Here be my top 10 albums of the past 12 months, most of which I reviewed in print (reproduced below). Big thanks to Rock-a-Rolla for letting me splurge my nonsense in their pages on a regular basis.
Tracks from many of the albums below, plus some other bits’n’bobs, are featured on this here Spotify playlist.
10) Kayo Dot – Coyote
Some bands really do defy easy encapsulation. Kayo Dot make music of a perpetually shifting kind, a writhing, transfiguring sound that possesses elements of prog and jazz and avant-garde composition and art-rock, but inhabits none of them and all of them at once. Their fourth album, Coyote, is a single five-part composition, the lyrics and narrative arc of which were written by artist and close friend Yuko Sueta in the final stages of terminal breast cancer. Given that, lines such as ‘Help me, I’m disappearing’, delivered via Toby Driver’s brittle howl, carry a night-unbearable weight.
Though micro-composed to the point of OCD, Coyote is remarkable not only for its complexity, but for its breathtaking fluidity, the way the wildly disparate moods and methods metamorphose into each other imperceptibly. KD’s former metal leanings have been utterly expunged these days, but it’s notable that they’re just as forceful without them. A greater emphasis on brass adds gravitas and shimmer to the jazzier passages, at times redolent of ’70s Miles, which at any second may flow into doomy, neo-gothic ambience, bursts of kaleidoscopic prog that blossom like fireworks, or an agonising trawl through clattering shaped chaos. More powerful, both sonically and emotionally, than its wonderful but nebulous predecessor, Blue Lambency Downward, this is a unique, draining experience, as immersive as it is ineffable.
9) The Ex – Catch My Shoe
As this year’s 30 compilation showed, The Ex’s creativity shows no signs of fizzling out as they enter their fourth decade. Catch My Shoe is their first album sans founding vocalist GW Sok, but new guy Arnold de Boer makes for a painless transition. First single ‘Maybe I was the Pilot’, with exuberant squalls from incomparable trumpetfiend Roy Paci, is a brash opener – its long-form build typical of this band in 2010: jagged, angular riff builds via repetitive drive into an ecstatic frenzy. ‘Bicycle Illusion’ is similarly exceptional, the melodies reminiscent of the band’s infatuation with Ethiopian sounds circa Moa Anbessa, the climax swollen with rambunctiousness. Drummer Kat voices ‘Eolyeo’, an Eastern European folk ditty that weaves together the celebratory and the sombre in an exquisite way. The blazing first half gives way to a simmering third quarter, but ‘Life Whining’ and the uneasy, discordant ‘24 Problems’ constitute a volatile finale.
8) Killing Joke – Absolute Dissent
Their 14th album finds Killing Joke both reinvigorated and somewhat nostalgic – understandably so, as this is the first reappearance of the original Jaz/Geordie/Youth/Ferguson lineup since 1982. The title track is 100% classic Joke, barging straight in with a chorus like an unexpected quarry, guitars like mating bulldozers, talk of chemtrails and mind control – a call to arms with disco hi-hats. The heavier tunes perpetuate the metallic bent of the last two albums, especially ‘This World Hell’s brutal, mechanical one-note riff, chorus fuelled by double-bass rolls and flamethrower vocal. No one else sings like Jaz Coleman. His apocalyptic roar sounds like a man vomiting up a radiator, or the last drop of life being squeezed out of the last mammoth. The super-heavy ‘The Great Cull’ finds him giving full vent as he predicts and revels in Armageddon over sublimely chunky riffs. Anthemic, filthy and uncompromising, ‘Endgame’ is an instant classic, with almost a touch of boogie to its shuffling extinction lilt.
It’s not all brutality: ‘European Super State’, a celebration of the EU project, is a return to KJ’s dancier/more electronic side, sidelined since the mid-’90s. Though still noisy and awkward, ‘In Excelsis’s arena-filling chorus is extravagantly poppy, while ‘The Raven King’, a song for late bassist Paul Raven, is comparatively delicate and beautiful. Given KJ’s clear influence on Broadrick, it’s pleasing that the soaring ‘Honour the Fire’ sounds exactly like a faster Jesu, complete with surprisingly vulnerable streak.
