Friday, December 26, 2008

Top 15 Albums of 2008: The Final 5

Part 1? Here, Part 2? Here, Part 3? Onward.

5. TV On The Radio - Dear Science
Ever since their debut, Desperate Youth & Bloodthirsty Babes, TV On The Radio have been a band ripe with potential, but in search of their own sound. While second album Return To Cookie Moutain saw them settling with some indie dance rock and excellent production, in retrospect it's clear now it was merely an evolutionary step to Dear Science. It is the perfect meeting point between daring artistic intent and sleek fruitful production. Instead of obscuring with a glossy sheen however, Dave Sitek's mixing lends the band a groove and grit their previous releases sometimes lacked.

Halfway Home confidently strikes first, with it's chugging bass line, dubby tribal drums and simple 'ba ba bum' sing-a-long it sets the template for the album - rhythmic, sleekly cool and deceptively melodic. Crying rests somewhere between a Prince-style funk workout and a ballad on social commentary, Dancing Choose offers a loose rap with an indictment on the media while Family Tree is a positively gorgeous number and on and on it goes.

It is an eventful album that will satisfy both the head and the heart with sterling compositions given colourful arrangements that reward with each further listen. Like a funkier, sexier Radiohead they use every musical resource to achieve a heady mix of musical ambition and enjoyment.

More than anything it showcases TVOTR as a unit, not just a ragtag collection of producers and players, but a unified band with an idiosyncratic vision and style. It's clear in the joy of creation evident in the songs, as DLZ crunches towards its spitfire ending or Love Dog's restrained heartache and the listener is never left behind or swamped by the wave of ideas that overflows in each track. Tunde Adebimpe's lyrics may alternatively cradle or confront the listener, but they're always couched in the most catching of melodies.

Do yourself a favour and acquaint yourself with TVOTR now, because if they continue making albums of this calibre, you'll be hard-pressed to convince people you knew them 'before they were huge.'

4. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend
Much like Arctic Monkeys before them, Vampire Weekend achieved infamy via the blogosphere and in so doing garnered some hype that meant for a hesitation on my behalf to check them out, and once again I was happily proven wrong. Released early in the year, its sheer glut of enjoyable tunes meant that it weathered the vast amount of releases to remain one of the most wonderfully rounded records of 2008.

Although there were accusations of posturing scenesterism concerning their Afro-pop sound and those upper-class lyrics, their style as well as substance proved to win out. Q really did nail it when they hailed it the "indie Graceland."

They already have all the trappings of your new favourite band - a simple, winning approach to visual design, impossibly cool band names (Ezra Koenig or Rostam Batmanglij are almost too good to be true) but most importantly it was music stuffed with tender hooks, succint structures, sumptuous arrangements and a joy and sophistication in harmony.

The songs really do speak for the quality and interest of the record: Oxford Comma was a cooing attack on proper grammar, Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa featured a dastardly catchy riff and rhythm, M79 was chamber pop perfection. Peppered throughout were Koenig's witty (if distancing) lyrics like closing lines of One (Blake's Got A New Face): "Oh your college grief/has left you/dowdy in sweatshirts/absolute horror." But for every highly educated cultural reference (Peter Gabriel, Jackson Crowder, New York Landmarks aplenty) there is a simple hook such as A-Punk's 'Ey ey ey' punctuation or I Stand Corrected's humble chorus that you can't help but participate with.

In fact, it could be the near-perfect debut that will remain the band's curse, spending their career attempting to replicate, let alone better it; but for the time being it's one of the year's brightest, funnest albums. Just put on Mansard Roof, and as that organ bounce melts into the driving syncopated rhythm, try to disagree.

3. Bloc Party - Intimacy
2007 was a busy year for Bloc Party and given the flurry of activity, it would be more than fair enough if they decided to rest on their laurels. Clearly they had no such intention.

Intimacy had a lightening digital release back in August, not dissimilar to Radiohead's In Rainbows, with a physical release in October. Its quick release meant it had little time to be judged before it could be experienced, perhaps a cheap ploy if the music was bad, but in fact it was the opposite.

Although it's genetic makeup is similar to their previous two albums, particularly due to the re-appearance of Silent Alarm's Paul Epworth and A Weekend In The City's Jacknife Lee sharing production duties, Intimacy is a different beast indeed. It is more a concept album concerning Kele Okereke's recent break-up, finding time to stretch the themes of loss and heartache to a couple of deaths (Biko, Signs) and multiple references to Greek Mythology (Ares, Trojan Horse, the River Styx). While Mercury, the lead single, polarised fans with its bizarre concoction of brazen horns and heavily treated vocals - in context it makes that much more sense. Paired along with the apocalyptic dance rock of Ares (which borrows heavily from Chemical Brothers Setting Sun) it represents Bloc Party's most ambitious songs, while setting the scene for the chaotic world in which Kele is attempting to hold desperately on to his relationship. What follows is a stirring, passionate set of songs that detail love's foibles and Bloc Party's musical adventure.

