Category Archives: Jazz

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.)

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.


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.

Arcade Fire – Reflektor

If you’d told me 16 years ago that one of ‘our’ bands would have a number one album on both sides of the Atlantic, win a Grammy for it (and a BRIT, and a Juno, and a Polaris), and then, for their follow-up, release a double-album referencing disco, dub, Haitian rara music, Black Orpheus, and Kierkegaard, with a Rodin sculpture on the cover, songs about Joan of Arc, lyrics in French, guest vocals from David Bowie, veiled references to Baudrillard, produced by an über-cool dance music legend, with a guerrilla marketing campaign involving arcane-looking symbols being daubed on buildings around the world, and which seems to try and comment on and question god, war, rock ‘n’ roll, imperialism, technology, and the way we live now as human beings, I’d have thought you were describing the greatest album ever made, that ‘we’ had ‘won’, and that the world into which this record was being released must be some kind of utopia.

So why am I only ‘enjoying’ Reflektor rather than worshipping it? And wtf is with all this ‘our’ and ‘we’ and ‘won’ business?

The Suburbs is all about tribalism in music; if you’re 16 and feel a little alienated, then you cling to music as part of your identity, as a definition of who you are and who you aren’t. At 16 I, and my friends, talked about ‘we’ as an amorphous entity comprised of people who preferred Smashing Punpkins and Sonic Youth and The Stone Roses to… whatever it was that other people liked. Which, looking back, was never explicitly understood. That’s adolescence for you. I’m in my 30s now. I don’t feel that tribalism in the same way anymore, but I can recall it.

Here are some petty and meaningless observances about the actual music. There’s an incongruous guest appearances from Jonathan Ross. The yelped titular refrain of “Already Know” sounds more like Win is singing “original” to my ears. Tempo switches as tunes start off fast and then shudder to a crawl seem to be a thing; they happen with the punky switch in “Joan of Arc” and the party switch in “Here Comes The Night Time” (which is amazing, genuinely). On “Normal People” Win asks us if we like rock ‘n’ roll music, and suggests that he doesn’t; I can identify. The second side is spacier, more cosmic. “Awful Sound (Oh Eurydice)” really reminds me of something in its grand, ascending chords, and it’s the kind of thing I suspect I ought to feel embarrassed about being familiar with. Like Marillion. Or Bon Jovi. “Supersymmetry”, despite its Muse-alike title, is a genuinely beatific and beautiful moment that doesn’t feel like anything else in the band’s oeuvre thus far. Even if it does end with 6+ minutes of almost-silent, arguably pointless tape wibble ambience. There is almost no reason beyond aesthetics and ego why this record needs to be a double. But I’m glad it is; it seems easier to understand as a double.

Sonically, aesthetically, I’m finding Reflektor by far Arcade Fire’s most enjoyable record so far; James Murphy has helped their sound acquire just the right amount of scuzz and scuff and energy. Although Neon Bible used dynamics as an excellent tool after the levelled bombast of Funeral, their first three records all felt a touch too… hurdy gurdy. They seemed to make efforts on The Suburbs to modernise a little with the likes of “Sprawl II”, but it still sounded “buttoned up” (as someone, I think on ILM, put it rather brilliantly). Here, they often sound genuinely loose and as if they’re having much more fun. A little like U2 on Achtung Baby, as many other people have pointed out. As far as arty arena rock goes, Coldplay aspire to this, dream of being this good. My first listen to Reflektor wasn’t via a screen, but rather on a big hi-fi in the livingroom. Maybe this is because I care too much, or don’t care, or have some self-restraint, or just prefer big speakers and amplifiers and CD players (I think they’re more fun, the way a cinema is more fun than a 14” portable TV). There are a lot of things going on here. It’s often the curse of now that we jam many disparate elements of colour together in the hope of making a rainbow, and end up instead with brown. I think they’ve just about avoided brown here; unlike The National on Trouble Will Find Me, perhaps.

