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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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2011 Re-Reviewed: Top Ten Albums

Welcome to part two of my 2011 reappraisal – this time looking at my re-evaluated favourite music releases.  I did compile a list in December last year, but my opinions have shuffled around in the last twelve months.  There’s a new entry in the form of St. Vincent, and the album headlining this list was previously kicking about down at the #7 mark.  As per usual, please do get your opinions in, or even link me to your own lists from last year.  Enjoy the list!

TOP TEN ALBUMS OF 2011

Note: After much soul-searching, for simplicity’s sake, I’ve decided to focus this list on clean-cut albums, rather than include soundtracks and EPs.  However, I’d like to give special mention to the Submarine EP / OST by Alex Turner, and the Drive soundtrack by Cliff Martinez, both of which stand among the following ten as containing some of the classiest sounds of 2011.

10

The Black Keys

El Camino

After the moody growl of 2010’s fantastic Brothers, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney deftly sidestepped rising expectations by rejecting the more lavish aspects of their arsenal and just having fun in the studio.  It shows on El Camino: a brisk set of crazily simple but bruising balls-to-the-wall rockers which finally tipped them into the big league.  It still hasn’t worn thin, either, with the likes of the itchy Lonely Boy and the outstanding Run Right Back standing among the strongest in their career.

Standout:            Run Right Back

9

Nicolas Jaar

Space Is Only Noise

Nicolas Jaar’s debut album is more of a collage than an album, with few tracks to its name which could be recognised as standalone songs.  The squelchy Space Is Only Noise If You Can See and the ominous Problem With The Sun might hit hardest at first, but Space Is Only Noise rewards patience, with its smaller moments uniting to form an unsettling and unique collection.  Although it treads close to sounding a little too smart-aleck for its own good, it makes for a fascinating, enveloping listen.

Standout:            I Got A

8

The Horrors

Skying

Once derided as gimmicky, now becoming national treasures, the members of The Horrors set their sights further than ever with their third album.  Brimming with colour and madness, Skying utilises a multitude of strange ideas, but anchors itself with some catchy-as-hell pop hooks.  I Can See Through YouStill Life and Moving Further Away proved that they could make envelope-pushing psychedelica palatable, and Faris Badwan’s vocals have become instantly recognisable.

Standout:            You Said

7

Arctic Monkeys

Suck It And See

Hands down, my 2011 summer soundtrack album.  The Monkeys threw another curveball with their fourth full-length release, counterbalancing the aggressive singles Brick By Brick and Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair with a plethora of sweet, lovesick pop songs.  Pulling influences from The SmithsEcho & The Bunnymen and Leonard Cohen, Alex Turner’s songwriting flowered as his bandmates honed in on a euphoric sound tinged with reverb and – yes! – swooning harmonies.  Sing another “shalalalala” indeed.

Standout:            Suck It And See

6

St. Vincent

Strange Mercy

The most recent addition to this list, I’ve got to thank two people from the University of Warwick for encouraging me to check out the music of Annie Clark and St. Vincent.  So, thank yous are in order for Ollie Guthrie and Paddy Lavin for prodding me to buy Strange Mercy, and for introducing me to a wildly wonderful world of sound where blissful, Disney-pretty compositions rub up against explosive fuzzballs of guitar.  This is an album which manages to be as catchy-as-hell (Cruel), spookily spaced-out (Champagne Year) and incredibly powerful (the title track’s “… dirty policeman” refrain is profoundly affecting), all the while retaining its own unique voice.

Standout:            Strange Mercy

5

Bon Iver

Bon Iver

The first of my triumvirate of folky gems of last year, Bon Iver’s self-titled second record was surprisingly different to For Emma, Forever Ago.  Both records perfectly reflect their covers: the debut’s cabin-grown isolation expanding into a braver, more widescreen worldview, as evident on the stylistic shifts of Perth and Beth, Rest.  But even amid these new flavours, Justin Vernon never forgot about the nucleus of his music, keeping his delicate acoustic fretwork and that angelic falsetto at the core of Bon Iver’s appeal.

Standout:            Holocene

4

Laura Marling

A Creature I Don’t Know

I bloody love Laura Marling, and her third album turned out to embody everything which I cherish about her music.  There was a slight conceptual bent veiled behind her storytelling this time around, and her literacy proved to be as powerful and evocative as ever, as she sang of Steinbeck on Salinas and the heavens on the rapturous Sophia.  A Creature I Don’t Know also found her pushing the boat out a little more musically, with The Muse rambling into countrified territory and The Beast snarling from a wall of electric guitars.  Riveting stuff.

Standout:            Salinas

3

Fleet Foxes

Helplessness Blues

There’s not much of a difference in terms of quality between Fleet Foxes’ eponymous first album and Helplessness Blues, but their second record feels slightly more focused, and easier to invest oneself in emotionally.  From the chamber guitars of Montezuma onwards, Helplessness Blues echoes with a depth and warm resonance, with Robin Pecknold’s musings on life and its meaning capable of achieving a poetic transcendence damn near every time.  It’s complimented with a musical sweetness, with Bedouin Dress lifted by a skipping fiddle melody and the title track churning into something both rousing and heartbreakingly honest.

Standout:            Lorelai

2

PJ Harvey

Let England Shake

Last year’s “big” album, Let England Shake has deservedly topped a fair number of Album-of-the-Year lists.  Deceptively simple in sound, but with plenty of layers to its tone, Polly Jean Harvey’s exploration of the devastation of war is grounded on her poise and commitment.  The sentiments of these twelve songs are shaded in such a way that the album never once falls into the trap of sounding too solemn or sombre.  Instead, it’s an affecting and quietly inventive piece of work from a top-quality musician, and a landmark album in Harvey’s impressive catalogue.

Standout:            Written On The Forehead

1

Album Of The Year

Wild Beasts

Smother

The best and most forward-thinking bands are often applauded as such because they are masters of a certain way of making music: a particular approach which makes everything else – temporarily at least – sound as dull as dishwater by comparison.  On the evidence of their three albums thus far, Wild Beasts have that formula mastered.  Their work is consistently recognisable, unusual, exciting and beautiful, evolving with each album to explore their capabilities in different waters.  Off the back of the florid, mysterious Two DancersSmother found the band reaching further by stripping back.

From the opening thrum of Lion’s Share to the dazzling catharsis of End Come Too Soon, Smother pulses with a striking dramatic undertow.  Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming (surely two of the strongest and most distinctive vocalists currently working in the industry) plunge into the grim waters of sexual tension and lust, but their tales are delivered with a melancholy and warmth which never falls into parody.  Musically, too, Smother manages to make simple indie-guitar components sound transcendent, with a taste for the theatrical balancing out the icy atmospheres.  Smother is as all-encompassing as its title suggests, but it’s a trip well worth taking.

Standout:            Loop The Loop