Right; it’s been a busy year – best crack on. Awash with Album of the Year write-ups we may be (they start in mid-October, nuzzling up against the time zone when idiots start putting up the Christmas decorations), but when you scribble about music it kind of comes with the territory. Mandatory behaviour; look sharp, comrades – there’s records afoot…
…many of which by artists that have done rather well in previous LGM year-end write-ups. Beirut (#1 in 2011) released The Rip Tide’s follow-up No No No – a pretty album for sure (especially instrumental ‘As Needed’ which wouldn’t sit out of place concluding Pet Sounds), but it doesn’t really push the agenda any further; a disc to like and enjoy, but not one for the top ten. It’s a similar tale with Malcolm Middleton’s alter-ego Human Don’t Be Angry (#1 in 2012); Electric Blue sure wafts and wiggles but it remains a curious affair, far closer to material released under his own name than the apocalypse pop of the eponymous debut, and perhaps a little unsure of itself as a result. There are times when I genuinely worry about Malcolm – I’m never really sure if I want to hug him, buy him a pint, or drag him outside and challenge him to a few frames of Queensbury rules.
Elsewhere, and a number of shoegaze-flavoured discs came close to infiltrating positions one to ten. With More Faithful, Montreal’s No Joy let slip their most erudite LP to date; a fine balance of quiet and loud that’s never too certain if it gives a fuck. Not many beyond North Carolina appear to have heard of White Cascade – I’m one of the few UK-based writers (or perhaps even the only one) to have been on cheerleader duties – but the trio’s debut LP Endless ripples with intelligence and evocation; the record gods should make them big in 2016 if they have their wits about them. And they may have been about for quite a while (albeit in various guises) but with Hidden Fields, The Telescopes take veteran nous and filter it through a haze of dissonant head-rush, culminating in the fifteen-minute epiphany that is closer ‘The Living Things’ – oh my.
If only I was intelligent enough to fully appreciate Sleep by Max Richter – especially the full eight-hour version; a new year resolution, perhaps. Discs a little easier to assimilate (but no less wonderful because of it) include Daylight Versions by The Leaf Library; Ghostpoet’s excellent Shedding Skin (his finest LP to date); and White Men Are Black Men Too, which didn’t quite reach the critical heights that the debut Young Fathers album did, but is no less textured.
And before the top ten, a quick nod in the direction of Grey Tickles, Black Pressure. I have little doubt that in future years, John Grant will be considered one of the most important artists of the adolescent twenty-first century. There’s a sense of presence to both man and material that stands distinct from the swash of every day soundscape, and a lyrical evisceration of the failings of id that functions as a form of benediction. The problem that I personally have with his third (studio) solo album is that it doesn’t do anything that I wouldn’t expect from a John Grant record. It’s not predictable as such – that would be the wrong word to use – but it doesn’t resonate in the way that would see me down the pub, accosting friends and strangers alike and demanding that they buy this record this very instant.
The public vote, held in the snug that is the Twitterverse, is here. Of my top ten albums of the year, numbers ten through two sit below. And in a day or two, I’ll post far too many words on a remarkable record that could only be #1 – it’s something very special indeed (edit: #1 here).
10 – Courtney Barnett / Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
(House Anxiety/Marathon Artists)
On the rare occasions when vaguely slacker, loosely lo-fi proto-garage rock isn’t hip, it’s on the cusp of being hip all over again. That’s the way the music biz works, churning out candidate after candidate of photogenic boys and girls in thrift store apparel and kitsch/ironic t-shirts, grinning up from the pages of style magazines and Sunday supplements. Musically, and there’s little that makes Courtney Barnett stand out from the crowd; her best-known track – ‘Pedestrian at Best’ – is basically a refried version of ‘On a Rope’ by Rocket from the Crypt; play the two back-to-back, and you’ll see what I mean.
And yet Sometimes I Sit and Think trades the occasionally hackneyed riffs and general lo-fi opportunism for something wider. Savvier. Lyrics (and delivery) that paint pictures; the words may be in primary colours, but through canny annunciation and a coy depth, Barnett conjures stories, fragments and images that take flight. A record that’s empathetic and truthful, pitched way above trope.
9 – Chorusgirl / Chorusgirl
If you’re objectively hankering for originality, this may not be the album for you – I’ve previously described the London jangle-pop quartet as sounding like Martha and the Muffins fronted by Nena (of ’99 Luftballons’ fame), which is no insult, but I’ll readily admit it could be taken as such.