A lot of people are saying Arcade Fire aren’t ‘fun’ or ‘sexy’, which is strange, as two of them presumably have sex with each other reasonably often, and have some physical proof of this to boot. wtf does ‘sexy’ mean in this context anyway? Are these reviewers saying they can’t imagine themselves having sex to an Arcade Fire record? That seems like a strange metric.

Matthew Perpetua shows that Buzzfeed isn’t just for shitty horse listicles, and pulls apart Arcade Fire rather well. Despite being continually obsessed with ‘the kids’, Win Butler is a fogey and always has been, and his efforts to develop and change and take risks are all very safe. As Perpetua points out, lunky dunderheaded stadium bands have been “going dance” for 30+ years. I think these days I want them to go jazz.

Win Butler’s band are also obsessed with the idea of being a band, of releasing records, of having fans, of being fans, of being friends. Win or Regine have asked, presumably the audience, if we can be friends several times now. Edwin Farnham Butler III is, lest we forget, the expensively educated son of an oilman, a teenage Radiohead fan from California via Texas who didn’t fit in there or in Boston, and who moved to Montreal and had an epiphany amongst the arts and culture kids. When he sang “if the businessmen drink my blood / like the kids at art school said they would”, he might be singing about his dad. His wife, Regine Chassagne, is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who fled Francois ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier ‘s regime in the 60s.

A third obsession, linked to the first: with being on the outside and not invited in, a very adolescent sense of alienation by the cooler kids. And heaven! Win has a degree in religious studies, and he wants to get into heaven, too, even though he doesn’t believe in it. Neither do I. Arcade Fire have been supporting U2, playing arenas, since 2005. They’re as ‘in’ as you can get, surely? They’ve gota Grammy? But something clearly still smarts Win; and, you know, even if he did go to a famously posh school, you can feel like a misfit weirdo anywhere. People have been telling me my whole life that I’m odd or weird; they’ve probably been telling Win that, too. It’s just that my granddad machined steel tools in a factory rather than invented the pedal steel guitar.

“We’re a weird band in a mainstream context,” says Win in an NME interview this week, talking about winning a Grammy. And they are kind of weird, but they’re also not that weird at all. Springsteen, U2, disco, reggae; these are not weird musics to be influenced by. They’re not Gnaw Their Tongues or The Necks or Ornette Coleman or Coil or Whitehouse. Compared to The Fratellis, though, Arcade Fire are fucking crazy intellectual boho motherfuckers. Compared to his classmates at Phillips Exeter Academy, who are probably working in international banking and corporate law, Win Butler is some kind of creative genius freakazoid. Compared to Merzbow? Maybe not so much. Weird like Nirvana or The Cure. Those weirdo freaks who sold millions of records. I feel like Win needs a lot of affirmation. Fair enough. So do lots of people; especially popular rock musicians. Rock would be boring if they didn’t.

“They heard me singing and they told me to stop / ‘Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock’.” Some people do think that liking music, and liking making music, is outrageously pretentious. That creativity is for weirdos.

Irony of ironies, given that I don’t much like it, I probably owned Funeral before you did; I bought it on import in late 2004 before it was properly available over here. Because, back then, I was hot shit with the indie buzz bands. Thanks to all the American kids going crazy for it at Stylus, who gave it a rave in September 2004. Let’s not forget that “Rebellion (Lies)” always had a none-more U2 bassline, genetically engineered to get stadiums excited, even if much of the rest of the aesthetic was in line with Neutral Milk Hotel’s hurdy gurdy shouting.

I used to like anthemic rock a lot. I have little room for it in my life now. I’ve been playing “Motorcycle Emptiness” by Manic Street Preachers to death over the last few weeks, and it’s left me feeling as if today’s stadium shakers are just lacking in the kind of melody that feels like it’s squeezing my heart inside a fist, as if today’s kids are being short-changed by their arty stadium rockers. But it’s probably just that I’m older now.

