Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Duets for three

Just a quick midnight post, on what I suppose -- given that I'm right now mid-way through my working day -- I should be thinking of as my lunch break, to record some half-thoughts and share some evidence of the project I've just been away in Cambridge doing over the past few days.

On the occasion of my poetry reading with the brilliant Tomas Weber in Cambridge last November, I was able to introduce Jonny Liron to Jeremy Hardingham, who -- if you've just joined us -- runs the Judith E. Wilson Drama Studio at the English Faculty. We crashed a seminar Jeremy was doing on King Lear, which included a couple of short performances by Jeremy, pretty much in the ballpark of his genuinely extraordinary unfolding king lear a model, which I wrote about here a while back. Jonny was understandably blown away both by the work and by Jeremy in person, and, when I rather intrusively raised the possibility, Jeremy was kind enough to invite Jonny and me down to the studio for a few days' residency, with my sights set on embarking on the next chapter of my working relationship with Jonny and also to putting both of us in a work room with Jeremy -- the first time, obviously, for Jonny, and my first time working with Jeremy as a performer since we did Twelfth Night together back in 2001 (unless you count, as one probably should, a twenty-minute set in our music duo guise as COAT at a cptDoodah! event in 2003, I can't quite remember).

Enough backstory. I'm here to report not much more than having had an amazing few days in the company of two people who stimulate and fascinate me more than I can begin to say. Watching them work together was incredibly touching, as they each felt their way towards each other's distinct languages, wanting to accommodate, embrace, augment, and also, a little, to disrupt. Given that Jonny's still just 21, and that since we did Hey Mathew last autumn he's mostly been doing Beauty & the Beast at South Hill [not quite the same ball]Park, it's incredible to me that he got in the room at all with Jeremy, who, as I've more or less said a few times in these and other pages, I think is basically the most important British theatre maker of our generation. That he was moreover able to work on such equal terms is a testament not only to Jonny's talent, commitment and intrepidity in dealing with a sheerly vertical learning curve (that's actually a learning wall, let's face it), but also to Jeremy's care, adaptability, virtuosity and grace. I felt acutely, dizzyingly privileged and grateful just to be in the room.

So as to have something to aim these explorations towards -- I'd said to Jonny in an overheated 3am manifesto email shortly before Christmas, "Let's go to Cambridge and be NOT IRRELEVANT" -- we'd said we'd show some work on Saturday night, and so we did. Recovery was basically just an extended improvisation (I'll paste below some contextualising bits from the programme copy I knocked up that morning), with all the nervous unpredictability that that entails: an unpredictability that seems curiously still to obtain after the event, when it's weirdly difficult to recall or gauge what just happened... It seemed to me all the things I thought it would be -- beautiful, harrowing, bumpy, confusing, candid, violent, affectionate -- though to be honest half my attention was on the spoken texts I was improvising out of various sources from a just-offstage holodeck. Happily though, for once, a fixed-position video recording worked out pretty well, and I'll post below some screen shots from that: the long-play image quality is poor, obviously, but I think you get some sense of what happened during the 55 minute piece. (Well, what you get in 15 frames is 0.019% of the whole story, and of course not even that, but hey, what more can I do?) Audience reception seemed quite positive on the whole -- they were I think as startled as we were, but their attentiveness was phenomenal: and it was great to talk afterwards to old pals like Neil Pattison and Anne Stillman, and to meet a really smart undergrad called Orlando Reade, who seems to be thinking all the right things in the right kind of order -- make a note of the name.

It could hardly have been a better excursion, really. There's a bit of stuff that I hoped the few days' work with Jonny might touch on that we didn't really get to work with for various reasons: but that's a negligible wrinkle -- there's no doubt that our conversation together is only just beginning, and we'll get to all those places in time, and plenty more besides. In every other way it was an extraordinarily useful, refreshing, frequently mindblowing few days, and one that, for all its intellectual demands and sometimes disturbing outcomes, also quite frequently had me all but supine with hysterical laughter.

Here you go then: what I did on my holidays, ha ha:

















* * *

From the programme note:

What else can theatre do?

In RECOVERY, it sets itself against the loss of which it is itself partly composed. Which is to say that theatre thrives on, is sometimes wholly produced by, disappearances: by the ephemeral, the fleeting. But by some particular effort of attention it might also work against disappearance, and be instead a site where memory and precise invocation can conspire to reinscribe in our perception of the world what may have been lost to that perception, often perhaps through inattention.

Tonight’s performance is entirely improvised, within parameters that have gradually been determined by the participants over the past couple of days. Any description of what might be seen would therefore be presumptuous or actually absurd. Some indication of the resources out of which the piece will emerge may nonetheless help inform the task of watching and helping to hold the place in place.

A number of thematic and topical recoveries inform the work (mostly in rather oblique ways): the recovery of lost data from a corrupted disk, say, or of fragments of memory from childhood; the recovery of effects from a burning building; the recovery of a body from illness or attack, or from the distortions imposed on it by extraneous orthodoxies and systematic violence. The choice of materials is influenced in part by textual sources including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (itself an attempt at the recovery of incident from a period of the life of Jesus about which we know nothing) and the unperformed — and therefore in one sense lost — scores of the Actionist artist Rudolf Schwarzkogler. There may or may not, as it happens, be spoken text, which may or may not also derive from these sources, and may or may not be partly or wholly generated and/or organized by computer: this will finally be decided after these notes are printed and copied. There is music, sound, noise: mostly from a portable CD player set to ‘shuffle’, playing material which the two main performers will not have heard before.

What you will see in RECOVERY is a series of duets, sometimes isolated, sometimes layered. These encounters may take place not just between the two performers, but also between a performer and another person (present in the room, or not), or between performer and material, or perfomer and room... It may be useful therefore to note that what superficially appears to be an encounter between the two performers may actually (from their perspective) be an instance where two separate duets, each involving an invisible ‘partner’, happen simply to be sharing a performance space.

There is no single endorsed way of orienting yourself in relation to this work. You are welcome to sit (on the floor, or on a chair if you prefer) or stand, very close or at some remove; to move around or not, to come and go. Please be aware though, and sympathetic to the fact, that your actions and behaviours may not be very different from those of which the performance is composed, and your presence is not less salient.

* * *

How else can I end this post but with reiterated thanks to Jeremy for making this possible? I've left Jonny in Cambridge, continuing the conversation, and I wish with pretty much every Quorn-like filament of my being that I was there still too: upstream at high altitude. Fellas, I love you.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Michael Billington kindly suggests a possible update for the name of this blog


"...Thompson's timely demonstration of the dubious bond-trading bonanza..."

(from today's Guardian review of Roaring Trade at Soho)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Of late

Lots of little bits and bobs to try and thread together as quickly as possible today, so please forgive any infelicities of thought or expression that follow. It's five in the afternoon as I embark on this post and the working day is not even, really, begun. I'm still writing King Pelican, which goes into rehearsal in only a little over three weeks: and quite big bits of my time between now and then will be taken up with Wound Man and Shirley; with a short residency at the Judith E. Wilson studio in Cambridge; and with such whirling ceilidhs of admin pish as the annual tax return (lest Moira Stuart stage a sit-in in our understairs cupboard) and renewing my passport and suchlike. So in fact I have just a few days in which to finish probably the most complicated and challenging script I've ever tried to write -- challenging not least because, unlike Speed Death..., this one can't wear its complexity on its sleeve. It's daunting, exciting, but mostly frustrating: principally because it takes me all day to get myself into the headspace where I can actually do the writing. Often I don't start till midnight, and find I have to hit the sack at three. So in one sense it's not a long working day; but of course the head's buzzing from the moment I wake up. Anyway, it's not like I have a choice about finishing it -- tickets are already on sale. So, we'll get there. The cast is two thirds in place and next week will be complete; and a week today the design team and I pile down to Plymouth to introduce the brilliant folks there to the project. Everything about this feels great except the twelve hours of dread that precede each night's three measly hours of writing.

I felt compelled to throw up a quick post here not least because I've been sitting for the last few days with an interesting and instructive tension. Tomorrow the fourth annual Devoted & Disgruntled event begins in Bethnal Green. For those who don't know, this is a gathering of theatre folks, hosted by Improbable and designed around Open Space technology to facilitate what promises to be a fascinating assortment of hopefully fruitful conversations around different aspects (determined by attendees) of our contemporary theatre culture. Devoted & Disgruntled has quickly become established as perhaps the most significant backstage event in the theatre calendar, and colleagues speak warmly of it. I've never been to one before -- I abhor large gatherings as utterly and completely as did my current subject Edward Lear, who once remarked: "At the very door of St Peter of the Keys, I shall stipulate that I will only go into Heaven at all on condition that I am never in a room with more than 10 people." But D&D cunningly promotes itself as a safe haven for refuseniks like me, as the club for all those who would never dream of belonging to a club that would consent to admit them as members. And among 2009's resolutions -- most of which already lie in such tattered disarray around me I could easily believe I'd wandered into the closing stages of a Sarah Kane play -- is the determination to show up more. Not merely to turn up -- to things, to shows, to the pub, whatever...; but to show up, in the West Wing sense.

However there is of course also tomorrow a demonstration in London organized by the Stop the War Coalition in opposition to the incomprehensible atrocities currently being visited on Gaza, and like anyone with a third of a conscience I very much want to stand alongside my fellow citizens and be counted. (That is, of course, counted as a fifth of a person by the police and as one-and-a-half people by the organizers.) One friend had suggested nipping out of D&D to join the march on the Israeli embassy for a while and then nipping back again: but that doesn't look like a feasible option to me. So I genuinely feel torn about where my responsibilities place me tomorrow. I suspect I'll follow the utilitarian course: on balance, I can do more good, have more of an impact, by engaging as closely as possible with D&D, and perhaps by raising exactly this point -- which I'm sure others will also be keen to do. I want, I need, and above all I believe in, an artistic practice that does not feel discontinuous with the actions of those who will demonstrate tomorrow: and there's (at the risk of overstating my case) a kind of sorrow produced by this tension, a realization that, for all my commitment to a theatre that's passionately and intrinsically politically motivated, I fear that the conversation that the relatively little community at D&D will be having with itself tomorrow may feel trivial and self-indulgent at a time like this. But, I guess, that's the point: the current situation in the Middle East is hardly anomalous, for all its grievous pitch in the last few days; it's always a time like this, and the worst thing about contemporary theatre is exactly how insulated and disconnected it feels in relation to these times. Put like that, I guess it's obvious that the best use of my voice is making that case where it needs to be heard. Even so, it's impossible to be sure that this isn't purest self-delusion. I suppose it all comes back to how I always feel when people deride the idea that theatre can (meaningfully) change the world. Not all the theatre has been made yet, and not all the results are in.

I wonder where Harold Pinter would be, given the same conundrum. (Of course he's in the enviable position of being able to look down on both events at the same time from his present vantage: though I dare say, like Lear, he probably arrived at the pearly gates with a considerable list of preconditions.) It would, anyway, be remiss not to mention in passing, at least, Pinter's death while this blog was on its Christmas vacation: and though it tended unwelcomely to overshadow the attention due to a host of other various radical voices we lost in the space of a fortnight or so -- Davey Graham, Adrian Mitchell, Eartha Kitt, and, slightly earlier, George Brecht -- it was satisfying in a way to have Harold hog the headlines for a day or two, nicking the festive limelight from such bourgeois lickspittles as the Queen and the Baby Jesus.

I'm a real fan of the later, sparer Pinter, starting perhaps with Landscape (above all) and Silence -- though with honourable mentions for the more constrained of the earlier plays like The Lover and, of course, The Dumb Waiter -- and continuing through No Man's Land and Betrayal to perhaps his greatest work of art: Mountain Language, in which his various resources as a playwright, poet and political thinker really fuse for the first and perhaps only time. Partly I mean by this that in that play he quite explicitly demonstrates a concern for the operations of language in a public context, where earlier works focus on damaged utterance as an expression of private struggles with different species of violence and loss: and that exactly this kind of disclosure of the opacity and ideological freighting of language is about the only tenable argument for the literary tendency in theatre. Pinter having been credited over the past few days with having invented or influenced everything from In-Yer-Face and Sarah Kane at one end of the axis to EastEnders and even Big Brother at the other (Mark Lawson's wrist must be aching, and not for the usual reason), one hesitates to pile on: but sometimes when I am asked to amplify on this admittedly fuzzy distinction I foolishly try to draw between play-wri(gh)ting and writing for theatre, I suggest that Landscape is exemplary in this respect as a tipping point, after which any sense of Pinter as graduate of weekly rep potboilers and whodunnits is finally expunged, and his devotion to multiplicity and to unreliability becomes such that they are released from service (to narrative or character) and become of interest in themselves as aspects of the theatrical situation -- or, for that matter, of any communicative encounter. Attempted definitions of 'Pinteresque' menace have been floated in recent days; what I think we see from Landscape onwards is menace uncoupling itself from the speeches or manners of specific characters, to become a salient aspect of language itself. Theatre has every right and every good reason to expose us to this condition of language; the preference, still, for tacitly insisting that language is a stable and transparent carrier of information is at best obfuscating and at worst sort of militantly inattentive, and as such profoundly untheatrical. (Pinter I suspect wouldn't have had much time for this analysis himself.)

The sad demise of Pinter was lent additional reverberance in my case because I've at last got around to Michael Billington's State of the Nation, and was reading about the early stages of Pinter's career just as the announcements were being made of his death. Partly this just made me boggle at how bloody long he was doing it (and never at any time, I think, irrelevantly or unsearchingly); how that matters in a curious way, just as it does with Brook. And, indeed, with Billington. In two ways State of the Nation is a brilliant book: as a personal memoir of theatre-going it is fascinating; as a thumbnail social history of post-war Britain it is useful and cogent. But frustratingly the book ends up slightly less than the sum of its parts, mostly because Billington trims his evidence to fit his thesis -- or, more likely I suspect, its thesis arises in the first place because he was always apparently most impressed by theatre that confirmed, not confounded, his sense of what theatre could be and what it could aspire to do. He appears to be more reliable on the older stuff (or I guess I just know ever so much less about it than he does); as he approaches the present era we, perhaps inevitably, part company. Not entirely: we share misgivings about empty spectacle and cheap sensation, though we may find it in somewhat discrepant locations. But he continually affirms his belief in the supremacy of the playwright, without ever really marshalling any analytical evidence -- whenever the question is tackled directly, here and elsewhere, it's always "I simply believe..." or "I still believe...". Behind this lie two basic assumptions -- misapprehensions, from my point of view, and quite widely held ones too: firstly, that the roles of the actor and director are inherently interpretive while a writer's is creative; secondly, that some contemporary makers' challenge to the playwright is in essence an attempt at a coup, a grab for supremacy, rather than a wholesale questioning of the models of creative authority and action that require someone, anyone -- necessarily, then, the playwright, as the only genuinely creative person in the process -- to be top dog in the first place. It's as if the creative vision can only belong to one person at a time, so if it's not writer's theatre then it must be director's theatre... What's frustrating is that if Billington were to actually engage with the collaborative practice and collectivist principles that have inspired so many devisers, I think he might find them congenially compatible with his own politics, which are obviously amiably leftist and impatient with rigidity and deference. I wonder if his interests and opinions would have taken a different course over the past few decades had he not been obliged to write about almost everything he saw? I'm sure it's in large part the poverty of critical language for talking about devised work that makes an equitable appreciation of its merits so difficult for him. What a pity; he could have helped out.

