Great Years In Music – 2005

The 2nd Great Year in Music is celebrating a year very much close to home. If the past is a foreign country, then 2005 would be a bordering land, one we affectionately mock and have rivalries with in a variety of sports. Unlike 1997 there was not a great broadening of genres, or progression of mainstream attitudes. What occurred in the middle of the recently-deceased decade was a specific genre from a specific country producing a number of excellent records, the volume and quality of which are astounding considering the mere 52 weeks that bands had to release them. Yes, yet again I turn to perhaps my favourite music movement, the great American Indie-Rock scene.

At the time I was just 15, slowly feeling my way into music geekery, content with the bare minimum Radiohead, Muse and The White Stripes, who released “Get Behind Me Satan” in June, a record which was down on their best work but still had the band’s classic pulsating power and addictive simplicity in spades. I’ve been catching up on 2005’s treats for the last few years, and given that I was a depressed teenage outcast at the time, maybe some of the downtrodden lyrics that typified the core of the scene would have hit home a little more.

That feeling of wishing I had poked and pried a little more behind the obvious choices when I was younger is no more acute than with The National, who I have spent the last 18 months listening to with growing awe and a mounting suspicion that I could have used their baritone magnificence earlier in life. Though their first album on a label that wasn’t their own, “Alligator”, didn’t cause much of a buzz when it was released in April of this year, it has swelled to become almost the definition of the term “a grower”, not giving away all its secrets too early and savouring the cerebral, the joyously inventive yet immature. It celebrates the adolescent mind trapped in an adult body, paranoid (“Secret Meeting”), drunkenly invincible (“All The Wine”) and abrasively neurotic (“Abel”) in equal measure, dripping in gorgeously obtuse lyrics and spidery Smiths-esque guitar lines. Easily my favourite album of 2005, probably the pinnacle of its genre and a serious contender for one of my all-time top five albums, it bears many similarities to its competitors in terms of style, but none match it for quality.

The majority of said competitors that were released in 2005 came from the same stable of American narrative-weaving indie. The one most commonly mentioned is Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois”, although personally I find it flat and extravagant. This may be a little to do with the expectations which surround it, as it certainly has moments of quality and surprising profundity, but these moments are hidden behind irritating smarm. Still, it is one of the best critically-received albums of all time, and transformed Sufjan Stevens, deservedly or otherwise, into the indie darling he is today.

Whilst Stevens was blowing folk out of proportion, there was a background resurgence in a more intimate and compelling style of folk, courtesy of Andrew Bird and Conor Oberst. Oberst’s band Bright Eyes simultaneously released two albums “Digital Ash In A Digital Urn” and “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning”, with the latter being particularly worthy of note. At times haunting, from the insecure spoken-word opening of “At The Bottom Of Everything” to the Beethoven-infused “Road To Joy”, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning” is consistent and shows Oberst’s capability at mixing simple, single-guitar folk with more monumental fare without making the record feel too scatter-gun. Andrew Bird’s “The Mysterious Production Of Eggs” is less consistent, but it hits similar highs, especially on “Fake Palindromes” with its rising strings and rhythms and its central call of “she’s got blood in her eyes, in her eyes for you”.

The wave of complex indie-rock that sailed through the decade was spearheaded, some might say, by collectives as opposed to static bands. Few bands have a line-up as fluid as Broken Social Scene, who released a self-titled album this year, which alongside “You Forgot It In People” formed one of the decade’s most lauded one-two combos. Another collective, Wolf Parade, (whose lead singer Spencer Krug has become a less visible version of Jack White amongst the indie landscape) upstaged this record, however, with their debut “Apologies To The Queen Mary”. Though it followed in the footsteps of much of the early decade of indie music, Modest Mouse in particular, the individual tracks hit a high enough quality to really make it stand out in the crowd, and the emotion worn by both the frantic guitars and Krug’s mournful vocals shot the album straight into the hearts of thousands. It would be a stretch to refer to My Morning Jacket as a collective, despite Jim James’ often erratic personal work, but it would not be a stretch to call “Z” an exceptional album that took on board enough prog to accommodate their talent but balanced it with classic rock skilfully enough to avoid alienating the audience.

The other ever-shifting band of note, although at the time they were not at all of note, as life-long fans are at pains to point out, are Animal Collective, who converged often enough in 2005 to release “Feels”, which went under the radar of many until “Merriweather Post Pavilion” last year, when suddenly all manner of hipsters were claiming it had always been their favourite album.

