albums, music

Albums of 2016

As I’ll write in my contribution to Strange Horizons‘s “Best of 2016” piece, the twists and turns of 2016 have often made me feel, in my weaker moments, like art needed to come second to news. I’ve read and listened much less this year, then – and from where we’ve ended up during the last twelve months I can’t help but feel that this was true of many of us.

So in that spirit, let’s tear ourselves away from the twenty-four-hour news channels for long enough to think about records. Maybe it’s because I’ve been concentrating on populating 50 Miles of Elbow Room every two weeks, but it feels as if 2016 has been a better year for songs than albums. Given that streaming – more track-based a business model than flogging LPs out of HMV – is now making labels money, it might also be the shape of things to come. If we omit the traditional singles focus of pop and hip-hop, then the impact of Margo Price’s “Hurtin’ on the Bottle” was not matched by her Midwest Farmer’s Daughter; Christine & The Queens might be the year’s best singles band, but stretching that success to album-length was a challenge; and even Warpaint this year seemed to be better at doling out new songs (geddit?) than worthy successors to previous magnum opi.

That said, I listened less this year. So read this list and then re-educate me, please.

John Prine – For Better or Worse

I didn’t expect anything of this album except some fodder for a radio show. But blow me if Prine hasn’t put together one of the most affecting, emotionally open little albums I’ve heard in a long time. It’s a collection of duets with female luminaries of country – Iris DeMent, LeeAnn Womack, Kacey Musgraves – that is also a set of covers: old standards like “Falling In Love Again” and “Cold Cold Heart” sung by Alison Krauss or Miranda Lambert might sound dull as ditch-water, but partly thanks to Prine’s own cracked vocal and partly thanks to the sensitivity of the singers and their arrangements, what actually emerges are fifteen maudlin masterpieces. For Better or Worse is assured a place, I think, in the canon of great love albums: it’s sad, wistful, wry, joyful and wise. It’s also very, very pretty. Give it a spin.

Teleman – Brilliant Sanity

I caused some controversy amongst my indier friends when I demurred in 2014 from listing Teleman’s debut album is my best of list. My reasons at the time I still cleave to: Breakfast was a bit cold, a tad cerebral. Where Alt-J or Django Django leavened their songs’ math-rock nerdiness with dollops of humour, Teleman seemed a trifle more sober. Brilliant Sanity makes good on that debut’s promise, though: with a surer melodic touch and some lovely rhythms amidst the riffs, the band’s second album recalls Belle and Sebastain (whom they supported on tour this year), but also seems nicely contemporary in a way a lot of guitar music no longer does. I’m imagining my indier friends hate it.

Nathan Bowles – Whole & Cloven

This record may be the most musically accomplished, innovative and interesting album on my list. Bowles is a banjo player, but not as you know one: he recreates the instrument on this record, slapping it inj the middle of contexts to which it is often alien and playing it with a suppleness I’m not sure anyone else could manage. You may not be a fan of banjo; that does not matter. Whole & Cloven is primarily an album of music, and though the instruments that music is played on of course contribute to its textures what is most exciting here are the compositions. That these pieces have been written for the much-maligned banjo, and soar so surprisingly, is part of the album’s charm; but ignore old-time nerds like me and listen anyway: ignore the banjo if you must and investigate “Chiaroscuro” or “Gadarene Fugue”; tell me music much better has been produced this year.

Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung

When I first listened to Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker this year – following his death, alas – I reached its end and realised, as the notes faded, that I’d been holding my breath. There are moments on Walker’s fourth album that have the same effect, though for different reasons. You Want It Darker is intense and stark, but, like its technicolor cover in which a sunset bleeds across the surface of a lake and multicoloured planets parade across an oil-spill sky, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung shoots for diversity. Its opening track, “The Halfwit In Me” is the album’s best, and announces a departure from Walker’s pastichey style of old; but the songwriting and production throughout this record showcase a fast-maturing talent. It may be that to some ears this album will still sound too revivalist; I think that’s unfair – it sounds to me like a revivication.

