in no particular order.
Ghosts Of Television – Forsaken Empire (Magnetic Recording Council)
Ghosts Of Television continue to sound like nobody else in Sydney/Australia/the world on this, their first and apparently last LP. The sheer breadth of disparate influences evident here has to be heard to be believed. For instance, although GOTV are arguably a post-punk band first and foremost (whatever that means), there's something very black metal about parts of this album, particularly Nic De Jong's inhuman vocals and insistently grim lyrics – images of burned and crumbling flesh and fortresses abound. Yet many tracks are underlined by Adrian Clarke's hip-hop-influenced drumming. Elsewhere, Breathe Red Dawn backs a Joe Zawinul-esque keyboard riff with a menacing mid-tempo stomp. Know Weather's wire-brushed drums and major seventh chords lend its solemn verses (which seem to be about human sacrifices) an almost jazzy inflection. Arthritis sounds like a surf-rock band being burned alive.
It's a uniquely creepy album from which it's difficult to nominate a highlight, but Topsoil's swelling second half is perhaps what swept me up the most. The final track, New Flesh, sounds like an excerpt from a bitter memoir and grows from a lonely dirge to something wide and expansive that manages to evoke that sense of distance and heat that's present in the best work of The Triffids.
With Adrian moving to Berlin early next year, Ghosts Of Television have announced their imminent demise, but with Forsaken Empire they've left us a fitting full stop to their career, one that I think will come to be remembered with the same cult reverence accorded to the 1980s post-punks like Primitive Calculators and Severed Heads today.
Crouching 80s Hidden Acronym – I Just Don't Think It's Funny, Clever, Or In Good Taste (self-released)
Crouching 80s are a wilfully unpredictable quintet of ridiculously talented teenagers from the city of Tamworth, New South Wales. They're a genuine phenomenon in their hometown, where they regularly play to packed all ages crowds and the first few notes of their stomping funk-punk singalong Neo Nazi (I Won't Come To Your Party) are enough to send the audience into raptures.
That track opens their first EP, the self-recorded, self-released I Just Don't Think It's Funny, Or Clever, Or In Good Taste, and that would be worth the price of entry alone, but there's more to it than that. The record is groove-filled, genre-defying and frequently hilarious. On Girls/Ghosts, Nick Levy yelps Star Wars references and tales of awkwardness over the band’s taut funk strut like a neurotic James Brown. K! offers joyful Bloc Party guitar-pop as frenetic as it is romantic. Or take the wonderfully bloopy dance-floor bounce of Experiment, which sounds like Custard's Dave McCormack fronting Hot Chip. Or HSC, a deadpan breakup song about the year 12 exams, set to lush late-afternoon indie rock.
It's testament to their talent that Crouching 80s can make such genre-hopping sound relatively seamless. But I mean, this is a band that can casually drop a cover of Bowie's Let's Dance or the Theme From Mos Eisley Cantina (yes, from Star Wars) into their live set, and fucking nail either one. They match sharp, catchy songwriting with healthy doses of wit and slapstick and this record is held back from being huge only by the limitations of their recording budget and their relative isolation.
Bare Arms – Bare Arms (self-released)
My favourite moment in Australian hardcore this year? The part in Bare Arm's apocalypse-welcoming single, In The End We're All Dead, where Mitzi McKenzie-King screams “Always held back!” with such fury and despair that her voice cracks.
Put simply, Bare Arms' self-titled EP is just really, really good. They're a band so tight that they can effortlessly wrench their songs from lung-crushing, furious intensity to passages that are genuinely quiet, fragile and intricate (I think I've even seen drummer Katrina use wire brushes in the 'quiet bits', although that could be my imagination). They use this dramatic dynamic ability to great effect throughout the six songs on this record, Tom's hyperactive basslines interlocking with Aaron's chunky palm-muted guitar riffs and Kat's heavy, frenetic drumming. And I can virtually guarantee that no other hardcore band referenced French post-structuralist philosophers Deleuze and Guittari (The Refrain), the occupation of Palestine (Permanent Traumatic Stress Disorder), the end of the world (In The End, We're All Dead) and simple homesickness (South Coast Line) all in the one record this year.
