O2 Academy Brixton, London (09/03/17)
Everybody loves a good homecoming reception. South London collective the xx have the pleasure of savouring theirs across an entire week, having sold out a seven-night run at Brixton’s O2 Academy to conclude their 2017 European tour. And as if a week’s residency in the 4,900-capacity venue wasn’t quite festive enough, the celebrations have been further embellished by a sprawling line-up of additional shows, parties, film screenings and radio events which the group have curated as part of the area’s Night + Day festival. For a group whose beginnings were so rooted in tense silences and whispered revelations, their current circumstances would seem to indicate an unabashed embrace of the limelight.
Yet such assumptions would be wide of the mark; in truth, it’s easy to see why the group pulled out all the stops for this particular return. As Oliver Sim emphasised during a fervent speech at the close of their second night’s set, this part of the world has been a stomping ground for all three members of the group since childhood. Treating the audience to a quick trip down memory lane, Sim recalled the night that his mum dropped him and bandmate Jamie ‘xx’ Smith off at this very venue to see the White Stripes: the first gig that either young’un had ever attended. This kind of “I never dreamed it’d be me up here” patter is common enough at any given live show, but Sim’s words carried a genuine charge, and the kick that the trio get from performing here – not to mention the adulation they receive from crowds on home turf – was immediately palpable. As with the xx’s music, through the nerves and shy wordplay, there’s a resolute honesty underpinning every move they make.
Speaking of, one of the main pleasures to be experienced when witnessing the group in a live capacity is a refreshed appreciation for their unaffected intimacy. The tight-knit friendship between the performers was discernible throughout, from wide-eyed glances between songs to a few clumsy hugs at the set’s climax. Likewise, the anxiety from which their songwriting springs was charmingly apparent: Sim and Romy Madley Croft fumbled through their brief speeches with quavering voices and helpless grins, their hearts clearly overwhelmed by the deafening, drawn-out applause that crowned several of the evening’s highlights.
The group were well-equipped to make the most of their extended tenure in the Academy: flanked by rotating pylons of mirrored glass and with a reflective ceiling that dipped and tipped throughout the night (showing off Smith’s impressive array of tech in the process), it was a marvellous set-up which would surely have dwarfed the group were their own figures not so quietly magnetic to behold. The result was a show of controlled tension-and-release, complemented with the kind of light spectaculars that seemed to directly channel the emotional eddies conjured in the music, from bristling agitation (‘A Violent Noise’, ‘Infinity’) to dewy-eyed tenderness (Croft’s spotlit solo rendition of ‘Performance’).
Teed up by the lush cascades of ‘Say Something Loving’, the xx’s set offered a democratic run throughout three albums’ worth of treasures. The contributions from their first two records work a stark magic that’s enough to fill the lofty recesses of venues such as this (Madley-Croft’s guitar lines revereberated from wall to wall like great shafts of light), but there were particularly fine results to be heard when the group tinkered with longstanding favourites, marrying the spectral sounds of old with the newfound mettle present in I See You and Smith’s own In Colour. A late highlight was reached across a seamless segue from ‘Fiction’ into the ever-beautiful ‘Shelter’, before the trio allowed the night to ascend heavenwards on the golden harmonies and choice samples of ‘Loud Places’, which closed the main set on a giddy, stratospheric high.
Although several of their renditions couldn’t quite silence the yakking of a handful of loudmouthed punters, the xx provided a beautiful experience that was moving in all the right ways. The frequent moments in which the whole hall was flooded with light drew subtle attention to how keen the xx currently are to connecting with their fanbase, and the nature (and aesthetic) of these performances goes some distance to disambiguating the meaning behind I See You’s title. The xx may still dabble in the shadows, but they’ve been peering out at the rest of the world ever since their intimations were first discovered. And on nights like this one, the gaze they return to the crowds brims with a heartfelt gratitude.
Say Something Loving // Crystallised // Islands // Lips // Sunset // Basic Space // Performance // Brave For You // Infinity // VCR // I Dare You // Dangerous // Chained // A Violent Noise // Fiction // Shelter // Loud Places // On Hold // Intro // Angels
My Spin on Masterworks: 19 of 25
Young Turks, 2009
xx works a strange magic in making the mundane sound beautiful. It’s a shapely and beguiling début from one of the most surprising success stories of modern British music, and an album on which space is prioritised as much as sound to convey the intimacy that can be attained by two people. The dusky atmospheres of the xx’s songs are immaculately rendered thanks to Jamie Smith’s production, and each instrument possesses a signature style that seldom deviates across songs: cut-glass guitars dressed in reverb, warm and nagging bass lines, beats that coax and nudge rather than dominate. The end result is a work that is vague, hushed, and in many ways, so simple that it could appear flat and lifeless on paper. Even when the xx are at their most sonically lavish, the crux of their work is always plain – both musically and lyrically. And it’s this very plainness which makes xx such a quiet gem.