Edd Donovan and the Wandering Moles – Making Mountain Vol I

Full disclosure: Edd is a friend. But I have lots of friends who are musicians and have never listed any of their work in a ‘best of’ post … So I hope you’ll hear me out (although while we’re here please do take time out to discover Men Diamler’s Black Shuck Rings Mordor, too). For my money, Edd’s album stands toe-to-toe with any other folk singer-songwriter release this year; that it has been released by a tiny record label and written by a grass-roots musician seems irrelevant. It also has the virtue of an apocalyptic bent, which seems about right for 2016. With a broad sonic palette – from string-laden ballads and accordion-driven Parisian swing through to free jazz freak-outs and summery indie pop – Making Mountains Vol I is the perfect showcase not just for Edd’s laconic-yet-intimate vocal style, but also his literate, often biting, songwriting.  You can order the album from edddonovan.co.uk and should do so.

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life, music

In Memoriam: Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Paul Murphy, photo by Anna

Whenever I heard someone ask Paul Murphy, the Birmingham-based and Belfast-born songwriter and storyteller whose death has sadly been announced today, what he did beyond music, he would respond simply: “I’m an educator.”

This answer was typical of Paul’s thoughtful and humane approach to every experience, concept and individual. He had an unerringly generous eye for the human condition, and understood that everyone is special in a way particular to them – that everyone has a story and a value. He was eternally curious about people and ideas, and implacably committed to social justice. Most importantly, he made this into art of quite remarkable emotional scope and reach: in his songs he was able to make an audience laugh and cry within the space of a verse.

Indeed, to see Paul perform was to become part of a community, however temporary. This is what he did – he connected. Though he received much deserved exposure for his role as frontman of The Destroyers, there was something alchemical in the intimacy of his solo work. Paul was able to hold an audience, but would never manipulate one: he was always in dialogue with people, exchanging ideas and emotions with them.

Anna, whose thoughts inform this piece as much as mine, has also written some words about Paul on Facebook which I think really capture something  important about the man, and I’d like to share them here:

I’m so saddened to hear of the loss of dear Paul Murphy. Such a beautiful man, with the most generous and open hearted spirit. He cared about people and he cared about the world, and making people and the world better. It was impossible to feel alone or forgotten in his company. He will be greatly missed. Bless you Paul, I’m so glad to have known you xxx

When Anna says that it was impossible to feel alone with Paul, she nails exactly his special gift not so much for making people feel special, which sounds confected, but for helping them appreciate their own value, for nurturing and encouraging them. This is why his death has prompted such an outpouring amongst all who knew him: the word ‘inspiration’ is included in almost every tribute because Paul was inexhaustably engaged in understanding people; for him everything and everyone was fascinating and worthy of closer inspection – and in that space of learning would be the key to unlocking both their and his further potential. This is a rare gift which he gave again and again to his audiences, to Birmingham’s musical community, and, to go by their remarks about him online today, to his students. It seems impossible that we can repay such bottomless generosity.

Except that, perhaps, we can – by taking him as a role model. One of the last conversations I ever had with Paul was about labour rights and immigration, and the injustice of blaming those newest to our land for its ills and wage deflation; Paul was sharing issues of political importance on social media until the very end; his Songwriter’s Cafe project provided a glorious and crucial platform for emerging and established talents alike to practice their craft. We can all be more open-hearted and more capacious in our sympathies, more creative and more curious; we can all take from the important sadness we feel for his passing a resolution that at least a portion of what he offered us will continue through us.

Anna and I would not claim to have known Paul as well as some; we spent memorable evenings with him, enjoyed parties in his company. Given how saddened we are by his passing – and we have both cried today – we can only imagine the grief of his family and closest friends. We are a small part of a much broader and deeper community of loss, which has been brought together by love and respect for this astonishing, incisive, humble man.

