One thing about lists like this: of course, they’re not exactly scientific. The order of these albums tends to change just about every time I revisit an album and discover new facets I had previously overlooked. Some albums I thought would rank highly dropped out of the top 25 entirely; others I kept revisiting until I had no choice put to push them up the ranks. Still others I forgot about until I dug them up again once I decided to compile this list and remembered quite how great they were.

Anyway…

Honourable mentions

Numbers 25 – 21

twentieth: Animal Collective – Centipede Hz.

A relatively weak Animal Collective album is still an Animal Collective album, and as much of a mess as this album is, there’s still an embarassment of riches to be picked out. Take the manic colourburst of “Today’s Supernatural”, all screams, yelps, restlessly shifting rhythms and guitar riffs layered haphazardly over keyboard lines. Take the weary, descending-dark melancholy of “New Town Burnout”.  Best of all, take “Amanita”, which opens with a fanfare worthy of some mythical Oriental court before concluding with a departure into the mystery of a fairy-tale forest, with the promise to “bring back some stories and games”. I can’t wait to see what they find in the woods.

nineteenth: Chromatics – Kill for Love

Kill for Love opens with a cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” that cuts to the very heart of the album. Young’s anthemic rock ‘n’ roll manifesto is distilled into a repetitive, skeletal guitar line, a simple canned rhythm, some washes of neon-tinged synth, and frontwoman Ruth Radelet’s weary, distracted vocal take. It’s atmospheric, aglow with garish eighties neon, but also tired, oddly listless and melancholy. And the same is true of the album as a whole, which, far from a weakness, is kinda the whole point: Kill for Love is derivative, its sounds are the corpses of 80s electro and New Wave and 70s disco,  drained of blood and life but strung up for one more dance, and in this way they speak perfectly of loss, alienation, longing and emptiness. Front-loaded with its catchiest songs, the album seems to go on forever, so much so that it feels like it doesn’t actually end – it just dies down into ambient passages and meandering atmospherics that go nowhere, until your attention drifts off and you forget it’s still on. This is an album that suggests that, far from burning out in a glorious arc across the sky, rock ‘n’ roll is deep in the throes of a long, protracted fade-away.

eighteenth: Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

On this album, Jessica Bailiff’s musical touchstones range from gentle, piano-led ballads, to dreamy shoegaze-influenced pop, to heavy, funereal dirges that almost verge on doom-metal territory. But she never sounds like anything other than herself: what brings it all together into a coherent whole is Bailiff’s sonic investment in the textures and atmospheres of drone, which gives her music a hazy, indistinct quality, as if it is coming from far underground – or from some private chamber of the heart. Bailiff’s music feels private, painfully intimate, and it invites the listener to stand still, share in the intimacy and discover its secrets.

seventeenth: Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Julia Holter’s remarkable debut album, Tragedy, announced her as a major talent from the word go; her follow-up underlines that fact. Here, Holter emerges into a new-found clarity, shedding some of the abstraction and harsh surfaces of her first album without sacrificing any of her idiosyncracies.  Ekstasis is possessed of delicacy, grace and ethereal beauty, but it is also purposeful, meticulous and fiercely intelligent, its erudite literary references and gorgeous harmonies and details suggestive of mysteries constantly on the verge of being deciphered.

sixteenth: Burial – Kindred EP

Or, How I Learned to Finally Stop Worrying and Love Burial. I admired his self-titled debut and Untrue more than I loved them, but Kindred is something else. Its soundscapes are dense, dark and bottomless, weighed down with a heavy inevitability and pulsing with an unnameable  but almost unbearable ache. This is the sound of the city at 4am, the music of the night still ringing in your ears, disappointments and fears welling up, the orange glow of street-lamps and the red tail-light snakes on the tired drive home ignite some existential dread that is too deep in the gut for words to find any purchase on it.

If any confirmation were needed, last night’s packed gig at MITP underlines what has been obvious for the past couple of months: Brikkuni have become the first bona fide superstars of the Maltese alternative scene. Yesterday’s gig united virtually every subculture, from punks to indie kids and literati, under one roof, mixed in with curious casual observers checking out what all the fuss was about. The turnout wasn’t just impressive – I don’t think MITP has ever been quite so crowded, and it goes some way towards illustrating the impact Brikkuni have had on the local scene.

