Honorable mentions

Numbers 25-21

Numbers 20-16

fifteenth: Swans – The Seer

Few albums are as evidently intended as career-defining masterpieces as The Seer is. Its two hours encompass everything that Swans have been, in all their different permutations, as they enter their fourth decade: grinding industrial assaults and drones, sweeping apocalyptic folk, quasi-doom-metal stomp. In every sense, this is an album as Defining Statement: Swans are going for broke here and aiming for the stars. If, taken all in one go, it can get wearying in its relentless confrontation and nihilism, that seems to be entirely the point: this isn’t meant to be pleasant. “Harrowing” would probably be a better term. But it’s undeniably mesmerising, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in its overwhelming, unrelenting power. It is a remarkable achievement, however you look at it.

fourteenth: Beach House – Bloom

The music of Beach House’s first two albums is haunted: it is the sound of empty rooms, gaudy old trinkets, incense and dust. In its claustrophobic spaces sat Victoria Legrand, melancholy, intense, in communion with some vanished spirit, a memory of something lost. Their third album, Teen Dream, was like a window being flung open and the world bursting in, a ray of light piercing the darkness. If Teen Dream was the first bright day heralding the end of winter, Bloom is high spring, warm, fecund, flowering, languid. Its songs unfurl themselves, appropriately enough, like flowers coming into bloom: delicate, contained beginnings exploding into brightness and colour. Beach House’s sound has never been this rich, but it’s arguable that something has been lost along the way: where a Beach House song used to be a perfect articulation of a moment of longing, an expression of desire or devotion, wrapped in evocative imagery that suggested a world beyond the borders of its verses, all too often the songs here slip into vage generality. I still think this is a great, great album, but it’s also the first Beach House album I wouldn’t unhesitatingly place near the top three for its respective year. But when everything connects – as it does in the commanding majesty of “Myth”, the Cocteau Twins-meets-The Carpenters lament of “Wishes”, the gorgeous flight of “Lazuli” – Bloom offers us a mesmerising new Beach House, where new-found confidence and clarity complicate their aching melancholy rather than obscuring it.

thirteenth: Purity Ring – Shrines

I initially dismissed Purity Ring as The Knife Lite, before this album burrowed its way into my heart. Shrines might hit some of the same notes and display very similar sonic textures to those of the Norwegian duo’s epochal Silent Shout, but the resulting effect soon reveals itself to be very different. Where The Knife are icy, Purity Ring are warm and organic, anchored by Megan James’  intimate, affecting voice adrift in its austere, electronic setting. In what must be a very deliberate irony, this is a proudly unchaste album, with the body, and the transgression of its boundaries, a primary theme: it’s an album of “weeping chests and trembling thighs”, where ribcages are torn open and holes are drilled into eyelids.  In “Fineshrine”, James pleads, “Cut open my sternum and hold my little ribs around you”: it’s a line that’s both startling and beautiful, a declaration of intimacy that’s equal parts unsettling and tender. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, but Shrines maintains that brilliantly uneasy balance throughout.

twelfth: Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks

Is it suddenly no longer okay to like Of Montreal? I don’t get it. This astonishing, ambitious, raw, overreaching, grandiose album is easily their best since Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, and if it doesn’t quite equal that unquestioned masterpiece, it’s a towering return to form after the slight misstep of False Priest. Kevin Barnes wraps his tales of destructive relationships, dysfunctional families and self-hatred, all delivered with his typically lacerating self-examination, in layer upon layer of ostentatious wordplay, theatrical flamboyance and ambitious arrangements that bridge the gap between synth-pop and twentieth-century avantgarde. It’s often ugly, chaotic, atonal and uncomfortable, but just as often (and frequently at the same time) it’s catchy, even danceable, hooks and melodies coming at you at the rate of several dozen per minute: it’s almost overwhelming and it definitely needs more than a few listens before it all begins to cohere. At the heart of it all, as always with Of Montreal, is a despairing soul tearing itself and its world apart, trying to get at something more beautiful: here, the violence is more apparent than ever, but the despair is no less keenly felt.

