Happy New Year all!
Well, 2012 is a mere 16 hours old, and already I’m sick of people on the TV banging on about the Olympics, in between adverts encouraging people to borrow more money at calculator-worrying levels of interest in order to spend it on stuff they don’t need in the first place.
Then again, records, CDs, gig tickets, petrol and other associated nonsense also fall into that “stuff I don’t need” category, but that’s never stopped me in the past and probably won’t abate any in the future. So, speaking as part of the Problem and one that lacks any sort of sensible Solution, here’s hoping that we’re all here this time next year arguing about what was in whatever passes for a “Best of 2012″ list, what wasn’t in it, and what was in the wrong order. And so, for no reason other than I’m weaning myself back into this after a short break and am vaguely interested in how many words I wasted in the process, here it all is again in one overlong blah. Back with something sensible shortly, just as soon as I work out a way of ensuring that the “upcoming things of note” page becomes easier to update (comments on that page welcome for releases/shows that I’ve missed or forgotten to update) or meets with some sort of accidental deletion.
50. Jane’s Addiction – The Great Escape Artist
If not a return to top form, it’s a welcome return nonetheless for a band who, lest we forget, were one of alt-rock’s true trailblazers at the end of the eighties, making major labels realise that those odd vanity signings they made in order to feel that little bit hipper in the boardroom might actually be onto something… Without the charming drive provided by their original bass-led tunes they’re not quite as much fun as they used to be, but they still sound like they’re having a great time and they’re still able to show the current crop of identikit by-the-numbers latter-day “alternates” just where they’re going wrong.
49. Lia Ices – Grown Unknown
One of the more “serious” albums on this list, Grown Unknown artfully creates stripped-down songs in terms of both musically and emotionally, giving us the bare essentials to work with and enjoy. And it has to be said that this works superbly here, as it’s only when the final song New Myth ends as suddenly as it does, does it become apparent just how well the space in each track has been so well-used. It’s certainly cold in places, but embracingly warm in others. A ‘Wish You Were Here’ for the 21st Century.
48. Maiden Radio – Lullabies
Clocking-in at a sprightly 17 minutes, this collection of (surprisingly enough) lullabies from this enchanting trio is charming, captivating and soothing in equal measure, and has on occasion even worked on this knackered insomniac. This (as will be the case for most people when reacquainted with childhood songs) also came with the added bonus of evoking some wonderful memories of my Dad, so on a personal level I’m glad I have this record.
47. Jello Biafra and the Guantanamo School of Medicine – Enhanced Methods of Questioning
As with Jane’s Addiction’s Perry Farrell, Jello Biafra has been a bit on the ubiquitous side during my formative years, and has continued to pop in and out with new projects and personnel through the intervening period. And, like Farrell, it’s kind of sad that these guys are still seen as being at some sort of vanguard without anyone else really attempting to take up the reins. Kids today…
Jello’s second album with what is seen to be his first “proper” band (as opposed to appearing with/in someone else’s) is reassuringly angry, riffs and rhythms evoking triumphs and collaborations of the past while pushing forward in a flurry of angry paranoia and a sense of the ridiculous, still caring about what goes on around him in a way that precious few others do. Long may he continue to be mad and grumpy.
46. Spokes – Everyone I Ever Met
I think it’s fair for me to say that this is the album that I hoped that Arcade Fire’s “The Suburbs” was going to sound like. It has that post-rock shoegazey largeness (ie, lots of cymbals and big sweeping choruses) with a homespun indie folkyness so that even at their most operatic and melodramatic, the overall effect is inclusive and makes the listener feel part of the experience. As debuts go, it’s a bit of a triumph and I’m sure we’ll all be hearing more of this lot as time goes by.
45. Thomas Dolby – A Map of the Floating City
20 years since he last put out a studio record, and it barely feels as though he’s been away. Thomas Dolby’s new album is, for quite a few people, the soundtrack to summer pondering alt-universe scenarios involving Nikola Tesla and illustrating some very silly inventions. Separated into three distinct continental areas, TMOTFC is held together by a musical and lyrical eccentricity unique to Dolby’s music since the 1980s. Lovely to have him back.
44. The Low Anthem – Smart Flesh
A record that is for the most part a lot more subdued and intimate than their 2009 debut, no doubt shaped by the recording space (a large, abandoned Rhode Island Pasta Sauce Factory) which gives their sound a cathedral quality with its natural reverb – the clarinets of Wire especially benefit from this environment. the Low Anthem can still make a racket when the mood takes them however; Boeing 737 and (especially) the generation-baiting Hey All You Hippies! are great, raucous tracks, helping to make Smart Flesh an entertaining, if occasionally isolated, listen.
43. White City – Free Men In A Hurry
A debut from an Australian group that I heard of through my favourite way of finding new things, the someone-from-one-band-turning-up-in-another method. In this case, it’s Rosa “Red Ghost” Agostino who adds piano strains to this Shearwateresque collection of songs. Patience is the name of the game here, the sedate pace underpinning the earnest lyrics and vocals. I’d love to hear what these guys would sound like with an orchestra behind them.
42. Dark Dark Dark – Wild Go
One for every occasion, this. Dark Dark Dark’s music has that knack of sounding and feeling melancholy, lonely, uplifting and embracing all within the confines of the same song. Using a wide arsenal of instruments, all the right ones are picked to fit any given tune without ever being ‘clever’ about it all and the end result would feel at home in bars and chapels alike, akin to a baroque version of the Twilight Singers, had Greg Dulli been knocking around the bars of Paris and Berlin in the 1930s. Delightful stuff.
41. Little Roy – Battle For Seattle
While Nevermind was getting polished and prepped and pushed back onto the shelves for its twentieth anniversary, snippets of this started to appear on the internet and on radio stations to make us all realise what made Nirvana’s sophomore release such a classic in the first place – bloody good songs. The selection of tracks available on this reggae reworking don’t shy away from Nirvana’s more challenging moments (the inclusion of Polly for example is a very brave choice, fully justified with its interpretation) and chips away at the overly-serious, over-analysed patina of gloom that has been been daubed on the originals’ spirit since Kurt’s passing. It’s also been fun seeing the outraged minority get all “Daily Mail Comments” about the mere notion of this project as if an open mind wasn’t necessary to enjoy the songs in the first place.