Mind you, these old narratives of authority and prestige can crop up in the most unexpected places. Another book I've had an eye on recently is Katie Mitchell O.B.E.'s new handbook, The Director's Craft. It's a welcome publication (in some respects) from a slightly unexpected source: of all the prominent directors you'd have thought might put out a nuts-and-bolts guide to directing, you might not have listed Mitchell, whose trajectory over the past decade in particular has been fascinating, idiosyncratic and wildly controversial. As Nick Hytner points out in his foreword -- though he's not ungracious enough to say it like this -- there's long been a potentially lucrative gap in the market for exactly this kind of book. But Katie Mitchell as your trusted guide? Hm. I mean I'm an admirer of Mitchell's, though I've missed many of her key works and hated her drab and witless Dream Play with such a passion that I still quite want to give her a Chinese burn even now. But there's no doubt she can go places, and get things done, that almost no one else working at that level can do: and the more genuinely exploratory she is, and the more manifestly open to criticism, the more I warm to her.

It's hard to believe, then, in some ways, that The Director's Craft is even by her. Its endless rules and checklists will seem bemusingly methodical to anyone who's witnessed the image-driven, intuitive, impressionistic qualities of her best work. Moreover, all of these rules are developed out of an approach that's basically Stanislavski on steroids; hell's teeth, the terrible grinding joylessness of it. At first I thought this simply indicated a canniness in terms of the targeting of the book, which will be invaluable, with all its bullet-points (none, actually, but dozens metaphorically), to second-rate student directors who are big on ambition and short on flair. But the more I read, the more I realise that basically Mitchell believes the same stuff about theatre as Billington. That the director and actor are interpreters, not creators. (Her interest in devising seems to stem largely from an interest in individual psychological insights, not from a determination to play around with creative methodologies.) That supremacy is everything, and in the reherasal room the director has that supremacy (the phrase 'chain of command' gets bandied about a bit, without examination) and must hang on to it at all costs. Thus: the aim of preparation, as a director, is so that you can immediately answer any question that an actor poses to you. (It becomes impossible to imagine Mitchell ever saying the phrase I find I use more often in the room than any other: "I don't know. What do you think?") There is no sense of conversation, of fluidity, of adaptivity, of eroticism, of daring -- of any of the things, in fact, that you might expect from the author. It really is baffling: particularly when anecdotal evidence also suggests that Mitchell's rehearsal room is seldom the model of order, clarity and lambent calm that she proposes in this text.

What's also baffling is Hytner's peculiarly ingenuous statement that this is not an addition to the existing canon of "many inspirational books about the purpose of theatre". I mean, sure, it doesn't set itself up as such, and I certainly don't find it inspirational (except in a weirdly bracing Calvinist way that I certainly wouldn't dare to try and take into the rehearsal room): but it's insane to imply, as Hytner does, that The Director's Craft is not manifestly pushing a particular agenda regarding the purpose of theatre. Given that there's no easy consensus on what theatre is for, even the most apparently objective list of how-to instructions inevitably, necessarily, amounts to a relief map of a certain vision for theatre, what it must do, how it must function. Nothing in The Director's Craft is actually dangerous, though remembering how student directors back in my day used Brook's Empty Space as if even that were a roadmap, I fear for a generation of slavish Mitchell copyists using this book as if it were some kind of dramatic Delia and unable to comprehend how their bullet-pointy rendering of Antigone or Waiting for Godot turned out so dull and anaemic and lacking in theatrical cranberries. But there is something really dodgy about pretending that questions of vision -- questions, in other words, about politics and ideology, about ethics in a civic context, about language and sexuality and power -- are optional, or that by refusing to discuss them (in relation not to particular plays but in relation to theatre in toto) you have somehow evaded them. I know this book isn't really for me (though admittedly there are useful glossaries and such for the embarrassed autodidact who still doesn't know the difference between... well, never mind...), and it is, on its own terms, clear, interesting and more than serviceable: but still, for The Director's Craft to leave me wanting to circulate a samizdat pamphlet called Mitchell Serves Imperalism is an odd pickle indeed -- and one whose piquancy will no doubt vastly disconsole Katie M. as she tries to fall asleep on top of the pile of royalty cheques that this weirdly dissembling book seems bound to generate.

Anyway, in the interests of balance, let me conclude by taking what will appear to be the reactionary view of a recently-emerged proposition. It's that time of year again, my darlings: the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award is soliciting applications for 2010. However, the rubric is very different this time out. I suspect this arises out of a confluence of two unrelated factors: firstly, following a period in which OSBTT developed an unenviable (and slightly unfair) reputation for picking duds, Slung Low's marvellous and widely acclaimed Helium has evidently restored the Trust's confidence and vindicated its willingness to support risky projects; secondly, o mercy, that ole Olympics money is starting to flow, meaning that access and innovation are the watchwords of the hour. Put these two trends together and what have you got?

"This year we will be awarding the prize to a company or individual to create a site-responsive / non-traditional performance space show to take place in one of the 5 host boroughs for the Olympic  and Paralympic Games that will be part of the Create Festival in East London during July 2010. We’re looking for a proposal that is inspired by, and takes place in a non-theatre space."


Well, look, obviously, this could be the start of something terrific, and I'm not going to pre-judge. What it does seem to represent, though, is a further embedding in what you might call the institutional mainstream of (a) site-responsive work, made for (b) non-theatre spaces: and I think it's time to really start examining the new orthodoxies we're dealing with here.

When I made my first home-performance piece as a student back in 1994 -- the first version of the production of the Tempest that eventually hit Edinburgh in 2000 and caught the eye of a few helpful grown-ups, most consequentially Lyn Gardner -- the catchphrase I'd repeat to anyone who asked was that "theatre is an experience you have, not a place you go to". I was still saying it in 2000 and in fact remember it turning up as a quote in the article Lyn wrote about the production at the time. I'd never heard anybody else say it, though I'm sure plenty had, or were at least thinking it: especially by 2000, when we were all sick to death of the disproportionate emphasis, in the pre-millennial disbursement of National Lottery funds, on creating new theatre buildings rather than investing in artists and productions to fill those spaces. I think there was also a certain frustration behind that home-theatre project to do with the slowness and unresponsiveness (and expense) of conventional venues; our little guerrilla Shakespeare unit, conversely, was totally plug & play -- in the noble tradition of Hollywood musicals we could 'do the show right here', wherever here was, without form-filling and often at just a few hours' notice.

The deeper aims of that work, though, were concerned not with the torpidity of venues or with the razzle-dazzle vacuity of New Labour funding patterns, but with the likely experience of the audience. We wanted to play to (and with) people who were not slumped in their plushy seats with half their attention focused on their Maltesers, but who were having to make decisions, constantly, about how to watch, where to sit, how to be in the room with us -- which meant, first of all, that they had to acknowledge that we were, indeed, in the room with them, and not mumming away in some remote bubble. We wanted them to be aware that, if they could hear us breathing, we could certainly hear them. We wanted to destroy the preposterous contract that seemed to support so much that was presented in the conventional space: a sort of unspoken and unexamined gentleman's agreement that we as artists wouldn't bother them if they as audience didn't bother us. Above all, perhaps, we wanted our audiences to come to understand that the place where the piece was finally made, and played itself out in all its fullest and most provocative tendencies, was inside them; that they held the work, carried it within them, not just during the show but for as long as it stayed afterwards.

Our determination, ultimately, was to disrupt, to disavow, the terrible seclusion that theatre seemed to be using to protect itself both from its audience and from the world around it. A genuinely engaged political theatre had to do more than be about politics; it had to be political itself, which meant a deep and sometimes fractious interrogation of the structural and formal characteristics of our work and the methodologies that shaped it. A close attentiveness to, and responsiveness to, the real and the live (whatever fictions and suspensions we might layer over these); a specificity of reference to site and time and occasion and presence (as opposed to a generalised anticipation of likely conditions): these were ways of enacting those political commitments, of giving away the presumptive power and authority that we didn't want and anyway didn't particularly need.

None of this will sound new to anybody, I'm sure; and all of it remains pertinent, to my mind, and, I hope, true of most of the work I've done, whether or not it was designated as 'site-specific' or 'site-responsive'. But while it remains true, I now find myself wondering more and more whether this increasingly popular migration to non-theatre sites is delivering the kind of theatre that we need, and whether it's time to look again at the theatre as a place you go as well as an experience you have.

The question bifurcates along what might uncomfortably be characterised as positive and negative lines. The negative argument is that a preponderance of supposedly site-responsive work has failed to create meaningful experiences for its audiences. This would be the Billington argument, I guess, though to the extent that I subscribe to it, it's not for Billingtonian reasons: quite the reverse, in fact. What I'd suggest, at base, is that the location of work in non-theatre spaces is not by any means a guarantee of site-specific or site-responsive work. The productive ramifications of specificity or responsiveness are for the most part not spatial but temporal. In other words, the creation of work for -- or even entirely in -- a particular space may or may not be radical; the real implications of responsiveness are in liveness, in structures which support a genuinely live engagement with and adaptation to the moment-to-moment occupation of a space. The slightly hippyish way of putting it is this: you have to listen to the space; a lot of supposedly site-responsive work is simply trying to talk louder than its surroundings. (Again, the battle for supremacy rather than sympathy.) Likewise, genuine interactivity with an audience requires an immensely sophisticated structural fluency and a sustained and comprehensive understanding of the performative matrix; it is desperately difficult to achieve, especially with scripted work. Again and again, what we actually see in supposedly site-responsive and/or interactive work is simply an importing into the found space of the same structures of power and authority that a typical pros arch theatre would conventionally imply, and perhaps at best a kind of tussling with that structure: either to make it fit the space or to make its failure to fit the space a kind of load-bearing titillation in the make-up of the encounter. This falls horribly short of the aspirations we have: but it's a huge ask. The found site can't merely suggest thematic content, or certain images, or a particular ambulatory journey for the audience: it has to tell you itself what the rules of engagement are. It has to imply its own species of theatre. In the absence of a willingness to face up to the unwieldy implications of that task, the productiveness of any specific place and time recedes, and the mere novelty of the location, or of providing no fixed seats for the audience, say, will end up being combed over to half-disguise the thinness of the concept.

So, that would be the negative argument, against an overreliance on site-responsiveness and the inherent eye-catching power of the non-theatrical space: that these elements are no guarantee in themselves of a meaningful theatre encounter -- nor do they even increase the likelihood of one. (If anything, the reverse: the challenges would, and do, frequently overwhelm artists who make smart and useful work for conventional theatres.)

But there's also the positive argument: not against the found space, but for the theatre space. To be sure, it's an argument that only really holds water because of the journey we've been on culturally in the past few years, thinking through these questions and sending theatre out into the streets to earn its keep as an experience. (Though when you phrase it like that, the irony of the site-specific production clearly resounds: so often, this kind of theatre is exactly "a place you go" rather than, or more than, "an experience you have".) We've learned a lot, one way and another, about site-specificity and site-responsiveness: and the question that now intrigues me most is this: how do we as theatre artists respond, specifically, to the designated theatre space?

At this point, we have to differentiate between a sort of abstracted, Platonic theatre space, and the kinds of venues in which we very often find ourselves working. The whole vocabulary and grammar of theatre has changed, or at least expanded massively, in the past twenty years, and a lot of inherited spaces now simply aren't compatible with what we're trying to do. This is a given, and a sucky one at that. But if we were now to set our minds not to the excitements of discovering the theatrical possibilities of "a town square, a shopping centre, a busy street, an office, a house, an industrial site, a waterway, a virtual world, library etc." (the OSBTT's helpful prompts), but instead to inventing new, permanent, designated theatre spaces, could that be worthwhile?

The analogue is, again, with that adjunct question of interactivity. I've just, at long last, written a review for Total Theatre of Ontroerend Goed's hugely significant Once And For All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen, and -- *spoiler alert* -- one of the things I applaud about the show is the way in which (to quote myself for a second) it "indicates in passing how the most radical form of audience participation often is, exactly, to 'shut up and listen'." Now this comment shouldn't be broadened out to cover everything without an important chain of caveats. The artist's responsibility is to produce work worth shutting up and listening to. It has to nurture an audience's attentiveness: which it can only do by demonstrating an exemplary level of attentiveness itself. Very often this is going to be about responsiveness, specificity, detail, liveness: the work, in other words, must attend -- and in the highest possible fidelity -- to its audience, to their presence, to the moment of the encounter. It's very difficult for there to be no differential in power between artists and audience, so that residual power and authority has to be used respectfully and not trivialised. (This is not to say that this is no longer a space for play and mayhem and chaos; quite the reverse, in fact.) But a situation in which makers and audience sit together, holding in common something which they are together creating -- even if the audience's contribution is (apparently) 'limited' to a quiet, empathic attentiveness -- is able to be both meaningful and, vitally, unsecluded. In other words it is not different from the lives of those who attend, not an escapist hiatus in those lives nor some presumed transcendence of their conditions; it is a part, and perhaps a profound part, of their lives -- not even continuous with 'real life', but an element deeply and suasively apprehended within it.

It seems to me that, especially when we have a larger number of spaces fit to contain the function of supporting this encounter, the theatre as a type of specifically civic building then becomes much more dynamic. Perilously, perhaps ruinously, the closest thing to this that one can presently see is the church; this is perilous within the argument not merely because church buildings are themselves hard to distinguish from the ghastliness of the organizations and cultures for which they stand, but, of course, because church attendance numbers continue to decline, while audiences for theatre productions sans frontieres are presumably on the up-and-up: which makes the case that much harder to put. But two things strike me. 

Firstly, that for people of my parents' generation, going to church was part of being a good citizen (even if, as in my parents' case, they weren't particularly religious); in so far as this was a chore, an obligation, even an exercise in casual fakery, one wouldn't seek to replicate it now, but the question itself seems more and more to be arising, if not quite formulated as such, in matters of ecology, for example: how can we live good lives socially, civically, locally, as well as individually and as families or networks of friends? 

Which tessellates with my second observation. I was working at St Paul's, Covent Garden at the time of 9/11 and I was struck by how, in the days and even weeks following, how many more people than usual came to sit in the church at lunchtimes: not conspicuously praying or lighting candles, mostly, though some did. They just wanted a place to sit in silence with some other people -- even, or perhaps especially, people they didn't know. (As a sometime participant in Quaker services -- though even that space is now too loaded for me -- I recognize and respect the impulse.) Among my reactions to this phenomenon, which I understand was observed similarly in churches all across the country, I really wished that it was theatres, and not churches, that fulfilled this function: or, at least, that there were secular spaces in which that kind of quiet contemplation and reckoning, meaningfully enacted in the company of strangers, was possible. The Archbishop of Canterbury -- for whom, as you know, I have a soft spot (he being not, as was his predecessor, holier-than-thou, but rather, simply, beardier-than-God) -- likes to talk about churches in exactly this way (as I suppose most pogonotastic vicars probably do): as places people go to simply to sit silently "in the presence of the question". (I think I quote; if not, it's not far off.) In other words, to "shut up and listen".

