Monthly Archives: December 2012

12 songs from 12

There is, of course, a huge amount of music that I consumed (what an awful word to use when we really mean “appreciated”) through 2012 that came outside of the context of albums. I gather, from The Internet, that many people in 2012 ‘consume’ most of their music this way – individual tracks, singles, remixes, mixtapes (whatever they are), and so on and so forth (I’m, of course, being disingenuously naïve here).

I don’t keep up with bite-sized chunks of music as much as I should or could – I haven’t the time or energy, partly, to keep up with the infinite array of individually great one-off tracks by any old Tom, Dick, or Harry out there – but I do get to hear some stuff, either via 6music or through saturation of opinion and discussion on Twitter or various forums. So I have heard “Gangnam Style” and “Call Me Maybe”, for instance, but I’ve heard bugger-all other big chart pop singles this year. It’d be great to have my finger on the pulse as much as I did in 2002 or 2003, but I was a decade younger then, and had considerably more time, interest, and impetus to do so.

So, once again, this list of individual songs from 2012 is by no means definitive; they’re just the ones I really liked, and feel are worth commenting on. I’ve pointedly left out tunes from the 12 albums I wrote about before Christmas, even though, obviously, some of them are obviously big individual favourites too. Oh, and there’s more than 12. Why not?

NB. And I’ve added some more today (New Year’s Day) down at the bottom, just for good measure.

Emeralds – Does It Look Like I’m Here? (Daphni Mix 2)
Spectacular remix by Dan Snaith of a track by this ambient duo that I’ve not heard – a few years ago we’d have called this “psy-trance”, my colleague Lou (who definitely knows about these things) informed me. Whatever, this is 7-minutes of repetitive, sensual, psychedelic bliss.

Beth Jeans Houghton – Sweet Tooth Bird
Heard this on 6music and bought the album, which this opens – the album’s OK, but nothing matches the blast of trumpets and energy and melodic momentum of this moment of deranged psyche-folk-pop.

Arctic Monkeys – R U Mine?
I’m not, as a rule, a big fan of Arctic Monkeys – we have the debut album (out of curiosity more than anything else) but nothing else since, and I wasn’t really aware of what they’d become since then, if they’d become anything different at all. It turns out that they’ve become a really good studio rock band, a kind of northern-England pop version of Queens Of The Stone Age. The video for this was awesome too – that singer dude air-drumming and lip-syncing to his own tune while driving around a nighttime city in a van.

Orbital – New France
I initially liked, and still do quite like (just not massively) Orbital’s new album, though it felt a little too functional at times (and that feeling of functionality probably caused my esteem for the album to wane a little over the year). This obvious radio-friendly-unit-shifter, though, despite being the most functional of functional tracks on Wonky, still stands out in my mind as a great moment of the year, though. Maybe, once again, it’s just 6music airplay over-familiarity

Chromatics – Kill For Love
An awful lot of hype for Chromatics’, admittedly very stylish and on-trend, Nicolas-Winding-Refyn-film-soundtracking, album, but the entire thing didn’t completely translate for me – cool, but vatic. As a highlight that nails the aesthetic and ties it to a song that adds a smidgeon of substance, the title track will do as a stand-alone representation of these immaculate, crepuscular, synthetic, neon soundtracks.

The Antlers – Drift Drive
In which the tiny, beautiful, Jeff-Buckley-alike Pete Silberman sees the rabbit hole and decides to take a look; The Antlers could very easily lose their songwriting foundation and give it all up for drifting, psychedelic lullaby-grooves like this. I wouldn’t mind.

David Byrne & St. Vincent – Optimist
The whole album by this unexpected-but-obvious musical partnership is very good, and I enjoy it, and I love the way it uses brass as a main instrument, and the way his voice combines with her guitars from time to time, and so on and so forth, but it’s a thing I admire and appreciate more than adore. Except for this, which Annie sings, and which finds that sweet spot of emotion which might be joy-at-sadness or might be sadness-at-joy. The melody; her delivery; the subtle, quietly burgeoning arrangement: it makes me swoon.

BEAK> – Wolfstan II
Plenty of krauty goodness (Lower Dens) and also badness (Toy) this year; but Geoff Barrow’s BEAK did it best; rather than sounding like kids playing at bolting a krauty drumbeat onto a crappy indie song, they just outright played kraut. This track is monstrous and instantaneous and irresistible.

Cat Power – Manhattan
Oh Chan Marshall. Sun has some decent songs, but it’s a mess, a hodge-podge of sounds, a textural toybox opened and splashed over everything, obscuring the good stuff that lies beneath. It seems fine on first contact but it fades, fast. Apart from this, mimimal, motorik, piano-and-drum-machine-and-voice-and-emotion. By far the standout song of the record.

Richard Hawley – She Brings The Sunlight
In which Hawley moves from 50s crooner to late 60s groover. Some might compare it to early Verve, but really he’s gone back to source. The album’s immaculately recorded and observed, an obvious lovesong to psyche, swooshing airplane guitar tones and feedback and beautifully-rendered hi-hats and buried vocals, but the whole thing is perhaps a little much.

