Monday, December 20, 2010

2010 End-Of-Year Celebrations: TOP 20 ALBUMS OF 2010

2010 was clearly a diverse year. The cultural landscape is getting to a point nowadays so broad and dense that the musical world is a conflagration of multiple influences, not just its own styles and genres. That’s not to say that the heritage and DNA of music’s history has been erased, quite the opposite, but the elements of the past are now cherry-picked.
Whether it was Flying LotusCosmogramma taking in a comsic palette of jazz experimentalism and instrumental hip-hop indebted to videogame soundtracks as much as G-funk. Or Sleigh Bells with their cacophonic take on bubblegum pop, constructed from the same blueprint of three-minute rushes to the chorus, but with crunching guitars and processed drums. It seems it was the emerging talents that seemed to have a better grip on what turned ears better than the old vanguard did.
In fact, twentyten was not without its fair share of disappointments. Many highly-anticipated albums failed to deliver on their expectations (Interpol, MGMT, Daft Punk, Nicki Minaj) or simply failed to materialise entirely (Radiohead, The Strokes, Beastie Boys). their absence however, left room for other successes. The blockbuster indie album - a trend established thanks to 09’s trifecta of Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and Dirty Projectors – made a welcome return in the form of Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens and The National; while artists I’d previously dismissed made records that were just too good to ignore (Deerhunter and LCD Soundsystem anyone?). And if the strength of *deep breath* The Jezabels, Cloud Control, Hungry Kids of Hungary, PVT, Parades, Gypsy &The Cat, The Tiger & Me, Young Heretics and my personal faves Big Scary and Kimbra, are anything to go by *phew* the close of the oughties was a banner year for new Australian music.
In short, two zero one zero brought an unexpected close to the decade that was. Full of delightful surprises and unexpected twists. I think the best way to summarise it would be to think that if you had sat me down at the start of the year and asked me to write a list of what my favourite albums of the year would have been, then shown me what they turned out to be, the resulting look of pleasurable puzzlement would be the sound of the year.
Speaking of surprises, I've finally caved. That's right the traditional Top 15 has expanded to a Top 20. This year finally proved the breaking point, after much toying and tinkering (an Honourable Mentions list? Scrapping a ranking altogether?) I decided that giving a little bit of breathing room to the list manages to really highlight the many and varied treasures of 2010's soundtrack.
As a result I'll strive to keep the (usually epic) word count to a manageable amount, and with twenty albums, it splits the reveal into two handy sections rather than three. Less reading for y'all over this busy xmas period - aren't I generous?
As a final reminder, this list is really about those bands and artists who make the most of the ALBUM format, the cohesion and organisation of songs to make a statement and impression.
So breakout the iTunes gift cards and JB HiFi gift vouchers, ladies and gentlemen, the Top 20 albums of 2010.

20.  Cloud Control - Bliss Release
Hailing from the Blue Mountains, you can almost imagine Cloud Control’s hummable revelry wafting over the forest canopy above. Opening with the psychedelically-tinged Meditation Song #2, with its acid-lite lyric “make my head a pool of water now” and mantra of “why, oh why” repeated ad infinitum, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Cloud Control were tilting for a softer version of Tame Impala’s sixties psychedelia revival. But then There’s Nothing In The Water cuts through the feedback riding a solid new-wave groove and it’s clear Cloud Control are after a prize of their own. Mixing jangling guitar rock (The Rolling Stones), gorgeous harmonies (Gold Canary, Just For Now), folky introspection (Hollow Drums) and even a turn at Talking Heads (with Al Wright’s David Byrne-esque delivery on This Is What I Said) – their delightfully spry debut is never short on highlights or potential.

19. Flying Lotus - Cosmogramma
Cosmogramma may well be the perfect title, just as grammar is the study of how words and their components combine to form sentences, Flying Lotus is equally studious with how sound and its components work within his his spacey configurations. As if aliens were beaming in transmissions of their version of lost vinyl classics, Flying Lotus – the functional moniker for Steven Ellison – works from seemingly familiar influences (jazz, hip-hop, drum ‘n’ bass, avant-garde) but like a DJ surrealist - mixes them into startling new compositions, at once experimental and comprehendible.
There’s an entire new breed of chilled-out soul to Mmmhmm,  guest Thundercat’s crooning vocals seem to bounce and slither as they are pillowed by rubbery bass and splashing percussion. Thom Yorke gets equal treatment on the skittering And The World Laughs With You. Do The Astral Plane takes its scat intro and throws it into a blissful vacuum, while Table Tennis samples just that, to hypnotic effect. Cosmogramma is an inventive, daring and provocative artwork disguised as a pleasurable headtrip.

