As billed in my previous post, here’s the final tracklist for my snapshot-of-2008 compilation CD. As promised, if you know my email address you could always ask for a ZIP folder of the MP3s. Below, I’ll talk about (1) the albums included, (2) albums I’ve heard but not included, (3) albums I’ve not heard and (4) things to look forward to in 2009. The latter two pretty briefly, obviously, and the last three in a separate post.
1. Fleet Foxes – He Doesn’t Know Why (Fleet Foxes, Bella Union)
2. Sons and Daughters – Darling (This Gift, Domino)
3. The Souvenirs – What a Funny Way To Live Your Life (self-released EP)
4. Manda Rin – Typeface (My DNA, Pinnacle)
5. Elvis Costello and the Imposters – No Hiding Place (Momofuku, Lost Highway)
6. Calexico – Two Silver Trees (Carried to Dust, City Slang)
7. Glasvegas – Daddy’s Gone (Glasvegas, SonyBMG)
8. The Ting Tings – Be The One (We Started Nothing, Columbia)
9. Hot Chip – We’re Looking for a Lot of Love (Made in the Dark, EMI)
10. Destroyer – Shooting Rockets (From the Desk of Night’s Ape) (Trouble In Dreams, Rough Trade)
11. MJ Hibbett and the Validators – Do The Indie Kid (7” single, Artists Against Success)
12. Thomas Tantrum – Work It (Thomas Tantrum, Sindy Stroker)
13. British Sea Power – No Lucifer (Do You Like Rock Music?, Rough Trade)
14. The Hot Puppies – Clarinet Town (Blue Hands, THP)
15. Chris T-T – A Box To Hide In (Capital, Xtra Mile)
16. Neon Neon – Belfast (Stainless Style, Lex)
17. Half Man Half Biscuit – Totnes Bickering Fair (CSI: Ambleside, Probe Plus)
18. Jenny Lewis – Godspeed (Acid Tongue, Rough Trade)
19. The Futureheads – The Beginning of the Twist (This Is Not The World, Nul Records)
20. My Morning Jacket – Smokin’ from Shootin’ (Evil Urges, Rough Trade)
Initial observations: Rough Trade have evidently had a good year! Four of my selections! Also, for the first time I have struggled to fill the whole running time of the CD – indeed, I’ve been able to include some pretty long tracks (the Destroyer one is close to eight minutes). I’ve bought more albums this year than last, but a surprising number have failed the “must be a brilliant album, not just an OK one with a few great tracks” rule – and even then I have bent it for a couple of the selections above. More on those later. You’ll also see I’ve done the compilation in two halves – it just seems to work in terms of the running order to have a notional break in the middle. Totally meaningless in reality – I resisted the temptation to label them “side 1” and “side 2”, as it has no bearing on the CD.
The opening track from Fleet Foxes puts my selection firmly in the mainstream of critical opinion: their album seems to be topping many end-of-year polls, to the point where Dan Paton has complained of its ubiquity. Somewhat unfairly, it seems to me – as with many of the records here, I either only know them, or first heard of them, because Dan recommended them either in person or on his blog (indeed, unless I go out of my way to disagree with him you can fairly assume of the great bulk of stuff here that it presses Dan’s buttons as well). I’m not quite sure why it’s being hailed as a “landmark in American music” and so on: it contains no great innovation. It’s just bloody good – perhaps its triumph is to take essentially folky musical forms and produce a record that is true to those influences while not wandering off into self-indulgent hippy digression.
There’s a trio of Glaswegian artists on this compilation. The first, Sons and Daughters, seem to have written a load of pop songs by accident and then resented it: glockenspiels, handclaps and harmonies are all applied to the pretty melodies with a snarl, but this tension between pretty pop and spiky goth punk is brilliantly effective. The track here, Darling, remains probably my favourite single of the year – although a few other contenders are included in the selection.