For a band whose principles include pushing the boundaries of what indie/dance rock can and should be, this is still an album that contains some of their most daring excursions. Zephyrus combines a looped vocal track along with heavy drum and bass backing with a full choir. Better Than Heaven attempts to bolster the paranoid gloom of dub-step to their rocking Silent Alarm constructions while Signs tinkles and sparkles thanks to its keyboard and glockenspiel.

While the band falter occasionally on Okereke's clunky lyrics or attempts to appease those looking for Banquet part 2, they never linger too long for it to seem detrimental or damaging. While Bloc Party's contemporaries are content to ape passing styles or bigger bands, they refuse to be belittled by such cliches. Forging ahead may draw the most attention, and the biggest criticisms, but even if you hate Bloc Party - you have to respect them.

2. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes
With its Bruegel artwork Fleet Foxes' debut appeared like a timeless record even before the aptly opening track, Sun It Rises, echoed out four-part harmonies like it was some kind of rural documentation of American folk. Not long after, the rusty acoustic guitars and pitter-patter drums echo images of dust being blown from the windowpane... or an old vinyl record.

It mines a deep vein of 70's Americana from the Crosby, Stills & Nash harmonies right down to the beardy ragged looks. And yet 70's folk has been a constant in recent years (owing a lot to My Morning Jacket) so what sets Fleet Foxes apart from the Band of Horses and Department of Eagles of the world?

For a start, it's hard to escape the fact that this debut feels like a 'long lost record.' With warm tones and nostalgic hermeutics in retains a comfortably familiar feel which is oddly refreshing amongst the current crop of noisy electronics, stripped back blues rock and dance garage influenced youth. Their sound is casually confident despite being powerfully provocative.

It's hard to define the album's highlights as it's track order runs so smoothly and seamlessly into each other. You know you're listening to a great album when each time you listen you have a new favourite track. Is it He Doesn't Know Why's cloud-breaking yearning? Blue Ridge Mountains dark folk or Quiet Houses teeming acoustics? In short, they're all brilliant but contribute to a listen that is without edge or interruption.

Fleet Foxes reminds one of a time when a love affair for a band could begin the moment you pressed play. Simply putting on the record - no preconceived notions, no hype, no advertising build-up. just the music. Of cours it's the kind of fresh naiveity that debuts will always have over established acts, but Fleet Foxes make it sound easy.

1. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago
It's a small surprise to myself that the album of the year should be not a band, but a singer-songwriter artist. Not that there are real prejudices in judging good music, but I've always felt that it was the conflation and contribution of multiple artists within a 'gang' that could produce the best music, not the visions of an individual. Bon Iver proves the mighty exception to my theory.

It all begins with a great back-story. With the dissolution of his band and his relationship with a long-term girlfriend, Justin Vernon headed off to his father's log cabin in Wisconsin, hunting venison for food, it gave him time to "hibernate and reflect." What emerged was a wintry masterpiece and a watershed album in introspective soul-baring.

Bon Iver follows in the tradition of Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith in its sombre mode and brilliant vocals, but Vernon's style pushes the genre in interesting new directions. His songs of longing and heart-ache bolstered by unique guitar tunings, a clatter of background effects and Vernon's expressive vocals.

It's easy to sympathise with Vernon's plight, even if you struggle to hear his words which it turns out are obscure poetic imagery in themselves, because you can still feel them. His distinct voice contains a visceral edge, and easily one of the most gorgeous sounds this year was his shy cooing on the likes of Re: Stacks and the multi-tracked The Wolves (Act I and II). You can hear the full range of emotions in his haunting voice as well as in the accompanying guitar and clatter of effects that hover just in the background.

For all its serious intentions and heavy themes however, it's still easy to just get lost in the beautiful and mysterious music. Even as its melodies and riffs mine their way into your subconscious, hummed or sung in your private moments, they're always at the edge of full understanding making them all the more evocative. Skinny Love and Creature Fear are every bit as catchy as they are heart-wrenching.

Like others I've trumpeted in this list, it is an album that holds fast to the values and importance of the album format. Sequencing, cohesion and an arc that while not strictly confined to a narrative stream, relies much on the same principles: a beginning a middle and end. It's a mere 9 tracks of 38 minutes length, but it does so much more with its scope and range than these modest limitations would suggest. Like the best albums, For Emma takes us on a journey, with a beguiling and emphatic Justin Vernon as host.

It's easy to gush in the presence of such raw talent, but to put it simply Bon Iver is the best album of 2008 because it has all the qualities of an instant classic. An album that need not prove itself in order to achieve timeless status.

