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And now, as usual, here is my annual list of records of the year:
Melbourne's Aleks and the Ramps have made a career just on the music side of the border between music and comedy, being a bit like a Doug Anthony Allstars with a stronger focus on musical composition and arrangement. Facts, their first record in three years (and their first since the departure of Janita Foley) follows in this. It sounds slightly smoother and more polished, with layers of shimmering keyboards, guitars (ranging from languid slide to funky African grooves and the odd crunchy power chord), the odd banjo and ooh-aah backing vocals forming pop melodies that reach an almost loungey smoothness at times, serving as a bed for Aleks' laconic, deadpan croon, delivering a continuous stream of zingers like “it's hard to breathe in the back of a horse costume, or pay attention to the tension in the room”, “now he never leaves the house looking less than presidential, as he studies all the bridges for their suicide potential”, and “meanwhile back on the Serengeti, my shirt's still smelling all cigarettey". I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Tigercats.
With Bloom, Beach House have transitioned to being the closest thing to a Cocteau Twins for the 2010s; they're different, of course (the guitar work doesn't sound quite like Robin Guthrie's, and the vocals are in comprehensible English), but subjectively, the experience of listening to Bloom is like that of hearing the Cocteaus' Victorialand was; the way that the songs come together, build up and envelop the listener. Beach House's previous albums didn't quite gel for me, but this is the one where it all comes together.
The latest from the San Diego garage-rock classicists, Endless Flowers; it's somewhat more light-hearted than the Dionysiac/Baudelarian darkness of their previous works, perhaps due to happy romantic circumstances in the frontman and songwriter Brandon Welchez' life; No Black Clouds For Dee Dee certainly appears to be dedicated to his new wife, Dee Dee from NYC86ists the Dum Dum Girls. Nonetheless, the Crocodiles do a certain kind of studied yet louche underground rock'n'roll really well, and got quite a few spins where I am. Highlights would include Electric Death Song, Sunday (Psychic Conversation #9) and Hung Up On A Flower, a paean to narcotic languor which ends with the drummer reciting poetry in German through a Space Echo.
Two quite different records with a few common themes running through them. Both are predominantly electronic, albeit in different fashions; the warm analogue radiophonica of the ERC contrasting with the icy autotuned crispness of Purity Ring. Both have a connection to the eldritch; 1612 Overture is a concept album about the Pendle witch trials, juxtaposing those with the inequities of Cameron/Clegg Austerity Britain, while Purity Ring's vocals juxtapose a Cronenbergian body-horror imagery with a sheen of airbrushed eroticised glamour associated with commercial pop music. And finally, both albums lift their forms from underground trends; The Eccentronic Research Council (who consist of two musicians–one of whom was in early-2000s Mancunian chilled-beat mongers I Monster, best known for the German lounge orchestra-sampling Daydream In Blue—along with solidly Northern actress Maxine Peake providing the monologues) borrow wholesale from the hauntology milieu pioneered by the Ghost Box label, with their faded retro-modernist cover art featuring geometric forms and Helvetica, and their name, like The Advisory Circle and the Moon Wiring Club, evoking a fantasy pre-Thatcherite Britain of ghost-haunted analogue circuits and a vaguely socialistic yet faintly ominous technological optimism. (And then there's the opening track being titled Autobahn 666, and starting with synthesizer arpeggios and sampled car sounds; I'm fairly sure I've heard something like that before somewhere.) Purity Ring, meanwhile, take the Witch House/goth-crunk trend that all the cool kids in Brooklyn were into a few years ago and run with it for a good distance.
The Swedish crooner and sometime Melbourne resident's first full album in five years, and a welcome return. It's less upbeat than his previous album, 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala, with Jens having gone through a breakup before writing it, though this is welcome; as a songwriter, he does melancholy better than contentment. (I thought Kortedala was a bit too cheerful, and generally skipped the romcom-in-a-pop-song that was Your Arms Around Me when it came on). And while it is tinged with melancholy, Jens' pop sensibility manages to keep it from being a downer; there is a lushness to its arrangements, and, of course, to Jens' voice. Highlights include The World Moves On (a story of romantic (mis)adventure in Melbourne's inner north on the hottest day on record), I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots, and the bare, elegiac Every Little Hair Knows Your Name, which, along with its reprise, bookends the album.
Leeds' The Rosie Taylor Project made their appearance in 2008 with This City Draws Maps, an 8-track album of understated folk-pop songs for overcast days, all finger-picked guitars, breathy vocals and the odd trumpet and glockenspiel, somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne bands like Gersey or Sodastream. On their 2012 follow-up on London's Odd Box label, the sun breaks through the clouds as the band finds more of a groove. The first track is a two-minute quasi-instrumental, starting with synth pad, with a dubby bass guitar and drums joining in; the second track, For Esme, gets things moving, with an almost mariachi-esque trumpet. The rest of the album manages to combine the introspective lyricism of its predecessor with a more elaborate production and some catchy grooves, the height of which is probably Sleep, which almost reinvents disco from first principles. Keep an eye on these guys.
Not quite the full album of polyester-smooth yacht rock I was expecting after Victory Walker, though these guys sure know how to rock a party. On A Bedroom Wall sees Still Flyin' take a more electro/new-wave direction, almost meeting Cut Copy in the middle. If all the hipsters in your town were wearing cleats for some portion of 2012, this album could be the reason.
