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With 2015 drawing to a close, it's once again time for a list of the records of the year, so here it is:
- Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
I have written more about this record here. In short, Belle & Sebastian continue to get more polished, add an EDM direction to a few of their tracks, and Stuart keeps his eye on the ladies. The rebetiko knees-up of The Everlasting Muse is probably the big surprise, though from sequencer-pulsed disco to string-saturated misfit melancholia, it's all good.
- Braids — Deep In The Iris (BandCamp link)
A new band originally from Calgary, Canada, Braids started off doing shoegaze but their sound has evolved since, taking more from the more syncopated and glitchy ends of electronica; Deep In The Iris combines grand piano, layers of electronic instruments and effects (reverbs and various forms of aliasing are used to interesting textural effect), breakbeats (and the drummer's amazing talent for mimicking a speeding MPC-1000 chopping up the Amen break, as evident at their live shows) and the frontwoman's voice, powerful and yet intimate. Highlights include Miniskirt, a piece of rage against sexism over layers of subtle yet glitchy electronics, which sounds like a post-rave Sinead O'Connor.
- Brideshead — Never Grow Up (BandCamp link)
If you have fond memories of the previous post-C86 indiepop scene—not the recent Brooklyn-based one with its fuzzy guitars and mildly gothy affectations, but the circumbaltic one, with jangly guitars, trumpets, handclaps and naïvely upbeat lyrics about love, music, the love of music, and music formats as metaphors for romantic love—this record is for you. Brideshead, formed in the 1990s in Wiesbaden, Germany, and influenced by the wave of indiepop coming out of Britain in the 1980s and the Swedish indie scene of the 1990s), were one of the bands on the German label Apricot (who also had Spearmint and Eggstone on their roster), and their aptly titled 2015 reunion album recaptures the summery feel of that soberingly long-past zeitgeist. (They even have one song, At 45 RPM, using the vinyl recording medium as a metaphor for romantic relationships, which is perhaps the most indiepop song concept possible.) File alongside The Electric Pop Group, Math And Physics Club and other popkids who keep the sound alive.
- Death And Vanilla — To Where The Wild Things Are (BandCamp link)
After having taken and perfected post-C86 indiepop, balearic electro, house music and synthpop, the Swedes turn their attention to that most English of genres, hauntology, or so the Ghost Box-esque cover art promises. The music itself follows that direction with some minor changes; there are no samples of old public-information films or received-pronounciation-accented voices saying unsettling things, and the mood is somewhere between Angelo Badalamenti's David Lynch collaborations and the brief and underrecognised wave of records that straddled the gap between trip-hop and hauntology (think Parsley Sound and the like). Death and Vanilla, the Malmö band responsible, have their roots in Scandinavia's black metal scene (and get their name from a Nick Cave lyric), though you wouldn't know it from the instrumentation; vibraphones, clunking bass guitar notes and fuzzy analogue synths underpin the sleepy valium-infused vocals.
- Holly Herndon — Platform
A leftfield record in several ways. Herndon (who has studied experimental electronic music at the graduate level) builds up tracks using samples of her own voice, as well as other sounds, processed through custom Max/MSP patches; chopped up, layered and reconstituted in a granular fashion. In some cases, the result is the popular song form by other means; in others, it's textural pieces. Sonically, much of Platform's palette consists of the human voice; sometimes it's reconstituted, chopped up and layered electronically into abstract forms; at other times, it's straight, (sometimes sounding more like choral, liturgical or early music; in particular, Unequal); the rest consists of abstract digital sounds (synthesizer drones, glitchy percussion) and fragments of samples, often ambiguously small. Don't expect something unlistenably difficult; while this is not, strictly speaking, pop (and it does make other leftfield pop acts like Björk and Grimes sound like Taylor Swift by comparison, by virtue of its unusual construction; though perhaps the hit factories of LA and Stockholm are retooling as we speak), the elements somehow coalesce, like a particle system of sound, to form some undeniably banging tunes. The themes also lean towards the leftfield: in Locker Leak, disembodied voices utter vaguely commercial-sounding nonsequiturs over Herndon's granular choral vocals and glitchy beats; Lonely At The Top, with ASMR artist Clare Tolan performing the vocals, is an imagined ASMR stimulation/therapy programme for oligarchs in need of relaxation, and Home touches on mass surveillance and the violation of having one's activities and innermost thoughts monitored by algorithms. Stylistically, though, Holly Herndon has invented a new futurism; the old ideas of what sounds cutting-edge no longer apply.
- Julia Holter — Have You In My Wilderness
Subtle yet maximalist baroque pop; there's a lot happening, but it doesn't get overwhelming. Equal parts Björk and Laurel Canyon, with more than a touch of Jherek Bischoff—esque orchestral sumptuousity; the sonic palette mostly eschews overtly electronic-sounding timbres, in favour of the orchestral; pianos, harpisichords, double bass and a surfeit of strings make their appearance, with judicious use of reverb. Highlights would be the opener, Feel You, and and the languid Lucette Stranded On The Island.
- Jenny Hval — Apocalypse, girl (BandCamp link)
Norwegian avant-gardist Jenny Hval's latest album sounds like a therapy session set to music; Hval's vocal delivery varies from spoken-word to jazz vocals; she sings over electronic beats, sequenced synthesizer lines and other instruments; as the title suggests, the album deals with femininity, sexuality and the human condition, in a way that is wry, confessional and at times transgressive (example line: “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”). The final track, Holy Land, is sublimely lovely: well worth listening to the end of its 10 minutes.
- Briana Marela — All Around Us (BandCamp link)
I had the good fortune of seeing Briana Marela play at St. John's in Hackney, following Let's Eat Grandma, and bought the record on the strength of that. Marela, from Seattle, builds up rather lovely pop songs with loops of her voice and adding beats, melodic lines and subtle electronics on her laptop, with judicious use of reverb and delay. The songs glow and shimmer; they are intimate, introspective and yet encompassing and enveloping; reminiscent somewhat of The Motifs, Pikelet and early New Buffalo, or perhaps what Rose Melberg might have done had she grown up with laptops rather than guitars.
- New Order — Music Complete
Yes, without Peter Hook on bass, as the old joke goes, it's not New Order, it's The Other Two plus Barney; and the matter is complicated by Hooky suing the band essentially for going on under their existing name without him (they tried renaming themselves to Bad Lieutenant, but abandoned that plan in the face of a massive lack of interest). Nonetheless, Music Complete lives up to the cocky swagger of its title, and is perhaps the first New Order album in several decades to produce a palpable sense of excitement. This is mostly because they go back to what was their forte: combining ambiguous post-punk rock with copious amounts of euphoric electronics. The second track, Singularity recaptures the spiky edge of LowLife. After that, the album goes a bit Moroder, which, from New Order, can only be a very good thing; layers of precise electronic rhythms and textures like grids of coloured light. The midpoint of the album is Stray Dog, a tense instrumental, sounding like something off a film soundtrack, with a grizzled Iggy Pop delivering a spoken-word piece meditating on love and happiness, after which the guitars come back for a few tracks. The penultimate track provides a soaring climax, but the album is closed by Superheated, a breezy pop song whose staccato sequencer evokes early OMD. If you can live without Hooky's low-slung, high-played basslines, you may find this to be New Order's strongest album since the 1980s.
- Oh Peas! — Difficult Second Chair (BandCamp link)
“Sausage roll in the glovebox on the 2:01 to Bristol, the driver's looking at the road”, the opening track, Broke Yr Tv, begins over reverb-drowned guitar, before the song kicks in, a choppy strum, a Field Mice-esque bass guitar and drum machine and a Casiotone keyboard accompanying Rosie Smith's bell-clear soprano. The rest of the album consists of lo-fi skronk, new-wave angularity, echoes of vintage rock'n'roll, the odd nice pop melody, layers of multitracked bedroom-pop instruments, introspective spoken-word and a panoply of quotidian observations and clever plays of words (“the loneliness of the long-distance bus journey” being one example, and, indeed, the title being another). With her earlier work, she managed to catch the attention of no less than Euros Childs, and not only ended up playing support for his gigs, but getting him to sing and play Casio keyboard on one of the tracks.