So there you have it, i hope you all had a great 2008 (musically and otherwise) including a great Christmas. Speaking of which, here's a link to my Xmas Mixtape of last year.

But wait... that's not it. The celebrations aren't quite over for 2008, I've still got a few more surprises up my sleeve. Watch this space.

That list in full...
Please feel free to comment below

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Top 15 Albums of 2008: Part 2

If you missed Part 1 you can catch up here. Otherwise let's soldier on...

THE TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2008: Part 2
10. Girl Talk - Feed The Animals
Essentially a mash-up mixtape, Girl Talk's fourth album plays out like a history lesson of 20th century popular music transformed into a hectic game of 'spot the sample.' The idea is simple, take some rap, hip-hop or R&B rhymes and stir with FM classics. On paper it sounds amateurish and tacky but the resultant sound - as Sinead O'Connor, Fleetwood Mac slip on by with the likes of Lil' Wayne and T.I. - is nothing short of electric (and eclectic).

Feed The Animals brings up the old argument that there's nothing new left in art, that all the territories have been explored, conquered and exploited. That there's nothing new to say, only to recycle old tropes as new ones, but we've never heard the songs and riffs here quite like this before. There's plenty of defense in recycling music when Girl Talk, or Greg Gillis to his mum, draws such indelible juxtapositions as these.

It takes more than a laptop and a vast record collection to make
Jay-Z and Radiohead sound like age-old bedfellows or pairing Ray J with Rod Stewart like they were meant for each other. It boils the art of the mash-up down to an exact science of minute sampling and creative combination. It offers up new constellations to old stars and always with the purpose of getting the party started... and keeping it going. If it happens to dazzle and thrill along the way - it's merely a bonus.

9. Sigur R
ós - Með suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust
Acoustic Guitars? A barrelling tempo? 3 minute radio-friendly length? Were the rumours true, had Sigur Rós indeed gone 'Pop'? Well, they had only in as much as the Icelandic harbingers of celestial sounds could.

After last year's Heima DVD/CD double-punch propped them into a position in which they could do little wrong, they surprised with a chirpy album that saw them exiting the fringes of the music industry for perhaps the last time. With a buzz in our ears we play endlessly (the English translation of the album title) finds Sigur R
ós pushing for more accessible and energetic compositions without sacrificing the grandeur and complexity they are known for.

Although some tracks begin to skirt formula, a difficult thing to dodge five albums in, you couldn't accuse them of redressing old interiors.
Með suð instead introduces new approaches to the band's sonic architecture, whether it be a song in English (All Alright), a hippieish wig-out (Gobbledigook) or an epic live recording with complete symphonic orchestra and choir (Ara Batur). The old moors are still there however, in the guise of Festival, Illgressi and Fljótavík, but the bouncy brass and happy beats of Inní Mér Syngur Vitleysingur and Góðan Daginn are the new focus of the band's arsenal, pushed towards the front of the tracklisting.

All in all it's a decidedly more human album, you can imagine four people actually sitting down and performing these songs, as opposed to some kind of alien transmission which is what they'd risk sounding like previously. Ultimately however the album is the best of both worlds, ethereal yet corporeal, enigmatic while being tangible, and always scintillating listening.

8. Lightspeed Champion - Falling Off The Lavender Bridge
That kooky fellow in the red cardigan, clutching a rabbit, with tousled hair and buddy holly specs is Dev Hynes, the man behind Lightspeed Champion. His is an interesting story, he was originally a member of noisy troublemakers The Test Icicles who were the kind of indie band feted by NME before their fifteen minutes fame ran out when the associated fad of nu-rave did. By Hynes' own admission, they were a forgettable by-product of a popular scene.

Which makes Hynes' re-invention as a tender singer-songwriter all the more remarkable. Mining alt-country, with the help of some
Bright Eyes band members as well as backing vocals from Emmy The Great, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge is a crystallised and thoroughly idiosyncratic world-view which takes both acerbic observation and poignant self-doubt in its stride. Keeping it from sliding into emo-like martyrdom is Hynes' unique humour and delightful cosmopolitan sound. Everyone I Know Is Listening To Crunk fixates a baffled protagonist with a music hall style backing of clarinets and sweetly-strummed acoustic guitar while All To Shit features a baroque string arrangement as Hynes coos "this is all going/all to shit."

It's an album full of delights, not least the pitch-perfect pop of
Tell Me What It's Worth, Dry Lips and the weezer crunch of I Could Have Done This Myself, apparently an autobiographical song concerning Hynes' lost virginity. Capping it all off is the epic Midnight Suprrise, it's 10 minutes never lacking for a moment in touching feeling and sweet melody.

