Monday, December 31, 2007

A year of living dangerously

In January, the American arm of V2 restructured itself out of ongoing releases, telling the likes of the White Stripes, Raconteurs and Moby that their back catalogues were safe with them but they wouldn't be releasing any new material by anyone. In August, Universal Music Group bought V2 for an estimated £7m, a deal which also gave them the rights to the Co-Operative Music licensing organisation that acts as a global clearing house for many a respected UK indie. At least someone still has faith in the music industry.

While it's been an ongoing process for a few years now, The Death Of The Music Industry was sounded more than ever in 2007, and while clearance looks set to be removed from 2005's Sony-BMG merger in the European courts, which puts either's bid and counter-bid for Warners into doubt - look, nobody said it all had to be of cut-throat interest - most people can't wait for the run to the border that encapsulates the Camelot of a music industry where none of this matters, where everyone has a level playling field. People will tell you that that is happening now, but of course it isn't really - people will still love what they want to love (Leon Jackson sold those records because people liked his singing and his song, perhaps), but radio will still play what they think their ever tightening demographics want to hear, sellable bands on major labels will still get the all-round push and brand expansions, and the big boys will still bring everything to bear in their respective fields.

What's actually happened is said labels didn't notice until spotting how fast the world was now moving how important the Internet was becoming. Beyond the odd cursory page nobody spotted the connection between a switched-on audience and what a brand manager will refer to as their potential market until Napster brought the ring fence down and let the hoi polloi through. Wrong-footed, RIAA legal actions aimed for the wrong people and more importantly didn't quell anything, as the peer to peer traffic increased as the online audience increased. The infrastructure may now get the hard sell - although please note as few others will that downloads will not overtake CD sales of the same product for a while yet, or at least until a major label puts an affirmative toe in the water of a fully digitised future - but it didn't save anyone's profit margins. Inevitably, this meant the bands suffered, hence the great maxim of today, You Can't Earn Money From Record Sales Any More. (Something, incidentally, that with the poverty pleading of musicians, the profit warnings of the labels, the rearranging of the major chains (HMV's computer section taking over, Virgin becoming Zavvi) and slow downsizing of every other music stockist (Fopp going too fast too soon, Britain's oldest music shop Spillers' Records in Cardiff being rent priced out), appears to apply to everyone. Is all the money really in publishing these days, we wonder.) And you get the feeling they still don't get it, with the ongoing DRM issue and how every month a new 'revenue stream' idea takes hold that makes you want to go all Luddite on Universal. As Thurston Moore said when defending Sonic Youth's Starbucks/HearMusic-distributed compilation, they are now no more or less evil than a major.

Through such a gap slipped one band more aware of change and possibility than most, and hence in October Radiohead became the poster children for The Death Of The Music Industry. Ask them, which nobody thought to do for a while, and it turns out that it was motivated by something other than most of the theories about destruction from within that excitable onlookers had come up with during the ten days between revelation and release. The figures quoted by a major source have been doubted publicly by the band and their 'people' ("fucking shite" being Thom's exact words), and those must have been affected by the takeup when it became clear come the 10th that you really could put in £0.00 and get ten mp3s delivered to your inbox gratis, but clearly while the five were not wanting come Christmas when recording costs are gathered in they could probably have earned more from renewing with EMI. Indeed, a lot of their prognostications appear to have been based around the simple concept of getting the album out as soon as possible. Music all used to be like this. Mick Jagger completed the lyrics to (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction on May 5th 1965, finished recording it on May 12th and released it on May 27th in America, Britain only having to wait until July as Decca couldn't stop production on a stopgap live EP in time. Now, though, all bands have global markets to play by, which is why everyone initially expected a release around April 2008. Some interesting sidenotes emerged: Johnny Greenwood suggested that the 160kbps state of the mp3s were only meant to act as a preview to the proper released version. The band overruled their two managers (who came up with both the download and pay what you want details) and insisted on the standalone release. And so forth. Perhaps what this will really tell us in 2008, given acts ranging from the Smashing Pumpkins to the Crimea have found ways of letting their work go online, is how bands and managers want to approach all this now, whether blindly following this route, as much a reaction to circumstances as a bright star in the sky, or producing a seperate method of getting music heard earlier. On the very same day as the Radiohead announcement the Charlatans, doubtless under the aegis of their new manager Alan McGee, announced their album would be coming out on free download, then missed the point somewhat by declaring it'd be issued in March (and did you hear the single out in October? It was useless anyway, but just checking), and beyond that there's vague talk of the 'Ash abandoning albums' type that promises much but delivers little. Possibly just as much as all that, almost incidentally to most, it restored an album to the status of talking point, as bloggers and message board posters debated the pros and cons of the ten tracks at the same time without knowing that half of them had heard the leak two months earlier. At its core, it was about hearing the music after all that. Maybe that's what a smarting EMI and a too quick business press overlooked.

There were other revenue streams coming to the fore. Tubular Bells was given away free with the Mail on Sunday, Mike Oldfield showing how much EMI (them again) cared for their artistic employees by claiming he hadn't been informed this was going to happen. The newspaper countered that it had led to an upsurge in sales of the CD version, although who'd go and buy a second copy for money wasn't specified. Then they gave away a whole new album, Prince's Planet Earth, followed soon after by Ray Davies in the Sunday Times. Neither Prince nor Davies need to release another album in their lives, although the former's 21 nights at the O2, plus aftershows, was one of the year's genuine rare live events, but at least we remember who we are, even if Prince's legal team won't let you put anything about him online.

As a quick sidenote, where The Death Of The Music Industry does neatly dovetail with In Rainbows' progress is in the reason Ed O'Brien gave as to why they decided after talks not to go with EMI again: "EMI is in a state of flux. It's been taken over by somebody who's never owned a record company before, Guy Hands and Terra Firma, and they don't realise what they're dealing with. It was really sad to leave all the people (we'd worked with). But he wouldn't give us what we wanted. He didn't know what to offer us. Terra Firma don't understand the music industry." Of course, a private equity firm taking over the musical wing of EMI is a fair demonstration of how the industry is changing, Guy Hands already talking about cutting back on A&R and distribution and letting Myspace do all the work for them, essentially cutting the reason why a young artist would sign for EMI. Still, at least those signed are getting John Birt as essentially head of internal A&R and the promise of closer work with advertising executives. No wonder nobody talks about selling out any more.

Here's the thing from our perspective. Technology is not failsafe. iPods and hard drives crash. People, as the stubbornly refusing to die CD and vinyl markets prove, will always want physical product. Online you have more choice of purchase options than ever before, but sometimes it seems too facile. That's why they want you rather than your money, leading to Dante's circles of mailing list sign-up downloads and street teamers with clipboards at gigs, not to mention the wheedling in on "Facebook campaigns" and last.fmalikes. Something's got to give in the Myspace miasma or we'll all be sucked down.

Maybe this is why there was so much interest in reforming in 2007. We're always told that live is where the money is, but when a clodhopping band like Shed Seven, who nobody was really aware had split up, can sell out a reformation tour, on occasion even when upgrading the venue, you have to start wondering. What's in it for the Police, The Verve or Boyzone to get back together bar easy nostalgia points? The Here And Now tours of previous years seemed contrived, but at least everyone on them knew what was required of them and was still performing anyway, and it was more the cheap glitz than the performance, manifestly not the case when Wet Wet Wet, EMF and Dodgy are coming back around or Tim Booth and the rest of James are heading cap in hand back towards each other. It's all in aid of the great god Mammon, of course, but there has to be a limit as to how far it can be pushed. Even of the manifestly more intriguing tourers My Bloody Valentine never officially split up anyway and the Jesus And Mary Chain, quite apart from hardly being a reunion when it's the brothers who formed the band plus two new hired hands, were biorhythmically up and down for most of their time together anyway. The Sex Pistols - well, you expect that as much as you expect John Lydon to claim to love an artist you - ha! - wouldn't like him to expect while claiming nobody else was punk at all. Re-recording a song for Guitar Hero certainly isn't 'punk', by the parameters only Lydon believes in any more. Sly Stone even returned to the fold, although those that saw him at his two British engagements would doubt the validity of that statement.

Of the two big comebacks of the year, one had been touted virtually from the moment they split and the other nobody saw coming. Away from the media onslaught of their day, and with their name and imagery lasting longer than their records have on retro radio, the Spice Girls seem more the five horsewomen of the celebrity apocalypse, the first pop stars who wanted to become famous above all else. It makes perfect sense then that the only way forward was a "proper farewell" - yeah, right - enormodome stage show, some of which might allegedly be mimed and which features solo slots almost all of which are of covers and in Victoria's case doesn't so much as involve singing. Victoria was never the de facto leader of the band in their heyday, but all previewers referred to "Posh Spice and co" and reporters noted at the first O2 date that it was whenever she appeared on the big screens that the screaming intensified, despite, or maybe even because of, her famed inabilities. She is, you see, The Famous Victoria Posh Spice Beckham. The fact that despite getting the Children In Need hard sell Headlines limped to number 11 told its own story. Nobody wants the Spice Girls' music, just everything around it.

It's not really the same for Led Zeppelin. That Robert Plant's dates with Alison Krauss, following their successful Raising Sand collaboration, were greeted not with glee but with in some places actual anger that we were for the time being to be denied any full tour told much. Their own date was, at the end of the day, just for the Ahmet Ertegun memorial, yet most have taken the view, spurred on, it has to be said, by the odd Jimmy Page comment, that we're owed far more. Surely Led Zeppelin, of all bands, don't owe us anything extra, and certainly not people after the nostalgia buck.

