Friday, December 16, 2011

2011 End-of-Year Celebrations: The Good, The Bad & The James Blunt Awards

The moment the true AMR fan waits all year for, it's the 5th Annual GB&JB ceremony. As is usual with this kind of list there's some serious awards for artistic achievements and some serious satire for the contrary, there's some old categorical favourites, there's some new ones, and there's a lot to read.
So don your best digital frock or tux, kit up in your best musical acumen, 'cause it's time to toast to 2011.
  Spank Rock - Everything Is Boring and Everyone Is A Fucking Liar
Not particularly clever, granted, but you have to admit the electro-rap duo have some balls to brand their sophomore effort with such a bold name. It does sound a bit like the tantrum of an underpreciated indie outfit, but you have to give props for its humour; plus I like imagining their label trying to convice them to change or soften the title. Shame then that the F bomb got censored, nevertheless it says a lot about the shallowing of today's industry, even if its with the bluntest of words.
Runners Up: British Sea Power - Valhalla Dancehall
Grouplove - Never Trust A Happy Song

 Coldplay - Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall
Though it's technically a digital-only EP, I can't help but give this horribly titled release the gong. I still maintain that it sounds like the winner of a 'let's devise a Coldplay cliché' competition, either that or the group felt that Liam Gallagher was too distracted by his own musical pissing contest to bother publicly bullying them about their choice of song names. Pity that actually, would have liked to get his particularly humouros brand of bile on their soporific choice of song name.
Runners Up: The Living End - The Ending Is Just The Beginning Repeating
Ke$ha - I Am The Dance Commander And I Command You To Dance

 Ghoul - Dunks
Even a cursory glance at the list of EPs released this year proves it was a field crowded with talent. Particularly closer to home, where many new acts the likes of Brous, [Me] and Oliver Tank tested the musical waters with confident, consistent releases. However, standing it's ground from as early Februrary was Sydney outfit Ghoul, whose Dunks was an excellent taste of the group's knack for mixing experimental nous with tangible songcraft.  From 3Mark deftly cribbing Burial's claustrophobic sounds with Ivan Vizintin's haunting croon, to Dreambeat echoing Hail To The Thief-era Radiohead with thrilling accuracy; it was a smart concoction of influences and sounds complete with a thrilling live show that faithfully recreated their deft constructions, as well as flaunting new ones. If you haven't already, you should have your ears and eyes squarely placed on them - definitely ones to watch as they ready their debut for 2012. 
Runners Up: Brous - Brous, [Me] - Naked

Kins - Dancing Back And Forth, Covered In Whipped Cream
At twenty-five minutes, it's not quite an 'extended play' and just short of an album, but conceptually Dancing Back And Forth... has all the richness and produciton of a full record. It was also the perfect introduction to Kins, one of Melbourne's best-kept secrets and lovely people to boot. They have since departed for the UK to work on what will no doubt be a stellar first album. In their absence, we have still have this mini-lp, a hypnotic journey of metronomic rhythms, spectral guitar and enigmatic yet accessible tunes. Get in early before they're 'the next big thing' 

 Death Cab For Cutie - Codes And Keys
I tried so hard to like this album, more than any other this year, but with each listen it left me unsatisfied, leaving no lasting impression on me. In isolation there's a handful of high-water moments, the sparkle of You Are A Tourist or the slow-motion balladry of Unobstructed Views, but nothing that reaches the emotional and cathartic benchmark of their previous work.
To be clear, it's not a bad record just a bland one, I don't want to commemorate their seventh record as the point that DCFC 'sold out.' I still believe Benjamin Gibbard to be one of the great songsmiths of his generation, but it's a position that's harder to defend with each passing release, each considerably more middling than the last. 
To keep the argument focussed without straying into the whole 'Zooey' territory (after all, they just split, cut him some slack, etc.); but it feels like the group have lost their spark, that 'something' that was so vivid on Transatlanticism when they still fought for something to prove. Sure, some bands come and go, some change for better or worse, but few have been so close to my heart and now seem so distant... except for weezer... but don't even get me started on weezer.
Runner Up: Blackfield - Welcome To My DNA