These songs are soft, lived-in, humble: love’s aches, pains and joys transmitted in short, simple exchanges. The charmingly succinct ‘VCR’ offers perhaps the best distillation of the xx’s appeal more than any other song. Its lyrics are nothing to marvel at, but the unremarkable nature of these phrases helps them to register as genuine. “I think we’re superstars,” Romy Madley Croft hums, accompanied by plinking xylophone. “You say you think we are the best thing.” As is the case throughout xx, there is nothing superfluous present: no overreaching poetry or sweeping gestures; just the acknowledgement of companionship and contentment. In its short span, xx rolls through the highs and lows of intimacy: those unparalleled feelings of warmth and security, as well as the sour fallout and lingering hurt.
Each song coheres around a you-me dynamic. “They” are never once mentioned, and the back-and-forth between Croft and Oliver Sim’s “you” and “I” gives xx its quiet, under-the-sheets intensity. It’s a two-hander trick that is enrapturing to follow as the vocalists divert and then dovetail, as on the excellent ‘Crystalised’, with its mesmeric undertow and a central hook composed of sighs. The singers generally trade verses before merging together for yearning choruses, and ‘Islands’ employs this trend with even lusher results, its heart-on-sleeve admissions of infatuation set to verses that bump and flutter like stirred hearts. The sentiment that “I am yours now / So now I don’t ever have to leave” taps into the hot cocoon of a relationship in bloom, delivered with wide-eyed naivety that is subsequently offset by the whispered pangs of ‘Heart Skipped a Beat’. In these subtle shifts in mood, the xx demonstrate a sharp awareness of when to accentuate the innocence or weariness of their music, so that they sound by turns awkward and wise.
It is intriguing that neither singer is talented in a conventional sense. Croft and Sim both possess pleasant voices, but neither is particularly dexterous or adventurous (at least not in this collection) with their range or performance. Yet this is not a bad thing, and is positively essential to the nature of xx. Suiting their plain lyrics, Croft and Sim perform with little pizazz, and it’s in their unpolished performances that one can hear their longstanding chemistry with one another. When the singers join to form a helix, their closeness burns above and beyond the limitations of their voices, giving these songs a sense of real attachment that is impossible to fake. At the record’s centre, each singer takes a solo outing, and the relative lack of dialogue between the two yields captivating results. Sim’s ‘Fantasy’ resembles an eerie fog that builds into a claustrophobic, droning second half, which is balmed by Croft’s gorgeous ‘Shelter’. It’s hard to pick standouts from an album of such consistency, but ‘Shelter’ makes a strong case to rank as xx’s highpoint. Its lovely, lonely guitar motif is matched by what is possibly the band’s most vulnerable moment: “Maybe I had said / Something that was wrong / Can I make it better / With the lights turned on?”
Whereas the singers provide xx with its emotional push-and-pull, Smith is the spine of the group, taking the private entreaties of his bandmates and packaging them with grace. His sparse beats and crisp production work point towards the club, but he strips back his influences to suit more reflective spaces. While drawing on elements from hip-hop and R&B, the xx’s songs are confined to insular settings: bedrooms and night buses, lit in the glow of laptop screens and desk lamps. ‘Basic Space’ pares down a skipping rhythm into its most skeletal form to fit the song’s glacial sheen, while ‘Infinity’ is given an added tension with the brittle crack of percussion that cuts through Croft and Sim’s ominous duet. It’s harder to gauge the input of fourth member Baria Qureshi, who was ousted from the band in shady circumstances soon after xx’s release. However, her contributions can be heard if one listens carefully; present in the additional layers of guitars and keys that occasionally flesh out the whole, and which were notably absent during the even more minimalist Coexist.
Although it references many of the prickly truths of relationships, xx never digs deeply into complex topics. The delicacy and transparency of the xx’s songwriting can’t hope to cover everything, but nor does the band pretend to. xx is an album of simple promises, private dilemmas, repressed hurt and tenderness, and it touches on these themes gently and with just the right level of mystery. The wide-eyed promises of ‘Stars’ are beautifully arresting in their bare-bones form. “Dear, it’s fine / So fine by me / Because we can give it time / So much time” croon both vocalists, closing the album on a note of the softest optimism. Like the ten songs that precede it, ‘Stars’ hints at so much more than what is offered on the surface. The simple components – single repeated notes, stark beats and plain words – are simultaneously basic and open-ended, glimpsing at a larger world from within its own bubble.
