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Anna’s brother, Joe, takes his lists seriously: throughout the year, he makes intricate notes about his responses to each record he buys, compiling star ratings and real-time rankings which mature across a twelve-month period into a final, incorruptible top five.

This list is nothing like that.

Subjective and skewed, my top five is drawn together in the final hours of the year, based on my looking at that section of my record collection and seeing what jumps out. Then I double-check that first instinct, and sometimes shuffle one or two out and in. This is usually to try and achieve something like a spread of genres or moods, and also to reward the exciting and eclectic over the baldly accessible. So what might be my most-listened record of the year, Caitlin Rose’s The Stand-In, is left spurned on the shelf; Ed Harcourt’s Back Into The Woods, originally part of the final quintet, is removed at round two; and, as is always the way, albums I listened to rather later in the year just can’t compete with LPs I’ve known longer (both Okkervil River’s superb The Silver Gymnasium, and Midlake’s brave and dense Antiphon miss out on probably deserved stardom).

All that is by way of apology for the below. All in all, 2013 seemed like a good year to me. Even the disappointments – Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Mosquito or Flaming Lips’ The Terror – weren’t bad records by anything but the high standards previously set by each act. Obviously I was lucky with my purchases: a year in which Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires in the City, Lord Huron’s Lonesome Dreams, or John Grant’s Pale Green Ghosts don’t make the grade has to have been a half-decent one. So. Onwards.

ImageStornoway - Tales From Terra Firma

This was the only one of the five that was a shoe-in from the get-go. In part, my admiration for this glorious record, the band’s second, is rooted in a brilliant and beautiful live show they put on at Gloucester’s Guildhall in March: tight without seeming over-rehearsed, ambitious without pretension, it was a revelation and revealed a band at a real creative boiling point. But Tales From Terra Firma is more than just an aide memoire: it’s a thing in itself, an album with light and shade, hidden corners, twisting structures and hummable melodies. Its songs are lyrically rewarding, emotionally affecting and never less than energetic, even at their most reflective. A stunning progression from the band’s debut, Tales From Terra Firma is a real piece of work. If anything can give folk-pop back its good name, currently stashed under the stairs at the house Marcus Mumford shares with Gary Barlow, it’s this intelligent, innovative little album.

ImageSteve Mason - Monkey Minds In The Devil’s Times

The erstwhile Beta Band frontman crafted a genuinely surprising artifact with this Byzantine LP, which begins with a poetry recital and proceeds via soundscapes, electronica and Beatles singalongs towards something approaching a definitive ‘state of England’ statement. I wrote about this record whilst listening to it (usually a sign I doubted its final inclusion here), and said, “this meandering monster of an LP kicks the wedges from under the wheels of the rickety old singer-songwriter biplane and takes her for a proper fly.” I still think this is right, since there’s something defiant about the manner in which Mason denies the listener the traditional comforts of a solo artist’s record: from raps about Michael Duggan to recordings of radio football commentary, Monkey Minds asks you to pay attention to the movement of the album as a whole as much as it does its individual songs. If this makes for a certain bagginess, it also offers a useful argument for the album in a year in which half of the ten best-selling were in fact released in 2012.

ImageLaura Veirs – Warp and Weft

This one is just lovely. Veirs’s July Flame was an ‘album of the quarter-year in 2010′, but didn’t make the final cut in what, looking back, was a weirdly strong year. This one deserves to rectify that omission: in some ways it is of a piece with that LP, all swooping, weirded strings and grooving, growling acoustic guitars, seasoned with multi-tracked vocals and enigmatic lyrics; followers of Veirs will know what to expect. But the tunes are so blinking infectious, and the song structures so interesting and yet immediately accessible, that Warp and Weft also feels like a refinement, even a perfection, of Veirs’s signature sound. It deserves an audience a great deal larger than it seems to have reached. Listening back to the album today, I realised how many of its songs felt to me already like classics I’d been living with for years – I was surprised some were on this record, and not another, older, one. That’s the quality of Warp and Weft. Buy it.

ImageArctic Monkeys – AM

The Arctic Monkeys’ fifth studio album, on the other hand, has surely sold enough copies already. Its a success thoroughly deserved – this might be the band’s best and most mature album to date, an argument you’d have also been able to make about perhaps every record in the career so far, with the possible exception of mis-step Suck It And See. Lead single ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ has been everywhere, it’s chunky riff fronting even the album’s TV promo spot. If there’s a criticism of the Monkeys, it lies in this old-fashioned sensibility: if Britpop had a fevered dream as it died, coughing and spluttering over its copy of The Man Who, it was of Alex Turner. Perhaps that was why so much was made of the hip-hop influences on AM – not particularly visible anywhere but in some of the drumbeats banged out by Matt Helders. With all the falsetto, in fact, AM sounds more often like a grumpy Prince record, c. ‘Kiss’. But AM grabs you from the first second and allows not a duffer to make it into its old-fashioned 45-ish minutes running time. If any of these five albums have made it into the top flight on the basis of repeat listens, it’s AM. Go to sleep, Britpop. It’ll all be OK.

