Sunday, 19 December 2010

Review of 2010: Music - 10 Favourite Albums

Music that moved me this year. As often, several of the albums that I responded to most in 2010 were built around an over-arching concept, theme or narrative - and a couple of them were made up of many different voices and very diverse musical styles. In this pick-and-mix download era, it’s heartening that so many bands and artists are keeping faith with the idea of the album as art form, paying close attention to sequencing and continuity, and producing such carefully structured and developed work. This has turned out to be an American-dominated list, and I notice that I seem to have lost contact with British folk music this year - to be remedied in 2011! Anyway, here's my soundtrack to 2010; click on the links for full reviews.

Contra - Vampire Weekend (XL)

“In December, drinking horchata ….” The Vamps's follow-up to their superb debut album was one of the first records that I purchased in 2010 and it ended up being the album that I returned to most throughout the year.  Contra's ten songs are little rollercoaster rides in which a variety of genres - rock, ska, pop, punk, reggae, folk - are dynamically  merged. Galloping drums, blaring synths, M.I.A samples, harpischord; it's all here. Strong hooks lurch into more turbulent territory, only for the melody to be briskly reinstated. The arch, thoughtful lyrics - and Ezra Koenig's appealing, protean delivery of them - keep pace. The band create wonderfully infectious songs in which, after the initial seduction, you're constantly discovering fresh elements. Hands down, the year's best musical pick-me-up.  

Hadestown - Anais Mitchell (Righteous Babe)

On Hadestown, Mitchell and her collaborators transplant the Orpheus myth into a novel context: the album’s underworld is “an exploitative company town” in an epoch evocative of Depression-era America, where Orpheus wields a banjo not a lyre, and Hades is a “sadistic, wall-building boss king” whose wife Persephone “moonlights as the proprietress of a Speakeasy.” The context informs the musical approach and the record moves compellingly through American folk forms, encompassing blues, jazz, ragtime and swing, with dips into the avant garde. Issues of poverty, love, power, oppression and the poet as potential threat to the status quo emerge gracefully; the album wears both its erudition and its ambition very lightly. Ultimately, though, the central pleasure of Hadestown is the distinctive qualities that its vocalists bring to the material. Mitchell’s girlish, lyrical delivery; Justin Vernon’s hushed intensity; Greg Brown’s marvellously imposing rumble; Ani DiFranco’s funky sensuality; Ben Knox Miller’s oddball rasp and the Haden Triplets' spry interventions combine to make the album into a tapestry of perceptions and perspectives, a musical collage, and one that has both personal and political resonance. Great record.

                                       Here Lies Love - David Byrne and Fatboy Slim (Nonesuch)

One of the year’s oddest musical ideas - a song- cycle based around the life of the Philippines First Lady Imelda Marcos, and, in particular, her relationship with Estrella Cumpas, the woman who looked after her as a child - became, for me, one of the year’s biggest successes. Musically, the album takes its cues from Marcos’s own predilection for club and dance music, with Norman Cook and collaborator Tom Gandey (Cagedbaby) combining soul, disco, and Latin-beats with Broadway and techno elements. Not all of it works, but after repeated listens Here Lies Love has become an album that I cherish as much for its flaws as for its moments of beauty and insight. As with Hadestown (also originally conceived for the stage) it’s the diverse voices that make the record such an enjoyable experience. And it’s quite a crew that Byrne’s assembled for the project: Tori Amos, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Earle, Allison Moorer, Martha Wainwright and Roisin Murphy, amongst them. Immortalising Ms. Marcos alongside Eva Duarte, Jesus Christ and Jerry Springer as the unlikely subject of a pop opera, Byrne and his collaborators get you thinking and dancing, together. Now all that remains is to get the album back to the stage - preferably with this cast.

Beautiful traditional American music - straight-up, no gimmicks, no irony. From the gorgeous yearning of “Alone In New York” through the tight, Band-ish harmonies of “Crop Comes In” to the driving bluegrass of “Heart Attack” Wildwood beguiles, warms, delights. Songs that sound vital and fresh, but also as if they’d existed forever.

