Jeffrey Lewis, The Unicorns, Circle Takes The Square, Stars of the Lid, Ross Clark - Cult Albums of the Noughties

Chris Tapley 11/01/2010

As the decade wraps itself up in an endless flurry of lists there will inevitably be arguments over which albums are deserving of being considered amongst the best of this latest arbitrary time period. It seems as though this gritted determination to pass something entirely subjective in to the realm of the objective is something unique to the 21st century music fan; the list has now become our primary methods of gauging the importance of things. “Okay good, so it's been extensively researched and verified by a crack team of the world's most advanced scientific minds, will it be presented in list form though? ...Well in that case no thank you”. As such I have chosen to present you with this here list, a list of albums which didn't really make it into any of the other lists but which I personally feel should have been on quite a few lists. Lists.

The last decade has been a time of great upheaval and ultimately progress for the music industry. Those trusted old models of distribution have required some serious re-constructive surgery due to the inexorable rise of illegal file-sharing combined with the increased popularity of artists giving away their own music and various other online marketing techniques. So as it is we have now found ourselves languishing in the middle of a sea of music so vast that it defies comprehension, let alone the necessary gall to think you could ever make it to the shore as it withers further and further in to the distance at an alarming speed. Many will argue that this is a categorically bad thing in terms of people's levels of engagement with music; with a world of unlimited music at your fingertips could you ever really give something the time to grow on you? There's certainly a case for this and it would be naive to suggest that it hasn't had any negative effects. Though I would suggest that this endless stream of mostly dross has helped us to hold even dearer those few records which stand out. It's helped to highlight artists in more niche fields who are making music which as recently as ten or fifteen years ago might never have been heard, heck it might not ever have been created. With the advent of home recording though thankfully the songs managed to escape their minds unfettered. For me all of the records listed here meet this criteria to some extent, yet already I can hear you wondering if they should really be defined as cult though?

Of course the term cult is open to a lot of debate and inevitably it too is pretty subjective. In the wide scheme of things much of the stuff which sits perched atop the annual pitchfork circle jerks would be considered cult, the likes of Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens and Neutral Milk Hotel aren't likely be troubling the singles charts anytime soon. We are an independent music zine though and this is the stuff you expect to be discussed regularly, it's our bread and butter. So instead here I'm scratching below the surface of hype and looking at albums which may have been released to a small flurry of excitement but were quickly forgotten about. I've decided to categorise these as somewhat left-field albums musically which for one reason or another haven't really wormed their way in to the collective conscience of the alternative music media in a big way. Most importantly though these are albums which I love, which have opened up avenues to whole worlds of new music to me and with which I feel a certain undefinable affinity with just because, well, they kind of feel like they're mine.

Jeffrey Lewis - Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane and other favourites (2001)

The majority of Lewis fans would probably have 'It's The Ones Who've Cracked That The Light Shines Through' nestled in this spot above his debut, but this was the one which got me hooked. From the first time I heard 'Chelsea Hotel Oral Sex Song' I knew this was something a bit special, I just couldn't quite place my finger on what made it so. It shouldn't be particularly engrossing; a geeky kid warping streams of consciousness around sparse and often discordant acoustic guitar and lo-fi recordings. It's the masterful lyrics which make it so brilliant though; playfully self deprecating, heart wrenching and yet consistently funny. Like the aforementioned track where Lewis rues 'If I was Leonard Cohen, or some other song writing master, I'd know to first get the oral sex then write the song after' before quickly inverting the tone to one of more delicate optimism with lyrics like 'the next time you're feelin kinda lonesome and blue, just think that someone somewhere might be singing about you'. There's a gleeful naivety to his songs which places him firmly in the same bracket as Daniel Johnston, as an outsider whose command of songwriting is making him an unlikely idol. For all of their lo-fi aesthetic they both have the ability to write timeless pop songs, albeit with an experimental slant, and for me this album is one of the finest demonstrations of his talent in this area. Jeffrey Lewis is a songwriting master of his generation, and although it may not make much sense on first listen these songs are brimming with heart and honesty not often found. Of all the artists on this list it's probable that Lewis will most likely be the one who will be talked about for years to come.

