It was an intriguing year in music, as artists started adjusting to the turmoil that the world is now undoubtedly in, particularly since the 2008 Wall Street Crash. A decade of depression seems to lie ahead, with war of one kind or another on top of that. So how has that changed the musical landscape?
After all, when the ground shifts beneath you, the old certainties and formulas are no longer enough. If you want to say something of importance, you are challenged to paint the world as you now see it, so you must take stock before hitting the studio. If you want to indulge in escapism…well, there is a (now much smaller) market out there, but I haven’t got time for you.
Of course, all this takes some time to work its way through. Albums that came out in 2009 may have been in the pipeline for a few years, and so the change in new music has not been dramatic as yet. Even now, the seismic scale of the collapse is obscured by government bailouts of the super-rich, and the inspirational factor of mass opposition has yet to emerge. However, as a general rule I can say that the soundtrack to my 2009 was the music which said most about this new world, in which we must be very brave indeed.
Listening to this, Muse’s best album, I can feel my brain expanding, like the universe. Only a great band like Muse can successfully meld together so many music styles on one album, without sounding even slightly contrived. So far, so awesome. But maybe, inspired by the cataclysms to come, they will invent an entirely new style of music. I can definitely see it happening. In the meantime, raise your fist to the agitrock of Uprising, swoon to the romantic Nineteen Eighty-Four references of Resistance, and gaze out into the unfathomed mystery of space during the Exogenesis triptych. Music hasn’t been this exciting for many years. This band could be your life.
2) Green Day – 21st Century Breakdown
Download: Murder City, Restless Heart Syndrome, American Eulogy
I can hear the sound of a beating heart/That bleeds beyond a system that’s falling apart/With money to burn on the minimum wage/Well I don’t give a shit about the modern age
Billie Joe Armstrong got a lot of criticism from radicals in 2008, when he got swept up in the enthusiasm for the Obama presidential campaign. A year on, and the society described so well on 21st Century Breakdown has ‘change’d for the worse, at least for the overwhelming majority of people on the planet. I will eat my hat if he doesn’t support the working class resistance when it properly gets organised. One or two riffs are familiar from the last couple of albums, but things like that can easily be forgiven when they are crafted into such perfect guitar pop, and the words demonstrate absolute sympathy with the kind of people who put the band in their elevated position.
3) Street Sweeper Social Club – Street Sweeper Social Club
Download: Clap For The Killers, Megablast, Promenade
Slumlords of the world have united/And they announced a world tour/You are hereby cordially invited/To the third world war
So, Rage Against The Machine got a Christmas number one, but still haven’t announced any work on a new album. Tom Morello is great as The Nightwatchman, but acoustic folk isn’t for everyone. So what to do? Well, listen to Street Sweeper Social Club for a start, because it features Morello, as well as the ridiculously talented Boots Riley from The Coup on vocals. Boots doesn’t sound as angry as Zack (who does?), but he’s one hundred times the poet, and he has a certain warmth and love for his people that we definitely need in times like this. In a war situation, Zack would definitely have your back, but Boots would help keep up your morale. We are in a war situation.
4) Metric – Fantasies
Download: Sick Muse, Gold Guns Girls, Stadium Love
Every living thing/Pushed into the ring/Fight it out to wow the crowd/Guess you thought you could just watch/No-one’s getting out
Metric are a strange group, because they really sound like they might get on commercial radio, they never get on commercial radio. Yes, they may be slickly polished, and their songs are built on catchy sing-along choruses and easy hooks, but playlist compilers must fear that their lyrical content is far too thinky, even if subtely so. Emily Haines has long been a cut above, mixing existential enquiry into the nature of things with warmth and humour. On Fantasies, everything is stepped up a gear, and the result is about as good a Metric album as I could have hoped for. Philosophy you can sing along to; more pop needs to be like this! I suppose Metric must be ‘un-pop’…
5) Eels – Hombre Lobo
Download: In My Dreams, The Longing, Ordinary Man
My love is always just as she seems/A force of nature on her own/To be reckoned with/Whatever’s wrong with me/Her kiss redeems/And it’s all there/In my dreams
Well something very different must have happened to Mark ‘E’ Everett’s romantic life, because his usual small man in a big world sounds gave way to “12 Songs of Desire”, the album’s subtitle. From the testosterone-charged stomp (I can hardly believe I’m writing those words about Eels) of Tremendous Dynamite and Prizefighter, to the agonising longing of…The Longing, to the poetically described horniness of Lilac Breeze, it’s very apparent that someone special came into his life. Unfortunately, having heard his even newer album End Times, that person left as quickly as they came. Poor thing!
