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Warm Heart of Africa
(Green Owl; US: 6 Oct 2009; UK: 14 Sep 2009)
The Very Best
Warm Heart of Africa
In today’s web-savvy, cross-continental culture, we have awe-inspiring amounts of music at our disposal, from all parts of the globe. And I’m pretty sure, if you took the time to figure it out, that there would be some correlation between the rise of the internet and the flurry of international crossover artists we’ve seen in recent years. The (very) best of them, however, don’t sound like crossover artists—and so it is with Warm Heart of Africa, the result of a truly international collaboration between a Malawian singer and drummer and a Franco-Dutch production team who all coalesced in London. The Very Best draw on sounds from far and wide, but they make easy bedfellows because the elements mingle at the most fundamental level. Is that a minimal electro groove underpinning “Nskoto”, or is it an Afrobeat rhythm? Is Ezra Koenig’s peppy yap perfectly suited to the Afropop of the title track, or was the title track always earmarked for Koenig? Is this Africa reaching out to western music or is the west reaching out to African music? It’s neither, it’s both and it’s irrelevant; Warm Heart of Africa is simply one of the most joyful, exuberant and downright fun records you’ll hear all year.
(Secretly Canadian; US: 8 Sep 2009; UK: 21 Sep 2009)
If you thought this Johannesburgian quartet simply hadn’t got the memo that vowel neglect is, like, so 2008, then think again. BLK JKS are nine years old already, and set the ball off long before we noticed it was rolling. With that in mind, After Robots has taken its sweet time to arrive on our shores, but with the consequence that its sound is not one of budding promise, but of a dense, frenetic experience already beautifully realised. With the Very Best, Antibalas and, Vampire Weekend all familiar names, the fusion of African and Western music is hardly an exotic delicacy any longer, but BLK JKS offer a flipside to the coin in that it is American indie that has percolated into their sound, not vice-versa. “Lakeside” was the breakout, and it’s easy to see why, with its trickling arpeggios and exuberant chants which whip up into a crescendo of swirling guitars and Mpumi Mcata’s searing solos. Multifaceted, multi-instrumental and multilingual, the album once or twice loses itself in its own smoke, but that’s hardly surprising when it burns brightly on so many fronts.
The Airing of Grievances
(XL; US: 20 Jan 2009; UK: 26 Jan 2009)
The Airing of Grievances
In a sense, Titus Andronicus are a bit like the xx; every chunk of gristle they hurl into this meaty debut disc is unmistakably and venomously authentic. But while xx sounds like it oozed effortlessly from the hip, Titus Andronicus is belligerently spat out, laced with phlegm and blood. Sonically, in fact, it is pretty much the antithesis of xx, a cacophonous clatter of drunken anger, youthful indignation and thrashing riffs. Muddy, murky and messy throughout, it is also triumphantly and cleverly so, Patrick Stickles’s slurry, fist-in-the-air bawl both literately and self-aware as well as howlingly passionate. This is anthemic but intelligent, histrionic yet down-to-earth, and most of all damn good, sweaty fun.
Micachu & the Shapes
More than anywhere else in this list, the future lies in these hands. Or let’s hope it does, anyway, because 21-year-old Mica Levi, a classically trained composer slash grime MC slash garage DJ slash giddy pop miniaturist, has this year single-handedly reinvented pop music. The first thing you’ll be told about Jewellery is its complexity, its experimentalism, and it’s all true, but significantly, after a couple of listens, you can’t even tell. Superficially, the likes of “Golden Phone” and “Turn Me Well” are messy musical playthings, crammed in their brevity with all sorts of squiggly, glitchy, yelping, chiming sonic bric-a-brac (vacuum cleaner included). Spin them again and everything just seems to slide so easily into place. The bubbly groove of Levi’s acoustic guitar, the surprising sweetness in her androgynous and manifestly Londonian burr and Raisa Khan’s shape-shifting electronics, strung together by Marc Bell’s thumping percussive timekeeping. Thirteen songs, and not one of them ends up where it starts—nothing ends up where it was ten seconds earlier, for that matter—or anywhere near where you might feasibly have guessed it was going. A running time of half an hour would normally suggest a dearth of ideas, but with Micachu, there was never any hope of her squeezing them all in.
Of all the compliments it is possible to pay London four-became-three-piece the xx, possibly the most germane is that their sorta-self-titled debut album sounds nothing like a debut album. While most groups of 20-year-old mates would, thrown into a record label’s own garage with a fistful of cash, quickly see to all nearby booze and drugs and then lay even the kitchen sink down on record. It is quite apparent that the xx aren’t your average group of 20-year-old mates, then, when you consider that xx is one of the slickest records you’ll hear this year, restrained to the point of minimalism and palpably ached-over. The intimate interplay between dual vocalists and lifelong friends Romy Croft and Oliver Sim was enough for some to suggest a sexual relationship kept furtively under wraps, but the album doesn’t need a juicy back-story: intriguing enough is its skeletal architecture of its gorgeous, reverb-glossed guitars, breathy vocals and swaggeringly collected rhythm section. It is genuinely rare to hear music that sounds at once so carefully crafted and so natural.