It's probably lethal to my argument to be allying it to the civic functions of religious buildings: ain't nobody wants a piece of that cake, and understandably so. But I'm fascinated by the idea of a kind of wholly open theatre which follows similar lines in terms of, if you like, 'content'. Just as there are services at set points in the day and through the week, so your neighbourhood theatre would continue to host performances, and people would turn up to those (or not); but equally, the door to the theatre would be open at any time, and you could walk in off the street and sit for five minutes or five hours with -- what? I find myself imagining some kind of rolling improvisation in which the principal function of performers would be simply to let themselves be watched: to pay attention to the watchers, but also to allow themselves to be attended to. (Way harder than it sounds, and the reason why most professional performers are so busy creating diversions all the time.) That you'd watch bodies, and sounds, and objects, and light, and language, come into constantly changing relationships with each other, relationships that would support and respond to any intelligent reading, any genuine attentiveness. No narrative, no characters, no 'development' even (at least in a linear sense): just continual presence, continual change.

Well, I'm way off-topic now, and I may seem to you to be describing the most insipid kind of theatrical screensaver, and it may be that I am. For now, let that be irrelevant. The question I'm asking, I suppose, is how the idea of "the theatre" can once again be meaningful, and radically so, as a fixed point in our civic lives, even while it continues also to find new ways of flowing into other spaces. In the end, much though I love the idea of people stumbling happily or serendipitously across theatre in unexpected places (a valiant thread running from Allan Kaprow's Happenings to Punchdrunk's pre-Christmas treat last month) or of it coming to them (as we've done with all our home-theatre pieces), I find more and more that I want additionally to reaffirm the elective aspect of theatre-going. I want audiences to make the choice, the investment; I want them to see, to sense, the value of theatre -- not just the transient meaning of an individual production but the importance of theatre as a category of experience in itself. To make this possible, theatre has to be worthy of that investment; most of it, currently, probably isn't. Maybe my model of theatre is no more plausible than the model of an anarchosyndicalist Utopia that I'd like to see spring up around it: which is to say, these are perhaps useful imaginary beacons by which to navigate, and not much more than that, at least not in the near term. Nonetheless, there is in the OSBTT's current rubric, to my mind, a feint whisper of defeatism, and, yet again, the clear and present danger of a culture that can't tell the difference between novelty and innovation, between access and engagement, between reaction and response.

I continue to ponder -- not least in the research work I've been engaged with intermittently through Rose Bruford College -- the relationship between theatre and blogs, and the ways in which blog spaces might provide useful models for rethinking some of these vexatious questions about interactivity, collaborative practice, and (what I'm afraid I've started calling) nonsubjunctive virtuality. So let me finish by drawing your attention to a few blogs and other online stations I'm currently liking.

The brilliant young poet Tomas Weber, with whom I read in Cambridge late last year and had the privilege to hang out with a bit either side of that, has a new blog, One Year Floods Rose, which I like enormously. It's more active and more various than his previous blog, and perhaps more approachable, more relaxed. Having said which, I don't know that he'll thank me for driving a lot of traffic his way: but he deserves wide readership and good conversation, for sure. It's also high time I linked to Matt Trueman over at Carousel of Fantasies: I don't always agree with him (perish the &c.) but he writes with rare intelligence and poise about worthwhile theatre, and with the tumbleweed still bobbing around at Postcards..., he and Performance Monkey are keeping the dream alive. (Alternatively, you could just do a load of crack, put your face really close to your computer screen, click on West End Whingers and try to make a three-dimensional 'magic eye' image appear by defocusing your eyes. All the kids are doing it. It's called wendying, I believe.)

Moving gradually in an extracurricular direction, Riflemind is home base to London-based Australian theatre maker and poet John Kachoyan; the blog is poetry-based and dances seductively (and productively) with the high complexities of online identity, to produce a cumulative impression of intimacy and intensity that's as slippery as it is compelling. And Count Candy is a newish picture-based blog which intersperses images and video clips of nice-looking boys and girls with candid, one might easily say lurid, snaps of cakes and biscuits --naturellement -- as well as arty flotsam and cartoony jetsam. (Not to be confused with the well-known Californian pet psychologist Cartoony Jetsam Jr., who sadly can't be with us tonight.) It's a mix that seems to be designed specifically to appeal to me -- particularly with my woeful lecherousness becoming ever more equal-ops as I age. (Maybe my dad was right all along, and my horrible cliched Uranianism was a phase; at this rate, I'll be over it by the time I'm 78. Whew!)

Right: well, it'll soon be time to go to work, so I guess that's enough for now. Not sure when I'll pass this way again -- it depends partly on progress (or otherwise -- but it mustn't be otherwise) with King Pelican, and also internet access (and spare time) while we're in Cambridge. Guess we'll just have to see what happens. Sayonara, kids. xx

Friday, January 02, 2009

The Official Thompson's Furtive 50 of 2008

...Better late than never. Though I'm not saying it isn't a close-run thing.

So, people of Thompson's, here are the results of the sweetish jury: the 50 most laudable albums that made my bedroom a little less quiet than it would otherwise have been during 2008 and concomitantly increased the weight of my iPod by that all-important 21 grams; followed by a list of 50 more records which are worthy of your kindest attention but which my sanity won't stretch to reviewing; followed in turn by a list of the 50 Furtive tracks that have now been uploaded to the Gevorts Box widget to the right of the page. Am I not good to you though.

The usual shower of disclaimers, of course, obtains. In fact this exercise has felt even more absurd this year than in previous instalments. For a start there's less really out-there experimental stuff than usual, simply because I didn't have a working CD player for most of the year, so almost everything that reached my ears came through downloads (of variable legality, I confess), which tends to discriminate against free improvised music, for example, simply because it tends not to get officially released in download formats, nor to be ripped and circulated around the usual iniquitous dens. Furthermore, as I think I said in an earlier post, there's a mindbogglingly large lacuna in my comprehension of the last year's releases, stretching from late August to early November, during which time very little new stuff hit my ears, due to my head being in a theatre bubble. I've done my best to catch up since, but these efforts were more than a little hampered by the ongoing technical problems here at Thompson's HQ (which were also partly to blame for the late posting of these accounts). Worse still, those efforts continue even now, with the consequence that, excruciatingly, I'm only now hearing records that should have made the list -- its loftier reaches, in at least two cases (Stephan Mathieu's Radioland and Black Sea by Fennesz); as it is, the chart was locked down about three weeks ago so that the necessary tasks could begin, and one has to draw the line, etc etc.

But I console myself by noting that it's always thus. I look back over the 2007 list aghast at some of the absences (Ayres by Helios, Dedications by Klimek, and Idiot Pilot's Wolves, all come immediately to mind): but they're all albums I didn't catch up with till spring or summer this year, or am only just discovering now. In fact two of my favourite, most-played albums over the past twelve months, Marc Hellner's Marriages and the brilliant self-titled debut by 13 & God, date from even further back. So, banish all notions of fair or comprehensive treatment or panoptic wisdom. (Oh, all right, there's a little bit of panoptic wisdom, I must admit.) What follows is partial, idiosyncratic and meant mostly to set your ears boggling; it's also to salve my conscience a little bit -- it's bogus, probably, but I guess I kind of think it's less heinous to have not paid for some of this stuff if I encourage others to seek it out through the proper commercial channels.

As usual, I have (sort of arbitrarily, I suppose) disqualified reissues, compilations and greatest hits packages.

My dears: enjoy, comment, go wild in the aisles. Selamat makan!


* * *


#1 Samamidon, All Is Well

My acquaintance with Samamidon’s But The Chicken Proved Falsehearted was forged too late for that record to occupy a slot in last year’s fifty, where it would otherwise certainly have belonged. But warm and charming though that previous album is, nothing in it would have led me to suppose that its maker would deliver just a few months later a genuine downhome masterpiece of a record like All Is Well. Essentially a collation of Appalachian folk songs, hymns and other public domain fragments, All Is Well allows Amidon’s plaintive, appealing voice to speak out of time: not just out of a time long past, and not just out of right now (though it does both those things simultaneously to an uncanny degree), but out of the endless heartstretching confrontation of individuals with the passage of time: its passage through them, theirs through it: and how it harms and holds their loves, shapes and disarrays their families, blindly confers its ruins and its resolutions. The real genius of this record is in the instrumental arrangements — around a core of banjo and guitar is arrayed a midscale chamber ensemble, brilliantly scored and astonishingly well recorded, elevating for example a throwaway courtship ditty like ‘Little Satchel’ into an almost uncontainable, wondrously proliferating expression of joy in the mundane details of romance; or extending outwards the emotional intensity of the title track (which we used to underscore the boy’s death in Hey Mathew) so that Amidon’s affectless vocal rendition becomes all the more moving in its restraint. The final effect of these arrangements — the best I’ve heard since Sufjan Stevens’s Illinoise and possibly since Mark Hollis’s legendary solo album a decade ago — is to help us hear as if for the first time these dusty age-old refrains and sentiments: “What more could a poor boy do?”; “Better be ready for Saturday night”; “Neither have I wings to fly”; “Lay your comfort down.” Amidon and his fellow musicians conjure a world of sadness and tiredness, in which death seems so often to be closer than love (or closer anyway than the loved one, lost or longed for and unapproachable): take for example the version of a song I know (as “Conversation With Death”) from a recording by the great Peter Bellamy. Bellamy’s typically dramatic reading has Death’s poor victim pleading to be spared, even just for a little while; in Amidon’s version, Death is almost tender and the object of his attentions quietly resigned even as he tries to bargain his reprieve. Here are almost bewilderingly moving songs of poverty and murder, of regret and yearning, of faith and sorrow, of persistence and consolation: all the human experiences the words for which are either collective nouns for birds, or ought to be. Come, O come, to London, Sam Amidon, where I’m eager to bestow on you my astounded gratitude, a glass of small beer and a gentlemanly kiss. This record is as big as the world, as near and confounding as people, as lonely and as painfully in thrall to the truth as love.



#2 alva noto, Unitxt

Two or three years ago, for the period of a couple of weeks maybe, my comfortable outskirts-of-zone-2 existence was curiously disrupted by a genuinely unsettling intrusion. Evidently the kids in one of the houses across the way, whose gardens back on to ours, had furnished themselves with one of those laser pointers, and they were gleefully using theirs to point at me through my window. At first there was just a red dot on the ceiling, dancing away like a tiny miniaturised Lionel Richie in my peripheral vision; but after a while they grew bolder, started outlining my face, following me as I moved from room to room. It was truly disconcerting: mostly, I think, because of the mismatch between the perpetrators – a gang of little kids engaged in a prank — and the creepy sensation of having one’s privacy invaded so specifically and penetratingly, in such a way that the secludedness of my whole way of domestic life was thrown (not, actually, inappositely) into question. -- I mention this only because listening to Unitxt is a not-dissimilar experience in terms of its pinpoint invasiveness, its ability to penetrate whatever walls you may or may not be wearing. Listening to it on headphones is probably the closest you'll ever come to knowing what it feels like to actually be a barcode and get scanned at the supermarket checkout. Carsten Nicolai has been making sound works as alva noto for I guess about ten years now, with the consistent thread being a close interest in sound as information and vice versa: in how raw digital data can be pressed into service sonically (or visually) regardless of its initial form or target. (Sometime collaborator Ryoji Ikeda is of course engaged in similar enquiries.) Obviously, this set of concerns don't tend towards the production of tracks that sound very much like, for example, 'Dancing Queen'. The world of Unitxt is -- at least on first acquaintance -- almost comically austere. But as its tiny glitchy incidents -- a weeny buzz, a blip, a beeplet, a crackling dot -- start to cohere into regular patterns and from there outwards into fully fledged repetitive structures, they acquire a kind of momentum that pins you to your seat while dragging your brain out on to the dance floor and pointing lasers at it. There is -- I don't think I'm exaggerating -- no variation in tempo (what the kids call b.p.m. I believe) throughout the whole of the main body of this album, so it's kind of like one long relentless pummelling intrusion into your head and, especially, teeth. (I say the "main body" of the album because a suite of bonus tracks are attached, apparently containing the raw sound data that Nicolai used to manufacture the pieces; these make the foregoing tracks sound like Boney M after they sold out.) To this already formidable experience is added, on a couple of unconscionably exciting tracks, the speaking voice of poet Anne-James Chaton. On 'u_08-1' Chaton simply recites a string of numbers relating to the golden mean, which turns out to be vertiginous enough in itself, while on the stunningly effective 'u_07' he reads out as a series of found texts the contents of Carsten Nicolai's wallet. (Best cancel those credit cards, eh.) Listening to this album on headphones is, as I imply above, obviously mandatory; sticking it on your iPod and then walking around town with it playing, however, does make you feel like you're in a shoot-'em-up video game and someone else is controlling you. Which may or may not be healthy, depending on what else you've got in your pockets and whether you could, actually, shoot anybody with it if you wanted to. There is of course some far deeper stuff going on here, about information versus form, or versus carnality I guess, and those are important conversations to have: but first and foremost this is, in every good sense, a sensational album, to which, to be honest, I would rather just yield.



#3 Pete Seeger, At 89

Pretty unfair, really. Pete Seeger is, in my estimation, one of the half-dozen greatest human beings on the planet, and right now I'm not so sure I can think of the other five. What's more the man is now 89 years old (though actually the first thing he says on this album by way of greeting is: "Hi, this is 88-year-old Pete Seeger", which suggests that someone at Appleseed Recordings might have thought to tweak the title of the album a bit -- it's a peculiar if negligible dissonance...). Anyway, the point is, one is thankful and amazed that this record exists at all, and at this stage he probably could have gone with Pete Seeger Farts the Hits of the Swingle Singers into a Top Hat and it would still have made the high reaches of this chart. But, happily, the content utterly eclipses any mere sense of marvelling that he's still alive and kicking. In fact he sounds as strong of voice as he did on his last recordings six years ago; what's more, he's obviously still as engaged, as committed, and as quietly furious as ever. But in a way even that doesn't quite account for my fondness for this record, despite the obvious shortcomings of some of Seeger's previously unrecorded songs. There's something more important going on. There's an interesting essay to be written -- not by me, at least not here -- about the uses to which we put the idea of intimacy in relation to music. How (for the most part) we value 'intimacy' in recordings but find it in such a variety of guises, whether it's lyrical candour, or close miking, or the retention of small errors, or signals of what we take to be sincerity or authenticity, or an implication of eroticism... At the etymological heart of intimacy however is the idea of divulgence, of making something apparent, of sharing. In other words, intimacy is about the overt, not the covert or the suggested. And finally it's that sense both of shared space and of making things known, setting things straight, that lends this record its touch of magic. Seeger is recorded among friends from the local community of musicians around his home in the Hudson River Valley area, and although it occasionally shows signs of having been rehearsed or choreographed the sequence of songs feels very much like a genuine experience of sitting with Seeger and his pals in a backyard of an afternoon; it's like the aural equivalent of being shown family snapshots. Heard in this context, it's impossible not to be moved by the way in which Seeger remains at the centre of this kind of gathering, and by his unyielding (and I dare say frequently discomfiting) commitment to the unvarnished truth of things. This record, then, travels the shortest possible distance between Seeger and whatever ear you lend him. It's the most evocatively intimate recording I've heard of this kind since Michelle-Shocked put out The Texas Campfire Tapes way back in 1986 -- when Seeger was a mere, uh, 67. Not only do you forgive him for rhyming 'sharing' with 'caring' (on 'Wonderful Friends'), you wouldn't want it any other way. May he live to be a million years old. (If he wants.)



