#1

November 27, 2010

Joanna Newsom – Ys
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

What an amazing surprise is was to have Ys come along and make an album as accomplished as The Milk-Eyed Mender resemble a developmental step. There’s really no denying that in the two years between her first and second releases, Newsom grew as a Joanna Newsom - Ysmusician by leaps and bounds, and the result of her artistic growth was an album of newfound maturity offset by a familiar flair for creative whimsy. Newsom strengthened all of her minor weaknesses, sharpened her songwriting (it speaks volumes that this is an album of lengthy, vocally driven tracks, which never drags for a moment), and yet still maintained all of her rustic charm, including that marvellous (and divisive!) voice which, despite considerable refinement, has kept all of its precious squawks and lilting inflections firmly intact. Memorable moments pop up regularly throughout the album’s five tracks, as perfectly timed key-changes, subtle style-shifts, glorious crescendos and sentimental vocal turns – the “Why the long face?” interlude on “Sawdust and Diamonds”, the “Be a Woman” segment on “Only Skin” and everything from “Squint skywards and listen” onwards at the end of “Emily” being personal favourites – sweep the listener away time and again. Producer Jim O’Rourke, engineer Steve Albini and composer Van Dyke Parks make valuable behind-the-scenes contributions, and Bill Callahan provides some great backing vocals on “Only Skin”, but this is undeniably Newsom’s album. No matter how the songs are dressed up, they always come back to her exquisite vocals, tender harp playing and enticing storytelling. To me, one of the greatest reasons for Ys success is that its five tracks all have such distinct, individual identities. Even with the album tying together perfectly – and it truly does – it also feels like a series of self-contained “movements”, each with a character all of its own and, more importantly, a listener-response all of its own. The allegorical story-song “Monkey and Bear”,  which sees the titular characters break away from their oppressive confines only the have the former exploit the latter for personal gain, stands out for its juxtaposed midday-matinée strings and nursery-rhyme style; “Sawdust and Diamonds” is unique via its stripped back production – it being the only track sans-orchestra – contrasting it sharply against the lush and elaborate backings of the other tracks; “Cosima” is perhaps the albums most overtly “pretty” track, serving its role as a sleepy, lullaby of a closer, much as “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” did on the album’s predecessor; “Only Skin” is memorable for its huge runtime and multi-part structure, which incorporates several distinct passages of song which could all have been great individual tracks in their own right; and finally, there’s “Emily”, Ys‘ opening track, which stands apart simply for being one of the most completely beautiful songs I’ve ever encountered. I don’t think I can begin to sufficiently describe the effect this song has had on me, so I’ll just say this – there are very few songs in existence that have actually made me stop and wonder if I had discovered my new, singular favourite song of all time, and this is one of them. I’d pick it in a heartbeat as my number one song of the decade, just as I’m picking Ys as my number one album. Absolutely magical.

 

Advertisements

#2

November 26, 2010

Sleater-Kinney – The Woods
hard-rock, noise-rock, riot grrl
2005

At one point during “Let’s Call it Love,” The Woods’ 11 minute psych-rock behemoth and one of the most imposing odes to sex I’ve ever encountered, Corin Tucker’s wailing vocals spiral out of control, and the guitar starts to bend and contort into some sort of agonising guitar-Sleater-Kinney - The Woodsslow-death, and it just sounds awesome. Awesomeness has always come naturally to Sleater-Kinney, and they’ve been shredding speakers with their brand of visceral, urgent rock music since the mid-90s, but none of that could ever prepare me for their final release. The Woods sees them pulling out every last stop and upping the swagger factor to create the most colossal, thunderous, everything-turned-up-to-eleven sounding guitar-rock album to emerge in years. It’s laden with massive hooks, self-indulgent guitar solos, Janet Weiss’ percussive thunderstorm and a killer vocal combination that alternates between Carrie Brownstein’s punchy, confrontational delivery and Corin Tucker’s joyously noisy, trademark holler (or as the band like to refer to it, the “secret weapon”). At times it feels a lot like a combination of 70s arena-rock and early 90s noise-rock, paying equal homage to Jimi Hendrix and Sonic Youth, while coming dangerously close to – and I’m tempted to say succeeding in – surpassing both with self-assured ease. “Let’s Call it Love” is the obvious highpoint, but it certainly gets plenty of support: “Entertain” and “Rollercoaster” are both huge, punked up arena-rockers; “What’s Mine is Yours” features a cool, jagged-edged, dual riff and amazing mid-song guitar freakout, which branches back into the following verse via one of the heaviest basslines I’ve ever heard; “Jumpers” has one of the album’s most exciting choruses, with a guitar riff that’s simply explosive; “Wilderness” packs that same furious grunt while blending in some fantastic psychedelic touches; while opening track and total distortion-fest “The Fox” bursts out of nowhere with such massive firepower that it’ll singe your eyebrows. Heck, even the album’s less immediately obvious picks like the bluesy “Steep Air” and streamlined album-closer “Night Light” would probably be the coolest and most rocking thing on any other album. Despite the beefing up of their sound, the album still comes across like vintage Sleater-Kinney, just perhaps a 50 ft tall, building stomping, take-absolutely-no-prisoners version thereof, and the way they lay waste to everything around them before switching out the lights makes for one of the greatest career-finales any band has ever delivered. I’m running out of ways to describe just how much this album will kick your ass, and just how much you’ll treasure the experience – to put it simply, after listening to The Woods, everything else sounds tiny by comparison.

