Sunday, 13 January 2013

2012: The Year In Albums (Part One)

About a year ago, I had this really cool idea. What if I wrote about all the albums I'd bought over the previous 12 months with the intent of informing people about music they might have missed - perhaps I could even place them into some kind of order, like a run down of increasing quality. Then I'd say a few words about each one and make some sarcastic jokes, you know, my usual kind of thing. I'd make it mostly albums that I really, genuinely loved, and then I'd chuck in a couple near the beginning of the list which I didn't necessarily get, but which made me sound much cooler than I really was (am? Tying myself up in tenses here.)

It turned out to be so popular, I was actually thinking of doing the same thing every January. So imagine my surprise and extreme disappointment to find that this year, not only has every other bastard with a laptop decided to rip off my idea, but they've even tried to steal a march on me by doing it before 2012 was even finished. Not cool, people. Not cool at all.

Ahhhhh, I'll be honest with you. Last year I was really scratching around to find 10 new albums that I wanted to nail my colours to. How else can I explain the appearance of Yes on the list? This year, by contrast, has been one of the best for new music in living memory. So much so that my initial shortlist for albums of the year was 34 albums - that's the same number of new releases as I bought in the entire of 2011.

This year I bought an impressive 66 new release albums, and rating them is a fairly impossible task, ranging as they do from shoegazey, reverb-drenched electronica to Celtic prog, and everything in between. I can't even fall back on last year's "stats" approach thanks to a catastrophic hard-drive crash early in the year losing 3 months of playcounts in my iTunes library. Yep, these are the things which keep me awake at night.

So, in the interests of fairness, I've divided the shortlist up into 'Prog' and 'Non-Prog'. And because I know that most of the people reading this will be prog fans, I'm going to deliberately make you wait until Part 2 for the prog albums otherwise you won't bother reading the rest of it, will you? I know what you hobbit-botherers are like.

Here we go, then. It's Gigging Forever's countdown of "every album I bought this year, shoehorned into some lame category to prevent me having to make too many decisions"...

11. (Who says I can't have 11? Do you want to take it outside?) Porcelain Raft - Strange Weekend

I've just realised that this looks a bit like... 
well, I'll let you use your imagination.

If you read my review of M83 live in Brighton back in January (which, let's face it, hardly anyone did), you'll have heard all about the spacey, echoey, dreamy sounds of Porcelain Raft, and how they caused me to nearly cack my pants. The CD is a slightly less disturbing event, and got heavy rotation during stressful periods of work this year, being the kind of aural equivalent of a hot bath with lots of bubbles.

Key Track - Oooh, let's say 'Drifting In And Out' (of the suds) -  choosing track 1 of every album again...

10. Marina & The Diamonds - Electra Heart

Right at the beginning of the year, I picked up 'The Family Jewels', Marina Diamandis' first album as Marina and the Diamonds, for the princely sum of £1.99, and it turned out to be a cracking investment, featuring very cleverly written, quirky pop songs which put me in mind of a young Kate Bush.

Now, you may come to learn this about me over time but I'm not very good at paying attention to, remembering or understanding lyrics, which therefore renders me not quite clever enough to get just how ironic this second album supposedly is - but apparently it's a satire on young pop starlets, their superficial lives and their vacuous pop outpourings. Well, I don't know about that, but it sounds like a great, fun, slightly vicious album of intelligent, dance-y pop music, which is all fine and dandy in my book.

Key Track - 'Radioactive' (No, ok, it's not on the standard edition of the album but it's a fantastic song.)

9. Keane - Strangeland

I'm not quite sure why I've decided to put this on the list. I actually really liked 'Perfect Symmetry' (their previous album, which saw them doing away with all their cliches in favour of a gaudy, brash, 80's influenced layer on top of some excellent songs, aided by super-producer Stuart Price) - and this album feels a lot like "Sorry, we went a bit too far, please come back and play us on Radio 2 again".

But there's a warm familiarity which creeps over as soon as you hear that CP-70 electric piano sound on opener 'You Are Young', there are soaring, singalong choruses, and the front cover looks like the seaside and therefore reminds me of my childhood. And it's my blog and I can do what I like.

Key track - 'Neon River' is pretty anthemic, whilst steering just on the right side of mawkish.

8. Beach House - Bloom

You know that Porcelain Raft album I chose above? Yeah, this is nearly the same album -  dreamy, spacey, wistful sounds which make you nostalgic for people and places you may or may not have ever known. Someone should probably sue someone. This album rates slightly higher on my list because:

a) Beach House have male and female vocals (Porcelain Raft are basically a one man band)
b) Their tunes are 14% more catchy
c) Cool people like this album and have put it on their end of year lists too
d) Their album cover doesn't look like lady parts - but it does make your eyes go funny if you stare at it too long
e) They haven't made me crap my pants (yet.)

