Wednesday, 30 December 2009

H-T-A Picks of 2009: Albums Countdown 10 - 1

Et voila, the top 10 albums that graced these here stereos this year, a mere week behind planned schedule. Happily spanning my preferred genres more widely than last year and with some old favourites rubbing shoulders with some new folks, 2009 was a diverse, healthy year for good music releases.


ISIS - Wavering Radiant

Buy it at Insound! 

Continuing to deliver their expansive post-metal (such as it is) with adventurous aplomb, Isis have carved out a niche for themselves and continue to develop within its (admittedly fluid) boundaries. Whilst not surprising in its approach, Wavering Radiant finds the band on top of their game and implementing subtle sonic nuances, with keyboard flourishes at the fore, creating another master class. Brooding one minute, explosive the next, this album is up there with Oceanic as one of their best.



Buy it at Insound!

I first caught onto these guys this year with Dark Was The Night, on the compilation album itself and the accompanying live show in NYC, at which they took the stage with David Byrne to skew pop melodies into weird and wonderful shapes. Their full length sophomore effort does this too, as demonstrated in the endearing and brilliant track that caught everyone's attention, Stillness Is The Move. Widespread across most year-end lists, this is one that rose above the hype with genuine quality in its fresh approach and memorable songs.



Buy it at Insound!

Having morphed plenty over the years, The Appleseed Cast have dropped on and off my radar almost as often as they've evolved their sound. From the excellent old-style emo of Mare Vitalis a decade ago, the current incarnation is more of the sparse post-rock persuasion. Too distinct to compare, Sagarmatha nonetheless represents a high point for the band. With a warm, close sound, they travel a contemplative road that only occasionally feels the need to express its path vocally. For the rest, the guitars shine and wind with a comfort and delicacy that gives the album a special feel all of its own creation. An early 2009 delight.


DALEK - Gutter Tactics

Buy it at Insound!

The ability to cross over into the realm of indie and heavy music from hip-hop is rarely demonstrated, which makes Dalek's ever-improving output all the more treasured. Releasing material on the eclectic Ipecac label is testament to this, but Gutter Tactics does more than enough all by itself to ensure a wide base of appeal. Dark, low slung loops recall Massive Attack and Portishead, as the uncompromising lyrical fire blazes over them with nods to both traditional hip-hop artists and more eccentric rappers such as Saul Williams. With subject matter addressing very real issues facing a recession hit, cautiously hopeful USA upon its release, this album was one of the most relevant to the realities of the year.


ALICE IN CHAINS - Black Gives Way to Blue

Buy it at Insound!

Against the backdrop of band after band from the 90's reuniting and with an unknown singer replacing the signature vocal of Layne Staley (RIP), most could be forgiven for writing off the new material from Alice In Chains before they'd even tuned up to play it. That's much harder to do upon actually hearing what Jerry Cantrell and co were able to cook up with new man William DuVall, however. Losing none of the angst-heavy grunge that set them apart from their peers, straddling the disputed border between alternative and metal this new incarnation in fact manages to add further dimensions to that classic sound. More dynamic on songs like Check My Brain and Your Decision, then touching on optimism as they exorcise past demons through the title track, Black Gives Way To Blue is a stunning return against all the odds.  


ANIMAL COLLECTIVE - Merriweather Post Pavilion

Buy it at Insound!

It will come as no surprise to anyone, having had almost all of the year and an unrelenting hype machine behind them, that Animal Collective feature highly - usually at the very pinnacle - on most blog picks for the year. True, the superlatives surrounding the band have been over the top on occasion. But for the most part they have been correctly lauding a group realising the dizzying heights of their sound. Pulling the experimental in and melding it into their vaguely psychedelic indie-pop, the band create one of the songs of the year, nay decade, in the form of My Girls, as well as the many other highlights such as Summer Routine and Brother Sport. The quality is maintained throughout and everything gels together to create a dynamic, ambitious listen that retains a sumptuous depth within its catchy melodies. Hyperbole justified...and then some.


