Albums of the Year 2018

Perhaps because it got off to a slow start, with many of the best releases not arriving until the second half of the year, 2018 felt, as it unfolded, like a quiet year for music. When people asked me what I’d been listening to (a question I’m always very happy to be asked, but which somehow causes the immediate jettisoning of every recent album from my memory), there wasn’t always an obvious, standout answer. Yet, as I put together this list, gathering all of my favourite releases from the past year together, I was struck by just how many excellent albums there were to choose from. I actually think this has been a great year for music. And there is, as always, plenty I haven’t got round to listening to yet, including some new releases from TQR favourites like Anna Meredith, Elza Soares, Ian William Craig, Josephine Foster and The Spirit of the Beehive. All great artists who’ve made my top tens in the past, but whose new albums for whatever reason haven’t climbed to the top of my ‘to listen to’ list yet. (Blame the constant desire to search out something new.)

Such was the volume of great stuff to choose from, I thought I’d begin the post with a roundup of ‘runners up’ — sixteen records which didn’t make my top ten, but which I also enjoyed, and some of which I think are truly excellent. (Sixteen is an arbitrary number, but it makes a pretty 4×4 grid.) After that, I’ll talk about my ten favourites in a bit more detail.

So, here we go…

The Runners Up

One of the best live music experiences I had this year was seeing Yo La Tengo play ‘You Are Here’ from their wonderful new album There’s a Riot Going On, on a cool late summer evening at End of the Road Festival. Their new album is peaceful and warm, stuffed with ideas yet never showy. No other band has so much talent and yet wears it so lightly. Fifteen albums deep and they’re still going ridiculously strong.

In a great year for jazz-related releases (see also numbers 6, 4 and 3 below), Kamasi Washington’s epic, searching Heaven and Earth naturally stood out, as did Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids’ cosmic, genre-hopping An Angel Fell, the title track of which was one of my favourite tracks of the yearThere were jazzy undertones, too, to parts of Eiko Ishibashi’s The Dream My Bones Dream, a smoky and layered collection of avant-pop songs produced by Jim O’Rourke.

There was a ton of great experimental-electronic stuff popping up all over the place this year, from Gazelle Twin to Eartheater to Lotic to Elysia Crampton. All provided engrossing listens, but the two stuck out most (in addition to numbers 10, 8 and 5 below) were Tim Hecker’s surprisingly minimal and unsettling Konoyo, built around manipulations of the sounds of a Japanese gagaku ensemble, and the experimental gospel album soil from Josiah Wise’s project serpentwithfeet, an utterly unique sound built around repetitive mantras and cutting-edge, Arca-like production.

I was really excited when Mountain Man announced their new album Magic Ship — their first, Made the Harbor from 2010, is a personal favourite. Their mostly a cappella music is full of the private joy of singing — it sounds like a rehearsal in a back room, three women taking simple pleasure in harmonising with each other. A great example of how music can be quiet, simple, small, and still really powerful.

There were plenty of great sunny weather records this year, and a long summer to go with them. Mélissa Laveaux’s Radyo Siwèl is full of life, drawing from Laveaux’s Haitian heritage to reimagine Creole folk songs as sprightly, spiky, electric anthems. (This really nearly made my top ten; it’s ace.) Kadhja Bonet stewed up some psychedelic soul on Childqueen, the perfect laid back album for a late summer evening; ditto Khruangbin’s wide-ranging Con Todo El Mundo, which travels all over the musical globe while remaining remarkably chilled out.

One of my favourite obscure bandcamp finds this year was Cult Party, whose album And Then There Was This Sound is the best thing you definitely haven’t heard this year. Homespun folk stretched out into weird and wonderful shapes, especially on the twenty minute long opening track ‘Hurricane Girl’. Similarly elastic was Sandro Perri’s In Another Life, a kind of ambient-lounge-pop record where songs sprawl and unwind (the title track is nearly twenty-five minutes long) without losing interest.

