Tag Archives: music

Albums bought in 2014

IMG_69172014 was an eventful year – deaths, births, car accidents, and more – and this blog has suffered, because frankly it hasn’t seemed that important to be writing when I could have been riding a bike or looking after a cat (or a baby). But a few people, including my wife, have asked me if I’d be doing an albums-of-the-year post, so I thought I’d oblige. This is it.

Every year I seem to wring my hands about what these lists mean and whether to bother with one, and every year I seem to change the format. Who am I to change the not-habit of a lifetime? Folliwng this year’s hand-wringing, it strikes me that the fairest way to write about the music of 2014 is to detail, even if only barely, every single record released in 2014 that we bought. So that’s what this is.

They’re presented in vague order of preference, just so you know. I may cluster some together thematically if I don’t have masses to say about them individually.

Owen Pallett – In Conflict
If I have to ordain a singular ‘favourite’ then this is it; it seems a little weird to pick an album wherein the singer exclaims “I’ll never have any children” as my favourite from the year when Emma and I had a baby together, but nonetheless I liked this one better than any others, despite, or possibly in part because of, that particular lyric. Perhaps it was a case of weird contradictory emotions. A strange sense of denial of the reality approaching us as I sang along with that phrase, and just about every other on the album too. Somehow, despite our different circumstances, I identified with, and also twisted to my own emotional and aesthetic ends, Owen’s music.

And Owen is simply fantastically good at music; the tunes and arrangements here are his most splendid, rewarding, and direct yet – the melodies forthright and nagging at the same time, the instrumentation always surprising and clever and exciting too. I’m still noticing new things in it, and will probably continue to do so for some time. I wish I was clever enough and musical enough (I don’t play a note on any instrument, nor ever have) to ‘get’ all the things that Owen’s doing; but you don’t need to ‘get’ them intellectually to enjoy them aesthetically / phenomenologically, and feel them emotionally.

I played this at both record clubs, but only wrote about it for one.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
I reviewed this for The Quietus, and, bar Embrace and Owen Pallett, this was the record I probably played most in 2014. I wish more non jazz fans would give them a chance. I gather they have another, apparently very different, record, due in March, which I’m looking forward to immensely.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense
This was imbued with a significant amount of poignancy simply because one of Tom’s songs is about having a daughter and another is about a pet dying, both of which happened to us this year. Beyond that, Present Tense was business as usual for Wild Beasts, which is to say that it’s marvellous, and continued on the evolution / maturation path they’ve been going down. Guitars wane in favour of synths, the drummer continues to play like a beautiful drum machine, the two voices are still amazing, and there’s a musical and emotional sophistication that most other artists simply don’t get near. At first I thought this was just another really good Wild Beasts record, but over the year it revealed itself as actually being another really good Wild Beasts record, if you get what I mean. They’re fabulous.

I played this at one of our record clubs, shortly after it came out, if you want to read more.

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
I played this at record club too, and stand by what I said back then; I may have played it less as the year wore on, but I suspect that was probably just down to the increasing amount of records from the year that I’d procured. This was, and remains, intensely musical and enjoyable, a jazz-inflected, live-feeling synth-pop record, spontaneous and fun.

Caribou – Our Love
Another good Caribou record, this one very much post-Daphni, and with the jazz even more shorn than on Swim. It took me a little longer to really ‘get’ than some of his others, but “Silver” was an absolute highlight across the year from the moment I first heard it. I’d write more, but I’ve already written so much about Snaith’s music over the years that it feels redundant to do so; I can’t imagine a situation wherein he’d release a record I didn’t like. This was yet another record in 2014 which seemed to partially be about parenthood, at least on some tracks. Maybe a lot of records I’ve enjoyed over recent years have, and I’ve only just started to notice it this year. Or maybe I’m just projecting; records mean what they think you mean.

Tanya Tagaq – Animism
Another I played at record club – both record clubs, actually – and a fantastic, powerful, singular album that came at me completely unexpectedly.

