The Null Device
And as another year comes to an end, here is the obligatory list of records of 2010. Note that this time, the word "record" has been interpreted somewhat more liberally; as well as the usual CDs and occasional 7", some of the entries here are digital-only releases, and some were (and are) free to download. (The Null Device is not a rockist institution; we do not privilege traditional media or models of recorded music distribution for their own sake.) In any case, all of them were worthy of notice in 2010. And the records are, in alphabetical order:
- Betty And The Werewolves, Teatime Favourites
Arguably this generation's heirs to Tallulah Gosh and/or Lush, Betty And The Werewolves are a four-piece London band, who combine a punky garage-pop sound, sweet-but-not-too-sweet vocal harmonies and inspirations from classic romantic literature. They have had a number of singles out, and finally have released their début album; it's all pretty solid, and contains some standout tracks (Good As Gold, a slice of classic indiepop driven by a Be-My-Baby drumbeat, vocal harmonies, skronky guitars and almost psychedelic Casiotone filigree, and the hauntingly lovely closing track Hyacinth Girl are two which come to mind).
- Crocodiles, Sleep Forever
A new American band who channel Neu!, Suicide, the Stone Roses and the Jesus and Mary Chain in equal parts (along with a lot of 60s garage rock, I'm told), and do so well. The album hits the spots that The Horrors didn't; from the opening track (with its motorik beat and bassline, explosions of guitar noise and Roses-ish vocal melody soaring nonchalantly above it), through garage fuzz and reverb-drenched pop (Girl In Black sounds somewhere between a 1960s love ballad and the Mary Chain's Some Candy Talking), until the triumphantly defiant closer (All My Hate And My Hexes Are For You, which sounds like South Ambulance's Die 5times Times5 would have had the Stone Roses written it first). If you like London-based Brazilian psych-rock combo The Tamborines, you'll like Crocodiles.
- The Electric Pop Group, Seconds, and The Radio Dept., Clinging To A Scheme
Two Swedish indie-pop who bands who graced us with followup albums this year. Gothenburg's The Electric Pop Group's second album is, much as their self-titled first album and intervening EP, a janglepopfest that wouldn't have been out of place on Sarah Records. Don't expect radical experimentalism from these guys, but they do what they do very well. Stockholm's Radio Dept., however, depart a bit more from the mildly shoegazey indiepop of their first two albums, straying a little into the Balearic territory that the Swedes have recently made their own; there are more loops, house pianos and pulsing synths here, though the band's wistful, slightly melancholic voice still comes through.
- Heligoland, All Your Ships Are White
Produced by Robin Guthrie, and his trademark style fits nicely with Heligoland's sound, gilding its edges in a fine filigree of shimmering guitar ambience. Heligoland's records have been getting less languid as the band got more comfortable with the idea of rocking; if you imagine Heligoland's previous albums combined with Guthrie's solo output (such as Carousel or the Mysterious Skin soundtrack), you'll probably have a good idea of what to expect.
- Hong Kong In The 60s, Places
Hong Kong In The 60s are going places; earlier this year, they had a split single on Ghost Box's Study Series. They followed this up with an instrumental mini-album, Places, which they made available as a free download from their BandCamp page. Places is an intricately arranged and evocative piece of contemporary hauntological library pop, evoking old instructional films and unreliable travelogues, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, giallo soundtracks and early OMD/Human League. Download this, listen to it on repeat and line up to buy their (non-instrumental) début album which comes out some time in 2011.
- Memoryhouse, The Years EP, and Tamaryn, The Waves
I chose to write these two releases up as one entry because, despite the acts being unconnected, they can be seen as two sides of a coin. Both bands are within the realm of shoegaze/dreampop as it stands today, though cover different aspects of it. Memoryhouse is a Canadian duo consisting of a classically-trained instrumentalist and a singer who also takes moody-looking photographs (they also have a photo book/CD-R titled Choir of Empty Rooms out); they cover the more floaty, æthereal end, somewhere between early Piano Magic, Slowdive's Five EP, This Mortal Coil's first album and a more shoegazey Azure Ray. Their first EP, The Years, is available as a free download, and may be downloaded from here, and consists of four tracks, combining reverb-drenched shoegazey ambience, hints of alt-country, and layered electronic loops and samples. There are other Memoryhouse MP3s floating around the blogs, which are well worth tracking around; I particularly recommend Lately (Troisième), an even more æthereal alternate version of a track from The Years.
Tamaryn, meanwhile, is a duo from San Francisco, fronted by the eponymous singer from New Zealand, and cover the grittier, fuzzier end of the shoegaze spectrum, sounding somewhere between early Lush and MBV, with hints of Kiss Me-period Cure and the Cocteau Twins (the latter particularly on Sandstone, a track which did the rounds of the MP3 blogs earlier this year). There are walls of fuzzy guitars and layers of reverbed texture, but they're underpinned by drums and driving baselines that keep it from floating away into the æther.
- Ninetynine, Bande Magnétique
The name suggests a homage to PIL's Metal Box, only this isn't the case, as this record is not actually available on magnetic tape; you can buy it on CD, or download the MP3s for free from the band's BandCamp page. In any case, it's a fine return to form; the songwriting is strong, and Ninetynine's characteristic angular-yet-melodic sound (Casiotone keyboards, chromatic percussion and skronky guitars all feature here, as you'd expect) is complemented with string arrangements, which work quite well. This is probably the last Ninetynine album for a while, though Laura is pursuing other musical projects.
- The Paradise Motel, Australian Ghost Story
The Paradise Motel were one of my favourite bands some 13 years earlier, with their sparse, haunting sound and Tasmanian Gothic (not to be confused with Goth) aesthetic; their songs were like faded postcards from lost people, the handwriting on the back hinting at tragic fates. Now, a decade after breaking up in London, the Motel reunited for a comeback (with a few new members; bassist Matt Bailey parted ways with the band a long time ago, drumming duties are now fulfilled by fellow Hobartian expat Andy Hazel, while frontwoman Merida remains based in London, collaborating with the rest of the band remotely). Their comeback album is a concept album about the disappearance of Azaria Chamberlain, a subject that's not far out of character for the band. Musically, it's not as sparse as the early EPs, and there's less distortion than in Still Life, but the elements are there: the Hammond, the twin guitars and Matt Aulich's string arrangements.
- Zola Jesus Stridulum EP
Zola Jesus is Nika Roza Danilova, a young woman from Wisconsin via L.A., with a remarkably powerful voice; and in her musical guise, she channels the electronic end of 1980s Goth (think Lene Lovich), and does it well. Stridulum is a six-track EP. It's very much in a minor-key gothic synthpop vein, and very listenable.
If I had to choose a record of the year, it'd probably be Betty And The Werewolves.