The Music of 2006

With 2006 all but over, it’s time to reassess the year’s music. It was not a year of upheaval or radical change; yet saw the release of two key albums (TV on the Radio’s ‘Return to Cookie Mountain’ and Joanna Newsom’s ‘Ys’) whose influence may be felt for some time to come. Both albums found new and interesting ways of saying things in an increasingly sterile and generic pop music landscape.

Elsewhere, it was a year of singer-songwriters, whether of the alternative (Amy Millan, Neko Case, Beth Orton, Cat Power) or evergreen variety (Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen). The neo-psychedelic folk movement continued to gather force and fans, while the puff finally ran out of the post-punk revival. This was not before we were provided with perhaps two of its finest exponents – UK’s Arctic Monkeys and Young Knives.

2006 also saw the return of three British pop icons – Morrissey, Green Gartside (aka Scritti Politti) and Jarvis Cocker. All three released albums that proved they still have much to offer the pop world. identified four key albums for the year – Dylan’s ‘Modern Times’, Arctic Monkey’s ‘Whatever You Say I Am…’ and the aforementioned releases by Joanna Newsom and TV On The Radio. Other strong performers were albums by Gnarls Barkley, Clipse and Ghostface Killah.

The major magazines offered few surprises in their end of year lists. Bob Dylan topped both the Uncut and Rolling Stone lists, while the Arctic Monkeys album was number one for both NME and Q Magazine. Mojo placed the Raconteurs’ lp ahead of both Dylan and the Monkeys, while Pitchfork chose the otherwise ignored ‘Silent Shout’ by The Knife as its top album.

The Nausea team has listened to about 150 new albums in 2006 – only a fraction of the total number released. The Nausea Top 25 (see below) cannot, therefore, hope to be a comprehensive record of the year. Perhaps, instead, it can be seen as an overview, bringing to your attention something that you may have missed during the year.

Meanwhile, 2007 looms, with key releases from Bloc Party, Air, Field Music, Apples In Stereo, The Earlies, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, The Shins and !!! all due out early in the New Year.

Here’s to another good year in music!

The Nausea Top 25 Albums for 2006

1. TV On The Radio – Return To Cookie Mountain
2. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Letting Go
3. Hot Chip – The Warning
4. Neko Case – Fox Confessor Brings The Flood
5. The Rapture – Pieces Of The People We Love
6. Belle And Sebastian – The Life Pursuit
7. Cat Power – The Greatest
8. The Flaming Lips – At War With The Mystics
9. Guillemots – Through The Window Pane
10. Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan – Ballad Of The Broken Seas
11. Howe Gelb – Sno Angel Like You
12. Joanna Newsom – Ys
13. The Raconteurs – Broken Boy Soldiers
14. Morrissey – Ringleader Of The Tormentors
15. Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche
16. Herbert – Scale
17. Jarvis Cocker – Jarvis
18. The Dears – Gang Of Losers
19. Arctic Monkeys – Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not
20. The Young Knives – Voices Of Animals And Men
21. Sparklehorse – Dreamt For Light Years In The Belly Of A Mountain
22. The Sleepy Jackson – Personality
23. Charlotte Gainsbourg – 5.55
24. Scritti Politti – White Bread, Black Beer
25. Camera Obscura – Let’s Get Out Of This Country

bubbling under – The Pipettes, The Knife, Howling Bells, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Scissor Sisters, Mates Of State, Beirut, Beck, Thom Yorke and Tapes ‘n’ Tapes.

Songs for Christmas – a Review

Sufjan Stevens has never been one to shy away from the big projects. His earliest musical endeavours included concept ‘albums’ about The Nine Planets and The 12 Apostles, while his second album, ‘Enjoy Your Rabbit’, was a suite of symphonic songs about the Chinese Zodiac. And, of course, there is the 50 states project, an epic undertaking, which should keep him busy well into the second half of the century.

It seems only natural, therefore, that he should collect a series of Christmas songs, produced for family and friends over a period of six years, and issue them in a five disc box set, together with songbook, comic, essays, stickers and other goodies. In one of the accompanying essays, Stevens hilariously describes the dysfunctional family Christmases of his childhood, and confesses that this project has been a way of rediscovering both the good and the bad about the holiday season.

