#1 Christopher Willits, Surf Boundaries
So here we are. I know what you're thinking, because I keep thinking it too. "O! Controlling Thompson," I hear you moan, your eyes rolling back a little -- which is intended to signal exasperation but you and I both know there's an erotic frisson in there too, don't deny it, this thing is stronger than both of us -- "O! Controlling T., you big shaggy old thing you," you whisper, "come here and tell me why Surf Boundaries, this 37-minute solo album by the relatively little-known young San Fransisco musician Christopher Willits, is your choice for the best record of last year, before I come over there and make you tell me." It does seem, it has seemed all along, a bit unexpected, and I keep checking back to make sure I still think it's so: and, gosh willerkins, I always do. Willits, who has collaborated with Kid 606 and Ryuichi Sakamoto (among many others) and studied with Fred Frith and Pauline Oliveros, is the kind of multi-instrumentalist for whom perhaps the most important instrument of all is the studio. By which I mean, I suppose, the imaginary space in which so much recorded music is now not only created but conceived. There are moments where this album is particularly redolent of some of the other artists who I'd say were great studio navigators -- Cornelius being one, Fennesz another, Nobukazu Takemura a third -- and it's at its best when it's at its most confident and daring in its rebuilding of the conceptual studio space in media res, like a Michel Gondry video. There are other interesting invocations, not least the very opening of the album, which sounds very like a layering of Jon Hassell lines (from around the time of his contributions to David Sylvian's Brilliant Trees, say) -- it could well be Hassell, live or sampled, or perhaps it's nothing of the sort, I don't know, this is one album I wish I hadn't downloaded, the sleeve info would be helpful. After that, it's a remarkable mix of glitch and post-rock, with harmonies (and especially vocal harmonies) straight out of the Singers Unlimited back catalogue. The stacked vocals, breathily attractive and slightly out of focus in a way that recalls My Bloody Valentine, are an immensely appealing part of the mix, but not least because they're used only sporadically. More than any of these 50 albums, I find I'm commenting on Surf Boundaries in terms of the other things it sounds like: which might be laziness on my part or a bad sign on Willits's. I think it's -- modesty permitting -- neither of those things, but merely an index of the immensely capable way in which Willits is here summarising, almost diaristically, the composition of a particular imagination under the influence of something close to a glut of other signatures. In other words, this is a progressive-feeling synthesis of digital intertextualities and authentic analogue gestures: which is what we all are, at our best. So it is possible to find this album literally friendly, in ways that are not about the reassuring connotations of its tonality or its 'accessibility', but about how our skills as friends are about mirroring and affinity and at the same time about innovation and extroversion. Nothing sounds more like this than the ravishing "Yellow Spring", in which a fleet John McEntire-like drum exhibition uplifts an enormous dirigible confection of fudge-thick Madison Avenue vocals, swooping techno synth, insouciant percussion and all manner of rigorous instrumental ballast. It is totally captivating, indeed almost kidnapping, and immensely odd in that it sounds boy-next-door familiar (in all the respects that I've itemised) and yet it's actually like nothing I've ever heard. Many of the pleasures I've identified further down the 50 could be attained some other way: going to the movies, steeplechasing, sharing a watermelon with an old girlfriend, sharpening a pencil with a knife, vomiting while drunk, going to the movies twice in one day. The only way to enjoy what Surf Boundaries has to offer you is to listen, fully and in guileless anticipation of the rapturous pleasure that it has in mind for you. The thing has yet to be invented that could be named after Christopher Willits, but I think it would be a cross between a monkey and a sorbet, and it would come with a little bicycle bell. "O!", I hear you sob again, saucily unbuttoning your cardigan and looking very lovely in the damned moonlight: "O, that Christopher Willits." Bliss out.
