11 February 2011

Best albums of 2010

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These guitars sound like I have metal things rolling around my brain. The songs lurch like you’re being dragged across the floor. The songs don’t so much end as stagger away.
Listen to: 'The Virgin'

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This year, DIRTY PROJECTORS and BJÖRK released an EP together and it was about a FAMILY OF WHALES. How awesome is that?? You should download it, it’s for charity yo.
Listen to: 'Beautiful Mother'

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Gorgeously-crafted electronic pop that’s more like a track-based IDM record than electro-pop... this has been so universally hyped, and it’s well-deserved.
Listen to: 'Odessa'

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The Brainfeeder set have had a great year, even if perhaps it was just Flying Lotus who received all the accolades. Lorn, The Gaslamp Killer, and Daedelus also made some great music, but I found that Teebs was FlyLo’s most exciting apprentice. Ardour is an album that almost feels like a collection of rough sketches, formed of a broad sonic palette, a ton of ideas that only need to last a couple of minutes.
Listen to: 'Humming Birds'

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All you really need to know is, there was a new Books record out this year. If you’ve never heard them before, they’re heavily focused on spoken-word samples but also have some lovely cello & guitar noodlings, with some fantastic production techniques. This is their 4th in a series of consistently great albums.

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Whatever post-dubstep is, I don’t think Mount Kimbie are really it – in fact I think that cover art is purposefully mocking that monicker, because Mount Kimbie eschew bass-heavy soulless dubstep, but make shuffling beats in the vein of Burial, with a lot of cleverly-used organic samples. It’s chill, but also sort of disconcerting – check out ‘Before I Move Off’ for never a complete syllable of chopped-up R&B samples.

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Noise music is usually characterised as serious, psychologically intense music designed to shift your soul. But Zs do to the genre what Battles did to post-rock – New Slaves is cartoonish, incorporating free jazz instrumentation in a way that can be abrasive (as in the title track), but also, almost lighthearted (‘Don’t Touch Me’).
No proper tracks on Youtube but check them out!

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Philip Jeck regularly releases very similar, but very consistent ambient records, and there’s something about his aesthetic that really stands out to me personally. It engulfs me more than Fennesz, it feels more soulful than Tim Hecker, and I can feel the essence of his decaying analogue equipment, but in a way that isn’t as exhaustive as The Disintegration Loops (whereas William Basinski used disintegrating tape loops, Jeck mostly uses warped and worn-down vinyl). An Ark for the Listener is perhaps Jeck’s droniest, most towering record to date.
Listen to: 'The All of Water'

[I sort of find it hard to evaluate ambient/drone/noise music... there are a lot of critically-acclaimed, consistent artists who I namechecked here, who make music which I know I’ll dig if I’m in the mood for ambience. This year, I also really enjoyed Knoxville by the Fennesz Daniell Buck collaboration (if you want something more melodious), Going Places by Yellow Swans (if you want something more noisy), Holkham Drones by Luke Abbott (just, awesome studying music), and Landings by Richard Skelton (mostly experimental acoustic).]

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Well this is my favourite cover art of 2010. I can’t explain it. Chillwave kind of died this year but Tanlines might yet prove to be one of the most exciting bands of the movement, fusing their sound with strong Afro-pop elements (and by that I mean hella kettle drums).
‘Real Life’ is the JAM.

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I feel like maybe I’ll be raving about this record in a few listens time. It doesn’t really make sense to put it so far down the list, I know, but at the moment it feels like Sufjan’s genius (‘Too Much’, ‘I Want to be Well’) is wavering (‘Impossible Soul’, which is still an unbelievable achievement).

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Dark, unpolished electro-pop grotesquery.
Listen to: 'Slowdance'

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This is where I talk about how Abe Vigoda made a startling transition from tropical punk to synth-pop or whatever – but this is the first AV record I heard, and they’re just as adept at fusing synth with post-punk... this record is a real grower, at first I found it almost generic-indie-rock, but I’ve come to realise how wrong I was: it’s full of rewarding, unique songs.
Listen to: 'Throwing Shade'

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Dessa sometimes raps and sometimes sings her markedly serious & gritty lyrics, across a really varied record: the album is as effective at being forceful (‘Alibi’) as when the only instrumentation is Dessa’s looped vocals (‘Poor Atlas’) or restrained woodwind (‘Memento Mori’). It’s a very clever album in spite of its directness, (and you can sort of tell Dessa knows it), but nonetheless, remarkably honest.

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Even my sister listens to ‘Tightrope’ over and over again, because it’s awesome, but of course the album is much more than that. Monáe has tons of ambition, as she uses suite forms (complete with overtures) without it sounding forced; it makes it sound like people should’ve been making albums like this for years (like, ones that aren’t prog...) I have to admit, it completely overshadows of Montreal’s recent attempts to make soul music (Barnes’ cameo, ‘Make the Bus’ just sounds like recent of Montreal...)
Listen to: 'Cold War'

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The frontman of an influential, cult indie pop band (Hefner), still making albums solo after having split up the band nearly ten years ago despite slipping into relative obscurity, should NOT have made an album this good. I expected this to be really middle-of-the-road, but Hayman’s songs are as insightful and singalongable as ever, this is probably his most consistent release (Hefner included!). After only the second time I listened to this record, several songs were stuck in my head all day.

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It’s a concept record retelling the Orpheus myth featuring a plethora of indie-folk stars. Each unique voice is assigned a character (including Bon Iver as Orpheus), and YES it’s as awesome as it sounds. I can’t physically understand how this slipped under Pitchfork’s radar, as it had universally glowing reviews everywhere else. Seriously, it’s the best reviewed record in over two years, according to Any Decent Music [as of Feb 2011], although the same site shows it was neglected from end-of-year lists. I honestly believe that this goes to show the influence of Pitchfork; had they reviewed this album, it wouldn’t have been forgotten.)

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Girl Talk released a new album this year (he mashes up chart-rap with critically-acclaimed classics. And it’s still free!)
Listen to: 'Get It Get It'

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I’m really surprised about the success of this album – the band seem to have gained a lot of fans amongst NME kids, despite sounding like a British Dismemberment Plan. I can imagine all the songs started out pretty basic, then the band threw in idea after idea in an attempt to make themselves sound as quirky as possible. Yet it still sounds like singles from start to finish, mathy and unpredictable but with triumphant, radio-friendly choruses.

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It’s getting more and more popular for bands to be lo-fi for the sake of lo-fi, but it’s clear from the opening salvo of ‘Tell Em’ that noise is Sleigh Bells’ THING. Standout ‘Crown on the Ground’ is a pop song that sounds powerful because of its overwhelming noisiness, and here’s the thing, it couldn’t exist without that noise. It turns out crazed-cheerleader-core is incredibly entertaining.

