Tag Archives: albums

Albums bought in 2014

IMG_69172014 was an eventful year – deaths, births, car accidents, and more – and this blog has suffered, because frankly it hasn’t seemed that important to be writing when I could have been riding a bike or looking after a cat (or a baby). But a few people, including my wife, have asked me if I’d be doing an albums-of-the-year post, so I thought I’d oblige. This is it.

Every year I seem to wring my hands about what these lists mean and whether to bother with one, and every year I seem to change the format. Who am I to change the not-habit of a lifetime? Folliwng this year’s hand-wringing, it strikes me that the fairest way to write about the music of 2014 is to detail, even if only barely, every single record released in 2014 that we bought. So that’s what this is.

They’re presented in vague order of preference, just so you know. I may cluster some together thematically if I don’t have masses to say about them individually.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict
If I have to ordain a singular ‘favourite’ then this is it; it seems a little weird to pick an album wherein the singer exclaims “I’ll never have any children” as my favourite from the year when Emma and I had a baby together, but nonetheless I liked this one better than any others, despite, or possibly in part because of, that particular lyric. Perhaps it was a case of weird contradictory emotions. A strange sense of denial of the reality approaching us as I sang along with that phrase, and just about every other on the album too. Somehow, despite our different circumstances, I identified with, and also twisted to my own emotional and aesthetic ends, Owen’s music.

And Owen is simply fantastically good at music; the tunes and arrangements here are his most splendid, rewarding, and direct yet – the melodies forthright and nagging at the same time, the instrumentation always surprising and clever and exciting too. I’m still noticing new things in it, and will probably continue to do so for some time. I wish I was clever enough and musical enough (I don’t play a note on any instrument, nor ever have) to ‘get’ all the things that Owen’s doing; but you don’t need to ‘get’ them intellectually to enjoy them aesthetically / phenomenologically, and feel them emotionally.

I played this at both record clubs, but only wrote about it for one.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
I reviewed this for The Quietus, and, bar Embrace and Owen Pallett, this was the record I probably played most in 2014. I wish more non jazz fans would give them a chance. I gather they have another, apparently very different, record, due in March, which I’m looking forward to immensely.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense
This was imbued with a significant amount of poignancy simply because one of Tom’s songs is about having a daughter and another is about a pet dying, both of which happened to us this year. Beyond that, Present Tense was business as usual for Wild Beasts, which is to say that it’s marvellous, and continued on the evolution / maturation path they’ve been going down. Guitars wane in favour of synths, the drummer continues to play like a beautiful drum machine, the two voices are still amazing, and there’s a musical and emotional sophistication that most other artists simply don’t get near. At first I thought this was just another really good Wild Beasts record, but over the year it revealed itself as actually being another really good Wild Beasts record, if you get what I mean. They’re fabulous.

I played this at one of our record clubs, shortly after it came out, if you want to read more.

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
I played this at record club too, and stand by what I said back then; I may have played it less as the year wore on, but I suspect that was probably just down to the increasing amount of records from the year that I’d procured. This was, and remains, intensely musical and enjoyable, a jazz-inflected, live-feeling synth-pop record, spontaneous and fun.

Caribou – Our Love
Another good Caribou record, this one very much post-Daphni, and with the jazz even more shorn than on Swim. It took me a little longer to really ‘get’ than some of his others, but “Silver” was an absolute highlight across the year from the moment I first heard it. I’d write more, but I’ve already written so much about Snaith’s music over the years that it feels redundant to do so; I can’t imagine a situation wherein he’d release a record I didn’t like. This was yet another record in 2014 which seemed to partially be about parenthood, at least on some tracks. Maybe a lot of records I’ve enjoyed over recent years have, and I’ve only just started to notice it this year. Or maybe I’m just projecting; records mean what they think you mean.

Tanya Tagaq – Animism
Another I played at record club – both record clubs, actually – and a fantastic, powerful, singular album that came at me completely unexpectedly.

Sharon Van Etten – Are We Here?
Possibly my favourite album of ‘songs’ this year, which isn’t to say that the music/arrangements aren’t good – they are, albeit not spectacular – but that this is all about the melodies and the words. Words aren’t something I normally pay particular specific attention to, but impressions eventually emerge if you listen to something often enough, and Are We Here? leaves a troubled impression, hinting at violence and severe emotional turmoil (just take in the brutal repetition of “Your Love Is Killing Me”). We found ourselves playing this an awful lot almost subconsciously, reaching for it by default, which is generally the sign of a grower and a laster. Van Etten’s previous records hadn’t really chimed with either of us massively, but this did, and strongly.

Embrace – Embrace
I wish they’d released this record a decade or more ago, when I had time and when they might have got some attention for it. The thing I listened to most this year, if only, at first, to clarify in my own mind that it existed. Their best album by some distance, it did all the things I think I wanted them to do when I was 18. Except now I am 35, and it’s too late; I use music differently to when I was 18 or 21 or even 25, and want different things.

Longer thoughts here, if you want them, and of course back in the archive of this blog.

St Vincent – St Vincent
A fabulously-constructed record, boundlessly interesting, technically brilliant (as far as a non-musician like me can tell, anyway), but one with which I’ve not really emotionally connected. I agree with everything Rob wrote here, but I still feel reservations.

Warpaint – Warpaint
Surprised and a little sad to see this fall away from end-of-year lists, as I thought it was great. Seeing them live revealed that these aren’t just wispy jams; they’re tightly-composed, albeit ethereal, songs. We listened to this a lot in the first third of the year, soaking in the beatific, laconic grooves.

Nisennenmondai – N
Jon played this to us at record club, and I was delighted, because I’d seen Nisennenmondai live at ATP in 2011 and they were fabulous. I procured a copy directly, and listened to it lots; it sat in that spot occupied by the likes of The Necks, and perhaps by the Dawn Of Midi record from last year – metronomic and transcendent.

Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Delighted to hear Hadreas broaden his sonic palette, and spectacularly so; I’d enjoyed his previous albums well enough, but I adored this. It was very weird hearing a song as virulent and spiteful (with good reason, I must add) as “Queen” used as occasional incidental music on TV idents for C4 / E4. In some ways this works as a more youthful, angry counterpart to the Owen Pallett record. The hesitant delicacy of his previous albums was torn asunder by the tumult of this. And it sounds phenomenal.

Swans – To Be Kind
I find it interesting how Swans have become, over the last four years or so, part of the critical establishment, their albums effortlessly garnering glowing reviews and gracing end-of-year lists. Is this a sign that Gira has mellowed and become more accessible, or that critical tastes have broadened in the post-internet era, or that critical circles have become more niche and echo-chamber-y? Or all of the above, and some other stu8ff, too?

To Be Kind – as well as having babies on the cover, adding to the overall theme of 2014 – felt groovier, swampier, bluesier, and less monolithic to me than The Seer, despite being another enormous, semi-impenetrable slab of a record. I didn’t play it a great deal – because when do you find time to fully engage with a 2-hour exercise in misanthropic voodoo heaviosity? – but when I did, oh boy. John Congleton’s production probably helped the grooviness and pseudo-accessibility.

D’Angelo – Black Messiah
An obviously recent acquitrement, it felt surreal to walk into a record shop and buy a CD copy of this only hours (albeit 72 or so) after it was announced. The record itself feels, on early impression, like a worthy and logical follow-up to Voodoo, in much the same way as m b v felt like it could have come 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. More concise, definitely, but no less enthrallingly groovy, if groovy doesn’t feel like a diminishing word to use for something like this.

Spoon – They Want My Soul
Just another Spoon record, which is fine, because Spoon are great, but this time that felt like it wasn’t enough, somehow. Maybe I didn’t give it enough time, but that’s never been a problem with Spoon before.

Edit. Maybe it’s the Dave Fridmann production; I’ve not liked his work since I went on my anti-compression crusade a decade ago (OTT distortion does my head in like OTT reverb), and Jim Eno’s production has always been one of the things I’ve liked best about Spoon (after, y’know, the songs and the arrangements). While Fridmann doesn’t produce the whole album, his tracks are frontloaded, which establishes the feel. That said, “Inside Out” is an absolute keeper.

Aphex Twin – Syro
Immaculately constructed – this thing sounds absolutely astonishing in terms of sound design, mixing, and clarity – but was it actually great? “Minipops” delighted me on first hearing, and the whole thing is enjoyable, but nothing shocks like his most outrageous previous best (“Windowlicker”), or casts a spell like “Avril 14”, or just transcends astonishingly like “Flim”.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that this was the best album of 2014. Frightening, isn’t it? Now imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that U2 made the best album of 2014. This is nowhere near as bad now, is it? It’s a good record, and we enjoyed it quite a lot, but it is just Dire Straits with elongated pseudo-kraut outros. (Those outros are my favourite bits, btw.)

GoGo Penguin – v2.0; Neil Cowley Trio – Touch and Flee
Putting these two together as they’re both piano-bass-drums trios and ostensibly ‘jazz’; except that GoGo Penguin aren’t really jazz at all, they’re much more informed by electronica and stuff like Satie than they are Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck or Oscar Peterson. Which lead to some people comparing GoGo unfavourably with Cowley, who is lighter, jazzier, and more melodic, perhaps. But their intentions, as far as I can ascertain, are different, and so are their outcomes, even if they’re so close, to the outsider, as to be practically the same. Which is to say that I enjoyed them both, a lot, for what they are, not what the other is.

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Two token ventures towards hip hop, both alternative, both acclaimed; Shabazz Palaces woozing into almost ambient territory, while Run The Jewels hammered something far more physical. I’ve not listened to either enough to soak in the words (except that there’s a level of misogyny I’m not entirely comfortable with, even if it’s countered, on RTJ), but I probably enjoyed the physicality of RTJ more.

Objekt – Flatland
This was the last album I bought in 2014, a few days before Christmas, and as such I’ve not listened to it enough to really for an opinion of it. I’ve enjoyed the few spins it’s had, though, but not been struck by it sounding as alien or futuristic in its sound palette as some had suggested (ie. that where the Aphex Twin album sounded like an old Aphex Twin record, this sounded like something new).

School of Language – Old Fears
A lovely record that deserved far more attention, including from me; essentially a Field Music album (and sounding very much like Plumb at points) but with all the songs coming from just one Brewis brother (David) and musically inspired by Prince. Short and sweet, melodic, and beautifully produced.

Edit. Listening to this again and it really is beautifully done on every level; the tunes, arrangements, and mixing are all wonderful, warm, and full of depth. If I have any misgivings they might be about the lyrics; Old Fears is about all the misgivings, paranoias, and insecurities that get established at school and haunt you through adulthood, which could feel a bit #firstworldproblems coming from a white man in a developed country, but they’re handled with such grace and humility that Brewis gets away with it.

Scott Walker and Sunn o))) – Soused
Scott Walker and Sunn o))) are such a natural and obvious fit that I’m kind of baffled that this hadn’t already happened – we essentially envisioned it at Devon Record Club years ago when we played them back-to-back at a Halloween-themed evening. The reality is so predictable as to almost be redundant; I listened to this twice, thought “yeah, that does exactly as I expected”, and didn’t really return.

Liars – Mess
One fabulous tune – “Mess On A Mission” – and a lot of pretty good other stuff, but this wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped; and the pre-release marketing, especially their Instagram feed, got my hopes up. It continued aesthetically from WIXIW, which might have been a bad sign from the off; no two of their records have ever followed each other quite so obviously before. I played a chunk to our friend Debbie over the summer, and she was immediately propelled back to a world of early 80s Mute Records.

