Everyone loves end of year lists and polls, however much they may claim to detest them. For all their pitfalls and problems, they invite debate, discussion and argument, which is what the critical fraternity live for.
Yet with the contemporary music media’s ceaseless need to fulfil demographic obligations (and for particular titles to associate themselves with particular artists and sub-genres), it has for some time been impossible to find a list that even comes close to reflecting the diversity and quality of contemporary music. As we prepare to publish musicOMH’s Top 50 Albums Of 2010, it seems like a pertinent time to, if not challenge the prevailing consensus exactly (for these lists will always be exactly that), then to push beyond it a bit and reveal some hidden gems.
Albums Of The Year lists rarely succeed in recognising where significant statements have been made in what remain niche genres. Some publications, such as musicOMH, are less guilty of this than others because there is no requirement to be genre-specific – we cover hip hop, jazz, doom metal, classical, pop, electronica, indie… basically, if it makes a noise, we’re there. But any poll, even ours, will miss out on some great albums that have had major impact in a small area but have yet to find a wider audience. It is precisely these albums that could do with the small boost in exposure that an ‘album of the year’ ranking might provide. Bands such as Wildbirds & Peacedrums might be regarded as left-field or even inaccessible, but Rivers is actually far from impenetrable. It’s one of the year’s most powerful and rewarding recordings.
It’s even less likely that enough writers would be acquainted with the major contribution to the vibrant British jazz scene made in 2010 albums from The Golden Age Of Steam, Phronesis, or Kairos 4tet. Crossover artists such as Polar Bear might have more of a chance but, now on their fourth album, it’s easy to take their imaginative, purposeful music for granted. American jazz always offers riches too – the collaboration between Steve Lehman and Rudresh Mahanthappa is a brilliant meeting of minds, at once both visceral and cerebral. Mirror by Charles Lloyd is as rich, resonant, swinging and deep as jazz music gets. Then there’s the superb contributions to British folk music from Alasdair Roberts, Clang Sayne and Trembling Bells or the bold electro-acoustic landscapes of Emeralds, Oneohtrix Point Never and Richard Skelton.
And there are the albums that divide opinion. For some, Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus is a magnum opus, brimming with invention and intelligence and operating in its own astral plane. For others, it’s a frustratingly wayward set, suffering with a severe case of attention deficit disorder that fails to develop many of its ideas. It’s easy to see how both cases can be made, although given time it may well come to be seen as a major piece of work, especially given the bold strides being made elsewhere in bass music this year from the likes of Lorn, Ikonika, Mount Kimbie and Scuba.
There’s an inevitable western bias to many lists too. Of course, well promoted ‘world’ music albums do sometimes get acknowledged. It would be hard for a 2010 list to be complete without mention of AfroCubism or the final recordings of Ali Farka Touré with Toumani Diabaté for example. But what of other parts of the world? The great, free-spirited music made in Europe by the likes of Supersilent, Diskjokke and Food, in Iceland by both lafur Arnalds and lf Arnalds or the wonderful improvised work of Australia’s Chris Abrahams are just a few examples.
There are even very accessible albums that just seem to completely escape the attention of British critics and audiences. So far, no 2010 list has included the majestic debut solo album from Kathryn Calder, an artist who should already be familiar due to her work with The New Pornographers or the criminally underrated Immaculate Machine. This is an album rich in pure melodic indie pop gold, recorded independently but assuredly, and superbly executed, with some touching, deeply personal songs. The work of other gifted females also often seems to slip through the net. 2010 has seen superb albums from Caitlin Rose, Laura Veirs, Mavis Staples and Lonelady to name just a few.
If 2010 has had a prevailing trend, it would appear to be a notion that size really does matter. Joanna Newsom offered us three CDs of her vivid, poetic imagination in one package, Matthew Herbert is now two thirds of the way through a projected trilogy, Robyn has just this week topped her three-way split Body Talk project, whilst Sufjan Stevens despatched a bloated mess of an album that delighted some and infuriated others.
With lists usually restricted to a Top 50, this is rarely enough to recognise the range of quality present in any one year. It’s easy to moan about how music is supposedly in some sort of terminal decline, but the internet has actually revealed that we are in something of a golden age in areas that are off the beaten track. Whilst radio pop music might be homogenising yet further, everywhere else, artists are veering off on wonderful, fruitful tangents. Looking at the top 10s in the printed publications so far, they give the impression that contemporary music is in some sort of retrogressive stagnation. Really, there is little that is forward-thinking or radical in Paul Weller‘s Wake Up The Nation. While this should be a time to celebrate a whole rich seam of musical achievement, how easy it appears to be to settle for focus group consensus and mediocrity.