Saturday, 24 December 2011

Best Albums of 2011: 1. PJ Harvey - Let England Shake (Island)

I have to admit I never thought I'd find myself selecting an album of the year that had not only received a similar accolade from journalists at Uncut and Mojo, but was also the current holder of the Mercury Prize. But then this is an extraordinary album, with extraordinary powers of appeal. PJ Harvey has already well and truly rammed down my throat my words about her 'Dry' album a little under twenty years ago, which I praised to the hilt but felt this was an artist who would struggle to replicate this kind of form. Since then, Polly Jean has produced numerous masterpieces and even those generally deemed unworthy of that epithet (Uh Huh Her, perhaps, or White Chalk) have had an undeniable quality about them that still made them stand out from everything else. But Let England Shake is something else altogether.

We can stop and ponder why so few other western artists, living in such times, have produced anything on the subject of war. Even if they had, it's doubtful anything it would have been anything like this. It's album that can thrill unremitting lefties and peaceniks like yours truly and yet been praised within the armed forces for its veracity, power or imagery and sheer truthfulness. If Hegel's right, and all our disputes form an unrelenting chain towards synthesis, then maybe this is what that synthesis might look like - a piece of art of such defiant honesty and intelligence that even those on all sides of the conflict can unite around its brilliance.

The lyrics of Let England Shake contain some of the richest imagery heard on record for years, ranging from visceral battlefield depictions where 'soldiers fall like lumps of meat' to the almost unfeasible delicacy of 'The last living rose/Quivers'. Alongside these are devastating delineations of the current western psyche that are most powerful when astonishingly simple, most notably in the opening words of the title track: 'The west's asleep/Let England shake' come as close to summarising our national malaise as six words ever will.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Best Albums of 2011: 2. The Chasms - Alchemical Postcards (Command To Destroy)

A slightly adapted re-post of the review I did for this album on its release:
Used to seem like it was some kind of musical law...and The Chasms have outstripped all of the superlatives I've ever employed to describe them in the process of breaking it. The Clash recorded 'Give 'Em Enough Rope' bookended by a couple of masterpieces. The Smiths had a certain creakiness in their debut effort and frankly I was never fully convinced by 'Meat Is Murder in its entirety either'. The Pixies followed my favourite albums of 1988 and 1989 with the listenable but unspectacular 'Bossanova'.

In short, history dictactes that releasing three breathtaking albums in a row is never done. But The Chasms have now not only done it, they've done it locked away in a barn in the Isle Of Man, made it available for free, and far too little is being written about it. Their latest album 'Alchemical Postcards', available for free download at (and shortly
available for purchase in CD form) follows last year's 'Index Of Spirits' and their debut 'Advance Paranoia, Advance' as the latest in a series of mesmerising releases by what we must surely now label the world's best band. At least I'm going to anyway.

On receiving some early promos from the band, along with some of my colleagues, I played and marvelled at the incredible 'The Occult Soul Review' and, judging by their comments, I wasn't the only one to be left breathless by the experience. A clear and serious contender for the best track of 2011, and it almost doesn't need to be added that all six tracks on 'Alchemical Postcards'
offer a similarly magical sledgehammer impact to the listener, the effect of which borders on the physical. Playing tracks from it on the radio is actually a perilous business. Hard to keep to the time-honoured rule of 'no dead air' when you've just played something that leaves you as stunned and speechless as this.

What continues to remain perplexing is that The Chasms don't appear to have the kind of enormous audience they richly deserve. I'm aware that this statement can sound naive, aware of course that this can be said about so many fine bands, many of which we play on Dandelion Radio. But in their case it really does surprise me that anyone could hear them and remain immune to their music's effects. It would have to take my view of humanity down yet another notch, I fear. I live in a world that not only can vote in the likes of Bush and Cameron but also fails to succumb to the wonder of The Chasms in such large numbers? Perhaps they'll follow the Velvets, Can and Nick Drake in finding only a restricted audience at the time of their greatest potency only to be regarded as inspirational geniuses by future generations of music lovers.

I don't know. All I know is that if you don't take the opportunity to get hold of Alchemical Postcards right now you'll not only be missing out on free great music that comes, you'll also be putting yourself in a position of being asked by your grandchildren, 'What were you doing while The Chasms were around?'and having to answer something like 'Shuffling around me Kings Of Leon records'.It's not an option.

