Friday, December 25, 2009

Top 15 Albums of 2009: THE FINAL FIVE.

Part One Here.
Part Two Here.
The Final 5? Read onwards fellow music lovers...

5. Akron/Family – Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free
Akron/Family are, personally, one of those success stories that takes you completely by surprise. When it first entered my life, as an inconspicuous package as part of my early Beat reviews, I knew little of them, and thought probably even less. Which is why when the mutated rhythms of Everyone is Guilty hit me for the first time I knew it was something special. One of those rare experiences when an album is so good that on your virgin hearing you hang off a nervous tension that with each passing track that amazes, there’s bound to be disappointment sooner or later. Thankfully, Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free is ‘all killer, no filler,’ and despite following on from the popular blooming of Love Is Simple it’s actually a sort of rebirth for the freak folk collective.It is a huge leap forward for the group, even for those who paid close attention to them and their obvious potential.
After the departure of founding member Ryan Vanderhoof (for a Tibetan monastery no less, rockstars eh?) the remaining three-piece galvanised their efforts to realise their first self-produced record for a new label (Dead Oceans) while voicing their anxieties and dizzying ideas in a breathtaking new musical shape.
Aiding core members Seth Olinksy, Miles Seaton and Dana Janssen were a small army of horns, woodwinds and strings. Stirring their experimental rock and characteristic chants into enthralling, loose-limbed jams (Everyone Is Guilty, Gravelly Mountains Of The Moon), haunting chamber rock (Creatures, They Will Appear, Many Ghosts) and blissed-out arrangements (River, Many Ghosts, Sun Will Shine).
Its hard to categorise Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free’s appeal into a simple musical explanation however. It’s hard to explain quite the musical journey listeners are in for upon their first expedition across its sonic terrain. Or as the barreling epic Gravelly Mountains of The Moon would have it, the “geometry of self/geography of else.” It runs the gamut from gently strummed porch acoustics (The Alps & Their Orange Evergreen, Set ‘Em Free, pt. 1) to jagged noise-rock (MBF) and literally everything in between.
The metaphor of the cover artwork, a frayed and tie-dyed rendition of the American flag, soon becomes clear. This is a skewed, wonderfully chaotic version of traditional Americana and its influences. Like fellow nationals who work at the frontiers of contemporary American music, Akron/Family have – in one fell swoop – catapulted themselves among the ranks of Wilco, The Flaming Lips and Beck. Artists who draw from their past, but more importantly, in their restless sense of experimentalism and adventure also spearhead where music may be going. Akron/Family is a band who treats songs as ideas, not just another name on the set list.
It really is an album’s album too. Despite its rollercoaster ride of genres and styles there remains a strong flow and consistency to its winding logic. You know when you hear a song on a party playlist or on the radio and in your head you start humming the opening of the next track? Yeah, that’s Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free: eleven songs that stand far stronger together than they do apart. It may not be the kind of zeitgeist-defining touchstone that bands will form around, but it’s a wonderfully daring articulation of a band’s unique voice.
It may be experimental, ambitious and psychedelic but never at the cost of aggravating the listener, there’s always a passion to it that lingers long after the album comes to a close. Speaking of which, the final track Last Year finishes with a chorus framed against a simple piano pattern, repeatedly singing “Last year was a hard year for such a long time/ This year is gonna be ours.” As I said in my original assessment, if Set ‘Em Wild, Set ‘Em Free reaches enough ears yearning for new music, then 2009 is most certainly theirs.

4. Mastodon – Crack The Skye
Each one of Mastodon’s releases since their 2002 debut has been proclaimed by one corner of the metal underground or another, to be not only their best album, but one of the genre’s all-time greatest. Only they were all wrong… Crack The Skye is Mastodon’s highest achievement yet, a near-perfect masterpiece of throbbing, visceral power meeting the cloudy fug of psychedelic introspection and winding progressive tendencies presented in that most polarising of album frameworks: the concept album.
The Atlanta natives are no strangers to such mantles to frame their music, Blood Mountain (from 2007) concerned a murderous track up its titular mountainside engaging all manner of fantastical and bloodthirsty creatures, while breakthrough album Leviathan was about Moby Dick, oh yes.
So where does Crack The Skye’s narrative land? Well, even the most basic of synopses would involve astral projection, time-travelling to Tsarist Russia, Rasputin, black holes, crippling visions and maybe even some of Steven Hawking’s theories about the time-space continuum. Woah.
If all that sounds like nonsense then there’s the little known fact that a lot of it may actually be some dense metaphor for the suicide of drummer/singer Brann Dailor’s little sister, whose name was Skye. Mmm, the plot thickens.
As dense as its source material is, it’s easy to forget when confronted by the spacey, proggy, and oh yes, incredibly heavy, sonic contents.
But instead of going for their thrash metal instincts the group have instead leaned towards sonic exploration, mood and atmosphere as their primary concerns here.
The smooth solo of opener Oblivion for instance, from the outset its inevitable there will be that most immovable of heavy metal tropes: the guitar solo. The surprise being that instead of plumping for the typical technical wankery of undulating waves of fingers finding as many frets in as few seconds as possible (woah say that five times fast), the solo is a beautifully phrased and spacious one.
Crack The Skye finds Mastodon embracing their spacier side. Make no mistake, this is metal through and through, it’s just now honest bedfellows with genres it’d previously only flirted with. Aiding to this end is the production work of Brendan O’Brien, whose illustrious CV includes Incubus, Audioslave, Stone Temple Pilots and Velvet Revolver. A man used to not so much blunting as rounding out bands’ heavier tendencies.
While it may alienate those fans dedicated to thrashing triplets, guttural vocals and brusque riffs – their new approach inevitably opens them up to a wider, and more open-minded audience. Bringing them more in line with the alt-metal philosophy of Tool or Cog, and like those groups, their excursions are defined by awe-inspiring sonic architecture.
Things begin with the reasonably traditional formats on Oblivion and the juddering Divinations but come the winding thee-part mammoth The Tsar its clear that Mastodon are drawing from far more complex blueprints. The smoky Quintessence and doom-laden haze of the title track highlight how the vocals have become a prominent texture of the band’s sound, shared between drummer Dailor, bassist Troy Sanders and the Ozzy Osbourne-like yelp of guitarist Brett Hinds; second guitarist Bill Keliher providing further scintillating backdrops. The whipcrack of the drums and the crunch of the guitars are still what gives the band its fire and muscular backbone. To quote my original review, their power and rhythm becomes meditative and as each track burns and fades into each other it's like tectonic plates shifting, there's a drastic change in geography but it's still the same planet.
Finishing with the thirteen minute marathon of The Last Baron, Crack The Skye is an awful lot to take in one setting, but it’s easy to marvel at what the band have accomplished and more so as its dense layers unwind across multiple listens.
As Metallica turning back the clock with Death Magnetic to their 80’s roots proved, most metal bands are content to simply churn out the same nostalgic fare that sees the genre so easily criticised by those outside of its cultural understanding. But its bands like Mastodon, with albums like Crack The Skye, that are cresting a new wave of acts that take stay true to the visceral power of heavy metal but open it up to broader ideas, taking daring risks and inventiveness hand in hand.