However; if you allow a little subjectivity to creep into the narrative – not to mention an instinctive love of pop’s inert shininess – then Chorusgirl is a wonderful rush through trope. Energetic, stylish, fringe-swishing. In ‘Oh, To Be A Defector’ there’s one of those finely-balanced singles that could have been recorded at any time since 1982, yet it simultaneously pulses with a sly and contemporaneous glee, frontwoman Silvi Wersing adding poise, her soft German accent providing additional nuance.
It’s a record that’s also far from the indie-by-numbers package that any casual listen would suggest. As its title implies, ‘Girls of 1926’ carries a Weimar flavour, ‘Shivers’ bringing an edge of melancholia to proceedings. The guitars chime, the rhythm section steady (if never spectacular), and the entire record travels with a bang.
If you’re not a fan of this type of music, then I’m not going to pretend that Chorusgirl will necessarily convert you. But with its breathiness and sense of fun, it certainly wears its indie disco chops with pride.
8 – Luke Haines / British Nuclear Bunkers
Everyone needs a hobby; mine happen to include analogue synths, nuclear war (especially the kitsch, suburban, 1980’s British version – all Threads, Protect and Survive, and the BBC broadcasting episodes of Hancock’s Half Hour over emergency frequencies whilst the bombs dropped), and records by Luke Haines.
Let’s not tell fibs here; Haines’ “sudden” conversion to arthouse-flavoured, Armageddon-themed synth expressionism is neither as out of character as it first may appear, nor as wilfully esoteric as the concept suggests. Yes, he may be best known for a waspish tongue – in song and in print – which makes a primarily instrumental outing a source of very different messages – but he’s not a contrarian for the fun of it; British Nuclear Bunkers is flimsy and a little bit silly but also deliberate with it, each hook and siren wail signalling subterranean homesick blues of a distinctly Haines-ian nature
7 – Wire / Wire
I recently attempted to work out Wire’s combined age, but had to give up when I ran out of numbers. They’re old. And not particularly mainstream; even in the late ‘70’s their fanbase represented the art school appropriation of niche, of cult, of periphery – these days, and if it wasn’t for Marc Riley, a few old roasters, and the editorial team at The Quietus banging the drum, Wire would be in danger of being little more than a footnote, wheeled out for a namecheck each time the next bunch of oily up-and-comers wholesale pinch their sound.
In other words, those soon to collect their free bus pass have no business making great records, what with pop (even arty pop) being the realm of the young and the agitated. Also: don’t you just love exceptions? Wire have always been special (even during the many years when they weren’t being Wire). Intelligent but never alienating. Structured but never showing off; theirs is a sharp form of accessibility, displayed to great effect on their eponymous, fourteenth long player. Many of the themes invoked represent a wry amusement at modernity’s quirks and foibles, lead single ‘Blogging’ being a case in point. But there’s also a warmth (such as on ‘In Manchester’), permeating the space between abstract and concrete; perhaps their finest album in years.
6 – Jenny Hval / Apocalypse, girl
The first of three (!) Sacred Bones releases to make the top six; somebody somewhere in deepest darkest Brooklyn is clearly doing the right thing – which obviously includes signing Jenny Hval, whose third solo disc sparkles with wit and verve and provocation. Invoking the spirit of Laurie Anderson may be an obvious point of entry – there’s a similar sense of remoteness to Hval’s spoken word confessionals, prompting references to Big Science. Yet the manner in which Apocalypse, girl addresses issues around sexuality suggests a distinctly post-feminist confidence, both vulnerable and free-flowing.
Hence question-posing lyrics that never shy away from overtness; much of the language may arrive straight from your average Peaches’ gig, but there’s nothing gratuitous or pornographic to all that genitalia on (a-hem) display. Instead, against a backdrop of distended instrumentation, this is a sharp meditation upon what it means to be a woman in the twenty-first century. And just as importantly, what it also means to be a person.
5 – Föllakzoid – III
There’s always been a shamanistic element to Föllakzoid’s sound that’s otherwise easy (and therefore lazy) to file under psych or Krautrock or Chilean mambo jimbo. It’s something that travels beyond epic grind of track length or the thematics of oeuvre; chisel away the usual adjectives thrown about on the subject, and there’s often a suspicion that the trio spend much of their time dancing masked around a fire, peyote and lute close to hand.
And then there’s album #3. Or as Hayden Spencely put it (accurately) in Drowned in Sound:
“On first listening to III’s four tracks (is there any irony here or am I reading too much in to it?) there is a sense that the album could pass you by. Atmospheres are built, grooves landed upon and spun out to their logical extreme, but, to be frank, not much happens. The developments are subtle. They don’t catch you by surprise, but give yourself over to the album, and it will envelop you in its true power, which is this: when a vibe, a groove, is rock-solid, why change it?