Japandroids – Younger Us
Emma loves Japandroids, and I don’t mind; they capture that listless energy of youth brilliantly, even while singing about trying and failing to capture it. Just two guys, drums and guitars and shouting. We saw them live and it was noisy and sweaty and primal, hooks and riffs and wordless choruses ripped through and repeated with complete, whooping abandon. Hüsker Dü for kids?

Fiona Apple – Hot Knife
Julia Holter – Marianbad
Let’s deal with these two together: Tom played them both at us at Devon Record Club the other week at out end-of-2012 meeting, after me being intrigued to hear both of them for months and months. Apple got the full album playback, but Holter only got the opening track relayed to us, and both blew me away. So I bought both albums. The former song is a majestic, euphoric, looping jazz chant, whilst the latter is a modernistic, layered exploration of the human voice. Had I got hold of the albums earlier, they’d probably have been in that list. But I didn’t, so the songs are in this list instead.

Mary Epworth – Black Doe
Banjo-and-drone post-folk with sudden bursts of cacophonous organs, synth-brass, and guitars over a moaningly powerful chorus. I have no idea what it means, but I like it a lot.

Alt-J – Mathilda
The Maccabees – Pelican
Let’s deal with these two together, too. The Maccabees’ tune was all over 6music early in the year and I grew to like it, I suspect through familiarity more than anything else. The album was hyped in certain circles when it arrived, and wanting an early-year hit, I bought it. I regretted it almost straight away – shrill, substance-less, indie “maturity” signified by borrowed tropes from U2 – slow intros that fade from ambience, reverb, those plodding basslines – no oomph, no character, no originality, barely any tunes. I still like “Pelican” fine, but it sounds like a child’s toy version of a real thing. The Alt-J album I bought blind on the basis of the growing word-of-mouth hype, assuming it must be a grower, have staying power, have substance. But it has no more than The Maccabees album. Indie stuff that interpolates tropes and signifiers from other things, adding nothing new other than the pop equivalent of white gallery space to hang a collection of paintings in, and in seemingly random order; why have this strange facsimile when you could have something real? I’m not talking about ‘authenticity’, for what it’s worth – the BEAK record isn’t authentic, but it succeeds where these fail by not being an ugly, try-hard hybrid, by having some integrity (whatever that is) and purity of vision, even if it lacks originality or invention. Plus the Alt-J guy sings like a farmer. “Mathilda” is the only tune I took away from it, an unexpected ambush of sweetness and melody that escaped the clever-clever framework of the rest of the album.

Willy Moon – Yeah Yeah
I’ve seen almost literally nothing written about Willy Moon, and only heard his music on TV – first on Jools Holland, where he whirled and twirled like a fucked-up shopkeeper’s dummy on a fairground ride, and then on the latest iPod adverts – and I have no idea if he has any kind of credibility or cache or even any kind of audience. But I do know that, in a year of wall-to-wall eurohouse-derived bullshit misogyny pop stuffing our charts, this (and maybe, at a push, that Rizzle Kicks tune) were about the only ‘pop’ I heard and didn’t think was insulting. This sounds like it samples Wu Tang Clan at one point, is insanely catchy and danceable, and notably didn’t feature in the New Year’s Eve Top of the Pops, which was wall-to-wall eurohouse-derived bullshit, pretty much.

The Invisible – Generational
The Invisible’s debut album about three years ago was produced by Matthew Herbert, had links to London’s F-ire Collective (which begat Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland, amongst many others), and inhabited that post-Radiohead territory between rock and electronic music (with a tiny pinch of jazz). I liked it well enough, but something about it felt a little sickly – a lot of post-Radiohead territory stuff does; you have to be really good to pull it off, and not many are. So I wasn’t compelled to investigate their new album this year, but somewhere along the way I heard and liked and picked-up “Generational”, which grooves and pulses and repeats and is sinewy and makes me wish I could justify buying the album so I could soak the rest of it in.

12 albums not from 2012

Sometimes, in fact often, the most important records for me in any given year aren’t the salivated-over new releases, but the “why didn’t I hear this before?” discoveries, the things you’d ignored or dismissed or not got round to or simply not heard of previously. The back catalogue albums.

These might be re-releases or remasterings (although I’m pointedly not including My Bloody Valentine’s remasters here, as I knew all the music very well beforehand, and this list is about stuff I discovered for the first time), or explorations of the oeuvre of an artist whose brand new album you’ve fallen for, or they might be inspirations referenced in interviews by current beau musicians. Often, over the last couple of years, they’ve been records introduced to me by my fellow Devon Record Club members at our fortnightly meetings.

Every year I feel like I promise myself (and my wife) that I’ll buy less back catalogue albums over the coming 52 weeks. This year I promised I’d only buy one a month at the absolute most; with a fortnight and more of the year to go, I’ve bought 36. I don’t know how. I still fancy a trip to Rise Records in Bristol or The Drift in Totness before the month is out. Currently, these are my favourites.

Dungen – Ta Det Lungt
Various algorithms have been recommending Ta Det Lungt to me for years, but for some reason this year my desire to listen to it finally reached critical mass – I’m not sure why. Finally buying and enjoying this unashamedly retro psyche rock / jazz cornucopia is probably what’s stopped me from investigating Goat – I feel like I’ve got my fill of northern European psychedelia for the year.

