The best, most exciting, arresting and fascinating track of the year. For me. At least. – ImagineIAM, Merry-Go-Round.
Right, so it’s a ludicrous review of the year round up. The main problem with which is that I have to work out what the hell I’ve been listening to in the last year. I’ve got stats, thanks to last.fm, but due to an extended (three month?) offline period, and the fact that I listen to a hell of a lot of records, the results are somewhat skewed. Details are at the bottom of this page, or just diddle around on my last.fm profile until you’ve got the last 12 months.
Anyway, despite the statistical innaccuracies, Arthur Russell was definitely my most listened to artist (I should acknowledge, the reason for the number being so high for him, is partly due to a night when I had someone in my bed who I was trying to explain the magic of Arthur Russell too. This meant we ended up listening to a playlist of pretty much everything ever released through the course of a night. We were mostly asleep).
Of course, the numbers aren’t the point here, what’s important is that Arthur Russell seriously grabbed me. For an artist with such a varied output, from disco to proto-Hip Hop to classical experimentation, this was a man who knew how to touch hearts. His country album is somewhat patchy, but when it’s good, it’s miraculous, life affirming, tragic and upsetting, which I guess is what good country should be. His disco is stripped back, unusual, perfectly produced and exciting. His Hip Hop is strange and exhilarating. His cello. His cello is just magical. His solo stuff can create new worlds that seem alien and perfect. And then he’ll make you cry with his delicate, honest lyricism. He really is very, very good. And it isn’t just a crime that he died 15 years ago, but also that it took me (and many others) this long to give him his rightful place in music history.
Realistically, Arthur Russell was many years ahead of the game in terms of music. If you listen to the album Calling out of Context now, you’d think it was ahead of its time when it was released in 2004. To learn that it was recorded in 1985, is incredible. I mean, okay, the drum machines and synth sounds do have that eighties reverb thing, but listening to it in this particular year, that doesn’t sound out of place. It is of its time, but it is also of now. It is an incredible album, that shifts out of grip constantly. I almost feel like I can’t listen to it directly. The oddness is at times jarring, but as it washes over me I find myself being roped into it’s romanticism.
I don’t have time to offer a full review of his work, and I doubt I’m capable of bringing together enough vocabulary to do it anywhere near justice (one day I’m going to write about the inadequacy of words, but it’ll depress me, so I’m putting it off). There’s so much going on, and so much of it is indescribable. Go and investigate him, I promise you won’t be disappointed. I’ll start you off with the track that started me off on the road to him. You may have heard it before. I beseech you to listen to it many times. It’s simplicity belies a depth that will haunt you and inspire you for months (if not years). At least if you’re anything like me.
If we look at my stats, next up is Radiohead, who are miraculous and fill my hearts with joy, but don’t deserve my attention right now, if only due to them already being huge. I would quickly tell everyone to make sure they’ve listened to In Rainbows as much as it deserved. And to never forget all the others. But you knew that, right?
The Kinks were another belated discovery. Obviously I’d already heard of them, and heard several tracks several times, and I loved it. But I didn’t realise how much until this year. They are everything I want from a band, and that is that.
Marnie Stern comes fourth on the Last.FM list, and deserves to be higher, but doesn’t have the sort of breadth of back catalogue to compete. Basically, with two albums, she has shown me that guitars have more voices than I thought they did. That is important and impressive. She also often manages to sound like she’s satirising 80s hair metal, whilst simultaneously producing incredible examples of it. My favourite track of the latest album was the immensely tumultuous ‘Vault’ which literally sounds like it’s tearing apart metal cliches and use them to inspire an escape into an imaginary forest. That may just be me though.
I wanna demonstrate her 80sness with her cover of Don’t Stop Believing, but I can only do it by linking to a video of stills of weird make up. You have been warned.
The Books have once again touched me a lot this year. They have a very odd way of doing things. Cut and paste sampling techniques, grabbing found sounds that give them a sense of antiquity or datedness despite the fact that sonically, they are relatively cutting edge. Bizarre drum patterns and guitar loops that seem at times almost random but always focussed (the fact that they are fans of aleatoric music implies that they may be as random as they seemed) and most importantly affecting. The song above, Take Time, from the album the Lemon of Pink, never fails to make me feel incredibly inspired and positive. The odd, almost random structure, the pleasant uplifting non sequiters, the laughter. This is a simple song about people taking their time to enjoy life, and with no narrative, it still manages to actually not just sum this idea up, but also force you, as the listener to do so.
That’s pretty special.
So that’s the Last.FM top 5 covered, but it’s still missing some of my best picks of the year.
