Holding Yourself Hostage: of Montreal’s Paralytic Stalks Reviewed

of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks

I’m a bit paralyzed myself in writing this review. I can’t seem to mobilize my thoughts in a way that would serve this latest of Montreal album. In addition to my own proclivity to self-sabotage, this record has left me weary, and feeling as though I have no ability to articulate its scope and vision. It’s as though I would have to compose my own hour of music to express what I’ve experienced but can’t put into words. After the sunshiney soul-funk of False Priest, the sexy alter ego antics of Skeletal Lamping, and even after what I had considered to be Kevin Barnes’s most self-revealing/reviling work, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, Paralytic Stalks is sonic violence, a passive-aggressive assault on your senses. The entire record is haunted by a searing high-pitched noise, regularly inducing a cacaphonic madness and spectral paranoia, but the sound never becomes muddy or muddled; instead, the production and composition are precise and crisp, lacerating in their clarity. Barnes has returned to the messy self-awareness of Hissing Fauna, but has kicked out the reassurance of poppy sing-a-long choruses and replaced them with the mercurial, unpredictable movements of Skeletal Lamping. In comparison with this latest album, Hissing Fauna’s nervous breakdown actually seems quite lucid and pleasant. There’s a punishing rhythm to Paralytic Stalks; the psyche-crushing intensity is bookended by those now-familiar wonky choirs of Barnes harmonizing with himself and almost-bucolic melodies, including fluttering flutes and gentle acoustic guitar. There’s also a sense of a relentless itch you cannot satisfy; a perching on the cusp of resolution without reaching it. By the end of Paralytic Stalks, your mind is crying out for a conclusive chord to tie up the infinite number of frayed ends that have stranded you on edge for the previous fifty-eight minutes.

The album opens with “Gelid Ascent,” which feels much like drowning in frigid waters. Reverb ricochets off more reverb like the disorienting push of water in your ears, and when the drum beat eventually kicks in, it sounds like a slow thrashing of numb limbs. Barnes’s vocals become garbled in a multitude of echoing, desperate pleas. In “Spiteful Intervention,” his vocals keep pitching into flashpoints of half-screamed taunting. Barnes rages against a reality that is increasingly meaningless and against his own ego whilst ruminating on his failings and self-hatred. His impotence is perfectly encapsulated in the lines: “There’s nothing to fight/it’s just a bitter fait accompli.” He recognizes his own fragility and malevolence; against a background of jaunty melody, he sings, “I made the one I love start crying tonight/And it felt good/Still there must be a more elegant solution.” It’s as though he can’t help himself in more way than one. As with several previous albums, much of the album seems to be directed at his wife, Nina Grøttland, dissecting the contradictions and complexities of their life together. The lightest track on the entire record is “Dour Percentage,” which, perhaps unsurprisingly, will be released as the first single. It floats in a psychedelic bubble of deceivingly saccharine music as Barnes negotiates the complications of his marital relationship. There’s an atmosphere of beleaguered alienation as he sings “this planet is an orphanage” and of a “personal ghetto.” The mutual torment continues in a more twisted fashion on “We Will Commit Wolf Murder.” Though Nina is the only person he can believe in, he also envies her capacity for belief. The agnostic antagonism reaches its frenzied, bestial heights as the song ends in distorted beats, sounding like a rave filtered through a bad hallucination. Barnes’s continued exclamations of “There’s blood in my hair” begin to sound much more murderous against this heavier backdrop, and he becomes like a trapped animal stripped of consciousness and ready to lash out. With the music ending in a fit of squeals, his sighing vocals carry you into the next softer track, “Malefic Dowry.” Although he sings of trying to remain Nina’s “rock ‘n roll ally,” he also adds the rather disturbing, impossible demands of his own emotional state, including “Now I feel you’re provoking me with your fidelity.” It’s as though Barnes is baring his threats and brandishing the misfortunate baggage to which Nina has yoked herself in marriage.

“Ye, Renew the Plaintiff” ushers in the half of the album with the lengthier, even more challenging, songs. In this track, Barnes actually addresses Nina by name, and two minutes into the song, his sweet falsetto performance has soured into the harsher taunting that appeared earlier. It’s like Barnes is tearing at his own brain in howling fury, trying to express the inability to escape his own corrupted thoughts. The music mirrors his mental state in squeals and pounding drums, helping him to articulate what he cannot otherwise: “I’m desperate for something/but there’s no human word for it.” You can feel the terror of recognizing the onset of depression in his half-screeched line “I’ve become so hateful/How am I ever going to survive this winter?” The song shifts gears in a myriad of squeaky whistles and a disembodied vocodered voice. As Barnes attempts to trace the ancestry of his own instability and emotional sterility, the music bounds along down a steeper path as though it cannot stop itself from tumbling into the looming abyss of “Wintered Debts.” In one of the most personally affecting moments of the album, Barnes nearly whispers the lyrics “Can’t survive another comedown day/where my spirit houses so much pain/so much bitterness” before swelling up with the anger of the music and proceeding with his “morbid fugue.” For those of us who can fall into an obsessive self-loathing that casts its moribund stench over everything we do, his rasping cry of “I can’t deal with mourning at the carcass of my failures any longer” is a magnificent metaphor. Four and a half minutes into “Wintered Debts,” the music begins to swirl in sinister, yet enchanting loops, like Giovanni Segantini’s “The Evil Mothers” come to life. The song then shifts back into a Beatleseque ballad as Barnes seems to experience a brief respite, singing that “the child of our struggle is free.”

“Exorcismic Breeding Knife,” the penultimate track, opens with a disjointed refraction, which spiders out with broken minor chords and horror film menace. The vocals shift from spoken-word to dream-like trance. There’s something terribly creepy about his lyric “horse-faced hours of ours,” as though he is plagued by true nightmares, time staring him down through equine eyes. Distant bell chimes add to the unsettling gloom before Barnes explores the lack of a system in dealing with this kind of pain; he later states that “There is no economy of despair.” His clipped vocals ask “How can you perform?/How can you operate?” as though his mind is a machine that has malfunctioned, and he is trying to find the correct frequency on which to recover, tuning different sounds and samples in and out. The final track on the album, “Authentic Pyrrhic Remission,” takes the bold experimental schizophrenia of the previous song a few hundred steps further. Though it begins with what seem to be facetious “la la la’s” and a final declaration of empowerment and return to some sort of salvation through his relationship with Nina, the strained jubilance drains away into another bout of chaos. The final movement of the suite is a glassy ambience slipping into a piano ballad. At this point, Barnes refers to himself as a nomad, a pariah, an exile, and a mongrel, but realizes that these terms are rendered useless in a world with “no nations” and “no concept of ego.” The last line of the record is the quietly sung “Our illumination is complete”; in this mockery of enlightenment, only the obliteration of a rational self and personal progress, and the erasure of all categorical boundaries can be a more elegant solution.

Paralytic Stalks is a sadistic and masochistic experience shot through with a brutally honest self-awareness. Kevin Barnes continues to fascinate, and I continue to empathize with him. As someone who lives with repeated mental hijackings by chemical imbalance, I can identify with much of Barnes’s exceedingly evocative lyrics and depending on my mood, this album can actually be a comfort in its blinding evisceration; it can become the welcome white noise I need to cleanse my fevered brain and drown out my own malevolent thoughts. With this record, Barnes seems to have reached a point at which he has had to resort to the non-verbal in order to articulate the unspeakable. Through a fluid musical exploration, he voices the vitriolic frustration with his helplessness and his exhausting struggle to free himself of the thoughts which prey upon him. Paralytic Stalks is an exceptional piece of noise therapy that expresses what it feels like to try to defend yourself whilst hunted down and cornered by your own claustrophobic anxieties and suffering through a suffocation of your own mind’s making. It is the sound of holding yourself hostage.

Paralytic Stalks is released on February 7. Preorder it at Polyvinyl.

Spiteful Intervention – of Montreal

Wintered Debts – of Montreal


Music for Manitoba: John K. Samson’s Provincial Reviewed

The music of John K. Samson holds a very dear place in the hearts of many, many Winnipeggers and Manitobans.  That’s a truism, sure, but it’s one I feel is relevant as his new and first solo album proper, Provincial, essentially a love letter to Manitoba, is released.  Of course, Samson’s work with bands Propagandhi and The Weakerthans made him well-known a decade and a half ago, which is to say it also certainly holds a very dear place in the hearts of many people all over the world whether or not that work is about his beloved hometown.  For all their specificity in name and place, the songs on Provincial are evidence of the appreciation that grows from years of living in the same place, seeing the same people, and relying on the same comfortable familiarities and, as such, I think this collection will appeal to a vast array of listeners.

There’s nothing here so bitter and conflicted as The Weakerthans’ classic “One Great City!” and its refrain of “I hate Winnipeg.”  Instead, Provincial is an affectionate musical road trip to places forgotten or only known in story.  From the Trans-Canada Highway entering and exiting Winnipeg to the city’s distinctive landmarks, culture, and customs to explorations of rural towns and their history, Provincial is both a continuation of the work he’s done on one of his favourite subjects and a new, committed, and focused collection of songs imbued with his signature melancholy, sometimes cynical, sweetness.  There are multiple mentions of ghosts, snow, and darkness, which any record about Manitoba would be obliged to include, but beyond these lyrical references, the mostly acoustic folk-rock presented here is warm and welcoming.  This is in no small part due to Samson’s voice, a charmingly imperfect instrument with an expressiveness and honesty that few other singers possess.

With opener “Highway 1 East” Samson enters Winnipeg, relieved to have left Saskatchewan and accompanied by horns to accentuate the poetry of this brief prologue.  The line “some sarcastic satellite says I’m not anywhere” wryly portrays the frustration of a GPS that doesn’t pick up Winnipeg and the more important fact that this is home.  Sure, we’re an insignificant city that’s just a dot in the middle of Canada’s vastness, but can’t that satellite signal at least recognize how much this place means?  “Heart of the Continent” immediately transports listeners to the intersection of Memorial and Portage and the old United Army Surplus store at its corner.  The iconic building has been torn down and replaced with a new one that contains University of Winnipeg classrooms and offices, a restaurant, and a small art gallery, but what’s happened to the stories and people that used to fill this long-time Winnipeg institution?  Samson’s nostalgia is fleeting, though; he’s just passing by this corner on his way to somewhere else, but the dusk seems to bring out reflection when all the occupants of the building are closed for business.  He questions why there’s “no sign to show you when you go away” [and leave Winnipeg], and in doing so makes a poignant point about endings.  Beginnings (of cities, and of businesses and buildings) are always announced and celebrated, but endings go unmarked and in many ways overlooked.