An alternative Mercury Music Prize Shortlist

Because there really aren’t enough of these already, are there? (BBC. DiS. The Guardian. Dead Albatross?) And not enough of them feature These New Puritans or Steve Mason. (All of them feature These New Puritans or Steve Mason.)

Anyway, this year’s Mercury Music Prize winner is announced tomorrow night, so expect Twitter to be absolutely set alight with indignation that Jake Bugg has won it. The Mercury Prize in 2013 sucks, but let’s not forget that Sting used to get nominated and M People won it one year, so it’s actually always been crap; genuinely awesome records like Let England Shake winning is a fluke. Even so, this year’s list doesn’t even include any jazz, and the jazz on the shortlist was usually my favourite bit.

So here’s my alternative to the Mercury Prize Shortlist. Let’s call it the Uranus Prize. The winner gets invited to my house for dinner.

These New Puritans – Field of Reeds
You’ve probably read about this record in all those other alternative lists. If you want to read more, check out my words here and here, if you must, but really, you’d be better off just buying and then listening to this awesome record, which seems like the kind of record the Mercury Prize is for, and yet which was ignored.

Holden – The Inheritors
I waxed lyrical about this at some length the other month, and have been playing it over and over all year; the Jon Hopkins record is about my favourite on the actual list, but this does everything that does, and then some, on a mystic, elemental, pagan level. It’s landscape-electronica or topography-techno or stargazing-synth-something, and it’s amazing.

Sons of Kemet – Burn
This is jazz; a four-piece lead by Shabaka Hutchings on clarinet or saxophone, plus a tuba player and two drummers (one of whom is Seb Roachford). It might be the most purely enjoyable album I’ve heard all year; the tuba does weird, almost acid-house things playing basslines, as if it wants to be a 303, while the two drummers out-barmy each other a lot of the time. Shabaka allegedly has an “African-Caribbean melodic sensibility” according to people who know better than me; I just know that I like the melodies as much as the rhythms.

Melt Yourself Down – Melt Yourself Down
More jazz! And Shabaka Hutchings plays on this too. I reviewed it a while ago, and its appeal hasn’t faded one iota. Probably the most exciting rock record I’ve heard all year. Only it’s not rock.

My Bloody Valentine – m b v
Switch out David Bowie’s ‘return to form’ for this, which is a much more impressive achievement as far as I’m concerned. Kevin Shields thinks MBV are so independent “it’s practically illegal”, and that they weren’t allowed to be nominated because you couldn’t get this via iTunes. He might be right; it seems insane that Jake Bugg’s retro skiffle blues Oasis tribute gets the nod when this doesn’t. 48 hours after hearing I scribbled this; I’m no more to grips with it then I was then, but I still think it’s awesome.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
You could very easily accuse Boards of Canada of making music that’s little more than emperor’s new clothes, such is the low-key reality of it after the rapid, slathering fanboy hype; I know people who think Geogaddi is one of the greatest creations of modern times, when to me it’s basically just slightly spooky ambient music that reminds you of what it felt like to be a bit scared as a child.

Factory Floor – Factory Floor
Actual dance music, for dancing to, and which might fill a space left feeling neglected if you wanted The Knife to make something a little more direct and interested in getting people moving, but which is still weird enough and creative enough to make you question what’s going on. I’m sure Disclosure and Rudimental are alright, and maybe I’m just a bit old now, but this is what I’m interested in.

Four Tet – Beautiful Rewind
A love-letter to the memory of listening to pirate dance radio stations in the mid-90s, quite possibly; the little faux-jungle rushes that fade in and out of some moments as if the signal strength is dipping due to inclement weather. Like I said, the Jon Hopkins record is good and pretty and enjoyable, but something like “Unicorn” is just next-level in terms of being beautiful, up there with Aphex Twin’s most beatific and beguiling moments. The rest of the record deceives,

Public Service Broadcasting – Inform – Educate – Entertain
This is the kind of strange little oddity of a record that I like to see sneak in under the radar via the Mercury – unlike the choices this year, all of which debuted in the top 10 (many of them at number 1) I believe. Samples of old public service broadcasts welded onto krauty instrumentals full of vintage-feeling riffs and patterns, everything about this record is enjoyable and commendable, even if it’s not anything to make world-changing claims about.

