2016. Not so much a year as a treatise on attrition. Bowie. Brexit. Prince. Trump. And that’s just a taster (I may have had a little cry when Jo Cox was murdered in the street by a neo-Nazi. And a bigger one when a national newspaper insinuated that it was kind of her own fault). Yup; 2016 saw us dragged to some gammy-faced hootenanny, where Death was the DJ, the waiters were mainlining pool cleaner, and those on the guest list spent the entire evening shitting on each other from the balcony. Welcome to the Pleasuredome…
Josef Goebbels would have enjoyed 2016. Charles Manson no doubt had a blast. And whilst fuck-nuggets the world over slithered from their crawl-spaces decked out in opinions suddenly validated by this new currency of misanthropy, xenophobia and proudly-waved infantilism, the rest of us had little choice but to find succour in gin. And records – but mostly the gin.
Back in the spring, when exiting the EU or the Creature from the Black Lagoon occupying the White House were things us expert-loving, “liberal elites” freely sniggered at, I spent an afternoon lurking in a Cold War-era nuclear bunker in the back-end of nowhere; a large, multi-level subterranean complex that for reasons known only to hard liquor featured a fully-stocked bar masquerading as the cafeteria. Think of all the wailing and gnashing of teeth that could have been avoided by simply staying the fuck there, in the corner, methodically working through the spirits whilst hoping the fall-out beyond the shelter’s solid metal doors would drop low enough for the next delivery of booze to arrive.
True; they were inexplicably playing ‘Free Bird’ over the PA system down there, but I was accompanied by a real-life “pop star” – in the guise of a pre-Arab Strap reformation Malcom Middleton. Oh, the miserabilist low-fi anthems the two of us could have fashioned from the various cold war trinkets hanging around the place, if only we’d held our ground. But instead we emerged hand-in-hand from our sanctuary beneath the soil, there to be bludgeoned into submission by the Grim Reaper and his merry horde of reactionary arse-trumpets like the rest of you – which was a bit shit, in the main.
Admittedly, the above may read like rantings of a fantasist – but it’s actually a true story, even down to the Lynyrd Skynyrd reference (if I’d have made it all up, it would have been ‘Fantasy Island’ by 80’s pop rejects Tight Fit playing on a constant loop). And whilst I’m here to enthuse about my must-have LPs of 2016, rather than rant and rave about world events or plug interviews I may have been responsible for (oh… go on then: LGM meets Malcolm here), Mr Middleton did release his Summer of ‘13 long player this year, thus inadvertently facilitating such a tenuous and over-long introduction.
Was it a decent year for records? I’m far from certain; it’s easy to get lost amidst the claggy weight of new releases that clog up our arteries on a regular basis, let alone the reputations of long-established acts enhanced or undermined by the latest edition to canon. Most (if not all) year-end lists have been out a while, and to be honest, many may as well have been written in Aramaic for all the relevance, vim and vigour they impart. Me – I floated in space whilst listening to Nocturnal Koreans by Wire, because Wire are bloody brilliant and you’re an idiot for not knowing it. Also: Skip a Sinking Stone by Mutual Benefit; John Cale’s beguiling M:FANS; Blood Bitch by Jenny Hval, not forgetting French chanteuse Clémence Freschard, who is basically Amélie Poulain in musical form – her Sunday Night LP again demonstrating why I adore her so.
Two records came very close to top ten inclusion (and I’ll probably regret consigning them to the intro). Star Core by Marielle V Jakobsons is sparse. Evocative. Fluid. An exploitation of drone defined by botanical synths, repeated motifs, and a fretless bass eerily reminiscent of Lazer Guided Melodies-era Spiritualized. Then there’s Scott Walker’s orchestral score to the otherwise forgettable movie The Childhood of a Leader– ridged, furrowed, and deeply, deeply sinister, it slumps upon its gurney like an unanaesthetised Bernard Herrmann soundtrack having its fingernails removed by jackbooted silhouettes; a remarkable listen.
