Tag Archives: The National

“Baby You Left Me Sad And High.” – An Overly Personal Look At My Top 6 Albums Of 2013

It’s easy to forget in the flurry of lists that inevitably appears at this time of year, but music is ultimately a personal thing (…I don’t think that’s the first time I’ve said something like that on this blog). All told, this has been a pretty blockbuster year, particularly when 2012 felt relatively lean in comparison (to me, at least). With so many great records around, how do you decide the most worthy of praise? Personally, I keep coming back to the albums that have the greatest emotional resonance – and in that regard, 2013 has conspired to produce half a dozen records that align with the various emotions I’ve often felt this year. “…But I will not spill my guts out.”  – though if you read between the lines, perhaps I’ve come a little closer to doing so than I’d care to admit…

6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

A friend of mine compared the words of Nick Cave to the ramblings of a madman when I was playing this record on a drive home, and to be honest, I found it difficult to refute him – but then, the line between madness and genius is one that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have often straddled. Cave’s lyrics on Push The Sky Away may seem impenetrable on first listen, but focus on them a little more intently and you’ll find some surprising moments of clarity – and I’m not just talking about the year’s most oddly prescient reference to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (on ‘Higgs Boson Blues’).

There’s the wounded pride of ‘Mermaids’, whose opening lines suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks one evening (“She was a catch, and we were a match. I was the match that would fire up her snatch. There was a catch: I was no match.”), or the desperate longing of ‘We Real Cool’, perhaps epitomised by the line “Wikipedia is heaven, when you don’t wanna remember no more.” But its most stirring moment comes at the close of the album, with ‘Push The Sky Away’ having the quiet yet bloody-minded determination of a man close to breaking point – “You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away.”

5. Daughter – If You Leave

Daughter - If You Leave

Daughter – If You Leave

Honestly, Daughter could pretty much have been designed by committee to appeal to me. Beautiful shrinking violet of a singer whose voice is gentle while still having an undeniable power? Check. Lyrics about love, loss and heartache? Check. Set to a backdrop of swooning guitars and tasteful percussion? Check. Thankfully, If You Leave never seems as cynically conceived as that – indeed, it’s a record of such sincerity that one can’t escape the feeling that vocalist Elena Tonra might be nursing some serious emotional wounds.

Don’t get me wrong, the music is gorgeous, but it’s the way it combines with Tonra’s lyrics that really makes this album so special. She’s at her most affecting when she’s making the kind of desperate pleas that will no doubt go unrecognised by the one person they’re aimed at: “Don’t bring tomorrow, ’cause I already know I’ll lose you.” / “Please take me back to when I was yours.” / “Give me touch, ’cause I’ve been missing it.” But she’s also equally moving when dealing with other aspects of loss and heartache, as evidenced by ‘Still’s portrayal of a disintegrating relationship or ‘Youth’s bitter inability to let go of the past. Even ‘Human’, the one moment of defiant resilience on If You Leave, ends in defeat – “Despite everything, I’m still human… but I think I’m dying here.”

4. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

If Daughter have effortlessly captured the feeling of heartbreak on If You Leave , then Arctic Monkeys have created an unlikely yet perfect companion piece in AM – an album that focuses on romantic and sexual obsession. It’s there from the off with the sultry groove of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ (“…if this feeling flows both ways?”), before ‘R U Mine?’ ramps up the ante and throws down the gauntlet to a desired partner – “Are you mine tomorrow, or just mine tonight?” It’s an album about being obsessed with someone whether you’re awake or asleep – “I dreamt about you nearly every night this week.” / “I just cannot manage to make it through the day without thinking of you lately.” – and also about trying to satisfy that desire (‘One For The Road’, ‘Knee Socks’).

But it also touches on the situations that would lead these thoughts to occupy your mind – being too close to the one who used to love you (‘Fireside’), seeing an old flame and feeling like they could do so much better than their current beau (‘Snap Out Of It’), or simply being completely wasted (‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’). In the end though, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ closes the album with the admission that Turner is ultimately following his heart rather than his libido – though he’d certainly like to satisfy the latter in the process.

3. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Wait a minute, isn’t this all supposed to be about feelings and emotions? What’s a largely wordless album of electronica doing here? And yet, the reason I love Immunity is precisely because Jon Hopkins manages to imbue his electronica with a sense of emotion. Perhaps it’s most obvious on the sensual, throbbing ‘Collider’, a song which bristles with a relentless sexual energy. It’s immediately followed by the most perfectly-placed comedown in ‘Abandon Window’, which is all stark pianos and ambient swells, together with the fireworks exploding in the distance, as if to emphasise some far-off celebration that the listener is barely part of. King Creosote also appears on the title track to add even more emotional weight to proceedings, with his distant, mournful voice delivering lines like “you said forever was unkind,” as the record comes to a beautiful climax.

But even outside of that, there’s joy to be had in the pure, propulsive techno of  ‘We Disappear’ and ‘Open Eye Signal’, or the way that the piano chords cut through ‘Breathe This Air’ like a moment of clarity. All told, Immunity combines relentless thrills with a melancholy comedown to create one of the year’s most smartly constructed and perfectly-paced records.

