Ah, the changing of the seasons, the early stirrings of a new calendar year and a new Rough Trade Counter Culture compilation, the seventh annual collection by my reckoning. Not only a reliable overview of what made waves, stirred critics and got those in the know genuinely excited in the previous year, but also a sobering yearly reminder that you don’t know as much about new music as you think you do. Sure, you like to imagine your finger is on the pulse of the cutting edge at the zeitgeist or something, but then you get the new Counter Culture, glance at the tracklisting and go “Indian Jewelry? Alva Noto? Koko Von Napoo? Who are these people?”. But Rough Trade prides itself on being ahead of the wider game – Counter Culture 07 included Vampire Weekend, Glasvegas, No Age and Fucked Up, all of whom made far bigger impacts in their own ways and scales in 2008.
This year Counter Culture is very much a set that starts softly and carries a big stick. Department Of Eagles’ humming, close miked meditation on loss ‘Classical Records’ followed by reliable old Bon Iver and the still goosebump facilitating ‘Flume’ which is unsettling, but in a good way. The pastorial new Americana continues into the band Steve Lamacq reckons could be this year’s Fleet Foxes, The Low Anthem, whose ‘Charlie Darwin’ is all minimal guitar and spectral high harmonies. Then there’s last year’s Fleet Foxes, Fleet Foxes, who contribute the well worn but still ghostly ‘White Winter Hymnal’, sandwiching Dane Peter Broderick’s spiralling acoustic picking and multitracked vocals. And just as you suspect it might seem a touch one-paced if it’s all going to be like this, El Guincho shifts seamlessly in to affix its own self-harmonies and Beach Boys backing vocals to a summer party vibe. ‘The Lullaby (Mountain)’ is an odd choice to isolate as The Acorn’s representative from the much loved round here Glory Hope Mountain, not least as it’s almost entirely percussion free and features Casey Mecija on vocals rather than Rolf Klausener, but it fits the mood, especially when followed by the widescreen orchestral yearning of Headless Heroes.
As with so many things, Bradford Cox provides the sudden jolt. Atlas Sound’s ‘Recent Bedroom’ a shogazey waltz of yearning and the point at which the first CD devolves into exploring the new American (for the most part) whirring bedroom underground, progressing from lo-fi to acid fried synth abuse. And the best of your homegrown lovelies are: Sic Alps, who in their reverb-friendly garage duo sound like they can barely holding ‘Sing Song Waitress’ together, Crystal Stilts’ narcoleptic twang, High Places’ swirling tribal fuzzy glitch on ‘Vision’s The First…’, Zombie-Zombie’s motorik schlock horror imagining Suicide did get that John Carpenter film score gig and the Vivian Girls, who hope you’ve never heard of the Shop Assistants. ‘Chrome’s On It’ falls the wrong side of the precarious inventive/self-involved balance that is Telepathe but no matter, job done so far.
Any thoughts that disc two might ease you in are immediately dispelled by Chris Corsano’s borderline ridiculous percussion loop ‘What Movement Helps You When You Are Trying to Run Out A Batsman?’, one man making the sound of several sets of cutlery in a fast spin dishwasher, and the ever reliable Boris’ manaical psych-metal assault ‘Laser Beam’. Times New Viking and HEALTH fly the flag for The Smell’s reappropriation of No Wave, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart fuzz up C86 alt-pop goodness and Gun Outfit seem to be largely hitherto unheralded ones to watch, coming across as a more homely Meat Puppets. That they turn out to be from Olympia, Washington, home of K Records and the International Pop Underground, figures.
Again, things subtly but surely change over halfway through, heralded this time by the Krautrock rhythms, wheezing drone organs, spiralling guitar and deadpan vocals of Indian Jewelry’s ‘Temporary Famine Ship’. From there it’s off into the twilight world of dubstep with 2562, the ultra-filtered samples of Flying Lotus’ ‘GNG BNG’, Tobacco roping in Aesop Rock to rhyme over woozily surging electro, Yo Majesty’s confrontational rapping over party 8-bit and the droning, hazy beats of Salem’s ‘Redlights’. Alva Noto recreate the sound of a malfunctioning dot matrix printer plus beats and a man endlessly running through numbers in French and whatever the hell Shit And Shine’s warped beyond repair ‘Shit No!’ comes under, before Mark Stewart proves he’s become no less agitated or experimental since The Pop Group, taking the Yardbirds’ ‘Mr You’re A Better Man Than I’, removing the vocals out of harm’s way then repeatedly running the rest into a wall of low-end.
As the year’s collection comes to an almost swooning finish with Pablo’s digging the crates referencing Steinski-esque sample cut-up ‘Record Shop’, it seems everyone involved has done their job particularly well this year. Of course, if you love every one of these 44 tracks then Mr, you’re definitely a better man than I. But, in a year that’s supposedly been mediocre for musical invention and forward thinking, it’s a clear evocation of ability, continued excellence and at heart why we continue to do this thing called new music hunting. A lot of love and effort has clearly gone into making all this just so, and repaying their desire to help us listen, repeat and understand is the least we can do.