Killing Joke

Though Scarred By the Way That We Are: My Top Albums of 2012

Kick in the Pants

Thank you, Laura, for the kick in the pants. I doff my virtual cap to you…

Dear reader (with the rather lengthy silence on the blog I can only assume one reader at this point), I’ve finally compiled my top albums of 2012. Fortunately, I didn’t attempt to listen to and then write about them in three days like I did last year. Unfortunately, other commitments and general mental malaise meant it took me six months to do it instead. Feeling a bit stressed about the time lag, I did toy with the idea of making each entry a haiku. Having read Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, I’ve realized time doesn’t exist at all and I should hardly worry about when I post.

In the end, I opted for the type of list I usually create, which encompasses a mixture of albums I listened to the most, albums I found to be the most musically innovative, and albums I find to be doing the most interesting things within the pop music format. In looking through them, several thematic threads emerge: the anxieties of socioeconomic collapse and recession in the present and future, the loss of modern dreams, memory and repetition, breakdown and recovery, and the significance of place and time. As usual, there’s a fair amount of overlap between my list and Laura’s.

24. Meursault Something for the Weakened

Meursault Something For The Weakened

This third album from Meursault is restless, yet comforting; it feels like the slow expansion of rebirth. As Neil Pennycook softly repeats “We will not be weakened anymore” in the opening track “Thumb,” there’s a sweetness to the weariness, a nurturing side to bitterness. Throughout the album his vocals are shot through with ragged emotion, heaving like creaking bellows. The music moves between lo-fi, spare folk and swelling, cathartic rock energy, and the lyrics explore the twisted tensions of equal and opposite actions and the little limping lifts out of bleakness. The last song, “Untitled,” has Pennycook sprawling out of his shell, overwhelmed, but searching.

Dull Spark – Meursault

23. VCMG SSSS

VCMG SSSS

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I heard Vince Clarke and Martin Gore had reunited to make music. In my mind, I figured it would be perhaps some sort of amalgamation of bright and dark synthpop. Instead, I got a brilliant house record. In some ways, this album reminds me of the German house of Booka Shade and Tiefschwarz, filled with Geiger counter beats, hefty bass sounds, and precise repetitions with flashes of pop sensibility. The record is full of fizzing bands of static, and there are a few breathless dropouts, razing sound just to build that much higher.

Windup Robot – VCMG

22. Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra Theatre of Evil

Amanda Palmer Theatre is Evil

Amanda Palmer has generated more than a little, often irrational, hoopla and retribution over the making and touring of this album, a reaction that should, at some point, be more fully examined in a full-length academic article. Channeling New Wave with extensive bouts of baroque piano, Theatre of Evil is full of messy, earnest emotions as much as it is the reinstating of Palmer’s brash, theatrical persona-as-armor. Her vocals swing wildly between powerful Siouxsie wails and vowels, tight lashes of snarling vitriol, carefully enunciated aural paper-cuts, and sob-ridden, soul-shaking gulps. On the fragile, yet grandiose ballad “Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen),” Palmer effectively evokes the leaden-limb, head-swimming state of a bewildered party-goer struggling through the neverending morning after, whilst making a comment on the infinite mediation and neediness of digitized lives. She ends the song with an arms-stretched, head-thrown-back plea of “I don’t want to die,” perhaps indicting what is perceived as her own attention-seeking exhibitionism. There are several killing and wounding metaphors in this record, but the implications of their violence and vulnerability are tempered with the joyful liberation and ruminating melancholy of letting go and giving in.

Read Laura’s review here.

Smile (Pictures or It Didn’t Happen) – Amanda Palmer and The Grand Theft Orchestra

21. David Byrne and St. Vincent Love This Giant

David Byrne St. Vincent Love This Giant

A highly anticipated odd couple, David Byrne and St. Vincent aka Annie Clark, delivered what amounts to a classy, but surreal night out on the town. You feel as though you should be dressed in your smartest finery, but something is just a bit off and you may end the evening by having a food fight with Hugo Ball. Throughout the record, Byrne and Clark utilize a Simon Bookish-like wonky, skewed use of brass; it’s like they’ve assembled a disjointed funkbot out of the shattered geometric pieces of a symphony, bidding you to do some herky-jerky moves in a grand ballroom. The lyrics themselves are all over the place, taking detours down multiple culs-de-sac, but as with many of Byrne’s musical projects, the sound of the words takes precedence over literal/figurative meanings. The trading off of vocal duties between Clark and Byrne produces a fruitful balance of eccentricities. On tracks like the soulful “Ice Age,” Clark reminds me of LoneLady, and she applies a sweet sang-froid to “The Forest Awakes,” which parps and burbles with bassy brass in a chunky baby elephant strut. Byrne provides his customary awkward, asymmetrical take on organic rhythms (“Dinner for Two,” “I Am an Ape,” “I Should Watch TV”), flinging his voice around in the manner of someone attempting to trap flies with a parallelogram. Ultimately, Love This Giant applies some sharpish pomp and circumstance to the groove, adding slink to the spat.

Ice Age – David Byrne and St. Vincent

20. Band of Holy Joy The North is Another Land

Band of Holy Joy the north is another land

This latest album from the Band of Holy Joy is a golden, earthy soundscape of autumnal nostalgia and elegiac pastoral, which continues the meditation on “the north” found in earlier albums. Originating from a radio play performed on Resonance FM, The North is Another Land is a record that breathes and sighes, weaving wistful recollections and the reverent grief that accompanies them into the northern, coastal lands of England, Latvia, and Russia. Fittingly, the art on the external packaging of the CD and accompanying postcards features a diagram of lungs, which morph into seaside towns, making the connection between arteries and waterways clear. Johny Brown’s distinctive vocals rise and fall with aspirating accordion and harmonica, emulating a tremulous mortality and gut-wrenching flashes of passion as the acoustic accompaniment swells and contracts behind him. It is an album of returns, sacred repetitions that honour the land they revisit. True to their name, the Band of Holy Joy creates an atmosphere that surpasses mere understanding: the prosaic becomes poetry, disillusionment is transformed into conviction.

On The Ground Where John Wesley Walked – Band of Holy Joy

19. The Rest Seesaw

The Rest - Seesaw

Seesaw evokes perpetual movement, a coordinated flow that feels effortless and dreamy. Bentley’s golden-throated vocals ululate with panoramic abandon and punctuate lines with ecstatic sobs that are uplifting rather than mawkish. This latest record from The Rest is anything but static and at rest. Sleep and the act of reclining figure often in the lyrics, but Seesaw is definitely more about the fight against slumber and reverie and the rebound into breathless wakefulness. They seize every dimension through their sound, teetering acrobatically out on limbs. The balancing act of these musical and lyrical dynamics works as a series of cantilevers, crafting seemingly impossible space and suspension throughout the record.

Read the rest of my review here.

Young and Innocent – The Rest

18. Laetitia Sadier Silencio

Laetitia Sadier silencio

Stereolab’s frontwoman Laetitia Sadier’s second solo album is what you would expect from her stylistically: languid lounge-pop, bossa nova, hints of sophisticated yé-yé, aloof, alienated vocals. Obviously sharing the leftist politics of Stereolab, Sadier’s record is a diagnosis of a diseased global state governed by capitalism and the circulation of its materialities and power, and a command to listen closely and search for truth within silence; the track title “Auscultation to the Nation” sums up both of these themes nicely. In “Fragment pour le future de l’homme,” against a jittery disco beat, Sadier sings “We are lost in the century/No spark in the dustbin now/But our eyelids are empty/We cannot see and cannot be seen.” In a few breezy lines, Sadier indicts the failure of “incendiary” movements like punk and our own blindness. Mirror and reflection metaphors abound in the album (“The Rule of the Game,” “There is a Price to Pay for Freedom [and It Isn’t Security],” “Moi Sans Zach”); the visual is suspect and the aural is more trustworthy. The closing track, “Invitation au silence,” is a prime example of Sadier’s terms for this more valuable, auditory reflection. In this piece, Sadier speaks first in French, and follows each line closely with a whispered English translation, but due to the reverberating acoustics, which sound like those of a cathedral or a grand hall, her lines begin to overlap, obfuscate, and erode each other like two separate ripples merging in a pond until you are not certain of the beginnings and ends of each thought. The track becomes unnerving, especially if you understand both languages and can no longer easily isolate one from the other. By the time, Sadier reaches the lengthy sample of silence, you are relieved and longing for respite from language and demands on your attention. Though the lyrics can be a bit heavy-handed on paper, just as they could arguably be from Stereolab, and McCarthy before them, the deliberate artificiality and lightweight style of the music transforms the words into more profound commentary, challenging our sense of awareness, which is often too easily lulled and placated by surface appearances.

Fragment pour le future de l’homme – Laetitia Sadier

17. Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament The Violence

Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament The violence

Ex-Hefner frontman Darren Hayman is hugely prolific, so it’s often difficult to keep on top of all of his musical projects. This particular project—a concept album about the English Civil War and “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins’s witch trials—caught my attention for its ambition and willful stance in leftfield. The events surrounding the demise of Charles I and the rise of the Parliamentarians may not seem like a particularly likely theme for a twenty-track opus, but then again, Hayman has plenty of experience with crafting narrative albums resolutely grounded in a specific place and time, including the first two in this Essex trilogy, Pram Town and Essex Arms. With their ragtag chamber pop mixed with melancholy folk, Hayman and the Long Parliament players (formerly named the Secondary Modern) tell the stories of the accused “witches,” including Elizabeth Clarke and Rebecca West, with the shambolic, somewhat archaic beauty of a broadside ballad. Other tracks take up additional figures of the period, such as the playwright Arthur Wilson and Charles’s queen Henrietta Maria, along with unnamed victims; Hayman even references Caryl Churchill’s feminist play Vinegar Tom. The mournful, humble delivery of Hayman’s vocals increases the pathos inherent in the lyrics, evoking the cold filth and bloody misery of the range of humanity affected by these historical events. Throughout the album there is an atmosphere of resigned passivity to injustice, exemplifying the exhaustion of perpetual fear with perfect pitch.