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Dark Terry Riley synth spirals, gorgeous electro squelches and soaring guitar lines. Like Fuck Buttons were being sci-fi rather than noisy.
Listen to: 'Candy Shoppe'

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I listened to Andre 3000’s half of the “split” OutKast album, The Love Below, way more than Big Boi’s half Speakerboxxx, which I didn’t get into aside from the singles... I wouldn’t have thought Big Boi had an album like this in him, until the release of awesome summer anthem ‘Shine Blockas’, followed by more shifts in style with the excellent ‘General Patton’ and ‘Shutterbugg’. He’s still as sharp a rapper as he was in OutKast, and this album just proves that the group’s experimental tendencies weren’t just Andre’s doing.
Listen to: 'Shine Blockas'

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This year I discovered that you can rarely go wrong with a band that is emo + noisy + maths (Cap’n Jazz being my best discovery!) Castevet take cues from that tradition here, but interestingly, they incorporate post-rock/shoegazey textures, managing to infuse the genres while avoiding the tendency of post-rock to be exhaustive, and the tendency of emo to be overly spontaneous. I’ve listened to this record a crazy amount of times, and it has a song called ‘Cities & Memory’, my two favourite subjects for a song!
Listen to: 'Model Trains'

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Maybe this record got overlooked back in the winter when it was released, because it’s perfect summer music, from joyfully simple folk songs like ‘Life is Good Blues’, to breezy choruses ‘Summer is the Champion’, and gorgeous string arrangements ‘July Flame’. This is the last of a series of albums on the four elements, ending on fire – but rather than depart from her reserved tendencies, Veirs writes songs about warmth, completing a quadrilogy of records which perfectly encapsulate their themes. She’s one of my very favourite songwriters.
Listen to: 'July Flame'

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Trying to assign this a genre at the CD library, I ended up with “experimental choral metal???” It’s a fairly appropriate description to be honest. The album opens with about 8 minutes of beautifully-harmonised female choral parts, until the sludge metal hits like a sledgehammer (‘A Body’). Elsewhere they chop up tribal chants like a skipping CD on ‘Empty Hearth’ and subvert standard stoner rock with those frantic vocals sliding way back in the mix beneath sheets of noise (‘Song of Sarin, the Brave’). I like my metal really leftfield, and although this is one of few metal records of 2010 I properly listened to, it’s super awesome.
Listen to: 'A Curse'

[Other metal records I really liked: Rose Kemp’s Golden Shroud is really genius prog-metal but I only just listened to it now!, Alcest’s Écailles de Lune is some pretty cool shoegaze/metal.]

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I’m still a bit confused by the success of this record. It puts a skew on everything from hair metal (‘Butt House Blondies’) to lounge jazz (‘Hot Body Rub’), but the production always makes it sound spontaneous and uncommercial – see ‘Fright Night’, a song that really only SUGGESTS cohesivity, all lost because under weird noises and Pink’s mumbled delivery. Whereas sometimes it almost sounds too cheesy-pop (‘Can’t Hear My Eyes’) to really appeal to trendy alt/experimental types (hardcore fans prefer his old stuff). It feels like listening to one of your parents old cassette tapes, but with much weirder sounds than you were expecting.
Listen to: 'Round and Round'

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As with any Wave Pictures record, I had to listen to this at least 5 times before it sunk in... it’s mostly darker than their previous work, and less twee (‘I Just Want to Be Your Friend’ is the exception), but I love this band so much and they can do no wrong. Stunning songwriting.
Listen to: 'American Boom'

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I realise that this is a work of genius, but it went straight over my head. I wasn’t really sure where to place it on here because I feel like the songs are still clicking, one by one. I’m beginning to see it as a unified work – sparser than predecessor Ys (one of my favourite records of all time) but no less lyrically rewarding.
Listen to: 'In California'

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Referencing everything from Google (in several tracks) to Arundhati Roy (‘Ek Shaneesh’) to Captain Beefheart and Grouper (‘Amazing’), Das Racist are zeitgeisty, quirky, and yes, obsessed with race – but they’re primarily hilariously witty. It’s the nature of mixtapes to sound a bit unrefined, and while the hits are awesome - ‘Chicken & Meat’, ‘Rainbow in the Dark’, ‘hahahaha jk?’, and ‘rapping 2 u’ - there’s weaker points too, like the end-ish of Shut Up, Dude and tracks 5-8 of Sit Down Man, but it’s well worth sticking with it for the good stuff. Especially cause these are free too!

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“The songs on Heartland form a narrative concerning a ‘young, ultra-violent farmer’ named Lewis, commanded by an all-powerful narrator—named Owen.” Despite being probably the worst concept album ever, Heartland is up here purely because of the gorgeous arrangements... Pallett has a wonderful ear for harmony, and here he perfectly synthesises electronic and orchestral textures.

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I don’t know whether this is free jazz, punk, noise, sax-metal, or what... At first I thought Little Women were skronking skilfully, with astonishing command of the mind-boggling mathematical structures of their music, but where were they going with it? The left turn comes at ‘Throat IV’ (which I don’t want to spoil for you, but it’s incredible). They do so much with two saxophones, drums, and a guitar (and then rip it all away again for the scary finale ‘Throat VII’). An album so powerful and terrifying that you’ll have difficulty taking it in.
Listen to: 'Throat I' (and then the whole thing, in order!)

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For some reason I had Deerhunter down as indie-rock auteurs, doing weird guitar shit while still being cool as fuck (kind of Sonic Youthy). It’s actually a lot simpler than that, but the album’s a grower so it took a while to hit me. While they’re fond of the odd mathy, layered breakdown, the songs are actually deceptively simple, fragile but warm, with reverb you can bask in.
Listen to: 'Desire Lines'

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The bare bones of the new Girls songs are underwhelming (when I saw Girls live over a year ago, they played a couple of these tracks and they pretty much sounded like the weaker tracks on their debut, Album). What elevates this EP is the arrangements; the production. I can’t really say it better than the Pitchfork review, but this is possibly the most effective use of a studio I’ve ever heard. Christopher Owens’ lyrics are, on paper, trite and unoriginal (although I’m lead to believe he’s at least being sincere). But on the record, augmented with lush arrangements and insane production embellishments at every step, Owens might as well be a lyrical genius.

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People don’t treat SMZ with the reverence reserved for parent band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Yet the group have retained their emotional force. It’s not as raw, or as revolutionary as Godspeed were back in the day, but it still hits those cathartic heights: ‘There is a Light’ and ‘’Piphany Rambler’ demonstrate that SMZ have perfected the art of the long-form song.

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I first heard this in the car on the way to band practice; it was just swords and terrifying chanted vocals, soon I just burst out with “THIS IS AWESOME”. I thought it was something from Anticon; it has this subverted hip-hop swagger and meaty, bassy beats, but also a bunch of bassoon and foley techniques (those awesome swords – see ‘Attack Music’). Turns out These New Puritans were actually just Brit rockers who tired of conventional songwriting, choosing to enlist a woodwind section and focus on mantras and tribal drumming. The result is a violent, brooding record; every experimental element proves successful.
Listen to: 'Attack Music'

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Try as I might to get this record past the CD library purchase list vote, it’s always dismissed as “another guy with a guitar”. But, (although there’s only so far I can go without mentioning Bob Dylan), Tallest Man is idiosyncratic not just in his astonishing voice (I can’t even describe it), but he also hones out his aesthetic in his use of open tunings. Having learned a few of the songs on guitar, they all fit similar patterns (and they’re all so much fun to play), but all have different tunings. Every time he strums it sounds like a thing beyond something any open-mic night Oasis-covering acoustic guitar hack could muster – the effect is aided by earthy production. And the songs work on lyrical references I still can’t get my head around; each is an elaborate puzzle, and I enjoyed the album for its pure tone before I listened to the lyrics, (which is unusual for me, as his textures are so bare). He puts down the guitar for gorgeous closer ‘Kids on the Run’, proving himself just as adept at piano – far from just “another guy with a guitar”, then.
Listen to: 'The Wild Hunt'

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Everyone seems to think the Perfume Genius performs this album solo on piano. It’s because it’s intimate, but that’s not because it’s just him – every detail of the production makes a huge difference. It’s lo-fi, but very methodical. The first thing that will strike you about it is his evocative voice, and those lyrics: ‘Mr Peterson’ is especially arresting, but you’ll start to notice that droney, vibrato organ, the tapped feet, and that even the tape hiss sounds like it’s been processed so it’s like a wavery veil over the whole thing. Turn it right up at the end and there’s another song being played in the background. The record’s songs which are practically built out of these techniques (the gorgeous ‘No Problem’ for one) are kind of overlooked, but as important to Perfume Genius’ cathartic songwriting process as more obviously emotional songs like ‘Learning’. It’s actually not so much of a personal record as you might have heard. It’s based on feelings rather than his experiences, and it should resonate with anyone who’s, just, ever felt sad.
Listen to: 'Mr Peterson'

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Perhaps the most ambitious record of the year (Kanye I’mma let you finish...), Flying Lotus wanted to create the best trippy music ever. His sonic palette is colossal, drawing on the influences of his aunt –jazz harpist Alice Coltrane, and J. Dilla-esque quirky instrumental hip-hop, but introducing more orchestral, experimental elements; the record transcends, even invents, genre.

