Saturday, 31 December 2005

2005: A Year in Music [Part 6: Re-evaluation of 2004 list]

This is the final post in the 6-part 2005 extravaganza. And it has nothing to do with 2005 at all!

Instead, I'm going to take a look back at my 2004 post (which was actually posted in 2005, tsk tsk) to see if my opinions have changed over the course of the year.

In the 2004 post, I listed the following albums as my top five of the year:

1. Machine Translations - Venus Traps Fly
2. Polyphonic Spree - Together We're Heavy
3. Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill
4. Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man
5. Wilco - A Ghost Is Born

Since that post, I have acquired the following additional albums from that year (listed in order of purchase):

A.C. Newman - The Slow Wonder
Apostle of Hustle - Folkloric Feel
Bjork - Medulla
Fiery Furnaces - Blueberry Boat
Modest Mouse - Good News For People Who Love Bad News
High Pass Filter - Soft Adventure
The Veils - The Runaway Found
The Finn Brothers - Everyone Is Here
The Streets - A Grand Don't Come For Free
Morrissey - You Are The Quarry
Dan Kelly - Tabloid Blues
The Elected - Me First
PJ Harvey - Uh Huh Her
Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender
Black Cab - Altamont Diary
Green Day - American Idiot
The Delgados - Universal Audio
American Music Club - Love Songs For Patriots
Blonde Redhead - Misery Is A Butterfly
Destroyer - Your Blues
Dogs Die In Hot Cars - Please Describe Yourself (thanks to MarkP for getting me this one!)

That's a bucketload of new albums - if I had gotten those in the year of release my 2004 post would have been even more bloated than it already was! Now I hope you can appreciate the need to re-evaluate the list...

Well from that list, there are some excellent albums (Finn Brothers, A.C. Newman, Joanna Newsom, Apostle of Hustle). But would any have made it to my top 5 of the year? The answer can be seen in my revised list below:

1. Machine Translations - Venus Traps Fly
2. Polyphonic Spree - Together We're Heavy
3. Elliott Smith - From A Basement On The Hill
4. Elvis Costello - The Delivery Man
5. The Arcade Fire - Funeral

The list is pretty much intact, except that Wilco's A ghost is born has been pushed out of the top 5 to make way for The Arcade Fire's Funeral (which only got an honourable mention in the 2004 post). Yeah, Funeral is one of those slow-burner albums that tend to grow on you quite a bit. I still think it's been overrated by the indie press, which is why it's low in my top 5. But I have to acknowledge it for what it is, and there's no doubt that it's an excellent album and definitely better than A ghost is born.

I already talked about Everyone is here in my last musical discoveries post, so I won't talk about it again here. For those who don't have it, make sure you pick up a non-copy-controlled version of it as soon as you can. For those Australians amongst us, it means ordering it from Amazon or purchasing it from an American eBay seller. But it's definitely worth forking out for it -- it's a great album.

From my massive list of 2004 purchases acquired this year, which albums stand out from the crowd? If I had to make a prediction about which albums in that list will still mean something to me in 2010, it would be Folkloric feel and The milk-eyed mender.

Folkloric feel is the debut album from Canadian band Apostle of Hustle, which is a side project of one of the members of Broken Social Scene (is that enough name-dropping for you?). It's a low-key affair, but it's one of those albums that is known by few but cherished by those few who are lucky enough to own it.

The milk-eyed mender is the debut album from Joanna Newsom, a folk singer who has a love-it-or-loathe it voice. Luckily, I'm in the former category. Yes, she does sound like a 6-year-old with that high-pitched voice. But I'd rather listen to a unique talent like her than the rubbish that gets played on commercial radio stations. And it's not just the voice that draws me to her (although I do love a unique voice). She's a remarkable harp player and songwriter as well. If you are in the mood to try something different from the tried and tested (read: safe) guitar bass & drums formula, I'd highly recommend giving this album a go. You may regret it, but if you don't there's a good chance you'll find a new album to love.

Overall, my statements about 2004 from the original post still stand. It was a good year, but 2005 was even better. Here's to 2006 being an even better one:

Happy new year!

Hope you have a safe holiday break if you are taking one. I will be taking a few weeks of leave in January so there will definitely be less posts until February. Thanks for reading my overlong ramblings about music, thanks for feigning interest if you were completely bored, and thanks to those who have commented over the course of the year.

Friday, 30 December 2005

2005: A Year in Music [Part 5: Musical discoveries]

This is the post where I cover some of the artists or albums that I discovered this year, but weren't actually released in 2005. What I write about here was an integral part of my listening experience for the year, so any discussion of the year that was will be incomplete without it.

Album Discoveries

The Go-Betweens - 16 Lovers Lane

This was the holy grail for me in 2005. Before this year, I already had five albums by this legendary Brisbane band. But none of those albums even hinted at the greatness they achieved on this 1988 effort, the last before their 12-year hiatus.

This has been referred to as the indie Rumours, and it's actually quite an apt description. Analyse the dark undercurrent of the lyrics all you like, but musically there is not a single note out of place on this album. It's an absolutely perfect pop album without a less than brilliant song in the bunch, and it has aged perfectly unlike many other albums from the 80's.

The Go-Betweens would still be a decent band if they had never released this album, but this album cemented their legendary reputation. Even though I've had it for less than a year, it's already entered my top 10 albums of all time. I can't offer a much higher accolade than that.

Blueline Medic - The Apology Wars

This album was one of the lucky discoveries of 2005. While in a newsagent earlier this year, I caught a glimpse of the rock magazine Blunt, with the front-page headline Top 50 Australian albums of all time. Anyone who knows me is aware that I'm a sucker for a great list, so I forked out the $6 for the magazine and spent many hours reading the reviews of all the albums in the list.

Throughout the magazine, they asked lots of Australian bands and artists what they thought were the best Australian albums of all time. This one seemed to be a recurring entry. It's one thing being a critic's band, but it's another thing being a musician's band. The multiple mentions of this album intrigued me enough to pick it up, and it was a risk which definitely paid off.

