Monday, December 22, 2008

My Year in Lists: Tim's absolutely definitive Albums of 2008

All right, this isn't the most defining list of 2008 music-wise, it is in fact a shortlist of albums I've acquired this year. But then, I wouldn't have got them without liking them, or if they were free, certainly not put them into an end-of-year list, so I've narrowed down this year's CDs into my top 25. Any similarities between my lists and others such as polls on God is in the TV Zine, The Guardian's website or even The Sun's (I wouldn't link...oh ok) are purely coincidental and only highlight how universal, eclectic and frankly spot on my music taste is. (My tongue is planted in my cheek as I write).

In January I predicted a few names of which most have made it into my albums list. Debuts as well, so they were hunches. Just pointing it out, y'know.

Haha. Anyway, the list (blog title comes from a Los Campesinos! song, they're at number 12). Without further ado, here it is:

1. Cats in Paris - Courtcase 2000
Frankly, this came out of nowhere. Back in August someone recommended them and linked to their MySpace and it was love at first listen. A Manchester four-piece, but one with the ideas, enthusiasm, quirks and guts to shame every band that ever stepped out of that city since The Smiths. An abundance of youthful creativity, Courtcase 2000 is a masterclass of micro-prog, songs squeezing a kaleidoscope of sounds and melodies, rhythms and instruments into four or five minute mini-operas, rich in vocals that whisper and shout, time signatures that take on a mind of their own, gorgeous string arrangements framing a tragic story of 'broken kittens', random instrumentals with French monologues over the top, bombastic chords that open 'lovelovelovelove', merry-go-round synths chortling to 'loose tooth tactile', perhaps the song of the year. It's almost twee, but it's so gloriously unhinged in its experimental, free flowing river of musical creativity that it deserves to remain undefined. Every British debut for the next five years should be measured against the sheer brilliance of Courtcase 2000, my album of 2008.
Listen to: Loose Tooth Tactile

2. MGMT – Oracular Spectacular
You can gauge much about this stunning debut from the cover. Its proprietors stand on a sunset beach awash with psychedelia in their get up of spangly scarves, bright trousers, make-up and wild hair. Indie-by-numbers this ain’t. Summer anthem ‘Time to Pretend’ kicks off proceedings, but as a benchmark is outdone by many of the album’s tracks – particularly the unbelievably gorgeous 'Of Moons Birds and Monsters' – which hurl together an American ‘60s guitar sound with modern woozy synths, snippets of playground chatter with haunting vocals, discofloor beats and progressive song structures with hazy choruses: above all astonishingly melodic and sparkling with ingenuity. A close listen reveals grimmer lyrical matter ('We’ll choke on our vomit, and that will be the end' anyone?) but such a mood is painted over by the cinematic colour of MGMT’s music, and supplants everything with a virtually unmatched-in-2008 sense of eclectic beauty.
Listen to: The Youth

3. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam in Goliath
Well documented are former ATD-I members Cedric Bixler-Zavala and Omar Rodriguez-Lopez's dabbling in 'creative substances', but though such antics are now assumed to be fewer and far-between, there must be something unusual keeping the latter, in particular, going, because the driving force of this band keeps surpassing each ground-breaking LP with another. Not quite a year and a half since third album 'Amputechture', 'The Bedlam in Goliath' was a tour de force of blistering drums - thanks to incredible new sticksman Thomas Pridgen - polyphonic rhythms, free jazz style solos as well as maze-like layers of guitars, more extreme bludgeoning than before, all doused in Omar's trademark effects and topped with the ever-impressive vocal range of Cedric. After suffering (lazy) criticism for their meandering jams passed off as songs on previous works, 'The Bedlam in Goliath' tied up some of those loose ends and pooled the myriad ideas, sounds and influences into tight, progressive behemoths that heralded The Mars Volta's most exciting album since their landmark debut.
Listen to: Wax Simulacra

4. Foals - Antidotes
Although they were bordering on the precipice last year, the Dave Sitek-produced Antidotes blew this Oxford fivesome out of the water and into the arms of the waiting press to critical acclaim, indie club hits and storming live shows. A collection of icy, minimalist indie with endless delayed guitar lines that gently melted into the subconscious, packing enough of an electro edge to get the body moving and the energy levels kicking into gear. Singles such as 'Cassius' (this year's 'Helicopter'), 'Vessels' and 'Balloons' were all shining examples of the meticulously angular melodies and rhythms abounding on the album, softened with the occasional brass moment and impassioned cry. A wonderfully crisp and refreshing reinvention of an increasingly derivative genre.
Listen to: Cassius

