Wednesday, December 31, 2008

they say i'm on top of my game

Top 10 Albums of 2008

1. The Seldom Seen Kid - Elbow (Bedshaped)

There’s nothing I don’t love about this album. From the cover design, to the lyrics. From the wall of horns that signal Starlings bursting into life, to the sentimental, heart tugging song about their friend who passed away. From the wonderfully clever use of metaphors and situations that twist and turn and spin around in my head as I’m trying to paint my picture, to his soft voice that meanders and croaks and sighs like a 40 a day smoker.

A wonderful sense of togetherness fills me when I listen to this album. It sounds like an album made by a bunch of people who all get involved and absolutely love what they do. I like to imagine them all sat in a dingy room, listening to the newly completed album track by track, then when the last track fades out, someone breaks the silence by saying, “Now that is just fucking amazing”.

What we have here is a collection of songs that go beyond the typical indie/pop line. Sure, at the heart of it lies a drummer, a bass player, a guitarist, a keyboard player and a singer. But then there’s violins and cellos. Church bells and brass. Samples and all kinds of weird shit. Clunks, clicks and boinks. All melting together, wrapping themselves around the soothing voice that tells stories of town crane drivers, lost love, lost friends, childhood stories and of course their hometown. And all the time, he sounds so genuine. You just can’t help but be pulled into his stories. It’s a rare and wonderful talent.

Favourite track....Damn...Starlings....No, Some Riot....No....Damn....Ok, if I have to pick just one, then The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver

1. Fleet Foxes - Fleet Foxes (Swiss Toni)

It was always going to take a pretty special album to keep Elbow from the top slot of my end of year list, and that’s exactly what the Fleet Foxes have delivered. The debut album by this hairy five-piece from Seattle was, for me, the most rewarding album of the year. They’re from the city, but the roots of this album are about as rural as it is possible to be, opening with a song about a squirrel, and going on to conjure up images of fields and backwoods and misty mountains.

The sound is almost timeless: the band themselves describe it as “baroque pop”, and although they are clearly influenced by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and the other members of the 1960s Laurel Canyon set, they also sound oddly as though they could be minstrels who have stepped out of the middle ages, with “White Winter Hymnal” in particular sounding like a medieval madrigal and “Your Protector” featuring a distant flute and conjuring up images of knights in armour. Perhaps it’s the medieval historian in me, but I really love that about them.

It’s the vocal performances that are ultimately the biggest draw here though, with Robin Pecknold’s remarkable voice either ably supported by the layered harmonies of the other band members, best displayed in “White Winter Hymnal”, or highlighted solo in the stark, acapella “Oliver James” that closes the album. To hear Pecknold in full flow is to hear a voice of great, unspoilt beauty and understated power. There’s been nothing else this year that sounds quite like the Fleet Foxes and neither has there been anything that sounds quite as good. A cool breath of crisp, clear country air. Superb, and my album of the year.

Key Track - White Winter Hymnal

1. Count To Ten - Tina Dico (LB)

I’m always slightly suspicious of lists such as these where people’s #1 choice is something obscure or random that no-one has heard of. To me it always seems slightly that people are flexing their individual identity by doing this and choosing a bizarre, unknown chart-topper is somehow a way of telling everyone else that they know something you don’t.

Clearly, though, there are instances where you sometimes find a diamond in the rough and whilst the rest of my top Ten albums sold in their millions, my number One is quite simply the most terrific album I have heard in a long, long time by a Dane who you’ve likely never heard of.

Tina Dico isn’t particularly famous outside her home country. Other than her appearances on a couple of mildly successful Zero 7 records you are unlikely to have ever come across her, unless you’ve been to one of her many intimate gigs up and down the land. It’s difficult to say what number album this is of hers, frankly, as her releases have thus far been an odd mix of album and tour-based EPs.

Count to Ten, her most recent studio album is simply fantastic from start to finish. It’s pretty simple really – girl with guitar doing a mixture of beautifully crafted pop records and acoustic ballads – but there is just something about Dico that sets her miles apart from her contemporaries. Her lyrics are interesting and emotionally direct, her voice is beautiful but also engaging and the quality of her songwriting is second to none. I could single out highlights but it is one of those rare records where every last second of it drips with quality and even though I must have listened to Count to Ten three dozen times I have yet to tire of any of it.

Sacre Coeur is typical of Dico’s music – a paean about her personal restlessness set against the backdrop of touring in France – and is simply beautiful. The gradual four minute crescendo of title track Count to Ten, the likeable On The Run and the cleverness of Craftsmanship and Poetry (“....ask yourself how much you care, about dining chairs and Beaudelaire? No craftsmanship or poetry can keep a young girl happy forever.....”) – it is difficult to find any fault anywhere here. Everything I love about Dico is best encapsulated in the stunning Cruel To The Sensitive Kind which not only spoke to me more directly than any other song in 2008 but is also time-stoppingly beautiful.

It might look indulgent and clever for me to pick a relatively unknown artist as my favourite album of 2008 ahead of the popular and critically acclaimed works before but I simply can’t ignore the fact that this amazing record blows everything else I have heard in 2008 out of the water. Simply, simply stunning.

