Bit later than planned, isn’t it. The reason for that is I wanted to write a bit more than usual, and am doing. But it’s all taking rather longer than planned. Best laid plans and all that. But I’ll stop saying ‘plans’ and move on. I’m going to do what Cephalochromoscope have done (although I did decide on this quite independently), and write a short thing now, and link to the fullness. But I’m doing this in reverse, with the brevity now (brevity, moi?), and the justification to follow.
Anyway, 2009 was a good year, with old favourites bringing the impressive, and a bunch of new favourites being installed. The new Captain Ahab album spent another year not coming out, but I hear on good authority that The End of Irony will finally see the light of day next month. The intervening time between their last and next albums has seen Ahab-lite see a lot of success, most notably in the form of Ke$ha and 3OH!3, who display a level of satire, but not really. And not as good. But that’s for 2010. And this, my friends, is 2009. [Cue wavey lines as we journey into the recent past.]
01. Propagandhi – Supporting Caste
Be warned: while I haven’t banged on about this pon blog, I will, and it will be in a big way. Album of the year, by a long way. 2009 was all about the ‘Gandhi for me. Not only was this one fantastic, but I got into their older stuff like never before, even Potemkin City Limits, which I had previously thought I’d got the fullness from. Massive stuff. March to December, seriously. Every other album by every other artist suffered. I even have some stat JPEGs that I’m gonna bust out at a future date to visually evince this fact. And, after years of limbo, I could finally settle on a new current best band in the world. And it’s not even a contest.
But why are Propagandhi so good? Well, I’m gonna save the detail for later, but they have the best lyrics of anyone. They manage to take the political and make it personal. They make it interesting, and something you want to sing along with. And they take those fantastic, incisive lyrics, and they stick them over brilliant rock music. Propagandhi used to be a pop-punk band, like your NOFXs and Millencolins. And they were fine. And then they got a bit heavier, and seem to have finally completed their transformation into a thrash-punk phenomenon. They slow it down when necessary, are pretty much always melodic, and write better songs than anyone else. That those songs mean something is a bonus. Best album since… the last Propagandhi album.
Back in January 2009, I thought this was it, in terms of album of the year. After spending half a decade unconvinced by the Baltimore crew, I was really impressed with this one. The messy nonsense of Sung Tongs was relegated to mere memory, as hot pop bangers like ‘My Girls’, ‘Bluish’ and ‘Also Frightened’ blew me away. People dissed ‘Lion in a Coma’, for some reason, but it was one of the best songs on the album. Pop-Flaming Lips (just not rubbish)-Underworld festival madness.
Which is what the album was all about: despite being released in January, they wanted this to be an outdoor, fun, communal experience. I didn’t see them at a fest, but their Leeds gig in 2009 had a nice atmosphere, and the album is just a massively consistent collection of well-arranged electronic pop songs. That doesn’t really do justice, though. It’s as if that first Gnarls Barkley album was all as good as ‘Crazy’ and ‘Smiley Faces’. Didn’t end up the album of the year, but who knew Propagandhi were going to dump everyone else on their collective head?
03. MadLove – White With Foam
This was a pleasant surprise. Didn’t even know it was coming out til it was on the verge of doing so. Trevor Roy Dunn, what was in Mr. Bungle and Fantômas, decided to do a poppy album, rather like Mike Patton did in 2006 with Peeping Tom, and released it on Patton’s Ipecac label. Err, rather like Patton. But, unlike Patton, Dunn brought the pure musical fire with MadLove, instead of being disappointing. Press release cited bands like The Pretenders, Cheap Trick, X and Blondie. Not far off, then, as Dunn brought in jazzy singer Sunny Kim, to provide technically superb female vocals. And some dudes from Kitchen Motors, Xiu Xiu and other bands on other instruments. Comprehensive!