For us, it serves another purpose, as the five discs, originally conceived as individual EPs, were recorded (apart from 2004) on an annual basis, and allow us to chart the artist’s progression from folksy guitarist to chamber-pop genius.

There are 42 songs here, from traditional Christmas carols and instrumental favourites to quirky pop tunes and silly seasonal sing-a-longs. Those familiar with Stevens’ treatment of tribute album contributions and cover-tunes will know he is likely to bring freshness to whatever he touches, and that is certainly the case here. One such highlight of the earlier discs is ‘What Child Is This Anyway?’ while the usually cringe worthy ‘Little Drummer Boy’ is substantially transformed.

It’s an eclectic bunch of songs, with highlights dotted across all five discs, but it is probably the most recent two that feature the real treasures. ‘It’s Christmas Time’, with its layers of fuzzed-up guitars, is the least Christmas-sounding song on the set, but among the best. Later on the same disc, Stevens asks ‘Did I Make You Cry On Christmas? (Well, You Deserved It!) – a deliciously comic (and quite moving) take on the awful holidays of his youth.

Disc five, recorded just this year, contains six Stevens originals, the best of which would not be out of place on ‘Illinois’ or ‘The Avalanche’. The organ-filled ‘Get Behind Me, Santa!’ gets the nod for the silliest song on the set, with some hilariously irreverent Christmas lyrics, but both ‘Jupiter Winter’ and ‘Sister Winter’ are gorgeously melancholic. ‘Star Of Wonder’ is similarly beautiful, a swirling rush of organ and woodwinds. That Stevens is able to bring so much to what could be considered a somewhat slight project is a testament to his talent as a songwriter and arranger/producer.

It could be argued that one could distill the best of this collection into one particularly fine album, but I think that would be missing the point. ‘Songs for Christmas’ is about the whole lousy, wonderful, stupid, heartwarming, saddening experience we know as Christmas, with its excesses, tackiness and (yes) its beautiful moments.

So, as Santa Sufjan suggests, ‘It’s Christmas, Let’s Be Glad!’

Jarvis – a Review

In the five years since Pulp’s last (and probably final) album, the underrated ‘We Love Life’, Jarvis Cocker has kept a pretty low profile. Apart from writing the occasional song for Nancy Sinatra or Charlotte Gainsbourg, there’s been an uncharacteristic silence. Such a long gap between projects can often lead to the undoing of an artist (e.g. The Stone Roses).

It’s somewhat of a relief, therefore, to discover that Jarvis Cocker’s first solo album is quite splendid. Musically, the album is not dissimilar from Pulp, unsurprising perhaps, given that the instrumental core of ‘Jarvis’ is Richard Hawley, Steve Mackey (both of whom played with Pulp) and Cocker himself. The lyrics contain plenty of the self-deprecating wit we’ve come to expect from Cocker. The mood of the album is generally bleak and the outlook pessimistic, but like his compatriot, Morrissey, Jarvis Cocker is somehow able to subvert the misery, and find relief in the comic image or clever turn of phrase.

After a short instrumental intro, the album launches into its opening track, the ambling yet anthemic ‘Don’t Let Him Waste Your Time’, in which Cocker offers the following advice to a close friend or potential lover.

Cos the years fly by in an instant
And you wonder what he’s waiting for
Then some skinny bitch walks by in hot pants
And he’s a-running out the door

The next song ‘Black Magic’ is just as good. A kind of 21st century reading of the 60s hit ‘Crimson And Clover’. A sample of the original tune augments the sparse instrumentation, along with strange synthetic sounds and rhythms. It’s not entirely clear what ‘Black Magic’ actually is (a drug, a person, a type of chocolate), but it’s one of the few things that Cocker seems to like.