Also remarkable: Appleman Meets Astronaut by King Creosote. Or rather, the first two tracks on Appleman Meets Astronaut; by playing analogue off against the digital, both ‘You Just Want’ and ‘Melin Wynt’ have an otherworldly quality that burrows beneath the skin. It’s just a pity that the rest of the album feels – and I write this as a fan –a little generic, painted by numbers; a King Creosote record that after its opening double whammy takes on the exact dimensions expected of a King Creosote record.
Below, my favourite records of the year, #10 through to #2, with the top spot revealed in a day or so. There is however no Nick Cave. Or Radiohead. Or Teenage Fanclub. Sorry ‘bout that.
(I’m not sorry)
10 – The Goon Sax / Up to Anything
Youth, derivation, and provenance is a far stronger title than Up to Anything, and in the case of The Goon Sax, also far more accurate – although we’re hardly talking insult, here. And whilst Go-Betweens references are genetically inescapable – Louis Forster inheriting his father’s intimate, back-of-the-room baritone – any direct comparison is lazy, disingenuous and misses the point; they are their own band, prodding at the door marked ‘adulthood’ with enough intrigue, confusion and alienation to make even an old, grizzled hack such as myself feel the pull of long-discarded feeling (“I want people to wonder about me,” to quote the title track. “I can’t walk this sadness out”).
Fresh of face and deliberately unpolished, there’s a back-handed joy behind Up to Anything that gives the material genuine lift. And such wonderfully understated hooks, disenfranchised harmonies and reflections of mundane everyday… indie-pop isn’t revolutionary in construction, and it’s sometimes (incorrectly) dismissed because of that. But here is a grand example of how simple textures and a lack of adornment represent something far greater than the sum of its parts; I can’t wait to hear what The Goon Sax have in store for us in future years.
9 – Exploded View / Exploded View
Beginning with the premise that anything released by Sacred Bones is worth investigating, Exploded View doesn’t disappoint on the esoteric front. Fronted by Anglo-German performer Annika Henderson and recorded straight-to-tape in Mexico City, there’s something distinctly post-categorisation to the band’s debut long player.
Messy, discordant, and beholden to the serrated edge, there’s nonetheless a seam of verisimilitude in the execution; it’s the way in which both ‘Disco Glove’ and ‘No More Parties in the Attic’ unfurl in a haze of skidpan velocity, ‘One Too Many’ turning up at 5am the worse for wear.
This is also a record that doesn’t shy away from taking different routes through left-field experimentalism – as much as Can and early Faust are obvious reference points, ‘Lark Descending’ wouldn’t be out of place on a Broadcast record, whilst ‘Call On the Gods’ alludes to cinematic divinity (with dub dénouement). Add a deliciously slanted production and Henderson’s Nico-esque vocals to the brew, and there’s a strange caul of fascination herein.
8 – David Bowie / Blackstar
Words chiselled, words etched. Words as confession. Words sprayed on to walls, launched into orbit, reconfigured as symbolistic conceit, or simply spilled, like that time you made that sweeping, exaggerated gesture to underline your droll witticism, and knocked a glass of wine all over the Axminister.
Does Blackstar face death with unblinking gaze? Does it acknowledge existence’s fragility through opaque meditation? Or is it something else, this Bowie other – the realm of chameleons, comedians, Corinthians and caricature? I could make a compelling case for having this album at #1. And an equally convincing argument that it should be #362. Perhaps that’s part of the attraction – if attraction works as description, instead of words chiselled, words etched…
If the true marker of a great album is one that transcends initial context, becoming an element of who the listener really is, through good times and bad, then I’m far from certain that Blackstar qualifies. How will we view it next year, in a decade’s time, on our deathbeds, down the pub? In days yet to arrive will we sit in darkened rooms, tones hushed, ears pricked, as we fire up the Dansette for another play? Is this record exclusively a solitary experience? Or is reaction to Blackstar just another component of death as commodity, like that week in the record store where every single punter bought Elton John’s ‘Candle in the Wind’ because their Sloane Ranger princess had picked a clumsy chauffeur?