“Cruise Night” focuses on the Winnipeg summer ritual of drivers and their vintage muscle cars cruising up and down Portage on Sunday evenings, complete with spectators lining the street with their lawnchairs.  This cruise night, though, is one from decades past and told from the perspective of a kid on his bike.  Not yet old enough to drive and participate fully, he’s relegated to peddling around “while jacked-up rides idle at me.”  Also on Portage Avenue is “Grace General” or Grace Hospital where on this song someone drives through the midwinter cold to visit a loved one who is sick and hospital bound.  The final refrain of “what will I do now” seems to express the despondency with which this person approaches both the rest of the day and the rest of his life without his loved one.

The pace picks up again to an early Weakerthans-esque clip with “When I Write My Master’s Thesis” and a character that spends his time alternately playing video games at home and researching his paper on the Ninette Sanatorium, a tuberculosis hospital in the village of Ninette that operated from 1910 to 1972.  A (fictional) letter that he finds while doing research is the subject of “Letter in Icelandic from the Ninette San.”  Even though Samson came up with the contents of this letter especially for this song, its words ring eerily true in lines like “In another year I’ll be buried or shivering here/Coughing at the grey spittoon/Painted orange by the harvest moon.”  Accented with emotive violin lines, this letter from a person ill with tuberculosis could very easily have existed, as could have a student researching and discovering it while working on their master’s thesis.  This pair of songs beautifully bookends the existence of one of Manitoba’s buildings that exists to Samson only in family anecdotes and archival evidence.  How is it that knowledge of something so real to past generations of Manitobans is reduced to books in libraries and ghosts in the lives of young Manitobans today?  What happened to those people?  What happens to those ghosts?

“Longitudinal Centre” again brings us to the highway and the precise middle of Canada while “www.ipetitions.com/petition/rivertonrifle/” is both a song and an actual URL for an online petition to admit Reggie “The Riverton Rifle” Leach, Riverton-originating NHL player and Manitoba icon, into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  Leach fans can add their names to the petition by clicking the above link.  “The Last And” is a plaintive memory of a short-lived relationship (an affair?) between, presumably, a schoolteacher and the principal of the school she works at.  It’s devastatingly sad and resigned; Samson’s hushed delivery of the line “I’m just your little ampersand” and the realization that this relationship is ending lend the song a heartbreakingly intimate glimpse into memory, nostalgia, and love.  Back in a (broken-down) car for “Highway 1 West” and stranded in a ditch outside of Winnipeg, we are given one last dose of the road before settling in again at home on “Taps Reversed,” a duet with Samson’s wife, musician Christine Fellows.  Home, of course, is filled with household chores and things that need to be done, though that doesn’t detract from its incredibly strong pull and the feeling of belonging, of rightness, that only happens when at home.

John K. Samson – Heart of the Continent

John K. Samson – When I Write My Master’s Thesis

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Long Live Sheffield: Former Lover and Nature Set Split Maxi-Cassingle Reviewed

Former Lover Nature Set Cassingle

It was an unfortunate day in 2008 when The Long Blondes had to disband after only two albums due to guitarist/songwriter Dorian Cox’s stroke. While rumours continued to percolate around Long Blondes frontwoman Kate Jackson’s yet-to-be-released solo album, I hadn’t heard anything more about the rest of the band, especially about what had become of Cox. Then at the end of last October, I received an email out of the blue ether, announcing his return with a new band called Former Lover. And they were apparently releasing a limited edition maxi-cassingle with fellow indie Sheffield band Nature Set. This was fantastic news. For one thing, I really love the word cassingle. Luckily, I also discovered that I really enjoyed both bands’ work. Fronted by Myrtle with Cox on guitar/organ and Daniel Dylan Wray on bass, Former Lover is an exciting departure from the scratchy vintage pop we had grown used to hearing from Cox. Instead, we get some minimal, yet seductive post-punk that relies heavily on the bass guitar for melody lines. Nature Set, which includes another ex-Long Blondes member, Reenie Hollis, and Daf, Claire, and Marie of garage-punk band Navvy, is a high-octane contrast with buzzsaw guitar and wonky synths. The sunshine yellow cassette has no label, but comes in a cardboard slipcase that has a DIY stamped design reminiscent of The Orphan Arms’ aesthetic. The analog format definitely serves both bands’ styles of music, allowing for the constant creep of static on Former Lover’s songs and fleshing out the fuzztones of Nature Set.

The first side I’m cued to slip into the tape player is the Former Lover side. Myrtle’s detached yet sweet, Alison Stattonesque voice is a clinical complement to a musical background that makes me think of sodium-lit car parks and cheap, brown-wallpapered motels from the 70s (the retro aesthetic is also cultivated in their music videos). With the three songs’ knocked-up pauses and obvious drum machines, they evoke the seedy and the synthetic. “He Doesn’t Have to Know About You” begins with a psychotic, pared-down bass figure that recalls “Stand By Me,” but twists it into something unresolved, unhinged, and voyeuristic. The song even includes what sounds like a much harsher, sharper güiro, a mechanized güiro, in fact. To supplement the languid bass, there are fabulous scribbles of distorted guitar that sound like someone slowly losing his/her mind. In a singsong, matter-of-fact vocal, Myrtle provides the chorus of “He doesn’t have to know about you/And she doesn’t have to know about me/For the record.” She even sets a time limit on the relationship: “until we’re thirty-five at the most.” The second track, “Unlust,” carries the fullest guitar line, but still keeps gaps of tension and a metallic iciness in the random clangs of percussion. There are more lyrics of a fantastically straightforward nature, such as “I suppose my lust for you is wasted/So I suppose I should divert it somewhere else.” The final track is “Heartbreak Button,” an understated tango set to the weirdly flat whip of a drumbeat you would find on the opening of New Order’s “Blue Monday.” Between stabs of organ, Myrtle pleads “Don’t press the heartbreak button…please,” damping her desperation by reverting to the mechanical stance on love and sex that is present in the previous tracks. At one point, the song becomes particularly chilling as the narrator asks “I was a good person/Wasn’t I?,” which sounds like the kind of unsettling, doubting question you hear from a person clinging to an unhealthy relationship.

With their snarky female backing vocals and pop sensibility, there’s a bit of Kenickie about Nature Set. Their opening track, “If You Lived Here You’d Be Home By Now,” taunts and seesaws back and forth to a punchy bassline and a counter melody on synths. The drums pound through the bridge as synths continue to build with alarm-like quality and the electric guitar crescendos to a roar. “Hands” begins with the proclamation that “this week has gone to hell” and the narrator has “done nothing worthwhile.” It blossoms into a punky version of a 60s girl group song complete with a Spectorish bassline on methamphetamine and wide-eyed Sarah Records vocals. There’s a brash honesty to the lyrics, including “I’m not wishing it could last,” and the chorus is a blast of blissful melody as it delivers more candid observations: “It’s all right here in my hands…I still want more than I’ve found.” Closing track, “I Am a Planet,” is a swift, spinning slap of crazy. The vocals build upon each other in rhyming recklessness while arcade synths buzz in the background and the drums crash. It’s the perfect, incendiary collapse for the end of the cassette.

I truly hope I’ll be hearing more from both bands in the near future. Long live the Sheffield indie scene. And long live the impractical, yet enchanting cassingle.

Purchase the cassingle for only £2.50 at Naked Under Spacesuit.

Heartbreak Button – Former Lover

I Am a Planet – Nature Set

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We Are Messy and Unplanned: Rae Spoon’s I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets Reviewed

Montreal’s Rae Spoon has an incredible work ethic that’s really a bit mind-boggling to keep up with.  Since debuting in 2003 with Throw Some Dirt on Me and releasing five albums since then, this transgendered singer-songwriter has steadily moved from the musical sphere of twangy country and into the realm of indie electronica, never sacrificing their talent for crafting a catchy hook and for pulling the listener in deeper with layered lyrics of almost-love and loss.  True to Spoon’s biography on their website, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is, to date, the most electronic album Spoon has made, continuing in the path begun by 2008’s superioryouareinferior and 2010’s loveisahunter of fleshing out pretty pop songs with sometimes discomfiting electronics and painful, yet wholly poetic, personal insights.  Spoon tours almost constantly and I’ve been lucky enough to catch them twice here in Winnipeg over the last couple of years.  With another North American tour on the immediate horizon, complete with a Winnipeg date, I don’t think I’m off the mark at all when I say that that’s a super impressive workload as well as the makings of a career that has inspired fans from all over the world and continues to do so.  Once a fan of Rae Spoon, it feels very much like you’re on the journey with them.

I am happy to report that Spoon’s work has picked up again from the slight disappointment, in my mind at least, of loveisahunter, and returns to the form last seen on career highlight superioryouareinferiorI Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is that beautiful thing, something that makes me pay special attention to an album – on the surface it’s beautiful, melodic, upbeat, often happy, and even glossy.  Dig deeper at the lyrics, and they counter that musical contentedness with doubt, tentativeness, and isolation.  Like superioryouareinferior, the emotional terrain Spoon traverses is often laid out in the form of actual physical terrain and particularly Canadian geography and natural phenomena.  Here that natural Canadiana is complemented by references to iconic English geography in mentions of the Thames and London more generally.  And, like usual, what’s best about this Rae Spoon release is their voice, easily able to navigate the trickiness of doing country music without sounding like a kitsch retro act and perfectly suited to this low-key kind of electro, humanizing and making real the synthetic sounds behind the words.

