I imagined a concise list of 10 songs to cover the whole of 2010. Who was I kidding? Even reducing the first half of the year to 40 songs involved choices that will have me screaming in my sleep. So, the only reason this is so long is because 2010 was a very good year. In fact, coupled with the experiences of Wales Music Day, our outside broadcast at Hendre Hall, Yr Wythnos Fach, The Big Weekend, Sŵn and numerous field trips to venues all over Wales, this has probably been my favourite year ever.
I wish I could have made this list shorter. It would have saved me a lot of work, trust me! So, to kick off this four part look at my favourite tracks of 2010, here are the sounds that blew me away in the first part of the year - 1 January to 31 May, arranged alphabetically according to 'iTunes convention' (i.e. David Wrench is a 'D', not a 'W'). This blog covers A - M. Please check some of this music out. Most of it is made on shoestrings so short they wouldn't even tie together. A massive, heartfelt thank you to the amazing musical talent this country produces, year in year out. I'm not worthy. Truly.
ALEX MOUNTAINEER - Wash Where The Needle Has Gone
The Mountaineers were signed to Mute Records in the early years of this millennium. Their debut album, Messy Century, is great testament to their sense of sonic adventure. But that project slipped just as they reached base camp below the summit. The music industry had frozen in panic, too slow to react to new technologies and means of production or distribution. The Mountaineers got dropped before they got anywhere near fulfilling their potential, as Alex Mountaineer's subsequent yearning, orchestral recordings demonstrate. There is great 'yearn' here, tubas, strings and the luminous talents of the Penyffordd Oriental Folk Orchestra. At least that's who it sounds like.
BEDFORD FALLS - Wilmington
They say this song is about a cat. I don't believe a word of it. I can't describe what it is that moves me to tears about this song. Well, I can - partly. It makes me feel less alone. And it makes me feel less alone to a minor key tune that'd bust even the most misanthropic heart.
BRANDYMAN - Heavy Metal Uncle
The best band I saw in 2010. This is DC Gates' paean to iron on patches and bad denim / worse hair. LCD Soundsystem's Losing My Edge fronted by Saxondale. A hardcore Fall. No, this is much better than asinine comparison could convey. Ridiculously good.
GWILYM MORUS - Bwcomashi (Tokin4wa remix)
Insistent and rather excellent ambient house, steeped in the spirit of comedown sunsets at Thai beach parties. Although I suspect the beach would have been closer to Porthmadog than anything on Alex Garland's gap year itinerary. But it's amazing what the imagination can do. One of the best remixes of 2010.
CERI FROST - Dig Way Down
Great slabs of tuney guitar cooked up for mortal minds by an assuming god with a love for Grandaddy, Weezer, Supergrass and the pantheon of first-generation bands who influenced them. But influences are moot, originality an easy-to-ignore albino hippopotamus, when the tunes are this good.
CRASH DISCO - GTFO
This is the sound of sequencers thrumming with ecstatic joy. Irresistible, full throttle, chip-tune house music. Nothing made me happier this year. Or made me feel older. Which is an excellent thing. More music to age me, please.
CURTAMOS - Only Dancing
Good dubstep mutates the tropes and motifs of the form according to the sickness of each progenitor's imagination. No one's sicker than Curtamos. Claustrophobically dark but playful, with a fondness for unusual toys and noises. Which sounds like a personal ad for Marilyn Manson, but is - in fact - my hamfisted attempt at describing this Cardiff producer's excellent work.
DAVID WRENCH / BLACK SHEEP - A Radical Song
A truly radical recording. A song of folkish insurrection reimagined in dark fuzz, chanted vocals, mellotron and glockenspiel. Unique and fascinating.
DEZ WILLIAMS - Blak Shooz
Great, minimal breaks and 808 squiggles from Holyhead's Prince of binary sounds. This is hypnotic to the max, but my favourite piece of Dez's work this year because of its simplicity. However I recommend - highly - everything in this man's extensive back catalogue.
EL GOODO - I Saw Her Today
Somewhere betwixt and between The Turtles and Love, but forty years later and a few thousand miles to the right, El Goodo perfected their spaghetti psychedelia with this track from their Coyote album. It managed to get its way onto Radio Wales' daytime playlist as well. True crossover! And great mariachi horns.
