Saturday, January 1, 2011

2010 End-Of-Year Celebrations: TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2010 (The Final 10)

Happy New Years all! Hopefully in some of your downtime you'll find time to finish off reading the list, just as I did in compiling it. No time to waste, lets' finish this: 

10. LCD Soundsystem - This Is Happening
This Is Happening catapulted up the ranks, and demanded repeated listens, for its opening salvo alone.  Dance Yrself Clean is, unquestionably, the best opening track of any album in the last twelve months. A stripped-back set of percussion and keyboard chordal emphasis doesn’t quite prepare the listener for the epic boogie to come. There are few moments in recorded music as thrilling – in 2010 or otherwise – as when that beat is dropped for the first time. As the fat synth line and hi-hat propel you to the dancefloor, it’s like rediscovering every dancing bone in your body, and even some you didn’t know you had. An irresistibly groovy joy, all nine minutes of it. You can almost picture LCD Soundsystem's ringleader James Murphy slinking and shuffling around the studio as he lets off a volley of Bowie-esque yelps.
As it turns out, Berlin-era Bowie is clearly a principal cornerstone to This Is Happening, even if you managed to ignore the parallel between Murphy’s yelps and the great Dame’s,there’s plenty of other references to appreciate. The sawing guitar of All I Want flagrantly recalls Heroes for one, or the wiry expansions that owe more than a bit to The Thin White Duke. This shouldn't (and doesn’t) deter from Murphy’s achievements, as there’s nothing second-hand about the spirit of This Is Happening.
Expanding and refining LCD Soundystem’s imperious funk and rubbery workouts. Murphy’s lyrics, usually a way to amp up a crowd in previous output, now turn his usually wry observations towards a subject worthy of attention: himself. I Can Change is almost painful as Murphy begs over and over the song’s title, shifting from defiance “never change, never change, never change/this is how I fell in love” to a key turn to desperate “I can change/if it’ll help you fall in love.” It’s a pointless plea that’s all too familiar, but it’s bolstered to an irresistibly hip-shaking backing.
You Wanted A Hit, takes that same po-faced, keen observation to the craft of record-making itself. Downplaying his own revered status “Honestly I’m not smart… we fake it, fake it all the time”; to a cheeky declaration of LCD’s mission statement, “you wanted a hit?/well this is how we do hits.”
Indeed This Is Happening is festooned with hits the way LCD do them. Drunk Girls is a shameless but delightful rock ramble, and clocking it at just under four minutes, an anomaly among the album’s longer cuts. One Touch is a relentless drive of dotted bass, turbulent drums and some mantra-esque vocals, Pow Pow meanwhile, takes its onomatopoeic title and stretches it to a transcendental eight and a half minutes. In contrast, Somebody’s Calling Me could well have been a scorching beat, but instead it’s been slowed and warped into a mutated krautrock fug.  Closing track Home echoes Dance Yrself Clean in its shimmering comedown, bringing a tidy symmetry to proceedings.
If, as initial reports suggest, this turns out to be the final record for James Murphy’s feet-baiting disco punks, it’s a fitting swansong.

