Category Archives: lists

This week, I’ve been mostly reading… {week 4}

It’s been a pretty insane few months. Already in 2011 we’ve had three huge earthquakes, a nuclear disaster, two successful revolutions and more in the offing. Trying to keep abreast of everything that’s going on is tough and it’s something I feel the news agencies are struggling with as well. When I visit the BBC website, I am often shocked by what they select as their headline piece. Last week, they ran with the news that a US aircraft had been shot down over Libya, without any casualties or fatalities. Was that really the most important story in the world at that moment?

It certainly wasn’t the most important story in Britain. I know many people in the UK are infuriated by the military action in Libya, not because they don’t think it’s a worthy cause (this shocking video of a woman struggling to tell the media about her rape at the hands of Gaddaffi’s troops is harrowing), but because of the financial cost . The government are making cuts left, right and centre, but yet they can afford to fire dozens of missiles at Gaddaffi’s troops at just under £1,000,000 a pop.

As always, Johann Hari in his column in the Independent, captures the mood of the nation brilliantly (not least the 250,000 who took to the streets of London in protest yesterday). It’s the week of the budget, in which George Osbourne announced sweeping cuts, claiming that the national debt needs to be addressed. As Hari points out, though, the national debt has been higher as a proportion of GDP for 200 of the last 250 years. For me, the shock doctrine outlined by Naomi Klein is in full force here. The Tories are using the shock of the 2008 financial crisis to force through policies they have been seeking to impose for many years: cutting the welfare state, destroying the NHS, reforming every bit of Keynesian policy they can. It’s a horrible thought.

I didn’t post anything here about Japan last week, but this week I was directed to an article on the Reuter’s Blog which I was fascinated by. It’s entitled Don’t Donate Money to Japan, and behind the sensationalist headline is a lot of logic. Japan has more than enough money to deal with the fallout from the disaster (however great that may be) and the article bemoans the campaign-centric nature of charities in the mainstream. It is more beneficial to give your money to organizations that do not raise money for specific campaigns, but which take donations all year round and distribute them where they are needed most. Perspective is important here and whilst I would never belittle the Japanese disaster, one glance at the current state of Haiti after last year’s quake speaks volumes.

There was a great feature on Chews Wise the other day called GMOs and the Myth of Feeding the World. It addresses the problem of overpopulation and more specifically, how we will feed it. It takes a rather more skeptical look at it than many mainstream media outlets, pulling together figures to suggest that the problem and the solution may be very different to what we have been told. What resonated most with me was the current situation with bio-foods. We are creating these grains and not using them to feed people, but livestock. In doing so, we are wasting “the annual calorie needs of more than 3.5 billion people”. It’s shocking, and things like this are making me readdress my own consumption habits.

Another thing I’ve been thinking about a lot more is my own ancestry. I was a guest speaker at Gwangju’s International Centre recently, where I spoke about growing up in Northern Ireland. In my research, I read lots about the polarized cultures at home and was surprised to read this article in Prospect Magazine which says our heritage may be very different than we thought. Myths of British Ancestry implies that the Celts were not the most prominent people in Western Europe and that a lot of our culture stems from the Basques. It’s a really interesting read.

I’ve been reading a lot of the New York press lately: Village Voice, The New Yorker, NYT and this week for the first time, I was directed towards an excellent piece in the New York Observer. Sexless and the City tells us about the current sex-free state of the young, trendy professionals of the City. Too busy taking coke to shag… it’s a sorry state of affairs, but maybe it will help deal with the old overpopulation problem I just mentioned…

I wanted to finish up on something beautiful and it’s a series I always keep an eye out for. The BBC produces the ‘images of the week‘ every seven days (funny that) and this week’s pictures are amazing. Enjoy!

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(Kinda) Weekly Reading (and Listening) List #3

This one seems to have slipped away of late for various reasons, but mostly because I’ve not been reading as much online as I was in January. This week, I have, and so I thought I would share some of the best bits with you. Of course, lots of it has been Japan-centric, as presumably with most people this week. I am not going to provide a list of tsunami articles and pics though, as it probably wouldn’t be in the best taste. Instead, this week’s heavily parenthesized version is plucked from altogether more eclectic news sources, garnished with some free music, too.

Let’s kick off with the launch of The Blizzard. Growing up, I used to devour football and music magazines. Shoot and 442 for footy; Select, Q, Mojo and Uncut for tunes. The publishing landscape has changed so much of late, though, and every time I have picked up a football magazine over the past five years I’ve been disappointed. The decline of the industry has been blamed solely on the consumer, but the publishers should harness some of the blame, too, even if their hands are often forced.

Magazines are too often filled with shite and not enough effort is devoted to in depth analysis. Whilst I can understand the necessity of advertising, it confused me for a long time why there was no football magazine devoted to the ‘thinking man’. The best coverage was reserved for the broadsheets and more recently, the internet. Blogs like Zonal Marking, The Equaliser and In Bed With Maradona have grown in prominence and have become an essential read.

Through the advent of Twitter, these guys have been getting the recognition they deserved. ZM’s Michael Cox is now a regular guest on the Guardian’s Football Weekly podcast and has columns in their print edition and on many mainstream websites. It seems the social networking tool has also been a huge factor in the development of just the magazine we have been crying out for, The Blizzard.

