Monday, December 31, 2007

The Official Thompson's Furtive 50 of 2007

All right, it's upon us. Climb down off of those tenterhooks and warm yourself by the glow of this year's strenuously anticipated Furtive 50.

In fact there's a little bonus feature this year, as you no doubt feared there might be. It having been (it seems to me) a pretty fine year for music, the longlist of releases that I knew I liked enough to want to take into consideration in drawing up my chart was well in excess of 200 albums, and having listened at least once to each of those and sorted them into definites and maybes, there were already more than fifty in the 'Essential - Must Include' category. So below the main body of the 50, you'll find a list of the next 50. (That's where I drew the line, you'll be pleased to know.)

As usual, I've eliminated anything that says it's an EP (or, in the case of the Holly & Jessica album, runs under fifteen minutes); greatest hits compilations etc. (so no McFly and no Dalek); and reissues of old albums (so the Nick Drake Family Tree set is disqualified).

The same disclaimer as last year obviously applies: I've managed to listen to about three hundred new albums this year, but I've almost certainly missed loads that, had I heard them, would have made the cut; for example, everyone's end-of-year lists have made a big fuss of the Burial and Panda Bear records, and I haven't heard either of those. Inevitably this is an incredibly partial survey, which aspires to be nothing more than a way of celebrating the music that has helped me get through the year in one (big, lumpy) piece.

Tomorrow I'll upload a track from each of the albums to the Gevorts Box player over on the right of the page, so you can share the pleasure, the pain and the pandemonium. [That's done now -- enjoy!]

And so, my dears, in obverse order, the winners are...


#1 Astrobrite, Whitenoisesuperstar

Safety goggles and gumshields to the ready, cats. This is some serious stuff right here. Scott Cortez has been recording as Astrobrite (one among many projects) since 1994, but this fourth album is the first I’ve heard of him. A little Googling reveals a small but committed fanbase in ecstasies over this record, and I’m with them all the way and further: I honestly think this is one of the most exciting albums I’ve ever heard. The sound world of Astrobrite is not that difficult to describe: it’s basically My Bloody Valentine multiplied by early Fennesz, overlaid with the sound of Emma Bunton singing to herself while she does the hoovering. It’s the biggest noise I’ve heard that retains some vestige of pop: these are five minute songs with melodic hooks (often barely detectable in the wispy vocals) and verse/chorus structures and four-chord progressions; there are fairly standard issue breakbeats skittering away much of the time, nothing to frighten the horses there; it’s just that every bit of space that’s left over is filled with the sound of electricity being bent and broken. The album starts brilliantly in media res with the uncompromising title track, but for me the first peak moment is “Dragonfly Pinkfuzz”, which I’m sure has reduced sterner folks than me to gibbering blobs of protoplasm: the overload of the chorus is so sublime it’s just impossible to know what to do with yourself. And then you just have time to towel down and breathe easy before the monumental “Goddess” has you again returned to your elemental greases, leaving nothing behind but a pair of smoking shoes. And yet it’s not a macho album, it’s not playing at being harder than the rest: this is just the sound of a very fine musician pursuing beauty way beyond the point where all the little LEDs are constantly on red and all the needles are all the way over to the right. By the time you reach the closing, clinching “Kisspeach”, you will have abandoned all thoughts of ever having sex while this album plays, but you may have started trying to figure out a way to have sex with this album. (That guy who got arrested earlier in the year for knobbing his bicycle: did anyone think to check his iPod? Cherchez Astrobrite, I reckon.) Seriously, this is an unbelievable, life-changing record: the best I’ve heard not just this year but in several years. I’m definitely giving it, oh, eight out of ten. Somebody stop me.

#2 Richard Youngs, Autumn Response

I’ve been hearing the name of Richard Youngs for some time, often in connection with some alt icon like Jandek or Matthew Bower, though the only work I’d heard before this was his collaborative ‘Radios’ project with Brian Lavelle. An intriguing review sent me off in the direction of Autumn Response, however, and I’m completely astonished by it: it’s the most striking man + guitar record I’ve come across in ages. There is a lot of genuinely beautiful songwriting here, a slightly edgy tenderness and intimacy and what I can only describe as a plainness, such that a straight down the line rendering of these songs would certainly still have been an unusually rewarding listen. But what particularly distinguishes Autumn Response is its extensive use of doubletracking (and, in some instances, bigger multiples), in a way that I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. Right from the start, on the stunning “I Need the Light”, we seem to be listening to two takes of the same song, recorded without reference to each other and superimposed blind; I literally can’t tell (and haven’t wanted to find out) whether this is actually what’s happening, or whether what would otherwise be some remarkably serendipitous moments of apparent correspondence and dialogue between the seperate recordings are actually contrived. Whatever, the complexity it creates, the tension, the sense of space being extended and time being fractured, is weirdly compelling. The second song, “Before We Were Here”, uses a similar technique, but with the second recording offset by a whole measure so that Youngs is initially singing a round with himself, and then gradually catches himself up. “One Hundred Stranded Horses” uses multiple overlays to create a sort of hypertextual matrix, in which all parts of the song seem to exist at the same time, creating a structure like a turning mobile; but it’s the cascading layers of “I Am The Weather” that eventually prove most affecting, the track on which the fascinating experiment really yields its most developed emotional resources. I can’t think of a truly solo record since Alastair Galbraith’s Mirrorwork in 1998 that I’ve found so fascinating. (More than a little perplexed by that goatse-ish cover, too...)

#3 MIMEO, sight

MIMEO is a sort of experimental supergroup convened by Keith Rowe, late of AMM, and featuring such luminaries as Christian Fennesz and Peter Rehberg. The group’s most prominent recording to date was probably the remarkable (and in some quarters mildly controversial) The Hands of Caravaggio, on which they were joined by Rowe’s then-colleague John Tilbury. Here, on sight, an intriguing project has been initiated. Each of the eleven musicians involved was invited to contribute, in isolation and without any discussion or negotiation, a total of about five minutes of sound, distributed across the time frame of an hour. These eleven separate recordings were then collated and stacked, and the album sight (so named, and issued in a plain black sleeve with black embossed text, with reference to the painter Cy Twombly’s occasional practice of working with a blindfold) is the outcome. It hardly needs saying that when you have to begin discussing an album with a description of its conceptual basis, your expectation might reasonably be that the recording could be more interesting intellectually than musically. In this case, no such worries apply: this is a great album, fascinating if you know how it was made but a fantastic listening experience anyway. The weird thing is how ‘live’ it sounds, how easy it is to imagine sight being the document of a single unedited improvisation, with all the participants in a room together and fully (if perhaps rather reticently) responding to each other’s propositions. So it’s ultimately the success of the music, rather than the concept itself, that raises the intellectual eyebrows. Rowe himself recently said something (which I don’t have to hand and therefore maybe am remembering inaccurately) about the preparation of the individual components that made up sight being an exercise in remembering: in the sense, I suppose, that each of these musicians was required to turn inwards and access a nearly but not quite intuitive sense of musical architectonics, and some version of the capacities they have for listening, and apply these almost subjunctively. Which is to say, sight invites you to think about music, but it is also in itself music that is more than somewhat about thinking, about process and commonality, and as such it has a sort of ethical dimension which is perhaps ultimately what makes it so satisfying.

#4 The Field, From Here We Go Sublime

Interestingly – all right, maybe not all that interestingly – the first three records in the list are all really about verticals: about superimposition, about layering, piling up. In the case of the aptly named The Field (and, incidentally, what a confusing year it’s been with considerable albums coming out also from Fields and Field Music – not to mention Open Field by the splendid Taken By Trees), it’s all about horizontals. Whether this album conjures mental images of high-speed trains hurtling through the countryside or simply wiggly audio tracks scrolling by on a laptop screen, it’s all about linear structures, about putting sounds next to, rather than on top of, each other. This seems so elementary that it’s sort of curious that music that sounds like From Here We Go Sublime wasn’t done and dusted years ago: rudimentary studies for the first Oval album (which, lest we forget, is now fifteen years old), say, or some forgettable subgenre of early ambient techno. And yet, right here, right now, in a world where the highpoints of The Black Dog and Farmers Manual are already starting to seem a bit old-hat, this music sounds not only brand new but also kind of revelatory. The first of numerous interesting Scandinavians on this year’s list, Axel Willner (a.k.a. The Field) has done this sort of imaginative excavation job to create an enthralling and beautiful album which almost entirely eschews dynamic variation or drama in favour of a sense of frictionless cruising, but which nonetheless – as the title suggests – does end up transcending the minimalism of his methods and the unassertiveness of his raw materials. Tracks like ‘Over the Ice’ and ‘Silent’ are essentially musical polymers, and if you imagine the quiet exhilaration of helter-skelter sliding down a model of DNA, you’re not far off the mark. In fact it’s crucial to his achivement that Willner manages to capture the warmth of that sense of play; when ‘A Paw in the Face’ finally divulges its source materials, it’s one of the funniest moments in the year’s music. A thrillingly effective debut.

