Albums of the Year, 2018

It’s probably not just for me that 2017 felt like a year that both whizzed by and ground on. I wasn’t at all sure, sitting down over the last week to consider what album might make my annual top five, that I’d listened to a great deal of candidates. As it turns out, I had: bubbling under this quintet are excellent records by Hurray for the Riff-Raff, Nerina Pallot, Joan Shelley and Iron&Wine, each of which include single tracks which might make a list of top songs.

Top albums, though, need in this parish to be both consistent and interesting enough to stand apart as a single thing. So here they are: my best listens of 2017.

Chicano Batman – Freedom is Free

The Los Angeles quartet have been branded “world-rock”, which is a truly hideous phrase and one I shall try never to type again. That said, what was so refreshing about this album, released earlier in 2017, was its polyphony: so many musical traditions are mixed here into a sound uniquely the band’s own, and applied to songs which never feel like gimmicks or vehicles. In other words, the band created something new and rather thrilling with this album (not their first, but certainly their best) – and did so unostentatiously and without any pretension. It’s been the album I’ve most often returned to throughout the year, and deserves in particular a spot on any car trip.

This is the Kit – Moonshine Freeze

Like Chicano Batman but more so, this is very far from This is the Kit’s first album – in reality they’ve been a going concern for some time now, bubbling away on the underground scene without ever quite breaking through. It’s not clear that Moonshine Freeze was anything like a tilt at mainstream success, but the album is certainly a really impressive bit of proper songwriting, shorn of all the navel-gazing or worthiness that phrase might suggest. With a sort of woozy acoustic feel, and an indie aesthetic if that isn’t too old-hat a term, Moonshine Freeze does exactly as its title suggests: it somehow simultaneously warms and cools, its atmosphere an unusual mix of doomy and searching. Which may make it a singularly perfect album for this of all years.

Willie Watson – Folksinger Vol 2

Produced by the fader-riding David Rawlings, Folksinger Vol 2 picks up where its predecessor left off, but with some added elements – vocal groups, broader instrumentation – to cast into further relief Watson’s remarkable powers of interpretation. Its refreshing to see an acoustic Americana folkie not feeling the pressure to write his own songs, and instead commit fully and without apology to old standards into which he breathes rare life. As punk a record as has been released this year, too. Bloomin’ glorious.

Fleet Foxes – The Crack-up

AKA the album I didn’t expect. I’d sort of assumed Fleet Foxes, officially or not, had broken up – and from the contents of this album it seems clear that at some points so did they. Their return, however, is triumphant: deliberately potted and fragmented, its authors set out to make an album which sounds occasionally as if it has been been scrambled and put back together in the wrong order. Somehow, though, it is also a more solid effort than they’ve ever previously managed: perhaps because of its over-arching approach it never falls into ‘first one thing, then another’ trap that particularly their undeniably beautiful debut album sometimes did. They were also excellent live in Wolverhampton in November, and I recommend them to you.


I wasn’t sure this one would make the list, if I’m honest: after her self-titled 2014 LP, MASSEDUCTION sometimes feels a little too keen to please, a little too happy with its vision of Annie Clark as some sort of twisted pop princess. The problem with that feeling is that, even so, it is still among the most sonically interested records I heard last year, like something Chvrches might put out if they had an ology. Yes, ‘New York’ might be my song of the year; but the album as a whole builds to and falls away from it so expertly, so magnetically, that you simply cannot dismiss it. Curse you, St Vincent, and your confounding ways (except long may they continue).

I’m off to Twitter now to ask people what I’ve missed.


Albums of 2011

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.


‘Helplessness Blues’, Fleet Foxes

“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.

Songs I Listened To Too Much in 2008

Albums, 2008
Albums, 2008

The guys over at By Fuselage have quite rightly pointed out that end of year lists can be exercises in the arbitrary – after all, most years we’ll listen to a lot of old music, or new music that’s not quite that new, or indeed not like a great deal that the year produces. One of my favourite albums of 2008 was Bob Dylan’s Desire (1975), but more of that in another post I suspect.

Yet the urge to make some record of what you liked in a given year is pathologically strong – and it seems to me that one way to get around the snap critical judgements such lists force you into is, well, not to make them, and limit your obsessive taxonomy to the quality of mere entertainment. So here’s a list of ten songs I listened to, or just sang aloud in innapropriate public spaces, a lot – for whatever reason, and regardless of their how well time may treat them. Most of the songs below may well not be the best song on their given album (Writer’s Minor Holiday), or be on an album which shouldn’t be on anyone’s top 10 list (For Our Elegant Caste). But captured by each of these in their year of release I was, for better or worse. (Which will be yours to decide!)

