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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.

On criticism

On Tuesday 15 October 2013, on the main ‘new releases’ index page for music on the website Metacritic (a service which aggregates reviews and gives an average score) out of approximately 200 albums listed only 14 scored 60% or less on average. Metacritic assigns colours to scores on a simple traffic light system; 61 or more gets green, which stands for ‘generally favourable’ between 61 and 80, and ‘universal acclaim’ for anything above that; 60 to 41 gets amber, which stands for ‘mixed or average reviews’; 40 or below gets red, which means ‘generally unfavourable’. No album listed on that first page receives an average score in the red. See what I mean by having a look for yourself here.

Now have a look at the same page for movies. Of 26 ‘wide releases now in theatres’, 10 are green, 10 are amber and 6 are red. That’s quite a difference in the general critical landscape from one popular cultural medium to another. Why?

One quick answer might be that films, generally, are worse than music, or that it’s easier to make a bad film than it is a bad record; logistically films need a much larger crew and budget and a longer gestation period, and so there are simply more things that can go wrong over a longer period of time, and result in a poor end product. Good films, great films, stand proud above the rest of the landscape even more. Perhaps that’s the case and all there is too it. But I’m not so sure I believe it. I think there are plenty of average and, yes, even bad records.

I’ve been perplexed and irritated by this dichotomy between film criticism and music criticism for the best part of two decades; as a teenager I was irritated no end by the propensity, when publications marked albums out of five, for the vast majority of releases to receive 3/5. To me this score always read like a shrugged ‘meh’ of indifference, a ‘quite good if you like that type of thing’ avoidance of stating an actual opinion in case you upset someone or get called out for not knowing what you’re talking about, or, worse, for being a snob.

Of course music and films are not analogous, and you can’t directly compare the two with any worth anymore than you can compare a pizza to a curry; there are good and bad examples of each, but if you fancy a pizza a curry isn’t going to scratch that culinary itch and vice versa. (Of course there’s fusion cuisine the way there’s multimedia art, but let’s not go there right now.) Thus it makes sense that the criticism-topography (for want of a better phrase to describe the undulations, or not, of the landscape resulting from the marks doled out by our cultural gatekeepers in newspapers and magazines and online) of each would be different. I’m sure the criticism-topography of video games is equally different again, but as I have almost exactly zero interest in video games I’m going to leave that area well alone for fear of looking like an idiot. I studied film and critical theory at university, and I wrote, and still do write, music criticism. I also love both forms. Those are my credentials. (The failure of popular music theory and criticism to be accepted as an academic discipline like film theory and criticism has long been a bugbear, too, and I see it as part of the overall problem I’m addressing here.)

That sea of green in the criticism-topography for music strikes me as strong evidence that music critics aren’t the gatekeepers they might like to think they are; you can’t be a gatekeeper if you never call out bad art, surely. But why do music critics seldom call out bad art? I’ve read what seemed to me to be hatchet jobs of reviews, semi-excoriating their subjects, which then awarded 3/5 or 6/10 once you got to the bottom, never going for critical equivalent of the jugular. I’ve mentally urged critics on to ‘finish him!’ when reading reviews of records (see? My video games references are 20 years out of date), hoping to see a 3/10 or a 1/5 (or, for the decimally inclined pedants out there, a 2.7/10.0; please read that clause in the scathing tone of voice with which it was intended), wincing to myself when another ‘generally favourable’ score gets given instead, obviating any point that may have been imparted through the subtleties, or not, of the actual words above the rating.

There might be two reasons for this failure to savage bad art by music critics (well, there might be a million reasons, but two seem logical to me); either critics don’t know what bad art is for whatever reason (lack of technical knowledge; lack of confidence; lack of critical faculties; lack of contextual knowledge), or else they’re afraid to say when they see it, for whatever reason. The industries of music and of journalism are both faltering; the later in particular is in dreadful health, and people are desperate to survive. If that means damning a record with faint praise rather than tearing it to shreds, in an attempt to keep a PR or a record company or an editor or a dwindling readership on side, then so be it, perhaps. Except that the dwindling readership is still dwindling, in terms of willingness to pay for criticism (and almost every other type of content), so this tactic, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t working. I wonder if the readership is dwindling precisely because of the criticism-topography; if you’ve been repeatedly mis-sold products by weak and apathetic or inept criticism, then you stop trusting it. If Vauxhall sell you a duff car you find another manufacturer. If Melody Maker sell you a suite of duff records, you find another conduit that you feel you can trust, which may not be another magazine at all, but a website, or a streaming service, or whatever comes next. Undervaluing the criticism, letting anyone do it, leads to a lack of criticism, leads to a further undervaluing of the criticism. A vicious circle.

