Monthly Archives: December 2013

On vinyl vs CD (again)

People say some bloody silly things about vinyl.

Take this guy, who taught his 13-year-old son the “sheer joy of listening to vinyl” via the medium of Cameron Crowe’s bullshit rose-tinted rock-mythology nostalgia-fest, Almost Famous.

The particular scene Nostalgia Dad bangs on about – “when the young aspiring music journalist has his mind set free by his older sister, who leaves him her LP collection under his bed when she leaves home” – isn’t actually about vinyl; it’s about music, and adolescence, and family, and missing someone, and a million other things. The fact that the music is on vinyl is a chronological accident because the film is set in the 70s, and is about as important to the emotional impact as the fact that the bedspread is made of polyester.

I could get angry and swear at Nostalgia Dad – for describing Miles Davis and Art Blakey as “cats”; for teaching his son that his father’s adolescent experiences are more valid than going out and forming his own; for making his son listen to Dire Straits and Dark Side Of The Moon; for confusing mythology and nonsense with significance and lived reality – but I’ve already written a ranty, opinion-spouting thinkpiece about the whole mythology side of the vinyl-vs-CD debate, so instead I’m going to gather some actual evidence and make a reasoned argument with supporting quotes from people who know far more about vinyl and CD as formats than I do. Because you can quote Henry Rollins waxing nonsense about “the sublime state of solitude”, or you can quote the guy from Pere Ubu stating that vinyl distortion is “NOT what we wanted” and link to him explaining exactly why.

Because, frankly, there have been a raft of blog posts, puff pieces and shitty listicles this year telling me how great vinyl is, and none of them have contained any evidence whatsoever beyond borderline solipsistic pontification. “Vinyl’s great! It’s really warm! You can hold it! The artwork’s really big! You can skin up on it!” This is post-blog writing at it’s worst, the kind of navel-gazing that we’re in increasing danger of mistaking for journalism (and increasingly replacing journalism with), where all you need is an opinion and a feeling and a few people to click ‘like’ or ‘share’ to give that opinion instant validation, even if it’s based on nothing at all.

Take that Buzzfeed piece (sorry Matt; I know it’s your job and fully understand why pieces like this have to live alongside the proper stuff); half the things it posits as being great about vinyl are dreadful things that I hate (surface noise; crate-digging; super-specific genre names in independent record shops that act as obfuscating gatekeepers rather than navigation aids), and the other half are completely incidental and can be ‘enjoyed’ with CDs (amazing set of speakers; sorting things alphabetically; supporting local independent shops; meeting someone cute while browsing). Neither Nostalgia Dad nor Fetish Hipster substantiates any of their proclamations with evidence, research, or fact; they just make vague claims and allusions and presuppose that the weight of rock mythology will carry them aloft. Well I hate rock mythology and I pretty much always have.

Some context.

A few months ago I pitched a feature idea to NME about the relative merits of vinyl and CD, with specific focus on the negative side-effects that the current resurgence in vinyl sales is having. Dan Stubbs, NME’s news editor, said yes, and commissioned 600 words from me on the subject, which got published a couple of months ago. Sadly, Dan and NME have style and deadlines and readership and publishers to think of, and 600 words weren’t really sufficient to explore this massive, divisive, and hearsay-riddled topic, and I had many, many thoughts, quotes, and pieces of evidence left over, so I’m going to use them here.

One of the main thrusts of my NME piece was essentially that demand for vinyl is outstripping supply, vinyl pressing plants being unable to press vinyl as quickly as they used to in the past, because no new vinyl pressing machines have been manufactured since 1981; so the industry is relying on old machines. Poor technology + increased demand = falling quality. Vinyl gets used as a marketing hook, and has become a signifier of a premium product, promising you more than CD; the elusive experience that so few people seem to be able to qualify or quantify properly. It’s priced, packaged, and sold correspondingly, but it’s often not actually fit for the purpose it’s meant to be for; at least not as fit as it ought to be for the premium. Remember that the redemptive obverse of a record is to play music, not to look good on a shelf.

So here’s Steve Albini on the merits and demerits of clear, black, and coloured vinyl at The Quietus; scroll down to the penultimate answer, which starts with: “There’s a theoretical point there, which is that polyvinyl chloride is colourless, so if you’re adding something to it to colour it, then you’re changing the chemistry of it slightly, and that has potential to make it sound not as good by having inclusions.” The conclusion? New coloured vinyl probably sounds like crap most of the time, and is a gimmick, a piece of ‘added value’ designed to make you buy a record on one format rather than another (i.e. to buy it at all, rather than download it for free). Records for looking at, rather than listening to.

But Albini’s got no beef with vinyl as a format if it’s done properly, and that’s fair enough. Some people do, though. This is what David Thomas of Pere Ubu has to say about some technical myths regarding vinyl on his website:“The putative ‘warmth’ of vinyl is another one of those mass-hysteria hoaxes that the human race is prone to. ‘Vinyl warmth’ is not some semi-mystical, undefinable phenomenon. There is actually a technical term that audio engineers have for what you are hearing – it is called distortion. The bottom end is distorting. Now, distortion is a valuable audio tool, and an Ubu favorite, but only when the distortion is distortion we choose. You may like the phenomenon but it is NOT what we wanted and it is NOT what we heard in the studio.”

Which seems to contradict what some people claim regarding vinyl being closer in sound to the master tape than CD is. David Thomas isn’t the only person to think so; here’s what David Brewis from Field Music said to me via Twitter the other day: “When we’re putting records together, I have to steel myself for the deficiencies inherent to the vinyl pressings, even though I enjoy those same deficiencies in other people’s records – especially when combined with the ‘sit and listen’ element.” So vinyl is deficient, isn’t the sound people hear in the recording studio, and isn’t necessarily how they want you to hear their records, even if it can be enjoyable.

