As anybody who has ever referred to themselves as a music fan will tell you, there is never enough time to listen to all the music you want to listen to. At the very best, one can claim to have, in one sense, heard everything they intended to hear, but the very definition of the word ‘heard’ implies much less of an attentiveness to what is being experienced. To ‘listen’ is to ‘try to hear’, but hearing itself is simply to ‘perceive with the ear’.
The problem, then, lies in deciding where to invest your listening time. The process of expectation, digestion and assimilation can be a lengthy one, and it is this fact that results in such a breadth of respectable music being overlooked, time after time. With the internet, and instant accessibility of music worldwide, there is theoretically much more chance for an artist to build up a following, and spread their music, but at the same time, this allows for an ever-growing abyss to develop, swallowing musicians both talented and worthwhile with zero discrimination.
Composed here are those few select new albums which I spent considerable time with this year. Interestingly, only one would I describe as something I’d put in an all-time favourites list – possibly a second, hindered only by the fact that it was released relatively recently and I have not quite enjoyed it enough to be sure. You’ll deduce easily what these two albums were.
Although perhaps not resonating as much with me as much as some other journalistic circles, James Blake has undoubtedly crafted two of the most groundbreaking releases of 2010. Demonstrating that dubstep need not be a buzzword music enthusiasts should shy away from at first sight, his spacious, patient experimentation is never more beautiful than Klavierwerke‘s “I Only Know (What I Know Now)”. It will be interesting to see whether Blake can conjure up another selection of songs as potent as his previous work in his upcoming full-length release.
Gregg Gillis has long held the title of mash-up master, and All Day is a reminder that, no matter how many similar acts are birthed and killed off on a daily basis, nobody else is even close to his level of ability. On his latest record, Gillis allows his subjects a little more room to breathe, and to speak for themselves; the subtlety of his art is more emphasised by the way his samples interlock in perfect harmony than a fusion of two existing sounds this time around. I’ll probably never again listen to ‘1901’ without expecting Ludacris to burst out into “Low”.
On the surface, this is probably my least favourite of Arcade Fire’s three most notable releases. This is in part to due with the compositional differences to their previous efforts – 16 tracks is quite a departure, and though ambition is a necessary ingredient in the mixture the effervescent Canadians concoct, there are stages in this album which leave a little to be desired. Still, an average Arcade Fire album is an impressive one on any level, and there are also arguably some of the band’s strongest pieces to date contained within; “Sprawl II” and “Ready to Start” spring to mind. Though mildly disappointing, I will still be one of the first in line for any future release.
You may notice that Sufjan’s entry in this list is the only one not accompanied by its album artwork. You could take this as a metaphor for just how distant The Age of Adz tends to feel from a ‘Sufjan Stevens album’ upon first listen. If anything, the album definitely does cement Steven’s reputation as a musical genius – as Radiohead notably did ten years ago, abandoning traditional (if you could call any of his work that) song composition for a foray into the electronic ouevre requires nothing less than a master of all genres – and the man carries it off effortlessly, with grace and eloquence. You could also infer, though – that the artwork just wasn’t particularly appealing.
It is difficult to determine what it is exactly that is so appealing about Ezra Koenig and Vampire Weekend. Their oddly-blissful, oddly-melancholy group of songs appear, when taken at face value, to have only fleeting substance. Yet today, over a year since the release of Contra, the longevity of the record is undeniable – the songs are as listenable as ever, and there still is really nobody quite like them. It is fascinating to see how much they have grown here since they initially burst out with Vampire Weekend, but whatever their formula is, it is definitely one worth celebrating.
At the time of writing, it is very likely that Earl Sweatshirt is currently in jail. He is prominent member of volatile hip-hop collective Odd Future, the web phenomenon determined to return underground rap to its ‘true’, undeniably vile roots. It is the mere 16-year-old’s ability to turn even the cruelest rhymes into ferocious jams, combined with careful production values, that somehow make rape-glorifying, rampantly homophobic lyrical content ridiculously listenable. It is well worth taking on board any of Odd Future’s output, but Earl is the most instantly accessible product at the moment.
I don’t currently engage in the casual use of cannabis, but if I was to, I’d probably do it with this album as a soundtrack. Littered with references to his habit, Kevin Parker’s craftsmanship has ‘stoner’ written all over it – from the production elements to the hook-ridden pop song structures. Yet in no way is this a detracting factor – it only adds to what is already a collection of cascading melodies, beautiful harmonies, and good, honest, catchy-as-hell songs. And it’s flippin’ brilliant.
I never really got around to compiling a ‘best albums of 2009′ list, but the chances are that, if I had, Girls’ ironically titled debut Album would have come top. Undeniable pop melodies, achingly beautiful vocal delivery and the sad story of Christopher Owens’ origins were all part of what made Album as compelling as it was. Every single one of those factors is present here, and still every bit as appealing. Yet Girls chose not to rest on their laurels, and have produced a sophomore release every bit as good as their 2009 counterpart. Where the production was allowed to veer towards a mildly hazy, summery sound before, it has been tightened to bring out the subtly pristine instrumentation. And there is instrumentation like never before; horn arrangements, string accompaniments and more detailed guitar lines than fans were previously accustomed to. It all serves to increase eager anticipation for their promised follow-up album, hopefully due to drop later this year.
When Kanye West burst onto the stage to take the microphone from a bemused Taylor Swift at the VMAs a couple of years ago, everything the rap extraordinaire had built towards looked as if it was about to crumble as a result of his uncontrollable ego. West briefly disappeared from the public stage, embarking on a journey of self-discovery and re-branding, ready to enter the arena once more in 2010. The ego hadn’t gone anywhere, but something had definitely changed in West; it was clear from his constant apologies to Swift and caps lock fuelled vents on Twitter that he believed he was about to revolutionise the music scene with whatever he had waiting in the wings. As religious as West may claim to be, it is no coincidence that his G.O.O.D. Fridays weekly output implies a sort of supernatural ability about himself – and in some respects, it would be very difficult to disagree. After 2008’s reflective 808’s and Heartbreaks, West was ready to return to the style with which he initially made his name, only bigger and better than ever before. The demos he dropped were, simply put, phenomenal. West managed to bring out the best in guests otherwise questionable (see Nicki Minaj’s verse in “Monster”) and started putting down the best beats and MC work of his career to date. When all of this culminated with the final, finished product – MBDTF – not a false note was hit. Yet Kanye West was already onto the next method of bettering his previous output, producing an explosive accompanying video for prominent single “Runaway”. West has a collaborative album out with Jay-Z in March, and is already speculating about releasing another new album this summer. Who is going to argue with him?
I will try really hard to describe this album, but there aren’t words right now. It’s good.