Field Music – Tones of Town / Measure
Cheating, I know to put two records, but so it goes. Inspired by falling for Plumb so hard, I quickly went back and picked up the Field Music records I’d missed first time around, and found them both beautifully agreeable. A very special band.

The Modern Lovers – The Modern Lovers
Tom played this at Devon Record Club, and I fell for the Velvet-Underground-with-a-smile aesthetic straight away. A name and reputation I’d known for years, but never pursued.

Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends
I bought the latest remaster of Bridge Over Troubled Water to play at DRC myself, and, falling in love with it all over again, I also picked up Bookends for a pittance. As well as the fact that it has songs like “America” and “Mrs Robinson” on it, it also has the astonishingly modernistic and confusing “Save The Life Of My Child”. A very different record to Bridge…, but still awesome.

Roxy Music – Avalon
An obvious pick-up (for about £3) given my Kaputt love from last year.

Destroyer – Streethawk: A Seduction
As was this; Em spent a fortnight in America for work in February this year, and I asked if, while she was in NYC, she’d see if she could pick up this early acclaimed peak of Bejar’s from Bleeker Street records; she duly obliged (it’s seemingly impossible to find over here). Far more rewarding than a squashed dime.

Beastie Boys – The Mix-Up
A sentimental purchase in the days after Adam Yauch’s untimely, sad death. I’ve always enjoyed Beastie instrumentals, and this recent-ish collection shows off just how integral his musicianship was to the band; every piece here lives by its bassline, pretty much. We lost one of the best this year.

The Antlers – Hospice
Another DRC-inspired purchase, after Rob played Burst Apart at our ‘albums of 2011’ session. Falling heavily for their latest, I ordered this highly-acclaimed concept album too. It’s a very different record to Burst Apart, and I think I prefer where the band are going now, but this is a heck of a piece of work nonetheless, deeply emotional and affecting.

Hauschka – Salon Des Amateurs
A little cheeky, as a CD of Salon Des Amateurs literally arrived only this morning. We saw Hauschka last weekend at ATP and his set of prepared piano and drums was one of the most beautiful, intriguing, and enjoyable of the whole festival, especially when he went full-on jazz-house for the penultimate number. I ordered this from our chalet the next day, direct from the record label’s website. The album itself sees Hauschka layer his prepared piano (via computer-based recordings) (and with occasional touches of drums, brass, strings, harmonica and mandolin) into house/techno-ish arrangements. The prepared piano (preparing it by tying wire and laying other objects on the strings and hammers inside it) allows him access to a huge array of textures and sounds, man of which you’d assume were digital in origin. There’s a complexity and sophistication and organicness which marks out what Hauschka’s creating here from ‘real’ (as it were) dance music, but nevertheless it’s definitely of a kin. It’s also an absolute joy and pleasure to listen to – tuneful, fascinating, rhythmically addictive and compelling. Off one listen, I know I’ll be turning to this record for years to come.

CAN – Anthology
Although I’ve had various copies of the first five or so CAN albums since I was a teenager, I’ve never picked-up the legendary Anthology until now, meaning I’ve missed whole swathes of fascinating stuff post-Damo Suzuki, and that I’ve never heard the (arguably superior) edits of mammoth tracks like “Mother Sky” and “Halleluwah”. I was probably put off by the fact that they look like aging college professors still desperate to be cool on the cover. With CDs packed into boxes at the end of July, I picked this up recklessly in HMV in August when I had a desperate urge to listen to CAN and this was all that was available. Although I’m gutted it misses crazy b-side “Turtles Have Short Lets” (seemingly unavailable on CD), I’m still very glad I finally succumbed.

Lindstrom & Prins Tomas – II
This was like a cosmic-disco sticking plaster for the weird semi-aberration that was Six Cups of Rebel. It more than made up for that misstep.

The National – Boxer
Like I wrote the other day on returning from ATP, I simply don’t understand how I didn’t fall for this five years ago, except to say that bloody-mindedness has its uses and its failings, too.

12 albums from 2012

People (and by people I mean music writers and geeks and fans of various stripes) often talk about fallow years for music, about an occasional paucity of great albums across a calendar year. I’m not sure how much I subscribe to this theory, although it’s one that I’ve expounded upon at length to my fellow DRC members; I suspect, that if you mine a specific seam deeply enough, you’ll be able to find plenty of wonderful music to fascinate and beguile you. There are innumerable pulses upon which you could have your finger, and there’s always new old music, too.

Why this might be, if you agree with the concept, is a matter open for conjecture – and there is, of course, a huge discussion to be had about how these things get decided (history is not written by the winners, but won by those who could be bothered to document [and perhaps fabricate] it, in the end, in some ways, perhaps) – but it does seem to be an actual thing phenomenologically; look at Pitchfork’s People’s List from earlier this year, and click on the bit where you can see the breakdown of what years albums voted for were from – 2007 and 2010 are big peaks, while 2006 and 2008 are lowly troughs. My own experience bares this out – 2007 felt like amassive, triumphant year for music to me, whilst 2008 seemed dull and empty. Of course, personal circumstances must colour that opinion as much as any empirical assessment of music actually released.

