Top 15 Albums of 2009 (5 – 1)

5.

Islands – Vapours

Key Tracks – Disarming The Car Bomb, Vapours, Switched On, Heartbeat

A mastery of obscure story-telling (buying drugs from suspicious characters and trying to defuse explosives form two of the tracks), which complements the light and generally unobtrusive pop that backs it. Rewards extra listens as each subliminal riff is unwrapped, Nick Thorburn fuses the advantages of electronica, pop and indie guitars to maximum effect for the most part, though the material lapses into repetition later on, causing the end of the album to drag despite the lean tracks.

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4.

Fanfarlo – Reservoir

Key Tracks – The Walls Are Coming Down, I’m A Pilot, Fire Escape, Harold T. Wilkins

Fanfarlo came out of nowhere for me. In terms of sublimely passionate debut folk albums at least I was given a heads-up about Mumford & Sons. The vocals sound as if Fanfarlo are calling their audience to a peaceful rally, a sit around the campfire to celebrate company and peaceful natural times. Not as consistent throughout the album as might be hoped for, but in terms of debut quality this does as well as Fleet Foxes.

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3.

Various Artists – Dark Was The Night

Key Tracks – Deep Blue Sea (Grizzly Bear), Sleepless (The Decemberists), Lua (Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch), So Far Around The Bend (The National)

You could just read the cast-list on the back of the album in awe, or you could get down to the nitty-gritty of listening to this 31 track epic. A spectacular ride through the current North American indie rock/folk scene, hopefully forming a stepping stone of popularity between the 00s and 10s for the genre. The acts involved are so good that 50:50 ratio of success to failure would still make it pretty incredible, and that’s about what you get. Disc 1 is more consistent than Disc 2, and also contains many of the highlights, but Disc 2 should certainly not be overlooked.

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2.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More

Key Tracks – Thistle & Weeds, Little Lion Man, The Cave, Timshel

The emotion that oozes from Marcus Mumford’s voice is what carries this album. That’s not to say a bad word against the clever folk guitars, banjo and all, or the lyrics, which weave tales of loss and love, striving to describle the indescribable. But somehow the focus is not on the instruments or the words, because the power or fragility (the movement between the two is unexpected in its subtlety) that really takes this album past its competitors in the field of seasonal moods and post-Fleet Foxes yearning. The “swelling rage” of White Blank Page and Little Lion Man is dealt with as beautifully as the quieter tracks.

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1.

Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest

Key Tracks – Southern Point, While You Wait For The Others, Two Weeks, Foreground

OK, yes, I did originally underestimate this as an album too concerned with building overarching moods to care about the hooks and the surprises. There are parts of the album where this holds true, where the connections between the instruments are perfect but lack a certain immediacy. But with more listens I’ve realised something, if the weak tracks on an album are merely unengagingly perfect, then it is difficult to truly complain about the album. Veckatimest both offers an artful mood (on the likes of Dory and All We Ask), and produces individually spectacular songs (Southern Point, Two Weeks). Knowing that the band specialize in tone can sometimes take away from the riffs themselves, and if on first listen you miss out on just how special the guitarwork on While You Wait For The Others is, you need to give it more time. Like a good game of Pass the Parcel, with each turn more is unwrapped, with each increasing layer offering more surprises. A truly special album and DEFINITELY BETTER THAN MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION!

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Top 15 Albums of 2009 (10 – 6)

10.

Rain Machine – Rain Machine

Key Tracks – Give Blood, Hold You Holy, Free Ride

There’s a beautiful lead-back feeling throughout most of Kyp Malone’s first solo effort. The swirl of simple clean guitar and African-inspired percussion gets repetitive near the end of the album, as the pace starts to dip, but the individual tracks are skilfully built up. Though the length of songs such as “Desperate Bitch” give the album a slow-burning feel, so it is imperative to keep attention focused on Malone’s soulful tones and sly lyrics to ensure the album never gets tedious.

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9.