 Cliff Martinez & Various Artists - Drive OST
I have a confession to make, I haven't actually seen Drive... but it should speak to the quality of Cliff Martinez' evocative score that it still works so well divorced of its cinema counterpart. His hazy synth-work is buffered by a selection of carefully curated, eighties-indebted electro numbers. From College and Electric Youth's warbling synth anthem A Real Hero to the starry-eyed _____________, it's a potent collection.
Runner Up: Lyle Workman - Win Win Soundtrack

 Portal 2: Songs To Test By
One of the year's most subversive, humourous, brilliantly realised titles also happened to have a killer soundtrack. A lush array of minimalist electronics but also hefty dramatic movements, it's a perfect mood-setter for the game's devilish puzzle-come-narrative melodrama. Best of all? It's cheekily credited to the Arperture Science Psychoacoustics Laboratory and made available for free from developer Valve's website. Ace. 
Runner Up: Koji Kondo - Legend of Zelda 25h Anniversary 

R.E.M. - Part Lies, Part Heart, Part Truth, Part Garbage: 1982-2011
The last hurrah from one of America's most influential and momumental acts was given the daunting task of working their dense, three-decade career into a two-disc overview. No easy task, but this honestly-titled compilation makes swift work of it. Cherry-picking from their IRS catalogue years, working through their invincible Warner Bros. period, before reinstating the long-maligned Shiny Happy People back into the R.E.M. canon. There's even liner notes from Berry, Buck, Mills & Stipe themselves plues room at the end of forty cuts for three new post-humous releases in A Month of Saturdays, We All Go Back To Where We Belong and Hallelujah. It's as definitive a 'best-of' as you could hope from the curtain fall of a band with such a rich, illustrious career as R.E.M.'s.
Runner Up: Ben Folds - Best Imitation Of Myself

Big Scary 
AMR's beloved Melbourne duo's strength has always lied in their diversity, and it's no different when it comes to their live show. They began the year with a sweatily tight set for Australia Day at the Espy, then later officially launching their Four Seasons compilation complete with costume changes and a killer support line-up (the gonzo garage of Step-Panther and the inimitable Kins). Strummer Tom and drummer Jo proved a solid support act themselves, gigging alongside the likes of The Grates, Liam Finn and Gotyé over the course of the year. Finally, they capped it off with a special show for debut LP Vacation at St. Kilda's Ormond Hall. The stately surroundings aren't your typical band venue, but they perfectly suited Big Scary's sterling recreations of slow-burners Bad Friends and Got It, Lost It; as well as the widescreen pop of Mixtape and Falling Away. Never repeating or stretching themselves, Big Scary always ensure you leave a show enjoying it as much as they do.
Runner Up: Kimbra

  Harvest: The Gathering
Putting aside grumbles about excessive queues and a counter-intuitive ticketing system for drinks, Harvest still managed a truly successful birth. A great location, good noise seperation, minimal timetable clashes and even heavenly weather conspired to make Melbourne's The Gathering the perfect place to take in an astonishing line-up. From the brassy joy of The Family Stone, to the wiry art-funk of TVOTR and long-time Australian absentees Bright Eyes, it was a day full of brilliant sets and moments. Not least in the always-excellent Flaming Lips and The National offering a stately evening soundtrack. If for no other reason, Harvest should be commended for wooing the legendary Portishead to deliver an imperious set that previously only Europe was enjoying.
 Steely Dan, Live @ Rod Laver Arena
The major thrill of this show was that it really shouldn't of happened. Though Fagan & Becker have been known to ocassionally hit the live circuit, their comfortable doing so in their native region only. It seemed that they would never again return Down Under, but then - lured out by a spot for Day on the Green, they decided to extended their Shuffly Diplomacy tour to include a few headline shows for the first time since visiting out shores in 2007. Fears that the old dogs had exhausted their tricks were quickly dissipated, not only did Fagan look and sound better than he had in an age, but they were backed by a band with killer chops. Pulling out all the big hits (Reelin' In The Years, Peg), fan favourites (Aja, Kid Charlemagne) as well as some personal highlights (My Old School, Showbiz Kids); for men in their sixties, they played with all the stamina of an outfit at least half their age.
Runner Up: Portishead @ Harvest: The Gathering

