Thursday, December 16

Albums Of 2010 - No. 5 to No. 1

5. My Chemical Romance 'Danger Days: The True Lives Of The Fabulous Killjoys' -
There are no black marching band uniforms. No Liza Minnelli backing vocals. And, just like their 2008 live album suggested, no more Black Parade. What this heartily points at, though, is standing up and standing together, all the while having fun. We already know how important MCR are to civilisation, but this only strengthens that further.

4. Vampire Weekend 'Contra' -
The trouble with assembling a great debut album is that ensuing the sell-out academy jaunts, afro-pop-enriching delirium and total sovereignty over untold end-of-year lists, the follow-up must be no less than equally significant. This so differs from 'Vampire Weekend' that it doesn't even feel like a sequel, yet it's so familiar that it just couldn't be anyone else. Squirrelly guitar lines and umpteen glitterati dissections of course, but this time they're even sweeter.

3. Mystery Jets 'Serotonin' -
Here, with the ex-Eel Pie Islanders' third effort, they've given credence to the concept of patience. Serenity may no longer be the poster boy for society, but these needed to make two albums to get to this place. And this is so glorious, it's golden nugget after golden nugget.

2. Arcade Fire 'The Suburbs' -
This, quite frankly, is crucial, and the great Arcade Fire record we've been lingering for all along. Plus, for such an exceptional piece of pop music, it's not even dribbling with the same unrestrained hope and impassion that garnered them those Grammy noms in the first place, but it works because husband Win Butler and wife RĂ©gine Chassagne are perpetually gushing out an insightful bedrock. The truth has never come so sweet.

1. The National 'High Violet' -
Indie's best-kept secret, The National are no more. 'High Violet', their fifth album unleashed at the beginning of summer, shifted 50-odd thou in its first week on sale and wounded up at number three in their home country's Billboard 200 ('Boxer', their fourth effort, peaked at number 68). They performed not one but three consecutive nights at London's Brixton Academy to conclude a remarkable year. And, in amongst the buzz surrounding a storming appearance at Glastonbury in June followed by a bill-topping set at Latitude Festival in July, for a moment it felt as if The National were the biggest band going. Still and all, such notoriety would be skewed if they didn't have the songs to back it up. "There are a lot of bands I hate that are massively popular," timorous frontman Matt Berninger once declared. Good thing 'High Violet' is the album of the year then, eh?
It doesn't take Dom Cobb to work out that bands just don't get five attempts to arrive anymore. If this Brooklyn five-piece, all originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, were only forming now, who knows if they would have even stuck around to forge 'High Violet'? But what this record does, one number of things it does, is remind the industry that musicians can indeed advance with age. And that with time comes rewards.
The National's self-titled first LP was released in 2001. So little of their sound then - sort of fuzzy alt.country - can be found within 'High Violet'. Maybe except for Berninger's attentive lyrics. Almost the same goes for 2003's 'Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers', but what did exist here was, well, possibility - the solemn '90-Mile Water Wall' and 'Lucky You' especially raised questions as to what came next. After quitting their day jobs and signing to English indie Beggars Banquet a couple years later, the splendid 'Alligator' was put out, and now this misty wordplay had a decorous maze of noise to show for it. But it was 2007's grand 'Boxer' that really upsized their cult, as such affable, stunning tumult made Josh Schwartz's iPod and assembled them R.E.M. support slots. There became a defined commotion to The National's output.
Thus, the anticipation for 'High Violet' was tall, at the very least. "At one point, the idea was to make a loose, scrappier, poppier record, whatever that meant. I think it is our most fun record. The lyrics go to some dark zones and dig into some uncomfortable things, but I think it's a lot of fun to sing about sorrow and fears and anxiety, and wallow in it a little bit," Berninger explained of the group's intent. It, too, is much fun to listen to songs of agitation. There's a telling about these in particular that render a real shot in the arm, just like 'Aligator' and 'Boxer', but this more expansive objective makes them all the more striking.
'Terrible Love' sets things in motion by way of steering semi-'87 U2 reverb around a crunchy, dogged riff. Berninger, perhaps surveying a loved one lose themselves in self-destruction, avows: "But I won't follow you into the rabbit hole; And I said I would but then I saw your skin and bones; They didn't want me to." This tale of potent desire sinks in all wistful. What a mighty way to start.
A little later, 'Afraid Of Everyone's indelible mellifluousness treks under a haunting, bashful wall of Tindersticks-type goodness. "Venom radio, venom television... I defend my family with my orange umbrella, I'm afraid of everyone; With my shiny new star-spangled tennis shoes on, I'm afraid of everyone," he shivers, via what is seemingly a dig at Western media's putative motive to coerce humankind into isolation. "I don't have the drugs to sort it out," one verse reruns. Because no substance is a remedy for this uncertain dismay.
It's in 'Bloodbuzz Ohio' - a lustrous thump of silvery determination - that Berninger's maturation in vocal is really evident, sapping any crumble of Leonard Cohen's also humble murmur.
'Lemonworld' - "Lay me on the table, put flowers in my mouth; And we can say that we invented a summer-lovin' torture party." - is a Wilco keys-ferried swash of categorical panorama. Like 'Fake Empire' of 'Boxer', Berninger asks you to forget all your troubles, suppose that the world is flawless, just "try to find something on this thing that means nothin'". 'Lemonworld' needs to be listened to on Hampstead Heath or somewhere, and in the June sunshine to boot.
See, there is no-one definitive hypothesis that 'High Violet' drives at, but more a collage of possibility and observation. Yet at the same time, it seems to run in the only order it should. If 'Afraid Of Everyone' casts you down, 'Lemonworld' is the perfect antitoxin.
'Conversation 16' takes after 'Lemonworld' in terms of its breezy resonance, but in actuality it's a story of a man, Berninger himself for all one knows, unwillingly going through life as a prototypical partner. "It's a Hollywood summer, you never believe the shitty thoughts I think; Meet our friends out for dinner... Try to hold it together 'til our friends are gone," yet he wants "to be more romantic" and "believe in everything you believe". Ultimately, however, he fears the ritual of everydaydom will confiscate his self until he turns into a stock-still zombie, the chorus running: "I was afraid I'd eat your brains, 'cause I'm evil."
And 'England' is probably the greatest National song, like, ever. Drop-dead piano, strings-hefty wallpaper, such glorious strains of grandeur; It's 'Heart Of Gold' for the 21st century. Further, it's quite typical of Berninger to have elected this track to be more foggy than ever on. It's the kind of tune you want to handle with kid gloves and not over-entertain.
The finale, 'Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks', is another heartwarmer. "Leave your home, change your name, live alone, eat your cake," he starts atop almost laughably glamorous soft rock that even Coldplay have yet to hew, possibly recapping Don Draper's rise to branding the Food Network. What 'Vanderlyle' (another brilliantly made-up National song title) apparently becomes, however, is an instruction that despite the ecstasy and innocence and concern and anxiety that's been spoken before and right here, that is wholly what existence is.
'High Violet' tows you in many directions throughout; some stirring, some antsy. But this gnawingly honest spread - via umpteen, classically wary lines and the forwardness of sound that this band are worthy of Olympic medals for - is what makes 2010 the year of The National. Knowing Berninger though, that means a whole lotta tension as well as elation. And a great sixth album, too.