Monthly Archives: December 2009

My Favourite Songs Of 2009, In Five Words.

I do appreciate that my posts can be very wordy, so I thought I’d impose a challenge on myself – describing some my favourite songs of the year in no more than five words. These are purely in alphabetical order – let’s go, shall we?

Animal Collective – ‘My Girls’

Album? Meh. Single? Utterly brilliant.

Bat For Lashes  – ‘Two Planets’

Makes any moment instantly cinematic.

The Big Pink – ‘Velvet’

Epic shoegaze meets emotional sensibility.

Dinosaur Pile-Up – ‘Summer Hit Single’

Feelgood hit of the summer.

Editors – ‘Papillon’

Monolithic synth-lead floor filler.

Fever Ray – ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’

Bleak, beautiful and simply stunning.

Grammatics – ‘Double Negative’

“HEY SUGAR! What d’you say?”

(Recorded version is on Myspace)

HEALTH – ‘Die Slow’

Convulsing, pounding, disco-noise headfuck.

The Horrors – ‘Sea Within A Sea’

Utterly compelling – a fantastic transformation.

Johnny Foreigner – ‘Criminals’

Their most vital song yet.

Los Campesinos! – ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future’

Thoughtful, epic, and heartrendingly emotional.

Pulled Apart By Horses – ‘I Punched A Lion In The Throat’

Rage against the animal kingdom.

(Recorded version is on Myspace)

The Temper Trap – ‘Sweet Disposition’

Heart-swelling, uplifting indie-pop.

The XX – ‘Crystalised’

Sparce, intimate late-night confession.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Zero’

Instantly infectious and deliriously uplifting.

I could probably pick many more than these, but that’ll do for now I think.

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Dishonourable Mentions: The Year’s Biggest Disappointment Is…

To be honest, there were fairly few albums that I can honestly say I was disappointed by in 2009 – which probably implies that I haven’t listened to enough records in general, but never mind. Maxïmo Park’s third effort, Quicken The Heart, was solid but unspectacular, feeling like the band were on auto-pilot more often than they should be. Another “difficult third album” came in the form of West Ryder Pauper Lunatic Asylum, which saw Kasabian toying with experimentation but ultimately failing as much as they succeeded. And with The Resistance, Muse didn’t so much push the boat out as push it somewhere into outer space – but the results varied from the brilliantly ridiculous (‘United States Of Eurasia’) to… well, just plain ridiculous (‘I Belong To You’).

However, there is one record that, for me, stands out as a particularly crushing disappointment. The ‘winner’ of “Biggest Disappointment Of 2009” goes to…

Howling Bells – Radio Wars

Howling Bells - Radio Wars

To understand how disappointed I was by Radio Wars, you have to understand just how much I loved Howling Bells’ self-titled debut. That record was a masterpiece of bleak, 3-am loneliness, all haunting guitars and fragile emotions – it’s easily one of my all-time favourite albums, and penultimate track ‘In The Woods’ is one of my absolute favourite songs EVER.

For me, the level of expectation for their second album was high – perhaps too high to live up to – but in any case I found myself let down. Not because Radio Wars is a bad record – it’s competent at worst, and it certainly has its moments – but because it felt like Howling Bells had forgotten everything that made me love them in the first place.The album has been largely washed-over with a well-produced sheen – the guitars feel dulled, and Juanita Stein’s once arresting sentiment now rings hollow, meaning that moments where the band re-capture the feel of their first record are few and far between. Despite their poppier sound, ‘Treasure Hunt’ and ‘Into The Chaos’ both take a decent stab at it, and Juanita’s strained cry of “…and now there’s nowhere to run” in the chorus of ‘Golden Web’ almost grasps the emotion of old – but even that feels like she’s not really giving it her all. ‘Cities Burning Down’ seems to be the lone exception to the rule – and tellingly, it’s a re-vamped version of a three year old B-side. It’s also the best thing on here – and it’s definitely not a good sign when a three year old song trumps everything else you’ve written for your latest album.

On a personal level, the biggest crime committed by Radio Wars is that rather than leave me wanting more, as the band’s debut did, it pretty much just leaves me cold. I’ve listened to the two records back-to-back, just to make sure I’m not overstating this too much – but honestly, Radio Wars doesn’t even come close to being as arrestingly beautiful as Howling Bells. As such, I have mixed feelings about a third record from Howling Bells – anticipation that perhaps it might be a return to form, but also a sense that I shouldn’t get my hopes up. For now, I’ll be wistfully playing the band’s debut and hoping that Radio Wars is just a bit of a blip…

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Obligatory End Of Year Megapost, pt II: Albums of the Year: 10-1

This is the second part of my end of year series, covering my personal top 10 albums of the year – you can find the previous 10 here. In fact, I’d recommend you read it first, if you haven’t already.

Done? Without further ado, then…

10. Editors – In This Light And On This Evening

Editors - In This Light And On This Evening

I’d imagine that there were quite a few people who balked at the fact that Editors were poised to ‘go electro’ on their third album – and I’d also imagine that some of these people continue to shun In This Light And On This Evening to this day. These people are silly, silly individuals who should open their minds a little and realise that the abundance of synthesisers on this album has done little to change the core essence of Editors’ sound – that is, the juxtaposition of gloom and hope that has been the band’s primary draw since The Back Room.