- Tame Impala — Currents
The new album from the Australian psych-rock project which has been rocking festivals for the past few years is a lushly produced affair, combining elements of funk, dance music, yacht rock and perhaps even Bollywood scores in with its acid-bleached guitar and synth fuzz. Thematically, it is very much in the psychedelic tradition of being about internal, subjective experiences; Kevin Parker, the veteran psychonaut buffeted by the swirls and eddies of life, piecing together his seared psyche and writing catchy pop songs about it. Let It Happen foreshadows some ambiguous yet momentous change just under 8 minutes motorik beats, processed vocals and layers of synths; the second track, Nangs, is like an impressionist painting rendered in prog-psych electronica. Yes I'm Changing is a letter to someone (a friend? a partner/lover?) outlining why he must move on, half bidding goodbye, half inviting them to come along. Past Life is the album at its Bee Gees-esque apex of too-slow-to-disco smoothness; a song about unexpectedly seeing an old ex in the street shattering one's contentment with one's present-day routine, extended into four minutes of synth arpeggios, finger snaps and chorused and pitch-shifted vocals. (One could draw comparisons to Hissing Fauna/Satanic Panic-period Of Montreal, only without the perviness and period stylings.)
- Tigercats — Mysteries
Tigercats' second album is a more polished and (slightly) smoother affair (the B-side cover of Fleetwood Mac's Everywhere they did before recording it perhaps having foreshadowed the shift of influences). The opening track, Junior Champion, sets the scene with a shaker and two guitars leading into a languid ballad, using chess as a metaphor. Later, the groovy, synth-driven Wheezer goes further towards making a case for Tigercats as the true heirs to Architecture In Helsinki, and Sleeping In The Backseat is the album's big pop single.
YACHT — I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler
YACHT are the late-period Boing Boing of electro art-rave; very LA, compulsively futurismic, playful, somewhat cartoonish, and mixing subversiveness with unapologetic commercialism. Their latest album is no exception: gorgeously produced, multi-coloured, multi-layered chopped'n'screwed post-DFA electro-rave brain candy. The theme, as the title suggests, is technomalaise, partly in a where's-my-rocket-car Jetsons-kitsch sense, and partly in a Google/Facebook/NSA/email-spam weltschmerz sense. On listening to it one does get a sense of cartoonish flatness, of mashing up various levels as if they were semantically neutral ingredients; hence we get lyrics referencing Tinder ennui and drone strikes alongside each other. Because of this flatness, it's hard to tell where the boundaries between irony and sincerity, and between critique and complicity, lie; as one example, the album was promoted by being made available whenever the much-criticised predatory transport broker Uber had surge pricing in LA; whether this was a cross-promotion, critique, the former disguised as the latter or vice versa, is an open question. The album has its highlights: the opener, Miles And Miles, is an eight-minute electro juggernaut; War On Women suspends the postmodern irony to make a serious point, and I Want To Fuck You Till I'm Dead (in which Claire waxes poetic about her intentions for the second person, who, one gets the impression, is a really hench yet soulful twentysomething “creative entrepreneur” of some sort in London) has the playfulness of a lost Talkshow Boy song.
Honourable mentions include: Alpine — Yuck (the Melbourne band move from the Scandinavian-Balearic sounds of their earlier work towards a more laptop-R&B vibe), Beach House - Depression Cherry (lush and enveloping; a fine successor to Bloom; BandCamp), Björk — Vulnicura (an exorcism of the sundering of her relationship with her long-time partner, from the first doubts to the terrible, numb aftermath—the whole Kübler-Ross; lush yet harrowing), The Catenary Wires — Red Red Skies (Amelia Fletcher and her husband and long-time bandmate Rob Pursey's latest project eschews the indiepop shimmy and skronk for a more understated and (dare one say) mature vibe, somewhere between old country 78s and the Go-Betweens; Throw Another Love Song On The Fire would be the standout track), Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit (wordy indie songwriting in a distinctly Australian voice over real rock riffs, somewhere between The Lucksmiths, Pavement, Sonic Youth and a coolsie Chisel), Cuushe — Night Lines (an EP of tastefully chilled electropop grooves from Japan's Cuushe; BandCamp), Desperate Journalist — Desperate Journalist (taut new-wavey indie-rock by numbers; reminiscent of early My Favorite in places), East India Youth — Culture Of Volume (a bit more pop than his debut; Carousel stands out as the highlight), Fever Dream — Moyamoya (some fine shoegaze à la Chapterhouse/MBV from a young London band to watch), Four Tet — Morning/Evening (a 40-minute 2-track EP/album, combining Indian vocals with kosmische analogue synthesizer pulses and making an entrancing work; BandCamp), Grimes — Art Angels (interesting and idiosyncratic hook-laden electronic pop; highlights include Flesh Without Blood and REALiTi), Gwenno — Y Dydd Olaf (Welsh-language haunto-pop, not too far from Broadcast), Haiku Salut — Etch And Etch Deep (the Haikus go on as they started, only (perhaps appropriately) a shade deeper, more intricate and more expansive), Jean-Michel Jarre — Electronica 1: The Time Machine (get your arpeggiator/sequencer/modular-synth fix here), The Leaf Library — Daylight Versions (more languid and contemplative than their previous albums, eschewing (most of) the Stereolabesque motorik buildups of their earlier work in favour of a more pastoral, cozy feeling, with a warm, pre-used sound palette), Martin L. Gore — MG (an instrumental affair, following on from his Vince Clarke collaboration, VCMG, only without the Clarke's dancefloor-friendly influences; i.e., 55 minutes of frosty, vaguely post-Depechey noodling with synths, beats and electronic effects; pairs well with ambiguous footage, ideally in black and white), Pinkshinyultrablast — Everything Else Matters (another good shoegaze record, this time from Russia), Purity Ring — Another Eternity (more witch-house-tinged electropop from the Canadian duo), Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (the riot grrrl pioneers return in fine form), Stealing Sheep — Not Real (playful electropop from Liverpool; the title track is my favourite), Teeth Of The Sea — Highly Deadly Black Tarantula (not too far from Ben Frost, with its post-industrial drones, ominous moods and (perhaps scenery-chewing) obsession with the Burkean sublime that's evident in song titles like Field Punishment and Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey; the album closer, Love Theme From 1984, is rather lovely, somewhat reminiscent of New Order's Elegia; BandCamp).
Were I to choose an album of the year, it'd probably be Holly Herndon's Platform, with Briana Marela's All Around Us as a runner-up. There should probably also be a special mention for Björk; while her album didn't finish in the top this year, her influence is on at least three of the albums that did.
Anyway, here is a companion mix on 8tracks.
Once again, the year is almost over, so it's time to look back on the music of the past year; and so, here are the records of 2014 (in alphabetical order):
- Ben Frost, A U R O R A
Frost's most recent album sees him put aside the processed electroacoustic sounds he has used on previous records and instead start experimenting with electronic/dance-music instrumentation (as alluded to in one of the track titles, Diphenyl Oxalate, after the chemical used in glow sticks); though, by the time they've been put through his production process (whose details are a closely-held secret), the sounds are almost unrecognisable, Frost also collaborates with two drummers, who play in tandem. The result is layers of vaguely distressed textures; slow build-ups, often of corroded timbres, and intricate soundscapes, punctuated by bursts of searing, cathartic noise; contrasts between vast spaces and overwhelming intensity. Highlights include Venter and the closing triptych of No Sorrowing/Sola Fide/A Single Point Of Blinding Light. Sublime, in the Burkean sense of the word.