So it’s melodic pop-rock, which means that the tunes have to be excellent for it to work. And they are. I’ll never forget the first time I listened to it, each new melody a brilliant surprise. And the details are all there, from synth lines that spring out of nowhere to obscenely luxurious backing vocals. This being Dunn, the album is inordinately technically proficient, with some odd time signatures. But it is never to the detriment of White With Foam‘s accessibility; it just subtly adds to the majesty. Only lower than the Animal Collective because the quality drops ever so slightly in the final third. Gorgeous stuff though, and the best Ipecac album for some years.
04. Ear.Pwr – Super Animal Brothers III
2009 was clearly the year the pop took over for me. Not so much the bigger cool-pop names like Dizzee and Annie (though they’re fine), it was all about the surprise. Which is what we have here. Now, I’ve blogged about this duo (now trio) in the past, as they are a colourful ball of childlike enthusiasm, and actually made me get off my arse and write something. They’re just that damn motivational. The album was released on Car Park records, and I got sent it. Have to admit the artwork is not really to my taste, which meant I wasn’t expecting much from it. But the title of the record made me play it, and I was glad I did.
Super Animal Brothers III is an exercise in energy. And one in awesomeness. It’s ostensibly very simple stuff, with Devin making synth splodges which Sarah sings over, but it’s an alchemical mixture that works massively well. The lyrical themes are so innocent (best song being about a ‘Sparkly Sweater’), and performed in singalong nursery rhyme fashion, that you just can’t resist. It all finishes before you can even think about tiring of it. A masterclass in how an unassuming record can knock you for six.
Reviewed this one already, so won’t say too much about it. It’s Converge: it’s angry, it’s heavy and it’s great. It’s a lot better than the disappointing No Heroes (2006), and not as good as Jane Doe (2001). There are a lot of guests but, last two songs aside, you wouldn’t really know it to listen to them; it’s Converge through and through. The guests who are obviously identifiable are Steve Von Till and Mookie Singerman, and they’re from Neurosis and Genghis Tron respectively, so it’s all good. Funny thing I realised is that, however heavy and macho they get, Converge will always be a set of emo kids at heart. As the gatefold reads: ‘we may get better… we won’t get well’. They’re one step away from ‘I’m not OK (I Promise).
Reviewed this one already too. And, like the Converge album, I’ve not really listened to it since finishing the review. Also like the Converge, it’s the latest fantastic album from a ridiculously consistent talent (top ten albums in 2006, 2008 and 2009 is not bad going). Also also like the Converge, I liked this one so much that I got it on vinyl. And the vinyl version is lovely. What more can I say than I said in the review? Prince of Truth is dark, involving, sounds wonderful, and is just a deep, deep album. I’m really looking forward to the new Joanna Newsom album, but I doubt it’ll be as good as this. That’s right homes.
07. Sa-Ra Creative Partners – Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love
This should be higher. I’ve just not listened to it enough. For some reason, I don’t really like the first song, which kinda put me off listening to it as early as I should have. That, and I held off downloading it for as long as I could. (Somebody buy me it on vinyl please.) Finally got to listening, and it’s a hip hop/soul epic to rival Stankonia in terms of last-decade (last decade?!) thrills. There is nobody quite like Sa-Ra: the closest would be Timbaland or the Neptunes, but way more psychedelic, and without turning to crap like the more famous producers did. Seriously, Neps could do no wrong til about 2003. From 2004 onwards, their output was pretty unmitigated.
Sadly, Sa-Ra are yet to enjoy that level of commercial success, but they seem to be working more like a boutique than the chainstore the Neptunes became. So they produced the highlights of Erykah Badu’s wonderful latest album, but saved the best for their own record. This was technically their full-length debut, but everybody should listen to The Hollywood Recordings, which was a collection of their singles/EPs, and was just divine. This is still grand, though, as a super-modern soulsploitation work of art.