Indeed, the synths only help to focus and expand the band’s sound, whether it be on the sweeping majesty of ‘Bricks And Mortar’ or the queasy, sinister ‘The Big Exit’. They haven’t lost their knack for a hook either – ‘Papillon’ should, by rights, be as much of an indie-disco floor-filler as ‘Munich’, and the creepily-titled ‘Eat Raw Meat = Blood Drool’ houses one of the biggest choruses the band has ever written. While many bands from the class of 2004/2005 have found their third album to be a bit of a stumbling block, I’d argue that Editors have succeeded in creating something that easily stands up to their previous work. And that’s not despite their new electro sound – it’s because of it.

9. The XX – XX

The XX - XX

It took me a while to get round to listening to this album, but since then XX has grown on me with every listen. The XX have combined fragile, plucked guitar, minimal beats and echoy electronics to create something that’s sparse and expansive in equal measure. However, the loneliness conjured up by the music is contrasted with the comforting warmth of the lyrics. The theme of quietly stated but undying affection runs throughout – “Don’t think that I’m pushing you away/When you’re the one that I’ve kept closest” sings Oliver Sim on ‘Crystalised’, while on ‘Islands’ Romy Madley Croft replies “I am yours now/So now I don’t ever have to leave.”

As a whole, the album feels like an intimate, personal confession – taking you to a secret place where two star-crossed lovers are tentatively baring their hearts to each other at three in the morning. XX is easily one of the best debut albums released this year – this is truly spine-tingling stuff.

8. Johnny Foreigner – Grace And The Bigger Picture

Johnny Foreigner - Grace And The Bigger Picture

You may think this represents somewhat of a fall from grace (ha ha) for Johnny Foreigner, given that their debut full-length Waited Up ‘Til It Was Light was unquestionably my album of the year in 2008. So let’s get this out of the way first – Grace And The Bigger Picture is not a bad album. It is in fact, a great album. However, even as a gushing Johnny Foreigner fanboy I’d be lying if I said it’s as good as their debut. This is due mainly to a somewhat patchy mid-section that contains two or three solid but unspectacular tunes amongst the good stuff.

There’s still enough brilliance on show to make up for it though – ‘Criminals’ is possibly the most vital-sounding thing the band have recorded yet, ‘Every Cloakroom Ever’ is a wonderful mix of poignant sentiment and fuzzy bass, and ‘The Coast Was Always Clear’ steps up to take the mantle of “epic last song” from Waited Up ‘Til It Was Light’s ‘Absolute Balance’. Even when they diverge from their normal formula it works – the beautifully fragile 40-second acoustic ‘(Graces)’ is a particular highlight. Grace And The Bigger Picture probably isn’t going to convince any doubters, and I’d recommend that newcomers start with the band’s first album – but for JoFo fans, this is more of the band you know and love.

7. Sky Larkin – The Golden Spike

Sky Larkin - The Golden Spike

I do sometimes wonder whether I’m overrating this album, but then every time I listen to The Golden Spike I’m reminded exactly why I love it – because it manages to be poppy without being cheesy, overblown or gratuitously in-your-face. Sky Larkin demonstrate quite brilliantly that you don’t have to be Beyoncé or Lady fucking Gaga to make music with a pop heart – and there definitely is one here, deep underneath all the band’s genuine indieness. But this is not the cold, calculated heart of manufactured pop – it’s natural, it’s instinctive, and it certainly doesn’t let the idea of ‘pop’ music get in the way of musicianship.

If a genre as oxymoronic as ‘indie-pop’ exists outside of faux-indie dross such as Scouting For Girls and The Hoosiers, then Sky Larkin should by all rights be held up as one of its champions. In some happy idealist place in my mind, the likes of ‘Fossil, I’, ‘Molten’ and ‘One Of Two’ shouldn’t so much sit happily alongside the year’s biggest-budget pop hits as playfully shove them out of the way and claim their rightful place in the public consciousness. I can dream, can’t I?

6. George Pringle – Salon Des Refusés

George Pringle - Salon Des Refusés

Even with all the great new music around these days, it’s rare that you get an artist that genuinely seems to represent a unique proposition. George Pringle is, arguably, that artist. A&R types were quick to pick up on that fact, only to then back off (one record label apparently dropped out at the 11th hour) because they simply didn’t know what to do with her. The fact that she’s manage to self-release her album anyway represents a triumphant “fuck you” to the industry – indeed, it adds another layer of meaning to the title, Salon Des Refusés (which translates to Salon Of The Rejected in English, for the curious).

Granted, there’s a certain feeling of “oh, I could have done that” about Pringle’s work, and that’s perhaps because of its very DIY nature. Her half-sung, half-spoken monologues are backed by home-made Garageband beats to create a style some commentators described as ‘blogtronica’. But, let’s be honest here – even if you had thought of it yourself, there’s no way you could have pulled it off as well as Pringle does. Whether or not you can actually relate directly to whatever she’s talking about, her delivery and way with words sure as hell makes you feel like you *want* to. Childhood, adolescence, suburban parties, going to university in a “dead little city”, nights down the indie disco (“everyone’s dancing to all the songs, two years too late”), and finally collapsing into a mire of introverted self-loathing on ‘Bonjour Tristesse’ – which features a suitably morbid, woozy backing track. Pringle covers all this and more in effortless, engaging prose, backed by surprisingly well-constructed electronica.

