Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The class of 2010: Review of the Year’s Albums

Surf-pop goes global, a bunch of randy middle-aged sex pests record another album of ‘porn blues’ and a rapper has so many clothes he’s forced to keep some at his aunt’s house. We review what we consider to be the most interesting releases of 2010…

Grinderman- Grinderman 2- Mute

Every middle-aged man needs a hobby. Many take up fishing or golf. Some catalogue their record collections. Others tinker with bits of cars and line up wrenches and spanners they’ll go to the grave not knowing how to use. Nick Cave calls a babysitter, takes his friends on an all night whisky and strip clubs bender and then, blinking into the light of the morning, slams down some coffee and records a second album of horse frightening pornographic trash rock.

Lock up your daughters, Grinderman are back. Second time around they certainly haven’t gone flaccid on us. They still look like a bunch of hairy sex offenders and they’re still churning out the kind of filth that makes you want to cover infant ears, music that sounds like if it wants you, it’ll chase you down an alley, slip some rohypnol into your drink, drag you down and remove your suspenders. ‘Worm Tamer’ which has an industrial metal feel, gives us perhaps the best couplet of 2010- “My baby calls me the Loch Ness Monster, two humps and then I’m gone” while ‘Heathen Child’ and ‘Evil’ sound like a wolf being cornered in a steel works. Even the simpler more downright bluesy numbers like ‘Kitchenette’ grunt along with kraut rock creepiness like the boys are just an erection away from being arrested for perversion. The salty old so and sos.

The XX- The XX- Rough Trade

Ok, so XX was actually released at the end of last year. We're counting it is a 2010 release anyway because 1) it's been re-released and 2) no one had bloody heard of it then. In contrast 2010 belongs to the XX. Wherever they are on New Years Eve they can award themselves a wry smile. After all, this was the year they became the proud owners of 3x Mercury awards and turned on the Christmas lights in their native Putney (and what greater honour?) all because they were responsible for one of the most self- assured debut albums of the century. Seemingly without breaking a sweat.

It’s the simplicity and stealth of XX that makes you love it, and the fact it melts your heart without needing to bludgeon you over the head with complicated rhythms is why it’s an album you’re happy to return to, on a long train journey, sitting in your bedroom smoking a zute, having a picnic, any occasion where you need music to provide a sonic backdrop that’s going to wash over you. For such a young band do release a debut devoid of razzmatazz and trickery, relying purely on stripped back spine chills, shows a level of confidence and maturity that many acts take years to master. While nobody wants to hear the word muzak, it’s not far from what the XX have created- a lush sonic landscape that affects you without you even noticing, crawling under your skin and staying there.

It does this through its mixture of dark and light. On one hand the tender voices, the sense of innocence that pervades, the way the synths sparkle like Cava over everything, the way ‘Infinity’ almost sounds like you could dance to it, in a euphoric ‘Faithless’ hands in the air sort of way. On the other, the mournful noise at the start of ‘VCR’ that sounds like a pinball machine being haunted, the way the whole album, especially the spine chilling ‘Fantasy’ feels like it was recorded in a candlelit chapel, the overall sense of isolation. The combination of the two means that the noise the XX make is something like shoegaze mixed with post- club comedown music. It’s what we imagine would happen if Jesus and Mary Chain collaborated with Massive Attack and it’s a sound that makes us tingle all over.

Their follow up is going to be the real test, but if the XX stick to their guns and keep their trip-hop minimalism on track, they could be turning on the Oxford Street lights next year.

Tinie Tempah- Disc-Overy- Parlophone

What would Kanye West have sounded like if he’d taken the DLR rather than the subway? Step forward Tinie Tempah; real name Patrick Junior Chukwuem Okogwu, a 22-year-old Plumstead native with his eye on replacing West as hip-hop’s Michael Jackson.

There are plenty of similarities. Both men are snappy dressers, sanction the use of big name cameos and vocoders, and have an eye for the ladies. They’re sonically inventive and certain of their visions. They also both have moments of lyrical genius. Who can fail to draw a smile when Tempah rhymes “I’m pissed I never got to fly on Concord” with “I’ve been Southampton but I’ve never been to Scunthorpe”? or lays down his game plan on ‘Simply Unstoppable’ with the fabulously inventive line “I’ve gone pop and I won’t stop. Pringles!”

