1. Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion [US]
It starts out slow, like a wave washing on a shore. Geometry gradually appears in the swells, and Avey Tare shows up to meander and sway through two verses of In The Flowers. Then it happens. The sky cracks open. Like God reaching down through the frescoed roof of a cathedral, but with industrial strength strobe lights, Merriweather Post Pavilion arrives and announces its presence.
It’s stunning. The building blocks are sounds that haven’t been heard before, but the end results are feelings as familiar as can be. Rhythms cascade into each other, with syncopation undercutting the burbling top level, and the melodies seem conjured from some deep subconscious, the songs you hear as you’re falling asleep, or as you are asleep and dreaming, coloured in with the fluorescent paint of plot-free imagination.
Of course, Animal Collective have been one of the best bands around for nearly half a decade. So what’s new? Well, not unlike the career trajectory of Genesis, their drummer found his voice. Panda Bear had songs on Strawberry Jam, but it was still quintessentially an Avey Tare record, like all preceding Animal Collective albums. But his influence on Merriweather Post Pavilion is apparent, and vast.
Panda Bear paints in broad strokes. Avey’s songs are subtle, sometimes wordy, and often fairly complex, but Panda keeps it simple. He wants to build a house for his wife and child. He wants to lie in. He wants to masturbate less. He wants to perk up his brother after their father died. But unlike his solo material, where the swathes of space between his block capital theses are filled largely with sonic wandering, on MPP he has the enviable advantage of a genius and a bearded man to shade the shapes in subtler colours.
It works the other way too. Avey can still go on lyrical wanders alone from time to time, but on Also Frightened, they’re locked into almost telepathic step with each other for the entire song. And even on Avey’s tours de force like In The Flowers or Summertime Clothes, the fluid, bathyspheric sound on the album as a whole is the result of synthesis between two creative forces. And also, obviously, synthesis of actual sound.
In The Flowers is the set-piece opener, sui generis and almost physical in its assault, but the closer is just as impressive. Brothersport arrives, a slab of iced pop, after No More Runnin’, MPP’s only true pretty meander in the old AC style. There’s no mystery about this one. “Open up your, open up your, open up your throat”. Shuffling, quasi-”world” rhythms underpin some oscillations and celebratory singing for about a minute and a half before the screaming section, which lasts just as long again, building up drums and angular synth oscillations until finally the clouds of misty mystic haze first unleashed on In The Flowers clear, and Merriweather winds to a close with two minutes of carefree dancing.
I could write a 33 1/3 book about this album. Maybe some day I’ll try. But I need to pick an arbitrary point to shut up about it here, so this might as well be it. It’s been a year since Merriweather Post Pavilion came out, and persistent listening hasn’t worn it out yet. It’s the best album of 2009, for the purposes of this list, but put any arbitrary time period in front of me and I’d make it the best album of that as well. Desert island or wherever, MPP’s coming with me.
David Longstreth is a lunatic. The reams of evidence speak for themselves. Take for example, the title of the album. An obscure reference or esoteric metaphor, surely? No, the words sound good together. That’s more than a little fitting, though. One’s the German word for please, and the other’s a carnivorous whale. Totally unrelated until a mind sucking inspiration via Tesla induction from sources we could never comprehend decided to juxtapose them, and now it’s a thing.
Why is that fitting? Because that’s what the music on Bitte Orca is, too. Stuff, jammed together, because it sounds kind of good. When bands do that, they’re usually “experimental”. Well, Dirty Projectors are experimental. They’re experimental when Solange Knowles covers Stillness Is The Move. They’re experimental when Annie Clark claims “you’d need to go to classes to bridge the Dave Longstreth gap”, guitar-wise. They are at the vanguard of music, deconstructing it completely, rethinking it and executing it with a new palate.
