Friday, December 31, 2010

la and new york, dundee and doncaster

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

1. The Courteeners - Falcon (NP)

What do you do when a band that you previously hate make a brilliant record? This is a conflict that I have grappled with all year; at least since I first heard the Courteeners' second album, Falcon.

I'll be honest, I hated their first album, St Jude. Silly, swaggering, sub-Oasis Northern rock music with lyrics as banal as 'What took you so long? Was it the queue in the Post Office' had consigned the Manchester four piece to my dustbin a couple of years ago.

And then, one Friday afternoon, I heard Greg James play lead single You Overdid It, Doll, and loved it. So, I gave the album a try. And, despite not blowing me away on the first, second or even third listen, Falcon gradually grew and grew in my affections.

And now, here it is as my top album of the year; not a bad achievement on a shortlist of over forty records. Bizarrely, it is all in spite of being the Courteeners, not for that reason. One of my most anticipated Glastonbury performances, they were awful on a sunny afternoon on the other stage, plodding through a mundane set that would, had I not heard Falcon, have confirmed every suspicion I had of them. And, when considering this list, there were countless other brilliant albums in 2010, all of which I really enjoyed.

But, at the end of the day (and after some deep thought) I couldn't think of a record that I had enjoyed more in 2010. From the absolutely brilliant The Opener (one of the tracks of the year), Falcon may be occasionally lyrically lacking, but has enough hooks, tunes and great moments to elevate it to greatness. Take Over The World and Good Times Are Calling are rabble-rousing anthems, whilst the beautiful Lullaby is one of the best slow songs you'll hear this or any year.

Whilst it may sound perverse, I still don't think I like the Courteeners very much. However, Falcon is proudly and deservedly my album of 2010.

Listen to: The Opener, You Overdid It, Doll

1. Bombay Bicycle Club - Flaws (bedshaped)

Whilst dithering around, putting together a top ten albums of 2010 list, I began, as most people do, putting together a 'short-list'. Although it wasn't short by any means. Over time, I removed albums, added a couple more to the shrinking list (which didn't help), and finally ended up with a top ten that I felt happily reflected my favourite albums of the year. During this process, one album not only had to be on list, but from the very beginning, stood out for the simple reason that it was my most played album of the year. Whilst all of my top ten albums are firm favourites, and I'm very satisfied with my choices, this album has by far given me the most pleasure in listening to it.

Flaws is Bombay Bicycle Club's second release, and whilst it's listed as an album proper, it's probably better described as a stop-gap album to fill the void until their proper second studio album gets finished and released. It's an acoustic album; mostly original, but with reworks of previous songs (Dust On The Ground and Jewel) and a couple of covers/reworks (John Martyns' Fairytale Lullaby and Joanna Newsoms' Swansea).

Each track has a luscious feel to it; so intimate. All the guitars used are acoustic, the drums are light; almost skiffle sounding, the vocals are delicate and there's no jiggery-pokery or technical mixing here. Occasionally, there may be a xylophone, a mandolin and a gorgeous voice provided by Lucy Rose, who often reminds me of Lisa Hannigan; Damien Rice's stunning vocal partner. And that's the beauty of this album. It sounds like your best friends have come round to your house and played 11 songs, while you held out a microphone attached to an old tape recorder. Wonderfully simple and simply wonderful. Jamie MacColls' guitar playing is just perfect here, his finger-picking in particular. And vocally, Jack Steadman has never sounded better. Much, much more suited to a quieter, more intimate setting.

Most of the songs are slow. There's not much call for speed here. There's the occasional up-tempo track; Ivy & Gold, album opener Rinse Me Down and My God; with some absolutely beautiful guitar and mandolin work, being pretty much the only tracks showing any sense of urgency. And even then, their delicacy and intimacy seem to slow down the second hand. Elsewhere, there's a superb re-working of Dust On The Ground, really breaking the song down to its bare bones. But the scene stealer for me is Leaving Blues; a heart-wrenching song about lost love and breaking up. Jack's fragile and subdued vocals could melt the heart of anyone listening to this track, and for that reason, this is my essential track to listen to. It sums up the album perfectly.

Listen to: Leaving Blues

1. The National - High Violet (Swisslet)

2007s Boxer is one of my favourite albums of the last ten years, without a shadow of a doubt. I was slow to latch onto The National, but once I found them, there was something about them that chimed with me almost immediately: I’ve always been a sucker for gloomy guitar bands, and Matt Berninger’s deep bass baritone seems to suit the mood almost perfectly. Where fellow New Yorkers Interpol have a singer who sounds like an undertaker reading from a legal textbook, Berninger has the bruised, weary voice of the hopelessly and perpetually disappointed romantic. I love it.

There’s no great progression in sound here, no great leap forward from Alligator or Boxer, the two amazing albums that precede this one. Perhaps the greatest achievement of the band is that this doesn’t seem to matter. They’re doing the same sorts of things that they were doing before, only better and with far, far greater intensity. These are personal songs, almost claustrophobically so, and the band aren’t compromising for anyone. This isn’t an attempt to be a BIGGER band, it’s an attempt to be a BETTER band, and I think they do such a great job that they may very well end up with both.

2010 was also the year where I finally got to see the band perform live. They’re a band to be listened to in a darkened room if ever there was one. Somehow though, even in the middle of the afternoon at the hottest Glastonbury anyone can remember, the band still pulled it off. Brilliant record. Brilliant band. One of the best.

Listen to: Anyone’s Ghost


So, there we go. Another year in music and with the National and Interpol's albums finishing in the top ten twice, I suppose they're the two to choose from (if you like horrific, gloomy guitar rock. Heh heh heh).

A good year for albums, all in all. Any we have missed? What was your record of 2010?

Thursday, December 30, 2010

something's bound to go wrong

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

2. Plan B - The Defamation Of Strickland Banks (Swisslet)

I didn’t even think this album was worth listening to. Why would I bother with an album by a British rapper, no matter how well received it seemed to be? Plan B just didn’t sound like something I would be interested in, so I gave it a miss. In fact, I only listened to the album at all because of a song recommendation by the guy who sits at the desk next to me.

Gary doesn’t really strike me as much of a music fan: he’s from Blackburn and he’s mates with a guy in Ian Brown’s band, but aside from a love of all things Manchester typical in a man of his age, he’s not exactly cutting-edge. I don’t know why, but he recommended that I listen to Love Goes Down. Conscious that I’ve been out of the country for large portions of 2010 and have missed loads and loads of good music, I reckoned I didn’t have much to lose by giving it a go.

Oh my goodness. This was NOTHING like I expected. I’d heard rumours that this was more of a soul than a rap album, but I didn’t believe it until I listened to the whole album. It turns out I had heard bits and pieces of it before, but would never in a million years have connected it with Plan B.

Odd though it sounds, the last time this happened to me was when the Streets released his debut album, and in spite of thinking it would be the last record in the world that I would be listening to, never mind buying, I found myself sucked in by the energy displayed in a single track that I heard playing in Selectadisc to the extent that I had to ask what it was and had my preconceptions of both the music and of what I would and would not like shattered.

This album is staggeringly good. I’m sure it works beautifully as a concept album, with a story that flows from one end to the other, but to be honest I’m just revelling in each song as it comes. This isn’t rap, this is Northern Soul, for goodness sake. The surprise of the year for me. I love it.

Listen to: Stay Too Long

2. Mt. Desolation - Mt. Desolation (NP)

As Keane took a sabbatical prior to the construction of their fourth full album, half the band decided to take some time off. The other half - well, technically a third and the latter-day bassist - didn't fancy a bit of larking about at home and so set about creating a side project.