#5 Loney, Dear, Loney, Noir

As I’m careful to say in my preamble, it’s almost certain that I haven’t heard many or most of the year’s best records: as proof of which, I suspect Hans Appelqvist may well have been displaced from last year’s number two slot had I heard in time the 2006 release Sologne from Loney, Dear, discovering whom has been one of the undoubted highlights of my listening year. Loney, Dear is actually a lyrical Swede called Emil Svanängen, whose reasonably robust frame belies a fledgling-like tremulousness of voice that makes early Bright Eyes sound like Bryn Terfel. His mix of knowingly ardent ballads (check out “The Warm Dark Comforting Night” on the early River Fontana album, but be prepared to surrender your heart without any further ado) and fireproof singalong pop (most memorably “The City, The Airport” on Sologne) is hardly ripping anything up and starting again but he is ceaselessly inventive within those classic formats: as Loney, Noir amply demonstrates. Those with a blanket aversion to twee should look away now; but anyone who was ever touched by the splendours of Sarah Records at its heights will take this album promptly to their heart: though Loney, Dear outdoes even those fondly loved bands with the strength of his melodic lines, which I suspect indicates a passion if not for Abba themselves then for the same lineage from which Benny & Bjorn seem to have drawn so much: show tunes, hymn tunes, operetta, the great second-string English Victorian and Edwardian composers; see for example the nearly anthemic fast waltz “The Meter Marks OK”, or the etiolated oom-pah electro of “I Will Call You Lover Again”. All of which might perhaps make Loney, Dear sound unconscionably nerdy to you. Well, fine. This is the kind of album you don’t really want to share with anyone anyway, you want to hide it under your bed, where the vividness of your secret love for it gives off just enough light to read comics by.

#6 The Twilight Sad, Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters

Best (more-or-less) conventional rock debut of the year by a country mile is this extraordinary record from Glasgow fourpiece The Twilight Sad. There is absolutely no moment of this substantial album that is ill-judged, tricksy, attention-seeking or in any way meretricious; it’s just a series of exceptional songs, confidently and forcefully delivered and faultlessly produced. What early records often don’t have is a very distinct signature, but here you get an absolutely clear sense of what this band are doing, what they’re about. That personality is partly the projection of the remarkable vocalist and co-writer James Graham, whose intensity throughout is breathtaking and cumulatively quite devastating: much of which is to do with the early song “That Summer, At Home I Had Become the Invisible Boy”, with its grim, harrowing refrain, “The kids are on fire in the bedroom”; the later “Mapped By What Surrounded Them” is similarly haunted and direful. It’s a vast, densely packed 45 minutes, and though it’s by no means the most leftfield record on the list it’s certainly not an easy listen; I’m somewhat reminded of another great band fronted by a Scot, the late lamented Prolapse, who also had a talent for making the violent and unnerving sound edged with beauty. Fourteen Autumns is not a date record, you don’t come out whistling the big tunes, you emerge a bit bruised and needing a cup of tea. None of this is a bad thing.

#7 Radiohead, In Rainbows

With all the slightly inflated excitement about the business model surrounding its release, it may be that it will take a little while for In Rainbows to be properly evaluated as a album. For what it’s worth, I like this album more than anything the band have done in the decade since OK Computer, together or separately; it took me precisely two minutes and thirteen seconds to let my guard down (the point in “15 Steps” at which a small crowd of children first shouts “Yayyy!”), and until track four, the lowkey but expertly crafted and ineffably moving “Weird Fishes (Arpeggi)”, to start loving it. That’s the song I most love on the record – I mention this because most reviews have singled out other tracks, but not that one – partly because it’s one of the points where the band really fuses, where it’s clear that Radiohead is the confluence of five immensely creative musicians plus, in Nigel Godrich, a producer of unassailable skill and imagination. In Rainbows is probably the album I’ve returned to most often this year; it’s arguably a more modest achievement than Kid A but its lighter and less wilful tone lets some air into the band’s project and opens out further than ever before the possibilities of where they might go next.

#8 Icarus, Sylt

Interesting fellas, Icarus. They started out in the mid-leftfield of drum‘n’bass and have drifted – or, I should say, travelled – ever further leftwards, arriving on 2004’s seminal I Tweet the Birdy Electric (on Leaf) in some hinterland between glitchy, fidgety i.d.m. and full-on free improvisation: a journey that has involved not only a loosening of form and structure but also an expansion of their sound world, such that they’re now among the most interesting kids in the playground when it comes to combining the acoustic with the electronic, and the possibilities of live interaction with the probabilities of studio gameplay. This latest dispatch worries me a bit because I can no longer tell what’s what, and I haven’t figured out yet how much that matters. I guess in the end it’s all 1’s and 0’s, but then, so are we all... At any rate, all such ideological paranoias aside, this is an album of such deft and various invention, it’s almost exhausting. Sylt is constructed around two extended live tracks, “First...” and “Second Inf(E)Raence”, which indicate just how quickly they’re able to throw ideas around even outside of a studio setting. Five shorter pieces present more manageable frameworks for trying to read their process, but eventually I, like most people will I guess, simply have to accept that I can’t keep up, and enjoy being delighted and bamboozled by this wonderful duo, who, interestingly, have become ever more entertaining in direct proportion to the increase of experimentalism in their outlook.

#9 Tetuzi Akiyama + Josef van Wissem, Hymn for a Fallen Angel

My favourite out-and-out improv record of the year has to be this utterly amazing duo between Tetuzi Akiyama (guitar) and Jozef van Wissem (baroque lute). Actually, even this turns out to be not quite out-and-out improv, as the recording actually captures van Wissem improvising to a prior recording of Akiyama: but I suspect that might not be detectable even from the closest listening – I don’t think I’d have figured it out for myself. Not that lending this record a careful and attentive ear doesn’t yield other benefits. It seems to me that this meeting is as much about the decay of sounds as it is about their activation; and as it explores the differences in tone and timbre between the two instruments (and their players’ approaches), and microtonal dissonances in their tuning, it creates an extraordinary sense of space: particularly in pieces such as “The Cry of the Hawk” where Akiyama’s employment of bottle neck opens up a kind of cultural gap too. It can be a slightly sour listen, this record, but if you can withstand its occasional astringencies, there is a plaintive and yet deeply mysterious tenor to its content which tends to pull you in and hold you almost uncomfortably close.

#10 Deerhoof, Friend Opportunity

There were times when, mostly for professional reasons (or lack of them), quite a bit of 2007 felt wasted: but let the record at least show that this was the year that I finally got into Deerhoof, after far too long not really paying enough attention. The straw that finally cleared the camel’s ears was this fantastic new release, which certainly offers a more easily approachable Deerhoof than previous recordings may have done. The recipe is an uneasy but bracing melange of angular, bumpy, proggy stuff, fused into catchy and not totally disorienting patterns, with the occasional lush harmony or learnable chorus, and a sticky glacé cherry on the top in the form of vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki, who sometimes sounds as if she’s wandered in from the band next door to ask for a cup of sugar. These ten ruthlessly restless tracks take in smalltown Batman riffs, marching band fanfaronades, filthy dirty funk, noirish fifties girlband sob stories, and overextended Spinal Tap jazz odysseys, often all pretty much at the same time: it’s a dazzling, sensorily disarming concoction, of the kind that might be conceived at the Fat Duck of indie rock, wherever that might be.


11 Battles, Mirrored

There was a time earlier in the year when the ramped-up coverage of this album and the band behind it became so ubiquitous I half-expected Mirrored to be playing in Morrisons supermarket (rather than, as is required by local statute, the greatest hits of Go West and/or Jaki Graham). Given that the album reached the less-than-giddy heights of number 70 in the charts, that weight of interest can only be attributed to a general sense that Battles represents the future of something. They’re now and they’re new and they seem to have some bearing on what’s next: which is partly to say, as it always is, that they refer enough to past models that their novelty doesn’t present a problem of daunting or disorienting unfamiliarity. But any such churlishness about the lionizing of Battles in the music press quickly evaporates each and every time you hit ‘play’ on this staggeringly accomplished album. From the opening moments of ‘Race: In’, which seem between them to cover three different continents, to the dying strains of ‘Race: Out’, tossing around a bundle of self-conscious axe licks, riffing – if you will – against the dying of the light, everything about this album suggests a mischievous, spirited dedication to the cause of provocation – very much including self-provoking; I’d find it awfully easy to believe that many of these tracks had been created around a simple instruction: do the most annoying, obnoxious, thing you can, and then let’s see how it can be redeemed. That such recuperations are even possible, let alone thrilling and occasionally hilarious, is a sure index of how capable these guys are, and what furious energies they’re able to whip up out of sometimes the most unpromising raw materials.