“Ocean Blue” serves as an album opener with force, announcing to listeners that Spoon’s country tendencies have been abandoned, at least for the duration of this record.  An upbeat synth figure bounces lightly along, while a bass part, suggestive of the depths of the titular ocean, pulses and injects the light with something altogether darker.  Spoon’s lyrics tell of the alienation of a strange environment that finds its metaphorical counterpart in water.  Yes, the ocean is a symbol for something much more intimate: “Strange to each other and lost in a country/Lost in our bodies with nothing to hold us/We drifted together out past the breakers.”  The water is enveloping, overwhelming, and foreign, and so is the emotional geography of the relationship that Spoon’s narrating.  The engulfing nature of the water isn’t the only thing on their mind here, however: the weight of a partner’s “secrets” pulls Spoon to the ocean floor and there they sit, waiting to be found.  Ultimately, dwelling on this relationship is dangerous for Spoon: “If I look for the memories I get tangled on them/If I hold on to you then I start sinking.”  This time, the water takes control, with Spoon losing both themself and their partner to the vastness of the ocean.

The theme of alienation continues on the next track, “Crash Landing,” and particularly in its repeated refrain of “We don’t belong to each other/We don’t belong to anyone.”  This lyric could be interpreted in many ways, but I think of it as being about the brevity of hook-ups and fledgling relationships that don’t last.  There are certainly emotional connections in these instances, but mostly they are cases of “burning up and going” as Spoon sings; the cause and result of not having a plan.  The title track deals with someone close to Spoon who has disappeared from their life, whether physically, emotionally, or indeed both.  The unsaid questions hang in the spaces between refrains of “I can’t keep all of our secrets”: What am I to you?  Do you miss me?  Why did you abandon me?  Lines like “Maybe when I’m nothing I will understand where you are now” and “Call with no answer” illustrate the bewilderment and frustration of having a shared history with no one to corroborate its existence.  “Are You Jealous of the Dead” is lent ghostliness by the signature vocal waver that Spoon is known for and contains a particularly lovely couplet comparing the dead to the living: “They are written and punctuated/We are messy and unplanned.”  Again, the exhausting wringer of life, its relationships and failures, and its jarring connections with death, is focused on here to melancholy effect.

“Ghost of a Boy” explores, for Spoon, a new soul-influenced sound that is evidenced by an introductory and background vocal line that is presumably composed of Spoon’s electronically altered voice.  It could be argued that this unusual component of the song’s sound is like the ghost of its title, but for me, the warbling and somewhat challenging line adds soul-like warmth to an otherwise sparse and eerie song.  Perhaps this ghost isn’t chilling or creepy at all, but comforting and welcome.  “Ice Caps,” the closing number and song most reminiscent of the themes explored on superioryouareinferior, feels as cool and relatively unpopulated as Canada does.  With mention, obviously, of ice caps, in addition to northern lights and “cosmic rain” as well as the ocean floor inhabited on “Ocean Blue,” this song compares the slowly disappearing polar ice caps to a lover that slowly fades away and becomes strange to Spoon.  The line “There’s less of you, but there’s more at the bottom of the ocean floor” illustrates exactly how a relationship erodes over time, becoming smaller and more insignificant until there is nothing left.

A sad and beautiful album dedicated to themes of isolation and love lost, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets is triumphant in – and through – its pain.  Spoon is definitely a master of taking the remnants of life’s disappointments, along with its small pleasures, and transforming them into songs that still manage to uplift even though they’re rarely about happiness.  Both coolly electronic and warmly emotional as well as a testament to Spoon’s songwriting skill and their ability to switch genres effectively, I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets rewards active yet patient listening and is catchy as hell to boot.

Rae Spoon – Ocean Blue

Rae Spoon – Ghost of a Boy

Rae Spoon will be playing at Gio’s in Winnipeg on February 24.

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The Future Will Be Newspapers Set in Futura Bold: My Top 25 Albums of 2011

My senses are drained, my listening faculties are frayed. Remind me not to evaluate twenty-five albums in three days when I do this again for 2012. As Laura already said, it’s been a banner year for gigs which may never be exceeded. And it’s also been a strange year for releases, namely the feeling that we slipped through a wormhole to the 80s. I’m not sure I would have pegged 2011 to be the year we hear new mainstream material from John Foxx, Thomas Dolby, and The Human League. While it’s clear I would have felt much more at home in a northern English town between 1978 and 1984 (preferably wearing a trenchcoat and a quiff), I’m still a little surprised to see how older artists are dominating my list, and if not older artists, newer artists that sound much like the older artists.

Since beginning this new blog in October, I’ve appreciated having a reviewing partner who I can trust to write impassioned and thoughtful reviews, and who pushes me to up my game as a writer. And the fact we composed our top album lists completely independent of each other and ended up with several of the same choices shows that we do indeed sometimes share half a brain.

These are early days for this blog, and it can only go up or down from here. Thank you, and good night.

25. IAMX Volatile Times

IAMX - Volatile Times

I’m still conflicted about this fourth album from Chris Corner’s IAMX, hence, he has fallen from being number two in 2009 to number twenty-five this year. Upon the first several listens, I was disappointed as Volatile Times seemed too fragmented, too overreaching, like a person falling apart and losing his/her way. The beautiful bombast and political fervor of Kingdom of Welcome Addiction seem to have degenerated into less exciting theatrics and less subtle lyrics, including an oddly self-righteous paean to Christopher Hitchens. Judging by his sporadic blog posts from the last year and a half, Corner has been working out of a pretty messy mental space. It feels like he was desperately attempting to rally troops to support his point of view, but these attempts started to veer into self-indulgent railing and heavy-handed preaching. After listening more closely, there were tracks worthy of note, and I realized that perhaps I was too quick to discard the entire album. “Bernadette” proves that he still has a command of haunting circus songs; “Cold Red Light” screeches and thunders in a cathartic rush as Corner alternates between intoning detached vocals and explosive violence; and “Oh Beautiful Town,” which features snippets of conversation from his family, is powerful demonstration of the strength of his voice and his sense of anthemic melody, and continues to prod at the past that “Think of England” hinted at. I hope that Corner will once again be able to take himself less seriously and struggle out of the insular world, seemingly bolstered by sycophantic blog comments, that he’s currently stewing in. I admire the fact he’s clearly a critical thinker as well as a dedicated artist, and I still believe that he has the potential to create truly interesting art with purpose.

Bernadette – IAMX

24. Gruff Rhys Hotel Shampoo

Gruff Rhys - Hotel Shampoo

This third solo album by Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is his most accessible (for one thing, it’s the first to be an all-English record), but it’s also a sweet, warm blend of acoustic folk, airy psychedelia, sweeping Bacharach-like piano, bleepy electronics, and Latin influences. His vocal style retains the gentle Welsh lilt even when he sings in English, and his shambolic style is heart-flutteringly endearing. This album gives me a feeling of being bathed in an amber glow with nature in soft-focus all around me. It also makes me think of The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Even when he sings of the ending of a relationship in songs like “Honey All Over” and “Vitamin K” he manages to retain a relaxed, harmonious atmosphere, and tunes like “Sensations in the Dark” and “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” are puppyish in their bouncy loveliness. A track such as “Conservation Conversation” would seem a little too cartoony and childish by any other artist, but Rhys makes it yet one more pleasant quirk in his canon. He gives me a similar sense of retro comfort that Richard Hawley does; he seems a man out of his time, but one who brings a sense of ease to our own time.

Honey All Over – Gruff Rhys

23. Shirley Lee Winter Autumn Summer Spring

Shirley Lee - Winter Autumn Summer Spring

Erstwhile Spearmint frontman, Shirley Lee released his second solo album this year as an ambitious double-disc set that reverses its way from the season of death into the season of rebirth as he relates a lifetime of seizing the moment. The first track of the winter cycle and the record as a whole, “Maidenhead,” is an appropriately pessimistic beginning in which Lee sings: “You ask me if I believe in a life after this/I don’t even believe in this one.” However, the album ends with the last spring song, “I Can Wait,” which is a more hopeful tune; Lee is fighting fit and willing to see out any of the bad in his life. As you might expect, this album runs the gamut of emotions through apoplectic frustration, deflated regrets, sweet nostalgia, and heady recklessness as Lee courses through his flawed existence. The gentle twee pop and Lee’s hushed vocals push the self-aware lyrics into a captivating musical story. I, myself, can identify with the compulsion to analyze my own mortality and to have acute realizations that I’m in a good memory as it’s happening to me. Shirley Lee manages to take a giant step back from his own narrative and see the forest while describing the trees with poetic detail.

I Can Wait – Shirley Lee

22. Hercules & Love Affair Blue Songs

I loved the first album by DFA act Hercules & Love Affair so much that it made my Top 40 Albums of 2008, and they succeeded in following it up with an equally intriguing record. The opening track “Painted Eyes” cleared away any doubts as that brilliant violin riff kicks in over the bass and flute, living up to “Blind” off their debut. There are many excellent dance tracks, including the glitchy scatting and smooth soul of “My House,” the slinky funk of “Leonora,” the brass–enhanced house beats of “Falling,” and the pumping keyboard line of “Step Up,” which features guest vocals from Kele Okereke. What makes this album of more interest to me are the unexpected lurches away from their genre. There’s the tender acoustic ballad of “Boy Blue” and the muffled crashes of “It’s Alright,” but the most remarkable song is “Blue Song.” With its mellow clarinet cascading in a way reminiscent of “Rhapsody in Blue” against a backdrop of jungle sounds, it’s a track that is both tribal and coolly urbane. The slower songs that move away from the disco and dancefloor shift the spectrum of an otherwise glowing, red-hot band to a sophisticated, inky indigo.

Blue Song – Hercules & Love Affair

21. M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

M83 - Hurry Up

Anthony Gonzalez is having quite a successful year with the double-disc follow up to his John Hughes-inspired, adolescent dream Saturdays = Youth. This time Gonzalez seems to be in thrall to a sparkling childhood of synth magic. It’s brimming with a rushing innocence and dreamy escapism, making it an effervescent antidote to our rather cynical, uncertain times. Whether fizzing through nocturnal urban landscapes or whizzing through twinkling galaxies, Gonzalez’s distinctive yelps elate and delight alongside his expansive synths. After two entire discs, it’s almost too much gushing energy, perhaps akin to staring at the sun or having your heart explode from a particularly high rollercoaster drop, but instead it leaves you wondering just how much joy and brightness one musician can convey without having a brain aneurysm. This album is a New Romantic sundae you want to keep eating until you vomit.

