Archive for December, 2011

My record of the year: PJ Harvey ‘Let England Shake’

December 29, 2011

‘ Let England Shake’ is the one album this year that, from the moment I heard it, I could not get it out of my head. It’s been said that it’s a record about war and national identity, but it’s much more complex and brilliant than that. This isn’t simply an anti-war album, there is no sloganeering here or any pacifist platitudes and the influences span centuries, as well as the length and breadth of the globe. There are descriptions of the horrors of conflict, but you aren’t told to find the violence abhorrent, just to take in the imagery. If the violence of the imagery is anti-war, then war itself is inherently anti-war.

 The stand-out influence is World War I and it’s hard not to escape the feeling that PJ Harvey chose this because it is a conflict, the effects of which, still rumble on in the Middle East, in Europe and throughout the world. For instance, the divide up of land in the Middle East and the subsequent meddling by Britain and the USA has caused countless conflicts in the last century. However, this album is about more than war and England; it’s about what it is to be English, about the repetition of history and it tells its stories using many different voices. PJ Harvey has spoken of the myriad of inspirations for the record, including First World War memoirs, blogs from Afghanistan, folk songs from Vietnam and Iraq, Jez Butterworth’s plays, Stanley Kubrick, the Pogues. Her stories and lyrics aren’t her own, but taken from sources such as accounts of soldiers who fought at Gallipoli and Goya’s war prints. Harvey knew that without having first-hand experience of war, she had to take others’ words, so as to give a verisimilitude to her songs.

Samples crop up throughout the record, as reminders of what Harvey is singing about. From the bugle that interrupts ‘This Glorious Land’ (First World War) to the Eddie Cochran quoting ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’ (“what if I take my problems to the United Nations”) (the Cold War) reminders of past conflicts crop up throughout the album. There is a recording of a Kurdish folk song from a pre-independence Iraq which reoccurs throughout the record, perhaps as a reminder of England’s colonial past, which brings me onto the question: “Why ‘Let England Shake’?” Perhaps it’s due to the fact that almost all of the conflicts that make up this record’s sources and stories have their roots in the actions of England and the Empire. Harvey clearly loves England, but it’s a fractious love: “I live and die through England/It leaves sadness/It leaves a taste/A bitter one.” Despite its historical greatness, there is blood on English hands and on English soil because of the wars it has been engaged in and the actions it has taken.

Beyond all of the political genius of the album, the music is never subservient to the message. This is perhaps PJ Harvey’s best collection of songs. The sound is sparse and melodies are simple and beautiful. ‘Let England Shake’ has a timeless quality to it, yet at the same time I can think of no other record that compares to its sound. The high register of her voice is ethereal and other-worldly, a quality which is enhanced by the autoharp she uses almost throughout the album. Though the melodies are beautiful, the often fragile nature of the music and the use of the samples ensures that the force of the lyrics are not lost. PJ Harvey is a complete one-off and this is her masterpiece. It’s a glorious album.

My Top 20 Albums of 2011

December 28, 2011

As promised in my last blog, here is a list of my favourite Top 20 albums of 2011:

 

1. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

2. Tune-Yards – Whokill

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

4. Feist – Metals

5. The Field – Looping State Of Mind

6. Wild Beasts – Smother

7. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

8. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

9. Radiohead – King of Limbs

10. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

11. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

12. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

13. Colourmusic – My ____ Is Pink

14. Girls – Father, Son, Holy Ghost

15. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

16. Zomby – Dedication

17. Frank Ocean – Nostalgia, Ultra

18. Real Estate – Days

19. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See

20. Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – We’re New Here

 

Going through this list made it apparent that there were albums here from which I didn’t include a single song in my Top 50 Songs. I will therefore make a quick special mention of the following tunes off of these albums that I particularly loved:

• Wild Beasts – End Come Too Soon

• Nicolas Jaar – Too Many Kids Finding Rain In The Dust

• Girls – Just A Song

• Zomby – Witch Hunt

• Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See (if just for the line: “You’re rarer than a can of Dandelion & Burdock/And those other girls are just post-mix lemonade”)

• Gil Scott-Heron & Jamie xx – I’ll Take Care of U

 

My next blog will be all about PJ Harvey’s album, which I absolutely adore (the album that is, not my blog).

 

The Greatest Sporting Photo… Ever

December 23, 2011

The Full List: My Top 50 Songs of 2011 (and some added extras)

December 20, 2011

This is for those people (like me) who like not just to read a “Top 5/10/50/100” list, but like to see it as well.

In the next few days I’ll be blogging a list of my Top 20 albums of the year, with a special blog for my top album of 2011.

I’M SURE YOU’RE ALL VERY EXCITED.