Favourite track - Cruel To The Sensitive Kind

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

you're moving with such irresistible speed

Top 10 Albums of 2008

2. Perfect Symmetry - Keane (LB)

Following the in-fighting and tension that underscored the trio’s last release – 2006’s Under The Iron Sea – it is something of a miracle that Perfect Symmetry ever saw the light of day. After Tom Chaplin’s well-publicised stint in rehab and the barely disguised resentment that manifested itself in the lyrics of their previous release it took the threesome to retreat to the German capital Berlin to come up with a record that, to their great credit, tries to push the boundaries of their simple piano-led sound.

Reaction to their download-only teaser, Spiralling, was mixed. Sounding like it had been plucked directly from one of the early Now.... albums (circa 1984) I couldn’t decide for weeks whether I loved it or hated it, and only with multiple listens have I come to the conclusion that it’s an OK record (it could certainly do without the silly “do you wanna be an icon?” posturing in the middle, mind.)

The rest of Perfect Symmetry is cut from the same cloth. With influences from Talking Heads to David Bowie (Better Than This sounds like the backing track was lifted directly from a Bowie record) Keane have managed to successfully combine their emotionally direct lyrics with a sound that can be described as a sort of “modern Eighties”. There are moments which are classic Keane (the beautiful ballad You Don’t See Me and closing track Love Is The End) and moments where I am not entirely sure what they were trying to do (You Haven’t Told Me Anything is possibly the weakest song they have ever recorded).

It’s an interesting record, and rather than the likes of Snow Patrol and Razorlight who both basically threw out “more of the same” in 2008, Keane have tried to build on their sound and develop it in a new direction. Nowhere is this better evidenced by the sweeping U2-esque title track Perfect Symmetry which is (by the bands admission) the most ambitious song they have written. I also love the driving Somewhere Only We Know-ish single The Lovers Are Losing which was the absolute highlight of their recent Q awards performance.

It’s not a perfect record by any means. The polished 80s production fails to make the most of Chaplin’s vocals – one of Keane’s most important qualities – and so the songs here lend themselves much better to a live performance. It’s also less populist and so whilst some will embrace the new direction they have taken, the absence of the simple piano-chugging pop of Hopes and Fears will alienate many.

Perfect Symmetry is a great album and has meant that Keane retain their place as my favourite band of the 21st century. In bygone years I’d probably have lazily made it my #1 album of the year (simply because it was Keane!) but this time round I’m afraid it just wasn’t quite good enough.

Favourite track - You Don't See Me

2. Seventh Tree - Goldfrapp (Bedshaped)

She’s got lovely vocal and she’s on my list.

Wonderful. dreamy collection of songs that sees Goldfrapp move into much older territory. Much of the disco and electronic sound previously heard by this band have been put aside in favour of a more musical, gentille and melodic sound. There’s a vast array of instruments and sounds on this album. All working their little wonder into the songs in their own lovely way. At times, it’s nothing short of magical.

Sounding like it was recorded in a shack, buried deep in a forest that nobody could ever find, a wonderful sense of contentment and peace washes through this short collection of songs. The melodies created on such a variety of instruments make the listening experience much more enjoyable. And of course there’s Allison’s lovely voice, which I think is criminally underrated.

Even though each song stands up on its own, the collection is most pleasing when listened to in full. There’s a satisfying feeling waiting for everybody when the last track, Monster Love plays out. That final track evokes a feeling of bringing everything else together.

It’s a brave album for them to put out and judging by how quickly people stopped talking about them, perhaps it backfired. A definite shift that saw them drop the glam and handbag dancing days, moving into a much more mellow and sometimes melancholy mood, resulting in a collection of wonderfully constructed songs that stroke at the listener’s ear when those strings come in....or when those bells chime....or when that oboe moans....or when Alisson’s voice seduces.

Favourite track - Cologne Cerrone Houdini

2. The Seldom Seen Kid – Elbow (Swiss Toni)

Elbow have been producing fantastic records quietly and without any great fuss or fanfare since 2001. Like a fine wine, they have been slowly improving with age, although I don’t really think that “The Seldom Seen Kid” is really all that much better than 2005s “Leaders of the Free World”. For some reason though, 2008 was the year that the great British public fell in love with one of Britain’s most accomplished bands, and it was also a year when their commercial success finally started to match their critical appreciation. The album won the Mercury Music Prize, but the momentum was behind them long before that and songs like “Grounds for Divorce” and “One Day Like This” really sank into the public consciousness and were being used to soundtrack everything from Euro 2008 through to rallying on Dave.

Guy Garvey highlights the moment that he realised how perfectly everything was going as being their sundown slot on the Other Stage at Glastonbury, when he looked out and saw a sea of faces all singing his songs back to him. I was there, and it was a magical, intimate moment shared by the band with about 100,000 people and a TV audience of several million. The bottom-line here is that “The Seldom Seen Kid” is a marvellous album. Elbow grew up together and have been playing as a band for some eighteen years. They are a proper, tightly knit unit and this shows in both their live show and in their recorded output. Guy Garvey has a lovely, expressive voice and a poet’s way with words, and the band, produced by keyboard player Craig Potter, know just how to bring the best out of him.

Right from the swelling surge of “Starlings” all the way through to the lovely “Friend of Ours” (and bonus track “We’re Away”), this album is a slow-burner and a real grower, seeming to get better and deeper with every play. “Bones of You” and “Mirrorball” are gorgeous, shimmering love songs, “Grounds For Divorce” features the biggest, dirtiest riff of the year, “The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver”, “The Fix”, “One Day Like This”…. It’s just a fantastic album from start to finish.