#12 Pan Sonic, Katodivaihe

Pan Sonic’s A was arguably the last great album of the last century: it felt like both culmination and harbinger, and in its abstract and sometimes daunting textures and rhythms, something terrible and profound seemed to be at work. To those who haven’t heard it, this description will sound hyperbolic; to those who have, it will seem merely inadequate. It is, to my mind, the benchmark by which all other industrial electronic music is inevitably measured: including the group’s own. Not even their (nearly six-hour) last album, Kesto, which provided a pretty thorough survey of the group’s current lexis, could quite match A. In Katodivaihe, they employ a similarly panoptic perspective to Kesto, but more concisely and perhaps ultimately to greater effect. A lot of their influences come through loud and clear, from the Grey Area throbbings of the opening “Virta 1” to the almost comically abrasive “Koneistaja” which kind of sounds like a novelty big beat stab at Einsturzende Neubauten, to the Luigi Nono-like textures of “Suhteellinen”. It is a very noisy record indeed, even at low volume (though I can’t imagine you’d care to listen to it at low volume anyway), and only occasionally do they revisit the brutalist minimal techno of A, though “Hinaaja” comes pretty close and is the most out-and-out lovely thing on the record, if lovely is the right word, which we had better hope it is. Nobody does this stuff better than Pan Sonic, and the mark of their genius is, if it’s Pan Sonic you want to listen to, nothing and nobody else will even come close to satisfying that desire.

#13 Martin Grech, March of the Lonely

In (approximately) the immortal words of a great amphibian: it’s not easy being Grech. After his jaw-dropping teenage debut, Open Heart Zoo, in 2002, his overwrought follow-up Unholy a couple of years ago seemed to me, though by no means to everyone, a misstep into overgeneric gothic metal. Apparently his label Island shared my doubts (which reflects suckily on me, really) and a hiatus ensued: from which Grech now emerges with March of the Lonely. If anything, it overcompensates, throwing out the dramatic baby with the histrionic bathwater: but what we get nonetheless is a staggeringly accomplished and frequently achingly beautiful album. Grech’s songwriting has taken another step forward and, crucially, now sounds like nobody else’s I can think of; and always at the centre of it all is his astounding singing voice, which somehow manages to seem, like a drug might be maybe, both very pure and very complicated. I love the way his songs unfold, faithful only to their own logic; whatever is added or taken away is unfailingly perfectly judged, particularly the occasional use of multitracked voice. Cruelly, I am going to essay a comparison with Nick Drake – it’s bound to be cruel because Drake only recorded three albums and all three were among the greatest ever made, which is probably setting the bar a bit high: but on March of the Lonely Grech begins to show signs of a poet’s intelligence and an artist’s instinct in comparable measure to Drake’s, and one can hardly praise a singer-songwriter more highly. I hardly know whether to wish on Grech the wide success and acclaim he deserves, or the semi-obscurity and patience he possibly needs; but he certainly has the talent to grow into either.

#14 Hans Appelqvist, Sifantin och mørkret

Thompson’s regulars will hardly need reminding of my immense admiration for the albums of Hans Appelqvist, including Naima (narrowly pipped by Christopher Willets at the top of last year’s fifty) and his earlier masterpiece Bremort. If you’re playing catch-up: well, Appelqvist, who currently records for the estimable Swedish label Hapna, creates delicate, complex, witty music that threads in and out of field recordings, taped conversations and sound effects. The more I listen to him, the more I think it’s weird that more people aren’t doing this sort of thing more often: but my suspicion is it’s awfully hard to do well. With only about six months separating it from Naima, the new album is a smallish record with modest ambitions, though it still finds room for more ideas in its half hour running time than can be discerned in the entire output of the Kaiser Chiefs. I admire its tenderness and like its offbeat humour - though the mewing kitten that keeps popping up might not charm everybody, I suppose, nor the trio for sheep, baby and wasp. Which reminds me: one perceptive blog reviewer notes how child-friendly Sifantin och morkret is, and how readily his young son and daughter respond to it: which I can well imagine (with the possible exception of the scary werewolf who interrupts “Full the Moon” and certainly frightened the bejasus out of me), and that seems to me to be another reason to approve of Appelqvist’s weird ways. He is a quite wonderful maker of records - though if he wants to take a whole year over the next one, I won’t object.

#15 Opsvik + Jennings, Commuter Anthems

Opsvik + Jennings: sounds like a firm of architects, right? Well, actually, not far off. This quietly impressive album, on the superlative Norwegian label Rune Grammofon, frequently sounds, at least up to a point, as if it may have been constructed by two demure men in sharp suits, peering over rimless spectacles at laptop screens late into the night. (Isn’t that what architects do? The Scandinavian ones, anyway?) But that sounds a bit clinical, and that’s not right at all. I didn’t hear the duo’s first album, but as with so many artists this year (several of whom pop up in this survey), 2007’s release sees them warming up their electronica with the sounds of and 1970s children’s tv. (I don’t suppose either Mr Opsvik or Mr Jennings grew up with Mr Benn, but the album has, even in its most experimental stretches, an unmistakeable whiff of Festive Road about it, particularly on the bumpity “Commuter Anthem”.) The whole thing is so painstakingly made, you might imagine the end product feeling airless and unspontaneous, but that couldn’t be further off the mark, because these wonderfully inventive tracks have not just the precision but also the playfulness that you associate with great architects: these are spaces that change as you walk through them; that offer you constantly surprising perspectives on an environment that you would otherwise take for granted; that breathe with you.

#16 Britney Spears, Blackout

“It’s Britney, bitch.” Yeah, there’s really no point in saying anything about this, is there? Except that, if you’re one of the few people who feel merely indifferent about this record and haven’t heard it yet, then I really would urge you to give it a listen (or two): you may love it or hate it, but it is, dare I say it, one of the three or four most important records released this year, and the fact that it arises anywhere in the vicinity of Britney Spears is truly something to contemplate. Everything you’ve read is true: it’s brilliant, virtuosic, chilling, sexy, dumb, cynical, misogynistic, and brilliant again. Britney herself is AutoTuned and vocoded out of the organic realm altogether: this must be the most disembodied carnality ever advertised. It’s also the most, as it were, forward album I’ve heard in a while, in its seeming insistence that a harshly futuristic aesthetic is necessarily coupled with a really sexually assertive – you might nearly say aggressive – programme. Tracks like “Get Naked (I Got A Plan)” and “Perfect Lover” are scarily erotic not least because this cyberBritney almost seems post-gendered. (And yet the charge of misogyny definitely sticks. Look at the crowd of male producers – solely excepting Kara Dioguardi – who turned up to prettify and/or obliterate a screwed-up young woman who only wants to be popular. Make no mistake, this is Britney Does Bukkake.) When we were little, the overriding promise of the future was that everything – food, music, intelligence – would come in a little capsule like a painkiller; this record is the closest thing I’ve ever heard to a dispatch from that future, and I feel the same titillated dread on hearing it that I associate with human-ear-growing mice and suchlike. I suppose all I’m saying is, this is a truly remarkable record, and I’m scared of the day – which will surely come – when it sounds as quaint as Mary Hopkin.

#17 Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble, Plastic Bag in the Tree

An amiably unassuming side-project for Chris Funk of the excellent Decemberists, Flash Hawk Parlor Ensemble deals in plangent instrumentals full of twanging dobro and doodling Moog and a little dab of Omnichord behind each ear: and if Plastic Bag in the Tree doesn’t put a big silly grin on your face and a little Jack Daniels glow in your heart, you may need to see a doctor. Imagine, if you will, Massive Attack’s “Teardrop” made over in the style of the Eagles’ “Journey of the Sorcerer” (better known as the theme to The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Can’t imagine it? No problem: the FHPE have done it for you, and it’s incredibly charming. In fact if you’ve a taste for off-the-wall cover versions – and what Thompson’s reader hasn’t? – then welcome to the veta madre. The best of the bunch, even (I suspect) if you don’t know the original, is a front-porch rendering of Radiohead’s “Amnesiac/Morning Bell”, with glockenspiel and dulcimer set amid steady banjo and distant crooning lap steel: it couldn’t be more different from the original in mood and tone, and yet it manages to articulate something about the song that elevates the Flash Hawk version way above any novelty value or sardonic intent. Towards the end of the album, a version of “In Christ There Is No East Or West”, the old traditional hymn most associated now perhaps with John Fahey, feels almost avant garde in its looseness and the weirdly synthetic quality to the ensemble (which is only somewhat to do with the burbling Moog in among all the fingerpicking). My only slight misgiving – and I always hate people who say this, so I don’t know why I am – is that the album is too long: but then, why would you listen to it any longer than you wanted to anyway? That shouldn’t detract a bit from the fond appreciation this wonderfully eccentric record deserves.

