Sunday, January 29, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 2: Radiohead - The King of Limbs

The main problem with reviewing any new Radiohead release is that it becomes practically impossible to say anything new about Thom Yorke and the band. It’s all been said before. In terms of the album format, for the best part of two decades now Radiohead have led the way with one outstanding album after another. This is a band that pre-dated Brit-pop, one that eventually skirted around the periphery of that “scene” (rather wisely), before going on to record what was supposed to be its finest hour in the form of OK Computer as long ago as 1997. I say “was supposed to be” because many will now argue that both Kid A and In Rainbows – each a game-changer in its own way – surpassed that landmark/benchmark release. Me? ... I’m still not convinced.

Nor am I about to argue that the band’s eighth full-length effort, The King of Limbs, is superior to all that has gone before ... but it does once again rate among the very best of its year; Radiohead are nothing if not ultra consistent. Key to the band’s longevity, and pivotal to its ability to still remain relevant, are all of the subtle changes made to its formula through the years ... starting out as a (predominantly) guitar-based indie rock outfit, before morphing into the new kings of modern day prog-rock, and now more recently they’ve been taking on the kids at their own game by attempting to master all things electronic and glitchy ... which is the version we find on The King of Limbs.

I’m not really a huge fan of the band; on past efforts (OK Computer excepted), for all of the musical wizardry on offer, Yorke’s vocal often becomes a touch tiring and rather depressing for me. Yet on TKOL, Yorke’s voice is the stand-out instrument. It works as a key element embedded within the wider sound, something akin to a moody, atmospheric supplement, and it is actually integral to the enjoyment I get from listening to the album this time around.

And I usually prefer listening to snippets of the band’s wider discography in small doses, which is probably another reason why I like TKOL so much – it’s a short, sharp burst of aural pleasure, and fully digestible in one sitting. At just eight tracks and barely 37 minutes in length, it is a quality-over-quantity, no filler, thriller of an album. Just long enough to rate as a fully formed album release, and sufficiently short enough to retain my interest for the full duration. It hardly matters that Radiohead’s lyrics remain rather abstract (to say the least) – this album is more about creating a mood, about creating a series of soundscapes to take the listener on a short journey. There’s nothing overly ambitious or too demanding here either, just buckle yourself in and enjoy the ride.

Download: the whole damned thing! ... but highlights include: ‘Little By Little’, ‘Lotus Flower’, ‘Feral’, and ‘Codex’.

Here’s a clip of Thom Yorke putting his best freak on …

Albums of 2011 # 3: Florence + The Machine – Ceremonials

I didn’t really get into Lungs, Florence Welch’s debut album from 2009. A few key tracks off that release made it on to a couple pod playlists I compiled at the time, but on the whole I was rather put off by much of the hype and hoopla surrounding the release of Lungs. For all that Florence had/has a great voice, the level of hyperbole felt disproportionate to a lot of the actual material. You know ... new thing, plus highly unusual thing, equals next big thing – that seemed almost like the default position adopted by tastemakers charged with offering an opinion at the time.

While Florence’s 2011 follow-up, Ceremonials, generally received a similarly favourable response, the reaction felt a tad more considered and balanced this time around. I guess the shock value or novelty factor – Welch’s unique voice, the multiple layers of sound, odd song structures – has worn off a little. One thing that has changed now of course is the level of expectation surrounding Florence + The Machine; no longer is the band the new kid on the block, and that more than anything else may help explain why critics weren’t falling over each other to rave about Ceremonials.

And where one prominent local blogger bemoaned “but where are the songs?” when assessing Ceremonials, I can’t agree that it is an inferior work overall. Sure, the lyrical content might not be quite as strong, but as Spin Magazine rather painfully put it: ... “she's so much better than her material that her material is rendered immaterial” ... hmmm, quite.

Tracks like ‘Shake It Out', ‘What The Water Gave Me’ (clip below), and ‘No Light, No Light’, are every bit as good as, if not better than, much of the material found on Lungs, and for me the orchestration, the anthemic quality of the songs – aided by multi-tracked vocals and the addition of choral backup – and the epic widescreen grandeur of Ceremonials cements its place as one of the best “alternative” (whatever that actually means these days now that the lines have been blurred to the extent they have) albums of the year. And hey, given that this is not my regular genre of choice, and considering I was pretty cynical about Florence to begin with, it must have been a fairly decent album to have made a convert out of me!

Download: the aforementioned tracks, plus ‘Only If For A Night’, and ‘Never Let Me Go’.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 4: Thievery Corporation - Culture of Fear

If someone had said to me at the start of 2011 that a Thievery Corporation album would become one of my “most listened to” albums of the year, I’d have picked up the phone and dialled a shrink – making the first appointment for said individual, and the second appointment for yours truly. But strange things tend to happen in my little world of music consumerism, and it turns out that is exactly what happened, with Culture of Fear proving itself to be my biggest musical surprise of the year.

I guess, in retrospect, I’ve always harboured something of a soft spot for Thievery Corporation – the duo’s past forays into dub have never been less than impressive, and although it’s been a while since I’ve listened to any “electronica” or “chillout” with any regularity, I’ve always considered Thievery Corporation to be one of the least bland outfits dabbling in those murky waters.

