Thursday, 5 January 2012

BEST ALBUM OF 2011

Wot, like in Up?
People, especially people writing in certain types of magazines, occasionally talk about soundscapes, about how the way in which an album or song is laid out can feel like a sort of immersive environment. Well, says Abel Tesfaye, aka The Weeknd, that game is for wimps. In the space of one released-for-free mixtape, The Weeknd established a whole world.

A world where – as pretty much everyone who’s written about, or listened to, the music will tell you – it is constantly the early hours of the morning, where it’s cold and smoky outside, where the party is always just ending. A world with the colours turned down slightly, viewed through a lens smeared with vaseline … or are your eyes just bleary?

With its sort of Noir R’n’B (as in the black-&-white motifs, sure, but also the femme fatales and troubled masculinity of the lyrics, the quivering motel neons in the music) House of Balloons manages to transport all this to the space between your eyes and ears. It’s a weird kind of Tolkeinesque world-building by way of R. Kelly’s Trapped in the Closet.

This was effortlessly sustained by the other two parts of the mixtape trilogy The Weeknd released in 2011, Thursday and Echoes of Silence, which served more or less as expansion packs. The former just adds a slightly different colour palette, the Vice City to House of Balloon’s GTAIII. Accordingly, I was hoping December’s Echoes of Silence might be his San Andreas, in terms of expanding every bit of ambition in the original to obscene proportions.

It’s not, but it does sharpens the aesthetic to a lethal point, then turn it back on pop, to shows how it’s not all that far from, for example, the work of Michael Jackson – it opens with a cover of MJ’s Dirty Diana, which doesn’t sound too dissimilar to the original, just filtered through that unmistakable Weeknd worldview.

The three albums have distinct personalities, but there’s the intertextuality runs deep, and each can be played back to back, flowing almost imperceptibly into one another, to create a two-hour mood piece. It’s testament to Tesfate’s masterful control over the aesthetic parameters of this world– so much so that it’s jarring to hear Superhero and Party, tracks from around 2008, released recently, when he was doing something completely different, closer to trad R’n’B, and frankly much less interesting.

My favourite art of the year

The Weeknd snuck into an incredible number of corners during 2011 – the music I talked about when I was drunk, slipping it into playlists so everyone else could hear it, owning the week I lived in a hostel in Bath and playing at being a games journalist, being the only album on the my mobile’s SD card, so soundtracking a lot of morning tube journeys and late night walks home.

(This piece is a palimpsest, etched over the remains of something I wrote back in June, about the joys of playing House of Balloons back to back, on constant repeat. I ended up back-to-backing the album, with barely an exhale between end and beginning, for pretty much the entire next six months. I still have absolutely no idea of most of the lyrics.)

There’s a sense that perhaps I’m enjoying something beyond the music, something that exists in the images it sets off in my head, in the meeting point between the videos and photographs and what other people said.
That tends to be at least inherent in the criticisms of The Weeknd (of which there have a been a lot, often from writers whose opinions I respect) - that somehow these aren’t songs that Tesfaye is selling. And, okay, compared to, say, Childish Gambino - to pick another artist whose work I enjoyed immensely in 2011 - the pleasure is less immediate, the songs are less likely to grab me by the lapels while I’m listening to them.

Admittedly, a lot of the time, I let The Weeknd slip into the background, using it as a sort of musical wallpaper, while something else goes in the foreground. But if it’s ambient, it’s aggressively ambient. It’s the kind of wallpaper that, suddenly feeling overly sensitive to everything, you rub your fingers over, and appreciate every inch of texture.

It’s music that feels physical, in every possible way - not just how it occasionally taps into your muscles and makes them jump and twitch in the nearest approximation of dancing you can manage on the morning commute, but like its ideas form something three-dimensional, so dense you could almost reach out and touch it. And it is dense - all this information is condensed down into these small aural packages, like Grant Morrison hyperstorytelling or something.

But, yes, perhaps I don’t enjoy House of Balloons in the way I do other music. The lyrics don’t mean a lot to me; to be honest, I can’t participate in the discussion about whether the songs are misogynist or misguided, because the words are just extra sounds to me. Which is fine, because the sounds are the whole point of the thing.

Tesfaye has a delicate voice, which generally sits on top of the song, skimming along the surface, while in depths there are these bassy, creaky thumpings. In the space in between, all sorts of stuff can happen: The Beach House sample Loft Music squashes out of shape, so it feels like an uncovered artefact of ancient pop rather than something from 2008. The bit where a woman’s voice joins in on The Party & The After Party, throbbing just under the song. The statement-of-intent looping squeal that introduces House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls – and from there, the song slides into a fluid underlying push/pull, with just the slightest buzzy echo, before introducing all sorts of other sounds and layering them on top, or underneath.

Every single moment on House of Balloons sounds absolutely gorgeous - whether through headphones, my old beaten-up laptop speakers, or my relatively good sound system. There are entire clubs’ worth of speakers going wasted on not playing The Weeknd constantly. I say we take the Gatecrashers of this world (rubbish club, fantastic sound systems) by force, and turn them into cathedrals of sound.