Sharon Van Etten – Are We Here?
Possibly my favourite album of ‘songs’ this year, which isn’t to say that the music/arrangements aren’t good – they are, albeit not spectacular – but that this is all about the melodies and the words. Words aren’t something I normally pay particular specific attention to, but impressions eventually emerge if you listen to something often enough, and Are We Here? leaves a troubled impression, hinting at violence and severe emotional turmoil (just take in the brutal repetition of “Your Love Is Killing Me”). We found ourselves playing this an awful lot almost subconsciously, reaching for it by default, which is generally the sign of a grower and a laster. Van Etten’s previous records hadn’t really chimed with either of us massively, but this did, and strongly.

Embrace – Embrace
I wish they’d released this record a decade or more ago, when I had time and when they might have got some attention for it. The thing I listened to most this year, if only, at first, to clarify in my own mind that it existed. Their best album by some distance, it did all the things I think I wanted them to do when I was 18. Except now I am 35, and it’s too late; I use music differently to when I was 18 or 21 or even 25, and want different things.

Longer thoughts here, if you want them, and of course back in the archive of this blog.

St Vincent – St Vincent
A fabulously-constructed record, boundlessly interesting, technically brilliant (as far as a non-musician like me can tell, anyway), but one with which I’ve not really emotionally connected. I agree with everything Rob wrote here, but I still feel reservations.

Warpaint – Warpaint
Surprised and a little sad to see this fall away from end-of-year lists, as I thought it was great. Seeing them live revealed that these aren’t just wispy jams; they’re tightly-composed, albeit ethereal, songs. We listened to this a lot in the first third of the year, soaking in the beatific, laconic grooves.

Nisennenmondai – N
Jon played this to us at record club, and I was delighted, because I’d seen Nisennenmondai live at ATP in 2011 and they were fabulous. I procured a copy directly, and listened to it lots; it sat in that spot occupied by the likes of The Necks, and perhaps by the Dawn Of Midi record from last year – metronomic and transcendent.

Perfume Genius – Too Bright
Delighted to hear Hadreas broaden his sonic palette, and spectacularly so; I’d enjoyed his previous albums well enough, but I adored this. It was very weird hearing a song as virulent and spiteful (with good reason, I must add) as “Queen” used as occasional incidental music on TV idents for C4 / E4. In some ways this works as a more youthful, angry counterpart to the Owen Pallett record. The hesitant delicacy of his previous albums was torn asunder by the tumult of this. And it sounds phenomenal.

Swans – To Be Kind
I find it interesting how Swans have become, over the last four years or so, part of the critical establishment, their albums effortlessly garnering glowing reviews and gracing end-of-year lists. Is this a sign that Gira has mellowed and become more accessible, or that critical tastes have broadened in the post-internet era, or that critical circles have become more niche and echo-chamber-y? Or all of the above, and some other stu8ff, too?

To Be Kind – as well as having babies on the cover, adding to the overall theme of 2014 – felt groovier, swampier, bluesier, and less monolithic to me than The Seer, despite being another enormous, semi-impenetrable slab of a record. I didn’t play it a great deal – because when do you find time to fully engage with a 2-hour exercise in misanthropic voodoo heaviosity? – but when I did, oh boy. John Congleton’s production probably helped the grooviness and pseudo-accessibility.

D’Angelo – Black Messiah
An obviously recent acquitrement, it felt surreal to walk into a record shop and buy a CD copy of this only hours (albeit 72 or so) after it was announced. The record itself feels, on early impression, like a worthy and logical follow-up to Voodoo, in much the same way as m b v felt like it could have come 22 months, rather than 22 years, after Loveless. More concise, definitely, but no less enthrallingly groovy, if groovy doesn’t feel like a diminishing word to use for something like this.

Spoon – They Want My Soul
Just another Spoon record, which is fine, because Spoon are great, but this time that felt like it wasn’t enough, somehow. Maybe I didn’t give it enough time, but that’s never been a problem with Spoon before.