It’s not the biggest or most famous song on the album, but Elbow’s appeal is summed up for me in the opening lines to “Friend of Ours”, a song dedicated to Bryan Glancy, the seldom seen kid of the album’s title:

“Before leaving get to the bar
No one round here makes you pay
Never very good at goodbyes
So gentle shoulder charge
Love you mate”

What other band has captured the nature of the love between two blokes better than that?

Key Track - The Loneliness of a Tower Crane Driver

Monday, December 29, 2008

the humans are dead

Top 10 Albums of 2008

3. Flight of the Conchords - Flight of the Conchords (Swiss Toni)

Yes, this is a comedy record. It’s a really, really funny record. But you know what? That’s not what makes this one of my favourite albums of the year, and probably the single album that has given me the most listening pleasure over the last twelve months. The thing that has enabled me to listen to this album over and over again is the plain fact that the songs on here, funny as they are, are also proper songs.

The Mighty Boosh clearly fancy themselves as a band, but a song like “I Did A Shit On Your Mum” only really works in the context of the episode in which Vince tries to become a punk. The beauty of Flight of the Conchords, is that the songs work in their own right.

In case you aren’t familiar with their work, Flight of the Conchords are an imaginary band and the stars of an eponymous TV series which sees them struggling to make it in New York. In their heads, they are genre-spanning geniuses, but the sad reality is they are formerly New Zealand's fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo acapella-rap-funk-comedy folk duo, and they’re rubbish. And now this imaginary band have put out an actual record, and I’m not entirely sure whether they’re trying to be the band that’s in their heads or the band that they actually are, and I’m not sure that it actually matters.

I’m not sure I can do the songs any justice at all by attempting to describe them: some are parodies, some are pastiches, some are simply daft…. Almost all are superb. How could you not love a song like “Robots”, which features a binary solo (0000001 00000011 000000111)? Or a tribute to “The Most Beautiful Girl (in the room)” that includes the lines "You're so beautiful, you could be an air hostess in the’re so beautiful, you could be a part-time model…but you'd probably have to keep your normal job." Or a song like “Business Time” that inadvertently celebrates hopeless, once-weekly sex with a long-term partner. Hmm. Like most good jokes, it they seem to pale in the retelling, but do yourself a favour and give the album a go, even if you’ve never watched the TV show. Which you should, incidentally.

Key Track - Robots

3. Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends - Coldplay (LB)

OK, so I am a Coldplay fan. Whilst that might have ensured their fourth album made it onto my shortlist it doesn’t automatically follow that it will be one of my top three albums of the year. The reality is, however, that the Worlds Biggest Band (ish) returned with a quite superb record which would deserve its place in this list in any year.

Viva La Vida... ended up being one of those rare albums which I simply couldn’t take off my stereo for a few weeks. Most albums get a couple of spins and then go into the iPod morass with everything else to be plucked out at a later date. Viva la Vida..., though, accompanied me in the house, in the car and on the bus to the office for a month or so.

It’s difficult to pick particular highlights as everything here is great. The opening instrumental Life in Technicolor sounded like the best song ever crying out for some lyrics, until the “sequel” appeared on the Prospekt’s March EP and blew the original away. I love 42 and Lovers in Japan but it is the title track itself that bestrides the rest of this album. The band’s first UK number one single, Viva la Vida succeeded where other Coldplay tracks have failed not only by its uplifting, anthemic melody but also by Martin’s brilliant lyrics, something that has not always been in evidence on their previous releases. Destined to be a modern classic (and already being used at sports events and the like in its instrumental form) Viva la Vida is worth the price of the album in itself and provides a magnificent centrepiece for this record. Whilst lead single Violet Hill is, oddly, the creative low point on the album, it recovers through the gentle Strawberry Swing to a climax with the pretty Death And All His Friends.

Rather than dilute the quality of Viva la Vida, I also found that the later Prospekt’s March EP actually enhanced the overall collection (with the exception of Jay-Z’s rather unnecessary contribution to Lost, perhaps). Between them it is difficult to find a better collection of songs in 2008 and only the fact that it was a truly exceptional year of releases prevents this comfortably being my favourite album of 2008.

Favourite track - Viva la Vida

3. Only By The Night - Kings of Leon (Bedshaped)

First came Sex On Fire. So soon after their last great album and they already have an undeniably great song? How can this be? Well, it just is. Some bands struggle for years and put out some turkeys in between, but not, it seems, these guys. And the rest of the album is just as good. It’s always nice to have albums where you’re never tempted to skip the filler track, simply because there aren’t any.

Good old fashioned rock and roll. Dirty sounding guitars, heavy drums and Caleb’s throaty voice are all you need here. And the catalyst to it all lies within the songs. They’re all good. It’s a simple as that. From opener Closer, with it’s haunting guitar and hypnotic drumming, you get a good feeling for what’s about to follow. By halfway through it, you’re already convinced this is going to be a really good album. And it is.

Punchy guitar riffs that make you wanna join the local air guitar group and catchy choruses that even the tone deaf can howl along to. What more could you want?

