It’s Easier Now

There’s much to be said about Jason Molina, who passed away today. I’m sure there’ll be lots written – he was one of indie’s unsure, unheralded giants. From Songs: Ohia’s devastating, melancholy meanderings to the more bluesy rigmarole of Magnolia Electric Co, Molina was a phenomenally competent songwriter and band leader.

I can’t say anything about his work that hasn’t already been said, or is likely to be repeated over the next week, but I do feel some aspects of his work need constant reiteration, lest they ever be forgotten. My first proper introduction to Molina was his 2006 solo album, It’s Easier Now. From the opening track’s utterance of the titular lyrics, I was never going to do anything but fall in love with his booming, emotive voice. Molina sings like few people I’ve ever heard – his voice actually travels and it’s never been coated in anything other than sort of honesty you’d expect from one of the greatest artists of his generation. His command over dynamics, over soft and loud, over theatrics and subtlety are unmatched, as his ability to sing what should be maudlin songs, but are instead the sort of eviscerating, destructively honest songs that only a few can muster up regularly.

It’s Easier Now and Songs: Ohia’s The Lioness and Didn’t It Rain are some of my favourite albums ever. This is music that is desolate but incessantly genuine. It’s music made by someone who was at the peak of his abilities nearly throughout his sojourn on this piece of rock and dust.

Molina was someone whose music, despite its scope and breadth, never really lifted the veneer off whatever was going on in his head. It’s something we’ll never know either, and perhaps we aren’t meant. Maybe this is how it was always supposed to be, and an album full of achievement and happiness was never supposed to be forthcoming.

But ultimately, it matters not a jot – Molina’s body of work is as good as anyone else’s, and it’s one of life’s greatest failures that a man, and a musician, as irrevocably brilliant as Jason Molina, will never get to sit down and look back at what he’s done and the lives he’s touched and mended over his life.

Songs Ohia: Lioness

Songs Ohia: Didn’t It Rain

 

Image

Every now and then, there’s a soft piece in a foreign publication that essentially tries to eschew the prevalent narrative about Pakistan – that it’s populated by beards and terrorists, that the women are uneducated and oppressed, that arts and culture are non-existent and that we’re all baying for western blood.

Every now and then there’s a prominent Pakistani (fashion/music/arts/politics) who’ll be decrying that narrative. They’ll talk about how Pakistan really isn’t all that, and to an extent there’s nothing wrong with that. The narrative mentioned above doesn’t explain Pakistan, much like any label or narrative ignores/excludes exceptions and minority behaviour. It’s nothing new – Switzerland e.g isn’t chocolate and watches, nor is Scandinavia IKEA and porn.

The problem, however, arises when the rent-a-quote Pakistani idiots in these soft pieces offer up examples of why Pakistan isn’t a misogynistic, fanatical hell-hole. The problem is when someone calls Pakistan out on being a fundamentalist state (we’ll conveniently ignore that our Constitution relegates Ahmedi’s to second class status) and the reply is not far removed from, “But I drink beer! And I’m going to a rave this weekend!”

Pakistan’s seemingly famed party scene doesn’t exist for everyone. I’d like to know that when some weapons grade twat talks about booze being readily available, how many people out there actually know his bootlegger? How many people can actually afford to pay for booze, let alone have access to it in the first place. What’s conveniently forgotten is that there’s booze and sex and drugs and parties and raves in Pakistan, but only if you know the right people.

That’s what’s left out every time Buntie Aunty decides to mouth off to a broadsheet. That’s what’s left out every time SomeoneStickAnOilRigInMyHead guy talks about doing tequila shots.

But even that’s still a minor prick (no pun intended) compared to the absolute uselessness of talking about Pakistan’s soft image.

When Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won her Oscar for Saving Face, everyone rejoiced (aside from a few prize assholes). That’s fair enough – a successful Pakistani woman won a prestigious award. Did it show up Pakistan’s soft side? “Finally some good news for Pakistan!” was the refrain heard around the world.

But one of the many inherent gifts of being a Pakistani is a wonderful lack of self-awareness. Even if you manage to overcome it individually, as a collective whole there’s no escaping it. SOC (name’s a mouthful, don’t mind me) winning was rightly lauded, but amidst all the high-fives everyone seemingly forgot what her documentary actually was about; a Pakistani doctor coming back to help victims of acid attacks.

How many hacks with tweets and facebook statuses and blogs and op-eds, writing about SOC’s win, dealt with the very severe issue of what her documentary touched on? How many actually thought, ‘oh shit, she won an Oscar! let’s watch Saving Face and try to raise awareness of victims of acid attacks, or at least find a way to donate/fund Dr. Mohammad Jawad? Hell, how many ended up watching the documentary itself?

Pakistan’s not a great country. Pakistan’s not a lovely country. Pakistan’s an absolute mess – a cesspit of misogyny, rent-a-tit politicians, corruption, reckless amoral journalists, a ratings hungry self-flagellating media, violence, sectarianism (institutionalized and otherwise), regressive social conservatism, religious fanaticism, and finally, a military establishment that embodies all of this.

