2009 - so far (part 2)

the world hates me. after making a rubbish joke about swine flu last week, the fates have decreed i need to be brought down a peg or two. i've been cursed with one of the worst colds i've had in years, fucking my sinuses around with a substance so viscous it may as well be Play Doh. but, even though i've only one functioning ear, i'm soldiering on with my top twenty records of 2009 so far. picking up where we left off...

10. The Sight Below - Glider
Seattle, WA native The Sight Below's debut LP washes over you the first time you listen to it. the primary instrument being guitar filtered through delay pedal doesn't do much to hang on to yr brain, and it's only when it goes through second plays and third plays, that the whole record starts to make itself noticed. it's a delayed reaction of an album - the post-rock-on-valium guitar colludes with the the persistent 4/4 pulse (the latter lifted straight out of Gas' songbook, if he has one) that almost has an urgency to it, all adding to the ultimately relaxing slow release effect these songs have on yr senses. following in the footsteps of the new school atmospheric ambient artists like Deaf Center and Belong, Glider is a welcoming, dizzy swarm of sound - keeping all the secrets to itself until it knows you well enough to tell them.

9. Camera Obscura - My Maudlin Career
returning in April with the best album of their (maudlin) career, Camera Obscura ditched all remaining traces of comparisons to Belle & Sebastian to fully embrace their triumphantly bookish chamber-pop side. some old trappings still remain, but ones that the band have expanded upon and hold up far better to repeat listens - Phil Spector, Leonard Cohen, The Beach Boys.
the first thing you'll notice on the opening one-two punch of "French Navy" and "The Sweetest Thing" is not only Tracyanne Campbell's inconcievably improved voice, but the sweeping string arrangments dominating the bridges and choruses. written by Björn Yttling (of Peter Bjorn and John), they're thoroughly indebted to the genius of Scott Walker, and are a delight for the ears of anyone who thought that We Love Life was Pulp's best album (i.e. me). Camera Obscura were a band i had all but written off after the thin-blooded flops of Underachievers... and Let's Get Out... - and i've never been more glad to be proved wrong.

8. Alva Noto - Xerrox Vol. 2
minimalist composers and sound artists are not musicians that i pretend to know anything about - my familiarity with them is superficial at best. my appreciation for artists like Aphex Twin, Sonic Youth and Fennesz has led to me being recommended the works of Steve Reich and Ryuichi Sakamoto, but it never gets much deeper than that. the vast back catologue of these people has always warned off the casual listener, and as such i've always found it a bit impenetrable.
but then along comes Germany's Carsten Nicolai, with his second instalment in the Xerrox series. Sampling from external sources like Stephen O'Malley and Michael Nyman, he's sonically bridging that gap between the innovative techno and the avant-garde composers they owe to by reworking these human motifs into a cushioned symphony of telephonic noise - he gives electricity such a personality that you won't be sure if the background popping and hissing is being made by a fax machine or a campfire. Xerrox Vol. 2 seems to unvravel and reveal itself more with each repeated listen, and i can only imagine it moving up in my estimations by the year's end.

7. Kurt Vile - Constant Hitmaker/God Is Saying This to You
being a member of one the band that produced one my very favourite LPs of last year (that's The War on Drugs' Wagonwheel Blues), Vile was pretty much a shoo-in for '09 from the moment i heard his gliding country guitar again on the killer opener "Freeway". these two albums bear much the same boy scout badges that The War on Drugs do - Dylan-style vocal inflections, an almost unhealthy obsession with Springsteen, and a predilection to making noise that veers between Devendra Banhart's acoustic wisdom and a My Bloody Valentine sized racket. but he's not done yet - Matador have picked him up and plan to give his third record (named Childish Prodigy) the commercial release treatment in autumn, so expect to see the man recieving more rave reviews from me before the year's through.
when placed alongside the Lotus Plaza and Sore Eros debuts (the latter described as "cosmic country" in part 1 - coincidentally, there's a track on God... named "Beach on the Moon"), these albums make a strong case for dream pop as a genre in rude and beautiful health in 2009.

