Sunday, December 17, 2006

The Albums of the Year 2006

So, Ladies and Gentlemen the time has come for the first part of this most anticipated list. OK, so that might be a lofty claim but a couple of people have enquired as to when The Bronze Medal would impart its suggestions as to what can be considered the albums and singles of the year. And so we come to the first, and more predictable, part which considers what really were The Albums of The Year.

It's necessary however to note the limitations of this list, as these are only the Albums of the Year according to Yours Truly, and naturally can only cover records which I have heard. It would be pointless to proclaim something as worthy of inclusion on this list because a couple of friends say a record is very good (i.e. Thom Yorke's The Eraser, Guillemots' Through the Windowpane) nor because I've been very impressed with the singles a band has released and feel that the album would be great (Muse's Black Holes and Revelations and CSS' eponymous debut fit this idea). Moreover, this list can only apply to records released this year as I've picked up some fantastic old records (i.e. Interpol's Turn on the Bright Lights) this year, but it would just be a little silly to include them here. So, whilst a brief mention must go to Snow Patrol's Eyes Open and The Zutons' darkly humorous Tired of Hanging Around as they both narrowly missed out on a place on what follows, let's get started.

5. The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth

Arguably this was the most important album so far of The Strokes' career. Whilst the humongous amount of hype generated around Is This It more or less guaranteed the success of its successor, Room on Fire, there was a general sense that maybe the bubble had burst and people had replaced their love of the original art school renaissancers with many of the other bands that have emerged over the past two years. Not the case at all, as from the storming comeback single of 'Juicebox' last year it was evident that The Strokes had grown in confidence, taken their time and expanded their sound. This runs throughout the whole of this record since it sees the band experimenting with synthesisers ('Ask Me Anything'), heavier rock sounds ('Vision of Division') and even nodding towards The Pogues ('15 Minutes') and Franz Ferdinand ('On the Other Side'). However, it still retains those elements that have made The Strokes over the past two albums, such as the simple chord progression played with typical NY attitude on album opener 'You Only Live Once', the 80s synth-sounding guitar noise and Jules' trademark hurls. If anything, First Impressions is two tracks too long, with the band's trademark thirty minutes of music pushed towards three quarters of an hour, and resulting in a couple of tracks that could have been ommitted. Still, it proved why everyone went nuts about them in 2001 all over again.

High Points: 'Heart in a Cage' sounding like a cross between prog rock and Guns & Roses whilst rocking like a demon; Jules' drunken slurs on 'On the Other Side'; 'Electricityscape'.

4. The Bluetones - The Bluetones

A lot of people would probably be unaware that The Bluetones released an album this year, the lack of press attention they seem to attract these days. Some people may even be suprised to learn that they're still together. What this overlooks is that ten years after making, in my opinion, one of the greatest records ever recorded, they made its brother: an unashamedly British, jangly and harmonious guitar-pop record. It's a record that showcases the band at the best of their abilities, from their poetically polite, glass-gazing lyrics ('I had a purpose but I can't remember what' from 'Surrendered' exemplifying this well), to the usual high standard guitar riffing ('My Neighbour's House'), to the glorious vocal harmonies between the Brothers Morriss that exchange throughout, everything is literally in it's right place. What's more, despite the band's tendency for being slightly defeatest this is a wonderfully optimistic record, with tracks such as 'Hope and Jump' and 'The Last Song But One' offering positive outlooks and hope to either friends in need or the world is general. They even manage to take what could be deemed a bog-standard Indie strumalong and turn it in to something that builds to a triumphant climax on the ode-to-David Walliams' Channel Swimming that is 'Fade In/Fade Out'. If anything, this record suffers from the opposite of The Strokes, as you wish it was a couple of songs longer. Oh, and the Hammer Horror-esque keyboard on 'Head on a Spike' is pure Bluetones...

High Points - the polite submissiveness of 'Surrendered'; the mournful chello that sees out 'Thank You, Not Today'; the last minute and a half of 'Fade In/Fade Out'.

3. The Grates - Gravity Won't Get You High

Some music affects you. It can get under your skin, reflect the way you feel about somebody or the world in general and emotionally move you. Is this the sign of great music? Well, sometimes yes it is. However, sometimes you want to listen to something that rocks with a simplicity and innocence that makes you forget about the world. Sometimes, music should just be pure fun, and something that you just enjoy for the simplicity of what it is. Although there's much more to them, this is the core appeal of The Grates: a band that seem to have created and gleefully exist in this almost cartoon-esque world (for further evidence of this look no further than the huge cartoon giraffe that graces the album cover). It's impossible not to listen to a track like 'Trampoline', 'Science is Golden' or 'Inside Outside' and want to bounce around the room like a child high on fizzy drinks at a wedding. Similarly, it's hard not to taken in by the child-like charm of 'Lies Are Much More Fun' (with it's 'I'm gonna go like this to you' bridge) or the school music lesson delivery and use of instruments on 'Nothing Sir' and 'Little People'. However, what's fascinating about The Grates is the way this simplicity and innocence is contrasted with the darkness of the lyrics, which cover rejection ('19-20-20'), one night stands ('Howl', 'Trampoline', 'Seek Me') and even suicide ('Sukkafish'). Throw in to the mix the part-sulky, part-childlike, yet always engaging attitude of singer Patience's lyrical delivery and the heavy dose of knowing irony the band exhuberates, and you're left with a record that seems to baffle you as to what to make of it. And that's just them on record. The live experience works to perfectly underscore what's so fantastic, enjoyable and engaging about this band.