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Titus Andronicus make cathartic post-punk, with lyrics that are remorseful and caustic, but at the same time it feels triumphant. They’re as adept at riff-based punk rock (‘A More Perfect Union’) as when they add in piano (‘A Pot in which to Piss’) or even bagpipes! (epic closer ‘The Battle of Hampton Roads’). It’s also an expansive loose concept record (based on the US Civil War), and the song lengths add to its truly epic nature; it’s one of the best-crafted albums (as a whole) I’ve ever heard.

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It’s really awesome when I meet other people who love LC! as much as me – it actually happens quite a lot; the nature of their music will immediately turn some people off, but those who like them REALLY like them. And their brilliance is marred by so many flaws that their music is almost built around them. First of all Gareth’s awful singing voice is something that I find absolutely brilliant, and his lyrics are so TMI it can make you cringe (‘Straight in at 101’ offers the couplet “I think we need more post-coital, and less post-rock/Feels like the build-up takes forever, but you never touch my cock”). ‘In Medias Res’ never really establishes any sort of structure, more sways around song fragments. ‘Plan A’ is a complete anomaly, an uncharacteristic dance-punk song about Gareth’s dream of blagging himself into the Maltese national football team. The two highlights are spazzy math-pop single ‘There are Listed Buildings’ and sombre, string-laden ballad ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future’. But all these things are what endear them to me so much – the lyrics are awkward, but therein lies their insight (and that’s why I relate so much), and its musical incoherence only highlights a multitude of flavours of awesome.

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I don’t even know where to begin with this. It surprises me to not put an indie-rock record up here, to be honest. It might be that you skimmed over this record, if you’ve heard of it at all. It’s often lumped in with chillwave (frequently compared to Toro Y Moi), but Baths transcends that genre – while the percussion and synths are woozy, that usually just serves as a bed for something far more powerful. It’s so subtle that it takes a while to sink in (all the best records are growers). But you can see it in the haunting lyrical mantras (‘Rain Smell’, ‘Departure’), in the gorgeous melodies (‘Indoorsy’, ‘Lovely Bloodflow’), and dense but uncomplicated production (‘Maximalist’, ‘Hall’). It’s flippant (‘Aminals’ is a lovely Bibio-esque glissandoed melody with lots of samples of cute kids “We’re elephants, we love giraffes!!”), but there’s something honest, intensely emotional behind these songs. The lyrics on Cerulean are minimal but complex, more subversive than you realise at first – for instance, ‘You’re My Excuse to Travel’ seems to be a love song about travelling rather than the 2nd-person addressee. All this belted out in Will Wiesenfeld’s gleeful falsetto, which is often in the mix even when there are no lyrics (‘Apologetic Shoulder Blades’ being the best example).
I was utterly bewildered when I discovered that the copy I’d initially been listening to was actually the unmastered demo version. It packs three extra tracks, removed in the version I bought: the most typically Baths-y Baths song ‘Mecha Joy’ pitches his voice against light piano over earthy beats; ‘Seaside Town’ uses hazy panpipe/flutes and samples Kirsten Dunst in Kiki’s Delivery Service to create something at once slightly cheesy and heartbreakingly beautiful; ‘Palatial Disappointment’ is just a staggeringly emotional song, packing more lyrics than any other Baths song, proving Wiesenfeld as brilliant a poet as producer. Why these three tracks were dropped escapes me, however, the mastered record redeems itself with the addition of the wonderful ‘Plea’, and when I heard the extra flourishes on ‘Hall’ and ‘Apologetic Shoulder Blades’ I fell in love with the album all over again. It is music that fits all moods.


And a couple shout-outs to two amazing visual albums released in 2010 – Animal Collective’s ODDSAC and Dustin Wong’s Infinite Love. Listening to/watching these releases is much more special than listening to any of the albums and I’ve actually only watched them once each, but found both very rewarding - however, ODDSAC is probably the best example of this form. Most people think of Wong’s release as an album with accompanying visuals, but I found that both were intertwined, and found that the visuals made the music sound way more awesome. I’d like to see more artists create things like this in the future!

PS: I've started up a new music blog - haven't yet posted on it so watch this space, I'll edit in a link soon. I realised that music journalism is something I'd absolutely love to do as a career, and as of yet I don't have anything structured to show for it. Also, I want this to mark a refinement of my style of music journalism so it's probably going to be a bit less daft than this post. I actually intend to update pretty regularly, with a fairly broad range of material that will focus on the experience of music as much as the music itself.

03 January 2011

Best bands I saw in 2010

16) Rolo Tomassi
playing a tiny, sold-out gig in The Chameleon (basically a loft). I didn't realise who the vocalist was till they started. I also saw them play in a polar opposite venue - outside the city hall on a Sunday afternoon in Sheffield, without compromising the insanity of their music

15) A Hawk & A Hacksaw
really impressive musicians playing weird instruments in crazy time signatures is my thing

14) Ariel Pink
power cut at the original venue meant we relocated to The Chameleon (where Rolo played). The band smoked a joint in there before they played & Ariel said it was the best crowd they'd seen in years, the gig finished at about 2am

13) Nedry
dubstep/post rock band I saw supporting other bands, twice. When I met Ayu, it was the only time I've met a musician I'm into where it didn't feel super weird! She's really cool

12) Mount Eerie
and that's the "black metal" Mt Eerie. 2 drummers, bass + synth bass, Elvereum + his guitar; awesome walls of sound

11) of Montreal
the theatrics made this, making up for the fact that I've kinda gone off their last couple of records. They covered Thriller!

10) Broken Social Scene
they were just having a great time

9) Darren Hayman
at The Chameleon again - Hayman was on his own, and didn't really bother with his microphone, but played the most engaging songs & he has the best sense of humour!

8) Autechre
sounded nothing like anything they've put on record, I thought I was going to die of bass

7) WHY?
Yoni Wolf is the coolest. This was on a boat!!

6) The Wave Pictures
my band supported them! Would surely have made the list anyway

5) Melt-Banana
for their encore, Yasuko announced that they'd play "10 more songs"... which they completed in under 3 minutes

4) Fucked Up
Pink Eyes spent the first song on stage, the rest of the night rampaging through the crowd, who were divided into people going mental at the front, and the super boring people stood way far back. At one point, Pink Eyes climbed onto the bar & motioned that he was about to stage dive into the standing-still half, did a countdown, lunged... then waved his arm like "I'm just fucking with you"

3) Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra
I missed out on the Godspeed reunion but this was still great...