This review could easily be a prose explication of everything that happens on Bitte Orca, from the shuddering, invocatory guitar part at the start of Cannibal Resource to the last pulses of the lobotomised organ on Fluorescent Half-Dome. But what good would that be? Everyone has ears, and I imagine nearly everyone has headphones. Use them, and you’ll experience maybe the most meticulously produced, perfectly mixed album you’ll hear.
But here, I’ll stick to what’s rewriting the script for everyone else. How about an album with fantastic harmonies that DON’T invite a comparison to the Beach Boys? I’m sure in the initial reviews somebody managed to say they were Wilsonian or surfy or something, but they’re not. Angel Deradoorian and Amber Coffman’s harmonies fill the space a keyboard, or strings, or even a non-arachnid guitar would fill on a regular album. They are not window dressing, they are structurally important bricks in the fabric of the songs.
The aahs after the initial BITTE ORCA ORCA BITTE section of Useful Chamber [3.09] nearly popped my eyeballs with excitement when I first properly noticed them. Why? Well, the first time round, they were harsh, nasal. The second time, they were dove-like and soothing. Same syllable, same notes, same harmony, but a step to a totally new mood, nonetheless. It’s that attention to texture and detail that makes Bitte Orca such a rewarding listen. Put it in a museum if you don’t want to listen to it now, with the scores and “On top of every mountain there is a longing for another even higher mountain” written calligraphically over a drippingly derivative Longstreth cast as Alexander at the Hindu Kush.
I might not be giving much of an impression of the album. Two Doves is an acoustic folk song with string backing, prettier than carved crystal. What’s the Dave Longstreth gap here? Well, try the line “Your hair is like an eagle”. Temecula Sunrise is a pretty immediate, riffy piece of work at times, but fuck knows what it’s actually about – guy in new house with something that’s like Gatorade in some way, who then agrees to let someone move in with him if they agree to do the dishes. He is confident the new housemate will do the dishes.
There aren’t enough question marks in the printed history of the English language to account for every baffling moment on Bitte Orca. But that’s the beauty of it. If you’re listening properly, you’ll be surprised roughly once every five seconds. It’s a stunning piece of artifice, without category or place in any current generic spidergram.
Its originality means that it will open doors for bands that follow, both in terms of style and simply in terms of showing how pop music can be. After all, calm down the guitar part and smooth the drums out and it could easily be Mariah Carey singing Stillness Is The Move. It’s not though, thankfully. Bitte Orca will be a monument, a fork in the road musically. Right now, it’s just what it is. It never sits still, it constantly amazes and yet it’s eminently listenable. There aren’t many better.
If you’ve built your career on obscurity, what does it mean to develop confidence in clarity? If your whole oeuvre was predicated on showing just enough but not too much, how do you turn on the floodlights, dust off the cobwebs and still remain what you’ve always been? Dragonslayer is Sunset Rubdown woken up, stretched and ready to be taken for what they are, without overdubs, without obliqueness, without conceit. Well, to an extent. It’s still Apollo kissing the valley girls rather than, y’know, Dave. But at least it’s not secret knowledge. That shroud of mystique has been attractive in the past, but it’s not necessary any more.
The lyrics, tangled in metaphor as they are, are sometimes staggeringly beautiful. Couplets or even turns of phrase alone can be blinding the way a blizzard is, or take out your stomach the way a rollercoaster does. “I’d like to watch the white flash of your heels/As they take turn breaking the desert heat/and beckon me in languages I’ve never learned.”
If you’ve been following Spencer’s mind from project to project, you’ll know Call It A Ritual on the last Wolf Parade album saw him drive, accompanied, into the desert. Is this a sequel? Are these swatches in a great quasi-literary tapestry that will eventually come together and allow itself be read as biography, psychology and not-quite-literature? It hasn’t felt like that much up to now. But with every extra watt of light shed onto the songs, there’s a distinct and ongoing impression of being allowed a glimpse at some hitherto forbidden truth.