High Points: 'Science is Golden' - the best guitar punk-pop song ever written'; 'Inside Outside' and its coarse nursery rhyme style; the darkness of 'I am Siam' that closes the record, both baffling and exciting as to where they may be headed.

2. Roddy Woomble - My Secret is My Silence

It has been posed to me that Idlewild could record an album of avant-garde bleeps and noises, with no sense of melody, harmony or tone whatsoever and I would still proclaim it the record of the year. This is a somewhat harsh criticism I would say, countering such accusations with the idea that at the end of the day your favourite bands are your favourite bands for a reason: they write fantastic records. Anyways, when one of your favourite bands announces that they're going to take some time off whilst the singer releases a solo album of folk songs, many people may run away scared. When you see the sleeve of that album features every cliche you expect of folk music (beards, rural landscapes, excessive amounts of woollen clothing) then it may well set a few more alarm bells ringing. However, if you'd heard Idlewild's stupendous 2005 album Warnings/Promises and it's wondeful R.E.M. similarities you should well have been excited. Moreover, what this record did was confirm what I'd been trying to say for the past few years, that whilst Woomble remains the most enigmatic lyricist in Britain today, his songwriting partnership with Rod Jones is the most underrated currently in existence.

But what makes My Secret is My Silence so good? The answer to that has to be the sheer feeling it expresses, of growing up and living in a small, rural community where people's faces and expressions say more than the words they say. A place where the wind rustles through with a biting chill and the warmth you feel comes from being around the people around you. It is, in places, a terribly remote record, but it is also in many places a fantastically uplifting record because of the atmosphere it constructs and the feelings that arise out of it. Although written about rural places in Scotland, it's easy to relate to if you've come from somewhere small, or remote, or where life was once more rural and traditional.

High Points: 'As Still As I Watch Your Grave' - the song Idlewild never wrote; the title track and the beautifully haunting 'Act IV' coming one after the other to encapsulate the spirit of the album; 'Waverley Steps' and 'Play Me Something' epitomising the understated positivity of the record.

1. Keane - Under the Iron Sea

It's well documented that when bands come close to falling apart they make the best music. An immediate frame of reference for this would be R.E.M.'s 1998 masterpiece Up, which was made as the band tried to adjust to being a trio and almost went under because of it. However, what they ended up producing was an album that more than stands out from their exceptional back catalogue. When Keane emerged from the studio midway through the year with talks about infighting and arguments, my immediate reaction was 'Yeah, right'. 2004's Hopes and Fears was a good record, but 'Bedshaped' aside it seemed to lack that extra kick that would really make you sit up and take notice. If anything they seemed in danger of becoming 'another Travis', by which I mean a band that were radio-friendly but seemed just too darn 'nice'.

How wrong was I, for Under the Iron Sea is a phenomenal piece of work unequaled by anything I've heard either this year or, in all honesty, I've heard for a good few years. What makes it so good? Well partly it's the way in which it all coheres as a record, creating a fairytale-esque atmosphere that runs through it and identifiable in the artwork and the strange piano sounds that appear throughout. It's an album of mystical and mythical tones, of aquatic subterranean angels, towering cathedrals, crystal balls and frog princes. It's also an album of great longing and hurt that manages somehow to get through it all and end in a truly joyous, uplifting manner.

Thus, Under the Iron Sea represents something of a journey for the listener and this travelogue notion, and atmosphere, is evident from the opening line of 'Atlantic' which, after some eerie, floating piano and swirling synth sounds, begins by proclaiming "I hope all my days will be lit by your face" (probably the best opening line to an album since The Bluetones opened with "I don't have to be feeling down to speak with you" a decade ago) and is supported by the equally eerie 'The Iron Sea' at the album's midpoint. 'Is It Any Wonder?' is something of a bitter tirade about losing a sense of who you are, and this train of thought recurs regularly such as 'A Bad Dream' proclaiming that "I don't even know my strange old face", "Leaving So Soon?" identifying that "I can't turn it on and turn it off like you now as I'm not like you now" and brought to a peak with 'Crystal Ball' and it's bitingly honest middle section.

It's hard, and slightly unfair, to drag one track out as the key song on this record, but it's equally hard to simply overlook 'Hamburg Song' in the middle of all of this despair, since from the initial lonely organ accompaniment onwards it's something of a masterpiece. It's a little ray of light and hope amongst waves of confusion and loss that is hard to express in words. After 'Try Again' has literally ached with loss for an ex-lover (I don't know if it's possible for a piece of music to ache, but if it could it would sound like this), the ray of light identifiable in 'Hamburg Song' finally finds itself realised in the most triumphant, euphoric manner with album closer 'The Frog Prince'. This closing track, drawing its imagery directly from fairytales, leaves you with the impression that after this emotional journey, it's the simple things in life that should be treasured and that through simplicity one achieves beauty, that we should strip away the context that we as individuals inevitably feed into our lives, and celebrate and view things at a simpler level by appreciating things for what they are. Rarely has sorrow ever sounded so beautiful, and rarely has getting out of it sounded so euphoric.

In a year of great music, this record was head and shoulders above the competition.

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