Merchant’s double album, her first release since 2003’s The House Carpenter’s Daughter, offers a selection of diverse verse, by poets both well known and obscure, musicalised to dramatic, dynamic and haunting effect. There’s a heart-warming sense of continuum to Leave Your Sleep, of reaching through time to connect and collaborate, and Merchant’s consistently inventive but unshowy arrangements and gorgeously empathetic and understated vocals do full justice to the texts she’s selected for the project, resulting in a wonderfully humane work that’s variously playful, heartbreaking and life-affirming. Clearly a labour of love for Merchant, Leave Your Sleep is an entrancing experience for the listener.

This Is Happening - LCD Soundsystem (DFA)

“Go and dance yourself clean!” yelps the excitable James Murphy. Sound advice - and make sure you take a copy of the deliriously enjoyable This Is Happening with you when you go.

                                        Swanlights - Antony & The Johnsons (Rough Trade)

Although I’d still like to hear more exuberance and playfulness on an Antony and the Johnsons’s album again, Swanlights proved to be an enjoyable experience overall and a considerable improvement on the band's previous release The Crying Light, with more interesting arrangements, more committed vocals from Antony, and some truly beautiful moments. Tenderly renewed.

Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Mercury)

Arcade Fire’s third album never came to mean quite as much to me as it apparently did to most people. Lyrically, Win Butler’s variously vague and overly-literal complaints about suburban sprawl, ennui and the inadequacy of modern youth don’t have quite enough substance to sustain 16 tracks; the targets seem obvious; and the record introduces not so much as a scrap of humour to sweeten the pill. And yet passages of awesome musical beauty give The Suburbs power and interest throughout, and have meant that I’ve kept returning to the record consistently, enjoying it more and more each time. The ace up the album’s sleeve is the glorious “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains),” an exhilarating disco number that suggests a musical direction that Arcade Fire might do well to expand upon in the future.

Wake Up! - John Legend & The Roots (Sony)

On Wake Up!, his best album to date, Legend teams up with hip hop band The Roots to revisit classic 1960s and 70s protest songs written and/or made famous by the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers and Nina Simone. Stirring and empowering, the record also offers a thoughtful counter to more sentimental narratives about Obama’s America. The choice of material is surprising and delightful, the band are on fire, Legend sings with passion and conviction, and Wake Up! achieves what Salamishah Tillets calls a “potent mix of timeliness and timelessness.”

How I Learned to See in the Dark - Chris Pureka (Sad Rabbit)

Singer-songwriter Pureka’s third album is an intense and powerful set of songs that richly rewards the listener. Produced with Merrill Garbus, the album’s robust, melodic tracks build confidently and seductively with a steady accretion of instruments. A beautiful consistency of tone is sustained, yet each track has a distinctive identity, from the moody opener "Wrecking Ball" and the taut, haunting "Hangman" through the urgent "Landlocked" and the sturdy groove of "Broken Clock" to the driving, catchy "Lowlands" and the gorgeous, dramatic "Time is the Anchor". A striking and accomplished record that deserved to be much more widely heard; do seek it out.

And for good measure: two great gigs- Richard Shindell at TwickFolk and Tori Amos at Apollo Victoria.


  1. I debated whether or not I want to make a music list this year. I don't think I've quite made a decision yet. Good list though.

  2. Thanks, Mike. Hope you do decide to make that list!

  3. alex
    I am such a c&*t when it comes to music....I never really listen to it!!!

    have a great christmas matey
    what are u up to?

  4. John: you've experienced all the music you needed to hear this year thanks to a certain Mr. Cardle. :)

  5. Some good choices here.

    Best track on "Contra - Vampire Weekend" for me was Taxi Cab .

    I'm curious about "How I Learned to See in the Dark - Chris Pureka" Will check out that album.

    Have a nice Christmas break

  6. Thanks; same to you.

    I'll be interested to know what you think of HILTSITD - I'm very, very fond of it.

  7. Excellent choices! Chatham County Line was among my favorites of the year as well, again thanks to your recommendation. Did you get to see them in concert yet? I'll also listen to Natalie Merchant's album eventually, I promise! It was a busy semester. :)

  8. I didn’t manage to make it to the Chatham County Line gig in the end, Jason. Hopefully I’ll catch them next time they’re over. Let me know what you think of Leave Your Sleep when you get the chance to listen to it. I’m very curious to hear a poet’s take on the album. I think it’s a really accomplished piece of work, wonderfully “unfashionable” and out of sync with current trends.

  9. I've listened to Chris Pureka's album you recommended, and you can read my comments on my blog