It's fair to say that Amelia Fletcher is no underachiever; having co-founded the groundbreaking Sarah Records indiepop bands Talulah Gosh (whose other alumni include 2012 Turner laureate Elizabeth Price) and Heavenly a quarter of a century ago, she has maintained a presence in the genre all the while becoming the senior economist overseeing mergers and acquisitions in the UK, possibly making her the most senior civil servant with an active recording career. The latest album by her current band, Tender Trap, stands solidly alongside her earlier bands' classic output. Ten Songs About Girls is a record firmly in the Talulah Gosh/Heavenly style, honing and perfecting it and even in one song (Step One) laying down a template-cum-manifesto for it. Highlights include the opening track, Train From King's Cross Station (is that a nod to Betty and the Werewolves' Euston Station?), with its spiky punk guitars and bass and cupcake-sweet girl-group harmony vocals, Leaving Christmas Day (a song about breaking up with someone over his creationist beliefs, which will have a place on indiepop-for-atheists mix tapes next to McCarthy's Should The Bible Be Banned?) and the lovely, poignant Memorabilia, an account of a long-lost relationship in the past through a box of badges, mix tapes and letters. Unlike the works of other veteran indie acts (like, say, Tracey Thorn, The Would-Be-Goods and Saint Etienne), Tender Trap have eschewed writing songs set in later adulthood, staying in the boyfriends-and-girlfriends milieu of an extended adolescence set sometime between the heyday of C86 and now; this works well for them.
Tigercats have become one of my favourite London bands recently, and their début album captures the energy of their gigs as well as can be done. Their sound is a tightly angular, ecstatically rhythmic, Afrobeat-tinged post-punk party pop, in some cases shading into Architecture In Helsinki territory (such as Limehouse Nights). Highlights include the opening track, a manifesto for the gentrification-besieged Isle of Dogs, The Vapours, which gets its name from a dream of 1980s new-wave one-hit wonders, and the epic roof-raiser Banned At The Troxy. I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Aleks & The Ramps.
Glaswegian indie veterans The Wake's previous record was 1994's Tidal Wave of Hype, released by Sarah Records in the wake of Madchester and as Britain's indie underground was exploding into the marketing phenomenon known as Britpop. 17 years later, they return, opening the third chapter of their recording career. A Light Far Out does not sound like either The Wake's starkly monochromatic Factory material nor the almost baggy grooves of their Sarah material, though there are echoes of their material; their melodic basslines, synth pads and an air of wistfulness, augmented with subtle and skilful use of electronic music elements such as granular delays and glitchy loops. The opening track, Stockport, starts with a familiar jangly guitar and melodic bass sound, accompanied by subtle electronics, and soon builds up into something lusher, yet with a yearning quality not unlike The Field Mice, a combination which recurs on If The Ravens Leave, the contemplative Methodist and the layered instrumental Faintness. Carolyn takes over vocal duties on the gentle and yet almost sinister Starry Day, a song with a hint of the Wicker Man about it. A highlight is the 9-minute title track, which is given time to evolve, through gentle guitar arpeggios, vocals and then languid seascapes of synths, subtle electronic beats and, eventually, violins. All in all, a welcome return, and a very strong record in its own right.
Had I to choose an album of the year, it would be either Tigercats' Isle Of Dogs or The Wake's A Light Far Out; two very different records it would be very hard to choose between.
The rerelease of the year would have to be Clag - Pasted Youth, which is more of a retrospective compilation of the Australian twee-punk band's releases and live gigs, long unavailable except on badly digitised MP3s, now remastered and accompanied with liner notes. Were there to be a track of 2012, it would be Peaking Lights' Lo Hi.
For your listening pleasure, there is a mix here.
And now, here is my list of notable records of 2011:
With their previous album, released way back in 2007, AIH shook off the "twee" label and let rip with some nitro-charged machismo; now, four years later, they turn to the daggy side of the force. Moment Bends celebrates all the elements of mainstream pop that filled the airwaves in the 1980s by building them into a neon edifice to vintage electro-pop kitsch. It's all here: synth licks you swear you've heard before in a mid-80s movie soundtrack or album (is that Glenn Frey? And over there, you can just about hear Control-era Janet Jackson), shimmering arpeggios, a plastic reggae riddim here (in the opening cut Desert Island), some synth brass there, even the odd gear change and Clearmountain break for the sake of completeness. The word "chillwave" may come to mind, though AIH differ from the chillwave aesthetic in their eschewal of the gauzy haze afforded by shoegaze-style reverb and delay; everything here is clear and upfront, with the possible exception of the lyrics, which, in AIH fashion, would be a little too oblique for the 1980s-vintage Top 40. File alongside the new M83 double album.