The difference is that while West’s debut was more straightforward hip- hop (albeit genre defining and experimental), Tempah knows that his album is one for the clubs. As such he keeps it simple with hands in the air dance beats and tunes that sound like getting dressed up, downing apple sourz and throwing your arms round your friends while your high heels burn the soles of your feet.

The fact that these songs have one eye on the charts means that clichés abound. The gorgeous women, cars, and the bling encrusted champagne soirees are all correct and present. But, and this is crucial, there’s also a wide eyed wonder and a British cynicism that undercuts Tempah’s raps that mean he’s still endearing. Your heart is warmed when you realise he hasn’t quite got the hang of this bragging thing as he tells you “I’ve got so many clothes I keep some at my Aunt’s house” and he’s frankly adorable when he raps “I drive past the bus I used to run for” The production is also inventive, a sign perhaps of what we can expect from hip hop in the coming year. Gone are the smooth soul infused beats of old, the noughties sees rap involved in a frantic mix of hardcore dance, breaks and oozing drum n’bass. ‘Disc-Overy’ often sounds like Tempah is playing a ping- pong match with Tron.

This debut has the feel of an album recorded on the cusp of a rollercoaster, just as our hero was plunged into the fame oblivion. It’s not all good; in fact some of it is hackneyed rap by numbers. But, like Okogwu’s teacher probably said, he shows promise. We have the feeling that if he irons out his tendency towards Black Eyed Peas vocoder nonsense he could be a serious contender for Kanye’s crown. All we ask is that he doesn’t go all mental on us and start writing his every waking though on twitter. No one needs that.

Take That- Progress- Polydor

As bromances go, the story of Take That has been one of the most touching of the year, proving that friendship (and increased tour revenue) can ultimately conquer any feelings of bitterness and ill will. It can’t have been easy. After all, Robbie comes with enough baggage to fill the lost and found at Heathrow several times over. For every moment of brilliance in his career (Angels, his star turn at Live 8) there’s a litany of disaster (the UFO meltdown, drug and alcohol addiction, the travesty of Rudebox and his ever inflating ego to name but a few) that must have made everyone involved think twice. The sad fact is that for all his super star qualities, Williams needs his former band mates desperately. While this wasn’t the case ten or even five years ago, Robbie’s downward spiral has been the polar opposite of his band mate’s stratospheric achievements. Messrs Orange, Donald, Owen and Barlow have proved that actually they can do just as well without him thank you very much, churning out gold standard pop music like ‘Shine’, ‘Patience’ and ‘Rule The World’. And yet, something hasn’t felt right.

The band now feels whole. Little Mark Owen (who seems like he was probably the most psychologically damaged by the break up) looks constantly relieved that he no longer has to sneak off to take Robbie’s calls, while the others can’t stop beaming at having their mate back. Every live performance looks like it’s about to tip into a homoerotic love in, as the band give up singing altogether and cling to each other among the pyrotechnics, crying and promising never to be so foolish again. Even Barlow doesn’t look too bitter as he lets the fat backing dancer milk it in the spotlight. So Robbie hasn’t quite learnt to share the stage yet, so he’s been given a disproportionate amount of singing time, these wrinkles will iron themselves out. The progress of the album’s title is not only the healing of old wounds, it’s the journey from boy band to man band, a progression they simply couldn’t manage when they were a team mate down.

Fully reunited and gym pumped, the band can now turn over a whole new leaf and this is exactly what they’ve done, moving towards gulp, electro rock, embracing quiffs and waist coasts and sounding like a diluted version of Hot Fuss era Killers. There’s nothing here that’s going to scare their knicker throwing fans, but the fact they’ve pulled away from big ballads to operatic electro rock shows a new found confidence. Let’s hope Robbie’s back for good.