40. the Twilight Singers – Live in New York
Bit confused by this, being as it is billed as their “First Ever Live Album” which makes me wonder what the Twilight Singers’ “Live In Europe” CD was. Anyway, this Second Ever Live Album does exactly what every good/great live album should by involving the audience, not polishing over the occasional flaw and (most importantly) not sounding like it was recorded on a Dictaphone hidden in someone’s (if you’re lucky) hat. Still sounding as loose and friendly as ever, but nowadays sporting a leaner and more expansive vibe (thanks in no small part to the multi-instrumental talents of Rick Nelson), this fits new and old songs – plus a tiny bit of old Smokey and Robert Knight – together as if they were all written in the same evening. Kudos also to the dynamic cover art, because quite frankly I’ve been bemoaning the apparent demise of the see-through drumkit for some time. And now I want to see the Twilight Singers live again, which is as high a recommendation of a live collection as is possible.
39. Vetiver – The Errant Charm
This has been a tricky one to worm its way into my heart, as it’s no great secret that if Vetiver were any more laid-back, they’d fall over. But once the album’s highly apt titular spirit is captured, it’s yours for good. A bit more perky than previous works, even going as far as pre-empting a certain reunion by evoking the ghost of the Stone Roses on one song, it’s a happy, calm and – yes – charming affair that is so rewarding once it hits you in the right mood.
38. The Leisure Society – Into the Murky Water
Once upon a time, all around here used to be fields with British Indie bands all doing something along these lines. Top-drawer songwriting and a quirky approach to, well, everything feels both refreshingly bang up to date and wistfully of an era that has been all but crushed by cynical scene-regulation and general pigeonholing that threatens to take all the fun out of everything. Good music for the sake of being good, which is something that can only be encouraged.
37. Joseph Arthur – The Graduation Ceremony
Warm and emotional throughout, and delivered in that wonderful manner that almost feels as though this sort of stuff isn’t so much written and arranged as channelled and harvested fully-formed from somewhere that the rest of us cannot see. A record with genuine heart and soul, this was my first proper listen to a Joseph Arthur album (as opposed to listening to plenty of other albums from other people with him on them), and it’s been an enchanting introduction for me.
36. Ben Sollee – Inclusions
A somewhat odd album, and all the more welcome for it. Using his cello to take in as many styles as an 11-track album will reasonably allow, Ben explores subjects personal, political and global, making them all come across as wonderful and important as one another. I’m a bit of a one anyway for those who hold a mirror up to life because they love it rather than out of a desire to criticise. Another aptly-named album, Inclusions is the warm side of activism.
35. Melodie Nelson – Meditations on the Sun
Another impulse purchase from Australia, and another corker. Meditations on the Sun’s breathy harmonies and big backbeats come from a time when Phil Spector’s girl groups started to get all psychedelic and very interesting indeed, balancing a slow-burning sultriness with a wistful sense of romance both lost and found. Working best on the achingly slow, vocally-layered tracks, this is an assured and confident debut and well-worth a listen.
34. Hannah Peel – The Broken Wave
Coming recommended by a turn further up the list, this mixes homespun folk tunes from all over the UK with electronic, string and general other arrangements (seemingly nicking 1980s Clannad’s drums at one point) to come up with an end result that is altogether refreshingly different and pleasantly quirky. Light and airy throughout, even the sadder songs come across with charm and cheer. It’s been quite the year for original and accomplished debuts, and this is no exception to that rule.
33. Matt Berry – Witchazel
It feels a bit strange to include this here as it first surfaced a couple of years ago when it was very briefly made available as a free download. the proper release however brought me back to it and so I happily include it here. It’d be easy to dismiss this album on the surface as “funny man makes strange album” whimsy, and there are a couple of odd sound effects that feel slightly out of place and self-consciously zany, but as soon as the wonderfully-titled Accident at a Harvest Festival kicks of with soaring vocal and pastoral prog charm, it’s instantly obvious that it’s very seriously put-together and a joy to listen to. Still not convinced that Paul McCartney’s appearance isn’t Peter Serafinowicz though.
32. My Morning Jacket – Circuital
This one strikes me as a celebration of looking back whilst growing older with a twinkle in the eye and no regrets. With a sound setting generally set to “Big”, this is a huge affair touching many musical and emotional bases, carrying most of the latter’s weight in more down-to-earth folk balladry such as Wonderful (The Way I Feel). Spacey and fun for the most part, Circuital revels in 10CCesque musical sensibilities and borrowing from Trevor Horn’s vision of Yes, and the end result is a good time all round.
31. Radiohead – The King of Limbs
A bit of a “game of two halves”, this one. The first half of this suddenly-appearing record contains some of Radiohead’s coldest and exact electronic arrangements to date, making it a rather hard collection to embrace; the second half is home to some of their most emotionally-accomplished pieces of songwriting they’ve ever done. This does initially play merry hell with the balance of the whole, but repeated plays of the more challenging material in order to get to the choicer cuts soon reveals the warm heart to each track. Maybe not their best overall, and not my favourite of theirs (although I have to say that I love the cover artwork), but still streets ahead of most in terms of sheer desire to do something different every time.
30. My Jerusalem – Sleepwalking Refurbished
I love cover versions, I adore Tom’s Album (where one song in various guises from various artists comprise the whole record) when it first came out, and My Jerusalem’s Gone For Good was my joint No.1 record of last year. Of course I was going to dig this. Favourites change with each play, the host track is remixed, rearranged, rewritten (including the lyrics in one case) and reinterpreted by friends, colleagues and various assorted others. One for fans of the original song, the artists involved and any and all other interested parties who want to see how total sandpit musicianship (ie, no rules – just add imagination) can work so well in making some startling records.
29. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
If the music for this album never existed and this was just a collection of short poems, this would still be raking in the plaudits. With the music of course, it’s stunning. Taking the sentiments of First World War poetry from several viewpoints (the romanticism and pride of Rupert Brooke and the bitter realism of Wilfred Owen to name but two), this is an apolitical, human view of war and how it continues to affect England, in terms physical, spiritual and psychological. It’s certainly strange to think that so few of these records are made (or at least thrust into the public gaze) while we fight on several fronts throughout the world and have done for some time, it serves us well to have such a beautiful reminder of the cost every now and then. Not so much a record as a monument.
28. Okkervil River – I Am Very Far
This can easily be summed up in four words: Bloody big indie album. Will Sheff’s large band of brothers and others combine to make a record the way that Elvis Costello, the Teardrop Explodes, XTC et all used to do back in the day; which is to make everything as dramatic and shouty as possible within carefully-composed song structures. This is all done in a subtle and catchy way, choosing to make 10 louder where needed instead of creating an artificial 11, so that even when the vocals are at their most Roger Waters-baitingly shouty, there’s still a nice tune there to tap your foot to. There are quiet moments also (albeit with loud choruses), but I Am Very Far is at its most spellbinding when the chaos is being barely – but well – controlled.
27. Lanterns on the Lake – Gracious Tide, Take Me Home
Quite breathtaking stuff on offer here, from a band whose name conjures the exact same images as their music does. Calm, deep and beautiful, each track is so achingly patient and well-layered that it’s possible to not notice that something that started so quietly and gently has evolved into a song of quite epic proportions. This is the sort of thing one should expect from a band’s third or fourth album, making Gracious Tide, Take Me Home all the more surprising for being their first. Taking Sigur Rós’ template for post-rock orchestrated hugeness and marrying it to their own North-East folk roots, it’s a beguiling and enchanting combination.
26. The Separate – Orchestral Variations V1.0
I really do hope that this gets released sooner rather than later, as it’s an astonishing collection that has been delayed enough already. In a new digital age of musical freedoms and collaborations, it’s a shame when these free coming-togethers get mired in red tape and people in suits put the mockers on allowing the rest of us to appreciate the fruits of some quite brilliant labours. I snaffled a promo copy of eBay solely to listen to Mark Lanegan perform his take on the Cure’s Close To Me, but every other song on here – featuring a different vocalist each taking on a gem from pop/new wave’s quirkiest age and backed by a string quartet and occasional minimal others – is a joy to listen to. To be honest, its current unavailability makes me wonder how much trouble I’m possibly in for merely listening to it, let alone banging on about it, but it’s a record that people should be aware of and should be eagerly awaiting its eventual release (almost literally, as it’s been seemingly held captive since 2010).
25. Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues
I feel a bit “Controversy O’Clock” parking this one halfway down. I know full well from listening to this that I will be having this played years down the line when many others on here will be gathering dust. I am completely aware that this is a wonderful experiment for the band where they have taken all they’ve learned so far and thrown everything they have at this record. I guess it’s because there’s so much going on in each song and because my attention span was a bit haywire at the time of release that my initial and total enthusiasm for it faded slightly, the fault of which lies at my feet and not theirs. If I did this exact same chart in 12 months’ time (which I won’t, it was bad enough doing it the first time!), this would almost certainly be right at the top.
24. Malachai – Return to the Ugly Side
Probably my most-played record of the year, this is perfect stuff for listening in a general “pottering about cheerfully” mood. Taking the generally-accepted Bristolian model of “sounding a little bit like Portishead” but speeding the whole affair up and picking their samples from the UK’s folky/psychedelic scene of the 1960s and early 70s, Return to the Ugly Side is a spooky, paranoid, slightly unsettling and utterly enjoyable collection of songs and has been at the forefront of my musical year pretty much right the way through.
23. The Angelus – On a Dark and Barren Land
Discovered and bought on a late-night whim, The Angelus coin the term “Gothspell” for this album and it’s a term well-coined. Managing a darkly-reverential tone throughout, this is the sort of stuff that you’d expect Harry Powell and the Reverend Kane to be preaching to us, explaining to us all in great detail exactly what is going to happen to us all whether we start behaving or not. It’s such a compelling and frightening narrative that by the time that closer Sudden Burst of Hope has tried to cheer us up, few will be inclined to believe it but will be grateful for the sterling effort.
22. Jonny – Jonny
Something seemingly created as a bit of a laugh, and performed with the lightest of hearts throughout, this is definitely one of the the most charmingly delightful records I own from any year. Not many records can open with a song that sounds like Gerry Rafferty fronting Smokie, singing about a sexy witch, and that’s not the strangest thing on there (that honour lies with the 10+ minutes of Cave Dance, starting out as a cheery surf-pop number and turning into a huge synth-oddessey). Everything here is fun, even at their most romantic - it sounds like a record made from a completely blank canvas filled with whatever Norman and Euros felt like doing on any given day/afternoon, and more records should be made this way.
21. Other Lives – Tamer Animals
Occupying that strange but wonderful “sort of a bit like Band x mixed with a smidgen of Band z” musical territory, Other Lives fiddle with this equation constantly in each song (the values of x and z vary constantly, with other integers available at any given moment) and bolster such referencing with more than enough of their own personalities and ideas to make this an utterly enthralling album – the first playthrough is interesting just to see where they’re going with each subsequent song, and it’s a joy to retake that journey over and over again.
20. Half Man Half Biscuit – 90 Bisodol (Crimond)
It’d been a while since I bought an album of theirs (by my reckoning, I’ve missed out on nine of them), so it was about time I dipped my toe back into the waters with this lot. I’m glad I did, as this collection of absurdist impotent rage from the cheerfully miserable Merseysiders hits all of its targets just as accurately and witheringly as they ever did. The myriad references to the animated works of Gordon Murray may be behind them now and their brand of 1980s indie-punk may have slid into slightly comfier musical slippers, but the clever sense of humour remains intact and it’s nice to see that age hasn’t cheered them up any.