Impossible Times – Darren Hayman and The Long Parliament

16. The Melting Ice Caps Permissible Permutations

The Melting Ice Caps - Permissible Permutations

Permissible Permutations is an achingly exquisite love letter to the self-pronounced undeserving, to those who are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Moving gracefully between intricate details and big pictures, it’s about the allure of self-constructed realities and self-fulfilling prophecies. I can’t help wondering if the album can be read as a group of possible permutations, a narrative to be arranged as you choose and read against the rigidity of expectations and cause and effect. There’s no rule saying you have to view this record as a move from love to loss. Conversely, there’s no guarantee that the golden afternoons and rainy trysts aren’t the past perfect moments of the previous Indian summer. All we have is an assemblage of moments. Points to be connected, vectors to move through rhythmically, arhythmically, or even algorithmically. And hanging on when it counts.

Read the rest of my review here.

A Week of Warmth – The Melting Ice Caps

15. The Monochrome Set “Platinum Coils”

The Monochrome Set - Platinum Coils

“Platinum Coils” is a truly welcome return. Despite the fact that the record is replete with consciousness lapping at the edges of trauma, it is equally funny and witty, conveying the lucidity and profundity to be found in mental interruptions, half-sleep, and near-death experiences. In a way, this album is about taking stock. Gratitude for Bid’s recovery, check. Breadth of The Monochrome Set’s career, check. Refreshing musical hybridity, check. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest antics, check. Language acumen akin to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, check. Clever clever band, check.

Read the rest of my review here.

Mein Kapitan – The Monochrome Set

14. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny Yours Truly Cellophane Nose

Beth Jeans Houghton Yours Truly

Beth Jeans Houghton’s debut album is a tearaway romp through some truly hallucinatory territory, her exceptional, near-operatic vocals and surreal lyrics playing giddy tricks on your mind. The sweet breathiness and triumphant austerity of Houghton’s voice carries you through mystical mountainous landscapes and opulent, fruit-laden forests that are haunted by Boschian demons and devils. The pageantry of jubilant brass interchanges with folkier banjo to create an intermingling of grandness and playful mischief. The language for her lyrics is also wonderfully strange in its archaic style and visceral adjectives. For example, the track “Humble Digs” contains this verse: “Titans rising, and all once vitals now implodes/Above your mantel, your equine ornaments erode/Relieve this moment, say that gestures don’t afford/The lacquered tip of cupid’s sword.” Mythological morbidity, enchantments, and sinister doings lurk through these tracks, creating a world in which things are not what they seem. Houghton comes across like a fierce fairy queen riding a nightmare alongside the fourth horseman of the apocalypse. All you can do is try to keep up with her.

Read Laura’s review here.

The Barely Skinny Tree – Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny

13. Go-Kart Mozart On the Hot Dog Streets

Go-Kart Mozart On the Hot Dog Streets

After seven years, it’s the return of Lawrence. The album sleeve and liner notes read like the lists of a meticulous culture vulture, the classified advert of the lonely nerd, and the rantings of the misunderstood. And Lawrence quite happily supplies what he thinks people are missing about his art, including mini-manifestoes and advertisements for non-existent record labels and releases. The album title along with the cover art signal the trashy, synthetic aesthetic, and many of the tracks on the record could be considered bubblegum. If you read the history of bubblegum music (and you should), it becomes apparent that the saccharine disposable pop tune that sounded childish and could be easily consumed by children was working two sides of the same consumption at once: food and sex. This style, then, becomes a perfect fit for Lawrence, who often walks a bizarre line between self-deluded naivety and knowing sexual predator. It’s both “Dundee cake for tea” (“Lawrence Takes Over”) and “I put my finger inside you” (“I Talk with Robot Voice”). When he isn’t playing at being a “novelty band,” he makes pastiches of 8-bit arcade music that are reminiscent of Helen Love, while absorbing the stilted delivery and synth lines of Karel Fialka, and he processes nostalgic 60s and 70s music through an ironic filter, an area of his repertoire where the influence of the mighty Sudden Sway seems most prominent. The parodic style and the genres Lawrence chooses to parody dovetail nicely with his perceptions of that which he satirizes. Lawrence deftly skewers and roasts English national identity, nostalgia, domestic life, sex, relationships, and mass tastes and attitudes, claiming them to be vacuous and backwards. He views himself as the maverick messiah rising above this, even as he raids the past for feats of intertextuality, and then helpfully exposes these borrowings via the list of self-sanctioned texts he read and listened to during the making of the album. On the Hot Dog Streets may be a record of contempt, as Lawrence claims, but it is also a fascinating display of conviction and ambition wrapped in a thousand contradictions. He concludes his manifesto: “It is easy to feel like we are living after the end of the world & and all the cool things have already happened to other people. I am here to say no – here is someone who it is happening to right now & that someone is me.” It is clearly a Lawrence world, and we are all just living in it.

Blowin’ in a Secular Breeze – Go-Kart Mozart

12. Future of the Left The Plot Against Common Sense

fotl plot against common sense

The phrase “in principle, if not reality” appears twice in this latest record from the Welsh four-piece—in “Cosmo’s Ladder” and then again in “Rubber Animals”—implying a sort of equivocation, or sense of making do. If something cannot be achieved in practice, then surely it can obtain in theory, and then it hasn’t really failed. The Plot Against Common Sense circles around this disconnect between fundamental “truths” and their genuine manifestations, what should be and what actually is, questioning which fictions and assumptions hold our “civilization” together. If you want an articulate, angry expression of “broken Britain,” this is it. The record begins with “Sheena is a T-Shirt Salesman,” which declares dumb to be the new black, and ends with the demented jack-hammering “sha la la la la”s of “Notes on Achieving Orbit.” In between, the band spits the bastardized, superficial language of the mediatized back at you. They eviscerate and interrogate class war, failed “regeneration,” regional disparity, populist magazines, racist footballers, uninformed military intervention, political apathy, globalization, patronizing mass culture, bourgeois complacency, Western values, body abjection, democracy, and consumerism. Their music continues to be a lean, sinewy beast that uses stark minimalism to communicate hunger and remain light on its feet, easily navigating the dense lyrical content. To be honest, I’m just so grateful that someone is still screaming until the war is over.

Read Laura’s review here.

Sorry Dad, I Was Late for the Riots – Future of the Left

11. Field Music Plumb

Field Music Plumb

With an album title that references the leftist book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and an album cover that reworks Ed Ruscha’s Standard Station into a modernist British town, Field Music have made an album that dissects current suburban complacency and consumerism whilst obliquely elegizing a future dream of equality that died prematurely. This record is even more interesting because these sentiments are heavily clothed in a proggy funk that veers between XTC, the Beatles, and Dirty Projectors; on first glance, Field Music is a band with urbane lyrics of quintessential English life, but upon digging deeper, you discover the socioeconomic reality behind the unsettled malaise. The falsetto vocals start to cast a more semi-hysterical, tensile shape against the ever-shifting tilts of the brilliantly crafted music. “Choosing Sides,” which begins with a synthetic piece of classical music that could have been ripped from an educational 7” for 1970s children, includes the resigned lyrics: “I want a different idea of what better can be/Which doesn’t involve treating somebody else like shit/I’m so complicit.” The sentiment crops up again in “Just Like Everyone Else”: “I’m just like everyone else/I’m just like/As weak as everyone else/The distance removes me.” The shambolic, infectious single “(I Keep Thinking About) A New Thing,” continues to probe angst about an impotent life under financial games beyond the majority’s control: “Blind page, blank cheque obfuscation/Played so dumb I can’t bear to look/But I’m wasting time/What good can I do?” Ironically, the “new” thing turns out to be a repetitive, compulsive thought instead, same old, same old. The fractured, arrhythmic “Who’ll Pay the Bills” asks the trillion pound question about the welfare state: “Who’ll pay the bills when/We give ourselves a break?” The preoccupation with inequality neatly rolls through the record, riding the wave of fluid, inventive melody. With this theme in mind, there’s a doubleness to “A New Town,” which is on the surface a song about escaping the place you’re in, but which could also be read in light of the planned communities that dot Britain, reminders of failed utopia. For Plumb, the Brewis brothers take the loaded, but ostensibly empty term “new” to truly new places.

Choosing Sides – Field Music

10. Saint Etienne Words and Music

saint etienne words and music

It’s been six years since Saint Etienne’s last album, the soundtrack to their film What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day?, which documented the Lea Valley before its regeneration into the site for the 2012 Olympics. Thankfully, they’ve returned with more of their stylish restorative nostalgia; this time, less about the (sub)urban modernist infrastructure intersecting with culture in London and its environs, and more about the effect of time on memory and the affective experience of being a music fan. The record plots a dreamy map through the pop music imaginary, which is ingeniously reflected in the album cover that diagrams a space of auditory pleasure, including mythical soundscapes from the Beatles to Prefab Sprout to Prince to The Smiths to John Cooper Clarke to The Cure (it’s also worth noting the insertion of childhood memories, such as Sesame Street and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which align the wonderment of childish, fantastic spaces with those of post-childhood music consumption). Songs like “I’ve Got Your Music,” “Over the Border,” “Tonight,” “DJ,” and the brief “Record Doctor” effortlessly express the comfort and out-of-body exhilaration felt by music obsessives, whose record collections, “scenes,” and music magazines provide a safe haven and the balm of identity and community. With its focus on the youthful, ephemeral rush of creating and living in private and collective aural worlds, words and music become more than the sum of their parts, conflating romance and physical attraction with the excitement and sensuality of musical discovery. Many of the songs also convey the bittersweet, achy side of music fan mnemonia, the almost pathological haunting by sounds. Connected to this ghostly side of Saint Etienne’s material, is their characteristic impulse to long for the future of the post-war past that never arrived. It crops up quite prominently in “When I Was Seventeen” with their robotic intonation about Brutalist architecture: “The future’s clean and modern.”

