2009: Year’s Best Music
Where “best” is used in the subjective sense of “what I liked the most”. You want analyses of what was most finely crafted or most significant in terms of pop cultural trends, go read Pitchfork or a music postgraduate’s dissertation. Here’s what caught my imagination, heart, and desire to put my fist in the air this year.
10. Castevet – Summer Fences
Castevet are headed for great things, as anyone who heard their demo I Know What A Lion Is can attest. ‘Summer Fences’, their first full-length, isn’t as raw and aggressive as those three tracks. Here they sound more akin to British art-punk bands like And None Of Them Knew They Were Robots and This Ain’t Vegas than the bastard offspring of Hot Water Music and Braid. Comparisons aside, Summer Fences is a collection of warm and passionate punk rock not a thousand miles away from the 90s indie/emo sound: intricate mathy songwriting, dual clean guitars, gruff and aggressive singing, and moments of sublime simplicity.
9. Polar Bear Club – Chasing Hamburg
A band who’ve been making waves for some time, Chasing Hamburg was my first introduction to Polar Bear Club (aside from catching the last two songs of their set from 2009′s Gaslight Anthem tour). And what an introduction; here the band present ten tracks of sublime poppy post-hardcore and punk rock, tipping hats towards the likes of Small Brown Bike, Taking Back Sunday and Sunny Day Real Estate. One of many lyrical highlights is the bittersweet and nostalgic ‘Boxes’, which takes aim at pro bands who put themselves on pedestals – “It’s painfully apparent your aim is to be deified” / “We seek relation, and you degrade us” – whilst musically there’s not a duff tune on the album.
8. The Thermals – Now We Can See
The Thermals are a band who have built a moderately successful career on the back of being an indie rock three piece who write simple, hooky power-pop-punk tunes. Their jangly, often scratchy sound and aesthetic sets them apart from the finely-polished contemporary exhibitors of such a basic concept, but before Now We Can See they didn’t leap out at me as a band who had reached their destination. I’ve spent a lifetime enjoying the pleasures of immediate and fast-paced songs, so the Thermals never stood out for me. But with Now We Can See the ingredients came together: opting for polished production allows the increasingly bold songwriting and consistent lyrical themes emerge more clearly. This album is clever, catchy, pop brilliance.
7. Fuck Buttons – Tarot Sport
Described by Adam Roberts as SFnal music, an enticingly accurate remark, Tarot Sport is Fuck Buttons’ second album and its a dreamy slab of noise-pop that hits you in sonic waves that build to glorious crescendo. Actually, perhaps the most accurate thing I’ve seen said about this duo is that they are not peddling noise with the trappings of pop; they are channelling a love of pop through the filter of noise. Whatever, there’s little else quite like them either on record or as a live experience. Songs like ‘Flight of the Feathered Serpent’ combine junglist rhythms with ebbing synth melodies; ‘Rough Steez’ builds up from a simple tribal drumbeat adding layer after layer of looped noise, and ‘Olympians’ is pure distorted Fuck Buttons pop. Fuck Buttons really have to be seen live, but failing that, play this loud.
6. Teenage Bottlerocket - They Came From The Shadows
Ramones-core: you either love it or hate it. In either case you’d be hard-pressed to disagree that Teenage Bottlerocket are at the top of the pile in this small but frantic subset of bands. With ‘Shadows’, their fifth full-length, the Bottlerocket aren’t breaking much new ground, but every song on here is an absurdly fast-paced pop gem, whether it’s the skate-revivalist and JFA name-checking ‘Skate or Die’, the hair metal-baiting ‘Bigger Than KISS’, or the eponymous track with its paranoiac b-movie plot.
5. Fake Problems - It’s Great To Be Alive
It’s a sad truth that Fake Problems have been met with small, indifferent crowds when they’ve played here in Brighton. After ‘How Far Our Bodies Go’ some had them pegged as an Against Me! clone, albeit with a folkier edge and lyrics that were more tongue-in-cheek than fist in the air. But with It’s Great To Be Alive Fake Problems have made as big a shift as Against Me! did in moving from Reinventing Axl Rose to As the Eternal Cowboy.
Whilst poppier and boasting more professional production, it’s a significantly more eclectic record with songwriting that is impressively confident. ‘Dream Team’ is a sing-along love anthem with lyrics as witty as they are sweet, ‘Diamond Rings’ boasts a thumping drumbeat and guitar lines with real swing, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ is a shanty driven by brass instruments as much as the expected guitar and bass, whilst ‘Heart BPM’ has one of the year’s best chorus lines in “to be young / to be dumb / to be drunk as hell and in love”. These boys clearly have ambition and I’m looking forward to seeing where they go from here.