There’s a lot of talk this week about the value of the critic. Some of it is very good. Here’s Simon Price writing at The Quietus about The Independent dropping its own arts coverage in favour of a Metacritic-like aggregation of other people’s opinions. Here’s Neil Kulkarni being interviewed about boring reviews, lazy criticism, and keeping the hell out of London. Both pieces are well worth reading, and seem, to me, to be pointing in vaguely the same direction.

Price finishes his piece by saying that “a world with uncriticised art gets the art it deserves”, which I agree with whole-heartedly. But I fear that we’ve been leaving music broadly uncriticised for far too long already. That sea of green is testament to our lack of critical spine, or to the fact that a babble of semi-conflicting voices seldom manage to form a coherent consensus. There’s too much of it, and not enough of it is any good. One of my main motivations as a critic was to encourage musicians to make better art, so there would be more stuff that I wanted to listen to myself; a selfish impulse, granted. I was guilty of hatchet jobs and of over-praise too. But I wrote, always, from the point of view of a fan; most of the records I’ve ever written about I’ve paid money for, one way or another, which I felt gave me a worthwhile and different perspective to some (not, at all, that people who get sent records for free can’t have valid opinions; but they’ll always have a different perspective).

What’s criticism for? I’ve never cared about it as an art form, like some do; but is it just to help us determine wheat from chaff? Is it to help us understand what wheat and chaff are, in order to encourage the wheat and discourage the chaff? Is it to help us realise what wheat and chaff are for? I don’t know, and the problem, I suspect, is that neither does anyone else. Least of all the people who might be reading and writing the stuff.

On the long demise of HMV

On Sunday I went in HMV Exeter desperate to spend £20 (that I don’t really have, because it’s January) on season 4 of Breaking Bad on DVD. I vaguely hoped it might be in the fire blue cross sale. It wasn’t, because, they didn’t have any copies of it. I asked at the counter. They didn’t offer to order it in or tell me if they were expecting restock of it. For what are now obvious reasons. (They were pretty obvious then, too.)

I’ve written about my family affection for and recent frustration with HMV before, of course, because this has been a long time coming. If HMV goes, there will literally be nowhere in Exeter to buy a DVD on the high street, apart from Sainsbury’s.

I’m pretty sure I ordered a copy of Ege Bamyasi in my Local HMV, at age 16 or 17, and picked it up from the shop the next week. That’s how things worked then. Not long after that they got a copy of Tago Mago in, possibly inspired by the fact that some enthusiastic kid had ordered in another CAN album, and I bought that, too. I bought the remasters from that bloody rainforest though.

I had a little Twitter spat last September when Grizzly Bear’s album was released and Exeter HMV didn’t have a copy for me to buy until the afternoon, because stock hadn’t come in yet. I’ve been into HMV with a vague wishlist of things I’d like to buy; acclaimed (if sometimes esoteric) new releases, back catalogue stuff. They never had anything. We spend somewhere in the region of £750 a year on new music, on average (at a quick calculation for the last three years or so); my tastes aren’t that weird or leftfield.

I gather HMV moved to central stock ordering sometime in the late 90s, which would have thrown local knowledge and product specialism out of the window as far as staff go, and turn them into little more than cash-register operators and shelf-stackers. Ludicrous. For the last two, three, five years, HMV Exeter piled Kings of Leon albums and Lord of the Rings DVD sets higher than you could reach to pick up the top copy. Doesn’t everyone who could possibly ever want to own Lord of the Rings on DVD already own it? Do people who go into HMV really want JLS badges and One Direction mugs and jelly sweets?

Phil Beeching had HMV’s advertising account for 25 years, and wrote an eye-opening piece last August about how clearly he’d pointed out to them, 11 years ago, what the threats to their business were (online retailers, downloading, and supermarkets, of course), only to be angrily dismissed by the then MD, told that downloading was “a fad”. Three quarters of UK music and movie sales are still physical media, but come on. Consider that HMV decided to try and sell consumer electronics at the same time as the high street retail of consumer electronics collapsed.