We can’t escape; we’re born to die
But I’m gonna give it a real good try
Because nothing comes close and nothing can compare
To Black Magic – Yeah, yeah yeah

After the slightly perfunctory ‘Heavy Weather’, comes another highlight, the gruesomely titled ‘I Will Kill Again’. Over delicate piano and flute sounds, Cocker lists a string of pleasant images –

Build yourself a castle
Keep your family safe from harm
Get into classical music
Raise rabbits on a farm

And then the twist …don’t believe me if I claim to be your friend…I will kill again.

The irony is turned up for the following track ‘Baby’s Coming Back To Me’ (originally written for Nancy Sinatra), which features a similarly pleasant sequence of images, but doesn’t come with a punchline. However, it’s clear to everyone but the song’s singer that ‘baby’ isn’t coming back at all.

‘Fat Children’ is the album’s ‘rock moment’. Here, Cocker hilariously recounts the robbery of his mobile phone by a gang of children, over crunching guitars and drums.

Fat children took my life. Oh.

‘From Auschwitz To Ipswich’ is probably the bleakest song on ‘Jarvis’ (not counting the bonus ‘hidden’ track ‘Running The World’). Its mood is summarized by the opening lines.

They want our way of life
Well, they can take mine any time they like

Cocker goes on to renounce his lifestyle, comparing the Western World to the Roman Empire, and encourages others to do the same.

It’s the end: why don’t you admit it?

In contrast, the music itself is quite gentle and pleasant, with string sounds, rhythm guitar and a distant bubbling synth.

This contrast between sweet-sounding music and grim lyrics is maintained throughout the rest of the album. The final track ‘Quantum Theory’ sounds particularly uplifting, with its swirling strings and moody guitars. On the surface it appears to be a celebratory song, with Cocker singing reassuringly ‘Everything is going to be alright’. It is only on closer inspection that we realise he is not talking about our world, but one in a parallel dimension.

Jarvis, it’s good to have you back.

Pieces Of The People We Love – a Review

Towards the end of the post-punk era of 1978-1984 many of the original punks and post-punks moved onto the dance floor and into the pop charts. Bands like Human League, ABC, Heaven 17, Cabaret Voltaire, Scritti Politti, New Order, and even Gang Of Four, were releasing radio-friendly dance music. It sort of makes sense that today’s post-punk revivalists might want to make a similar move.

New York’s The Rapture took a step in this direction with their 2003 single ‘House Of Jealous Lovers’, a searing slab of disco-noise. Their latest release, ‘Pieces Of The People We Love’, takes the ‘Lovers’ sound, and reshapes it into an album’s worth of fabulously funky pop tunes, reminiscent of New York’s ‘mutant disco’ of the early 80s, the minimalist sound of bands like Bush Tetras and Liquid Liquid, and most of all, Talking Heads, in particular, their 1980 album ’Remain in Light’.

The song most likely to draw comparisons with Talking Heads is album centrepiece ‘Whoo! Alright Yeah… Uh Huh’. This song sets the sonic template for the album – prominent bass, flickering guitars, bleeping and burping synths and a multitude of beats – all intricately interwoven over a steady dance groove. Lyrically too, the song reveals the band’s ‘manifesto’ for the album. Or, should I say, its ‘anti-manifesto’.

People don’t dance no more
They just stand there like this
They cross their arms and stare you down
And drink and moan and diss

‘Pieces Of The People We Love’ turns its back on the serious indie-types and their ‘crap rock poetry’ and celebrates the pop song. Elsewhere the lyrics seem provocatively simplistic – from the ‘Na-na-na, Na-na-na’ of the title track to the ‘love/above, kept/wept’ rhymes of ‘The Devil’.

In ‘First Gear’ – a kind of synth-funk driving song – singer, Luke Jenner, delivers a series of dopey sex-as-car/driving images before the backing vocalists join him in the ‘My My My My Mustang Ford’ refrain. It’s deliriously silly, as is the orgasmic yelp in the aforementioned ‘Devil’, and the Tom Tom Club-like call-and-response vocals of ‘Whoo! Alright Yeah…’

But while the emphasis is on the beat rather than the brain, these songs aren’t exactly slick disco retreads. There’s enough noise and warped sentiment to give them a little edge. ‘The Sound’, for example, features a wall of clattering rhythms and buzzing electronics, while opening track ‘Don Gon Do It’ embellishes the bouncing synth-bass and singalong chorus with screeching guitars.

