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Records of the Year 2010, Part One

January 10, 2011

First up, for This Year in Lists, ‘Best old records I first heard in 2010’ (this, I suppose, needs a snappier title — only twelve months to think of one).

I very very belatedly picked up Iggy Pop’s The Idiot (which I’d been meaning to ever since seeing Michael Clarke’s dance piece New Work at the 2009 Edinburgh Festival, and again in London during 2010, since it sets one of its most impressive movement to the terrifying industrial stomp of closer ‘Mass Production’. That’s a standout, as is ‘Dum Dum Boys’, either a heartfelt tribute to or cynical exploitation of his former bandmates in The Stooges (there’s a wondrous opening murmur of catechism: ‘What happened to Zeke?’ ‘Dead on jones, man.’ ‘What about Dave?’ ‘Living with his mom.’ It concludes, with scalding condescension, with what happened to ultra-maniacal Stooge James Williamson: ‘Gone straight,’ before Iggy’s voice is hauled up from hell to sing the song proper. My favourite is ‘Fun Time’, a thunderous and irresistibly wonky hedonist manifesto which pitches Iggy’s affectless almost psychotic verse (‘Baby baby we like your lips, baby baby we like your dance’) against Bowie’s off-key ringmaster wailing of the refrain ‘All aboard for fun time!’ By the time they’re bellowing out their manifesto, ‘We’re having fun! We’re having fun!’ you visualise someone spasming under electro-shock therapy or leading the most violent of anarchist protests.

The remaining three generate imagery and associations without (much) need for words. Max Richter’s almost entirely instrumental 2004 album The Blue Notebook does incorporate some brief spoken-word interludes from the works of Kafka and of Czeslow Milosz, voiced by Tilda Swinton in full ice-queen mode. This is a bleak but lovely record of wintry landscapes, abandoned houses and skeletal, leafless trees: that familiar form, the soundtrack that doesn’t have a film to go with it, but exquisitely evocative. The beautiful penultimate track ‘The Trees’ picks up cues and flourishes from the songs that have gone before, combining and ramping them up to devastatingly emotive effect. Standout ‘Shadow Journal’ (a title which could stand for the whole record) proceeds through deceptively simple harp arpeggios and violin figures, given plangency by being set against an electronic bass pulsing which plunges to the very depths of low pitch. Look out the winter when listening to it and no matter the season you can see snow blizzarding and the slow, irreversible upwards creep of tides.

Equally evocative, at times engagingly complex and at others so minimal it’s almost impossible to work out how music so slight can wield such emotional clout, is Stars of the Lid’s 2007 double album … And Their Refinement of the Decline. Textured drones, barely there to begin with sigh, into nothing; amid the woozy synthesised dreamscapes, classical instrumentation sometimes becomes audible: a wondrous oboe rising from short violin strokes at the very of ‘Tippy’s Demise’ is incredibly moving. These drones are so precisely and slightly modulated that a shift down three notes in the wondrous ‘Apreludes in C Sharp Major’ sounds tectonically immense. Again, while there’s hardly anything there on some of these pieces, and little movement when there is, they nonetheless yield powerful responses. Unlike the slight, ambiguous titles favoured by (similar minimalists) Pan-American or Labradford, and in spite of the mathematically themed album artwork (my ‘Records of the Year’ thing above is a bastardised version of the illustration), Stars of the Lid boast such pleasantly strange track names as ‘The Evil that Never Arrived’, the delightfully unpunctuated ‘Don’t Bother They’re Here’, and, best of all, ‘That Finger on Your Temple is the Barrel of My Raygun’, which playfulness pleasingly undercuts the rather cerebral tones of the music.

Sounding dauntingly full-on after such ghostly ephemeral soundscapes is Chemist, the 2005 album by Sydney quasi-jazz collective The Necks. I say ‘quasi’ jazz partly to cover myself, since I have an aversion to jazz which is almost visceral — it makes me feel as suddenly queasily angry as drinking gin does. Thus, perverse rationalisation suggests that this record can’t be jazz since I rather like it. Three tracks, each around twenty minutes each, based around circular, mesmeric, slowly evolving riffs — the middle song ‘Fatal’ is relatively slight and twittery, but the opening ‘Buoyant’ belies its title with a deep bassy ripple and proceeds to recall the long, expanive and hypnotic works of groups such as Fly Pan Am and (early) Do Make Say Think. Finale ‘Abillera’ introduces glimmering light and ends with a propulsive, irresistibly glamorous shimmy you never want to end. — I did pick up the band’s followup, Silverwater, when I was in Melbourne last year, but regrettably that record’s mission to push its predecessor’s leisurely, immersive song structures to a logical limit of sorts by being simply one 67-minute track leaves me cold — it takes an insanely long time to get going and doesn’t do much once it’s finally picked up (relative) speed — unlike Chemist, which has enough peaks and troughs, and variety, to maintain keen interest, Silverwater regrettably feels too much like music to put on in the background and forget about.

Next up: new records from 2010 that hit the mark.

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