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My musical ramblings – gig and album reviews, music news and views

Ruthsmanuvas: albums for 2011 vs 2010

Just over one week into the New Year and 2010 seems like ages ago. The thing is I’m still so attached to some of last year’s albums that the class of 2011 is going to have to produce some pretty special stuff to make the products of its musical blood, sweat and tears a permanent headphones fixture.

There were a few albums that got shoehorned into my top five list come December 31, niftily sidestepping competition from Frightened Rabbit’s Winter of Mixed Drinks, Errors’ Come Down With Me and Hot Chip’s One Life Stand.

5. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

This 16-song epic flew onto my iPod in August, finally hitting that sweet spot with songs full of charm and honesty that packed euphoric whirlwind violins and piano chords.

It was a watershed of sorts for many people’s love of the American seven piece who, in the past, had struggled to straddle the line between the thrill of the orchestral Funeral, and the seriousness and lyrical craft of Neon Bible.

4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

With an egocentric title of which you’d expect nothing less, LCD Soundsystem proclaimed this album in May as their self-indulgent last.

It’s not as instantly gratifying as Sound of Silver, but here, James Murphy and co definitely achieved their holy grail of balance between pretentiousness and perfectionism to create musical chemistry. From the stark opener, Dance Yrself Clean, that drops listeners off a spine-tingling bass cliff after three minutes, to the Bowie-esque All I Want and the sentimentality of Home that gives the band a softer edge, it’s a sublime album.

3. Caribou – Swim

Dan Snaith’s collection of intricately placed beats and stark lyrical proclamations made this record an unmissable, refreshing collection of dance tunes that completely challenged those flailing in its wake.

It’s almost obsessive compulsive in sound, and a total u-turn from the folky Andorra. It packs everything; from Odessa’s insistent beat that sounds as if it’s being played through a crackly stylus, Sun’s mesmerising repetitions and Mr Scruff jazz rhythms, to Bowls’ Tibetan percussion and mathematically timed chimes. Then there is Jamelia’s soulful loop and questions of ‘Am I good enough?’ that wrap this up into an album full of elegant musical nuances.

2. The National – High Violet

This one felt like a slow burner – so much so that it smouldered away in my music collection for a while before finally exploding into the consciousness in November.

Perhaps this, their fifth long-play album, mirrors the fact the band have been far from an overnight success. The truth is, High Violet is a masterful collection of melancholic writing. oozing with sorrow and beauty that sits just perfectly with Matt Berninger’s absolutely apt baritone singing voice. And in Bloodbuzz Ohio there might just be the lyric of the year with, “I still owe money, to the money, to the money I owe.” Just perfect.

1. Foals – Total Life Forever

The award for surprise of the year went to Foals in May, with a bolt out of the blue that delivered a mature, sensitive, yet wholly signature-sounding record.

It achieved the holy grail of completely bettering a debut whose math-rock rhythms and carnival quality felt so good it could’ve easily forced them to peak too soon. Some would argue TLF is a departure from the enigmatic, tautly plucked brilliance of Antidotes. In truth, they’ve still retained the percussion led breaks that burst midway tracks like sunlight through opening curtains, not to mention the rhythmic lyrics that double up as instruments in themselves. It’s just that this album also injects soaring, aching guitar riffs and pigeon-toed bashfulness that makes the listener feel they now begin to understand this Oxford quintet.

This all makes last year a tough act to follow – 2011 doesn’t whiff of box office big hitters. But over the next 12 months there are some albums I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting to hear:

1. Cut Copy – Zonoscope

The long-awaited follow up to In Ghost Colours, Zonoscope is the Melbourne-based trio’s third album that’ll undoubtedly bless us with more sunshine-soaked disco electro pop.

It’s taken three years for this to drop, but if Take Me Over is anything to go by, we can expect healthy dollops of catchy synths, positivity-injected lyrics and more of the same ingredients that put the previous album near the top of record of the year lists last time.

2. Metronomy – The English Riviera

With an album title that either holds a slice of Devonshire coastline in basked glory or gentle mockery, this is another record that’s been a long time coming.

Nights Out was a further favourite offering from 2008 – it had charming dischords, 8-bit beats and riffs, and film set sound effects shoehorned into the fabric of its tracks. The album also boasted the instantly likeable Heartbeat and On Dancefloors that both felt like the soundtrack to a bad night out – or a broken heart. Oh how we wept and danced along with them.

3. The Avalanches – TBC

This album has been a year-on-year promise from a band that brought us Since I Left You over 10 years ago. But if the more convincing- of late – rumours are true, it makes them impossible to miss.