Lightspeed Champion may well just be but one avenue for Dev Hynes to vent his curiosities about a popular culture no longer concerned with the traditional morals and values he still opines. The irony being he is both the product and mediator of such a culture: a prolific blogger, a self-confessed 'nerd,' equally fascinated and disgusted by consumer-driven fashions. All this combines into what is perhaps the poster-boy for the modern equivalent of the tortured-artist, whose dense layers make for brilliant music that is at once accessible, lasting and deeply complex. In short everything Test Icicles weren't.

7. The Mars Volta - The Bedlam In Goliath
Although it was very nearly a heavy-weight contender for my 2007 list, it's release early this February meant it was one of the first albums of the year that I knew would make the list, returning to its chaotic concept of a vengeful spirit conjured by a ouija board gone haywire time and again.
This is the group's fourth studio album and it's amazing they find the time considering their robust touring schedule, alongside with the release of lead guitarist's
Omar Rodriguez Lopez' five (!) solo recordings this year.

Whatever it is that's keeping
The Mars Volta so prolific and consistently out-there great (boundless creativity? determination? psychedelic drugs?) it hasn't failed them yet as a source of tireless inspiration. As already mentioned in my original review (which you can read here), this is perhaps TMV's heaviest album yet - if that's even conceivable.

The banshee wail of opening track
Aberinkula wastes no time in battering the listener with a witches brew of metal, latin grooves, psychedelic rock, progressive jazz and all and anything in-between, a noisy revelry that does not let its grip loose for a second. Wax Simulacra shows off the abilities of titanic new drummer Thomas Pridgen in its short two minutes, Goliath pummels with a series of muscular riffs, while Ouroboros chugs along on the back on a tide of skittering guitar and distorted bass. While the funky groove of Ilyena and Tourniquet Man, "our only ballad" according to vocalist Cedric Bixler-Zavala, offer some respite.

It's an endless showcase of complex musicianship, radical structures and truly bizarre arrangements that show that The Mars Volta are not only in a league of their own, they're playing an entirely different game. They're defiantly old-school attitude means they're a love-it-or-hate-it affair, but if you're in the former you'll be bountifully rewarded.

6. Elbow - The Seldom Seen Kid
The fourth studio album from Manchester based Elbow just so happens to be saddled with the year's best opening and closing tracks, it's best duet, and probably even some of the year's best lyrics - all in the one album. In fact saddled isn't so much the right word as crafted.

Elbow are a concise unit, and although there are alarm bells between albums concerning the band's unity and activity, they always manage to pull out a winner, in other words, The Seldom Seen Kid is only the latest in a succession of brilliant records, one that has rewarded their long-due recognition with taking out the coveted Mercury Music Prize.

But enough about the plaudits, what is that is so great about this album? well for starters, it is just that: an album. At at time when the focus is shifting away from the format to individual singles, or shorter collections of tracks like EPs and digital releases, here is a band whose dedication to the album format proves it's still a pot art-form. Beautifully sequenced and cohesively structured, the title and theme of the album concern the passing of local bar-fly melancholic Bryan Glancy. The emotional resonance of which can be felt on the bluesy stomp of Grounds For Divorce, the echoing isolation of The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver and Some Riot, and particularly on the poignant send-off Friend Of Ours.

In-between is a collection of finely-produced and performed songs, Starlings highlights Guy Garvey's deft bar-stool poetry "
I sat you down and told you how/the truest love that's ever found/Is for oneself/You pulled apart my theory/With a weary and disinterested sigh."
The Fix is the aforementioned duet with Richard Hawley: a narrative about a fixed horse-race that feels like a 1960's jaunt. The running order of Audience With The Pope and Weather To Fly is a flighty dalliance, where One Day Like This contains strident strings that swell into a sunny anthem. The emotional range is matched only by the musical range.

If past patterns remain true, it will be a while before
Elbow's next release, but if their quality has not been tarnished with the passing of time and its fickle trends, then The Seldom Seen Kid - like those albums before it - will merely be another great release from a great band, whether it's this or any other year.

Read my original review here

(EDIT: I couldn't think of an appropriate place to put this, but FasterLouder
have published my review of Kanye's 808s & Heartbreaks, which you can read here. Be warned: may contain slagging off.)

Only 5 to go! Can you feel the excitement? Here's the list so far:
Please feel free to comment below.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

2008 End-of-Year Celebrations: Top 15 Albums of 2008 Pt 1

...and so finally here it is. If there was but one article (or 3 posts, who's counting) I wanted my readership to devour - this is it.
My serious attempt at music journalism via an egotastic parading of 2008's best albums, as judged by yours truly. Compiled from hours spent carefully choosing how to express my adorations and opinions, hours spent fussing over the nominees and reshuffling the rank; but most importantly, hours spent listening to music. Which should hopefully be the final action all my garbled words provoke.
Ladies and Gentlemen:
THE TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2008 (PT 1)

15. - Snowman -
The Horse, The Rat & The Swan
I discovered this one quite late in the year, in fact only a few weeks ago, despite it being released back in May - but its mood and sound took me instantly. This is only
Snowman's third studio work, and their second album proper, but it's clear already that they have an excellent grasp of the capabilities of the studio in enhancing their brooding compositions and dark textures.

