Friday, December 31, 2010

Happy New Year

A Happy New Year to all my readers! (The fine bookends holding this year's Booker shortlist in place were a Christmas present, specially commissioned from a local woodturner at Chasewater. He'd not made any before and did a fine job.)

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


Rather than think about the year just gone I've been looking through a compilation I made of my writing from 2003. I put it together a year or so ago, so the dates aren't entirely accurate, but it came to a massive 150 A4 pages. 2003 was a watershed year in my writing as it was the year I started taking it less seriously; actually that's wrong - I've continued to take it seriously; but the year I reduced my commitment to it. There were good reasons: I'd had 4 short term jobs in less than 4 years, each one different, but going nowhere, and was just about to start a slightly longer term one, which, amazingly I'm still in. I'd also run into the ground a bit with my fiction. I couldn't really see where I could find the inspiration or the dedication to write another novel, which had been my obsession for best part of a decade, I'd stopped writing my blog, and wasn't having any luck placing short stories, and my brief interest in drama was coming to an end. Poetry, ironically, which had always been there in the background, was coming to the forefront at least partly because I'd started, with a couple of friends, the literary magazine, Lamport Court.

Looking back, I wrote a lot of fiction that year, or at least, it seems so - but these were often stories I'd finished earlier, or new pieces that I began and petered out. I was 36; it perhaps seemed time to put my literary ambitions on hold and do something - anything - else. I went to stay with a friend in France for a few days, and the country calm emptied my head of the angst I'd been feeling having to apply for new jobs every six months or so. Returning to Britain I stood on the railway station and watched the trains go by, in a dreamlike state; returning to Manchester I heard a mighty bang in the kitchen as the boiled eggs I'd put on, dried up and exploded out of the pan.

I'd recently had some poetry in "Reactions 3" a well-regarded UEA anthology, and, through Lamport Court, and the growing creative writing alumni community, seemed to be having conversations about poetry, thoughts about poetry. But what of the writing itself? None of the poems I wrote in 2003 made it into "Playing Solitaire for Money", but a large section of "Extracts from Levona" was written that year. The "everyday" poems I was writing seemed a little strained, everyday anecdotes I was trying to coat with surrealism. Towards the end of the year I'd have stopped writing poetry for six months or more. In the wider world the marching against the Iraq war was going on.

But looking back on some of the unpublished work I was writing that year is intrigueing. I was trying out different things - I'd always done this in prose, but was now doing it in poetry - I was also thinking seriously of what contemporary poetry might look like. I didn't write any of the more "concrete"/"flarf"-like poems that I'd toyed with in the year or two before; I was experimenting instead with traditional forms - "dialogues", "sonnets" - and a couple of long sequences which, reading back are obviously flawed, but are fascinating in a way. It is not enough, I think, to just carve out poems (or stories or blog posts) in the time available, but that you need to be doing it in a fertile environment; where there is time to fail, time to grow. I look back on those sequences and they are unfinished business, straining for something. Amidst the groping in the dark, there's an odd moment of magic, of connection.

There's very little that I wrote in 2003 that I would consider amongst my finest work, in any genre, and it explains my confusion at the time - five years after completing my M.A. needing to decide a little where my priorities lie. If I said in "life" rather than "art" I wouldn't be wrong, but best part of a decade onwards, I realise they are not so easy to separate; more, that its a matter of emphasis.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

(Contains a few spoilers.)

When Jacobson read from "The Finkler Question" in Manchester before he'd won the Booker Prize, he asked the audience whether he should read the funny or sad bits, this being a funny novel about death. He's a consummate reader, and the scenes he read leapt off the page. There's little that's actually laugh out loud funny in the novel itself, but neither is it morbid. He's a consummate writer as well, and "The Finkler Question" uses all his skills for what might well have been a difficult sell.

Julian Treslove and Sam Finkler were at school together (in the sixties and seventies, though it feels longer ago) and kept in touch with their ancient teacher, Libor Sevcik, a Czech emigre. Two of the three - not Treslove - are Jewish and the book is primarily about different kinds of Jewishness in contemporary Britain. Primarily, but not entirely, from Treslove's perspective. The book's one consistently good joke is the replacing of the word "Jewish" with the word "Finkler." For Treslove wants at first to understand Jewishness, and then to be Jewish.

