It must be hard being Ricky Gervais. How on earth do you follow something as widely popular and as damn-near perfect as The Office? Extras was great but somehow it felt like some of the magic was no longer there. And this rather forced metaphor brings me to the position Arcade Fire found themselves in at the start of this year. Funeral ranks somewhere in the highest echelon of popular music, a defining artistic statement of sheer brilliance. And as excellent as Neon Bible was, and again it is a great album, it did not feel as important.
So to The Suburbs. One of the easiest criticisms to throw at Arcade Fire is that they are a bit po-faced, they still have not made a record where they sound like they are having fun. Whilst The Suburbs may not change this lyrically it does at the very least prove they can write something that might be described as up-tempo, such as ‘Empty Room’. This song is a great example of the more personal approach that Win and Regine have taken to their lyrics. This is an album about growing up, being young and not much else happening really. ‘Ready to Start’ and ‘Month of May’ are great examples of what it is like to be a teenager, be bored and want to escape (or at least be cool), ‘the kids are still standing with their arms folded tight’.
This may all sound very Springsteen-esque but musically The Suburbs showcases the band bears more in common with the likes of Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me or Sign ‘o’ the Times, it is a band experimenting with the type of music they can create. As such we get the synth-pop of ‘Sprawl II’, the Beck-impersonation of ‘Rococo’ and the proto-punk ‘Month of May’.
So this album is nothing like Funeral, it is not what you might describe as a suite, more a collection of different-sounding songs tied together by growing up. But undoubtedly it is the most impressive collection of popular songs released this year. So therefore it has to be our album of the year.
Janelle Monae’s debut album Metropolis: The Chase Suite was a concept album of Monae as female android #57821 in the year 2719, a story her sequel The Archandroid continues. As if such ideas aren’t ambitious enough the complex and stunning production on the songs are so out of this world that they manage not to get drowned out by such a strong narrative. Imagine the brain child of James Brown and David Bowie – wearing a tuxedo. Songs such as ‘Cold War’ are full of pathos but others such as ‘Tightrope’ are so danceable and toe-tappingly good that it’s no surprise some are hailing her as the modern pop star. Her quirkiness might not appeal to the lovers of X Factor and Now 66, but this album has such a range, swinging between R&B to ‘80s pop in such style and class, that one cannot help but be impressed by the scale of it all. It caters for a plethora of genres, so you are sure to love this album – or at the very least admire her fearless creativity.
Romance Is Boring
It’s sad but funny, like all the best novels are. There are so many stories in here; Gareth rarely follows anything through from the beginning to the end, but his writing’s all the better for it. Who needs to know how a story began when you can see how conclusively it ends? It’s a writing and rewriting of sadness, as sadness really is – mixed up with football, jokes, sex, not enough sex, and still, no matter how low you get, never wanting to kiss a tory. “BUT WHAT DID YOU EXPECT?” Gareth shouts, breaking down. It wasn’t this.
Greeted with few fanfares upon its unassuming arrival, the new LP from Deerhunter surely deserves to be held in the same esteem as the best of the high-profile releases this year. Even though it may not dominate the landscape quite so conspicuously as those other titans it packs a mightier punch, showcasing the band’s startling ability to inhabit the entire history of popular and alternative music whilst simultaneously forging an original sound. There are many early highlights, like the jangly guitar pop of ‘Revival’ that is quite a departure from the dense and murky music of Deerhunter’s past, but from track 6 onwards the songwriting is consistently exceptional. ‘Desire Lines’ and ‘Coronado’ are particularly superb, the former an epic trip into psychedelic territory culminating in an extended instrumental coda of swirling guitars, and the latter a prime cut of sweaty saxophone drenched blues. Most surprising is the diversity on offer that these songs illustrate. The album might best be described as a heady and addictive concoction brewed from disparate ingredients. Taking the illusory allure of the past as we choose to remember it as its lyrical subject and then tearing it to shreds, it stands as a timeless achievement that makes most of the contemporary music scene feel like a distant and half-forgotten memory. Arcade who? I’m sorry, I can’t quite recall…
The National have been working with a small but fiercely loyal fanbase for a while. Hopefully their latest masterpiece (which somehow surpasses even its critically acclaimed predecessors, Boxer and Alligator) will give the New York group the recognition they truly deserve. Everything about High Violet oozes quality, with the twinkling guitars, powerful drums, occasional soaring strings, and Matt Berninger’s haunting lyrics and baritone vocals combining to build on the dramatic and impressive sound the band are known for. Ranging in tone from the tragic romanticism of ‘Sorrow’ (its universal tale of a broken relationship summed up in the line ‘I don’t wanna get over you’, made all the more achingly sincere by Berninger’s heartfelt singing) to the orchestral climax of album highlight ‘England’, High Violet is that rare thing, a truly emotionally affecting record. Brooding without ever being angsty, sombre without ever being depressing, introspective without ever being dull and ultimately heart-warming without ever being sentimental, High Violet is a the sound of one of the world’s best bands at the top of their game. Don’t miss an album that will doubtless be one day hailed as an indie classic.