2. These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

Again, the latest record from These New Puritans might seem like an odd fit in this list. Were it not for the sheer emotional power of my number one album, Field Of Reeds would probably take its place thanks to its unquestionable compositional mastery. But under the surface, it too is an emotional record – frontman and chief composer Jack Barnett has stressed as much in interviews. The album is able to match the power of classical music to create feelings without words – epitomised by the lump-in-your-throat moment when ‘Organ Eternal’ reaches its crescendo – with the ability to be explicit with words in the manner of a pop song, as on ‘Nothing Else’ (“I pray that just for a minute, real life and dreaming swap places”).

Make no mistake, These New Puritans have crafted an emotional journey on Field Of Reeds – just not in a conventional manner. But then, one shouldn’t expect anything remotely nearing ‘conventional’ from the band these days – and that’s another reason why I love them. (You can find many more reasons in my review of the record over on Soundsphere Magazine.)

1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Over the past five years, The National have gone from being a band I like and casually listen to now and again, to one I absolutely adore. 2010’s High Violet was the catalyst (as I’m sure it was for many others), slowly winning me over and causing me to re-visit the copies of Boxer and Alligator that I already owned but had yet to truly fall in love with. By the time I had attended the ATP event that the band curated at the end of 2012, they’d captured a permanent piece of my (medium-sized American English) heart. All of which leads us to Trouble Will Find Me, whose mere existence made it an almost certain contender for album of the year in my eyes – but that didn’t stop it from having the settling-in period that all records by The National seem to have. But when it hit, it hit hard.

Pretty much every single song on this album has at least something about it that yanks at my heart or sets my mind racing – and I’m hardly even going to have room to mention the wonderful sonics on display, such is the intense nature of this record’s lyrics. ‘Demons’ describes a feeling of social inadequacy, (“But when I walk into a room I do not light it up. FUCK.”), ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ cuts to the heart of emotional turmoil (“I have only two emotions: careful fear and dead devotion. I can’t get the balance right.”) and ‘Graceless’ tackles feelings of self-loathing (“You can’t imagine how I hate this, graceless.”).

But many of the record’s finest moments concern matters of the heart. ‘Fireproof’ portrays the devastating realisation of a gulf between two ex-lovers (“You’re a million miles away, doesn’t matter any more.), the final lines of ‘This Is The Last Time’ perfectly sum up the bittersweet nature of lost love (“Baby you gave me bad ideas. Baby you left me sad and high.”), ‘Slipped’ mourns a would-be relationship that will never come to fruition (“I’ll be a friend and a fuck and everything, but I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be.”), ‘I Need My Girl’ captures the way losing someone can make us feel incomplete (“I can’t get my head around it, I keep feeling smaller and smaller. I need my girl.”) – I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll just leave you with one final example, a line from ‘Hard To Find’ that caught me completely off-guard when I wasn’t even listening to the album – I saw it while reading through the lyrics. “I’m not holding out for you, but I’m still watching for the signs. If I tried, you’d probably be hard to find.” 

The lyric “And if you want to see me cry, play Let It Be or Nevermind,” appears in the chorus of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ – and I can’t help but think that, years from now, Trouble Will Find Me might be cited by some future artist as being similarly tear-inducing. It certainly has that effect on me sometimes.

Find a Spotify playlist containing all these albums here.

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I Don’t Wanna Get Over You: A Review Of ATP Curated By The National

All Tomorrow's PartiesBecause I’m a lazy ass, I never got round to writing about last year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Butlins in Minehead (a surreal location for a very independent event), which was curated by Les Savy Fav, Battles and Caribou. It was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend, featuring such brilliant moments as Les Savy Fav’s lunatic headline set on Friday (“tell no-one what you saw here!” shouted Tim Harrington at one point), Battles tentatively but triumphantly reclaiming ‘Atlas’ from the spectre of Tyondai Braxton’s departure, Sun Ra Arkestra offering us delirious space-jazz, Pharaoh Sanders providing smooth, soulful sounds on Sunday afternoon, and far more besides – Wild Flag, No Age, Holy Fuck, Nisennenmondai, Cults and Factory Floor all proved to be highlights. As such, it didn’t take much for me to persuade myself to part with the cash for this year’s event, especially as it was curated by The National – a band who I’d only managed to see previously while surrounded by disinterested Strokes fans at Leeds Festival.

Several months and one change of venue later (thanks to ATP’s financial turmoil earlier in the year), we’re at Pontins in Camber Sands, which is no less of an odd location for such an event. I’ve heard various horror stories about the quality of accommodation there, but thankfully my friend Jonjo and I seem to have lucked into a decent enough chalet – basic, but serviceable and clean, and with the added advantage of a seemingly limitless electricity meter (we were warned that some people would have to purchase electricity, but apparently not us). There are some minor issues – the cooker and water heater share a switch, and there are only about four plug sockets in the entire chalet, but it certainly beats staying in a tent. Onwards…

Friday 7th December

The weekend starts with somewhat of an oddity thanks to Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry, who’s playing three completely different shows this weekend, the first of which is entitled Drones/Revelations. The larger of the festival’s two main rooms has been converted into a makeshift velodrome, and the piece is performed by a dozen or so cyclists, who circle round with cylindrical speakers attached to their bikes – the end result is that the music changes subtly, different melodies and noises peaking and dropping as each individual cyclist passes by. The word ‘Drones’ in the title turns out to be both a reference to the style of music and the unmanned drones used in modern warfare, as a looping voice provides quotes about them over the PA throughout the set. As an overall audiovisual spectacle, it’s a pretty mesmerising way to start the weekend – it’s probably one of those things that’s far more interesting to watch than it is to listen to someone talk about!