18. Yeasayer - Odd Blood
It had been a long-awaited (and gestating) return from the New York art-rockers, but it seems that those three years were well worth cocooning for. The resulting transformation, from the world-savvy bohemians of All Hour Cymbals into a kaleidoscopic, bubbling, chart-bothering entity was a dazzling one. Taking their cues from Animal Collective and Dirty Projectors the year previous, Yeasayer prioritised infectious melody, quirky musical backings and brought their pop nous to the fore. In heralding single Ambling Alp and O.N.E. they had left-field pop hits par excellence, but left room for more experimental manoeuvres on the batty Love Me Girl and schizophrenic Mondegreen. At a quality control pleasing ten tracks it ensured a gloriously colourful and eventful album, determined in its focus and deliciously vibrant in its appeal.

17. Lightspeed Champion - Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You
Dev Hynes’ sophomore effort as Lightspeed Champion sees him successfully extending the sound of his debut with greater musical ambition and scope. Debut album Falling Off The Lavender Bridge had no shortage of self-loathing and confusion over the sweetest of sonic backings, but Life Is Sweet! tones down the pop culture references and amps up the drama and theatrics with all the dazzle and vigour of a broadway musical. A threaded semi-narrative about, yep, self-loathing and tragic romance cuts a swathe through a glut of musical styles,  but never overstretches itself, maintaining a tight-rope worthy balance of widescreen, progressive arrangements without denying a knack for melodic hooks.
The musical melodrama begins with the overture of Dead Head Blues, exploring the album’s audio palette and introducing a protagonist positively baffled by modern romance. Next comes, Marlene, a paean to a girl to “stop being cool/woah oh,” introduced a sleek edge to his audible worry-worting  with cutting guitar, whip-tight drums and some dusty strings. Elsewhere, Faculty of Fears and Madame Van Damme mine fifties, cheek-to-cheek style pop even as they evidence the worries of contemporary courtship. The latter juxtaposes a guilt-ridden, post-coital encounter with a prostitute against a sugar sweet chorus of “Kill me baby, won’t you kill me.”  It’s evidence enough that Hynes’ idiosyncratic style has diminished none, equally tongue-in-cheek on the call and response of The Big Guns Of Highsmith. A poignant cry of “hurts to be the one who’s always feeling sad” is met by a crowded chant of “Oh just stop complaining.” This is the key to Lightspeed Champion’s success, for every heart-rending moment of martyrdom there’s still a self-conscious wit that’s there to keep things in check.
It’s entirely possible that it’s all part of some post-modern defense mechanism, including that rosy title, but it’s still music that’s strong in character and quality, ensuring Hynes’ continued status as a likeable, inimitable talent.
16. Gayngs - Relayted
Starting with a mission statement to write an album’s worth of material indebted to 10CC’s Not In Love may not seem the greatest idea, let alone the kind of doctrine to rope in an endless list of underground collaborators. But that’s precisely what the unique manifesto of Ryan Olsen and Solid Gold members Zack Coulter and Adam Hurlburt did. Gayngs soon spiralled into a supergroup that brought back fuzzy keyboards, honeyed sax solos and mid-tempo, mid-eighties soft-rock to the indie scene. Leadoff cut Gaudy Side of Town takes the 10CC blueprint and runs with it for seven hazy minutes, and as it unspools into an instrumental breakdown it’s clear that this is a record that is best taken as a whole. Each reverb-drenched moment dripping into the next, until we come to album closer Last Prom On Earth. Featuring Justin Vernon aka Bon Iver as the leader of an arch wedding band. With soulful crooning, autotuned vocals and even a Bone Thugs N Harmony-inspired mini-rap . A tune deliciously dripping with irony, the perfect exit for an album that should have been a joke, but is in actual fact, deadly, seriously good.

15. Mark Ronson - Record Collection
The writing and performing credits for the delightfully eclectic Record Collection read like celebrity producer Mark Ronson’s little black book of contacts. As well as being a spotlight for fresh talent the likes of MNDR, Theophilus London and Rose Elinor Dougall; Ronson hosts the only party where eighties icons like Boy George and Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon can rub shoulders with rap royalty like Ghostface Killah and Q-Tip. It’s only fair that the resultant noise is as big a party as its guestlist. Mixing hip-hop verse with dance floor happy choruses, such as on the electric Bang Bang Bang or the merry The Bike Song; or throwing down electro-funk shapes with Somebody To Love Me’s yearning dubstep or the D’Angelo featuring Glass Mountain Trust – it’s an album that begs to voice that old cliché “there is something for everyone.” Keeping the whole show ticking along are instrumental numbers that demonstrate the robust backing of the Business Intl band themselves, complete with their own grandstanding entrance music on, handily, Introducing the Business with Atlanta, Georgian rapper Pill and the London Gay Men’s Chorus.
A bizarre mixtape to be sure, but also a key indicator of the popular musical landscape circa the close of the oughties. A melting pot of influences and styles, whose alchemy emerged a strange if no less desirable treasure; and one whose cross-over appeal made pleasing multiple audiences look easy. An album that charms with the kind of pan-transatlantic couture that only an English-born New-York –based super DJ such as Ronson can provide.

