Monthly Archives: December 2011

Albums of the Year: 10-1

10. Josh T. Pearson ­­– The Last of the Country Gentlemen

Former front man for Lift to Experience, Pearson reemerged from a ten year hiatus this year with one of the most harrowing albums your ever likely to hear. The Last of the Country Gentlemen documents the fallout from a failed relationship in bitter, vicious and sprawling style. Coming in around the hour mark, with just seven tracks, it’s not an easy listen, but these songs will consume you if you give them a chance. Mostly, it’s just Pearson and his guitar, but occasional strings from the likes of Warren Ellis augment the mournfulness. When I spoke to Pearson earlier this year, he told me that every time he plays these songs live, he vows it will be the last. He was subdued and admitted to still being an emotional train-wreck. After forty minutes of chat, though, he had come out of his shell somewhat and was giving me tips on touring Texas and growing beards. A true country gentleman, indeed.

Interview with Josh T. Pearson here

 

9. J. Mascis – Several Shades of Why

Along with Magnolia Electric Co. by Songs:Ohia, this is the album that helped calm my nerves when I missed a flight from Seoul to Sydney earlier this year. £800 out of pocket and stranded in a horrible airport, it had to be something special. I never really got into Dinosaur Jr., Mascis’ old band, and was surprised by how much I loved this. For a start, it’s completely different than anything I’ve heard from Mascis: stripped back acoustic songs, gorgeous strings swooning over his weary, gravelly melodies. Beautiful stuff.

 

8. Christina Vantzou – No. 1

Along with Adam Wiltzie of Stars of the Lid, Vantzou is one half of The Dead Texan. She’s apparently the former girlfriend of Mark Linkous (Sparklehorse), and I first came across her through the videos she produced for him. I think those two names are a good starting point when trying to describe this album. It’s got the emotional weight of a Sparklehorse record, transmitted through the ambient swells of a Dead Texan. In a year in which Tim Hecker’s (admittedly excellent) Ravedeath, 1972 stole the plaudits for Kranky Records, his stable-mate Vantzou sneaked in under the radar. This is, in my opinion, the superior album. Best served with powerful headphones in a quiet room.

 

7. The War On Drugs – Slave Ambient

“There is little doubt whose band this is these days. But Granduciel’s voice is acquiescent throughout. Sometimes he whoops (‘Come To The City’), sometimes he sneers (‘It’s Your Destiny’), but for the most part, he is content to bury himself in the maelstrom of swirling guitars and driving percussion. In accepting sole control of the band he and Kurt Vile started in Philadelphia eight years ago, Granduciel has proven himself the equal of his celebrated, erstwhile sparring partner. Slave Ambient is a fine album that deserves to be recognised amongst the finest to have seen this lap of the sun.”

Full album review here

 

6. Conquering Animal Sound – Kammerspiel

Rarely does a debut album manage to combine wonderful, fresh experimentation with intelligent, fully-formed songsmithery as well as Kammerspiel. Despite being loaded with bleeps, beeps and shuffles, it feels and sounds wholly organic. Anneke Kampan’s crystalline, elfin vocals are the most charming to have crossed these lugs in some time, and the songs are perfectly written to accommodate them. In other years, this would have been much higher up my list. That it’s not in the top five reflects upon how fantastic 2011 has been for albums.

 

5. Wilco – The Whole Love

I’ve been a big fan of Wilco since I bought A Ghost Is Born on the strength of hearing ‘Muzzle of Bees’ on a cd given away with a magazine in 2004. That said, my listening has mostly been confined to the albums that preceded that year. Sky Blue Sky was too light, the eponymous Wilco far too patchy. Finally, seven years later, A Ghost… has a worthy successor. The Whole Love is a wonderful listen, from start to finish, bookended by the two best tracks Wilco have recorded in years. Interviewing Glenn Kotche, the drummer, earlier this year, he said the band haven’t ever been this content. Rather than engendering complacency, it’s inspired them back to their ingenious best: a welcome, overdue return to form.

Interview with Glenn Kotche (Wilco) here 

 

4. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

“Taking his lead from some of the artists he’s worked with (Kanye and Mitchell, particularly), he’s surrounded himself with talent (the stellar bass saxophonist Colin Stetson is an especially noteworthy addition), and worked with them to take his songs to new and fascinating places. Bon Iver is a producer’s album, with the visionary Vernon at the helm. Far from inducing anthrophobia, his spell in the woods seems to have nurtured dexterity in collusion, which can only get more interesting in the years to come.”