9. Vampire Weekend - Contra
Originally due for the very end of 2009, Contra was instead delayed to Jan 2010 in order to ‘give it the time to tour and support it properly.’ Good move, it showed that Contra – despite its quick construction – was no rush-job. In ushering in the new year, it coincidentally acted as an introduction to the sound of twentyten: inventive, daringly cosmopolitan and yet irresistibly accessible.
Song for song it may not be as catchy or as naively infectious as their ubiquitous debut, but it did something far more impressive. The New York quartet’s first drew a long shadow, but rather than attempt to recreate that record’s success, Vampire WeekendContra mapped out not one, but many new directions for the band to chart. Their ambitions striving far beyond the simple label of just ‘the indie Graceland.’ instead bravely altered course.
Paul Simon may still want to call influential credit on the likes of White Sky, but he has no claim to the rest of the album. From the sunny percussion explosion of Horchata to the bizarre rush of California English, through to the knowingly uneven strings of quasi-title track I Think Your’e A Contra – it’s an audacious record.
Taxi Cab takes Rostam Batmaglij’s baroque string arrangements and fashions them to an eased-back ballad, elsewhere Diplomat’s Son takes an MIA sample and stretches its afro-centric rhythms to a euphoric six minutes. Lyrically too, frontman Ezra Koenig took aboard all the barbs about scenester posturing and upper-class wordmanship, and used that same witty education to highlight the hypocrisy in deriding his band as elitists.
He makes no apologies for making music for a world that ignores borders, he doesn’t care for the possessive attitude of who can and can’t use particular music. There’s a line that slips by in Giving Up The Gun that sounds like a defence “My ears are blown to bits/from all the rifle hits/but still, I crave that sound.” This may still be a band who sing about Mexican rice drinks (Horchata), but Koenig and co are aware of the ugly side of crying foul on class culture. “You wanted good schools and friends with pools” he sings on the closing track, and California English remembers “funny how that college girl called language corrupt.” Contra’s point, as it breezes through it impressive indie-pop wingspan, rising on the geysers of whatever music you want to label it – is not to get lost in the argument. In the world of Vampire Weekend, the worst kind of person is those that enjoy playing up to their own importance. Cousins derides a fool with “you greatest hits 2006/little list maker” while Taxi Cab reveals “When the taxi door was open wide/I pretended I was horrified/By the uniform clothes outside/of the courtyard gate.” It’s easy to forget all this and just enjoy the music, so well have Vampire Weekend imbued their attitudes and character into songs that positively overflow with their own. With two albums done, it is a sound that is unmistakably theirs.

8. Parades - Foreign Tapes
Part of the reason behond the constantsearch for new music is for that unique thrill in discovering music that you may fall in love with, nay, that you realise you are falling in love with even as you hear it for the first time. Where some records take time to reveal their charms, others simply present a daring new perspective on something you thought you knew. But there’s nothing quite like hearing something you know nothing about, and feeling a connection to it. The last record I can tangibly recall that happening with was Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm. And it is probably for this reason (along with the brilliant drumming) that Foreign Tapes gave me that same rush, that same kick.
Parades, is in fact, the art-rock side-project for Sydney-based maverick Jonathan Boulet. Pairing the precociously talented 21yr old with some fellow NSW-based musicians. For anyone who heard Boulet’s brilliant Public Service Announcement, that’s what Parades basically does, only with a much darker tone and a much more band-oriented sound. Blasting out of the gates is Dead Nationale, and along with Hunters and Past Lives, it forms a bulletproof trifecta of virtuosic rhythm-making, frosty pianos and some angular guitar shredding.
Foreign Tapes also makes excellent use of another secret weapon (that I’m particularly fond of), the boy/girl dual vocal delivery. Much like Broken Social Scene or a skittish Stars, Parades features the vocal talents of the aforementioned Boulet, along with bandmates Daniel Cunningham and guest vocalist Rebecca Shave. It makes for some of the record’s most striking moments, such as the build on Past Lives or the call and response on Invaders. Or Lung Full Of Light’s high drama with piano and delicate female vocal cruising in tandem.
There’s so many influences kicking around, it’s hard to pin them to any one at any particular time. There’s flashes of Radiohead on the instrumental Springboarder and the ensuing Loserspeak In New Tongue, but they’re battling for space with post-Bloc Party histrionics and Arcade Fire style revelry. It’s a pointless game, one in which Parades are bending all the rules and come out the winners regardless.
Particularly when Foreign Tapes rings with some truly transcendental moments, Marigold’s bouncing backbeat and rousing brass for instance, or when Hunters comes crashing back to its main chordal pounding only for the backing to drop away to those battering drums and an airy a capella chorus. The fact of the matter is that it’s a record that despite its homespun origins, recording started in Boulet’s shed and completed in a hodge-podge of bedroom studios and friends’ loungeroom, sounds far bigger and grander than its elements. Thrilling, animated and very, very enjoyable to the ear.