- East India Youth, Total Strife Forever
William Doyle, aka East India Youth, juggles the hats of songwriter, minimalist composer and producer of bangin' choons; as such, Total Strife Forever could be summed up, somewhat reductionistically, as two parts Hot Chip to one part Philip Glass. The opening track, Glitter Recession, seems to have begun its life as a piano piece in the Glassian vein, before being given a doing-over in Ableton Live; the result is an atmospheric buildup, easing into a more typically dance-music second track, albeit with an unusual 5-bar loop. Track three, Dripping Down takes it into more mainstream club-ballad territory, combining beats and basslines, a chorus of “soulful” gospel-via-Radiohead backing vocals, and lyrics with asomewhat introspective and soul-searching theme (as befits the inner-space exploration that so often happens when electronica meets songcraft). This segues into Hinterland (a rather good bleepy techno banger that transports you to a sweatily euphoric basement rave in Hackney), possibly the highlight of the album, before Heaven, How Long, (a techno-ballad of chemical alienation morphing, in its chorus, into a club floor filler), and Looking For Someone (which sounds like a spiritual for millennials). Doyle's more avant-garde tendencies reëmerge in tracks like Midnight Koto and Song For A Granular Piano, as well as the four-part title track interleaved throughout the record.
- Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch
A relentlessly postmodern, multilayered cross-cultural mashup like something out of a William Gibson novel; a Kuwaiti-raised, Brooklyn-based producer's concept album about the futuristic Far East, titled in German for some reason, and executed in a dubstep/grime idiom. Asiatisch starts off with the appositely-titled Shanzhai, a knockoff of Sinead O'Connor's cover of Nothing Compares To U, performed on synthesized choir pads, with the vocals replaced with nonsensical lyrics in Mandarin. The interlude Loading Beijing ramps the cyberpunk up to 11, as affectless machinelike voiceovers seemingly announce the initialisation of the virtual reality that is Al-Qadiri's gritty, high-tech new Orient. Other tracks, with titles like Forbidden City, Dragon Tattoo (its very title a semiotic layer-cake, juxtaposing Orientalism and cyberpunk via a recent Swedish crime thriller; the song itself sounds like M.I.A. reinventing Warm Leatherette) and Shanghai Freeway, combine oriental (and occasionally Middle Eastern) scales, synthesized shakuhachis and subbass drones to create an impressionistic sound-painting of something sprawling, neon-lit and aggressively futuristic.
- I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro
The Stockholm electropop duo's second album is a decidedly darker affair than its predecessor, seemingly having picked up DNA along the way from witch-house, coldwave and/or the recent wave of neo-goth synthpop like Former Ghosts and Cold Cave, and having an brooding, elegiac majesty to show for it. The opener “You Burn”, with its heartbeat rhythm, slow minor-key piano chords and measured vocals, sets an ominous mood; this is followed up eight tracks, alternating icy detachment and urgency over layers of coruscating synth arpeggios, bass drones, pulsing sequencers, gothic/industrial drum machine patterns and cathedraline reverb, with titles like “Faith”, “Denial” and “Disclosure”; the album is bookended with “Heart To Know”, knowingly weary vocals over a stripped-back piece of dusty, distorted ambience somewhat redolent of Polygon Window (i.e., Aphex Twin)'s Quino-Phec.
- Makthaverskan, Makthaverskan II
Technically a 2013 release, but it was released outside of Sweden this year, so it scrapes in, and if anything qualifies, this does. Among some of the better C86-almost-meets-shoegaze indiepop of recent times, sounding in places somewhere between The Sundays and The Cure's poppier mid-80s moments, with tight bass lines, choppy processed guitars and punchy, reverb-drenched female vocals; a highlight is No Mercy, which burns with righteous energy.
- Oh Peas!, Shades Of Intolerance (BandCamp)
Welsh multi-instrumentalist Rosie Smith, who is also one half of post-punk duo Totem Terrors, makes an impressive solo début with a collection of varyingly askew yet technically meticulous bedroom-pop songs, a few spoken-word pieces and the odd instrumental, layered from a variety of instruments (guitars, keyboards, melodicas and such) and lyrics alternating between pop idioms, quotidian observations, and the odd touch of wry surrealism and clever wordplay (example: “take a book of poetry to your best friend's birthday party, read them every poem about love, hate, war or death”, “you're so much sexier since I found out that you had dyslexia”). Highlights include the opening track Thick Like Snow, the Casio VL1-and-skronk punk-pop of Peanuts And Pickled Onions (which almost reinvents the key concepts of Ninetynine's Wöekenender from first principles), and the closing track Warm World, which is sweetly romantic and yet not cloying, not unlike early Mirah. This record manages to be at once uncontrivedly sincere and technically accomplished. Look for Oh Peas! to go places.
- Penny Orchids, Worse Things
London's Penny Orchids theatrically straddle the spaces between the scabrous end of rock'n'roll and older, though not necessarily more salubrious, traditions such as sea shanties and outlaw balladry; one could compare them to the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, though the artists they remind me of the most are two antipodean bands, The Paradise Motel and Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen. It starts off in fine form with One More Drink, a nautical murder ballad of sorts, and then goes on from there. About half of the album is themed, being the story of an Irish immigrant named Maloney who falls in with old New York's Jewish mafia; it's set sometime between the late 19th century and the Prohibition era, and adopts a klezmer idiom, which the band manage to pull off respectably (indeed, if one were to coin a genre name for this album, it would be “klezmerbilly”). The album closes with Shell Beach, a wistful piano ballad sung by the Penny Orchids keyboardist Kate Dornan, whose voice sounds a little bit like Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar. Dornan has been doing more singing in new, yet-to-be-recorded songs, which can only be a good thing.
- The Royal Landscaping Society, s/t (BandCamp)
Another new band from Spain's increasingly vibrant indiepop scene, The Royal Landscaping Society wear their Sarah Records influences on their sleeves, and combine that with more electronics. This year, they played at Indietracks and released their eponymous début EP, on French online label Beko. The opening track, Goodbye, starts off a little like The Field Mice's Five Moments; the Sarah comparisons continue in the third track, La La La, which doesn't sound too far from The Orchids or similar bands; other tracks (such as Frost) lean more on the synthesizers and drum machines, though often adding a guitar, not unlike bands like Kuryakin. The EP proper ends on a mellow note with Early Sunrays, all guitar arpeggios and synth strings, but this is followed by three remixes, from other Spanish indie artists. As this sort of classic indiepop goes, there are few better examples from 2014.
- Todd Terje, It's Album Time with Todd Terje
They like to have fun with their house/disco/electro/whatever up in Norway, and Terje Olsen, aka Todd Terje (his pseudonym itself a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chicago house DJ Todd Terry), is no exception. The album comes with playfully colourful, retro-styled cover artwork, and starts with a short theme tune, followed up by two tracks (Leisure Suit Preben and Preben Goes To Acapulco), which sound like TV-show themes and surf the fine line between cool and cheesy. The pace steps up into an unselfconscious 80s-flavoured retro-disco with Strandbar (which means “beachable”, I think) and Delorean Dynamite, before suddenly dropping the pace with a cover of Robert Palmer's anthem of middle-aged coupled ennui, Johnny and Mary; it's glazed over in soft, glossy layers of mid-to-late-80s overproduction (listen to those delayed drum-machine handclaps!), and sung by a weary-sounding Bryan Ferry, who could be the sharp-suited, melancholy drunk riveted to his barstool at the end of the night, his tie loosened and a cigarette burning to a stub in his fingers. The highlight, in my opinion, is the bipartite Swing Star (whose first part, all ambient synth arpeggios and drones, manages to sounds uncannily redolent of the Reload (The 147 Take) remix of Slowdive's In Mind, and whose second part reprises this with beats); finally, the album ends on a high with the bouncy disco anthem Inspector Norse.
