Albums of 2020

Everyone’s habits – not just for listening, but I’d imagine for almost everything – had to shift this year, and I don’t suppose mine were any different. I discover new music, dinosaur that I am, through record stores, live shows and conversations with other musicians … all of which were in short supply this year. That left me relying at least in part, and as in so many walks of life during 2020, on algorithms. I confess I also listened to older music more – the comfort of the familiar, and perhaps the past, was often welcome this year.

Nevertheless, I think 2020 was actually an extremely good year for new music – the best in some time, perhaps. Some musicians completed projects they hadn’t dreamed of at the start of the year (Dan Bern’s Quarantine Me); others released more albums than usual (Taylor Swift, with both Folklore and Evermore); still others brought forward releases – though some, of course delayed them. I’ve enjoyed music this year from Charley Crockett and Calexico, Fiona Apple and Sturgill Simpson; Pharis and Jason Romero, Phoebe Bridgers and Darlingside, beabadoobee and Bob Dylan.

But this year more than any other, the five albums that stand out are – though, I’d naturally argue, musically outstanding and often sharply innovative – primarily those which gave me most joy, that afforded the most catharsis or escape. And these are they – the albums I’ll take with me from this strangest of years.

Laura Marling – Song For Our Daughter

Originally slated for release in August, Marling brought forward this album – releasing it digitally in April – in an attempt to “provide some sense of union”. She deserves a medal. This album and its songs – from wonderful opener ‘Alexandra’ to evocative closer ‘For You’ – offered real rays of light for me during that first, queasily uncertain period of lockdown here in the UK. Not only is Song For Our Daughter a thorough-going gift in context, though; in content, too, it is easily the best album Marling has produced since I Speak Because I Can, and it may be the best of her career: melodic but also subtle, full of lyrical cleverness without being over-wrought. It is a proper album for the ages. Most importantly, though, it was an album for this one. I’ll be forever grateful to it.

Waxahatchee – St Cloud

In an interview for BBC 6 Music in the summer, Phoebe Bridgers called this sinuous, sly record her album of the pandemic: it came at just the right time in the US to soundtrack Bridgers’ stay-at-home period, and Katie Crutchfield’s wry, witty songwriting – backed unerringly by a unique harmonic palette and taste for phrasing – gave me as close to an arms-raising moment as I reached in 2020. This is an anthemic LP for anti-anthemic times, and in ‘Can’t Do Much’ it might boast my song of the year. This is the album I’ll continue most to associate with 2020, I think – for better and, perhaps, for worse.

Thundercat – It Is What It Is

While we’re on the subject of wit and wily humour, Thundercat’s resplendent LP has been under-accounted for in year’s best lists – for reasons I can’t figure. Made up mostly of short, but symphonic, snatches of song, from its samples to its collaborators this is an expertly curated tour through Thundercat’s innately fascinating blend of jazz, hip-hop, funk and soul. Stephen Lee Brunner’s background as a bassist is in full evidence in many of these grooves; but his excellences as a lyricist should also not be in doubt – ‘Black Qualls’, ‘Dragonball Durag’ and ‘King of the Hill’, for example, are all pitch-perfect mini-dramas. Beautiful vocals, lush-but-spare arrangements, a wickedly brief run-time and some of the most glorious transitions since of Montreal in their pomp – it’s all here. Give it the Grammy, already.

Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers

This one’s tricky. As old-fashioned a country break-up album as you can imagine, Old Flowers is replete with crystalline songwriting and utterly luminous vocal performances – record opener ‘Burlap String’ is improbably good on both counts. But, like the rest of the album, it is almost unseemly in its sadness. This year, it wasn’t always the right time to listen to so acute a record about loss; but you’ll search long and hard to find so lovingly put-together an album this year, so complete a statement, so beautiful a thing. It’s glorious. It draws you to it despite how miserable it threatens to make you feel at a time when you don’t need any particular help to feel doomy. And yet, like all good break-up albums, at the flickering heart of the matter is love – is hope. It takes your breath away.

John Craigie – Asterisk The Universe

Whatever raised a smile in 2020 had to work hard to do so. But in this, perhaps his most rounded release to date, folksinger John Craigie applied a lightness of touch that got under your defences easily – and left you smiling. Mostly, this is thanks to Craigie’s raconteur spirit, on which he has built his growing reputation amongst the Americana cognoscenti. But there’s more here than a troubadour with a guitar – some properly catchy arrangements and some very tasteful production really lift the material to the next level. If ‘Can’t Do Much’ is my song of the year, it has strong competition from ‘Don’t Deny’; and my lyric of the year? “I always wanted to be a healer and give out medicine / I was too dumb to be a doctor so I do this.” In 2020, the hierarchy between these two healers might have been in greater relief than usual; but both, in their own ways, mattered.

