Monday, 18 April 2011

2010: Albums of the Year

'Those mornings, when the burden absorbs me
Those mornings, everything’s on pause
Hours go by, it continues to match me
Hours go by, no constraints or cause'

This article arrives belatedly - to an absurd degree! But no matter, here are my favourite albums of the year.

I have listened to many more albums than for most previous years in the 2000s decade; many were pretty indifferent with the thoroughly capable resting on their laurels just a tad (Goldfrapp, Brian Eno, Mylene Farmer, Belle and Sebastian, T.I., The Divine Comedy). There were those with a trick or two who just didn't entice over a whole album: Die Antwoord, LoneLady, Geneva Jacuzzi.

Before I get on to my top twenty, positive mentions should go out to returning veterans with life and ideas in them yet (The Fall, Edwyn Collins, Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen, Autechre, Paul Weller, Momus). There were occasionally great but ultimately flawed explorations (Caribou, Actress, SALEM, Forest Swords, Gorillaz, Owen Pallett). There was impeccable, if not overly consistent indie-pop from the studied Beach House and MGMT. If their respective albums had lived up to 'Walk in the Park' and 'Someone's Missing', they would unquestionably have made my main list, but there a sameness to the slickness. Arcade Fire's album is twenty minutes too long, but was close to making the roster - at its best, it is transcendently beautiful. Too often, however, it ploughs a circuitous route around the same old suburbs.

I enjoyed articulately wistful indie (Darren Hayman & The Secondary Modern, Chris T-T) and proficient, if derivitive, music that could have been calculated to appeal to me three years ago (These New Puritans and Moon Wiring Club). There was enjoyable, crafted pop (Robyn's Body Talk Vol.1, the new Kylie, much of Rihanna's Loud, The Golden Filter show inspired flashes and the easy-going Living Sisters project beguiles, to an extent). On the guitar-rock front, I was rather bored by the much-hyped The National, but there were steady, workmanlike efforts from Foals and Frightened Rabbit, with just enough about them to charm. Reliable mavericks like Skream and Sufjan Stevens created eclectic, uneven but likeable records.

My new discoveries included Serafina Steer, Devlin and Nedry. I would highlight the first two in particular: Steer has something of the Alison Statton about her, recording beguilingly English songs, with harp and synthesizer. She has a novel approach and sound that shames these chancers with their facile, Tory rusticity; if you can imagine pre-pop Human League with Mary Hopkin singing, you might begin to imagine what this is like. 'Motion Pictures', 'Drinking While Driving' and 'How to Haunt a House Party' are magnificently deft creations; unassuming folk meeting austere post-punk. Her flawed album just misses out on my Top 20 of the year, but I am certain that Ms Steer is capable of consistently great work. Likewise, Devlin; a fellow Londoner born at the more recent end of the 1980s. His Bud, Sweat and Beers does contain some relatively ordinary material, but also much that is enormously heartening: this is a Grime MC with a social conscience, a vivid chronicler of our unhappy, unforgiving times. Many of the tracks have deeply evocative musical textures and embedded samples: 'Days and Nights' in particular is redolent of down-at-heel London, eliciting memories of the Peddlers and even the dance-band era; inviting some useful comparison with (The Real) Tuesday Weld. 'Yesterday's News' is a rather humbler variant on the usual hip-hop privileging of the ego - an interesting Dagenham counterpoint to Kanye's 'POWER'.

So, I keenly await more music from Steer and Devlin (who almost sound like a Dickensian double-act!). I do not await music from insipid bunting-lovers.

Now, onto the list; few albums have struck me as creating self-contained worlds in the way that Hounds of Love or Jordan: The Comeback do. There tend to be several tracks that compel, and others that leave me rather indifferent. Yet there is so much that is great within these twenty records that it cannot be said that 2010 was a poor year for music.