In some ways, extended forays into the xx’s world can become a little cloying. The decent but meandering Coexist showed that the group’s sound can be spread a little thin, and there are definite limitations to xx itself. In terms of the group’s long-term progression, it’s difficult to imagine for how long such a simple aesthetic can be successfully mined, and their upcoming third album will answer this question one way or another. In some ways, however, the thirty-eight minutes of xx are enough; after-hours thoughts in which anxiety and tranquillity collide. For the jubilant side of nocturnal life, we have the luminous solo output of Smith as Jamie xx. But when it comes to the doubts, the awkward pauses, the uncertainty and breathing space, we have xx. Once one has sunk into its intimate atmospheres, it quickly turns into one of those special albums which becomes a companion: music which you’re keen to have close at hand for the wee hours, and those mingled feelings of longing and belonging.
[Insert Europe pun here.] Top Five time. What a year. ’nuff said. Let’s do this!
Father John Misty
I Love You, Honeybear (Bella Union)
(If it’s not too wanky to start by quoting Oscar Wilde…) “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
In constructing the ostentatious persona Father John Misty, Joshua Tillman has revealed more of himself than he perhaps ever could in the solo career under his own name. The character (and ergo, Tillman himself) is occasionally repellent, prone to fits of arrogance, caustic put-downs, and unbridled outbursts that are partly romantic, partly insane (‘The Ideal Husband’squarely falling into the latter during one of the album’s greatest crescendos). I Love You, Honeybear is thus not without its absurdity, and for passing listeners, at times it can sound downright repugnant and inconsistent. Yet dealing in inconsistency seems to be Tillman’s exact intention: skirting cookie-cutter definitions and instead cracking open the messy truth that no one person is defined by a single trait. Across I Love You, Honeybear, Tillman bounds from overwhelmingly soppy to unbearably cynical, cripplingly insecure to self-aggrandising and pompous. In doing so, he displays many clashing sides of himself, and while the overall picture is far from easily comprehensible, it’s much more realistic than the binary self-presentations that are so common in music and beyond. Every one of us is contradictory, never solely defined by a beautiful or ugly side, and Tillman opens up this idea in a manner which is bewildering at first, yet astonishingly perceptive on further listening. I Love You, Honeybear forms a strikingly clever enquiry into ideas of love and the self, while remaining dazzlingly entertaining, from the decadent instrumentation to Tillman’s knack for a knife-in-the-ribs punchline. Tillman finds new ways to explore identity, romance, and authenticity in a thoughtful way, while also delivering a fantastic sequence of some of the year’s lushest arrangements.
“Maybe love is just an economy based on resource scarcity / But what I fail to see is what that’s got to do with you and me.”
To Pimp a Butterfly (Interscope)
To Pimp a Butterfly is exhausting, uncomfortable, fearsomely complex, and completely necessary. Kendrick Lamar’s previous output succeeded in affirming the Compton-born rapper as an artist capable of greater nuance and political focus than many of his contemporaries. The bar was set high by 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, but Lamar more than cleared it with its follow-up. Working with a sprawling team of A-list producers, Lamar has crafted a crossover success that hits hard not just as a musical statement, but as a powerful rumination on black lives in a post-millennial America, surveying the violence, hypocrisy and rage that reached boiling point amid the succession of horrific acts of persecution increasingly seen in recent months. Music that’s taken as a successful social critique or commentary often revolves around a protest message, and Lamar’s output is no different. What elevates him to a different league, however, is that his music works as more than reflection: while he doesn’t claim to speak for everyone, his fierce verses articulate the tangled emotions of so many, and have been recognised for their salience everywhere from music awards to educational debates about black culture in America.
From the personal exorcisms in ‘u’ and ‘i’ to bolder attempts to grapple with the broader concerns of a community or a nation, To Pimp a Butterfly unpacks so many complicated factors while always sounding heavy-hitting and coherent. To understand the scale of its impact, simply check the popular breadth it has received in critical and commercial camps – even on this very blog. As this whole list makes abundantly clear, I’m not well-versed in rap music, but To Pimp a Butterfly is so pressing, so unavoidable, so on-point, that its achievement cannot go unrecognised. It offers a profound statement on our times and the futility of defining a single community. The gut-punch that comes at the end of ‘The Blacker the Berry’ is the record’s agonising peak, and as Lamar’s vocal rises to a barely-suppressed roar, all of the fury, sadness and frustration in the face of injustices perpetuated (by the oppressed as well as the oppressors) is so tangible that it’s almost painful to hear. On hearing it for the first time, I had to take a few minutes to catch my breath. Given the album’s reception, it’s likely many others responded in the same way.