#18 Patrick Wolf, The Magic Position

Back in the spring of 2003, when my pal and sometime colleague Charlie Phillips was enthusing to me about some intriguing young cove-about-town name of Patrick Wolf, a free-range Minty alumnus whose first album Lycanthropy was still months away from release, it didn’t seem likely to me that within a few short years, Wolf would be Britain’s favourite half-naked pansexual boy-scout, turning up on Loose Ends and modelling for Burberry. Indeed, even this time last year, it also didn’t seem likely that Wolf would ever make an album that truly captured and crystallised his obvious talents as songwriter, mythmaker and self-made libertine. But then Patrick Wolf doesn’t seem likely, period. So I was a fool, but a happy one, to be so pleasantly surprised by the release of The Magic Position. This is the album that those of us who desperately wanted to love Patrick Wolf but were beginning to feel the chills of an incipient scepticism longed to hear. This is absolutely ravishing stuff, never more so than on the joyous title track, the reckless “Accident and Emergency”, and the awesomely romantic “Get Lost”. The sound of fireworks on “Bluebells” is the sound of a real artist, with youth and passion on his side, writing his name over the sky. It’s the sound of Sappho and absinthe and the most profoundly improper bareback cavorting. All of which I will gladly take over raindrops on roses and whiskers on etc. My only regret is that I never asked him to work with me at the point that he might conceivably have returned my phone call.

#19 Talib Kweli, Eardrum

O, Lord, don’t make me do it, don’t make me write about hip-hop. I can’t, I just can’t. Look, I love old school stuff; but from the mid 80s onwards it all goes a bit vague, and after the early days of gangsta rap I’m really not at home with it all. There are certain artists that I keep an ear open to – Ghostface Killah, MF Doom, and of course all the alt-stuff associated with Anticon, which I love – but really I’m stumbling blindly around, bumping into records I like, without much of a clue as to how they all fit into the wider ecology. In a good year for getting lucky with this blind stumbling policy, which has brought me particularly instructive and enjoyable encounters with Seattle’s Grayskul and Sydney’s Figgkidd, above all I was really impressed by this latest album from Talib Kweli, of whom, I must shamefully admit, I had barely heard. There’s a whole phalanx of top-flight producers behind this material, including the always brilliant Madlib and the force of nature that is Kanye West (who does a super-sweet job with “In the Mood”). Technically substantial tracks like “Country Cousins” and “Listen!!!” impress, but Kweli really comes into his own most on the more morally agitated cuts, such as “Hostile Gospel pt. 1 (Deliver Us)” and the risky but just-about achieved “Eat to Live”. He even finds time to namecheck Chloe Sevigny. This is fine work, and I’m glad to have its light shining in the pitch darkness of my ignorance.

#20 UNKLE, War Stories

Praise be to Wakan Tanka, sometimes the big surprises still come not out of too-cool underground venues and darkling suburban bedrooms, but from the speakers of HMV Oxford Street. I was a very casual admirer of UNKLE’s debut, Psyence Fiction: it was something that at the time I classed alongside Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and The Verve’s Urban Hymns as accomplished work that I could appreciate without actually having to go out and get a copy of my own. Certainly, nothing would have led me to expect that, the best part of a decade later, War Stories would be pretty much my favourite ‘big’ mainstream rock album of 2007 (excepting Radiohead, who no longer seem to belong to that, or to any, category). But this is a really terrific album, bold, exciting, dark, sober. The rampaging guitars of ‘Chemistry’ are the first sign that something exceptional is afoot; from then on, it’s partly about the marriage of songs to vocalists. Josh Homme (of the mediocre Queens of the Stone Age) yawps abrasively all over ‘Restless’ with just the right amount of bluster; Liela Moss of the Duke Spirit banks the stonking ‘Mayday’, and the great Ian Astbury comes over almost like late-period Johnny Cash on the enormous ballad ‘When Things Explode’. Best track for me, though, is ‘Broken’, on which Gavin Clark sounds uncannily like an early-80s Mark Hollis, on a wonderful pop-rock song that somewhat recalls the Golden Palominos’ ‘Boy (Go)’. The critical reception of War Stories has been surprisingly muted, and the album could perhaps fairly be criticised for its portentousness: but I’m more inclined to hail its sincerity, its scale and, at many moments, its genuine power.


#21 Múm, Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy

Fat Cat’s finest (though man that label’s had a good year), and one of the best bands working out of Iceland (and man that country’s done well in 2007), Mum – and I have to thank Analogue’s Liam Jarvis for drawing my attention to them a couple of years ago – are very special indeed. This year has seen some radical personnel changes for the group and Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy is of a markedly different cast than their earlier albums, with the balance shifting towards much more integration of acoustic elements into the incredibly detailed electronica on which their reputation rests. On the whole, the changes are refreshing and steer the band into a whole new territory where they seem to be very happy playing. “They Made Frogs Smoke Til They Exploded” is approximately “Weakling Child”-era Aphex Twin reinterpreted by a homely folk group with a consignment of digital watches and electronic toys all going off simultaneously in their bathroom; even the miniature “Rhuubarbidoo” sounds like the soundtracks of four different Czech cartoons being played simultaneously on BBC2 in 1978, and that’s barely ninety seconds long. This kind of oscillating wildly between the sublime and the ridiculous will become wearing if it’s the new model Mum’s principal modus operandi, but as a way of ventilating their practice it’s obviously invaluable. My one cavil would be an overreliance on melodica to get the point about lo-fi fun across: surely they read the instructions on the box that said ‘Use sparingly’? Nonetheless, for those many folks who have been longing to find the middle ground between Sigur Ros and Kenny Everett (or, for that matter, between Bogdan Raczynski and Dana), this album will be like manna from Marks & Spencer. ("This is not just manna...") Oh, you can keep your Led Zeppelin reunion: I want my Mum.

#22 Axel Dörner, sind

One of the more straightforwardly entertaining consequences of the ‘extended technique’ that instrumentalists in free improvisation sometimes employ, which often leads to them generating sounds not necessarily characteristic of their source instruments, is that it can make for some odd aural illusions. When the fine Colombian flugelhorn player Guillermo Torres lived at Thompson’s HQ for a while a few years ago, I would sometimes wonder what had gone wrong with the central heating or what was going on with the tree surgeons out in the road, only to realise that the suspicious sounds I was hearing were emanating from Guillermo’s room. Similarly, getting a lift home from CPT one night, I worried that there was some kind of trouble brewing with the car, which seemed to be making alarming noises; in fact, it was the vocalist Phil Minton, warming down in the back seat. All of which is a slightly unworthy introduction to this remarkable solo disc from one of my favourite improvisers anywhere, the trumpet player Axel Dorner, whom I first encountered ten years ago when he was playing with Chris Burn’s stupendous Ensemble. There is, across the hour-plus of sind, hardly a sound that you would necessarily associate with the trumpet: you might think a fair bit of it was electronics, or field recordings, or percussion, or simply a kettle boiling dry. In fact, there are no electronics and no processing on this album, just sparing overdubs and a lot of attention on the spatial field. Even aficionados of this kind of stuff have struggled with the extreme abstraction of sind; my tip, for what it’s worth, is to pay very close attention to the shape of individual tracks (of which there are 22, mostly around the three or four minute mark): it helps to have a series of frames, or stanzas, to relate to, rather than letting the whole album just go seamlessly past. There is a problem about how to deal with the extremes of level here: if you want to figure out whether some of these tracks really are completely silent, you have to turn the volume up pretty high, and the sudden rasping opening of the next track may then take your head off. Not for those of a nervous disposition, then. But the warmth of sind is just as impressive as its militancy: its conceptual rigour is not as severe or as absolute as some commentators would have you believe. Having told you all of which, I had better come clean and say that the (beautifully produced) absinthRecords edition is limited to 300 numbered copies, of which I have #131: so I fear owning it may be even more difficult than actually listening to it.

#23 Brian Harnetty, American Winter

Well, here’s a treat: but you need to know the backstory. There is a large sound archive at Berea College in Kentucky which documents Appalachian music and culture; the musician and sound artist Brian Harnetty was invited to explore and work with these recordings, and the utterly captivating American Winter is the result. Essentially Harnetty has chosen a number of extracts (mostly unaccompanied songs, though he is careful to leave in accompanying bits of chat; but also stories and bits of radio broadcasts), and overlaid them with music of his own: piano (with particularly effective use of thumbtack and toy pianos), banjo, percussion and so on. If what I’m describing sounds like highbrow Moby, banish such thoughts now: Harnetty has worked with immense sensitivity to his sources and managed to create what feels like a genuine dialogue with them. Quite often he simply creates an accompaniment for the a capella singer: but there is something almost uncanny about the way he’s able to place his own interventions in relation to the archive material, sometimes appearing not merely to respond to but slightly to anticipate the movements and nuances of their vocals, which creates a most curious simulacrum of liveness. This album is up with the uses of taped sources in Gavin Bryars’s Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet and John Adams’s Christian Zeal and Activity for emotional depth and affect, but like both of those it also creates something not merely poignant but also celebratory, and something respectful but lively and, in the best sense, playful. I’m so pleased to have come across American Winter and, through it, the work of an obviously immensely gifted artist.

