Let’s face it, you’re not here to read some massive blurb about why the album format’s still important in the year blah blah blah. Just know that it is.
A lot of good albums came out this year. This is FACT’s top forty – starting with 40-31 today, and concluding with the top ten on Friday.
40: THE HORRORS
The album that saw The Horrors go from comedy goths to one of Britain’s most talked-about bands, and a record that featured both some excellent pop songs and an overbearing, off-putting debt to 80s alt-rock. [Tam Gunn]
As Prince once sang, and as Hot Chip told us over again, there is joy in repetition. The second album from London electronic duo Subway is hardcore in its repetitiveness, and it’s given us much joy. We’re talking proper repetition here; none of the fancy, subtle squirming around that, say, minimal techno offers. Rather, Subway set up a dreamy loop of synths and let it roll and roll. Onwards into languid blissiness, as vintage keyboards blow bubbles and crooked techno beats slap along lazily, like waves hitting the side of a rowing boat.
Whereas so much modern-day, kosmische-influenced synth noodling is a bit too stern, and bit too dull (cf. Matmos’ recent Supreme Balloon), II is overwhelmingly generous. Everything here feels like it was made with sensory pleasure in mind; no awkwardness, no grit, no end-of-the-night darkness, just loops and sunshine. [Simon Hampson]
38: BLACK METEORIC STAR
BLACK METEORIC STAR
In which Gavin Russom snatches back acid house from the putrefying clutches of the minimal horde and reinstates it to its rightful role as heavy, heady psychedelia, at once apocalyptic and tooth-grindingly euphoric. Black Meteoric Star is all about the rough edges, the unsequenced drums, the unquantised phrases. It’s raw as fuck, almost militantly so, but nonetheless carefully designed and unashamedly cerebral. “It’s quite sad that the dance floor is disappearing from the cultural landscape,” Russom told FACT last year. “It’s a very important place.” Black Meteoric Star is a fitting and powerful elegy. [Kiran Sande]
Before cutting his teeth with Holy Shit (Ariel Pink’s project with Matt Fishbeck), Girls frontman Christopher Owens was a member of the Children of God cult, a status that led to the prostitution of his mother and the death of his brother. His is a hurt that runs through Album – the hazy narrative of which relates to overcoming pain and understanding oneself. Plenty of corny moments, but if ever there was an album where they’re forgiven it’s this one. [Jay Shockley]
36: MAJOR LAZER
GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE…LAZERS DO
The idea of house jokers Diplo and Switch making a dancehall album based on the tales of a fictional Jamaican commando who lost his arm in a secret zombie war (he even had his own Twitter account where he spoke in bad patois) might not have been that appealing, but the result was a surprisingly coherent full-length with two of the best club tracks of the year in ‘Pon de Floor’ and ‘Keep it Going Louder’. [Chris Campbell]
35: WILLIAM BASINSKI
A less monumental – and less mournful – work than his 2002-3 masterpiece The Disintegration Loops, 92982 nonetheless finds ambient composer Basinski in a melancholic mood.
Based around archived musical themes he recorded on, yes, September 29, 1982, 92982 is a reflection on the passing of youth, an audio séance that evokes the artist’s early days of New York loft-living, a time of personal development and professional frustration. The humid, highly-charged ambience of the city at that time is the real star of these beautifully saturated loop-recordings, and Basinski preserves and accentuates it so well: helicopters whir and sirens wail deep in the mix, giving the stately piano and synth-string melodies a very special resonance. Basinski’s formal artistry, hand in hand with an ability to locate and elicit the deepest emotions in his listeners, continues to astound. [Kiran Sande]
34: PAUL WHITE
THE STRANGE DREAMS OF PAUL WHITE
(ONE HANDED MUSIC)
A sample-heavy scrapbook of prog, psychedelia, library music and more. Incredibly wide-reaching but with its roots firmly in hip-hop culture, it introduced many to one of Britian’s most promising producers. [Tam Gunn]
33: JASON FINE
Jason Fines’s retro-futurist house sound looks to the golden years of Chicago club music, full of yearning melody and with an electro-influenced bulbousness that invites comparison with Mr Fingers, Virgo et al. In an era of air-tight, precision-tooled production, the live, off-the-grid feel of Fine’s drum and synth programming is as bracing as a hard smack on the chops.
