Monthly Archives: January 2018

Album of the Year 2017: Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Julie Byrne, the rock in choppy seas (photo: Angela Lewis for portalsmusic.com)

Album of the Year

Julie Byrne

Not Even Happiness

One of the symptoms of an album becoming a favourite of mine is how protective and selfish I start to feel about it. I’m not alone in this sensation of course; there are some works of art that connect on such a level that you wonder if anybody else quite appreciates just how much they mean to you. For me, Julie Byrne’s Not Even Happiness is one such album: there were definitely times at which I would privately insist that this record struck a specific connection with me alone, even as I shared discussions, listens, and live shows of its material with friends and fellow fans. Amid the chaos and the longueurs and the near-overwhelming cynicism of 2017, it became the album I most wanted to reach for in times of light and dark; the rock in the choppy seas of a year that never fully relented.

I assess and reassess my opinions all the time. Days, months, years later, I come back and reconsider my preferences in lists like these. I missed a lot of albums this year as it is, but I’m aware that even among those I did give time to, there are arguably more ambitious, creative, and timely records than Not Even Happiness. But this is the one I love more than any other. Within its half-hour span, I’ve found musical and emotional nourishment that still has me glowing in awe of and in gratitude for its creator.

I suppose that more than anything else, I’ve found a lot of comfort in Not Even Happiness. Not comfort in the “easy listening” sense, but because its marriage of words and music – and the expressions thereof – resonate so directly. I find something extraordinarily beautiful in the sound of this woman, playing her father’s guitar, singing of “seeking God within” as she navigates various states of impermanence, self-imposed and otherwise. In sound, the album is as crisp as a breeze rolling across a plain, the production rendering these songs in crystal-clear panoramas in which Byrne’s gorgeous voice hovers like a beacon. The stray instrumental embellishments here and there are lovely, from the pillowy, airy synthesisers of ‘I Live Now as a Singer’ to the flutes that bookend ‘Melting Grid’, but there’s little required beyond Byrne’s voice and her flickering fingerpicking to keep me enthralled.

In its structuring, Not Even Happiness brings to mind a written essay, one that’s meandering but never pauses to prattle. Comparatively speaking, it’s slight yet perfectly formed, every element in its brief runtime resting in a comfortable balance, aligned in style and concept without sounding meticulously engineered to the point of coldness. As these nine songs progress, and Byrne orbits ideas of solitude, travel, love and questing both geographically and spiritually, her writing recalls works such as Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost and Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse. That these works also hone in on travel as a key theme is another thing entirely, but I’m reminded more of how these writers produce works that drift along seamlessly, organised loosely around a central theme but touching astutely on various philosophies, micro and macro.

It’s in this way that Byrne lets her thoughts unfurl, composed in numerous junctures during her time spent touring the United States. She is fascinated by and beholden to the constant transience her career as a musician has placed her in, and she gazes at her physical and mental surroundings not in disenfranchisement but in wonder, with the occasional tinge of melancholy or weariness. ‘Sleepwalker’ is the most revealing entry in this regard, Byrne singing from a place of sorrow but not one of self-pity. “I travelled only in service of my dreams,” she states, tussling with previous beliefs that to become attached to another is too dicey a prospect in her circumstances. “Before you, had I ever known love?” she asks. Then: “or had I only known misuse of the power another had over me?”

She crosses the country, keyless and open-eyed, searching not for personal revelations but for equanimity as she goes. Sometimes it is enough to feel liberated in her nomadic state, gratefully observing the splendour of the cities and the people she passes by, whereas at others, her reveries come with pangs. Solitude is one thing, loneliness another, and in treading the ground between the two, Byrne finds exquisite reserves of feeling: “will I know a truer time / Than when I stood alone in the snow / And the moon was in the sky and it shone / And all the land glimmered beneath”. On ‘Follow My Voice’, she sings in falsetto that “to me this city’s hell / But I know you call it home”, and emphasises with sadness but no regret that “I’ve been called heartbreaker / For doing justice to my own”. Her journey is unselfishly her own, and it’s a beautiful thing to follow.

Gentle pockets of wisdom are scattered throughout Not Even Happiness, but it’s clear Byrne understands she is no oracle. Even when making peace with the changes and compromises her choices have wrought upon her life, there is still much that mystifies and eludes her in this world. She closes the album with an open question: “shall I be ever near the edge of your mystery?” Yet while she may not know all there is, she places her faith in the sublime, confident that natural wonders will continue to give her solace no matter where she travels or what she experiences. At the heart of the album, ‘Natural Blue’ most directly articulates this idea. I am constantly stirred by Byrne’s repeated mantra on this song, offered between wordless sighs and an aching string arrangement: a touchingly simple and powerful ode to the everyday phenomena that can leave us humbled and moved beyond belief.

