It is the law that all music journalists must come up with at least one end-of-year list come December. And I do not want to go to journalist prison. Not after last time. So, here are the ten albums I decided were better than all the others released in 2009 for CMU.
Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor
Outside the studio, Patrick Wolf appears to be a man who goes out looking for conflict and then complains very loudly when he finds it. Inside, this personality trait manifests itself as a self-assured knowledge that he knows best. Hence, he shunned the label system and raised £100,000 through Bandstocks.com in order to record the not unironically named double album, ‘Battle’, which he later elected to split into two separate releases.
A lush album, full of rich strings and contrasting electronics, the first part of the set, ‘The Bachelor’, was released in June. Wilfully theatrical, the album shares much in common with My Life Story, but also takes clear influence from Alec Empire (who appears on two tracks) and The Postal Service.
As well as Empire, other guests include actress Tilda Swinton, who provides passages of spoken word on three tracks, dance experimentalist Matthew Herbert, and folk musician Eliza Carthy, who provides some beautiful violin on the album’s title track. Though Carthy’s appearance is not the only injection of folk on the album. In fact, at a time when ‘folk’ has become synonymous with a person playing an acoustic guitar, it’s quite refreshing to see genuine Celtic folk have such an influence on contemporary music.
So, as off-putting as his bullish determination may be at times, when it comes to his music, it works. ‘The Bachelor’ is a near-flawless album, over the top without running away with itself and diverse without losing focus.
The Big Pink – A Brief History Of Love
The Big Pink’s debut album ‘A Brief History Of Love’ has been on heavy rotation since it arrived in the CMU office back in August. Formed by Robbie Furze and Milo Cordell, who for several years have made and promoted noise at various levels of extremity, The Big Pink is very much an extension of that past. However, here the duo have avoided drowning absolutely everything in distortion, leaving melody and pop sensibilities exposed.
The tone of the album is set perfectly by opener, ‘Crystal Visions’, which is surrounded by swirling guitars, which buzz and flicker, getting ever closer. By the end of the track they sound like a swarm of angry wasps encircling your head, but Furze’s vocals remain melodic and intimate, cutting through the noise.
As well as all manner of shoegaze bands, the album’s most overt sonic reference point is The Verve, particularly in the deadpan vocals and lyrics, which are summed up by one line in ‘Frisk’: “If this is love, then I was just leaving”. In fact, for the most part, the history promised in the album’s title offers up a fairly dim view of love, often focusing on the fallout, or the period after the initial rush of excitement. Very Ashcroft.
Despite all this, the album’s actually pretty upbeat, as the football terrace-style chanting ‘Dominos’ now elicits when performed live attests. And while you’d expect the wall of sound element of the recording to be a barrier for most, those pop elements seem to draw people in. That balance of noise and pop is no easy thing to get right, and that The Big Pink have managed it over an entire album is worthy of an Album Of The Year nod on its own.
Converge – Axe To Fall
Formed nearly twenty years ago, Converge shunned the rivalry between the hardcore punk and metal scenes, to become one of the bands which defined the ‘metalcore’ genre that grew up in the mid-nineties. And unlike many of their contemporaries, who either burnt out or spent years plugging away at the same old ideas, Converge’s genius has always been their ability to stick to their genre while constantly evolving.
‘Axe To Fall’ stays in similar territory to 2006’s ‘No Heroes’, though leans more on the band’s metal influences to add more texture to the often relentless barrage of noise. Kurt Ballou’s crushingly heavy guitar riffs are as apparent as ever, as are Jake Bannon’s unmistakable vocals, which sound like they come straight from his stomach.
Heaviness is all well and good, of course. But I always think that the real test of a heavy band is their quiet songs. There are hundreds of bands who can play at breakneck speeds, but many fall down when it comes to doing something more restrained. But Converge fully expose their talent for songwriting by lowering the volume on the piano-led ‘Cruel Bloom’, which rolls along under soft growls from Neurosis frontman Steve Von Till, and closer ‘Wretched World’ brings the album to rest while still hinting that it could again explode.
The ability to write good songs at lower volume means that when they crank it up they know how to play hard and fast but still keep it interesting, making ‘Axe To Fall’ a far more varied and diverse album than most could manage.
Jeffrey Lewis & The Junkyard – Em Are I
The first of Jeffrey Lewis’ five studio albums to have backing band The Junkyard’s name stamped right up next to his on the album cover, the subject matter of ‘Em Are I’ is largely shaped by Lewis’ break-up with his girlfriend and keyboard player over several months of touring together. It wasn’t the cleanest of splits, by all accounts, and Lewis paints himself (or, rather, draws – the whole episode is chronicled in a comic strip for The New York Times, ‘My 2008 In A Nutshell’) as a broken character, unable to concentrate on the recording.