Knowing you, Paul, was a privilege and an education. May we all learn and grow always, as you inspired us to do.

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albums, music

Albums of 2015

As in previous years, here’s my top five albums of 2015. They’re in no particular order, and the process of selection is far from scientific. There is a vague criterion that the albums here collected should do something interesting or different with their chosen form, but even this is a pretty bendable rule of thumb. On the other hand, these aren’t necessarily the quintet of records I’ve listened to most this year – accessibility or suitability as background music aren’t scored factors.

In other words, this list comes with a health warning and a disclaimer a mile wide. Should you wish to continue reading, here we go …

imageNathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats – Self-titled

This record probably accounts for my insistence above that the ‘new and different’ rule is bendable. In some ways, its inclusion is a sort of belated penance for the absence in my 2010 list of Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three’s Riverboat Soul, since this consciously retro record’s virtues are the same: an unaccountably tight band, a total commitment to concept, and great tunes. Not only that, but Rateliff’s story is compelling: tilling for years the fields of earnest indie folk, he has, at the age of 37, hit considerably more gold with this endeavour – and taken humble, jobbing musicians from his native Denver with him. Together, they’ve surely had the most fund – and made the most entertaining – record of the year. If the novelty may wear off by album number two, then for now Paste Magazine have it about right: “while the singer and his band are drawing on a classic form, their interpretation makes for an exciting and contemporary sound.”

natalieprassNatalie Prass – Self-titled

In all honesty, I didn’t expect this album to have the staying power it has proven to have. The ineffable quality of Prass’s vocals and songwriting had me fooled – this diaphanous LP has spent the year with me and still come out on top. I don’t disagree with anything I wrote about it back in the month of its release: “There is a sense – in the skinny angles of current electronica, the ironic posing of the grizzled hangover of indie rock, or the heritage atmosphere of much current alt.country or anti-folk – that sentiment is no longer welcome in pop music. If that’s true, then Natalie Prass’s debut album – long-delayed following the unexpected success of label-mate Matthew E White took all of Spacebomb’s attention and resources – is a sort of New Sincerity manifesto for the 21st-century album. Drenched in brass and strings, keeningly hurting, and unafraid of the quiver of the torch-song, this is a tear-jerking, crafted, unabashed LP more Dusty Springfield than Lana Del Rey. Which, y’know. Is pretty fashionable after all.” Except I’d say she’s more Dolly than Dusty. So it’s improved in my estimation, then.

imagePanda Bear – Panda Bear vs the Grim Reaper

Important fact: the grim reaper never really shows up. Despite that, this is a record that may represent Panda Bear’s crowning achievement so far: entirely devoted to melody, and yet absolutely uninterested in received forms and modes, this is an LP which swerves and turns at every bar, and yet has a consistency of identity it maintains right through to the surely deliberate seamless loop from the close of the final track to the first notes of the opening. This is the quality which ensures the album’s place on this list: a never-ending enthusiasm for sound and song, that manifests in an impish inventiveness but also none of the coolness which is often associated with experimental or electronic music. There are both emotions and mathematics on display here, and each align to re-enforce the other. A really super bit of work.

imageFather John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear

Or “Reasons That It’s A Good Thing That The Author Is Dead”. Martin Lewis of another parish and I are currently working on a joint essay/blogged dialogue about this record and its intersections with its creator: are the songs here a joke, or honest expressions of opinion? To what extent is the singer’s insistence in one song that he’d like to choke an annoying woman at a party a knowing self-parody, an instance of unthinking misogyny, or something in between? It’s my contention that from the “text” itself the only viable reading – with the over-elaborate production and competing narrative points of view – is that I Love You, Honeybear is an entirely conscious and wry look at twenty-first-century love, that fortunately also has fantastic melodies, memorable lyrics and good arrangements. It’s a complete album. That Martin has looked beyond the text is a conversation for another forthcoming post … keep your eyes peeled, gang.