Ringing fresh life out of tried and tested tropes, Future Thought is undoubtedly among the best house albums to be released in 2009, though the amount of credible competition is, let’s be honest, negligible. Really, it’s an album that stands out on its own merits, achieving timelessness and singularity by conveying a trowel-load of emotion with the sparest of means. [Daniel Feeld]
32: HILDUR GUDNADÓTTIR
Tremulous, deeply romantic cello work from this respected Icelandic artist – a sometime member of Múm – bolstered by bass and barely perceptible electronic processing from Johann Johannsson and Skuli Sverrisson. Not since Arthur Russell’s World of Echo has a “traditional” string instrument sounded so rich and expressive; from the undulating drone of ‘Elevation’ to the more urgent, locomotive ‘Erupting Light’, it’s tremendously stimulating stuff. [Kiran Sande]
31: THE VILLAGE ORCHESTRA
I CAN HEAR THE SIRENS SINGING AGAIN
Stunning ambient piece centered around a recurring vocal that appears, wraithlike, at sporadic intervals through a veil of rain and shimmering loops. [Tom Lea]
30: HUDSON MOHAWKE
If nothing else, Butter is consistent. Right down to the colours of the record’s cover – so synthetic they look polluted; toxified by neon – the debut album from Glaswegian hip-hop producer Hudson Mohawke deals in DayGlo; its plastic, tacky timbres recalling the most artificial parts of ’80s yacht rock, soul and pop like some evil, glistening P-Funk ghost. [Tom Lea]
AMIGA RAILROAD ADVENTURES
Though a frequent contributor to labels like Bunker and Creme Organization, Hague-based synth-savant Danny Wolfers saves his best and freakiest work for his own Strange Life imprint, adopting a bewildering array of guises for a staggering run of CD-R albums with bizarre backstories.
Amiga Railroad Adventures, a tribute to the age of “Amiga computing cosyness” is one of Wolfers’ most impressive album-length statements to date (and there have been dozens). Though the influence of his beloved Chicago house is evident on a couple of tracks, in the main this is streamlined, Kraftwerkian techno-pop: bassy as fuck, soaked in tape-hiss and, for all its retro grounding, somehow still bewitchingly futuristic. [Kiran Sande]
28: SILK FLOWERS
(POST PRESENT MEDIUM)
Silk Flowers consists of Aviram Cohen and Peter Schuette, formerly of New York outfit Soiled Mattress And The Springs, along with Car Clutch’s Ethan Swan. Muso credentials aside, this self-titled album is a gloomy synth-driven tapestry of haunting minimalism and powerful, evocative song writing.
Credit must go to the pitch-perfect production of Fred Thomas, who plays the album straight and lo-fidelity, avoiding the temptation to oversaturate the 80s vibes already on show. Silk Flowers aren’t self-consciously retro but they are nostalgic: the band look to the past to find inspiration for the future, and while they tread a fine line throughout the record, the originality in their song-writing ensures they stay the right side of copyist, resulting in an album that’s enjoyable and admirable. [Jeremy Parkinson]
Unbalance is a dubstep album – you need to play it loud to truly appreciate it, but 2562’s songwriting – the melodies, the leadlines, the structure – has advanced such that you can listen to it on laptop speakers and still bliss out. Tracks like ‘Dinosaur’, ‘Flashback’ – there’s a subdued sadness to those melodies, bobbing along a river of crackle and rain, that hits you hard.
The looped vocals on ‘Lost’ are like reading Burial’s diary if he’d spent years alone on a spaceship, while the album’s title track has rhythms that recall Shortstuff’s more off-kilter percussive moments, but uses them to stagger emotion rather than set off dancefloors. Rhythmically, Unbalance is more varied than any Huismans full-length to date, and another distinction between this and last year’s Aerial is given away by the contrasting cover art: finally, this is a 2562 album in multicolour. [Tom Lea]
26: CITY CENTER
The first album from Fred ‘Saturday Looks Good to Me’ Thomas’ City Centre project got a lot of flack this year; certain quarters of the blogging cognoscenti quick to slam it as one fat-arsed Animal Collective rip-off.
