My senses are drained, my listening faculties are frayed. Remind me not to evaluate twenty-five albums in three days when I do this again for 2012. As Laura already said, it’s been a banner year for gigs which may never be exceeded. And it’s also been a strange year for releases, namely the feeling that we slipped through a wormhole to the 80s. I’m not sure I would have pegged 2011 to be the year we hear new mainstream material from John Foxx, Thomas Dolby, and The Human League. While it’s clear I would have felt much more at home in a northern English town between 1978 and 1984 (preferably wearing a trenchcoat and a quiff), I’m still a little surprised to see how older artists are dominating my list, and if not older artists, newer artists that sound much like the older artists.
Since beginning this new blog in October, I’ve appreciated having a reviewing partner who I can trust to write impassioned and thoughtful reviews, and who pushes me to up my game as a writer. And the fact we composed our top album lists completely independent of each other and ended up with several of the same choices shows that we do indeed sometimes share half a brain.
These are early days for this blog, and it can only go up or down from here. Thank you, and good night.
25. IAMX Volatile Times
I’m still conflicted about this fourth album from Chris Corner’s IAMX, hence, he has fallen from being number two in 2009 to number twenty-five this year. Upon the first several listens, I was disappointed as Volatile Times seemed too fragmented, too overreaching, like a person falling apart and losing his/her way. The beautiful bombast and political fervor of Kingdom of Welcome Addiction seem to have degenerated into less exciting theatrics and less subtle lyrics, including an oddly self-righteous paean to Christopher Hitchens. Judging by his sporadic blog posts from the last year and a half, Corner has been working out of a pretty messy mental space. It feels like he was desperately attempting to rally troops to support his point of view, but these attempts started to veer into self-indulgent railing and heavy-handed preaching. After listening more closely, there were tracks worthy of note, and I realized that perhaps I was too quick to discard the entire album. “Bernadette” proves that he still has a command of haunting circus songs; “Cold Red Light” screeches and thunders in a cathartic rush as Corner alternates between intoning detached vocals and explosive violence; and “Oh Beautiful Town,” which features snippets of conversation from his family, is powerful demonstration of the strength of his voice and his sense of anthemic melody, and continues to prod at the past that “Think of England” hinted at. I hope that Corner will once again be able to take himself less seriously and struggle out of the insular world, seemingly bolstered by sycophantic blog comments, that he’s currently stewing in. I admire the fact he’s clearly a critical thinker as well as a dedicated artist, and I still believe that he has the potential to create truly interesting art with purpose.
Bernadette – IAMX
24. Gruff Rhys Hotel Shampoo
This third solo album by Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys is his most accessible (for one thing, it’s the first to be an all-English record), but it’s also a sweet, warm blend of acoustic folk, airy psychedelia, sweeping Bacharach-like piano, bleepy electronics, and Latin influences. His vocal style retains the gentle Welsh lilt even when he sings in English, and his shambolic style is heart-flutteringly endearing. This album gives me a feeling of being bathed in an amber glow with nature in soft-focus all around me. It also makes me think of The Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Even when he sings of the ending of a relationship in songs like “Honey All Over” and “Vitamin K” he manages to retain a relaxed, harmonious atmosphere, and tunes like “Sensations in the Dark” and “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” are puppyish in their bouncy loveliness. A track such as “Conservation Conversation” would seem a little too cartoony and childish by any other artist, but Rhys makes it yet one more pleasant quirk in his canon. He gives me a similar sense of retro comfort that Richard Hawley does; he seems a man out of his time, but one who brings a sense of ease to our own time.
Honey All Over – Gruff Rhys
23. Shirley Lee Winter Autumn Summer Spring
Erstwhile Spearmint frontman, Shirley Lee released his second solo album this year as an ambitious double-disc set that reverses its way from the season of death into the season of rebirth as he relates a lifetime of seizing the moment. The first track of the winter cycle and the record as a whole, “Maidenhead,” is an appropriately pessimistic beginning in which Lee sings: “You ask me if I believe in a life after this/I don’t even believe in this one.” However, the album ends with the last spring song, “I Can Wait,” which is a more hopeful tune; Lee is fighting fit and willing to see out any of the bad in his life. As you might expect, this album runs the gamut of emotions through apoplectic frustration, deflated regrets, sweet nostalgia, and heady recklessness as Lee courses through his flawed existence. The gentle twee pop and Lee’s hushed vocals push the self-aware lyrics into a captivating musical story. I, myself, can identify with the compulsion to analyze my own mortality and to have acute realizations that I’m in a good memory as it’s happening to me. Shirley Lee manages to take a giant step back from his own narrative and see the forest while describing the trees with poetic detail.