19. Thurston Moore – Demolished Thoughts
With recent news hinting at the possibility of an end to Sonic Youth, I’m feeling rather guilty at thinking “well, if it means more of this sort of thing, then I’m all for it”, as this strongly reflective collection of slightly psyche-influenced pastoral acoustic is amongst some of the best work that Thurston has ever come up with. Aided in no small part by the Robert Kirby-channelling string arrangements of Beck Hansen it naturally evokes the spirit of a modern day Nick Drake, albeit with a sunnier view of goings-on both past and present. Hopefully this is a herald of a new direction rather than a one-off whimsy from Moore.
18. Iron & Wine – Kiss Each Other Clean
Gospel goes all big, mad and jazzy thanks to this corker from Sam Beam. A record full of lovesongs to all things ordinary and brilliant, it’s a moving and spiritual off-kilter look at life arranged as 1970s indie-cinema funk hymns, and there’s not much that could ever go wrong with that mix. Written, arranged and sung by someone sounding so happy, it’s hard not to leave Kiss Each Other Clean in the same mood as it was apparently recorded.
17. Blitzen Trapper – American Goldwing
Somewhat more straightforward than last year’s Destroyer of the Void (as the cover rather handily indicates), this is a very tightly-arranged and carefully-layered record created with an expert eye for all the best bits of the sort of countrified rock that used to grace the soundstage of The Old Grey Whistle Test before the New York Dolls turned up and it all went a bit odd. Highly evocative, and incredibly catchy tunes to raise roofs and spirits alike.
16. Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
Any album that begins with the words “There’s a head on the bed” is going to provoke a bit of interest, and this one just gets better and better throughout. Interspersed with genuinely unsettling instrumentals, Creep On Creepin’ On has a knack of subverting Fifties Rock ‘n’ Roll by the addition of haunting, reverbed vocals over the top of ever-so-slightly nightmarish arrangements that remind me of the visuals of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. And then there’s the lyrics, a succession of romantic threats that veer from merely slightly stalkerish to positively murderous. The spirit of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins has been well captured by this trio, and is probably in a jar in their cellar.
15. Joe Lally – Why Should I Get Used To It
While there are (rightly) plenty of echoes of his time spent in Fugazi on this record, it’s a much less caustic and far more groove-laden affair on this, his third solo album thanks to a sparing use of noise and Lally’s softer vocal delivery than that of his bandmates. This isn’t to say that the anger’s gone – it’s there in droves and as focused and pointed as ever – it’s just presented (with the odd exception) in a more laid-back fashion than fans of his previous shenanigans would expect. Really good, intelligently-performed punk.
14. The Decemberists – The King Is Dead
For those weeping at the demise of REM this year, there is plenty of solace to be taken from this record that – intentionally – could have come direct from Athens’ finest in the mid to late 1980s. It’s not all Georgian-indietastic though, with one of the tracks (and indeed the album title) riffing on The Smiths, so older fans becoming increasingly weary of defending Morrissey’s increasingly bizarre rants about anything he sets his mind to will find a happy home here also. And in all honesty, there’s little more fun to be had on a record this year than the jauntily-delivered “we heaved relief as scores of innocents die” during Calamity Song, one of the finest pop songs to grace the airwaves for many years.
13. Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi – Rome
As soon as I heard about this collaboration and what Brian and Daniele had in mind for it, I was bouncing around in anticipation. This is the sort of record that only complete obsessives could have conceived, arranged and produced – not only paying tribute to the music of Ennio Morricone (and, by extension, the films of Sergio Leone), but doing to to the nth degree by using the same recording techniques, studio, and even performers (not least the incredible Ella Dell’Orso whose voice graces the original Ecstasy of Gold back in 1966 and who still sounds wonderful during her parts here) from the original genre-defying/defining scores. Even the more contemporary elements (provided courtesy of Jack White and Norah Jones) retain a veneer of dustbowl psych moviemaking, whilst feeling right at home in the 21st century. Fans of the films can pick out tiny little bits from their favourites, those who previously weren’t fans will be straight off to buy the Dollars Trilogy boxsets as soon as the record’s finished. Huge in cinematic scope, and breathtaking just for the notion that this is about as complete a single idea translated to music that I can ever recall hearing.
12. The Twilight Singers – Dynamite Steps
Greg Dulli takes his Twilight Singers into pastures new yet again. Never satisfied to settle into a single groove, his ongoing project takes on board everything he’s done before and continues to accelerate onwards, taking the ideas and sounds that have been central to his outlook since the early days of the Afghan Whigs and shaping them into something new by absorbing new influences and raising his own bar, almost as if just to see what would happen next. The result in Dynamite Steps is something that completely and utterly sounds like The Twilight Singers from start to finish, but at the same time providing surprises with each song’s naked emotional heart. Dynamite Steps almost feels like a rite of passage, as if Greg has faced his shadows and cast off those which he needed to, whilst embracing and absorbing others.
11. Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
I have no idea what this record’s about, other than bookending mentions of cattle driving and the titular apocalypse. Whatever happened to the drover in the intervening songs, he still seems quite contented to dismiss the events by closing his story with the album’s title and catalogue number as if to simply file it away. Which no sane person would do, as even though the whole thing sounds as if was being recorded as it was all occurring to him (or maybe because of that), Bill Callahan has created an incredible work of poetry that evokes images of little thoughts in vast landscapes and making one just as important as the other. Even when the barbs come out slightly in America!, it’s all done fondly and gently and with an evident love of the place he’s poking at. The perfect album to listen to while travelling, as even the shortest journey will feel like a cheerful odyssey with this piping you along.
10. Elbow – Build A Rocket, Boys!
The second and third tracks on Elbow’s latest are the keys to the record, Lippy Kids and With Love being paeans to miscreancy in youth and dotage respectively, both songs containing and radiating the same cheerful warmth indicating that this long-player is all about people and the community that they inhabit – and it’s this sense of community throughout Build a Rocket Boys! that is its greatest strength and what has brought me back to it time and time again during this year. It brings an importance to the subject not by pushing the concept as if trying to sell it, but by simply inviting you into theirs for fifty minutes; enough time for a brew and a pint and a ciggie or two.
