Well, at least the music was great.
The Hope Six Demolition Project
I didn’t find the time to write about the gigs I attended during 2016, but possibly my favourite live experience was PJ Harvey’s headline show at Field Day festival. Backed by a fearsome phalanx of tight-knit musicians and largely sticking with her new material, she sounded magnetic, gutsy, and utterly commanding from start-to-finish. It was a show that accentuated the strengths of The Hope Six Demolition Project, which casts a cold look at American foreign policy and the damage is has increasingly wrought on a global scale. Harvey’s reportage is less concentrated in its focus than 2011’s mighty Let England Shake, and more loosely bound in both sound and vision, but it’s no less unflinching in its coverage of the failures of government and communities alike. With her band strafing confidently between rollicking rallies (‘The Community of Hope’), militant stomps (‘Chain of Keys’) and eerie hymnals (‘River Anacostia’), Harvey presides over a rich tableau of sound, one whose edges are roughened and fraying to match her snapshots of poverty and decay. The results are frequently remarkable: ‘The Ministry of Defence’ lands like a hammerblow, and the combination of queasy, surging blues and Harvey’s steely refrains on ‘The Wheel’ still sends goosebumps shuddering up my back.
“Hey little children, don’t disappear / I heard it was twenty-eight thousand.”
Over the course of the year, I came to consider Boy King as something of a guilty pleasure. While it was far from panned, the general consensus among critics (and friends) has been that Wild Beasts’ fifth is below par for the group: a bold but disappointing swerve into uncharacteristically simple scuzz-rock. Well, sod those claims, and sod any notions of this record as a “guilty” pleasure. Its overall effect may be less spellbinding and poetic than that of its predecessors, but I love Boy King for its neon-hued aesthetic and unapologetically punchy approach. Here is the sound of a band following its gut instincts and going for broke: taking small but significant stylistic risks and sounding alive with glee as a result. As their delightful live shows this year proved, Wild Beasts are invigorated afresh as a quartet, and on record, the muscular production of John Congleton suits the relapse of Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming’s more salacious appetites: the vocalists skewering the perils of modern masculinity while simultaneously basking in its intoxicating glow. In a nutshell, Boy King is a simmering platter of thumping beats, grimy grooves, and low-slung sleaze from one of my favourite contemporary bands. That’s how I get my bang.
“These are blessed times that we’re living in / Down here on Earth all is forgiven.”
A Tribe Called Quest
We Got It From Here… Thank You 4 Your Service
In modern times, it has become tiresomely easy to spot the bands whose comebacks have been hastened for the sake of self-indulgence, financial necessity, or even boredom. The spark of true relevance and artistic purpose is unmistakable, and the return of A Tribe Called Quest not only feels genuine in intentions, it’s an aching relief to witness their return at this particular time. Since Tribe last put their manifestos to record in 1998, a lot has changed – in the music industry itself, let alone on a global scale. But in other cases, some things haven’t changed enough, and as 2016’s headlines were apparently keen to attest, the world is rapidly backsliding at an alarming pace. Such is the climate in which Tribe were finally compelled to drop new material: equal parts aural balm and calms to mobilise. Urgency runs deep through We Got It From Here…, which runs to an hour of knotty, hard-hitting polemics without once losing its fire. With an intimidating roster of personnel ensuring that the production is tighter than ever, the bond of Tribe’s core members gleams at the heart of this record; the group ensuring that humanism shines through every bar. Just as they did twenty years ago, Tribe sound galvanised to be at the fray’s forefront, demanding that unity and happiness are recognised as more than abstract ideals: they’re rights.
“Motherfuck your numbers and your statisticians / Fuck y’all know about true competition?”