Primal Scream – More Light
Their new record is, amazingly, not terrible. It has a song called “2013” which has wailing 70s Bowie sax and Kevin Shields playing guitar and a Neu! groove and lasts for 10 minutes. There’s another song called “Turn Each Other Inside Out” which is amazing, intricate riffing guitars locking together, and you can barely tell Bobby Gillespie is there. Yes, it’s faintly embarrassing, and there are some so-so tracks in the middle, bug given that they’ve been rubbish for a decade this is an unexpected treat.

Hookworms – Pearl Mystic
Hands-up, I’ve only heard this once, and I don’t own it yet, but it was an awesome psychedelic soup of a record, the kind of thing that deserves some attention, the type of indie rock record that I was afraid Mumford & Sons might have made extinct. Thankfully they haven’t. And I needed more guitars in this list, because the Mercury love guitars.

Dean Blunt – The Redeemer
If you cross James Blake and Dean Blunt you don’t get James Blunt. But you would get a better record than James Blake has made, because Dean Blunt has made a better record. What the hell is it? It’s everything; he’s a post-dubstep noise guy or something, and this is some weird post-folk, piano-embellished, found-sound, pseudo-foley deconstructionism, amazingly musical and utterly baffling. I bought it in HMV. HMV!

Addendum: on the lack of women

It’s been pointed out, quite rightly, that there aren’t really any women on this list. Well, that’s not entirely true, as 1/2 of My Bloody Valentine, 1/3 of Factory Floor, 1/4 of These New Puritans, 1/4 of Melt Yourself Down, 1/n (where n = whoever’s in the studio) of Primal Scream are women, and the Dean Blunt album may or may not feature Inga Copeland (finding information on it isn’t easy).

But even so, the women on this list are supporting characters to male agents. There’s not really any excuse for this, except to say that if it wasn’t only comprised of British artists then The Knife and Julia Holter would be featuring, and if I wasn’t eschewing the actual nominees then Laura Marling might be there too.

I’m sorry about this; it does indeed show an inherent gender bias on my part. Several female artists – Ikonika, Emika, Maya Jane Coles, amongst others – have been recommended to me off the back of it, and I’ll be checking them out.

The result

A total of 22 votes were cast across various platforms, and the results are as follows…

In joint 7th place, with 1 vote each, are Public Service Broadcasting, Factory Floor, Boards of Canada, My Bloody Valentine, and Emika (who got a write-in).

In joint 5th place, with 2 votes each, are Dean Blunt and Sons of Kemet.

In joint 2nd place, with 3 votes each, are Hookworms, Melt Yourself Down, and Holden!

Which means that the winner, with 4 votes (and who would probably have got mine if I’d remembered to count my own opinion), is…

These New Puritans.

They are officially invited around for dinner if they ever pass through Exeter. Graham Sutton can come too.

On Grizzly Bear, on a Sunday morning

I was in on my own last night, which means turning the lights down, eating something I shouldn’t (lamb, or tiramisu, generally) and playing music louder than I would if Emma was home. And sometimes playing stuff I wouldn’t play if she was in – Swans or Talk Talk, perhaps.

Yesterday it meant digging out (literally, our belongings are still largely packed for moving, as they have been since the Olympics) the CD copy of Veckatimest from one of the boxes that our cats think are for them to sit on at the back of the room. I’ve listened to it quite a lot over the last few weeks since I got Shields, but always from an iPod, either via headphones or tiny desktop computer speakers at work or, a couple of times, via the more satisfying Zeppelin iPod dock. But I’ve been gagging to open it up properly on the big hifi again, through the Rega and out of the B&Ws. Because Grizzly Bear strike me as a band who very much care about sound, about depth and impact thereof. Their music has both incredible, microscopic detail and huge, sometimes overwhelming scale: the tiniest, most perfectly-rendered sounds and the grandest, most dramatic dynamic swings both having equal import.