#24 Ulrich Schnauss, Goodbye

I have had occasion before on these pages – possibly in last year’s review of Kelley Stoltz, if I remember correctly - to fulminate against the modish notion of ‘guilty pleasures’, for which I have little time: a song is either good, beautiful, smart, exciting, likeable, or it’s not: and whether its source is the latest bright young thing to have been fingered by Dazed & Confused or some old fart who used to be the housewives’ favourite on ‘Pebble Mill at One’ shouldn’t matter to anybody: if you can only enjoy Supertramp by doing waggly-finger air-quotes while you’re tapping your toes, then we should be more concerned with your impoverished soul than with the fact that they’re on Sarah Kennedy’s Radio 2 playlist. However even I must admit to a pang or two when I listen to Ulrich Schnauss’s latest, the undeniably pleasurable Goodbye. This is Schnauss’s third album and one of the loveliest things to come out of Berlin since JFK’s public announcement that he was a jam doughnut. (Actually, he didn’t, apparently, but it’s a nice story.) His melancholic techno-inflected electronica has always had a touch of the shoegazey about it but here the blurry guitars and smeary vocals are far more to the fore than on previous outings. And so I can at least point you to the striking “Medusa”, which sounds like an occultists’ Pong tournament and is one of the most nakedly exciting things I’ve turned up loud all year, before admitting that there are whole swathes of this record that sound like Vangelis and Tangerine Dream and even Francis Lai (of Bilitis infamy), which is probably not what the inventors of the 21st century had in mind. Nonetheless this feller (just like Vangelis and The Dream) really knows how to put a record together, and if I’m a sucker for falling for such middlebrow stuff, well, I’m more than content to plead guilty as charged.

#25 Seabear, The Ghost That Carried Us Away

Welcome to Seabearia, the fantasy realm of this drop-dead gorgeous septet from Reykjavik, home to or origin of almost everything good and noble in the world. The Ghost That Carried Us Away is their first album but if the blogosphere is anything to go by (and if it’s not, I might as well stop all this nonsense and go out to play), it’s already gained them a lot of fans. Nearest relatives I can think of would be the (apparently dormant) Liverpool eightpiece Ella Guru, but if you’ve basked in the unassuming company of Mojave 3 or Lullaby for the Working Class or even Tigermilk-era Belle & Sebastian, there’s every reason you’ll find this album as congenial as I do. It may be an increasingly familiar sound world – acoustic guitars, ukulele, banjo, glockenspiel, spindly but mellifluous strings, the sweetest of harmonicas – but actually this is more robust stuff than it may at first seem. It’s exceptionally well recorded, too, with an intimacy that takes you right to the material heart of the matter: breath and fingernails and the unmistakeable sound of people smiling at each other. (Incidentally, if you can’t find the album, there’s an exquisitely strange video for the standout track “Hands Remember” up at YouTube.)

#26 The Go! Team, Proof of Youth

I’ll never forget the first time I heard The Go! Team. It was the summer of 2004, I was in Edinburgh and (of course) miserable and had been comfort-bingeing in Avalanche Records to such an extent that I’d earned myself a free sampler of forthcoming releases: nothing very remarkable until right out of nowhere came “Bottle Rocket”: a completely bewildering, unplaceable mix of Betamax action-hero fanfares and Bronx jump-rope rhyming which built to an almost unlistenably sublime, ecstatic climax that made me feel like Danny the Champion of the World. The ensuing Thunder Lightning Strike was one of my four or five favourite albums of the noughties, no question. This eagerly awaited followup doesn’t quite hit the same heights, though I think that says more about how surprising TLS was than its relative merits as a record: if you were to come to Proof Of Youth first, never having heard the band before, you might well find it the stronger of the two albums. Certainly it’s less various, the focus is more on the raucous and the rambunctious at the expense of the lazy and the plangently funky (though an astonishingly faithful cover of the theme to the schools’ tv programme ‘My World’ provides some breathing space), but there are some really brilliantly conceived tracks here, especially the closing “Patricia’s Moving Picture”, and the immediately foregoing “Flashlight Fight”, with the almighty Chuck D in the Teammobile driving seat. You can’t argue with music as joyously inventive as this: The Go! Team are the best thing to happen to British music this century.

#27 Daphne Loves Derby, Good Night, Witness Light

Daphne Loves Derby are five eager-looking young whippersnappers from Kent, WA, home of the Oberto Sausage Company; produced by Matt Squire (who’s worked with Panic! at the Disco and Boys Like Girls among many others), Good Night Witness Light is their second album, and it’s just a complete pleasure from beginning to end. In fact the beginning is particularly strong: at under two minutes and with the kooky title “Are Two Chords Enough, Dear?”, it doesn’t seem to promise much, but in fact it’s one of the most brilliantly achieved openings to a record that I’ve heard in a long time: wide, measured, poised, totally captivating. They had me at hello, in other words, but though that may be the highlight, this is a consistently strong record throughout. Outstanding, or at least exemplary, tracks include the smoothly bracing “That’s Our Hero Shot” and the jampacked “Hello Color Red”: big guitars, supple songwriting, and harmony vocals stuck resolutely in thirds like Chang and Eng sing the Greatest Hits of the Everly Brothers. The band that Daphne Loves Derby remind me of most is, perhaps weirdly, Dada – or at least, their spanking debut Puzzle; weird because Dada in 1992 seems half a lifetime ago, I guess it almost is, and Good Night Witness Light sounds so new you might expect the cover art to still be wet. Certainly this will be way too vanilla for many Thompson’s readers, but if you’re fond of Dashboard Confessional or secretly attracted to the rockier end of McFly’s output or the most energised of Ben Lee’s songs, you’ve got a friend in Daphne Loves Derby.

#28 Dan Deacon, Spiderman of the Rings

Without wishing to blow my own trumpet – or, pace Axel Dorner, suck marzipan through it – I hope my kind reader will concede that the twenty-seven foregoing discs cover quite a bit of the waterfront between them. Not only am I at home to eclecticism and open-mindedness, but I have left the door on the latch and am awaiting them eagerly in my bedroom, wearing nothing but my special flamingo pants and my NHS corset. So, look, what am I saying?, I’m saying, I don’t often get to use the phrase “I’ve never heard anything like this in my life”. I’ve heard music performed by elephants and something called “The Secret Music of Plants”, I’ve heard Haydn played on car-horns and I’ve heard Leonard Nimoy sing “Both Sides Now”. To borrow a phrase, I’ve been done seen about everything. But I swear, I’ve never heard anything like Spiderman of the Rings in my life. Apparently Dan Deacon is at the centre of a Baltimore-based genre scene called ‘future shock’, which is not a bad place to begin the descriptions. This is frantic, hysterical, self-occluding electro, full of squealing and autoarpeggiating synths, upshifted vocals and unstable sawtooth bass. It’s very like being trapped in an ten-year-old boy’s head. (I expect.) Everything is tartrazine and cartoon piranhas and Domino Rally and boobies and The A-Team and dreams of exploding sisters, or the 2007 equivalent of those 1983 staples. “Pink Batman” is the complete works of Schubert supercondensed into a five-minute polyphonic ringtone; “The Crystal Cat” is a balls-out duet between a cattle auctioneer and a hacked security alarm; most triumphantly, “Wham City” sounds like a completely synthetic marching band forming in a petri dish in a deserted Japanese laboratory overnight before escaping to join a street parade for gay zoo animals (and possibly go on to take Tiger Mountain by strategy): a scenario that takes twelve minutes to unfold and wastes not a single second. This record is bonkers and magnificent and kind of scary and incredible and plain wrong and I love it.

#29 Ladybirds, Regional Community Theatre

A pause first of all to celebrate and applaud the efforts of the many mp3 bloggers by whom I have been introduced to a number of these artists and releases, which I otherwise certainly would have overlooked. Sadly I can’t remember who deserves the credit for making a fuss about the Ladybirds, but whoever it was, I’m totally grateful. This is just one of the many indie-inflected electropop records that caught my attentions this year, but one of the very few that also captured my heart. I guess that’s mostly down to the infectious personality that comes over in the Punky Brewster vocals of the gaily named Teeter Sperber. You’ll hear everything from the Human League to the Postal Service to Imogen Heap to Imperial Teen in this squiffymaking cocktail, and though Ladybirds just want to have fun, they’re not afraid to slow things down when the time is right, and not so high on the party snacks that they can’t wear their heart on their sleeve (provided it matches the rest of their accessories): I can imagine the penultimate track, “Cooper, Thanks for the Birds”, providing the sole impetus for a whole tearjerking two-part Dawson’s Creek reunion special. Which probably isn’t a good idea: but what great idea ever was? C’mon, the night is young, the boys are skinny and the punch is spiked: somebody turn up the Ladybirds.