And hey, there’s music here too. Apologies if I’m coming off a bit Richard Ellmann in that regard. There are songs. Great songs. Silver Moons is understated and mature, but atmospheric and affecting. Idiot Heart is ALMOST danceable. Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh! is careful and spidery, then nostalgic and celebratory, then slightly sinister and inquisitive. Intelligent indie rock, perfected after three albums, and smelling distinctly of a band on a hot streak.
Then there’s You Go On Ahead (Trumpet Trumpet II). As smart as Mending of the Gown, as obscurely heartfelt as Dear Sons and Daughters of Hungry Ghosts, as sad as Stadiums and Shrines II, it is, dreadfully aware of this blog’s penchant for hyperbole and ploughing on regardless, a masterpiece. There is no corner Spencer Krug can’t turn in a song, and there is no human feeling he can’t expose once it’s turned. In earnest, if it wasn’t for a misstep or two (Swan Lake adaptation Paper Lace in particular), this would be one place higher, if not at the top outright.
Interview from Totally Dublin. Plenty of Spencerian exegetics on the blog in the past. Sorry if anyone’s missing context for any of the song names and stuff, but I’ve written Krug panegyrics too many times to still do the background.
Let’s get this over with. Brendan Reed, who used to be in Arcade Fire, is on this. This is better than anything he did with Arcade Fire. It’s actually probably better than anything Arcade Fire ever did, full stop. This is also Alden Penner from the Unicorns’ new band. It could be better than anything the Unicorns did, too. But it has been met by the world with two Canadian band names in hand, ready to compare and contrast. That’s fine.
It starts with an invocation. “Outward reaching, expecting hands”. Then a pause. “Searching for what the eyes cannot see”. Follow it through crashing drums, through light whispers and hinted guitars, and find something frenzied. This is Haarp. It’s Clues, it’s not Unicorns (and definitely not Arcade Fire), and it’s ready to stand up for itself.
The adjectives here are things like “tense” and “uneasy”. Melodic too. But strange. Think of it like the spirit of a regular, fruity indie pop album pressed down into a container, held at way too high a pressure, turning unstable. Sometimes it just squeaks out, ghostly and jilted. Other times, like on Haarp, or Cave Mouth, the screws pop out of the container and all this energy comes crashing and tumbling out at the speed of light.
It’s all imbued with this weirdness, but it’s also eminently listenable, even when it tries unusual stuff: jaunty gypsy carnival piano on the unsettling A Perfect Fit is one obvious example of a song that would probably be terrible if it was by anyone else, but Penner’s personality and the general spark of pop genius present on the album makes it work. Or Ledmonton, which has a melody not dissimilar to Greensleeves before cracking open into a raw-throated communal battle hymn of no-one in particular.
Clues hit heights. Haarp’s frantic riff. The kick-in of Cave Mouth. Ledmonton’s explosion. When they get there, there’s nothing that can compete with them. For all the consideration of its creators’ past lives, it might be good to recall for a second that this is a debut album. The best one since Vampire Weekend last year maybe, and if your tolerance for being mushroom cloud tattoos is higher than your tolerance for collegiate grief, it could be even better than that.
Live review from here, and Bobby’s interview with Alden on State. For the second consecutive year I have had no internet at home over Christmas. Getting there, though.
5. The Pains of Being Pure At Heart – The Pains of Being Pure At Heart
It is my considered opinion that 2009 will come to be known as a year that music progressed more than it did in other years, largely by virtue of the release of one or two paradigm-changing monoliths. Neither of those paradigm-changing monoliths are by the Pains of Being Pure At Heart.
I think when I first came across this album, it was as one of those anonymous downloads, a link someone had dumped in a chat window or a message or on a forum that I clicked without looking up any biography or even checking what it sounded like. For this reason, I presumed they were Scottish for at least two months. Call it musical profiling, but the hallmarks are all there. Reverb on everything. Jangly guitars. Dual gender unison harmonies on important lines. A certain, mostly affected naivety. This band should be from Glasgow, and they should be from the past.
