My top ten albums of the year:
10. Hard-Fi – Once Upon A Time In The West
‘A global terror they say/We are at war/But I ain't got time for that cos/These bills keep dropping through my door’
Standout tracks: Suburban Knights, Help Me Please, We Need Love
They’re not exactly cool in any circles. They’ve been condemned as being ‘boring’ and ‘chavs with guitars’. But hell, I like them, so haters can fuck off! Anyway, they’ve had two number one albums in the UK, so I’m not alone here. Their debut, Stars Of CCTV, was excellent in parts, but this is a definite progression, and there isn’t a track on here that is anything less than gripping. They are so far superior to any of the other current NME bands, and the word ‘indie’ doesn’t even begin to describe their music, which owes so much to so many different genres, like soul, ska and post-punk. Richard Archer’s lyrics have more than a touch of Joe Strummer about them, not so much in an angry way, but more in a poet for the common person kind of way. There’s nothing particularly clever, but he says what he sees and what he feels. It will be fascinating to see where they go from here.
9. Porcupine Tree – Fear Of A Blank Planet
‘How can I be sure I'm here?/The pills that I've been taking confuse me/I need to know that someone sees that/There's nothing left, I simply am not here’
Standout tracks: Fear Of A Blank Planet, My Ashes, Anesthetize
In the world of this album, sullen teenagers trudge through the urban wastelands, senses numbed by pills, stripped of the thrill that growing up should obviously be, wishing away their days. In this dismal existence, illuminated only by TVs, Xboxes and iPods, the only friends are Myspace friends, and the only freedom is the freedom to consume. It’s a world that’s easy to recognise for Generation Y-ers everywhere. Generation Whateva. Generation Blank Planet.
Porcupine Tree have created a beautifully plaintive and despairing album that is somehow sentimental and nostalgic for feelings that only seem to exist in adverts.
8. Grinderman - Grinderman
‘We've done our thing/We’re hip to the sound/Of six billion people/Going down’
Standout tracks: No Pussy Blues, Electric Alice, Man In The Moon
‘Foulmouthed, noisy, hairy, and damned well old enough to know better’, four members of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds step forward to deliver a swaggering, riotous and confused collection of garage rock, mixed with other eerie bits and women with old-fashioned names. If it isn’t quite in the Bad Seeds class, it sounds like a great night’s trawl through a seedy netherworld. And No Pussy Blues is still hilarious, ten months on. DAMN!
7. Saul Williams – The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust!
‘Would Jesus Christ come back American?/What if he's Iraqi and here again?/You'd have to finally face your fears, my friend/Who's gonna hold your hand when that happens?’
Standout tracks: Tr(n)igger, Scared Money, Raw
He’s fiercely different, at war with the zeitgeist, yet shot through with vulnerability. Every Saul Williams album is like an explosion of ideas, each clashing and competing for supremacy in your consciousness. There are so many levels of meaning here, it will take infinity to process, so its ranking is maybe a bit low. Williams’ musical partnership with Trent Reznor (who’s been championing him for a few years), means Niggy Tardust sounds like a rap Nine Inch Nails in places. That’s nowhere near as messy as I thought it might be, so it’s to the great credit of the experimental duo.
6. Machine Head - The Blackening
‘This is a call to arms/Will you stand beside me?/This is our time to fight/No more compromising/And this blackened heart will sing/For sad solidarity'
Standout tracks: Clenching The Fists Of Dissent, Halo, Wolves
This album was hyped like no other metal album in 2007, with critics calling it the best since Master Of Puppets before it had even been released. A lot of that was on the back of Aesthetics Of Hate, the band’s furious response to William Grim’s ‘obituary’ for Dimebag Darrell. This made Machine Head the perfect peg for the big corporate beasts of the metal world to hang ‘metalness’ on for a while. Since they’re in the business of selling T-shirts and the like, ‘metalness’ must always stretch to cover the lowest common denominator. So this includes the Beavis and Butthead type of fans, who are in a small minority. But from his position of class fear in an ever more polarised society, Grim tarred all metal fans with that brush.
I’m rambling here, but the point is that The Blackening perfectly illustrates one aspect of ‘metalness’ as I see it, whereas the Beavis and Buttheads (and the bands they go on to form) are actually nothing for Grim and the layer he speaks for to worry about. As Robb Flynn replied to Grim on Blabbermouth.net:
"What would YOU know about love or values? What would YOU know about giving to the world? All that you know is teaching prejudice, and your heart is as black as the 'ignorant, filthy, and hideously ugly, heavy metal fans' you try and paint in your twisted, fictitious ramblings. It's because of people like YOU, that there are Nathan Gales in this world, NOT the Dimebags and metal musicians who work to unite people through music".