Well, sure. It might be. As Deerhunter sound like a less shit MBV [er, arguably – Ed], so too does Thomas’ offering take an overrated inspiration and turn it into something more rewarding. City Center transcends any notions of irritating American Apparel-endorsed hippy hype and stands out on its own, charming merits – its addictiveness a result of Thomas’ enviable knack for melody rather than the sonic sorcery employed on its production. [Rich Hanscomb]
Atavism found snd more skeletal and minimal than before, each kick and snap razor-sharp, the digital synths like lasers cutting through ice. As far as doing a lot with a very small palette of sounds goes, Atavism murders 99% of what is generally regarded as minimal techno, both in terms of inventiveness and accuracy. And in terms of giving people something they didn’t expect, I doubt anyone – even those who’ve only heard last album 4, 5, 6 – will find many surprises in its sixteen tracks. But that’s probably par for the course when you’re dealing with a style as frequently faceless as European out-tronica: Atavism is a quality addition to snd’s catalogue, and the predictability of its quality is simply a side effect of the group’s reputation for doing this sort of thing so well, and so consistently. [Chris Campbell]
24: ATLAS SOUND
More intimate than much of Deerhunter’s output, the languid atmospherics of the first Atlas Sound album are still very much present on Logos. This time, however, the experimentalism has been turned down and the tunes have been turned up. A lot. That’s not to say it’s all happy and inane – as if. There are just melodies to bolster the rich palette of moods – from the spacey ‘An Orchid’, which sees Cox moan over a waltzing minor key melody that Thom Yorke would probably shed tears over, to ‘Walkabout’, where Noah Lennox – of Animal Collective and Panda Bear fame – brings his own sunny, Beach Boys pop vibes to bear with such force of will that it momentarily transforms Logos into Person Pitch. [Louise Brailey]
Making a name for himself in the late 80s with his legendary DJ sets at St Pauls dances and early production work with Massive Attack, Rob Smith went on to extrapolate the soulful, breakbeat-led Bristol sound with Smith & Mighty and later the jungle-leaning More Rockers, always clinging tightly to a dubwise sensibility.
However, it was with the birth of his RSD alter ego that Smith begun to capture the underground’s collective imagination again: hooking up with Punch Drunk, the label run by Tom ‘Peverelist’ Ford out of the Rooted Records store in Bristol. Steeped in Jamaican dancehall flavour and topped off with a certain Bristolian je ne sais quoi, Smith’s recent singles – collected on this CD compilation – are undeniably, demonstrably dubstep, but have a lineage and a pedigree all their own. There’s something classic, or rather classicist, about every RSD production; the experience that Smith brings to the mixing desk audible in every note. [Tony Essler]
Describing himself as a “Los Angeles based ‘Modern-Funk’ musician, wax collector, ‘Boogie’ aficionado and founder of L.A party Funkmosphere”, DâM-FunK filters elements of P-Funk, G-Funk and early ’80s electro-funk (e.g. Change, D-Train, Style-era Cameo) into a beguiling new concoction.
To misquote Simon Reynolds, many crimes have been committed in the name of funk, and all too often it’s the cartoon elements of the genre (Larry Blackmon’s codpiece, Jessie Rae’s claymore, Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk) that get more attention than the seriously good sounds. Thankfully, DâM-FunK brings the BPMs right down and manages to strike the right balance between the sublime and the ridiculous. [Justin Toland]
21: MORITZ VON OSWALD TRIO
OK, so this wasn’t quite as game-changing as we might’ve hoped, but still – what a bold and rewarding album. Joined by two stellar sidemen in Max Loderbauer (nsi./Sun Electric) and Sasu Ripatti (Luomo, Vladislav Delay), there are occasional echoes of the Basic Channel man’s past – a Rhythm & Sound-style skank-out here, a Maurizio-style dub-house break there – but the emphasis is less on the exercise of club or soundsystem dynamics and more on layering, on building up a sheer density of sound. If you’ve ever wondered what a hook-up between Nurse With Wound, Ricardo Villalobos and Tony Allen might sound like, you really ought to check out Vertical Ascent. [Ben Fogle]
(NOT NOT FUN)
Every year brings its silly new coinages that seem to create scenes as much as describe ones that already exist: 2009 was all about “glow-fi” (or the more unwieldy “hypnagogic pop”). Covering such disparate groups as Memory Tapes, Washed Out and Pocahaunted, glow-fi referred to a kind of woozy, sun-spoiled and quasi-nostalgic American alt-pop music, a more colourful take on the UK’s decidedly monochrome hauntology.