I realize I haven’t written about the album itself, though I don’t think much else needs to be said. That it’s the best piece of recorded music to ever come out of these islands has become a cliche, but it’s no less true for that – and nor should it be taken as damning with faint praise. I consider Kuntrabanda one of the albums of the year, irrespective of country of origin, and, in conjunction with this year’s also-excellent Areola Treat EP, it suggests that the time has come to stop thinking of local music as somehow handicapped or disadvantaged. Kuntrabanda may not be a perfect album, but it can hold its own with the best of them, and the reason isn’t just that it’s a polished, musically inventive, exciting piece of songcraft. What truly makes the album great – and, unfortunately, what makes it virtually unexportable – is that it recombines all the genetic traits of Maltese culture – band marches, ghanja, spaghetti westerns on late-night Sicilian channels – into a whole that seems both intimately familiar and thrillingly new. It’s like a shift of a few degrees in viewpoint that suddenly makes everything fall into place. Before Kuntrabanda – and I realize this is entirely a failing in my own make-up as a writer – I couldn’t imagine good music being made in Maltese, or any art – music, but also films or novels – so specifically Maltese in character. Now, anything seems possible.

This was Brikkuni’s first gig after the album launch; for the first time, their audience came to the show knowing the songs inside out. This couldn’t have been more obvious yesterday – every single one of the songs on Kuntrabanda has become an anthem. Familiarity hasn’t dulled the impact of these songs; rather, it has further energized the audience. Half the crowd was singing along from beginning to end, and the scorching, energetic set had the feel of a victory march – Brikkuni have won their place, now it’s time for the celebration. 

Among all the familiar songs, of course, a standout moment was the inclusion of the band’s first new post-Kuntrabanda song. If there’s anything to complain about in Kuntrabanda, it’s that Mario Vella’s lyrics too often fall back on bile, sarcasm and satire – it works, and it’s the basis of the most anthemic songs on the album, but it does give rise to the mistaken impression that Brikkuni are a Xtruppaw-like “joke” band, and I can’t help but wonder what Mario can do with more varied material. The newest addition to the repertoire at yesterday’s gig, “L-Ufficju”, suggests they’re on the right track – a mellow (by comparison) ballad that makes bittersweet poetry out of the daily grind, it’s an encouraging indication of a band attempting to widen their horizons and not resting on their laurels. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

Illustrating the missing link between PJ Harvey’s early 90s output and the abrasive end of hardcore, Made out of Babies’ third album ranks as one of the most satisfyingly gruelling listens of the year. It’s difficult to say whether these songs would be compelling without Julie Christmas’ remarkable voice, but it’s irrelevant -her versatile cords are never far from the forefront.

To say that Christmas’ vocal range is impressive is an understatement. On opener “Cooker” alone, she delivers an almost Bjork-like warble that soars into a full-bodied, powerful tones before exploding into ragged, gut-wrenching screams. It is this ability to shift from contained tension to savage ferocity at the drop of a coin that colours this album’s jagged and unpredictable emotional register.

If the rest of the band’s contributions struggle to match the raw power of their attention-grabbing frontwoman, there is still plenty to admire. Musically, The Ruiner never veers too far from the hardcore formula – and perhaps it’s a slight occasional reliance on off-the-peg moshpit riffing that keeps the albums from the ranks of the truly great. Nonetheless, there is more than enough variety and impressive craft here to keep one’s interest – from the grandiose melodic tones of “Invisible Ink”, perhaps the most immediately palatable song here, to the taut tension and relentless drive of “Grimace” and the driving, violent rhythms of “Bunny Boots”, the latter matched by Christmas’ most histrionic performance. For a good proportion of the album, Made Out of Babies pull off the tricky combination of strong melodies with quasi-metal intensity and power; in their finest moments, the effect is staggering.

Ultimately, The Ruiner is going to put off as many people as it attracts. It’s too bleak, unsettling and ragged to be an addictive listen, and it does make for an exhausting forty-two minutes. Nonetheless its impact is undeniable, and, even if it’s just slightly let down by a (very) occasional slide into the cliches of the genre, it comes, on its own terms, close to greatness.

Made Out of Babies on MySpace

kuntrabanda!