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.


Albums of 2010

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.

Albums of the Quarter Year

Going, going ...
Going, going ...

I was chatting with Anna’s brother at the weekend, and he ventured an opinion on his album of the year. I can’t remember whether it was Yeasayer or Shearwater, but it struck me that – already – 2010 is a quarter of the way done, and mutterings about albums of the year aren’t so absurd as they might at first seem. Certainly we’ve come through one of the busiest release periods of the year – and certainly one of last year’s finest album’s, Animal Collective’s Merriweather Post Pavilion, was released in January. ‘Nuff said?

Listening to music is different when you have the disposable income to a buy a lot of albums. As a teen, you cherished each record you could afford. As a blogger in your late twenties, you tend to notice the niggles more. That’s not always fair, as we discussed recently in relation to Frightened Rabbit. So of the albums so far reviewed here, what are the best albums released in the first quarter of 2010, and are any of them gems reclaimed from an initial lack of charity?

Joanna Newsom, Have One On Me. I sympathise with Adam Roberts that it’s at times difficult to listen to this record – or, more properly, these three records – for lengthy periods of time. But I suspect this is a function less of the songs themselves and more of the listener’s constant knowledge that there are two other discs of this stuff. Ys was no less – possibly more – challenging, but in running length infinitely more manageable. But this still makes for a wealth of very fine moments; and what’s wrong with an album to be taken in doses?

Fionn Regan, The Shadows of an Empire. I still stick to the opinion that this is an album which would have been better had it been about shadows rather than in them. But I’ve found myself returning to it for its energy, wit and melodic touch. Worth a punt, even if you don’t like Dylan.

Laura Veirs, July Flame. Just very very beautiful indeed. It does pale on relistens – indeed, its deceptively stark surface shifts and shimmers differently each time. A record of very subtle, but very great, substance.

Laura Marling, I Speak Because I Can. This is beating out every other record of the year so far in terms of number-of-times-popped-in-the-player. And it was only released last week. ‘A coming of age’ is the predictable description of this sophomore effort, but that makes it no less accurate. Mature and self-possessed. You can only hope that those rumours about a second album from Marling later in the year are true…

This leaves Frightened Rabbit, Tom McRae, Beach House, Eels, Erland and the Carnival, and Vampire Weekend as the not-quites. (Although Anna is very much keener on the last of those, and understandably so.) Hmm.

Speaking Up: Laura Marling

"I Speak Because I Can"

As much as I liked Laura Marling’s debut album, 2008’s Charlie Fink-produced Alas I Cannot Swim, I could never quite shake the impression that it was thinner than I’d like. Marling’s lyrics were interesting, but the songs themselves seemed less strong. Perhaps only ‘Ghosts’ and ‘My Manic and I’ properly burrowed into my songy sub-conscious. Listening back to the album always confounded those expectations, as I found myself remembering the charms of each one in turn. Put the record away, though, and I forgot it yet again.

In a recent interview with The Fly, Marling says of that record, “Charlie was amazing, but he is very much an artist in himself so it was his project. And, although I love everything from the first album, it didn’t truly feel like mine apart from the songs.” The Marling-Fink-Mumford axis has given England the closest thing it has had in years to a proper old-fashioned bit of musical incest, but that Marling sees the work of her ex on Alas I Cannot Swim as stiflling is interesting to me, especially as her new record, I Speak Because I Can, has already captured me – or been captured by me – more than its predecessor ever managed.

On first impressions, not a lot has changed – it’s all still acoustic guitars, quietly defiant vocals and warm sonic depth. But the sound feels richer, somewhere – less fey, and certainly less uniform. On ‘Devil’s Spoke’, Marling’s band swirl like an indie Pentangle; on ‘Made by Maid’ she channels stripped down Joni Mitchell; if ‘Rambling Man’ sounds a bit close to current squeeze Marcus Mumford’s efforts, the delicate highlight ‘Goodbye England’ is more different to that mode than anything on Sigh No More. I Speak Because I Can is unified by Marling’s persona and songwriting, rather than Fink’s conception of sound. This allows a real expansion in all directions – a selection of songs in which each track has its own distinct identity.

It’s too early to ask if ‘Blackberry Stone’ (“You did always say that one day I would suffer … You did always say that I was going places” ) is as good a song as ‘Ghosts’; but taken together, these songs make for a much more immediate – and arresting – collection. If Marling hasn’t previously grabbed you, get this.

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.