Aleks And The Ramps – Midnight Believer (Stomp Records)
This is a classic indie-pop album in the best sense: simultaneously joyful, melancholic, funny, childlike (childish?), dorky, silly, sincere, knowing and full of ironic in-jokes. And, most importantly, it's not boring, which is where indie-pop albums sometimes trip up. There's a wide variety of instruments – banjo, acoustic guitar, glockenspiel and various electronic sounds as well as the usual guitar/bass/drums and playful boy/girl vocals. Several hilarious lines are delivered in Aleks' deadpan voice and buried low in the mix; for example: “This is not some elaborate prank/I learned to love like I learned to drive, in Soviet tanks”. Or: “What if you broke his heart/and he died in a car wreck/and then I played his part/in the re-enactment?”
Midnight Believer is worth buying for its three highlight tracks – the three-part let's-go-dancing-while-the-world-ends epic Destroy The Universe With Jazz Hands; Circa 1992 Ideas, which blends a charming, silly Darren Hanlon-style ballad with mutated elevator muzak; and the beautiful album closer Antique Limb, which is probably my favourite pop song of the year. But I'd hasten to add that the other seven songs are very good as well and that this is a proper album album which flows from start to finish very nicely indeed.
Seekae – The Sound Of Trees Falling On People (Rice Is Nice)
Admittedly Seekae released this album themselves in 2008, but the new and very astute Sydney label Rice Is Nice gave it a re-release this year, packaging it with the Remix EP that Seekae put out in winter as a fundraiser for community radio station FBI.
And I know it's been said elsewhere but 2009 is the year that Sydney fell in love with Seekae. They spearheaded the new wave of fairly excellent experimental pop acts that swept the city this year, a scene including Ghoul, megastick fanfare, Parades, Jonathan Boulet, Kyű, et cetera.
Seekae themselves combine arcade-game chiptunes with lush melodica and glitchy electronics in the vein of Boards Of Canada and other Warp Records artists of that ilk. Void and Wool are both lovely quasi-ambient songs with constructed with drama and beauty, where Snax and Herodotus sound more like nerdy hip-hop party jams – I use them to psych myself up before soccer matches. Sound Of Trees somehow sounds organic and futuristic at the same time. It is however over-long: something like 76 minutes of music all up, and that's not including the Remix EP. Think of it as value for money.
Ghoul – A Mouthful Of Gold (self-released)
Again, technically released last year, but I didn't get hold of it 'til this year, and... wow. Ghoul's sound combines inventive percussion with lush guitars and Ivan Vizintin's honeyed voice, an instrument like no other. They're studio perfectionists and it pays off for them here, their diverse reference points (The Smiths, Talking Heads, Animal Collective, Cornelius) reconciled into a completely unique sound. A Mouthful Of Gold is nineteen minutes of stunning experimental pop, spanning Serbian's crooning swing, The Loon's lonely lament, the frustrated, percussive growls of Fuck Math and Fertile Girls, and the thoroughly beautiful Swimming Pool. The latter is the highlight, the kind of perfect, simple song that one only writes once in a lifetime, and it's lovingly arranged and recorded here, soundtracking the hopeful, delicate daydreams you get when you're first infatuated with someone. Dare I dream of you? Dare I breathe the same air you do?
Arrows – Modern Art & Politics (Hobbledehoy Records)
Brisbane four-piece Arrows make slow, intricate and very sincere emo (in the mid-90s sense of the word) that tends towards the self-pitying side, occasionally to the point of being cringe-inducing. Their strength lies in the deftness with which they inject the gravitas of post-rock into what are mostly songs about ill-advised drunken hook-ups. I really enjoyed Arrows at certain times this year but these guys are quite clearly a guilty pleasure of mine, so approach with caution if you don't admit to listening to Sunny Day Real Estate or Death Cab or whoever.
Love Of Diagrams – Nowhere Forever (Remote Control)
Love Of Diagrams' second album colours in the stark post-punk that was previously their stock-in-trade with dense, gauzy layers of guitar. In retrospect “going shoegaze” actually seems like the logical step forward from their earlier work (antecedents can be heard in songs like The Pyramid) but when this was released in August people were, I suppose, pleasantly surprised.
Influences are worn on sleeves (Swervedriver, My Bloody Valentine, etc) and the lyrics can become a bit meaningless if you try to break them down too much, but this album just sounds AMAZING – simultaneously languid, urgent, poignant, paranoid and above all, huge. LoD haven't made anything terribly ground-breaking with Nowhere Forever but they have made something endlessly listenable - my friend Jon and I found it staying in his car stereo and my CD player for weeks. It's just excellent 1990s indie rock, loud and sincere. I first listened to the whole thing through new headphones on the way to work after a huge night out and it was like pouring warm honey on my brain.