7. The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs
The Canadian art rock band probably earn the most consensus as a band that helped define the oughties. Firstly, with their debut masterpiece Funeral, and then Neon Bible, which again was hailed by all critical and commercial faculties worth listening to as yet another masterpiece. Except that it wasn’t.
Sure it wasn’t bad enough or pompous enough to unhinge their status as indie royalty, as beloved of musicians from Bowie To Bono as they were your average blogger. But Neon Bible was, personally, a very tough album to love. The difficult second album syndrome drawn across a canvas of vain ambition. With its death-rattle of (confused) American politics, religion, TV, life/death etc. etc. it seemed too grand and bombastic a statement to resonate with some, this writer included. While Funeral was also suitably epic (Wake Up and Rebellion are festival standards), it was achieved through a charmingly straightfoward aesthetic. It was the DIY indie kids against ‘the man’, us versus them. Thankfully The Suburbs returns to the palette of group’s debut.
And yet, in many ways it is perhaps The Arcade Fire's most ambitious album to date. It’s a sixteen track, hour long opus that attempts to take in as many genre tangents as deemed necessary. All driven by it’s semi-concept status, an attempt to recapture the innocence and naive wonder of growing up in the ‘burbs – only to find it buried beneath the sprawl of commercialism or the wasted potential of one’s own ‘growing up’ and out of the neighbourhood. The fact that this is the overriding impression, ‘youth is wasted on the young’, is given across an extraordinarily dense sixty minutes is The Suburbs’ chief accomplishment.
It’s a slog of a record, even after taking in its twists, turns and darkest corners, it’s still quite a draining experience. But It never feels like its dragging, or overly-long and you’d be hard-pressed to actually make any cuts to the running order, so precise are the balance and sequencing. The opening title track rumbling into the energetic Ready To Start, or the way the dying moments of the buzzing Empty Room make way for the hand claps aloft stadium rock of City With No Children. The key to the overall portrait of The Suburbs’  is as much in these transitions and contrasts. The punk abandon of Month Of May is almost dull in isolation but when sandwiched between the slow-burn Suburban War and the mournful Wasted Hours, it positively bursts to life.
The greatest example of the way the album turns its perceived weaknesses into herculean strengths comes in the guise of Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains). Easily the album’s most poptastic moment, yet it is also the longest track and buried right towards the tail-end of the album. The purpose of delaying the giddy Blondie-esque synth-disco anthem? Because when Régine Chassagne hits those skyscraping notes over an infectious, bouncing keyboard groove, it’s all the sweeter for having earned it. It’s a beautifully cathartic pay-off for what has been a complex journey. It also demonstrates how comfortable The Arcade Fire are as an ‘albums’ band. More than most major acts today who can straddle both critical and commercial popularity, they are viewed in terms of their records. Complete statements whose songs function as part of a set. And The Suburbs does that even more so than its predecessors. The fact that such a high-profile act can find a balance between satisfying the net-savvy new media that empowers them, while relying on the hallmark traditions of what an album should be is all contained within The Suburbs.

6. Oceansize - Self Preserved While The Bodies Float Up
Many Aussies got their first proper taste of the behemoth that is Oceansize thanks to some peculiar circumstances earlier in the year. Set to support local favourites Cog across two nights at the Hi-Fi Bar, Oceansize instead became the headline act when Cog had to pull out at the last minute. Rather than unceremoniously cancel the gig, the British five-piece rose to the occasion and gave the fans a two-hour set – despite already getting their tickets refunded. Sure, this kind of ‘keeping-it-real’ heroics would win even the coldest of heavy-rock hearts, but it speaks volumes for the group’s focus and dedication to their craft. Quite deservedly, it was this kind of stalwart commitment to touring that built a word-of-mouth buzz for the group’s fourth studio album.
In the meantime there was the Home & Minor EP (which happened to take out best EP last year), which saw the group playing to their softer, ambient side. Promising that LP4 would feature “some of our heaviest shit yet.” Having given Self Preserved many a listen since that early assessment, it would have to be deemed inaccurate.  Indeed, when Part Cardiac shambles to life in a bruising of sludge metal, or SuperImposer bludgeons with cutting accuracy, you’d be forgiven for thinking Self-Preserved to be a heavy affair. Yet, after the muscular Build Us A Rocket Then, therein contains still many more fragile, beautiful moments to the album. The result, is the most complete portrait of Oceansize on record to date.
Oscar Acceptance Speech is one such specimen, with its nearly nine minute running time giving space to splash its impressive shapes. A third of that being spent on its positively gorgeous string quartet coda. Then there is the brilliantly titled It’s My Tail And I’ll Chase It If I Want To, as the shortest track on the album, it’s a brutally efficient a little blast. A punishing mass of riffs and cathartic guitar caterwauling with a near impenetrable vocal line thanks to its speed and garbled words that’ll completely pass you by until you check the liner notes – and also notice that it features Biffy Clyro’s Simon Neill buried somewhere in the noise.
It’s this attention to detail that plays out across Oceansize’s not unimpressive scope, Silent/Transperant acting as an equally epic twin to Oscar, while Ransoms and A Penny’s Weight prior offer a laidback centrepiece to the event. No track is anything like the one before it, and yet it is imbued with an overall character and impression that makes it so cohesive, so boldy collective.
Self Preserved demonstrates a group that are forging on undeterred by modern trends and fashions and making a sound that is so clearly unique and individual, so Oceansize. The kind of record that has usually articulate music aficionados (like myself) struggling to describe its contents.

5. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach
Plastic Beach, in its most simple terms, simply reclaims the title that Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett’s cartoon creation claimed with Demon Days. That of the perfect contemporary pop album. Plastic Beach is simply the strongest example of what Gorillaz does best, consistently fresh without ever feeling jarring. With all of its arty precedents that include a revolving door of guests, and a cartoon presentation that usurps some of the star power as well as lending it a certain mystique. In the bonkers narrative of Gorillaz, bandleader Murdoc has abducted singer 2-D and fled to the titular locale with an android Noodle, chased by pirates, an angry ex-drummer Russel.
It’s this fantasy setting that allows the creative space in which any and all collaborators can contribute. Even before it dropped, it was the kind of album that drummed up a justifiable amount of buzz thanks to its guest list. All tied to keenly contemporary issues concerning global politics and nature issues. Albeit handled in the most creative possible. Complaints about fast-food and advertising junk culture were wrapped into infectious pop singles. Some of the savviest and smartest of the year in fact.
There’s so many innovations that you almost forget or neglect the small moments of genius. Pulling Bobby Womack out of semi-obscurity and just letting him loose on not one, but two, tracks. Sampling The Fall's Mark E. Smith's grizzled confusion, his “where’s north from here?” providing the catalyst for the sci-fi glam disco of Glitter Freeze. The beautiful irony of saving Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of the forever-keeping-it-real The Clash, for a track called Plastic Beach. Never mind getting Snoop Dogg to play Master of Ceremonies, savouring the delicious humour in getting him to pronounce 'beach' with all the vigour of his crunkest moments.
Then there’s Superfast Jellyfish with Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys and Albarn trading harmonies over the most sugar-sweet of musical backgrounds, with De La Soul’s rapping-come-banter punctuating the verses. Middle eastern symphonics and grimey hip-hop? Shouldn’t work, but here’s White Flag to prove you wrong. Empire Ants is a two-part dramatic shift, moving from a breezy, keyboard-speckled chill-out tune to an urgent electro march, its dreamy mood suffused by Little Dragon’s breathy vocals. Elsewhere, On Melancholy Hill is a pitch-perfect pop song, that offsets its beautiful melodies with unsettling synth lines and almost manic repetition.
It’s how pop music should be, and its keen pop nous aren’t guilty pleasures because you know there’s nothing contrived or sadistic to their construction. These are successful experiments. Not a tried-and-tested money-grubbing formula for what should work, but ballistic trials that celebrate the joy of things that shouldn’t work. It’s all thanks to Albarn and Hewlett’s attitude to pure musical equality, where every style, idea and noise is created equal. There’s no high-brow, no low-brow, no differentiation between the cartoon and the real; only the desire to make these things equally important. They show you that you don't have to have the baggage of history to enjoy the simple delights of a genre because in their world there is no such thing, its music that breaks down boundaries across cultures while positively indebted, and respectful, to them.

4. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Album number five marks West’s phoenix-like rise from the dregs of the James Blunt Turkey of the year award (with his turgid 808’s & Heartbreak) to creating, undoubtedly, one of the most interesting records of the year. All without compromising his machismo, power and ego.
He’s turned what people thought they perceived about him, and woven it into an album in which he is both the hero and the villain. Lest we forget that this was a man who less than twelve months ago, was universally hated. Even Obama took time out from running the free world weigh in, calling West a “jackass.” 
From his twitter, to the online G.O.O.D. Fridays, to his larger-than-life media persona, here's an artist who doesn't so much court controversy as outright have an open relationship with it. But it's all part of what makes him, and his music, so fascinating.
This music in particular, is his most densely-packed yet. Meticulously constructed and finely honed to showcase and remind of Kanye West’s skills as a rapper and producer. Dark Fantasy sets the grand scale for the album even as it focuses its verses down to West’s usually sardonic wordplay “Look like a fat booty Celine Dion/sex is on fire/I’m the King of Leon-a Lewis/beyond the truest.”  And it’s just a series of all-star cuts from there out. The curtailed aggression of Gorgeous, the brilliant Power, all-star showcase of All of the Lights and Monster, So Appalled doesn’t even have Kanye on it  (EDIT: turns out he does the opening verse, hardly recognised him myself)– but his presence is still felt through the brooding, layered production. Devil In A New Dress and Blame Game take you back to his early work, using sped up soul-samples in the former and relying on sweet vocals from John Legend in the latter.
Though he's still wont to spout some ridiculous rhetoric - from telling critics to kiss his various organs and Monster's hilarious couplet "have you have ever had sex with a pharoah?/eeeuuuuuugggh put the pussy in a sarcophagus." It's all delivered with such conviction that you hang off his very word, no matter how absurd.
At its best however, the complexity strikes an utterly absorbing mix of contradictions. Hell Of A Life spills a fantasy of marrying a pornstar, complete with rampant hedonism only for West to spit philosophical with “no more drugs for me/pussy and religion are all I need.” Then there’s the amazing Runaway, the closest thing we’ll ever get to an apology (for the Taylor Swfit incident) and yet without sacrificing any of his power and ego. That lone piano hook is a stand-in for his fragile vulnerability even as the chorus implicates himself as just another one of the douchebags/assholes/scumbags/jerkoffs that litter the industry. It takes a lot of honesty to admit such an emotionally raw concession. But West does it, self-conscious enough to highlight his faults at maintaining a grounded perspective in spite of all the madness that comes with the territory of being a hip-hop superstar. It’s a curious and complex celebration that is writ large across the rest of the album. Tracks that hinge and gravitate around their bravado and spectacle even as they attempt to reach a kind of emotional honesty.
You can see how West felt a kinship for the equally raw Bon Iver, and though the crass honesty of “I sent this girl a picture of my dick” is a million miles and musical worlds from For Emma, Forever Ago – he’s obviously striving for a similar kind of artistic authenticity.
It’s this contrast that drives the startling closer Lost In The World. It would be easy to dismiss it as the destruction of Bon Iver’s transcendentally perfect Woods, and for certain there will be many a fan who will see it as a cardinal sin. The original’s beauty lay in its minimalism. A single couplet sung by a lone autotuned voice, joined by a small robotic choir. A paean to solidarity that transcends its lonely subject matter. A beautiful, singular statement. And Kanye West takes that idea and completely transforms it into a track that sounds like it could take on the world, complete with an army of drums, a full choir and impossibly grand lyrics about heaven, hell, angels and demons. If Woods is minimalist Lost in the World is maximalist.
But he even plays a section of the original, untouched, as if to say “this is where he’s coming from, now I’m gonna tear it up and show you where I’m coming from.” We have to remember, that West not only got Justin Vernon’s approval, but convinced him to appear all over the record (just imagine that conversation).  
Vernon is just for starters. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is nothing if not a star-studded tour de force. Jay Z, Pusha T, Rick Ross and Kid Cudi all make multiple contributions, Nicki Minaj steals the show on Monster, and All Of The Lights’ titanic backing alone is made up from vocal appearances from Rihanna, Fergie, La Roux and piano from Elton John. Big doesn’t even begin to describe it. That’s not even counting for the eclectic sampling going on.
West already proved he could spin sacred material such as Daft Punk into something stridently his own (with Stronger), but his sampling on MBDTF is positively eclectic. The likes of Aphex Twin, Mike Oldfield  and King Crimson are almost unheard of samples for a hip-hop record, but West weaves them all into his colossal drama.
Saying that it’s incredibly dense - for a hip-hop album, may be a statement that treads dangerously close to being derogatory, but it demonstrates just how far West has pushed the genre. The tracks sprawl and indulge at an average six-minute length. Without the traditional use of padded segues, and save Chris Rock’s sketch, the skits that are usual hip-hop album tradition. A format that Yeezy was totally comfortable with on his first two records, but has outgrown in favour of a musical intent that remains incredibly focussed.  He’s taken what can only be his wildly eclectic musical tastes, and used them to push his own music – and in turn commercial hip-hop – into brave new territory.