But anyway; this year closing, 2012, seems to be being talked about as being one of those fallow years – the big hitters of acclaimed music that trendy western people talk about on the internet either didn’t release anything (Radiohead) or else released something that everyone seemed to go ‘meh’ at (Animal Collective), and no explosive or unifying new trends or artists emerged to change perspectives and flavour the whole year.

Or did they?

I am just one (lower middle class white English) guy, and I don’t keep up with everything. I’ve not even, at the time of writing, listened to Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean’s albums, the two most acclaimed records of 2012 judging by end-of-year lists. The Kendrick I’ve only heard of in the last couple of months, which have been chaotically busy, and the Frank Ocean I’ve had reservations about based on the opinions of people whose opinions I trust. Also, with both, I’m just not that into musical story-telling, which seems to be a big part of the acclaim afforded to both. As I outlined here, I’m not keen on literary-criticism masquerading as music writing, and nothing I’ve read about either record has really given me any idea of what it might sound like. Not being a (semi) “professional” music writer anymore, I feel no need to listen to stuff in order to form an opinion about it, so I’ve not felt compelled to investigate. There’s also a certain bloody-mindedness at play here, if I’m honest. A few years ago I’d have kicked against that bloody-mindedness with equal force from the opposite direction, but today it seems like a waste of energy, when I could just be enjoying the records below again (debate the personal and spiritual growth ramifications or cultural ennui or inherent conservatism or whatever of that as much as you like).

As an aside, because I do love a good aside; I’m always baffled by people, especially people who are just music fans like me rather than industry professionals, who list anymore than about 20 albums at the end of the year. I’ve seen people list 100 or even more records. If you’re Stephen Thomas Erlewine and parse records for your job, I can understand it, but with a full-time job that has nowt to do with music, a home life, and other hobbies to devote time to (football, cycling, films, etcetera, none of which really allow you to listen whilst partaking), I honestly don’t know how I could pay adequate attention to, let alone like enough to list / write about, more than a dozen or so records.

As another aside, I’ve little interest in rap, metal, country, opera, punk, classical, or chart pop, only passing interest in jazz, a dilettante’s knowledge of electronic music… see what I’m getting at? I am not, in any way, authoritative.

What I’m saying is that I don’t know if these albums I’m writing about are the best of this year, because what does that even mean?, but they are my favourites (of the ones I’ve heard, and I’ve [again, just so you don’t moan at me] not heard everything).

So there are 12 records in this list, because this is a year of 12s, and why not? And the only order they’re in is the order they were released, because who ranks art, anyway? The Tate Modern doesn’t put paintings in order of awesomeness. I know; I’ve been there.

So here goes nothing.

Grimes – Visions
I liked this straight off the bat (the bat being a single on 6music) because it reminded me of Cluster and early Orbital, possibly as photocopied by someone with a really old photocopier. It still does. I’ve not played it in full in months, but it soundtracked a big chunk of spring and summer, and Emma liked it a lot too. Grimes’ tunes, and notably her hooks, are insidious but with a short half-life, which made Visions easy to listen to (or, rather, just “put on”) a huge amount without finding it wearying. Yes, she only has one idea; yes, her beats are… prosaic; but, they work. Her DIY ethos and uber-geek aesthetic are appealing too; Grimes seems like she’d be fun to hang with, which is exactly what her music was.

Portico Quartet – Portico Quartet
Like The Necks in most years, Portico Quartet got played a lot whilst doing other things – reading, cooking, packing our lives into boxes. Is it jazz? Yes, but it’s the kind of jazz that any indie rock fan could get behind without suffering cognitive dissonance, all sway and no skronk. I’d been aware of them for years but never delved in; an early-year hunger for some new British jazz propelled me towards it happily.

Field Music – Plumb
I’ve written about Plumb at length, and stand by everything I’ve said all these months later. It’s a delicious, thoughtful, sensitive, creative, righteous (in a good way) record, but more than that it’s packed full of tunes and melodies and musical passages that make you smile to hear them. Lyrically, as a 30-something man with a wife and a mortgage and worries about the state of the nation, it spoke to me. Musically, it sang to me, rocked me, and grooved me beatifically, finding that sweet spot of sadness at joy or joy at sadness.

John Talabot – ƒin
This I struggled with initially – I was expecting something closer to Caribou’s Swim or Orbital from what people were saying, but when I clamped ears on it these seemed like strange, possibly lazy comparisons. I didn’t quite get the Balearic sunset vibe from this either (although I’ve seen Balaeric sunsets for myself I was never dancing). What I did get was something meticulously structured and richly finished, which stayed with me throughout the year, across dozens and dozens of listens, in the car, at home, at work, intensely, distractedly, on headphones. I still have no idea who he is; I doubt his identity would mean much to me. It still feels a little anonymous, but that may be psychological as much as phenomenological, and sometimes anonymity is good.

Liars – WIXIW
Whereas this is almost the polar opposite; rough and amateurish, a hint of sophistication from Daniel Miller but so much rambunctious, experimental enthusiasm and oppression that it could never be tasteful. I fell for Liars heavily with this album, found their immersion in synthesizers and electronic beats beautiful and powerful in equal measure, bought up chunks of their back catalogue, and felt that WIXIW somehow meant something important, though I have no idea why, or what.

