When Curt Cobain passed away in 1994, the music world lost a genuine icon who could rival former greats like Bob Dylan and John Lennon on their own terms. Looking around frantically for a new hero, many fixed their sights on a laconic young man with blond hair who called himself Beck. In many ways, the '90s were his decade, producing masterworks like Odelay and Sea Change, pop pieces that intrigued with their genre-hopping music-hip hop, rock, dubstep, country-and a winning blend of the funny and the dead serious.
If this past decade has been lacklustre for him, that's only because of the sheer brilliance of what came before. Plenty of artists would still kill to be able to produce albums like Modern Guilt, which came out two years ago.
Taking some time off from working on his next album seems to have done great things for Beck, as he has finally come into his own as a producer and a multimedia artist (check out his website beck.com). To cap it, he has produced a staggering new album for the French actress/singer Charlotte Gainsbourg called IRM. The album, written, produced and played by Beck, is a haunting meditation on death and redemption, caused in part by Gainsborough's near-fatal brush with brain haemorrhage a few years ago. Beck's work had anyway been turning darker, but here he finds an elegance to balance his vision.
He makes admirable use of Gainsborough's emotive powers and versatile if limited vocals to craft some delicious moments: From the orchestral beauty of Vanities to the folk pop of Me and Jane Doe or the downright sexy Trick Pony. Gainsbourg and Beck bring out the best in each other and yet you can't help thinking that the person who has really gained from this is Beck.
Meanwhile 2008's great sensations, Vampire Weekend, are back with another winner album, Contra. All the qualities that made them such an irresistible force two years ago-the careful synthesis of African music and garage guitars; fresh and bright songs and the carefully planned preppy looks- are here as well, but it's more grown-up and comfortable in its skin. Musically, electronics make a big appearance here, although in limited doses and beautifully welded into songs like White Sky and Diplomat's Son, which even samples from that other dedicated internationalist-MIA.
Singer/songwriter Ezra Koenig's still obsessed with children of privilege and the worlds they inhabit, but he spares no chance to send up or castigate this world of Ivory Towers that he himself belongs to. What they do best are jaunty tunes, and you won't find a more upbeat anti-war song than Holiday. It is refreshing to see such genuinely thrilling music getting as Contra go Top of the Pops across the world.