Top 50 Albums of 2006 (5-1)
I went from not really giving a shit about Hot Chip to adoring them during the course of my first listen of The Warning. Previously, Hot Chip seemed to me to be too pranksterish, too fucking Shoreditch for my tastes. I hate bands who don't have the guts to take themselves seriously from time to time, because as far as I'm concerned, they're doing their influences and, in turn, their own compositions a disservice by putting false teeth, a wig and comedy glasses on it or incessantly winking at the listener. This is something that Hot Chip did far too often on their debut album, Coming On Strong and I didn't like it one bit.
With The Warning however, Hot Chip summoned up the bravery to show some warmth and humanity and it culminated in one of the most addictive listening experiences of the year. Instead of facsimiles of pop songs, we get pure, solid-gold POP tunes like the ubiquitous 'Over And Over', or the Daft Punk-referencing 'Boy From School'. They're still not averse to the odd joke though, as the take-it-or-leave-it 'Tchaparian' attests, but hey, there's always the skip button.
So yeah, The Warning isn't flawless, but I defy you to come up with another album from this year that was as eclectic as this, while being thematically consistent to boot.
Hot Chip - The Warning (mp3)
When Liars reinvented themselves completely on the dark, percussive concept album about witches, They Were Wrong, So We Drowned, a lot of listeners turned off. People were expecting another album of feral punk-funk like their much-loved debut, They Threw Us All In A Trench And Stuck A Monument On Top. Smarting from the unfair critical drubbing of their sophomore effort, Liars went the Iggy/Bowie/Lou route of de-camping to Berlin and knuckling down to make their best album yet.
Rather than performing another musical volte-face, however, Liars thought it best to hone and perfect the tribalism they experimented with on They Were Wrong... Drum's Not Dead is a logical extension from that album that shows they really were on to something. Their third album is an expressive, instinctual, ethereal album that invites you into its world, puts you through the mill, with both its emotional weight and experimental sounds, and pulls you out on the other side wholly satisfied and even enriched.
Drum's Not Dead follows a push/pull train of thought to its conclusion, flipping between ambient lushness and frenetic, drum-heavy darkness to dazzling, disorienting effect, culminating in the climactic collective sigh of 'The Other Side Of Mt. Heart Attack'. Where Liars go from here is anybody's guess, but if they show as much application and humanity as they do here, it should be one hell of a ride.
3. Love Is All - Nine Times That Same Song (Parlophone)
One of the big surprises of the year was this, the sparkling debut from Gothenburg five-piece Love Is All. Surprising because it came out of left-field, wearing scruffy old influences, that were as obvious as they were well-worn and it came at a point where people were starting to think that we were really done with this kind of thing. It was easy to be jaded about post-punk in '06, as for the last couple of years we've had it shoved down our throats with the likes of The Futureheads, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Strokes and every other young guitar band. What made Love Is All stand out from the rest was their refusal to sand down the rough edges or sugar-coat the scratchiness that made the original post-punk sound so thrilling.
It's refreshing to hear a band that actually sounds like The Slits, as opposed to just citing them as a forebear. The restless energy and infectious enthusiasm of that band is what propels Nine Times That Same Song, but that would be worth nothing if the songs weren't strong and Love Is All know how to knock out a tune. The rickety, careening 'Talk Talk Talk Talk' sets the tone, with its Contortions-esque sax skronk and ghostly, effective "ooh-ooh"'s backing up Josephine Olausson's cute/scary Typical Girl squawk perfectly.
LIA are far from one-note though, as they find the time to work some devastatingly tear-stained ballads into the itchy patchwork, like the ennui-laden 'Make Out, Fall Out, Make Up' or the rousing 'Felt Tip'. So while they're a genre-band in essence, they understand that it doesn't have to limit their potential and despite the unkempt production values, they're very good musicians. Another album like this might be a bit too much, but for now, they have in Nine Times That Same Song a breathtaking record that, dare I say it, is as good as anything The Slits ever produced.