From an album that brought us that flute-led loop on Since I Met You, to the funk-beats of Radio – the band mixed sheer madness with sultry French Moulin Rouge, soul, jazz rhythms and more samples than you could shake a fist at. That is, all played through this scratchy filter that felt like you were sitting in a flat listening to the most brilliant house party though the walls.

4. The Joy Formidable – The Big Roar

Thankfully, there are now only a couple of weeks to go before the release of this album that A Balloon Called Moaning EP has whetted the appetite for.

With an epic maelstrom of indie rock and pint-sized Ritzy Bryan’s breathy and robust vocals, Wales and London-based trio, The Joy Formidable’s debut should match the swathe of expectation that has gathered around their music over the last 18 months. With tracks like Austere, Cradle, Whirring and The Greatest Light is the Greatest Shade, their blistering paced drums and delicious wall of sound is unlikely to pass without impact.

5. Battles – TBC

Even the first listen to Battles’ Mirrored – the band’s first album proper – spoke of the madness within.

With an album cover comprising of instruments caged behind a glass box; it conjured images that this supergroup of four might just need to be reined in to maintain sanity. The tracks echoed that. It was post-punk, glam-rock, sci-fi computational circuit-boards, dance – and more that you can’t even describe because it’s simply in a category of its own. And that’s why I want more this year of whatever Battles were on in 2007…

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Foals: Birmingham Academy – Wednesday 3 November

Foals

This tour around, Foals have begun to look and sound like they’ve loosened up and begun to really love what they do.

During the Birmingham Academy gig, they even managed several success-tinged, albeit sheepish grins amidst their on-stage air of ‘business as usual’. Offerings from latest album, Total Life Forever sounded less frenetic, more beautiful than the old – perfectly illustrated by opener Blue Blood. And a clever juxtaposition with one of Antidotes’ more melodic tracks, Olympic Airways made chants of ‘Re-a-pe-ar’ bounce from wall to ceiling.

But it was the quintet’s bold mid-section slowdown that exposed the maturity they had developed in the new material, as well as a serious penchant – again, more clearly audible on the second album – for heart wrenching, soaring guitar riffs and lyrical sentimentality.

After Glow’s sensitive declarations of “I know I could not last for very long at all without you here to break my fall” was proof, and the achingly beautiful, shoegazy 2 Trees silenced the crowd with its Radiohead In Rainbows-esque experimental, mellow drums, soaring guitar riffs and a bassline that pleasantly jiggled the organs in and out of place.

There was also room for the oriental riffs of What Remains, before Spanish Sahara’s quivering high-octave vocals dropped a spellbound crowd off a sonic cliff to “I’m the ghost in the back of your head” as lead singer, Yannis Philippakis gave way to a surging mass of looping guitars, throbbing bass and drums.

Original classics like Cassius, Balloons and Red Socks Pugie even felt less tautly plucked and angsty. Not that their original packaging ever caused a yearn for change, but at the Academy the band shed layers of seriousness as these tracks became classic anthems for a dancing crowd.

Foals haven’t deserted the rather angular, edgy persona upon which they’ve based their sound. Fighting against indie-by-numbers, Yannis still chooses to direct operations from the left side of the stage and the band refuse to be packaged so neatly into any genre box. Upon announcing Miami, the band proclaimed the track’s beats were rooted in 90s hip hop; and there were numerous other inspirations imprinted across the gig ranging from braindance basslines evocative of Aphex Twin, math rock, electronica, and Afrobeats.

If ever anyone wanted confirmation that Foals are enjoying the ride, it was Yannis’ scaling of the speakers up to the balconies of the O2 during Electric Bloom and the tribal drum-laden finale, Two Steps, Twice.

Clearly, the band has transformed themselves from the rough diamond we heard on Antidotes. They are the creative jewel in the crown of a new breed of guitar-based indie bands that are throwing off the tired, formulaic three-guitarists-and-a-dummer shackle. It’s just that at the moment, no one does it better than Foals.

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Foals: Total Life Forever – album review

Foals - Total Life Forever

To put Foals’ new album, Total Life Forever into context with Antidotes – sonically, it’s akin to the effect of Ritalin on an angsty personality – the world becomes a calmer place.

The debut offered heaps of staccato drum beats, chanted lyrics and fiercely plucked guitars, all at their now signature low chest height. Some of those elements are still audible, but this new album is an exercise in melody, singing riffs and changes in pace which expose a softer side to the Oxford quintet. If Antidotes was a new and brilliant yet at times, anxious debut, Total Life Forever is beautiful, measured and ingenious.