If her past albums released as Antony Hegarty were quiet in their potency, the first album released under Anohni’s new moniker ruthlessly stamps such tremulous beauty into memory with all-consuming rage. HOPELESSNESS is an unflinching riposte to the western world that lets nobody off the hook – including the listener. She spends these eleven cuts shooting from different perspectives and taking aim at various figures in a takedown of ideological apathy on topics ranging from climate change to drone warfare, treatment of terrorists and beyond. It’s a scattergun approach, but Anohni and her collaborators have produced a record of such ruthless directness that it lands with explosive force. The icy bluster of the music (largely courtesy of Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never) is dramatic to the point of confrontational: ‘4 Degrees’ strikes with booming severity, Anohni eviscerating our collective complicity in natural destruction for the sake of our own comfort. Elsewhere, execution is presented as a facet of the American dream over sparkling keys, the creepy ‘Obama’ levels crushed disappointment and fury at the outgoing President, and ‘Crisis’ is wrenchingly direct in its empathy with innocent victims of America’s military force. You could reasonably summarise the whole enterprise as heavy-handed and clunky, but given the scale of Anohni’s ambitions and the blatant horrors in her firing line, her sober tone is more than suitable: it cuts through our willful silence with severity.
“We are all Americans now.”
Cate Le Bon
Cate Le Bon’s own website summarises the songwriter’s fourth album as “a coalition of inescapable feelings and fabricated nonsense, each propping the other up”. It’s a suitably muzzy description for an album that combines clear, gorgeous melodies with fragmented observations, each tinged with a dreamlike quality. Yet beneath the wonky neo-psychedelia and playful riddles, what impresses most over repeated listens is the melodic muscle on display from Le Bon and her group. The overall ambience is akin to being invited into Le Bon’s own home, and peering through the vibrant clutter that fills all spaces in sight: the coat hangers, the crumby cookbooks, handprints on the windows, dusty cream blinds. Amid these environs, she sings and performs with a lightness of touch; her delivery artful but far from precious, high on wonder rather than a thickly fragrant haze. The results are intimate, inventive, and companionable: her influences are plain to see, but it’s a delight to sit with Crab Day and surrender to Le Bon’s melodic and lyrical fancies.
“All the towns are miniature / All the girls are beautiful ghosts.”
Boy King (Domino)
The music of Wild Beasts has regularly proved to be an ornate confection, drawn from the curious minds of four musicians keen to wield the tried-and-tested tools of indie-rock while questing for much more peculiar results. While never wholly straightforward, the progression of the Kendal quartet as charted across their first four albums generally indicates a softening of their sharper edges; the swooping dramatics of their early work smoothed down into sleek art-pop, and the lusty groans of yesteryear sublimated by a more wholesome contentment. By 2014’s Present Tense, listeners could be forgiven for thinking that the group’s days of hooting and howling had at last been put to bed – or so it seemed until early portents of Boy King crashed to earth, indicating a fifth album curveball which refutes any notions of a band tamed with smirking disdain.
In stark contrast to the warm expanses heard in ‘Palace’ and ‘Mecca’, Boy King is squat, muscular, and moody. It frames Wild Beasts as if caught beneath the glow of a full moon, transformed (whether temporarily or for the long-term) into swaggering brutes hunting for confrontation. Producer John Congleton encouraged the band’s gut instincts while mining a thick, leathery aesthetic, and the solution is Wild Beasts’ brashest effort yet: heavy on the ears and blunt in sentiment. Gone are the open spaces and intricate filigrees, instead we are presented with menacing electronics and OTT guitar heroics, with striking imagery to match. The Boy King cover is composed of deep oranges and blacks, with a schlocky band logo stamped beneath the looming, monstrous and ridiculous figure of the “boy king”: a projection of the male ego that Thorpe and co. are keen to dissect in the most visceral way possible. Intended as both a vilification and celebration of modern masculinity, Boy King is a gaudy project, but a playful one too. The group are teasing and baiting their audience like never before: some will be repelled by the grubbiness that the album revels in, while others may be thrilled by such a gearshift. And indeed, while the more refined textures and subtleties of past works have been thrown to the wind, it’s heartening to hear Wild Beasts serving their own artistic whims and impulses, refusing to settle for complacency and pushing themselves to rethink previous templates.