ImageJosh Ritter – The Beast In Its Tracks

For all that I have admired Josh Ritter’s songwriting since I first heard his Golden Age of Radio around 2004 or so, I’m not sure any of his album’s have ever made it close to a year’s-end list. His third, The Animal Years, might have been close; but otherwise there has always been something rather too precise about Ritter’s impeccable songwriting quite to offer the kind of edge that cuts through at length. Ironically, The Beast In Its Tracks doesn’t offer a ‘Monster Ballads’ or ‘The Temptation of Adam’ – songs like ‘Harrisburg’ or ‘Kathleen’ which sparkle with wit and catchy energy. Instead, the album stands as an urgent statement in a way Ritter’s other albums never have. Perhaps, alas, that’s because this LP chronicles Ritter’s divorce from Dawn Landes; perhaps it’s because the songs share lyrics and motifs (“she only looks like you in a certain kind of light” Ritter sings on both ‘A Certain Light’ and ‘New Lover’); perhaps it’s because the songs taken together tell a story more focused than the American mythmaking of 2010′s So Runs The World Away. Ritter also varies his vocal delivery – the rapid-fire stacatto syllables of ‘Hopeful’ contrasting with the folky croon of ‘The Apple Blossom Rag’ (“this new girl’s got a real forked tongue”). Special, sweet and sad.

Sitting down to sift through the vague shortlist of records I’ve been holding in my head for a few weeks now, I was surprised by how strong a year 2012 seems to have been. As I separated the sonic wheat from the chaff, other LPs continually popped into my head – but what about that one? Musically, then, 2012 feels like the best year for several.

Some records have come too late for me fairly to consider them: I’ve been slow to explore Alt-J, Sharon van Etten and Band of Horses, all of whom will appear in the lists of others. Yet more are bubbling under: Paul Weller’s Sonik Kicks was that rarest of things, a vital album from a ‘heritage’ act; Leaving Eden found the Carolina Chocolate Drops as exciting as ever despite the loss of one of their three founding members; Hanne Hukkelberg’s Featherbrain was both charmingly other-worldly and satisfyingly texturised, and Cat Power’s Sun surely takes its place as one of the best entries in her entire back catalogue. All of which is without mentioning the impish pleasures of Of Monsters and Men, the lush Americana of First Aid Kit, and Calexico’s Algiers. So, yeah. Decent year. There can, however, only be five, arranged in no particular order.

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Grizzly Bear – Shields

Resist the inevitable all you like: from the clanging melody of ‘Sleeping Ute’, Sheilds is a creative, intricate reimagining of the indie rock album. Here is a record on which lap steel sits entirely comfortable with a drum machine, and which will have considerable influence on a legion of musicians currently toiling away in obscurity. The band’s advocates gnashed their teeth when 2009′s Veckatimest was overlooked by some critics; in many ways, Sheilds is that record’s direct sequel, and may suffer a similar fate. On the other hand, there’s more heart here than was on show before, a sort of energy behind the cleverness. Sheilds isn’t all shenanigans – and that makes it doubly inspiring.

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Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America

It isn’t often that you hear an honest-to-goodness concept album anymore, but Mitchell’s fifth album – a follow-up to another honest-to-gooness concept album, Hadestown – is just that. It’s not so much a character study or a rock opera as it is a meditation on a theme. Its title, of course, alludes to the myth of the self-made American man, but its content makes clear that it is too aware of Uncle Sam’s current malaise to lionise anyone. (The first track, ominiously, is entitled ‘Wilderland’.) Mitchell’s distinctive vocals often act as a setting agent for structurally adventurous songs, which break away from their deceptively simple titles – ‘Venus’, ‘Tailor’, ‘Ships’ – to drift prettily over the sense of something wicked this way coming.

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Django Django – Django Django

Like Vampire Weekend if they meant it, Django Django offer something for everyone: catchy hooks, memorable melodies, and rhythmic innovation. The use of world music feels organic and even ‘authentic’, fully fused with the structure of the songs rather than added as exotic seasoning. ‘Default’ might be my song of the year, but ‘WOR’ and ‘Skies over Cairo’ have been equally placed on repeat in car and flat alike. If Sheilds and Young Man in America are occasionally overly sober, Django Django is simultaneously smart and fun.