Neneh Cherry and The Thing – The Cherry Thing
I’ll be honest – I’ve not listened to this enough to really love it, or even know it that well yet. I’ve not had chance. Em’s not keen on Neneh Cherry’s voice or on free jazz, and I bought this during the midst of our interminable months of living out of boxes. But when I have played The Cherry Thing, it’s been scintillating, outrageous, exciting, and I’ll be getting to know it much better, I know that much.

Four Tet – Pink
Initially I thought this was a strange, hydra-headed beast, created for the dancefloor and not 100% comfortable away from that context. But actually it’s revealed itself over the late summer and autumn as a perfect livingroom record; perhaps not as possessed of the same kind of gestalt as There Is Love In You (which I think is Hebden’s masterpiece now), but thoroughly beautiful and intriguing and enjoyable nonetheless. “Ocoras”, “Peace For Earth” and “Pinnacles” are as wonderful as anything else he’s done. I’m a fanboy; I can’t resist.

Minotaur Shock – Orchard
Speaking of “livingroom records”, this is another fine one. I first heard of Minotaur Shock through his remixes of early Bloc Party singles, and bought Maritime to investigate further. That record never struck me particularly for whatever reason, but somehow, years later, I got talking to David Edwards, who is Minotaur Shock, on Twitter. He sent me a link to download Orchard, so I did, listened to it, liked it well enough, and bought a real copy out of a sense of fairness one day in HMV when I wanted desperately not to walk out empty-handed. Opening Orchard up on proper speakers, letting it fill space, it became a favourite, and much turned to. Deciding not to shy away from the “folktronica” tag he’d found irritating in the past, Edwards has found a beautiful balance of multitudinous elements, from krautrock pulses and folky, English acoustic pastoralism to more exotic textures and rhythms. Orchard covers a lot of ground, and does it all incredibly well and incredibly tunefully.

Divine Fits – A Thing Called Divine Fits
I covered this for The Quietus, and, again, stand by what I said – this is as good a record as any latter day (Gimme Fiction onwards) Spoon album, laden with tight grooves, taut songs, and well-dressed hooks. Yes, it’s just a bunch of guys playing guitars, bass, drums, and synthesizers; no, they’re not breaking any new ground; now, they’re not even writing particularly outstanding songs – but sometimes it’s enough to just be pretty good and very cool and sound like you’re having a lot of fun.

Swans – The Seer
If you were in the wrong mood, The Seer could feel as long as Swans’ remarkable career. I say ‘remarkable’, but I’d never listened to Michael Gira’s outfit before this year, despite having known about them for what seems like forever. This year, though, I found myself lured in by the rabid enthusiasm it was talked about with. The Seer is unremittingly intense, unapologetically serious, unnecessarily long. It feels like desperate music. At times it feels like dangerous music. Like latter day Terence Malick movies it also feels like it could do with a sympathetic but strict editor. But it’s also incredibly rewarding, and – and this isn’t mentioned often enough – remarkably good fun. Like an over the top horror movie, half the pleasure is in the performativity, the fact that you know this isn’t the way that people behave everyday. Or, at least, that’s the case for me. It may be that Michael Gira is like this everyday; if so, I’m glad someone is. When it hits you, when it gets close to pushing for transcendence, The Seer is pretty magnificent.

Grizzly Bear – Shields
It’s about the way “Sleeping Ute” collapses into soporific beauty for the final minute. The way “Speak In Rounds” edges up to you, shuffling and peering around corners, before grasping your hand and galloping for the horizon even as it’s telling you it’s leaving you alone. How “Gun-Shy” pulses, rich in tune, from one place to another. It’s about the brass, the guitars, the drums (the DRUMS!), the voices, the moments of absolute calm and absolute beauty and almost absolute chaos, the way it sounds and feels like a dream much of the time. I’m not picking a favourite album of this year, because who knows how to even do that, but if I did…

Daphni – Jiaolong
Someone much wiser than me described this as “griddy”, in that the structures of the compositions seem to fit perfectly into imaginary grids of how you might draw a topography of a piece of dance music with a pencil and a piece of graph paper. And it is. Of the five “we are going dancing in a club” records I bought this year (Talabot, Four Tet, Blondes, Orbital), Jiaolong is the most fun, the one with the biggest smile on its face, the one enjoying itself the most. It is decidedly functional, and doesn’t beguile or (emotionally) move me in quite the same way as Caribou does, but it’s not trying to do that. It also best captures the “last track feels like going home after a great night out” vibe that I love so much.

Coming at some point soon, 12 songs from 2012, and 12 old records that were new to me in 2012.

National Motorways

All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by The National

I’ve often wondered whether one day we’ll get to the point where we don’t need roadworks anymore – all the nation’s motorways beautifully surfaced, all the bridges and overpasses structurally sound, every bend and junction and lane everywhere finally finished – and we’ll no longer require maintenance crews, lane closures, flashing orange traffic cones, average speed checks or temporary central reservation barriers.

Of course, this is a crazy pondering: the very act of driving on roads causes them stress and strain and wear and tear – they’ll never be finished. They’re not a thing that can be finished. Few things are; almost everything is a process; moving, changing, not static. That goes for people as much as tarmac.