Mt. Desolation is the brainchild of songwriter Tim Tice-Oxley and guitarist Jesse Quin. Conceived on a drunken night in Dublin, what began as a bit of fun quickly developed into an album's worth of quality material. With contributions from Mumford and Sons' Country Winston and the Killers' Ronnie Vannucchi (amongst others) Mt. Desolation are a collaborative effort with over a dozen musicians and guests appearing on the record.

Whilst one or two of the tracks on the self-titled album are pretty basic country music - The Midnight Ghost and Platform 7 sound like anything you'd hear in a Nashville bar - the remainder of the album has influences as broad as Kenny Rogers, The Band and Bruce Springsteen. And, in closing track Coming Home, you have a song as capable of bookending a Keane album as anything else the trio will themselves record.

It's a surprisingly brilliant album. The songwriting is quintessentially Rice-Oxley and the keyboardist also boasts a great voice, providing lead vocals on half the record. The inclusion of Jessica Staveley-Taylor adds some great female vocals and the duet Another Night On My Side is one of the album's highlights. Whilst Annie Ford and Departure are superb uptempo alt-country tracks, it's when Mt. Desolation slow the pace that I really love the sound. State Of Our Affairs is a magnificent single, and both Bridal Gown and the haunting My My My are amongst the best slow songs I have heard in 2010.

Although there was a part of me that expected to enjoy Mt. Desolation's record simply thanks to the Keane influence, I never anticipated enjoying a country-based album quite this much. It also made perfect sense when performed live, and so only narrowly avoided being my absolute favourite record of the year.

Listen to: Departure, My My My

2. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (bedshaped)

Let's not beat around the bush here. Kanye West is the man the media seems to love to hate. And yes, he does himself no favours at all with his often bizarre 'CAPS LOCK' infested ranting on Twitter, but that said, I'm more interested in the music he produces, than the man himself. I'm not the slightest bit interested if he likes dating porn stars or cleans his diamonds with toothpaste! So putting Kanye West, the man, aside for a moment....

Late Registration was a great album. Graduation was, in my opinion even better. I had high hopes for 808s & Heartbreak, and even though it had it's moments, I found it over long, over-produced and shamefully smothered by all the vocoder and auto-tune production, not to mention every other song was depressingly downbeat. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a huge leap forward for Kanye and his arms-length list of 'friends' including hipsters such as; John Legend, Elly Jackson of La Roux , girl of the moment Nicki Minaj, The RZA, Rihanna, Pusha T, Elton John, Alicia Keys, Charlie Wilson, Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, Kid Cudi, Fergie.... The list goes on.

What's refreshing here, is that Kanye isn't afraid to show that he not only has a sense of humour, but more significantly, he isn't afraid to step up the mic and take the piss out of himself. He's obviously taken a look at himself and his persona from the eyes of the media and other outside circles, laying down mixtures of comical, sarcastic, cynical and sometimes brutally honest lyrics. Perhaps this is the performer attempting to show that he is in fact just a human being and not the God-like, untouchable persona with diamonds stuck up his arse that he's portrayed to be. Whilst his lyrics also touch on the typically political, on the social commentary and parts of his own personal life, it's the music once again where Kanye scores highly in my books.

The album is once again choc-a-block full of excellent samples; cleverly inter-twined and slipped into the songs with little or no effort. Using these as one of the contagious hooks, the others being his genius use of bare-knuckle and broken down instruments are what make him stand head and shoulders above other pop/rap artists of out time. Take Runaway for example, driven almost entirely by a child-like piano riff. An infectiously catchy song that sees Kanye and Pusha-T spilling the beans of (presumably) his own life (along with all the other 'douchebags' in the world), giving accounts from both first person and third person perspective.

Album opener Dark Fantasy rides out mostly on piano riff tinkles, chord strikes and Mike Oldfield samples and does a splendid job too. I kid you not! Most obvious centrepiece here is All Of The Lights with its never ending roster of contributors. The track even gets its own 'interlude/intro' track before bursting into the track title chants, underpinned by Rihanna's unmistakable vocals. It's a busy song, breakneck speed at times, with super-fast percussion and oddly enjoyable brass pieces chopped in here and there. But it works wonders.

Is this album gonna win him any new fans? I don't think so. But perhaps that was never his intention. But it certainly shows that not only can he look at himself and his life with his tongue placed firmly in his cheek, he is also bloody good at what he does. He's Kanye West. He makes really good songs. And apparently, lots of other artists are more than happy to hitch along for the ride.

Essential track to listen to : Runaway, if just for the sheer cheek of how a simple riff can provide the bones of a great, great song.

Listen to: Runaway

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

saddle up, see you on the moon

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

3. Sleigh Bells - Treats (bedshaped)

I've never heard of them before, I don't know much about them, apart from there's a guy and girl who hail from Brooklyn, and they sound so different, it's almost scary. What I also know, is that this album gave me goose-bumps from the first time I played it. Why? Because it sounds so huge, so widescreen, so immense, so intense, so fresh and so captivating compared to anything else I've heard this year. By half way through the first spin, my head was already telling me I'd found something wild and very special.

Eleven tracks; most of them running between two and three minutes gives this album a sleek feel. The short, punchy songs that fizzle, pop and bang are like the closest thing to being able to listen to musical explosions, each track effervescing and bubbling over into a huge sound, without over-stepping the mark.

Distortion, samples, slamming programmed percussion, grinding and often piercing guitars, bizarre keyboard sounds, squealing feedback and various other musical instruments beaten, stretched, banged, flipped and scratched (amongst other things) form the melodic noise. The female vocals are sampled, distorted, fed through emulators and squeezed through all manner of jigger-pokery wizardry to fine effect. What the listener is left with, is a powerful bombastic noise, that still remains melodic and catchy, with plenty of hooks and filled with engaging qualities that simply begs for replays.

Album opener, Tell 'Em blasts it's way through to the eardrums from the off. Fuzzy guitars provide the riff, machine gun percussion provides the beats, female vocals provide one of the many hooks. It's a fantastic opener and a brilliant introduction into what is about to follow. And what follows is pretty much more of the same, without sounding too 'samey'. Each track knuckles down and chews into the listeners brain. Catchy riffs and hooks bury themselves deep, rearing their heads once again, and that's a great, and rather impressive formula that shows the strength of this duo on this album.

This music hits you hard. It doesn't back down. It doesn't let up or falter. It's almost relentless, like a boxing opponent that keep pounding body blows and upper-cuts. And it leaves you pretty breathless by the time the album closes. The rare breather comes just over half way through, in the shape of Rill Rill, the albums most melodic song by a long stretch. Gorgeous and catchy vocals, acoustic guitars and chiming keys are the true beauty here and whilst I'd say there's no potential singles to be found on this album, this track would be my only slight possibility.

Will they ever follow this up with another release? Who knows. To me, it sounds the sort of strikingly different debut album that will just be left to it's own devices. Never to be followed. Never to be bettered. Certainly not everybody's cup of tea, but absolutely worth at least one listen.

Listen to : Rill Rill

3. Manic Street Preachers - Postcards From A Young Man (Swisslet)

You could probably argue that Manic Street Preachers have been two completely separate bands in their career: in the early days, they were an urgent, wordy, punk band driven on by the slogans, lyrics and restless intelligence of Richey James Edwards. After Richey’s disappearance, they became a different band: a much more anthemic band writing wistful rock songs that gained them huge commercial success. Of the two bands, I have always preferred the edgier earlier work. Everything Must Go is a fine album, but for me The Holy Bible has always been their masterpiece.