Michael Jones, much-loved ILX poster who works in digital media somewhere, and who co-engineered The Clientele’s lovely debut album, The Violet Hour, and mastered a bunch of Matinee comps for CD, dropped some serious science on ILX a decade ago, regarding the myths and misunderstandings about what CD and vinyl each bring to the table, from relative resolution and sample rates to analogue waveform reproduction and the happy euphonic accidents that David Brewis alluded to. Highlights and key points include (questions Jonesy’s responding to in italics; his answers in quotation marks; my emphasis in bold):

are you saying that 24/96k can rival the resolution in the grain of good vinyl? (I realise it’s not really comparable and that there are many other factors involved)
“Well, what is the resolution of good vinyl? In information theory terms (resolution = dynamic range x bandwidth), vinyl is miles behind – not even very close to 16/44.1k. It’s a mistake to think that an analogue system is inherently more ‘natural’, or has more detail. Every recording and replay system has its limitations.”

Do circuits exist that can provide a smooth (actually analogue) interpolation between the x levels available in a digital recording? Do good digital players do this?
“*All* digital equipment does this. There are no gaps or stair-steps in the sound – a continuous analogue waveform is reconstructed from the sampled info. The Nyquist theorem states that we only need sample a waveform at at least twice the highest frequency within that waveform to gather a complete record of the data. Now, bandwidth-limiting a musical signal to just above the upper limit of adult human hearing may produce its own set of problems, but we can be sure that the subsequent sampling doesn’t chuck anything *else* away.

“The fixed number of amplitude levels associated with digital means a limit to how small successive changes in the amplitude can be – but with analogue and its greater associated self-noise, the limits are even more restrictive. The noise obscures anything smaller than itself. So there’s *less* resolution in the amplitude domain with analogue despite it being a continuous system.

Is this one reason that LPs can sound better?
“There are lots of artefacts associated with vinyl replay which don’t completely go away with even the most exotic turntables or pristine pressings. Happily, many of these artefacts are euphonic – phase anomalies magically expanding the stereo image, tonearm resonance warming up the mid-range, HF roll-off giving that silky tone. It’s more of a case of what vinyl adds to reproduction, than what CD omits. Beyond that it’s a matter of preference.”

Why not watch him say some of this stuff in person on Youtube? The ‘closer to the master tape’ fallacy gets mentioned here, too.

You can also read the Hydrogen Audio FAQ he linked me to when I asked him for a quote for the NME piece.

Graham Sutton is my usual go-to record producer and technical guy when I need a quote about dynamic range compression or distortion. Sadly he was out of the country working when I wrote the NME piece, but here’s a quote from an interview I did with him a few months ago which has some serious relevance here: “As an aesthetic, for the sort of music I’m involved in making, I also find I don’t like the sound of tape. I don’t want the medium to sonically alter what I’m hearing, I want a linear response and I don’t like hiss. I think part of why digital gets a bad rap is because engineers early on tried to apply the same tape-based tricks to digital without really using their ears, and things came out excessively bright and hard as a result. There’s also a sentimental attachment in the ‘rock’ world, bordering on elitism, to analogue – the smell of tape and the love of big old dusty machines – that just isn’t there in many other areas of music, for example classical, jazz, EDM, broadcasting, film, where this debate ended a long time ago.”

So love of analogue warmth seems like it might be a rockist hangover, a comfort-blanket for an industry, which, 40 years ago, was forward thinking, and cutting edge, but which is now retrogressive and paranoid and faltering. Looking through the records I’ve bought and enjoyed in 2013, and there’s notably less and less ‘rock’ (and pop and associated genres or whatever) and more and more electronica, jazz, avant-garde, whatever-you-want-to-call it. This has been an increasing trend in my tastes for quite a while now.

If you really wanted, you could visit the Steve Hoffman forums and get involved in some of the ranty exchanges that the vinyl-vs-CD debate regularly inspires over there. Neither side comes out looking particularly good though, and it’s very easy to descend down the audiophilia wormhole, which I’ve got no interest in.

A few years ago I got really into headphones and spent far too long (and far too much money) on Head-Fi, where I noticed that people would describe Sennheiser headphones as being ‘veiled’ in terms of sound; i.e. that the sound signature was dark, obscuring detail a little via a thin layer of distortion or lack of focus. This description is how I hear vinyl, pretty much; as if someone is holding a layer of net curtain between the speakers and my ears, which takes away clarity and space, stops me fully getting a hold on individual sonic details. For me a lot of the magic of recorded sound is how psychedelic and otherworldly and magical it can be, and clarity is a big part of that. Mythology isn’t, and though I like the fact that we have shelves full of CDs and I have to pull them out and put them on one at a time in a CD player, that’s less about ritual and mythology than it is about convenience and concentration and not feeling like a data-entry temp.

Here’s another shitty listicle by Matt, except that this one isn’t shitty, and actually talks some sense, in that it admits that a huge amount of vinyl fandom is about aesthetics and lifestyle and not about sound quality.

So I guess I am saying that CD is better than vinyl, in terms of cold, hard, technical, objectively measurable factors like dynamic range, frequency response, and resolution, but that’s not really the key point here: the main thing is that I prefer it; it suits how and why I listen much better than anything else. Vinyl sounds different, and if you prefer it, that’s fine, just don’t tell me, sans evidence, that it’s “better”. Because it isn’t.

(While we’re at it, let’s not conflate and confuse the terms ‘vinyl’ and ‘record’ anymore: ‘vinyl’ is the format, the medium; ‘record’ is short for ‘recording’, and is the content delivered by the format. My ‘record collection’ is mostly on CD, which is how I like it.)

Post-script
A few people have asked me why I don’t just listen to MP3s (or any other digital file type). The answer is quite simple: I’d rather browse shelves than databases when choosing what record to listen to. Accessing and maintaining a digital music collection mostly makes me feel like a data entry temp. I used to look after library databases for a living. I’d rather not do it for my hobby.