Other American indie bands were churning out excellent albums at the same time, the ever-reliable Spoon released “Gimme Fiction”, The Decemberists cemented their oddball persona with “Picaresque”, Beck put out the steady (if unspectacular by comparison) “Guero” and Okkervil River announced themselves fully with “Black Sheep Boy”, as unnerving as it is beautiful. Most other years these would be riding high in memory and in stature, but for 2005, this was merely the B-material.

And as this wealth of high-quality but narrowly-genred albums came about, there was going to be someone who came along to dig a little fun at it. And aren’t we all glad it was James Murphy who decided to do that? LCD Soundsystem’s self-titled debut infused electro-rock with a shock of danceable delights, daring the introverted indie kids to let loose to the pounding “Tribulations” or the emphatically swaggering “Daft Punk Is Playing At My House”.

It would be churlish to completely overlook the British influence on the year, miniscule as it was in comparison. There arrived in 2005 two debuts which borrowed (read: stole) many ideas from bands from the past, often quite blatantly, but nevertheless caused a great sensation not just because they harked back to past masters but because they really brought them tearing into the new decade with aplomb. Kasabian’s self-titled debut gave Stone Roses’ fans a more relevant Second Coming, showcasing a viral swagger and making themselves known with forceful persistence and the odd controversial NME interview, whilst Bloc Party introduced themselves with “Silent Alarm”, a selection of classic rock shout-outs that, at its best, were powerful, smart and moving.

Outside my personal genre of preference there was more to discover. Kanye West almost lived up to his own hype with “Late Registration”, Sigur Ros had critics frothing at the mouth yet again with “Takk”, Kate Bush made a welcome return, her “Aerial” was close (but not close enough for some) to her best. But I must admit that it isn’t because of these albums that I put 2005 in my series of Great Years. It is because this year represented the undoubted height of a tidal wave of American indie records that has engrossed me ever since my discovery (which, alas, came a couple of years too late). It is my great wish that half a decade on some of these bands, and their successors, can coalesce to reproduce this fantastic year. And looking at some of the anticipated 2010 albums, that wish might not be so far-fetched…

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Owen Pallett – Heartland

Dropping the name “Final Fantasy” and replacing it with his own is a step in the right direction for Owen Pallett. It signifies that he is willing to step out from behind the veil and show himself and his personality off without fear. The likes of Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear and Beirut may have been blessed by his golden strings in the past, but by releasing a record under his own name, Pallett seems finally ready to show a piece of himself.

It is odd, then, that “Heartland” sounds more complex and layered than not only Pallett’s previous work, but damn near everything else that can be heard these days. It is a shock at first to hear the skill of a single person wrought large across a cinematic landscape of luscious strings and tones. Pallett has brought his personality to bear on the music he crafts.

But what is his personality? Judging by “Heartland”, it is one with haughty aims, not just for the operatic, but also for the integration between the operatic and the joyfully addictive. Whilst the opening few tracks are something of a slog to get through, the bleakly catchy syncopation of “Keep The Dog Quiet” notwithstanding, Pallett relaxes the listener as the album progresses, and saves some of the best tracks for the back-end of the record.

Though the first half of the album has plenty of highlights, Pallett begins to unfold his music into the realms of magic from “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” onwards. Suddenly a narrative thread is introduced, giving credence to the suggestions that this album has a Heaven/Hell style concept. The titular Heartland that at this point in the album seemed to be a wondrous place of beauty and isolation (not unlike the island Veckatimest that Grizzly Bear focused on last year) is shunned by the protagonist, Lewis. This thread runs through the rebellious “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” and the ultimately uplifting (despite its place amongst the concept) “Tryst With Mephistopheles”.

It feels as though a monumental amount of work was put into this album, because not a single thing sounds out of place. The tempo and balance remain faultless throughout, even the off-putting rhythms of “Flare Gun”, which comes across as a demented Fantasia outtake, do not knock the listener out of stride. “Heartland” is ambitiously ornate, but accessible for the most part, creating a classical/pop crossover album that does not sound as if it is forcing itself into that category. And the moods sway from optimism to pessimism (note the contrast between the closing two tracks) cleverly enough to make it appear that the style is constantly evolving as the album progresses.