We went to All Tomorrow’s Parties, curated by The National, over the weekend. I saw (at least some of) 19 different acts perform live over the three days. On Monday we drove back home from Camber Sands in the morning, dozed for an hour, and then drove to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf play the penultimate date of his acoustic tour at St George’s hall. Then last night I had a work Christmas do. I can’t remember the last time I did five nights out on the trot. I feel like I’m coming down with a cold now.

I’m not a massive fan of The National – we bought tickets almost as soon as they were announced primarily because we’d enjoyed last year’s ATP so much, and we love Wild Beasts, Antlers, and Owen Pallett, who were announced early on. Em likes them much more than I do; she’s listened to High Violet a lot and loves it, but I think my ambivalence towards them probably prevented her getting really into them. I feel guilty about this; just because I don’t like something all that much doesn’t mean anybody else shouldn’t, especially my wife. My opinions are loud and not always right.

I bought Alligator when it came out in 2005, and quite liked it. I was sent a promo of Boxer a couple of years later, and thought it was alright too. But they never clicked with me, for whatever reason – in 2007 I was busy with Caribou and Patrick Wolf and Battles and Spoon and so on, and didn’t have room, aesthetically or emotionally, perhaps to invest in someone else. Looking back now, I’m baffled that I didn’t go ga-ga for Fake Empire’s strange build and horns. At the time I wrote something on ILM about how The National were “a no-concept band” with “decent lyrics, decent tunes, decent arrangements”; I think I was struggling to find a USP as a way-in to a straight-up ‘rock’ band. Sometimes I struggle with straight-up ‘rock’ music. I think their occasional fondness for Adam-Clayton-esque basslines probably causes me hesitancy too. I tend not to trust people who use overtly Adam-Clayton-aping basslines. In 2007 I was on my anti-dynamic-range-compression campaign, too, and Boxer could have been more lightly touched, I suppose. I probably dismissed many otherwise perfectly fine records out of principal back then – I probably still do. I had (still have) a point to prove.

But I’ve come away from ATP a massive convert to The National. Partly thanks to their brass section; partly thanks to a beautiful, acoustic sing-along version of “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” as a set-and-festival-closer; partly due to a beautiful, drifting song they played live with Nico Muhly (which may have been brand-new); partly thanks to their evidently massive heart and enthusiasm; but largely due to the nature of the weekend itself.

I’m not talking about the fact that I loved the weekend so now I love the headliners (not quite; though that’s almost certainly part of it): I mean the way the weekend worked, the enthusiasm and care that the band obviously put into curating. The National seemed to have produced or played with almost everyone else on the bill; and those they hadn’t worked with directly were revealed as inspirations. There was a member of The National, usually a Dessner twin, at just about every set by every act.

Seeing these carefully chosen acts, be they influences or musical familial links, exploded the context of The National’s music for me; seeing Michael Rother play the music of Neu! and Harmonia made Bryan Devendorf’s hectic, repetitive drumming make perfect sense; seeing the flamenco guitar and cello of Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus caused me to hear ripples through Bryce Dessner’s guitar; seeing Hauschka’s minimalist prepared piano (with delirious, highlight-of-the-weekend diversions into full-on jazz-house electronic territory) snapped Mat Berninger’s melodies and song structures into focus. Every act we saw seemed to lead the way towards The National’s climactic, rapturous set, and the band evolved in my mind from an interesting and commendable halfway house between Tindersticks and early Interpol into something incredibly worthwhile and characterful in their own right. That USP that I was looking for five years ago? It’s that they’re really good. Really, really good. That’s enough.

They’re also consummate curators, judging both by this festival and the Dark Was The Night compilation (masterminded by the Dessners) a few years ago. Collaborators, too; as well as the huge list of people they’ve produced records by recently, there’s also a huge swathe of people they’ve worked with – Sufjan Stevens and St. Vincent and Nico Muhly and Richard Reed Parry and Owen Pallett and the Kronos Quartet and David Byrne and Sharon Van Etten and on and on and on.

This type of constant, flexible collaboration and hunger to make music in many directions at once, with many people, for solo albums and side projects and one-offs, is almost alien to someone who came of musical age during Britpop, when it was a spirit of competition and antagonism that drove success; “Oasis v Blur” not “Oasis with Blur”. There’s definitely, over the last decade or so, something going on with American and Canadian “alternative” music. Em always used to say that she liked hip-hop culture because of the way artists guested on and produced each others’ records, the sense of community that there was (although, obviously, that sense of community has had its problems, and major problems at that, with antagonism); that seems to be very much the case with this school of musicians. Whether it’s in part encouraged, or just documented, by the likes of Pitchfork and other web music communication tools, I don’t know. But it’s certainly fascinating, and rewarding, if a little difficult to keep up with the sprawling, interconnected spider-diagram which links The National to Sufjan Stevens to St. Vincent to Grizzly Bear to Owen Pallett to Caribou to Four Tet to Radiohead (so there is UK representation and participation, although it’s telling that Wild Beasts were the only British act on the bill, as far as I could tell) to whoever and etcetera and so on and so forth.

