For no particular reason, here are my albums of the year.
1. Sam Amidon – I see the sign
This is without at doubt the album I’ve listened to most this year so I think by default that makes it the first choice. Nothing stellar or earth shattering about it. Just a man with a wonderful voice singing songs written a very long time ago (and one by R Kelly), and giving them a contemporary feel without resorting to piling on superfluous beeps and whistles. Sublime arrangements by Nico Muhly, pristine warm production by Valgeir Sigurdson. See also: everything released on Bedroom Community.
2. Napoleon IIIrd – Christiania
I always feel kind of a dick listing Brainlove releases in my albums of the year, and to be honest I’m not sure if I’m not deliberately bumping this one down a notch solely to avoid the embarrassment of butt-kissing my friend and colleague Mr IIIrd. Still this is an incredible record which sounds like nothing else. Plus it’s funny if you sing ‘You’re going home in a fucking ambulance’ to the tune of ‘Let’s all go to Christiania’.
3. The National – High Violet
The National have a novel approach to making great albums. They simply make sure that the music is excellent, the lyrics are excellent, and the production is excellent. Matt Berninger makes abstract, borderline nonsensical couplets sound like the most profound meditations on 21st Century ennui and despair imaginable, and croons them gently and warmly over the shifting, subtly original progressions and rhythms of his band. The music goes to a place which is entirely its own, and whilst there’s nothing to knock the socks off in terms of the attention starved ‘hot new sound’ brigade they just continue being quietly devastating for album after album. Swoon.
4. Joanna Newsom – Have One On Me
A triple CD album? Well, were we surprised? ‘Ys’ was my album of the year in whatever year it came out, as was ‘The Milk Eyed Mender’, and she’s almost done it again this year (I’m sure she’s devastated at missing out). There are quite definitely two CD’s of beautiful transcendent music on here, and a few tracks that are okay on their own but do make the thing drag a little. What’s most striking, listening back to TMEM this year, is how much her voice has come on. The scratchy, witchy vocals of yore are replaced with a much more controlled approach here, and the tweeness and aren’t-I-clever moments are toned down in favour of some genuinely heart stopping expressions of sorrow. At risk of patronising someone I don’t know, I think you can tell that she’s now actually lived through some shit, rather than just drawing all her inspiration from books and fantasy. Is it wrong to pair this up against her ex-BF Bill Callahan’s ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’? View each record as one side of an argument? Perhaps I’ll get a slapped wrist from the literal interpretation squad. Whatever, this is a great record – even if it is definitely a bit too long.
5. Beach House – Teen Dream
Can’t make out a word she’s saying. Can you? Even when you can I’ve no idea what she’s on about. But she makes it sound good. I can’t be bothered to google Beach House and find out who they are or what the deal is. I went to watch them in Cardiff and couldn’t even see the stage, so I don’t even know how many people are in the band. Kind of prefer it that way. Anyway, like Broadcast they seem to make a virtue of just doing the same thing over and over again. Having initially found them dull as ditchwater at ATP two years ago they’ve now either improved immeasurably or I’ve had my ears waxed because this album has a bizarre grandeur to it, sort of like if someone on X-factor tried to do the Cocteau Twins, only somehow managed to not make it utterly utterly shit, but great.
6. Four Tet – There is love in you
At a loss to describe this. Everything Ecstatic kind of left me cold, a bit too much random percussion fluttering around some not very interesting melodies. This time he’s gone straight for a more clubbier structure and allowed everything time to breathe. Still sounds like Four Tet. Still great. *shrug* #notareviewer
7. Matthew Dear – Black City
This is my first experience of Matthew Dear and I like it. He seems to draw on the same sort of Eno/Talking Heads era stuff that LCD are into but focuses on a different aspect. Much more melancholy. A soundtrack to a slightly drunk and emotional evening, rather than a cocktail sipping, lean on the trendy bar style night that ‘This is Happening’ seemed geared towards. There’s some real 80’s kitsch staples mixed in there too, almost Yello like vocal samples rubbing up against Joy Division balladry and something hard to put my finger on that reminds me of My Bloody Valentine. Apparently the lyrics are quite rude but I haven’t really noticed.
8. Olof Arnalds – Innundir Skinni
On impulse after a wonderful second visit to Iceland to perform at Airwaves I’m once again predisposed to love anything Icelandic, the people, the food, the music, the temperature…. So I bought this based on nationality (and a positive Pitchfork review) alone. It’s really quite beautiful. One or two songs in English reveal an honesty and simple poetry to the lyrics which presumably carries over into the native tongue songs too. But it’s really the voice that carries it all. There are a million records where someone with a pretty voice sings pretty songs. This is the one I love this year.
9. Sufjan Stevens – the Age of Adz
After a deceptive intro that makes you think ‘here comes another Sufjan record’ you suddenly get this massive impolite squelch of synth and off you go on a trip on the mental wagon. After ‘You are the Blood’ from the ‘Dark was the night’ compilation I wasn’t entirely surprised to find that every song on here is half an hour long and features about twelve different solos. This record as a whole rambles incredibly, when it’s good it’s really fucking good. The rest of the time – well maybe sometimes it’s better to just play some nice songs on a banjo.
10. The Books – The Way Out
Perhaps I’m guilty of jumping the gun on this one, having only heard it twice since buying it last week. But for sheer originality it deserves a mention (and do you really need me telling you that ‘The Suburbs’ is pretty good?). The Books create nominally electronic/folktronic music which props up odd found-sound monologues and snatches of dialogue. If you heard their previous record ‘Lost and Safe’ then this one seems to focus more on single sources, rather than snippets from all over. My favourite is ‘Cold Freezin’ Night’ which features a comically aggressive monologue from a very young child detailing exactly how much he hates some unnamed person and how easy he will find it to kill them. Reminds me of (and may in fact be sourced from) that ‘Street Gangland Rhythms Band’ album that came out a few years ago.
Honourable mention: James Blake
James Blake hasn’t released an album yet. But if you compiled the three EP’s and one single he’s done this year onto a single disc it would probably be the album of the year. Showing an envy inducing versatility across tracks which are oh-so nominally dubstep inclined but really span electro-folk, R&B and classical piano – every one is unique and quite brilliant. Klavierwerke in particular does my favourite trick of taking something that definitively should not work on paper and making it brilliant. Half of it isn’t even in time!
Other good records:
The Suburbs, Episode 2 by Spencer McGarry, Valgeir Sigurdson’s ‘Draumalandid’ soundtrack, Crooks & Lovers by Mount Kimbie, Bastardgeist, Oversteps/Move of Ten by Autechre, Darwin Deez, Down There by Avey Tare, Field Music’s new one, and Owen Pallet’s Heartland.
Fail of the year: Gorillaz – Plastic Beach
This record is a fucking chore. All the worse for having two genuinely great songs on it (‘Stylo’ and ‘Superfast Jellyfish’). This is an hour of expensive and disgusting sounding synth dirges with phoned-in cameo after phoned-in cameo. Beyond boring and into the realm of wanting this record to be un-recorded, un-made and started again. Have Gorillaz really managed to become this shit in the space of only three records? Albarn’s got the talent to make a good record with this band on his own. He should do that instead of using cartoon characters as a front for making sub-par collaborations with whoever takes his fancy.