Welcome to the annual run-down of the years’ favourite albums, as voted for by readers of Lazer Guided Melody, the popkids of Twitter (both discerning and drunk), and that guy who lives in the park and swears at ducks. “You fucking stupid mallards,” he barks. “Your cunting feathers look like they were glued on by blind, haemophiliac pre-schoolers. And I played the fuck out of Summer 08 by Metronomy this year. Do you have any Tramadol to spare?”
As always, you’re an eclectic lot. Just under 200 LPs were nominated – that’s one highly expensive trip to the vinyl emporium – but it’s a fascinating list, even if 2016 represents some kind of weird times acme (and more of that in a few days, when I reveal my own Albums of the Year piece – a breakdown that looks very different to the below). As always, thank you for voting, and below: the top 25, flavoured with the type of comments music journalists (and in two cases, me moonlighting as a music journalist) like to kick around the spare room. Kicking off with…
25 – The Radio Dept. / Running Out of Love
“The Radio Dept. are as formally quixotic as their music, leaping and transposing styles and ensembles licentiously; from the fuzzy shoegaze illumined by their acclaimed debut Lesser Matters, stabilised by ex-girlfriend bassists, to the sunniest of sunny dream pop prescribed by now established regulars Johan Duncanson and Martin Larsson. During their hiatus they’d written an entire guitar album which they subsequently cast off – though they suggest temporarily – to make Running Out Of Love, which, rather than shifting towards a punky politicisation, offers a fervent protest-dance record rooted firmly in the tradition of Gil Scott Heron’s anti-Apartheid riddims and the Hacienda’s anarchistic raves.
Their inspirations are eclectic and vast; in an interview with the South China Post, Duncanson revealed the myriad of influences as including “acid house, club music, and anything else from the late 1980s era.” Yup, that 80s rave enthusiasm manifests itself in the stripped simplicity of ‘We Got Game’, while the waifish guitar in ‘Can’t Be Guilty’ sounds ripped from a discarded A-ha b-side, delivering that killer duality of sweetness and despondency that only 80s pop rock can really elicit.” – Kieran Devlin, The 405
24 – Hinds / Leave Me Alone
“Part of what makes ‘Leave Me Alone’ such a blast is the impression it gives of Hinds as a tight-knit girl gang, on and off record. The dual vocals of Carlotta Cosials and Ana García Perrote help, as do songs like ‘San Diego’ – its chorus is yelled with glee, complementing lines like “He couldn’t stay here one more night / So take me to the beach, alright!” Meanwhile, in ‘And I Will Send Your Flowers Back’ Hinds deliver the ex-boyfriend-skewering number that every album of this type should have – sonically tender, but a textbook girl group iron fist-in-a-velvet glove.
Hinds’ stated influences are relatively modern, the likes of Ty Segall and Mac DeMarco notable among them, but listeners can be forgiven for reaching back further. ‘Garden’, a paean to going out dancing which opens the album, is punky but wistful, with equal proportions of indie jangle – think the infamous C86 scene – and Velvet Underground fervour. Guitars are often treated with surfy reverb (‘Fat Calmed Kiddos’, a title which may have lost something in translation), employed on 1950s-styled instrumentals (‘Solar Gap’) and twinned with bizarre-sounding percussion that recalls early-80s postpunk heroes like The Raincoats and Young Marble Giants (‘I’ll Be Your Man’, debut single ‘Bamboo’).” – Noel Gardner, NME
23 – The Wedding Present / Going, Going…
“What do a group who emerged during the early eighties post-punk/DIY boom, outlived virtually all of their jangly C86 peers despite a series of line-up alternations and created at least one glowering early 1990s alt-rock masterpiece actually sound like in the era of Snapchat and self-driving vehicles? The lead single on Going, Going… is called “Bear”: a track that’s been included in the band’s live sets since 2013. It chucks in a sort-of contemporary reference to “songs coming up on an iPod”, but otherwise it’s The Wedding Present as we’ve known/loved them since 1991’s tour de force Seamonsters – opening squalls of feedback, a deceptively sweet melody, and Gedge’s lyrics fluctuating between self-lacerating and acrimonious in the midst of ferocious guitars.
Elsewhere ‘Emporia’ and ‘Broken Bow’ bring the seething noise, ‘Secretary’ the jittery Buzzcocks-style social anxiety. “Bells” features more terrific Gedge lyricism (‘I called you ‘Darling’ because I’d already forgotten your name. What a total unqualified disaster this all became…’) and there’s a lovely touch as the final track, ‘Santa Monica’, quotes the band’s own ‘A Million Miles’ from debut album George Best: a delightful – if brief – acknowledgment of The Ghosts of Indie Pop Past as The Wedding Present’s focus remains fixed on new horizons.” – Matt Tomiak, The Line of Best Fit
22 – Minor Victories / Minor Victories
“Considering the attention around what is after all a debut album – something to do with the identity of the protagonists, we’re guessing – Minor Victories is surprisingly and deceptively slow-burning, its many cadences revealing themselves only after repeat visits. Not in a Mogwai fashion (nor Slowdive, nor Editors for that matter); instead, each strand, every icy shard of synth and pedal-blasted guitar arrive submerged – almost restrained – Rachel Goswell’s vocals fern-like in the breeze.