What emerges is a striking – if not entirely unprecedented – take on Wild Beasts’ early brand of carnal lust, yet where Limbo, Panto dressed its “huffing and puffing” in vaudevillian drama and bizarre punchlines, on Boy King, dual vocalists Hayden Thorpe and Tom Fleming aren’t afraid to go straight for the jugular – “get in and get out”, as they put it. Their previous come-ons (“new squeeze, take off your chemise / and I’ll do as I please”) appear positively genteel when measured against some of the unfettered demands on display here (“you can stuff your chastity” makes for a particularly prickly opening gambit), and when incorporated with insidious grooves and bruising production, the effect is exacerbated. The approach is simultaneously exhilarating and repulsive in its overwhelming (and occasionally cartoonish) machismo. Limber lead single ‘Get My Bang’ finds the band circled by a mass of warped cackles (as sampled from The Knife), which goad the group into the “darker ages” of entitled consumption (whether it’s that of material or fleshly gain is left open to interpretation). The song is crowned by a splattering guitar solo; a gleeful tribute to the “shred face” of rock mythology rivalled by the sludgy guitars of ‘He the Colossus’. It’s fun to hear the band let rip like this, although there are cuts on the album where such tricks are on-the-nose without significant payoff. Such moments further accentuate the outlying beauty of album highlight ‘Celestial Creatures’; an odyssey of the night that conjures a neon cityscape through thrumming guitars and spooked pianos, gloriously rendered in Congleton’s rubbery production. It’s an ecstatic rhapsody crowned by a sumptuous coda, with some of Thorpe’s dreamiest observations (“every fibre remains so alive”) stirred into the atmospheres.
Beyond this rare moment of exaltation, the world scrutinised in Boy King is lewd and apocalyptic. Between sleazy encounters and sinister advances, Thorpe and Fleming are busy eyeballing the self-destruction ingrained in such behaviour. The desperation underpinning these attempted conquests shows through from time to time, leavening the more outrageous claims with hints towards an existential dislocation. “I want you to love me,” Fleming howls during the excellent R&B thump ‘Ponytail’, while on ‘2BU’ he’s consumed by a queasy mixture of rage and desire, savouring a vengeful pursuit while also fantasising ownership of his quarry. Thorpe nails it most brazenly on the swaggering ‘Tough Guy’; a bludgeoning piece of riff-rock which circles back to the sentiment “I’d better suck it up / like a tough guy would”. In every corner of the record, the sordid outcries can be traced to the masculine entitlement entrenched by society, and ‘Tough Guy’ articulates the double-edged ugliness that such standards induce. An eyebrow-raising double-entendre during the second verse sees Thorpe wailing “but we’re just not big enough!”, looking on as males attempt to fill the holes in themselves with sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, and other gimmicky pleasures. It feeds off the question of what it is that makes a man, and gives Boy King a sharpness beneath the surface, even if it’s an avenue which the group could have explored more deeply for greater effect. Ultimately, the priapic binging still comes with a hangover, as Thorpe’s weary croon during the lonely ‘Dreamliner’ asserts. Finally reaping the consequences of past misdeeds, Boy King concludes on a note of regret and self-evisceration, Thorpe’s avatar coming up hollow in a painful examination of the self.