2) Los Campesinos!
saw them twice, but only at festivals, both times involved me meeting strangers & us screaming lyrics at each other

1) Titus Andronicus
at the front of a tiny venue - amazing atmosphere. Then they stayed at my girlfriend's house. Best day ever??

Best songs of 2010

Here are my favourite songs of 2010!

“I'm all up in the freezer at your crib like ‘Where yo gin be at?!’” (http://rapgenius.com/lyrics/Das-racist-ft-boi-1da/Hahahaha-jk oh wow)

29) Allo Darlin' - Kiss Your Lips
“Underneath the stars on the ferris wheel, you swung your feet and sang my favourite Weezer song, so I sang along... ‘I’M A LOT LIKE YOU, SO PLEASE, HELLO, I’M HERE, I’M WAITING, I THINK I’D BE GOOD FOR YOU, AND YOU COULD BE GOOD FOR ME!’”
And it’s definitely up there with MY favourite Weezer songs and it sounds just as awesome in this song, if not more so cause I’ve heard the original so many times but never on a ferris wheel but how cool would that be... and also this song sounds like it could last forever, maybe it’s just the chord structure, but it’s a twee song that actually sounds like a JAM, which is pretty great.

I wanted to dislike you, Wavves, after you put on one of the worst live shows I’ve ever seen, but I can’t deny how much fun this song is...

27) Ted Leo and the Pharmacists - The Mighty Sparrow
Couldn’t stop listening to this song... great pop-punk

26) The Tallest Man on Earth - Kids on the Run
“And no we will never be a part of the pictures once taken, when we’re feeding fire with the flames till no memories gone”

25) Vampire Weekend - Cousins
I think Vampire Weekend should APOLOGISE for releasing a song as awesome as this as their lead single even though they KNOW FULL WELL that the rest of the album was boring and shitty.

I think I’ve seen love for every single track on the Deerhunter record but I think this is a perfect, haunting closer, I love songs that have two distinct halves. Poor Jay :(

23) Tennis – Marathon
This is a song about sailing into a cove and it is lovely and it will be stuck in your head for days

22) Girls - The Oh So Protective One
“He'll never know about the times that you cried in the movies, never know about the times that you cried to the music, about your mother or your father or the way you got your broken heart
This took some getting adjusted to but man I never thought a Girls song could be so densely-instrumented; it’s still the same band singing about the same stuff but with a BRASS section, with a goddamn trumpet solo! Lyrically, Owens has a knack for phrasing gorgeous, complex emotions in a really simple style. I’d never think to try & write so directly but I wish I’d written this song, it says so much.

21) Sleigh Bells - Infinity Guitars
The demo version of this song came out last year and you know, it was ok, but the mastered version adds a level of awesome which MAKES the song, suddenly blasting it to the upper limits of volume. I imagine that Derek E. Miller hit a wall of frustration when he realised that the song couldn’t physically go any louder at the end.

“Prepare to be told ‘That shit’s gay, dude’”

19) Baths - Hall
This song works perfectly as an album closer so I dunno why Baths shifted it to the middle of his finalised album. The opening cacophony of (still pretty awesome) random samples quickly arranges itself into a driving beat, which runs until it’s just about to lose steam... then gets EVEN MORE AWESOME when Baths’ vocals come in. What a glorious ENDING.

18) Yeasayer - Ambling Alp
The final 15 seconds of this song are the most joyful thing ever!

“I've been playing straight chicken with gay girls - IT'S NEVER ENOUGH!”

Sufjan has so much ambition it’s not always fully realised, but when he pulls it off, I’m in awe.

(the live version I've linked to is the best live video I've seen this year)

Awesome electronic future jazz!!

13) Baths - Seaside Town
I must really love Baths because this song has so many things I should be cynical about but it’s still 13th on this list and oh god I love it so much

“You say you don’t wanna be my girl, but will you just be anyway?”

11) The Tallest Man on Earth - Burden of Tomorrow
“But rumour has it that I wasn’t born, I just walked in one frosty morn, into the vision of some vacant mind”

I was a bit underwhelmed by that Knife opera, in part because this track really heightened my expectations – there are so many bits of gorgeous instrumentation going on yet it doesn’t sound overstuffed. The rest of the opera was mostly electronic squelches and aimless dicking about, but this piece was utter genius.

This is just such a great tune. I don't know whether it's pop or anti-pop.

“Like all the first things, you so comically inaccessible, waiting to meet your husband from the train”

7) Titus Andronicus - A More Perfect Union
“Cuz tramps like us, baby we were born to die”

“He made me a tape of Joy Division, he told me there was part of him missing, when I was 16, he jumped off a building”

5) Loscil – The Making of Grief Point
“...I have lost interest in music... it is horrible...”
Endless Falls, the relatively unremarkable ambient record Loscil released this year, ends on this collaboration with Dan Bejar (Destroyer). Bejar takes Loscil’s disconcerting (but otherwise forgettable) atmospherics as a bed for this impenetrable monologue, never quite giving you a complete frame of reference for what he is talking about but it’s something about the creation of music itself. It reminds me of a captain’s log, like it has been recovered, displaying his final stages of madness. Bejar distorts personal pronouns and shifts in tone from phrase to phrase, sometimes stammering over incorrect grammar but sometimes sounding commanding and terrifying. While usually Loscil’s music doesn’t move me, his subtly changing layers and piano patterns here augment Bejar’s monologue – they work beautifully as a team. I listen to this while I’m wandering round a city and the feeling it gives me is unique.

4) Baths - Palatial Disappointment (aka Iniuria Palace, which is an even more genius title)
“All the classical music in the world cannot read weep as deeply as a broken hearted teenager”

I don’t think it’s too presumptuous to say that you’ve DEFINITELY heard this song and you DEFINITELY loved it

Sometimes I’ll think a song is cool but has one REALLY AWESOME BIT that’s like, a bridge, or the end of a guitar solo or something, and it just doesn’t go on long enough. This song sounds like a bunch of those awesome bits have been stuck together and they last the WHOLE SONG.

“Gimme that night you were already in bed, said ‘fuck it’, got up to drink with me instead”

Shout outs to a few songs which were up online in 2009 that were technically released this year – Los Campesinos! ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think of the Future’ & 'There Are Listed Buildings', Big Boi ‘Shine Blockas’, Sleigh Bells ‘Crown on the Ground’, y’all woulda been in my top 10 had I written a list last year.

EDIT: Also gotta give a shout out to Nicki Minaj's verse on 'Monster' by Kanye West for being by far the best bit of an album that's either WAY overhyped, or of which I've completely missed the point

15 September 2010

Why my favourite song ever is my favourite song ever

I think a couple years ago just after Neon Bible came out I made a list and named "No Cars Go" my favourite song of all time (I was 16 when I wrote this rubbish - and it's still one of the most goosebumpy songs ever; when I saw Terry Gilliam's webcast of their NYC set that was the song that moved me to tears), but it's sort of lost some of its power and is perhaps too straightforward to be a "favourite song ever", or maybe I only form "favourite songs" for a short period of time. Anyway this one has been my very favourite for a long while now and while I'm sure I'll have overplayed it soon I realised the other day that I can write enough about this song to convince anyone (including myself) that I find it the most enduringly brilliant song I've ever heard, so I'm going to explore it a bit and hopefully it will explain a lot about me right now & why this song resonates so particularly at this time in my life (& of course is going to continue doing so for ever now). Don't worry, "Get Me Away From Here I'm Dying" by Belle & Sebastian and "Gold Soundz" by Pavement (you were the best song of the 90s, I was totally stoked when you got the Pitchfork approval because this is a song that you can easily love personally - B.O.B. was a good democratic choice for the 00s but it's hard to really LOVE that song whereas Gold Soundz sounds more like the "favourite" song of a generation of indie kids), y'all still mean a lot to me & always will but I've come to the conclusion that "Now You Are Pregnant" by The Wave Pictures is my favourite song ever.

