At the beginning of December, I was walking round telling people that this year, finally, I'd got Christmas under control. Presents would be bought, food would be prepared and - most importantly - I had actually listened to enough records this year to write an end-of-year round-up which would plausibly make me look a lot more hip than I actually am.
Well, events have conspired against me. I planned to write about my 10 favourite albums, and precis the rest. As it turns out, I have only had time to sketch a thought or two about the top 9, and you'll have to make do with youtube clips for the rest. Not to worry, as Dan at the End Times says, mine is only one more ill-considered resume among many on the web. My list is not bracingly original (though I haven't seen anybody else choose my top tip as album of the year), not are my comments terribly insightful. Never mind - it has given me much pleasure, and I hope a few of the tracks please you too.
Merry Christmas and all that, and get yourselves plenty of rest. 2011 is all set to be hectic.
1. The-Dream, Love king
Unable to enjoy the sexual exploits which he brags about, Terius Nash buries himself in the studio and produces the most agonisingly perfect album of the year. On “Yamaha,” the keyboard literally becomes his object of desire, but the whole album dribbles with displaced erotic feelings. Here there is none of the confusion or struggles of emotion that is pop’s hallmark – every last misery, every last frustration, is consciously felt and impassively conveyed . Pay attention to the lyrics. But it is the music – the acute attention to detail, the fact it seems to drip with post-coital fluids – that gives the game away. And skip the last track.
2. Robyn, Body talk
I’ve included the abridged version for the purposes of space, but the mini-albums have given me even greater pleasure. Inexplicably, on the round-up album “Include me out” – which starts off all Grace Jones, features a rap with the word “whachamacallit” in it, and is swathed with a restlessly bilious bassline – doesn’t feature. Happily, “Dancehall queen” – pasted by critics and bloggers alike – does. As do “Dancing on my own,” “In my eyes,” “Don’t fucking tell me what to do” and 12 other pop landmarks. Just think: this is her best-of-2010. Most artists won’t produce a better career best-of.
3. Flying Lotus, Cosmogramma
Evocative of Alice Coltrane in so many ways – the fact Steve Ellison is her nephew, the preponderance of harps, the wariness towards the material world. Sometimes it’s individual sounds that grab the ear – the tugged guitar strings in “Clock catcher,” the juggernaut basslines in “Pickled,” the quivering strings of “A cosmic drama”. Other times – especially “Arkestra” – it is the way he creates an entirely cosmological schema. I like this anecdote about childhood memories with Aunt Alice: “She was super tough on me when I was a kid. She wouldn’t let me play the piano unless I was gonna play it. I was like, Auntie, can I play piano? And she was like, ‘Yeah – if you’re gonna play it.’”
4. Oneohtrix Point Never, Returnal
For me, this isn’t quite classic OPN. His great observation – “all of us on some level are sentenced with having to relate to society whether we side with it or not” – works better when he’s obsessively flanging or compressing Fleetwood Mac and Chris de Burgh. But it works for me in a similar way to Eno’s On Land, in that it’s topographical – I know the landscape Eno is logging better for listening to him. I’m not sure which place Daniel Lopatin sinks his music into, but I feel like it’s impressed on my mind. It’s clearly in the tradition of Fourth World music (see Eno and Hassell’s Possible Musics) – the geography doesn’t matter and nor, ultimately, does the music. What you are left with, though, is something which illuminates both – like the Impressionists. To really get it, get into what he’s into.
5. James Blake, CMYK EP
Quotes – like you hadn’t worked it out – Kelis’s “Caught out there” and Aaliyah’s “Are you that somebody?”. Mike Powell says it best: “This is canny for plenty of reasons, I think, but I'll be brief: Blake takes two R&B archetypes-- the Spurned Woman and the Secret Lover-- and imagines them in a back and forth. It's modern homage to old ideas. But if you know the songs already, it's also an exercise in warming up your cultural memory-- both tracks are over 10 years old but under 15, a kind of dead zone for nostalgia, not yet retro-ready but no longer current. He's not reminding us of something we've forgotten or telling us about something we never knew about, he's reanimating songs that are probably just at the edge of peoples' thoughts.”
6. Beach House, Teen dream
I don’t know why I downloaded this. It is just the sort of Pitchfork-approved boy/girl indie that usually brings me out in a rash. I don’t even know if it’s really that good. But for the fortnight of our honeymoon in the Adriatic, it was my favourite album of the year. And I still maintain that it is my sixth favourite album of the year. Songs for swinging lovers, I suppose, and infinitely preferable in that regard to The-Dream.
7. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, Before today
The higher fidelity brings him to life. On earlier records, the glitches and crackles sometimes impeded the feelings or memories he was using the music to evoke. He could be conveniently lumped in with the hauntology set, and studied at length. I’m not knocking it either – his early records are great. But the beefed-up production and full-band back-up is no sell-out – it brings him to life. We saw him at the Scala earlier in the year, and I’d still compare him to Todd Rundgren – the way he walks the fine line between sadness and psychosis. “Round and round” = single of the year too.
8. Janelle Monae, The archandroid
Her interviews read better than her record sounds – I was surprised when I first heard it how conventional it was. Unlike Ariel Pink, this is a real retro-record, with all the funk-prog concept album styles ticked off. But it too springs to life – not so much on the suites, but definitely on “Cold war” and “Tightrope,” where she unleashes her secret weapon – her upper vocal range.
9. Emeralds, Does it look like I’m here?
Fact mag review of choice-cut “Genetic”: “Opening with the kind of Philip Glass-ular rippling repetition you might expect to soundtrack a montage of rushing rivers, newspapers and money being printed, it summons images of myriad digital seraphim batting their wings against the neon stained glass of the Church of Kraftwerk. For twelve minutes it ebbs and flows, but with ever-building inertia. Electric guitar once more shows Emeralds’ fearlessness in the face of retro or corniness, as it adds to the tonal palette of the piece, as well as the welcome audacity of the band. From here we get early 90s Orbtechre synth-waves and random Sounds of the Future. Perfect for balmy summer evenings, especially in the last few minutes when the mix turns itself inside out, a la Kyuss’ ’50 Million Year Trip (Downside Up)’.” Balmy summer evenings ... remember them?
10. Dylan Ettinger, New age outlaws
11. Nite Jewel, Am i real? EP
12. John Foxx, D.N.A.
13. Tricky, Mixed race
14. Starkey, Ear drums and black holes
15. Big Boi, Sir Lucious Left Foot ... The Son of Chico Dusty
16. Neil Young, Le Noise
17. Vampire Weekend, Contra
18. Wyatt/Atzmon/Stephen, For the ghosts within
19. Indignant Senility, Plays Wagner
20. Drake, Thank me later
Hot Chip, One life stand
Mark McGuire, Living with yourself
Paul Weller, Wake up the nation
James Blake, Klavierwerke EP
Pantha du Prince, Black noise
Rick Ross, Teflon don
The Roots, How I got over
John Grant, Queen of Denmark
Matthew Dear, Black city
Not quite / not nearly...
M.I.A., /\/\ /\ Y /\
The Drums, The Drums
Charlotte Gainsbourg, IRM
Iron Maiden, The final frontier
Suzanne Vega, Close up Vol. 1, Love Songs
Pierre de Gailande, Bad reputation
Not heard sufficiently / at all to comment...
Kanye West, My beautiful dark twisted fantasy
Robert Plant, Band of joy
Ikonika, Contact, love, want, have
Salem, King night
Giggs, Let em ave it
Sun Araw, On patrol