Ruddy sodding hell what a time to be alive! I’m aware that my levels of enthusiasm for music are rarely justified, but Christ alive, this may be the best musical year I’ve ever seen and heard. And so, since I’m so fond of lists, music, and shouting into an uncaring void, I guess it’s that time of year again. I could have made a top 40 from this and still had to make some really painful cuts. There’s also a bunch of records I didn’t give enough time to (sorry Run The Jewels 2…), but it’s hard to be a completest when you’re so spoilt for choice. Never mind. In a nutshell, if an album is in this list, I think it’s very very good and I like the fact that it exists. Or something like that. Here endeth the rambley intro bollocks.
Sometimes a ticking bomb is more compelling than an explosion. Mogwai were one of the few instrumental rock bands with the versatility to outlast their peers. They abandoned their “quiet>LOUD>quiet” song structures a long time ago, instead building an understated tension through melody and subtle textures. It’s a credit to their consistency that this is one of their least impressive records (not that that qualifies as an insult here). ‘Rave Tapes’ is their most European album. You can hear edges of German progressive rock and Swedish electronics in there, but the influences are never obvious. They’re hinted at, but it’s hard to label the band as imitators. Songs like ‘Heard About You Last Night’ and ‘No Medicine For Regret’ were tailor-made for some melancholic sci-fi video game. Others like ‘Remurdered’ and ‘Deesh’ have a numbed sense of danger, like walking home drunk and thinking you’re being followed. Mogwai are a dependable band to be a fan of – each album sounds fairly similar to the last, but has a distinct atmosphere of its own, and ‘Rave Tapes’ is a damn fine example.
Sharon Van Etten
Are We There?
There’s always a risk, in any art form, of being too polished. It’s like walking into a house that’s too clean, and it looks like no one actually lives there – the end result is soulless. Sometimes Sharon Van Etten’s third LP comes close to springing this trap, but it somehow never does. Far from lacking in humanity, ‘Are We There’ is one of the most wounded break-up records of recent years. The slick textures somehow work in her favour, throwing her raw and bruised voice into sharper focus. The piano chords that open ‘Afraid Of Nothing’ are so commonplace they could fit into any top-40 ballad of the last few decades, but the end result cuts far deeper. What’s more, she doesn’t forget to pair humour with her bitterness (“I washed your dishes but I shat in your bathroom”). There’s an uncomfortable honesty that surrounds the whole record. A line like “Break my legs so I can’t run to you” rarely avoids being over-dramatic. In Van Etten’s hands, it feels like a worthy summation of the pain she feels (and that pain is timeless). That’s a hard thing to pull off, and ‘Are We There?’ does it over and over again.
More and more these days, Mac DeMarco’s antics seem to precede his music – not that they should. It’s worth wondering how many reviews of his gigs contain the phrase “It’s not every day you see a penis on stage”. He takes “not taking himself seriously” very seriously, but when it comes to music, he doesn’t muck around. In the words of the man himself, “The mood for Salad Days is, ‘Fuck man! I was just on tour for a year and a half and I’m tired!'” DeMarco’s third LP manages to convey that mood without being gloomy. It’s less “I want to crawl into bed” and more “I want to lie on a beanbag with a beer because I’ve earned it.” ‘Salad Days’ may be the fun side of “tired”, but there are times when it stumbles into accidental poignancy. It’s good to hear a line like “Acting like my life is already over” in such a warm woozy campfire singalong. His own battered and cheap guitar sounds like it’s held together with cling-film, but it’s hard to imagine it any other way. It has all the unexpected lo-fi charm of an unlabelled, slightly weathered cassette tape you find in a car glove-compartment. His live shows may contain more nakedness than necessary, hanging out with Odd Future and shoving the occasional drum stick into his bottom, but Mac DeMarco writes songs that deserve to be taken seriously.
These days, no one wears the label of “rock star” so comfortably. Jack White seems to spends as much time cultivating his status as an enigmatic and (allegedly) coked-up oddball as he does making music. Just ask his three ex-wives. He may be one of the most interesting people in music, but he’s also one of the most difficult personalities, and ‘Lazaretto’ is his most conscious acknowledgement of that. Rarely have self-confidence and self-frustration sounded so similar. Sneers and groans are almost interchangeable here. Lyrically, he’s self-deprecating and jittery, but the music on ‘Lazaretto’ is a blatant love-letter to his new home of Nashville. Even the most amped-up track here has a fiddle solo on it, and it all works seamlessly. In fact it’s so smooth it’s almost underwhelming, to begin with. The unusually clean production (again, far more reminiscent of a country record than of “rock n roll”) takes some getting used to, but the songs are there. They’ve always been there. It’s for this reason that Jack White has stayed so long in people’s consciousness, not his ridiculous personality and motorheaded enthusiasm (though they’ve definitely helped him gain some press coverage). ‘Lazaretto’ may be a slightly different turn for him, but given time, it’s one of his most subtly rewarding records.