Full album review here 

 

3. Dustin O’Halloran – Lumiere

“From the opening track, ‘A Great Divide’, O’Halloran raises the concept of thaw: the icy tinkling of light percussion, washed over, like daybreak, by the warmth of rising strings and sparse piano. It’s evocative and it’s brilliant. Even having played this album through the freezing, dark winter, the suggestion of spring is never far from the listener. Throughout, there is the uncluttered feel of a new start, breaths of fresh air and life. ‘We Move Lightly’ is loaded with hope and anticipation: the rising piano arpeggio being drawn towards something special and invigorating by the strings that surround it. The simple, sextet of notes that marks the climax of album centrepiece ‘Fragile No.4′ is breathtaking.”

Full album review here

 

2. Julianna Barwick – The Magic Place

I’ve tried to describe this to a few people, and failed miserably. I usually start by saying: “It’s a woman singing; but there aren’t any words. There are hardly any instruments, either.” At which point, the person normally says: “You mean like Enya?” No, no, no. Let’s try again. Julianna Barwick makes her music by looping her voice, over and over, layering it, and adding subtle bursts of synth, percussion, guitar and piano. It’s unlike almost anything else I’ve ever heard and Magic Place is, quite simply, one of the most exquisitely composed bodies of music I’ve come across in years.

 

1. King Creosote & John Hopkins – Diamond Mine

The first time I played this, I was waiting for a bus, on a busy street in Gwangju, South Korea, which stank of fish and drying chilli. Fife? I may as well have been on the moon. But I was instantly captivated. After listening to the first track (proper) about eight times, I promptly did so with the others in succession. It took me a full day to get through the entire album. The songs on Diamond Mine already existed somewhere in KC’s never-ending oeuvre, but Jon Hopkins has brought them to life, in full technicolour. The production is breathtaking; the melodies spectacular and King Creosote’s voice heartrending; a devastating triumvirate. In the best year for music I can remember, this is, for me, head and shoulders above anything else.

Interview with King Creosote & Jon Hopkins here

Albums of the Year 2011: 20-11

I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t a proper blog. After all, I’m not sure I’ve published more than five original (that haven’t been published elsewhere) posts this year. But I always make time to do an end of year list. This year’s is probably my favourite to date. It’s been a fantastic year, full of cracking albums. Usually it’s a struggle to find twenty records I’ve loved. This year, I could’ve named thirty, or forty. Enjoy my list, please leave your own favourites and recommendations in the comments box.

20. Youth Lagoon – The Year of Hibernation

I was introduced to Perfume Genius late last year and instantly fell for his fragile-as-eggshell melodies, emotionally brazen lyrics and lower-than-fi production. This year, Youth Lagoon has filled the vacuum in my eardrums left by Perfume Genius. The Year of Hibernation is a beautiful, gentle album. Trevor Powers’ voice crackles as the tape hisses across ten near perfect pop songs. In parts, it’s (slightly) more buoyant than Perfume Genius, though. It’s nostalgic, yes, but looks to the past through spectacles a tad rosier than some of its peers.

 

19. Nicolas Jaar – Space Is Only Noise

I was living in a tiny, one bedroom apartment in Korea when this album came out. I remember firing it up to eleven, and lying on my bed, before eventually dozing off. I woke up confused and disorientated. The record had sent me into some of the strangest dreams I ever recall happening, inhabited by Jaar’s samples and narrated by the deep, gravelly voices that appear on the album. Space Is Only Noise is powerful, inventive and innovative. That its author had only just reached 21 when it was released helps this album become even more extraordinary.

 

18. Loch Lomond – Little Me Will Start A Storm

“Lots of albums pack an at-face-value emotional punch, and for obvious reasons (Antlers’ Hospice being a great example). But it’s less frequent that they come so stealthily loaded, the mood woven gently into pop songs. In that respect, Little Me… evokes The Rhumb Line by Ra Ra Riot, amongst others: the preservation of memory, the articulation of emotion synthesised sweetly, euphonically, gracefully… perfectly.”

Full album review here

 

17. Beirut – The Rip Tide

While it’s always nice to see an artist as explorative as Zach Condon, I worried for a while between the second album and this one that he’d lost his way slightly. Would he ever return with a consistently excellent long player, which had, well, songs and that? The Rip Tide is an emphatic “yes”. It’s his best record since Gulag Orkestar and boasts some of the finest songs he’s ever written.

 

16. Bill Wells & Aidan Moffat – Everything’s Getting Older

If the cherry atop the latter half of the year in Scottish music was Arab Strap’s one-night-only reunion at Sleazy’s, then one of the highlights of the first was this staunchly miserable affair. Aidan Moffat told us that his post-Arab Strap days haven’t given him reason to be cheerful, but nor have they blunted his razor sharp lyricism. Multi-instrumentalist Bill Wells provided deft, often lovely musical backing on an album that gets better with every listen.

