Friday, 14 January 2011

Long Players

2010 was not a particularly great year for albums. I realised this when I was trying to compile my Top 10 list, and realised that, with a handful of exceptions, nothing really made me sit up and take notice. Further evidence of the LP's annus horribilis came when various journals released their own End Of Year lists: FACT Magazine's top spot belonged to Forest Swords' 'Dagger Paths', which is a great record but is by all accounts an EP rather than a full-length album. Pitchfork even decided that all three of James Blake's EPs from the year could be rolled in to one and dumped in eighth place, as if no-one would notice that they sounded completely different from each other and weren't one complete record. And, of course, Kanye West dominated the higher reaches of almost every list that popped up. The entire music critic world went in to complete meltdown when 'My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy' became a beautiful dark twisted reality right at the end of '10: while Pitchfork and FACT - amongst others - were excitedly slapping their maximum number of stars on the record, it was less well received in other quarters, with The Guardian dubbing it an, "uninteresting echo chamber that maintains the steady downwards trajectory of West's albums", while some viewed it as overindulgent and pretentious.

While I would firmly spurn the haters on this one, Yeezy doesn't feature in my final selection of favourite albums from the past year. Here are 10 records that do:

10. Baths - Cerulean

::: Aminals :::

'Cerulean' sounds somewhat like an extended collection of the abstract hip-hop tracks that pepper Bibio's 'Ambivalence Avenue' - and seeing as that album was numero uno in this list last year, that's definitely no bad thing. The basis of Will Wiesenfeld aka Baths' music is akin to that of beat-makers such as Flying Lotus and Teebs, but - as with Bibio's hip-hop outings - his songs contain a more intimately human quality to them than some of his peers. This is helped by the fact that, unlike many manufacturers of beats and bass, Wiesenfeld contributes his own vocals at points on the record, adding to the warm, personal feel of the album. Could 'Cerulean' be to the world of abstract hip-hop what 'In Rainbows' is to the rest of Radiohead's back catalogue - namely, the first appearance of a romantic record? If it is, it'll of course require it's own genre name. Heart-Hop? Lovestep? Rom-Hip-Nol? Maybe not...

9. Four Tet - There Is Love In You

In times gone by, folk would express their incredulity or shock with phrases such as, "Ye Gads!", or, "Gordon Bennett!", or, "Shit!". Nowadays, it's hard to tell if a person is surprised unless they exclaim, "Oh no he didn't!", with the "didn't" of course pronounced as "dih-ent". Sideways movement of one's fingers in front of one's face is a suitable replacement when communicating with the deaf. I bring this up because, back in January of last year, this was the only suitable way to greet the news that Four Tet, with a glittering career that spanned back to the late '90s, had just released what was probably his best album yet. 'There Is Love In You' arrived like the culmination of the increasing prevalence of house and techno in Kieran Hebden's work, as hinted at with 2008's 'Ringer EP' and his pulsating collaborations with Burial in 2009. Despite seeming a world away from the 'folktronica' of early releases, Four Tet had steadily been making the transition to more beat-driven work rather than making any sudden departures, so the only real surprise on this LP is that, after over a decade of releasing material, he's still churning out brilliant, innovative music. Oh no he dih-ent!

8. Grimes - Halfaxa [available for free download]

::: Devon :::

If I was to make an album, I'd probably record myself reading Treasure Island to a cat as it slinked around our neighbourhood, intermittently playing blasts of Rihanna's 'Only Girl (In The World)' on my phone when I felt that the track needed an injection of oomph. After I'd finished recording, I'd probably copy it on to no more than 20 CD-Rs and give them away free to friends and family, and then assume that this would suffice as their present whenever their birthdays next came along. I wouldn't be making any money out of the venture, but neither would my album be considered to be one of the year's finest releases. This, I'm sure, is only the beginning of the differences between me and Canadian experimentalist Grimes. Whereas she also released her début album for the grand total of zilch, hers happened to be brilliant, whereas mine will be under-appreciated in my own lifetime, to say the least. 'Halfaxa' is a collection of delightfully twisted 'n' psychedelic yet cute 'n' dreamy songs, full of infectious vocals and toe-tapping beats. Think Bjork smoking weed with The Cure at an abandoned '80s discotheque. But, like, in Narnia.

7. Lone - Emerald Fantasy Tracks

Although admittedly it hasn't made the Number 1 spot, when I listen to this album there seems very little point in any other music ever made. This is a record that's perfect for pretty much any situation. It's an ideal pre-, mid-, and post-rave soundtrack. It's great for a countryside cycle. It's great for an inner-city stroll. Why not listen to 'Emerald Fantasy Tracks' while shopping for groceries in your local supermarket? Why not indeed. The heart of this album pumps out blood in the form of classic old skool rave riffs, but this is not necessarily music to don your hi-vis jacket and flail your arms in the air for seven hours non-stop to. Lone has taken the kind of acid piano stabs that filled fields in '92 and given them a deep rinse, creating a string of songs that are subdued but still euphoric. It's blissfully easy to submerse yourself in the album, letting it bathe you in gloriously ecstatic sunshine. Or, if you're on an inner-city stroll, heavenly-scented smog.

