Sunday, January 03, 2010

2009 Through My iPod Earphones

It was an intriguing year in music, as artists started adjusting to the turmoil that the world is now undoubtedly in, particularly since the 2008 Wall Street Crash. A decade of depression seems to lie ahead, with war of one kind or another on top of that. So how has that changed the musical landscape?

After all, when the ground shifts beneath you, the old certainties and formulas are no longer enough. If you want to say something of importance, you are challenged to paint the world as you now see it, so you must take stock before hitting the studio. If you want to indulge in escapism...well, there is a (now much smaller) market out there, but I haven't got time for you.

Of course, all this takes some time to work its way through. Albums that came out in 2009 may have been in the pipeline for a few years, and so the change in new music has not been dramatic as yet. Even now, the seismic scale of the collapse is obscured by government bailouts of the super-rich, and the inspirational factor of mass opposition has yet to emerge. However, as a general rule I can say that the soundtrack to my 2009 was the music which said most about this new world, in which we must be very brave indeed.

1) Muse - The Resistance
Download: Resistance, United States of Eurasia (+ Collateral Damage), Unnatural Selection
Counterbalace the commotion/We're not droplets in the ocean/We're the ocean

Listening to this, Muse's best album, I can feel my brain expanding, like the universe. Only a great band like Muse can successfully meld together so many music styles on one album, without sounding even slightly contrived. So far, so awesome. But maybe, inspired by the cataclysms to come, they will invent an entirely new style of music. I can definitely see it happening. In the meantime, raise your fist to the agitrock of Uprising, swoon to the romantic Nineteen Eighty-Four references of Resistance, and gaze out into the unfathomed mystery of space during the Exogenesis triptych. Music hasn't been this exciting for many years. This band could be your life.

2) Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown
Download: Murder City, Restless Heart Syndrome, American Eulogy
I can hear the sound of a beating heart/That bleeds beyond a system that's falling apart/With money to burn on the minimum wage/Well I don't give a shit about the modern age

Billie Joe Armstrong got a lot of criticism from radicals in 2008, when he got swept up in the enthusiasm for the Obama presidential campaign. A year on, and the society described so well on 21st Century Breakdown has 'change'd for the worse, at least for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet. I will eat my hat if he doesn't support the working class resistance when it properly gets organised. One or two riffs are familiar from the last couple of albums, but things like that can easily be forgiven when they are crafted into such perfect guitar pop, and the words demonstrate absolute sympathy with the kind of people who put the band in their elevated position.

3) Street Sweeper Social Club - Street Sweeper Social Club
Download: Clap For The Killers, Megablast, Promenade
Slumlords of the world have united/And they announced a world tour/You are hereby cordially invited/To the third world war

So, Rage Against The Machine got a Christmas number one, but still haven't announced any work on a new album. Tom Morello is great as The Nightwatchman, but acoustic folk isn't for everyone. So what to do? Well, listen to Street Sweeper Social Club for a start, because it features Morello, as well as the ridiculously talented Boots Riley from The Coup on vocals. Boots doesn't sound as angry as Zack (who does?), but he's one hundred times the poet, and he has a certain warmth and love for his people that we definitely need in times like this. In a war situation, Zack would definitely have your back, but Boots would help keep up your morale. We are in a war situation.

4) Metric - Fantasies
Download: Sick Muse, Gold Guns Girls, Stadium Love
Every living thing/Pushed into the ring/Fight it out to wow the crowd/Guess you thought you could just watch/No-one's getting out

Metric are a strange group, because they really sound like they might get on commercial radio, they never get on commercial radio. Yes, they may be slickly polished, and their songs are built on catchy sing-along choruses and easy hooks, but playlist compilers must fear that their lyrical content is far too thinky, even if subtely so. Emily Haines has long been a cut above, mixing existential enquiry into the nature of things with warmth and humour. On Fantasies, everything is stepped up a gear, and the result is about as good a Metric album as I could have hoped for. Philosophy you can sing along to; more pop needs to be like this! I suppose Metric must be 'un-pop'...

5) Eels - Hombre Lobo
Download: In My Dreams, The Longing, Ordinary Man
My love is always just as she seems/A force of nature on her own/To be reckoned with/Whatever's wrong with me/Her kiss redeems/And it's all there/In my dreams

Well something very different must have happened to Mark 'E' Everett's romantic life, because his usual small man in a big world sounds gave way to "12 Songs of Desire", the album's subtitle. From the testosterone-charged stomp (I can hardly believe I'm writing those words about Eels) of Tremendous Dynamite and Prizefighter, to the agonising longing of...The Longing, to the poetically described horniness of Lilac Breeze, it's very apparent that someone special came into his life. Unfortunately, having heard his even newer album End Times, that person left as quickly as they came. Poor thing!