While Sons and Daughters seem to be on the up, one has to feel sorry for Manda Rin. While My DNA is her first solo release post-Bis (though there was a collaboration with her then-husband under the moniker The Kitchen in 2005) it sounds pretty much as you would expect. Bis pioneered an 80s-influenced pop template with their second album and Manda hasn’t deviated from it much since. And quite right too – it’s bloody good. Problem was it came along ten years too early; if Eurodisco had been released this year instead of 1998, it would probably have been a monster hit single, and its parent album would have got more than a miserly six out of ten from the NME. Meanwhile, Neon Neon have produced what is in many respects a higher-budget version of Manda’s album and got nominated for the Mercury! Stainless Style is a brilliant record: Gryff Rhys’s melodies are harnessed to the kind of synth sounds that sounded tinny and cheesy in the ’80s but have finally been made to work; it’s well worthy of its inclusion here.
Still, Manda’s misfortune is nothing compared to what seems to have befallen Glasvegas‘s James Allan in his life. Their debut album is the anguished cry of a hapless ned who realises that his life is totally fucked up and it’s largely his fault. What he doesn’t blame on himself, he blames on his father: I remain impressed by the band’s ability to fashion a substantial hit single out of such a miserable song as Daddy’s Gone. Glasvegas represent probably my biggest musical disagreement with Paton this year. I think we agree to some extent that there is a lot to be said for them lyrically: while Allan’s lyrics verge on the simple at times, this has the effect of making them powerfully direct; certainly Daddy’s Gone is an utterly ferocious rebuke that I would certainly not like to be on the receiving end of. But I don’t agree that musically they are plodding or chugging: Geraldine in particular is a successful stab at the anthemic, almost hitting riff-heavy cock rock territory. Generally the production offers a dense and distorted sound, with Allan’s powerful vocals laid clearly on top: for my money, it’s terrifically effective due to both the lyrical content and some very strong melodies. The distorted tremolo guitar on Daddy’s Gone is probably what the Raveonettes were aiming for with their unsuccessful album Lust Lust Lust in 2007. Yes, Glasvegas strike a repetitive note at times – that’s what you should do with epic hooks. Admittedly the first and last tracks, and the middling Stabbed, are dispensable; the rest of the album is consistently excellent.
To get back to the running order, the third track is probably the greatest obscurity on the compilation. I heard The Souvenirs – a Derby-based band – on Steve Lamacq’s unsigned slot in the late spring. I don’t listen to Lamacq very often, just for logistical reasons, so that was a bit of a fluke in itself. Once I had acquired their EP, it stayed on my MP3 player for quite a long time. While it’s maybe not particularly special or innovative music, it’s a pleasant change from the current “indie” hegemony, where the music is all about rhythm and the melody is weak afterthought, delivered by a nasal youth. It’s nice to hear some decent melodies sung by someone who can sing; I believe the band remain unsigned and gigging in the east Midlands, but I hope they do great things in 2009.
Elvis Costello inhabits a different universe by comparison. He had stated he would not be releasing a new record for the foreseeable future towards the end of 2007, but changed his mind on a whim, wandered into the studio with his band and some pals, knocked out a dozen effortlessly brilliant tracks and had the whole she-bang in the shops apparently within about three months. Indeed, the inspiration for this was a session he had contributing guest vocals to Jenny Lewis‘s album Acid Tongue, which itself did not emerge until much later in the year despite having been started earlier. Costello’s album Momofuku is another excellent Elvis Costello record: it captures a live-ish sound from his band The Imposters and offers songs every bit as good as you would expect, from the sentimental – but not mawkish – My Three Sons to the caustic opener, No Hiding Place.
The Jenny Lewis album is also very good. While it’s not remotely ground-breaking, and has clearly been produced with a well-budgeted portion of spit and polish, it’s perhaps one of the best-judged albums released this year. It presents the expected blend of pop, rock, country and soul influences, even drifting somewhat into White Stripes territory. It’s a thoroughly American record, and none the worse for that.
A band who present a uniquely American perspective, very different from Lewis’s, are Calexico. This year’s album from them offers the excellence you’d expect: the mariachi horns are back and used to good effect, while the rock influence of its predecessor Garden Ruin is still in evidence. Indeed, this selection here Two Silver Trees reminds me of Arcade Fire with its trilling guitar lines. There’s maybe not much to say about the album overall: it’s another very good Calexico record, although as with all their albums it needs a good few listens to get the best out of it. Be patient with it and it will reward you.