Its finest architect and practitioner was, without doubt, Matthew Mondanile, a.k.a Ducktails: using tape loops, reverb-soaked guitar and rippling, kraut-influenced synth textures, he demonstrated an uncanny ability to evoke memories of young love and hot, stoned summers past. He released two splendid albums this year; this delicately psychedelic self-titled effort was the first of ’em, and the best. [Daniel Feeld]
10-20 specialises in a similar vein of clipped, greyscale techno as The Village Orchestra, but over the course of this album he seizes the opportunity to expand that sound – over industrial whirs and clangs on ‘Nei’, flattened hip-hop bumps on ‘Wdtrhjvelgrad’ and ‘Inb’, sweet piano transmissions on ‘Jjuvxszla’ and icy-cold minimal on ‘Milvus’. [Tom Lea]
18: DIRTY PROJECTORS
Much like the early yardstick for 2009 that was Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, Bitte Orca‘s a record that continues to give, and represents a career best for a band who’ve previously compelled but frustrated, but have now found the stars aligning, their dynamic clicking into place, and are on top of their game. [Luke Jarvis]
17: DJ SPRINKLES
MIDTOWN 120 BLUES
“The contexts from which the deep house sound emerged are forgotten,” states Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles, in a wistful spoken intervention on Midtown 120 Blues. “Sexual and gender crises, transgendered sex work, black market hormones, drug and alcohol addiction, loneliness, racism, HIV, ACT-UP, Tompkins Square Park, police brutality, queer-bashing, underpayment, unemployment and censorship – all at 120 beats per minute.” Midtown 120 Blues is educational, for sure; but it’s no lecture – Thaemlitz demonstrates the emotive and (believe it or not) political potential of deep house not just through rhetorical preaching, but by assured and heartfelt practice. [Kiran Sande]
Three EPs combines the cutting edge of electronic music with a ritualistic intensity operating at the level of the unconscious; in this purely “shamanic” sense it’s part of a lineage that includes voodoo tribes, Burroughs/Gysin, Psychic TV. It makes you feel anxious, it hurts your ears, it changes your physiology. It’s a trip. If you’re looking for music to DJ out or to brighten up your commute, then look elsewhere. You can’t “use” this record – it uses you, it’s uncompromising, and it doesn’t meet you in the middle. It’s a record to be loved, but also to be feared. [Kiran Sande]
15: BLANK DOGS
UNDER AND UNDER
(IN THE RED)
Fifteen great pop songs, weighed down with dense fuzz, recorded with slack chords and slacker percussion – what more can you say? It’s a formula that’s worked for generations, from The Wipers to Guided by Voices, to Ariel Pink, and when it’s done by someone with the sort of abundant songwriting talent that Blank Dogs clearly possesses, there’s nothing better.
Like the best albums of this ilk – GBV’s Bee Thousand, Jay Reatard’s singles collections – there’s that overarching impression that its tracks are knocked off; casual moments of almost-genius. Ultimately none of this lo-fi malarkey affects their quality – it just affects whether they sound closer to Pavement or The Beatles. [Tom Lea]
(ITALIANS DO IT BETTER)
Italians Do It Better’s Johnny Jewel (he of Chromatics and Glass Candy) journeys to Montreal, hooks up with vocalist Megan Louise and drummer Nat Walker, and makes a full-length album of timeless sounding ballroom pop that fans of Nite Jewel or the Fiery Furnaces should lose their shit to. Sound as a pound. [Tam Gunn]
13: ANIMAL COLLECTIVE
MERRIWEATHER POST PAVILION
Underscoring the adventurous melodies and arrangements at the forefront of Merriweather Post Pavilion is a chirruping ecosystem of peels, chimes and drones, buttressed in turn by sparse, dynamic jabs of bass and drum that nod very subtly to dubstep and even Atlanta snap. When I first heard this elated, exultant album I – like many – thought I might be dealing with a Smile for the twenty-first century. Clearly I was getting carried away, and sure enough its lesser tracks have lost their lustre over the past year; the whole doesn’t sound quite as profound or substantial as it once did. But fuck, come on, the likes of ‘Bluish’, ‘Almost Frightened’ and ‘My Girls’ – that stuff is eternal and inarguable. I almost hate to say it – who likes consensus? – but seriously, ‘My Girls’ – wow. [Kiran Sande]
Martyn’s interpretation of dubstep is utopian; drums and bass are all that are required for entry, everything else is yours. Great Lengths is varied and listenable, percussion and warm bass lines rub against driving airy chords; each sound feels distinct, like an audio memory being written into the present. An album that’s going to stand the test of time by standing on the edge. [Marcus Scott]
