Monday, December 20, 2010

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty

And so, without further ado, the top fives begin.

Pranam Mavahalli

Vampire Weekend – Contra (XL)

Track – I Think You’re A Contra

Great album, but I love this track in particular. It’s everything a closing track should be – mellow, slightly weird and different enough in content from the rest of the record to make you want to hit play and listen to it all over again.

John Skilbeck

The School - Loveless Unbeliever (Elefant)

Track: I Want You Back

If yesterday’s choice, Sleigh Bells’ Treats, was a sabre-toothed tiger of an album, this is a house-trained pussycat. But by the looks of things it’s one whole chart place more satisfying, and I should probably explore why. For starters – this is too cool and yet I kid you not – Molly Ringwald is a confirmed fan of The School’s All I Wanna Do single, which features here. Then forget everything you (probably don’t yet) know about the Cardiff septet on the Spanish record label (Elefant), listen to the album – or at least this single-track sample - and imagine what a fuss would have been made of them 50 years ago. Motown’s Berry Gordy would surely have made a beeline for songwriter Liz Hunt, Phil Spector wouldn’t have been able to resist the band, Hunt’s sugary voice could have brought her fame and fortune. Loveless Unbeliever then: a pop gem born out of time but a pop gem nonetheless.

Steve Pill

Yeasayer - Odd Blood (EMI)

Track: Madder Red

Jesus, this is so wrong on so many levels but once the double-tracked ooo-ee-ooo-ee-ooos kick in, I can't stop myself. There's no escaping that this sounds far too much like Savage Garden for comfort but if Ali can pick an actual Eliza Doolittle record, you'll forgive me this sound-a-like. The crazy experimentalness of the tracks surrounding Madder Red have convinced me that this isn't my slow decent into middle-aged MOR hell, while the band's live show at Heaven in the summer cemented my love for this even harder.

Matt Collins

Rufus Wainwright - All Days Are Nights (Songs for Lulu) (Polydor)

Track - Zebulon

Opera-pop king Rufus Wainwright threatened to a do a piano and vocals only album three years ago before “the queen in me rebelled”, and the everything but the kitchen sink Release the Stars was born. But he got round to it, and All Days Are Nights is sparse yet engaging proof that Wainwright is an incredible pianist as well as gifted songwriter and vocal talent. Zebulon, written about his late mother, is particularly moving.

Andy Welch

Warpaint – Exquisite Corpse (Manimal Vinyl)

Track – Billie Holiday

It’s interesting that for all last year’s Sound Of 2010-type polls, highlighting forthcoming talent, I didn’t see one single mention of Warpaint anywhere. The EP arrived with little fanfare too, then all of a sudden, erupted. I say erupted, these ladies weren’t in Smash Hits, but it did appear as if they went from nothing to having an NME cover overnight. It was an old-fashioned sort of success for a truly mesmerising, enchanting release. The way Mary Wells’ My Guy drops in and out of Billie Holliday is worth their place in my Top 5 on its own.

Guy Atkinson

The Arcade Fire - The Suburbs (Mercury)

Track - Ready To Start

Yes, it’s about four songs too long. Yes, it’s got some filler. Yes, it’s not as good as Funeral. But when the tunes are this good who the hell cares? (Well, obviously those who put it way down in their lists, but we’ll ignore that for now.)

Dom Farrell

The Smoke Fairies - Through Low Light And Trees (V2)

Track - Hotel Room

The Home Counties are noted for many things. Musical prowess is perhaps not one of them. Chichester-via-New Orleans duo Smoke Fairies are doing their level best to change that. Friends in high places such as Jack White have helped raise their profile, but Through Low Light and Trees is a superb record in its own right. Drawing on the English folk tradition, reverb drenched guitars weave a beguiling pattern behind harmonies that are as haunting as they are beautiful.

Ian Parker

The National - High Violet (4AD)

Track - Terrible Love

For a long time, I've been trying to figure out the National. They came along, as far as I was concerned, out of nowhere in 2005, with the delicious Alligator - an album I adored (and continue to adore) so much I'd quite happily say off the top of my head it'd be my No. 1 if we were doing this advent calendar five years ago (I've no idea what else I've forgotten, but we'll go with it). I eagerly bought up their back catalogue, but came away unmoved, even by their eponymous debut, which remains many critics' choice. Then followed 2007's Boxer, which only further muddied the waters by being, in my book, a huge disappointment despite critical acclaim. I went back to listening to Alligator. And loving every second. So who were this band, and could they ever reach those heights again? Well, High Violet is not Alligator. But it is damn close, and it reminds me what I fell for in the first place, the aloofness, the quiet power, and the assuredness of touch.

Rory Dollard

LCD Soundsystem – This is Happening (EMI)

Track - I Can Change

I’m increasingly tempted towards hyperbole where James Murphy’s soon-to-be-defunct LCD Soundystem are concerned. There’s an argument, and a very decent one at that, to be made of them as the defining band of the last 10 years. Murphy’s style is, like lots of the best art, a fascinating contradiction. He’s a guy who loves downbeat British music but comes from uber-cool New York, who frequently stumbles over his words but regularly finds genuine poetry, who loves dumb frat-rock but can’t play guitar, who fronts a hip dance band but whose age and waistband passed the mid-30s mark some time ago. The combined effect is by turns exhilarating, nostalgic, romantic, reckless and righteous.

Ali Mason

Anais Mitchell – Hadestown (Righteous Babe)

Track - Wedding Song

Hadestown, Anais Mitchell’s folk opera transporting the Orpheus myth to depression-era America, is a truly impressive achievement. It boasts a variety of influences and styles - evoking speakeasies and jazz bars as well as the wild American outdoors - but coheres wonderfully, it’s allegorical without being preachy and it captivates from start to, well, almost finish. Lyrically it’s immense, but - as often happens in musicals and narrative albums - the need to tie up the story slightly overtakes the tunes towards the end.


  1. I think it's worth pointing out here that Kanye West's new album would undoubtedly have featured somewhere in my top five if it had been released before I submitted my list.

  2. Given its release date, it will be eligible next year...