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When Lou Reed insisted in the liner notes to his 1989 album New York that it should be listened to in one sitting “as though it were a book or a movie”, he sounded unbearably self-important. But now, in an age of downloads and ring tones, his admonition takes on new weight, for the format of the album itself is under threat.
Why bother buying one in its entirety when you can download a few favoured tracks? Why stick to a set sequence of songs when you can shuffle them randomly among thousands of others on an MP3 player? The experience of listening to an album from beginning to end is in danger of becoming pop’s equivalent of reading Finnegans Wake: an act of perseverance undertaken by very few.
As if making a stand against this erosion of dignity, some of the year’s best albums have taken great pains to emphasise their very album-ness. Sufjan Stevens’ Illinoise (Rough Trade), themed around the eponymous state, is the second in a projected series of concept albums about all 50 US states (the first was about Michigan, where Stevens grew up). It’s a quixotic travelogue, with more than a hint of whimsy to it, but gorgeous orchestral pop and clever, literate lyrics save it from smart-alecky self-indulgence. Stevens, a graduate of creative writing school, shares the same post-ironic, knowingly sentimental tone as young American writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer, though his music is much more deft and touching than their novels.
Doves’ Some Cities (Heavenly) is also a travelogue of sorts, its songs documenting the transformation of the trio’s hometown Manchester from decaying post-industrial smokestack into the glitzy gentrified leisure centre of nowadays. “Too much history coming down / Another building brought to ground,” they moan on the title track, their music brilliantly updating Manchester’s tradition of gloomy pop - Joy Division, The Smiths - and crashing it against the gleaming glass malls and upmarket apartment blocks that decorate the city today.
After a 12-year absence, Kate Bush has returned with a characteristically eccentric double album, Aerial (EMI), which is dominated by themes of nature, nurture and maternal love. Far better than her misfiring last album, The Red Shoes, its songs are multi-layered, unpredictable and at times outright odd (at one point Bush recites pi to the power of 114). The second suite of songs, a pastoral reverie reminiscent of her old mentor Dave Gilmour’s band, Pink Floyd, is particularly striking.
Gorillaz are a concept band: a troupe of cartoon characters behind which hides Damon Albarn, one-time Britpop pin-up boy with Blur. Their second album, Demon Days (Parlophone), is pop genius, its music an inspiriting mix of hip-hop, funk, rock and anything else that Albarn’s busy imagination alights on. The sequencing of the songs, the way they vary mood and tempo, is superb: while individually excellent, taken as a whole they become even more satisfying.
Goldfrapp’s Supernature (Mute) is everything the overrated Gwen Stefani’s Love Angel Music Baby isn’t: stylish, slinky, electric. And Roots Manuva’s Awfully Deep (Big Dada) is far better than the overrated Kanye West’s Late Registration: inventive, powerful hip-hop with lyrical light and shade. Another British rapper worth investigating is Kano, whose debut Home Sweet Home (679) is more approachable than the similar work of “grime” peers such as Dizzee Rascal.
As if repenting for the grotesque over-hyping of their debut a few years ago, New York’s electro-pop leaders Fischerspooner made a comeback with a genuinely good album, Odyssey (EMI). Electronic music veterans Kraftwerk also released a sprightly live album, Minimum-Maximum (EMI), which ranks as the next best thing to catching their outstanding stage show in person.
In sharp contrast to his last album, the glum, acoustic Sea Change, Beck returned with Guero (Polydor), whose production and genre-mashing music recalled his triumphs of the 1990s without lapsing into nostalgia or self-plagiarism. The National’s Alligator (Beggars Banquet) manages to strike the acoustic-noir that Beck missed on Sea Change; their album resembles an unplugged version of Interpol and has a murky beauty of its own. Coldplay’s X&Y (Parlophone) could do with some murk: its transcendent epic-rock songs strive too hard for purity and the sublime, though they also represent a bold staking-out of ground once occupied by U2. Coldplay sound like they want to be the world’s biggest band. Their ambitiousness is admirable.
A decade on from the original, a second wave of Britpop crashed down upon us this year. Best of the bunch was the Kaiser Chiefs’ debut, Employment (B-Unique), whose songs are zingy and smart, though rely a little too heavily on super-catchy choruses. The same goes for MIA’s very different version of British pop: Sri Lankan-born Maya Arulpragasam’s album Arular (XL Recordings) is a minimalist fusion of sci-fi hip-hop beats, Asian rhythms and hypnotically repetitive lyrics. No need to listen to this in one sitting, … la Lou Reed; but it’s worth cocking an ear towards nonetheless.