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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.
Crystal Castles are the punks of dance music, to the point that III was apparently made without computers (which is quite something considering this really is dance music, as in the electronic thumpa-thumpa kind) and three of the tracks appear on the record unmixed. If you’re intrigued, you should be. Inevitably this collection is shouty and rough around the edges, so at times you turn these tunes down rather than up. But it’s also extraordinarily majestic, and it’s music for the brain, even the soul, not just for the dance-floor. We really do need to love musicians – any artists – who are committed to pushing the boundaries of whatever genre they’re working within, and not caring a damn about whether dollars will flow or not.
As I wrote earlier on Under the counter, I wasn’t convinced that this latest Sigur Ros long-player was going to be any good, primarily because we’d heard how difficult it was for the band to get their act together and record something they themselves actually liked. In the end they roped in lead-singer Jonsi’s boyfriend to make sense of it all. The fact is Valtari is one of Sigur Ros’ best albums. Yes, it’s glacial, and ethereal, the words that you’d expect to be used in connection with these Icelandic post-rockers. But it’s also their bravest, and richest, and deepest. As always the music patiently builds and builds and peaks before gliding out into nothingness, but it’s in the stillness where the real beauty is to be found, and that’s in the stunning closing third. You really shouldn’t miss this.
I’m a longstanding fan of Patrick Wolf, and we were lucky enough to see him at the Sydney Opera House this year right at the beginning of his worldwide acoustic tour. I’d feared that the rather flamboyant Wolf would be precious and precocious and – dammit: let’s call a spade a spade – outright queenie, but on this evening at least his company was warm, engaging and surprisingly self-effacing; I would have been more than happy to go back the next night and sit through it all again. Sundark and Riverlight is essentially a best-of collection, but the Lupercalian has re-arranged and re-recorded the selected tracks into a folksy, baroque stew, and it’s tasty fare indeed. And intimate. In short: a rare joy.
This second album by The XX is, as others have said, a little on the underwhelming side, though there’s something appealing about that – like a wine that’s not much on first taste but keeps on getting better and better until it’s all that you want to drink, and think about. The XX sound like no one else, which is something we should be very grateful for as it’s the best thing about the band, that and their skills in arrangement and production, which are always excellent. I like Coexist best at the end of the day, just as the light’s fading and the melancholy sets in.
Like Sigur Ros, Godspeed You! Black Emperor are moody bastards, but this time around (after the band put themselves on a long self-imposed hiatus) it’s all straight-out grim anger. At what exactly, it’s hard to tell – capitalism, the state of political discourse, modern life in general? – but this record is certainly a rally against something or other. Perhaps it’s against anything that’s safe and predictable and lovely and polished within an inch of itself. Enter Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! at your own peril – it’s utterly relentless – but this is a very sublime kind of misery.
That one special extra: if you’re a fan of thoughtful, haunting and intricate electronica that’s all dripping-wet streets, shadows in the dark and an overall feeling that hope is slithering down the nearest gutter-drain, go search out Kindred, a three-track gem from UK dub-step pioneer Burial. The coda of ‘Astray Wasp’ is simply staggering and is easily some of the best music recorded all year; it starts around eight minutes into this eleven-minute epic, but you really need to engage with the whole track to get the maximum effect. You can listen to it by clicking on this.
You have to take notice of a keenly anticipated album that opens with the gentlest of ballads. It’s brave, it’s courageous, and it’s exactly what contemporary music needs. And it’s what The xx do on Coexist, a record that fans of indie music have been looking forward to since 2009, when the band’s self-titled sophomore release bagged them the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. On paper, The xx are a curious proposition: a male singer who plays bass, a female singer who plays guitar, a percussionist who does it all with electronics (and is becoming a much sought-after DJ and producer). This is very simple, sparse, left-of-field pop music, as if your brother and sister and their mate are practicing in the bedroom next door. It is, however, beautifully structured and carefully crafted, every song a sublime mix of peaks and troughs, even silences. Both voices, despite their youth, are surprisingly soulful, but certainly not in a Whitney Houston or boy-band way; this is all about feeling and intimacy – if soul music is all about, well, bearing your soul, then The xx make soul music. But it’s also very, very modern.
Like any band that sounds like no-one else, there are challenges. How to explore and develop while holding on to what makes you special in the first place and keeping your fan-base? Iceland’s Sigur Ros has had the same problem, and they’ve sustained their career by pushing out the boundaries of their sound without really progressing in any way (leaving that task to lead-singer Jonsi’s side-projects). What is The xx’s answer? The band members were only 17 years old when they recorded their first album, and due to its success spent the next couple of years touring the world (and losing a second guitarist at the beginning of the journey). When they took a break they rather understandably hit the nightclubs of their native UK for a bit of r&r. In many ways, Coexist is the band heading in a dance-music direction.
Thankfully the craft and sense of dynamic remains. These songs won’t fill nightclubs, though no doubt many will be remixed (they’d be stupid not to give at least a couple to atmospheric beat-master Burial, who’d do extraordinary things with this stuff – darken it right up to the point that shivering might be a good idea). In fact, on Coexist, the songs are so brittle, so fragile, that it’s hard to imagine them even being played live. That opening ballad, ‘Angels’, is a case in point: it feels as if singer Roma Madley Croft is going to simply dissolve in front of our ears (eyes). ‘Reunion’, which contrasts Croft’s sweet tones with the deeper timbre of bassist Oliver Sim, is similarly delicate, although does manage to climb into a glorious coda that, it’s true, gets the toes tapping. Towards the end of the collection is ‘Swept Away’, which is The xx at their most clubby, the song building and building into a jungle rhythm (‘jungle’ as in Tarzan, not the style of dance music).