I enjoyed every second of Veckatimest (which my iPad has learnt to spell) last night; I used to think it sagged a little momentum-wise in the middle, but Cheerleader and Ready, Able are now firm favourites as much as Southern Point and Two Weeks and Foreground always were. They’re that kind of band, one where repeat listens are rewarded, where familiarity doesn’t breed boredom but rather revelation.

With only cats, CDs, and a couple of glasses of wine for company, and paying a little more attention to lyrics than I normally do (I even looked at a couple of them in the booklet as I listened), I decided to look Grizzly Bear up on to see what people were saying about them: what, for instance, do people think Southern Point is about? This was, of course, a mistake. “Like most songs, this is probably about a relationship.” “[K]nowing that your mind is the creation of all you see, and that all you see is the creation of your mind.” “[T]he pointlessness of Southern existence.” Etcetera, etcetera.

Prosaically, logically, Southern Point is probably about a place, about the island of Veckatimest which the band retreated to in order to write and record some of this album, a place they felt inspired by so much that they named the album after it (much like Yellow House). It is also about a relationship, but not in the predictable boy-loses-girl (or boy-loses-boy) way: it’s about a relationship between people and geography, between yourself and a place, about inner topographies finding solace in outer topographies. About escape.

But actually, Southern Point is about… Well. It’s about the drums, and the guitars, and the voices, and the melodies, and the spiralling momentum, and the beautiful, pointillist notes that open it with nary a whisper of the sublimating psychedelic climaxes to come. A song doesn’t have to mean something in any literally sense. A song is something. I have no idea what the beatific, angelic choir in Cheerleader means, what words they’re singing, what narrative they’re attempting to convey – I just know that it’s beautiful, that it moves me, that combined with those reverberating guitar chords, with that rhythm, with that voice over the top (“I’m shooting them myself / I should’ve made it matter”?) singing that melody, that it does something. I could analyse it, or try to, but I’d run the risk of dismembering what it is that I love. Maybe in my teens I’d have obsessed over the minutiae of the lyrics, piecing together messages and polemics and poetry. Maybe studying Barthes and post-structuralist theory a dozen years ago at university has ruined me for caring about words. Maybe, sometimes, one just doesn’t feel it necessary to try and find meaning from the words on their own when there seems to be so much purpose and emotion and communication and affect embedded in the whole thing.

I’ve still never heard Horn of Plenty, Grizzly Bear’s ostensible debut album, which is, as I understand it, essentially home-recordings made by Ed Droste. I got into them with Yellow House in 2006, their first album as a band, intrigued by the idea of a band, with instruments and voices, being signed to Warp Records, a label I had deliriously consumed experimental electronic music from for a decade. At first I didn’t quite understand, but slowly the strange, drifting, layered and intricate musical landscapes of Yellow House, redolent of folk, of jazz, of ambient music, began to seem like a strange cousin to what I knew from Warp: like Aphex Twin’s most beatific music, Grizzly Bear’s topographies can feel like they have emerged from dreams, can make you feel like you are caught in that half-state between sleep and waking where you’re not sure if you’re lucid. The way they play, the tempo-shifts, unexpected melodic turns, timbres that feel both ancient and brand new at the same time, reminds me more of jazz or electronic music than it does of indie rock. It doesn’t feel like the “talent gap” between what you strive for and what you can achieve is here. Sometimes the presence of that gap can make for thrilling accidental discoveries, but when a band seems as if they play without it, as if they think without it, that can make for even more exciting turns away from the obvious.