Really, Heartland is an exceptional album that stutters at the start to achieve its lofty targets, but has a breathtaking second half. Every element that makes up its composition, all the simple but necessary things, has been expertly put in place by Pallett, whose ethereal vocals and charmingly ambivalent lyricism should not be overlooked simply because the melodies create to assist it are so luscious. A true all-round victory for The Former Mr. Fantasy.

The Wednesday Countdown: A Spineless Laugh

Oh dear. Two Wednesday Countdowns in two posts means only one thing. I have gone a whole week without writing anything, which is a shame, because I seem to have been enjoying more music recently than for a long while. Unfortunately, it has coincided with exams, so I don’t write while I listen. But there are many plans in my mind for future posts, starting with reviews of the new Owen Pallett, Beach House and Vampire Weekend albums, leading into my next Great Year In Music (2005) and culminating in a post observing how well the anticipated releases in 2010 have been received, with updates on news for future releases.

For now, however, I have a list designed to unnerve, to be spine-chilling. My top 20 most unsettling songs ever, maximum one per artist (its worth noting that clearly I enjoy this music particularly, as I have managed to get 20 as opposed to the usual 10). These are not the best songs that happen to carry the air of tension necessary for inclusion, but the songs that do that particular job the best. Emotion is always important in music, and a track that can, on its own, create an atmosphere of unease, is probably one of the most challenging types of song to create.

Not all of the songs I have selected are necessarily based on the tone of the music, they do not all carry the same eeriness that an “unsettling song” might infer. It may be down to the lyrics, or just a personal attachment to the song. In one case, it is not the song itself, but the connection between the song and the death of its writer that creates the necessary shivers. In another, there is no music, but the spectral arpeggiated backing vocals and the heart-breaking lyrics make up for it totally.

Anyway, the point is, this list is personal, and therefore you cannot argue with it. But please leave your own favourite unsettling songs in the comment box below.

Top 20 Unsettling Songs:

20. Frightened Rabbit – My Backwards Walk

19. Massive Attack – Inertia Creeps

18. The Smiths – How Soon Is Now?

17. REM – Daysleeper

16. My Morning Jacket – Dondante

15. Mumford & Sons – Thistle & Weeds

14. Blur – No Distance Left To Run

13. Bright Eyes – Lua

12. Broken Social Scene – Lover’s Spit

11. Modest Mouse – 3rd Planet

10. Grizzly Bear – Knife

9. Jeff Buckley – Mojo Pin

8. Neutral Milk Hotel – Two Headed Boy

7. Hope Of The States – Me Ves Y Sufres

6. The National – Lucky You

5. Joy Division – Love Will Tear Us Apart

4. Pink Floyd – Brain Damage

3. TV On The Radio – Ambulance

2. Portishead – Threads

1. Radiohead – Exit Music (For A Film)

If you know me, then you probably could have guessed the number 1. I was a wafer away from handing the same son two Wednesday Countdowns in a row, but, inevitably, the beautifully melodramatic lyrics coupled with a near-silence slowly builds into a cacophony of hatred, directed at the unknown “You” won the day in the end. The point where the fuzz bass first hits in still gives me the creeps (pun intended), but Radiohead could easily have made up a top 20 unsettling songs list all on their own. Placing Exit Music above How To Disappear Completely was a tough choice for me, but although HTDC is better, it remains too beautiful, a pearly apparition. Climbing Up The Walls, Street Spirit (Fade Out), Fog and 4 Minute Warning are all worthy of note in this category, but somehow it is possible for me to overlook their unnerving effect by appreciating their quality. With Exit Music I can’t even go a whole listen through without shivering at the sentiment.

The Wednesday Countdown: Post-Millennial Post-Party

The end of the end. A final track is always important, it can define whether an album starts well but falls into mediocrity, or whether it is consistent throughout. It also assists stepping an album up from being merely good to being great. The best closing tracks will offer a climax that makes the whole feel like an event, as well as working within their own right. They have to properly end the album, so as to make it the cohesive, accomplished whole many artists crave to create. A closing track that encourages the listener to go back to the start for another listen is always welcome.

My criteria here is that the song is a combination of three things, a good song in its own right, a track that sufficiently closes the album (thus the final 30 seconds are key) but it most also appear to raise the level of the rest of the album that has preceded it. I’ve decided that for starters I will make a list just of songs from 00s albums, and will maybe work my way backwards in the coming weeks. And, as ever, only one track per artist.

