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More and more I’m doing the majority of my music-listening in the car, which is primarily because, living in a regional area, I do so much driving, most of it through paddocks and bush. That means I’m looking for music that will help to knock off the kilometres, or keep me awake, or evoke the Southern Tablelands landscape around me. When an album does all three? Head explodes (in a good way).

Here are the albums that have kept me on the road this year.

No Geography by The Chemical Brothers

Released in 2019 and bagging a Grammy, this is one of the most enjoyable – and joyful! – records I’ve heard in years. Despite being a full-length album with 10 songs, the whole thing clocks in at just over half an hour, but not a second is wasted: every beat and note, every lift and release, is exactly where it needs to be. It’s just so damn listenable. There’s a vague hint of politics, or perhaps an attempt to at least reflect some of the dominant discussions, as though Rowlands and Simons know that the world is going down the shitter, but there’s also an almost unbounded celebration of the human spirit. Start with the title track and then get the party really started with ‘Got To Keep On’.

Kitchen Sink by Nadine Shah

The find of the year for me is Nadine Shah, a Londoner who has been described as the lovechild of PJ Harvey and Nick Cave (which to my mind only partly makes sense). Shah’s Kitchen Sink is chock-full of terrific rhythms, fascinating structures, and political lyrics, most of which explore contemporary feminism – it’s almost as if Sade has a daughter who makes music and she isn’t pleased with how women continue to be treated. All the tracks are brilliant, though the title track and ‘Ladies for Babies (Goats for Love)’ have truly worked their way into my brain. An album of power and grit.

Komorebi by BPMoore

Taking things down a notch, though just as memorable, is Komorebi by BPMoore. Perhaps due to the popularity of composers such as Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm, the planet is awash with neo-classical music, if I’m using the label correctly. BPMoore’s music is more rhythmic than most of its ilk, artfully employing drums and bass, which gives a wonderful warmth to the songs. The overall feel is less cinematic and more driven; there’s a strong human pulse to the work. Try the title track. Note: the album has been reworked, with stunning results.

Two electronica albums got beneath my skin this year. The first is Four Tet’s Sixteen Oceans, which continues Kieran Hebden’s relatively recent formula of combining experimental dance songs that could be played in nightclubs with ambient tracks that could be used to aid meditation – or falling asleep. With Hebden there is always the sense that he’s trying to reach for new electronic horizons, and he almost always succeeds. Like on No Geography, there’s a sense of joy in this recent Four Tet collection, as if Hebden is saying that it’s still pretty good being alive in 2020, despite everything. Try ‘Baby’ and ‘Romantics’.

The other electronica album is Crush by Floating Points. This collection starts with what can only be described as a chamber piece – yes, there are strings involved – though, of course, it is gently fucked-up to give a sense of what’s coming. The rest of the album alternates between minimalist bangers and highly experimental sections that sound like Sam Shepherd has left his machinery to do its own thing. At first I found the glitchy tracks to be more annoying than anything else, but eventually the album made sense and it’s had countless spins in the car. ‘Last Bloom’ is a good place to start.

Paring everything back is Emily Alone by Florist. This is lo-fi, bedroom accoustica and it’s wonderful from beginning to end. It’s a highly poetic collection – there is even some spoken-word – and fans of Nick Drake and/or Red House Painters will find much to love, especially in terms of wordplay: ‘My hair is dirty blonde now / and there are even little / sea sand pieces in there / probably’ (from ‘Moon Begins’). The opening track, ‘As Alone’, is the perfect place to begin your Florist adventure.

Finally,  Marét is an Australian pop-artist who is making songs that sparkle in the night. Despite having spent much of my life seeking out music that pushes boundaries (whatever that means), I have always loved perfect pop, and Marét’s pop is as perfect as you can imagine: there’s some Kylie, some Beyoncé, and a fair whack of straight-up disco, all of it intricately cut and polished. Try ‘Press Play’, which has a terrifically cheeky video – make sure to watch all the way to the end.

