Ladies and gentlemen, mesdames et messieurs, thank you for your patience; with apologies for its somewhat later than advertised appearance (though at least this year, unlike last, I sneaked in the right side of December 31st), here is the traditional Thompson's rundown of the best albums of the year.
As ever, it's a top 50 with commentary, followed by a next 50 without; and as ever, I've excluded from consideration reissues, best-ofs and various artist compilations. All the usual disclaimers apply: despite a long-list of, by the time I finally drew the line, close to 600 albums, there's still obviously lots I haven't heard (though less, I guess, than in previous years!). You will understand there's been a certain amount of soul-searching this year about whether such an abundant influx of new materials means my assessment of any of them can possibly be reliable. Certainly I've listened -- or tried to listen -- at least twice to everything on the long-list before making my decisions; but the majority of the albums which make the top 50 have become favourites as the year's gone by, and been played a good deal more than that. I suppose what might suffer, as I mention below somewhere, is the slow-burner, the record that's careful not to reveal itself entirely at first acquaintance. Perhaps some of that kind of work gets edged out these days, and I suppose that's a bad thing for my music-fandom in general: but in terms of this selection of 100 albums to namecheck, I'm not so sure it matters very much. There's nothing definitive about this list, obviously, nor any pretension to it: I just want to draw your attention to the music described below, all of which I think is worthy of close listening, and some of which perhaps doesn't get the critical attention elsewhere that it deserves.
Finally, the Gevorts Box widget over in the sidebar is once again open for business, containing a track from each of the top 50 albums in turn; the track-listing can be found immediately below the main post.
Please enjoy, and whatever you find you like, please (a) buy it, as that's one way I ease my conscience about having come by quite a bit of this stuff through dubious means; and (b) leave comments about it here. I'm sure it's obvious but, man, this post represents a lot of work, and the only way it's rewarding is if I know people have found it useful or interesting... So don't be shy, tell me what you think -- and what I've missed!
Right, off we go. Hang on to your ego.
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#1 Tom James Scott, School and Rivers
When I had the great good fortune a few weeks ago to introduce Tom James Scott to a packed Court Room at Toynbee Studios as part of an event in LEAN UPSTREAM, I think I described School and Rivers as being as close to perfect an album as I’d heard in a long time: and though, Lord knows, I’m given to the occasional gush of hyperbole as an MC, I would stand by that remark. Certainly it's the only record I’ve heard this year that has done for real all the things that we tend to say great records do that they mostly actually don’t – it hauls all those figures of speech off the page and reinstalls them in your body. It did take my breath away, the first moments of the opening title-track. It did stop me in my tracks, so that I couldn’t do anything but sit and listen, rapt, as the album unfolded. It is a stunningly composed album, composed in both senses: the five long, expansive pieces are shaped with exquisite skill, a rare combination of precision and warm intimacy; but more than that, it exhibits a composure that seems way beyond Scott’s tender years. His MySpace page lists a various but pretty immaculate array of influences, from Morton Feldman to Brian Wilson via lesser-known icons such as Adam Bohman and Chris Watson, and traces of each can be detected in the album’s movements. A kind of spartan melliflousness characterises the gestures of Scott’s guitar, whether the cascading picked open 5ths of 'Seabird' (brilliantly situated in space by David Aird’s tuba, creating a wonderfully rich map of timbres) or the bowed arcs of ‘Two Moons Behind the Horizon Sun’ – a fascinating and compelling listen which says much for Scott’s confidence; the addition of a ticking metronome for ‘Elephants’ initially recalls Freddie Phillips’s nostalgic soundtracks for Trumpton et al. Out of these meagre, insightfully chosen resources, Tom James Scott produces a sequence of exceptionally well-recorded pieces that hold the listener almost shockingly close -- as close as Pink Moon, perhaps, or Mark Hollis's solo album -- and that carefully maintain a distinct and articulate balance between the modestly turned-in and the lightly gregarious. School and Rivers is a remarkable, abundantly rewarding album, crafted with the application of a deep and penetrating musical intelligence.
#2 Loney, Dear, Dear John
There can’t be many nicer feelings in the world than to discover that your favourite artist has recorded his best ever album: but in this case, the niceness is only half the tale, because this is also one of the darkest and saddest records you’ll ever hear. There’s a slightly cheesy but likeable Swedish film from a few years back called Sebastian – a standard issue teen coming-out flick, though there were precious few of those around at the time; I haven’t seen it in ages but vaguely remember a scene where, having fallen out with the boy he secretly loves, the radiantly appealing lead Sebastian cycles like a maniac through the city, his open shirt flapping in the wind, tears in his eyes: that hopeless ecstasy of being so uncontainably sad that even to feel it, let alone express it, is an oddly exhilarating, almost euphoric experience. Emil Svanängen’s fifth album – intended, apparently, to bring the current phase of his Loney, Dear project to a close – is intoxicated with its own vibrant misery, the rapturous urges of its disconsolation. It’s no mean indicator that the latter half of the track “Harm/Slow” is set to Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor (not actually by Albinoni, it turns out, but we can let that pass): “Time didn’t show kindness to me at all”, sings Svanängen, and he sounds like he means it. But it’s the breezily upbeat-sounding tracks that most disarm and upset: for example, the whistle-along climax of “I Was Only Going Out”, which it’s all too easy to join in with before you’ve even really clocked the lyrics that immediately precede it – “And I really don’t think think I’m okay / ‘Cause I’m always sad and I always miss the boat / Don’t take it back / Don’t take me down”. I think I've never made it through the album without shedding a tear or six; your mileage may vary, but there’s no getting away from the insistently recurring motifs of these songs: alongside the airports and the deep seas and distant lights that Loney, Dear has always sung about, Dear John is aglow with images of depression and intimations of suicide. Still, what persists, even in Svanängen’s frail near-falsetto, is the sense of persistence itself, of bravery, of having survived and wanting more. None of which would amount to much if it weren't for the melodic brilliance of the songs and the cleverness of the arrangements. God bless Loney, Dear, and all who go with him.
#3 David Åhlén, We Sprout In Thy Soil
This is my first taste of David Åhlén, and it’s interesting that he kind of occupies a space between the two records above: he’s a super-sensitive singer-songwriter from Sweden, with an evidently fastidious approach to instrumentation, largely centering on his minimal acoustic guitar. Vocally he frequently brings to mind the neglected British singer Ben Christophers, and at times (especially the ripe baroque torch-song ‘Ocean’) Antony Hegarty; the album as a whole, perhaps oddly, reminds me more than anything of Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America, from 20-odd years ago – the same mix of fragile eccentricity and blithe self-assurance. The odd slant here is that, as its title suggests, We Sprout In Thy Soil is a collection of devotional songs, almost painfully sincere and occasionally exhibiting an intensity and piety that ought to be difficult for a down-the-line atheist like me to stomach. There’s certainly something about some of these tracks that seems close to curdling, but their religiosity (for the most part) is not an impediment to close listening: these are, ultimately, love songs — ‘Ocean’, in particular, has an unmistakable erotic tenor, for all that the lover addressed is Jesus. We Sprout In Thy Soil will not suit all palates, but for those prepared to sit with the contradictory pulls of its excesses and its beautiful reticence, it offers a genuinely unique and exceptionally compelling listen.
#4 The Mancini Project, Views of Mancini
The first new disc to come through the letterbox in January remained a favourite all through the year. The Mancini Project is a droolsome quartet of improv A-listers (I mean I'm drooling, not them): Pat Thomas on piano, Steve Noble (best known as a drummer) on turntables, the inimitable Han Bennink on drums, and instigator Simon H. Fell on double bass. In their collective sights: the Henry Mancini songbook. 'The Pink Panther', 'A Shot in the Dark', 'Moon River', the 'Peter Gunn' theme... all are present and deliriously incorrect. The opening take on 'Days of Wine and Roses' sets the whole album up perfectly: it sounds like however many shards and spirals of music being surgically removed from Mancini's brain, along with the audio track to the odd half-remembered swimming lesson or car-crash. Thomas is on particularly astounding form throughout, flipping from Messiaen to Stockhausen to Cecil Taylor to Matthew Shipp to who-can-say-who in the space of a half-sentence. Two untitled improvised tracks create a welcome social space for these complicated individual voices to trade propositions and swap gossip with a stronger sense of the real-time encounter, but the overriding impression, as with so much of the best improv on disc, is one of radical edgelessness. The composed and the spontaneous bend round each other like melting Klein bottles, and it would be easy to believe that the soundworld fizzing and bubbling around you is being generated by a group twice the size. Mancini's originals are at times pretty occluded, as by some swirling multi-hued miasma of atomised cultural debris, though familiar phrases in odd translations indicate that everything is finding its way into the mix somehow; at other times, as on 'Moon River' or 'Peter Gunn', there is an energising sense of celebratory obliteration, a wonderfully demotic music of graffiti gestures and affectionate mutilations. It's gourmet stuff, which both reveals more and teases more with every play: the kind of milkshake that brings all the really interesting boys to the yard.
#5 Thomas Köner, La Barca
Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time about Thomas Köner. I quite liked some of his stuff with Porter Ricks, but seemed only ever to encounter the solo work in excerpts on compilations called things like Drift Works and Isolationism, titles which perhaps became preconceptions. At any rate, though I somewhat appreciated the sobriety of his work, it did seem to tend towards the aimless and the generalised. Knowing he worked in other media too was vaguely intriguing, but not enough to actually pursue. But when La Barca appeared this autumn, and I realised I hadn’t heard Köner’s name in a long while (it’s actually his first solo disc in several years), I thought it might be interesting to see what he was now up to. Well, La Barca is, I think, an astonishing record, one that could hardly be more fully achieved. The densely textured ambient drone is still there, but this album is actually fuller of incident than almost anything else I heard this year. Rather than drift, this is highly directional music, becoming so perhaps by dint of an overarching concept of geographic specificity: each track is named after a precise latitude and longitude. A quick Google search on each allows the placedness of the individual tracks to come to the surface: the pieces are full of subtly processed field recordings, tannoy announcements and sampled media broadcasts, all of which evoke a complex of possible significations. Furthermore, each of the titles is suffixed: ‘Hour One’, ‘Hour Two’… and so on, suggesting a time of day perhaps — but what time of day? Where do we start counting? Far from pinpointing the origins of the soundworlds that Köner creates, these apparently specific data actually generate more uncertainty, more noise if you like: a shifting set of frames through which to pay attention. And so the album title — La Barca, 'The Boat' — seems in the end to describe not driftiness or isolation, but a whole net of questions about how we navigate through the world, how hearing places us (and may displace or deceive us), and by what means — sensory, cognitive, philosophical, cultural — we orient ourselves in relation to others. This is not a set of questions that would necessarily arise listening to, say, Kasabian. Köner’s album is serious, and seriously attractive, a more than welcome update on the territory of Sylvian & Czukay’s crucial Plight & Premonition.
#6 Gustaf Spetz, Good Night Mr Spetz
And so the Swedish invasion of the Furtive 50 continues. Come with me, won’t you, to Uppsala, birthplace of rock-gods manqués Ingmar Bergman and Hans Blix — and now, home to self-styled “Elton John on drugs” (i.e. Elton before he was shit), Gustaf Spetz, late of Swedish indie heroes Eskju Divine (no, nor me, I’m afraid). This guy makes a huge, huge sound, easily as big as the Flaming Lips in their pomp, or fellow Swede Andreas Johnson doing his hit. Over kitsch'n'sync arrangements that at times would make Van Dyke Parks blench and reach for the Kwells (why isn't there a band called The Kwells?), Spetz’s scrummy, buttery voice is lavishly spread, in the service of a rollicking, breathlessly extravagant series of classic pop songs de luxe. In songwriting terms we’re definitely talking about a strong Beach Boys influence; presentationally, I might have to ask you to imagine (though I’ll be amazed if you can) a parallel universe Mika who you don’t want to punch unconscious as soon as he opens his horrible twatting gobhole. You will perhaps think, the first time you hear this ravishing album, that you haven’t really earned it. But you have, best beloved. You have!