On Not Even Happiness, Byrne is so effective at communicating these thoughts and emotions with poise and intimacy, and I’m grateful to have had it as a companion in 2017, wherever I have been. As winter took hold, I was lucky enough to see Byrne perform at London’s Union Chapel with one of my best friends. Sat in the pews, cradling mugs of hot chocolate with our feet slowly thawing from the cold, we and the hundreds present watched and listened so raptly, the atmosphere was one of hushed and hallowed awe. After the show, I got to meet Julie at the back of the hall, and she signed my copy of Not Even Happiness with a line from Frank O’Hara’s poem ‘Morning’: “if there is a place further from me, I beg you do not go”. Fittingly, this is an album I haven’t wanted to stray far from for quite some time. I treasure it like no other album of the past year.

“Follow my voice. I am right here.”

05/01/18

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Albums of the Year 2017: 6-2

(Perfume) Genius at Work (photo: leguesswho.nl)

A round of applause for one last selection of five albums I’ve loved this year; some of the most emotionally resounding, aurally sublime, and addictively listenable records of 2017. Not all of them are made for comfortable listening, but all deserve high praise by my reckoning, especially considering the gruelling circumstances that several of these artists had to undergo in bringing their works out into the light.

6

Julien Baker

Turn Out the Lights

“It stopped me in my tracks” is such a clunky expression. Like most clichés, it’s old, it’s tired, and it only seems to exist as a filler phrase, deployed without any honest gravity. But also like most clichés, while it’s hokey 99% of the time, there can quite unexpectedly come a moment when it suddenly lands a direct hit, the meaning behind it fitting the sentiment exactly. Julien Baker’s second album genuinely stopped me in my tracks: playing Turn Out the Lights for the first time was one of those holy shit, put down your tools and just FUCKING LISTEN experiences that left me in awe.

Baker’s raw, expressive voice, the intimate braiding of piano and guitar, the repeated structures of build and release; these are all touchstones of confessional songwriting, as familiar as the clichés mentioned above, but as it has always been, it’s how you breathe life into your words that proves the vitality therein. The songs on Turn Out the Lights are raw and unflinching, Baker’s lyrics placed with purpose rather than to fill blank spaces. Her agonies are her own yet are communicated relatably, circling rejection and nebulous distance – from a friend, from a lover, from God. She scrutinises, dismisses and pleads for her own self-worth, and keeps glancing her past struggles in the rear-view on her quest. Substance abuse, broken bonds and residual guilt are demons that never fully disappear when they exist in unforgettable memories, and these are songs not of redemption, but of continuous reckoning: no person is complete or comfortable forever. Through Baker’s translations of her own emotional state, her words – delivered in that steely voice – expand to provide listeners with a surrogate of uncommon acuity. “Maybe it’s all gonna turn out alright,” she wonders aloud. “I know that it’s not, but I have to believe that it is. I have to believe that it is.”

“The harder I swim the faster I sink.”

5

Lorde

Melodrama

A spectacular leap forward after the promising Pure Heroine, Ella Yelich-O’Connor’s second album as Lorde exceeds all expectations, which were admittedly mixed to begin with. The hype was intimidatingly tangible and potentially destructive, and with O’Connor catapulted from suburban disenfranchisement (reckon she still hasn’t seen a diamond in the flesh?) to rubbing shoulders with Taylor Swift and pals (cough), it was hard to imagine Melodrama escaping the fate of so many difficult second albums.

Mercifully it does, and by quite a distance. This is one of the most enjoyable, accessible, and pristinely packaged LPs of the year; a suite of songs that are thematically, emotionally and sonically entwined with a hit rate that never dips, even as risks are taken (Kate Bush-league vocal leaps, sudden house pianos, a chorus that spells out “loveless” letter by letter) and the lyrics flirt with the stuff of first world problems. The latter are arguably unavoidable at this stage, but O’Connor keeps her head screwed on; she’s not in this to rack up sad emojis, but to mine the emotional whirly-dirly of jettisoning one’s teenage years with sympathy, frankness, and a splash of withering self-effacement.