They’re not, though. They’re from Brooklyn, they’re from now, and they’ve made an album that plays better start to finish than most 80s indie pop best-ofs. And it really does play like a singles compilation. Every song carries its weight. They’re not the kind of band who ever lay off the gas a little with slow songs or instrumentals and then bring it back up with a stormer. Every song could be the song that gets you into the POBPAH.
My favourite, the one that walked me from place to place the most this year, is Come Saturday. With a hook that’s 6.5 Abbas on the catchiness scale and enough energy to catapult a human to Mars, it’s easily one of the songs of the year. But it’s also (and get used to this sort of thing) about NOT going out. “Who cares if there’s a party somewhere? We’re gonna stay in!”. There’s something very appealing about this projection of being sad in the northeast Atlantic, anorak sense (rather than the universal, unhappy sense). POBPAH aren’t the first to do it, but they’re close to the best.
I’m sure for every Pains of Being Pure At Heart fan, there’s a different stand out song. The obligatory One With The Drumbeat From Just Like Honey, maybe. Or the weird one ostensibly about loving your sister. And I’d bet the strange teenage loyalty to that song is the same. POBPAH make you want to write their name on your pencil case. They make you want to buy pencils and a pencil case to hold them, just to write their name on it. They’re a pop band out of synch with their time, and all the more brilliant for it.
Hated critical hegemon site has you covered with content on this band, as usual.
In July I called You Look Cold “as frozen and synaesthetic as anything you’re likely to hear this year”, as if frigidity and synaesthesia were primary criteria in anyone’s taste checklist. Not that I want to retract or anything. It crunches underfoot as you listen to it, definitely, and it recalls maybe the smell of mouldy wallpaper or overheated chips from toyshop Casios. The delivery changes from song to song. Until I Get Paid is some exceptionally bizarre ghost doo-wop, where Wintertime’s Doll is a creaky, spacious dirge and Blue Eyes is threateningly sinister accelerando analogue electronica. But what binds them is the juxtaposition of metronome beats from evidently cheap instruments with lush, considered layers, icy futurism, dusty pastism and an ability to deliver a song without a blink. Genre-wise, you could throw prefixes (kraut-, freak-, prog-) or suffixes (-folk, -tronica) at this all you want and never end up within fifty miles of accuracy. This is a step forward.
With every physical copy of Hospice comes a small booklet, eight pages long. On the front is a stylised caduceus, symbol for medicine, in black on a plain white background. It’s perfect, far better than the cartoon hands on the actual album cover, because it’s so economical. There is mostly just white space, like the music. But in the centre is a symbol, a lead to something more. And it’s the caduceus which, long story short, is a symbol that has only come to represent medicine because of a continuous, historically cemented misuse. Which is really almost too perfect to be true for Hospice. Because it’s an album about a hospice, right? About a dying loved one, maybe a relative or a lover? It perfectly evokes the hopelessness and helplessness of those dying days, if you’ve ever experienced them, it goes through the gamut of guilt, anger, desperation, etc. That’s what the lyrics in the book are about, that’s what the spare, resonant music recalls. But scratch closer. Hospice isn’t about death. It’s about love, or the death of love. As a song-cycle, it’s a work of fiction up there with a well-wrought novel. At a casual listen, it’s just deeply moving music.
Totally Dublin interview I was late for with Mr. Peter Silbermann, or their MySpace where old EPs are free.
6. Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest [US]
Grizzly Bear is a band with talent, in the traditional, conventional sense. They can all sing pin-point harmonies, they have a knack for arrangement swinging from lush to austere, and above all, they know how to hit a high-point. If a lesser band were equipped with the tools Grizzly Bear have, Veckatimest would be nothing more than loud-quiet-loud with clarinets. But that’s not what it is. It’s sensitive, incredibly careful, constructed with considerable thought and artifice. With creaky attics drums and a reverberating guitar, they build a new, dusty house on the shore, like Yellow House before it. But they shine light in differently this time. At once using a wider lens and more detail, Veckatimest’s caution is what makes the peaks when they come. The human foil to 2009′s insinuated strangeness, Grizzly Bear are not mad experimenters, but carriers of song. So, when the truly transcendent moments do come – and they do, signalled for example by the oscillating organs at 1.45 in Ready, Able – a very specific picture locks in mind. Four men on the Atlantic coast trying to row a wooden row-boat to the cosmos.