Arcade Fire- The Suburbs- Mercury

A lot of great music has come out of the frustration and alienation that comes with living in the ‘burbs. Bruce Springsteen and the Kinks centred whole careers around being big fishes in tiny ponds where there was nothing to do except get drunk and dream of a time when tramps like you were free to run. And why not? Stuck in a cultural and physical limbo, there’s a sense of isolation that’s unique to a suburban childhood. You’re neither urban nor rural but sub-urban, below urban, below par. It provides the perfect outsider perspective from which to produce art.

Using the alienation of the outer cities as their template, Arcade Fire have made the album they’ve been promising since their 2004 debut ‘Funeral’ They’ve long held a reputation for making epic, life changing songs, but these have always been stand out tracks on largely thin albums. ‘The Suburbs’ packs such a punch because it works together as a coherent whole, each song trickling into the next with precision. Many have commented that the record feels like the soundtrack to a film yet to be made, and it is the sense of cohesion, of a story that is being followed from opener ‘The Suburbs’ to its continuation at the album’s close that enables this. Whether they’re tackling punk rock tales of hope and glory with ‘Month of May’ or gentle but brutal anguish with ‘City With No Children’, no song feels out of place.

The aforementioned sense of alienation creeps in not just through Win Butler’s assured yet hesitant delivery but also through the group’s use of instrumentation. Weighty orchestral manoeuvres have always been their thing, but the band now add rooting tooting Depeche Mode synths to the mix, alongside a dash of Tom Petty Americana and even some sparse Television esque no wave. They’re such skilled musicians that they allow the instruments to do the talking when they can’t, aware that often music without words is the best way of communicating emotions. This is perhaps best demonstrated on two parter ‘Sprawl’ which flourishes with the strings that made their name.

A lot of hyperbole has been attached to the album, with the BBC arguing that is was better than OK Computer and NME deeming it to be “pretty much perfect” but all of this is justified. Arcade Fire have always excelled at making the inaccessible listenable and with ‘The Suburbs’, they’ve brought back the elegance and ambition that has been missing from the heart of pop music.

Tame Impala- Innerspeaker- Modular

If 2010 will be remembered for anything musically, it’ll be the rise of surf pop. Outside it may be sub zero, the news may be dominated by ‘the big freeze’ and idiots making snowmen, but your iTunes is filled with monged out hippies who spend their days making mix tapes, listening to The Grateful Dead and boogie boarding. So it is with Tame Impala and their debut release ‘Innerspeaker’ on which the laid back Aussies manage to make the psychedelic wig out cool again maaaaan.

The band have succeeded where so many others have failed in combining the sex appeal of Hendrix, the harmonies of the Beach Boys, the kaleidoscopic colour of Strawberry Fields era Beatles and the chugging riffs of Led Zep into an imminently listenable sixties infused rock and roll collection. And it is very much a collection. Listening to one song in isolation is impressive but where Tame Impala really succeed is in transporting you into a swirling headfuck wonderland that makes you want to chill out and freak out all at once. This is best done by listening to the album in one sitting, maybe with some narcotics (although, naturally, we don’t advise that kind of thing) View the album like your Dad used to, as an experience, and you’ll understand.

If this all sounds a bit wanky and Dark Side of the Moon then don’t worry, it isn’t. The group’s greatest strength lies in making the whole experience unpretentious and therefore listenable. They do this by playing with a sense of humour (there is a fair bit of Happy Mondays psych-dance in here as well) that has the added bonus of making the songs sound modern. Despite shoe horning the aforementioned influences into the record, it feels like an album that could only be made with the archness of the 21st century. It’s lack of naivety, the fact that it’s aware that a lot of it’s flower power motifs are bullshit and the way it doesn’t really care if you call it a slacker means that it sounds as if it could only have been made in 2010.

It sort of feels like this is as good as it’s going to get for these guys, but the fact they’ve managed to make us listen to, and enjoy, an album that should only work during the summer in the meanest bowels of winter means that we owe them some respect (and maybe a bag of skunk) Gnarly.