It is around this modus operandi that Jacobson spins a comic novel of ideas. Not since Daniel Deronda has the average reader had such a grounding in the finer points of Jewish doctrine, and Jacobson's real triumph is in doing this in a way that doesn't feel hectoring or forced. All the learndedness - basically "what it is to be Jewish" - is taken with a pinch of salt (beef.) Not that Jacobson's comedy is the laugh out loud variety. It relies on the spinning of yarns, dreadful puns, and a certain sprightly joi de vivre which enlightens even the darkest passages.

Both Finkler and Libek have lost their wives. For the older man it is a tragedy - the loss of his life partner and part of himself - but for Finkler it's never quite so clearcut, and we never really find out of what she died (cancer, perhaps?) That his best friend has been having an affair of sorts with her, in the mistaken belief that she is both kinds of a "Finkler woman" (she's a convert to Judaism) means that it is Treslove who is also in mourning. Treslove is the comic figure of the novel. A thinly-drawn 49-year old who has accidentally had two children, and makes his living as a celebrity lookalike (not one celebrity in particular - he looks like lots of different ones a little bit.) Getting over the solipsism and unbelievability of Treslove is one of the novel's first stumbling blocks; you feel that for Jacobson he's the useful fool, who anything can happen to. It's therefore also a novel about male friendship, which remains one of the defining themes of a certain generation of writers (think "The Information," "Talking it Over", even "Small World"). The tropes of a contemporary London come and ago, and provide a number of set pieces for these three very different men to share their very different thoughts on being (or not being) Jewish.

The comic tropes are themselves a little wearisome - and already seem a little dated (Amy Winehouse listed in a list of famous Jews for instance) - and in the group of "ASHamed Jews" that Finkler joins, you feel a joke as throwaway as Zadie Smith's KEVIN in "White Teeth." But satire has to risk falling, if it is to risk being funny. As the novel progresses, Treslove's fascination with a religion and culture he doesn't belong to becomes more serious, as anti-semiticism, even in the leafy environs of St. John's Wood, comes to the fore. There seems a lingering - and quite powerful - message here; that vigilance against anti-semiticism can never be enough. For such a political novel to have won the Booker is surprising in itself, but its concerns, though not to be dismissed, seem relatively trivial. There has to be an uneasiness, even in a novel where most of the Jewish characters are uneasy about Palestine, that Gaza is used as a throwaway backdrop to what is essentially a comedy of manners. Is this (to use one of Jacobson's favoured rhetorical questions) a comic novel about a serious subject or a serious novel about differences of opinion? To be fair it doesn't purport to have any answers: and the tackling of difficult subjects with quite a bit of flair, and not a little levity is to be applauded - yet so difficult are the subjects that they never quite go away. Can you joke about the Holocaust? Well, Jacobsen does, but to make the point that you shouldn't.

If this was purely a political book it's appeal would be limited however; it's far better a novel when it concentrates on the relationship between the three men and their relationships to the women (and children) in their lives. When Treslove goes against type and falls in love with a buxom Jewish woman, his two friends note with authority that he was looking for a mother figure. Amidst the comedy, the politics and the mourning, this is a novel primarily about male frailties, and can be both painful and acute at the same time.

It's the first of this year's Booker shortlist I've read, and there feels an element of long service award about it, though its pleasing that a novel that contains serious ideas, as well as seriously bad puns can be applauded, presumably on the sheer bravado of it's writing. Though engaging, the writing - or should we say the editing - is a problem. As a mid-list writer, maybe Jacobson wasn't given the time he should have been, but there are typographical errors, inconsistencies and far too many sloppy lines. One imagines the first of these will be fixed in any reprints, but the second and third are probably now set in aspic, as they were clearly not a problem for the Booker judges. It is, when all's said and done, a curiously old-fashioned novel, though set in a contemporary Britain, which won't frighten any conservatively minded readers, though they might be a little put off, as I was, by the detailed riff on the Jewish character who is trying to un-circumsise himself. In the matter of aesthetic taste, I'm as uncertain as Treslove finds himself when trying to pigeonhole Finkler.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Pathological Britain

With Christmas Day gone, and the news that we are a predominantly secular country these days anyway, thoughts turn to the looming VAT increase, and, in the Independent's cataclysmic words: "Nine Days to Save the Economy." Elsewhere children's authors decry the removal of a grant from Booktrust, just as, previously film makers decried the closing of the UK Film Council and sports colleges got annoyed about cuts to the sports budget, and probably, Regional Developers were unhappy at the closing of the Regional Development Agencies.