10. Burywood – There Exists An Abstraction Ladder [US]
This album’s from nowhere, but it synthesises everything. Philip Woodbury is one guy, hype-free, from Austin, Texas, very clearly a fan of music, and of the ‘alt’-sphere in general. “One of us”, I really, really hesitate to say but will say anyway. One of us. So he absorbs it all, the iPod-enabled volumes of music. And he churns it out in new, various ways. Northward is an explosion of distorted drums, and Denton Desert Island is the opposite, reflective and soft, but the thoughts are clear in both. This is not obscure music. It’s serious, self-assured, shooting for a place in the tapestry that its provenance (home-recording, usual story) might not automatically allow it. The people it borrows from – the studied melancholy of Stephin Merritt, or the masterful instrumentation of Kevin Barnes – are the geniuses of the scene. Time might prove Philip Woodbury to be in that company, but whether it does or doesn’t, There Exists An Abstraction Ladder feels like an arrival of something serious.
Ian Thrill Pier is responsible for unearthing this, and here‘s where you can hear what it’s like.
9. Hunter-Gatherer – I Dreamed I Was A Footstep In The Trail Of A Murderer [IRL]
There is music that works on a literal level, that holds you by the shoulders and tells you to your face what it wants to say. After all, everyone relates to a human voice, whether they can understand the story being told or they just appreciate the passion and the melody.
But somewhere below that verbal, literal level, there is music that works in a different way. Music that doesn’t conjure up images of your last girlfriend so much as it reminds you of the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you broke up. It’s ambient music, music that says nothing but somehow means everything. That’s what Hunter-Gatherer does. He once claimed it to be his ultimate ambition “to make a piece of music that could make someone cry.”
That sounds likes a grisly aim for a musician, but it is the dark quality that makes it such a captivating album to listen to. “Left For Dead” sounds like a thunderstorm on a cheap conservatory roof, ominous and all too conscious of the futility of human artifice. “Memory Pillow” is zoned-out, anhedonic half-sleep. The highlight, “The Salivation Army” has the added benefit of being up-tempo enough to sustain some existential techno dancing, if you have imagination enough to consider what that would entail.
At fifteen songs, the album runs the risk of being too long to maintain attention, but the subtle changes in mood stave off any chance of the tracks blending into each other. The only danger, really, is that, listening late at night on headphones as the music nigh demands, you would fall asleep and suddenly find yourself seeing the nightmare tones come to life.
This review is verbatim from Issue 6, Trinity News, who nicely let me away with this sort of thing regularly. Hunter-Gatherer interview from here and one with Dan.
This guest post is by the elusive but brilliant Hardcore For Nerds. As well as his primary residence, he has a special year-end Tumblr, and a semi-defunct blogspot with some archives you can peruse. The post is an introduction to Hipster Runoff.
The indie fan is but one aspect of Hipster Runoff’s wider sociological universe, populated by ‘alts’ or ‘altbros’ (because for the most part this universe really is startlingly misogynistic, with only a peripheral role for ‘altbaguettes’) who view music in an extraordinarily influential, in marketing and ‘success’ terms, yet utterly shallow manner. Musical taste, and experience, is very important to constructing an ‘alt’ identity, but so is a myriad of other cultural signifiers. The change in their taste, that is to say in the criticism of music, is fickle and dominated by groupthink but at the same time not without its own set of rules and logic. Hipster Runoff, a ‘blog worth blogging about’, deconstructs that world of ‘indie’ music by isolating and working through the processes involved, while presenting this in the medium of a blog post. Every phrase (and frequently, components of phrases) with an actual or potential meaning to the topic involved is put in quotation marks, as if there is no part of the communication between blog author and reader – addressed at the end by a series of rhetorical questions – which is not connected to a highly contingent, circumscribed view of reality.
