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]