Love you all. Merry Christmas!

 

My Top 50 Songs of the Year:

1. Battles – Ice Cream (feat. Matias Aguayo)

2. Lana Del Rey – Video Games

3. I Break Horses – Hearts

4. PJ Harvey – The Words That Maketh Murder

5. M83 – Midnight City

6. Elbow – Lippy Kids

7. James Blake – The Wilhelm Scream

8. Beirut – Easy Harlem

9. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – How Can You Luv Me?

10. Tune-Yards – My Country

11. St. Vincent – Cruel

12. Youth Lagoons – July

13. Bon Iver – Holocene

14. Real Estate – It’s Real

15. Nicola Roberts – Beat Of My Drum

16. Colourmusic – Yes!

17. British Sea Power – Who’s In Control

18. Frank Ocean – Novacane

19. John Maus – Believer

20. Bill Callahan – Baby’s Breath

21. Tyler The Creator – Yonkers

22. Panda Bear – Last Night At the Jetty

23. Holy Ghost! – Hold My Breath

24. Tom Waits – Hell Broke Luce

24. Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Ffunny Ffriends

25. Metronomy – The Bay

26. Dels – Capsize (feat. Roots Manuva)

27. Tune-Yards – Bizness

28. John Maus – Quantum Leap

29. Cass McCombs – County Line

30. Grouplove – Lovely Cup

31. Beastie Boys – Make Some Noise

32. Frank Ocean – Strawberry Swing

33. The Field – Then It’s White

34. Yuck – Get Away

35. Radiohead – Lotus Flower

36. Junior Boys – You’ll Improve Me (Caribou Remix)

37. Atlas Sound – Mona Lisa

38. The Horrors – Still Life

39. Gruff Rhys – Honey All Over

40. Wilco – One Sunday Morning

41. The Strokes – Under The Cover Of Darkness

42. EMA – California

43. Kurt Vile – Jesus Fever

44. Lady Gaga – Judas

45. Owiny Sigoma Band – Here On The Line

46. Alex Turner – Stuck On The Puzzle

47. Nikki Minaj – Super Bass

48. Ryan Adams – Lucky Now

49. Factory Floor (R E A L L O V E)

50. TV On The Radio – Will Do

 

Music Video of the Year: Tyler, The Creator – Yonkers

Runner-up: St. Vincent – Cruel

 

Gig of the Year: Caribou Vibration Ensemble at ATP Nightmare Before Christmas

Runner-up: Deerhunter at Shepherd’s Bush Empire

 

TV Shows of the Year:

1. Rev (series 2)

2. The Killing II

3. Spiral (series 3)

4. Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle (series 2)

5. Dexter (series 6)

 

Books of the Year:

1. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Owen Jones

2. 33 Revolutions Per Minute – Dorian Lynskey

3. The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt

 

Films of the Year:

1. The Skin I Live In

2. Submarine

3. Source Code

4. Senna

5. Cave of Forgotten Dreams

My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #1: Battles – ‘Ice Cream (featuring Matias Aguayo)’

December 20, 2011

A guitar rings out.

Someone mutters “ice-cream“.

Drums kick in.

Ooh….. oosh….. oomph….. aaah….. Ooh… oosh… oomph… aaah… Ooh. Oosh. Oomph. Aaah. Ooh, oosh, oomph, aaah. OohOoshOomphAaah. OohOoshOomphAaah. OohOoshOomphAaah.”

PAUSE.

Ecstatically funky keyboard riff kicks in.

Vocal enters. It doesn’t sound like a lascivious troll.

If by this point you’re not bopping around in a rapturous manner, you may want to get yourself checked out: it’s quite possible that you’re legally dead.

Battles’ sort-of frontman, Tyondai Braxton, left the band last year, leaving the remaining three members to make their second album on their own. ‘Gloss Drop’, to be clear, is not quite in the same class as their astonishing debut, however, ‘Ice Cream’, the first single off that album, is as good as anything from their debut. After a few listens, you begin to realise that things aren’t as different from that first album as it initially appears. Sure, there’s a little more space, the vocal is far more straightforward and restrained than anything from Mirrored, however, listen enough times and you’ll realise that the lissom rhythm section is still performing stunning muscular feats that are anything but straightforward.

Ice Cream is a song that more than lives up to its title: it is a delicious, delectable delight of a track. It’s an aural Cornetto, a Feast for the ears, a Haagen-doosie of a song (ok, no more bad puns). It’s what the kids would colloquially refer to (if we were living in the 1970s) as a “summer jam”. It’s lithe, it’s sinewy, it’s funky and it’s the most immediate pop record that Battles have ever written. It’s unabashedly joyous.