Top 10 Album Closers Of The 00’s

10. Fleet Foxes – Oliver James

9. My Morning Jacket – Dondante

8. My Brightest Diamond – Workhorse

7. Thom Yorke – Cymbal Rush

6. LCD Soundsystem – New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down

5. Laura Marling – Your Only Doll (Dora)

4. Radiohead – A Wolf At The Door

3. The National – Mr. November

2. Bon Iver – RE: Stacks

1. Portishead – Threads

The Video Bin 4

Sunday is starting to become official Video Bin day. So maybe I should change its name to Video Bin Sunday. But then I will be obliged. And I don’t like being obliged. That damn Wednesday Countdown has already given me one weekly obligation, a second would just kill me. Because I spend so much damn time and effort on these posts, y’know.

Things I have managed to conclude this morning:

  • Everything decomposes quicker than you want it to.
  • Charlie Brooker’s Screenwipe Series 2 was the best series of any TV show from the 00’s.
  • The second album by Foals is worth looking forward to.
  • The creator of the Chocolate Digestive is a God amongst mortals.
  • Fyfe Dangerfield is a lefty, which increases the amount of cool he has, which was already pretty high from having the world’s most amazing name.

Videos:

R.E.M. have been consistently amazing live for pretty much three decades. “The One I Love” has always been referred to as a high point of their career, and it comes off of my favourite R.E.M. album, “Document”, so it’s always good to see it played live when they could be playing exclusively more recent tracks from “Accelerate” etc. The new live album from Dublin may feel slightly unecessary considering it’d been less than 2 years since they last put out a live CD, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing.

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One of these years I really am gonna have to get myself down to Bonnaroo. Every year great artists bring their A Game, and I keep finding out about it on YouTube years later. Here’s one guy who’s always a laugh live, Andrew Bird, playing “Fake Palindromes” at the 2006 festival.

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Firstly, a shout-out to La Blogotheque, which have created probably my favourite YouTube channel for good music. I should’ve mentioned them earlier for giving us Grizzly Bear doing “Knife” a capella. But I didn’t. Anyway, here is Fyfe Dangerfield, showing us his solo skills. His first solo album is currently in the works, along with a third Guillemots album, which I hope will see Dangerfield morph from a guy with a couple of gems in his back catalogue to an artist of consitent brilliance.

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So yeah, Micheal Cera is in an Islands video. Yep.

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I highly recommend the new album “Heartland” by Owen Pallett (formerly known by the moniker “Final Fantasy”). You can see Pallett in action here, crafting a gorgeous cover of the Bloc Party song “This Modern Love”. Single-handedly making violins cool all over again.

Albums I Discovered (Mid Dec – Mid Jan)

This feature is starting to lose its interest to me. Firstly because it is not extensive enough (I never list all the albums I discovered in the month, just those I remember), secondly because often the rating or review I give the album differs from how I eventually feel about it after further listening and lastly because the ratings system is unnecessary to the max.

So let me just get this last, final, irrelevant “Albums I Discovered” out the way before I return, hopefully, to more interesting musical fare.

Vampire Weekend – Contra (11/20)

Yeasayer – Odd Blood (13/20)

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – F#A# (Infinity) (14/20)

Iron & Wine – Our Endless Numbered Days (16/20)

Johnny Flynn – A Larum (14/20)

Stephen Malkmaus – Real Emotional Trash (10/20)

Wilco – Sky Blue Sky (13/20)

Kevin Federline – Playing With Fire (1/20)

Great Years In Music – 1997

I sometimes feel bad that I lived through the release and evolution in the public and critical eye of certain albums, but never felt this impact myself due to young age. This feeling is most acute for the year 1997, it’s a feeling of emptiness, where nostalgia should be, there is lack of knowledge. My experiences of the time period must be felt second-hand.

Inspired by this, I will now commence with the first of what I hope will be a long and fruitful series of Great Years In Music.

Let’s get the obvious out the way. In June of 1997, Radiohead, who had already earned a decent reputation as one of the worlds most interesting alternative bands, unleashed “OK Computer”. Following the more genteel, palatable “The Bends”, it was the King of commercial curveballs, and was not de-throned from this position until Radiohead saw fit to release Kid A. That it topped so many end-of-year lists (as well as end-of-decade and end-of-eternity lists), it seemed the only place to start.