Intro – M83 (featuring Zola Jesus)

20. PJ Harvey Let England Shake

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Nope, she’s not at the top of my list like she is in just about everyone else’s—mainly because I don’t find most of the music to be on par with the anger and bitterness of the lyrics. However, I think she should still be commended for her act of audio arson, sending the bloated, moribund English nationhood down into an incendiary funeral pyre and exploring its bloody, slippery slopes of unending war. If only because she seems to be one of the few musicians to tackle this kind of material at the moment. When I first heard “The Glorious Land” on the radio, I felt like I was going a bit mad. The disorienting music skitters out in all directions while that military trumpet sample comes in to tilt everything off balance. Much of the record keeps that wobbly sensibility as Harvey’s vocals slip through almost as many changes as do the musical styles; for “On Battleship Hill” she delivers a banshee/siren vocal performance, and on “Written on the Forehead” she becomes an airy ghost. This Mercury-Prize-winning record is unsettling because it seems to portray a broken madness of post-traumatic stress rather than stand up in protest; it ultimately becomes a snapshot of defeat instead of the shaking of foundations you might come to expect from Harvey.

The Glorious Land – PJ Harvey

19. Matt Berry Witchazel

When I heard that Matt Berry, of Mighty Boosh, IT Crowd, Snuff Box, etc. fame, had recorded an album, I have to admit that I assumed it would be a generally comedic affair with plenty of plummy, baritone vocals of the “Goddamn these electric sex pants” variety. Granted, I was making this estimation based solely on his rendition of “Eclipse of the Heart” as Dixon Bainbridge. I was ecstatically surprised to find that Berry is more likely to ride a white swan into early Tyrannosaurus Rex via The Incredible String Band with a higher, reedier vocal style and a mercurial backing of harp, woodwinds, guitar, piano, mandolin, organ, and glockenspiel. Witchazel evokes pastoral themes, renaissance fairs, village fetes, and psychedelic freak-outs. The lyrics are suitably surreal (ie: “Your penguin’s in the bath/It was put there by your mum”), and sometimes downright humourous as in the track “Accident at a Harvest Festival,” which features an unfortunate incident involving a gun and cerebral staining of clothes. Overall, Berry proves that some people are just too talented at too many things.

Take My Hand – Matt Berry

18. Artery Civilisation

Artery - Civilisation

Who would have thought there would ever be a new Artery album? Their last studio record, The Second Coming, came out in 1984, and while Jarvis Cocker did boost their profile by adding them to his 2007 Meltdown line-up, I never expected it would result in a brand new album. Those intervening years seem to have made them even angrier. If the gas-mask man and grey landscape on the album cover are anything to go by, this album is a misanthropic affair. Mark Gouldthorpe’s sneering vocals are more tortured than I remember as he sings with contempt about society’s aimlessness and vacuity, sounding like the only person who hears the ticking timebomb of “progress.” Artery’s distinctively propulsive, insistent rhythms and percussion kick through fat bass lines and slicing guitars; sometimes the music builds into portentous atmospheres of dread, sometimes it shakes with a taut rage like a horrorshow gone critical. It’s an album that truly interrogates “civilization,” asking questions that are meant to hold people to account, but which become rhetorical as they fall on deaf ears and blank stares. Artery updates their sense of alienation with the addition of cyberspace on songs like “A Song for All the Lonely People,” and in “Into Oblivion,” Gouldthorpe spits that we’ve built our artificial security out of “anguish in the concrete.” While so many newer and younger bands are in the blissful business of ignoring the pathologies of our uneasy culture, Artery has brought back vitriolic, necessary confrontation.

Is It All for Real? – Artery

17. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones

Frank Turner tends to receive an equal measure of loyal adulation and dismissive backlash. I think both reactions stem from Turner’s unabashed earnestness. Having seen him perform live twice (thankfully, in intimate venues), having interviewed him a few months back, and having met him in person after his Winnipeg show, I can attest to the impassioned genuineness of his projected persona. And he has a backing band of equally decent souls. Though I may like Poetry of the Deed more than this current album, I still find England Keep My Bones to be a powerfully memorable and life-affirming statement about identity and the urge to both escape and maintain roots. It’s a record of exploring heritage, belief in the power of community, and self-memorialization. Songs like “I Still Believe,” “I Am Disappeared,” “If Ever I Stray,” and “Glory Hallelujah” get my heart pumping faster like the waters rushing through the estuaries that figure so prominently in Turner’s conception of his homeland. While Turner may not always be aware of the poetry and consistent imagery in his own work, I think he’s created a truly thematic piece that is emotionally affecting and uplifting in its humanity.

I Am Disappeared – Frank Turner

Read my interview with Frank Turner here.

16. Mogwai Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

Mogwai - Hardcore Will Never Die

I’m no expert on post-rock, but this seventh album from Mogwai is as playful as its title suggests and as mischievous as the Glaswegian band ever were. Perhaps it’s a more mellowed out record than it could have been, but I feel that the deft arrangement of textures is more than just an atmospheric trigger to emotion as I would find the earlier work to be; this collection of tracks seem melodically more descriptive and direct, like mini-cinematic scores. The motorik rush and whispers of vocals on “Mexican Grand Prix” produce a brilliant spin around a sun-drenched racetrack, and “Letters to the Metro” is suitably mawkish with sighing guitars and teardrops of piano. There are still vestiges of fuzzed-out, heavier rock on tracks like “Rano Pano,” and “You’re Lionel Richie,” which apparently references the “Easy Lionel” viral video of a Glaswegian wandering the streets on ecstasy, is one monstrous crescendo from gentle, dare I say easy, waves to mind-melting intensity. One of my favourite tracks is the cheekily-titled “George Square Thatcher Death Party”; with its defiant guitars and ecstatic drum fills, I can actually imagine the jubilant festivities in the civic centre of Glasgow. This album is a fortifying alternative to the muso-moody seriousness of their contemporaries.

George Square Thatcher Death Party – Mogwai

15. Kate Bush 50 Words for Snow

Kate Bush - 50 Words for Snow

A flurry accompanies every release from the reclusive artist, and this latest was no different. Though this album unfolds at a glacial pace, with tracks averaging eight minutes in length, it emulates the slow build of snow in drifting, muffling beauty. For those of us who see far too much prosaic snow on a yearly basis, this record may seem a bit too romantic about it; however, through the minimal piano and Bush’s hushed, lower register, which occasionally leaps into stark high notes, I start to fall into a reverie, believing snowflakes to have life cycles and snowmen to have tragic love lives. Bush departs from the undulating piano balladry on tracks like “Wild Man,” which adds the mysterious chant of Eastern-inflected guitars and a disorienting, otherworldly effect on her vocal during the chorus. The titular track is an almost-tribal tribute to language as Bush seductively coaxes Stephen Fry to recite imagined, and perhaps not-so-imagined, words for snow, including “swans-a-melting,” “spangladasha,” “anklebreaker,” and “anechoic.” Overall, this record is a bewitching interpretation of winter, often expressing the sound silence would make if it had a voice. Having it on vinyl is a treat if only to flip through the accompanying large lyric booklet featuring images designed by Robert Allsop; part-ice-sculpture-part-snow-impression-part-marble-frieze, they are ghostly and strangely alive. This album is a much more challenging sentiment than “December Will Be Magic Again,” but I think that Bush has made more than a fair trade in swapping fairy whimsy for stately soundscaping.

Wild Man – Kate Bush

14. Tom Rosenthal Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop

Tom Rosenthal - Keep a Private Room

After waiting for at least a couple of years, I finally have the opportunity to consider Tom Rosenthal for my top albums of the year. His debut album, which has been released digitally, comes out of a rather prolific songwriting context; I must have dozens of Rosenthal compositions as they were often released for free on his website, and I purchased a homemade four-disc box set that covered his output from 2006 to 2009 (it also included a little book of poetry and a small watercolour). I recognize at least a couple of the tracks on his debut LP from previous incarnations, but overall it’s an exciting array of material. (If you want some further background, visit a previous review I did nearly three years ago). Rosenthal’s topical piano songs are inventive and humourous, twisting cultural references into new narratives of dreamy wonder. His past songs have explored the recent hung parliament in Britain, Jeremy Kyle, Mark Ronson, the Queen, and a dream in which Rosenthal rides a giant bicycle. Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop leans more towards Rosenthal’s storytelling ability, including the story of “Toby Carr’s Difficult Relationship with Tuna”; the mincing “Away With the Fairies,” which tells of a couple who love everyone, except Robert Mugabe; and “The Boy” who takes a hot air balloon ride with a creature through a land where only a single yellow rose grows, eventually ending up on a train trip to the sea. I find the unguarded, woozy sweetness of Patrick Wolf’s “Adder” in several of Rosenthal’s melodies, and I think we need a new poster boy the off-kilter; with this debut, Rosenthal enchants with his charming abandon and unique imagination, throwing his hat of tricks into the ring.

The Boy – Tom Rosenthal

13. The Horrors Skying

The Horrors - Skying

This respectable follow-up to their breakthrough Primary Colours continues to push into expanses of sound, reaching for the skies and coasting on a crystalline slipstream. Faris Badwan’s voice keeps getting richer and moodier as it stretches to meet the epic mandate of the music. While “I Can See Through You” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Boys Keep Swinging,” those ascending chords take the song into a more ethereal place, and songs like “Monica Gems” and “Oceans Burning” are pleasing maelstroms that threaten to collapse in on themselves. When so many bands bury their bass rhythms in the mix, it’s also just wonderful to hear songs with prominent basslines doing interesting things to guide the dizzying melodies. (I’m also fully prepared to admit that I’m hypnotized by Rhys Webb’s bobbing dance that accompanies his bass-playing and looks like he’s trying to put a baby to sleep.) The two juggernauts that really boost this album into stratospheric realms are “Still Life” and “Moving Further Away.” They’re both majestic behemoths when performed live; the former is a glittering post-punk anthem, and the latter pulses with motorik elegance as it pushes out like an exploding universe. Derivative, yes, but I just can’t fault Skying for being the new wave classic that came nearly thirty years too late.