I Can Wait – Shirley Lee
22. Hercules & Love Affair Blue Songs
I loved the first album by DFA act Hercules & Love Affair so much that it made my Top 40 Albums of 2008, and they succeeded in following it up with an equally intriguing record. The opening track “Painted Eyes” cleared away any doubts as that brilliant violin riff kicks in over the bass and flute, living up to “Blind” off their debut. There are many excellent dance tracks, including the glitchy scatting and smooth soul of “My House,” the slinky funk of “Leonora,” the brass–enhanced house beats of “Falling,” and the pumping keyboard line of “Step Up,” which features guest vocals from Kele Okereke. What makes this album of more interest to me are the unexpected lurches away from their genre. There’s the tender acoustic ballad of “Boy Blue” and the muffled crashes of “It’s Alright,” but the most remarkable song is “Blue Song.” With its mellow clarinet cascading in a way reminiscent of “Rhapsody in Blue” against a backdrop of jungle sounds, it’s a track that is both tribal and coolly urbane. The slower songs that move away from the disco and dancefloor shift the spectrum of an otherwise glowing, red-hot band to a sophisticated, inky indigo.
Blue Song – Hercules & Love Affair
21. M83 Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming
Anthony Gonzalez is having quite a successful year with the double-disc follow up to his John Hughes-inspired, adolescent dream Saturdays = Youth. This time Gonzalez seems to be in thrall to a sparkling childhood of synth magic. It’s brimming with a rushing innocence and dreamy escapism, making it an effervescent antidote to our rather cynical, uncertain times. Whether fizzing through nocturnal urban landscapes or whizzing through twinkling galaxies, Gonzalez’s distinctive yelps elate and delight alongside his expansive synths. After two entire discs, it’s almost too much gushing energy, perhaps akin to staring at the sun or having your heart explode from a particularly high rollercoaster drop, but instead it leaves you wondering just how much joy and brightness one musician can convey without having a brain aneurysm. This album is a New Romantic sundae you want to keep eating until you vomit.
Intro – M83 (featuring Zola Jesus)
20. PJ Harvey Let England Shake
Nope, she’s not at the top of my list like she is in just about everyone else’s—mainly because I don’t find most of the music to be on par with the anger and bitterness of the lyrics. However, I think she should still be commended for her act of audio arson, sending the bloated, moribund English nationhood down into an incendiary funeral pyre and exploring its bloody, slippery slopes of unending war. If only because she seems to be one of the few musicians to tackle this kind of material at the moment. When I first heard “The Glorious Land” on the radio, I felt like I was going a bit mad. The disorienting music skitters out in all directions while that military trumpet sample comes in to tilt everything off balance. Much of the record keeps that wobbly sensibility as Harvey’s vocals slip through almost as many changes as do the musical styles; for “On Battleship Hill” she delivers a banshee/siren vocal performance, and on “Written on the Forehead” she becomes an airy ghost. This Mercury-Prize-winning record is unsettling because it seems to portray a broken madness of post-traumatic stress rather than stand up in protest; it ultimately becomes a snapshot of defeat instead of the shaking of foundations you might come to expect from Harvey.
The Glorious Land – PJ Harvey
19. Matt Berry Witchazel
When I heard that Matt Berry, of Mighty Boosh, IT Crowd, Snuff Box, etc. fame, had recorded an album, I have to admit that I assumed it would be a generally comedic affair with plenty of plummy, baritone vocals of the “Goddamn these electric sex pants” variety. Granted, I was making this estimation based solely on his rendition of “Eclipse of the Heart” as Dixon Bainbridge. I was ecstatically surprised to find that Berry is more likely to ride a white swan into early Tyrannosaurus Rex via The Incredible String Band with a higher, reedier vocal style and a mercurial backing of harp, woodwinds, guitar, piano, mandolin, organ, and glockenspiel. Witchazel evokes pastoral themes, renaissance fairs, village fetes, and psychedelic freak-outs. The lyrics are suitably surreal (ie: “Your penguin’s in the bath/It was put there by your mum”), and sometimes downright humourous as in the track “Accident at a Harvest Festival,” which features an unfortunate incident involving a gun and cerebral staining of clothes. Overall, Berry proves that some people are just too talented at too many things.