3. Karnivool – Sound Awake
Though building a reputable folio of critical praise and cult like following, few could have foreseen that Perth five-piece Karnivool would return after a long hiatus with a follow-up to their debut that not only fulfilled their potential, but trumped all expectations to deliver a masterpiece so early in their relatively youthful recording career.
Lead single Set Fire To The Hive acted like a microcosm for the album proper, burdening sounds and dense rhythmic patterns that shifted like a stampede of dinosaurs, containing nearly an album’s length of ideas within the confines of its four minute structure. Its brutal riffage, taxing time signature, and primal sound – complete with a guitar solo that emulated a swarm of bees – makes perfect sense within the context of the album, but as a taster it perhaps confounded the faithfully converted from 2005’s Themata. If that album was the sound of a rock band unafraid to push the boundaries, then Sound Awake finds them settled into far-flung territories beyond the usually charted maps of heavy rock.
How they got there is another story.
Coming four years after their debut, Sound Awake has had nothing short of a gruelling gestation period, one that in attempting to satisfy each of the five members diverse tastes, nearly brought them to breaking point. It’s justified then that their Herculean struggle should lead to heroic triumph.
In its seventy minutes running time you can almost hear Karnivool’s conversion from bright-eyed contenders to their new popular persona as forerunners of heavy rock. Where the Perth group’s influences tended to glare through occasionally – like a badly tucked handkerchief on an immaculate four piece suit – they’ve now engineered a sound that is unmistakably, and entirely, their own.
The endlessly variable guitars of Drew Goddard and Mark Hosking dazzle and spark above the rhythm section of bassist Jon Stockman and virtuosic drummer Steve Judd. The album is built on slabs of sound as the talented playing of each instrument interlocks with each other in a colossal web of vital noise and impressive playing.
Guiding us through, both lyrically and melodically, are the brilliant vocals of Ian Kenney. His timbre, a yearning, questioning voice that both spurs and engages with the music it’s threaded to. His words querying the corruption of institutions, barking that “we’re slaves in this medicated cage” on Set Fire To The Hive, “Politics, religion, your vision’s the same/You played us as both a cancer and a cure.” Unlike most agit-prop rock though, he delves deeper to the root of the problem, the demise of the modern world. “How do you all speak/with a lying tongue?/How do we all sleep/with a dying sun?” is his paean on New Day while Umbra yelps frustration with “And just when I think, I’ve worked it out/these pieces move and I’m back to the start.”
Its though-provoking subject matter matched by the breadth and depth of its soundtrack. The ideas as big and heavy as its sound: intense and richly layered, it’s a draining ride.
To lovers of the party record, or even the single, this is anathema. It’s in the fertile tradition of vinyl albums, a headphone masterpiece that is best appreciated in one epic sitting.
A simple xylophone lick flicks the record into life, before a booming riff signals the emergence of Simple Boy powering into the thudding pulse of Goliath. New Day, all eight and a half minutes of it, is a stunning album highlight before Set Fire To The Hive spirals towards juxtaposing the beautiful with the brutal on the likes of Umbra, All I Know and the interlude of The Medicine Wears Off.
If there’s an overriding theme to the album’s dense logic, it’s transience.
Many tracks fade and flicker back and forth, as if they are drifting in and out of some psychic wavelength. Like the static-laden ending of Umbra or the segue from The Caudal Lure into Illumine, it flows and evolves in a series of evocative moods and atmospheric tunes.
The final two tracks, Deadman and Change, redefine the definition of ‘epic’, even against the formations of what has come before. The former building a titanic structure out of its jagged syncopation and towering melodic hooks, while the latter is the long-awaited completion of the teaser that capped Karnivool’s debut. Change, does just that, a snaking headtrip of sounds and grooves of progressive distinction. In fact, throughout the record is the epitome of progressive, starting at point A and ending anywhere but point B.
By taking such a long break, and producing such a demanding record, Karnivool took a huge risk, but in doing so they’ve reaped an equally handsome reward. Bristling with creative energy, eventful moments and hugely impressive execution, Sound Awake is an album of epic proportions. Its sprawl and detail never leaking outside of what is a tightly focused set that bears to be appreciated as a singular artistic work. There’s an easier way to put all this acclaim succinctly, Sound Awake is the best Australian album of the year.

2. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns
It was obvious from her debut album Fur And Gold (which struck No. 6 two years ago as part of my Top 15 albums of 2007), that Natasha Khan and her musical moniker Bat For Lashes were something special. What wasn’t obvious, was just how far she’d come in the space of two records. In short, Two Suns, cements Khan as a unique and important voice and a precociously talented artist even at the ripe age of thirty.
It also demonstrates that the kookier inflections of her debut were not merely a fluke or gimmick, but signs of an individual personality. Here is an artist who has blossomed naturally (and beautifully) into the next phase of her musical career, tempering her ruminations on joy, sadness, fear and love into an expansive soundscape. Two Suns also managed to appease her deeply personal romantic streak with a populist sensibility, leading to a Mercury Music Prize nomination (which she was robbed of! *ahem*).
It may be a little surprising to learn that the origins of Two Suns’ imaginative dream world can be traced back to Khan’s personal life. Namely, her time spent living in New York, the dissolution of her relationship with boyfriend and the creation and subsequent purging of an alter-ego, the vampish Pearl. Like the best fairytales, Khan has managed to transform the traumatic and intensely personal into something altogether mythical, mysterious and thoroughly engaging. The loose narrative logic of Two Suns explores the nature of duality in a colourful and compassionate collage of emotions as well as musical styles. There’s epic mood-setting (Glass), heartfelt weepies (Two Moons, Siren Song), gospel-driven indie (Peace Of Mind), tribal electro stomping (Two Planets), folky balladeering (Travelling Woman) and even a Cabaret-esque flourish of a finish in the form of The Big Sleep, a spooky curtain closing duet with infamous recluse Scott Walker.
Two Suns just also happens to contain a few contenders for single of the year in the form of Daniel, Pearl’s Dream and Sleep Alone. Their accompanying videos cleverly extending both the album’s loose story as well as Khan’s deeply artistic vision.
And make no mistake, Natasha Khan is an artist. Despite the breathy fluttering of her voice or her dollish public visage as she constantly raids the dress-up box; here is a woman of maturity and creative depth.
Again, it’s duality that seems to define her. Her restless creative vigour transforming everything she sees and does into girlish affectations of a mirrored fantasy world, even as she’s capable of sophisticated musical articulations of it. Even if the kaleidoscopic landscape she conjures as Bat For Lashes isn’t immediately believable, her emotions and dedication are certainly real and nothing short of viscerally potent.
Where the likes of Lily Allen, Amy Winehouse and Kate Nash that preceded Bat For Lashes were defined by the everyday minutiae that popularised them, often with a barbed lyrical wit, Khan instead channels her fervid imagination to fuel her music and public persona. After all, her touchstones come (to quote Florence Welch from a recent interview I conducted with her) “before Lily and Amy.”
The vulnerability in which she channels raw emotions drawing from Joni Mitchell and Kate Bush, her kooky songstress appeal recalling Tori Amos, her ferocious paganistic streak from PJ Harvey and her overall skill set from Bjork, But rather than standing in the shadow of these influences, Natasha Khan casts a looming shade all her own.
In her position in delivering the second-greatest album of the year, Bat For Lashes also acts as a representative of the cumulative resurgence of the female artist in popular music.
The last twelve months proving a boon for international acts like Florence & The Machine, La Roux, Cortney Tidwell, and even pop starlets like Little Boots, Pixie Lott, Paloma Faith; and closer to home, Bertie Blackman, Sarah Blasko, Lisa Mitchell, Kimbra, Orisha and McKisko. To clump them into a single movement would do them disservice, but Bat For Lashes’ triumphant sophomore effort is a testament to the individuality, creativity and sheer talent of these emerging female artists in the musical landscape.

1. Porcupine Tree – The Incident
It was inevitable.
In a year when Radiohead remain silent on the album front, and my other favourite band announce the release of a sprawling double album, it was clear even from the most cursive read of this blog that Porcupine Tree would take the top spot. Even against impossibly high expectations and hyped anticipation levels, The Incident not only met them but flawlessly exceeded them.
Porcupine Tree have always made exceptional albums of stately contemporary prog-rock, so its fitting that with the prog entering a new golden age in its current influential form (it could be argued that there’s a strand of prog in each of this year’s Top 15), that the cultural taste and tide has turned back in Porcupine Tree’s favour for album number eleven.
It’s also fitting that at the point that when their audience is perhaps at its widest, they release a career-spanning achievement that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with their best work. Or as Steven Wilson called it when I spoke to him, “the definitive Porcupine Tree record.”
The Incident is a perfect example of why ‘the album’ is still a hugely important and powerful artistic statement. Particularly from a group who have always championed, as well as set the benchmark, for the potential of what a record can, and should, be. From the creative spark that ignited its inception, right down to the captivating artwork and plastic jewel case of the physical artefact, it is a pure specimen of the exhaustive potential of the album format.
It’s no small help either that it just so happens to be rippling with concepts and inspired ideas.
Stretching into all manner of moods and shapes, chasing down every distracting tangent along the way; and yet for its entire explorative sprawl, its terrain is neatly contained into a 55 minute suite and an additional disc of extra content of, to borrow frontman Steven Wilson’s analogy, ‘short stories, compared to the novel of the main disc”.
Be forewarned: this is not a record for those looking for breezy, disposable tunes. People whose only sonic diet consists of music videos and singles need not apply; The Incident is a musical journey that demands as much attention from the listener as was put into making it.
Porcupine Tree, unlike the others on this list, had no hook single to lure listeners in. The closest they came was a five and a half minute version of Time Flies, edited down from its full eleven minute glory. It was the band’s one concession, when it came to The Incident proper, there were none.
From the pounding opening chords of Occam’s Razor right through to the hazy melancholy of I Drive The Hearse, it is a complex but ultimately rewarding voyage. One that will bludgeon and thrill the listener as often as it will seduce and enrapture. There are moments of aching beauty (Kneel and Disconnect) picturesque nostalgia (The Yellow Windows Of The Evening Train), gritty industrial chug (The Incident), tracks with metal teeth and bite (Octane Twisted, Circle of Manias), as well as uplifting choruses, powerful rhythmic interplay and extensive band jamming – often within the same song (Drawing The Line, The Séance). In fact, if one needed to state a case for The Incident’s genius, Time Flies would be Exhibit A.
Opening with the brilliant couplet of “I was born in ‘67/the year of Sgt. Pepper/and Are You Experienced?” it’s Pink Floyd-influenced acoustic guitar strumming soon spreads its wings into a moody masterpiece that instantly ranks among Porcupine Tree’s best work.
The second disc also contains a healthy amount of compositions that fall outside the main disc’s conceptual drive, but are equally impressive. Ranging from the unusual Flicker to the barely contained aggression of Bonnie The Cat. Towards the dreamy surrealism of Black Dahlia and closing kiss-off to a past girlfriend on Remember Me Lover.
Every instance of The Incident is as meticulous and honed as the one that came before it and to the intimate detail of headphones; it positively spills with subtlety and sonic detail. Compositions that have obviously had every recorded nuance pored over in excruciating care and craftsmanship, and yet they come across so lavish, natural and passionate. How the group manage to render such agonisingly polished production in balance with an enduringly passionate execution simply beggars belief. All four members – frontman Steven Wilson, Richard Barbieri on keys, bassist Colin Edwin and drummer Gavin Harrsion - are accomplished musicians, but never needlessly indulge in stretching their musical muscles. Any exhibitions of their abilities are always in service to the needs of the song at hand. They achieve an impossible balancing act throughout and make it look easy. There’s light and shade, airy as well as heavy, fast and slow, long and short, industrial and organic. There seems no musical facet untouched in the wake of their creative endeavours.
In truth, I could go on forever spewing superlatives and proclaiming The Incident’s positives – I’m that biased. But there’s a bigger question at hand.
So why should such a personalised choice rank as best album of 2009? Particularly when it would’ve been easy to take the option of joining the heaving blogosphere in crowning acts such as Animal Collective, Dirty Projectors or Grizzly Bear. Well, precisely because such a potentially excessive, eccentric album perfectly highlights why the album format is so important. An exceedingly ambitious artistic endeavour that refuses to be diluted by the constricting forces of commercialisation, digital downloads, album charts and all that other bullshit – but a pure artistic expression of artistic vision and intent. The Incident is nothing short of an inspirational, enduring, dazzling record.
Obscure? Maybe. Pretentious? Quite possibly.
Album of the Year? Undoubtedly