It’s not hard to see why this model is so enticing, many of us are all too busy nowadays to chat with our neighbours, let alone drag them off to the pub for no reason other than it’s a Thursday. This is a call to slow down a bit and take in your surroundings and the people who are in it, and comes across as a more genuine attempt to garner a collective spirit than all the “Big Society” cobblers that the Parliamentary PR departmental leaflets try to hoist upon us in order to do their job for them.
It’s an important album because it is written and performed by people who understand what importance actually is and where it can be found, sung to us by a vocalist in Guy Garvey who has that rare gift of being able to sing to thousands of people at a time while seemingly addressing everyone individually. Build a Rocket Boys! brings people together by doing little more than showing what a good idea bringing people together actually is, presented with a huge heart and great songs. And the beer’s nice too.
9. Matthew Ryan – I Recall Standing As Though Nothing Could Fall
Back when this was first released digitally, I mentioned that I thought that this album had a central plot, it was rather well-hidden. Now that I have the CD with it’s letterbox-widescreen cover and fairly extensive sleeve notes, I’m still not really any the wiser. Despite that, there seems to be a key line in the first song The Sea, where our narrator tells us that “To each life, a moment comes, for me it’s now… and here it comes”, which is something that encapsulates the spirit of much of the rest of the album; characters paused at a moment where their lives change and examined by themselves and by us sometimes uncomfortably for both parties, because as with all moments of change, there is fear and doubt. But there is also hope – even the darker passages here (and there are plenty of those) has a light in there somewhere, including the whole album with its closer All Hail The Kings of Trash, reminding even the bitterest of hearts that we’ll always have our musical heroes to fall back on when it all gets a bit much.
Given the mix of situations and emotions here, it’s not surprising that there’s so much variety on aural display. Gentle electronica such as the Hammock-assisted Spinning Room rubs shoulders happily alongside the more familiar guitar-led shenanigans of Hey Kid, centrepiece All Of That Means Nothing Now and the aforementioned All Hail The Kings… as well as the bleak minimalism of My Darker Side and the unsettling I Want Peace from I Recall Standing…’s downbeat third act.
So yeah, it’s easy to close one’s eyes and depict this as as a film; probably one of those ones with skewed timelines a la Pulp Fiction or Magnolia, with lives barely intertwined all sharing a single moment of transition. This general cinematic feel is something that more than a few of this year’s favourites of mine share, some more obviously than others. This is the only one that comes with its own ready-supplied narrative. It’s hard to take in the bleaker moments as they are provided without comfort as they unravel, but you will leave the album emotionally lightened rather than drained, as it closes with a defiantly optimistic view of the world. As Matthew Ryan himself says inside the cover, “This album was inspired by the times we’re living in, so it’s dedicated to tomorrow”.
8. Black Whales – Shangri-La Indeed
As I type this, the weather outside has finally realised that it’s winter and we’re getting several weeks’ worth of crap weather all in one go. In here however, I’m listening yet again to my hands-down favourite album of the Summer. A part of the reason for me taking Shangri-La Indeed to heart so easily is that it arrived at a time of year perfectly suited to this wide-eyed brand of slightly phych-ey indie pop; no easy feat here when 2011 over here largely consisted of a damp Spring morphing into an indifferent Autumn with only the narrowest of hot, sunny margins inbetween. The biggest reason though is the Black Whales’ expert ease in channelling the spirit of bands all over Granadaland, whether it be the 1980s Merseyside underground of Echo & the Bunnymen and the Mighty Wah!, the 1990s Mancunian universe-recentering of the Charlatans and Stone Roses and, during Where I Come From, a quick jaunt into the Peak District’s Chapel-en-le-Frith, home of Lloyd Cole.
Of all the bands mentioned above, the bases touched are all the very early, rough and ready and excited periods before most of them went all miserable, so these elements all go towards making this record upbeat and cheery throughout, with standout tracks such as Books on Tape (and what a chorus that one has) and Walking in the Dark bouncing along infectiously alongside the boisterous 2nd half of single Rattle Your Bones.
This is a record to have fun with – I’ve gone on a fair bit about the influences here, but that’s because they’re (particularly the 80s Liverpudlian original Velvet Underground theft of the Bunnymen) part of my own musical makeup from when I was an early teen. The Black Whales take these reference points and make their own unique thing out of them, and the end result is as fine a debut full-lengther as you could hope to hear.
7. Erland and the Carnival – Nightingale
I have one of those brains that tends to work on the basis of “if it’s a bit strange, then I like it”. This record (and, indeed, band) are very strange, and I like them a lot. No great surprise there, then. To be merely a bit strange in the context of this record would be to mention that this is one of two albums in my Top 50 that have been recorded on boats. To be more specifically odd, this particular one was recorded on a converted Mystery Ship that spent much of the Second World War pottering about in the North Atlantic disguised as a Merchant Vessel, luring and subsequently attacking U-Boats. Recording in this floating representation of nothing being what it seems has has quite the effect on this group of eclectic folk-pop magpies, and the end result is something rather bizarre, disquieting and brilliant.
This strangeness begins before a note is played. the cover depicts a young girl in a 1970s bedroom, a couple of feet above her bed and shrieking. For those who don’t know the origin of the photo, she may as well be bouncing about to poster-boy David Soul’s new record. Instead, she is being thrown across the room by what became known as the Enfield Poltergeist and she is utterly terrified. Spooky goings-on and weird dreams are the order of the day, with many of the songs here hinting at the supernatural and general ‘other’-ness either through direct references or by way of giving parts of the songs or their associated interludes that “out of the corner of the eye” unsettling quality.