#3

November 25, 2010

Joanna Newsom – The Milk-Eyed Mender
singer/songwriter, folk
2004

The very first Joanna Newsom song I ever heard, which was way back in the good old days of 2005, was a rather unconventional five-minute ode to a pet dog by the name of “Sadie”. While it took a few listens before I got the hang of her vocal style (honestly, “Sadie” is probably one of the more challenging entry points to her oeuvre), the vivid lyricism, exquisite harp-playing and heartfelt, sentimental delivery took little time to reach me. Several years later “Sadie” remains my favourite song on Newsom’s debut, and when she gently coos “and all that we know is blowin’ like tumbleweed” and her voice trills up high on the work “blowin'” – that bit makes me swoon. The Milk-Eyed Mender is full of such spellbinding tracks, each of which is home to plenty of little fell-good moments such as the one mentioned above. There’s the sleepy beauty of tracks like “The Sprout and the Bean” (who doesn’t love the way she phrases “are y’interested?” to make it rhyme with “break some bread”?), “Cassiopeia” (I think that “and I swim sweetly as a herring through the ether not despairing” is one of the loveliest lyrics on the album), “Bridges and Balloons” (the word-structure behind “a thimble’s worth of milky moon can touch hearts larger than a thimble” is very special) and “Clam, Crab, Cockle, Cowrie” (“your skin is something that I stir into my tea” evokes some incredible imagery). These are balanced out by the small handful of more powerfully delivered cuts like “Inflammatory Writ” and “Three Little Babies”, a couple of no-frills, piano-led belters that see Newsom at her most fearlessly forthright, and “Peach, Plum, Pear”, with its almost overwhelming, “army of Newsoms” multi-tracked vocal. There’s a gentle, old-timey magic in her songs that sees her constantly being aligned with fairies, dragons and other fantasy tropes, but such Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Menderknee-jerk comparisons are ignorant and completely miss the earthy sincerity that’s present in every track (contrary to popular belief, many of these songs are about actual, real-life things), not to mention the sly humour to be found – would ye-olde hippy elf really sing “I killed my dinner … with karate“, as Newsom does in “The Book of Right On’s” disarming opening lines? Even if her songs present the lyrical knottiness and colourful metaphor of a creative writer – an aspect which is, as far as I’m concerned, utterly delightful – everything she sings still rings with honesty and life experience. Newsom really sprung out of nowhere with this release – it stands as an exquisite debut by an artist who truly is one of a kind.

 

#4

November 24, 2010

The Microphones – It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water
lo-fi, folk, psychedelic-pop, singer/songwriter, noise-rock, experimental-rock
2000

The Microphones - It Was Hot We Stayed in the WaterWarm, lo-fi instrumentation, intimate vocals, creative songwriting, some delightful guest-appearances by Mirah and exceptional analogue production wizardry by head-Microphone Phil Elverum all come together flawlessly to make this aquatic-themed effort the best Microphones/Mt Eerie album (yes, better than The Glow, Pt 2), and one of the finest albums of the decade. It stands as an eclectic tapestry of sonic concepts that constantly evades easy categorisation no matter how much you try to pigeonhole it, and is emotionally gripping to boot. Elverum is one of modern music’s true visionaries, and this album is littered with such a degree of fine detail and enigmatic character that you can spend weeks in its company and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Meanwhile, when it comes to the album’s production, his bag of tricks is quite awe-inspiring, my favourite example being a point at which he utilises microphone-smothering techniques to make it sound convincingly like his band is gradually sinking underwater while playing. The album has a conceptual sweep that makes it best listened to as a whole, but there’s some amazing individual highlights as well – the strummy, acoustic opening to “The Pull” makes great use of panning to create a lulled atmosphere before unexpectedly launching into a distorted guitar and drums finale, with the two halves of the song being a better fit for one another than you’d expect; the easily overlooked “Ice” is a great little noise-rocker that gives way to an unexpected ambient coda; the reimagining of Eric’s Trip’s “Sand” is a display of gorgeous minimalism; “Karl Blau” is a nod to the titular musician, a label-mate on K-Records, set to the melody of a slow-dancing serenade, which sounds simply beautiful; and “Between Your Ear and the Other Ear” is a cheerfully charming singalong I’d be happy to have circling around my campfire anytime. Then, of course, there’s “The Glow”, the album’s gloriously moving and relentlessly experimental ten-minute centrepiece. Covering an assortment of terrain including singer/songwriter, 60s vocal-pop, lo-fi, post-rock, field-recordings, 90s indie-rock and psychedelia, I’ve simply never heard another song even remotely like it, by The Microphones or anyone else, and it holds a special place amongst my most highly treasured music. It Was Hot We Stayed in the Water is a marvel, an album that appeals not only as an inviting work of deeply human art, but also an awe-inspiring network of musical ideas. On either of those levels, very few albums can match it.

