Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette): The End Times' 2009

It's said every year, but: it's been a strange year. Outside: an economy sent into recession last year reaching a parlous plateau (my disappointment of the year (or one of them) has to be not seeing bankers hung from lampposts); Labour's tenuous hold on power being slowly eroded (next May = a likely repeat of the polling day scene in London); the Obama administration (I watched the inauguration, half-drunk, cautiously elated, in the student union pub) compromising in the face of the most vicious right-wing assault since McCarthyism; a string of deaths capped by that of J.G. Ballard, and finished by that of Jack Rose at the disastrously young age of 38. Inside: the magazine that had been a continual presence to me for nearly 3 years, the first place to publish my inanities, and that represented the best hopes for the music press, shut down. My fiction and poetry were published for the first time. University, until then a catalogue of misery and resentment, began to be, well, wonderful. We enjoyed some marvellous spells of early summer weather. I painfully, by trial and error, had to figure out where my priorities lay. Despite wussing out on nearly all festivals or possible holiday destinations, I did make my first trip to Brighton (no easy thing with this bloody public transport system), for a brilliant weekend at Colour Out of Space. I went on my first proper adult holiday. For that matter, I became an adult (well, in terms of US drinking laws, anyway). I made my first attempt at living in house-close proximity with other people – an experiment which has, in my opinion, turned into a near-total failure. I began work on my first viable (by which I mean “will actually be finished at some point”) major writing project. I drank both too much and too little. Hearts stirred; unstirred. I read some books, listened to some records, and danced once or twice. I stopped writing my diary. The same, I suppose, as every other year. It was good, but could have been better. It was also not good, but could have been worse.


I mentioned records above, and, in spite of my self-promises not to get too far out of the loop, I've spent most of the year out on the far edges of knowledge – I no longer even buy The Wire, and hardly have time to scout around music-review websites. Most of the year I had little time to even listen to records. Much of December, therefore, has been spent alternately scrutinising the eerie depths of the memory banks for things that I liked and searching out releases from every nook and cranny that I might have missed. In short, the list below is a bit rushed. It's noticeably poor in pop and hip-hop records – I've really fuck-all idea what's going on in the charts, saving the Xmas dash-to-the-finish (about which I remain distinctly ambivalent). Even the list of old music I've listened to this year is impoverished compared to last year's – you would have thought that living on student loans would necessitate charity shopping for CDs, but my budget seems not to have stretched even that far.

New Musical (H)express: A Year in New Albums (20)

Dirty Projectors – Bitte Orca

Sa-Ra Creative Partners – Nuclear Evolution: The Age of Love

Animal Collective – Merriweather Post Pavilion

Richard Youngs – Beyond The Valley of Ultrahits / Under Stellar Stream / Like A Neuron

Astral Social Club – Octuplex

Sunn 0))) – Monoliths and Dimensions

Evangelista – Prince of Truth

Speech Debelle – Speech Therapy

Cobalt – Gin

Wilkinson/Edwards/Noble – Live At Cafe Oto

Pens – Hey Friend! What You Doing

The Flaming Lips – Embryonic

Alasdair Roberts – Spoils

Broadcast & The Focus Group – Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age

DOOM – Born Like This

The XX – XX

Micachu and the Shapes – Jewellery

Antony & the Johnsons – The Crying Light

Ben Frost – By The Throat

Various Artists – Five: 5 Years of Hyperdub

Honourable Mentions

Team Brick – Alogon

Skullflower – Malediction

Mordant Music – Picking O'er The Bones / SyMptoMs

John Butcher – Resonant Spaces

Belbury Poly – From An Ancient Star

Juice Aleem – Jeruselaam Come

Flower-Corsano Duo – The Four Aims

Caroline Weeks – Songs For Edna

Polwechsel & John Tilbury – Field

AMM and John Butcher – Trinity

Absu – Absu

Current 93 – Aleph At Hallucinatory Mountain

David Daniell and Douglas McCombs – Sycamore

Lokai – Transition

Emeralds – What Happened

Fever Ray – Fever Ray

Little Boots – Hands

Zu – Carboniferous

Wolves In The Throne Room – Black Cascade

Extra Life – Secular Works

St. Vincent – Actor

Black To Comm – Alphabet 1968

Dam Funk – Toeachizown

Our Love Will Destroy The World/Bark Haze split 7”

Astral Social Club/Glockenspiel split 7”

Sunshine Republic – 'No Mo Homo Than A Bomo Bro Show: Live At The Topless Sausage Party 2009' 3”