Shock value isn’t worthless. Even if you draw a penis on a cereal packet and show it to an innocent pedestrian, you’ll still get some kind of reaction, which is something (if you’re into that sort of thing). Nonetheless, you can never rely on shock value alone. Unless you’ve got some substance to back it up, once the initial thrill wears off, you’re left with a crude pornographic cereal packet and an innocent pedestrian shouting for the police. In some cases, at least. Maybe. This makes it all the more weird that plenty of people criticised Richard D James’ new LP because it just wasn’t shocking enough. What other musician gets that kind of criticism. Truth be told, no, ‘Syro’, the first Aphex Twin record in over a decade isn’t that shocking. There aren’t many violent changes of pace, or jackhammer rhythms that rattle the teeth from your mouth. What there is, however, is craft. ‘Syro’ is a calculated record, which could be misconstrued as an insult. It has the out-of-step digital rhythms of his later work, but also the slow-burning atmospheres of his ambient works. On the other hand, there’s also something that wasn’t there before. Richard D James is no stranger to experimenting with rhythm, texture and tone, but this is the most playful he’s ever been with melody. There are times when they sound like pop songs, but played in musical scales and keys that don’t exist yet. The stylistic jump between ‘Syro’ and 2001’s ‘Drukqs’ is like the difference between ‘The Shining’ and ‘Kung Fu Hustle’. Aphex Twin is no longer spitting glitchy projectiles from the speakers – ‘Syro’ shows him building a weird, warped, and intensely detailed soundscape, and sustaining it well past the point that it becomes claustrophobic.
Eyes & No Eyes
Eyes & No Eyes
“Prog” is the short-hand for “progressive rock”, and for “long-haired shirtless man plays song about a dragon for four hours”. The cliches of the genre are so embedded that they come close to defining it. These days it’s harder to spot prog when you see it, but it is there, and some of it isn’t bad. Some of it is really really good. Eyes & No Eyes’ self-titled debut has all the nimble musicianship, oddball time signiatures and over-reaching ambition of some of the wankiest, most overblown bands on Earth. What makes them different is their restraint. At no point do they sound like they’re trying too hard, or consciously attempting to “blow your mind”. It’s a surprisingly understated record. The guitar tones, the drums and bass have a smoky jazz warmth to them, while the most discordant sounds come from the violinist and cellist Becca Mears. Each musician here stands out on their own, but Mears weaves in and out of harmony so fluidly that she’s responsible for much of the tension and respite on the record. Throughout it all, there’s an edge of suspense, as the songs build to a edge of a climax which never arrives. It’s anxious, somewhat troubled, and unlike so much under the “prog” umbrella, there’s a down-to-earth honesty about it all. When “prog” is so often assocated with pomposity and excess, Eyes & No Eyes is the nautral antidote. The end result isn’t “Look what I can do”, so much as “This is what we’re feeling right now”.
Fun fact: Indiginous tribes who mask their faces when going into battle are more likely to win. It may be because obscuring your appearance allows you to act as an anonymous mob. Plus they would have looked ruddy scary. In this sense, fact that Goat are rarely seen out of ridiculously elaborate masks and costumes makes perfect sense. As smart and intricate as their music is, it has a primal spontaneity about it. Seeing them unmasked could only be a disappointment. Not a huge amount of instruments are played at the same time, but it somehow has a vastness about it. The band are from Sweden, but their influences are from pretty much everywhere else. Both frontwomen channel the likes of Bjork and middle-Eastern folk, the guitarist could be playing Jefferson Airplane songs, while sitars and banjos trade riffs with kotos and harmonicas. Their aptly-named debut ‘World Music’ may be one of the most international records to come out of Europe. Thankfully, ‘Commune’ makes good on their promise. The sound is a little cleaner, it favours atmosphere over energy, but it’s more like a development than a compromise. They haven’t started playing much slower, but there are more spaces between the notes . Not to say that the energy has gone. It definitely hasn’t gone. Songs like ‘Talk To God’ and ‘Goatchild’ don’t have any pulse-buggering tempos, but it has a charging momentum that makes it hard to keep still. The sound of ahive-mind at work.
Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Before the writers of ‘Lost’ started funnelling cocaine (probably), and drowning in unnecessary plot twists (definitely), it had some really great moments. Remember? Maybe? Well there was, a bit. At some point early on, they intercept a looping SOS message from an anonymous French woman, only to learn that it’s been playing continuously for sixteen years. There’s something very unsettling about that. (Well I ruddy well thought so.) It’s this same kind of rusted eeriness that Angel Olsen has in her own voice. The music may be a stripped-down rock band set-up, but her vocal style sounds like it could be coming from a battered transistor radio. If you imagine Vera Lynn reinterpreting soulful blues-rock, you’re part of the way there. Whether the songs are reflective or majestic, they have a unpolished intesnity about them. Her second LP is aptly named. Even when Olsen is surrounded by a full band, the atmosphere on ‘Burn Your Fire For No Witness’ recalls someone singing behind a locked door. The songs themselves are visceral, overboiling just in time for Olsen to reel the tension back in. Nonetheless, even when she’s on the verge of losing control, there’s a warmth and maturity to it that most can’t maintain. There’s seldom a weak moment, but even at its worst, ‘Burn Your Fire’ is promising.