Released as a download on Constant Light's Bandcamp page, the Melbourne duo's debut, Mag - Amplitude consists of a mere six tracks, varying in length between 2 and 10 minutes, and falls somewhere in the post-rock/instrumental spectrum, driven by bass guitars, synthesiser patterns, processed guitar and layered textures. The influences range from the kosmische musik of 1970s West Germany to the monochromatic drone of 1980s New Wave (Factory Floor captures the mood of a certain Manchester label and takes it for a ride down the Autobahn). Half of the album is taken up with a three-piece composition,
The capsule summary sounds almost like the punchline to a hipster joke: "Inner-Melbourne coolsie makes yacht rock album". On the surface, this is what Vanity Is Forever is: Geoffrey O'Connor, the fey, long-haired frontman of twee-pop combo Crayon Fields has come back with a radical image change. Gated drums, syrupy synth keyboards, and the kind of production that sounds like a million dollars in 1980s money; only the label (Guy Blackman's credible Melbourne indie Chapter Music) and year of release hint that this wasn't recorded in an bleedingly expensive studio in Aruba. As for Geoffrey, he has, well, "grown up" is perhaps not the right cliché, though as he himself puts it, embraced the artifice of it all; his previous sound of 1960s-vintage pastoral innocence, naïve almost to the point of childlikeness (itself arguably an artifice) has been buried beneath a sheen akin to Bryan Ferry in his imperial phase, with touches of Italianate chintz worthy of the San Remo Ballroom. Geoffrey's old façade of elfin faux-naïveté reappears in places (particularly in Like They Say It Does, where he pushes it almost to the point of self-mockery), though the album is in a much more adult mode, hinting copiously at the exhilarating heights of erotic passion with a new lover (voiced, in one song, by Melbourne's own Jessica Says), and mentioning offhandly that it's going on her indolent soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend's credit card. An intriguing change of direction, and a stylishly crafted album that picks its references well.
Their first full-length non-instrumental album (before they had an EP and an instrumental album), and it's as subtle as you'd expect, starting off with the dreamy Casiotone-driven ballad of When You Were Dreaming, and proceeding to the bossa-tinged, synth-accented You Can Take A Heart But You Can't Make It Beat, before foraying into a Les Petits Chasseurs Du Son, an instrumental interlude which sounds like Wendy Carlos scoring a Dario Argento film. The rest of the album is in a similar vein, mixing subtle pop with the odd cinematic pretension (such as Theme From King Of Chinatown), before drifting off with the ethereal Shadow Of The Bear.
Two albums, both from Sweden and exploring the spaces between electronica, shoegaze and what, for lack of a better word, may be termed "indie rock". Korallreven are the latest practitioners of the improbably-named Swedish Balearic Pop subgenre, and, for the most part, don't veer wildly from the footsteps of predecessors like Air France and Boat Club. (Swedish Balearic, for what it's worth, is somewhere between chillwave and the Café Del Mar chillout compilations that were big about a decade ago; think pulsing synthesizers punctuated with acoustic guitars, bongos and reverb-drenched vocal fragments; tropical-holiday-island imagery and a production sensibility informed by shoegaze.) Having said that, Korallreven (a duo, one of whom plays in Stockholm shoegaze-pop combo The Radio Dept.) are pros at it and do it well, doing for the subgenre what pop veterans Empire Of The Sun did for indie-dance in Australia. I Break Horses, meanwhile, started off as a duo and grew into a band; they're not part of the Balearic scene, though explore their own space a similar space; their album consists of layers of electronics, guitars and live drums, with songs evoking the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Suicide and New Order, as well as more recent bands like M83 and The Radio Dept.
The long-awaited full-length début from the London motorik pop combo (available from their BandCamp page) alternates between driving rhythms backed with choppy guitars and washes of Casiotone keyboards and more languid moments of hushed vocals backed by layers of subtle instruments; equal parts Yo La Tengo and Stereolab with perhaps a hint of Aphex Twin in places. This album is understatedly lovely, and gets its beauty from artful arrangements of texture and repetition. It sits well alongside both Constant Light and Hong Kong In The 60s.
Their début album made my list of 2009, and I've been eagerly awaiting their follow-up; I'm glad to say that it does indeed live up to my expectations. It doesn't depart far from their sound. Fight Less, Win More is an appropriate title; its laconic pop sound could scarcely be less combative, and its catchy melodies and literate lyrics are hard to resist. It stays mostly in an understated, vaguely pastoral indiepop vein, driven by clean guitars, drums, low-key vocals and the odd Mellotron, though toys with krautrock dynamics in places (the motorik crescendo of The Homefront Pt. II, and the rhythm that propels Heavy Lifting forward). Other highlights include the anthemic Little Joanne, the opening cut Orienteers, which evokes a number of pastoral pop groups from Melbourne, and Resolutions, which ends with fuzzy guitar.
One of the more intriguing bands to come out of London in recent years; Still Corners are equal parts Broadcast, early Paradise Motel and the Twin Peaks soundtrack; their debut album, released on Sub Pop, keeps true to the dreamlike quality of their 7"s and shows, with Tessa's lovely vocals floating spectrally over swirling organs, keening guitar feedback, clunking bass guitars and the odd drum machine. The whole album has a subtle, somewhat unreal quality; it doesn't sound like something belonging to any specific place or time. Highlights include the opening track Cuckoo, the previously released Endless Summer, with its Be My Baby-quoting opening, and the unseasonably summery The White Season.
The latest in a decades-long game of transatlantic stylistic ping-pong: in 1980s Britain, the movement that became known as C86 reacted against expensive overproduction and/or the yuppie excesses of the Thatcher era by returning to the basics of guitar-and-drums pop music circa the 1960s updated for the post-punk era. (This was the 1980s, when synthesisers and studio effects cost real money.) A few decades later, hip bands from Brooklyn like The Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts dusted off C86 and made it their own. Now, Veronica Falls (a band formed from veterans of several London and Glasgow bands) takes the New York sound and brings it back. The result is a slab of tight garage rock with choppy guitars, boy-girl harmonies and classic themes of love and death like something out of a pulp paperback from the 1950s. It doesn't break much new ground, but it does what it does well.