After taking a bit more time out to stock up on food, I decide to go catch a bit of Nico Muhly – his modern classical compositions are enjoyable enough, but I must confess I don’t remember much about the set apart from the fact that Owen Pallett apparently makes a mean sandwich. Hayden, on the other hand, provides us with some excellent folk-rock, matching his understated sounds with engaging storytelling.

Back in stage one, Hauschka prove to be a little too avant garde for our liking, so we head back to stage two. The lack of sleep is starting to catch up with me, so I make my first (and last) purchase of Monster energy drink and discover that it tastes like disappointment in a can. At least it seems to have the desired effect – or that might just have been Buke & Gase kicking my ass and providing one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. At first, they sound a bit like Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing ramshackle homemade instruments – the ‘Buke’, a modified 6-string baritone ukelele, and the ‘Gass’, a self-crafted guitar/bass hybrid. But the instruments aren’t just a cheap gimmick, as Arone Dyer and Aron Sanchez bring a real mix of sounds together to form some sort of grunge-funk-folk-punk brilliance – the pair conjure up a storm of scintillating, invigorating riffs backed up by an incessant 4/4 kick drum stomp, making their set a propulsive marvel from start to finish. Their debut record Riposte is an immediate impulse purchase afterwards, and it’s absolutely worth a listen.

We then attempt to watch Kronos Quartet, but don’t last more than five minutes as they’re currently in minimal, ultra-arty post-classical mode. The sparse, delicate folk of Luluc proves to be a much more appealing proposition – their lyrics and melodies are incredibly simple, but no less affecting for it. Zoe Randall’s vocals have an understated beauty to them, quietly commanding the audience’s attention throughout the duo’s set – on this evidence, their Aaron Dessner-produced new record will definitely be worth a listen.

Later on, Bear In Heaven seem pleasant enough on the main stage, but for some reason we decide it would be a better idea to go check out ambient noise artist Tim Hecker. The set is one, long flowing piece that transforms itself at a frankly glacial pace – it’s basically like listening to one of those ‘slowed down 800%’ videos on Youtube. Occasionally, something resembling a melody might drift into view, only to be quickly be obscured by a swell of bass. Oh God, the bass – it’s quite literally the most visceral thing we’ll hear (and feel) all weekend, with the low end frequencies reaching ribcage-shaking levels. It’s so visceral, in fact, that to leave would almost seem like pussying out, and so we stay until the end to claim our unwanted badge of honour – if it were a physical thing, it would probably read something like “I survived the Heckerpocalypse.” After about 40 minutes of bewildering noise, I’m not sure if I’ve had some sort of transcendental experience, or if I’ve simply been wasting my time – though I have a sneaking suspicion it’s probably the latter.

Japanese noise-rock band Boris are a chameleonic force – their first three songs alone span death metal, minimal psychedelic rock, and what can only be described as a more crazed version of Motörhead. It’s fair to say that some of these aspects come off better than others – for me, their pinnacle comes with their penultimate track, a sprawling, dynamic rock epic. There’s certainly no lack of energy throughout their set, particular from their drummer, whose animalistic yelps and frenzied playing are a definite highlight.

Saturday 8th December

Saturday starts out with an attempt to give Kronos Quartet another shot, and whether by chance or design they prove more accessible this time around. Sure, the perturbing avant guarde piece about 9/11 is perhaps a little much this early in the afternoon, but by contrast we get some tasteful Bollywood strings and a beautiful Swedish piece called ‘A Thousand Thoughts’. They finish their set on a lighter note, with a cover of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, which is either genius or sacrilege, depending on how you look at it.

I struggle to really connect with Lower Dens, so after half an hour I decide to go watch Richard Reed Parry’s folk set, entitled Quiet River Of Dust – and afterwards I wish I’d seen the whole thing. It proves to be a quirky and engaging performance – the first song I hear is about a boy who gets lost at sea and turns into a fish, if you want some sort of indication of what we’re working with. The fact that this is the trio’s first ever show also highlights ATP as the kind of festival where you get to see things you don’t get anywhere else.

Having seen This Is The Kit earlier in the year, I knew I was going to enjoy their performance – but I had genuinely forgotten how brilliant the band actually are. Mumford & Sons may have single-handedly ruined the banjo for just about everyone, but Kate Stables does the near-impossible and turns it into an instrument of subtle beauty – ‘Easy Pickings’ and ‘White Ash Cut’ being particularly strong examples. It doesn’t harm that her band surround her banjo lines with serenely atmospheric instrumentation – and it works equally well when Kate dons a guitar, as on the breathtaking ‘Spinney’. The set is peppered with equally impressive new songs, and even the band’s equipment has its admirers, with a random scouser describing the collection of instruments on stage as “like guitar porn.” Guitar porn or not, I’m absolutely looking forward to hearing a new record from the band next year.