eleventh: Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze EP

If I were to judge an album’s quality purely by how much I’ve listened to it, I would have to conclude that Dum Dum Girls’ Only in Dreamswas one of the very best albums of 2011. And yet, this EP is a massive step forward, with new textures, spaces and intimacies emerging as the Girls’ sound receives a new dose of polish. The (very evident) set of influences at play here – 60s girl-group pop, riot grrrl, shoegaze – have never been as seamlessly synthesized into a whole that is distinctively the Dum Dum Girls’ own, and the five songs here are all, in their own way, astonishing. From the way “Mine Tonight” starts off as post-breakup dirge before reaching for the rafters in a chilling death-wish/premonition of a chorus,  to the way “Season in Hell” closes the album with a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel – “Doesn’t the dawn look divine?” – this miniature masterpiece takes the listener on a perfectly-judged, powerful emotional journey. Along the way, “Lord Knows” is surely one of the very best songs of the year.

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When year-end Best Albums lists start coming round, I always find myself slightly disappointed by their relative consistency. Why do the same batch of albums keep cropping up all over the place? Not that they would be bad choices, necessarily, but music is such a personal thing. We all listen to music for so many different reasons and get so many different things out of it. A list should say at least as much about the person compiling it as about the musical landscape of the year – so why does it seem like everyone was affected by exactly the same very small set of music?

Of course this is partly inevitable. We can’t listen to all the new music out there, so we need gatekeepers to skim the cream of the crop off the pile of thousands and thousands of records released every year. I don’t exonerate myself – I learn about most of the music I listen to from Pitchfork, same as any other pretentious hipster. You have to start somewhere, and certainly a lot of the music on my list is gonna be more or less exactly what you’d expect. I’ll just be happy if I can provide a couple of interesting surprises along the way.

So. With the honourable mentions out of the way, it’s time to start counting down the Top Twenty-Five proper.

twenty-fifth: DIIV – Oshiin

This year, this was the album for blissed-out summer drives to the beach and 4am drives home on suffocatingly hot nights, for heat-haze and the glare of too-bright sunlight, for the sleepy-but-sometimes-alm0st-eerie stillness of Maltese July afternoons. Deceptively simple, hummable tunes and driving rhythms frame intricate guitarwork that slowly reveals hidden textural depths, enough to sink into and lose yourself in.

twenty-fourth: Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man

No denying it: after the grand beauty of 2009’s Two Suns, absolutely one of the greatest albums of the past few years, what I first heard in The Haunted Man was the sound of mild disappointment. I still don’t think it’s a match for the album that, for now, remains Natasha Khan’s masterpiece, but time and repeated listens have been kind to her latest. I’m not the first to point out that the two albums’ very different but equally striking cover images serve as the perfect metonym for the albums’ divergences. Two Suns is introduced by a kaleidoscopic Technicolor fantasia that references Catholic iconography, alchemical imagery, beloved 80s blockbuster cinema, bad stoner airbrush art and probably countless other details I missed – it’s maximalist, rich, gorgeous and utterly idiosyncratic. On the other hand, the Ryan McGinley-shot image announcing The Haunted Man (incidentally, probably the album cover of the year) is raw, grainy, stark and unadorned. It’s stripped-down and naked, both figuratively and literally, and likewise the album is sparser, less ornate, more direct, more honest. Still, the image is an arrestingly strange one, and ultimately so is this album – it’s a landscape of hauntings and ghostly figures, of voices lurking at the edges of songs. It’s strange, evocative, mysterious, and, yes, utterly idiosyncratic.

twenty-third: James Blackshaw – Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death

Blackshaw’s music feels like listening in to the eternal, interlocking circular harmonies of the celestial sphere, and glimpsing the fundamental order of things. If you think that sounds like hyperbole, you’re probably not familiar with his work. Here, his switch to a six-string guitar lends an earthier, campfire quality to his ethereal compositions, while “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways”, his collaboration with Menace Ruine singer Geneviève Beaulieu, is both remarkable and entirely unlike anything Blackshaw has done before, hinting at tantalising new directions.

twenty-second: Grizzly Bear – Shields

Grizzly Bear make cathedrals of sound, imposing edifices that show the hands of perfectionists at work. Every detail reveals patience and painstaking craft. Still, it is not the sounds that make Grizzly Bear so special, but the space they create, a cavernous, lonely, hermetic nave for the band’s flawless harmonies and crashing percussion to reverberate in. Shields is their most towering, meticulous work, and also their most aching.

twenty-first: Passion Pit – Gossamer

Never has music this despairing and world-weary sounded so fun, bright and cheerful. Call it bubblegum pop with the bitter aftertaste of knowing the bubble has burst – nothing this year was as infectious, as great at making you want to dance or as merciless about making you feel bad at wanting to dance to someone’s misery.