6. The Phantom Band - Checkmate Savage
the fifty-four minutes and fifty-four seconds of Checkmate Savage, the Glasgow sextet's debut album, is pure self indulgence, in the best possible way. in a way that's so self assured and canny, they've arrived with a set of songs that sound like the work of several albums worth of file grinding and skill honing. either that or years of listening to nothing but Neu!, Can, The Beta Band, and The Doors. on key tracks like "Throwing Bones", "The Howling", and the Magic Band-via-Arcade Fire of "Burial Sounds", they have no qualms with sticking a folk'y motorik (motofolk?) arrangement on repeat until it falls aparts at the seams and all that's left is the psychedelic guitars or incredible vocal work, ranging from barbershop melodies to monk cantillations.
not only have they released one of the year's best albums, but The Phantom Band also put on the best live show i've seen all year at Glasgow's Art School. despite quite a sparse attendance, they played like they were headlining an outdoor festival stage. everything was perfectly mixed down, and they seemed to exchange a quiet telepathy that comes with constant touring - each member knowing exactly when to put down their guitar and pick up the frog block without so much as a nod from a bandmate. i forsee only great things for these six Scottish songmongers.

5. Lotus Plaza - The Floodlight Collective
the announcement of a solo effort from Deerhunter's lead guitarist Lockett Pundt was not met with rabid anticipation from me, despite the band's 2007 LP, Cryptograms, being my favourite released that year. since that album they've only gone downhill, each successive release failing to recapture that mad indulgent brilliance that made them so fascinating when all that was being played was a guitar through a loop pedal. it came as a great surprise (and joy) then, that The Floodlight Collective is actually the closest any Deerhunter member has gotten to lighting that fire.
the word "light" is important here, as that is what the album appears to have been inspired by, inside and out. from fond childhood memories to celestial eclipses, from photography to luminous pollution, this record exudes light from every corner. noise haze washes over a techno pulse on "Sunday Night", affecting vocals ride high on a Motown beat on "Quicksand", and kiwi indie-pop collides with Yo La Tengo clamor on "What Grows?". it's the auditory equivelant of a confusingly multicolour'd Franz Kline painting left out in the sun, revealing its strengths and conceding its flaws as it plays - and by the time the epiliptic outro to "A Threaded Needle" calms down, you'll want to play it from the beginning again.

4. The Field - Yesterday and Today
it was always going to be hard to top The Field's incredible 2007 LP, From Here We Go Sublime, so it's no surprise that Yesterday and Today just falls short. but only just.
Kompakt hyped up Axel Willner's second album as "more organic than its predecessor" - and they are not wrong. From Here We Go Sublime was fashioned from bits and pieces of clipped and atomised but still recognisable parts from Kate Bush, Lionel Richie and Coldplay to create whole new songs - Yesterday seems to all but abandon this process. indeed, the only sampled material here is from the Korgis' "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime", but the use of the original track title asserts that this is a proper cover rather than a chopped-up reappropriation.
he's not thrown out the old template entirely though - any occasional listener would be able to identify these as Field songs; that throbbing persistent beat and the live mixing always creating a build-up of trance anthem proportions. but the charm behind Yesterday seems to be Axel letting his natural songwriter side out to play, embracing a New Order style bassline on "Leave It", implementing full vocal takes on "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime", and even letting Battles' John Stanier bolster the percussion with his own set of skins on the title track. what remains to be seen is if he can find the perfect balance between his winning formula of minimal techno and songwriter ambitions to satisfy both his fans and himself. i have every faith in The Field.

3. Dirty Projectors - Bitte Orca
trying their hand at everything from classic suites to Black Flag covers, David Longstreth's art rock outfit have always had a classic case of band ADHD - one that's treated with blue smarties instead of ritalin. they skip and dodge the catch-all nets of "indie" and "rock" so often with each album, it's a waste of time even trying to describe their attitude to music here. even the name "art rock" is a massive misnomer in this case, it only felt appropriate because of the bands the Projectors find themselves aligned with - Talking Heads, Battles, Grizzly Bear - part of the NYC camp of the avant-garde, creating indefinable pop for the underground masses.
but, try as they might, never before have Dirty Projectors sounded so focused and cohesive than on Bitte Orca. they still curb from a wide and ever-eclectic range of sources - Björk's vocal gymnastics, Scritti Politti's erratic post-punk, and fuse it at the spine with Nico (whose version of "These Days" is liberally borrowed from on "Two Doves") and radio friendly hip-hop like TLC and Aaliyah (which provides the foundation for standout track "Stillness Is the Move"). they're still as peculiar as ever - too peculiar for some no doubt - but they've gone some of the way to make their distinct pop character palatable to people besides themselves, with a career conquering album.

