2009 Musical Jamboree

Intro

So it has come to that time of year again where the new musical releases slow to a trickle (save for ropey compilations, cynical best-ofs/greatest hits and other albums that are of such poor quality that the labels have been forced to release them at a time when sales peak due to every conceivable idiot deciding to purchase their one album of the year, irrespective of quality) and we cast our fragmented minds back across the musical year that was 2009. And what a year it was.

2009 has featured some of the best new music, returns-to-form, and quality from bands that had seemed previously incapable of such. New media technologies, damaging as they can be for the music industry, are pushing increasingly more talented musicians into the mainstream to the extent that the once-distinct line between the alternative and mainstream has become ever more difficult to discern. Pop music (and this blog will only concern itself with pop music as a catch-all term wider in scope than is often used) has never been better. With the notable exception of Clipse’s Til The Casket Drops (out 8 December), it’s unlikely that the remainder of the year will witness any new albums of great significance. As such, over the following few days/weeks, this blog will make the almost-obligatory albums-of-the-year countdown.

Starting soon(ish) with a review of good music that didn’t make the list, the blog will then countdown this year’s best albums from numbers 15 to 1.

Disclaimer:Obviously, this list will be based upon opinion and is therefore no accurate indicator of the quality of music – this blog is not classically trained (or musically trained at all really).

Secondly, and probably more importantly, the various posts will feature a number of MP3s to download in the understanding that these are for personal use and not, ironically, for file sharing.

2009 had plenty of good music

that should be recognised, yet for a variety of reasons hasn’t made it into this blog’s top 15 of the year. Primary amongst these is the restricted scope to cover so many albums in detail. Other blogs/websites will most probably have top 50 (even top 100) countdown but are likely to have listened to a far greater volume of music throughout the year. The top 15 is based upon the number of albums that this blog has heard throughout 2009. Clearly there has to be a limit upon what proportion of music from this year can make such a list.

Furthermore, many of the albums in this section were simply too inconsistent to be considered. Most contained a selection of standout tracks, isolated in their quality, with no overall continuity in the theme of the album. Every album in the top 15 contains a well-developed theme that is maintained throughout the album’s duration, rather than appearing as a collection of disjointed, individual tracks. Other albums were more consistent in theme and the quality of tracks but featured concepts that appeared undeveloped or misguided whilst perhaps being a step-down in overall quality compared with the artist’s career as a whole.

Of the latter, A Woman a Man Walked By from PJ Harvey and John Parish, was a partially inspired return to Harvey’s roots.

Yet, as with most of her recent attempts to recreate the raw energy and more obtuse songwriting that marked her earlier efforts, the album was lacking. Short of consistency and remarkably safe, it serves as a stark contrast to her previous work, White Chalk, which marked a highpoint in her originality as an artist. It comes as no surprise therefore that the track chosen from A Woman… for this blog was the one that most evoked the fragility of PJ Harvey’s previous release. Passionless, Pointless explores the collapse of a relationship marked by intense loneliness – a topic tackled with consistent quality by Harvey.

PJ Harvey & John Parish: Passionless, Pointless

An enjoyable, albeit excessively overhyped record (see numerous other album-of-the-year lists) came out of Karin Dreijer Andersson’s attempt to carve out some semblance of a solo career/project/whatever she might label it. Under the Fever Ray monikor, the self-titled album recreated the vivid imagery familiar with Andersson’s other work but ultimately came across as something akin to a diet version of The Knife. The fine line between consistency and repetition is occassionally breached and, in complete contrast to The Knife, the lack of dynanism in the music does tend towards inducing boredom. That’s not to say there isn’t plenty here to enjoy – the uptempo Triangle Walks (see below) an impressive case in point. It is, however, an album that will always communicate well with critics, presenting a well-crafted balance between the obtuse and accessible.