5. We are the Physics - Are OK at Music
The fourth debut (of 13) in my list, and without doubt the most underground. And also, one of the most exciting. The Scottish group of Michael, Michael, Michael and a Chris created one of the best 'rock' albums of the year. 11 tracks of breakneck speed drums, off-kilter guitar hooks and stuttering vocal yelps, crashing and bouncing around with a schizophrenic energy that is all but out of control. Brilliantly deranged but measured with recognisable riffs and shouted choruses - if your benchmark for rock is Oasis, and things are getting edgy when you put on The Enemy, then you won't know what the fuck has hit you here.
Listen to: You Can Do Athletics btw

6. Operator Please - Yes Yes Vindictive
This one's a bit biased since they absolutely blew me away supporting The Go! Team in Bournemouth last October (2007). Not one of them were out of their teens at the time, and when Yes Yes Vindictive was released in March, they were still very, very young. In fact I went and got drunk with three of them in July when they played at sixtymillionpostcards in Bournemouth, and two of them weren't even old enough to be in clubs. Jeez. Anyway, the album is a gloriously youthful collection of perfect pop rock songs, no false pretences about emotion, scenes, sounds or styles. From the hammering indiepop of 'Leave It Alone' and 'Zero Zero' to the mature waltzing of '6/8', this was a jaw-droppingly accomplished debut from five Aussie kids. More hooks than a fishing equipment store, this 'baroque pop' album (the violin probably exaggerates this categorisation) was near-perfection in genre-crossing anthemic pop songs.
Listen to: Zero Zero

7. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
Originally this didn't make my list, a) because it was just so obvious and b) because I came to it late. But when Mojo and Uncut magazines are making it their album of the year, and it simultaneously features in The Sun's top five, it's also obvious that omitting the sheer beauty of Fleet Foxes' self-titled debut would be a travesty. A cut of haunting close harmonies throwing back to a retro Americana, glinting over jangly guitar backdrops and bittersweet folk atmospherics, with the occasional sunburst in 'Ragged Wood' and 'Your Protector', Fleet Foxes might turn out to be a landmark album in contemporary American music. That it encapsulates a past American age, turning those influences into a gorgeous modern pop album promising much for the future goes to show how deserved these Foxes' acclaim has been.
Listen to: White Winter Hymnal

8. Vampire Weekend – Vampire Weekend
A lot has been possible in pop music recently, but almost everyone was taken aback by this quartet’s direct fusion of modern African influences (rhythm, percussion) with sparse guitars that consequently stormed the music industry. Switched-on nightspots have been plying an ever-increasing spectrum of listeners with singles ‘Oxford Comma’, ‘A Punk’ and ‘Mansard Roof’ for months now, and the universal appeal of this charming if erratic-sounding debut, as well as its knack for upbeat chorus hooks, means it has been strolling into best of lists everywhere.
Listen to: Oxford Comma

9. TV on the Radio - Dear Science
Three albums in, and it's no less of a struggle for Dave Sitek's main musical outlet - the brilliantly eclectic five-piece that is TV On The Radio. That Dear Science topped Guardian and GIITTV polls, featured in music publication lists everywhere and featured on TV spots does not mean that you can now stop an average Joe in the street and say "Do you think Dear Science is better than Return to Cookie Mountain?" However, TV On The Radio are anything but average Joes - they stir in the pop funk of, say, Gnarls Barkley with black soul, big beats with balladry and hazy electro, making for a thoroughly modern eclecticism that also contained their best choruses yet. It might have been a weird chemistry for some, but Dear Science had more than enough about it to hit that niche spot in everyone's music taste. Probably a nailed-on certainty for next year's Mercury Music Prize.
Listen to: Halfway Home

10=. Late of the Pier - Fantasy Black Channel
With the exception of We Are The Physics, perhaps, Late Of The Pier deserve plaudits for the freshest sound this year, a young band going about the matter of dismantling recognised genres by making a boisterous racket of synth, guitar and big beat madness that somehow fits the bill of quirky glam rock, bluesy grunge and electro punk. This is the debut that Klaxons should have made, but failed. It figures that Late Of The Pier should win next year's Mercury... but won't. Shame. Approaching the making music process with a similarly eccentric enthusiasm as Cats in Paris, Fantasy Black Channel was an utterly beguiling album, challenging but emphatically rewarding.
Listen to: Focker

10=. Black Kids - Partie Traumatic
Infectious party spirit, kooky lyrics and all-singing, all-dancing impishness. Partie Traumatic was in fact a bit of a disappointment, as the majority of tracks didn't stand up to the ghostly awesomeness of their Wizard of Aahs EP. However, Black Kids make it in my top 10 purely because said EP was about the best thing anyone anywhere in the world had heard as 2008 was born, and the fact that all four originals from it make the hairs on my neck stand up without fail. Had they not rushed the album and given their sound an unnecessary sheen (thanks Bernard Butler) it might have just been sitting nine places higher.
Listen to: Hit The Heartbreaks

12. Los Campesinos! - Hold On Now, Youngster
The internet's success story of 2007, this debut managed to deliver their early potential with a squeaky guitar-topped mesh of exuberant indiepop with wonderfully quaint lyrics, bouncy feelgood rhythms and a glockenspiel.

13. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
You won't find another album this year as grandiose, heartfelt and shatteringly intimate in equal measures. A deserved Mercury winner, its rich textures and orchestral arrangements underpinning Guy Garvey's rasping soul is a stunner.

14. Bloc Party - Intimacy
Snuck out on the quiet, Intimacy hit the download stores almost before anyone knew, nevermind pirated a leak. A fusion of samples, drum 'n' bass and heavily-affected guitars, the tangled complexity of Intimacy eventually unravelled into some typically pioneering Bloc Party songs and the odd indie monster. That elusive 'Helicopter 2' still hangs over their head, though. And 'Talons' is not it.

15. The Long Blondes - Couples
Sadly this band are no more, although they might be on a mere hiatus. It's a shame, because Couples was the intimate loneliness of the post-one night stand bed to the dolled-up glam of the pull on 'Someone To Drive You Home'. It was as if that debut's insecurities had manifested into bitterness, with Couples being an LP of starkly cold indie guitars and an icy Kate Jackson on vocals. Hoping for a reunion in 2009.

16. R.E.M - Accelerate
A stonking return to form for one of the seminal artists of the last 20 years, Accelerate saw the three 'boys' thrash out a series of hard-rocking songs peppered with that stinging trademark R.E.M balladry - with renewed political vigour and some hot riffs, R.E.M showed they can still cut it in music today.

17. iForward, Russia! - Life Processes
Their debut was my album of the year 2006, and Life Processes saw much of the same intoxicating mix - playing with time-signatures, wailing vocals and spikey, growling guitars with snatches of searing melodies interspersed with the odd choir and synth. Unfortunately this group are also on a hiatus (damn it!) but their influence in the Midlands music scene will continue to be keenly felt into 2009.

18. Coldplay - Viva La Vida (or Death and All His Friends)
All credit to Chris Martin's troupe, who could have banked on shifting 50bn units with another album of lighters-aloft ballads a la Fix You and coffee table rock like In My Place that would be great for six tracks and then go flat. But they didn't, they returned with an album full of dark edges, perplexing mini-songs, fanfare-march singles and in short a brave new set of songs.

19. Young Knives - Superabundance
After the angular and brilliant debut, the trio of Knives returned with a much more accessible but equally infectious bunch of awkward hooks and brash harmonies, stomping rock songs with more meat than previous efforts. Lyrics were slightly repetitve but gave up anthemic indie choruses in, ahem, abundance.

20. Glasvegas - Glasvegas
The paradox of this band's name, alluding to the glamour and glitz of Vegas, is tapered by the gloom of every single song on this eponymous debut, the perma-sad Scots dishing up a sumptious helping of wall-of-sound meloncholy, lucious guitar layers of fierce emotion that had all who came across it wiping tears from their eyes and reminding loved ones that they are loved.

21. Guillemots - Red
It was always going to be difficult to match the patchwork-quilted genius of their near-miraculous debut, but Fyfe Dangerfield and co. gave it a good go. Just lacking in that multi-coloured spark that made Through the Windowpane such a joy, Red instead saw Guillemots dabble in straightforward pop songs, creating a wealth of gems that seemed to reference a catalogue of pop supremacy in 11 tracks of shimmering melodies and 21st century instrumentation.

22. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles
From performances at Reading Festival to appearing on Skins, Crystal Castles came to usher in during 2008 the glitchy electronica that was ok for those outside of the dance market to embrace to its bosom, paving the way for a truckload of soundalikes (or soundabitlikes at least) to follow in their footsteps. Alice Glass's disturbed vocals over sometimes hypnotic, sometimes explosive dancefloor ravers soundtracked a year in off-kilter dance music that threw off the shackles of genre wars and made glo-sticks cool again. Again.

23. The Spinto Band - Moonwink
Following up their twee gem of 2006, the Spintos returned with an album rich in squeaky-clean indie musicality; that is harmonies, chord progressions, retro references: little nuances that are missing from many of today's bands' songwriting. It all makes for very pleasant, if sickly sweet, listening.