imageJoanna Newsom – Divers

In an earlier life, would I have been a Kate Bush fan? I am avowedly not, and yet based on my contemporary and undying love for Joanna Newsom, I have to hold out the possibility that, had I been born a decade or more earlier, I could have become all that I hate in pseudish aficionados of 1980s caterwauling. Divers feels like a step away from Newsomish excesses – no grand Ys-ish formal constraints here, no Have One On Me triple album packaging. But from the title onwards this is as uncompromising an album as Newsom has ever made: her vocal, matured since her last release into a fully controlled but no less eccentric instrument, is used to impart in often bizarre phrasing lyrics that impart an over-arching consideration of the dregadations of time. Newsom fans like me will tell you that this results in a gloriously rich, surprising, and rewarding record of intellect and musicality; Kate Bush detractors will tell you that it’s all just self-consciously kooky tat. But they’d be wrong, right?

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albums, music

Albums of 2014

It’s become something of a tradition on this blog for me to list, in no particular order, my top five albums of the year. In the main, my selection criteria are self-defeatingly non-specific and impressionistic. I cannot, dear reader, show my working. What I do try to do, however, is listen to every record I recall making a big impact on me in the preceding twelve months, and then wittle them down to those which not just feature wonderful songs, but which hang together and forge something new in the proces. I also try, throughout the year, to avoid featuring LPs I think might be candidates for the year’s-best list in the right-hand ‘Sounds We Like’ column we update each month.

Other, then, than the best of those picks (most obviously Doug Paisley’s beautifully warm Strong Feelings and John Fullbright’s intermittently devastating Songs), what is left? Bubbling under the top five this year are Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems (far more virile and creative than it has any right to be), Nick Mulvey’s First Mind (unusually well-balanced between gossamer-light and thunkingly-deep), and King Creosote’s From Scotland With Love (KC’s best in years); but also the wonderful Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Small Town Heroes, which sounds like a Gillian Welch record but injects queer theory, feminism and activism into the ossified bones of Appalachian folk, and Samantha Crain’s sweetly growling Kid Face, which was released in the US in 2013, but made it over here in January.

So that’s those. Let’s, though, do the top five.

Gruff Rhys, American InteriorGruff Rhys, American Interior

In 1792, a Welshman named John Evans set out for Baltimore and beyond, in search of a lost tribe of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. In 2012, the erstwhile Super Furry Animals frontman, Gruff Rhys, followed in his relative’s footsteps and toured – for some legs with this year’s Flaming Lips bête noire, Kliph Scurlock – across the Midwest, writing songs as he went. What resulted was a unique record, simultaneously intensely personal and unusually expansive, which includes much of SFA’s famed whimsy but also a real sense of gravity and humility in its treatment of the First Nation peoples and others. From the indie pop of ‘100 Unread Messages’ to the ear-worm electronica of ‘Allweddellau Allweddol’, here is a journey on which every stop is worth making – and yet which also makes sense in itself. Really special.

Dawn Landes, Bluebird Dawn Landes, Bluebird

One of my favourites of last year was Josh Ritter’s The Beast In Its Tracks, and perhaps for that reason I for the longest time tried to avoid including this luminous record in 2014’s top five. Landes and Ritter divorced painfully in 2011, and this record is her side of the break-up story told on Ritter’s LP. I think it may be the more compelling version, because the cracked melodies and keening accompaniment on show here are sparingly heart-breaking. The title track is one of the most simply beautiful songs of the year, whilst ‘Oh Brother’ earns all the comparisons made this year between Landes and Blood On The Tracks-era Dylan: it is not easy to balance anger and tenderness, but Landes achieves both on this remarkable record. She was my accompaniment on a snowy Boxing Day drive; I’m not too big to admit that’s what won Bluebird‘s place on this list. You can’t argue with that kind of pretty.