O’Connor’s presence is magnetic. Throughout Melodrama she’s confident in a broader range of tones, her voice and her wordplay sharper and more focused than they were four years ago. Her knack for a snappy observation is constantly primed, whether she’s catching bitter glimpses of a past flame (“she thinks you love the beach / You’re such a damn liar”), or savouring her sweetheart, psychopathic crushes (“we’re the greatest / They’ll hang us in the Louvre / Down the back, but who cares? / Still the Louvre”). Between finding comfort in herself (the sublime ‘Liability’) to understanding – and appreciating – that hedonistic recklessness is a mere distraction from her insecurity (‘Sober’, ‘Perfect Places’), Melodrama chronicles not what fame has done to Lorde, but what she’s able to do with her fame, growing as an artist and a woman rather than getting chewed up along the industry’s assembly line. Having tackled teenage ennui and the messy mood swings of her early twenties, there’s plenty of fertile ground for her to cover in the future. It’ll be the property ladder and credit ratings next, just you wait.

“It’s just another graceless night.”

4

Perfume Genius

No Shape

Mike Hadreas has been plagued with bigots, homophobes and haters his whole life. Earlier Perfume Genius records were rife with trauma, chronicling the despair of Hadreas’ life as an outcast in the throes of drug addiction and Crohn’s disease, not to mention the horrific prejudices that at times endangered his life. As his musical career has progressed, it’s been nothing short of exhilarating to see him begin to strut in defiance, from the quivering anger of Learning to the swaggering confidence he flaunted on Too Bright. His fourth full-length release is his boldest and most aurally dazzling of all; a hurricane of emotional and stylistic expressions that defines straightforward labelling, but one that is rousing from start to finish.

Producer Blake Mills deserves props for how incredible No Shape sounds. As Hadreas strides with aplomb through a genre pick-n-mix, Mills renders everything with crystalline precision. The deafening explosion of electronic glitter that punctures ‘Otherside’, the cathedral-friendly strings that aggravate ‘Choir’, the insouciant jam of ‘Sides’ with its terrific Weyes Blood back-and-forth; Mills captures it all in rich, sensuous clarity. What is exposed is an abundance of feeling, Hadreas’ emotional onslaughts given spectacular musical foils that range from the refined to the decadent, but bookending the jumble of No Shape are two pockets of genuine happiness. ‘Slip Away’ is a pounding race towards an ecstatic profession of unity that flies in the face of the oppressors (“they’ll never break the shape we take”), and ‘Alan’ is a heavenly ode to Hadreas’ long-time musical and romantic partner Alan Wyffels. In a discography – and a life – so upsettingly weighted with despondency and social stigma, these are moments to be cherished, and across the No Shape, the hard-won beauty of Hadreas’ arc and creativity is stunning.

 

“I want to feel the days go by / Not stack up.”

3

Run the Jewels

Run the Jewels 3

Back in September, I wondered if there would be a more compulsively listenable record than Run the Jewels 3 arriving anytime soon. Four months and a new calendar sheet later, I’m still waiting. El-P and Killer Mike’s third mission statement is baggier than its predecessors but just as blisteringly great; a rap epic that leans into the duo’s strengths as they relish the opportunity to dole out more phenomenal bars steeped in righteous fury and kush-scented camaraderie, laying down their testaments with the verve and energy of fiery upstarts. Assisted by an impressive roster of comrades-in-arms (Danny Brown, Zack de la Rocha and Kamasi Washington taking primary positions), Run the Jewels’ third is scaled-up and sharp, sounding thick and muscular from first to last.

Killer Mike has been the stronger – and more politically active – of the two personalities since before he and El-P hooked up, and he continues to lead the charge with some of the finest and most impassioned diatribes of his career. Yet his partner isn’t overshadowed this time, continuing to raise his game to match Mike’s mastery. El-P shines on RTJ3, both in his spectacular efforts as producer and beatmaker (seriously, the sounds on this album are ridiculous in all the right ways) and as a rapper. He sounds so much more at ease in his flows now than he did on the duo’s first team-up, and when the two emcees weave around one another with ardent ferocity as they do on ‘2100’ and ‘Everybody Stay Calm’, nobody holds a candle to their unstoppable charisma. The bruising one-two punch of ‘Down’ and ‘Talk to Me’ sets the bar for the rollercoaster to follow: hypocrites, tyrants, and Presidents are raked over hot coals, tributes are paid to departed idols and friends, dystopias within sight are surveyed with impassioned cries to rail against what could be. Getting to hear El-P and Killer Mike booming through some of these cuts at Primavera Sound was an easy high-point of my 2017, and going into 2018, the shine’s still not off this gem. The jewel runners reign supreme: the top tag team for another summer, at least.

