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Rough Trade Shops
Counter Culture 09 Noel Gardner , March 15th, 2010 10:19

The Rough Trade mini-empire, though keenly aware of its brand's power and how to maintain it, seems to know when something has run its course. Probably more so now than when the label – which, as any good indie pupil should know, developed out of the Portobello Road shop in the late 70s – managed to accrue crushing levels of debt before calling it a day (until relaunching in 2000, nine years after folding). Although Rough Trade the label and Rough Trade the shops don't strictly have much to do with each other these days, the latter have muscled in on the former's biz to some extent, with a barrage of double-CD compilations. The genre-themed ones might have been quietly forgotten about, in spite of Rock And Roll being a no-joke fuck-u-if-u-disagree lab-tested party soundtrack, but the Counter Culture series has documented the best forty or fifty tunes of every year since 2002, as chosen by staff in Rough Trade shops. Let's find out what twistedly subjective interpretation of 2009 this dusty-fingered squadron is trying to implant in us, then.

The first disc is mostly thrown together with enough care to elude meaningful accusations of being bogged down in genre, but compared to what they've managed to sneak onto past comps in this series – never mind compared to what they sell in the damn shops – there is some seriously translucent-skinned mithering up in here. I'm purposely avoiding going all out on the indie-ragging front, partly because it's played out as hell but also because the genre produced several things I enjoyed perfectly well in 09; a couplathree are even on here. The Broadcast and Cate Le Bon tracks put most of their chips on witchy female vocals and some creaky synths, and both work a charm; the latter's 'Sad Sad Feet' is equal parts Silver Jews and Heather Jones. Mariachi El Bronx, whose album is not that great, still turn in a solid Wall Of Voodoo/lateish Calexico number named 'My Brother The Gun'. Loudon Wainwright III isn't an indie guy, same as your grandad isn't a dysfunctional mess just because the rest of your family is, but he kicks it on 'High, Wide And Handsome'.

Really, though: the five-song run of Emmy The Great, Fists, Magic Kids (you fucking called your band that), The Phenomenal Handclap Band and Yacht on here is why pencil-necked music writers still feel justified in coming with boring sub-Rollins "eat more red meat" type rhetoric, or – even better – insincere and Other-fetishising cracks about "white people". They are each insipid and basically suck. Even the stuff that tries something a bit different can descend with a clunk: despite sounding like a dorky indierock jacking of Massive Attack's 'Karmacoma' to me, Glasser's 'Apply' is probably getting called 'chillwave' somewhere on the planet right now (it works like the "it's five o'clock somewhere" principle, but with a more constrained ringpiece).

Rick 'Voice Of The Seven Thunders/Woods/whatever elses' Tomlinson is not an indierock jacking of anything, unless you want to make out that he is because he released stuff on Badly Drawn Boy's old label, which is where I implore you to fucking be quiet and stop pretending you can hear anything 'indie' in his fully blazing Arabian Nights-soundtracked-by-The Ventures instrumental 'Surfin' UAE'. This opens the second CD and is a harbinger of it being way more eclectic and out there and righteous and BETTER. Obviously 'eclectic' can and does mean 'also incorporates bad music such as The Drums who are pretty much no use to music or man', or 'here is Mos Def treading water because we got through forty songs with no hip-hop oops'. There again, names like Micachu – who I had limited time for at best over the course of their early 2009 album – shocks the system a shade over a single song, 'Lips', which sounds like some weird skifflecore corruption of Swiss grrrls Kleenex.

Rusty guitars assert themselves well on Counter Culture 09, generally speaking. Nodzzz are among the swellest American lo-fi sorts to emerge in the last few years; Male Bonding likewise for the UK, and we get a short burst of both here. I don't really have a best band in the world, truth be told, but if Pissed Jeans wanted to create a poster featuring a quote from me making this claim for them, I would be okay with that (that's what they call a 'come and get me plea', guys). 'Kaliko' by Zomby finds the notably non-booking-honouring dubstep mutant at his most Aphex-y, showering a 2D landscape with rushy powerup noises. Hat tip to the sequencer who saw fit to only place Fever Ray between Pissed Jeans and this, too. Tiga does booty bass for Simian Mobile Disco kids, which is quite good despite sounding like purgatory. Hyper Black Bass are some noiserock dudes from London making 8-bit dancehall; sounds like something Tigerbeat6 would have put out eight years ago, this being totally fine by me. Nacho Patrol is a fresh alias of Legowelt, a wonderful Dutchman with a National Grid of analogue gear and an ear for arpeggiated excellency.

There are definitely some relevant points to be tossed around regarding the necessity of 'tastemaker' compilations like this, when half the putative target audience for Counter Culture 09 has likely spent much of the year accruing these tracks via The Hype Machine and the bloodless blogs that live in its shadow. There's a perception, too, that people are becoming more autonomous in their listening habits – or at least figuring out what to listen to without waiting for some longwinded cockpiece reviewer to tell them, or a compilation from a shop covering less than 0.1% of their stock acquired in 2010. Which is probably a good thing (imagine your own 'empty room echo' effect on this sentence). Still, this is very likely all a lot like how everyone thinks the NME/Viz/Glastonbury/the Premiership/Labour/breast milk 'went crap' at, coincidentally, the exact same time they got old enough to have learned there were other choices out there. The musical 2009 as presented by Rough Trade's till fingerers wasn't that much like mine, apart from the bits that were, and neither is this collection Useful in a dry socialist kinda sense. To me. To someone else it might well be.