Wednesday, March 31, 2010

SWSL Albums Of 2009

I'd love to say the three month delay in compiling and posting this was purely due to the fact that I was eagerly consuming and digesting a whole host of albums I'd missed - though that was at least partially true...

Even still, I need to begin with the usual caveat about not having heard as many albums as I'd have liked - though I seem to have bought or been exposed to more this year than in the previous few. Here's a very short and in no way comprehensive list of records that, had I heard them, might potentially have edged their way into the reckoning for a place in the Top 10:

APSE - Climb Up
BROKEN RECORDS - Until The Earth Begins To Part
COUGAR - Patriot
GIRLS - Album
LIGHTNING BOLT - Earthly Delights
LOTUS PLAZA - The Floodlight Collective
THEM CROOKED VULTURES - Them Crooked Vultures
TIMES NEW VIKING - Born Again Revisited
WAVVES - Wavves

So, let's get started on what I did hear:

Exceedingly Underwhelming:

FRANZ FERDINAND - Tonight: Franz Ferdinand
The only real point of interest of which was 'Lucid Dreams's schizophrenic jackknife into pure electro. 'Take Me Out' seems like a long, long time ago.

PJ HARVEY & JOHN PARISH - A Woman A Man Walked By
An unfocused mish-mash of a collaboration, particularly disappointing for someone whose albums usually have a strong coherence and sense of mood. The title track and 'Pig Will Out' suggested Polly Jean had lost the plot, and not just down the back of the sofa.

THE JOY FORMIDABLE - A Balloon Called Moaning
One great single ('Cradle') did not a great album make. And that title...

A pointed reminder why it was a good thing that Royal Trux were never sober enough to have pretentions.

Decent Enough But Evoking A Measure Of Disappointment:

When the two best songs were Bradford Cox's collaborations (with Panda Bear and Laetitia Sadier of Animal Collective and Stereolab respectively) and when even they were eclipsed by everything on the stop-gap Deerhunter Rainwater Cassette Exchange EP, I knew what I was really waiting for was the follow-up to Microcastle.

THE BIG PINK - A Brief History Of Love
Essentially 'Velvet' plus a load of largely autopilot Jesus & Mary Chain stuff - and bloody 'Dominoes'. As with The Joy Formidable, one great single did not a great album make.

CRYSTAL STILTS - Alight Of Night
A Jesus & Mary Chain pastiche of a different kind - a scratchy, scrappy back-alley scuffle which failed to match up to expectations but which nevertheless had its moments.

THE DRONES - Havilah
Not a patch on Gala Mill, sadly though in truth it was probably never going to be. That album's powerful evocation of dusty desolation, brooding menace and spittle-flecked violence were all largely conspicuous by their absence.

EELS - Hombre Lobo
On which E suffered a crippling personality crisis, the enjoyably cartoonish mask of the lycanthropic and priapic predator of the title continually slipping to reveal the more familiar (indeed rather overfamiliar) face of the careworn, lovelorn loner.

FANFARLO - Reservoir
Snapshots of ambitious widescreen indie, certainly, but a bit too lightweight, timid and twee to really rouse rabbles.

If there's a band unsuited to succinct linearity it's The Fiery Furnaces. You suspect the Friedbergers were challenging themselves, and that chronic refusal to rest easy is admirable - but much better the surreal madcap ramblings of Blueberry Boat and Widow City than this exercise in self-restraint.

Prog excess ahoy! An improvement on At War With The Mystics, but then - personally speaking, at least - that's not saying much. They've celebrated Christmas on Mars - perhaps it's time to return a little closer to Planet Earth.

JOHNNY FOREIGNER - Grace And The Bigger Picture
Perhaps it's a sign of age, but what was an invigorating shot of the elixir of youth live proved to be a bit wearing on record. Not quite the step forward that lead single 'Criminals' hinted at.

You certainly couldn't accuse Mica Levi of being short of ideas - they were splattered all across an idiosyncratic record which dared stir grime and adventurous experimentalism in with punk and pop. But, once again, one great single ('Golden Phone')...

A Bit Of Alright:

THE DRUMS - Summertime
Chop the last two songs off this mini-album, leaving swoonsome doo-wop number 'Down By The Water' to wrap things up, and you'd have a brilliant debut EP. Do believe the hype, for once.

NISSENENMONDAI - Destination Tokyo
A relentless rhythmic hi-hat-punishing pulse, a lithe LCD Soundsystem playing at Neu! and post-punk. The name means "Y2K bug", and this had me twitching about like I'd been struck down with a virus.

THE PAINS OF BEING PURE AT HEART - The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart
If you could swallow that name without it sticking painfully in your throat (and, personally speaking, it was touch and go for a while), this was a bright-eyed, fuzzy-edged love letter to C86 bearing a New York postmark.

THE RAVEONETTES - In And Out Of Control
Used to having no one else on their wavelength for so long, The Raveonettes must have found 2009 rather disconcerting in suddenly having to share reference points with all and sundry. Their fifth LP was by no means their best, but opener 'Bang!' might just have been the most perfect sub-three-minute distillation of their charms to date.

SKY LARKIN - The Golden Spike
Hook-heavy indie rock from Leeds, as endorsed by tastemakers par excellence Los Campesinos!. The Golden Spike might not have changed your life but it would at least perk you up.

YO LA TENGO - Popular Songs
There was too much vaguely jazzy easy listening, and the decision to load the album's three weightiest big hitters consecutively at the end was curious to say the least - but this is Yo La Tengo we're talking about, so Popular Songs still had some exceptional moments (if few songs you could actually envisage being genuinely popular).