Take My Hand – Matt Berry
18. Artery Civilisation
Who would have thought there would ever be a new Artery album? Their last studio record, The Second Coming, came out in 1984, and while Jarvis Cocker did boost their profile by adding them to his 2007 Meltdown line-up, I never expected it would result in a brand new album. Those intervening years seem to have made them even angrier. If the gas-mask man and grey landscape on the album cover are anything to go by, this album is a misanthropic affair. Mark Gouldthorpe’s sneering vocals are more tortured than I remember as he sings with contempt about society’s aimlessness and vacuity, sounding like the only person who hears the ticking timebomb of “progress.” Artery’s distinctively propulsive, insistent rhythms and percussion kick through fat bass lines and slicing guitars; sometimes the music builds into portentous atmospheres of dread, sometimes it shakes with a taut rage like a horrorshow gone critical. It’s an album that truly interrogates “civilization,” asking questions that are meant to hold people to account, but which become rhetorical as they fall on deaf ears and blank stares. Artery updates their sense of alienation with the addition of cyberspace on songs like “A Song for All the Lonely People,” and in “Into Oblivion,” Gouldthorpe spits that we’ve built our artificial security out of “anguish in the concrete.” While so many newer and younger bands are in the blissful business of ignoring the pathologies of our uneasy culture, Artery has brought back vitriolic, necessary confrontation.
Is It All for Real? – Artery
17. Frank Turner England Keep My Bones
Frank Turner tends to receive an equal measure of loyal adulation and dismissive backlash. I think both reactions stem from Turner’s unabashed earnestness. Having seen him perform live twice (thankfully, in intimate venues), having interviewed him a few months back, and having met him in person after his Winnipeg show, I can attest to the impassioned genuineness of his projected persona. And he has a backing band of equally decent souls. Though I may like Poetry of the Deed more than this current album, I still find England Keep My Bones to be a powerfully memorable and life-affirming statement about identity and the urge to both escape and maintain roots. It’s a record of exploring heritage, belief in the power of community, and self-memorialization. Songs like “I Still Believe,” “I Am Disappeared,” “If Ever I Stray,” and “Glory Hallelujah” get my heart pumping faster like the waters rushing through the estuaries that figure so prominently in Turner’s conception of his homeland. While Turner may not always be aware of the poetry and consistent imagery in his own work, I think he’s created a truly thematic piece that is emotionally affecting and uplifting in its humanity.
I Am Disappeared – Frank Turner
Read my interview with Frank Turner here.
16. Mogwai Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will
I’m no expert on post-rock, but this seventh album from Mogwai is as playful as its title suggests and as mischievous as the Glaswegian band ever were. Perhaps it’s a more mellowed out record than it could have been, but I feel that the deft arrangement of textures is more than just an atmospheric trigger to emotion as I would find the earlier work to be; this collection of tracks seem melodically more descriptive and direct, like mini-cinematic scores. The motorik rush and whispers of vocals on “Mexican Grand Prix” produce a brilliant spin around a sun-drenched racetrack, and “Letters to the Metro” is suitably mawkish with sighing guitars and teardrops of piano. There are still vestiges of fuzzed-out, heavier rock on tracks like “Rano Pano,” and “You’re Lionel Richie,” which apparently references the “Easy Lionel” viral video of a Glaswegian wandering the streets on ecstasy, is one monstrous crescendo from gentle, dare I say easy, waves to mind-melting intensity. One of my favourite tracks is the cheekily-titled “George Square Thatcher Death Party”; with its defiant guitars and ecstatic drum fills, I can actually imagine the jubilant festivities in the civic centre of Glasgow. This album is a fortifying alternative to the muso-moody seriousness of their contemporaries.
