I feel no need to get cynical about the state of the music industry. My perception is that each year we’re getting more great new music, not less. Where do all these bands and people and records keep coming from ? I also still don’t believe in The Death Of The Album. How can I with what I’ve been listening to this year ?
Let’s jump into the albums, more or less in order of preference. Let’s start with the four I’ve listened more to than any other album, some of them for weeks straight.
Fanfarlo – Reservoir
This was a discovery made on T61, an excellent music discovery site (now sadly hampered by a hard-to-use redesign). There were a few weeks where I only listened to this site, and this band and record is the best thing I got out of it. I ordered their debut album online the day it came out, in the nice deluxe version that includes a bonus disc and a board game (!).
As for the music, think a happier Beirut, a less tense Arcade Fire, a hint of Talking Heads in the attitude, and well-crafted dynamic uplifting songs. Lovely trumpets, xylophones and other instruments are sprinkled throughout. Infectious is the word. I have a longer record review half-done that I should post, but for now this will have to do. ‘Finish Line’ is the track that hooked me, with those trumpets racing, and there’s not a single bad track on the whole album.
Saw them play live finally yesterday, a short and sweet set that left me longing for more.
Antlers – Hospice
No other album in 2009 hurt so sweetly as this one. The story of a man losing his loved one to cancer. Both deeply depressing and uplifting at times; but always interesting. The guitars drift between shoegaze and Buckley, and that voice etches into your soul. After much internal debate, my favourite track has to be ‘Kettering’ – when those drums crash in and the guitars start washing, my heart tears up. But it’s a close tie with the ethereal heavenly last minute of ‘Thirteen’ – after the guitar noise, a female voice rises up begging us to pull her out.
The whole album is a fever trip start to finish, and best listened to as an album entirely. Let it sit in a few times in a row; it takes a while to dip in but it’s worth the ride.
The XX – XX
Judging from the end of year lists, a very popular choice, but well-deserved in my opinion. Just like my favourite band ever, Afghan Whigs, they fuse rock with R&B, but come out on the completely opposite side of the spectrum. The album ends up being a spacious glacial volcano. Simple guitar licks, soft bassy drum beats, open air, and two very complementary voices. Favourite moment on the album is around 1:40 in ‘Heart skipped a beat’, when her voice falls over going up on ‘left me waiting’. I was bored out of my mind the first time I played it. I left it on regardless, listening to it passively, and it clicked forever since as soon as I signposted each track mentally.
Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
I don’t think this band will ever be able to do wrong by me after their previous third album – even if I started liking them by proxy because of the opinion of a friend of mine about them. She was right all along. And this album confirms it. While I’m still not sure about the middle parts ‘Love like a Sunset’, the album is full of strong tracks. The first time I heard ‘1901’ I was depressed about their change in style, but a few listens later it was clear I should have listened better. I was disturbed only by the wallpaper – but the beating heart of song underneath was still classic Phoenix. Phoenix is one of the few bands who manage to blend the modern day style with an 80’s nostalgy, ending up sounding both uplifting and melancholic at the same time.
For some reason, although it doesn’t have the strongest Phoenix lyrics ever, ‘Rome’ is the standout track for me. The song has so many good moments, from the sad high notes before the break, over the bouncy guitar notes, to the shimmery guitars that build up in the payoff, to the way every Rome sounds different when he strings along five or six in a row – everything fits, and makes you long for something you didn’t even know you were missing.
Not a flawless record for sure, but irresistible nonetheless.
Other excellent albums of the past year:
- Gossip – Music for Men. Gossip makes the jump from punk rock with soul to soul rock with punk. Songs like Heavy Cross and Love Long Distance are pretty much perfect. The whole album is good too, but not enough surprise to make the above list.
- Patrick Watson and the Wooden Arms. Worth the wait, excellent album. Some excellent concerts as well. ‘Big Bird in a small cage’ is probably the prettiest song of the year. I’m a sucker for beautiful voices and excellent harmonies. Opener ‘Fireweeds’ is pretty amazing too.
- Yeah Yeah Yeah’s – It’s Blitz. Although a strong shift in musical direction, I had hoped for more boundary pushing. But there’s no arguing with the airy beauty of a track like ‘Skeletons’, especially when the sound of a bag pipe guitar brings in the hordes in the second half of the song. And Karen O still has the sexiest most animal female voice on the planet.
- Plants And Animals – Parc Avenue. Discovered at Primavera sound, making an equal parts indie equal parts psychedelic sun-baked desert road rock, much like Delta Spirit or Walkmen. Especially excellent live.
- The Veils – Sun Gangs. Third album, rock with a poetic twist, sound like the after-effects of getting snakebite. A review on Drowned In Sound completely slagged off my favourite track, ‘The house we lived in’. How anyone can hate those beautiful harmonies and swirling vocal lines is beyond me. Seeing them next week!
- Florence and the Machine. Man, that woman can belt! Rabbit Heart, Kiss with a Fist, awesome songs. Not to mention that heavenly ‘You’ve got the love’ cover, both in its original cover form, and as a reworking combined with the XX. I just don’t know which of the two to choose.
- Mew – No more stories today. This album may still prove to be too weird for me. How many albums do you have where a track can be played back in reverse to reveal another track ? If I have to pick one track, I’d go with ‘Introducing Palace Players’, with that weird bouncy unnatural bass line that still proves to be robotically danceable, before it morphs into a slowed-down disco stomper. These guys are quite simply crazily beautiful.