Another highlight is ‘Down For So Long’. Like ‘Whoo! Alright-Yeah…’ it pieces together twitching electronics with intricate rhythm sounds to create something that wouldn’t sound out of place on Talking Heads’ ‘Speaking in Tongues’. (Even its vague references to ‘the man upstairs’ echo the lyrical preoccupations of David Byrne.)

The less successful tracks are those that stray from the pop-funk model. ‘Calling Me’ is built around a slower, shuffling rhythm and a tune that lacks the celebratory feel of the rest of the album. Closing track ‘Live In Sunshine’ suffers from a similar problem, but manages to overcome the slow pace by projecting an appropriately ‘sunny’ outlook with its ringing guitars and gospel-flavoured backing vocals

‘Pieces Of The People We Love’ is the type of album that is becoming increasingly rare. It dares to bridge the gap between the ‘popular’ and the ‘alternative’, a reminder of the days when it was acceptable for a ‘serious’ band to play dance music.

One Minute Music Reviews 3

An overview of some of the most interesting albums to have come my way in the last three months.

Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy – The Letting Go

Recorded in Iceland, ‘The Letting Go’ sparkles with a crystalline clarity. Oldham’s hoarse warble is augmented by a string quartet and Dawn McCarthy’s backing vocals to beautiful effect. Tracks like ‘Cursed Sleep, ‘Love Comes To Me’ and ‘The Seedling’ already sound like classics. (4.5/5)

The Dears – Gang Of Losers

The Dears’ third album might not have the immediacy of ‘No Cities Left’, but it is a complex, ambitious and ultimately rewarding collection of songs. The lyrical themes are big and broad – love, fear, rejection, racism and forgiveness, while the music is almost cinematic in scope. For full review click here. (4/5)

Figurines – Skeleton

Scandinavia continues to produce quality pop music. This four piece sound a lot like Modest Mouse or The Shins but actually come from Denmark. All fuzzy guitar and power-pop hooks, the album’s highlights include ‘The Wonder’, ‘Ambush’ and ‘Silver Ponds’. (3/5)

Herbert – Scale

Highly regarded UK producer Matthew Herbert’s latest project combines disco beats, jazzy horns, sumptuous strings and blue-eyed soul singing. And if that isn’t enough, he also manages to throw in some political commentary. It’s an extravagantly ambitious album that effortlessly glides from torch song to dance groove and back again. (4/5)

The Knife – Silent Shout

‘Silent Shout’ is not a ‘happy’ record and it’s not always a pleasure to listen to, but The Knife have successfully created their own unique sound world, with its own languages, landscapes and characters. Many artists have such an aim, but few achieve it with such style and originality. For full review click here. (3.5/5)

Grant Lee Phillips – nineteeneighties

The ‘covers’ album concept is rarely a recipe for success. Phillips’ fourth solo is one such rarity. He pays tribute to the artists who inspired him – Pixies, Nick Cave, New Order, Smiths, Echo and the Bunnymen and others – by reinterpreting some of their lesser known tunes. Somehow, he manages to retain the essence of the songs while making them sound exactly like Grant Lee Phillips. (3.5/5)

Scritti Politti – White Bread, Black Beer

‘White Bread Black Beer’ is Scritti’s most diverse album yet, a rich smorgasbord of sounds, from squelchy dub reggae to Beatlesque electro-folk. After three decades in the music business – from post-punk to new pop to hip hop – Green Gartside seems relaxed and comfortable and quite happy doing whatever comes to him. For full review click here. (3.5/5)

The Sleepy Jackson – Personality

The second Sleepy Jackson album is a dreamy, string-soaked affair reminiscent of the Beach Boys, Beatles and 70s AOR. Luke Steele’s meditations on God, the Devil and everything in-between are miniature pop-symphonies, laced with celestial horns and a chorus of angels. (4/5)