6) Alice In Chains - Black Gives Way To Blue
Download: A Looking In View, All Secrets Known, Your Decision
No-one plans to take the path that brings you lower/And here you stand before us all and say it's over

It is fifteen years since arguably the most under-appreciated of the Seattle grunge bands released their self-titled final studio album. It's also nearly eight years since lead singer Layne Staley died from a drug overdose. Given all that, it would have sounded false if they'd tried to copy their early to mid-nineties sound. As it is, Black Gives Way To Blue is just different enough to represent a good progression, and Staley's 'replacement' William DuVall complements Jerry Cantrell very well. Gone is the talk of self-disgust, self-abuse and self-medication, and it's replaced with philosophical meanderings about motivations and moving on with your life. Cantrell seems to be trying to put his younger self in perspective; that's a very healthy thing, and makes for a compelling listen.

7) Kreator - Hordes Of Chaos
Download: Hordes Of Chaos (A Necrologue for the Elite), Radical Resistance, Demon Prince
All addicted to the dark side of life/Cast out but not alone/We're the ones that will not compromise/Antidote to slavery, suffering and war

This unfolding era holds specific challenges for eighties thrash metal bands. Acts such as Kreator, Metallica and Slayer have been providing headbangers with blood and guts for more than a generation. Born of fire in Cold War paranoia and Reagan's neoliberal onslaught, how much more can be said? As Metallica retreat to egos the size of their mansions, and Slayer regress to ever more empty sadistic fantasies, Kreator frontman Mille Petrozza invokes Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech slayer (Amok Run). Petrozza was also inspired to write by the 2006 student protests and riots in France (Radical Resistance), and the "everyone against everyone against everyone against everyone" culture of millennial capitalism (Hordes of Chaos). Not coincidentally, this album fucking rocks.

8) Katatonia - Night Is The New Day
Download: Onward Into Battle, New Night, Inheritance
My beloved one/There is swirling dark/Shrouding my freedom

I first heard this by the sea, as the sun set beyond the cliffs. That was a very good decision, because it nicely fitted the sense of gathering gloom which pervades the entire album. The metal is heavier than in more recent Katatonia releases, but the main difference is the foreboding in Jonas Renske's gorgeously plaintive whine. Few specifics are mentioned in the lyrics, but it's overwhelmingly apparent that Renske intensely feels the tension from the build-up of socio-political stormclouds, and fears for the future of humanity. And of course he is right to do so.

9) Comrade Malone & DJ Downlow - Spontaneous Revolt
Download: One Single Frequency, Throw The Molotov, In The End
Feel the fire in my heart when I write my songs/I reach earth for the freedom I was here to get/In the end I don't wanna have regrets

North London council estates, homelessness and the spontaneous school protests at the start of the Iraq invasion shaped this young rapper's politics, and it very much sounds like it. Over a backdrop of some seriously dirty beats, Comrade Malone spits about the inevitable corruption of politicians, the indignity of life in poverty, and wanting to start his "own Lockheed Martin" in the class war. There is much pain in his vocals, but it's hurt that has used to clarify his own thinking about his place in the world. There's swagger and sensitivity, laddishness and intelligence. A full picture of a furious yet down to earth guy emerges.

10) Porcupine Tree - The Incident
Download: Drawing The Line,Time Flies, I Drive The Hearse

But after a while/You realize time flies/And the best thing that you can do/Is take whatever comes to you

Like everything he creates, the prolific Steven Wilson's latest composition is thoughtful, literate, and full of yearning for...something indefinable. Something better. Perhaps the concept of looking at life-changing moments doesn't fully come off, and maybe some of the songs run into each other a little too unmemorably (especially in comparison to 2007's Fear Of A Blank Planet). But this is a splendid soundtrack for those moments of yearning, and goodness knows, I've had enough of those this year!

The others...

And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead - The Century of Self
A welcome return to form in the realm of intelligent and ambitious experimental rock.

Brett Anderson - Slow Attack
Another decent solo effort from the former Suede frontman, but his life clearly isn't that interesting anymore, and his musicianship is not quite enough on his own.