And I suppose that's helped by the circumstances in which I heard that song; the first time it really struck me was the first time I saw the Wave Pictures live, in Nottingham about a year ago. I realised I'd heard it before on Spotify just because of the line about Johnny Cash and the punchline really made me smile because I hadn't even paid attention to the song the first time I heard it. (Songs that sound awesome the first time I hear them never hold up & become my favourite ever or anything). When they do it live, Jonny "Huddersfield" Helm, the drummer, takes lead vocals and Franic Rozycki (bass) and David Tattersall (guitar and the guy who wrote this song and sings on the record) back him up with some gentle fingerpicking. It's almost an ambient effect and really makes you pay attention to the lyrics but it loses some of the catharsis of the chorus. And this was the first Wave Pictures song I listened to when I got home after their brilliant performance - they're the most charming band I've ever seen; David's stage banter is hilarious and you can really tell he loves his job. It just sort of left a warm glow within me & back then I felt like I should have known all the lyrics like a lot of the people there seemed to. At one point Franic was trying to find a bottle opener so I held out my keyring and David's dad shouted to him that I was offering one but then he'd managed to open it on the edge of a guitar tuner. Me and Alex left slightly disappointed that they hadn't played "Strange Fruit For David" (which is their most instantly lovable song but after having listened to all their songs dozens of times it's just a sort of mid-level brilliant Wave Pictures song) but we both got really into the band afterwards.

Anyway I listened to Now You Are Pregnant a lot, on repeat, for the next couple of months, after having perhaps avoided it before because of that daft fucking title. When I was on Alex's radio show Christmas Special the tunes I picked out were "Which Song" by Max Tundra, "Gyroscope" by The Dismemberment Plan, and of course "Now You Are Pregnant". That was when I realised I actually knew all the words (and Alex knew most of them) and we sang pretty much the whole thing along with it, mics were off but we subjected a few of our bemused friends to my not-always-hitting-the-high-notes tenor (this song could've done with being a semitone or two deeper). Beautiful moment. There's something we both really dug about the most obviously appealing aspects of the song, like the punchline and the whole 'or I could rush into the shop and tell you that I adore you' turning point but there's a whole lot about it I suppose I haven't really asked Alex about even though we spent a bunch of hour-long car journeys to band practice just singing along to Wave Pictures songs on the stereo and saying how much we loved the lyrics - I think once I was like '...who's your favourite Wave Picture??'; our fanboyism is a bit ridiculous really. And I'm pretty sure "Now You Are Pregnant" is also his favourite song ever and we have now sung it all the way through in public many times, both drunk and sober, mostly the former, but I've never really gone into WHY it's my favourite song ever and I expect if I did that we'd have pretty different but equally valid reasons.

The song had its only real proper release as the B-side to "We Dress Up Like Snowmen". This is why people haven't heard of it. And well, The Wave Pictures are really low-key, so whereas Moshi Moshi alumini like Bloc Party and Florence & The Machine are massive now, The Wave Pictures have stayed harcore lo-fi and write songs that it takes ages to get into. They're sort of a cult band; I mean I know a lot of people who love them to bits just because I'm in that sort of social sphere. I've even sort of bonded with people because of mutual Wave Pics love.

So the song itself.

I can play it fairly easily on guitar (although barre chords hurt my left hand lots by the end); It's mostly A Bm C#m Bm D D C#m Bm repeat, all in the same barre shape starting on 5th fret. Then E (barred on 7th fret), A5 (which I think is just played open if you have a capo on 5), D (barred on 5 and with a little of the sus2) for the other bits. Which is really not a brilliant chord progression and if I showed it to my pedantic music A-level friends they'd scoff at such an unsavoury structure (I ii iii ii IV iii ii), none of it should work, but that just makes the V I IV bit sound better, cause it's always been building up to the dominant but never makes it until that moment, and I suppose the simplicity it sort of puts the focus on the lyrics. The melody is endlessly intriguing because it is unrepetetive but at the same time flows perfectly and has got stuck in my head a lot of times. But trying to find patterns in the structures proved very difficult - it is as if David improvised melodies over the top of it & shuffled them to best fit the words, so it forms peaks & you get repeated sections in it when you get repetitions in the lyrics; so whereas the melody at first seems improvised which fits the stream-of-consciousness style, the more you listen to it the more structured & methodical you realise it is.

And it's very important to me that it's stream-of-consciousness; it's one of the best examples of literature that mirrors the patterns of consciousness. It's a device familiar to devotees of Modernist poetry & prose, a famous example being Molly Bloom's soliloquy in Ulysses - there's actually quite a lot of literature that is misattributed as stream-of-consciousness, for instance my favourite novel, Mrs Dalloway, is frequently described as such, and I'm actually all right with that because it shares so many features with the style and the point is that Woolf is focusing on consciousness. If I were to mull over the pronouns & tenses David uses in "Now You Are Pregnant" I'd conclude that it isn't really stream-of-consciousness (David eschews the technique to produce the wonderful couplet 'But I don't need therapy because I have cigarettes / And I don't have any bad memories only bitter regrets', two of the most immediately accessible and standout lines), and perhaps I'm only inclined to refer to it as such because it's in 1st-person, however the devices of repetition and non-sequitirs and exaggeration make this sound more like an interior monologue than a poem, but of course it rhymes, because it's a song, and it works even better as a song because there's no need to quibble over punctuation, it's more direct vocally and mirrors actual thought processes better than it does on the page. The fact that David doesn't pin it down to any specific style & breaks lots of rules only makes it more endearing & unique.

When you were satisfying your thirst for success
And you looked older than I did,
I didn't think that that was you at your best.
We were only lonely little kids
Amidst stacks and stacks of slacks and black platform shoes,
We were little kids.
And you could say sorry ten billion times,
But sorry didn't do what you did.
I threw myself at you and I threw myself away
Amidst stacks and stacks of slacks and black platform shoes.
Johnny Cash died today, and you say, you say things,
Lovely things, to lovely other people,
And I'm not invited.

But I love the back garden at my parents' place,
And I love the view out of my Glasgow window,
And I love waking up on the floor of a flat in New York,
And you don't know any of these things.

And I've seen you selling shoes but you've never heard me sing,
And I used to hate your boyfriend and the things you did.
Somehow I found out and I was disappointed,
But I don't need therapy because I have cigarettes,
And I don't have any bad memories only bitter regrets.
Johnny Cash died today, and I could take a train
And take an hour to think on the way of what I would say when I saw you.
And I could walk into the shop and buy myself some black platform shoes,
Talk to the other girls, and just ignore you.
Or I could rush into the shop and tell you that I adore you,
Because I adore you.

Johnny Cash died today and you'd say, you'd say
"It's not like Elvis though is it?"
And you would be right.