Favourite track - Closer

Sunday, December 28, 2008

you do what i like and you like it

Top 10 Albums of 2008

4. Circus - Britney Spears (bedshaped)

Lead single and album opener Womanizer caught my attention when it started to gain radio and video channel rotation. A great pop song delivered in typical Britney style, with a chorus to die for that sticks in your head like a first kiss. It’s also a good indication of what can be found on the rest of the album. Funky basslines, samples a plenty, vocal alterations, catchy choruses, neat production and mixing, the occasional ballad and lyrics that make the listener double take all add to a very listenable collection of pop songs. And that’s exactly what this album is. It’s not trying to go in any other direction.

Just how involved Britney is with the writing process is questionable, although she’s regularly quoted as saying she more involved with the lyrics than anything else. Having said that, there are a few songs on here that fall out of the usual boy meets girls/love song criteria of typical pop songs and we get treated to yet another take on her relationship with the paparatzi, her relationship with her children and that photographer guy, her perceptions of how the public see her and a few brief but clever uses of word play; particularly on If U See Amy..If those words haven’t come from Britney, then you gotta take your hat off to the person who writes out her life so well.

Some of swankiest writers and producers around have been rounded up on this album, and there’s no mistaking it either. It all sounds very polished, almost too polished at times. There’s plenty of sampling and keyboard trickery afoot here too, so koudos to the guys twiddling the knobs. Britney sounds like Britney. She swoons, breathes, sighs, grunts, purrs and stutters through all the songs, sometimes with the help of keyboards, sometimes so over-layered that she’s in danger of stepping on Gwen Stefani’s toes.

There’s plenty of potential singles on here, if in this day and age that’s still a factor. It’s choc-a-block with songs the likes of The Pussycat Dolls, Madonna et al would probably perform public oral sex for. The album that Blackout should have been and the album Madonna wishes she’d made.

Favourite track - Mannequin

4. Workout Holiday - White Denim (Swiss Toni)

You can intellectualise music all you like, but once in a while a band comes along that hits you right in the guts and helps you to remember that music often works on an almost primal level. “Workout Holiday” is one of those albums, and White Denim are one of those bands. They caused a bit of a buzz at SXSW, but they didn’t hit my radar until some friends came back from the Park Stage raving about them (and their drummer in particular) at Glastonbury. I had gone to go and watch Tony Benn on the Leftfield stage, and he was as great as he always is, but I was determined to check out this band for myself at the first possible opportunity.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to wait long, and was able to see them a few weeks later at the Social in Nottingham. They were brilliant. The record is good, but they sounded even better live, taking their cues from each other and improvising freely, led by their sensational drummer, Joshua Block. On record, the band are a little less of a glorious mess, but not by much. The album kicks off with “Let’s Talk About It”, rips through quality songs like “Mess Your Hair Up”, “All You Really Have To Do” and “Look That Way At It” and doesn’t let the listener go until “IEIEI”. It’s barely 40 minutes long, but it’s the sound of a garage band captured in their prime. Thrilling… but seriously, go and see them live.

Key Track - Let’s Talk About It

4. Home Before Dark - Neil Diamond (LB)

Here’s a surprise entry of ever there was one. I have always had a soft spot for Neil Diamond, but only in a “I have a Greatest Hits CD and like some of it” sort of a way. I can’t say I have ever been tempted to buy an album of his, and wasn’t even tempted by this one when it went to number One on the UK album charts.

I then started reading some reviews of it which said, shock horror, that it was actually “quite good”. I then saw he was going to be playing the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury and so took a chance with Home Before Dark as I figured he’d include some of that material in his setlist.
It turned out to be a great decision. It would be easy to make a case for this album on a slightly ill-informed “well, he’s a legend, innit” sort of basis but the truth of the matter is that this is a very, very good album. Diamond’s abilities as a songwriter sometimes get buried amongst the slight Las Vegas naffness of his earlier career but this record proves that he really is a top drawer writer. There isn’t a bad song amongst this collection, and songs like The Power Of Two, If I Don’t See You Again and Pretty Amazing Grace are the equal of any of those recognisable songs of the 1970s.

I have no real affiliation with Diamond and this record is not here as some sort of tribute or eulogy. It’s here because it is very simply one of the best records I have bought in the last twelve months and I am as surprised as anyone that it is as brilliant as it is. Nothing in 2008 has been a finer accompaniment to a late, quiet evening than Home Before Dark and I can’t praise it highly enough.

Favourite track - The Power Of Two

Saturday, December 27, 2008

good old texas, sat doing nothing while the world's up-coughing asbestos

Top 10 Albums of 2008

5. The Cross Eyed Rambler - Paul Heaton (LB)

Let’s get one thing straight. Whilst the former Beautiful South frontman’s record is a departure from the two decades of work with his former bandmates if you were never much of a fan of the South, you aren’t going to like this all that much either. Whilst the material may be different and the sound a lot more guitar based and gruffer, his voice is basically still the same one that graced the charts with the Housemartins and the Beautiful South and so if that never appealed, this is unlikely to.

I was reluctant to buy this at first. I’d seen Heaton live in Nottingham and whilst I enjoyed his solo work, the sour taste of him steadfastly refusing to throw in even one obscure Beautiful South track for a baying audience remained. Eventually I gave in though and I am glad I did as the Cross Eyed Rambler is a really, really excellent piece of work.