Tonight – Saint Etienne

9. Carter Tutti Void Transverse

carter tutti void transverse

Essentially a recording of a live improvisation, this collaboration between Throbbing Gristle’s Chris Carter and Cosey Fanni Tutti and Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void truly feels alive. Consisting of only four tracks, it is composed of tense vectors, incremental verges that give you the sense of travelling by gradually, almost imperceptibly, altering the underlying rhythms. It is a challenging journey through what seems to be a perilous soundscape; though abstractly electronic, it conjures a strangely “natural” setting. The opening track V1 is a jungle of robotic beasts snorting, roaring, buzzing, squawking, huffing, growling, into the night. V3 takes a swampier turn with laboured vocoder breaths coming through a pressing miasma and spinning whizzes emanating from the dark maw of low, sub-bass tones that sound like they’re slowly masticating your head. The final track comes at you with the intensity of a swarm, ultimately ending in scattered sounds like ants on the move. The album artwork is appropriate as it moves and swims before your eyes; Carter Tutti Void’s music is perpetually on the move in those same illusory dimensions.

V1 – Carter Tutti Void

8. Richard Hawley Standing at the Sky’s Edge

Richard Hawley Standing At The Skys Edge

I’ve come to expect a certain feel from Richard Hawley: nostalgic, 50s-influenced, crooning. I don’t think I was quite prepared for Standing at the Sky’s Edge, which takes him into psychedelic territory. His sound is more expansive and rock-driven, especially on “Don’t Stare at the Sun,” “She Brings the Light,” “Leave Your Body Behind You,” and the title track. There is something rather primal and land-based to these tracks; they seem to grow right out of the soil around Sheffield even as they explode into constellations of otherworldly transcendence and squalling feedback. With a predilection for making records that are locally referential (see Cole’s Corner, Truelove’s Gutter, and Lady’s Bridge), this grounding in yet another spot of Sheffield geography is perhaps unsurprising. Hawley’s voice, which is already such a rich instrument, weaves a resonant, hypnotic spell, and his guitar solos are blistery, grimy, and raw, adding some edge to the shimmery dawn of reverb and Eastern influences. Despite all of the heliocentricity of the references, this is mostly a dark, lawless record that strays into murder ballad territory. Standing at the Sky’s Edge is a fairly large move for Hawley, and brings him into some interesting postindustrial/pastoral intersections, which perhaps suggests that the two are not necessarily binary opposites, and that Hawley is the master of documenting the present in the past.

Read Laura’s review here.

Don’t Stare at the Sun – Richard Hawley

7. Chromatics Kill For Love

chromatics kill for love

At seventeen tracks, with half of them clocking in at over five minutes, Chromatics’ second album is a rather epic journey through the insomniac night of urban imagination and alienated connectivity. The doubleness of the album title and its accompanying titular track is a beautiful duality of extreme longing, and quiet, desperate acts of violence. Ruth Radelet’s vocals are coolly detached and haunting, wafting over an understated electronic backdrop of digital melancholy. There are some Kraftwerkian/OMD synths, Cure/Banshees gothy guitarwork, and trippy down-tempo rhythms, forging an atmosphere of lonely automation, a deeply sad void, and the dragging ennui and inertia of waiting; the band brings the cold war down into the personal sphere. Though there’s often a perceived threat from the outside—via the several invocations of “they” throughout the album—there’s also a feeling of internal paranoia, anxiety, and isolation: the mourning of a sensate android at 3:00AM. At the same time, there’s a way in which the Chromatics live up to their name: you can hear the science of colour in their sonic palette, the shifting, restless energies exploding with timed precision, fireworks of neon tracing through the black sky. In tracks like “The Page,” it seems memory is trying to hold on and exert control over the narrative, but resorts to destruction through self-immolation. Appropriately, and perhaps bravely, their album is opened with a cover of Neil Young’s “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black),” which famously states: “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” In a way, the entire record is one slow burn on its way to the black.

Read Laura’s review here.

Kill For Love – Chromatics

6. Killing Joke MMXII

KILLING-JOKE-MMXII

Of all bands, I knew I could count on Killing Joke to create the most appropriate soundtrack to the end of the world. Even if the actual end of the world didn’t come to pass in 2012, Killing Joke made a record that captures the vertigo and frustration of carrying on in 2012; a heavy atmosphere for cyborgian conundrums and the death throes of capitalism, even as it continues to reanimate, a zombie stumbling anew from developing countries and the ruling one percent alike. Taking in the mysticism of a variety of faith systems, including the Aztecs, Christianity, and science, Killing Joke makes epic, holy noise that is also, on some level, a meditative experience and a call to individual revolution and liberation. On the opening track, “Pole Shift,” the band compares the belief that the Earth’s magnetic poles would swap at the end of the Mayan calendar with the sociopolitical climate of increasingly unsettled extremism appearing on a global scale: “A polarization of values happening/Opposing camps define themselves and pull apart.” Throughout the record, banks of electric guitar riffs roll across like thunderclouds and the rhythm section brings an acidic downpour of Biblical proportions. Jaz Coleman, like Mike Patton, is brilliantly equipped to shift vocal gears dramatically on a dime to provide affective dynamic; for example, in “Primobile,” he begins in a sorrowful, vacant register that belongs in “Love Like Blood,” but eventually pitches up into gutteral bellows of possessed rage. Although Killing Joke verge on Julian Cope-like eccentricity, MMXII is an unrelenting, uncompromising attempt to overturn a world that is already clearly upside down.

Corporate Elect – Killing Joke

5. Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan The North Sea Scrolls

The North Sea Scrolls

Luke Haines has a history of making concept albums and taking them to extremities that seem absurd. The North Sea Scrolls, a record created with The Fatima Mansions alum Cathal Coughlan, is another such Dadaist foray. The premise—Haines’s albums almost always have an elaborate premise—is the discovery and reading of the North Sea Scrolls, arcane documents that are testament to an alternative British Empire, where Arthur Scargill declares himself Witchfinder General, Joe Meek is Minister of Culture under Lord Protector Oswald Mosley, Francis de Groot becomes the leader of an Australian IRA, American folk singer Tim Hardin leads a nationalist militia that loses its way in Penzance, and Chris Evans becomes leader of the New Golden Dawn, only to be later executed and canonized. Of course, in this version, Britain remains a colonial power amidst a different set of ensuing conflicts, and despite being set in the twentieth century, the record stylistically references the preceding century instead. The album is set up as an alternation between narrations by Andrew Mueller and musical numbers shared by Coughlan and Haines, the narrations supposedly giving you a better idea of what the hell is going on the songs. In reality, the scroll narrations work more like apocryphal fragments in a musical story built on non- sequiturs. For example, the first scroll discusses Ian Ball, who is not the Gomez vocalist, but instead an escaped Broadmoor prisoner who makes a pact with the devil in a decidedly Home Counties version of deep south American blues traditions. This is followed by a woozy chamber pop tune with vocals from Haines in which he relates a delusional story of a prisoner who actually believes he goes on tour with Gomez and writes his resignation letter by the song’s end. The second scroll discusses Minister of Culture Joe Meek’s obsession with punishing the pretentious John Lennon, here only referred to as Mr. Cynthia. The accompanying musical track features Coughlan singing an overwrought ballad that opens with these lines: “Gin home-made, cats un-spayed, life decaying/Silvern house, police box at the gates/Friends allowed to stay by the Lord Protector’s graves/But they must be out by eight.” One of the best threads, if you can call it that, features Tony Allen a bit-part-actor-cum-wardrobe-master, who in this other Britain “is the hidden hand behind the paintings of Francis Bacon, the secret lover of Sid James, a patient of R.D. Laing, an assiduous curator of northern soul, and the probable catalyst for the least tedious stretches of the career of Fleetwood Mac.” This double life clearly leads to a song called “I’m Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I’m The Actor Tony Allen.” In a sense, nearly all of the characters in The North Sea Scrolls are moonlighting. There is always just enough detail—accurate and fabricated—to entice you to make connections that are more than likely non-existent. While this concept album may be commenting on how we read history and its artifacts, and how we construct national identity and canonize particular cultural producers and traditions over others, it could actually be one big red herring. Or Tony Allen dressed as a red herring.

I’m Not The Man You Think I Am Karen, I’m The Actor Tony Allen – Luke Haines and Cathal Coughlan

4. of Montreal Paralytic Stalks

of Montreal - Paralytic Stalks

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.

Read the rest of my review here.

Authentic Pyrrhic Remission – of Montreal

3. The Pre New Music for People Who Hate Themselves

the pre new music for people

In many ways, Music for People Who Hate Themselves uses reaction as both a response to past events and re-action as in action repeated. Incidentally, the entry for “reaction” in my Oxford thesaurus provides this example of usage: “a reaction against modernism is inevitable”; the Pre New appears to be the inevitable reaction against the postmodern reaction. It feels like they are reaching back to a time before the 90s buzzword “new.” The Pre New sits on the brittle chest of the whole hauntology music genre and pummels it with incendiary fervour. There are specters on Music for People Who Hate Themselves: lost friends, lost futures. Nevertheless, there are also vibrant comments firmly grounded in the present, moving forward on an alternative trajectory. This album is a response to personal and collective pasts through an energetic repetition and refashioning. This band is an industrial project for the cyberspace age. Since unfortunately so few bands seem to have picked up the Earl Brutus torch, the Pre New had to step in. They are their own reaction.