September 5, 2008

In 2006 a little band called Brikkuni played two shows – one in Scaremongering’s Memento Mori exhibition in Valletta, the other, a few days later, in a hay-strewn Poxx Bar – and instantly proved themselves to be possibly the most exciting Maltese band since, well, ever. Their mixture of local and foreign folk influences, a harsh satirical eye, carnivalesque pop energy, inventive songwriting and rich instrumentation set them apart from the unambitiously derivative output many local bands unfortunately fall into. Not only did it sound like something new, it sounded like an idiosyncratically Maltese take on pop music, with its own distinct character that could not have emerged anywhere else. More importantly, their gigs were capitalized, italicized Fun, and the local scene was left wanting more.

Then…they went under the radar.

Now, with some changes in lineup, they’re back, with big news. They’ve been working hard on debut album Kuntrabanda!, which shall be out soon. Some shows are also planned for the near future, though details are still unavailable. If you’re already acquainted with the band, you need no encouragement. If you aren’t – make some space in your schedule.

You can listen to a couple of (unmastered) tracks from the album by following the link below. Those present at the 2006 gigs will remember the songs…

Brikkuni on MySpace

Portland, Oregon-based Grouper (real name Liz Harris) can perhaps most easily be classified under the dream-pop label. Comparisons to the Cocteau Twins have been drawn, and while there is an element of truth in the analogy, it’s possible to overstress it – there is a hazy, blurry dreaminess to Harris’ music that sets them apart from the Cocteau Twins’ clearly defined, chiming melodies.

There are delicately beautiful, fragile melodies and fragments of gentle, pastoral folk here – Harris’ reverb-laden, whispered vocals and gently strummed acoustic guitar occasionally, as on “Heavy Water/I’d Rather be Sleeping” and “Invisible”, rise to the surface. More often, however, they are wrapped in a druggy, impressionistic haze of aural fog – this is music that washes over you in swirling, echoing waves of melodically ambient sound, sleepily soothing yet richly suggestive of deeper forces. The astonishing “Tidal Wave”, for instance, creates a sonic space that is intimate yet vast, suggestive of cold, desolate, windswept places as much as the private whisperings of a lover or a conscience.

This is powerfully atmospheric, richly evocative and hauntingly beautiful music. It feels like slowly waking up into tentative consciousness from a pleasantly deep, dream-rich sleep, and finding yourself, only half-awake, in an ancient forest, whispered to just beneath conscious hearing by a presence that could be benevolent forest sprites or something bigger and more disturbing. And if it’s more something that will slowly dawn on you over repeated listen than something that will grab you immediately, there is nonetheless an intense, hypnotic power to this album that makes it difficult to stop listening to it once it finally clicks.

Grouper on MySpace

listen to: silje nes

August 25, 2008

The Scandinavian folk scene has produced some of the most interesting music of the past few years. Artists like Lau Nau and Islaja have released hypnotically beautiful, if sometimes challenging, music that is unlike anything else I can name. Miles away from the unadorned voice-and-guitar songcraft of most traditional folk singer-songwriters (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these songs display complex, often assonant arrangements and unorthodox instrumentation that take a while to get used to, but that are well worth the effort.

Norwegian artist Silje Nes, who grew up in the town of Leikanger in Sognefjord, and now makes music in Bergen, is one of the newer additions to the scene, and one of the most interesting and rewarding. Her debut album, Ames Room, was released by Fat Cat earlier this year, and it’s a thing of immense beauty and intricacy. Always at the forefront is her gentle voice – at times coming close to a less mischievous, more ethereal Bjork, at others washing away in harmonic whispers. A muted, suggestively distant guitar plays a prominent role in most of her songs, but what is most interesting is what is happening around these folk staples.

Nes recorded the album herself, using a considerable number of instruments, including some she constructed herself, to create dense, layered arrangements. The result is that in the album’s aural universe, Nes is constantly surrounded by what sounds like a shambolic orchestra of rickety clockwork toys, all clicks, whirrs, hums, plinkety-plonk keyboard sounds and off-kilter percussion. In places Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits is distantly recalled, though the arrangements here are more fragile, threatening to fall apart at any moment but always just hanging together.

