Best Albums of 2009

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year | 6 Comments
* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Embarking on another list such as this, i’m reminded again of what i think of as “Paul Morley’s Dictum”; in his superb book Words and Music he writes of the provisional nature of all “best” lists, describing how they could (and perhaps should) change, perhaps quite radically, from day to day. i think he’s absolutely right, and there are many albums released in 2009 that i haven’t heard, so feel free to treat the following as the gospel truth with a pinch of salt. Put it this way, it’s true now, at the end of the year, and that’s perhaps as good as anything else. There really has been a dazzling display of imagination and innovation this year, of which these forty are, in my view, the best. Read more

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Best EPs of 2009

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As December draws to a close, it’s time once again to cast our collective eye back over the last 12 months. Before we get to the highlights, it’s only fair to say that 2009 has been filled with more than its fare share of disappointments. Kraftwerk finally succeeded in releasing The Catalogue, the “re-mastered” versions of their output, although success is hardly the word for a project that managed to inflict so much bombast on the music, bludgeoning it into the 21st century; only a few of the albums came through unscathed. Dangermouse and Sparklehorse managed to distract attention away from how genuinely awful was their album Dark Night of the Soul by whipping up a frenzy about that great über-menace the Corporate Record Label; for once, a label did listeners a favour, consigning this vacuous lame duck to peer-to-peer oblivion. A-ha attempted a revivification of their image, returning to ’80s synths, but in a context so compressed as to be almost impossible to listen to; Foot Of The Mountain must take the award for the most horrifically over-compressed album in recent times, although the fact it only has a single good song (“The Bandstand”) lessens the blow somewhat. Muse got delusions of orchestration, turning their quirky and usually impressive ideas into something damp and actually rather camp; The Resistance was hardly the best name for such a lacklustre album. Even the powerhouse that is Lydia Lunch seems to have lost her way, Big Sexy Noise only living up to the last of those epithets, and not in a good way. And one of the best songwriters of them all, Neil Hannon, rested firmly on his laurels with The Duckworth Lewis Method, his tongue so far into his cheek that it must be causing facial damage. It’s a shame that Hannon so often resorts to comedy and pastiche (forever lurking audibly in the wings of his Divine Comedy output); album highlight “The Age of Revolution” proves what the project might have been capable of, while “Jiggery Pokery” is absolutely horrific. But for me, the worst album of 2009 was a tie; Joe Goddard proved he’s simply rubbish both in and out of Hot Chip, his first effort, Harvest Festival, among the most dreadful experiences i’ve had this year. And what exactly led Tori Amos, one of the most interesting singer-songwriters of the last decade, to release the monstrosity that is Midwinter Graces? it is, literally, shockingly bad.

But let’s turn away from such infernal offerings, and move in a more paradisical direction. Thankfully, 2009 has also been filled with an abundance of excellent releases, and that’s where our attention should be fixed, beginning with the best EPs of the year. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Mack Willberg, Peter Maxwell Davies, Jan Sandström, Gabriel Jackson – The Christ Child (World Première) & George Baker

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, Premières | Leave a comment

A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!. In celebration of today, and continuing the tradition started here on 5:4 last year, here are highlights from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge; the recording is of today’s repeat broadcast, which includes both of the final organ voluntaries. This year particular homage was paid to Sir David Willcocks, who turns 90 this month, with numerous settings and arrangements of his included in the service.

Near the start, a beautifully light and playful rendition of Ding! Dong! Merrily on high, splendidly arranged by the American Mack Wilberg; the ending has a distinct glint in its eye. Peter Maxwell DaviesOne star, at last was commissioned for the service 25 years ago, and returns sounding as fresh as ever. Max’s rendering of George Mackay Brown’s words is deeply thoughtful, tapping into both the awe and mystery as well as the more ominous elements at its heart; the question “What hand / Will take the branch from the dove’s beak?” is arguably more pertinent today than at the time of this carol’s prèmiere.