Kasabian – West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum

Key Tracks – Underdog, Vlad The Impaler, Fast Fuse

There is a particularly strong mood running through Kasabian’s third album. A swagger that is much more difficult to achieve than it may first seem. The album is largely consistent, and Kasabian are happy to mix up their styles and drop musical red herrings (see the opening to “Fast Fuse”) before getting down to the business of delivering track after fist-pumping track that drips passion and confidence.  Dumb and brash, yes, but infectious too.

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8.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Key Tracks – Daniel, Moon And Moon, Siren Song

There has been a lot of attention given to “Daniel”, I’ve noticed, and deservedly so. But doing so at the expense of the rest of the album would be doing it a disservice. There is much to enjoy, as Natasha Khan’s stunning vocals shape around dark, moody electronica. The overriding solar theme represents isolation and desire to connect in much the same way as classics such as “Space Oddity”. A consistent, often surprising album.

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7.

Jarvis Cocker – Further Complications

Key Tracks – Angela, Further Complications, I Never Said I Was Deep

So, maybe the Pulp hiatus will be going on a bit longer than we imagined. The insanely cool Jarvis Cocker has produced a second solo effort than improves upon the last in nearly every aspect, and is as clever and vitriolic as any Pulp record. Cocker vocally leaps around standard Britrock guitar, mixing up shouts of anguish with grumpily delivered non-sequiters. Your enjoyment of this album will depend on whether you consider “I met you in the museum of palaeontology/ And I make no bones about it” to be sickeningly embarrassing or one of the best pieces of lyricism you’ve heard all year.

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6.

The Decemberists – The Hazards Of Love

Key Tracks – The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid, The Hazards Of Love 1, The Rake’s Song

The Decemberists doing a concept album about the pains of infatuation… what’s new? Well, musically, the interweaving threads and repeated phrases are interesting and do not grow wearisome, whilst Colin Meloy’s vocals range admirably from soft to hard as and when the story demands. The Decemberists have always been good at weaving tales together, but this, I feel, is them at their peak, testing out small chunks of material and then mixing them in between and around each other to great effect.

Top 15 Albums of 2009 (15 – 11)

I have noticed that, of late, I have avoided writing anything of substance and descended into a roll-call of endless lists that are collectively of very little use or function. Now, considering we are coming to both the end of a year and the end of a decade, I think that this is reasonable, as I am attempting to create some sort of summation of all the music that has come before. Thus I present a list of a little more standing than an ordinary Wednesday Countdown, the top 15 albums of 2009, which will be presented in three parts, five albums apiece.

Just to be clear, yes, I know that Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion isn’t on this list. Want to know why it isn’t on this list? Because it is exasperatingly ordinary and mostly dull. If you want to complain about this state of affairs, don’t bother, people who think MPP is better than Veckatimest seem to be in the majority, so rather than argue, just quote the number of publications that have put Animal Collective as No. 1 album of 2009. I am also aware that albums that I’m sure will appeal to me but I haven’t got round to listening to yet (Dirty Projectors, Phoenix, Atlas Sound, Dinosaur Jr.) may well be better than the album I have at number 15. So the comprehensiveness of this list should also be called into question. But whatever, I don’t think I should pull apart my own work, good as I am at doing so.

Anyway, list.

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15.

Wilco – Wilco (The Album)

Key Tracks – Wilco (The Song), You And I

Fans of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot will be dispirited by the turn towards pop, and in this case the relationship between “pop” and “dull” holds fairly true. Light and uncomplicated fare, Wilco show that they can do the simple stuff well to distract from how simple it is. Jeff Tweedy shows that his vocals are good enough to lead where once they would simply have accompanied, which is worthy of note in itself.

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14.

The Antlers – Hospice

Key Tracks – Two, Kettering

Though I personally don’t feel the deep emotion the melancholic music is trying to convey, I can certainly tell the skill involved, and the haughty ambitions are achieved spectacularly on “Two” (if not on some of the longer songs such as “Atrophy” and “Wake”). Often threatens to collapse under layers of pretension, but the sincerity of the writers prevents this from ever actually happening.

