go Tell Fire To A Mountain (album) – Moody Manc kid shreds his vocal chords.
James Blake – Enough Thunder (EP) – Golden boy rediscovers abstract surges of bass.
SBTRKT feat. Little Dragon – Wildfire (track) – Beautifully poppy dubstep (contradiction in terms).
Daft Punk – Drive (track) – Rediscovered gem you’ll love it if you don’t get a migraine.
Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know (album) – Songstress is tuneful.
Dinky – Time To Lose It (EP) – On which “this is your heart” sounds like “fish and chip start.”
Gotye – Somebody That I Used To Know (track) – Creepyish video, great song.
Austra – Feel It Break (album) – Like La Roux never happened in Canada.
Beyonce – Countdown (track) – She sure makes great videos.
Radiohead – Lotus Flower (track) – During which Thom Yorke has a seizure.
Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact (album) – Prince meets Cocteau Twins. Even creepier than it sounds.
DJ Marky – Fabriclive 55 (live mix) – Drum & bass isn’t dead, honestly.
Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean (album) – Possible religious nut still makes nice music.