 

#5

November 23, 2010

Josephine Foster – Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You
folk, singer/songwriter
2005

Much like fellow folkie Joanna Newsom, Josephine Foster gets unfairly (and sometimes dismissively) bundled into the “difficult voice” crowd of female musicians. While her vocals are a little unconventional when compared to some of the other artists that sprung from the Golden Apples of the Sun compilation (on which, like Newsom, she was featured), they’re certainly not impenetrable. Foster trills and warbles delightfully, singing of secret loves, hidden places and her desire for a man with “rhythm in his waist Josephine Foster - Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead Youand hair on his chest”, and as such there’s a classical beauty and good-natured warmth to her singing which, when combined with the simple, rustic production, bare instrumentation and total absence of pretense, gives the album a displaced quality which makes it hard to initially anchor Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You to a specific time period. Her vocal is totally consistent, and yet I found myself thinking of all kinds of different contexts throughout the album – at times she sounds like a mystic-folk hippie at one with the world; at others she branches into cryptic storytelling that seems to cast her as a bard of some King’s court; “There Are Eyes Above” and “Trees Lay By” sound like traditional lullabies; several songs have a bluesy or baroque tilt to them; and then the gentle coos she uses to farewell “The Siren’s Admonition” and “The Golden-Wooden Tone” have her sounding like the soundtrack to a family matinée from the 1950s. By the end of the album, I felt convinced she could have stepped out of just about any time in the last several hundred years, which is quite a remarkable rarity in music today. Foster plays virtually every instrument on the album, and while her acoustic guitar is the centrepiece on most tracks, she also makes use of a variety of supporting instruments including tambourine, recorder, harp, flute, all manner of clickers, chimes, bells and whistles and even a few playful turns on the kazoo, finally adding in some harmonised-with-herself vocal overdubs that are just sublime. While my own favourites would have to be the lovely opener “The Siren’s Admonition” and the utterly charming “Good News”, Foster possesses the kind of consistent songwriting prowess and distinct artistic identity that will lead every listener to discover their own unique connection to her work. The brilliance of Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You rests on that most personal of intangibles – Foster’s work has a strong sense of sentimentality and … let’s call it “specialness”, something indefinable that makes the album feel like a piece of lost treasure that was created just for you. It shamelessly tugs at the heartstrings, and I’ve found myself quite helplessly enamoured.

 

#6

November 22, 2010

The Fiery Furnaces – Blueberry Boat
experimental-rock, progressive-pop
2004

I love the kind of densely layered albums that reward repeat listening and perseverance with exciting new discoveries and previously unnoticed subtleties, albums that just seem to go deeper and deeper the further you dig. When it comes to that kind of product, Blueberry Boat is quite simply the proverbial bottomless pit of all albums released during the 2000s. The Fiery Furnaces showed plenty of creative spark on their debut, but nothing whatsoever could have prepared listeners for what was coming next. This The Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boatrabbit hole of an album overflows with more musical concepts, quirks and ideas than many people can keep up with (and it has the divisive critical response to prove it!), demanding multiple plays just to absorb what’s resting on the surface. For the patient and attentive listener, though, there’s just so much with which to fall in love. Matt and Eleanor Freidberger inject their songs with such a degree of creativity and relentless boundary-pushing that uniquely fascinating and surprising moments seem to be hiding around every corner – “Quay Cur” features nursery-rhyme tales punctured by stabs of short-burst garage-rock; “My Dog Was Lost But Now He’s Found”, in addition to playing out as an extended pun itself, features a lyrical gag followed by an almost too-subtle “boom boom” in the background; the massive guitar solo hiding one minute into “Mason City” feels like lost treasure; the chaotic introduction to “Wolf Notes” sounds like it’s raining musical instruments; “Straight Street” features the same melody throughout, but on every verse the instrumentation being used it subtly altered from the one before it; the narrative song “Chief Inspector Blancheflower” has enough content that an entire movie could be made of it; “Birdie Brain’s” warbling, wah-wah melody is one of the most creative riffs you’ll ever hear; and the title track’s tale of pirates invading a boat to steal its precious blue cargo, only to be confronted by a resilient captain Eleanor, is way better than any children’s story, and it’s catchy too. There’s so much more, but I don’t want to reveal all the surprises that lie within Blueberry Boat. They’re scattered throughout the album so generously that it’ll take the average listener ten plays to come close to catching them all. The best part is, it’ll then take dozens more listens to satisfy the insatiable urge to hear them over and over again.