Read the rest of my review here.

The Pre New Anthem – The Pre New

2. Scott Walker Bish Bosch

scott walker bish bosch

Seen by many as the final part in a trilogy that includes Tilt and The Drift, this latest album from Scott Walker is my worst anxiety dream. It’s also a fractured work of magnificent sound art. With lyrics like “nothing clears a room like removing a brain,” “I want to forget you just the way you are,” “what’s an organ between friends,” and “plucking feathers from a swansong,” you wander through a surreal soundscape of synth scribbles, uneasy silences, and sudden trumpet blasts, the only guiding force being Walker’s distinctive quaver. As much as I find it to be an aural version of waterboarding, I also feel like it could be some sort of free association therapy for twenty-first century breakdown. The scene is in constant flux, incorporating Biblical plagues, knife blades, ancient Roman emperors, 1930s flagpole sitters, deep space, Nazi war criminals, and Swiss districts. Though Bish Bosch seems messy and chaotic, Walker has made an intensely calculated, intellectual record, a compendium of interrelated facts and mythologies that take time to trace and unravel. At times scatological and eschatological, Bish Bosch is a hermeneutic exercise that expects an unfashionable response in these digitally immediate times—patience and attention.

Corps De Blah – Scott Walker

1. Parenthetical Girls Privilege (Parts I-V)

parenthetical girls privilege

This is a bit of a cheat since this isn’t an album so much as a collection of EPs released from 2010 to 2012, culminating in a five-part boxset of 12” vinyl: Part I: On Death and Endearments; Part II: The Past, Imperfect; Part III: Mend & Make Do; Part IV: Sympathy for Spastics; and Part V: Portrait of a Reputation. I made the decision to include this “album” in my top spot before I knew that this year Parenthetical Girls were releasing an actual Privilege album, which contains a heavily excised selection of the twenty-one songs on the EPs. No matter. I believe the excess in this case is a necessary part of the concept, and as I don’t regard any of the tracks as filler, I could not bear an abridgement. As you can see from this entry alone, abridgement isn’t really my modus operandi.

Each vinyl sleeve is hand-numbered in the blood of one band member per EP, reminding me of the tongue-in-cheek blood-shilling by Gang of Four for their limited edition Content can, adding a morbid touch to what is an epic musical exploration of martyrdom and marriage, deflowering and death. Despite the fact vocalist/lyricist Zack Pennington includes the statement, “Evelyn McHale may have famously leapt to her death in 1947, but that has very little to do with anything,” in his “10 Clues To Unlocking Privilege,” which is itself a self-aware literary set of discussion points about the EPs, I would say Privilege is parenthetically about her. Taking the serenity and sexuality of her suicide as their jumping off point (pun well-intended), Parenthetical Girls appear to spend most of their opus riffing on her suicide note: “I don’t want anyone in or out of my family to see any part of me. Could you destroy my body by cremation? I beg of you and my family – don’t have any service for me or remembrance for me. My fiancé asked me to marry him in June. I don’t think I would make a good wife for anybody. He is much better off without me. Tell my father, I have too many of my mother’s tendencies.” The first track of the first EP is named after her, and is a Cinemascopic 50s-style croony number, which sets the tone of mid-twentieth-century domestic hell and the bright dullness and sexual politics of being a housewife, especially one of “class.” You can feel the strange pressure of life inside the bell jar as Pennington’s narrator is often the only character allowed to speak to the implied second-person and/or on behalf of his female second half, dictating someone else’s existence. This voice is further problematized by the emerging sense that he is on the lesser side of the social class differential. In lending her vocals to “Mend & Make Do (Found Drama II)” and “Curtains,” Rachael Jensen provides a brief glimpse of the other side of the story, her composed poise contrasting with the theatrical, often hysterical, delivery by Pennington.

The inventive interplay of Zac Pennington’s poetry and Jherek Bischoff’s equally virtuosic compositions, along with Pennington’s idiosyncratic fluttery, trembling vocals that embody a high drama similar to Billy Mackenzie, mark the series as affected rather than affective, but no less striking. The musical style ranges across genres, dipping between chamber pop, 50s pastiche, dramatic organ, and shadowy synthpop, arranging an arc that matches the arch storytelling of the lyrics fleshy pound for fleshy pound. Pennington’s ear for language is as finely tuned as Bischoff’s is for music. Here is but one example from “Evelyn McHale”:

Sure, we were cynics from the start
Spell-bound, still Safe as Houses
now pander we down for your hearts
We never meant you any harm
Still, though we thought not to be caught,
How the thought made me hard

Sure, we look loathsome from afar
Hateful & hollow/smug & smart
Well don’t we look the part?
Sweetheart, remembered for your art
Train those charms toward the charts
& and we’ll be stars just the way that we are

Throughout Privilege Pennington’s rhyme and rhythm are internally and externally brilliant, and he adds enough intertextuality, double entendre, and erotic terror to rival the Mozfather himself. And Bischoff is as cleverly intertextual as his musical partner; taking the above example of “Evelyn McHale,” you’ll find that he’s smuggled in melodic lines from “Chapel of Love.” The EPs form a musical novella of suffering and release, and the violence and farcical performance of both. At the same time, there’s an elegance to these characters’ self-absorption and self-mythologizing, reminiscent of the pretensions of Bright Young Things. In many ways, the verbose narrator is putting on entitlements that aren’t his, an outsider pretender to contend with Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Though Pennington may (ironically) claim her as a non-sequitur, Evelyn McHale’s aesthetic death haunts the project. All that she escaped by gracefully plummeting from the Empire State Building comes tumbling through the Privilege suite.

Evelyn McHale – Parenthetical Girls

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The Morrissey Effect: My Favourite Albums of 2012

oof ed ruscha

Hello, and welcome to a Best of 2012 list that is a full 6 months past its due date. Its best-before date, if you will. There are a number of explanations I could give for my extended absence, which I will do, and I will also direct you to Allie Brosch’s most recent Hyperbole and a Half post, for laughs and tears but also for an extraordinarily sensitively rendered and entertaining depiction of emotional stumblings. I’m not trying to say that I share her mental health issues; far from it. But her piece helped me understand some truths about my own mental health problems and how I do (and overwhelmingly, don’t) work through them. This is me trying to articulate myself in my own, uh…charmingly stilted, way.

Please allow me a crude comparison. Late last summer, Larissa and I had booked tickets to see Morrissey on his now well-publicised failure of a world tour. We were to see him in Minneapolis at the end of October. We were excited, and only slightly less so when a friend of mine who saw him on his honoured Seattle stop reported  that he removed his shirt partway through the show as if it was still 1987 and he had Johnny Marr to deflect attention while he flailed. The first time he canceled, we received over a day’s notice. I showed up at work on the day I had booked off, sheepish and ridiculous. The second time around, we weren’t so lucky. At about 11:00PM the night before we were scheduled to leave, bright and early – we had a 7 hour drive ahead of us – I had the good sense to check my email, and sure enough, there was a notification from Ticketmaster that the concert was “postponed” again. This time I was already at my mother’s home, outside of Winnipeg and nearer to Minneapolis, and couldn’t get a ride back into work the next morning, so I stayed in Steinbach, lounged around my mother’s apartment, and wasted a day of my life (okay, not so bad, and also not so unusual). After that I lost track. We kept much closer tabs on the status of the tour. Everyone’s health seemed in jeopardy (Morrissey’s, his mother’s, mine…but that’s another story). Swathes of dates were cancelled. Finally in spring I got a refund on my Mastercard, email notice of an actual concert cancellation, and we gave up our apparently impossible dream of seeing Morrissey, at least in North America. In Larissa’s words, “his booking agent is an idiot.” Clearly nobody in any decision-making capacity knew their limits when booking this tour.

I suppose I didn’t know my limits either. Although dissimilarly, I wasn’t really pushing myself – I was just utterly drained of all positive emotional energy and self-confidence. Why set my mind to finishing something when it was already so embarrassingly late? Why try when so many people, including Larissa, do it so much better? To make matters worse, right at the end of last year, when finishing this piece was still somewhat attainable, my external hard drive gave up the fight and failed on me completely. It was, of course, totally my fault. I stupidly didn’t back up my data. It felt like a demoralising blow to someone who was already lacking basic confidence in her work. Obviously, in the grand scheme of things it was minor, but it felt like a monkey on my back far into the new year and beyond. I should have notified any readers who may or may not have given a shit, but I don’t have Morrissey’s publicist and I couldn’t summon the emotional energy on my own. This is my retroactive and hugely apologetic explanation.

Now spring (and summer!) has rolled around, which has a lot to do with my change of tune. Winter makes me passively depressed, which means I just sleep a lot and try not to feel feelings. I also got back from a lovely vacation about a month ago, which always energizes me. Not because I came back rested and relaxed (I rarely go on non-urban vacations and there’s little relaxation involved) but because my energy and motivation levels go up when I realize how much I’ve accomplished in a couple of weeks away. Additionally, I finally got around to reading Roy Wilkinson’s brilliant and inspiring Do It For Your Mum on my trip. British Sea Power have always been one of my favourite bands, but the incisive, strangely humourous (or should I say humourous but in a strange way?) and utterly moving account of the band’s formation, philosophy, struggles, and eccentricities made me want to shakily try my hand at talking about music again. I don’t promise I’ll be any better. I strongly doubt it.  But I’m trying again, and I’m trying not to hate my work. Puerile words I’m sure, at least to seasoned writers, but every time I get out of the writing groove I’m reminded of how difficult it is, at least for me, to re-motivate and re-establish routine. My intense feelings of incompetence and the events that prompted them caught me off-guard. It’s gotta be something before it’s gonna be something good.