BARONESS - The Blue Record

Buy it at Insound!

Baroness set the bar pretty high with 07's strident Red Record, an album with colossal riffs and even bigger hooks pushing them into the earholes of both metallers and some quarters of the indie world alike. With a bent for exploration too, the band needed to not only recreate that guitar work on this record but push it forward as well....create something even more immense. By venturing into softer, calmer waters, they've achieved that in spades. The power is still present but it is reined in more often, allowing the detailed licks to shine through and the songs time to breathe, before charging off in another direction. Losing none of the passion yet adding layers of nuance, The Blue Record tops its predecessor in impressive style.


PHOENIX - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

Buy it at Insound!

Despite the fact that the band has been around for much of the decade, I (and many others like me) failed to cotton onto them until right at the end. What a way to make a discovery, though. Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix contains no filler, offering only bouncing indie-pop with idiosyncratic vocals throughout the course of the album. A perfect companion for the summer months, songs like 1901 and Countdown kept on keeping on well beyond the fickle sunny months, embedding themselves firmly in the cranium with catchy melodies and lyrics worth deeper digging. Even having gone on to be the soundtrack for countless adverts hasn't dulled their appeal, as it would many (read: Santigold), such is the strength of the songs. A joyous listen with hidden depths that hint at more complex matters playing out beneath.


MASTODON - Crack the Skye

Buy it at Insound!

At the time of the review, I had good reason to anticipate this would be the pick of the year, album wise. Epic in scale and scope, beyond what that superlative has now come to mean, Crack The Skye is easily Mastodon's most ambitious work to date. Mostly succeeding in pulling off an improbable conceptual backing involving wormholes, Russian revolutionaries, space travel, and familial loss, the power of the album lies in its dynamism and technical mastery. Witness the sprawling yet coherent centre piece The Czar for full appreciation. Whilst unsurprising given the band's previous adventures into sound, across varied but reliably excellent albums, Crack The Skye will still be the high point to date for many fans and critics alike. Although I would still plump for the more immediate and streamlined Leviathan, this album claimed a place on the H-T-A stereo early on and never let up from then on.


MONO - Hymn to the Immortal Wind

Buy it at Insound!

Coming straight out of left-field, I perhaps didn't even expect Mono's latest opus to claim the top spot as late as mid-November. The more I recapped and took in the extraordinary instrumentation of this beauty, though, the more it became clear that nothing else was going to top it in terms of sheer enjoyment and wonder. More cinematic in approach than, well, anything I've come across in recent years, the sound succeeds in projecting images consistent with the concept across the mind of the listener. Equally impressive whether backing music to a commute or given sole focus through headphones in a darkened room, Hymn to the Immortal Wind is the very epitome of why we love albums at a time when their relevance to the times is being called into question. There would be little point in wrenching any of these glorious songs from their intended context after hearing the full effort, as the meaning and part of the enjoyment would also be removed. A more emotive, whole hearted listening experience one could not hope to find in 2009, making it rightly the H-T-A pick for the year. 

Saturday, 26 December 2009

H-T-A Picks of 2009: Albums Countdown 20 - 11

Continuing the 2009 countdown, here are the ones that didn't quite break the top 10 but that provided a sterling soundtrack to the year nonetheless.


ENTER SHIKARI - Common Dreads

Buy it at Insound!

A sharp assault to the senses, Common Dreads takes the blueprint laid out on their debut and forges it into a fully coherent album with a strong message and dynamic. Or, at least, as coherent as a band as sonically spastic as Enter Shikari can manage to be. Songs like Zzzonked may not resonate to that description, but with standout cuts like Juggernauts and Solidarity fitting in with it the St Albans boys have taken another step up with this energetic, ferocious album.



MP3: The Thermals - Now We Can See

Buy it at Insound!