#7 Max Eastley / Rhodri Davies, Dark Architecture
Yet another remarkable year for Rhodri Davies, who continues to be one of the most stimulating and intelligent musicians on the improv scene. I really liked Kravis Rhonn Project, a duo set with guitarist Annette Krebs, which also emerged this year from the same label -- the excellent Sheffield-based Another Timbre -- as this remarkable live recording, which documents a November 2008 encounter, at South Hill Park in Bracknell, between Davies and the celebrated sound sculptor Max Eastley, still perhaps best known beyond improv-land for his legendary New and Rediscovered Musical Instruments LP with David Toop, one of the first releases on Brian Eno's Obscure Records. But this Eastley / Davies CD makes all of that seem half-lost in the mists of whatever. The sound field in this single-track improvisation, which lasts a little over half an hour, is, to these biased ears, a sort of exemplary theatre space: expansive, hospitable both to the ultra-specific and the broadly uncontrolled, characterised by a particular agility of thought and responsiveness of process. It's a busy but spacious picture, Twomblyesque, but a little creepy, the skeletal clatters of (presumably) an Eastley sculpture and the moans of his self-built Arc monochord, the unnerving purity of Davies's Ebowed harp, its creaks and whispers, the clanks of who-knows-what Torture Garden hardware. To all of which must be added a guest appearance by that great improv artist, Serendipity Itself. Roughly nine minutes in, a firework display commences somewhere in the middle-distance of Bracknell, sounding not wholly unlike a Ronald Shannon Jackson tribute act. As the rest of their duo unfolds, Davies and Eastley both rise above and sink below the fireworks at different times, allowing them to be both backdrop and, at times, somewhat egotistical soloist. Theirs is the only viable response, but also a humane and courageous one: or, rather, it articulates something humane and courageous deep within the premises of free improvised music, something with which both these musicians are searchingly and expertly attuned. What really knocks you out is how grippingly live this continues to sound, thanks not least to the astonishing quality of the recording. When eventually the fireworks recede, and only Eastley and Davies's animated marks remain, an impression persists of the cogency of the ephemeral in our battery of means for making sense of ourselves in the world: a celebratory kind of sense that might be among the highest aspirations to which any two musicians, and any one pyrotechnician in the distance, could dedicate themselves.
#8 Volcano Choir, Unmap
What a great label Jagjaguwar is. They had a terrific year, releasing a whole stack of neat records, including Richard Youngs’s Under Stellar Stream (of which, more below), Dinosaur Jr’s only mildly disappointing Farm, and creditable outings from Lightning Dust and the deliciously awkward Sunset Rubdown. Their outstanding addition to the sum of human happiness in the last twelve months, though, is this, the first album from Volcano Choir, an unlikely-on-paper collaboration between math-rockers Collections of Colonies of Bees and toasty-warm singer-songwriter Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver. The result is sublime, a set that manages to feel both fidgety and woozy by turns (sometimes at the same time) and yet stay focused and fit-for-purpose. It’s very much a studio album, revelling in its own apparatus, using its fictionality as a launchpad into all kinds of expansive thinking. Don’t come for the lyrics, which hover, mostly indecipherably, in the doorway; Vernon’s voice is expressive enough anyway and too slippery in this context to be tied down to anything as ornery as meaning. At its best, Unmap is jaw-sockingly beautiful: ‘Dote’ blossoms like vintage Lasry-Baschet (that’s the Picture Box theme I’m thinking of there); ‘Still’ creates a serene, crystalline environment for Vernon’s talk-box vocals to doodle over (at least I think that’s talk-box – the vocoder-like kit favoured by Roger Troutman of Zapp & Roger – though it might just be some nicely-handled Auto Tune); ‘Youlogy’ could be a gospel song created in the early heyday of IRCAM. Having said all of which, the standout track is probably the most easily grasped: ‘Island, IS’, which sounds like a collaboration between The Field and Yankee Hotel-era Wilco. It would be interesting to hear them working with a slightly wider dynamic range — the general air of moderation is the only thing that underwhelms about this otherwise brilliantly realised and exceptionally promising album.
#9 Themselves, Crownsdown
It’s been a long while since we last heard from Themselves, except via their brilliant 13 & God collaboration with The Notwist, and I guess also at the helm of the immensely likeable Subtle. Qua Themselves, 2009 saw their first releases in seven years: firstly, the foreplay of the high-end mixtape theFREEhoudini; and then in October this fully fledged album, which right from the moment you hit ‘play’ earns its stripes as possibly the best comeback since Ali won the Rumble in the Jungle, and certainly among the punchiest. It’s with cLOUDDEAD, as well as the above-named groups, that I suppose I most associate Doseone’s highly distinctive voicings, and though I love those degraded kaleidoscope soundworlds — not, in fact, wholly absent here – there’s something really cobweb-busting about the old-skool power of hearing him back with Jel. Opening track ‘Back II Burn’ sets the scene, ripping a new asshole in practically everything it sees: and from then on the hungry, combative feel is pretty much relentlessly pursued, in a highly organised chaos of killer blows and rusty serrations, though from time to time the industrial smog recedes to admit more light, as with the ecstatic filigree of ‘Daxstrong’. As ever, Dose is dazzling, and his talent for grinding the rail between narrative and texture has never sounded more suggestive. Great to have Themselves back at the front and centre of the unholy realm of anticon., where they surely belong.
#10 Simon Joyner, Out Into The Snow
Had you told me twelve months ago that a Simon Joyner record would make this year’s top 10, I’d have felt your forehead and checked your glands. Notwithstanding the man’s undeniable influence on a whole generation of alt.country troubadours, and the esteem in which he was held by John Peel (as well as by friends of mine whose tastes I trusted), he always kind of made my skin crawl, his monotonous deadbeat songs consistently delivered in a hopeless, tuneless moan. Nor does it make any sense that I like this album so much when the first, most obvious thing to say about it is that it sounds extraordinarily like Leonard Cohen, whom I greatly respect but mostly can’t bear to actually listen to. For some reason, it just works. A lot of this I think is to do with the superb band that Joyner has assembled, and some imaginative but unobtrusive arrangements, against which the rough edges of his voice become an appealing blemish. The standout track, certainly, is the opener, “The Drunken Boat”, which runs close to ten minutes and gradually yields to chamber strings (beautifully arranged by Laraine Kaizer); Joyner’s voice at moments recalls Lou Reed here, which helps. Thereafter, matters are a little more restrained, but no less successful. The lyrics move between the signatures of Dylan and Waits (via Cohen, again, in both directions), only occasionally attaining the heights of either, but they never feel less than apt, sitting snugly in their songs like drunks at their local bar — and, certainly, the final song on the album, the comparatively upbeat “Roll On”, smacks of chucking-out time, a bleary churn of regret and defiance: “Now you’re Jesus’s age / But you’ve only been betrayed / By the calendar.” The lap-steel wails, the piano is in its cups; it ain’t pretty, but it’s beautiful, and Simon Joyner stands at its centre, an unexpected entertainer if ever there was one.
#11 One eskimO, One eskimO
On the strength of its third track alone, this debut album from One eskimO would deserve serious consideration. ‘Kandi’ is one of those songs that already sounds classic the first time you hear it; it’s certainly the best single I heard all year, and one I never tire of playing. You’ve got to love the band’s animated alter egos, too: the whole album has a parallel existence as a series of short films, ‘The Adventures of one eskimO’, exquisitely crafted cartoons that do much to convey the warm, sweet, but ever-so-slightly slick, Teflon-smooth tonal qualities of the band’s music. As for the much anticipated album itself, it begins incredibly encouragingly: the feather-light toe-tapper ‘Hometime’, which has a delightful ozoney atmosphere; and the sublimely chilled, immaculately produced ‘Astronauts’, which really does seem to capture the imaginary lope of spacewalking, with just the faintest ripple of Tomita-style synth at the back of the picture. With ‘Kandi’ following next, it adds up to a peerless fifteen minute sequence. After that, things never quite reach the same pitch of excellence: everything sounds really lovely, but the songs are so slight, so transcendentally free of urgency, that they keep letting go of your ears, and ultimately, the redolences of wipe-clean work surfaces and Japanese soda start to pall a little, though ‘UFO’ is a late highlight. It’s quite possible that One eskimO could end up hugeski with the Café del Mar set, or that large constituency that's too cool to admit that it doesn’t mind Dido; though equally, the band’s frontman, ex-pop sensation Kristian Leontiou, might well, I suspect, prefer that they remain a well-kept secret. Time will tell whether the’re able to surpass this debut album with future releases (though the animated material will presumably be hard to sustain without Gorillaz-style levels of commercial success); but even though eventually it doesn’t quite deliver on the promise of its opening, this is still an unassailably accomplished and appealing set.
#12 Ben Frost, By The Throat
The first I knew of Ben Frost was the good use to which his 2007 album Theory of Machines was put by Australian dance company Chunky Move for their visually impressive work Mortal Engine. At that stage he was already becoming widely acclaimed, and this extraordinarily powerful newest album has evidently vaulted him into the front rank of rock experimentalists, appearing in several trustworthy end-of-year lists besides this one. By The Throat is a scary ride, for sure. Frost’s emphasis as producer is on the chimeric, on the synthesis above all of the industrial with the feral, but also of the baroque with the bleeding-edge contemporary, to create a disconcerting cage-like space in which (especially if listening on headphones) you’re crammed along with a whole menagerie of snarling beasties and Tetsuo-like human-machine hybrids. Somehow the level of noise and degradation seems only to make the programmatic course of a track like “Hibakuska” all the more vivid. The album is sequenced with a film-director’s sensibility, designed mostly to ratchet up the irresistible suspense, though the reliance on gothic tropes doesn’t always feel as expensive as it perhaps might. Sometimes I don’t know how I feel about instrumental music that’s this insistent on referring to generic material outside itself: it feels slightly retrograde, for example, when the uncharacteristically reticent opening of “Leo Needs A New Pair of Shoes” gradually succumbs to the mild schlock of wailing wolves and tremolando strings. But it’s really unusal to come across an album that’s so relentlessly and ambitiously envisioned, and the visceral excitements of “Killshot” or “Peter Venkman Pt. 1”, especially at sympathetic volume, are undeniably completely – and very satisfyingly -- flooring.
#13 The Unthanks, Here's the Tender Coming
What can words do but spoil Here's the Tender Coming, the widely adored third album from the Unthanks? Since its release, music press column inches beyond number have shed little light that wasn't immediately outdone by the luminosity of the record itself. Small wonder: this is precious music in the best sense, music of which you instinctively want to take care as it wraps itself around you, sad and kindly and full of a beautiful childlike anger. On the whole it's a sober album, but warmed and sweetened by the interplay of sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank's charmed voices, and plumped-up by exquisite and voluminously generous arrangements. These are songs of hardship and forbearance and of those species of human love too complex and irresolvable to be admissable to the meagre hospitality of rock and roll. All this finds its apogee in an almost unbearably moving rendition of Ewan MacColl's bitter proto-feminist song-poem "Nobody Knew She Was There", poignantly shivering with Becky Unthank's autoharp; the song's opening lines, given this delivery, take the breath away: "She walks in the cold dark hour before the morning / The hour when wounded night begins to bleed". MacColl's concern to uncover the real working lives that too often get transmogrified into abstraction even in the least made-over folk songs distinguishes many of these tracks, making for a listen that's as gruelling as it is tender. A couple of moments misfire: "Lucy Gilchrist" is unusually clunky, and Lal Waterson's "At First She Starts" is hampered by a ponderous string treatment, which is a shame as it's a great song, though perhaps for now it still belongs too wholly to its originator. But even these are worthwhile experiments by a band which is more than keen to test the boundaries of its inheritance, and does so with great sensitivity and intelligence. It's clear the Unthanks are going to go from strength to strength: they're already creating vital and inspiring music with an admirable edge of political candour.