 

15. Lanterns on the Lake – Gracious Tide Take Me Home

This is the album I’ve heard latest this year that’s made it onto the list. I heard it in November and wasn’t initially too taken by it. Noticing it creeping up on a few end of year lists, I revisited it and was utterly charmed. An album out of Tyneside that’s as sonorous and sweeping as the best of Sigur Ros, complete with the best male-female shared vocals since Lanegan and Campbell.

 

14. The Antlers – Burst Apart

Their first album, Hospice, blew me apart, even if it took me the best part of a year to get into. Burst Apart isn’t as stark, nor is it as obviously bleak. It is still, however, a fine album, and packs a significant emotional punch. ‘Putting The Dog To Sleep’, as a case in point, is particularly vitriolic. But whereas Peter Silberman would have whimpered the lyrics on Hospice, he’s almost defiant here when he sings: “Prove to me, I’m not gonna die alone”. I’m fairly sure The Antlers are the most interesting and exciting of all the Brooklyn bands right now.

 

13. Rob St. John – Weald

I first heard Rob St. John through a cd with his name scrawled on it in messy handwriting, passed to me at a party about five years ago. The two tracks were sparse, but powerful. There was nothing on it, however, that suggested he had an album like this in him. Weald reminds me a lot of David Thomas Broughton’s first album – particularly in the inventiveness of his guitar work. Naturally, then, it’s not a happy album (there are few of those in my collection), but it’s one of the most positive musical developments I’ve heard this year.

 

12. James Blake – James Blake

Twelve months ago, I bemoaned the lack of variety on my end of year list. As an annual rule, men with beards and guitars would populate it. They’re still here, but I like to think they’re keeping more eclectic company these days. I didn’t give James Blake a chance for a long while, mainly because the word “dubstep” was usually in close proximity to his name. I’m a professed musical snob and shamefully sidestep whole genres, often to my own aural detriment. Blake isn’t one to be pigeon holed though. There are some beautiful tracks on here, many of which are more structured on vocal gymnastics than tinny beats.

 

11. M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

“Parts of the album – thematical and conceptual – have been in Gonzalez’s head since he was a child. When recording, he seems to have taken his foot off the brakes of adulthood and let his sense of wonder run wild. “I had a lot of crazy dreams when I was a kid,” he said at the time, smiling. Not many artists do regression as stylishly as this.”

Full album review here

Interview with Anthony Gonzalez here

Numbers 10-1 will be available tomorrow

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Bon Iver – Bon Iver

This is the second piece I did for The Skinny’s chart. This one came in at number two for the year.

There’s a set of symptoms that are common to those who spend an extended time socially isolated, including social anxiety, depression and an unwillingness to readjust and coexist with others. A cursory glance at Justin Vernon’s recent discography suggests that indie’s very own Christopher McCandless hasn’t struggled with the latter. Since returning from the Wisconsin log cabin that helped make him famous, he’s played a starring role on Anaïs Mitchell’s folk operaHadestown, pitched up alongside Jay Z, Nicki Minaj and Rick Ross on Kanye West’s last smash, lent his pseudo-R&B falsetto to a couple of Gayngs records and laid the foundations for an exciting project with James Blake. It’s little wonder Vernon’s had to cry off with exhaustion (he recently described the moment in which he turned down a collaboration with Neil Young because he was too knackered).

But there’s a reason why the queue to work with Justin Vernon is snaking round the block, and if it was evident on Bon Iver’s first album For Emma, Forever Ago then the follow up hammers it home with aplomb. The debut presented a man with an uncanny ability to take the emotions in his head and transfer them first to his sleeve, and then to tape. For Emma is a wonderfully melodic, yet painfully bleak tale of love and loss that had ‘hit record’ plastered all over it. And sure enough, it brought Vernon and Bon Iver to the eyes of the world.

Bon Iver, though, is the epitome of the experimental bent that’s taken Vernon from project to project and genre to genre. Gone are the strummed guitars, and (reasonably) traditional song structures; replaced, instead, with layers of intricately plucked arpeggios and dense, atmospheric production. He’s spoken at length about trying to change his vocals and his role within Bon Iver, and they’ve both morphed beyond recognition. Vernon’s voice, which was wounded and cardinal on For Emma, is but an instrument in the maelstrom, even more processed and distorted, and predominantly used in a register above what would be comfortable for most men (the vocals aren’t to everyone’s liking, though. To quote an email from a fellow scribe, for the sake of balance: “It’s pish – no man can sing ENTIRELY IN FALSETTO for a whole record, it’s not allowed!”).