20. Mucchu - Adventure We Go

A cusp-of-spring album, listened to this February half-term, during a half-day at work, whilst heading up to a cafe via Newcastle Central Station. It does occasionally veer towards the twee ('Coral and Shell'), but this is largely a winning album of 'indietronica'; a well-heeled, optimistic pop music that sounds a bit like the Sundays filtered through a Four Tet gauze. Warm, unguarded ingenue vocals from Milky (yes, Milky!), that lend themselves perfectly well to abstract cut-up ('The Place That Knows Me'). There is a delicacy and bittersweet laptop melancholia reminiscent of Owl City's sublime #1 single, 'Fireflies'; just listen to 'Songs in My Room' and 'Getaway Train'. 'Dancing With a Ghost' is worthy of Kate Bush or Thomas Hardy.

19. Ikonika - Contact, Love, Want, Have

'Ikonoklast' is one of the year's finest preludes, and this Hyperdub album manages to delight for long stretches, even if it has occasional longuers. There is a pleasing mixture of stately electronica (the oceanic urban expanses of 'Yoshimitzu') and the genially cartoonish ('Psoriasis' is all computer-game bleeps; Aphex Twin meets 8-bit Bassline). 'Fish' is probably the highpoint, with its skittling dubstep rhythm precociously painted all over with scarlet and purplish synths. I'd love to experience this song in a social context, with a  juggernaut of a soundsystem.

18. The-Dream - Love King

First hip-hop entry, and The-Dream is pleasingly free from the aggressive attitude so often exhbited within the genre. Prince and Akon are obvious analogues for what Terius Youngdell Nash achieves with this album; these are worldly, gossamer light songs of yearning and seduction. The astonishing centrepiece is 'Yamaha', with Prince's Minneapolis sound reincarnated, angular rhythms and celestial synths striving towards the Sublime: this is a sound carefully balanced between the courtly and the carnal. It also has the best ending for any 2010 song, that galloping pick-up in the rhythm at 4:43. Then there is the grave 'February Love', an abstract slow-jam of uneasy piano and languid rhetoric. There is much else besides on an album that never detours into mere mush. Yes, like most hip-hop albums, it does last too long, but only fractionally so.

17. Mark van Hoen - Where is the Truth

This is an especially welcome return from the ambient pop meister van Hoen, whom I have liked for a while - ever since I bought his Playing with Time (2001) in Cambridge and lapped it its serene ambience.

In the context of 2010 politics, 'Where is the Truth', the title-track, feels like passive but not forlorn protest. '1979' sounds like a memory; this is a more personal, evocative 'hauntology' than D.D. Denham achieves. 'Beautiful' is van Hoen at his best: there is a seismic, widescreen impression of unearthly stasis. 'Photophone Call' is Penguin Cafe Orchestra gone electronic, deploying all manner of delays and glitches.

16. Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles

You simply cannot get away from 'Celestica'. It may even have been playing in one of the rare scenes of 2010 Coronation Street that I witnessed on the old gogglebox! A maximalist incorporation of blissed-out Slowdive/MBV noise to a techno beat. Unmistakably pop but not as we know it, it sounds like it is arriving simultaneously from centuries past and future. A dancefloor stormer, a rallying of disparate, dissident spirits. 'Suffocation' is its more sedate, equally epochal sounding sibling. 'I Am Made of Chalk' is a spliced-up child of van Hoen in its doleful reverie.

I like the latterday dream-pop exemplified by Crystal Castles; a cross-continental sisterhood that includes M83 and Cut Copy, not to mention Ladytron and Nite Jewel.

15. Television Personalities - A Memory is Better than Nothing

More downtrodden, heartfelt songs from Dan Treacy; his music sounds especially apt in these awkward times. From the anguished, numbed 'Funny He Never Married' to the rueful, crushed 'Walk Towards the Light', this is clearly not the sort of mindless uplift peddled by nominal 'indie' bands. This is rather an awkwardness to cherish; the snatches of happiness all the more poignant for the surrounding darkness: 'She's My Yoko', with winsome guitar strumming supported by communal organ and slithers of synth. It is a heartbreakingly open declaration of love, the sound of a troubled man coming through the other side. 'People Think That We're Strange', but 'Come Back to Bed' indeed.
14. Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti - Before Today

More music for the sad-eyed boys and girls among us. I listened to The Doldrums during my October stay in Southwark, where Simon Reynolds' favourite album of the 2000s started to sink in. It is a truly magnificent evocation of grey sunsets, strange fires and the uncanny, uncontrollable yearning of 'For Kate I Wait' - which summons all the morbid desire of Wuthering Heights. This 2010 album is not quite up to the same consistent standard; some of the rough edges have been sanded down, but who can begrudge the relative success this has achieved? My favourites are 'Fright Night', with its John Carpenter-film spirits dancing to serene D.I.Y. Italo-disco, and the awesome 'Round and Round', which sees Pink taking his patented dreamt pop into the sensual stratosphere.