“Dad, Uncle El, stay gold.”

2

Mount Eerie

A Crow Looked at Me

For four years running, without zero intention on my part, my second-favourite album of the year (at each time of writing) has been one formed in the shadow of death. Sun Kil Moon’s Benji, Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell, Nick Cave’s Skeleton Tree. Death is the centrifuge for these works, each artist having processed and been affected by it in a manners that are naturally very different and incredibly nuanced, their albums wracked with emotional turmoil. All three are inimitable works of humanism and spirit, but also of art.

A Crow Looked at Me is different. Phil Elverum’s document of his wife’s death and its immediate aftermath is not art – the singer admits as much in the first seconds of ‘Real Death’. While it remains a cornerstone theme in art and performance across all mediums, when death actually touches one’s own experience, in those real, immediate moments that are endured, it’s not an experience for art or measured thought. “All poetry is dumb,” Elverum states plainly. “Someone’s there and then they’re not.” In A Crow Looked at Me, he reports exactly what he goes through, with barely a trace of analysis, artistic projection or delusions of meaning. He tries to take care of his infant daughter. He throws out his wife’s detritus – her toothbrushes and her tissues. He receives items in the mail that she ordered before dying. He gets spooked, he gets bored, he breaks down at sudden moments. He begins to feel photos overtaking real moments: “the actual experience of you here, I can feel those memories escaping.” There is no filter on any of this, and as you’d expect, it’s tough. But living through the death of a loved one is tough, and for the overwhelming majority, it’s inevitable.

Concluding with one of the most haunting final lines ever put to record, A Crow Looked at Me is almost unbearably sad and difficult to look in the eye, let alone discuss at length. But by following Elverum’s commentary, it’s a listening experience that I’m grateful for: a report from a dark state that none of us ever want to comprehend, but one that we are likely to one day know: the numbness, the pain, the frustration, the vast and unthinkable loss. A Crow Looked at Me is not beautiful or devastating or cathartic. It’s a document, and one from which the listener looks at the world with fresh eyes. It seems more desolate, but a little clearer, too.

“I don’t want to learn anything from this. I love you.”

04/01/18

Albums of the Year 2017: 11-7

St Vincent, a true show stopper (photo: Consequence of Sound)

This tuneful bunch features a number of perennial artists whose output is reliably smart, sharp and sonically wondrous. It’s been a mixed year for big names, with releases from some longstanding favourites (I’m sorry Arcade Fire, Gorillaz, and Laura Marling) falling flat, but these five are dependably fantastic, makig these five entries ones that I kept shuffling and reshuffling. Chances are I’ll do so again at some point, but for now, I’m happy with how this all lines up. Into the Top Eleven!

11

Alvvays

Antisocialites

I’ve kept Alvvays’ debut close at hand over the last three years, delighted to have discovered a group whose dreamy, colourful brand of pop is grounded by genuine smarts and an enduring shelf-life beyond a single golden summer. Alvvays offered gleaming hooks in a garage-rock scree, led by the charmingly acute nous of Molly Rankin and her clear, cut-glass voice. Antisocialites is even better: some of the fuzz has been shaved from the edges of the band’s sound, but the writing is as winsome as ever. Whooshing by in little more than half an hour, Antisocialites hopscotches from highlight to highlight without ever falling out of step: every melody sparkles and soars, from Alec O’Hanley’s nimble-fingered fretwork to Kerri MacLellan’s starry-eyed keyboards, which are given more room to swell and swoon.

Quintessential Alvvays janglers ‘Plimsoll Punks’, ‘Saved by a Waif’ and the addictive ‘Lollipop (Ode to Jim)’ boast the kind of fizzy effervescence you wish more guitar groups could pull off with such apparent ease and flair, but Antisocialites finds greater growth in the group’s emotional abilities. Rankin writes flavoursome tales that are contain just the right level of quaintness, whether she’s longingly kicking around under condominium lights, or dismissing a suitor with a bit of bloody poetry (“you’re an O and I’m AB”). ‘In Undertow’ and ‘Not My Baby’ perfectly negotiate the push-and-pull between toughness and vulnerability, the Stereolab strut of ‘Hey’ spies on the frustration constantly lapping near the surface of any union, and ‘Dreams Tonite’ is cards-on-the-table heartache of the highest order. Taken together, it’s a record brimming with delights: funny and touching, and all the medicine our inner teenagers require. Long may Molly Mayhem and her cohorts shore up on our doorsteps, always and forever.

