Friday, January 07, 2011

Ten for '10, pt. 1

Though it was officially the first year of a new decade, 2010 somehow felt more a by-product of the previous 10 years than the dawning of some fresh new age. For while there were a series of original and exciting début albums that flirted with wider acclaim, the majority of plaudits in 2010 went to artists returning with second, third or fourth efforts (Vampire Weekend, The National, Arcade Fire, Laura Marling, Kanye West, LCD Soundsystem...).

In some ways this is no bad thing; given the lifespan of a new band at the moment is akin to that of a mayfly, that any of the last decade's popular acts are earning considerable recognition now they're further on in their careers offers at least some suggestion that music in the digital era isn't entirely fucked.

After contributing my nominations to GodisintheTV's end of year poll, my much belated annual review of the year's albums goes into a little more depth on the best music 2010 had to offer.

1. Villagers - Becoming A Jackal
12 months ago, Conor O'Brien was the lead singer of the little known, and defunct, Irish indie outfit The Immediate. One breathtaking appearance on Later... Live With Jools Holland last April changed all that overnight. Outshining Paul Weller, Hot Chip and Gogol Bordello was no mean feat, but he did it with just his trusty guitar, his earnest voice and the heartbreaking lyrics to 'The Meaning of the Ritual'. It was that rare thing: a truly spellbinding piece of television.

The experience listening to Becoming A Jackal upon its release a month later was much the same; 11 songs of heartfelt intensity, built on delicate guitar arrangements and often augmented by sumptuous string parts and atmospheric percussion. Always at the fore, however, was O'Brien's keening vocal, flitting between a menacing mutter on 'I Saw the Dead' to the rueful lament on 'The Meaning of the Ritual' and rousing cries of 'That Day'. His distinctive voice dispatched a series of arresting lyrics, tales vivid with imagery and shimmering with poignancy.

In the end, though, there's little that can be written to do absolute justice to the uniquely affecting album Conor O'Brien released this year as his Villagers début. Now having spent six months touring the LP to awestruck reviews, his is a star that is resolutely rising, and 2010 was the year that all who discovered Villagers set sail on his ship of promises.

2. Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
Had it not been for Villagers' unique effort, in fact, ordinarily Arcade Fire's third album could well have been been my number one. With both 2005's Funeral and its magnificent follow up Neon Bible heralded as defining albums of the last decade, their track record was only made more immaculate with the 16 songs of The Suburbs; a quality of music that moved the BBC reviewer to cause something of a stir when he proclaimed it was 'better than OK Computer'.

Whatever it might be better than (or not), it was certainly another paradigm shift from the Canadian crew into territory that, at first, had listeners confounded. Here was a band who, having spent much of their grandiose second album railing against the ills of the modern world, were reverting to the simpler loss of childhood pleasures.

After repeated plays though, it made sense - of course - as each of the songs gave up their individual treasures. The pounding 'Ready to Start' and 'Month of May' were joyously instant single material; 'City With No Children In' and 'Empty Room' were The Suburbs's anthemic calls to arms; while the trio of 'Suburban War', 'Deep Blue' and 'We Used to Wait' towards the album's end saw Arcade Fire at their intense, majestic best. Even the title track's unexpected piano jaunt soon gave way to a haunting, unforgettable chorus.

But it was the group's two-part crescendo 'Sprawl I & II' - half morose waltz, half quite brilliant Abba-ish Europop - that finished The Suburbs in the style it deserved. Worlds apart sonically, 'Sprawl I & II' was nevertheless representative of the album as a whole: where Arcade Fire's outstanding first two records may seem more cohesive units, it's the individual songs, melodies and more immediate arrangements of The Suburbs's wistful, 65 minutes of childhood longing that ultimately made it their strongest, and most necessary, long player yet.

3. Rolo Tomassi - Cosmology
Two years ago, this Sheffield five-piece were barely on my radar when, as teenagers, they released the mind-melting hardcore début album Hysterics. After seeing them tour the album in 2009, however, their difficult screamcore/math-rock/jazz-metal hybrid began to make sense, even though it continued to be an assault on the ears at loud volumes. Another year on, and their sophomore release has racked up more plays on my MP3 player than any other album I own.

Back then, the prodigiously talented band demonstrated a dizzying ability and creative scope that surpassed their years - and peers - to ignite one of the most exciting releases of 2008. Its only real fault was in the way the juxtaposing elements were crammed together over the album's course, suggesting youthful exuberance at the expense of musical direction.