The sooner Pakistanis realize that very real and absolute nature of this ‘lovely country’, the sooner relevant pieces can be torched and rebuilt.

And fuck Hello!

Indie in Pakistan

I wrote something for a stalwart indie blog called No Fear of Pop. It’s on indie music in Pakistan – the troubles indie musicians face in Pakistan, to what brought them to make indie in the first place, as well as links to a fair few indie and electronic acts themselves.

Go read the piece, and try to listen to these musicians. I can’t guarantee you’ll fall in love with them, but they’re all dedicated, hardworking people who’ve put their music out for free. All they ask for, is for people to give them a listen or a mention. That’s it.

Read it here.

Top 55 albums of 2011

So, I’ve sort of cheated. Normally these lists are properly rounded (top 50, top 100), and I’m always happy to conform, but for some reason this year I’ve found it really hard to narrow my list down to 50. I just couldn’t bring myself to cut out 5 more albums. But thankfully, since this is my blog and this list is objective, I can happily settle for 55 releases.

As always, this list is considerably subjective. It’s not a list of the best albums out this year (objectively speaking, in terms of influence, skill, originality etc), it’s just a list of the albums that I’ve enjoyed immensely in 2011. Though they are in order, that order is at best half-assed (and that  includes the top ten).

So, without further ado:

55.   Immanu El – In Passage

54.   We Are Augustine – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

53.   13 & God – Own Your Ghost

52.   Sun Glitters – Everything Could Be Fine

51.   Leyland Kirby – Eager To Tear Apart The Stars

50.   CANT – Dreams Come True

49.   Yuck – Yuck

48.   Chad VanGaalen – Diaper Island

47.   Barn Own – Lost In The Glare

46.   The Field – Looping State of Mind

45.   Cymbals Eat Guitars – Lenses Alien

44.   Polinski – Labyrinths

43.   Savaging Spires – Savaging Spires

42.   Shlohmo – Bad Vibes

41.   Apparat – The Devil’s Walk

40.   Explosions In The Sky – Take Care, Take Care, Take Care

39.   Balam Acab – Wander/Wonder

38.   Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

37.   Mogwai – Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will

36.   Noveller – Glacial Glow

35.   Mark McGuire – Get Lost

34.   And So I Watch You From Afar – Gangs

33.   The Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble – From The Stairwell

32.   Blanck Mass – Blanck Mass

31.   Raised Among Wolves – Bear Tracks EP

30.   Stumbleine – For All Your Smile

29.   Matthew Cooper – Some Days Are Better Than Others

28.   Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring For My Halo

27.   Trouble Books and Mark McGuire – Trouble Books and Mark McGuire

26.   Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel

25.   Oneohtrix Point Never – Replica

24.   Wild Beasts – Smother

23.   Benoit Honore Pioulard – Plays Thelma EP

22.   Grouper – Dream/Loss

21.   Giraffes? Giraffes! – Pink Magick

20.   Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

19.   Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere

18.   Braids – Native Speaker

17.   St Vincent – Strange Mercy

16.   Sleepingdog – With Our Heads In The Cloud And Our Hearts  In The Field

15.   Lanterns On The Road – Gracious Tide, Take Me Home

14.   Big Deal – Lights Out

13.   The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck

12.   Colin Stetson – New History Warfare vol 2: Judges

11.   The Antlers – Burst Apart

And the top 10:

10.   Nils Frahm – Felt

With microphones inside his muted piano, capturing every nuance of sound as well as the hammers and the keys, Felt is a tour-de-force of Frahm’s ability as a pianist and a musician. Every key, every chord is full of dynamics, of a sense of space and time. Felt is littered with elegant, meditative pieces, all of whom are as comfortable with silence as they are with melody. Frahm’s approach is dynamic despite being calm and though it is an album ultimately of piano pieces, Frahm’s makes it seem so much more (even though, admittedly, there are some post-production flourishes).

9.   Zola Jesus – Conatus

I’m going to be a bit disingenuous here and compare Zola Jesus (Nika Roza Danilova) to Florence Welch (of Florence & the Machine). Though I was once a fan of Welch, I found myself quite disillusioned with her this year, primarily because out of nowhere her propensity for hysterical vocals drove me up the wall. Danilova, for me, is what I wish Welch could be – a powerful vocalist who knows what restraint actually means, who knows that at the end of the day her voice exists to be moulded into a great song, rather than to have great songs moulded to her voice. Conatus is a perfect example of a musician writing an album, rather than a vocalist. Tracks like Hikikomori and Lick the Palm of the Burning Handshake are quite dissimilar, but they’re held together by Danilova’s voice as it pierces through the music. Her vocals are powerful yet never overwhelming – at times you feel like you’re listening to a post-modern opera, bereft of the ostentatious and straight to the point. Though there’s much to admire in Danilova, her strongest suite in invariably her ability to craft exquisite songs and ensure that the strength of her voice carries through to the songs. Conatus was a much awaited release after the exciting Stridulum EP, and to claim that it’s done anything other than deliver on Danilova’s talent would be a considerable lie.