Pieced together over a number of months by Editors guitarist Justin Lockey and his brother James, Stuart Braithwaite and Goswell contributing remotely, it’s a record that speaks of collectivism but also distance. Opener ‘Give Up The Ghost’ begins slowly, cultivating atmosphere beneath its contorted drum-beat and brooding synth chords. ‘A Hundred Ropes’ reclines across its retro pulses seductively, whilst ‘Folk Arp’ drifts in a shoegaze sheen, Rachel sounding vulnerable and delicate.
With additional assistance from James Graham (‘Scattered Ashes’) and Mark Kozelek (‘For You Always’), Minor Victories is frequently beautiful, and it’s the subtle application of the abrasive (on tracks such as ‘Out To Sea’) where this project really comes into its own; a few listens in, and captivation becomes its own reward.” – Duncan Harman, The Skinny
21 – The Goon Sax / Up to Anything
Listening to the debut album from Brisbane three-piece the Goon Sax is like living inside a great Australian coming-of-age movie – Noah Taylor/Loene Carmen’s The Year My Voice Broke, for example – sun-blinded wonder and trembling insecurities hidden under rapidly shedding layers of confidence. Each song is a wistful vignette, coloured by accident and hope, the commonplace transformed into the exceptional through a few carefully chosen bass lines and loping vocals.
Each song is a gem, roughly hewn from … what precisely? Teenagers Louis Forster and James Harrison formed in high school (via Harrison’s bedroom) in 2013; Riley Jones joined in March 2014 after a month of drum lessons. Two male guitarists, one female drummer, three songwriters, a Brisbane bedroom; songs of isolation and feeling uncomfortable in your own body, self-deprecating but never maudlin, with sideways apologies for the Brisbane heat. Sound familiar to another much-loved Brisbane rock band?
If this means that the Goon Sax are saddled with early comparisons to the other band in the Forster family, the Go-Betweens (who featured Louis’s father, Robert) – articulate, shy, expressive, in love with the Velvet Underground, the Pastels and Arthur Russell – then so be it. There are far worse bands to be compared to.” – Everett True, The Guardian
20 – Field Music / Commontime
“They’ve shape-shifted their way through the 2000s, working on a bevy of side projects between records and have let their different fares bleed together. It’s this consistent growth as a group that has made them one of the most engaging indie acts in England. Their newest record, Commontime, is yet another exciting new move for the band, chock-full of legitimate jams that will have both dedicated fans and casual listeners grooving along.
There are points on the record where the band give off a strong Squeeze vibe, especially when things get a bit funkier on tracks like ‘Disappointed’ and ‘Same Name’. Vocalist David Brewis has a range that stretches the former from a straightforward pop track into something more complex and layered. The way his voice fluctuates isn’t an uncommon flourish, but he pulls it off in a way that really sticks with you. He floats through the octaves over the course of a single word in some instances, but without making that feel interminable. ‘Same Name’ pairs his falsetto with a funky guitar riff and very low-key drumming, and it’s a simplistic formula that yields fun results. For a nearly six-minute song where not much happens, the arrangement still makes it one of the album highlights.” – Pat Levy, Consequence of Sound
19 – Pye Corner Audio / Stasis
“Stasis is Martin Jenkins’ second Pye Corner Audio album for Ghost Box. According to the label, it’s a sort of sequel to 2012’s Sleep Games, which came out around the time The Black Mill Tapes was re-released on vinyl. The creeping dread and analogue sounds that defined that series were a perfect match for Ghost Box, while Sleep Games‘ dark Italo and John Carpenter-esque inflections were a complementary addition. Made of compositions that speak to the subconscious, Stasis takes those ideas further.
Jenkins’ last few records—such as Pye Corner Audio’s Prowler and Head Technician’s Zones—found the typically non-dance music artist taking to the dance floor. This time, however, the music is split between hauntological club sounds and the producer’s usual electronic experimentation. On ‘Lost Ways’ and ‘Vorsicht,’ there’s dreamy disco with an otherworldly twist, and there’s a lovely acidic tryst going on in ‘Pulse Threshold.’ As for dark, urgent beats, there’s ‘At The Heart Of Stasis,’ ‘Autonomization’ and the eerie ‘Ganzfeld Effect.’ But genres aren’t so black and white here—every track is a mix of dark and light sounds. What Jenkins does best is concerned less with individual parts than the greater whole they create. Stasis is like a self-contained world in Ghost Box’s paranormal realm.” – Holly Dicker, Resident Advisor
18 – A Tribe Called Quest / We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
“Their final album and first since 1998, We Got It from Here could’ve been a self-referential nostalgia piece, a militant call to arms, or a Tribe and Friends-style fame flex, but it transcends such shallow concerns. Despite having every reason to showcase the Tribe raging against some culture-bastardizing, it stands against the same systemic cruelties that have informed many works of the hip-hop canon. This is a protest-minded project with a titanic belief in unity—a revelation coming this far after their heyday, in a world that feels just as scary for marginalized folks as the Reagan years they came up in.
