Archive | December, 2010

Albums of the Year – 10-1

19 Dec


#10 'WITHOUT WHY' by ROSE ELINOR DOUGALL - The Pipettes were one of my favourite groups so I had high expectations for Rose Elinor Dougall's first solo album, and this doesn't disappoint. It takes the pure pop template of her former band and gives it an adult twist, her style references everyone from Morrissey to The Sundays to Joni Mitchell. Lyrically it's a mature dissection of modern romance but there is a sweetness and honesty to the subject matter conveyed through Rose's stunning voice, it's hard not to swoon as she sings about her regrets, mistakes and lost loves.


#9 'HAVE ON ON ME' by JOANNA NEWSOM - Overwhelmingly ambitious, complex and artistic ‘Have One On Me’ frustrated and astonished in equal measure. You would be a more open-minded music fan than me if you sat through the 3 disc set for the first time with anything less than apprehension. It was a daunting prospect made all the more daunting by the fact that this is a difficult and purposefully evasive record. The dense instrumentation is like a jungle you have to cut down as you walk through whilst Joanna spin yarns that unravel over the space of eight minutes.Eventually you realize the over-indulgence is a part of it’s captivating charm, and 'Have One On Me' is one of the most rewarding albums you could listen to.


#8 'MY BEAUTIFUL DARK TWISTED FANTASY' by KANYE WEST - Kanye West is truly the best pop star in the world right now, by quite a considerable distance. People go on about Lady Ga Ga, and sure she's interesting, but she's yet to back up her claims for that title with a decent album whilst Kanye West is on his fifth game changing one. As I said in my review 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' was more of an event than a traditional record - a perfectly executed bid to be the successor to Michael Jackson. He ticked a lot of the boxes - Killer singles, epic videos, iconic artwork, unique fashion statements, bizarre public appearances and cage rattling interviews. I was half expecting the album itself to be a damp squib but it was far from it, for all the bluster and hyperbole it was just as personal as '808s and Heartbreak' but rather than being clouded by downbeat melancholy this time the lyrics were complimented by some genre expanding and positively euphoric sounds. The ego was (slightly) humanized and Kanye has finally been accepted as a 'douchbag' it's ok to like.


#7 'THE SUBURBS' by THE ARCADE FIRE - 'The Suburbs' is one of the most thoughtfully constructed albums I've ever heard, it's a thorough and poetic album about growing up, moving away and coming back home. Whilst it occasionally veers a bit too close to 'Dad rock' territory for the most part it's a pretty ambitious and exciting mixture of epic anthems in the mould of 'Wake Up' alongside some more experimental songs for the group (see them try synth pop on 'Sprawl II'). Perfect? No (a bit too long and a bit too safe perhaps) but where this album succeeds it does so in staggering ways.


#6 'CONTRA' by VAMPIRE WEEKEND - Vampire Weekend had a lot to prove with this second album simply because so many people loved their debut and 'Contra' turned out to be a pretty perfect follow-up. This is a diverse and ambitious collection of songs that pushes their sound in new directions whilst always sounding distinctively like Vampire Weekend. Scoring a number one album in the states this album sealed VW's position as possibly America's most prominent young indie band.


#5 'MEMPHIS' by MAGIC KIDS - Memphis - Magic Kids - There is something about albums so obviously meant to be heard in the Summer that actually translates well in the winter. Like a holiday snaphot a summer record can transport you to a warmer place, it can make the whites and greys seem brighter and more interesting. Therefore 'Memphis' by Magic Kids (a summer album if ever I heard one) never got boring, for such a hot and sticky album where the highlights were pretty immediate it stayed remarkably fresh all year around. Probably something to do with the strength of the songwriting and sweeping production.


#4 'SEROTONIN' by MYSTERY JETS - As this list suggests my favourite albums are the ones that successfully follow the pop rule book whilst knowing exactly when and where they should bend or break those rules. Mystery Jets are the class swats, they know the rule book inside out and yet they always manage to deliver their own spin on classic themes. There are 12 songs here and each one could be a hit single (in a fairer world), the production is flawless, the melodies are irresistible and most importantly every single chorus is unforgettable. Mystery Jets have tried something a bit different with each album, and every one has been exceptional - this continues the trend.


#3 'THE DRUMS' by THE DRUMS - This time last year The Drums were causing more hype than any band had done in years - this album was pretty highly anticipated to say the least. Overall they did exactly what the wanted to and exactly what they said they would - they made a remarkably consistent, simple, downcast pop album that they never intended to change lives but that they hoped would make Saturday night indie discos and Radio 1 daytime playlists a lot more enjoyable. How much you brought into the idea of this band depended on how bored you were with experimental indie and how much you longed for catchy, intelligent pop songs you could hum. Not everyone's cup of tea but those who did get 'it', got it in a big way. Forward thinking? Not at all. Groundbreaking? In no way. Interesting even? that depends on what you find interesting. But whilst there are more headline grabbing, risk taking, 'creative', albums on this list there are hardly any I listened to more and connected with more than 'The Drums'. Most of all I like them because they are the real deal; an opinionated, stylish, old-fashioned indie band that have the tunes to back up their swagger. It's been too long since we had a band like that.