“Alter my state to get through this date.”

10

The National

Sleep Well Beast

The National have always worked in service of the slow-burn reward, rather than shooting for instant gratification. Theirs are albums which grow and mutate from pleasant distractions on the first listen into rumbling monsters by the fifth, each rotation slyly revealing hitherto unnoticed channels of emotional clout, or subtle magic behind the instrumentals. And yet, even to this long-time fan, after six albums of hearing the Brooklyn quintet plumb the shifty trials and tribulations of the American yuppie experience, the prospect of more of the same did seem dispiritingly like low-hanging fruit. However, while Sleep Well Beast does little to dispel concerns that The National are relatively one-note in their work, the group surpass expectations once more in finding fresh potency within those familiar spaces.

The major trick this time is the heightened intimacy of the writing. Matt Berninger’s lyrics were co-written with his partner Carin Besser, and given many of these songs dig deeply into the fractures and fissures that scar long-term relationships, the results are so piercing as to be painful. These aren’t dramatic scenes, but ones of roiling, pent-up turmoil and constant clashes between longstanding love and the countless needles of hate that threaten to poke through. The album’s second half in particular – from the encroaching din of ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ to the somnambulant title track – is a sequence to be marvelled at, overflowing with empathetic writing and some of The National’s most gorgeous compositions to date. Berninger and his band of brothers may not be full of surprises in sound and theme, but the way in which they continue to map painfully direct routes to the hearts and minds of their listeners is quietly revelatory. Being able to do so without ever rewriting their own rulebook is a hugely commendable feat, two decades into a career that maintains a steady, deliberate pace.

“You’d fall into rivers with friends on the weekends, innocent skies above.”

9

St. Vincent

MASSEDUCTION

Annie Clark continues to defy gravity in her ascendancy as an icon for our age. Her eponymous record as St. Vincent in 2014 felt like a culmination of all that her career thus far had been pointing to; all the promise and potential of her quasi-persona finally coalescing into what felt like a definitive statement. Imagining how on earth she’d follow it up was a true chin-scratcher, but in typically effortless fashion, MASSEDUCTION pivots into bells-and-whistles glam and machine-tooled pop in a move that feels like a thoroughly organic development from ‘Birth in Reverse’ and its ilk. This is a demented toybox of an album, filled to the brim with murderous hooks, venomous songwriting, and stimulating sonic left-turns, as Clark refracts pop culture, modern anxiety and her own slippery identity through a prism of her distinctive wit and robotic beats courtesy of Jack Antonoff.

Each track crashes into the next in a breathless rush that’s hard to retreat from once it’s in motion. Clark may reign supreme as the queen of the sludge guitar, but on MASSEDUCTION she joyously pinballs between disparate moods, tones and styles without losing her own artistic voice in the process, whether she’s trading in achingly spare balladry (‘Happy Birthday Johnny’, ‘New York’) or string-soaked sumptuousness that could melt icebergs (‘Slow Disco’). All are delicious confections, among which the frazzled nursery rhymes about chemical dependency (‘Pills’) and funky scrutiny of fetish culture (‘Savior’) are the least of the surprises in store. Her various collaborators continue to build the intrigue surrounding her work, but really, the St. Vincent story continues to be Clark’s show, and MASSEDUCTION showcases her mastery in full, glorious technicolour.

“Am I thinking what everybody’s thinking? I’m so glad I came but I can’t wait to leave.”

8

Kendrick Lamar

DAMN.

“It was always me versus the world / Until I found it’s me versus me.”

So goes the opening croon of ‘DUCKWORTH’, the final (or first) offering on the latest opus from Kung Fu Kenny. It’s a fitting encapsulation of the shift in focus taken by Kendrick Lamar on DAMN., which doubles down on the personal soul-searching that underscored broader narratives on To Pimp a Butterfly and good kid, m.A.A.d city. It’s not without its political and social sting in the tail, but for the duration of DAMN., Lamar wrestles with a whole army of demons, most of which fester in his own mind, informed by – rather than having form in – the outside world.