Now, all concerns have been washed away. Rolo Tomassi have retained the unrepentant ferocity that blew Hysterics apart, but in 2010, the quintet have produced an album that utilises this force most effectively: in short, sharp barrages of abrasive noise. Indeed, the first six songs of this 10-song LP clock in at less than 15 minutes; the visceral 'House House Casanova' and 'Unromance' are almost as lightning quick in length as the pummelling guitar riff brilliance of Joe Nicholson - who I can only laud highly enough by quoting the NME review: " a young musician his ability as both a player and songwriter is unbelievable".

But it was during Cosmology's second half, when Rolo Tomassi revisit the slower and more readily melodic soundscapes they flirted with on Hysterics (especially 'Fantasia'), that the album turns from a fascinating work into an unforgettable one. The contrapuntal duo of 'Kasia' and 'Sakia', brimming with spiralling guitar work, mixes Eva Spence's angelic singing voice with her brutish screaming to mesmerizing effect - I defy anyone to listen to the latter song and not recall her line "Mirror mirror on the wall/I'm a liability if there ever was one" days later. 'Tongue in Chic' presents the band's most complete five minutes to date, with a frenzied intro not unlike The Mars Volta's Take The Veil, Cerpin Taxt balanced against an almost overwhelming wash of guitars and hypnotic vocal cycle.

When the title track's combination of displaced vocals, off-kilter time signatures, a guitar solo and a crashing instrumental outro of intergalactic proportions brings Cosmology to a close, the full effect of Rolo Tomassi's second album takes a moment to sink in. When it does, the crux of the issue is this: for such a young band, their transition from hardcore aggressors to masterly and innovatively ferocious songwriters in 2010 was little short of astounding. Cosmology was an achievement that wrestled hardcore from its moorings and crossed spectacular new frontiers for the genre.

4. Everything Everything - Man Alive
It was only after a chance meeting - I happened to be visiting HMV in Oxford Street one lunchtime when the band were doing a 1pm in-store live session - that I even gave Everything Everything a second glance this year. It was on the strength of the two and a half songs I heard then that I bought Man Alive - and discovered it to be perhaps the most enjoyable listen of any album this year.

Vocalist Jonathan Higgs's staccato/falsetto may take some patience at first, but it soon mattered little with each song so brilliantly forged. Opener and previous single 'MY KZ, YR BF' (My keys, your boyfriend) is all spangly R'n'B-stealing bombast, ingenuously soundtracking the awkward moment of one relationship ending for another's beginning. Newly re-released single 'Photoshop Handsome' pitched synth stabs, pattering drums and ringing guitars under a video-game eulogy, while 'Schoolin'' warps expectations by being another R'n'B throwback brushed with funked-up art-rock.

The latter song's difficulty to define is indicative of Man Alive as a whole, not least when 'Final Form', the album's glittering, slow-burning mull over life and death happened to contain the best chorus of the record.

Album reviews often talk about 'single material', and Man Alive was one of those rare, and in this age almost unnecessary, albums where the majority of songs were strong enough to be potential singles. But unusually, this made Everything Everything's first album so much more a sum of its parts; a collection of irresistibly exciting and creative songs that simply outshone pretty much every other 'indie' début in 2010.

5. Foals - Total Life Forever
Foals had the unusual success of actually delivering copiously on early hype back in 2008 when their first album Antidotes collected the spiky electro promise of 'Hummer' and 'Balloons' into an album of angular, pulsing tunes that dominated end of year lists.

Expectation this year, then, was high, but musically, Total Life Forever was a very different beast, more out of necessity than anything: Foals' 2010 would have been very disappointing if they had simply made Antidotes pt. 2. True, they employed a similar use of minimal clean guitar lines in sound, but in scope, their follow up was a deeper, more fervent affair, with tracks building over their not inconsiderable lengths into overwhelming waves of sound.

Lead single 'Spanish Sahara' spent seven minutes drawing blood from its whispered beginning, culminating in one of the defining choruses of this year, Yannis intoning, I'm the fury in your head/I'm the fury in your bed', but across the album other highlights gleamed: 'Miami' was Foals' most straightforward indie rock song to date, 'Black Gold' and 'Alabaster' revelled in their rumbling, moody atmospheres, and second single 'This Orient' bounced with a lightness of energy that stood out among the eloquent sonic weight around it.

Total Life Forever was the sound of an artist deliberately turning their back on earlier success and setting about creating an ambitious record that would change people's opinions of the band. That it received so much critical acclaim and further raised Foals' stock in British music in 2010 was merely verification of that ambition being scaled.

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