Moving Further Away – The Horrors

12. Zola Jesus Conatus

Nika Roza Danilova’s latest record is a possessed piece of art that seems to scream 4AD with a dark, primal pain. The Latin word conatus means “a striving,” which I can feel in the intensity and struggle throughout this album. Her vocals are so stridently muscular that they ache with a passion of unspeakable emotion; much like Elizabeth Fraser’s ululations, Danilova’s voice doesn’t need to be comprehensible in terms of language in order to convey alienation and self-immolation (in fact, I find several of her lyrics to be difficult to decipher, but nonetheless emotionally affecting). The track “Hikikomori,” named after a Japanese term meaning “acute social withdrawal,” does characterize her ostensibly self-imposed reclusiveness and the turmoil of her inner world. As much as her voice ventures out into bold swathes of throat-catching beauty and the music swells into frosty waves, her voice also retreats into itself as the music sinks back into an undergrowth of static. It’s as though Danilova cannot stop raising her head above the parapet of her own lonely fortress to cry out to the void.

Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake – Zola Jesus

Read Laura’s review of Conatus here.

11. St. Vincent Strange Mercy

Perhaps because I’m an ornery anglophile, or perhaps because I just don’t have enough time in the day to listen to all of the music and actually eat, I haven’t really listened to St. Vincent prior to this year. This preface means that I’m not familiar with Annie Clark’s previous albums, so I’m coming at this latest one from a newcomer’s angle. This record alternates between angelic and menacing as Clark examines her flaws, failings, and yearnings. Her gentle, almost hiccupping, vocals in juxtaposition to crunchy, distorted guitar creates a fascinating tension, as though she’s wading in the purifying sludge of her guitar. “Surgeon” is both weirdly decadent and clinical, oddly evoking “You Only Live Twice” in the opening riff. As Clark pleads to be cut open, you feel like the entire record is about this act of visceral intrusion. She seems to be searching inside her own identity for the truth even when it hurts or disturbs. In “Cheerleader,” she mocks her own acquiescence by rhyming “cheerleader” with “dirt eater,” and repeats her acknowledgement of identity performance in “Champagne Year.” In “Year of the Tiger,” the desperate boredom of a bourgeois existence is summed up in the wonderful line: “My kingdom for a cup of coffee.” In many ways, Strange Mercy is a messy, glorious coming to terms.

Surgeon – St. Vincent

Read Laura’s review of Strange Mercy here.

10. Luke Haines 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s

Luke Haines - 9 1/2 Psychedelic Meditations

As you find throughout his autobiographies, Luke Haines is a contrary artist who will act on a whim and do as he pleases, often in order to shock and/or irritate people. Why did he make an entire concept album about German terrorists? Because he could. This latest album does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. Albeit not as arty as his last double album (there’s definitely no Dada imagery on this album cover), 9½ Psychedelic Meditations retains a sense of audacity in its ludicrous quest to narrate the lives of several British wrestlers. I admit the only wrestler from this group that I’ve ever heard of is Haystacks, and that’s only because he makes an appearance on the Manics’ Journal for Plague Lovers. And I concede that I only thought of Catweazle as a wizard on some British television show for children. These gaps in my knowledge aside, I find the album to be a hilarious, absurd endeavour, perhaps much in line with the DIY, kitschy ridiculousness of its subject matter. By combining the pseudo-violence of wrestling with these gentle, psyche-folk ditties and his characteristically sinister vocals, Haines produces a rather brilliant piece of twisted comedy. Though he sings of crushing people’s heads and Kendo Nagasaki composing a “rock opera in the key of existential misery,” he seems to come at the material from a decidedly less misanthropic angle. You’d expect him to revel in the seedier side of the wrestlers’ world, which I understand to have existed, or even to invent diseased back-stories for these characters; instead, he matches the idiosyncratic oddity of wrestling’s beloved place in national consciousness with, dare I say, twee, boyish fandom. Luke Haines may be a caustic lunatic, but give him a wrestling mask and he will tell you a vastly different type of lie.

I Am Catweazle – Luke Haines

9. Trips and Falls People Need to be Told

This second album from Montreal group Trips and Falls is a further development of their mellow, wonky indiepop style. At turns arcane experiment and sighing lullaby, this record marries innovative, ambiguous lyrics to captivating glimpses of secrets and desires. Tossing and turning through dreamy duets in “I’ll Do The Dishes, You Do The Laundry,” “Marginally More Than Mildly Annoying,” “This Is All Going To End Badly,” and “That’s What She Said,” Jacob Romero and Ashleigh Delaye take you through tableaux that reflect the many communicative farces and facets of relationships; in some cases, talking makes less sense than saying nothing at all. The other half of the songs range from empathetic helplessness, resigned resilience, and downright eerie stories of characters giving in to silent temptations.

Good People Are Always So Sure They’re Right – Trips and Falls

Read my review of People Need to be Told here.

8. Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell Psychic Life

Wobble and Campbell hooked me from the first few seconds of album opener “Tightrope”; it was like a taut grid of razor-sharp wires laid over the floor of a discotheque. With the addition of Keith Levene, this record is PiL with enticing rather than repellent vocals; this is not to say that John Lydon’s style is distasteful, but that it is more detached and apt to push you away rather than Campbell’s tuneful beckoning. In songs like the title track and “Ruinlust,” there’s a funky vein of dub pulsing beneath the icy synth skin, creating a dazzling sense of burning up inside a cool metal casing. There’s an electro precision on songs like “Feel” to contrast with the all-out funk of slinky vocals, piano glissandos, and brass punctuation on “Slavetown Pt. 1” and “Slavetown Pt. 2.” I actually really enjoy the slow-burning jam of the latter tracks because it seems like Campbell is itching to break out of her own brain. With Metal Box’s “Memories” knocking about somewhere in its depths, “Psychic Life” drives home the complication of the shadowy, electrified organ that is the brain. Campbell provides the hissing, soulful delivery of lyrics that insist she can’t stay in “territories of myth” even as she mourns lost spaces. The best lyric of the song, and perhaps of the entire album, is “I think of the surplus inside us.” There’s a feeling that Wobble and Campbell have mapped out a geography that has updated the perambulations of Situationists for the digital age; their album answers the question of where you can go when all your landscapes exist in an intangible information network.

Tightrope – Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell

Read Laura’s review of Psychic Life here.

7. Benjamin Shaw There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet

There's Always Hope, There's Always Cabernet album cover

Thank you, Tom Ravenscroft, for introducing me to one of my favourite finds of the year. London-based musician Benjamin Shaw exemplifies the art of falling apart. His debut album is a humming, fizzing cacophony that sways along its own less than merry path. Dissonant sounds, which range from plucked ukulele to violin screeches, from reedy flute to searing static, stand out all over this record like impossible cowlicks; every time one seems to lay down in submission, another one pops up in an unlikely spot, and then the first one springs back. Like a drawn-out sigh of surrender, Shaw plays the unfortunate character with dollops of empathy and black humour. There’s an attractive catharsis in listening to this album with its half-hearted imperfections. I actually started breathing in time to the laboured slide of strings on “Somewhere Over the M6” and felt much calmer. There are some beautifully tender moments such as Shaw watching a sleeping lover in “HULK” as he admits his own superhuman distemper. It’s as though Shaw is kindly, but perhaps drunkenly, offering up spare pieces for you to try; some are severely broken, and others are completely mismatched. But you end up feeling that it’s really the thought that counts.

How to Test the Depth of a Well – Benjamin Shaw

Read my review of There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet here.

6. British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall

On British Sea Power’s last record they asked if we liked rock music; this time, they’re demanding we answer whether we’re ready for Valhalla. I say fuck Fólkvangr. With their fourth album (not counting their soundtrack to Man of Aran), BSP continue to clatter and thrash their own reckless path through the indie soundscape like the hedonistic head of a ramshackle people’s army. This record contains dynamics that open their jaws and swallow you whole, and a wiry urgency that keeps blossoming into fist-pumping anthems. I feel like BSP are increasingly becoming the band that parties on the edge of disaster, yearning for chaos and hour zero; even on quieter, slower songs, they have a tense core that glows with enough potential energy to go nuclear. As Hamiton sings on “Mongk II,” “You can’t stop dancing ‘til you call an ambulance.” And their lyrics are still so abstrusely them. Who else do you hear singing “sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”? Valhalla Dancehall is a celestial racket worth falling in battle for. If we all have to die anyway, that guitar solo on “Georgie Ray” will definitely be reward enough.

Observe the Skies – British Sea Power

Read my review of Roy Wilkinson’s book Do It For Your Mum here.

5. Wild Beasts Smother

I’m a massive fan of Limbo Panto, and then unlike the rest of the world, I didn’t enjoy Two Dancers as much; however, with Smother, I’m duly impressed once more. Histrionics have been shed in favour of an elegant minimalism; bongos and plinking guitar lines shower down on an empty space. The band generates musical currents that push, pull, suffuse, and beckon while exploring complex emotional content in the lyrics. On “Lion’s Share,” Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive operatic vocal croons through wonderfully baleful lines like “I love you all the more for every fault/They’re how I’d gotten in/They’re how I cracked the vault.” The synthpop gem of “Bed of Nails” opens with a drumbeat evocative of “Running Up That Hill” before intoxicating with Thorpe’s soulful vocal, seething and cajoling with a sexy breathiness. On one of the most striking tracks, “Reach a Bit Further,” the higher, fluty vocals from Thorpe slip into a tender dialogue of forgiveness with Tom Fleming’s huskier, lower register, giving me goose bumps. This album is about regrets, guilt, furtive desire, and sex tinged with self-consciousness, vulnerability and obsession. In many ways, the music is held back like a deep breath, evoking ambient, spare styles like those of David Sylvian. With this record, Wild Beasts have created the perfect balance between baroque vocal style and clean, classical composition, allowing their idiosyncrasy to melt into delicate, otherworldly simplicity.