When the first album came out, all the talk was about “that Bon Iver guy”. This year, it’s most certainly about “Bon Iver the band”. Taking his lead from some of the artists he’s worked with (Kanye and Mitchell, particularly), he’s surrounded himself with talent (the stellar bass saxophonist Colin Stetson is an especially noteworthy addition), and worked with them to take his songs to new and fascinating places. Bon Iver is a producer’s album, with the visionary Vernon at the helm. Far from inducing anthrophobia, his spell in the woods seems to have nurtured dexterity in collusion, which can only get more interesting in the years to come.

The lyrics also suggest a change in perspective – a rebirth of sorts. They’re as intricate as the music, but more difficult to penetrate than those on For Emma. Gone is the plaintive navel-gazing, too. While some critics became bogged down in the references to drinking, drugging, or both, they seem almost secondary – or allegorical. One interpretation is that Bon Iver is about changing: coming of age and as a result, coming to terms with yourself. Holocene, named for the geological age we’ve been living in for 10,000 years, is the perfect example. Over a looping guitar riff, snapshots of the author’s life and memories swirl around, intensifying, before culminating in Vernon’s ‘Zen’ moment as a songwriter, and the lyric: ‘And I knew at once, I was not magnificent.’ Bon Iver is Justin Vernon growing into the real world, having spent such a long time trying to block it out. He’s accepting and embracing what’s around him, realising his own bit part role in it as he does. Ironically, he was able to discover, capture and articulate his ‘oneness’ better in an old veterinary laboratory in Fall Creek, Wisconsin than he was in a rustic cabin in the wilderness (and despite its synthetic genetics, the album has more nods to nature, too).

Fans of continuity, look away now. For as great as this album is, the only clues it provides as to where Vernon will go next is its polarity from anything he’s done before. Members of Wilco have been speaking recently about the moment Jim O’Rourke entered theirYankee, Hotel, Foxtrot sessions and shredded everything they’d recorded, leaving them with a core song, which he promptly yoked onto a pair of stallions and shooed outta town. Vernon seems to work in a similar way, as is highlighted by the early results of his dabbling with James Blake. Whatever he turns his hand to next, it probably won’t be what you expect. He may have lost the lustre of recluse, but he’s gained a hell of a lot more in its stead.

M83 – Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming

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I contributed a couple of pieces for The Skinny’s end of year chart. I’ll be posting my own list later in the month. M83 came in at number 9 on this particular list. 

Anthony Gonzalez of M83 is no stranger to lists like this. His last album, Saturdays = Youth, was among the most critically acclaimed of 2008, and a number of earlier works were frequently mentioned in the classification frenzy that marked the end of the last decade. Perhaps he won’t be too surprised to find Hurry Up, We’re Dreaminghere, then, but his double disc opus is easily the most divisive album to have flown the M83 flag to date. It’s big and it’s bold. It’s anthemic and it’s adventurous. In short, it’s everything Saturdays = Youth – a beautiful record – wasn’t, which helps explain why some fans didn’t get it (clearly not those in The Skinny’s squad of scribes, mind).

Speaking to The Skinny before its autumn release, Gonzalez was aware of Hurry Up’s potential to polarise opinion. He was nervous, but determined. This, he said, was the culmination of ten years of M83 – all the previous records rolled into one. Said Gonzalez:  “When your last album is your most successful, it can be hard to move away from it. I have thought that people might be expecting something different than this (Hurry Up), but when you listen back to the other albums, you can almost hear what this one was going to sound like. This is the album I’ve always dreamed of making.”

And what a dream it must have been. Hurry Up is brave, bombastic and kaleidoscopic. While the album as a whole is lacquered in synths, there is a host of stylistic twists and nods over the two discs that help make it one of the year’s most interesting. There are power ballads (Wait), glam-rock (Steve McQueen) and floor-fillers (Midnight City). In fact, most of the adjectives ascribed to the record by its critics can easily be reclaimed by its devotees. For “patchy”, read inventive and shapeshifting. For “kitsch”, read unashamedly glitzy and fun. For “long”, read epic and staggeringly ambitious. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is M83’s palette, stretched, doused in acid and set on fire.

Parts of the album – thematical and conceptual – have been in Gonzalez’s head since he was a child. When recording, he seems to have taken his foot off the brakes of adulthood and let his sense of wonder run wild. “I had a lot of crazy dreams when I was a kid,” he said at the time, smiling. Not many artists do regression as stylishly as this.