The Unicorns - Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone? (2003)

Most of the albums on this list are quite exuberant, they have a quality of lavish effervescence which is conversely often channeled in to something more repressed in some way or another, and the Unicorns final album is probably the epitome of that. It's a joyous celebration of sound but running through the who album is a subtle tide of sadness, It is a farcical comedy fueled by tragedy. Even the clattered drum roll and squalls of feedback which announces the albums opening quickly segues in to delicate cloud like synths and soft remorseful vocals. This is followed by the skewed dark pop of 'Tuff Ghost' which sounds almost gleefully subversive, and though it's certainly not your average pop song it's undeniably the inherent catchiness which makes it so enthralling. There are great transgressions of expectation throughout though such as the leprechaun like whistling which opens 'Sea Ghost' but is quickly wiped out by a memorable riff of gargantuan proportions. Likewise the thumping trance intro of Jellybones gives way to a lush pop song laden with sweet harmonies and then a dream like breakdown of acoustics and xylophonic chimes as well as the whispered refrain of 'this is love so we'll survive'. The album as a whole see-saws from blissful pop to brooding garage rock which constantly sounds as though it's on the verge of imploding. Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone is a bona-fide alt-pop classic which can surely only grow in it's cult status over time.

The Murder of Rosa Luxemburg - Everyone's In Love and Flowers Pick Themselves (2003)

'Camp math-violence' caused a minor stir in the UK underground metal scene in 2003. Taking the chaos of Daughters and combining it with the more measured melodic funk of The Blood Brothers, then chucking in cut and paste ambient passages reminiscent of Fourtet; The Murder Of Rosa Luxemburg were and still are quite a unique proposition; something which earned them a great deal of admirers in their criminally short career. 'Everyone's In Love...' is a record which makes a weird amount of sense, incredibly really for a concept album about an elderly gentleman named Victor trying to build a house which will protect him from death whilst a giant cat and dog wrestle over his conscience. This narrative threads through the album but you could spend years trying to decipher and interpret the lyrics so it's best just to marvel at the angular intricacies of the melodies as well as the sheer scope of the album. The whirlwind of spiraling guitars and 'whoo whoos' of the opener sits alongside the crushing riffs, visceral growls and funkalicious bass of 'The Beard is Immortal' and then the sprawling ambient wander that is 'Jack and Oscar Have a Fight'. It's rare to hear an album which makes chaos sound so crisp and calculated, they were undoubtedly a band that had a lot to offer, demonstrated particularly well by the fact that they followed this up with an ambient EP which showed no trace of their thrash roots. The demise of this band was a sad loss but various members have gone on to form Scarecrows, House of Brothers and Lovvers though, all of whom are worthy of the attention that this band missed out on first time around.

Circle Takes The Square - As the Roots Undo (2004)

In a similar fashion to the The Murder Of..., Circle Takes the Square are a group who have sculpted the control of chaos in to an art form. Where most screamo or metal bands tend to go wrong, at least for me personally, is that their constant onslaughts of brutality become meaningless, quickly losing all impact when placed in similar surroundings. Circle Takes the Square though juxtapose their ferocity with many little transgressions which render both elements all the more enjoyable. For example the overlapping vocals on 'In The Nervous Light of Sunday' which side track in to a jaunty guitar line and almost twee indie folk song before regressing to growls underlayed with sweet backing vocals; it shouldn't sound good. It does though, it sounds incredible. Or there's the doom laden guitar and spoken word on 'Crowquill' or the undulating hip hop like synth at the end of 'Same Shade of Concrete'. There's a frantic energy to the whole album which makes it an enthralling ride, seemingly always on the edge of collapse, that they manage to hold it all together is miraculous. A perfect example being the manipulated voice samples in 'Interview at the Ruins', mixed under delicate traded boy girl whispers and the patiently rolling drums just waiting to erupt in to a cacophonous swathe of noise, it never does though.