Hipster Runoff is satire of the highest order, because it is entirely wrapped up in the worldview which it is satirising, even to the extent that it shapes the ideas and structures which it in turn draws upon. Or, at least, so it appears to do for someone who enters from one side of the indie divide, experiences Carles’s deconstruction of the Animal Collective hype, and emerges on the other fully appreciating the deliciousness of the ‘alt’ meme that is AnCo without ever having liked the band. This is my own situation: as someone who mainly listens to what can be generally considered punk of the post-hardcore variety, but who eventually got into to indie rock so as to have somewhere to go of a Saturday night, gig-wise.
Which brings me to the central point I wish to make about Hipster Runoff on this blog (that could be characterised as being indie/’alt’ of a personal critical variety). HRO has been an education about indie in a way that Pitchfork – itself a protean version of Hipster Runoff in some critical aspects – couldn’t be. Even though ‘Animal Collective is a band created by/for/on the internet’ might be considered more serious in its content than some of Pitchfork’s most ironic reviews, a certain evidence of blurring of lines. Some bands I know more about through the jokes on HRO than their music; some bands, like AnCo, probably a fifty-fifty split; some bands/artists I genuinely like (e.g. Dan Deacon, Papercuts) get the odd mention from Carles or, in the case of the Dirty Projectors, the complete works (via deconstruction):
“I feel like the people who select the Dirt Projjies as #1 probably ‘believe in their decision’ the most. They think that there is a ‘right answer’ to “Who is the Best _____ of 2k9?” and they are the only bros to truly understand the criteria and have the critical thinking skills to come to this decision. But it seems like it is ‘easier to enjoy’ AnCo than it is to enjoy the Dirt Projjies, so you don’t want people 2 h8 ur alt website/magazine if they buy the album, and it is just these people ‘wailing’ over complex guitar stuff. It still seems plausible to describe/pan the DirProjjies as ‘a Jack Johnson-sounding bro with broads wailing in the background.”
(via Which indie artists will be selected as ‘The Best _____ of the Year’?)
The other key thing about Hipster Runoff is that it’s made up of layers of irony; perhaps like an onion that you have to peel back the outer skin, but there’s no guarantee of truth in the lower layers. Instead, I prefer an analogy of the sea (via chillwave), with deeper and deeper layers spread out over a profound abyss of cultural vacuity, from whence a too rapid ascent might cause the bends (via Radiohead), yet it also contains shallows against a rising shore of the reality that exists outside of, and surrounding, our ocean of pop culture. In fact, the first HRO article that I read wasn’t about music at all, but on ‘Generation Y and the Mainstream Workplace’, a subtitle for ‘My job/career does not align with my true personal brand’. HRO is about identity, and interrogating the expectations, (mis)understanding, and sense of entitlement that make up the idea of the modern ‘hipster’, but more generally the 21st century, privileged, educated, internet-enhanced youth. The post-materialist (to borrow a phrase from late 20th century political science) materialists. These contradictions are so profound that the satire is infuriating in its hipster-ness, but at the same time so pervasive that we can’t afford to ignore it.
On a certain level, Hipster Runoff can be explained as someone with an applied knowledge of some critical discipline (probably a marketing degree) turned loose on the profoundly uncritical aspects of blog culture, hyped-up music, etc. However, it’s not a commentary on but rather within that world, and for people like me at a halfway point where they can’t fully commit to the world of indie music but can’t, or won’t, exist outside it, HRO is perfect. We are all of us ‘alts’, because however much we can take the objective view from outside, we still to whatever degree enjoy the artistry and the memes inside. 2k9 marks a new high point in ironic appreciation, because there’s plenty to be genuinely appreciated in music (as ever) and, for all the bullshit surrounding it, myriad new ways of making fun of it (via internet).