That list in full:

Bring on the commentary below!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Top 15 Albums of 2009: Part 2

No time to waste!
Part 1 Here, Part 2 onwards: 

10. Discovery – LP
The delightfully named Wes Miles and the tongue-twisting Rostam Batmanglij certainly wouldn’t have trouble with their indie credentials or popular demand given the explosive successes each of their bands have experienced, as members for Ra Ra Riot and Vampire Weekend respectively. But if either of their day-jobs should evaporate (knock on wood), Discovery would make a fine consolation.
In a year crowded, and in some ways defined, by the side-project or supergroup, the unassuming electronic pop of Discovery sat comfortably at the top of the pile. While some were saddled with huge expectations (Them Crooked Vultures, Monsters of Folk), dodged preconceptions (Volcano Choir, Marmaduke Duke) or simply gave a different perspective (Dead Weather, Julian Plenti), Discovery deftly by-stepped all pitfalls to deliver an effortlessly enjoyable record.
What it lacked in hype it more than made up for in sheer pop smarts. And make no mistake, this is an unashamedly pop record through and through. It’s designed as a sugar-sweet rush of dispensable pleasure, slightly naff and cheesy, but all the better for being conscious of that fact.
You need no other indicator than the joyous cover of Jackson 5’s I Want You Back (which turned out to be a touching tribute come MJ’s death), but Discovery never play it for laughs. This is dance floor music as imagined by nerdy college kids as evidenced by Can You Discover?, a reworking of Ra Ra Riot’s Can You Tell into electro-bubblegum pop, and Osaka Loop Line. The latter featuring an irresistible crunchy keyboard riff which later shifts gears with a tempo change, a trick deftly repeated on So Insane. As expected, the lyrical territory never gravitates far from didactics with the opposite sex. Whether it’s the summer crush tales of Orange Shirt, Swing Tree or the gender-bending of I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend sung by Dirty Projectors’ giddy Angel Deradoorian. Fellow Vampire Weekend bandmate Ezra Koenig pops up too, on album highlight Carby, to lament “where’s the feeling in the disco if you’re all alone?”
No single track overstays its welcome, and all are said and done in under three minutes –because that’s all they need to make their point. It’s dangerously addictive too, the overall short running time means that once you’ve given it a spin, you want to just go right back to the start and do it all again – just like a slide. In fact as I said when I first reviewed it, “If Discovery is about having fun then LP is the greatest playground they could construct.”

9. Bertie Blackman – Secrets & Lies
Australia is well-known for its history of pop starlets who arrive all bubbly and effervescent before burning out when it becomes all too clear that they lack talent and vision (the one exception probably being ‘our’ Kylie).

Bertie Blackman however, is no such flash in the pan. Having slogged away at the fringes of indie success with two sleeper albums, her third, Secrets & Lies, makes a convincing case for her status as the new queen of Australian music. Like the wave of peers who share her similar confidence and creativity, Sarah Blasko, Sia, New Buffalo to name a handful, it’s a record that consolidates her appeal as well as broadening her audience with classy production and heartfelt songwriting.
Having toyed with mellow acoustics (2004’s Headway) and femme fatale grunge (2006’s Black), Secrets & Lies finds Blackman turning to keyboards, synths and samplers. The drastic change was in large credit to twin producers Lee Groves and Francois Tétaz. It was a stroke of genius to pair Blackman with deft studio hands with a proven track record of cultivating idiosyncratic artists, having worked with the likes of Goldfrapp, Gwen Stefani and Gotyé between them. The results speak for themselves.
Though Blackman was always a prodigious talent, it’s only now with the full backing of polished production that showcases her sparkling singing voice that it becomes clear that she’s now found a style that suits her. Classy enough to appease the taste-makers and still brimming with her unique personality to avoid concerns of ‘selling out’.
Heart was an excellent taste for the album, precisely arranged blips and bloops with a catchy hand-clap rhythm, with Blackman cutting through with a casual, yet demanding grace “So listen up.” Its safe to say that all ears were standing to attention by the time the echoing piano chords closed the song.
Even at a potentially gluttenous thirteen tracks, Secrets & Lies never takes a mis-step and the album really would suffer in any one of its songs being removed. The running order is near-perfect too. A moody introduction in the form of Sky Is Falling before some upbeat singles frontloading the album (Thump, Black Cats, Heart, White Owl) then taking a turn for the darker (Byrds of Prey, Come To Bed, Clocks) followed by some intimacy (Shout Out, Lust And Found) then segueing calmly marching to its climax via skittering electronica (Baby Teeth) and a haunting close (Valentine).
If nothing else, Secrets & Lies is a brilliant pay-off to all of Blackman’s hard work. Slogging it the honest way, this new direction is not a sudden attempt to seize the spotlight but instead a natural evolution of her evolving musical personality. Now there’s an album that should justify all the years she’s spent at the fringes of critical and commercial success. It wasn’t with luck that she took out the best independent release at the ARIAs. She ain’t resting on her laurels either, more than any other Australian artist this year, she’s been a constant presence of non-stop gigging, touring and promoting. It’s Blackman’s moment to seize, and she knows it.