Not having tuned into this band on their previously lauded album The Body, The Blood, The Machine, I was happy to be introduced with this release. An ostensibly upbeat collection of short indie pop/rock songs, the subject matter powering the music is much more critically minded, covering everything from our mismanagement of the planet to political failings. As such, it operates on many levels and, with tunes as catchy as the title track or We Were Sick, this release provides one of the sing along highlights of 2009.



MP3: Conor Oberst & the Mystic Valley Band - Nikorette

Buy it at Insound!

With his output generally hitting or missing my ear holes over the decade, I approached this release from Conor Oberst and his enigmatically named backing troupe one mp3 at a time. All it really took, however, was the scathing attack of Roosevelt Room to convince me that Outer South was to be a keeper. Added to that, a memorable mix of accessible indie-rockers and country-tinged acoustic tracks combine to make this a particularly fine moment in the songwriter's canon.



Buy it at Insound!

The recent review here covers how this album went from (sort of) zero to hero in my listening over the autumn, so suffice it to say that Hands is a gleaming record that may be particularly polished but in doing so it manages to realise the potential of the many sounds in the head of Victoria Hesketh a.k.a. Little Boots. A more upbeat, pop-sensible set of songs could not have crossed the H-T-A stereo in 2009.


VARIOUS ARTISTS - Dark Was The Night

MP3: Dirty Projectors & David Byrne - Knotty Pine

Buy it at Insound!

Rarely would I find the satisfaction across a whole compilation to include the album in a best of. Dark Was The Night easily bucks that trend, however, with its impeccable indie credible cast and barely a miss audible across the two disc set. With outstanding exclusive tracks from the likes of The National, Bon Iver, and Dirty Projectors (with the legendary David Byrne), this one deservedly received plenty of attention and love this year.


DOVES - Kingdom of Rust

Another that I reviewed not so long ago here, the latest effort from the reliably consistent Doves is, well, pleasantly consistent. Not something one would perhaps consider a list topping quality, but when a band produces songs with the quietly confident beauty of Winter Hill, or the stark power of Jetstream, it's something to be celebrated. Always capable of documenting their native North West with identifiable rock grace, Kingdom of Rust is packed with excellent songs that achieve this time after time.


THE FLYING CHANGE - Pain Is A Reliable Signal

MP3: The Flying Change - Broken Bow

Buy it at Insound!

A couple of entries earlier in this countdown appeared indie artists doing it for themselves, the like of which would have been unlikely to register just a few years ago. The highest position of any of these is reserved for this beautiful, fragile gem of an album. Initially gaining interest from the blogging of Sam Jacobs re. the music industry, it only propelled my respect further to realise he was the creator of some pretty outstanding 'landscape pop' as well. Exquisitely orchestrated from the delicate, minimalist passages of Broken Bow to the light-hearted bounce of If You See Something, every song here is a winner.


FRANK TURNER - Poetry of the Deed

MP3: Frank Turner - Try This At Home

Buy it at Insound!

Despite slowly piecing this one together through streams, live and sample tracks late in the year, it has built a perfectly reasoned case for Frank Turner being one of the finest punk singer-songwriters going. On the back of the hugely strong Love, Ire & Song, this album delivers again with fiery tracks such as Try This At Home or Sons of Liberty, and the more reflective likes of Isabel. On occasion the odd track doesn't fully hit home, yet against the high standards of the best songs it's completely understandable. Another collection of varied songs delivered with true passion and impeccable lyricism.


KATATONIA - Night Is The New Day

MP3: Katatonia - Forsaker

Buy it at Insound!

When you've made as many powerfully bleak albums as Katatonia has in the last decade, it's unlikely that the approach to songwriting or style will change without any indication or notice. So the band continues with Night Is The New Day, never straying too far from the dark, entangled path followed on its predecessor The Great Cold Distance. There can be little criticism of this when the results are so striking, the tracks here amongst the most vital the band has written and the collection of songs as a whole a nigh perfect document of the chosen style and sound. Up there with Mastodon and Tool as a metal band that continues to release consistently excellent material in their area of speciality.