4. Maths – Descent
Perhaps one of the most exciting screamo bands in Britain right now, Descent marks a significant step forward for the young four-piece. Although I’ve just realised that, saying that, I’ve not heard any of their other material except the split with Throats. What the fuck? My point is that their songs for that split felt more pugnacious, running full-tilt at the listener. Here there’s a more confident grasp of dynamics, songwriting that plants one foot in the camp of classic Midwest screamo bands as well as one in the context of contemporary European screamo (and, yes, Saetia are more obviously an influence here). It’s also an impressively consistent album that picks you up and carries you, breathless, through a torrential rain of emotion that is all the more powerful for its restraint. Tight, intense and heartfelt, it can only be hoped that Descent is just the beginning.
3. Propagandhi - Supporting Caste
By now long-lived enough to be considered elder statesmen of punk rock, Propagandhi have avoided the fate that has befallen many of their contemporaries: not being taken seriously any more. Evolving from short, crude, snotty hardcore punk songs to epic, tight, metal-tinged hardcore has probably played a part; Propagandhi have always pushed their talent as far as they can, both in terms of musicianship and songwriting but also in terms of their lyrical subject-matter. Always political, always angry, and always human, Supporting Caste is a sophisticated album that puts the output of most so-called “political punk” bands to shame.
(“I’m writing in order for someone to explain to my niece the distinction between these mandatory pre-game group rites of submission and the rallies at Nuremburg. Specifically the function the ritual serves in conjunction with what everybody knows is in the end a kid’s game. I’m just appealing to your sense of fair play when I say she’s puzzled by the incessant pressure for her to not defy the collective will, and yellow-ribboned lapels, as the soldiers inexplicably rappel down from the arena rafters (which, if not so insane, would be grounds for screaming laughter).” Quoted from ‘Dear Coach’s Corner’, probably my favourite song on the album.)
2. Bomb the Music Industry – Scrambles
The marmite of punk rock, of independent music. You hate this band or you love them. As the communal but ultimately solo project of a lo-fi heart on sleeve musician with a history in ska punk, there’s arguably a lot to hate. But for my money Jeff Rosenstock is one of the most honest, upfront, brilliant and driven people in our scene today, and Bomb The Music Industry exemplify the values that made me fall in love with punk rock as a teenager, a connection that persists today as I accelerate toward thirty.
Fuck, navel-gazing much? Okay, Scrambles takes further steps in the direction of preceding BTMI! album Get Warmer. Jeff is still more or less writing and constructing these songs solo, playing the bulk of the instruments featured and recording them in his bedroom with samples and beats from commercially available software, and he’s still pushing his songwriting in new directions. Never content to find a formula and stick with it, the result is an album that opens with the jangly, loose glockenspiel-and-guitar ‘Cold Chillin’ Cold Chillin’ before organically segueing into the uptempo rock shoutalong ‘Stuff That I Like’. ‘Gang of Four meets the Stooges (but Boring)’ simultaneously mocks pretentious and deferential bands at the same time as drawing influence from the same bands it uses to frame this mockery. ‘(Shut) Up The Punx!!!’ is a ska-punk criticism of scene bullshit that exhibits a love of punk rock as well as showing it the finger for treating “ordinary people” badly. ‘It Shits’ exhibits glitchy software beats and fuzzy keyboard melodies underpinning ferocious rhythm guitar; ‘Saddr Weidr’ somehow melds more glockenspiel and acoustic guitar with cardboard box beats and gang chants and produces a tremendously sweet song. And then there’s the piano-driven ‘Fresh Attitude, Young Body’, probably the optimistic song about despair I’ve ever heard, and perhaps my favourite tune of the year.
1. Future of the Left - Travels With Myself And Another
The album that finally made me accept that Mclusky are dead and gone, and an album that is so good I don’t care any more. ‘Travels With Myself And Another’ takes the template established in ‘Curses’ and pushes it to another level. The songwriting is spare and raw but most certainly not simplistic; from the most basic components Falco, Jack, and Kelson (ex-Jarcrew) construct furious, clever and unique tunes. Opener ‘Arming Eritrea’ has an octave-based chorus that even after almost a hundred listens still retains its essential power; single ‘The Hope That House Built’ remains a thumping and staccato anthem of snarls.
But it’s Falco’s lyrics and vocals that elevate Future of the Left to brilliance. Every line is spilling over with anger, wit and passion, whether it’s dry character assassination (“Sky News, or Murdoch live, or whatever the hell the devil calls himself. I preferred him when he was red and blatant, that guy. I liked him better when he swooped around the land indiscriminately, bending wills and souls with glee, hurrying kids to their graves at sea.” from ‘Lapsed Catholics’) or surrealist criticism of everyday class politics (“But anyway, hidden in the mess of letters lies the awful truth, yeah, that Emma’s mum and dad use plastic forks.” from ‘Stand By Your Manatee’).
If you haven’t heard this album, and don’t go listen to it right bloody now, I hate you.