Sufjan Stevens – The Avalanche

Stevens blesses us with another 74 minutes of music from last year’s ‘Illinois’ project. While presented as ‘Extras and Outtakes’, songs like ‘Dear Mr Supercomputer’, ‘Springfield’ and ‘Mistress Witch from McClure’ would make any ordinary artist’s A-list. Further proof of Stevens’ genius. (4/5)

Tapes ‘n’ Tapes – The Loon

This Minneapolis quartet has been described by some overenthusiastic music press as this year’s Arcade Fire. One of the few things they do share with the Canadian band is a knack for melding moods and styles – from the rockabilly shuffle of ‘Insistor’ to the scratchy guitar bursts of ‘Crazy Eights’. (3.5/5)

Thom Yorke – The Eraser

Thom Yorke’s debut solo album is an extension of the moody electronica of Radiohead’s ‘Kid A’ and ‘Amnesiac’. It’s as cynical and pessimistic as one would expect, but it is also intimate and even bleakly beautiful. Highlights include ‘Black Swan’ and the grim ‘Harrowdown Hill’. (3.5/5)

Gang of Losers – a Review

It’s a brave band that calls their new album ‘Gang of Losers’. But then The Dears and their front man and songwriter, Murray Lightburn, are no strangers to taking risks or confronting adversity. The band formed in the mid-90s, but had virtually imploded by the time their debut album was released in 2000. Meanwhile, Lightburn was experiencing drink and drug problems. The band finally found success in 2004 with their second lp ‘No Cities Left’ . The album was a surprise hit, with the single ‘Lost in the Plot’ receiving significant airplay worldwide.

The Dears’ third album might not have the immediacy of ‘No Cities Left’, but it is a complex, ambitious and ultimately rewarding collection of songs. The lyrical themes are big and broad – love, fear, rejection, racism and forgiveness, while the music is almost cinematic in scope. The ‘Gang of Losers’ of the title refers to any group of marginalized individuals – a band, a race, a religion, a culture – with each song exploring or celebrating the idea of the ‘outsider’.

Every single one of us is getting massacred on a frozen path
Fever comes to wipe us out and scratch a name off of the list
You and I are on the outside of almost everything

Sings Lightburn in the title track. But like many of the songs here, it concludes with an acceptance or recognition of a simple truth –

We, we’ve got the same heart

This song is among a group of strong slower tracks. ‘Hate, Then Love’ is another. Over swirling mellotron and chiming guitars, Lightburn yearns for understanding –

We’ll find our place in this world
It’ll take all day and all night
We’ll find our place in this world
If it takes all day and all night

There has been much talk of the Britpop or Morrissey influence on The Dears music. While that might have been true of one or two songs on ‘No Cities Left’, there is little of such sound on ‘Gang of Losers’. Given the fussy arrangements and retro keyboard sounds on ‘Losers’ the influences are more 70s ‘prog’ than 90s pop.

Two minutes into ‘Fear Made The World Go Round’, for example, the song switches from a slowburning piano-based ballad to a guitar-crunching stomp. The atmospheric ‘I Fell Deep’ makes a similar transition, fading out as a very 70s guitar solo screeches into view.

The uptempo songs on ‘Losers’ are a mixed bunch, and there is nothing quite as radio-friendly as ‘Lost in the Plot’. ‘Death Or Life We Want You’ is built around slashing guitars, while ‘Whites Only Party’ is a peculiarly jaunty take on race relations. Elsewhere, Lightburn questions the value of success and stardom. From ‘Bandwagoneers’ –

Heaven knows that I’m a fake
Heaven knows that we’re all faking it
Everything we are

And opening track ‘Ticket To Immortality’ –

I hang out with all the pariahs
Everyone is almost done with me

This could all come across as quite bleak and heavy-handed, yet Lightburn and his band skillfully balance the light and dark. For every word of despair or angry sound there is a message of hope or burst of shimmering guitar. Over the simple piano and drums intro to ‘Ballad of Humankindness’ Lightburn tells us –

Well I thought that we all cared about peace
And I thought that we’d all cry about love and loss

And –

I can’t believe the vast amounts of people living on the streets
And I can’t believe I was almost one of them and I almost died

He berates himself for not offering to help those in need, but asks us to forgive him –

I’m gonna change, I’m gonna change, I’m gonna change

Like the best of any artistic endeavour – be it poetry, prose or pop – ‘Gang of Losers’ explores what it is to be human. It doesn’t reach any conclusions or offer any simple solutions, but examines the good and bad in everything.

