Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Disastrous Rocktimists UK Pop Critics Poll 2008 - The Jagger Opinion

Always a man for expanse, Rocktimists prog-rock correspondent Louis Jagger attached comments to his ballot that are so long that they’re getting their own entry.  Also postcode.

A year deep in the shadow of 2007, there were nonetheless a few nice surprises. Chief of all was the impromptu discovery of a debut solo record from The Electric Soft Parade’s more talented brother. I found out about its existence when visiting the band’s Myspace, with the express intention of finding Thomas White’s contact details and hectoring him about why he hadn’t taken creative control of the group and followed a star clearly more expansive and musically sublime than shown by last year’s disappointing ESP record. A swift iTunes download later and it became rapidly apparent that he had done just that. Only 37 minutes long, it’s not got a wasted second, trading in pop snap for flow, craft and a handful of mighty, mighty compositions. Considering it was all done in his girlfriend’s basement for close to no expenditure, it’s as technically inspirational as it is stunningly conceived. White himself claims that there are plenty of things he’d have liked to have tweaked given time, but he had to just “get it out there”. Such modesty is disarming, and belies an album with a clear and thoroughly convincing musical arc. Don’t be put off by the rough edges; White is something of a studio master, and after alternating near-acoustic pluckalongs with showstopping psych-rock-outs, he settles into an ambient-pop groove that thrills as much as it soothes, before ending on a note as unexpected as it is brilliantly-realised: think “smoky jazz sci-fi apocalypse”, then sip on a Daquiri as the sun explodes. For many reasons my album of the year. Sadly, I do not expect it to be on anyone else’s list; it seems like the kind of record you had to have found by happy accident.

After this, there was an intriguing battle for 2-5 by four records I’m more than happy to stick a metanarrative on. More appropriately, they represent two pairs of albums looking to forge ahead and make exciting, different music they can call their own. Volcano and Youthmovies, having been around some time, were unleashing long-awaited 2nd major releases, having refined their raw talents, written some stunning songs, and married progressive structure and attitude to a more organised, user-friendly format. As it turned out, Volcano’s record contained the best moments (more on that later), but Youthmovies’, as their first full-length album, seemed to have more at stake, and consequently was from start-to-finish the more engaging, surprising listen. Volcano, having blown minds and won hearts in 2005 with Beautiful Seizure, were faced with the near-impossible task of following up a classic, and did so admirably, with a less shocking but perhaps more assured, controlled bunch of songs. I’d call Good Nature the stone-cold classic, but Paperwork got better every time I listened to it, and is worthy of a place in the top 5.

The other two records in this little metanarrative were less spiky-guitar post-rock, more rollercoaster-pop stuck in 6th gear with no out-shot except to roll on and on. Silvery were a breath of fresh air, their dementedly whirlwind-psychogeography-London-carnival-apocalypse pop mash containing more than a hint of Cardiacs and Blur while dealing with subject-matter Iain Sinclair would doubtless approve of, the overall effect one of joyous revel in London’s luminous historical underbelly. The music itself was fast, furious, and never less than convincing, the album well-paced and the lyrics intelligent. In the other corner, we had Late Of The Pier, and an album that at first (and any subsequent) description sounds like it should be awful, a sort of Nathan Barley wet-dream glam-nu-rave wig-out. Crucially, despite being this, it’s also musically inquisitive, open-minded, assured and in its zaniness utterly compelling. I’ll find it difficult to say how I came to love it, but believe me, it improves with repeat listens. Funny, smart, self-deprecating, huge, beautiful and constantly engaging, it blindsided a lot of people this year, myself one of them, and its placement alongside records incalculably inferior to it (Klaxons anyone?) is slightly insulting.

There weren’t many more records I liked much this year, so the rest of the list pretty much writes itself. HMHB were superb as usual, making it 6 career-best albums since turning 10, a feat I’m certain is completely unique in the music world. No let-up in lyrical bite, and the songs were just as memorably tuneful as anyone could have hoped. The Chap massively improved on “Ham”, turning out an album both fun and interesting, never academic or dull. Hope you catch my drift. Some massive tunes on show, brilliant lyrics. Pretty good. Art-pop at its most deviously catchy, almost reluctantly dancefloor-ready, scornfully ironic best. The rest is stuff I included to make it 10. In 2007 they wouldn’t have made my top 30.

As for songs, Volcano were responsible for the only truly transcendental moment of the year, a 7-minute rock bolero that should have ended their album (and the careers of several bands who purport to make “art-rock”). Building from steady rhythmic ground into a morose meditation on working life, it reaches a central point of reckoning, reorganises itself in 3-time, and slowly transforms into an utterly triumphant, careening victory-march, with crazed electronics, a tune to die for, and a vocal performance by frontman Aaron With that will take some beating. Then, just as everything reaches its apex, it all drops away and the whole thing is chewed up by an electronic processor. Breathtaking, and I can confirm they pull the whole thing off live as well (being by FAR the best act I’ve seen all year). And they’re nice people! Good lord. HMHB’s “National Shite Day”, based on an awesome rocked-out riff, contained some of N. Blackwell’s best lyrics yet, describing in the first (extended) verse a country in disrepair, and in the second, a nevertheless fictitious personal anecdote that nonetheless constituted both the saddest and funniest 90 seconds of the year. And that chorus! So catchy! All after me: “I do believe it’s National Shiiiiiiiite Daaaaaay!”