14. Warpaint - The Fool
Warpaint are an entity borne of the wrong musical era. Their dark atmospherics have more akin to the 4AD label roster of the eighties and Siuoxsie Sioux or The Cure than it does contemporary guitar rock, but there is something distinctly modern about an all-female line-up performing woozy witchcraft rock. There’s a dreamy eloquence to their sorceress-made rhythmic brew that outstrips mere imitation of the past, and still draws on current reference points even as it belies them.
It’s all the product of growth, originally forming way back in 2004, it’s taken this long for the group to settle on a line-up as well as taking the time to develop their empyrean brooch of psychedelic fog. The results are keenly haunting, aided in large part to the shimmering production – in part the band’s and mixed by dance producer Andrew Weatherall. It helps explain the hypnosis of their intriguing drum patterns and rhythmic drive. There’s a sinister mood to their atmospheric swelter too, Bees features chiming guitars plinking over the rumbling of brooding bass and Shadows casts its spell with wonky guitars, a sprinkle of piano and muscular drumming. Baby is delightfully unsettling as lead singer Emily Kokal intones over a lonely acoustic guitar “don’t you call anybody else baby/ cause I’m your baby still.” Its desperately pitiful and positively threatening all at once.
It encompasses Warpaint’s duality, a deft feminine touch for atmosphere and mood mixed with all the warmth and clarity of a snowstorm. These aren’t delicate damsels we’re dealing with, their brand of indie is the equivalent of a fevered hallucination, an oblivion you’d gladly sink into and lose yourself. 

13. Demians - Mute
Demians, and more specifically Mute, are an exemplary ambassador for those that still think that prog is a dirty word. Containing all the sophistication and high-brow intelligence of the genre without the baggage of pomposity or the cardinal sin of self-indulgence, an enormous compliment considering that Demians is actually the working moniker for French virtuoso Nicholas Chapel. With a production savvy and purpose to rival Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, it's no wonder Chapel won the adulation of Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson with his debut Building An Empire. But Mute is an even more focussed and lush affair. It's nine tracks shine and sparkle with the polish of much dedicated craftsmanship, with finely-honed details and precise layering. The pacing is equally immaculate, witness how the blistering, knucle-white rocker Tidal transisitons into the stately, nagging piano of Rainbow Ruse. Or how the build and swell of anthemic opener Swing of the Airwaves gives way to the muscular assault of Feel Alive.
There's tender moments to be had to,  Porcelain is a postively sumptuous beauty trilling with defeat and regret - that is until its transcendantal chorus. So too, Black Over Gold, yawning and stretching over gleaming instrumentation until it hits its peak with Chapel yearning "it doesn't matter that much to you or to me/whether we die on the land or the sea."  
Mute proves that the rich tapestry of his debut was not merely beginner's luck, and it just as quickly dismisses the trivialities of the 'difficult' second album.

12. Amplifier - The Octopus
An extremely late arrival to the 2010 party, but a highly anticpated one. The Octopus is the third - and entirely self-funded - album from British outfit Amplifier. A double disc, two hour affair, there's only three words to describe it's grand scale of ambitious rock. Absolutely. Fucking. Epic. It's a sheer understatement to say there's an awful lot to take in, taking the guitar-bass-drums set-up to the farthest stretches of its abilities and back again, but it's clear from even a few spins that it's one of this year's greatest musical releases. Grand in its construction and inspiring in its execution, it's a record all the more impressive for being released completely independently. Available only through the band's website
and produced entirely from their own pocket, it waves the flag of the independent spirit proudly. Make no mistake, this is not a DIY record in sound nor scope. No concessions have been made,  from the hammering groove of The Wave to the noodling histrionics of Trading Dark Matter on The Stock Exchange it's nothing if not a professional sounding record, rich in textures, layering and ideas. Oh lordy, the ideas.
Where to begin? The grinding majesty of Planet of Insects, the prog-rock harrowing shifts of White Horses At Sea//Utopian Daydreams, the low-slung crunch of Fall Of The Empire, the dramatic Minion's Song, the show-stopping Interstellar. Every track, every moment is glittering with rewards for those patient enough to discover them. If you're a fan of progressive-leaning, thought-provoking, head-nodding Rock (with a capital R), then allow yourself to be ensnared by the tentacles of The Octopus.
11. Sleigh Bells - Treats 
You all know the story, boy meets girl. In this case, boy: Derek E. Miller - former guitarist for hardcore group Poison The Well - meets girl: Alexis Krauss, while waiting tables at a Brooklyn restaurant. The resulting  musical partnership was one many fell in love with, and easily one of this year's most hotly-tipped acts, made good in a storm of noise pop ditties.
Gelling monstrous beats and heavy guitars with bubblegum pop and more hooks than a fisherman's tacklebox; the head-on collision between wilfully chaotic noise and three-minute chart mathematics shouldn't work on paper, but in action it's glorious, to the point that you it leaves you wondering why it hasn't been done before. 
For all it's sugar-rush allure (Treats anyone?) it's not so easily-disposed. The nagging repetition of Infinity Guitars, Crown On The Ground and especially A/B Machines should wear down, but they don't. The simple call-and-response of Kids and Riot Rhythm should bore, but they excite. The looping guitars of the title track and Run The Heart are easy to swallow but impossible to ignore.
There's something deeper to Sleigh Bells. Maybe they're the ultimate expression of stereotypical gender representations of male rock and female pop writ large into catchy hits. Or maybe they're the audio equivalent of youth cool, a mess of adolescent restlessness delivered in ADD satisfying chunks. The truth is, you don't need academics to enjoy the moment Tell 'Em kicks in with its air siren riff or when you find yourself reciting Rill Rill's pretty sing-song melody.