Like I say, it’s edgier and tougher than his previous work but the beauty of the album remains the cutting satire of his lyrics. I’d argue that Heaton has been the leading British lyricist of the past twenty years or so (perhaps Neil Tennant might run him close) and whether you like his work or not there can be no doubting the quality and humour that define his songwriting.

The Cross Eyed Rambler is in much the same vein. The fantastic God Bless Texas is a wonderful satire of redneck America (“....good old Texas/lazy old days in the Amarillo haze in my work vest/sitting on the porch, wondering which country to torch next....”) and The Pub tells the story of the development of his local boozer from the 1980s to today (“....quiz night replaced the blues night in 1983.....”). The highlight though is Heaton’s very own Grumpy Old Men moment – the seven minute rant Everything is Everything in which he takes out every last frustration of the reality TV culture of Britain in 2008.

The butcher sells you pantyhose
The supermarket sells you land
The newsreader likes to read the news, but he’s also in a band
Feminism’s fast asleep with a cock in either hand
Everything is anything to anyone
And locate, locate, locate the victim’s house
Swap their wives, take their lives and turn them inside out
Nothing left in closet, nothing left in doubt
Everything is anything to anyone

I really like this record. It manages to combine the brilliance of Heaton’s lyrics with a modern, guitar based sound and is easily as good as anything he released with his bandmates over the last fifteen years. Highly recommended.

Favourite track - God Bless Texas

5. Como Te Llama - Albert Hammond Jr (bedshaped)

He’s the guitarist with The Strokes, don’t ya know. There’s certainly a strong influence from his own band, but there’s also nods towards Velvet Underground, Bowie, and even The Beach Boys to be found on here.

No suprises to find this is a guitar driven album, with catchy hooks, decent enough vocals and damn catchy melodies. He’s not got a fantastic voice, but it’s ample for the songs and it’s in the songs that this album wins, time and time again. There are some interesting interjections of instruments you wouldn’t expect to find on such an indie sounding album, but nothing objectionable. Yep, thank goodness those horns on Hard To Live In The City from his previous album have thankfully been laid to rest.

This isn’t an album that’s gonna make people start to question the future of The Strokes. If indeed anybody still cares about them? And it’s not an album that’s gonna win him lots of attention either, more so, it’s gonna be one of those really good albums that slips under all the radars, but is to be found in the stereos of cool people.

Favourite track - Lisa

5. Viva La Vida (or Death and All His Friends) – Coldplay (Swiss Toni)

When you aspire to be the biggest band in the world, one of things that you need to do, if you’re following the U2 model anyway, is to hire Brian Eno. If Eno could stop Bono singing about bullets ripping the desert sky, then perhaps he could stop Chris Martin worrying about puzzles missing pieces? Quite how much input or impact Eno ultimately had on “Viva la Vida” is debatable (he’s credited with ‘sonic landscapes’), but there are definite signs here that Coldplay are developing as a band. It’s not a dramatic change, and is certainly a case of evolution rather than revolution: for the most part Coldplay still sound unmistakeably like Coldplay.

They seem more self-confident though, as if have acknowledged to themselves that yes, they do want to entertain the largest number of people possible, and that actually, that’s ok. Radiohead, it should be remembered, from a similar position, drew a rather different conclusion. Coldplay are good with melody, and there are melodies aplenty on this album: “Viva La Vida”, “Violet Hill”, “Lost”, “Cemeteries of London”, “Lovers in Japan”… the lyrics might still be a touch woolly, but the tunes are huge and compelling, and with “Strawberry Swing”, the band even show a little bit of unexpected African swing.

They’ve been roundly criticised for their new stage costumes of course (they are a much criticised band), but this is a band trying to escape themselves, even by a little bit at a time. Those uniforms have enabled Chris Martin to escape from his long-sleeve t-shirts, jeans and from the slogans scrawled on his hand… all previously a key part of the band’s identity. They’re not a cool band, of course, but they’re striving to get better and I think they’re worth sticking with.

Key Track - Viva La Vida

Friday, December 26, 2008

who gives a f**k about an oxford comma?

Top 10 Albums of 2008

6. Vampire Weekend - Vampire Weekend (Swiss Toni)

As a grammar pedant, there was always going to be something attractive about Vampire Weekend. Other people talk about their ‘Upper West Side Soweto’ and the way that they reference both Congolese soukous and classical music. Me? I just liked the way they referenced an arcane grammatical rule in such a catchy manner. Who does give a fuck about a comma used before a grammatical conjunction? Well, curiously enough, although we may not care much for its use in British English, it’s actually the recommended method in American English, and so the song takes on a new level of meaning in the USA that is entirely lost in England.

But I digress. At its heart, this is sunny, uplifting pop music, and so it was entirely appropriate that singer Ezra Koenig wore sunglasses throughout their Glastonbury performance in distinctly gloomy conditions. By the end of their set, the sun came out, as if unable to resist the magic for a moment longer. Paul Simon may have got to those rhythms first, but few bands have used them better.

Key Track - Oxford Comma

6. Man In The Machine - Royworld (LB)

Royworld are a really interesting band, actually. Although their second single Dust spent three weeks inside the top Forty they remain broadly unknown and the cancellation of their autumn tour denied the public the opportunity to see them close up.