#7

November 19, 2010

Animal Collective – Strawberry Jam
neo-psychedelia, experimental-pop, electronic
2007

On every album prior to this one, Animal Collective had maintained a fairly even balance between “songs” and “soundscapes”, splitting their time almost equally between Animal Collective - Strawberry Jamalien pop songs and drifting, longform experimental pieces, giving them equal appeal to fans of the infectious as well as the cerebral, yet perhaps never quite satisfying either side to the fullest extent. On Strawberry Jam, they finally decided to swing the pendulum all the way to the “songs” side, resulting in what was their catchiest, most accessible and concise work yet. This couldn’t have pleased me more, as all of my favourite songs by the eccentric four-piece have been their more overtly melodic pieces, like Sung Tongs’ “Who Could Win a Rabbit”, Feels’ “The Purple Bottle” and Spirit They’re Gone, Spirit They’re Vanished’s “April and the Phantom”, so an album with nothing but those sorts of songs was always going to be a hit with me. The album lays out nine slices of vital, quirky, unconventional pop music, conveyed through jittering synths, warm acoustic strums, kaleidoscopic production and off-kilter vocals (delivered predominantly by my preferred Animal Collective vocalist, David Portner a.k.a Avey Tare, in this instance) that drip with emotion at every turn. Several of those songs rank easily amongst the best “pop” tracks the group have recorded, and if I were to put together a list of my favourite Animal Collective cuts I suspect that “For Reverend Green”, “Peacebone” and “Fireworks”, all of which appear on this very album, might find themselves at the top (with “#1” and “Winter Wonder Land” sitting not too far behind). The album is very economical and well-contained, with no individual song ever outstaying its welcome (which has been an occasional issue in the past), and “Derek”, the album’s carnivalesque finale, makes for a perfectly timed end of the line. With 2009’s Merriweather Post Pavillion, the group streamlined their sound even more, filtering out many of the most vital eccentricities (Avey Tare’s prominent vocal being the most crucial) such that, to me, the result felt watered down and significantly less engaging. Strawberry Jam marked the colourful peak of one of the decade’s most interesting and exuberant groups.

 

#8

November 18, 2010

Invincible – Shapeshifters
hip-hop
2008

It’s a little beside the point but, I must say, in a genre that often gets saddled with a reputation for unapologetic misogyny, I love the fact that a woman might be the best rapper in the world. Ilana Weaver, aka Invincible, absolutely kills it throughout Shapeshifters, showing flow, verbal dexterity, pace, rhyme structure, breath control, wordcraft, wit, wisdom and sheer depth of vocabulary that leaves me flabbergasted every time I hear it. Go ahead, try to sing along to any of the verses on “Sledgehammer”; even with a lyric sheet in front of you, you’re likely to end up tongue-tied. Weaver introduces herself by declaring a “State of Emergency”, a mission statement which is fully realised throughout the remainder of the album. That’s one of the things that makes Shapeshifters such a marvel – it’d be enough just to hear Invincible’s flawless technique, even if she had nothing relevant to say. But she has so much to say – “Spacious Skies” is a scathing, backhanded love-letter to the USA in which Weaver expresses her Invincible - Shapeshiftersyouthful optimism turned to disillusionment after having emigrated from the Middle East as a child; the Israel/Palestine conflict gets a thorough and thoughtful treatment on “People Not Places”; “Deuce/Ypsi” addresses the challenges faced by minorities and lower-class residents living on the south-side of an otherwise affluent University suburb; “Ransom Note”, which features co-members of all-girl rap group Anomalies, reels off a list of demands to an unnamed media/communications mogul, including free citywide wireless and modern computing equipment for poor schools; “In the Mourning” is a touching J Dilla tribute, which goes so far as to explicitly shame listeners for only truly discovering his genius after his death; and the history of urban gentrification is delved into on closing track “Locusts”. When you take all that, and then top it off by throwing in a handful of great guest appearances (emcee Finale, in particular, stands out) and some absolutely exquisite production touches, which sees tracks backed by everything from flamenco to blazing electric guitar bursts to twinkling, 1950s piano, you end up with one the most substantial, important and flat-out amazing hip-hop albums of the decade. Plus, it’s her debut. I’m stunned.