Edit. Maybe it’s the Dave Fridmann production; I’ve not liked his work since I went on my anti-compression crusade a decade ago (OTT distortion does my head in like OTT reverb), and Jim Eno’s production has always been one of the things I’ve liked best about Spoon (after, y’know, the songs and the arrangements). While Fridmann doesn’t produce the whole album, his tracks are frontloaded, which establishes the feel. That said, “Inside Out” is an absolute keeper.

Aphex Twin – Syro
Immaculately constructed – this thing sounds absolutely astonishing in terms of sound design, mixing, and clarity – but was it actually great? “Minipops” delighted me on first hearing, and the whole thing is enjoyable, but nothing shocks like his most outrageous previous best (“Windowlicker”), or casts a spell like “Avril 14”, or just transcends astonishingly like “Flim”.

The War On Drugs – Lost In The Dream
Imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that this was the best album of 2014. Frightening, isn’t it? Now imagine what kind of person you’d have to be to think that U2 made the best album of 2014. This is nowhere near as bad now, is it? It’s a good record, and we enjoyed it quite a lot, but it is just Dire Straits with elongated pseudo-kraut outros. (Those outros are my favourite bits, btw.)

GoGo Penguin – v2.0; Neil Cowley Trio – Touch and Flee
Putting these two together as they’re both piano-bass-drums trios and ostensibly ‘jazz’; except that GoGo Penguin aren’t really jazz at all, they’re much more informed by electronica and stuff like Satie than they are Thelonious Monk or Dave Brubeck or Oscar Peterson. Which lead to some people comparing GoGo unfavourably with Cowley, who is lighter, jazzier, and more melodic, perhaps. But their intentions, as far as I can ascertain, are different, and so are their outcomes, even if they’re so close, to the outsider, as to be practically the same. Which is to say that I enjoyed them both, a lot, for what they are, not what the other is.

Shabazz Palaces – Lese Majesty; Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
Two token ventures towards hip hop, both alternative, both acclaimed; Shabazz Palaces woozing into almost ambient territory, while Run The Jewels hammered something far more physical. I’ve not listened to either enough to soak in the words (except that there’s a level of misogyny I’m not entirely comfortable with, even if it’s countered, on RTJ), but I probably enjoyed the physicality of RTJ more.

Objekt – Flatland
This was the last album I bought in 2014, a few days before Christmas, and as such I’ve not listened to it enough to really for an opinion of it. I’ve enjoyed the few spins it’s had, though, but not been struck by it sounding as alien or futuristic in its sound palette as some had suggested (ie. that where the Aphex Twin album sounded like an old Aphex Twin record, this sounded like something new).

School of Language – Old Fears
A lovely record that deserved far more attention, including from me; essentially a Field Music album (and sounding very much like Plumb at points) but with all the songs coming from just one Brewis brother (David) and musically inspired by Prince. Short and sweet, melodic, and beautifully produced.

Edit. Listening to this again and it really is beautifully done on every level; the tunes, arrangements, and mixing are all wonderful, warm, and full of depth. If I have any misgivings they might be about the lyrics; Old Fears is about all the misgivings, paranoias, and insecurities that get established at school and haunt you through adulthood, which could feel a bit #firstworldproblems coming from a white man in a developed country, but they’re handled with such grace and humility that Brewis gets away with it.

Scott Walker and Sunn o))) – Soused
Scott Walker and Sunn o))) are such a natural and obvious fit that I’m kind of baffled that this hadn’t already happened – we essentially envisioned it at Devon Record Club years ago when we played them back-to-back at a Halloween-themed evening. The reality is so predictable as to almost be redundant; I listened to this twice, thought “yeah, that does exactly as I expected”, and didn’t really return.

Liars – Mess
One fabulous tune – “Mess On A Mission” – and a lot of pretty good other stuff, but this wasn’t quite as good as I’d hoped; and the pre-release marketing, especially their Instagram feed, got my hopes up. It continued aesthetically from WIXIW, which might have been a bad sign from the off; no two of their records have ever followed each other quite so obviously before. I played a chunk to our friend Debbie over the summer, and she was immediately propelled back to a world of early 80s Mute Records.