#30 Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, The Zoo Is Far

Rich and strange and unfathomable, The Zoo is Far is the most beguiling of the year’s releases from ECM. Wallumrod is a fine, exacting pianist, but this is much more about his compositions for a quite remarkable ensemble of players, a sextet which includes the superbly accomplished trumpet player Arve Henriksen, though the point is an ensemble identity which overrides any individual salience. Among the qualities this gives rise to is a sometimes astonishing timbral coherence: Henriksen’s trumpet, Gjermund Larsen’s viola and Tanja Orning’s cello (and occasionally Wallumrod’s harmonium) frequently blending in a foggy mid-to-low register that gives a brooding tenor to many of these pieces. The centre shifts constantly between contemporary composition, baroque chamber music and European folk; you can tell that most of the players are from a jazz background, but there’s hardly a moment that smacks of jazz styling. Even the sketchiest of these pieces have a cogency and acuity that requires the listener to be fully absorbed – there are plenty of ECM albums that you could put on at a dinner party, but not this one. And that in the end is perhaps what distinguishes The Zoo is Far: its dense and intelligent movements demand such close attention that it is totally incompatible with anything other than stillness and curiosity. Not a solemn record, good fun in many ways: but serious, and all the better for it.


#31 Cornelius, Sensuous

Tokyo’s greatest contemporary musical genius, Cornelius produced one of the first bona fide masterpieces of the millennium in 2001’s extraordinary Point, a truly virtuosic exercise in almost pointillistic pop-electronica, building gorgeous immersive structures out of little isolated cells and samples, like a meticulous engineer able to get in four minutes flat from a vacant lot to a whole city (complete with green spaces and fully integrated transport system). Sensuous is his first new release, copious remixes aside, since then, and it too is a doozy: the only problem with it, really, is that it’s not Point, but it also doesn’t depart terribly far from the pattern of Point: the complex rhythms that initially appear lopsided until they’re properly filled in; the lyrics built out of single collaged words and phonemes; the occasional breaking waves of lush harmonic wash; in fact the most fully realised tracks, “Fit Song” and “Music”, feel like little more than remodels of the earlier “Point of View Point” and “Drop”. But that’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of surprises and much to amuse and engross. Certainly he covers a lot of ground: “Gum” is a cheerily raucous bit of synthetic Motorhead, complete with matching left and right Lemmybots; while “Like A Rolling Stone” (no, it’s not) could almost be Tomita, and closing track “Sleep Warm” turns the kitsch dial up so high it’s enough to make a baby unicorn barf a rainbow (barf a rainbow, barf a rainbow too). If you haven’t heard Cornelius, Sensuous is a perfectly good place to start, it’s basically a fantastic record; but if you have heard Cornelius before, you’ve pretty much already heard Sensuous.

#32 The Sea and Cake, Everybody

Ah, The Sea and Cake, my two favourite things to sit in front of and stare at while I ponder my own mortality. The band of that name have also, over the years, had quite a bit of my least focused attention: even in their earliest days, on their self-titled debut, they may have been loose-limbed but never scrappy, and their immensely likeable style has for the most part been lowkey and undemonstrative: and maybe in some ways that’s not such a good thing. It’s almost impossible not to drift off. Everybody is tight enough to bounce threepenny bits off, and it’s not undynamic in places, such as the slightly alarming cavalcade of low-end buzzing that is “Left On”, or the rather radio-friendly “Crossing Line”, and still there’s something diffuse about it: possibly it’s the unassertiveness of Sam Prekop’s vocals, possibly it’s the restrained and seamless field of guitars and John McEntire’s expert drums. What I love about this record, though, and about The Sea and Cake generally, is that you can keep going back, and it will never be less interesting than it was the time before. Tracks such as “Coconut” (I admit I was hoping against all reason that it might be a cover of the Harry Nilsson song) and the almost Can-like “Lightning” are so brilliantly made that their diffidence seems like an almost moving refusal of grandiosity or contrived drama. And ultimately it’s this confidence in the originary concepts of post-rock that makes Everybody so valuable.

#33 Happy Mondays, Uncle Dysfunktional

Oh Lordy it’s the Happy Mondays. What were the odds against this being a great record? I was never all that bothered about them twenty years ago when they were at their peak; why should I care about a comeback nobody asked for (except possibly Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs)? Well, because this turns out to be an amazingly loveable album. Baggy enough to three-point-turn an aircraft carrier around in, and with a blurry, dubby quality that, combined with Ryder’s characteristically behind-the-bikesheds nursery-rhyme lyrics, occasionally makes for rather a queasy listen, Uncle Dysfunktional nonetheless is full of a contagious esprit that probably only a band with Bez in it has any hope of achieving. The soundworld conjured by producer Sunny Levene has a lugubrious larkiness about it that perfectly matches the material, and Ryder’s vague, alternately insinuating and bellowing vocals must surely bring a smile to all but the po-est of faces (albeit this may be the first great album to have been recorded with the singer apparently having taken their teeth out since Margaret Barry’s Songs of an Irish Tinker Lady). The kind of record of which it can truly be said that the worst songs – the execrably named “Cuntry Disco” and “Anti Warhole on the Dancefloor” - are also actually kind of the best.

#34 Iron & Wine, The Shepherd's Dog

Probably I wasn’t listening closely enough, but nothing about Sam Beam’s classic second album as Iron & Wine, Our Endless Numbered Days (which contains in “Naked As We Came” one of the most goshdarned beautiful songs you’ll ever hear), or interim adventures such as the collaborations with Calexico (which incidentally produced, among other things, the best cover I’ve ever heard of the often-attempted “All Tomorrow’s Parties”), prepared me for The Shepherd’s Dog. The expansion of I&W’s palette and the increasing ambitiousness of the songwriting really are striking developments, all the more so given the critical acclaim and cult affections lavished on the previous album, which might have led a lesser talent than Beam to proceed with caution here. I would have to concede that I slightly miss the directness of that earlier material, but there are tracks on the new album, such as “Carousel” and the closing “Flightless Bird, American Mouth”, that satisfy and indeed overwhelm that desire while providing a supportive context for less immediately appealing songs like “House By The Sea”. Even so, there are two or three tracks here that I think I probably won’t ever be reconciled with: but if that’s the trade-off for having Beam extend himself so exemplarily, I’m fine with it.

#35 Adam Bohman + Roger Smith, Reality Fandango

An unexpected (by me, anyway) encounter between two significant figures from the London improvising scene. Roger Smith is, as I’ve said before on these pages, perhaps my favourite guitarist in this territory: the late Derek Bailey of course was, and remains, matchless, but if I’m reaching for a CD to put on, it’s more likely to be the mercurial, sometimes baffling, but always intensely fascinating Smith (whose previous solo and duo outings on Emanem are as highly recommended as anything on this consistently excellent label). Adam Bohman, meanwhile, is a familiar figure from the long-running series of gigs he has curated with his brother Jonathan (currently, encouragingly, as part of BAC’s regular programme), and from appearances with groups ranging from Morphogenesis to the London Improvisers’ Orchestra. Indeed he provided one of my live highlights of the year, a tiny gig in the Ray’s Jazz series at Foyle’s bookshop, in bewildering duet with my old CPT pal Patrizia Paolini. This disc is full of sensual pleasures of the most excruciating kind: convulsive, rebarbative, murky, abrasive: but also delicate, funny, and utterly true to itself. As the fine, almost incongruously elegant liner poetry by Elizabeth James has it: “you choose your friend / on the basis of interesting frictions” – which is a pretty good epigraph not only for this irresistible disc but for all productive artistic conversations, everywhere.

#36 Tunng, Good Arrows

Everything - or at least a lot of what – you need to know about this third album from Tunng, following the exquisite Comments of the Inner Chorus (which was #12 in last year’s fifty), is that the eleventh word sung on it is “A-woah”. That’s, “A-woah.” Or however you spell it. And you can’t blame a boy for being nervous about that. Readers two or three years older than me may still remember the first time they heard Jim Kerr produce the word “A-woah”, a chilling indication that stadium rock and marriage to Chrissie Hynde were just around the corner. Tunng may or may not be on that slippery slope but let’s just say this record could perhaps in time come to be seen as their New Gold Dream. We’re not in rustly snuffly alt.folk-land any more, we’re in plinky and perky leftfield rock territory: and all puritanical misgivings aside, good grief they’re good at it. You’re halfway through “Bricks” before you know quite what’s going on, but once you’re tuned in, Good Arrows quickly reveals itself a genuinely enjoyable and beautifully crafted set of eccentric / experimental pop songs which cram an incredible amount of detail and invention into three-minute capsules. This will almost certainly appeal to folks who still miss The Beta Band and Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci, though I suspect all of those folks know that already. Also, track three has the word “aorta” on it, that’s “aorta”, so maybe it’s not quite time for Tunng’s Breakfast Club close-up just yet.