Key Track - 'Wild' (ignore the video which seems to be a fly-on-the-wall documentary about heroin addiction.)

7. Field Music - Plumb / Play

Hold on a minute, that's two albums! Well, yes, it is, but 'Play' is a short album of cover versions - the kind of thing which unscrupulous record labels try to sell you as a bonus disc when you buy the same album for the second time - so it counts as part of 'Plumb'. Honest. Also the covers are nearly the same (and look suspiciously like the station I can see from my living room window.)

Anyway, 'Plumb' made it to Prog magazine's best of 2012 list, which could make it a candidate for my 'other' list, but to be honest I think sometimes people are so desperate to only like music in one genre that they try to drag anything else they like into it so they don't lose cred.

I can almost see their point, with it being an incredibly inventive guitar-based rock album, where completely unrelated and stylistically quite different songs flow into each other in a way which seems totally natural. (It might even prove to be a concept album if I pay attention to the lyrics.) And I guess opening track 'Start the Day Right' has grinding 'I am the Walrus' strings, bringing to mind very early ELO, and there are complex rhythms and shifting moods, all in 2 minutes and 18 seconds. Ah, yes, here's why it's not prog. None of the songs are longer than 3 and a half minutes, in fact they get through 5 songs in the first 12 minutes. Most prog bands can't keep a keyboard solo as short as that.

'Play' is a more traditional affair, with 8 inventive cover versions ranging from Syd Barrett to the Pet Shop Boys - and deserves to be on this list solely for the remarkable feat of making Ringo's 'Don't Pass Me By' from the White Album sound like an actual song instead of something a toddler made up on the spot.

Key Tracks: 'A New Town' (Plumb) / 'Rent' (Play)

6. Pet Shop Boys - Elysium

Oh, look at that. My pick from the last album above was a Pet Shop Boys cover, and now here's the real thing.

Have the Pet Shop Boys ever made a bad album? Assuming you think they ever made a good one, I think you'd have to agree that they've had a pretty good run of things, especially of late, with 2009's 'Yes' being a revival of the more outgoing side of PSB. Here they're back in the introspective and subdued mode that served them well on 'Behaviour' and 'Bilingual', with 'Invisible' and 'Breathing Space' being some of the most personal and touching songs they've ever recorded.

There's still plenty of room for fun, though, as the Diva-bashing 'Ego Music' and the typically self-referential 'Your Early Stuff' prove - the lyrics of the latter being composed entirely of cretinous things said to Neil Tennant by taxi drivers. "You've been around, but you don't look too rough / And I still quite like some of your early stuff..." And I think we can forgive the rather OTT Olympic Anthem 'Winner' in the context of this summer's excitement.

Key Track: Leaving (look, I can't help it if bands keep putting their best tracks first on their albums, can I?)

5. iamamiwhoami - Kin

Sometimes I'm glad I'm not right on the pulse of what's hip and cool, otherwise I think I'd get frightfully annoyed with some of the absolute bullshit that happens in the name of 'art' (or is it 'promotion'?) - this album being a case in point, with all kinds of teasers and trailers and odd videos and massive, massive hype being posted online for a year or so in the lead-up to this album.

No, I'm very happy just to get a text from my friend Mark saying 'I've been listening to this song on repeat for hours', click onto Youtube and hear 'Goods', and thence directly to Amazon to hear what else Jonna Lee and Claes Björklund have to offer.

And what do they have to offer? Well, if Beach House and Porcelain Raft are a comfy soak in a hot tub, iamamiwhoami is more like lying shivering and naked in the foetal position on the floor of a room in a Scandinavian ice hotel while Lykke Li sings in the corridor outside.

Glacial, minor chords, chiming synths and off-kilter beats assault the senses whilst Jonna moans and shrieks by turns. Oh, and some catchy tunes too, the gits. The videos are downright bonkers, though -you have been warned.

Key Track: Drops (no, I don't know what the hairy creatures are all about, either)

4. Lindstrøm - Six Cups of Rebel / Smalhans

Oh, I'm cheating again... Yeah, ok, again this is two albums. Although the second one clocks in at less than 30 minutes - but to tell the truth I couldn't separate these. Following last year's obsession with Hans-Peter and his epic 'Space Disco' masterpiece 'Where You Go, I Go Too', both these albums were always going to be an instant buy.