Edited by tactical guru Jonathan Wilson, “The Blizzard is a quarterly publication -part book, part magazine.” Its editorial team is a Who’s Who of the football Twitterati, featuring everyone from Marcotti to Horncastle, Brassell to Honigstein. The pilot issue (zero) is available to download for a ‘pay what you like’ fee and is superb. The articles are lengthy, but worth spending the time over. Here’s hoping they gather enough steam to keep this thing going.

Staying with football briefly, there was an excellent piece on the aforementioned In Bed With Maradona website this week about a Swedish footballer, Anton Hysen, who came out to the media recently. It’s scandalous that there is still such a homophobic shadow over the sport, to the extent that footballers are forced to remain in the closet. The tragic example of Justin Fashanu is cited in the article, who’s own brother even disowned him when he announced his sexuality.

I get too excited by bizarre historical overlaps and the Rebbe of Sinn Fein article that appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward (of course) fascinated me. It’s the story of Chaim Herzog, a Jewish Rabbi, who became inextricably linked with the Republican movement in Ireland in the 20th Century. Despite the anti-Semitic protestations of Sinn Fein founder Arthur Griffith, he stood by the party, even to the point of becoming fluent in Irish.

A superb feature ran in Slate this week about hugging, or rather, disdain for it. I Don’t Need A Hug bemoans the acceptance of hugging as a way of greeting people in the States and it’s something I can relate to. The article states that hugging should be reserved for those whose arms you actually want to be in and I have to agree: hugging everybody belittles and demeans the sentiment that it should convey. It got me thinking, and there have certainly times when I’ve awkwardly been drawn into a hug by someone I don’t even know. It’s time for a revolution, folks.

Over on Project Syndicate, a great resource for anyone interested in, eh, anything, former World Bank head and Chief Economist to the Clinton administration Joseph Stiglitz writes intriguingly about the Mauritius Miracle. Now, I am always a bit skeptical when I read of miraculous financial turnarounds in countries considering the reports are often inaccurate (Chile in the late 70s, Soviet Blog post fall of Communism and I guess because of the artificial wealth it was built upon, The Celtic Tiger of Ireland), but Stiglitz’s is an opinion I trust and value. His brilliant book Globalization and Its Miscontents is one of the first books I read on the topic and is a polemic indictment of the IMF, World Bank and US Foreign Policy written from the inside. Based on his depiction of the social policy and living conditions in Mauritius, we in the West could learn a lot from the tiny island nation.

For aesthetic value, The Atlantic’s feature on the Origins of Bathroom Signs is well worth checking out. For scary stats and figures, have a look at Scientific American’s Creationism Controversy: State by State map.

I’ve been delighted by the amount of free music available online recently. More and more musicians have been streaming full albums upon their release, obviously hoping to attract a purchase. NPR have been leading lights on this front for a long time and they are currently streaming the new Mountain Goats album, All Eternals Deck in its entirety. You can also hear full lengths from The Joy Formidable and The Dodos on the site now. The Strokes are streaming their new album on their website, but the best two streams are reserved for two fine Scottish acts.

Withered Hand’s name has been everywhere this week, with his struggles to gain a visa for the USA in order to play SxSW. I’ve been loving his album, Good News, for a long time now and since he’s releasing it in the US this month, he’s streaming it it for free on his Bandcamp. FOUND, too, are an Edinburgh based act I’ve been a fan of for years. They’ve released their new album Factory Craft on Chemical Underground and it’s been great to see them getting some recognition in the national press. You can stream the album on their Bandcamp, but don’t forget to buy it, too.

This week, I’ve been mostly reading… {week two}

It’s been a busy week. I’m outraged again. Sorry.

The aftershocks of last week’s popular rebellion in Tunisia have been felt all across the Arab world, but particularly in Egypt. Protesters have taken to the street to try to force Hosni Mubarack from office. This year marks the 30th Anniversary of his coming to power and I’ve been getting updates on the situation all week from the Twitter account of Mona Eltahawy.

I linked to a lead article she wrote in The Guardian last week. This week’s first recommendation is less of a ‘read’, more of a ‘follow’. Eltahawy slept for 45 minutes in 48 hours as she relayed the news from the streets of Cairo and other major flashpoints. For me, this represents all that is good about social media and bitesize news. As well as helping rally troops on the ground, people like Eltahawy are raising awareness round the world. The passion and conviction in the work she has done this week has been truly admirable: a great ambassador for the people of Egypt.

13 Year Old Boy’s Murder Trial Could Violate International Law

And from the good, to the downright despicable. In a country that champions itself as the world’s leader in justice and liberty; the land of opportunity, how can America justify trying a 13-year-old boy as an adult? You cannot condone anybody who takes another life. Jordan Brown, an elementary student, shot his father’s pregnant girlfriend in the back of the head as she slept: an indisputably horrendous act. But to lock a child up forever, with no chance of parole?

It reminded me of a story I read last year, around the time of the media’s witch hunt for the details of convicted murderer Jon Venables’ second felony. There are different ways of dealing with such terrible cases. One is to throw away the key; the other, a more measured response, is to find out why. After two kids in Norway committed a similar (if not more horrific act) than Venables and Thompson, this article describes how the local community responded, and is well worth five minutes of your time.