Fever Ray – Triangle Walks

mewithoutYou returned this year with a follow-up to their ridiculously good 2006 album – Brother, Sister. Never ones to shy away from their faith, It’s All Crazy! It’s All False! It’s All a Dream! It’s Alright overt in its references to the band’s Sufi and Christian roots, besides heralding a huge reimagining of the band’s sound as they lost any semblance of their post-hardcore roots to create a heavily folk-influenced album that, at its peak, echoes In The Aeroplane-era Neutral Milk Hotel.

Songwriting based upon the teachings of Bawa Muhaiyaddeen perhaps promises a dry and challenging album yet singer (amongst other things) Weiss’ ability to construct vivid narratives leads to a sweet and intriguing listen.

However, the album doesn’t feature in this blog’s top-15 of 2009 due to an almost-inevitable reduction in the intensity of the band’s sound from earlier work. The Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie is a simple retelling of a Bawa Muhaiyaddeen story yet makes for the best track on the album.

mewithoutYou – The Fox, the Crow, and the Cookie

Long viewed as a novelty, Horse the band perhaps provided 2009’s most astonishing album through seemingly making full use of the band’s hitherto untapped potential. Not only has Desperate Living undermined those claims that the band existed solely as an increasingly unfunny joke, it simultaneously serves as one of the most creative albums from the past 12 months and provides evidence that the group may survive the death of the scene from which they originated. Through a more adept integration and expansion of the electronic aspect of their sounds, the band have created music which owes as much to Radiohead as it does to their more obvious contemporaries (Genghis Tron et al). This no more evident than on the track Shapeshift, which features Jamie Stewart of US-indie scene favourites Xiu Xiu. The album’s title track is perhaps most striking – an impressive amalgamation of the band’s previous and more current sound with an undercurrent of overwhelming bleakness. If there is to be a criticism of the album it is in its lack of relevance to any current (and future) trends in music. This sound isn’t likely to influence other bands and is of such minimal mass appeal that it will be swiftly forgotten, albeit underservedly so.

Horse the Band – Desperate Living

2009 was a particularly important year for new (at least with respect to mass recognition) British female/female-fronted acts. Key amongst these, and part of the wider revival of everything 80s, were La Roux (headed by Eleanor Jackson) and Little Boots (Victoria Hesketh). Neither features in the top-15 due to the incredible inconsistency in both their albums, La Roux and Hands respectively. It has to be acknowledged, however, that the high points on both records (and debuts at that) are particularly impressive, and such moments were an indication that both artists have the potential for long(er) careers should they adapt their current sound, which will (has) fall(en) victim to oversaturation.

La Roux have undoubtedly enjoyed a greater level of success, and their more marketable (albeit original) background and image are a considerable part of this. Little Boots’ success is not without a great deal of assistance from bands such as Hot Chip, whilst Hesketh’s use of the Tenori-on (an expensive instrument developed by Yamaha) makes her success vital for the music industry, which has invested heavily in the instrument. Both records suffer from

a top-heavy tracklisting – the most impressive songs are mainly near the beginning of the albums. However, this is hardly unusual in commercial pop and tracks such as In For The Kill (La Roux) and New In Town (Little Boots) deserve the success and acclaim that they received. The tracks chosen here, however, achieved minimal commercial success yet are both amongst the best on their respective albums. Tigerlily (La Roux) is a beat-heavy, 8-bit infused telling of infatuation from the stalker’s perspective, whilst Earthquake (Little Boots) is a shimmering, brilliantly produced approach to that familiar topic of a relationship going South. More spectacular still (and cheating, given that it was released in 2008 and is not featured in this extended form on Hands) is the original version of Stuck on Repeat. As this blog’s introduction to Little Boots, the longer version of this familiar song suggested that Little Boots’ sound would prove significantly different to how it ultimately turned out. The progressive  structure changing the atmosphere of this version entirely, Stuck on Repeat becomes an overwhelmingly icy and suitably repetitive tale of infatuation. If only Hands had been full of songs like this it would have undoubtedly sat amongst the top records of 2009.