3. Big Scary - The Four Seasons
What started out as a deceptively simple premise, record an EP named and inspired by each seasonal turn, has turned out to be a major creative project for local Melbourne duo Big Scary. With the onset of Summer, comes the final piece of the seasonal set. The completists amongst us will already be chasing down those last limited copies, but to celebrate they’ve gathered the lot for one handy compilation.
Gathering all four EPs of the last twelve months however, places a curious dilemma on the record’s sequencing. It neither breaks up each individual EPs running order for a particular effect nor does it adhere to chronological order. Instead, it opts for a comprise that involves shuffling the EPs into a particular arrangement. In the end it’s a minor niggle and still manages to comfortably achieves its goal: a concise introduction to Melbourne’s best unsigned band. Collected together, these thirteen tracks demonstrate that despite their meagre set-up, Big  Scary have more ideas in just one release than most bands manage to garner across their entire careers.
There’s acoustic revelry both sprightly (Spring) and melancholic (Home); atmospheric swells of ambient warmth (Summer) and frosty introspection (Winter). There’s touching poignancy (Thinking About You), rousing rock (Hamilton) and one sure-fire anthem (Autumn). In short, there’s no end of the musical spectrum that Big Scary don’t touch upon. You constantly have to remind yourself that this is the sound of the fulfilled ambitions of a two-piece act.
In the case of both strummer Tom Iansek and drummer Jo Syme,  talent abounds. Iansek’s falsetto is capable of shattering expression as well as warm emotion, but when it combines with Syme’s voice, the resulting harmonies are nothing short of breath-taking. Neither are slouches instrumentally either, aside from the core elements of guitar, piano and drums there’s the extended palettes of those instruments: organ, keys, glockenspiel, xylophone, percussion and timpani to also contend with. Despite the lush arrangements found throughout , particularly from season-to-season, the duo have a keen idea of space. Interestingly, the minimalism of their musical palette emphasises their silences as much as their embellishments, but never feel restrained by the confines of their set-up.
Even being a compilation, there’s still surprises to be had. Such as the way each season coalesces when stood side-by-side, or finally recording a version of live favourite Tuseday Is Rent Day. Coming after the epic swell and Eno-esque rumbling of Summer, it’s a rude awakening. A punky assault of jagged time signatures, that slides into an irresistible lick o’ blues rock. The lyrics meanwhile, perfectly capture financially-starved student squalor  “Sitting on the couch as you’re sitting on your high score/Cereal for lunch while you are checking your e-mails.”
It’s also perhaps Syme’s best recorded drums performance yet – fuelling the conspiracy that she is in fact the curtly-bobbed reincarnation of John Bonham. It’s lashed with humour and good rollicking fun all in all, following it in kind is the equally shaggy All That You’ve Got. Combined,  they act as a handy reminder of the pair’s potent ability to rock - which they haven’t this hard since Hey Somebody - but this stripped-back assault will probably also dredge up those early White Stripes comparisons.  
Those allusions quickly disintegrate however, as there is far more to Big Scary than boy/girl garage rock. And as if you needed proof, Summer’s Last Gasp arrives on a buzz of cicadas and sweltered chirping. This picturesque scene ushers in a beautifully naive toy piano with a melody backed by a gently plucked acoustic guitar. It says all it needs to in just under two minutes, and yet perfectly captures its nostalgic mood, acting as a microcosm for Big Scary’s abilities in general. Despite the natural restrictions of their configuration, they are able to execute their grand ambitions with the greatest of economy.
Witness the way in which Microwave Pizza builds upon its simple chord and melody or how The Deep Freeze employs naught but stark piano and mantric humming for its haunting atmosphere, ending the album on a reflective mood.
There’s no smoke or mirrors with Big Scary either, there’s no big production trick to their marvellous diversity and appeal, in fact you can literally hear the squeaks of the piano stool, the scratch of the strings. The signs of an independent collective whose DIY aesthetic only adds to their character, an easy group to champion because they’re so real. Their aim and focus in recording has always been to capture something of the spirit and character of the place in which they are recording and Four Seasons does that in spades. Its moods and textures - the wheezing relief of Home, the bitter ache of Winter or the cathartic sprawl of Thinking About You – are so remarkably felt, it’s almost tangible.
As a collection of songs and releases of a single band’s recorded output, Four Seasons is like no other local release of 2010. Standing above and apart in its ambition, diversity and sheer enjoyment. Its finer details can be appreciated individually, but it is collectively, that it sharply pulls into focus a remarkable portrait of a thrilling band that is resolutely contemporary.  A well-deserved summary that acts as the crowning achievement of a victorious year for the group. Four Seasons proves to be the defining turning point for Big Scary, for they are no longer the next best thing in Australian music, they are the best thing.