– From the desk of:
– Martin Kilbride
– NUMP: National Union of Musical Pedants
Dear Sirs/Madams, this the only hip-hop record on this list. We apologise for this error, and wish to confirm that this is not the fault of hip-hop. We like hip-hop. Some of our best friends are hip-hops. Despite being a little neglectful of the genre this year, however, the writer of this list wishes to express his sincere fondness for this record with this attached note:
“I am in no position to claim this is the best hip-hop record of the year, but it may well be the shiniest. Every beat, synth line and sample is polished to death, but in this case, over-production counts in his favour. It’s hard to tell if this is an act or not. 100s is the kind of person who was only supposed to exist in the late 70s and early 80s – the time when cocaine was served in champagne buckets. It’s such an over-the-top persona (if it is a persona), but weirdly endearing. “Endearing” is a hard thing to be when you’re playing the part of a metrosexual pimp, and writing lines like “Her face is fucking very ugly so I turn the lights off”. If RIck James was raised on G-Funk and disco, IVRY would be the result. Nonetheless, as filthy, silly and funny as it often is, the production is gorgeous and the hooks are catchier than a vial of cholera in a steam room. ”
Free Download: http://www.foolsgoldrecs.com/100s/
First Aid Kit
There are certain TV shows which, if you perform your music on them, you’ve “made it”. Or you’re at least part way there. If you play David Letterman or Jools Holland, you’ve got a respectable following. If you play a mainstream daytime show, you may as well count yourself as part of modern pop culture, for better or for worse. This week, Swedish folk duo First Aid Kit played on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, which doesn’t seem to fit. True, ‘Stay Gold’ is easily the most radio-ready record they’ve ever made, thanks to a little expensive studio elbow-grease, but the songs themselves don’t sound in the least bit compromised. Really, there isn’t much a producer can do that would ruin these songs. This is why First Aid Kit’s music can survive. If you strip the songs down to the bone, or even build them up to stupid over-baked extremes, they’re still the same songs. The same warm, soulful and unexpectedly catchy songs (Ellen probably didn’t need much more of a reason to book them). Their third LP, ‘Stay Gold’ is certainly pretty, but its charms are never skin deep. The lyrics would be unusually mature, even if they weren’t written by people just out of their teenage years. Instead of musing on the likes of “Will I ever be loved?”, they’re wondering “What if to love and be loved is not enough?” It’s definitely a record written on the road. Rather than drawing from scenes in their homespace, as they have done before, these songs come from hotel rooms, tour buses and from unsettled temporary locations. Nonetheless, at no point does either singer sound self-pitying. They’re as anxious as they are confident – and as per usual, their vocal harmonies are the ruddy business.
Sun Kil Moon
I will now approach the obvious subject…
As messy, public and pointless band rivalry can be, it does make for good publicity. Blur vs Oasis; The Dandy Warhols vs The Brian Jonestown Massacre; Mozart vs Salieri etc etc. And now we have the dumbest beef all. In the blue corner: The War On Drugs – good-natured peddlers of trippy Americana. In the red corner: Sun Kil Moon: aka Mark Kozelek, the indie-folk world’s answer to Nelson Muntz. For those who missed this interaction, here is a short digest:
1. A Sun Kil Moon festival performance was interrupted by The War On Drugs being too loud on the next stage. Kozelek claims “The War On Drugs can suck my cock”.
2. Sun Kil Moon writes, records and releases a 7-minute song called ‘War On Drugs Suck My Cock’
3. The War On Drugs do bugger all.
4. Pitchfork.com fan the flames while screaming “Oh the humanity!!”
This continued for months. Kozelek even wrote a second awful song about it. Nonetheless, even when he had gleefully accepted his title of music’s Douchebag Du Jour, no one could shut up about ‘Benji’. In twenty years time, the band feuds might be an amusing side-note, but ‘Benji’ will be a significant and important record.
In a way, it’s strange that after two decades of making music, this is the record that’s got him so much attention. The songs are often long, they rarely have choruses, and they’re stripped back to minimal instrumentation. ie. there aren’t any bangers. It’s a demanding listen at times, with Kozelek growling some of the most tragic stories this side of a Mike Leigh film. The result really is wonderful though. At no point are these narratives played for sympathy. They’re intimate, but plain-spoken. In fact they come close to sounding detached, if it weren’t for his actual delivery, which is as understated as it is weighed down by sadness. We know that the stories in these lyrics did happen to Kozelek, but we didn’t need him to tell us that. You can’t manufacture the honesty on display here. Having said that, it’s not perfect. ‘Pray For Newtown’ might have an admirable sentiment, but it may be the most embarrassing song he’s ever written (that isn’t about The War On Drugs). In it, he encourages us to think of the victims of the Newtown Massacre on our birthdays, when we’re “baking cakes and opening gifts and stuffing your mouth with food” – most ten year olds would consider that patronising. Still, he’s allowed to have one or two slip-ups. Most songs on display here are just as wonderful as the hype will have you believe, which is saying something. Whether it’s his cousin dying in a fire, his uncle dying in a fire, or his father somehow not dying in a fire, Kozelek finds humour, humility and poignancy in each fresh horror.
Scott Walker + Sunn O)))
Imagine Harry Styles started writing more of One Direction’s songs. Now imagine he went solo and started making albums that reference avant-garde cinema and Stalinism. Finally, imagine him in his mid-60s and singing in the role of a dead Benito Mussolini, while the rhythm is provided by someone punching a dead pig. It could happen – it’s happened before. At their height, The Walker Brothers had a bigger UK fan club than The Beatles, but they weren’t capable of containing Scott Walker’s ambition. His first four solo LPs were fantastic, but each was less marketable than the last. His record company seized creative control, and he spent nearly two decades making abysmal covers albums, drinking, and generally staying indoors. And then, something happened. ‘Tilt’ wasn’t just a fantastic return, it was one of the most radical reinventions in music. By the arrival of its sequels, ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’, he had buried so deep into the experimental rabbit-hole, he was barely recognisible. He’s music’s very own Darth Vader. It’s only now, 50 years after The Walker Brothers’ formation, that this collaboration makes sense. Sunn O)))’s towering wall of drones fit Scott’s poetically unnerving lyrics like a glove – or possibly a tight-fitting body suit made from burning plastic. While ‘The Drift’ and ‘Bish Bosch’ had a eerie coldness to them, ‘Soused’ is like stepping into a kiln. The guitars are so low and resonant, it’s like they’re melting under their own heat. Coupled with all the belches and squeals that leap out of nowhere, it sustains an oppressive, but riveting atmosphere. Scott’s lyrics are as great as we’ve come to expect. Subjects here include (in order of appearance) :
– Marlon Brando getting beaten up, and liking it
– Biblical mass infanticide
– Torture during the Crusades
– The spectrum of fetishes
– Assisted suicide
This would sound like a list of gimmicks if it weren’t for the fact that Scott Walker is one of the best lyricists in any genre. No other musician writing today can be more accurately described as a “poet”. Collaborations are rarely this individual or interesting. Rather than three musicians compromising to work around each other, ‘Soused’ is the sound of two artists in perfect sync.