It’s also been suggested that I’m the only person banging on about this debate and that no one else cares. That may be so, but I get sent a lot of links to articles, lists, and opinion pieces about how great and magical vinyl is (and occasionally about its actual merits as a format). In addition to the pieces linked in the original piece, here are some more things that people have written about vinyl over the last few years, some of them stupid, some of them sensible.

“Vinyl, they say, just sounds better, warmer, more immediate than digital.”

A whole radio show devoted to vinyl mythologizing.

A sensible piece by Graham Jones.

Over-pricing for packaging and ‘feel’, rather than sonic benefits.

“Vinyl-only” New Year’s Day; on a digital-only radio station.

Mark Richardson talking sense at Pitchfork.

Another Steve Hoffman debate.

Do records really sound warmer than CDs?

“We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king.”

Top ten reasons why vinyl sounds better than digital. Particularly check out point 6, which is so unbelieveably wrong-headed and loaded that it makes me actually angry. “The quality [of vinyl] is incomparable as each groove contains every intended detail captured holistically, every frequency shift perceived.” Just nonsense. Never mind points 5 and 4.

Sense from a mastering engineer. Even if he does like Dark Side Of The Moon.

At least this guy knows he’s semi-coherent.

“I am sure I know absolutely nothing about how it all works and why, but the one thing I know for certain though is that music sounds better on vinyl.”

Reddit gets in on it.

£2,500 vinyl records. Insanity.

Here’s another quote from Graham Sutton, which he posted on Facebook yesterday in a conversation about the original piece: “I hope you guys realise that almost all vinyl cuts (with a couple of notable exceptions) for the last few decades have passed through a digital delay via A-D-A converters, as a last safety stage before hitting the cutting lathe head, regardless of the analogyness or otherwise of the Master medium, or indeed whether the sequencing had been assembled on Sadie or whatever.

“If you like your music with added distortion that you find pleasing then great, but for anything else this argument is bunk. Vinyl has so many technical limitations it ain’t true.”

And that’s enough for now.

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Every time you jump a red light, I get shouted at – on bad cyclists


I am a cyclist. I cycle. Quite a lot. Yesterday night I did 8 miles. On Saturday morning I did 46. Today I did 1.6 to work and later I’ll do 1.6 home (in fact I might go the long way home, and do more). This year I’ve done 1,600+ miles, even though up until June I only did 250, for various reasons. I own two bicycles – a summer road bike, and a winter / commuter bike. The year before last, when I cycled the whole year round, I rode more than 3,000 miles. Since June 2010, when I got a bike again for the first time since university, I’ve ridden more than 7,000 miles. I ride for leisure, for exercise, for convenience, and for pure fun. Riding is great. Bicycle people are great. But I still wouldn’t class myself as an expert, or even a very good cyclist. I’m just, I hope, not a bad cyclist. I also walk and drive a lot, and I don’t want to die, or cause a death, whilst travelling by any of those means.

Which is why I’m getting more and more militant about bad cyclists. Bad cyclists piss me off. Every time a bad cyclist does something stupid, a good cyclist bears the brunt of it. I get shouted at probably 30% of the time when I’m out, generally by dickheads leaning out of car windows. I don’t think I’ve ever been doing anything wrong when I’ve been shouted at; some motorists just hate cyclists, and bad cyclists doing stupid things that piss off motorists, just makes motorists hate cyclists more.

(A note to people who shout at cyclists from cars; we have no idea what you’re saying to us, and you come across as enormous wankers. Just so you know.)

I’m aware that this post could be seen as victim-blaming, and, yes, ideally the cities, towns, roads, and rural areas of this country would simply be a lot more accessible and friendly towards cyclists, with better infrastructure and policies, and we’d all ride bikes more and be healthier and the economy (people who cycle to city centres spend more than those who drive, strangely) and environment (cyclists don’t pollute) would benefit. I hope the popularity of Borgen, where the prime minister and TV journalists and everyone else is shown cycling around Denmark to work and the shops, will make us and our government realise that bikes make cities (and towns, and villages) better places to live in, and that policy and infrastructure will be altered accordingly. But the simple fact is this country is not Denmark or the Netherlands or Germany or any number of other countries where cycling isn’t something done by lunatics, and so you have to ride accordingly, and that means not doing insanely dangerous, stupid, or illegal things while on a bike, like…

Ride without lights in the dark.
By ‘the dark’ I just mean any sub-optimal light; it might be midday and foggy, or dawn, or dusk, or cloudy and under tree cover. If you’ve not got lights on, people cannot see you very well, if at all. You’re also practically silent. This is not a good combination. Most modern cars seem to have slightly tinted windows to minimise glare, which means you’re practically invisible to motorists in anything less than good daylight. I know this because I cycle and I drive. Because I drive, I would never cycle in sub-optimal light without lights for fear that I wouldn’t be seen. Riding without lights is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

Jump red lights.
On Saturday I rode up a busy main street in Exeter, which has several sets of traffic lights, both for junctions and crossings. I stopped at all of them, as did another guy on a bike. A girl on a bike rode through on red each time. We’d then overtake her, stop at the next lights, and she’d catch us while we were stopped and jump through on red again. I was exasperated, and I may have shouted. It was busy. Cars and pedestrians were crossing the flow of traffic from all directions, and she could very easily have hit or been hit by something. I include, in this example, people who just nip up onto the pavement for a second to circumvent the lights, and cross with pedestrians. Jumping red lights is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

(Slight caveat – sometimes this is unavoidable, for instance very early in the morning when no cars are about, at lights which change on a sensor; most sensors simply don’t recognise cyclists, so you have to ignore them sometimes. But I only do this if there’s absolutely no traffic. Would I do it in a car? I wouldn’t need to.)