The War On Drugs, Lost In The DreamThe War On Drugs, Lost In The Dream

There may not be a best-of list produced this year that doesn’t include this entirely unexpected piece of work. The War on Drugs have been making music for years – most famously, Kurt Vile is an ex-member – but they have never burst through in the way they have with this effort, which is best described as Mercury Rev meets Dire Straits. If that makes it sound a teensy bit old-fashioned, I might not be unfair in implying so; there’s something meaty about this LP which consciously recalls the sort of ‘event’ record which isn’t really made these days. At the same time, it sounds extremely fresh – ‘Red Eyes’ in particular sits very comfortably in the current radio landscape, rather than idling at the back of the room waiting for nostalgics at Absolute to playlist it. What I think so many people have responded to in this album is the obvious earnestness of its making: here is music that is cared about by those recording it. That doesn’t make it joyless – quite the opposite – and this mixture of spot-on musicianship, careful songcraft, total commitment and enthusiasm for melody makes Lost In The Dream potentially one for the ages.

St Vincent, St VincentSt. Vincent, St Vincent

I’ve long felt I’m missing something when it comes to St. Vincent. Most everyone whose opinion about music one should respect seems to believe Annie Clark to be something close to the unacknowledged saviour of the pop song, and yet I’ve never managed truly to connect with her work. (Nodding, chin-strokingly, doesn’t count.) But St Vincent hit me straight away, despite – or maybe because of – a sense that Clark has not even tried to leaven her idiosyncrasies this time around. The album’s cover features her dressed in purple and seated on a throne, and this imperious pose is maintained throughout, with songs like ‘Rattlesnake’ and ‘Digital Witness’ sounding like the swaggering sort of cuts which should be selling the units currently flogged by Gaga. At its weirdest – on ‘Surgeon’, perhaps, or ‘Psychopath’ – Clark seems to be willing the listener to disconnect. But there’s something magnetic about music which playfully gives no quarter, when so many songs package themselves as products, or movements morph into genres, and this makes St Vincent in many ways the most exciting record of the year.

Beck, Morning PhaseBeck, Morning Phase

I wanted to smash idols, I promise. I didn’t want to be another writer giving Beck Hansen the thumbs-up, or teaching other listeners to suck eggs. Despite his recording hiatus, which individual interested in music is not aware that Beck is a genius? Which of us would deny an Odelay, Midnite Vultures or Sea Change a place in the pantheon? The astonishing news: this may be at least as good as most of those, and certainly singularly reminiscent, as all critics have noticed, to the latter. Some have suggested this is playing safe; I’m not at all sure this trippy album is what they think it is. Morning Phase breaks like a sunrise, and drifts like purple cloud. It is capacious enough to include the catchy – ‘Heart Is A Drum’ – and the ambient – ‘Waves’. On that latter song, Beck sings, “I move away from this place / In the form of a disturbance / And enter into the world / Like some tiny distortion.” In just that way, Morning Phase gently disrupts the time during which you listen to it; it sounds simple, even reductive (that space-cowboy image on its front cover), but casts around at all times for the grace note and the giddiness that can cast new light on its chosen forms. Honestly super. Cast up your idols, people.

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albums, music

Albums of 2013

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.

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albums

Albums of 2012

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.

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live, music

On Ben Folds Five

Remember Them?

“We’ve just flown in,” says Ben Folds with the air of an explanation. “Boy, our arms are tired?”

There were two significant things about this moment, which occurred right after Ben Folds Five played on Friday night their first song together on British soil since 1999. The first was that, alas, explanation was needed: the band seemed if not nervous then certainly hesitant, and with Robert Sledge’s monitor not returning any of his famous fuzz bass to his ears, one third of a group the crowd had waited more than a decade to hear live again was flying solo and flustered; rusty and jet-lagged, perhaps the trio’s harmonies weren’t quite as on-point as they might have been 13 years before, when I saw them raise the roof off Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall with a performance honed and tightened to almost inhuman specifications; the sound problems even extended to the microphones, which seemed ill-balanced – Sledge’s nasal harmony drowning out drummer Darren Jesse’s, and Folds’s lead sounding under-powered. There were, unheard of, a few bum notes from the direction of the piano. On drums, the imperturbable Jesse seemed more detached than cool.