8.    Little Kid – Logic Songs

One of the reasons lo-fi always appeals to me is that there’s an inherent honesty in music that’s recorded on nothing but a four-track. Kenneth Boothby’s Logic Songs is the very epitome of lo-fi, an album full of starkness and tape hiss rendered atmosphere, full of lyrics that paint an atmosphere of melancholy. Boothby’s voice, to me, resembles Conor Oberst’s in timbre, but not in effect – whereas Oberst can be at times melodramatic, Boothby’s vocals are pensive and restrained; he’s telling you a story, rather than singing about it. The guitar work is sublime not because of its virtuosity, but because of how aptly it backs Boothby’s voice and words. But this isn’t an album that’s just a man with an acoustic guitar – though organs and keys occasionally make appearances, it’s when a fuzzed out guitar hits you in the gut during the latter half of You Might Not Be Right that you realize you’re listening to something truly wondrous. With field recordings to boot, Boothby’s songs also play around with structure, abandoning the banality of verse-chorus-verse for more freedom to involve the various tools he plays with. I don’t remember how I came across Logic Songs, but I couldn’t be happier that I did. It’s a testament to the very idea of music as a whole – of music as transcending expensive equipment and studios; of music as something majestic and natural.

7.    WU LYF – Go Tell Fire To The Mountain

There’s a substantial non-musical element to WU LYF – the band name (World Unite Lucifer Youth Foundation), their predilection towards ‘mystery’, insofar as not giving interviews and so on – but paying any attention to it would lead to formation of opinions that have nothing to do with music. And that, ultimately, would be folly in the case of these fantastic Mancunians. WU LYF are probably the best guitar-oriented band to emerge from the UK’s shores in the past few years, and though they are far from derivative, their heritage is traceable. Recorded in an abandoned church, Go Tell Fire has swathes of reverb, with the crash cymbals sounding like nothing I’ve ever heard before. The vocals can be shouty and unintelligible at the best of times, but that’s what makes them extraordinary; they’re deliberate and visceral, fighting valiantly the urge to break free and let loose. The guitars call to mind British Sea Power and at times Interpol, masked in angular taint and melancholy. Everything about the album falls into place on every song, with highlights We Bros and Heavy Pop in particular going through a gamut of emotions before magnificent crescendos hail the end. Though the vocals will start to grate on the next album, for now at least Go Tell Fire To The Mountain is a stunning release that recalls great guitar and rhythm driven indie rock.

6.   A Winged Victory For The Sullen – A Winged Victory For The Sullen

With SOTL’s Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran directing things, half-way through the cello and the violin leading into Requiem For The Static King Part 1 you have to stop and take note of your surroundings, because by the time part 2 ends, you’re going to be asking who decided to start cutting onions in the room. Written for Mark Linkous, they broadly encapsulate the very essence of this spectacular release – beauty and melancholy. Drones are paired with strings and O’Halloran’s soft, ponderous keys for one of the year’s sincerest releases. Though it would’ve probably been easy for both these incredibly talented musicians to make a hash of things, they have instead come out with one of the most focused musical experiments of the year. By the time the slightly uplifting string work on Steep Hills of Vicodin Tears hits you, you’re fully aware that this isn’t just an astonishingly pretty album, it also happens to pack a pretty significant emotional punch. Though with O’Halloran and Wiltzie, could anything else really be expected?

5.   Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – Everything’s Getting Older

Birth, love and death, the only reasons to get dressed up” ponders Moffat on The Copper Top, narrating in his own less-than-remonstrative manner about the mundane nature of funerals. Everything on Everything’s Getting Older is borne from Moffat’s tryst with age, and as always, he’s in fine lyrical form. Moffat’s a genius because the worlds he creates aren’t fantastical (like, let’s say, Dan Bejar’s), but within his very Glaswegian, downtrodden worlds are fantasies of his own – scenarios that are as surreal as could be dreamt up. On the jaunty Glasgow Jubilee Moffat weaves a story full circle, yet it as crude and lugubrious as anything he’s written, when his whore chalks up events to “we could all be dead tomorrow.” Bill Wells too provides more than ample backing for Moffat. Ultimately though, you’re listening for more gems from Moffat, and as he rambles,  “and remember: we invented love, and that’s the greatest story ever told” on The Greatest Story Ever Told, it’s hard to deny that you know life is, oddly enough, just that much better for you after hearing (or knowing) about Aidan Moffat.

4.    Low – C’mon

Even though it’s Low and it’s natural for me to be embarrassingly excited for a new album from them, I still couldn’t resist being astonished and giddy when I first heard bootleg versions of Witches or Especially Me. There’s seemed to be an excitement within the songs themselves, a sense of movement that’s not often present in the band’s meandering, languid songwriting. C’mon is probably the happiest Low record so far and even then there’s enough melancholy on here to make Lars Von Trier look like a maudlin mug. There’s far less indication of the band being the progenitors of slowcore, as Witches and Majesty/Magic clock up an impressive BPM. Moreover, C’mon features Alan Sparhawk turning up the fuzz and manic with his guitar, recalling the noisenik genius of songs like Pissing or Do You Know How to Waltz. In Nothing but Heart, you have the song of the year as the constant refrain “I’m nothing but heart” flows over Sparhawk’s rapacious guitar. It is, by all intents and purposes, a Low album, and just another stellar addition to the band’s exceedingly phenomenal catalogue.