#37 Fog, Ditherer

For the best part of a decade, Andrew Broder was alternately hailed and overlooked in his recording persona of Fog, with 2003’s Ether Teeth on Ninja Tune being perhaps the high water mark of that phase of his project, a deliciously strange and soupy mix of warped turntablism and docile acoustic jitters. But now, 2007-issue Fog is a three-piece rock band, and this, their first recorded dispatch, has been simultaneously hailed and overlooked, which I guess is a kind of progress. Ditherer feels like the culmination of a line Broder has been pursuing since his brilliant collaboration with Yoni Wolf as Hymie’s Basement in 2003: essentially, an awkward embrace of song forms as a way of pushing beyond the merely and mutely enigmatic into an acceptance of the expressive authority that songwriting can confer. This is music that can turn on a dime, angular and surprisingly proggy, full of augmented fourths and nicely inverted chords, but also breezy and luxurious when it wants to be: (just about) singalong choruses embedded in fraught and frangible blocks of texture. The drama of its quick-changes repeatedly punches way above the emotional weight of the lyrical surface. The overlong and underachieving “On the Gallows” is a rare misjudgement in an otherwise awesomely compelling album. If you ever wanted the Eagles to sound more like King Crimson and King Crimson to sound more like cLOUDDEAD, then welcome my friends to the show that never ends.

#38 Interpol, Our Love to Admire

A number of people, most memorably the Guardian’s poppet-in-chief Maddy Costa, tried to turn me on to Interpol while they were still cool, but to little avail. Nonetheless I thought I should have a go at Our Love to Admire and I’m as every bit as impressed with it as many of the band’s diehard fans seem to be disgruntled. This is clearly a rather predictable shift widescreenwards for the band, the album is positively refulgent with money and capital-L legitimacy; one online reviewer is beside himself with indignation at the appearance of an oboe at one point. Well, so it goes. What I think works for me about this record in a way that their previous stuff hasn’t so much is exactly the resounding depth of the production, which sets Paul Banks’s bitter-edged vocals on top of some notably vast and tremulous spaces, giving rise to an impression that the songwriting – its melodic lines in particular – amply bears out: that the tradition in which Interpol sit is not that of their heroes Joy Division but that of the great Spector girl bands, the Crystals and the Ronettes. (Listen past the guitars to the drums, the percussion, the piano, the backing vocals at various points.) I think it could be argued that Our Love to Admire never quite reapproaches the heights of its stunning opening track, “Pioneer to the Falls”, though almost everything here is truly convincing. It’s not the kind of record you get unspeakably excited about, and I won’t be becoming an Interpol proselyte, but nor is this a band I’ll be quickly taking my eye off in future.

#39 Just Jack, Overtones

Such was the amount of airplay it seemed to be getting back at the start of the year, you may have found that there was a gap of maybe forty-five minutes between hearing Just Jack’s indelibly catchy “Starz in their Eyes” single for the first time and quite liking it, and hearing it for the seventh time and wanting to kill yourself with a well-placed hammer blow to the tune-storing lobe of your brain. After a while it’s incredibly difficult to hear what’s actually going on in a ubiquitous track like that. But it would be a pity if, as a consequence, anybody was put off lending an ear to this terrific album. Jack Allsopp has very considerable gifts as a lyricist, his nicely ramshackle rap style drizzling quirky streets-of-LDN observations and chirpy puns over some very likeable dance tracks, from the laidback shuffle of “Glory Days” (“Stop at the caff, coffee and a salt beef bagel / Yeah I know I’m caned but now I’m feeling able” just about sums it up) to the lite-ish garage of “Life Stories”. Better get to it quickly, though: this is the kind of super-fresh record that goes off quickly and in two or three years its soft-shoe cool may well sound as dated as Matt Bianco. But from now until its use-by date, genuinely smart stuff.

#40 The Bird and the Bee, The Bird and the Bee

Also from the start of the year, and also as fresh as a 6 a.m. daisy, this terrifically slinky record came out on Blue Note, which naturally led one to expect a jazzier affair than this turned out to be. There are some lovely harmonies here and the arrangements are breezily sophisticated but the contexts in which these set the pure and limpid vocals of Inara George are as likely to call to mind Natalie Imbruglia as, say, Astrud Gilberto – though closer correspondences would be to Laetitia Sadier, or Anja Garbarek, perhaps, or Regina Janssen (of Donna Regina), all of whom bring a distinctly indie sensibility to everything they do. In part it’s all a big dressing-up game: as you listen you’ll see flashes of Audrey Hepburn or Brigitte Bardot or Giulietta Masina or Goldie Hawn, you’ll be in Cannes or Tokyo or Manhattan (though B&B themselves seem to be LA through and through)... So the worst I can say about this record (and Lord knows I try) is that it comes across as confectionery of the most Wonkatastically artificial kind. But, as you know, Augustus and Gloop are my middle names, and there’s little point in trying to resist songs as fetching as “I Hate Camera” and the coquettishly poised “Fucking Boyfriend”. Charmed, I’m absolutely sure: and any album with a song that depicts pigs eating popcorn is a friend of mine.


#41 Gravenhurst, The Western Lands

Every so often I become convinced, just for a few minutes, that I went to school with Gravenhurst’s prime mover (and my fellow Bristolian) Nick Talbot, though there’s no evidence to suggest that I did, and plenty of reason to suspect otherwise. In fact there’s a lot about Talbot I’m not sure of, including some of the opinions he expresses on his blog, and quite a bit of his odd writing project Ultraskull. But of this we can be certain: Gravenhurst’s fifth album is fine work indeed. I’ve been listening closely since their early Flashlight Seasons, which I bought on the strength of its cover alone; and on the whole I’ve liked the way that over time the slightly sour, Ballardian tinge to the lyrical content has gradually soaked through the tones and instrumental arrangements of the songs, giving the sound an appreciably more serrated edge at times on the recent records. The Western Lands is a pretty sombre affair, but Talbot’s an incorrigible melody maker and delicate tracks such as “Song Among the Pine” and opener “Saints” create a remarkable sense of scale and locality that make this a richly appealing listen with occasional and by no means unwelcome redolences of Low, say, or classic Durutti Column.

#42 Do Make Say Think, You, You're a History in Rust

Toronto’s Do Make Say Think have been around for over a decade and sort of on my radar for much of that period, but this is the first time I’ve paid much attention to them: which I regret partly because, on this evidence at least, they’re a terrific band, and partly because the worst thing one can say about this album is that at moments the instrumental palette, and the organization of its recording, seems slightly old-fashioned or over-familiar: no fan of mid/late 90s classics such as Tortoise’s Millions Now Living... or David Grubbs’s The Thicket will feel estranged from the warm and plashy soundworld that the record wraps itself in: so I kind of wish I’d been listening to them as they first emerged, when post-rock maybe wouldn’t have felt so pre-something else. But there’s something so adroit about what DMST make that these quibbles reflect more on me than them. In particular, the relative distinction of having two drummers in the line-up works beautifully, both dynamically and structurally: the band as a whole is able to throw more ambitious shapes as a result -- though the gorgeous closer, ‘In Mind’, is so good-natured that their technical skill as players could easily be mistaken for a happy irrelevance.

#43 Dntel, Dumb Luck

Jimmy Tamborello is probably best known as half of The Postal Service, but his longer-standing project is as Dntel. Dumb Luck is Dntel’s first album for Sub Pop and it sounds kind of like a Postal Service album that’s accidentally been left in a trouser pocket and gone through the laundry: plangent melodies and airy vocals coming in and out of focus in a complicated ambience of electronic jitters and samples that seem to have been phoned in to the studio using two yogurt pots and a length of string. Each track apart from the first has its own guest vocalist and becomes a sort of de facto portrait of that voice and the textures and timbres that will set it off to its best advantage: sines and squelches and an approximation of ring modulation for Lali Puna on “I’d Like to Know”; a pixellated creche mobile with Pigs in Space detailing for Fog’s Andrew Broder on “Natural Resources”; warping 1970s motel muzak for Conor Oberst. Very occasionally there is a fussiness to these environments that can make it hard to relax altogether in Dntel’s company, but if the alternative to fussiness is being classified as ‘chillout’ and ending up on the soundtrack of a mobile phone advert, then fair play to all concerned.