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Space Invaders: Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period

I’ve been surprised by the amount of typography fetishists I’ve encountered over the past few years. Anyone who spends a fair amount of time hunched over a keyboard will have preference as to how their copy is turned out. There is room for personal taste, in most cases. But some things are just plain wrong. This entertaining piece by Farood Manjoo develops on a pet hate of my own. Both in altruism and as commercial ventures, I’ve edited a lot of essays, dissertations and thesis’. I’ve always held firm that one space is always enough, no matter what the context. Thanks to Farood for hammering this point home emphatically.

The Battle Against Benefit Cuts and Poverty Pimps

Laurie Penny’s blog in the New Statesmen this week explored the dangers of an outsourcing culture. As the coalition government continues to look for ways to slash the welfare state, the vultures are circling in the shape of huge corporations primed to profit from such moves. She names Atos Origin, who have developed an ‘unreliable’ means of testing people to see if they’re fit to work. Of course, if it’s in your interests, you will find what you’re looking for. Even graver dangers have been outlined by Kathryn Bolkovac, who blew the whistle on the involvement of contracted peacekeepers in child trafficking in Bosnia.

Hatred and Bigotry in the Playground

In a week in which sexism has dominated the UK media, Johann Hari’s latest Indy column tackles the problem of homophobia in schools. Progression has been made on many levels, but not amongst kids. It should be a clear focus for the government. I was shocked to read that France has this week upheld a ban on gay marriage, too.

North Korean Music Updates

This week also marked the busiest day I’ve ever had on my blog. I wrote a piece on the music of South Korea, which obviously struck a chord with some (positive and negative). I will be reading with intrigue, then, the updates of Alex Hoban. He’ll be reporting on the music scene in Pyongyang, North Korea. Don’t ask me how… but it will no doubt be interesting.

Finally, a friend put me onto this interesting interactive program, If It Were My Home. It allows you to compare your own country with any other in terms of every aspect of life. The scary thing is, I have 58% more chance of being unemployed in the UK than I do in South Korea. Yikes.

Happy reading!

My contribution to TLOBF’s albums of 2010 (last National post, I promise)

1. The National High Violet


For a band accustomed to organic, incremental growth, 2010 will go down as The National’s Great Leap Forward. No longer are they your National; the band you’ve been telling your friends about since someone thrust a worn out copy of Alligator into your hands five years ago, pledging it would change your life (I’m speculating that most fans visited the earlier albums retrospectively). 2010 was the year The National out-Nationaled themselves and went global, becoming the most universally loved band on the planet in the process. The secret’s out: they’re Everybody’s National now.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the transformation took place, but the shoots of growth were sprinkled amongst the first blooming daffodils of spring. There was the early recorded performance of ‘Terrible Love’ on The Jimmy Fallon Show that went viral, leaving us wondering if the opening bars to High Violet were really to sound so gauzy. There was that sell out show at the Royal Albert Hall in May, rapturously received. And amidst all the eulogistic reviews that greeted the album’s release, there was the small matter of chart success: #5 on this side of the Atlantic, thank you very much.

But the difference between The National making such a transition and, say, REM doing the same in the late eighties / early nineties, is that with High Violet, they haven’t made a populist shift, sonically. The progression from the edginess of Alligator, to the majesty of Boxer was a natural evolution, borne out in the lyrical themes softened between the two records. High Violet is a hybrid record, of sorts. It is more ruffled than Boxer, yet retains the orchestral beauty and polish, marrying the two preexisting instances of The National into one magnificent whole.

Their methodology didn’t change one bit. The band are affirmed perfectionists and their ethos stood firm in the recording of High Violet. What did change, perhaps, is the scale of the sound on the album. This is a bigger record than any of its predecessors; not in the stadium-bothering ilk of U2 or Kings of Leon, but in terms of sheer gravitas. The songs, leaden with Padma Newsome and Bryce Dessner’s welling strings, are enormous, brooding entities bolstered the menace in Matt Berninger’s vocals.

Finally, the penny dropped, with an almighty thud that forced everyone to sit up and take notice. The National are successful because they deserve to be. High Violet is the best album of 2010.

First published here.

S&B Annual Anthology 2010: The Results

It’s taken a while, but the votes are finally counted and calculated, the playlist is completed and the first Annual Anthology is ready to go. As I hoped at the beginning, it has been a real education for me. I specifically asked for contributions from people with a discerning taste in music, those whose tastes I respect. I wasn’t disappointed.

The trouble, as I speculated initially, was that as the votes came in, I realized there were a huge amount of individual songs being polled. I had to think of a way to order them and I hope it’s to your liking. I decided that each artist could only have one track. If they had more than one nomination, I would add them to the track that recurred most often. I counted the songs in the order they were written, five for the first, one for the last.

After refamiliarizing myself with Microsoft Exel and purchasing the tracks individually, I put them into Sound Cloud and created the playlist below. I hope it doesn’t attract the ire of any included artists… please take it as a compliment and contact me if you have an issue with it! For now, though, I hope you all enjoy the forty tunes that make up my first Annual Anthology. Many thanks to those who took the time to vote and particularly, to the kind folks who contributed some glowing words to the top ten tracks.