Hookworms – The Hum
A recent release, almost coinciding with the birth of our daughter, so frankly it’s not had enough attention.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
I prefer his songy-songs to his tracky-tracks, which can be a bit Fisher Price (‘my first techno’). “Heaven, How Long” is remarkable, one of my favourite songs of the year, and seeing him perform it live was a highlight, especially when I realised all the chaotic krauty synth wibbling during the extended climax was actually bass guitar. I’ll be very interested to see what he does next.

Karen O – Crush Songs; Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
These are both records that Em bought, and I’ve not paid massive attention to, to be honest. I’ve found diminishing returns from Jenny Lewis since Rabbit Fur Coat, which I thought was fabulous; Em informs me that the songs on this are probably her strongest since then.

Tune-Yards – Nicki Nack; The Notwist – Close To The Glass; The Antlers – Familiars
Really liked previous records by all of these, but didn’t bond with any of these current releases for whatever reason. There’s nothing wrong with any of them – The Notwist’s in particular I remember really enjoying for a week or two when it was first released (particularly the glorious pop of “Kong” and the MBV-aping “7 Hour Drive”) – they just didn’t really click. I’m pondering buying less records in 2015, in order to give them each more time.

Vermont – Vermont
Was desperate for something minimal and electronic, and saw mention of this somewhere, so I picked it up. Can’t remember a thing about it.

FKA Twigs – LP1; How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
I played FKA Twigs at record club, and enjoyed it for a few weeks but it didn’t stick with me for whatever reason.

Get The Blessing – Lope and Antilope
More jazz, this time rockier and with brass. This Bristol-based band have released several albums now, and I’ve enjoyed all of them that I’ve heard; they’ll never change the world, but that’s fine. Sometimes you just want music to be music.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
This is another record that just didn’t really click much, for whatever reason.

Goat – Commune
I’m not sure that Goat are doing anything that Voice Of The Seven Thunders didn’t do a few years ago, except wear masks and lie about who they are. It’s enjoyable, but they’re nowhere near as weird and earth shattering as hype for the first album lead me to hope they’d be. It’s just psyche grooves.

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
I just don’t feel like I need another Elbow record. The tension’s gone, perhaps.

Not albums of 2013

Of course the full ‘story’ of 2013 musically, as far as I’m concerned, involves a lot more than just the twenty albums in my last post. There are several other categories of records beyond albums newly released this year, and which I liked enough to include in that list, that made up my musical year. Hark at me, using terms like ‘musical year’. These are those, roughly divided into some sort of taxonomy.

Compilations etc

Archivists are under-valued in this country, perhaps. By me, certainly, probably because I worked in a library for five years, so I’m kicking against something. Anyway, I’m not really one for compilations, as a rule (because I’m such a dreadful rockist, probably), but I’m coming to appreciate them more as I get older, especially well-curated ones. These are three new ones I bought this year.

Deutsche Elektronische Musik 2
I still can’t deal with the proggy, folky ones, but the swirly, metronomic stuff and the crazy, rocky stuff is outstanding. Luckily there’s considerably more of the latter two types, especially the swirly, metronomic stuff. This is every bit as well put together as the first volume from a couple of years ago. Brilliant. (It’s krautrock, if the title didn’t give it away.)

I Am The Centre
The term ‘new age music’ makes you feel a bit sick in your mouth if you’ve bought into any kind of post-punk counter-cultural indie bullshit philosophy, but, honestly, what’s more ‘punk’ in spirit than this bunch of fucking crazy hippies making music to revolutionise your inner spirit to? I can’t think of much that’s more alternative than this. Some of it is very close to what ‘cool’ people call ‘minimal’, almost all of it is practically indistinguishable from the ‘ambient’ stuff that Eno and Aphex Twin et al have been praised for, and bits are very similar to The Necks or Stars of the Lid or whoever else you care to name. Just because there are field recordings of birds chirping in the background, or a flute, seems to make it unpalatable conceptually. Get over it. Why is Steve Reich famous but not Michael Stearns?

Who Is William Onyeabor
Caribou, Four Tet, and their mates have been dropping this guy’s name for a while, as well as sampling and just outright remixing him too. He made a handful of albums of Nigerian synth funk in the early 80s – extended afrobeat jams, but closer to kraut or disco than jazz compared to Fela – and then stopped and became a preacher and a businessman and stuff. Now he refuses to talk about his music, and those original records either sell for 50p or £500, depending on whether the seller knows wtf it is and thus how to pitch it. This compiles a load of his stuff together (duh), and it’s great.

Near misses / nonplussed

This is the largest and most awkward of the taxonomical sections that make up this weird list, and contains taxonomies within it; new stuff released this year, which I liked enough to buy, and perhaps liked really rather a lot, but which I wasn’t blown away by, or merely thought was ‘quite good’, whatever that means. Some of it was inches away from the other list, and got deleted last minute. Some of it was never anywhere near.

Close, but no cigar

A minor tweak, a moment of punctum; these were so close to being in that other list. The Pantha is too pretty and lightweight; The National over-arranged and busy; Primal Scream a touch workmanlike a touch too often.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Pantha Du Prince – Elements of Light
Satelliti – Transister
Primal Scream – More Light
Brandt Brauer Frick – Miami

Liked it, but nowhere near enough

Plenty of people seemed to love these, and I liked them, just not that much. The Fuck Buttons album simply didn’t hit me emotionally like their previous one; BSP and PSB were both accomplished and musical but lacked that final spark to make me love them; the Daft Punk was 20 minutes too long and burdened with cloying over-indulgence at times; Arctic Monkeys stuck together three great singles and some other stuff that was OK; Steve Mason was as emotive as ever but not as creative, perhaps.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain
Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa
Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time

Not listened to it enough to form a full opinion

Stuff I only just got hold of (Hecker, Emika, Dawn of Midi, Souleyman), never quite got to grips with (Dean Blunt), or couldn’t find time for, for whatever reason (Marling).

Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
Emika – Dva
Tim Hecker – Virgins
Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Thought it was awful

A dreadful, dog’s dinner of an album that I ought to have returned straight away. Flawed product. Useless.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Old albums

Possibly the most interesting bit of the list; nothing ‘new’ here, but it was all new to me, one way or another. Some things, like the Basinski, Russell, and Fleetwood Mac, I’ve been aware of for a decade (or several) but simply never got around to, until Devon Record Club exposed them to me and made them feel essential. Others are filling in the blanks of new stuff I’ve got excited by this year (Stetson, Holden, Grant), or revisits to things I thought I didn’t like first time around, but was wrong about (Fake). Others – House of Blondes – are whole stories in and of themselves, that I can’t quite explain.

William Basinski – Disintegration Loops
Arthur Russell –The World of Arthur Russell
Nathan Fake – Drowning in a Sea of Love
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
House of Blondes – Clean Cuts
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 2; Judges
Holden – The Idiots Are Winning
Various Artists – New Orleans Funk
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Albums from May, part 1

There seem to have been almost as many albums released in May that are worth giving a damn about as there were in the whole of the previous four months of 2013. They’re probably strategically launched in May so that people will know the words come festival season.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
In which The National begin their circumnavigation of what one might cynically call ‘MOR’. Which is to say that Matt Berninger is certainly ensconced in his 40s now, and his bandmates can’t be far if at all behind, and parenthood and reasoned perspectives make for a less angry band than they might once have been. Live they may still hurtle through “Mr November”, but I doubt they’d be able to write it anymore.

This isn’t necessarily a problem though, because rather than settle for obvious denominators, easy key changes and platitudinous melodies, The National have evolved in subtle, sophisticated ways. In 2013, their songs shimmer and meander more than they clatter and groan. I can accept this happily; they’ve already clattered and groaned. And with a larger audience now than at any time in their past, it’s a relief to feel that they’re not pandering to expanded (and therefore limited) expectations.

If The National have a problem, and all bands have at least one problem, it’s that they’re too too musical, too clever, that they have too many good ideas. Trouble Will Find Me is a gorgeous record, but it’s so stuffed to the gills with that gorgeousness that it might actually suffer a little from it. They’ve been edging towards over-arranging records for a little while, but here they may just tip the balance. They never single-track a vocal when they can double-track it; never settle for one beatific, anti-gravity guitar line when they can have two, and an organ track, and a piano, and a violin or three, and a whiff of gentle feedback coursing through the song, and a bassline. And that’s not to mention the drums.

All of these elements are sophisticated, beautiful, worth arranging, worth hearing. It would be a crying shame to isolate, eliminate, and waste any one of them. But at the same time, it’s almost a crying shame to use them all; they end up competing for harmonic space and attention, overlapping each other’s frequencies, obscuring themselves. And like a multitude of beautiful colours swirled together on a canvas, there’s a danger that, without absolute, consummate skill, you’ll end up with a dull brown.

Which isn’t to say that The National have made a dull, brown record; but some people, from some angles, will accuse them of having done so. I just wish that The National’s evident sophistication had been applied to what to leave out as much as what to leave in. Perhaps a hand like Jim O’Rourke’s at the tiller during mixing would have steered them into marginally more minimal waters. I’m thinking explicitly of what he did for Wilco with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, allegedly removing a host of subtle, experimental elements from each song with great care and making the entire record feel ten times more subtle and experimental as a result.

All this said, I still like Trouble Will Find Me an awful lot, and, despite my reservations, which still exist, The National have become (largely thanks to my wife) a definite favourite. If there isn’t a tune as direct as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” here, that’s OK, because there are several as indirect as “England”.

Primal Scream – More Light
I have been a fan of Primal Scream for the best part of 20 years. For most of the last ten years of that period, I have had absolutely zero faith in their ability to make a decent record. In their 30-odd-year career (and much of it has been very, very odd indeed) they’ve only actually made three albums that I really like; Screamadelica, Vanishing Point, and XTRMNTR. There are, granted, good songs scattered across their other records, and a couple of those records aren’t absolute disasters (Evil Heat is OK, just about), but those are the only three I’d defend.

So I genuinely thought Bobby Gillespie and co (which now seams to be just him and Andrew Innes, plus whoever wanders through the studio, now that Mani is back in The Stone Roses and Throb is long gone; even Duffy seems to be only an occasional sideman these days) were past the point of ever making another good record again. Really, really far past that point.

Which makes it a surprise that More Light is at all worth a damn, especially when Bobby is opining state-of-the-nation lyrics about teenage rebellion and “favelas up and down the M1”, as he does here from time to time.

The secret seems to be, unsurprisingly, working with a strong producer who has a vision. David Holmes takes the reigns here, having worked on XTRMNTR way back when (Bobby guested on Holmes’ own Bow Down To The Exit Sign a decade and a half ago); the intervening years have seen Holmes establish himself as a film soundtrack man first and foremost, and it seems as if Holmes has guided Primal Scream into doing what they might do best; soundtracking an imaginary film.

Bobby’s said that Holmes sequenced the album with this in mind; the propulsive, elongated “2013”, with it’s insistent 70s Bowie saxophone and kraut-ish pulse and Kevin Shields guitar, is a scene-setting title sequence, whilst the “Movin’ On Up” progeny “It’s Alright, It’s OK” is the joyous track over the closing credits. In between we get, to be fair, a handful of semi-turgid future rockers loaded with Bobby’s polemic (to be fairer, at least he cares, when many others don’t seem to), interspersed with awesome, unexpected diversions like “River Of Pain” (check out the orchestral eruption 2/3s through) and “Turn Each Other Inside Out” (those gorgeous twin guitars), and “Relativity”. And even the semi-turgid future rockers are a massive step above the awful modernist-country-blues of Riot City Blues; “Culturecide” (no one but Bobby could neologise such a word) and “Hit Void” are far more memorable and more fun than anything from Beautiful Future.

