Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nine for '09

It wasn’t the most vintage year of the Noughties, 2009 – it didn’t throw up heavyweight classics (despite releases from bands like U2, Muse and Green Day), its debutants were often too lightweight (La Roux, Empire of the Sun, Dan Black) and it failed to really settle on what was supposed to be the sound of the year.

(Except for the number one here, and everywhere: pretty much anybody who has ever acted on an urge to translate their feelings about a record into the written word agreed on this year’s best album.)

What 2009 seemed to suggest was the increasing closeness of the oft-perceived class war between mainstream and underground, popular appeal and critical acclaim. Nobody who had an ‘album of the year’ in 2009 made music that wasn’t too far out for Radio One or Jools Holland. Solo female electro artists like La Roux jostled for airplay with chillingly sparse guitar-soulers The XX, while French neo-pop artists Phoenix adorned television adverts and instrumental mind-melters Fuck Buttons got played on Top Gear.

All in all, 2009 seemed to say, when music got good, it was very good. Some of it is outlined in more detail below.


1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion
When Noah Lennox’s solo album Person Pitch – released under his moniker Panda Bear –romped home as an album of the year in 2007 (and more recently cropped up in many lists as an album of the decade), it served to turn a few more heads toward Lennox’s band ‘proper’, Animal Collective. Their late 2007 album Strawberry Jam was equally well received, but even then, despite that step up in visibility, few would have wagered on their next studio album being by some stretch the best thing to come out of anywhere this year.

But it was, and everyone from bloggers to newspapers to zines to David Letterman joined forces to proclaim, all but unreservedly, that the album of 2009 had been won just two weeks after the year had dawned. Perhaps the most pertinent note to support this is that when 2009 came to a close, no one had changed their mind. The reason? Its irresistible collage of synth loops, primal rhythms and ecstatic joy-infused vocal melodies was mind-expanding, life-affirming and simply the best music released in 2009.

2. Wild Beasts – Two Dancers
By contrast, Wild Beasts’ second album was the year’s laudable slow-burner. Released to decent critical acclaim in August, Two Dancers’ appeal grew stronger and brighter with each listen, as its elegance revealed more glistening musical nuances and turned up gloriously eloquent lyrics – not least when Hayden Thorpe proclaims delicately and menacingly, “Trousers and blouses make excellent sheets / down dimly lit streets”. Like a blood stain smattered across deep pure snow, Two Dancers was a case of beauty struggling to envelop a dark underbelly: a perfect – and timely – counterbalance to Animal Collective’s winning effort.

3. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
The boundless sense of ambition shared by the Fuck Buttons duo Andrew Hung and Benjamin John Power manifested itself in wild, sprawling and at times plain awkward instrumentals on their debut, often exerting a sustained pressure of head-spinning soundscapes. With the follow up Tarot Sport, Hung and Power decided to uncork their ambitions further still, and yet somehow created frameworks in which their ideas and verve could work as ‘songs’. The insistent battering rhythm of ‘Surf Solar’, the climax of ‘Olympians’ and the hissing euphoria of album closer ‘Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ were just highlights from an extraordinary and unique sophomore album.

4. Florence and the Machine – Lungs
It was this time last year that everybody was getting very, very excited about a young Florence Welch. The flame-haired songstress was riding the crest of the hype wave, with storming live performances that hinted at greatness and singles that were, simply, ‘it’: that new sound that 2009 was going to be all about.

So it was to Florence’s great credit that Lungs turned out to be anything but that new sound. Explosive single “Kiss with a Fist” was lost among the embarrassment of gems on Lungs that wielded an unwavering power, presence and talent to the 22-year old. 12 fierce and passionate songs burned with Florence Welch’s voice, spilling reams of harp strings, not guitars, over everything, a cacophony of drums making and shaking Lungs’ foundations. Somehow, what came out the other side was a sound that was uniquely Florence’s (inspiring an infamous dressing-down from DiS), a different new sound that no one had really seen coming. Flo might have started the year as one of the BBC’s top sound for 2009 tips, and ended it with countless airplay time on Radio 1, but it was a success that her otherworldly debut record thoroughly merited.

5. The Mars Volta – Octahedron
Whatever it sounded like, The Mars Volta’s fifth LP in seven years was always going to land somewhere in this list for 2009. Having spent four albums expanding his band’s sonic palette to ever greater heights, Omar Rodriguez-Lopez came over all ‘acoustic’ on number five. The term was never expected to be more than tongue in cheek, but Octahedron’s eight tracks – bar, perhaps, the explosive ‘Cotapaxi’, whose climbing riff and intense wailing vocal wouldn’t have sounded out of place on previous album The Bedlam in Goliath – certainly took people by considerable surprise.

‘Since We’ve Been Wrong’, one of the band’s more inherent nods to Led Zeppelin, and ‘With Twilight as My Guide’ both flowed with barely a patter of drums, instead relying on layers of subtle guitar and a more natural use of Cedric Zavala-Bixler’s voice to focus the attention. Elsewhere, the restraint only increased quietly ferocious tracks ‘Teflon’ and ‘Desperate Graves’, the latter seeming to hint at a reference to Eriatarka, all the way back from their debut 2003. For purists, especially those who’ve still not forgiven Cedric and Omar for At The Drive-In ‘what ifs’, Octahedron was noticeably short on urgency and The Mars Volta’s usual psychedelic challenges, but its power and finesse came from a far more majestic, if softer, sound. New formula: same result for album number five.