Indeed, the evening is pretty stuffed with talent. Firstly, Polaris Prize nominee Kathleen Edwards delivers her folky, bluesy Americana with complete conviction – ‘Going To Hell’ in particular sounds like she’s really inhabiting the song and imbuing it with meaning. Next is Sharon Van Etten, whose captivating set is a timely reminder that I really do need to give her new album Tramp a proper listen – as it stands, ‘Give Out’ and ‘Serpents’ are my highlights. Finally, The Antlers suffer some technical difficulties but still manage to deliver a luscious set of their dream-like indie rock.

Without wishing to trivialise the other performers, however, tonight is all about Wild Beasts for me. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’m a huge fan of the band, and particularly their third album Smother – so their setlist tonight is pretty perfect for me. The first half of the show is Smother played in its entirety – finally getting to hear the gorgeous ‘Invisible’ live is a major personal highlight, but the whole record is impeccably recreated live, in all its damaged beauty. After a brief pause, the band then proceed to follow up with a flawless selection of songs from their previous two records – that is, ‘The Devil’s Crayon’ from Limbo, Panto, and all the best stuff from Two Dancers. Ending on the delirious one-two punch of ‘All The King’s Men’ and ‘Hooting And Howling’, Wild Beasts have yet again confirmed that they’re one of the finest bands that the UK has to offer – and yet, they’re humble in deference to the weekend’s curators, with Hayden suggesting that The National’s High Violet served as a blueprint for Smother. Clearly, that inspiration has served them very well indeed.

Sunday 9th December

Our first act on Sunday proves to be another of the weekend’s most surprisingly brilliant artists, Ethan Lipton, presenting a piece of musical theatre entitled No Place To Go. Together with his three-piece band, he delivers a story of a man forced to reconsider his place in the world after his company makes the decision to relocate to Mars. What follows is humorous, charming and even insightful in places – highlights include the ominous ‘Shitstorm’, the song about moving in with his ‘Ageing Middle-Class Parents’, the frantic hilarity of ‘Soccer Song’, and the sub-plot about the final sandwich in the conference room. By the time we’ve gone from the comfort of having a ‘Place To Go’ through to the triumphant, joyful conclusion, there’s no denying that Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra have delivered something fantastically entertaining.

Up in stage one, My Brightest Diamond gives one of the weekend’s more theatrical performances thanks to her quivering vocals and striking costume – but the mask does come off when she sings ‘I Have Never Loved Someone’, a particularly touching dedication to her young son. We switch stages again to watch The Philistines Jr, whose geeky indie rock manages to make something as ordinary as waiting for the cable guy sound charming. I elect to watch a bit Youth Lagoon afterward, and while it’s not the worst decision I’ll make all weekend, their floaty indie-pop is a little lacking in substance for my liking.

So it’s back to stage two, where Richard Reed Parry is presenting his final show of the weekend, Music For Heart And Breath. It’s a set of chamber music featuring an all-star cast of those playing over the weekend, including Owen Pallet, Nico Muhly, Gaspar Claus and the seemingly ever-present Dessner twins. There’s a twist, however – as the name might suggest, the piece is written to be played to the speed of the performers’ heartbeats – to aid this, they’re all wearing stethoscopes, which is an odd sight. It’s most apparent when the music is played in a staccato style, and it’s interesting to hear how everything fits together while still being slightly off-kilter. It’s also the quietest the crowd will be all week, with the lone exception of the sorry moron who saw fit to heckle the performers – seriously, who does that?

The crowd could have stood to be as quiet for Perfume Genius, whose beautifully fragile songs should have reduced the room to stunned silence – fortunately, his sheer talent is enough to shine through the incessant babbling from the early evening crowd, epitomised by the heartrending brilliance of ‘Hood’. Owen Pallett, meanwhile, spends the entirety of his set making me feel very silly for not listening to more of his stuff before now – his looped synth and violin compositions are backed by a rock solid rhythm section to form music of propulsive beauty, topped off by his soaring vocals. He introduces several new songs throughout the set, and their quality indicates that his new album will surely be one to watch out for next year – but there is also room for tracks from his back catalogue, including a wonderful rendition of ‘The Great Elsewhere’ to close the set out with. Local Natives provide our last piece of pre-National entertainment – they’re one of those bands who I think I’m not that bothered about, but then end up being fairly impressed by when I catch them live. They may not be Arcade Fire or anything, but they still manage to pull off the whole expansive, anthemic indie rock thing pretty well.