To be continued.

Even if we could dissociate it, at this point, from the monolithic cultural status it has gained as the Most Successful Film Of All Time, Avatar is an extremely difficult film to review. I can’t help but feel frustrated at its crippling, fundamental issues, its roll-call of cliches, the frustratingly missed opportunities at every turn. It’s not, strictly speaking, a great film. And yet I watched it in wide-eyed wonder, feeling like I was eight again and going to the cinema for the first time to see Jurassic Park. Which, in retrospect, wasn’t really a great movie, either. Still – that effortless, childlike joy has to count for something.

Let’s agree, straight off, that this is no Aliens or Terminator (though, on the other hand, it’s no Titanic, either). To be fair, it isn’t trying to be – where James Cameron’s 1980s masterpieces were taut, claustrophobic thrillers, Avatar shoots for the sweeping epic. It’s certainly the approach that fits the story best, and it’s in keeping with Cameron’s status as King of the World. But if only it could have been done with a little more vision. I don’t need to point out that the plot is – ahem – not exactly new; others have already done so eloquently. Now, this isn’t necessarily a problem – the story of “people A oppress people B, people B fight back” is an archetypal one, and, as Terrence Malick proved masterfully with The New World (2005), it can still lead to magnificent results. Sure, it’s an unfair comparison, but given Cameron’s evident ambition to make the Na’vi culture come to life, there’s none of Malick’s subtletly or intelligence here – the plot is drawn in broad strokes, and it’s very much a case of the noble savage versus the evil American military-industrial complex (which is all we see of humanity here). Apart from a handful of dissenting good guys, the humans in Avatar are glowering, pantomime villains – the corporate executives’ profit motive is clear enough, but what is it, exactly, that drives Colonel Quaritch’s psychotic hatred of every living thing on Pandora?

Perhaps a more relevant comparison that The New World is Princess Mononoke (Hayao Miyazaki, 1997), which shares Avatar‘s action-epic structure, its nature-versus-industry dynamic and its pantheistic mysticisim. And yet, despite all those similarities, what a different film it is: with neither side being entirely good or entirely, cartoonishly evil, both sides of the conflict seem equally valid. No easy identification is possible, and the viewer is forced to actually consider the merits of both sides and imagine what sort of compromise might be achieved. Compare this to Cameron’s film – there is no room for shades of grey in Avatar‘s black-and-white world, and – both dramatically and thematically – it suffers for it.

Equally disappointing is Cameron’s baffling lack of interest in the film’s central conceit. The idea of the avatar is an interesting and timely one, and yet, despite the titular prominence granted to the concept and the central role it plays in the opening scenes, it becomes little more than a plot device once we get to the action. There’s no development of the relationship between a person and their avatar. No hint of the physical toll that being essentially always awake must take. Not even the merest suggestion of the existential dilemmas brought up by inhabiting a second body. Okay, it’s an action film, but if you’re going to call your film Avatar and bring the idea up at all, for God’s sake, do something with it.

And yet, how much of this really matters? I’m still not sure. What I do know is that, as soon as the film left the confines of the military compound and ventured out into the lush jungles of Pandora, I remembered how I felt being eight and watching Jurassic Park on my second ever outing to the cinema, or being eleven and watching Independence Day. The word – and I don’t want to use it lightly – is wonder, and in its best moments Avatar made me feel that again. I don’t think that’s an unimportant achievement.

Many critic speak of the film’s astonishing visual sequences as if Cameron pushed a button on a computer and all these breathtaking images and masterful sequences came out automatically. There is vivid imagination, painstaking craft and remarkable technical achievements in every frame of Avatar – more than enough to remind us that, in terms of visceral, spectacular blockbuster entertainment, few film-makers come even close to Cameron at the top of his game.

