Debuts are special. Novel, gig, published poem, stage show, exhibition, album—that first exposure of any artwork will in one sense always cast a happy shadow over its creative descendants. Debuts—debut anythings—are special most obviously for their creators, who experience a thrilling surreality quite like no other when they see their hitherto (and often intensely) private labours made public and have total strangers cast a discerning eye, ear, fingertip or nostril (hello, Piero Manzoni) over them. There’s an exquisite sort of miraculousness—something that goes way beyond mere vanity or the modern pursuit of celebrity—in making something, then finding out people who really don’t have to give a shit, do. (It is no coincidence that quite a number of respected cultural artisans have publicly confided that they once felt like they were winging it.) Today, with the peculiar arm’s length intimacy of the internet a standard feature of our everyday lives, that sort of disclosure is more forthright than ever before.
Debuts, though, are special too for those on the receiving end. Yes, they bring us fresh sparkle and pep after we’ve just slogged our way through another creaky-kneed U2 disc, as well as writing another chapter in the deathless quest for the Next Big Thing. But more importantly and more lastingly meaningful, debuts are for most of us a way into a relationship with an artist, and nowhere is this more pertinent than in the emotion-rousing world of music. In this sense, debut albums only realise their true role retroactively; they form the starting point for everything from our connections with our favourite bands, to more general and widespread movements within music. You only have to fleetingly consider the veneration granted to the likes of the Beatles, Bowie, Joy Division and the Smiths to see that it isn’t only about the sounds they made and the words they sang; it is also about what they started. Whether you’re thinking about bohemianism, post-punk or simply “Veckatimest”, foundations are irremovable, interminable and consequently fascinating.
Now, I’m not for a minute suggesting that the albums in the following list will provoke sprawling, seismic cultural movements that percolate into the forthcoming decades—that would be silly. Such things are extraordinary, not to mention unpredictable (and, it could be argued, a thing of the past.) But the point is this: the retrospective significance of debut albums makes them, in the present, things of wondrous interest and potentiality. For great debut albums—well, even more so. The ten bands and artists below might not have any lasting impact upon music; some of them might not even make another album. It’s worth remembering, in the here-and-now, that this is where everyone once began. That said, it’s worth considering, also, that great beginnings are not always great just as beginnings. The best debuts are exciting not only for what they promise, but for what they deliver, too. And the very absence of pressure, preconceptions and expectations means they can be an experience of willful discovery for their makers and their listeners. So think of these ten albums not as what could be, but also what already is: the best debut records of 2009.
On the face of it, Japandroids are just stragglers in decade’s-end flurry of shambling, scantily-staffed lo-fi rock bands. Lo-fi is all about appearances. It’s caring about appearing not to care and it’s the defiant turn of the head away from consumerism that proves consumerism has gotten you. Japandroids, by contrast, are about sweating out a hell of a racket with your buddy, and little more. Post-Nothing is catchy as anything and furiously fast; the type of record that is fun to listen to because it was clearly so fun to make. It’s totally artless, and not for the sake of being arty, but for the abandonment and the sheer hell of it all. “We used to dream / Now we worry about dying / I don’t want to worry about dying,” comes the objection of “Young Hearts Spark Fire”, somewhere amid a fuzz of guitars and shattering cymbals. Japandroids don’t sound like they want to worry about anything, and frankly, why should they? Dreaming, surely, is what debut albums are all about.
(XL; limited edition: 4 Aug 2009; UK: 27 Apr 2009)
In year where electro-pop was refreshingly out of vogue, Golden Silvers strutted onto the scene, touting just that, as naturally as if it was 1980. As exponents of a genre notorious for pricing style higher than substance, this London trio stand out as quite the opposite, peddling some truly sturdy songwriting and genuine depth. They are also quite plainly unfashionable—from the fizzy-pop synths and parping Dexy’s brass right down to teary-eyed heart-clenching of frontman Gwilym Gold—and perfectly happy about that, thanks. While True Romance is more grounded and reflective than Oracular Spectacular, though, Golden Silvers bring a British riposte to MGMT, wrapped up in their own mythologies (in this case Ancient Greek) and floating away on sweetly swirling harmonies as if they tied together to make a magic carpet. And, in their shimmying hoe-down of a title-track, they’ve got this year’s answer to “Time to Pretend”. It’s a genuine pop gem.
(Island; US: 20 Oct 2009; UK: 6 Jul 2009)
Florence and the Machine
More than any other artist this year, Florence Welch had much to live up to. It was hardly through any fault of her own, but the publicity and expectation kindled by this pallid 22-year-old and her collaborative machine seemed to set her up for an early fall (critically, anyway—it would have sold in shedloads regardless.) That there’s been barely a dissenting word against Lungs is a little short of miraculous, if perfectly comprehensible when you put your ears to it. Turned out it was a pertinently titled release, too, because it is Welch’s own pulmonary clout, out of which she coaxed a willowed tone of quite exceptional range, that drives home the kind of impassioned choruses that Lily Allen’s dreams are made of. Lungs is no TV-talent-show-voice-is-everything-croonfest, however. It revels in a similar sort of twinkly-eyed and mystic adventurism as Natasha Khan and Joanna Newsom, through grounded in a anthemic popularism. Welch even managed to breathe a mouthful of fresh air into the Source’s “You’ve Got the Love”, a song that’s seen more covers than the courts of Wimbledon.
(Accidental; US: Import; UK: 2 Mar 2009)
London in 2009 is a tense enough place to live: a tightly-wrought, clamorous and sleepless capital of 24-hour kinetics and simmering anxiety, blanketed by its own choking smoke. If the essence of the most dreadful clouds over the city’s collective psyche were captured last year by the Bug’s London Zoo, the Invisible soundtrack its broader identity and its fears and claustrophobia, but also its multifariously cultural heart and soul. It is brooding one moment, optimistic the next, but always in the grips of a hypnotic, pulsing intensity. Their debut full-length is a sprawling, slick record with icy-cold electro undercurrents and a hip, swaggering groove. That has seen them persistently misidentified as the British TV on the Radio (and I promised myself I wouldn’t bring that up.) There’s a warmer side to it, though, most perceptibly in the woozy “Spiral”, which find Dave Okumu’s prickling string-picks melting out of shape beneath his own tentative soul-searching, and on “London Girl”, which follows its “Another One Bites the Dust” bassline along a soulful trail of organ swells and electronic pinpricks before folding in on itself.
(Frenchkiss; US: 19 May 2009; UK: Available as import)
In an era where it seems it’s not okay for music to just sound good, no agenda attached, Passion Pit play things refreshingly straight. Manners is the album that fleshed-out Michael Angelakos’s bedroom project into a fully-staffed band, so its no surprise that it sounds so busy, brimming with freewheeling synths, euphoric gang choruses and—whisper it—the occasional child choir. It also free from all pretensions; just a record of surging electronic pop songs of the type where any could realistically be a single. Angelakos’s lyrical vision remained dark, his falsetto occasionally strained to a desperate breaking point, but such is the openness, infectiousness and full-bodied enthusiasm on display across Manners, you can scarcely help but feel uplifted.
5 - 1
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.
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
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.