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For some odd reason year-end lists seem to be getting a bit of a rough trot this time around, but I’m not dissuaded from their worth. I enjoy them, for the simple reason that I find new books to read and new music to listen to; ultimately they help to diversify and enrich my life. So, in terms of music, what follows are the records I’ve enjoyed this year. I make no claim to being a critic, so there’s nothing that says ‘the best’; I just want to share what I’ve been listening to. As always, not all albums were released in 2015 – one (the Max Richter) first came out in 2012.

Bronze MedalThe Bronze Medal’s first long-player is a treat from start to finish. A young band from Bristol, and clearly inspired by The National, Darlings is filled with beautiful melancholia and rich instrumentation. ‘Life Plans’ is worth the price of admission alone. It will be very interesting to hear what these guys do next – as a debut Darlings is as stunning as it gets.

The Acid is a band comprising British DJ and record producer Adam Freeland, a professor of music technology Steve Nalepa, and the Australian singer-songwriter Ry Cuming. With Liminal the trio has created a slice of intimate electronic – it’s one part Bon Iver, one part The xx, and one part The Breeders (for those of a certain age). The production and dynamics are sublime; here’s ‘Fame‘. Fascinating to read that they have been performing at experimental music festivals, which makes sense as on this record they go far beyond the comparisons listed above.

I’ve been following Lamb since their drum-and-bass beginnings in 1996. They have never been afraid of getting metaphysical and filmic on us and, at times, just a little twee, but Backspace Rewind Lamb is a highlight of their career. ‘In Binary’ is an absolute thumper and I play it often and I play it loud, and the song blew the roof off the Enmore in Sydney when I saw them live earlier this year – it was one of the most enjoyable gigs I’ve ever attended.

Neneh CherryOn Blank Project, Neneh Cherry has done what mega-selling recording artists should do: break free of all preconceived notions. Produced by Keiran Hebden (AKA Four Tet, someone else I’ve been following for quite a while) Blank Project is daring, experimental, and sounds utterly fresh. Sure it’s raw in parts, and it’s not entirely comfortable, but it deserves a stack of praise. Start with ‘Out of the Black‘. (Side note: I’ve made a mix-tape of the albums in this list for the car and Cherry’s songs are the strongest and most urgent.)

Pet Shop Boys are master songwriters but their output can be patchy. Electric, which was produced by Stuart Price (who worked on Madonna’s surprisingly excellent Confessions on a Dance Floor), is a ripper. Filled with melody and wit and worldliness – they cover Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Last to Die’ – there is never a dull or half-formed moment. ‘Love is a Bourgeois Concept’ deserves a video, and ‘Vocal’ is one of the finest album closers I’ve heard in years (wonderfully nostalgic video too).

Max RichterChanging the pace, the record I have listened to the most in 2015 is Max Richter’s recomposing of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Not only do I love the idea of a minimalist like Richter unpacking and then rebuilding a work as iconic as Vivaldi’s, it is also extraordinary to listen to. Richter has stated that if his reimagining makes more people discover the original, then he has done his job. Start with ‘Summer 1’.

A band that in my opinion simply can’t put a foot wring is The Go! Team, which is essentially Ian Parton, a one-man song-writing genius. Discarding the basement samples of previous albums, this time around Parton has used real instrumentation as well as collaborating with a fresh batch of vocalists. It’s true that Parton has a formula – infectious pop is his thing – but there is always such joy in his music. (And there’s more melody packed into any one Go! Team song than some bands manage across an entire album.) ‘The Art of Getting By’ has a coda that is so jam-packed with interweaved harmonies it’s hard not to throw you hands up in the air and cry.

Belle and Sebastian is one of those bands that have been around for years (since 1996 to be precise) but I’ve never quite managed to connect with them – perhaps the whole shy-bedroom-poetry-pre-hipster vibe put me off, or I was too busy listening to DJ Shadow. Hearing that after a 7-year hiatus they have come back with what they call their dance album, I thought I’d check them out. Girls in Peacetime want to Dance is wonderful: it’s clever, politically aware, and meticulously put together (as others have said, it sounds a little like Electric by Pet Shop Boys; case in point: ‘Nobody’s Empire‘). By no means is this record for everyone – with ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ they enter Eurovision territory – but they know what they’re doing and there’s a lot of good listening to be had here.

