Thursday, 9 February 2012

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.