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And of course, if the mental block that has been this piece is completed, it means I can finally start moving forward with new reviews and pieces. My apathy about writing has also obliquely meant that my curiosity about new music has been rather diminished, but there are, of course, exceptions. The latest British Sea Power, for example. It’s already been several months since its release, of course, but as you can tell, BSP have been taking up a ton of real estate in my brain during that time and it would be nice to acknowledge it. I’ve also been enjoying music by Savages, Melt Yourself Down, John Grant, and Little Boots recently.

I mentioned this sad sack (because I’m finishing it in July) project to a friend recently, and his suggestion was to shorten the list to ten albums. Or to not write annotations on each one. The thought of doing either of these things depressed me for several reasons, the main one being: what would be the point? It’s all or nothing. Fail spectacularly if necessary, but if you’re going to finish a project, finish it properly. So: comically, ridiculously late or no, these are my favourite albums of 2012. I hope to see you again soon, or at least sooner than eight months from now.

 

24. Rae Spoon – I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets

rae spoon i can't keep

Even for those who have not had the immense pleasure of seeing Rae Spoon live, it might not be surprising to know that they are a total charmer, an awkward bundle of self-deprecation and clumsily delivered jokes when not playing heartfelt, often painful songs such as the ones on I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets. The jokes and the songs are a great combination, and speak to Spoon’s talent for storytelling and making people feel at ease even during segues to songs about a friend’s tragic death, love found and lost, and painful childhood memories. Since first listening to and reviewing this album at the beginning of last year, I’ve also had a chance to read Spoon’s First Spring Grass Fire, a small volume of personal short stories about growing up different on the Canadian prairies and the ongoing importance of family and history in Spoon’s life. It’s beautiful, harrowing, and, of course, charming – it brings a different sense of depth to the collection of songs that comprise I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets. Moreover, both book and album are subtle, sensitively rendered testaments to the need for taking care of one’s mental and emotional wellness before being able to help others.

Rae Spoon – Crash Landing

Read my review of I Can’t Keep All of Our Secrets here.

 

23. Hot Chip – In Our Heads

hot chip in our heads

The first thing that hooked me was the music video. The Peter Serafinowicz directed (yes, the virtuoso comic with the rubber face and gift for celebrity impressions), bizarre clip features dancers clad in monk-like garb, two muscled dudes apparently worshiping a giant egg with nipples, and a dramatically doomed spacecraft. It also stars Reggie Watts, Terence Stamp, and Lara Stone, with a very brief cameo by the band themselves. Regardless of this delightfully surreal visual interpretation of “Night and Day”, In Our Heads is life-affirmingly beautiful and is more catchy and groundbreaking than anything they’ve done. The sentiment behind “How Do You Do” is not a thing I would normally go for, happy exuberance and everything, but their multifaceted, dimensional view on life and love is contagious. Hot Chip’s work on In Our Heads is more subtle and more rewarding than past projects, and it feels like now that they’re no longer the next big thing but at the height of their career, their joyfulness is coming through more than ever.

Hot Chip – Night and Day

 

22. Eugene McGuinness – The Invitation to the Voyage

eugene mcguinness invitation

Confession time: I’m pretty charmed by how transparently eager Eugene McGuinness is to abandon the DIY bedroom-pop stylings of his early work. Not that I dislike his early work at all; far from it, in fact. The irreverent and manic subject matter and turns of phrase evident on The Invitation to the Voyage are a natural progression from the lyrics on his 2008 self-titled LP, just tighter, angrier, and with punchier, slicker songs to match. This time around, he is unabashed in his ambitions to become the heir to such British greats as Paul Weller, Paul McCartney, Jarvis Cocker, and Ray Davies. Even among his like-minded pals Miles Kane and Alex Turner, McGuinness is top fop. He’s got the look, he’s got the songs, he’s got the profuse and biting wordplay, now he just needs the recognition. Happily, with the release and reception of The Invitation to the Voyage, it looks like he’s on his way to getting it.

Eugene McGuinness – Thunderbolt

Read my review of The Invitation to the Voyage here.

 

21. Graham Coxon – A+E

graham coxon a+e

It actually only occurred to me recently that I seem to be fairly isolated in my love for this album. I’m more than a little confused by this. Graham Coxon has demonstrated his pop chops time after time after time, and while I love his classic solo albums (see: Happiness in Magazines, Love Travels at Illegal Speeds) as much as the next fan, this take on pop, dance, and punk music as chopped up and blitzed through some kind of sonic woodchipper reaches a little deeper and speaks a more primal language than its predecessors. It’s brazenly anxious and paranoid, and uses those qualities as advantages to play up the claustrophobic grooves and abrasive instrumentation here. Lyrically it stays moderately dark, echoing the paranoia, skepticism, and anger of its music. Despite all of this, it’s an overwhelmingly fun listen – just as fun and fucked up as anything he’s released in the past. A+E: a washed up pop star attempting to revisit adolescence? No, a wickedly reckless romp through pop music’s past, rose-coloured glasses most definitely removed.

Graham Coxon – Seven Naked Valleys

Read my review of A+E here.

 

20. Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense

fotl plot against common senseSome people say that getting older mellows people, and that’s certainly true for some of us, in certain ways. It isn’t true for Andy Falkous of Future of the Left: I picture him as an old man, chucking bricks through windows of big corporations before hobbling away with a walker. After all, he’s seen into the future, and everyone is just slightly older. But to paint him in such a cartoonish (imaginary) light is doing The Plot Against Common Sense a great disservice. This album, while playful, irreverent, and crass, is not jokey. It does not fuck around. It strikes me that “City of Exploded Children”, with insistent bass and guitar lines designed to sound like bagpipes, particularly so during the last minute and a half when severe, inflexible snare drums join, is meant to lull listeners with its repetition. This both underlines and belies lyrics about comfortable ignorance in the face of extraordinary numbers of lost lives. “A Guide to Men” is more concise: how can people who call ourselves civilised fight in so many utterly devastating and unspeakable wars? This irony is broken open and beaten to a pulp, offering a fitting structure to dovetail with the song’s content. It beats you hard, but in the end it does hit home. The Plot Against Common Sense’s messages are hard to forget.

Future of the Left – A Guide to Men

Read my review of Future of the Left’s The Plot Against Common Sense here.

 

19. VCMG – Ssss

vcmg_ssss

Yeah, I’ll be the first person to stand up and say that I know very little about the original wave of techno. Okay, probably any resurgences since then too. Basically I am totally unqualified to write anything about any techno ever, but Ssss (so snakey!) makes me want to try. I will also admit that what brought me here are the names: Vince Clarke and Martin Gore (too obvious to try and hide, really). The former Depeche Mode bandmates reunited in 2011 to form VCMG, a minimalist electronic duo and to dabble in some dance music that neither of them had really explored before in their previous work together. The result is weird, and I doubt anyone could have predicted it, but it’s also very good. Shocker? Nah, these guys know what they’re doing. Opener “Lowly” is kind of like an old-fashioned horror film, creeping in and jolting you with crescendo-ing synths propelled by shiny, robotic drum sounds. Remember that old Mighty Boosh scene where Vince drops some “harsh tasty beats” for the enjoyment of Mr. Rogers the cobra? That’s almost exactly what “Zaat”, and indeed much of Ssss, feels like. It’s the kind of rave music that can lend itself to significant enjoyment even while not tripping.

VCMG – Zaat

 

18. The Pre New – Music for People Who Hate Themselves

the pre new music for people

If it’s not already glaringly obvious, I love contempt in music. I love meanness, I love astringency, I love harshness – in music it’s so easy to assume another character, or to write songs about subjects thought but not talked about. Irony and sarcasm work much better in music than they do in other, more direct art forms. In the current pop cultural climate of so much boring, inoffensive, harmless drivel, it thrills me so to hear something that means to excite, offend, and maybe harm. Earl Brutus, The Pre New’s previous and slightly different incarnation, were always great at that. Forming after Nick Sanderson’s untimely death in 2008, they are essentially Earl Brutus 2.0, still touring older songs from their earlier lives. Album centre “A Song for People Who Hate Themselves” begins with an introduction that could go in the direction of anyone who trades in and values the stock of glam, art, and industrial rock, such as Siouxsie or Boyd Rice with Hirsute Pursuit. It’s definitely got the same sleazy strut. Once Stuart Boreman’s vocals kick in, however, this song belongs to The Pre New only: his rapidly diminishing enthusiasm as he utters such lines as “nice house, nice wife, nice life…now what? Now what?” is a very clever effect next to the giddy delight with which he mentions the head of Susan Boyle. It’s so invigorating to hear something so contemptuous once in a while.

The Pre New – A Song for People Who Hate Themselves

Read Larissa’s review of Music for People Who Hate Themselves here.

 

17. Actress – R.I.P

actress r.i.p.

Actress, aka Darren J. Cunningham, has an incredible knack for comprehending the nuances of electronica. His songs explore microcosms of sound at their most minute, almost rendering the silences between beats of other music and genres alive: clicking, humming, whirring into existence. The subdued tone and volume of these pieces encourages the listener to devote attention to the littlest details. The shivery crackle underlying and the broken jack-in-the-box melody atop are equally important in “Jardin”. “Marble Plexus” is about as driving as Actress gets, offering a fuzzing pulse upon which creeping minor chords and arpeggios alight. It might be an unusual metaphor, considering how synthetic and produced this music is, but R.I.P reminds me of nothing so much as that attic you wondered whether was haunted as a child. It seems to move and shift without provocation, doing things unrelated to its surroundings and context. It creaks twice in the quiet dark, but not again, causing deep unease, yet a familiar sense of the mysterious at the same time.