“I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015 / When I finish this if you listening then sure you will agree.”
In Colour (Young Turks)
It felt like In Colour was being listened to everywhere – and by everyone – in 2015. For my year at least, it’s formed an inextricable soundtrack to memories of summer and beyond. As well as being the album I have allegedly listened to more than any other this year (according to iTunes at least), there were snippets of its various segments being broadcast everywhere: through the open doors of nightclubs and high street shops, blasted from passing cars or bleeding through somebody’s headphones on a night bus, augmenting adverts on television and the internet, and dropped into between-set music at festivals. Speaking of, I caught Jamie xx’s cavernous set during this year’s Green Man shindig, and the reshuffled running order of In Colour’s tracks shone new light on just how immaculate and engaging each piece is when taken individually. Nevertheless, In Colour is at its most satisfying (which is to say marvellously so) when it can be heard from ‘Gosh’ to ‘Girl’. Drifting dreamily from one room of the club to another, In Colour lives up to its title with a full-spectrum tribute to the UK club scene, incorporating a range of styles in an inventive but organic blend. It’s a love letter to rave culture which still locates the bittersweet tinge that mingles with the joy, the isolation alongside the unity, and in doing so emerges as an inclusive and stirring whole. The softly-spoken beat-maker has stepped a little further out of the shadows with an inescapable but totally escapist invitation to embrace the noise.
“I know there’s gonna be good times.”
Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album is an intimate lament neither heavy-handed nor excessively fragile. For Carrie & Lowell, Stevens corrals a tangle of messy emotions and memories into a beautiful and deftly melodic collection, while eschewing anything close to straightforward catharsis. It’s touching, certainly, but in a way that becomes more acute with each fresh listen, the full depths of Stevens’ emotions only made apparent through familiarity and time. The death of the songwriter’s estranged mother (the Carrie of the album title) found Stevens racked with a fierce swathe of clashing emotions; an intimidating matter to approach, as he frequently references in his lyrics, chiefly on opener ‘Death with Dignity’: “I don’t know where to begin.”
This crucially makes Stevens’ unfathomable pain accessible rather than overbearing, and he unpacks the strands of his grief gently, touching upon feelings of disconnection or references to the mundane amid the emotional maelstrom. “You checked your text while I masturbated,” Stevens mumbles partway through ‘All of Me Wants All of You’, while on ‘Eugene’, he teases brief snapshots of childhood (“lemon yoghurt, remember I pulled at your shirt / I dropped the ashtray on the floor”) from his memory in an attempt to find something worth cherishing. All he can come up with is a general desire for closeness to his mother, which he was left longing for throughout much of his life.
It’s genuinely heartbreaking, but the revelations are sparing in melodrama, instead deployed quietly and with grace. Stevens’ delivery of “fuck me, I’m falling apart” during ‘No Shade in the Shadow of the Cross’ is more of an exhalation than a gasp; the sound of a man too exhausted to fully feel the weight on his shoulders. It’s perhaps telling that Stevens entitled the record Carrie & Lowell rather than giving it a more abstract, artistic name. It feels clean and factual, a little detached, but also redolent of a tribute stripped of excesses: modest, dignified, and with much left unspoken. In many senses, that’s exactly what the album is: a small, sad portrayal of grief and guilt, but one which is so balanced in its emotional scope that it still manages to bring a moving degree of comfort.
“I forgive you mother, I can hear you / And I long to be near you / But every road leads to an end.”
Divers (Drag City)
For various reasons, I don’t think that Joanna Newsom’s Divers was the best album released in 2015, but I do consider it my favourite album of the past year. Naturally, there’s a difference between what we consider to be “great” works in the arts, and our personal preferences. Truthfully, there’s little doubt in my mind that Kendrick Lamar’s record is the most salient and hard-hitting release of the year, and numerous other albums both featured in and omitted from this list are wholly deserving of high praise. Several have subverted expectations to deliver original works that entertain listeners while also inviting them reappraise the abilities and natures of the artists in question. However, even after reshuffling the bulk of this list time and time again, I’ve always thought that Divers deserved its place at the top of the pile. I still can’t quite articulate exactly why it affected me so; as with The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream, I naturally felt that it was my favourite as the weeks ticked down through November and December.
