Friday, November 28, 2008

The Years Fly By But End Slowly

So, the albums of the year lists are starting to arrive, still before we’ve even hit December although mercifully that little bit later this year. This still means there will be some notable late-release omissions though (Fennesz’s ‘Black Sea’ appears to be creeping out next week). This year, MOJO has got in first – and no surprise that its album of the year gong goes to the increasingly ubiquitous Fleet Foxes. I like the record a lot - although it won’t top my list - but I wonder whether it isn’t one of those debuts so fully formed that its creators will struggle to progress any further with the next one. We will have to wait and see.

As ever, MOJO indulges itself with some ludicrous selections. Anyone who considers Weller’s ’22 Dreams’ to be avant-garde and original simply hasn’t heard the Alice Coltrane music that supposedly inspired him. The Last Shadow Puppets is an endearing record, but if it’s the second best album of the year then we are really living in creatively moribund times. Elsewhere, there’s much worse – the turgid Glasvegas at 7, the ghastly Oasis propping up the list at 50 (a token entry for which there is no coherent argument provided), Mercury Rev’s twee ‘Snowflake Midnight’ at 22,Goldfrapp at 38, the overrated MGMT at 36.

It must be conceded that some choices are genuinely surprising though. There’s Goldmund’s haunting minimal piano sketches at 44 (although I’d argue that Max Richter merited an entry too), The Neil Cowley Trio at 49 (not my favourite jazz record of the year but it’s good to see a nod to it), Flying Lotus at 47, Gavin Bryars as reworked by Philip Jeck at 37 (although Jeck’s own sublime ‘Sand’ probably deserves a mention too), Kasai Allstars at 33 (so much better than the disappointing Amadou and Mariam record, placed higher at 21), The Bug at 9.

Uncut again wins the award for best review of the year package – with its lavish collection of lists of just about everything, padded out by voluminous banality and trivia. It’s all quite fun of course. It’s particularly helpful for its comprehensive polls on reissues and compilations, books (both fiction and music) and films as well as the usual Top 50 of the year. I used to like Uncut more when it was as devoted to film and literature as it was to music.

Once again, the main magazine’s list goes somewhat against the critical grain, and it’s gratifying to see that some people have noticed just what a superb, uncompromising triumph Portishead’s ‘Third’ is. Much like their choice of LCD Soundsystem last year, it seems to challenge the ingrained prejudices of both the magazine’s editor (whose unsurprising personal choice was The Hold Steady) and its core readership. This is a good thing, and its democratic polling procedures and open-mindedness should be encouraged. MOJO has probably had the bolder cover features and better articles – but Uncut has the edge on the criticism at the moment. Other intriguing and pleasing selections include TV On The Radio at 3 (I initially thought ‘Dear Science’ was overrated but it's growing on me), Neon Neon at 7, James Blackshaw at 13 (a wonderful boost for this niche artist), Hot Chip at 15, Shearwater at 19 (a record I’ve been pointed towards but haven’t actually heard), Gnarls Barkley at 30 (a superb mainstream pop record ignored elsewhere), Earth at 36, Toumani Diabate at 35, F*ck Buttons at 34, The Week That Was at 40. That’s a refreshingly diverse cross-section from the year.

Of course, the list is not free from its moments of insanity. Surely MGMT are just a flash-in-the-pan hype band? I still fail to see much merit at all in the turgid plodding of Glasvegas or the ‘bucolic’ irritations of the Goldfrapp record. It also looks like Weller’s supposed ‘return to form’ is going to grace yet more top tens. I also can’t help feeling that Stephen Malkmus’ current emphasis on noodling guitar solos is a distraction from his core qualities as a quirky songwriter. I can’t summon much enthusiasm for Sigur Ros anymore either, although I've heard intriguing reports about their recent Alexandra Palace concerts.

Omissions from both lists are too numerous to mention and I hope my own work-in-progress top 100 will point some people towards some of the more idiosyncratic and brave releases of the year. It’s certainly odd to find Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy absent from these polls – especially as Will Oldham has been responsible for two excellent albums of his own this year, as well as guesting on another (Susanna’s ‘Flower of Evil’). One significant point on omissions – if their writers can call Elvis Costello’s ‘Momofuku’ a ‘return to form’ in their comments on the Jenny Lewis album - why has it not been included in the list? With due respect to Jenny Lewis (whose ‘Acid Tongue’ I like more than most it seems), it’s a better record than hers. Regular readers will also be aware of my increasing exasperation at the use of the dread phrase ‘return to form’. You’ll have to wait until the closing stages of next month to find out where Costello, Susanna and many other overlooked curios feature in my list.

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