08. Agoraphobic Nosebleed – Agorapocalypse
Ah yes, the record with which Agoraphobic Nosebleed sold out, am I right? Gone is the millions of songs per album model for ANB, replaced by a quite sordid collection of quasi-grind episodes. The best, and most logical, point of comparison is the last proper Pig Destroyer album, Phantom Limb. This is partly because both bands feature the not inconsiderable talents of one Scott Hull on million-string guitar and production, but because Pig Destroyer also saw accusations that they were no longer grindcore, and merely death metal. Eww! Well this isn’t quite on the level of Phantom Limb (the main difference being J.R. Hayes, PD’s thrillingly twisted lyricist), but it’s brutal, brilliant and nasty. And the artwork is just inspired.
09. Black Dog – Further Vexations
So. If you want to be cynical about my list, the Sa-Ra was this year’s Erykah. ANB was this year’s Pig Destroyer. Evangelista was, let’s face it, most definitely this year’s Evangelista. Making Further Vexations this year’s Burial/Neil Landstrumm. Well that’s fine, but these things aren’t intentional; I’m not quota-filling, honest. Though completely different, a whole lot classier, and 100% less metal than the ANB record, Further Vexations is nevertheless a dark piece of work. The production is amazing. On triple vinyl, this thing sings like few others in the last few decades. Ken Downie and the Dust Science boys are on a roll at the moment, as there has been little in music (electronic or ‘organic’, I guess it’d be) as seductive as a new Black Dog album.
Radio Scarecrow (2007) was mean stuff, I unfortunately didn’t hear Silenced (2005), and this is just stark and brilliant. I actually prefer this lot to Boxcutter, and possibly Burial. They’re definitely better than Martyn, but for some reason are being slept on. There’s as much bass on this as on most other records, and it’s easily as well produced. maybe Downie is too associated with his legendary early 90s work with the dudes who ended up splitting off into Plaid, I dunno. What I do know is this is one of those records that I need to devote a lot more time to (told you, it’s that bladdy Propagandhi thing again), and it’s as good as any other British music in absolutely ages.
10. Coalesce – OX
Coalesce are back! In fact, they had this and OXEP, which were both great. Not quite as good as the Converge, but you’ll have inferred that from the numbers sitting next to the respective albums. One of many victims of Propagandhi striding, Godzilla-like, through everybody else in 2009, I listened enough to know that OX was definitely worth Coalesce coming back for. And, for a band dormant for a decade, this is vital stuff. It’s pretty damn vital for a band that hadn’t been dormant for a decade. I know, they had that ‘Salt and Passage’ single, but that was a single. This is an album. It sounds enough like Coalesce to justify the name, but not so much like Coalesce that there was no point making new music. It’s a broadening of horizons, but within reason.
OXEP pushed things a bit further, which was heartening. It means the next album (yes please) should be a branching even further out and, if they can get anywhere near the prolific run that led to their three original albums blasting out at your ears in three years (1997, 98 and 99 – and they can all fit on one CD, brevity fans), then I’ll be really excited. And hopefully they can return to England, as I had to go to Iran on the day they played Sheffield. Serendipity, I know. Tech-brutality, and I love it. I need to hear the Psyopus album a few more times, but I love Coalesce, so this is my pick to round out the 10. I’d like to have fit L’Acephale, sunnO))) and Tobacco (as well as a bunch of others), but that’s maths for you. 10 = 10.
So what’s to look forward to in 2010? Hard to say, especially when we’ve already had great albums from Shining, Jaga Jazzist and Ke$ha. Let’s just say, though, that I’ll be surprised if at least one of Dillinger Escape Plan, Captain Ahab and Pig Destroyer fail to make it into the hallowed dectet on 31 December this year (I promise!). Then we have the people that I think are doing new albums but I’m not sure: Gridlink, Genghis Tron, Swans (SWANS!), Aphex Twin… Rye Wolves? Akimbo?! LIFT TO EXPERIENCE?!?!?
Okay. Obviously not Lift To Experience. A girl can dream, though, right?