Ryley Walker kept busy this year, putting out the downbeat, subtle Deafman Glance, in addition to the more unexpected move of covering Dave Matthews Band’s The Lilywhite Sessions in its entirety. Mary Lattimore also had another busy year; in addition to the dreamy, unfussily detailed harp-and-electronics excursions on Hundreds of Days, she also put out a great collaboration with Meg Baird from Espers, Ghost Forests.

Finally there were some great indie rock releases this year to keep the eternal indie-loving kid inside me happy. Beach House continued to find new shades of their dream pop sound with 7, while Mitski put out a great record with Be the Cowboy, which has been dominating a lot of the critics’ end-of-year lists, and about which I can only add that yes, I agree, it’s great.

So, those are the runners up. A lot of incredibly good stuff, and enough on their own to declare 2018 a decent year for music. And yet, there are ten more still to come. The following ten albums were all challenging, rewarding and moving in totally different, unique ways. I highly recommend them all. Let the countdown begin…

The Top Ten

10. Yves Tumor – Safe in the Hands of Love

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This is one of the darkest, most anxious records I’ve ever heard. It would be difficult to describe it as a pleasurable listen, but it is certainly an affecting one. “Safe in the hands of love, that’s where I feel the pressure”, Tumor sings on the unexpectedly catchy lead single ‘Noid’. That lyric seems to capture the whole sound-world of the album — the sound of danger invading safety, of a previously safe space collapsing in on itself. The anxiety gathers itself up over the first six tracks, from the distant horn fanfare of ‘Faith in Nothing Except Salvation’ to the more explicit cries and worries of the three vocal-led, poppier tracks in the centre. The rest of the album that follows seems to disintegrate, giving over to layers of almost unlistenable noise, and yet the track titles (‘Hope in Suffering’, ‘Let the Lioness in you Flow Freely’) suggest a kind of overcoming. It’s like a storm stripping a building of all its contents and concrete, leaving just the metal frame, bent and reimagined into new shapes.

9. Adrianne Lenker – abysskiss

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This is a subtle, nuanced record, the bones of which are just guitar and voice. Yet despite those simple ingredients, it sounds just as genuinely new and exciting as anything else on this list. Lenker’s unique voice — both literally and figuratively — imbues her record with such exquisite emotion, it almost makes other records sound dishonest by comparison. Her guitar playing is also quietly astonishing, full of detail. I love her band Big Thief (their brilliant album from last year, Masterpiece, has grown on me a lot) but I’m tempted to say Lenker’s solo stuff is even better — it really highlights her unique approach to melody and texture. There are very subtle backgrounds to these songs, bedrocks of piano or synth, which are so far back in the mix they become almost like atmosphere, like the ambient noises of imagined rooms. And indeed this is an involvingly atmospheric record, an immersive headspace best experienced on a quiet evening, in low light, in rapt attention.

8. Oneohtrix Point Never – Age Of

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In comparison to some of his previous work, Age Of feels fairly slept on, which is a shame, as I think it’s among the best things Daniel Lopatin has ever made. It covers a huge amount of musical ground: most obvious are the addition of new age sonics to the sound palette, audible on pieces like ‘RayCats’ and the title track, and the introduction of upfront (albeit heavily processed) vocals on tracks like ‘Black Snow’, ‘Babylon’ and album highlight ‘The Station’. Yet the album also brings back elements from each of his previous experiments: the plunderphonics of Replica, the digital glitch-fest of R Plus Seven, the teenage angst of Garden of Delete, from which ‘Warning’ feels directly lifted. In its breadth, Age Of feels like the culmination of Lopatin’s war against what he calls ‘timbral fascism’, the idea that certain sounds are inherently more musical than others. For despite its occasional difficulties and sharp edges, it is really a very musical album, full of gorgeous melody and harmony, and deeply evocative sound-worlds. No one else makes music like this, and we shouldn’t start taking it for granted just because this is something of an OPN highlights reel, rather than a brand new direction.