#14 Fanfarlo, Reservoir
Howcome, as spring falteringly arrived this year, the world didn't go batpoop crazy for this absolutely storming debut from motley London crew Fanfarlo? For those who, like me, are bored of po-faced art bands but enraged by groups who think fun and romance are to be indulged in only with the protection of some kind of ironic sheen, Reservoir is exactly what the doctor ordered. This is such a wonderfully unguarded record, romantic and rollicking and rambunctious and lots of other R-words that are fun to get your tongue around. After the engagingly trudging anthem-cum-worksong "I'm A Pilot" that opens the album, Reservoir unveils its first highlight, "Ghosts", which marries an upmarket but still ramshackle (capital R) Dexy's Midnight Runners feel to a slowly revealed 'Town Called Malice' bassline, creating a big dancing bear of a song. Lead single "Fire Escape" stomps and tickles and arpeggiates all over the shop before exiting all puckered-up via the sweetest little whistling codicil; and then it's straight into the album's out-and-out killer song, "The Walls Are Coming Down", a gorgeous loping melody set in a waltz-time Wonkadelic confectioner's shop of massed mandolins, mariachi brass and Key Stage 2 glockenspiel. Notwithstanding its downbeat lyrics, it sounds like Beirut soaked in pink gin and up for a sing-song, a brawl and a full-on pansexual orgy, not necessarily in that order. Nothing I've heard all year has sounded so arm-flingingly rapturous (capital R). But this most unaffectedly extravagant of bands can also do small and perfectly formed, as on "If It Is Growing". From beginning to end, these are great songs, well-played, ardently sung by Simon Balthazar, mightily enhanced by Justin Finch's down-the-line bass, apparently populated by a cast of thousands, and conveying more than anything else the excitement and delight of being in a bloody great band and knowing there's so much more to come. I bet they're amazing live, too.
#15 Christ., Distance Lends Enchantment to the View
Quite a surprise, this latest album from Christ., and one that took a little getting used to. Hardly if ever spoken of without reference to former colleagues Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin, aka Boards of Canada -- to his somewhat understandable chagrin, if the bio on his MySpace page is anything to go by -- Christ. has, for as long as I've known his work (the sensational Seeing and Doing EP in 2005), been making warm, intelligent electronica, multihued, thoughtfully constructed, both squelchy as Bird's Trifle and as sharp as a tack. Such passages are still in evidence on Distance... -- most notably on "Adam's Bridge" -- but there's a wholly different overriding feel to most of the album, as Chris Horne kicks back and allows some mostly pretty chilled beat-driven ambient tendencies to come to the fore. So for all the present-and-correct radiophonic gurgles and Gelg-friendly squiggles, the album brings its nostalgia closer to the present, often harking back no further than the early/mid 90s of Strange Cargo-era William Orbit or pre-Lifeforms FSOL. It's disoncerting at first, the apparent disavowal of the subtly freighted complexity to which we had become accustomed: I wasn't sure I was quite ready to revisit the airy, good-natured ambient that soundtracked one year in particular of my student life. But the bottom line is, Distance... is an inordinately appealing album, on which Horne has chilled out but by no means dumbed down. Nor is your passage through it as smooth as all that: the jarring "Event Horizon They Waited" is no easy listen;"Alexandra Genesis" writhes unsettlingly like a basket of synthetic snakes; and there's an isolationist tinge to "Odyssey 31" that's barely offset by the introduction of stacked, stuttering backing vocals. It needs more than one listen to reveal all that's of real interest on this album, but then, the same is true of most really interesting albums. I've gone back to it repeatedly over the past couple of months and it's always yielded a little more, and utterly confounded those early apprehensions. Well done Christ.
#16 Antipop Consortium, Fluorescent Black
Somehow I missed the news that Antipop Consortium had reformed; then all of a sudden I found myself reading a review of this, their first album since 2003's extraordinarily adventurous, if not wholly successful, set with Matthew Shipp for Thirsty Ear. It's quite a thrill to have them back among us: as evidenced by the gorgeously skronky opening half-minute of "Lay Me Down", the first track on Fluorescent Black. In terms of full-on noise, that's about as far-out as we go, but the density of creative thought throughout the album is as staggering as ever. It's fascinating to hear the old crew tackling some new forms -- "C Thru U" and the convulsive "Apparently" feel particularly fresh; at other times, the Consortium extend their signature gestures into new territories of sophistication, for example on the masterful and potent "Volcano", or the highly detailed, wildly inventive "Get Lite". If I had to pick a standout cut, possibly the closing title track would edge it: it's smart, enthralling, disquieting and amazingly lean. Good also to hear Roots Manuva on the arrestingly undercooked "NY To Tokyo". My only beef with Beans et al is that it's a long, demanding album: I've yet to get through it in one sitting, it exhausts my attention, and though that may be my problem, I think it's fair to say I'm not a lightweight in this respect. (Can I get a witness?) Probably I'm unbelievably naive in imagining that anyone any longer designs albums to be listened to in linear fashion and from end to end... But there are, dare one say it, a couple of tracks that could be lost from the running order here and the result would be an even better, more wholly achieved album than we have here.
#17 Speech Debelle, Speech Therapy
Mercury Prize juries and I don't always see eye to eye, but this year I wish I'd had a heart-shaped flutter on Speech Therapy, which I was delighted to see on the shortlist and thought by some way the best of the nominated albums. Apparently, winning hasn't been all it might have been for Speech Debelle: the sales figures remain modest, which in some ways is understandable but has caused her to depart her label, which may or may not be a pity. What definitely is true is that Speech Therapy deserves to be heard by as many people as possible, though it's probably never going to be a mass-market proposition. It ought to be beyond question that Debelle is a genuinely jaw-dropping talent: her lyrics and her understated stylings are more intelligent and more assured than anything we've heard from a British debutante in ages. Just as excitingly (and this is probably the most commercially self-defeating aspect), the arrangements and Wayne Lotek's production are astonishingly low-key: acoustic instruments, jazz inflexions, and a notable dynamic restraint. Of course it's all unbelievably middle-class: rap for Independent readers. In fact to be really honest, the album that Speech Therapy most brings to mind is Tracy Chapman's 1988 debut, and probably nobody wants me to say that. Thing is, tracks with the agility and awareness of "The Key", the poise and depth of "Bad Boy", the cheeky infectiousness of "Buddy Love", or the quiet poignancy of "Finish This Album", ought to transcend those sorts of divisive narratives (which are half the time peddled by middle-class white boys anyway). Man, I like her. But as she herself states on "Wheels in Motion": "I remember when they told me I'll never make it / Too smart for my own good."
#18 Brian Harnetty & Bonnie Prince Billy, Silent City
Two years ago these pages commended Brian Harnetty for his wonderfully evocative album American Winter. On Silent City he returns, once again with a trunkload of tapes from Berea College's archive of Appalachian field recordings, but this time with a compadre: namely, Bonnie Prince Billy. BPB had a good year -- Beware, which came out in the spring, is probably my favourite of his albums since Ease Down The Road towards the front of the decade -- but Silent City is the one I want to make a fuss about. Best say first of all that, despite his equal billing, Will Oldham appears on only three tracks. But what tracks! A useful reference point might be his heart-stopping "Gratitude" on the Drawing Restraint 9 soundtrack: the songs here are slightly more coherent melodically, but the voice is similarly exposed. By the time of Oldham's first appearance, Harnetty has established a dry, faltering sound world with percussive elements much to the fore -- vibraphone, barrelhouse piano, crotchety old banjo. The space this creates for Oldham's voice, which sounds here more fragile than it has in a while, leaves it feeling almost stranded. Not only is this beautifully effective (and affecting) in itself, it also places Oldham in a kind of continuity with the terminally disembodied voices highlighted in the field recordings that Harnetty employs. He's creating a sort of diachronic community, the traces of whose existence are both immensely vulnerable and heroically persistent; the stories they tell, the life-courses to which they testify, seem both timeless and yet touchingly eloquent about the particular times from which they emanate. Harnetty's instrumental work is careful and plaintive and can summon considerable power, as in the pointillistic build on "As Old As The Stars": but it's as a spatial context for the location of these voices, Bonnie Prince Billy's not least, that it does its most suggestive work.
#19 Philippe Petit & Friends, Reciprocess: +/vs.
The story so far: the non-tightrope walking Philippe Petit, neither the most nor the least famous eleventh of experimental supergroup Strings of Consciousness, created a series of bitesize electronic backing tracks, and distributed them to an array of friends and collaborators, asking them to add their divers adornments and embellishings. The end results were then compiled as this CD, which was subsequently given away as a freebie with the March '09 issue of The Wire. As such, it sounds like the kind of project that should by rights be of only marginal interest -- the sort of disc you play once because it's free and then forget about. As you'll have gathered, though, Reciprocess +/vs. is nothing of the sort. In fact it's an absolute peach of an album (albeit a charcoal-grey, rotten peach with electric maggots in it), wherein the coherence of Petit's murky, brooding originals is fascinatingly stirred, but not shaken, by the signatures of his respective collaborators. It's a remarkable line-up, with big names such as Lydia Lunch, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Simon Fisher Turner on the guest-list. None of the above do anything particularly surprising with the challenge, but it's nice to hear them, SFT especially. Others go to town via more scenic routes. Douglas Benford (of si-cut.db) creates a magic roundabout of warped sea-shanties and flexitone misadventures; Eugene Robinson of Oxbow essays a typically unsettling, possibly extemporised vocal, which twists around itself in deranged processed filaments; Kathy Compton, possibly the only avant-tempered vocalist ever to have been employed as a stylist for Hanson, contributes a self-disassembling narrative to an aural nightmare confected by electronicist Severin 24. Not even Faustian prat Jean-Herve Peron spoils the party (though it's a damn close run thing.) Infinitely more than just your average 'various artists' circle-jerk, this is an album of real substance, and one that says much about the art of collaboration - including the sometimes neglected practice of collaboration with the listener.
#20 Magic Arm, Make Lists Do Something
Hands up, who likes Magic Arm? I like Magic Arm. I really really do. No one song has made me grin more foolishly this year than "Widths and Heights". It's like getting an injection in your ear that zooms round your bloodstream like Fantastic Voyage meets Tron and comes out in your booty. Yeah, you heard me! I said booty! So, Make Lists Do Something has me, totally and utterly, at hello: and if after that it's all a little small-talky, well so what. You can't listen to Scott Walker's Drift all the live-long day, can you. Here's what's great about this album. I spend most of my life either (a) in my room, tending to my stupid blog (duh!), or (b) going somewhere on the bus. So: back of the net: this is a great record to listen to in your room, because it was clearly made by someone in his room, with tender loving care and maximum geekfactor. It is audibly a room-shaped album. But also it's great to listen to on the bus, because it turns looking out of the window into some sort of Playbus stop for grown-ups. There's really not a below-par track here, but I'm especially fond of 'Move Out', with its wonky earworm riff recalling a bargain basement Britney; 'The Coach House', essentially a lo-fi Lemon Jelly overhaul of Chigley; and 'People Need Order', which sounds like one of those toys you can't buy where you pull a chord and a whole bunch of mechanical caterpillars come out of their house and sing a song that sounds like ELO kicking Kula Shaker's ass round a municipal playground. Yes yes yes, if it's depth you're after, you'd be better off with, let's see, a chapati that somebody's accidentally sat on. Make Lists Do Something is sub-Creosotically wafer-thin: Beck-ish, I guess, but lighter and less cerebral and that's just the way it is. Not dumb, but fun, in a screwy, skewy, ballyhooey (or whatever Donald Duck's nephews were called) sort of way. Anyway, The Drift has meat-punching in it, for heaven's sake. I suppose at a stretch you could beat your Quorn to Make Lists if you really wanted. Not on the bus though.
#21 Jon Hassell, Last Night the Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes in the Street
Among the many and various morsels of sage advice that my grandmother would impart to me as she dandled me on her knee -- this is a while ago now, when I was a small boy and dandling was still socially acceptable -- was: Always keep an eye on Jon Hassell - you never know when he's going to do something brilliant. And so it has proved to be. Hassell's quite the shapeshifter -- compare and contrast, for example, the equally spiffy but notably dissimilar Dressing For Pleasure (1994) and Fascinoma (1999); yet he never sounds like anyone else, for all the influence he's clearly had on the likes of Arve Henriksen or Nils-Petter Molvaer (check the latter's excellent Hamada from earlier this year), and the arc of his work from 1980's Possible Musics onwards describes an increasingly coalescent and utterly distinctive project. Last Night the Moon... comes to us through the offices of ECM -- Hassell's first as leader for that label since Power Spot back in '86 -- and the marriage feels ideal. More perhaps than ever, Hassell's sound is astonishingly pellucid and yet hazy, restless, swirling with mists and inked with holographic striations. The group around him is a wondrous ensemble, with Peter Harrison's spacious dubby bass a particular star on tracks like "Time and Place" and "Courtrais", and Eivind Aarset's guitar looming out of the fog. The quiet patience of the title track, with Hassell's trumpet running through a harmonizer while simple triadic chords ebb and flow and instrumental details accrete and echo all around, is a masterclass in exploratory understatement. The more overt jazz-funk of "Northline" is an ever-so-slightly sore thumb but it at least has the virtue of extending the sense of restlessness that prevents these waters from ever becoming too placid. Now in his 70s, Hassell still seems some way ahead of the curve, the consequence of a career-long dedication to the pursuit of what hasn't yet been sounded: Last Night the Moon... is a truly mesmerising dispatch from those frontiers, and one that makes the journey sound more than tantalising.