13. Ellen Allien - Dust

Ellen Allien is my favourite German techno artisan along with Barbara Morgenstern, and this is, to my mind, an absurdly underrated album. The minimal, liminal beats of 'Our Utopie' evoke light-rail transit systems while 'Flashy Flashy' is as defiantly blank and severe as European music gets. 'My Tree' can be compared with the exquisitely glacial music of Antye Greie, as featured in Chris Petit's Content. The fourth track, 'Sun the Rain', enters like the sun on the neck after a lifetime of winters, with an entirely uncharacteristic use of insistent guitar.

'Walking down the street you take my hand.' 

It is heartstopping when listened to after the previous three tracks; like Kay in 'The Snow Queen', being dragged away from his puzzles towards the land of the living. The album does fade slightly after this point, but 'Huibuh' is a masterly (or rather mistressly) five minutes. A slinky, sinuous rhythm reminiscent of Prince (a guiding influence on much great 2010 music), spare minor-chord chimes and bewitching, languorous vocals from Ellen. Yes, Berlinette and Orchestra of Bubbles remain her strongest work, but Dust is a strong release and significantly more engaging than the rather flat Sool.

12. Vampire Weekend - Contra

Not quite as fresh seeming as the debut, inevitably, but an impeccably crafted record of cosmopolitan pop. It peaks with the cantering 'Run' and the sublime 'Diplomat's Son', with its programmed afro-beats, end-of-the-pier piano and urbane, Paul Simon-esque vocals. They are resting on laurels slightly, but the essential template is strong enough to see them through.

11. Field Music - Field Music (Measure)

A marginally over-extended album, but only just. This is an astute cycle of art-pop songs, anchored by vocals wonderfully lacking in smugness or histrionics. The second side contains a winning use of found-sounds. These are Sunderland's finest exponents of indie music; indie as in independent-minded, not in lifestyle-accessory - a band who now include as their bassist a former classmate of mine at Barnes Primary School.

Do listen to the rippling 'mackem XTC' loveliness of 'Measure' or the urgent should've-been-number-1 'Them That Do Nothing'. Lyrics are as elliptical and oblique as ever with these Brewises, but far from lacking in meaning if you dig under the surface. 'Precious Plans' speaks of a thousand compromises; heads being kept down through fear and circumstance. My generation - early 1980s born - realising that the dreams they were sold are illusory. The burden of self-promotion - Nina Power's description of people having to ask as walking-CVs - and dream homes bringing heartache:

'Where are those future-less precious plans / Where we have a place to get to'.

10. Kanye West - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Where the brothers Brewis are unassuming and lyrically guarded, Kanye assumes that you know that he is the centre of the pop universe. This is a grandiose, egocentric record that celebrates the self, with all the attendant melancholia and braggadocio. 'POWER' is the stampeding juggernaut that one could take to be West's own persona, mutated hip-hop or schizoid capitalism writ large. He samples Fripp's Blair-anticipating '21st Century Schizoid Man' from Blair-favourite album, In the Court of the Crimson King. 'All of the Lights' is a compelling urban rallying-call, masses of horns welcoming and including the listener. There are crucial contributions from Drake and, especially, a refracted, automated Rihanna. 'So Appalled' is grave in the same manner as much of 808s and Heartbreaks, and is followed by my two favourite tracks: the celestial 'Devil in a Blue Dress', revisiting the sublime pitch-shifted vocal bliss of his debut album. Then, expectant single piano notes lead into the epic expanses of 'Runaway' - the second great track of that name in 2010 (see Devlin's).

9. Big Boi - Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty

A bit of a revelation for me, this, and slightly stronger even than West's lauded album. Big Boi attains a grace and subtlety here only matched by one other urban album of 2010 that I've heard.

