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Albums of the Year 2016: 11-7

Mitski: bets on losing dogs, wins at photoshoots (photo: npr.org)

chaleur-humaine

11

Christine and the Queens

Chaleur Humaine

Chaleur Humaine technically counts as an album of 2014, but Héloïse Letissier’s crossover into UK success seemed to come when we Brits needed it most, as if to prove that not every cultural trend in 2016 had to come loaded with shady subtext. Witnessing her accelerated rise to fame since the release of a translated edition of her début has been joyous, her refreshingly spacious take on dance- and synth-pop matched note-for-note by a thumping heartbeat. Chaleur Humaine is an album of self-appreciation beyond Letissier’s own pansexuality: these songs cohere around her own arc of embracing herself, while simultaneously reaching out and inviting others to do the same. Underpinning it all, these are slick and concise pop songs, written (and translated, with varying degrees of faithfulness) with care but without fussiness: the truths are presented clearly and coolly, without recourse to melodrama. This inclusive and unpretentious brand of music was a heartfelt delight for many this year, and only a stone-faced bastard would begrudge Letissier the acclaim she has received. “I am actually good” she presses on the now-ubiquitous ‘Tilted’, and she’s right in so many ways.

“I’m in my right place / Don’t be a downer.”

a-moon-shaped-pool

10

Radiohead

A Moon Shaped Pool

If you really do want to, you can go snooping through A Moon Shaped Pool – and everything in its orbit – in attempts to dredge up evidence to validate the recent gossip (is it their last? Does it hint at what’s coming next? What of Thom Yorke’s marriage?), but there are times when burrowing down rabbit-holes is a pointless exercise. With Radiohead albums, there has occasionally been the risk that the more obsessive fans can’t see the wood for the trees, and while I’m in no doubt that plenty of significance is buried within these eleven tracks, simply listening to them as they are makes for a gorgeous experience.

Really, the true appeal of A Moon Shaped Pool is the music itself: this haunting hodgepodge of tunes, many of which have finally found a home after years of floating about on the peripheries (rare live footage, muddy demos, general rumours from one album drop to the next). They may not sit alongside one another in a way that brings cohesion to the whole, but the collection has scooped up beautiful oddities like ‘Decks Dark’, and demonstrates the breadth of Radiohead’s forward-thinking prowess as it shifts from the throbbing intensity of ‘Ful Stop’ to the steely rallying cry of ‘The Numbers’. While the album largely laps in dreamlike opalescence, the overall sense one gathers from it is that of restlessness: the sound of a group still not settling into an easily-defined routine. Radiohead are as cryptic as ever, but amid the fog of A Moon Shaped Pool, beautiful shapes loom into view, and it’s a pleasure to drift into this album over and over again.

“Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”

lemonade

9

Beyoncé

Lemonade

Discovering that I loved this album was weird for me at first. I suppose I’m not in the main demographic for Lemonade: I’m a scrawny, speccy white guy who works in a bookshop and spent my teens bopping along to pleasantly anonymous indie-rock. I didn’t fully delve into a Beyoncé album until her surprise 2013 release, but it’s Lemonade which really stunned me into paying full attention, and it’s so outrageously good that there’s little to do beyond joining the rest of the universe in applauding it. No matter how much credence you give the dramatics behind the album’s release, Lemonade makes for a tremendous, tense, and hugely entertaining listen: a rallying cry with all the self-empowerment of Chaleur Humaine but thrice the gusto. Musically, it pushes the envelope of modern R&B by successfully assimilating almost every other genre under the sun, while its HBO release was a masterful demonstration of how albums can be presented and consumed through alternative means.

This album gives the impression of sounding universally irresistible (maybe not for Jay-Z, but let’s see how this whole saga pans out, hoax or not): its combination of Beyoncé’s no-fucks charisma and to-the-nines production is shocking and exuberant. There’s baseball bat swagger, tremulous vulnerability, and a levelling of blame and graciousness in equal measure. Knotty emotions are wrestled with even amid the fiercest cuts: ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ and ‘Freedom’ crack with visceral aggression while plunging into headspinning quandaries, never once deflated by simplification. By the time Beyoncé invites all ladies present to get in formation, there’s no doubting her regal prowess. From open to close, Lemonade dazzles.