Ladies and gentlemen, there is a crisis that has gone unrecognised and undervalued for millenia – some people don’t dance. These people are, at best, familiar with one common dance routine:
1. Plant feet firmly on floor
2. Move upper body very very slightly.
3. Get uncomfortable, go home and repent sins.
Fortunately, there are some producers of this so-called “music for dancing” who are well aware of these people’s plight. So yes, ‘Clark’ self-titled LP does indeed fit into that age-old category of “Dance music for people who don’t actually dance”.Having said that, the great thing about it is that, since it’s not trying to move your feet, it has to work extra hard to move your brain. Clark sets the scene perfectly just from the title of the intro track: ‘Ship Is Flooding’. The beats and electronic textures are cold and cavernous, but they have a constant fluid momentum, regardless of tempo or tone. The brittle synth riffs are balanced out by warmer acoustics drifting in from the wings. Take ‘Unfurla’ which tempers its bouncing techno beats with rippled pianos and distant French horn. Despite lacking any kind of conceptual title, ‘Clark’ has all the hallmarks of a progressive suite, slinking outwards from cushioned bleeps and bloops, all the way to icy paranoid judderings, and slowly back again. It’s not afraid to revisit its own ideas and motifs, but avoids being repetitious. ‘Clark’ is a record that gives the impression of always moving forwards, mutating and refining itself over time, before disappearing down a plughole.
Would you rather sit through something you hated, or something that left you indifferent? To some, “bland” is a far deeper insult than, say, “insufferable”, “terrifucking” or “Scheiße-essen” (if you’re feeling adventurous). “Insufferable” makes you feel something – “bland” doesn’t. A lot of people have labelled Real Estate as nothing more or less than “acceptable background music” which might be the most back-handed semi-compliment possible. If that’s what turns some people off, then what is it that makes others love it so much? Yes, ‘Atlas’ makes really good “background music”, but it’s hard to be too fond of a record just for that reason. Real Estate mean so much to their fans because of the songs themselves. These are some of the most warm and memorable melodies modern guitar pop has to offer, thanks in no small part to their fluid trio of guitar harmonies. The luminous opening riff from ‘Had To Hear’ is enough to justify the existence of ‘Atlas’, but there isn’t really a weak moment on the record. The lyrics are fairly basic – plainspoken, nothing flashy – but they do have an edge that most bands haven’t been able to pull off. The real reason Real Estate will always have defenders is because they’re so good at conveying empathy. It’s also the reason ‘Atlas’ is their best record yet. Buried under the carpet of lush jangles, these could be mistaken for love songs, but at their root, they’re about coping with anxiety and loneliness. Having said that, there’s something joyous about this record too. As sad and numbed as the lyrics can be, it’s clear that Real Estate are a band that really love playing music together. ‘Atlas’ is the kind of record that can make you feel less alone, and that’s far too big a demand for “just background music” to achieve.
Making The Saint
Within any art form, an extended piece of work is sometimes the result of months of progress, sometimes years, sometimes decades – and sometimes a person coughs one up in a weekend for no particular reason. Chris Schlarb didn’t spend four days in an old wooden prospector’s hut in the mountains specifically to record music. He stayed there because he was sick of other people’s company. While he’s always been a writer himself, Schlarb’s day-job is a live and session guitarist for other bands. Not that he’s complaining – he’s spoken glowingly about his experiences and the people he’s worked with. Having said that, his isn’t a life that leaves much time for solitude. ‘Making The Saint’ is the result of a retreat. After reading about the Santerian ritual of Asiento (a period of several days during which participants wear white, meditate and keep sleep and human contact to a minimum), he booked a remote cabin in the San Bernardino mountains – the proprieters told him to watch out for ghosts. The souvenir from this miniature exile is a goregous sleepwalker of a record. Improvised guitar is usually the territory of people who think that “skill” and “excess” are the same thing, but Schlarb has a superb sense of space. He knows when less is more, and when to let his drones and hums sing for him. The album’s two meditative epics rumble and chime for over 14 minutes each, unfolding slowly, but anchored by drifting central melodies. While these are easily the twin centrepieces of the record, Schlarb also slips a lonely space-age folk song in between them in the form of ‘The Great Receiver’. This is the only time his vocals appear on the record, and even then, it sounds like the product of time spent in the wilderness. With ‘Making The Saint’, Schlarb didn’t just use solitude to his advantage – he bottled the sound of it.
