For me, it’s been a good year for the more traditionally structured, narrative lyric based albums but that may just be down to my age, background and a weakness in my concentration at the moment for more expansive and abstract work.
Consequently, I haven’t been grabbed by much outside of the standard rock/pop/indie idiom this year. There have been some drone, electronic, abstract, collage things that I have enjoyed but quite little that has struck a very strong chord. However, to keep that in context, these are the type of albums that generally take longer to settle under the skin so it’s quite possible a more left-field release than those listed here will end up being a retrospective favourite. This is something that has tended to happen in previous years so no reason to assume it will be different this time.
Hip hop again is conspicuous by its absence but I fear, at this point, that ship has sailed for me.
Elements of more straightforward electronic/R&B inflected sounds than previously and I am not really sure why that is. Possibly the post-dubstep tendency for anything loosely resembling dubstep and fitting with the progressive dance music idea seems to subject to a trending bump that (to me) wasn’t so apparent in other years. Hence, I tend to find myself being exposed to more electronic music that utilises straightforward and more traditional song structures than I would have in the past, witness SBTRKT, The Weeknd, James Blake etc.
Apart from the albums, I think my favourite song of the year was 212 by Azealia Banks. It is just absolutely fantastic pop music. It seems to be one that has grabbed everyone who has heard it also.
In contrast to this, my tuppence worth on Video Games. I don’t really care for ideas of authenticity or whatever that seem to have informed most commentary on this track but I think I laughed out loud the first time I heard this. It is so over-egged as to be almost a parody of a pop song. People who like it seem to talk about the breathy, effortlessness of it. All I can hear is someone straining a gut to sound effortless and failing miserably. This is a horrible song.
Before I go into the favourites then, some disappointments to mention. I wasn’t expecting a lot from Bon Iverhaving seem them live on one of the tours after ‘For Emma..’ and being so bored I left a few songs from the end to drink in the bar until my friends were ready. At that point, I was pretty sure that that first album was nothing more than a happy accident and the future would hold either repletion with diminishing returns or a whole lot of production to cover up a hollow centre. Nonetheless, I tried the Bon Iver record having read such glowing praise of it. But really, come on, are you joking? If someone had played it to me and told me it was the Matt Cardle record, I wouldn’t have doubted it; dull, MOR dross.
Didn’t manage to see the attraction in M83 either, though a lot of people I know seem to love it. I think it is just something about the keyboard sound that make my synapses flare and a silent scream form in my chest. I just can’t get past that feeling to give the thing another chance.
The original of I'm New Here seemed overrated to me at the time. A decent and interesting enough album but it did seem a lot of the hyperbole was because he had managed to make an album as much as the content within. So perhaps I approached the Jamie xx reworking with a jaundiced eye and, admittedly, I didn’t give it a huge amount of my time but I found it pretty pointless. I found it added nothing to the original, textures that were in place were removed and replaced by angles that seemed only self-referencing to me, the elements of value inherent in the original lost somewhere in translation.
Similarly, I was completely unmoved by albums from The Antlers, Handsome Furs, Iron & Wine, Hercules and Love Affair; all artists who I had liked previous albums by.
Oh, and The Fall. Yes. The new Fall album is not good. There, I said it.
I guess, to those who know me, it can be no surprise that the albums by PJ Harvey, Destroyer and Josh T Pearson figure so highly on my list of favourite albums. They fit this template perfectly and, for me, share an effectiveness of narrative.
1.PJ Harvey - Let England Shake
Let England Shake touches on a number of areas that I have always loved. Strangely, it is the first PJ Harvey album I have really liked after 20 years of trying. I like the conciseness of the lyrics and the way there is a narrative delivered that, whilst seeming ostensibly to be based around events of the Galipoli campaign of almost a hundred years ago, resonated as a kind of ‘state of the nation’ for contemporary times. I have read some references to the fact that she was apparently also inspired by the likes of Rum, Sodomy and The Lash and the art of Goya and Dalí among other things. Some of these you can hear in the music and some in the lyrics but some other elements (like the Doors) are harder to reconcile. Nonetheless, the narrative is compelling and convincing and very effectively supported by the arrangements. I have no hesitation in calling this a genuinely great album.
The Destroyer record, Kaputt, is similarly affecting in its evocation of a time and a mood and perhaps resonates with me in part because that time is the early to mid eighties when I was between the ages of five and ten. The arrangements pretty much directly reflect this period and it stays just the right side of pastiche a lot of the time. In this way, it reminds me of the Gayngs record from 2010. Where it really triumphs however, is that lyrically it evokes so many of those feelings of being trapped in a suburban bedroom, reading NME and the world of the Smiths and New Order seeming glamorous and other-worldly yet somehow attainable if you could just overcome your diffidence. I am not sure I would have found it so striking though had I not followed Dan Bejar’s career all the way as I would imagine that voice could still be pretty off-putting to those unfamiliar with its growth over the previous albums.