#4 Xiu Xiu, Women As Lovers

I haven't always been the attentive audience that Xiu Xiu deserve; I'm not sure very many people have. But the conversation over at Dennis's blog returns to them more than to any other band (except maybe Guided By Voices), and I was at least sufficiently up-to-speed to be really looking forward to the release of this, their sixth album, at the top of the year. What I wasn't prepared for, I confess, was quite how good, how impactful, how devastating Women As Lovers turned out to be. The scene is both familiar and unnerving: from leader Jamie Stewart, unmediated candour, unadorned distress, intellectual foraging, and an intense performative confidence which, far from neutralising or containing that emotional and intellectual alkalinity or making it seem somehow inauthentic, only serves to scale everything up until it can be recognized for what it is; and from the musical world around Stewart's ardent disclosures, distortion, disrepair, a kind of twisted effigy of rock and roll, constantly defeating itself, turning against itself in sorrow or in hatred or most often in despair. What I'm not saying, in saying all this, is how exhilarating this all is, in the way that the tortuous grammar and neurotic protraction of David Lynch's best films is genuinely edge-of-the-seat exciting. (You might find yourself thinking, as I do, during the ugly, partial-birth-abortive sax solo towards the end of 'I Do What I Want', of Bill Pullman in Lost Highway.) 'In Lust You Can Hear The Axe Fall' or 'You Are Pregnant You, You Are Dead' may be nailbitingly intense in their violent throes, but they still make your heart beat like the most euphoric punk or techno will: it's partly to do with Stewart's infallible sense of drama. And then, needful to say, at the centre of it all sits the most astounding coup de theatre: a cover of Queen & Bowie's 'Under Pressure', with Michael Gira (of Swans etc.) sitting in for Freddie Mercury; it's very odd indeed, and one of the musical year's most thrilling moments. Women As Lovers probably isn't for everyone, but I'm not sure I could really love anyone who couldn't find a way to listen to it and, somehow, respond.



#5 Tamas Wells, Two Years In April

In a staggeringly good year for young male singer-songwriters in the folksy / alt.country vein, it's a not terribly well-known Burmese-resident Australian by the name of Tamas Wells who walks away with the Thompson's rosette for Best in Breed. I just stumbled onto Two Years In April on some middle-of-nowhere blog and, almost unprecedentedly, once I'd hit play, I listened to the whole album right through, twice, from beginning to end -- no skipping, no fidgeting, not even any chewing gum. This record couldn't be simpler, really -- guitars, banjo, double-tracked vocals, and that's about it. Oh, except for the lashings of 22-carat songwriting talent and a drop-dead gorgeous voice. It kicks off with an impossibly jaunty campfire song -- no, no, I've made it sound horrible, it's utterly beautiful -- called 'Fine, Don't Follow A Tiny Boat For A Day'; other highlights include 'For the Aperture', which seems to find a mid-ground between Simon & Garfunkel and Gravenhurst, and 'The Northern Lights', which has the melodic directness of a classic McCartney song, but ninety-nine times the lyrical poise and instrumental smarts. Wells isn't exactly pushing back the frontiers, in other words; but he's sitting in a bedroom in Yangon recording songs that immediately bear comparison with some of the pantheon. More locally, I'll say this: as weary Thompson's readers know, I've been really sad at some points in the past year, and (not so well documented, this) really happy at other times: and in both frames of mind, and all points between, I've been able to reach for this album, and feel like we belonged together on whatever travels (and/or travails) I was engaged in at the time. So it's the kind of album for which, mostly, in the end, you just want to say thanks.



#6 Ocrilim, Annwn

You know Peter Serafinowicz’s impersonation of Alan Alda: “I think it’s ludicrous, preposterous...”? I think of it every time I treat myself to Annwn, this extraordinary album by Ocrilim. It’s difficult to think of a more preposterous record. Essentially what you have here is eighty minutes of full-tilt multitracked electric guitar, marrying the terrifying precision of death metal to the absurd gigantism of classic seventies heavy metal and prog. The first obvious point of reference is Glenn Branca, but Branca’s mostly all about the thickness; in fact Ocrilim more closely resembles Buckethead or the more experimental work of Steve Vai, in its interest in layering up single lines rather than chords to create a wiry, penetrating onslaught that’s both more pristine and more insistently ugly than anything of Branca’s that I’ve heard. The unrelenting single-mindedness of Annwn is both its strength and its challenge to the listener: the scale of it is exhausting, particularly with the devil as much in the detail as in the big diabolical picture. To my mind it’s at its most effective when it’s most minimalistically constrained: but even when it allows itself the ornateness and narcissism of its full pomp, the eviscerating sound and devastating length prevent it becoming distant or merely self-involved. Best listened to on headphones, as loud as you can stand it, for as long as you dare (it’s worth persevering through the spells when you can’t wait for it to end), and ideally without imagining a tiny model of Stonehenge being lowered over your head as it plays.



#7 King Creosote, They Flock Like Vulcans To See Old Jupiter Eyes On His Home Craters

It's always a particular pleasure to end the year with a new band or artist admitted to the exclusive register of your close personal favourites, the bands whose picture you keep (metaphorically) in your wallet. Last year, for me, it was Loney, Dear; this year, it's the somewhat better known King Creosote, to whose existence my ears were finally properly awakened (notwithstanding nodding acquaintance with a couple of songs on compilations here and there) by the use of 'I'll Fly By The Seat Of My Pants' (from 2005's KC Rules OK) -- officially recognized by the weeping ghost of Norris McWhirter as the saddest song ever recorded and the world's leafiest tree -- on an episode of Skins. Honestly, playmates, it's like somebody turned on a set of fairylights in the corner of my life. Apparently some KC fans were disgruntled by the washed-and-brushed-up Bombshell album from last year (sounds flipping great to me, but I'm just an arriviste here) and will have been more tickled by the free-range lo-fi eccentricities of They Flock Like Vulcans... So: that's the back story, all of which you're welcome to forget. Commit, however, to memory the fact that this is truly wonderful work. It opens with perhaps my favourite standalone song of the year, an insidiously catchy tune called 'On Esther's Planet', to which, once you hear it, you are compelled to sing along on a loop lasting anything up to several weeks. Nothing, nothing will supplant this song from the brain-lobe* wherein it's stored, until it's ready to yield the cerebral floor. Kenny Anderson seems to me to have perhaps the greatest gift for melody since Stephin Merritt sold his soul for a Volvo: these songs, even (or especially) at their most thrown-away, have an ardour and lyricism which can tug at the heartstrings even while the actual lyrics, which are generally as dry and as lethally sharp as a Jacob's cracker with the edges filed down, are pulling in quite the opposite direction. The closest work I can think of is the early solo four-track days of Baby Bird: Stephen Jones back then had a similar talent for breaking your heart while pretending to be singing a cornflake jingle; King Creosote is more romantically inclined, melodically at any rate, but the blissful feeling of mismatch is kind of the same, with a wash of mordant Ivor Cutler humour for extra piquancy (where Jones had Morecambe & Wise). If you too are a KC virgin, jump in! Lots and lots for us to do.

* Not, of course, to be confused with Brian Lobel, who is probably right now singing along with the original cast recording of Sweet Charity. Hi, Brian!



#8 The Remote Viewer, I Can't Believe It's Not Better

For those not already hanging on their every bleep, The Remote Viewer are the enigmatic duo of Andrew Johnson and Craig Tattersall, once of the fondly revered Hood. Given the semi-anonymous nature of the project, the ten untitled tracks and the undemonstrative packaging of this almost absurdly limited (375 copy) edition, you can tell that the prevailing mood here is one of sobriety and restraint rather than exuberance and wigging out. The murmured vocals, occupying such a narrow range as to make melody a distant irrelevance, only serve to extend the sense of understatement. But within just a few minutes, this (anyway appealing) reticence starts to incite a level of listening that reveals in turn a remarkably attractive richness of soundworld and of feeling. It’s the unshowy introduction of acoustic instruments — banjo, guitar, cello (I think), melodeon (is it?), sad-sack upright piano — that first enthrals the ears, and from then on every gesture, no matter how contained, seems almost improbably resonant: making a more dramatic shift, like the gradual introduction of a wonderfully disarrayed bricolage of nicked drum solo and cruddy feedback into the otherwise somnolent fifth track, strike the listener as wildly, thrillingly reckless. I Can’t Believe It’s Not Better frequently harks back to the feel of first-wave ambient of Harold Budd and Roger (more perhaps even than Brian) Eno, and to the early 90s heyday of Cafe del Mar chillout, and indeed to the melancholy of Microstoria and the mid 90s output of Susumu Yokota: but its procedures are unmistakably contemporary and forward-looking. Unshowy, to say the least, but hugely convincing, and very highly recommended -- not that you'll ever get hold of it...



#9 Erik Levander, Kondens

Erik Levander, about whose life and previous work I must confess I know absolutely nothing, appears to belong to the entomological-stroke-lepidopteric school of electronica: which is to say that the sound worlds he creates seem to be full of chattering and fluttering insect life. Kondens must be just about the warmest, sunniest album I’ve heard this year, blooming with translucently fat major harmonies and abuzz with tiny but telling detail. Unusally, Levander seems equally gifted in the horizontal as in the vertical organization of his tracks: which is to say, like many of the artists I most love, he works principally through adding up (and occasionally subtracting) layers, as for example on the exquisitely built ‘Oskärpa’ which suddenly blushes with deep harmonic support; but at the same time he creates potent and argumentative dynamic lines and arcs for his tracks to follow, so that, unlike with many electronica artists, the length of each piece feels carefully judged and the choreography of elements within it meticulously managed within that frame: just listen to the long slow ravishing build (to a seriously noisy climax, and via a notably strange change from major to minor) of ‘Hitta Hem’, or the introduction of a bank of spectral voices into the Child’s View-like luminosities of ‘Kvad’. There’s something profoundly theatrical about much of this album: not in the scale of its dramas but in its restoration of glitchiness to the world of (seeming) accident rather than the rut of fetishization, such that the tracks teem with micro-incidents that seem to occur once only: and this feeling of ephemerality in turn lightens the lyricism of his sparse and plucky melodic cells. A rapturous, nakedly enjoyable album for armchair botanists everywhere.



#10 Los Campesinos!, Hold On Now Youngster

Everything you need to know about this stupendous album is contained in the first four seconds of track two, 'Broken Hearts Sound Like Breakbeats', in which the standard issue introductory count-off, "1, 2, 3, 4", sounds literally as if lives depended on it. It's like opening the door to carol-singers only to find Furious Pig standing on your doorstep. Nobody, but nobody, no, not even the Controlling Thompson himself, sounds readier to have a good time than Los Campesinos!, who more than delivered on the promise of their early singles (most memorably 'International Tweexcore Underground') to become perhaps 2008's most exciting British band. In fact you probably haven't heard rantipole vigour and the serious getting-on of freak like this since the unleashing, a worrying four-and-a-bit years ago, of the debut album by the similarly exclamation-pointed Go! Team. Los Campesinos! are of course more out-and-out guitar-driven than that bunch and more acoustically inclined -- it's possible to hear in their riffs and changes a whole (if partial) history of jangly British indie pop, from Buzzcocks to Dexy's to Echobelly to the Wedding Present to early Cornershop (or pick five completely different names out of your own hat) -- though they already have a remarkably strong stamp of their own, partly due to the matey chucking around of vocal duties (and the hell-for-leather lyrics themselves), partly because of the almost omnipresent glockenspiel. Not only have they located an incredibly narrow territory between amateurish / overenthusiastic DIY recklessness on one side and tight-as-a-gnat's-chuff stop-start pro chops on the other, they've actually managed to clear enough space there to dance in. Like perhaps all the most genuinely exciting rock bands of the modern era, their shelf-life is at best incredibly limited -- their noblest moments come stamped with the rubric BEST BEFORE: FOUR MINUTES FROM NOW, and as such if they still exist in even three albums time I'll be sad. This is no time for such trivial pranks as longevity. Ladies and gentlemen of Los Campesinos!, your good-looking corpse awaits.



#11 Sun Kil Moon, April

Mark Kozelek, late of the still-lamented Red House Painters, amply reconfirms his status as one of the great songwriters of the last twenty years with this newest release from Sun Kil Moon. No alarms here and no surprises, but for those who haven’t yet caught up with Kozelek’s estimable discography, April makes an irresistible entry point. The easefully confident ‘Lost Verses’ sets his stall out from the get-go; the track unfolds over nearly ten unhurried minutes (including a more emphatic coda), and there are obvious redolences of a particularly English lineage — Nick Drake, John Martyn, Richard Thompson (and I’d be interested to know if Kozelek is as much of a fan as it sounds like he might be of the brilliant and undervalued Steve Tilston). In fact though perhaps the nearest landmark to Sun Kil Moon here, and especially on tracks like ‘Lucky Man’, ‘Moorestown’ and ‘Blue Orchids’, is Simon & Garfunkel: not only in the articulation of the melodic lines, the implied counterpoint, the propensity for ending phrases on unstressed syllables, but also in a more general reaching after some encapsulation of an elusive and part-imaginary America: the chiaroscuro of luminous cities separated by vast inbetween spaces of dusk and the merest traces of presence. Anyone who as a younger person was entranced by Mojave 3 or Ben & Jason will find in April a deeply effective (and affecting) homecoming; with the eleven songs amounting altogether to seventy-five minutes, it could be suggested that the album would be more impactful were it shorter: but I doubt Kozelek is interested in making that kind of impact anyway.



#12 Crystal Castles, Crystal Castles

Every year there’s a record — vide Dan Deacon's Spiderman of the Rings last year —which makes the list by virtue of seeming to emerge from a land about two years into the future, where everything is made out of Quorn and stem cells and is only available from vending machines in the Tokyo subway. This year it’s the awesomely synthetic, slightly fetishistic electropop of Canadian duo Crystal Castles, whose self-titled debut is a truly compelling, if not always comfortable, dispatch from that imminently encroaching world that seems both dystopic and profoundly titillating. Entry track ‘Untrust Us’ is almost chillingly cogent in its threading of a polymer-like melodic line made up of illegible female voice samples through an implacably prosecuted techno-pop structure which eventually terminates abruptly in a quite unrelated fragment of guitar rock before giving way to the slightly horrid videogame textures and noisy shrieking vocal utterances of ‘Alice Practice’: and, in turn, that’s supplanted by the (apparently) feebly rudimentary, sub-Fairlight samples out of which the refrain of the song ‘Crimewave’ is confected. And so it goes on. The discrepancy throughout between the pristine architecture of the music and the failure and fallibility of the voice parts is both disturbing and intriguing: the invocation of something less than fully human suggests at one time the exciting artificial synthesis of speaking (or singing) identities and also, simultaneously, a kind of wilful degradation or diminution of the organic female, which would seem to fit with a whole tradition and contemporary field of vaguely misogynistic sci-fi topographies that nonetheless exert a peculiar and by no means bloodless fascination. It’s deeply uncomfortable and not much fun, but also superficially quite beautiful and not altogether untouched by the nostalgic sentimentality of much of the most interesting pop-culture futurism of the past few years; its visionary power demands not only admiration but also thoughtful analysis, making Crystal Castles among the year’s most provocatively intelligent albums.



