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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2010: A Year In Music Awesomeness: Update 1

Around November time last year I wrote up a long list of all the albums, some confirmed and some rumoured, that were scheduled for 2010 releases (which can be found here). I mentioned that I would keep up to date with how the albums were actually received upon release, and if the anticipation was deserved. Seeing as there have already been a handful of notable releases, as well as important news regarding other 2010 releases, I decided now would be a good time to offer an update on how 2010 is panning out in terms of music awesomeness.

Released Albums:

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Owen Pallett – Heartland

I’ll start things off with an album I didn’t mention in my original post, but one I’ve quickly grown to love. An 80 on Metacritic is a very positive sign from the critics (despite Q stating in their review that the record was by Final Fantasy), and Pallett is starting to step out of the shadows of the bands he has previously attached himself to, with notable success. Personally, I adore the album, its giddy introduction to string-pop is rife with clever lyrics and a capability and control over the music rarely heard from a solo artist. I hope it will inspire a few more artists to invest in violins, especially if they have the ear for pace that Pallett confidently showcases here.

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Vampire Weekend – Contra

The nature of the anger which churns between Vampire Weekend’s fans and haters meant that this would always be a big release. The sophomore record could be fuel on the fire of their negative image as creators of simple, irritating mock-rock, or it could be a musical step forward that makes the detractors sit up and take notice. In the end we got more of the same, the difference being a lack of a killer single to follow “A-Punk”. Reasonably reviewed by the critics, there is a sense that they are doing well at the moment, but some change or evolution would need to be seen come LP3 if they are going to prove themselves as a serious long-term band.

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Yeasayer – Odd Blood

Washing around the Internet for a good two or three months, Yeasayer’s second record is not actually released until tomorrow. Nevertheless, it has caused a stir in a lot of places, and there is much talk of Yeasayer taking Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective’s lead with an equivalent challenging and moody album that still breaks into the fringes of the mainstream. Whilst the singles have certainly gone some way to achieving this, and some tracks have carried on the current trend of subtly dropping pop into supposedly experimental albums, the consistency is not there.

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Beach House – Teen Dream

Beach House made a fairly good impression with their first two albums, but there was a sense of them lacking identity. They were Grizzly Bear mixed with My Brightest Diamond mixed with Portishead mixed with… well… a fair few bands. There is still that feeling surrounding Teen Dream, the difference now being that they have some monster singles to back it up, gorgeous opening track “Zebra” has graced many a late-night show, and the video for “Silver Soul” is no doubt giving them a decent amount of exposure in the right places. Beach House threaten to overtake those they once imitated with powerfully dreamy melodies and almost alien vocals provided impressively by Victoria Legrand.

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News:

As well as the handful of notable releases thus far this year (Spoon and Four Tet deserve a mention), there has been much news. In some cases there has been massive, major news. The National, who have already whetted indie appetites worldwide with the likes of “Karamazov” and “Bloodbuzz, Ohio”, have given a definite May release to their forthcoming album. Not much more details, except that there will be an accompanying tour this spring. Broken Social Scene plan on solidifying the excellence of that particular month, May 3rd specifically, which will feature usual suspects Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning along with their usual ever-shifting background of guests (Leslie Feist amongst them).

Sooner on the horizon than these two albums is a release that threatens to overshadow both of these critically, Laura Marling’s “I Speak Because I Can”, which is out 22nd March. Following “Goodbye England (Covered In Snow)” and the success of her debut, it may be that Marling will be able to break out of the limitations of the folk genre and appeal to the masses. From what I’ve heard, there’s no doubt on the quality, and together with Mumford & Sons’ surprise success, this could be a golden age for British folk.

With Blur’s reunion and superb Glastonbury show out of the way, Damon Albarn can get back to attracting famous friends with a new Gorillaz project. And this time he has outdone himself, the third album, entitled “Plastic Beach”, Mark E Smith, Lou Reed, Mos Def and Bobby Womack (the last two appearing on the impressive single “Stylo”), are just a few of the big names to listen out for.

Fans of harpists/bloody-good-folk will rejoice at the news that Joanna Newsom is to return on 23rd February with “Have One On Me”, and will then be forced to rejoice a second and third time, because Newsom will be releasing a full 3-disc set. Two songs from the 18-track, 126-minute epic, “81” and “Good Intentions Paving Company” have already been made available, giving much reason for anticipation amongst fans of “Ys”, Newsom’s previous album.

Do you need any further reason to love 2010? There are still unconfirmed reports of the likes of Foals, Wolf Parade, Fleet Foxes, of Montreal, Arcade Fire and The Strokes having new albums out this year, plus there are somewhat uncertain, but nevertheless noteworthy, rumours from Stereogum that Radiohead have in fact wrapped up their new album, with a summer release a possibility. Noteworthy indeed…

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

So yes, here be the first post I’ve made in 2010, and I promise you that from here on in, now that we have rid ourselves of the chains of end-of-decade lists, there will be more album reviews, more musical discussion and less faffing about with numbers. That, I think, is my New Year resolution.

For now, however, I am dropping some all-new videos into The Video Bin for your consumption. After the excesses of Christmas and the New Year, consider this treat to be the wafer-thin mint that finally finishes you off. Enjoy.