3.Colin Stetson - New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges
In my top five, the only album that is a little different is the Colin Stetson one. It’s rare that I like any kind of brass unless it was recorded prior to about 1965. This, however, touches on a lot of elements I like, from the touches of sax redolent of sixties jazz pioneers such as Albert Ayler to the layers of percussive and bass sounds reflecting on a more modern non-jazz avant-garde. The combination of elements is managed beautifully making this an extremely engaging and rewarding listen.
4.Josh T Pearson - Last of the Country Gentlemen
Josh T Pearson had been pretty much AWOL for about a decade since the first and only Lift to Experience album. His Last of the Country Gentlemen is a wonderful album but if you are in the wrong mood for it, it can seem almost unlistenable. The record is a Blood on the Tracks style analysis of a collapsed relationship and, at times, can make for very uncomfortable listening. One could describe him as brave for sharing some of the details he does but you could also just think, ‘what an asshole’. I tend toward the latter sentiment but there is a car crash compulsion which overtakes my squirming at the voyeuristic nature of the listening experience. There is little added to the sound apart from his voice and some pretty rudimentary guitar playing. However, as simple as the playing is, the repetitions and elongations of ordinary musical phrases weave a tapestry that can, at times, be as effective as any sound collage. Each song is stretched to, or beyond, its limit and each one seems perpetually on the point of collapse. He just about holds the whole thing together though. You do come away thinking that, as with Dylan, for every extrapolation on the minutiae of the relationships failure, there is an innocent party somewhere out there given no voice to retort.
5.Richard Buckner - Our Blood
Richard Buckner is another straight ahead sort of lyrical album though, as ever with him, the songs tend toward the allusive and abstract, expressing more a sense of something than the thing itself. It is perhaps not as effective as some of his previous work but, over time, the songs may settle in me deeper and it could turn out to be a favourite. Apart from the songs themselves, I have always loved his voice and it sounds particularly fine on this one, age adding a little more his deep melodic groan as it plays between the lines, stepping on and off beat to wonderful effect, transforming these clipped and truncated sentences and out of context phrases into perfectly formed little poems of longing, regret and waste.
6.Atlas Sound - Parallax
Parallax by Atlas Sound may have appeared higher had it not been for the fact that I only picked up a few days before Christmas. I have found something to like in most of what Bradford Cox has done over the last few years, from Deerhunter to Atlas Sound. The sound of both acts seems closer now that it was initially and I love the lo-fi dream pop sound of this record. For the last week or two, it has been on the stereo once or twice a day and it has taken a bit of time to get inside it. It is very beautiful throughout, with beautiful and memorable melodies, shot through with a lovely delicacy. Like the Deerhunter records, I am pretty sure this one will resonate with me even more over time but even at this early stage I can be sure it will be something I will return to for years.
7.James Blake - James Blake
I had listened to the James Blake album a lot in the earlier part of the year but even then it was one that worked for me sometimes and not others. Still an excellent album but haven’t felt the need to hear it for a few months although I am sure I will return to it. Will be interesting to see where he goes next.
8.Trouble Books & Mark McGuire - Trouble Books & Mark McGuire
The Trouble Books and Mark McGuire record is surprisingly cohesive for such a collaboration. This was often my default album when I wanted something that lend itself to calm and contemplation and consequently it often ended up being played on the bus in the mornings when I was struggling to be fully awake and wanted to disappear from the sounds of the morning commuters. I find that the vocals tend to come to me like another instrument in the mix and, oddly for me, I have no idea what any of the songs about or what the lyrical content is at all.
9.EMA - Past Life Martyred Saints
I really loved the EMA album but it has tended to be one I listen to obsessively for a few days and then not at all for a week or two before repeating the cycle. I am pretty sure this will be something I will be listening to for many years. Like some of the others I have mentioned, it is a completely engaging narrative, supported by arrangements that are perfectly suited to it. It reminds me of Blood on the Tracks, Patti Smith and Kim Gordon and as wonderful as this album is, I cannot wait to see what the next one will be like. It can be hard to tell on the basis of one record but already it looks like the opening gambit from and artist who will be engaging and interesting for a very long time.
10.Bill Callahan - Apocalypse
I loved Smog and I love Bill Callahan. There is actually a lifelong narrative traceable in his music which makes each new release interesting regardless. There were subtle shifts in the dynamic toward the end of the smog moniker and these have continued through the Bill Callahan records. This one takes that on a little further as he seems surer than ever of his song-writing strengths and thus seems more comfortable to be loose with the lyrical structure. I would prefer the first two albums but, in its’ own way this one is also wonderful and points at interesting directions for future releases.