A.C. NEWMAN - Get Guilty

MP3: A.C. Newman - Submarines of Stockholm

Buy it at Insound!

The second of the solo efforts from a New Pornographer in 2009 and one that has had plenty of time to settle in, given the January release. Where Neko Case chose to follow a varied, eccentric route, Carl Newman knocks out indie-pop gem after gem, with the emphasis strongly on melody and lyrical hooks that could bag Moby Dick. Outstanding opener There Are Maybe Ten Or Twelve embodies those qualities and many more to be found upon spending some alone time with this unexpected highlight of my year. A grower with both immediate and long term charms to be discovered. 

Top 10 coming in the next couple of days, then onward to the hotly anticipated works in the pipeline for 2010. Bring it on........

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Hand Crafted Oak

It's been a tumultuous few days, what with travel arrangements, holiday plans, and various other factors away from the digital realm. Having arrived securely at Christmas home base, however, things are back on track.....apart from the best of 2009, which did indeed get rearranged several times at the last minute, consarnit.

Still, that's being written up in another tab right now, so to keep things jogging along in the meantime I wanted to post a good tune that's been knocking around my listening for a couple of months. It comes from Los Angelians Oak & Gorski and concerns over drinking. Though not specifically seasonal, it clearly befits the season.

MP3: Oak & Gorski - Pretty Far Gone

Taken from the new album  
Good Advice, Bad Advice, out now


A duo billed as 'cello-rock', a tag that may not generally juxtapose well but doesn't really mislead in this instance, their song Pretty Far Gone chronicles the highs and lows of 'school nights' I'm sure many of us have experienced. With a gentle approach - the instrumentation is rich and the vocal low-key - to rough subject matter, the tune initially relaxes but eventually convinces and unsettles in a manner not dissimilar to drinking away responsibility that will potentially return to haunt one the next day.

Or, simply stepping back from any meticulous deconstruction, it's a pretty fine drinking tune.

So imbide plenty during this season of excess, because the responsibilities return in a couple of weeks and I'm sure you've earned a glass (or six) of your favourite tipple.

"I walked down the street to the next place
Pulled up a seat and slapped my money down
Stumbled down the street to the next place

You should have seen me
In all my glory"

Saturday, 19 December 2009

A Snow Capped Romance

Well, we just got dumped on here for the first time this winter. Now everything has a gorgeous layer of Christmas over it, although the efforts of the gentleman across the road to clear his stoop for the 6th time would probably phrase it less favourably, more explicitly.

Nonetheless, all that one really wants to do on such a day is grab some hot chocolate and watch cheesy Christmas films, so here are some snowy interlude songs to fuel everyone through the storm. And I believe this picture is true of much of the Eastern US and some of the UK too, so hopefully many people can empathise.

MP3: Frank Sinatra - Let It Snow! - BUY

MP3: Au Revoir Simone - Fallen Snow - BUY

MP3: Bing Crosby - White Christmas - BUY

MP3: Mono - Ashes in the Snow - BUY

Thursday, 17 December 2009

REVIEW: The Dirty Birds - How The Cause Became The Cure

The first track on How The Cause Became The Cure offers a hint as to the unorthodox approach this Ann Arbor bunch take to their music. A gentle, winding acoustic track with jazzy undertones, it feels much more like a comfortable conclusion than an impression making introduction. As welcome as the song is, it sets the listener off balance as the much more immediate second track, Miserable Turn of Events, bursts into the room to get the party started for real. With an energetic rock punch and poppy Beach Boys-esque 'ooh la la la' backing vocals, this one pricks up the ears and demands attention.

Despite this apparent anomaly, I have a feeling The Dirty Birds are perfectly happy with the order of things and no less so if it confounds a few expectations. Their constantly morphing take on indie-rock, replete with jazz flourishes, pop melodies, and breezy surf riffs, is rarely content to anchor itself in one expected genre. 