On the surface, this is a fairly straight-forward rock album. But like the best albums, it's one which reveals new details and layers with each listen. They are an incredibly tight outfit and the vocals let the Australian accent shine through, although not in an off-putting way. However, it's the vibe which elevates this album to "not just another rock album", that intangible quality that makes songs such as At least we had the war and Up against the fault some of the most awe-inspiring moments of my musical year.

Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

Yo La Tengo were always one of those bands I had read about, but I had never gotten around to purchasing any albums by them. I decided that this 1997 album was a great starting point, as it was generally the one which received the most critical acclaim.

It's a long album (at 68 minutes), but for most of its running time it is remarkably solid. The only dud in the bunch is Spec bebop, a 10 minute drone which outstays its welcome by, erm...10 minutes. Luckily, the rest of the album makes up for it.

It's a pretty diverse offering, covering Sonic Youth style distortion (Damage, Deeper into movies, We're an American band), chillout (Shadows, Autumn sweater, Green arrow), R&B girl bands from the 60's (Center of gravity, My little corner of the world), power-pop (Sugarcube, Stockholm syndrome) and even country (One PM again).

The Finn Brothers - Everyone is Here

I feel wrong calling this a musical discovery, because I know that everything that the Finn brothers touch (Neil especially) turns to gold. It was released in 2004 as a copy-controlled "CD" in Australia, so I had to wait until I went to Vancouver in May for work before I could purchased a proper CD of it.

After listening to it, my suspicions about the quality of their output was confirmed. This is another great collection of Beatles-esque classics, including Won't give in, Nothing wrong with you and the poignant Edible flowers.

The Sleepy Jackson - Lovers

Another album purchase that had to wait until I went to Vancouver, once again due to EMI's Crappy Control (TM) technology. And it's kind've cheating saying that this was a musical discovery of 2005, because I have already experienced the joy of this indie pop classic in MP3 format since its release. The only difference is that it's all legitimate now.

Needless to say, if you haven't heard this album then make sure you get it. Just don't buy the Australian version. Copy Control sux.

Serge Gainsbourg - Histoire de Melody Nelson

This was another album which I purchased overseas, this time in the fantastic-gigantic Amoeba Records store in San Francisco (in the heart of the hippie Haight-Ashbury district). I didn't purchase it over there because it's copy controlled here, but because it's almost impossible to find.

Anyway, this is dirty-old-man-french-electro-pop at its finest. You can hear Serge's influence on a variety of bands (including Beck and Belle & Sebastian) within this album's 28-minute running time. I'm sure if I understood French it would take on a whole new meaning, but at the moment I can appreciate the music for what it is.

Felt - Forever Breathes The Lonely Word

This is only a fairly recent purchase and it is still growing on me, but the initial spins are pretty impressive. If you crossed the jangly-guitar brilliance of the Smiths with the vocals of Tom Verlaine and added some keyboard on top of it all, you'll have a pretty good idea what this band sounds like. The only thing I can't quite work out if I like is the keyboard work, which can get a little cheesy. But this does have the potential to become another of those classic "undiscovered" albums from the 80's. Watch this space.

David Crosby - If I Could Only Remember My Name

I have this book at home with the fairly unoriginal title of Top 1000 albums of all time. It's been my bible for the last five or six years, and the editor writes a fairly long foreword at the start where he mentions that this is his favourite album of all time. It was enough for me to add it to my "keep an eye out for it" list, and recently I saw it for the first time for the fairly reasonable price of $18.99 and decided to take a risk.

I have the debut album by Crosby, Stills and Nash and while it has some nice tracks on it, it's an incredibly dated album. This is a different beast altogether -- it actually sounds like an extended mood piece in parts and there are some stunning a cappella compositions on this album which really show off Crosby's remarkable voice. I have to admit that the jury is still out on this one, but the signs are promising.

Artist Discoveries

2005 was the year I discovered The Replacements. I'd read a lot about this band, but had never gotten around to purchasing anything by them (mainly because their most critically acclaimed albums are so damned expensive here!).

While I was in Vancouver, I picked up this little album by them called Tim:

My initial impression wasn't great, but that could be because my first listen was on the plane. Not a great way to experience music, unless you have a pair of those high-tech noise-cancelling earphones. Subsequent listens revealed some hidden gems, including the teenage anthem Bastards of young and heartbreaking closer Here comes a regular.

I have since purchased more albums by them: Let it be; Stink; Sorry ma, forgot to take out the trash; All shook down and Don't tell a soul. Next on my list is Pleased to meet me, which will complete the Let it be / Tim / Pleased to meet me trilogy which is considered their finest recorded output.

My impressions with their catalogue so far? A bit hit and miss, in all honesty. Tim is probably their best album, but even that is patchy. Some of their albums (Sorry ma especially) are downright average. But when they hit the highs, it's fairly easy to see where they got their "legendary garage rockers" reputation.

Monday, 26 December 2005

2005: A Year in Music [Part 4: Top 10 albums of the year]

I have covered the songs of the year and given a quick glimpse at the cutting room floor. Now for the most important list of all - albums of the year. Last year I only gave my top 5 albums of the year. But there were so many great releases this year, that I found it hard to narrow it down to 5 albums. Hence it is a top 10.

Here we go, counting down from 10 to 1.

10. The Go-Betweens - Oceans Apart

This is the Brisbane band's 3rd album since their reunion in 2000, and it's easily their best since their masterpiece 16 Lovers Lane. While their last two albums have had their fair share of decent songs, they have been patchy affairs. On this album, Robert Forster and Grant McLellan recapture the magic of their glory days.

Robert finds a renewed energy in his songs Here comes the city and Born to a family, while Grant reaches the melodic heights that came so naturally to him during their golden years on The statue and Finding you. This album would be higher on the list if it weren't for what appears to be a mastering problem on some of the tracks, where they sound distorted (especially on the iPod). It's both unfortunate and frustrating that a great album has been tarnished by a technical problem.

9. My Morning Jacket - Z

If I had such a list, this album may get the nod for cover art of the year. It's unfortunate that the iTunes generation miss out on cover art when they buy music online, because it really enriches the experience. Anyway, this list is not about cover art. It's about music, and I have to give kudos to these guys for releasing one of the albums of the year.