What to say of something like 'Be Still'? An exquisite jewel of a synth ballad to match Amerie's gorgeous 'Crush' from 2007. Enveloping emotions and intimations of spring; if synths can hug, these manage it.

Elsewhere, plangent electric pianos ('Turns Me On'), Wu-Tang and Soul II Soul-citing spaceship soul ('Shutterbugg'),  sensuality ('Night Night'); above all, oceanic Avalanches of soul in 'Shine Blockas', with its masterly contrast between vibraphone-led vastness and dub sparseness. 'Hustle Blood' is rather unsatisfactory in its limited world-view, yet has an undeniably formidable use of rhythm and wah-wah. 'General Patton' is another of the three centrepieces; a suitably martial, cinematic cavalcade that evokes that mighty actor George C. Scott.

8. Gayngs - Relayted

Minneapolis melancholy-pop, directly inspired by 10cc and Godley and Creme's imperishable hits 'I'm Not In Love' and 'Cry'. Gayngs is a Broken Social Scene-like amalgamation of elements from various bands, including the Bon Iver singer, Justin Vernon (who also surfaces on album #10 in this list). Songs like 'Ride' are really not that far from the sad urban electronica of Junior Boys. 'The Last Prom on Earth' has some of the most moving use of auto-tune I have heard since Momus' 'Nervous Heartbeat', treading deftly between emotionalism and suave pretence, like Yello did in their prime.

All songs are underpinned by the tellingly sensual/glacial 69bpm rhythms of 'I'm Not in Love'.

7. The Radio Dept. - Clinging to a Scheme

Most of this album is eminently winsome indie-electronica of the estimable Swedish school, and is more arresting than jj's latest, which is dream-pop to the point of passive quietism. What elevates it so high in my list is the heart-on-sleeve commitment of 'Heaven's on Fire' with its spoken anti-capitalist broadside at the start and regretful focus on charlatanry. They won't be to everybody's taste, but they are for this fan of New Order ('The Video Dept.' - sigh), Saint Etienne ('Never Follow Suit' - gasp) and the delightful - and much missed - The Embassy. Oh yes. It is music grounded in a lineage I love, and I cannot get enough of it. 'Memory Less', 'David' and 'A Token of Gratitude': hazy, huggable delights.

6. Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record

Probably the most consistent record in this list. Maybe it does not quite reach the conquering heights of previous BSS albums, but this is a cleverly conceived, artful album full of mature, beguiling music. Its sheer dogged consistency raises it above the more lauded Arcade Fire album; whilst there is nothing here to match 'Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)', it is a compulsive record, much easier to revisit. They have another artful, distinctive female singer, Lisa Lobsinger, to add to Leslie Feist and Emily Haines (who makes a sedate appearance on 'Sentimental X's'). The communal 'Forced to Love' and 'Water in Hell' suggest that rock in 2010 is not necessarily an irrelevance. 'Meet Me in the Basement' is a thrilling, intricate instrumental; 'Art House Director' bursts with vitality - listen to that swooning transition from 1:48 and those celebratory horns. BSS retain their pre-eminence in terms of creating unpredictable, experimental rock music with a humane ethos.

5. Stromae - Cheese

Could this gent be any other than Belgian? He has something of the worldly oddity of Brel and the fresh face of Tintin as refracted through the vision of Rene Magritte. These synths possess a lifeforce quite of their own, which D.H. Lawrence might have understood had the dirty old bastard lived into the twenty-first century.

Stromae will not, simply CANNOT deviate: he sticks to his euro-pop formula over the context of a 39-minute album with the same sort of focus as David Guetta. This is not the sort of music to parade its eclecticism, as evinced by its single-minded devotion to the beat and those storming, swarming synthesizers. There is an unapologetic European hedonism of the sort admired by Jonathan Meades in the Hamburg segment of Magnetic North; one also thinks of Serge Gainsbourg - brought to prominence again with a well-judged biopic, which I saw at the Tyneside Cinema in the summer. 'Peace or Violence' and 'Rail de Musique' should have been domineering number-ones across the continent. 'Summertime' evokes balearic house with its blazing colours; 'Dodo' starts tentative, becoming a wistful techno lullaby. 'House'llulah' is a rave-informed hymn of devotion to house music and dancing. The title-track brings the album to a rather pensive close with chords just as wistful as usual, but without a beat of any sort. It is a powerful way to end what is perhaps 2010's finest and most characterful dance album.