The Top 20 thus far...
as always feel free to add to discussion below, otherwise watch this space for the final ten.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

2010 End-Of-Year Celebrations: The Good, The Bad & The James Blunt Awards

Welcome lovers and haters of modern music, to the fourth annual Good, Bad & the James Blunt awards. Wherein we summarise the year with a series of awards, some serious, some playful, some downright shameful. 2010 sees more awards than ever, mainly to cater to some of the more surprising things that happened but also to just highlight some happenings that wouldn't otherwise get coverage.
It's all here, so don your best reading tux and/or frock and remember two zero one zero.

 Lightspeed Champion - Life Is Sweet! Nice To Meet You
Few can do post-modern irony with such aplomb than the poster-boy for modern extistential crises. Devonté Hynes' sophomore album contains all the humour and excess that its name suggests, and more. It would have been misread as a deliriously cheery greeting if it weren't juxtaposed with that deliciously dusty portrait.
Runner Up: Yeasayer - Odd Blood

Uffie - Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans
It's as if electro-pop-rap harpy Uffie just went with the first stupid idea that came into her head. Sure, I suppose there's a vague parallel between denim and intercourse, but does it really say anything about your art? What's that? It's not art. The lead track's called Pop The Glock? Fair enough... as you were.
Runner Up: Kanye West -  My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

 The Jezabels - Dark Storm
In a year that saw quality releases from Sufjan Stevens, the recorded unveiling of TesseracT and of course, four mighty EPs from Melbourne's own Big Scary; The Jezabels still stood head and shoulders above the competition. Dark Storm not only marked the third and final piece of their brilliant EP trilogy, but also the Sydney group's position as one of Aus music's brightest hopes. It's next to impossible to pick a jewel amongst the five track crown. The powerful wave of Dark Storm, the dense, dreamy piano and alternating spiking and sweeping guitar of Mace Spray and Sahara Mahala. Vocalist Hayley Mary's beguiling timbre on A Little Piece, and the heartbreaking simplicity of closing track She's So Hard.
Dark Storm expanded The Jezabels' already expressive mix of tension and release into an appropriately widescreen setting, complete with a killer live show that does these majestic tunes justice.
Runners Up:  TesseracT - Concealing Fate, Big Scary - At The Mercy Of The Elements

 The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
With brand new tracks from blockbuster acts such as Muse, Florence & The Machine, Vampire Weekend and Bat For Lashes; it was no suprise that Stephanie Meyers' Mills & Boone w/ Vampires soundtrack would dominate for a second year running. It'll be interesting to see what indie luminaries will lend their talents to the inevitable Breaking Dawn collection. My money's on The National, I kid you not. 
Runner Up: Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

 Garry Schyman - Sounds From The Lighthouse: Bioshock 2 Soundtrack
Though it's merely a natural extension to the atmosphere of it's predecessor, Bioshock 2's eerie soundscape was a classic example of "if it ain't broke..." Capable of sighing in drenching sorrow one moment, then winding tightly into terse dissonance the next; Schyman's music is perfectly expressive proving that cinema need not have the monopoly on grand scoring. 
Runner Up: Masashi Hamauz - Final Fantasy XIII Soundtrack

The Places Between: The Best of Doves
The dour-eyed Mancs collated their decade-long, four-album strong career into one impressive package, and each deftly produced track contributes to the portrait of a band committed to music as art but with an ear for mood and melody. The real treat for fans though, was the two-disc version that scoured the archives for unreleased cuts, demos and even some brand new material. 
Runner Up: Wide Open Road - The Best of The Triffids

Wilco will surely go down in history as one of the latest in a great tradition of American touring bands. They treat the live arena as their proving ground, and boy do they justify their worth. Regularly delivering three hour sets, cherry-picking from their illustrious back-catalogue, and playing as if their lives depended on it night-in, night-out. Most bands earn the majority of their income from touring, but the only way in which Wilco treat it like a job is in their workman-like dedication and professionalism. To see them is to see six individually remarkable musicians made all the better by their playing together as a thoroughly impressive unit. 
Runner Up: Big Scary