The album experiences two distinct phases with the first half playing out like the apocalypse via tribal chanting (
Our Mother (She Remembers)), mechanic electro indie (We Are The Plague) and even mutated surf rock'n'roll (Daniel Was A Timebomb).

Guitarist come Vocal banshee Andy Citwarman barks and shouts like a frothing madman while Olga Hermanniusson and Joseph McKee offer chiming harmonies and cooing baritone in respite. It's a technique that's all over the album but is never grating or repetitve. The powerful pacing continues until the gentler second half, coming handily after
A Rebirth, with longer more hypnotic moments cascading into waves of sound or cathartic noise once again. Ending the whole affair is the cavernous Diamond Wounds, shimmering with textures of feedback, horns and even some Gamelan for good measure.

This record is proof of an Australian band (now relocating to London) willing to push the borders on what rock music can be, their music far outstrips simple generic elements like choruses, chord changes and in some cases lyrics. Overall,
The Horse, The Rat & The Swan is a heavy, brooding work of whom the exploration of its darkest corners rewards listeners and reveals a band at ease with the edges of creativity - where noise and function meet in a splendid armageddon.


14. R.E.M. - Accelerate
Despite a string of serviceable albums in the last ten years, there has been a popular theory that R.E.M. have been in a downward spiral ever since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry, bolstered by a number of soul-searching interviews since the release of their last album, 2004's Around The Sun. The three-piece elder spokesmen of American indie lamented their lack of internal communication, focus and cohesion. In that context, Accelerate has been saddled with one of those catch-all terms that often befall bands who span a career longer than a decade; which is to say that it is a 'return to form' album.

Fussy pigeon-holing aside the album is indeed appropriately titled, with the band cranking up the volume, speeding up the tempo and commiting to some songs with, excuse the pun, some drive. This isn't to say that it is a record without the subtlety that we're used to from these forward thinking artists. Michael Stipe's lyrical imagery returns to familiar blue-eyed dreamer mode on the likes of
Hollow Man and Until The Day Is Done, but it never slackens for too long. Key to all this vim and vigour is Peter Buck's incessant riffage and Bill Rieflin's drumming that power the crunch of each track as it the album steams through its 36 minute length.

Accelerate is not R.E.M.'s best album, but it is a potent reminder of one of music's most treasured acts, if at the very least it prompts the listener to explore their vast and rewarding back catalogue, then it can be considered a win. But on it's own terms, it still proves - to quote my earlier review - "that for a group nearly three decades into their career, there’s still plenty of fuel left in the tank".

Read my original review here

13. Death Cab For Cutie - Narrow Stairs
With the combination of Plans and heavy rotation on the likes of The OC, Death Cab For Cutie found themselves squarely in the drift of the mainstream. A place they had not necessarily clamboured to be and yet not one in which they seemed wholly uncomfortable either. No matter, it was clear Narrow Stairs was a message to the dedicated that they would not comporomise for their new-found fame, a message sent via the heralding single I Will Possess Your Heart.

At nearly 9 minutes length, its hypnotic groove combined with Gibbard's direct, almost threating, lyric demonstrated a previously unheard DCFC. While in retrospect it seems that they gave up their best track before the album was released,
Narrow Stairs is still an engaging record.

Opening Bixby Canyon Bridge demonstrates familiar territory before breaking apart in a noisy swell of power chords, No Sunlight and Long Division are the group's usual brand of effortlessly sunny pop and catchy poetry. Elsewhere Pity and Fear tackles middle eastern percussion and electronica while Grapevine Fires is a sobering tale of a state-wide bush fire. It's varied stuff and although occasionally the four-piece stretch themselves, it's an important album in their career arc, carving out a place in the popular music canvas that stays true to their original spirit and sound.

12. Augie March - Watch Me Disappear
Following after their most direct and successful effort thus far, 2006’s Moo, You Bloody Choir, comes album number four which finds Augie March shouldering their popular acceptance and defying expectations precisely by not rebelling against them. Delivering a taut eleven track set, compared to the average fifteen track forebears, of similarly polished songs.

Their creeping towards mainstream acceptance was a major coup considering the band's most obvious characteristic: Glenn Richards’ old-world poetry. Which had sometimes been a barrier to enjoying their rich musical joys for most and while ‘retro’ is too fashionable a term to describe it, there is something decidedly nostalgic and 'old-world' in his literary technique, and here it remains undiminished. Who else but Augie March could transform “Out of the mouth of a black dog/out of the terrors of 3 am/out of the dark and whispering fen/I was blind then I could see/now I’m blind again” into a upbeat sing-a-long as they do on lead single Pennywhistle?