I’m sure some of you might be scratching your heads at this selection, but I genuinely love Salon Des Refusés – the only reason this record doesn’t make my personal top 5 is because I already owned about half the tracks (of course, I bought it anyway). But that doesn’t make it any less brilliant – whether you’re a newcomer to the world of George Pringle or you’ve been keeping an eye on her for a while now, this is absolutely essential.

5. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport

Fuck Buttons - Tarot Sport

While I did eventually come to like Fuck Buttons’ debut album Street Horrrsing, on Tarot Sport the duo made one adjustment to their sound that meant I couldn’t help but like them more – they got rid of the garbled toy microphone screaming. As such, what we’re left with is the fantastic purity of their pulsating electronic noise, has definitely taken on a more dancey aspect than their debut – it’s a noise record, sure, but it feels accessible, friendly almost. This is, simply, an album that builds, and builds, and then builds some more, like some sort of euphoric noise pile-up. Trying to describe Tarot Sport in conventional terms seems like a futile effort – the tracklisting is essentially a formality, as this is basically one long, constantly shifting, ever-evolving piece of music. You’ll either be blown away by this record or walk away wondering why you wasted about an hour of your life listening to it – for me, it’s most definitely the former.

4. Bat For Lashes – Two Suns

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns

Following on from the Mercury-nominated Fur And Gold was never going to be easy for Bat For Lashes, but Natasha Khan not only managed it but was awarded with a second nomination for her trouble. And the judges were quite right to do so – Two Suns is absolutely a big step up from Khan’s already brilliant first record. For me, its best moments are those where she really turns up the widescreen bombast – see jaw-dropping centrepiece ‘Siren Song’, or the thundering drums and almost palpable atmosphere created on ‘Glass’ and ‘Two Planets’. The album also contains Khan’s biggest pop number to date – ‘Daniel’ is effortlessly catchy whilst losing none of the ethereal sensibility that made us fall in love with Bat For Lashes in the first place. Add in fragile ballads like ‘Moon And Moon’ that really see her shine as a vocalist, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the year’s most captivating records – the end result is nothing short of stunning. In a year that almost seemed to make a mockery of the concept of ‘difficult second albums’, Two Suns stands out as one of the most masterful progressions, boldly staking its claim as one of the finest records released in 2009.

3. The Horrors – Primary Colours

The Horrors - Primary Colours

As much as I loved The Horrors’ debut album, Strange House, I have to admit that its raw garage rock sound would have struggled to sustain the band for a second record. They were essentially faced with the choice to evolve or die – but little did I realise just how spectacular the band’s evolution would be. In hindsight, it seems more obvious – the band are avid record collectors, so any influences here could probably have been picked out of their stashes of vinyl even around the time of Strange House.

But to say that The Horrors merely have a good collection of influences would be to undermine the quality of music on Primary Colours. Meticulous synths collide with sludgy guitar noise on ‘Mirror’s Image’, ‘Scarlet Fields’ builds itself up from a relentless bassline into a hazy, swirling masterpiece, and album-closer ‘Sea Within A Sea’ is frankly astonishing. This is a record that’s atmospheric, accomplished, and even (*gasp*) emotional in places – ‘Who Can Say’ sees Faris replaces his vicious snarl with a surprisingly sincere tone as he tackles the theme of fading love. Judged purely on its own merits, Primary Colours is a fantastic record – that it came from a band who the critics were all but ready to write off just makes it all the more of a victory for The Horrors.

2. Grammatics – Grammatics

Grammatics - Grammatics

Sometimes, you feel lucky – privileged even – to have caught a band in the early stages of their career. It was a feeling I definitely felt upon seeing Grammatics live for the first time, and having followed them since their first 7″ single (‘Shadow Committee’) I was absolutely thrilled to see the band’s talent come to fruition on their debut full-length. Their ambition shines through in the sheer diversity of their music, which effortlessly transitions between different styles and sounds – sometimes even mid-song.

And what songs they are. ‘Relentless Fours’ builds from a fragile, off-kilter keyboard loop all the way to histrionic howling and thrashed-out guitar, via an effortlessly graceful mid-section. The tense, paranoid atmosphere of ‘D.I.L.E.M.M.A.’ contrasts beautifully with the understated, sweetly-sung pop of ‘Murderer’,  and melancholy epic ‘Polar Swelling’ is aptly titled, building itself up to an emotional finale. Indeed, this is an album of gut-wrenching, heart-stopping emotion throughout, whether it be on the plaintive ‘Broken Wing’, the shimmering hope of ‘The Vague Archive’, or the brief but brilliant rollercoaster of ‘Rosa Flood’. Owen Brinley’s soaring voice is constantly underpinned by stirring, varied backdrops stuffed full of melodic hooks – and yet, on fragile acoustic track ‘Cruel Tricks Of The Light’, he proves that his voice is a beautiful instrument in its own right.

Grammatics is an unparalleled debut album from one of the most inventive new British bands in recent memory – but thrillingly, I can’t help but feel that they have every potential to better it. If there’s any justice, this should be just the beginning of something very, very special.