Probably my official album of the year prize goes to Micachu‘s Jewellery. This is an incredible and incredibly short album. Barely any tracks go far beyond two minutes long, yet she almost seems to fulfil Brian Wilson’s dream of creating a pocket symphony. There is SO much depth to this tiny little punky ditties. They are angry shouts and violent outbursts, but they are rich. Matthew Herbert’s production clearly helps, but it is definitely Mica Levi’s record. This is emphasised by the live show (probably my live show of the year, even topping my long awaited chance to see MH’s own big band), which was if anything deeper, richer and more exhilarating than the album.
The tone is perfect throughout this album. Machine gun clatters of words and percussion. Tiny toy guitars imitate classic riffs and then descend into violent noise making. It’s an aggressive album, but a welcoming one too. Mica’s heart is quite often laid bare and exposed, but she stands defiant. There is no vulnerability, only positive self expression. My lord that sound ridiculous.
What I’m trying to say is that this album is essentially a rich and deep and emotional punk record. It’s home-made but refined. It’s complex yet urgent. It’s contradictory and brilliant.
It’s nigh on perfect.
So we’re starting to notice that I do trend (and tend) towards the unusual in my musical tastes. Nothing excites me more than something that I have never heard the likes of before. I count one of the miracles of the musical world the fact that this actually happens at all. Especially considering the amount of music I listen to. Micachu was pretty out on a limb, as was Marnie (for me, I’m sure others have heard others that shred as well, metal is not something I’m deep in). Arthur was too, even despite the years that have past since, unique. He remains so. There is no better compliment I pay to something than saying it is different, or unique, or strange.
So I hail what I think is the most different unique and strange artist I have heard this year. I heap and lavish praise upon something so out of the ordinary, and so immediately present, that I had to start this entry with him. If this isn’t enough, take a look at this live performance. It’s rough around the edges, but I’m pretty sure you’ve never seen anything like it.
That is how you play a fucking Swanee whistle.
ImagineIAM came out of nowhere this year. In fact, to be realistic, I suspect they are still there. With one single release on the excellent micro label Hand on the Plow, they instantly became my most loved new artist. The shock of hearing something so obviously dance music, but also so violently arrhythmic (well, poly rhythmic probably) and personal, was…well… Lets just say that I needed it the moment I heard it. I have played it every single time I have DJed since, and everytime I’ve enjoyed watching people smile, try to move in time, and then look quizzically at me or the speakers. It’s baffling, but it deserves to be listened to. This is exactly what mouth music should be about. It’s childish playground yelling, banging a loud drum and just showing pure excitement. The fact that it all hangs together into something real in interesting, that makes it genius. This is brilliant stuff, and I can’t wait to hear more. There’s an unnamed album (or fragments of it) available on the Last.Fm page I just linked to. It doesn’t have the single tracks though, which I recommend you buy, they are available. They are also incredible, inspiring and really fucking odd.
Go and listen, I promise you won’t regret it. Though you may be occasionally confused by it.
Which is wonderful.
Stories I’ve not got round to?
Dan Deacon’s thrilling excitement, Moondog, including the fascinating live show, Matthew Hertbert Big Band, who I saw live and got the album, from potentially my favourite ever producer. These are three of my favourite things and I haven’t mentioned them in this round up, apart from now, or slyly. Terrible. Despicable.
Slightly skewed top 15 artists according to Last.FM (with notes from me):
1. Arthur Russell 737
Virtuouso renaissance man. Sorely missed.
2. Radiohead 315
Most important band of the last 20 years? Genuinely possible.
3. The Kinks 291
Old school. Fun, rich and deep.
4. Marnie Stern 290
Shredded guitars, passionate vocals, strange.
5. The Books 215
Emotive, jerky and weird.
6. Masha Qrella 212
Simple, lovely calming music with a sexual edge. Great voice.
7. Portico Quartet 186
Divine ‘nu’-jazz. Though not utterly nu. Fantastic and engaging.
8. Matmos 176
Ultimate in filth and sound sculpture, but with soul. Of a sort.
9. Minotaur Shock 166
Beautiful, optimistic and uplifting electronica.
10. Tomas dvorak 150
Soundtrack to Machinarium, incredibly warm and lush.
11. Dan Deacon 149
Turns me into an overexcited child.
12. Ferrante and Teicher 145
Nice old fashioned experimental piano covers.
13. Andrew Bird 124
How to write indie rock and still be interesting.
14. Mice Parade 121
Experimental percussion centric songs with guitars. Lovely.
15. Joanna Newsom 119
I love her rather grating voice. Makes my heart burst.