Forming in 1989 in Bavaria, German band The Notwist released four albums during the 90s which evolved from a rough punk/hardcore sound into a more electronica based sound by the end of the decade. Neon golden was a cross-over success for them, breaking through to indie music fans (like me) who read rave reviews about it on Pitchfork Media and other influential publications.
The sound that the Notwist achieve on Neon golden is one that I would best describe as a fusion of influential synth-pop pioneers Kraftwerk and Stuart Murdoch, the lead singer of the legendary Glasgow band Belle & Sebastian (who lead singer Markus Acher has an uncanny resemblance to). As accurate as this description is, I also think it's under-selling what they achieved on this remarkable album.
Opener One step inside doesn't mean you understand sets the scene perfectly with what sounds like a banjo strumming at the start, after which Acher's shy subdued vocals enter the scene. It's all very minimal and intimate, and about one minute into the song the sound of what appears to be wooden blocks hitting together come into the mix, providing a very effective rhythm to the song. Organic and worn-in, it's a perfect opener: warm, inviting and innovative.
Pilot is one of the more upbeat and conventional songs on the album, with a consistent electro beat and a fairly traditional verse/chorus structure. It's probably one of the least interesting songs on the album for me, but it's still an excellent song.
The trilogy of Pick up the phone, Trashing days and This room is, to put it simply, twelve minutes of musical bliss. Each song sounds like nothing you've ever heard: all gorgeously melodic, cinematic and multi-layered. This is some of the best electro-pop you are likely to hear.
The second half of the album contains the eastern pastiche of the title track (which George Harrison would be proud of), the very catchy rock of One with the freaks, and the stunning closer Consequence, a breathtaking song with an outstanding vocal melody that makes you just want to play the album all over again. And you will.
This debut album from Mike Skinner (aka The Streets) received a lot of attention in the indie rags. I wasn't sure if its amalgamation of hip-hop, electronica and garage was really for me as I wasn't really into these respective sub-genres. But I saw it on sale and decided to give it a go, and it was another one of those risks that I didn't regret.
Say what you want about the music (and it is great); this album all comes down to the charisma of Mike Skinner. Just as Jamie Oliver made it big as a celebrity chef partly due to his personality, this album wouldn't work as well if Mike Skinner didn't let his personality shine through in every song, both in the lyrics and the delivery of them.
You may get confused by all of the UK slang (birds, geezers) but wasn't Clockwork orange still a masterpiece despite its dialogue, in a language that sounded like a cross between English and Russian?
Every song lets us into Mike Skinner's world, from the epic call-to-arms opener Turn the page, the faux-radio transmission of Has it come to this?, the working class anthem Geezers need excitement, the mourning (yet beautiful) break-up song It's too late and the lyrical master-stroke and character study of The irony of it all.
Mike Skinner became even more ambitious on the follow-up, the concept album A grand don't come for free. But in my mind he was never able to top the youthful energy, innovation and genre fusion which he achieved on this stunning piece of work; an artistic triumph which holds a well-deserved place in my top 10 albums of the decade.
Albuquerque band The Shins had an interesting history prior to the release of this album. They formed in 1997 as Flake (later known as Flake Music), releasing several EPs and a full-length low-fi LP When you land here, it's time to return to very little acclaim. At the turn of the decade they had changed their name to The Shins and signed to the famous Sub Pop label. Their debut album Oh, inverted world was released in 2001, receiving excellent reviews. It was a solid debut album with moments of brilliance (New slang), mixed together with some less inspired moments.
There was lots of anticipation for their follow-up album, and Chutes too narrow was finally released in October 2003. Opinions about the album appeared to be very positive, but some fans thought that it was a relative disappointment after their debut.
2004 was a great year for the band, appearing on the Garden State soundtrack and being named-checked in the same movie by über-babe Natalie Portman ("This band will change your life"). They also had a few of their songs appear in the emo-sitcom Scrubs, joining the ranks of bands like Death Cab For Cutie who had been able to cross-over through similar means.
Where Oh, inverted world owed a lot to its influences (mainly late-60s psychedelia and pop, a la The Zombies), Chutes too narrow saw them developing their own unique style. Where Inverted was often distant and obtuse, Chutes was delivered in a much more direct, intimate and personal manner, even if the lyrics were still a bit cryptic at times. Many of the bells and whistles which cluttered the production of its predecessor were also stripped back, allowing James Mercer's amazingly emotive vocals to take centre stage in the mix.