4. Clubroot - II: MMX

Operating at a junction (or, rather, lock) between idm and dubstep, the St Albans-residing Clubroot is an excellent discovery, recommended by a good friend Andrew Saffrey. If 'Orbiting' is a glorious opener, then 'Waterways' ascends like a dubstep Cathedral Gardens. As well as the ambient John Foxx, there are hints of Eno and the architecturally-minded OMD; Dan Richmond seems to be influenced by that thoughtful strain of British electronica that contains u-Ziq, Ultramarine and Orbital. 'Waterways' gets me thinking of, well, British waterways like the Regent's and the Hackney-to-Stratford canals that I walked for four and a half hours one day in late July 2010. The kaleidoscopic, jarring mix of architectural styles observable along the 14-mile route, suggesting a good many Britains - and always the still, serene green of the water.

It is a testament to this album's hold on me that it seemed to fit equally well with a walk from South Shields metro, through the bleak market square and down to the ferry terminal and the Alum Ale House. 'Running on Empty' speaks of times past and begs for a future - you never want it to end. This is not purely cerebral music; it feels corporeal. Living, breathing humans kiss and caress like weeping statues: 'Cherubs Cry'. One thinks of epochal British children's books like Moondial and Tom's Midnight Garden with their protagonists' immersion in the past. One thinks also of the sensation of holding hands.

3. Hot Chip - One Life Stand

More statues on an album cover. More excellence from this original art-pop band; certainly a much stronger proposition than Made in the Dark - despite that earlier album's featuring Robert Wyatt. This does end and start on the slow side, but really gathers pace with the middle section - tracks 3 to 8. 'I Feel Better' is a wimpy canter, autotune deftly deployed. The title track is a powerful case for monogamy that necessarily feels very social in its embrace of the dancefloor. 'Brothers' wins out through virtue of its unfashionable virtue. Things step up with 'Slush', which does evoke the chill darkness of the Bonzo Dog Band's song of the same name, but applies some choir-boy yearning and good cheer to its doleful waltzing. Next is the album's masterpiece, rightfully praised by many: 'Alley Cats'. Weightless and yet worldly, simultaneously. Listen to in conjunction with Falty DL's 'Discoko' (with its own epiphany coming at 2:05).

The song contains many heartstopping moments: the higher vocals coming in at 2:12 and the ghostly loveliness of the submerged organ chords and voices from 2:38. You might draw comparison with English eccentric Robyn Hitchcock and his animal/plant preoccupations. You might just say it's bloody lovely and sensual as hell - or rather, Mabuse. The album reaches its apex with the following dubstep raver, 'We Have Love'; certainly one of the cleverest bits of sequencing on any album of the year to move from 'Alley Cats''s celestial poise to this gadding merry-go-round.

2. Janelle Monáe  - The ArchAndroid

A significant advance on a promising debut mini-album, The Arch-Android is the sound of a young artist taking things as far out as Prince managed, whilst maintaining a sure grasp of pop. Classical, jazz, soul, folk, electronica and hip-hop infuse these glorious 68 minutes in roughly equal measures; this is surely the most diverse album to come under the 'urban' or 'hip-hop' bracket since Cody Chestnutt's The Headphone Masterpiece (2002). Of course, OutKast are a guiding spirit, with Big Boi appearing on the sure-footed 'Tightrope', though Solange is perhaps the closest direct comparison in terms of non-tunnel visioned hip-hop. This is a true afro-futurist pop - Kelis, Common and Erykah Badu might also be mentioned as kindred spirits.

There are lovely segues between the tracks: for instance, we slide from the Motown-goes-into-outer-space propulsion of 'Faster' to the even more urgent 'Locked Inside', which sounds likes an impossibly well-adjusted Michael Jackson. The pop-rush of its chorus is fucking glorious. This fades out to be replaced by the stately hush of 'Sir Greendown' with its Dudley Simpson organ and medieval courtliness. It is a wondrous sequence of music; one of the most confounding and lovely to be heard in 2010.