Tonight’s headliners are, of course, the event’s curators, and the reason that we’re all here – The National, who are ably assisted throughout by guest appearances from Richard Reed Parry, Nico Muhly and Owen Pallett. Taking full advantage that we’ll all be eating out of the palms of their hands for the next couple of hours, they begin with an understated new song, entitled ‘Lola’ – but it doesn’t take long for them to ramp things up with the storming guitars of ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ and the sweeping emotion of ‘Anyone’s Ghost’. From there on in, the band can basically do no wrong, whether it be the glorious rush provided by ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ or the raw, heartstring-tugging power of ‘Sorrow’ or ‘England’. Frontman Matt Berninger is on good form too, wryly blaming his “stupid daughter” for the cold he’s caught before playing tender, fearful ode to parenthood ‘Afraid Of Everyone’, and joking that one of the new songs they play is called ‘Buttered Buns’ – “so go ahead and blog away,” he quips. The song in question is (apparently) called ‘Sullivan’ in reality, and demonstrates a more propulsive side to the band’s new material as it’s played back-to-back with another new song, ‘Prime’. There’s room for some older songs too though – ‘Secret Meeting’ gets a rapturous response and is dedicated to a fan who showed Matt a ticket from a London show during the Alligator tour, while ‘Abel’ sees Matt absolutely bursting with cathartic energy. Boxer, on the other hand, provides many of the set’s moments great beauty, including the gorgeous ‘Slow Show’, the quiet, contemplative ‘Green Gloves’, and serene, slow-building set-closer ‘Fake Empire’.

We all know they’ll be back for more though, and the band provide a near-perfect encore – tender, touching new number ‘I Need My Girl’, fist-pumping anthem ‘Mr. November’, the glorious, squalling crescendo of ‘Terrible Love’ and the fragile, beautiful ‘About Today’. And then, to bring the weekend to an emotional close, Matt leads the crowd in singing along to an unplugged version of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ – and as the song finishes, I’m genuinely left breathless for a second. And with that unforgettable moment, The National bring the festival to a close in truly spectacular style.

But wait, there’s more! Matt Berninger encourages everyone to go see Ethan Lipton & His Orchestra once their set is done, and having seen them performing No Place To Go earlier we don’t take much persuading. They continue to display copious amounts of the wit and charm we saw earlier as they run through songs from their back catalogue, and the set features the best  sub-30second songs I’ve heard since I last saw Brakes play. By the end of the set, pretty much everyone in the room is singing along to a song about running a way with a girl from a Renaissance fair (“Her bosom was heeeaaaving, and her hair smelled like steak!”), before cheering for the band to play just one more song – and they duly oblige. ATP, you’ve been amazing.

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Let’s Get Cynical About Leeds Festival 2011, pt III: Sunday

Leeds Festival

This may be indicative of my mildly anti-social nature, but going to Leeds Festival on my own this year has actually been just fine. Sure, there have been moments when I’d have liked a little company (mainly when freezing my ass off while watching bands on the Main Stage), but not having to worry about anyone else has had its advantages. I don’t have to wait around for people and miss bands in the process, and I can also have everything packed up and in the car by about 10 o’clock on Sunday morning – leaving me free to saunter over to the arena for the final day of music, knowing that I can make a quick getaway afterwards.

As the eventual winners of the Futuresound competition, The Coopers bagged today’s opening slot on the Festival Republic Stage. This is, perhaps, both a blessing and a curse – a blessing because they don’t really clash with anyone, but a curse because they’re on at 11.30 in the morning. But as I’m up early enough, I may as well check them out. Turns out they’re purveyors of fairly harmless, twee indie pop – there’s a section where they all crowd round the vocalist’s mic and play handbells, and they end the set with a kazoo ensemble. Hmm.

The day’s action proper starts with The Joy Formidable on the Main Stage. Though they have to fight to overcome both the blustery conditions and the half-asleep crowd, they’re feisty enough to get the audience on their side – and their sound is big enough that it manages to avoid being blown away by the wind. They may only get through about five songs thanks to copious extended instrumental sections, but what they do play sounds tight, hard-hitting and ambitious – if it weren’t already evident before today, this band are going places. Hopefully places that aren’t quite as windy.

After that, I wander across the site to the NME/Radio 1 Stage, where Funeral Party are currently opening proceedings. After failing to be moved by them in any way whatsoever, I decamp to the Festival Republic tent, where She Keeps Bees prove to be a far more attractive proposition. They ply their trade in simple but effective bluesy stompers, helped along nicely by vocalist Jessica Larrabee’s arresting tones – a fine way to spend half an hour on a Sunday afternoon.

After another quick transfer between stages, it’s time for Yuck. I’m not sure if Daniel Blumberg is stoned or just a little bit awkward on stage – but despite his dazed demeanour, his band deliver a perfect set of their fuzzy, shoegaze-influenced indie-rock. Critics of the band may argue that they haven’t got an original bone in their collective bodies, but that seems overly harsh to me. Besides, you could say the same about, I dunno, Oasis – and Yuck ape their heroes (Pavement, Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine) in a far more refined way than any number of clumsier bands before them. Songs like ‘Holing Out’ and ‘Georgia’ are, simply put, gorgeous.