Sarah-Blasko-Eternal-ReturnSarah Blasko’s latest album, Eternal Return, is a sublime piece of work. With an electro feel overall, the selection comes across as a paean to love in the digital age, and while there is some darkness and loss there is never cynicism. There are no weak tracks, though ‘I’d Be Lost’ and ‘Only One’ are the stand-outs – both are gorgeous – and ‘Luxurious’ is exactly that. Here’s hoping this record does wonderful things for Blasko. It’s certainly done wonderful things for my car trips.

Another album that has hugely enriched my life is In Colours by Jamie xx, the ‘xx’ linking him to the wildly successful band of that name, for which he is the eletronica artist and producer. In Colours sees Jamie step well and truly onto the dance floor; the single ‘Loud Places’, which features Romy from The xx, is a hymn to nightclub possibilities, and the raga-esque ‘There’s Gonna be Good Times’ is ridiculously upbeat. In Colours was shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Prize and it’s not hard to see why.

I’ve also enjoyed No No No by Beirut (not Condon’s best release – it’s his first for the iconic 4AD label so perhaps the pressure got the better of him – but there’s still a lot to like, especially the single) and Features by the German producer Kris Menace (check out ‘Higher Love’, which has a vocal by Julian Hamilton from The Presets). Although I’ve not yet been able to hear full albums, I like what I’ve heard of Mercury Prize-winning Benjamin Clementine, and Floating Points and Majical Cloudz have been exciting new finds.

What a complete cracker of a year it’s been for music.  Beside me on the desk is a small tower of CDs, all of which I’ve bought this year and almost all of them could – or should – appear in any kind of best-of-2011 list.  As opposed to this year in reading, where, in the main at least, the books I’ve read have been slow-burners, the records that have come into my house in the last twelve months have demanded immediate attention.  Some of these records will go on to achieve the status of classic, which is thrilling for all concerned, even if the 80s seems to be having a greater influence on contemporary musicians than is strictly necessary.  Anyway, enough introductory crap from me.  Here’s the best of music of 2011.  I’ve tried to keep it to only six albums, but who knows what will happen.

Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming by M83 – this record is so extraordinarily ambitious that it’s impossible to ignore.  It’s also made with such craft and love, and you can’t ask for more than that.  This time around the main M83 provocateur Anthony Gonzales has created a double album of depth, delight, texture, joy, sadness, and – like Coco Rosie and DJ Shadow, who are a little further down the list – sheer inventiveness.  Sure this is synth-pop shoegaze with a touch of Toto, Thompson Twins and Simple Minds thrown in for good measure (there’s also a hint of the Seinfield theme tune to a couple of songs, which is rather worrying), but somehow it all hangs together so magically that it traps you until you realise that you’ve been playing it for days on end without a break.  ‘Midnight City’ on the first disk makes me want drive up to Sydney in the middle of the night, which would be a five-hour return trip, and it’d never happen, but when I listen to music as fine as this it makes me think that anything might be possible.  ‘Midnight City’ is also the song of the year, there’s no doubt about that.

Grey Oceans by Coco Rosie – it’s true that this album came out in 2010 but it seemed to go under the radar until this year, so it’s going to be in this year’s list, damnit.  I’ve written about this album previously, and it’s clear that Grey Oceans is Coco Rosie’s masterpiece.  It’s just as inventive as their previous albums, but this time the half-sisters at the core of the Rosie are searching for purity of musical expression.  They’re achieving a greater musical range, from balladry to weird-arse pop, to even nudging the dance-floor, though Christ knows what sort of dance-floors exist in the Coco Rosie universe.  If M83’s ‘Midnight City’ is the song of the year, the title track of Grey Oceans is a very, very close second.  In a just world, every household would have a copy of this album.