And herein lies something else. As we've just mentioned, the default opinion is now that it's in the burgeoning live scene where all the interest is now, so that comparatively recorded output becomes a virtual loss leader. Well, maybe for London it is, but we know of many a metropolitan town and city, and live in one, where only an act of god sells out mid-range venues and sometimes, although we're aware this may be more the fault of the promoters, hardly brings anyone in. We saw a major-signed band with NME and MTV2 support at the end of 2006 locally and counted twenty attendees. And because live is now seen as the band's cash cow, prices have skyrocketed to an extent that were the same rate of inflation to take hold of house prices the Daily Express would have to publish standalone special editions daily. Even odder, nobody on the surface seems to care about £95 for the Police, or famously up to £1500 for Barbra Streisand (which sold out). Turin Brakes are coming round here in February with a door price of £17. £17 for a band whose last notable act was a surprise top ten album in 2005, more than Hot Chip or the NME awards tour are charging in the same month? This bubble cannot last, especially as developers are moving in on many a venue - in London alone the Hammersmith Palais, the Spitz, the Garage and the Proud Galleries all disappeared this year to redevelopment and another All Bar One, while the axe has been hanging over the comparatively huge Astoria since being bought by a property company in 2006. Festivals are already feeling the pinch, a combination of low ticket sales, the summer's wet weather and bandwagon jumping promoters causing a swathe of cancellations as corporately backed identikit two-dayers (Supergrass, the Rumble Strips and the Rakes, you say?) try to muscle in with their money and advertising potential ahead of those put together with care, atmosphere, ideas and a proper love of live music. Again, it has to stop somewhere.

So what of recorded music? Although it was flagged up as excitement and rejuvenation, the freed up download incorporated singles chart has led to a more debased singles market than ever. Nobody needed Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight in the top 30 for thirteen weeks on the back of the sort of advert that explains why advertising executives feel they have good reason to look that smug. It's becoming impossible to predict how one single will do from week to week. The two singles from the hardly little known James Blunt album peaked at 4 and 57. Hard-Fi followed 7 with 45, Maroon 5 2 with 33, Emma Bunton 3 with 60, Avril Lavigne 2-3-30. Gym Class Heroes started with a 3 and 5, then missed the top 75. Plain White T's and Hellogoodbye both missed the top 75 with the follow-ups to huge hits. Bon Jovi didn't just miss the top 40 for the first time since their 1985 debut single, they missed the top 100. Bjork missed the top 75 with a full scale single for the first time, with one of her most radio-friendly songs in years ahead of its parent album. The second single from Athlete's album crashed into the chart at, er, number 199. Even Take That weren't immune, with a chart run since their comeback of 1-1-17-2. Yet some artists - Mika, Girls Aloud, Sugababes, Timbaland, Rihanna, Mark Ronson - can hang onto single and album sales simultaneously. Even Cascada has had four top ten singles and two top 20 albums in the last eighteen months, and nobody knows anything about her. Or is it them? On the other hand, nobody saw the Pigeon Detectives coming, yet they can casually knock off a number 3 album and a row of top 20 singles, while makeweight pop-punks Koopa managed two top 40 singles by marshalling their localised troops, but who do you know who's heard any of their music? Don't forget we've got the Beatles coming next year.

Want further proof of how the chart rules have contrived to shoot the singles market in the foot? Two records, Umbrella and Bleeding Love, spent a combined total of 17 weeks on top, and yet how many people do you know above the age of 14 who know what they sound like? With precious few television opportunities - Popworld inevitably went under, their magazine offshoot folding for a second time - and the ever more carefully demographed nature of young people's media songs that would once have once taken over the land - Crazy managed it last year - now almost might not exist outside a name and chart placing. Umbrella - ten weeks atop, don't forget - sold a smidgen over 500,000 copies/mp3s. That's rotten.

And where has Leona Lewis come from, exactly? If Kylie is a blank canvas for producers to project their experiments onto, Leona is a plain white canvas table to store Mariah and Whitney records on, and this apparent gap in the market for a non-mad featureless R&B singer has led to 1.45m albums (only Back To Black has sold more) and 750,000+ Bleeding Love sales. It's ironic that as we were being routinely told that X Factor winners have fifteen minutes of fame and end up on cruise ships her and Shayne Ward were holding down positions one and two on the album chart. That's why, in the face of so much antipathy, Leon Jackson wiped the floor with the Christmas chart while whoever it was that won T4's Mobile Act Unsigned, a show for people who unironically use the term "real music" and one that blithely ignores everything up there about the pitfalls of major labels, isn't likely to receive much support outside.

There was something strangely familiar about the music scene's social life in 2007; in a year when post-Libertines guitar bands made like post-Oasis guitar bands in 1996-97 only with sales that almost matched their arrogant confidence, Britpop started replaying itself, presumably as tragedy rather than comedy this time. Peaches Geldof became the new Kate Moss, Noel Fielding the new Damien Hirst, the Hawley Arms the new Good Mixer, Amy Winehouse the new Robbie Williams. Amy Winehouse. What the hell are we going to do with her? In a year of cancellations, hospitalisations, drink, drugs, marriage, arrests, jail, the ever growing albatross contained in the words "no, no, no", the odd op-ed claiming that as consumers paying audiences had no right to expect a legitimate performance, the surprise rise to a certain kind of fame of cabbie Mitch Winehouse and Blake Fielder-Civil, a kind of Jonathan Wilkes with a Pete Doherty crombie and a pocketful of good gear, it seems Winehouse has taken the man-clinging lessons of the Shangri-Las records she talks about having constantly listened to as inspiration for Back To Black to a very modern heart, with a dose of stroppy self-regard. Unlike others, it's not even really the ever popular tortured artist effect, more existing traits amplified by hype - the post-Cullum 'nu-jazz' brigade seems to have come to a standstill by the departure from the scene of one of its leaders - leading to sales. Mind you, all this started early, the mid-range papers running stories throughout last summer, well before everything kicked off, about her weight loss and fitness regime at a time when surely barely anyone would remember what weight she was in the first place. Having temped as a news agency showbiz reporter in her teens, presumably she's across the techniques of blowing someone up into a household name and marketing said name as one with an edge, but she seems to have got carried away somewhat.

And of course she's now friends with Pete Doherty. We wouldn't expect anything less. Doherty's own story hit a kink in the road when he and Kate seperated, excited the specialist press alone with a one night only Carl Barat reunion in April, and then when he briefly or otherwise cleaned up, and found time to release his diaries like someone of great achievement's estate might think about, but depressingly, in this post-The Dirt world, people are still willing to fall for the rock'n'roll bad boy/tortured artist myth, Winehouse's 2006 released album outselling everything issued in 2007 and a great number of people willing to forgive Pete everything when it transpired Shotter's Nation was slightly more linear than most of his records. Rehab and its facilitations are not adding to the story, they're the result of biological imbalances and addictions. We're all grown-ups around here, we don't need to buy Back To Black just to spite Mitch and Janice when they tell 5 Live listeners not to buy it as such direct action might slow their daughter's income streams (although you can't make money from records any more, remember) Amy Winehouse is not Janis Joplin or Billie Holliday and the world would thank you not to try equating them.

And while we're about it, let's complete the triumverate of 2007 waywardness that formed despite Charlotte Church's domesticated absence, albeit this time with an overriding sense not of The Bad Girl Of Pop but of actual pity. Tellingly, while one tabloid reported on 1st January that Doherty and Moss had married (they hadn't), another carried a story of Britney Spears being carried from a club. It was when she went into rehab, came out of rehab and got scalped within 48 hours that what the pits of showbiz despair actually looks like was demonstrated, and with sundry stories of playing around and the fabled MTV Awards performance throwing a police cordon around Blackout, the first evidence in three years that she was still a recording artist, the hits just kept on coming. With all three, there's a very modern issue - what is the exit strategy from this point in their respective lives and careers? Clearly none of them, despite the hyperbole, is going to die, but clearly as popular and high profile professional performers the spotlight is not going to quickly leave them. Someone has a duty of care, and in 2008 we might even work out who it is.

With such sideshows well beyond Victoria Newton's understanding of showbiz caners, the other usual favourites only sporadically pulled their weight. Robbie Williams went into rehab for prescription drug addiction but nobody really cared by this stage. Madonna's LiveNation deal might in the long run have more impact on the way major stars deal with their business than Radiohead could ever imagine, but it's not the sort of thing that shifts tabloids. Lily Allen busied herself with the usual facile feuds, drinks, weight issues and all sorts, now adding television, pregnancy and a range for New Look she says tipped her hand due to - ta-dah! - the income from her record sales not being as much as expected. Still nobody outside the tabloids refers to Lady Mucca, and Heather's probably outside music's jurisdiction now anyway. Brave Kylie recovered and went back to being a dead end. With the minted range of pop now either looking back or repeating itself, it turned out indie, or at least what many think that broad term involves, is the new celebrity breeding ground. Celebrity Big Brother thankfully failed to make an anti-star out of Donny Tourette, lost in the Jo O'Meara-starring coven of racialism, and Preston's Never Mind The Buzzcocks walkout was the end of his time in the spotlight as he then walked out of Now! magazine marriage and, it's rumoured, label and band. Just again to prove there's nothing so likely to pull punters as a comeback, though, back came Cerys Matthews, whose Met Bar licentiousness and FHM cover took up a decent portion of what took down the post-Britpop scene to begin with, into her own unsuitable showbiz bunk-up, for which she moved a tour to February perhaps knowing that the focus on her by then would be very different. Nobody wanted Cerys to be like this, but it's not as if she wouldn't have known, and more to the point we couldn't have seen it coming... unlike Beth Ditto. Incredibly in retrospect, Winehouse aside the most talked about female singer in the UK red-tops this summer was a Calvin Johnson/Kill Rock Stars associate, albeit one reduced to a fat/lesbian/Deep South/exhibitionist/soul/ate squirrels caricature, nobody caring about the political message of Standing In The Way Of Control as much as the "watch Skins" one. The famous naked NME cover in May has allowed the magazine to claim against all evidence that they're still edgy and alternative, someone who is not "conventionally attractive" which just reinforces the idea that there is conventional attractiveness. Unfortunately, it then became apparent that once caught in the spotlight of the wider showbiz world Ditto didn't have a lot to say about the only issue people wanted her to talk about, size zero, which she was held up as a role model in the alleged fight against presumably as there is nothing between her weight and Nicole Ritchie's (was Beth designing for Top Shop or not?), so ended up attempting to be "surprising" in her quotes in the Johnny Rotten sense and ended up railroaded into a Guardian "homespun advice" columnist and Friday Night Project host (quoting Oh Bondage Up Yours!) - god knows what the post-pub audience made of that. Before long Ditto had been filed as "annoying egotist" and left alone by the masses. We can't wait for the interviews around their next album, possibly to be released in 2008, to see what she made of it all herself.