Ostensibly a rerelease of the brief recorded works of an art collective, as short-lived as it was improbable, that flourished in a futuristic studio-discotheque behind the Iron Curtain in 1973, prefiguring kosmische krautrock and Detroit techno; in reality, almost certainly a more recent work of counterfactual history, presenting a fantasy view of a glamorous European avant-garde, with an almost Wes Andersonian unreality that could only be imagined from the splendid isolation of the English-speaking world. The Endless House Project works both as an exercise in hauntology (as long as one suspends one's disbelief about its geopolitical impossibility; which is where being British, and taking a vaguely orientalist view of the European continent as an exotic whole, might help) and as a collection of retrofuturistic analogue electronica. The opening track, Ostend (Invisible Cities) by one "Johannus Arpensium", starts with mighty, swelling synthesiser chords that soon break into driving, proto-Kraftwerkian arpeggios zooming down luminous highways with vocoded vocals. From there, we are led on a tour of retrofuturistic utopias and dystopias, expressed in analogue electronic music: ominous chords play over rhythm tracks of electronic clicks, as European-accented voices intone obliquely. Other tracks, meanwhile, (like Ernest Kantor's Jealousie (Escape To Outer Space) and Rasmus Folk's luxurious yet melancholic Coupe) are almost weightlessly breezy. the whole thing ends with the last work ostensibly played at the doomed Endless House, in which mastermind Jiri Kantor asks why it all happened so quickly and then leaves the stage, leaving the synthesisers to run by themselves and foreshadowing New Order's stage shows circa 1983. The album (sold only directly, in physical format, by an outfit named Dramatic Records) comes in an envelope with postcards giving capsule biographies of the ostensible composers of the pieces, a motley crew of European playboys and avant-gardists with names like Felix Uran, Klaus Pinter and Earnesto Rogers.
Were I to anoint one title as my record of the year, the accolade would probably go to My Sad Captains.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
Another year is drawing to an end, and once again, it's time to look back on the past year in music. So here's my list of the top records of 2009, in alphabetical order.
Animal Collective's new record, released at the start of the year, took their sound further away from their psych-folk roots and into the realm of dubby electronica, with the help of producer Rusty Santos. Expect washes of delay, percussive polyrhythms and soaring vocals somehow making their way through the electronic haze. They followed it up at the very end of the year with an EP, Fall Be Kind, turning up the layering and sampling the Grateful Dead.
The London-based electropop duo's long-awaited album, combining the synthpop of New Order at their most Kraftwerk-influenced and guitar-led indiepop which (cliché warning!) wouldn't have sounded amiss on Sarah Records circa 1991. Highlights: there's the obvious Kraftwerk homage of Autovia, the vocoder-driven Squarewave To Heaven and the mighty electronic buildup of This City Life. It's all good.
This unanimously grabs the title of "best record of 2009 featuring the grim snarling of dire wolves". Adelaide-born, Reykjavík-based Frostí's latest album is an assemblage of frosty, shadowy ambiences, with stark electronic waveforms, minor-key melodies and processed field recordings (breaths, thuds and the aforementioned wolves), rounded off with references to The Cure and Twin Peaks. File under "dark ambient".
Not so much a record as a clutch of four forming a trend; they're all electronic, a bit to the left of pop though not in the realm of "electronica". Cold Cave are a trio whose sound is a sort of synth-driven new-wave with nods to 1980s gothic rock (highlights: "Life Magazine"). Memory Tapes makes layered tracks, mixing electronic and organic sounds, building up and stripping down and building up again, and turns them into songs (highlights: pretty much any track; let's say Stop Talking).
Rainbow Arabia are a US outfit who craft a sort of electronic exotica for the post-(new-)rave generation (let's call them "electroxotica"), celebrating the global other with exotic scales on synths, drum samples and song titles like Holiday In Congo and Kabukimono (highlight: let's say Harlem Sunrise). The Very Best is a collaboration between Malawian musician Esau Mwamwaya and French/Swedish/London-based (delete as applicable) production team Radioclit, and sounds like what 1980s electropop would have sounded like had it been invented in Africa (highlights: let's avoid the obvious bits—the Ezra Koenig and M.I.A. collaborations, the AIH sample—and say Chalo, which starts with an epic synth riff and follows through in appropriate fashion).
fight crime form part of the sound of 2009.
The long-awaited record from the Melbourne twee-pop combo; pocket-sized pop symphonies, most of them expressions of love for an unnamed second person (sample lyric: "I'd mess up my collar just to feel you correct it"), with ringing guitars and the occasional string arrangement; in places it sounds like a twee version of The Clientele. Without a doubt the most fey record in this list.
Simple, summery guitar pop done well, with good melodies and harmonies. It's not groundbreaking, thematically or stylistically, but it's an old formula, slightly updated and done better than most. Highlights: Saddest Summer, perhaps.
A six-track EP by a band comprised of two librarians and a BBC researcher, playing Casiotone keyboards and guitars and citing Stereolab, Sean O'Hagan, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Dario Argento and 1960s Hong Kong pop as influences, and a brilliant one as well, reminiscent of early Minimum Chips EPs in its understated feel. I've listened to this one a lot this year.
Iceland's second entry in this year's list, from the frontman of Sigur Rós and his boyfriend. It's wordless soundscapes, though lighter and more blissful than Sigur Rós; one could say that this is the yin to Frostí's yang.