3.   Bon Iver – Bon Iver, Bon Iver

I don’t think there was an album released in 2011 that packed as much of an emotional punch as the first three songs for the latest Bon Iver album. One of my favourite musical moments of the year was when I first hear the second guitar join in on Perth with the main hammer-on riff. Despite a significant departure in terms of style from the debut, Bon Iver, Bon Iver retains Vernon’s fragile falsetto and his strong sense of melody, except this time it’s been fuelled further by a broader approach to song structures (something hinted at on The Wolves (Act I & II)). The result is an album that’s not got a single average song on it (though Beth/Rest’s attempts at pulling off a Phil Collins comes close) and never bores, primarily due to the strength of Vernon’s songwriter, but also because of his desire to not stick to a single formula. Like For Emma, Forever Ago though, you’d be hard pressed to get wind of what Vernon’s singing about. Though for many that might be a problem, for me it’s perfect because it leads to a greater focus on the music as a whole. With no lyrics to deviate your attention, your concentration is centered on the whole package. Often songwriters who’ve built their craft on starkness find the transition to a big band difficult (I’m looking at you, Sam Beam), but that’s comprehensively not been the case with Vernon. Bon Iver, Bon Iver as a result ends up as a statement of his strength as a musician and a songwriter, of a man at the top of his game, writing music to move worlds.

2.    Rustie – Glass Swords

No album this year has made me grin as much as this barn-buster by Rustie. Whether it’s the Seinfeld tribute Hover Traps or the staggeringly stunning Ultra Thizz, or even the drop to After Light which makes me want to dance till my legs come off, Glass Swords is the very epitome of a thrilling dance music record that does more than just acquiesce to a standard 4/4 kick drum beat. It references 80s new wave, funk, dubstep, techno, prog-rock, IDM and a whole host of other genres in a venerable tour-de-force of ideas that quite frankly have no right to be bunched up together yet sound this astonishing. Every track on the album has ideas layered upon ideas, all without missing a beat and without even remotely sounding like they don’t belong together. It’s a soundtrack to Blade Runner for the 21st century, to our generation’s ability to look towards the past and create something new with it, whether they be tired old labels (hipster/glam) or music (new wave/shoegaze). The last time an electronic music album blew my socks off like this was in ’07 when Burial’s Untrue was released, and I think in the pantheon of genre-moulding musicians, Rustie rightfully deserves his own section. Glass Swords, then, is overwhelming in the most brilliant manner imaginable, and I couldn’t be any more grateful for that.

1.    Tim Hecker – Ravedeath, 1972

There’s a beauty to the non-Derrida idea of deconstruction, of taking things apart and then putting them back together; to destroying and rebuilding anew. In a sense, with Hecker’s Ravedeath, 1972 there is no tabula rasa, everything follows a pattern, a greater theme and a greater melody. Hecker’s known for his sense of melody, often subservient to texture, tone, or noise – and on this album his art, his very aesthete has found perfection. Recorded in a church in Iceland with Ben Frost, Ravedeath 1972 is simultaneously solemn, eerie, captivating, gorgeous and ultimately a fractured, magnificent record where a church organ lays the basis for Hecker to mould noise and sound over, to give birth to the idea of music being slowly stretched and torn apart. Moreover, what sets Hecker apart from his contemporaries is his strong sense of melody – too often when mucking about with noise and sound it’s possible to lose sense of the essence of music, the shapes and contortions that make melody and harmony. Hecker’s ability to always keep melody in tandem with dissonance has never been in such fine form, complemented too by Frost’s appearance on the piano during the final movement, In The Air (Pt 1, 2, 3). Because ambient music is not predisposed to ‘entertainment’ the way perhaps most other genres are, it leads to greater explorations of what constitutes music and sound. Hecker happens to be at the forefront of this movement, so to speak, except he still manages to retain a sense of what music is, giving his efforts greater depth – in terms of both intelligence as well as beauty. Ravedeath, 1972 is an affirmation of this man’s unique talent and approach, as well as an album of undeniable beauty. No album this year has moved me emotionally or caused me to stop and wonder about music the way this album has, and I personally cannot offer any greater platitude than that.

Peshawar & I

The last time I was in Peshawar was a year ago, but I barely remember anything about that trip since it was work based.

Yesterday though, I had to go to Peshawar from my best friend’s walima. The trip felt very different, perhaps because I was in more than a pensive mood. One of my best friend’s was getting married – how could I not be in some sort of a mood?