Get over to that website now and treat yourself to the sound of the greatest band to appear this century. Or future generations will know you by your folly.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Best Albums of 2011: 3. Defdfires - Operation: Zombie Nation (Emerging Species)

Operation:Zombie Nation is part horror pastiche, part social allegory, part neo-Ziggy concept album. On the surface, the theme running through it deals with the social panic that ensues when zombies take over the UK without warning. Dig deeper and you'll find a rich seam of social observation that connects deeply with a post-economic collapse country struggling to maintain a sense of itself against the onslaught of something it can't control and is kidding itself if it thinks it can understand. The result? Panic, riots and a disruption to normal social mores that shoots violently through a nation formerly complacent that it had it all sussed. Sound familiar?

It's an album that competes with the universally lauded PJ Harvey opus as the perfect soundtrack to the western crisis. Sadly, it won't be heard by anywhere near as many people. While ostensibly a rap album, the rap is used sparingly, and thus the spitter's attacks are far more devestating when interspersed with sound collages, spoof eye witness testimony and Brechtian levels of dramatic disorientation, and over a rich tapestry of sound that darts roughly from the mellow and benign through the jerky and disorientating to an endpoint that is part apocalyptic nightmare, part consummated celebration of the only attachment which, in the face of such ultimate levels of disruption, is unclothed as the only thing that continues to matter.

It's outspoken enough to ram home constitutional observations too rarely voiced these days - its passage on 'the palace' is its zenith here - and yet amazingly manages to be compassionate and tender at exactly the right moments without yielding an inch to disharmony. A unique and brilliant body of work.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Top Albums of 2011: 4. Half Man Half Biscuit - 90 Bisodol (Crimond)

Amazingly, after more than a quarter of a decade, Half Man Half Biscuit are still getting better and better. Faced with the dangerous sterility that always lies in wait for the careless humorist, Nigel Blackwell's arch observations remain remarkably fresh, still more insightful and get more inventive by the album. After only the mildest of lulls when the band reformed in the nineties, latterly the consistency on masterpieces like Achtung Bono and Cammell Laird Social Club confirmed them as one of the greatest of our musical treasures. So good were these troves, so rich and pertinent the wit, I feared that 90 Bisodol (Crimond) wouldn't be able to compete. I was wrong. It competes and, on most counts, it wins.

Contained herein are a handful of tunes that sit comfortably alongside Blackwell's finest compositions. 'RSVP', for instance, whose deceptively mild and listless introduction leads into a tale of a spurned love who responds by poisoning all the guests at her wedding. You still emphaphise with the murderous narrator, just as you connect with the typically Blackwellian monologues performed by the pissed off social observer in 'Tommy Walsh's Eco House' or the Browning-esque necrophiliac in 'Excavating Rita'. Sifting through these delights, you're left breathless at the end to find that they've truly saved the best till last, 'Rock & Roll is Full of Bad Wools', a Blackwell tour de force, reeling from the hapless incumbent on the Soccer AM sofa whose frantic couplets ('Do you ever get to Roots Hall/Which to him means fuck all'; 'Might need some help with this/But Heston's gone for a piss') reach their denouement in the most apposite way, Neil Ruddock entering left to 'get him in a headlock', through to an understated, perfectly exact dismissal of pub bands. 'They play two sets/And then say "requests"' Nothing more needs to be said when delivered by Nigel's ever laconic yet acerbic tongue.

Another triumph. Inevitably

Top Albums of 2011: 5. Cambodian Space Project - 2011: A Space Odyssey (Metal Postcard)

The most infectious and inventive pop album of 2011 came from Cambodia, courtesy of my Dandelion Radio colleague Sean Hocking's consistently excellent Metal Postcard label, Cambodian Space Project play a brand of indie pop tinged with psychedelic inventiveness and quirky mischief, all delivered via the edgy vocal stylings of the amazing Srey Thy.