Anyway, this is everyone I saw over the weekend (Em saw them all too, except Michael Rother and Deerhoof)…

Friday
Hayden
Hauschka
Bear in Heaven
(5 minutes of) Tim Hecker

Saturday
So Percussion
Kronos Quartet
Lower Dens
Michael Rother
Sharon Van Etten
Antlers
Wild Beasts

Sunday
Pedro Soler and Gaspar Claus
My Brightest Diamond
The Philistines Jr
(5 minutes of) Perfume Genius
Owen Pallett
(30 seconds of) Deerhoof
Local Natives
The National

Monday (not at ATP, obviously)
Abi Wade
Patrick Wolf

Other than The National, and the tangible spirit that ran through the whole weekend itself, highlights included Wild Beasts playing all of Smother in order, and then a big chunk of Two Dancers to boot: Owen Pallett charming, beguiling, and mystifying the audience with his generous nature and wonderful, creative music (I’ve seen a lot of ways to play violin and cello lately, many of them baffling): Antlers, threatening to spiral down the Jeff-Buckley-fronts-very-early-Verve rabbit hole of beatific psychedelic meandering despite technical difficulties: Michael Rother bringing to life some of my favourite music ever: Hauschka producing the closest thing to dance music of the weekend (the lack of electronic influence would be about my only complaint: that, and no bowling alley): standing next to a little guy with a moustache at seemingly every set, only for him to appear onstage as the singer of Local Natives (who I knew pretty much nothing about but now own an album by) on Sunday night: the Buddha Bowl van serving delicious vegan “scraps” outside the pub: meeting people I’ve previously only spoken to online and discovering them to be real live human beings, which is always nice: So Percussion’s syncopating finale: Gaspar and Pedro’s genial, gentle introduction to Sunday: Sharon Van Etten being as good as people said. There were others too, but these will be the things I remember.

So what have motorways got to do with all of this? Like wondering if the motorways will ever be finished, I sometimes used to think I was looking for some kind of perfect band who fitted some platonic ideal, who would make a perfect album, and I’d never need to listen to anything else again. This is, of course, a ridiculous idea, like assuming that humankind is evolving and improving towards some end-point nirvana. Seven years ago, when I first encountered them, I think I wanted The National to be that band, realised quickly that they weren’t, and dismissed them. Unfairly. They don’t need to be that band. No one does. It’s a crazy idea.

Rainbow

My older brother, JR, wrote me a new version of the theme tune to kids’ TV programme Rainbow when I was a kid. In his version, the lyrics explained how a rainbow is formed. It’s possible he nicked it from somewhere, but I’ve never come across it anywhere else. Anyway, it’s very cool, so I thought I’d share it.

Up above the streets and houses
Rainbow flying high
Everyone can see it shining
But they don’t know why

It’s because the rain and sun
Together make it so
The rain acts as a prism
And refracts the sun’s bright glow

He wrote it on a piece of paper (he has amazing handwriting) and left it in the kitchen for me with no explanation. I would have been about 10.

On end-of-year lists…

End-of-year lists seem to be coming earlier and earlier each year – the last couple seem to have hit even before December has started, presumably in a joint effort to a) attract attention by getting yours published (and ergo talked about) first, and b) inspire increased sales of the year’s anointed releases in the lucrative Christmas period (judging by the state of HMV on Saturday, December is the only month that a lot of people physically go into record shops – it was bedlam).

Having been involved with and run various polls over the years, I know how long it takes to logistically organise one – by my reckoning, contributors are going to have been totting up their individual lists in October, with 8-12 weeks of potential album releases yet to come. If you go through the Metacritic recent releases there are dozens of records getting high scores that would have come out after voting deadline. (The general amount of high scores given out by record reviewers compared to film reviewers is another issue, which I’ve written about before. Apparently it’s worse in games reviews, though.)

After individual lists are done, votes need to be matriculated, final placings argued over (even if the matriculation is taken as law and not gerrymandered to reflect politics and commerce and editorial whim taste, there’ll still be arguments), blurbs commissioned, written, edited, and formatted for publishing, whether that’s online or in print (though obviously the print ones pretty much all get published online before the paper versions hits magazine racks). For lists to be published even before December begins suggests that only three quarters of the year gets considered. But record companies know this. Reviewers know this.

Hell, every music fan on the internet knows this: I was moaning about people talking about records as being “potential albums of the year” back in March, if not before. Amongst a certain subset of music fans it seems as though the narrative of what gets in your personal end-of-year-list, and the minute politics of the ordering thereof, is the most important part of being a music fan. I doubt anyone actually feels this way, but the urgency and importance and eagerness with which phrases like “my album of the year” and “it’ll definitely be in my end-of-year-list” get bandied about feels that way. Listen to it once. Assess its import. Allocate it a space in your list. Never ponder it or listen to it again.

Again, I doubt people actually consume music quite like that. But I’ve done the whole “my album of the year!” thing myself, and I don’t think it’s a good way of thinking about or categorising music. It feels too much like listening in order to form an opinion rather than listening for pleasure. One of the reasons I’ve pretty much stopped writing record reviews is that this kind of listening – which is not necessarily critical (and critical listening is not necessarily a bad thing, either) – doesn’t seem to lend itself to enjoying music; it seems like listening to have listened.