Circle Takes the Square are a band who subvert expectation at every turn. Just when you think you've got them pegged they'll go and do something completely unexpected. Still working on the follow up almost six years after it's release, with each passing month that there is no new album this record grows in cult status. With the new album 'Ritual of Names' scheduled for a supposed 2010 release though we can only hope that they manage to match the now ridiculous levels of expectation.

Idiot Pilot - Strange We Should Meet Here (2005)

I don't mind admitting that back in 2005 I was quite naive musically, my diet mainly consisting of whiny American emo/pop-punk or idiotic nu-metal bands whose main barometer for the quality of a song was how many times it included the word fuck. Somehow though I stumbled across the debut album from Washington duo Idiot Pilot; a patchwork quilt of mish-mashed textures and sounds drawn form an array of influences that sounded noting quite like anything I'd ever heard before that point. They splice together chiptune like synths, skittering processed beats and echoed vocals which float nicely along before being amped up into soaring epics with supplementary blood curdling screams and grinding guitars. This is a record which twists and turns at every opportunity, from their haunting rendition of Misfits' 'Hybrid Moments' to the impromptu spurt of white boy rap on the deliciously visceral 'Militance Prom' or the doom laden ghost ride of 'A Light At The End of The Tunnel' replete with cheesy horror sound effects. There are moments of ethereal beauty to match 'OK Computer' as well as the kind of unbridled ferocity befitting of Glassjaw. After roping in Travis Barker and ex Dillinger Escape Plan drummer Chris Pennie to provide a more raw sound their follow up Wolves is arguably more accomplished, but in terms of scope it doesn't touch this debut.

Stars of the Lid - And Their Refinement of their Decline (2007)

To the casual observer it must seem like Brian McBride and Adam Wiltzie have pretty much commandeered the world of ambient drone this decade with the release of this album and it's double disc predecessor 'The Tired Sounds of' back in 2001. The critical acclaim which both releases garnered helped to bring the genre to a wider audience within the alternative world as their remarkably subtle intersection of minimalist compositions and cinematic drones helped to bring an approachable style to proceedings; those who accuse 'drone' of all sounding exactly the same would do well to listen to this. Rather than sounding like a static collection of disparate lifeless drones this sounds more like pieces of classical music which have been lost in a vacuum in space, warped almost beyond recognition were it not for the lingering of unmistakable beauty. The overall lush tone of the sounds is instantly warming, so much so that once you commit to engaging with these pieces it's impossible not to feel a serenity wash over you. They sound like glistening sun rises and vast open spaces, the moon flickering off water, a quiet breath asleep. It seems as though all of the world's calm distilled in to a collection of sounds, a safe heaven from the complexities of day to day life. Everyone should own at least one Stars of the Lid album, and this is as good a place to start as any.

Efterklang - Parades (2007)

One of the more acclaimed of the albums on this list definitely, yet still one surprisingly absent from the end of decade plaudits. 'Parades' sparkles with a child like wonderment throughout, in fact it's much like the gateway to a kind of magical other world full of brightness and colour, as reflected in the art work. I imagine this other world to look much like the dream weavers home level in the first Spyro the Dragon (remember that?!), a game which surely could only have been improved by the inclusion of an Efterklang soundtrack. It's the sprawling vast nature of this new world that makes it so beguiling though, with unfamiliar plants and creatures lurking around every corner and subtle yet huge changes of scenery. We skip seamlessly from the icy anticipatory glitches of opening track 'Polygyne' to the unsettling violin of 'Maison de Reflexion' to the jaunty chanting of 'Cutting Ice to Snow'; there's a subtle irreverence which rings through the album. There are certainly moments of sadness but they're quickly balanced with moments of such unabashed delight that it's impossible not to be swept up by it all. A fact confirmed by this years live edition 'Performing Parades' which is a veritable feast of exuberance and undoubtedly one of the best feel good records in a long time.