Anyway, on the motorway it didn’t take me long to realize why I (or many others) legitimately find KPK (almost typed NWFP there) to be the most gorgeous province in the country. Once you got past Charsadda, and with the mountains of Swat teetering into view, you couldn’t help but be left stunned at the sheer natural beauty of it all. Sure, it was evening and a slight mist was descending, shaping halos around the trees by the side of the motorway – but still. Everything seemed perfect. It wasn’t overblown; you weren’t gasping, for example. It was just subtle and serene. There was a calmness in place, one that this province and its peoples hadn’t seen in quite a while.

Yet, just as I was coming to grips with how I felt warm at the sight of this province, the car got off the motorway and headed towards Peshawar. And that’s when it all crumbled and fell.

                                                                                                                         ———-*———-

My dad’s a pathan, and during the 90s I visited Peshawar a fair bit with him. His village, Mashokhel, is about 15 minutes from Peshawar, just off the Kabul river (a river whose been very violent to us – there used to be just one road leading into the village and a healthy Kabul river would flow all over it. We’ve twice almost had our car taken away by it)

In ’98, my family moved to Peshawar and I joined up with them two years later. I knew Peshawar from 1998 – 2004, and that place has many memories for me; most of them quite pleasant.

                                                                                                                          ———-*———-

Peshawar, as a whole, will probably never change. University Road will likely always remain central to the city’s plans, and Saddar will always remain the city’s big shopping hub. Hayatabad too, will be Peshawar’s Defence/DHA. But, as tautological as it is to say, the Peshawar circa 2004 is widely different from the Peshawar of today.

Peshawar’s now ovewhelmed with traffic. It’s a city not built for the population that currently resides in it. Swelled to the ranks because of Afghan refugees and IDPs, Peshawar’s bursting at the seams. Though it’s no longer as conservative as it was when the MMA were being the tubthumpers they are, Peshawar’s still a long away from the relative freedom one could enjoy around 2000/2001. Business though is booming – there are lots of new restaurants and lots of new cafes. At least Peshawar’s youth are struggling to earn back the city that is rightfully theirs. No city should belong to bearded old men.

New, monstrous plazas have crept up next to old ones. Where there were houses with outer walls full of bougainvillea, now there are concrete monstrosities selling clothes and mobile phones. Roads are being widened, which in a city like Peshawar is hardly a solution for the ages. Flyovers, even, are being built. And all this while ignoring the elephant in the room: barricades and checkpoints. That side of Peshawar perhaps is best summed up by the fortress that is the road which leads to the American Consulate.

But then again, cities change. They’re living, breathing organisms – hardly immune to the machinations of its citizens or the politics around it. Lahore’s another city that’s changed considerably since I left, but Lahore still seems to be able to breathe more. Peshawar though has become a nightmare. It’s claustrophobic, dirty, polluted. It’s overwhelming, and not in a good way.

But hey, at least Namak Mandi’s legitimately back on the map.

Design

I’ve realized now, perhaps a bit too late, that one of the best proffers of inspiration is design. Anything, in fact, that sparks your senses – but for me, more than touch or taste, it’s sight and sound.

On the other hand, I’m badly trying to do anything but work.

Yes. Nonsense. I am a nonsense.

What? How many blogs do you HAVE?!

No, really.

Four, I think.

Two blogs, two tumblrs.

One tumblr’s essential – that’s my ‘official site’ (till I can be bothered getting a domain proper).

One tumblr exists for reblogs, essentially.

One blog exists solely for prose and poetry.

One blog exists for year-end lists and rants (though the latter now seems to be the prerogative of twitter). It also exists to be ignored. It’s self-loathing like that.

Can any be coalesced?

More importantly, why must they be coalesced?

Mostly because it’ll lead me to procrastinate less. Before posting, the obvious question is, “Which blog/tumblr do I post this inane thought to?” But instead of having four options, if I had just two to contend with, I’m fairly certain I’d find myself far more willing to tell the world about the rancid mess of neutrons that run amok in my skull.

Problem with Tumblr is that it’s hard to take it seriously. The themes are insanely pretty, for starters. Plus, even though I want a tumblr where I can post whatever I want, does it really make sense to have a tumblr where you post a few pictures that span your sense of humour (lame/offensive/geeky), followed by a few songs and a few images (both pretty and funny) and then follow all of that up with a poem?

No, but really?

And then there’s the part where I feel the need to rant about something beyond music/art. What if I want to exercise my right to have a whinge at a political system that I have no direct & immediate chance to change? What if I want to try my best hand at eloquently calling Imran Khan a massive shitcunt? Which of my many blogs exactly gets to have that honour?

So really, where do I stand? Despite my whinges about a poetry blog or essays (heh) on politics, I am also incredibly lazy and these two interests of mine tend to not get much airing. So what’s the need for a blog for prose/poetry when it gets accessed once or twice a year? And likewise with anything resembling a ‘serious’ blog on politics or anything of that ilk?

I’m stumped. I genuinely am. Four blogs, despite my best attempts to cut them down, still seem to frighteningly make sense to me. I reckon Songs for a Dead Pilot has to exist because of how immeasurably pretty it looks. Asfandyar Khan has to exist, because, well, it’s my official music site. So that leaves this blog and Introduction By Glass. I guess, ultimately, that I could merge these two.