Things I have managed to conclude this morning:

  • Slightly undercooked sweet potato is surprisingly delicious.
  • C++ is not for the faint-hearted.
  • The Predator-Prey Model is actually quite interesting, given that it displays yet another way in which maths is intrinsically built into nature.
  • Re: Stacks is the best song on “For Emma, Forever Ago”, and Moby’s seemingly crazy claim that it is the track of the decade is starting to look awfully prescient.
  • I am in a playful mood.

Videos:

Was the Daytrotter session I posted a while back not good enough for you? Then after going to the doctor to fix your chronically high standards, check out this superb video where you can see Justin Vernon’s passion as well as hear it. Still waiting on news about the 2nd album, Mr. Vernon.

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Not the best quality recording for this one, but it does still show off Yeasayer at their best, seamlessly combining addictive pop with interesting, creative  sounds. The cry of “stick up for yourself, son” is still bouncing round my head, the sort of hook that multi-platinum pop super-producers wish they had. And I want that fretless bass. I want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my life.

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I love Matt Berninger’s voice, but I will admit he doesn’t get many opportunities to show it off. Generally he is required to be two-tone, switching between a flatline baritone and a screaming breakdown where the instrumentation demands. But here, on one of my favourite songs by The National, he is immense. Backed by a single guitar he carries every syllable effortlessly. He also looks like David Thewlis.

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Not sure why I love Neil Young. But I do. So here he is.

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A sign of things to come? We sure hope so. A lament for the unseen beauty of England, even with just an acoustic guitar for accompaniment, you can hear the rising mood, the snow becoming a snowstorm. A song for all seasons, but one that crystallises to perfection when listened to during the coldest one. Not sure about the hair though.

The Wednesday Countdown: Short Songs

Here come list number two of my Wednesday Countdown series, concentrating this time on the songs that may be short in girth, but are large in impact. The criteria for this particular list is the following, tracks must be shorter than two minutes (it’s worth noting that Blur’s slight classic “Song 2” comes in at 2 minutes 1 second), maximum one per artist, and the selection is based around both the quality of the song as well as how it fits onto the album it occupies. That last point is there because short songs are often interludes, designed as a transition between tracks. Thus the movement into the next track is taken into account, as you can probably tell looking at the top few songs, if you are aware of the albums involved.

Anyway, here it is.

Top 10 Short Songs

1. Laura Marling – Crawled Out Of The Sea (Interlude) (1:16)

2. Pink Floyd – The Happiest Days of Our Lives (1:50)

3. Portishead – Deep Water (1:39)

4. The White Stripes – Hypnotize (1:48)

5. Modest Mouse – Wild Packs of Family Dogs (1:49)

6. Foo Fighters – Doll (1:23)

7. The Decemberists – The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise) (1:31)

8. Radiohead – You Never Wash Up After Yourself (1:44)

9. Iron & Wine – Die (1:07)

10. Elbow – Puncture Repair (1:48)

Laura Marling perfectly anticipated the question “can a 76 second song be anthemic?” with “Crawled Out Of The Sea”, an elegantly simple love ode that does both jobs, leading smartly into “My Manic & I” on the album, but sounding very well-rounded in its own right. I confess that its position at number one was finalized not by the track itself, but by quite how amazing it sounds live. The sound of a number of hip London folk artists coming together and crying the main refrain together is one that will not soon leave me.

As ever, let me know what songs are missing, I don’t mind being reminded how wrong I am sometimes!

(Side Note: Does this compensate for me missing out “Mexico” on the last list? Because on further listening, it really is good…)

Top 42 Albums Of The Decade (15 – 11)

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15.

Radiohead – In Rainbows (2007)

Radiohead - In Rainbows

Length: 42 minutes

Key Tracks: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi, 15 Step, Jigsaw Falling Into Place

Lyrical Quality: 4.2 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.1 / 5

Track Quality: 3.8/ 5

Album Quality: 4.2 / 5

Total: 16.3 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Beck – Guero

REM – Document

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14.

Muse – Absolution

Muse - Absolution

Length: 52 minutes

Key Tracks: Falling Away With You, Time Is Running Out, Thoughts Of A Dying Atheist

Lyrical Quality: 4.0 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.1 / 5

Track Quality: 4.4/ 5

Album Quality: 4.0 / 5

Total: 16.5 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Hope Of The States – The Lost Riots

Placebo – Meds

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13.

Modest Mouse – The Moon And Antarctica

Modest Mouse - The Moon And Antarctica

Length: 60 minutes

Key Tracks: 3rd Planet, I Came As A Rat, Dark Centre Of The Universe

Lyrical Quality: 3.9 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.3 / 5

Track Quality: 4.2/ 5

Album Quality: 4.2 / 5

Total: 16.6 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Neutral Milk Hotel – On Avery Island

The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots

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12.

Laura Marling – Alas, I Cannot Swim

Laura Marling - Alas I Cannot Swim

Length: 38 minutes

Key Tracks: My Manic & I, Failure, Night Terror

Lyrical Quality: 4.4 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.2 / 5

Track Quality: 4.1 / 5

Album Quality: 4.3 / 5

Total: 17.0 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Lisa Hannigan – Sea Sew

Kid Harpoon – The Second EP

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11.

The National – Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

The National - Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers

Length: 44 minutes

Key Tracks: Murder Me Rachael, Available, Slipping Husband

Lyrical Quality: 4.5 / 5

Melodic Quality: 4.1 / 5

Track Quality: 4.6 / 5

Album Quality: 4.0 / 5

Total: 17.2 / 20

Recommended Albums:

Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights

Editors – The Back Room