'Six Cups of Rebel' is Lindstrøm's more indulgent side, where he seems to have gone all out with whatever he felt like doing, whether it was a good idea or not. Hence 'No Release' is basically 5 minutes of cycling church organ, and 'Call Me Anytime' breaks down in the middle into what sounds like a small child bashing on a Casio keyboard. But then there's the funky-as-anything 'De Javu' with stabbing brass and disco beats, the drum-solo freakout of the title track, and the fantastic closing 'Hina', which is easily the closest we come to the cosmic dancefloor of 'Where You Go', albeit with a quirky edge befitting its place on this quite unusual album.

On 'Smalhans' (upon which every track is named after some kind of Norwegian traditional dish for some reason), he's back to what he does best: 6 more straightforward tracks for the dancefloor (also ace for running). But his twisted, minor-chord, Scandinavian take on things takes you on a crazy journey far deeper than any of his more popular contemporaries. Probably a journey in the snow. With elks.

I'll leave the last word to electro-pop princess Little Boots, on twitter, as I can't think of any higher praise than this, about closing track Vā-Flę-R (Waffles):

"The last track on the new @Lindstrom album is like the greatest Mario level ever. Definitely involving Yoshi."

Key Tracks: De Javu (Six Cups of Rebel) / Vā-Flę-R (Smalhans)

3. Ben Folds Five - The Sound of the Life of the Mind

I think I made my feelings on Ben Folds Five fairly clear a few weeks ago after their London gig, during which they played 8 of this album's 12 songs- all of which were greeted like old favourites, and with good reason. I'm therefore not going to waste my time (or yours, for that matter) writing tons about this.

With their trademark rollicking piano, thundering rock 'n roll drum fills, rock solid bass, and clever-clever lyrics ("I was puzzled, when it was feet on gravel / To have come apart, I must once have been ravelled..."), this album delivered exactly what was expected, and somehow without sounding like a tired retread.

Key Track: Hold That Thought is one of the less obvious tracks from the album, but really does it for me, for some reason. Not in that way. Or, Erase Me is a more standard BFF song - nice and angry. Let the hate flow through you, young Ben...

2. Muse - The Second Law

You know, if you want to be Queen, there comes a point where you have to make 'Hot Space'. And I don't mean what you think I mean by that. No, I do know what you think I mean. You think I mean you have to make a rubbish disco album, don't you? Told you.

No, what I mean is that you have to:

- Wonder how far you can go down the same old well-trodden path before people get bored
- Record some songs which are exactly what you want to record, perhaps including influences from some modern acts you enjoy yourselves
- Put them on your album along with some other songs which are still in your classic sound
- Sit back and let people get all het up about how rubbish your new album is, and how you're trying too hard to be cool, based solely on a few 3 tracks with some more modern sounds in them.
- Watch the entire of the internet slate your album (Currently rated at 2.4 out of 5 on Rate Your Music)

So what did they actually do here? Opener 'Supremacy' is exactly what it would sound like if Muse wrote a James Bond theme, and is perfectly in their grand album opener tradition. 'Survival' is gloriously OTT Queen-inspired pomposity, perfect for its status as official Olympic anthem, 'Animals' is your typical "angry, sneering Muse" song, and 'Explorers' is as wonderful a ballad as they've ever recorded, in the tradition that goes all the way back to 'Unintended' from their debut.

What does that leave us with? Well, it leaves us with two sets of songs which seem to have divided people - Firstly the 'Muse-step' songs, a "hilarious" misnomer for what are essentially Muse songs with a few modern production sounds added to them: 'Madness' with its 'wub wub wub' bassline, and 'Follow Me' which builds up from gentle pulsating synths to a wonderful climax with some of Matt's best vocals underpinned by what I assume are dub-step style whooshing / pounding noises (yeah, I'm so down with teh dubstep...) And then there's 'Panic Stations', which seems to be the one that's got most people annoyed but is essentially 'Another One Bites the Dust' for the 2010's, with some wonderfully funky brass-synth stabs and rhythm guitar. Ok, so the two-part closer 'The Second Law' is pretty out there in its symphonic-electro stylings and apocalyptic hysteria but since when we were holding it against Muse for being mental?

The second group of songs causing them problems are the two songs near the end of the album written by bassist Chris Wolstenholme. We all know what happens when you let the bass player/drummer write a couple of songs, don't we? Well no, actually, we don't (just look at our old favourite reference point Queen for a fantastic example of why it's good to diversify.) 'Save Me' is perhaps the most surprising song on the whole album, far more than any of those I mentioned above, in that it sounds nothing like Muse at all - helped partially by the fact that it's Chris singing it, but also in that it sounds much more like something belonging on an Anathema album, with its gently pounding drums, jangly guitars and understated vocal harmonies. In many ways it's the best thing here, although it's starkly at odds with the rest of the album. Perhaps it's time for Chris to make a solo album, I'd buy it.