Sometimes listening to BBC 6Music can be a confusing experience: one assumes that a lot of what you hear on Marc Riley’s show in particular is genuinely indie and a bit obscure, so it can be a shock to see it racing up the charts a few months later. Duffy was just someone off 6Music as far as I was concerned, and then look what happened! The rolling and majestic qualities of her debut single Rockferry intrigued, but the rest of her album proved somewhat slight and over-pretty white soul – for which reason she hasn’t made the cut on this compilation. Another 6Music act that suddenly went massive have, however: some people find The Ting Tings over-simple and irritating, but to me their music is well-honed pop. Admittedly, That’s Not My Name would probably have driven me up the wall if I was a regular listener to daytime radio, but I’m not and so I’ve not lost sight of how excellent it is. I particularly like the way that it sounds very different by the end from how it did at the start. The album is similar in the respect that it is full of hooks and maybe not much else – but it has a certain purity because of that. Be The One is probably the best of the various Cure-a-like singles that have been released this year.
The next track takes us right back to the start of the year. Hot Chip‘s Made in the Dark was undoubtedly far too long, but terrific apart from that. Its floor-fillers like, well, Ready for the Floor, have grabbed the attention and been used on a lot of BBC trails; but for my money the more reflective and soulful songs are the best. We’re Looking For A Lot Of Love is one of the album’s more mellow moments, but is still not without a decent hook or two.
The compilation stays mellow to close its first half. Vinyl Exchange in Manchester remains my favourite record shop, and I make a point of popping in when I get the chance. I picked up the Destroyer album there in the spring, and the chap serving me enthused about it above all the other CDs I was buying. He was right – it’s a great record. Erstwhile New Pornographer Dan Bejar presents another exotic soundscape, over which he lays lyrics that verge on the pretentious or even ridiculous but generally manage to remain cryptic and beguiling. I admit I’ve not helped the cause here, but Destroyer deserves attention as more than a New Pornographers side-project.
Right – side two! And there was only really one way to start it. I’m looking forward to MJ Hibbett‘s new album with the Validators in 2009, but this year has itself been really rather prolific for him with a solo album as part of the February Album Writing Month, er… thing. Plus three singles (Do The Indie Kid, It Only Works Because You’re Here, The Advent Calendar of Fact), an Edinburgh show and a flourishing gig night in the form of Totally Acoustic, which I heartily recommend you attend if you possibly can (www.totallyacoustic.com) – they are invariably tremendous evenings, albeit somewhat beer-fuelled. Getting back to the music, Do The Indie Kid represents perhaps the first time in the history of rock that putting the drummer in charge of the production turned out to be an exceptionally smart move: it sounds like quite a simple recording, but it undoubtedly shines. Though the follow-up It Only Works… had a bit of a “kitchen sink” feel, with some lovely strings and guitars all battling each other for prominence when perhaps they could have been allowed to take it in turns to greater effect. That’s really nit-picking… but I imagine Mark would expect nothing less. Roll on 2009 for more Hibbett!
I actually had to reduce the level of the Thomas Tantrum track on the compilation – it was mastered extremely loud, and jarred the ears somewhat after Hibbett. But the Tantrum (does anyone call them “the Tantrum”? I suppose they do now…) have produced the record that I’ve probably listened to more than any other this year: having heard them on Marc Riley’s show, I was looking forward to the album, and bought it on the day of its release. It has been on my MP3 player ever since – it’s a great one to listen to on the tube. Superficially the band sound like Life Without Buildings if they had aimed to be indie instead of arty: spiky guitars topped off with vocals that sound like pissed-off three year old girl. But there’s more going on than that: Tantrum remind me a bit of Kenickie, in as much as the songs are great shouty fun but there is some substance behind them as well. I’ll be interested to see where they go with a second album.
British Sea Power‘s Mercury-nominated album Do You Like Rock Music? was another of those I picked up in the spring. As with their debut, the songs sound quite similar, but are all very good: it takes a lot of listens before they begin to distinguish themselves from one another. But the band have maintained the lovely warm sound they have traditionally had to their records, and I was pleased to see them get recognition for this record. I really should try and revisit their second album, which was probably better than I gave it credit for.