There’s definitely a feeling that, given its investment in presenting a functional world and inviting the viewer to inhabit it, Avatar might have made for a better game than film – I’m not the first to point this out – but, having said that, the sheer sensual power of the world presented here is jaw-dropping, and the simple, archetypal narrative does a good job of leading the viewer on a whistle-stop tour of Pandora. The point, though, says a lot about the film: its flimsy narrative elements serve only as an excuse for the presentation of its remarkably-wrought world; whether or not that’s a valid approach for a film – I’m not sure.

So where does that leave me? I’m uneasy when people proclaim Avatar‘s greatness, and feel obliged to note its severe shortcomings; and yet the backlash is equally irritating. I have a feeling that viewed at home, without the benefits of its truly groundbreaking 3D techniques, its flaws will come more forcefully to the foreground, and it’ll be that much more difficult to be swept away by its simplistic narrative. Still, there’ll always be the memory of that glorious first viewing.

Hi.

It’s been a while since my last post on here, for which I have no excuse apart from the old chestnut that other commitments/interests and life in general kind of got in the way. November disappeared in its entirety into the maw of a CELTA English-teaching course, December was taken up with screenwriting duties and festive preparations and, well, here we are.

I do intend to make posting here at least semi-regular (call it a slightly early New Year’s resolution) so, if anyone’s still checking in, I hope your patience will be amply rewarded.

I also want to take this opportunity to plug the newly-launched Schlock Magazine. It’s a WordPress-based monthly ezine featuring original fiction with a strongly pulp bias (if you’re not even slightly into horror, fantasy or sci-fi, it’s probably not for you.) It’s edited by my good friend Teodor Reljic, and (to declare my interest) the first issue, published this month, features (among many other excellent contributions) the first part of a story by yours truly.

Please do give it a look.

I realize I’m several years behind the times, but over the past few months I’ve started working my way through the Hellboy TPs. Guillermo Del Toro’s 2004 film – in my opinion one of the best superhero movies of all time, certainly the most entertaining – was, I suppose like many people, my introduction to the character. The big red guy himself is an easy hero to love. I can’t think of any other superhero so constantly amusing, sympathetic and downright endearingly lovable. As is de rigeur for any modern hero, there’s a darkness to him, mostly due to his occluded, demonic past, but what makes him so unique is his brash, no-nonsense demeanour and his unexpectedly soft side (I can’t really see Batman fighting off a rabid hell-beast to save a crate of kittens).

Coming to Mike Mignola’s comics after Del Toro’s film – which is remarkably faithful in tone and atmosphere to its source – meant the set-up, broad narrative arc and cast were already familiar, but this didn’t in any way diminish the exuberant joy, thrilling plotting and endless invention of Mignola’s work. His artwork is the first thing to grab the attention, and it is truly wondrous – endearingly stylised yet emotive, cartoonishly energetic yet restrained, with bold, bright colours and solid, deep shadows.

The world depicted through his art is a delight – a pop-culture carnival of the comic-macabre, borrowing as much from traditional folk-tales as from B-movies, indebted equally to H.P. Lovecraft, the Brothers Grimm and Hammer movies. This contrast is reflected in the tone of Hellboy’s adventures. His battles against the scum of the underworld and his quest to understand his origins are sheer, shameless, glorious pulp entertainment, packed with Nazi brains in jars, giant undead gorillas, vampires, fairies, golems, ancient demons et cetera et cetera. But in the spaces and around the edges of the action there is something more than a hint of the cosmic, ancestral horrors lurking in the darkness of ancient folk-tales. These suggestions are never overplayed or focused upon; their place is in the background to the action, colouring in the scene, not dominating it, but there are moments of poetry in between the fist-fights that might almost be called beautiful.  In the best Hellboy stories, for instance “The Corpse”, from which the above image is taken, the two sensibilities – the pulp and the mythic – bleed into each other – an Irish folk-tale retold in a B-movie idiom, not losing its eerie mystery, but gaining in wit, energy and colour.

Besides its titular character, it is this interplay that makes Hellboy so absorbing and downright fun. And just as Del Toro got Hellboy himself just right (it’s difficult to conceive of anyone but Ron Perlman in the role), he achieved the necessary tonal balance to bring Mignola’s world to life. If nothing has gone horribly wrong, Hellboy II is bound to be the most fun two hours I’ll spend in a cinema this year. There’s space for two great superhero films in one summer.