Ride on the pavement.
Riding on the pavement is for little kids. Tiny little kids. With stabilisers. It is not for wannabe hipster teenage boys on vintage racing bikes; my wife will shout at you if you do this, and you are an idiot for doing it. Racing bikes, especially older ones, are not stable at slow speeds unless you’re pretty accomplished; riding them very slowly along the pavement, weaving precariously past pedestrians and looking like you’re going to fall off / crash into somebody, is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

Undertaking traffic.
You know those t-shirts cyclists wear which say “You’re not stuck in traffic; you ARE traffic”, taunting motorists who are… stuck in traffic? Well, if you’re cycling on a road, you are traffic too. The problem is that neither cyclists nor motorists seem to quite understand what that means when it comes to passing other vehicles when you’re on a bike. And the law doesn’t help, either; it’s not illegal to undertake static or slow-moving traffic if you’re on a bicycle, nor to overtake, but which is best? This is a tricky one because it’s not necessarily insane or stupid, and it certainly isn’t illegal, but it can be dangerous.

As both a driver and a cyclist, motorists, in my experience, are generally not expecting people to undertake them, even bikes. And high-sided vehicles (buses, lorries, vans, even big people-carriers and 4x4s) simply don’t have adequate visibility of small things passing on their left. Even people in cars don’t always indicate their intentions, and can easily cut across cyclists. Unless I’m in a dedicated cycling lane I almost never undertake, and even then I’m loathe, and certainly never anything high-sided.

Ignoring one-way systems.
Again, you are traffic. You are obliged to obey the rules of the road, and that includes one-way systems. Cars will NOT be expecting you coming the other way, because you shouldn’t be coming the other way. Drivers pulling out of junctions into one-way systems probably won’t look the way that traffic shouldn’t be coming from, and even if they do I doubt it will be as thoroughly. Going the wrong way down a one-way street is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, you know, illegal.

Ride too fast where it’s not appropriate.
I like to go fast. I have a decent road bike and I can cap 40mph on it downhill in good conditions. It’s exciting, and going down hills fast is one of the reasons why I cycle up hills in the first place (and I live and ride in Devon, so there are a lot of hills). I will admit to feeling a little shiver of delight when I set off a speed camera, even though I shouldn’t. Let’s blame Strava. Sometimes, speed is just not appropriate or safe. I have seen more than one riding buddy stack it into a hedge or a ditch because they were riding too fast. They’re lucky they didn’t stack it into an oncoming car. Riding too fast where it’s not appropriate is stupid and insanely dangerous. It’s also, if you’re going above the speed limit, you know, illegal.

Pedestrians and motorists are stupid, too.
Pushing baby buggies down cycle paths. Not controlling their dogs around cycle paths. Not looking for cyclists properly at roundabouts. Shouting at cyclists for no reason. For every bad cyclist there are more bad pedestrians and motorists, which is why you need to be a good cyclist, so you can avoid getting hurt or killed by them.

This list is in no way comprehensive; it’s just stuff I’ve noticed a lot – probably because I cycle and walk and drive in and around a university campus a lot of the time, and students, as we know, can be a little lackadaisical about their own personal safety and wellbeing. I want more people to ride bikes, but I want them to ride bikes well, so that it becomes a far more normal and accepted mode of transport. And so that idiot motorists don’t shout at me for not hugging the kerb when I’m doing 30mph on a downhill section of a main road in a 40mph limit.

Here’s some advice on filtering and “taking the road” from Cyclescheme.

Not albums of 2013


Of course the full ‘story’ of 2013 musically, as far as I’m concerned, involves a lot more than just the twenty albums in my last post. There are several other categories of records beyond albums newly released this year, and which I liked enough to include in that list, that made up my musical year. Hark at me, using terms like ‘musical year’. These are those, roughly divided into some sort of taxonomy.

Compilations etc

Archivists are under-valued in this country, perhaps. By me, certainly, probably because I worked in a library for five years, so I’m kicking against something. Anyway, I’m not really one for compilations, as a rule (because I’m such a dreadful rockist, probably), but I’m coming to appreciate them more as I get older, especially well-curated ones. These are three new ones I bought this year.

Deutsche Elektronische Musik 2
I still can’t deal with the proggy, folky ones, but the swirly, metronomic stuff and the crazy, rocky stuff is outstanding. Luckily there’s considerably more of the latter two types, especially the swirly, metronomic stuff. This is every bit as well put together as the first volume from a couple of years ago. Brilliant. (It’s krautrock, if the title didn’t give it away.)

I Am The Centre
The term ‘new age music’ makes you feel a bit sick in your mouth if you’ve bought into any kind of post-punk counter-cultural indie bullshit philosophy, but, honestly, what’s more ‘punk’ in spirit than this bunch of fucking crazy hippies making music to revolutionise your inner spirit to? I can’t think of much that’s more alternative than this. Some of it is very close to what ‘cool’ people call ‘minimal’, almost all of it is practically indistinguishable from the ‘ambient’ stuff that Eno and Aphex Twin et al have been praised for, and bits are very similar to The Necks or Stars of the Lid or whoever else you care to name. Just because there are field recordings of birds chirping in the background, or a flute, seems to make it unpalatable conceptually. Get over it. Why is Steve Reich famous but not Michael Stearns?

Who Is William Onyeabor
Caribou, Four Tet, and their mates have been dropping this guy’s name for a while, as well as sampling and just outright remixing him too. He made a handful of albums of Nigerian synth funk in the early 80s – extended afrobeat jams, but closer to kraut or disco than jazz compared to Fela – and then stopped and became a preacher and a businessman and stuff. Now he refuses to talk about his music, and those original records either sell for 50p or £500, depending on whether the seller knows wtf it is and thus how to pitch it. This compiles a load of his stuff together (duh), and it’s great.

Near misses / nonplussed

This is the largest and most awkward of the taxonomical sections that make up this weird list, and contains taxonomies within it; new stuff released this year, which I liked enough to buy, and perhaps liked really rather a lot, but which I wasn’t blown away by, or merely thought was ‘quite good’, whatever that means. Some of it was inches away from the other list, and got deleted last minute. Some of it was never anywhere near.

