Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Review: Sarah Slean, "Beauty Lives"

There's a tricky logic involved with collections of b-sides; the songs included are ones, by principle, deemed unfit (for whatever reason) to be included on an album - yet including them on a separate release gives them a strange sort of legitimacy that abandoned outtakes don't possess.

Sarah Slean's last b-sides album, The Baroness Redecorates, consisted of songs from the same sessions; tracks united by their shared era and similar instrumentation. Beauty Lives is not only comprised of songs from all periods of Slean's career, but the chosen songs themselves were largely determined by her fans.

Thankfully, Slean manages to avert a potentially sticky situation - what if her fans chose weaker but more popular songs over stronger material? - and produce a collection of songs that offers an enjoyable display of her talent, serves as a holiday gift to her fans, and provides enough to occupy oneself with until her double album Land and Sea hits shelves sometime in the new year.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Being Erica: "Fa La Erica" Episode Review

"Fa La Erica" starts out on shaky ground, redeems itself partway through with one of the best ideas the show has had all season, and returns to the unjustified happiness that denotes its nature as a holiday special.

Being Erica has done worse, though, and while it could be better, it's not unwelcome at this time of year.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

10 Best Albums of 2010

I still don't know how I feel about this year in music, to be honest. I spent a lot of it busy with work and various commitments, and I don't remember any particular major musical events that made the year particularly memorable for me. Yes, there was Michael Jackson's death, and there was the world discovering Janelle Monae, but that's all I can think of, if pressured. The Grammys were predictable, the VMAs were predictable, and most of the music that came my way this year was by independent artists generally below the radar, rather than from major-label signings.

2010 seemed to be a year defined by the escapism of electro and the sincerity of folk. As a culture, we seem to crave descending into our own Monster Balls, locking the doors, and doing whatever we want - within reason, of course. People seem to be aggressively resisting hype - even when someone genuinely talented comes along, like Janelle Monae, people still resist.

A lot of the artists on my list either kept their head above water and refused to hop on the electro-pop bandwagon so many seemed to be on, or took electronica and worked it into their personal vision, tapping into the Top 40 zeitgeist while remaining true to themselves. Some are established acts, some are newcomers, but above all these are the records that fascinated and captivated me in 2010.

10. Pomplamoose, Tribute to Famous People
9. She and Him, Volume Two
8. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz
7. Laura Veirs, July Flame
6. KT Tunstall, Tiger Suit
5. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me
4. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid
3. Miss Emily Brown, In Technicolor
2. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Sea
1. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

How Does My List Stack Up?
  • PopMatters
    • The ArchAndroid - #1
    • Have One On Me - #13
    • The Age of Adz - #19
  • Paste
    • The ArchAndroid - #2
    • Sigh No More - #3
    • The Age of Adz - #9
    • July Flame - #23
    • Volume Two - #30
  • American Songwriter
    • Sigh No More - #2
    • July Flame - #10
Honourable Mentions:

Click on each album title to hear a song from that record.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #1

1. Mumford and Sons, Sigh No More

“Darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think?”

English folk band Mumford and Sons do something interesting with their debut, Sigh No More: they take the grandeur and universal statements of Arcade Fire and inject a dose of humility. It’s not as simple as that, of course – other bands have done the same – but Mumford and Sons have done the best job of melding folk’s lyrical honesty with the sheer escapism proffered by electronica. The title track and “Roll Away Your Stone” are the best examples of this: they start out slowly, then whisk the listener away on a stampede of guitars, banjos and drums. It’s a record that sounds like it was made on top of a mountain, but doesn’t get ahead of itself, finding ground in Marcus Mumford’s voice – part prophet and part everyman – instead. It’s stirring, and, even in its lesser moments, undeniably authentic.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #2

2. Corinne Bailey Rae, The Sea

“You were unnervingly delicate.”

Corinne Bailey Rae is best known for the bubbly 2006 hit “Put Your Records On” from her self-titled debut, so it comes as some surprise that her second album is a profound look at the nature of love and loss. Taking inspiration from the sudden death of her husband in 2008, The Sea spans a wide range of styles and textures; everything from the sweeping “I’d Do It All Again” to the rocking “The Blackest Lily” to the poppy throwback soul of “Paris Nights/New York Mornings” finds a place on the record. With The Sea, Rae has created the soundtrack to anyone’s life: an equal mixture of pain and pleasure, a work both intensely personal and remarkably universal. Like its titular inspiration, it ebbs and flows, searching for a truth always hidden just below the waves – and while it may seem hard to absorb at first, the deeper the listener dives, the more they uncover.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #3

3. Miss Emily Brown, In Technicolor

“It was nothing like dancing with you.”