Actress – Holy Water

 

16. Daphni – Jiaolong

daphni jiaolong

When I first heard of Daphni I didn’t realize this was yet another moniker for Dan Snaith of Manitoba and Caribou. I have to say, I prefer this project over anything he’s ever done under those names. This collection of dancey, yet still experimental, electronica pulses with creativity and is looser and more exuberant than his other musical work to date. On opening track “Yes I Know, he melds ‘70s soul with acid house, and when the funky groove of the former is juxtaposed with only the barest synth pulses of the latter, it becomes abundantly clear just how perfectly the two genres work together. “Light” is, true to its name, liquid and sunshiny, pausing for extended breaks of intricate rhythms and surreal electronics, while “Ahora” crackles with vintage smolder while rocking on the beat of a crisp hi-hat. “Jiao” is satisfyingly, heavily syncopated, but with a rigid, straight melodic line played on top of it. This, perhaps along with The Integration LP, would be perfect for summer parties on patios, in cars, beside pools. Jiaolong is about as refreshing as dance music gets.

Daphni – Yes I Know

 

15. Killing Joke – MMXII

KILLING-JOKE-MMXII

I don’t know if Jaz Coleman is right and everyone else is wrong or the other way around, but Coleman’s sense of the apocalyptic and conspiratorial seems to grow with each new Killing Joke album, and true to form, MMXII is positively swelling with impending doom. Even better than 2010’s excellent Absolute Dissent, the highs and lows, hard blows and soft whispers juxtaposed so dramatically here are flawlessly executed and serve to give a platform to – even just for the album’s duration – Coleman’s political views. That, and it’s a proper enjoyable listen. Establishing drama and power right from the start, “Pole Shift” is a harrowing opener, beginning theatrically with a synthesized string effect, swiftly focusing into a steady drumbeat and that distinctive yell. There is a certain Sturm und Drang quality to MMXII, certainly not in its original Germanic literary sense, but in a contemporary way that distils fear and uncertainly into music and subsequently transmits that dread to the listener. It’s not all hopelessness, though. “Primobile” speaks of how despair and hope are linked and underlines the human ability to survive catastrophic turmoil with spirit intact. This culminates on “All Hallow’s Eve”, a celebration of rebirth and second chances for the earth and for humanity. With Coleman’s unflinching conviction, I’m buying every word.

Killing Joke – On All Hallow’s Eve

 

14. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack_White-Blunderbuss

As one of the rock musicians I’ve been following for the longest time, Jack White’s persistent creativity and musical risk-taking continues to delight and engage me. Okay, I haven’t always been super on-board with the extremes of his country music forays, but as just one influence on the ever-evolving blues-heavy garage rock he’s favoured from the beginning, White makes old sound new and new sound old over and over again without repeating himself, showing just the right amount of deference to his blues-rock elders. Clearly his enthusiasm has a lot to do with his charm, and that too shows no signs of flagging. Blunderbuss contains all the raw recklessness of The White Stripes’ early work with a lot of new ideas to boot: vintage country/soul very reminiscent of Dolly or Dusty on “Love Interruption”, the almost honky-tonk of “Hip (Eponymous) Poor Boy”, and my personal favourite, a riotously danceable cover of the juke joint classic, Little Willie John’s “I’m Shakin’.” Blunderbuss is more than just the sum of its musical parts, too: White’s oblique and surreal lyrics from his White Stripes days are largely abandoned in favour of more personal confessions and frustrations. Ultimately, it works almost surprisingly well – acknowledging his past work while moving forward with an album that is brilliantly true to form.

Jack White – I’m Shakin’

Read my short piece about Jack White and Blunderbuss here.

 

13. Go-Kart Mozart – On the Hot Dog Streets

gkm-hot dog streets

Ah yes, another fifty-something aging pop relic making music without regard to his own age or appropriateness level. But seriously, who gives a fuck about appropriateness when the music is this sharp, this weird, this uncompromising. Hate the music? It doesn’t matter, Lawrence hates you back. He acknowledges this himself on “Retro-Glancing”, a psychotically upbeat number featuring him speaking bitterly about former loves and rivals leaving him behind in the dirt as he gets older. The line “You’re trying to glance back as you’re being flushed down the drain” distils his contempt (and crudeness) well. (Slightly) famous for the gaping rift between his desire for fame and fortune and his bands’ varying but all very small-scale levels of success, his sordid, cheap, plastic and day-glo take on Birmingham and England in general on On the Hot Dog Streets is simultaneously appealing and disturbing. Lawrence’s tongue remains firmly in cheek, his plastic-visored cap atop his greasy head, and his Go-Kart Mozart albums remain some of the most biting and fun listening experiences possible.

Go-Kart Mozart – Lawrence Takes Over

Read Larissa’s piece on Lawrence and Felt: The Book here.

 

12. Rolo Tomassi – Astraea

rolo tomassi astraea

All of the music nerds I respect are of this opinion, so let me state it again: Rolo Tomassi are so unfairly underrated. My picks for mathcore/rock worth listening to aren’t terribly consistent, but Rolo Tomassi are always included not least because they continue to get better and better with each subsequent release. “Ex Luna Scientia” is a roiling storm of stop/start drumming, aggressive screaming that relents only for a minute in the song’s middle, and spiky guitars somehow corralling the whole thing together. So, so refreshingly, instead of getting softer and more mellow with age and their third album, RT are becoming even more aggressive and uncompromising in their aural onslaught. Why begin with a pleasant chord when you can start off with a frenzied shriek? (“The Scales of Balance”). Why soften the attack when sharp, fast, and hard will sound that much more enormous? (“Echopraxia”). Unlike most of the songs here, “Empiresk” actually begins relatively slowly and softly and works through a mystical, prog-like first half before the familiar and finely executed torrent resumes at the halfway mark. Hipsters may have tired of them and music critics may want them to tone down, but Astraea is Rolo Tomassi at their innovative best.

Rolo Tomassi – Empiresk

 

11. Grimes – Visions

grimes visions

Yes, she’s adored by hipsters (whatever) and the music press (largely whatever), but that doesn’t actually negate the quality, nuance, and sensitivity of her music. The fact that I happen to agree with Grimes’ recent blog post railing against, among other things, the sexualisation of herself and of young women, particularly in the pop music industry, also doesn’t detract from the sounds and emotions being explored on Visions. Obviously, her being a media figure does not affect the complete and extraordinary piece of work that Visions is. There’s ‘90s R&B references of the sort that the Haim sisters deal in, but taken in a much more subtly nuanced, textured, and brightly alluring direction. The synths glimmer while Grimes’ combination semi-unintelligible lyrics and breathy crooning overlap each other, pulling back the green velvet curtain onto an alternate reality where the sky is pink and intelligent robots fall in love with each other. Yeah, I want to live there too.

Grimes – Symphonia IX (My Wait Is U)

 

10. Carter Tutti Void – Transverse

carter tutti void transverse

I’ll begin this by saying I’m not sure I can effectively write about this piece without having been at its actual performance. Transverse is, of course, the recording of a one-off show performed by Nik Colk (Factory Floor), Christ Carter, and Cosey Fanni Tutti (both formerly of Throbbing Gristle). It’s experimental in the best sense of the word, combining elements of industrial and ambient music to compelling effect. It is hypnotic, drawing the listener into spiralling waves of rhythmic sounds – some familiar, many strange. It sits on the border of that mysterious place where sound becomes music, and music becomes art. And, you know, I’m beginning to get more on board with the musical album as art project the older I get. Music does not need to appeal to everybody, nor should it – this has been proven time and again and makes for shit listening. Transverse is clearly not for everyone. However, the people it isn’t for will be easily weeded out by way of their un/familiarity with its comprising constituents. And if those uninitiated are up for a journey into a sonic grid of steel trapdoors, whirring machinery, and unrelenting menace, then please…do come in.

Carter Tutti Void – V3

 

9. Chromatics – Kill For Love

chromatics kill for love

No other album from 2012 has sounded as hauntingly isolated, as bleakly desolate, as gasping for human contact as Kill For Love does. Between the more straight-ahead guitar- and piano-based songs a pervading synth chill takes over and does not let up. It’s a deeply bleak, yet unrelentingly realistic and often beautiful look at how technology and modern life divide, not unite us. These separations start small, with missed calls and series of unanswered texts, and on Kill For Love grow to destructive dimensions. Of course, the destruction here doesn’t equal chaos, but desolation and a profound anomie. Chromatics have captured that hopelessness so precisely, in fact, that this album is often the opposite of precise: sprawling, self-indulgent, expansive: melancholy in double LP form. Kill For Love shimmers like the mirages of films and of dreams; it offers the illusions of connection and hope but once you’ve arrived at album’s end, there’s no salvation in sight.

Chromatics – There’s a Light Out on the Horizon

Read my review of Kill For Love here.

 

8. LA Vampires with Maria Minerva – The Integration LP

la vampires maria minerva integration

Unlike almost all (exception: Daphni) of the other dance and/or electronic music featured on this list, The Integration LP is the epitome of breezy, summery, road-trip music. A collaboration between Amanda Brown, aka LA Vampires, formerly of Pocahaunted, and Maria Minerva, aka Maria Juur, lauded by Simon Reynolds among many others, this meeting of musical minds is a match made in, well…music obsessive heaven. A heady mixture of dub, disco, electronic, and whatever that rapidly fading genre known as chillwave is supposed to represent, The Integration LP sounds above all like it was incredibly fun to make. It also sounds like the early nineties as screened through the electronic dance music surge of the last decade or so, and no, in case you’re wondering, it holds appeal for people who aren’t hipsters as well. Title track “Integration” is slinky and sly, with murmured vocals obscured further still through a haze of effects. The baggy backbeat lends some structure to the song’s languid form, and even though it’s five and a half minutes long, at its finish it feels like barely 45 seconds have passes. “Seasons Change” begins with jazzy piano as its underpinning, and adds those reverb-soaked vocals along with possibly the world’s most groovy horn line. These sounds are an accurate indication of the entire album’s effect: it takes a lot of work to make dreamy laziness like this sound so easy.