After the first couple of listens, I was pretty unconvinced. Sounding like a cross between Coldplay and the Buggles (yes, such a thing is possible) I had a suspicion that some initial promise was going to fade, much as it had done with a similar band – the Ghosts – the year before.

When I saw they had been added to the Glastonbury line-up, I gave Man in the Machine another spin and found myself warning to it somewhat. Their performance on the John Peel stage on the Sunday morning endeared me to them further and from that point onwards I have found myself falling for this record more and more.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole, really – they are a traditional four piece with guitar and keyboards but they do incorporate some retro sounds, and singer adds really good, distinctive vocals. Singles Dust and Man In The Machine are lively enough but it is on the more reflective songs like the superb Brakes that they really begin to show what they can do.

I would heartily recommend this record and I really hope that with the right publicity and support they could end up being pretty successful. If not, they’ll just end up being a curious footnote to 2008 with one superb album and a well-received festival performance to show for their efforts.

Favourite Track - Man In The Machine (or Brakes)

6. Shine - Estelle (bedshaped)

Beginning with a funky choone that would have the likes of Mark Ronson creaming in his jeans, this album just doesn’t dampen down. Estelle’s voice rides through ballads, dance numbers, disco jumpers, reggae flavours, old skool numbers and R’n’ B songs with ease. There’s a wonderful fullness to her voice. Rich and creamy.

Great arrangements are to be applauded here, showing the likes of Mr Ronson (not wanting to pick on him or anything, but hey, what can you do....) how to put together a great sounding album, touching on the retro nerve, without having to overlay so much and giving that fucking horn section a much deserved rest.

The single American Boy was an inspirational move. That dirty keyboard hook through the chorus must have ear-wormed it’s evil way on pretty much anybody who came within a sniff of it. And it’s the abundance of killer hooks like that throughout this album that dig in and just wont let go.

A really great album by a very underrated Estelle.

Favourite Track - Come Over

Thursday, December 25, 2008

it takes patience, lots of patience...

Top 10 Albums of 2008

7. Scars On Broadway - Scars On Broadway (bedshaped)

An album of power chords and crashing vocals, riddled with hooks and ear pleasing song arrangements that reaffirms my belief that people can still make really good rock music. I know little about them, other than it’s a side project featuring a couple of members of System Of The Down.

The lyrics can sometimes leave a lot to be desired, but it’s the thought that counts and there’s enough monster chords and pounding drums to keep the listener occupied. Vocally, there’s nothing new here. It’s very much delivered in the System Of The Down style, and even though that’s not such a bad thing, his voice is nowhere near as good as Serj Tankian’s. That said, it’s the music here that’s so great to listen to. Song after song of catchy choruses, striking guitars and whoomp whoomp pounding are enough to make you sigh with pleasure as the last track plays out.

If you like loud guitars, power chords, driving beats and the occasional noisy vocal then this an album that’s definitely worth investigating. There’s nothing new here that will make the listener think that some divine intervention has just occurred, but it’s enough to stand out above some of the other drivel out there.

Favourite Track - World Long Gone

7. Alas, I Cannot Swim - Laura Marling (Swiss Toni)

Laura Marling is 18 years old and looks considerably younger, and yet here she has produced a frail, slightly gauche and yet at the same time stunningly mature debut album. Duffy and Adele have bigger voices, have garnered more attention and sold more records, but I'm not sure that the two of them together have anything approaching the talent of this slight girl from Hampshire.

From the world-weary cynicism of "Ghosts" ("Lover please do not fall to your knees, it's not like I believe in everlasting love"), through the frail bravery of "Night Terror" ("If they want you, then they're gonna have to fight me") all the way to the concluding refrain of "Alas I Cannot Swim" at the very end of the album ("work more, earn more, live more, have more fun."), this is a debut to be treasured – they don’t always get the shortlists for these things right, but this was deservedly one of the Mercury Albums of the Year for 2008.

Key Track - Night Terror

7. This Is Alphabeat - Alphabeat (LB)

Recently I saw a TV advert for the debut album by scary, are they/aren’t they, you know – “at it” brother and sister X-Factor losers Same Difference. It described their debut release as “the pop album of the year”, which made me want to spit out my Horlicks.

I’m sorry, but there is only one pop album of 2008, and it’s the insanely catchy, breezy debut by the Danish six-piece.

From the very opening moment of track 1 – the B-52s-esque Fantastic Six – I knew I was going to love this band. Whilst their lyrics have the look of some second rate Danish poetry put through Babelfish, the sheer energy and enthusiasm by which they bang out a string of nonsensical maniacal pop ditties can only endear you to them.

OK, so the album may have been a slight disappointment but that’s only because the bar was raised so high by their string of radio-lite smash hit singles. As well as Fantastic Six (my personal favourite) the highlights are the ones you’d know – the omnipresent Fascination, the superb Ten Thousand Nights and the nonsensical Boyfriend. Less successful single What Is Happening and the frantic Touch Me Touching You are also dancefloor friendly fun.

I wouldn’t call the rest of the album “filler” – it’s not quite that bad – but their attempt to slow things down is a bit unwelcome and slightly incongruous against the breathless bounciness of the singles. Whether they can sustain a long career out of producing brilliant but ultimately throwaway pop records in a Roxette-ish style is another question, but for the time being the world is their oyster.