Bed of Nails – Wild Beasts

4. Destroyer Kaputt

Destroyer - Kaputt

Like many critics this year, I feel like I shouldn’t like the latest record from Dan Bejar and co. With the gloss of Prefab Sprout, the swarminess of New Wave sax, flute, and trumpet, glimpses of the champagne rock of late Roxy Music, and the frothy easy listening of Spandau Ballet, it should be a nightmarish 80s pastiche as flammable as polyester. Instead, it weaves an undeniable spell as it skims the surface of the decade infamous for surfaces. “Savage Night at the Opera” sounds like a lost New Order track while engaging in a blatant “Enola Gay” riff three minutes into it, and “Chinatown” seems to be a refracted mirage of Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down” with elements of The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top.” The epic final track “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” alone contains an extended atmospheric introduction worthy of a trip to an 80s planetarium, a guitar riff lifted right out of Roddy Frame’s hands, splays of Bernard Sumner chords, kickdrums from Pet Shop Boys, and flashes of Erasure-style hi-NRG. On the same song, Behar sings “I’ve seen it all,” which may be an apt description for how many pieces he stitches together. Though knowing, this album doesn’t feel ironic or mean-spirited; it feels like Bejar decanted his swirling adolescent memories of the 80s into a surreal stream-of-consciousness. His precise, yet fey, vocals deliver lyrics of a beguiling, but nearly nonsensical nature—Bejar himself has admitted he doesn’t know what most of the lyrics are supposed to mean. Occasionally snatches of his lines make sense in light of the album’s musical influences: “your first love’s New Order” (“Blue Eyes”), “we built this city on ruins” (“Poor in Love”), and a litany of British music magazines that seem like a dream (“Kaputt”). Bejar sings “all you got is style” in “Poor in Love,” but somehow he performs alchemy on something that could have been catastrophically tacky, and injects the whole project with substance.

Savage Night at the Opera – Destroyer

3. Momus and John Henriksson Thunderclown

Momus and John Henriksson's Thunderclown Cover

It’s not like I needed further evidence that Momus is an artistic genius whose creativity and intellect are so massive that they intimidate me from getting out of bed in the morning. But he released another album this year, so it couldn’t be helped. With John Henriksson providing the vinyl samples and additional instrumentation, and Momus supplying the lyrics, vocals, and musical tweaking, you end up with an album that twists and squeezes the idea of innocent romance like the filthy, unsanitary sponge it truly is. In creating a character like the titular Thunderclown, Momus creates a clever flipside to the “Weeping Philosopher” Heraclitus; both entities are nomadic outsiders to society because they think too deeply and recognize the foolishness of others. As a painted-up fool, Momus can rain all over the parade of the nostalgic past and deflate the buoyancy contained in the myriad 50s musical samples. It is Henriksson and Momus’s attention to detail and intricate layering of meaning that lifts this project beyond mere ironic pastiche. Time and space become fluid and porous in Thunderclown, bleeding into each other, producing art that confounds as much as it astounds.

The Thunderclown – Momus and John Henriksson

Read my review of Thunderclown here.

2. Magazine No Thyself

This latest album from Magazine is proof Howard Devoto will not go gently into that good night. He’s as vital, hungry, and intense as he ever was as he sinisterly sings and gleefully gurns over lyrics about mortality and the passage of time. On “Do the Meaning” Magazine creates an acerbic, messy riposte to Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” (complete with a greedy twist on Lewis Carroll as Devoto intends to have “jam today, jam tomorrow”), and on “Other Thematic Material” he sings sexual instructions in eye-watering detail like a Jarvis Cocker gone seedier. Devoto boasts/despairs that he’s “more mortal than ever” on “Holy Dotage,” and you can feel it as the band rises to the occasion and augments his mocking bitterness and tenacity. It feels like Magazine is going for broke with this record; it’s as though the past is snapping at their heels and they have nothing to lose. The ever-shifting musical elements, including angular funk, scratchy post-punk, spacey electro, and esoteric experimentalism, are like restless tectonic plates, colliding, parting, vibrating and grinding with tension, spewing ash, breaking ground. No Thyself is one massive refusal, annihilating anything questioning their supremacy.

Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies) – Magazine

Read Laura’s review of No Thyself here.

1. The Indelicates David Koresh Superstar

To tell the story of David Koresh, the messianic leader of a Branch Davidian religious sect in Texas who died in an FBI siege on his sect’s ranch, in a musical concept would appear to be a folly. And perhaps in any other band’s hands it would have been. In the clever hands of Simon and Julia Indelicate, this project becomes a carefully crafted dissection of irrational belief that retains a sympathetic sense of humanity even as it picks apart what makes people fundamentalists and cult followers. The lengthy quotations on the back of the liner notes about the possibility of Jesus being a madman and the apocalyptic desire of religion, from C.S. Lewis and Christopher Hitchens, respectively, encapsulate the complex issues at the heart of David Koresh Superstar. Their backdrop is the frontier mentality of America—exemplified by The Lone Star State—and their cast is a who’s who of the London indie scene, including Lily Rae, The Vessel, Keith TOTP, David Barnett, David Shah, Aug Stone, Philip Jeays, and even Jim Bob from Carter USM as a propaganda-spewing Timothy McVeigh, no less. The Indelicates are no stranger to the alternative, quasi-religious musical, as their earlier work Job: The Musical will attest, but this time, they exceed all expectations with a spectacularly researched piece of art. Simon performs the titular role with maniacal fervor and human frailty, and Julia is heartbreakingly vulnerable as Lois Roden, a president of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church who also had an affair with Koresh before he challenged her leadership. The music rises to meet the incredibly high standard of poetry written by Julia and Simon; they are served well by their phenomenal sense of poetic metre as they weave their story into a musical theatre sensibility. “I Don’t Care If It’s True,” which first appeared as bonus material for their sophomore album, Songs for Swinging Lovers, is capable of overwhelming me every time I hear it. Rather than just chilling and ominous, the lyric “I will unmake the world” becomes a justifiable objective for a sad outsider who sees the world in a way that makes perfect sense to him, but not to the majority. They add further nuance to Koresh in “What If You’re Wrong?”; to the eerie beat of the loading click of a gun, Simon sings of his creeping doubts. The album’s climax of “Gethsemane” is a befitting, pulse-racing track for a showdown as refrains from “Ballad of the A.T.F.” and “McVeigh” are slipped in seamlessly behind the song proper. Part of my emotional reaction to this record is also the brilliant execution of a massive collaboration; though it must have been hard work, it seems like it had to be a blast, too. Andrew Lloyd Webber, eat your heart out.

I Don’t Care If It’s True – The Indelicates


You Always Say Such Beautiful Things: My 25 Favourite Albums of 2011

Well, here we are.  An end and a beginning.  2011 is the year that’s seen me begin (sporadically) blogging and while it’s been fun, it also has been and continues to be a learning experience.  Writing about music makes me listen to music differently.  2011 is also the year Larissa and I outdid ourselves in our travelling and gigging.  While the last several months have been personally plagued by sadness resulting from some personal and professional disappointments, I try to remind myself of the incredible three weeks we spent in Europe in July, and the legendary musicians and bands we finally got to check off our ‘to see’ lists in the last twelve months.  Indeed, it’s a pretty noteworthy year that starts with Gang of Four, ends with Prince, and contains shows by the Manics, Pulp, Big Audio Dynamite, Grace Jones, Jonathan Richman, and Lou Reed in between.

The following list contains a bit of everything, as a list by any music lover worth her salt should.  There’s a lot of arty and electronic-tinged pop and dance music, but there’s also a fair amount of lo-fi music that doesn’t smack you upside the head with its production.  Folk, metal, and post-punk are all accounted for and of course, no list of mine would be complete without a significant portion of straight-up (or less straight-up) rock.  Many of these genres intersect, of course.  Some things are weird and have required repeated listenings for them to reveal their greatness to me, and others were impressive on first listen and just got better from there.  As well, I hope you enjoy the songs I’ve chosen to represent these albums.  Happy New Year!


25. Hercules and Love Affair Blue Songs

Antony Hegarty’s immediately recognizable voice is nowhere to be found on Blue Songs, Hercules and Love Affair’s second release.  His participation in their first album is undoubtedly what brought about at least some of the copious attention paid to Hercules and Love Affair when they debuted in 2008.  Triumphantly, Blue Songs is just as lovely without Antony’s mercurial voice gracing it.  Their updated ‘70s disco sound is intact, however, and it’s enhanced with vocals from a handful of collaborators who are just as adept as Antony at countering the horn-punctuated beats of the music with sensual smoothness.  It’s not all party and lightness, though: there’s a deep nocturnal vein that runs through the whole of Blue Songs that makes the album feel like that point in the party when everyone’s stayed the night and has drifted off to sleep just as the sun’s coming up.  In this way the songs shift and move between the navy darkness of night and the shining, refreshing blue of morning.  Dancing can be a restorative, spiritual experience too.

Hercules and Love Affair – Leonora


24. Optional Wallace Optional Wallace

It honestly legitimately excites me how much a specific and current crop of British indie bands channel the indignation and fury that the Manic Street Preachers were known for in their early days.  Groups like The Indelicates, Johnny Boy, and now Optional Wallace are finding that political apathy is just as rampant today as it was twenty years ago, and like their favourite bands of that period they’ve decided to do call us out on it.  This Manchester three-piece have perfected their tight, muscular sound, accentuated with pounding percussion and interplay between the guitar and bass that pulls and tugs anthemic tunes like “The Ladder” into punchy shape.  Like the best post-punk and indie rock of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the music and lyrics crafted by Danny Foster, Neil Meehan, and Matt Anderson are equally angry and give this, their debut full-length, a searing effect that British indie rock hasn’t had in years or, depending on whom you ask, decades.