“I had my ups and downs, but I always find the inner strength to pull myself back up. I was served lemons, but I made lemonade.”

puberty-2

8

Mitski

Puberty 2

Although there’s apparently little that’s original in the topics covered on Puberty 2 (the uncertainty of fledgling adulthood, relationship angst, the struggle to secure happiness on a long-term basis), what sets Mitski Miyawaki apart from her peers is that she absolutely nails the nuances beneath the blanket terms. The fears and insecurities that she purges over backdrops of fuzz guitar kick against simplification: in her writing she sidesteps the obvious and outlines the full weight of feeling behind each moment of (in)decision. The depression that plagues her is frustratingly nebulous: there are moments when she notices it like a knife in her leg, whereas during others she is fully conscious of being engulfed. This awareness she demonstrates gives significant heft to the songs on which she really lets rip, even as she staunchly avoids definitive catharsis: “I’d better ace that interview / I should tell them that I’m not afraid to die!”

‘Happy’ and ‘Fireworks’ distill the fickle nature of contentment without recourse to patronising Mitski or her audience, the singer’s turns of phrase sharply constructed rather than overwrought. ‘Your Best American Girl’ lingers on the building doubts and quiet acceptance behind a breakup rather than the turmoil of heartache: the verses capture the fragility of late-night worry, while the towering chorus emerges emboldened by honesty (not to mention a wonderful eruption of noise). Each song clicks brilliantly even when the whole sounds deceptively simple: listeners need to look closely to see just how well executed the trick is. There may be no shortage of confused twentysomethings attempting to churn their plight into art, but few have accessed the level of honesty and empathy attained by Mitski on Puberty 2.

“Your mother wouldn’t approve of how my mother raised me / But I do, I finally do.”

22-a-million

7

Bon Iver

22, A Million

(This article is leet-free, because I find it confusing and annoying to type.)

There’s a moment partway through 22, A Million which has lodged in my mind, and I’ve started to anticipate it with each play of the record. At the climax of the dizzyingly beautiful ‘33 “GOD”’, a distorted and barely perceptible voice croaks over the final piano notes: “why are you so far from saving me?” It’s an open question directly lifted from Psalms 22, and more than any one of the many cryptic phrases, declarations and entreaties scattered across the album’s length, this one feels integral to the whole project: the plea at the nexus of the emotional storm Justin Vernon weathered in the wake of the extensive touring for 2011’s Bon Iver.

Vernon is hardly a man forsaken, and when his situation is viewed in a broad perspective, he’s got to be pretty far down a Divine Entity’s prioritised list of people to save. And yet, his cries into apparent silence don’t rankle as first-world problems, but rather as a relatable and sympathetic crisis: the sound of a man whose uncertainties extend to what his own purpose is in life, and why it matters. He struggled through the past few years with writer’s block and panic attacks, recoiling against the rush of fame, and struggling to find adequate ways in which to communicate his fractured mindset to a now-huge audience.

22, A Million breaks down these matters in its form and content. The results frequently break away from the backwoods folk of old, and in place of catharsis, there are ellipses at every turn. Even when Vernon’s lyrics are at their most emotive and striking (“goddamn turn around now, you’re my A Team!”), they are rendered blurry by their context; a shuffled pack of surreal observations. But even if full understanding is out of reach, these songs remain touchingly accessible: once past the clattering abrasions of ’10 (Death Breast)’, the album is shot through with disarming beauty, not least on the gorgeous swells of ‘8 (Circle)’ and ‘#29 Strafford Apts’. It may not be handsome in a straightforward sense, but 22, A Million is a captivating and rewarding listen; an album to hold close in troubled times for the hard-won moments of solidarity it offers.