When you’re expecting the unexpected, sometimes the most surprising thing to happen is something familiar. In fact, this was just about the most surprising thing that genre-buggering wunderkind Beck could have put out – a sequel. Were there many people asking for it? Probably not, but we got one anyway, over a decade after the first instalment. A really really good one too. In that very limited respect, it’s the Dawn Of The Dead of mopey breakup albums (and the comparisons end there). ‘Sea Change’ has long-since earned its place among the best and most beloved records about the end of love. ‘Morning Phase’ isn’t so much a continuation as an evolution. It references some of the same motifs and melodies from its parent record (as well as the cover), but still stands up on its own as a singular piece of work. Plus, as per usual, Beck has the songs to back it up. They’re sad songs, at least on paper, but in practise they have a strange optimism about them. Banjos, guitars, Rhodes pianos and string arrangements (the latter courtesy of Beck’s father) form a base so lush and dense it only makes the sorrow seem idyllic. It is, in a way, a sad thing that this is labelled “a sequel” (which it is). Is it as good as ‘Sea Change’? Probably not, but that really shouldn’t matter, because ‘Morning Phase’ does things that ‘Sea Change’ doesn’t. While his sadness was once far more private and introspective, ‘Morning Phase’ is the sound of reaching out to others to kill the pain.
Transgender Dysphoria Blues
Has the word “rebirth” ever been so appropriate? ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ doesn’t just mark a change in style and attitude – it’s the sound of someone acknowledging their identity for the first time. After frontwoman Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender, it caused some rifts within her band. The drummer left shortly afterwards, and they were forced to ask for help from whoever was available at the time. This makes it all the more impressive that the band has never sounded so energised. How can you make a song called ‘Fuckmylife666’ not sound dreadful? They found a way. Against Me! play with more righteous urgency than ever, but none more than Grace herself, who has clearly been wanting to say these things for years – possibly decades. Maybe it’s a good thing (in one sense) that she sat on these sentiments for so long – if something’s worth saying (which this definitely is) it’s worth saying right. Fortunately, she nails her targets to the wall on this thing. She gets angry, she gets miserable, she grieves, she raves, but at no point does the listener feel like an enemy. She makes her own very specific experiences into something universal and inclusive. If this list were ranked on the basis of social importance, ‘Transgender Dysphoria Blues’ might be at the top, but even regardless of subject matter, this is one of the best rock albums for a long time. If Grace can equal this come next album, she’ll be destined for icon status.
If I might speak personally for a second, I have never been so excited by a pot of hair-dye. There’s always been something strange about Annie Clark. There aren’t many songwriters who owe as much to Walt Disney as they do to noise rock – and even fewer who can make that seem like a good idea. She’d made a trio of good-to-great albums, had a respectable following, but her intentions only became clear when the cover for ‘St Vincent’ appeared. Sat on a plastic throne with a bolt of smoky white dye in her hair, she didn’t look like Annie Clark any more. She looked like a rock star – a steely-eyed Bowie-esque alien in a blue dress. (Not that Bowie hasn’t worn a few blue dresses in his time.) When asked why it was self-titled, she said “I think this is the album that sounds most like myself”, which makes a lot of sense. It might be the most honest record she’s made, but also one of the most surreal. The melodies can be sweet and whimsical, just as much as the sounds are glitchy and blistered. These songs come from vulnerability, but there’s a humour behind them too. A line like “I prefer your love to Jesus” is the kind of funny/touching combination that The Smiths would have been proud of. As mythic as she looks on the cover, ‘St Vincent’ is a thoroughly human record. She gets anxious about online omnipresence, feigning emotion, and isolation, but the fear turns into something exciting here. Perhaps most moving of all is ‘Prince Johnny’. “It’s about that compassion and hopelessness you feel for a friend who’s being self-destructive, but you also know that you can’t save them, and you can’t cast judgement because you’re equally self-destructive.” In a sense, that sums up the whole record pretty well. ‘St Vincent’ is an album about being a flawed person in a world full of other flawed people – the flaws in the actual music are few and far between.
The War On Drugs
Lost In The Dream
How long can this paragraph last before the phrase “road trip” appears? Oh wait, there it is. This year, the chances are you went on a long car journey – maybe you were with friends, maybe you were alone, maybe you were transporting class B substances over an international border. I’m not here to judge. Either way, you could have done a lot worse than listening to ‘Lost In The Dream’ while you were doing it. To label it a “road trip album”, however, does it a disservice. The War On Drugs’ brand of propulsive and psychedelic Americana wouldn’t be as good as it is without the songs themselves, not just “the sound”. And yes these songs are great. On past records, they’ve managed to be anthemic while barely using any choruses. ‘Lost In The Dream’ has choruses aplenty, but they make them count. It’s hard to find one in modern rock as memorable as ‘Red Eyes’, and yet it’s hard to make out what the ruddy Christ Adam Granduciel is actually saying. Some of its strongest moments are its slowest. The likes of ‘In Reverse’ and ‘Disappearing’ are among their most thoughtful and affecting moments as a band, while the opener ‘Under The Pressure’ drags its spacious grooves out for nine minutes without ever sounding self-indulgent. ‘Lost In The Dream’ might not be The War On Drugs’ best record – if you haven’t heard ‘Slave Ambient’ you might be in for a treat and a half. Nonetheless, in twenty years time, if you asked someone what great “Classic Rock” sounded like in the 2010s, ‘Lost In The Dream’ would be an obvious and worthy choice.