11: LEYLAND KIRBY
SADLY THE FUTURE IS NO LONGER WHAT IT WAS
(HISTORY ALWAYS FAVOURS THE WINNERS)
A magnificently sustained achievement, and – to date – James ‘The Caretaker’ Kirby’s most human and anguished work. Sadly is an unfashionably immense album about an immense and unfashionable subject: loss, and time’s stubborn failure to redeem it. Compulsory listening then, but perhaps best avoided by the recently dumped. [Peter Strathain]
Last year’s ‘Golden Phone’/’Turn Me Well’ seven-inch was great and the Filthy Friends mixtape was pretty cool, but few expected Micachu’s debut album to be this good. Perhaps crucially, someone who did was Matthew Herbert, who contacted the East London musician out of the blue and offered to produce her work. Herbert presumably saw a piece of himself in Mica; the legacy of his cut ‘n’ paste approach to music exists in every note of Jewellery – in its rattling loops, its mimetic hoover-referencing, the genius ‘ding!’ on ‘Do Me Well’.
But the Shapes aren’t a doo-wop group and this is nowhere near a Phil Spector job from Herbert – the band’s talent and personality shine through every route Jewellery decides to go down, whether that finds them adopting a Fiery Furnaces-style approach to song structure, a scratchy lo-fi aesthetic or drowning tracks in skittish, crashing pop waves. The constants are great hooks, wicked turns of sound and a wonderful singer who warbles, mumbles and stutters her way through a miniature odyssey that willfully defies expectations. [Tom Lea]
09: JIM O’ROURKE
If anything, The Visitor – Jim O’Rourke’s first significant solo venture for eight years – sounds like a delayed follow-up to 1997’s Bad Timing; a gorgeous, 38-minute folk symphony that dispenses with vocals but is absolutely bursting with life. It begins coyly, but doesn’t take long to grab you by the balls; so lauded is O’Rourke as a producer that it’s easy to forget what a fearsomely accomplished guitarist he is. His multi-tracked, largely acoustic parts here are sensational; his mixing-desk mastery allows him to capture every quirk and nuance. Some passages are reminiscent of 1999’s Eureka at its least blowsy, with a delicate but confidently balanced instrumental mix of guitar, banjo, piano, woodwind and martial drums.
So classic does The Visitor sound, you’re naturally inclined to assume that there are lots of records like it. Then you actually think about it, and realise there are none – none at all. The Visitor is a lone-standing triumph, not just of composition and performance (every note is written and played by O’Rourke) – but of craft as well. They don’t make them like this anymore; and, come to think of it, they never did. [Cayce Pollard]
08: BAT FOR LASHES
On first listen Two Suns feels like the logical stylistic continuation from Natasha Khan’s 2007 debut, Fur and Gold. There’s the same wilful, art school oddness that shifted a million hippy headbands from Top Shop, but where as the first album marinated itself in ponderous handfuls of ‘Cornflake Girl’ piano chords, Two Suns feels more focused, the songwriting tighter, and – thank God – more beat-driven thanks to programming by Brooklyn’s Yeasayer.
Indeed, there are fleeting occasions where the closest point of reference is disco nutter Roisin Murphy; certainly the distorted beats and sheets of spongy synths present on ‘Daniel’ and ‘Pearl’s Dream’ open up a new dimension for Khan’s songwriting. There’s still plenty of pastoral strumming and soft focus lyrics about wandering in fields and skies, but it’s given a darker, richer tonality – when Khan duets with Scott Walker on the Gothic vaudeville of closer ‘Big Sleep’, you’re reminded of the slow burning intensity of PJ Harvey’s White Chalk. It would be reductive to suggest Khan is simply the latest in the Amos/Bush/Harvey legacy of eccentric female musicians, but this album reveals a gentle fearlessness in her willingness to experiment that should be treasured. [Louise Brailey]
ONE FOOT AHEAD OF THE OTHER
The Zomby trademark, that halcyon sound of 8-bit trills made wet in a paradise of modern VST reverb, is a re-imagining of childhood, journalist Simon Reynolds accurately describing it as “a working-through of the music/popcult assimilated during infancy and early childhood”. The vessel here is ganja, and the way it operates socially to perpetuate infantile desire, allowing the user to foster unnatural fixations, to refine and “vibe” on pleasurable effects in a way that betrays the systematic dedication of the adult. As an aside it’s simple to see how weed-smokers come to use dub reggae as a gateway music, before finding it not sufficiently fucked-up to mirror their head-space.