George Square Thatcher Death Party – Mogwai
15. Kate Bush 50 Words for Snow
A flurry accompanies every release from the reclusive artist, and this latest was no different. Though this album unfolds at a glacial pace, with tracks averaging eight minutes in length, it emulates the slow build of snow in drifting, muffling beauty. For those of us who see far too much prosaic snow on a yearly basis, this record may seem a bit too romantic about it; however, through the minimal piano and Bush’s hushed, lower register, which occasionally leaps into stark high notes, I start to fall into a reverie, believing snowflakes to have life cycles and snowmen to have tragic love lives. Bush departs from the undulating piano balladry on tracks like “Wild Man,” which adds the mysterious chant of Eastern-inflected guitars and a disorienting, otherworldly effect on her vocal during the chorus. The titular track is an almost-tribal tribute to language as Bush seductively coaxes Stephen Fry to recite imagined, and perhaps not-so-imagined, words for snow, including “swans-a-melting,” “spangladasha,” “anklebreaker,” and “anechoic.” Overall, this record is a bewitching interpretation of winter, often expressing the sound silence would make if it had a voice. Having it on vinyl is a treat if only to flip through the accompanying large lyric booklet featuring images designed by Robert Allsop; part-ice-sculpture-part-snow-impression-part-marble-frieze, they are ghostly and strangely alive. This album is a much more challenging sentiment than “December Will Be Magic Again,” but I think that Bush has made more than a fair trade in swapping fairy whimsy for stately soundscaping.
Wild Man – Kate Bush
14. Tom Rosenthal Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop
After waiting for at least a couple of years, I finally have the opportunity to consider Tom Rosenthal for my top albums of the year. His debut album, which has been released digitally, comes out of a rather prolific songwriting context; I must have dozens of Rosenthal compositions as they were often released for free on his website, and I purchased a homemade four-disc box set that covered his output from 2006 to 2009 (it also included a little book of poetry and a small watercolour). I recognize at least a couple of the tracks on his debut LP from previous incarnations, but overall it’s an exciting array of material. (If you want some further background, visit a previous review I did nearly three years ago). Rosenthal’s topical piano songs are inventive and humourous, twisting cultural references into new narratives of dreamy wonder. His past songs have explored the recent hung parliament in Britain, Jeremy Kyle, Mark Ronson, the Queen, and a dream in which Rosenthal rides a giant bicycle. Keep a Private Room Behind the Shop leans more towards Rosenthal’s storytelling ability, including the story of “Toby Carr’s Difficult Relationship with Tuna”; the mincing “Away With the Fairies,” which tells of a couple who love everyone, except Robert Mugabe; and “The Boy” who takes a hot air balloon ride with a creature through a land where only a single yellow rose grows, eventually ending up on a train trip to the sea. I find the unguarded, woozy sweetness of Patrick Wolf’s “Adder” in several of Rosenthal’s melodies, and I think we need a new poster boy the off-kilter; with this debut, Rosenthal enchants with his charming abandon and unique imagination, throwing his hat of tricks into the ring.
The Boy – Tom Rosenthal
13. The Horrors Skying
This respectable follow-up to their breakthrough Primary Colours continues to push into expanses of sound, reaching for the skies and coasting on a crystalline slipstream. Faris Badwan’s voice keeps getting richer and moodier as it stretches to meet the epic mandate of the music. While “I Can See Through You” bears more than a passing resemblance to “Boys Keep Swinging,” those ascending chords take the song into a more ethereal place, and songs like “Monica Gems” and “Oceans Burning” are pleasing maelstroms that threaten to collapse in on themselves. When so many bands bury their bass rhythms in the mix, it’s also just wonderful to hear songs with prominent basslines doing interesting things to guide the dizzying melodies. (I’m also fully prepared to admit that I’m hypnotized by Rhys Webb’s bobbing dance that accompanies his bass-playing and looks like he’s trying to put a baby to sleep.) The two juggernauts that really boost this album into stratospheric realms are “Still Life” and “Moving Further Away.” They’re both majestic behemoths when performed live; the former is a glittering post-punk anthem, and the latter pulses with motorik elegance as it pushes out like an exploding universe. Derivative, yes, but I just can’t fault Skying for being the new wave classic that came nearly thirty years too late.