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13.

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

Key Tracks – Avalon Or Someone Very Similar, Periodically Triple Or Double

The album as a whole is imbalanced by a closing three tracks each going well over nine minutes, and seems to comprise mostly of droning indifference. This takes away a little from the opening half of the album, which is a clever, varied mixture of tracks that retains attention by ensuring unpredictability. The organisation may have been haphazard, but there is still plenty to enjoy from YLT’s seemingly endless invention.

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12.

Andrew Bird – Noble Beast

Key Tracks – Fitz and the Dizzyspells, Effigy

This is not exactly a disappointing album, but you expect Andrew Bird to extend himself more than he does here. There are certainly good tracks, and all of the trademarks of an Andrew Bird record are in place, but somehow it doesn’t do anything spectacular enough to warrant attention. Not that it does anything particularly wrong either, it’s just the sort of decent album that I can’t fault specifically, and definitely enjoyable, but is somehow too lightweight.

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11.

Them Crooked Vultures – Them Crooked Vultures

Key Tracks – No One Loves Me And Neither Do I, New Fang

It was an interesting experiment, pulling Gods of Rock from three generations together and seeing what they could come up with. Less than the sum of its parts, but only because the parts (Grohl! Homme! John Paul Jones!) were pretty damn good to start with. Stripped down but punchy, it parallels the best of QOTSA, but misses a bit of variety and changes in pace or mood.

The Wednesday Countdown: The English are waiting and I don’t know what to do

Annoyingly, by the time this is posted, it will be after 11pm, which according to the Laws of Time is Thursday. I may be a physicist, but I’m afraid even I can’t change the Laws of Time without reversing the polarity of the neutron flow. So let me assure you that although it may appear to be a Thursday Countdown it is, and always will be, a Wednesday Countdown.

Right, after last week’s Radiohead-fest I thought it would only be fair (for reasons of balance) to offer up a National-fest. By way of comparison, and such and such. I mean, I’m sure nearly everybody will claim that there is no comparing the two bands but still, my list is an awesome collection of tunes, and they are three albums down on Radiohead. So I dunno. Give them time. LP5 is just round the corner ‘n’ all.

So yes, here are my 20 favourite tracks by The National, complete with Last.FM links for persuing, and with an awesome live video of my favourite.

20. Theory Of The Crows (The National)
19. Slipping Husband (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers)
18. Gospel (Boxer)
17. Lucky You (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers)
16. 90 Mile Water Wall (Sad Song For Dirty Lovers)
15. Fake Empire (Boxer)
14. Available (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers)
13. Mr. November (Alligator)
12. Mistaken For Strangers (Boxer)
11. Karen (Alligator)
10. Bitters & Absolut (The National)
9. Cherry Tree (Cherry Tree EP)
8. Abel (Alligator)
7. So Far Around The Bend (Dark Was The Night Compilation)
6. Secret Meeting (Alligator)
5. Murder Me Rachael (Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers)
4. Apartment Story (Boxer)
3. Friend Of Mine (Alligator)
2. All The Wine (Aligator)
1. Brainy (Boxer)

Albums I discovered (Mid Nov – Mid Dec)

I now realise that that is a terrible way to describe the process of selecting albums to be used on this post. Albums I discovered? Like I am some form of music archaeologist, unearthing new albums by digging up Burial sites (if anybody laughed at that joke, I’m even more disappointed in you than I am in myself).

So, new setup! I will now list all the albums that I first listened to during the last month (that I remember at least), and give personal ratings on each based on the minimal listening I have given. I will also select one of the albums and write a full-length review of it. I imagine mostly I’ll write it in the same post as the ratings. However, I shall not be doing that today, due to business. But be safe in the knowledge that a proper album review of one of the following albums will appear on this blog within the next few days. Unless I don’t write it. In which case it won’t.

of Montreal – Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer? (8.5/10)

Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs (5.5/10)

Fanfarlo – Reservoir (8/10)

Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (9/10)

The Most Serene Republic – …And The Ever Expanding Universe (6/10)

Beach House – Teen Dream (8/10)

Frightened Rabbit – Sing The Greys (6.5/10)

Seeing as the Beach House album isn’t out for another month or so, it may be pertinent of me to produce a review of that, to go alongside those of people who actually, y’know, know how to write. Either way, I think the point of this is to implore you to check out Yo La Tengo, Beach House, Of Montreal and Fanfarlo. Seems reasonable.