So we get the line which is repeated purely for the sound of the words, and I dunno if many people actually do this in their heads but I can totally imagine David Tattersall's internal monologue being really musical (when I met David, he spoke in a vulnerable tenor that made him sound as if he were singing every word he said. I found it quite fascinating, I could listen to him talk all day), so it's quite believable that he could be thinking the phrase 'stacks and stacks of slacks and black platform shoes' just because it sounds so good, rhymed trochees lapsing into the spondaic catharsis of the phrase 'black platform shoes', a phrase which really doesn't mean anything in the context of the song but is repeated three times and certainly makes the text more authentic as something that could be an interior monologue. It's like a memory of something and it's never quite clear where from, because it reappears when they were 'only lonely little kids' (incidentally I somehow doubt they ever met as kids but I think this just adds to the sense of David's childlike attraction to this woman and her immaturity), I believe it's just resonances of the memory of him seeing her at the shoe shop that recur throughout the song, seeing as that's where he appears to be headed during the song.

I should zoom out a bit. I've decided that the song is a snapshot of David's thought process while he is already on the train, even though he's saying he 'could take a train'. Because within this thought process he is thinking about thinking: 'and take an hour to think on the way of what I would say when I saw you', I find this so funny because he's thinking over and over about this woman and then kidding himself that he'll take a train on a whim and only while he's on his way will he start thinking about what will happen when he gets there. He's planning to have a structured think while thinking about things with a boundless creativity and, if we are to suspend disbelief, no apparent structure. But from this structurelessness we reach an answer by the end (not that I can picture the song's protagonist marching into the shop with such conviction), which kind of makes me think that this is as focused as an internal monologue can get (I know for sure when I tell myself I'll plan something like this I always mentally lose track while I'm thinking about it), so he may as well be already on the train. But of course he might not have even had the nerve to buy a train ticket; the main reason I picture this song on a train is because this is the exact setting where these thought processes work so beautifully. The gentle 3/4 rhythm propels along like the train in the background and the thoughts just fall into place around it. I think like this best when I'm on a train, it's where my brain feels most creative for some reason. If I ever write a book of poetry I'll include instructions to read the poems on a train or a bus.

The only guiding aspect that the narrator has over his thought process is his desire to prove to himself that he is not in love with this girl. This is ultimately a song about pretending to yourself that you are not in love with someone and I think that this is something that nearly everyone MUST have experienced and I think most people are probably continually experiencing most of the time no matter how much we try and deny it. And he sort of does a good job because I have no idea what he sees in this girl. She looks old yet is still childish, she is selfish, she hangs out with the wrong crowd and has some idiot boyfriend with whom she's done something unspecified and horrible, and she doesn't even appreciate Johnny motherfucking Cash.

And it's amazing because he keeps DISTRACTING himself from her whenever he thinks something nice about her; there's no concrete nice thing she's done but the odd unjustified positive adjective about her - 'and you say things, lovely things to lovely, other people and I'm not invited' is actually a quite absurd assumption for the narrator to make since he wasn't there but this is exactly the sort of thing I assume about people, all of the time. All this before he spends 3 lines, just as the violin comes in, detailing complete non-sequitirs just to take his mind off the pain of not being invited to whatever it is she gets up to. Or maybe the train just passed by something that reminds him of 'the back garden at [his] parents' place'. For a while my favourite line in the song was the one that follows the 3 non-sequitirs: 'And you don't know any of these things'. He cares much more for her, and knows more about her than she knows about him, and it's unclear whether he's treasuring all these aspects that have nothing to do with her & finding beauty & happiness elsewhere, or, and I really like this, if he thinks that all these experiences, if she knew of them, would make her attracted to him & she doesn't realise what she's missing. All of this of course is irrelevant because Johnny motherfucking Cash died today, who are we to sit around thinking about some stupid girl when one of the biggest musical legends in the entire world died today?

You're supposed to laugh when David sings 'And you'd say, you'd say "It's not like Elvis!"'. It's a brilliant punchline and a surprising way to end such a wistful song, because of course it is funny the first few times but if you look deeper there's something disarming about how this is actually speculative. It's not something that happened but something he can totally see her saying if he were to seek consolation about Johnny Cash's death. Which just makes it more tragic; he adores her in spite of how embarrassing her mannerisms are, how ignorant she is of what is important to him. And by the 4th repetition of the punchline David has come to agree with her; not even her but this imaginary, exaggerated version of her: 'And you would be right'. And I suppose it's not really like Elvis but that's not the point any more, it's about the feeling of forgiving someone's flaws for a reason it's impossible to articulate.

And I shouldn't need to tell you how much I love the violin coda, or what it should make you feel because augh it's beautiful. And when it doubles up it creates possibly the densest musical texture the Wave Pictures have committed to tape! Which isn't very many layers of instrumentation but I mean there are more layers to this song than any other I can think of.

Here is a video of the Wave Pictures singing my favourite song ever a capella; Jonny forgets the words halfway through and David's harmonies are a bit shaky but still brilliant, then Jonny and David sing the alternate ending version which isn't as good because it loses the strength of the rhyme 'ignore you/adore you' but for some reason they tend to favour this version live now, and Franic just looks at them and I'm wondering if this is because he's listened to the superior studio version (I say studio but the Wave Pictures just record things live to 4-track then overdub a bit afterwards) as many times as I have, not because he feels he needs to know it inside out for the band but because it's so goddamn amazing.

I think David has written a lot of songs that are similar in structure to this, but they're largely hidden away and never really recorded (a few have been played live and on numerous Blogoteque-esque web-shows, and actually when I saw them live the first time, about half of their set was new, unreleased songs), and I really just want them to make music upon music upon music but Moshi Moshi, a label for whom I otherwise have a lot of respect, seem to be stifling their output (which probably would be multiple albums per year if they were given the opportunity to produce that many). It's baffling that their most recent album, Susan Rode The Cyclone, was only released in Europe and limited to the Sweetheart EP in the UK - which is a real shame because this is just 6 songs off the album, leaving off 4 great tracks, apparently because it was easier for the label to promote this? It's a really good record but I feel that it doesn't go into any of the meandering songwriting that "Now You Are Pregnant" does so well; nonetheless a lot of the lyrics are about overthinking things and god I can't think of anything better to write songs about. It's also their most cohesive album, and I feel like I'm still exploring it because it took a long time for me to "get" any of the songs apart from classic-Wave-Pics-style "I Just Want to Be Your Friend", sadly omitted from the Sweetheart EP. So when so much of their material is tucked away it frustrates me that their best song is so concealed and indeed that David has written songs even more obscure than this that are probably still absolutely brilliant.

After I decided that "Now You Are Pregnant" was my favourite song, I played it to a few people and they seemed a bit bemused by my choice especially given my experimental tendencies, but I guess I'd have been bemused by it had it been presented to me in that context; it took a heck of a long time to truly appreciate. I finally met the Wave Pictures in June. My band supported them for the first gig of their tour of Britain this June, in Nottingham. As I'm sure you've gathered I have this reverential appreciation of the band and when I met them I didn't really speak to them enough to have a proper conversation. I asked Jonny about the rider and some of my friends kind of put me off while I was talking to David about the setup so he probably thought I was dead weird and I don't think I even said much to Franic. Which is disappointing but typical of me, honestly; I still don't know what I would have said really. I think I'd clued them in that I was a fan seeing as I was wearing a Hefner t-shirt and they've collaborated with Hefner's Darren Hayman a bit, and I was pretty eager to meet them, but I imagine they were still surprised to see me at the front singing every word. They did play "Now You Are Pregnant", upon Alex' request, and there was a row of us (including members of the lovely Of Mice And Mental Arithmetic) with arms around each other's shoulders, gently swaying. There were more people singing along, during the whole set, than I've ever seen at a gig. Later I'd planned to have a chat with them if I saw them after their Summer Sundae set but in the end they cancelled on the day, due to illness, which is perhaps the most a day has been ruined for me.