Considering also their brilliant performance at Glastonbury and the fact that four of their singles are in my Top Fifty of the year, Alphabeat are also my Band of 2008. Say the word!

Favourite track - Fantastic Six

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

it's a rock and roll disaster

Top 10 Albums of 2008

8. Join With Us - The Feeling (LB)

It was always going to be tough for the popsters to follow up their 2006 debut Twelve Stops And Home, chocked full as it was with radio-friendly top Twenty hit singles like Love It When You Call and Fill My Little World.

Follow it up they did, though, and whilst the number One album Join With Us might not have spawned the same number of mammoth singles it is a polished and likeable pop record. From the opening song, the top Ten hit I Thought It Was Over you know pretty much what you are going to get and Dan Gliiespie-Sells provides us with an hour of breathless, carefully written songs all of which could make a case for single release.

I am surprised that the fantastic and anthemic Join With Us or Turn It Up weren’t hits, and whilst the slower Without You nudged the top Fifty it knocks the socks off the majority of second rate pop and dance records in the hit parade. Whilst the pop balance here occasionally shifts from “catchily brilliant” to “annoying” (the daft Loneliness and Don’t Make Me Sad) and the final track’s attempt to be a long sweeping epic close just ends up making you want to turn if off before the end, it remains a brilliant and loveable pop record. I really, unashamedly like this band and this album.

Favourite track: Turn It Up

8. Glasvegas - Glasvegas (Bedshaped)

An indie album that sounds like Phil Spector’s been let loose with the controls. Huge washes of guitars, echo and various other wizardry effects give this album a huge sound. A neat package of ten songs that are....well, really good. The sound is good, the choruses are good, the playing is good, his voice is good.

I really like his voice. Gentle in delivery, but vocal enough when it’s needed. The Scottish accent adds to the enjoyment and the backing vocals bring in just enough balance and harmony to the sometimes overpowering guitar walls.

Big sounding. Anthemic almost. Possibly a little ambitious, but definitely an enjoyable listen. Ultimately a guitar driven collection of indie songs complemented by a nice voice and given a huge fuck off wall of sound production.

Favourite track: Flowers and Football Tops

8. Death Magnetic - Metallica (Swiss Toni)

Some bands are just louder than others. In Metallica's case, this is very literally true: for some reason, the MP3 files I have of this album are about 25% louder than anything else I have loaded on my iPod. If a track pops up on shuffle when I'm out running, it scares me half to death and I have to rip the headphones off before my ears start bleeding. Somehow, I think the band would approve.

After years of mucking about with therapists and trying to write songs only between the hours of noon and 3pm (or whatever), this was the album that finally announced the return of biggest and best rock band of them all. There's a glorious moment on the very first track on the album, "That Was Just Your Life", when the guitars really kick in at about 1m 28s, followed by some thunderbolt drumming. Hello, I thought, this is no "St. Anger".... When we get the first of the album's many, many dive-bombing guitar solos from Kirk Hammett at 4m 52s , then we really know we're back in business.

Each of the twelve tracks on the album clocks in at four or five minutes long, and the album as a whole is epic. Perhaps it's not something to listen to every day, but there's something about this kind of muscular rock that thrills me to the bottom of my soul. Brilliant. Best album of 2008 to listen to when jogging bar absolutely nothing. You run as though all of the hounds of hell are on your trail.

Key track: That Was Just Your Life

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

the judge and the defence

Top 10 Albums of 2009

9. Mr Love and Justice - Billy Bragg (Swiss Toni)

Bragg's twelfth studio album is very much along the lines of his others: for a man renowned for being the missing link between Woody Guthrie and Joe Strummer, far more of Bragg's songs are about love than they are about politics. "I Keep Faith", "I Almost Killed You", "M For Me", "You Make Me Brave", "Something Happened", "If You Ever Leave"... all are fairly direct songs of love and devotion.

Politics is still there, of course, and "O Freedom" is a brutally direct and pretty unsubtle lament on the post "War on Terror" world ("O Freedom what liberties are taken in thy name"). Bragg recorded the album with the Blokes, his backing band, and the overall tone is distinctly country-tinged and similar to his work with Wilco on the "Mermaid Avenue" albums.

For me though, the definitive versions of these songs are to be found on the bonus disc, where Bragg performs them all solo, old-school style, accompanied only by his own electric guitar. This is where he really comes to life. Stripped of the backing band, this is where Billy Bragg makes the most sense. He's mellowed a touch with middle-age, and he's no longer quite the same frustrated young man of "The Saturday Boy", but his fires and passions still burn more brightly than most. He's a national treasure.

Key track: "O Freedom"

9. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust - Sigur Ros (LB)

I am a late convert to the charms of the Icelanders but after the beautiful brilliance of Hvarf/Heim last year I was smitten. Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust has been their most successful album in chart terms to date and their singles have made mainstream radio playlists.

It’s difficult to explain Sigur Ros to people who haven’t heard of them. My mother thinks it sounds like some weird pan pipe music (although she likes Hoppipolla, mainly thanks to the BBC’s excessive usage of it some time ago). I have to say that I much, much prefer them when they are in relaxed, reflective mode and so the easy highlight of Meo... for me is the superb, sweeping nine minute Ara batur. The mixture of that gentle piano and his unique falsetto vocal is one of my very favourite things in a quarter century of buying music and nowhere is it better showcased than on this stunning piece.

Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust has less of these slow, gently moments than previous releases and as such it isn’t my favourite of their albums. There are more upbeat, ambitious moments here than previous and whilst the jaunty appeal of Gobbledigook and Inni mer syngur vitleysingur can’t be ignored, I would have preferred an hour of fantastic, sweeping piano ballads. It’s a minor and personal criticism, though, of a band who continue to grow and develop with each release.

Favourite track - Ara batur

9. Dear Science - TV On The Radio (Bedshaped)

The only thing I know about this band is that the lead singer has got a wicked beard. Other than that all I know is that they’ve made a really good album.

It’s like an indie sound, with lashings of rock, with added electronica, orchestration and funk. I dunno, think Genesis crossed with Gary Numan, Bloc Party crossed with Chic and Arcade Fire.....

His voice is often sombre in it’s appearance, sometimes breaking, sometimes leaping into a falsetto that’s right on the peak. It’s interesting to listen to, if nothing else. And the range of musical styles on this album also captivates the ear and gently massages it with each further listen. A definite grower!

They’ve just written and played some really good songs here. It’s pretty much as simple as that. One of the songs will be playing, all sounding very nice, then something else will happen...a beat change, a chord change....something....and it pricks up the listeners ears. An admirable quality for which they should be applauded.

It’s almost like a guessing game of who’s who on the influenced by list. I hear Peter Gabriel, Kraftwerk, Blur, Radiohead, Talking Heads, Beck, Prince, Bowie.... The sort of album you could have playing in the background at a cafe and know for sure that at least one person will ask you what it is. And it’s always good to have albums like that in your collection.

Monday, December 22, 2008

go ahead, you know you want it

Top 10 Albums of 2008

10. Santogold - Santogold (Bedshaped)

Quite a strange album, this one. What begins as a pretty decent indie sound soon morphs into dancehall, then rap, then electronic, then I don’t know what. And the ease at which it slips into all different kinds of sounds is where it finds it’s beauty. There’s also a sense of familiarity with most of the songs. A feeling that it’s been done before or some very clever sampling is at work. But no. I don’t think so. I think it’s more down to the songs just being so good.

She sings, shouts, screams, talks, stutters and raps through the album with ease and completely pulls it off. Not the most amazing vocals in the world, but she’s certainly more than capable of pulling off such a diverse range than many other singers I can think of.

It might not make it as the most played album for this year, but it’s certainly a very listenable album. And you’re always revisited by a ‘good choice’ feeling as each track plays through.

10. Hey Ma - James (Swiss Toni)

James disappeared in 2001 having fallen frustratingly short of the success they surely deserved. They did okay, sure, but somehow they were never quite as big as they should have been. Then, unexpectedly, the lineup that had recorded "Laid", arguably the band's creative and commercial high water mark, got back together and released a new album in 2008.

In many ways, "Hey Ma" sounds as though very little has changed for James in the intervening years, with that familiar trumpet and guitar-driven sound firmly in place. In other ways though, this is a more mature, reflective band than we've seen before. The title track, for example, has Tim Booth protesting the war in Iraq with the lyric "Hey Ma! Boys in bodybags, coming home in pieces".

Encroaching middle-age is something of an inevitable lyrical theme here too, with "Waterfall" opening with the line "My mirror's laughing at me, says, boy, are you getting old", a theme echoed in "Whiteboy" with "My mum says I look like Yul Brynner. Too old for Hamlet, too young for Lear". As always with James though, whatever the lyrical content, the music is wonderfully uplifing, with the soaring "Oh My Heart" and the stirring "Upside". They're a wonderfully open-hearted band, and it's good to have them back.

Key track: "Waterfall"

10. Day and Age - The Killers (LB)

The very first record that the Killers ever wrote together was modern classic Mr Brightside. There are those out there who believe strongly that their career hit a high point with that record and everything since has been a slow and gradual decline, but I don’t subscribe to that theory.

Eschewing the Springsteen-esque rock and roll Americana of Sam’s Town in favour of an 80s sound that makes Keane’s Perfect Symmetry sound like the cutting edge of new music, Day and Age is a simple, unpretentious album of four minute pop songs. From the excellent opening track Losing Touch and brilliant (if strangely lyrically constructed) single Human it is one of those records that sounds a bit samey at first but improves with multiple listens.

I don’t think it’s a masterpiece of a record and in some ways it appears a backwards step as Day and Age is sonically much more Hot Fuss than Sam’s Town. Still, Brandon Flowers and the boys have a knack of making some well-constructed songs with a little bit of substance and whilst it might be the keyboards back to the fore this time it doesn’t detract from the quality of the material. I’m not sure Flowers is the most technically accomplished vocalist in the world either but his imperfect, yearning style really works on these songs.

Whilst their previous releases may have had individual highlights superior to Day and Age, this is the better overall album. The fact that it has kept impressive efforts by the likes of Razorlight and the Last Shadow Puppets out of the top Ten is testament to how good this record is.
Favourite track: Human

Monday, December 15, 2008

waiting for the countdown

Just to let you know that the Auditorium contributing peeps will be running down their top 10 albums of 2008, beginning on 22nd December. Expect much random listage....