15. Times New Viking – Born Again Revisited [US]
So fucked it feels like it’s hurting your brain and damaging your speakers even when it’s down low. It’s Times New Viking, what do you expect? Received wisdom still maintains that Times New Viking are Yo La Tengo shooting their own tapes with nail guns from behind a particularly fuzzy curtain. But (as I’ve moaned before) the world’s postmodern now and there’s nothing external to a piece of art, so forget all about squeejeeing away the fuzz to get to the songs and simply embrace the abrasive, anarchistic catchiness of it. Even if it literally hurts to do so. City On Drugs, for example, is excellent, though fairly strictly to Rip It Off’s formula. Move To California, though is a darker, more serious Times New Viking channelling emo when it was the same thing as college rock. The sad fate of succeeding a classic album casts a shadow on Born Again Revisited, but not one it can’t at least answer to in its own right.
Further thought on fuzz-as-sauce vs. fuzz-as-intrinsic last year, and a live video from Whelans.
14. Jeffrey Lewis and the Junkyard – Em Are I [US]
If self-consciousness was music, it would be Jeffrey Lewis. Not quite as dark as neurosis and more constantly present than embarrassment. It’s in the shuffling, fuzzy acoustic arrangements, it’s in the nerdy comic-book cover art, but more than anything else, obviously, it’s in the lyrics. The motto inscribed on the theoretical title page of the multi-volume autobiography that is Lewis’ work is the unfunny punchline of the opening track slogans: “And I kept repeating it to myself to convince myself it was true – that everyone you meet is not better than you.” Not to say that there’s nothing more to Jeffrey Lewis than self-pity, because anyone familiar with anti-folk’s centre-pole will know that there’s nothing he says that isn’t simultaneously funny, sad and tuneful in a slipshod way. He has carved a singular career out for himself, and this could be the highlight. You’d think he’d be a little more cocksure, but then “going bald is the most manly thing I’m ever gonna do”. So maybe not.
13. Camera Obscura – My Maudlin Career [SCO]
Camera Obscura exist in a universe that somehow approximates what would happen if one was to superimpose the stylistic elements of the kitchen sink British 60s onto the modern day. In charity shop vintage, they present a honey-sweetened indie-pop sadness, filmed on grainy Super 8. These are not, as some have said, child-like love songs. They’re love songs that swapped cassettes and dog-eared books when they were younger and can’t rid themselves of dreams of tandem bicycle picnics. If an album that begins with the declaration “Spent a week in a dusty library!” is just to twee for you, that’s fine. But for some, the pillowy, melancholy sweetness will trigger a certain familiar strand of nostalgia for awkward moments and love that didn’t happen.
12. HEALTH – Get Color [US]
Progressive is fine. Experimental is fine. Go that route if you like, but if you do it right, even the most close-minded club attendee is going to be sucked magnetically from wall-propping position to the middle of the dancefloor. That’s what Get Color means, then. Get Color in the sense of hewing pop music from slabs of noise, but also Get Color in the sense of bringing a whole new palette into play, of bringing innovation to people whether they want it or not. You won’t hear many albums as simultaneously abrasive and immediately appealing as this, so my advice is to put it on in the dark, as loud as it deserves, and get a little colour yourself.
11. Christmas Island – Blackout Summer [US]
2009 witnessed the rise of lo-fi, and its fall. Things move quickly now, probably too quickly, and that unfortunately means that if Christmas Island melt down in the Catalan sun, they’ll only have themselves to apologise to. Not that it really matters. Blackout Summer is the best sort of apathetic guitar pop, the kind where songs are literally called things like I Don’t Care and Weird You Out. With a sense of humour and a preference for reverb over distortion making this closer to So Cow than to Wavves, the eleven song set scans like a greatest hits compilation for an insidiously catchy garage band who never got past passing out tapes. Its twin highlights are Black Cloud – a proto-anthem about paranoia – and Dinosaurs – a lament for the passing of the dinosaurs. Without a raised eyebrow in sight.