Predictably, when the band returned to Richey’s lyrics for 2009’s Journal for Plague Lovers, I was hooked, loving the densely packed, elliptic lyrics of songs like Marlon JD, where every line seemed almost like a cryptic crossword puzzle packed with references and significance. Postcards from a Young Man, by contrast, is an album by the other Manic Street Preachers, a return to the more considered, audience friendly music of all their finest work as a threepiece.

I still prefer the other Manics, but there’s much to recommend this album: the band have now got nothing to prove to anyone. They’re comfortable in their own skins, and they sound it. This is a grandiose, sweeping album, drenched in strings and big gestures. Nicky Wire said he was aiming for a sound like 'Heavy Metal Tamla Mowtown'. Well, I don’t know what that would actually sound like, but if it does sound like this album, then it sounds pretty good to me. I do wish Wire would stop taking lead vocals on songs though. We all love him to bits, of course, but he’s not half the singer that James Dean Bradfield is.

Listen to: (It’s Not War) Just The End Of Love

3. Lady Antebellum - Need You Now (NP)

Having heard and enjoyed the title track of the album (having never previously come across this band before), I thought I'd take a punt on the album. Then, on putting the CD in my computer to rip it to iTunes, I was horrified to see that the software had identified this record as 'country'.

I'm not a country music fan. Sure, I like the odd Glen Campbell record (who doesn't?) but I was suddenly bothered that I appeared to have been sucked into buying a modern country record from one pop crossover single.

I needn't have worried. Need You Now is *brilliant*.

It's hard to understand quite why this album is so good. A trio from Nashville, singing duties are shared by Charles Kelley and Hilary Scott and whilst there are country influences on the record, their style is pretty bog-standard vocal pop. A good friend of mine also admitted to me one day that he loves this record, and Need You Now is frankly not really the sort of thing that either of us would ordinarily enjoy.

Nominated for six Grammy awards, Lady Antebellum are suddenly one of America's biggest bands. The real strength of the album is in the songwriting which is of an incredibly high standard from start to finish. Ballads like If I Knew Then, Hello World and the title track Need You Now are magnificently written and performed with Kelley and Scott's harmonies sounding perfect. The trio also sound great on their uptempo numbers - the catchy Stars Tonight and Our Kind Of Love are particular highlights.

I suppose it is a country album - the band ended Rascal Flatts' six year reign as 'Best Band' at the Country Music Awards in 2010 - although don't let that deter you. Need You Now is set to scoop a handful of Grammies in 2011 and every gong they pick up will be well deserved.


Listen to: Need You Now

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

ain't that mister mister on the radio?

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

4. Train - Save Me, San Francisco (NP)

For most Brits, their exposure to American rock band Train will be limited to their 2001 number ten single Drops of Jupiter. Even then, it might take me to hum a little bit of that song before you actually recognise it, such is the band's anonymity in the UK.

After a three year hiatus in the mid-2000s, the band returned to the American charts in late 2009 with the song Hey, Soul Sister which was a sleeper hit and eventually reached number three in the Billboard charts almost six months after its release. It then crept into the UK charts (reaching number 18) as well as reaching the higher echelons of almost every other singles chart on the planet.

Even if you don't recognise the title, I can pretty much guarantee that you will have heard Hey, Soul Sister at some point. Despite being just a year old, it is already the most viewed guitar tab on the world's leading guitar site and it has swiftly become the 8th most downloaded song in music history.

Purely on the basis of Hey, Soul Sister (and as I liked the 2001 album Drops of Jupiter) I bought Save Me, San Francisco. And, I was richly rewarded as Save Me, San Francisco is a superb pop-rock album. From the second that the catchy chords of the title track kick-in, it is a melodic, engaging record which proves that Hey, Soul Sister was no flash in the pan. Songs like Words, Brick by Brick and Parachute are gigantic 21st century American power ballads whilst I Got You is arguably the catchiest song I have heard this year.

Considering that the UK version of Save Me, San Francisco includes a live version of Drops of Jupiter (presumably included to boost sales by reminding us who Train actually are) you get twelve brilliant songs for your investment. I absolutely adore this record - it is easy to like, catchy rock music of the very highest quality.

Listen to: Hey, Soul Sister, Parachute

4. Massive Attack - Heligoland (bedshaped)

After a break from releasing their own material, Massive Attack (or rather the two of them that's left) return with a dreamy, slow-burning album that quite probably won't set the musical world on fire, but should certainly make it sit up and take serious note. Oh, and they've brought along a few friends, too.

On first listen to this album, it's quite obviously Massive Attack. Their signature trip-hop style and ever morphing programming wizardry here sounds much wider than previous releases. I can only guess that on their hiatus, they've been listening to rather a lot of Radiohead; particularly Kid A and In Rainbows, whilst also checking out Morcheeba, Portishead, The Good The Bad and The Queen (No, honestly), Mattafix, Groove Armada and The Audio Bullys, amongst others. I like to think that venturing out of their hole and taking in some of the real world has done them wonders. It's definitely more apparent that this album was recorded and mixed with the door of the studio propped open, most likely with a hand written sign outside welcoming people inside. Amongst those who accepted the offer are Hope Sandavol from Mazzy Star, Trip-hop and Drum & Bass singer Martina Topley-Bird, Damon Albarn; he of Gorillaz, The Good The Bad and The Queen and some band called Blur, the amazingly talented Guy Garvey from the amazingly fabulous Elbow, and Tunde Adebimpe from the very under-rated TV On The Radio.

There's no Unfinished Sympathy or Teardrop here, but who cares? I certainly don't. There are tracks that touch on some of Massive Attack's finer moments; Angel in Girl, I Love You, and Karmacoma and Inertia Creeps merging into Rush Minute. But on the whole, this album is fresh sounding. It may not be a immediate masterpiece, indeed it may and probably has already passed too many people by, but in my opinion it's an album that's full of wonderfully eclectic songs that will, in time, resonate as the masterpiece that it is.

The album plays out with an almost cinematic feel. Wide screen production, with perfect knob twiddling and mixing adds some wonderfully intriguing 'twists in the plot' that weren't so obvious on previous efforts. Whereas previous songs have boomed enough to carry themselves through four minutes or so with ease; perfectly exampled on stonkers like Unfinished Sympathy, Safe From Harm and Teardrop, many of these new songs twist and turn at unexpected, but perfectly timed moments, slapping the ears of the listener to take note. Album closer Atlas Air, with it's fantastically infectious drum-beats and ravey keyboards demonstrates this impeccably. The very slight switch in tempo is clever. At just over five and a half minutes in, when you think the song is all done, you couldn't be any more wrong. Genius!

Album opener, Paradise Circus is a wise choice to open proceedings. A dreamy, low key piano and bass led slow burner with tumbling tom-toms, builds to gorgeous string soaked beauty. It's quite eerie, almost funeral procession sounding in parts, but I think sets the tone very well for what's to follow within the rest of the ten tracks. Damon Albarn's vocals are quite simply perfect on Saturday Come Slow, more The Good The Bad and The Queen than any of his other projects. Guy Garvey also shines with his wonderful gruff and typically grim vocals on Flat Of The Blade; a twitchy and jerky electronic pulsating bubbler that builds beautifully. But it's Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star; who's gorgeous breathy and seductive vocals, in a style only she can deliver, totally steals the show. Paradise Circus just drips sexiness and oozes with erotic qualities that I haven't heard in a song for a long, long time. About a third of the way through, the song strips right back and a deep bassline begins to seduce you. A short while later, deep, deep piano chords rumble....then beautiful strings bring the song to an gentle, but very effective orgasmic close. Phew!