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Dr John – Locked Down

But here is where you need to be if you want to party. Produced by the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, Locked Down is a swampy, moody slice of proper New Orleans funk. This isn’t an album for Bourbon Street, though – it feels more fitting for the bayou, expansive and echoing. Dr John’s voice comes at you like a shaman’s, full of power but also a kind of knowledge. What’s also here, however, is humour: one of the tracks is entitled ‘Kingdom of Izzness’, and the overall atmosphere is one of abandon, a kind of – at last! – accommodation with every aspect of Mac Rebennack’s storied career. Either way, Locked Down is a simple pleasure, first to last. Stompin’.

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Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than The Driver Of The Screw And Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

Ignore the title, which isn’t even Apple’s most rococo: Idler Wheel is by some measure her most accessible work, regardless of the attempt to render Extraordinary Machine streamlined and without distraction. There remain the usual absurdities – the video for ‘Every Single Night’, for instance, featured Apple wearing a squid on her head – but there are also songs which feature the singer-songwriter’s trademark arresting lyrics, allied with a newly deft melodic touch. ‘Wolves’, for instance, features a repeated line – ‘Nothing’s wrong when a song ends in a minor key’ – which I’ve found myself singing absently more than any other this year. That, my friends, is real songwriting. It was good to have Apple back.

When the title of Bob Dylan’s thirty-fifth studio album was announced earlier this year, tongues were set wagging: would Tempest be, Prospero-like, the Bard’s farewell? As is his wont, Dylan scoffed: “Shakespeare’s last play was called The Tempest. It wasn’t called just plain “Tempest”. The name of my record is just plain Tempest. It’s two different titles.” A songwriter who has been so attuned to the rhythm and potency of single syllables should perhaps be heeded when he emphasises the absence of an article, but Tempest, a record which devotes almost fourteen of its minutes to the sinking of the Titanic, is nevertheless replete with lines which suggest the closing of curtains.

On the other hand, the album begins with as lilting and light-hearted a song as Dylan has recorded since the dour turn of 1997′s Time Out of Mind, an album which continues to stand head and shoulders above the other entries in Dylan’s late career surge, but which is uniquely troubled by Tempest. The playful video for ‘Duquesne Whistle’ – in which every cliché of the boy-meets-girl pop promo is subverted – starts as breezily as the song’s opening riff, and Dylan’s voice is as smooth and supple as it gets these days. Yet at about 3.49 the whole thing takes a seriously violent turn – and we return to the lyrics themselves, looking for a clue:

Can’t you hear that Duquesne whistle blowing?
Blowing like the sky’s gonna blow apart.
You’re the only thing alive that keeps me going
You’re like a time bomb in my heart.

This explosive sense of things barely holding together – and that queer suggestion that most other things that keep the singer going are dead and gone (the album closes with ‘Roll on John’, a tribute to a Beatle absent now for more than thirty years) – recur throughout the record, giving its initially sprightly course a rough undercurrent. Indeed, the album’s structure mirrors this effect: it drifts along for the first two tracks, the syrupy sweetness of ‘Soon After Midnight’, and scratchy blues of ‘Narrow Way (“Ever since the British burned the White House down / There’s a bleeding wound, in the heart of town”) leaving the listener to understand they should expect Modern Times redux, ‘Spirit on the Water’ and ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ rearranged six years on. Then, however, come the arresting opening notes of ‘Long and Wasted Years’, like Blood on the Tracks meeting ‘Brownsville Girl’ for a mournful night at the bar’:

It’s been such a long, long time since we loved each other but our hearts were true.
One time, for one brief day, I was the man for you.
Last night I heard you talkin’ in your sleep, saying things you shouldn’t say,
Oh baby – you just might have to go to jail someday!
Is there a place we can go? Is there anybody we can see?
Maybe it’s the same for you as it is for me.

From this startling juncture onwards – Dylan’s voice expressive, his words piercingly pared, the metre of the verse and the arrangement of the instrumentation divorced from the blues idiom which has come to seem his late career prison – it becomes impossible to perceive the dwindling of Modern Times. When, on that record, Dylan sang that his cruel weapons had been put on the shelf, he came close to splitting his staff and casting his books into the sea – yet, perversely, Tempest sees him wielding them as he hasn’t in years. The vaudeville mugging of “Love and Theft” gone, this is as raw an album as Dylan has released in 15 years. On the remarkable ‘Tin Angel’, a song about a murderous menage a trois, Dylan recalls his own ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’ and even ‘Oxford Town’, but, improbably, outdoes both in scope and swagger. If this album is a valediction, it is uniquely audacious – and rather more than a little cruel.