 Sigur Rós - Inni
Released during an extended hiatus while Jónsi eked out a solo career, Inni serves as a stark reminder of the Icelandic quartet's celestial powers in the live arena. A no-nonsense set filmed and recorded at the close of their 2008 world tour, it intriguingly finds the band operating as a four-piece again (without their trusty string quartet-come-support act Amiina), their first shows doing so since the turn of the decade. From the iconic submarine-ping opening of Glósóli to the previously unreleased shimmer of Lùppulagið, it's a career-spanning setlist that proves Sigur Rós are majestic, with or without the frills
Runner Up: Mastodon - Live At The Aragon

 Foo Fighters - Back And Forth
It's easy to think you know the Foo Fighters story back-to-front: ex-Nirvana drummer records solo album, hires touring musicians and finally achieves world domination through arena-friendly rock. But there's far more depth to the story and James Moll's near-exhaustive documentary really goes into the details and does them justice. There's revealing interviews with Grohl regarding everything from Kurt Cobain to band in-fighting, as well as a wealth of rare footage and a back-end that covers the recording of this year's vibrant LP, Wasting Light. It's a polished, engaging portrait of a band, and a backgroud, that many thought familiar.
Runner Up: Sigur Rós - Inni

 Nirvana - Nevermind
Speaking of familiarity... though it surely encourages a few more rotations in a certain someone's coffin, the inevitably lavish reissuing of one of music's most legendary records is more than just a money-grab. Though it was available in a number of editions, it was the five disc 'Super Deluxe Edition' that was the definitve listen. Containing several mixes of the record, from the greenhorn rehearsal recordings right down to the long-rumoured original Butch Vig mix of the album, there was something for even the most obssessive fan. Though  packaged with frills, namely a live performance and all the requisite B sides, the overriding point here is of the lasting power of the original. The point at which the alternative became the mainstream and the landscape of music both populist and outsider changed forever. It's an anniversary worth marking - fan-baiting collections and all.
Runners Up: U2 - Acthung Baby: 20th Anniversary, 
 Pink Floyd's 'Why Pink Floyd?' Re-issues


Steven Wilson - Grace For Drowning Deluxe Edition
There's been an upward trend in artists offering special editions direct to the fans from their websites or through pre-order options, but no-one does them quite as beautifully as Steven Wilson; and for his sophomore record as a solo artist, he went all out. The double-album comes in a 120 page hardbound book with reams of long-time collaborator Lasse Hoile's eerie artwork, as well as a blu-ray with a 5.1 mix for the audiophiles, and a whole extra disc of demos and out-takes. A concise, well-conceived package that demonstrates Wilson's passion and dedication to the album format and its presentation.
Runner Up: Rufus Wainwright - House of Rufus

You may not realise, but there's always been a bit of a conundrum for AMR in how to get from the written word to people actually listening to the tunes you scribble about. It used to mean a nasty process of hotlinking to less-than-legitimate sources or worse, piggybacking off other net dweller's bandwith. Sure, a YouTube or Vimeo clip is pretty every now and then, but it's a little clunky in the long run. Then along comes Soundcloud and makes everything easy again. Like all good, free things on the internet - it probably won't stay that way, but for now it's the easiest way for a blogger like me to go 'Hey, how great are Vessels and their brand of atmospheric post-rock?!' and then just do this:
 Foo Fighters including a piece of the original analogue tape for Wasting Light 
Grohl and Co. decided that the best way to move foward after packing out the largest arenas on the planet was to record their seventh studio album in a garage, on analogue tape. Well, that's mincing words a little, as 'in a garage' really meant in Grohl's home - a cosy mansion in Richmond, Virginia under the auspices of a multi-million producer and a deadline they set. But hey! It's 2011, and most get their music digitally, let alone know that it used to be recorded to a dinky old format like analogue tape. Rock on for realism! and so forth...
Runner Up: Sigur Rós including a piece of material from the outfits they wore on-stage with the purchase of Inni

 Lana Del Rey
It would be remiss to discuss music in 2011 without mentioning the girl born Elizabeth Grant, particularly as the way things are going she's going to remain a talking point well into 2012. With but two singles to her name, that'll be Video Games and Blue Jeans, Del Rey swiftly became the focal point that stoked internet-wide arguments concerning faux retro-chic, authenticity, female empowerment and - oh yes - the 'natural abilities' of her lips. Whether you think she's the vapid machination of some insiduous power-brokers, or simply a pop star who's playing all the right cards, there's no denying that she's the pin-up-girl girl for the 'real vs fake' debate that continues to rage around popular music. My advice? kick back and enjoy the fireworks, particularly when her debut Born 2 Die drops early next year.