  Gorillaz @ Rod Laver Arena, December 12
Coming out from behind the veil of their cartoon visuals was a risky move, but one that reaped plenty of rewards. Seeing and hearing Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett's all-star circus is all the more amazing in the flesh. The star roster is nearly endless, Bobby Womack, De La Soul, Little Dragon, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, the Syrian National Orchestra - not to mention that one ex-member of The Verve and one half of The Clash make up the core of the backing band. Sonically they were perfect, visually they were dizzyingly stunning and a set-list positively overflowing with A-grade cosmopolitian pop. The biggest impression of the show however is not just the technical scale and musical variety, but just how such an impossible feat could have possibly gestated in the mind of two mavericks. Albarn may remain humble, but as the final image rolled up - of Hewlett's stain-glassed mural - you get the impression that there is simply no other entity like Gorillaz.
Runner Up: Porcupine Tree @ The Palace, February 7

 David Bowie - Live @ Nassau Coliseum '76
Without a doubt, the best part of this year's Station To Station re-issue was the inclusion of an official release of this legendary bootleg. Featuring a sketchy, coke-fuelled Thin White Duke in his prime, Bowie whips his wire-tight band through a classic set-list including a breathless verison of Stay, rousing versions of arena standards Rebel Rebel, Changes and oozing all amounts of sleaze from the likes of Fame and Diamond Dogs. The lifestyle behind the music - a diet of peppers, milk and shovels of nose snow - couldn't last, but the funky, wiry results are captured for posterity here.
Runner Up: Frost* - The Philadelphia Experiment

Porcupine Tree - Anesthetize
Proof once again that Porcupine Tree, a sterling albums band, are more than capable of bringing their complex studio creations to life on-stage. Filmed in Hamburg, the staging is modest, but when the arrangements and sheer virtuosity (Gavin Harrison's drumming in particular) are this good you hardly notice. With a setlist that takes in the entire Fear Of A Blank Planet album, and then a selection of fan favourites it is the catalogue of PT live par excellence.
Runner Up - Jónsi - Go Live

 weezer - Pinkerton
Even for a fan like me - who grew up with weezer's second album, a record I know back to front, including b-sides and backstory - the two disc Pinkerton re-issue reveals new depths. Given the same lavish treatment as its Blue Album Deluxe predecessor, it contained a complete portrait of weezer's finest moment. B-sides, live versions, long lost demos and revealing liner notes show a group bursting with ideas and yet caught up with the trappings of a swift rise to fame. It's a classic tale, but all the more resonant nowadays as more and more bands are rushed into the spotlight. There will never be another dark, neurotic gem like it - not least from the band who created it, last scene dropping mindless sugar-rush radio rock. 

 Sam Simmons - The Sounds of Sam Podcasts
Technically not a release per say, but the episodal dose of the podcast suits Simmons' scattershot absurdity beautifully. The Sounds of Sam aka. Glen, features his usual brand of über-eccentric characters (Claytron's 'by the power of Christmas!') and segmented features of downright silliness (The J's of our lives), as well as a few delightfully wasted guest spots (Rich Fulcher groaning or Seth Green being Aussie). Simmons is nothing if not a unique island in the choppy sea of bland radio comedy. 
Runner Up: David Cross - Bigger And Blackerer

Kanye West's G.O.O.D. Fridays
Back in August, the ongoing saga that was the twittering life of Kanye West took a delightfully democratic turn as he dropped a remix of Power featuring the one and only Jay-Z and Swizz Beats. It wasn't a one-off but the start of a continuing series of viral singles West would release in the lead-up to album number four. Each more star-studded than the last, whether it was Charlie Wilson and Beyoncé's vocal sparring on See Me Now, or high-profilers Mos Def and Raekwon contributing. Like Radiohead before him, Yeezy wasn't the first to come up with the idea - but he sure as hell did it right. Collectively, the G.O.O.D Fridays series marks some of the best tracks of the year, and some would say even better than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Go get'em over at his site, and you be the judge.
Runner Up: Girl Talk - All Day
S. Carey - All We Grow
Practically every review of All We Grow wasted no time in revealing the fact that it was the work of the drummer for Bon Iver (and ironically, this summary is no better). You can't blame a journalist for using an easy hook like that, and besides Carey more than ably mimics his bandleader, coming over all Justin Vernon-esque on the emotionally salving In The Dirt or the numbing throb of Mothers. In fact you'd be forgiven for mistaking it as the spiritual successor to For Emma, Forever Ago, nine tracks and all. At the very least, it more than filled the gap while Bon himself occupied himself with one Kanye West.
Runner Up: Philip Selway - Familial

 Mark Linkous aka Sparklehorse
Linkous was precisely the kind of act that was beloved of critics and fans alike, yet never gained the notoriety he deserved as a spellbinding original. His death was boldly tragic, a horribly violent end to a seemingly gentle, if troubled, individual. Check my full obit tribute here.