#2 'CONGRATULATIONS' by MGMT - 'Congratulations' proved just how far ahead of the competition MGMT are when it comes to making polished and well constructed psychedelic pop music. Critics banged on about how annoyingly difficult this album was, about how MGMT had deliberately made confusing and inaccessible songs because they were scared of having another hit. Well that is the biggest lie you will hear all year, 'Congratulations' contained some of the most insanely addictive melodies I've heard in ages and the production was constantly sharp and inviting. In the year of lo-fi 'Congratulations' was anything but difficult and inaccessible, it was stunningly well mixed, experimental but traditional and strange but always understandable. The balance between pop and psychedelia was brilliantly found, and I thought the tunes were odd enough to keep us digging for new things to discover but immediate enough to keep us humming them from dawn till dusk. The icing on the cake for MGMT was that at the end of the year many of the critics that had written off this album were queuing to apologize for their misjudgment (NME even had an article declaring it to be amongst other initially misunderstood classics including 'In Utero' and 'What's the Story Morning Glory'.) This is mind blowing and MGMT are at the top of their game.


#1 'AVI BUFFALO' by AVI BUFFALO - Avi Buffalo - Avi Buffalo - Whilst compiling this list I started to question why myself and others enjoy ranking our favourite albums of the year. I came to the conclusion that it's a good excuse to look back over the year's releases, and to remind yourself what you've spent the last 12 months listening to as well as what you've done with the year (plus I'm pretty obsessive about making lists of everything!) Music may be the soundtrack to your life but it's also like a photo album and each song, whether you've heard it once or a hundred times, can take you back to a time and place. Certain albums remind me of holiday's I've been of, people I knew, places I've been, nights out, nights in, hot summer evenings and cold, miserable winter nights. So when I'm ranking albums it's not just the music I'm thinking about, it's the things that the music reminds me of and the memories it brings back. 'AVI Buffalo' by AVI Buffalo is my favourite album of the year so what does it remind me of and where does it take me? The strange thing is that it takes me to lots of places and reminds me of lots of things because I really haven't stopped listening to it, I've never stopped discovering new things to love about it. 'Truth Sets In' and 'What's In It For' sounded amazing on the first summer day I heard it, walking by the sea - the breezy melodies, sun-kissed guitar sounds and laid back vocals sounded amazing. The thing that really hit me immediately was the interplay between singer Avi and his ex-girlfriend Rebecca, the themes of young love and heartbreak rang true and I loved how uncliched and honest the pair were. Overtime I realized just how well structured the album is. Those instantly catchy songs are in exactly the right places whilst the more introspective numbers are well positioned in the second half. This wasn't a record that gave up its secrets easily, it revealed it's best bits over time but at the same time it's never hard work. The band are never cocky or show-offy, Avi is one of the best young guitarists I can think of but with the exception of 'Remember Last Time' he never overindulges or gets too geeky with it. And when the solos finally do come flying in 'Remember...' it makes for a cinematic semi-conclusion before he returns for one last acoustic number, 'Where's Your Dirty Mind. 'Avi Buffalo' is a pretty traditional record and compared to a lot of albums on this list it's extremely understated, but I think that's its biggest charm. As I said at the beginning of the list there hasn't been an album in 2010 that's made me radically rethink music, there hasn't been a particularly life changing, generation defining, collectively adored piece of work. Perhaps if there had been an album in that mould something like 'Avi Buffalo' would have been overlooked such is its quiet honesty and lack of self-importance. Avi Buffalo will never be massive and this album is unlikely to be remembered by more than a cult following but as far as music's a personal experience then 'Avi Buffalo' will be remembered by me as the album that I connected with most in 2010.


Albums of the Year – 20-11

16 Dec


#20 'THE AGE OF ADZ' by SUFJAN STEVENS - Always too ambitious for his own good, ‘Age of Adz’ was somehow both Suflan’s most complex and least complex record to date. The deeply personal themes of fragile love and regret were complimented by paranoid beats and futuristic arrangements.


#19 'VOLUME TWO' by SHE AND HIM - She and Him hark back to the time of ‘golden oldies’ radio and they clearly hold that music very close to their hearts because each song on ‘Volume Two’ displays a passion for pure pop music and in turn this album is a constant pleasure to listen to.