I’ve been thinking about trying to capture in words what it is about Grizzly Bear for some time now, since long before Shields came out. I’m aware that I’m guilty of talking about them a lot, of becoming “that guy who likes Grizzly Bear” and won’t shut up about it, but that there’s little substance to what I might say. I’ve still not managed to see them live (were we not teetering on the edge of house/life turning points, after six months of uncertainty and frustration and expense, I’d have rushed across the UK to see them this week, but plans and travel have been discarded for some time now); I’ve never heard the debut album; I can’t recall what half the songs are called while I’m listening to them, without the sleeve to hand. I just talk a lot. Write a lot.

Some thoughts on St. Vincent and women in music

For some reason I didn’t really like female vocalists when I was younger; I’m not entirely sure why, but I suspect it was a pre-adolescent and adolescent identity thing – a lot of the music you like when you’re young is aspirational, is by people you want to be like in some way, or reflects (or, perhaps more likely, influences) character traits you (want to) see in yourself. And boys are taught not to want to be women, not to identify with them. It wasn’t until I was 20 or 21 and started getting into PJ Harvey that I started to really get into women as musical artists, beyond a dabbling with Björk and a love of 60s women-as-vehicle-for-song (Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick). 90s women, the ones making records when I was really getting into music, were strange, frightening, sexual things that I didn’t understand – Björk filtered through because she was essentially a space-alien when positioned next to anyone else, so far beyond ‘other’ that she became an innovation rather than a woman, and thus I could deal with her.

The last twelve years have seen me try to redress this balance, but it’s an almost impossible thing to do. If I were to go along our music shelves and figure out the proportion of records by female artists across the whole I’m pretty sure it would be less than 10%. Sadly, I suspect that 10% is probably quite a high proportion against the average.

On Friday night we drove to Bristol to see Annie Clark, AKA St. Vincent. We got into her a couple of years ago with Actor, and eagerly awaited her new record this year. Strange Mercy hasn’t fully kicked in with me yet, but Actor was a slow burner, which wormed its way to being probably my most-played and most-enjoyed record of 2009 over a period of several months. In my experience these are the best records, the ones I enjoy the most, the ones I find the deepest layers of satisfaction in.

At one point last night I heard a couple of guys, who I think were in their late 40s, talking about Annie Clark’s guitar playing. One of them said (and this is as close to verbatim as I can recall) “I’m not sure how much is her, and how much is coming from that guy on the synth.” Now I’m not sure exactly of the context of their conversation, but I didn’t take this as a point about the varied tone and texture emanating from the fretboard being so skillful and unreal as to be unlike a guitar (“no synthesizers were used in the making of this record” as Kitchens Of Distinction used to say); I took it as meaning “I’m not sure girl could play guitar that well; it must be that guy doing it in secret for her”. A song and a half later, Anne let rip a vicious guitar solo that could only be emanating from her fingers, which pleased me no end.

Caroline Sullivan reviewed St. Vincent’s London gig, a couple of days before we saw her in Bristol, for The Guardian, and recalled a similar comment – “She plays like a man!” – only this time from a woman. I bumped into an old friend outside the gig in Bristol, and spent the evening catching up with him between songs. At one point he compared her to Kate Bush; I couldn’t agree, because I don’t hear her as sounding anything like Kate Bush. But what else have we got to compare her with? At points the sounds she produced from her guitar, the dreamlike wash of noise interspersed with savage, metallic slashes, reminded me a little of Nick McCabe. But only a little.