Tempest is home to important songs – as well as ‘Long and Wasted Years’ and ‘Tin Angel’, ‘Early Roman Kings’ and ‘Scarlet Town’ share the necessary intensity – and it has performances which better many previously lauded as late-career bests (the vocals on ‘Tempest’ in particular are as wry and alive to nuance as anything on the admittedly lyrically sharper ‘Highlands’, a critic’s favourite from Time Out Mind of similar duration). Importantly, though, this is a record of unity as well as one of delicious moments – differentiating it sharply from its immediate predecessor, Together Through Life, which now takes on the appearance of a jeu d’esprit. There are murders and subsumations, soldiers and wounds; there are also, repeatedly, women of ill repute: in ‘Tin Angel’, a jilted husband threatens violence on his former wife, whom he describes as a “greedy-lipped wench”; in ‘Scarlet Town’ we spy a “flat-chested junkie whore”; and on the compelling ‘Pay In Blood’ (“I pay in blood, but not my own”), we’re told, “You got the same eyes that your mother does / If only you could prove who your father was”. The purpose of these repeated aspersions - unusual in Dylan’s oeuvre – appears to be to emphasise the degradation of the songs’ men – the narrator of ‘Pay in Blood’ is presented as spiritually bankrupt, whilst in both ‘Tin Angel’ and ‘Scarlet Town’ we are introduced to men whose attenuated lives have hollowed them out (the betrayed “boss” of ‘Tin Angel’ sits in “a deserted mansion and [on] a desolate throne”.)

All this is of a piece with the essential pessimism of Dylan’s recent albums – the apocalyptic language of ‘The Levee’s Gonna Break’, or the bleak determinism of ‘Beyond Here Lies Nothing’ – but worked here to a fever-pitch of almost symbolist songwriting (“All the early roman kings / In the early early morn / Coming down the mountain / Distributing the corn”). The over-riding mood of Tempest is indeed one of annihilation - of the passengers of the Titanic, of John Lennon, of put-upon women or preeningly impotent men – but, unlike the grim resignation of Time Out of Mind, which dwelt on a dwindling, introspective sort of death (“it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there), there’s a sort of senescent celebration of all threats external, as if life, for all its ugliness, is, indeed, the only thing that keeps us going – a time bomb in each of our hearts.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Dylan said: “I wanted to make something more religious. I just didn’t have enough [religious songs]. Intentionally, specifically religious songs is what I wanted to do.” In this context – and with lines such as “I’m searching for phrases to sing your praises, I need to tell someone” (‘Soon After Midnight’) – Tempest is less a farewell and more a benediction, something more akin to a prayer: a clear-sighted, forgiving catalogue of the earthly sin we all know Dylan, too, will sooner than we like leave behind. Nina Goss gets it right when she says of the record, “life and death are working their way up and down all around us”. If, by accident or by design, Tempest is Dylan’s final album, it will be seen as an imperfect one – not every line scans, not every song leaps – but, nevertheless, both generous and … well. Alive.

Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

I turned to this post with something of an uncertain heart: 2011 was, in many ways, a year of musical disappointments for me, in which ther were many albums of interest, but few of excellence. I listened to and enjoyed Feist’s Metals,  Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Wolfroy Goes To Town, Okkervil River’s I Am Very Far, Ryan Adams’s Ashes and Fire, Iron & Wine’s Kiss Each Other Clean, Gillian Welch’s Harvest and Beirut’s The Riptide, but none excited me quite as much as I might have hoped. Others for which I had fewer expectations, like Yuck’s self-titled LP, Tim Key’s With A String Quartet on a Boat, or Alela Diane’s Wild Divine, tickled me with their novelty but don’t seem somehow heavyweight enough for an activity of such artificial gravitas as a post like this.

Nevertheless, a few records – and, as in years past, not necessarily those I’ve most listened to – stand out as complete, intriguing, and multi-layered. Here they are, in no particular order.

Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues

Robin Pecknold’s troupe of bearded revivalists have always had an ear for a pretty tune (‘Blue Ridge Mountains’) or mesmeric harmonies (‘Sun It Rises’), but it was hard not to credit Helplessness Blues as a serious step-change. It wasn’t that this, their second full-length record, was in any way less indebted to the sort of folk forebears to whom the band had previously paid homage; it was simply that they did more with the heritage, and did so with more depth, than previously. The title track may well be one of my favourite songs of the year, but from opener ‘Montezuma’ to the closing ‘Grown Ocean’, this record ebbs and flows with pitch-perfect control. Fantastic arrangements and superior lyrics complete a pitcture of what is a properly splendid album – with,  admittedly, all the slight post-ironic fustiness that description might suggest.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

It is Callahan who deserves the ‘most important living American songwriter’ title often applied to Ryan Adams, and on Apocalypse he shows why. Though this is a fractured and at times challenging seven-track sojourn into a not always coherent dreamscape, it is simultaneously a prolonged and convincing meditation on the modern (American) condition. Most obviously ‘America!’ sees Callahan worrying over questions of patrotism and identity; but in opening track ‘Drover’ he spins a long metaphor about cattle-driving into something with broader and more diffuse relevance. Not only that, but in such a short and spare record he covers a variety of modes and moods: from the flighty jazz of ‘Free’ to the spiky soul of ‘Universal Applicant’, Apocalypse achieves a rare and rather grand fusion of disparate lyrical, generic and imagistic elements – and it puts Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle, an album good enough to reach my 2009 top five, a touch to shame.

Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

Indeed, I risk looking narrow in these selections, because here’s a second reappearance: Marling was in last year’s top five, too, and yet in 2011 she like Callahan released a record of such disciplined intent that it made that previous effort look thin. As I said in my capsule review of the album published in this here blog’s sidebar in October, with this LP Marling surely enters the pantheon of canonical English songwriters. Not only are the performances energetic and characterful; her craft has matured to a point at which all its flab and fat has been removed. I may here be rewarding the perfection of a sound I enjoyed already – but few British ‘best of 2011′ lists would be complete without this record.

Frank Fairfield – Out On The Open West

Another entry from the sidebar, this time August’s, Fairfield’s is in many ways the simplest record on the album: very often solo pieces recorded directly and subjected to minimal post-production, these 12 songs have titles like ‘Texas Fairwell’ and ‘Up The Road Somewhere Blues’; they include traditionals like ‘Turkey In The Straw’, and no instrument more complex than the bull fiddle. Uncompromisingly pre-modern, it is undoubtedly a record unsuited to some tastes, and its principle strength – that it sounds as if it could have been record in 1921 – may seem an antediluvian reason for placing it in a twenty-first century list of the year’s best albums. So it may be, but there’s something serious about Fairfield which goes beyond the hi-jinx of Pokey LaFarge or the supple soundings of Gillian Welch: there is in these songs, as in Callahan’s, a kind of critique of the world of 2011. They’re also terrifically pretty if you listen for long enough.

Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen

Pearson, meanwhile, gives you no choice but to listen long, with four of these seven tracks breaking the ten-minute barrier. Like Fairfield, he sticks for the most part to solo performance rooted in received forms. Unlike Fairfield, he breaks down the pre-conceptions one might have about the acoustic singer-songwriter and rebuilds the concept from the bottom up, manufacturing a howling, droning, plaintive sound, most clearly evidenced on opener ‘Thou Art Loosed’, which is sly in its abuse of our familiarity with the guitar and the voice. ‘Woman, When I’ve Raised Hell’ is a great, keening prayer of a song, and Pearson’s resemblance to Alfred Lord Tennyson only heightens his image as a sort of wry, post-romantic sage (“The only good thing I’ll ever give to you is my good grief,” he sings on ‘Country Dumb’). Delivered by a prog-rock Lefty Frizzell, and including some of the most startling acoustic guitar sounds heard in some time, this is a remarkable album which doesn’t sound like anything else released this year or in any other.

 

She wears wide-brimmed hats now. Wide-brimmed hats are cool.

Nerina Pallot reads this blog.

I know because of two things about her latest record, Year of the Wolf. The first is that it didn’t take four years to see the light of day: release a dignified two years after The Graduate, it is also – and here is the second thing – a marked and welcome improvement on that somewhat thinner LP. Year of the Wolf, written recorded whilst Pallot was pregnant with her son, Wolfgang, has more tunes, lusher production (thanks no doubt to Bernard Butler being at the faders), and a finer turn of phrase. This clear response to my own private wishlist is rather welcome – and not just, I suspect, to me.

Year of the Wolf also sees Pallot return to Polydor, the label which unceremoniously dropped her following the release of her debut album in 2001. She writes about that return in the Guardian. She doesn’t say so, but there must be something sweet about all this for Pallot, a self-made singer-songwriter whose break-through sophomore effort Fires was strong enough to break avert what had seemed like a career death. Her career has probably been helped by writing for the right people – Kylie Minogue, Diane Vickers – but, of course, it is the strength of her pop songwriting which has achieved that sort of canny networking. Moreover, she retains a quirk all her own in her solo material: there is always the odd creak or curl in a Pallot song which tips the wink that it is not merely a finely turned tune. Pallot songs also have character.

Thus the shuffly chug on ‘Put Your Hands Up’, a feel-good anthem which includes seeing stars, saying you won’t stop and boats setting sail in the lyrics. Likewise ‘Turn Me On Again’, a post break-up reunion song which, in its rueful self-knowledge, short-circuits any charge of X-Factor hedonism and acts as a sort of sequel to one of Dear Frustrated Superstar‘s best songs, ‘Jump’. Indeed, Year of the Wolf seems to cast a nod to the past whilst also looking forward: ‘I Do Not Want What I Do Not Have’ is not just the title of a song on this latest collection, but a lyric from the debut record’s ‘Bread’. Even ‘This Will Be Our Year’ shares a title with a song by Semisonic, whom Pallot supported on tour in 2001.

