I will say more about some of these albums in the year end post (I did not do a first quarter roundup this year either), so let me just say that anybody who knows me will know that I went out on a limb with this one, especially a #1 choice. No real heavy synth/keyboard textures and an overweight lesbian lead singer with a voice like a punk Dolly Parton do not really add up to "me", but there is just something undeniably powerful about this record and Beth Ditto's performance. It is subtle when it needs to be, it's super danceable without being electro, and who needs lots of instruments when Ditto is in the room? Her voice more than makes up for the absence of sound, and that is one thing I find myself liking alot about this record--the silences. There is "space". I also tap my foot a lot when it comes on. They deserve superstardom in the US, but will America take a chance on them? An antidote to the bland, for sure.
2) LA ROUX--La Roux
This will also get a bigger post at year end, but I love La Roux. At first, I thought it was a bit screechy, and I could not understand why people liked this over Little Boots. Now I do. Don't get me wrong...I still love LB also, but this has depth and a kick of brattiness LB lacks. Maybe Boots is too professional, or just doesn't let her hair down enough. Whatever the case, this album is solid for me from beginning to end, with "Bulletproof" a frontrunner for single of the year. How THAT song has not been a hit in the US is also a mystery to me. I love Elly's style and hair as well, and know that, if I were a teenager growing up now, I would totally idolize her. So what if "I'm Not Your Toy" hasn't set the charts on fire in the UK--the song is damn infectious, and the video, as all of their videos have been, is quite clever and unique. A pleasant surprise.
3) ARCTIC MONKEYS--Humbug
This is probably more typical a choice of mine, but I think Alex and the Monkeys are pure genius, and working with Josh Homme gave a dimension to their sound which they didn't really have before. There may not be as many singalongs this time, but there are some smashing songs and some of the tightest playing I've heard in a while--that drummer is on fire! Totally rifftastic, and three albums in, still on top of their game.
A protracted masterpiece this, and I must thank http://xolondon.blogspot.com/ for his recommendation of many titles this year such as this, the Gossip, and the upcoming two. I was a very casual listener of PS in their heyday, and it has only been in the last five years or so that I have really plunged in and become much more aware of the genius of Paddy's work. This album, shelved by Sony in 1993, goes to the heart of what was wrong with the music industry at that time (see George Michael vs. Sony), and while there is some religious reference in the lyrics, that is quite a limiting label. And then there are the melodies and the arrangements. They just don't make 'em like this anymore. Paddy's melodic sensibility is old school in the Cole Porter sense, and there is such charm and grace in his dulcet lilt and turns of phrase. The instruments remind me of the early 90's, but are generally updated with a fuller, more organic sound than they would have had then. Every time I hear this album, I think it is just fantastic in its unique and fearless way.
5) FLORENCE & THE MACHINE--Lungs
How many more fantastic debuts can 2009 take? Again, I don't know if the US will get Florence--she is a bit highbrow for most, but they may be willing to accept her in a Kate Bush "on the fringe" sort of way. A powerhouse vocalist reminiscent of Sinead O'Connor, I love how the arrangements on this album are generally rather lush with strings, piano, and harp, and have tribal drums in the background. Florence's vocals remain front and center, and most of the songs are rather sharp. If it had not been for the inclusion of "Kiss With a Fist", which seems sorely out of place as some earlier track with a different feel than the rest, and the relegation of "Swimming" to a bonus disc, this album would have ended up closer to #1. However, I was not in charge of picking the running order. Hello playlist...
6) CALVIN HARRIS--Ready for the Weekend
This was a pleasant surprise, and I knew Calvin had it in him after doing Kylie's "In My Arms". I thought his first album was a bit of a let down, and rather mindnumbing in its repetition, but this album is very charming, fun, has a lot of melody that is not one-note, and uses some guests without losing the focus of who is the star at the center. Maybe more talented than Mark Ronson (well, he does do many of his own vocals), I may have been to quick to write Calvin off in the past, but I am changing my tune. A great summer record.
7) MUSE--The Resistance
Some of you may think I have lost my mind when choosing this. Yes, it is the cheese. Yes, it is overblown. But boy, is Matt Bellamy a genius or what? The first few songs snap with an immediacy I think Muse were afraid to embrace before. They were so overcome with being the next big thing, that they were forgetting to have some fun, and I think "Supermassive Black Hole" was a signpost of things that were to come. That being said, there is some very high quality musicianship on this album, and Matt is definitely a master of guitar and piano--his interpretations of composers such as Chopin are stunning--Lady Gaga might be the only other current performer I can think of who would include entire passages of classical pieces in her pop songs. Muse do it with more grace and subtlety, and this is the definition of what a concept album is all about. Stunning.
