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This feels like the first year during which I’ve found myself buying less new music and, instead, rediscovering albums from my past. Part of it, maybe, is being somewhat financially challenged and I’m investing more and more in reading. Part of it, maybe, is to do with changing – or evolving? – tastes: more and more I’m enjoying post-classical music (Ólafur Arnalds, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Dustin O’Halloran, among others) and that kind of music does warrant deep immersion. And, rather regrettably, this may be due to rapidly advancing years – I’m after beauty and contemplation these days. Still, I have bought some new records this year. The following are the highlights.

Everything Now by Arcade Fire – quite honestly, Arcade Fire are an interesting proposition: they are arguably the English-speaking world’s biggest alternative rock band (for want of a better term), but their work can be patchy; further, there can be a rather condescending tone in their songs, as though only they know exactly what’s wrong with the world and, apparently, it all comes down to consumerism and the internet. Some fans have dismissed ‘Everything Now’ due to the record straying too far from Arcade Fire’s core sound, but it’s silly to chastise a band for experimenting. The titular song is basically ‘Reflektor’ mashed with ABBA’s ‘Dancing Queen’, which, frankly, is no bad thing. However, the only other truly memorable track is ‘Put Your Money on Me’, which offers a delicious chord progression and lush shifts of gear. In between those two songs are a number of tunes that are throwaway , with only ‘Electric Blue’ offering any kind of reprieve. But I’m being harsh: overall the set is eminently listenable and it does expand the band’s impressive oeuvre. If only Everything Now didn’t come across as rather slight.

American Dream by LCD Soundsystem – this, for me, is the record of the year. In a word, it’s stunning. But it’s also dark, angry even (despite the latter half of the album sounding a little like a braver, less self-obsessed version of The Killers, which, no doubt, is a reference James Murphy would detest). It’s true that LCD Soundsystem having been mining their form of minimal riffing for years, and some of the songs don’t quite have the emotional pay-off they deserve, but for mine American Dream well and truly rises above all else I’ve heard this year. As opposed to Everything Now, there is not a single throw-away track here, and once again LCD Soundsystem appear to be inspired by Remain in Light by Talking Heads, one of the truly adventurous and astonishing records from the mid-1980s. But unmistakably American Dream comes out of Trump’s fucked-up version of America, hence the darkness and anger. If there’s one song that makes for an intriguing – though menacing – introduction to the album it would be ‘How Do You Sleep?

Three Worlds: Music for Woolf Works by Max Richter – this is a collaboration between prominent new-classical composer Max Richter and the Royal Ballet, and it explores the works of Virginia Woolf. There are three sections, each corresponding to three of Woolf’s novels: Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Overall Three Worlds is melodious, minimal, and accessible, even if the Orlando section does contain pieces that are more meanderingly atmospheric than musical. For sheer visceral power, the final piece, ‘The Waves’, almost rivals Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memory of Benjamin Britten’. For a work that is essentially the soundtrack to a ballet, Three Worlds is a rich and rewarding listening experience. A good place to start might be ‘In the Garden’. Beyond Pärt, other influences are Michael Nyman and even The Knife.

Slowdive by Slowdive – it’s a tough ask for a once-revered band to disappear for twenty years and then return with a record that retains the core elements of their distinctive sound while being vital and relevant. Remarkably, that’s exactly what Slowdive have done with their self-titled album. Let’s be honest: being a band that was labelled ‘shoegaze’, that infamously introverted if not vacuous movement (if that’s the right term for it), Slowdive was always about mood; they never really had anything much to say, except, perhaps, that beauty can be found in walls of noise. Little has changed, although in this collection there is evidence of stronger song-writing – ‘Sugar for the Pill’ is a gorgeous pop song – and there’s an appealing diversity of sound and structure throughout; with its repeated but building piano motif, ‘Facing Ashes’ is almost epic. Slowdive have an avid (if not ageing) fan-base, and if you would like to know why, this latest record is a terrific place to start.

Mr MachineMore often than not the experimental end of the ‘new music’ spectrum leaves me wanting to lie down in the middle of the Hume Highway on a forty-degree afternoon.  But I love Berlin’s The Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble (or, apparently, just Brandt Brauer Frick).  They’re a strange combination of techno artists meet classically trained experimental composer who as a bunch like to make dance music using mostly acoustic instruments – and by rights they should be awful.  Thankfully their Mr. Machine album is fresh and new and wonderfully playful, and gives a hint where Australia’s Alpine could go if they ever want to chuck a Kid A.  Check out ‘Pretend’, though be warned: this is as straight as they get.