The Less You Know, The Better by DJ Shadow – Josh Davis is undoubtedly a cantankerous bloody thing, refusing to do anything other than make the music that he wants to make, and he’s had his missteps, that’s for sure.  He’s also in that infinitely tricky position of having made a much revered first album, that being Entroducing… from 1996.  Is The Less You Know as good?  Almost.  It’s more like the Psyence Fiction album he did with James Lavelle as UNKLE (1998): it’s widescreen, sentimental, experimental, all the while refusing to be categorised.  It’s fair to ask the question: what’s the point of DJ Shadow?  He’s neither a rap/hip-hop artist nor MC, nor is he the sort of bloke who spins records in nightclubs.  Davis makes music with samples, but the samples are put together so cleverly and seamlessly that it may as well be the product of an actual band.  But who cares when the music is as good as this.  The best way to approach The Less You Know is as a mix-tape put together by a friend who decided to make his own music because he couldn’t find any real stuff he liked. In a way, ‘Border Crossing’ is atypical of DJ Shadow; then again, because he does whatever the fuck he wants, it’s a good illustration of his modus operandi.

The Riptide by Beirutagain I’ve written about this album previously, but let me say at the outset that I love Zac Condon and his wandering (wondering?) band of troubadours, and I’ve been following this lot from the beginning.  This time, Condon strips things back to carefully crafted songs that are almost pop but thankfully – luckily – the melancholy remains.  These are intimate vignettes, almost as though they weren’t made for public listening.  In the past Beirut has sounded like a bunch of street-drunks trying to remember the hymns from their childhoods, but now they sound as though one of them has made a go of things, getting a flat, maybe even a dog, and is starting to think that the world may not be as hopeless as previously thought; perhaps there will be comfort, maybe even love.  The Riptide could be Beirut’s best yet.  Search out the title track if you want to hear what all this is about.

Rolling Blackouts by The Go! Team – yet again I’ve already written about this album, but I still mean every word of it.  I’m just so happy that I live in a world where bands like this exist.  Perhaps like Beirut (or M83 or DJ Shadow for that matter) The Go! Team shouldn’t work: a mix of Sonic Youth, Spice Girls, school-yard rap and 1960s TV-show theme tunes anyone?  No, didn’t think so.  It’s just that it’s all so freakin’ clever (‘freakin’’ really is the right word in this context), and the song construction so faultless.  It’s true that at first Rolling Blackouts didn’t initially grab me as much as I wanted it to – as others have said, it did sound like The Go! Team had run out of puff just a little (and who wouldn’t, quite frankly, when you’ve made a habit of making every song on an album sound like a single).  But I now realise that this one of the band’s best, because there’s more devil in the detail, and, dare I say it, maturity.  In the end this is bubble-gum pop-music with an edge, and it’s bonkers, but it’s also genius. Here’s T.O.R.N.A.D.O., which kicks-off the album.

Bon Iver by Bon Iver – the world’s probably written enough about Bon Iver, and I have too, but suffice it to say that music lovers around the globe were relieved to discover that Justin Vernon and Co had come up with something as good as For Emma Forever Ago (2008), potentially even going one step further.  I’m not entirely convinced that Bon Iver has anything truly meaningful to say, but in this purposeful obtuseness is also a very majestic kind of beauty.  Everything on this record is impeccably constructed so that not a nano-second is wasted.  I’m also not convinced that ‘Beth/Rest’ was a good idea – it’s just too REO Speedwagon for my taste – but there’s no mistaking Justin Vernon’s ability to make music that moves listeners, and we can’t ask for much more than that.

I can’t stop.  So here are two more wonderful albums from 2011.

Metals by Feist – if there’s anyone who could turn me from my wicked gay ways it’s this Canadian songstress.  Not only is she completely gorgeous, she has the voice of honey – if hers was the last voice I heard I’d die a happy man.  She follows up the resolutely poppy The Reminder (2007) with this collection of ballads; there’s nothing to get the toes tapping here (though it’s not hard to imagine that many of the songs become punchier live).  This is aloof music, austere even, and there’s more than a hint of Kate Bush, which is never a bad thing.  But what makes this record so very special is Feist’s strength (so to speak) in saying, I will not get poppier, I will go in the opposite direction, I don’t want popularity, I just want to be good.  Any artist who does that is an artist of confidence, and Feist is confident.  But also humble – how does that work?  If you want a good place to start with Metals, go looking for the soulful, bluesy meander of ‘Anti-Pioneer’.

Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf – here is yet another fiercely original artist, even if on this record Mr Wolf does get dangerously close to being this decade’s Rick Astley.  But everyone has a soft spot for a bit of Astley, don’t they?  What I love about Lupercalia is that as opposed to Feist, Patrick Wolf has specifically set out to make a poppy, commercial record.  Strange then that not much of it got commercial-radio airplay.  Perhaps Wolf is just too camp for these supremely conservative times.  Which is exactly why we need an artist like this, an artist who refuses to be anything but himself.  Despite his pop intentions, Wolf hasn’t lost his keenness for exploration, for experimentation, for new musical perspectives.  This album includes ‘William’, a song he wrote for the man he clearly loves and will marry in 2012; in his rich, articulate baritone he sings, ‘And I showed you my ugly/heart yet you did not/surrender’.  Now we just need Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott to listen.  Here’s another gem from Lupercalia: ‘House’.

With that, happy festive season.  Whatever that may mean to you.

After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.  Sadly I’m not the first to say this; it was Aldous Huxley, who was the first to say a stack of really interesting things.  Trying to put my jealousy aside, Huxley is right – music does express the inexpressible, which is handy because otherwise we’d be even bigger basket-cases than we are already.  Thankfully, the last couple of months have been awash with great music, and awash is an apt word, because one album I’m enjoying very much at the moment is Within and Without by Washed Out.  Frankly, that’s a crap name for a musical project, but it’s highly appropriate – twenty-eight-year-old former librarian Ernest Green (with a name like that of course he was a librarian) makes what the kids are calling ‘chillwave’ music, which, is also a crap name, but again it’s accurate.  This record reminds me of early 90s English shoegazers Slowdive (these names were never any good, were they), except Washed Out backs it all with shuffling dance beats.  Apart from ‘Amor Fati’, which is just a little too vacuously buoyant for my liking, this is finely crafted music.  It may have nothing to say, but it does say it pretty damn well.

I approached Patrick Wolf’s latest album Lupercalia with caution.  Early reports suggested that it was the poppiest Wolf record to date; someone even went so far as to say that Patrick is today’s version of Rick Astley, which is grossly unfair – and just a little hilarious.  I’ve been following Mr Wolf for some years now: he’s talented, hugely creative, takes risks, and he has the widest of emotional ranges (that’s not a euphemism, by the way).  Lupercalia is certainly the most straight forward set of songs that he’s ever done, but there’s still enough twists and turns to make it sound like nothing else on earth.  And Patrick is apparently getting married shortly, so we can allow him to be just a little chipper, can’t we?  Especially when he’s lucky enough to live in a country that allows more than one type of sexual orientiation to get married.  So I’ve found myself turning this record up loud and singing along and annoying the neighbours, who are probably sharpening their abattoir knives, or – perhaps, just perhaps – singing along as well.

Another artist I’ve been following for a long time is Zac Condon, otherwise known as Beirut.  Originally a solo project, Beirut is a band these days, though it’s an odd band to say the least, comprising brass and mandolins and accordions more than anything else (with the odd drum machine thrown in, just to keep us on our toes), the whole strummy-crash-bang of it all overlaid by Condon’s deep baritone that suggests an eighty-year-old drunk rather than the young and handsome chap he is.  Influenced by Baltic folk music, Beirut precariously straddles celebration and melancholia, more often than not ending up sounding like a bunch of homeless men having a Saturday-night jam down on the street corner.  The Riptide is certainly Condon looking for a poppier, snappier sound (perhaps he should do something with Patrick Wolf, which is a sentence I should have thought more about before I wrote it down; what would Mr Wolf’s fiancé say about that?), but it’s still utterly beguiling stuff.  Pour yourself a glass or seven, light the fire, and sing along to Condon and co as if there’s no tomorrow, which, you know, may well be true.

It’s interesting, I think, to take note of the music we listen to when we’re alone.  Perhaps there’s a dog sleeping on a nearby bed, and a cat amongst the cushions on the couch, and, at least for me, it’s highly likely there’s a glass of wine involved, but essentially, at moments like these, it’s just us, our own breath, our own heartbeat, our own living.