Close But No Cigar:

There's always an album which makes a late, late surge for the Top 10, and in 2009 it was this harrowing and heartfelt concept album circling around the subject of terminal illness. A bleak, difficult but ultimately richly rewarding listen.

Business pretty much as usual for fretboard wizard and king of drawl J Mascis and chums. Listening to Farm was like opening up a magical wormhole back to 1992.

MY LATEST NOVEL - Deaths And Entrances
On which the formerly timorous Scots made a lunge for the big red button marked "FULL-ON EPICNESS". Deaths And Entrances was dramatic, portentous and moving - though there was a niggling feeling that the eccentricities that made debut LP Wolves so endearing had been obliterated by the bombast.

THE TWILIGHT SAD - Forget The Night Ahead
Heard the one about Mogwai, Interpol and Idlewild sitting in a dingy pub drowning their collective sorrows with gallons of booze? No? Well, I'd suggest giving Forget The Night Ahead a try. 'At The Burnside' may just have been the grimmest song I heard all year.

WOMEN - Women
Not to be confused with Girls. In a year in which Animal Collective and Grizzly Bear suddenly found themselves teleported from the leftfield into the centre of things, Women and their unique combination of 60s surf rock, beat pop, punk and experimental noise with a garnish of lo-fi psychedelia could and should have received greater recognition.

Not quite the blitz 'Zero' had led us to hope for, and it suffered by virtue of being released at the very beginning of the year (I'm not sure why that fate escaped Women), but the YYYs' third studio album was a brave adventure into the unknown - and a largely triumphant one, too.

And now, finally, for the Top 10...

10. BAT FOR LASHES - Two Suns
Returning with a concept album about dualism featuring a duet with recluse and professional nutjob Scott Walker might have implied that Ms Khan was content with her status as critical darling, but there was more than enough on Two Suns - not least 'Daniel' - to suggest she might yet have designs on being crowned as our finest (if unlikeliest) pop princess.
Key track: 'Siren Song'

9. IT HUGS BACK - Inside Your Guitar
Softly spoken, shy and deceptively slight songs which, if embraced, did indeed reciprocate - awkwardly at first, but naturally and warmly with growing familiarity.
Key track: 'Q'

8. LIGHTNING DUST - Infinite Light
One of the reasons Black Mountain's In The Future didn't quite make it into last year's Top 10 was that I felt Amber Webber's extraordinary voice - simultaneously sultry and tremulous - was disappointingly underused. But lo, along came Lightning Dust, her side project with fellow Black Mountaineer Joshua Wells, with an album of crepuscular beauty. Yes, I said crepuscular.
Key track: 'Take It Home'

7. THE XX - XX
A valuable lesson that, if you find yourself being dictated to by circumstances, sometimes it's better to accept than rebel. Timid, callow youths they may have been, but in making do with what little they had The XX managed to create a whole new sound which critics had about as much success in pigeonholing as they would have had trying to staple down water.
Key track: 'Infinity'

6. FUCK BUTTONS - Tarot Sport
One of those albums that, as soon as it appeared, made its hitherto impressive predecessor sound deficient, semi-realised. The shift of producer from Mogwai's Jon Cummings to techno deity Andrew Weatherall was much remarked upon, and with good reason - without compromising on the volume or their post-rock roots, Tarot Sport took noise to the people.
Key track: 'Surf Solar'

5. SLEEPY SUN - Embrace
The musical equivalent of a semi-comatose early 70s Ozzy Osbourne, barefoot and wearing a daisy chain. Sure Embrace stank of patchouli oil (and suspiciously so, given the relative youth of the perpetrators) and, as with Bat For Lashes, you might have to check your rationalism at the door, but it was marvellously heady stuff.
Key track: 'White Dove'

4. JAPANDROIDS - Post-Nothing
No Age stripped of all pretentiousness, essentially. Yes, I know - you didn't think No Age had any pretentiousness to be stripped of, did you?
Key track: 'Young Hearts Spark Fire'

3. GRIZZLY BEAR - Veckatimest
Few albums released in 2009 can have had such depth, which rewarded the listener anew every time. Veckatimest's delicate, measured and beautifully formed songs were a delight.
Key track: 'Cheerleader'

2. ANIMAL COLLECTIVE - Merriweather Post Pavilion
Like Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective were another band from the US underground who belatedly secured popular acclaim in 2009 to go with the critical plaudits and hipster froth. The fervent imagination, kaleidoscopic scope and psychedelic excess of Merriweather Post Pavilion might not have surprised those already along for the ride, but the crossover potential of singles 'My Girls' and 'Summertime Clothes' probably did.
Key track: 'Summertime Clothes'

1. SONIC YOUTH - The Eternal
For someone weaned on Dirty, the high-octane rock of The Eternal was always likely to leave me breathless. Opening track 'Sacred Trickster' found Kim Gordon singing about pressing up against the amp, and that's exactly what the sixteenth album of their remarkable career did from the get-go, as they continue to give growing old gracefully a very bad name indeed.
Key track: 'Anti-Orgasm'

Lest we forget - the SWSL Top 10 Albums Of 2008:

10. TV ON THE RADIO - Dear Science
9. BLOOD RED SHOES - Box Of Secrets
8. LOS CAMPESINOS! - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed
7. NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS - Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!
6. FUCK BUTTONS - Street Horrrsing
5. LOS CAMPESINOS! - Hold On Now, Youngster
4. DEERHUNTER - Microcastle
3. FLEET FOXES - Fleet Foxes
2. NO AGE - Nouns
1. STEPHEN MALKMUS & THE JICKS - Real Emotional Trash

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