- British Sea Power – From the Sea to the Land Beyond OST
I’ve been a massive BSP fan since their wonderful debut 11 years ago, but have taken a special interest in their more leftfield projects since watching them perform a live soundtrack to Man Of Aran, a silent, black and white movie, in the Caves, Edinburgh in 2009. I firmly believe that this latest soundtrack is one of the band’s finest work. The film itself is a spellbinding work depicting a century around Britain’s coastline, using archived footage from the BFI. Having emerged as a spiky, angular indie band, BSP have almost reinvented themselves in recent years as purveyors of grand and sweeping soundscapes. Their live shows have long since been influenced by natural themes: stages decked out in foliage, giant animals dancing alongside them. And for this soundtrack, the band delved into their back catalogue to reimagine some of their finest tracks with this theme in mind. Some of the original works are breathtaking too.
Highlight: Melancholy of the Boot
- REM – Unplugged: The Complete 1991 and 2001 Sessions
OK: this should probably be in some other list somewhere, given it’s: a) a compilation and b) a live album. But fuck it, I really love this record. I’ve collected almost every REM anthology there is and this is one of my favourites. Some of the earlier tracks featured are superb (Disturbance at the Heron House from Document and Cuyahoga from Life’s Rich Pageant stand out in particular). One gripe: I’ll never forgive whoever it was that put the tracklist together for sandwiching a horrible cover of Love is all Around between fantastic versions of Belong (Out Of Time) and It’s the End of the World as We Know It. But I guess that is what the skip button is for…
Highlight: It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine) [the definitive version of one of their most famous songs]
- The War on Drugs – Lost in the Dream
“It’s hard to reconcile the enthusiastic voice on the phone with his own admissions of depression, loneliness and paranoia. Equally, while the War on Drugs’ records are moody, they’re never maudlin. Some of the themes are dark, but they’re delivered in a way that suggests light at the end of whatever tunnel their creator may have been facing into, be it in the form of a joyous whoop, the crack of a snare or the exhilarating key change on a synth. Bill Callahan once sung, in his inimitable deadpan drawl: “Dress sexy at my funeral.” The same sentiment exists on Lost in the Dream. It would be impossible to avoid the dark clouds, but why not skewer them with rainbows?”
[From my interview with Adam Granduciel in The Skinny]
Highlight: Eyes to the Wind
- Marissa Nadler – July
For all the beauty inherent in Marissa Nadler’s voice, the thing that gets me every time is its spookiness. The words ‘haunting’ and ‘ethereal’ are pretty much stock when it comes to describing female singers: but Nadler’s voice has the power to scare the shit out of you. It’s, at times, as though she’s singing at you from some post-existential state. It’s something I couldn’t escape on the superb Little Hells from 2009 and while I enjoyed the intervening eponymous record and The Sister, that seminal outing now has a worthy successor. In the press, she has talked up her love of Townes Van Zandt, probably my favourite songwriter. And there are real comparisons to be drawn here. They share a definite gothic air to their songwriting. It can be morose and sullen, but also humorous and lovely. In a fine year for singer-songwriters, this album was, for me, the finest.
Highlight: Drive (fade into)
- Twilight Sad – Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave
On the cusp of this record’s release, I watched lead singer James Graham perform songs from the band’s debut album, 2007’s Fourteen Summers and Fifteen Autumns, in the warm-up for an Owl John show. I wondered whether the Twilight Sad would ever match that first record, and this is as close as they’ve come. In some ways, this is the superior album. It’s dark and paranoid – as is every Twilight Sad release. But this is a more confident work, more fully-formed. The two previous albums, I’d enjoyed, but felt the band had swapped melody for mood. On number four, they’ve shown that there’s no need to sacrifice one for the other. The tunes are here are fantastic, the ambience positively acrid.
Highlight: Last January
5. Ought – More Than Any Other Day
This one came quite late in the year for me. I started playing it towards the beginning of December and have played it right through ever since. The antithesis of what has come to define the Montreal music scene: Ought’s music is punkish, salubrious and edgy. You can hear echoes of Television, Talking Heads and early Modest Mouse in the music, while lead singer Tim Beeler’s voice recalls, at various points, Lou Reed at his most nasal and David Byrne. First and foremost though, this music is exciting. It’s sexy and it is thrilling and once you listen to it, makes you wonder why you need to listen to anything else.