Also, you should check out the Last.FM links I’ve left with each album, as you may well receive samples of the music. Wouldn’t that be nice? Seeing as Teen Dream isn’t out yet there is no Last.FM page for it, instead you are linked to an early Stereogum review of it, which may prove informative and just an all-round lovely thing to read.

Portishead – Chase The Tear

Yes, I know, a second post in one day? This is madness! There is a reason, however, and it is not Sparta. It is a little proof on my part that sometimes, every now and again, I am on the cutting edge of what is Hip and Happening. In this case, I refer to a new Portishead track which they have recorded for the human rights organisation Amnesty International. The song will be available for download from tomorrow, but a video has become available which showcases the oddly-titled “Chase The Tear” in all its glory. Video below.

Wow. Holy… Did that just happen, you guys? It did. Well…

Not sure about you, but I was addicted on first listen. Beth Gibbons can do haunting, tortured vocals in her sleep (which may explain why nobody wants to stay a night at the Gibbons household), and of course it’s hugely impressive, but that is about par for the course for Portishead. It’s the beats that back it, the slowly entering horn stabs and that constantly racing drone, the keyboards barely change in terms of melody but it changes in texture and form as cries of “holding off tomorrow’s sorrow” eminent around loose clean guitar. That’s what makes this stand out so forcefully. This is “We Carry On” mixed with the Countdown theme. It almost feels like a race against the clock, towards an indeterminable finish line.

I had to share this with you. I just had to. We can assume, perhaps, that this track is considered not good enough for their fourth album, a reasonable assessment, and one that leaves me praying to the gods of Quantum that I happen to be in the parallel universe where this comes out in 2010. Magic is at work here. Enjoy it while it lasts.

The Wednesday Countdown: The Beat Goes Round And Round

The year is coming to an end, and what that means to the people that matter, is that the popular Radiohead fan forum, Mortigi Tempo, are about to run the 5th of their annual polls to find the top 100 Radiohead songs of all time. This weeks Wednesday Countdown is dedicated to “Test Tones” Sam, who has gone through the great struggle of compiling all the lists from users on the forum and turning them into neat tables and graphs, and who we all hope will repeat these exertions this year. Here are my top 20 Radiohead songs, in order, with absolutely no shocks involved for anybody who knows me. Feel free to post your anger below. Oh, and make a note that for the title I used a lyric from a song that isn’t even on my list. I’m crazy, me!

20. The Amazing Sounds Of Orgy (Amnesiac B-Side)
19. No Surprises (OK Computer)
18. Bodysnatchers (In Rainbows)
17. True Love Waits (I Might Be Wrong Live)
16. Just (The Bends)
15. A Wolf At The Door (Hail To The Thief)
14. 2 + 2 = 5 (Hail To The Thief)
13. You And Whose Army? (Amnesiac)
12. Bangers & Mash (In Rainbows Disc 2)
11. Fake Plastic Trees (The Bends)
10. 15 Step (In Rainbows)
9. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi (In Rainbows)
8. Cuttooth (Amnesiac B-Side)
7. Airbag (OK Computer)
6. Idioteque (Kid A)
5. The National Anthem (Kid A)
4. Paranoid Android (OK Computer)
3. How To Disappear Completely (Kid A)
2. There There (Hail To The Thief)
1. Subterranean Homesick Alien (OK Computer)

This is the 42nd post I have made to this blog, interestingly. OK, it wasn’t that interesting. Anyway, leave angry comments below, and take a little time, if you will, to ponder the fact that there are more Amnesiac B-Sides on this list than actual Amnesiac tracks.