I sometimes think that politics in this country owes more to programmes like Yes Prime Minister and The Thick of It than the other way round. In short, the media seems to talk about a country that I hardly believe exists, never mind recognise. Perhaps its no surprise that in a year when we got a government that not only didn't we vote for, but was not even flagged up in advance (apart from those of us who have always been a little suspicious of the LibDem's "man for all seasons" politics), that it seems like we have entered "pathological Britain." To be pathological, of course, is sign of a "mentally disturbed condition".

It's been an odd year personally, as well as nationally. But the national condition is stranger in some ways: we are used to politicians and their promising jam tomorrow, but this is something new, this drip drip of future fear and dread. Perhaps its something to do with us being ruled by boys who went to boys schools and were looked after by strangers... the boarding school is writ large in the British psyche though most of us have no conception of it other than a fictional one.

If we are looking for fictonal models for the world we live in today, perhaps more even than in the 80s, it is Orwell's prescience of media-ubiquity in "1984" that is so apposite. If ever there was a book about delayed fear that is the one. Orwell saw clearly that institutions were ever more dangerous than people, a subtle distinction given the terrors of Stalin and Hitler that he had just seen write large. Phrases like "the big society" which were meaningless when first uttered, gain power through repetition. I don't think it is their linguistic ubiquity that matters so much as the repeating of a lie so often that it becomes, if not a truth, at least not a falsehood.

This resistance to authorised cliche is, I think, one of the more important roles for the contemporary writer. It's why I've been uneasy about some of the kneejerk reactions to particular policies that we've seen of late. It is important that writers are heard and have an opinion, but the best writers are more nuanced than contemporary media theatrics requires. I'm sure Philip Pullman (who I've not read) is more nuanced in his humanism in his books than he ever is in his pronouncements, just as Martin Amis's fictional satires are far more ambiguous than his highly quotable forays into the "sex war."

It is where the small press, the independent poet, the quirky and the unloved writer comes into their own - this resistance to authorised cliche. I hope to find time over the next few weeks to write about some of the lovely artefacts I've picked up this year; spending far more on these things than on 2-for-1 books at Waterstones. It is in the retail imperative - these "non books" that are already being made half-price as too-late Xmas presents - that seems particularly pathological. Everyone who values their local shops knows you need to keep using them, to keep them - though ironically it is in the very poor areas (or the economically inactive rural villages) where they are more likely to disappear from. Clearly the business rates in Didsbury or Highgate are less of deterrent to local shops, than the disposable income (and predilection for scatter cushions) of their customers.

Yet if reading and listening outside the mainstream has another benefit, it is that it gives you a better insight into that mainstream than the insiders themselves. Walking into HMV on the high street over the last few months, its been hard to find the CD or DVD sections never mind the particular item you want (and god help you, if you're looking for vinyl or boxsets or back catalogue!) for all the MP3 players, games machines and t-shirts. It comes as no surprise that HMV is having a bad Christmas. A year from now it may well have divested itself of Waterstones, which nobody who cares about books will be disappointed about.

There's been quite a few highlights of the year and most of them have included at least two of literature, music and alcohol. On a personal level, I've been reacquainting myself with the idea that I might be a poet, rather than someone who writes poetry; though I'm sure I'll probably disabuse myself of that notion sometime in the new year. This blog feels an inevitable part of the ebb and flow of my year now, in a way that it might not always have done. It evades as much as it includes (books that I've read but forgot to blog about at the time, for instance), but diaries and journals are always partial. I was reminded of this truth when reading Bruce Chatwin's Diaries earlier in the year. It illuminated, but obscured. Yet read in tandem with his books and Nicholas Shakespeare's biography, brought one closer to understanding one of my favourite writers. That we live in a country and a culture where a large book of letters by a writer who died over a quarter of a century ago, can be brought to publication by our oft-derided publishing industry, there's clearly still a culture worth looking for.