One other big selling point about the duo’s music is that a lot of it is politically motivated; these guys may be American, but that has never stopped them from calling it exactly as they see it, particularly in terms of US foreign policy and when campaigning more generally on issues like global poverty. On Culture of Fear – album number six – it would seem that organised religion is the primary target, and the eclectic nature of the music (dub, electro funk, hip hop, ambient/chill) is enhanced considerably by a powerful set of words.

Admittedly there are parts of the album where the controls are set to snooze – regular collaborator LouLou (no, not the Scottish minx) provides a soft feminine vocal to a couple of electronica-style tracks – but those parts appear more like extended interludes, lightweight counterpoints, or simply moments of warm fluffy relief between the harder-edged angles being explored.

The opening one-two combo of the funky ‘Web of Deception’, followed immediately by the edgy hip hop of the title track (featuring a hard-hitting rap from someone called Mr Lif), had my ears pricked right from the outset. By the time I got to the slightly spaced out dub of tracks like ‘Stargazer’, ‘False Flag Dub’, and (especially) ‘Overstand’, I was completely hooked. After that first listen, I just knew Culture of Fear would be an album I’d return to; what I didn’t know was just how frequently I’d do so over a prolonged period. ‘False Flag Dub’ and ‘Overstand’ both feature the superb vocals of one Ras Puma, and it strikes me that one of the great strengths of Thievery Corporation is their choice of collaborators (or vocalists) ... who, more often than not, sprinkle just the right amount of stardust atop the duo’s bits and beats.

Overall, while Culture of Fear doesn’t exactly push any new boundaries, it does offer a great deal of musical variety, a lot of food for thought (lyrically), and the whole package works well as a start-to-finish listen.

Download: the title track, plus ‘Web of Deception’, ‘Stargazer’, ‘False Flag Dub’ (video below), ‘Overstand’, and ‘Tower Seven’.

Albums of 2011 # 5: The Raveonettes - Raven In The Grave

Raven In The Grave is the fifth album from Danish indie duo Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo ... aka The Raveonettes, and its release in early 2011 appears to have somehow flown under the radar of the vast majority of mainstream critics and music writers ... pretty much like all of their earlier albums, then.

I’m not sure quite why that is, because clearly the duo has developed a fairly large following; they’ve been around long enough (since 2002), they’ve toured extensively (across USA and Europe in 2011), and they’re an “indie” band at the more accessible or “pop” end of the indie spectrum - all things that should have guaranteed relatively widespread exposure for this album in particular.

Raven In The Grave is basically an album of dark (mostly) guitar-based indie rock tunes, chock full of pop hooks, strong boy/girl vocals, well executed harmonies, and decent songwriting. The album’s themes mostly concern death and a sense of loss, or a loss of youth, and a degree of restlessness permeates right across all nine tracks.

I personally found it something of a “cold winter morning” album, probably because of the aforementioned themes, and the fact that I discovered it during winter (!), but when all is said and done it is simply a top quality pop album, and I’m buggered if I know why The Raveonettes are largely ignored by all but the most committed of their fanbase. This really should have been the album that provided the duo with a much coveted and long overdue breakthrough. But it didn’t, and as a result this album feels a little bit like my own little secret.

Download: ‘Recharge & Revolt’ (clip below), ‘War In Heaven’, and ‘Evil Seeds’.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 6: Cut Copy - Zonoscope

I honestly don’t know how the Australian synth popsters Cut Copy get away with it. Zonoscope is the third album in a row now that finds the band unashamedly mining the electronic excesses of Eighties pop without so much as a whimper of protest from critics. Apparently not for Cut Copy will there be accusations of being a “blatant rip-off”, or of an underwhelming lack of ambition.

So what’s my excuse? Well, I love the electronic excesses of Eighties pop! … always have, probably always will; let’s call it a guilty pleasure and be done with it.

Cut Copy have certainly provided one way of getting a New Order fix without actually having to … you know … listen to the same old New Order tracks. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Zonoscope is the best New Order album that New Order never made. It probably qualifies as something of an equivalent for fans of Depeche Mode, Blancmange, Simple Minds, etc etc … you get the drift.

But Cut Copy do it well, and while Zonoscope lacks the (minimal) originality and bite of 2004’s Bright Like Neon Love, or 2008’s In Ghost Colours – which were hard acts to follow, admittedly – it is an album with enough pop hooks to keep you humming along throughout.

I have to admit, cynical old me was in two minds upon the first couple of listens, but I stuck with it and eventually got the rewards. If you’d asked me in July where it stood on my albums of the year list I would probably have just laughed and muttered something about “blatant rip-offs” and a “lack of ambition” … but can an album that closes with an epic 15-odd minute synth-tastic masterwork called ‘Sun God’ really leave itself open to accusations of low levels of ambition? Probably not.

Download: ‘Need You Now’, ‘Take Me Over’ (video below is a non-album remix version) , ‘Where I’m Going’, and of course, ‘Sun God’.