I return to the main stage just in time to see Seasick Steve play his last song, join in with trashing his drummer’s kit, then bow down to the crowd and thank them “for giving me this great job.” You’re welcome, I guess. Two Door Cinema Club are up next, and while they might not seem like the kind of band likely to inspire ‘ker-azy’ festival behaviour, it only takes a casual suggestion from lead singer Alex Trimble for the crowd to start playing along. After mentioning that he’d like to see lots of people sat on each other’s shoulders, the crowd throws up a veritable sea of them, before subsequently attempting to out-do itself at every turn. People start standing rather than sitting on the shoulders of their unfortunate friends, almost every girl who appears on the big screen takes the opportunity to flash her bra for the camera, and I swear I see a three-person shoulder-ride stack at one point. Oh, you want me to talk about the music? Well, it’s infectious, guitar-and-synth-pop with a knack for a catchy hook… that’ll do, this paragraph’s too long as it is.

Back on the NME/Radio 1 Stage, The Kills are providing their usual lesson in effortless, enviable cool – although I have the same minor gripe with their set as I did with Patrick Wolf’s performance yesterday, in that it leans too heavily on their most recent record. That said, there are some pretty great tracks on Blood Pressures, so it’s not a major tragedy – ‘Future Starts Slow’ and ‘Heart Is A Beating Drum’ are The Kills at their slinky, minimal best, while ‘Baby Says’ shows off an unexpectedly tender side to the band. In the end, they only play one track from each of their first three albums – ‘No Wow’, ‘Kissy Kissy’ and ‘Tape Song’, if you’re interested. As they close their set with keyboard-led ballad ‘The Last Goodbye’, a guy behind me asks if they’ve played ‘Sour Cherry’ yet. I tell him they haven’t, and then we collectively realise that they’re not actually going to – to be fair though, perhaps singing “G-g-g-go home, go home, it’s over” at quarter past four in the afternoon would’ve seemed a little disingenuous.

I briefly head over to the merch stand to see if they’ve got a Warpaint t-shirt in my size (they haven’t), and spy that, in a truly cynical move, OFWGKTA (Odd Future) have still got t-shirts for sale despite pulling out of Leeds. Good effort guys. Still, Tyler did win a VMA, so I guess that makes it all ok, right?

I did rather enjoy the debut album from NY duo Cults, but I can’t quite say that their set on the Festival Republic Stage wins me over in the same way. The band may be expanded to a five-piece in their live incarnation, but that can’t disguise the fact that lead singer Madeline Follin only seems to have two settings when performing live – ‘shout’ or ‘barely audible’. I don’t know if she’s just having an off day though – I’d be willing to give the band another chance, but I still walk away a little disappointed even after sticking it out to the end of their set.

I figure I may as well switch tents again in the interim in order to catch a bit of Everything Everything, whose quirky, intelligent music has never failed to impress me before today. Turns out I’ve missed ‘Suffragette Suffragette’, but I do get to see ‘MY KZ, YR BF’, ‘Schoolin” and ‘Photoshop Handsome’ – three out of four ain’t bad. I think I also have this set to blame for getting a little bit obsessed with the minimal, atmospheric ‘Leave The Engine Room’ some time after the event…

Aussie four-piece Cloud Control make yet another dash between tents worthwhile with their spellbinding harmonies and blissed-out, psychadelic-tinged indie rock. Then, in the happiest of accidents, I make it back to the Main Stage just in time to catch Jimmy Eat World playing ‘the hits’ circa 2001. They roll through ‘Salt Sweat Sugar’, ‘The Middle’ and ‘Sweetness’ in quick succession, and all of a sudden it’s like I’m 16 again.

I’m really here for The National though, who should be a highlight of the weekend for anyone with a brain –  but it turns out mental capacity is in short supply among the main stage crowd. And so, while I’m having my own private, teary-eyed epiphany as they play ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, I reckon there can’t be more than 100 other people who appear to give a shit – at least, not where I am, right in front of the stage. I can vaguely hear the strains of the chorus echoing from the rear of the crowd, but the audience’s future attempts at participation seem half-hearted. It’s hugely frustrating, particularly as their performance is nothing short of brilliant – ‘Mr. November’ and ‘Terrible Love’ in particular should be utterly triumphant, but are let down by a lethargic response. By the end of the set, I’m so disheartened by the crowd’s apathy that I decide I want nothing more to do with them at this precise moment in time. Yes, that means I’ll miss The Strokes. No, I don’t really care – I’ve got my mind set on some catharsis in the form of Crystal Castles.

For some unknown reason, I decide it would be a good idea to check out Little Roy on my way across the site. In case you’re not aware, his schtick is that he does reggae covers of Nirvana songs – as I reach the tent, he’s halfway through his version of ‘Come As You Are’. I’ve heard that one already though, so I stick around to see what’s next – only to be ‘rewarded’ with a flaccid, lifeless take on ‘Heart-Shaped Box’. DO NOT WANT. I quickly depart, and arrive at the NME/Radio 1 Stage just in time to see Glassjaw play their last song – unfortunately, it fails to make any sort of lasting impression on me. Oh well.

An announcement comes over the PA that Jane’s Addiction have been forced to pull out due to illness, which leaves Crystal Castles as the stage’s de-facto headliners. They certainly take advantage of the fact that they can take their sweet time, and I start to wonder whether I should be kicking myself for not at least watching the beginning of The Strokes. After some pointless dicking around with the strobe lights, and with the crowd getting increasingly fractious, they finally make it on stage a full 15 minutes after their scheduled stage time. Very shortly afterwards, they launch into ‘Intimate’, and all is immediately forgotten.