11.Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat - Everything's Getting Older
This is a very beautiful work, arranged magnificently by Wells, the only criticism is that sometime Moffat seems to be repeating elements from some of the old Arab Strap songs.
12.Tom Waits - Bad As Me
A far more convincing album than Real Gone. He is still writing good songs and the music is as lively as ever. The only problem I have here is that there are times when it feels like you have heard it all before, but I guess it is difficult to avoid that after so many albums.
13.Chelsea Wolfe – Apokalypsis
A little unfocussed in places and some of the production is a bit irritating but there are some cracking songs in there.
14.The Caretaker- An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
This will be a grower. Old time ballroom music tweaked and shifted to unsettle you. Beautiful stuff; the music of uneasy dreams.
15.David Thomas Broughton – Outbreeding
I have a love/hate thing with Broughton. It’s big and brash and all him which is good but sometimes the repetitions and the accent become wearing.
16.Eleanor Friedberger- Last Summer
Surprisingly linear given that she is one half of The Fiery Furnaces. This is still growing on me but it is a strong, engaging indie pop record so what’s not to like?
17.War on Drugs - Slave Ambient
Sometimes the vocals bother me with these guys but it is good to hear a band sound so strident and passionate without slipping into wannabe stadium rock cliché (I’m looking at you, Okkervil River)
18.Thurston Moore - Demolished Thoughts
A slow burner and initially I thought Becks production made it sound like a Beck record with a Sonic Youth influence. It’s starting to enter my mind by the back door though as guitar lines linger and seem like the ghosts of old Sonic Youth tracks I listened to obsessively as a teenager. He seems to be treating it as an elegy for their lost relationship and perhaps I am listening to it as an elegy for my lost (sonic) youth. I any case, its beauty is emerging slowly and it’s a good thing.
19.King Creosote & Jon Hopkins - Diamond Mine
King Creosote has often annoyed with some of his lyrics, the odd dodgy rhyme spolining an otherwise decent song, plus his albums are often very inconsistent. The presence of Hopkins seems to have focussed his efforts here and it’s a lovely little album.
20.Girls - Father, Son, Holy Ghost
This has some lovely songs and then some horrible guitar parts that really bother me. Overall, I have decided I like it but it mithered me a bit.
These were all pretty enjoyable but in most cases they were the sort of things I loved once and then wasn’t bothered with the next couple of times until loving again a while later.
21.Cat's Eyes - Cat's Eyes
22.Marissa Nadler - Marissa Nadler
23.Battles - Gloss Drop
24.Gang Gang Dance - Eye Contact
25.Ford & Lopatin - Channel Pressure
26.SBTRKT - SBTRKT
27.Gillian Welch - The Harrow And The Harvest
28.Oneohtrix Point Never - Replica
29.St. Vincent- Strange Mercy
30.A Hawk and a Hacksaw– Cervantine
These are all ones I want to spend some more time with (or listen to a second time!)
Beirut - The Rip Tide, Black Keys - El Camino, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Wolfroy Goes To Town, Chelsea Wolfe - The Grime and The Glow, Elbow - Build a Rocket Boys, James Ferraro - Far Side Virtual, Moonface - Organ Music Not Vibraphone Like I'd Hoped, , Pains Of Being Pure At Heart – Belong, Kurt Vile - Smoke Ring for My Halo, Weeknd - House of Balloons, Cults – Cults, Dirty Beaches – Badlands, Feist – Metals, Low - C'mon, Men - Leave Home, Mogwai - Hardcore will never die, but you will, My Morning Jacket – Circuital, Panda Bear – Tomboy, Radiohead - King Of Limbs, Real Estate – Days, Smith Westerns - Dye It Blonde, Thee Oh Sees - Carrion Crawler/The Dream, Tim Hecker - Ravedeath, 1972
These were ok but a bit disappointing
Frank Ocean - Nostalgia, Ultra, Horrors – Skying, Iceage - New Brigade, John Maus - We Must Become the Pitiless Censors of Ourselves, Magnetic Fields – Obscurities, Sic Alps - Napa Asylum, Tapes 'n Tapes – Outside, tUnE-yArDs - w h o k i l l , TV on the Radio - Nine Types Of Light, Ty Segall - Goodbye Bread, Wild Swans - The Coldest Winter for a Hundred Years, Youth Lagoon - Year of Hibernation, Yuck - Yuck, Zola Jesus – Conatus, Okkervil River - I Am Very Far
And finally, couple of cracking reissues.
Disco Inferno - The 5 EPs
Michael Chapman - Trainsong: Guitar Compositions 1967–2010
Mark McGuire - A Young Person's Guide to Mark McGuire