1. Fever Ray – Fever Ray

Fever Ray - Fever Ray

Mesmerising. Unsettling. Affecting. Bewildering. Brilliant.

I could throw descriptive language at you all day and still struggle to capture exactly what it is I love about Fever Ray’s self-titled album. Whether I listen to it in the hazy light of morning or the very dark of night, it never fails to come across as anything but completely, all-encompassingly atmospheric. Karin Dreijer Andersson has produced some of the densest, most richly layered soundscapes I’ve heard all year, but it’s her voice that’s the star of the show.

Whether maintaining her distinctive accented tones or warping them into a menacing, otherworldly growl, it’s absolutely captivating – as is the way her lyrics mix the mundane, the surreal and the fantastical with a constant sense of raw emotion. From the wide-eyed, childlike hope of ‘When I Grow Up’ to the oppressive claustrophobia of ‘Concrete Walls’, you’re constantly made to *feel* something – and if you manage to listen to ‘Keep The Streets Empty For Me’ without it stirring up *some* sort of emotion, then you should probably check your pulse. The fact that Fever Ray may well be a one-off solo record for Karin may be good news for fans of The Knife – but it also means we should treasure this wonderful piece of art all the more. Simply put, this is a record to lose yourself in – it’s nothing short of completely immersive and stunningly beautiful.

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Obligatory End Of Year Megapost, pt I: Albums of the Year: 20-10

Well, it’s pretty much the end of the year, and so it’s time to make some sort of definitive list of what I considered the best albums of 2009. Yes, I already touched on this briefly here, but subsequently some re-evaluation has gone on in my mind. The first part of my end of year series covers albums 20-10 in my top 20 list.

20. The Temper Trap – Conditions

The Temper Trap - Conditions

When it comes to describing music, ‘epic’ is an overused word – and yet, I’m struggling to think of a better catch-all term to describe The Temper Trap. So perhaps I should try to pin down what I mean when I describe Conditions as ‘epic’. It’s not a pure instrumental epic like something by Explosions In The Sky – although that’s not to say that the instrumentation doesn’t pack a punch. But this is primarily an ‘epic’ record in the way it conveys emotion – making the simplest sentiment sound huge, life-affirming even. ‘Sweet Disposition’ is the perfect example, a shimmering, impossibly feel-good tune that can’t help but tug at the heartstrings. Then there’s ‘Love Lost’, which swells with so much joy and relief that it sounds like it’s going to burst by the end of the song. ‘Science Of Fear’, on the other hand, conveys a racy, infectious sense of paranoia, and ‘Drum Song’ provides a pulse-pounding instrumental finale. Even if they don’t end up going on to bigger things, The Temper Trap sure as hell sound like they should do – this stuff feels made for big stages.

19. Patrick Wolf – The Bachelor

Patrick Wolf - The Bachelor

After witnessing Patrick Wolf’s wonderful show at the London Palladium, it occured to me that perhaps I had been a little bit harsh in leaving his latest album out of my initial list. Yes, ‘Vulture’ was a bit of a mis-step, ‘Battle’ is unarguably the worst thing he’s ever recorded, and ‘Theseus’ gets tarnished by Tilda Swinton’s over-zealous contribution.

But apart from that it’s actually rather good – ‘Hard Times’ easily matches the greatest pop moments on The Magic Position, ‘Count Of Casualty’ is one of the best fusions of his classical and electronic influences since ‘Paris’, and ‘The Sun Is Often Out’ ranks among the most moving songs Patrick has ever recorded. Add the high drama of the likes of ‘Oblivion’ and ‘Damaris’ and a collaboration (with Eliza Carthy) that actually works on the title track, and on balance you have a winning formula. After making three wonderful records, for Patrick Wolf to produce an album that’s merely ‘good’ is a noticeable drop in quality – but judged on its own merits, it’s a worthy record.

18. Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

As much as it’s good – necessary, even – to be challenged by the music we hear, sometimes you just want something that’s easy to listen to. There’s nothing wrong with a record being instantly catchy, and Phoenix‘s fourth album is exactly that – scour the year’s releases and you’ll struggle to find a more immediately appealing record than Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix. From the dance-around-your-bedroom fun of ‘Lisztomania’ to the wistful longing of ‘Rome’, it’s a great pop record without ever seeming throwaway. Indeed, the band seem to deftly succeed at whatever they try their hand to here – even the slow-building instrumental ‘Love Like A Sunset Part I’ not only works in its own right, but also within the context of the album as a whole. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix is a finely-crafted, yet understated gem of a record – the only thing that you’ll find a challenge is trying not to like it.

17. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – It’s Blitz!

Yeah Yeah Yeahs - It's Blitz!