#22 Montag, Hibernation
2007's charming and inventive Going Places made me a big fan of Montag; so no apologies here for bending the rules and listing an EP with a less than twenty minute run-time. Hibernation, a little suite of pieces inspired by winter, makes a far stronger and more delightful impact than many an electronic album three times its length, so why not spread the word, I reckon. Now you know I'm not one for invidious and far-fetched comparisons, but: if Richard Carpenter had been a laptop artist who was mostly commissioned to compose shortwave radio call-signs, I think they'd sound a bit like Hibernation. There are seven tracks here, the odd-numbered (save the last) all called 'Nord'. Each sounds like a competition entry to create the national anthem of Winter Wonderland: strings and bells and plinking vintage synth -- you can really imagine them being broadcast over the ice rink PA at some late 21st century winter Olympics. The even-numbered tracks are more various: 'Blobal Warning' is a cameo that might accompany a rudimentary animation explaining Brownian motion; 'La Symetrie Du Coeur', the only track with vocals, is a subdued Stereolab stargazer. By far the longest cut is the seventh and last, 'Labrador (Encore)'. Over what sounds like (but probably isn't) a sample of the clanging antiphonal pianos of Steve Martland's Drill, a planetarium-wide largo builds from similar resources to the three 'Nord's, to more grandiloquent effect. It's a surprisingly big finish for such a little disc, but it works brilliantly. Montag is a very clever bunny indeed, with a big warm heart that radiates through his work, even at its nominally chilliest. Can I recommend, as a postscript, that you download via his website his new covers EP, Des cassettes et un walkman jaune, on which he interprets songs by, among others, Bronski Beat and P.M. Dawn. It's free and it's fun.
#23 Wingdale Community Singers, Spirit Duplicator
Rather unsportingly described by Boomkat as "the kind of band that The Guardian goes into broadsheet meltdown over", The Wingdale Community Singers are, admittedly, an alt.country ensemble who seem to be poised exactly half way between the tender land and the New Yorker. Chief draw for me was David Grubbs, but the remainder of the quartet certainly intrigued: novelist Rick Moody; singer-songwriter Hannah Marcus, once described as "the Jim Jarmusch of indie rock"; and a multimedia artist called Nina Katchadourian, whom I didn't know then but I do now. (She's that rare thing, a really smart and witty conceptual artist -- go see.) So, this is a hobbyish side-project for everybody, and how often does that bode well? Then again, anyone with the slightest regard for humanity knows that David Grubbs is pretty much a walking kitemark, and sure enough, this second album from The Wingdale Community Singers is very fine indeed. It's a plain, meat-and-potatoes sound: guitars, piano, bass, harmonizing voices, with Marcus's plangent lead vocals setting a down-to-earth tone: think early Geraldine Fibbers with the lid screwed on a lot tighter. It's the straightness of the group that's a large part of their appeal: Grubbs still sounds like Grubbs but he's really reined in and, though I'm glad he's not with Wingdale full-time, it's interesting to hear him in this context. The least successful of the songs get a bit bogged down in their literary lyrics; the best of them, contrarily, work from a limber combination of reticence and ardour, like Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal getting snuggly in their tent: "I Was Once A Young Man", with Moody taking lead vocal, is wonderfully eloquent and unadorned and its last lines genuinely moving; "Montreal" yokes a mouthful of Tom Waits in its verses to a lyrical chorus that might have come from the McGarrigles' first album. It's a lovely record, as honest and as open as the landscapes it evokes.
#24 Cathode, Sparkle Plenty
So it started with a 'where are they now?'-style yearning for Cody, the Shinkansen quartet whose Rounder EP and debut album Stillpoint Primer held the deeds to a large part of my heart about a decade ago. A little light Googling revealed that Cody had long since dispersed, but that guitarist Steve Jefferis had decamped to Glasgow and become Cathode. Sparkle Plenty is Cathode's second album; it was first issued last year by Expanding Records, but a new edition came out this April so I'm going to count it as a highlight for 2009. Which it certainly is: it's bright, perky, unfailingly good company. 'Stabiliser City' is just the right opener: Benge-like synths with the consistency of dulce de leche, spooned over a bassline that effortlessly grabs all the available brownie points by reminding me of New FADS. This is indicative of a tactic that serves Jefferis well throughout the course of the album (as it often has with, for example, Ulrich Schnauss): placing two quite disparate tendencies beside each other, giving the resulting composition a strong sense of expansiveness. So on 'Structure Hunger', the percussiveness of, say, Spooky going one way meets mid-70s Kraftwerk coming the other; 'Control and Restraint' harnesses the tension between Alva Noto click-and-beep punctuation and a smeary, pensive middle-ground that could be Robin Rimbaud. Name-checking like this of course is only ever half the story with a decent album: the shivering piano and stammering flutes of 'Without Memory of Desire', or the whole iridescent biodome of 'Nightly Builds', feel like textures that Jefferis has made distinct and idiolectic. Everything really comes together on 'Dream Feeder', a track of three halves, in which acoustic percussion gets digitally sliced and shuffled over a sober synthy base, before the whole gives way to a totally unexpected blossoming of faux-renaissance tone colours. An inventive, arresting album full of intricate pleasures.
#25 Editors, In This Light And On This Evening
And so we come to the Editors. I wonder where everybody is who likes the Editors. I hardly ever meet anyone who'll own up to it, but aren't they the fourth most popular band on the planet or something? As it goes, among their unabashed fans is the person I live with, which means I've heard this album more than I otherwise perhaps might have: and I'm happy to declare that, for me (bending over backwards to listen without prejudice), In This Light... is by some way the best of the year's big mainstream records. Everybody knows what a change in direction this third album represents for the band, but it bears repeating, as the first moments of the opening title track really did take me aback, and in a way they still do. The pulsing jagged synths and layered low-register vocals, plus some oddly buttonholing lyrics, made for an immensely arresting start; nothing after that is quite so impactful but the drive, the confidence and the riskiness of the choices they're making are unyieldingly present throughout. At times, admittedly, they come very close to portentousness, their CCTV-angle snapshots of urban paranoia occasionally undermined or made nearly risible by Tom Smith's singing: in his more usual vocal compass he retains a pleasingly Stipey edge, but down the octave as he often is here, it's hard sometimes not to think of him as a cousin of Vic Reeves's club singer. But: it's exactly that flirtation with the genuinely high and mighty on one side and the preposterous and bathetic on the other that makes the record so successful: the middle-ground is tense and full of electricity. It's probably not as instantly comprehensible as the previous records, though tracks such as 'Like Treasure' exhibit that familiar sure hand for a vast melody when they let themselves go. Reviews have frequently invoked Joy Division but I hear rather later, mid 80s echoes: Echo & the Bunnymen, it might go without saying; but also, for example, 'You Don't Know Love' brings to mind, for the first time in a long time, Sharpe & Numan's all-but-forgotten 1989 album Automatic (though the Editors are substantially beefier); 'The Boxer' meanwhile is propelled along by an only slightly tweaked rewrite of the keyboard riff from Bronski Beat's 'Smalltown Boy'. All of which I'm spelling out only to remind us that this is still pop music, for all its breadth and brooding: 'Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool' might slightly want to be mid-period Radiohead, but the Editors are still miles off that territory, even if they were aiming for it (and I'm not sure they are, on the whole). What we have here, ultimately, is a big, bold pop record, stadium-sized but with its sights trained on the highest common factor rather than the lowest common denominator. Perhaps the loftiest praise I can visit on In This Light..., and in particular on that breathtaking opening track, is that it makes me really excited to imagine what they might do next.
#26 Vijay Iyer Trio, Historicity
I'm not as in touch with what's going on in contemporary jazz as I used to be, but if there's anything emerging out there that's more sensationally exciting than the extraordinary pianist Vijay Iyer. I first came across him in 2003, when In What Language?, his remarkable collaboration with producer and performance poet Mike Ladd, hit my radar somehow: and since then I've been eager to keep a close watch on Iyer's work. There's no doubt he's hit stratospheric form on this new album with his established trio (Stephan Crump on bass and the amazing Marcus Gilmore on drums): if anything, it's kind of overwhelming, the intensity, the inventiveness: you reach the end exhausted and in awe. Though Iyer contributes some fine original compositions, it's the covers here that really showcase his (and his collaborators') freaky adeptness. It's a various bunch of tunes that they take on, from the overfamiliar -- Leonard Bernstein's 'Somewhere' (from West Side Story), rewired here as an object of almost fractal complexity -- to the startlingly fresh -- a reading of M.I.A.'s 'Galang' that indicates both a total simpatico with the original material and a personal vision that utterly (and more than convincingly) transforms what is, after all, a song with little melodic or explicit harmonic content to work from. A rigorous but funky working-over of Ronnie Foster's seminal 'Mystic Brew' sent me back to the original with a whole new appreciation of it as a piece of composition; and -- this is for me the highlight of the album -- they take on Julius Hemphill's 'Dogon A.D.': reckless, you'd think, but they treat it with utter respect while perpetually finding new room within it and new angles to explore. Iyer's is a coruscatingly various language -- the title track being a great case in point, taking in both the atomised and the chunky, and creating space for what seem to be references both to Cuban music and to classic techno; the complexity of Iyer's metrical shifts is shadowed with unbelievable percipience throughout by Gilmore. Iyer is certainly in that lineage of pianists who see their instrument as (perhaps even first and foremost) percussion -- his playing is muscular, sometimes blocky, and even at its most intricate his tone stays full and frank; the sequence of chordal modulations that opens 'Helix' is speculative but disdains to proceed with anything approaching caution. Only in a couple of places do things become quieter, gentler, and my early notes for this album suggest that it would benefit from more reflective space. But it's now abundantly clear that Historicity is entirely reflective space: it just happens to reflect the urban context of its making: it's busy, contested, polyphonous, reflexive, violent sometimes: but out of all this, Iyer is capable of creating a kind of exhilarating articulacy that thrills and inspires.
#27 Hudson Mohawke, Butter
Every year there seems to be one album among the 50 that sounds like a smuggled-in bulletin from an aural future that's barely imaginable to anyone out of their teens. There doesn't seem to be any consensus around what, taxonomically, is going on in Butter, the joyously bewildering debut album from Hudson Mohawke. Is this 'glitch-hop'? Is it 'aquacrunk'? I feel elderly and infirm just typing the words. In fact, though, what makes Butter so appealing is that even old-timers like me can make some sense out of its ADD excesses, in that in seems to develop certain languages that go back a fair way. I don't just mean that every so often it breaks out harmonies that sound like Shakatak, or that 'Fuse' is built around a motif that could easily be the hook from a Nik Kershaw B-side (albeit one conceived with the aid of large quantities of methamphetamine and isotonic sports drinks). I mean the syntax of Butter -- please can we have a Bond film called The Syntax of Butter now? -- will not be wholly baffling to anyone who's ever had extended exposure to Christian Marclay, say. (It's notable that Mr Mohawke, aka Ross Birchard, was a celebrated turntablist in his teens.) Or one might hear on the top layer of '330' the insistent fragmentary signatures of plunderphonics pioneer John Oswald, or on 'Fruit Touch' the wonky breakbeats and sampledelic mayhem of μu-ziq at his most distrait. The repeated deployment of up-shifted samples -- voices in particular -- makes Butter a slightly wearing listen in the end (I'm 36 you know!), and you kind of wish sometimes that HudMo would more frequently build something up a bit before he knocks it down. But for all its nerve-shredding hyperactivity and colour saturation, it's a giddyingly creative album which makes Wobbly's Wild Why, an old leftfield favourite of which I was frequently reminded, sound almost geriatric.