Close, but no cigar

A minor tweak, a moment of punctum; these were so close to being in that other list. The Pantha is too pretty and lightweight; The National over-arranged and busy; Primal Scream a touch workmanlike a touch too often.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
Pantha Du Prince – Elements of Light
Satelliti – Transister
Primal Scream – More Light
Brandt Brauer Frick – Miami

Liked it, but nowhere near enough

Plenty of people seemed to love these, and I liked them, just not that much. The Fuck Buttons album simply didn’t hit me emotionally like their previous one; BSP and PSB were both accomplished and musical but lacked that final spark to make me love them; the Daft Punk was 20 minutes too long and burdened with cloying over-indulgence at times; Arctic Monkeys stuck together three great singles and some other stuff that was OK; Steve Mason was as emotive as ever but not as creative, perhaps.

Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
British Sea Power – Machineries of Joy
Public Service Broadcasting – Inform, Educate, Entertain
Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Rokia Traore – Beautiful Africa
Steve Mason – Monkey Minds in the Devil’s Time

Not listened to it enough to form a full opinion

Stuff I only just got hold of (Hecker, Emika, Dawn of Midi, Souleyman), never quite got to grips with (Dean Blunt), or couldn’t find time for, for whatever reason (Marling).

Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
Emika – Dva
Tim Hecker – Virgins
Dawn of Midi – Dysnomia
Omar Souleyman – Wenu Wenu
Laura Marling – Once I Was an Eagle

Thought it was awful

A dreadful, dog’s dinner of an album that I ought to have returned straight away. Flawed product. Useless.

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Old albums

Possibly the most interesting bit of the list; nothing ‘new’ here, but it was all new to me, one way or another. Some things, like the Basinski, Russell, and Fleetwood Mac, I’ve been aware of for a decade (or several) but simply never got around to, until Devon Record Club exposed them to me and made them feel essential. Others are filling in the blanks of new stuff I’ve got excited by this year (Stetson, Holden, Grant), or revisits to things I thought I didn’t like first time around, but was wrong about (Fake). Others – House of Blondes – are whole stories in and of themselves, that I can’t quite explain.

William Basinski – Disintegration Loops
Arthur Russell –The World of Arthur Russell
Nathan Fake – Drowning in a Sea of Love
John Grant – Queen of Denmark
House of Blondes – Clean Cuts
Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 2; Judges
Holden – The Idiots Are Winning
Various Artists – New Orleans Funk
Fleetwood Mac – Rumours

Albums of 2013

I’ve been debating whether or not to put together a list of my favourite records for 2013. Various thoughts are telling me not to bother; who cares about a list I might compile? Will I get shouted at for not having enough women in the list, or any hip hop, or the right dance music, or too much indie, or the wrong jazz, or Miley Cyrus? Are these types of lists, which are being published earlier and earlier each December (so early that most seem to emerge in November now), especially by record shops (who, in the age of the internet, now have inexpensive ways of publishing their own lists to a very wide audience very easily), just corporate shills, desperate attempts by a dying industry to make a coin during the silly spending season? How long should they be? 10 albums? 20 albums? 34 albums? 100 albums? What if there are only so many albums you really *like*, but other albums you have opinions on and want to talk about; is it worth mentioning them just in passing, even if they’re not an actual favourite? What are these lists even for, anyway? When’s the cut-off point? Do you include compilations or reissues?

Are your favourite albums of any given year not the ones that you’re still listening to in one, or two, or five years’ time, anyway? How do you know in December (or earlier, given when lists are published and how long they take to compile) which your favourites are? Something might have only been released streamed sent out on promo leaked in November, and some albums take time to get to know and to appreciate. Other albums are showers rather than growers, and make an immediate impact before fading away; if they land in October or November they may assume inflated positions in people’s esteem. What if you get the order wrong? Oh the existential angst.

Lists are an arbitrary way of assessing records at the best of times, and don’t seem to chime with how I actually experience music on a day-to-day basis. The way regular music fans start talking in early January about “contenders for album of the year”, as if they’re going to give out a special trophy in December to the maker of their very own personal favourite record, always strikes me as bizarre. Meta-narratives about ‘what kind of year it was’ don’t interest me that much anymore now that I’m not contributing to any collaborative publication list or ethos. I don’t even have a ‘favourite’ record this year, or most other years, anyway, nor do I know how to qualify or quantify what that even means anyway; the one you listened to most often? Most intensely? With the most happiness? How do you discern the differences? I’ve just got a load of records I’ve listened to and enjoyed a lot, and trying to codify which ones I liked most seems bonkers when I liked them for different reasons in the first place. And some of them I don’t really have anything to say about, anyway. And yet others that I’m not especially keen on make me want to write lots of words.

So I nearly didn’t make a list at all, as if that matters to you in the slightest. But then I remembered the difficulty I had when faced with trying to choose an album from 2008 for Devon Record Club; so disenfranchised was I for various reasons in that year that I didn’t bother to make a list at all, even on my blog, and so it struck me what these lists are, for me anyway, and presumably for most other people who start talking about “contenders for album of the year” in January; they’re an aide memoire, a diary, a personal note, a link to a past self, written from a present self, for a future self to find whatever utility in that they need, however far down the line they need it.

So, with 2018 me in mind, I’m making a list of the records I’ve listened to most and enjoyed most this year, and written some comments about why and how and where and when etcetera. It’s my list, not yours or anyone else’s. It’s not meant to be a narrative of anything other than the music that I have listened to. It represents and expresses no one but me. If it stimulates conversation and comment, then that’s brilliant. If it doesn’t, that’s also fine. If there’s something missing, I either haven’t heard it, didn’t like it enough, or only just got it and don’t feel I can pass judgement yet.