- Jane Weaver, The Silver Globe
Jane Weaver was hitherto known mostly as a “folk” singer in a Wicker Man-esque vein; her new album is a surprise in its maximalist intensity; a densely cosmic, psychedelic affair, stacked with propulsive grooves, analogue synthesizers and lush textures, and not too far from Broadcast or Stereolab. The opening (and title) track is 47 seconds of ambience, all analogue synths and tape delays, easing into the metronomic kosmische grüv of Argent; a Krautrock juggernaut which motors along on a wave of pulsing bass, filter sweeps and choppy guitars. Weaver's ethereal soprano floats over this, weaving a tale of technological enchantment, and setting the mood and the theme for the rest of the album. Next up is The Electric Mountain, a prog-rock ballad built up over a Hawkwind sample and analogue synth riff, its story-telling vocals sounding somewhat like a more sci-fi-influenced Wendy Rule. Arrows (apparently based on a meditation on the cycle between the feathers from killed birds and the arrows used to hunt them) is a lovely, languidly ethereal piece, Weaver's vocals, singing a repetitive mantra, melting into a clunking bass guitar, wash of reverb over string machine and home-organ drums, before segueing into the Casiotone-driven disco stomp of Don't Take My Soul, with its circus-style melody and country-style falsetto, which would probably be the obvious radio hit. Cells has a dreamy languor about it, sounding not unlike Saint Etienne as heard from another room whilst still waking up; the tempo goes back up with the cosmic disco of Misson Desire, which one could imagine as the theme song from an obscure, infinitely cooler Barbarella-analogue filmed in, say, Yugoslavia or somewhere during the early 1970s. (There are undoubtedly layers of reference and allusion throughout this work; Weaver's husband and partner in music is the arch-obscurantist curator Andy Votel, after all.) The album eases to closure, with a few more mellow, though no less intricate, tracks, before bidding adieu with Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary, its reverbed barroom piano courtesy of BC Camplight. In any case, this is a record which reveals more with each repeated listening.
The album of the year is, of course, Taylor Swift's 1989, but were it not, it'd be Jane Weaver's The Silver Globe.
As far as the gigs of the year go, the highlight would be a tie between the Slowdive gigs I saw; they were all great, but I'd say either the very first one at Hoxton Bar (for the “I'm watching Slowdive play live!!” factor), the one at Primavera, for its epic scale and energy, or the very last one at the Forum (by when they had had half a year of live gigs under their belt and some appropriately psychedelic visual projections to boot); they were all magnificent. I'll just say that watching them play what their cover of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair has grown into—a sonic cathedral of coruscating majesty—is the musical equivalent of watching the most breathtaking sunset one has ever seen, until its very last rays disappear below the horizon into the velvet night.
This, of course, is a very hard act to follow, but the very strong runner-up was seeing
For your listening pleasure and/or curiosity, there is a streamable mix taken from the records mentioned above here.
As 2013 draws to a close, it's once again time to look back on the records of the year, and so here is this year's list (ordered by artist name):
- Beaches - She Beats
The second album for the Melbourne indie-rock combo features kosmische legend Michael Rother guesting on three tracks. Musically, it straddles the boundaries of shoegaze, post-rock and the more impressionistic end of rock. Layers of guitar fuzz drive forward, propelled by metronomic drumming, as bass and guitar lines interweave and play off each other and reverbed vocals float ambiently over the mix; at times, it sounds like the bastard child of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, or possibly the first Wolf and Cub album. The overall effect is vaguely mesmeric.
- Black Hearted Brother - Stars Are Our Home
A surprise collaboration from Neil Halstead (originally of shoegaze legends Slowdive, though ploughing folkier furrows in the decade or two since), his producer Nick Holton, and Mark Van Hoen (of IDM outfits Seefeel and Locust), which dropped late in the year on US indiepop label Slumberland, though sounding anything but twee, or, for that matter, folky; instead, we are presented with a coruscating slab of kosmische prog-disco, space rock and more than a hint of shoegaze; maximalist music which is not afraid of layeredness. Stars Are Our Home opens with the title track, a portentious minor-key electronic instrumental one would expect to have been brought into being on a modular synthesiser the size of a room (in reality, it may well have been made on a MacBook running Ableton Live like every other track these days, but such is modern life); this leads into the most Slowdive-esque track, the gloriously fuzzy (I Don't Mean To) Wonder; the rest of the album consists of a mixture of Halstead's languid vocals and honed songwriting, underpinned with combinations of strummed guitars, analogue fuzz, bold, crunchy drums and electronics both subtle and bold, often building up into layered, gleefully multitracked crescendos reminiscent at times of Caribou/Manitoba. One of the highlights was My Baby Just Sailed Away, a cut of supercool kosmische disco that motors through the darkness in a haze of analogue synth arpeggios and guitar crunch.
- Factory Floor - s/t
Factory Floor, a trio who originated in the industrial/noise scene in East London, purvey an album of ecstatic electro workouts which meld the icy cool of early-1980s New York disco à la Arthur Baker with the minimal club scenes of Berlin and Cologne and just a hint of Throbbing Gristle-style menace lurking beneath the glossy surface.
- Haiku Salut - Tricolore
The début full-length album from the band that formed from one half of The Deirdres treads a far less rambunctious, and slightly less twee, path. Eschewing the handclaps-and-glockenspiel mayhem of indiepop, Haiku Salut venture at times into cinematic chamber-pop reminiscent of Yann Tiersen (Los Elefantes, Lonesome George), Múm-style glitchy dreampop (Leaf Stricken) and the more pastoral ends of the post-rock spectrum (Rustic Sense of Migration), alternating between piano, classical guitar, various percussion, accordion and electronic beats.
- Kosmischer Läufer - Volume One
This year's faux-Krautrock record comes with a backstory of being a compilation of tracks composed in the 1970s and 1980s by "Martin Zeichnete", a young East German sound engineer who, because of his illicit listening to West German Kosmische Musik, was drafted by the Stasi to create training music for the DDR's athletes. Which is a more interesting story than it having been made by two guys in Edinburgh in 2013. With a bit of suspension of belief, this record creates a semi-convincing alternate-history Krautrock fantasia, like a less fanciful Endless House. Besides the implausible story and even more implausible digital crispness of the recording, it is a compelling and listenable piece of motorik electronica; if you like music self-consciously rooted in 1970s Germany (and aren't too fussy about it citing the wrong Germany), you might find this to be an enjoyable homage.
- The Magic Theatre - The Long Way Home
Seemingly tailor-made for those missing Isobel Campbell's Gentle Waves project, The Magic Theatre (from two of the members of indiepop cult heroes Ooberman) delivers a package of immaculately retro-styled and impeccably artful chamber-pop. Released on credible Madrid indiepop label Elefant, The Long Way Home has the widescreen Technicolor sheen of high-end 1960s productions, with sweeping strings and woodwinds and nary a distorted guitar to be heard. Of course, in 2013, making a record that sounds like this is a deliberate decision, and some would say an affected one. The record nails its stylistic colours to the mast at the outset with The Sampler, a fairy-tale account of making a dress for a ball, sung over sweeping strings and sugarplum bells; this is followed by It Was Glorious, an paean to a youthful summer and/or a soundtrack to Jack Wills catalogue photography. (There are vaguely posh undertones to much of this album, perhaps echoing él Records' faux-aristocratic indie in the 1980s.) Festival of Fire veers in a Bollywood-via-Wes-Anderson direction, while Cathedrals Of The Mind, a whir of erudite references, explores the complexity, and ultimate futility, of civilisation, with more than an echo of Windmills Of Your Mind to it; this song in particular seems written for the end credits of a vintage spy thriller. The highlight would be the lovely I Want To Die By Your Side, which sounds like a synthless Dubstar and will undoubtedly end up a fixture of many mix tapes and indiepop kids' weddings. The closing track, which is also the title track, ends the record on a high.
- Samarís - Samarís, and Cuushe - Butterfly Case
This year's odd couple of albums; this time the shared theme being chilled-out electropop from volcanic islands. Samaris hail from Reykjavík, Iceland; their self-titled album actually consists of two EPs released last year, but those were not widely available prior to being rereleased as an album this year. They make a sort of low-key electronic dream-pop, with subtle subbass, skittering beats, artful use of dub delay, the odd arpeggiated synthesizer and quiet vocals in Icelandic; I was reminded a little of GusGus' 1997 album Polyesterday; not so much by the sound, but by the feel of it. Meanwhile, Cuushe, who hail from Kyoto and Tokyo, are slightly more upbeat and (for want of a better word) electronic-sounding; though sharing the IDM influences; there are slightly more layers of synths, the tempos are a bit faster, and the overall impression is a bit more urban. Their vocals, often multitracked and layered, are in English on all but one song, and sound slightly reminiscent of Múm.