I worked in a library for a few years, and catalogued films: I felt like I knew an awful lot about a huge amount of films – who directed them, who was in them, their historical significance, even an idea of their aesthetic from cover design and stills on the reverse – but I barely watched any of the films I knew about. I barely appreciated any of them. And I certainly didn’t love any of these films that I catalogued but did not watch. It can take so long, so many listens, to unravel a record, that forming an opinion after one or two exposures seems like great folly.

(Side note: if, as a reviewer, you strongly suspect that you’ll never listen to a record again after you’ve sent off your 150 or 400 or 1,000 words about it, if you think you will have no use or love for it after you’ve slotted it into a critical taxonomy, then say so. Don’t let the instinct towards authority or objectivity make you hedge bets. Don’t give 3/5 for something you’ll never play again. I’ve bought too many records over the years just in case they were really good, when in fact they were inconsequential simulacra. I mean you, Maccabees, Django Django and Alt-J, just this year. But this is a whole other post, let alone a side note.)

(Second side note: another reason why I prefer CDs to digital files is the effort that it seems to take to “maintain a digital music collection” – I’ve seen so many people moan about iTunes 11 over the last few days, conversations about listening to music turning into conversations about data-entry and file-management and folder structures and back-up archives and so on and so forth. This type of conversation bores me to tears at work; I’m not taking it home, too. “Opinion-listening” feels like another symptom of the same disease.)

(Third side note: imagine a long paragraph linking all of this to The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord here.)

(Fourth side note: imagine a paragraph about decimal point scores in record reviews here. Or grading records like sixth form essays. Oh god.)

This post was originally going to be called 12 from 12, and be a list (!) of my favourite dozen records of this year, with a little blurb about each, in the chronological order that they were released rather than any order of preference (because how the hell do you even come up with an order; it’s utterly arbitrary), and this “rant” was going to be 100 words at the start about end-of-year lists getting earlier and earlier and how stupid that is. Obviously it’s not gone to plan. I’ll save that list (!) for later, if I do it at all. Swans would feature.

My most played album?

@LPGroup, which I like as a concept but not so much as an actuality (the communal nature of voting and decision making over what records to listen to and tweet about together seems to often result in safe choices – but that’s always the result of democracy, isn’t it? [There’s also a lot of canon-favouring middle-aged white men involved – I know I’m only a handful of techno and pop records and ten years away from that myself, but still.]), was pimping the theme “My Most Played Album” for their session the other week. I looked at the list and thought about voting, but there wasn’t much on there that might qualify as my own most played, I suspect. It was my own fault for not catching nominations in time enough to put something forward. But it got me thinking about what records I have listened to most in my life, about the types of records they’ve been, and how those types of records have changed over the years, and in turn how the way I listen to records has changed over the years, as life has got busier, time shorter, and collections bigger.

17 years ago the answer would have been simple – The Stone Roses’ debut album, which I played incessantly and repeatedly, and convinced myself was perfect and imbued with magical powers. 16 year olds are odd. A year before that, Revolver. A year after, In Sides by Orbital. 4 years ago, after a year living in together in our flat, it was probably The Milk Of Human Kindness by Caribou, which became our default go-to record while just going about our lives – washing up, reading, cooking, pottering, doing those mundane day-to-day admin tasks that adult-life requires. Inoffensive, undemanding (unless you want it to be), but always interesting. In 2004 it was Drive By by The Necks, the seamless groove and ambient nature of which made it the kind of thing that I could literally play anywhere, anytime, whilst doing anything.

This year I’ve probably played Plumb by Field Music the most, although a considerable factor to consider there is that it was released early in the year. Also, it’s quite short; it fits almost four times into the length of The Seer by Swans, and can easily get played twice back-to-back on a short-ish car journey. In fact the title track of The Seer is almost exactly the same length as the whole of Plumb. At other times this year I’ve binged on Silent Shout by The Knife, Red Medicine by Fugazi, Grizzly Bear, Heartland by Owen Pallett, and WIXIW by Liars. But other than Plumb, the two things I’ve played the most are similar records by similar artists – Pink by Four Tet and Orchard by Minotaur Shock, which both, like the Caribou and Necks records mentioned above, lend themselves to being put on whilst doing other things. Pink, which I started off thinking of as a weird dancefloor compendium, has unfurled over the months to reveal itself as a superlative “livingroom” record. Which is where it gets played most often.

There’s a danger that one can make these records sound prosaic and inoffensive, that “most played” = “most utilitarian”, that their value comes in their palatability rather than their art or power. 17 years ago I thought music should be entirely magical and transformative, passionate and wild or exultant and irresistible. I worry suspect that these days I value the beatific over the outright brilliant sometimes, the tasteful over the transcendent (whatever that means). But actually, as always, it’s more complicated than that. There’s a certain degree of compromise in sharing living and listening space with another human being: I can’t blast Tilt by Scott Walker at a whim, but then again I’m not sure I often want to. And actually, Em would be more irritated if I played Embrace than if I cracked out one of Scott’s latterday opuses.

Sometimes I choose to listen to a record because I love it, and it transports and challenges me, and stretches my brain and soul. And sometimes I choose to listen to a record just because it fills space, beautifully. I probably do the latter more often, and, on average, probably have done so for the last dozen years since leaving the weird cocoon of university. I guess the choice is what you choose to fill that space with, and why: is it a comfort blanket of familiarity, or is it something else?