I took a risk with this one, but it did pay off. Almost every track on this album has something memorable about it which helps to differentiate it from the other tracks and enrich the overall listening experience. There's the Ahhh ahhh refrain on opener Wordless chorus. The backing vocals during the chorus of What a wonderful man which sounds like the coolest thing since The gash from The soft bulletin. What about the classic hard guitar riff which bookends Off the record? Or one of the greatest guitar solos from recent memory that makes up the last few minutes of Lay low. It's all here on this great album.

8. Oasis - Don't Believe the Truth

Q magazine said that Oasis "recaptured their mojo" on this album, and who am I to disagree? Funny thing was, I thought their last album Heathen chemistry was a return to form. But that album pales in comparison to this one, which is easily their best since their heyday of Morning glory.

Debut single Lyla was a real red herring. It sounded like Oasis-by-numbers, and my expectations were pretty low for this album. But -- and you may find this difficult to believe -- Oasis have actually tinkered with their formula a little bit on this album. Both The importance is being idle and Part of the queue sound like nothing they have released before. This goes against the entire work ethic of Oasis, the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it school of thought. Yet, even when they decided "not to fix it", the resultant tracks Keep the dream alive and gorgeous closer Let there be love were still some of the finest songs they had released in years.

This is a true return to form. Let's hope their next album makes this one pale in comparison.

7. Spoon - Gimme Fiction

Can I talk about the first seven tracks on this album for a second? They make up 27 minutes of some of the best guitar/bass/piano/drums rock music I have heard in a long time. In fact, if the album ended after those seven tracks it would be a contender for album of the year for me. Or maybe EP of the year, depending how they decided to market it.

The beast and dragon, adored is the perfect slow-burner opener. Sister Jack is just a great rock song. And you just can't beat that vibe in I summon you. The last four tracks are still decent, but they don't reach the heights of those first seven.

These guys are one of the tightest rock bands I have heard in a long time, almost a perfection of the genre. They make standard instruments sound better than almost any other band I know.

6. The Drones - Wait Long By The River

The full title of this album is Wait long by the river and the bodies of your enemies will float by, but this is a common abbreviation. Even on the spine of the album, because that's all they could fit. And this is the original album cover, not the dodgy US version cover which makes them look they belong on the same bill as The Vines. No, these Aussie rockers deserve much more than that.

This is an absolutely sensational blues-rock epic which quite simply gets better with every listen. Gareth Liddiard has the ultimate cigarette-stained voice which suits the style of music, and the majority of this album is made up of slow-burners which take their sweet time but always pay off in spades. Look no further than bookend tracks Shark fin blues and This time to hear Aussie blues-rock at its finest.

5. Wolf Parade - Apologies to the Queen Mary

It's very easy to dismiss these guys. After all, they were in 2005 what Arcade Fire were in 2004 -- the indie critic's darling. I have lost count of the number of times I have been bitten after buying an album amidst all the hype and talk of a band being "the next big thing".

But this highly anticipated debut album by the Montreal quartet keeps paying dividends for me. Like many great albums, the tracks which spark interest on the first few listens end up being the lesser tracks. Each time I give this album another spin, a new detail emerges from the foliage. The subtle melodies in Grounds for divorce. The sheer energy amidst the craziness of I believe in anything. Those ultra-sweet harmonies in Modern world.

This album may not be perfect, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it's one of the most interesting albums I have heard this year.

4. The Eels - Blinking Lights and Other Revelations

I have a confession to make - I once had the Eels pigeon-holed as a novelty band. My first real exposure to them was through the song Mr E's beautiful blues from the movie Road trip. A fairly poppy song in a teenage T & A flick -- I guess it's really not difficult to see how I jumped to that conclusion.

But I'll admit now that I had this band completely wrong. Like their 1998 master-work Electro-shock blues, this is an intensely personal and deep work. It almost feels that like album's spiritual sequel, and most of the songs read like diary entries of singer/songwriter Mark "E" Everett.

Like Britt Daniel from Spoon, E has one of the greatest set of vocal chords in rock. He writes fantastic melodies to suit his intensely personal lyrics, and has sequenced this album perfectly. I'm not sure if this was intentional, but the first disc sounds like E purging his demons, while the second disc sounds like E reaching solace and acceptance. It feels like a spiritual journey listening to this album, and you'd be hard-pressed to find many other albums released in the last few years that have such emotional power.

3. Super Furry Animals - Love Kraft

I have to admit that my initial impressions of this album weren't very good. I bought it at a time when I was very over-saturated with music to listen to, and the first few spins sounded a bit, how shall I put this, boring. And boring is never a word I would use to describe anything by SFA.

Eventually, my musical quality assurance department managed to give this album some more once overs. And like everything else this band has ever released, it quickly found its way into the fucking brilliant basket.

SFA hinted at democracy on their last album Phantom power, when lead singer Gruff Rhys handed over vocal duties for one song (Sex, war & robots). If that was their The boy with the arab strap, this is their Fold your hands child. These guys are a fully-fledged democracy now. The revolution has occurred, even if it wasn't televised.

If any other band did this, you'd expect some teething problems and a patchy record. Here's the irony -- this is probably SFA's most unified, focused and "normal" sounding album to date. Debut single Lazer beam, one of the weirder SFA songs released, was a red herring. The rest of the album is predominantly made up of ballads with a generous sprinkling of SFA's 11 herbs and spices.

SFA have now released 7 brilliant albums and 1 excellent rarities compilation in their 10 year life. That averages out to almost a top shelf album per year. How many other bands have that kind of hit rate?

2. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois

It's good when you have an interesting story to tell when explaining what made you get an album. Unlike many fans, I wasn't terribly impressed with Sufjan's first entry in the "50 states" project - Michigan. I understandably had reservations about getting this one, even though the ecstatic reviews intrigued me.