#1: Beach House

1. Beach House – Zebra

“Something so simple has no business being this good. The scale-led guitar intro is all pleasing innocence, something I’d like to imagine I could’ve concocted as an early-learner. Clearly wishful thinking, Alex Scally lays the groundwork for Victoria Legrand’s wistful howl and one of the year’s best albums.”

Finn Scott-Delany: newshound for the Crawley Observer and music hack for Drowned in Sound.

2. The National – Runaway

“There were eight different songs nominated for the Anthology from High Violet. It’s an indicator that The National aren’t really a singles band, but also a measure of how consistent their work is. High Violet is their most accessible, poppiest album to date. Runaway probably fits the same description, track-wise. Led by an acoustic arpeggio, backed by a plinking piano, guided by Matt Berninger’s slightly off tune vocal and strengthened by subtle splashes of horn and strings, this is simple, heady stuff. Perhaps The National’s finest moment of effortless beauty since Daughters of the Soho Riots.”

FB

3. Deerhunter – Desire Lines

“Desire Lines is just one of those songs that’s almost impossible to pin down just WHY it’s so good but I’m going to try anyway. From its opening kick drum you immediately get the sense that something important is looming; The gentle guitar line that runs through it is subtle but beautifully crafted and it builds and builds and builds to a magnificent climax. It’s close to seven minutes long but you’ll find yourself wishing it was longer.”

Stu Lewis: editor of the splendiferous Tidal Wave of Indifference

4. The Villagers – Becoming a Jackal

“The first thing that struck me about this song was how strong the lyrics were. The man is like a contemporary-classical poet of some sort! Which fills me both with admiration and immense envy… then there’s the sixties tinged melody with those little staccato chords from a big hollow bodied guitar with plenty of reverb… absolutely incredible song. Amazing record too.”

Cormac Fee: lead singer of the excellent pocket promise.

5. The Phantom Band – Everybody Knows It’s True

“If the Mercury Prize was a fair fight then The Phantom Band would have won it with Checkmate Savage; here they are with another contender. Playful, soulful, and with a bit of madness in its heart, this is as immediate as they get on an album loaded with textured slow-burners.”

Dave Kerr: seemingly five-armed Music and Online Editor of The Skinny

6. Bombay Bicycle Club – Rinse Me Down

“When I first heard this track, I was gobsmacked. I had been left a little cold by their debut album last year and certainly didn’t expect the intricate, acoustic turn BBC would take for their sophomore effort. Revisiting reviews over the past two months, it seems it’s criminally underrated. Rinse Me Down is the stunning highlight. It sounds like a cross between Murmur-era REM and freak-folkers Vetiver, which is about as high a compliment I could pay any track!”

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7. James Blake – Limit To Your Love

“2010 has been an exciting year for London boy James Blake. Only a handful of releases in and he has become one of the most talked about British newcomers, as well as making it to the BBC’s list of 15 hopefuls for 2011. Limit To Your Love is his most accomplished piece yet, a truly original cover of Canadian singer/songwriter Feist. Managing to push the ‘Post-Dubstep’ microcosm its melodic boundaries while keeping minimal and credible, Blake’s piano lick and vocals contrast perfectly with the spacious, sub heavy drop.
Certainly one to keep your eyes on in 2011, his self entitled debut album drops in February.”

Alexander Colmer: editor of the fresh and generous Single Serving blog.

8. Arcade Fire – Ready To Start

“Arcade Fire took 2010 to reestablish themselves as one of the finest indie bands around. The immediacy and urgency of Ready To Start is a fine representation of a band with grievances to air, axes to grind and bones to pick. That they manage to do so in such tuneful style should be something everyone is grateful for.”

FB

9. Caribou  – Sun

“I find it difficult to listen to Sun without slipping into a trance. From the album that presented Dan Snaith to the mainstream in spectacular style, this is one of the trippiest cuts. Swim is an album loaded with potential hits and quite a few got votes, but this was by far the most popular of his songs.”

FB

10. Perfume Genius – Learning

“I remember the first time I got excited about Mike Hadreas (Perfume Genius) was when I downloaded a zip. file of songs ripped from his MySpace player. What I heard was both fragile while simultaneously cutting, unsure yet self-aware. My appetite was whetted and I couldn’t wait until I could actually purchase a legitimate release from him. I wasn’t let down, as during my first spin of debut ‘Learning’ I knew from the title track opener that it was going to be something special. The warm notes of Hadreas’ piano intertwined with his timid voice create something of genuine beauty. The lyrics are milky at best and have more than a shade of sinister to them; ‘no one will answer your prayers until you take off that dress/no one will hearyou’re your crying until you take your last breath’. I guess that is why I love this track so much, it completely baffles me by combining the beautiful with the dark to create a world-weary masterpiece.”

Ian Greenhill: editor of the marvellous Have Fun At Dinner and contributor to The Line Of Best Fit.