 Music videos for every track on your album
It's certainly not the first time it's been done (previously and most notably with Daft Punk's Discovery) but this year proved a vicious return for the 'video accompaniment' pet projcet. TV On The Radio kicked it off with the Nine Types of Light movie, then Bon Iver re-issued his double-epnoymous record on iTunes with verbose visuals. PJ Harvey followed suit, announcing that her critically lauded Let England Shake was getting a 'visual intepretation.' But Björk trumped them all with her Biophilia project that took in a whole iOS app's worth of videos, games and interactive media. A glimpse into the the future of the industry perhaps, or simply a trending gimmick? 

The Weeknd - House Of Balloons/Thursday
Internet freebies are just another part of the music landscape, while it continues to alarm the labels and record execs that fret their dirty dollar dwindling, for the rest of us it's a libertarian movement worth celebrating. It doesn't often mark the rise of a visionary new artist quite the way it has for the [sic]-touting moniker of Abel Tesfaye. Casually dropping House of Balloons for gratis back in March, it quickly wormed its away across the internet 'til The Weeknd was a name fêted across the blogosphere. Thursday further capitalised on his momentum, his success cemented by the surprise cameo from fan-turned-collaborator Drake. Combined, their mix of claustrophobic soul and neo-R&B was proof that there's a worthy career in giving away your music for nothing, The Weeknd is another sign of the seachange in the music indsutry - oh, and his mixtapes are still very much yours for the taking.

 Nearly Oratorio - Showers
Simon Lam is the impossibly precise sticksman for the aforementioned Kins, as well as moonlighting for locals The Ocean Party and I'lls', yet he still finds time for a swell side-project in the form of Nearly Oratorio. Rinsing layered vocals with woozy rhythmic backdrops and ambient swells, there's shades of James Blake, Bon Iver, and the long-dormant Magnet. It's shimmering, beautiful stuff and evident of a man whose talent threshold lies beyond the drumstool.

Say what snide things you like about their seriousness, and launch all the curdled opinions you will about their later albums; there's no denying the fact that R.E.M. were one of the great bands of their time. It would take more justified words than a meagre end-of-year award (or previously on AMR, a full blog tribute) to measure their influence and importance. Know that there will never be another quite like them, a group who invented the very idea of the American indie band, then went on to redefine its borders and meaning as their career wore on. Personally, it's sad to see a band who, above all else valued integrity, should bow out at a time when it is becoming an increasingly rare quality in professional music. That they should depart that same industry with such grace, and a still untarnished musical legacy, is our reward as much as theirs.
Runner Up: Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon split after 27 years of marriage


Gotyé - Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra) 
Though it was a tight race, the award has to go to Gotyé's all-consuming, ARIA dominating duet. From the moment that iconic video accidentally leaked (by accident? yeah, sure), it seemed to take only a matter of hours before it came an inescapable pop phenomenon. Even with the spite lying at the heart of its lyric, it was Mr. De Backer's honesty, catchy writing and production splendour that resonated with what seemed to be the entire nation. Sure, there were as many overplayed songs on commercial radio (Moves Like Jagger or Dynamite anyone?), but none deserved the exposure as much as Somebody... You can be sure that bookies all over the country are already dulling the odds that'll it'll top triple j's Hottest 100...  speaking of unsurprising winners...
Runner Up: Rebecca Black - Friday, LMFAO - Party Rock Anthem, 

 Powderfinger top triple j's Hottest 100 Australian Albums Of All Time poll
The cultivation of their career may have passed from triple j to the commercial likes of Triple M and Nova in its winter years, but when it came time for the popular vote pollers to show their allegiances, Powderfinger reigned supreme. Though it wasn't quite the stir that Angus &Julia Stone's crowning was for January's Hottest 100, there was still those corners of the cultural commentary that mistook Odyssey No. 5's top spot as a coup. A proven track record instead proved it quite inevitable, the Brisbane boys have featured no less than twenty times in the world's biggest music poll, and along with frontman Bernard Fanning, have topped it on four (nearly consecutive) occasions. Whether you love or hate the result, you can't deny it as sheer evidence that the larger majority of our nation are in the fomer camp.
Runner Up: Dubstep pisses everyone off

 Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues
The title track to Fleet Foxes' second album is a thing of remarkable construction: a self-contained narrative that shifts in two parts, a beautiful balance of voice and guitar, their trademark harmonies rising like zephyrs off the basic three chord progression. The masterstroke is the way the song blossoms from its deceptively simple origins, into a fully orchestrated fantasy of owning an orchard and living off the land - the simple pleasures. The words themselves cleverly deal with bandleader Robin Pecknold's own anxieties about doing, and being, the best one can. He's noted that 'the prevailing themes of the album is the struggle between who you are and who you want to be... and how sometimes you are the only thing getting in the way of that." It's all there, the yearning wrung from lines ringing with everyman pathos. 'If I know only one thing, it's that everything that I see/ Of the world outside is so inconceivable often I barely can speak/Yeah I'm tongue-tied and dizzy and I can't keep it to myself/ What good is it to sing helplessness blues, why should I wait for anyone else?'
  Runner Up: Kimbra - Two Way Street, Bon Iver - Holocene

 "Everyday I'm Shufflin"
You're off the hook Ms. Black. I'm going to re-neg on a key section of my comedy show (that's Al's Music Rant: The Difficult 2nd Album ladies...) and defer humour for cultural cringe. Did you know that LMFAO's wretched Party Rock Anthem was the most downloaded song on iTunes this year? Well, of course you did, because large portions of western culture - the indoctrinated club-goers and curious alike - went and sourced it in droves. In the process they turned what was once a recognisable line from Rick Ross' rap anthem Hustlin' into an idiotic reference to a Melbourne-based dance fad. It's emblamatic of the kind of derivative numbskullery that chart-bothering posers are so capable of. Though the regurgitative memes do some to take the sting off, there's no denying it's now a catch-cry for empty symbolism and artistic bankruptcy alike. Can you smell the vitriol?
Runner-up: The entirety of Rebecca Black's Friday

The euphimistic gong for 'Best Scottish Band' just keeps keeping on (it's a strange history, don't ask...) and this year marks the first time it goes to a posthumous act. The group possessed of a name that every journo must Ctrl-C/Ctrl-V to get right may have called it a day back in September, but the hyperactive six-piece still found time to finish a series of live commitments before calling it quites. They also released the kinectically charged There Is A Way including Think And Feel and Muscle Memory, some of their career-best work. Best remembered in their own final words: "For a band called Dananananaykroyd we've done more than we ever expected or possibly even intended."  
[some context: this award is not necessarily for the worst album of the year, but instead to recognise a unique achievement in artistic failure. As it's title suggests, it's doled out to a group or act who may be supremely popular but whose missteps desreve a lashing.]
Lou Reed & Metallica - Lulu
Lulu is exactly the kind of album this award was designed for. So terrifically awkward that you constantly wonder if it's an elaborate joke, or really just the sound of two once-great artists disappearing permanently up their own backsides. It's bizarre existence truly beggars belief and almost single-handedly eradicates the memory of Metallica's return-to-form on Death Magnetic, while almost confirming for all but the true diehards that Lou Reed may have well and truly lost it.
You may be in the larger majority of people who have heard more about the album than the music itself, but rest assured, all those narky reviews are scarily accurate (none more so than the JB meme doing the rounds). So here's another similarly depracating take on it: it's like someone stole Lou Reed's xanax, then left him to ramble into a mic while Metallica had one of their sloppiest rehearsals to date. Don't believe the kooks who call it a misunderstood masterpiece, well unless you consider embarassment a virtousic trait.Oh, and it's worth mentioning that there's a whole two disc's worth of hilarious agony to survive. However, I really do reccomend that you get a nice bottle of wine, pop this in the stereo and have a good old cringe/chuckle/vomit/blank stare of disbelief. If nothing else, at least then you can say, when it crops up a few more times in the obscure pages of music history's annals, that you've heard it. It also handily acts as a microcosm for all the bat-shit insane cross-overs that definied 2011 - Jack White and Insane Clown Possé, the bonkers SuperHeavy, Alice Cooper and Ke$ha and Skrillex defiling The Doors to name a few.
I wonder if whoever got their sadistic dream to see Loutallica come to fruition knows what they're going to do with their other two wishes?

Don't act so suprised James, we still hate you.
James Blunt: NOT the greatest artist in the world today.

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