Then the whole Superman debarcle happened. For those who don't know, DC comics threatened our good man Sufjan with a lawsuit unless he removed the image of Superman from the album cover. Sufjan, being the good Christian man he is, quickly obliged. Shortly after, I was perusing the alternative section at JB when I spotted several copies of Illinois on the shelf. Several still had the image of Superman. It didn't take me very long to justify the purchase. Even if I didn't like the album, I could sell it on eBay as a collector's item. I could almost picture the headline - Sufjan Stevens - Illinois [*RARE* Superman Cover]. It was a no brainer, I couldn't lose.

The fact that I still have the album after all these months (when I could probably make a fair quid on eBay) it a testament to its greatness. Yes, Michigan only hinted at the heights that Sufjan reaches here. And even though this is a longer album by about 8 minutes, it feels oh-so-shorter. Something about time flying when you are enjoying something, and all that.

Illinois can be appreciated on so many levels, it is a multi-faceted album of beauty and intelligence. You could treat it as a Lonely Planet guide and arrange your trip around the people, places and events that Sufjan writes about. You can marvel at how Sufjan can throw in every instrument and the kitchen sink yet still make it sound like the most perfectly produced record of the year. Or you can just enjoy it for the brilliant album it is. I'll take the latter.

1. Antony & The Johnsons - I Am A Bird Now

I love music as much as the next guy, but there's no denying that it is a fairly repetitive art form. As good as an album can be, you're still generally mixing together the same ingredients so eventually your cake is going to taste fairly similar to someone else's.

This album is one of the few from recent memory which transcends the musical art form for me. Within a few listens, Antony was up there with the likes of Tom Waits as an artist who I can truly call unique. His voice is one of the most stunning instruments I have ever heard, and this alone elevates this album to the top of my list.

What locks this album into the number one position is the journey that it takes the listener on. Many artists can write a great song, less artists can write a great album. I am a bird now is more than an album: it is a perfectly-sequenced spiritual awakening, and one of the most honest set of songs ever committed to vinyl or CD. Antony has let us into his heart and mind, and for this we can only be thankful.

Saturday, 24 December 2005

2005: A Year in Music [Part 3: Cutting room floor]

Now I'm going to talk about the albums that didn't make my top 10 for the year. Not all of these albums are disappointments, some are really solid albums that were simply beaten at the post into the top 10. Some have also not had enough time to grow on me. One day they may grow on me and I will need to re-evaluate the top 10. But I can't wait forever, the line needs to be drawn somewhere and a decision must be made.

So let's take a look at the cutting room floor of the great year that was 2005. These are sorted in alphabetic order by artist name as I don't want to imply any order here.

On a side note...have a happy and safe Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa or Festivus (cross out the ones which don't apply).

Animal Collective - Feels

These guys have been getting critical acclaim for a long time now, and after reading a 5-star review in the Hit section of the Herald-Sun I decided to give it a go. This is considered by fans to be their most accessible album, but accessible is obviously very relative. It's still a mighty weird record.

The first half of the album is made up of lushly recorded "pop" songs, but once again I use that word very loosely. I'm trying to think of a band to compare these guys to, but it's very difficult. The closest parallel I can think of is Mercury Rev, but even that doesn't quite explain what is going on here. The second half of the album is where the band opts for extended mood pieces, and this is where I think the album is let down. Banshee beat is a great song, one which just builds and builds but doesn't quite reach the heights you'd hope it would.

In all honestly, the jury is still out on this album. Maybe at the right time, in the right place it will sound absolutely amazing and blow me away like it seems to do to everyone else.

Andrew Bird - Andrew Bird & The Mysterious Production of Eggs

Oh, how I have tried to love this album. I have really tried. Music fans from all around the world are praising this album left, right and centre and I keep listening to it to see it it "hits" me. But there's just something about it that doesn't gel for me. And I think I have come to the conclusion that it's his voice. It's just too polished. The instrumentation is superb, with a wonderful mix of violins, whistling and everything but the kitchen sink. But I like the vocals to have a bit of character, and this guy sounds like an indie David Mead.

That's not to say that there aren't some great songs on this album, notably A nervous tic motion of the head to the left. But at 53 minutes it's a bit too much of his voice for me to handle. Cool cover, though.

Kate Bush - Aerial

This was bound to be the most anticipated release of the year. After all, it was her first release since The red shoes in 1993. So next time you find yourself complaining that your favourite band is taking too long between albums, remember that Kate Bush took her sweet bloody time and waited 12 years to release a follow up album. And it's a double album...

Kate's masterpiece Hounds of love (from 1985) was split into two distinct halves, the first half being a set of standalone songs and the second half being a concept song suite called The ninth wave. Aerial attempts to do the same thing, but instead of a 47 minute album being split down the middle, she has split an 80 minute double album down the middle. Each disc even has a different name. You have to give her brownie points for ambition.

Does it work? Yes and no. It sounds wonderful, and there is clearly nobody in the music business quite like Kate Bush. The production values are quite similar to her golden period in the 80's (read: a bit dated) but she seems to be spreading herself a bit thin on this album and it does lack the focus of her best work. Still, I'm sure this is going to take many more listens before it sinks in.

The Decemberists - Picaresque

If you put Neutral Milk Hotel, The Smiths, Belle & Sebastian and Augie March in a blender, you would probably get these guys. Colin Meloy has the vocals of Jeff Mangum, the delivery of Morrissey, the storytelling ability of Stuart Murdoch and the literary lyrics of Glenn Richards.

This is a frustrating album for me. There are many great songs here, but there are also some songs which just don't work. With a bit of editing, it could have easily entered my top ten. But alas, it merely ends up on the cutting room floor.

Many songs on this album are fantastic when digested separately - We both go down together, 16 military wives and haunting closer Of angels and angles are all fantastic songs that mix the right amount of intelligence and pop accessibility. But these brilliant moments tend to get lost amongst the clutter of overlong and self-indulgent songs like The bagman's gambit and The mariner's revenge song. And that's where the frustration lies.

Doves - Some Cities

In another year, this album would have easily been in my top ten albums of the year. The fact that it isn't this year has nothing to do with the quality of this album, merely the quality of its competition.

