Thursday, 30 December 2010

Music of the Year

Trembling Bells’ Abandoned Love, which featured the sublime Pagan hymn September is the Month of Death. I also discovered their Caledonian compatriot Alasdair Roberts this year, via his album of traditional songs Too Long in this Condition and previous releases Amber Gatherers and Spoils, in which he demonstrates that he shares their love of romantic language and poetic diction. Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me was a beautiful collection of chamber-orchestrated songs, and Serafina Steer’s Change is Good, Change is Good was also fine, with subtle touches of electronica added to the harp sounds. Steer is always and unavoidably compared to Newsom (particularly when they both have a record out in the same year) on account of their singular choice of accompanying instrument. That aside, there’s little real similarity, however. Josephine Foster was another distinctive vocalist who I enjoyed listening to this year, discovering her 2005 LP Hazel Eyes, I Will Lead You and the recent interpretations of Emily Dickinson, Graphic as a Star. James Blackshaw’s move towards minimalist chamber music (although still underpinned by his scintillating twelve-string guitar) was signalled on The Glass Bead Game (from which the opening piece Cross, with the wordless accompanying vocals of Trembling Bells’ Lavinia Blackwell, was particularly lovely) and All is Falling. I continued to enjoy the varied and always engaging music of Richard Youngs, and particularly Airs of An Ear, on which his invocations were trailed by skirls of incandescent feedback. The Owl Service’s View From A Hill, with its MR James referencing title, added to their Alan Garner-derived name, suggesting a fondness for English supernatural fiction, was a fine bit of 70s influenced folk rock, a good follow up to their debut A Garland of Song.

Coco Rosie’s Grey Oceans was an imaginative mix of childhood rhymes, street corner singing and operatic outbursts. Sufjan Stevens’ lengthy EP All Delighted People and subsequent LP Age of Adz were puzzling, with moments of the old beauty seemingly deliberately undermined by jarring and ugly electronica and absurd, repetitive length. Laetitia Sadier’s solo LP The Trip was a touchingly personal affair, and included a good cover of Un Soir, Un Chien by French pop group Les Rita Mitsuoko as well as Wendy and Bonnie’s By the Sea. Stereolab’s Not Music was a good swansong of extras from the sessions of their last album, and ended with a great remix of Neon Beanbag by Atlas Sound. I caught up with some Ghost Box releases, including the expanded edition of The Advisory Circle’s Mind How You Go, alongside their earlier release Other Channels (which includes the wonderful bucolic bliss of Hocusing for Beginners and the genuinely terrifying horror of Eyes Which are Swelling), and The Transactional Dharma of (ex-Broadcast keyboard player) Roj, which sounds pleasingly like a hall full of automata let loose. I picked up some of the Saint Etienne special editions, including my favourite of their albums, Finisterre and Tiger Bay, along with Continental and Sound of Water.

Drones continued to be supplied by Eliane Radigue, whose Adnos and Trilogie de la Mort pulsed beneath the year. Also, Raphael Toral’s Wave fluctuated and hummed, Yoshi Wada’s Lament for the Rise and Fall of Elephantine Crocodile provided bagpipe drones through mechanical means whilst Keiji Haino’s 21st Century Hard-Y-Guide-Y Man tested the hurdy gurdy to destruction. I discovered the work of People Like Us this year (a little late in the day, I know), via their (her) performance at the Arnolfini during the Bristol Harbourside Festival, and love her wittily assembled sound and visual collages, so many of which can be found over at ubuweb. I also came across the AGP series, which made old recordings of modern classical music (including much early electronica) available. It's a great shame that it is now no more. I enjoyed Morton Subotnick’s Ghost music, in which acoustic instrumentation is given an electronic shadow. The same could be said of Edward Williams’ music for Life on Earth, released on Trunk Records, on which some of his pieces are processed through a synthesiser. Mostly, though, it’s beautiful chamber music evoking the endless variety of life, and including the odd breathy expostulation from Attenborough.

Ullakkopola by Kemialliset Ystavatt was an unearthly and utterly unpredictable collision of sounds and styles from Finland. I enjoyed Pit er Pat’s The Flexible Entertainer, with its stripped-down duo sounds providing a rattling percussion and rhythm guitar whirligig of jagged mechanical dance music. Crystal Castles’ second LP provided melancholy electronica of a distressed variety, with occasionally blasts of head-clearing noise. Charlotte Gainsbourg’s IRM was fine, but didn’t quite live up to 5.55, her collaboration with Jarvis Cocker and Air, for me. There was a similar slight sense of disappointment with School of Seven Bells Disconnect from Desire, which failed to reach the sublime heights of their debut Alpinisms. Looking backwards, I caught up with the 60s psych obscurity Cauldron, by Fifty Foot Hose, a sort of cousin to the United States of America album, with a similar use of early electronics within the West Coast rock sound of the time. Hidden by These New Puritans was excellent, with a wide variety of textures, from post punk through electronica to modern chamber and choral arrangements. It also led me to go back and discover their debut LP Beat Pyramid.

The local Fopp provided temptations, with a selection of Blue Note offers including some Bobby Hutcherson, Andrew Hill and Eric Dolphy. Bobby Hutcherson’s Dialogue, in particular, was wonderful, with the title track drifting off into diffuse and completely natural free territory. There was also the sublime, low key interplay of Jim Hall and Bill Evans on Undercurrents. The library seemed to be selling off large swathes of its most interesting stock at one point, which allowed me to get hold of Morton Feldman’s For Frank O’Hara and De Kooning, and Georges Auric’s music for Orphee amongst other things. Rob Young’s Electric Eden also led me back to the English music of the first half of the twentieth century. John Ireland, Arnold Bax, Holst and Vaughan Williams. Some things will always remain.

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