Moving Further Away – The Horrors
12. Zola Jesus Conatus
Nika Roza Danilova’s latest record is a possessed piece of art that seems to scream 4AD with a dark, primal pain. The Latin word conatus means “a striving,” which I can feel in the intensity and struggle throughout this album. Her vocals are so stridently muscular that they ache with a passion of unspeakable emotion; much like Elizabeth Fraser’s ululations, Danilova’s voice doesn’t need to be comprehensible in terms of language in order to convey alienation and self-immolation (in fact, I find several of her lyrics to be difficult to decipher, but nonetheless emotionally affecting). The track “Hikikomori,” named after a Japanese term meaning “acute social withdrawal,” does characterize her ostensibly self-imposed reclusiveness and the turmoil of her inner world. As much as her voice ventures out into bold swathes of throat-catching beauty and the music swells into frosty waves, her voice also retreats into itself as the music sinks back into an undergrowth of static. It’s as though Danilova cannot stop raising her head above the parapet of her own lonely fortress to cry out to the void.
Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake – Zola Jesus
Read Laura’s review of Conatus here.
11. St. Vincent Strange Mercy
Perhaps because I’m an ornery anglophile, or perhaps because I just don’t have enough time in the day to listen to all of the music and actually eat, I haven’t really listened to St. Vincent prior to this year. This preface means that I’m not familiar with Annie Clark’s previous albums, so I’m coming at this latest one from a newcomer’s angle. This record alternates between angelic and menacing as Clark examines her flaws, failings, and yearnings. Her gentle, almost hiccupping, vocals in juxtaposition to crunchy, distorted guitar creates a fascinating tension, as though she’s wading in the purifying sludge of her guitar. “Surgeon” is both weirdly decadent and clinical, oddly evoking “You Only Live Twice” in the opening riff. As Clark pleads to be cut open, you feel like the entire record is about this act of visceral intrusion. She seems to be searching inside her own identity for the truth even when it hurts or disturbs. In “Cheerleader,” she mocks her own acquiescence by rhyming “cheerleader” with “dirt eater,” and repeats her acknowledgement of identity performance in “Champagne Year.” In “Year of the Tiger,” the desperate boredom of a bourgeois existence is summed up in the wonderful line: “My kingdom for a cup of coffee.” In many ways, Strange Mercy is a messy, glorious coming to terms.
Surgeon – St. Vincent
Read Laura’s review of Strange Mercy here.
10. Luke Haines 9½ Psychedelic Meditations on British Wrestling of the 1970s & Early ’80s
As you find throughout his autobiographies, Luke Haines is a contrary artist who will act on a whim and do as he pleases, often in order to shock and/or irritate people. Why did he make an entire concept album about German terrorists? Because he could. This latest album does exactly what it says on the tin, so to speak. Albeit not as arty as his last double album (there’s definitely no Dada imagery on this album cover), 9½ Psychedelic Meditations retains a sense of audacity in its ludicrous quest to narrate the lives of several British wrestlers. I admit the only wrestler from this group that I’ve ever heard of is Haystacks, and that’s only because he makes an appearance on the Manics’ Journal for Plague Lovers. And I concede that I only thought of Catweazle as a wizard on some British television show for children. These gaps in my knowledge aside, I find the album to be a hilarious, absurd endeavour, perhaps much in line with the DIY, kitschy ridiculousness of its subject matter. By combining the pseudo-violence of wrestling with these gentle, psyche-folk ditties and his characteristically sinister vocals, Haines produces a rather brilliant piece of twisted comedy. Though he sings of crushing people’s heads and Kendo Nagasaki composing a “rock opera in the key of existential misery,” he seems to come at the material from a decidedly less misanthropic angle. You’d expect him to revel in the seedier side of the wrestlers’ world, which I understand to have existed, or even to invent diseased back-stories for these characters; instead, he matches the idiosyncratic oddity of wrestling’s beloved place in national consciousness with, dare I say, twee, boyish fandom. Luke Haines may be a caustic lunatic, but give him a wrestling mask and he will tell you a vastly different type of lie.