Inspired by the rich pre-Khmer Rouge heritage of Cambodian music, CSP are culturally significant and no less musically intoxicating for it, taking on and revitalising tunes from the sixties and seventies heyday of their country's scenes on 2011: A Space Odyssey and placing them back in their deserved place in the south-east Asian canon while reworking the tunes with an irrepressible sense of fervour and fun. To this they add an irreverant re-working of Shocking Blue's 'Venus'. Don't make the mistake of trying to pin this down as some kind of folksy artefact. It's some of the best music hear all hear and some of the best fun you can have with your clothes on or off.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Top Albums of 2011: 6. Moddi - Floriography (Impeller Recordings)

Norway's Moddi is one of those artists I clearly should have discovered sooner. This was rectified when I witnessed a stunning performance at August's Green Man Festival when Moddi, holding only an accordion and backed by a cellist, delivered a set of astonishing warmth and intensity that cut across the mediocrity of the sounds drifting across from Laura Marling and The Antlers on the larger stages. There are few artists I'd compare with Nick Drake or Tim Buckley: Moddi is alone in evoking the best of both.

For the first time, my immediate action on returning home was not to have at least three baths, but to get hold of Moddi's Floriography as soon as possible. Granted, the rather less muddy nature of this year's Green Man made scrubbing the dirt off rather less of an imperative this year, but this also shows how much my post-Green Man thoughts were filled with the Norwegian's plaintive, laconic tones. Happily Floriography captured Moddi's brilliance perfectly.

You can hear 'Littlejune' from the album in the one-off Xmas Eve show on Dandelion Radio that precedes the first broadcast of the Festive Fifty at midnight. Drowned In Sound, by the way, gave the album a mere 3/10. Kind of sums up my overall feelings about reviews in general: if you don't get something, why comment?

Friday, 16 December 2011

Top albums of 2011: 7. Twiggy & The K-Mesons - Technique (UVG/Daddy Tank)

Very few record labels manage three tracks in my end of year thingy, but then there are very few labels like the amazing Daddy Tank. Excellent though the label’s other releases have been, when I first heard Technique I was so thrilled my teeth flew out – and I don’t even have false teeth.

Robotic vocals combine with electronica by turns frantic and sublime to conjure up some kind of musical land that sci-fi forgot, where only barely recognisable musical forms lurk and where banality doesn’t exist.

Michael Valentine West is the man behind this brilliance, and you can hear a track from another project of his, Lower Third, in my December show on Dandelion Radio.

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Glasgow Popfest 2011 - Paradise Reclaimed

I recall, back in the late eighties, going to a Cud gig with a friend who'd spent the previous six months immersing himself in folk and world music to the exclusion of almost everything else. After a fantastic performance that caught the band just at their peak, he said he'd rediscovered himself, and realised he was 'an indie kid at heart'. Although I can't claim the circumstances are exactly parallel, I left Glasgow Popfest with a similar feeling.

What the event - held between the 8th and 11th December in Heavenly on Glasgow's Hope Street - did was reaffirm just how exhilarating, unpretentious and downright entertaining this all too easily dismissed form can still be. Within seconds of entering the venue on Friday evening, I was swept up in the considerable frenzy generated by Spook School's opening set, so much so that when they gave out free homemade CDs at the end and announced they had only one left, it wasn't just the whisky I'd spent much of the afternoon imbibing that led to me forgetting my inhibitions and shouting for one with the desperation of a spinster reaching out for a tossed bouquet. You'll be able to hear a result of my successful lunge when I play a track from it in my Dandelion Radio show in January.

The moment was, if you'll allow, something of a microcosm of the event as a whole, because at its best indie pop is inhibition-loosening music. Manda Rin & The Rinettes more than captured Manda's early Bis form, her unmistakeable tenor squeal accompanied by tossed out ironic gestures that only come from a performer of her considerable pedigree and verve. Ditto Amelia Fletcher, headling Saturday night with Tender Trap and dishing out an object lesson in close harmonies atop gorgeously redolent guitars. The session they'd done for my colleague Rocker's show was my favourite Dandelion session of 2011, and this was even better, the new songs rubbing up against the old, melodic delight faultlessly piled upon melodic delight courtesy of one of the true greats of British indie.

And it wasn't just the veterans at the top of their game. The remarkable Standard Fare served strong notice that their upcoming January album is likely to be an early contender for one of the best releases of the year. Bubblegum Lemonade delivered wistful and sumptuous melodies of a rarely bewitching ilk, while Barcelona's Cola Jet Set's girl group harmonies and sprightly keyboard-driven head-rushes meant that even the considerable hand-clapping that accompanied their set worked perfectly, a further example of indie pop's ability to take apparently tired and outre elements and imbue them with freshness. My cynicism draining at every step, I was then dragged into the sprightly world of Madrid's Zipper, offering a sugar rush of C86 goodies spiked with a pinch of punk.