I don’t know. And I’ve already asked way too many questions. Relied too much upon the abstract. In December 2019 I might get round to publishing my Albums of the Decade; Bowie’s goodbye – a fascinating, intricate listen – might be #1. Or #362.
7 – Cavern of Anti-Matter / Void Beats/Invocation Trex
(Duophonic Ultra High Frequency Disks)
Shall we debate the validity of the term ‘Krautrock’ all night? After all, Julian Cope wields it freely, which is generally a useful pointer, even if the tropes of genre – Motorik, repetition, elongation, submersion, a little bit weird – all jumped the shark many moons ago.
I ask because having Tim Gane’s new(ish) vehicle labelled as Krautrock – or far worse, Krautrock revivalists – feels as awkward as the term itself. And whilst Void Beats/Invocation Trex is predominantly instrumental, and features an opening track over 12 minutes in length, during which synth cadences are wielded like it’s Düsseldorf 1974, there’s so many other themes circling that it’s not too easy processing everything in a single listen (anyone else spot the homage to Joe Jackson’s 1982 hit ‘Steppin’ Out’ that buttresses ‘echolalia’?).
Gane’s misfortune is that his post-Stereolab work will always be referenced against Stereolab. And whilst there’s the occasional leitmotif to remind us of days past, the retro-modernism his current project espouses is of a very different hue to his previous output.
6 – Factory Floor / 25 25
Described by the band as both utilitarian and playful, there’s something extremely necessary to 25 25. Reduced to a duo comprising Nik Colk and Gabe Gurnsey, album #2 has an urgent focus about its personage. It’s icy. Claustrophobic. Hypnotic. The beats arrive refracted, and cool-filtered; a continuum of sorts through which Colk’s vocal triangulations arrive in a succession of mutations; vaguely retro (and therefore hip) yet simultaneously contemporaneous (thus detached from vogue).
The momentum behind lead single ‘Dial Me In’ is a case in point; a relentless six and a half minutes akin to being blasted in the face by a 60-mile-per-hour breeze while out for a feisty jog. This is rhythm to get lost in, the bass notes doing all of the legwork but also pointing to a rich and crafty subjugation of sound.
Elsewhere, modular synths wreak patterns akin to laying a trap, handclaps and fragments of vox the tripwire we call sound. The acidic slyness of opening track ‘Meet Me At The End’. The hedonistic tribalism behind ‘Slow Listen’. The playful allure of the title track. It all speaks of erudition, repetition used and abused in a dizzy concatenation. 25 25 is music as heartbeat (and screw the arrhythmia).
5 – MJ Guider / Precious Systems
There’s something lost and deliciously stranded to Melissa Guion’s debut LP. A sense of hinterland; of viewing things from afar, each brooding chord bathed in retro-electronic dispassion. Like an ecclesiastical take upon synth-pop mores, Guion leaves behind the handclaps and sequins, winding back the pace to expose something truer amongst the tape delays and subtle twinges of bass guitar – opener ‘Lit Negative’ indicating scope with its vaulted elegance and frosted, uninterested vocals.
Such themes are repeated elsewhere but with reference points fleeting; one moment it’s Curve (the excellent ‘Triple Black’), the next it could be Soft Cell… Ultra-era Depeche Mode… maybe even a little Enya thrown in for good measure; the point being that Precious Systems is an intelligent facsimile of familiarity. By the time that the 10+ minutes of ‘Evencycle’ arrive, its incessant, sticky mantra – “In control” – subjugated by conflicting drum patterns and cloying, mutating chords, it’s quite possible to feel a little overawed. This is a very clever pop record.
4 – Minor Victories / Minor Victories
When it comes to records we fall hard for – the specifics behind attraction – I’ve long suspected a tussle between the objective and the subjective. Of different receptors, tickled by opposing forces…
Say – for example – you get your paws on a copy of a certain album months before release, courtesy of a magazine editor conscious that Mogwai appreciation and/or Slowdive adoration should feature in the narrative (make your own editor/Editors association – I’m not doing all the work here).