Cee-Lo Green - Fuck You
The ex-Gnarls Barkly soul shyster unleashead a song so ubiquitous that even a preposterous censored version ("forget yo-oo-oh") couldn't stop its domination of popular radio, TV shows and blogs. Obviously a stylish video, and a sassy Robert Palmer-esque backing band all tied to an irresistibly catchy hook couldn't hurt.
Runner Up: Rihanna - Rude Boy

 Kimbra - Settle Down
Speaking to the soul-pop chanteuse earlier in the year, she had this to say "Yeah, we got pretty crazy on the recording of Settle Down and a few other songs. I guess Frank and I are both really drawn to organic sounds. No-one’s going to listen to the track and go ‘that’s a tampon packet’ but you know it might add a little timbre to it, that puts another thing to it. I love that stuff." (check out the full interview here)
Thankfully the object in question doesn't appear in the most excellent video, but you can be sure it's added to the brilliantly quirky character of the song.

Dirty Projectors & Björk -  Mount Wittenberg Orca
What happens when the Brooklynite indie darlings and one of music's most eccentrically talented artists combine forces? Well, not quite the creative free-for-all you'd expect actually. It instead prioritised the pitch-perfect harmonies of the trio of Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian and Haley Dekle, with the Icelandic songstress weaving her distinctive voice over and through the parts. The instrumental backing is light of touch, but no less emotionally potent. It takes a couple of listens to fully sink in, but once it does, you'll begging for a further collaboration between the two.
Runner Up: Antony & The Johnsons - Flétta (feat. Björk)

 Nada Surf - I Wish I Had A Hi-Fi
2010 contained a surprising amount of quality cover albums, proving that it wasn't just territory for old crooners the likes of Rod Stewart and Neil Diamond. Alt-rock stalwarts Nada Surf in particular, offered a revealing look into their musical tastes and influences with this low-key release. Featuring renditions of the obscure (Bill Fox's Electrocution is a curio) to the legendary (a contemplative take on Depeche Mode's Enjoy The Silence). Released mid-tour, it shows a band in taut shape, confident and efficient.
Runner Up: V/A - He Will Have His Way: A Tribute to Neil and Tim Finn

 The Gallagher Bros. Break Up Oasis
Oasis have always been survivors, even asthey made a rough transition out of the Britpop era they stood as rock stalwarts; resistant to outside influences and cultural shifts over the years. They provided a reliable bastionfor rock fans the world over. The irony being that their greatest assailants came not from the outside, but from themselves. Noel and Liam Gallagher were always at the centre of their ever changing line-ups, but they were also the greatest catalysts for problems with their endless in-fighting. It was only a matter of time before their caterwauling stopped being a form of tabloid entertainment and started beng a serious issue. They'd threatened to split before, but it seems the final nail in the coffin is with the christening of Liam and the boys' new outfit, Beady Eye. Noel has sworn the damage is irrepairable as he surges foward into a solo career, but it's probably only a matter of years though before we get an equally unsurprising headline announcing their reform. After all, "you and I are gonna live forever"

 Justin Bieber - U Smile (slowed down 800%)
We all know the old trick where if you play rock backwards you'll hear messages from satan, but it appears that if you instead slow down satan's music, in the form of little commerical hellspawn Justin Bieber, you'll hear messages from god. Or at least Nick Pittsinger did when he slowed down Bieber's U Smile by 800%, the resultant track stretches and yawns like a classic ambient piece. What started as a joke became the budding 20 yr old producer's most famous experiment, all twelve minutes of it.

 The National - Conversation 16
Matt Berninger's lyrics on the whole of High Violet are nothing short of exceptional, often working his phrases up into repetitions till they hum like mantra, his economic way with a couplet rings with heartache. None moreso than on Conversation 16, the soundtrack to a relationship sidling into the last breaths of its doomed existence, delivered with narrative precision. The painterly attention to detail in such lines as "live on coffee and flowers/try not to worry what the weather will be/I figured out what we're missing/I tell you miserable things after you are asleep." And yet, despite the moody atmospherics of chiming guitars and haunting piano, there's something uplifitng in its resonance and honesty. Powerful stuff indeed.
Runner Up: Janelle Monaé - Tightrope

  Nicki Minaj on Kanye West's Monster
Few could go toe-to-toe with Kanye and Jay-Z and compete, let alone upstage them, but Sri-Lankan born Fem-C Minaj does just that. Monster confirms her abilities in a way not even her disappointing debut Pink Friday could: she toys with the rhythm as well as her voice, she boasts like a diva, she brawls like a grizzly bitch, and does it all with captivating allure. For that breathless minute, the track is hers and hers alone.
Runner Up: Big Boi on Janelle Monaé's Tightrope
Frightened Rabbit

The award that is really just a euphimism for "best Scottish band going 'round today," and Frightened Rabbit from Selkirk, more than ably fulfill that role. Take Swim, Until You Can't See Land for instance, the lead single from The Winter of Mixed Drinks perfectly capitulates leader Scott Hutchison's engaging lyrics and pop nous into a single heartfelt song.