 

#9

November 17, 2010

The Books – The Lemon of Pink
electronic, folk, field recordings, sound collage
2003

When you boil it down to its core ingredients, The Lemon of Pink is essentially a folk record, but the songs here have been chopped, spliced, sampled and rearranged into a sonic collage of delicate vocals, found sounds and a wide variety of gentle instrumentation including guitars, violins, banjos, percussion and more. In a feat not to be overlooked, the duo have managed to create one of the most warm, inviting and human albums I’ve ever heard, amazingly without more than a small handful of actual lyrics, so most of this feeling is carried strictly by the music itself, as well as the snippets of random sampled chatter (including conversations, educational clips, announcements and more) that are littered generously throughout. The whole album is characterised by an inclusive and celebratory tone, which is shown to full effect on some of the highlight tracks, such as the quirky “Tokyo”, the Einstein-quoting “There is no There” and the gorgeous “Take Time”, a track which has endured as a personal favourite throughout the decade, having lost none of its impact over years of repeat listens. To put it simply, The Lemon of Pink is an abstract work of art with a single purpose – to The Books - The Lemon of Pinkwash away your concerns and make you feel content, happy and completely at ease. I’m constantly impressed by the fact that The Books have managed to make an album so satisfying on two extremely different levels – while the album is meticulously assembled, making The Lemon of Pink a real joy to deconstruct and examine for its finer details, against significant odds it’s also one of the most powerfully emotive and affecting albums I’ve ever heard.

 

#10

November 16, 2010

Broadcast and The Focus Group – Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age
electronic, psychedelic-pop, found sound, musique concrète
2009

Imagine you’re standing at the entry to a very long hallway, lined with doors stretching out before you farther than the eye can see. Behind each door is a small room containing the sound captured from a certain time and place. It could be an instrument, a song, a concert, a TV show, a telephone, a conversation, a radio transmission, a nursery rhyme, a piece of machinery, a childhood memory, a waterfall or some other ambient environmental noise. Imagine that, as you stand there, the entire hallway is tilted ninety degrees, transforming it into a seemingly bottomless tunnel, and you’re falling into it in slow motion, Broadcast and The Focus Group - Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Agedrifting endlessly further down (at this point, you have to forgive me for the blindingly obvious Wonderland parallel, but bear with me). As you fall, the doors floating past you begin to open and close, seemingly at random, revealing snippet after snippet of disparate sound, emerging, overlapping and disappearing again before they can fully take shape. Barring a few brief forays into more fully realised musical exploration, that rabbit-hole-esque scenario is precisely what it feels like to listen to this album, the first joint-effort between UK art-pop group Broadcast and electronic musician Julian House a.k.a The Focus Group. It’s essentially 3 or 4 brief psych-pop songs with hundreds of slices of musique concrète scattered about them, neatly divided into 23 tracks, many of which don’t reach the two-minute mark. It’s surreal, disorienting and occasionally unnerving, but mostly it’s just really, really dreamy. If it sounds challenging, that’s because it is, but far less so than you’d expect, thanks to the meticulous degree of care and craftsmanship displayed by both parties in piecing together this wonderful collaboration. I’ve often heard claims of albums with hypnagogic properties – I’d argue that Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age comes closer to genuinely fulfilling those claims than any album I’ve heard before.

 

#11

November 15, 2010

The Drones – Havilah
blues-rock, garage-punk
2008

The Drones - HavilahA work of muscular punk-blues, The Drones’ sprawling fourth full-length album is emotionally charged and very fiercely delivered, topping the excellent Wait Long By the River and The Bodies of Your Enemies Will Float By as the Australian quartet’s finest work. Backed by bluesy percussion and guitar that alternates between punchy and sparse, lead-Drone Gareth Liddiard couples formidable songwriting talent with a gravel-lined, croak-&-roar delivery that makes every emotion he expresses sound like it’s been amplified multiple times over, and it’s undeniable that he reaches heights of excellence on this album rarely heard on previous efforts. The group show great discipline on Havilah, knowing exactly when to reign in their fury and when to push it into overdrive, making for an intense and dynamic performance that’s packed with memorable moments. Highlight tracks are in abundant supply, be it the stompy and humourous lead single “The Minotaur”, the melancholy, late-night lament of “Cold and Sober”, the measured storytelling of “The Distant Housewife”, the anthemic and ruthlessly indignant “Oh My”, the uplifting finale “Your Acting’s Like the End of the World” or the album’s thrilling mini-epics “Lay it Down”, “I Am the Supercargo” and “Luck in Odd Numbers” (in a pinch I’d pick that last one as the album’s best). Normally I wouldn’t go so far as to mention quite so many tracks individually, but Havilah is one of those freak instances of an album that plays out like one continuous peak, blessed with an almost embarrassing surplus of perfect songs, each one individually noteworthy in its own right. It’s the best Australian album of the decade, to be sure, and deserves to be remembered as one of the country’s all-time greatest works.