Maybe.

 

 

 

Top 50 albums of 2010

2010’s been a weird year for music, in my opinion. For a long time I thought it’d be absolutely fantastic. Lots of my favourite bands, for example, were going to come out with either sophomores or albums that were them finding their roots again and other such stuff. Moreover, a lot of the singles were fantastic enough to whet the apetite. Yet, despite having stumbled upon a boatload of wondrous new music, I cannot help but feel a little let down by more than a few disappointments.

Frightened Rabbit’s The Winter of Mixed Drinks for example, was a pale shadow of the band’s breakout album Midnight Organ Fight. Interpol’s self-titled was building up to be stunning, till you got past the third song. The new Boduf Songs and Kayo Dot albums were quite disappointing as well.

That said, a lot of other bands for whom expectations were high found themselves greater adulation as they more than stepped up to the plate. Arcade Fire and the National, chief among them, showed that some bands – at least when it comes to the final product – are unhindered by expectations.

Anyway, here’s my top 50 albums of 2010. These are not the albums I found to be the best via some barely objective method – these are just the albums I fell in love with during the year and listened to the most. Though they are in order, I wouldn’t pay much heed to it; I certainly didn’t.

50.       Midlake – The Courage of Others

49.       Swans – My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky

48.       Les Savy Fav – Root for Ruin

47.       Mount Kimbie – Crooks and Lovers

46.       Los Campesinos – Romance Is Boring

45.       The Magnetic Fields – Realism

44.       Alcest – Ecailles de Lune

43.       Slow Six – Tomorrow Becomes You

42.       Olafur Arnalds – …And They Have Escaped The Weight Of The Darkness

41.       Crippled Black Phoenix – I, Vigilante

40.       Caribou – Swim

39.       (The) Slowest Runner (In All The World) – We, Burning Giraffes

38.       Sharon Van Etten – Epic

37.       Gigi – Maintenant

36.       Clogs – The Creatures In The Garden of Lady Walton

35.       Foals – Total Life Forever

34.       Shearwater – The Golden Archipelago

33.       Goldmund – Famous Places

32.       Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett

31.       The Black Keys – Brothers

30.       65daysofstatic – We Were Exploding Anyway

29.       The Cast Of Cheers – Chariot

28.       S.Carey – All We Grow

27.       Four Tet – There Is Love In You

26.       Hammock – Chasing After Shadows…Living With The Ghosts

25.       Sun Kil Moon – Admiral Fell Promises

24.       Max Richter – Infra

23.       Envy – Recitation

22.       James Blackshaw – All Is Falling

21.       Errors – Come Down With Me

20.      Surfer Blood – Astrocoast

19.       Rokurro – I Annan Heim

18.       Rosetta – A Determinism of Morality

17.       LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening

16.       The Fun Years – God Was Like, No

15.       Titus Andronicus – The Monitor

14.       Deerhunter – Halycon Digest

13.       Sufjan Stevens – The Age of Adz

12.       Rafael Anton Irisarri – The North Bend

11.       Wild Nothing – Gemini

10. Perfume Genius – Learning


Much of has been made of Perfume Genius’ (Mike Hadreas) album/band photography, where he’s shown as a waif whose just stumbled out of a bar fight. It’s not hard to, at first glance, assume that Learning will consist mostly of maudlin shite that’ll make sixteen year old girls whimper. Thankfully though, Learning is instead (though still relatively maudlin) a beast of a record written by a songwriter whose talent belies his years. ‘No one will answer your prayers / until you take off that dress’ sings Hadreas on album opener Learning, and you realize, as his fragile voice whimpers over gorgeous  minor key chords drenched in reverb, that this is something you’ll find yourself aching for whenever it’s an overcast day. The record also happens to have one of my favourite pieces of verse from the year; “He made me a tape of joy division / he told me there was part of him missing / when I was sixteen / he jumped off a building.”

Learning

Lookout, Lookout

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9. Women – Public Strain


I couldn’t get into Women’s self-titled debut back in ’08. It seemed wonderfully left-field, but for some reason or another I could never fall in love with it. Public Strain, however, was a completely different experience. Vocals lined with outrageous amounts of reverb find themselves trying to maintain some semblance of sanity amidst a violent, fuzzed out and psychedelic maelstrom. It’s a maelstrom because anything on Public Strain sounds like it could fit easily on a shoegaze, 70s psych rock, post-rock, garage rock or a straight up indie record. It really is a wonderful record, one that you’ll always find yourself surprised by.

Can’t You See

Penal Colony

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8. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs


In We Used To Wait, just before the first chorus arrives, there’s this stunning little moment of musical genius. It seems ordinary – cascading washes of synth, keys, bass and the kick drum before a crash signifies the arrival of the chorus – but it’s the perfect representation of The Suburbs itself. Lots of lovely buildup before the band explodes with their usual rancor. Yet, this isn’t Funeral with its melancholy, regardless of how ‘epic’ it may seem. This isn’t Neon Bible either. Even though The Suburbs is a decidedly Arcade Fire album, it’s far more restrained than the band’s earlier efforts. You’ll still find the bombast that’s the band’s signature, but there’s more to the orchestration than just filling the palette. Far more than both Funeral and Neon Bible combined, The Suburbs is a singular piece of music – start to finish.