Okkervil River – Lost Coastlines.
From ‘The Stand Ins‘.

Lyrically, ‘The Stand Ins’ might be the album of the year. But musically it was at times a bit predictable – perhaps it is so here, too, but Lost Coastlines really got into my bones, everything from the rhythmic acoustic guitar to the melody line and the voice changes. It’s a great song with a good deal of meat to it which still manages to engineer itself a lot of space – not easy to pull off, and well worth a gold star.

Calexico – Writer’s Minor Holiday. From ‘Carried To Dust‘.

One of the records of the year, Calexico’s ‘Carried to Dust’ didn’t grab me on first listen, but by the time we saw them at the Forum in October I was sold. If not as eclectic and whirling as ‘Feast of Wire’, it may nevertheless be true that the songs themselves are stronger. This is a great example – the usual Calexico strengths are here allied with a variety of rather nice hooks, to create an off-kilter guessing game of a pop song. You shimmy to this, without quite knowing why.

Frightened Rabbit – My Backwards Walk. From ‘The Midnight Organ Fight‘.

Scottish folkies Frightened Rabbit might just have produced my actual album of 2008 – there are quite a few contenders for that title, but I might’ve played ‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ more regularly than any of them. Rich, arch and cooly catchy, each of the songs is a perfect little package of wise melancholy – perfectly put together and with not a single verse wasted. “I’m working on erasing you – but I just don’t have the proper tools,” is such a lovely term of expression, and one so delicately delivered, that I demand you all buy this record immediately.

Fleet Foxes – Blue Ridge Mountains. From ‘Fleet Foxes‘.

Once the warbling’s done away with = tune. Deceptively simple, thoroughly haunting. That is all.

Kathleen Edwards – Asking for Flowers. From ‘Asking for Flowers‘.

2008 wasn’t the most exciting year for country, and this third album from Kathleen Edwards wasn’t her best effort. But its title track was one of my favourite songs all year – it’s one of the most traditional tunes on my list, but Edwards always offers a contemporary spin on timeworn country conceits. S’catchy, too, innit?

The Bowerbirds – Hooves. From ‘Hymns For A Dark Horse‘.

The opening line is worth putting this in the list alone. But it’s a little ramshackle epic to boot, all fragile vocals and loose time-keeping. The strings are a bit of a sell-out, but try finding a smarter song this short released this year.

Mumford and Sons – White Blank Page. From ‘Lend Me Your Eyes‘.

Marcus Mumford plays drums for Laura Marling (of whom more anon). We caught them supporting A Hawk and A Hacksaw at the Glee club, whom they very almost upstaged – no mean feat. Live this song was a thing of beauty, and it’s not bad  here, either. For my own music, this was a competitor the most inspiring set I saw all year.

Bon Iver – Skinny Love. From ‘For Emma, Forever Ago‘.

Indie purists would have it that this was actually (self-)released in 2007, and though they’d be right they’d also be self-righteous fucks. ‘For Emma, Forever Ago’ received wider release on the thank-God-for-it Jagjaguwar label (also Okkervil River’s stable) and then finally 4AD over here, and Skinny Love is the song from it which hooks into the heart and doesn’t let go. Recorded in an isolated shack in northwestern Wisconsin, this fragile record is like a pinned butterfly: poignant, beautiful and untouchable.

Laura Marling – Ghosts. From ‘Alas I Cannot Swim‘.

Laura Marling could have done without the hype – she and her songs are too unprepossessing to shoulder them well – but it’s her own fault for crafting so fabulously old-fashioned a record which somehow manages also to be contemporary. This is mostly a trick achieved by teenagerly angst allied with tried and tested song structures and the sensitive but rich production of Noah and the Whale’s Charlie Fink. It worked a treat, although Ghosts remains the only song from the album I can remember without a relisten. Make of that what you will.

Of Montreal – For Our Elegant Caste. From ‘Skeletal Lamping‘.

Skeletal Lamping was a sloppy mess, the least cohesive record I heard all year. To be honest, this is the album in microcosm – great hook, no song – and it isn’t anywhere close to any of the cuts from last year’s magnificent ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?’, but it was the most effective ear worm of the year. When you find yourself in major train stations falsettoing the words ‘we can do it softcore if you want, but you should know I take it both ways’, it’s clear a pop song has done its job. Kevin Barnes, you are bonkers. Please to be writing more good songs soon, kthx.