With its inherent contradictions (does the brusque aesthetic disguise grand intentions, or a lack thereof?), it’s a strange album to digest, and one which will leave a sour taste for anybody disgusted by the thought of Two Dancers’ masterminds chucking out the reading list and stamping on the distortion pedal. There’s certainly less detail to delve into, and for its instantaneous thrills, it’s a record with perhaps less staying power than its peers. However, what swings in the album’s favour is the energetic freedom discernible in the band’s performances. After the album’s surface shocks (its comparatively cruel overtones, the sonic bombast, its bizarre and often uncomfortable flaunting of masculine habits), Wild Beasts’ sense of adventure peeks through the noise. Boy King demonstrates the quartet acting intuitively, “play[ing] chicken” with themselves and driving their vision with a focus and willingness to tinker. As of release, it’s a challenge to determine how much of a bellwether Boy King will prove to be for Wild Beasts: will it be the first bold step into a new style, or a brief sojourn into the darkest recesses of the male ego? Whichever way, it’s an album that digs beneath the skin, one which, while sonically distinct from its predecessors, carries the same integrity and restless craving to evolve that has become Wild Beasts’ trademark.
“These are blessed times / We are celestial creatures.”
Top Ten Albums of 2014: 7 – 5
More Than Any Other Day (Constellation)
The cover image adorning Ought’s début album is cribbed from a postcard that one band member found on top of a dumpster in the group’s native Montreal. The picture they stumbled on – and eventually selected to serve as the band’s emblem during their LP’s promotion – depicts a cluster of hands, held together in unison. As per the laws for and against interpretation, the context of this image, its discovery, and its latent content may or may not feed into More Than Any Other Day in any significant fashion, but in purely subjective terms, it resembles a gang of chums during one of those hands-in-the-air, “go, team!” rituals that precedes a group undertaking. (Very rock & roll / Scooby-Doo.)
In More Than Any Other Day, said undertaking is the everyday routine heralded by crashlanding into responsible adulthood. Buying groceries, commuting to work, alleviating the boredom of a “nonspecific party” by consuming some dubious powder or another. All those staples of living which are repeated to the point of drudgery; a numbing sensation which eventually cements into a permanent stupor. Life can be so dull. But the way that these four Canadians combat this truth is through the excitable solidarity promulgated on the album sleeve: making the most infinitesimal decisions a cause for hysterical euphoria. Getting hung up on making the choice between types of milk is fucking stupid, but let’s have fun with it anyway. What Ought are trying to say, in a nutshell, is let’s make today – more than any other day – awesome.
This idea is championed during the quasi-title track; a song which begins at a crawl before steadily accelerating into a heart-pounding mess, until by its end it has completely derailed itself in a breathless rush of Tim Beeler gasping “we’re all the fucking same!” Befitting this statement, Ought do not deliver anything particularly new or sharp in terms of musical conquest. This is itchy, riff-heavy garage rock, as straightforward and heady as advertised on the tin. But though their influences shine through more than occasionally, Ought are a tightly-wound unit, with Beeler’s slurs ready to snap into sharp focus at any given moment. This creates a tension that results in some truly walloping moments of genius. ‘The Weather Song’ – the album’s most accessible cut – rattles along on a two-tone riff as it buries itself inside the mind of a shut-in, and you can practically hear the gears crunching as the band suddenly spring into the chorus.
Jolts such as these are registered like kicks against complacency; the band’s sly approach refusing to let the listener escape passively. Songs which have dusty, subdued beginnings quickly wriggle into furious, endlessly repeated mantras. And this repetition becomes a routine in of itself (never more apparent than on the indefatiguable ‘Gemini’), but it’s a more conscious form of living than sleepwalking through these situations. While Ought may not have all the answers, they possess a hypnotic quality when performing at their best, and these eight tracks barely waste a second. Fun, progressive, and enticing, these tirelessly repeated refrains are hammered into the mind and can be hard to shake off; constant reminders that there’s often something interesting to be found – even in patterns which have become familiar.
Today, more than any other day, I am prepared to make the decision between two percent and whole milk.
Present Tense (Domino)
I absolutely adore Wild Beasts. For my money, they are the most captivating British group working today, composed of four wholly gifted musicians and forward-thinkers; the combined talents of whom have produced music to be cherished and marvelled at in equal measure. Theirs is an intimacy and beauty which is polished enough to dazzle, while leavened with earthy, tangible foundations which keep them consistently grounded and three-dimensional.