As for the rest of the once-alternative community, the post-Libertines effect still took hold, labels now seemingly trying to quality undercut each other in the race for quick and easy Radio 1 playlisting. Thought the Fratellis were as low as they could get? Try The View. That not enough for you? Here are The Enemy. And then the Pigeon Detectives. And so through to the Courteeners. All new acts have to go through a period of manufactured "word of mouth", to the extent that at the moment, on seeing a 2008 preview piece, you can take bets on whether it'll major on Duffy or Adele. They're not going to fail like tips for the top often used to, because too much has been put into them at ground level already. In 2008 a lot of those guitar bands will be planning or releasing second albums, and then we'll see if it can stand or fall when the stabilisers are removed. Many got excited about the Underage scene, because of course teenagers have never made music before in Britain. Eventually a band of youngsters will emerge whose music is urgent, exciting and - important, this - not completely in thrall to the trend of two years earlier, but like them all the current roundel doesn't seem set up to deliver it. Just before Control opened to exalting reviews Tony Wilson, a man who much as he liked a good publicity idea left much to chance, passed on and is greatly missed, while his former mortal enemy Morrissey also returned back to an old theme when embroiled in a row with the NME over his immigration stance - that's Morrissey, a man who often glorifies the Mexican communities in America, claiming Britain's soul had been eradicated by foreigners - both sides trying to make clear that the other wasn't the worst case scenario acted out amid claim and counter-claim of editorial interference and Tim Jonze managing to gain and lose a lot of respect within 48 hours while everyone else piled in regardless. It can never be 'just like old times', not when what in 1992 was a little localised difficulty is now played out on websites and news wires.

And music kept replaying itself. Were we too cynical for Live Earth? The crowd reaction to Spinal Tap, a knowledge that seemed to extend to having heard the name before, suggests the people gathered at Wembley for the spectacle rather than the message. The Diana gig a week earlier got greater viewing figures, but five months on nobody really harks back to either as great uberevents. After Live Aid the big event gigs burnt themselves out through overuse quickly as well. Mika was the big star the MOR revival wanted, and even before 2007 was out the Hoosiers - enough of the advert! - and Scouting For Girls were signed to help corner the cloying piano pop market. Keith Richards added to his stockpile of quotable personal apocryphals. Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was savaged for its fortieth anniversary by a set of bands doing covers as if their lives depended on it, with sad results. LDN Is A Victim was the most talked about bootleg of the year even though it had no resonance beyond about thirty people at Nambucca and turned out to be an inside job anyway, while Kate Nash, much maligned for her own semi-Mockney vowels despite coming from the same town as Ian Dury, took on unofficial New Lily honours by crossbreeding with Regina Spektor, of all people. Mark Ronson took his one idea of adding some Motown brass as far as it could reach. Nu-rave encompassed everyone with a laptop by April and took Klaxons to a highly dignified Mercury acceptance speech that the NME never shut up about the depravity thereof as if it were something to be proud of. Patrick Wolf was never going to become a pop star no matter what he tried. XFM dropped their DJs and in doing so any semblance of being a force for alternative good. Alan McGee claimed everything was changing. Again. Viral campaigns failed time after time. The Zimmers - that didn't work. God Save The Queen - that didn't work either. Malcolm Middleton - soz. New formats arrived to a welter of indifference - USB sticks, vinyl CD, CD-VU, MVI. Paul Potts - what the fuck was he? Hard-Fi failed to kill off the album cover, largely because they'd done so by means of a properly designed album cover. The Zune became the biggest selling mp3 player nobody really cares about. The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones upset bloggers with a "white indie" piece which was really only "indie not like heavy rock" with an eyecatching race angle. Girls Aloud's Nicola Roberts declared herself a Tory, probably too young in fairness to know that it's still not the done thing in polite pop society. OiNK was shut down, which stemmed the flow of advance leaks. For about two months.

You know what we were saying back there about how we know the big breakout stars of 2008 already? There's a horrible sense of tightening cyclical history that's occurred to us while we've been writing this. Amy, Pete, Britney, labels caught out by technology, gimmickry, festival overkill, the thrall of the live, reality TV stars, event management... these were all big issues in 2006, some in 2005, and doubtless they'll only expand in 2008. Back here next New Year's Eve for more of the same thoughts, then?

Kevin Greening

Can't proceed before mentioning the great Kevin Greening, who died overnight at the terrible age of 44. It's remarkable that Radio 1 just didn't know what to do with him - to the extent that he managed to get registered for his use - after the success of his superb weekend breakfast show of 1994-96, endlessly funny and inventive, alongside Andrew McGibbon's creations Eric The Gardener, Raymond Sinclair and Creighton Wheeler, and it's a shame his obits will lead on his months on the breakfast show with Zoe Ball followed this decade by seven years of nomadic broadcasting across the London airwaves. Here's some clips, and here's some more.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 1

Two things about the booklet that accompanies The Stage Names: the lyrics to each song are written out as prose, and it starts with a quote from the short story by Russian author Tatyana Tolstaya that gave the band its name. The quote sees the progenitor consider the downfall of a latterly obscure singer he is obsessed with, which in the story turns into a treatise into the difference between art and its artist. Okkervil River leader Will Sheff, a sometime writer and journalist himself, has always written to a literate theme with a storytelling bent, the band's previous album being based on the characters and situations in Tim Hardin's song Black Sheep Boy, from which it took its name, and this album's umbrella issue revolves around much the same set of circumstances - the differences and contradictions between private lives and public faces and facades, people in the margins or in denial as to their actual current worth. Sheff's lyrics have always been symbolically poetic and gratifyingly involving, and this theme has brought the best out of him, approaching it with renewed vigour using case studies, pop culture references and thoughts presumably picked up in this showbiz life. Without the backing it'd be mere overwrought intelligensia, but the rest of the band have similarly picked up their game, sounding more upbeat, free thinking and playful than ever. Maybe it's the influence of the post-Funeral new anthemry, but there's something quite joyful about the album's sound even when it's plunging the depths of human interaction. It's almost like a continual soundtrack to an imaginary Short Cuts-style portmanteau film, focusing on characters suffering their own slings and arrows.

And indeed, the opening words are "it's just a bad movie, where there's no crying". Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe sets the album's stall out admirably, a confessional, articulate and vocally committed piece examining the on/offstage disparity aware that he's under no illusion that this is the be-all and end-all, the subject acting like he's the big star in a film but "it’s just a life story, so there’s no climax/No more new territory, so pull away the IMAX", but there's no fimlic twist or happy ending because "a pro at his editing suite takes two weeks stitching up some bad movie". The band, six others on this album including longtime associate and Shearwater leader Jonathan Meiburg, respond in kind with enormous piano-driven dynamics, rocking out more than previous records like Spector producing Arcade Fire, complete with "woo-woo" backing vocals. Unless It's Kicks is driven by a big repetitive riffs around which builds an electric folkie's lament to how music takes the listener over ("what picks you up from down unless it's tricks") - pretty easy on this account by this stage - and how to lay your image of the artist on top of the actuality. It's meta-songwriting that could go and has gone horribly wrong in lesser hands, but Sheff is too aware and too far round the block in a touring, underselling heartfelt rock band to believe any less, and as he says, "What breaks this heart the most is the ghost of some rock and roll fan/Floating up from the stands With her heart opened up/And I want to tell her your love isn't lost". A Hand To Take A Hold Of The Scene mentions camera close-ups and "as he speaks his last line a thought falls from his mind and I pick it up right through the TV", again life as supposedly lived in public, over a Motown bassline, Spoon shuffle and horn part. We abruptly shift gear and focus on the fully sketched realisations of Savannah Smiles, which you couldn't indie dance to if you tried but has a open hearted delicacy that makes it seem of a piece with what surrounds it, about a father realising his daughter has grown up and away out of his control. (Sheff has revealed it's about the porn actress Savannah, who committed suicide due to depression, failed relationships and a car crash causing facial injuries.) Plus Ones uses the language of rock both in the title and in references to 97th tears, nine miles high, the hundredth luftballoon, the 51st way to leave your love, "the fourth time you were a lady" and so forth. Again, this could be too clever-clever pop culture aligning, but really it's mere decoration to illustrate emotional collapse. A Girl In Port has no such sideline, merely an extended sailor metaphor and an understanding directness, soulfulness and elegance that stays just this side of MOR, probably the closest the album comes to their preceding albums' sound, as Sheff picks over those loved and left behind. Then it's back in the van for You Can't Hold THe Hand Of A Rock And Roll Man, but this band are washed up, drugged out and being told by a jaded fan/groupie that "I'm done with looking back/And you look your age/Which is 37, by the way, and not 28...our silver screen affair/It weighs less to me than air", meeting it head-on with a refashioned rock riff 101. Title Track is the breakdown ensuing, Neil Young metaphysical heartsearching that thinks about becoming an epic and at the last minute decides against it after all.