Ready To Start

We Used To Wait

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7. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me


How many discs of a harpist singer-songwriter can you listen to? Especially when the vocalist is one whose voice isn’t exactly one you’re likely to fall in love with immediately? 1? 2? 3? If you answered three, you’ve met the threshold Joanna Newsom arrived at as well. Have One On Me is spread over three discs, and as arduous a task as it seems listening to it, I’ve had fewer rewarding experiences this year. Newsom’s voice seems far less grating than it ever has, and Have One On Me has her at her sparsest and most vulnerable. There are no batshit insane orchestral flourishes that peppered her previous stunner, Ys. Instead, most of the songs are barren, and it’s a testament to Newsom’s lyrical and instrumental prowess that not for one instant do you feel bored listening to all three discs. It’s a stunning work of music and heralds, in my opinion, the true coming of Newsom.

Go Long

’81

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6. Brian McBride – The Effective Disconnect


The Effective Disconnect was music recorded for the documentary, The Vanishing of the Bees. I can’t comment on how this works as an OST, since I haven’t see the documentary, but on its own even it’s a remarkable piece of melancholy. At times it veers towards sounding too much like Stars of the Lid – guitars swell and show up only to leave you gasping for more a few seconds later as they fade away behind those surreal, huge curtains. Embedded deep within the minimalist school of music, McBride’s fashioned a wonderfully austere album that’s made for that harsh, dry winter day when just a few rays of sunlight manages to find their way past the leaves, branches and trees that pepper your backyard.

Mélodrames Télégraphiés (In B Major 7th) Part 1

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5. Wolf Parade – Expo 86


What happens when you combine two prominent and immensely talented Canadian musicians? Actually, never mind that – Canadian indie rock/pop is incredibly incestuous as it is. Wolf Parade is Dan Boeckner (Handsome Furs) and Spencer Krug (Sunset Rubdown, Swan Lake, Frog Eyes), and if you’re looking for this year’s catchiest, yet craziest, indie rock record, you don’t need to look further than Expo 86. Chock full of the stilted chaos so prominent of Krug’s other acts, Expo 86 is a record so full of hooks, incredible lyrics, air-guitar worthy guitar parts and Bonham-esque stick destroying drum parts that it’s fairly amazing how the material recorded for the album didn’t spill onto two discs. Additionally, the high level of awesomeness maintained on the first six tracks of the album is something that I don’t think has been matched in 2010.

Little Golden Age

Ghost Pressure

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4. Beach House – Teen Dream


Yummy, yummy dream-pop goodness. What more can you ask for in life? The self-titled debut was good – Devotion was even better. Teen Dream though is an absolute corker of an album with a not a single mediocre tune on board. From opener Zebra to the meandering post-rock nature of Walk In The Park, the album is strong on hooks and just the perfect amount of atmosphere to sound like a dream-pop act without overdoing the schtick. These are, at the end of the day, just fascinating, brilliant songs, regardless of genre. Legrand’s vocals and keyboard parts are integral to the creating that sense of place so important for Beach House’s music, and she genuinely doesn’t disappoint. It’s actually quite hard to pick up on anything specific with regards to what makes this album tick so well – suffice to say it’s enough to accept that it just works as a collection of remarkable tunes.

Norway

Used To Be

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3. The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt


Like Joanna Newsom, Kristian Matsson too has a voice that many would immediately find off-putting. If, however, you walk away from the The Wild Hunt as a result of that after ten seconds, you’ll miss out on the best singer-songwriter album this year. An accomplished guitarist, Matsson weaves his Dylan-esque voice in tandem with mesmerizing lyrics (“I walk upon the river like it’s easier than land / evil’s in my pocket and your will is in my hand”) to construct vignettes you’re going to struggle to break away from. Often compared to Dylan (as I’ve already done half-assedly) there’s one this Matsson does possess in his arsenal that Dylan never did – the ability to be emotive. This diminutive Swede is easily one of the greatest things to come out of Scandinavia over the past few years.

Love Is All

A Lion’s Heart


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2. Eluvium – Similes


If you go through my year-end lists the past few years, you’ll always find Eluvium or Matthew Robert Cooper amongst them. If you trawl through my blog for Eluvium-related posts, you’ll find quite a few; all of which allude to this man’s absolute genius.  Ever since I first heard Talk Amongst The Trees, Eluvium’s been one artist who seems to do no wrong for me. Similes though, is quite different from previous Eluvium fare. For starters, Cooper’s actually singing on this record – something often unheard of in ambient circles. Yet, his voice shares in itself the same qualities that so often make ambient music inimitably stunning – that floating, ethereal, wandering nature that somehow seems unaffected by the constraints of gravity. Add in some glitchy percussion and you have Cooper making the verse-chorus-verse structure his. Similes still is an ambient album through and through, and more often than not you still see the usual Eluvium brushstrokes. What makes Similes so astonishing then is not just Cooper’s inability to traverse the same territory again, but his ability to challenge himself and still come up trumps with a product that is polished. Cooper doesn’t dip his toes into water, and that genuine sincerity in his experimental nature shows up in the album itself. This, in other words, isn’t half-assed. It is instead the greatest piece of ambient music you’re likely to hear this year.