Pallot’s light touch and expressive voice offer a wry, under-rated sort of pop music. Year of the Wolf sees her again at her best, and consequently my only request for the next album would be fewer hats. We’ll see what we get in another two years, but this is more than enough for now. Much obliged, Nerina.

 

My Morning Jacket didn’t make many friends with their last record, Evil Urges. Fans are easy to offend, but on that LP the band seemed to go out of their way to do so: take ‘Highly Suspicious‘, an angular, chugging Prince-esque number characterised by a keening falsetto and stop-start rhythms. This was not the keening alt.country with which they made their name, and many were nonplussed by the band’s apparent adoption of a broader but shallower palette. Pitchfork’s review from the time of the album’s release is representative: “After listening to Urges, I wonder if My Morning Jacket might just be satisfied following in the footsteps of labelmates Dave Matthews Band: nestling into a comfortable niche and aiming for the Starbucks carousel with rootsy New Age romanticism.” Ouch.

To some extent, though, all this was unfair: My Morning Jacket had been so successful that everyone from Monsters of Folk to Fleet Foxes were stealing their clothes and playing dress-up. If in the past Jim James’s voice and songwriting has been at its best on soaring folk-rock like ‘At Dawn‘, it’s hard to demand he stick to that furrow when it has become so over-crowded. Evil Urges was at least an attempt to become something more than the revered godfathers of the current folk-rock zeitgeist. If it failed also to be a properly good record in its own right, it may in retrospect at least be profitably read as preface to Circuital, the band’s new album and a more successful fusing of what they do best with what they now do differently.

Boldly, Circuital opens with a song entitled ‘Victory Dance’. It grooves along with a sort of exultant menace, which, though dominated by James’s vocals in a way Evil Urges eschewed, still shares that album’s ambivalence for the band’s acoustic inheritance. The segue into the bright, up-beat title track, strummed and melodic, is simultaneously a relief and a surprise, then: the clanging guitars are replaced by telecaster twangs, the droning bass by top-end piano runs; and yet the two songs somehow sit side-by-side in happy co-operation.

There’s still playful genre-bending – on the catchy, slightly silly funk-soul ‘Holding On To Black Metal’, which may or may not entirely alienate post-adolescence fans of Cradle of Filth – but there’s also another kind of bravery, which allows for gentle, heartfelt songs such as ‘Wonderful (The Way I Feel)’, or hooky, soaring singalongs like ‘You Wanna Freak Out’. The cleverness lies in refreshing the Beach Boys pop of ‘Out Of My System’ with the lessons learned on Evil Urges, as can be seen on the souping-up of ‘First Light’. The album ends on ‘Moving Away’, a gorgeously simple piano tune led by James’s renowned vocal. Of that instrument, Amanda Petrusich writes in the far more favourable Pitchfork review of this latest record, “anyone who’s ever heard James wail in concert is likely to be frustrated by the eternal underuse of his voice in the studio.” She concludes, though, that this latest record comes closer to capturing James’s voice than most – no feint praise for a band gifted with one of the finest, sweetest voices in rock music, and especially for one seeking, here largely successfully, to put all their pieces together.

 

Open the packaging of Bill Callahan’s Apocalypse, and the internal sleeve is blank, save for an antique frame housing a profile image of the man himself. It could be a print, but it could also be a mirror: “To me,” he recently told the Guardian’s Ben Thompson, “this record is like a lot of mirrors, and I suppose if you hold up a mirror to yourself and then you turn it around, it reflects outwards … also, if you look in a mirror you might see someone standing behind you who you’d didn’t know was there.”

The creepy sparsness of the record’s artwork is matched by its sonic landscape: from the repetitive strumming of ‘Drover’ to the gentle riffs of ‘One Fine Morning’, Apocalypse steps even further away from the orchestration of Woke on a Whaleheart than did Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. This tonal modesty comes despite the implicit violence of the album’s title – and, indeed, Callahan’s apocalypse seems to be a personal, incremental one rather than some world-ending cataclysm. As Ben Graham writes in a great review at The Quietus, “he appears to be using the phrase to mean a revelation or epiphany of some kind, both life-changing and extremely personal.” The gentle, brushed quality of the instrumentation, and the slight, almost ephemeral, structure of the nevertheless precision-tuned songcraft, offer a ruminative mood in which Callahan explores without map or direction but with unflagging purpose.