Other highlights include the cool ambiance of Dogsday, a raucous bash called The Glenorchy Bunyip (how very Australian) and a spiritual successor to Bottle Baby, recorded by Richards in an apartment in Hobart, The Slant. The only misstep can be pinned on City Of Rescue’s failed attempt to wed jagged chord changes and a knees-up rhythm with reverberating textures and a garbled chorus, and even then it’s an interesting experiment none the less.

The album carries an undercurrent of sorrow, apathy and even murder balladry but winningly cloaked in beautifully crafted songs with crisp production and rich arrangements, all propelled by Richards' rustic poetry. While occasionally the lyrics can still obscure the listener, it speaks more to the ability of a dense map of words, along with the lush music, to dazzle and mystify. It's not about simply probing what is being conveyed but about the beauty of the object. Like the album title might suggest, disappearing behing the majesty of the sounds. The irony of course, is that Watch Me Disappear will only make Augie March more apparent in the ranks of the great Australian bands.

11. Coldplay - Viva La Vida -or- Death And All His Friends
Judging by my original review (which you can read here) I may have been a little quick to offset
Coldplay's latest as a minor disappointment, but trust, since then its appeal has grown on me greatly. The fact that their songs were inescapable, as Coldplay are wont to do, only aided in their burrowing their away into my heart.

I stand by the fact that it contains some bizarre, if not entirely fatal, choices but it demonstrates how they are more comfortable to toy with their sound without sacrificing what makes them so devastatingly popular. While other groups crave the balance of stadium-filling sonics with heart-aching empathy that they achieve so effortlessly (
Snow Patrol i'm looking at you...), Coldplay have always treated it like a crutch that compromises their ability to considered cool, cutting-edge or even powerfully artistic. Cue über-producer Brian Eno whose previous CV reads like the evolution of contemporary popular music... which is cool, cutting-edge and powerfully artistic.

Violet Hill was an interesting lead single, all chugging power chords albeit with a slightly psychedelic touch. 42 is Coldplay's attempt at prog and succeeds where Lovers In Japan will no doubt soundtrack either a new apple product or a teenage romance sometime in the near future. Yes is the biggest u-turn in the band's sound with sizzling strings, while Viva La Vida takes the same quartet for a baroque journey. Elsewhere, Lost! is all clattering percussion and familiarly optimistic Chris Martin-isms "Just because i'm losing/doesn't mean i'm lost/doesn't mean i'll stop/doesn't mean i will cross."

Viva La Vida is not quite the masterpiece the band want it to be, it's too weighted in self-consciousness. The eccentric double album title, the secret tracks tucked in between cuts, even the 'ragged revolution' artwork of the liner notes: all seem a little precocious for a band whose every move will no doubt draw attention. It's a vast step in the right direction, particularly after the worrying glut of X&Y, and while it's always easy to dismiss Coldplay as 'that big soppy band' as long as they produce works of equal quality as Viva La Vida they will hold up under closer scrutiny. Greatness then, is still just around the corner.


Well i hope you're enjoying it thus far, Albums 10-6 will be up soon. In the meantime this is what the list looks like so far...


Let the guessing commence! Comment below.

Monday, December 8, 2008

2008 End-of-Year Celebrations: The Good, The Bad & The James Blunt

Carrying on from last year's awards, I've decided to make them an annual occurrence and added in some new categories to suit this year's music. The idea behind these awards is to recognise the more interesting aspects of 2008's releases that would otherwise go unnoticed in a usual 'best albums of the year' list. Also it's the only way i can let rip a little with the new "James Blunt Turkey of the Year" award for the most disappointing and unloved album of 2008.

So without further ado...

BEST ALBUM TITLE
Martha Wainwright - I Know You're Married But I've Got Feelings Too

It's exactly the kind of snarky title you'd expect from chanteuse Martha Wainwright
but also reflects the albums themes of lost love and biting social commentary.
Runner-Up: M83 - Saturdays=Youth
WORST ALBUM TITLE
Steel Attack -
Carpe DiEnd
You can always rely on Metal bands to offer up some silly over-the-top titles, but Sweden metal band Steel Attack have gone above and beyond the call and duty with this one.
Runner-Up: Lenny Kravitz - It Is Time For A Love Revolution
BEST SOUNDTRACK
Flight of The Conchords -
S/T
Besides being the soundtrack to the HBO series of the same name, New Zealand's Flight of the Conchords' first full length is actually a listenable comedy record in its own right with precise lampooning and catchy genre-hopping.
Runner-Up: Jonny Greenwood - There Will Be Blood Original Soundtrack
BEST EP
Fleet Foxes -
Sun Giant EP
Fleet Foxes' debut would have been an impressive opening on its own accord, but it was preceded by a small batch of songs that made up this EP, showing all the wonderful characteristics of the album proper - tight harmonies, folk mood and excellent songwriting - in a concise package.
Runner-Up: Coldplay - Prospekt's March