Put simply, Divers entranced (and continues to entrance) me more than anything else I heard in 2015. From the second Newsom sings of “sending the first scouts over” in the dewy opening seconds of ‘Anecdotes’, a small shiver goes up my spine, and I feel that I’m listening to something uncommonly profound. Newsom sings of Time in its unearthly wonder while grieving over how it ravages all in its wake, pondering both the fate of the wider worlds she envisages around her (some fictional, some authentic), as well as her own position at its mercy. At times, her thoughts can turn fanciful, never more so than during the sci-fi sea shanty ‘Waltz of the 101st Lightborne’, whose narrator proclaims that “Time is taller than Space is wide” amid a tale of love, war, and the dichotomy between natural and artificial landscapes. As with most other compositions here, there’s a great amount to take in, but Newsom’s concerns are grounded in a pathos so perfectly transmitted that the emotional heft cleaves to the heart and mind: a clear-eyed understanding that little will last of us, but in the present there is great beauty to be savoured and preserved.
The musical accomplishments here are just incredible, from the range of instrumentation that Newsom weaves into the sumptuous whole, to the painstaking amount of time she spent overdubbing and re-mastering the songs until they gleam as brightly as they do in their final versions. You can really perceive the effort and attention that was poured into the making of this album. Newsom’s music has been strikingly detailed from 2004’s The Milk-Eyed Mender onwards, and by her standards, this level of care can almost scan as effortless. However, when placed alongside her peers, Newsom rises above the fray as an artist with crystal-clear vision and the tenacious commitment required to realise it fully.
For a more specific insight into what I loved about Divers – as well as several of the other entries in this list – check out my full reviews. For now, in closing, I’d like to celebrate this album as the one that spun a magic beyond any other this year. If anything even comes close to matching this record in 2016… I won’t get ahead of myself, but it’s safe to say I won’t shut up about it until next New Year’s Eve.
“And daughter, when you are able / Come down and join! The kettle’s on / And your family’s ’round the table. / Will you come down before the sun is gone?”
We’ve pipped the halfway post of 2015, and the year’s playlists are already stacked high with sonic riches. Here are ten of my favourite LPs of the past six-and-a-smidge months, plus a handful of honourable mentions which are more than worthy of attention. In alphabetical order…
Favourite Albums of 2015 (So Far)
Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
Melbourne’s finest wordslinger dazzles in characteristically deadpan style on her full-length proper following 2013’s Double EP. Sometimes I Sit… is an inviting grab-bag of bizarre observations, shaggy dog stories, and surprisingly perceptive glimpses at modern living. The through-line for all is Barnett’s knack for clever phrasing, everything delivered with conversational warmth and a quick wit. Grunge-pop gems (‘Pedestrian at Best’, ‘Dead Fox’) rub shoulders comfortably with more poignant deep cuts (‘Depreston’, ‘Kim’s Caravan’), making for an idiosyncratic listen as likeable as its author.
Björk – Vulnicura
Educational workshops, multimedia apps, a glut of lofty concepts packed into a heady rush of a record. 2011’s Biophilia was ambitious to the point of baffling, scaling strange new heights for Iceland’s queen of the aural avant-garde. Following the clout of that album, the focus for Vulnicura is more squarely directed at the music itself: there’s less pomp and circumstance to distract this time around, allowing the sounds more space in which to make an emotional impact. A breakup album in time-lapse, Björk’s ninth is fixated on the periphery of heartbreak, examining the fallout of a fraying relationship rather than wading straight through its melodramatic centre. These spartan, wailing soundscapes can be difficult to truly adore, but one can only admire Björk’s clarity of vision when considering the likes of ‘History of Touches’ and the searing ‘Black Lake’. Moving at its own deliberate, unabashedly gloomy pace, Vulnicura takes time to sink in, but what emerges is worthy to rank alongside the artist(e)’s greatest endeavours.
Father John Misty – I Love You, Honeybear
As rich and lavishly ornamented as a fully-furnished chateau lobby, Josh Tillman’s second record under the alias Father John Misty is expansive, eloquent, squalid, decadent, and utterly enrapturing. Revelling in the ambiguous blurring of lines between the Misty persona and his own ego, Tillman curates a collection that encompasses loved-up wonderment (that mighty title track), brutally hilarious eviscerations (‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apartment’), and dry laments for the detritus-ridden United States (‘Holy Shit’, ‘Bored in the USA’). For freshness of voice, boldness of writing and lusciousness of instrumentation, I Love You, Honeybear made an early contender for Album of the Year glory upon its release back in February.
Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp a Butterfly
While hip hop has never been my strongest suit, the magnitude and breadth of Kendrick Lamar’s third album is ineluctable for anybody with a working pair of ears. Aggressively political and fuelled by a compassionate energy, To Pimp a Butterfly is a sprawling, disorienting and stark scan of the most jarring recesses of American politics over the past century. It’s exhausting and exhaustive; pieced together in studios across the United States, at the hands of an Oscar-worthy cast of producers and collaborators, and running at a definitive 80 minutes, it’s a seismic rebuke to the quick-hit Twitter-fed culture of 2015. Bound together by staggeringly good production and unafraid of grappling with the thorniest issues pertaining to race and culture, To Pimp a Butterfly sounds genuinely, compulsively important in a market oversaturated with clamouring voices. The final half of ‘Mortal Man’ splices Lamar’s own spoken-word poetry with a 1994 interview with 2Pac; not a passing of the torch, but a continuation of the heated discussion. Or, as Lamar demands over the sounds of an agitated crowd in ‘i’: “How many we lost, bro? This year alone?”
Lower Dens – Escape From Evil
Five years into a career speckled with greatness, the electropoppers from Baltimore have struck gold. As well as conceiving one of the year’s most glorious singles thus far (‘To Die in LA’), Lower Dens have forged an album charged with clear-eyed ambition and warm instrumental resolve. A clockwork precision to the arrangements never disrupts the four-piece’s ever-flourishing handle of swooping melodies and glossy textures. Escape From Evil works in beautiful binaries; it’s dark and cavernous while also inclusive and euphoric. Here, Jana Hunter and her bandmates sound in full command of a similar intensity to groups such as New Order, channelling a tangible optimism through sparkling synth landscapes. Their smoothest, most accessible album yet, Escape From Evil is the sound of a band ascending to bold new heights, and the results are exceptional.
Natalie Prass – Natalie Prass
The Spacebomb label has found one of its brightest stars in the form of Virginia’s Natalie Prass: a singer-songwriter graced with an angelic, feather-light voice and an impressive taste for classical theatrics. Her eponymous début is refreshingly old-fashioned in its approach, harking back to ’60s soul and ’70s rock in the tradition of Dusty Springfield et al. Yet while it trades in simple pleasures, this succinct series of dispatches from the soul cuts straight to the heart thanks to its honesty and Prass’ instant, personable appeal. This is an album carved from troubled times and dizzying highs alike, with occasionally dark metaphors bound to arrangements which flutter as sweetly as Disney ballads. While the Spacebomb musicians weave a divine magic behind her, here Prass delivers a nine-song showcase which dazzles again and again.
Sleater-Kinney – No Cities to Love
Eight months ago, I’d never really given time to Sleater-Kinney’s discography. However, it merely took a seven-second taste of the triumvirate’s comeback album to have me completely converted. All it took was the hot, snarling riff of ‘Price Tag’, and the doors were blasted open to a catalogue of searing, exhilarating, and goddamn fun punk-rock. Returning in a spray of high-wire guitars and lung-rumbling drumming, No Cities to Love sounds less like the work of old hands dusting off their kits, and more in possession of the fiery, embittered-but-hopeful angst most common in bratty upstarts. No Cities to Love packs all the propulsion, ferocity and brevity of a band fresh out of the stocks, defined by a desire to enact change that remains unfettered after over two decades in the business. As Corin Tucker announced during the band’s Roundhouse show earlier this year, “things haven’t changed enough”. Righteous claim.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell
Given his wide-ranging contributions to the landscape of post-millennial Americana, it’s hard to predict exactly what Sufjan Stevens will be best remembered for several decades from now. ‘Chicago’ may well be the song that outlives all others from his rich catalogue, but in terms of albums, there’s a strong case to be made that Carrie & Lowell has the greatest case for genuine immortality down the years. Opening with the aching, cobweb-thin ‘Death with Dignity’, Carrie & Lowell follows Stevens’ ragged thought processes as he picks through memories of the past in an attempt to find closure following the death of his estranged mother. The beauty is rife throughout these eleven compositions, but while Carrie & Lowell may be intensely personal, it is far from inaccessible, welcoming harmony with any listeners also left hurting from loss. A truly stunning work of beauty.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra – Multi-Love
Built around frontman Ruban Nielson and his meticulous, sideways approach to layering sounds, Unknown Mortal Orchestra have spent half a decade constructing albums like Christmas stockings: attempting to cram so many goodies into a single space that the parameters are fit to burst. Multi-Love clicks into a higher gear altogether, packed so densely with popping hooks, dislocated beats and acid-drenched keys that it resembles an aural taste sensation. Nielson and his bandmates deliver a pleasure platter of wild proportions, incorporating guttural funk, louche jazz and hazy-eyed synth-rock into a distorted but highly appealing listen. It’s as fun to listen to the surface amusements as it is to go treasure hunting for hidden nuggets amid the tightly-packed sprawl.