6. Grammatics – Grammatics
The original foursome who released this gleaming debut back in February have, unfortunately, since jettisoned two members, including cellist Emilia, whose sweet string melodies and vocal harmonies combine to produce some of the album’s finest moments.

A grower, the self-titled LP was anything but guitar-driven, despite the band being fronted by ex-Colour of Fire man Owen Brinley His clever riffs and chords interplay with the cello lines, letting song structures ebb and flow, sometimes packed with intensity – especially Brinley's vocal histrionics – and sometimes allowed to simmer. Full of constantly surprising nuances and musical turns of phrase, on top of some striking rhythm work, Grammatics’ first record made for very affecting indie, grand with unbridled ambition but tempered by hints of pop. It’s a shame that half of the people who made this debut are no longer around to create the follow up. But in some ways, that just makes it an even more intriguing prospect.

7. Bombay Bicycle Club – I Had the Blues But I Shook Them Loose
When these youngsters burst onto my radar a couple of years ago, (ahem), their melodic, youthful output glimmered with promise, with one EP crafted and another equally exciting one soon to follow. 2009’s album delivered their great tunes, but with two years’ growing up, their sound had developed a broodier edge.

No longer were the vocals fragile and wide-eyed; instead Jack Steadman’s voice, while still quivering in places, seems to have been hardened by the tales of the love and loss told in the lyrics. Stronger, too, were the guitars – clever parallel melodies between two leading guitars, heavier chords and the occasional standout riff. With the tracks all in a similar vein genre-wise, yet each with its own individual flourishes and hooks, IHTBBISTL was something of a coming of age accomplishment. It was by no means an eyebrow-raiser, with several years’ hype weighing down in expectation, but it was perhaps the freshest sounding indie debut in the last year of the Noughties.

8. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug
Those Beatles comparisons refuse to die. Alex Turner, often half-hidden by his unruly, Lennon-esque mane and now, like Lennon, a resident of New York, may have toned down the bullish aggro that seemed a by-product of the Monkeys’ astronomical fame a couple of years back, but the music keeps on getting better.

Unlike their instant classic Whatever People Say... and its equally brilliant follow up Favourite Worst Nightmare, Humbug – introspective, moody, darker and, well, just slower – took a long time to truly give up its treasures. But when it did, Humbug evidenced some of Turner and Co’s’ greatest songs yet: ‘Crying Lightning’ built into their most well-rounded single to date and included Alex Turner’s fabulous storytelling at full strength (“You never looked like yourself from the side/but your profile could not hide/the fact you knew I was approaching your throne”), ‘Cornerstone’ was a simple slice of guitar pop, miles from the sharp punky singles from their first album. But it was elsewhere – the mysterious album closer ‘The Jeweller’s Hands’, the classic indie chorus of ‘Secret Door’, and ‘Fire and the Thud’, the shuffling, elegant George Harrison-like love song – that, over a few listens, posited the theory that after all the hype, the singles, the million-sellers, the awards, Arctic Monkeys’ third album Humbug was somehow their most impressive.

9. Passion Pit – Manners
When all the cool kids discovered Black Kids following their Wizard of Ahhhs EP at the end of 2007, and everyone else caught up six months later, they were supposed to be the brightest young things going, about to release a landmark debut. Instead, they released the Bernard Butler-produced, fun but musically pretty stagnant Partie Traumatic.

Manners, from Passion Pit, is the album Black Kids could (perhaps should) have made, full of joyous, bounding vocal melodies and eclectic electro sounds and visions. Its quirky synth lines fizzed with energy, sparking huge life into the sort of danceable indie that in other hands can so easily sound flat and false. Passion Pit instead were fresh, reinvigorating belief into a sound that was just starting to become a bit of a chore. With glorious choruses pouring in from all sides, songs like ‘Moth’s Wings’, ‘Sleepyhead’, ‘To Kingdom Come’, ‘The Reeling’, ‘Make Light’ and more soundtracked the year with uplifting dance anthems, making Manners a polite reminder of how well this genre can be done.

...and Nine more for 2009:

The XX – XX
Chillingly stripped back, quietly heart-stopping soulful dub-indie. Possibly a one-off.

Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
Jumpy, buoyant and brilliant French indie-pop oozing with class.

Wavves – Wavvves
Scruffy surfer pop to soundtrack unshaven, hungover and slightly-angry-for-no-reason Sundays.

Sky Larkin – The Golden Spike
Scratchy awkward riffs and shouty female vocals from the Leeds three-piece.

Mumford & Sons – Sigh No More
Heartfelt folk with huge crossover appeal and uplifting soundscapes.

The Bird and The Bee – Ray Guns are Not the Future
Twee jazz-pop with added electronics, one of the most underrated albums this year.

Telegraphs – I Don’t Navigate By You
Outstanding British melodic rock with better choruses than Paramore and acute musical awareness.

Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
Powerful and epic, mystical and sometimes psychedelic, really it’s just good female pop and balladry.

Dent May and his Magnificent Ukulele – The Good Feeling Of...
Chirpy ‘50s throwbacks by a Costello-aping crooner and his “like a guitar but not a guitar” instrument. Worked.


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