Golden Oaks Three Billion – Weekend Picnic CD-R

The Dust of the Archive: Reissues, Rediscoveries, Golden Oldies

A Handful of Dust – Now Gods, Stand Up For Bastards/The Philosophick Mercury

v/a – Panama! 3

The Mike Westbrook Concert Band – Marching Song Vol. 1 and 2

Richard Youngs – The Naive Shaman / Airs of the Ear / River Through Howling Sky

Can – Monster Movie

Pulp – Intro: The Gift Recordings / Different Class / This Is Hardcore

Robert Wyatt – Nothing Can Stop Us / Old Rottenhat / Dondestan (Revisited) / Shleep / Cuckooland

v/a – The World of Arthur Russell

Otis Redding – The Very Best of Otis Redding

Brian Eno – On Land / Discreet Music

Coil – ...And The Ambulance Died In His Arms / Musick To Play In The Dark Vol. 1 and 2 / The Ape of Naples

Burial – Untrue

Diana Ross and the Supremes – The Very Best of...

Aretha Franklin – Respect: The Very Best of...

Blondie – The Very Best of...

The Ghost Box catalogue: Belbury Poly – The Owl's Map, The Focus Group – Hey Let Loose Your Love/We Are All Pan's People, The Advisory Circle – Other Channels, Mount Vernon Arts Lab – Séance At Hobs Lane

CBSO/Simon Rattle (comp. Benjamin Britten) – War Requiem

The Specials – Singles

Anne Briggs – A Collection

Kid Creole and the Coconuts – Tropical Gangsters

v/a – Going Places: The August Darnell Years, 1976-1983

Scatter – The Mountain Announces

Elvis Costello and the Attractions – Get Happy!

Kate Bush – The Dreaming

Various Failures: The Top 10 Records I Should Have Bought in 2009, But Did Not, For A Variety of Reasons, Mainly Financial

Andrew Chalk – The Cable House

Bill Orcutt – New Ways To Pay Old Debts

Shackleton – 3 EPs

Leyland Kirby – Sadly, The Future Is No Longer What It Was

Bastard Noise – Rogue Astronaut

King Midas Sound – Waiting For You

Nadja – When I See The Sun It Always Shines On TV

Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides – Live In Salford

Mika Vainio – The Black Telephone of Matter

Moon Wiring Club – Striped Paint For The Last Post

Films (even more incomplete than the others, because I'm shit at organising myself to see films)

The Wrestler

Bright Star

Broken Embraces

District 9

Synecdoche, New York

Let The Right One In

In The Loop


One would think, given that my studies involve reading books, that I would have read rather a lot of books this year. And I did – just not necessarily the ones I desired to read. At the very least, it becomes rather difficult to get a hold on contemporary literature when one generally has to choose between buying books and eating that week, or between reading for work (not necessarily unpleasant, but aggressively compulsory) and reading for pleasure. Having said that, we all know that reading is far from a race (especially given the sheer fatness of many of the more acclaimed works released this year) and, barring the total disintegration of print culture within the next twelve months, the books will still be there, waiting for me to catch up with them.

Probably the best-designed book to come into my hands this year was the hardback of Iain Sinclair's Hackney, That Rose Red Empire, and the contents match in their fractal sprawl, their connection of micro and macro – its chaos-sowing subversion and hard-boiled humour, its generous sense of a loamy build-up of voices and history, of the nose-against-the-brick particularity of place. Although I'm getting increasingly tired of the literary and cultural theory I've been reading for my module on avant-garde literature – all those turgid, curdled sentences, with little actual trace of the affects they purport to investigate – Zero Books have delivered some serious spurts of excitement in exactly that form, with an extraordinary run of books mostly from bloggers round about this neck of the woods. Of the ones I managed to read – books by Nina Power, Mark Fisher and the anthology of writings on Michael Jackson still await my perusal – Owen Hatherley's sardonic, brilliant, and steely Militant Modernism and Dominic Fox's crushing and incisive Cold World both had me scribbling YES in the margins. And although it technically came out last year (my hardback copy did, anyway) Philip Hoare's Samuel Johnson Prize winner Leviathan was, if not as brilliant and resonant as England's Lost Eden and Spike Island, still quite magical in its encyclopedic grasp and evocation of every aspect of whales and whaling, and the sheer slow, swelling drama of its writing. Promising to take it slower, I read less poetry than I might have, but still managed to get through two excellent pamphlets from a stunning run by Midlands-based Nine Arches Press – Tom Chivers' haunting and terrible email prose-poem meditation on the ghosts of Newgate Prison, The Terrors, and David Morley's multivalent sequence on domestic violence, childhood enchantment, death, nature and the Roma circus, The Night of the Day. (I probably would have enjoyed Chivers' debut collection from Salt, How To Build A City, too – but see above for reasons for not buying.) Meanwhile, Bloodaxe delivered more of the goods, handing over the UK edition of W.S. Merwin's The Shadow of Sirius, and, though it technically came out last year, I also really enjoyed Maura Dooley's entrancing, sensual and politically caustic collection Life Under Water.