Almost every song on this album fights to be the best track on the album, from the quirky opener Kissing the lipless (which begins with a yelp), the baroque harmonies of Saint Simon, the infectious power-pop of Fighting in a sack, the intimacy of Pink bullets and the country-influenced Gone for good.
My personal favourite song is Young pilgrims, with its juxtaposition of deeply surreal lyrics ("There is this side of me that wants to grab the yoke from the pilot and just fly the whole mess into the sea"), vocal intimacy, and uncluttered instrumentation. It is an elegant composition which strips music back to first principles, and a stunning encapsulation of the "less is more" aesthetic that they achieved on the whole album.
The length is perfect -- at 10 songs and 33 minutes, there isn't a wasted note on the album. It is sequenced like an old LP: 5 songs per side, side A running from Kissing the lipless to the epic closer Saint Simon, and side B beginning with the corker Fighting in a sack and closing with the sparse Those to come. Bands and artists who cram too many mediocre songs on to a CD just because they can could learn a lot from what The Shins achieved on this superb album.
[This review is copied almost verbatim from a recent blog post. My opinion about the album hasn't changed since I wrote that review a few months ago.]
I've stated many times on this blog that I have become quite disillusioned with a lot of modern music. Which made the recent discovery of this album an even more pleasant surprise. In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been surprised. After all, his dad is none other than Neil Finn (of Crowded House and Split Enz fame). With a musical pedigree like that, how can you go wrong?
Released in 2007 (a great year for music), this was the debut album for the (at the time) 24-year-old Finn. It it interesting to note that 2007 was also that year that Crowded House's reunion album Time on earth was released. While I do enjoy that album (it was in my top 5 albums of 2007), it has nothing on the quality of this release. Let's hope that Neil's pride in his son overshadows any jealousy that he may have that his son outdid him in the songwriting department.
Liam wears his influences proudly on his sleeve, but mixes them up in a way which is thoroughly unique, and it never feels like mere pastiche. The influences range from Paul McCartney whimsy (Energy spent), darker alcohol-influenced Elliott Smith (This place is killing me) and Chutes too narrow era Shins (Wise man). He rocks out on occasion (Lead balloon) and there's even a bit of Split Enz art-rock in there (the title track which took me about 5 listens before I realised how amazing it was).
It's all wrapped up in layers of melodic beauty which ensure that it remains grounded; other highlights include Wide awake on the voyage home and Gather to the chapel, the latter of which is apparently an ode to the late Crowded House drummer Paul Hester.
I'll be lightning is a three dimensional album where certain tracks jump out on first listen, while others take several listens to reveal their charms. It's one of those albums which finds a rare balance between immediacy (to lure you in) and musical depth (to keep you going back to it).
I'm glad to say that the genius Finn gene has lived on; let's hope he can maintain this level of quality on his next full-length album.
Luke Steele is now more well-known as the front-man for synth-pop band Empire of the Sun, but before forming that band in 2007, many knew him better as the main guy behind indie pop outfit The Sleepy Jackson. The Sleepy Jackson (who are still officially together) have released two full-length albums to date -- debut Lovers (2003) and the clumsily-titled follow-up Personality - One was a spider, one was a bird (2006).
Where Personality is a fairly conceptual album in nature, maintaining a consistent "lush" sound throughout, Lovers is more of a hodge-podge of musical styles, pastiches and genre experiments.
Good dancers is heavily influenced by both John Lennon's #9 dream and The Flaming Lips. Fill me with apples, with its computerised vocal, sounds a bit like Fitter happier from Radiohead's OK computer. Rain falls for wind is an 80s influenced pop song with an uplifting chorus that you'll be humming after one listen. Morning bird is a lullaby sung by a young girl (!) but strangely, it works. Tell the girls that I'm not hanging out is an upbeat dance number. Don't you know (my favourite song on the album) is a 70s-influenced duet with a female singer which is simultaneously emotional and life-affirming in its delivery.
I've only mentioned a handful of songs, but the rest of the album is equally diverse. Each song sounds like it could be by a different band, yet it all manages to hold together as an album; a true testament to the quirky genius of Luke Steele. Each song is a microcosm of a particular musical genre, but the passion, melody and song-writing skills on display turn each moment into a definitive song of the genre.
This is not to say that The Sleepy Jackson are merely an accomplished tribute band, as this is doing them a disservice. There are some moments on here (Acid in my heart, This day, Come to this) which are harder to pin-point the influences on, so lets just call them Luke Steele-esque.
If the aliens ever arrive and want you to make them a mix-tape of some good music released in the past decade, just give them a copy of this album. Luke Steele has already done the hard work for you.