If you’re detecting a hint of reservation in these words, it’s that this fine mix of beauty and intimacy can become all a bit of a blur in the wash-up. On Coexist The xx don’t stop you in your tracks; it’s a bit like how you can make a mix-tape of your favourite songs only to find that there’s something lacking – sometimes you need some songs that you don’t like, or songs that you don’t like initially but end up working out, or songs that are edgy and dangerous and unexpected. Perhaps that’s where The xx should go next: into the land of danger and the unexpected; they’ve dipped in a toe but really should dive in head-first. They’ve proved that they can be audacious, now they just need to put that spirit at the centre of everything they do. And the world will be theirs.
(Postscript: if an album is good enough, as in potentially great, I buy it on vinyl. I own Coexist on vinyl.)
In Tasmania recently I gave a series of workshops on writing about place. Doing the workshops was a joy, quite frankly – I’ve taught in the university context before but I’d not previously given writing workshops to the broader community. After each session I’d return to the Gatekeeper’s Cottage where I was staying, shove in a pair of mp3-player headphones into my ears (that month I was on a steady aural diet of Frightened Rabbit, The XX, Four Tet, Sigur Ros, and Phil Retrospector) and then walk for hours along the Tamar River with a real bounce in my step and smile on my face.
To provide a bit of inspiration for ways of thinking about place I put together a series of quotes and prepared them as a hand-out. I reckon I’ve been thinking about place since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and it’s one of those elements of living that really turns my crank (check out those delicious mixed metaphors!). I thought I’d share the list of quotes with you. You’ll notice that a bloke called Edward Relph gets quite mention. A specialist in human geography, Relph is one of the legends amongst ‘place thinkers’, and his Place and Placelessness text is a real cracker.
Do feel free to add to the list as you see fit.
‘To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places: to be human is to have and know your place.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘A key test of sense of place rests with the degree to which a place in its physical form and the activities it facilitates reflects the culture who use it.’ (Francis Violich, Towards Revealing the Sense of Place, 1985)
‘We are not connected to the land, we are not connected to God, we are not really connected to one another. You can’t keep severing all these connections, leaving people to float around without a sense of history, without a sense of story. I think it leads to psychosis and I do wonder whether there isn’t a collective nervous breakdown.’ (Jeanette Winterson, as quoted by Helen Trinca in ‘A Particular Kind of Woman’, an article published in The Australian Magazine, July 25, 1994)’
‘The meaning of places may be routed in the physical setting and objects, but they are not a property of them – rather they are a property of human intentions and experiences.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘To have a sense of place is not to own, but rather to be owned by the places we inhabit; it is to ‘own up’ to the complexity and mutuality of both place and human being.’ (Jeff Malpas, from his article ‘Place and Human Being’, published in Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place Through Different Senses and Lenses, 2008)
‘A deep human need exists for associations with significant places. If we choose to ignore that need, and to allow the forces of placelessness to continue unchallenged, then the future can only hold an environment in which places simply do not matter. If, on the other hand, we choose to respond to that need and to transcend placelessness, then the potential exists for the development of an environment in which places are for man, reflecting and enhancing the variety of human experience. Which of these two possibilities is most probable, or whether there are possibilities, is far from certain. But one thing at least is clear – whether the world we live in has a placeless geography or a geography of significant places, the responsibility for it is ours alone.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘The crucial point about the connection between place and experience is not… that place is properly something only encountered ‘in’ experience, but rather that place is integral to the very structure and possibility of experience.’ (Jeff Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, 1999)
‘The essence of place lies in the largely unselfconscious intentionality that defines place as profound centres of human existence.’ (Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, 1976)
‘Place identity is closely linked to personal identity. ‘I am’ is supported by ‘I am here’.’ (Kevin Lynch, A Theory of Good City Form, 1985)
The XX by The XX. This is one heck of an album: minimal without being bland, tuneful without being vacuously poppy, atmospheric without disappearing up its own bum. ‘Basic Space’ is a cracker (that’s two bum references in one paragraph), as is ‘Crystalised’. Robert Smith must be listening with considerable interest. You can only hope this band has enough juice in it for more than one album (though things aren’t looking good: a guitarist has already done a runner).
Scars by Basement Jaxx. This is just so full of ideas it’s hard not to get lost in the balls of it all, and even the weaker songs, the ballads, are a joy. I loved ‘Raindrops’ the first time I heard it on the radio and a month or so later I still can’t get enough of it. Sure Scars might sound like your music collection shoved into a blender, but who cares when it’s as good as this.
Riceboy Sleeps by Jonsi and Alex. I must admit to being a complete and utter Sigur Ros obsessive (though that band’s latest album, Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust, had some great moments as well as the most shlockingly Hollywood-soundtrack thing they’ve ever done), so when I saw this in my record-shop I snapped it up immediately. And it’s a beauty: sure, it’s gentle and ambient but, according to the boys, no synths were used in its creation, and that approach brings an almost overwhelming warmth to the music. That said, it’s not all sweetness and light: ‘Sleeping Giant’ could well end up appearing in a David Lynch film.
Blood Bank by Bon Iver. For Emma, for Ever Ago is a modern-day classic in my book – it’s one of those albums that I love listening to on vinyl – and whilst nothing on this EP is as good as what’s on the main collection, there’s a lot to like here. ‘Blood Bank’ is a slow-burner of a song and ‘Woods’, a multi-layered, heavily treated a capella piece, hits its mark bang on.
The Resistance by Muse. Sure, Muse are getting more and more ridiculous (and, as everyone says, Queen-lite) as their career goes stratospheric, but this album, for me, is a guilty pleasure. ‘Unnatural Selection’ is one of the best things they’ve done, much better than the often-lauded three-part ‘Exogenesis’, which closes the album. Strap on the air guitar, slip into a pair of Freddie Mercury hot-pants and rock out with your…windows shut.