Though jazz is no longer the obvious musical reference point, We Got It from Here draws similar inspiration from the legacy of black art. The record was produced entirely by Q-Tip, who created a polychromatic atmosphere molding day-glo neo-soul (‘Conrad Tokyo’), ‘70s Jamaica (‘Whatever Will Be’), and psychedelic studio exhibitionism (‘Solid Wall of Sound,’ which gets a boost from Elton John’s regality on the outro). While rooted in tradition, the sound is accessible enough to allow Tribe’s progeny to shine—Kendrick Lamar’s staccato-delivered righteousness on ‘Conrad Tokyo,’ Anderson Paak’s stirring soul on ‘Movin’ Backwards.’
It’s fitting for a final album functioning as a tidy baton pass to the new wave. The generation gap gets poked at with empathy in ‘Kids,’ a duet between Q-Tip and Andre 3000, in which 3 Stacks points out the hypocrisy in worrying about the young’uns: ‘Fuck it, kids, the grown-ups won’t own up / They stood on the corner / Like you once upon a / time.’ There are bigger problems: ‘We the People…’ links ‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’-style admonishments with Q-Tip’s bleak invocation of Trump World’s anxieties about Americans of colour. But the fun can’t be forgotten, either. On ‘Mobius,’ Busta Rhymes breaks from rapping to cackle in an inclusive moment that alludes to decades of Native Tongues-affiliated camaraderie. It’s the most joyful he’s sounded in years.” – Brian Josephs, Spin
17 – Leonard Cohen / You Want It Darker
“Finality is a theme. ‘I’m leaving the table/I’m outta the game,’ growls Cohen on ‘Leaving the Table’, as a hollow-bodied guitar prangs lonesomely. The song is actually about the end of a relationship (or many relationships); of the death of a ladies’ man. (‘I don’t need a lover,’ Cohen rattles, with weary irony, ‘the wretched beast is tame.’) But the hair stands up on your arms nonetheless at these repeated leave-takings. Cohen’s gimlet-eyed title track doesn’t mess about, either. ‘Hineni, hineni,’ he sings in Hebrew; (‘Here I am’) ‘I’m ready my Lord.’ On ‘Traveling Light’: ‘it’s au revoir’ – to a lover.
You Want It Darker could be addressed to fans pining for a return to Cohen’s bleakest songwriting; or a lover, or a higher power. As befits a lifelong spiritual seeker, born into a storied Jewish family, but well versed in scripture and Buddhism, the love songs have religious overtones, and the spiritual passages pack a lover’s passion. ‘Treaty’, for instance, seems to beg for a truce between warring lovers, but amid the rueful reminiscing is talk of water and wine, snakes and sin.
On the opposing side is ‘It Seemed the Better Way’, perhaps the most sombre song of all, one that tussles with approaches to faith. We did want it darker, it’s true, and Cohen has obliged. “It sounded like the truth/ But it’s not the truth today,” rasps Cohen, quite bitterly.” – Kitty Empire, The Guardian
16 – Psychic Ills / Inner Journey Out
“Subtlety has become one of Psychic Ills’ strengths. Or you could call it a weakness, depending on your perspective, particularly if that perspective is one that doesn’t hold their sonic consistency as a virtue. What might the band themselves think about their own trajectory, and how Inner Journey Out fits into the puzzle?
Digging for clues in the lyrics quickly uncovers contradicting sentiments. The gently waking ‘Back to You’ leads in with a call to come home. Immediately after, the Americana Spiritualized of ‘Another Change’, aloft on gospel backing vocals and pedal steel, rebuts the notion of return or even sustained stasis – lyrics that could also be a friendly caution not to spend too much time looking for a logical, linear narrative where there isn’t one to be found.
Inner Journey Out is an open book that is also resistant to interpretation. Pleasures like the duet with Hope Sandoval, ‘I Don’t Mind’, are simple but rich. Brent Cordero’s Wurlitzer and Farfisa enrich the hues of the horizon-kissing terrain, as do the numerous guest musicians and drummers such as Harry Druzd of Endless Boogie and Derek James of the Entrance Band. The album is drawn out in length (14 songs over two LPs) but glides by without drag. Its melodies are mostly free of dramatic tension, but there is something continually compelling about its cracked but unbreakable zen demeanor. If at times Inner Journey Out seems to repeat itself, perhaps that is just a reflection of life’s own circularity. When ‘Coca-Cola Blues’ admits there is nothing left to look for in the bottom of a sticky soda bottle, ‘No Worry’ searches for serenity along the roadside in a pair of dusty worn jeans: ‘I don’t worry anymore about the things outside my door. I don’t worry about the things that I can’t change.’” – Ian King, Pop Matters
15 – DIIV / Is The Is Are
“After the success of Oshin, DIIV’s 2012 debut, it’s safe to say subsequent intentions for this Brooklyn four piece haven’t gone according to plan. It’s a rarity for a new band to spend four years following up a debut, that time hasn’t been spent musing over analogue equipment and musical minutiae, rather dealing with a catalogue of mishaps.
