Music, Recorded, Reviews

Albums of the decade No. 3 – 2012

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Jacob Robinson continues his look back at the albums of this decade. See his Albums of 2010 and 2011 HERE

alt-J – An Awesome Wave

Few bands step as effortlessly to the pointy end of the music world as alt-J. Like any other UK alternative rock band with arty pretensions, they were hailed upon the release of their debut album as “the new Radiohead” and, for once, the comparison didn’t fall apart immediately.

An Awesome Wave was met with overwhelming critical acclaim and commercial success, sweeping some of the UK’s top songwriting prizes and hitting the top 10 albums chart in Australia. Pushing it along were a formidable string of seven singles released from the album; the most popular in Australia being ‘Breezeblocks’.

Listen to an alt-J devotee and they will speak endlessly about the ‘texture’ of this album’ production, the wealth of literary allusions in its lyrics or the sculptured flow between songs its interludes provide. Some arguments for this being elevated to the top echelon of this era are a little unfounded but, regardless, there are very few things to be heavily critical of on An Awesome Wave.

While their subsequent albums have contained some brilliant highs, alt-J have as of yet to seriously diverge or progress on the path marked here. It remains their high-water mark, but with a slew of such great songs contained within, topping it will forever remain a tall order.

Key songs: Breezeblocks, Something Good, Dissolve Me

Beach House – Bloom

Beach House didn’t invent the term ‘dream pop’ (Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ production techniques established the template and the likes of the Cocteau Twins carried the torch), but they have come to embody and define it for this generation of bands.

Their 2010 album Teen Dream turned the Baltimore-based duo into stars of the scene, but Bloom saw them taking another leap forward with their songwriting skills and arrangements. From the opening ‘ding’ of a cowbell on ‘Myth’ through to the last moments of the hidden track tacked on the end of the CD (remember those), Bloom aims at transcendence – and often achieves it.

There’s an innate sense of timelessness to Beach House’s tunes; swirls of synth chords, delicate guitar arpeggios and Victoria Legrand’s reverb-heavy vocals all floating in on an unhurried tempo. They certainly don’t make the kind of music you would mosh too; a steady and constant sway side-to-side a much is more appropriate movement.

Key songs: Myth, Lazuli, Other People

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

In the conservative world of R&B and hip-hop, Frank Ocean’s official debut album Channel Orange felt like a massive breath of fresh air. A lot was (and still is) made of Ocean’s bisexuality. He broke some of the taboos surrounding it in the industry prior to this album’s release with a social media post outlining his prior experiences.

But it’s not just on social issues which made Ocean feel like such a trailblazer. With a heavenly sweet voice, background writing for the Odd Future collective and backing of the influential Def Jam label, Ocean had license to explore his fascination with darker themes and subject matters that are often glossed over in search of bling and diss-battle bragging rights.

‘Thinkin Bout You’ is one of the ultimate unrequited love songs of the decade; soft, sweet and sad all mixed into one stunning whole. On other tracks, Ocean discourses on religious tendencies (‘Bad Religion’), addiction (‘Crack Rock’) and wealth disparity (‘Super Rich Kids’). The stunning near 10-minute ‘Pyramids’ finds Ocean travelling from ancient monuments to sleazy strip clubs, and back again.

Key songs: Lost, Thinkin Bout You, Pyramids

Grizzly Bear – Shields

Few bands make the extremely complicated and obscenely intricate appear as effortless as Grizzly Bear. Each album feels like another attempt to outdo their prior attempts at strange songwriting structures, dense production techniques and musical flourishes.

It’s perhaps a result of the band’s famed democracy. While most others have clear hierarchal structures and dominating figures, Grizzly Bear focus on collaboration and the strength of the collective, famously lining up dead level across a stage instead of the more traditional staggered method.

Without the obvious pop hook choruses that their previous albums contained as a gateway, Shields remains a harder nut to crack for the uninitiated listener. But persevere and each listen a new layer peels away and a glorious new aural wonder is unlocked.

Key songs: Yet Again, Sleeping Ute, A Simple Answer

Tame Impala – Lonerism

Very few Aussie manage to escape our far-flung shores and make it big overseas, and for every AC/DC or INXS, there’s countless others of the likes of Powderfinger or Silverchair who don’t achieve quite the same levels of international recognition they do at home.

In the first decade of this millennium, some of our country’s greatest contribution to the canon of rock music and most successful exports was a string of long-haired retro-rockers, such as Wolfmother, Jet and Airbourne.

With their first album, 2010’s Innerspeaker, Tame Impala seemed like a small update on this template, trading in the late-’60s early ’70s guitar riff tunes of their compatriots for some more expansive late ’70s jams instead. On Lonerism they tore all those notions to shreds, putting the group at the forefront of the global music scene and into the top strata of bands.

Combining some classic rock staples with subversive pop melodies and mind-bending sonic touches, Lonerism is a monumental feat of work that transports you to far off musical worlds. What makes it all the more remarkable is that it is almost completely the work of one man – Kevin Parker – who wrote, recorded and produced every song, as well as playing every instrument too.

Key songs: Mind Mischief, Elephant, Feels Like We Only Go Backwards

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