BEST GIG/LIVE ACT
Sigur Ros -
1st Aug @ Festival Hall
The Icelandic quartet had visited our shores previously, playing upper-class venues like The Palais and even Hamer Hall at the Arts Centre, but to suit the more accessible, poppier sounds of Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust they elected to play the grungier Festival Hall. It did nothing to diminish the grandeur of their sound and as balloons and confetti opened up in the sky during inevitable closer Gobbledigook their status as one of Australia's best loved bands was sealed
Runner-Up: Porcupine Tree - 25th April @ The Metro
BEST BEST OF
Yes, a greatest hits compilation of Radiohead goes against everything they stand for, but when it contains music from the greatest band in the world, it's hard to argue against its quality. And when have i passed up an excuse to plug them?
Runner-Up: Dream Theater - Greatest Hit (... and 21 Other Pretty Cool songs)
BEST LIVE ALBUM
Something For Kate -
Live @ The Corner
Offered mere moments after the band had exited the stage, it captures SFK (Melbourne's Best Band ⓒ2008) during the high point of their career doling out radio hits, fan favourites and an obscure cover of Ship Of Fools to top it all off. Excellent.
Runner-Up: Muse - H.A.A.R.P.
BEST MUSIC DVD
Muse -
H.A.A.R.P.
Muse continue to push the boundaries of the live rock show, even though they were pipped to the post by George Michael as the first act to headline the re-opened Wembley Stadium; they offered a far more eventful show. An elaborate stage set-up of vast video screens and satellites, the band's usual showboating... even floating ballerinas, and this DVD captured it in all its bombastic glory.
Runner-Up: Joy Division - Joy Division
BEST RE-ISSUE
Kent -
Box 1991-2008
Kent are Sweden's equivalent to U2, their huge national sales matched by their own ambitions, bolstering the attitude and large-scale shows with wonderfully crafted and produced songs. This box set contains all of their recorded work: 7 studio albums, a 2 disc B-sides compilation, an EP and all manner of demos and rarities. Sure it's all sung in Swedish, but when the music's this good it's a moot point.
Runner-Up: Death Cab For Cutie - Something About Airplanes 10th Anniversary
HARDEST SONG TO ESCAPE
TIE:
Kings of Leon
- Sex on Fire & Use Somebody
The double-barreled assault of these twin singles was heard everywhere in 2008, coming out of cars with the windows rolled down, on shop work CDs, on music video and live shows, and of course they were plastered all over commercial radio. But of course they were, Sex on Fire was a concise statement of their appeal while Use Somebody was representative of their new direction as producers of polished anthems.
Runner Up: MGMT - Kids
BROADEST ACCENT
Glasvegas
The four-piece led by the vocals of James Allen hail from Glasgow, and boy don't they let you know it. Glasvegas' debut album is a winning blend of emotional rock backed by Phil Spector style wall-of-sound guitar with Allen's refreshingly strong accent. Though at times it risks dipping into comedic 'och me wee lass' jargon, more often than not it lends the songs the emotional honesty and rawness that makes them so powerful, such as on Daddy's Gone
WEIRDEST ALBUM
Scarlett Johansson -
Wherever I Lay My Head
An album of Tom Waits covers sung by one of Hollywood's 'it' girls, produced by TV On The Radio's Dave Sitek with backing vocals from Bowie. That pretty much takes the cake for weirdest album, or coolest. Who would have thought that Scarlett Johansson would be the one to buck the trend for 'actress makes terrible stab at singing career.'
JAMES BLUNT TURKEY OF THE YEAR
Kanye West -
808's and Heartbreak
No contest really, this was easily this year's biggest disappointment, rap superstar Kanye West limits his music palette to the 808 drum machine and auto-tuned singing. Which may have been a brave or intriguing statement if the songs weren't all monotonous or unlikeable whining about a girl who's done Kanye wrong. Now don't get me wrong, i'm not some hater who's used this new album as further fuel to the fire, i actually really liked West's previous albums, but 808's and Heartbreak is the point at which he has been swallowed by his own ego and at risk of a sharp nosedive if something isn't done soon. Just listen to RoboCop and tell me it's not the sound of someone losing their mind.

There we have it 2008 in its warts-and-all wrap-up. Please let me know your thoughts, do comment below

However, as those old Demtel commercials go, 'Wait! There's More!' Oh yes, the big drum roll should be sounding soon as i raise the curtain on my coveted (well by me anyway) Top 15 Albums of the Year list in handy 5 part segments. Who's going to make the list? well all i can hint at is that it's none of those who have already scooped awards here, for further clues take a look at last year's list, it's a good starting point.