KveikurAs anyone who’s dropped into UTCOAFITD over the years, I do love lashings of Sigur Ros – always have, always will.  But I was more than a little troubled to hear that last year their foundation multi-instrumentalist Kjartan Sveinsson had decided he’d had enough and it would be left to the remaining Icelandic pixies to limp on without him.  Amazing, then, that Kveikur is so good.  It’s rawer, rockier, darker; certainly it’s less pretty.  Because I’m a fussy bastard, hard (almost impossible?) to please, I hold to my view that Sigur Ros never quite let themselves go over the edge – if they did, they’d blow the world to smithereens.

Trouble will find meSure Trouble Will Find Me by The National is appearing on a lot of ‘best of the year’ lists, but there’s a very good reason for it: this is the Ohio band’s finest selection of tunes to-date.  It’s Dad-rock for those with an alternative bent, and as some wag somewhere or other put it they’re the Counting Crows it’s okay to like.  But when the songs are as lovingly crafted as this it’s music that’s hard to ignore.  On Trouble will Find Me, The National are like a good port: it’s an old taste, and it’s a resolutely familiar taste, but it loosens you up…before dropping you down into a glorious pit of melancholia.  ‘Graceless’ is just one of the crackers on offer.

hopkins_immunityThe London-based Jon Hopkins is a strange musical beast: he’s a soundtrack composer (he did the tasty music to the tasty Monsters film) and for some reason or other he’s helped bands like Coldplay and seems to enjoy hanging out with Brian Eno, but he also makes his own albums, which, it’s true, can be hit and miss.  Immunity is easily his crowning achievement so far and was nominated for the 2013 Mercury Prize.  At times it’s thumpingly atmospheric dance music, but it can also turn sweet at the drop of a hat.  ‘Open Eye Signal’ is such a fantastic piece of minimalist, gritty dance music (it reminds me a little of ‘Rez’, the B-side to Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’); damn good video too.  Just so you know, Immunity is brilliant in headphones.

EngravingsFor the last few months I thought Immunity was going to be my album of the year, but then came along Engravings by Forest Swords, who is another English producer of excitingly sliced eletronica.  But where Hopkins is slick and melodic, Forest Swords creates a more organic and varied sound; certainly there’s nothing here that could be described ‘lovely’.  On first listen, Engravings might be a little hard on the old lug-holes (no surprises that the creator of this music suffers from tinnitus and related issues) but, oh my, it reveals itself over repeated listens.  The bloody thing’s never far from the stereo.

ReflektorI’ve written at length about Reflektor by Arcade Fire and after countless listens I still think it’s a very fine record.  As always, this Montreal lot are maddeningly, frustratingly brilliant; LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy has helped them find their very appealing swagger, but there are still songs which build and build before…they unravel in front of your ears.  Perhaps the unravelling is intentional, but it can drive a punter to despair.  And ‘despair’ is an interesting word to use here, because Arcade Fire, to a certain extent at least, have built their career on exploring contemporary despair in all its urban and semi-urban grimness.  Lucky for us, then, this time around they invite us down to the disco for a party, with a few deliciously weird and wild left-turns to keep us guessing.

Finally, here are three honourable mentions.

Does it look like I’m here? by Emeralds – a strange but beguiling beast, this is gloriously noodly, and at times can come across as good as M83 but without the histrionics.  Pedestrian Verse by Frightened Rabbit – a very solid record from these very solid Scots.  Being their major-label debut it lacks the rough edges of the earlier work, but perhaps this is a more varied record; it does contain ‘Backyard Skulls’, which is an elegantly structured master-stroke of a pop-song.  And, finally, there’s One (壱) Uno (壹) Ein by Australia’s Rat & Co – a captivatingly risky record, perhaps (most likely) the best one from our funny little old nut-case country. Check out ‘The Letter’.

Arcade Fire's 'Reflektor': is this at last the perfect record?

Arcade Fire’s ‘Reflektor’: is this at last the perfect record for our beautifully fucked-up world?

How would it be to exist without music?

I for one would have no clue, and I don’t want to try imagining it, or even write much more along those lines.  But it is, perhaps, worth asking a related question: how would it be to exist without excellent music, or even very good music?  For me, this has been the question of the week.  And you can blame Arcade Fire for that.