11. Foals – Spanish Sahara

12. Mountain Man – Animal Tracks

13. Twilight Sad – The Wrong Car

14. Sufjan Stevens – Too Much

15. The Black Keys – Next Girl

16. Joanna Newsom – Good Intentions Paving Company

17. The Fall – OFYC Showcase

18. The Tallest Man On Earth – King Of Spain

19. Gil Scott-Heron – Me and the Devil

20. Meursault – Crank Resolutions

21. These New Puritans – We Want War

22. Kid Canaveral – Good Morning

23. Micah P Hinson – Take Off That Dress For Me

24. The Hold Steady – The Weekenders

25. John Knox Sex Club – Honesty The Beast

26. Massive Attack – Atlas Air

27. Forest Swords – If Your Girl

28. Band of Horses – Compliments

29. Pantha du Prince – Stick To My Side

30. Midlake – Rulers, Ruling All Things

31. Laura Marling – Rambling Man

32. Incarnations – Make You Mine

33. Salem – Trapdoor

34. Big Boi – Shutterbugg

35. The New Pornographers – The Crash Years

36. Frightened Rabbit – The Wrestle

37. Cee Lo Green – Fuck You

38. LCD Soundsystem – Dance Yrself Clean

39. Spoon – Got Nuffin

40. Admiral Fallow – Subbuteo


Scrawls and Bawls Top 20 Albums of 2010

Number 1... as if you didn't know

I wrote at the start of 2010 about how I hoped to vary my listening habits over the course of the year, about how I needed to listen to something other than guys with beards and guitars. Well I guess the past twelve months have been a miserable failure then. But I’ve had a lot of fun, soundtracked by the list below. Please share your own favourites in the comment box!

1. The National – High Violet

I’m not sure I should write anything more on these pages about this band, for fear of being batted off as a fanzine. Alas, there is more to come when I publish some fresh copy on High Violet, submitted today. Anyone who has read this blog will know why and how much I love this album. If not, you can easily find out.

The National – Bloodbuzz Ohio

2. Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett

I’d never really listened to much of Damien Jurado’s stuff before but this album is a thing of beauty. Sometimes Jurado sounds damaged and paranoid. At others, he sounds hopeful and whimsical. It amounts to an emotional, multi-paced masterpiece. The brilliant, sweeping strings of the opening track Cloudy Shoes meant that I didn’t listen to the rest of the album for ages – it’s that good. I was surprised not to hear more people talk or write about this album in 2010.

Damien Jurado – Cloudy Shoes

3. The Walkmen – Lisbon

This is my favourite Walkmen album. There is nothing here to rival the visceral, pounding on the door – balls to the wall rock of The Rat and strangely for a Walkmen record, Hamilton only sounds menacing and sneering in parts. It is framed by a lovely, vintage sound. The guitars have a real 50s feel throughout and the production of the album accentuates it: echoey and vacuous (that’s a good thing).

The Walkmen – Angela Surf City

4. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

The perfect album for Arcade Fire to release in 2010. They’ve matured, but they still know how to pen songs you can sing in the shower, driving your car or teaching your kids (hope my boss isn’t reading this). Thematically, it’s DARK. You can read about this more extensively here.

Arcade Fire – We Used To Wait

5. The Tallest Man on Earth – The Wild Hunt

This is the album that has made me want to pick up my guitar most in 2010. Kristian Matsson has a voice that sounds as though he’s sung round a million campfires. He reminds me of a young, naïve, Scandanavian (on the occasion his accent sneaks into his songs, it makes it all the more endearing) Bob Dylan. His rawness is a breath of fresh air. He sings like he’s got the world at his feet and the wind in his sails. If he keeps churning out records like this, he may just be right.

The Tallest Man On Earth – The Wild Hunt

6. John Grant – Queen of Denmark

This one took me completely by surprise. I’d never even heard of John Grant a couple of months ago. Nor had I heard of his former band, The Czars. The story behind this one is one that’s built for rock n roll folklore. He was just about to call it a day, following his band’s disintegration. He was suicidal and unsure if he’d ever play music again. Texan band, Midlake, saw him live and fell in love. They invited him on tour and coaxed him into the studio, performing as his backing band. Queen of Denmark is the result.

This is the album I was hoping Midlake would make this year. It’s got all the ingredients: a warm, 70s FM-friendly soft rock feel; literate, clever lyrics and a dry wit that cuts a girl named Charlie (who inspires three of the tracks)to shreds, whilst simultaneously evoking a huge sense of loss. In it’s own self-deprecating way, this album reminds me of Dennis Wilson magnum opus Pacific Ocean Blue. In some ways, it’s the Bon Iver moment of 2010. Instead of going into a cabin, he was hauled into a studio. Both records are equally poignant, but this one’s much more fun.

John Grant – Queen of Denmark

7. Meursault – All Creatures Will Make Merry

I miss living in Edinburgh. I miss the music, the gigs, the conveyer belt of talent that seems to emanate from Scotland more than any other comparably sized place. The last gig I went to see in Edinburgh was Meursault, playing at a (I think) Limbo night. Lead singer Neil Pennycook blew me away with the sheer strength of his voice. When I first heard this album, I was slightly disappointed that his voice was lower in the mix than I expected, but as the year’s gone on, I’ve grown to love it. Lumped in with the folktronica scene, there’s a lot more emotion in this batch of songs than that label would leave you to believe. Buried beneath the fuzz, there are some amazing songs here. Perhaps the album that’s grown on me most this year.