6. Daughters - Daughters

One of the most famous catchphrases to emerge from Monty Python's Flying Circus is the immortal line, "and now for something completely different", used to introduce a scene that was radically unrelated to what had preceded it. To give you an idea of the propriety of the phrase for this situation, let us briefly study the tags for Lone, and the tags for Daughters. Lone: 'chill', 'deep', 'ambient', 'idm'. Daughters: 'grindcore', 'hardcore', 'mathcore', 'noisecore'. As you might be able to tell, this is music that will not only rudely awaken you from that Lone-induced hazy trance you'd slipped in to, but it'll then force you at screwdriver-point to run a double marathon through torrents of mud and sludge, only to inform you once you've finished that it hates people who run muddy sludgy double marathons, before stabbing you in the eyes with the screwdriver. I know very little about hardcore punk / 'noisecore', and can't entirely remember how I stumbled upon this album in the first place. Each song is a ball of contained, calculated raw energy, channelled through an experimental-yet-coherent blast. It's the most savagely uncompromising album I've heard all year, and all the more enjoyable for it.

5. Oriol - Night And Day

::: Joy FM :::

I can assure you that, if you haven't already experienced it, that track there will be one of the funkiest things you've heard in a while. While last year's albums list had Dam-Funk's 'Toeachizown' on groove duty, this year sees Oriol representing all things sleek and sexy. Being myself a product of the pretty but as a whole musically uninspired university town of Cambridge, I was first drawn to Oriol when I found out he was a resident of the 'Bridge, and was signed to Planet Mu. In terms of musical exports, the drum'n'bass holy trinity of Logistics, Nu:Tone and Commix loom heavily over the town, so I was interested to sample this different flavour being stirred up in the city. While Planet Mu sometimes has a tendency for fairly inaccessible bleeps and groans, Oriol's music is nothing of the sort: smooth, chilled-out sultry vibes, bursting forth from the 1980s like a swarm of synth-playing cherubs. A record similar to 'Emerald Fantasy Tracks' in it's ability to soothe and induce warm, comforting rapture, 'Night And Day' should really rank alongside great Cambridge achievements such as the discovery of DNA (I was gonna try and work in some clever little play on 'Night And Day' having the same initials as DNA, but felt that it might be a bit pointless and long-winded, a bit like this caveat that I'm now dragging out way longer than is literary acceptable).

4. Guido - Anidea

Having boasted two of the most impressive singles of 2009 with 'Orchestral Lab / Way U Make Me Feel' and 'Beautiful Complication / Chakra', Guido was already, as they say, shit hot. With his début album in 2010 - on Bristol label Punch Drunk, as with the singles - also transpiring to be brilliant, Guido currently boasts an impressive 100% success rate: three records released, three masterpieces. While 'Anidea' does include three tracks from the 2009 singles, the rest of the album has been fleshed out wonderfully, with fresh tracks like 'Cat In The Window', 'Mad Sax', and the title track all further demonstrating Guido's production prowess. However, there's one master-stroke on this record that trumps everything else. When it was released in '09, 'Way U Make Me Feel' was already a great track, but at the time was an instrumental. For the album cut, however, the vocal talents of Yolanda (not of '...Be Cool' / We No Speak Americano fame) were employed, and the result (available for d/l above) should really be considered one of the greatest R&B/soul songs of at least the past few years. As many producers from dubstep roots have been doing recently, Guido is transcending the mother genre and experimenting with other styles. However, few other producers follow the same line that Guido does, meaning that 'Anidea' is a truly unique and exciting album.

3. Scuba - Triangulation

::: Tracers :::

When I first heard this record when it came out in March, I immediately felt that this would be the best album of the year. As it turns out, thinking that after only quarter of the year was a bit premature and it's eventually been squeezed down in to third place, but 'Triangulation' is still an album of undeniable quality. Pushing in a more techno-infused direction than his 2008 album 'A Mutual Antipathy', Scuba conjures up a world of urban metallic machinery on his tracks, with the mood often bewitchingly repressive. The production is meticulous, each track haunted by a swirl of musical antimatter that seeps in to the song and then proceeds to squeeze itself back outwards through every minuscule gap, emitting snatches of crackling noise at timely intervals. While generally quite a reclusive album, there are still offerings that could easily command a dancefloor's attention, such as the romping 'On Deck', the Untold-esque 'You Got Me', or the slightly more expansive 'Tracers'. 'Triangulation' is very much an album that belongs to 2010, encapsulating the leaps and bounds that dubstep has gone in recent years.