8. Paul Dempsey – Everything Is True
It’s been said before and it bears repeating until it becomes a cliché: Paul Dempsey is one of Australia’s greatest living songwriters.
Everything Is True merely adds another impressive article to his long CV of excellent work.
Right from the beginning, thanks to a slow trickle of news feeds and studio reports, it was clear that Dempsey was handling his solo debut with the utmost care and attention. Save for famed Aussie producer Wayne Connolly and a handful of musical friends, Dempsey himself provided every note recorded. This makes the casual, breezy nature of Everything Is True all the more remarkable, particularly when you take into account Dempsey’s well-documented bouts of writer’s block.
Cuts like Bird In A Basement, The Great Optimist and Out The Airlock are blessed with an economy of arrangement and presentation that make it sound like they were knocked out in a single sunny afternoon on the back porch.
Of course, Dempsey isn’t the first frontman to strike out on his own in a mellower, more acoustic solo effort (that honour probably goes to Bernard Fanning), but unlike his contemporaries Dempsey’s solo outing is a natural extension of Something For Kate. After all, here was a man given to doing solo acoustic shows in pre-album warm up tours.
Just like his live show which curates warmth, intelligence and skill, the same can be said for Everything Is True. Its charming jangle and strum perfectly coalesced with its deceptively complex attitude, the biggest drawcard however has to be Dempsey’s ability to synergise great music with exceptional wordplay. Take your pick, any one of these eleven tracks contain excellent couplets, in fact (to quote my original review) ‘the tally for genius lyrics per second is positively baffling.’
Whether it’s potent imagery such as Bats’ verandah door that “slums shut like a guillotine” or Take Me To Your Leader’s desire to “unwrap the city one backstreet at a time.” Another beautifully metered example is Theme From Nice Guy, against a slow chugging guitar line Dempsey intones “maybe clarity will creep on me/and reset my senses like a clock/and you’ll convince me that your reality/is a better idea than the one that I’ve got/and you’ll give me a second chance at my second chance/and we will laugh about my near miss/and the good lord will reward my ignorance with a little bliss.”
The charming pop delivery never dumbs down Dempsey’s sophisticated ideas either; it just massages them down to ever more svelte packages. Fast Friends coils its disregard for conniving two-facery as spry acoustic pop, Man of the Moment and Have You Fallen Out Of Love tackle religion in gorgeous arrangements while Ramona Was A Waitress is about arguing with a robotic waitress about Ray Kurtzweil’s theories of artificial intelligence and consciousness – but you’d be blissfully unaware if you were instead ensnared by its infectious rhythm and charming chorus. As rich and thought-provoking as his lyrics are, Dempsey’s not afraid to rely on the simple hook of a ‘la la la’ refrain either, as he does on Theme From Nice Guy.
The return to Something For Kate will no doubt be glorious, but for the mean time, here is an album that highlights what long-term fans have known all along. Dempsey is a national treasure. So let him bask in the spotlight’s glow, just as we bask in his. He’s more than earned it.

7. Muse – The Resistance
In response to an initially long-winded assertion, the short is answer is of course, 'No', this is not Muse’s best album to date. In fact, by their own standards it may be their least consistent since their debut. But it seems unfair to beat a band with a measuring stick they themselves have created, and so often defied. Instead let us realise that Muse, by comparison to what others are doing, are still miles, no, leagues ahead of the competition.
Who else but Muse could conceive of the preposterous grandstanding of United States of Eurasia – taking in Queen harmonies, guitar histrionics, Middle Eastern flavoured orchestration and even quoting Chopin in its coda – let alone bloody using it as a taster for their forthcoming record.
Even if The Resistance turns out to be merely the sound of a band mucking around and satisfying their strange array of curious delights, in comparison to your average garage band with a freshly minted deal, it’s like comparing the toys of the gods with the rumblings of insects – which is to say it doesn’t compare.
Despite such lofty comparisons however, for a band that don’t do anything by halves, The Resistance may feel for the first time that the polished surface of the studio is dressing up some weaker tunes, but when the gloss is this shiny, it’s difficult to notice.
After the double masterpieces of Absolution and Black Holes & Revelations it was understandable that album number six may not meet such high expectations; but The Resistance remains a thrillingly diverse and exciting statement from one of rock’s most popular acts.
Interestingly for a band at the level of success such as Muse they haven’t beleaguered for a ‘great cause.’ U2 will plod out Sunday Bloody Sunday and With Or Without You as long as you help them drop world debt, Coldplay have their fair trade shtick, even Radiohead could be loosely tied with global warming and yet Muse’s sonic repertoire is more fantastical than political. Sure, frontman Matt Bellamy urges listeners to “shoot your leaders down” or to “unify and watch our flag ascend,” but it’s always in the vague rhetoric of us vs them. The enemy, ‘them’, never really clearly defined. It’s an effective device, playing off the simmering paranoia and suspicion of the digital age that is the fertile subject matter of Bellamy’s lyrics as well as perfectly bolstering the booming ‘togetherness’ of their sci-fi stadium rock. Even the chilly R&B minimalism of Undisclosed Desires or the baroque sophistication of the Exogenesis suite are thread with the same call-to-arms energy that makes the glam-rock rebellion of Uprising such a crystalline statement of unifying intent.
The perfect soundtrack for the stadium-filling venues Muse now occupy on a regular basis. And while they are at their most popular, they can indulge in the luxury of pastiching Queen (United States of Eurasia), bombastic power ballads (Guiding Light) and, ahem, bass clarinet solos (I Belong To You). But I think the fun will really begin when they’ve got something to prove again, and there’s hints of it on The Resistance. The spiralling cacophony that passes as the bridge for Unnatural Selection, the robotic, guitar-less funk of Undisclosed Desires and let’s not forget that three part eighteen minute symphony. Besides, love it or hate it, Muse is a band you have to respect, they will be here long after every other band struggles to find their feet with the shifting, fickle tides of the musical industry – precisely because they pander to nobody’s musical vision but their own.

6. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
If weirdness was a barometer for an album’s greatness, then Dirty Projectors would certainly be topping the list.
A quick glance over the tracklist for Bitte Orca, with tracks titled Cannibal Resource, Temecula Sunrise and Flourescent Half Dome, it’s clear that there’s more than a little fruitiness at work. Essentially the brainchild of eccentric front man Dave Longstreth, Dirty Projectors were always a little strange. Taking a look at their discography, including a concept album about Eagles drummer Don Henley (2005’s The Getty Address) and an arty reimagining of hardcore act Black Flag’s album Damaged (called Rise Above), it doesn’t take a genius to figure that the group weren’t shy about being experimental. But then along comes Bitte Orca, which finally saw the revolving assembly of collaborators and musicians settle into an official line-up, resulting in their most complete record to date. Just as their array of members has settled, so too has their experimental tendencies been tempered into a digestible, and often dazzling, new form.
Unspooling in a wave of spidery guitar lines and off-beat, though no less infectious, grooves – it is a strange beast indeed. Perhaps more so than either of the feted albums offered by avant-garde pop group Animal Collective or the delicate freeform of Grizzly Bear. What it does share in common with these contemporaries is in retaining its experimental spirit throughout yet combining it with a lure and charm sweet enough to entice the listener.
Aiding in no small amount are the trio of backing singers, Angel Deradoorian, Amber Hoffman, and Haley Dekle, whose crystalline harmonies ring like a modern mutation of 60’s doo-wop girl groups, are the most striking characteristic of the album. When the three open their mouths, in looping patterns or tight harmonies, they create a sound unlike anything heard this or year or possibly before it.
The delicacy of The Bride and Two Doves prove the band have an emotional heart even if the head-scratching of Temecula Sunrise and Fluorescent Half Dome provide a counter-argument. It even contains a killer single in the form of the R&B inflected Stillness Is The Move, the sole track co-written with the lovely Amber Hoffman. The layers of rhythmic interplay and acrobatic phrasing found on Useful Chamber or No Intention owe more to the neo-classical world of Steve Reich and Stravinsky than they do spindly art-rockers Talking Heads or Television; and yet Bitte Orca appeases both halves.
If the least of the record’s achievements is in sounding like nothing else, sounding uniquely alien, that’s a lot at a time when most bands are intent to mimic each other. Such a unique, magical sound that it’s drawn praise from artists as diverse as Bjork, David Byrne and The Roots.
If that isn’t recommendation enough to check out Dirty Projector’s ramshackle appeal, then nothing is. 

Only 5 more to go, the list thus far:
As always, comments are welcome below

Monday, December 14, 2009

2009 End-Of-Year Celebrations: TOP 15 ALBUMS OF 2009

Let us consider the state of music today.

The twin heads of iPod and iTunes are king. The mp3 is more accessible and valued to most than the physical artefact of a vinyl or CD. New music is leaked and disseminated frequently and instantaneously, usually from unfinished sources via pirated websites. Radio is in a worse state than ever before, a shadow of its former dominating self. Independent record stores are closing up shop all over the world, even the mighty Virgin MegaStore had to close its doors forever on their iconic Times Square branch. Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are the new go-to for A&R men and record companies. Genres and styles have become so diverse and fragmented that the lines have not so much been blurred as disappeared. Save for some of the vanguards of music’s past (think U2, Rolling Stones, Madonna) few can command the sales and global recognition to command enough sway over the record industry.

It seems such a chaotic and in some cases, dour, state of affairs and yet…

And yet, the music itself is still so great. 2009 was a boon, at least artistically and musically speaking.

While cynics continue to prophesy the end of the music industry, that the traditional model of record labels, singles and such is unsustainable, that the dawn of the digital era marks the final nail in the coffin of the album format. It still prospers.

In fact it seems the more that the general mainstream moves away from the album format, the more resistant the counter-forces that cling to it become.

So, as always, this list is a tribute to the album format. Those artists who still contribute to the rich history of organising their songs and sounds into an cohesive whole – a statement that music is still valuable, important and best of all life-affirming

15. Jónsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps
Perhaps the most appropriately titled album in the last twelve months was the side-project for Sigur Rós frontman Jón þor Birgisson and his partner Alex Somers; fitting because this is the best soundtrack for inducing sleep, possibly ever. Despite the number of plays according to my iTunes I’m sure my conscious engagement with this record is far, far less.

If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not. There’s certainly a place in everyone’s life for music whose chief function is to soothes and relax. If this brings to mind thoughts of chill out compilations, wallpaper music and those cheesy relaxation tapes they play at health spas, then the truth is not too wide of the mark.