And Zomby must certainly be very high these days, still in that deliriously wonderful state where drugs offer acceleration and an effortless symbiosis with one’s craft. One Foot Ahead of the Other is one of those very special glimpses into the future, an organically avant-garde experience like Derrick May’s The Beginning EP whose busy, racing lines it often unconsciously echoes. However, overlooking untouchable masterpieces within like the title-track and ‘Godzilla’, it also reveals our hero in danger of becoming too esoteric, abandoning the vestigial cheesiness and “choons” that ‘Strange Fruit’ made manifest. Furthermore, Zomby, in deciding to “keep it clean” has missed another trick: I for one would have liked to have heard more of the squalid, ear-melting disorientation of ‘Aquafresh’. How long, like Icarus, can he fly upwards towards the sun? [Woebot]
SONGS ABOUT DANCING AND DRUGS
The main reference points for Jeremy Shaw on this, his second album are still post-punk bands – the title may or may not be a Talking Heads reference – and the drowsy, sluggish strokes of Spacemen 3 and Earth. But the songwriting on show here has reached new heights; meticulously crafted tunes that move at a snail’s pace but never approach the boring side of slo-core.
Even when Songs is sunk deep into the heroin funk of its middle portion you can’t turn away, and the last two tracks, ‘Stop Taking (So Many)’ and thirteen minute closer ‘All Live But The Ending’, are both incredible – the first a better example of grandoise, lush metalgaze than anything Justin Broadrick’s done since Silver, and the second an almost unbelievably controlled, measured exercise in droning pop. As hypnotic as Earth’s recent albums, but without the feel that you’ve heard it all before, and easily Shaw’s best record to date. Give Matthew Dear another five years and a downer addiction and he might make something similar. [Tam Gunn]
If nothing else, the AutoTune-centric debut album from Discovery – the pairing of Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmaglij and Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles – should be admired for the way it eschews most modern indie (and especially side projects)’s penchant for flitting around music’s margins; touching on greatness, but never quite going for it, and instead aims straight for the jugular, every chance it gets. It might be a very 2009 record in the aesthetics it adopts, and more to the point, the way it adopts them, but deep down there’s a longing on LP; a longing for a time when pop was genuinely massive, when a backing singer meant a choir and when a string section meant an orchestra. Every beat here is big, every hook is huge, every melody is dripping with anxiety and every crescendo beaming with joy. [Anna Russell]
04: COLD CAVE
LOVE COMES CLOSE
(HEARTWORM / MATADOR)
Love Comes Close, Cold Cave’s first official album (following the static-coated Cremation compilation from earlier in the year) is amazing. It’s amazing because everything I expected it to be – a sheet white trip through a ghost house of electrical circuits and grubby mirrors – it isn’t. But mostly it’s just amazing because it’s one of the best pop albums of the year. Sure, ‘Life Magazine’ starts off sounding like the ghost of Depeche Mode rising from a drowning pool of static, but the female vocals are straight out of Heaven, and the ear-worm burrowing chorus is something else. In fact, with its cut up and echoed vocals, tempo changes and closing refrain it’s not a million miles away from something off this year’s Discovery album [see entry 5 – Ed].
‘The Laurels of Erotomania’ is even brasher, with comically bouncy bass and cheap Game Gear melodies, while the album’s title track lets the synths take a backseat to an 80s radio guitar line and chorus built on vocal harmonies. But despite its direction being a shock, Love Comes Close feels natural: it’s still very dark, and very Cold Cave. ‘The Trees Grew Emotions and Died’ is as power violence as it is power pop, ‘I.C.D.K”s breakdown sounds like the instruments are being tortured, there are tracks called ‘Heaven Was Full’ and ‘Hello Rats’, and lyrics about the synthetic world and future ex-girlfriends. In the early 90s, industrial legends Swans turned their hands to pop music and made some of the best records of all time. In 2009 Cold Cave did the same and made one of the best of the year. [Tom Lea]
Omar-S has long been worshipped by Detroit house geeks, but it took the release of Fabric 45 to introduce his seemingly simple but totally singular sound to regular music-lovers like you and I.