It's final track John Allyn Smith Sails, although not an epic either, that really brings the ship home. John Allyn Smith was the real name of John Berryman, a major 20th century American poet whose depression led him to jump off a bridge in Minneapolis in 1972. (Coincidentally, the Hold Steady's Stuck Between Stations is about the same subject.) Sheff's reading being that Berryman became the adult he never wanted to be, and when the song turns into a cathartic quoting of Sloop John B it's like a death march. Here, then, is reality intruding on a songwriter's fiction, a set of cinematic images that don't, as a more famous band once put it, urge you not to put your life in the hands of a rock'n'roll band but go some way towards encouraging it, as long as you realise that it's not all powder and greasepaint. It's an album that starts with a huge emotional punch and only reveals its lyrical density and mystery further with every listen, self-doubting and rhetorically down but coated with a lust for life that's more literal than, for once, musically metaphorical. Someone inform Robert Altman, we might just have him his next portmanteau project in simulacrum here.

LISTEN ON: A Hand To Take Hold Of The Scene
WATCH ON: Our Life Is Not A Movie Or Maybe

The full list, with links to each post

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 2

Those Christian groups were right about the last Harry Potter

It may sound like damning with faint praise to say that Future Of The Left, comprising two-thirds of McLusky, are at their best equal to the superior moments of McLusky. Here, however, the cheap and easy comparative rings true; McLusky are often described as one of Britain's best rock bands of the early part of this decade, but we'd contend that they are in fact one of the best of anything ever from anywhere, and in that we include all feats and achivements of human history. They were a trio to believe in, wrenching out jagged basslines, alarm call guitars and on top of all that Andy Falkous' famously scabrous, dark comedic lines. In fact, Falkous said on a Too Pure podcast to promote this album that he often felt McLusky had been railroaded down 'comedy band' critical lines because of the borderline preposterousness of his lyrics. He was worrying about nothing, of course, the precise reason people still form bands in their image (and a big hello to Untitled Musical Project) is because they started songs "All of your friends are cunts/Your mother is a ballpoint pen thief" and sounded like they meant it. So while it's evolution rather than revolution, there's far more than enough evolution to go round in Curses. Compromise is still not high on the agenda. Brilliance, given Falco's still got pen to hand, quite evidently is.

See, when Falkous' clipped guitar meets the dirty floorboard vibrating distorted bass of Kelson Mathias, himself a refugee from cult but underselling Cardiff electronically enabled punk-funk post-hardcoreites Jarcrew and joining in on many an off-harmony here, and the hammering drums of McLuskite Jack Egglestone on The Lord Hates A Coward, pummelling and stop-starting as Falkous declares "violence solves everything", while it could have been an easy highlight of last McLusky album The Difference Between Me And You Is That I'm Not On Fire, but at the same time it doesn't seem like anyone involved is trying to latch on to previous glories. Their usual American underground rock influences are still to the fore - the car crash dynamics of prime early Pixies, Big Black's all-encompassing misanthropy, the Minutemen's way of stripping away all extraneous detail in favour of the molten core, the spike-tipped walls closing in that formed Fugazi anti-melodies and assorted other luminaries, from the Meat Puppets sludgecore of Fuck The Countryside Alliance to the Melvins-throttling Plague Of Onces ("why put the body where the body don't want to go"). Then Manchasm starts, and wait... is that a synth pattern? Yes it is, it just sounds like Falkous is playing it in much the same way as he plays guitar, directness over pretty spiralling patterns. It also helps that the song is brilliant, hooking its first verse on the repeated assertion that "Mark Foley was right" (a namecheck for the Cardiff studio owner rather than the disgraced Congressman, although you wouldn't put the latter past them) with a chorus consisting of a repeated "audience please, every minute matters", a middle eight of "all he ever wanted was a detonator (and not 'perineum' as we thought for quite a while, which would have been excellent) before ending on a vocal roundel of "Colin is a pussy, a very pretty pussy(cat)". Frankly, we could have hit our word limit just quoting key lyrics - "better bovine than equine" (My Gymnastic Past), "46 seconds in your company or 94 years in a frozen wasteland" (Real Men Hunt In Packs), yet another great Falco opening verse for the ages contender in Wrigley Scott - "Woody was a wizard/Janie was an elf/And when they got together, they only ate sausage" Pause. "SAUSAGE ON A STICK!" - but that'd be half the story. Suddenly It's A Folk Song might have been a melodic pop song once before it got brutally hacked into with guitar chainsaws, Small Bones Small Bodies has a funky bassline being continually run over, and Adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood cribs a vocal intro from Rawhide, a song structure from primality and a workable lyric from "there are no bold statements in my paradiddle". Closing track The Contrarian sees Falkous croon softly over a repetitive piano. You heard. You know, we try and be smart and literate in these end of year writeups, but when we don't feel like thinking too hard this has been the album we've put on every time, this set of twisted clarion calls that instantly make virtually all music that dares to call itself alt-rock redundant.

LISTEN ON: Manchasm
WATCH ON: Adeadenemyalwayssmellsgood


My favourite album of 2007 is...

Dave Martin, iLiKETRAiNS: "the new PJ Harvey record. An honorable mention should also go to Beirut, for up until a couple of weeks ago this would have got it. Pipped at the post..."

Friday, December 28, 2007

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 3

Three of them, in fact

The Lord Mayor's parade went that way. No, Neon Bible is no Funeral, but then few things are or are ever likely to be, because you can only redefine the whole direction of American alternative a finite number of times. Then there were all the sidebar issues - the first, and perhaps still only, band to become globally huge having started as genuine mp3 blog hypes, the web of mystique spun around them, the landmark London gigs at the start of the year with additional playing in the crowd and the Porchester Hall atrium, the sheer overwhelmingness - that serve to pump up the image of a band to believe in, that this is no Red Hot Chili Peppers. They're also so completely a band to lose yourself in that it was no wonder Neon Bible was universally adored on release - going back to it ten months later, trying to put their new arena status out of mind, barely dims initial impressions that Win, Regine and co still feel they have plenty to mine and plenty of ground to make up. Neon Bible, essentially, is Funeral given a big budget, less personally specific makeover, albeit one more concerned with the end of days rather than just sounding like it, the power restored and snow melted to find the world in an uncertain place, and it's something they relish.

The trick is, while the sound becomes more arena-friendly its component parts are becoming more ominous and ostentatious. Out of the blocks Black Mirror comes on like its own tsunami, eddying strings and forceful guitars framing Win Butler's urgent tale of how the titular reflector "cares not about your dreams, cares not for your pyramid schemes". Keep The Car Running runs on the confidence inherent in building massive arenascopes on a mandolin, an upbeat tune that's downbeat about "a weight that's pressing down" on the world, a nameless, possibly religiously based, fear that stays afloat on the old trick of everyone in the band just trying, all on frontal assault mode. The title track lets up a bit, sounding like an intimate My Morning Jacket with strings (again arranged throughout by Owen 'Final Fantasy' Pallett) before the even more conspicuous Intervention, wherein an actual church organ looms over the realisation of doom, "working for the church while my family dies" as it sounds like the very weight of the words has started holding the song down. Black Wave/Bad Vibrations sounds at first drafted in from an entirely other album, Regine dreaming of escape, possibly in succession to Funeral's Haiti, over something that sounds not unlike Power, Corruption & Lies-era New Order before turning abruptly into a Valhalla stomp with music referencing said black waves, here used as metaphor for how both singers are escaping, with judicious sound effects turning into Ocean Of Noise, which comes within touching distance of Pixies' Ana, a Carribbean blues song about falling out with someone or something until Win reassures "it's time to work it out" upon the entrance of New Orleans/surf horns. And if The Well And The Lighthouse is the closest Neon Bible gets to Funeral's overhanging Talking Heads influence, with more than a touch of that New Order sound again, (Antichrist Television Blues) is the closest to more recent influence Bruce Springsteen, a forceful road movie of blue collar poetry in which a God-fearing man, seeing a world in which "the planes keep crashing always two by two", dreams of his daughter getting out of the dangerous real world and making it on the stage and being willing to do whatever He wants him to do to facilitate his dreams for her, nearly destroying himself in the process (an alternate title was 'Joe Simpson', after the ex-preacher father of Jessica and Ashlee). The closest to a Wake Up-style people's fist-aloft anthem? That'll be No Cars Go, dragged out from their 2003 debut EP and given a MGM makeover of semi-colossality, all in the bassoon and the "women and children, let's go!". How to close such end-of-days sermonising? My Body Is A Cage, on which the pipe organ reappears for something that leans towards The Bends territory, full of bombastic melodrama, especially the cathartic "set my spirit free" coda, a spiritual from the end of the world. It may be pitched into the existential darkness, but from such fear the world's most elliptical, spectacular band have conjured a real death disco.

WATCH ON: (Antichrist Television Blues) (live)

My favourite album of 2007 is...