Foals obviously don’t like being so firmly wrapped around the math rock clothes peg anymore. That said this offering still has elements of taughtly-picked riffs – Blue Blood, After Glow and The Orient to name a few, the latter making a ‘Western feeling’ sound like something to strive for.

The band has also still kept some really complex, classical, math rock experimental rhythms at the heart of what they do. This intricacy is bolstered by the fact the band still have that knack of using repeated lyrics not just as lyrics intrinsically in themselves, but as extra instruments and rhythmic tools to layer up their sound. Here, it’s done rather more deftly across the board than on Antidotes, perhaps to best effect on title-track, Total Life Forever, where a sung element weaves itself in and out of guitars to enchanting effect.

You can almost picture lead singer, Yannis Pilippakis, Walter Gervers and Jimmy Smith loosening the grip of their whitened fingertips around the fingerboards of their guitars, allowing the notes to ring out and pack the album full of melody. And if the band’s lyrics had previously sounded cold, this album puts them out of that line of fire. For starters, Miami – one of the most recognisably mainstream of the album’s tracks – asks in a pigeon-toed fashion, “Would you, be there, be there for me?” whilst managing to maintain the angular template.

At times, it feels like the five sank themselves into a peaceful REM state to write the new material. Floating, Windowlicker Aphex Twin rhythms surface on Black Gold with high-pitched tinkling plucked riffs, whilst 2 Trees has lulling In Rainbows Radiohead-esque drums, as “Don’t give up, let go” is just audible over the top with devastatingly sad, soaring guitars. Then there is the majestic Spanish Sahara, which builds and builds to a glorious, euphoric release.

In a typically self-deprecating but oddly charming interview, Foals recently declared that their intention for the second album was that it would be better than the first. Some might argue Total Life Forever is a departure from Antidotes’ enigmatic brilliance that offered something different to its peers. In truth, the second still has all this, but thankfully the band chose not remain static with their sound. Instead, like all the best upgrades, they’ve kept what is integral to music they love, whilst adding in so much more that makes it exactly the kind of progress you would hope for from a band of their original promise.

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BBC Sound of 2010 longlist

The ‘BBC Sound of’ longlist is usually a pretty good indicator of the artists that’ll be making it onto the masses iPods, the festivals and bigger venues over the next calendar year. From a corporation which brings us helpings of mainstream and Strictly Come Dancing, it’s a little bit surprising that they should be the temperature gauge of next year’s talent, but the list is picked by leading UK music critics and, for the last few years it’s been startlingly accurate.

Admittedly the Beeb’s 2009 picks were already a little more familiar than this year’s offerings by the time it was announced. And White Lies, Florence and the Machine and Lady GaGa all went on to headline festival stages, Passion Pit, La Roux, Little Boots – the 2009 winner – and Empire of the Sun were big hitters, whilst The Big Pink will grace next year’s NME tour.

Mumford and Sons and The Temper Trap, although a little less aimed at mass consumption, also gained some serious helpings of critical acclaim.  And testament to that, The Temper Trap’s ‘Sweet Disposition’ became one of the tracks of 2009.

Although Adele won it in 2008, with Vampire Weekend, Foals, The Ting Tings and MGMT making up some of the longlist, lets not forget past and rather less favourable winners included Keane and The Bravery – admittedly the longlists they topped were considerably better than they themselves.

So onto this year, safe bets are The Drums, who will play alongside The Big Pink, The Maccabees and Bombay Bicycle Club on the 2010 NME Tour and Everything Everything, who have notched up some good support tours including the Maccabees in early 2009. The electro indie bands Delphic and Two Door Cinema Club are also likely winners – both which sit on the achingly cool Kitsune French label and have toured under the Kitsune Maison umbrella during the year. Gold Panda and Joy Orbison are also really good bands, but its difficult to see them winning. Perhaps we’ll be surprised.

However, from the longlist, it’s hard to spot any immediate acts which will manage what some of the bands/artists from 2009’s longlist have. But then time will only tell whether Little Boots, Lady GaGa and White Lies will stand the test of longevity and this looks like a list more interested, largely, in critical acclaim than showing your posterior on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury.

The glaring omissions? Perhaps Filthy Dukes and 65daysofstatic, definitely The Joy Formidable. Suggestions on a postcard. And by the way, the longlist in full is:

  • Daisy Dares You
  • Delphic
  • Devlin
  • The Drums
  • Everything Everything
  • Giggs
  • Gold Panda
  • Ellie Goulding
  • Hurts
  • Joy Orbison
  • Marina And The Diamonds
  • Owl City
  • Rox
  • Stornoway
  • Two Door Cinema Club

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