Where Oshin was bold and robust, we have a very different DIIV here; fragile, world weary and battle ravaged, the ringing in their ears echoing the hopeless desolation of The Cure’s Disintegration era, the insistent drive of old La Düsseldorf albums, John McGeoch’s genius guitar work on the early Magazine albums, the minimalism of Mission of Burma, a shoegaze vagueness through by vocal reverb. At times they’re totally bummed out, others fizzing with a kind of synthetic joy, amongst stories of loss and despair, there are tales of optimism through recovery.
The nature of a double album means it’s either a glorious artistic statement, or a sprawling mess of self-indulgence. An act such as DIIV is so unassuming that it couldn’t be the former, but nor is it the latter. Yes; Is The Is Are is overly long, and they very much stick to their musical template throughout, but it’s crammed with great tracks. Safe to say Smith’s dreams of making it Kurt Cobain size are currently not on the cards, Is The Is Are being one of 2016’s best rock releases, however, is a different matter.” – Chris Todd, The Line of Best Fit
14 – Suede / Night Thoughts
“Twenty years ago, when the band were in their nylon-shirted pomp, Night Thoughts would have immediately implied filthy assignations behind lock-ups or down stairwells, red lightbulbs flickering behind suburban nets, furtive pre-dawn phone calls to all the wrong people.
Now, however, five years into Suede’s admirably strong and graceful comeback, the title is more suggestive of 3am non-stop neurotic cabaret, or as singer Brett Anderson puts it, ‘those times when you are lying in bed wondering what the fuck you’re supposed to be doing, that waking nightmare of real life.’
No longer so young, nor so gone, Suede find themselves operating in a very grown-up present. If the adolescent dream of adulthood is unlimited freedom and crazed transgression – ideas to which the singer was particularly committed in the ’90s – these songs face the less glamorous realities of getting older: sharpened nostalgia, increased fear, heightened awareness of time, a new understanding of your place in the world, and the place of those around you.
There are undoubted, unmistakable resonances with Dog Man Star. A kids’ choir na-na-naing on ‘No Tomorrow’ recalls the urchin chorus at the end of ‘We Are the Pigs’. Closing track ‘The Fur and The Feathers’ is a full-hearted, bouquet-strewn ballad about ‘the thrill of the chase’ that echoes the over-the-top emotion-spill of ‘Still Life’. Yet Night Thoughts never feels like the work of a band chasing past glories. They might not be able to change the past, but Night Thoughts is the work of a band very much at home in the here and now, all the while looking forward. Still something else, still something wonderful.” – Victoria Segal, Mojo
13 – Parquet Courts / Human Performance
“Parquet Courts are a band of sloppily-dressed white dudes who play pointed, angular guitar rock and whose sung-spoken lyrics are written from a wry, erudite, and sometimes detached point of view. So that means they will always have to deal with the Pavement comparison. It’ll trail after them like vulture shadows until they finally expire. It’s not their fault. It’s not our fault, either. It’s just a thing that happens. As someone who really likes Parquet Courts and can’t stand Pavement, this has persistently driven me nuts for, what, four years now? And so I’m hoping that Human Performance is the moment that comparison finally goes away. It won’t, but it should. After all, Pavement, lyrically, were about referential inside-joke opacity. Parquet Courts, historically, have had some of that in them, too. But Human Performance is the moment where they jump to another level, where they find powerful and particular ways to express weirdly universal sentiments that you don’t often hear in music. For that reason alone, they’re already as close to, say, the Modern Lovers as they ever were to Pavement. Can we all try throwing around that comparison every time we talk about Parquet Courts, for a change?
There are still some real flights of nervousness on Human Performance, like the surly math-rocker ‘I Was Just Here,’ the one song on the album that I skip. More often, though, they’re in that rare zone where they’re trying things — half-rapped cadences on ‘Captives Of The Sun,’ pretty murmuring on ‘Steady On My Mind’ — and those things are working out. Every Parquet Courts album has to have one long song that hovers around the seven-minute mark, and Human Performance has the best one yet. ‘One Man, No City’ is the best one, in part, because it comes from a place of fun, with a sparkly riff and a general brightness. But this is also a song where they throw in little things — funky conga-drum counter-rhythms, a guitar solo that sounds like a sitar raga — that they never would’ve even thought to attempt a year or two ago. Parquet Courts were pretty great when we first heard them. But they’re still getting better, and Human Performance is the most assured thing they’ve done yet. It’s almost scary to consider where they could go from here.” – Tom Breihan, Stereogum
12 – Cavern of Anti Matter / Void Beats/Invocation Trex
“Tim Gane’s spirit of improvisation has truly found fertile ground in his latest release, with a fresh ensemble of talents that is Cavern of Anti-Matter. Always welcoming collaboration with counterparts of avant-garde experimentation, Gane has teamed with Holger Zapf as well as former Stereolab bandmate, drummer Joe Dilworth, along with a wealth of surprising guest appearances. This unexpected gathering coordinates to create an output of hypnotic perpetual motion. Say hello to driving music.