Despite this piece's title, I'm sanguine about our pathology. I'm neither in the media or political bubble, or based in our often surprisingly navel-gazing capital city; I sit outside - politics, finance, the media, even the world of "letters" - and it gives me a better view. The task as ever is to inculcate that in the art.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

National Short Story Day

Today is national short story day, appropriately on the shortest day. Information about events, readings, recordings and downloads are available on the website for the day, including one in Manchester this evening.

How do you celebrate National Short Story Day? Easy, really - just read a short story. In the spirit of the day I've made a quirkly little story that's never been published, available on my website. There are all sorts of stories, of course, from one's that just tell a tale, to ones that have a twist, to stories, like this one, which are more conceptual. The story is called "Backwards" and you can read it here.

As for recommendations... I like my stories to be a little macabre, and this brilliant classic from A.M. Homes is certainly that! Read "A Real Doll" here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

From Ghent With Love

Not for the first time, seeing Manchester and England from a distance doesn't so much give you perspective as marvel at what we accept as normalised.

I spent last week in Ghent, Belgium for a succession of meetings and conferences. Ghent is the biggest student city in the country, and everywhere you go there are bicicle parks, and cyclists on the streets, hardly any with helmets. The snow that fell briefly on Thursday night was cleared away by morning, and I walked again the 2km to the conference centre, through a mostly pedestrianised city centre. The city centre spreads further than Manchester does, but it's very low rise, and the old Cathedral and other similarly iconic buildings are the landmarks that rise about the city-scape. The city's canals break up the landscape and seem to separate the different sections of the town. Much of the centre is under construction as a new tramline is put into place.

It's the first time I've been to a conference where the AV has been so contemporary - powerpoint and speaker side by side on the big screen, apparently in HD. The conference centre itself was a model of quiet organisation, and vast, with a series of technology related events taking place one after another during the week.

You look hard for a chain pub, take away or shop in Ghent, though I did glimpse both a McDonalds and a Subway, elsewhere it's a high class shopping town, Manchester's King Street, meets Chester. Most people, at the conference and in the town, spoke English, though there's a political dimension to this, as Ghent is part of Flanders, and currently Belgium is without a national government. It hardly seems to matter, so strong are the regional institutions. Explaining our regional/city structures to delegates from elsewhere in Europe sometimes seems like you are explaining a primitive toy that you have just created to an advanced civilisation. Even as you proudly show them how it works, you know how stupid it sounds.

Belgium's a country with the population of the North West, but with the infrastructure of a nation, and it shows. Its not just that the workforce is educated, and international, but that it's also educated for a purpose. There seems to be a much greater understanding and synergy between the public and the private sector, and our current politically led upheavals seem not just absurd, but frankly dangerous, when you look at how other parts of Western Europe goes about it's business. Prices are high, yet the restaurants are full. Bookshops proliferate, there are posters everywhere for art and theatre, and I managed to squeeze in an hour in a record shop, Music Mania, which was like the kind that hardly exist in England these day. The town itself is monocultural in a way that Brussels, for instance, isn't, and I guess it's a wealthy city. But how can this be? Alongside heritage, there is progression. The conference was hosting the annual "Future Internet Assembly" and the companies exhibiting were cutting edge - and far more about useful new applications and new technology than about marketing and sales. If the internet occasionally failed, it wasn't as bad as in Brussels, and certainly not as bad as I've often found in the UK.

There are things that frustrate, of course, but most of those things were a result of being a visitor and expecting to find the 24 hour opening shops, or the cheap takeaways that are the Americanised side of our convenience culture. We only need such convenience, I began to think, because of the inconvenient way we arrange our lives. Last December I was at a similar event in Strasbourg, and again you begin to see that the things that we are supposedly good at, those service economy activities that have displaced so much of our industry, we're not. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a Manchester restuarant that was as plushly appointed as the riverside Malthouse conversion of Belga Queen, for instance.

At the heart of everything you got a sense that history and innovation are bedfellows not enemies, and that a confidence in the regional and local institutions is key to their current ambitions and prosperity. At the heart of everything, a highly education population and workforce, with a sense that such hard work will be rewarded, not put into the melting pot of an uncertain future market.