I Am Catweazle – Luke Haines
9. Trips and Falls People Need to be Told
This second album from Montreal group Trips and Falls is a further development of their mellow, wonky indiepop style. At turns arcane experiment and sighing lullaby, this record marries innovative, ambiguous lyrics to captivating glimpses of secrets and desires. Tossing and turning through dreamy duets in “I’ll Do The Dishes, You Do The Laundry,” “Marginally More Than Mildly Annoying,” “This Is All Going To End Badly,” and “That’s What She Said,” Jacob Romero and Ashleigh Delaye take you through tableaux that reflect the many communicative farces and facets of relationships; in some cases, talking makes less sense than saying nothing at all. The other half of the songs range from empathetic helplessness, resigned resilience, and downright eerie stories of characters giving in to silent temptations.
Good People Are Always So Sure They’re Right – Trips and Falls
Read my review of People Need to be Told here.
8. Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell Psychic Life
Wobble and Campbell hooked me from the first few seconds of album opener “Tightrope”; it was like a taut grid of razor-sharp wires laid over the floor of a discotheque. With the addition of Keith Levene, this record is PiL with enticing rather than repellent vocals; this is not to say that John Lydon’s style is distasteful, but that it is more detached and apt to push you away rather than Campbell’s tuneful beckoning. In songs like the title track and “Ruinlust,” there’s a funky vein of dub pulsing beneath the icy synth skin, creating a dazzling sense of burning up inside a cool metal casing. There’s an electro precision on songs like “Feel” to contrast with the all-out funk of slinky vocals, piano glissandos, and brass punctuation on “Slavetown Pt. 1” and “Slavetown Pt. 2.” I actually really enjoy the slow-burning jam of the latter tracks because it seems like Campbell is itching to break out of her own brain. With Metal Box’s “Memories” knocking about somewhere in its depths, “Psychic Life” drives home the complication of the shadowy, electrified organ that is the brain. Campbell provides the hissing, soulful delivery of lyrics that insist she can’t stay in “territories of myth” even as she mourns lost spaces. The best lyric of the song, and perhaps of the entire album, is “I think of the surplus inside us.” There’s a feeling that Wobble and Campbell have mapped out a geography that has updated the perambulations of Situationists for the digital age; their album answers the question of where you can go when all your landscapes exist in an intangible information network.
Tightrope – Jah Wobble and Julie Campbell
Read Laura’s review of Psychic Life here.
7. Benjamin Shaw There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet
Thank you, Tom Ravenscroft, for introducing me to one of my favourite finds of the year. London-based musician Benjamin Shaw exemplifies the art of falling apart. His debut album is a humming, fizzing cacophony that sways along its own less than merry path. Dissonant sounds, which range from plucked ukulele to violin screeches, from reedy flute to searing static, stand out all over this record like impossible cowlicks; every time one seems to lay down in submission, another one pops up in an unlikely spot, and then the first one springs back. Like a drawn-out sigh of surrender, Shaw plays the unfortunate character with dollops of empathy and black humour. There’s an attractive catharsis in listening to this album with its half-hearted imperfections. I actually started breathing in time to the laboured slide of strings on “Somewhere Over the M6” and felt much calmer. There are some beautifully tender moments such as Shaw watching a sleeping lover in “HULK” as he admits his own superhuman distemper. It’s as though Shaw is kindly, but perhaps drunkenly, offering up spare pieces for you to try; some are severely broken, and others are completely mismatched. But you end up feeling that it’s really the thought that counts.
How to Test the Depth of a Well – Benjamin Shaw
Read my review of There’s Always Hope, There’s Always Cabernet here.
6. British Sea Power Valhalla Dancehall
On British Sea Power’s last record they asked if we liked rock music; this time, they’re demanding we answer whether we’re ready for Valhalla. I say fuck Fólkvangr. With their fourth album (not counting their soundtrack to Man of Aran), BSP continue to clatter and thrash their own reckless path through the indie soundscape like the hedonistic head of a ramshackle people’s army. This record contains dynamics that open their jaws and swallow you whole, and a wiry urgency that keeps blossoming into fist-pumping anthems. I feel like BSP are increasingly becoming the band that parties on the edge of disaster, yearning for chaos and hour zero; even on quieter, slower songs, they have a tense core that glows with enough potential energy to go nuclear. As Hamiton sings on “Mongk II,” “You can’t stop dancing ‘til you call an ambulance.” And their lyrics are still so abstrusely them. Who else do you hear singing “sometimes I wish protesting was sexy on a Saturday night”? Valhalla Dancehall is a celestial racket worth falling in battle for. If we all have to die anyway, that guitar solo on “Georgie Ray” will definitely be reward enough.