#28 Kuupuu, Lumen Tadhen
And the 2009 "For This Relief Much Thanks" Special Jury Prize for the artist who sounds least like Kasabian is awarded to... idiosyncratic Finnish artisan Jonna Karanka, who, as Kuupuu, has here crafted an album so utterly unconcerned with the normative commodity behaviour of recorded music that it's hard to believe she's, y'know, real. As the packaging of Lumen Tähden attests, Karanka is perhaps as much a visual artist as a musician, and her gift for collage is evident in the construction of these ten tracks. There's nothing linear here, just shifting and sliding textures, each in itself as distinct as a single hexagon in a patchwork quilt. There is a kind of song-craft at work, but it's wholly concerned with its own sense perceptions, and perfectly disregarding of conventional templates. When visual artists create music, and particularly music without much in the way of sung lyrical content, it will generally go one of two ways: either the music itself seems pictorial, as if designed to evoke particular images or visual relationships; or it's exactly the opposite, an account of a close concern for the material qualities of different sounds and the sensual productivity of juxtaposition. I suppose if you have a very active visual imagination you might feel otherwise, but to me, Lumen Tähden is all about sound as sound, bringing you as close as it can and inviting you to involve yourself with its own all-but-abstract properties. The extent of its metaphoric suggestivity seems to be that it invokes a weird kind of nostalgia -- for nowhere and nothing in particular. With regard to the sounds themselves, there's not much novelty here: cheap(-sounding) keyboards, piano, harmonium (I think), wonderful glissando violins (on 'Pöllön Pentu'), detuned radio, looping voices, home-taped recordings... The album could hardly feel more home-made, more unvarnished: though it should be said that the calibre of the guest artists on the album -- including, on 'Hukka', Dylan Nyoukis, and Marc Richter aka Black to Comm -- indicates just how seriously Karanka should be taken as a musician who knows exactly what she'd doing; Kuupuu is an amateur only in the old-fashioned sense that this record positively radiates the love that went into its making.
#29 Richard Youngs, Under Stellar Stream
Richard Youngs has kept me in his thrall since the very first moments of Autumn Response, his album of 2007 which I greatly revered at the time and hold in even higher esteem now. He's a prolific and unpredictable fellow, whose busy schedule this year seems to have included at least five solo releases, only two of which I heard: the heroically unpleasant mutant techno album Like A Neuron; and Under Stellar Stream, his first for Jagjaguwar since that earlier masterpiece. Essentially -- and if there were ever a record concerned with essence, it's this one -- Under Stellar Stream is a collection of six vocal songs which, in two important ways, can reasonably be taken to be hymns. Firstly, they behave formally as many hymns do, quite short verses which simply repeat until their lyrics have been fully discharged. Secondly, there is an obvious spiritual dimension to these songs, sitting somewhere between the meditative and the more wilfully interrogative. In particular Youngs seems to be seeking to sound out the numinous within the quotidian, the natural, the banal even -- twice he refers to the "underwhelming". There is no authorial ego anywhere here, simply an attempt to match recorded perception to encapsulated devotion. The instrumental palette is purposely (and very effectively) limited, leaving Youngs's voice right at the centre of the enterprise, and with such melodic repetitiousness -- the whole of 'All Day Monday And Tuesday' is sung on two notes a semitone apart, for six minutes or more -- any variance in the lyrics becomes massively weighty. Odd then, initially, to find him indulging in what at first seems like half-empty wordplay: in the refrain "I rode out this morning, cluster to a star", the second phrase is replaced first by "doppler in your car", and then by "down an ozone corridor": this seems more like Edwin Morgan or Peter Finch than a language of spiritual reflection. But slowly what comes through is how Youngs is fixing his gaze on language's incapacities as a carrier of excess feeling or profound longing, as set against its role as part of the apparatus of shamanism and religious invocation. How does, how can, everyday language capture private experience, and how does that language then shift into the realm of public expression? Youngs's singing here is ravishingly bold and unpretty; sometimes you can hear the strain in his throat. But it's that more than anything that makes his songs, and his confrontation with language, so compelling. Under Stellar Stream is best appreciated in toto but an exemplary track might be 'My Mind Is In Garlands', in which a circularly panning resonant drone is set in orbit around a piano and rudimentary bass, as Youngs sings, somewhere between mantra and folksong: "My mind is in garlands / My mind is on target / My mind is in the day / My mind is in emptiness / My mind much later / My mind is in my mind." It's very, very beautiful.
#30 Kevin Blechdom, Gentlemania
Well, now, ain't this a kick in the head? I have to admit I hadn't paid much attention to Kevin Blechdom since the demise of Blectum from Blechdom, the French & Saunders of high-end slapstick electronica whose last album, a portmanteau repackaging job called Haus de Snaus, was released on September 11th 2001, thereby failing to garner overmuch press attention. I had heard that Blechdom's second solo album for Chicks on Speed, Eat My Heart Out, was pretty special, but hadn't caught up with it, and so was interested to lend an ear to Gentlemania. And, as so often has been the case this year, it totally wrongfooted me in the most delightful way. Gentlemania is a collection of love songs, pretty much straight down the line. The wonderfully dramatic 'Gravity' opens proceedings: it starts like 80s Carla Bley, with Blechdom's try-hard voice covering two-and-a-half octaves like it's a national emergency; it then suddenly and quite unexpectedly turns into a jolly, banjo-decorated Carole Bayer Sager song, and alternates between these two modes for the remainder of its duration. It's a brilliantly confounding song which never fails to put an uncertain smile on my face. From then on in, things are mostly a little straighter, notwithstanding the unexpected source: you may hear traces of Dusty Springfield, Helen Shapiro even, or the Shirelles perhaps; or stuff from the same era second-hand, filtered through Sam Brown or the Grease soundtrack. You might even think, as I briefly and disturbingly did, of Tell Me On A Sunday. There's a country-ish tinge too, with 'Monster' opening like a Karen Mantler song before bursting into a full-pelt hoedown, and 'Running Away' coming over like a classic Brill Building ballad powered by the sweetest, most desolate banjo you ever heard. Only once does the album come close to invoking Blechdom's earlier territory, on 'Tell Me Where It Hurts', an overheated American Gothic comic strip with disorienting sampled piano and, eventually, a pestilential irruption of jawharp. It's fascinatingly, but not too uncomfortably, difficult to tell how sincere Blechdom is throughout, and how much is tongue-in-cheek; or perhaps, most likely, it's both -- affectionate, corny, self-mocking, faux-naif, but also genuinely yearning for genuine yearning. And isn't that, after all, what love does to us all? Smothers us in cliches and dares us not to roll our eyes at them.
#31 Orphans & Vandals, I Am Alive And You Are Dead
On the subject of Orphans and Vandals, the blogosphere appears divided between those who think this young London band are the best thing to happen to music in years, and those who insist they've heard it all before. I'd say there's truth in both those views: I Am Alive And You Are Dead heralds the arrival of an astoundingly good band, with whom I am more than a little infatuated at the moment; and one of the reasons I think they're so cool is the skill and care with which they work from recognizable sources but make them feel as current and as immediately truthful as you could wish. It's a relief that, for once, it's possible to namecheck influences and sound-a-bit-alikes without it seeming horribly invidious and reductive: Orphans & Vandals wear their influences proudly on their sleeve (like a wet red stain, as Dorothy Parker would have said). This is a record that could not exist without Lou Reed: opening track 'Strays' is unmistakably a lost Velvet Underground song, while the spine-tingling 'Mysterious Skin' quickly brings to mind 'The Last Great American Whale' on Reed's New York. Like that album, I Am Alive... is extraordinarily successful in its evocation of particular places. Three locations haunt the songs: one is Paris, particularly a yearned-for, half-imaginary Paris; one is London, specifically Kings Cross, which provides a backdrop to a number of these tracks; the third, heavens to betsy, is the asshole. Frontman and lyricist Al Joshua is steeped in Rimbaud and William Burroughs and this is the most fantastically lubricious record I've heard in a good while. Better still, it's, shall we say, slippery when wet: genders and sexualities become so fluid that the language that attaches to them -- even the simplest words like "boy" and "girl" -- break down, leaving us with nothing but the stuff itself, shit and cum and booze and cigarettes, "an ass full of fingers and teeth full of sugar". Musically it's ravishing, rough around the edges but perfectly poised when it needs to be: never more so than on the simple and infinitely touching 'Christopher', a song on which a fourth place finally comes into view: the singer's leaving for a cottage on the south coast, going back to mother - "I hate the disappointment this town has heaped on me." Like all the best songs on this album, it comes in at six minutes plus: Joshua needs space to work in, and taking it gives the band access to a depth of feeling and a breadth of scope that elevates them into something very special indeed. I Am Alive... is truly an incredible debut: sensitive but sexed-up, wistful and raucous by turns, and in every moment revelling in the jubilant queerness at the palpitating heart of true rock and roll.
#32 Espers, iii
This is an odd one, really. I'm not always sure that I entirely like Espers, but at their best -- or, I guess, when I like them most -- they're capable of producing songs, or even just moments within songs, of such beauty and finesse that all reservations simply melt away and leave me shivering with pleasure. So it is, again, with III (their fourth album -- thanks guys), though with the balance more than ever towards the positive. The songs here are tighter, clearer, more conventionally structured than on any of their previous records: on the whole there's a lucidity to these tracks which I find absolutely captivating. The territory by now is classic folk hemmed with psychedelia; the freaky acidic tendencies are less to the fore and, dreary straight-edge dolt that I am, I like that better. More than ever before, I find myself being reminded of Pentangle -- which is a good thing, right? Some of the most successful tracks, such as 'Caroline' and the languidly loping 'Another Moon Song', have more of a country tinge than one might expect: 'Caroline' could almost be a Dolly Parton song: or at least, I'd love to hear her cover it. As ever, Espers frequently sound far from contemporary, and not just because of their attachment to modal folk; it's hard to believe 'Meridian' was recorded any time after about 1974. Does that matter? I don't know. Espers are a puzzle. What is true of III, for me, is that while there are aspects of the band's sound that I still don't particularly care for, those now feel like necessary roughage rather than an impediment to enjoying and admiring the work. Sometimes I put this on and it can leave me a little cold; but at the right time and in the right place, the album reveals itself as almost peerlessly well-crafted and full of treasures.
#33 Sonic Youth, The Eternal
Yeah, I'd almost forgotten this sound. This sound, if I'm not mistaken, is Sonic Youth having fun. Grimy, sexy, rock-out fun, intelligent as ever, but with none of the ponderousness that, for me, has occasionally weighed a bit heavy on their work this decade. Maybe moving to Matador has blown away the cobwebs; certainly, it's audibly evident that bringing in bassist Mark Ibold, ex- of Pavement, has been an invigorating signing. Opener 'Sacred Trickster' is a bit of a false start: aside from the urgency of Kim Gordon's vocals, it's a slightly featureless barnstormer. But from second track, 'Anti-Orgasm' (imagine a no-wave Sonny & Cher having an argument with their neighbours about Judith Butler), onwards, The Eternal never really lets up. Pressed to pick highlights, I'd happily make a fuss about 'Leaky Lifeboat (for Gregory Corso)', a lithe, choppy Look & Read song; 'Calming the Snake', a cut chock-full of the most furious appetite; the euphoric radiance and vintage swagger of 'Poison Arrow'; -- oh, crumbs, all of them, OK? As ever, though, what really excites and inspires is Sonic Youth as an idea -- an idea which on The Eternal they realize more amply than they have in a while. You feel connected through it to so much smart stuff: as with all their best records, you can hear the multiplicity of their reference points, the literature, the visual culture, a whole history of music and considered sound, the art of being alive in a city and knowing enough to surf its violence and skate its erotics. Look up "life-affirming" in any decent dictionary, and if it doesn't say "The Eternal", write it in in blood.