What follows is absolutely the most fun I have all weekend, and an opportunity to just totally lose myself in the music – I think I might have had some sort of transcendental experience during ‘Suffocation’, and that’s only three songs in. There’s something about these 8-bit sounds that strikes a chord with me in a big way – ‘Baptism’ sounds as colossal as it ever has, ‘Celestica’ is jaw-dropping, and ‘Alice Practice’ inspires utter chaos among the crowd. By the time the sublime ‘Not In Love’ rolls around, my arms are so tired I can barely hold them above my head at all – and yet, as the band leave the stage, we howl for more, knowing full well that they may as well grant our wish. And so they do, with Alice Glass on truly riotous form during ‘Yes/No’ – JD bottle in hand, spraying the front rows with whiskey, shouting like a lunatic and finally launching herself into the arms of the crowd for one last time. I stagger away euphoric, sweaty, and utterly satisfied. So what if I missed The Strokes? I regret nothing.

I have just enough time to catch a few minutes of Three Trapped Tigers, whose scintillating math-rock is as ace as ever, before heading over to the Main Stage for the last time to watch Pulp close out the festival. I must admit to only having a passing familiarity with their back catalogue, so for me tonight’s set is educational as much as it is entertaining – and much of the entertainment comes from Jarvis Cocker’s hilarious banter and stage presence throughout. After opening the set with ‘Do You Remember The First Time?’, be begins by quipping about the cold, pointing to a small electric fire on stage and telling us “we’ve got the fire on.” He also makes deadpan remarks to all of the following: the person holding a sign saying ‘I need a shit’ (“I think the toilets are over there, please don’t do it anywhere else”); the people on the fairground rides (“You’ll remember this, the time you threw up at a Pulp concert”); and the audience in general (“anybody want a half-eaten pear?”). Later, he’ll run around the front row waving some sort of camera on a stick in their faces (in order to get footage for the big screens), and during ‘This Is Hardcore’ he lies down across two of the monitors and begins lewdly thrusting. To be honest, it’s worth showing up just to watch Jarvis alone.

Oh and the tunes? Yeah, they’re pretty damn good too. There’s the more obvious hits like ‘Disco 2000’, ‘Sorted For E’s And Wizz’ and ‘Babies’, but tonight gives me a welcome introduction to a broad cross-section of Pulp’s back catalogue. Particular highlights are the heartfelt ‘Something Changed’, and the way that ‘Sunrise’s trippy intro eventually gives way to a wall of guitars. I’m getting pretty cold at this point, but I promise myself I’ll stick around until the send of the set – predictably, they save ‘Common People’ until last, but even at this late stage it still gets everyone singing along in unison. I decide that this is as good a way as any to round of the weekend – other people may be raving late into the night, but I’ll be home by just after half past midnight. I’m so rock ‘n’ roll. But I’ve enjoyed myself – and you never know, I might be back next year if the lineup is any good.

Find a Spotify playlist with some of the day’s highlights here.

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Phoning It In: Let’s Get Cynical’s Top 10 Albums of 2010

So, here it is, the moment you’ve probably not been waiting for (and if you were actually waiting for it you’ve surely forgotten about it by now) – my top 10 records of 2010. Yeah, I know I did a top 20 last year, but illness and procrastination has sapped my will to write by this point, so I kinda just want to get this done really. Apologies if this article seems massively phoned-in – oh who am I kidding, it’s not like you care anyway, right?

First up, honourable mentions (or the records that would have made up my 20-11 – ok there are 11 here but shush), in alphabetical order by artist.

Arcade Fire  – The Suburbs
Dinosaur Pile-Up – Growing Pains
Grammatics – KRUPT (EP)
Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
The Hundred In The Hands – The Hundred In The Hands
Johnny Foreigner – You Thought You Saw A Shooting Star… (EP)
LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
Klaxons – Surfing The Void
Talons – Hollow Realm
Sleigh Bells – Treats
Warpaint – The Fool

Yeah, that is Arcade Fire right there – The Suburbs was originally going in my top 10 but dropped out after I decided it was a tad inconsistent and that I actually liked a couple of other records more. Also, regarding KRUPT, Grammatics have now put it up here for free – so if you haven’t already got it then you have absolutely no excuse not to download it now, you ingrates.

With that said, onward we go to the top 10!

10. Crystal Castles – Crystal Castles (ii)

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles (ii)

While there are still hints of their more abrasive side on show, Crystal Castles’ second record is largely comprised of amazing, glacial floor-fillers. ‘Celestica’ is simply sublime, ‘Baptism’ sounds utterly colossal, and ‘Year Of Silence’ makes brilliant use of its Sigur Rós sample – this is exactly the direction I hoped they’d go in after their first record. I guess it’s kinda cheating to mention the version of ‘Not In Love’ that they did with Robert Smith, but that’s an anthem and a half too.