2. The Knife - Silent Shout (Rabid/Brille)
Most of the reviews of Silent Shout played on the assumption that it's a 'cold-blooded' record. I think that this is a complete nonesense as The Knife's third album, in spite of its mannered spookiness and ghostly air, is laced with wit, humour and has a depth of feeling that belies the album's harsh exterior. After all, The Knife know that, from time to time, the freakish, outlandish treatments that adorn Karin Dreijer-Andersson's vocals are going to raise a smile. This is most evident on the glammy bounce of 'One Hit', with its priceless lyric, "Spending time with my family, like the Corleones".
But, yeah, it is quite, y'know, bleak from time to time, but this just throws the lighter side of the album into sharper relief. For every horror-house spook-fest like the title track, there are solid gold pop songs such as 'Like A Pen' or 'We Share Our Mother's Health'. Where Silent Shout really excels though, is in the noirish torch songs like 'Marble House' and 'Forest Families', the latter being probably the best (read only) song about tree-dwelling communists in living memory.
If 'Heartbeats' saw The Knife ascend to blogger's favourites, then Silent Shout proved that there was a lot more to them than just another flavour of the month, in the meantime scaring off all but the hardiest. Not for the lily-livered then, but, then again, none of the best things in life are.
1. TV On The Radio - Return To Cookie Mountain (4AD)
TV On The Radio's second full-length proper seemed to be hexed from the get-go. An early, unmastered leak showed up on the internet in March, with songs mislabelled and the tracklisting all wrong. Then, due to signing to Interscope in the States, the US release date just kept getting pushed back, eventually surfacing in September, even though it was out over here in July. By the time it was foisted on the American public, pretty much everyone who had an interest in hearing it had heard it already. But it turned out that it was equally cursed and blessed because the word of mouth and internet buzz that had generated had snowballed and reached fever pitch, with many exclaiming that it was TVOTR's Ok Computer and a shoe-in for album of the year everywhere.
It's not hard to see why this was the most rapturously received album of the year, as it takes the good stuff from their debut, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes and replaces that album's meandering excesses with hyper-modern, powerful rock songs and a focus that that record lacked. While Desperate Youth... was often cold, mechanical even, Return To Cookie Mountain exudes warmth and humanism, with the album's lyrical themes (hope, helplessness, lust, regret) unfurling and coalescing a little more with each listen. It's an ugly/beautiful record that wows with its often dazzling instrumentation, but eventually wins your heart with some of the best vocal performances of the year from both Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone, who pretty much split the duties down the middle.
Adebimpe's songs are the most immediate, like the punky, blustery, fuck-rock of 'Wolf Like Me', 'Dirtywhirl', with its cutesy, sleigh bells and eminently singable refrain, or the woozy lullaby of 'Tonight'. Malone's songs, other than the lilting, dub-pop of 'Province' (with David fucking Bowie on backing vox!), take longer to 'get', but they're arguably stronger for it. The bruising, coarse fuzz of 'Playhouses' has an inner melody that, once uncovered, becomes something of an ear-worm. Best of Malone's bunch however, is the house of cards skronk of 'Blues From Down Here', that features some wonderful lyrics that speak of abandonment and destitution that make the blues of the title seem very apt indeed. The song's most explosive moment comes as Malone howls "Teeth gnashing/Masticating this dumb tongue/Quiet now, quiet now, hear that supplication/Echo into the void/Been received by no-one", with such heavy despair that it'll make your head spin.
That's the beauty of this brilliant, blistering album, in that it contains just so many jaw-dropping moments and movements. Much like last year's Yer Mam! album of the year, Arcade Fire's Funeral, Return To Cookie Mountain takes gloomy lyrical touchstones and moulds them into an edifying, life-affirming whole. Band of the year, song of the year (in 'Wolf Like Me') and undisputed best album of 2006.