On Void Beats/Invocation Trex, arrangements build momentum and snowball into a vitality to which one can only add accent. The attention to detail in the mixing of these accents is impressive in this collection, as it all coalesces into a sound that is both silky and relentlessly progressive.
The approach to forming circular as opposed to linear songs that Gane latched onto towards the end of his Stereolab days is found here, but with a more vibrant bouquet thanks to the expansion of the sound palette from computers and electronics that Gane has mastered.” – Charles Steinberg, Under the Radar
11 – The Early Years / II
“Ten years have passed since the London/Cheshire experimental rock quartet released their critically acclaimed self-titled debut album on Beggars Banquet (which is about to be re-released on Sonic Cathedral). In the period immediately after their debut hit the shelves, issues between various band members as to what musical direction they should take led to the absence of a follow-up. A couple of singles emerged (also on Sonic Cathedral, the home of II), but a new longplayer seemed as likely as Richie Edwards emerging from Loch Ness on the back of the fabled monster, playing bridge with Lord Lucan.
They remained a strong unit, cherishing their friendship over any inter-band tensions and gradually worked out a way of moving forwards that indulged the creative requirements of all parties. Thank Dieter Moebius they did. The results are simply stunning.
Opener ‘Nocturne’ roars out of the blocks like a band who know they need to grab your attention. A snaking analogue synth line insidiously intertwines with tough, tumbling drums reminiscent of how the Chemical Brothers re-appropriated Ringo’s ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ break for ‘Setting Sun’. The twin guitars are incendiary, while Dave Malkinson’s vocal, delivered in the deep baritone favoured by Ian Curtis for Closer, is darkly compelling. It’s a hell of a way to announce your return.
II is nothing short of a modern classic; the sound of a band fusing elements of electronic music with raw psych-rock to devastating effect – something more lauded bands have failed to do. If a fraction of the millions who buy Radiohead albums out of habit took a chance on II, The Early Years would have a fraction of the audience their music deserves. No need to leave it ten years next time, eh lads – you’re on a fucking roll.” – Joe Clay, The Quietus
10 – Steve Mason / Meet the Humans
Throughout his many musical pursuits – fronting the Beta Band, King Biscuit Time and Black Affair, and his 2010 and 2013 solo albums – the purity of Steve Mason’s songwriting has never before sounded so beautifully at peace, buoyed by the weightlessness of emotional resolution. Boys Outside and Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time felt like a process of recuperation, at times agonisingly dark, uncomfortably confrontational. But Meet the Humans is overwhelmed by warmth, dispelling the myth that with tortured darkness comes great art. Produced by Elbow’s Craig Potter, it’s both tender – as on the dreamlike ‘Through My Window’ – and triumphant: ‘Like Water’ is the type of confident, joyous indie anthem Noel Gallagher would trade his entire collection of collarless leather jackets for. It ends on the rapturous ‘Words in My Head’. ‘Please don’t ever listen to the words I say,’ he repeats on this heady love song, addressed to another, or perhaps, even, addressed to himself: ‘I love you, in my way.’ – Harriet Gibsone, The Guardian
9 – PJ Harvey / Hope Six Demolition Project
“Anyone expecting a traditional protest record hasn’t paid much attention to her long career. This music is impressionistically pointed. ‘Ministry of Defence’ is apocalyptic metal, with English dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson joining in to recite a list of mundane leftovers at the end of the world: syringes, razors and a plastic spoon. The ethereal ‘River Anacostia’ interpolates the spiritual ‘Wade in the Water’ to subtly evoke military-industrial toxicity. Harvey’s visit to Washington, D.C. seemed to leave the strongest impression on her: she traipsed through ‘Drugtown’ (chronicled in the deceptively upbeat ‘The Community of Hope’), did some light sight-seeing (the folky reportage of ‘Near the Memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln’), toured naval battlements (‘River Anacostia’) and sat and reflected on addiction at the National Mall (the punky sax rocker ‘Medicinals’). One song, ‘The Ministry of Social Affairs,’ builds literally off of Jerry McCain’s sexist 1955 blues stomper ‘That’s What They Want’ and gives way to Harvey’s modern ruminations about how people look at beggars and amputees as well as her own discordant, Jackson Pollock-y tenor sax solo.