We’ve been quietly boycotting Amazon for a few months now, partly because of them remotely deleting customers’ Kindles, partly because of distaste with general e-book DRM and proprietary format issues, partly because their ‘next-day’ service is nothing of the sort, partly because of their massive tax-avoidance, and partly because, these days, they seem like a baddie, and boycotting baddies seems like what responsible people ought to do. I fear that, increasingly, we can justify anything in this country, this culture, by either making or saving money. Tax avoidance? But CDs are a couple of quid cheaper, so who cares. Abusing kids in a hospice? He raises lots of money for us by running marathons, so who cares. Yes, I just compared Amazon to this country’s most evil serial child molester. Like I said, they seem like a baddie.

Before Christmas, on the Monday after ATP weekend, we went to Bristol to see Patrick Wolf, and I nipped into Rise Records and happily, quickly, spent £40 on Fugazi, The National, Liars, and Local Natives records that I’d been vaguely hoping of coming across in our local HMV (or Fopp in Bristol, which I’d checked futilely a few weeks before) for ages, but never seen. The week before Christmas we went to Totnes’ The Drift and spent another £30 on Perfume Genius, Fiona Apple, and Julia Holter albums. HMV Exeter doesn’t have a marker for Fugazi anymore. They didn’t even have the new Fiona Apple album in. Acclaimed, loyal-fanbase, major-label Fiona Apple, appearing high in end-of-year lists all over the shop, and I couldn’t buy her CD in Exeter in December. (To be fair, I could, and did, buy the Deerhoof album.)

We’ve decided that we’re going to make monthly music-buying pilgrimages this year, alternately to Rise in Bristol and The Drift in Totnes; keep a wishlist of what we’re after, and buy a bunch of albums all at once. Chat to the staff. Have a browse. Make an impulse purchase. We might also buy some stuff direct form record label websites, where they’re transactional and I haven’t seen stuff in either Rise or The Drift; we’ll try and support the shops first and foremost. Because they seem like goodies. I’d like to be able to walk into Exeter and buy the records I want, but I can’t.

Because these independent shops have embraced online retailing, have taken to social media, are run by and staffed with people who care about music, who can describe the Perfume Genius album cover to the new girl at the drop of a hat so she can see if she can see if it’s behind the counter because they’ve not put the new stock out yet. They understand that music can (should?) be about community and communication just as much as it can be about anonymous online transactions and listening in commuter silence via headphones. The Drift send a monthly newsletter to email subscribers recommending their favourite records of the past four weeks. Before Christmas they published a list of their favourite 100 records of 2012 online and in printed, fanzine-esque form that you could pick up in the shop. They sell turntables. Their stock is curated like a gallery rather than lumped together like a warehouse or piled high and cheap like a supermarket. They run a listening club (possibly inspired by ours!). They recommend music to you in any number of ways. As NickB asked on ILX, “Can you even listen to sound samples on the HMV website?” No, you can’t. They’d rather sell you some coasters than some records, or so it feels. Has felt for too long.

Michael Hann wrote in The Guardian today about visiting the Oxford Street branch today, and reminisced that he had probably realised the game was up for them a few years ago when Fleetwood Mac were touring and he popped in to pick up Tusk. “The biggest record shop in Britain did not have a copy of a legendary album by one of the world’s biggest bands even as they were on tour in the UK.” I’ve repeated his experience dozens of times in microcosm, the last time being the Fiona Apple failure.

(As an aside, I completely empathise with Michael’s fondness for the big chain in the face of sometimes snooty and elitist indies – it echoes some of my teenage experiences.)

Bob Stanley wrote brilliantly a year ago, and republished today, a piece about the things HMV could have done to stave off what many are talking about as being inevitable. None of these things are outrageous – they’re happening under HMV’s nose, practically next door.

I won’t miss HMV, because I’ve barely bought anything in there for years. But I will miss the act of going in a record shop every Saturday in the hope that something would catch my attention and fire my imagination and make me fall in love. Because that used to happen; didn’t it?

(I know, of course, that the entertainment industry wont let HMV just die, that branches, that the brand, will live on somehow, but allow me this moment of drama and mourning. Even as I write, Canada might be coming to the rescue. Whatever the salvation, though, things will have to change.)

(I ended up buying season 4 of Breaking Bad from eBay. I literally didn’t know where else to get it from.)

(When I say ‘records’, obviously I mean CDs, because they’re just better than vinyl, aren’t they? But there you go. The fact that vinyl sales have been on the up for years, and HMV in Exeter, as well as other branches I gather, failed to stock any vinyl at all, is yet another reason we’re nailing their coffin shut, metaphorically. Let’s hope we bury them with a claw hammer so they can fight their way out.)