I guess my only grumble with Heligoland is the running order. Whilst I don't find anything particularly annoying, I just wish the album wasn't such a mish-mash in places, causing what I feel as friction between some of the songs due to their order. I personally can't find a dud track on this album, and whilst I appreciate it's all about musical tastes and people's differing opinions, I like to think that amongst the ten cuts on this album, most sensible people will be able to recognize that when Massive Attack are great, they really are fantastic!

How can I summarize this album? Well for me, listening to this album makes me feel like I've come home.

Listen to : Paradise Circus

4. Interpol - Interpol (Swisslet)

Not many bands do atmosphere like Interpol. Tense and edgy on their majestic debut, Turn on the Bright Lights, Interpol have matured with each successive album, polishing their icy, detached style with an air of definite menace to greater and greater commercial success. Bono’s back injury may have put any plans the band may have had for world domination on hold (Interpol were the support on U2’s cancelled tour), but I’m not sure that stadiums are Interpol’s natural habitat. They’re creatures of the night for sure, and they need to be heard in dingy, darkened clubs (and they were good again at Rock City last month too).

Interpol will always likely be judged by the impossibly high standards they set themselves with their debut record, and in that respect, their fourth record falls short again. There’s no shame in that, though, and this is still a fine record with much to recommend it: Memory Serves, Summer Well and Barricade are easily as good as almost anything the band have done, and the album as a whole has a sustained atmosphere of bleakness and depression. Right up my street. Not as good a record as Interpol have done, but still a very fine record indeed.

Listen to: Summer Well

Monday, December 27, 2010

how can we make it back there?

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

5. Weezer - Hurley (Swisslet)

There’s a Facebook campaign trying to raise $10m to persuade Weezer to retire from music because “Every year, Rivers Cuomo swears that he's changed, and that their new album is the best thing that he's done since Pinkerton, and what happens? Another pile of crap like Beverly Hills or I'm Your Daddy. This is an abusive relationship, and it needs to stop now.”

Well, it’s certainly true that 1996s Pinkerton remains Weezer’s critical highpoint, but it’s a little harsh to suggest that they’ve done nothing worth listening to since then. Not even Islands in the Sun? Anyway, whisper it quietly, but Hurley may just be the best thing they’ve done since Pinkerton. The cover glories in a picture of Jorge Garcia, Hurley from Lost, and the album pretty quickly settles down into what Weezer do best: quick, punchy power-pop that can all be timed at something less than 3 minutes. So, maybe the lyrics aren’t as good as we know the band are capable of, but this is a fantastic, fun sounding record. Hell, we even get a passable cover of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida as a bonus track at the end of the album. What’s not to like?

The Facebook campaign, incidentally, has raised about $100. Weezer, true to form, have offered – if a target of $20m is reached – to do the “deluxe” breakup. I don’t think we have to worry too much.

Listen to: Memories

5. Erik Hassle - Pieces (NP)

An artist who would struggle to be recognised outside his native Sweden (or neighbouring Denmark where he has so far enjoyed his only top ten hit), you would be forgiven if Erik Hassle has flown well under your musical radar.

In fact, I only became aware of the 22 year old after hearing his brilliant single Hurtful recommended by Jo Whiley, and even with Radio 1 approval the single only made #59 on the UK charts. Still, Hurtful remains one of my singles of 2010 and I was delighted to discover that the album, Pieces, was even better.

Pieces is essentially a pop album - Hassle went to the same Stockholm school as Robyn - although it's the sort of record which would work as well if the talented singer sat down with an acoustic guitar and reeled off an album's worth of tracks. Upbeat songs such as Isn't It Obvious, Don't Bring Flowers and Standing Where You Left Me are excellent Scandinavian pop and, as I have already mentioned, single Hurtful is one of the records of 2010.

However, I particularly like Hassle when he shows down the tempo. Co-writing all the songs on Pieces, Hassle has a great knack of being able to write a quality pop tune and the relaxed Bitter End, The Thanks I Get and album closer Amelia are all great chilled tracks.

I wouldn't argue that Hassle is particularly pushing any musical boundaries, but as great quality singer/songwriter albums go, Pieces is the most likeable, melodic and endearing pop record of 2010.

Listen to: Hurtful

5. Linkin Park - A Thousand Suns (bedshaped)

One of the main reasons I really like these guys is because they aren't afraid to push the boundaries of their sound. Mention Linkin Park to many people and their reaction is likely to be, "Oh, they were great before they changed their sound and style", or "Meteora was their best album, with great songs like Somewhere I Belong and Numb, since then they've lost their direction and gone downhill". You only have to look at some 'fan' reactions and comments to their last two albums to see scores of "Linkin Park are shit now" or "R.I.P Linkin Park" or "This album is crap! Why don't they make records like their older, much better stuff!"

To them, I say what a bunch of narrow minded fools you are! I'm a firm believer that each to their own, everybody is entitled to their own opinion, etc etc, but why do people cling onto something that was so five years ago, and then criticize and even hate bands and artists for growing. That, I just don't understand. I don't want to listen to albums by artists that sound like the same thing they were producing five, six or even ten years ago. Where the fun or enjoyment in that?!?!

So, after that mini- rant from me, if you like artists to keep releasing music in the same style and 'pigeon hole' as they were two or three albums ago, then this album isn't for you!

This album has a very forward thinking, almost futuristic sound and approach. Listened to from beginning to end, it's almost like an electronic, experimental clash of musical sounds, wrapped up like a rock-opera concept album and then mixed by somebody five years from now.

In typical Linkin Park style, there are loud, grungy guitars, booming drums, the occasional piano-led-ballad, scratching and beat-mixing, great use of harmonies, Chester screaming his lungs out and Mike adding his usual 'toasting' and rap style. Incidentally, Mike is all over this album. Much more than previous releases. Maybe that's what 'the kids' don't like anymore, the fools! But then they've advanced with a much more broad and experimental feel to the tracks; adding much more sampling and mixing, dirtier keyboard sounds, digital jiggery pokery voice and vocal enhancements, copious amounts of programmed beats and various other cataclysmic sounds that I have no idea what they are, but they sound great.

The conclusive music and production pushes their previous boundaries ten-fold and delivers a huge wall of noise in an almost apocalyptic density that leaves the listener breathless and exhausted by the end of album closer, The Messenger. That said, it's not all rocking-out noisy stuff. Dotted around here and there are short segue tracks; mixing instrumental sounds, speech samples and much less intense and urgent tempos. Oh and a fair bit of vocoder usage. There are also some gorgeous piano led ballads and quieter, more mellow songs, such as Robot Boy and Iridescent, although once that track gets in full swing it becomes more of an anthemic monster that will no doubt be (indeed, already is, judging by their recent gig) a huge crowd pleaser.

A difficult album to summarize, so maybe that's best left up to anybody willing to give them a listen. My essential track to listen to is Wretches and Kings. A perfect example of Mike taking more of the lead, leaving Chester to pick up the pieces. Chocked with samples and scratching, it's then down to business with the Beastie Boys meets Metallica meets System Of The Down. Awesome!

Listen to: Wretches and Kings

Sunday, December 26, 2010

stop this crazy talk

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

6. Plan B - The Defamation Of Strickland Banks (bedshaped)

I flippin' love this album. I really do.