8) MARC ALMOND--Orpheus in Exile
Vladimir Kozin is not a household name in the west (nor is Marc Almond really), but the man named Marc who almost died a few years back has once again done it with a spectacular album of cover songs by the great Russian, Kozin. How thoughtful of Marc to bring the work of someone who suffered under communist rule to the modern world of the west with such lovely sung renditions. The arrangements transport me to another place and time every time I hear them, and I stop to think how much time and care went into creating the perfect balance of instrument and voice, and the correct poetic translations. While I remain optimistic that Marc will soon release more original material, hearing his interpretations of music like this is pure magic. This is more than commercial music, this is art.
9) YUKSEK--Away from the Sea
Yuksek is not a very well known artist to be sure, so let me drop a few names. If you like Daft Punk or Justice, and you imagine them with more melodies, you would get closer to what Yuksek is all about. There is even a song called "So Far Away from the Sea" that features vocals from a band called The Bewitched Hands on the Top of Our Heads, which sounds quite similar at times to the Blur song, "Girls & Boys". Yuksek has a cut-n-paste way of putting certain elements together, yet they all seem to work for the most part, and they retain a certain warmth other electronic artists don't achieve. This is modern disco of the highest order. And I haven't the foggiest what "Eat My Bear" means.
I know, people will say "sellout", but what a great album this was. It really brought some of the special electronic elements of A-ha to the fore while retaining their undeniable sound. There isn't really a bad song to be found at a just-right ten tracks, where their last three albums, although great, usually had at least one duff track ("Halfway Through the Tour", a seven minute mis-step being the entry from their last effort, Analogue). While the title track moves close to Keane territory (or is it vice-versa? Didn't A-ha come first?), "Riding the Crest" bubbles with an early-80's electro-pop bop, "What There Is" is nothing short of elegant, and "Start the Simulator" is their "Light Years", albeit less kitsch-y. Granted, lyrics like "Mother Nature Goes to Heaven" won't win them the pulitzer in English-speaking countries, but the sentiment is definitely there, with that song edging close to classic Depeche Mode terrain (if anything, the album bests Depeche's recent effort). This album was a winner in many ways, and it would be too much of a shame if they really are breaking up as they said they are in a recent press statement, as I feel they are just beginning to hit a new stride. Their solo albums sure haven't been much to write home about, and I feel they are much stronger together. Time will tell, but here's hoping for a hiatus.
There were so many albums I enjoyed in this quarter alone, and here are many of the others. You never know if one will all of a sudden click with me and end up on top of the year end list...
BASEMENT JAXX--Scars--what they do best, with more variety this time, which works mostly
BRENDAN BENSON--Brendan Benson--Jack White's friend and Robbie Williams should-be
DAVID SYLVIAN--Manafon--difficult listening yet utterly beautiful
ENGINEERS--Three Fact Fader--welcome return to shoegaze gorgeousness
ISLANDS--Vapours--welcome return to poppier shores and better songs
LEAVES--We are Shadows--Coldplay-who?
NOISETTES--Wild Young Hearts--close contender for the big list, they may still slip in...
ZOOT WOMAN--Things Are What They Used to Be--best ZW album yet
FRANKMUSIK--Frankmusik--he deserves better--a great little pop album
THE MUMMERS--Tale to Tell--another sleeper for the big list...incredible singing & playing
JACK PENATE--Everything is New--who knew he had this in him? Paolo who?
JUAN MACLEAN--The Future Will Come--best recordings yet--Human League for a new gen
KLEERUP--Kleerup--cleanup on aisle 2008...
LIGHTNING SEEDS--Four Winds--haunting little return exorcising ghosts of the past-- welcome back Ian
METRIC--Fantasies--girl-pop of the highest order
MEW--No More Stories--beneath the concepts and hype, great musicians
NORTHERN KIND--Wired--melodic electro-pop meets DIY
PHOENIX--Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix--certainly you have heard this by now
POSTMARKS--Memoirs at the End of the World--Divine Comedy wants their orchestra back :)
RICHARD HAWLEY--Truelove's Gutter--or Richard Hawley discovers the glass harmonica...
RUMBLE STRIPS--Welcome to the Walk Alone--what a great Mark Ronson produced album-- Now if more than ten people hear it...
SALLY SHAPIRO--My Guilty Pleasure--my guilty pleasure
BANANARAMA--Viva!--my other guilty pleasure
See what I mean?!? A few albums I "heard" but will end up on a later list: Dragonette, Raveonettes, Cribs, Maps, Paloma Faith.
Good albums from artists I respect and admire, but don't listen to much (maybe because there was too much other music already): Manic Street Preachers, Imogen Heap, Zero 7, Miike Snow, Datarock, Big Pink, Sea Wolf.
I honestly feel that this quarter has produced a generally high quality of new albums from good artists, without too many mis-steps or duds.