And then, the next morning, walking the wet streets, trying to scratch the tinnitus echo of the songs from our inner ear with a little finger, we can live in that fantasy world that House of Balloons taught us about. Of course, that would mean we’d just have to start enjoying the songs on their own merits.

Oh well.
Wot, like in Up?

Sunday, 1 January 2012

2011 – twelve months, twelve songs

The pre-New Years blogfest didn’t quite go as planned, thanks to the intrusion of pesky real life, and my own stupidity in underestimating the effort required to read and summarise an entire years’ worth of film reviews. I move into a flat in London tomorrow – an event aligned so neatly with the start of the new year I’m finding it difficult not to self-mythologise, but also meaning I won’t have broadband for a little while, but I’ve got a few end-of-year articles I’m hoping to polish and put up here. Watch this space, but for now enjoy this month-by-month account of the year in music (and double your fun with this YouTube playlist, featuring all 12 songs).

JANUARY
Kanye West – All of the Lights
Or, how I discovered that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had been my favourite album of 2010 all along, I’d just never listened to it. Running some beautiful strings and piano into big, punch-to-the-face beats, punctuated with those horns, there is always at least one thing going on. All of the Lights also features some of Rihanna’s finest work (and, in the video, the most I’ve ever understood why the entire universe fancies her) alongside a great segment owned by Kid Cudi, and appearances by Fergie, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Tony Williams, Alicia Keys, La Roux, The-Dream, Ryan Leslie, Alvin Fields and Ken Lewis. It should be a mess but Yeezy, in full 21st-Century-Brian-Wilson mode, stitches it all together perfectly to make an instant classic that would soundtrack the climax of every house party for the rest of the year.
FEBRUARY
Kimya Dawson – Walk Like Thunder
From music that sounds best at 2am coming through a stack of speakers, via a wall of human flesh that’s screaming a rough approximation of the lyrics, to headphone music for those 2ams spent alone. Walk Like Thunder is a 10 minute epic that fully earns its length. The listener is trapped in a confessional booth with Kimya’s voice and sparse atmospheric music, only blooming out at the very end into an Aesop Rock cameo. It’s pretty blunt, lyrically, but I’d venture that’s the point – people do everything they can to avoid talking about death, and maybe that should change.
MARCH
Rebecca Black – Friday
Am I being contrary? Well, maybe a little. (I briefly considered including Swagger Jagger instead, playing the same role). But I’ve genuinely got a lot of joy out of this song over this year – some of those lyrics are genius in their banality, if your mind is pitched just right, and it’s sweet-natured enough, and I think it’s unfairly become a byword for rubbish pop. Rubbish pop is mediocre, and the mind-blowing literality and creepy older rent-a-rapper of Friday is not that, by any yardstick. This goes out to all those 344,303 dislikes on YouTube – grow up, it’s at least pretty good.
APRIL
Childish Gambino – Break
January, redux. All of the Lights was so good it stretched into two of my favourite songs of the year – this is a remix, kind of, but it’s so much more than that. It’s in a relationship with the original, definitely, referring back and twisting its lines, but picks something new out of it – a sort of melancholy sweetness – like a friend telling you the answer to one of those Magic Eye puzzles. And then Mr Glover does his thing, dropping some nicely dense lines thick with reference, wordplay and an almost unhealthy interest in Asian women in a way that reminds you that in his other life, Donald is a well-loved comedian and writer. The meeting of those two simple ideas – cartoony rap and confessional emoting – would spark a love affair that lasted all year.
MAY
The Weeknd – House of Balloons/Glass Table Girls
The most important thing I heard all year. 2011 was the year I really got into hip-hop and R’n’B, and Kanye and The Weeknd (and Miles “Strong Opinions” Bradley’s Tumblr) are probably equally responsible. It’s already pretty obvious that the three mixtapes The Weeknd released this year will be leaving grubby pawprints all over pop for some time to come. (Plus, last night Christopher “Mancrush” Sparrow pointed out to me that it should be pronounced The Weakn’d. That kind of hidden-in-plain-sight wordplay would pretty much guarantees The Weeknd a place on this list.)
I’m not specifically thinking about this track here, mind – anything off of House of Balloons is good with me. Less than than individual songs, it’s the aesthetic choices, and the trail of thick gloomy atmosphere it leaves, that have stuck with me.
JUNE
Emmy the Great – A Woman, A Woman, A Century of Sleep
And Emmy returns from the wilderness semi-unrecognisable, having shed some of the folkiness and acerbic one liners in favour of grander sounds and more obscure lyrics. It’s all a bit rather more grown-up, and you sense that, in another life, this is the year Emma Lee Moss would have moved from short stories to writing novels. That’s rarely something I mean in a good way, but the razor-sharp confidence of Emmy Mk 2 makes for something fully the equal, and opposite, of all the old material.
JULY
Drake – Marvin’s Room