7. Amen Dunes – Freedom

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Amen Dunes’s songs are like tightly coiled springs of indie rock brilliance, simmering with under-the-surface energy. They’re all cool on the surface and bubbling underneath. In many of these songs, tension seems to build and release simultaneously — I wish I had a better technical knowledge of music to understand how he creates this effect, but I find it incredibly addictive. Album highlight ‘Believe’ — by some considerable margin my favourite song of the year — builds and builds, piling on great idea after great idea, without ever quite boiling over. I don’t know how he does it. There are just so many fantastic scraps of melody stuffed into one tiny song without it feeling overworked. Elsewhere, ‘Blue Rose’ shakes with gritty confidence, ‘Calling Paul the Suffering’ skips around and bops, and ‘Skipping School’ and ‘L.A’. are the sound of an open road captured on tape.  The lyrics explore masculinity, the complexity of ‘bad boy’ figures (‘Satudarah’ and ‘Miki Dora’), and, above all, the many meanings of the word freedom. A great follow-up to the also excellent Love from 2014. He’s great live, too.

6. Park Jiha – Communion

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Like Yo La Tengo’s record, Park Jiha’s Communion offered peace and humanity whenever I needed it this year. It was an album to return to when I needed a glimmer of light. Sitting somewhere in a nexus between jazz, classical minimalism, and traditional Korean music, this is maybe the most straight-up beautiful music I have heard all year. Tracks like ‘Sounds Heard from the Moon’ and ‘Accumulation of Time’ are shimmering, Reich-like sheets of yanggeum, a hammered dulcimer. Better still are the pieces using piri (a double reed bamboo flute) and saenghwang (a mouth organ), which imbue the music with breath and life. The intense, gorgeous title track is a highlight, as is the serene ‘Longing of the Yawning Divide’. The last two pieces then bring the reeds and dulcimer together, climbing cosmically towards the record’s climax. Magnificent stuff.

5. SOPHIE – Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides

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Some records — like my favourite album of last year, Richard Dawson’s Peasant — take us back into the distant past. SOPHIE’s album instead takes us to a distant, imagined future, to a ‘Whole New World/Pretend World‘, a world where materials have become completely plastic, where anything is able to transform into anything else, or to stop mid-transformation and remain in a kind of molten, ambiguous physicality. SOPHIE uses sound itself to create this world, melting genres together, splicing together different sounds on an almost molecular level. She imbues her music with such incredible physicality (seriously, I don’t understand what she’s doing to the sound to make it sound so physical) and yet her productions have no tangible relation to any specific source in empirical reality: they seem to exist in an entirely digital sphere. The album is also incredibly well sequenced: a true journey across different soundscapes, sometimes evolving gradually and sometimes turning with whiplash speed from one style to another. It is thrilling. I have never heard anything like it.

4. Lonnie Holley – MITH

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This is a hugely ambitious record from Holley, an outsider artist who makes junk sculptures from recycled found objects. (Such art is a personal obsession of mine, ever since I first accidentally stumbled across Isaiah Zagar’s Magic Gardens in Philadelphia). The approach to sound on MITH is in some ways similar to junk sculpture: rooted in spiritual jazz, the album is yet another (albeit wildly different) example of the melting and melding of different styles. Its sound is exploratory, occasionally psychedelic, and always searching. It is also a very political record, a state-of-the-nation document of America in 2018, as most powerfully felt on its grandest, hungriest tracks: the growling ‘I Woke Up in a Fucked Up America’ and the incredible, eighteen-minute centrepiece ‘I Snuck Off the Slave Ship’. But I find it just as captivating, and just as emotionally affecting, in its quieter moments, too, like the trippy ‘How Far is Spaced Out?’ and the demented lounge of ‘There Was Always Water’. This is powerful, remarkable music.