Emma and I talked about her virtuosity in the car on the way back; neither of us could think of another woman with a similar approach to the guitar who wasn’t also just a nameless member of an all-female band. I don’t know the names of the musicians in Warpaint or Electrelane (I don’t know the names of Wild Beasts or These New Puritans off the top of my head either though, to be fair – which probably says something about my 30-something capacity for being interested in the people in bands, which is greatly reduced from when I was 15 or 20). Even PJ Harvey, awesome axe-wielder that she is (or perhaps was, as she prefers an autoharp these days), isn’t quite a virtuoso – she’d never solo like St. Vincent, and has commented on not practicing guitar as a method of keeping fresh as a songwriter. Marnie Stern comes to mind, and googling turns up a few “best female guitarist lists”, but often the results concern “hotness” rather than skill. This awesome list approaches the idea seriously though – but I barely know any of the names on it, to my shame. (Although, as I just mentioned, that’s not necessarily a gender bias. I’m also, on the whole, not that into guitarists / technical musicians…)

Anyway. Onstage Annie Clark was striking. I didn’t want to write about her appearance, because that shouldn’t matter, but her eyes were astonishing (Emma seemed impressed by her hair, too). I’ve seen people refer to her as beautiful before but never been struck by it in pictures. In the same room, albeit from some distance away, I could see what they meant. More entrancing than her eyes, though, were her fingers; from where we were we could only really see her left hand, but they moved so quickly and precisely, dancing delicately around the fretboard. When I caught a glimpse of her right hand, her fingers seemed to barely touch the strings enough to produce any noise at all; perhaps this was the problem the guy behind me had?

Strange Mercy has a disorienting drama, a never-ending tension in some songs that builds and builds and frustrates by never quite climaxing, at least not in the way you might expect. It’s almost like jazz – you expect a refrain to develop or repeat in a certain way, and it doesn’t; you expect an introduction to end, but it continues, and reveals itself to be an entire verse (such as a verse is) rather than a mere prologue; you’re left waiting for the pattern to alter, for musical satiation, and you’re left without it, like unending, climaxless foreplay. This might be enough to drive some mad. Live the new songs fitted pretty seamlessly with the handful of older ones – a few from Actor, very little from Marry Me (a splendid Your Lips Are Red) – even though on record they are perhaps a little more disjointed, more awkward, more complex. She’s a very special musician. Some seemed to think that Strange Mercy would be her breakthrough record; I don’t think she’ll ever “break through” in that mainstream-crossover audience way. She’s too complicated, too dreamlike, too dangerous, perhaps. I feel like the artifice of her music – the unusual, varied guitar tones, synth washes, unreal-sounding drums – are manifestations of her attempting to create the music she hears inside her own head. I suspect the inside of her head is an interesting place. Twice onstage she swore in songs, adding the word “fucking” to a lyric where it doesn’t appear on record, and the affect was a little frightening, a real example of a curse word holding emotional power.

I wanted to write something about the inherent gender bias in music; it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately following various Twitter conversations with Masonic Boom, who has a thorough, sophisticated, and enviable grasp of the multi-layered psychological politics at play; She’s pointed out my culpability with regards to several pretty outrageously sexist things I’ve said / written, which simply don’t seem sexist (to men) on first contact because the linguistics, (pseudo-platonic) mythologies, assumptions, and imagery that makes up the discourse around music is so pre-loaded. Not a single woman came up in ILM’s Producers Recording Engineers, and Studio Wizards poll, for instance.

Listening to I Want To Be The President by Electrelane. It’s awesome. You should hear it.

The records that shaped my life…

Many years back I’d vaguely intended on doing a series of podcasts for Stylus about ‘epiphany records’, which is almost, but not quite, what this ILM thread is about. An epiphany record would always be an album which shapes your life, but not all albums which shape your life would be epiphany records; some of them creep up on you and act as trends in the development of your taste you’re your relationship with music, rather than turning points that spin your preconceptions and ears round on themselves and leave you facing a new direction.

But anyway…

Age 5(?): Dionne Warwick – Do You Know The Way To San Jose?
I remember hearing this on some oldies local radio program, on Saturday mornings, on the way to the supermarket. The lyric about “all the stars / who never were / are parking cars and pumping gas” meant nothing to me at that age, but stuck in my mind. I still love Bacharach’s way with a melody.

