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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.