Indeed, after the brief charge up the tempos 2 songs in, the sound returns to a more contemplative style to consider the case of Caitlin. Whether a resolution is reached is unclear but the exploration of the character is by turns hopeful and melancholy, with the instrumentation neatly chronicling the matter along with the lightly spoken lyrics. Just As Blue follows with another quiet, acoustic lament that sounds beautifully full, perfectly offset by the vocal harmonies on show. 

Across the full length of the album, so many facets of the The Dirty Birds sound are uncovered that it can take several spins to really accept How The Cause Became The Cure as a coherent document of one band's music. Overall, it leans towards the evocative analysis of relationships and the personalities within them, with carefully orchestrated acoustic numbers subtly showcasing a wide variety of instrumentation to convey the required emotion. The musicianship in this respect is excellent and does a fantastic job of underlining the lyrics of singer Jared Saltiel. 

MP3: The Dirty Birds - Self Discipline
Taken from the new album, How The Cause Became The Cure, out now 

Elsewhere, the more upbeat side of the band is perhaps less shown off but is, for this listener, where the most memorable songs are to be found. Whether the bounding Checkmate or the soulful, confident Self-Discipline with its naggingly insistent chorus and huge hooks, it's great to hear the band cutting loose and having some fun. Again, what it takes a few times through to realise is that the enjoyment of the upbeat is only improved by the slower, more melancholy numbers. The juxtaposition of quietly fragile with the brazenly extrovert is what makes this album so endearing and sets it apart from other bands with a great take on their chosen style but a limit on their application across a whole album. 

So, to be pulled into the world of The Dirty Birds you should certainly download Miserable Turn of Events or Self Discipline and dig into the sound from there. To really feel what the band is putting out there and understand the depth of their influences, though, purchase the whole album and take some time to piece it all together. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

H-T-A Picks of 2009: Albums Countdown

It was only a matter of time and, yes, the recapping/agonising/wondering if one is an irredeemable geek (truth hurts) have now settled into a semi-acceptable list to countdown. Of albums, at least. Songs and that pesky decade stuff are still proving a burden.

Anyway, glass half full and all, here begin the choice picks from the Heavier ~ Than ~ Air stereo in 2009.........


TWO FINGERS - Two Fingers
MP3: [Removed]
Buy it at Insound!

This collaboration between Amon Tobin, Doubleclick, and rapper Sway was not something I particularly anticipated come the beginning of the year. Sure, I dig Tobin's solo stuff in a passing manner, but little more. Happily, it proved to be a formidable mixture of innovative beats and fierce lyrical gymnastics on the part of Sway. Although the odd song falls flat, there's a lot to discover in the dense layers and sharp production.


BEAT RADIO - Safe Inside The Sound

A testament to self promotion and believing in one's music so much that the goal is simply to have it heard by as many ears as possible, Beat Radio epitomise what artists can do in the viral age. I would have been most unlikely to come across the fractured, calm beauty of Safe Inside The Sound without some form of media support even 5 years ago. Yet it's Postal Service-esque loops and nervous, endearing vocals crept their way into my iPod and proceeded to let the tunes do the talking. You can experience the same for nothing, although remember it's Christmas and a small donation would be a suitably seasonal gesture.


SHARK SPEED - Sea Sick Music

Another unknown as 2009 began, Shark Speed came upon me mid-year with a skittering, energetic take on indie-rock that owes something to Minus The Bear but will certainly win it back after a few more spins of the wheel. With an identity all of its own in the varied instrumentation and ever-so-slightly offbeat song structures and subjects, this is another case for bands going their own way to get great music heard outside their locale. And as they hail from Utah, that can only be a hugely positive development for Shark Speed.


NEKO CASE - Middle Cyclone
Buy it at Insound!