GLIC - 1983!
No idea what's going on here, sorry. Sounds like Julie Christie's 'Demon Seed' transmogrified to Damir Bojanic's collection of retro music boxes and plug-ins. If you tried to count the bewildering tide of of ideas barely contained by this piece, you'd go insane. Thousand Yard Ear guaranteed!
GORILLAZ featuring DE LA SOUL & GRUFF RHYS - Superfast Jellyfish
For that chorus. Gruff weaves his unique magic. Great pop music needn't have the mark of Cowell on it.
THE IRASCIBLES - Standing on the Surface
You can hear bruised experience in every note of this remarkable recording: the experience that moves a band to record so nakedly; the experience that imbues the words of the chorus with such heart-rending gravitas; the experience that brings the Hammond in gradually throughout the song until it becomes a brilliant sunrise of tremulous hope just before the end. Youth is the engine of great popular music (cf. Crash Disco) but we should never, ever forego the wisdom of experience. As vital as anything I've heard in any year.
JANGLE - Lockstep
Warm-hearted, downbeat breaks - embellished by washes of guitar, slide bass and marimba - that would sound perfect on Ninja Tune. Worth losing yourself in.
THE JOY FORMIDABLE - Popinjay
I love this band. Every element thrums with me. Ritzy's fiercely whispered vocals, the great space in their recordings, the new constellations of off kilter melodies they've revealed, and the sheer rush their music evokes. A brilliant band. Proof formidable that the strange chemistry catalysed by wood, string, skin and larynx hasn't been exhausted yet.
KATELL KEINEG - St. Martin
I wish I could remember who had recommended this to me because it was one of the greatest gifts I was given this year. Whoever you were, thank you, and so sorry my name blindness and general ignorance mean that I have forgotten you. This song is outstanding. Katell's voice is the antithesis of drama school vibrato, feigned emotion and aspirant Autotune. This is so unadorned, so clear and moving, it recalls early Bonnie 'Prince' Billy, Bob Dylan's 'Sara' (for its brave sadness) and someone else whose name I've forgotten. You can hear Katell clear against the cacophony of rush, scramble and fakery outside. Honest to goodness, quiet genius.
LOS CAMPESINOS! - There Are Listed Buildings
OK, I know - technically - this came out as a single last year - but the album, Romance Is Boring, was a real highlight of the dank days before spring 2010, and this is the standout (non-swearing) track. No space / hyperactive / urging you to dance your heartstrings off / motormouthed, literate aceness.
THE LOWLAND HUNDRED - Camera Obscura
It shouldn't come as any surprise that interesting music is (generally) made by people who have no interest in being famous or acclaimed. They make music because they have to. The Lowland Hundred are such artists. They weave field recordings, music concrete and moments of modernist dissonance, into aching, piano-led songs of great beauty. Their Under Cambrian Sky album blurs folklore, history, geography, philosophy and photography with a multitude of musical influences: Robert Wyatt and Talk Talk being the two I recognise. But, to their great credit, the intellectuality of the album is very much secondary to its significant musical achievements. Unique and excellent.
MASTERS IN FRANCE - Greyhounds
I think that only the actual members of Masters in France and We/Are/Animal know who is in which band. It's of no matter when both groups' respective singles provided the soundtrack to the summer's Welsh festivals. (We'll get to We/Are/Animal in due course). This is unashamed, guitar-fired indie rock, but there's much that makes it stand out from the morass. That shaky chord in the intro, the frantic fuzzy strumming and rolling, skittery rhythms. And there's a conviction, here, from Ed's vocal that sucks you in. Big, loud and exciting, as things should be on occasion.
MUDMOWTH & METABEATS - Maaad Tight (featuring Sonny Jim & Skamma)
This reads like a who's who of the finest MCs from south Wales. And the track is a great reflection of the rhyming and production talent on show. A queasy jazz sample underpins this piece of old school breakbeat excellence. Mud's trademark surreal, but hard hitting, rhymes are complimented by jaw-dropping spots from SonnyJim and Skamma. Bodes excellently for next year's Sledgehammer Kisses LP.
(1 January - 31 May, N-Z coming soon!)