What 2010 sounded like – my records of the year

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This is late, I know. I’m sorry. Most end of year lists were chip paper three weeks ago. I can’t say that i’ve spent the time mulling over my choices, honing every comment. It’s 10pm on 2 Jan, and I still don’t know what i’m going to write, even though I’ve been thinking about writing it for a month or so. That’s also long enough for any final saving claims to spontaneity to have withered away. Perhaps i’ll just get on with it.

I kept a list this year, and the list tells me that I bought just 32 new records. I can’t say that i’ve listened much more widely than those. Looking back, my 2010 collection seems both conservative, with few risky punts on unheard outfits, and strong, with no huge disappointments, just a few records I didn’t go back to as often as I might have hoped. If the list below seems of a type, well, perhaps it is. I’m surprised.

It’s been another year of fractured listening. Time spent listening to music on car journeys, or whilst walking the dog, has again outweighed the hours sat before the turntable, focusing intently, listening closely. Nonetheless, there are records which have stood out, stayed around and moved me during the year, and here are some of them, listed in the order in which I bought them.

The Antlers – ‘Hospice’
The Mountain Goats – ‘The Sunset Tree’

Two of my favourites of the year were released in 2009 and 2005 respectively. ‘Hospice’ suddenly sounded different on long, dark walks, when Peter Silberman’s emotional string-tugging proved irresistible. This quiet, surging soundtrack to heartbreak and decay has stayed in the memory longer than anything else this year.

I finally got around to John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats, and ‘The Sunset Tree’ is pretty much everything I want from an album. Sharp and funny, with tunes both affecting and catchy, delivered in a deliciously nasal west coast voice. The sound of the Summer’s ups and downs.

Joanna Newsom – ‘Have One On Me’

Joanna Newsom’s third album, spread across three records and two hours, is the towering achievement of the last twelve months, a trove of treasure which will take years to explore and catalogue. We can gasp at the audacity of her ambition, marvel at the scale of her achievement, welcome her maturing voice and songwriting, even, when the mood takes us, hear the whole history of the United States in a song like ‘Good Intentions Paving Co.’ but ultimately ‘Have One On Me’ is a triumph of exploratory melody, and a thumb in the eye for those who have proclaimed the death of the album.

The National – ‘High Violet’

I’m not sure how The National got so big between albums, but the confidence with which they toured ‘Boxer’ a couple of years ago was parlayed into ‘High Violet’, a perfectly realised and recorded album from a band who, whilst living only a short stumble from the mainstream, have managed to build a sound that could only be theirs, and then build and build upon it further. The National are doing things their own way, and have become beautifully self-contained and self-fulfilling in a way that recalls REM at their mid-80s best. ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’ is the best 4-minute single of the year.

Liars – ‘Sisterworld’

In which the mogadon nightmare of ‘Drums Not Dead’ smashes face-first into the scathing rock of their eponymous fourth album. It’s almost impossible to divine this band’s intentions. Like the good Captain Beefheart, lost this last month, you can never be quite sure whether Liars are jokers or geniuses and the tension between the two is just one of the things that make them so compelling.

The Arcade Fire – ‘The Suburbs’

I thought ‘The Suburbs’ was a convincing next move the the Arcade Fire, taking the lost children of ‘Funeral’ and spinning them forward to become lost parents. Some fine songs, but it makes my list mainly for ‘The Wilderness Downtown‘ a short online film by Chris Milk which is a sparse, almost unavoidably moving piece, and the first time in years i’ve seen a song so completely transformed by an accompanying promo.

Emeralds – ‘Does It Look Like I’m Here?’

Looking up and down this list, it does seem more conservative than the year actually felt. A few weeks ago this record, by a kosmische electronic trio from Cleveland, Ohio, looked like at least a partially left-field choice, but it seems to have struck many commentators in the same light and has found its way onto several end-of-year rundowns. For me its music box pointillism has been the sound i’ve reached for this year when I didn’t know quite what I wanted. Sometimes i’ve listened intently, drawn into its dissolving structures, and sometimes it’s served as a warm and bubbling background wash. It works beautifully as both, and has proved as satisfying and well-played as any other record this year.  

Crystal Castles – ‘Doe Deer’

This scathing 98 seconds is the hit and run of the year and the song i’ve scrolled to most. Insistent, belligerent and un-sit-downable, it rushes by in the context of the album, but taken straight it’s an unstoppable shock of distressingly contaminated adrenaline. The way Ethan sets up a lapel-grabbing track which Alice’s caustic vocals mercilessly destroy makes me want to stand an applaud every time. That they manage to both create such a compelling sound and then brutally wreck it within the space of a minute-and-a-half seems almost as fine an achievement as Joanna Newsom’s two hours of virtuosity.

Swans – ‘My Father Will Guide Me Up A Rope To The Sky’

It’s just great to have them back, managing to take their rich, deep noise and bring to it a raw, live band feel. As savage and unflinching as ever, M. Gira will turn 60 this decade, but his gaze remains steely and unwavering.

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