Frank Turner: Jamie T - Panic Prevention

Simon Aurell, Fanfarlo: Grinderman - Grinderman

Sweeping The Nation Singles Of 2007: Numbers 50-1

Numbers 100-51

50 Battles - Tonto [YouTube]
49 Electric Soft Parade - If That's The Case Then I Don't Know [YouTube]
48 Jamie T - Sheila [YouTube]
47 Scout Niblett - Kiss [YouTube]
46 Wake The President - Remember Fun? [Myspace]
45 Les Savy Fav - What Would Wolves Do? [Myspace]
44 Decemberists - O Valencia [YouTube]
43 Sky Larkin - One Of Two [YouTube]
42 LCD Soundsystem - Someone Great [YouTube]
41 Liars - Plaster Casts Of Everything [YouTube]
40 Bonde Do Role - Solta O Frango [YouTube]
39 The Long Blondes - Giddy Stratospheres [YouTube]
38 M Ward - To Go Home [live YouTube]
37 Arcade Fire - Intervention [fan YouTube]
36 Emma Pollock - Acid Test [YouTube]
35 Example - You Can't Rap [YouTube]
34 Friends Of The Bride - So... You Think You Can Dance? [YouTube]
33 Arcade Fire - Keep The Car Running [live YouTube]
32 Emma Pollock - Paper And Glue [YouTube]
31 Feist - My Moon My Man [YouTube]
30 Clinic - If You Could Read Your Mind [YouTube]
29 Los Campesinos! - You Throw Parties, We Throw Knives [YouTube]
28 GoodBooks - Passchendaele [YouTube]
27 Lucky Soul - Lips Are Unhappy [YouTube]
26 Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit - Tickle Me Pink [YouTube]
25 Grinderman - No Pussy Blues [YouTube]
24 XX Teens - Darlin' [YouTube]
23 Grizzly Bear - Knife [YouTube]
22 Au Revoir Simone - Fallen Snow [YouTube]
21 Blood Red Shoes - It's Getting Boring By The Sea [YouTube]
20 Cajun Dance Party - The Next Untouchable [YouTube]
19 Johnny Flynn & the Sussex Wit - Eyeless In Holloway [YouTube]
18 The Go! Team - Doing It Right [YouTube]
17 Camera Obscura - If Looks Could Kill [YouTube]
16 Bat For Lashes - What's A Girl To Do? [YouTube]
15 The Decemberists - The Perfect Crime #2 [Myspace]
14 Future Of The Left - Fingers Become Thumbs! [go and buy the album, heathens]
13 Los Campesinos! - The International Tweexcore Underground [YouTube]
12 Peter Bjorn & John - Young Folks [YouTube]
11 Field Music - A House Is Not A Home [YouTube]
10 Those Dancing Days - Those Dancing Days [YouTube]
9 White Stripes - Icky Thump [YouTube]
8 Lucky Soul - Ain't Never Been Cool [live YouTube]
7 Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip - Thou Shalt Always Kill [YouTube]
6 CSS - Let's Make Love And Listen To Death From Above [YouTube]
5 Foals - Hummer [YouTube]
4 LCD Soundsystem - All My Friends [YouTube]
3 Arcade Fire - No Cars Go [live YouTube]
2 Los Campesinos! - You! Me! Dancing! [YouTube]
1 Battles - Atlas [YouTube]

Well, there's a shock, eh. Not being musically trained ourselves we're always impressed by Things We'd Never Be Able To Pull Off, Even With Tuition, and here in the late 2000s it seemed unlikely that anything purely new could be invented. Not that Atlas is entirely new ideas, of course, but the microscopic patchwork of influences heralded together and that you could still enjoy and dance to the avant-garde radio to it makes it completely unique if you ask us. In truth, any one of the top four would have conclusively won in most years, and our long-held LC! love nearly won out. In preparing this we had a listen to the demo version we heard and erroneously annotated last July (Les Incompetents?!) and was struck by how, apart from being able to hear Gareth's fabled closing monologue clearly, it all sounds very underpowered and far less attention grabbing. Excellent work, Dave Newfeld. Obviously we're counting down the days to Hold On Now, Youngster... as this phase of fanboyism's culmination. The rest of the supporting cast's no small fry either: Those Dancing Days is the third best track on their Scandinavian EP, Thou Shalt Always Kill seems to have drifted away from the conscious for most but a revisit reveals it to have retained its scene sideswipe excellence, while Let's Make Love... seems to improve with age. Some other notes: Bat For Lashes vied with Thirty Pounds Of Bone as the makers of the album we most regretted latching onto a year late, Cajun Dance Party and Example clearly aren't going to make anything half as good again but that's half the fun of singles, Grizzly Bear put on the best gig we saw in 2007 even if we were forced to miss the end of their set, and having been slightly dismissive of the Long Blondes before it was a judiciously placed track on our Generic Model Of MP3 Player while out one night early in the year that finally made Giddy Stratospheres click for us about two years after everybody else saw the light. So, there you go.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Albarn building

The idea of new year guest Today programme editors is that you learn something new about them, and Damon Albarn's stint in the chair this morning provided just such to an extent. Admittedly commissioning a piece on "Mali's refreshing approach to recycling" almost sounds like something someone taking the piss out of Albarn's worldliness would come up with, but elsewhere, who knew he'd be into table tennis? Albarn joined our premiere ping-pong progenitors training for the Olympics, while elsewhere newly appointed Lib Dem advisor Brian Eno put forward the case for nuclear disarmament, The Good The Bad And The Queen collaborator Eslam Jawaad talks to refugee Iraqi musicians, Albarn's manager Chris Morrison charts the music industry and thought for the day is provided by John Cooper Clarke.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 4

The media can go on all it wants about its 'real life' standard bearers for home produced pop, ignoring that both Lily and Kate recorded their albums in top class studios with experienced producers and major label backing. The best visions of solo artistry are those that take pop's tropes down their own lo-fi corridors, fitting as many ideas as possible in before the very fundament of their song gets compromised, and the very top of the pile was estalished as his own lebensraum this year by Wakefield's James Mabbett and his back room full of scrappy guitars, car boot keyboards and glitch-set software. In Debt To sounds at first like a DIY textural noisesmith taking perfectly good songs off course, then a home brew psychedelia, then a second cousin to the flexibly defined folktronica subsection, and eventually you give up wondering where it fits in and let its myriad charms wash over you, of course because it doesn't comfortably fit in anywhere.

Ushered in by the growing waves of atmospheric noise of Introduction To A, This Is My Call To Arms starts as strident post-Britpop before managing a false ending 26 seconds in, holding off a further six before sampled 70s regional TV ident horns launches it back into, well, veering all over the place yet still sounding like a coherent whole among the electronic Flaming Lips-esque collages of beats amid protesting lyrics climaxing in the demand "don't live your life through the TV". Defibrillator ("please don't rob me, all I have are these songs") cuts its own acoustic guitar and mad drum machine up in a Warp Records fashion, cutting itself off seemingly randomly and surging off in post-electro post-punk directions as Mabbett regrets "I love this city but I won't walk home at night". Bubbling synths and two different vocal tracks herald The Conformist Takes It All before it turns into an unlikely singalong, not least as the key choral lyric is "listen to what I say/Average is not the best you can do". It's virtually a slogan for the whole concept, already staking a pitch between Add N To (X) and the Beta Band in its scope. Guys In Bands is right out of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop's darkest recesses, if Delia Derbyshire gave house room to jaunty acousticity reminiscent of Elephant 6 wired to the national grid, and ends with pleasing Clangers noises. Anti Patria resembles an overdriven Animal Collective, opening "in life I’m excited by the things I don’t understand" and bringing in subtle colliery brass band mixed in with the buzzing keyboards, while the shifting, texturally varispeeding Hit Schmooze For Me balances on another fist-aloft slogan - "this is not my life, it's just my day job, the way I pay the rent" - amid glitches, trumpet fanfares and what can only be called an anthem for disaffection unlike any of the screeds of 'anthemic' bands around at the moment. Just about the last thing you'd expect now is a straightforward love song, yet he manages that as well in the heartaching Kate's Song, the track that properly starts the supposed second side, in general less dynamically driven but no less effective or inventively layered. Jens Lekman could strip back What We Have Here Is Ending for his own, if he didn't mind the socio-politicising. The Casual Terrorist Vs The International Board Of Wishing matches electronic Conor Oberst to pastoral Gruff Rhys, while closer One Song Before Bed To Three Four is virtually a power ballad in these surroundings. The most enthralling thing about such a packed but streamlined album is that it's one of those rare collections where you discover something new and exciting with every listen, such is Mabbett's vision with layering everything just so while still making it sound almost thrown together, retaining a classic melodic sense even as he sets about merrily ripping it several new holes. A spectacularly forward-thinking album, you'd wonder whether any of his solo competition could possibly hang on in there.

LISTEN ON: This Is My Call To Arms
WATCH ON: Hit Schmooze For Me


My favourite album of 2007 is...

Pagan Wanderer Lu: "I can't decide between LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver, Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna Are You The Destroyer? and Napoleon IIIrd - In Debt To"

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 5

The most complex music shop window ever

Battles' press doesn't do them that many favours to the curious newcomer. You could easily be put off before you've heard a note by talk of avant-jazz influences, mutated rhythms, dehumanised interplay, complex electronics and unique styles of play, chiefly Ian Williams' method of doing complex guitar tapping with one hand and playing keyboard licks with the other. And, yes, prog. Which is why actually sitting down with Mirrored brings about an odd sense of thinking you've been purposefully misled all these four years or so from their first EP. While the coagulation of influences - Tyondai Braxton an experimental solo artist and son of influential avant-jazzist Anthony, Williams formerly of mathrock pioneers Don Caballero, Dave Konopka of little regarded mathrockers Lynx, John Stanier of post-hardcore standouts Helmet - might suggest a noodling, arrythmic mess, what Mirrored does you could almost - almost - call fun. Indeed, it's the formulation of a style nobody else, Don Cab included, have ever really managed before, and you don't get to say that straight up very often in 2007.