#34 Jono el Grande, Neo Dada
The briefest possible review of this extraordinary album from Norwegian oddball Jono el Grande would say simply: "Zappa's best record since Thing-Fish". Given a little more time and space, we can immediately set about quibbling with that assessment. Jono is obviously deeply in thrall to Frank Zappa at his most ambitious and least tediously mugging, but Neo Dada ranges more widely than that and handles its jumpcuts and hybrid fictions less glibly. Staking out a territory somewhere between high prog, Vaseliney 80s jazz and postmodern classical composition, the album manages to add up to far more than the sum of its parts: and when those parts are listed, the scale of Jono's achievement becomes clear. The track that's excited most critical acclaim, as far as I can see, is 'Ballet Morbido in a Dozen Tiny Movements', and it's certainly an unremittingly enjoyable eight-minute fairground ride slash channel-hop, beginning with what sounds like Morgan Fisher and Ron Geesin collaborating on the theme for a never-now-to-be-made Keith Floyd cookery programme, with Adam & Joe's dog Boggins apparently among the vocalists; that gives way to an ardent Janáček-like passage for string quartet, which is in turn superseded by what might be the soundtrack to a spaghetti western puppet show (in 5/4, of course); this is interrupted briefly by a guitar and fake-harpsichord madgrigal, before resuming with Andy Sheppard-like soprano sax to the fore; we're still not at the five minute mark when we arrive at a scrap of Radiophonic library music for running under footage of frogspawn, say, or animated crayons on Take Hart; then we veer into a discarded track from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Variations, before taking our leave via the world's most complex pub singalong and a tiny deadpan Yuri Khanin codicil. This level of high-jinks could easily be annoying, but it's actually kind of exhilarating, for three reasons that shouldn't be overlooked: Jono's serious compositional chops (as demonstrated beyond all doubt by 'Your Mother Eats Like A Platipus' [sic], a clever and accomplished piece for string quartet); his instinct for arresting tonal and textural propositions, such as the second of 'Three Variations on a Mainstream Neurosis', in which massed saxophones tie each other in knots like a bag of mad self-charming snakes; and the eyewatering musicianship throughout. Neo Dada will not be to all tastes; considered in its entirety it will probably be to hardly any. But as an exercise in high-impact pastiche, that takes seriously everything but itself, it's more inventive per square minute than almost anything out there.
#35 Aaron Martin / Part Timer, Seed Collection
There can be few labels in the world more fondly regarded than Moteer, and perhaps especially its Mobeer imprint, which has released a series of exquisite 3" CDs, including last year's brilliant issuance from label owner The Remote Viewer, I Can't Believe It's Not Better. I haven't heard everything they put out, but I did this year manage to get hold of Seed Collection, and it's stunning. The concept is simple but works a treat: mini-CD #one has six delicate tracks from Australian cellist and multi-instrumentalist Aaron Martin; the second disc has a remix of each track by Part Timer. Martin's originals are simple, spacious compositions, mostly built around plucked figures -- the banjo (or is it banjolele?) of 'Scrub Pine', the spindly guitar of 'Sand Garden' -- which open out to pick up other instrumental lines around them. (I'm pretty sure that's psaltery on 'Sand Garden', which is a treat in itself.) None of the tracks are long but all take their time and acquire a cumulative weight which makes the (mini-)album seem far bigger and more reverberant than it actually is. Part Timer's reimagination of these tracks as folktronica sacrifices none of their spaciousness, but allow for adornment, a light sprinkling of glitch and a greater sense of forward motion (with 'Sand Garden' even acquiring an unobtrusive clicks-n-cuts rhythm track). The interior life of Martin's tracks is brought to the surface, allowing light to bounce all around their workings, in a way that will be a little familiar to those who know and love, for example, label-mates Need More Sources. Each set of tracks, taken on its own, is very lovely indeed: but it's the dialogue between the two discs, packaged together in an endless embrace, and considered as one album, that elevates Seed Collection into something that quickly becomes unforgettably lodged in the mind and in the heart.
#36 Windmill, Epcot Starfields
I both loved Windmill's 2007 debut Puddle City Racing Lights and felt slightly repelled by it. There was no doubting its craftsmanship and ambition; at the same time, it was occasionally cloying and, worse still, hard to believe. I know, it's daft looking for signals of sincerity or, God help me, authenticity in pop music, but the whole Windmill sound -- Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips being the two obvious influences -- and in particular the vocal styling just didn't sound like they ought to be coming out of a twentysomething bloke from Newport Pagnell, which is exactly what Matthew Thomas Dillon is. Two years on, he's released this follow-up album, and nothing, really, has changed: except that Epcot Starfields is that rarest thing, a concept album whose concept, its singular narrative and thematic coherence, makes all the difference in the world. In creating an album inspired by Epcot, the Disney themepark hymn to futurist technology, space exploration and (highly partial) internationalism, Dillon has found rather a moving metaphor for personal narratives of hope and fear, innocence and experience, loss and the uses of exploration as an antidote to loss. And what really makes these big themes reverberate powerfully through the album is Dillon's vocal persona. At the beginning of the opening song, 'Airsuit', he sounds just like a little boy in his jim-jams, falteringly saying his prayers at the end of his bed: and that sets the tone perfectly well for the subsequent forty minutes. If you've ever heard Kermit the Frog's nephew Robin sing A.A. Milne's 'Halfway Down the Stairs' -- well, Dillon makes that sound like Rammstein. But this epitome of kidulthood, in conjuring such a small, vulnerable presence at the centre of a vast, seductive, but unanswering universe, is the perfect p.o.v. for us to read the album's thematic concerns through. In a way, much of Epcot Starfields is simply about the pain of growing up, and the gap that opens up between children and their parents over time. Dillon appeals to American icons -- on 'Photo Hemispheres': "Carl Sagan, are we doomed?", and on 'Spaceship Earth', "Walter Cronkite, teach me about indefinite life / Present me the future through models and wires" -- as if they might be candidates to be adoptive parents: a searching for a new home that recalls both Walt Disney's excitement about space travel and simultaneously the terrible domestic tragedy that awaits everyone: "We want our parents to live for always," sings Dillon on 'Epcot Slow': "They don't want us to be sad when they're gone." I don't know if I'll ever again feel this warmly about Dillon's frankly weird American cartoon-character persona: but the Epcot metaphor that wraps around this album seems to alchemise it into a thing of incredible emotional gravity.
#37 Lisa Germano, Magic Neighbor
For a while there, Lisa Germano turned her back on the music business and went to work in a bookstore, tired of all the shenanigans. It's been close on twenty years since her first solo release and in that time she's been acclaimed, revered, but too often overlooked, treated with indifference; she's never found a huge audience, but possibly wouldn't have known what to do with one. Aside from her stint as violinist with the Indigo Girls, I first heard her in 1994, on her extraordinary, still terrifying, third album Geek the Girl, and since then she's been both one of my favourite artists and yet somebody I can go months without thinking about at all. The Magic Neighbor, her second album for Michael Gira's Young Gods Records, is as good as any record she's made since GtG, and I guess in the almost biorhythmic cycle of paying attention to what she's up to I must be at a zenith, as I've played this more than pretty much any other album over the past few months, and I like and admire it more and more. The basics have hardly changed over the years: the production is fuller now, but was always lavishly sweet and shockingly bitter, sometimes by turns, often at once; Germano's voice remains ardent, breathy, girlish sometimes, sometimes laconic or sour. I'm struck most of all by her lyrics, by the focus of her songs. She's always been one to go straight to the emotion: she sings quite directly about feelings, not necessarily about the events that produce them; and she never seems to solve (in her songs) a conundrum of independence and truth-to-self versus companionship and middle-ground. On 'Simple' she sings, characteristically: "You cannot stop me from feeling this way"; and then two tracks later, on 'The Prince of Plati', it's: "I want to feel better ... Can't we be happy just for today?" This is worth mentioning only in so far as it informs the basic relationship in so much of her music, that between the violin (individual, impassioned, raw, gutsy, a little strident sometimes) and the piano (harmonious, consoling, cooler, always at arm's length); this is an album rich in instrumental resources, but all of them relate back to that central tension. It's odd in a way that after all this time, Germano is still making the same kind of record as ever and it remains as arresting and engulfing as it always was. I guess that's simply a testament to: (a) the tender humanity of her writing, and (b) the dependable idiosyncrasy of her musical instincts: which together give rise to songs that exhibit both alluring surfaces and vertiginous depths.
#38 Big Pink, A Brief History of Love
The Big Pink arrive all wreathed about with laurels, aglow with pedigree and half-obscured by industry hype and frothsome reviews; normally that would have me hiding under the bed, but in this case, they're new signings to 4AD, which still means something in these quarters. So I lent ears, and I'm really glad I did, as A Brief History of Love makes for a very exciting listen indeed. Almost without exception, the songs here are ballsy, wonderfully overstated and full of rock nous: these two young gents have clearly given themselves the best possible start -- they've been very good listeners to other people's music. Perhaps the frequently ventilated comparison that makes most sense to me is with Jesus & Mary Chain: they've more bombast than that, but it's a similar mix of wiry vocals, churning guitar and a kingsize soupcon of industrial surface clatter. After an ominously restrained intro, opening track 'Crystal Visions' starts proper big and, after four minutes, bursts out into hell-for-leather enormity: given a good whack of dB on the old phonogram, just the size of the sound alone is pretty moving. I'm less excited by the most crowd-pleasing tracks such as 'Dominos' and 'Velvet' (both of which have been released as singles, to not much interest); they're at their most interesting when they're wandering off that map. 'Too Young To Love' and 'Golden Pendulum' are both distinguished by pleasingly wonky beats, and the title track features a vocal appearance by the wonderful Joanne Robertson, which usefully introduces another timbre into the soundworld (and briefly reminds me of the late, greatly lamented Prolapse). When they're operating even just a little outside the box, The Big Pink have everything required to be a great band. Hopefully they'll push even further with their later releases: the time that guitarist Robbie Furze served with Alec Empire shows they could obviously tolerate it. I guess they'll have to decide whether they want stadium-size success, which is surely theirs for the taking, or whether they'd rather, um, make do with my respect. As it goes, I wouldn't be surprised if in years to come this debut was spoken of with the same kind of reverence as the Stone Roses' first. But you must, you must promise to forget that I said that.
#39 Tyondai Braxton, Central Market
Well it was never going to sound like Mike & the Mechanics. I came into this knowing precisely two things about Tyondai Braxton: that he's Antony Braxton's son, and he's one fourth of Battles, whose astounding album Mirrored was the most compelling firework display to be observed anywhere in 2007. But Central Market still confounds, and possibly even exceeds, expectations. Let the record show, though, that I initially lasted about thirty seconds. The opening half minute of 'Opening Bell' sounds basically like a particularly annoying Nokia ringtone performed on the piano, coupled with some sort of electronic alarm, perhaps to warn against the toxicity of the musical content it accompanies. I knew it couldn't go on forever, but when it eventually gave way to facetious whistling, my patience buckled. Luckily, instead of hitting eject I pressed the track forward button and was pinned to my chair by the high-octane outburst of 'Uffe's Workshop', which takes similarly irritating material and ear-bogglingly expands it into a kind of orchestral prog masterpiece. And this is pretty much how Central Market proceeds. Just when you think you're going to go out of your mind at its prankish esprit and sophomoric ironies, Braxton pulls something genuinely exciting and innovative out of the bag. The real coup is scaling this needling material up for a full-scale orchestra -- more than full-scale, really, given the amount of kazoo they're asked to deploy. A couple of critics I've read have mentioned Stravinsky as an obvious influence on Braxton's orchestral writing: judging by the album's centrepiece, 'Platinum Rows', they may be right; I also hear Varese, especially on 'Unfurling' and 'Dead Strings'. But above all, I suspect Braxton, like John Zorn before him, may be a fan of Carl Stalling's music for Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes: both his scoring and the necessarily quick cutting of his modular cues. In fact something that Braxton surprisingly shares with Stalling is that his deployment of orchestral instrumentation is pretty conventional: if he wants to reach for unusual textures, as he frequently does, then his instinct is to employ paraorchestral instruments or electronics, rather than to investigate the more extended instrumental techniques that so many contemporary composers and improvisers have been keen to explore over the past fifty years. It makes for a slightly bland sound, for all the ingenuity of the writing. I have also to confess that my favourite track on the record is probably the awesome 'J. City', which is perilously close to being a guitar-driven rock song. But for all that, I'm wildly impressed by what Braxton has done here with his debut. Sure, it might get on your nerves along the way, but how many other records that I heard this year either know where my nerves are, or care?