Hookworms – The Hum
A recent release, almost coinciding with the birth of our daughter, so frankly it’s not had enough attention.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
I prefer his songy-songs to his tracky-tracks, which can be a bit Fisher Price (‘my first techno’). “Heaven, How Long” is remarkable, one of my favourite songs of the year, and seeing him perform it live was a highlight, especially when I realised all the chaotic krauty synth wibbling during the extended climax was actually bass guitar. I’ll be very interested to see what he does next.

Karen O – Crush Songs; Jenny Lewis – The Voyager
These are both records that Em bought, and I’ve not paid massive attention to, to be honest. I’ve found diminishing returns from Jenny Lewis since Rabbit Fur Coat, which I thought was fabulous; Em informs me that the songs on this are probably her strongest since then.

Tune-Yards – Nicki Nack; The Notwist – Close To The Glass; The Antlers – Familiars
Really liked previous records by all of these, but didn’t bond with any of these current releases for whatever reason. There’s nothing wrong with any of them – The Notwist’s in particular I remember really enjoying for a week or two when it was first released (particularly the glorious pop of “Kong” and the MBV-aping “7 Hour Drive”) – they just didn’t really click. I’m pondering buying less records in 2015, in order to give them each more time.

Vermont – Vermont
Was desperate for something minimal and electronic, and saw mention of this somewhere, so I picked it up. Can’t remember a thing about it.

FKA Twigs – LP1; How To Dress Well – “What Is This Heart?”
I played FKA Twigs at record club, and enjoyed it for a few weeks but it didn’t stick with me for whatever reason.

Get The Blessing – Lope and Antilope
More jazz, this time rockier and with brass. This Bristol-based band have released several albums now, and I’ve enjoyed all of them that I’ve heard; they’ll never change the world, but that’s fine. Sometimes you just want music to be music.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
This is another record that just didn’t really click much, for whatever reason.

Goat – Commune
I’m not sure that Goat are doing anything that Voice Of The Seven Thunders didn’t do a few years ago, except wear masks and lie about who they are. It’s enjoyable, but they’re nowhere near as weird and earth shattering as hype for the first album lead me to hope they’d be. It’s just psyche grooves.

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
I just don’t feel like I need another Elbow record. The tension’s gone, perhaps.

Records of 2014

I don’t normally like writing summaries of what’s been out so far this year until at least the summer, but January and February have been embarrassingly good, and I’m not really reviewing records for anywhere at the moment (increasingly I can’t see the point in writing reviews, for various reasons), but I still feel like there are various things I want to say about some of the things I’ve heard. So I will.

(And there are still records I fully expect to be great due in the next couple of weeks; Liars, Hauschka.)

Elbow – The Take Off and Landing of Everything
Thinking of re-doing my iTunes genre tags, because genre tags are so vague as to be essentially useless and irrelevant. I’d put Elbow down as ‘Real ale prog’ these days. Take that as a pejorative, I think. The opening song here consists of seven minutes of acoustic guitar and mumbling. I don’t remember a beat at all. I don’t remember much, actually. I’m not sure why I bought it; some sense of loyalty to the band they were for their first couple of records, some hope that one day they’ll be really awesome again.

Because Elbow have ascended to a kind of tasteful stateliness over their last three albums, a middle-aged comfort and mild melancholy that’s seemingly devoid of edge and excitement. This is fine, if you like. Emotional northern men. We should have seen it coming from the second side of Leaders of the Free World. The creepy, creeping, occasionally cacophonous disquietude of the first two albums has almost entirely dissolved. I’m kind of happy for them that this is the case (that they’re not angry / distressed / etc anymore), but it’s taken a great deal of the tension and release out of their music, and that tension and release was a key part of why I loved them.

All that said, “Fly Boy Blue / Lunette” is pretty wonderful (that brass! that bass!) and maybe other bits of this record will reveal themselves unto me over time. I thought the same about the last one, though, and it didn’t.