Panicked reports that that the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs record “DOESN’T HAVE ANY GUITARS ON IT!!” proved to be premature – you only have to get as far as the second track of It’s Blitz! before the trusty six-string returns to the mix. But make no mistake, for most of the record guitars take a back seat – whether on big floor-fillers (‘Heads Will Roll’), or fragile ballads (‘Skeleton’), synths are unquestionably the driving force behind this record. There’s no better example of this than first single ‘Zero’ – a pulsating electro-disco anthem which pretty much only sounds like a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song because of Karen O’s characteristic vocals. The closest the band come to the sound of their first two records is on ‘Dull Life’, but it’s the only moment on the record where the guitar truly reclaims the spotlight – the rest of the time, guitar lines find themselves either engaged in a constant tête-à-tête with synth lines, or end up being displaced by them entirely.  The real triumph of It’s Blitz! is that the band have made a record that, despite being a marked departure, still manages to sit naturally alongside their existing body of work. This is, without doubt, still very much a Yeah Yeah Yeahs record – and it’s a very, very good Yeah Yeah Yeahs record.

16. St. Vincent – Actor

St. Vincent - Actor

The first impression I got of this album was one of disarming innocence – thanks largely to the soft, pretty tones of Annie Clark’s voice. But Actor (her second album as St. Vincent) quickly reveals its darker side – whether it be through fuzzy blasts of guitar or sweetly-sung yet yet troubled lyrics. ‘The Bed’ sounds like a childish tale of hiding from monsters under the bed, but quickly takes a sinister turn (“Don’t move/Don’t scream/Or we will have to shoot”), while ‘Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” sees Clark come to the bleak realisation that “All my old friends aren’t so friendly/All my old haunts are now haunting me”. Even ‘Actor Out Of Work’, the record’s most upbeat track, sees her listing the faults of a potential suitor before eventually concluding “I think I love you, I think I’m mad”. It’s the lyrical and musical juxtapositions that make Actor an album of surprising depth – St. Vincent mixes the pretty voice of Feist with the instrumentation and tone of Patrick Wolf to create a beautiful album with a dark heart.

15. PJ Harvey & John Parish – A Woman A Man Walked By

PJ Harvey & John Parish - A Woman A Man Walked By

Having embraced a very minimal, piano-based instrumental style on previous album White Chalk, PJ Harvey decided to step away from the responsibility of writing music entirely by teaming up once again with long-time collaborator John Parish. The resulting album, A Woman A Man Walked By, is surely one of the most diverse bodies of work in Harvey’s back catalogue. The most conventional (but nevertheless brilliant) thing you’ll find here is darkened guitar stomper ‘Black Hearted Love’, and from there the record veers all over the place. From haunting White Chalk fragility (‘Leaving California’) to raw Rid Of Me filth (‘A Woman A Man Walked By’), the album encompasses a whole range of emotions – snarling madness, poignant sadness, the burden of having loved and lost. Certainly, the sparse, focused nature of White Chalk was utterly brilliant – but it’s equally gratifying to see PJ Harvey seizing the opportunity to experiment a little as well. Crucially, however, A Woman A Man Walked By is as consistent in its quality as it is varied in its ideas – and that makes it one of the year’s most engaging and interesting records.

14. Dananananaykroyd – Hey Everyone!

Dananananaykroyd - Hey Everyone!

Sometimes, less is more. With Dananananaykroyd, on the other hand, more is definitely more – you can almost guess as much from the name, never mind the fact the band have two drummers. As such, bar the disarmingly poppy four minutes of ‘Black Wax’, Hey Everyone! is basically a riotous, thousand-mile-an-hour cacophony. There’s so much going going on in any given song that it’s amazing how ordered the band’s chaos sounds – rather than trip each other up in a frantic dash to the finish, the components of a song run alongside each other in a seemingly effortless fashion. The overall effect is a record that constantly feels like it’s going to throw up with sheer excitement at its own existance – it’s big, it’s loud, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

13. Arctic Monkeys – Humbug

Arctic Monkeys - Humbug

“Don’t care if it’s marketing suicide, we won’t crack or compromise…”

Remember that line? Arctic Monkeys continued to prove that they weren’t kidding around with that statement of intent with their third album Humbug – an album that makes the sonic departures on previous record Favourite Worst Nightmare look like mere baby steps. There’s little room for concession here – the closest we get to a ‘Mardy Bum’ or ‘Fluorescent Adolescent’ is quirky strum-along ‘Cornerstone’, and lead single ‘Crying Lightning’ proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. The overall sound of Humbug was at times even darker than that song suggested – the guitars swathed in reverb, the lyrics far more cryptic. But if the band had churned out second and third records that were just re-treading old ground, would people still care? Actually, they probably would – so it’s to the band’s credit that they’ve chosen to push hard in a new direction and hoped that their fans will follow them, rather than letting their style be dictated by what the public supposedly wants.

12. The Big Pink – A Brief History Of Love

The Big Pink - A Brief History Of Love

On the strength of their first three singles alone, The Big Pink looked to be on to a winner – ‘Too Young To Love’ swirled and churned itself into a gloriously hazy blur, ‘Dominos’ contained one of the year’s most colossal choruses, and ‘Velvet’ struck a sublime balance between fragile emotion and powerful noise. Happily, there’s a lot more to A Brief History Of Love than its singles. The dirty, hypnotic noise of opener ‘Crystal Visions’ sounds like early BRMC (and by extension, The Jesus And Mary Chain), ‘A Brief History Of Love’ is a reverb-laden yet touching ballad, and ‘Tonight’ might as well just have a big sign slapped on it saying “I AM THE NEXT DOMINOS” (it’s not *quite* as good, but still). If it’s colossal, emotionally-charged walls of sound you’re after, this album is exactly what you’re looking for.