When all comes crashing down at the end, breaking down into an Off The Wall-esque bassline that’s unrelated to anything else in the track, you’d have to be a much more restrained man than me not to click back and listen to it all over again, and again, and agan, and again…

My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #2: Lana Del Rey – ‘Video Games’

December 19, 2011

Isn’t Lana Del Rey enigmatic and isn’t that song ‘Video Games’ like a David Lynch film set to music and isn’t it heartbreaking?

Gather round people, it’s time for the shocking truth… it’s actually about A VERY LAZY SHEEP FARMER.

It’s ewe, it’s ewe, it’s all for ewe”: the most misconstrued lyric of the year.

Lana’s in love with a rubbish farmer. Whilst she’s singing her heart out, he’s sat around playing Farmville and not looking after his flock of entirely female sheep.

Tell me all the things ewe want to do”, she asks, but HE WON’T TELL HER. He’s too drunk and she doesn’t know the first thing about sheep. She tries to convince him to get out into the fields, telling him all the time that “heaven is a place on earth with ewe”, yet WILL HE LISTEN? No. He just carries on going to bars, sitting in cars, playing “wild darts” (for the uninitiated, that’s darts without a darts-board. IT’S FLIPPING MENTAL) and watching Lana get undressed.

I KNOW WHERE I’D RATHER BE, “LANA”.

Ok, so this doesn’t actually make any sense, since it ignores all the other bits about being in love with a drunken wreck, living in the seedy underbelly of Hollywood.

I may be getting a little bit of list-ennui, so here’s some actual stuff about Lana Del Rey and her absolutely out-of-this-world and pretty much perfect song:

  1. Lana Del Rey’s not her real name *GAH*.
  2. She’s actually called Lizzy Grant *YAD-ZOOKS!*.
  3. Those aren’t her natural lips *CRIMINY*.
  4. She may be the jazz-singing daughter of a record executive *SHOCK!*.
  5. She might not have even written the song *HORROR!*.

IMAGINE NOT USING YOUR REAL NAME AND MAKING UP A BACK-STORY.

I’m disgusted.

Next you’ll be telling me that Bob Dylan’s not his real name, Tom Waits isn’t really a hobo, David Bowie’s not a bisexual alien, David Attenborough’s cameramen didn’t risk killing polar bear cubs by filming them in their den and Michael Buble’s fans aren’t just the imaginations of a very sick mind.

What that’s you say?

Oh for Fu-

*hangs self*

My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #3: I Break Horses – ‘Hearts’

December 18, 2011

There are songs that soundtrack certain moments in your life, which put them on a pedestal above other, sometimes better, songs. I Break Horses’ ‘Hearts’ is, for me, one of those songs.

I ran the London Marathon this year and the training runs were taking it out of me. I was on a particularly long training run, running along a country lane. I’d just been honked at by angry driver in a BMW, who had driven within centimetres of me at high speed, before slowing down to shout at me that “the roads are for f***ing cars… next time I’ll run you down”. It then started to tip it down with rain. I was feeling pretty low and then up popped a song on my iPod. A month or so before, someone had sent it to me as a demo and I had enjoyed that it sounded like the My Bloody Valentine/Cocteau Twins, despite the ubiquitousness of that Scandinavian shoe-gaze sound. I hadn’t remembered, but I must have put it on my running playlist.

As the rain started to pelt down, in came a shimmering synth, swiftly followed by a drumbeat that sounded like a heartbeat. Suddenly, as the propulsive synths kicked in, swallowing up the cooing vocals, the sun broke through the clouds in the distance and at once I felt like everything was ok with the world. By the time that the ethereal and elegiac coda kicked in, the rain subsided and a rainbow formed. It’s just about the single most transcendent experience I had all year. I now can’t listen to the song without returning to that instance.

It’s a glorious song, but more importantly, it soundtrack a glorious moment in my year.

My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #4: PJ Harvey – ‘The Words That Maketh Murder’

December 17, 2011

I’ve seen and done things I want to forget/I’ve seen soldiers fall likes lumps of meat

As opening lines go, this was easily the most arresting of the year*. The words seem to carry even more power because of the fragile voice that expels them. The choice of vocal register that PJ Harvey uses on this song (and the album) is surely deliberate: the fragility of the voice in direct opposition to the awful power of what she is singing. The harrowing imagery of the song, which was taken from first-hand descriptions of various campaigns from Gallipoli to Afghanistan, takes on an eerie quality when sung in this register, but because it sneaks up on you, it forces you to consider the awful power what is being sung: “arms and legs were in the trees…death lingering, stunk…flesh quivering in the heat“.