Yndi Halda - Enjoy Eternal Bliss (2007)

It took several albums before the likes of Explosions in the Sky, Mono or Sigur Ros managed to ingrain themselves in the alternative culture as the big daddies of post-rock. Yet with just one four track album these five youngsters from Canterbury have slid right in amongst those, with their their name now being uttered in the same tones of reverence by post rock fans the world over. Other less dorky music fans will likely balk at the very idea of tracks lasting up to twenty minutes but they fly by such is the deft touch with which they control the tempo and atmosphere, managing to stray far enough away from structural cliches of the genre that it remains interesting. Chances are anybody who owns this album will be able to pick out a precise moment as their personal favourite. It's packed with tiny moments of euphoric brilliance which make it impossible to dismiss, for me personally it would have to be those first chants on 'Dash and Blast', or maybe the first subtle ripples of muted guitar on 'We Flood Empty Lakes' or the frantic climax to 'Illuminate My Heart, My Darling'. There are too many to pick just one. We're still waiting patiently (just) for a follow up, which is likely to be unleashed in 2010 and could easily cement their position as one of the most important instrumental rock bands around.

Grouper - Dragging A Dead Deer Up A Hill (2008)

Above all else music acts for me as a form of escapism, as something to distract my attention from the myriad mires of daily life, and there is no album which achieves this with such supremacy as the most recent offering from Liz Harris. It sounds as though it were recorded entirely by candle light, like the outpouring of thoughts which have been circumventing your head for decades all quietly pouring out in to the ambient light and suddenly faced with a startling clarity. This seems like an apt description of the album because for all of it's aesthetic muddiness it has a breathtaking succinct honesty to it, bordering on earnest but never cloyingly so. It feels a little bit like these songs were never designed to be heard by anyone, that they were just murmurs of a mind at rest. The main reason for this being Harris' delicate hushed vocals which spiral slowly out of earshot whilst acoustic guitar strums echo through the songs like ripples of a stone skimming across a lake. If ever you can't sleep then just put 'We've All Time to Sleep' on repeat, it's probably the single most calming thing I've ever heard and certainly the closest thing I've heard to a genuine modern lullaby. Dream like really is the only way to describe it; a breathtaking album which deserves to be talked about a lot more.

Ross Clark - You Brought Evil (2009)

Probably the least familiar album on this list, this is little known outside the Glasgow hub of singer songwriters which spawned it. Which is a real shame because in the last year it has quickly clambered it's way up towards my favourite albums of all time; particularly in the often tired field of man and guitar. So much so that it completely escaped my mind in terms of best of '09 lists, simply because I feel as though I lived with these songs for much much longer than 12 months. Like the greats of the genre Clark utilises his voice as his greatest instrument and plays the role of the quintessential tortured romantic, something that is clear from his vocals which fluctuate wildly between delicate whispers and unrestrained howls. When paired with his introspective lyrical tomes it's a dazzling combination, as he gasps all over lyrics like the repeated refrain of 'empty am I' it's impossible not to get wrapped up in the gusto of such defiant hopelessness. This is real back to roots stuff, shodilly recorded but all the more lovably ramshackle as a result, with only the odd assistance thrown in by the way of subtle backing vocals or the occasional touch of electric guitar. Like Ryan Adams at it his most reckless, this sounds like a man who has all but given up completely, these eight songs being his final chance of solace, so every last ounce of passion is rung out of every note You Brought Evil is a consistently captivating album packed with genuine hairs on end moments that really ought to be much better known than it is.

So, those are a few of the albums which changed my whole musical perspective over the last decade, and I feel haven't been given the recognition they deserve. I'm sure yours will be different though, tell us about them below and that.