2. Fever Ray - Fever Ray
beginning with the tense, low rumble and Karin's uniquely pitch-shifted "is-it-a-boy-or-a-girl?" vocals on "If I Had a Heart", fans of The Knife will love this record from the off. not only does it keep similar musical notions intact, it reinforces The Knife's strategy of diminished identity and confused gender - and in keeping with the aesthetics, employs a cover artist whose work bears more than a passing resemblance to Black Hole author Charles Burns, the primary inspiration for incredible 2006 LP Silent Shout.
it's after that first track though, that the similarities start to taper off. personal favourite "When I Grow Up" embraces an array of previously untested ground for Andersson, like unobscured vocals, big beat breaks, and an electroclash riff that pops up quarterway through. the lightsome "Seven" could find a happy cousin in 2003 single "Pass This On", though it seems to take a more 80's tempered, Miami Vice-on-VHS spin by the time the chorus kicks in.
the overall anthemic quality to the albums "big" sound reminds one of more personal, domesticated takes on Underworld's dubnobasswithmyheadman and Kate Bush's Hounds of Love. but more importantly, even though she's talking to us about dishwasher tablets and her children, she never loses that cryptic quality that makes her and her brother's albums as special as they are.

1. Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavilion
the first hype juggernaut of 2009 to blow everyone and their parents' (with great taste in music) socks off arrived in January in the form of Baltimore-via-NYC trio/quartet's eighth album. it was written and recorded with the intention of capturing the spirit of live, "outside" music, and it pours into your ears like teenage memories of summer fun recalled in 1020p HD resolution.
nowhere is this more prevalent than on one of the singles released from the album, "Summertime Clothes". Avey Tare details a perfect twenty-four hours of sun enjoyed with a friend like only his Wayne Coyne'ish shriek can, peaking with a manic chant of "When the sun goes down we'll go out again!!" it's not all beers at the beach though, another recurring theme (most frequently indulged by Panda Bear on "My Girls" and "Daily Routine") is loving homelife with the wife and kids. but where Fever Ray's Karin Dreijer Andersson made these activities sound like paranoid witchcraft, Noah Lennox makes it sound like the most fun in the world. all these songs are carefully stitched into the beautiful patchwork of Animal Collective's best technicolour dreamcoat, the wonderful Merriweather Post Pavilion.
i've been keeping up with some of the songs collected here since 2007 (that's ages ago by AC standards), but it's still an album that's always as fresh as your latest listen - i've never anticipated an LP so greatly and been so 110% satisfied with the end results. this is a mellow, catchy, happy, beautiful summer's day of a record.
remember that Bill Hicks joke about the perfect world? everyone is legally required to smoke weed so there'd be no traffic jams, fights or wars - just everyone being friendly to one another, and Domino's trucks passing each other on the highway. well if everyone was legally required to own Merriweather Post Pavilion, there would be no need for weed.

so that's it! all that remains is to enjoy the next six months of records, which i'll no doubt be tirelessly cataloging by December so i can write a whole 'nother one of these bad boys. if you've read this far - check out the mix below, and make sure that if you dig a song you hear, support the band by going to a gig or buying a record.
1. the sight below - at first touch
2. camera obscura - my maudlin career
3. alva noto - xerrox soma
4. kurt vile - best love
5. the phantom band - folk song oblivion
6. lotus plaza - whiteout
7. the field - yesterday and today
8. dirty projectors - no intention
9. fever ray - now's the only time i know
10. animal collective - lion in a coma

