November 19, 2010

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

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.




November 5, 2010

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

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.


September 15, 2010

Tom Zé Danç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício)
Brazilian, experimental-pop, samba, MPB

Tom Zé is one of the most incredible cases of long-running musical creativity you could ever hope to discover. A major innovator throughout the late-60s and 70s, Zé languished in obscurity for decades, being overshadowed by more well-known Brazilian counterparts like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben and Joao Gilberto, and it wasn’t until David Byrne happened across and re-released his material during the 90s that he finally found a more substantial following. Zé turned 70 in recent years, so you could certainly forgive him for releasing safe, comfortable retreads on an irregular schedule. You could forgive him for retiring all-together. He’s never been one to take the easy route, though, and the 2000s have marked one of the most prolific and creative periods of his career, seeing the release of half-a-dozen (really great) albums during that span. Danç-Êh-Sá, a homage to rebellion and Tom Zé - Danç-Êh-Sá (Dança dos Herdeiros do Sacrifício)sacrifice throughout Brazil’s history, is my pick for the best of the lot, and it ranks amongst the best work of his career. The combination of styles on display here is mind-boggling, as Zé not only borrows from a handful of existing genres (samba, avant-garde rock, tropicalia, bossa, hip-hop, afro percussion styles, electronic music and a-capella to name a few) but also manages to create invigorating sounds and textures that are totally unfamiliar (even in the context of Zé’s body of work) and maddeningly hard to pigeonhole, with his boundary-pushing use of vocal sounds in particular being just amazing. Immersing yourself in his mad creation is like stumbling into an immense festival full of colourful characters and technicolour mayhem.


August 27, 2010

椎名 林檎 (Ringo Shiina) – 加爾基 精液 栗ノ花 (Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana)
experimental-pop, j-pop

Pop songstress Ringo Shiina, 椎名 林檎 (Ringo Shiina) - 加爾基 精液 栗ノ花 (Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana)who enjoys huge mainstream popularity in Japan yet remains relatively obscure to Western audiences, is regularly cited as an example of a pop musician with a flair for the experimental. To this end, she finds herself being compared to similarly minded female musicians like Bjork. In a career forged on blurring the line between infectious melody and extensive creativity, Karuki Zamen Kuri no Hana – her third album – stands as her most overtly left-field work, but don’t let that scare you – those tags of “experimental” and “left-field” are 99% indicative of Shiina’s firm desire to achieve a unique sound via her broad palate of musical influences, encompassing genres which are grounded firmly on the listenable and accessible side of the spectrum. There’s flourishes of jazz, electronic-pop, girl-group, rock, balladry, singer/songwriter and (of course) j-pop littered throughout the album, and these frequently overlap with one another in the course of a single track, and while the album’s production aims for a big, bright, polished sound, it never becomes cluttered, overbearing or weird for weird’s sake. This is the kind of music where the individual parts making up the whole are simple and familiar but the overall result is something altogether unexpected and delightful. Between her solo work and her releases with group Tokyo Jihen, Shiina released a number of knockout albums during the decade, enough to put her in serious contention to be regarded as its finest individual artist. You can be sure this won’t be her final appearance on the list.


August 16, 2010

Air10,000 Hz Legend
electronic, ambient, experimental-pop

10,000 Hz Legend is Air’s “rock album”, so to speak, augmenting the French duo’s electronic music with guitars, foot-tappy melodies, prominent vocalists and an absence of the group’s trademark, floaty “loungetronica” for about 90% of the album. With its surreal lyrics and more hard-edged electronic effects, it could be said that the album is weirder than Moon Safari, but it arguably has more mainstream appeal – the aptly-titled “Radio #1” works well as a sing-along single and the charismatic guest appearances by Beck, Jason Falkner and Buffalo Daughter help several the songs to avoid sounding faceless. The humour present in tracks like “How Does it Make You Feel” and “Wonder Milky Bitch” are a welcome delight, never detouring into novelty but instead injecting the songs with a touch of humanity that’s sorely lacking from albums both before and since. Air - 10 000 Hz LegendThe couple of ambient tracks play out with a new twist, too – the Egyptian-sounding themes of “Radian” are like nothing else the group have created yet, and closing track “Caramel Prisoner” is like wading through syrup (or floating in space, I still haven’t decided). With many regarding it as something of a sophomore slump, my love of 10,000Hz Legend makes me feel a bit like the solitary flag-waver in an otherwise empty parade. I’ll keep on waving my flag, though – albums with this much personality are worth it.