#40 My Robot Friend, Soft Core
Over the past few years New York's My Robot Friend has served up some of electropop's most memorable -- often, its out-and-out funniest -- moments. His 2002 debut album Hot Action brought us 'You're Out of the Computer' (with outsider poet Bingo Gazingo) and irresistible tracks such as 'I Am The Robot' and 'We're the Pet Shop Boys', later covered by Robbie Williams on the still-baffling Rudebox; Dial 0 in 2006 included the fabulously filthy 'Swallow', with lesbian rapper Crasta Yo, but also hinted at a burgeoning desire to -- how you say? -- stop dicking around quite so much: 'One More Try', featuring Antony Hegarty, was an instant classic, a serious and stylish dance track that sounded like it might have been nurtured in vitro from the DNA of Yazoo. (That's Yaz to our overseas readers.) And while this latest instalment begins with the apparently recidivistic 'Robot High School' -- though close attention to the lyrics puts paid to any charges of this being merely one more wacky cyberpunk electro-fantasy -- the album starts broadening out almost straight away: and what follows is pop to be reckoned with. In a way it's an album of two halves, separated by another pret-a-porter classic, this time recalling Yazoo even more forcibly as the vocalist on the superb 'Waiting' is the great Alison Moyet herself, sounding just as startling as she did back in the early 80s. Up till that point, we have high-quality synthpop and electroclash in abundance: perky, cheeky swing-your-pants songs like 'Boyfriend' and 'Misfits Fight Song', which is by no means the last track on the album to threaten to turn out to be a cover of Toni Basil's 'Mickey'. After that halfway mark, though, things really start to surprise and impress. The soaraway highlight is 'Astronaut', a stunning piece of faintly boogie-inflected shoegaze electropop with a gorgeous vocal performance from Dean Wareham (late of Galaxy 500 and Luna), the melody and voice quality sounding a little like early Stone Roses; the ineffably sweet 'Mean' follows, swathed in ukulele and mellotron, while 'Sleepwalkers' could be a low-budget Postal Service demo, say. So, this is what My Robot Friend sounds like with tongue dislodged from robo-cheek. I can't claim Soft-Core is a seminal album that future generations will rediscover and marvel at. But it's the sound of an interesting artist making real strides, and I feel very fondly towards it. And 'Astronaut' is one of the great pop songs of the year, no doubt about it.
#41 Anna Järvinen, Man var bland molnen
It's been a quiet year for Häpna, the label I love most in all the world, but they did release this blissful second album from Swedish singer-songwriter Anna Järvinen. I'm going to have a hard time figuring out what to say about this record: it's not easy to explain its appeal. Or, actually, its appeal is so obvious. I mean, it's pretty straight, mostly acoustic pop-rock, slightly retro in its textures, beautifully sung (in Swedish) by Järvinen, and immaculately produced by Gustav Ejstes of indie-psycho-folk heroes Dungen. It's charming and a little sad-sounding: I've no idea about the lyrics, maybe she's singing about fisting, or the current manifesto of the Rättvisepartiet Socialisterna, but it all sounds charming and a little sad to me. It's the kind of album that would make me want to wind my windows down, if I had a car and I was listening to it in the car. Actually I'd probably have electric windows. Don't you think? So there wouldn't be any winding involved. Leaving me free to reach for a travel sweet in the glove compartment. Wait, that's how accidents happen. OK, I'll wait till it's safe. I'm sitting in my car and it's a warm sunny day and the sky is blue and the electric windows are down and Anna Järvinen is singing, possibly about fisting, probably not. I'm driving down to Gävle on the new motorway and wondering whether I ought to learn Swedish, seeing as how I like so much Swedish music at the moment. And then "Ar Det Det Har Det Hela Handlar Om" comes on, which is always surprising because she suddenly really rocks out. So I turn it up a bit and thank heaven for electric windows and Anna Järvinen and the blue skies all the way to Gävle.
#42 Es, Kesamaan Lapset
I'm not much of a fan of novelty or oddness for its own sake, but sometimes, an album crosses your path that sounds so totally unlike anything you've ever heard that your ears pop out on physiologically inconceivable stalks, and whether you like or dislike what you're hearing becomes a question that's all but impossible for a while because you really have nothing with which to orient your audition -- and anyway perhaps that's not the most interesting question to ask in the first place. Kesämaan Lapset, the fifth album to date from Sami Sänpäkkilä (or Es to those on strict umlaut rations) on his own Fonal label, is just such a revelation. It shouldn't be as blindsiding as it is, really: it's just drone music made with oodles and oodles of cheap-and-cheerful sounding keyboards and analogue synths, sometimes with mildly eccentric vocals layered over the top. That's all there is to it. It's often rather a thick, blancmangey texture, with a soapy aftertaste. Fine. Fine! Except that then you actually listen to it and it's almost impossible to come to terms with what you're hearing. The most successful of the five tracks, to these ears, is the first, 'Ennen oli huonommin'. It's basically just a chord of C, sustained over five minutes and elaborated on via a multiple pile-up of various electronic processes: it builds and builds, and persists and persists, and then abruptly stops. It's kind of like a musical equivalent of the textures you get when you move an electric whisk round a mixing bowl full of whipping cream while it thickens, and then you go into outer space while you're doing that, and then suddenly you're deposited back in your kitchen; fellow Christmas trifle-makers will know what I mean. Of the remaining four tracks, two are short, Fauvist, vaguely unpleasant songs; the other two are long quasi-symphonic drone-based items. The title track seems to start in the distance, a remote Bontempi keyboard high on a hill somewhere, and then more and more (unreal) instruments are brought in and stacked up as high as an elephant's Deely Boppers. It's a bit like Tubular Bells had Mike Oldfield fallen asleep on his synthesizer. The first chord-change happens at four and a half minutes, and the second is a crossfade at the ten minute mark. We then are transported briefly to the seashore, out of which a fanfare-like chord builds like Poseidon himself surfing towards us, and it gets bigger and bigger and then it's Four Horsemen time and then it's over. ...If I seem to be slightly taking the mickey out of my 42nd favourite album of the year, well, OK, fair cop: it's because I'm unnerved by it. It shouldn't be this tricky -- it's not a million miles from some of Matmos's stuff, or from Child's View. But it is tricky. The first track is so beautiful and the fifth is so ugly and the difference between them is so slim; and I just don't know what to do with the long pieces inbetween. I don't know what to do with myself. Sometimes I stand in the middle of the floor, not going left, not going right. Which is how, sometimes, it ought to be, don't you think?
#43 Depeche Mode, Sounds of the Universe
Well, so it turns out I'm a Depeche Mode fan. Who knew? Certainly it's news to me. I've spent all of my pop-consuming life not particularly caring all that much about them, though on reflection a list of songs of theirs that I really really like would be as long as Martin Sheen's left arm. (OK, it's a bit shorter than his right arm. That's why President Bartlet puts his jacket on in that -- literally -- over-the-top way. Ah, but I appear to have digressed.) The band's guitar-heavy sound from the early 90s onwards never really appealed all that much -- though a number of classic songs obviously continued to emerge -- and I anyway became a bit estranged from that part of the musical world that they continued to inhabit. So when a few weeks ago I heard on the radio an unfamiliar, synth-driven Depeche Mode track called 'Fragile Tension' that I thought was really great, I figured it must be an album track from the late 80s, or something on Violator maybe. Of course -- let's cut to the end of the boring anecdote, shall we? -- it's a brand new song from a fine new album on which the band reaches back to its eighties signature sound. No, but that's not quite right: one of the really great things about this record is that it hardly feels retro at all, this is not some nostalgia trip for ageing diehard fans. Sounds of the Universe manages to sound fresh and forward-looking, due perhaps in part to the good works of shrewd producer Ben Hillier. It's a slow-burner, too -- yup, turns out those still sneak through, sometimes, even in this age of hot and cold running downloads: aside from some more overtly dramatic tracks like 'Wrong' and 'Come Back' -- Depeche Mode always shared with Heaven 17 an unfailing genius for starting records -- its ways and means are subtler, relying perhaps on their dependably keen sense of structure and dynamic shaping to keep you tuned in and turned on. Two or three of these songs, perhaps above all the aforementioned single 'Fragile Tension', are as good as anything they've ever done, and by the time you get to the end of the album, you're already excited to hear it again. (PS Can somebody now record a song called 'Fraggle Tension' please?)
#44 J Tillman, Year in the Kingdom
How is Year In The Kingdom not on every end-of-year list out there, from Rolling Stone to Good Housekeeping? You'd think it was the perfect candidate. This is a serious album, demanding serious listeners, but it's also full of pleasures you can just lean back and bask in. The first paragraph of every review may remind you that J. Tillman drums with the Fleet Foxes, but it's worth remembering he's also amassed a substantial body of solo work, this being his eighth album in five years (including early CD-Rs and such): and though he's not yet thirty, he sounds older both in voice and lyrics -- this album's opening line is "When I look back on my life..." (...and, no, it's not an alt.folk cover of 'It's A Sin'). What seems new here, or more prominent, is a confident kind of clarity of design and presentation, a lucidity that seems moral as much as musical. Bare and salient, Tillman's voice lays out reflections and confessional tales that seem to be underwritten by old-school grand-narrative certainties: the good old binaries of light and dark, mountains and valleys, right and wrong, sin and redemption. With its twin-track impulses of journeying through the world and digging deep to confront the trajectories of the inner life, Year in the Kingdom would make a good alternative soundtrack to Into The Wild, perhaps; precise and telling instrumentation adding to Tillman's voice and guitar -- dulcimer and vortical whistles on 'Crosswinds', string quartet on 'Earthly Bodies' -- enhance the strong (and always moving) sense of music as a kind of work done with the hands. Some reviews have lamented the constrained tonal and emotional range of this album, but in a year when high-on-Tartrazine rantipoles like Tyondai Braxton and Jono el Grande have made so much of the running, to put on a record that finds a subdued mood and stays there is something of a relief, particularly when it's as highly crafted and delicately shaded as this. Lend it your ear -- and, as a great man used to say: no flipping!
#45 Edie Sedgwick, Things Are Getting Sinister and Sinisterer
Bear with me, dears, it's a rum one, this, and it's going to take some glossing. This is not, obviously, since she died thirty years ago, a record by the Warholian muse and socialite Edie Sedgwick. Rather, it's a communication from her spirit, currently resident, perhaps contrary to the general tendencies of probability, inside the body of ex-Supersystem bassist Justin Moyer. This "transgender reincarnation" (in the words of her MySpace page) has for a while now been embarked on a project of analysing contemporary celebrity culture through the medium of off-kilter three-minute pop songs. Thus, on this latest release, Edie Sedgwick turns her gaze on such barely-moving targets as Angelina Jolie (on 'Angelina Jolie') and Mary-Kate Olsen (on 'Mary-Kate Olsen'). Less current stars such as Sissy Spacek and Anthony Perkins also get their moments under the microscope (on 'Sissy Spacek' and 'Anthony Perkins' respectively); as do the films March of the Penguins and Red Dawn. So, what's going on here then? It doesn't quite add up, does it? Reviewers have mostly taken Sedgwick at face value: as a potty-mouthed brat serving up sardonic sideswipes (and frontal thwacks) at the vacuous glitterati who degrade our present cultural landscape. In which light, poking fun at Olsen's anorexia or Perkins's death from AIDS seems like a cruel, gratuitously overegged species of lampoon at which even the makers of South Park might blanch. And certainly there are some killer lines that support that reading, and they may in the end be right. But it seems to me that Moyer is using celebrity identities (including Sedgwick's) as we do: as common-ground icons in the absence of other consensus, the basis from which our watercooler formulations of our most pressing ethical concerns might proceed. To become a celebrity is to have initiated the development of an almost free-floating idea in the world: and the older or more distant the celebrity, the more scuffed and overdetermined the idea becomes, which is why the songs about those who have passed the peak of their fame are the most successful: they're more ambiguous, more confused. 'Rob Lowe', for example, opens its brash portrait of its eponymous target with the phrase: "Bass! Call me Ishmael, motherfucker." Which seems to say so much about Lowe in ways that can hardly be rationally figured. The album takes its title from the chorus of the most controversial track, 'Anthony Perkins'; far from being a spiteful pisstake, it seems to me to be saying something quite serious about the abstraction of the human experience of living with, and dying from, AIDS into a sort of Hitchcockian nightmare maze of acronyms and justified paranoia. Of course it's at one level harder to take these songs seriously because they're so low-rent, propelled largely by bass and drums alone and delivered in a vaguely camp, histrionic manner, somewhere between The Dickies and Lene Lovich. But transgender performance has often arisen partly out of a desire to touch subjects too serious and raw to be treated 'straight', as it were, and beneath the callow one-liners of Sedgwick's rants lie a welter of challenges and provocations to normative mores, for which these contagious, almost exhilaratingly toxic songs are just incorrigibly sharpened delivery mechanisms.