12 albums from 2012

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

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

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

Or did they?

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

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

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

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

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

So here goes nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On end-of-year lists…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 http://www.songmeanings.net 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.

On buying physical music

I love Grizzly Bear; they’re one of those bands where I don’t really understand how they do what they do, where their songs will go, how they compose, conduct, and orchestrate their twists and turns, and this fascinates and beguiles me, because what they do is often beautiful and exciting. I also love Nitsuh Abebe; he’s one of those music writers who just seems so damn clever and correct and reasonable and tasteful that I can’t ever disagree with him, and that he makes me jealous because I’m not as good as him.

Nitsuh has written an awesome piece about Grizzly Bear, their new album, their current tour, and, most pointedly, the fact that, despite being feted, acclaimed critical darlings who have sold hundreds of thousands of records and had two Billboard Top 10 albums, they don’t earn a great deal of money. Not all of the band have health insurance (I’ll avoid ranting about the fact that it’s disgusting that healthcare isn’t free to all in a civilised society for another time); they can’t afford to buy houses, let alone the kind of mansions fetishised on shows like MTV’s Cribs. I imagine that individually they earn less than me; I earn a decent but not exceptional wage for the UK, and my wife earns the same. I feel reasonably privileged that we do. It means we can afford a mortgage and a good standard of living. That Grizzly Bear are famous – OK, not Prince Harry famous, but NY Magazine cover famous – and probably have a lower standard of living than I do is something I find… upsetting? Perhaps. Certainly unusual, and concerning.

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted at Grizzly Bear that I would always buy a CD I liked, and that I believe artists should be paid a good living wage for making art that we, as listeners, or fans, or customers, appreciate and use. And love. A CD in the UK costs about £10. You might listen to it 5 times, or 500 times, or 5,000 times. You have it forever. It probably took the musicians involved a year, or two years, to create, one way and another. If my employer, my customers, expected me to do my job for free, I’d be upset.

Grizzly Bear retweeted me, and many, many more people retweeted their retweet. I’ve been on Twitter for years now and have over a thousand followers, and that tweet was the farthest-reaching I’ve ever made. It seemed to resonate.

Nitsuh’s piece inspired this fascinating and important debate between two musicians / writers at Stereogum. It also inspired me to start a thread on ILM asking how much physical music people have bought so far this year. I asked the same thing on Twitter, and asked Laura Snapes (who writes for Pitchfork amongst other places, and has loads of followers) if she’d kindly retweet so I could gather more responses. So far, responses seem to be pretty split between two poles – people have either bought no physical music this year, or they’ve bought an awful lot – several dozen, or even over a hundred CDs or LPs or singles or whatever (in one case, a single which came on a floppy disk). There seems to be little middle ground, few of the mythical “12 albums a year” man (or woman).

I love CDs, and I love supporting artists whose work I love. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again but it seems particularly important to say it quite loudly and frequently right now. I’ve little interest in collecting for the sake of collecting; I love listening to music, and my preferred way of listening to music is on my hi-fi, via a CD. This seems to be the way that most fairly pays the artists whose music I’m listening to.

I’ve bought 27 new releases on CD this year, and 25 ‘back catalogue’ CDs. They’re at the top of this post, in that photo (all except the MBV reissues, for some reason). That’s 52 CDs this year. I even bought the Four Tet album on digital download and on physical CD (having to get it imported from Japan), because I love his music and I wanted it. I’ll occasionally buy individual songs – usually singles and b-sides – on digital download, or a whole EP if I simply can’t get it on CD (Owen Pallett, Antlers). I never think to buy vinyl. It’s not what I grew up making pilgrimages to record shops to buy. I know that part of my affection for CDs is some kind of sentimental, romantic notion, but this is music we’re talking about; if you can’t get sentimental and romantic about it, something is wrong.

Ultimately my concern isn’t that Grizzly Bear can’t afford to buy houses or pay for health insurance. It’s that they, and the likes of Four Tet, and Field Music, and Minotaur Shock, and the Divine Fits guys, and Michael Gira, and Liars, and Flying Lotus, and Junior Boys, and Antlers, and Wild Beasts, and Owen Pallett, and everyone else whose music I love, won’t be able to afford to make ends meet so much that they’ll give up, and stop making music, and go and get day jobs. That would be a tragedy.