Watch this space.
James Blunt: NOT the greatest artist in the world today





Tuesday, December 2, 2008

2008 End-of-Year Celebrations: Album Covers

To kick off my end-of-year celebrations (of which there'll be quite a few so watch this space) I thought I'd start with the best and worst album artwork released in 2008.

Now this might seem like filler, but album artwork is something i find particularly special and important, especially at a time when digital downloads are being privileged over physical releases. With that in mind here's to the bands and artists who still care about the tangibility and potential of the congruous art package that the album format offers... oh and those that don't.

THE BEST In no particular order:

One surefire way to have a great album cover is to steal some classical art and slap your own typography over the top, it worked for Fleet Foxes (above) and Coldplay (below) who used Bruegel's Netherlandish Proverbs and Delacroix's Liberty leading the people respectively.
A trick they both pulled again for EP's:


Who would have thought that stodgy working class rockers Oasis would be capable of such a deliciously psychedelic cover? Not I, that's for sure. It perfectly suits the blissed out drones of their latest album also.
Selected at the last minute by the band from Ryan McGinley's photography. The nudie run, combined with the child like scrawl, is innocent as opposed to crass, while the figures caught in motion and the slight tilt of the camera suggest energy and momentum. Qualities which the band's new poppier moments have in spades. As well as all that, it ties nicely into the Gobbledigook video.

Here's what this image says to me: "Ladies and Gentleman! Boys and Girls! Hipsters and Scenesters! Roll up! Roll up! For the Oracular Spectacular! Witness Andrew VanWyngarden and Benjamin Goldwasser summon shamanic rhythms and weave cosmic pop like your ears have never before heard! Line up for the Oracular Spectacular courtesy of MGMT!"


This image enabled Alison Goldfrapp's musical transformation from dancefloor chanteuse dominatrix to folk pirate in one fell swoop. The breaking sun, like the album, has an organic and sensuous feel without sacrificing her kookiness, as well as emphasising her vulnerability (her back turned) as well as her determination (that powerful look).
Like the above image, an album cover can say a lot about the artist creating the music therein. So it is with Ladyhawke's debut. Seemingly distracted from her music-making (the discarded keyboard) by playing some Super Nintendo, while some laconic laze around her, an obvious sign of her craziness. Her hippyish get-up is at once casual and fashionable; and to top it all off it's a drawing - not a photograph - which adds to the playfullness.

Like a poster for some equally kick-ass and strange movie from the 80's (and clearly a homage to legendary poster artist Drew Struzan it certainly got indie blog Gorilla Vs. Bear excited.


I have no idea who Je Suis Animal are, or what they sound like, but i'm keen to investigate after this cover. The illustration is both nostalgic and clearly post-modern interpretation of the album title.
This is another band completely anonymous to me, but i just couldn't pass up this creepy skull totem. The simple but intriguing typography, combined with it's flat and colourful composition undercuts the scariness, but piercing eyes are always captivating. I'll be seeing this one in my dreams...
Never underestimate the power of a good collage. Emphasising a simple colour palette, while using arrangements of shapes and sizes to create texturing where there is only a two dimensional surface. It's strikingly different for Death Cab For Cutie and more reminiscent of electronic album artwork, but very eye-catching none the less.

Oh sure, it's clearly a result of some Photoshop trickery, but that doesn't make the image any less powerful, or enigmatic. Where, or even when, is this? Is the man at ease or terrified? or has he long since given up the ghost to become a nest for the birds? In a word: Provocative.
Much like the band themselves, this is edging the borders of excess and bombast, but it works. Perhaps it just appeals to the uber-nerd in me, but a mecha chick with a gun/guitar for an arm is clearly video-game inspired and the whole cgi-fest just seems to work despite its disparate, not to mention ridiculous, elements.


THE WORST
Actually The Sword's Gods of the Earth should be under its own category of 'so bad it's good.' The painted artwork is a lazy interpretation of the band name and is exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to see on a sludgy, stoner rock metal album... or a fantasy novel in the bargain bin section of Angus & Robertson.
No Madonna, you're not that sexy anymore, sorry. You may have gotten away with this bold-faced sexual imagery and eclecticism in the 80's but now that you're 50, it's a little embarrassing for all involved.
Yeah, yeah i get it. It's meant to be ironic. It's meant to lampoon 70's style. You could also call it 'tongue in cheek' or 'witty'. I'd prefer to call it 'pretentious' and 'just plain bad'
If the title was taken literally, N*E*R*D would have us believe that their music sounds like a large, red, badly photo-shopped King Kong... which it doesn't.
...No he isn't