I know it's not gonna be everybody's cup of tea, but this album is just packed with infectious songs that I defy any music lover not to at least tap their foot to. A difficult album to summarise, particularly because Plan B, or rather Ben Drew covers all manner of song styles. With his vocals; he shouts, he screams, he raps, he toasts, he harmonizes, he sings in falsetto, he stutters, he does the bloody lot.

And then you have the musical style and arrangements; drawing most of its influence from a motown, ska and sixties beatmix, but then touching on street rap, blues, jazz, indie....the list goes on. It's a very modern sounding album, with an obviously old-skool sound that not only pays homage to some of the all time greats, but sets the bar very high for anybody else out there who draws from a similar bow. If only it had a little more vinyl crackle sound!

Best listened to as a complete album, because of the story that unfolds (think The Streets legendary A Grand Don't Come For Free). It's an attempt at a 'concept album' telling the tale of the titular character, who appears to be a bit of a shady geezer. A little bit whoah, a little bit whehey, a little bit....erm....well, he's a bit shady, yano. That said, it can be happily picked apart at will and stands up to the most inattentive listener. In particular, tracks such as the infectious single She Said, with it's near perfect song construction, smooth jazzy guitar, rinky tink drums and complimentary brass, and the equally catchy Prayin'; a track drawing heavily on Motown of the 60's with it's single chord strumming guitar, ambitious tamborine and under-pinning brass, and Hard Times, an ultra slick soul and breezy jazzy number that would have Smokey Robinson giving up his pipe and slippers to come out of retirement. These tracks and more can hold their heads up high and do well to stand alone perfectly happily amongst anything else that's been released this year in single formats.

Elsewhere there are strings that wash in and out of tracks, emulating, but never quite successfully, Phil Spector's fabulous Wall Of Sound and all manner of brass instruments that compliment various tracks in a wonderful way, so as not to distract the listener with any kind of, "What the hell is that? Are those horns I hear?". It's no secret that I'm not a big fan of ye old brass section, but when used correctly such as on some of these tracks, well, I just can't resist. The other great thing that stands out for me on this album is the drumming. The mix has been captured just right, giving a wonderful 'live drumming' sound to the album, and not only that, but the drum patterns are inventive, infectious and contagious, to the point that I feel like picking up my sticks again!

Production here is spot on. Surely it couldn't have been any more suited to the sound and feel of the album, and I can't help feeling that when Ben and the musicians listened back to the final mix, they all must have given each other a deserved pat of the back and felt damned good about what they'd achieved.

My essential track to listen to has got to She Said. Beginning with a finger-snappy intro, leading into infectious drums, honky horns and Ben's falsetto vocals, followed by punchy guitars and those wonderful strings washing effortlessly in and out . Ben switches seamlessly into his 'daaan saaaaf' rapping, telling the story of the court case that results in the titular character being sent down. Genius!

Listen to: She Said

6. Gorillaz - Plastic Beach (Swisslet)

Their headline performance at Glastonbury this year may not have been everyone’s cup of tea, but I loved it. True, it probably helped that I knew who Mark E. Smith was and recognised Lou Reed as soon as he took to the stage for his four-minute cameo… but I thought that, for a cartoon band, Gorillaz made a surprising amount of sense as a live band. Once the ever-so-slightly tiresome pretext is dropped, Damon Albarn is freed up to really flex his musical muscles, helped by his famous collaborators, but rarely overshadowed.

Plastic Beach is a fantastic album by a band who have rarely sounded more coherent, even as the cameos become ever more diverse and more stellar. Snoop Dogg, Bobby Womack, Mos Def and… er… Mark E. Smith are all simply the icing on the cake of an engine that delivers a surprisingly coherent set of songs. Perhaps the album doesn’t have a standout single along the lines of Clint Eastwood or Feelgood Inc, but it’s their best album yet.

Listen to: Stylo (feat. Bobby Womack and Mos Def)

6. Keane - Night Train (NP)

So, it's arguably not a complete album (technically an EP and with only seven songs) but as it topped the album chart (a fourth consecutive number one album is not a bad return for a band considered by many to be in decline) I've included Night Train here.

Recorded during their 2009 world tour, Night Train is a curious mixture of songs. The publicity was generated by their two collaborations with Senegalese/Canadian rapper K'Naan but Stop For A Minute and Looking Back were hardly a left-field lurch into hip-hop (even if Radio 2 did, hilariously, cut out K'Naan's rapped middle eight as it was no doubt too racey and cutting edge for Ken Bruce's audience).

Back in Time
and Ishin Denshin - a cover of the Yellow Magic Orchestra song - carry on in the electro-80s vain where Perfect Symmetry left off, whilst the remaining three tracks are archetypal Keane. Your Love sees Tim Rice-Oxley take on lead vocals for the first time and is a brilliant song. My Shadow and Clear Skies are also two songs that would fit snugly alongside any other Keane release.

At barely half an hour long, Night Train was described by Q magazine as a "surprisingly effective between-albums stop-gap." It's a peculiar mixture of sounds and styles, but Night Train is easily as melodic and enterprising as all of Keane's other recent releases.

Listen to: Stop For A Minute

Saturday, December 25, 2010

i am the astronaut in the sky

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

7. Amy MacDonald - A Curious Thing (NP)

After her runaway success with her multi-million selling debut album This Is The Life, the young Scottish popstrel returned in 2010 with her second album A Curious Thing.

I had reservations that MacDonald was a bit of a one trick pony and that she would struggle to replicate the high quality songwriting of This Is The Life. I am delighted to report that I was completely wrong. Indeed, she has produced the perfect second album; retaining everything from This Is The Life that made it charming and engaging but having added additional layers of instrumentation.

MacDonald has an unbelievable knack of writing great, melodic pop tunes and here, with a much 'bigger' sound both on the album and in her live shows, she has never sounded better. She's clearly more confident as a performer and as a songwriter and this album is chock full of brilliant songs, all of which could have been chosen as singles. I particularly like the catchy, upbeat Spark, the anthemic An Ordinary Life and My Pretty Face (notwithstanding the fact that it features Paul Weller on piano).

Whilst it might not have sold by the lorryload (except in continental Europe where she is absolutely massive), A Curious Thing is a superb follow-up and another brilliant record from, let us not forget, a very young talent.

Listen to: Spark, My Only One

7. The National - High Violet (bedshaped)

I couldn't quite gel with The Boxer, The National's previous album. Although I have to say that I have since dipped back into it many times and am happy to report that it's a flippin' grand album. What a shame it took so long to grow on me, but, never-the-less, it's now a firm favourite of mine.

High Velvet
has been a much better fit for me and I could appreciate it's splendour and beauty much more instantly. Perhaps I knew what to expect, because these guys aren't so easy on the ear on first listen, and I wouldn't say they were anywhere near 'commercial' material, either. But that's just perfect for them. And it's always nice to have a band that grows over the years and through their releases, gaining critical praise and a growing fan-base, without necessarily scoring top 10 hit after top 10 hit or playing arena sized venues. Or indeed, both.

I'm not quite sure whether I prefer this album to their previous release. It's most definitely The National material; lavish production, wonderful harmonies, great song structure and lavish orchestration and the tell tale vocals of lead singer Matt Berninger, who sounds so fed up and like he's just about to give up on life. Even on the more up-tempo songs, I have visions on him sitting there in the recording studio; with a whiskey in one hand and a loaded gun in the other.

But don't let that put you off, because that's what these guys are all about. Creating and producing drama and almost self-destructive songs, without making you (as the listener) feel like finishing yourself off. The stories sound so real life, which adds to their yummy-ness and when you sit down and listen to the lyrics, you find yourself nodding, affirming and totally believing everything.