La Roux – Tigerlily

Little Boots – Earthquake

Little Boots – Stuck on Repeat

Just making it out in time for inclusion in a list such as this, Clipse’s Til The Casket Drops is, unfortunately, not likely to be troubling its higher reaches. Although there are a number of songs with merit, TLCD is a massive disappointment given just how great 2006’s Hell Hath No Fury was.

The first three tracks are close to the quality of HHNF yet this is long forgotten by the time the listener reaches Door Man, which is so awful that you begin to feel increasingly embarrassed for associating yourself with this record. The Neptunes‘ growing inability to reach past production heights is glaringly evident here (Popular Demand (Popeyes) the sole and impressive exception). The latter part of the album begins to approach the quality of its first and, thankfully, starts to erase any memory of the alarmingly poor centre. Such bizarre inconsistency leads to the somewhat unexpected urge to replay the album once at its end, only to discover that the highs are that high and the lows are…well…pretty low. The song chosen here is the lead single from the record, Kinda Like a Big Deal, with its comfortingly dirty bassline and a flow smoother than the surface of the Jökulsárlón. Spot the increasingly rare bit of aggression from Kanye too.

Clipse – Kinda Like a Big Deal ft. Kanye West

So that’s the albums that didn’t make the list – a ridiculously laboured and pointless exercise I know – and now on to those that did after something of an interlude.

Interlude

As an aside, albeit a particularly important one, all of the albums discussed within this feature were listened to through Sennheiser CX300 Mark II earphones. Not as apparently trivial as it seems, a decent set of head/earphones is critical to appreciating most albums as they were intended. Obviously, the aforementioned Sennheiser’s are hardly the most advanced means through which to listen to music yet they are remarkably better than those that come as standard issue with most MP3 players/phones. Given the importance of production to the overall appeal of a record, the following list was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the means through which the albums were heard.

15 Grammatics – Grammatics

Released in early 2009 (an noticeable quirk throughout this list), Grammatics‘ self-titled album is one of the most impressive full-length debuts of recent years. From the stunning production to the always-inventive musicianship, Grammatics feels disconcertingly complete for a band so young.

The band undoubtedly wear their influences on their sleeves – the album owes heavily to Pulp and Suede (besides the post-hardcore tendencies of several members’ prior project) – yet is nevertheless overwhelming in its originality. You could never confuse Grammatics’ sound for that of another band. Any flaws evident here are somewhat debatable. The album can perhaps face criticism over the repetitive nature of certain songs, although it could (and most probably should) be argued that what might appear repetitive is a successful attempt to create a definitive sound for the band. The other key problem for Grammatics is where they take their sound from here. With a debut as strong as this it becomes inevitable that the temptation will exist to make a soundalike follow-up, a la Franz Ferdinand et al, which will inevitably prove somewhat disappointing. Conversely, a significant departure from this album will provoke similar disappointment from fans. The pitfalls of the sophomore slump abound and, cliche that it is, it is Grammatics’ second album that will really make or break their careers.

In an album full of enjoyable songs, selecting just two becomes somewhat arbitrary (and completely down to personal opinion), yet D.I.L.E.M.M.A and Cruel Tricks of the Light are, for this blog at least, standouts. The former is a beautifully complex slice of post-hardcore coated in dance-pop, owing as much to Mineral as it does to Suede and Mansun, whilst the latter is a complete change of pace – an achingly pretty ‘ballad’ (and it is described as such with great reluctance), with an increasing emotional intensity throughout its duration.