The others are all best tracks on their album, “Proper Rock” probably the zenith of The Chap’s drive to write a song that is both 100% sarcastic and yet 100% catchy, a brilliantly exuberant dance-rock Cardiacs in melody but lyrically an RP-voiced, irony-dripping treatise on “proper songs for real folk” about “girls and clubbing” that drops out, tunes in, spins about and shows The Chap frankly having their arty cake and eating it. Special mention to Esoteric for writing an album so enormous that I wasn’t remotely able to comprehend it, but putting by far the best track at the start, a 20-minute doom opus that charms, shreds, crushes, lulls, corrodes and destroys. On its own, a brilliant musical manifesto, but followed by about 90 more minutes of similar-ish dark majesty, perhaps best taken in isolation. And special mention to Late Of The Pier for proving that they could dial back on the pyrotechnics and produce a composition deep with texture, subtlety, mood and patience, along with one of the most outrageous titles in recent memory. Torche and Virgin Passages sneak in for providing respectively the finest feelgood moment in 2008 metal and a completely overlooked 7-minute ambient gem, all keyboard swooshes, poised acoustic guitar and pretty vocal harmonies spinning off into the sunset.

The worst release of the year is a political rather than a qualitative decision, handed to a band that seem to be critically at least crushing all opposition but who have (given actual audio appraisal) released not only their most staid, soulless record but a genuine backwards step, a perfunctory MOR funk-rock outing that hides all their experimental urges behind the need to party, something at which they are completely rubbish at. For some unfathomable reason, everyone’s gone gaga over it and they’re all so hideously wrong. An abysmal waste of potential, a boring mess, and proof that people are sheep.

Later, after I’d tabulated the results, he sent these (three) Facebook messages. They were ignored.

hey, Rocktimists bigdogs, could you please remove "Elbow - The Loneliness Of A Tower Crane Driver" from the no. 9 position on my tracks ballot, push Virgin Passages up to no. 9, and place "Shit And Shine - Toilet Door Tits" at no. 10, please? it is a jam.

srsly anyone with a passing interest in a) noise, b) massive grooves and c) terrorising the neighbours needs to stick that song on, loud

it is the sister ray of the 00's

Volcano! - Palimpsests [YSI]

Half Man Half Biscuit - National Shite Day [YSI]

Shit & Shine - Toilet Door Tits [YSI]


Simon said...

The brilliant thing about Thomas White is, in 2009, he's promised *two* further solo albums.

And a new Electric Soft Parade album.

And a new Brakes album.

And a new Restlesslist album.

And he's been playing percussion live with the Levellers.

And he's drumming for a new swamp-rock outfit called Clowns.

I imagine he sleeps sometimes, but I can't envisage it.

louis said...

Aw, cheers for the YSIs RP! Everyone, listen to those songs. Or something.

Simon, it's good to know SOMEBODY else heard the Thomas White album. He's got a fabulous musical outlook, a lot on his plate sure, but (obviously) I think he's moving in the right direction(s) towards making that era-defining art-pop classic he came so close to creating this time around. I doubt it'll be with ESP but you never know. Their best songs would make an absolutely incredible EP.

Er and now I've placed my head above the parapet, people will hopefully shoot. Yeah, Late Of The Pier are great. Check out Silvery! Er ah...I'll post way more to Rocktimists in '09, promise. That'll do for now!

louis said...

btw are we gonna get "worst record of '08" results?

Keith said...

tom is a very sweet man

mike said...

Er... so what WAS the worst record, Louis? It sounds like you were talking about TV On The Radio, yes?

You're quite right about Late of the Pier.

Raw Patrick said...

The worst record was TVOTR. I accidentally omitted that fact.

If people are sheep, are sheep people?

Anonymous said...

Nice work Louis

The weird thing about that Thomas White album is that on the first few listens, it's the buoyant interlude track that stands out amongst a sea of underwhelmingness.

It was just bubbling under my top ten.

louis said...

The buoyant interlude track is nearly perfect and I only narrowly avoided placing it in my end-of-year CD-80 ahead of one of the more "developed" pieces. It comes in at EXACTLY the right moment with EXACTLY the right vibe. T. White has an instinct for that sort of genius. As I say, the album has a really really beautiful arc, which allows plenty of space even within an economical time-frame.

louis said...

btw I hope everyone's listening to those YSIs!

louis said...

that "something at which they are completely rubbish at" tautology is really narking me