11. HEALTH – Get Color

HEALTH - Get Color

I saw HEALTH live when they were touring their first album, and despite the fact they put on an impressive, powerful show, I found it difficult to connect with their music. Second record Get Color adds the missing ingredient to the mix, tempering their blistering noise with persistent melodies – both in the form of vocal lines and instrumental hooks. Things feel a lot more structured this time round, and the results are nothing less than fantastic – in particular ‘Die Slow’, which underpins its splurges of noise and echoy vocals with a convulsing guitar line and relentless drumming. HEALTH have created a record that manages to be unsettling, yet appealing at the same time – and without compromising what made them interesting in the first place. Take ‘Severin’ for instance – the stop-start chaos of the first 30 seconds is utterly brutal, and yet the song’s main guitar riff isn’t a million miles away from something you’d hear on a Bloc Party record. It’s this sort of contrast that makes Get Color feel almost morbidly compelling – this album is a masterclass in uneasy listening.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Battle For UK Christmas Number One

The battle for this year’s Christmas Number One does represent an unlikely dichotomy. In the red corner, classic FUCK YOU I WON’T TIDY MY BEDROOM DO WHAT YOU TELL ME rap-rock anger from Rage Against The Machine, re-appropriated by Facebook campaigners as a rallying cry against the banality of the mainstream music industry. In the blue corner, the gleaming, fresh-faced winner of this year’s X-Factor, who will no doubt sell hundreds of thousands of copies despite the fact that they’re set to release a Miley Cyrus song that no-one over the age of about 12 will have heard of.

I’ll start by briefly pointing out that there are far more appropriate/more Christmassy/funnier/better(!) songs which could be chosen to take on the X Factor – my pick would be ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys, for the lolz. But never mind, let’s talk talk cold, hard numbers. Making the loose assumption that this year’s X Factor single will be at least as popular as Alexandra Burke’s cover of ‘Hallelujah’ was last year, the RATM campaigners will need to aim to beat a figure of 576,000 copies sold (if not more). As it stands right now, the Facebook group has over 611,000 members, meaning that, in theory, if each member of the group buys at least one copy, ‘Killing In The Name’ could make it to Christmas number one. Of course, that’s a big ‘if’ – I’d say they’d be extremely lucky to get even half that number actually buying the single, and thus seem destined to lose. But even if they do win, it would seem a hollow victory in my opinion – the fact that Simon Cowell has created something that has made hundreds of thousands of people pledge to go out of their way to try and stop it makes it feel like he’s already won before a single record has been bought.

That hasn’t stopped him throwing a hissy fit about it though, claiming that having a number one single will “change these guys’ lives”. Really Simon? Try telling that to Michelle McManus. Or Leon Jackson. Or Steve Brookstein – who has even jokingly hit out at Cowell’s response to the campaign. The small number of lasting success stories from the Pop-Factor-Idol-Academy stable of shows is telling – it’s not the instant number one single that has the potential to be life-changing, it’s whether or not you’re marketable afterwards. The likes of Girls Aloud, Will Young and Leona Lewis, yes – the aforementioned winners and others like them, not so much.

Perhaps that’s why Cowell so desperately wants to defend this year’s winner – because, to be honest, no matter who wins, I struggle to see lasting success for them. Previous male winners have tended towards early success before burning out and dropping back into obscurity, and if Stacey wins she effectively has to compete with both Leona Lewis and Alexandra Burke – thus having every potential to get left by the wayside. As such, this number one single could be the winner’s big chance for glory – but that doesn’t mean Cowell can act like he has some sort of right to ensure the winner gets an immediate number one single. The contract offered to the winner is a record deal, not necessarily a ticket to overnight stardom – and while the show’s ubiquity almost ensures popularity in the short term, it’s not something that should be taken for granted. Besides, we all know the real ‘winners’ of this series are actually Jedward – and even they will be forced back to reality once the novelty wears off.

As for the battle for number one, in financial terms Sony Music Entertainment is the winner, being as it’s the parent company of both Cowell’s record company Syco, and RATM’s record label Epic. Which is, why, in the end, you should probably just buy this instead of ‘Killing In The Name’ (or as well as, if you insist):

It’s by HUNKS + Friends (basically a collection of ace indie bands), it’s called ‘The Magic Of Christmas’, and yes, it’s as cheesy as a packet of cheesy Wotsits covered in cheese. But go on, it’s for charidee and everything!

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The ‘BBC Sound Of 2010’ Longlist

The end of the year is traditionally time for two things in the music industry: End Of Year lists (yes, mine will be forthcoming), and ‘Tips For Next Year’ lists. Of these, one of the most discussed will inevitably be the BBC’s ‘Sound Of 2010’ list – and as they’ve just released this year’s longlist, guess what I’m going to do?

Daisy Dares You

The only pretentious thing about Daisy Dares You is the fact that she’s got a song named ‘Daisy Dares You’ – this is only a good idea if your band is named, say, Grinderman. The song in question sounds like an autotuned pop-punk Lily Allen, and I’m now at the age where I’m not entirely comfortable watching made-up, barely-legal girls prancing round trying to look older than they are. It’s quite clear who she’s aimed at, but as far as I’m concerned she’s utterly throwaway – she’ll either be a big pop hit or vanish into obscurity very quickly.

