Say what you like David Quantick, 2010 was a great year for music. And as there is no better form to encapsulate a successful solar orbit than a top 10 list, the OxStu published ours in the last issue of term. Each writer submitted his or her own top 10 and, like all writers who have submitted to such collaborative lists, I of course believe mine is far superior to the amalgamation of our efforts. If anyone wishes to share their own favourites in the comments below the post, please do – the best thing about end of year lists is discovering new stuff from other people’s.
1) Bellowhead – Hedonism (OxStu #6)
Any list that doesn’t include this tour-de-force of joyous hermeneutic adventure is in my view not only invalid but laughably misguided and probably written by someone who doesn’t believe in Santa. Bellowhead, for those not familiar with them, play traditional songs but re-energised and reinterpreted them with lavish up-tempo multi-instrumental arrangements. But this is not about gimmicks or a few extra trumpets. The real trick is that the musical contexts that Bellowhead add to these songs sound more natural than the original historical contexts. Of course ‘Little Sally Racket’ should sound like a jazz-punk soundtrack to tearaway Beano-esque youths. Of course ‘A-Begging I Will Go’ is about a crutch wielding super-leper. With Bellowhead’s Hedonism the whole world just makes more sense.
Actually for the price of one album, we got an extra two on Joanna Newsom with the three disc Have One On Me. Some reviews sketched this as Newsom’s safest album to date but I think it is far more ambitious than The Milk-Eyed Mender. For me it marks an evolution in the definition of the human singing voice. What role does the voice play in a song like ‘In California’ where Newsom assumes the role of the cuckoo – is this impersonation? Or is the human singing voice always just an animal call? And if it is, what’s all that artistic percussion doing there in the background? In truth, I’ve never heard anything like it.
3) Ben Folds & Nick Hornby – Lonely Avenue
I don’t know Nick Hornby’s novels but if they’re as funny, heart-breaking and intelligent as this collection of his songs (arranged and recorded by Ben Folds) then I should check them out. Each song is a short story with some themes – mostly the emotional failure of the male lead – reoccurring throughout. It also plays with its listener a bit. The best bit is at the end: a failed romantic who’s chosen the wrong woman recalls how she “gave me complimentary champagne”. It’s the line’s repetition that kills you. At first it seems like genre convention – repeating the hook – until you realise how little, how shallow the memory is and how bitterly it is remembered. You can almost taste it.
“On the back seat of your car because it wasn’t safe to start it. You’re far too fucked to drive were the words that you imparted.” The best thing about Los Campesinos! is that lead singer Gareth always sounds like he’s too fucked to drive. Romance is Boring is an album full of all those things you’re too afraid to say sober. Or it would be if your drunken ramblings were written by some kind of post-punk inspired Louis MacNeice who has sexual fantasies about football players. Why? Because anything else would sound too much like romance, and that would be boring.
5) The Burns Unit – Side Show
The whole Burns Song Project and its first (and stunning) album release seems to have bypassed any major critical attention. Yet Side Show was a collaborative triumph for musicians as varied as Karine Polwart, King Creosote, Emma Pollock and MC Soom T who have created the most expansive and varied pop album of the year. It is in the Scottish tradition of Belle & Sebastian but blows their latest offering out of the water in diversity, quality and inventiveness.
Jim Moray is a folk musician but I think he thinks about things more like a hip-hop producer. He is not interested in rendition but in the reaction between a musical base and a secondary riff; interested in collage and the smashing together of sources; in ripping open the concept of canon and ownership. The result is a series of weird but infectious rewrites and hybrid folk songs that feel both modern and timeless, like Matt Smith’s Dr Who. If ‘Spenser the Rover’ can be read as a model of the travelling song collector, then Moray’s rewrite with Art Brut’s Eddie Argos (see number 9 below), ‘Spenser the Writer’ is Moray’s rival model – not the result of travel but of a socially dangerous blend of gossip and penmanship.
7) The Indelicates – Songs for Swinging Lovers
Available as a pay-what-you-like deal from their record label, The Indelicates put their money where their revulsion with the mainstream is and backed it up with one of the year’s most thoughtful and thought provoking releases. Let’s talk liberal complacency. Let’s talk modern feminism. Let’s talk social malaise. Songs for Swinging Lovers is especially remarkable because it still has the ability to disturb: the female form has always been blazoned but not usually as a medical bill like it is on the rallying cry for female equality ‘Flesh’. This is perhaps the only album on my list that’s truly a record of and for our times.
My favourite popular album of the year, My Best Friend Is You is a surprising absence from any end of year lists I’ve seen so far. Yet not only does it have its helping of foot stomping, hand clapping, hair brush as a microphone pop music fun; it’s also brave and imaginative and fired up with the joy of just being able to shout out loud. Nash’s world is one bursting with potential and the transformative and transgressive side of pop music that takes an obstacle (sexism, rejection, social anxiety), jumps on it, wrestles it to the floor and squeezes it until it gives provides a good guitar hook.
9) Everybody Was in the French Resistance… Now! – Fixin’ The Charts, Volume 1
The French Resistance…, an Eddie Argos side project, are a duo who respond to canonical pop songs like a cheeky school kid answering back to their teacher. The effect is as fun as it is charming. But it also has that dangerous whiff of heresy – perhaps why they open with (and name themselves for) a song about the French Resistance – leaping out of the crowd and overcoming orthodoxies. “Let’s have a vote and come to a consensus” Argos shouts on ‘My Way (Is Not Always the Best Way)’ – a response to Sinatra’s ‘My Way’. This is more than a comic album, this is an assault on the singular and unvetted authority of the pop star.
A thirty-five minute single-track mixtape may not pass everyone’s definition of an ‘album’ but this list would be poorer without it. All of the segments and riffs on offer explore the idea of the superhero – from the simple joy of running around in a cape and having your pants outside your trousers, to society’s spiritual need to see its reflection in the form of a hero, embodied in a moving interview with Silver Surfer creator Jack Kirby, reproduced at length on the tape. The best art gives us an insight into the passions of others and more than any of the other mixes Akira the Don has produced, this demonstrated his impressive knowledge and enjoyment of the topic at hand. But the best art doesn’t usually have these kind of beats.
You can hear tracks from most of these albums and from some other excellent 2010 releases (by Chris T-T, David Rotheray and The Roots) on The Drive-in Bingo’s best of 2010 Spotify playlist – here.