- The Phantom Band – Strange Friend
Three and a half years is a long time to wait for a Phantom Band record. The Wants, a dark, brooding beast, was unleashed on listeners still punch-drunk from the sextet’s barnstorming debut Checkmate Savage just a year earlier. But the gestation period has done the Phantoms good: Strange Friend is their most refined and coherent album to date. It’s lighter and poppier than its predecessor and more musically akin to the debut, but their penchant to experiment remains.
Shimmering, pulsating opener The Wind that Cried the World, with its squelching electro intro and wordless chorus sets the tone. There are synth splashes all over this, with the band happy to court the sort of hooks they may have tossed away for being too simple before. The gorgeous, folky Atacama and soaring (Invisible) Friends steal the show on a record that has sound potential to soundtrack the summer ahead.
[From my review in the Skinny]
[Interview with Rick and Anthony here]
Highlight: The Wind that Cried the World
- A Winged Victory for the Sullen – Atomos
My adventures in ambient over the past few years were largely sparked by Stars of the Lid, an act I fell in love with while living in Edinburgh a few years ago. Similarly, my love of contemporary classical music came in part through hearing the Dustin O’Halloran album Lumiere in 2011 (along with the work of Max Richter, Sylvain Chaveaux, Nils Frahm, etc). A Winged Victory… is O’Halloran along with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid. This, their second album, is as beautiful as anything either man has been involved with before. The pair are in no hurry here: tracks stretching towards 10 minutes are de rigeur. But that’s the point. This is an album to get lost in. One to stick on quality speakers or headphones and forget the world around you. It’s surprisingly intense – parts of Atomos are dense and heady; but mainly it’s sheer beauty. That so much can be accomplished with so little is a remarkable thing, and this is a remarkable record.
Highlight – Atomos VI
- Withered Hand – New Gods
“And while the takeaway from the debut was the one-liners, New Gods is all about the music. The sound has more depth, yes, but nothing is over-egged. There are more hooks than a pirates’ convention, and subime melodies throughout. A few reference points fly past your ears more than once. Darren Hayman has frequently performed with Withered Hand, and Hefner’s influence on tracks such as “Between Love and Ruin” is marked. The classic power pop of Big Star and The Byrds can be heard in the arpeggios and jangles of “Black Tambourine”, while “Fall Apart” and “Horseshoe” have a surprising hint of 90s indie pop about them.
New Gods is an unusually good album, and is best encapsulated by the title track, the kind of song R.E.M. lived in the shadow of for a quarter of a century. “Now tell me we are not all the same,” goes Willson’s stargazing philosophy, slotting beautifully between the dreamy rolls of mandolin and bass. It’s one of the loveliest songs you could ever expect to hear; a lucid moment of perfection from a songwriter whose creativity continues to feed off his own imperfections.”
[From my review of New Gods on The Line of Best Fit]
Highlight: New Gods
- Sun Kil Moon – Benji
I went to see Sun Kil Moon in St John’s of Hackney in December and subsequently, revisited this record to remind myself why I loved it so much. The show was shambolic. The sound was abysmal and Mark Kozelek spent most of the performance dissing the War on Drugs, continuing a feud which he has fabricated with increasing vindictiveness over the course of the year. I’ve heard people talk about the need to separate an artist from their work, to be able to enjoy their creations in spite of themselves, and wondered whether this was at all possible with Kozelek. After all, the most defining characteristic of his work is that it’s about him. His songs are some of the most honest and autobiographical you’ll ever here. They delve into his family life, talking about death, love and loss, with frankness which is, at times, uncomfortable. Is it possible to make that separation in this case?
So here’s the thing: I’ve just had to realise that while, yes, Kozelek can be a real prick and that, yes, he may well have overshadowed what should have been his greatest year as an artist by picking phony fights with unwitting indie acts, the man is a genius. I’ve spent the past few hours listening to some of his back catalogue. I’ve always been a fan, but found parts of it patchy, inconsistent (perhaps understandably, given the sheer volume). But there are moments of sheer brilliance throughout – and Benji is as good as anything he’s ever done, perhaps even better than the seminal Ghosts of the Great Highway. This is a record that will stop you in your tracks. It’s musically simple, but the stories are challenging and beautiful. It deals with family tragedy, high school shootings and euthanasia in a way that is almost childishly simple and earnest, but in a way which has resonated more with me this year than anything else.
Highlight: Jim Wise