I dunno if I'm trying to persuade YOU that this is the best song ever but I hope that you can attach yourself to a piece of art like this. I find the song's effects on me like a beautiful memory but because it's somebody else's (and I have no idea whether or not it is fictitious) it comes free of the baggage that such a memory would entail and I can wallow in every detail and it really does make me feel better, and whereas I think music should be about escapism (which is why I love "No Cars Go" so much: it's a song ABOUT escapism), this is escapism that never lets me forget myself as well and I don't really know why but I was in tears while I was trying to type this bit.

09 August 2010

Sexism in Music Journalism

I've been meaning to rant about this for ages, and now we're halfway through summer I feel like I should get something posted up here. (And I can only apologise for the clusterfuck of brackets and italics). Way back in January I was really pissed off when I read Pitchfork's review of Laura Veirs' July Flame, which lead to me becoming very wary of the way gender is addressed in music criticism.

In fact, my attention was drawn to the issue when M.I.A. (Maya Arulpragasam) criticised Pitchfork (and other journalists) for assuming that Diplo was the brains behind her music. Diplo was cited by multiple media outlets as the producer of Arulpragasm's album Arular, despite the fact that she met Diplo after completing the record. The incident arose when Arulpragasam surprised her interviewer with the accusation, steering the interview to make her statement rather than answer their questions, catching Pitchfork off-guard. Of course, Pitchfork bury her argument beneath a misleading headline, and then the bemused interviewer completely misses the point, saying 'at the end of the day, no matter who produced the tracks, it still says M.I.A. on the spine of the record packaging'. But the mis-crediting wasn't just pissing off Arulpragasam on a personal level. As she invokes the broader issue of sexist attitudes in the music industry, the interviewer attempts to dissociate Pitchfork from these allegations: '[I]t seems strange that people would portray you as being a puppet. Still, I've definitely read things about you that suggest a lot of the work was done by someone else.' I kind of wish Arulpragasam had been a bit more subtle for once - she was never portrayed as having zero creative input into this, and the interviewer makes her argument seem overblown. It's exaggerated, sure, but there is certainly truth in her complaint that journalists emphasise masculine intervention in any woman's recording process. As this Idolator article points out, had M.I.A. collaborated with a female producer, there would not have been as much of a debate over production credit.

The same thing happened to Björk, who posted a statement on her website highlighting the common error of journalists crediting the arrangements of her album Vespertine to Valgeir Sigurðsson. (Björk wrote and produced the majority of the album, collaborating with a multitude of other musicians on different tracks - but infrequently with Sigurðsson). Björk suggests that the problem is exclusive to electronic music and technological processes, but I would argue that there is evidence that these sexist attitudes are more widespread. Björk points out that Pitchfork 'credited nico muhly for the choir arrangement of “hidden place” from vespertine . also that he has done string arrangements for me . this is not true .' Pitchfork appear to have deleted their response (the news feed is periodically cleaned up); try as I might to find a cached version I've had no luck. I remember them dismissing the argument and attempting to make Björk seem hasty and misinformed, while agreeing that the issue at hand was problematic. Although they said they had already reprimanded those responsible for the mis-crediting, again, Pitchfork attempted to distance themselves from the blame even though the error had been made because of the reasons Björk describes, and even though the problem manifests itself in different ways.

But why does this happen? Recently Stereogum posted a piece on Cocorosie in which Antony Hegarty suggests that the lukewarm critical response to Cocorosie's music is rooted in their physical unconventionality: '[A]s women Cocorosie are dismissed because their visual presentation frustrates many male writers’ abilities to sexualize them'. There is an unspoken prerequisite in criticism of female artists to assess them physically and judge their creativity separately, which simply does not exist in criticism of male artists. Journalists seem to believe that by highlighting a man's presence on a record, their praise and criticisms have more credibility. Cocorosie's moustaches are ironic in the suggestion that they should be judged on masculine terms, which leads to a confusion on the part of those who will inevitably judge their femininity before their creativity. The version of The Adventures of Ghosthorse and Stillborn I downloaded lists 'Devendra Bamhart [sic]' as "composer" in its ID3 tags. Cocorosie covered one unreleased Banhart song, "Houses", on the album. Go figure.

By attributing production and implying the attribution of creative input to Arulpragasam's peers, reviewers are freer to judge M.I.A.'s music on its own merits, and indeed this facilitated the universal acclaim that her first two albums received. In some reviews it is as if the referencing of masculine input validates the strength of an album. And I'm really not striving to find examples to make my point here. After I made this conclusion, my search for evidence quickly confirmed my hypothesis. I wish I had time to find data on this - but search for reviews of your favourite solo artists, count how many references to contributors there are. I've found that it's so much more common in reviews of female artists. Reviewers of Laura Veirs' work ensure that her boyfriend and producer, Tucker Martine's presence on her records is felt. Reviewers appear much more likely to mention the influence of the producer (who is, let's face it, usually male) if the artist is female, and while I feel that Martine's influence is a very compelling aspect of Veirs' recorded music, the Pitchfork review which elevates Martine's importance as tantamount to Veirs', ridiculous. The portrayal of the female as the 'angel-sweet' voice with the producer doing all of the work is not uncommon. And if I were Laura Veirs, I'd take the reviewer's assertion that '[Martine's] bare and simplistic arrangements still bear enough edge and interest so as not to dull the listener into passivity' as a personal insult. Not only is Martine not credited as arranger, (in the liner notes it is stated that he '[r]ecorded and mixed' the album, also performing 'drums, percussion, treatments'), but I mean the songs are really great! Martine isn't performing the difficult task of making Veirs' lacklustre frameworks vaguely listenable - he's complementing her gorgeous arrangements with a subtly introspective production style. Yet it is only when such mis-credits fall upon the likes of audacious performers like Björk and M.I.A. that we hear about such injustices.

The Pitchfork review of Veirs' most recent album, July Flame, is what really set me off on this. It made me so angry to read the phrase: 'The summer feel is probably not accidental'. Probably not accidental?? Is Veirs as a songwriter so inoffensive that this reviewer (Joe Tangari, senior contributing writer at Pitchfork) feels the need to remind the reader that her songwriting talents are potentially only achieved by accident? And it's not just a small aspect of her songwriting. The title gives you a bit of a clue as to what her stimulus is; the album completes a tetralogy of albums exploring the elements, ending on fire. Tangari says that he thinks Veirs' ability to give music a summery feel is a conscious decision, but what's wrong with just saying that Veirs' music impressively evokes a summery mood, in contrast to the perfectly wintry Carbon Glacier? Veirs has surely proved her worth as a master of focused, evocative songwriting, and instead of applauding this, Tangari just seems surprised that Veirs stands on her own two feet. I just cannot imagine an article stating that it is 'probably not accidental' that, say, Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day" is a bit of a tear-jerker. Male musicians are not subject to this scepticism.

Tangari closes his positive review by namechecking every man who appears on the album (see the album's credits), already having emphasised Stephen Barber's string arrangements (which only appear on two tracks), Tucker Martine's production, and Eyvind Kang's viola-playing; while I can't deny that he's right in saying that Veirs is modest, again the review is attributing the album's excellence to the contributors, when Veirs arranged the whole thing except for Barber's string parts. Similarly, the BBC review of the album namechecks Martine, Barber, and Jim James (erroneously stating that he duets with Veirs on "Make Something Good"; in fact James is not present on this song, and I rather think it elevates Karl Blau's role on backing vocals to imply that the song is a duet). The review (by David Sheppard) also offends by describing Veirs as 'chanteuse' - 'Noun: A female singer of popular songs, esp. in a nightclub', according to dictionary.com. Even if I find the phrase "singer-songwriter" really annoying, I'd rather Sheppard had used this phrase which at least acknowledges that Veirs controls the songwriting process, rather than making her seem like she's just singing. As such, when he mentions Martine and Barber, it gives the impression that they're more in control of what the record sounds like.