Delphic

Delphic have a pulsating electronic sound that builds and builds, as well as big, euphoric vocal hooks to draw you in straight away. Their  infectious dance-rock is likely to be a big indie success, but certainly has crossover potential too – and is surely a shoe-in for inclusion in 2010’s indie-disco soundtrack.

Devlin

Devlin is a white, London-based rapper who seems to me like a less polished version of Mike Skinner – but I’d imagine he’ll draw favourable comparisons too. If nothing else, the easy vibe and straightforward lyrics of ‘London City’ seem a surefire mainstream club hit.

The Drums

OBAMAAAA! I WANNA GO SURFIIIIING!

Ok, those may not be the actual lyrics – although the lines “Wake up, there’s a new kid in the town/Honey, he’s moving into the big house” do make me wonder…

Anyway, aside from the instantly brilliant surf-pop genius of ‘Let’s Go Surfing’, there’s… well, more instantly brilliant surf-pop genius along the lines of ‘I Felt Stupid’ and ‘Submarine’, as well as more thoughtful, swaying ballads such as ‘Down By The Water’. I would be stupefied if The Drums don’t go on to any sort of success, even if it’s just in indie circles.

Everything Everything

There’s something very ‘clever-clever’ about Everything Everything, but those who like their music to be arty, challenging and varied without sacrificing melody or a sense of catchiness can’t really go wrong with them. There’s something of Wild Beasts’ vocal histrionics in the singer’s voice, but it’s thankfully reined in enough to be less of an obstacle than Hayden Thorpe’s falsetto. In fact, I have to say that the more I listened to them, the more I liked them.

Giggs

While his slow, thoughtful delivery is a somewhat refreshing change from the rapid-fire pace of most MCs, I kinda struggle to see Giggs gaining much commercial success – especially when you contrast his style to the more gonzoid pop moments of Dizzee Rascal, for example. Still, that’s probably not what he’s after, and I wouldn’t bet against him making an impact in hip-hop circles this year.

Gold Panda

Gold Panda makes lo-fi, distorted, ambient electronic tracks that are actually rather pleasing to the ear. So while you’re not going to find something like ‘Quitter’s Raga’ in the top 40 any time soon, I can see him gaining a lot of critical acclaim in the coming year.

Ellie Goulding

If 2008’s big trend was female singer-songwriters, and 2009’s was female electro artists, Ellie Goulding is what you get if you smash the two together. There’s something almost unnatural about her quivering voice, but given the mainstream-friendly nature of her electro sound I wouldn’t be surprised if she manages to be a crossover success.

Hurts

Isn’t pretending you’re in the 80s ‘so last year’ already? Apparently not, as Hurts probably sound like any 80s synth-pop band you’d care to name – the BBC themselves cite Tears For Fears as a reference point, which seems like as good a shout (sorry) as any. But can this band really hope to succeed when their music already sounds a bit… dated, somehow? Guess this’ll really test whether the 80’s revival has any legs or not…

Joy Orbison

Well, I like the name, at least. It’s dance with a hint of dubstep about it, and to my ear at least it’s pretty decent. That’s about all I can say really – but why have the tastemakers picked Joy Orbison in particular? I guess I don’t know enough about the dance music scene (or dance music in general) to figure that one out.

Marina And The Diamonds

I saw Marina And The Diamonds on this Autumn’s NME Radar Tour, and to be honest I was less than impressed. The most interesting thing she did was cover Late Of The Pier’s ‘Space And The Woods’ – and of course, it was still nowhere near as good as the original. One of my friends at work said she basically sounded like bad Florence And The Machine, and I’d agree. On record, everything seems so glossy and overproduced as to be dull, and I’m still not convinced by her voice. She’s obviously got a big budget behind her though, so I’d imagine there are going to be some disappointed faces at Warner if she doesn’t take off next year…

Owl City

I’m sure this has already been said, but have The Postal Service heard this? Because this is basically someone ripping them off. Badly. Really badly. And that basically means that Owl City is turning something brilliant and emotional into something trite and formulaic. Unforgivable dross that will probably inspire at least a couple of ‘Get The Postal Service To Number One!’ Facebook groups if it comes anywhere near the UK charts.

Rox

Female soul singer Rox manages to fill two obligatory requirements of the list in one go – not only is she this year’s ‘next Amy Winehouse’, she’s also fits nicely into the ‘Brit School Alumni’ category as well. Regardless of this (or perhaps because of it), she’s neither particularly exciting or original – she’s even got a song called “My Baby Left Me”, for crying out loud. Next…

Stornoway

Well aren’t these guys oh so very twee –  there’s something very limp about the whole Stornoway experience, and even the brassy bits sound like The Rumble Strips with less balls. I mean it’s all very nice, but that’s just me damning them with faint praise. To be fair though, they’re better when they at least have a go something gutsy on ‘Unfaithful’ – even if the singer’s voice does neuter that slightly. Not bad by any means, I just don’t find them to be anything special.

Two Door Cinema Club

Now this, on the other hand, I like. Crisscrossing guitars and relentless beats are good match in my mind, and the band’s poppy vocal hooks mean that a measure of crossover success isn’t entirely out of the question. I can see Two Door Cinema Club being ones to keep an eye on regardless.