Optional Wallace – Generation


23. Modeselektor Monkeytown

This album’s all over the place, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible.  Offered on Monkeytown’s menu are self-aware, charmingly goofy rap, cutting-edge glitch, dance-y electropop, and sober reflections on paranoia, both lyrical and musical.  Its melodic catchiness is what holds it all together, that and the fact that, start to finish, it feels like a night out at a dance club with its own successive highs and lows.  There’s the calm of being on your way to a big party, and the explosion of guests each doing their own thing, looking for their ideal night out.  Monkeytown becomes reflective at times, too, and its multi-genre approach is signified by a blink-and-you-miss-it shout-out to Prince on “Humanized” with the lyric “Maybe I’m just like my father, too bold.”  Bold stuff indeed, but this experiment pays off in a seriously addicting album that enthrals the whole way through.

Modeselektor – Grillwalker

Read my review of Monkeytown here.


22. Mastodon The Hunter

Mastodon’s particular brand of metal is equally indebted to the sludge rock pioneered by early ‘70s bands like Black Sabbath and to the poppier, melodic side of hard rock.  The Hunter is unquestionably a heavy metal album, but I think its appeal is far wider ranging than for just established metal fans.  Mastodon’s more prog rock side is present and accounted for too, and the sound they’ve come up with here is heavy, nuanced, and above all, infinitely satisfying.  This beast of a production is weird and soaring and bright and heavy and beautiful and face-melting.  So, broadening their musical range and potentially winning a lot more followers with an album that has also universally impressed critics and hasn’t sacrificed their vision or prodigious skills?  Dude.  I’ll take one.

Mastodon – Stargasm


21. Wild Flag Wild Flag

Much has been written of this indie supergroup since they formed halfway through 2009.  While I don’t necessarily want to contribute to the possible oversaturation of media about Wild Flag, I seriously cannot deny the straight-up triumph that is their debut album, released in September.  Carrie Brownstein has grown significantly as a frontperson since her Sleater-Kinney days, and all the better too, because here she more often leads her band than back in S-K, when the singing was often the responsibility of Corin Tucker and her undeniably powerful pipes.  Brownstein’s charm lies in her perfectly imperfect voice and infectious enthusiasm, the latter of which could easily be said about any member of this band.  I didn’t think that the words ‘joyful’ and ‘rock’ could together be exemplified so perfectly, but Brownstein, along with seasoned rockers Mary Timony, Janet Weiss, and Rebecca Cole have let loose with an accomplished and unabashedly fun album that showcases their strengths and skills with aplomb.

Wild Flag – Short Version


20. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones

In my mind at least, Frank Turner’s got the folk-punk, sometimes political, earnest troubadour music market cornered at the moment.  His sense of home and of his own Englishness, especially apparent on his latest full-length, England Keep My Bones, takes him into new and different territory on “Wessex Boy” and “If Ever I Stray” and his newfound preoccupation with being memorialized after his death is evident on “Eulogy” and “Peggy Sang the Blues” and he effectively covers both subjects on the heartfelt “Rivers.”  Turner’s passion is, as ever, the key ingredient to his appeal and is so infectious that it makes me want to get up off the couch and practice my own politics in a bigger way, but I usually settle for singing along to his politics while driving or dancing around my living room.  His anthem to atheism, “Glory Hallelujah”, closes England Keep My Bones on an appropriate note: with one foot resolutely in the realm of tradition and the other devoted to his own irreverent twist on British folk heritage, Turner crafts a defining album that finds balance between two musical traditions and still kicks ass.

Frank Turner – I Still Believe

Read Larissa’s interview with Frank Turner here.


19. The Antlers Burst Apart

The Antlers debuted in 2009 with Hospice, an album that seriously caught me off guard with its brutal emotional honesty, both lyrical and musical.  They’ve continued developing this approach on Burst Apart.  Opener “I Don’t Want Love” acknowledges the urgent need for the physical communion of sex, especially sex that doesn’t involve the tenderness of a loving relationship.  The lyrics “We wake up with pounding heads, bruised down below” don’t express regret as much as they express the physical relief of deep emotional tension.  Peter Silberman’s stories of fraught relationships take a backseat to the impact of his music, subdued and fragile while resonant with the drama that everyday events can be full of.  Indeed, it is the minute, individual moments that make up larger periods of existence and experience, and Burst Apart pays attention to these aspects of life equally and sensitively.

The Antlers – I Don’t Want Love


18. Matt Berry Witchazel

As far as unexpected listening pleasures go, I did not anticipate actor and comedian Matt Berry’s musical ventures to be as delightful as his comedy.  Although this is his third album, Witchazel was the first Berry LP that I’ve listened to, and it is truly like going down a rabbit hole of ‘60s psychedelic pop.  Fifty years spontaneously evaporate upon listening to the opening dark yet lilting reed instruments as they intersect and bend, summoning the pastoral tranquility of classic British folk music.  His voice’s airy, reedy quality fits the combination of instruments perfectly, and its presence is low in the mix, the whole sounding like the last strains of summer, all bright and gold.  Strings, organ, and horns round out the retro sound achieved on Witchazel, but be assured, this is no mere kitschy ‘retro’ album.  No, Berry’s investment in this timeless pop music is genuine, and the result is a beautiful artefact that speaks equally to the value of the past’s best psych-pop and the intriguing directions that contemporary pop and folk can take.

Matt Berry – So Low


17. Cut Copy Zonoscope

While not universally acclaimed like Cut Copy’s 2008 outing, In Ghost Colours, Australians Dan Whitford, Tim Hoey, Mitchell Scott, and Ben Browning continue to explore their interpretation of ‘80s-esque synthpop on Zonoscope to uplifting effect.  Even though they have a song entitled “Strange Nostalgia for the Future”, Cut Copy’s music lovingly plunders the past without sacrificing originality or a distinctive sound of their own.  Drawing on influences like New Order, Kraftwerk, the Human League, and My Bloody Valentine, their affectionate homage to decades past also succeeds on a more intimate, lyrical level, with Whitford singing of utopian futures, departing from the darker lyrical content of his forebears.  Incorporating mentions of memories, dreams, the possibilities of life and the inevitability of death, Zonoscope is larger than life and unquestionably more than the sum of its parts.

Cut Copy – Take Me Over


16. Butcher Boy Helping Hands

I have finally and belatedly realized one of the biggest reasons why I love Butcher Boy: their songs make me feel the way Belle & Sebastian’s songs did in their Jeepster period, back in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.  While these two bands certainly have similarities, like their Glaswegian origins, this doesn’t necessarily mean they sound the same.  Rather, Butcher Boy pay homage Belle & Sebastian in their direct yet gentle approach and use of stringed instruments to flesh out their sound.  John Blain Hunt’s signature earnest delivery is, of course, highlighted on Helping Hands, and it continues to befit his tales of tentative romance and new lovers’ stolen kisses.  There’s also a distinct bittersweetness that comes through in wistful string passages and the overarching sense that these short reprieves spent in the company of a loved one are the only times his melancholy lifts.

Butcher Boy – The Day Our Voices Broke


15. Wild Beasts Smother

Wild Beasts are a wonderful anomaly of a band: they’re generally identified as a rock group, but on Smother they move in an electronic-oriented direction that accentuates their differences from other English indie rock bands currently working.  Highly literate and unapologetically unusual with frequent forays into the creepy and freakish, their lyrics on Smother are about moral ambiguity and the music used to accompany those words feels lushly vulnerable as well.  The yearning quality of Hayden Thorpe’s voice is particularly notable on “Plaything” where he narrates the voyeuristic desires of one-half of a sexual pairing – it’s discomfiting and obviously problematic, and that’s the point.  The multiple connotations of the word ‘smother’ is what attracted Wild Beasts to this album title, and its multiplicity is an apt metaphor for their songs: they can certainly be enjoyed for their surface beauty and atmosphere, but the more the listener realizes what their (sometimes difficult to decipher) lyrics are saying, the more Smother can be enjoyed.

Wild Beasts – Reach a Bit Further


14. Katy B On a Mission

So, for those uninitiated listeners, what is the difference between your average Rihanna track and any of the tunes found on this debut from London’s Katie Brien, aka Katy B?  A friend posed this question to me several months ago when I introduced her to the album and of course I, having listened to On a Mission only marginally and also being very slow on my feet, responded that there might not be much difference at all.  That was a lie, only I didn’t realize it then.  Like Robyn did last year, particularly on “Dancing On My Own”, Katy tells stories and vents her frustrations about sexual politics and feeling most alone even when surrounded by dancing club-goers.  This doesn’t feel all that much like a dance album, for all that it contains some of the year’s catchiest beats.  Even when she’s telling off guys that do nothing to impress her (“Easy Please Me”) or reflecting on the status of a shaky relationship (“Broken Record”), Katy never falls into the tired clichés that characterize lesser dance-pop.  She stands head and shoulders above them, especially in heels.

Katy B – Katy on a Mission


13. Battles Gloss Drop

The cover art for Gloss Drop is perfectly indicative of what the album contains.  That is, something mostly indefinable.  Freeform, primitive, organic, somewhat amorphous, and terrifying in its boldness and inability to be definitely identified, that towering pink blob is a signal to expect the unexpected, cliché as that is.  This is rock music, but rock music unlike any you’ve grappled with before.  This is rock music that questions the parameters of any set of things rock music can or should be.  With the option of figuring out exactly what Gloss Drop’s (mostly lyric-less) songs mean stroked out as an impossibility, the listener is left to grapple with sounds, impressions, movements, and feelings to guide interpretation.  Conversely, no interpretation may actually be required at all.  Full of texture and direction and a lot of innovative rhythms and catchy melodies, Gloss Drop’s sound suggests a kind of vivid visual excitement that’s perfectly in keeping with the presence of that pink blob.

Battles – Inchworm


12. Zola Jesus Conatus

I love how the chill of a Wisconsin winter has made its way into Nika Roza Danilova’s work as Zola Jesus.  The physical desolation of Madison translates perfectly into the icy musical desolation presented on Conatus, a world populated by people who struggle to comprehend the depth of each others’ alienation.  A chilling yet enveloping combination of synthpop, piano-driven singer-songwriter, and darker post-punk and goth sensibilities typify her sound, but these components all take a backseat to Danilova’s voice, itself a strong, slightly nasal, and emotion-drenched instrument that in a single phrase can fully transmit the scope of her pain.  By the end of the album, Conatus leaves you with the same feeling that a Wisconsin winter does: it may end up killing you, but it’s breathtakingly beautiful.