Here are some records of new music that were released this year. The ones near the top are probably the ones I like the most.

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down
Ostensibly, awkwardly described as a jazz band (not least by me), Melt Yourself Down are actually an incredibly intense, incendiary party band, melding jazz, funk, Nubian influences, punk, and whatever else they fancy into a maelstrom of crazed energy and hooks. I reviewed them for The Quietus and played them for Devon Record Club too, and their album is one of the records I’ve played most often this year, be it in the car, in the kitchen, walking to work, on the big hi fi, or anywhere else.

We went to see Melt Yourself Down live at the Exchange in Bristol, a proper small venue with stages on different floors; they didn’t go onstage until after 11pm, so it felt like properly seeing a band at a club, like when I was a teenager at the Cavern in Exeter. They were awesome; it’s hard to express just how good they were to someone who might be scared off at the outset by the word ‘jazz’, especially if you then qualify it by saying there’s an Ethiopian thing going on, even if both the crowd and the singer spend their time moshing and crowd surfing at gigs. The energy was incredible. Amazingly, the album captures the live sound (if not the spectacle of Kushal Gaya, the maddest/best frontman I’ve seen since Tim Harrington of Les Savy Fav) of Melt Yourself Down, primarily by being crunchy, in-your-face, over-excited and slightly chaotic; it feels like a live performance but thumps like a studio recording too.

I’m sad not to see it placing on more end-of-year lists (or get Mercury nominated), because there seemed to be some potential for crossover, with airplay on 6music and a presence at cultural events like the Manchester International Festival. Melt Yourself Down (whether it’s a band, an album, or a project) rocks harder than any guitar record I’ve heard this year, and makes me want to move more than any dance record.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
Once again, I wrote about this for The Quietus, and made it my debut choice at my second record club, so I’m not sure I have much to say. I’ve not played this anywhere near as often as Holden or Sons of Kemet or Melt Yourself Down, but when I have it’s felt absolutely important and urgent and special. Talk Talk similarities are over-emphasised in some circles; this is something quantifiably different to that, even if the odd musical moment or the ethos as a whole feels redolent. Very much about space, and landscape, and identity, Field of Reeds seemed to scare the people who voted Hidden as NME’s album of the year in 2010 despite being, to my ears, as logical a next step from that album as These New Puritans could have taken.

Sons of Kemet – Burn
One of the things Em always said she loved about hip hop was the sense of community that it tended to engender, especially in sub-scenes; people guesting on each other’s records, producing tracks for each other, lending a hand and helping out with each other’s music. Aside from sharing phone numbers of drug dealers and sleeping with each other, the 90s British indie poppers we were pushed as teens didn’t seem keen on this kind of natural collaboration, unless it consisted of doing a guest vocal on a dance track. Or Primal Scream.

Sons of Kemet are part of the same scene that begat Melt Yourself Down, and Acoustic Ladyland, and Polar Bear, and The Invisible, and Portico Quartet, and probably lots of other bands too. They’re made up of the drummer from Polar Bear (and Acoustic Ladyland), and the drummer from Melt Yourself Down too, plus the saxophone player from Melt Yourself Down (but not the one who also plays in Polar Bear and Acoustic Ladyland [who are now called Silver Birch]) who also plays clarinet, plus a tuba player who’s played with the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. And, on two tracks, the guy who plays guitar in The Invisible. Who are a ‘rock’ band, nominally.

Sons of Kemet play something much more akin to straight jazz than their hard-partying sibling act, but it’s still not quite straight jazz. Not that jazz was ever ‘straight’ anyway, really. The drums play in crazed synchronicity, sometimes duelling, sometimes mimicking each other. The tuba essentially handles bass duties, and occasionally in a style akin to a 303 deployed for acid techno. The saxophone and clarinet, meanwhile, deliver the melodic patterns atop this whirling rhythmic bedrock. Allegedly the melodies are North African and Caribbean in style but I can’t confirm this as I don’t really know; all I can say is that they’re catchy, and compelling, and at times very beautiful and mournful too.

Some people who’ve been in earshot of me playing this, for instance at work, have complained of jazz skronk, but this is nowhere near The Shape of Jazz to Come or Coltrane’s innerspace explorations, or even the rambunctious freedom of The Thing, not really. Other people have found it surprisingly accessible despite trepidation towards jazz generally. Me? I’m a complete dilettante and musicological luddite, but I adore it nonetheless; the patterns and shapes of ‘rock’ music have become increasingly prosaic and predictable to me over the last few years, and the freedom and expression and pure joy of listening that jazz can give me is increasing every day.

Holden – The Inheritors
I wrote about this record here at length back in the summer, but I don’t feel like I’ve fully nailed what it is that I love about it. It’s hard to nail. The Inheritors is a big, strange record; 15 tracks across 75 minutes of played-live synthesizer drones and reverberations and oscillations and melodies, decorated with strange chanted vocals, bodhran, “guitar/screwdriver”, saxophone, field recordings, “wailing”, “quantized 3-LFO Chaotic System”, organ, xylophone, and “gibbering”. It seems improvised and unplanned much of the time, incredible tension built by seemingly directionless momentums slowly discovering direction and then moving inexorably towards some strange conclusion beyond the horizon and out of the listener’s perception. The sound is huge, redolent of enormous landscapes, forests, moors, lakes, highlands, whilst still being descended (or inherited) from dance music, from techno, from kosmische. It feels pagan and unruly, but also deliberate and sophisticated, if that doesn’t sound stupidly contradictory. It’s almost like something from another time or another place. It contains multitudes, whole universes of sound and discrete genres within itself. A whole album of space-synth-jazz like “The Caterpillar’s Intervention”, or 40 minutes of martian dancefloor build like “Renata”, or a full LP of distracted Deutsche night-driving like “Blackpool Late Eighties”, would have made this list on its own. That The Inheritors contaisna ll these things, and more besides, is remarkable. It’s alien, and I don’t understand it. I love that I don’t understand it.