(some history: this award is not necessarily for the worst album of the year, it would be too easy to palm it off to the likes of Ke$ha or Soulja Boy. Instead, it is intended for one very special album that excels for far more unique failures. Previous recepients include Chris Cornell for his ill-fated attempt to bridge the gap between hard rock and R&B. And also, Kanye West for his dour, self-pitying therapist session known as 808's & Heartbreak. I'm sure there are people out there who like these albums - that's not the point. As the title suggests, it's doled out to a group or artist who may be popular (wildly popular) but whose missteps deserve a lashing.)
 The Kissaway Trail - Sleep Mountain
Although their 2007 debut demonstrated promise in the wake of the Arcade Fire’s success with a similarly epic slant on indie rock, the Danish quintet’s second album instead disappointingly demonstrates that they’re content to ape their inspirations. Whether it’s a Flaming Lips version of Neil Young’s Philadelphia, or a little bit of Band of Horses for the military march and choral-rousing New Year. The Kissaway Trail are simply content to slump through facsimiles of their musical favourites. The Arcade Fire remain however, to be the band’s chief inspiration, emulating their style for the record's opening SDP, but it's six minutes are indulgent and repetitive. They even cribbed Tracy Maurice, the designer for AF’s Funeral, for the artwork and have an accordion led anthem called Don’t Wake Up, can you believe it?
Such antics would be acceptable if the songs were played with conviction, but for all the sparkly production and chest-thumping bravado, the songs progress little. The likes of Friendly Fire and Don’t Beat Your Heartbeat meander aimlessly for their four minute plus lengths, failing to kickstart let alone ignite.
It's not offensively bad music, you can see what they are aiming for - but it's just so far out of their scope that seeing them fall so short is pitiful. Sleep Mountain is probably an appropriate title, a huge landscape of coma-induced boredom that says nothing new or exciting.
When it comes to copycats, the hard and fast rule still applies: accept no imitations. 

His Freddie Mercury impression left a lot to be desired.
James Blunt. NOT the greatest artist in the world today.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

2010 End-Of-Year Celebrations: The Best (And Worst) Album Art

Judging by my previous End-Of-Year celebrations, i'm a little behind this time, and while the final calculations and minor tweaks are made to the annual Top 15 Albums list; the usual Music Rant festivities will continue unabated.

Those of you really into my writing will have noticed that I've been publishing some outside lists on my twitter feed. Just to get everyone in to the spirit, but moreso to show just how diverse a year 2010 has been. As the irrefutable influence of the digital age continues to shape our culture, so too does the musical landscape come ever more fractured. Call it post-modernism, call it the death of genre, call it the mash-up era - whatever - the successes and pitfalls of 2010 can all be attributed to its lack of cohesion, and in some cases the celebration of this fact. 

However, good art is always good art. The sleeves and artwork that demanded to be viewed in detail, not within the tiny confines of an iPod screen. But in some cases maybe it would be better to have never laid eyes on them at all.

Mark Ronson & The Business Intl. - Record Collection
Collage art has a tendency to chart the extremely good, or the extremely bad. The cool configuration of Ronson's sophomore effort definitely falls into the former camp. It's tilted at the nostalgia crowd by clearly suggesting that these are old school vinyl covers, and as if you needed confirmation, there's those oh-so eighties pink ray-bans. Bonus points for continuing the artistic theme throughout the liner notes.
Janelle Monáe - The ArchAndroid
It would take a hefty art brief to cover the narrative and musical scope of Monáe's genre-defying sound, but this decepitvely simple portrait just about does it. Tieing in with the messianic character of Cindi Merriweather (just listen to the record ok?), the city and the woman become one in a shining display of mecha-diety. One part Fritz Lang's Metropolis, one part digital pharoah, all parts Janelle.
MGMT - Congratulations
The very first sign that MGMT had left the pscyh-pop accessibility of Kids, Time To Pretend, Electric Feel et al. behind was with this wilfully unfashionable cover. The joke was on them, the Sonic The Hedgehog inspired artwork postively screamed of early 90's tastes and in doing so invoked a warm sense of rose-tinted nostalgia. Its garish colours almost prepared one for the chaotic, acid-fried obscurity within, almost. 
Klaxons - Surfing The Void
The great man who introduced me to this album once said (on an unrelated note) "what the freak did cats do before YouTube?" Indeed. Surfing The Void finds the cat meme phenomenon of the oughties captured brilliantly. There's a subtle link to the dark journey of Klaxons' music itself, this bushy-whiskered feline is about to embark on quite the post-punk, prog-leaning trip.