But here was the other thing about Folds’s knowingly lame joke: it was like old times.

This run of UK shows, starting in Bristol and ending in Brixton, aren’t the first Ben Folds Five gigs in 13 years – the newly re-formed band have been touring the USA already. But the trio have never hidden the fact that they first felt understood in the UK (most notably saying so in the liner notes of Naked Baby Photos), and there was a palpable air of expectation at the O2 Academy on Friday – not just from the audience, but from the band themselves. The teething troubles didn’t help clear that atmosphere, lending to old favourite ‘Missing The War’, and even new song ‘Hold That Thought’, the sense of a feeling of the way (on the other hand, it must be said that in general the new songs came out far better from this set than they do from their record). When ‘Jackson Cannery’ bubbled out from the stage with something approaching the old energy, everyone may have thought the moment had arrived – but then a fluffy ‘Selfless, Cold and Composed’ reminded the assembled that this was a group of musicians who before this year hadn’t played these songs in a long time – and had just come over on the red-eye.

Ben Folds Five always traded in virtuosic irony – they could mock and undermine the standard poses of rock music, without in turn hobbling themselves, thanks to the sheer strength of their musicianship. The weight of meaning being placed on their shoulders in Bristol, however, asked too much of an overly flip tune like ‘Erase Me’ (the only song from the new album, The Sound of the Life of the Mind, which did not rise in my estimation after this show): the band may have just landed, but their baggage was such that they were finding it hard to take flight.

And thus it was that Ben Folds himself saved the band that bears his name: recapturing the spirit of that joke about tired arms, he began to sing about Colston Avenue Toilet, a local Bristol landmark which has amused him on every trip to the UK … and which he asked the audience to photograph and tweet to @samsmyth. First Sledge then Jesse joined in on the kind of improvisational flight of fancy for which the band was once known – 2012’s answer to ‘For Those of Y’All Who Wear Fanny Packs’, or ‘Satan Is My Master’. Something, finally, shook loose – here was a gig which was meant to be fun.

Their followed a rendition of ‘Draw a Crowd’, a song sunk on the latest record in the weirdly subdued production which characterises the whole LP, but which here became a kind of BF5 anthem; ‘Landed’ was pulled out of the solo catalogue, ‘Battle of Who Could Care Less’ crashed into the room on pitch-perfect percussion; ‘Uncle Walter’ surprised and elated a crowd for whom the song somehow sounded suddenly fresh – and a heckle from the audience led to another improvisation, this one undertaken with far less conscious stagecraft, entitled ‘When Are You Coming To Wales?‘. ‘Brick’, meanwhile, sounded as heartfelt as it ever did (and the audience uniquely respectful of it); ‘Narcolepsy’ featured a freestyle jazz interlude powered by the same irreverent virtuosity of old. By the time the set closed with ‘Army’, Folds no longer had to do any directing – simply by pointing at one side of the audience or other, the required brass parts came eagerly, unbidden and in key.

Anna had never seen the band live – in fact, she’d never knowingly heard a Ben Folds Five song before Friday night. Here’s the measure of a set which ended, perhaps prematurely due to a club night curfew, with – of course – a singalong of ‘Underground’: she danced all night, and listened to the band’s debut LP, first released in 1995, over breakfast the next morning.

You see, once they find it, Ben Folds Five still have it.

Michael Praytor, Five Years Later
Missing the War
Hold That Thought
Jackson Cannery
Selfless, Cold & Composed
Erase Me
Alice Childress
Sky High
Draw a Crowd
Landed
Battle of Who Could Care Less
Uncle Walter
Brick
Do It Anyway
Philosophy
Tom & Mary
Narcolepsy
Kate
Army
———–
Song for the Dumped
Underground

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