It's just hard to describe in capsule form, that's all, but that's what we're here for so let's give it a go. As clockwork tom toms and snares, all played by the surely inhuman Stanier, and possibly electronic arpeggios are joined by synthetic Seven Dwarves whistling in an entirely different beat on Race In there's already something afoot as supercharged loops are joined by skitering guitars and jet car bass, the effect almost like Philip Glass minimalism in its panorama. Plus jingle bells. All this is however mere warmup for the frankly incredible Atlas, coming on with a double time glam rock beat (actually inspired by the German techno trend schaffel, which its Wikipedia page lets on is directly inspired by T-Rex and the Glitter Band anyway), laced with bass pedal and grumbling synths before Braxton starts singing. Pitchshifted well above human range, of course, but nobody buys Battles records for their lyrical insight. Then, just as the dancefloor tenatively fills, it abruptly breaks down to its component parts, the robot army advancing on pulsing bass-heavy rhythms and playful skitterings around the outside. Hearing the four play off and with each other simultaneously and achieve a few moments of interlocking unity before the vocal re-enters is genuinely thrilling, and even then they find room for an acapella moment and a gradual breakdown. Ddiamondd, even in direct comparison, is just mad, moving at Bugatti Veyron speeds over Braxton vocal cutups and warp speed fuzzy rhythms. Tonto's multi-part ever tightening circular riffs are built on stratospheric Williams guitars, tribal group chants stolen from Animal Collective at their most shamanistic and a gradual slowdown coda that lasts more than two and a half minutes. Leyendecker, conversely, could be a particularly out there Timbaland joint, reminiscent of sometime collaborator of a couple of the band Prefuse 73. No wonder Rainbow goes mad, half the band seemingly challenging the other half to play faster and more intensely, bar the odd avant-garde Looney Tunes break, before exploding five and a half minutes in with overdriven everything. Then it climaxes with quarter-speed Black Sabbath. Bad Trails has to give the album time to cool off after that, its slow burn recalling Warp labelmates Boards Of Canada with rooster-tailing guitar trails. It never quite reaches the heights again until closing Race Out builds on waves of thunderous tom-toms over what sounds like but probably isn't actually backwards loops until parts of Race In emerge for the last minute and makes the listener realise that it's all just thematic after all, but by then, if you'll pardon the wording, the battle's won anyway. Clearly much of this would leave the average record buyer running screaming, but put the mental work in and it becomes music that maps its own path forward, taking a few lessons from what's gone before and transposing them onto a futurist framework. And you can listen to it without your brain exploding.

LISTEN ON: Leyendecker


My favourite album of 2007 is...

Johnny Flynn: Jim Page and Artis - Folkpunch

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 6

For Les Savy Fav, the last couple of years must have seemed like one big music industry cosmic joke. As they took a couple of years out to concentrate on their lives after 2004's near-indispensible singles compilation Inches, a whole slew of bands took their building blocks of angular artrock and ran with it, just as they had with the death disco and flaming knives punk-funk of previous albums. They seemed destined for a footnote, the band that could have been it had hairier, skinnier, prettier, more predictable boys than Tim Harrington not arrived with their own copies of Entertainment! and Double Nickels On The Dime to leech from. Yet here we sit at the end of 2007 with Harrington in the NME Cool List and London still reverberating from an extraordinary show at the Scala in October. The crux was their first proper album in six years, Let's Stay Friends, which not only picked up where they left off but ran rings round a good number of their new contemporaries in the process. While it still wouldn't hold a candle to the live extravaganza - admittedly, the Romans and lions would have trouble pitted against Tim's fancy dress box and lengthy mike lead - it might be the first time their sheer energy and joi de vivre in the middle of existential panic ("Before I was a corpse I was a kid/Before I was a cloud I was a grid" - Brace Yourself) has successfully translated to disc.

And you couldn't get much more of a mission statement than track one, Pots And Pans, wherein a band who "made this noise that people couldn't stand" decide "let's tear this whole place down and build it up again/This band's a beating heart and it's nowhere near its end", Harrington cautioning amidst Seth Jabour's chiming guitar "Have you been made dense standing upon the fence?/Have you been made dense from polish and pretense?" Later on Raging In The Plague Age tells of the people throwing a king out of his castle for their party and leaving him to die of the black death, but it does smack somewhat underneath that explanation of taking over to claim what's rightfully theirs. The answer to their dreams is laid out across these 38 and a half minutes, more approachable than many of their previous screes but no less impassoned, The Equestrian switching seamlessly from the flailing roar of the verses to the streamlined chorus, The Year Before The Year 2000 laying waste to Bloc Party dynamics before making a chantalong group chorus of "nineteen ninety-nine/Nineteen ninety-nine's alright!" before What Would Wolves Do? shows a lot of tight-trousers youngsters how you really appropriate a Joy Division influence. Harrington starts Patty Lee in a fetching falsetto while Jabour's tightly coiled riffs whirr away somewhere adjacent to the propulsive rhythm section, the latter even more in evidence on the wordplay and reverbing Martin Hannett sonic claustrophobia of Brace Yourself. Having feasted on Slugs In The Shrubs' abrasive dirty rock'n'roll riffing, they even have a go at a more melodically elegaic number, Comes & Goes featuring piano, acoustic guitar and Fiery Furnace Eleanor Friedberger for something that her own band might manage were they more controlled and boggle-eyed. The only reason why Scotchgard The Credit Card can't hang on to the new melodic air is Harrington sounds too desperate to settle down, appealing "won't somebody meet me in the present tense?" over guitars that get grittier as the song develops. ("Take the trigger from...") The Lowest Bitter is the album's final word, but its conclusions were made at the start, a band at top form and ready to tear down the edifice others built over their name.

LISTEN ON: Raging In The Plague Age
WATCH ON: Patty Lee


My favourite album of 2007 is...

Syd Butler, Les Savy Fav: Band Of Horses - Cease To Begin
Tim Harrington also responded to nominate, er, Let's Stay Friends. Evidently we didn't think about the wording of the request

Monday, December 24, 2007

It was Christmas Eve babe/In the drunk tank

Not that we're making any inappropriate suggestions about Emmy The Great, whose Chris Moss EP, featuring two new songs and covers of John Prine and the Wave Pictures, you can download for a week from today from her Myspace. As part of our attempt to keep a handle on everything she does, we can also recommend her photo blog, because it might well be the Christmas spirit acting but the imagery of the moment the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle "discovered a new kind of Mini Cheddar" made us actuaLOL.

Oh christ, Christmas Eve duties have reduced us to IM acronyms, and injoke versions thereof at that. Barring the reveal of number six in our end of year countdown, merry Christmas, readers.

Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 7

Is it just us who gets suspicious when reviews are imprinted on the artwork?

May you live out reviving interesting times. We talk a lot about the girl group influence and the permeating nostalgia for the Phil Spector Wall Of Sound, but what we recognise as that hallmark sound could just as easily be coming from one female singer rather than three. Although we think of them differently, much of the recorded output of the likes of Sandie Shaw, Brenda Lee, Lulu, Petula Clark, Connie Francis, Cilla Black, Twinkle, Lesley Gore, Little Eva, right through to Carole King, PP Arnold and the sainted Dusty is touched with that same young person's kitchen sink melodrama of love and/or loss, if not Brian Wilson's teenage symphonies to God then certainly teenage symphonies to something other. Seperating angel-voiced Ali Howard from the rest of Lucky Soul is on the whole unwise, but it's these singers that their sound most resembles rather than the Shangri-Las/Ronettes vocal ensembles of glib comparison. Of course this is retro, borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered sixties, but whereas of their main sub-market competitors Camera Obscura widened out to a more classical pop sweep and the Pipettes for the most part remain a better band than recording artiste, Lucky Soul can both take in their predecessors and smartly update them with a good whack of Stax mod-soul when required so it hardly becomes an issue - easy for us to say after half a paragraph of putting them in historical context, but stay with us - so that they, or at least songwriter Andrew Laidlaw, achieve that modern contemporary touch, like a Blondie (not literally) in touch with their roots or a less clever-clever Saint Etienne. You know when we talk about 'pop' in the pejorative? This is pop, it's just 'POP' didn't realise until too late.

Radio-friendly summer anthem it may be, but Add Your Light To Mine Baby's joyous horn-powered blast is in truth something of a red herring as to the theme of the album. It's One Kiss Don't Make A Summer's dreaminess where the cracks appear for the light to shine through, as Howard first dismisses her love as "just a PS on a postcard home" before rhetorically asking "tell me what I'm supposed to do/When the leaves are falling and I lose the pride that stops/The aching inside showing through". From there we're into the longing Struck Dumb and the bruised Motown stomp of Lips Are Unhappy, a joy from the opening bass and tambourine to Howard's coda request we "shake shake shimmy", their own call to arms. If you were being picky you could divide the album into tearstreaked string-laden romanticism and soul girl calls to the dancefloor, but the key is that they pull both off with so much panache and no little skill that there's room to spare - a note at this point for the fine work of co-producer, engineer and mixer George Shilling. My Darling, Anything works in a couple of musical jokes and the album's most poetic heartbreak, Baby I'm Broke carries a torch for loneliness and The Last Song brings in piano and country guitars and strips away the strings and horns for direct open-heartedness. On the other hand we find Get Outta Town!'s glorious escapist northern soul stomp and Ain't Never Been Cool's soaring call to arms for the disenfranchised, echoing the popists who would not unreasonably suggest that this is the sort of band we've been waiting for for years. Somewhere in the middle lands the perfectly judged title track, both reflecting the upbeat vibrancy and the grace of determination despite everything that "we will not be ignored". And no, although their self-financing worked against them in chart terms, in the greater scheme of things the uncomfortable bliss of Lucky Soul is very easy to fall for completely.

LISTEN ON: The Great Unwanted
WATCH ON: Lips Are Unhappy


My favourite album of 2007 is...