And because anticipation is a thing, first listen isn’t fireworks. Ditto: the second. “This is not a bad album,” you declare. “But…” – and it’s that but that tells its own story. 1-0 to objectivism.
Listen #3, however – that’s when things begin to click. Minor Victories isn’t an immediate experience. It’s not intended to be, or at least constructed with instant gratification in mind. You get the inside track on that in the company of Goswell, Braithwaite and the Lockey brothers themselves, first in a rehearsal room, then over beer in the bar of a budget hotel, and whilst regretting the subsequent interview you write – it only part-way explores relationships between the album’s at-distance, collaborative gestation and the layers of texture there-in – it is those very textures where objective and subjective coalesce.
For this is an LP in which each prickly, seductive shard of detail lies semi-buried in the shifting mood, unfurling at a natural, unenforced pace – and it’s all the better for it. You know that now.
3 – Explosions in the Sky / The Wilderness
As with any Explosions in the Sky release, it’s not easy to arrive at the right words. The adjective palette feels curiously lacking, similes out of reach. Facts we can do – the band’s sixth (non-soundtrack) album, the nine tracks present more compact in duration compared to what came before – yet beyond that, the post-rock descriptive framework sees the beatific auspices and sheer attention to detail behind The Wilderness undersold.
What isn’t in doubt is that the Texan quartet’s latest feels very much attuned to textural evolution; of taking any dichotomy between light and shade, melody and discord, or quiet and loud, and applying it in novel configurations. They’ve a form of spatial awareness that’s hardly indicative of rock and pop tropes; the titular opener glides amidst a deceptively simple call and echo, prompting much of the guitar/piano/electronica discourse elsewhere.
The material also doesn’t want for flexibility; ‘The Ecstatics’ balances upon a percussion-led midpoint, while ‘Logic of a Dream’ turns its centrifugal force in on itself. ‘Disintegration Anxiety’ even flirts with dub rhythms, without any whiff of a band trying too hard.
That The Wilderness is informed by naturalism is perhaps an obvious statement to make, considering its title. Yet there’s nothing pastoral here; each layer of complexity arriving unforced, be it the lamenting timbres of ‘Landing Cliffs’, the spiky two and half minutes of ‘Infinite Orbit’, or the restrained muscularity of ‘Colours in Space’, perhaps the track most akin to the back catalogue. A beautiful record; you just wish the vocabulary existed to do it justice.
2 – Konx-Om-Pax / Caramel
Caramel is a house record trapped between gaps in the floorboards. It’s yesterday or today. It’s ’89 or ’92, and we dig the vibes but not the beat – I really like how Tom Scholefield (aka Konx-Om-Pax) has (mostly) eschewed percussion on this, his second album; it divorces each layer of warped, floated synth (and the rave tape samples and other odds and ends there-in) from expectation, turning each phrase into riddles of an almost cinematic dimension.
The collusion between analogue and digital here is as colossal as it is captivating. A transmogrification of video nasty soundtracks, discarded C60s, brooding cadence and Banco de Gaia-style ambient dub, little here is at it first appears. The entire record sounds marginally detuned, marginally out-of-time and out-of-sync – and opener ‘Video Club’ sets things up splendidly; a sample-enthralled retro-futuristic overture that lurks in the sewers, waiting to entice unwitting children with its helium balloons and party clown get-up. You’ve no idea where a track such as ‘Beatrice’s Visit’ is headed until it bludgeons you with its monumental riff. Ditto ‘Oren’s Theme’, where the uplifting looped diva vocal guides us to places far darker. The title track captivates, only I still don’t know why, all these months later.
In fact, not knowing works as a decent summary of the LP as a whole. There’s something so intelligently, esoterically wrong with this record that it pitches the listener into exactly the right orbit. A degrading orbit, quite possibly around a black hole, but as the event horizon approaches, the knowledge we’ve gained is the strongest benediction.
Seriously; buy this record. Now.