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:

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