In many ways, traditional folk songs are a lot like traditional folk stories: it doesn’t matter who wrote them. What’s important is the way they’re told. Both of them have also been passed down through word of mouth. There is no definitive copy. To say that Sam Amidon lacks credability for not writing his own songs is like saying that Marlon Brando lacks credability for not writing his movies. They wouldn’t be the same, and wouldn’t be as memorable, if someone else did it. Mostly taking songs from the American Appalachian region, Amidon builds warm, organic arrangements around the bare-bones chords and lyrics. Some of them are dense and busy, others are sparse and haunting, but six albums in, the results are always reliably great. What’s more, no two albums sound quite the same. ‘Lily-O’ marks the point where he fully embraced his sense of rhythm. The likes of ‘Walkin Boss’ and ‘Pat Do This Pat Do That’ might not be entirely danceable, but you could certainly hambone to them until your palms ache. Elsewhere, Amidon becomes more experimental. The title track is an 8-minute epic, sprouting from his lone Nick Drake-ish vocal, and gradually blooming into a layered dissonant sprawl. Weirder still, one of these songs was actually written by him *gasp*! Some musicians just shouldn’t try to write their own songs (you got lucky once, Ringo). Amidon is evidence to the contrary. The lone original composition, ‘Down The Line’ is one of the highlights of the album, and only begs the question why he’s been hiding that light under a bushell for so long. Having said that, these versions are so individual and impassioned, that he may as well claim authorship on them anyway.
Primitive and Deadly
This album has vocals. That’s odd, seriously. Drone-rock veterans Earth haven’t worked with a singer for nearly two decades. In fact, one of the last people to sing with them was Kurt Cobain, best friend of Earth’s bandleader Dylan Carlson (you may remember him as “the one who likes all our pretty songs and he likes to sing along” etc). Nonetheless, this is a band who suit sudden changes in direction. They have definite styles of their own, but each are often unrecognisible from each other. Their debut ‘Earth 2’ was built of solid walls of monotonous noise – it sounds like it was conceived on heroin, and it definitely definitely was. By the time they resurfaced in the mid-2000s, they had become something far more interesting. Should we call it “blues ambient”? “Drone folk”? Whatever it was, it made up some of the most atmospheric and individual records of the last decade. And now, we see Earth becoming something they’ve always avoided being: a rock band. Sort of. A bit. The slowly-evolving hypnotic guitar riffs are still there, and they still have a forte for atmosphere, but now they sound ready to shake walls. From the first chord of the ridiculously-titled opener ‘Torn by the Fox of the Crescent Moon’, it’s obvious that this is a new step. Fellow grunge refugee Mark Lanegan takes vocal duties for two songs, and while his lyrics are occasionally silly and mythic, they suit Earth’s music strangely well. One of said songs is called ‘There is a Serpent Coming’ – Emerson Lake and Palmer settled out of court. The title, the lyrics and themes are so shamelessly proggish. The cover shows a nude woman holding a skull by a lake, with five moons hanging in the sky – it couldn’t be any more dorkish if she were cradling a chess club trophy. And yet, not only does the vague ridiculousness of it all not detract from the record, but Primitive and Deadly somehow sounds better for it. It adds to the immersion, rather than detracts from it, because the music itself is convincing enough. As consistent as it all is, however, it’s very easy to pick the highlight. The centrepiece, ‘From The Zodiacal Light’, sung by charismatic newcomer Rabia Shaheen Qazi, squashes several periods of great psychedlia into one 11-minute slow-burning epic. This might not be Earth’s best record, but they’ve never been so easy to like.
#9 #9 #9 #9 #9 #9 #9
Worship The Sun
“Revival” is a dangerous word. It’s often a short-hand term for “nothing new to see here”. Yes, the Allah-Las definitely count as a “garage rock revival” band. No, they’re not exactly inventing the wheel, and they’re not trying to, but does it matter? It’s hard to blame them for treading old ground when they tread it so well. Lots of bands try aping 60s psychedelia, zonked-out surf-rock, DIY aesthetics and sunny guitar chimes, but no one else does it so effortlessly. There’s nothing “studied” about the Allah Las – otherwise they wouldn’t be such a joy to hear. Album number two, ‘Worship The Sun’, is a touch more ambitious than their debut, maybe a little harder to grasp, but given time, it proves itself just as addictive and rewarding. These are the kinds of melodies that cement themselves between your ears, the kind that bob to the surface of your memory without you knowing where they came from. Their sound hasn’t changed much, but it has more crunch and fuzz. If the first record was dozing under a shady tree, ‘Worship The Sun’ is sprawled on a beach, realising you’ve had too much beer and the heat has burnt your back. Even so, ‘Worship The Sun’ is a wonderfully breezy stupor, to the extent that each track blurs into one warm and wonky heat-haze.
In 1956, MGM released a Tom and Jerry short called ‘Blue Cat Blues’. It starts with Tom sitting on some railway tracks waiting to get hit by a train. It ends with both Tom and Jerry, together, sitting on some railways tracks waiting to get hit by a train. Since it was the 50s, there could only be one cause: girls. It would be a pretty fun, knockabout classic from the series, if it weren’t for the death pact at the end (you know, for kids!). Maybe it’s a weird combination, but if there were a musical equivalent of this morbid slapstick, it’s TV Girl. The music is a sprightly Technicolor collage, full of Disney-ish flourishes and warped showtunes – it would be a great sounding record even if it were instrumental. Fortunately, ‘French Exit’ is so much more than that. The opener is peppered with children’s choirs and bubbly synths, which almost diguise the story of a soldier who escapes reality by sniffing his girlfriend’s undies. As crass as that sounds, the result is remarkably subtle, sometimes even poignant. These are some of the most pessimistic and sardonic indie-pop songs around, but they’re surrounded by flashes of cartoon colour. The music imitates over-the-top love songs, while the words mock them. It’s a head-on car crash of fun and tragedy, with neither diluting the other. If anything, the fun gets funnier and the tragedy gets tragedier. Brad Petering’s voice is clear, but it still sounds like he’s murmuring into a pint glass. Essentially, they’re songs about people who can’t get what they want, including Petering himself, and he shows genuine empathy as well as exasperation for them. Nonetheless, as sad as they get, the songs on ‘French Exit’ are far too smart and vibrant to ever be “depressing”.