Intronaut - Valley Of Smoke
Looking more like the cover of a fantasy paperback than an album, David D'Andrea's gothic pen and watercolour scroll nevertheless captures the album's sound. Hazy atmospherics play in the background, while the dense layers and twisted detail inhabit the foreground, without any one element crowding the other. That and it shows that album covers for prog-metal bands need not be cringeworthy
Everything Everything - Man Alive
I can't really place my finger on what makes this sleeve so appealing. It's a beautiful profile of a fox at sunset, which in itself doesn't make sense, even before it's vandalised by streaks of non-descript pixels. Maybe it's the unique font, or the way it seems the natural origins of the photo are being deconstructed, but there's something about this cover. Ultimately it's the bizarre fusion of elements that'll keep you looking at it.
Sleigh Bells - Sleigh Bells 
If the list has proven anything thus far, it's that the best album art captures some of the spirit and character of its contents with a striking, iconic image that belies complexity. Sleigh Bells is just such an example. If you had to describe the duo's brand of sixties pop colliding headfirst with jagged guitars and machine driven drums, then a grainy filmstock of old-school cheerleaders with their faces scratched out would make perfect sense. It was either that or a newspaper photo of the resultant car crash between a Thunderbird and a Mack Truck. 
Erykah Badu - New Amerykah Part II: Return Of The Ankh
Like the other side of the coin to The ArchAndroid above, it favours the organic and psychedelic. Sure there's the towering robotic version of Badu fronting a pile of scrap metal, but the overall impression is of the dense, purple foliage beneath a tri-moon skyline that surrouds it. Complete with mini-Badu gardener goddess figure. It's interesting that two female mavericks came from two completely different starting points and ended up with some cross-over elements, whatever they were smoking - I want a puff.

The Like - Release Me
This is how retro-chic should be done. From the simple typface, to the clear fact it's shot in a studio, right down to the stereo sound stamp. And don't even get me started on those matching dresses.
Devo - Something For Everybody
The image that adorns the pop-pranksters' latest is a joke, nothing more. But what a wonderfully executed joke. Taking their legendary 'flower-pot' helmet and turning it into a perfectly photo-shopped billboard for chocolate. Simple, but oh so sweet.
Sufjan Stevens - The Age of Adz
It's probably not a mistake that Age of Adz looks like a long lost vinyl album. Or an agit-prop poster for somet futuristic rebellion. Or the scrawlings of a teenage boy discovering a talent for typography. In short its a busy, almost dizzying piece when you stop and take it in. But isn't that just like Sufjan?
The National - High Violet
In actual fact, this is a still of artist Mark Fox 's sculpture The Binding Force, so it's artistic credentials are already well intact. However, it's a sriking change from the gloomy covers of Alligator and The Boxer, albums that the quintet built their reputation on. This colourful explosion of words marks the point at which the group transcended to a whole new level.

Kings of Leon - Come Around Sundown
"We want like a nostalgic picture of the sunset. A tropical sunset." A bland title begets bland artwork I suppose.
Prince - 20Ten
Sure this lame sleeve is bad, but Prince really had no excuse, fellow musical chameleon Bowie already proved a cartoon avatar was an awful idea with Reality.
Die Antwoord - $0$
The misogynistic covers of the hair-metal golden age makes an unwelcome return, the Polish pop rap group might be trying to make a commentary on the commercialism of the music industry. But scolding low-brow doesn't mean you have to mimc low-brow
Z-Ro - Heroin
Commercial hip-hop already have a proven track record of tasteless artwork, so the odds were already stacked against Southern rapper Z-Ro. But is that really a validation for going whole-hog with photoshopping himself into every last opportunity of this image? and is he really likening himself to the addiction and euphoric rush of a hit? Poor.
Rhymester - Manifesto
Falling devastatingly short of its intended so-bad-it's-good effect, just the idea of three hipster centaurs weilding sword-wands in a Power Rangers-esque high five is enough to set the gag reflex twitching.
Apparatjik - Apparatjik
Perhaps the various members of Coldplay, a-ha and Mew wanted to downplay their supergroup status, but this excessively dull diagram outright kills it. The graph doesn't even make sense, and not in an interesting way that makes you want to explore it. More a frustrating "why-the-eff did I waste my time and money on this!" way.
Coco Rosie - Grey Oceans
It's self-evident that the frealk-folk couple spent their entire budget on recording the record, such a pity that all that money was wasted; because no-one wants to even conceive what this photo-shopped, androgynous mess contains. 

weezer - Hurley
weezer - Death To False Metal
Ladies and Gents, a tip of the hat to weezer for giving us not one, but two, absolutely stinking exhibits of how not to deliver your music visually. Both are terribly conceived exercises in ironic humour. The first, a context-less 'tribute' to a character from Lost. The second, a poorly-drawn excerpt from a freaky cult pamphlet that's meant to effuse a chuckle because it's not metal related. Are weezer really out of ideas or do they just not give a shit anymore? I'd much prefer they just picked a random colour of the spectrum and did Blue, Green and Red style albums for the rest of their now-average career. It would be a much less offensive assault on their audience's intelligence.

and finally, as a bonus treat. The number one trend for 2010 Album Artwork is...


three's a trend right?

Feel free to start some community-stirring discussion about my choices, perhaps offering your own suggestions for best and worst art in a roundtable digital discussion.