- Underground Lovers - Weekend
It has been a long time between records for the Underground Lovers; their last album was 1998's Cold Feeling, a homage of sorts to their influences (Suicide, the Velvet Underground, Neu! and New Order are all in evidence there). And those who waited 15 years would not have been disappointed; this album has all the elements one expected from the Undies' 1990s heyday; the skronky too-cool-for-school alt.rock guitar lines married with slightly obsolescent dance-music electronics (no wubwubs or mad drops here), the mild incongruity adding texture. The Go-Betweens' influence can be felt in places in the record, in some of the more wistfully reflective songwriting (such as in the almost shoegazey Haunted (Acedia)), and more explicitly in the track Riding, recounting a party in the bygone days of a scene. The lushness of the production is particularly evident on the quieter tracks, including the opener Spaces, and the stylish dream-pop of Dream To Me, which is a Bacharachian trumpet accent away from being a Birdie song. The album closes with The Lie That Sets You Free, a motorik workout on a par with Cold Feeling's Feels So Good To Be Free. This record carries its weight in years, as befits a band of the vintage of the Underground Lovers, and does so gracefully. All in all, a fine return, and hopefully not the last we'll hear from the Undies.
- Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something To Happen
The best New York C86-revival band to come out of London, Veronica Falls hone their chops for their second album, which is a somewhat more tightly-coiled, groovy and melodic affair than the affable scruff of their début, whilst maintaining a similar theme of stylised teenage drama executed in boy-girl vocal harmonies.
- T.R.A.S.E. - Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble
Not a new record per se, but a new find, consisting of demos and experimental recordings made by Mancunian teenage synth boffin Andy Popplewell in the late 70s/early 80s on synthesisers he built himself; abandoned for a few decades, it surfaced when Popplewell, now a middle-aged tape-restoration consultant, used his old tapes as an experimental subject for restoration, and then happened to chance upon obscurantist cratedigger Andy Votel, who was getting some tapes restored for his Finders Keepers reissue label. A lot less rough than one would expect; highlights include the proto-shoegaze of Harmonium, the beats of Electronic Rock and a cover of Gary Numan's We Are So Fragile.
Nothing immediately jumps out as a record of the year, though Samarís and Underground Lovers are strong contenders; had Black Hearted Brother come out earlier, it could well have given them a run for their money.
My gigs of the year would be:
- Loney Dear, Majornas Missionsyrka, Gothenburg, 5 October; Loney Dear performing a number of songs, including some classics and a few new ones, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, in a rather lågom church next to a Gothenburg tower block. The orchestral arrangements were exquisite, and the whole experience was worth the flight to Sweden.
- Kraftwerk, Harpa, Reykjavík, 4 November; not having managed to see them in London or New York, I jumped at the opportunity when they announced a show in Reykjavík, making my second trip to Iceland of they year. The show was spectacular; more about it here.
- Haiku Salut, St. John's, Bethnal Green, 12 October; Haiku Salut playing in a church, accompanied by several dozen electronically controlled lamps that lit up in time with the music. A great show and a somewhat twee spectacle.
For your listening pleasure, there's a streamable mix taken from the records of the year here.
And now, as usual, here is my annual list of records of the year:
- Aleks & the Ramps - Facts
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.
- Beach House - Bloom
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.
- Crocodiles - Endless Flowers
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.
- Eccentronic Research Council - 1612 Overture and Purity Ring - Shrines
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.
- Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't
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.
- The Rosie Taylor Project - Twin Beds
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.
- Still Flyin' - On A Bedroom Wall
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.
- Tender Trap - Ten Songs About Girls
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 - Isle of Dogs
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.
- The Wake - A Light Far Out
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:
- Architecture In Helsinki Moment Bends
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.
- Constant Light, Mag - Amplitude
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,
Dreams of Dreams Denied, which opens with languid acoustic guitar and harmonica figures, like Morricone meeting Mogwai, drifts through layers of shifting texture, motors on into a driving rhythm propelled by guitars and drums, before coming to rest in a glorious finale of coruscating synths.
- Geoffrey O'Connor, Vanity Is Forever
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.
- Hong Kong In The 60s, My Fantoms
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.
- I Break Horses, Hearts, and Korallreven, An Album By Korallreven
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 Leaf Library, Different Activities, Similar Diversions
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.
- My Sad Captains, Fight Less, Win More
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.
- Still Corners, Creatures Of An Hour
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.
- Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls
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.
- various artists, The Endless House Project
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:
- 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.
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 - Merriweather Post Pavillion
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.
- Arthur & Martha - Navigation
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.
- Ben Frost - By The Throat
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".
- Cold Cave - Love Comes Close / Memory Tapes - Seek Magic / Rainbow Arabia - Kabukimono / The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa
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). Together, they
fight crimeform part of the sound of 2009.
- Crayon Fields - All The Pleasures Of The World
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.
- The Drums - Summertime
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.
- Hong Kong In The 60s - Willow Pattern Songs
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.
- Jónsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps
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.
- My Sad Captains - Here & Elsewhere
- The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - self-titled
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.
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.
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:
- The Tenori-On launch, San Francisco, 18 April
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.
- ATP vs. PITCHFORK, Camber Sands, 9-11 May
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.
- Jeffrey Lewis, Scala, 18 September
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, The Vines, Derby, 7 Oct
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 Jesus and Mary Chain/Black Box Recorder, The Forum, 27 Oct
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.
- Parenthetical Girls, The Dome, 17 November
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.
- I'm From Barcelona/SoKo, London/Brighton - 25/26 November
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):
- Animal Collective - Water Curses
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.
- Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours
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 - Why Do My Glasses Give You The Heeby Jeebys?
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.
- Eine Kleine Nacht Musik - s/t
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.
- El Guincho - Alegranza
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?
- Glass Candy - B/E/A/T/B/O/X
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.
- Momus and Joe Howe - Joemus
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
- Moscow Olympics - Cut The World
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.
- Parenthetical Girls - Entanglements
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.
- Vampire Weekend - s/t
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?)
And here are my records of 2005, in no particular order:
- Machine Translations, Wolf on a String*. Six tracks, subtle and impeccably produced, layering guitars, electronics and understated vocals, and with a great deal of thought in the arrangements and compositions. The title track is hauntingly lovely, and Miss China and Paris Road are low-key pop gems. The other three tracks are good too.
- Broadcast, Tender Buttons. Their last album was a bit bland compared to The Noise Made By People; this one is a return to form. It's like early Stereolab playing on a Game Boy, all sparse, motorik grooves, gloriously dirty aliased waveforms and Trish's dreamy vocals.
- Sambassadeur, Between The Lines EP. A four track EP, released in Sweden last year but the UK only this year, from another good Swedish indie band. They also released a quite decent album later this year, but for some reason, this grabbed me more. The title track of the EP is a joyous piece of upbeat indie-pop; the other tracks are fitting B-sides, pop songs with guitar, trumpet, melodica, and a bit of shoegazing feedback and Mary Chain-style fuzz.
- Holidays On Ice, Playing Boyfriends and Girlfriends* Classy, polished indie-pop from various established Australian musicians, including Angie Hart of Frenté/Splendid; has echoes of Yo La Tengo. Even though the idea of a group of thirtysomething Australian band veterans releasing a record with an unbelievably fey title and a naïve picture of kids playing in the snow (presumably somewhere in Northern Europe or North America) on the cover does seem a tad contrived, the product is eminently listenable. Highlights include the upbeat pop of Sailor Girl, Speak-n-Spell-driven semi-instrumental Spell Happiness, the board-game-referencing (though not AIH-referencing) glock-pop of Fingers crossed and some of the instrumentals.
- Minimum Chips, Kitchen Tea Thankyou* This one took me by surprise. After getting used to the Chips putting out one EP every few years, I did not expect them to drop an entire album one year after their last EP. But they did, and we get almost 50 minutes of Minimum Chips goodness: modular organ grooves, jagged guitar jangle, sophisticated Continental pop sounds filtered through Melbourne/Brisbane indie-rock, and Nicole's floating vocals, more "aaah" than "ba ba ba". ("Lady Grey", in particular, could be descibed as "Golden Brown", had it been written by Stereolab about tea rather than The Stranglers about heroin.) A few of the tracks were familiar from Minimum Chips gigs two years ago, and had only made it onto record now.
- Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd, the Mysterious Skin film score Possibly the best thing Guthrie has put out since Victorialand. Ethereal and moody, like golden sunlight in a dream. The film was quite good too (though somewhat more disturbing).
- The Winter Ship, Teardrops EP*. Four tracks of shoegazing post-rock goodness, with rather nice string arrangements, from the Melbourne instrumental outfit. Swimming Through A Narrow Space sounds not unlike Mogwai's Helicon 1 only with words. The other tracks are no less lovely.
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:
- Belle & Sebastian playing If You're Feeling Sinister at the Barbican. They brought their second album to life really well, and played a few other favourites before and after it.
- My Favorite, playing at Underbelly, 17 June. The last ever gig they did in the UK before breaking up. Their brand of immaculate, upbeat, New Order/OMD-influenced pop with lyrics of suburban alienation and existential angst really appealed to me.
- One of the three Architecture In Helsinki gigs I caught on their two UK tours; let's say, for the sake of argument, the one at the Dublin Castle in Camden. Their live performances seemed a lot tighter and more energetic than they were when I saw them back in Melbourne.
- Broadcast at Koko. They brought their new album to life quite well, and played some of their old tracks too.
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.
- Minimum Chips, Sound Asleep (Sound Malfunction); the long-awaited new 7-track EP/album from the Chips actually came out in 2004, but I only got it this year on account of being abroad. It wasn't a disappointment. Seven tracks, with their trademark tight, jaunty grooves, clunky bass lines, vintage electric organs, glockenspiels, trombones and Nicole's vocals, recorded with the perfectionistic production values their EPs are known for. It varies from twee to angular, and ends with a 1-minute explosion of krautrock-tinged noise.
- The Rumours, We Are Happy (Cavalier Records); tight guitar pop in a classic vein from the Melbourne band, with songs of unrequited love, hopes, fears and moments, delivered in a very Australian pure-pop sensibility; hearing this in the London winter was like sunshine in aural form.
- Sambassadeur, Between The Lines (Labrador); a 4-track EP from a Swedish indiepop group. Elements of C86/Sarah Records-style fey indiepop and shoegazer. Jangly guitars, handclaps, tambourines, catchy pop harmonies and low-key vocals with lyrics (in English) about watching the northern lights and just enough reverb/delay and the odd bit of Mary Chain-esque skronk. I look forward to the album (which is out in Sweden and awaiting a UK release through local shoegazer indie AC30).
- Laura, Mapping Your Dreams (Alone Again). I heard this when walking past Perfect post-rock; evocatively atmospheric moodscapes of layered guitar, driving basslines, drums and the odd synth, glockenspiel and murmured vocal, with not a note out of place. Not too far from Mogwai territory via inner-north Melbourne, and strays into Prop territory in one track. Simply sublime.
- July Skies, The English Cold (Make Mine Music); sparse, evocative post-rock soundscapes of minimalist reverb-washed guitar, and understated vocals; like a more understated Piano Magic circa Artists' Rifles, with a bit of late-period Slowdive; this is a concept album, ostensibly about the southern English countryside at the outbreak of World War 2, with song titles like Farmers And Villagers Living Within The Shadow Of Aerodromes, Strangers In Our Lanes and Countryside of 1939.
- Robin Guthrie/Harold Budd, Music from the film Mysterious Skin (Commotion); Guthrie's most sublimely ethereal work since Victorialand; works beautifully within the film, and manages to stand on its own too.
- My Favorite, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives (Double Agent Records); indiepop that's like synthpop with guitars, bass and live drums. Shimmering guitar, keyboards reminiscent of OMD or 1980s New Order, the odd melancholy piano, overlaid with alternate male/female vocals. Beneath the sweetness and light there is a darnkess and a deep melancholy; the pure-pop sweetness of Andrea's voice melds incongruously with the lyrical subject matter of suburban alienation, mental illness, violence and loss; the monochromatic booklet with its post-rock-esque blurry photographs and essay about the ghost of Joan of Arc as the original emo kid, adding even more incongruity. It also comes with a second disc of synthpoppy remixes, including one by Future Bible Heroes.
- Trademark, Want More (Truck Records). Theatrical, somewhat spoddy and ever-so-slightly facetious synthpop from three English blokes in labcoats. Parts of it border on goth-club material, with cold, industrial distortion, melodrama in a minor key and Depeche Mode affectations, whilst others head into Human League/OMD club-pop territory, and the rest of it being not unlike Baxendale; polished, clever and very English. The songwriting is nimble, with plenty of wordplay, and the arrangements and production are impeccable, using the medium to its full expressive potential and keeping things interesting. And it features songs equating emotions with oscillator waveforms, and a love song with the words "simple harmonic motion"; how can you go wrong?
Recordings of 2004
- Morrissey, You Are The Quarry. Moz is back, and in fine form. His youthful alienation is turning into the crankiness of a lonely old man, but he still can write a good song (and give a good show).
- Pipas, Bitterclub. A new EP from this London electropop duo; A classy mixture of indiepop vocals, glitchy beats and guitars.
- The Radio Dept., Lesser Matters. Well-crafted indiepop with guitars, synths, Casio drum loops, good chord progressions and songwriting and just the right amount of Kevin Shields influence.
- Talkshow Boy, Watch As I Perform My Own Tracheotomy. Apparently not out yet, though I got an advance copy, and it's a cracker of an album. It's 20 tracks along the same lines as the Ice Police single; glitchy yet catchy electropop with razor-sharp stream-of-consciousness lyrics and titles like Ruff Lovin' In A Tuff Neighbourhood, Go Hard Or Go Home (I Wanna Tweak Yr Moog) and OMG I <3 Livejournal (And My Livejournal <3's Me).
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):
- BAM BAM in a backyard in Fitzroy in April. I was blown away by their energy and musicianship. They rock hard and look sharp, and if anyone deserves to make it big, it's them. And it looks like things are happening for them.
- Belle & Sebastian at the Palais in St Kilda. Easily the gig of the year. They tore the roof off the place. People were dancing in the aisles and all. The band bantered with the audience, did an AC/DC cover, and at one stage, a girl from the audience got up on stage, sang the vocals from Lazy Line Painter Jane with them and did a perfect job of it.
- Le Tigre at the Islington Academy (in London, natch). Half of it was prerecorded (though they did play guitars/keyboards and sing), though the visuals and stage performance were good to behold.
- The Chickfactor Mon Gala Papillons night in Shepherd's Bush (also in London). Stevie Jackson from Belle & Sebastian did a few quite nice songs, and Pipas took their act to the stage.
- The Radio Dept., at Barfly, Camden. They're as good live as on record.
- Radiohead at the Rod Laver Arena (back in Melbourne again). Gigs at arenas usually suck, because of the binoculars factor, but Radiohead put on a good show, despite Thom's voice faltering somewhat. Their use of the video screens was quite creative too.
- Schmoof, at the Water Rats in London. Slick if slightly silly tongue-in-cheek electropop with rock theatrics worthy of Spinal Tap and visuals handcoded in BASIC on a ZX Spectrum.
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:
- BAM BAM. They're somewhere between Transvision Vamp and 1960s garage rock, played really tightly with lots of charisma and stage presence. And they look hot too. They should make it big.
- City City City - About as close as you're going to get to seeing Neu! playing live. A juggernaut of non-stop krautrock-meets-postrock groove, with not one but two drummers. They sound better live than on CD.
- Light Music Club - An all-girl duo doing pop songs, with piano and vocals. Whimsically sensitive songwriting, classy arrangements (in places reminiscent of Coward or Bacharach), and Zoë has a lovely voice.
- The Rumours - Classic indie pop done well, with tight, jangly guitars, sensitive indie-boy lyrics and a groove you can dance to. The frontman is like Morrissey and Johnny Marr rolled into one.
- Season - Post-rock soundscapes you can immerse yourself with, with electric piano and guitars with the whole range of effects (from metal crunch to wah) used judiciously; like Mogwai scoring a David Lynch film.