24. Fucked Up - Chemistry of Common Life
A hardcore punk band with a pointlessly vile name? That's almost as far removed as you can get from my usual listening tastes, but Fucked Up's wall-of-noise guitars, snarling spirit and pounding drums took punk to credible new planes in 2008, channeling aggression into huge riffs and chords, vitriolic smites at religion, and the occasional stadium-rock anthem thrown in. A superb, if abrasive, album of wholly renewed punk ethics.

25. Santogold - Santogold
I already know that this album is better than six or seven of the above. The trouble is I bought it yesterday and as such it's only fair that less than 24 hours of judgement does not cloud a list that spans consideration of the prior 364 days as well. A sparkling fusion of tribal, pop and world influences, Santogold's eponymous first album of eclectic pop gems throws a huge guantlet down for all solo females in 2009 (especially you Little Boots) to step up to.

If you've made it down here, well done. I love you. Thank you for reading, and if you buy one album this week, make it Cats in Paris - Courtcase 2000 please! Thank you again.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Louis Theroux's Law and Order in...London

The last two Sundays have seen Louis Theroux, another of the BBC's more outstanding figures, doing his documentary thing on Law and Order in two vastly different areas: a notoriously volatile district in Philadelphia, US, and Johannesburg, South Africa, the focus of last week's programme. The latter, particularly, delved into the almost lawless areas outside JBurg, the shanty-town sites Diepsloot, where the terms 'community' and 'mob' became blurred. With little to no law enforcement from the police in place in Diepsloot, self-styled protection firms - privately-run security forces - set themselves up to distribute justice around the area, for an agreed price, by whoever has the money to buy the service.

In the Johannesburg documentary, Theroux repeatedly highlighted the problems Diepsloot experienced without a police presence: where crimes were committed, the private security firms had their own methods with dealing with criminals. Increasingly, however, Theroux saw how villagers would take matters into their own hands, hearing how the 'community' caught and burned a man who had been stealing. 'Community' seemed to be a vague term during the programme - at times it brought a sense of togetherness for the residents, united in their plight on the outskirts of J'burg, ignored by police and riddled with problems. Yet 'Community' also became a term that was used to justify the violent nature of the residents' treatment of criminals. The people Louis Theroux spoke to about the capturing and burning of criminals (which happened more than once while he was out there) simply shrugged it off as part and parcel of the place, a consequence of the lawlessness pervading Diepsloot. They called it "A South African solution to a South African problem".

Theroux's point might have been to highlight the huge difference between gun crime on the homicide-ridden Phily streets to, say, London or Birmingham, and the sheer violence of the out-of-control Diepsloot to our policed towns in Britain, but today saw a damning case of a 'mob mindset' (eloquence as ever from The Sun) within this country that is little short than the South African examples.

BBC's take is slightly calmer, but both sources make reference to the evidence that Mr Cunningham was killed by a group of people, stabbed and mutilated by the 'vigilantes' in return for his history of sexual offences, possibly some more recent. Mr Cunningham had recently been removed from the register, however, seven years since the offence that he had been place on it for, and had not been arrested for any related offences since 2003. But The Sun in particular highlights that Mr Cunningham's death was most likely to be a result of something that had happened recently.

The point in this instance isn't whether the paedophile deserved to die or not for what he did, and may have done. It's the manner in which more than one person appears to have murdered Mr Cunningham in a case of citizen justice that equates to mob behaviour. The UK prides itself on being one of the most forward-thinking and advanced democracies in the West, nevermind in the world, but the tribal mindset of those responsible for killing Andrew Cunningham have branded elements of our society as savage as the poverty-striken, crime-filled shanty-town communities in South Africa that Louis Theroux last week claimed were a million miles from our own.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Eurovision in danger of becoming Eurotrash

In another high-profile shuffle at the BBC, this time decided by the figure in question, rather than on their behalf, Terry Wogan has called time on 35 years of Eurovision and stepped aside for a new face - voice - to fill the void.

And it will be a void; Terry Wogan's fantastic commentary on the increasingly-farcical event has become as synonymous with Eurovision for the British public as the obligatory woeful entry we put out. Wogan's subtle but devastating put-downs, tongue-in-cheek xenophobia and stereotyping coupled with his good-natured charm - aided in no small part by the odd glass of wine, you'd imagine - made the competition bearable. Several hours of MOR pop song crap, usually woodenly presented in broken English, peppered with the odd flourish of ingenuity such as Lordi's ludicrous Hard Rock Hallelujah, and the occasional shock of a decent song turning up, somehow became mesmerising as Wogan and the watching audience become more and more amused (and possibly drunk) as international politics come into play, the attention begins to wane and the songs get worse. This is when Wogan is at his best, when respect for the spectacle is lost; becoming more scathing and witty, unrestrained and cheeky in a single-handed bid to keep people watching.