Musically, this album is top notch. There are some fantastic songs to be found buried beneath the rare less 'instant' songs. Lilly Faith is such an example. Beginning with a gentle intro, orchestration building up. Complimented with some lush strings and drums that pound along. And I love that strumming cello sound too. Afraid Of Everyone begins almost angelic. Lovely background harmonies swoop in and out through the song and add so much, it's gorgeousness just oozes. Interjecting, gumbling guitar provides the perfect finish to some fabulous ingredients.

Album closer Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks is a perfect choice. Once again, luscious strings, wonderful orchestration and acoustic guitar take the listener to a gentle and fulfilling conclusion. And he doesn't actually sound so pissed off in this song. Wonderful!

It's not the most upbeat, or even uplifting album of the year, but it's a quality one, that's for sure. I'm happily reminded of my brief love affair with Blue Nile, but I think, at least I hope, this relationship with be a lot more long serving.

My must listen to track from this album has been difficult to choose, but after much deliberation and thought, I've gone for Bloodbuzz Ohio. Great drum patterns, some sparse background horns, wonderful orchestrations and gorgeously drenched with Matt's typically perfect sombre vocals. And those great chord changes build the song into something so familiar, you feel like this song is ten years old. Probably not the best track from the album, but my favourite.

Listen to: Bloodbuzz Ohio

7. Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can (Swisslet)

Laura Marling recorded her debut, Alas, I Cannot Swim, when she was 18 years old. Although it was a wonderfully fully formed and accomplished record for someone of her tender years, it drew a large part of its charm from its lack of guile. Take Night Terror: are we really supposed to believe that this tiny, slip of a girl would fight anyone, nevermind a nightmare? Bless.

Marling had reached the ripe-old age of 20 years old by the time of I Speak Because I Can, and had already been the unwitting muse of a breakup record (the fantastic The First Days of Spring by Noah and the Whale) and perhaps also the inspiration behind one of the great success stories of the last 18 months (Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons). Was Marling going to be better known for the music she inspired from other people than for the music she produced herself?

In a word, no.

There’s no getting away from it: this is a folk album. Folk is fashionable at the moment, but for Marling it is no passing trend, but a way of addressing issues of love, sex, death, depression and heartbreak. With her lovelorn, heartbreakingly clear voice, she’s starting to be compared to artists of the calibre of Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake…. Prematurely, I would say (although remember that Drake only recorded three albums before he died), but another couple of albums like her last two and they won’t be far off the mark. She hasn’t produced a perfect album yet, and this certainly isn’t it, but she’s still so young and clearly still has so much more to offer. A wonderful album by a wonderful talent.

Listen to: Goodbye England (Covered in Snow)

Friday, December 24, 2010

each star's a pool of water

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

8. Johnny Cash - American VI: Ain’t No Grave (Swisslet)

What an amazing journey. Obviously for Cash, whose amazing journey would make an X-Factor judge’s eyes water; but also for the listener. We’ve been with Johnny Cash what seems like every step of his amazing journey from the cotton fields of the Deep South to a disembodied voice from beyond the grave. Cash died in 2003, and released some seven years after his death, this album was always going to be a step too far for many people.

But for me, the legacy is undamaged by the release of these tracks. When Cash recorded these lyrics, he was pretty close to death, and the listener might fancy that they can hear it in his voice; that reedy whisper is a ghost of the mighty bass it once was and every single note sounds like a struggle from a man literally at death’s door.

For some artists, that might prove to be more than the music can stand, but Cash somehow manages to rise above, and it almost seems that the weaker his voice becomes, the more authoritative his statements on life and upon death.

Make no mistake, this is probably the least impressive of all of the American Recordings that Cash made with Rick Rubin, but this still represents the culmination of a formidable body of work by an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime artist. A true one-off.

Listen to: Cool Water

8. For A Minor Reflection - Holdum I Att Ao Oreiou (NP)

For A Minor Reflection are a difficult band to explain. Hailing from Rekyavik, Iceland it is easy to lump them into the Icelandic/Sigur Ros category, particularly as the quartet supported Ros on their fifteen date European tour in 2008. Indeed, it was that tour and a fantastic performance at the Wolverhampton Civic Hall that got me into the band in the first place.

It was the one and only time that I have ever bought a band's CD at a gig and the amazing six track EP (although it is an hour long) Reistu þig við, sólin er komin á loft... remains one of the best investments I have ever made.

Holdum I Att Ao Oreiou is the band's first ever album and it is quite, quite brilliant. I suppose it is basically melodic rock but the surprising thing about it is that it is totally instrumental. It's hard to explain why a melodic guitar rock instrumental album might be so spellbinding (on the face of it, there sounds nothing worse) but it is terrifically engaging and beautifully written. The four band members are just 20 years old and so I have high expectations that they will continue to make more of these terrific records.

It's perhaps not the sort of album you could listen to in the car or on a summer's day in your back garden, but as a piece of work to chill out to or to have on in the background whilst you are busy with something else, there is seldom better. It really is a remarkably good record.

Listen to: A Moll

8. Interpol - Interpol (bedshaped)

I don't think there's much middle ground with these guys. You either like them....or you don't. And quite often, people who like them will say that they peaked with their debut album Turn On The Bright Lights and went downhill from there. I would agree that their debut album is by far their best, but I'm still fairly passionate about Antics too. But let's not mention too much about their third release, huh! And besides, this forth effort sounds miles better than that one, even on first listen.

Admittedly, it's not the easiest album to listen to. Paul Banks, the lead singer, mostly sings like he's in emotional turmoil. Not to mention his vocals still sound like they are being recorded from a room down the corridor and then played through a 1940's transistor radio with a slightly buzzing speaker cone. The drums are typically dampened on most of the tracks, but are much more interesting than on the previous album.

Interpol's bass has always been a driving force through their musical career, and even though it's still booming away, I have to say it's not quite as apparent on this release. Perhaps the bass player, who has since sadly left the band, already had his foot out of the door during the recording sessions. Fuzzy, almost climatic and rumbling guitars still show their rough-edged drones and there's even tinkles on the piano going on through some of the tracks. Of course, the collective Interpol hat is still firmly tipped in the direction of Joy Division's sound and style, or more-over, what their sound and style could have been, if it wasn't for their terrible and untimely demise.

The lyrics on this album seem much more twisted than usual. They are either terrible deep, unfathomably twisted, or perhaps intentional non-sense. And there are also tracks that don't follow any traditional formula, particularly with the chorus's. Or rather, lack of them. Not that there's anything wrong with that. In fact, for me, it's what makes it all the more interesting and enjoyable to listen to. But you have to have patience with this album. It's taken a while to grow on me. All I can say is, if you give it enough chance, the rewards will be there. That said, it's certainly not everybody's cup of tea.

The album is best listened to in full. That way the listener can fully appreciate the epic sounds, the melancholy feel, the anthemic production and the grandeur of such tracks as Memory Serves, the fantastic and meandering Always Malaise (The Man I Am), the typically Interpol sounding opening track Success, and the absolute perfect album closer The Undoing which is my essential track to listen to.

Sheer class. If you can take the pace.

Listen to: The Undoing

Thursday, December 23, 2010

many surprises await you in the basement

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

9. Two Door Cinema Club - Tourist History (bedshaped)

A three piece indie outfit hailing from Ireland, with no drummer. How can this possibly work? Well, it does. The percussion, drums and beats are programmed in the studio, but as a listener, you'd never know. And as far as I understand, they have a drummer who tours with them. The sound is....well....tightly produced, melodic and slick sounding in an impressive and effortless kind of way. Very pleasing to the ear and nice to see that bands are still happy to produce punchy and fairly simplistic, short songs that don't lack a polished punch.