I’ve been following this Montreal-based bunch since their highly acclaimed debut Funeral (2004).  Using the phrase ‘highly acclaimed’ in this context is hardly new or surprising – it seems that when Arcade Fire simply get out of bed in the morning there’s cause for rapturous excitement around the world, the sort of rapturous excitement that once greeted The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan (the crusty old shit that he’s become), David Bowie, Nirvana, and, erm, U-bloody-2.

But is Arcade Fire really that good?

There’s no doubt that when they’re fully charged they’re excellent.  Witness ‘Neighbourhood No. 2’ and ‘Wake Up’ from Funeral, ‘Intervention’ and ‘No Cars Go’ from Neon Bible (2007), and ‘The Suburbs’, ‘Ready to Start’, ‘Modern Man’ and ‘Suburban War’ from The Suburbs (2010).  One day Arcade Fire are going to put out a best-of that’s going to knock the socks off people and prove once and for all how great – and ‘great’ is the word – they can be.

However, and this is a big ‘however’: they can also be utterly infuriating.

Some Arcade Fire songs start brilliantly before burning out as though in the end they just didn’t know what to do with them but, hey, chuck it on the record anyway.  The band can pack too many ideas into each song (certainly Reflektor suffers from this in parts), and lyrically they can be as awfully obtuse as a Sixth Form poet inspired only by Google.  Throw into the mix the fact that they’re fueled by both anger and beauty, they appear to adore and detest modern life in equal measures, and they can be grand, dramatic, over-dramatic, over-blown even, but there’s also a deep vein of melancholia throughout.  A rich brew or a directionless mess?  They’re both, quite honestly.

So.  What to make of this latest record?

In a way it’s exactly what you’d expect.  This is, apparently, Arcade Fire’s dance collection and they enlisted LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy to get their hips a-wigglin’.  Appropriately split over two discs, and inspired by the 1950 Brazilian classic Black Orpheus and its themes of death and isolation, Win Butler, wife Régine Chassagne, and the couple’s clever cohorts lead us from the superb ‘Reflektor’ – this is their ‘Atomic’ – through ‘You Already Know’, which sounds like what would happen if Butler fronted The Smiths and Queen, and the almost Clash-like ‘Joan of Arc’.

On the second disc the pairing of ‘Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)’ and ‘It’s Never Over (Hey Orpheus)’ shows just how close Arcade Fire is getting to John Lennon, in ambition if not execution.  ‘Porno’, the most James Murphy-esque track, is a fine slice of moody electro, and ‘Afterlife’ is one of those typically exasperating Arcade Fire songs: a gorgeous verse, a glorious chorus, it’s all ‘Can we work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?/Can we just work it out?/If we scream and shout till we work it out?’, and then, and then – well, it just collapses under its own weight.

Referencing a bunch of great bands and singer/songwriters here is intentional, including The Smiths and The Clash.  Is Reflektor as good as the former’s The Queen is Dead or the latter’s London Calling?  No, it’s not.  But it’s dangerously close.  It has the scope, depth, audacity, and a burning desire to create something as timelessly artful as those albums.  In some ways it also feels like the best mix-tape you could ever possibly receive (the inclusion on the second disc of the test-sound once found on cassettes alludes to this) and, perhaps, in the age of iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify, Reflektor is as good as it gets.

A magnificently flawed masterpiece.  Yes, let’s call it that.

And I can’t stop listening to it.

Okay, stand well back, because I’m about to do something I’ve never done before, and, dare I say it, you’ve probably never seen done before.  Am I about to turn myself inside out?  Levitate while cross-legged?  Speak in two languages at once?  No.  What I’m about to do is quote Australian literary legend David Malouf in what’s essentially a review of three pop-music records.  In his article titled ‘Music, the most abstract of the arts, is mathematics on the move’, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 May 2010, Malouf asks, So what is music for?  What does it do to us or for us?  What happens when we give ourselves over to actually listening to it?  Music vibrates in the air around us and involves us; it touches and moves us.  Its rhythms take us back to primitive foot-tapping and finger-clicking or clapping; the regularity of its beat excites our heartbeats and pleases us with its natural order; it invites the body, even when the body remains still, to sway and dance.  All music takes us back to the body; all instruments discover what they do in what the body does.

Three records that are currently doing exactly what Malouf is talking about, taking me back to my body, and getting me pretty bloody excited in the process, are ‘High Violet’ by The National, ‘Crystal Castles’ by Crystal Castles, and ‘This Is Happening’ by LCD Soundsystem, the latter band surely being the most genuinely enthralling bunch of contemporary musicians working today.