Continuing their fondness for all things found and read, Erland and the Carnival follow last year’s wonderful debut with a whole new gathering of borrowed ideas and leftfield influences. Anyone watching the BBC’s Final Score of a Saturday afternoon will now be familiar with the strains of Map of an Englishman that plays as the programme switches from the digital red button to BBC1, a song that is directly based upon crossdressing Turner Prizewinning artists Grayson Perry’s illustration of his own psyche as geography. And that’s one of the more straightforward links – East and West makes mention of Sigmund Freud’s dream of witnessing his own dissection; elsewhere, Dream of the Rood is a 7th-Century poem in which the narrator has a conversation with the cross on which Christ was crucified. And there’s even a bit of room for Bernard Hurmann to appear as well. All in a day’s work for a group who managed to riff on both Leonard Cohen and William Blake on their debut.
This dreamishness is carried through Nightingale on the shoulders of a more antique-electronic feel than their predominantly indie-folk of last year. The music tends mostly to sit in the background in order to allow Erland Cooper room to describe what is going on, although this does give the soundtrack licence to add further levels of weirdness for the benefit of the listener. They do let loose in slightly more conventional ways every now and again though, This Night in particular rattling along like an uptempo version of the Smiths, but it’s mostly restrained and unearthly lamenting with an electronic folky-pop backing.
All of this sounds like a bit of a challenge to the casual observer, and it probably is, even though it truly is very catchy in its own way. It’s a challenge that reaps rewards though, and it’d be a shame if Nightingale was overlooked just because it’s cleverer than whoever E&TC’s contemporaries may be, or that it quite happily sits outside the boxes that other bands are far too eager to tick.
6. Screaming Trees – Last Words: The Final Recordings
If I had allowed pure sentiment to run the rule over this Top 50, this would be Number 1 for the sheer amount of memories I have accrued whilst listening to this band. In the spirit of fairness however (I know, that I have one of those came as a surprise to me as well) I’ve had to put it purely in the contextual vacuum of this year alone, and so here it happily sits. It’s something that I will mention a bit later on in the week, but something that became apparent to me very early on when putting this list together is that the number of plays a record gets does not necessarily push it to the top; the criteria is far more complicated and involved than just that. Or I might just be saying that to disguise the fact that I’m making this up as I go along.
Last Words: The Final Recordings is a real curio, which in itself makes it stand out nowadays in an era where very little is allowed to be curious anymore. If it had been released back when it was recorded, it might have raised eyebrows amongst many, but would have felt either not heavy enough for a culture becoming (thankfully fairly briefly) obsessed with identikit nu-metal, or – even harsher – as a bit of a leftover from a then-moribund “grunge” scene that they were never really a part of, despite the occasional crossing of paths. The strangest thing that I find about this release is that the timing is absolutely spot-on, with enough time passing to make fans salivate and occasional passers-by have a fond little “I remember them” moment, as well as touching upon the Anniversary Edition zeitgeist without resorting to reissues, which can only be applauded.
It also helps when the music is largely timeless. A 1960s Small Faces soulful psychedelic vibe married to 1980s REM pop hooks with countless nods to, pilferings from and paying rapt attention to all points inbetween made the Screaming Trees among their peers in any given era of their varied existence, so it was easy for them to slot back into the contemporary consciousness, aided immeasurably by a general buffing-up of these old demo recordings to make them sound as if they were recorded last month instead of last century. The collected songs may well be a gathering of ideas new and old from a band on the brink of winking out of existence, but play Last Words to someone who didn’t know this and they would be very hard-pressed to hear this as anything other than a bright, cohesive, purposeful, recent record.
If I was organised enough to have such a thing (and even more unlikely, could remember where I put it), this would have ticks in every box of a “what makes for a great Screaming Trees record?” checklist: Gary Lee Conner’s evocative and occasionally rather strange riffing; Van Conner’s Ronnie Lane-channelling basslines and general lynchpinning; Barrett Martin playing the drums with both invention and the apparent desire to hammer them as far into the ground as possible; and Mark Lanegan’s voice that reflects everyone else’s mood in any given song and provides as much gravitas, pathos or passion as anyone could ever hope for. In short, this is a Band doing exactly what a Band should do – act as a solid unit. And although they may all be doing their own thing now, it’s still pretty cool to see that in each of their own endeavours, they retain their own specific part in whatever they’ve done since.
It’s sort of sad in a way to hear this, and in such a contemporary setting. That it sounds so recent and fresh appeals to that remnant of youthful fandom that still burns in its own little corner of me. But the whole “Right then, this is it.” aspect of it all is a bitter pill to swallow. It’s a wonderful way to say goodbye though, and the whole “it’s cool now, we’ve grown up and we’re all talking” feel from this album is a far better way to sign off for both band and fans alike than just walking off a stage and sodding off. The closing, title, track couldn’t be more apt in terms of sound and spirit.
5. A Winged Victory For The Sullen
I find it difficult to write about any artist or musical work unless the subject is playing. Moods and feelings are easier stirred by what’s going on rather than what’s just happened. This is an album where doing so is nigh-on impossible as it doesn’t so much require rapt attention throughout as subtly force it upon you anyway. It’s also an album that exposes the ridiculousness of doing a list such as this as I’m not sure why it affects me so, why it sits here near the top of my favourites of 2011, or indeed why I so often sit listening to it as often and as bewitched as I do. Although I have to admit that the synaesthetic lightshow that tends to accompany it is a bit of a help.
A Winged Victory For The Sullen is a coming-together of the talents of two composers (Dustin O’Halloran and Adam Bryanbaum Wiltzie) notable for their emotional, minimal works. The result is seven tracks of varying lengths and ideas that flow into each other like calm REM dreams in a single night’s sleep, some obviously personal (the Static King mentioned in two of the tracks is the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse), others open to a wealth of interpretation. These may appear to be sparsely-populated compositions, but they are filled with unspecified emotion, as if that definition is needed to be added by the listener.
On the surface of it, there are three layers involved here. Dustin’s unmistakable piano and Adam’s electronic treatments sandwiching a group of strings and wind, each providing their own frequencies and pulses in tune with each other, which is probably why it’s so easy for the brain to send these signals to receptors built to do something else – I’d say “mistakenly”, but I’m not wholly convinced that this extra-sensory bonus where sound is translated as a chromatic response is completely unintentional. And it’s making it very difficult to type anything.
