Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Top Ten Albums of 2009

It's been a busy year.

I've joined two groups, formed one, continued playing with Hi-On Maiden, been on a lot of trains and played a lot of gigs. Somewhere in there I found the time to listen to some music. Fortunately, some of my favourite groups have been busy this year as well. I thought the 'Top Ten Albums of 2009' would write itself, but there were quite a few surprises this year. 2008 was a bit of a struggle, and the bottom few albums on the list made it there by virtue of being the strongest of a poor bunch. This year, I could have done a top twenty! I'll get to the 'honourable mentions' that didn't make it later. First, here comes the countdown...

Click here for a Spotify playlist featuring three tracks from each top ten album currently featured on their free streaming music service.

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10: Green Day - 21st Century Breakdown

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It's been five years since American Idiot came out. That album tapped into the global malaise that seemed to take hold in the early part of this decade, and in doing so it gave Green Day a sorely needed second wind. More than that - it exploded. So how do you follow that?

21st Century Breakdown is, to me, the logical next step. Rather than simply dole out American Idiot II, they cranked the bombast-o-meter and went a little bit further. A brave move, but it paid off. This album is chock full of classic Green Day riffs which, if a little predictable, certainly don't disappoint. Another slightly vague concept, and like it's predecessor runs a little bit too long to successfully make it's point. That said, it's a highly satisfying listen.

H Tunes: 21st Century Breakdown, Before The Lobotomy, Peacemaker

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9: Emmy The Great - First Love

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The first of two Latitude Festival discoveries in this list, Emmy The Great is a folk-ish singer-songwriter type young lady. First Love is her debut album and, as the title might suggest, it is full of touching naivety and youthful musings. While her lyrics look wonderfully biting in the insert, sometimes they come off sounding a bit clunky with extra syllables scattered across rhythms which can't quite contain them. That aside, this album is packed with promise for the future. There is a great honesty to the sound of this album, with no frills and not much in the way of studio trickery. This and the well-constructed (but not perhaps entirely unique) eclectic songs save the record from potential obscurity. I thoroughly enjoy this and recommend it to any of my friends with folky leanings.

H Tunes: Absentee, We Almost Had A Baby, First Love

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8: The Mars Volta - Octahedron

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I typically give bands two albums good grace if they start to lose my affections. After last year's The Bedlam In Goliath which was utterly, insanely brutal, I must admit I had fallen off the Martian bandwagon. I like their first, I love their second (Frances The Mute - my ultimate Sunday afternoon record). Their third left me a little cold and the fourth, while it was in my top ten last year, marked the end of my TMV love affair. I didn't want more of the same, which seemed to be where they were heading.

Then I heard "Since We've Been Wrong". Turns out I was wrong as well.

Dubbed by the band as "our acoustic album", Octahedron shows much more of the tenderness that sometimes shines through the madness of Rodriguez-Lopez's sound world. By no means is this album unplugged; there are some crushing moments on it. "Desperate Graves" and "Cotopaxi" both have the urgency and sonic turmoil still very much intact. But compared to the last album, this one is painted much more softly with the noisy brush. There's some positively Floyd-ian moments, but Cedric's lyrics soon remind you who you're listening to. All in all this is an absolute belter, and comes highly recommended to anyone who has ears.

H Tunes: Since We've Been Wrong, With Twilight As My Guide, Desperate Graves

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7: Eels - Hombre Lobo: 12 Songs of Desire

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It's been four years since Blinking Lights and Other Revelations came out. That album had some moments that I absolutely adore, but it's astonishing length and number of songs made it a little bit hit-or-miss. E (aka Mark Oliver Everett, son of physicist Hugh Everett III - look him up) is responsible for penning two of my favourite albums. Electro-Shock Blues is the most haunting collection of songs I've ever heard, dealing with more loss than anyone should ever have to deal with. It's follow-up, the much more light-hearted Daisies of the Galaxy is a wonderful record that has inspired me in a lot of my song-writing and instrumentation choices. So even though Blinking Lights... had it's flaws, I give E the benefit of the doubt every time.

Hombre Lobo is stonking. I had a brief conversation with a pal of mine who hit the nail on the head about why this album is so striking. "It described exactly how I was feeling at the time" said he. "How was that?", I asked innocently.

"Horny."

This record is, essentially, about wanting to get your end away and all the emotion and primal urgency that goes with it. There's some tremendously loud rock songs on this, but the tender side of things is also explored. For example, "The Look You Give That Guy" is a great little tune about jealousy and unrequited love. Following it is "Lilac Breeze", and I quote:

Birds do it, bees do it, I wanna do it
The only thing we need to do is get down to it


Quite.