#44 Eddie Vedder, Into the Wild

It probably goes without saying that this has been two different albums to me: the one that I listened to with interest on its own terms before I saw the movie that these songs accompany, and the one that I now hear which has a whole bunch of different images laid over its moments. It’s difficult to know in which of these lights to try to assess the disc, but it holds up extremely well in either case. Vedder’s yawp, and the constellation of values and commitments which we fancy we can hear encoded in its increasingly distinct fractions, makes him the perfect fit for the movie, and he cleverly mirrors the radical downsizing with which the narrative of the film is concerned in the strip-down of his sound: he’s here with a small band at most, campfire banjos and mandolins much to the fore. But there is an arresting cogency and condensation to these songs, which combined with the slightly coarser edge to Vedder’s current voice makes him sound like he really means business in a way that I haven’t heard in him since No Code. I’d have liked to hear an album that combined these songs (which barely add up to half an hour’s play-time) with Michael Brook’s music for the film, but Vedder nonetheless evidently has a sure sense of the heart of the movie and is commendably able to match in this set the candour and integrity of its best moments.

#45 Black Moth Super Rainbow, Dandelion Gum

Labels are for Heinz cans, not music. Right on. But... Bucolic squelchtronica, anyone? ...Yeah, maybe not. But I’m not quite sure how else to describe this incredible record. It’s sort of ‘Stoned Soul Picnic’ and Minnie Riperton’s ‘Les Fleur’ and Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’ and Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works vol.2 all melted down for glue, which a little barefoot kid in smiley-face dungarees then uses to make a scrunched-up-tissue-paper collage of a bunch of magic animals in a safari park on the longest day of the year. While the Heat Ray from Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds shrieks “Ulla!” in the background. This is a seriously sticky, gloopy, lazy-ass record, blurrily conceived in a warm haze of electronics as fuzzy as a bumblebee’s ‘fro. The vocals are so vocoded they make 'Believe'-era Cher sound like Kathleen Ferrier, the mellotron is set if not to ‘stun’ then certainly to ‘stupefy’, the synths are so analogue they’re practically running off punch-cards. The songs are called “Neon Syrup For The Cemetery Sisters” and “The Afternoon Turns Pink” and the lyrics are almost exclusively about sunshine, flowers, and combinations of all two. The vaguely perky beats are so irrelevant it’s almost absurd. Don’t quote me but I think it’s possible somebody involved in this band may at some point have taken controlled substances. I couldn’t listen to it every day but right now, at the point of the year remotest from the mere prospect of a lost summer’s afternoon in a secret field with ginger beer and sensimilla and squirrels and half-naked people of no gender whatsoever lolling about me on all sides, it’s completely invaluable. Oh, jeez, I want a Mivvi now.

#46 Minus the Bear, Planet of Ice

This is my first encounter with Seattle indie band Minus the Bear and I wouldn’t say my world is turned upside down by it but it’s a really nice listen. It manages to be busy, or restless anyway, while seeming to have no particular place to go, and that’s quite an appealing combination; it’s broad rather than deep but repeat plays yield numerous instances of nuance and fine-tuning that may not be instantly apparent – and the appeal to a listening relationship rather than a sensational one-night stand is attractive, charming almost. It’s hard to know what’s feeding into them as a band: at times they sound like they’re tidying up some pretty out-there inclinations to get them fit for radio play; but at the same time, a track like ‘White Mystery’ suggests Minus the Bear could almost be the Steely Dan of leftfield rock, while ‘Part 2’ nods towards post-credible Pink Floyd. (Neither of these are the out-and-out negatives I might be making them sound.) I suspect it may be necessary to hear them live to place them accurately, but in the meantime Planet of Ice is smart and skilful and, in its best moments, pretty sublime.

#47 Fridge, The Sun

Fridge is, in some quarters at least, a near-legendary band, given that its members include Kieran Hebden (Four Tet) and Adem, both of whom had solo releases in last year’s fifty: and your correspondent having assumed that the band as an entity were on a terminal break, news of The Sun was excitedly received at Thompson’s HQ at least. As it goes, the album doesn’t so much match or miss those expectations as evade them altogether: its immensely likeable, freewheeling personality is so cheerfully devoid of apparent ambition or focus that to judge it at all would be to grab the wrong end of an acutely thrown stick. The opening title-track is a case in point, a ramshackle jam in which funky rehearsal-room drums and percussion are twinned with a weedy swannee-whistle motif: it bounces along happily and heartily until you’re three minutes older, and then it’s time for something else. It’s the longer tracks that impress more: the build on ‘Clocks’ is pretty captivating; raggedy ‘Oram’ pulls itself together into a kind of Sarah-records gamelan texture which then gets comprehensively smashed like a pinata. And the boys have an unbelievable talent for texture, as evidenced by the plangent, slightly overripe ‘Comets’ and the surprisingly controlled closer ‘Years and Years and Years’, which fills out its stereo field like David Beckham fills his Armani pants. The Sun is a delight and a doodle-pad; a sweet nothing.

#48 Hauschka, Room to Expand

Volker Bertelmann has been making really cute music as Hauschka for some years now, based around the multitracking of little looping melodic cells; starting with The Prepared Piano in 2005, he’s also been using preparations – various bits of gubbins inserted into the business region of the piano so as to alter the sounds produced by the striking of the strings – to broaden the available tonal lexicon. As you might expect from its title, Room to Expand widens Hauschka’s focus still further, with strings, woodwinds and brass added (still sparingly) to the mix, and what this sacrifices in terms of distinctiveness and the creative benefits of constraint is more than compensated for by the new textures thrown up and the ways in which those additional elements become temporary frames that change the way you hear the piano itself. This is modest music, engrossingly detailed (especially to a pianist manqué like your host), occasionally a little twee perhaps: the build on the robust ‘Sweet Spring Come’, achieved with sustained glissandi directly on the piano strings, is a rare moment of lift-off; the pleasant Penguin Cafe pottering of ‘La Dilettante’ is closer to the mean. But as a gentle Sunday morning album, Room to Expand is utterly lovely: if your toes are in any way twitchable, Hauschka gonna find you out.

#49 Fennesz/Sakamoto, Cendre

On paper, this first studio encounter (following a live EP a couple of years ago) between idm pioneer Christian Fennesz and revered pop experimentalist Ryuichi Sakamoto looked as tantalising as Al Pacino finally sharing screentime with Robert deNiro in Heat. I suppose the match isn’t quite so glaringly obvious as that: though separated by only ten years, the two men belong to different musical generations and operate on somewhat different wavelengths. But nonetheless, these guys are just about as good as it gets. What else could Cendre do but disappoint? Well, the answer is, actually, impress a fair bit too. It is for the most part a cautious meeting, with both parties on restrained form and generally occupying familiar territory. There is something oddly jarring, especially initially, about the parched, granular surface of Fennesz’s constructed fields meeting the chic, resonant interventions of Sakamoto’s piano — not for the first time, he sounds as if he’s playing in Debussy’s ‘Cathédrale Engloutie’, half a world (and several inches of loft insulation) away from the low-fidelity fissures and vaguely industrial texturings in which Fennesz places him. But the coupling does, in the end, persuade, and more than persuade: which is a measure of the acute sensitivity of both musicians and their absolute understanding of each other’s worlds. Yes, too often it sounds like the soundtrack to a French perfume ad; it could use more variation, more risk-taking, more irreverence even. But on tracks like ‘Haru’ and ‘Cendre’ the sage listener will stop quibbling and let herself simply be bowled over by these two superb musicians and the seductiveness of their gently insinuating propositions.

#50 Cartel, Cartel

Promise me you’ll try not to think about all the great artists — Robert Wyatt, Thurston Moore, Bjork... — for whom I haven’t made room in the Furtive 50, while I try to explain my enthusiastic decision to accommodate this punky-with-a-capital-S quintet of American moppets. Everything about this record is as fresh as the moment when the pod went pop: it’s as if Alvin & the Chipmunks’ testicles descended three days ago, they all bought guitars two days ago, they got a record deal and a haircut yesterday, and today they’ve got a song on whatever’s replaced The OC on T4. Tomorrow Bob Lamb will be moaning their names in his sleep. Damn, it’s glorious. Though not everything reaches the heights of ‘Lose It’ or ‘Wasted’, there isn’t a duff track on the album: which is remarkable not least because it was made in twenty days flat as part of an MTV reality show that required the band to live in a bubble, which has garnered them much attention, much of it every bit as opprobrious as you’d imagine. The important thing is to not go looking for a picture of Cartel, because they turn out not to look like McFly’s bad-ass cousins from the wrong side of town; in fact, weirdly, they look like a jazz-rock outfit that was hastily assembled in the dark according to the results of a tombola. No matter: everything about their album is smooth and tight and air-humpingly vigilant. Cartel may yet bestride the world like Colossi; in the meantime, I listen to this album when I’m at the shops, and it makes me want to buy vodka and salad, and that’s good enough for me.