Favourite Albums of the Last Ten Years – the Quarter Finals

Please read yesterday’s article if you want to understand what is going on here!

QF1: Kanye West vs Laura Marling  

If Kanye versus Alt-J was a contrast yesterday, then putting My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy up against young Ms Marling and I Speak Because I Can seems an even less fair fight. But Marling is not the fragile little creature she first appeared; she has broken a few hearts in her time and her lyrics show at times a toughness, almost a cynicism, way beyond her years.

But West’s album is astonishing. Just listen to the single piano note, repeated 15 times at the beginning of Runaway, and the way that song breaks down in the last 2 or 3 minutes - crazy but genius. Or the use of samples, brass, orchestral arrangements, the spoken word across the album – critics described his approach as “maximalist” which seems appropriate. However, this is my personal choice. While I love Runaway – and a few other Kanye tracks – I very rarely listen to this album without skipping a few more. Whereas Laura Marling provides one strong track after another, so on that basis, she goes through to our semi-final. (Warning - bad language in video below).

QF 2: Bombay Bicycle Club vs Christine and the Queens

Chaleur Humaine, the debut, in the US / UK anyway, from Christine and the Queens (Héloïse Letissier by birth name) is a stunning album of tuneful electronic dance-pop, informed by her intelligence and personality. Dealing with tricky issues of gender and sexuality, but with a lightness of touch musically and lyrically, I’m with Elton John here who said he thought “this is just what pop music should sound like in 2016”. It’s too early to say if it will date over the years, but I don’t think it will.

Christine herself has become an icon and seems to be able to make important points about love and life without sounding pretentious and while keeping her sense of humour. And gosh, she can dance! I know those factors shouldn’t really influence my decision, but it is also just an extremely enjoyable album, with a few stone-cold classics like Tilt.

We commented yesterday on BBC’s So Long, See You Tomorrow with its range of influences, taking us into “world music” territory at times, underpinned by dance rhythms and touches of their earlier indie-pop beginnings.  If one was going to criticise the album, it maybe lacks one or two really huge tracks – either tunes you can’t stop singing in your head, or that you simply must dance to. It can float past very pleasantly but without really grabbing you, I find.  So, based on that analysis, Christine has it.


QF 3: Wolf Alice vs Vampire Weekend

Again, we explained why I love Wolf Alice and their debut My Love is Cool yesterday – their ability to combine folk-rock softness with wild, abandoned Pixies-like raves makes this a very appealing and varied debut album.

But Vampire Weekend also provide variation on Modern Vampires of the City, their third album. I found their first two releases OK but nothing special, didn’t even buy them, so this really took me by surprise. From Obvious Bicycle, the first restrained track, it draws you in intellectually and emotionally, and constantly surprises. From the punk rockabilly of Diane Young (work out the pun there) to the chilled and beautiful psychedelic piano-based Hannah Hunt, it is a succession of fascinating and dynamic songs.

The lyrics are often obtuse but always feel like they mean something, and I must mention Step, one of the cleverest songs of the last decade, which both samples a hip-hop song and features a harpsichord variation on Pachelbel's “Canon in D”, and Ya Hey which is already inspiring PhD theses analysing just what the lyrics means (the spoken interlude here sends shivers up my spine too for some reason). But all in all, this is Vampire Weekend’s classic album, a real gem, and it goes through to the semi-final.


QF 4: Wild Beasts vs Hurray for the Riff Raff

Both of these featured yesterday in the last round. Wild Beasts used falsetto and baritone vocals from their two singers brilliantly and created a mood of sensual and sexual excitement on their second album Two Dancers, whilst not forgetting that melody matters too. You don’t have to be gay to find songs like Hooting & Hollering thrilling – and it’s an album you can listen or dance to equally easily and pleasurably.

Meanwhile The Navigator is one of the few “concept albums” of recent years to really work, as Alynda Segarra (who is Hurray for the Riff Raff really), a US-born songwriter of Puerto Rican descent, looks at the experience of immigrants, making their way in a new country. Listen to the gorgeous Nothing’s Gonna Change that Girl to hear how she can write wonderful tunes, The Navigator as a song to salsa to, then the amazing Pa’lante to get a sense of the passion she puts into her music. Segarra doesn’t meet the “cute young female singer-songwriter” model very well, and I can’t help thinking that if a moderately well-known male artist had made this, it would be heralded as a modern classic – which it is. Hurray for the Riff Raff goes through to the semi-final.

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