'Oh Maker' is a soul song underpinned by a two-note folk guitar loop - all fed through the sort of Boards of Canada gauze that her contemporaries Solange and Amerie have deployed. 'Neon Valley Street' is like the retro pop-deco of Dr Buzzard's Savannah Band submerged in some intangible future world. And if it cannot seem to get any more celestial we have a 'Strawberry Fields' Mellotron entering the scene, and then a regretful guitar solo that rivals the best of the Purple One...

'Wondaland' achieves that glacial/warm dichotomy with the spry insolence of a Cristina or Annie; a Then the Gregorian calm and ancient-sounding folk strains of '57821': a gorgeous chorale accompanied by a plaintive guitar.

Such is the expansive quality of The Arch-Android. There is even a ukulele at an most unexpected moment; one of so many life-affirming moments on an expansive album that suggests a future for pop itself in the long-playing format. This is music to be savoured and treasured; both danced to and played to death on wistful Sunday afternoons.

1. Darkstar - North

And so, to the last album of this list - my favourite of all 2010 albums, though I first heard it in 2011. It spoke to me deeply at an important time; it seemed designed to reach me at a strange time in my life, with its songs of fragility and fortitude. Darkstar were supposed to be dubstep, I thought; then, they go and make an album of sensitive synth-pop that features more piano than bass drops. It is the album that My Computer's Vulnerabilia (2002) attempts to be, but cannot quite manage.

This is music of the post-industrial north as recalled from London with Proustian intensity. Yes, there is the Human League cover - which I did hear last year, via Paul Lester's excellent Band of the Day mixes on the Guardian website. This links them in my mind to other thoughtful electronic operatives - not just Human League, but David Sylvian and Thomas Dolby. 'Deadness' has the melancholy of Robert Wyatt and Ultra Nate's 'Free' (that guitar from 2:50); it has the sort of rich, full synthesizers that loom over and haunt the whole album. 'Aidy's Girl is a Computer' is dubstep - indeed it had been on a previous Hyperdub compilation - but it is dubstep very much as intelligent-dance-music; it might be filed alongside Aphex Twin in its sense of fun and adventure. Erstwhile computer game synths are dragged out to the point of serenity. 'Under One Roof' is shattering, with its shards of rhythm and lead synth the perfect accompaniment to a rueful late-night train journey home. 'Two Chords' is an even more up-front Junior Boys, capturing a boy in a bedsit, bewitched and bewildered by memories.

If you had doubted where you were, there is the corrective of 'North', which captures the region in all its infernal beauty and chipper desolation. The rhythm is like Portishead's 'Machine Gun' in its brutalist compulsion; amid this clatter, there are chiming, minor-key chords drawn out with wintry sustain. One thinks of Wuthering Heights and of the Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland; this is music that is doleful, hymnal, pitiless, resigned. 'Ostkruez' conjures up 'Twin Peaks if it was set in the north of England' - I simply cannot better Kode9's description, but will note the absence of an otherwordly, angelic Julee Cruise to offer consolation amid Badalamenti's melancholy chords.

Then the towering edifice of 'Dear Heartbeat'; first, a patient, tick-tocking intro of about 45 seconds, then the canvass expands: immense bass and synths interweave, evoking a humane Sublime comparable to the J.M.W. Turner or William Blake paintings I pondered in the Tate Britain last October. This is truly an electropop elegy for the ages, to rival 'Being Boring' and 'So This is Goodbye'.

'When It's Gone' laments lost love, that piano resurfacing, heralding Beckettian sentiments - 'I can't go on, I must go on'. Sudden pangs of pain, yet the survival instinct asserting itself.

An astonishingly acute break-up album? An Abstractions of the Post-Industrial North, transposing Basil Kirchin into 2010? A certifiably ace, dubstep-electronica opus? A soundtrack to emotionally-charged journeys north on the East Coast Mainline? Whichever - or all - of these, this shakes me to the core like nothing else in this year. It is a sustained 39 minutes and 36 seconds of unfettered melancholy; an encapsulation of the 'sweet distress' abundant in affairs of the human heart. 

'Dear heartbeat, I need something to soothe me
Dear heartbeat, medicate a dose
Sweet distress, touch and presence not welcome
Sweet distress, now it’s time to go'

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