With each subsequent album, Wild Beasts seem a little more complete, which may seem odd considering that they had such a distinctive identity from the get-go, having stood apart in sound and vision since 2008’s Limbo, Panto. With the arrival of each new release, the band never sounds less than exactly how they’ve always strived to be: a strong and full-bodied unit, ornate and immaculate, at the peak of their powers. It’s only when their latest material is pored over that a whole new side to them is introduced, one which – and here’s the genius of it all – never felt lacking beforehand. As fully-formed as they may sound each time, they’ve never stopped growing, their evolution a quiet linearity which I can only hope lasts throughout their career.
When Present Tense arrived in February, I was very impressed, if unconvinced that this record was in the same league as the band’s two previous LPs. Ultimately, I still believe that Two Dancers and Smother edge out this offering, due to their coherence. But my goodness, what a work of beauty Present Tense is – and what unshowy, rewarding beauty at that. After almost a year of listening to this album regularly, its many details have blossomed at last, revealing the magnificent craftsmanship at the record’s core. The band’s diversion this time is into synthesisers: a tried-and-tested shift of course, but one which the Beasts have mastered by burying secrets in every corner. There is so much to say about it, and if you fancy a more in-depth summary, check out my full review from February, in which I’ve already touched upon many of the album’s individual treasures.
Here, I’ll simply draw attention to one key attribute for which I most admire Present Tense: Wild Beasts’ masterful balancing of light and shade. More than on any previous album, the band sound diverse and more finely textured, their range still restrained but with a greater spectrum of colour than ever before. Present Tense contains some of the band’s poppiest work thus far, sat alongside some of their most ominous and unsettling compositions. As a prime example, ‘Palace’ is all the more heavenly in the wake of the tension which precedes it. As it goes throughout Present Tense, blissful moments of light accentuate those of darkness, and vice versa. While the resultant listen isn’t as streamlined as, say, Two Dancers, each individual song rings clearer and feels more vividly detailed, with its features all the more deftly defined.
There’s so much to say about Wild Beasts, and so much to find in their music. When it comes to Present Tense, its imperfections only render it more humane, more tantalising, more fascinating to behold. And when the Beasts really, really get it right – as they so often do – they make magic that defies adjective.
We may be savage and raw, but at the core, we’ve higher needs.
Sharon Van Etten
Are We There (Jagjaguwar)
Sharon Van Etten’s third album – 2012’s Tramp – was a firm and decisive step onto a larger playing field. With Aaron Dessner working as producer and counsellor, and a host of indie tentpole names lending their emotional and technical support, the word-of-mouth buzz surrounding Van Etten ballooned, and by the year’s end, she found herself nestled in the upper echelons of alternative singer-songwriters, with her heart-on-sleeve confessionals at last finding the reach to connect with a broad audience.
Are We There goes further still in allowing Van Etten to bare her soul, and this album feels much more the product of a singular consciousness than its predecessor. Though she has remained congruent thematically, in musical terms, Van Etten’s arrangements sound highly personal, inhabiting an intimate, delicate atmosphere that feels drawn from a single conscience. It’s telling that – for the most part – she produced these songs herself, and what has emerged is an even greater clarity. Sonically, Are We There twinkles wonderfully, its flutterings of piano and strings occasionally scarred by shards of distorted guitars. Messy eruptions break forth like bruises or opening wounds; a perfect reflection of Van Etten’s subject matter.
The bewildering and unexpected workings of the heart have been addressed by many before her, but Van Etten details the psychological toll wrought by love affairs with a dexterity that few of her peers are bold enough to match. Eschewing high drama for more commonplace fears and insecurities, Van Etten hooks into the subtleties of turbulent relationships, and manages to make even the most horrifying domestic situations sound relatable. Although not everybody can claim to have been trapped in an abusive relationship, her plight becomes something so malleable, chiefly because she never seems blind to it even as she addresses its hopelessness. Titles such as ‘Your Love is Killing Me’ seem a tad on-the-nose at first, but they perfectly encapsulate the headspace behind desperate, destructive love.