More Light isn’t an epochal impact like Screamadelica or XTRMNTR; I doubt it will change the way we feel about dance music or usher in waves of discopunk. But it also isn’t an embarrassment. Which, for Primal Scream in 2013, is an achievement.

Words on Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend to follow. And maybe some others.

Albums of 2011

It’s December again, miraculously, so I’ve taken all the released-this-year CDs that Em and I have bought, put them in a couple of piles, and taken a photograph of them. It seems to be becoming a tradition. You can click on the photo to see a larger version and read all of the spines, if you like.

Anyway, ten is a nice number, and words about records are good, so here are words about my ten (arbitrary) favourite records of the year, in reverse order, because, y’know, tension…

10. Wilco – The Whole Love
There can, and often does, come a time when you have the sad realization that you don’t so much love a band, as love a small part of a band. In my case, with Wilco, I love I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, and Reservations, and Spiders (Kidsmoke), and Company In Your Back, and At Least That’s What You Said, and Misunderstood, and I Can’t Stand It, and Poor Places, and Sunken Treasure… but there are whole big chunks of them that I’m not bothered about, even if there’s very little (maybe nothing) that I dislike. So I pretty much ignored Wilco (The Album), having been a little nonplussed by the smooth, mature proficiency of Sky Blue Sky. And I was trepidatious about The Whole Love, despite talk about it being a (slight) return to more experimental textures. In truth, I’m staggered by the two bookends, and especially Art Of Almost (when Cline and Kotche let rip for the last two or three minutes!), and could (almost) take or leave the rest of the album. But I’ll take it; the whole thing sounds stunning, and there’s something intrinsically pleasurable about watching (or listening to) human beings doing something they’re very good at; even when the songs are traditional and/or predictable, there’s always a skill, dexterity, and panache to the playing here that is impressive. And on top of that, songs like I Might and the title track are good pop/rock tunes in their own right, even if tracks like Capitol City veer a little too far into pleasantly inconsequential Beatles homage.

9. Walls – Coracle
I reviewed this for The Quietus; it’s very good. The opening track, Into Our Midst, rivals Art Of Almost as my favourite opener of the year. Lots of records tried something similar this year – The Field, Blanck Mass, Tim Hecker, Robag Wruhme and more all had at least something in common at some level – but Walls seemed to do it best.

8. Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know
We saw Laura Marling perform at Exeter cathedral a month and a bit ago; I’d say that her voice was possessed of a surprising power in a live context, except that it wasn’t surprising. Her debut now sounds callow and naïve, and even last year’s excellent I Speak Because I Can, which I adored, has paled a little in relief; A Creature I Don’t Know adds a sensuality and tension to her tunefulness and musicianship which provides a new dimension. On The Beast, the album’s central, emotionally unhinged, most electrifying moment, Marling channels something of the dark magic that crept into Mojo Pin and Lover, You Should’ve Come Over by Jeff Buckley. I look forward greatly to watching her career develop even further.

7. tUnE-yArDs – W H O K I L L
I was initially a little nonplussed by this much-hyped record when Tom played it at Devon Record Club; it seemed at first to be a clattering mess. But at some point in autumn it opened up to me, and clicked neatly into place; the energy and chaos of the opening trio, clattering hooks and beats and amazing, corrupted and pure voices, and the beautiful swoons and twists of Powa, still imbued with a passion and strength. Garbus is an intriguing musician and a great, soulful singer.

6. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
A continuous, sensuous, aesthetic pleasure, Jaar’s debut isn’t quite the minimal house odyssey some people wanted, but it is immaculately constructed, captivating and unusual, a strange nowhere land between techno and jazz and minimal and Germany and South American and east and west. I love it, and I can’t wait to watch him grow.

5. Destroyer – Kaputt
My first dalliance with Dan Bejar has impressed me enough to make me go back and investigate Rubies, Your Blues, and Trouble In Dreams; I like them all, especially Rubies, but Kaputt has something else going for it. Maybe it’s the aesthetic of smooth, 80s sophistication, the tight, highly held guitars, the saxophones and synthesizers. Or maybe it’s the strange nostalgia for other countries and other cultures. Bejar seems to do something different with every album – Bowie pastiche, bizarre orchestral midi-dreams, shoegaze overtones – so I doubt the aesthetic adopted on Kaputt will be continued into whatever he does next, but right now both Em and I are finding moments of this buzzing through our heads between plays.

4. Patrick Wolf – Lupercalia
I reviewed this for The Quietus too. It accompanied us on car journeys throughout the summer, something Patrick’s not done since The Magic Position. The first four tracks are almost too much to bear, too ebullient, too happy, too in love, but the album fulcrums on Time Of My Life, which might just be Patrick’s best pop song yet, and which tilts the emotions out of fairytale happily-ever-after into something much more prosaic and, therefore, more moving and real. And the tunes! Bermondsey Street! House! The Falcons! Together! I want Patrick to make an album of full-on German techno next.

3. St. Vincent – Strange Mercy
Annie Clark’s previous effort ended up being my accidental favourite album of 2009, a long-burning grower that crept up on me (and Emma, too) over months and months, intriguing and beguiling us. So there were high expectations for Strange Mercy, especially when she let Surgeon into the world as a teaser. In truth, the album didn’t strike me straight away, but I kind of wasn’t expecting it to after Actor, and I’m glad it didn’t. We saw Annie live last month, and I wrote the following:
“Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.”

2. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
I wrote this, and also this, and also this about PJ Harvey’s latest album, which is taking plaudits left, right, and centre this year, as well as various tweets, messageboard posts, and snippets in blog posts about other things. So I’m not sure I can write anymore, except to say that it’s wonderful, and poetic, and enticing, and moving, and a massive, massive accomplishment.

1. Wild Beasts – Smother

Likewise I waxed extremely lyrical about Wild Beasts’ third album back in May; it’s stayed near the top of my pile, where it’s accessible, because it needs to be, because I play it often, ever since. It, and its b-sides (especially the marvelous Thankless Thing), and Two Dancers, have been in the car, on the iPod, on the hi-fi, more often than any other records over the last 12 months, even Polly’s. Between These New Puritans last year and Wild Beasts this year I now feel like there are bands of boys with guitars (as opposed to bands of men with guitars, or lone women with guitars, or bands of women with guitars, or lone men with computers) who I care about, who I can invest in, who I want to go and see play live, and wear t-shirts adorned with their name. Smother is a subtle, creeping, emotionally and sexually tense and intense affair, passionate and impassioned at the same time as being incredibly controlled and nuanced. It’s my favorite album of the year.

The records that shaped my life…

Many years back I’d vaguely intended on doing a series of podcasts for Stylus about ‘epiphany records’, which is almost, but not quite, what this ILM thread is about. An epiphany record would always be an album which shapes your life, but not all albums which shape your life would be epiphany records; some of them creep up on you and act as trends in the development of your taste you’re your relationship with music, rather than turning points that spin your preconceptions and ears round on themselves and leave you facing a new direction.

But anyway…

Age 5(?): Dionne Warwick – Do You Know The Way To San Jose?
I remember hearing this on some oldies local radio program, on Saturday mornings, on the way to the supermarket. The lyric about “all the stars / who never were / are parking cars and pumping gas” meant nothing to me at that age, but stuck in my mind. I still love Bacharach’s way with a melody.

Age 10-12: Guns ‘n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction; Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Cassette tapes (originals, not dubs), inherited from my older brothers, and listened to over and over and over again, the way ten year olds listen. I still own a copy of the former, but not the latter. I see it as about my only guilty pleasure. I’d probably quite enjoy it if I listened to it again.

Age 14: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
I got my first CD player at age 14, and stole a copy of this, and Sgt Pepper, from my dad. They were an odd pair of Beatles albums for him to own – why not the red and blue compilations? – amongst the dinner jazz and Neil Diamond and Frank Sinatra; he’s not very psychedelic. The brass, the codas, the instrumental, the basslines – this album left an indelible mark on the sonic signifiers, the aural aesthetics, that I’d respond to for the rest of my life thus far.

Age 15-16: The Stone Roses; Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
The Stone Roses I first heard at age 10, seeping through bedroom walls, and ignored. Later, I’d hear their songs again, recognise their contours, fall in love, Carole-Anne the CD for what felt like every waking hour. (That’s a reference for Kate, if she reads this – “Carole-Anne-ing” is now a verb in my mind, and I don’t even know the source-song – ‘Carole-Anne-ing, verb. to play a song or album over and over again’.) Marvin Gaye I bought because Ian Brown said it was the greatest album ever. I don’t know if I agreed, but it certainly affected me.

Age 17: Orbital – In Sides
Other albums impacted upon me at this age – Paul’s Boutique, Post, Public Enemy, many others – as I was ravenous for sounds and sensations I’d not felt before, but this really stopped me in my tracks. I still remember, and recount, that first listen as an epiphany, as the epiphany, of my musical fandom.

Age 18: Embrace – Fireworks EP; Spiritualized – Ladies & Gentlemen; Jeff Buckley – Grace; Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album
Records that would change my listening, that would impact me on first listen, leave me open mouthed, that would challenge and confound me, that would hook me into communities and activities that would shape my life as well as my tastes, continued to come thick and fast. These are probably the key four.

Age 20-21: Primal Scream – XTRMNTR; Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
XTRMNTR felt like an important record, and epochal record, a record that would change things. I think it actually did – I can see its echoes ripple through an awful lot of 00s music, from The DFA to The Klaxons. Miles Davis, and the rest of jazz beyond him, was something I’d tasted, decided to explore, when I was 19, but which really started to click with me when I found In A Silent Way.

Age 23; Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
I don’t remember quite how I got here, or when I first heard it. I’m pretty sure that ILM and AllMusic led the way, my ravenous research and consumption of music aided and abetted by an undemanding job which gave me free access to the internet and a huge collection of jazz vinyl to explore. This seemed like the logical culmination of that. I barely ever listen to it these days.

Age 24: Manitoba – Up In Flames
Another epiphany – this seemed, on first listen, to have been designed to fit my tastes. I ranted a review about it, and followed Dan Snaith closely from hereon in. He’s got better since, and my affection and admiration for his music has grown, but the moment I bust this out of the cellophane and stuck it in the CD player is a strong memory.

Age 25: The Necks – Drive By
We played a lot of records in the AV department in the library – Fugazi, Underworld, O Rang, John Coltrane, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, De La Soul, Brian Eno, T Power, Charles Mingus, field records of religious Shaker music, and much, much more – but this was the record that was commented on more than any other, and always positively. I own about 8 of their albums now; they’re all the same, all different, but this remains the one I’ve listened to the most. So many times.

Age 28: Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
I’m not sure that any records since then have “shaped my life”; there have been so many, that the influence of any individual record seems miniscule. These two each feel important, though…

What I’ve not really dealt with here is singles – bar Dionne Warwick – even though they make up many of the epiphanies and trends of my listening. Maybe that’s for another post.