 

#12

November 12, 2010

Nina Nastasia & Jim White – You Follow Me
singer/songwriter, experimental-rock, folk
2007

With You Follow Me, guitarist/vocalist Nina Nastasia teamed with longtime collaborator, percussionist Jim White (of Australian trio The Dirty Three), to deliver one of the singer/songwriter genre’s most idiosyncratic albums. It’s suitable to see White take half the artistic credit on this one – the first time he’s been credited as such after a number of stints as a session musician for Nastasia’s previous albums – as the skills of Nina Nastasia & Jim White - You Follow Meboth participants are highlighted with equal measure throughout the album, making White’s skittering, semi-improvisational drumming just as prominent and central to the album as Nastasia’s vocals and guitarwork. The juxtaposition between their two styles is endlessly fascinating, a blend of control and chaos, and many of the tracks have White’s rumbling percussion sounding like a brewing storm beneath the relative calm of Nastasia’s contributions. The two musicians ride the line between experimentation and accessibility to perfection and have an undeniable rapport that can really be sensed throughout the album. The songs are touching, attention-grabbing and memorable, and are sequenced in a manner that places the highlights – such as “Odd Said the Doe” and “Our Discussion” – evenly throughout the album. With its brief runtime and unassuming tone, You Follow Me is an understated and humble affair, certainly not the sort of thing that self-consciously brands itself as an important album, yet I cannot overstate the impact which it has had upon me, as it leaves me keenly feeling its lasting presence long after it winds to a close. Few albums display such independently gifted musicians so completely in tune with one another, collaborating selflessly to create something so much better than either could achieve on their own. There’s something truly special about this unique and productive partnership – I sincerely hope it continues to flourish.

#13

November 11, 2010

Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Yanqui U.X.O.
post-rock
2002

While Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is the popular choice, I think Yanqui U.X.O trumps it as Godspeed You(!) Black Emperor(!)’s best album. There’s a real sense of purpose in the music here, giving it a drive that always seemed to be lacking from the group’s more jammy efforts. It’s far more consistent and tightly structured, with the songs being noticeably cleaned up and held in a forward-facing direction for their full duration. It might make it slightly more predictable, but it also makes it significantly more listenable, and certainly more replayable. Godspeed You! Black Emperor - Yanqui U.X.O.The gravitas that the group are known for is in effect to an extent not seen since the noirish overdubbed dialogue of their debut, giving the album a pit-of-the-stomach impact that works hugely in its favour. The high points are as gripping as ever, with dramatic buildups, such as the one which stalks its way through a solid four minutes of “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls”, leading into those trademark, soaring crescendos. Perhaps best of all, the album’s closing track, “Motherfucker=Redeemer”, sees this dark motif through with a blazing finale that’s undeniably uplifting, something altogether unexpected given the tone of the rest of the album. This finish provides Yanqui U.X.O with an emotional sweep that few other instrumental albums can match. A real post-rock triumph.

 

#14

November 10, 2010

Jackie-O Motherfucker – Fig. 5
free-folk, post-rock, jazz, New Weird America
2000

On Fig 5, Jackie-O Motherfucker take an overtly exploratory approach to the soulful twang of Southern folk and Americana, in which their improvvy, jam-band stylings are driven along by multiple guitars, touches of banjo, varying percussion, harmonica, free-jazz and even some sparse sampling. Their expansive takes on traditional songs like “Amazing Grace” and “Go Down, Old Hannah” are filled with warmth and beauty, while “Your Cells are in Motion”, with its propulsive rhythm and looping guitar lines, is a personal favourite. The band have about a dozen members, and being such a large collective with a somewhat improvisational playstyle, there are moments when the music can feel a bit directionless (somewhat akin to an Americana orchestra in the process of warming up), particularly on the first listen. While some listeners will find this instantly charming, to others it’ll act as something of a barrier. In time, though, it becomes apparent that the band Jackie-O Motherfucker - Fig. 5are simply piecing together their songs in a carefully organic manner, and it can be quite a fascinating experience to hear each musical genesis gradually run its course. It’s a true pleasure to witness some of the finest free-folk music of the decade being constructed “one brick at a time”, however, the point when all those bricks fall into place and the band lock into their groove is where Jackie-O Motherfucker truly come into their own. The results are uniformly captivating.