#13 Sebastien Tellier, Sexuality

It should be, by rights, the ickiest record in town: a (hetero-)sexually-fixated nearly-concept album, featuring among its tracks an actual Eurovision entry, by a beardy Frenchman who wears sunglasses indoors and exhibits a ludic streak wider than the Boulevard St Germain. This should, by rights, be Songs In The Key Of Brie. But you have to take a breath, remind yourself that Sebastien Tellier is the creator of some of the most satisfying popular music on the planet over the past few years (his highpoint undoubtedly being the epic, much-imitated 'La Ritournelle', from 2004's Politics), and extend it the benefit of the doubt. For it is, in fact, to borrow a suitably retro accolade, swoonsome. Let's start with that Eurovision song, 'Divine': perky, sort of buxom, sounding kind of like a cross between the theme to a Saturday morning kids tv show and the Dave Stewart & Barbara Gaskin cover version of that same theme tune, it pulls you irresistibly in to its amiable whirl, tells you you look beautiful, and goes in for the smooch. If there has to be a Eurovision Song Contest, it's obvious that this song should win it every year, by law. The same fruity melange of synths and sequencers runs through the whole of the first half of the album, from the vaguely Ritournelle-redolent 'Roche' to the plinky 'Une Heure', chugging implacably away like Nik Kershaw's 'Human Racing' beneath a lipstick smear of slutty guitars. Things shift a little, though, with 'Sexual Sportswear' (O, for goodness sake; you silly boy): which turns out, despite the title, to be an enormous seven-minute instrumental track sounding uncannily like Chants Magnétiques-era Jean-Michel Jarre. ...Yes, you read that correctly. It's (apparently) time for the rehabilitation of old Johnny Jam-Jar -- something of which I'd greatly approve, by the way. Extraordinary, though, to hear such stuff in this context; perhaps the catalyst (if we're playing cherchez l'homme, that is) is producer Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk. (Oh, that Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo.) Next up is an even more blatant, er, hommage (if we're playing cherchez l'hommage, that is), with 'Elle' sounding so close to 'To Face the Truth', from the last great of the Pet Shop Boys albums, Behaviour, that someone ought to throw a bucket of water over them both. What's interesting about these borrowings, I suppose, is how indicative they are of pop's increasing autocannibalism, but also -- in the main stream, at least -- how little has changed in the basic logic of the song in the past 25 years, compared with the quarter-century before that. In the great synthpop supermarket, even history is plastic. This isn't a complaint, I'm just intrigued. Anyway, this is all vastly enjoyable, the year's best mainstream pop record without a doubt. You know who'd like this record? Kenny Everett. There you go. Nutshell.



#14 Dosh, Wolves and Wishes

I have to give a nod to Fin for turning me on to this fantastic record; I'm not quite sure how such an eager fan of the Anticon label as I imagine myself to be can have overlooked Dosh all this time -- this is his fourth album and since I was introduced to it a few weeks ago it's become a real favourite. Like many of his current labelmates, Dosh favours a no-holds-barred, everything-plus-the-girl aesthetic, marshalled with unfailing precision and architectural elan. His background as a percussionist makes for a busy, rambunctious, clattering field of sounds: opening salvo 'Don't Wait For The Needle To Drop' is as delightfully full-on a sugar rush as you could hope for, topped with a raspberry swirl of guitar from Andrew Broder (of Fog and close cousins Hymie's Basement), and is immediately followed by an extraordinary track called 'Bury the Ghost' which kicks off in a playground scrap for vaudeville drums and caution-to-the-wind voices (take a bow Will Oldham), succeeded in turn by a low-res 21st century hoedown entitled 'If You Want To, You Have To', which sounds as though it may have been inspired by an Oblique Strategy card reading "The world is ending in five minutes: now play." What really takes the breath away, finally, is how consistently managed this album is in its energy and inventiveness-- which sounds like a dreary sort of compliment, but when the bar is set so high, to turn in a record without a moment's slack is nothing short of miraculous. Impossible to pick a highlight, therefore, but I'll say this: the slowly building, nearly (though never quite) chaotic radiance of 'Keep Up Appearance' hits you like a cocktail of peach schnapps and Cillit Bang.



#15 Autechre, Quaristice

Autechre have long been seen as kind of the J.H. Prynne of IDM, or, more precisely, have been similarly misunderstood, as cryptographers: incorrigibly obscuring direct sense and basic danceability behind some kind of militant, punitive firewall designed to confound, and frustrate, but at the same time to arouse a small self-appointing band of acolytes into decoding, penetrating, somehow normalising their output, restoring or reconciling its core content with the wider, less rarefied world that the rest of us inhabit. Exactly as this is a beefwitted response to Prynne, so is it a clotheared reaction to Autechre, whose project, just as with JHP, seems to me actually to be, contrariwise, quite transparently revelatory. The thing itself, the booty, the good stuff, is not confiscated, not held out of reach, not translated out of currency, but rather is shown up for what it is: itself far more complex, more intricate, more vastly reverberant than the perceptual structures (and strictures) within which we shelter and contain ourselves. The pertinent question in approaching Quaristice, in other words, is not, why do Autechre choose to create music like this, but why doesn't everyone? For what kind of gain have they traded this scope and speed and variance of access? Even some on-side critics carped at the fragmentary nature of this album -- it skips through twenty tracks in seventy minutes, a quite different mode of organization than Autechre's usual structures -- but what becomes possible is a more fully realized refusal of linearity than they've achieved before, a much more rhizomatic approach. Of those tracks, certainly, some are more immediately appealing than others -- your mileage may vary depending on how you get along with microtones -- but even the conditions and circumstances of that appeal are pressurized, held up to question, by whatever lies to either side. It seems to me taken as a whole a really approachable album, one that amply repays whatever close attentions are visited on it, and one that no other artists could have made: unless and until, of course, Prynne gets busy with his laptop.



#16 Arve Henriksen, Cartography

Of all the intersections in the great scary Venn diagram of contemporary music-making, the crossover where jazz meets ambient music is probably the most horribly soiled. Some truly deplorable things, disastrous, revolting, have happened at this nexus. Norwegian trumpeter Arve Henriksen, however, is something else entirely, and though he picked up admirers worldwide with his splendid 2004 album Chiaroscuro, this new release elevates him to the stratosphere, straight through it and upwards for another few hundred kilometres, till his hat's poking through the thermopause. I'm saying, this is very very good indeed. Cartography is his first for ECM after a long association with Rune Grammofon -- though he's played on several ECM discs with luminaries including Christian Wallumrød (feted in last year's 50), Arild Andersen and the estimable Jon Balke -- and the fit feels perfect. The music feels its way between jazz, electronica, and contemporary classical in the Max Richter vein, creating in every instance a space that feels organic and uncontrived, around the centre of which floats Henriksen's distinctive fluting, fluttering trumpet and curiously plaintive falsetto singing voice. Live sampling by Jan Bang keeps at bay any creeping sense of studiedness or torpor; together these musicians create not so much textures as microclimates which cohere, shift, dissipate in accordance with some ineffable logic. The only hint of bathos comes with a couple of tracks featuring texts written and spoken by David Sylvian; again, the association between Sylvian and Henriksen feels right (not least because Henriksen's trumpet quite often recalls Jon Hassell's contributions to early Sylvian works such as Brilliant Trees), and the sound of speech is not uncomfortably salient in a mix that also includes field recordings, but the texts themselves are not that interesting: in fact the second is dire -- though the first is improved with some digital scuffage. That wafer-thin grump aside, this is astounding stuff.



#17 Bauhaus, Go Away White

O, I wish I could do a blind test on you with this record. I’d tell you that this was the first new album in a few years by a band with a strong cult following, and make you guess the rest. The loping, baggy opener might make you think of a nineties group like, say, New FADS (though with a new vocalist); but the furiously nasty grinding guitar rock of the second track, almost in a post-punk mode, would then throw you — could this be the reformed Magazine, perhaps? And so it would go on, continually throwing you off the scent: only the occasional vocal gesture or texture perhaps tipping you off as to the true origins of this remarkable record. Actually, Bauhaus haven’t released an album since 1983, which is astonishing when you consider how much hungrier, how much more switched-on they sound here than any number of up-and-coming Xfm-endorsed rock acts. Lest I sound like an overheated fan, I should state that I’ve never had more than a passing interest in Bauhaus before, and disliked as much of their stuff as I’ve liked whenever I’ve heard it; their actual fans, meanwhile, have, while protesting level heads throughout, hailed this as among the band’s best albums, if not the best outright. Certainly that second track, ‘Adrenalin’, is a real highlight: you wish David Bowie, for one, had released anything so urgent-sounding since Outside; the eerily spacious ‘Saved’ is similarly confident and impactful. Notwithstanding the occasional wobbly wheel, Go Away White is a genuinely exciting and exploratory album, of which any grown-up band worth their NaCl would surely be pretty damn proud.



#18 Matt Davis, Violence

Meanwhile, in another part of Trumpet Island (now there's a reality show I could get into), far removed from Arve Henriksen's ambient chic, we find Matt Davis, beating a caribou to death with his instrument. Howzat for extended technique. Actually, in most ways this isn't a violent album at all -- as anyone familiar with Davis's remarkable body of work will have suspected. He's long been one of the most intriguing figures on the UK's improv / lowercase scene, extending the (so-called, or not even) 'New London Silence' outwards into considerations of not primarily musical performance, especially in that shadowy but engrossing interzone between dance and live art: most notably through his excellent Field series at Chisenhale Dance Space, to which many local heroes such as Rajni Shah and Tim Jeeves were contributors. What's really exciting about this release (free to download through Davis's web site) is observing Davis apply his intensely perceptive consideration of the socially constitutive aspects of sound to an entirely solo project: in this case, by using the qualities of the attentive space generated between musician and listener to host and nurture a profound and essentially collaborative reflection on violence. Where is violence in relation to this music? Violence is haunted by a sense of constraint, certainly, of self-harm even; notes are purposely split and misshaped, the trumpet itself is 'misused', its familiar voice made strange and broken; on the long centrepiece track, 'violence as cognitive mapping, an antidote to groundlessness' (I imagine its sharing of its title with the unexpectedly alarming 2001 farewell single by Steps is purely coincidental), it's made to resemble -- perhaps to ventriloquize -- shakuhachi and shawm... But isn't this part-demolition somehow also a release, a liberation, in a way that, for example, sadomasochists might recognize? Is this whole process somewhat akin to that familiar Thompson's bonnet-bee about the necessary 'breaking' of theatrical text? Part of the conundrum around violence surely is its sensuality, its insistence on a corporeality that will not be transcended or wished away; yet its inhabiting of hidden systematic pathways and occluded syntaxes does more harm by a mile than its spectacular irruptions in pop culture or in any number of artistic practices distortively labelled as 'extreme'. How Davis manages to create with such economy a site for this kind of contemplation, I've no idea, though certainly it matters that this is a music entirely devoid of ego and decoration, for all its sensual reach: it's lean, often delicate and minutely detailed, sometimes harsh and rebarbative, though it holds its ground in relation to the listener with uncommon grace, making its textures compelling even as they repel. I guess for newcomers to Matt Davis's work and ambit I might recommend a preparatory listen to, for example, Open, his beautiful 2003 album with Mark Wastell and Phil Durrant for Erstwhile, which is perhaps a little less freighted in its challenges (or, rather, invitations) to the listener; Violence is tougher going -- as it obviously should be -- but rewarding, expansive and profoundly stimulating.



#19 Matmos, Supreme Balloon

Easy to admire, hard to love, Matmos -- due, I suppose, to a high quotient of conceptualism in their work. Not that some of their output hasn't been drop-dead gorgeous -- I'm thinking particularly of 2003's The Civil War -- and not that the brio of their experimental procedures and blue-sky thoughts isn't attractive in itself: but sometimes it's seemed to me that the ideas are bigger than the music. Nothing wrong with that, of course, except -- as I say -- it's easier to admire than to love. But now, sapristi!, here's Supreme Balloon, as loveable as a panda doing a tapdance routine with Scott Baio c.1978. First comes 'Rainbow Flag', the soundtrack to the world's gayest video game; then 'Polychords', which similarly underscores (in my head, anyway) previously lost footage of Fred Harris and Ian McNaught-Davis having unsupervised fun with body paints during a break in the filming of Micro Live in 1985. 'Les Folies Française' meanwhile seems to have been grown in a petri dish out of a tiny blob of genetic material harvested somehow (only a cad would enquire further) from Wendy Carlos. The centrepiece of all this toothsome and largely jovial electroplasmic squirtery is, however, a different beast entirely: the 24-minute title track, which seems to reference pretty much the whole history of synthetic music, from Terry Riley and Alvin Curran to Yellow Magic Orchestra and Aphex Twin, sometimes all at once. It's a big achievement in a way, though it perhaps puts too much weight on the duo's skills as pasticheurs -- again, the brain buzzing slightly louder than the heart beats. That slight cavil aside, Supreme Balloon is an unalloyed pleasure, virtuosically made, and all the more welcome for the warmth that radiates from a slightly unexpected source.



#20 Hadouken!, Music For An Accelerated Culture

Hadouken!, one of only a handful of bands to be named after a special attack manoeuvre in Street Fighter, and exemplars of (depending on what idiotic magazine article you're reading and on what day of the week) either the new rave scene or something called 'grindie' (it's grime plus indie: you see what they did there), will forever be attached to 2008 for me because of the amount of time I spent with Jonny, who, despite his broad mind, intellectual curiosity and decent upbringing, seems to have room in his life for only two albums: one is The Flying Cup Club by Beirut, and the other is this. Actually I can kind of see how these two would go a long way. The best tribute I can pay to Music for an Accelerated Culture is that it makes me feel about eight hundred years old; the second best, that it reminds me more than somewhat of how the then-emergent German digital hardcore axis felt ten or twelve years ago -- hearing for the first time Alec Empire's 'The Peak', or 'Signe Says' by Killout Trash, or 'Sweat' by Shizuo; and a few years earlier -- this will sound absurd now, probably -- EMF and the Utah Saints. There's a similarly fantastic and disorienting urge at the heart of Hadouken!, which at the age of thirty-five I can no more actually comprehend than I can tell what the local pub dog is dreaming about: but it sounds real and I can at least recognize it -- songs like 'Declaration Of War' and 'Crank It Up' are, at any rate, unmistakable: every generation invents its own rendition, after all, and Hadouken! in 2008 aren't at base all that far removed from, say, Eddy Cochran singing 'C'mon Everybody' in 1958. (Horrifying to think that the midway point between those two poles is 1983! What did we have? Level 42?) Over at his Abandoned Buildings blog currently, Sean Bonney quotes a fantastic slogan emerging either (I can't quite tell from the context) from the ongoing riots in Athens or from a highly encouraging spate of anticapitalist protest in Iceland: "We're smashing up the present because we come from the future." Crass, probably, to yoke this to a blithely commercial indie band who merely happen to sound a bit shouty to these ancient ears: except that it sounds exactly like something they'd say -- or Atari Teenage Riot before them, etc. etc. ...Suddenly I realise I'm reviewing myself, not the album. I really like this album; I'm a bit scared of it, but that's its job.