Sleigh Bells- Treats- Columbia

If we’re honest, we never really got Crystal Castles. Yes, yes, all the hipsters loved them, but they made us feel pretty uneasy. All that 8 bit feedback and screeching. Yuck. No thanks. This being the case we’re a little perplexed as to why we enjoy Sleigh Bells so much. Maybe it’s because they’re in bed with M.I.A and we love her and want to lick her feet. Maybe it’s because for all their amp shredding metal nightmareishness they’ve made an album that you can kind of party to (especially if you’re on shrooms and your idea of dream collaboration is Katy Perry and Motorhead. Which ours totes is), an album that combines dance, rock, pop, hip hop and heavy metal into one sluggish but delectable soup. If you were to picture the kind of album an ex member of Poison The Well and an ex child star studio singer would make together (for such was their employment before Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller met each other) then this is exactly what you’d conjure up. Terrifying, maddening and spine tingling in equal measure.

So yeah, we very much enjoy Sleigh Bells. ‘Rill Rill’ is their most well known, but it’s also their gentlest, sounding a bit like a slightly robotic Shirelles. If you’ve come to ‘Treats’ expecting more of the same then you’re going to be left largely disappointed. Opener ‘Tell ‘Em’ sets the pace, sounding like a Slayer riff being chopped in half by a lightsaber, this is followed by ‘Kids’ which makes a sound like Nicki Minaj being photocopied by a malfunctioning fax machine and the madness continues with ‘Riot Rhythm’ which does pretty much what it says on the tin plus a mariachi band. The sense of menace and supercharged fizzing excitement doesn’t let up until the very last bar, with the eponymous closer packing riffage so heavy that a forklift would have a tough job handling it. If Metallica came out and shredded your face with music like this, you wouldn’t ask for your money back. For all the whiffs of polite pop about the place, the overarching theme is one of good versus evil, of a cage fight between heavy metal and a pretty, smiley-eyed girl band, a tune we can all dance to.

As for the production values- there are none. The whole album has a fuzzy shakiness that makes you imagine the entire recording studio quaking, spilling coffee and recording contracts all over the extremely proud M.I.A. After all, her protégés have taken her experimental elements and then given them a darn good kicking, unleashing into the world a rabid mongrel of an album, with all the kind of unconventionality she enjoys. For sheer balls alone, ‘Treats’ deserves to be one of your albums of 2010.

Warpaint- The Fool- Roughtrade

They’re girls! They’re girls and they’re in a band! Playing instruments! Singing! With all the brouhaha caused by Warpaint this year, you’d have been forgiven for thinking we were back in 1950, not living in the supposedly more enlightened noughties. No review or interview with the spooky shoe gazers could help but mention that OMG they’re totally all women, as if we we’re expected to applaud them for dragging themselves away from the stove. 2010 was also heralded as ‘The Year of the Women’ for the simple fact that Best Coast and girls Vivian, Sweater and Dum Dum had all managed to churn out Eps. This was seen as some kind of achievement, as if the fact these bands had singers with ovaries made their releases in and of themselves important, rather than because they were just making bloody good music.

It’s all the more annoying because Warpaint are not a band that has overtly used their sexuality. In fact, they seem like they’d be skin crawlingly uncomfortable in anything skimpy. Their style is much more unkempt brows and doctor martens than glammed up pop princesses. It’s an image that co-incidentally sits perfectly with their sparse, echoey and reverb heavy no wave.

It sounds something like a duck gliding along water. On first glance everything seems to be ticking along calmly. Breezy vocals blow over the shoegazey beats and the harmonious and monotonous drone of instruments lap around like breaking waves. A closer inspection though reveals a band working very hard indeed. Their shimmer pop is hook laden and beat heavy and the fast-slow dynamic builds up the bewitching full moon vibe to the point where you feel the band are about to rip off their clothes and go howl at the midnight sky. By the time ‘Composure’ comes around and they’re chanting, “How do I keep my composure?” you’re pretty unsure how to console them.

We can safely predict you’re going to hear a lot more of Warpaint and their ilk in 2011. Just don’t expect them to smile about it. And don’t call it girl power, mmm’kay?

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