#2 Hans Appelqvist, Naima
I raved earlier in the year about Appelqvist's Bremort, and this newest album from the composer and instrumentalist (who Hapna seem to be trying to turn into some kind of posterchild) occupies a similar, if less clearly filmic or narrative, territory: instrumental music somewhere in the dance-folk-classical-electronica-soundtracks midzone; field recordings and voice fragments; sound effects and a myriad of processed and invented tones. It sounds in description less extraordinary than it sounds in reception: though in many ways it sounds curiously ordinary at a musical level. The riffs and jingles that Appelqvist weaves together could often be the themes to cookery programmes on obscure cable channels, or tunes that might go round the head of a Swedish postman as he makes his deliveries, or cuts that never quite made it on to a Penguin Cafe Orchestra album or into a volume of Grieg's Lyric Pieces because they weren't quite rock'n'roll enough. But it's the world that Appelqvist creates around this often ingenuous music, and the tensions with which he circumstantially loads it, that make his work so distinctive and impressive. The only resemblance I can (sensibly) think to suggest is with Fischli & Weiss, whose retrospective show at Tate Modern was one of the big hits of last year -- certainly the British exhibition most frequently chosen by contributors to the review of 2006 in last month's Artforum. I never got around to writing here about their show, perhaps because I felt a little ambivalent and couldn't quite untie my own thoughts: though I think the short version is that I'm feeling a little tired of art that finds beauty in the 'mundane' and the 'everyday' (I'm putting those words in quotes so that you imagine some mewing curator saying them at a dinner party.) In 2007 I'd like -- please -- more art that finds beauty in the exceptional and the startling. But I loved, unreservedly, F&W's Der Lauf der Dinge and, more even than that, their Quiet Afternoon series, which achieves the most radical rewiring of still life imaging since Braque. Household objects -- carrots, bottles, cutlery, utensils -- are photographed in almost impossibly balanced equipoise, at the moment just before the sculptures collapse; it's an entirely different way of organising the composition of a picture around the physical interrelations of unrelated objects -- in other words, only secondarily around formal or aesthetic pressures. So: back to Appelqvist, who takes the 'mundane' songs from the AM radio or the ad-break or the dance class, and the 'everyday' sounds of domestic and town life unfolding on its own terms, and allows them to describe their own relationships in a genuinely fresh and fascinating way. There is immense wit here -- wit in a slapstick, Woody Allen way: 'Underbar jag var annu', for eaxmple is a Mariah Carey song suddenly invaded by Baader Meinhof action figures; but also in a delightful Jane Austen way: the personal dramas of 'http://www.naimachat.se', a finger-ballet set to the sounds of a slightly recalcitrant personal computer, conjure the funniest piece of music I've heard since Yuri Khanin's Five Smallest Orgasms. I slightly miss the really strong sense both of place and character that Appelqvist achieved in Bremort but this album will obviously do much to boost his emerging reputation as one of the most deft and original recording artists around.
#3 Lily Allen, Alright Still
Never has an explanatory text been more supererogatory. Lily Allen's licketyspit hurtle to prominence was self-evidently one of the more appealing licketyspit hurtles to claim a gentleman's attention in 2006. But what not everyone has figured out yet, even going by the standards of immensely accomplished radio-friendly cuts like "LDN" and "Littlest Things", is that Allen is -- especially in collaboration with the excellent Future Cut -- a brilliant and, on this evidence, visionary songwriter. (The number of brownie points you get for rhyming "Kate Moss" with "weight loss" are most tidily expressed in scientific notation.) She has a gift for the telling detail, both lyrically and musically, and her vocal stylings are disarming in their balance of a diamond edge and a quaintly lackadaisical quality. For anyone to have survived the parenting, even in absentia, of both Keith Allen and Harry Enfield, is exceptional enough; to go on to secure the antipathy of Bob Geldof and the affections of Tom Raworth is a tall order indeed. Best of all, she has the smarts and the self-possession to ride out this year's inevitable backlash and is therefore on course to become a national living treasure round about summer 2009. Alright Still is a truly lovely album: warm, sardonic, intelligent, sappy, not a little cruel. May the road rise with her.