Even as happiness steadily crumples and is ravaged by absence and violence, deep-seated devotion remains: an inexpressible attachment which defies reason, but cannot be ignored or amputated. On ‘Afraid of Nothing’, Van Etten recites “I can’t wait until we hide from nothing”, and the multiple layers of this sentiment are unnerving. There are several other lyrics peppering Are We There which are absolutely brutal in this regard; none more so than the trembling cry at the core of ‘Break Me’: “he can break me with one hand to my head.”
Yet although this sounds awfully traumatic on the page, Van Etten works her troubles into a record of sublime beauty and catharsis. Never once is Are We There anything less than spellbinding; as wrenching as it is humane, and imbued with Van Etten’s own gentle, good-natured spirit. Yes, she has been through some real shit. But, as that little giggle at the end of the album indicates, she’s still able to laugh, and exude a truly comforting warmth with her music. She’s a wonderful person, who also happens to be a very gifted songwriter, and the owner of a breathtaking voice which speaks for many others besides herself.
I sing about my fear and love and what it brings.
I must say, I was quite excited to clamp my ears on the sophomore release from Leamington-based future-poppers Post War Years. For one thing, they played at my university’s Summer Party 2012, which got me tuned into their earlier work, and for another, recent single ‘All Eyes’ has been bouncing off the walls of my brain for the past month or so. It’s the song that Galapagos announces itself with, and it’s easily the hugest – and best – thing on the album. Slinky keyboard arpeggios drip all over glistening guitars in the noirish darkness, before a distorted vocal wail kicks off a cavernous drop into a stomping, post-punk rave. It’s nothing which drastically pushes the musical envelope, but I dare you to defy the swag of that final, weaving refrain of “you have all the time in the world”.
With the gauntlet already thrown by its opener, it must be said that the rest of Galapagos does struggle to surpass such heights during the rest of its runtime. There are certainly enough ideas and quirks fizzing around Post War Years‘ sonic template to ensure that boredom is never on the cards, but after the glittering coda of ‘God’ has faded away, one still isn’t quite sure just what kind of band these guys are striving to be. They wear their influences well, with echoes of Animal Collective, MGMT, and occasionally shades of Wild Beasts audible in their DNA, but across these ten tracks, a distinctive identity for this particular group never fully emerges.
That’s not to say that this is entirely to Galapagos‘ detriment, given that it does boast a clutch of impressive tunes and textures. ‘Glass House’ bounds off the back of some squelchy synths into a fun chorus, and ‘Growl’ features a crunchy, off-kilter guitar melody which adds a nice spice to the exultant tug of the song. But by trying to incorporate such a wide range of elements into its make-up, the album never settles, instead darting in a number of disparate directions in search of a niche. There are still signature elements in place on most offerings here (including those sumptuously glossy guitars and driving rhythms), but for the most part, the listener is left trying to keep up in such an ever-swirling landscape.
Galapagos is an album which is intriguing to examine, and it certainly provides enough colours and left-field choices in its runtime to keep listeners interested. To their credit, their scatter-gun approach does work well from time to time, as on the giddy rush of ‘Volcano’ or the eighties thrum of ‘The Bell’. However, perhaps in reflection of that (rather unnerving) album artwork, it’s also slightly confused, and perhaps emotionally muffled, just like the face of the figure staring out from the cover. Having now seen the group live, I’ve seen the everyman charm and fun which goes into their performances, but it seems to me that some of this has become slightly lost in the translation to studio recording. Galapagos is a solid listen, and will provide you with some good tunes to chew over, but Post War Years have yet to stake their own personal claim in the music realm.
“You have all the time in the world”
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.
The Black Keys
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
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
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 You, Still 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
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 Smiths, Echo & 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Album Of The Year
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 Dancers, Smother 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