Elsewhere, the choppy riff and skipping beats of ‘Fresh Fever from the Skies’ seem to come straight from What’s THIS For…!; the rough, aggressive ‘Depthcharge’ recalls the Extremities era; and ‘Here Comes the Singularity’s lean and wiry riff summons the early days by deliberately invoking ‘Eighties’ (or Nirvana’s ‘Come as You Are’ if you prefer…). In a final bit of broken nostalgia, ‘Ghosts of Ladbroke Grove’ harks back not only to the band’s geographic origins, but also the dub sound of their first EP. Absolute Dissent feels like a definitive Joke document, an encapsulation of (almost) all of their eras and manifestations in one handy, crushing package. Undeniably strong and vital in its own right, but also a great place for dawdlers to jump on board.
7) Master Musicians of Bukkake – Totem Two
Part two of the trilogy from the finest band of exploratory musicians ever to be regrettably and incongruously named after a degrading act of group misogyny. Anyway… Totem Two bathes in much the same scrying pool as its predecessor – long-form quasi-mystical and texturally sumptuous ethno-dronescapes with a doom-derived aesthetic – but is blessed with greater dramatic power. Opener ‘Bardo Chonyid/Master of All Visible Shapes’ rises out of dust devils; plague bells chime, a warning horn sounds, guitars strike and slither. ‘Perde Kaldirma’ brings the dubious gift of panpipes, but does so in an instinctive way that complements its hypnotic funereal dirge. But it’s ‘Coincidental Oppositorum’ and ‘Patmos’ that are the most radical and captivating, built on sweeping, time-lost melodies, epic in scale, atavistic in their beauty, reminiscent of Eyvind Kang’s boldest, most sensuous work. It’s here that MMB’s curtain of darkness falls away and they embrace the purity of the sublime.
6) Melvins – The Bride Screamed Murder
The third manifestation of the Nth incarnation of the thing known as Melvins brings mostly refinement, but hints of revolution. Half of the tracks continue to build on the principles established by the Big Business-enhanced line-up on (A) Senile Animal and Nude With Boots. For virgin ears, that means knotty, reptilian guitar lines; muscle-bound twin drum attack by Dale and Coady; and refreshingly inviting harmony-saturated vocals from Buzz and Jared. The average tempo and pop saturation of Melvins has increased significantly since the Big Business boys came to town. Buzz’s crispy latterday guitar sound is even more sharp and sprightly, especially on the spiralling, companion pieces ‘Electric Flower’ and ‘Lighten Up’, the latter soaring oddly like Jane’s Addiction if Perry Farrell were two burly men.
However, the strongest tracks are the most anomalous and experimental. Irresistible opener ‘The Water Glass’ starts out in a tangle of suitably crushing riffage, but gives way to few minutes’ Full Metal Jacket-style drill sergeant call and response. Layered vocals and cavernous effects give super-heavy crawl ‘I'll Finish You Off’ a curious high church feel, an impression cemented by queasy, high-pitched vocals from menacing altar boys.
The highlight is arguably the treacle-paced version of The Who’s ‘My Generation’, seemingly sung by a gang of Muppet weasels in an Anderson shelter. Where the original was fuelled by brash hedonism, this sinister dirge resembles a recruitment anthem for sociopaths. As the riff cycles, ever slower and more distant, enveloped by muffled noise, it’s difficult to shake the feeling that your bathysphere has been cut loose and you’re heading for the ocean floor. The closing ‘P.G. x 3’ is one of this band’s strangest works – a surreal collage of suffocating drones, funereal a cappella folk, sensuous guitar resonance, and a lonely child reciting numbers in a hyperbaric chamber. Beautifully balanced between the anticipated and the aberrant, The Bride Screamed Murder is the sound of Melvins continuing to ignore your idea of what they’re supposed to be.
5) Zs – New Slaves
It might sound odd, given that this is at no.5, but I’m still uncertain as to whether, as a cohesive album, New Slaves is really that good. For the most part, it’s an interesting enough bit of rumbling cacophony and improv and drone. But. But. It more than earns its place here on the basis of one piece at its centre, the truly astonishing 20-minute title track – a relentless, clanking, genre-dodging atonal grind that smudges the borders between freeform improvisation, ultra-tight, complex pre-composition and dogged, maddening repetition in a way that’s thoroughly unsettling and cortex-shatteringly brilliant.