Grammatics – D.I.L.E.M.M.A

Grammatics – Cruel Tricks Of The Light

14 Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion

With the entire ‘alternative’ music media (not least Pitchfork who were blatantly planning to rate this album higher than a 9 irrespective of its quality) fawning over this record as though it was the second coming of, well, music itself, it’s probably surprising to think that this blog feels that 13 whole albums from 2009 were better (especially so when viewing the forthcoming choices). There really is a lot to admire here – gone are the pointlessly artsy meandering-to-nowhere-in-particular jams and the increased accessibility of Animal Collective‘s sound contributes massively to their appeal. At its best, ‘…Pavillion’ has a hypnotic quality (see opener In The Flowers) that remains consistent throughout. Unquestionably the most memorable songs, My Girls and Brother Sport are also the most overt pieces of pop on an otherwise pretty staid affair. And that really is the key flaw here. For all of the impressive musicianship on show, the album leans at times towards intense boredom. The feeling that this is an album for people who name-check their favourite acts rather than actually enjoy the music they listen to is ever present. Slightly annoyingly, the aforementioned two tracks show that Animal Collective are potentially great songwriters. The lyrical content is not that of some great sage as is often embarassingly alleged by the scenester crew, but the entire album is a massive step forward for the band. More focused songwriting could really create a truly great follow-up.

Animal Collective – My Girls

Animal Collective – Brother Sport

13 Moderat – Moderat

Initially absent from this blog’s top-15 due to a general level of ignorance, Moderat‘s self-titled is a well-documented collaboration between influential DJ and general music producer of the Berlin electronic music scene, Apparat (Sascha Ring), and one half the increasingly prominent (and also Berlin-based) pairing of Modeselektor (Sebastian Szary). Drawing heavily, and at times perfectly, from both sides of what are pretty disparate sounds (see here and here), Moderat is a fundametally gritty and dark record. Taking the beauty and fragility of Apparat and fusing it to Modeselektor’s swaggering basslines might be expected to lead to a largely uptempo, optimistic sound yet the result is starkly different. Moderat is a deceptively subtle record – it doesn’t immediately force the attention of the listener yet is none the worse for that, merely adding to the overall sense of bleakness. With an overwhelming sense of loneliness, this is not a remotely joyful album. The album’s opener, A New Error (see below), illustrates this perfectly – the scratchy and somewhat tuneless opening salvo is repeated throughout the latter part of the song beneath an atypical Modeselektor baseline. The song feels uneasy with itself, transferring such anxieties to the listener, yet it really is an oddly attractive track. Perhaps the duo’s most well-known track, Rusty Nails is of far greater immediate appeal (featuring the novelty of a vocal), yet is simultaneously more overt in its sheer hopelessness with synths that evoke sirens and a restless bassline. For the collaboration to continue to bear fruit, it feels as though the subsequent direction would have to be significantly different. As such, this appears as both the birth and epitaph to the output of Moderat. Working perfectly as a standalone record, this pair need never create anything other than what is already here.

Moderat – A New Error

Moderat – Rusty Nails

12 Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport

Another one of 2009’s most highly rated records (albeit not to the extent of Animal Collective), Tarot Sport was hardly a surprising success given the acclaim that the band’s previous album, Street Horrrsing, achieved. Shifting away from the more abrasive sound of SH, Tarot Sport clearly takes many of its stylistic cues from techno, though retaining the underlying ambient influences of its predecessor. For a band basically dabbling in electronica, this is ridiculously impressive stuff. The album actually works better as a whole so selecting specific tracks is both somewhat futile and underwhelming, although the choices here do undeniably showcase everything that Tarot Sport is about. Surf Solar, the opening track, (and the single of the album, albeit in this severely curtailed and less impressive form) really does have a certain celestial quality about it. A slow burning crescendo of a song, it really does serve as the build-up to the album that follows. Conversely, Flight of the Feathered Serpent (the closing track) accelerates away into what the listener expects to be some amphetamine-enhanced, hyperactive version of what has gone before only to expose itself as a sheep in wolf’s clothing. The very title itself suggest some hideously bad hair/power/fantasy-metal progressive jam, yet the ambient influences come to the fore, the drums soothe and the song eases the record to a close.

Fuck Buttons – Surf Solar

Fuck Buttons – Flight of the Feathered Serpent

11 Converge – Axe to Fall

In preposterously stark contrast to the previous record, Converge‘s seventh full-length, Axe to Fall, is  probably amongst the most savage records of 2009. Produced (slightly disappointingly) by the band’s guitarist (and general scene deity) Kurt Ballou, Axe to Fall really does amalgamate many of the band’s strongest elements from previous albums (as well as some of the weaker ones), besides adding an impressive array of guest artists with inconsistent results.