The LP, as a whole, is a lot to process. Harvey often sings in an errant soprano that can turn reportage into abstraction. But when paired with her band’s tightly quilted tapestries of accordion, flute, violin, ‘field recordings’ and sax, sax and more sax throughout – all recorded in an art installation where anyone could watch the singer & co. work through one-sided glass – her voice becomes transcendent, a cry for change. What emerges is one of her most challenging albums, and one of her most urgent – ‘I believe we have a future to do something good,’ she sings on the almost poppy ‘A Line in the Sand.’ She’s making it.” – Kory Grow, Rolling Stone
8 – King Creosote / Appleman Meets Astronaut
“Once a prodigious releaser of albums on CDR, vinyl and CD – some 50-odd at the last count – Kenny ‘King Creosote’ Anderson has reined in his output since the acclaimed Diamond Mine and From Scotland With Love.
And it may be to his advantage: Astronaut Meets Appleman is a brilliantly concise, pointedly potent collection of songs whose apparent themes – the usual KC keenly-observed accounts of inter-personal relations and ramifications – hang suspended between the poles of digital and analogue, man and machine, heaven and earth, nature and technology, suggested by the curious title. That he manages to achieve this with such audacious musicality, masked by an understated charm and wit, makes it a singular, sui-generis delight.
Throughout, he creates an absorbing sound-bed from folk-rock grooves embellished with unexpected tones and textures: the sullen guitar thrumming of ‘You Just Want’ is strengthened by rhythmic breathing, while eerily keening violins dance around the beat like dreamy dervishes; epiphanic bagpipes cement the cyclical guitar and organ of chugging recluse-rocker ‘Surface’, and cascading sparkles of harp illuminate the wan cello of ‘Faux Call’ (a typical KC phonetic gag), a lilting waltz-time apologia crooned in his quavering tenor. ‘It’s the silence that somehow says it all, that I’m missing,’ he laments, a man made more acutely aware of absence by the absence even of silence.” – Andy Gill, The Independent
7 – Meilyr Jones / 2013
“Gone is the Welsh dandy who thrilled so many with Race Horses’ wonderful ‘Pony’. Instead 2013 is exceptionally orchestrated; bombastic yet graceful packed with nuances and an abundance of intricacies. Equally as addictive as his previous output, fizzing with vocal hooks that are sure to be heard chanted at shows.
A record that grows with time, one such track where this is perfectly evident is ‘Olivia’. From its fleeting bird song opening, to its powerful percussion and pummelling vocals. Whilst it starts out with Jones at his most brutal with the slow pace and the sharp turns fostering a more intense atmosphere. It turns into this wonderfully beguiling medieval dance number, with a chorus of maidens and another insatiable composition to accompany this otherworldly track.
As the record closes with the rather perfect ‘Be Soft’, there’s an elegance that fits the exuberance of the orchestra in this track making it the perfect ending. 2013 compounds all of its hype, it’s an album that possesses enthusiasm and excitement but it is tempered with maturity and depth creating this phenomenal sound. Quite honestly one of the finest records I’ve heard this year.” – Lee Hammond, Louder than War
6 – Whyte Horses / Pop Or Not
“Mancunian crate digger Dom Thomas is in charge of thee Whyte Horses, a band who craft loose pop vignettes like they’re planets doing their own thing in an overarching galaxy. Pop Or Not is an ickle slice of psychedelic Mercury, and it moves onto ‘The Snowfalls’ like it’s the slightly bigger Venus. Mixing in proper song-written tunes with swirling and often looping jams, it sounds like this band are making the kind of record Maston, Jacco Gardner or Vic Mars would, only with the constant melodic reshuffling of Woo.
Pop Or Not has a lot of summer tricks in its bag: ‘The Snowfalls’ promises lovely, finely-jangled riffs and skyward harmonies, while ‘Peach Tree Street’ offers a slower tune for your hot-weather lethargy by going down into a slower tempo and scattering its chords like shade. Thomas’ band have a knack for creating a disparate collection of songs that both blend together and wander away from the pack — the result being that you’re never tired of what you’re listening to, but you’re always cosied by it. The sicky-sweet, highly xylophonic ‘60s pop of ‘La Couleur Originelle’ is a far cry from the dreamy synth swirl of ‘She Owns the World’, but the two tracks get along quite well next to one another.
Listen to this on a bright day, in a good mood, when you’re expecting things to stay that way: it’s seventeen songs long and it exists for those clear-minded days when you just want to follow a good riff down the slide. Quite alright.” – Robin, Norman Records
5 – Teenage Fanclub / Here
“If you fall for Teenage Fanclub, you fall hard. The Caledonian quartet has spread its influence wide for more than a quarter of a century, traversing genres and musical eras with ease whilst consistently producing the most perfectly crafted, harmony-laden guitar-pop imaginable. Here is The Fannies’ tenth album, and it’s quite possibly their finest.