Candlemass - Death Magic Doom
How can doom be downright boring? In 2009, this is how. "If I ever die", indeed. You will die. Deal!

Dead Prez - Pulse of the People
Another thoughtful, angry and inspiring listen is let down by an excremental final track, which undoes much of the previous good work. Still, its social commentary is the most up to the minute of all this year's albums.

Depeche Mode - Sounds of the Universe
This band have been treading water for a while now, and this is their worst release in a while. The blueprint desperately needs to be broken.

Dinosaur Jr - Farm
Another band that doesn't seem to vary their style much, but their twee, pathetic indieish grunge is of a consistently high quality.

Disbelief - Protected Hell
It sounds like the title of a concept album about how a 'hell' might be 'protected' or something. It isn't that, but never mind, because some days a shuffle shot of Disbelief is just the seething thing.

Graham Coxon - The Spinning Top
This is a concept album, and it's a sensitive depiction of an unidentified man's journey through life, with all the highs and lows that can entail.

Heaven & Hell - The Devil You Know
An almost classic album from the artists formerly known as Black Sabbath, and hopefully Ronnie James Dio will get to eat some more cannibals.

KMFDM - Blitz
KMFDM are really half-arsed. They've said and done it all before, and it shows.

Leafblade - Beyond, Beyond
Celtic and medieval acoustic ballads are not normally my thing, but Danny Cavanagh out of Anathema's side-project will chime with anyone who likes nature and stuff.

Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
The fraught intellect and imagination of dear departed Richey Edwards, as filtered through the comfortable ennui of the contemporary 'Manics'.

Marilyn Manson - The High End Of Low
Brian Warner's life isn't nearly as interesting to the rest of us as he seems to think it should be. A few great songs though.

Morrissey - Years of Refusal
What do get if you take the wit, poetry and passion out of Morrissey? Moreover, why would anyone want to undertake such an experiment?

My Dying Bride - For Lies I Sire
Some very decent songs, but taken together they are less than the sum of their parts. And when compared to the back catalogue... There's enough suffering in the world for Aaron Stainthorpe to examine, without making up his own.

Napalm Death - Time Waits For No Slave
It's a Napalm Death album.

Novembers Doom - Into Night's Requiem Infernal
Ever-so-heartfelt gloom from the incorrectly-punctuated Chicago doomsters.

Paradise Lost - Faith Divides Us - Death Unites Us
A mixture of all the styles they've ever done, but not as continuously intriguing as In Reqieum, or indeed as the title of this effort would suggest.

Pearl Jam - Backspacer
Self-satisfied, Obama-happy limousine liberals of grunge sound ridiculously enthused about hope and change and shit.

Placebo - Battle For The Sun
Yet another 1990s band retreating into themselves, and yet another half-hearted attempt at whatever it was they used to do.

The Prodigy - Invaders Must Die
A mostly uninspired outing from an outfit who were once the edgiest of the edgy, in their own particular way.

Rammstein - Liebe Ist Fur Alle Da
More sinister naughtiness, in the German industrialists' first album for four years. Not earth-shattering, but very decent.

Sepultura - A-Lex
Without any Cavaleras, this really isn't Sepultura, and neither is this A Clockwork Orange concept album particularly interesting...except for the extraordinary Ludvig Van.

Serotonal - Monumental: Songs Of Misery And Hope
An excellent debut from Liverpool's own Serotonal, a band whose musical and lyrical ambition is far, far bigger than the local scene.

Slayer - World Painted Blood
An essentially empty album from a band that hasn't progressed one note since Seasons In The Abyss. Their bloody shtick is polished to perfection, however, and Tom Araya sounds far hungrier than his years and the lack of invention would suggest.

Sonic Youth - The Eternal
They may not be breaking down barriers these days, but they are still very, very good at crafting a certain kind of melancholic, genuinely alternative rock.

Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures
The combined talents of Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones end-up sounding like Queens of the Stone Age.


Grieving Age - In Aloof Lantern, Thy Bequeathed A Wailer Quietus
This two (very long!)-track EP has received very favourable views from around the world, and if the idea of Saudi Arabian doom metal appeals to you, you will certainly be rewarded for giving them a go.

The Ruby Kid - Winter In The City EP
If this release were just slightly longer, then this extremely exciting young poet would be very near the top of my album list. Read my full review here, and look out for more in 2010 and beyond.
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