And that sums-up this album better than I could. It is fists in the air, teeth gnashing, ultimate potential thrashing through my veins, foreshadowing the strength that might tear the Grims and grimness apart.
5. Tristania - Illumination
‘For years our world has been falling apart/But we're tied up by words /The surface is smooth and cold /But underneath the blood always boils’
Standout tracks: Mercyside, The Ravens, Deadlands
This album, their last with ridiculously beautiful and talented female vocalist Vibeke Stene, isn’t that massive a departure from Tristania’s previous couple of albums, but it’s still a huge improvement. Perhaps Stene is more to the forefront, and the male vocals are complimenting her, rather than the other way round. Shame then that this is to be her swansong, and she is to be replaced by relative unknown Mariangela Demurtas. All aspects of Tristania came together in perfect balance for a brief moment in the sun (moon?), only to be separated once more.
4. Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero
‘Say your name/Try to speak as clearly as you can/You know everything gets written down/Nod your head/Just in case they could be watching/With their shiny satellite’
Standout tracks: Survivalism, Capital G, The Great Destroyer
This may be my favourite NIN album since The Downward Spiral. Composed on laptops in hotel rooms around the planet, this is a chilling exploration of the dystopian future unfolding in the here and now. The forces of darkness have won, the current popular disgust with the politicians and leaders has been misdirected and dissipated, and so Orwell’s hell has truly come to pass. Alone, one figure still fights, but his comeuppance cannot be far away. Bleak is not the word. Apparently it may spawn a film or even a TV series. That would be awesome, because I can see it in my mind whenever I hear this. With this release and his production of Saul Williams’ album, Trent Reznor has had a great year. And he even speaks out in favour of taking the music industry down, one download at a time. Wow, he’s so great.
3. The Smashing Pumpkins - Zeitgeist
‘Is everyone afraid?/You should be ashamed/Apocalyptic screams mean nothing to the dead/Kissing that ol' sun to know all there is/Come on, last call!/You should want it all!’
Standout tracks: Doomsday Clock, Tarantula, United States
I saw Smashing Pumpkins at Leeds festival this year, on one of the greatest days of my life. This may not be right up there with the band’s best (in fact the band might just as easily be called Zwan, except there’s no pseudo-Christian shit). But when I listen to the instrumental break on United States, with Jimmy Chamberlin’s rolling drums and Billy Corgan’s wailing guitar, I’ll always be able to see the drowning liberté éclairant le monde silhouetted against the moon, enshrouded in sweet-smelling smoke, and five thousand people holding their breath as my weary body floats higher and higher. Billy is scared. Billy is determined. Billy is happy to be scared and determined. Listen to those lovely harmonies!
2. The Nightwatchman - One Man Revolution
‘I know who I'm for/And who I'm against/I pulled the shades tight/I built me a fence/I dug a tunnel/Deep and wide/I sit at the bottom/And wait for the night’
Standout tracks: Battle Hymns, Maximum Firepower, Flesh Shapes The Day
When I found out that Rage Against The Machine’s (yeah, yeah, and Audioslave’s) guitarist Tom Morello was going to do an acoustic folk album, I didn’t know if I was going to like it. After all, I can’t stand that kind of shit. Ok, so appreciate the lyrics of Willy Nelson, (some) Bob Dylan and (more so, because he was most fucked-up) Johnny Cash, but it really isn’t my thing. So I was more than a little surprised to find out that this album is amazingly greatly fantastic! Morello has a deep, rich voice, halfway between Cash and Nick Cave, and he uses it to fan the flames of discontent with his seditious, endlessly quotable lyrics. On half the songs he’s some kind of solitary Old Testament figure, hell-bent on vengeance against (yes, of course) George Bush, but also any figure making a killing out of the profit system. On the other half he sings the wretched of the earth into battle. Either way, he’s unmissable.
1. Serj Tankian - Elect The Dead
‘Do you know that life is ending?/As we go, the dots connecting/We had our chance to save the garden/As it dies, our souls will harden/With these words chastising your conscience/We're breaking through and praying for transcendence’
Standout tracks: Empty Walls, Money, Saving Us
Beating his fellow Axis Of Justice founder to number one, and showing that he was the real talent behind System Of A Down, Serj Tankian releases a perfectly crafted, multi-dimensional, emotional wringer of a metal album, which seems to have a song for every mood and thought I’ve had this year. Yeah, the news is horrible, our lives are fast, furious and frustrating, but we could turn it all around and make a decent world. Or maybe it’s all too much, mankind has lived beyond its means and we’re all doomed to chaos and an early grave. Also, there are such things as personal relationships. All in all, it’s like a SOAD album, without the messing about. Damned near flawless.