Jamie xx – In Colour
Euphoria and loneliness go hand in hand more neatly than seems apparent; a fact Jamie Smith explores with wide-eyed wonder on his first full-fat album after years of collaborations and production work beyond The xx. He steps out of the shadowy zones chronicled in his band’s efforts with an album that radiates energy, mirroring the excitement (‘Gosh’), dizzying kineticism (‘The Rest is Noise’) and subtle isolation (‘Loud Places’) typical of your average after-hours weekend. Like the best dance records before it, its appeal is universal, moored in appeals that attract the non-raveheads too: mighty hooks, seamless guest vocals, and good old fashioned charisma. With new albums from Disclosure, Kwabs and James Blake on the horizon, Smith has raised the bar to a tantalising new level.
Ten more records of the year so far, which are well worth tuning into.
Everything Everything – Get to Heaven
Manc head-scratchers come good on their third album, where their most visceral and urgent songwriting to date mingles with some of the catchiest alt-rock you’re likely to hear this summer. Full review here.
Hot Chip – Why Make Sense?
London’s magpie maestros return from the heights of In Our Heads with a more sedate but equally heartfelt collection, realigning the focus onto deep house, soulful R&B, and strutsome funk. Full review here.
Robert J Hunter – Songs for the Weary
Growling, howling, fuzz-cloaked blues from a new talent hailing from the Channel Islands. Songs for the Weary pays homage to the big names of stumbling blues-rock (specifically Tom Waits, whose marble-gargling register receives tribute in Hunter’s own yowl), but is a hugely enjoyable throwback with plenty of grist and mettle of its own.
Gill Landry – Gill Landry
A weary but sparkling collection of folk, country and bluegrass, Gill Landry’s third album brings rich flavours to well-worn conventions through his own gruff tones, a widescreen production aesthetic, and unshowy collaborations — witness Laura Marling’s quiet contribution to the heartening ‘Take This Body’. And speaking of…
Laura Marling – Short Movie
The “English rose” goes west for her fifth album, taking a more sprawling, less taut approach to performance and trying her hand at self-producing after several years on Ethan Johns’ roster. While sounding less calculated than Marling’s other recent releases, Short Movie is nonetheless steeped in melodic dexterity and the singer’s own way with capturing the distinct character of a place and time. Full review here.
Mini Mansions – The Great Pretenders
Michael Shuman, Tyler Parkford and Zachary Dawes’ first album felt like something of a spin-off from the members’ other hard-rock projects, approximating a warped spin on late-era Beatles rock. The Great Pretenders finds them shifting into smoother territory, meshing the playful rock of groups such as Spoon with the light-headed swirls of Lonerism-phase Tame Impala. With the band’s chemistry at its most charming — and marvellous contributions from guest vocalists Brian Wilson and Alex Turner — The Great Pretenders is fantastic fun.
Pond – Man, it Feels Like Space Again
While Tame Impala are equally prone to stargazing in their search for new sonic highways, Pond are the real space cadets of the closely-linked two, bringing a heady bombast and crazed glee to their aural adventurism. The results on their sixth album oscillate between infectious and incredibly messy, but the fun factor far outweighs any editorial reservations.
Waxahatchee – Ivy Tripp
2013’s Cerulean Salt brought Katie Crutchfield greater recognition in indie circles, and Ivy Tripp looks set to be another slow-burning victory. Now signed to the Merge label, Crutchfield’s third album wrestles with a sticky tangle of the subtler emotions that shade the burgeoning adult experience. The deeper, more detailed arrangements provide an assured backdrop for Crutchfield’s steely vocals to take a greater command of her growing audience, and she delivers with gusto and heroism.
Viet Cong – Viet Cong
Like Girls before them, Viet Cong dive into the rubble-strewn sounds of post-punk apocalypse with diminished scale, but no less clout. Cuts like ‘Continental Shelf’ and ‘March of Progress’ stamp through macabre visions echoing those of Ian Curtis, possessing a similar intensity of gaze which is hair-raising and hypnotic.
Wolf Alice – My Love is Cool
Thanks to the ever-ballooning threat of destructive hype, Wolf Alice were almost set for a fall before they’d ever truly begun. However, by smartly shrugging off the hysteria and moving ahead in their own good time, Wolf Alice have enjoyed success both ways, broadening their fanbase over five years without alienating their own creative impulses in the process. My Love is Cool is a rock-solid first bow from the four-piece, with equal emphasis given to supple textures as much as the loud-quiet-loud dynamic that powers their meatiest cuts.
… and there’s still plenty to come in the next six months. On this evidence, the end-of-year recaps are going to be mighty indeed.