What A Winged Victory For The Sullen does best is that it fills spaces that I never knew I had – it’s only when the sound is absent at the end of a piece (most obviously when the epic A Symphony Pathétique finally draws to a close) that you realise where you are – you’re aware of everything that has gone on, but it’s as if it’s being piped directly into your subconscious, inviting you down with it without accidentally disturbing anything else that may be down there.
Hopefully, his is the first of a series of ventures for these two artists, it’s an incredibly moving and enriching experience that gets better and better with each listen.
4. Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere
And so on to the next part of this coincidental double-header. Like the previous entry this, somewhat obviously, features Dustin O’Halloran (who has, by my reckoning, been involved in four of this top 50 in one way or another and is also on two that didn’t end up being included), it’s more minimal neo-classical performances, and it also makes my eyes go funny in the nicest possible way, although this once more means that it’s banned from my car as I’m not sure that my insurance covers synaesthesia-based “incidents” on the road.
Lumiere is also a record that I struggled with more than most when I blogged about it upon its release – the word “Opus” appears a fair bit, which suggests something a bit more highbrow than the fayre I’m used to listening to, and anything carrying the term “classical” comes with a certain properness in its approach to composition and performance that I simply don’t have the knowledge to describe properly. Although I’ll pretty much give anything a go.
Where Dustin’s work in A Winged Victory For The Sullen is vast and expansive, his Lumiere compositions draw you right into a close, intimate setting where even the microphones become an instrument, picking up every soft clunk of keys and pedals being depressed and released as well as providing their own backing hiss which adds to, rather than detracts from, the performance.
Musically, I am personally reminded of Joe Hisaishi’s incredibly personal and sorrowful scores he created for “Beat” Takeshi Kitano’s existential gangster films – of which I simply cannot recommend Hana-Bi (Fireworks in the US) highly enough – creating the mood for both setting and character in a single flourish; Quintett N.1 and especially the moving Fragile N.4 are excellent examples of creating a cinematic mood by gently surrounding the heart of a tune without unnecessary embellishment.
The album closes with the evocative Snow and Light, ending with one minute of the hiss of a microphone turned way up, recording absolutely nothing but static. This sounds unremarkable in itself, but it’s a gentle easing out of an emotional album of music not just for us but also for Dustin O’Halloran himself, as during that final silent minute, the microphone is picking up no movement from the performer, soaking in the ending just as we all are before the apparatus is switched off.
This has ended up being another short overview, but that’s generally because it’s such an involving and closely-recorded collection that typing over the top of it seems somehow rude. It’s something that requires the fullest attention from start to finish, making it ideal to either wake up to in the morning, or settle down with at night. It’s just best for me not to drive while it’s on.
3. The Head And The Heart
Of course, I was nowhere near “the first” to have gotten into this Seattle six-piece, as 10,000 US Northwesterners had already been enjoying the fruits of this self-titled album from last year before Sub Pop stepped in and made them go all famous everywhere else by first releasing the album digitally on New Year’s Day followed by a three-dimensional offering in the Spring. Following this, Heavenly Records have released it yet again in the UK in the Summer, so it’s been a steady stream of positive vibes all the way.
The Head and the Heart have described themselves as “shamelessly happy”, and this is obvious throughout this record. Incredibly tight throughout, they’re not afraid to be slightly silly from the off, with Cats and Dogs showing their fun side as being their most important. Journeys both from and to an indefinable somewhere seem to play a part, always with purpose and stressing that the travel is always worthwhile and fun (making them a sort of Littlest Hobo for the 21st Century), and almost always spent in company thanks to the group’s exemplary vocal harmonies that raise the emotional pitch of every song to gospel levels, that just invite everyone within listening distance to stop whatever it is they’re doing and join in – they’re not so much a band as a community you never knew you were a part of. There’s a joy apparent in every minute here, just like every good and great debut album ever made for the benefit of themselves and the people who have been flocking to see them in their hometown while the rest of us “Johnny-Come-Latetotheparty”s had to wait for the likes of Sub Pop, Heavenly and friends in the know in order to catch up.
In brief, this is as high as it is here for more than one reason, and not all of them musical. Firstly, I should listen to what people tell me is good more often. Secondly, it’s brilliant to see people succeed in this weird and increasingly shortcut-ridden (both in and out) industry so quickly just by the virtue of being very good at what they do, and finally because it’s really, really uplifting to listen to.
2. Daniel Martin Moore – In The Cool Of The Day
This time last year, I was freezing just across the road from the English Channel (or la Manche if you’re that way inclined) just a short stroll from the De La Warr Pavillion where I’d seen Billy Brag perform the previous evening. I’d not gone to see Bill though (enjoyable, funny and stirring as he was), instead I’d driven 270 miles to catch a support act who had come up with one of my favourite albums of 2010. And here’s half of that act with one of my very favourite albums of this 2011.
Following on from the gentle activism of Dear Companion, written about the destruction of the mountaintops by his home, Daniel Martin Moore takes his musical journey inwards and upwards, making an album of spiritual songs both old and new seemingly catalysed from having a bit of a sit down at a piano. This doesn’t at first glance sound like the makings of something brilliant, but in amongst the gently-persuasive enthusiasm that fills the whole half-hour of the record, that brilliance is certainly there.
Each song here touches on several stylistic bases that sounds as if built upon childhoods soaking up the music from the radio and record player rather than church, with interpretations largely based on gospel rather than hymnal – Sister Rosetta Tharpe looming cheerfully largely during the several upbeat renditions – with even the piano-led songs such as the beautiful and stately title track feeling more as though it has come from the home rather than a large gathering. It’s also impossible to tell old from new here without a trip to the credits, Daniel’s writing of his own songs meeting his arrangements of the traditional tunes seamlessly halfway.
Central to all of these goings-on is – as with his previous records, his voice. Calm, clear and full of conviction, it’s an unflappable vocal that gives each song the reverence or joy (or both) that each song asks of him, and it’s plain to hear that he is having a great time of performing songs that he has grown up with as well as bolstering that set with his own standing happily next to them. It’s also this voice that so easily persuades the less-deistic among us that belief is not a requirement to be cheered here; it’s enough to just open one’s ears.