How to do a remaster / rerelease properly

Following Tom’s choice at round six of Devon Record Club the other week, I ordered a copy of Crazy Rhythms by The Feelies on Thursday (it’s my birthday tomorrow, and I deserve a present), took advantage of a free trial of Amazon’s Prime service, and had it arrive at work yesterday.

The only copy available was the 2008 remaster on Domino Records, which suited me fine, though I was a little wary as Amazon didn’t list the tracklisting, and I’d seen something about one release appending an (allegedly pretty good) additional song at the end, that wasn’t from the same era as Crazy Rhythms; as The Feelies have spread their career out over quite some time, often with big gaps between records, I didn’t want something from another era intruding on the nine songs I had heard at Rob’s house, and that I liked enough to want to own (even though their sound isn’t meant to have varied much over the decades!).

As I cooked dinner last night I opened the cellophane and stuck Crazy Rhythms on the CD player, and was delighted to see that there were no bonus tracks appended to the original tracklisting. I was also delighted to find, and a little impressed at the initiative of, a little credit-card sized… card… with codes to download a handful of bonus tracks – a single edit, two demos, and two recent live recordings (plus a download version of the album proper – which seems pointless as why not just stick it in your computer and rip it? Presumably this card comes with a vinyl release too…).

I doubt I’ll ever download these tracks, but the thought struck me as good, and innovative, and the kind of thing that, alongside a sympathetic remastering job and decent (but not ostentatious) packaging, makes for a good rerelease. I’m not bothered, as a rule, by bonus discs and demo versions and live versions and fancy box sets in the shape of the guitarist’s head and artwork postcards and gold-coloured vinyl and 5.1 surround sound DVDs and recreation t-shirts and USB sticks full of .wav files and mono versions and all that novelty bumf. At the risk of sounding like some kind of godforsaken hippy, I just want the music, man, on a CD, in a case that doesn’t prevent me taking it out easily enough to play as often as I want for fear of tearing the packaging or scratching the disc.

Maybe, if I really like a band, I might be interested in all the b-sides (and possibly related non-album singles) that accompanied the album being rereleased; it might be nice to have Paperback Writer and Rain tacked onto the end of Revolver, for instance (even though they should, chronologically speaking, be tacked on at the start); but I’m not complaining, at all, about having them together with We Can Work It Out and Hey Jude and so on in the Past Masters release – not being able to get hold of them at all (except for on a prohibitively expensive box set, perhaps), would be the thing that infuriated me here. Hello The Stone Roses and Silvertone records.

I know it seems like a luddite thing to say in 2011, but I still like the integrity of an artist’s intent (or an A&R man’s, perhaps…) regarding the sequencing of an album; having to rush to press ‘stop’ after I Am The Resurrection finishes because I’m not in the mood for Fool’s Gold is an annoyance (so a few seconds of added silence in which to do so is a good thing, fyi remastering engineers and product managers). Bonus materials as a rule, and especially putrid demo and live versions, should be stuck on a separate disc so I never have to listen to them unless I want to. Saying that, 5-10 seconds of silence followed by some choice, well sequenced b-sides, isn’t going to upset me.

As for the actual remastering, well… despite some perceptions, I’m not as fascistically anti-dynamic-range-compression as some might think. Certainly I don’t just want to hear a scuzzy, indistinct version with the levels pumped up towards digital zero – I want improved clarity, imaging, impact – but I’m not averse to things being made a little more beefy and modern, as long it’s sympathetically done, and they don’t end up tediously loud or, and this is especially important, digitally clipped.

Some serious audiophiles I saw online circa the remastered Beatles albums release in 2009 were getting haughty that the CD versions weren’t quite as good as some rare Japanese vinyl release that costs $600 or whatever, but to me, they were pretty spot on in terms of what I wanted. Likewise the Sly & The Family Stone and CAN remasters from a few years ago, and the recent Stone Roses, Paul’s Boutique, and Screamadelica rereleases. The 2003 Talking Heads ones maybe pushed things a half-step too far, likewise the Funkadelic series from approx 2005 perhaps, but neither is rendered anywhere near the kind of unlistenability achieved by Kanye’s Dark Twisted Fantasy; they might be loud, but they’re not distorted, to my ears.

Another thing to consider is whether something needs remastering or not; the 3CD set of Giant Steps from The Boo Radleys doesn’t mention anything about remastering on the cover, spine, or in the liner notes, which is great, because the original version I have still sounds utterly fantastic, and didn’t need anything doing to it to my ears (I don’t know what Martin Carr thinks regarding this, however). (I did buy the new version and give away my 15+ year old original, though, because, well, two discs of b-sides!)

(As a side note, both The Beatles and Sly & The Family Stone had their studio album remaster rereleases bolstered, a few months later, by the remastered rerelease of seminal compilations – Sly’s 1969 Greatest Hits set, which was my introduction to the band, and The Beatles’ epochal Red and Blue collections – for many people, compilations like this are how you get to know an artist’s work, and they can be just as revered as the ‘proper’ albums; it’s a shame when they’re forgotten amidst a flush of remastered studio LPs.)

The only major artist I can think of who I’m still waiting for remasters of is Prince. Heaven only knows if he’ll ever get his thumb out of his ass long enough to make peace with his record label and sort this out. I’m sure there are plenty of other, lesser-known but no less talented, musicians awaiting sympathetic rereleases. I’ll hear about them in time, I suspect. What I could really hanker after, though, is ‘fixed’ versions of albums from the last ten years or so that have been released with shoddy sonics on CD in the first place. Whether that will ever come to pass or not, I don’t know.

Albums of 2011 (so far)

So it’s about that time that I wax lyrical about the records I’ve bought, listened to, and enjoyed so far this year, as much to keep my mind clear with what I think of things as for the sake of spreading a little listening love around. So here goes.