Some cities sees the brooding Mancs do what they do best, with a few added influences and new sounds to keep things interesting. The storm sounds like their tribute to the Bristol trip-hop scene, Black and white town shows a soul influence and One of these days nods in the direction of the space-rock of Pink Floyd (and not just in the song title). A subtle evolution and another excellent album.

Ben Folds - Songs For Silverman

This here is a perfect example of a relative disappointment. I listened to this the other day for the first time in a few months and it's actually a pretty good album. But after his previous album, the brilliant Rockin' the suburbs, I was expecting more from the man.

That's not to say there isn't a plethora of great songs on this album - You to thank is a fantastic ivory tickler, Landed is classic vintage Folds, Jesusland is a witty look at the bible belt in southern America and Late is a poignant tribute to Elliott Smith. The problem with this album is that there is some filler, especially near the end of the album. Suburbs didn't have any filler. And there lies the problem with this album right there.

The New Pornographers - Twin Cinema

Listening to a New Pornographers album is like slowly eating your way through a box of chocolates. It's pretty tasty at the start, but it can get a bit sickly sweet after a while. The good news is that while their previous two albums could be considered Cadbury and Hersheys, this is their Lindt album. Their music has become a bit more refined, and doesn't leave you with that sickly aftertaste that the cheaper brands can leave you with.

This is easily their best album to date, the band adding a few ballads to the mix (including the epic Bleeding heart show) to help diversify their sound. But even their songs which sound like they could be off their previous albums sound more mature - there is no doubt that Carl Newman's songwriting is continously improving. Sing me spanish techno is also their best song to date, a perfect pop song and one of the choicest cuts released this year.

Okkervil River - Black Sheep Boy

Out of all the albums in this post, this is the one that I feel may one day enter my top ten albums of the year. It simply hasn't had enough time to grow on me, but it does get better each time I hear it. It's a difficult listen, probably best described as alt-country-folk (if I had to pigeon-hole it) with vocals not unlike Bonnie "Prince" Billy. The title character is mentioned at several points of the album, giving the record the feel of a conceptual piece.

Teenage Fanclub - Man-Made

The Fannies don't release bad albums - they release great albums or good albums. Unfortunately for them and their fans, this is only a good album.

sees Norman Blake, Gerald Love and Ray McGinley enter middle age doing what they do best - writing feel-good pop songs. Their work ethic is pretty similar to that of XTC, in that they record what they feel is right for the time rather that following musical trends. There is a true irony to their work - it is clearly in the "been there done that" category, but you can't help but feel that they are true innovators of their art because nobody does it quite so well.

While it is unlikely that they will ever top their career peak of Grand prix, the world will continue to be a better place if they keep churning out solid feel-good albums like Man-made.

Friday, 23 December 2005

2005: A Year in Music [Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year]

I want to get something straight from the outset. This is not a singles list. Firstly, not a lot of music I listen to lends itself to the single format. So while I'm dying to talk about how Kate DeAraugo's Maybe tonight cash-in meant a lot to me in 2005, I won't.

Instead, I'm going to talk about my favourite songs of 2005. Just choice cuts, regardless of how well known they are. Some of these will be more well-known than others. Some of them were singles, but that's not why I chose them. I made a playlist of these 10 songs on my iPod, and it's a fantastic playlist. It definitely helped to reassure me that I'd made the right decision by including them in my top 10 songs of the year.

So here we go...

10. From which I came / A magic world - The Eels

This is the first "real" song on the Eels' double album Blinking lights and other revelations (the first being one of several instrumental "title" tracks which is reprised at various points of the album). And it's a corker.

It starts with an epic fade-in, giving way to some backwards stuff remniscent of Beatles circa 1966. There's a bit of what sounds like cello thrown in after that, before a guitar strum gives way to E's reverb-soaked vocals.

As brilliant as this song is on a musical level, it's the lyrics which shoot it into the stratosphere. E talks about his birth as if he is some genius freakazoid who was completely conscious of what was going on. It's an early sign of optimism on an album that covers a gamut of emotions.

9. Darlinghurst nights - The Go-Betweens

Robert Forster's songs on Go-Betweens albums (always 50% of each album) are always the growers. It happened with almost every one of his songs on their masterpiece 16 lovers lane. And it happened on their newie Oceans apart as well.

Sometimes his songs sound too smart for their own good, which is why they take so long to sink in. His vocals aren't exactly radio-friendly either, compared to Grant McLellan's more polished pipes. And those lyrics? Don't get me started with those. I mean what is he talking about?

Gut rot cappuccino, gut rot spaghetti
Gut rock rock 'n' roll through the eyes of Frank Brunetti

But after 5-10 listens this songs starts sounding amazing. Because it is amazing. Bobby is up there with Paul Kelly as one of the great Aussie "storyteller" songwriters. And while this isn't his War and peace, there's a much better chance you'll follow this one through until the end.

8. Keep the dream alive - Oasis

Oasis are the definitive chorus band. Many bands are capable of writing a great melody, but incorporating said melody into a brilliant chorus is another thing entirely. They have done it many times in the past, and this is a textbook example on their excellent new album Don't believe the truth.

While there are probably more interesting songs on the album, none of them sound like they have been designed for a stadium singalong like this one. Which made me even more pissed off that they didn't play it live when I saw them in December.

All in all, this is a perfectly constructed song. The first verse is pretty raw and doesn't really let you in on the brilliance that is about to follow. The second verse has Liam singing about "[being] at the crossroads waiting for a sign", a poignant lyric from a band who has certainly been around in the last decade and is trying to establish their place in the future.

Then the chorus hits. And it's gold. Pure gold.

7. This time - The Drones

The closing track on their blues-rock epic Wait long by the river and the bodies of your enemies will float by (even the album title is epic!), this is one of those classic unknown tracks that is hidden away at the end of an album. Heard by few, but loved and cherished by those lucky few who get to hear them. My brother Danny thinks that this sounds like a lost Love track from their Forever changes album. While I do find it hard to hear that comparison, there's no doubt that it does sound like a classic track from the era.

6. Into the woods - My Morning Jacket

You know when you hear a song that just feels like it is going to become a lost classic in years to come? Well this is one of those songs to me. Notice that I said lost classic. No, this won't be a well known or popular song. It's one of the minor songs on their Z album, not one of the songs that someone would mention as one of the standouts from the album.

