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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.
The 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.
On 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).
Changing 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’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.
Pop music: you’ve got to love the way it can get you in the guts. The other night, with He Who Likes Being Away At Conferences away at a conference, I came home late and, needing a bit of couch time before bed, I poured myself a glass of wine, propped up The Old Lady of the House on one side, settled Cat the Ripper on the other, and then put on a DVD. It was a collection of Pet Shop Boys film clips. I’m not a lifelong fan of the band; I’d only bought the DVD because (a) anyone who has the name Nigel Grey Featherstone and had adored the Brideshead Revisited TV series as a teenager should own some Pet Shop Boys music, and (b) it was really cheap.
Everything was fine (and just a little dandy) until a certain song came on: ‘Home and Dry’. According to the DVD’s running order, it’s one of the band’s most recent numbers. Whilst the tune itself is relatively joyful in that joyfully melancholic way pop music can do so well, the lyrics are as wanting as anything. “So my baby’s on the road/doing business, selling loads/charming everyone there with the sweetest smile/Oh tonight, I miss you/Oh tonight/I wish you/could be here with me/but I won’t see you/’til you’ve made it back again/home and dry/home and dry.”
But the film-clip’s imagery. It’s devastatingly simple: just hand-held video footage of mice scurrying about an urban railway station. Amongst the shiny silver train tracks, the mice dart here and there, searching out rubbish – an ice cream wrapper, a discarded biscuit, a mostly intact meat pie. Sometimes one of the mice suddenly stops and noses another (maybe they kiss, I don’t know), but then off they go again, searching for what has been thrown away. Sometimes they do little leaps for joy, or so it seems. Then, however, over the top of the music, comes the sound of a train roaring down the line. There’s no actual footage of it, just more of the mice going about their lives, oblivious to what might be about to happen.
Before long I became lost in the memory of one of my favourite books, Frederick by Leo Lionni. Rather embarrassingly, I’d read and reread the story as a teenager, not as a child. Frederick is a sad-eyed mouse who in the lead-up to winter spends all his time staring at the sun and the meadow and catches words in his sleep while his chums work so hard around him. But then, snowbound in their stonewall hideout, their food stash long depleted, the mice are forced to call on Frederick. ‘What about your supplies?’ they beg. So Frederick proceeds to describe all that he’d observed, which gets the clan through the cold and the dark, and he emerges a hero, complete with little flushed-red cheeks.
Lionni’s motivations are clear. Being a respected Italian painter and illustrator (and advertising executive, it should be noted), Frederick is an unambiguous plea: when all else fails it is imagination and aesthetic pleasure that keeps us alive.
I reckon the Pet Shop Boys would say three cheers to that.
I know I did, as I replayed the film clip over and over until I fell asleep.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, May 31 2008)