“I play a tyre” said percussionist Pete Flood, asked in an interview if there were any unusual instruments on the new record. The reason, he told the interviewer, was that a frying pan would have just been too loud for his ears (he learnt the hard way). The album that emerged back in October was their most diverse, flamboyant and fun record to date. Each song has a big, almost orchestral, arrangement that re-imagines traditional material into a miriad of genres and modes. ‘A-Beggin I Will Go’, an ideological dubious mock-advocation of begging as a profession, is given some dramatic violin flourishes and a bit of the theme tune from Shaft to become the anthem for some kind of beggar super-hero. Whilst the gentle folk-poem ‘Little Sally Racket’ becomes some kind of eighteenth-century ‘The Kids Aren’t Alright’, albeit with more free jazz breaks. Sing along with the choruses, dance along with the saxophone and get out the air violin for the most unusual and experimental record of 2010.
The fourth full-length album of Oceansize’s career is surely one of the finest of the year. Hard-hitting and contemporary, it combines the intricate craft of Effloresce with the power of Everyone Into Position, producing an incredibly diverse record. Opening with the sludgy ‘Part- Cardiac’ and later featuring the shrieks of Biffy Clyro vocalist Simon Neil, you might be forgiven for thinking that the album is the band’s heaviest yet. But hidden in the centre are gems such as ‘Oscar Acceptance Speech’, which showcase the skills of a band perfectly at home within the orchestral domain. Swirling guitars, thundering drums and sparkling vocals have kept the hordes of fans more than happy. Yet Self Preserved… sees Oceansize scaling back the ostentatious in favour of more streamlined, accessible material and the music produced is all the better. It’s certainly remarkable how little wasted space there is on an album so crammed full of ideas. Through its twists and turns, every track on the album, even those of distinctly contrasting noise levels, links together, providing that rare pleasure, the all-embracing album experience. To be experienced properly, Self Preserved… needs to be heard in full, from start to finish, omitting nothing in between.
Total Life Forever
2010 saw Math-Indie stars Foals produce a sophomore effort that showcased a more mature sound. On Total Life Forever the Oxford 5 piece demonstrate a love for songs with simmer into epic soundscape finales, as well as an ever increasing grasp for lush textures. Frontman Yannis steps away from the high pitched shouts of Antidotes, delivering instead smooth sung lines and an earnest falsetto which captures the tones of vulnerability and beauty that hold the album together thematically. The album contains songs such as ‘Spanish Sahara’, a slow burner that holds entire audiences entranced, be they listening in the confines of a room or a vast festival crowd, and ‘Blue Blood’, which blends traditional Foals math rock with bluesy falsetto harmonies and guitar licks. Most importantly, underneath Total Life Forever there boils an insatiable appetite for song writing and creation, demonstrated in the extended edition of the album which boasts over ten jam sessions from which elements of the songs were slowly created and selected. In a world of simplified pop, Total Life Forever is a defiant step against the grain, as Foals continue to demonstrate the experimental and emotive sound that has earned Britain’s adoration.
Heartland is a drastic departure in sound for Owen Pallett (the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy). His characteristic violin and string quartet textures are displaced by a rich orchestral and synth-based musical landscape: Heartland. This seems a fitting description for music which is so pictorial, albeit those pictures are dream-like and fragmented. Each piece is essentially dramatic; the monologues of “ultra-violent farmer” Lewis as he ponders the nature of his creator Owen: “the great white noise”. Whilst many of the lyrics are highly coded, they provide a suitable vehicle for Pallett’s increasingly experimental musical explorations. ‘The Great Elsewhere’ is a definite highlight: a repetitive synth riff is underscored by orchestral bass providing a surreal backdrop to an ambiguous encounter: “‘Don’t come any closer,’ he cried, ‘I am afraid of the man I’ll become if I lay my life down for a people that I don’t even care for.’” ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ employs a similar strategy of repetitive synth backdrop which allows for the emphasis of every minute orchestral detail and variation, whilst ‘E is for Estranged’, a distressed piano waltz accompanied by yearning violin harmonics, is arguably the most poignant moment of the record.
The Dissent of Man
Being in a band for 30 years can’t be easy, especially when it comes to writing a new record. Do you try to experiment at the risk of alienating your hard-won fans, or do you play safe and release one that sounds in much the same vein as previous ones? I mulled over this as I first listened to The Dissent Of Man, the new album from LA punk legends Bad Religion. The result is an album that plays safe, but not how you would expect. Rather than sound like a carbon copy of a previous record, The Dissent Of Man is laden with tracks harking to many different past albums. The first single, ‘The Devil In Stitches’, is very reminiscent of New America, while ‘Ad Hominem’ could have come straight from Recipe For Hate. In some ways, I suppose, that it quite fitting. For a band in their 30th year, an album that stands as a culmination of their career is not necessarily a bad way of celebrating.