 

Another years goes by and yet again music has played such an important part in keeping me afloat; more: music keeps me feeling alive, properly alive. So, it is a bit of a surprise to discover that I didn’t buy as much music as I have in the past, and I can only list five new albums that have made an impact. Perhaps I’ve been revisiting older records – In Rainbows by Radiohead (2007) and Violator by Depeche Mode (1990) both have had quite a spin, and I have also been enjoying mix-tapes (yes, old cassettes) that I made many moons ago. In any case, the following albums have significantly enriched this year.

New Energy by Four Tet

This is the album I have listened to the most in 2019, partly because I love much of what Kieran Hebden has done over the years – Rounds (2003) and There is Love in You (2010) are beauties – and partly because this latest release is such a strangely wonderful suite of tracks. To my ears, it is more laid-back, ambient even, though there are also some bangers e.g. ‘Scientists‘. Is this an absolutely necessary collection? Maybe not, but considering the world is rapidly going to hell in a hand-basket, sometimes it’s just good, if not essential, to just let intricate beats and thoughtfully crafted melodies ease and lift the spirit.

Honey by Robyn

This is the first album of Robyn’s in which I have fully engaged, although many of her earlier songs, including her collaborations with Neneh Cherry and Röyksopp, are familiar. It’s a ripper of a collection and deserves repeated listens – at first it came across as a little lightweight. Give it time and the songs soon reveal themselves to be masterclasses in dance-pop. Intelligent dance-pop, with plenty of subtle left-turns to keep the ears interested. Check out ‘Honey‘. What a delight.

Psychodrama by Dave

UK rapper Dave won this year’s prestigious Mercury Prize for Psychodrama and deservedly so. Structured as a series of conversations (of sorts) with his therapist, this record chronicles the vulnerable and, at times, furious reflections of a young man dealing with contemporary racism and having a brother in jail for murder. In parts it’s understandably and appropriately tough-going, but the music, which mostly involves pretty piano samples, provides contrast. Psychodrama packs a punch and is very, very moving. Try ‘Black‘.

To Believe by The Cinematic Orchestra

Ma Fluer (2007) is one of my favourite albums, fusing piano ballads with jazz shapes and trip-hop beats and was not afraid to experiment. So, what would this outfit, which apparently spawned the ‘nu-jazz’ category, do next? We had to wait twelve years find out. To Believe is both extraordinary and frustrating. These songs are more, well, cinematic, with most rendered in lush strings; the various vocalists – including Moses Somney, Roota Manuva, Tawiah – give spirited performances; a melancholic mood dominates, which to my ears is no bad thing. Because the songs are so masterfully constructed and produced, the collection deserves close, immersive listening; but whenever I do that – and I have done it many times – I am struck by three things: the songs often don’t seem to line up internally, and by that I mean so much of them sound off-kilter (perhaps intentionally, to reflect the off-kilter times, ,or it could be a jazz thing?); and on one song, ‘Lessons‘, there is a weird and repeated clicking sound that infuriates, as if it is a mistake that escaped the mastering process – to be fair, it also appears on live recordings, so it’s clearly intentional. I would love to sit down with the band and ask them about how and why they made this record; no doubt it would be illuminating. I’m also sure that I will still be listening to this collection years down the track. For a taste, head to ‘A Caged Bird/Imitations of Life‘ featuring Roots Manuva.

All Melody by Nils Frahm

I am relatively new to Nils Frahm, even though I have been listening to experimental electronica and ‘new classical’ music for many years. All Melody is a beautifully constructed masterpiece, contrasting short reflective tracks with long and almost frenetic pieces that sound like what Philip Glass would create if asked to write for the dancefloor. As opposed to other popular contemporary composers, such as Ólafur Arnalds, All Melody is not easy-listening; it can be intense, even up-tight, but the genius comes from it being so warm and human. A classic of the genre. Check out this live recording of ‘Resident Advisor‘. (To think he is a classically trained pianist.)

