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

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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.



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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.



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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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. 

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