Despite the imagery, the song, like the album, does not have a straight-forward anti-war message. There is no explicit statement of “war is bad!”, which makes what Harvey is singing carry more weight. She is describing the horrors of war, but these are soldiers’ stories, not angry slogans. If there is any anger, it is not at any particular side, but seemingly with the words that are used to justify war.

Having detailed the carnage of war, it is the off-kilter coda that is the real killer. It takes a jokey line from Eddy Cochran’s ‘Summertime Blues’: “What if I take my problem to the United Nations?” and turns it into a question of solemnity and sincerity. As Gaddafi turned on the revolutionaries in Benghazi, threatening terrible violence, the UN intervened in Libya. At the same time as this was going on, PJ Harvey was performing this song on the radio and on TV programmes. Lots of people had a view on the UN intervention in Libya, but the question Harvey asked was ambiguous: it wasn’t sung sarcastically and it had no easy answer.

This is a prescient, rewarding and inspirational work of art.

 

* for rather different reasons, my second place goes to Stephen Malkmus’ ‘Tiger’: “I caught you streaking in your Birkenstocks

My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #5: M83 – ‘Midnight City’

December 16, 2011

The second track on Anthony Gonzalez aka M83’s latest album ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’, is a statement of intent. Gonzalez had progressed on previous albums from epic droning-shoegazing through to epic melodic-shoegazing, but here he opened with a track that was certainly epic, but perhaps Gonzalez’s Mum had bought some embarrassing shoes, because out went shoegaze and in came wide-eyed synth-pop.

This is a huge, relentless song. It starts off with a propulsive synth-riff and an insistent squeaking-sound, before a beat kicks in that is both mighty and sinewy at the same time. It slows down for the verses, which are about waiting for something to come along (specifically “a ride in the dark”), but they are also a hymn to city-life. It’s a song that is built to soundtrack forward-momentum, be that a run (it was my running-soundtrack for a good month) or a fast-paced drive through a city. Everything about the song has a sense of urgency, compelling you forwards with each chorus.

The saxophone solo at the end is kitsch and a perhaps a little over-the-top (it’s very Pitchfork), but this is one of the catchiest songs of the year. I dare you to listen to it on your headphones and not nod along, trying to lurch your whole body forward. Seriously, I’m listening to it now and I can’t not nod or tap my feet, however much I try. Gonzalez has made a song so propulsive that it feels imperative that you move forward in some way.

My Top 20 Songs of 2011 #6: Elbow – ‘Lippy Kids’

December 15, 2011

Every year there is a performance at Glastonbury that stands out hand and shoulders above the rest and defines the festival season. This year that performance came from Beyoncé, who was head and shoulders above entirely forgettable U2 and Coldplay performances. However, just behind Beyoncé were Elbow (metaphorically – I don’t want to accuse Elbow of standing behind Beyoncé, rubbing their things and leering). Elbow confirmed this summer that they were the go-to hug-your-mates-whilst-you-can-still-just-about-stand festival band. The key to their festival performances is that their songs manage to be both stadium-friendly and intimate at the same time.

The sense of intimacy is helped by the fact that their rise to success has been so steady and that they are all so unassuming, but the key element in that sense of intimacy comes from the pen of Guy Garvey. Coldplay’s Chris Martin relies on all-encompassing platitudes to establish connection with his audience, which seems to work, but it also results in some truly dreadful lyrics. First up, here’s Chris as the earnest football coach in a Emilio Estevez movie: “Just because I’m losing, doesn’t mean I’m lost”. Then there’s Chris, the receiver of baffling forestry-related gifts: “You cut me down a tree/and brought it back to me”. Next up there’s Chris the terrifying stalker: “I’ll be there by your side/Just you try and stop me”. Finally, there’s Chris, writer of platitudes so banal that it’s almost as if he’s spent 2011 asking Siri to write his lyrics for him: “I’d rather be a full stop than a comma”.

In contrast to this, Guy Garvey’s lyrics tend to be grounded in real-life vignettes and details. They speak about things that people have actually experienced. For instance, I have seen lippy kids standing on a corner, but no-one has ever presented me with a dead Norwegian Spruce. The “build a rocket boys” refrain might be vague, but because of the details invested in other parts of the song (descriptions of kids on corners “settling like crows“; reminiscence on adolescence: “I never perfected the simian stroll”; “Stealing booze and hour-long hungry kisses”), it infuses the more clichéd lyrics (“do you know those days are golden”) with a more intimate meaning. The music itself swells around Garvey’s wistful vocals, skilfully avoiding bombast.

Elbow’s songs are made for large crowds, but they’ve made it there via bus-stops, street corners and community centres. Lippy Kids is a song destined to warm the cockles of stadium hearts for years to come.