- Talkshow Boy - A guy with a CD player full of homemade computerised glitch-pop beats, which he then sings stream-of-consciousness lyrics over, about polar bears, eskimos, his LiveJournal friends and the undead. Though he puts on a really entertaining show of it. Also see Service Station Youth, which is him and three other people doing a similar thing.
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:
- 8. Yo La Tengo - Summer Sun. A nicely laid-back collection of grooves from Yo La Tengo, and more than a worthy follow-up to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.
- 7. Martin L. Gore - Counterfeit2. Covers of acts including Nick Cave, the Velvet Underground and others, done in glitchy, electronic fashion, with the characteristic Depeche Mode formula of aching humanity and cold electronics. Note: the Australian release is corrupt; the US release isn't.
- 6. Ninetynine - Receiving the Sounds of Science Fiction EP. A five-track taster of their upcoming album, available only through a singles club in the US. Has some good new tracks, though I still think they shouldn't have taken the guitar line out of San Pedro.
- 5. The Postal Service - Give Up. Indie synth-pop from Seattle; intelligent and well arranged, even if some of the love ballads may be a bit too perky.
- 4. Radiohead - Hail To The Thief. This could possibly have been album of the year, or close to, had it not been for EMI deciding to release only defective versions in most markets (the US being an exception). In any case, the set of MP3s leaked onto the internet prior to release was actually slightly better than the released version (for example, The Gloaming lost its third verse before making it to CD). NOTE: The Null Device does not advocate violating copyright laws.
- 3. Belle & Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress. The Glaswegian indie-pop collective's latest album, produced by Trevor Horn, and bouncing all over the place, from rock to pop to retro. A bit fey in places, but then again, you'd sort of expect that.
- 2. Minimum Chips - Gardenesque. Three tracks they recorded for SBS and a longish studio arrangement. Good, if a bit short. Maybe one of these years they'll record a full-length album?
- 1. Spearmint - My Missing Days. Spearmint probably have the best songwriting of any English indie band these days. Their songs are very much about subjective experience, and don't confine themselves to the usual romantic-relationship clichés that sell well, but cover other things, like accumulating too much stuff as one goes through life, or the process of really getting into a book. Their music is pretty good too, reminiscent in places of Pulp or someones.
(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:
- Broadcast, Haha Sound -- the followup to The Noise Made By People, follows on from it, combining '60s retro sounds, sweet vocals, clunky basslines and jangly tweeness with glitchy experimental electronica (which makes sense, with them being on Warp and all). The first song sounds like Julie Andrews or something, whereas the second one is the token attempt to ride the electroclash bandwagon (thankfully the rest of the album leaves that particular well-flogged horse carcass alone). Some of the interludes are quite nice too; in particular, the bad-acid-trip quality of Black Umbrellas.
- Pizzicato 5, Happy End of the World -- Electronica combined with shagadelic retro kitsch, stylised as only the Japanese can do it. The lyrics are mostly in Japanese, and the music varies from drum & bass and house to Bacharach-hop, vintage film scores and lounge exotica. Very cute and quite groovy.
- Cornelius, Point -- I didn't like this much; it's a bit on the bland side. Also, the birdsong samples sound like something you'd pick up in a New Age crystal shop.
- Death By Chocolate, s/t, and Zap the World -- The product of an English schoolgirl's obsession with chocky bars and the Swinging Sixties. Wears its retro stylings very much on its sleeve, and is also interspersed with short spoken-word pieces in which the narrator describes what various colours mean to her and enumerates her favourite things. Most of the music is somewhere in Mid-State Orange territory. Possibly too clever for its own good.
- Chicks on Speed, The Rereleases of the Unreleases -- A collection of tracks from Chicks on Speed combines laptop electronics, punk sensibilities and ironic detachment. Has some good moments (the ironic house track Glamour Girl, and their cover of The Normal's Warm Leatherette) and a lot of filler, including many <1-minute filler tracks. Annoyingly, though, the liner notes are printed inside the packaging, which means that the only way to read them is to tear it apart. Which was probably some sort of artistic statement.
- Manitoba, Up In Flames -- this has been growing on me. Think My Bloody Valentine meets Múm. Understated, reverb-drenched vocals, glitchy beats and layers of environmental sounds, processed guitars, tinkling music-box sounds and odd instrumentals. I'll probably get Start Breaking My Heart, their (more electronic-sounding) first album, soon.
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:
- Club 8, Spring Came Rain Fell. Very nice indie-pop from Sweden, with just enough electronica.
- Victor Lancaster, Mr. Mention Yes, the guy who plays the plastic bucket drums in Melbourne. And, with the attention of local remixers, this disc is better than you'd expect.
- New Order, Here To Stay (single). New Order back in fine form.
- Ninetynine, The Process. Their best album so far; quirky, sophisticated and with all the energy of their live sets.
- Parsley Sound, Platonic Rate (single). Very laid-back and mellow.
- Stereolab, Sound-Dust. It's Stereolab. Naught More Terrific Than Man is probably my favourite cut.
- Various Artists, Can't Stop It! Australian Post-Punk 1978-1982. Contains a wealth of stuff from proto-synthpop to Dadaist noise to jangly guitar-pop.
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:
- Belle & Sebastian, The Boy With The Arab Strap
- The Field Mice, Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way (yes, again; I just can't leave it alone, honestly I cannot...)
- FourPlay, The Joy Of
- Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions, Bavarian Fruit Bread. Very nice.
- Lush, Split.
- Mogwai, My Father My King. Intense, immersive noise.
- Radiohead, OK Computer, and I Could Be Wrong
- Slowdive, Pygmalion. I travelled a bit, and it made excellent music for journeys.
- The Smiths, The Queen Is Dead. This is becoming my favourite Smiths album.
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:
- New Buffalo, About Last Night. I'm still rather fond of this quirky little EP, though haven't listened to it much lately. (Apparently, Sally's off in LA recording an album with EMI/Capitol money. Hopefully they won't turn her into Danielle Spencer or Geri Halliwell or some generic pretty girl singer, though history doesn't give one many reasons to be optimistic.)
- Lush, Ciao! Best Of. Haven't listened to it, but have since then picked up the entire Lush back catalogue, plus some unreleased MP3s. Split and Lovelife still get played every so and so (in fact, I'm listening ti Split right now, and it was one of the discs I burned to CD-R and took to London with me.) As such, Ciao! has done its work admirably.
- Radiohead, Amnesiac. Still gets played every now and then; though of the Radiohead back-catalogue, OK Computer gets the most play around here.
- Spearmint, A Different Lifetime. Since last year, I've picked up their previous 3 discs as well. A Different Lifetime and its more baggy-oriented predecessor A Week Away would be my favourites.
- Black Box Recorder, Worst Of. Gleefully sardonic, and some of their best work (funny how B-sides sometimes tend to be that way).
- Prop, Small Craft Rough Sea. This CD still rocks. Groovy, cooler than cool and yet with powerful momentum.
- Radiohead, I Might Be Wrong Live Recordings. Haven't listened to this much over the past six months or so, though I prefer the version of Like Spinning Plates to the Amnesiac one.
(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:
- A Silver Mt. Zion, He Has Left Us Alone But Shafts Of Light Sometimes Grace The Corner Of Our Rooms. Bleak, desolate, existentially despondent, and beautiful.
- Models, Melbourne: Their early tracks. The whole thing didn't grab me, but Party Girls and Atlantic Romantic are pretty cool.
- Mogwai, My Father My King: a 20-or-so minute wall of intense, immersive noise. Put it on, turn it up, and feel it engulf you. It's all good.
- Vivian Girls, The, The Vivian Girls: like a slice of dimly-lit early-80s post-punk claustrophobia; it's great, especially Black Chair In A Black Room. (To be fair, it probably slipped the list because it was released in 2000, but I think it still rates a mention.)
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:
- Origami, Please Exit Quietly. Their first release on Stewart Anderson's 555 label, and they got a proper jewel case in the deal too. It's pretty much standard guitar-and-Casio garage indie-rock, somewhat reminiscent of Life Without Buildings in places, only the lyrics are less vague and more politically charged (in the riot-grrl sense). It certainly has some of the most sweetly sung smash-the-system vocals, with the possible exception of Stereolab.