Miss Emily Brown’s second album is a brilliantly beguiling blend of electronica and folk— brilliant even more so because its eight tracks deal with the most ordinary things and never feel pedestrian. Drawing on the WWII journal of her grandmother for inspiration, Brown captures the slowly creeping despair of wartime life in “The Diary of Amy Briggs”, the chaos of a blizzard in the extraordinary “Blackout” and her grandmother's dreams of escapism in the title track. Her songs are multifaceted and sparkle – autoharp, drum machines, and music boxes all work seamlessly here -- and feel like old friends with each listen. Brown brings the listener right in with her, and proves history is still relevant in the wireless age.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #4

4. Janelle Monae, The ArchAndroid

“Whether you’re high or low / You gotta tip on the tightrope.”

One of the most ambitious major-label debuts to come along in years, The ArchAndroid tells the story of Cindi Mayweather, an android on the run in the futuristic city of Metropolis for falling in love with a human. Monae’s voice and scope may invite comparisons to James Brown and Lady Gaga, but Monae has a vision all her own, particularly on the jubilant hit “Tightrope” and the burbling synths of “Wondaland”. Monae’s music is as rich and breathtaking as her album cover and, with any luck, will be treasured for years to come.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #5

5. Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me

“Come on, little life giver / Give your life.”

American singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom is one of those artists whose lyrically and musically dense work takes months, if not years, to unpack, so Have One On Me could be seen as a difficult work to decipher on first listen – and rightfully so, as its eighteen tracks are spread over three six-song discs. Therefore, it’s a pleasant surprise that Newsom has crafted her most accessible album to date, filled with rich, enveloping melodies and playfully literate lyrics in the vein of a 21st-century Joni Mitchell. The rousing opener “Easy” and the stunning “Jackrabbits” are only a taste of what Newsom offers here, on an album that requires a patient ear but rewards richly in return.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

10 Best Albums of 2010: #6

6. KT Tunstall, Tiger Suit
“It’s easy saying nothing when there’s nothing to say.”

For the longest time, it seemed like there would be two sides of KT Tunstall – spontaneous, looping live KT and pensive, polished studio KT – but with Tiger Suit, her third album, the fiery Scottish songstress has melded her two selves. The result: an adventurous and passionate, yet perfectly-judged, pop record. Whether it’s the uneasy beauty of “Golden Frames”, the thrilling way “Lost” builds up, or the tongue-in-cheek stomp of “Glamour Puss”, Tunstall shows why mature musical perspectives like hers are so desperately needed. The album is as well-crafted as it is a joy to listen to, which can be said as rather lacking in most of today’s pop music.


10 Best Albums of 2010: #7

7. Laura Veirs, July Flame

“Can I call you mine?”

Portland-based singer-songwriter Laura Veirs has been releasing consistently great albums over the past decade, and July Flame is the latest chapter in her storied career. Veirs makes her songs a study in what is and isn’t said, especially the title track and the haunting Appalachian folk of “I Can See Your Tracks”. Charmingly folksy at first, July Flame reveals itself over time as a reserved yet piercing look at passion’s inherent joys and dangers – the backing vocals in the otherwise effervescent “Summer is the Champion” say ‘Don’t search them out’, and "Wide Eyed, Legless" pairs unsettling imagery with a restless melody. One of the year's overlooked gems.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #8

8. Sufjan Stevens, The Age of Adz

“The scariest things are not half as enslaved.”

Reevaluating his approach to songwriting after composing for an orchestra, indie wunderkind Sufjan Stevens has returned with a compelling chronicle of our times, The Age of Adz (pronounced “odds”). The album is an accessible but layered take on electronica and Stevens’ familiar lyrical themes of love and faith. A song like “Too Much” wouldn’t sound out of place on a dancefloor, while “Vesuvius” and the devastating “I Want To Be Well” take Stevens’ indie-folk blend on classic albums like 2005’s Illinois in compelling new directions. By the time one reaches the magnum opus of “Impossible Soul”, there’s little doubt that Stevens has added yet another album to his already lengthy list of greats.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #9

9. She and Him, Volume Two

“That won’t stop me crying over you.”

She and Him -- Zooey Deschanel and singer/songwriter M. Ward – made waves in 2008 with Volume One, a collection of songs that were charmingly retro and impressively modern all at once. Gifted with a larger production budget, the two have once again crafted a compelling soundworld; penned entirely by Deschanel (aside from a couple of covers), songs like “In the Sun” and “Over It Over Again” strike the balance between melancholy and pep so many musicians mastered in the 60s and 70s, but are far from just a nostalgia trip. They’re vibrant and compelling – a new canon to melt the hearts of a new, more cynical generation.

10 Best Albums of 2010: #10

10. Pomplamoose, Tribute to Famous People

“We’re only making out / We’re making out all right.”

While covers are a dime a dozen these days, indie pop-jazz duo Pomplamoose stand out from the crowd thanks to their inventive yet faithful takes on familiar hits and old standards, all anchored by Jack Conte’s sly arrangements and Nataly Dawn’s effortless yet captivating voice. Through their lens, “My Favorite Things” is reimagined as a wide-eyed walk down the Champs Elysees, and “Single Ladies” finds new life as playful hipster pop. Tribute to Famous People is a tribute to the fact that talent, both of the duo and the original artists, is timeless – and that the YouTube generation, for all its supposed shallowness, doesn’t seem to have gone entirely to waste.