“I could go forward in the light / Well, I’d better fold my clothes.”

08/01/16

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Back with a ‘Bang’: Blur and the Virtue of Ignorance

Blur, circa the “teenies” years (photo: pitchfork.com).

I was first made aware of Blur’s resumed activity in December 2008, courtesy of an issue of NME which had excitedly plastered a black-and-white shot of Damon Albarn and Graham Coxon together on its front cover. “BLUR REUNITED!” screamed the headline, as the five-year gulf since 2003’s itchy Think Tank concluded in an instant, and fans the world over rejoiced at the return of one of Britain’s most-adored bands.

However, things haven’t been quite that straightforward. That particular magazine’s publication date was December 13th, 2008. Flash-forward to the present day, and with minimal prior warning, Blur have unveiled their incoming eighth studio album, The Magic Whip, slated for release on April 27th. To allow for a sharper sense of the heft of that time lapse, as of today’s announcement, it has been six years, two months, and six days since that issue of NME heralded Blur’s reunion.

Cover of NME, December 2008 (photo: vblurpage.com).

It’s not like they’ve been inactive in that interim. There have been multiple Hyde Park performances, rapturously-received world tours and headline slots, and a sprinkling of new singles along the way. And of course, the joy spread by the band’s return has been genuinely touching to behold. But personally, proceedings began to grate partway into the 2010s. What had begun as a graceful and joyous resurrection gradually sank into a tiresome, drawn-out tease. There are only so many epic “last-chance” shows a band can play before a once-titanic return begins to whiff of nostalgia value, rather than an electrifying new lease of life. What were originally promising rumours and interviews soon evaporated into silence, and replaced by announcements of new solo records from Albarn and Coxon. No concrete news of a full-blooded return, only another wave of tour dates with little in the way of innovation.

As a result, I’m pretty elated that the band has suddenly publicised the release of The Magic Whip after several months of silence (although I’m a little unsure of that title, especially since the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey is currently at the forefront of the public consciousness). It feels as if our patience has finally been rewarded, and because there have been no prior announcements about studio work or prospective releases, the surprise factor of this unveiling has allowed Blur to reclaim the raw sense of excitement which has been lacking during the past few years of activity.

This is perhaps because dramatic announcements are the name of the game this decade. Given that keen music fans are constantly bombasted with infinitesimal updates from a headspinning breadth of artists, it’s miraculously refreshing when an announcement arrives which packs in some genuine surprise value. I’m particularly pleased with how Blur handled the situation, when we could so easily have had a Chinese Democracy situation on our hands given the way things were going. What’s lovely is that – after years of increasingly weighted tour announcements – they’ve approached a proper album launch with stealth and precision.

It’s not quite the same for a band to casually announce the making of a record months before its details are even confirmed. A slow, steady drip-feed of up-to-the-minute news is all well and good, but there’s no matching the seismic clout of a sudden return. Of course, Radiohead began to utilise this tactic years ago, but for some reason it’s only within the past two years that this strategy has escalated to something more widespread. In my book, it was David Bowie’s The Next Day which truly signified the power of this method. We were suddenly blindsided by the re-emergence of a monumental icon, exploding back onto the scene with unparalleled mystique and the unthinkable: a new album of genuine greatness.

It’s these abrupt, blinking-in-disbelief unveilings which have brought a new vitality and spark of excitement to the industry. Naturally, there have been many ‘traditional’ build-ups which have led to magnificent payoffs in the past decade, but it’s only with surprise announcements of this magnitude that one realises just how fresh and giddy the musical world can be at its sharpened best. For better (Beyoncé) or worse (U2), it feels like mainstream artists have started to take note of this stealth tactic, and it’s these sudden deployments which get the heart really racing and the debates raging, much more so than steady snippets of minute details. In an age of information saturation and the desire for instant gratification, we are primed to appreciate genuine surprises again, and when they do arrive out of the blue, the exhilaration is hard to top.

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