They're from London, but remind me more of Melbourne bands like The Smallgoods, Gersey and even the (sadly departed) Lucksmiths. Multilayered melodies and harmonies, plays on words and buildups of unassuming lushness, not quite threatening to go into shoegazing territory in places, make for a very listenable record, and a promising band.
In a lot of ways, 2009 was the Pains' year. A New York band, though wearing their classic British indiepop influences on their sleeves and given to touring the UK with an almost suspicious regularity, the Pains released their self-titled album early in the year, with songs like This Love Is Fucking Right (see if you can spot the reference there) and Teenager In Love becoming cornerstones in the soundtrack to 2009. Not content to rest on their laurels, they followed this up with an EP, Higher Than The Stars, bringing more immaculate indie-pop, guitar fuzz and stories of young lives and fraught situations; nonetheless, they can only have one entry in this list, and it'll have to be the album.
Were there a gong for the record of the year, it'd have to go to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.
And here are my gig highlights of 2008:
I happened to be in the Bay Area at the time, and went along, with some friends, to the Tenori-On launch. At the San Francisco one, they had a number of North American artists, the most memorable of whom was I Am Robot And Proud. Formerly one half of Girls Are Short, he now makes ambient electronica under this name, and, given a Tenori-On, integrated it into his performance alongside a piano, to great effect. I still didn't spend US$1200 on a Tenori-On, though.
The first ATP festival I've been to, and it was great. Highlights were probably Glass Candy's deadpan Italo-disco, Los Campesinos' on-stage mayhem, Of Montreal's psychedelic psychodrama (which keeps getting more elaborate with each show), and krautrock veterans Harmonia playing an hour and a half of ambient electronica to a hushed room.
I went to see Jefrey Lewis play, having only heard the Williamsburg Will Oldham Horror song of his, and not knowing what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised; rather than just playing guitar and singing, he did things like present short stories in sequences of drawings as he sang, and towards the end, his band threw off the folk moniker and rocked out like Mogwai or someone. Also, he had some of his comics for sale at the merch stall, and they were quite good.
The Deirdres' possibly last-ever gig, before three of their members went travelling abroad; how could I not go? I caught the train to Derby after work and made it to the venue at about 8:30, and I wasn't disappointed. They went on stage, costumed as animals which hibernate, and played with their usual raucous yet deceptively tight musicianship, and a great time was had all round.
The gig was a memorial for the frontman of Earl Brutus, hence the high-profile lineup at short notice, and the giant tinsel British Rail logo behind the stage. Black Box Recorder played mostly songs from England Made Me (i.e., their best album), and the Mary Chain gave a great performance, on a par with their recordings. British Sea Power also played, but they didn't grab me.
A stripped-down rendition of Entanglements, but while it may have lacked orchestral instruments, it didn't lack dynamism from Zach, who kept going in and out of the audience. The cover of OMD's Maid Of Orleans was pretty good too.
Two gigs, one after the other. I'm From Barcelona was the usual euphoric experience, with balloons and confetti (this time fired into the air by a confetti Gatling gun), though now only 12 band members on stage. SoKo, however, stole the show, with her quirky songs and multi-instrumentalism. She's definitely one to watch.
And now, here come the lists of things of the year. Starting with the top 10 records of 2008 (in alphabetical order of artist's name, as usual):
The futurefolk combo's follow-up to last year's Strawberry Jam, a 4-track EP further building on their textured yet organic sound. Highlight: Cobwebs, which sounds a little like something Björk might well have done.
Australia's Modular label have been the toast of the electrofashionista elite of London and New York, and the core of a mass youth movement in Australia (one now hears disparaging descriptions of vast hordes of "mogans", unsophisticated fluoro-shirted teenage party kids from all over the suburbs and provinces of Australia, sharing musical tastes with the hippest of Shoreditch and Williamsburg's hipsters; how funny is that?), but they do release some good stuff from time to time. Case in point: Cut Copy's second album, which combines the vogue for 1980s New Wave stylings (cribbed both from international sources (listen out for the Peter Hook-esque melody lines) and Australian 80s top-40 sounds) with electro/house the way Australians like it (i.e., muscular, body-conscious and not too chi-chi or pretentious), and manages to make something quite listenable out of it, a collection of well-formed pop songs driven by coruscating synths, 4/4 dance beats, melodic vocals and the odd jangly guitar and glockenspiel. Highlight: the opening cut, Feel The Love, is a good start, starting as pop and morphing into something more clubby like a disco Transformers robot.
The Deirdres, a young unsigned band consisting of seven kids from Derby, are, in my opinion, one of the most exciting indiepop bands in the UK now. This self-released CD-R (the first versions had handmade photo-collage covers, and buyers got a raffle ticket to decide which one they got) shows that they're as good in the studio as they are at live shows, sounding in places like a more melodic Los Campesinos! or a much more compact I'm From Barcelona. These kids deserve to go a long way (and three of them are currently in Australia, gigging with The Motifs and Summer Cats). Highlights: Milk Is Politics is more typical of the exuberant pop mayhem of their live shows, and Rise And Fall is just sublime.
Another Modular release, this time from an American artist lovingly taking off the more electronic end of krautrock (think Harmonia, Tangerine Dream and such). With titles like Feuerprobe, Bardolator and Götterdämmerung, this album wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it does what it does well. Highlights: perhaps the penultimate track, Das Regenecho.