 

#15

November 10, 2010

Comets on Fire – Comets on Fire
psychedelic-rock, noise-rock, hard-rock
2001

Comets on Fire’s debut is admittedly a collection of somewhat “simple” pleasures, but it’s executed oh so very well. Right from the start, the band lays down a riotous storm of psychedelic garage-rock, blanketed with huge, fuzzed-out riffs that are played hard and heavy, effects pedals left, right and centre, and vocals so raw and rocking they’ll shred your speakers apart and melt your brain. When it comes to pure, floor shakin’, foot stompin’, air guitarin’, jumping-around-like-a-madman hard-rock perfection, there’s few albums that deliver on this level, and the blissed-out psych leanings mean that every single track reaches for the sky only to overshoot Comets on Fire - Comets on Fireand end up in the depths of space. Highlights include the uptempo “Graverobbers” and “One Foot”, the sprawling title-track plus the bluesy “Let’s Take it All”, but “Ghosts of the Cosmos” in particular has revealed itself as a major personal favourite, and I’ve listened to it so many times since I discovered the album that its every moment has become permanently seared into my brain. The band went on to create some more tidy, mature and ambitious releases after this, all of which are excellent albums well worth your time, but their rough and simple debut, with all of its noisy, heavy-psych glory, is the one I keep coming back to. It’s the sort of music that inspires you to want to play it in your car with your windows down and the volume up, despite the knowledge that people who do this look a bit silly. To sum up, Comets on Fire isn’t exactly a complicated album, but believe me when I say it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

 

#16

November 9, 2010

Deltron 3030 – Deltron 3030
hip-hop
2000

Deltron 3030 is a groundbreaking album of futuristic geek-hop that constantly delivers the goods, thanks to Dan the Automator’s hugely creative, kick-ass production, Del tha Funkee Homosapien’s well-baked yet highly literate delivery, Kid Koala’s expert, nimbleDeltron 3030 - Deltron 3030 turntablism, a series of A+ guest appearances (including Damon Albarn, Prince Paul, Peanut Butter Wolf and an unlikely appearance by Sean Lennon) and the huge number of SF/tech/geek references littered throughout the album (Microsoft, William Gibson, neural implants, interplanetary travel and mecha, to name just a few). Most of the songs establish various overarching details of the album’s futuristic setting, giving the album a very concrete sense of place and time, however there is also a loose story running throughout – Del plays a freedom fighter battling the regimes of a dystopian future while participating in a series of intergalactic rap battles against assorted fiendish foes, and by album’s end there’s no doubt that Del has the goods to be kicking all the ass that he claims he does. This plotline is tied together nicely via a sequence of entertaining snippets and interludes, which drive the narrative forward, further establish the environmental, political and social backdrop and infuse the album with a feeling of true cohesion. If you’re looking to try before you buy I recommend checking out “3030”, “Virus”, “Upgrade (A Brymar College Course)”, “Battlesong” and “Love Story”. It’s hard not to feel like every last element falls perfectly into place on this one, though – it’s one of my favourite hip-hop albums of the decade, and sets the bar extremely high for its perpetually delayed sequel.

#17

November 8, 2010

Deerhoof – The Runners Four
noise-rock, experimental-rock
2005

All three members Deerhoof - The Runners Fourof Deerhoof play a truly vital role in this album’s success – Satomi Matsuzaki’s feather-light vocals are always full of glorious attitude and humour, while her bass gives many of the group’s songs their strong, underlying foundation; John Dieterich’s complex, rapid-fire guitar always make for tunes that are full of fascinatingly idiosyncratic melodies and interludes; and Greg Saunier’s totally unconventional, stripped-back drumming (the man has a kit containing nothing but a kick, a snare and a crash) sees him not merely setting a standard beat, but somehow drumming around that beat to create an exciting style that’s seemingly improvisational and yet so sturdy and reliable (there’s a reason why he’s my favourite drummer in rock music today). This album is, to me, their lofty artistic peak, a noise-rock masterpiece played by a group collectively sporting a mischievous, “we know we’re really a pop band” grin, and it’s crammed with a hugely generous twenty songs. Many of these – I’ll single out “Twin Killers”, “Vivid Cheek Love Song”, “Wrong Time Capsule”, “Spirit Ditties of No Tone”, “Scream Team”, “Siriustar” and “Rrrrrrright” – rank on the highest echelon of their body of work. It’s truly awe-inspiring to listen to a group with this powerful a grasp on pop songwriting combined with such an overwhelming desire to be willfully unusual and keep on pushing the envelope over and over, and that’s exactly what’s presented on The Runners Four. Within the standard confines of guitar/bass/drums/vocals, it stands as the ultimate showcase of creativity.

