Monday, 28 December 2009

The Skinny's Favourite Albums of 2009


@The Skinny

Time is a great leveller when it comes to musical reputations, because it's much easier to make a solid judgement when you have the space to think freely about what you're listening to without the pernicious influences of hype, fashion or the temptation to be a contrarian. A year after it was first leaked, it comes as no surprise that Merriweather Post Pavilion still feels like the obvious choice for album of the year. It felt special from the moment it landed. If 12 months haven't dulled our feelings, will ten years? When will someone criticise it on its own terms, instead of on the tenuous extra-musical grounds of over-hype or hipster-hate? Where is the backlash going to come from?

"My parents listen to it and they're proud of it, and they like a song here and there, but it's definitely not their thing," Geologist tells The Skinny. So perhaps Geologist's mum could tell us why we're wrong? "No, I don't think she'll want to start the backlash! It's something she can show to her friends or to my grandparents, show them that I'm doing something worthwhile with my life, even though I have a beard!"

Merriweather Post Pavilion is going to be spoken of in rarefied terms for years to come, so you'd better get used to it. Sick of hearing the Kid A story yet? Well there's a MPP myth in the works already, you know how it'll go: progressive-this and zeitgeist-that. It's a wonderful album. It deserves it. "We love this record and are really happy with it, and we're very happy that people are receiving it so well. It feels good, you know?" Geologist says. "Everybody who puts something out into the world... wants it to be respected. We put a lot of work into it. But I think we have to be careful about it, we're going to be very conscious next time not to make MPP part two because that would be pretty boring." Panda Bear is still picking faults: "I don't know that we'll ever be completely happy," he says. "Listening to something 500 times or so throughout writing, touring, recording, mixing, mastering... you start to notice little things you might change. Sometimes you want to change things just because when you started the thing you were a different person."

Change it? Don't be silly. Panda Bear tells us something else remarkable: "We knew we wanted to have more of a focus on bass and bass frequencies, and we had some themes in mind like ballet, but like most of our albums the spirit of the thing kind of just came on gradually." Did you catch that? Ballet! Geologist, on the other hand, drops names like Kylie, dubstep star Burial, and Berlin minimal techno label Kompakt. Try to pin a genre on Merriweather Post Pavilion. It can't be done. Part of the MPP story, still in production, will require a succinct distillation of its aesthetic, one or two words to sum it up. But everyone's stumped. Merriweather Post Pavilion is an alien conflation of Burial, Kylie, Kompakt, ballet and bass. How could it not be album of the year?

the rest @The Skinny

Through no fault of their own, sometimes great bands acquire unhealthy legacies: Nirvana, I'm looking at you particularly. One of Pavement's aesthetic choices which was seized on big-time was a perceived musical sloppiness, a too-cool-to-care attitude that has afflicted countless indie rock bands since. Grizzly Bear care about the placing and playing of every note, and that discipline doesn't breed sterility: their studied vocal harmonies evoke plenty of emotion. And when they're livelier, as in the first two songs and the last two-but-one, the spotless production gives every movement its space. Grizzly Bear might've sent you to sleep before, but now they'll start you dreaming.

Bitte Orca is where everything finally came together smoothly for New Yorker Dave Longstreth, mastermind of the Dirty Projectors, who'd previously handicapped himself by concocting ambitious ideological aims for his albums that he wasn't quite able to fulfil. Bitte Orca keeps things simple, relatively speaking, by foregoing overarching themes in favour of accessibility, achieved not by compromise but by focus. It's not a concept that glues these nine tracks together, it's the songs themselves: post-punk, afrobeat, indie pop, garage rock and contemporary R&B all mingle happily in the company of Longstreth and the girls' elastic vocals. Bizarre on paper, brilliant in practice.

2009 was a strong year for hip-hop, thanks to the likes of Raekwon and Mos Def outperforming the disappointing returns of megastars Jay-Z and Eminem. Best of them all was Daniel Dumile's umpteenth album, his first as all-caps DOOM, an endlessly replayable journey through his comic book rogue fantasies that's a little darker than prior efforts. Dumile's gruff croak serves up a thousand perplexing rhymes for you to unravel, and guest spots from Rae, Ghostface and a little-known lady called Empress Star all impress. Born Like This is Dumile's best solo record since Vaudeville Villain.

"We didn't want to make something that sounded like the first record, we definitely think we've progressed and moved on as a band" guitarist and producer Andy MacFarlane tells The Skinny. But how Forget The Night Ahead compares to debut Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is a matter of heated debate. We (or rather you, discerning reader) placed Fourteen Autumns second on our list of the best Scottish albums of the decade; the NME included this one in its overall century of the century. "You'll always get some people saying 'it's not as good as the first record'" MacFarlane says. "Those people are wrong. But other people have been very kind about this one." It's a tight call, we'll grant that.

"This is a brilliant, furious album that manages to be both misanthropic in its message yet therapeutic in its sheer catharsis" said Chris Cusack in his 5-star Skinny review of Converge's seventh album Axe To Fall. But it wasn't straightforward for the progressive hardcore band to put together, because they borrowed the talents of nearly 20 guest performers. "Bringing some friends in to contribute to the songs added some new challenges to the process for us for sure," vocalist Jacob Bannon tells us. "But I really enjoyed what we created together and it seems that people are enjoying it, so that's a positive thing".

"We went in [to the studio] pretty na├»ve thinking that we were ready to make an album and were all set to record it in a fortnight, and it ended up taking about 9 months on and off" reflects Rick Anthony, lead singer of Glasgow's Phantom Band, who released the best debut LP of 2009. "It sometimes feels like we’re parents of this kid – you try and bring it up right and do the best by it but at some point you have to step back and let it go off on its own. It has its fuck ups but we still love it." We love it too.

Having equated the struggles of modern life with hunting for crystal skulls down a dark hole on 2006’s Blood Mountain, Mastodon took to the sky(e) for the fourth and final album in their ‘elements’ series. “It’s an astral planing dream,” guitarist Brent Hinds forewarned us of the progressive odyssey to unfold. With a narrative backdrop of Tsarist Russia, psychedelic flavours were thrown into a blender with banjo-led sludge metal and ADD song structure – an unlikely recipe which has seen the Atlanta quartet realise a curious crossover appeal. So what are they doing differently? “We scream like banshees being stuck in the ass with a knife, although now there’s a lot more singing going on,” Hinds shrugs. Will someone please relay this idea to Duffy?

For all the talk of its mystical themes and lavish production, what few people seem to mention about Two Suns is just how great a singer Natasha Khan is. Granted, singing ability isn't as important as X-Factor judges might claim, but Two Suns wouldn't be half the album it is without Khan's exceptional pipes. There's not a hair out of place on Bat For Lashes' Two Suns, a surprisingly inventive and remarkably touching second album that confirms Khan's singular talent. She even persuaded Scott Walker to collaborate; how can she possibly exceed that?

It's well established by now that Glasgow's indie-pop credentials are second to none, a view supported by another fabulous album by Camera Obscura this year. But don't overlook Butcher Boy, whose second album React Or Die is a real treasure, borrowing equally from Belle & Sebastian and Arthur Lee's Love in the sculpture of ten heartbreakingly pretty songs. "My initial direction was that we should aim for something folky, in the sense of it being old and unsettling", singer/songwriter John Blaine Hunt told us. "And even if it was unsettling, it must still be beautiful." It definitely is.

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