It's got a great 3/4 waltz beat, Jim James' fantastic falsetto and just the right amount of whimsy to make it sound like a track that should have been on The soft bulletin but wasn't. And it gets my nod for the best (or at least funniest) lyrical couplet of the year: A good shower head, and my right hand. The two best lovers that I ever had.

But I think it's the weird choir that starts at about the 4:30 mark that makes this song what it is for me. Just when you think it can't get any more addictive, it does. It's always the little things which make the difference.

5. Sing me spanish techno - The New Pornographers

Every now and then, someone releases a perfect pop song. This is one of those songs.

Carl Newman's songwriting praises have been done to death by the indie music press for the last few years, so I'm not going to repeat those. You can enjoy the verses and dig the chorus of this song. But it's the bridge of the song which makes it the sweetest song you've heard in a long time. Traveling at godspeed, over the hills and trails...

Seriously, you have to hear this song. Art Brut sang about writing the song that was going to make Israel and Palestine get along. Sorry to burst your bubble, but this is the type of song that is going to cause Israel and Palestine to get along. For it is impossible to think about hurting anyone while you are listening to a melody as sweet as this.

4. I'll believe in anything - Wolf Parade

I'm not the first person to praise this song and I won't be the last. Like a short guy who has suddenly increased in height by 2 inches between his 16th and 17th birthday, this is a grower. First time I heard it, it sounded like noise. Spencer Krug's vocals were whiny, the lyrics were obtuse and it was quite frankly a mess of a song.

Give it time, and it will embed itself under your skin. This is one of the most musically and lyrically intense songs I have heard in a long time. It shouldn't feel good listening to this. But just try listening to the last two minutes of this song while driving 100 down the freeway, and tell me it isn't one of the greatest things you've ever heard. I dare you.

3. The two sides of Monsieur Valentine - Spoon

I've got a confession to make. I am in love with Britt Daniel's voice. Before you go off and buy me a ticket to next year's mardi gras, I'd like to clarify that it's purely a platonic love - kind've the same love George Costanza had for that cool dude in the
MaƱana episode of Seinfeld.

He just has the coolest rock star voice. Some praise Jack White, but Jack White sounds like lumpy gravy compared to this guy. It's got that perfect nasal thing happening, kind've like Jonathan Richman from The Modern Lovers. It's just so goddamn cool. Have I said that it's cool? Glad I got that outta the way.

Anyway. Cool voice. Perfect pop song. Nuff said.

2. You are my sister - Antony & The Johnsons (featuring Boy George)

On the other end of the voice spectrum is Antony. His androgynous vibrato hardly has the "cool rock star" tag attached to it, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it's one of the most stunning voices I have heard in a long time. And who's this that he has pulled out of obscurity into one of the greatest guest vocals in years? None other than the Culture Club man himself.

I'd probably call this song the centrepiece of the superb I am a bird now album. I could almost pick any song from that album. But it's the camaraderie of this song and the complementing vocals of Antony and Boy George which make this one of my picks of the year.

1. John Wayne Gacy, Jr. - Sufjan Stevens

In a pick which is sure to spark interest in at least one of the readers of this blog (he's looking at you McBean), this harrowing portrait of the infamous serial killer is my pick for song of the year.

Sufjan's superb album Illinois covers a lot of ground in its 74 minute running time. But no part is more emotionally effective than the three minutes and nineteen seconds that make up this song.

Musically, it's a haunting piano-based indie-folk melody with gentle guitar strumming on top of it all. Lyrically, it starts out as a chilling look at Mr Gacy and what people who knew him thought about him. Eventually it gets to the details, and that's when it really pulls on the emotional heartstrings.

A good vocalist will merely sing a song. It takes someone special to feel a song. When Sufjan sings

Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God...

and he quivers and sounds like he is on the brink of still affects me every time I listen to it.

Wednesday, 21 December 2005

2005: A Year in Music [Part 1: Overview]

With only a week and a half to go, one can almost smell the new year just around the corner.

In true Wireless Cranium tradition, it's time to unveil a retrospective look at the year that was. But unlike last year's post, I'm going to drip feed it to you Stylus Magazine style. Builds up the tension better that way. And it will be easier to consume smaller posts rather than a mammoth one.

So here's a quick schedule of my next 6 posts (including this one).

Part 1: Overview
Part 2: Top 10 songs of the year
Part 3: Albums that didn't make the cut (honourable mentions, jury's out, disappointments)
Part 4: Top 10 albums of the year
Part 5: Musical discoveries of the year
Part 6: Re-evaluation of 2004 list

Part 1: Overview

2005 was an excellent year for new music releases, easily the best since 2002. The fact that I'm saying this while it is still 2005 is quite important. Very often, I won't realise how good a year is until it has passed. It often takes me a few years to catch up to the year that was.

From my vantage point, 2005 is already great. And this is coming from someone who has purchased 180 CDs this year. That averages out to almost 4 albums per week. Lots of music to consume. Very difficult to give the 2005 albums time in the rotation and give them a fair go. Thankfully, the iPod has made this much easier. Which leads me into the next paragraph...

2005 was also the year of the iPod for me. It seems a bit odd to be saying this, since I only acquired it in November. Nowadays I can listen to whatever music I want whenever I want (well...except in the car because I haven't got my iTrip yet. But it's on the way!) So now when Pete emails me and says How good is this excellent obscure Joy Division track? I don't need to say to him I'll let you know tomorrow. I can listen to it there and then. Yes Pete, it's a choice cut I will reply.

So what made 2005 so great? Well firstly, there were no major disappointments. There were some minor ones which I will get to in future posts. But there were no albums like Badly Drawn Boy's One plus one is one that made me think that an artist or band had completely lost the plot. But simply having no disappointments does not make a year great. It's great releases which make a year great. And 2005 had no shortage of great albums. Many artists and bands who had only hinted at their greatness on previous releases really pulled through this year.