2. The National - High Violet
The key to understanding the greatness of this record is in giving it the time and space to reveal itself. It is the very definition of ‘a grower.’ Truth be told, when I first heard High Violet I wasn’t the biggest National fan. Sure I’d enjoyed The Boxer, but I was happy to write them off as a quantity simply labelled “Nick Cave fronting The Smiths.” I’ve now come up with a more fitting label “The American Elbow” (stay with me).  Much like Elbow, The National take the minutiae and heartbreak of everyday life and imbue it with a narrative immediacy and a musical grandiloquence to match.
Of course Matt Berninger can still deliver a preacher’s growl worthy of the fire-and-brimstone Cave, and yes the spindly guitars and gloomy piano still have a Smithsonian ring of the eighties about them. But where that comparison to Guy Garvey and his fellow compatriots comes about is in the way that High Violet sees The National treating their songs like individual narratives.  Each acts like a snapshot of cinematic proportions.
Each filled with characters and moments that become richer with each listen, whether it’s Afraid of Everyone’s paranoid protagonist stressing “with my kid on my shoulders I/try not to hurt anybody I like/ but I don’t have the drugs to sort it out.” Or how Sorrow captures its breathtaking melancholy in its opening couplet “sorrow found me when I was young/sorrow waited, sorrow won.” Even though Berninger’s vocals move little from the setting marked  ‘damaged middle aged crisis’, his tendency to repeat lines and phrases like mantras begins to sink those subtle melodies deep beneath your skin, until you can’t help but identify with the character walking the weathered streets alone at night (Anyone’s Ghost),  or heroically defying their past (Bloodbuzz Ohio).
The genius Conversation 16  is the soundtrack to a relationship sidling into the last breaths of its doomed existence, with painterly attention to detail in such lines as “Live on coffee and flowers/try not to wonder what the weather will be/I figured out what we’re missing/I tell you miserable things after you are asleep.” And yet, despite the moody atmospherics of chiming guitars and haunting vocals, there’s something uplifting in its familiarity and honesty. Even potentially ludicrous lines like “I was afraid/I’d eat your brains” are lent a stinging pathos when voiced by Berninger’s maudlin baritone. Like the best melancholics, he not only speaks to you, but for you, and to you. On the same track, when he later cries ‘cause I’m evil” you get the impression that he’s not a monster, but a victim of his circumstances.
High Violet is like a great book, literary, dense and most certainly the kind of thing you will want to share with someone even though it’s poignancy lies in the singularity and intimacy of the experience.
Quite the irony then that High Violet is one of the most talked about albums of the year, the kind of catch-all album that can see them playing to the masses. They strike that powerful equation that the biggest and best stadium bands possess. Poignant illustrations that could soundtrack life’s most tender and vulnerable moments, bolstered to stirring music that’ll instill crowd singalongs. A togetherness that reminds you you’re not alone. Even as it disarms you with its emotional honesty that relies on that knowledge.
High Violet is simply the kind of album that you’ll keep discovering or rediscovering its treasures, it doesn’t sugar-coat its subject matter and its all the more brilliant for it. At many junctures it is the perfect synergy of music and lyric, and as a record that sees The National truly crossing over into the mainstream consciousness without having to bow away from their beliefs. As such, High Violet is simply the band’s masterpiece.