LA Vampires with Maria Minerva – Seasons Change

 

7. Lower Dens – Nootropics

lower dens nootropics

It freaks me out that Nootropics is so soothing and so unsettling at the same time.  Its ominousness is all the more disconcerting given the way it sneaks up on you, forming a taut line of unbroken, subtly building suspense for a full 50 minutes. Jana Hunter’s deadpan vocal delivery has a lot to do with that, as well as the steady motorik rhythm that underpins most of these tracks. Before you even realize it the eddying guitars have slowly shifted to allow shuffling drumbeats into the spotlight, and their starkness set against Hunter’s creepy vocal melodies and otherworldly synth flourishes may as well be the sound of aliens landing on earth. It is bleak, cold, and robotic, but it also offers warmth. Hunter has talked about the lyrics and the subject of transhumanism, but this listen isn’t about the (mostly impenetrable) words she’s singing. This is the krautrock and experimentalism of early ‘70s Can, Kraftwerk, and Eno made contemporary and individual. Like many albums on this list and many of my very favourite albums of all time, it references the past without relying on it. The musical ideas may be old, but the pervading creepiness plumbed so thoroughly here is solely the creation of Lower Dens.

Lower Dens – Alphabet Song

 

6. The Monochrome Set – Platinum Coils

Monochrome set platinum coils

Tripping on drugs should always be this much fun. And if only the actual experience involved this much giddy aural genre-hopping. This album is legitimately all of the genres or none of them, and if that sounds like some impossible-to-listen-to joke, then give Bid and (almost) original crew a chance with Platinum Coils. I mean, I never thought of myself as someone who enjoys vintage-referencing crooning country, but “Les Cowboys” is delightful, largely because it feels so perverse and self-aware. The warmth and sweet harmonies of easy-listening folk-pop are featured on “Mein Kapitan”, but its lyrics allude to derailing a convicted dictator from his “thought crimes” with some Kant, stone fruit, Lou Reed, and acoustic guitar strumming. Charming, and effective, I’m sure. “Waiting For Alberto” features my favourite line: “Will he bring me pears or apples or a bag of exotic…? I hope it’s not bananas, bananas make me ill.” Well, that’s entirely understandable: bananas are disgusting. My favourite tune, however, is one about the infectiousness of music and how it moves a seriously ill man to dance in the institution he’s being kept at, to “glide around polished floors, tripping the wax fantastic.” Platinum Coils is no less transcendent.

The Monochrome Set – I Can’t Control My Feet

Read Larissa’s review of Platinum Coils here.

 

5. Screaming Females – Ugly

screaming-females-ugly

I suppose it’s very predictable that I’m utterly besotted with Marissa Paternoster. She truly does not seem to give a fuck what people think. More importantly, she writes awesome songs and performs the shit out of them. The music that Screaming Females make is not unusual or exceptional in genre – it’s just flawlessly executed and punctuated by Paternoster’s unusual, exceptional voice and point of view. I genuinely believe that a dude-fronted band making songs like this would be huge in indie rock circles, but much like the band itself, Screaming Females’ following remains small-scale and modest. It’s not entirely depressing to think about: there’s a certain kind of privileged thrill that comes with getting into this band, like encountering some small, precious treasure. But, you know, the kind of precious discovery that makes you feel like a badass superhero, bopping down sidewalks, imaginary cape secured, ready to take on anything.

Screaming Females – Leave It All Up to Me

Read my review of Ugly here.

 

4. The Eccentronic Research Council – 1612 Underture

ERC cover

It was unsurprising that Adrian Flanagan and Dean Honer, both seasoned veterans of Northern England’s indie and electronic music scenes and emanating from Salford and Sheffield, respectively, would produce such an excellent and playful electronic concept album as this. What’s more surprising is 1612 Underture’s inclusion of Northern actress Maxine Peake as vocalist, mostly reciting monologues and occasionally poetry against a backdrop of vintage synths and otherworldly electronica. The concept is, of course, the 1612 trials of the Pendle witches – 1612 Underture opens on the road to Lancashire, A666, also known as The Devil’s Highway, Peake tells us. “Autobahn 666 (Travelogue #1) is mostly factual in content, but it’s a distinctive opener in that it includes a longish monologue from Peake, introducing us to the particular quirks and charms of her voice, and that it’s juxtaposed with such a poppy, jaunty little electronica riff. The effect is immediately captivating. Between updates from three more such travelogue pieces, bits of poetry, traditional folk songs, and chants, instrumental interludes of unnerving sounds, and several all-out songs, 1612 Underture slowly becomes a whole and satisfying piece – so unusual and so rewarding. It’s a documentary, a concept album, a piece of travel writing, a historical horror story, and an experimental electronic pop album. It’s fabulous.

The Eccentronic Research Council – The Hangman’s Song

 

3. Scott Walker – Bish Bosch

scott walker bish bosch

It must be cool, and likely more than a little bit weird, to be Scott Walker. Dude can do whatever he wants. Happily for us music nerds, what he wants to do is so unnerving, experimental, and consistently interesting that he can leave us for six or even eleven years between albums and never compromise his devoted fan base. I think I may know something to do with that, and it might have a little something to do with that voice. Known for his dramatic, even violent, one-eighty from his early success in ‘60s pop and blue-eyed soul as one third of The Walker Brothers to become an icon of avant-garde and art rock – he even punched meat as percussion on 2006’s The Drift – groundbreaking and brilliant weirdness is what we’ve come to expect from Scott Walker. Bish Bosch doesn’t deviate from this expectation: it opens with “‘See You Don’t Bump His Head’”, an extraordinarily strange and repetitive piece that mashes together an insistent drum beat to replicated lyrics of “while plucking feathers from a swan song.” His delivery of the words “a mythic instance of erotic impulse” is positively shiver-inducing. A harsh guitar joins in for a lone riff, and Walker continues his tormented refrain. The sonic centre of Bish Bosch is “Epizootics!”, a shuffling dirge punctuated with unsettling lyrics and broken open periodically for a strident horn refrain, ringing from the rafters. His voice sounds alien over this highly controlled chaos, but it’s endlessly, edge-of-your-seat exciting.

Scott Walker – Epizootics!

 

2. Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Theatre is Evil

afp theatre is evil

Amanda Palmer talks an enormous game, but she always delivers. Good luck getting away from her – or her internet presence, anyway – if you’re not a fan. She has successfully taken on Kickstarter, TED talks, and she may or may not have successfully propositioned Morrissey into helping him make his next album via Kickstarter. Her earnestness and enthusiasm aren’t trendy, but she definitely gets shit done. Theatre Is Evil is a triumphant return to solo(ish) form since working with Ben Folds on Who Killed Amanda Palmer, but made even more personal with a set of songs designed to hit all the musical and lyrical buttons her admirers crave: dark, dramatic ballads, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s musical reference points, theatrical flourishes, torrents and profusions of always-heartfelt words, and unadulterated exuberance. On the album’s striking sleeve art, she surveys her audience with a slight smirk, pale eyes coolly and slowly turning criticism into art. Yeah, I’m projecting. But I feel like I’m not far off. If haters are gonna hate, which they are, then AFP is gonna be right there with them, word for word, no challenge unanswered.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra – Smile (Pictures Or It Didn’t Happen)

Read my review of Theatre is Evil here and read Larissa’s piece on Amanda Palmer and crowdfunding here.

 

1. Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose

bjh yours truly

I am still a bit gobsmacked by Beth Jeans Houghton. Where exactly did she come from? A grotto for wayward punks who like violins too much and who sing warmly that “red wine and whiskey are no good for me”? A glam rock spacecraft where they worship Kate and Anna McGarrigle as much as they do Marc Bolan? Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose took me aback at first listen and it still does, its lyrics sounding like they were pored over for years and its music sounding like it was thrown together in the studio, and I mean that in the best and most loving way possible. It’s ramshackle, like she gathered up her drinking buddies to form a band and showed them how to play together while they were still drunk. To me these songs convey the joyfulness that’s present in all but the saddest times and the melancholy that inevitably creeps into the happiest times. It’s multifaceted, it’s rewarding on so many levels, it’s sad, it’s ridiculous, it makes me feel more human and more like myself. Oh, and the lady knows her John Waters references. I’m in love.

Beth Jeans Houghton & The Hooves of Destiny – Veins

Read my review of Yours Truly, Cellophane Nose here.

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A Wobbly Riff on Dorian Lynskey’s 33 Revolutions Per Minute

33 Revolutions Per Minute

The Clash was my gateway to “political” music. From then on, I became a fan of songs that made me think and carried more meaning than a dance party or a love story. In the words of McCarthy, boy meets girl, so what? Having said that, I don’t know if I ever thought I was listening to protest songs. This realization, then, makes me wonder where the line is between songs about politics and protest songs, or if there’s a line at all. Sometimes I think that political music is more about condemnatory commentary whilst protest songs should be about activism and bringing people together to fight for a cause. To borrow from John Gray, the former is about perceiving the world as clearly as possible; the latter is about changing the world. If this is indeed the case, then Dorian Lynskey’s book 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs, from Billie Holiday to Green Day would be more often about political music rather than protest songs. Not too many of the songs selected include explicit imperatives nor are they suggesting active solutions. Then again, is the act of inserting politics in pop music—pop music being a contentious concept in its own right—an act of protest? Is intelligent observation in a public piece of art a form of protest? I don’t believe that my favourite band, the Manic Street Preachers, thought they were changing the world through their songs; conversely, they seemed to wallow in their own spectator astuteness and inability to act on an unjust world. Interestingly, Lynskey chooses the Manic Street Preachers’ “Of Walking Abortion” as a turning point in which the protest song “eats itself.” He argues that because the Manics quite explicitly put the blame and responsibility on humanity as a whole (Hitler reprised in all of our souls), “the protest song’s traditional contract with its listener—you and me, we are on the right side—is irrevocably shattered.”