The record is the sound of a man finding if not home then comfort. This leaves a danger that a listener may struggle to find purchase – Callahan’s gnomic utterances at times appear to hold meaning only for him (he’s all you see in the mirror). But that searching mood offers a context in which to orient yourself, and there is a through-line here, from lost to found. Rare is it that we see Callahan depicting things changing for the better, but by the end of Apocalypse, the lightness and sweetness of ‘One Fine Morning’ – indeed, its very title – suggests that’s precisely what he has achieved. In songs such as ‘Eid Ma Clack Shaw’, Callahan has often reveled in obfuscation; yet, as he revealed in an interview with the New York Times, clearing the smog (geddit?) is at the heart of this new record: “The record is kind of, like, blind, or searching, until that point, and then the flare goes off [in 'Universal Applicant'] and the music stops for a second. And from that point on, it’s like, the music is illuminated.”

That such import is placed on so small a moment helps explain why it’s taken me so long to get to Apocalypse: I’ve wanted to give it proper attention. It rewards that with ambivalence: on ‘America!’, Callahan lists the revered country singers of yore who were also in the US armed forces, and then sings as if startled, ‘I never served my country’; he then proceeds to sing of ‘Afghanistan! / Vietnam! / Iran! / Native Americon! [sic]‘, and there’s no easy reconciliation of reverence and revulsion. “I’m standing in a field / A field of questions,” he sings over a skipping, pastoral flute on ‘Free’s’; an apocalypse does not necessarily lead to permanent resolution. It may not be quite as good as the record that proceeded it, but this one is still a keeper.

 

“I was a bit worried they’d suffer from second album syndrome,” said the kindly record store guy who sold me Fleet Foxes’ Helplessness Blues last week. “But it’s actually really good.” It’s true: any risk that Robert Pecknold and company would fall into rock cliché with their sophomore release have been entirely squashed by its actuality. Helplessness Blues is if anything a brighter, more consistent, more accomplished album than its forebear. If Fleet Foxes continue to filter the Beach Boys through Laurel Canyon with an unapologetic nostalgia, the songs on this record do so with such muscle and so memorably that it no longer matters.

Helplessness Blues opens in familiar territory with ‘Montezuma’: Pecknold’s reedy vocals sing among ethereal reverb, backed by the Gregorian richness of his bandmates’ supporting vocals. The bright, plucked guitars, the soft, rounded bass, the swift changes in dynamics are all present and correct. ‘Bedouin Dress’ strips them back, sounding like the record Sam Beam may have made if hadn’t gone all psychedelic on Kiss Each Other Clean. Both it and the album’s similarly subdued third track, however, eschew the principle weakness of the band’s first album: the manner in which its smaller songs experienced trouble in peeking out from under the heavy shadows of its major movements. It’s not that Helplessness Blues has no ‘Blue Ridge Mountains’, catchy and fat with evocative orchestration; it’s that all its songs aim in their own way for that track’s impact.

Thus the second record masters more moods than the first: where Fleet Foxes were most comfortable on their eponymous debut with grand, crashing statements, on this album they make even the finest detail work as substantial as the soaring anthems: ‘Blue Spotted Tail’ is a finger-picked folk ditty, as simple a song as the band have recorded, but it is as beautiful and haunting as ‘Helplessness Blues’, a twisting and turning of a song, full of pregnant open chords and piano riffs worthy of Arcade Fire. Indeed, you can hear Mercury Rev, the Flaming Lips, and Sufjan Stevens on this album, too – so successful is Helplessness Blues that it may well now also be a cliché to describe it or the band behind it as mere retro indulgence. They are a mature band capable of producing music of emotive beauty.

Go bother your own record store guy right now.

Wearing his boots of Spanish leather...

Let’s get this over with: Kristian Matsson sounds a bit like Bob Dylan. It’s the sparse acoustic instrumentation and the literate songwriting, for sure; but above all it’s the nasal bray, the insistent attack of his vocal delivery. The comparison no doubt drives Matsson, who records under the moniker The Tallest Man On Earth, crackers by now – but it isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

Which is a shame, because that reedy voice is actually a more supple instrument than Dylan’s. Regular readers of this here blog will know that I bow to no one in my conviction that Dylan’s voice is uniquely expressive; but Matsson’s voice is more sinuous – it seems to slip between registers more easily. This in part dictates – or aids – his songwriting, which focuses as much on melody as it does on lyric (again the comparisons with His Bobness both fall short and are exceeded). Thanks to Anna’s brother, Joe, I’ve been investigating Tallest Man on Earth’s second album, The Wild Hunt, since Christmas, and for melodic invention amongst many other things it is to 2010 what Paul Curreri’s California was to 2009 – too late to be in with the shot it deserved at my year’s best picks.

Take one of The Wild Hunt‘s stand-out tracks, ‘King of Spain’: from searing vocal to deceptively deft acoustic guitar, from its memorable tune to its mordant, droll lyrics, this is a mature but also hugely enjoyable song. It reminds of Mountain Goats at their best in a way: a clever, complex song which is also raucous and funny. In other ways, though, Matsson is much sweeter than John Darnielle: ‘Love is All’, another of the album’s highlights, is as sprightly as its title makes it sound, with a skipping beat and an earworm of a sing-song riff.