#21 Kanye West, 808s and Heartbreak

Hard to think of a more utterly fascinating mainstream album from the past year than this masterful anomaly from Kanye West, a figure who (even to those like me who haven't been terrifically forward in giving a toss what he was up to) has obviously been becoming increasingly interesting over the past two or three years, giving rise to a curious sense of promise, of the delivery on which 808s and Heartbreak seems to be the first instalment. If you haven't heard the record yourself, you've almost certainly heard about it: how Kanye more or less turns his back on rap here, favouring us with a heavily retro-washed contemporary pop odyssey, high on prehistoric drum machines and low on gritty urban realities. What may not have come across, in all the bemusement and the strenuous chasing after category descriptions, is how exceptionally good this album is. For any lover of analogue squelchiness and/or the classic shapes of 80's soul and R&B (and I'm both, with bells on), much of 808s and Heartbreak is a hot buffet serving up gourmet fare. (I knew I shouldn't have tried writing about this record while I was hungry...) The storming, searing opener, 'Say You Will', is so retrotastic, it even seems to have some people playing Pong on it, while 'Paranoid' could easily be a younger, hipper cousin to Colonel Abrams's 'Trapped', but with big sloppy kisses of synth all over it like its electric auntie just showed up. The vocal reliance on the ubiquitous Antares Auto-Tune (a piece of technology, by the way, with entirely unexpected origins in the oil industry) has caused some eyebrows to raise, but it seems to me, given the backward-looking nature of the album as a whole, simply to cement West's position in a noble lineage of voice-filtering urban musics, such as Herbie Hancock's heavily vocoded Sunlight in 1977, or Roger Troutman's talk box on numerous seminal tracks by the wonderful Zapp. Not everything on the album comes off, and there's still a mile-wide streak of misogyny to some of the lyrics, making songs like 'Heartless' a bit of a pain to listen to. But from a figure of West's stature this set is nonetheless a truly remarkable departure, which makes for a geuinely exciting listen: you know that what you're hearing is the sound of 2008's most audacious prison break.



#22 Adem, Takes

What else in life consistently promises so much and disappoints so sorely as the covers album? (Except possibly foam nights, broken biscuit assortments and animal porn, that is.) So I was determined not to let the anticipation run away with me when the news hit the usual channels that the godlike Adem was working on just such a project. When it finally emerged, Takes was neither a let-down nor a world-changing revelation, but simply -- as if it were simple! -- another impeccable album from Adem. That's partly because his choices were, on the whole, far from obvious, meaning I only knew the originals of five of the twelve tracks, so for the most part I was establishing relations with what might as well have been brand new songs. At the very least, this indicates his (in retrospect, entirely predictable) avoidance of one of the main pitfalls of covers albums, where iconic songs get made over in an "unexpected" way, yawn drool parp... These were obviously all songs chosen because of a close personal connection for the singer: consequently, Takes could hardly be less of a novelty record. The versions of dEUS's 'Hotellounge' and Aphex Twin's 'To Cure A Weakling Child' are my favourite tracks, the latter necessarily representing the album's most wholesale makeover (though one that sounds utterly plausible), while the former stays relatively close to its hauntingly beautiful blueprint; but there are countless magical and arresting moments -- not least, hearing one of Bjork's utterly distinctive melody lines ('Unravel') occupied by a totally different voice and in an entirely distant soundworld. Anyway, my point is, this is a really superb album whether you know the sources of these songs or not; if you do, there's a little extra piquancy to much of it, but no too-clever-by-half grandstanding, zero ironic snarking, nothing finally but love and respect. Hurrah.



#23 Kevin Drumm, Imperial Distortion

Guitar / electronics supremo Kevin Drumm has long been one of the most significant contributors to a whole school of lowercase music in which noise, free improvisation, electronics and field recording have kind of met in the middle. He’s much sought after as a collaborator — I particularly recommend his duo albums with, respectively, turntablist Martin Tetreault and trumpet user Axel Dorner for Erstwhile — but Imperial Distortion is my first exposure to, er, Drumm solo, and it’s an extremely strong album. Six long tracks, most nudging the twenty minute mark, allow time and space for contemplation and inquiry at the most forensic level into the interaction between found drones and heavy signal processing, and in particular the resonances and overtones arising. More happens in the space of a minute in one of these apparently unshifting aural megaliths than in the entire collected solo works of, oh, Annie Lennox; you feel like you have your ear pressed up against the secret life of primal forces — energy, entropy, time, the weather... — or that you’re stowing away in unimaginably large and unknowable craft. The two central tracks both called ‘Snow’ are particularly engrossing, like Alvin Lucier making an unexpected (and probably unsuccessful) play for Ryuichi Sakamoto’s audience. Frequently unnerving but consistently compelling, Imperial Distortion is quite difficult listening, but infinitely rewarding.



#24 Short Bus Alumni, Mr T's Revenge

Any hip-hop album that opens with a sample of The A-Team's B.A. Baracus (the eponymous Mr T to his friends, in case you're too young to know) going to pieces due to his fear of flying can count itself my so-unmacho friend and compadre; when it proceeds as brilliantly as this one does, it can help itself to my cookie jar any time, and I don't say that lightly. Why can't all rap records be as flat-out fantastic as this? What you've got here is a quintet of talented guys on a stated mission: to restore to hip-hop the objective of "people-moving" -- where the hearty partying and the social comment go (naturally) hand-in-hand. It's like gangsta never happened: here among the graduates of the Short Bus (the means of school transport bestowed on the slow kids -- as if you didn't know...), the emphasis is on a rediscovery of old school virtues with a little contemporary finessing, and this debut album is a treat. The singles 'Go Team Go' and 'Dope Shit' set the scene beautifully: irresistible bantamweight beats with a shuffly feel, ebullient but unaggressive rhymes flowing in all directions, and a little call-and-response to make sure we remember we're all in the house, not just hanging around outside. Later cuts 'Here We Come' and 'Hey' are genuinely funny but the lyrics remain pertinent and behind it all there's a seriousness of intent which you can't help but admire. Short Bus Alumni are not about turning the clock back, but about returning to first principles. It's a vital project, and a joyous one.



#25 Sigur Rós, Međ Suđ I Eyrum Viđ Spilum Endalaust

OK, Sigur Rós make gobsmackingly lovely record, forgive me if I don’t hold the front page. What’s special about this one is not that it’s lovely, but how it’s lovely. How it feels like a band noticing that they’ve started to repeat themselves, and determining therefore to throw open the windows, catch themselves unawares; the infamous (and cheerfully beautiful) naked video for 'Gobbledigook' says it all, really. Compared to 2002’s ( ), you’re much less likely to hear any of these tracks on tv underscoring an end-of-year montage of people who’ve died: where those early-millennium albums conveyed ageless towering forests and grey rolling oceans and lofty cathedrals, this one is all cress and icicles and sticklebricks: nimble, beamingly impious, full of beans, glad to be ever-so-slightly ramshackle even. Their heart is palpably in it, in the simplicity of ‘Illgresi’, the Tiggerish bounce of ‘Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur’, the intense tenderness of the closing ‘All Alright’. And though they may still incline to the spacious and the numinous adagio, there’s a lighter and more delicate spirit at work here: even an old-school Sigur Rós hymn like ‘Festival’ finally breaks out into a breathless cross-country scramble. Oh, you’ll still try to sing along with the chorus of ‘Viđ Spilum Endalaust’, of course you will, and you can’t, of course you can’t, and your heart, responding to theirs, will instead fill up with loving this band all over again: as if you only just met, and then by chance.



#26 Why?, Alopecia

Yoni Wolf's Why? project has been one of the most consistently interesting and productive of the past few years: and it’s perhaps that consistency that ultimately makes it difficult to rave about Alopecia while recognising at the same time that it’s an immensely accomplished album. What’s always distinguished Why? from the rest of the Anticon crowd is Yoni's ability to match those cryptic, tumbling lyrics, driven more by sound than sense, with an extraordinary grasp of the spatial ordering of sounds. At their best, these aural fields create complex, sumptuous tonalities that seem to reward the closest possible attention while in fact evading any kind of analysis. The heavy stacking of tones — the toy piano and stuttering backup vocals of ‘Song of the Sad Assassin’, or the vibe and piano ostinato set against ginormous beats in ‘A Sky for Shoeing Horses Under’ — and the balls-out deployment elsewhere of organ and handbells can tend to make nearly all of these tracks sound like doomy, paranoiac Christmas songs; certainly the spectre of Van Dyke Parks lurks (not unwelcomely) at this feast, not least on ‘Fatalist Palmistry’ (the closest thing Why? has yet produced to a proper-bo pop song), while ‘Simeon’s Dilemma’ stretches itself vertically until it could almost be mistaken for a lost Pete Wylie classic. It would be great if 2009 (or ’10, perhaps, even better) brought a Why? album that surprised as much as it delighted; in the meantime, Alopecia is a stonking listen, no doubt about it.



#27 Tetuzi Akiyama, The Ancient Balance To Control Death

Even those few critics who were able to locate the recherche pleasures of Hymn For A Fallen Angel, Tetuzi Akyiama’s 2007 outing with lutenist Jozef van Wissem, were roundly defeated by this solo release from the blithely unusual Japanese guitarist: even Boomkat, who were selling it, sounded less than enthusiastic in their endorsement. At one level it’s not difficult to see, or to hear, why. This is deeply odd stuff: a home recording pitting Akiyama’s fractured, detuned acoustic guitars against his (apparently) imprecisely multitracked vocals, the vagueness of the exact melodic lines matched only by the elusiveness of the just-about-English lyrics. (Later on there's a bit of harmonica and shaker in the mix, neither wielded with exactly overbearing virtuosity.) Opener ‘Close the Door’ is by far the friendliest to the casual listener, in that it sounds a little bit like the sort of song you might associate with singer-songwriters on Earth; after that, you’re pretty much on your own. Every so often, a relatively conventional cadence or melodic gesture irrupts: the listening experience is like being very drunk and trying to walk home by staggering beteween lampposts. And yet, and yet... As a sort of outsider blues, describing its own idiosyncratic but internally consistent territory, expressing without varnish or compromise the authentic sound-view of a bountifully anomalous artist, there is something gripping and ultimately rather moving about it all. Were this album as redundantly strange as its detractors said, I wouldn’t have gone back to it: but I have, often, and I’ve almost always found in it a lot to enjoy. Fascinating stuff, and, for those who find Jandek or vintage Edward Barton just too middle-of-the-road, vital.



#28 Lawrence English, Kiri No Oto

Another busy year for Lawrence English, as artist, producer, and label owner (the esteemed Room40 is his), but in the UK at least nothing he's done so far has garnered as much attention and acclaim as this, his debut for Touch. 'Kiri' in Japanese means 'fog', and that's what this record is all about: the generation of (sort of) sonic mists, using shedloads of filtering and processing techniques to transform source materials (both musical and field recordings) into dense, shifting clouds. It starts, incredibly arrestingly, with 'Organs Lost At Sea', which really does sound like the Phantom of the Opera warming up on an oil rig in the middle of a blizzard; other tracks are more diffuse, less assertive, and harmonically far less emphatic -- 'White Spray', for example, which is as close as the set comes to ever being pretty, at least for a few moments. The signal-to-noise ratios here are, throughout, lower than a mole's ankles, and on the whole I've found the album more effective dipped into than played end-to-end, when the pretty tight parameters of its textural variation can make for a tough listen. It's also one of those discs where you want the best possible reproductive equipment (so to speak): chancing your arm with it at 128kbps on Tesco earbud headphones is next to useless, you might as well cover your head in raspberry jam and introduce it into a wasp's nest. But given the right conditions it's an awesome record, packed with incident but also full of space.



#29 Stereolab, Chemical Chords

The last time I had much of my attention trained on Stereolab, it was 1994 and I was discussing the lyrics of their song ‘Ping Pong’, from that year’s Mars Audiac Quintet, in an undergraduate seminar on dramatic tragedy. Since then, dozens, I suppose hundreds, of acts have seemed to have a more pressing claim on my ears, while Stereolab vaguely pottered along somewhere out there in the world, making noises that presumably pleased or didn’t quite please their diehard fans and seemed broadly irrelevant to almost everyone else. So I can’t say I was breathless with anticipation when (the dismally titled, by the way...) Chemical Chords hit my hard drive. But I’m happy to hand it to them: this is a smashing record. I’m not sure whether it’s the band that feels refreshed, or just my ears after such a long time away from their world: whatever, it’s great to hear almost as if for the first time their smart, perky, slightly off-kilter stylings. Some of this I guess is due to arrangements by Sean O’Hagan (of the High Llamas, inter alia) which initially tend to emphasize the playful elements in the familiar Stereolab mix over their slightly boffinly side: here are redolences of espionage soundtracks and shimmers of Esquivel; here are band charts recalling the high days of Gainsbourg or Petula Clark. From time to time, though, as the disc plays on, the balance shifts, and the band’s more avowedly experimental underbelly is saucily exposed, as on the uneasy instrumental ‘Pop Molecule (Molecular Pop 1)’ or the wilfully pesky ‘Nous Vous Demandons Pardon’. I wouldn’t make grand claims for this record, in terms either of the cutting edge of 2008 or the distinguished Stereolab discography itself: but it sounds ruddy marvellous and in a doleful year it put a smile on my stupid face. Bof, alors, that’ll do nicely.



#30 William Fitzsimmons, The Sparrow And The Crow

Well, now, this is an odd one. Not because William Fitzsimmons is a little-known songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who pops up here sort of out of the blue, and not because he looks remarkably like Edward Lear (brownie points in abundance for that), but because of how this album sounds. Some dolt on his web site says Fitzsimmons has been compared to Sufjan Stevens and Elliott Smith: and perhaps he has. By turds. Come off it: the opening track here, 'After Afterall', is precisely one millimetre to the left of being a Backstreet Boys song; 'I Don't Feel It Anymore (Song of the Sparrow)', which follows it, might initially recall in its melody and phrasing Iron & Wine but gradually eases into a mode probably closer to someone like Beth Nilsen Chapman; 'We Feel Alone' could almost be a Janis Ian song. I'm not making any of these comparisons in as snide or denigratory way as you might infer -- in fact, not at all: I like all those folks. There's just no point in wishing for Fitzsimmons some sort of trendy upstream cachet -- his songs, it says here, have been featured in General Hospital and that kind of puts the lid on it, ay. What I really, really like about this record is exactly its mainstream, wholly accessible nature, and the consistent quality of the writing. Blurbs in the vicinity of this album make a fuss of how intensely personal it is, dealing as it does -- quite single-mindedly (I don't mind that at all; in fact I like it) -- with Fitzsimmons's divorce. Well, good: but what impresses here is the craft, the pitch-perfect execution, and the light but palpable sheen. In a sector crowded with the artless and the lo-fi -- much of which I adore, it goes without saying -- it's just really nice sometimes to listen to a record that comes tied with a bow; that goes out of its way to fold your toilet paper down into a point, and places a foil-wrapped chocolate on your pillow. 