2. Robyn - Body Talk

Robyn is somewhat of a glorious oddity in the world of pop. She released three studio albums between 1995 and 2002 before finally finding proper mainstream recognition in 2005, when tracks like 'With Every Heartbeat' heralded the arrival of one of pop music's all-time great albums, the self-titled 'Robyn'. She then waits five years to release her follow-up, and when she does, it's not one record, it's three. 'Body Talk Part 1' marked Robyn's return in June, followed a few months later by 'Part 2', culminating in November with the release of 'Body Talk', which draws on tracks from the previous releases as well as adding on a few more to form a full album. And oh my sweet Jesus Jones, what an album it is. Robyn has a talent for making music that any of her American counterparts would eat an entire dress of raw meat to be able to recreate; penning most of her own lyrics, her production team-mate on 'Body Talk' is fellow Swede Klas Ahlund, who crafts the kind of wonderful electro-pop that must make David Guetta smack himself repeatedly in the face with a garden trowel through insane jealousy whenever he hears it. The album has some big singles: the incredible 'Dancing On My Own', the entrancing 'Indestructible', and 'Hang With Me', which at points sounds somewhat like 'Handle Me' from 'Robyn', but both are great songs so no gripes there. Then there are the songs that comprise the rest of 'Body Talk': the pulsating self-conscious/rebellious 'Don't Fucking Tell Me What To Do'; the Back To The Future-referencing 'Time Machine'; the horribly cruel 'Call Your Girlfriend'; the bonafide dance anthem that is 'We Dance To The Beat'; the collabs with Royksopp and Snoop Dogg; and 'Dancehall Queen' that I've linked to above, which is arguably one of the best dancehall songs in recent memory - and it's from Sweden. Those are just a selection of highlights, but there's not a dud moment on 'Body Talk'. If it's gonna take Robyn another five years to release her next album, so long as it's as world-beating as her previous two outings then I'll be happy to wait.

1. Eleven Tigers - Clouds Are Mountains

Since I started writing this blog last year and compiled my Top 10 favourite albums at the end of 2009, I started keeping an eye out in 2010 for records that I could seize upon for this year's list. Having fallen in love with last year's list-topper, Bibio's 'Ambivalence Avenue', I was eager and excited to discover an album of similar calibre this year. So it was with disappointment and frustration that the winter months slipped by, then Spring turned to Summer, and eventually Summer began to shrink in to the final throes of 2010 - and I was still without any album that conjured up any kind of real interest. I started to reflect back on albums such as Flying Lotus' 'Cosmogramma', Pantha du Prince's 'Black Noise', Ikonika's 'Contact, Love, Want, Have', and thought, "OK, I know these are good, but they don't really arouse a whole lot of emotion from me - is this what I'm gonna have to settle for? Is 2010 just gonna have to be written off as a fallow year in terms of truly outstanding LPs? Where's my effing Bibio, bitch?!"

Then one day in October I was idly indulging in my favourite past-time of scouring the web for potentially good music when, through a fortuitous chain of clicks on, I happened across this Lithuanian guy called Eleven Tigers who'd moved to London a few years ago and been inspired by Burial, and had a shoutbox full of gushing praise for his album, 'Clouds Are Mountains'. One user was particularly enthusiastic, and I followed a link to his blog post he'd written about the LP where he further lauded it, so I decided to track the album down to check it out for myself. It has 14 tracks and is just shy of an hour long. After less than six minutes, spanning just over two and a half tracks, I knew that this was without doubt the most incredible thing I'd hear all year.

Since I obtained the album, there are few occasions when I've started listening to it and haven't ended up listening to the whole thing. Sometimes this'll involve me lying in bed just gazing at my iTunes library while it plays, while the clock plods along to times like four in the morning, ignoring my need to be asleep around then. What sets 'Clouds Are Mountains' apart from other albums I've heard in 2010, and what makes it so spell-bindingly hard to leave, is that the majority of the record is segued in to one continuous run. Individually, the tracks are brilliant. However, when they're seamlessly flowing through your ears they become really quite magical. The style of music is a kind of dubby techno, which as a genre can be hypnotic enough at the best of times, but when it's so expertly produced as the tracks here are, it feels like a crime to tear oneself away from it. It's a largely instrumental record, but while vocal samples may be sparse they are so spot on when they do appear that they really brush proceedings with a haunting, yearning beauty. As a musical creation it couldn't be much more different from Bibio's gentle folk-leanings, but it is nonetheless a more than worthy successor to the Number One spot.

Honourable mentions: 
  • Actress - Splazsh
  • Darkstar - North
  • Earl Sweatshirt - EARL ('nother freebie]
  • Jimmy Edgar - XXX
  • John Roberts - Glass Eights

1 comment:

  1. Yup, strongly agree with #1! No place for Crooks and Lovers? :o