3. Sons of Kemet – Your Queen is a Reptile

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Your Queen is a Reptile is an exploration of rhythm, and of the possibility that rhythms can carry ideas. Like Holley’s, this is a very political album, this time dealing with the currently chaotic state of the UK. It feels like the first truly post-Brexit album (a description which might put you off, but shouldn’t). Yet despite some vocals on the first and last tracks, and the nods in the track titles to women of colour (‘My Queen is Ada Eastman’, ‘My Queen is Harriet Tubman’, ‘My Queen is Angela Davis’ etc.), the majority of Sons of Kemet’s ‘message’ is carried in the rhythm. This is passionate music, filled with both anger and defiant hope, made by people searching for a place to belong in a country that seems to have voted them out. The two drummers (Tom Skinner and Eddie Hick) layer rhythms from jazz, funk, punk, dub, reggae, and various African musics into a storm of percussion, which the horns are able to leap off of and build on; indeed, Theon Cross’s infectious tuba playing is a big part of the album’s rhythmic appeal too. The tenor saxophone of Shabaka Hutchins — one of the central figures in the UK jazz scene, who’s played with The Comet is Coming (who are also ace if you’ve never checked them out) and Shabaka and the Ancestors, and who put together the compilation We Out Here — provides the music with its wings. Most impressive is the fact this album just does not let up — it just gets better and better as it progresses, building to almost an hour of infectious, insatiable music.

2. Low – Double Negative

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Having been a huge fan of Low for over ten years now (which still makes me a relatively young fan of the band; they’ve been around for nearly twenty-five), it has been exciting and strange to see them suddenly getting so much attention for their new album. Partially this attention is because it’s excellent. But it’s also partially, I think, because the album has a slightly easy narrative around it: long-running, well-respected band responds to Trump’s America by destroying their old sound with electronics, tearing it apart, descending into fragments and distortion in order to reflect the chaos of the current climate. The reviews practically write themselves. So it’s an easy album for critics to love; perhaps almost a bit too easy. And that is my one reservation about it: that, in fact, Low have always been an interesting, experimental band, who have always rebuilt their sound up from the ground each time; that underrated albums like 2013’s The Invisible Way, which made use of piano in a way Low had never previously explored, or 2007’s Drums and Guns, which also had some really unusual production choices, were just as interesting and just as worthwhile as Double Negative, even if they weren’t as easy for critics to write about.

So there’s my caveat. Now for the more important bit: Double Negative is ridiculously good. Just ear-meltingly brilliant. A complete, immersive sonic experience. I cannot get over how good it is. The production is astonishing, the layers of distortion and noise conveying so much emotion — I don’t think I’d ever realised there were so many different kinds of distortion before. More importantly, the songs are incredibly strong throughout, emerging out of the noise in continually unexpected ways, and packed with Low’s always brilliant melodies and signature two-part harmonies. I couldn’t possibly pick a highlight: the whole thing needs to be heard front to back. This thing sounds cavernous in places, yet it never loses a sense of intimacy. There are tiny touches — like the rasping-for-breath synth that comes in about 1:12 into ‘Dancing and Blood’ — that catch me by surprise every time. A totally unique album that I’ll be returning to for years to come. 

1. Julia Holter – Aviary

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With Aviary, Holter has crafted a huge sonic world to explore. It really does feel less like you’re listening to an album, and more like you’re wandering around in a vast landscape, full of gnarled trees, strange birds squawking, medieval monks chanting, massive clouds moving over the tops of mountains. Holter has talked about how the record doesn’t necessarily need to be listened to all the way through (though I’d add that it is very well sequenced if you choose to listen to it that way); rather, the listener can find their own path through it. What’s most impressive, though, is that she has created this wholly immersive experience not using fancy interactive apps or VR headsets, but simply using sound. The combination of sounds on this record make it sound truly three-dimensional, almost non-linear. I don’t feel like I play through the album, but like I play around inside it. This was maybe the defining feature of much the music I enjoyed this year. I’ve said similar things about SOPHIE’s record, about Lonnie Holley’s, about Oneohtrix Point Never’s; even Low’s album might be seen as making their sound less linear, more exploratory and explorable. These are albums that are playful in their combination of genres and ideas, and that feel, as a result, almost interactive in the way they are experienced by the listener. They are truly, in every sense of the word, worlds of sound, waiting to be explored and uncovered every time you press play.