OK Computer formed a centrepiece of premillennial tension, giving a shout-out to adolescent confusion amidst Douglas Adams references and thinly veiled attacks on New Labour. The desire to suffocate under “a handshake of carbon monoxide” was the inspiration for much music to come. But putting aside the sheer influence OK Computer had on the music scene, the songs, taken simply as pieces of music, are still to this day immensely powerful and skilfully tender. 12 1/2 years is maybe not quite enough time to judge the timelessness of a record, but still, it’s a stretch to imagine the record not being as highly lauded in a decades time as it is now.

Critically and historically, OK Computer takes up a large chunk of 1997. But there is a wealth of genuinely classic releases to back up the Big Daddy. Britpop, though in its decline by now, went through a bit of a re-invention during 1997. Two of the biggest names from that movement, Blur and The Verve, brought out albums that defined their career. Firstly in February, Blur released a self-titled record which immediately dispensed with the usual swaggering recipe for Britpop and introduced a sense of fun, earnest at times, and with an unusual (at the time) penchant for lo-fi. Within seven glorious minutes (the opening two tracks are “Beetlebum” and “Song 2”) Blur had torn up what it was to be a Britpop band, and they were all the better for doing so. After the two stomping openers, the rest of the album can get forgotten about, but the strangely sweet ode to escaping loneliness “On Your Own” and the surprisingly bleak “Essex Dogs”, which showcases Damon Albarn’s capabilities at delivering razor-sharp spoken word wit should not be overlooked.

Later in the year, Britpop as an entity was yet again re-aligned by the release of “Urban Hymns”, The Verve getting the sort of commercial and cultural break that “A Storm In Heaven”, their debut, perhaps warranted more. The main noting point for the record is probably “Bittersweet Symphony”, which seemed to capture a shift in mood for the British public, or at least the music-listening public. The furore surrounding its use of Rolling Stones riffs did its image more good than one might have thought. More tender singles, such as “The Drugs Don’t Work”, written by Richard Ashcroft at his dying father’s bedside, and “Lucky Man” showed that British rock was turning over a new leaf from the stifling swagger of yesteryear.

And from the ashes of the dying Britpop phoenix came smarter genres, working against the established grain and getting recognition for it. Trip-hops flagship band Portishead followed up their debut “Dummy” with a more consistent and gloomy eponymous offering. Mogwai followed in the post-rock footsteps of Godspeed You! Black Emperor (whose influential second record “F#A#∞” was first released in August 1997) by putting out their debut, “Young Team” in October. My love of Portishead is well-documented, and Mogwai have put on consistently interesting albums for the past decade and a bit. It is fair to say that their efforts in ’97 brought them much reward.

The other side of the Atlantic had much to shout about also, most notably Foo Fighters bringing out what I consider to be their best album, “The Colour And The Shape”. It confirmed that the band would not be a post-Nirvana cool-down for Dave Grohl, and established the band as world-leaders in simple but effective rock. To this day the likes of “Everlong”, “Monkey Wrench” and “Hero” are to be found in guitar-rock collections, and there is more to be found on the album that just the well-known singles. Another side of American rock, more cerebral and willing to employ more diverse influences, was also having a surge in 1997. Modest Mouse caught the critics eye with “The Lonesome Crowded West”, whilst Yo La Tengo crafted their most lauded album of their impressive career, the stirring “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One”. Built To Spill were also busy carving a similar message into musical history, with their self-knowingly prescient “Perfect From Now On”. These three albums together paved the way for much of 00’s American indie-rock, a genre which probably counts for near half of my favourite albums of the decade.

1997 saw the release of Bjork’s “Homogenic”, Elliot Smith’s “Either/Or” and Pavement’s “Brighten The Colours”, as well as the posthumous release of two Bill Hicks albums, “Rant in E-Minor” and “Arizona Bay”. But I thought the album I would leave you with would be one that accompanied the unrivalled cultural height of 1997. I am, of course, referring to the release of Final Fantasy 7, and more relevantly, the 4-disc soundtrack that was diligently engineered by Nobuo Uematsu. It was revolutionary not necessarily in its method (tonally unimpressive MIDI), but in its scope and ultimately its impact. Suddenly game music was real music, not just a single repeated and eventually annoying series of bleeps. The character motifs were beautifully constructed symbols of the characters plight, yet the music could be taken both in and out of context. It forced game developers to focus on music’s importance on the gaming experience. And gamers and music-lovers alike will forever be grateful (and will forever be humming “One Winged Angel” too).

What more could you possibly need from a year? Here’s to 1997, my greatest year in music history.