H Tunes: Tremendous Dynamite, The Longing, My Timing Is Off

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6: Lee Abraham - Black & White

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This year my pal Lee put out his third solo effort. It's possibly a little bit cheeky of me to put this album on this list, given that I know the artist and will be part of the band playing this material live! However, it wouldn't be here if I didn't think it was any good. But it is. Oh, but it is!

He's really done it this time. While his last album View From The Bridge was very good indeed, the feedback from fans led Lee to laying out some cash and building himself a pro studio in a specially built out-building in the garden. Otherwise known as a shed! In production terms, he really knocked it out of the park this time. This album sounds stunning, with Lee calling in favours from all the stars of the British progressive rock underworld to brilliant effect. There are great vocal performances from Sean Filkins (ex-Big, Big Train), Simon Godfrey (Tinyfish), Gary Chandler (Jadis) and Steve Thorne (legend!). There are absolutely perfect guitar solos from John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, It Bites) and a superb synth solo on "The Mirror" from Jem Godfrey (Frost*). A fantastic sounding and unbelievably perfect drum performance from Gerald Mulligan. I've probably forgotten someone. I can't spaff over this one enough. It really is very good.

The centrepiece(s) of the album are the two epic title tracks, "Black" (featuring an emotion-fuelled performance from Filky) and "White" (featuring a choir of Steve Thorne!). Equally stunning are the songs that precede them, with "Face The Crowd" being heavier than a really heavy thing and "The Mirror" (the stand-out track for me) creeping along to it's menacing conclusion. I can't wait to unleash this live. With prog-fests in the pipeline and reviews in industry magazines, the future is shaping up to be quite exciting for Mr A.

(Unfortunately this is unavailable on Spotify - check the website for a sampler:http://www.leeabraham.co.uk/)

H Tunes: The Mirror, Black, White

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5: The Duckworth-Lewis Method - The Duckworth-Lewis Method

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Why has no-one done this before? A new genre has been born, ladies and gentlemen, and it's name?

Cricket pop.

Comprising of Neil Hannon (The Divine Comedy) and Thomas Walsh (Pugwash), this album manages to be hysterically funny yet oddly nostalgic in it's adoration of the quintessential Britishness of cricket. This was another act I witnessed at the Latitude Festival out in Suffolk during the summer, and it was an utterly joyous occasion. Resplendent in their cricket whites, the band hit the stage and I don't think many in the audience stopped laughing for the entirety of their set. Despite the humour and the potential for making a throwaway novelty concept album, the songs are remarkably good. Not that one should be surprised, given the duo who wrote them. Despite that, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of this album and I recommend it to anyone who a) likes a good pop song, b) likes cricket or c) wants to have a bit of a laugh.

H Tunes: Gentlemen and Players, Jiggery Pokery, Meeting Mr. Miandad

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4: Dream Theater - Black Clouds & Silver Linings

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I'm a bit of a fanboy, so please forgive me.

This album is very much Dream Theater-by-numbers, and while there are certainly a few moments I could live without, Dream Theater-by-numbers is good enough for me. Despite the fact that they really need someone to write their lyrics for them (or ask John Myung to have another crack at them), the songs here stand up well against the rest of their catalogue. "A Nightmare to Remember" is particularly pleasing to my ears, even more so upon seeing them live and watching Mikael Ã…kerfeldt of Opeth do the Cookie Monster section with them. That was awesome. Also good is the album's short song, "Wither", is a fairly tender yet rousing baritone guitar tune. I don't really enjoy the 12-step epic "The Shattered Fortress" - it's a bit of a laboured monstrosity though it does work well with it's preceding chapters. "The Best Of Times" simply doesn't do it for me, but they really got the long-form writing right with "The Count Of Tuscany". Again, though, the lyrics are utterly terrible! Sort it out boys.

A nice extra with this record was the inclusion of the album in instrumental form, without vocals or solos. I've had a bit of fun with that! A third disc contained six cover versions, with the band chocking out tunes from Queen, Iron Maiden and King Crimson among others. The Queen cover is particularly good.

H Tunes: Wither, The Count Of Tuscany, Tenement Funster / Flick of the Wrist / Lily of the Valley (Queen cover)

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3: Devin Townsend Project - Ki / Addicted

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Another slightly cheeky entry, two albums from the same artist in the same slot. I simply couldn't choose.

Mr Townsend, having given up drugs and booze, originally planned to release four albums this year under the moniker "The Devin Townsend Project". Each album to include different personnel and a different approach. He didn't quite make it, only managing two before 2009 reached it's conclusion.