- American Steel - Dear Friends and Gentle Hearts (why I couldn’t make room for this glorious collection of sophisticated punk tunes I do not know)
- …And So I Watch You From Afar – self-titled (the downside to being an instrumental band is that I care ever so slightly less, but they’re brilliant all the same)
- Casiotone for the Painfully Alone – Vs. Children (I suspect that I haven’t yet given this the time and space to really appreciate it)
- Dananananaykroyd – Hey Everyone (a genuinely excellent album which didn’t make it into my top ten by only the smallest of margins)
- Johnny Foreigner – Grace and the Bigger Picture (this doesn’t belong in my top ten, but it’s included here in the hope that I’ll grow to love it as much as Waited Up ‘Til It’s Light)
- Lightning Bolt - Earthly Delights (acquired too late to get enough listens to compete)
- Nothington – Roads, Bridges and Ruins (a great album but not great enough – see my recent review for how much I like it, however)
- Now, Now Every Children – Cars (this is excluded because I thought it came out last year, but everywhere else disagrees with me. It’s shoegazy lo-fi pop and is adorable, brilliant, and makes me want to hug it because of its sadfacedness)
- The Protomen - Act II: The Father of Death (now this is SFnal music – bombastic, absurd space opera, that is)
- The Riverboard Gambers – Underneath the Owl (had a fair number of good songs, but only a few great ones – still well worth a listen)
- Yesterday’s Ring – Diamonds in the Ditch (the same criticism as of the Riverboat Gamblers)
The Menzingers - Hold On, Dodge
One of those records so brilliant that you listen to it every day for months on end. I thought the same of A Lesson In The Abuse of Information Technology, an album of early recordings that seemed to make most pop-punk look small and tame in comparison. I mention this because that album is two years old, and four of the five songs on here make it look like a collection of half-arsed demos. It took a few listens to grow on me as its not as immediate as songs like ‘Sir Yes Sir’, ‘A Lesson in the Abuse…’ or ‘Clap Hands Two Guns’, but once it did I realised that the essential agreements of the band – astonishing dynamics and melodies, perfect vocal harmonies and sing-along choruses. I could get drunk to this EP forever. I only wish it didn’t have the cute but fairly pointless acoustic track at the end; it’s good, but after the four songs that precede it I struggle to see the point of it. So there you go: four songs so fucking good they make me want to erase a perfectly fine song from history.
- The Lawrence Arms – Buttsweat and Tears (superb record, awful name, has a glass of whiskey on the cover)
- The Offcuts - Structures Built By Peasant Hands (the last thing they’ll ever record, and their strongest and most unique collection of songs yet)
- Throats / Rolo Tomassi – split 7″ (two of the UK’s heaviest bands covering each other, with a predictably brilliant clash of identities as the result)
Best Live Performance
Hmm. I can’t stream gigs from my hard drive or the Internet, as a general rule, and thanks to my infamously appalling memory (I forget everything, often quite quickly) I’m not even sure who I’ve seen this year. In fairness, I’ve been to in the region of a hundred shows this year.
Rather than presenting a list, as above, I’ll just ramble a little. Seeing That Fucking Tank is an immediately stand-out; I had no idea what to expect and sometimes this is just where you need to be to appreciate just how amazing a band is. And seeing Bomb the Music Industry was pretty special, even if I did make myself look like a retard by leading a pathetic stage invasion.
I saw Dananananaykroyd three times last year and much as I like their recorded output it’s live that their irrepressible energy and charm really emerges. I am also overwhelmingly happy to have participated in a Wall of Hugs. I saw Throats for the first time at Offset festival (and was impressed, even after years of metal, hardcore and punk shows, at the glorious violence of pissed-off teens) alongside Rolo Tomassi (for about the fourth time) and Future of the Left (for about the third time). Actually, additional shouts for Future of the Left because live they’re an incredible amount of fun; I could honestly listen to those guys put down hecklers for 45 minutes. Elsewhere, I saw the Gaslight Anthem about half a year too late to catch them at a small venue (I don’t know if they had done a UK tour before that, sadly) and the evening was kind of ruined by the conflict between trapped wind and a desire to get drunk.
The two ATP festivals I went to last year also boasted an impressive number of great experiences; Dirty Three, Sunn0))), Explosions in the Sky, Shellac, Devo, the Mae Shi, Parts & Labor (actually, at ATP this was lacklustre, but a few months earlier in Brighton they were ace), and This Will Destroy You. And, of course, I can’t forget the smaller but special local and regularly visiting bands like Break the Habit, Apologies I Have None, the Offcuts, the Plague Sermon, Attack! Vipers! and Crazy Arm.
Oh, and did I mention my band played with Cheap Girls, Chillerton and Kept By Casino? Still stoked about that.
A terrible year in my life, but an amazing year in music. So thanks, 2009, for giving me lots to look back on fondly.