It’s the band’s stated aim with this record to show what can be done with a minimalist techo approach to their craft, and as the lead guitar swirls in and out during this track’s sixth minute it is impossible to say anything other than that Föllakzoid have scored a resounding success. This album isn’t for you if you like your music handed to you on a plate. It’s not for you if you want constant twists and turns. It is for you if you’re seeking a suite of songs to immerse, and ultimately to lose yourself in. And when it ends, you’ll find yourself quite happy as it rolls round to the beginning and draws you in all over again.”
4 – Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress
“Each quarter of the band’s heaviest and darkest release to date offers a musical narrative unlike any of the collective’s previous material, though familiar enough in execution that longtime listeners aren’t likely to be jarred. Godspeed’s uncommon standard ascent from orchestral surges to bombastic climaxes is brought under a brooding, minimalist lens.
With a low-end trudge comparable to any metal you’ll hear this year, “Peasantry or ‘Light! Inside of Light!” wastes little time in getting to its sticking place, with the percussive lead-in quickly layered with horns, then guitar and strings, all engaged in a cohesive (but no less enormous) call-and-response between major and minor chords that’s set against a droning electronic backdrop. The song is on par with Godspeed’s singularly colossal sound, only now instead of working into its climactic moments with graduated progression, the sense of urgency is immediate and unrelenting. “Peasantry” also provides one of the album’s most stunning divergences as Sophie Trudeau’s gorgeously fractured violin wavers with Middle Eastern-influenced tremolos. Paired with the overwhelming roil of the other musicians, the beauty is all the more effective.” – Jonathan Dick, Spin
The shortest Godspeed LP by quite some considerable margin, yet such a fact doesn’t make it any easier to write about. A different range of vocabulary is required here; something beyond the dull old verbiage of music-related pontification.
A matter of scale, perhaps. The sheer size of the canvas. Leave this with me; I’ll attempt to spin out some commentary…
3 – Girl Band / Holding Hands With Jamie
I think it’s fair to suggest that this record is not very well. It’s left the house of a morn, only it’s forgotten to wear any trousers. And is plastered with the contents of the kitchen cupboard, again; it’s all a portent of yet another psychotic episode on the horizon.
Which isn’t mental illness as awkward metaphor; Girl Band have been more than open in interviews when it comes to how personal issues influenced the direction of their debut. Yet neither is Holding Hands With Jamie dependent upon a funny turn or two to bolster their aesthetic – there’s enough going on without the need for crutches.
Here’s what I wrote in The Skinny magazine upon release:
“Having checked that yes, this is an album – and not a cake made by hyper-active children with every conceivable ingredient thrown somewhere in the general direction of the oven – the Dublin quartet’s highly anticipated debut isn’t easily forgotten. Or even straightforward to categorize, the adjectives it attracts (abrasive, counter-intuitive, paranoid) insufficient when detailing the ferocious, freeform mess of antagonistic brutalism smeared all over the place.
Recorded in just three days on the back of a Stateside jaunt, this is sentiment pinging between shards of non-sequitur pain and Arab Strap-esque minutiae, lead single ‘Paul’ a sly blitz of build and bruise, ‘Fucking Butter’ obsessing over a well-known chocolate spread. And throughout, above scuzzy bass and obtuse percussion, Dara Kiely rants and wails with the cathartic honesty of Birthday Party-era Nick Cave, Alan Duggan wielding guitar as if a blowtorch. Such mess doesn’t always hang together (‘In Plastic’; ‘Baloo’), but when it does, Holding Hands With Jamie is either the greatest thing you’ll hear all year, or will give you a migraine; quite possibly both.”
I think I stand by that; the only difference between now and then (and after many subsequent listens) being that even the elements that don’t hang together quite as well exude a charm that verges upon the dangerous. And in ‘Pears for Lunch,’ a track that sums up 2015 from my vantage pretty much perfectly. Play loudly.
2 – Blanck Mass / Dumb Flesh
A few weeks back I was lucky enough to interview Benjamin John Power for one of those magazines that I write for; a year-end retrospective piece covering topics ranging from Throbbing Gristle and Jean-Michel Jarre through to Fuck Buttons and touring Dumb Flesh, the second Blanck Mass album (and a very different proposition to the debut it is too).
In fact, so many words have I invested on the subject of Ben Power of late that I’ve sort of Blanck Massed myself out. So whilst we wait for me to finish words on the record at #1, I’ll point you in the direction of that interview, instead. Enjoy.