Holter pushed this idea further than anyone else this year. The quality, variety and imagination on display across this album blows me away every time I hear it. It is a colossal, absurdly ambitious record, an hour and a half of almost limitless creativity, in which centuries-old musical ideas and languages are melded imperceptibly with modern synthscapes, elements from free jazz, krautrock, and a whole variety of other 20th and 21st century traditions, all wrapped up in breathtakingly beautiful songs. The overwhelming beauty of it — the generousness of that beauty — reminds me of Bjork’s Utopia from last year, and yet there are also passages of confusion, density, almost horror. It is cathartic and transcendent. It crowns a discography — running from Holter’s 2011 debut Tragedy, through the brilliant Ekstasis in 2012 and Loud City Song in 2013, to her breakthrough Have You in my Wilderness in 2015 — which is unmatched by anyone else this decade. It has been an absolute pleasure to follow along since 2011 and see her develop as an artist. And though Loud City Song remains (I think) my personal favourite, Aviary feels like the culmination of everything she’s been building towards. It is a towering achievement, and, to my mind, the most essential album of 2018.

Thanks and Playlist2018trio

So there we are. Thanks for reading. I hope this has helped you discover something new that you’ll enjoy and that you haven’t heard before. To that end, here’s a Spotify playlist with a track from each of the albums I’ve mentioned, plus a few others to round it up to an even 30. Spotify is great for discovering things, but please support the artists and buy the music if you like it.

I’ve been really quiet on the blog this year, but I promise I haven’t abandoned it entirely. Indeed, one of the reasons I called it The Quiet Return is because I don’t see it as a place I have to constantly worry about generating new content for (I don’t want to write things just for the sake of it), but simply a place where I can come and reflect when I feel I have something to say: a place I can quietly return to. Having said that, I’m hoping to beat my very low bar of two posts next year and put a few more things up! So hopefully see you again here in the new year.

For now, happy Christmas, and happy listening…

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The Unframed

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In San Francisco, they encrypt around 10% of the internet using lava lamps. This is because the pattern of the lava lamps is truly random.

For example: yarrow stalks, dice, coins, shuffled cards, the I Ching, the roulette wheel. Also: radioactive decay, thermal noise, shot noise, avalanche noise in Zener diodes, clock drift, the timing of actual movements of a hard disk read/write head, radio noise.

And still I wish you’d appreciate my little boxes I put everything in.

But everyone appreciates everything, you say! We’re always giving each other a round of applause, all the time, eternally clapping. Only our tempos change.

Which might lead to something like Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping Music’, our claps always phasing in and out. Our lives phasing in and out. Like when I see you in the street after a while, and you’re buying yoghurt, but I missed you all the other times you were out buying yoghurt.

Only ‘Clapping Music’, the Reich piece, was based around mathematics, around fixture, whereas our amorphous rounds of perpetual applause are never fixed in tempo, or in anything.

Out in the supermarket, I’m hunting for something, someone.

I pick up a mango: on the label, someone has written, in tiny black pen: looking in the wrong place, listening at the wrong time.

I say to it: “One of the reasons I can’t get on with Instagram and the like is that they are (dis)organised in an endless stream of time, break-less, frame-less. What is it, I think, that connects one photo to the next? Are they a series? But they don’t go together! It bugs me that the colours don’t harmonise with each other. It bugs me that they don’t fit together, don’t coalesce aesthetically, in their little grid. Or, when they do, they feel fake for doing so; as though your whole life could be one colour palette!”

Another way to put it is that there are no albums.

Because the album is dead, the big billboards pronounce, silently.

Every other month we read another piece about how the album as a format is dying. But maybe this year it is really true?

Because the internet, PC music, SoundCloud rap, [blank]wave. These are things that have little to do with the idea of a complete statement; things that have little use for frames, chassis, bodywork.

Then along comes Sophie and releases the stunning Oil of Every Pearl’s Un-Insides while proclaiming she has no interest in the album as a format and I’m like, please, you don’t sequence your album this damn well if you have no interest in the album as a format.

But then, have you ever heard an album where everything is quite so in flux? Where the material of the sound itself seems to be melting and coalescing in real time? Where the platitude “I can be anything I want!” sounds like it is actually true? Like she could actually be a mango or soft serve or a hundred tiny moments in spacetime?

And yet, what a material record this is too — with its sounds like smashing glass and rubber and the sticky floor of a cinema rendered in slabs of synth.

Split atoms — that, in sound.

How could you trivialise that, by putting it in a frame?