The band’s biggest (and well deserved) commercial success so far, Axe to Fall is something of a disappointment. In contrast to the band’s previous release (No Heroes), the album loses steam after the now-familiar Converge trick of placing the most overtly brutal tracks at the start. Guest musicians, particularly at the album’s middle (Wishing Well and Damages) begin to detract from what really isn’t a broken formula. Consequently fractured and fractious, the album never captures the attention in the way that some of its predecessors did. Not helping matters is Ballou’s production – shifting mystifyingly away (at least for the most part) from the cleaner sound of No Heroes, it recreates the effect of listening through an aged and tinny sound system. Not pleasant. Vocalist/lyricist Jacob Bannon’s lyrics have taken a step up this time though are still largely standard hardcore fare and don’t sit well when compared to his masterful depiction of a ruined relationship in Jane Doe. Somewhat oddly, Axe to Fall has received many comparisons with that album, yet really does echo You Fail Me more than anything else. Jane Doe is obviously not a kind record to be compared to, but the disparate nature of Axe to Fall serves as a contrast to the overwhelming consistency of the former.

Such criticisms of Axe to Fall really are quite harsh. It remains another quality record to sit alongside a ridiculously impressive back-catalogue. The musicianship is as good as ever – Ben Koller’s drumming an obvious case in point. Furthermore, the album features some of Converge’s strongest material. Dark Horse is one of the band’s most accessible songs yet – a call to arms in response to the economic (and social) destruction caused by certain lovely people over the past few years/decades. It really is Converge’s (somewhat ironically) pop song. The title track is a shorter and even more aggressive hark back to the ruptured relationships of Jane Doe and is about as optimistic as it sounds. Stupidly impressive though.

Converge – Dark Horse

Converge – Axe to Fall

10 Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

With its soon-to-be-iconic cover, concise duration, and a sound increasingly influenced by the current (well 2009) vogue for all things electronica-lite, Yeah Yeah Yeahs were clearly aiming for greatness with their third LP, It’s Blitz!. That it comes close to being the band’s best work is testament to their flexibility when incorporating new ideas, whilst retaining their distinct sound. A definite step-up from 2006’s Show Your Bones, the shift in direction here has perhaps been overplayed – the record is unmistakeably Yeah Yeah Yeahs. Gone is the apparent need for producing abrasive art-punk and with it goes any tension over the future path that the band should take. Put simply, it no longer matters. It’s Blitz! is a fun album and should be taken at face value. It’s also exudes warmth and romance where previous work has perhaps proved difficult to engage with. Zero, the album’s opening track and first single, was one of the tracks of 2009, and probably the band’s most memorable song to date, yet is not one of the two picks here. Soft Shock was largely ignored by the music media (with the exception of Pitchfork) yet is this blog’s favourite track from an album full of good songs. Perhaps the strongest example of blending the newer electronic aspects within a structure akin to old favourites, such as Maps, Soft Shock’s sonic fragility is matched by the imperfections of Karen O’s vocals, which emphasise the sadness of the song’s theme.

Hysteric acts as a the more optimistic counter to Soft Shock’s bleakness. Gentle and warm, the song’s relative simplicity really assists its message. Such simplicity is a found throughout It’s Blitz! and impresses where its predecessor disappointed. Originally dismissed as all style for a pretentious crowd, Yeah Yeah Yeahs have now produced three solid records (two of which are really quite impressive) and have managed to both expand and, somewhat contradictarily, simplify their sound. With a particular ability to really craft a memorable pop song, the band are set to become one of the most iconic of the 21st Century.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Soft Shock

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – Hysteric

9 The Field – Yesterday and Today

Axel Willner’s follow up to 2007’s mesmeric From Here We Go Sublime aims for a more organic sound through incorporating live musicians in response to Willner’s disatisfaction with creating music mechanically through a laptop. Unfortunately, despite proving successful at times, this decision was largely a mis-step. Where Yesterday and Today succeeds is when it most closely evokes its predecessor.