The titles are clues enough to what’s been shuddering through Lamar’s troubled psyche. There’s respite in the radio-friendly surrender to ‘LOVE’ and the magnificent braggadocio of ‘HUMBLE’, but at its core, DAMN. is an incredibly troubled and troubling dispatch. Lamar recounts strange dreams (maybe?) of his life ending violently, lacerates himself for the hypocrisy he partakes in even as he tries to be a spokesperson for the right causes, and by the time of ‘DUCKWORTH’ and the blistering ‘FEAR’, he’s obsessing over the terrifying nature of fate’s simple, unpredictable twists. It’s electrifying and sobering material, and Lamar’s precision in wordplay and flow is as world-beating as ever, the gauntlet thrown down to all comers on the ferocious second half of ‘DNA’ and in the impassioned admissions of ‘FEEL’. I might have ranked him eighth in this year’s list, but Lamar remains peerless in his field: nobody else in the game can keep pace with their own legacy, intelligence, and creative prowess with the same power and verve.

“So I was taking a walk the other day…”

7

Father John Misty

Pure Comedy

Joshua Tillman’s modern mission of brutally honest songwriting continues to take him – and his devotees – to very peculiar places. Pure Comedy’s 75-minute odyssey through mankind’s hideous foibles is by some distance the most bracing of his output thus far: a polarising and abrasively bitter broadside from which nobody is shielded. The humour is an inky black, any smiles made with bared teeth as Tillman verbally eviscerates himself and his fellows in humankind, the precious few moments of tenderness jostling for room with liberally dispensed loathing. Completing the effect is Tillman’s abandonment of yesteryear’s grandiose arrangements in favour of much more winding and skeletal piano- and string-led compositions, which only entrenches the love/hate nature that Tillman seems to revel in provoking.

Yes, Pure Comedy is pure Marmite. But when its languorous pace and uncompromisingly sober outlook on humanity is persevered with, the mass of material strikes a resounding chord. The western world’s predominant ideologies and modern trends are satirised, butchered, and ridiculed with unfailing wit, yet these swipes are not made soullessly: there’s a clear sorrow and compassion behind Tillman’s delivery which grants the album a new dimension of power. When one of his avatars wearily abandons all sense of clever pretension to simply live in blissful ignorance (‘So I’m Growing Old on Magic Mountain’), it’s a moment of self-preservation that’s both weak and wholly sympathetic. The world’s increasingly looking like an insurmountable mess, and this album catalogues it painfully well.

“The only thing that seems to make them feel alive is the struggle to survive.”

03/01/18

Albums of the Year 2017: 16-12

Thundercat, in the hat (photo: Amy Harris, rollingstone.com)

I wish that Top Tens could contain more than ten, because in many other years, some of these records would easily fit snugly into that tier of glory. Alas, such a concept is a paradox that defies maths itself, so they’ll have to make do with the Top Sixteen, which is still not to be sniffed at.

16

The War on Drugs

A Deeper Understanding

As sonically lush as 2014’s wonderful, wonderful Lost in the Dream but a little less rigorous in design, The War on Drugs’ fourth album is an hour-long soundscape to get lost in. Adam Granduciel’s perfectionism remains integral to the group’s steady success, and the finishing touch that brings many of these cuts in to land is that they sound so aurally enveloping, every element fitted and polished just so. Although as a full-length it’s less unified and cohesive than its predecessor, A Deeper Understanding is an album composed of stunning moments: a picturesque voyage in which magic frequently spills forth like a stunning sight appearing from around a bend. ‘Thinking of a Place’ shimmers like a road stretching on forever, baked under a low and heavy sun; ‘In Chains’ and ‘Holding On’ summon stadium-sized joy from their E Street crescendos; and album highlight ‘Pain’ is five-and-a-half minutes of pleasure. His platitudes may occasionally waft by without leaving much of a mark, but when Granduciel pours gusto into a lyric like “I resist what I cannot change”, it’s more than enough to get the job done. Call it highway music, call it dad-rock, call it a tastefully-done nostalgia fest which blends vintage rock subgenres (soft, psych, winding) into one lovingly curated package. Whichever way it’s diced, A Deeper Understanding sounds gorgeous.

“I’m moving through the dark.”

15

The xx

I See You

The xx are enjoying themselves! Seemingly stunned into creative paralysis after the gargantuan success of their debut, it’s refreshing to hear the tentativeness that plagued Coexist has been thrown to the wind in favour of a bolder step out of the gloom. With additional production duties handed over to Rodaidh McDonald, Jamie Smith’s skillset comes to the fore, his breezier instrumentals in turn bringing the best out of his bandmates. ‘Dangerous’ and ‘On Hold’ are the sounds of the trio savouring the chance to lock into a groove together, swaying in the sunshine rather than mumbling from the shadows. That’s not to say I See You exists in an emotional vacuum: Romy Madley Croft’s ‘Performance’ and ‘Brave For You’ find her leaning into distress (the latter is a shining tribute to her deceased parents) to draw strength, while Sim takes the lead on ‘A Violent Noise’ and the gorgeous wash of ‘Replica’ to address his own weaknesses and struggles with alcohol abuse. The immaculate sound of the record is matched beat for beat by these assured vocal takes, and what emerges is evidence that the trio have relaxed into a new understanding of themselves as a unit. Their acknowledgement that lightning can’t be rebottled has left them creatively liberated, and brought them to a fine place.