Next up are a couple of tracks that violate my “must be an excellent album all the way through” rule. In truth, I was disappointed to various extents by the albums from both the Hot Puppies and Chris T-T. With the Puppies in particular, I still find it hard to pin down exactly why: the first two tracks on the record are absolutely superb, both quite hard-edged, but after that… it falls flat, somehow. Maybe the songs aren’t quite there, maybe it’s the sequencing – it’s hard to say, but it certainly didn’t stick in my mind like their first album, which was a solid collection of quirky and dramatic indie pop. If you like the track here, I’d advise you go for 2006′s Under the Crooked Moon first, and maybe attempt Blue Hands only if you really like that.
Similarly, for Chris T-T I’d recommend his earlier albums London is Sinking or The 253 ahead of this year’s Capital. In some ways it is his most consistent record, but unfortunately it often forsakes the charm we have come to associate with T-T for the slightly ugly cynicism that seems to me to characterise the left in this country (I’ve discussed this previously). When I saw T-T earlier this year, he observed that he was grateful to Jon Clayton for producing all his music to date and always making it “sound good”. And undoubtedly it always has – but perhaps after seven albums or however many it is, Chris would benefit from trying out new collaborators (he has played on numerous projects by others – could he import some of this into his next album?). For all that I was disappointed by much of the record – relative to very high expectations, it must be said – I still found A Box To Hide In an utterly devastating lyric, both enormously touching and a scathing comment on what ten years of Blair government have done to our country. Unusually, the closing section of this album is perhaps the strongest – I nearly selected the excellent but disturbing song Ankles to go on here instead. Overall, my feelings towards Capital are complex but I still look forward to hearing what Chris does next.
Another record I approached with high expectation was CSI: Ambleside by Half Man Half Biscuit. It did not disappoint. Just buy it, OK? To go back to Steve Lamacq for a moment, I was trying to think the other day what my “Good Day, Bad Day” selections would be. The “Good Day” bit was very difficult: if I’m in a good mood, more or less any music that I like would fit the bill, surely? It’s still stumping me. The “Bad Day” selection was much easier: undoubtedly I would choose this album’s closing track, National Shite Day. Firstly, it encapsulates the idea of having a bad day. Secondly, it is very noisy, which is frankly what I need if I’m having a bad day, to get it out of my system. And thirdly, being Half Man Half Biscuit, it is acute, true and funny, and so would cheer me up.
Also noisy is the album from The Futureheads: like the Tantrum record, and probably not coincidentally, it has been mastered extremely loud. I’m reluctant to describe anything as a “return to form”: it’s a lazy compliment, and can often wrongly denigrate the previous record. But in this case I think there’s something in it: despite initially liking it, I went off the Futureheads’ second album, which seemed at times to be trying to get away from the hard-edged sound of their debut, but in a slightly half-hearted way. Here they have taken a very firm decision about which side of the fence they sit on, and the result is so-hard edged you could cut diamonds with it. Beginning of the Twist is its most accessible moment and won them a well-deserved top 20 hit; the rest of the album comes strongly recommended if you ever feel like making you ears bleed.
We finish with another record on which I’m in violent disagreement with Paton. Dan felt My Morning Jacket‘s album Evil Urges was variously too mawkish, too silly and… well, go and find his review on his blog, don’t let me put words in his mouth. But I thought it was an excellent development of the band’s sound. Since the last record Jim James has clearly found lurve in a big way, and undoubtedly this makes for an extremely sentimental record in place – but I can’t really find it in my heart to begrudge it. The album has a sophisticated and seductive sound throughout, with regular dashes of Philly soul: both Touch Me I’m Going To Scream songs are particular highlights, as is the jangly pop of Two Halves. And yes, the funk of Highly Suspicious is extremely silly, but MMJ are a band not afraid to be silly at times: a viewing of their live DVD will confirm this; and I remember the first time I ever saw them live, they concluded a song by standing stock-still on stage for a good minute before they could contain their laughter no longer. It’s a brilliant record that soundtracked the early summer for me – though it is perhaps best experienced at warm temperatures, so maybe you should pop a note in your diary to buy it in the second half of May 2009.