Get the Blessing – Lope / Antilope
Bristol jazz; I have the debut album by these guys (when they were called The Blessing, before legal nonsense forced a prefix) and enjoyed it a lot, so I bought this, which is about their fourth. I’ve not been disappointed; it’s really good. I don’t know what to write about jazz; it’s kind of a default listening choice for when I just want to listen to something musical and semi-exciting and intricate and groovy (which is a lot of the time) but don’t want (mostly) to get really emotionally involved. This is rocky – it has a back beat (albeit and intricate one) most of the time – and it shouldn’t scare anyone off. There’s no real honking. It’s not free. It’s just tunes. Get over it. Get up with it.

The Notwist – Close to the Glass
Back to electronics; in fact, way deeper into electronics than before, in some ways. After the rather enervated last album (which was still beautiful, albeit in a very subdued way), there are some proper pop moments here (“Kong”), and far more energy, but still shot through with a sense of melancholy that comes from the linguistic distance of the lyrics and their delivery (ie because the singer’s German). They cover a lot of ground here – as well as being more deeply electronic, some tracks are more overtly rock, too; “Seven Hour Drive” is a pure My Bloody Valentine tribute, layers of (digital?) distortion and scree with melody painted through them. I wasn’t expecting much, six years on, but this has been a really, really pleasant surprise, especially given that it came out the same day as Neneh, Wild Beasts, and St. Vincent, and I expected this to be the runt of the litter.

Wild Beasts – Present Tense
There’s been lots of talk about this being brave and a change and a statement from various people – including the band themselves – and suggestion that they didn’t just want to produce Smother all over again (not that there’d be much wrong with that, as Smother is excellent, and moreish, and a grower). Which is fair enough; change is a good thing. Except that, to my ears, off half-a-dozen plays or more, this does, in many ways, just sound like… if not a repeat, than a logical progression and minor evolution, rather than a radical break or a revolution, from Smother. Which is also fine. Smother with synths, if you will. The sauciness is slightly more domesticated, perhaps.

There is not enough whooping, not enough drama, not enough noise, I’m tempted to think at times. It’s still beautiful and compelling, and they’re still wonderful, I’d just prefer it if, after the deeper one sings “the destroyer of worlds” at the centre of the album, the synths actually did rend and destroy, with a dramatic dynamic leap and edges of chaos, rather than just oscillate beautifully once again, albeit slightly ominously. I have absolute confidence that this will unfurl layer upon layer of sound and tune and interpretation over the next 12 months and beyond; I’d just prefer it if they’d taken some of the roiling chaos of latter day Talk Talk as well as the subtlety. (I’ve said it before and will again; everyone leaves out the chaos.)

Neneh Cherry – Blank Project
Some context regarding creation: Neneh wrote the songs for this, and then sent the vocals – with nothing else at all – to Rocketnumbernine, who wrote the music around it. Kieron Hebden has been eager to explain via Twitter that he pretty much just pressed ‘record’, rather than ‘producing’ it in the way that, say, Timbaland might produce a Justin Timberlake record, despite people’s assumptions. Anyway, this is fabulous; vocals, drums, and synthesizers, with a really light, improvisational feel. Rocketnumbernine are ostensibly a jazz duo, in some ways, and given Hebden and Cherry’s involvement this spontaneity makes perfect sense. Wonderfully open sound, some great hooks, and just amazingly rewarding to listen to; the lyrics are darker than you might think, with several songs dealing quite bluntly with depression, and whilst Neneh sometimes relies on borderline cliché phrases, that fits the aesthetic perfectly. Brilliant.

Warpaint – Warpaint
I was baffled by a handful of reviews of this (part of the reason I can’t see much point in writing reviews – people do just hear things differently) which complained at a lack of hooks and tunes, talked about it meandering and grooving aimlessly in pejorative terms. Who the hell comes to Warpaint looking for a soaring chorus and a churning middle eight? Go to the Embrace album for that. Warpaint’s entire raison d’être is meandering, aimless grooves and subtle, barely-perceptible hooks; they’re brilliant at it. They’re like really early Verve stripped of Ashcroft’s ego and the squalling, post-shoegaze guitars.

