albums, music

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.

St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

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.

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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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