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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.
No doubt you’ve heard of air-guitar – the art of playing an imaginary guitar, usually electric and often to Led Zeppelin – and perhaps you’ve heard of air-drumming, but you probably haven’t heard of air-harpsichord. I hadn’t either, until I found myself engaging in it last week. It was 9pm on a weekday and, as my daily routine dictates, I cranked up the record-player to indulge in some tunes before bed. This night I chanced upon an old LP by the classical/rock fusion band Sky. Released in 1980, the price sticker on the front said Sky 2 cost $13.99. The sticker surprised me – for years I’ve removed these hideous things from LPs, CDs and books immediately after purchase because price and value are different concepts.
Amongst this eclectic recording, which contains creative versions of Vivaldi’s Concert in G and a prog-rock reworking of JS Bach’s ubiquitous Toccata, is the Gavotte and Variations by the mid-eighteenth century opera composer JP Rameau. The liner notes cheerily state that this isn’t really a gavotte because the tune – or ‘simple’, which now I think about it is such a great word as a noun – should be played slowly. I doubt whether as a twelve-year-old boy I was interested in such detail, but I did love this series of seven variations very much, to the point where I drove my brothers, both older, to distraction.
Last week, shortly after I laid down the stylus, I found myself standing in the middle of the loungeroom and watching in amazement as my hands and fingers danced over a harpsichord keyboard. There are those who say it is a difficult instrument to play, but to me it was surprisingly easy – and I was great at it, not missing a single note even as each variation became so fast that it almost sounded like modern techno dance music. Regardless of how much a maestro I was, the Old Lady of the House and Cat the Ripper stared at me from the couch, declaring to each other that The Slave had finally gone completely bloody cuckoo.
I’d not heard this music for twenty years but every single note was familiar; I could even remember how each variation began and finished before it was played.
Why had I loved this music so much? Was it the simplicity? Was it the prettiness? Maybe the repetition? Or the relentless build up? Or the furious high drama of the last? Was it the plucky percussion of the harpsichord and the accompanying images of men in wigs and make-up and tight white stockings?
And the fact that I am still moved by it, despite all the music I’ve now heard and adored, tells me what exactly about my life? What core of me had been tapped?
If Bruce Chatwin is correct when he wrote in The Songlines, ‘Music is a memory bank for finding one’s way in the world’, then I’ve carried Sky’s version of Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations around in my body for three decades and it’s showed me a path through life. If Chatwin is wrong, then this music is merely the reason why I’m a brilliant air-harpsichordist. Either way, I’m deliriously happy that it exists in the world, that we have it in the first place.
(First published in Panorama, Canberra Times, March 28 2009)