The Motion Makes Me Last

Making Up Minds

Cease To Know

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1. The National – High Violet


It’s telling that there’s a band out there who have put out three phenomenal albums (Alligator, Boxer, High Violet) – and that it’s incredibly hard to decide which one of them is actually the best. Whereas Alligator was vociferous and Boxer pensive, High Violet has The National consolidating both of those emotions – sounding instead more focused and aware of their surroundings that they’ve ever been. Berninger’s lyrics are still effortlessly quotable (“Go out at night with your headphones on, again / and walk through the Manhattan valleys of, the dead” from Anyone’s Ghost, or “You and your sister live in a Lemonworld / I want to sit in and die” from Lemonworld). The Dessner brothers on guitar are on form as well, as their guitars build collages not familiar to their previous releases. Bryan Devendorf too, is an example of what a great drummer can do – turn a good band into a great one. Him and Berninger are the ones around whom the band fashions their songs, and it’s remarkable how they seem to shine under all that. At the end of the day, it’s not hard to step back and say that The National are sonically an unremarkable band – that their sound isn’t experimental or surprising enough; that they tread well-travelled territory. Though that’s arguable, it’s still understandable. Yet, sometimes, music isn’t all about experimentation. It is, at the end of the day, about what you hear – about the strength and the quality of the songs. The National, ultimately, write breathtaking songs that’ll stick with you for ages. This is a band you’ll find soundtracking your life in general – all those breakups, those marriages and those divorces, those children and them going off to college. It’s a band that just writes some of the most amazing songs on earth, and to hell with all else.

Anyone’s Ghost

Afraid Of Everyone

Conversation 16

Superficial musings on Quetta

Quetta’s a bit of an anomaly compared to the other provincial capitals (and Islamabad). Embedded deep within a valley, it’s surrounded on all sides by elements of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The mountains are, for some, hideous. Devoid of any foliage, they’re the primary reason why it takes a grand total of ten seconds for your hair to find itself a new hue due to all the dust floating around.

Yet, for me, personally, they’re remarkably beautiful. There’s this starkness prevalent in a city surrounded by mountains of that nature – a wonderful, bleak starkness. I can’t imagine living there, as I’m certain it would drive me insane, but a weekend in Quetta taking in those sights is a must.

Moreover, there’s a lake just outside of Quetta called Hanna Lake. When you drive up to it (past the Army checkpoints and bases – seriously) you’re initially faced with this vast expanse that has not a single drop of water in it. And once you get past that, there’s something far more austere lying in wait. Dotted all around Hanna Lake are buildings (this was, and perhaps still is a fairly well walked tourist attraction, even though when we went there it was as empty as a girl’s school in Taliban Afghanistan) with cracked or shattered windows and plastered walls falling apart. The colour/graffiti on them falls off by the minute. And then for the final punch, you’ve got children’s swings that haven’t been used in god knows how many months. You have to ignore the fact that they’re decrepit and probably unsafe – what’s harrowing is that they’re barely moving. Despite a gutsy wind circling (seemingly) us, those swings don’t even budge an inch. It’s frightening and it’s probably the most post-apocalyptic image I’ve ever witnessed in real life.

Quetta itself is an odd city – in some places it’s brimming with life and in others it seems desolate and resembles more a village than a provincial capital. Even then Quetta still has surprises up its sleeve. It is, for example, a far less conservative city than Peshawar. There are booze shops smack in the middle of busy bazaars, while women walk around you without hijabs and burqas (it’s perhaps telling that the women who were wearing burqas were also pushto speaking).

For someone who expected Quetta to be as conservative (if not more) than Peshawar, that was quite a shock. Moreover, you rarely saw these women being ogled to death the way they would’ve been in Peshawar. I even saw a fair few women drivers – another sight not often witnessed of late in Peshawar.

I keep comparing Quetta to Peshawar and it’s unfortunately just one of the many slights against Quetta and Balochistan that I’m guilty of. For pretty much every minute I spent outside the hotel where I was staying, I felt as if I was in some foreign land. Most of Pakistan’s substantial urban centres are in close enough proximity to each other (Peshawar, Islamabad, Lahore, Faisalabad, Karachi, Hyderabad), but Quetta is in a way off the charts. Moreover, with Balochistan and the Baloch peoples always having to sit out on the sidelines, it was intriguing to note that in my own subconscious I’d somehow, embarrassingly, done the same.

I felt like I was in a new place amongst new people – a people distinct from ‘Pakistanis’ that I’d known. And I sit here ashamed that I felt like that in any way, shape or form.