Observe the Skies – British Sea Power
Read my review of Roy Wilkinson’s book Do It For Your Mum here.
5. Wild Beasts Smother
I’m a massive fan of Limbo Panto, and then unlike the rest of the world, I didn’t enjoy Two Dancers as much; however, with Smother, I’m duly impressed once more. Histrionics have been shed in favour of an elegant minimalism; bongos and plinking guitar lines shower down on an empty space. The band generates musical currents that push, pull, suffuse, and beckon while exploring complex emotional content in the lyrics. On “Lion’s Share,” Hayden Thorpe’s distinctive operatic vocal croons through wonderfully baleful lines like “I love you all the more for every fault/They’re how I’d gotten in/They’re how I cracked the vault.” The synthpop gem of “Bed of Nails” opens with a drumbeat evocative of “Running Up That Hill” before intoxicating with Thorpe’s soulful vocal, seething and cajoling with a sexy breathiness. On one of the most striking tracks, “Reach a Bit Further,” the higher, fluty vocals from Thorpe slip into a tender dialogue of forgiveness with Tom Fleming’s huskier, lower register, giving me goose bumps. This album is about regrets, guilt, furtive desire, and sex tinged with self-consciousness, vulnerability and obsession. In many ways, the music is held back like a deep breath, evoking ambient, spare styles like those of David Sylvian. With this record, Wild Beasts have created the perfect balance between baroque vocal style and clean, classical composition, allowing their idiosyncrasy to melt into delicate, otherworldly simplicity.
Bed of Nails – Wild Beasts
4. Destroyer Kaputt
Like many critics this year, I feel like I shouldn’t like the latest record from Dan Bejar and co. With the gloss of Prefab Sprout, the swarminess of New Wave sax, flute, and trumpet, glimpses of the champagne rock of late Roxy Music, and the frothy easy listening of Spandau Ballet, it should be a nightmarish 80s pastiche as flammable as polyester. Instead, it weaves an undeniable spell as it skims the surface of the decade infamous for surfaces. “Savage Night at the Opera” sounds like a lost New Order track while engaging in a blatant “Enola Gay” riff three minutes into it, and “Chinatown” seems to be a refracted mirage of Prefab Sprout’s “When Love Breaks Down” with elements of The Style Council’s “Shout to the Top.” The epic final track “Bay of Pigs (Detail)” alone contains an extended atmospheric introduction worthy of a trip to an 80s planetarium, a guitar riff lifted right out of Roddy Frame’s hands, splays of Bernard Sumner chords, kickdrums from Pet Shop Boys, and flashes of Erasure-style hi-NRG. On the same song, Behar sings “I’ve seen it all,” which may be an apt description for how many pieces he stitches together. Though knowing, this album doesn’t feel ironic or mean-spirited; it feels like Bejar decanted his swirling adolescent memories of the 80s into a surreal stream-of-consciousness. His precise, yet fey, vocals deliver lyrics of a beguiling, but nearly nonsensical nature—Bejar himself has admitted he doesn’t know what most of the lyrics are supposed to mean. Occasionally snatches of his lines make sense in light of the album’s musical influences: “your first love’s New Order” (“Blue Eyes”), “we built this city on ruins” (“Poor in Love”), and a litany of British music magazines that seem like a dream (“Kaputt”). Bejar sings “all you got is style” in “Poor in Love,” but somehow he performs alchemy on something that could have been catastrophically tacky, and injects the whole project with substance.
Savage Night at the Opera – Destroyer
3. Momus and John Henriksson Thunderclown
It’s not like I needed further evidence that Momus is an artistic genius whose creativity and intellect are so massive that they intimidate me from getting out of bed in the morning. But he released another album this year, so it couldn’t be helped. With John Henriksson providing the vinyl samples and additional instrumentation, and Momus supplying the lyrics, vocals, and musical tweaking, you end up with an album that twists and squeezes the idea of innocent romance like the filthy, unsanitary sponge it truly is. In creating a character like the titular Thunderclown, Momus creates a clever flipside to the “Weeping Philosopher” Heraclitus; both entities are nomadic outsiders to society because they think too deeply and recognize the foolishness of others. As a painted-up fool, Momus can rain all over the parade of the nostalgic past and deflate the buoyancy contained in the myriad 50s musical samples. It is Henriksson and Momus’s attention to detail and intricate layering of meaning that lifts this project beyond mere ironic pastiche. Time and space become fluid and porous in Thunderclown, bleeding into each other, producing art that confounds as much as it astounds.