#4 Make Believe, Of Course
It was the Ohio-based weather system and range of powertools they call jUStin!katKO (no mean noisemaker neither, he) who turned me on to the Chicago band Make Believe -- who are also, to all intense sand purposes, the Chicago band Joan of Arc. What Make Believe have, though, is the kind of edge from which you could easily (and perhaps quite willingly) sustain a life-threatening papercut. If I had to nominate the single best use of the electric guitar in the world last year -- and this is certainly a crowded category, given that, my informants tell me, the electric guitar is becoming quite popular among the young folks -- it would be the opening track on this, their second album: "A Song About Camping" is as exciting an indie rock song as I've heard since the heydays of Slanted and Enchanted or whatever it was the Beatnik Filmstars were always on about. In fact the sound of Make Believe is way more fantastically serrated than either of those, with multiple (and unimpeachably melodic) guitar lines cutting against each other in such a way as to suggest that when Make Believe really do go camping the fires are started by rubbing lengths of barbed wire together. Tim Kinsella has -- when he really digs in -- a sensational voice, which he frequently manages to make sound electrically pure and mechanically abrasive in the same arching gesture. There's a more disconcertingly unnerving thing they do, on songs like "Political Mysticism", allowing a determinedly prosaic lyric on an obscure topic (in this case, "the British Calendar Act of 1751") to describe a melody line that both acknowledges and disobeys the conventional architectures of pop-rock phrasing: it's effectually unnerving anyway, but disconcerting because the only other band I've ever heard do this (& make such a big thing out of it) are Pence Eleven -- and sounding kind of like Pence Eleven is akin to finding a crisp that looks kind of like Elaine Paige. And yet you can nearly dance -- quite ecstatically -- to "Pat Tillman, Emmett Till". Provided of course that you have one leg shorter than the other. And also another leg. And you are, in fact, falling out of an aeroplane.
#5 Robin Williamson, The Iron Stone
So, this will be a shock to those of you who peeked askance at my notes and thought there was a Robbie Williams album in the Top 10. ...Actually, Rudebox is a completely extraordinary album which completely refuses all attempts at assessment. I am prepared to say that it is probably bobbins, but there is something very interesting going on in it, that's for sure, in a "In case of emergency break glass" kind of way. -- Arguably, though, The Iron Stone is even weirder. ...Or wyrder? Twistier and turnier than anything else this past year, that's for sure. Here's what we're talking about: the 63-year-old founding member of the near-legendary (and increasingly influential) Incredible String Band, in consort with jazz lumins such as bassist Barre Phillips and Mat Maneri on viola, recorded with typical care and clarity by Manfred Eicher for ECM. Folksongs, stories, improvisations: from the two-millimetres-left-of-risible opening tale of "The Climber" ("Three brothers / In the land of the great mountains", one of whom "obtains a rope of moonlight" with which to climb through the clouds...) -- told with great understated drama and precision by Williamson but a heck of a wrongfooter if you're not expecting it; to the terrifically gripping account of the traditional Scottish ballad "Sir Patrick Spens"; to the searching, unsettled spontaneous composition "There Is A Music"; to the affecting, devotional-humanist meditation "To God In God's Absence", one of the album's more understated highlights. I often feel a bit bothered by the lack of crossover between free improvised music (in this country at least) and the folk tradition -- which is, or at any rate contains, after all, an equally radical improvising practice. The situation of music in between these two modes is anomalous, which is sad not least because it tends to work marvellously well: as evidence of which, seek out my friend Susanna Ferrar's daringly poised and inexhaustible album A Boy Leaves Home; or the Solo Bagpipes albums of Paul Dunmall (who has played with Williamson) -- the first of which is probably the record I've played and enjoyed most this year, and deserves mention for that in spite of the tyranny of the new that I'm stoking in this exercise. At any rate, Williamson's new album is peculiar and sometimes extremely vulnerable (all of which of course I greatly applaud), but it is also credible and compelling -- where lesser figures attempting similar manoeuvres would induce mirth and probably derision. It expects, but does not demand, close and intelligent listening, and rewards but does not repay it. In other words, it is, as the blurb -- presumably Anthony Barnett's -- to the original Agneau 2 edition of J.H. Prynne's Poems had it: "expensive of attention and persistence." A genuinely worthwhile recording, genuinely exploratory and creative, with not a quarter-second of triviality or pretentiousness anywhere in its grounds.