Comprised of special edits of tracks he’s released over the past five years on his own doggedly independent FXHE imprint, this mix CD essentially functioned as an Omar-S primer and a “best of” all in one. With a kind of raw, minimal funk as his anchor, Smith is as capable of mind-melting rhythmic abstraction as he is of bold melodic statements, and this breadth of vision is heart-stoppingly apparent on Fabric 45: from the video game noir of ‘Strider’s World’ and ‘Blade Runner’ to jacking soul-jams like ‘The Maker’ and ‘U’ (featuring amazingly hoary vocals from Smith’s cousin) and the near-symphonic ‘Psychotic Photosynthesis’, every track bears the unmistakeable mark and irresistible swagger of Omar-S. If you’ve not yet acquainted yourself with this album and the most incredible musician behind it, please delay no longer. [Ben Baglin]
(V2 / COOPERATIVE)
Released in January of this year with production by Dave Sitek, Telepathe’s debut album didn’t just live up to the potential of early singles ‘Chrome’s On It’ and ‘Devil’s Trident’, it exceeded it completely. Much was made of the band’s debut to hip-hop (indeed, there’s a chopped and screwed version of ‘Can’t Stand It’ on YouTube), but really this was more a continuation of Gang Gang Dance’s 2008 Saint Dymphna, with more emphasis on that album’s pop hooks.
Dance Mother is massive, colossal pop: ‘Can’t Stand It’ sounds like it was recorded on top of a tidal wave, Sitek bringing the same sensibility behind the boards as he does to TV on the Radio’s epics. Whereas ‘Chrome’ and ‘Trident’ seemed to coyly worm their way into your subconscious, tracks like ‘Michael’ make no secret of their teen movie synth hooks that recall MGMT more than they do coldwave and Cash Money. When she nails her vocals, such as on ‘Trilogy’, Busy Gangnes is the natural heir to the druggy, resigned style that Julian Casablancas perfected on Is This It, with lyrics that sound explicitly personal but mislaid and re-arranged to make them ambiguous. Debut album of the year – bar one. [Tom Lea]
01: THE XX
Listening to The xx’s debut album, it’s impossible not to be overcome by the sort of sublime sadness that feels like a rheumatoid ache in the heart area. It begins innocuously enough with ‘VCR’, a pretty music box chiming motif punctuating the pretty boy-girl vocals of guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim. Pleasant, sure, but reminiscent of pretty much any US indie band that get a kick out of soundtracking mobile phone adverts. It’s only when they begin to wallow in their sparse palette of bass, the pointed twang of post punk guitar, the clatter of drum machines and a lot of reverb, that this London four-piece sound special, and distinctly British.
The haunting synths of ‘Crystallised’, the industrial whirrs that briefly open ‘Islands’ and that abrasive snare on ‘Infinity’ suggest that they’re the sort of guys who worship Martin Hannett. But to write them off as Factory nostalgics is off the mark; central track ‘Fantasy’ calls upon far more contemporary reference points – the aqueous sub bass recalling the ghostly depths of cerebral dubstep of the Peverelist ilk. This is undoubtedly a record that likes to wallow; one that like The Cure’s Faith or Joy Division’s Closer, seeks its own catharsis through melancholy. Thankfully, it’s executed with a deftness of touch that stops it becoming overwrought: the first verse of ‘Basic Space’ restricted to just vocals and scratchy electronic percussion before a subtle synth line and chiming guitar are introduced. And it’s still the album’s poppiest moment.
Only the lyrics betray the band’s youth: on the surface there’s little depth beyond basic love-gone-sour poesy (“Did I say something that was wrong/Can I make it better with the lights turned on?” Madley Croft sings on ‘Shelter’, sounding strinkingly like Tracey Thorn). But sometimes the simplest means have the most profound resonance, and if nothing else, this album is a testament to that very fact. [Louise Brailey]