Jon Hopkins – Immunity
First up, this is fucking LOUD, especially the first half of it. It’s not a problem particularly because it’s a very clean, rich, well-mixed sound, so it’s obviously a very deliberate choice, but even so. Start quiet, and then the loud hits you in the face and grabs your attention. Start loud, and things can surely only wane from thereon?

Secondly, it sounds a LOT like stuff that was happening on the Border Community label in the mid-00s, specifically “A Break in the Clouds” by James Holden, and his remix of Nathan Fake’s “The Sky Was Pink”. These are both beautiful, wonderful, hazily melodic dancefloor hits, but Holden got sick of playing them and they became a bit of an albatross to him. A lot of other people very much didn’t get sick of them though, and their sound was appropriated pretty widely and often very closely. Years later, Hopkins isn’t as close as some of those efforts, but what he does here, especially in the first half of the record, is a lot closer to that than it is to Four Tet, for instance, who a lot of people compared Immunity to. “Sun Harmonics”, for instance, from the second half of the album where things wind down somewhat, is lovely and beatific in a way that neither Holden nor Hebden managed to be this year, or any other year, because what they do is quite different.

There’s a sense with Hopkins that he’s a ‘proper’ musician, and I use ‘proper’ in inverted commas because I think I mean it faintly pejoratively; he’s Eno’s protégé, he’s worked with Coldplay, made an acclaimed post-folk album with King Creosote, soundtracked an acclaimed independent film (the excellent Monsters), probably owns an expensive piano, gets commissioned to make music by people with money, and seems consummately professional in his approach to having a career as a musician. He’s not in any way cool or underground or alternative to anything, and this year he seems to be the go-to crossover electronic musician that indie kids and classic rockers are giving props to.

As a result it’s easy to be harsh on Hopkins. Some of the sound palette is certainly Border Community circa 2005, but not all of it. The way he uses pianos and space on the second half of the record is something quite substantially different to Holden et al, and very different indeed to what Holden is doing now, even if the two records do share some similarities. I like the Holden record a lot more than the Hopkins one – it feels more alive, more epic, more dangerous, more weird – but Immunity is still very good, and I enjoy it a lot, and have played it often.

The Necks – Open
I reviewed this very recently for The Quietus, and was rather pleased with what I wrote, so I refer you there for specific details and analysis. This is The Necks, so it is ‘ambient jazz’, and lasts for more than an hour despite being comprised of only one piece. It is very beautiful. Every time they release a new album I convince myself I don’t need another one, and then people start talking about it, and I end up buying it, because what they do is unique, as far as I’m aware.

Julia Holter – Loud City Song
I was introduced to Julia Holter (having been intrigued by mentions of her for a while) by Tom playing the opening track from Ekstasis at DRC at the end of last year: Ekstasis got bought very swiftly thereafter. I saw some people suggest that Loud City Song was more abstract, but to me it seemed more connected, more ‘pop’. There are less layers here, perhaps, more piano, more directness, but it’s still not straightforward. Holter makes dream music, I suppose, soundtracks to those moments when you’re not sure if you’re awake or not. Phrases repeat across songs like themes across a whole night’s worth of dreaming. This record is extremely beautiful, and, thinking about it, quite jazz too. Some amazing, exciting brass. A big trend this year.

The Knife – Shaking the Habitual
I described this as “a big, post-structuralist experiment with cybernetic hooks” back in the early summer, and it is. Defiantly, deliberately avant-garde, with a 19-minute drone at its centre, it has less in common with Silent Shout or “Heartbeats” than it does with the soundtrack they produced for Tomorrow, In A Year, the Darwin musical. The peaks – “A Tooth For An Eye”, “Full Of Fire”, “Networking” – are extraordinary, confusing confrontations that explode techno into gender theory, ideological state apparatuses, Foucault, Judith Butler. It’s a huge beast of a record, and not something I’ve often consumed, but it’s been a hell of a ride when I have.

Matthew E White – Big Inner
Released last year in the States, this is placing on lots of lists in the UK this year, especially those by record shops. Matthew E White is a big white guy with a beard and long hair, from somewhere in America that is far away from water I think, and where they believe very much in God. He very much believes in God, too. I don’t, and often feel uncomfortable in the presence of devotion, especially orthodox devotion, because of this; I think that people who believe in God must be slightly insane, because the notion seems very daft to me, and has since I was a small child, as much as I acknowledge that it must be nice and might be of great use to some people. I don’t feel uncomfortable at all in the presence of the 9-minute paean to Jesus Christ that closes this record, though, because it is a beautiful, immaculately executed soul groove, and it follows a number of other beautiful, immaculately executed soul grooves. This record is phenomenally well arranged and recorded by Mr White, who used to score jazz bands or something. In many ways it’s similar to Nixon by Lambchop, but perhaps without the country element so much.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v
That this exists at all is faintly confusing; that it is good is confounding, but very welcome. It sounds, amazingly, given two decades and then some, like My Bloody Valentine, if they’d made a record 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. It is sensual and indulgent and control-freakish, like My Bloody Valentine always were. I had some thoughts when it was released, and I’ve not had many more since; despite the fact that their enormous absence made them incredibly often talked (written) about, My Bloody Valentine are still better listened to than pontificated upon. Like all music, obviously.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor
I wrote about this only a few weeks ago; I still like it very much, far more than anything else by this band, who more often irritate than inspire me. (Interesting aside; enjoying this record and revisiting Funeral made me listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea again, and it’s still horrific, unlistenable bilge, and I don’t understand how anybody can tolerate let alone love it. Different strokes etcetera.) I accept some of the criticisms – yes it’s long and bloated, yes they’re pompous, no irony doesn’t suit them (nothing ever did, did it? I never, ever believed Win’s sincerity and emoting), yes it’s obviously an Achtung Baby move (but I love Achtung Baby, as much as I love any U2), but none of that matters at all because, quite frankly, I’ve really enjoyed listening to it. All of it. I find it borderline hilarious that some people think their earlier records are amazing and that this is dreadful, or a step down, especially those who loved The Suburbs, which feels much bloatier and less defined and more pompous than this to me. This feels like fun, a lot of the time. I’d try and fathom out how or why this strange dissonance of opinion happens but it amuses me; I’m smiling as I’m typing! Oh, and the one with Eurydice in the title rips off the chords from “November Rain”. Which bugged me for weeks before I got it.