Manchester is much larger than Ghent, and more well known, but in a busy week, it's advantages seem a lot less clearcut if it wants to punch its weight in the wider world. It is not just the major cities of Brussels and Amsterdam that are strong competitors in Europe, but these smaller cities. There was substantial local pride in Ghent, but it felt anything but parochial. Its too easy, when we talk about Europe to think about its poorer nations, and the problems faced there; but in the countries that were there at the start of the EU, and the Scandinavian countries north of there, you see so much that we should aspire towards, rather than dismiss as irrelevant, that our Anglo-Saxon parochialism, and confidence in failed neo-con market solutions seems self-flagellating. Walking through the streets of undiminished art deco architecture I wonder what unfortunate accident of birth and education makes us monolingual English so unable to even imagine our own lives and cities in the same way.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Goodbye Captain

The music of the 20th century has many unique talents, but Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, who has just passed away after complications from M.S., seems sure to endure. If Miles Davis took jazz into different places, Beefheart did the same for the blues. His music, at its best, was a glorious hybrid, but unclassifiable in many ways. If at the start of his career there was a certain awkward psychedelia, and at the end, a difficult attempt to commercialise this least biddable of artists, at his music's core wasd something consistently unique. When you heard Beefheart, surprise and shock quickly turned into amazement and love. I do think that he's one of the few artists, and certainly one of very few in the "rock" sphere, who actually makes you listen differently. To appreciate Beefheart is surprisingly easy - the building blocks are the much-loved blues, his songwriting is subtle and strong - but in doing so he changes how you think about music.

Like many people of my age I first heard Beefheart at the end of his productive career. His final album "Ice Cream for Crow" came out as I was first listening to music and seeing him perform from it on Whistle Test, I think it was, was revelatory. Who was this strange man with the odd name who the rock encyclopedias talked about as an irrelevant curiousity? Visiting record shops I'd pick up the frankly bizarre cover of "Trout Mask Replica" and wonder what on earth it might contain. An artist who had had fans in the sixties and seventies, came to have a whole new generation as his productive recording career finished, partly because of illness, and partly as he began another career, as a painter. There were to be no reformations with Beefheart, no comebacks, simply a growing understanding of the remarkable trajectory of his music.

"Trout Mask Replica" is the weirdest album to make "best albums of all time" charts. I bought the double at University, drawn in by the lovely (and untypical) "Moonlight on Vermont" and the avant-guitar instrumental "Dali's Car." As a fan of the Fall, the Birthday Party and Bogshed it wasn't that difficult a record to get inot - but I think it was five years before I could listen to side 3! I loved the spoken word intervals, the mad skit-songs, the jazz tinctures of the way the Magic Band played, clearly in control, but to the ears, all over the place. The songs as well are fantastic. Investigating further, Beefheart's a puzzle - the cheaply available "Unconditionally Guaranteed" is a bland soft rock album, enlivened by the beautiful "This is the Day", his later Virgin albums are patchworks, sometimes successful, sometimes not, debut "Safe as Milk" sometimes feels like a period piece, whilst with "Mirror Man" it seems incomprehensible that it was ever released, so earthy and raw is it.

It is only in those passing years that the real Beefheart legacy came clear. Seen as a whole, everything he did is of interest, and like a painter, you feel there's a yearning for change, for perfection that the earlier works are striving towards, and the later ones are trying to recapture, or to pull in another direction. In "Trout Mask Replica", the frequently unavailable "Lick My Decals Off Baby" and the relatively mainstream "Clear Spot" and "The Spotlight Kid" you have the essence of the man. Yet its not the whole story. If the removal of Beefheart from the remarkable musicians of the Magic Band was an issue on "Unconditionally" and "Blue Jeans and Moonbeams", live recordings from the early seventies both with the Magic Band and the band that followed, showed the Captain was still a fantastic artist. The "album" - that shibboleth of post Sgt.Pepper rock music - was a struggle for such an instinctive artists. Later records revisited old sketches and left his critical stock high, whilst the more successful old friend Frank Zappa, could occasionally be relied up on to give Beefheart a commercial boost.