On the gig front, I got to see many of my favourite bands. There were the Go-Betweens, Teenage Fanclub and Oasis (for the 3rd time) gigs in the latter half of the year. The Whitlams gig was a nice freebie, as was Pete's RocKwiz teammate Glenn Tilbrook. There may have been a few gigs earlier in the year, but for the life of me I can't remember what and when they were :-( Good thing I have my blog postings to remind me about gigs now!

In 2004, the announcement that Brian Wilson was going to finally release SMiLE had fans salivating in anticipation. In 2005 it was Kate Bush's Aerial (her first release in 12 years) that had the fans sitting on the edge of their seats. 12 years between albums? That's a seriously long time between drinks. I guess she (kinda) made up for it by releasing a double album. Did it live up to its expectations? Did the hype machine kill this album? Did the hype machine kill any other albums? You'll have to watch this space.

See you in the funny pages!

Wednesday, 14 December 2005

Not Quite The Title Track

Nomeatpete here, making my first ever posting. I figure that if Jiggs can come up with useless and obscure lists, so can I.

For some time I’ve been meaning to create a playlist of songs that mention the name of the album (or an approximation thereof) in the song, but go by another song name. Thus, they are technically not title tracks... Thanks to the iPod, this is now a relatively easy task, especially for someone with far too much time on their hands. I’ve managed to come up with 24 so far, any additions are welcome. Overall, not a bad playlist. Repeat offenders here are Australian (Midnight Oil and The Church); must be our convict heritage. Any challenges and it will be pistols at dawn, good sir.

Camera - Editors - The Back Room
Something To Talk About - Badly Drawn Boy - About A Boy
Young Offenders - Life Without Buildings - Any Other City
One Dimension - Simian - Chemistry Is What We Are
Carnival Of Sorts - R.E.M. - Chronic Town (EP)
This Is Not A Song, It’s An Outburst - Rodriguez - Cold Fact
Warakurna - Midnight Oil - Diesel & Dust
Introducing The Band - Suede - Dog Man Star
Open All Night - You Am I - Dress Me Slowly B-Side
Three Dimensions - Something For Kate - Echolalia
Won’t Give In - Finn Brothers - Everyone Is Here
2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm) - Radiohead - Hail To The Thief
Road To Joy - Bright Eyes - I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning
For A Moment We’re Strangers - The Church - Of Skins And Heart
Out Of Control - Super Furry Animals - Phantom Power
Brave Faces - Midnight Oil - Place Without A Postcard
Great Southern Land - Icehouse - Primitive Man
Picture Disc From The Benelux - Icecream Hands - Sweeter Than The Radio
You Tell Me - The Go-betweens - Tallulah
You Took - The Church - The Blurred Crusade
Close To Me - The Cure - The Head On The Door
NYC - Interpol - Turn On The Bright Lights
One Love - The Stone Roses - Turns Into Stone
Poor Places - Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Monday, 12 December 2005

25th anniversary of John Lennon's death

John Lennon

I completely forgot to post this last week, but on Friday December 9th @ 3pm (or Thursday December 8th @ 11pm New York time) it was the exact 25 year anniversary of the assassination of John Lennon.

I was only a little bub when he died, and can only imagine how the world reacted to his senseless murder. When I was in New York earlier this year, I visited the Dakota building where he spent the last few years of his life and where he was tragically gunned down after returning from a long day at the recording studio with his wife Yoko Ono. I also visited Strawberry Fields in the nearby section of Central Park, where I was surprised to see such a modest memorial for one of the 20th century's most talented musicians.

The world is definitely a worse place without you, John. But your music will live forever.

Monday, 5 December 2005

Oasis gig [2nd December 2005 @ Festival Hall]

There they were, standing right in front of me. Four guys who seemed to be the best of mates, arms around each other for the majority of the night. In another set of circumstances, in another place, at another time -- this might seem like an odd display of affection between four twenty-something young males. But at the Oasis concert on Friday night, it seemed very appropriate.

Oasis are one of the few bands I can think of who can have this sort of effect on people. And even though it was the third time I have seen Oasis live, I couldn't help but feel that this night would be something I would one day be able to tell my grandchildren about. And I imagine that they would be just as envious of me as I am of those who got to see The Beatles in their prime (assuming, that is, that they inherit my taste in music).

Deciding to cleverly skip over the low-points of their catalogue (3rd and 4th albums Be here now and Standing on the shoulder of giants respectively), Oasis played the majority of their excellent new album Don't believe the truth and filled the rest of the set with vintage Oasis.

Set highlights included their classics Don't look back in anger and Champagne supernova, as well as more recent classics like Songbird and The importance of being idle. Watching the fans sing along to almost every word of the early Oasis songs was something that needed to be experienced -- there were no doubts that these are classic songs and that they will continue to be rediscovered, cherished and loved by future generations.

A pleasant surprise for me was hearing Talk tonight, a superb Noel sung B-side from The masterplan. Some notable omissions were Roll with it, Supersonic and Some might say. I'm still hanging out to hear my favourite Oasis song Half the world away at a gig, but I'm not holding my breath.

Unlike other huge bands of our era, Oasis are completely unpretentious. While Radiohead refuse to play their early hit Creep (as they have now "moved on"), Oasis clearly embrace their past and understand the power of a great song. While lack of reinvention can be the downfall of a band (*cough*Coldplay*cough*), Oasis are such amazing songwriters that even overplayed songs like Wonderwall continue to strike an emotional chord more than a decade later.

Their decision to close their set with a fantastic cover of the classic Who anthem My generation was entirely appropriate for a band who has defined the music of their generation. Oasis are truly masters of their domain.

Thursday, 1 December 2005

iPod random mixtape #001

There are currently 11,538 songs in my iPod. A metric shitload. The ultra-cool Shuffle Songs feature allows me to shuffle my entire collection to see what comes up. Every now and then (usually as it's nearing the end of the workday) I can't decide what album to pick next. So I let the massive random jukebox decide for me.

It's a great feature because songs come out of the mix that I haven't heard for a long time, and sometimes hearing them out of context of the album they are on makes me appreciate them more. A good example of this is Trout mask replica which is incredibly difficult to listen to as a whole album, but hearing a single song from it is easily digestable.