Cocksure power-pop opener ‘I’m In Love’ is an unabashed fuzz of warmth and affection from perhaps the band’s soppiest member, Blake. It’s the sound of the realisation of pure connection, the unashamed proclamation of the gut-rush of love. Then to ‘Thin Air’, the aural imagining of Gerry Love’s soul. It paints the colours of his headspace with glorious positivity as the singer looks to the unknown, surrendering to a newfound heart-flutter before the feeling fades and opportunity is missed. The driving backbeat bounces through shimmering pastel clouds, with the Fanclub’s dual guitars at their sublime best.
Raymond McGinley saunters effortlessly through first offering ‘Hold On’ and it is unmistakably his from the first chord. The harmonies are perfection as he proclaims the wonders of “sinful leisures” and giving in to the moment whilst holding on to hope for the future. Next up is ‘The Darkest Part of the Night’, genuinely one of the most beautiful and moving love songs Norman Blake has ever penned, all strings and strums and harmonies straight from the heart. It is the embodiment of the ache of missing someone deep in your bones, so tenderly and bittersweetly expressed.” – Susan Le May, The Quietus
4 – Radiohead / A Moon Shaped Pool
Guitars haven’t been entirely abandoned. Indeed, it is a pleasure to report that, after the glitchy electro experiments and tense percussive rhythms of 2011’s King of Limbs, both acoustic and electric guitars feature prominently in dense, detailed arrangements, weaving, riffing and rippling through the grooves of Decks Dark, Identikit and Present Tense. But there is none of the overdriven distortion that gave Nineties Radiohead so much visceral power. They remain a rock band who don’t want to rock.
Folk is a key reference. Listeners of a certain vintage may detect hints of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span in the tricky depths of ‘The Numbers’, a song that channels the prog-folk of the Seventies through the mad sonic adventure and disregard for formal structure of ‘Paranoid Android’.
There is a richness of detail in its beautifully chaotic collision of jazzy piano, Bert Jansch-style guitar figures, exuberant cinematic strings and warped stacks of backing vocals to keep springing surprises with each hearing, suggesting this is a song to unveil slowly.
Penultimate track ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief’ proves a slow-burning epic, built on a snail-paced electro bass that gathers power with each round of the chord sequence, as it is swallowed up in echoing guitars and Jonny Greenwoods wild cinematic strings (as lustrous as anything Jack Nitzsche or John Barry could come up with).
The melodic sweetness and sometimes gentle ambience of A Moon Shaped Pool may represent Radiohead at their least bloodthirsty and most accessible, but there are depths and riches here to suggest a work of total self-assurance.
It is an album you could grow to love more with every listen.” – Neil McCormick, The Telegraph
3 – Angel Olsen / My Woman
“Where Angel Olsen’s 2014 breakthrough Burn Your Fire for No Witness flickered with lo-fi fervour, her latest, My Woman, oozes unhurried glamour and moments of sweeping grandeur. Olsen shifts between genres with graceful precision, breaking down the limiting (and, sometimes, sexist) critiques that have dogged her career, often identified primarily by her connection to male musicians like Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. On My Woman, Olsen asserts her control, proving that she can be whoever she wants to be.
Opener ‘Intern’ finds her in a synthpop echo chamber sleepily crooning, ‘Doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done/ Still gotta wake up and be someone.’ It’s the record’s slow awakening, as her thick, rich timbre spreads over the chrome synthscapes like molasses. The guitar on ‘Never Be Mine’ sounds like Olsen’s playing Golden Gate Park during the Summer of Love, tenderly trying to stitch a disintegrating romance back together. ‘I would watch you fold my heart away. I would watch you look right through me. Right through every word that I say,’ she sings.
The record’s final four songs pare down instrumentally, with minimalist percussion and guitar riffs accentuating Olsen’s more introspective moments. ‘Sister’ is nearly eight minutes long, a bout of nostalgia that swells to a shimmering Fleetwood Mac-style crescendo as she cries, ‘All of my life I thought had changed.’ Olsen continues this retrospective trajectory on ‘Those Were the Days’, a lounge reverie for times when there was ‘nothing to lose and nothing to find.’ Elsewhere, ‘Pops’ unfolds against a singular piano melody, as she instructs the listener to ‘take my heart and put it up on your sleeve. Tear it up so they can all sing along.’
