During the course of 2010 I have often complained that I’ve felt I’m getting bored of new music. So many bands are hyped but, to me, don’t deliver. And yet, as the end of the year approaches I find I’ve bought at least an album a month (discounting re-purchases, newly issued ‘lost treasures’ and, naturally, the never-ending swathes of back catalogue I still find the need to buy.
As many navel-gazing people recognise, the festive season isn’t just about old stories, or presents, or over-indulgence. It’s also about lists. So here’s one: my Top 10 records of the year (new releases, that is). What are yours?
Lots of atmospherics and hissing ambience, plus some cleverly double-tracked fingerpicked guitars and vocals never too much on top of the mix. Benoit Pioulard is a recording name of American singer-songwriter and multi-instramentalist Thomas Meluch. Despite the warm tones, the record remains defiantly lo-fi – Meluch’s work is often developed from found sound, dictaphone recordings and the like. Subtle harmonies and folky jangles are all rather Simon and Garfunkel rendered by way of Arab Strap. It’s not all dark, but it’s pretty dark. Perhaps darkly pretty.
Album: Prism Eyes
Reading Rainbow is not a defunct nightclub in a Berkshire town but a classic kids programme in the US. It gives its name to the dreamy pop band formed by US indie kids Sarah Everton and Rob Garcia who are musical and romantic partners and who proclaim a love of kale as one of their likes. Always a good thing in my book. There’s little new about the sound they make, but it’s a hell of a nice one. A little bit Mamas and the Papas, a little bit Jesus and Mary Chain, and quite a lot Primitives. Frantically simple drumbeats, scuzzy guitars, sweet reverb-drenched West Coast harmonies and a dash of organ make this a big tick for me. The album’s newness means I can’t place it any higher.
Album: Beach Fossils
I first heard this thin sounding record while working from a table in Pure Groove records when my home internet was down. What I liked? That very thinness. Also, the spindly riffs and almost flat vocals seemed to pick up on ideas from lots of those down-at-heel ’80s guitar bands that came in the wake of The Smiths and were championed by John Peel but not many many people more. Yep, they sound a lot like bands used to on Sarah Records. Since that first listen I’ve seen them live – where the the weediness is bulked up as guitars are allowed to overdrive. Suddenly, Beach Fossils remind me more of early Ride.
Album: On Patrol
One review of Sun Araw’s album described their music as sounding like a lava lamp. I tend to agree. It’s full of slow-moving but fascinating changing shapes and shifts of hue. It could go on for hours. In fact some of Sun Araw’s songs seem to – in a good way of course. Oh, and they’re not really songs, they’re sub-deep funk grooves, dub-cut stoner wig-outs. They’re very slow, mostly instrumental and sound like all and none of Keith Hudson, Mad Professor, Parliament, John Lee Hooker and Primal Scream. One song features the rumbling of bubbles being blown. I wonder where from. Not a record to get you up in the morning.
When I first put this on the stereo at home, I went to make a cup of tea and had to rush back to turn it down. That doesn’t seem to happen much with records these days. The compression in the production fights all the way through this album as bigger drums and guitars crash the party. It’s fun, and the ‘faults’ of the mix are made into part of the charm. The sound? Techno keys riffs, hip hop beats, Ting Tings vocals – apart from when singer Alexis Krauss is screaming, with occasional surges of Pixies/metal guitar. Kind of. Sleigh Bells are a duo from Brooklyn. Brooklyn seems to be bringing me lots of good musical things these days.
Album: We Went Riding
I missed this on release. The follow-up to James’ first solo album, ‘Seven Sleepers Den’, is more upbeat and a return to the lilting country that fans will recognise from Gorky’s Zygotic Monkey records of the 1990s – the Welsh psych band in which James played bass and sang alongside Euros Childs. Cate Le Bon (part of James’ band before launching her solo career proper – and guesting on the Neon Neon album) provides Nico-esque backing vocals to the record. She’s a great counterpoint to James and Euros can also be heard singing in the mix too. It’s easy to forget that, besides their quirkiness, Gorky’s were also great songwriters, and there a real John Phillips ‘Wolfking of LA’ quality to some of these tracks. Why do Welsh bands do country so well?
Album: ‘Teen Dream’
For some reason, my initial thought on this album was that Beach House were a Beach Boys for today’s lovers of dreamy pop. Now I’m not sure. The soaring vocals and syrupy, sometimes sad, melodies do occasionally recall later-period (hmm, ‘Sunflower’?) surf pop, but the album’s a wholly different entity. For a while, if a track from ‘Teen Dream’ ever came up on our iTunes shuffle, I’d have to check to see who it was. Could a band sound like a blissed-out My Bloody Valentine crossed with ‘Tango In the Night’ era Fleetwood Mac? Would that be a good thing or a bad thing? I keep going back to this record to find out. Still can’t describe the record properly.
Album: The Age of Adz
I know he can sing and arrange and everything, but I’ve always insisted that Sufjan Stevens’ major album success, ‘Illinoise’, was about five tracks too long. To me it got a bit samey. It’s not an accusation I can throw at ‘The Age of Adz’ – which seems already to have become known as the ‘Sufjan Stevens Goes Mad’ album. And yes, it is all over the place. Rhythms and melody are constantly scruffed up, broken, tampered with, mediated. There’s almost too much in there to listen to. Brass and strings? Of course! Lush harmony? Hell yeah! Wonky out of tune keyboards and samples? Er, yep. Penny whistles? Shucks, okay. Stevens capable voice on R&B autotune? I kid you not. An album that will repay countless listens.
Album: Does It Look Like I’m Here?
I’ve always had the suspicion that someone, at some time, might realise that not all of Jean-Michel Jarre’s music was uniformly naff and put together a sound that built on his early work in a new (possibly even exciting) way. I know. I’ll give you a minute to ponder the logic of that notion.
Okay. It’s 2010 and an ambient/drone/electronica album from highly regarded Baltimore art-synth outfit Emeralds is released. The band cite the minimalism of Terry Riley as an influence and have opened shows for Throbbing Gristle. It’s trippy, spacey, and mostly built on the looped arpeggios of icy retro synths. It’s my second favourite album of the year. And it sounds a bit like Jean-Michel Jarre.
Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate
Album: Ali and Toumani
Ali Farka Toure died earlier this year and this was the last thing he did. It was recorded in London over a few days. He was very ill at the time. Really, he and Diabate just jammed. I can’t think of any album I’ve ever heard where I can say that the playing is any better, any freer. Two master musicians and a truly stunning record.