In fact the album was borne of hippy credentials, being recorded entirely on solar-powered laptops at home in Reykjavik. Any semblance of the traditional instruments used to create it however are stretched and slowed beyond recognition. Also featured are string arrangements from Icelandic cohorts Amiina, and apperances by the Kopavogsdaetur choir, most notably on the chiming beauty of Boy 1904 and Daniell In The Sea.

The similarities to Sigur Rós are unmistakeable, from the childlike artwork to the comfortable familiarity of the cooing vocals of Jónsi himself. But as much as there are similarities there are many differences too. If 2008’s Með suð í Eyrum við Spilum Endalaust was Sigur Rós dawning upon an earthier, more human sound, then Riceboy Sleeps winds back the clock, returning to the spacey soundscapes of the band’s earlier work.

Like the ambient wash of Brian Eno’s Music For… series, Riceboy Sleeps is the search for a soundtrack to something that isn’t wholly tangible; and it mostly succeeds. These are long-winded compositions that take their time, and don’t necessarily go anywhere.

It’s a cinematic ballet performed underwater, the aural equivalent of fighting to keep your eyes open. Its innocent and naïve and yet teeming with pathos. Indian Summer aches with melancholy as much as whimsy, All The Big Trees creaks and moans as its title would suggest and Howl chatters with the sound of animal life.

Its delicate nature means that Riceboy Sleeps won’t be for everyone, and in fact risks being downright abhorred in the eyes of hard-nosed cynics or dismissed as simpering background music for those who demand energy and urgency from their stereos; but it’s this same quiet attitude that makes the record so rewarding. Riceboy Sleeps does what the best music does, it transports you. Often to the land of dreams, if it’s time for a nap, call me Riceboy.

14. The Mars Volta - Octahedron

If last year’s The Bedlam In Goliath was the culmination of The Mars Volta’s impossibly heavy prog-salsa-metal witches’ brew, then Octahedron finds them jacknifing into the complete opposite direction. While the group have always maintained a lighter side to their work - think back to the creepy acoustics of Televators or the demented flamenco of The Widow - here they embrace their acoustic side whole-heartedly. In fact, prior to release, singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala was quoted as calling it their ‘unplugged album’ and while that’s not strictly true – there’s plenty of energy and electricity coursing through Octahedron’s veins – it’s definitely, in spirit and tone, a more lucid affair.

Sure, there are a few concessions, such as Cotopaxi’s fevered urgency or the blood-fuelled riffage of Desperate Graves, but everywhere else the album favours space, atmosphere and restraint to usually privileged tropes such as power, complexity and eclecticism.

I don’t think I’d ever had described a Mars Volta track as ‘melancholy’ or ‘beautiful’ before, but there is simply no other way to articulate the aesthetics of new cuts like With Twilight As My Guide or Copernicus.

Since We’ve Been Wrong drafts the template, with enough legroom and reflection to actually take in the brilliance of the band’s synergy. It’s a full five minutes before we hear the full band kick in, a potent mix of every element - from Rodriguez-Lopez’s winding guitar lines, Thomas Prigden’s virtuosic drumming, Isaih Ikey Owens textural keyboards and Juan Alderte de la Pena’s bass work – contributing to the overall sound. Bixler-Zavala’s vocals cut through clearly and precisely too, with the most direct lyrics of his oeuvre yet, retaining their kaleidoscopic surrealism but woven with a new melodic economy.

As I've said before - in a funny sort of way, it is the band’s most daring album yet, potentially alienating their hardcore fanbase, who have fought hard to understand their chaotic logic, by dedicating an entire album to a new take on their usually titanic sound. As a result, it may also be the group’s most accessible work yet. Don’t be fooled though, despite its newish velour skin, it’s very much a case of, to paraphrase Macbeth, looking like the innocent flower while still being the serpent beneath it. Mars Volta is still capable of the colossal psychedelic head-fuck they are so famous for. Just consider this a new genetic strand of their sound, because as Bixler-Zavala himself assured “that’s what our band does, celebrate mutations.”

13. Q-Tip - Kamaal/The Abstract

In a year when artists such as Prince, Mos Def, Kid Cudi and even a more genre-bending Jay-Z all released new albums, one Kamaal John Fareed, better known as Q-Tip, offered a record that did everything his contemporaries did and more. An LP flush with funk jam workouts, bright lyrical wordplay, laidback grooves and enough acid-jazz to really stretch the boundaries of the hip-hop genre.

The freakiest part? It’s actually seven years old. Which shows how far ahead of his time Tip really was, but also how short-sighted his label back then – Arista – was for shelving it. Its genre-busting sound predating the popular rise of colourful hip-hop the likes of Outkast and Common by several years. Though it would become a bit of a legendary ‘lost’ album thanks to various leaks and bootlegs over the years, it was only once Q-Tip bought back the distribution rights that we now have an official completed version. Ironically, it’s a natural evolution on from the excellent The Renaissance from 2008, despite actually coming before it. Its forward-thinking genre fusion hasn’t aged a jot.

Album opener Feelin’ is a good example of what’s to come. Q-Tip’s nasal rhyming backed by the kind of jazz-inflected hip-hop he pioneered back when he went by his birthname Jonathan Davis. But the track soon gives way to a party jam of rabble-roused singing and funky band moves. Led by a guitar riff that would be angular if its upward movement wasn’t so damn catchy, constructing a bedrock for a tasty organ solo that jazz legend Jimmy Smith would be proud of.

It’s a track that puts all the cards on the table, but still leaves plenty of room to play different games; and it does. Barely In Love offsets its gloomy subject matter with an infectious R&B stomp while Heels is a tune that Prince wouldn’t sniff at. Alto saxophonist Kenny Garrett shows up for a blow on album highlight Abstractionisms, and the string of A Million Times and Blue Girl floats by in a beautifully blessed-out flow.

The mission here is to indulge in warm, organic funk and soul fusion with an eye to improvisation. Hell, a lot of the tracks are nearly instrumental, with Tip’s rapping kept to a bare minimum. Rest assured though, that as always with Q-Tip, when he does get to spitting, the lyrical themes are a few stations above the bitches-and-bling clichés of rap. There’s philosophy (Do U Dig U?), an ode to single-parenting (Even If It Is So) and taxing ruminations on the contradictions of love (Barely In Love).