The Swede Jan Sandström (who famously studied with, among others, Brian Ferneyhough) is represented here in a hypnotic setting of the traditional German carol Es ist ein Ros entsprungen, sung here in Sandström’s native tongue; Prætorius’ original music is turned into clouds of notes shifting in space, finally coalescing into words—it’s a mesmerising performance. Read more

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The Revelation

Posted on by 5:4 in Drama/Documentary | Leave a comment

Quite a few years ago, the BBC broadcast what i can only assume was one of the last productions to have involved the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It was a one-off dramatisation of the book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, starring Derek Jacobi in the rôle of John the evangelist, accompanied by music composed by Radiophonic Workshop veteran Peter Howell. Howell’s music (akin more to a film score than the bleeps and noises of conventional Radiophonic fare) is a mixture of synthesisers and voices (performed by the BBC Singers) and, along with the striking sound effects, helps to bring this most abstruse portion of scripture alive in a powerful, vivid way. The dramatisation uses about a third of the text of Revelation from the King James Version, and is grand in scope beyond its 30-minute brevity, particularly in the opening of the Seven Seals, and the encounter with the Whore of Babylon. It’s preceded by a specially-written introduction to Revelation, read by Judy Dench. As the season of Advent is now upon us, shifting attention forward, to the future, there’s no better time to delve deeply into the Bible’s most challenging book. Read more

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Advent Carol Service (St John’s College, Cambridge): Michael Finnissy & Arvo Pärt

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas | 1 Comment

The liturgical year began in earnest on Sunday, the Advent clock once again beginning the countdown to Christ’s (first and/or second, depending on your eschatological mindset) coming. Here, then, a couple of days late (due to personal circumstances, including, in reverse order, a world première in Birmingham and a car crash in Bicester) are highlights from the Advent Carol Service, broadcast, as last year, from St John’s College, Cambridge. It would be nice to think they choose St John’s as John the apostle’s writings are so significant and, indeed, drawn upon during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, but it may simply be accidental; either way, St John’s continues to be one of the finest choirs in the land. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: Ryoji Ikeda – datamatics [ver.2.0]

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts | 1 Comment

This is why we have eyes and ears.

Last night, i was fortunate to be seated in the front row of the CBSO Centre in Birmingham, for Ryoji Ikeda‘s first UK concert since 2006. datamatics [ver.2.0] has been around internationally for a little over two years, and yesterday finally found its way to Britain. The plain interior of the CBSO Centre was embellished with the addition of a huge screen, that filled the air with the pungent aroma of plastic newness. In its own way, this actually contributed to the occasion, making for an astonishing son et lumière display that literally saturated the senses with cutting-edge modernity. Read more

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Kraftwerk: a remastered retrospective

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Retrospectives | 42 Comments

Of all words associated with the digital era, there’s one that is ubiquitous like no other: ‘remastered’. It has become tantamount to a religious dogma, that the works we have known and loved from our analogue heritage are holy treasures, deserving nothing less than to be preserved in æternum, and to that end dusted and polished into a shiny, technicolour, everlasting digital form. Like all religions, though, it is capable of havoc carried out in its name; most conspicuous in recent times is the egregious and shamefully unmusical use of—among other things—compression in the vain attempt at making the sound ‘stand out’ (the so-called ‘loudness war’). This kind of treatment, under the banner of ‘remastering’, is to music what George Lucas has become to his own Star Wars trilogy; something that obfuscates, even dirties, the original, under the illusion that in so doing, one is capturing with greater fidelity the ‘original vision’. Back in 2004, Kraftwerk began their own equivalent mission, returning to the ageing tapes of their earlier albums, cleaning them up and remastering them for posterity. Titled The Catalogue, an eight-disc box set comprising each of their albums in its new digitally remastered form, the release ultimately proved to be stillborn, and the few promotional copies that existed quickly found their way, depending on your preference, either to eBay for a ridiculous sum of money, or to torrent sites for a ridiculous number of leechers. It has taken a further five years for the definitive, further remastered versions of these albums to be released, finally seeing light of day last month.

In both its manifestations, i have approached The Catalogue with the utmost trepidation, as, i imagine, have many fans whose appreciation—and, let’s face it, love—of Kraftwerk’s output goes both very deep and back many years. But before one even gets to the music, certain things immediately start to become clear. Highly conspicuous by their absence are Kraftwerk’s first three albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian; there’s a clear view being expressed here that only these eight albums, from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks, form the official Kraftwerk oeuvre. It’s a significant disappointment for those, including myself, who descry in those first three albums (particularly Ralf and Florian) much that prefigures what would follow in the years ahead; the bootleg CDs of those albums will have to continue to suffice for the time being. As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming. Read more

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