1. Janelle Monaé - The ArchAndroid
So what is it about Janelle Monaé, and specifically The ArchAndroid, that makes it the best record of the last year? I’ll be the first to admit that it’s an interesting choice, it bears none of the hallmarks of my usual favourites, but it takes out the top spot because it’s a record unthinkable outside the album format. Sure it contains some of the year’s best singles (in the form of Cold War and Tightrope) but its constituent elements are at their strongest when they are collected together. The ArchAndroid is not a collection of songs, but a cohesive artistic statement that posits its creator as a peerless and individual talent. And isn’t that what great music is all about?
It represents the smorgasboard mindset that the music industry finds itself in 2010. Taking in all corners, styles, suits and genres. No two songs really sound the same and while this could make for a schizophrenic mess, it perfectly capitulates thanks to Monae’s vision and sci-fi concept-narrative. The crazy, messianic tale of a futuristic world in which the love between an android and a human undoes the oppressive clutches of their totalitarian rule in the titular Metropolis *phew* is less important as a story, as it is a creative catalyst for Monaé’s musical journeys.
After the orchestral introduction, the first few tracks fly-by in a breathless rush, segueing seamlessly from track to track, stitched with so many ideas it would be tricky to keep up if the ideas weren’t so perfectly sutured and crystallised. Dance or Die sends shivers down the spine with its chunky synths, and sped-up rhymes before Faster takes nimble guitar work and female chorus through its paces. Then slinking perfectly into the soul and disco funk-jazz fusion of Locked Inside.
Setting the pace, tone and musical template for the record, it’s an awe-inspiring start that never disappoints as she works her way through electro-rock cathartics on Cold War, near-folk reverence on 57281 ushered in by a church rousing hallelujah. Then there’s the drawn-out psychedelic dream soul of Mushroom & Roses, which according to the liner notes was inspired by “a stage dive at the Bonnaroo Festival and Jack White’s moustache”. Neon Valley Street churns together dub, hip-hop, fifties doo-wop and a robotic voiced rap. Oh, Maker is reverential with its melsimatic diva-warbling while Sir Greendown is a woozy drift down colourful streams.
Then there’s Tightrope. 
 Cue: Super tight funk. MC Big Boi: “Monáe and Left-foot” and then, Monáe enters with a show-stopping wail, and with that she makes a convincing case that she is the true heir apparent to James Brown’s showmanship, female or no. Complete with an inspiring message of sticking to your beliefs, no matter how fine the line. In one fell swoop Tightrope killed the competition the likes of Rihanna, Gaga and even Beyoncé dead with unsurpassed ambition, invention and most importantly: charm. Big Boi’s show-stealing verse also proves that much of Monaé’s power lies as a collaborator, with equally stunning appearances from Of Montreal, Saul Williams and Deep Cotton across the album; as well as her stellar-tight, super-flexible band led by the flashy guitar acrobatics of Nate "Rocket" Wonder.
The most remarkable thing Monaé has achieved is in revitalising what it means to be a black, female musician in today’s musical landscape. While Gaga was riding her disco stick and Rihanna demanded a stud who could ‘keep it up,’ Monaé delivers far more intelligent and demanding material. Just as it seemed the epitome of female success was given over to sexual flamboyance, along comes Janelle with her impeccable style (that cartoon bob-fro and wingtip shoes are to die for), and  her kaleidoscopic musical talents following in the traditions of Bowie, Prince and Stevie Wonder. But combined with Monaé's distinctly, powerful feminine wiles. She’s remarkably self-reliant and heroically defiant despite the unspoken stereotypes placed on both her gender and her race, this is never the sticking point of her music though. She transcends such struggles and instead reclaims her status and abilities through the sheer strength and versatility of her music. 
Diverse, confident and shot through with a powerful authoratative voice -The ArchAndroid would be destined to be a cult classic if it wasn’t already her magnum opus.

That list in full...

2 comments:

  1. MJ (The Air Horn One)January 1, 2011 at 10:26 PM

    Really sweet read. I'd have Janelle up there as well - can't wait to see her at Good Vibes.

    I liked your review of Dark Twisted Fantasy as well but one small thing: Kanye is on So Appalled. His the first verse. The one that starts "I'm so appalled/Spalding - ball." I don't mean to nitpick but I figured that a man of great detail like yourself may appreciate the feedback.

    Happy New Year

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  2. Who taught you how to write such an eloquent review?

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