Then I found Dan Weiss' laughable review of July Flame's title track, and really I just want to pick this apart to prove how bad music journalism can be. Weiss begins by suggesting that Veirs adopt a stage name in order to stand out a bit, lazily dismissing her work as part of an 'unchallenging medium', confusingly equating her lack of an intriguing stage name with lack of intrigue. 'All she can continue to do is write better and better songs and hope for the best.' Exactly what is Weiss reviewing here? Once he's accepted that the songwriter is writing songs which are good, he gets down to what's going on in the song, summarising his fairly indifferent attitude as he describes Veirs' voice as a 'vaguely sexy purr'. Weiss is not reviewing Veirs' song so much as her voice and persona, and here it's like Weiss' interest in the song is only held by this 'vague' sexiness, the only element he can detect in Veirs' voice. Weiss adds, 'the violin-and-choir-assisted coda won't be for everyone I know', just to remind you that enjoyment of music is in fact subjective. Weiss' amateurishness is that he fails to pin down what is good or bad about it - he aims to make it sound indistinct, but achieves this by lack of effort rather than by reasoning. (But let me take a moment to point out how difficult music journalism is. Merely pointing out these sorts of flaws doesn't mean I can write fluently about music, but if writing like this can be published in arguably the most influential music journalism source of the century, I might have a decent chance of making it.)

Other reviewing traits include only comparing an artist to another artist of the same gender, and comparing a male artist to a female is a rare thing indeed. So upon Googling male "indie-folk" protégés such as Johnny Flynn, Damien Rice, Fionn Regan, et al, it's nearly impossible to avoid the names Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Nick Drake (which are repeated to the point of interchangeability, for Christ's sake) - but I'm harder pressed to find these names in a Laura Marling review (Joni Mitchell crops up a lot instead). This not only lends weight to my argument that music journalism is inherently sexist, but shows up the ineptitude of the reviewers, who base their token comparisons upon gender rather than songwriting. The NME managed to print the paragraph 'Regina Spektor, though, has been an unacknowledged big sis influence on the sound of many young female artists. You can hear her early work in Florence’s jazzy bellow, in Peggy Sue’s raw-hearted confessions and in Kate Nash’s vocal quirks and proud femininity.' It's as if they deny Spektor's ability to influence male artists, and pigeonhole her music into some sort of gender-defined rut, conveying whatever it is in Kate Nash's music that constitutes 'proud femininity' only to confirm the restrictive gender binary.

In conclusion, while M.I.A. and Björk's responses to the sexism they faced are an important step forward to exposing the problem, I believe that there are injustices manifested in the rhetoric of music journalism which causes female artists to be judged on different terms to males.

22 January 2010

Top 25 albums of 2009

See last.fm. I've done fairly extensive (too long) reviews of my top 25(!!!!) and still didn't feel satisfied that I'd been representational enough...

PS I have a Twitter now because apparently I don't have the patience to write more than 140 characters about anything apart from music. Voilá!

10 November 2008

Writing Journal, Day seven

Final entry then, and I've just made the late deadline. This time it actually involves some creative writing! Apologies to Beverley, I know my blog's been quite patchy...

I wrote some haikus on the bus, and while I like the idea of minimalism, it felt too claustrophobic. I can't flow with my writing like the way it used to happen. While one of my favourite poems is Ezra Pound's ultra-short "In a Station of the Metro", I think it requires a hell of a lot of skill to actually pull this kind of thing off. So 17 awkward syllables, with phrases crowbarred into tight spots, provides the basis of my Haikus. Having said that, I liked the fact that it's impossible to ramble, and I could just sum up one thought. So I came up with three that I liked; here's my favourite:

Haiku for a Bus Driver
Pavements scroll. I pose,
Aloft. Each streetlight is fixed.
Brakes bring new faces.

I'm trying to figure out how to go about editing this. It's far too short to start finding synonyms or to try and flip the syntax around. In fact, I'd quite like people to be more harsh when criticising me, telling me which bits need editing, and how they'd edit it. Which I absolutely hate doing myself, but still, it's important to have honest feedback. I handed in my Personal Statement for UCAS to some teachers today, and painfully realised how horrible some of the bits sounded. The Personal Statement is a new form of self-portrait, written exclusively by 17-year olds, in under 4000 characters. Every Personal Statement is an absolute work of art, but at times it sounds like I've not taken it at all seriously, and at times it sounds so overwrought. Maybe I can channel that kind of feedback into editing my poetry.

With longer poems, sometimes I just write a page full of nonsense, then attack it with crossings-out, then completely rewrite it, and this is the editing process. It made me wonder what would happen if I tried to write the same poem on three different days, forgetting the results each time. I've tried that before, but never really had my heart in writing what is ostensibly the same thing over again. Especially what with my current block of flow.

Also, I was supposed to be having a poem published in my school 'zine today, but due to lack of material, publication seems to be being postponed indefinitely. So I'm going to dump it here!

I wrote it about my Duke of Edinburgh gold expedition, which was basically four days of hiking and wild-camping in the highlands of Scotland. It grossly over-exaggerates the relatively bearable weather conditions, and you should bear in mind that I had a heck of a lot of fun on this expedition! I wanted to write something really grandiose, as we've been studying Paradise Lost in English. I've also been messing round with rhyme and sonnet structure, which is fun. But Katie seemed a bit scared by it. I think it's pretty epic!

Aloft atop titanic Scottish peaks
that plunged us into unforgiving mist,
Dwarfing our humble, heaving bodies blist-
ering with throbbing footsteps sunken deep
between the mossy giant's shoulder blades,
his stagnant marsh ubiquitous. He sweeps
his snow-capped clansmen 'cross the weathered trails,
Beside the tranquil streams and hazy glades.
Even nature's formidable displays
of ceaseless rainstorms, cliffs, and stony gales
deterred us not from this ambitious feat,
For through such gripping cold and smothering heat
we fought, with proud and aching footsteps strugg-
ling onwards till our journey was complete.

I just realised that I accidentally wrote a haiku without realising it. I didn't even edit this.

Haiku for Haikus
Seventeen awkward
syllables, with phrases crow-
barred into tight spots.

Maybe my flow is coming back! Or maybe I just pushed the limits of meta-humour. I wouldn't blame you if you groaned at that effort.

How do you make a living from writing?

I'm still quite naive when it comes to money. I have a lot to learn, as I have no idea what kind of money is involved in writing, and I scarcely have a concept of the costs of living... I'd love to have writing on the side, alongside a more feasible job. Like a column. How cool would that be? It would be like this blog, except I'd get paid, and I'd have to be coherent and concise. This is where problems arise. I really have no idea how people get involved in writing.

I think my dream writing position would be a Pitchfork Media reviewer. Unfortunately, many people agree with me, and so their reviewers don't actually get paid. It's enough of a reward to get the free music, I suppose. By this rationale, it seems far easier to get a writing career with something that does feel like work. Unless you're very lucky. But as I've said before, I'm more than happy to shelve my writings, and share things with friends.

Thanks for reading my journal! Perhaps this will lead to a new dawn of Message Sent activity...