Listening to him now, and death inevitably draws you back to such a loved artist, the distinctions between the different records seem less obvious. "Mirror Man" seems one of the greatest albums of the sixties, particularly in its extended form - with additional tracks that weren't on the original, whilst a compilation of the Virgin years, "A Carrot's as Close to a Diamond as a Rabbit Gets" does a great job of filleting his later material. Over the last few years the Magic Band have toured successfully on their own, playing tracks from the impossible "Trout Mask Replica", and a number of other recordings - live and demos - have surfaced. In Beefheart I think we are doing him a disfavour to have hoped for another album; there's a certainty of vision to his recording career that goes beyond any one single album - great as some of them are. Exploited by a wide range of different record labels over the years, his catalogue remains a bit of a mess - one hopes a Rhino or Rykodisk will give it the due care and attention of Zappa - and it took me years to find a copy of the remarkable "Lick My Decals Off Baby". It feels personally sad to think of his passing, as my late friend Dan was the biggest of Beefheart fans. If there's a heaven he'll be playing Beefheart sides as I write. I am the generation for whom the Captain was already virtually in the past, yet hearing him on Peel for the first time, was like finding yourself in an inhospitable landscape, with a rotting wooden hut at the end of a stinking road, and inside, finding the greatest jewel you'd ever seen. RIP Don.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Books of the Year

The books of the year is upon us. Find it hard to understand why the Guardian and the like carry on asking the same old, same old and never find a blogger or two to add a bit of grist to the mix. Not that we'd necessarily add grist, when my favourite novel of the year is David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet." How many times will I have to tell you that this is head and shoulders above most novels written this year? The Booker judges may not be idiots, I've not yet read their choices, but they certainly run the risk of being idiots if there really were 6 novels this year better than this one.

Elsewhere, I've a lot of time for not-the-Booker joint winnter "The Canal" by Lee Rourke. Disclosure: I studied with him a decade ago, but when he came up to Manchester in the summer it was the first time we'd met for years. A gentleman and a writer.

My book of the year would be Bruce Chatwin's letters - wonderful to have this filling in the gaps of a life that shows that his facility for writing was there well before he published his debut, and somewhat more illuminating than another (auto) biography.

In poetry... well, obviously I had two wonderful collections published this year, so I can only give thanks to Knives, Forks and Spoons and Salt for delivering these little books to the wider world. I'll be reading on Wednesday 19th January in Manchester, if anyone wants to hear more. Small presses were where it's at, with great books from both those presses, plus ZimZalla, Penned in the Margins and ifPthenQ among others.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Albums of the Year

The Suburbs by Arcade Fire

I had enjoyed their previous two albums, but found there was something a little too bombastic about them. But when I saw them on TV over the summer festivals playing tracks from their 3rd album, the CD-length "The Suburbs", Arcade Fire had managed to add a new layer of depth and sophistication to their undoubted anthemic chops. The album didn't disappoint. Probably the best (only?) suburban concept album since "Quadrophenia" it bristles with intelligence, but is chock full of tunes you can whistle. Lyrically adventurous, and musically catholic, it delves in places that I didn't expect them to go (hardcore punk, songs that echo Hall & Oates, New Order and ABBA), but which make perfect sense. Like the Who or the Cure at their relative best, it leavened the seriousness with a levity, a humour and a playfulness that listeners of "My Body is a Cage" could hardly have expected.

Nerve Up by Lonelady

By some distance the best Manchester album of the year. I've known Lonelady for years, and some of the songs for nearly as long, yet the album, recorded in 4 weeks in an Ancoats warehouse, transcended this spartan process. A classic long player, with songs that echoed edgy Martin Hannett productions, but also had a wistful love of the scratchy Americana of early R.E.M. the real revelation was the Grace Jones-ish title track, a drum-machine led nimble dance number that tied together the record's other characteristics, and made sense of it all. Tight, taut, and utterly honest, this was a fantastic debut, that deserved wider acknolwedgment. In a year when the more coffee-table stylings of "The XX" won the Mercury, it is the sharper sound of "Nerve Up" that seemed more vital.