I had this idea a while back that I'd have a regular feature where I'd put the iPod into shuffle and then write a quick blog posting on the first 10 songs that come up. It really comes down to laziness on my part, sometimes I can't think about what to write and this just makes it easier for me. I'm fairly sure this isn't an original idea as I'm sure many other bloggers have done a similar thing.

Anyway, here we go:

1) Hey, Snow White - Destroyer

Interesting first selection. I don't actually know this song that well, because it's a relatively recent purchase and I've found it a very difficult listen mainly due to Dan Bejar's unique vocals and the length of the album.

Well, at almost 8 minutes in length it is certainly in the "epic" category. There's some interesting guitar work here, the lyrics are fairly repetitive. And the vocals do grate.

Actually, I have a confession to make. The album that this song is from (This night) is on the shortlist of albums that I am considering selling on eBay. It needs a few more listens before I make the final decision to grant it clemency.

And when I did a google for some of the lyrics from this song to quote them in this post, I actually typed "Hey Snow Shite" instead of "Hey Snow White". Call it a Freudian slip, if you like.

2) Apart - The Cure

Well, this is certainly turning into an epic mixtape as far as song lengths go. But this is more like it. While not one of my favourite songs from their excellent Wish album, there's no denying that this is vintage Cure. Moody and atmospheric music. A depressing Robert Smith vocal (double tracked in parts for extra effect). The usual dark lyrics you'd expect from anything in the Cure canon. A great overall vibe. I guess it's unfair to call this one of the lesser tracks from Wish, but that has nothing to do with the quality of this song -- more to do with the exceptional quality of some of the other songs.

3) Footstomp - Dan Brodie

A yeee-ha instrumental on his yeee-ha Empty arms broken hearts album which I purchased recently for five quid. Gets the toes-a-tappin' and the knees-a-slappin'.

4) It's gonna take an airplane - Destroyer

What's with this then? 2 Destroyer sings in the space of 3 randomly selected songs? Another song which is hard to comment on, but it is from their 2004 album Your blues which I must say I find more listenable than This night (it's not as long, and the tunes seem to be more melodic).

If you're reading this and wondering who the hell Destroyer are and why I have 2 of their albums in my collection, they are a side-project of Dan Bejar from Canadian supergroup The New Pornographers. His voice is definitely an acquired taste, the best comparison I can think of is Phil Judd from Split Enz.

Actually I'm getting near the end of this song, and it's a pretty cool cut actually. Surreal lyrics, an interesting vocal and some pretty awesome backing vocals as well.

5) Fall at your feet - Crowded House

Crowded House have an incredible hit rate, you could pick almost any song from their catalogue and be impressed.

This superb song should be known by anyone with good taste in music, and it's one of the highlights of their album-of-highlights that is Woodface, which also happened to be their most commercially successful album.

A brilliantly romantic lyric, melody to die for and chorus that is made for waving lighters in the air -- all the elements are in place in this classic slice of Oz-Kiwi pop.

6) The riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls - D Generation

Here's the problem with the shuffle feature. Maybe I should have eliminated the Books and Spoken Word genre from the mix. I was very tempted to skip over this "song" and pretend it "never happened", but that would be dishonest now wouldn't it?

For those who don't know (or aren't from Australia), the D-Generation are some of the finest comedians Australia has seen in the past few decades. They had a brilliant show on ABC called the Late Show which aired on Saturday nights in the early-mid nineties'. They have been associated with other great TV shows like Frontline, as well as movies like The Castle.

Anyway, this is from a CD I have of their radio show from late 80's and early 90's, before they were TV stars. It's little snippets of their radio show, which was unfortunately very topical and therefore a bit hard to appreciate now as they are talking about things that happened over 10 years ago. An example is them interviewing Bob Hawke (or at least an imitation of him) who was the Australian PM at the time.

Still, you gotta appreciate the phone calls from Wayne from St Albans.

7) Come again - Dallas Crane

Ahhh...such a relief to hear some music after the 13 minutes of talking that was the last track.

This is a corker, one of the highlights from Dallas Crane's solid album Twenty four seven. A classic slice of Aussie rock, with a chorus that sounds like it has been genetically engineered for singing along in a pub with a pint in your hand, swaying from side to side.

Jet get international kudos for their highly derivative Get born album, while Dallas Crane are stuck being support acts for other bands who are more commercial successful. There isn't any justice in this world.

8) Let it be - The Beatles

The very poignant title cut from their swansong, everyone who has ever heard music knows this song. If you haven't, you have been living under a rock. Before I was a Beatles fan, I actually thought this was a mid-period Beatles song. I remember being very surprised when I found out this was from their last album.

A great Paul McCartney vocal, a classic George Harrison guitar solo, timeless lyrics and sentiment. The band may have been falling apart at the time, but when listening to this song they still sound like the greatest band of all time.

And if I close my eyes, I can picture Paul McCartney singing it, with that cool late 60's beard he was sporting at the time.

9) Sing - Blur

From classic British pop to early Britpop. This song was actually on the Trainspotting soundtrack, many may know it from there. But the copy that came up on the random mixtape was actually from Blur's debut album Leisure.

Leisure is a pretty poor album overall, but this is clearly one of the highlights. This is more psychedelic Blur, they weren't quite at the cockney stage of their Modern life is rubbish or Parklife albums, and they were galaxies away from their more experimental Blur and 13 sound.

Hard to really understand any lyrics from this song. But the chorus is really all you need. Ahh ahh ahh ahh! It's inclusion on the Trainspotting soundtrack does seem appropriate.

10) Song of our so-called friend - Okkervil River

Another newie for me, this is from Okkervil River's 2005 album Black sheep boy. Yes, I hadn't heard of them either about 3 months ago. But I read quite a few reviews of the album (many proclaiming it to be one of the best albums of 2005) and went out and bought it.

If I had to pigeon-hole this song I'd probably call it alt-country. I guess the singer is comparable to Bonnie "Prince" Billy, a little bit off-key in parts but it works well for the music.

Pretty catchy song. But I do need to get to know the album better.