Graham Norton, then, has some big boots to fill. A cheeky chappy himself, his name is nevertheless more synonymous with innuendo, playing to his camp styling and deriving laughter from often crass subject matter. His bouncy enthusiasm and direct interviewing does make him a different prospect on the BBC - granted he's no Parkinson, but then who is - but his show is cut to half an hour, and some of his guests (Dame Edna, Paul O'Grady, Eddie Izzard, Jackie Collins, Joan Rivers, Alan Carr to pick a biased few) seem obvious by any stretch of the imagination.

Norton's switch to the BBC, at an incredibly lucrative price as well, will have done something for his image, as will the BBC's decision to entrust him with his own talkshow, especially one self-styled on the website as "the aspects of celebrity culture that interest him [Norton] most, featuring trademark Norton comedy monologues (????) and celebrity chat". Not quite in line with the BBC's mandate for creative and challenging programming, perhaps. But their decision now to import him into Wogan's vacated seat as the British public's Eurovision Song Contest compere for the evening gives Norton a chance to prove himself.

It's likely to go one of two ways. Either Norton will take the time to write (or get staff writers to produce) a wealth of material, one liners, ironic jibes, comments that showcase his talent for direct critique but with capacity for good-humour, non-serious but funny all the same: a chance for him to really prove his worth. Or it will wind up as trashtalking, Norton getting evermore bemused and high-pitched, spitting out bitter criticism without humour or balance and finally losing the will to try, proving that he lacks the temeperament and skill to really mix it with the top BBC names. One would hope obviously for the former, but such is the lowly level to which the event has descended, a live Graham Norton car crash to soundtrack the madness would almost be fitting for the Contest - the mediocre but watchable Eurovision morphing into throwaway Eurotrash.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Everything's Peachy: Geldof culture title launches

She’s been the marmite celebrity of 2008, ousting Lily Allen as queen of the online buzz. Whether it’s via her blogs, columns or media spots, or the increasing newspaper inches her lifestyle generates, Peaches Geldof is a name that’s rarely been out of the spotlight this year. But, in an effort to focus her media career – or perhaps give it some credibility – Peaches has embarked on the latest high profile venture in her short and privileged life so far: the launch of her own magazine, Disappear Here.

Peaches has already come in for enormous scrutiny for her column/blog for Nylon, the fashionable New York magazine, particularly recently when, while listing her views on forthcoming fashion trends, she proclaimed, “I don’t follow fashion.” Right. Admittedly, her Nylon contributions to date have done little to affirm Peaches’s free reign on this kind of indulgence. Back, then, to her own magazine.

Disappear Here has been funded, and is owned, by Peaches, her manager Andy Varley and men’s magazine guru James Brown, though the cost of this has not been revealed. Captaining the ship herself, with guidance from Brown, 19-year old Peaches declared in an interview with the Guardian: “This is basically my job. I want it to be a blank canvas for young talent – writers, photographers, graphic designers, artists and bands.”

Admirable sentiments, of course, but hold on: Peaches herself isn’t even out of her teens. That she and her new publication could single-handedly be this great springboard for undiscovered talent works on her own assumption that Disappear Here, merrily launched by the starlet while the country’s flagship newspapers are either cutting staff or shacking up together, stands a chance in the diminishing glossy publications market.

For it to do that, it needs more than the divisive Peaches image to drive success. The Guardian interview reveals that following the advertisement-free launch issue out last week, paid-for advertising will subsidise quarterly issues from March ’09. With MTV colleague Dan Jude the only other significant staff writer named so far – Brown’s contacts, including a friend’s school-aged daughter, make up the bulk of the remaining writers – Issue Zero, as it’s called, needs to do an awful lot to generate that advertiser interest. Granted, Peaches knows her onions on pop culture and what will appeal to the London clientele she moves with. Whether the combination can succeed enough to ride out the credit crunch, nevermind make a long-term assault on established culture mags, will be a test of the teenager’s will and patience.

For Peaches, this is a chance to change her reputation, convince the increasingly-disillusioned British public that she’s more than a rich ‘daddy’s girl’; that her new “job” as magazine editor is merited rather than simply a privileged whim. But whether Disappear Here dazzles or dives, the sad truth is that either result won’t really make much difference to Peaches Geldof at all.