Influenced by Afrobeat, Tropicália and 1970s Canary Islands psychedelic rock, this record is a collection of loop-based Latin party music, assembled by a hipster from Barcelona. Imagine Panda Bear making party-rocking grooves, and you'll have some idea of what this sounds like. Highlights: Antillas perhaps?
What you get when some people from the DIY hardcore punk scene decide that Italo-disco is where it's at. As much influenced by cult 1970s Italian horror movies as 1980s Italian disco anthems, this brings a somewhat askew take to the genre. Highlights: Their cooler-than-ice take on Kraftwerk's Computer Love, followed by the Goblin-esque eerieness of Last Nite I Met A Costume.
A collaboration with Glaswegian glitchcore mentalist Joe Howe (Germlin/Gay Against You), Momus' latest album sees a combination of influences; perhaps conscious of the youthful cutting-edge electronica Howe brings to the party, Momus digs into the past somewhat, covering a Cliff Richard teenage heartbreak anthem and a Ryuichi Sakamoto piece (the lovely Thatness and Thereness). This was somewhat overshadowed this year by Momus' decision to post the MP3s of his Creation-era albums online in his blog, but is still worth a listen. Highlights: Fade To White
The grey days of 1980s Britain, with their anomie and internal alienation, have become a golden age of indiepop to some; certainly, to Moscow Olympics, a group of kids from Manila, the Philippines, who plant their flag halfway between the Glasgow of Orange Juice, the Manchester of Factory Records and the Bristol of Sarah Records, with perhaps a slight lean towards Gothenburg. Cut The World, their debut EP on Swedish (where else?) indiepop label Lavender, sound for all the world as if they emerged from beneath the leaden skies of mid-Thatcher-era northern Britain with a defiantly optimistic song in their hearts, sounding like the Bodines with Peter Hook on bass and Keith Girdler (of Blueboy) on vocals. The EP continues in this vein for seven tracks, before shimmering away in a Slowdive-esque crescendo; this is as perfect a slice of C86-esque indiepop as one could hope for. Highlights: the opening track, What Is Left Unsaid is a good one.
A lavish piece of 1960s-style symphonic pop splendour. The music is exquisitely orchestrated, wrapped sumptuously around finely-crafted words which, through baroque circumlocutions, tell a story of a torrid romantic tragedy, somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Lolita, filtered through a sort of gauzy Technicolor impressionism. Highlights: the tango-infused cover of Windmills Of Your Mind is one.
Yes, it has been hyped to death. Yes, they're a bunch of privileged urban haute-bourgeoisie taking the music of the global downtrodden and crafting from it songs about the lives of the wealthy ("lobsters' claws are as sharp as knives"; see, a UHB's life is not without its hazards). But at the end of it, they do what they do quite well, combining Afrobeat influences, chamber-music strings, clever lyrics and good songs. Which doesn't mean you can't laugh at some of the toffishness. But who outside of a posh university would write a song titled Oxford Comma? Highlights: start anywhere on the album; the opener, Mansard Roof, is a good a point as any.
If I were to choose a record of the year, 2008's would be Moscow Olympics' Cut The World.
Heritage-rock bible Mojo Magazine has published its list of the 50 greatest UK indie records of all time. For the most part, it's quite solid, being a melange of Glasgow-school new-optimists, C86-era janglepop and the odd bit of arty post-punk. The only concessions to recent commercial/populist Carling-indie are The Libertines and The Arctic Monkeys, inexplicably placed at #26 and #7 respectively. The Sarah Records roster is represented by one track, The Sea Urchins' Pristine Christine. (I would have expected that a label that defined a big chunk of what British indiepop was for a stretch of the late 80s and early 90s would have had more; perhaps Heavenly's Hearts and Crosses or The Field Mice's Emma's House?)
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And here are my records of 2005, in no particular order:
Honourable mentions go to Architecture In Helsinki, In Case We Die, Broken Social Scene's self-titled album (which I received only in the last days of the year, too late to fully get into, though I get the feeling it may be a grower), LCD Soundsystem's self-titled album, The Magic Numbers' self-titled debut (which has some strong guitar-pop tracks, though is a bit bland in places, and may not be a proper CD in all territories), Momus, Otto Spooky, Francis Plagne, Idle Bones (which has a few good songs and a lot of meandering ambient field recordings; were the ratio reversed, it'd be quite impressive), and Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, #3.
It was also a good year for rereleases, with the entire Field Mice back-catalogue seeing the light of day again, in the form of new releases of Snowball, Skywriting and For Keeps, all extended with non-album tracks, and all three Slowdive albums (Just For A Day, Souvlaki and the exquisite Pygmalion) being rereleased—the first two with bonus discs full of EP and live tracks—through Sanctuary; meanwhile, neo-shoegazer Ulrich Schnauss's first album, Far Away Trains Passing By, is seeing the light of day again (good to see that Domino are using their NMECarlingnuwaveartrock windfall for good).
My gigs of 2005:
8. Devout Orthodox Jews are three times as likely to jaywalk as other people, according to an Israeli survey reported in the New Scientist. The researchers say it's possibly because religious people have less fear of death.
59. Oliver Twist is very popular in China, where its title is translated as Foggy City Orphan.
74. It takes a gallon of oil to make three fake fur coats.
81. George Bernard Shaw named his shed after the UK capital so that when visitors called they could be told he was away in London.