Elbow – Build A Rocket Boys!
I’m unsure what I think of this, and indeed, by extension, Elbow, in 2011. On a phenomenological level, the act of listening to this is pleasurable; it sounds gorgeous. But I never do want to listen to it. I suspect, partly, that there’s a sense of darkness, of bitterness, of spite, that’s been eroded from Elbow’s music slowly since their debut, and I need that contrast to their wide-open humanism in order to give contrast, subtlety, and emotional drama. It’s lovely, like the last album, and I’m glad people like it, and I admire it, but I don’t love it.

British Sea Power – Valhalla Dancehall
I want to like this more; I’m not sure why I don’t. Here’s what I said back when it came out.

King Creosote & Jon Hopkins – Diamond Mine
I listened to this very intensely, and with great frequency, during darker evenings. I have no doubt I’ll pull it out again when the nights draw back in; it’s that kind of record.

LCD Soundsystem – The London Sessions
A clandestine ‘greatest hits’, perhaps; a posthumous wave to appreciative fans. I dearly wish I’d seen them live. I’m pretty sure I’d got guest-listed for a Bristol gig in 2007, but circumstances changed and we couldn’t go.

Primal Scream – Screamadelica (Remastered)
I love this as much as ever; I thought I didn’t / couldn’t.

Ron Sexsmith – Long Player Late Bloomer
The melodies are delicious, but the arrangements are a little too slick for my tastes. I must investigate his early stuff soon, in the hope that his compositional gift hasn’t changed, and that he started out more minimal.

Josh T Pearson – Last Of The Country Gentlemen
I’ve only listened to this once and only vaguely; it made me feel like a voyeur, and I don’t want to be made to hear the feelings contained within songs called Honeymoon’s Great: Wish You Were Her. But Pearson is such a talented that I know I’ll come around eventually. It’s only art.

PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
This is magnificent. Strangely, Americans I know seem not to get it as much as Brits.

Joan As Police Woman – The Deep Field
Ostensibly Emma’s (she loves Joan), but I like this a lot too; it’s an r’n’b album, essentially, but the kind of r’n’b that’s played live in a room, with long, crunchy, richly-textured guitar lines. A little bit Maxwell, a little bit… Second Coming by The Stone Roses, almost. Modern electric blues I guess (not Griff Rhys Jones stuff).

Iron And Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
I like this a lot when I listen to it, but I don’t remember to listen to it quite enough (possibly because the opening track is maybe my least favourite); it feels like a journey through the whole of American popular music, from country to soul to jazz to indie rock and back again. The tunes deserve more attention.

The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck
I’d hate to repeat myself, so just read this.

Bill Callahan – Apocalypse

Tyler The Creator – Goblin
Above and beyond anything else, this is too long; 15 tracks lasting 73 minutes is just far too much to take in, and it becomes boring. In fact, it starts boring; the opening track is a 7-minute “woe is me” monologue with a pretty tepid backing track. Beyond that… sonically, Goblin is Fisher Price El-P / Def Jux, a kind of lo-fi, schoolroom version of The Cold Vein without the sci-fi vision. It’s not got the concision, incision, or, and this is crucial, hooks of Dizzee Rascal, for instance, who was perhaps the last rapper this youthful, energetic, and (almost) controversial to get so many words typed about him.

And as for the controversy… lyrically, Goblin is the Aristocrats joke, but without a punch line. “I’m awesome / and I fuck dolphins” is absurd enough to elicit a laugh; “I raped a pregnant bitch and told my friends I had a threesome” is reaching so far for controversy as to cause a nasal snort as you try and decide whether laughing at is as bad as laughing with. To my mind the only things it’s not acceptable to make jokes about are rape, and infant death; the latter is what turned me off Chris Morris’ Jam TV program a decade ago.

The Lex nailed many of my feelings regarding Odd Future Wolf Gang in his blog for The Guardian; Tyler may be gifted (I’ve not listened enough to appreciate his talent for internal rhymes or his flow yet), but he’s not transgressive. He’s just very, very young, and trying very, very hard. But so were the Beastie Boys, and they grew up from snotty misogynists into something far more palatable, without losing their musical verve along the way. Because there is something somehow compelling about kids yelling “kill people / burn shit / fuck school” and “golf wang!”

Beastie Boys – Hot Sauce Committee Part Two
I’ve listened to this about four times, most of them in the car while driving to the airport. My initial impression is that it fits, sonically and in mood, almost exactly halfway between Check Your Head and Hello Nasty. This is where Beastie Boys ought to sit in 2011, as far as I’m concerned. The tunes, hooks, noises, beats, etc, are far more catchy and enjoyable than Tyler.

Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
People bitching about the brevity of this annoy me; it’s longer, and with far less songs, than Revolver. I like it; I really like about half of it. They seem, to my ears, to have finally interpolated the influences they’ve been wrestling with for the last decade. It’s not got the tunes or approachability of In Rainbows, or the impact of Kid A, but it’ll do nicely.

Panda Bear – Tomboy
I pretty much standby what I wrote a few weeks ago; I like this a lot. It doesn’t have the absolute peak, sublime moments of Person Pitch, but it’s more consistent, more structured.

Wild Beasts – Smother
I’m only a few listens into this, and none of them at volume of with intensity, but I’m enjoying it immensely; Anthony Hegarty and Guy Garvey / Paul Heaton fronting a subdued, sensual, 21st century Tears For Fears; which is not surprising given the Talk Talk name-drops made in the run up to its release. Could perhaps do with a little more energy, a little more chaos, a little bit of loss of control

Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise
This might be the album I’ve played the most (proportionally to the time I’ve had it for) this year; there’s a mix of electronic textures, live instruments, technoness, jazziness, etc etc, that is just bliss to my ears; vatic enough to stand calmly in the room and be ignored if needs be, but gorgeous enough to entwine around you and take your full attention if you want.

There’s a lot of white spines this year, so far.