Andrew Laidlaw, Lucky Soul: "I'll be the first to say that I've been particularly poor in listening to new music this year, but I also think it's been a pretty poor year for new music. There's loads of old music I've discovered and could talk about all day but that's no use to you. In fact I was going to give a eulogy on just how great the Midlake album is but then I found out it came out last year. That would be the one I've listened to the most but I'm a bit late on that one. We've had LCD Soundsystem on a fair amount in the office but although I like it, I never really warm to it. Calvin Harris' album is too long and thinks it's too clever. Was really looking forward to the Candie Payne album but much as I like the production, I think it falls a bit short on the song front so I'm going to plump for her label mates' the Coral's Roots And Echoes. It's a really warm record and the song writing is spot on all the way through. It's probably the most accessible record they've made (both my parents and my little brother like it) but it still manages to be weird and off kilter. Sometimes the tone is desperately sad without ever being over the top, you can tell they've been listening to lots of classic Sixties and Seventies dark pop, particularly Scott Walker, Lee Hazlewood and a bit of Stax, there's a fair bit of Seventies period Isley Brothers in there as well as all the usual Love influences but they never sound like anyone but the Coral, which is no mean feat. There's too many bands out there at the moment who don't concentrate on song writing but you can never accuse the Coral of that, they always sound like some effort and thought's been put in, whilst making it sound easy too. Melodically they're on top form, they've still got an amazing way with a chord change and as ever, the lyrics are nice and twisted. Really I like it because of the overall feel of being sat in a warm wooden room with a standard lamp on, the fire burning and rain on the window. Really quite sad but very comforting at the same time. It's a good Autumn/Winter record, I'm gonna make sure I listen to with just the Christamas tree lights on and some mulled wine. In fact, yeah, Roots And Echoes = mulled wine."

Golden streams

Or: thirty great YouTube clips Weekender and embedding have brought to your attention over the course of 2007:

  • Robert Plant and John Bonham befuddle Nationwide's Bob Wellings by not being the Beatles

  • The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on New Faces in 1966

  • Here, it's all Mariah Carey and Queen. In America, singing-based reality show contestants perform Modest Mouse

  • Phil Collins and Mike Rutherford get a full Phantom Flan Flinger treatment after Chris Tarrant promises Kate Bush and John Bonham in the cage

  • Romo gets the Sunday Show once-over in 1996

  • The Tornados, of Telstar fame, hold a robot dance party

  • James Blunt on Sesame Street, and we'll have you know we featured this well before Popbitch. Or b3ta

  • Juno Award winning guitarist Richard Reed Parry

  • Les Savy Fav live last year, Tim Harrington finding a novel method of transport

  • Reg Kehoe And His Marima Queens, and their excitable double bass player

  • Amy Winehouse, 14, as Shakespeare School Play Actress On Right in a Fast Show sketch

  • Paul 'Hill Challenge' Coia recommends mucky videos to Morrissey

  • John Cage performs live on a 1960 CBS game show

  • The low-CGI way Radio 1 advertised itself in 1995

  • Kate Bush embarrasses the Swap Shop camera crew

  • A choir of New York fifth graders sing Chas'n'Dave

  • Proving you could once be a teen favourite with an act based on spectacular yodelling, Karl Denver

  • Jeffrey Lewis' historical songs and cartoons are always welcome: The Complete History of Punk Rock On New York's Lower East Side 1950-1975, The History Communism In China, The Legend Of The Fall and The History Of Rough Trade

  • Source of loads of classic Iggy images, the Stooges play Cincinatti in 1970

  • Jenny Lewis, 15, just lives for her hats and her trampoline

  • Nena, one of Trio and someone else record a reworded German language cover of Young Folks

  • Some baffling injokery on The Late Late Show gives way to a ragged, shall we say, Pop Will Eat Itself

  • The White Stripes perform to Chelsea Pensioners; London Tonight is baffled by it all

  • Pete Doherty, 18, takes the Umberto Eco view with Eddy Temple-Morris (a month before meeting Carl Barat, irony historians)

  • From the days when indie labels meant something, Ted Chippington, the Nightingales and Fuzzbox make up the Vindaloo Summer Special

  • Paul McCartney's guide to good mashed potato

  • Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers Britney and Justin keep straight faces through a particularly weak 'Himalayas' pun

  • Jenny Lewis is unsure how to react to the Paris Hilton sex tape

  • Thom Yorke adds a hitherto unknown slapstick element to Anyone Can Play Guitar

  • A young Bjork's Christmas message: don't let poets lie to you, and look after your electronics
  • Sunday, December 23, 2007

    Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 8

    Just waiting for neck cricks to result

    If James Murphy's adventures as LCD Soundsystem can be said to be going in one direction, it's that long held idea of humanising machines, which has been in evidence ever since Kraftwerk brought this stuff to wider attention from merging ideas from Stockhausen and avant free jazz in 1970. As if to repay the debt Sound Of Silver starts with Get Innocuous!, which after starting like a close cousin of initial statement of intent Losing My Edge rings up a counter electronic melody borrowed from The Robots. Compared to the sprawl of their debut album, Sound Of Silver is less heavy on the Fall and post-punk-isms but is more of an attempt to make a dance record that sounds like a properly structured dance record, full of stylistic ideas and statements. It's also an album made by the ex-record store clerk who narrated Losing My Edge, only now in a moment of self-realisation away from his semi-perverse commidification of record collecting, considering how time actually got him here and what he's getting out of it.

    'Record collector rock' is an appellation to describe bands who want you to know how cool and all-encompassing their influences are by copying them to some great degree with not much of a personal stamp. Get Innocuous!, with its self-referential opening and progression towards Murphy giving it full Bowie Low tone and slaps on a Talking Heads undertow to its Kling Klang-programmed LED heart, while Time To Get Away comes on like Liquid Liquid, but at the same time this could be nobody else but Murphy. Tellingly there's no Daft Punk playing at this house, the nearest being North American Scum's Detroit electro shuffle over a langorous bassline and Krautrock drums while Murphy satirically rants about his home town's hipsters and rulers "for those of you who still think we're from England". Even that single is blown out of the water by the two tracks that follow, the album's humanist element. Someone Great ("has gone") is built on pulsing, whirring slabs of electro and a massive warped bassline originally used on his feature-length Nike running commission 45:33, over which Murphy ponders the nature of lost love or possibly death and what it leaves behind - "The little things that made me nervous/Are gone, in a moment/I miss the way we used to argue...The worst is all the lovely weather/I'm stunned, it's not raining" - while the actively magnificent All My Friends sees 37 year old Murphy, framed by high speed piano and a motorik groove like a Germanic New Order, looks back at his younger self ("We set controls for the heart of the sun/one of the ways we show our age") and wondering whether the party lifestyle was worth it. "You spent the first five years trying to get with the plan/And the next five years trying to be with your friends again" he declaims, in the sixth year of DFA Records' existence, while the minimal keyboard prod drives the ever increasing march of textured guitars and synths onto the pure euphoria close as Murphy piles on his own existential angst. It sounds like his influences, and at the same time the way they're put together makes them sound like nothing else. After that the record can afford to coast home, not that it really does with Us V Them's percussive assault and the title track's techno as programmed by Brian Eno. Having a headphones listen reveals the key is in the production, the sort of depth and spaciousness not even rock records seem to allow for now, but what Sound Of Silver really does is peel back the mid-30s hipster facade, the lyrical irony, the machine-tooled rhythms and the dog-eared vinyl to reveal Murphy's feelings and then find a way to reflect them onto his music.

    LISTEN ON: All My Friends
    WATCH ON: Someone Great


    My favourite album of 2007 is...

    Julian Saporiti, The Young Republic: "The Privates' new album Barricades (although technically it came out in December) and more recent Quilisma's What It Is."

    Saturday, December 22, 2007

    Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 9

    No expense, or Pritt Stick, spared

    We knew they were committed, but never in this way. On first album Zero For Conduct the Anglo-Irish trio, later quartet, Jetplane Landing were vaguely melodic Pavement-slanted slacker quasi-punks; on second Once Like A Spark they moved into full fledged post-hardcore with leader Andrew Ferris developing a style somewhere where a singing-talking-rapping Venn diagram of vocal style might meet. After a three and a half year gap between albums, during which Ferris worked up his own Smalltown America label, Backlash Cop comes from somewhere else entirely, a genre-leaping concept album about the history of black music through funk, soul, jazz and hip-hop, from the perspective of a tightly wound outfit musically referencing the Minutemen and Fugazi. So far, so Rage Against The Machine (The Beat Surrender's "[it] could earn them some Maroon 5 fans along with the ex-Limp Bizkit ones they could already have" ties with ContactMusic's description of, ironically, Les Savy Fav as "the Kaiser Chiefs with Pistols and Arctics character" as the stupidest sentence written in the name of music reviewing this year), but what sets JPL so far apart from the vast majority of their peers is the sheer excitement, intensity and intelligence on display, not that we'd expect any less of them.

    There's even room for a spot of self-mythologising on the title and opening track ("no-one can stop us when we make our own records...fuck them, be radical/I'll get my tit out like Janet if she's not available" Alright, maybe not so much that last bit) after the first of many groove-laden rhythms and coruscating Cahir O’Doherty corkscrew riffs, during which Ferris, in one of the album's many independently quotable lines, sums up what may be the album's aim - "we're all still waiting for punk to mean something/Soulful, uncynical, social, apolitical". The cowbell-friendly White Music and Dizzy Gillespie For President similarly match southern fried funk to explosive riffing, The Lungs Of Punk both namechecks and sounds like the work of the Minutemen's D Boon, and while Why Do They Never Play Les Savy Fav On The Radio? was somewhat pre-empted by this being the year they started playing Les Savy Fav on the radio, "the only punk band left in America"'s earlier punk-funk screes are reflected in light of everything so far for perhaps the album's most directly thrilling moment. For every nod to the Helmet/Q And Not U brigade - see Climbing Up The Face Of Miles Davis, which is about what it says it's about - and by extension the previous albums' highs, there's an out and out experiment refracted through their particular prism, of which the Prince riffage and precise strut of Hendrix Sur La Lune ("let fantastic people be fantastic") is but the tip of the iceberg. Sam Cooke is their version of Motown soul, imagining Nat King Cole visiting Cooke as he lay dying (Cole actually outlived Cooke by a couple of months) as Ferris heralds Cooke's "long black waterfalls of beauty" and rhetorically asks "who's gonna battle with Robert Zimmerman?" The Breaks is split into two, one Pavement with more ire, the second part hardcore Beastie Boys. Us And The Ringside Stars is a monologue about 80s middleweight boxing. Well, naturally. No, clearly not everybody is going to get this album, but as the almost contemplative Song For Sonia Sanchez ponders the nature of how what we've been listening to came together and takes it back round to the apex of the circle ("if we wrote a book of concrete lines, concrete rhymes, maybe songs and then an album that we'd call Backlash Cop...") it can't be denied that at least we have here a band willing to take a chance with progressing their established sound, and when it comes off it's spectacular.