Meursault – Crank Resolutions

8. Errors – Come Down With Me

One of the highlights of my year has been running. I ran two half marathons in November and trained for them since the end of the summer. At first, I avoided listening to music too much, preferring audiobooks and podcasts instead. I felt I could dictate my pace and zone out better when someone was talking in my ear. I got halfway through Atlas Shrugged (very slow, quite boring) and devoured a few of Chomsky’s. But when I played music, I would speed up or slow down in accordance with its tempo.

The longer I ran, though, the more I got to know my own body and its limits. I began to listen to more and more music, trialing and erring to discover what was compatible. I find electronic music best, particularly intelligent stuff. Errors fall firmly within this category and alongside M83’s stellar Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts, this has been my most played and most enjoyed running album of 2010. They’re signed to Mogwai’s Rock Action label and whilst they pack all the euphoria of their stablemates, their music is inherently fun: an accolade not always bestowed upon their illustrious colleagues.

Errors – Supertribe

9. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden of Lady Walton

I reviewed this way back in Spring for The Skinny and loved it. This year seems to have been dominated by lo-fi, synthy, murky pop music. So what a welcome change and joy to find a band devoted to creating intricate, complex and elaborate music. Clogs contain members of The National, but actually predate their more celebrated moniker. Chief architect is Padma Newsome, who also provides the arrangements for The National. This album is beautiful: fully recommended.

Clogs – I Used To Do

10. Perfume Genius – Learning

And speaking of lo-fi, Perfume Genius was the standout performer in that heavily saturated field this year, for me. It’s not just the production that’s threadbare here, though. Mark Hadreas hangs his torment out his bedroom window (for he’s almost certainly recorded this sitting on the edge of the scratcher) for all the passersby to see. Simple, beautiful and in parts stunningly effective, he shows that in the right hands, the old cliché can still ring true. Less can most certainly be more. This album is the anti-Clogs, but it’s equally poignant and beautiful.

Perfume Genius – Mr Peterson

11. Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring

Horse Feathers are a band I’ve loved for a few years and whilst this album isn’t as good their stunning debut, Words are Dead, it’s still a great album. In a year in which we’ve been starved of new material from Iron and Wine, this has capably filled the void. Lead singer Justin Ringle’s voice is all at once honeyed and resigned. His songs are nostalgic and sad; they seem to yearn for (as much as they sound of) a simpler era when people lived hand-to-mouth. A time when time passed more slowly and folks dealt with each other and little else in between. Sure, it’s a romanticized concept, but sometimes it’s good to dream, right?

Horse Feathers – Thistled Spring

12. Olafur Arnalds – And They Have Escaped Under the Weight Of Darkness

Over the course of 2010, I’ve become more interested in contemporary classical and ambient music. Most of what I’ve listened predates this, but I thoroughly enjoyed Icelandic composer Olafur Arnalds’ latest album. I’ve already mentioned the conveyer belt of talent emerging from Scotland, but Iceland runs it close, particularly in this genre. I can’t help but feel the Scandinavians have a better outlook than us.

I watched a documentary last night about Wikileaks, in which they became incorporated on the Northern Atlantic island state. Having been screwed over by politicians in the past, they were determined to be as open and freethinking as they could and so welcomed Julian Assange with open arms. It’s a tenuous connection to make, but in the music of Arnalds and Jóhann Jóhannsson, I get the feeling that it’s more acceptable to slow down there; to do your own thing and move at your own pace… it’s freer, and perhaps that’s why they keep coming up with gems like this. Just a thought.

Olafur Arnalds – Hægt, kemur ljósið

13. The War On Drugs – Future Weather EP

My favourite EP of 2010, which I reviewed here.

The War On Drugs – Coming Through

14. Mountain Man – Made The Harbor

This is a beautiful album. A couple of years ago, Fleet Foxes reminded us just how powerful an instrument the human voice is. These three ladies from Vermont served up another dose of (almost) acapella loveliness. Perhaps their songs don’t have the depth of Fleet Foxes’ output. It’s certainly even more rustic. The vocals are so crystalline and the harmonies beautiful. One of the best Americana albums I’ve heard in 2010.

Mountain Man – Buffalo

15. Bombay Bicycle Club – Flaws

I never really got into BBC’s first album, but I recall being very surprised when I heard this. They’ve hung up their amps and gone for a Nick Drake inspired acoustic set and it works wonderfully well. The album’s highlights (Rinse Me Down, Dust on the Ground) stand head and shoulders above the rest and so, in that sense, the album’s a touch unbalanced, but this was one of the nicest surprises I got this year. It reminds me hugely of Vetiver, with the lead singer’s voice just as rich and smooth as Andy Cabic’s.

Bombay Bicycle Club – Rinse Me Down

 

16. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest

As is my wont, I avoided this one when it first came out. It was getting eulogized by all and sundry and I hadn’t rated their earlier albums as highly as others. This one, though, is better than its predecessors. It still hasn’t hit me as strongly as other musos, but I’ve fallen in love with some of the individual tracks. Bradford Cox is prodigiously gifted and his level of output must be a real source of envy for other musicians.