99. The Japanese word "chokuegambo" describes the wish that there were more designer-brand shops on a given street.
100. Musical instrument shops must pay an annual royalty to cover shoppers who perform a recognisable riff before they buy, thereby making a "public performance".
As usual, here is my purely subjective roundup of albums/EPs of the past six months. Some are new, some are older, but all are things I obtained in the past six months and (in the case of things a few years old), by bands I only recently discovered. This list is, of course, completely subjective; you may disagree, but to paraphrase a Lush lyric, maybe you're right but this is my blog.
Recordings of 2004
And a few other mentions, honourable and otherwise. The new Stereolab album, Margerine Eclipse was good, though no track leapt out at me in quite the way that various tracks from previous releases have done. The long-awaited New Buffalo album was, to be honest, a bit disappointing; in building her home studio, Sally seems to have mislaid her analogue drum machine, and gone away from the layered glitchiness which made About Last Night (and early live versions of many of the songs) such a delight. Meanwhile, Björk's Medulla didn't grab me; making tracks entirely out of voice samples is an interesting experiment, though the result I'm not sure about. And then there were all the calculatedly commercial post-Interpol/Franz Ferdinand bands like The Killers.
There are a few recordings released in 2004 which I didn't get to check out properly before the end of the year, such as Minimum Chips' Sound Asleep, the Arcade Fire's Funeral and the new Styrofoam. Or, indeed, the new Interpol album. My excuse is that a lot of the money which would have gone on CDs was instead squandered on food and rent in one of the world's most expensive cities; I'll probably catch up on them in the first half of 2005.
Some other bands I discovered this year: GirlsAreShort (a Canadian electropop act), Remington Super 60/Nice System (a Norwegian lounge-pop/bossa-pop outfit), a wealth of British indie from the late 1980s and 1990s, including parts of the Sarah Records back-catalogue I hadn't heard (of) before (key bands being The Wake, The Bodines, and various bands from the Sound of Leamington Spa compilation series) and Azure Ray (an all-female indie duo from Nebraska). Not to mention an appreciation of Electric Six's, Fire (they're like the Scissor Sisters with balls or something; tacky but fun).
Top gigs of 2004 (in alphabetical order):
Not to mention multiple gigs by various excellent Melbourne bands, including The Rumours, Season and City City City, not to mention the aforementioned BAM BAM and Talkshow Boy.
And now, The Null Device's list of up-and-coming Melbourne bands and musical artists you may not have heard of but should check out:
As this is a list of new bands people may not have heard of, I've omitted from this list many bands worth checking out which people probably know about.
The Null Device's top 8 records of 2003:
(A number of albums were disqualified for not being available to the public in non-defective CD format; being available on import from the United States or similar was sufficient. These include albums by David Bridie, The Thrills and Client.)
Things I have been listening to over the past few days:
After the BBC's 100 Greatest Britons series (in which Winston Churchill barely pipped Princess Diana for #1, and genuinely deserving candidates like Charles Darwin were left in the dust), bolshy TV broadcaster Channel 4 have compiled a list of the 100 Worst Britons. Tony Blair is #1 (though if these were voted on by the Guardian-reader types who watch C4, it's hartly surprising), followed by Jordan (she's some kind of model or something, right?) and Margaret Thatcher. Other notable figures: The Queen is #10 (one behind Geri Halliwell), Liam Gallagher is at #11 (though you'd think his ex-wife Patsy Kensit would get a mention on the strength of her complete inability to act), Prince Charles at #24 (Diana is apparently still too much of a national saint to merit the list), Harry Potter is at #35, Tracy Eminem at #41, Pete Waterman at #45, and Loony Left Red Ken at #50. (via VM)
Also via The Fix, an online poll for the top 10 albums of all time. It appears to be mostly voted for by angsty teenagers, judging by the selection of alternative there is there, and the fact that The Cure are seriously overrepresented in the top 100. Anyway, of my votes, only 1 got in the top 100 (The Smiths' The Queen Is Dead), or indeed the top 1000 (though Lush's Split and New Order's Power, Corruption and Lies are just under the top 1000. (My #1 choice, The Field Mice's Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way? is in the 1,690th place.)
4 1/2 hours remaining: Favourite CDs of 2002:
Honourable mentions: Sigur Rós, (), Letraset, Snowy Room, Architecture in Helsinki, Like a Call (single) (especially Jeremy Dower's remix), Qua, Forgetabout (the title track is great, though much of the rest is a bit too generically laptop for my tastes), Season, 2,551,446 seconds, Pipas, A Cat Escaped, The Flaming Lips, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
CDs I meant to get but didn't manage in time for this list: Happy Supply, Crucial Cuts, GY!BE, Yanqui U.X.O., Ivy, Guestroom, some local spoken-word/electronica thing titled Every Third Breath.
Older CDs I listened to a lot in 2002:
The time is nigh upon us for the obligatory "top 10 albums of the year" lists (Graham already has his, for example). I'm not going to post my best CDs of 2002 just yet (for one, I'm still not through with all of this year's releases, and am still awaiting a particular consignment from Twee Kitten); however, I am going to do something related, that is, look at the lists for 2001 I wrote up a year ago, here and here, and see how they hold up a year later; which of my picks of the year have stood the test of time, which have fallen by the wayside, and which discs have emerged subsequently as favourites of that particular year. So please allow me this exercise in self-indulgent omphaloskepsis.