Your Future, Our Clutter by the Fall

The Fall's 21st century trajectory has been fascinating to everyone who'd written them around the turn of the century, and signed - though apparently no longer - to superindie Domino, "Your Future, Our Clutter" got rid of some of the meanderings of previous outings, and delivered a 75% hit rate, particularly on the new classic "Bury".
In a year when their Beggars back catalogue began to be reissued it was more than pleasing to know that their new material could stand side-by-side with it.

MAYA by M.I.A.

3rd album by M.I.A. and if it didn't quite get the plaudits of "Kala", it's not easy to see why not. Single "Born Free" was a fantastic piece of gothic dance, whilst the sound had hardened throughout. Perhaps the multiculturalism of the previous two albums had been absorbed a bit more, but as a state-of-the-art statement of music in 2010 it could hardly be bettered.

Congratulations by MGMT

Lukewarm initial reviews for their 2nd album were more due to its lack of a "Time to Pretend" than any real flaws in the record itself - which has a gloriously summery hippy vibe to it, without ever becoming self-indulgent. It's like the Mamas & Papas rediscovered for the 21st century avant garde. Full of arcane noises and with a folky vibe, it seems an anti-hip album, closer to Flaming Lips' "Embryonic" than the indie mainstream.

Disco 2 by Health

The year's outstanding electronic record was a remix album. Disco 2 mostly took tracks from their previous Get Colour album, but coming to it afresh without hearing the source material it had amazing coherence for a remix album. Every track is a sublime piece of contemporary electronica, but as a vocal band as well, it nods to bands like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys as much as to Orbital or Boards of Canada. A beautiful concoction, and well worth adding to any Christmas wishlist.

Small Craft on a Milk Sea by Eno

Returning to his electronic roots, rather than the song orientated material of last year's David Byrne collaboration or his previous solo album, Small Craft on a Milk Sea was a much heralded new release and didn't disappoint. The songs sounded as if they could have been written at any time since his first excursions into ambient music, but the production was fresh, subtle and contemporary, analogue washes of sound mixing with some more hardened techno beats. It almost felt like a toolkit for contemporary electronica from one of the genres acknowledged masters. Beautiful sequenced and packaged, its Eno's third winning album in a row.

Cosmogramma by Flying Lotus

If Hip Hop was anywhere in 2010 I wouldn't have expected it to be heading towards the avant garde, but Flying Lotus's latest album is a beautifully constructed bed of samples that becomes almost psychedelic in places. Listened to as a whole its a fabulous reminder of the power of hip hop beats.

Field Music (Measure) by Field Music

A double CD by a band who had previously passed me by, this was one of the year's most sophisticated releases, and had some of its best songwriting. The Sunderland band may owe something of their sound to unfashionable names like Fleetwood Mac, but they take the best bits of 70s AOR and crafted it a frankly stunning album, that has great production, brilliant arrangements and superb songwriting.

From the Cradle to the Rave by Shit Robot

DFA labelmates of LCD Soundsystem Shit Robot's "From the Cradle to the Rave" was a better record than LCD's 3rd album "This is Happening", matching it for electronic suss, but with far more of a pop/disco sensibility. The album you expected from, but never got, from Calvin Harris or Simian Mobile Disco.

Black Light by Groove Armada

A real surprise this one, as Groove Armada, ostensibly a dance band, turn up with a bit of gothic disco album. With surprise guest turns from Will Young and Bryan Ferry in the mix, the real influence is Siouxsie and the Banshees or even Yeah Yeah Yeahs. DJ music with a live feel, and some great songs - I heard Black Light round at the year's first (and probably last) barbecue and played it loads once I bought it. You feel that it is a DJ's album rather than a dance producer's album - and clearly curating their annual Lovebox festival has made them reach out not just to those unlikely collaborators, but also to whole new musical styles.

ADDENDUM (27/12/2010)

Two albums that should have made the list originally were Kelis's "Flesh Tone" full to brimming of retro disco, that sounds like it takes its cue from Italo House c. 1994, as well as being ultra modern; and the beautifully introspective "For the Ghosts Within" by the ever wonderful Robert Wyatt. A jazz album (kind of) including cover versions and collaborators its the sort of thing he's always done, but never quite so confidently.

And three albums that I've listened to after reading everyone else's reviews of the year and been mightily impressed by: "The Fool" by Warpaint; "Swim" by Caribou and "Queen of Denmark" by John Grant.