To be fair, Lynskey does address the ambiguity of the phrase “protest song” in his introduction. He frames his discussion by saying that he is “using the term in its broadest sense, to describe a song that addresses a political issue in a way which aligns itself with the underdog.” Ultimately it’s this framework that makes his book such a fascinating and balanced read. He has done an admirable job of tracking the development of the protest song through the twentieth century and its knackered whimper into the twenty-first whilst probing at the protest song’s polarizing tendencies. Though he has broken the book up into thirty-three chapters about thirty-three significant protest songs, he really uses the songs as jumping-off points for analyzing a specific period of protest songs and their sociopolitical contexts. There were many expected appearances, including Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg, The Clash, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine, and not-quite-as-expected artists like Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Huggy Bear, and Stevie Wonder. Lynskey does not confine himself to Westernized circumstances, and in including songs from Chile, Nigeria, and Jamaica, he provides a much-needed contrast, showing the realities of protest with actual, tangible risk.

Taking Lynskey’s broader understanding of the protest song and its interesting complexities, I’d like to pick away at my own prejudices and explore my own understanding of protest songs and politics in music. If I place the first song in the book, Billie Holiday’s rendition of the Abel Meeropol-penned “Strange Fruit,” next to Green Day’s “American Idiot,” the titular track from their Grammy-winning rock opera, I’m faced with my own notions of what an effective protest song should be. Where do my own conceptions and judgments of authenticity come from?

Holiday’s growl of “bulging eyes” is particularly disturbing, augmenting an already riveting performance. She is powerful in her delivery, voice ragged, angry, sad, proud, and tired, and the simplicity of the backing piano and her pregnant pauses are conducive to an atmosphere of contemplation. I’m forced to focus on the message as I’m led into the full horror of the narrative. The tension within the performance echoes both the racial tension and the incongruity of politics being aired in this sort of venue. Billie Holiday sings with just enough control and possibility of breakdown to do justice to the carefully constructed lyrics. Meeropol’s lyrics are subtle and are all the more unsettling for their subtlety. Of course, Lady Day’s own troubled existence casts a long shadow over the song and its performance, adding further dimension and depth.

Compared with Billie Holiday’s sobering, haunting performance of “Strange Fruit,” Billie Joe Armstrong and Co.’s video seems like an ADHD protest replete with its own snotty green flood of sick. I’ve generally taken a rather negative view of Green Day’s attempt at a protest concept album, viewing it as a superficial take on complex problems. In light of reading 33 Revolutions and pushing myself to think about “American Idiot” beyond my knee-jerk reaction, perhaps my own negativity about it could be stemming from my own contexts for the song and for Green Day themselves. I couldn’t take protest seriously from a band that I associate with high school antics, and their sudden leap into the then-emerging emo aesthetic didn’t help. Their album came across as insular, uninformed whining rather than thoughtful, creative protest; the only apparent politically charged difference between their music and the moody, suburban alienation of My Chemical Romance was the insertion of the titular song and occasional references to America’s war on terror. Green Day painted disenfranchised teenagers traumatized by the American Nightmare in such broad strokes that they came out like cartoonish bogeymen for the Far Right. Whilst there was no chance of it ending up as a misinterpreted “Born in the USA” debacle, for the same reasons, it also felt like a hollow Rock the Vote pose. It’s a blunt take on the ignorant American stereotype unlike the more nuanced stereotype explored in LCD Soundsystem’s “North American Scum.” Although, if your touchstones when making a political record are The Who’s Tommy and musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar and West Side Story, you will likely be aiming for the grandiose rather than the subtle. Then again, perhaps bluntness is sometimes the only way to get your message across to a wider market. Where “Strange Fruit” and “American Idiot” do seem similar is in their success of slipping something subversive into what was meant to be mass entertainment. Perhaps I’m more disappointed that “American Idiot,” and its album, was the most subversive protest music the masses could grab hold of in the political climate of the time. On the other hand, I’m very likely misjudging what Green Day’s motives were in the first place.

Lynskey ultimately shows how varied the motives for writing protest songs can be, and, in turn, how these motives can be muddled and ambiguous. The book is filled with reluctant heroes and spokespeople, and with artists who very humanly contradicted themselves. There is also a fine line between fighting for rights and militancy buoyed by further intolerance, and many artists cross or straddle the line. At the end of his book, he writes:

What right does a musician have to discuss politics? What place is there for serious political issues in entertainment? And the answer is the same as ever: there comes a point where we have to accept that a musician does not have the same responsibilities as a politician, and that music can contain, and derive energy from, ambiguities that an interview cannot.

Our suspicion of the earnest in a popular song may go further than senses of irony, post-irony, post-post-irony, irony that has been posted so much it has somehow arrived at the other end as authenticity. I wonder if we would experience the same discomfort about protest and politics in other forms of entertainment like books, poetry, films, theatre, and visual art. I tend not to think so. In fact, art becomes “high art” the more serious it gets. This line of logic would seem to point to a discomfort stemming from politics being mixed with popular music. How is pop music defined? What are our expectations for its purpose? Perhaps we need to define entertainment first. Lynskey’s usage of entertainment is that which interests or amuses. It can also be defined as discussion of a subject or treatment of a guest. Related to this last meaning, I think there might be an odd expectation to be accommodated and made comfortable as a guest of the music. The delicate catch-22, then, is political music that isn’t considered pop music won’t have much of a wider impact, but if pop music does deal with politics, it runs the risk of going against the escapist entertainment so ostensibly intrinsic to its genre. At the same time, I think that this contradiction is also political pop music’s most exciting potential and power; subversion smuggled into the pop charts is one of my favourite things. Because the idiom of pop music is already an unexpected location for the entertainment of political discussion, there’s an interesting advantage of sorts. I think subtlety is the key in all art forms; the more unexpected the metaphor, the more impact the message has. It’s the transfiguration of black bodies into strange fruit or the comparison of New Labour with the most Thatcherite/Reaganite of narcotics that elevates a protest song into something worthy of both entertainment and further thought. Political songs often work so much more effectively if they have cleverly constructed narratives and messy ambiguity illustrating their points. It’s a large part of the reason why Elvis Costello/Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding” is a better protest song than the reductive sermonizing and Manichean worldview in mawkish, embarrassing songs like Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and Prince’s “Ronnie Talk to Russia.” It also helps to have interesting music backing your lyrics.

There have been several written pieces interrogating the seeming lack of protest songs in the last decade, especially in light of the disastrous Bush/Blair years, and Lynskey’s epilogue points to this decline, citing the fragmentation and “armchair activism” of the digital world as possible explanations. I agree with these proposed reasons; there just aren’t going to be the same type of megastar artist saviours in this atomized world of niche interests and defused/diffused media. I also admit that I’m not one to hit the streets in any kind of visible activism; the most I’ve accomplished is signing online petitions and stewing in my own self-righteous anger. Perhaps Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death is also useful in looking at this mediated apathy and impotence; the more information of injustice and collapse we are flooded with, the less control we feel over any of it. We then let it wash over us in the same flow of entertainment; news becomes entertainment, entertainment becomes news. As long as we’re not aware that we’re consuming political matters like they’re meaningless entertainment, we don’t seem uncomfortable about them, nor do we feel like we’re being preached at. Nor do we feel like participating in them.

Aside from this paradoxical disconnection in the face of hyperconnectivity, the world is, of course, still in the midst of myriad protest movements, whether they are the multiple Occupy Movements around the world, The Arab Spring propelled by social media, or website black-outs to raise awareness about SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and all of the other agreements that are a threat to Internet freedoms. However, the common thread to these protests is the use of globalized media technologies, not protest songs. The non-profit Fight for the Future states: “Remember: websites driving political action is how we beat SOPA!” Much like the technology that enables it, protest seems to be more decentralized; however, decentralization may also lead to perceptions of ineffectiveness. One of the main accusations leveled at the Occupy Movement is its lack of focus; it seems to be aiming for too many goals, or perhaps the objective to overturn capitalism in any effective and long-lasting way is too incomprehensible (see Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism). In recent times, we appear to be attempting to fight amorphous, pervasive, seemingly unassailable foes like terror and capitalism itself. When community is virtual, there are immense possibilities, but if the riots and occupations of public spaces are anything to go by, there are also clearly limitations to being a virtually connected group. There’s a need to be a visible, mobile presence in the streets. I think much of the anxiety about these shifting, rhizomatic mobilities is related to the anxiety over the lack of protest songs. Just as it seems difficult to locate the source, and thus boundaries, of these protests, it is now increasingly demanding to find their songs in a world of niche networks.

In his conversation with Jarvis Cocker on 6Music in April last year, Lynskey said that, ultimately, the value of political music for him is in the fact it gets you thinking and becomes more than escapism. I wholeheartedly agree. Just as other forms of art and culture can make you question and be questioned, an effective protest song can change your worldview and perhaps prompt you to change the world, whilst also being entertaining in every sense of the word.

See also Dorian Lynskey’s excellent 33 Revolutions Per Minute blog.

Mississippi Goddam – Nina Simone

Breath of a Nation – Big Flame

Zombie – Fela Kuti

You Are the Generation That Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve – Johnny Boy

Heartland – The The

Use a Bank I’d Rather Die – McCarthy

Of Walking Abortion (Live at the London Astoria, December 21, 1994) – Manic Street Preachers

Fight the Power – Public Enemy

Crisis in the Credit System – Petit Mal

Cocaine Socialism – Pulp

Another Bloody Election – Killing Joke

Resisting Tyrannical Government – Propagandhi

White Riot – The Clash

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