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2009 - so far (part 1)

we're now halfway through the magnificent year of two-thousand-and-fine, and what a fine six months it has been. though genuinely, i'm struggling to remember a single thing that has happened. most of my sociopolitical awareness comes from Charlie Brooker columns and my Facebook feed - just a quick glance at Wikipedia screams back a litany of important dates and events that my poor caffeine addled brain can barely recall. global economic collapse? what government expenses scandal? i didn't know what swine flu was until five minutes ago, i just thought everyone in Mexico was wearing surgical masks in tribute to Michael Jackson. they should take the internet away from people like me.
one thing i like to think i do know a thing or two about though, is music. (and you, devoted reader, should be nodding in agreement. otherwise, this entire blog is moot. and what are you doing reading a moot blog?) so after careful deliberation, here follows the first part of my top twenty favourite full-lengths of 2009 so far.
current convention dictates that any "round up" or "retrospect" article be fully numbered and bullet-pointed with pretty pictures and sample MP3s, otherwise the list police will delete yr internet identity for being a countdown heretic and replace every blog entry you've ever written with a YouTube clip of a cat playing the keyboard. just to be on the safe side then...

20. Clubroot - Clubroot
comin' straight outta St. Albans, Clubroot's unique brand of sensual dubstep is like a siren ringing through the fog - beautiful and deadly. the roiling rumble of the bass and the lightning crack of the snares, washed over with sad angelic voices instantly bring to mind contemporaries 2562 and Burial. upon repeat listenings though, it becomes apparent Clubroot's style is one all of his own. not suitable for the club and too mournful for party mixes, this is strictly a home listening record. while it may lack the hooks to make a crossover hit, it has the distinction of being the first great dubstep LP of 2009. a gorgeous ghost ship of a record.

19. The Horrors - Primary Colours
onetime saviours of gothic proto-punk The Horrors' second album was not as much of a stylistic one-eighty as the music press made it out to be. they're still tugging on their influences sleeves like a toddler begging for a hot ribena, Faris Badwan still tries to sing like The Three Ians (Curtis, McCulloch, Brown) on nearly every track, and they still cut their hair like they're actively trying to get an eye infection. it was, however, as great as the music press made it out to be. taking all the best (and worst) bits from 80's space-gazers (Spacemen 3, The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine) and leftfield post-punk (Joy Division, Suicide, The Fall) and turning it into something as fiery and karaoke'able as key tracks "Scarlet Fields" and "Who Can Say", is enough to warm the cockles of any emotionally detached self-appointed music critic.

18. Lukid - Foma
those among you who frequent this blog (there has to be some), will probably know by now i'm no stranger to hazy, rainy day, laid-back ambience. after such a stellar year for releases in this vein in '08 (Actress, The Fun Years, The Caretaker), i was actually quite glad when nothing popped up in '09 that was as standout excellent - i could devote my time to all the genres i'd been neglecting the past year. that was until this little beauty, along with the new Alva Noto (see part 2), ended up consuming most of my dedicated listening hours. if the prospect of Boards of Canada collab'ing with the new school wonky producers (FlyLo, SamiYam, Hudson Mohawke) sounds too good to be true, it's because it is. Foma, however, is the next best thing.

17. Mount Eerie - Wind's Poem
finally, Phil Elverum's much talked-about dalliance with black metal and Twin Peaks bears some fleshy and delicious fruit. various single and EP releases have been showcasing the man's recent musical flirtation - on Wind's Poem it all comes full circle, frail indie atmospherics join hands with cavernous, delay pedal'd electic guitar and haunting organ drones. think Mount Eerie, meets Jesu, meets Angelo Badalamenti. it's still distinctly a Mount Eerie record - there's no mistaking the arrangements, that voice - but there's a freshness to this LP that will take you back to the moment you first heard The Glow, Pt. 2 or Mount Eerie. take a listen of the epic, humming "Through the Trees" (the 7" of which featured some 'Peaks aping cover art) or "Between Two Mysteries". you can almost smell the log mill.

16. Women - Women
there's been no shortage of "lo-fi no-fi scum-punk noise-pop" records in 2009. it seems like all you have to do to get some Pitchfork hype these days is learn the guitar in a week, practice a couple of Guided by Voices demos that no one will recognise into a boombox recorder, think up a one or two syllable name and hey, presto! you're getting taken out to dinner at SXSW by Columbia records and you haven't even lifted a finger. so it begs the question: how, in 2009, an information-overload year of endless YouTube'ing and Twitter'ing of everything that's happened to anyone ever, do you sort the wheat from the chaff? answer: just listen to one of them. Women.