Zola Jesus – Vessel

Read my review of Conatus here.


11. British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall

I am so grateful that British Sea Power exist.  To solely hear them, one might easily think that they’re a fairly straight-ahead, albeit better than most, indie rock group.  Thankfully this isn’t the case at all.  BSP have, over more than a decade now, made a career out of highlighting their idiosyncrasies along with their superior brand of rock music; or rather, they have incorporated their finely honed sense of the ridiculous into their music, making theirs a compelling band to watch and follow whether onstage or off.  Valhalla Dancehall’s lead track, “Who’s In Control,” along with its surprising video, are a case in point.  The song tells of a bookish narrator observing the chaos of a political protest and slyly questioning where the lines are drawn when everyone’s in the overexcited heat of the action.  Its corresponding video depicts this riot but then halfway through turns its gaze on a group of young protesters making the most of their high and partying later at home.  Communities are formed, clothes are shed, sexual connections forged, and everything glows in the bliss of idealized youth.

British Sea Power – Who’s In Control

Read Larissa’s review of Roy Wilkinson’s book Do It For Your Mum here.


10. Wye Oak Civilian

I didn’t think Wye Oak were going to be my thing.  Variously classified as ‘indie rock’, ‘alternative rock’, and ‘alternative folk’, I had already mentally lumped them in with much of Ryan Adams’ more mediocre work for some reason when both my friend Elizabeth-Anne and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle enthusiastically endorsed Wye Oak’s Civilian this year.  I cannot fully express here how glad I am for their recommendation.  “Civilian” is so gorgeously sad, nostalgic, and filled with self-aware longing for a fulfilling romantic relationship that it’s brought tears to my eyes more than once.  After Jenn Wasner delivers the achingly honest line “I’m perfectly able to hold my own hand but I still can’t kiss my own neck” she launches into a heartrending solo that, if her words didn’t fully capture her frustration, blasts the depth of her loneliness out of her body and into the uncaring ether.

Wye Oak – Civilian


9. Isolée Well Spent Youth

Yes, I’m hanging my head in shame: I only discovered the music of Rajko Müller, aka Isolée, this year.  I do, however, like to think I’m making up for it by almost immediately latching on to his most recent release, Well Spent Youth, a fascinating and quirky minimalist house production that’s one of the most addictive things I’ve listened to all year.  Repetitive and unassuming on the surface, Well Spent Youth brims with weirdness and engaging ideas, and becomes less simply repetitive and more layered and twitchy with repeated listens.  For example, “Thirteen Times an Hour” is an eight-minute long song that constantly shifts and morphs into new tiers and tics, revealing something different each time.  Well Spent Youth exemplifies a definition of ‘album’ in which the individual songs grow and build on each other, culminating in a piece that’s made up of tiny fragments and is still resolutely whole.

Isolée – Taktell


8. Thurston Moore Demolished Thoughts

I really do think that even if Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon hadn’t publicly announced their separation this year that this quiet masterpiece of an album would still affect me the way that it does.  Broken relationship or not, it is difficult not to read all sorts of emotional extremes into Moore’s lovely songs and even lovelier treatment of them.  That said, I’m also not about to proclaim I know what Moore’s talking about in his personal, often cryptic lyrics.  Primarily performed on acoustic guitar with flourishes of strings, Demolished Thoughts is equally about heartbreak and joy, about finding the heartbreaking and the joyful in the smallest minutiae of day-to-day life.  Additionally, and as suggested by the title of the song “Benediction”, Demolished Thoughts has a strong spiritual quality to it that elevates the mundane to the reverential.

Thurston Moore – Illuminine


7. Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell Psychic Life

It goes without saying that Jah Wobble’s had a lot of collaborators since his 1980 departure from Public Image Ltd.  His reggae-influenced dub basslines as well as his versatility make his playing an obvious choice for many musicians, from Brian Eno to Bill Laswell.  However successful these collaborations have been, however, few have been as inspired as the pairing of Wobble and Mancunian solo artist Julie Campbell, who released her debut album last year as LoneLady.  On Psychic Life they complement and contrast each other brilliantly, creating a taut tension that’s palpable.  Where Wobble’s bass is dark and moody, Campbell’s voice rises, clear and brilliant, each diverging from the other sharply.  Ambiguity is added in the lyrics, which tell of shadows, doubts, isolation, the failure of technology to connect us, and the horrifying permanence of the past.

Jah Wobble & Julie Campbell – Phantasms Rise…

Read my review of Psychic Life here.


6. Trips and Falls People Have to be Told

For my money, Trips and Falls have the most fittingly perfect name.  While a clever play on the interchangeability between nouns and verbs, ‘trips and falls’ also characterizes the sound of their music, a bumbling, stumbling, and entirely charming mix of twee indie pop and something entirely more experimental and unusual.  The opening lines of “I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry” continue to haunt me in the way that Ashleigh Delaye and Jacob Romero sing about secrets and longing, yet their beautifully striking harmonies make this song feel all-encompassing, transformative, universally relatable.  The quiet beauty of its verses contrasted with the dissonance fuelled by the band when they come in fully between verses makes this song in particular feel like one that could be life-changing.  Elsewhere, “Marginally More than Mildly Annoying” perfectly portrays the shambling quality the music takes on at times, halting and then accelerating, running and then crawling.

Trips and Falls – I’ll Do the Dishes, You Do the Laundry

Read Larissa’s review of People Have to be Told here.


5. Austra Feel It Break

I had no idea who Austra were when I first listened to their debut album, Feel It Break, when it was released in May.  They were receiving some buzz for their dark, new wave-y sound from the British music press, whom I often look to for musical and journalistic guidance.  It was after I fell in love with the album and just missed seeing them on a stop on their UK tour that I realized they’re actually from Toronto and the likelihood of seeing their show on turf nearer to home was pretty good.  Seeing them in November along with many, many plays of Feel It Break later and suffice it to say, I’m a big fan.  Katie Stelmanis’ stoic and strong, classically-trained voice is a perfect, if somewhat unlikely fit, for Austra’s dramatic music, played by Stelmanis on electric piano/keyboards, drummer Maya Postepski, and bassist Dorian Wolf.  In short, Feel It Break makes me want to fall in love with someone intense and dangerous, smoke cigarettes, and dance at dark wave clubs in Berlin, and I generally don’t want to do those things.  That’s some pretty evocative stuff for Canadian indie synthpop.

Austra – Shoot the Water


4. St. Vincent Strange Mercy

I think fellow St. Vincent fans will agree with me when I say that it’s been very rewarding to watch and listen as Annie Clark grows as an artist and musician with each of her full-length releases.  Her musicianship has always been impressive, but on Strange Mercy it’s evident that Clark thinks of herself now as an adult, with the resignation, disappointment, and self-analysis that comes with adulthood.  It’s not all feet-dragging, however; far from it: Clark is armed with an admirable sense of determination about where the future will take her and the experiences that have formed her.  Also satisfying to have brought to the fore is her skilful guitar-playing, imbuing these pop songs with riffs that complement and deepen her sound and revealing the rawness buried just under the surface of Clark’s demurely feminine image.

St. Vincent – Champagne Year

Read my review of Strange Mercy here.


3. James Blake James Blake

Yeah, yeah, dubstep oversaturation; backlash… whatever.  I actually haven’t decided yet whether I’m willing to go on the record and say that James Blake’s proper debut LP isn’t dubstep.  I suppose whether it is or isn’t may not be all that relevant at this stage, because it seems to be suffering from said backlash all the same, but I digress.  Back when I got around to listening to this album in March, it was the most refreshing thing my ears had been exposed to in…a while.  It didn’t give me the “whoa, these beats are impressive” feeling that good dubstep often does, but a far more emotional connection based on Blake’s voice, lyrics, and the fragile atmosphere he evokes.  It’s a quiet, perfectly controlled album but its emotional impact is huge, as is the artistic statement Blake makes with it.  James Blake is simply an amazingly subtle and well-realized singer-songwriter album, filtered through a lens of spacious electronics and echoing depths.  See, not dubstep at all.

James Blake – I Never Learnt to Share


2. Magazine No Thyself

I’ve decided I want to be Howard Devoto.  Not only did he go “b’dum b’dum” back when the Buzzcocks were bored out of their skulls and subsequently inspire Orange Juice’s brilliant “Rip It Up”, even the one-off collaborations he’s done with various musicians since Magazine’s extended hiatus have been mostly very good.  But what he’s primarily known for is fronting Magazine, the influential post-punk band who released three of the period’s best albums (and one bad one) before crumbling after he left the band in 1981.  Thirty years later, No Thyself does one better than pick up where Magazine left off: it offers a mischievous and biting take on approaching the senility of old age and the mortality that follows.  I can only hope that I’m half as badass and wickedly smart as Devoto when I get old.

Magazine – Of Course Howard (1979)

Read my review of No Thyself here.


1. The Indelicates David Koresh Superstar

Even though I have come to expect seriously awesome and innovative things from The Indelicates, I did not expect a concept album about David Koresh and the Waco siege to be this emotionally nuanced and incisive.  Silly, silly me.  Spanning the gamut from the rather goofy, Southern-accented “The Road from Houston to Waco” that’s told from Koresh’s point of view, to the devastated and devastating post-siege scene of “Gethsemane”, and a haunting, bone-chilling rendition of the traditional “John the Revelator”, this is one of the very few albums I’ve ever listened to that has reduced me to overwhelmed tears by the time it’s through.  On paper it’s fucking bold, to hear it is to be astounded by its power, complexity, and empathy, but there’s something unquantifiable about what Simon and Julia Indelicate have accomplished here that makes this album transcend even its weighty subject matter.  David Koresh Superstar is that incredibly rare listening experience that evokes the beautiful tragedy of life and death in both its broadest and most specific senses.

The Indelicates – A Single Thrown Grenade

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