2009: A Year in Records (#2-10)

Feature by Ally Brown (with Dave Kerr) | 07 Dec 2009

Through no fault of their own, sometimes great bands acquire unhealthy legacies: Nirvana, I'm looking at you particularly. One of Pavement's aesthetic choices which was seized on big-time was a perceived musical sloppiness, a too-cool-to-care attitude that has afflicted countless indie rock bands since. Grizzly Bear care about the placing and playing of every note, and that discipline doesn't breed sterility: their studied vocal harmonies evoke plenty of emotion. And when they're livelier, as in the first two songs and the last two-but-one, the spotless production gives every movement its space. Grizzly Bear might've sent you to sleep before, but now they'll start you dreaming.

Bitte Orca is where everything finally came together smoothly for New Yorker Dave Longstreth, mastermind of the Dirty Projectors, who'd previously handicapped himself by concocting ambitious ideological aims for his albums that he wasn't quite able to fulfil. Bitte Orca keeps things simple, relatively speaking, by foregoing overarching themes in favour of accessibility, achieved not by compromise but by focus. It's not a concept that glues these nine tracks together, it's the songs themselves: post-punk, afrobeat, indie pop, garage rock and contemporary R&B all mingle happily in the company of Longstreth and the girls' elastic vocals. Bizarre on paper, brilliant in practice.

2009 was a strong year for hip-hop, thanks to the likes of Raekwon and Mos Def outperforming the disappointing returns of megastars Jay-Z and Eminem. Best of them all was Daniel Dumile's umpteenth album, his first as all-caps DOOM, an endlessly replayable journey through his comic book rogue fantasies that's a little darker than prior efforts. Dumile's gruff croak serves up a thousand perplexing rhymes for you to unravel, and guest spots from Rae, Ghostface and a little-known lady called Empress Star all impress. Born Like This is Dumile's best solo record since Vaudeville Villain.

"We didn't want to make something that sounded like the first record, we definitely think we've progressed and moved on as a band" guitarist and producer Andy MacFarlane tells The Skinny. But how Forget The Night Ahead compares to debut Fourteen Autumns and Fifteen Winters is a matter of heated debate. We (or rather you, discerning reader) placed Fourteen Autumns second on our list of the best Scottish albums of the decade; the NME included this one in its overall century of the century. "You'll always get some people saying 'it's not as good as the first record'" MacFarlane says. "Those people are wrong. But other people have been very kind about this one." It's a tight call, we'll grant that.

"This is a brilliant, furious album that manages to be both misanthropic in its message yet therapeutic in its sheer catharsis" said Chris Cusack in his 5-star Skinny review of Converge's seventh album Axe To Fall. But it wasn't straightforward for the progressive hardcore band to put together, because they borrowed the talents of nearly 20 guest performers. "Bringing some friends in to contribute to the songs added some new challenges to the process for us for sure," vocalist Jacob Bannon tells us. "But I really enjoyed what we created together and it seems that people are enjoying it, so that's a positive thing".

"We went in [to the studio] pretty naïve thinking that we were ready to make an album and were all set to record it in a fortnight, and it ended up taking about 9 months on and off" reflects Rick Anthony, lead singer of Glasgow's Phantom Band, who released the best debut LP of 2009. "It sometimes feels like we’re parents of this kid – you try and bring it up right and do the best by it but at some point you have to step back and let it go off on its own. It has its fuck ups but we still love it." We love it too.

Having equated the struggles of modern life with hunting for crystal skulls down a dark hole on 2006’s Blood Mountain, Mastodon took to the sky(e) for the fourth and final album in their ‘elements’ series. “It’s an astral planing dream,” guitarist Brent Hinds forewarned us of the progressive odyssey to unfold. With a narrative backdrop of Tsarist Russia, psychedelic flavours were thrown into a blender with banjo-led sludge metal and ADD song structure – an unlikely recipe which has seen the Atlanta quartet realise a curious crossover appeal. So what are they doing differently? “We scream like banshees being stuck in the ass with a knife, although now there’s a lot more singing going on,” Hinds shrugs. Will someone please relay this idea to Duffy?

For all the talk of its mystical themes and lavish production, what few people seem to mention about Two Suns is just how great a singer Natasha Khan is. Granted, singing ability isn't as important as X-Factor judges might claim, but Two Suns wouldn't be half the album it is without Khan's exceptional pipes. There's not a hair out of place on Bat For Lashes' Two Suns, a surprisingly inventive and remarkably touching second album that confirms Khan's singular talent. She even persuaded Scott Walker to collaborate; how can she possibly exceed that?

It's well established by now that Glasgow's indie-pop credentials are second to none, a view supported by another fabulous album by Camera Obscura this year. But don't overlook Butcher Boy, whose second album React Or Die is a real treasure, borrowing equally from Belle & Sebastian and Arthur Lee's Love in the sculpture of ten heartbreakingly pretty songs. "My initial direction was that we should aim for something folky, in the sense of it being old and unsettling", singer/songwriter John Blaine Hunt told us. "And even if it was unsettling, it must still be beautiful." It definitely is.