Age 10-12: Guns ‘n’ Roses – Appetite for Destruction; Marillion – Misplaced Childhood
Cassette tapes (originals, not dubs), inherited from my older brothers, and listened to over and over and over again, the way ten year olds listen. I still own a copy of the former, but not the latter. I see it as about my only guilty pleasure. I’d probably quite enjoy it if I listened to it again.

Age 14: The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour
I got my first CD player at age 14, and stole a copy of this, and Sgt Pepper, from my dad. They were an odd pair of Beatles albums for him to own – why not the red and blue compilations? – amongst the dinner jazz and Neil Diamond and Frank Sinatra; he’s not very psychedelic. The brass, the codas, the instrumental, the basslines – this album left an indelible mark on the sonic signifiers, the aural aesthetics, that I’d respond to for the rest of my life thus far.

Age 15-16: The Stone Roses; Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
The Stone Roses I first heard at age 10, seeping through bedroom walls, and ignored. Later, I’d hear their songs again, recognise their contours, fall in love, Carole-Anne the CD for what felt like every waking hour. (That’s a reference for Kate, if she reads this – “Carole-Anne-ing” is now a verb in my mind, and I don’t even know the source-song – ‘Carole-Anne-ing, verb. to play a song or album over and over again’.) Marvin Gaye I bought because Ian Brown said it was the greatest album ever. I don’t know if I agreed, but it certainly affected me.

Age 17: Orbital – In Sides
Other albums impacted upon me at this age – Paul’s Boutique, Post, Public Enemy, many others – as I was ravenous for sounds and sensations I’d not felt before, but this really stopped me in my tracks. I still remember, and recount, that first listen as an epiphany, as the epiphany, of my musical fandom.

Age 18: Embrace – Fireworks EP; Spiritualized – Ladies & Gentlemen; Jeff Buckley – Grace; Aphex Twin – Richard D James Album
Records that would change my listening, that would impact me on first listen, leave me open mouthed, that would challenge and confound me, that would hook me into communities and activities that would shape my life as well as my tastes, continued to come thick and fast. These are probably the key four.

Age 20-21: Primal Scream – XTRMNTR; Miles Davis – In A Silent Way
XTRMNTR felt like an important record, and epochal record, a record that would change things. I think it actually did – I can see its echoes ripple through an awful lot of 00s music, from The DFA to The Klaxons. Miles Davis, and the rest of jazz beyond him, was something I’d tasted, decided to explore, when I was 19, but which really started to click with me when I found In A Silent Way.

Age 23; Talk Talk – Spirit of Eden
I don’t remember quite how I got here, or when I first heard it. I’m pretty sure that ILM and AllMusic led the way, my ravenous research and consumption of music aided and abetted by an undemanding job which gave me free access to the internet and a huge collection of jazz vinyl to explore. This seemed like the logical culmination of that. I barely ever listen to it these days.

Age 24: Manitoba – Up In Flames
Another epiphany – this seemed, on first listen, to have been designed to fit my tastes. I ranted a review about it, and followed Dan Snaith closely from hereon in. He’s got better since, and my affection and admiration for his music has grown, but the moment I bust this out of the cellophane and stuck it in the CD player is a strong memory.

Age 25: The Necks – Drive By
We played a lot of records in the AV department in the library – Fugazi, Underworld, O Rang, John Coltrane, Captain Beefheart, Bob Dylan, De La Soul, Brian Eno, T Power, Charles Mingus, field records of religious Shaker music, and much, much more – but this was the record that was commented on more than any other, and always positively. I own about 8 of their albums now; they’re all the same, all different, but this remains the one I’ve listened to the most. So many times.

Age 28: Spoon – Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga; LCD Soundsystem – Sound of Silver
I’m not sure that any records since then have “shaped my life”; there have been so many, that the influence of any individual record seems miniscule. These two each feel important, though…

What I’ve not really dealt with here is singles – bar Dionne Warwick – even though they make up many of the epiphanies and trends of my listening. Maybe that’s for another post.