9. Zola Jesus – Stridulum II

Zola Jesus - Stridulum II

Zola Jesus is in possession of a distinctive, captivating voice – combine that with expansive, atmospheric instrumentation and relatable sentiment, and you have Stridulum II in a nutshell. Whether it be the emotional longing of ‘Night’, the massive-sounding crescendo of ‘Manifest Destiny’, or the beautifully melancholy ‘Lightsick’, the album never fails to impress. Definitely one of the year’s most promising debut records.

8. Sky Larkin – Kaleide

Sky Larkin - Kaleide

Kaleide sees Sky Larkin sounding tighter than ever – they’ve really upped their game on their second record. From the breezy indie-pop of ‘Still Windows’ to more contemplative numbers like ‘ATM’, this album is full of gems, but its mid-section in particular is fantastic. ‘Anjelica Huston’ is effortlessly cinematic, ‘Spooktacular’ is the rawest the band have ever sounded, and ‘Year Dot’ is a sheer bundle of apocalyptic joy.

7. Blood Red Shoes – Fire Like This

Blood Red Shoes - Fire Like This

Blood Red Shoes - Fire Like This

If there’s one album that deserves to be my list for sheer consistency alone, it’s Fire Like This – there’s not a duff track on here. There’s no shortage of the loud, clattering indie-punk anthems that the duo are best known for, but they also find time to expand their sound a little bit too. ‘When We Wake’ demonstrates their softer side, and album closer ‘Colours Fade’ is definitely the most epic-sounding thing they’ve done so far.

6. Foals – Total Life Forever

Foals - Total Life Forever

Total Life Forever contains one of the year’s very best tracks in my opinion – ‘Spanish Sahara’ is a stunning centrepiece to a dark, melancholy and more considered second outing for the band. There are hints of the ‘old Foals’ in ‘This Orient’, but the majority of the album consists of far more expansive numbers like ‘Blue Blood’, ‘After Glow’ and ‘Alabaster’. Total Life Forever isn’t just a departure for Foals, it’s a significant leap forward.

5. Pulled Apart By Horses – Pulled Apart By Horses

Pulled Apart By Horses - Pulled Apart By Horses

Reviewing Pulled Apart By Horses for Muso’s Guide, I called the album “big, raw, gloriously dumb fun”, and that’s a statement I wholeheartedly stand by. Massive riffs, killer hooks and crazy lyrics combine to create one of the most raw, instantly appealing records of the year – and crucially, the album manages to capture the energy of the band’s chaotic live shows. An insane thrill-ride that you will want to take again and again.

4. The National – High Violet

The National - High Violet

I admit that High Violet was a bit of a slow-burner for me, but it won me over with its fantastic lyrics – Matt Berninger has a knack for writing songs that are very much relatable despite seeming deeply personal. Back that up with stately, atmospheric instrumentation and you’ve got a record that you can really connect with, from the heady rush of ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ to the overwhelming emotion of ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’.

3. Los Campesinos! – Romance Is Boring

Los Campesinos! - Romance Is Boring

Romance Is Boring sees Gareth still in fine lyrical form – from orchestrating the downfall of his relationship only to miss out on a place in the top 100 “most heartwrenching breakups of all time” to getting the knives out for an ex-girlfriend’s new lover, he never fails to be relatable or amusing. But what makes Romance Is Boring one of the year’s best records is the feeling that the band have upped their game – and no song quite emphasises that more than the heartwrenchingly brilliant ‘The Sea Is A Good Place To Think Of The Future’.

2. Lone Wolf – The Devil And I

Lone Wolf - The Devil And I

I first heard of Lone Wolf (aka Paul Marshall) when I saw his video for ’15 Letters’ on the Green Man Festival website. While the puzzle contained within was far too much for my brain to handle, the song itself quickly wormed its way into my head with its beautiful, finger-picked guitar and effortlessly sung lyrics that told the twisted tale of a murderous lover. Seeing him and his band live at the festival confirmed that he is both a masterful storyteller and a skilled guitarist, and I picked up his album The Devil And I at a subsequent gig in Leeds. Like the single before it, I found myself coming back to the album again and again, mesmerised by the way that Marshall weaves an intricate musical tapestry around each dark tale of love, tragedy and death. ‘Russian Winter’ has never sounded more fitting than during the recent cold weather, and spellbinding album-closer ‘The Devil And I (Part 2)’ features a suitably foreboding soundtrack for a tale of dealing with the Devil himself. From start to finish, this is a record that’s beautiful in its bleakness and, in my eyes, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the year’s biggest releases.

1. These New Puritans – Hidden

These New Puritans - Hidden

These New Puritans - Hidden

If I was ranking these records based purely on sheer ambition and inventiveness, Hidden would be album of the year hands down – Jack Barnett learned musical notation from scratch in order to write it, which is a fair indication that the band had set their sights high for this one. Of course, if you’re reading this it’s quite clear that I have put it at number one – and that’s not just for its ambitiousness, it’s also because it’s an utterly amazing album that fuses classical instrumentation with electronic elements, hip-hop, children’s choirs, melons being smashed, the sound of knives being sharpened, and god knows what else. You only need to listen to seven-minute statement of intent ‘We Want War’ to appreciate the scope of the record, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. At times oppressive and abrasive, at times utterly beautiful, Hidden doesn’t so much break boundaries as ignore them entirely.

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