All of which doesn’t bode well for the finished product. And yet, here we are, talking in terms of albums of the year. Lewis’ lyrics are as good as ever (“Just tell me that you like me in the same sentence as a mountainside, cos it would be such a relief to be objectified”, for example), but the overshadowing gloom reduces the sometimes throwaway edge of his humour without losing it altogether, making this album stand up far better to repeat listens than some of his earlier work.
There are in fact only two overt break-up songs on the album, one being ‘Broken Broken Broken Heart’, in which Lewis blames himself the fact that his ex is now with “a less cruel and curious man”, while the other, the rolling psychedelia of ‘The Upside-Down Cross’, is actually penned by his brother Jack.
Not just an album of the year, this is also easily Lewis’ best and most accessible work to date.
Tyondai Braxton – Central Market
The son of highly regarded avant-garde jazz musician Anthony Braxton, Tyondai is best known these days as the frontman of post-rockers Battles. His second solo album, ‘Central Market’, has been described as ‘free jazz meets Disney’ by some. But, while jazz it might be, to lump it in with a largely improvisational art form is a little insulting to the amount of work that has gone into composing it.
Suggesting it sounds like the soundtrack to an animated film, however, is completely fair. In fact, it most reminds me of Joe Hisaishi’s soundtrack to ‘Spirited Away’ (an album I also recommend highly, incidentally). The orchestral instruments do sound as if they’re voicing an array of strange characters, while Braxton’s occasional abstract and heavily affected vocalisations act, if not as a narrator, then some sort of benevolent overseer.
While the first five tracks of the album follow this pattern, flowing into one another to create one complete piece, proceedings are brought to a halt with ‘J City’, which, though not what you’d call a ‘standard’ rock song, has the guitar-drums-bass-vocals format we’re all more used to. And it would be weird for it to be included, if it didn’t somehow work.
When Braxton returns to the style of the rest of the album for its final track, ‘Dead Strings’, albeit with a darker tone, you realise that, had track five, ‘Unfurling’, run straight into it, the shift would have been too jarring and ruined the flow of the whole thing. Because of this careful construction, ‘Central Market’ really works as a whole, perhaps more so than any other album I’ve heard this year.
King Cannibal – Let The Night Roar
“You’ve got about one hour to think about what you’ve done to me”, a voice announces at the start of King Cannibal’s debut album. I’m not exactly sure what it is I’m supposed to have done, but from the sound of the next hour of music, I’m not a very nice person.
Merging influences from drum n bass, dancehall and dubstep, King Cannibal, aka Dylan Richards, operates in similar territory to follow Ninja Tune-signee The Bug. But where The Bug brings in MCs to lament the ills of modern society, Richards goes straight for samples taken from obscure films and video games, and pulls things down to a much darker place.
There are a few collaborations, though. Berlin electronic outfit Jahcoozi, French hip hop duo Face à Face and MC Daddy Freddy all appear, adding further to the album’s varied textures. Daddy Freddy’s shouts over bass that slices and throbs like a failing heartbeat making a last ditch, fear-fuelled attempt at survival are a particular highlight on ‘Dirt’. Elsewhere, ‘Aragami Style’ sets the tone for the album nicely, while recent single ‘Embrace The Minimum’ acts as a moment of lighter, more ambient tones, converse to ‘Colder Still’, a reworking of early single ‘Call Me Mr Cold Blooded’, which furthest explores the torture themes often hinted at in other tracks.
All of which makes the album sound like an unpleasant experience, but that’s really not the case. It’s eleven impressively well-crafted tracks that stretch Richards’ influences to their limits in order to that take you on a journey that is both cathartic and exciting. It’s nothing as unseemly as a dubstep concept album, but ‘Let The Night Roar’ certainly features one of the most complete sets of tracks you’ll hear on an electronic album this year.
Mew – No More Stories
It was with some trepidation that I approached Mew’s latest album. Having been a massive fan of the band for the best part of a decade, I was nonetheless aware that album five is often the point at which many once great artists completely run out of ideas and cause our relationship to end in bitter disappointment. Thankfully, this was not the case on this occasion, as ‘No More Stories’ is packed full of as many great ideas and delightfully overblown pop tunes as any Mew album that has gone before it.
Mew have always been a band who have really understood rhythm, and that is more apparent than ever on this album. Particularly on ‘Introducing Palace Players’, a track where Bo Madsen’s disjointed guitar part and Silas Graae’s Tortoise-esque stuttering drums barely fit together, but are pulled in by Jonas Bjerre’s vocals, making the piece a whole. It seems that the departure of bassist Johan Wohlert in 2006, following the release of previous album ‘And The Glass Handed Kites’, has served to focus the attention-to-detail of the remaining three members ever further.