These arrangements may be complex and multi-layered, but the end result is not one of epic scope, but of a rich intimacy – each sound feels hand-made and lovingly worked on, making each song feel unique. There is a lot of variety here – “Drown”, an achingly gorgeous piece built around just-barely-plucked guitar notes and Nes’ beautifully multi-tracked voice repeating the enigmatic line “We’ll bring the water to the sea once more”, perhaps adheres closest to folk conventions, though the emphasis on its echoing ambience sets it apart. Other songs, like “Recurring Dream” and “Searching, White”, with their driving percussion and electronic basslines, actually develop nod-along grooves, while “Dizzy Street” almost sounds like a pop song. Elsewhere, as on “Shapes Electric” and closer “No Birds Can”, the emphasis is on the intricate soundscapes Nes conjures up rather than on songcraft. These disparate strands to make Ames Room a hugely promising debut, and one of the best albums of the year to date.

Silje Nes on MySpace

It’s been a while since we’ve had a decent band visiting our shores – the enjoyable gig by The Violets was back in March, and before that I have to go back to the excellent show by The Burning Leaves and Pete Molinari almost a full year back. So yesterday’s performance by Vanessa and the O’s was something to look forward to.

Positives first: the Old University Building courtyard proved to be an excellent live venue, with great acoustics and loads of character and atmosphere. The projection of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera as a background to the performances was an inspired touch and worked well, contributing to an engaging visual setting for the show.

The Beangrowers were as listenable and endearing as ever. This was the first time I’d heard material from their latest album played live, and new songs like “Quaint Affair” and “Untitled Forever” demonstrate a band that continues to grow in songwriting maturity and craft. The more relaxed ambience of a sit-down gig suited them well and allowed the songcraft to shine through more than the bouncy energy that’s generally at the forefront during their shows.

After a short break, it was time for the headliners of the evening to take to the stage. I have to admit to having something of a personal aversion to the breathy, nonchalant-but-oh-so-sexy and usually French sort of singing style Vanessa employs – it tends to come across, at least to me, as shallow, affected, pretentious , utterly fake and highly irritating. So inevitably this was a bit of a stumbling-block for me when listening to Vanessa and the O’s, especially for the first few songs. Towards the start of their set, both Vanessa and gum-chewing guitarist Richard Hornby seemed really rather uninterested and bored with  the whole thing – Vanessa’s singing seemed almost half-hearted and her stage banter extended only as far as name-checking “Lou, Lou Reeed” several times. The songs themselves, fundamentally rhythm-based, conventionally-structured pop,  weren’t strong or distinctive enough to survive  in stripped-down guitar-and-vocals form, feeling somewhat anaemic and lifeless.

Things got better when the duo were joined by the Beanies’ Ian Schranz on drums, improvising along to their songs. Ian did a pretty good job of it and the songs were helped immensely by being fleshed out with a rhythm. It was at that point that the first highlight of the set came up – “I Must be Dreaming”, while not exactly in any way a brilliant or remotely innovative song, had a hummability and a foot-tapabaility (if that’s a word) that the rest of the set lacked.

The second highlight was when the rest of the Beanies joined in for a full-band take on the Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”. Replacing the dreamy wistfulness and gentle instrumentation of the original with a more upbeat, poppier approach, the song – which segued into a full-band reprise of “I Must be Dreaming” – provided some much-needed energy in the closing moments of the short set. The distinctly lacklustre start of the set wasn’t exactly forgotten, but the latter part of the performance at least ended the evening on an enjoyable note.

As an aside, I would be doing a disservice to the very idea of a blog named Coffee and Typescript if I didn’t mention the post-gig visit to Chiaroscuro in Strait Street. This was only my second to the upmarket and slightly off-puttingly posh coffee/wine bar, having been discouraged by some really terrible service the first time round, but it’s fair to say that they serve the best coffee I’ve tasted on the island. I haven’t come across any other place that gives you a choice of different varieties and blends of coffee when ordering an espresso – if you make it there, try the Jamaica Blue Mountain blend, it’s sublime. Yesterday I tried their spiced black coffee (which includes ground pepper, aniseed and cardamom pods), and it was an experience – the combination of the strong coffee flavour with the cardamom aroma and an unexpectedly powerful spicy-hot kick works pretty damn well.