Colin Stetson – New History Warfare Volume 3: To See More Light
If you describe this in any wannabe-objective confluence of adjectives and nouns – polyphonic avant-garde pseudo-jazz saxophone experiments – it sounds horrific and difficult and like something you’d want to avoid. But actually Stetson’s saxodrone voyages are incredibly compelling and moving, melodies and rhythms to the fore as much as the (vast) textures and soundscapes. I’d been intrigued but scared by him for sometime, put off by descriptions. Yes, by any measure of ‘pop’ music this is a weird record, but it’s not in any way unpleasant or indulgent or bad. It’s communicative and expressive and alive. It reminds me a lot of the Holden record, actually.

Darkside – Psychic
Something else I reviewed, this is almost nothing beyond pure sensual, audio indulgence, a record for listening to and luxuriating in. That’s absolutely enough.

Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
I’m still a little nonplussed by this, to be honest, but I think that’s merely because it starts so low key and ends so well; “Buchla” and “Aerial” are so exciting, and “Unicorn” so exquisitely beautiful, that “Gong” and “Parallel Jalebi” seem prosaic and directionless by comparison. Four Tet’s seventh album isn’t my favourite of his – that honour will probably always fall to There Is Love In You now, I suspect – but it shows a degree of craft and skill that other electronic producers don’t quite have; “Unicorn”, possibly the most phenomenologically beautiful track I’ve heard this year, is on some Aphex Twin level of strange, exquisite delicacy. Jon Hopkins, as good as he is, can’t compete.

I struggled a little with getting a handle on what this record’s USP is (I know, I know; I work in marketing), but I think “Kool FM” reveals it; those little fake jungle rushes feel like listening to pirate dance radio in the 90s, the signal fading in and out because the transmitter is up the duff, chunks of the music being snatched away from you but the bits you do hear so exciting, so full of potential and wonder. Beautiful Rewind might be a love letter to a teenage life spent taping those moments onto C90s.

John Grant – Pale Green Ghosts
This seemed destined to end up in these lists from the moment reviews started rolling out almost a year ago. I was unaware of John Grant before, somehow, despite the acclaim for his previous solo album, Queen of Denmark (which we’ve subsequently picked up), but was intrigued and eventually bought this. Em and I both liked it a lot; the arrangements and production are sophisticated and measured without being at all staid, and there’s so much idiosyncrasy to Grant’s songwriting and lyrics, and so much strength and character to his delivery, that he feels both very singular and unusual, and also very classic, at the same time. I get the idea he fits melodies to words rather than the other way around, which makes for some unusual melodic phrasings and sequences. Fantastic live, too.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
Hookworms are the band who, in 2013, if I wanted to be in a band, I would want to be in. They use guitars as a means to an end rather than an end in itself, and that end is transportation, of the psychedelic variety, through riffs and repetition and distortion. I’ve only come to it in the last couple of months or so, and thus don’t really have any more to say beyond the fact that certain sounds still tickle me like they used to when I was 16 or 18, and this is one of them, done well.

San Fermin – San Fermin
Another record I’ve only come to recently, this is probably only some kind of post-Sufjan Stevens thing, chamber pop, or something. Probably insufferable to some. But I really like it; there’s an intense musicality to it, that veers from something Tin Pan Alley-ish to jazz (of the Ellington rather than Coltrane variety), to elegies, to indie pop, via trumpets, drums, synthesizers, string quartets, pianos, samples, woodwind. Male and female voices play off against each other, telling a story, singing the same song from different perspectives, the male voice redolent of a several others (Matt Berninger, Nick Cave, Owen Pallett), while the female voices (there are two) almost sound like St Vincent duetting with herself. Beautifully rendered and lusciously produced, it literally tells you a story; I have no idea what about, but it’s lovely listening.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Eight years later and the guitars which so many people had trouble with on The Campfire Headphase have gone, and the numerology and cult influences so many people over-exaggerated on the first two albums have been seized upon and run with more than ever before. The result of these two ostensibly fan-pleasing moves? Gross indifference; net positivitity. I have thoroughly enjoyed Tomorrow’s Harvest the way I have every other Boards of Canada record; as a piece of immaculately produced, semi-soporific, faintly unsettling electronic music, not as some totem of mystic significance or pinnacle of musical creativity. Like their other albums it sounds like the memory of a TV program you saw as a child and remember feeling slightly scared of, without knowing why. To me, absolutely as good as the ones that came before it.

Vampire Weekend – Modern Vampires of the City
This is here through admiration rather than affection; Vampire Weekend are so obviously a good band, and this is so obviously a good record, that I feel absolutely compelled to include it in this list. They demonstrate consummate skill as musicians, arrangers, producers, lyricists; impeccable taste in influence and execution; an understanding of the sense of band-as-brand, of the necessary narrative of their career and their work thus far, of the need to evolve just so in order to maintain, progress, and not alienate; a complete understanding of their responsibilities as the kind of band that they undoubtedly are. They are still, on “Diane Young” and “Ya Hey” and “Finger Back”, fabulous fun like they were when we first heard them, but now they are mature and touching too, with a sense of the passing of time and the mortality of all things and the sadness of growing up. They are so obviously really, really, really good, and yet I can’t bring myself to give a fuck. This is the grudging respect choice you get at the bottom of every list.