15. Nathan Fake - Hard Islands
from the terrible cover art to the lack of any promotion whatsoever, nothing about Hard Islands (Fake's second LP for slow coach label Border Community) should've worked. moreover, he'd taken the cozy, slow wave computer shoegaze exhibited on critically acclaimed Drowning in a Sea of Love, and thrown it into... the sea (?), in favour of a more club oriented, back-to-basics electro sound. it shouldn't've worked, but it did. the six tracks listed here hit you on the head with their 4/4 beats and ear-catching hooks, and are among the best the young producer has ever released. much like The Field's 2007 LP From Here We Go Sublime, he uses live mixes and leaves it all hanging out, audio glitches and all. if Fake was aiming for a staight-up techno record, he got one - but it has a human heart. it's a club record, made in the bedroom.

14. Cymbals Eat Guitars - Why There Are Mountains
Cymbals Eat Guitars know their American indie rock history. at least, as far back as 1997 - a vintage year. it's a special kind of band that can make an album that sounds like it was recorded and released in one very specific year, but Why There Are Mountains manages it. Pavement's Brighten the Corners. Perfect From Now On by Built to Spill. Modest Mouse's The Lonesome Crowded West. but it takes more than a great record collection, a flannel shirt and a grizzly beard to play indie rock, something else Cymbals Eat Guitars know well. it's an album that constantly keeps you on your toes - an ever-changing, eroding and adapting landscape of songs, fucking up the verse-chorus-verse format for everyone else and keeping it fresh for themselves. one of the most promising debuts this year, and i can't wait to see what happens next. who knows, maybe twelve years from now people will be making albums that sound exactly like 2009.

13. Universal Studios Florida - Ocean Sunbirds
somewhat of a glaring omission from last month's summer mixtape, Seattle's Universal Studio Florida bring the sun-kissed blissed out tropical vibes like no one else this year. armed with an un-googleable name that's just begging for a lawsuit, and some sweet golden synth hooks and big beats, Ocean Sunbirds is fast becoming one of my favourites for this year. they're taking the template that artists like Panda Bear, El Guincho and High Places laid out in 2007/08, and splicing it with the propulsive percussion of The Field and Studio, making it essential summer listening. in a just world, this would soundtrack beach BBQs and volleyball games everywhere.

12. Sore Eros - Second Chants
one of a crowd of fantastic dream pop records this year (see part 2 for some of the others), Sore Eros' debut album sees a lot of different ground covered for only being 40 minutes in length. from the The Clean-esque driving fuzz of opening track "Smile On Your Face", to the chamber pop-via-The Velvet Underground moments buried deep in the reverb on tracks like "Whisper Me" and "Lips Like Wine", everything about Second Chants feels like you're listening to about fifteen different bands at once, in a really good way. i think Boomkat called it best when they tagged it with "cosmic country". this quiet gem of a record should be on every would-be farmer astronaut's iPod.

11. Sonic Youth - The Eternal
for the NYC veterans first independently released LP since 1988, the Yoof dug deeper into their 28-year career than ever before to put out an record that wouldn't sound of place on a mixtape of some of the bands 90's classics. just one listen of blink-and-you'll-miss-it opening track "Sacred Trickster" indicates that you're dealing with a leaner, meaner SY - from this song onwards, Kim Gordon's incredible presence sticks out like a sore thumb on The Eternal, making Moore and Ranaldo's contributions sound almost lazy by comparison. not to fault the boys though, album highlight "Antenna" features one of Thurston's most full-on singalong vocal takes, and "What We Know" sounds like the Lee track that should've been on Experimental Jet Set. Kim's ten minute torch song "Massage the History" takes things to a bluesy close, rounding off an incredible twelve tracks that veer from the confrontational riffs and hooks from Dirty, to the introspective dissonance of Murray Street. here's to another 28 years.

here's the album samples as promised, in the form of another mix. though there's no beat-matching or syncopating here - it's just the ten tracks as they are. and it's down to you to decide whether that was worth reading all that awful hyperbole for. anyway, check back next week for part two.
1. clubroot - talisman
2. the horrors - scarlet fields
3. lukid - ice nine
4. mount eerie - ancient questions
5. women - shaking hands
6. nathan fake - basic mountain
7. cymbals eat guitars - cold spring
8. universal studios florida - sun glyphed comanche kissed
9. sore eros - smile on your face
10. sonic youth - calming the snake

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