Certain Songs: 100-96

December 12, 2009 at 10:33 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera | Leave a comment

Untitled-1 copy


Stars of the Lid

And Their Refinement of the Decline

(Kranky; 2007)


Ambience is an acquired taste; there aren’t many of us who would buy an album full of synthetic drones and not feel ripped-off. Even for those who enjoy the mind-altering, mood-changing peace and delicacy of the genre, we couldn’t listen to it all the time. Everyone needs a varied diet, and sometimes you’d rather have a good singer, a funky beat or some crashing drums & violent guitars than sit through an hour of intense laptop twiddling.

But this is a record everyone should make time for. Adam Wiltzie and Brian McBride have been sculpting beautiful sounds for some 15 years now, and this is probably their most gorgeous peace of work to date. Across its two CDs, fragments of sound drift in and out of view like a trail of slow-moving transit. The textures created are warm & serene, and the modified cellos, horns & violins all merge together to create a soothing blanket of sound. If this all sounds a bit like Music For Art Installations, you’re not wrong, but when played in the confines of a bedroom, it can be a glorious and strangely moving listen.



We Got It 4 Cheap (Vol 2)

(2005; Re-Up)

We Got It 4 Cheap-vol2

At the start of the decade, Clipse were the darlings of rap. Their collaborations with The Neptunes had managed to merge high experimentalism with commercial appeal, and they’d even bagged a spot on Justin Timberlake’s first single. But then, as often happens, conflict arose with the record label, release dates kept getting knocked back and the group were consigned to semi-obscurity.

So Pusha-T and Malice went back to the mixtape circuit, enlisted Philadelphia rappers Ab-Liva and Sandman and produced a series of mixtapes as the ‘Re-Up Gang’. Like the other two volumes, We Got It 4 Cheap rode a bunch of well-known beats and featured Clipse’s tales about their former lives as drug dealers. It’s a lesson in how to produce a perfect mix-tape: the beat choices are excellent, the MCs are hungry to outdo each other on every verse and they often to a better job of the track they cover than the rapper who first had it. It’s a record by men whose time in major label wilderness had left them craving for respect, and by the time listeners had discovered this fierce, pulsating & unrelenting piece of work, their time in obscurity was well & truly over.

Key track: Hate it or Love it


Arctic Monkeys

Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not

(Domino; 2006)


It’s a shame the term ‘overrated’ is used more as a criticism of a band or artist than of the ridiculous, overwhelming hype they attracted in the first place. The Monkeys’ debut was hardly a perfect record, and there were at least a dozen albums released that year which were superior. In that context, the fawning & sycophancy from the music press & broadsheet culture supplements was embarrassing.

But when you judge the album on its own merits and ignore the hyperbole it was lumbered with, Whatever People Say I Am remains an impressive achievement. Alex Turner’s tales of scumbags, riot vans, wannabe rockstars and dodgy bouncers are brilliantly told and his lyricism could shame songwriters twice his age. But although Turner’s sharp eye and keen ear are mentioned most often, one shouldn’t forget what made the Arctic Monkeys such an exciting, attention-grabbing listen in the first place: the presence of probably the best rhythm section a British band’s had since the Stone Roses. It’s not just the fidgeting guitar lines which make tracks like I Bet You Look Good On The Dancefloor or A Certain Romance, but the ferocious drumming and hyperactive bass lines. Distinctive, dynamic and determined to subvert all the media’s expectations, the Arctic Monkeys were one of the better things to happen to British music this decade.

Key track: When the Sun Goes Down


Neko Case

Middle Cyclone

(ANTI-; 2009)

Middle cyclone album cover

For a record preoccupied by thoughts of love & wilderness, it’s fitting that Neko Case’s voice is like a force of nature. A gloriously versatile instrument, she can shift from a gale-force holler to a seductive, sweetheart whisper – sometimes in the space of the same song.

Backed by some of the best musicians in alternative country/rock, Middle Cyclone is both Case’s strongest collection of songs and her best produced. There’s romance and heartbreak, longing and loss, and it’s all delivered by a singer who could blow the doors from their hinges. “This tornado loves you”, she teases at the start of the record. I’ve still not figured out whether it’s a chat-up line or a warning.

Key track: Don’t Forget Me




(Mute; 2008)

Saturdays = Youth M83

It’s the film soundtrack John Hughes never had. Although they vary in quality and style, each of the five records produced by this French dreampop duo have been heavy with romance, melodrama and zest for life. But never before had they so studiously emulated the giddy hormonal highs you’d find in the teen movies of the 1980’s.

Apparently in thrall to the aesthetic which Richard Kelly borrowed for Donnie Darko, Saturdays=Youth is a record which evokes all the right cliches of the American Youth Movie: the graduation ceremonies, forbidden parties, cheerleaders, quiet crushes, stolen kisses & long walks home through picket fence suburbia.

Whether or not those images were ever representative of American youth – either then or now – doesn’t really seem to matter. We have the music for their imagined lives, and if that spills into our own, less perfect, less glamorous existences, then so much the better.

Key track: Kim & Jessie

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