Many of the tracks are fast, guitar driven tracks, laced with great melodies and hooks, and the vocals suit the style perfectly. Wonderful harmonizing gets interwoven when the tracks really need it and there's more than a handful of tracks found on the album that worm their way into your head. Always a good sign!
The lead singer has a nice voice, although nothing outstanding, and unless I'd researched the band more, I'd never have guessed they hailed from Ireland, since the vocals lack that common 'Oirish' slant that the likes of Snow Patrol have.

With just 10 tracks, it's a fine, fine debut album. None of the tracks sound too 'samey' and there's plenty of musical variety for the average listener to get stuck into. This Is The Life, a bright and breezy number sounds very familiar, even on first listen. If it's been used in an advert, then I can't remember which one. If it hasn't, then it just goes to show that a damned good song is a damned good song and can stick in your head for days, even weeks on end. The same goes for songs such as the up-tempo Do You Want It All?, a speedy, tempo changing sugary pop/indie song with an infectious, if slightly repetitive chorus reminiscent of the likes of The Magic Numbers or The Young Knives. Lovely.

Now, I love deep and meaningful lyrics. I find myself constantly amazed at the genius of beautiful songwriting and wondrous story-telling. Being able to connect with words of love, of woe, of ambition, heartache or whatever, where the story-telling unfolding before my ears provides me with some of my absolute favourite moments. This is not such an album. These lyrics are light, breezy, almost annoyingly upbeat and to be honest, songs like that can grate on me and leave me cold. But this is a collection of songs that are mostly positive in message and not so deep that you find yourself dissecting each and every line. And that's a good thing. No, actually, it's a great thing. After all, we all need a little light relief and entertainment.

A word of caution though. I don't find this album in the same place as the likes of The Feeling or those annoying guys; The Hoosiers. So, if that's your 'thang' then perhaps it isn't for you. And there's no ballads to be found on here either, and that suits me just fine.

Recommended to me by a friend, and described by them as upbeat pop/indie, I listened to the album not really expecting much. I was pleasantly surprised on the first listen and it's been a repeat offender on my playlist throughout the year.

Must listen to track for me is Undercover Martyn. A brisk track, driven by guitar hooks and an infectious drum pattern, this track sums up the rest of the album completely. Short and to the point. Tightly produced and squeaky clean. It's everything an indie song should be, without being scared of falling into the 'pop bracket. And with the opening line; "And she spoke words that would melt in your hand....", I was hooked.


Listen to: Undercover Martyn

9. Tron: Legacy OST - Daft Punk (Swisslet)

Perhaps it’s premature to include this album on this list, but I can’t resist it. I’m not even sure that I’m going to go and watch the film - as I remember it, the original was a confusing mess – but the soundtrack to the sequel is amazing.

I wonder who came up with the idea that Daft Punk should do the soundtrack first: was it the producers or the band themselves? The Frenchmen are such an obvious choice; it’s as though they only existed as a result of the first film and were born to soundtrack the second. Their whole robot “look” is perfect for outlining in blue neon, and the music they’ve always made is ideal for a film set inside a computer world (albeit I imagine there isn’t a guy in a dog costume with a ghetto blaster featuring in the film anywhere, more’s the pity).

I’m not really sure how to describe this album: it sounds exactly like a film soundtrack, but it also sounds exactly like a Daft Punk album. Does that work for you? Mind you, I should add too that, in places, it also sounds quite a lot like the Blade Runner soundtrack…. Perhaps inevitable with any synth-drenched film score.

Still. It’s an odd choice perhaps, and not a record that will be filling many dancefloors in the years to come, and I’m very much including it here on a whim, but it’s still a very satisfying string and synth-drenched listen. 22 tracks, few much over two minutes long and very clearly a film score. I’m not sure it should work or, even if it did, that I should like it. But I really do.

Listen to: Derezzed

9. Ocean Eyes - Owl City (NP)

Early in 2010, and pretty much out of nowhere, came Adam Young's Owl City. Their single Fireflies was a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic as well as countries as far flung as Denmark, Australia and New Zealand.

Ocean Eyes is actually the band's second album, with debut Maybe I'm Dreaming re-released in the UK after the success of Fireflies. It is an incredibly upbeat and chirpy record and Young's distinctive sound and vocals certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea. Indeed, after enjoying it repeatedly on its release, I ended up having to put it away for a while as it did get a teensy bit annoying.

Owl City are at their best with their mid-paced tracks, of which Fireflies is an obvious example. Vanilla Twilight and Dental Care are also likeable enough (even if the latter has some particularly awful pun-style lyrics.)

Having only recently played this album again, I was reminded of how infectious and breezy it really is. It might get on some people's nerves after a while, but there's no denying it's a great pop record.

Listen to: Fireflies

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

all her pretty dreams are torn

The Top 10 Albums Of 2010

10. Bruce Springsteen - The Promise (NP)

After listening again to Darkness On The Edge Of Town - not one of my favourite Springsteen albums - I didn't have terrible high hopes for The Promise. A double album of 'out-takes' from the Darkness sessions, I figured that if these were the tracks not deemed good enough for the original album, then they may not be much cop.

How wrong I was. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that this may yet become my favourite of all Springsteen's albums - and that is high praise indeed.

From the stunning piano led Racing In The Street, The Promise features 21 excellent tracks, of which only one or two really don't cut the mustard. Of course the themes are typical Springsteen - recorded in 1978 during a recession there's plenty of unemployment, lack of money, working mens grumbles in the lyrics. However, this album is almost quintessential Springsteen in so much as it is classic American rock and roll written and performed by one of the boys.

I was astonished at quite how good The Promise is, and if you've any affection for the Boss at all, this is an album that should be in your collection.

Listen to: Racing In The Street

10. Delphic - Acolyte (bedshaped)

If you're looking for something a little 'different', then I would heartily recommend these boys.

I like bands and artists like this who make it tough to say to somebody; "Yeah, they sound like *insert name here*", because when you listen to the album, you can hear influences and similarities to so many other people. But not just that,they also bring something fresh to the table. Yes, just what the doctor ordered.

There's nothing amazing about the lyrics here, but they seem to have a great knack of producing singalong songs, with big choruses that stick in your head like those annoying, cheesy pop songs. Except, I wouldn't categorize them as pop at all. Nope, they're indie. Actually, they're more electronica. Oh, maybe industrial beat-makers. oh, I dunno, but perhaps you get the picture.

The programmed beats and percussion are the driving force behind their songs. Melt in some jangly guitars and tinkly keys, topped off with catchy lyrics with examples of great harmonizing and you have a very pleasing formula that sits well with the listener from beginning to end. A totally listenable album, if a little on the short side.

Sweet, polished production is very apparent, along with a great mix of sampled chopping, mixing and editing. It's a very 'now' sounding album and I bloody like it. I don't have any kind of desire to see them play live though. For some reason, I imagine them as quite boring to watch performing. No offence intended, guys. It's never held back the likes of Pet Shop Boys, New Order or Friendly Fires though, has it?

Having stumbled across the track Doubt, I immediately wanted to explore them more and have never felt disappointed. It's a perfect house party album, the likes of which can play on repeat in the background, never offending anyone and giving off just enough interest and tease to keep the atmosphere light.

