Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My top SIX albums of the year

2010 was a superb year for music. The synthesiser made a comeback which for a child of the eighties like myself was electronica to my ears. Just as the New Romantics were a reaction against punk, so this was a reaction against that which is deemed street and "real" in favour of something more synthetic, glamorous and playful. At the same time, there were some great dance records. And at the further reaches of music, my ears pricked up (thanks to Radio 1's Zane Lowe) to a whole host of innovative sounds that have not made it into my top SIX (I just couldn't leave out Plan B) this year but could well do so in 2011...we will see. In the meantime here are my favourites of 2010.

Janelle Monae's debut album, The Archandroid, is breathtakingly inventive and exciting. It is a concept album (remember those?) with a narrative arc but achieved with such a lightness of touch and musical playfulness that it never becomes an exercise in musical onanism. Like some diligent art student, Monae pilfers from the musical canon only those sounds and riffs that will give her sound its unique musical texture. This snatch 'n' grab approach is audacious, daring and it works. She bounces from genre to genre (rap, r'n'b, folk, disco, cabaret, film scores, etc) with effortless dexterity and sure footedness. In less gifted hands this could have ended up as a pretentious mess. Here, however, every song is crafted to perfection and performed with a soulful confidence. This is Aretha meets Stevie meets Prince. There's not a weak moment in this album. Above, Cold War - not just a great song but also a video moment to rival Sinead O'Connor's famous tears in Nothing Compares to You. My album of the year just because it reminded me that pop music still has a revelatory power.

Let's get her age out of the way. Laura Marling is twenty years old. If I and everybody who writes about Marling hadn't mentioned this fact then you would think I speak because I can exhibits the emotional maturity and musical range of someone twice that age. Setting poetic language to music is a devilishly difficult business but Marling places her finely tuned lyrics on a musical framework of contrasting dynamics that both support and expose her ideas. Rambling Man is an example of this. These lyrics are polished with the finest emery board of creative intelligence. They exhibit a gemstone translucence and honesty. I Speak because I can are miniature hymns of the highest order to love, loss and beauty.

Cee Lo Green's Forget You was one of the big hits of the last year. It is a cleaned up version of Green's potty mouthed assault on an ex-lover given to a cheerful Motown beat. In The Ladykiller, Green successfully channels Motown polish, Stax sassiness and Philly soul for the twenty first century. This is barrelhouse soul, big lunged and finger lickin' good. Stadium sized melodies, horns and strings combine to make one of the great pop albums of the last year...some say, the decade?

This is music that seems designed for the eyeliner brigade and those with complexions so pale that they blister should daylight touch them. But the eerie, multi-layered soundscapes in Stridulum have a sinuous power. They have escaped from the suburban bedrooms of teenage goths and have infected a wider public with their crooked beats and wall of sound synths. Zola Jesus's lead singer, Nika Roza Danilov, has a Siouxsie Sioux vocal range that mesmerises and chills. She is a siren calling us to the darker undercurrents of contemporary living. Stridulum has an independence of vision that lifts the black veil on all the shadows that inhabit our imaginations. This is music for the twilight hours when all seems strange and feverish. It draws you in and once in, you just can't stop listening.

If Stridulum is the dark side of synth pop, then Happiness by Hurts is the New Romantic pop side. So perfect is the mimicry in every musical detail that I can imagine having heard this music in La Beat Route or the Blitz club in the 1980's. With its glacial rhythms and edgy lines - part Ultravox, part ABC - this is a homage to the icy dance music of an era but made accessible to a new audience. For those of you who have been waiting for a duo with sharp suits, slick haircuts and a monumental sound, this is it. If you haven't been waiting for this, what's wrong with you?

Plan B's The Defamation of Strickland Banks is stylish soul music for a new generation of absolute beginners. Ben Drew's conceptual Motown conjures up a world of smoky East End night clubs (owned by The Krays) where if you weren't on your guard, someone would nick your new tie pin at knifepoint. Stonking tunes - all horn hooks, blues guitars and full orchestra sounds - only just mask the air of threat and menace. It is this edginess that stops this album from becoming just another indolent foray into retro-Amy- Winehouse-soul.

No comments:

Post a Comment