4) Mike Patton – Mondo Cane
It’s easy to see why Mike Patton was drawn to these 1960s Italian pop tunes. Most share the same heightened, almost cartoonish sense of drama that has characterised the best of his own work, from the sculpted ultra-dynamics of Fantômas to the bombastic power of Faith No More. And of course, their octave-bounding melodies allow him to administer a good seeing-to to those fans who’ve been yearning for him to really cut loose and sing.
‘Il Cielo in Una Stanza’, which eagle-eared cinephiles may spot lurking in the background of Goodfellas, is a simmering opener, bubbling up out of storm clouds and syncopated ‘la la la’s and blossoming into lavish histrionics. ‘Ore d'Amore’s swooping melodrama features fuzzy guitars and sublime moments of swelling rallentando – this one really pushes the larynx too, the verse starting deep in the belly and soaring straight to the stratosphere. Accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Patton excels himself on ‘Scalinatella’, a sombre heartquake whose strength lies in its understatement. Probably the strongest vocal performance here, though easily the least flashy.
It’s mostly a relatively down-tempo, explicitly seductive collection, though there are exceptions. ‘Urlo Negro’ is a frankly ridiculous song consisting of a stomping riff and a whole lot of throat shredding. Patton plays the sleazy carnival barker on ‘Che Notte!’, a storming bit of Mediterranean swing driven by Roy Paci’s voluptuous trumpet.
Regular touchstone Morricone is represented by ‘Deep Down’, one of his pop outings, though it feels relatively lightweight, both within the context of this album and in relation to his other work. ‘Senza Fine’ brings things to a suitably grandiose close, its delicate sentiment and rich melodies leading to a huge, emotive climax.
These songs are essentially orchestral live recordings tweaked in the studio, with mixed results. The electronics and overdubs and effects are mostly well-woven and subtle, but can at times be excessive – the multi-layered vocals on ‘Urlo Negro’ and the ‘singing in a tin cupboard’ effect on ‘Senza Fine’, for example, are obtrusive and distracting. It also feels a little slight, clocking in at just over 35 minutes. But these are minor quibbles, and shouldn’t detract from a lush, bold, hugely entertaining and often genuinely moving labour of love.
NB: Having been familiar with the Mondo Cane live bootlegs, I found the production a little much at first. I’ve since revised my opinion, and now think it’s a beautifully rendered and insanely detailed production job that reveals more and more with every listen.
3) Cleric – Regressions
As statements of intent go, starting your debut album with a 20-minute splurge of vile noise, unsettling sound sculpture and around 50 insanely intricate riffs entwined in an orgy of bones and blood is a pretty bold one. ‘Allotriophagy’ may just be the least welcoming opening track of all time – but it sets the tone. Aside from a handful of ambient interludes and field recordings, Regressions offers unceasingly confrontational, staggeringly dense avant-grind death-thrash and patchwork brutality from start to finish. It’s relentless yet restless – any given moment may bring precise low-end polymetrics, mathematic speedfreakery, doom battery or sheets of rancid guitar noise.
Cleric are pushing extremes of both invention and intensity, but this is no mere mosaic of Guitar Institute exercises. It flows seamlessly and hints at a coherent but impressionistic narrative thread, a painful backstory that the ever-shifting barrage consistently tries and fails to obliterate via extreme, futile catharsis. It’s not until the haunting piano-led coda of the final track that the splenetic rage subsides and a kind of stoic acceptance is reached. Stunning, on all levels.
2) Shining – Blackjazz
While 2007’s Grindstone was a wildly eclectic genre splurge, Blackjazz (despite the title) is very definitely a rock album – albeit a supremely heavy, unceasingly brutal and forward-looking one. ‘The Madness & the Damage Done’ establishes the new paradigm of maximum intensity with buzz-ravaged, digitally tooled stop-start riffs, avant-math-thrash beats and distorted vocal rage. Then ‘Fisheye’, ‘Exit Sun’ and ‘HEALTER SKELTER’ each take turns to hit new heights of dextrous, off-balance bludgeon. But it’s with the total system detonation of ‘Blackjazz Deathtrance’ that Shining really outdo themselves (and everyone else) – 11 minutes of perilously exciting hyper-speed 22nd-century industrial technoprog chaos metal that sounds increasingly unfeasible with every listen. At album’s end, Enslaved’s Grutle Kjellson rends his throat during a charred, mutilated version of King Crimson’s ‘21st-century Schizoid Man’, the fuzzed-out bass notes of which could arouse humpback whales. Astonishingly focused and potent, Blackjazz is what it sounds like when a tirelessly questing band finally finds its identity – and it turns out to be a shark-eyed killing machine from an impossible future.