Anyway, we saw them live a few weeks ago and I vaguely expected them to go full-on Grateful Dead, jamming everything out into 10-minute spectral hazes, but actually they played stuff incredibly tightly, almost exactly as it is on the albums. Which could seem pointless, if the sheer volume and physical weight of sound that live PAs are capable of didn’t make their groove an awesome experience. It also made me reconsider how I’ve got them mentally filed; they’re clearly not quite the ‘jam’ band I thought, and now I get the idea that their songs are highly taut, composed entities.

Polar Bear – In Each and Every One
More jazz; less rock-influenced and more in thrall to dance music, I guess, and minimalism. This is almost the opposite of the Melt Yourself Down record from last year (they share some personnel); where that was frenetic and chaotic and taut and hook-driven and rocky, this is loose and strung-out and sparse. I find it fascinating. Some of it gets close to drone, almost, and there’s a lot of playing around with space and rhythm. And, because it’s Polar Bear, there are tunes and melodies coming out of its ears even so. Marvellous.

Planningtorock – All Love’s Legal
I need more time with this; it seems a little one-dimensional in terms of tune and sonics compared to Shaking The Habitual, to which it is clearly related, although “Let’s Talk About Gender Baby” perhaps does everything that album tried in 80-odd minutes in just under four and a half.

East India Youth – Total Strife Forever
Fisher Price electronica. My first krautrock record; it tries a little bit of everything, settling on not quite anything. And a really bad, weird pun for a title. This is perfectly fine, but I’m not getting the hype, quite. The songy-songs are definitely better than the tracky-tracks, as it were; his reach exceeds his grasp as far as technical skills go thus far, but he has an ear for a tune. I’m intrigued to watch him develop.

St. Vincent – St. Vincent
All hook and no tune? Possibly, but that’s harsh. Certainly more direct and poppy than Strange Mercy, but I fear it won’t be as long-term rewarding as Actor, which was a fabulous grower. But time will tell. And right now, the weird, arty hooks and strange turns and over-processed percussion and weird, pseudo-lo-fi scratchy guitar sound of this are massively beguiling, because Annie Clark is a disgustingly talented musician, and listening to disgustingly talented people make music is great.

Not albums of 2013


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

Compilations etc

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

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

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

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

Near misses / nonplussed

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

Close, but no cigar

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

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

Liked it, but nowhere near enough

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

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

Not listened to it enough to form a full opinion

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

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

Thought it was awful

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

Phoenix – Bankrupt!

Old albums

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

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

Albums of 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albums from May, part 1

There seem to have been almost as many albums released in May that are worth giving a damn about as there were in the whole of the previous four months of 2013. They’re probably strategically launched in May so that people will know the words come festival season.

The National – Trouble Will Find Me
In which The National begin their circumnavigation of what one might cynically call ‘MOR’. Which is to say that Matt Berninger is certainly ensconced in his 40s now, and his bandmates can’t be far if at all behind, and parenthood and reasoned perspectives make for a less angry band than they might once have been. Live they may still hurtle through “Mr November”, but I doubt they’d be able to write it anymore.

This isn’t necessarily a problem though, because rather than settle for obvious denominators, easy key changes and platitudinous melodies, The National have evolved in subtle, sophisticated ways. In 2013, their songs shimmer and meander more than they clatter and groan. I can accept this happily; they’ve already clattered and groaned. And with a larger audience now than at any time in their past, it’s a relief to feel that they’re not pandering to expanded (and therefore limited) expectations.

If The National have a problem, and all bands have at least one problem, it’s that they’re too too musical, too clever, that they have too many good ideas. Trouble Will Find Me is a gorgeous record, but it’s so stuffed to the gills with that gorgeousness that it might actually suffer a little from it. They’ve been edging towards over-arranging records for a little while, but here they may just tip the balance. They never single-track a vocal when they can double-track it; never settle for one beatific, anti-gravity guitar line when they can have two, and an organ track, and a piano, and a violin or three, and a whiff of gentle feedback coursing through the song, and a bassline. And that’s not to mention the drums.