- White Lies – To Lose My Life. Can an album be more by-the-book teenage angst? As my sister says, how many bands do we really need that sounds like Joy Division ? Well, the answer, for someone who has never been able to really get into Joy Division, is – as many as we can. White Lies may be cheesy, but they pull it off so well. I might throw up if I see the singer shake his fist to the sky one more time (every single goddamn song), but each song on that album just simply works. I doubt they can pull it off again.
- Fever Ray. I’m definitely not a huge electronica/trip hop/… fan, but some of the things The Knife has done are awesome, and while it’s not a record for every day, the Fever Ray album has some very strong moments.
- Arctic Monkeys – Humbug. I’ll never be their biggest fan, but these guys are the real deal music-wise. They deserve all they’re getting. ‘My propeller’ is my stand-out.
- Editors – in this light and on this evening. Was I mentioning Joy Division before ? Definitely a change in direction, and it works well, but ultimately doesn’t grip me as much. Happy to see they made ‘You don’t know love’ the new single – easily the best track; the tension release of that guitar lick at the end right after the pause is killer.
- Drive like Maria – Elmwood. A Belgian/Dutch band. A certain Flemish expression roughly translates to ‘swings like a tit’, and that’s what this album does. Nothing inventive here, in a style that’s not particularly my favourite, but just really well executed. Something between AC/DC and Queens of the Stone Age. Bonus points for having the best female guitarist in our area – it’s amazing to see how she transforms on stage, and enjoys every note and chord she’s wrestling out of that guitar.
- Isbells. Another Belgian band. We don’t have the roots for country folk, but this album just works. Simple and beautiful. If you really need references, Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes and Iron and Wine seem to crop up a lot.
- Customs – Enter the Characters. As long as we’re talking Joy Division… I was expecting them to be a one hit wonder, but I have to admit I quite like their whole album. It’s not always as strong, especially lyrically, and you can probably tell it’s not a native English band, but overall they pull it off really well. I guess I’m just a sucker for this kind of sound. Most of all I’m surprised to see it reach the lists of so many Belgian people I know as well.
- Emiliana Torrini – Me and Armini. Jungle Drum was one of my favourite tracks of the year.
Not sure yet:
- Low Anthem – Oh My God Charlie Darwin. I wasn’t particularly impressed when I first heard the album, but I was so impressed by last night’s show that I’m going to have to give it a few more spins.
- Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca. I saw them open once for Explosions in the Sky, and they were, uhm, “different”. I’m still not sure if I like this album, and I should give it a few more chances.
- Bat For Lashes – Two Suns. One of the albums I looked forward to most, but doesn’t grip me in the end. But there’s no denying the world class of songs like Glass and Daniel.
One album I couldn’t get at all (and everything tells me I should have) – Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavillion.
Special mention to one late discovery – I’ve been addicted to ‘She Wants Revenge’ for the last two months. They had always been on my ‘to listen’ radar on the strength of one song, but I had no idea they already had two albums out. Did I mention Joy Division yet ? Even though they’re only a duo, they lay down quite a sound. Personally, I don’t really get why for all these bands (including Interpol) the Joy Division name keeps cropping up – I can tell them apart without any problem. They each bring something of their own to the mix, and She Wants Revenge – while at times a little juvenile, but endearingly so – is very physical and danceable. Perfect gloomy day music!
As for concerts, in no particular order:
- Antlers, Bush Hall, London. There were at best 500 people there, and it felt very much like a last concert before the big discovery. I’ve never seen Jeff Buckley live, but what I felt that night must have come very close to it. Live the music was even more haunting and painful and searing. It’s amazing that that voice comes out of that small body. Looking forward to seeing them again in Belgium in a few months!
- The XX, Razzmatazz, Barcelona. I didn’t have a ticket, and queued with 30 other people that all were trying to get in without a ticket. It was worth the wait, although watching a band with as much space in the music as this one in a country like Spain is not ideal. Sometimes I just want to yell at people to please shut the fuck up.
- Patrick Watson, Depot, Leuven. There simply aren’t that many real through-and-through musicians. This guy is the real deal; he lives and breathes and whispers music. The shy giggle and laughs aren’t an act, and they work. But the way he changes his vocal lines to suit the mood of the evening… And the encores, going into the audience with five speaker horns strapped to his back, the whole band following and making the audience quiet down as they perform in the middle of the room…. just excellent.
- Explosions in the Sky, Luchtbal, Antwerpen. These guys give it all. There is still something about the music coming from Texas… I’m not a fan of instrumental music, but explosions keep it interesting all the way through. Adding vocals would only ruin it.
- Spiritualized performing Ladies and Gentlemen we are floating in space, Royal Festival Hall, London. Well, not much more I can say. One of the albums that defined my young adult life, still in my top 20, performed in its entirety with about 30 people, including horns, strings, and choir. It’s still a strange concept to know exactly what’s going to be played, but this was performed to perfection.
As mentioned before, the best musical site I discovered the past year is The Sixty One. Feel free to ask me to invite you or befriend me if you know me and you’re on that site.
And with the National releasing in May, I have a feeling this is going to be another awesome year for music.