#46 Owl City, Ocean Eyes
In which your correspondent unwittingly outs himself as a fourteen-year-old girl. I'm reliably informed that fourteen-year-old girls are the sole demographic constituency in the market for the work of squeeky-clean American chart-pop whippersnapper Owl City. I'm sure there must be a few boys out there digging him too, but as Lucas memorably asks in Empire Records: "Jane, did you compare the percentage of teenage male Rex Manning fans to the incidence of homosexuality amongst teenage males?"; and anyway, yeah, fourteen is probably right. But then, isn't the part of your heart that responds to sweeter-than-Nutrasweet pop always, perpetually, in glorious Dorian Grayscale, fourteen? Owl City -- Adam Young, to his mom; not to be confused, Wikipedia helpfully points out, with the Alexander Trocchi novel Young Adam -- arrived on the scene this year with a remarkably reliable instinct for Postal Service-lite pop, a voice so reformed by Autotune it makes Donatella Versace look like a real earthling, and such an extreme Reverse Midas touch for lyrics that you kind of want to ruffle his hair and tell him not to worry. Since then, he's scored a US #1 with 'Fireflies' and, poor lamb, been longlisted for the BBC's 'Sound of 2010'. Personally speaking, I slightly prefer his previous album, Maybe I'm Dreaming, but Ocean Eyes is still crammed with great pop events. I wouldn't advise the whole thing at one sitting, necessarily: you'll feel like you just drank a huge turquoise milkshake while being intimately fondled by a Care Bear. I'd also warmly recommend skipping 'Dental Care', a song about, yup, visiting the dentist, made almost unconscionably worse by a pun-heavy lyric. But upbeat tracks like 'Hello Seattle' and 'On The Wing', and the pristine ballad 'Meteor Shower', are drop-dead bite-your-thumb gorgeous, and if you don't agree, I'm sorry to have to tell you that your heart is fifteen or older and perfectly, disastrously straight.
#47 Ghost, Freedom of Thought
For a while now, Ghost has seemed to me like pretty much the most accomplished figure in mainstream British hiphop. His vision as a producer is widescreen enough to impress but sufficiently rough and exploratory to intrigue. Obviously indebted to DJ Shadow and, perhaps inevitably, Ninja Tune -- I sometimes hear echoes of DJ Food especially -- Ghost's work is often impressionistic, texture-driven, but retaining enough boldness and distinctness to make a strong impact; his beats are for the most part big and robust but tread softly on the mix -- it's all pretty chilled, even at its most emphatic. There's something particularly interesting about Ghost's evocation of what feels like a distinctly British sensibility in his tracks, whether the northern soul of 'It's All Love' or the sample from long-lost 70s UK rock band Uriah Heep on the spun-out miniature 'See You Crying', or simply the muted, somewhat melancholic, piano-led lounge music that seems to make up his palette as much as does, say, American jazz. This is hiphop that comes from a place where it rains a lot, for sure. Interestingly, though, for all the prowess of Ghost's instrumentals and the way he clearly uses sound to think with, it's a couple of the tracks with contributions from guest rappers that really stand out: the mordant wit and the sad candour of Verb-T on 'Frozen in Time', and above all the analytical and poetic smarts of 'Elevate', courtesy of the peerless Jehst. If you can judge people by their friends, then on that basis alone Ghost is a force to be reckoned with; but on those tracks that don't have words, he's hardly less articulate and every bit as lyrically progressive.
#48 Jonny Trunk, Scrapbook
Sometimes -- not very often, I must admit, but sometimes -- I think Jonny Trunk should be carried aloft through the city on the shoulders of all of us whose lives he has enhanced through the existence of his marvellous label Trunk Records, which has brought into circulation a priceless array of soundtrack and library music, and long-lost jazz, folk and easy listening albums: their catalogue ranges from Bod and Ivor the Engine to Life on Earth and Radiophonic genius John Baker via The Wicker Man and Tomorrow's People, as well as bags of stuff by the great Basil Kirchin and, hm, quite a lot of porn-related, er, releases, including the Deep Throat soundtrack and a record of the fringe show Dirty Fan Male, which in turn, um, spawned Trunk and Wisbey's sublime 35-second smash hit 'The Ladies' Bras'. Worth spelling all this out as it's a good guide to Scrapbook. Much as you'd expect from the title, Trunk's second (I think) full-length album as an artist in his own right is a thing of shreds and patches: twenty tracks, harvested from a six-year period of hobbyist tinkering, that capture a musical idea on the fly. If you have a cheap sampler and a big record collection, you could probably make something quite like Scrapbook yourself, and in a way that's exactly the point: it has a homespun, unfinished quality that leaves you feeling much closer than you otherwise might to the original sources that Trunk has copydexed together. It's not a particularly accomplished album. Most of the tracks don't really go anywhere or add up to anything, and the ones that do are sort of a disappointment, because that's not what it's about. This is a record about records, about the love of those often essentially anonymous but ineffably odd or groovy sounds that climb into your mind and hang out there, banging into each other and cutting a rug. It's curious and lovely and powered by affection, and I'll take it over the latest Arctic Monkeys any day of the working week.
#49 Ben Folds, Presents University A Cappella
From the first moment I saw it, my favourite video on YouTube -- more or less certain to leave your poor old lachrymose Controlling Thompson half-dissolved in a pool of squonk tears on the bedroom floor -- has for some time been an extraordinary, precarious, big-hearted rendition of 'Come On Eileen' by The Dynamics, an a cappella group at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. (Yup, that Allentown.) So when news of the release of this album of covers of Ben Folds songs by some of the US's finest university a cappella groups reached me, my ears cocked more because of my adoration of the Dynamics than because I'm much of a fan of Folds himself. He's fine, I like him when I hear him, I've just seldom gone looking for his stuff. Well I'll say this for him: he writes songs that seem to respond to this kind of treatment amazingly well. Hard to imagine a similar project working so well for, say, Chris de Burgh, or Jandek. I guess there's always a little quirky je ne sais quoi to even his weightiest songs, and if you're going for the a cappella treatment, your work has to accommodate people singing things like "diggity diggity bomp bomp" underneath it without it being undermined. Anyway, two things stand out from this marvellously successful experiment. One is the considerable range of approaches that are brought to bear by the different groups: some skirt closer to the busy jazz of Take Six, others ape the smooth airbrushed sound of the Singers Unlimited, others sound like more traditional choirs... For me, nobody's more impactful than the Spartones of Greensboro, NC, who open the album with a devastatingly strong and unguarded version of 'Not The Same', creating a real wall of sound that's three times as moving as any Welsh male voice choir. There are some wonderful arrangements too, such as on 'You Don't Know Me' as performed by With Someone Else's Money from the University of Georgia, or the perilous but thrilling reading of 'Army' by the University of Rochester's Midnight Ramblers. The other thing that strikes me is how almost all these groups have really good beatboxers in them. That seems to be something that all the kids can do now. Ach, I was born too early. The best testament I can pay to this album is to agree with Folds himself, who has insisted that he never saw it as a novelty record. He's right: the level of musicianship exhibited here is as exemplary as on pretty much anything else in the 50, and for whatever reason -- perhaps it really just is that naked unguardedness, and I suppose the constant flirtation with preposterousness and the persistence in the face of that risk -- I find it way more emotionally powerful than it might look on paper. It's wonderful, really.
#50 Squanto, Go Go Gadget Grass Stains
Can't tell you much about Squanto, I'm afraid -- I can't even recall how I came by my copy of Go Go Gadget Grass Stains; I know he's a young guy called Ben Lovell and I think he's in New York -- but I was absolutely enraptured by the opening moments of the first song, 'Waiting and Waterskiing', and since then, it and I have been firm friends. That track starts with some super-minimal acoustic guitar, maybe kind of Jim O'Rourke-like, and a little ambient coughing and clothes-rustling, before bursting out in the musical equivalent of a shit-eating grin (not that I've ever quite understood that idiom) and turning into a gorgeous acoustic pop song that sounds a bit like Los Lobos trying to play quietly so as to not wake the people in the apartment upstairs. It then turns out to have multiple melody lines delivered in parallel from the start (which appears to be a bit of a Squanto signature). The multitracked Bens sound as confused as you'll feel. I'm not sure it's even done on four-track; I think it might be on, like, two-and-a-half-track or something. Anyway, it all ends in the proliferant murmurations of what sound like a dozen Rabbis talking together at a bus stop. It's all very lo-fi, very intimate. The phone rings during 'A Squash Surprise': seriously, folks, it's that homestyle. There's a definite campfire feel to much of it: 'The Desert of Lies' is kind of a shaggy-dog story that it's impossible to disbelieve; 'Aaron' and the tiny and impossibly sweet 'Sammy Wouldn't Get Out Of The Boat (So It Sank)', whose title is also its only lyric, both feel like semi-improvised summer-camp jams; 'The Brown Beast' is a bit like the kind of thing 80's kids would record the first time they were left alone with a cassette recorder with a built-in mic -- only with exquisite guitar work. What I particularly love is how he keeps taking on really complicated material that he's then not quite equal to: it's an album that should resonate with those local theatre critics (myself included) who can't stop talking about the creative fertility of failure. And yet there's plenty here that's more than successful, that speaks of care and ingenuity and cheerfully exudes the warmth of friendship. In fact, this being the last review in the list, you should picture Go Go Gadget Grass Stains and I walking off into the sunset together, like Christopher Robin and Winnie-the-Pooh on the last page of The House at Pooh Corner. I'll leave it to you to decide which of us is which.
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And #51-100, in alphabetical order, are as follows:
A-Ha, Foot of the Mountain; Adrian Belew, e; Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion; Baaba Maal, Television; Bill Callahan, Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle; Black to Comm, Alphabet 1968; Bradien, Linden; Broadcast & the Focus Group, Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age; Dan Deacon, Bromst; DFRNT, Metafiction; DJ Spooky, The Secret Song; Duckplex, Disbelief Immunity Slam; Florence & the Machine, Lungs; Fuck Buttons, Tarot Sport; The Gentleman Losers, Dustland; the government, i know no time when we were not as now; Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest; The Hidden Cameras, Origin:Orphan; Jamie T, Kings & Queens; Jim O'Rourke, The Visitor; Jónsi & Alex, Riceboy Sleeps; Just Jack, All Night Cinema; Kim Janssen, The Truth Is I Am Always Responsible; Kleerup, Kleerup; Klimek, Movies is Magic; Littlest Viking, Labor and Lust; Lusine, A Certain Distance; Mapstation, The Africa Chamber; Matteah Baim, Laughing Boy; Mexican Institute of Sound, Soy Sauce; Miike Snow, s/t; Múm, Sing Along to Songs You Don't Know; Mumford & Sons, Sigh No More; NASA, Spirit of Apollo; NOMO, Invisible Cities; OOIOO, Armonico Hewa; The Pains of Being Pure At Heart, s/t; Prodigy, Invaders Must Die; Rachel Grimes, Book of Leaves; Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, And the Horse You Rode In On; Seeland, Tomorrow Today; Simon Scott, Navigare; Sky Larkin, The Golden Spike; Sunn O))), Monoliths & Dimensions; Terre Thaemlitz, Midtown 120 Blues; Tim Friese-Greene, Ten Sketches for Piano Trio; Tsukimono, Heart Attack Money; tUnE-yArDs, Bird-Brains; What Capitalism Was, Plays Philip Glass on Accordion; Why?, Eskimo Snow.