#18 'CRAZY FOR YOU' by BEST COAST - Twelve ramshackle, lo-fi pop songs that could easily have been throwaway in less capable hands. Instead every second exudes real personality and character, whether Beth was singing about broken relationships, weed or her pet cat. A modern take on a classic sound.


#17 'GOODBYE FALKENBERG' by RACE HORSES - An album of bizarre, psychedelic rock from a group of young Welsh eccentrics. Superbly produced and ambitious this album conveyed such an adventurous local spirit.


#16 'TEEN DREAM' by BEACH HOUSE - Beach House took the step from being a cult band to a big indie one without changing a thing. Easily their best album to date ‘Teen Dream’ was so simple and yet so effective.


#15 'I WILL BE' by DUM DUM GIRLS - When it came to gritty rock n roll in 2010 nobody did it better than Dum Dum Girls. On top of the fierce attitude and punchy production came the stellar harmonies and gorgeous melodies.


#14 'FLAWS' by BOMBAY BICYCLE CLUB - This was the surprise album of 2010 for me. I’d never been a big fan of Bombay Bicycle Club but I found ‘Flaws’ a pure delight from start to finish. It’s a heartfelt and understated record that does so much with not very much at all.


#13 HIGH VIOLET' by THE NATIONAL - The National have probably had the slowest climb to success of any band I can think of in recent times. Making decent albums for the last decade, they finally reached their creative and commercial peak with ‘High Violet’ a bleak but very rewarding album that went top 5 here and in America.


#12 'THIS IS HAPPENING' by LCD SOUNDSYSTEM - The final LCD sound system album is easily the group’s weakest to date but that is more a statement about how staggeringly brilliant they have been rather than how unsuccessful this album is - becase it isn’t unsuccessful at all, far from it. Steering slightly away from the dance floor ‘This is Happening’ saw LCD continuing to deal with more adult themes whilst pushing the musical boat out.


#11 'ASTRO COAST' by SURFER BLOOD - I first bought this album in January on American Import but it only really came alive in the summer with the sun shining, it's just one of those rare albums that seems to get better everytime you hear it. What I hadn't counted on was there being such variety and hidden depth in the music.


Albums of the Year – 30-21

16 Dec


#30 - 'BUTTERFLY HOUSE' by THE CORAL - One of the things that making this list revealed to me is that most new acts lack ambition. A large amount of albums on this list are home produced or lo-fi, and often to good effect, but all the same the return of those grafters, The Coral, reminded me how heart warming a traditional, well produced album can be.


#29 ' PLASTIC BEACH' by GORILLAZ - The most ambitious British album of the year was also Damon Albarn’s finest in over a decade.


#28 - 'CMYK / KLAVIERWERKE' by JAMES BLAKE - James Blake has seemingly endless talents - great pianist, singer, producer, DJ etc and these two are only the tip of the iceberg. The full length arrives in January and it will be one to watch out for.


#27 - 'TREATS' by SLEIGH BELLS - There are very few new albums that you hear and think ‘that sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard before’. ‘Treats’ was one of those albums with it’s menacing mix of hardcore, pop and white noise helping to create a truly innovative record


#26 'BROKEN DREAMS CLUB' by GIRLS - Girls return ‘mini’ album was a surprise to many thanks to it’s polished sound and adventurous instrumentation. It conformed their position as one of America’s best new indie acts.


#25 'THE RUNAWAY' by THE MAGIC NUMBERS - Half of this album is bland, muddy and completely uninspired but the other half is so lush, emotionally packed and mesmerising that it more than makes up for it. For all it’s flaws ‘The Runaway’ won me over and then some - but hey I may be biased because I love this band a lot.


#24 'THE SOFT PACK' by THE SOFT PACK - This hotly tipped band’s debut album finally arrived in January and whilst it wasn’t the genre shaking smash many hoped it might be it was still a load of fun.


#23 'WARPAINT' by WARPAINT - eccentric, ghostly and unusual, the debut album from Warpaint was a psychedelic tour de force.


#22 'SIR LUCIOUS LEFT FOOT: THE SON OF CHICO DUSTY' by BIG BOI - Completely unique and utterly unforgiving this was a serious return to form for the most creative rapper out there.


#21 'YOUNG' by SUMMER CAMP - Short and bubblegum sweet, the debut from Summer Camp proved to be better than I could have hoped for. Immaculate, nostalgic pop music.

Albums of the Year – 40-31

14 Dec


#40 - 'FORGET' by TWIN SHADOW - Nostalgic, warped, paranoid, dark and very atmospheric, this sounded like a long forgotten cassette tape of 80’s classics distorted by tears.


#39 'LOVE REMAINS' by HOW TO DRESS WELL - I’ve yet to read a description of ‘Love Remains’ that sums it up successfully. A late night mood album, How to Dress Well fuse elements of r&b, dubstep, chill wave and indie creating a sound you can truly class as unique.