Also, unlike most albums on this list, this needn’t cost you a penny (legally, this time). You can download it for any price (including $0) at tvgirl.bandcamp.com.
With the advent of artificial intelligence, we may have to get used to the idea of computers behaving like people. If there’s a musician who sums up this transition, it might be this man. For over a decade now, Nick Zammuto has mined the middle ground between cold information and human warmth. Some of the “lyrics” for his band The Books were simply extracts and collages from mathematics and science text books, arranged into a rhythmic paragraphs. In fact, most of the words in their songs were sampled straight from out-of-context spoken word tapes, rearranged and given an emotional resonance of their own. It says a lot about his work that the most surprising thing he could have become at this stage is a singer-songwriter. ‘Anchor’ is that kind of record. There’s even a traditional folk song in here. There are no speech samples, the lyrics are actual “lyrics”, and while a lot of the sounds are clearly artificial, they have a spontaneity about them. It’s as if they’re breathing. The sputtering drum clicks sound like cracking ice, while the buzzing synths are like a hot mist. Ambient, jazz, math-rock and synth-pop merge into a warm song cycle about where we call home, and who we choose to keep there. It’s less busy and immediate than we’ve come to expect from him, but while a lot of these are love songs in disguise, he still proves himself as one of the most cerebrally stimulating musicians around. ‘Anchor’ is a record that shows that sincere emotion and calculated logic don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
There are times when whispers capture attention far more than shouts. Maybe it’s a natural instinct to eavesdrop on something private. Grouper’s music has the mark of something you’re not supposed to hear, like it would blow away or disappear if you made a sudden movement. While she often uses similar instrumentation in each album, they come from different scenes. They evoke places that people haven’t been to in a very long time. Until now, most of her music has been drenched in an icy reverb, like amped-up tape hiss, but ‘Ruins’ breaks that pattern. Somehow, without the backdrop of ethereal hums, her control of atmosphere is still masterful. In fact, ‘Ruins’ may be the most immersive and transporting record she’s ever made. You could turn the volume up to the top and it would still sound quiet, but rather than being easy to ignore, there’s something about it that invites you to lean forward and listen closer. The pianos are slow, and actually get slower as each song moves forward, like something clockwork running out of motion. There are times when the melodies sound like they’re rotting – as they’re repeated, notes are missed out, others get longer, as the songs crumble to a close. What’s more, Liz Harris’s vocal songs have never sounded so personal. It’s often hard to catch what she’s saying, but there’s a sense of grief and regret that shines through the dust.
He’s still sad, but now now he’s angry too! Mike Hadreas started out recording in his mother’s basement (as well as living there). The first two albums as Perfume Genius were quiet and delicate, but there was always a shadow of something sinister. Even so, it was hard to imagine him making a leap this big. By comparison to his first two records, ‘Too Bright’ is an explosion (as much as slow piano/synth-based songs can “explode”). His melodies were always expressive, but now they’ve ambition to back them up. Sparse bass and ethereal drones add menace to the vulnerability in songs like ‘My Body’ and ‘I’m a Mother’. He’s also proved that his music can be as visceral as his lyrics – the whistles and choirs on ‘Grid’ are evidence enough. The sparse piano songs are still there, but somehow they’re coming from a different place – more cinematic, but no less intimate. Lyrically, Hadreas has outdone himself. He’s always had a knack for being very eloquent with very few words. As always, he talks about his experiences as a gay man, but he’s never sung about it with so much confidence. He can be defiant and mocking about the perception and experience of homosexuality (“No family is safe when I sashay”), just as he can be despondent and hopeless about it (“I’m too tired to hold myself carefully”). It’s hard to write well about a minority. Even if you belong in said minority, the only experiences we really know are our own. Perfume Genius is one of the best examples we have of getting it right. His experiences might be specific, but you don’t have to have lived his life to understand the emotions behind them.
If you make something that people like, there’s a danger of thinking “Well that seemed to work – lets do it again.” It makes it all the more exciting when an artist refuses to tread old ground. Not many would have complained if Tune-Yards’ latest album had sounded the same as a last one. There were plenty of people asking for more of it. Nonetheless, if Merrill Garbus fancies a change, try and stop her. She left the saxes, guitars and ukuleles from ‘Whokill’ behind, flew to Haiti and started recording with the a cappella group Roomful Of Teeth. The on/off basslines and clattering tom-toms are still there, but Nikki Nack is amore spiky and brittle record than before. Harsh cheap synths, layers of chanting vocals, hand claps and finger clicks build into something more centred around rhythm than melody. Not that she skimps on the melody – ever. At their heart, these are fantastic catchy pop songs, mutated into something that’s somehow more primal and more complex than that. Garbus hasn’t lost any of her political fervour either. She could lead a damn good public protest if she were that way inclined (which she probably is). Plus she’s got that voice – as a singer she’s commanding, international, but also vulnerable. She opens her mouth and planet Earth falls out. It’s easy to be apathetic and hopeless in times like this, when we’re more aware of global tragedy than ever. On the other hand, it’s wonderful that one of the most addictive and joyous pop records this year is one with so much drive and purpose behind it. Even when Garbus talks about a more personal sadness, Nikki Nack is not an album about “giving up”. It’s as full of tragedy as it is determination and opportunity, and that’s the kind of music we need more of in the world.