The Thunderclown – Momus and John Henriksson
Read my review of Thunderclown here.
2. Magazine No Thyself
This latest album from Magazine is proof Howard Devoto will not go gently into that good night. He’s as vital, hungry, and intense as he ever was as he sinisterly sings and gleefully gurns over lyrics about mortality and the passage of time. On “Do the Meaning” Magazine creates an acerbic, messy riposte to Roxy Music’s “Do the Strand” (complete with a greedy twist on Lewis Carroll as Devoto intends to have “jam today, jam tomorrow”), and on “Other Thematic Material” he sings sexual instructions in eye-watering detail like a Jarvis Cocker gone seedier. Devoto boasts/despairs that he’s “more mortal than ever” on “Holy Dotage,” and you can feel it as the band rises to the occasion and augments his mocking bitterness and tenacity. It feels like Magazine is going for broke with this record; it’s as though the past is snapping at their heels and they have nothing to lose. The ever-shifting musical elements, including angular funk, scratchy post-punk, spacey electro, and esoteric experimentalism, are like restless tectonic plates, colliding, parting, vibrating and grinding with tension, spewing ash, breaking ground. No Thyself is one massive refusal, annihilating anything questioning their supremacy.
Hello Mister Curtis (With Apologies) – Magazine
Read Laura’s review of No Thyself here.
1. The Indelicates David Koresh Superstar
To tell the story of David Koresh, the messianic leader of a Branch Davidian religious sect in Texas who died in an FBI siege on his sect’s ranch, in a musical concept would appear to be a folly. And perhaps in any other band’s hands it would have been. In the clever hands of Simon and Julia Indelicate, this project becomes a carefully crafted dissection of irrational belief that retains a sympathetic sense of humanity even as it picks apart what makes people fundamentalists and cult followers. The lengthy quotations on the back of the liner notes about the possibility of Jesus being a madman and the apocalyptic desire of religion, from C.S. Lewis and Christopher Hitchens, respectively, encapsulate the complex issues at the heart of David Koresh Superstar. Their backdrop is the frontier mentality of America—exemplified by The Lone Star State—and their cast is a who’s who of the London indie scene, including Lily Rae, The Vessel, Keith TOTP, David Barnett, David Shah, Aug Stone, Philip Jeays, and even Jim Bob from Carter USM as a propaganda-spewing Timothy McVeigh, no less. The Indelicates are no stranger to the alternative, quasi-religious musical, as their earlier work Job: The Musical will attest, but this time, they exceed all expectations with a spectacularly researched piece of art. Simon performs the titular role with maniacal fervor and human frailty, and Julia is heartbreakingly vulnerable as Lois Roden, a president of the Branch Davidian Seventh-day Adventist Church who also had an affair with Koresh before he challenged her leadership. The music rises to meet the incredibly high standard of poetry written by Julia and Simon; they are served well by their phenomenal sense of poetic metre as they weave their story into a musical theatre sensibility. “I Don’t Care If It’s True,” which first appeared as bonus material for their sophomore album, Songs for Swinging Lovers, is capable of overwhelming me every time I hear it. Rather than just chilling and ominous, the lyric “I will unmake the world” becomes a justifiable objective for a sad outsider who sees the world in a way that makes perfect sense to him, but not to the majority. They add further nuance to Koresh in “What If You’re Wrong?”; to the eerie beat of the loading click of a gun, Simon sings of his creeping doubts. The album’s climax of “Gethsemane” is a befitting, pulse-racing track for a showdown as refrains from “Ballad of the A.T.F.” and “McVeigh” are slipped in seamlessly behind the song proper. Part of my emotional reaction to this record is also the brilliant execution of a massive collaboration; though it must have been hard work, it seems like it had to be a blast, too. Andrew Lloyd Webber, eat your heart out.
I Don’t Care If It’s True – The Indelicates