Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Fifteen

So it's here. Door number 15. The start of the top 10s. These are the picks we agonise over. Did we get them right? Let the second-guessing begin.

Pranam Mavahalli

The Phantom Band – The Wants (Chemikal Underground)

Track - The None of One

A very late entry into the top ten given that I’d only had the album a week at the time of writing. However, its inclusion wholly justified. Their debut made my top ten last year for its originality, and if anything they sound even more distinctive on this, their follow-up. This here track below fully deserves 8 minutes and 19 seconds of your good time.

John Skilbeck

Quasi - American Gong (Domino)

Track - Bye Bye Blackbird

The eighth Quasi album, and their first since expanding to a three-piece, was a real blast. The Portland, Oregon band have existed at least from a success perspective largely in the shadow of Sleater-Kinney, for whom Quasi’s Janet Weiss was the full-time drummer. But Sleater-Kinney going on a break has allowed Quasi time to develop, and American Gong rippled with the vigour of a band perhaps to some extent making up for lost time. Frontman Sam Coomes – indeed the one man in the band which is completed by new member Joanna Bolme – exudes charisma and energy here, and Weiss tears into her kit with such vim you feel it must have done something to offend. At times the tempo slows, and on the rickety Everything And Nothing At All it almost stops, while Bye Bye Blackbird is a sprawling epic. Quasi can be brutal one minute, almost tender the next, and American Gong might just be their masterpiece.

Steve Pill

The War On Drugs - Future Weather (Secretly Canadian)

Track - Baby Missiles

If, in 1997, Bob Dylan hadn't spent time out of mind complaining that it wasn't dark yet and instead locked himself in the attic with nothing but two pristine copies of Urban Hymns and Ladies And Gentleman We Are Floating In Space, this is the album he might have written. Mixing Dicky Ashcroft's space rock mysticism and Spiritualized's comedown blues with a world-weary croon worthy of latter day Dylan, you can't help but surrender to the War On Drugs.

Matt Collins

Frightened Rabbit - The Winter of Mixed Drinks (Fat Cat)

Track - Swim Until You Can't See Land

Frightened Rabbit have a terribly indie name, are Scottish and their singer sounds oddly like Roddy Woomble from fellow rock kilters, Idlewild. Throughout The Winter of Mixed Drinks, they rock the whole clean guitars but jumpy and upbeat sound, almost crying out “Swim! When you can’t see land, swim!”. If only for expressing the euphoria of life without being cheesy, and singing it in all in their own accent, they get top marks from me.

Andy Welch

Rose Elinor Dougall - Without Why (Memphis Industries)

Track - Carry On

I never really got The Pipettes. They seemed to me like an indie answer to the Sheila’s Wheels adverts and I never investigated further. Maybe Rose Elinor Dougall thought the same and that’s why she left the band? Whatever her reason, it was a smart move. Without Why is perhaps the most sophisticated album I’ve heard this year, Carry On, Find Me Out and Another Version Of Pop Song particularly demonstrating that fact; lyrically intelligent and musically refreshing. Her oh-so-English delivery only adds to the charms.

Guy Atkinson

The Gaslight Anthem - American Slang (Side One Dummy)

Track - Orphans

Dismissed by some as Springsteen-lite, these former New Jersey punks pack an emotional punch that demands they be judged on their own merits. Considerably glossier production sets this apart from their first two albums, but it retains the ability to conjure up moments that set the pulse racing and the heart swelling.

Dom Farrell

The Morning Benders - Big Echo (Rough Trade)

Tracks - Excuses

Big Echo sees The Morning Benders tapping into their San Francisco roots. Excuses sets out the stall in gloriously chiming widescreen fashion. It's not the last time that touches of Spector-esque production come into play. Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor is behind the desk and makes a key contribution to a second album that rarely lacks ambition.

Ian Parker

Mary Gauthier - The Foundling (Proper)

Track - Blood Is Blood

Mary Gauthier has always written about the emotional and the personal, but never more so than in this potentially career-defining sixth album which tackles her own story - that of an orphan who, three years ago, was refused a meeting when she finally tracked down her birth mother. It is an album that explores some real, deep, and lasting wounds. But this is not about self-pity, but instead about forgiveness and a lasting love for the mother she never knew. As Gauthier sings in Sweet Words, “I don’t trust my heart anymore/It’s busted open, bruised, beat up and sore/Even while it’s limping around in pain/All I want to do is reach for you again”. Gauthier has been writing songs for 13 years now, and you get the sense everything has been building towards this – the need to tackle the events that most markedly shaped her life. It’s dangerous ground, but Gauthier has navigated it brilliantly.

Rory Dollard

Foals – Total Life Forever (Warner Bros)

Track - Spanish Sahara

Ah, so here we are in the top 10...I've been expecting you. What I wasn’t expecting was Foals to be joining us here. When they released their debut Antidotes in 2008 I missed the point wholesale. Perhaps I couldn’t see past the ludicrous ‘math rock’ label (maths rock, maybe), or perhaps it really was a load of old pretentious guff. Either way, this most certainly isn’t. From opener Blue Blood onwards the arrangements are bold and the musicianship strong, while the high-energy songs positively bristle.

Ali Mason

Sleigh Bells – Treats (Columbia)

Track - Rachel

The joy of Treats is the interaction between and the sweetness of Alexis Krauss’ vocals and the caustic noise which accompanies them. This works best on tracks like single Tell ‘Em and Rachel. Occasionally the vocals get trampled by the sheer heft of the noise but, whatever happens, it’s invigorating and never dull. Treats is a musical kick up the arse.


  1. i am completely and utterly sold on War on Drugs. In fairness, I probably was as soon as Steve mentioned Ladies and Gentlemen... but the song did nothing to change my mind at all.

  2. How is it that I live in Portland, but haven't heard of Quasi? They're great! I'm pleased to see Gaslight Anthem, The Foals, Frightened Rabbit and The Morning Benders make the top ten. Keep the great tunes comin!