An active year for those members of New Pornographers taking some time away from their day job, Neko followed A.C. Newman in releasing a rather tasty solo album chock full of melody and truly memorable songs. Hitting the Billboard charts hard during the spring, the album carries both memorable songs about the preservation of Mother Earth and threats to punch you in the face. Delightfully gentle violence delivered in a beautiful tone of voice.


Buy it at Insound!

Following the absolutely fabulous upbeat noise of Citrus was always going to be a challenge, so in many ways Asobi Seksu didn't bother to do so. A glacial, far less accessible listen than its predecessor, Hush initially isolates and proves confusing for fans of the former. Digging deeper, however, offers up the rewards of an enigmatic release that nevertheless retains the ethereal vocals and shimmering guitar sound. Once over the initial adjustment, this album reveals another side to the band entirely. Different yet very welcome.


SUREFIRE - Surefire
MP3: [Removed]

Sometimes the formula of the past is so good that messing with it for the sake of doing so is tantamount to heresy. Surefire know this and, with the extraordinarily talented production of one Eddie Kramer, fully realise the songwriting qualities of classic rock acts on their self-titled debut. With the cocksure swagger of the Stones and the pop sensibilities of the Beatles, the band create a heady blend of vintage rock that barely misses a beat throughout. For anyone lamenting the loss of those bands of the past, Surefire will force a strong reconsideration of the state of play.


MANCHESTER ORCHESTRA - Mean Everything to Nothing

Widely lauded upon its release as one of the albums of the year, it took me a lot longer to see the many charms of Mean Everything to Nothing. The songs are certainly present, with massive rockers like Shake It Out nestling right alongside melancholy slow burners such as I've Got Friends. Perhaps the arena size potential of many is a question mark, given the intimate, aching material the band has delivered in the past, but it would be churlish to penalise Manchester Orchestra for having grand ambitions. In truth, they have fully realised the close, raw edge of their songwriting on this album and the emotions run close to the surface regardless of the production involved. The sound of a band confidently stepping into their own sound.

Buy it at Insound!


MP3: [Removed]

Hitting quickly, a free rocksound track and a blistering live performance at CMJ brought Scotland's Twin Atlantic to my attention in October. Vivarium provides much of the same energy and vigour that first drew me to their sound, juxtaposing viciously sharp riff assaults with a bewildering array of shining guitar effects and an extremely distinctive singing voice. The Scottish brogue it utilised in a manner not dissimilar to countrymen Biffy Clyro, but the band keep themselves separated with a heavier take and a relentless tempo. Their star is sure to continue its ascendancy into 2010 on the strength of this one.


MP3: [Removed]

Buy it at Insound!

A more mature, complete set of songs than their possibly critically preferred debut Carnavas, the evidence is mounting for me that Swoon has more return value than that album. Despite less clearly immediate songs, SSPU deliver a well-rounded slice of alternative rock that has multiple high points with this album. Still leaning close to the Smashing Pumpkins influence, the band still manage to channel their forebears successfully to create a thoroughly satisfying listen.


HARPER BLYNN - Loneliest Generation
MP3: 25 Years

Unexpectedly catching a release date before the New Year (this week, actually....go get it!) the debut from the musicians formerly known simply as Pete & J shouldn't really have had a prayer in the best of stakes. Such is the quality and universal appeal of the songs written by the duo - now a fully formed quartet - that the album has more or less been on repeat since I loaded it up at the start of December. From the premature life reflections of opener 25 Years, through the classic pop bounce of Loneliest Generation and the quiet plea for calm of highlight All The Noise, Harper Blynn have crafted an album of deceptively simple beauty. The harmonies are glorious, the songs are expertly crafted, and the only question is as to whether this could place higher given more time to settle. Exquisite in so many ways.

Keep eyes and ears tuned to this space for the next ten during the week. Unless of course I tinker with the list in the intervening period......let's not even begin to consider undoing what should now be 100% accomplished, however.......