Refreshingly, there’s nothing portentous about this plain little record – “I plan to be forgotten when I’m gone”, sung several times during the album’s title track, is not a line you’ll hear from the Pete Dohertys of rock music, for instance – and yet so good is the songwriting that the limited palette of acoustic guitar and voice never gives the impression of treading water.

Scandinavia has played host to a curious number of rather fine songwriters in the Americana vein – from Thomas Dybdahl to Jose Gonsalez – but Matsson, with this record which builds in the memory and develops on every listen, may have outstripped them all. Simply special.

Last year’s top five albums held up surprisingly well in my memory: if I’ve returned to Midnight At The Movies or California as much as I have to Merriweather Post Pavilion, it is for simpler pleasures than the sometimes demanding latter can offer. To this end, I’m brutally omitting great albums from 2010 from this year’s list, such as Riverboat Soul, Beachcomber’s Windowsill, or, most painfully, the inventive but at times cold Antifogmatic. Great melodies are essential, but the defining albums of a year need to offer a coherent, compelling something on top, right?

5. John Grant – Queen of Denmark

It’s difficult to ignore a record which adds honest-to-goodness pop hooks to lyrics such as, “Jesus / He hates homos son / We told you that when you were young.” Lest we forget, Grant had practically given up on the music business; what he achieved in 2010, at the urging of Midlake, was a shimmering pop record of at times uncomfortable depth. Once heard, Queen of Denmark lingers in your ears, and your head, and demands relistens even when at first you may fail to love it. It is a troubled, triumphant LP – and it worries away at its listener. Shyly remarkable.

4. Roky Erickson – True Love Cast Out All Evil

Not so very different from Queen of Denmark in many respects, True Love Cast Out All Evil has the sweet surface, the demons beneath, and the redeemed singer at its centre. Both its genre and its tenor, however, are quite different: produced by Will Sheff of Okkervil River, Roky Erickson here inhabits a grimy, garage Americana, plucked acoustics giving way to distorted soundscapes before falling back to earth again. Throughout, Erickson’s winsome lyrics are rescued from naivety by their sense of earned weight. This is a life-affirming record not because it pretends everything is OK, but because it knows things aren’t. Despite all the ugliness in Erickson’s life, which is often much in evidence here, this record is quite beautiful. Everyone should own it.

3. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

Simply chock-full of consistently good songcraft. A quintessential coming-of-age album, I Speak Because I Can finds Marling a far more disciplined, and more creative, songwriter than she was on her patchy debut. Her voice, her lyrics, and her way with an arrangement have all matured, meaning that this record represents what is now a sadly rare thing: a release from a proper singer-songwriter which is truly essential. Crucially, it develops Marling’s sound whilst also hanging together as a collection: where another singer-songwriter might have settled into a single mode of expression, or crafted a series of songs without much in the way of a single identity, Marling has achieved both variety and coherence. A delight all year.

2. Villagers – Becoming A Jackal

Villagers take their place in a long line of solo artists (Mr E, Damon Gough) who prefer to hide behind what sounds like the name of a band. Bands are, of course, usually cooler and more popular than solo artists, who tend to strike a lonesome pose on stage and warble sadly about it. In defense of Conor O’Brien, Villagers has a bona fide line-up, but one imagines that all except him are expendable – not least as a result of his mesmerising solo performance at this year’s Mercury Music Prize, which exploded outwards that stereotype of the solitary songwriter on stage with an intensity unmatched by all the other nominees, up to and including the eventual winner, the xx. Becoming A Jackal reflects that forcefulness, couching spectral melodies in haunting musical contexts. It is in many ways very nearly a perfect record.

1. Have One On Me – Joanna Newsom

I suggested shortly after the release of this three disc monster that it would be difficult to displace as the year’s best record, and it is therefore with a certain inevitably that it earns its place here. Difficult to like, even harder truly to know, Have One On Me is nevertheless an ambitious, sonically inventive, deftly delivered, and fiercely unapologetic, record. It refuses any single statement you might make about it, including as it does pop songs and prog epics, love songs and fabulist fancies. It is infuriating, but almost addictively so. In a year which saw many more albums get greater splurges of attention, Have One On Me simmered constantly, endlessly rewarding. Bravo.

Bubbling under these top five are albums from Band of Horses, Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, Sufjan Stevens and The National. Of all those, The National are most cruelly served: that quintet, either over-long (The Suburbs) or over-cooked (False Priest) have their issues of consistency or flow; High Violet, however, has simply failed to register beyond an initial impression that it was quite good. It may also be excellent and over-looked; but to this listener at least, it has not been wholly memorable.

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