While we’re talking new classical composers, an emerging one of considerable interest is Joram van Duijn from the Netherlands; his EP Handwritten (under his previous name of Elevate) is definitely worth checking out.

SUNDAY, midday: it’s been raining for 24 hours now, and no one around here can remember the last time this happened (in the newspaper this morning the police advised motorists to ‘pull over if they can’t see when driving’ – that just shows that we Canberrans have actually forgotten how to do this whole wet-day thing).  For lunch I’ve knocked off a few slices of shaved ham (which might qualify for Ordinary Ecstasy status; see previous post if you have no idea what I’m talking about, or you’re the police).  I’ve chased the ham slices with a couple of chocolate shells.  It’s highly likely that I’ll be making myself a cup of peppermint tea, because my no-caffeine diet is going gangbusters.  The opposite of gangbusters is The Old Lady of The House and Cat the Ripper who are happily curled on the lounge, dreaming of long mountain walks and cornering rats respectively.  We may not be leaving the house for hours.

But this is all by-the-by, because over the past few days I’ve been falling in love…truly madly deeply IN LOVE…with a new album.  It’s playing as I write this; in fact it’s been on high-rotation since I bought the thing last Monday.  (Does anyone else find semi-colons miraculous, by the way?  See?  Only when you’re in love do you start asking questions like that!)

The album?  Well, it’s the appropriately titled ‘There Is Love In You’ by Four Tet.  Four Tet’s 2003 album ‘Rounds’ is also much adored, because it too is electronic music with warmth and humanity.  But where ‘Rounds’ more than anything else was an organic album, sampling pianos and mandolins and saxophones (wait, come back – there’s nothing Kenny G about Four Tet’s Keiren Hebden) and even children’s toys, so it could almost be called a folk record, this latest collection is more dance-oriented, in the way that Animal Collective’s ‘Merriweather Post Pavilion’ is more dance-oriented.  But what really gets me about this music is the sheer beauty.  It reminds me of The Field in that Hebden gets a soft little riff going and then plays with it, taking it here a little, taking it there a little, building things up just a bit before bringing us down softly.  This isn’t glowstick-and-pills music; it’s more peppermint tea and a nana-blanket, though your toes will be tapping beneath your nana-blanket, nothing is surer than that.

There’s also a touch of Burial.  And hints of The Chemical Brothers, in the way that it sounds like the machines making this music are having conversations with each other, although Hebden’s machines are hanging out together in the sandpit, or making daisy chains, or sitting on the front steps with their arms around each other, just cuddling because cuddling is a good thing to do.  I don’t post MP3s on Under the Counter, but ‘Angel Echoes’ and the extraordinary ‘Love Cry’ are worth checking out, even if electronic music makes you want to run a million miles to the nearest beer-soaked hotel.  (And don’t YouTube them, because someone will have put the music to some shit images that’ll make it all look and feel like a badly drawn ad for aftershave.)

But not only has this album got my heart a-flutter and my arms out wide looking for the nearest thing to hug (The Old Lady of The House and Cat The Ripper are two lucky creatures today!), it also has the brain turning over, forming a question: what is it that I look for in the rather large amount of music that I buy each month?  It has to have its own voice.  It must know what it’s setting out to achieve, and it must be more than record sales and Video Hits.  It has to work my brain and heart and other parts of my body too, like my legs and arms, and…well, you get the picture.  It can’t be meretricious.  It can’t be copies of something else.   Above all, it has to have some kind of resonance; it has to aim for a response.  It should make me realise something about myself.

Four Tet’s ‘There Is Love In You’ makes me realise that I like music with heart, in the same way I like people with heart (amazing how many people don’t actually have hearts).  ‘There Is Love In You’ also makes me realise that I like music that says, ‘I really don’t care what you think about me, because I’m just going to be myself, because that’s all I can be.’

I like music that has the gentle fighting spirit: never try to take away my soul.

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