First up, The National’s ‘High Violet’.  Frankly, these guys are so god-damn frustrating.  They could be great, they could be huge.  They could take REM’s indy-music crown, and part of me wants this to happen, because on ‘High Violet’ they get mighty, mighty close to making something truly significant.  This is a big record, one that’s best played up loud so the richness and the rawness makes your rib-bones rattle.  Melancholic, intimate, but still rocking, it’s an intriguing beast of a thing.  In parts, especially on album-opener ‘Terrible Love’, it owes a little to Sigur Ros, in terms of the buzz-saw atmospherics, and Arcade Fire in terms of the naked ambition.  ‘Afraid of Everyone’ (I put my hand up to say, yes, that’s me), ‘Bloodbuzz Ohio’, and ‘Lemonworld’ is a stunning trifecta of songs and worth the price-tag alone.  The frustration comes from Matt Berninger’s voice, which while deeply attractive and listenable does tend to mangle the lyrics into an unintelligible slop so that a song’s never given the opportunity to properly blossom into a classic.  But this album grows and grows on you until you just can’t live without it, and perhaps that’s where The National’s true genius lies.

Crystal Castles has now given us their second album and it’s…um…totally friggin’…beautiful.  Yes, beautiful.  Though I should caution that at times it’s an ugly kind of beauty.  As with the duo’s first – and also self-titled – album, there’s the mix of scratchy, screechy snippets of dancey noise (a bit like a jacked-up Sonic Youth trapped in a computer-game shop) and then great big slathers of almost-but-not-quite trance.  This time around, however, it all comes together in a more cohesive whole.  ‘Celestica’, ‘Year of Silence’ (which samples ‘Inni Mer Syngur Vitleysingur’ by Sigur Ros, revealing the dark soul of those Icelandic noise-niks, which, to my mind, is missing from Jonsi’s solo effort ‘Go’, though the darkness is all over his and his partner Alex Somers’ extraordinary Riceboy Sleeps album) and ‘Vietnam’ make for fantastic listening.  For those of an age there’s a fair bit of inspiration from the 90s-era, Rickenbacker-strumming English band Lush in many of these beguiling songs, and that’s no bad thing.  As long as the world has artists like Crystal Castles in it, dance music and electronica is in very…dangerous hands indeed.  Bugger it, I might just pour myself a glass of champagne, turn out the lights, crank this album up very loud, and dance around the lounge-room like a dervish until the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper give me the evil eye before darting under the bed.

And so we come to LCD Soundsystem, which is the first band in years that have spun my nipples so hard that I’m amazed that I still have a chest.  Mixing brilliant, thoughtful beats and the wittiest of lyrics, a gorgeous though not unchallenging pop sensibility, and perfect production, ‘This Is Happening’ is already in my Top Ten Albums of 2010.  Like the band’s previous record, ‘Sound of Silver’, the influences are many, though in almost every song I’m reminded of Talking Heads’ ‘Remain in Light’, which just so happens to be in my Top Ten Albums of All Time.  Having said that, the stunning, feedback-drenched ‘All I Want’ sounds suspiciously like a mash-up of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and any Strokes song you care to mention, just infinitely better.  While it’s true that there aren’t as many highs as on ‘Sound of Silver’, this is a more minimal record, and it’s one that deserves – and rewards – close listening, because there’s more than one devil in the detail here.  And it’s all so very, very New York that I almost feel like going out to graffiti something just for the heck of it.  Apparently James Murphy, LCD Soundsystem’s key protagonist, has said that this is the last outing for this particular musical incarnation.  If this is true, good on him for bowing out while completely on top of his game.

David Malouf in his Sydney Morning Herald article goes on to say the following: One of the opportunities art offers us is simply to stand still for a moment and look, or to sit still and listen; the pleasure of being firmly present while the ego goes absent and our consciousness is fired with something other than ourselves.  For some reason, losing ourselves in this way is a form of self-discovery.  Going passive and absent energises us, gives us a renewed sense of presence. Whether you want to sit still and be swept away or dance like a complete idiot without a care in the world (I can flit between the two with remarkable ease, I should admit), being fully present in the company of these three albums could make you very happy to be living on this planet in the year 2010.

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If you’re interested in reading the full Malouf article, it can be found here.

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