“Test me, see if I break.”

14

The Horrors

V

The Horrors’ fifth is their strongest front-to-back creation since their sophomore gamechanger Primary Colours realigned all expectations resting on their shoulders. With Paul Epworth at the controls and coaxing the group into glossier territory, V successfully blends the Horrors’ classic staples (motorik pulses, moody psychedelia, space-rock squalling) into a vibrant display built on punchy melodies. Opener ‘Hologram’ judders and groans without shrinking away from the earworms it’s founded on, Faris Badwan’s voice imbued with a little more thrust and menace as he keeps his eyes on the middle-distance. It sets an accurate precedent for the group’s most accessible collection yet, which concludes with one of the Horrors’ career highlights – and tune-of-the-year contender – ‘Something to Remember Me By’. A wide-open surrender to their anthemic impulses, it’s a thumping work of sun-drenched majesty; a fitting finish for this triumphant chapter in the band’s chronology.

“Let’s leave this ordinary world.”

13

Thundercat

Drunk

Listening to Drunk is like tripping through Thundercat (alias Stephen Bruner)’s very own PlayStation game, one dug out of a dusty shoebox housing knackered GameBoy cartridges, a few smashed bongs, and graphic novels worn to pieces. Few albums sound as idiosyncratic as this, the work of an auteur whose technical flair is countered brilliantly by his own love of pop culture, soft rock, and fart jokes. Drunk is a ride unlike any other, swerving from rapid-fire whimsy (‘Uh Uh’) to twinkling, weightless glee (‘Bus in These Streets’), while taking in troubling sights along the way. He casts anxious glances over his shoulder to the cops patrolling his block (‘Jameel’s Space Ride’), frets over his own mortality and that of his friends, and the fractures in his psyche wrought by the tensions surrounding American race and class (‘The Turn Down’). As such, the sound of retreat into a private world is sympathetic, and while Bruner does throw out the occasional barb to the wider world, Drunk is a largely sweet and escapist vehicle: a sticky-eyed phantasmagoria that blends the virtuosic with the absurd. With Thundercat’s constantly enjoyable presence and some friends along for the journey (Flying Lotus, Kendrick Lamar, and Kenny Loggins himself), Drunk has been one of the most intoxicating states to exist in this year.

“That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

12

LCD Soundsystem

American Dream

For the magnificent live shows, the pithy commentaries, and the album itself, LCD Soundsystem’s comeback has been totally justified. American Dream lives up to the project’s rich past without feeling derivative or short on fresh ideas. Sure, the LCD coterie sound a little less goofy than they used to, but the long-term gains in the power of some of these songs more than makes up for a little less footloose fun. James Murphy’s oft-improvised broadsides at encroaching age, emotional haircuts, and DFA co-founder Tim Goldsworthy (chronicled in the whomping ‘How Do You Sleep’) are full of bite, and even when the emotional wiring is called into question by the frontman’s tongue-in-cheek manner, there’s no resisting the beautiful bombast of a crooner like ‘Oh Baby’ or the headlong rush into the glorious pile-up that closes ‘Call the Police’. As Murphy himself knows as well as anybody (as evidenced on the haunting ‘Black Screen’), heroes are disappearing alarmingly fast in this increasingly detached world. Thank goodness then that some are able to return, and give us exactly what we were hoping for.

“My love life stumbles on.”

02/01/18

Albums of the Year 2017: 21-17

Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield. Happy New Year! (photo: Carolina Faruolo for diymag.com)

The time has come again for my annual cap-doffing to the albums that kept me sane, satiated, and surprised during the past twelve months. It’s a five-a-day countdown until Friday 5th January, on which I’ll indulgently yak about my favourite album of the year and why I adore it beyond all reason. Until then, dig out your headphones, check your coat pockets for Jaffa Cakes, and join me in saluting favourites of 2017 before we draw a line under that bizarre year and crack on.