As for old stuff – and yes, I have been keeping track – probably the best thing for me was finally getting round to reading the holy triumvirate of E.P. Thompson's monumental The Making of the English Working Class, Raymond Williams' materialist history of the rural in English literature, The Country and the City, and the extraordinary history of power-rupture in the English Civil War, Christopher Hill's The World Turned Upside Down. Taken together, there was a sense of the gaps in a vast buried history being filled in – a history in which I myself had a stake. A very different subject, and very difficult to get hold of, but Kodwo Eshun's More Brilliant Than The Sun was equally inspiring – as a brilliant example of music-writing that traces large rhizome-networks without sacrificing intensity, a frighteningly accomplished and uncompromising style that refuses to leave fealty to the excitement of music in its marvellous and infinitely complex materiality. W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, although only doubtfully deserving the 'best book of the 90s' epiphet, was a melancholy reflection of my own near-winter greyness, its sadness and surprisingly total (for a relatively popular work) refusal of consolation almost guiltily exquisite. At the other end of the scale, Kenneth Pople's definitive biography of Stanley Spencer was gripping and life-affirming in its account of its subject's hugely encompassing life, strange, almost monomaniacal manipulation and brilliant art. Reading it whilst I was visiting Cookham in the blooming height of summer, running into Spencer's daughter Unity on the train back to Maidstone, it was difficult not to feel almost overtaken. (Speaking of which, Mark Musa's translation of Dante's Paradise polished material rather less promising than the other volumes of the Divine Comedy until it shone: “(a loving jubilee of light with light”.) I didn't read anywhere near as much fiction as I would have liked, but Angela Carter's wonderfully handled, disturbing The Magic Toyshop (read for a module on literary theory) and Margaret Atwood's flinty, magnetic Cat's Eye were deeply pleasant. Being compelled to read the Romantics brought me up against some of the most enchanting stuff in the language, much of which I'd simply never had the chance to investigate in any depth before: Coleridge, Clare – whose work, in the light of The Country and the City and Iain Sinclair's Edge of the Orison, seems more throat-swellingly fraught than ever – and Keats, the significance of whose work I hardly feel I'll ever get to the bottom of. And, just for sheer pleasure, Derek Mahon's Selected Poems was always welcome.


All those who made 2009 not merely liveable, but good, most probably know who they are already. Those who made it harder than it needed to be – I’m looking at you, Capital, privatised public transport, TV-schedule programmers, Guardian Music editors, connoisseurs of froideur, gentrifiers, the Student Loans Company, and enemies of socialised medicine – will have already received my bile. Consider the books balanced for this year. We live, not unwillingly, in hope.


Anonymous Nick said...


December 23, 2009 at 4:19 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

Just wanted to say, don't think I've ever seen such a long entry here before.

In other news, I return to the Eng-snow-blighted-land tomorrow.

December 23, 2009 at 4:44 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I think last year's end-list was longer, mainly b/c I wrote descriptions for each album-entry:

Ha - we've got no snow whatsoever in Bournemouth, so I wouldn't know about that. What I do know is: watch the paths, they're deadly-icy!

December 23, 2009 at 2:10 PM  
Anonymous KZC said...

Don't mess with the Student Loans Company in public - what if they were to be browsing the internet and finding this article?

Maybe you should pick up 'We Love Life' in Xmas sales? It's such a perfect ending for Pulp's career, as well as being an excellent album. If you stop at 'This Is Hardcore', it's like watching a film, but stopping when the protagonist is suffering from press-fuelled depression and drug addiction, thus missing out on the happy ending where the protagonist becomes friends with Scott Walker. Unless if the film is 'In The Loop' and the happy ending is war.

December 23, 2009 at 5:49 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

That's an idea - I'll keep an eye out for the CD. I've got it playing on Spotify at the moment - it's a bit difficult to tell through laptop speakers, but I really rather like it. The production's quite... different, isn't it? Distanced and abstracted, given the kind of sheen you associate with the Walker Brothers' 60s singles. Especially on 'Wickerman'...

December 24, 2009 at 1:57 AM  
Anonymous Nick said...

I find it to be their most consistent album, but probably because it doesn't stick the best songs towards the beginning. My favourite lyric is: "I heard an old girlfriend has turned to the church/ She's trying to replace me, but it'll never work."

December 24, 2009 at 5:22 AM  
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