1) Marina & the Diamonds – The Family Jewels
So here we are. Much as I’d love to gain hardcore metal/experimental/noise points by putting something truly crushing and brutal at no.1, the truth is that by far my most listened-to, scrutinised and adored album of the year was a collection of eccentric and super-catchy British pop.
Marina was first brought to my attention in 2009 by Caroline McKenzie, who posted a YouTube link for ‘Mowgli’s Road’ on Twitter. I was at first intrigued and then entranced by this strange but urgent tune, a stomping, bizarre paean to the difficulties of self-realisation, delivered by a brash, idiosyncratic voice. Though no Beyonce-style vocal virtuoso, Marina clearly revels in exploring the limits of her distinctive, expressive voice. It’s a versatile instrument, mahogany in its resonant depths, shimmering at its apex, punctuated by odd ticks and purrs and bleats and yelps and a restless (rootless) accent.
The album came out in February this year, and never left my ears for long. It packs some pretty bizarre, unlikely and incongruous ideas and huge amounts of detail into irresistible three-minute pop songs in a way that’s utterly fascinating. Every single song here sounds like a colossal hit single, but no two sound remotely alike. Yet The Family Jewels also has an indefinably cohesive character. Every tune, be it the Moroder bass rumble and arena-rock chorus of ‘Shampain’, the Sparks-esque giddy absurdities of ‘Hermit the Frog’, the heartbreakingly empowered vulnerability of ‘I am not a Robot’ or the pained elegance of ‘Numb’, clearly springs from a single imagination.
One attribute that sets Marina apart from those to whom she’s most often lazily compared (Florence, La Roux, etc. (’cause female musicians must only ever be compared to other female musicians. IT’S THE LAW)) is her lack of self-consciousness. Where others convey lofty insouciance and a need to attain gravitas, she’s not afraid to be silly (‘Mowgli’s Road’, ‘Hermit the Frog’), almost embarrassingly frank (‘Guilty’, ‘Obsessions’) or avowedly ruthless in her pursuit of success (‘Oh No’, ‘Numb’). At times she’s even kind of crass and obnoxious (‘Hollywood’, ‘Girls’), but this only serves to ground her songs, to establish them as rounded whole. The first lines of the first song of her debut album (‘Are You Satisfied?’) talk about signing her record deal, creating an infinite self-referential loop that suggests she didn’t even exist prior to the recording process. Hollowing yourself is hardly the most ingratiating way to announce yourself to the world, but with hindsight, it makes perfect sense and introduces a creative spirit in a state of flux. Though clearly aimed squarely at the mainstream, this is no bland, glossy product assembled by committee, but a peculiarly charismatic warts-and-all patchwork.
Who knows where Marina will go from here? On the one hand, I hope she’ll disregard the need to maintain the success she’s already achieved and do something really way out, unfettered and uncommercial – yet it’s exactly the tension between her wild imagination and the pop format that makes so many facets of The Family Jewels so captivating.
Finally, some other goodnesses from this year, in no particular order, almost any of which could have been in the top 10:
Swans – My Father will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky
Foetus – Hide
Sun City Girls – Funeral Mariachi
Extra Life – Made Flesh
Marnie Stern – Marnie Stern
Carla Kihlstedt/Matthias Bossi/Shahzad Ismaily – Causing a Tiger
Prince Rama – Shadow Temple
Richard Youngs – Inceptor
Watain – Lawless Darkness
Janelle Monae – Archandroid
Bardo Pond – Bardo Pond
Black Sun – Twilight of the Gods
The Ex – 30
Andrew Paine – Chapel of Stars
Hey Colossus & the Van Halen Time Capsule – Eurogrumble
Alistair Crosbie – Sad Faces of the Moon
Rashomon – The Finishing Line
Acid Mothers Temple & Stearica – AMT invade Stearica
Richard Youngs/Andrew Paine – Robot
Harvey Milk – A Small Turn of Human Kindness
Mogwai – Special Moves
John Zorn – Ipsissimus