6) Alice In Chains – Black Gives Way To Blue
Download: A Looking In View, All Secrets Known, Your Decision
No-one plans to take the path that brings you lower/And here you stand before us all and say it’s over
It is fifteen years since arguably the most under-appreciated of the Seattle grunge bands released their self-titled final studio album. It’s also nearly eight years since lead singer Layne Staley died from a drug overdose. Given all that, it would have sounded false if they’d tried to copy their early to mid-nineties sound. As it is, Black Gives Way To Blue is just different enough to represent a good progression, and Staley’s ‘replacement’ William DuVall complements Jerry Cantrell very well. Gone is the talk of self-disgust, self-abuse and self-medication, and it’s replaced with philosophical meanderings about motivations and moving on with your life. Cantrell seems to be trying to put his younger self in perspective; that’s a very healthy thing, and makes for a compelling listen.
7) Kreator – Hordes Of Chaos
Download: Hordes Of Chaos (A Necrologue for the Elite), Radical Resistance, Demon Prince
All addicted to the dark side of life/Cast out but not alone/We’re the ones that will not compromise/Antidote to slavery, suffering and war
This unfolding era holds specific challenges for eighties thrash metal bands. Acts such as Kreator, Metallica and Slayer have been providing headbangers with blood and guts for more than a generation. Born of fire in Cold War paranoia and Reagan’s neoliberal onslaught, how much more can be said? As Metallica retreat to egos the size of their mansions, and Slayer regress to ever more empty sadistic fantasies, Kreator frontman Mille Petrozza invokes Seung-Hui Cho, the 2007 Virginia Tech slayer (Amok Run). Petrozza was also inspired to write by the 2006 student protests and riots in France (Radical Resistance), and the “everyone against everyone against everyone against everyone” culture of millennial capitalism (Hordes of Chaos). Not coincidentally, this album fucking rocks.
I first heard this by the sea, as the sun set beyond the cliffs. That was a very good decision, because it nicely fitted the sense of gathering gloom which pervades the entire album. The metal is heavier than in more recent Katatonia releases, but the main difference is the foreboding in Jonas Renske‘s gorgeously plaintive whine. Few specifics are mentioned in the lyrics, but it’s overwhelmingly apparent that Renske intensely feels the tension from the build-up of socio-political stormclouds, and fears for the future of humanity. And of course he is right to do so.
9) Comrade Malone & DJ Downlow – Spontaneous Revolt
Download: One Single Frequency, Throw The Molotov, In The End
Feel the fire in my heart when I write my songs/I reach earth for the freedom I was here to get/In the end I don’t wanna have regrets
North London council estates, homelessness and the spontaneous school protests at the start of the Iraq invasion shaped this young rapper’s politics, and it very much sounds like it. Over a backdrop of some seriously dirty beats, Comrade Malone spits about the inevitable corruption of politicians, the indignity of life in poverty, and wanting to start his “own Lockheed Martin” in the class war. There is much pain in his vocals, but it’s hurt that has used to clarify his own thinking about his place in the world. There’s swagger and sensitivity, laddishness and intelligence. A full picture of a furious yet down to earth guy emerges.
10) Porcupine Tree – The Incident
Download: Drawing The Line,Time Flies, I Drive The Hearse
But after a while/You realize time flies/And the best thing that you can do/Is take whatever comes to you
Like everything he creates, the prolific Steven Wilson‘s latest composition is thoughtful, literate, and full of yearning for…something indefinable. Something better. Perhaps the concept of looking at life-changing moments doesn’t fully come off, and maybe some of the songs run into each other a little too unmemorably (especially in comparison to 2007’s Fear Of A Blank Planet). But this is a splendid soundtrack for those moments of yearning, and goodness knows, I’ve had enough of those this year!
And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – The Century of Self
A welcome return to form in the realm of intelligent and ambitious experimental rock.
Dead Prez – Pulse of the People
Another thoughtful, angry and inspiring listen is let down by an excremental final track, which undoes much of the previous good work. Still, its social commentary is the most up to the minute of all this year’s albums.
Disbelief – Protected Hell
It sounds like the title of a concept album about how a ‘hell’ might be ‘protected’ or something. It isn’t that, but never mind, because some days a shuffle shot of Disbelief is just the seething thing.
My Dying Bride – For Lies I Sire
Some very decent songs, but taken together they are less than the sum of their parts. And when compared to the back catalogue… There’s enough suffering in the world for Aaron Stainthorpe to examine, without making up his own.
Napalm Death – Time Waits For No Slave
It’s a Napalm Death album.
Slayer – World Painted Blood
An essentially empty album from a band that hasn’t progressed one note since Seasons In The Abyss. Their bloody shtick is polished to perfection, however, and Tom Araya sounds far hungrier than his years and the lack of invention would suggest.
Grieving Age – In Aloof Lantern, Thy Bequeathed A Wailer Quietus
This two (very long!)-track EP has received very favourable views from around the world, and if the idea of Saudi Arabian doom metal appeals to you, you will certainly be rewarded for giving them a go.
The Ruby Kid – Winter In The City EP
If this release were just slightly longer, then this extremely exciting young poet would be very near the top of my album list. Read my full review here, and look out for more in 2010 and beyond.