20. Port O’Brien – Threadbare [US]
In 2008, Port O’Brien made an album that started with a thunderous, celebratory rumpus. This one starts with solemn humming. Why? Well, if you need some biography to help your music go down, it’s because Cambria Goodwin’s younger brother died in the interim. The album is indelibly imprinted with the mark of that death, devoid of the joie de vivre of All We Could Do Was Sing, but full of frail vulnerability. It meanders along, like a solitary walk on a funeral weekend, flitting in and out of immediate consciousness. Hard to see how they will follow this, but it’s a captivating document.
Interviewed Cambria Goodwin and Van Pierszalowski in Analogue in 2008.
19. BATS – Red In Tooth and Claw [IRL]
Eventually, in music, technology gets subsumed into the general pool of things you can sing about. While we may still be disappointingly waiting for a body of work about loitering on Facebook 14 hours a day, we have reached the point where the Large Hadron Collider has entered currency. So we get BATS, writing precision post-hardcore about girls looking beautiful in the “ray light”, and having to meet and greet to get further funding for research projects. Maybe you’d prefer not to invite them to dinner parties, then, but this is progressive, danceable in a Blood Brothers kind of way, and unfailingly novel.
18. Jay Reatard – Watch Me Fall [US]
You have to presume that Jay Reatard probably just knocks out short, melodic punk songs without regard for reception or legacy. If not, then this is the successor to Blood Visions, an all-time great, and should be judged as such. The best fast songs (e.g. It Ain’t Gonna Save Me) would easily stand up on the predecessor, but as a whole, Watch Me Fall follows on from the 2008 Matador singles, with keyboards, acoustic guitars and non-breakneck tempos setting up permanent camp. If “I’m watching you and all the things you do” is Jay’s idea of slowing it down, however, there’s no need to worry about him going soft.
Jay with his old, fatter band that left him, and his Twitter, the first stop for keeping up with who he’s feuding with.
17. The XX – xx [ENG]
Not so much a tundra as a frosty cityscape. While it’s sometimes hard to tell how even members of the XX know which song they’re playing at a given time, the overall effect of the album’s whispered minimality means that it doesn’t matter. This is an album for being melancholy to. Not drenched in reverb, a la J+MC, but iced in it, this is what you resort to when you couldn’t walk it off, and you couldn’t pretend like you didn’t care. It also boasts probably the best song called “Intro” since people began thinking structurally about albums. Teenage simplicity is sometimes required to express things that are teenage in their simplicity.
Totally Dublin interviewed the XX at Electric Picnic, but more importantly Carles thinks they are chill.
16. Future of the Left – Travels With Myself and Another [WAL]
Hey, guess what? It’s Falco, so it’s fucking loud and uniquely sardonic. With energy and aggression at levels that Fight Like Apes would probably sacrifice their parents to be able to mine, Future of the Left carry on the Mclusky legacy of cruiseship-sized guitars playing furious, melodic punk while Andy Falkous bemoans and/or satirises a wide variety topics. Like what? Well, “if we arm Eritrea, then we wouldn’t have to pay her, and everyone can go home”, on the geopolitical protest level. Or, on a more zoomed-in scale, “hidden in the mess of letters lies the awful truth, that Emma’s mom and dad use plastic forks”. A pressure-cooker of self-aware ire at the state of the species.
I'm Karl. I write this blog and write for Totally Dublin. In a past life I got way too personal with my criticism of Sean McTiernan's predilection for Kendrick Lamar and dulcimer music made by psychotic men in forests on the legendary Them's The Vagaries podcast. Available to sell out in almost any way for money.
m c d o n a k j @ t c d . i e is my e-mail address. I don't really attempt to break new music here or anything, but every few months when I'm bored I pick random shit out of my inbox and free associate with it, so send me your Bjork remix or whatever.