With no obvious single to attract the attention of the music-buying public, it’s possible that this album will not find the audience it deserves. But this ‘Gang of Losers’ is worth getting to know. It is a richly textured work, meticulously arranged and passionately delivered. Losing never sounded so good.

Silent Shout – A Review

The Knife are Swedish brother-and-sister-duo Olof Dreijer and Karin Dreijer Andersson. They’ve been making music together since the late 90s, releasing their eponymous debut in 2001 and the follow up Deep Cuts in 2004, while building up a significant following in Europe with their catchy, although unexceptional, synthpop. Their latest album Silent Shout is a significant step forward, with the siblings developing a darker, more unique sound.

The core of this sound is Karin’s voice, which has been stretched, slowed, bent, chopped and filtered, to often sinister effect, particularly when layered over equally strange soundscapes. Electronic music is typically described as cold and mechanical, but rarely is it said to be sickly. The music on Silent Shout often sounds damaged – the notes imperfect, the arpeggios and melodies a little out.

The title track opens the album and immediately sets a disquieting mood. Metallic voices describe nightmare imagery over a maddeningly squiggly synth and a single pulsating note. This note is the song’s only constant, as other sounds dance around it, move to the fore, or disappear into the background.

The following track, Neverland, is more upbeat, but similarly built around a simple theme. A wobbly little melody fades in and out around rat-a-tat percussion, over which Karin’s (almost) untreated vocals tell of ‘a fancy man’ and ‘money that burns in my hand’. Like most of the lyrics on Silent Shout they are far from straightforward, but the general feeling is one of disease and dysfunction.

The Captain begins with a long instrumental section. Single notes float and echo, merge with a deeper, more ominous sound – percussion fades in, and finally a chorus of creepy robotic-chipmunk voices.

The current single, We Share Our Mother’s Health, is a highlight. Sickly synths blink and bob over a driving dancebeat accompanied by a series of vocal melodies, the third of which finds Karin’s voice transformed into a weird baritone. The final section of the song has all three melodies coming together in some sort of bizarre robotic chant.

In Na Na Na – a kind of futuristic nursery rhyme (or anti-lullaby) – the voice and the electronics blend as one:

I’ve got soul in my bones
Got a home, a dog and a man to call my own
Every month
I’ve got my period
To take care of
And to collect in blue tampons

Invention takes a break towards the middle of the album, although, after all the weirdness it comes as a relief.

Marble House is a kind of torch song – glacial and very European, while Like A Pen is a dance tune about body image – adorned with tinny synths and tapdancing beats. The meandering From Off To On completes a trio of agreeable, yet unremarkable songs.

Silent Shout finishes strongly, however, with the last three songs among the best on the album.

Forest Families describes a family in hiding:

They said we have a communist in the family
I had to wear a mask

Over bubbling electronics Karin pleads: I just want your music tonight

One Hit is possibly the strangest song on the album. A stomping dance track (it’s been described elsewhere as ‘goblin glam’) that ‘celebrates’ masculinity, Karin’s voice warped to sound like a chorus of demonic football players.

The narrator of the haunting final track, Still Light, sings from her hospital bed over weeping string synths:

Now where is everybody?
Is it still light outside?

Given the album’s preoccupation with the damaged and diseased, and its unhealthy sound palette, it’s an appropriate place for the album to end.

Silent Shout is not a ‘happy’ record and it’s not always a pleasure to listen to, but The Knife have successfully created their own unique sound world, with its own languages, landscapes and characters. Many artists have such an aim, but few achieve it with such style and originality.