Albums of 2011 # 7: Crystal Fighters - Star of Love

The Crystal Fighters debut album, Star of Love, was released in late 2010, initially coming out of nowhere to provide a lightweight and breezy soundtrack to the summer months, before going on to enjoy high rotation on my pod throughout the rest of the 2011 calendar year; whether that meant listening to the steady stream of remixes of the source material – and there were a fair few tracks and different versions to choose from – or simply returning to the album itself.

Star of Love is an Anglo-Spanish concoction of Basque folk, electro pop, and dance music with a punky edge to it. It’s bold and bouncy in parts, confident and fully formed, yet also dreamy and occasionally child-like … the variety of instrumentation being the key to its eclectic nature, something which included the use of traditional Basque wind and percussion instruments.

When combined with a state-of-the-art pop production, high bpms, and all manner of electronic wizardry we ultimately end up with an album that simply oozes fresh summery vibes; a perfect blend of world and western pop, and definitely one of the most under-rated debuts of the year.

I can’t wait to see what Crystal Fighters come up with next …

Download: ‘Champion Sound’ (video below), ‘Plage’, ‘In The Summer’, ‘At Home’, ‘With You’, and ‘Follow’.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 8: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart - Belong

I know next to nothing about The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, other than the fact that they’re from Brooklyn, New York, and their 2011 album, Belong, is the band’s second album in as many outings to thoroughly impress me.

Well, I guess I mean “impress” as in an Eighties retro “I loved The Jesus And Mary Chain first time around” kinda way. Because just like the band’s 2009 self-titled debut, it is virtually impossible to listen to The Pains of Being Pure at Heart without being reminded of East Kilbride’s finest. And obviously, sepia-tinged images of a black leather swathed Velvet Underground loom rather large in the background as well.

But when the fuzzed out guitars give way to a crispy jangle, and the walls of feedback subside long enough to make some space for warm keyboard lines, I’m immediately transported to the electro power pop hooks of New Order during its hit-making late Eighties pomp (prime example – ‘The Body’, see video below).

Belong is certainly a lot more upbeat and generally much warmer than the band’s more gloomy debut effort; it feels like there’s more colour this time around, musically and lyrically there’s more variation, and all the signs are there that this young band is really starting to come into its own.

It’s a strong second album, if a little one dimensional at times, but one I listened to a lot during 2011’s deepest darkest winter months.

And besides, who really cares about how derivative a band might be when the influences shaping its sound are long time favourites of your own from way back? Hell, is it their fault they’ve got such immaculate taste?

Download: ‘Belong’, ‘Heart In Your Heartbreak’, ‘Even In Dreams’, and ‘My Terrible Friend’.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 9: Kode9 & The Spaceape - Black Sun

Dubstep continues to attract a lot of attention and spark debate. Its 2011 form is, in all reality, light years removed from its 2006/Burial-led incarnation, and in some forms, is almost completely unrecognisable. In 2011 we saw the genre enjoy its most high profile year yet as it continued its evolution from being a closet suburban UK “thing” to its present level of popularity at clubs – and festivals – across the globe. It has been a remarkable rise, and the multitude of sub-genres spawned in its wake is testimony to the fact that it isn’t going to go away in a hurry.

Steve Goodman (aka Kode9) has been right at the heart of these developments, not only in his role as the head honcho of the renowned Hyperdub label, but as a producer and DJ wearing his Kode9 hat. Goodman’s 2006 collaboration with a growler voiced MC going by the name of The Spaceape produced one of that year’s more pivotal album releases – Memories of the Future – and the pair successfully reconvened in 2011 right about where they left off. While Black Sun doesn’t exactly move the genre forward at any great rate, it pretty much works as a dark state-of-the-art declaration of where mankind finds itself teetering a full decade into the third millennium.

The Spaceape’s deep vocal really is a thing of wonder in parts, while Goodman takes care of the rest, and as you’d expect, production is top notch. Moody, glitchy, and more than a touch post-apocalyptic in nature, Black Sun is certainly not for the faint of heart, but it is a lurker, a grower, and best absorbed on repeat … if you dare.

Download: ‘Am I’ and ‘Love Is The Drug’ (video link below).

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Albums of 2011 # 10: M83 - Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

This sprawling epic of a double album saw the French "band" M83 take a giant leap forward with perhaps its most accessible work yet. And I guess for “accessible”, what I actually mean is “potentially commercial”, even though the album (M83's sixth full-length release since 2001) didn’t exactly set any new records for sales.

Apparent darlings of the hipster press, most notably Pitchfork, M83 ("the band") is for all intent and purpose one Anthony Gonzalez (and friends), and Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is undoubtedly a move away from Gonzalez's more experimental inclinations, despite there being a familiar mix of both fully formed tracks and not-quite-complete-yet interludes right across both discs.

So essentially the core modus operandi remains firmly intact – it’s electronic music first and foremost, but we get more guitar than I can recall on any other M83 release, stronger vocals, and ultimately something quite close to a perfect blend of electro pop and shoegaze. And at 74 minutes in duration, value for money is practically guaranteed.

Download: ‘Intro’ (which features Zola Jesus), ‘Midnight City’, and the genuine highlight, ‘Steve McQueen’ (video link below).