Deerhunter – Helicopter

17. Frightened Rabbit – The Winter of Mixed Drinks

I can’t help but feel disappointed that this record isn’t higher up on the list. The Midnight Organ Fight was one of my favourite albums of the last decade. This one really doesn’t hold a candle to it. It is a good album, with some great tracks (particularly The Wrestle), but when listening to it, I long for the rawness of what came before. Scott Hutchison can still write a great song, I think it’s in the studio where they’ve been let down, with people getting too trigger happy on the mixing desk. It remains to be seen where they go from here, but having recently left Fat Cat for Atlantic, it’s unlikely they’ll return to the sound of yore.

Frightened Rabbit – Living in Colour

18. Bill Callahan – Rough Travel for a Rare Thing

This is a live album I’ve really enjoyed this year. Bill Callahan (aka Smog) is up there with John Darnielle (Mountain Goats) when it comes to rock / indie lyricists. His songs are some of the most moving of their ilk. Hearing them in this live setting (I’ve yet to see him in concert), gives them an extra dimension.

Smog – Cold-Blooded Old Times

19. Midlake – The Courage of Others

As with Frightened Rabbit (and Band of Horses), this album was a disappointment this year. When I first got it, I really got into it and played it pretty regularly. But after the initial novelty of having new Midlake songs wore off, I came to the opinion that it was a bit one-paced. Having given it another chance this winter, I still enjoy it. There are some gorgeous tracks and moments that leave you breathless, but it’s unfortunate to be judged against the quality of …Von Occupanther. It’s unfair to say, but their superb sophomore album might act as an albatross around their collective neck for the rest of their careers.

Midlake – Winter Dies

20. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy

You can read a review of Matthew Houcke’s uber-laid back third album here.

Phosphorescent – Los Angeles

Last Year’s Best Albums List Revisited

The Antlers: They're Not There

Reading my Best Albums List from last year is a bit depressing and makes me wary as to what records I will include this year. From this list, only a handful have remained as ‘sustained players’ through 2010. Those are numbers 1, 2, 5, 8 and 9. I still stand by my choice of The Mountain Goats as number 1. In fact, I think it’s a criminally underrated album.

Of those on this list, I think the one that has grown most in my estimation in 2010 is The Phantom Band’s Checkmate Savage. The one which has fallen furthest is undoubtedly Fever Ray’s eponymous debut, which I was loving this time last year, but don’t recall playing more than a couple of times in 2010.

There are also some albums I’ve only really gotten around to this year that were released last. Albums that I would have included in the list with the benefit of hindsight and a bigger wallet would have been:

Amadou and Mariam: Welcome To Mali

[Amadou and Mariam – Sabali]

 

The Antlers: Hospice (this would possibly give Mountain Goats a run for the top position)

[Antlers – Kettering]

 

Withered Hand: Good News

[Withered Hand – Hard On]

 

Bill Callahan: Sometimes I Wish We Were an Eagle

[Bill Callahan – Faith / Void]

 

The Low Anthem: Oh My God, Charlie Darwin

[The Low Anthem – Charlie Darwin]

 

Megafaun: Gather, Form and Fly

[Megafaun – Kauffman’s Ballad]

As much as I love lists and look forward to the end of year influx, I know that lots of them are assembled hastily. When The Skinny asked me for my own list at the beginning of November, I was utterly unprepared! I managed to get a pretty accurate list of what I’d loved this year together, but it made me realize how much good music I’d missed out on… how many albums were on my ‘Must Hear’ list. That said, I think their list this year is their best ever… very eclectic and all-inclusive. Not just populist choices, which is nice to see.

I think when I compile 2010’s list over the next few days, I’ll need to consider the durability of the albums. Which ones will I still be listening to a few months or years down the line? I believe 2010 has been much stronger than 2009 in terms of releases, across the board.  Last year I didn’t really have to think about which album was my favourite… it was a no-brainer. This year, though, I’ve really had to think about it and it’s changed a few times over the past months. I think we’ve been really spoiled and I have enjoyed trawling back through the releases to formulate my thoughts.

I do wonder about people who post their 100 favourite albums of any given year. How much time can you really devote to 100 albums over the course of twelve months? I listen to a fair bit of music and in the past (increasingly again more recently) review a fair pile too. A couple of years back, I was reviewing maybe 40 albums a year. I probably hated around 50% of those. I could in no way have listened to enough music that I loved (or even liked) to rank them in a top 100! Perhaps I’m too skeptical.

Here’s 2009’s list:

  • The Mountain Goats – The Life Of The World To Come (review)
  • The Decemberists – The Hazards of Love (read here)
  • Fever Ray – Fever Ray
  • The Pains of Being Pure at Heart – The Pains of Being Pure at Heart
  • The xx – xx
  • Butcher Boy – React Or Die (review)
  • The Twilight Sad – Forget The Night Ahead
  • The Phantom Band – Checkmate Savage
  • Phoenix – Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
  • Nurses – Apple’s Acre (review)
  • Grizzly Bear – Veckatimest
  • Doves – Kingdom of Rust
  • Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavillion
  • Monsters Of Folk – Monsters Of Folk (review)
  • Zoey Van Goey – The Cage Was Unlocked All Along (review)
  • Neon Indian – Psychic Chasms
  • Andrew Bird – Noble Beast
  • Wildbirds and Peacedrums – The Snake (review)
  • The Maccabees – Wall of Arms (review)
  • The Skinny: 10 of 2010 (#2): The National – High Violet (Interview with Scott Devendorf)

    From humble beginnings, The National have become one of the most celebrated acts around. And with High Violet, they’ve taken their art to a new level, as I found out from Scott Devendorf.

