2010: A Year In Music Awesomeness: Update 2


There have been a number of events that have prevented me from posting recently. On top of the work leading to more work leading to exams, there’s been a number of personal troubles put to rest, and events attended. It’s important to note that this blog occurs because I want to be productive in times when I have nothing else to do. The lack of writing in the past 4 months is simply a sign that I have forced myself into doing more with my life, both social and educational, which has led to large cuts in my available time for musical writing. This is a good thing. Now that the academic year is over, however, I can turn my attentions to some of the things I enjoy doing in my spare time, and writing about music is one of them.

I’ve missed out something important. There’s another, more relevant, reason why I have not been writing about music recently. It’s because I’ve been too busy listening to the stuff. My God, this year has been good. In early February I was already pretty impressed with the year’s output, but since then it’s just kept coming. The volume of excellent albums grows by the week, both by established artists like The National and Joanna Newsom but also left-field, unanticipated acts such as The Tallest Man On Earth and Broken Bells. As with previous 2010 updates, I’ll try to keep this to a simple list of albums that have come out, with short reviews of each, followed by news on future album releases.

The National – High Violet

I would never be able to overstate my expectations for this album. Coming off the back of “Alligator” and “Boxer”, and with the likes of a QTV performance of “Runaway” and a Jimmy Fallon appearance (where they played opening track “Terrible Love”) to whet the appetite, it seemed The National could not fail.

And, of course, they didn’t. Another solemn set of indie-rock gems, Matt Berninger’s obliquely mesmerizing lyrics, (who else could mumble “I had a hole in the middle where the lightning went through, I told my friends not to worry” with such purpose?) and the reassuring pace provided by Bryan Devendorf’s drums are more than enough to carry this album into best of the year territory.

High Violet contains enough variety to keep interest throughout, unlike, some may argue, its predecessor Boxer, and it is also more consistent than Alligator, despite a noticeably weaker opening third. Where the album really hits its stride is in a run of songs from “Terrible Love” to the aforementioned “Runaway”, where The National open themselves up, delicately showcasing the emotions that connect them to their fanatic audience. Paranoia blending into fright as financial doom approaches (“I still owe money to the money to the money I owe”) almost as often as romantic troubles. Although don’t for a second think that Berninger has forgotten about the so-called Dirty Lovers, self-loathing was never expressed quite so effectively as on “Conversation 16”, again, you begin to wonder who else could get away with lines such as “I was afraid I’d eat your brains, because I’m evil”?

In all, a worthy addition to The National’s back catalogue, consistently powerful rock with overflowing with smarts. Essentially, everything you want from a new record by The National.

The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt

News that Justin Vernon will probably step out of the solo game and return to playing as part of a proper band mean that a solo guitarist with harsh tales of love and mournfully unique vocals need to take his place in the hearts of nu-folksters. Kristian Matsson, who goes under the name “The Tallest Man On Earth” despite being of merely average height, stakes a claim to be that person on this, his second album.

A fantastically consistent folk album, almost solely Matsson and his guitar, The Wild Hunt has a feel of classic Dylan, but also bares comparison to contemporaries such as Sam Beam and Devendra Banhart. There is a definite vigour to his strumming, he attacks the chords and the words he cries equally, and it’s hard not to align with his passion. Especially on the fearsome “King of Spain” and “Love is All”, which features lovelorn wails that not many folk singers would dare to put to record.

Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

On first listen, I was worried that 20 year old folk singer/songwriter Laura Marling had become too hung up on all the allusions made to her age after the success of her debut release. It seemed that the result of that was an album desperately trying to sound mature, lost in a middle-aged malaise that did not fit well with a voice as youthful as this. No doubt the songs are good, the title track, which also closed the album, features a vicious self-assessment (“never rode my bike down to the sea, never figured out what I believed”) and a haunting piano to accompany the normal guitar, whist Hope In The Air is another bleak piece of cleverly-worded down-tempo folk. However it seemed that the enjoyment was missing, an attempt at maturity had sacrificed some of the charm and informality of Marling’s first record.

Luckily, repeat listens revealed that it was still there, downplayed but nevertheless available on tracks such as the catchy Darkness Descends. It’s a consistent album, that offers a new side to the singer, which is welcome, but I still prefer Alas I Cannot Swim, a record which offered a better balance between playful and ennui.

Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me

It’s hard to write a mini-review about Have One On Me. It’s hard to do a mini-anything on this 3 disc, 120 minute goliath. Despite the length, it is less dense than previous Joanna Newsom work, and it is even possible to dip into single tracks, a thing that would have you accused of blasphemy and burned at the stake were you to try it with Ys.

The best way to summarise this album would be to say it contains a number of pop/folk songs, except seven minutes long, containing no discernible verses or choruses, and with harp being prominent. And with a skilled yet unique classical vocalist. So nothing like pop/folk, really.

Maybe the most important thing to take from this is that this album contains one of most unique love songs of recent years in Good Intentions Paving Company, and has been helpfully split into three separate discs that will not have to be listened to all in one go to be enjoyed. Other than that, all that can be said is listen to the damn thing. Only then will you understand why it’s so difficult to talk about.

Massive Attack – Heligoland

It’s tempting on parts of Massive Attack’s new album to ignore the music and play a game of “Which Special Guest Vocalist Is This?” This is as much a testament to the quality of vocalists on board for this album, Guy Garvey, Damon Albarn and Tunde Adebimpe, as well as repeat-offender Martina Topley-Bird, as it is to the music, which is something of an archetype of Massive Attack. What do you think of when you think of this band? More likely than not, what you have just thought is almost exactly what Heligoland sounds like. Not a bad thing, of course, but it does feel like the band are in third gear, churning out good songs that fit in with what is expected of them but without offering anything special to put this record in the leagues of Blue Lines and Mezzanine.

The only real exceptions are the Egyptian-mythology inspired “Psyche”, Martina Topley-Bird lullabying tales of an “old teal sea” as “the sun set a bigger me, and I was set to fall in” amongst competing guitars, and the closer “Atlas Air”, which is a conundrum, as it represents everything right and wrong about this album. Wrong in the sense that it is nothing we have not heard before from Massive Attack, all deep vocals and bass-heavy attack, but right in the sense that it is just so good.

I must reiterate at this point that there have been simply too many albums released to be contained in a single blog. I just wanted to make this note of all my favourite albums thus far (taking out Owen Pallett’s Heartland and Beach House’s Teen Dream for a second, I’d call those five albums my top five of 2010), and an Update 3 will be arriving post-haste offering my particular brand of bias on a number of other releases that did not hold my attention in quite the way that those listed above did.

News:

Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (August 2)

A couple of weeks ago, amongst much fanfare, Arcade Fire announced the follow-up to Neon Bible, entitled The Suburbs (a play on the Neighbourhood theme that adorned funeral, perhaps?). They were even so kind as to offer snippets of two tracks from it. Eight second snippets, admittedly, but eight seconds that launched a thousand internet discussions.

Thankfully, Arcade Fire have filled us in a little more on their third record since then, tracks “The Suburbs” and “Month of May” were given a vinyl release, and two further tracks entitled “Ready To Start” and “We Used To Wait” were played by Zane Lowe just a couple of days ago. They have been warmly received, showing a refreshing variety and addictiveness lacking on Neon Bible, although at the moment few are expecting a classic in the mould of Funeral.

Wolf Parade – Expo 86 (June 28)

Not long until this is released, although a couple of months ago it seemed to be hearsay that it existed at all. Mount Zoomer was a step away from the universally lauded debut Apologies To The Queen Mary, in terms of both style and critical reception, and it is hoped that Spencer Krug will keep the theatrics to one side (ie Krug’s side-project Sunset Rubdown) on Wolf Parade’s third album, and return to writing the kind of emotional indie rock that personified their first release.

So hopefully this is the start of my return to writing about music. I certainly enjoy it, and this year’s albums seem to warrant it. If I can’t enjoy music in this golden period, when can I? Anyway, expect my return to the Wednesday Countdown fold this evening, as well as a 2010 in Music third update to contemplate albums from the likes of Broken Bells, Frightened Rabbit, Johnny Flynn, LCD Soundsystem and Broken Social Scene.

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About Alex Pavitt
I work in the field of emotion. My tools are instinctual feelings and my laptop is the medium between my brain and the outside world. I deconstruct and rebuild. I imagine. I steal other people's lyrics because somtimes, my own words aren't enough. I spend all of my time somewhere inside my head. I worship Douglas Adams, and in the back of my mind I am always painfully aware that I will never be as good as him or, for that matter, anybody else.

One Response to 2010: A Year In Music Awesomeness: Update 2

  1. Pingback: World Travel Tours » Why I’m Investing In The Travel Industry Big-Time

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