Some music should only exist in recorded form. Liars were something of a victim of this. After establishing themselves as cult favourites on the gig circuit, they made an (excellent) set of quiet, electronic and vaguely ambient songs that fell flat in a live setting. The same wasn’t true of ‘Mess’. You could describe the audiences on the ‘Mess’ tour as “overstimulated”. Liars kept the slick textures, layered drum beats and attention to detail of ‘WIXIW’, but this time they made it loud. Very loud. Even the slower more atmospheric numbers can still rattle the floor. The band could easily have played these songs when they still had guitars. They can still be frantic, aggressive, eerie and even genuinely beautiful – the only difference is the technology. Frontman Angus Andrew is using his voice more like an instrument, distorted to bitcrushed drawls and glitchy hiccups. As usual, the lyrics are a surreal bag of nerves. There’s an anxiety and helplessness there, but the music turns them into something menacing. Nonetheless, the songs can have a weird benevolent streak too – Andrew is less scared of being hurt than he is of doing something wrong. It opens with a funny/scary barking voice asking you to take his pants off and smell his socks. ‘Mess’ starts from there as a near-danceable panic attack, but gradually coils up into something more insular and paranoid. By the time it slithers to a close with some ambient drones, we’re left with a record that has as much brains as it does muscle.
If you have nothing to say, say nothing. You’re always allowed to say nothing (unless Sony records are waterboarding you with small-print). Why it took Diane Cluck eight years to come up with 22 minutes of music is a mystery, but we can make an educated guess as to what she was thinking about in that time: EU agricultural policy. Just kidding, it’s death again. Love and death – the old crowd-pleasers. Not only has she never been so fixated on mortality, but she’s never written about it with such poignancy. Even though it qualifies as a folk record, ‘Boneset’ is far more experimental than we’ve come to expect from the genre. The shifting rhythms of the Bill Evans Trio are a clear touchstone – the opener ‘Maybe a Bird’ changes timing three or four times before the end of the first riff, not that it’s easy to notice. It flows so naturally, that it takes a few plays to notice anything unusual happening. She comes backed by a jazz drummer and cellist, which is an inspired addition. They provide a warmth and energy that her songs have never managed to reach before, and her singing is at once stronger and more confident than ever. Hers is a rich, sometimes otherworldly voice that can leap comfortably in and out of melodic folk and atonal chants. Beneath all this, however, it’s the lyrics that give ‘Boneset’ its emotional core. Sometimes they’re pretty, other times they’re flat-out macabre, but always thought-provoking. Death is such a provocative topic that it’s easy to write about it badly, but Cluck takes a more philosophical route. ‘Boneset’ is about understanding it, not running away. More importantly, it’s about holding onto those we love, even though we know it has to end soon. This short and aptly named LP barely qualifies as an “album” – some customers at record stores tried to ask for a refund because it “wasn’t long enough”. In cases like that, it comes down to quality vs quantity. There isn’t much of ‘Boneset’, but it may be one of the best and most rewarding albums by any American singer-songwriter – swings and roundabouts.
To Be Kind
People react to age in different ways. Some become more conservative and move to rural Hampshire. Some resign their ambitions and act as if their life is already over (rural Hampshire may also be involved in this option). Some people realise they don’t have much time left, and try harder than ever to do something worthwhile. Maybe Swans could only have made ‘To Be Kind’ at this time, 32 years into their career, when their bandleader was pushing 60. Time was short. After having survived a near-fatal asthma attack on stage a few years prior, Michael Gira clearly feels the urgency to push the envelope more than ever. He’s also keen to test the endurance of his audience. There are moments that seem completely illogical – the two-note riff in ‘Bring The Sun’ repeats over 100 times before changing, but no madness in ‘To Be Kind’ is without method. In that instance, it bludgeons the listener into submission, only to make what follows all the more enveloping and hypnotic. It’s a record that demands and deserves to be heard in its entirety, all two hours of it. As challenging as that might seem (and is), few records have such a high ratio of “patience required” to “rewards received”. It’s an arid, claustrophobic desertscape. The trombones on the likes of ‘A Little God…’ recall James Brown burning in hell, and the slow simmers of ‘Kirsten Supine’ are just as compelling as the flat-out panic attack of ‘Oxygen’. As difficult as it can get, however, there are so many memorable hooks to hang onto that it becomes addictive. The serpentine crawl of ‘Just a Little Boy’ is dedicated to blues legend Howlin’ Wolf, and Gira takes his hero’s influence deeply to heart. Like Howlin’ Wolf, he can go from bellow to whisper, and make each sound as sinister and vulnerable as the other. Lyrically, he’s the most abstract and visceral he’s been for years, cutting sentences into snatched fragments. The words and the music have become inseparable from each other – to remove one from the other would be missing the point. No band should reach such a peak three decades into their career.
In my head, at least, ‘To Be Kind’ is not just the best album of the year – it’s one of the best and most important experimental rock records ever recorded. A masterpiece.
Thanks for that, 2014. It’s been a blast.