Nominally minimal tech but infused with a trance-like undertone, The Field’s sound really is quite unique and is part of a long-tradition of fairly understated albeit critically acclaimed electronica from the Kompakt label. Yesterday and Today’s main strength is possibly where it also compares least favourably with ‘Sublime’ – it is wildly diverse. Whilst the latter stunned with its incredible cohesion and sequencing, Yesterday and Today features only six disparate tracks. An especially brave decision from Willner, such a meagre tracklisting inevitably lends individual songs into long durations. Whilst ‘Sublime’s’ tracks generally clocked in around the seven-minute mark, several here exceed ten. With so few songs, the quality of each really has to be immaculate and whilst none are exactly duds, there are times during some tracks where the listener will itch to skip – it can occassionally be dull.

Akin to Converge’s latest (see above) these criticisms stem largely through unfair comparisons to prior great work and, as such, the relatively high placings of both albums within this list reflect a judgement of each record on its own merits. Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime, a loose cover of The Korgis 1980 transatlantic hit of the same name, is a step away from the usual Field-formula but doesn’t suffer from this decision – Willner has genuinely made the song his own (horrible cliché that it is). Leave it benefits from following the aforementioned song in the tracklisting, energetic where its predecessor is languid, it is the most impressive track on the album and one that bridges the gap between ‘Sublime’ the most successfully.

It really is hard to pinpoint where this record proves disappointing. There appears to be little to criticise outright so the feeling remains that this is a good record, just not on the same level as Willner’s previous work. But then, that was a pretty hard act to follow.

The Field – Everybody’s Got to Learn Sometime

The Field – Leave It

8 Florence + The Machine – Lungs

Whilst hardly the choice of the cool kids, I mean, David Cameron would probably choose this as one of his Desert Island Disks, and excessively overhyped as an artist (Florence Welch really isn’t the saviour of the apparently post-anything era and she can’t sing for shit), Lungs is a fantastic pop record. It’s not really Welch herself who makes this record what it is – earlier demos were, at best, underwhelming, and her live show, despite the media hype, is anaemic and often ruined by awful vocals – but rather the amazing production allied to some impressive songwriting (and for this Welch deserves credit).

What is perhaps most surprising about Lungs is that it is, in places, remarkably creative with some reasonable lyrics and an uncommercially-dark tone.

The album’s consistency is pleasantly surprising – older demos have been spruced up significantly and sit alongside a number of similarly impressive new tracks. To say that any song from the record could have been released as a single, despite the broad array of sounds on offer here, is testament to Welsh’s ability to craft a memorable and distinctive pop song. As such, the picks here are fairly arbitrary. Overlooking the superbly retouched opening pairing of Dogs Days Are Over and Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up), the bitter bluesy Girl With One Eye and the climactic Between Two Lungs, the insidiously catchy Drumming Song and fragile Cosmic Love left the strongest impression. Influenced by Welsh’s (alleged) personal heartbreak, the desperation and melodrama on show begins to feel a little more sincere.

The quality of this album is, bizarrely, its most disappointing aspect. Or rather, that Welsh cannot carry these songs live is an unescapable truth. Her demos were of similar quality to her live act – largely uninspired and dull. The real star performance here is from the production team – a damning indictment of Welsh’s actual vocal talent, although that is not to detract from the undeniable songwriting creativity displayed here.

Florence + The Machine – Drumming Song

Florence + The Machine – Cosmic Love

7 Thursday – Common Existence

It all seemed over for Thursday. By the release of the band’s disappointing and appallingly produced A City by the Light Divided (2006), their music was losing its-once-much-admired vitality, ideas were being rehashed, and the scene they had once defined and led was dying a death swifter than Drew Kirk himself. All this makes Common Existence all the more remarkable. Through smartly distancing themselves from much of their old fanbase and collaborating with Japanese post-rock/hardcore cult favourites Envy shortly before the release of this album, Thursday shifted the context within which Common Existence could be assessed. Clearly this would have meant little had this record proved as weak as its predecessor. It didn’t.

Inspired

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