In Colour (Young Turks)
Dance is a diverse form of magic. Presented professionally, it is valorised as an art in its own right: a display of finesse and precision, immaculate and expressive. In its more accessible and common guise, on the other hand, ideas of craft are abandoned in lieu of a fundamental reach for escapism. Dancing leaves our brains on the backburner and releases our energy physically, clouding the regard for one’s own image (hence the risk of looking like a bit of a muppet). The feeling overrules the thinking, and – especially in concentrated environments – the rush of released endorphins unlocks a transcendental feeling of bliss: a sense of belonging and infinite potential, as anxieties melt away along with self-consciousness. The mechanics of the pleasure are incredibly basic, but a great dance record can make an instant, visceral connection such as this, where the compulsion is so swift and compelling that it utterly transports the listener.
He may be only several years into his career, but Jamie ‘xx’ Smith has already demonstrated an intuitive grasp of how dance music functions, applying his sonic Midas touch with an acuity which can be breathtaking. His reputation has steadily grown since his emergence in the late-noughties, operating as the thoughtful backbone of quiet champions The xx, remix artist par excellence, and producer-of-choice for a burgeoning legion of famous fans including Drake and Alicia Keys. With his CV so impressively stacked, Smith has become one of the leading lights in contemporary dance music, even if his persona is one which seems to be permanently shrouded at the back of the club. Surrounded by his more outspoken collaborators, he resembles a watcher in the shadows; a magpie whose curious mind is constantly alert to the sounds around him. As a result, even while heavily invested in his tentpole projects, Smith has amassed a broad collection of field notes and sonic morsels, which he decided to corral into his first solo album as late as autumn 2014.
It speaks dividends about Smith’s talent that in spite of its casual conception, In Colour is a phenomenal result. Smith takes the world chronicled in The xx’s work – lonely, delicate confessionals as intimate as whispers between friends – and floods it with light, filling the empty spaces with mesmeric beats, bright splashes of keyboards, and samples – of his own candid footage and homages to past greats alike. The xx’s music never sounds less than intensely personal, and Smith’s own sculptures can serve as insights into the tastes of an insatiable audiophile. Yet the auteur’s audience-savvy instincts elevate these tracks far beyond personal indulgence, as he taps into that transcendental escapism with a consistency that dazzles.
The irresistible tug of ‘Gosh’ dispenses such magic immediately. Its playful pirate radio samples and seismic, siren-like crescendos harness the wide-eyed excitement associated with the beginning of a journey – in most cases, a Journey to the Centre of the Rave. The effective, gleefully deliberate build-up is a sheer joy to return to, but as with much of In Colour, it’s a trick that never feels overthought. It’s polished, but not obsessively so, and likewise, Smith’s many influences are assimilated into the odyssey without sounding clunky or distracting. ‘Sleep Sound’ draws from the same twinkling ambience as Until the Quiet Comes-era Flying Lotus, braiding together dreamily cascading melodies and staccato vocal snippets into a pulsing shuffle. Elsewhere, one senses the warmth of Caribou, swirls of Orbital, and the starry fug of Floating Points, all brushed between the rave-ready beats which jump between ’90s house and modern breakbeat.
And then there’s the presence of The xx, whose signatures are never fully abandoned. While In Colour‘s trip is Smith’s own brainchild, these ‘narratives’ occasionally overlap with those of The xx, as Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim’s brief appearances come across like parallel events witnessed in the same space. It’s a balance perfected on ‘SeeSaw’, where Madley Croft’s voice floats in and out of the warm clatter like a solitary individual in a packed club. She makes a more direct return for ‘Loud Places’, though her yearning vocal is subverted and then glorified as Smith twists the melancholia into a neo-gospel plume, with the aid of Idris Muhammad’s ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’. Sim’s own outing on ‘Stranger in a Room’ is the cut which cleaves most closely to The xx’s traditional template, but the burbling electronic melody keeps the line drawn without disrupting In Colour‘s headier flow.
But leaving aside all baggage and just looking into the manifest sounds, In Colour is distinctive and flavoursome enough to stand alone. Put simply, these are just great tunes, man. They don’t need overwrought analyses or lofty interpretations to work, because they sound terrific of their own accord; sleeky produced and seamlessly sequenced into a fantastic single listen. As with all nights out, there is a misstep or two along the way; most noticeably the cameo of Young Thug, whose incongruously X-rated verses almost derail the otherwise glorious ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)’. His crude wordplay chafes awkwardly with the album’s otherwise blissful tone, but if you can tune out Thug’s references to his squishy dick, there’s barely a blemish to be found on In Colour. From the giddy pulse of ‘Gosh’ through to the crystal-cool swagger of ‘Girl’, it’s a near-flawless showcase for Smith to loosen up and transport his audience to higher places, proving dance’s power as a catalyst for an extraordinary experience.
“OH MY GOSH.”