Latest single, ‘Repeaterbeater’, is another highlight, featuring one of the finest big choruses Mew have ever penned, putting it right up their with older songs like ‘Snow Brigade’ and ‘She Came Home For Christmas’. ‘Hawaii’, similarly, builds from an almost-samba beat and music box melodies to a soaring chorus, before dropping back into a state of fragility to begin the process again.
The whole album is filled not only with great songs, but clever little touches add something special, and make every repeat listen much more enjoyable.
Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Bat For Lashes’ second album was the first long player I remember getting really excited about in 2009. In fact, a quick look back through the CMU archives suggests that I started getting excited about it a week and a half into January. It was the news that it would feature Scott Walker and members of Yeasayer that really peaked my interest, although I was (and still am) a big fan of Natasha Khan’s very good, if slightly patchy, debut, ‘Fur And Gold’.
So, when a copy of the album found its way to my desk in March, I listened to it for the first time with the sort of expectation that can only end in disappointment. Except on this occasion it didn’t. From the moment she hits that first high note on opening track ‘Glass’, I was sold. And, thankfully, the standard remains high throughout the eleven tracks, not just that one note.
Khan is clearly someone who takes songwriting very seriously, and recognises the place of the recording studio in that process. Each song has a story, which sees her adopting various characters, but with as much importance placed on the music as the lyrics. ‘Daniel’ is the most obvious example, a recognisable story of teenage love over a youthful-sounding, 80s-influenced backing. But something like ‘Siren Song’ perhaps illustrates better what I’m talking about, with almost monotonous piano and violin, using volume rather than melody to drive the emotion in the words.
Everything on the album sounds like it was tightly planned, with nothing left to chance, but without forgetting to leave room for warmth and passion. It’s this perfectionist attitude which makes ‘Two Suns’, well, perfect.
80kidz – This Is My Shit
Formed in Tokyo in 2007, 80kidz’s Jun, Ali& and Mayu originally came together as DJs, but really started turning heads, including ours, when they began tweaking records for a series of increasingly impressive remixes. Original music soon followed, and their debut album, ‘This Is My Shit’, arrived this year. In the UK, it was only soft released on iTunes through the band’s own Kidz Rec label, meaning the album largely went unnoticed, though has received a boost after their track, ‘Miss Mars’, was featured on a Kitsuné Maison compilation earlier this year.
From the moment the synth riff on the opening track, ‘Go Mynci’, kicks in, it’s apparent that ‘This Is My Shit’ is not going to be just another run-of-the-mill electronic album. The riff is too good to be a fluke, and the band follow it up with plenty more across sixteen tracks, making it one of the few albums of such length released this year that isn’t bulked out with unnecessary filler tracks.
Although the trio themselves are an instrumental outfit, they do draft in vocals from autoKratz, Ghostape, Hey Champ and The Shoes, drawing them more towards a pure pop sound. On ‘She’, in particular, autoKratz frontman David Cox offers a soft vocal that works wonderfully at odds with 80kidz’s upbeat, synth-heavy sound, and makes the sudden burst of the previously mentioned ‘Miss Mars’, which follows it, all the more effective.
With music that is endlessly energetic and exciting, I really hope that 2010 will bring 80kidz, now a duo following the recent departure of Mayu, to a much wider attention. They truly deserve it.
Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
Beginning as a solo project for singer-songwriter Edward Droste in the early part of the decade, Grizzly Bear’s popularity has risen in sharp spurts with the release of each of their albums. 2006’s ‘Yellow House’ brought the band wide acclaim and a reasonable level of commercial success. Still, if you had described to anyone the shape their 2009 would take at the beginning of the year, I’m not sure anyone would have believed you. Not until they’d heard ‘Two Weeks’, the lead single from ‘Veckatimest’, anyway.
‘Two Weeks’ is what you might call Grizzly Bear’s crossover hit. It’s certainly the closest they’ve ever got to writing a proper pop song – catchy, upbeat and easy to sing along to, but without compromising their smart, ethereal folk sound. Although, it’s not the album’s only pop moment. The chorus of ‘While You Wait For The Others’, in particular, sees the band again getting infectious.
But it’s not just catchiness which makes this album one of the best of the year, it’s much more that no note is wasted. The band make every single sound on the album count, to such a degree that you can barely believe these songs were written by real people. Okay, maybe that’s a step too far into hyperbole, but they certainly take indie-folk to a very different and infinitely more interesting place than the painful tedium of Fleet Foxes or Bon Iver.
More so than any other album in our 2009 round-up, I am convinced that this is one with real staying power. The kind of album people will be discussing in too much detail on TV shows and in magazine articles of the future.