Firstly, the RAN list:
(Of the honourable mentions, I've listened to the Angels of the Universe soundtrack and the Sealifepark album since. The Zero 7 album sort of got shelved, as I really only liked one track of it. Jan Jelinek's Loop Finding Jazz Records suffered a similar fate, having failed to hold my interest with its ultimately less than satisfying combination of deep-house-like rhythms and chords and Max/MSP laptop glitchery; and TISM's De Rigeurmortis lasted about one and a half listens. Oh, and as for the Field Mice best-of, that's still one of my favourites and is usually not far from the CD player.)
And now for the unsung favourites; the CDs that didn't make the list, but ended up redeeming themselves after further listening:
So there it is. Watch this space for the best of 2002.
And now, a few quick mini-reviews of CDs I've listened to recently:
I also picked up Sigur Rós' (); I haven't listened to it in its entirety yet, but it certainly doesn't seem like they're going for the mass audience, what with the near-complete lack of text in the packaging; not to mention with cheerful tracks like the 13-minute Death Song. So far, it sounds a bit more lush than Agætis Byrjun.
A brief review of a few of the CDs I picked up in the UK (well, the ones I've had a chance to at least partially digest), in alphabetical order by artist:
Anyway, I picked this up for something like 50p at the cheapo branch of Music & Video Exchange, and am quite pleased with that. If I end up doing DJ sets, you can probably expect Koyaanisqatsi to end up in them, next to other curiosities.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web, is #12 on a list of 100 greatest Britons ever, created by the BBC by polling over 30,000 people. Though, for some reason, Julie Andrews is #2 (behind only Alfred the Great) and David Beckham is at #9 (ahead of such luminaries as Chaucer, Dickens and Shakespeare). Ah, I get it.. it's in alphabetical order. Which makes the claim of Berners-Lee being in 12th place sound a bit daft.
Other odd entries include Aleister Crowley (didn't know he had that much of a following), Paul "Bono" Hewson (hang on, isn't he Irish?), and the "Unknown Soldier". And I'm not sure if people like Robbie Williams (wasn't he a former boy-band dancer or something?) belong on a list of "greatest Britons of all time". Ah well, at least they didn't accept Ayn Rand, L. Ron Hubbard or Jesus Christ as "Britons".
I hadn't been going out much, or blogging much for that matter, lately due to work having been rather insane. However, I have been listening to CDs, so here's a list of what I've been listening to lately:
31/12, ~-9 hours: It will soon be 2002; 2001 will be over; like the years before it, no longer the present, but consigned to the fading, receding past. So here is the obligatory :
High points: For me, getting my remix on the FourPlay Digital Manipulations CD, and played on Radio National, was one notable high point. Getting a PowerBook with MacOS X at work was also pretty doovy. Other than that, can't really say much.
Low points: Too many. There were the obvious ones; the terrorist attacks, with the subsequent reversion of the corporate-consumerist world to an authoritarian siege mentality, the reelection of the Liberals (see above), and Microsoft getting all but off the hook thanks to having bought a friendly administration. Other than all that, a few others stand out: the sudden and premature death of Charlotte Coleman (who? never mind) came as quite a blow (I was depressed for a week or so), and the news that the Punters Club is closing early next year (and with it, Brunswick St. moves closer to being a mere shopping centre for suburbanites seeking purchased "bohemian" experiences and/or a hangout for moneyed, soulless yuppie pinks like St Kilda or Beacon Cove or somesuch) has also put a pall on things. And the usual personal things.
Major events: changing jobs (at the start of the year), moving out of a shared house to a 1br flat (again), various personal entanglements, and that kitten I got for Xmas (which, incidentally, I'm thinking of naming Fantod, because of its boisterous temperament).
Minor events: working, seeing bands/movies/shows, learning the guitar (I'm still not brilliant at it though), making a demo CD-R (as Gurnin Spacecase) and sending it out to various places, writing various spoken-word pieces and reading them out, not joining in NaNoWriMo (maybe next year, or maybe not), and the usual things.
Best films seen in 2001: Angels of the Universe, He Died With A Felafel In His Hand, Late Night Shopping, Amélie, Run Lola Run (on DVD). I haven't yet seen Lord of the Rings 1, though from what I've heard, it'd probably be on this list had I done so.
Best live shows seen: a lot of shows were good, though the ones that stand out are: Harmon Leon and Otis Lee Crenshaw's respective shows at the Comedy Festival, Henry Rollins' evening of rant, Swirl at the Espy, Prop, at any of their Melbourne gigs (though if pressed to name one, I'd probably name the one at Pony), the production of Anorak of Fire at the Fringe Festival, FourPlay at Revolver and Down Town Brown at the Evelyn (the show with the giant robot)
Top musical finds:
Best books read:
With honourable mentions going to Jasper Fforde, The Eyre Affair, Neil Gaiman, American Gods, Nick Hornby, How To Be Good, K.W. Jeter, Noir, Craig Mathieson, The Sell-In, Chuck Palahniuk, Choke, Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Nury Vittachi, The Feng Shui Detective, Jeanette Winterson, Art & Lies.
31/12; 7 hours remaining (cont.):
Favourite CDs of 2000:
With honourable mentions going to Broadcast, Extended Play Two, Björk, SelmaSongs, Beulah, When Your Heartstrings Break, Deepchild, Hymns from Babylon, LTJ Bukem, Journey Inwards, Yo La Tengo, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Black Box Recorder's various EPs (mostly for the B-sides), (Note: this is counting only CDs I acquired this year.)
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