Friday, 22 January 2010

2009: A Year in Music [Part 1: 2009 albums]

I've been very slack. In previous years, I would always try to summon up the discipline to post my end-of-year posts in December, but this time I've been far too lazy.

I haven't bought many albums that were released in 2009. Not even enough to write up a top 5 list! So instead of my usual 6-part end of year extravaganza, I'm going to keep this brief:

Part 1: 2009 albums
Part 2: Musical discoveries (i)
Part 3: Musical discoveries (ii)
Part 4: Re-evaluation of 2008 list

This is significantly cut down, but it indicates where my musical tastes lie at this point in time. I haven't been buying a lot of new music, so don't have a lot to say about my songs of the year, albums of the year, etc. Most of my musical enjoyment is coming from discovering more classic albums from the past.

Without further ado, let's kick off part 1.

Part 1: 2009 albums

These are the albums from 2009 that I purchased in 2009. I'm not going to attempt to order them, because there's only 4 of them. And let's face it, top 4 lists are no fun.

Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers

This was a really pleasant surprise. While I enjoyed 2007's Send away the tigers, nothing prepared me for how much of a return to form this album was. I'd heard various tidbits in the pre-release chatter: how they were using lyrics left by late founding member Richey Edwards, how they had Steve Albini on board as producer, how it was the thematic and spiritual successor to their masterpiece The holy bible. I certainly didn't want to get caught up in the hyperbole, but when the universally positive reviews started rolling in, I couldn't really help myself and bought it on the day of release.

And it's an amazing album! The combination of Richey's tortured lyrics and Steve Albini's primal production is a match made in heaven, reinvigorating a band who many had given up on. It's an incredibly well-balanced album, incorporating disparate strands of their 20+ year career: there's the raw punk of their Richey-era ("Peeled apples", "Marlon J.D."), melodic but dark pop ("Jackie Collins", "Virginia State") and moments of acoustic beauty ("This joke sport severed", "Facing page: Top left").

It's a bit too early to tell whether history will put this album alongside the classics The holy bible and Everything must go, but in the meantime I'm happy to call this a remarkably accomplished effort from a legendary band who many had probably given up on.

Super Furry Animals - Dark Days / Light Years

What a great year for Welsh musicians. Looking at the history of my 2 favourite Welsh bands (Manics and SFA), there have been 3 previous years where their album releases have coincided:

Everything must go:
Fantastic post-Richey effort from the Manics.
Fuzzy logic: A very promising debut from SFA.

Know your enemy: Highly underrated (and unfairly panned) album from the Manics, even if it could have used a bit of editing.
Rings around the world: Major label debut from SFA, a very polished but authentic effort with some of their finest songs.

Send away the tigers: A semi return to form by the Manics after the bland Lifeblood.
Hey Venus!: Back-to-basics SFA album consisting of a lot of short and catchy numbers.

Well now we can add 2009 to the list. How did the SFA album compare to the Manics' stellar effort?

Well, it's a typically enjoyable and innovative album from SFA which adds a few new influences like krautrock. The album has some very interesting rhythms and textures, but I can't help but feel in many ways that it's "just another SFA album" and while it's very impressive, I don't get excited about their new work as much as I used to.

The album is framed by 3 songs which are quite different to anything SFA have done. Opener Crazy naked girls is a gutsy introduction, lacking a distinct melody (very unlike SFA) but certainly illustrating that they weren't resting on their laurels. Centrepiece Cardiff in the sun is almost prog-pop in sound and scope, although it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. And closer Pric is all about its chugging rhythm, working really well to bookend the album.

The rest of the album is SFA-by-numbers with a few twists thrown in, like Franz Ferdinand's Nick McCarthy counting in German (Computer world, anyone?) during Inaugural trams. Massive kudos for naming one of their songs "The very best of Neil Diamond" - surely one of the funniest song titles I have seen in many years (and one of the best songs of the year too).

Patrick Wolf - The Bachelor

I feel that this album was unfairly panned by a lot of critics. Yes, it's pretentious and overblown in a typical Patrick Wolf way. But in an era where so many musicians wear their influences so obviously on their sleeves, Patrick Wolf is an incredibly unique voice in contemporary music.

The best reference point for this album is the more experimental work of Kate Bush (circa Hounds of love) and David Bowie (circa his late 70s Berlin trilogy). It's a thoroughly adventurous album, with several moments that give me goosebumps, a feeling that I don't get from a lot of new music.

In particular, the uplifting lilt of Damaris is anthemic in all the best possible ways; the glorious spoken-word introduction of Thickets (courtesy of actress Tilda Swinton) never fails to bring a smile to my face. Thickets in particular sounds like it could be from the 2nd half of Hounds of love, and that's one of the best compliments I could give.

Kudos to Patrick Wolf for the ambition and sheer musical talent he demonstrates on this adventurous album. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Madness - The Liberty Of Norton Folgate

This was a recent purchase. I bought it after reading a lot of impressive reviews which describe it as the best album of Madness' career, and one of the best albums of 2009.

I have to admit the jury is still out on this one. There's no doubt that it's a cohesive song cycle with lots of classic pop moments, but I can't help but feel it's a little too sugary sweet and lacking a bit of darkness and shade which could elevate it to somewhere special. Having said that, I have only had 4 listens so far (thanks iTunes!) and I feel like I haven't given it enough time to sink in yet.

At this stage, highlights include That close, On the town and the epic closing title track which is unlike any other Madness song I have heard. Time will tell whether this album does indeed go "one step beyond", or whether it's just an "embarrassment".


  1. What about the re-evaluation of last years list...I always like reading that post too!!!

  2. in terms of 2009 for me, I bought so few new releases that I can't make much of a contribution here...but one album I did really enjoy was "The Sun Came out" by 7 Worlds Collide, a side project featuring amongst others, Neil Finn, Johnny Marr, Phil Selway, Ed O Brien, Jeff Tweedy, Bic Runga, Lisa Germano, KT Tunstall, Glenn Richards.

    Its a great collection of catchy, breezy tracks, and I really think you would enjoy it Jiggy.

  3. sorry, me again....the Madness one sounds interesting, I might have to explore that a bit futher. IT received good words on the classic album podcast.

  4. Thanks for the comments Wally!

    Just for you, I've added part (iv) Re-evaluation of last year's list!

    "The sun comes out" sounds like I'd like it, especially considering that I love a lot of those artists!


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