The unframed, I say, unable to ditch the definite article.

I have been trying to buy frames, recently, to put up pictures in our house. They are ludicrously expensive, or else they are cheap and flimsy and don’t work. The perspex cracks; it wobbles as I remove it from the scratched black plastic rectangle, which is a few cm too narrow or an inch too wide. (Shopping for frames, you’ll soon learn your metric conversion tables; or not, as it turns out). The little metal tabs around the back won’t open (they dig under the fingernails; I retaliate, forcing a screwdriver underneath) and then they won’t stay open (curling back, flattening, before I can get the MDF back in). I am ready to fling the thing on the floor and hang ripped strips of the picture from the ceiling instead.

Who has the attention span for an album anyway? This mango came all the way from Kenya!

And so everything gets shorter. And so along comes Whack World, the new ‘album’ from Tierra Whack, which consists of fifteen one-minute songs. They all seem to cut off before they really get going, like thoughts trailing off. They are not miniature songs, like those of Tony Molina, who also just released an ‘album’ that runs less than fifteen minutes; they’re more like ideas for songs. Or just the product of an overly-distracted brain? Each minute packed with a million sparks. Technicolour pops. Sherbet pockets.

And on the other end of the spectrum of shortness, Grouper, with Grid of Points, which is so short and spare it is barely there. The trace of an album, the ghost of an album. But is absolutely heavy with feeling.

I don’t say this to judge: I have room for one, then the other.

I throw on this, I throw on that: a towel, a wrap, a temporary housing. Every day packing up all our stuff and moving to the next house down the street. By December, we’ll have moved out of the city.

Is an initial idea as suggestive as the finished product? Maybe more suggestive? I could write you love letters and send you glittering jewels in the post, but you’ll have stopped reading by then. So I’ll stop soon, too, in a few.

Strip it back, pare it down.

Where’s the DEER?
Where’s the BARGAIN?
Where’s the BOUNTY?
Where’s the DUCK?
Where’s the GAME?

I do like a concept album, little mango. I like a concept sticking everything together all gluey. Isolating this body of sounds from all the other sounds in the universe.

It’s impossible, though, for other sound not to bleed in.

“Noise, clamour, din, hubbub, racket… unmusical or confused sounds. Noise is the general word and is applied equally to soft or loud, confused or inharmonious sounds: street noises… Din suggests a loud, resonant noise, painful if long continued: the din of a boiler works.”

Sir, are you going to buy that?

Here I come, headphones on, whizzing into orbits.

Albums of the Year 2017

Thanks to streaming, I listened to more new music this year than ever before. And so even though this list is twice as long as last year’s, these 20 albums feel like only the bare essentials, the absolute best of the best. Somehow I haven’t found room for albums as excellent as those by Kelly Lee Owens, Slowdive, Destroyer, Feist, Big Thief, Jay Som. Any one of those would have probably broken into my top ten last year. But hey. Too much good music: that’s not a terrible problem to have.

It’s fashionable to bash them, but I love year end lists. Re-listening to each of these records, trying to decide which I liked best, which I would choose over another if I had to: this is what being a music nerd is all about. Loving and obsessing over music. And I love reading other people’s lists, too, the more personal and different to mine the better. So while I made this list mostly for my own enjoyment, I also hope you’ll find something new to listen to because of it. Read the descriptions, find something you don’t know that sounds appealing, and give it a try.

As an addendum, I’ve also made a short list of overlooked/underrated albums that didn’t make the list proper. These wouldn’t necessarily be numbers 21-30 (though a few would, along with the albums mentioned above) but are simply albums I haven’t seen on other lists, or that I feel deserved some extra attention. Check that out here. And check out the Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, with a choice cut from each of these 20 albums. OK, enough preamble, here we go…

20. Jane Weaver – Modern Kosmology

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First up are three albums inspired by interplanetary space travel. The first is this psychedelic gem from Jane Weaver, which builds infectious pop songs out of motorik rhythms and komische synths, in a way that will appeal to fans of similarly cosmic-minded groups like Broadcast, Stereolab and Belbury Poly. (That is, people like me). There are touches of krautrock, library music, vintage-sounding electronic experimentation. Can’s Malcolm Mooney even shows up on ‘Ravenspoint’ to deliver a strange monologue about how we’re all “on our way to… dust”. But these are easy songs to like, melodic and breezy, delicate even, and never overstuffed with sounds or effects. They’re kept light and aerodynamic, so that they might take off into the stratosphere.