Hip-hop purists may balk at the distinct lack of samples or extended rapping, but since Tip delivered an instantly classic old-skool album in the form of The Renaissance, Kamaal is his chance to take the creative boat out a little further.

Even when the focus is drawn away from Q-Tip, his presence is always felt, like every good master of ceremonies should, he is at once the orchestrator that ties the whole jam together but not afraid of fading to the wings to let the music do the talking. The overall mood is playful and relaxed, much like his virgin days with A Tribe Called Quest, Q-Tip is still following and carving the “People’s Instinctive Travels And Paths Of Rhythm.”

12. Grizzly Bear - Veckatimest

Remember that trifekta prediction I pulled a while back? Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock the last twelve months, you’ve no doubt heard of Grizzly Bear. As obvious an assumption as that is however, it’s no less remarkable considering their relative obscurity this time last year.

Even back in 2006, when swathes of underground (and not so underground) music lovers proclaimed Yellow House a masterpiece, Grizzly Bear remained a proposition for those in the know. They seemed to be the band’s band, beloved of Radiohead (who took them on tour) and influential enough to rope in like minded indie bands like CSS, Atlas Sound and Band of Horses to perform covers on their Friend EP. Cut to present day and it’s safe to say that their fan-club is no longer the exclusive territory of musicians and die-hards. Where once they were celebrated if little-known underdogs, 2009 has seen them ushered into art-rock aristocracy. The catalyst for their brisk conversion from paupers to princes? That would be Veckatimest.

Or more accurately: the lucid, ethereal, sophisticated, sumptuous sounds of Veckatimest.

If you don’t think much of Grizzly Bear’s third studio album, give it another spin. Veckatimest is almost the textbook definition of a ‘grower.’ While the subtle doo-wop influenced Two Weeks or the choppy While You Wait For The Others will reveal their charms almost immediately, the rest of the record will take time to unravel and enjoy. To quote closing track Foreground “Pattern evolving, motion insolvent/something about this might/take all evening.” The experience can be likened to navigation; you know the ultimate destination but not the terrain.

In fact, geography is a fitting simile when discussing Veckatimest. Named after an obscure island in Dukes County, Massachussets and garnered with geometric artwork composed of earthen colour, its conceptual theme can be felt subtly throughout. Musically, the Brooklyn four-piece are working much further off the map, furthering their ornate, intimate orchestrations along with their experimentally hewn pop.

From the beautifully decorative Southern Point that opens the album to the closing minimalist beauty of Foreground, it’s a venture that - despite its middling pace, lilting nature and painstakingly arranged sonics – is an exciting, organic record.

The off-kilter groove of Cheerleader and Ready, Able chug along with a vague sense of urgency while Dory takes a trip to the bottom of the ocean with suitably bubbling harmonies and muted harmonic swells, the perfect backdrop to the lyrics, “We’ll swim around like two dories let loose in the bay.” Even the more abstract refrain of Hold Still and I Live With You contain vigorous moments in their sleepy tempos. Indeed, it takes patience to tease out its rewards, but it’s never difficult listening, whether it’s in Fine For Now’s glacial harmonies and baroque swells or the skyward shuffle of All We Ask and While You Wait For The Others; there’s always some new sound or trick to engage with.
There's something intensely rewarding in the knowledge that the turning point of Grizzly Bear's wide-spread profile is based on an album whose identity is elusive even as it puts its music and creativity first, the notion of 'selling out' is as alien as that enigmatic title. Veckatimest is an album that's as deserving of its success as it is mysteriously beautiful.

11. Foriegn Born - Person To Person

Foreign Born are an emblematic example of a little heard of group who succeeded due to the fragmentation of the music industry. While the blockbuster releases thin out (think of the diffused welcome new albums from U2, Jay-Z and even Green Day received) it leaves room for smaller bands to sneak into the limelight, acquiring some much-deserved attention. And there’s nothing sinister to it, it’s just about great tunes from a great group – and that’s all Person to Person is. And what tunes. Just as I was smitten with it upon release, its quality keeps me enraptured.

A tight and tidy ten tracks with about four minutes a pop, in a classicist album structure, things starting upbeat and rocky but mellowing out towards the end. It works beautifully in the record’s favour, each track being strong enough in its own right, but also contributing to the running order.

Based in LA, the exotically named troupe of Matt Popieluch, Lewis Nicolas Pesacov, Airel Rechtshaid and Garret Ray cut an impressive shape on the likes of Blood Oranges, the squiggly guitar jangle and anthemic burble of Vacationing People as well as the Strokes-ian clip of Can’t Keep Time.

It’s no surprise either that for a band located a the heart of California, that Person To Person makes for a brilliant summer album too, from the brightly-lit road tune that is That Old Sun to the effervescent guitar licks on the Afro-Pop of Early Warnings. Even, ironically, the icily titled Winter Games – all ragged bluesy guitar set in a bedrock of solid rhythm - could be the soundtrack to iced tea being served poolside.

Even when the mood takes a deliberately choreographed downturn away from bright-lit anthems for its final third, it still contains a buoyancy to lift spirits. It Grew On You (a less-busy version reworked from an older EP) mixes the brusque rhythms of drummer Garrett Ray’s percussion with placid organs that wind seamlessly into the loungey See Us Home. Final farewell Wait In This Chair closes the album with a simple grace of irresistible harmony and melody, reminding you that the album has been in no short abundance of either.

Like many bands on this list, Foreign Born, are a band who has spent a few records and years honing their craft, and while the breakthrough success of acts like Dirty Projectors, Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective and Phoenix may seem like overnight successes, as is always the case, they’ve been working their asses off to get to this point. Person To Person is no exception, the winning result being that though they’ve drained blood, sweat & tears – they make it sound effortless.

Five down, ten to go. Watch This Space.
As always, feel free to add your thoughts below.