Listen to: Acolyte

10. Vampire Weekend - Contra (Swisslet)

2008s Vampire Weekend was a joyous affair, introducing us to the band’s glorious 'Upper West Side Soweto' style of music, with delirious singles like Oxford Comma and A-Punk.

Contra is perhaps a little denser and is maybe a little less immediate. Essentially though, Vampire Weekend are offering us a new album of much the same kind of stuff as last time. There’s some experimentation here, but not too much. And you know what? That’s okay with me.

It might get boring if they haven’t moved a little further by the time they record their next album, but you know what? For now this will do just fine. It sounded pretty good as we drove across the Southern Alps in New Zealand, I can tell you that.

Listen to: I Think Ur Contra

Monday, December 13, 2010

i don't want to end up living in a dive on vine

The Top 10 Albums of 2010

Before we get to our respective Top Ten albums of the year, a few words about those records that didn't quite make the final lists....

Eels - End Of Time

Such a wonderful collection of songs, as usual from Mr E. His storytelling ranges from the most bizarre to the most heartfelt. From compelling, to absolutely heartbreaking. A great album to lose many an hour any day of the week. (bedshaped)

Cherry Ghost - Beneath The Burning Shoreline

Whilst this is a pretty decent album, I can't help but be disappointed by it. After the brilliance of debut Thirst For Romance, I was expecting an awful lot from Cherry Ghost's second album. However, it's less melodic and less accessible than their debut and is nowhere as easy to like. There are highlights - Kissing Strangers is one of my singles of the year - but this was a real opportunity missed. (NP)

Goldfrapp - Head First

Alison and Co' do it again. Once more, showing great versatility, style and scope with more than the usual nod to disco beats, dancefloor thumps and keyboard wizardry. I don't think people were expecting an album like this from them, especially after their last release and perhaps that's why it seems to have slipped by most people's speakers without notice. Such a shame. (bedshaped)

Example - Won't Go Quietly

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year, this album if firmly at the 'pop' end of British rap music. Containing the brilliant pop singles Watch The Sun Come Up, Won't Go Quietly and Kickstarts this is an album that is a combination of a lot of ingredients I really shouldn't like. Still, it's surprisingly catchy and infectious. (NP)

King Of Leon - Come Around Sundown

It's good, but not great. Although that could be because I haven't given this album anywhere near as many plays as their previous albums. I will say each track has something great to offer and it's certainly Caleb's most impressive vocal performance. No doubt I will be kicking myself for not having this inside my top ten after a few more spins, but hey, those are the breaks. (bedshaped)

The Hoosiers - The Illusion Of Safety

Eschewing their chirpy oddpop in favour of chirpy electro-pop, the trio returned in 2010 with an album that's every bit as catchy and/or annoying as their debut The Trick To Life. Lead release Choices is a terrific pop single and, although it's not an album that will necessarily convert you to the band if you're not already a fan, it's a super, frothy pop album. (NP)

Duffy - Endlessly

Aah, Duffy. This is the album that should have been your debut. Much better production and a more acceptable level of strings here, coupled with Duffy's lush vocals. Drawing many of its elements once again from old school soul, Motown and the sixties vibe, I bet Amy Winehouse is kicking herself. I have to say though, this album is far, far too short! (bedshaped)

Marina and the Diamonds - The Family Jewels

On the first few listens, I thought Marina was a bit of a one-trick pony. It's quite a squealy, spiky record and I consigned it to my rack pretty early on. However, having listened again over the last few weeks I found I enjoyed it much more than I had initially, and singles like Hollywood, Sham Pain and I Am Not A Robot are actually nicely crafted indie-pop records. (NP)

The Walkmen - Lisbon

There's something quite wonderful about these guys, but I can't put my finger on it. This album is typically under-produced, sounding like it's been recorded in somebody's garage and quite possible in single takes, but that all adds to the great sound. They will never be big, but I don't care. I quite them being one of my favourite little secrets. Gruff vocal style, jangly keys, gruff guitars and some odd drum sounds make me a happy listener time and time again. (bedshaped)

MGMT - Congratulations

Whilst this sounds as far removed from their debut album as you might imagine, I have to say that I really quite liked Congratulations. It doesn't contain songs as immediate as Electric Feel or Time To Pretend, and whilst many fans won't be enamoured with their change of direction, I really found myself liking Congratulations more and more with every listen. (NP)

Ellie Goulding - Lights

If I remember correctly, Ellie was the BBC's (and many others) big tip for top in 2010 and she certainly didn't let anyone down. Her fragile, almost submissive voice sits perfectly with well structured and composed songs. I also really like the production of this album; samples, vocal-play and beat-mixes all providing the perfect ingredients. Yummy! Not what I was expecting from her, but I was really surprised (bedshaped)

Whilst this is an OK record, I can't help but be disappointed. Ellie doesn't really know what type of performer she wants to be - electronic diva or acoustic singer-songwriter and the end result is a mish-mash that doesn't really tick any box. She's also a surprisingly un-engaging live performer, and her cover of Your Song is hideoous. Could do much better. (NP)

Eliza Doolittle - Eliza Doolittle

I can't help it, it's just a great pop album. Nothing particularly special about her voice, but it seems to sit perfectly within the songs. A healthy nod to sugar-pop, old-skool et al and it works really, really well without stepping on anybody else's toes. (bedshaped)

An easy listening-ish album full of whistling and samples from wartime singalong favourites should, in theory, be utterly horrible. However, Doolittle'#s knack of finding a chirpy, earworm like tune is spot on and this album is surprisingly entertaining. I wouldn't say it particularly pushed any musical boundaries, but in its own right it's a gentle enough way to kill an hour or so. (NP)

Magnetic Man - Magnetic Man

Dancey, clubby, thumpy, throbbing, funky shit from the guys who seem to be in demand with all the 'in-crowd' at the moment. Guests a-plenty, this album throws out instrumental slammers and those all important dancefloor bass-booming anthems with little or no effort. A little repetitive at times, but that can forgiven because when they produce a good tune, it's not just good, it's fucking blinding! (bedshaped)

Hurts - Happiness

An album which was compared to something by Climie Fisher or Johnny Hates Jazz by the Guardian may not sound particularly appealing, but Hurts manage to create a sparse, 80s influenced sound which remains pretty modern. It's an album which, had I listened to it more, would almost certainly have made my top Ten. Certainly a band to watch in 2011. (NP)

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs

So, sooooo much better than their last album, but sadly nowhere near as good as their debut. But it's a nice place to be. At least they are moving forwards. Great lyrics on this album and once again the vast array of musical instruments add excitement to each listen. Absolutely loving the orchestration and general song arrangements. A damned fine band that look to be back on track. (bedshaped)

An album that gets better with every listen, The Suburbs manages to be the record that MGMT tried to make with Congratulations. Powerful but not in the slightly overblown way that stopped Neon Bible being brilliant, this is a really high quality album from a band that really know what they are doing. (NP)

Laura Marling - I Speak Because I Can

She reminds me of so many other people and yet still manages to sound fresh and original. A fabulously talented young girl, writing wonderful stories and weaving tales of wonder and woe without batting an eyelid. A totally listenable album and definitely recommended to anybody looking for something a little different in singer-songwriters nowadays. (bedshaped)

Other albums of note: Belle & Sebastian - Write About Love (Swisslet), Hot Chip - One Life Stand (Swisslet), Diana Vickers - Songs From The Tainted Cherry Tree (NP), Paul Heaton - Acid Country (NP), Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan - Hawk (Swisslet), Lights - The Listening (NP), The Courteeners - Falcon (Swisslet), Jonsi - Go (NP), We Are Scientists - Barbara (Swisslet)