By this point, the year’s ruling aesthetic was official set – moody late-nite R’n’B/hip-hop full of loneliness and isolation and unpleasantly irresponsible drinking. Marvin’s Room is simply a fine example of that. It employs beats that sound the way H.R. Giger’s industrial/organic artwork looks, mixing straightforward rap verses with sung choruses which stretch out Drake’s voice into something quivering and completely separable from the rest of the sounds. Meanwhile, snippets of phone conversation flit in and out, repurposing the skit tradition into something that fits the post-Weeknd aesthetic.
There’s something about its deployment of the n-word that I’m not fully comfortable with, and the slow-motion repeat of the bridge is only just on the right side of being silly, but Marvin’s Room provides a stylish bridge between House of Balloons and the Chris Rock guest appearance on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
AUGUST
Kanye West & Jay-Z – Otis
Another slice of solid, straightforward hip-hop that references an R’n’B legend in its title, it’s hard not to consider Otis the mirror image of Marvin’s Room. It sounds absolutely gorgeous but like the accompanying Spike Jonze video, it’s surprisingly no-frills: just Yeezy and Hova hanging out and shooting the breeze. The entire song just rests on these two big personalities, and they’re more than big enough to carry it. Otis doesn’t bother with any kind of subtle rise-and-fall, it just uses a series of joyous screams to tell you this is the climax. Perfect – they were possibly my single favourite sound in music all year.
SEPTEMBER
Florence & The Machine – Shake It Out [Weeknd Remix]
In which The Weeknd house style gets turned onto a piece of otherwise basic but decent indie pop. It inspired probably the best bit of music writing I did all year, so I’ll just steal and remix that. It’s no one-trick pony, but the outstanding bit is how the remix splits Florence’s vocals into two tracks, one high-register pinging and one slowing so its sounds like the vinyl its pressed onto has melted; even the lyrics get warped into two separate interpretations. The remix manages to take the voice of Florence Welch, reasonably talented human being, and run it through a prism, multiplying into something more transcendental and pluralistic and interesting.
OCTOBER
Kavinsky – Nightcall
The Drive soundtrack is absolutely phenomenal, and has earned the film a strong foothold in my lasting affections. This was the highlight, perfectly pitched for drives along empty roads wearing sunglasses and a brooding expression. There’s that contrast again, between the sweet, earnest Lovefoxx vocals and the terrifying digitised whisper of Kavinsky, which sounds like a serial-killer broadcasting onto the dead space between channels on your car radio. With the loud clarity of  cinema speakers behind it, it absolutely knocked me out, and then I went home and listened to it another thirty times. On repeat, living at home with no job or real hope of one, with only the company of my laptop screen, it kept me up past a sensible bedtime for a good chunk of October. It’s time I couldn’t have hoped to waste more beautifully.
NOVEMBER
Los Campesinos! – Baby I Got The Death Rattle
The best of the LC! tracks we got this year, mixing together pretty much everything I love about the band into something that doesn’t sound quite like anything else they’ve released. It opens with a spoken section worthy of its own t-shirt, Gareth doing his brilliant microscopic poetry thing, and picks out a path through a few superimposed versions of the same song, jumping from one slightly different version to another throughout. Single, well-observed lines cut diagonally against choruses. There’s a point where the song declares “and this is the end”, pauses , and immediately starts to build up again with one of those LC! intros where it sounds like they’re playing toy instruments, straight into the final third of the song.
Baby I Got The Death Rattle is a song that fully earns the morbid melodrama of its title – the full-on emo band I wanted LC! to become peeking through once more - but it still has a swing in its hips, and a sense of humour. I love that LC! don’t exclude sex from their song, and as the song takes a turn towards the smutty, an obvious rhyme gets undermined with a dismissive “oh, you get the message”, with the timing of the greatest punchlines, before jumping right back into the final chorus. It takes itself exactly serious enough to know when to crack a smile.
DECEMBER
Azaelia Banks – 212
A lot of the music I’ve mentioned here has been night-time music, tunes for the early hours. There’s something about 212 that feels like it was made for daylight, with Miss Banks a beacon of pure attitude. I just talked about LC! being smutty, but they've got nothing on this. The song delivers a range of filthiness and aggression beyond what the hip-hop boys can manage, delivered with the light touch of the finest pop music. The song is perfectly crafted, curvy in all the right places and just fidgety enough to suggest an entire career for the newcomer – the new Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliot and Santigold, depending on who you listen to – into a three minute single. Most importantly, though, it’s just having enormous fun while it’s at it.

That’s far from everything I’ve loved this year. Rihanna’s S&M held my heart for a good few weeks before she officially ‘lost it’, in my estimation; Heems’ WOMYN is the year’s best bit of feminism-pop; The National provided the only song of theirs I’ve ever truly loved for the Portal 2 soundtrack in Exile/Vilify. And missing off The-Dream/Terius Nash’s Wedding Crasher is an absolute travesty, frankly, and I can only apologise. But it’s everything I could fit in this admittedly rather narrow format.

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.