Recently, my alone music has been one – or all – of the following.

The Optimist LP by London-based acoustic duo Turin Brakes.  I’ve known their cracking song ‘Underdog (Save Me)’ for years, but I first bought this album, which came out in 2008, only twelve months ago.  I was a writer-in-residence – such a grand term, probably a wanky term – and had made a trip from Launceston, my temporary home, to Hobart to give a workshop on writing about place.  The Tasmanian Writers Centre put my up in an 1840s whaler’s cottage, which I loved despite finding whaling despicable, even historical whaling, and I began feeling this way when I was a little boy.  Whenever I put on The Optimist LP I remember that little whitewashed whaler’s cottage, I remember the novella I was writing when not giving the workshop, and how much I enjoyed the writing of that story, because I was writing it for myself.  I remember the kitchen in which I wrote for those few days, the view up to Mount Wellington, the fact that the infamous Salamanca Place markets were literally at the back fence, I remember that I was so happy.

The second ‘alone’ record is March of the Zapotec and Realpeople Holland by Beirut, which, in this context, is not a whole country but just one person, the ridiculously talented Zack Condon, a young man from the United States.  It’s a two-disc set: the first is Condon’s typical street-side oompa-oompa brass-band confection; the second is more electronic, a little bit Depeche Mode, maybe almost full-on night-clubby, even if it sounds like it’s been made on a cheap Casio keyboard.  The record reminds me of another residency, this time Bundanon, Arthur and Yvonne Boyd’s gift to the Australian people.  In 2009 I was on that isolated stretch of Shoalhaven River for a month, and I loved every second of it.  The words, the birds, the bushwalks, the late-night booze-ups with the other artists.  Each afternoon it was my little tradition to pour myself a glass of wine and sit on the verandah and listen to ‘March of the Zapotec’.  It felt like real living, true living, and I was so happy.

The third – and potentially the greatest – ‘alone’ record is playing right now and it’s Fordlandia by Icelandic minimalist composer Johann Johannsson.  There’s a fair dollop of Arvo Part in this music, plus some Craig Armstrong, a film-score composer, and, just a touch here and there, some Sigur Ros, perhaps even some Massive Attack, though I might be getting carried away there.  The point is lately I’ve been playing it most evenings, when a day of writing has been done, a meal’s been cooked and eaten, the television news has had its say, and the dark has come.  Yes, Fordlandia is dark music (check out the title track if you don’t believe me), but with its slow cascading minor-key string washes it’s also very, very beautiful music, and it will always remind of this great shift in my life, when I moved from a city to a town to put writing and creativity at the centre of my life, at least as central as we can ever do such a thing, because I can’t forget about love.

So.  Three albums. Two residencies, and a house that, sometimes, when I’m alone, I like to think of as a place where creativity might flourish.  Christ, where would we be without music?

And then there she was.

All week I’ve been marvelling at my happy, cheery little friend that has sprung up in a rather grim-looking black pot on the backstep.  Maybe I shouldn’t be that surprised, because I actually planted the thing – a geranium – over summer.  But still each morning, as I peg my bath towel on the Hill’s Hoist out the back, I look down and get a happy, cheery little vibe from my happy, cheery little friend in the grim-looking pot.  And pink isn’t even my favourite colour; actually I’m not a fan of the colour pink in the slightest.

But still, there she is, looking so happy and cheery.

Perhaps it’s because in the part of Australia where I live we’re coming to the tail-end of one of the hottest summers on record.  Or was it years? Or decades? I can’t recall – all this talk about the world falling apart weatherwise gets a bit mixed up after a while.

Or is it because, speaking of weather, no one seems to have the definitive answer on climate change – is it fact or fiction? – and what we should do about it – tax polluters or plant more trees?

Or maybe I’m cheered up by my happy, cheery little friend because she comes from my aunt’s place, a farm a couple of hours drive west of here, couriered to me by my brother as a cutting in a plastic shopping bag.

Or it might be because ten years ago some bastard poisoned parts of my front garden and all this time later I still can’t get things to grow there (one day I’ll talk about this, perhaps even here on this humble little blog-shaped contraption), so it’s just nice to see a happy, cheery little plant doing so well.