Such was the conveyor belt of wonders on display, it's hard to pick a band that stood head and shoulders above the rest, but I might be prepared to plump for the extraordinary performance of Edinburgh School For The Deaf, whose MBV/JAMC guitar pyrotechnics unleash something entirely other on the Heavenly hordes. With vocals mixed way further down than in their recorded work, the performance offered new perspectives on the band's sonic architecture, a characteristic of only the very best live bands, and gave the event as a whole just enough of a serrated edge.

Unfortunately, circumstances dictated that I couldn't stay for the Sunday and thus had to miss veteran headliners BMX Bandits and personal favourites The Electric Pop Group among others. Small indoor festivals like this are a treasure much needed in the UK music scene, and Glasgow Popfest 2011 shone brighter than most.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Top Albums of 2011: 8. Seedhill Bruiser - Granite Fists

Seedhill Bruiser’s reclusive laments are carried down ancient glens, transported there as if by the disembodied soul of an early eighteenth century folk singer transposed into the body of a weary modern minstrel. The songs on ‘Granite Fists’ offer threnodies in timeless forms such as ‘The Killing of Alan McKinnon’, the context the gaping vortex of eternity while the transient concerns of modern man are at play elsewhere.

From the label (Nerve Echo) that’s brought us the amazing catalogue of Tingle In the Netherlands, this collection of 'queer ballads' is Seedhill Bruiser’s masterpiece. Pick anything here for a sonic journey well beyond folly or whimsy, but particularly the majestic ‘Trees’, one of the finest tunes released during 2011.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Top Albums of 2011: 9. Nachtblende - Syntaks

Seriously battling with 93MillionMilesFromTheSun for the best Parallax Sounds release yet, but 93MMFTS are Frazier and Syntaks are Ali. Stunning brute force against majestic guile. The woozy magnificence of this dream/nightmare electronica from the Danish duo resonates with flashes of something genuinely comparable with Boards Of Canada at their best - and these are words seldome said.

I first listened to it in the car while driving around the remnants of a medieval abbey but Nachtblende could probably make cruising around an industrial state feel estoterically beautiful. The album’s title hints at its cinematic vision and scope, but the richness and variety of the textures here go well beyond mere words.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Top Albums of 2011: Number 10

10. Milk Drops – Zoomonk (Myhand.thanx)

The Myhand.thanx netlabel has been serving up slabs of excellence for a good while now, but Finnish duo Zoomonk produced an album of such zesty brilliance it defeated even the amazing ‘Memories of a Dog’ by Thomas W as the label’s finest moment yet. And, as with everything this remarkable label puts out, it's FREE!

Suicide-inspired no wave brashness collides with noisy krautrock injected dronery to produce a work that conspires to recapture the word ‘rock’ from its clichéd hovel. Sadly, we’ve not heard anything from one the world’s finest labels since July – anything we can look forward to in 2012?

Monday, 5 December 2011

Top Albums of 2011: 15-11

15. Snowy Psychoplasmics – Dissolved (Daddy Tank)
Outrageously innovative, exploratory electronica – cinematic in scope and visionary in execution. Feeding time for the bits of the brain that we might think didn’t exist. A truly unique release from a label that spent the whole of 2011 producing unique releases.

14. Pedro Joko – Decibelles (Self-Released)
Sprightly French guitar pop. Unpretentious and easy to miss if you're not concentrating. Some make the mistake of dismissing this at face value as standard retro sub-punk fare - don’t be deceived.

13. Ode 2 A Carrot – Soom T & Disrupt (Jahtari)
Ganja-fuelled monologues over glitchy dub backings that provided one of the early highlights of a fascinating year. Humorous and provocative in roughly equal measure and scoring high in both respects.

12. Jeffrey Lewis – A Turn In The Dream-Songs (Rough Trade)
I’ve no idea what a bad Jeffrey Lewis album would sound like because I’ve never encountered anything slightly resembling such a thing. Lewis once again turns the world on its head, looks underneath and tells us all about it with the casual verve of the planet’s most undervalued poet.

11. Wolfroy Comes To Town – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy (Domino/Drag City)
Will Oldham’s best album for many years. If releases in recent times have sometimes underplayed the delicate balance of spikiness and fragility that underpins the best work in the Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy canon, it’s right back where it should be here.