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

1 comment:

  1. pumped for the last 5. was v happy jonsi and alex got in there.

    come oonn mumford.