    LISTEN ON: The Lungs Of Punk
    WATCH ON: No videos or online live footage, but there is an album recording diary which is playlisted on their Myspace


    My favourite album of 2007 is...

    Andrew Ferris, Jetplane Landing: Robert Wyatt - Comicopera

    Thursday, December 20, 2007

    Sweeping The Nation Albums Of 2007: Number 10

    Who puts a bookshop next to a New York nightclub?

    In August 2004 a single eked out on Vertigo Records with little publicity or radio fanfare by a duo from Liverpool, the only real surface USP being James Dean Bradfield co-producing. Against most odds Johnny Boy's You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve made number 50, an extraordinary piece of Phil Spector-recalling anti-commoditisation that a good number of bloggers and their readers still go on about to this day, and such luminaries as Johnny Marr and Mick Jones were going on about then. An album was promised. We waited patiently for any sort of follow-up. And waited. The duo were dropped, Vertigo consoling themselves by signing Razorlight and the Killers instead. Reports of Scandinavian and Japanese releases last year surfaced. This year they finally bit the bullet and released it themselves.

    Those three years on, You Are The Generation... still stands out as one of the decade's defining pop songs. From the Be My Baby steal through the sweet melody and sour lyrics ("I just can’t help believing, though believing sees me hurt"), the firework effects and wheedling synths and "Adidas sleek mystique reversed", the panning backing vocals and backwards guitars and build and build to "we're all receiving" and the climactic, punching the air "yeah yeah!"s... no, there's nothing on the album to match it, but there's precious little to match it in life. The rest isn't bad, though, or it wouldn't be this high in the list. It's not all like that song either, although it often shares the commitment of its message. It does resemble quite a lot else, though, often played at the same time. Fifteen Minutes takes Motown into its Cubase, adds wodges of go-getting guitar and slimy synths, and straps on a vocal melody redolent of Saturday morning cartoon themes, except this one is asking "tell me what you gonna do", lyrics like Lolly Hayes' voice expressing passion with ice in its veins. Livin' In The City is Big Audio Dynamite on overdrive, hotwired disco redolent of the Big Beat Boutique being steamrollered as Hayes dreams of "sixteen thousand Sony beatboxes tuned into rock and roll". Then there's the anti-consumerism call to arms of War On Want, on which Lolly sounds like Wendy James if she stopped messing about and became really ire-filled, Bonnie Parker's 115th Dream seemingly filching parts of I Want Candy and U2's Desire but then going big beat, new wave, hip hop, country and baggy all at the same time, the fuzzbomb of Formaldehyde (Last Words Of Lottery Loser) and All Exits Final having a go at putting 60s psychedelic pop under heavy bombardment. And to finish, the single that got them signed to a major for that brief, brilliant period, Johnny Boy Theme (of course they have a song with their own name in the title), starting with a Mean Streets sample before piling in with more huge drums, vocal samples, handclaps, bells, loops, girl group melodies, Lolly cooing, foil Davo not cooing, more fireworks, and a sound that sounds full but not overpacked. Stylistically, it's all over the shop. Thematically, it knows exactly what it's doing.

    LISTEN ON: Johnny Boy Theme
    WATCH ON: You Are The Generation That Bought More Shoes And You Get What You Deserve


    My favourite album of 2007 is...

    Noah And The Whale: Broken Social Scene presents Kevin Drew - Spirit If

    Floating dates

    Just to break into the festive business, we've just found out that Anathallo, the extraordinarily expansive Michigan (now Chicago) outfit we championed at length some eighteen months ago, are releasing Hanasakajijii (A Great Wind More Ash) from their mighty 2005 US-only album Floating World as a 7" through the highly promising Big Scary Monsters label on January 28th. Oddly, this won't then be followed by that album, but rather a debut international release for their forthcoming second album, out some time in the spring and produced by Neil Strauch (Iron & Wine) and Brian Deck (Modest Mouse, Josh Ritter, Iron & Wine as well), which will come with a bonus CD over here of their earlier work. Just to confuse the issue further, the member we did our interview with, Andrew Dost, left the band in September citing a "change in interests". He has his own solo Myspace, in any case. And the band still have theirs, clearly, but also a blog, with news, streams, links, downloads and stuff, called Your Happy Makes Me Go Oldies. (Look, you didn't ask when they made an album with four tracks called Hanasakajijii, it's too late to start questioning their titling policies now.)

    And how in modern US indie does a band pay for a second album? By selling a track, Floating World's Yuki! Yuki! Yuki! in this case, to a Vick's Vaporub advert:

    Those who also entertained

    In compiling as definitive as possible a list of what we loved over the course of 52 and a bit weeks, we have to make tough decisions as to what to leave aside. A lot of those that finished in the supposed next level down of our list everyone knows about - In Rainbows, A Weekend In The City, Our Love To Admire, Icky Thump, Myths Of The Near Future, that sort of thing. But this blog is rarely about bowing at the knee to populist opinion, so here's twenty less mainstream-publicised albums from the year that weren't quite strong enough for the top thirty but are still worthy of investigation:

    Animal Collective - Strawberry Jam
    Mobius strip freak-folk, supposedly their most accessible, which by all other standards is well out there

    Bill Callahan - Woke On A Whaleheart
    Joanna Newsom's beau drops the Smog name and takes his pastoral storytelling in a rootsier direction

    Caribou - Andorra
    Dan Snaith takes multilayered 60s psychedelia through his lo-fi electronic prism for a space age summer jam

    Charlotte Hatherley - The Deep Blue
    Subtle textures and clever constructions push the boundaries of her punk-pop lean; far better than Ash's album

    Feist - The Reminder
    An apparent one-hit wonder album whose warm organic soul-pop would justly have given it chart status long before

    Frank Turner - Sleep Is For The Week
    Former hardcore shouter mellows, nearly, into wryly personal acoustic truth-teller

    Grinderman - Grinderman
    Nick Cave throws off the elegaic Bad Seeds shackles for primevally filthy rock'n'roll, plus the odd pained ballad

    iLiKETRAiNS - Elegies To Lessons Learnt
    It's educational! But it never gets in the way of the brooding post-rock build and release monuments

    Jeffrey Lewis - 12 Crass Songs
    Anti-folk bloke reinterprets anarchist screes as oddly playful idiosyncratic acoustic pop

    Liars - Liars
    Noisy curs return to something parallel to normality, throwing a million dissonant ideas at rhythmic almost-pop

    Meet Me In St Louis - Variations On Swing
    Reanimating the corpse of At The Drive-In and making it even more cussedly time signature-hopping abrasive

    Miracle Fortress - Five Roses
    In debt to Beach Boys harmonies, but the studio trickery means it couldn't have come from anywhere but mid-00s Montreal

    Misty's Big Adventure - Funny Times
    Playfully misanthropic post-Bonzos multi-handed (literally) Brummies head very slowly towards the centre

    Rumble Strips - Girls And Weather
    Not great art, just great indie dancefloor horn-touting pop with a kick like nobody does any more

    Shearwater - Palo Santo
    Stark, atmospheric dark folk storytelling on a central Nico theme from Okkervil River side project, released this year in the UK

    SixNationState - SixNationState
    At full pelt it's a carnival like no other; when it calms down it's how the Coral should have evolved

    Sondre Lerche - Phantom Punch
    Intricately minded Costelloite Norwegian stretches melodies and applies them to newfound confidence to rock

    The Strange Death Of Liberal England - Forward March!
    Frankly enormous walls of overwrought slow build post-rock coalesce in Constellation Records-esque calls to arms

    Von Sudenfed - Tromatic Reflexxions
    Mouse On Mars help Mark E Smith reconnect to his experimental dance urges while remaining completely individual

    The Young Playthings - Who Invented Love?
    Brits do West coast jangle direct from a David Lynch soundtrack, self-described as "The Replacements covering Jimmy Mack"

    A mention also in dispatches for the smart lo-fi psychedelic melodicism of George Washington Brown's On The Night Plain, the current availability of which we're not entirely certain of, and the imagery-rich folk noir of the debut album by Ola Podrida, as yet unavailable outside import in the UK. The Young Republic's 12 Tales From Winter City would certainly have made it in too but despite a few handtooled copies making Rough Trade in October it's not getting a proper release until January, and them's the STN breaks.

    What about mini-albums/EPs, then? The traditonal way to introduce a newish artist properly, reintroduce yourself as fit and raring to go again, mess about a bit or fill out a late period album campaign release, there's been plenty of goodness in the half-length format this year, and here's our top ten:

    10 Chris T-T - This Gun Is Not A Gun EP
    9 Tired Irie - Tired Irie EP
    8 Tokyo Police Club - A Lesson In Crime
    7 Grizzly Bear - Friend
    6 Eugene McGuinness - The Early Learnings Of Eugene McGuinness
    5 Adam Gnade & Youthmovies - Honey Slides
    4 Wire - Read And Burn 03
    3 Pagan Wanderer Lu - Perfection RIP
    2 Emmy The Great - My Bad EP
    1 Johnny Foreigner - Arcs Across The City