So, for the tl;dr crowd, I’ll pick my personal top 5 from the list – I’m not talking in terms of success here, just the 5 that I like the most.

5) Two Door Cinema Club
4) Delphic
3) Gold Panda
2) Everything Everything
1) The Drums

Overall, it’s quite a mixed longlist – there are definitely acts that have been earmarked primarily for commercial success as well as those that have really struck a chord musically. I’ll be interested to see how the BBC’s top 5 pans out, anyway. In fact, I’ll take a stab at predicting it:

5) Everything Everything
4) Delphic
3) Marina And The Diamonds
2) The Drums
1) Ellie Goulding

I’d round this up with some personal ‘picks for 2010’, but to be frank I don’t really have any. I guess that’s why I’m not one of the tastemakers, eh?

Edit: Actually, that’s not quite true. I’ve got 4 words for you: Pulled Apart By Horses.

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This Scene Is Dead. Is This Scene Dead? – A Brief Evaluation Of York’s Music Scene

It’s fair to say that, over the past year, I’ve been far more exposed to York‘s music scene than I ever have before – a somewhat ironic fact, perhaps, but true nonetheless. Working at The Duchess for over a year has meant I’ve seen more local bands than I could ever have actually wanted to – and inevitably that includes more than a fair share of dross. When listening to the umpteenth terrible band and wishing they’d just finish already, it’s tempting to write off the scene as a whole – but are there glimmers of hope to be had? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first I’ll pick through some of that detritus.

It’s difficult to pick one band that sums up the bad aspects of York’s music scene – mainly because the shit bands are all awful for different reasons. Sometimes it’s just because they’re lazy copyists – take Skylights, who ply their trade doing an utterly IQ-deficient impression of The Stone Roses, or The Lookout, who desperately want to be The Beatles but end-up producing sub-sub-sub-Oasis bollocks. Sometimes, it’s the sound of band members attempting to live up to past glories and failing miserably. Take Chris Helme, who once worked with John Squire as part of vaguely popular 90s Britpop types The Seahorses – he played his last gig with his post-Seahorses project The Yards last Saturday, and it was hard work getting through an hour and a half of largely samey-MOR rock. Ex-Colour Of Fire drummer Matt Lunn suffered a similar fate after the band’s split – he now plays drums for electro-indie outfit The Officers, who aren’t even a fraction as exciting as Colour Of Fire were.

There’s also the parts of the scene that I have no real affinity with and thus hate by default no matter how lauded they are in their respective musical circles. Take local prog-rock types Mostly Autumn and spin-off project Breathing Space – a pair of bands that make me a little bit depressed just thinking about them, to say nothing of how I feel after having been forced to listen to them for what inevitably seems like an eternity. Similarly, it seems that for every decent metal band in York there are about ten utterly abominable ones. And then there are the bands who are just genuinely, irredeemably shit. I won’t even bother mentioning most of their names, but I will stop to pick on one band in particular – Astrae, who at this moment are the most terrible local band I can think of, defined as they are by the histrionic emo whining of a man who looks like Chris Crocker. Awful.

But that’s enough negativity already – the question is: “Is there any hope for York’s local scene?” On balance, my answer would be a tentative “Yes”.

First and foremost, we have The Federals – easily the most exciting thing in York right now, their support slot with The Yards last Saturday showed up the headliners for the plodding dullards that they really are. Taut, snarling bursts of no-nonsense garage rock combined with the sheer loudness of their sound makes them a thrilling prospect. They’ve even picked up a little bit of national recognition, from a somewhat incongruous support slot on The Veronicas’ tour to Fearne Cotton being papped wearing one of the band’s t-shirts. While I wouldn’t go as far to make some daft statement like predicting ‘Big Things™’ for them in 2010, I will say that if there’s one band that has a chance to really break out of the local scene, it’s them.

Speaking of which, the last York-based band to really enter the public consciousness was Hijak Oscar – largely thanks to their involvement in Channel 4’s MobileAct Unsigned and their subsequent decision to walk off the show. Well, they’re still around, and while their music isn’t not the kind of thing I’d want to hear an extended set of, they’re entertaining in small doses and certainly very good at what they do – as they proved quite aptly during their short set at Duchesstival last Sunday.

Also present at Duchesstival were a couple of bands who haven’t played for a while, but who both reminded me just how good they are. First, The Buccaneers, who sound like the garage rock band that Kings Of Leon should have been all along – arrestingly melodic howl of a vocal and all. Secondly, The Blueprints, who’ve been somewhat AWOL for a while but have returned complete with new keyboardist to brighten up our dull little lives with their sparklingly perfect indie-pop gems. Other good bands off the top of my head: Glass, who do a good line in dark, theatrical, slightly Interpol-esque rock, and Lost From Atlas, who sound a bit like Battles – and that’s always a good thing in my book. It’s also worth briefly mentioning the proliferation of singer-songwriters and acoustic artists in York – although it does make it difficult for any one person to particularly stand out, there are certainly some talented individuals out there.

So, while it’s struggled to produce acts that have really broken out of the city in the same way that, for example, Leeds has, there are still some good things to be found in York’s music scene. It’s just that you have to sift through a hell of a lot of chaff to find them.

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