#31 Ladytron, Velocifero

Just about the smoothest ride to be had anywhere on the electropop highway at the moment is provided by Ladytron, who I guess are kind of old-timers at this stuff now, and certainly, following the unimpeachably spiffy Witching Hour in 2005, at the peak of their powers. Velocifero is a less immediately ear-catching album than its predecessor, perhaps -- it's more studied, a little more mature one might even say -- but it's certainly not short of thrills and spills. 'Ghosts', the lead single, is a majestically stonking pop-and-roll hellride with a chorus that sticks in your head like buckshot; 'They Gave You A Heart, They Gave You A Name' is a great thundering electro-stampede which at the right volume could make a leaky corpse palpitate; 'Predict the Day', though a relatively weak song in itself, creates a jolly peculiar aural space whose impact doesn't diminish with repeated plays. I'm sorry only that 'I'm Not Scared' turns out not to be a cover of the Pet Shop Boys song popularised by Eighth Wonder back in the day. It's not music that's going to win you over with either its heart or its brains: in fact compared to most of the rest of the music discussed in this post it's almost comically shallow and pointless. But -- as I think I said before, in a previous edition of the 50 (though I can't remember about which album in particular) -- there is something wildly appealing about people just doing what they do with absolute expertise, whether it's the most profound singerly-songwriterly heartstring-plucking, or pop so disposable it can barely get to the end of its run-time without hurling itself into the nearest trash-can: and Velocifero is, on those terms, among the most satisfying records I've heard this year, no question.



#32 Roots Manuva, Slime & Reason

I bloody *heart* Roots Manuva: there's a warmth to his work that makes it uplifting even when he's walking on the dark side, as he frequently and often courageously does. Slime & Reason, his sixth album to date, opens in excitable, puppyish mood with the grin-inducing 'Again & Again': exactly the mode that I most love him in, though not unfamiliar territory, especially given that we hadn't heard much from the man since his exuberant cameo on the standout track from Coldcut's 2006 comeback Sound Mirrors. From the second track onwards, though, he's feeling his way through some relatively new territories, the sound inflected more by bashment than before, and extending further into the brittle world of grime (a genre which, going back a few years, he arguably did much to adumbrate); the lyrics, when they're penetrable, are often candid, sometimes painfully so -- and when he turns his thoughts to junkier tropes (as on 'Buff Nuff', to cite the obvious example) it's not always clear that there isn't a certain problematizing irony underscoring it all. Standout tracks straddle this divide: 'Do Nah Bodda Mi' is a crowd-pleasing blast, while 'The Show Must Go On' is a sombre and self-lacerating piece of kitchen sink narrative that's nobody's idea of an easy listen. This careful two-stream approach, the sugar and the medicine, creates room for an album to emerge that's successful on any number of levels: it's his best yet, while still only hinting at the promise of what might come next. (Hope Dizzee's listening and learning.)



#33 The Accidental, There Were Wolves

Who or which or why or what is The Accidental, and will it be used in this particular instance to raise or lower the tone? (Cute joke for the musos there.) Well, there's four of them, the most prominent being Sam Genders of the dearly (hereabouts) beloved Tunng, which tells you a certain amount about what to expect: darkling folkie shenanigans for those who like their thoroughly-modern fairytales as grim as possible but with seductive choruses and plaintive instrumental settings of rough-and-ready knockabout inclination. And that's about it really. It's a small but infinitely likeable record which takes just enough care with itself that it can really touch you with the merest shiver of a dulcimer or an exquisite lyrical turn that makes your eyes prickle: so that when they have a crack at a wide-eyed cosmic kumbayah message song like 'Time And Space', they've earned it, and you like them for it, where if certain bands with less discretion tried it on you'd call the rozzers in a blink.



#34 Pivot, O Soundtrack My Heart

If you ever came across the jazz/electronica outfit Triosk (on Leaf), and if I then tell you that Pivot is the new(ish) project from Triosk drummer Laurence Pike and their sometime producer Richard Pike, plus electronica luminary Dave Miller, you'd doubtless expect evidence on O Soundtrack My Heart of an ear for detail and for texture, a liking for unabashed sonority, and perhaps a certain intrepidity in respect of boundary-crossing: all of which would be spot-on, but way off the whole story. This is a massive, highly expert, occasionally befuddlingly inventive record which more than anything else I've heard this year recalls the high days of post-punk, when the bathwater of prog-rock's ornateness and self-regard was thrown out but the baby of ambitiousness and complexity was acutely retained; no, I can't believe I'm writing this sentence either; and furthermore, perhaps most importantly, the nihilism of punk was rejected in favour of more nuanced and imaginative critique. You know where this is going, don't you? I'm about to proclaim the albums Sons and Fascination and Sister Feelings Call by Simple Minds a conjoined pair of masterworks: and then, adding insult to injury, announce that O Soundtrack My Heart reminds me a bit of that time and those records. The resemblance is more tonal and, dare I go on with this, aspirational than stylistic, though there are echoes of that approximate period all over the place here -- everything from the Cure to Vangelis. (The lack of vocals makes these comparisons both easier and less likely to be accurate.) But the confidence, the leanness, and the sense of sci-fi that permeates these tracks is not some grievous empty-retro exercise: those qualities are being generated for real, absolutely organically, within the processes of this music. As you'd expect from pretty much any band on Warp, at their best Pivot sound absolutely sui generis: "Didn't I Furious" sounds like nothing I've ever heard, which is an extraordinary thing to be able to say about pretty much anything in 2008. Turning on a sixpence, stopping on a dime, Pivot are making instrumental rock that's truly articulate: in this neck of the woods, only Battles seem close (and the memory of Tortoise -- whose John McEntire mixed this album, as superbly as you'd expect). Consider me smacked in the gob and liking it.



#35 Elbow, The Seldom Seen Kid

It was the Welsh wizard with the red shoes, St John of Cale (as Smash Hits surely would have dubbed him), who turned me on to Elbow, back when they were -- if not exactly debutantes, then -- less huge, by nominating their stunning, weirdly distressing song 'Switching Off' (from 2003's Cast of Thousands) as one of his Desert Island Discs. This, their fourth album, has seen them become major league players, winning the Mercury Music Prize and gatecrashing the wet dreams of Q readers; for those reasons alone, I'd like to dismiss it with an insouciant meh (presumably, science tells us that upwards of 97% of all known mehs are insouciant) -- my custom is not exactly to go off bands when they get big, but to go off them when (and because) they start biggifying themselves, gearing up for the stadium gigs and the festival headline spots and usually (with exceptions you can count on the fingers of a Kit-Kat, possibly even a Kit-Kat Chunky) coming over all blousy and overblown as a result. In that light, The Seldom Seen Kid is almost a miracle of restraint. Perhaps, who knows?, the most widely aired track, 'One Day Like This', was conceived specifically to be played over Olympics highlights packages, with all the grandiose cynicism that implies: it's certainly appears made to measure for such uses. And yet what's remarkable about Elbow is that the sense you have is simply of them rising to the occasion. There's nothing in itself ignoble about the aspiration to write choruses that thousands of people can sing along to at the same time, all sharing in the same (only mildly toxic) vanity that this song is about them. More importantly, the band manage here to create the necessary structural and melodic containers for such upward-mobilities, while retaining their penchant for unusual instrumental textures, startling dynamic arrests and a certain rhythmic boinkiness; Guy Garvey's vocals still sound like the sand in the butter at the end of a beach picnic, and his lyrics are about as intelligently crafted and unportentous as you could dare hope for around songs this size. Long and the short of it: they pull it off, against all odds; if you haven't yet, take a look at them now, before they turn into Phil Collins.



#36 Matière Grise, Sous Le Manteau

People often ask me: Controlling Thompson, they say, you saggy old cloth cat; or Controlling Thompson, you carved wooden bookend in the shape of a woodpecker: just how was it that you learned to stop worrying and love hip-hop? Truth is, it was exposure -- by the purest good fortune, via (if I remember correctly) the much lamented Radio 3 programme 'Mixing It' -- to the French model of the genre: which at that time, in the early 90s, was dominated by slinkier, jazzier, fleeter builds, closer in spirit to American crowdpleasers like House of Pain or the Dream Warriors (actually Canadian I think), but with a kind of lithe, punky energy -- I'm thinking of acts like Menelik or MC Janick or even the early days of MC Solaar. The point of this preamble is just to point up my (by now) effectively hardwired predisposition towards French rap and hip-hop, though I'm much less in touch now with what's going on. At any rate, I came across Sous le Manteau earlier this year, downloaded it from cripes-knows-where, and I think it's ace -- certainly closer, in sound and spirit, to harder-hitting precursors like Assassin than to that lighter, jazz-inflected wing, but still impressively agile and switched-on, with tracks like the baroque 'On Connait Trop Les Consequences' and 'Entretien Avec Nos Vampires' really grabbing you by the collar. If a Babelfish translation of their MySpace page is to be trusted, Matière Grise -- whose first album this is -- view their art as being a combination of tightrope walking and happy-slapping: on this evidence, I wouldn't quibble.



#37 Fujiya & Miyagi, Lightbulbs

“I saw the ghost of Lena Zavaroni / Vanilla, strawberry, knickerbocker glory.” Yeah, it’s not exactly Paul Celan, eh. But thus the opening deposit in the lyrical account of Messrs Fujiya & Miyagi (actually four amused English gents), Dazed & Confused posterboys (I’m totally guessing) and cameo guests on one of the year’s most surprising and welcome albums, Future Chaos from the long-lost Bomb the Bass. On this, their third album, the emphasis is on a kind of droll, noncommittal, absent-mindedly danceable future-pop, inhabiting a strip-lit middle ground between Can and Cornelius, but with radically stripped-down resources — many of these tracks have for much of the time little more going on in them than parochial bass, lackadaisical drum patterns and anemically deadpan vocals: “When you’re premenstrual / I will play you chillout compilation instrumentals”.  There ought to be something hateful about this record, its glibness, its coolly dandified half-arsed articulation of the endless tug-of-love between mundane social politics and self-sealing daftness; ‘underachiever and proud of it’ is the slogan that scrolls along the bottom of the mental screen. But, hands up: provided you don’t take it too seriously it’s actually a really terrific record: naughty, charming, seductive, and cleverer than it wants you to know. What it reminds me of most of all, weirdly, is the (immeasurably different) recordings that the artist Paul Rooney was putting out a few years ago, choral dispatches from the overlooked heart of the call-centre worker; Fujiya & Miyagi is what that disaffected cubicle monkey has on her iPod nano as she waits for the bus home. As ever, where there is daftness, there is melancholy; and there’s plenty more to this record than immediately meets the ear.



#38 Windy & Carl, Songs for the Broken Hearted

Shall we pause, just for a moment, and consider the true awfulness of that title? We might, while we're at it, contemplate what a horrible moniker Windy & Carl is, too; can't help thinking of Lenny and Carl, down at the Springfield power plant -- with Lenny perhaps weirdly supplanted by the only famous Windy I'm aware of... (How many famous Windies, after all, can there be room for?) Of course they've been around for ages, this pair, though I haven't paid enough attention -- my fault, mostly; for some reason they're connected in my head with an entirely unrelated New Age duo whose names I can no longer even recall. (I think they used to record for GRP, though that sounds pretty unlikely. Can anyone help?) Anyway, apart from their occasional crop-ups on samplers and suchlike, this is the first time I've really listened to W&C and, all onomastic misgivings aside, this truly is a gorgeous album: it fairly blooms out of its speakers right from the get-go, a huge but delicate sound, somewhere between the coruscations of Astrobrite and the lambent fuzzy-felt of Flying Saucer Attack. There are almost no big or abrupt changes of mood (except for the sudden transition into the silvery minimalist shimmering of 'Rhodes'): some tracks present a more serrated edge than others, and not all have vocals, so there's plenty of dynamic variation, but largely this record is about creating a soundworld in which the listener can immerse herself and gurgle with pleasure at the sheer sensual overload. For all its miserablist promise, Songs for the Broken Hearted is the kind of album that you just want to stick a straw into and slurp up.



#39 The Fall, Imperial Wax Solvent

The Fall, as our saviour Jesus Christ so nearly said, are always with us: and if that makes them easy to overlook, well, on the strength of some of their recent albums, that might be argued to be no bad thing. I’m not sure I’ve really loved a Fall album since 1993’s The Infotainment Scan — many other onetime devotees, of course, had already fallen by the wayside during the curious spell in the mid/late eighties and early nineties when it seemed not only that the band might break through into some appreciable level of mainstream success but that, with their Kinks covers and Coldcut remixes, that's what they were actually angling for. Thankfully, apart from a short run of singles scraping the lower regions of the chart, it never really happened, and now, twenty years on, it sounds clearer than ever that it actually never could have. Which is one way of saying, Imperial Wax Solvent is a completely wonderful bloodbath, sounding less unnecessary and further out on a limb than anything they’ve done in ages: ravishingly impromptu as ever, but tight and directed and all but tormented by their own unmanageable vigour. The episodic epic “50 Year Old Man” is as ambitious as it’s incorrigible; “I’ve Been Duped” sounds so fresh you almost want to check it for wetness behind the ears; “Can Can Summer” and “Latch Key Kid” update that Infotainment Scan vibe, peppering it with vocal hi-jinks; and Mark E. Smith’s performance of the word ‘poodles’ on “Tommy Shooter” is worth the price of admission on its own. It’s a Fall record; not everything is; enough said.



#40 Bird By Snow, Sky

Bird By Snow is pretty much a one-man band, a lumberjack-shaped geezer by the name of Fletcher Tucker; Sky goes back a couple of years but only made it onto CD in Europe this year, so I'm claiming it as one of the loveliest spoils of '08. This is seriously outdoorsy stuff -- 'Black Elk in the Mountains', these songs are called, and 'Animals Calling', and such; speaking as someone who's never been outdoors, it's good to know that there are folks out there doing whatever gets done out there in such chilly regions. (At one point a while back I was thinking about putting my coat and earmuffs on and venturing as far as Walthamstow maybe, but then I watched Into the Wild and, dude!, the dude dies, dude...) But seriously folks, you really do get a sense of the vista from Bird By Snow, and of isolation and oxygen and the stars, and not a lot of Pop Tarts or Ms PacMan for miles around. The arrangements are mostly kind of spindly -- decrepit banjos and uke-like guitars that sound like they're held together with Scotch tape, bits of drumkit rescued from a stream, piano notes emanating from a distant valley; Tucker's voice takes a bit of getting used to, emerging as it does half-strangled in a manner that at its least gravid can sound not unlike Marvin the Martian. There's also a ruminative quality to the lyrics (as you'd expect) that can come awfully close to a kind of roving E.J. Thribb. Yet there's an irrepressible sincerity and genuine weight to the whole thing that you couldn't tear yourself away from even if you wanted to; the atmosphere is so strong -- helped by a couple of tracks built around field recordings --and the immediacy so authentic and likeable that the record feels both modest and important, which is an enviable and altitudinous combination to achieve. A breath of fresh air.



#41 Deerhunter, Microcastle

Folks with their ears to the ground have been telling me for ages that I should be paying attention to Deerhunter; my characteristically point-missing response was to go off and fall in love with Deerhoof. But what's the point of a 160GB iPod if you can't make room in your life for two bands that begin with Deerh? Here is Microcastle, the third big release from Atlanta's current finest; it's been extraordinarily well-received almost everywhere, and if I'm not quite as Wolfgang Amadeus Batshit about it as some folks, I nonetheless gladly endorse it as an inordinately smart and pleasurable album. A less generous notice than I intend this to be would begin by suggesting that the coolest thing about Deerhunter might perhaps be their record collections: there's fun to be had in making like Jilly Goulden, fractionally distilling its bouquet -- "Mmm... I'm detecting the aroma of My Bloody Valentine here with overtones of T.Rex, a top note of Neutral Milk Hotel, and then a lovely vanilla burst of Velvet Underground hits your uvula, with just a hint of the Sea and Cake on the finish." But then of course everybody wants to biff Jilly Goulden upside her ludicrous phyzzog with an halibut; say no more. I'd expected something more cryptic, more scuffy, and perhaps that's why I'm particularly fond of the shorter, more out-there tracks like 'Calvary Scars' and 'Activa'; but there's something irresistible about songs such as 'Saved By Old Times' -- not least the lyrics, which are worth keeping an eye on. Incidentally, Deerhunter's lead person, Bradford Cox, also released a solo album this year, as Atlas Sound, called Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel: and that's excellent too, perhaps even more so; somehow I missed it when I was compiling this 50, but it's worthy of inclusion, beyond a doubt.



