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.

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