All of these elements are sophisticated, beautiful, worth arranging, worth hearing. It would be a crying shame to isolate, eliminate, and waste any one of them. But at the same time, it’s almost a crying shame to use them all; they end up competing for harmonic space and attention, overlapping each other’s frequencies, obscuring themselves. And like a multitude of beautiful colours swirled together on a canvas, there’s a danger that, without absolute, consummate skill, you’ll end up with a dull brown.

Which isn’t to say that The National have made a dull, brown record; but some people, from some angles, will accuse them of having done so. I just wish that The National’s evident sophistication had been applied to what to leave out as much as what to leave in. Perhaps a hand like Jim O’Rourke’s at the tiller during mixing would have steered them into marginally more minimal waters. I’m thinking explicitly of what he did for Wilco with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, allegedly removing a host of subtle, experimental elements from each song with great care and making the entire record feel ten times more subtle and experimental as a result.

All this said, I still like Trouble Will Find Me an awful lot, and, despite my reservations, which still exist, The National have become (largely thanks to my wife) a definite favourite. If there isn’t a tune as direct as “Bloodbuzz Ohio” or “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks” here, that’s OK, because there are several as indirect as “England”.

Primal Scream – More Light
I have been a fan of Primal Scream for the best part of 20 years. For most of the last ten years of that period, I have had absolutely zero faith in their ability to make a decent record. In their 30-odd-year career (and much of it has been very, very odd indeed) they’ve only actually made three albums that I really like; Screamadelica, Vanishing Point, and XTRMNTR. There are, granted, good songs scattered across their other records, and a couple of those records aren’t absolute disasters (Evil Heat is OK, just about), but those are the only three I’d defend.

So I genuinely thought Bobby Gillespie and co (which now seams to be just him and Andrew Innes, plus whoever wanders through the studio, now that Mani is back in The Stone Roses and Throb is long gone; even Duffy seems to be only an occasional sideman these days) were past the point of ever making another good record again. Really, really far past that point.

Which makes it a surprise that More Light is at all worth a damn, especially when Bobby is opining state-of-the-nation lyrics about teenage rebellion and “favelas up and down the M1”, as he does here from time to time.

The secret seems to be, unsurprisingly, working with a strong producer who has a vision. David Holmes takes the reigns here, having worked on XTRMNTR way back when (Bobby guested on Holmes’ own Bow Down To The Exit Sign a decade and a half ago); the intervening years have seen Holmes establish himself as a film soundtrack man first and foremost, and it seems as if Holmes has guided Primal Scream into doing what they might do best; soundtracking an imaginary film.

Bobby’s said that Holmes sequenced the album with this in mind; the propulsive, elongated “2013”, with it’s insistent 70s Bowie saxophone and kraut-ish pulse and Kevin Shields guitar, is a scene-setting title sequence, whilst the “Movin’ On Up” progeny “It’s Alright, It’s OK” is the joyous track over the closing credits. In between we get, to be fair, a handful of semi-turgid future rockers loaded with Bobby’s polemic (to be fairer, at least he cares, when many others don’t seem to), interspersed with awesome, unexpected diversions like “River Of Pain” (check out the orchestral eruption 2/3s through) and “Turn Each Other Inside Out” (those gorgeous twin guitars), and “Relativity”. And even the semi-turgid future rockers are a massive step above the awful modernist-country-blues of Riot City Blues; “Culturecide” (no one but Bobby could neologise such a word) and “Hit Void” are far more memorable and more fun than anything from Beautiful Future.

More Light isn’t an epochal impact like Screamadelica or XTRMNTR; I doubt it will change the way we feel about dance music or usher in waves of discopunk. But it also isn’t an embarrassment. Which, for Primal Scream in 2013, is an achievement.

Words on Daft Punk and Vampire Weekend to follow. And maybe some others.

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.)

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.