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
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
MP3: I'm a Machine
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
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.
ASOBI SEKSU - Hush
MP3: Me & Mary
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
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.
TWIN ATLANTIC - Vivarium
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.
SILVERSUN PICKUPS - Swoon
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.