    The National are no strangers to these pages, nor indeed to these yearly charts of ours. Both Boxer (2007) and Alligator(2005) featured highly in their respective end of year polls. Looking back at the release of High Violet in May, then, it’s hard to assess what exactly the expectation might have been, but even the most optimistic speculators would have struggled to call this one. The National are not populists. They are a band one hundred percent committed to attaining musical excellence, on their terms. And yet, here they are, with a UK number 5 album (Billboard number 3) under their belt and five albums in, the world at their feet.

    Reflecting on 2010, bassist, guitarist and pianist Scott Devendorf admits being “surprised, given the long road the band has taken.” For him, High Violet is “the culmination of a lot of work, over a lot of years.” As is seemingly the band’s wont, Devendorf speaks humbly and modestly of the their achievements. “All we ever wanted was for people to enjoy our records and come to our shows,” he says. But there is no doubt in his mind that the band’s recent success has been a key factor in making High Violet the record it is.

    “A key thing for us was being able to afford our own studio. We built one at the end of the Boxer tour and were able to work at our own, often glacial pace. It gave us more opportunity to experiment with different types of recording, without feeling the pressure of the commercial studios. We had a lot of people help out on the record, too: Régine (Chassagne) from Arcade Fire, Justin (Vernon) from Bon Iver, Sufjan (Stevens)… to name just a few. That was also a product of having the studio. People could just come in when they were available.”

    For many music fans, it’s refreshing to see a band as hardworking as The National become successful, particularly without compromising their values. And whilst there are certainly audible experiments on High Violet, there’s a discernable lineage from its predecessors. They didn’t reinvent the wheel, and Devendorf was happy to explain how exactly they arrived at the sound:

    Alligator is a rougher record; it came with lyrics that were about an independent guy out on the street at night.Boxer was a statelier, orchestral piece. The lyrics were more about relationships with others. High Violet is a little in between, sonically. It’s a little rougher than Boxer as far as the type of song and the texture of the sound. The lyrics are more about the relationship that began with Boxer, now beyond its infant stage and it’s about dealing with that. I think it’s certainly more about tones and layers. It’s a lot like archaeology. Or maybe sculpture.”

    The analogy flourishes, as we finally get around to asking what the band had hoped for back in Spring. “Well, we were just happy with the album. We’re mostly focused on producing the best music we can.” Art, then, the only way it should be.

    Originally published here

    The rest of The Skinny’s list, incidentally, is:

    1. Joanna Newsom: Have One On Me

    2. The National: High Violet

    3. Caribou: Swim

    4. The Arcade Fire: The Suburbs

    5. The Phantom Band: The Wants

    6. Beach House: Teen Dream

    7. Pantha Du Prince: Black Noise

    8. LCD Soundsystem: This Is Happening

    9. The Books: The Way Out

    10. Deerhunter: Halcyon Digest

    The Scrawls and Bawls Annual Anthology

    Which ones will he choose?

    I recently wrote a review of a compilation by Dandelion Radio for the Line of Best Fit. Since his untimely passing, the independent radio station have continued John Peel’s annual Festive Fifty chart, whereby listeners nominate their favourite tracks of the year. It got me thinking: what are the most popular songs from amongst my own friends, online associates and blog reader (s)?

    Last year, I (as well as everyone else on the internet) marked the passing of the decade with a series of guest posts from friends and colleagues selecting their favourite albums of ten years. This year, I thought I’d poll the same cross-section on individual tracks. There is, of course, the risk that no track will be mentioned more than once.

    On album lists, it’s logical that the same names will crop up again and again. Songs, though, are different. People personalize the records they buy. They often have a soft spot for a track many others consider the runt of the litter. Maybe it reminds them of something or someone. Perhaps the lyrics take on a unique significance when applied to their own lives… whatever the case, I’m banking on receiving some singular nominations.

    Nonetheless, I hope this will be an exciting, interesting experiment with some enjoyable and educating results. If you would like to participate, please send your five tracks to finbarr.bermingham@gmail.com by December 15th. The only criteria is that the song or the album it comes from was released in 2010.

    I am looking forward to hearing everyone’s choices.

    My Most Listened to Albums of This Year Are…

    1. The National – High Violet
    2. Deer Tick – War Elephant
    3. Clogs – The Creatures in the Garden Of Lady Walton
    4. Galaxie 500 – On Fire
    5. Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
    6. Phosphorescent – Here’s To Taking It Easy
    7. Midlake – The Trials of Van Occupanther
    8. Townes Van Zandt – Anthology
    9. Horse Feathers – Words Are Dead
    10. Real Estate – Real Estate

    Okay, this is a pretty strange list. I admit, it’s also pretty inaccurate. It’s aggregated using Last FM and is based on the tracks scrobbled from each album. Thing is, this year I’ve been listening to a hell of a lot of music on Spotify, not to mention on my mp3 player. Honestly though, The National’s new album is undoubtedly the one I’ve listened to the most. If it were to include everything else, I think you’d find some Jo Newsom, Kath Bloom and David Thomas Broughton.

    It would be interesting to hear what other people have been listening to the most?