Since releasing Burn Your Fire, Olsen has been plagued by the leathered critique that her music sounds like it’s coming from a ‘girl’ who’s either trapped or lost in some folksy rabbit hole — a trope that is implausible in the wake of My Woman. ‘I dare you to understand what makes me a woman,’ she challenges on ‘Woman’, pushing the end of each line skyward like she’s hitting the high striker at the county fair. Although her bio insists that the narratives within the record aren’t intended to comment on gender roles, My Woman strikes down the notion that either Olsen’s artistry or her womanhood can be limited.” – Ciara Dolan, Consequence of Sound
2 – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds / Skeleton Tree
“It’s not the lyrics that make Skeleton Tree such an emotional listen, but the manner of the delivery. In a particularly striking scene from One More Time With Feeling, Cave discusses his dislike of recording overdubs: ‘I think I’m losing my voice,’ he says. ‘File it under lost things. My voice, my iPhone, my judgement. My memory.’ He talks about taking up smoking again. He frets about not warming up his voice before recording. But in grief, any grief whether in death or love, the voice is there to wobble, break and to tear us and those we care about in two. On ‘Girl In Amber’, too, Cave sounds much older than his 58 years, the words crackling around the edges like ancient paper. He sings ‘The song, the song, it’s been spinning now since 1984’, the year of the first Bad Seeds album: is this about a new fragility for his muse? If so, rumours of its demise are greatly exaggerated — ‘You turn, you turn, you kneel lace up his shoes your little blue-eyed boy / Take him by his hand, go moving spinning down the hall’ is, and I think unfortunately is the correct word here, as perfect a vision of gothic horror as Cave has ever written. Sung as he does it, his voice teetering around an edge, it makes for a terrifying, heart-breaking song. On my third listen, in a bright warm room with sun streaming through slatted blinds, it reduced me to wracking sobs.
Yet voice alone couldn’t have done this. The jaunty swing that has characterised much of The Bad Seeds’ music up to now is gone, and Skeleton Tree is as sparse and experimental as they’ve ever been. It’s fairly dirge-like at times, which of course is not a criticism. It’s important to point out that One More With Feeling has very funny moments – it’s as if Warren Ellis and Cave can’t help themselves. Their mutual admiration, fizzing with humour, is and has long been a rather lovely thing to see. I still recall the first-ever Grinderman gig at ATP when Cave flunked the opening note, and had to get Ellis to help him out – ‘Warren, can you tune my guitar?’ And, when a missile flew from the crowd onto the stage Ellis picked it up, showed it to his bandmate, and said ‘’ere Nick, some cunt threw an apple!’. From Roland S Howard in the Birthday Party through Mick Harvey and Blixa Bargeld, Cave has always seemed to need a musical sparring partner to knock him in strange directions. I have a suspicion that without them he might just end up tinkling away on the ol’joanna a la The Boatman’s Call. Through Grinderman and their soundtrack work, straggle-haired funny fucker Ellis has proved himself to arguably be the greatest red right hand of all, perhaps because they seem so utterly at easy with each other.” – Luke Turner, The Quietus
1 – David Bowie / Blackstar
“None of us knew that Blackstar was to be the epitaph. Objectively speaking, his death shouldn’t impact upon how this record is understood – and yet the knowledge that his 25th and final studio album consciously represents goodbye transforms initial appraisal – that Blackstar is an absorbing (if consciously arty and perhaps a shade self-indulgent) listen – into a work poignant beyond words.
Confession; this is a rewrite. The original review, submitted for publication the afternoon before news of his passing, missed the point somewhat, upholding that seam of interest whilst bemoaning the fact that Blackstar isn’t Scary Monsters (or whatever you’re favourite Bowie album may be).
We got it wrong. Of course Blackstar is a compelling proposition; fluted, meditative, a rejection of pop’s prissy little contours. The ten-minute title track flirts with monastic airs, the vocals distended, Donny McCaslin’s increasingly discordant sax breaks adding to sense of caustic otherworldliness.
‘Girl Loves Me’ celebrates Bowie’s trademark love of language, positioning English lyrics against phrases from Antony Burgess’ Nadsat (as well as the odd snatch of Polari) to create something indistinctly sinister – a trace of Diamond Dogs’ glorious dystopia, transplanted into a modern setting (it’s also one of two tracks with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy providing the beats).
Murphy’s appearance underlines how Blackstar’s subtle musicality – the percussion, the restrained strings – permits the album’s themes to percolate; don’t expect any Mick Ronson-esque axe grinding here; Ben Monder’s guitar parts are modest, buried low in Tony Visconti’s astute production. Bowie has always been an artist who reframes his own past – the liberal use here of his beloved saxophone a case in point – and whilst the lyrical trails are necessarily opaque, the arrangements don’t rely on vogue to foster the narrative (as perhaps was the case with much of his 1990s output).
Yet where we initially misread Blackstar was in understanding that this was an album lacking warmth, of being too clinical and too opaque, when the knowledge that the artist was terminally ill as Blackstar came together reveals an entirely different (and far braver) context. The lyrics to ‘Lazarus’ alone represent (in retrospect) explicit farewell (‘This way or no way you’ll know I’ll be free. Just like that bluebird – now, ain’t that just like me’).
In a similar fashion, closing track ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ also finds Bowie corporeal (‘Seeing more and feeling less. Saying no but meaning yes. This is all I ever meant’) – such words become humble tones of self-exposure not usually associated with hiding behind masks.
On one hand there’s no getting away from the fact that this isn’t always an easy listen; the original review noted its conceptual nature, and tracks that occasionally lack clear dénouement. Well, now we have that dénouement, and whilst we’ll never know how intentional the goodbye, Blackstar says it in a manner only Bowie could. Sleep well, Sir.” – Duncan Harman, The Skinny