I’ve been scratching my head for some time about what sort of a “move” this represents, both for the artist and the listener. I don’t own many records that could lay claim to being overtly religious, mostly because I’m not a religious person in any particular direction, choosing instead to try to be generally nice and neutral in a shameless bet-hedging exercise. And looking through Sub Pop’s own esteemed back-catalogue, they’ve not touched upon the spiritual side much either. But, this isn’t a record where anything as crassly calculated as “moves” could apply. In The Cool of the Day is such an obvious step forward from DMM’s previous work on the label, and one listen is all it takes for this personal look at his own spiritual upbringing to find a place in Seattle’s finest’s roster and in my record collection as if a place had been waiting there all along. For Daniel himself, it’s a nice way for him to define his place in, and perspective on, the world by mapping out the roads and pathways that have brought him thus far. That he has decided to share this journey with us is a delight.
I’m not entirely sure if this means that I can’t make my mind up, or that I can’t count, as this technically makes the whole malarkey a Top 51. Then again, even before I started to compile this list I knew that these would be top of the pile, and as I was further listening to all of the records in this list and beyond to try to find some sort of pathway through it all, it became harder and harder to separate them. So, in the end, I didn’t bother. Because not only was it ultimately pointless to try to convince myself that one was better than the other, the two records could almost be brothers – not twins, as the differences are just as great between them as the similarities that bind them, but each fits with the other so well that it’s now difficult for me to listen to one without the other. So, it’s far from an annoyance for me that I can’t pick between them, it’s more of a joy.
To get the differences out of the way first and foremost: I’ve probably played Richard’s album more often than anything else released this year; Josh’s is amongst the fewest-played. One record goes for a series of short tales, the other chooses a smaller amount of huge confessionals. One’s approach to songwriting and performance is steeped in many decades of tradition, imagery and storytelling, the other is from nowhere other than one man’s life and experiences. The Wayfarer picks its journey around the various Circles as if Danté was writing a Lonely Planet guidebook with David Lynch taking the photos, done with a certain knowing, vigour and occasional righteous anger. The Last of the Country Gentlemen picks out one specific spot in the swirling abyss and invites you to sit and listen. Both are equally compelling.
It’s probably not unfair to describe Josh T Pearson’s solo debut, released some ten years after his last record as part of Lift to Experience, as harrowing. Josh picks at the threads of his own being, unravelling his awful truths and misdeeds and laying them out in front of the listener as if to say “Look at these. You have them within you also”. There are tales of threatened violence, infidelity and sorrow in here, and these aren’t distant recollections softened by years of reparation and repentance; they are raw demons plucked whole, the entire album seemingly acting as the start rather than the end of a long healing process. There is certainly an incredible amount of beauty here in amongst the horror, Josh’s own voice wrapping itself around his otherworldly guitar accompaniment, carrying each song upwards and putting the beginnings of a redemptive distance between him and his lyrics.
There’s humour to be found in amongst his recollections, although naturally it’s fairly dark – Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her makes good use of an exclamation point and missing letter “e” to comedic effect, taking some of the edge off his musings on spending his first days of marriage with someone while pining for another, and Sweetheart I Ain’t Your Christ adds some odd but apt holiday imagery (“It’s ain’t Christmas time it’s Easter, Honey Bunny”) before flinging a couple of Simon and Garfunkel songs into the mix. These are jokes told through gritted teeth however (“It’d be kinda funny, Honey, if it weren’t so damn true”) and the comfort is cold.
These however are not the songs of someone who has given up. There is a glint and drive in is voice that, no matter how dark the passages are that his words take him, he genuinely sounds as if he is lighting his way forward and willing himself to do so. Hopefully the success that Last of the Country Gentlemen is bringing him and the growing number of people supporting him (and, judging from the shows that I’ve seen this year, happily willing him onward and upward like the little Clarences we are) is lightening his spirit. A singularly incredible record, as much as I love it I hope he never feels that he has to make another one quite like it, and that the next one will be soaring.
Richard Warren’s second solo album under his own name, sounds for all its “recorded on a 2-track tape recorder in a 9x9ft cellar” simplicity as if it was formed in every hellish bar at the end of every line in the US. The depictions here are snapshots of lives in various stages of descent and redemption, variously being on the receiving end of it (Through the Fire’s plea from a damned soul for one last night of sin), doling it out (the epic title track wreaks divine retribution on a Government that has failed its people) or just generally being on the journey either way and enjoying the ride (the heart-pounding Lonesome Singer in the Apocalypse Band). Influences are many and varied, yet shaped so that each song fits in with the rest of the record to form a cohesive whole, and it’s obvious that Richard is revelling in this current direction, such is the relish that he displays in each story and situation.
The main ingredient here seems to be volume, and plenty of it. Reverb and a general “pick everything up” approach to recording serves The Wayfarer well, giving the atmosphere a lonely quality at the same time as giving the impression of each element fighting for domination over the others, which can only be a good thing as it’s a record that begs to be played loudly and often. Indeed, Lonesome Singer…‘s brassy crescendo is as fine a stirring, chaotic call to arms as can be found anywhere else. On the subject of chaos, the ire of The Wayfarer itself almost unhinges itself in its final act, the realism of the Class Politicking being taken over by fire and brimstone condemnation in the form of blackbirds and a demoniacal brass band playing us all down.
A further sense of the dramatic sees us out of the record on the last two tracks; insect chirrups place ghost story The Willow in its oppressively humid home, where the closing lament of Ragged and Broken plays out like a broken 78 in an empty room, such is the fate of its lonely protagonist. Solitude is certainly something that has helped shape the Wayfarer, and the way that it has been written, performed and produced certainly helps to feed that notion throughout, so I hope that this current direction for someone who has explored more than a couple of musical avenues during his career to date is something that he explores and shares further, as it’s interesting, exciting and unsettling in equal measure.