Key Tracks - 'Madness' / 'Save Me'

1. Saint Etienne - Words and Music By Saint Etienne

"When I was ten, I wanted to explore the world.
There were these older kids at school who'd gone all the way to Somerset,
just to see Peter Gabriel's house.
Peter Gabriel from Genesis.
The way they dressed, the way their hair fell over their coat collars,
It all happened because of music - I wanted to know why.
I couldn't go to Somerset on my own,
So I used Top of the Pops as my world atlas..."

If there's one album this year whose lyrics and concept I did very much pay attention to, it's this one. It's almost as if they knew exactly how to get my interest within 10 seconds- the breathily intoned spoken word intro from Sarah Cracknell using words like "Peter Gabriel" which are always guaranteed to awake me from dozing, or pretending to work, or whatever I'm doing.

The entire album is a love letter to pop music itself- from the extremely clever cover with its faux A-Z map of London using street names and locations from the band's favourite pop songs, to the themes of the lyrics.

Opener 'Over the Border' recalls the teenage thrill of discovering and being obsessed by new bands, artists, record labels, and growing up wondering whether all this would still seem so important when school was done with (spoiler: yes). 'I've Got Your Music' is all about the delights of having your favourite song on headphones as the world passes by all around you, and 'DJ' is, well, you know. And then there's 'Tonight', which recalls the thrill of getting ready to go and see a favourite band, wondering what they're going to play, cramming on the new album before you leave- an experience eerily recreated by me when seeing Saint Etienne themselves at the Palladium earlier this year.

In fact, the album could only have been more self-referential if they'd included a song called 'You know when you buy an album and you really like it and then you realise there's a special edition with bonus tracks so you buy that too, and then you realise there was a very limited deluxe boxset which is going for £100 on eBay which has 3 extra songs on it and a poster of the artwork and then you find a Spanish website selling that for £30, so you order it and sell the other editions but it takes ages to arrive and in fact you don't even think it will, so you buy the special edition again and order an even bigger version of the poster from somewhere else, and then the ruddy box turns up in the post - and THEN they release a new version only in the US, with ten entirely new songs on the second disc'.

One for the remastered edition, perhaps.

Oh, what does the music sound like? Well, it's like most Saint Etienne: shimmery, summery, slightly melancholy dance-indie-pop, that somehow manages to sound rooted in the 60s despite a thoroughly modern sound. I've definitely got their music.

Key Tracks: 'Over The Border' / 'I've Got Your Music' (wonderful video with fans showing off their favourite albums) / Haunted Jukebox

Oh yeah, she's still cute, too.

You still there? Ah, good. I'm nearly done, but firstly here are 10 of my favourite 'new-old' albums of the year with a six-word review of each (this should be interesting.)

Bombay Bicycle Club - A Different Kind of Fix (2011)

Indie pop band support Blur. Impress.

The Postal Service - Give Up (2003)

Should sue Owl City. Top tunes.

Dragonette - Galore (2007)

Electro pop wonder. Hot vocalist. Yeah!

Depeche Mode - 101 (1989)

Everything you need know about Depeche.

Moloko - Statues (2003)

Quirky prog dance. Awesome in surround.

Pugwash - The Olympus Sound (2011)

Beatles and ELO go Irish. Sublime.

Phoenix - Live! Thirty Days Ago (2004)

French indie band better on stage.

Orbital - Middle of Nowhere (1999)

Wish I'd heard this in field.

Robyn - Body Talk (2010)

Kickarse Swedish popstress goes gangsta. Fierce.

M83 - Before the Dawn Heals Us (2005)

New favourite band. Best old album.

Everything Everything - Man Alive (2010)

Jerky indie rock. Inventive stuff. Txtspk.

Holy Ghost - Holy Ghost! (2011)

American indie dance channels Cut Copy.

Wait, you're STILL there? Okay, here's a little easter egg for you...

The Gigging Forever "Silly Artwork" award 2012 goes to:

The Sabres of Paradise - Sabresonic II (2001)

Anyone like to have a guess as to what the music on this album sounds like? Hands up if you said 'Chilled, Balearic dance, perfect for summer evenings'. Now hands down if you are Andrew Weatherall, aka The Sabres of Paradise. Thought so.

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