- Sarah Sarah, Sing Till It Hurts: Loud, brash and about as subtle as the Australian sun in summer. They have a promising career ahead of them, possibly doing theme songs for youth-oriented TV soaps.
- Club 8, Spring Came, Rain Fell: I've been listening to this quite a bit lately. A very nice (if somewhat brief) indie-pop album from Sweden. Shimmering guitars, subtle keyboards, understated boy-girl vocals, quietly lush harmonies, fey, bittersweet lyrics, handclaps, and the token synthpop number or two. Think The Field Mice meet Saint Etienne, or possibly a combination of Birdie, GusGus and a less stilted Kings of Convenience.
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:
- Ballboy, Club Anthems 2001: File alongside The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian. The spoken-word track about space travel isn't bad, and Sex Is Boring, which bags house music and club culture, also has its charms.
- Below The Sea, the loss of our winter: Credible guitar-driven post-rock instrumentals from France. tropic of cancer is probably my favourite track so far. Unfortunately, my copy seems to have a defect which results in a fluttering noise when played; though one could argue that it's not as noticeable as it would be in other musical genres.
- Bis, The End Starts Today: some remixes from their most recent album, along with their speech synth-driven cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart, which is probably the highlight.
- Clan of Xymox, Medusa: A combination of reverb-heavy 80s studio rock, minor-key synthpop and goth-club floor-filler material, with the distinct touch of 4AD about it; a sort of Frankie Goes Eurogoth. Check out the heavily-processed guitars, rapid-fire drum machine patterns and po-faced Brendan Perry-meets-Andrew Eldritch vocals, as imitated by every other dodgy Cleopatra band from the US Midwest since, though this is a notch above all that.
- Colourbox, Colourbox: Another 80s 4AD outfit, this time doing electronic dub instrumentals. They went on to form M/A/R/R/S, you know.
- Cure, The, Collectors Curiosities Vol. 2: With Carnage Visors and numerous B-sides and no reference to the band on the disc itself (presumably to evade copyright audits at the pressing plant), this is another one of those London market specials. The "bonus tracks performed live in a recording studio 1984" certainly adds to the air of suspiciousness of the entire package.
- Curve, Come Clean: Curve-by-numbers; crunchy overcompressed beats and overdriven guitar whines and Toni's distorted vocals and textures of analogue synth warbles and bleeps. I suppose that's the nice thing about Curve records; you know what to expect, and you're not disappointed. All much of a muchness, though Beyond Reach is nice.
- High Llamas, Buzzle Bee and Snowbug; somewhat twee, post-Beach Boys/Bacharach melodies. Sort of like Stereolab without the difficult bits. (Indeed, Tim and Lætitia appear on the latter disc, as does producer John McEntire.) Good background music, though not the most compelling records ever made.
- James, Laid: I picked this up for the title track, and because it was cheap. For some reason, they sound more Australian than British to me; not sure why. Perhaps they sound a bit like the Go-Betweens or the Triffids or someone, or otherwise give a sense of wide spaces and harsh sunlight in their music?
- Miss Kittin & The Hacker, The First Album: minor-key neo-80s synthpop with disjointed, emotionless Euro-accented vocals, and KOMPRESSOR-style songwriting.
- Primal Scream, Autobahn 66 promotional single: just the 3-minute version of the track. Blah.
- Spearmint, Songs for the Colour Yellow: their early works, with 1960s power-pop touches; not as baggy as A Week Away or as bowlie as A Different Lifetime. Interesting to hear that they recycled the melody of the title track for one of their subsequent songs.
- Trembling Blue Stars, She Just Couldn't Stay CD single: No, he's still not over her. Though isn't that the whole point of Trembling Blue Stars? Compelling, but in the way car accidents are.
- Will To Power, Journey Home: early-90s LA studio outfit, best known for their cover of 10CC's I'm Not In Love; I remembered them for Koyaanisqatsi, their spoken-word rant over a slickly-produced electronic background, going on about corporate domination, animal research and damage to the environment from a gun-toting anarchist perspective (think early Moby meets an arts-degreed Eric S. Raymond). That and the Nietzchean sleeve notes add a touch of eccentricity to the rather overproduced, vaguely Madonna/Lewis Martinee-esque bulk of this CD. I wonder what Bob Rosenberg ended up doing after this; producing commercial dance music, or retreating to a cabin in Montana? Either sounds equally likely.
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:
- Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions, Bavarian Fruit Bread. The more I listen to this disc, the more it grows on me. The quiet vocals floating sleepily over the subtly muffled guitars, with barely audible brush percussion and the odd xylophone. Very, very lovely.
- Parsley Sound, Platonic Rate; understated, with subtle distorted beats, analogue synths, vintage keyboards and floating, reverbed vocals; rather dreamlike and atmospheric, with perhaps somewhat of a 1960s psychedelia influence in places.
- Malory, Outerbeats. Best known as "that German outfit that tries to be Slowdive", this album goes beyond their influences somewhat. Granted, the Slowdive-circa-Just-For-A-Day influence is obvious (you can pick out specific songs and rhythms there), though they add synth textures and crunchy beats. And it works. Some of the tracks almost edge into Gus Gus territory.
- Which probably prompted me to dig out my copy of the Icelandic chillout outfit's This Is Normal album and give it a spin or two. It's still as good as it was back in 1999 when I picked it up.
- Victor Lancaster, Mr. Mention. Yes, the plastic bucket drummer who plays on the streets of Melbourne; and better than you'd expect it to be. Some of the remixes are particularly impressive.
- The Love Letter Band, Even The Pretty Girls Take Medicine. One of the raft of 555/Red Square indiepop releases I walked away with during one of Stewart and Jen's popfests, and quite a nice one, in a somewhat fey electro-pop vein.
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:
- The Field Mice, Where'd You Learn To Kiss That Way
- New Buffalo, About Last Night
- Lush, Split
- a lot of Slowdive demos on N*pst*r (may it rest in peace)
Best books read:
- Ken MacLeod, The Stone Canal and/or The Sky Road (top-notch speculative fiction, with culture and society as well as science)
- John Lanchester, The Debt to Pleasure (because of the sheer twisted delight of the way it unfolds through the narrator's over-erudite yet subtly deranged commentary; warms the cockles of one's black little heart, it does)
- the four Harry Potter books so far (a bit obvious, but they are good)
- Neal Stephenson, The Big U (well worth a read if you like his stuff)
- Naomi Klein, No Logo (a good overview of the brand-dominated world)
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:
- Cocteau Twins - Stars and Topsoil
- A collection of some of the Cocteau Twins' best material from 1982 to 1990. Has some great songs, like Aikea-Guinea and Heaven or Las Vegas
- Radiohead - Kid A
- Yes, it was over-hyped; the press wouldn't shut up about it and your local Sanity/HMV had stacks of it. And yes, others said it was a load of wank. But once you get past that, you have an interesting album. Some have compared it to The Cure's Pornography, perhaps fairly, only with more of a Warp influence and some odd time signatures. Favourite track: probably How To Disappear Completely.
- Minimum Chips - Freckles
- An EP from a local act, in a sort of Stereolabish vein; hope they do a full album soon.
- Baxendale - You Will Have Your Revenge
- Electronic pop (though not synthpop) with tongue firmly in cheek. Some of the songs get boring after a while, but I Love the Sound of Dance Music is a classic.
- Stone Roses - The Remixes
- Some great reworkings of the Stone Roses, ranging from Rabbit in the Moon's acid-rave remix of I Wanna Be Adored (which sounds as if they could have done most of it with ReBirth) to Kinobe's mellow reworking of Elizabeth My Dear.
- FourPlay String Quartet, The Joy Of
- Their second album, with some great tracks, including a dub/klezmer two-part and a vicious-sounding PWEI remake. Their remix CD, slated for early 2001, will be something to look out for.
- Piano Magic, Artists' Rifles
- Arty and understated and hard to describe, though something I've been listening to a lot.
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.)
NME have published a list of the 10 most depressing albums of all time. Not surprisingly, both Joy Division albums are on this list; oddly enough, the Smiths don't feature even once.