21

Queens of the Stone Age

Villains

Until his ill-advised kick at Chelsea Lauren, Joshua Homme had enjoyed a banner year with his Queens, racking up a series of triumphant highs even without considering the coveted appearance on CBeebies’ Bedtime Stories. It’s a shame that his recent onstage behaviour (while not to be condoned) has soured the aftertaste of Villains’ success, because on its own terms it’s a crackerjack of a record: breezy, kinetic, and both rigid and loose in all the right places. Sporting a beat-centric strut throughout its runtime, Villains is a notable entry not just for Mark Ronson’s oft-discussed hand in production duties, but also for the plausibility of the glam-era Bowie fixation the record flaunts, with cuts like ‘Domesticated Animals’ and ‘Un-Reborn Again’ bringing some playful glee to the group’s muscular riff-rock.

“Going on a living spree / Any wanna come with me?”

20

Future Islands

The Far Field

In the wake of the world-beating Singles and its end-to-end reserves of gold, The Far Field was one of my most-anticipated releases of 2017, but on the first couple of listens, I came away feeling ambivalent towards Future Islands’ latest. But over the course of the year, and having been blessed enough to see the group twice this year, I’ve returned to their fifth record again and again, and with each fresh spin, it has worn down my defences. The time-honoured formula the trio work now sounds sturdy rather than spectacular, lacking the novel value it possessed in the time of In Evening Air, but the emotional undertow remains a force to be reckoned with, and on the likes of ‘Cave’, ‘Black Rose’ and ‘Time on Her Side’, the sweeping drama Future Islands are capable of conjuring is unparalleled by many of their peers. Backed by his bandmate’s trusty prowess in propulsive melodrama, Samuel T. Herring firmly holds on to his status as one of the most magnetic and convincingly earnest presences in the business.

“The sea was large today, just as any other day.”

19

SZA

Ctrl

Dealing with the platforms and channels of contemporary romance is an unending trial; one of facing the overwhelming obstacles in the way of emotional connections, and how in the process, our identities can be tested and distorted in our own eyes as well as those gazing back. It’s a rocky road that Solána Rowe navigates with swagger and self-effacement in Ctrl, whether she’s taking sexual revenge against partners, plumbing insecurities about her own image (and how it can be weaponised for or against her), or revelling in the efficiency and mundanity of technology’s role in the romantic fray. Over two self-released EPs and a third on Top Dawg Entertainment, SZA’s gravitational pull has steadily intensified, and although Ctrl’s bounties were swiped from under SZA’s nose by her label in the wake of a frustrated gestation process, it’s a joy to hear that the result gels as wonderfully as it does. Ctrl is a smooth, slow plume of a collection that digs into its themes with startling frankness, and articulates their complexities with style and concision.

“I get so lonely, I forget what I’m worth.”

18

Waxahatchee

Out in the Storm

Between her band’s bristly assault and her own charismatic snarl, Katie Crutchfield has a knack for churning out tunes that insistently rattle around the mind from early listens. Out in the Storm is the most streamlined Waxahatchee record to date, on which Crutchfield and pals churn out some of their fieriest hooks and most compassionate feats of songwriting in a career already studded with gems. True to its title, there’s an electricity in the fibres of Out in the Storm, crackling through the moody kiss-offs of Crutchfield’s emotional revelations (the sour end of a long-term relationship looms heavy over ‘8 Ball’ and ‘No Question’) as well as some of her most arresting balladry (‘Sparks Fly’, ‘Fade’). Listening to her exorcise the maelstroms within through cathartic bedroom punk is an experience of painful empathy, as well as an impressive further development of the talents in the Waxahatchee camp.

“I was waiting for permission to take off.”

17

Sampha

Process

There’s not a great deal of happiness to be heard on Sampha Sisay’s Mercury-scooper, but the delicate earnestness of his fluttery delivery bears Process aloft as a gorgeous highlight of 2017. It’s an album pockmarked by uncertainty, fear, and grief, Sisay’s lyrics often hinging on dislocating experiences that send the world irrevocably sliding out of place, and how painstaking it can be to adjust and accept life’s ruthless curveballs. Sisay’s personal health, artistic coming-of-age, and the death of his mother are the major sources informing his songwriting, but his musical chops are so well-honed that the upsetting circumstances that inform his work are rendered into things of beauty. Process is suffused with sonic wonder, and the sound of Sisay coming to terms with disparate issues through his beloved medium of sound is remarkably heartening.

“We don’t have to talk / I just need you here.”

01/01/18