 

#18

November 7, 2010

Ned Collette – Jokes and Trials
singer/songwriter, folk
2006

Every music geek has their own little discoveries. When I first got into Ned Collette, he was almost completely unknown. I downloaded one of his songs (“The Laughter Across the Street”, incidentally) after it was recommended on a music site, liked it, investigated him online, discovered he was due to play a live show in my area in the coming days, attended the Ned Collette - Jokes and Trialsgig, loved every minute of it, bought the album and finally became a die-hard fan, preaching his brilliance to anyone who’ll listen. There’s something about that experience, particularly when combined with the intimate feel of the album, that makes Jokes and Trials feel really special to me in a way that transcends musical quality and moves into the realm of something more personal. “Song For Louis” (and its separate-track coda “The Happy Kidnapper”), which opens the album, remains my absolute favourite of his songs, with “The Laughter Across the Street” not far behind, while “A Plea for You Through Me”, “Heaven’s the Key”, “Blame” and lead single “Boulder” are all essential cuts as well. Collette has gained a bit more exposure through two more stellar releases (one of which is Future Suture, which we’ve already seen on this list and I’d concede is probably more technically accomplished), but he’s still woefully unknown in most circles, which is a tremendous shame given that he’s writing some of the smartest and most effortlessly appealing music in the world right now.

#19

November 5, 2010

Reigning Sound – Time Bomb High School
garage-rock, rock & roll
2002

Most of the best-known bands in the garage-rock Reigning Sound - Time Bomb High Schoolrevival scene have a tendency to aim for something of a rough, rock-out sound, pulling strong traces of blues, heavy-rock, punk or psychedelia into the mix for that dirty, raw angle that amps up the adrenaline and helps to establish a strong feeling of menacing authenticity. Reigning Sound go for a slightly different approach, reaching back into the early 60s and late 50s to craft a style with roots in rockabilly, country, vocal pop, surf-rock and the lighter-side of the garage scene. The music on Time Bomb High School certainly doesn’t lack energy or strength, though, packed with vitality and sporting a big, bright, robust sound that’s instantly very appealing. The authenticity is there, too – barring the crystal clear production, the songs sound like they could have been heard blaring from the crackling speakers of old Hot Rods and AM radios, and vocalist Greg Cartwright, whose musical pedigree traces back to his days in yesteryear garage-stalwarts The Oblivians, wields a combination of old-timey warmth and raw-throated belting that’s just a perfect fit for this kind of thing. Most of the album sits around the mid-tempo level, with plenty of love songs and lite-rockers, but Reigning Sound absolutely boot the door off its hinges with the opening track “Stormy Weather”, by far the finest and most replayable song on the album and one of my personal favourite songs of all time. Boasting the kind of broad appeal that suggests it deserves to be better known than it is, Time Bomb High School is a certified garage classic, revival or otherwise.

#20

November 5, 2010

The Fiery Furnaces – Rehearsing My Choir
progressive-pop, experimental-pop
2005

Rehearsing My Choir is a semi-fabricated-but-seemingly-largely-truthful account of the life and marriage of Matt and Eleanor Friedberger’s grandmother, the 83-year-old Olga Sarantos, who also contributes vocals for the majority of the album. Interestingly, in a development that proved to be more than some listeners could bear, she sounds like something along the lines of an androgynous cartoon character. Convoluted and impossibly layered, it’s yet another album in the Fiery Furnaces catalogue that greatly rewards repeat listens. Across 52 minutes Sarantos delivers a finely detailed account of her life, loves and personal challenges, scattered across multiple decades and locations, all set to a backing of wildly eclectic instrumentation including electronica, toy piano, noise rock, blues, folk, electro-pop, church organs, a capella and ragtime. There’s an almost ridiculous quantity of plot crammed into this album – infidelity, gypsy curses, wartime separation, the magical medicinal properties of doughnuts, gun The Fiery Furnaces - Rehearsing My Choirfights, bowling alleys, failed marriages, inventive cookery, meeting the in-laws while drunk (“I reached for the arm of the armchair … and missed”), questionable church communities, adventurous road trips, marriages, deaths, a story of two Kevins (or, “you mean two jerks“, as Olga informs us) and, of course, the rehearsing of one’s choir. The interplay between Olga and Eleanor, who acts as something of a muse, narrator and voice of the past all at once, is spectacular, and provides some of the most clever, funny & poignant lyrics the group have ever conjured. Many parts of the album are ingeniously self-referential, and the whole production ties together to create a sense of wholeness that every concept album should possess. An incredible journey from start to finish.