#42 Chad VanGaalen, Soft Airplane

There are, are there not, yes there are, from time to time, records that can make you smile just by existing, as a cloud of indistinct notions, in the back of your mind while you go about your business. One such is this hands-down doozy from Sub Pop's button-cute Canadian strumster Chad VanGaalen -- his third album, but the first to reach these distracted ears. It's a warmly ramshackle sound, driven mostly by guitar and supported by miscellaneous amiable racketings and yard-sale electronics, over the top of which VanGaalen's tremulous voice keens and yelps and insinuates itself down your spinal column exactly like that joke about the dog who lies in the sun in the garden all afternoon contentedly gnawing away at a juicy bone, and when it gets up its leg falls off. Wonderfully eloquent at his most direct -- as on the ardent 'City of Electric Light' and opener 'Willow Tree' (which we used as exit music over the final post-climactic home movies on Hey Mathew) -- he also makes his more eccentric tendencies earn their keep on songs like the awesome, nearly-anthemic 'Phantom Anthills', which can genuinely move while at the same time sounding at moments like the soundtrack to a Brothers Quay animation set in a potting shed. Wonderful, life-affirming stuff.



#43 Fuck Buttons, Street Horrrsing

Fuck ugly, more like. The tinkly opening minute of track one aside, there's almost nothing on this brilliant album that's actually pleasant to listen to. Speaking as someone who's tapped his toes cordially along to, y'know, Yasunao Tone's Solo for Wounded CD, or Stefan Jaworzyn & Alan Wilkinson live at the LMC Festival, or any amount of early Einsturzende Neubauten, I have to say, this really is one of the most obnoxious things I've ever heard, & I'm surprised and delighted that it's been hailed as a masterpiece not only by difficulty fetishists but the mainstream music press, the Evening Standard, Whizzer & Chips, et cetera. Actually that first track, 'Sweet Love for Planet Earth', builds into a really magnificent heap of noise, all sawteeth and demonic strangulation; but that's immediately succeeded by 'Ribs Out', a genuinely rotten melange of Keiji Haino-esque gibbering and annoying martial percussion: and from then on things just get more and more gruesome, reaching a kind of terrible scrotal perihelion on 'Race You To My Bedroom', and only really letting up for the relatively seductive slow-burn of 'Bright Tomorrow'. I suppose not everything about Fuck Buttons' debut longplayer can be as unrelenting as I want to describe it as being, otherwise everything in it would simply accumulate and the disc would never end. (O boy, crivvens, is it ever nice when it does.) But there is a calculated and unremitting nastiness about it all -- not least the absence of track breaks -- which means if this isn't exactly the record you want to listen to, it will make your cochleae turn turtle and your sinuses leak squid ink. But when only Street Horrrsing will do -- and we all have those days -- it's really, really glorious.



#44 Benga, Diary of an Afro Warrior

Remember Claire, of Claire and Friends, who insisted on behalf of a whole generation of diminutive Saturday Superstore viewers, that (and I quote) "It's 'orrible being in love when you're eight an' arf"? The observation is probably accurate in so far as it goes, but something tells me that the mithering Lolita had never, in all her eight-and-a-half years of worldly experience, attempted to write about dubstep. As an older, but perhaps not much wiser, white middle-class chap writing in an attic room in probably the most gentrified region of Stoke Newington, let me inform Claire -- if she's even bothering to read this, the bleating jailbait -- that she wouldn't know 'orrible if it wrote its name in Tippex on her satchel. I cannot possibly come out of this with my dignity intact. Nonetheless -- here goes -- I really like this album by Benga: don't think I'd heard him before, though he's been around long enough to establish himself as perhaps the prime mover on the scene; certainly even for someone way outside the catchment, the man's unerring talent for sonic design is absolutely unmistakable. It's impossible to know which way this record's going to twist or turn next: despite the genre's characteristic spareness, it lends itself, in hands these expert, to a remarkable variety of guises, skipping through drawings from electro, hardcore, jazz and (to these ears) vintage Chicago house; more even than with other critically acclaimed pioneers like Kode9 and Burial (ok, yup, the only other two artists I've had any real exposure to), there's a nimble, sketchy quality to Benga's lines which can really tie you up in knots and draw you in for keeps. Perhaps oddly, the album I'm most reminded of by Diary... is Moss Side Story, the late 80s solo debut by the great Barry Adamson: musically of course they're some distance apart, but as really dimensionalised, energetically impressionistic portraits of urban noir, they have a similar quality of being both breaking-news dispatches and locale-transcending classics at the same time. Absolutely vital listening, even -- perhaps especially -- for the arugula set who share my postcode. ...There, that could have gone a lot worse, eh?



#45 N.E.W. (Noble/Edwards/Ward), Deadeye Tricksters

Ooh, yeah, this is really nice. Here’s a disc from one of the most dynamic trios currently working the London improv circuit: N.E.W. is long-serving drummer Steve Noble (a one-time member of the fondly regarded Rip Rig and Panic); ubiquitous bassist-of-choice John Edwards; and (now graduated) ex-wunderkind Alex Ward (on guitar; you may perhaps know him as a clarinettist, for example on 2002’s gobsmacking Limescale with Derek Bailey et al, though I guess most Thompson’s readers will be more familiar with him qua guitarist from his days with the irresistible Pocket). Over the course of six substantial tracks these gents make their rambunctious way through the murky and graffitoed subways of free improv, sporadically coughing up furballs of mangled surf-pop or strands of ersatz jazz-rock or gobbets of noirish post-Zorn tomfoolery as they go. The movements are almost confoundingly quick sometimes, the interplay seriously alert, the occasional casual ironies admittedly sometimes annoying but always quickly dropped in favour of a genuine engagement with present threats and indecent proposals. For reasons which are somewhat unclear (perhaps to do with the facility that label Bo' Weavil seems to have for punching above its weight) but anyway wonderfully welcome, this release seems to have achieved some measure of breakout success, along similar lines to, say, some of Spring Heel Jack’s recent projects: and certainly there’s nothing here that any half-awake consumer of avant rock would find hopelessly disagreeable — if you fear free improvisation, in fact, this could be a worthwhile place to start. These are three musicians of staggering ability and imagination, on good form; I’ve heard all three do more exciting things in other contexts but this is a fine, good-natured record, which accesses all areas and never deserts the listener in its intrepid travels.



#46 These New Puritans, Beat Pyramid

It was quite a quiet year, this, for young British rock bands who seriously meant business but were determined to create their own signature sound rather than churning out pastiches of ELO or The Clash. Among those who succeeded, I liked Foals’ debut a lot, and the overhyped Glasvegas nonetheless proved themselves to be of real substance, but I’m throwing my (almost inconceivably valuable) endorsement behind These New Puritans, whose knife-sharp structuralist pop recalled a bunch of great early 80s bands, from (improbably) The Higsons to (even less probably) Bow Wow Wow, while treading a fine line between the groovy and the slightly scary, with a slightly demented bureaukratik churn powering them on after the manner of Owada, say, or Delia Darbyshire’s original Dr Who theme, or a photocopier covered with human skin. Not that they’re any kind of retro act: tracks like ‘En Papier’ or ‘Elvis’ sound like they were finished an hour ago, and possibly always will. Like the Bruce Nauman neon gag sculpture that flits between saying ‘REAL FUN’ and ‘FUNERAL’, These New Puritans make it impossible to relax while you’re dancing. Imagine Top Hat with Andreas Baader instead of Fred Astaire, and you’re getting there.



#47 The High Wire, Ahead of the Rain

The High Wire seem to have been backing into the spotlight for a while now, principally on the strength of their utterly gorgeous ‘Saint Bees’, one of the most seductive tracks to emerge in the past year, with its loping guitars and insinuating voices recalling the high days of classic Sarah bands like Brighter and Blueboy. Ahead of the Rain unfolds in a similar autumnnal mood: mists and mellow fruitfulness to complement the herbal tea and holey cardigan of your choice. Though the swelling Hammonds and spider-packed lyrics of the intriguing ‘The Watch’ may arouse, with so little variation in dynamic there’s nothing horsefrightening here, nothing in fact to disturb even the most timorous and hypervigilant palomino; just a wide windscreen and a skyload of drizzly distance to drive off into. Tick, v.g..



#48 David Turpin, The Sweet Used-To-Be

Disclosure first, plaudits after: David Turpin is a friend of a friend (the writer/performer Harold Finley, with whom I've worked on a couple of shows, and who's collaborated with the multitalented Mr Turpin on projects including the towering inferno of melodrama that is their yet-to-be-realised play Faithless Bitches), and though I've only met him once, he's certainly sweet and funny (and beautiful, o Lord yes) enough that I came to this album more than a little disposed to like it. The good news is that, were none of the above true, I'm pleased to suppose I'd still be a fan of this album. The best way of giving you a sense of what chocolate manufacturers would call its 'mouthfeel' may be to quote the opening lines to track 5: "Ask you by the by / Have you ever seen a pony cry?" Yup: this one goes out to all the thumbsuckers and bedwetters out there in Thompsonland. (You know you're my favourites, don't you.) Turpin doesn't so much sing these (for the most part) immaculately crafted songs as breathe them: he makes Tim Freeman of Frazier Chorus sound like a giant ogre gargling with Montserrat Caballe. This might tend to pall over the course of an album, were the songs and settings not as good as they are. Mostly the tracks have a bedroom feel to them, both in terms of how you imagine they were written and recorded and in terms of the best ambience for listening to them: the level of detail in the production is really engrossing. It will be interesting to see if Turpin's romantic sensibility and evident chutzpah add up in due course to more expansive and unrestrained adventures among the troubadours; for the moment, though, anyone who's ever blown on a dandelion and recorded it in their diary that evening, or sobbed their heart out at the drowning of Artax the horse in The NeverEnding Story, may very well eat this album up like a fistful of iced gems scattered over the trembling naked body of a lovesick boyscout. (Rats. Another one of my new year's resolutions accidentally divulged.)



#49 Go Home Productions, Spliced Krispies

An odd choice, perhaps, for one of the year's best albums: bootlegs (or mash-ups, if you will) have been proliferating for long enough now that it's hard to get all that excited about even the most inventive or accomplished examples; nor do the makers themselves -- Mark Vidler a.k.a. Go Home Productions apparently included -- claim much for the cultural significance of their work. Granted, if you've heard anything from GHP before, it's probably the overlaying of the song from the early 80s Cadbury's Fudge commercial ("A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat" -- a refrain I remember we parodied pretty ruthlessly in the playground at the time...) onto the backing from the Beach Boys' 'Wouldn't It Be Nice': it's a brilliant confection of track, despoiled for ever by the enthusiasm of Radio 1's cockwad-in-chief Chr*s M*yles, who apparently played it frequently on his wretched show. At its best, though, this medium not only transcends novelty but can actually do more than any number of post-pop eggheads and joey-deconstructionists to change the way that we hear and comprehend mainstream music and the edifices of authority and taxonomy that inform its diffusion. If all that sounds a bit overblown, listen to the tracks here that weave together Nirvana with a moderately funky bit of 70s library music, or REM with Luther Vandross, or -- most eyewateringly -- the Supremes with the theme from Grandstand, and tell me there isn't something kind of profound, even moving, about these head-on collisions: what they change, what they suggest, what they provoke. This collection is a terrifically entertaining listen (check out the Sex Pistols vs Ce Ce Peniston -- storming!), but also a vitally instructive critique -- yes, even the 'Finger of Fudge' one -- for those prepared to lend their ears in that spirit. Incidentally, the whole of Spliced Krispies can be downloaded free from the GHP web site here.



#50 Cut Copy, In Ghost Colours

Hard to think of an album more consistently acclaimed across the board in 2008 than this 'un, and of course the Contrarian Thompson experiences sensations of doubt and fear under such circumstances. If so many broadsheet critics want me to hear this album, I thought, there must be something pretty dreary going on at the heart of it all. So, well, all right, I confess, this is a really nice, attractive record, inventive and even at times uplifting. At their worst, Cut Copy sound (here) like a Human League tribute band -- which is not a bad 'worst' to have as your baseline, after all. When it all comes together, though -- which for me means keeping the guitars well forward, above all -- they achieve something pretty sublime: as on the opener 'Feel the Love' (hailed by Andy Field at Looking for Astronauts, I see), which recalls some of the shortlived ecstasies of early Lighting Seeds; or on the choppy, burbling 'So Haunted', whose chorus could be a straight lift from that lovely, hopelessly ignored/maligned mid 80s period of the Moody Blues. (Quite pleasing, in a way, to be drawing comparisons with such achingly uncool bands.) The Curmudgeonly Thompson grumps that everything about this album feels secondhand, which is either OK or not OK depending on what pop music is for; I'd feel more excited if there were some genuine originality (as opposed to ingenuity, or out-and-out songmaking skill) here, I suppose. But the highs are really impressively high, and the lows are still fun; you'd have to have a heart of bleakest Tupperware not to quicken a little in the company of these coves.


* * *


And the next 50 -- in no particular order -- no, dagnabbit, in alphabetical order:

All India Radio, FallAndy Yorke, SimpleArc Lab, The Goodbye RadioAtlas Sound, Let the Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot FeelBackyard Ghost, tHE wORRY cIRCUITBitcrush, Epilogue in WavesBomb the Bass, Future ChaosThe Breeders, Mountain BattlesBrett Anderson, WildernessByetone, Death of a TypographerCalexico, Carried to DustCon Cetta, MicroConor Oberst, s/tThe Cool Kids, The Bake SaleDaniel Lanois, Here Is What IsDonovan Quinn, October LanternsFoals, AntidotesGlasvegas, GlasvegasGrace Jones, HurricaneHelena Espvall & Masaki Batoh, s/tHot Chip, Made in the DarkJoan as Police Woman, To SurviveJoan of Arc, Boo HumanJoanne Robertson, The LighterJohn & Jehn, s/tThe Killers, Day and AgeLambchop, OH (ohio)Lotte Kestner, China MountainLykke Li, Youth NovelsMake Believe, Going to the Bone ChurchMcFly, Radio:ACTIVEMercury Rev, Snowflake Midnight; Merz, Moi et Mon Camion; Milosh, iiiThe Mountain Goats, Heretic PrideNate in Public, Coming HomeNightmares on Wax, Thought So...The Notwist, The Devil You and MeOkkervil River, The Stand InsOysterband, The Oxford Girl and Other StoriesPortishead, ThirdPortugal the Man, Censored ColorsRandy Newman, Harps and Angels; The Ruby Suns, Sea LionStephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Real Emotional Trash; The Streets, Everything is BorrowedTape, LuminariumTricky, Knowle West BoyVijay Iyer, TragicomicWire, Object 47.