Or it might be because, unknown to me, I just need a little cheering up this week.  Could it be this?  It could be, you know.  Perhaps, perhaps.

What I do know for certain is that I’ve now taken a snap of my happy, cheery little friend and put her up here for all to see.

Isn’t she pretty?

To celebrate her fame I’ve just put on repeat on the stereo Beirut’s ‘The Gulag Orkestar’ (off the gorgeous 2006 album of the same name).  Not because it’s the cheeriest song in the world, in fact it sounds like a stack of men with banged-up brass instruments getting plastered on cheap vodka because their wives have run off with a herd of donkeys.  Or they just like getting drunk on cheap vodka.  Either way, Beirut’s music is music that makes me smile.

More to the point, I think my happy, cheery little friend is out on her back step right now swaying this way and that because she loves this music too.  Or she’s remembering what the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam once wrote: ‘how poor is the language of happines!’  So she’s swaying this way and that.

Yes, how poor is the language of happiness.

March of the Zapotec/Realpeople Holland by Beirut.  I’ve been following Beirut, which either is, or is very heavily driven by, the multi-talented, multi-located Zac Condon, since the first album, the completely wonderful Gulag Orkestar. This latest collection is essentially two EPs: in the first, Condon is backed by The Jimenez Band, a 19-piece brass outfit from Teotitlan del Valle, wherever the hell that is; the second contains a handful of electronic pieces under Condon’s pre-Beirut moniker of Realpeople.  If that all sounds like a bit of a mess, it is, but it’s a delirious mess – ‘My Night With the Prostitute from Marseille’ sounds like an early Depeche Mode b-side, while what’s on March of the Zapotec could easily have appeared on Gulag, which sounded like a bunch of Eastern European men getting really hammered on crap-house vodka, but managing to make great music while they were at it.  Charming, melancholic, flawed.  Perfect, in other words.

Primary Colours by The Horrors.  These guys have been on my radar for a while now, though they never really stayed there because they look like comedy Goths.  But this album is a pearler: My Bloody Valentine is a clear influence, but ‘Scarlet Fields’ and ‘Sea within a Sea’, which closes the album in the most majestic manner imaginable, are worth investigating.  Produced by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, and on the latter it shows.

Over the Stones, Under the Stars by Ned Collette & Wirewalker.   I first heard of this guy – or should that be guys? – when Rage played the video to ‘Come Clean’: not only is the film-clip a ripper, the actual song is bloody brilliant, in fact I’d go so far as saying it’s one of my songs of the year (stay tuned for another best-of list, it seems).  Sure, in parts this collection sounds like a wondering drunk bemoaning the fact that life, at times, actually a fair bit of the time, can be very shit, but it’s all done with such a keen attention to detail that it’s pretty hard to ignore.  I hear in this more than a dash of Red House Painters, if that bunch of misery guts were fronted by a more tuneful Bob Dylan, and that’s a compliment.  Into the bargain, this album is a true grower: it might not get you first time around, but be patient and it’ll come back like a sad wet dog.  Perhaps.

The Bachelor by Patrick Wolf.  I’m a fan of Master Wolf: he’s as camp as all buggery (yeah yeah, I know), but he sure can write a tune, and he’s also interested in mucking around with sounds and forms, often shoving into one song as many things that squeak and moan as possible, probably thanks to Pro-Tools.  And there’s more than a bit of Celtic rock here, which may or may not be a mistake, not to mention quite a few choirs…possibly children’s choirs, which are never easy to make work. But if there’s anyone who can do it, it’s this guy, even though he might look like the bastard son of some Morrissey-Bowie coupling action (whoa, no one should have to imagine that).

Merriweather Post Pavilion by Animal Collective.  This is a pretty special album to me because, by design, it was the CD I had playing in the car when I was down at Bundanon in April/May this year – it made that long, windy trip to and from the rather downtrodden Nowra completely magical.  There’s such joy in this music; at times it’s hands-in-the-air ecstatic.  I’m sure I’ll still be listening to this in ten year time…when I’m fifty-one years old…Christ.

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