Ki was the first, and is sonically a bit of a departure for Devin. Taking a 'tension and release' approach to the songs, he's created a very pleasing sonic world. A lot of down-tuned guitars but no real distortion or heavy crunch to be heard (except for in a couple of well-chosen places). Devin employed a Vancouver jazz drummer by the name of Duris Maxwell to thump the tubs on the album, and the light touch really accentuates the ambient nature of this music. It's a great listen. The wall-of-sound attack so common in Townsend's music has been replaced with something much more restrained. Another selling point is second-to-last track "Quiet Riot", which is essentially an acoustic version of Slade's "Cum On Feel the Noize" with a lyrical rewrite.

Addicted has only just appeared, but kicks all sorts of bottom. Described by Devy as "melodic" and "danceable", it's a collection of blisteringly heavy songs with pop-like accessible structures. Female vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen (ex-The Gathering) adds another layer to the music, with some fantastic interplay between her and Devin's voices. And helpfully every song has an exclamation mark after it. Brilliant. ! Unfortunately Addicted is unavailable on Spotify and as such isn't on me playlist.

Can't wait to hear what's next.

H Tunes: Coast, Terminal, Quiet Riot (Ki) / Addicted!, Universe in a Ball!, Ih-Ah! (Addicted)

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2: Biffy Clyro - Only Revolutions

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A lot of my friends disliked Biffy's last album Puzzle. I'm not entirely sure why - I thought it was very good myself! If I ever make an album half as good as that one, I'll be happy. Yes, the meandering angular song structures that made Infinity Land so dense and compelling were gone. The songs that were left, though, were stellar and inventive in their own ways. Interestingly, those same friends who disliked Puzzle seem over-the-moon about Only Revolutions, which is interesting.

I really do like this album quite a lot. From start to finish it is an engaging listen, with riffs as big as your house and some thoroughly complementary string and horn arrangements. However, the comparisons between this album and Puzzle are striking. Almost every song on this album feels like an expansion of a song from the last record. "That Golden Rule" has more than slight echoes of "Living Is A Problem...", and "God & Satan" might as well have been called "Machines, Part 2". "Bubbles" very much typifies the approach to songwriting that makes Biffy so appealing to me, combining simple song structure with the more progressive long-form style - i.e. verse, chorus, verse, chorus, now let's go off on a tangent until the end. That track in particular stands out, with some great guitar acrobatics from Josh Homme (Queens of the Stone Age). "Whorses" rounds things off with a wonderful rallying call. Good stuff boys.

H Tunes: That Golden Rule, Bubbles, Whorses

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1: Porcupine Tree - The Incident

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I don't quite know where to start with this one. Steven Wilson is a bit of a hero of mine, creating the sort of music that I would dearly love to get paid for. In the past decade, Porcupine Tree haven't really put a foot wrong. Lightbulb Sun, In Absentia, Deadwing and Fear of a Blank Planet were all rather good, and all seemed progressively heavier and darker. I must admit to expecting the next record to be their heaviest to date. What we got was something a bit special.

The Incident is a sprawling masterpiece on two CDs. The first CD is a 14-part "song cycle'" detailing the day-to-day horrors that are coldly referred to in media and signage as "incidents", which Wilson rightly points out "is a very detached word for something so destructive and traumatic for the people involved." There are some typically heavy moments on this album but the music is infused with much more of the lighter side of the Porcupine Tree soundworld. The acoustic guitars and piano that permeated Lightbulb Sun and Stupid Dream have been brought back into the fold, adding colour to the bleakness evoked by the lyrics and electronic wizardry. The second CD contains four equally excellent songs which stand apart from the concept.

This album is perfect.

H Tunes: Time Flies, The Seance, Remember Me Lover

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Honourable Mentions (aka "Close, but no cigar!")

In no particular order, here are the other albums that very nearly wound up in the list above but didn't quite cut it.

Bat For Lashes - Two Suns
Broken Records - Until The Earth Begins To Part
Jay Foreman - 20 Songs
Manic Street Preachers - Journal For Plague Lovers
Marmaduke Duke - Duke Pandemonium
Marillion - Less Is More
OSI - Blood
Them Crooked Vultures - Them Crooked Vultures
Transatlantic - The Whirlwind

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Things I Was On

Every Other Ones - EP1 (recorded but not released yet!)

I formed this band with my pal David Sharpe in the summer, and since then we've written a dozen tunes and look forward to recording an album next year. Acoustic guitars, vocals, ukulele, piano, all manner of other things in the pipeline. The most fun I've ever had without an amplifier.


Thea Ford - Monkey To The West

I joined up with this young lady as guitarist in May this year. I contribute a guitar solo to "Cat & Mouse", piano and acoustic guitar on "So Long" and acoustic guitar on "Hold You Together".

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And there you have it. Roll on 2010!

Yours with love,
Chrissy H

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