#38 - 'I SPEAK BECAUSE I CAN' by LAURA MARLING - It’s weird to think that Laura Marling is only 20 years old, from the way that she sings (and the words that she writes) you would believe her to be a mature and world-weary widower. Really beautiful and old-fashioned in the best possible way


#37 – ‘SUBIZA’ by DELOREAN – Named after a town in Spain where the band are from, this album fizzles with euphoria – if the summer sun made a noise then it would surely sound like this. One of the most uplifting dance records of recent times


#36 – ‘FAMILY JEWELS’ by MARINA AND THE DIAMONDS – Eccentric British pop music in the vein of David Bowie and Kate Bush, Marina paired thought-provoking lyrics with some pretty insane musical quirks, producing a head rush of an album.


#35 'ODD BLOOD' by YEASAYER - After only just failing to do for Indian music what Vampire Weekend did for African music, Yeasayer returned with a new, synth driven sound. It was a successful change of direction and 'Odd Blood' was well received.


#34 – ‘KEEP DREAMING BABY’ by TWO WOUNDED BIRDS – easily one of the best new British bands to emerge all year, this E.P suggests that the full length should be 2011’s most anticipated debut.



#33 - 'RECORD COLLECTION' by MARK RONSON - Record Collection featured some of the best new artists and a smattering of legends singing some of the smoothest pop songs heard all year. Mark Ronson proved that there is more to him than covers and trumpets with this album.


#32 - 'CRYSTAL CASTLES II' by CRYSTAL CASTLES - digi punk/electro thrash/glitch pop/8bit dance - call it whatever dumb name you can think of, Crystal Castles second album was simply brilliant - mental, but brilliant.


#31 'HELLA' by YOUNG FRIENDS - Simple and refreshing guitar pop - like a can of coke on a hot summer’s day.

Albums of the Year 2010 – 50-41

12 Dec

#50 - 'YR ODS' by YR ODS - a record of bright synth pop from this North Walian group, made distinctive by the staccato vocals sung in Welsh with the odd English line puncturing the delivery. Definitely a band for the future


#49 - 'RELEASE ME' by THE LIKE - A sharply produced homage to the girl group sound that resisted pastiche with it’s dark edge and feminist swagger


#48 - 'DARWIN DEEZ' by DARWIN DEEZ - the whole album may sound like ten variations on the same song but it’s a damn catchy one!


#47 - 'HIPPIES' by Harlem - The garage rock revival that dominated the pages of NME last decade may have died down but there has been a second, quieter revival in America this year. Harlem make eccentric, druggy garage rock littered with references to everything from Casper the ghost to ‘Gay Human Bones’. Weird but a lot of fun.


#46 - 'Y NIWL' by Y NIWL - Y Niwl are an instrumental surf rock act from North Wales, and whilst they sound like a band from an older era they also sound very alien and unique as nobody else is making this kind of music today with as much care to detail.)


#45 - 'I'M A DANCER / SONGS ABOUT SLEEPIN' by SWEET BABOO - 'I’m a Dancer’ is Brutally confessional, openly naïve and astonishingly honest, a bedroom recording that is funny and tender in equal measure


#44 - 'BODY TALK' by ROBYN - Released to top a fantastic year for Robyn, ‘Body Talk’ contained three of the best singles released all year and at least three more had they actually be used as singles.


#43 - 'BEACHCOMBER'S WINDOWSILL' by STORNOWAY - A thoughtful and well crafted album that falls into the so called ‘nu-folk’ category but in my opinion this is better than Mumford and Sons anyday.


#42 - 'DISCOVERY' by TINIE TEMPAH - This is essentially great because of it’s four irresistible singles that sum up chart pop in 2010 better than anything else released this year. Modern, creative and ambitious Tinie Tempah was one of the more captivating pop stars to emerge in the past 12 months.


#41 - 'AINT NO GRAVE' by JOHNNY CASH - Johnny Cash’s swansong (unless they release yet more material from his final sessions), this couldn’t match past glories but it was a nice reminder of the emotional punch Cash carried right until the very end.

I can’t remember another year in which all the big music publications (NME, Mojo, Q, Drownedinsound, Uncut, Rolling Stone) have had unique number one albums (These New Puritans, John Grant, Arcade Fire, Emeralds, The Arcade Fire and Kanye West respectively – three of those aren’t even on my list!). There simply hasn’t been a unanimously adored album, no ‘Funeral’, ‘Merriweather Post Pavillion’ or ‘Fleet Foxes’, it’s been a topsy-turvy and deeply dividing year for critics. Still that makes these end of year lists even more interesting, here is the first part of mine, come back over the next week to see what I choose in my top 50.