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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.
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 Beirut – again 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.
I’d be lost without music, I really would. It underscores everything I do, everything I care about. It makes the highs higher, the lows lower, and the mundane bearable. If you said that I had to spend the rest of my life on a deserted island and could take my book library or my CD/LP library but definitely not both, I’d take neither and rely on my memory. On this little blog-shaped pamphlet with the silliest title you’ve ever come across, I’ve written about albums so terrible that I’ve felt bruised for weeks, and albums so extraordinary that I’ve needed to sit with the chooks for half an hour, sometimes longer. But here are three records that have snuck up on me until I’ve realised that I haven’t been playing anything else.
I’ve been following CocoRosie ever since I saw their videos on Rage about five years ago – Antony from Antony and the Johnsons had guest-programmed the show, which is a clue to where this is going. There’s no doubt that the music these two sisters make isn’t for everyone. For a start, one of them sings like a little girl, the other like an opera singer, which makes sense because that’s how she was trained. They’re also fond of chucking everything into the mix, including…erm…toys, so that a song can sound like they’re cleaning their teeth while strangling a cat, all the while a carpenter’s in the background fixing the shelving. And that’s in the first sixty seconds. But when they get it right, which is more often than not, it’s an intoxicating concoction. I take my music – my art in general – with a generous dose of risk-taking, bravery and heart, and you get all three on Grey Oceans (2010). This is the sisters’ best record, and they’ve not compromised one bit. In a more adventurous – and just – world, CocoRosie would be royalty. Shit cover art though.
As you may know, I’m more than a little fond of melancholia. Which means that Icelandic minimalist composer Johan Johannsson spins my nipples big-time. His latest record, The Miners’ Hymns (2011), is the soundtrack to the movie of the same name by Bill Morrison. The music reflects North-East England’s strong tradition of brass band music and its association with the mining unions. Recorded in Durham Cathedral, these six pieces are slow, breathy, mournful and you can’t help feeling damp and pessimistic and that human beings really can treat each other apallingly. However, this collection contains some of the most climactic music this side of Arvo Part, particularly ‘The Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World’, which does nothing less than give me goose-bumps every time I hear it. PS. This is definitely not marching band stuff. It’s more like the sort of music you might listen to in a coffin as you say to yourself, Well, I had a crack at life but in the end I was a bit rubbish at it.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the completely delightfully The Go! Team. I’ve been following this Brighton-based collective (though really it’s just one person, the pop-music genius that is Ian Parton) since Thunder, Lightening, Strike (2004). This is the Spice Girls crossed with Sonic Youth crossed with advertising jingles crossed with surf songs crossed with school-yard rap, all of it recorded on a boom-box from the 80s, but it’s ridiculously infectious. On the first couple of listens, I wasn’t taken with Rolling Blackouts, because Parton and his cohorts seem to be treading old ground. But then I realised that this ground is just so god-damn good; it’s as if the band is saying, Look, we know we can only do one thing, but we’re kinda good at it, plus it makes us smile, and that’s what matters huh? In every one of these thirteen songs is so much tune and craft and sheer love that it’s difficult not to conclude that, actually, everything might be okay with the world. If you’re anything at all like me, The Go! Team is the best drug imaginable. Go buy it, slip it into your car stereo, and go for a drive in the country – you might end up never being happier.