19. Shabazz Palaces – Quazarz

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Quazarz is a set of twin albums exploring (in a fairly loose sense) the concept of an intergalactic alien being who arrives on earth and is baffled by our addiction to technology. So far, so out there. But in fact, this is maybe Shabazz Palace’s easiest album to get into, in that it unfurls at a fairly relaxed pace, and is far too languorous and sprawling to demand anything other than casual, exploratory listening. It splits the difference between the most ambitious musical statement an act can make, the double album (with its 1970s associations of intricacy, pomposity and grandeur), and the most slapdash and raw and immediate, the rap mixtape. Quazarz isn’t quite either, but finds a strange middle ground between the two, and the result is Shabazz’s least essential but also most fun and lively body of work; indeed, on highlights like ’30 Clip Extension’, ‘Shine a Light’ and ‘Welcome to Quazarz’, they’re as dazzling as they’ve ever been.

18. Hannah Peel – Mary Casio

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This beautiful, singular record describes (sonically) the journey of an old woman from the South Yorkshire mining town of Barnsley who decides to travel into space to try and see Cassiopeia. It combines analogue synthesisers with a full 29-piece traditional colliery brass band, producing a unique combination of textures, one that reminds me a little of Dan Deacon’s more classically-minded work, as on the back half of America. The music is, in all senses of the word, dreamy: it has this incredible sense of will, of the title character resolutely following her ridiculous dream. A spectacular journey is described here, but it’s never clear if it’s a journey though space or through the mind; whether the constellations are of stars or of neurons.

17. PC Worship – Buried Wish

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I am obsessed with junk art and visionary environments, and Buried Wish sounds like a punk record scraped together from loose detritus, assembled from scratch, from scrap metal. Saxophones wail at dawn, rain falls on an empty moon. Rivers run sideways through trash and dead flowers. All the guitars are a little detuned, a little off. ‘Back of My $$$’ absolutely scrapes the bottom of the barrel, thick with scuzz and dirt; the tape sounds completely destroyed. ‘Help’ has these demented, descending wails that remind me of Liars, crying through a backdrop of atonal string scrawl and prickly bits of out-of-tune guitar.  But there is just enough song at any one point to keep you rummaging through – all the junk shaped into melodies without losing its essential quality as junk.

16. The National – Sleep Well Beast

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With Sleep Well Beast, The National quietly evolved to make their best album since Boxer, expanding, rather than tearing up, their basic approach. All the hallmarks of classic National are there: the interplay of the Dessner brothers’ guitar lines, the almost imperceptible mesh of rock instrumentation with strings and horns (seriously, this is their secret ingredient: no one else does it better), Brian Devendorf’s kinetic drumming (their other secret ingredient), Matt Berninger’s lyrics (their other other secret, or not-so-secret, ingredient). But new innovations lick around the edges of the songs: electronics flicker like dying lightbulbs, echo chambers bounce slithers of melody into hypnotic new shapes. Most importantly, though, the songs are all great: twin highlights ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’ and ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’, especially, but also the lovely ‘Dark Side of the Gym’ and the raucous ‘Turtleneck’. And ‘Empire Line’, too. Oh, and ‘Born to Beg’. OK, well, all of them.

15. LCD Soundsystem – American Dream

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Throw almost every touchstone of 20th century art rock into a blender, lace with anxiety, depression, cocaine and bravado, and hey presto, American Dream. This is all about the execution: every tiny, fine detail sounds laboured and obsessed over, perfected. Nowhere is this more apparent than highlight ‘How Do You Sleep?’, which spends 3 minutes and 38 seconds building tension with little more than some rumbling, distant drums, Murphy calling out into the void, before that big, dumb synth line comes in and pounds three notes like a headache for a whole minute, its insistent force begging for something more complex to counter it, until finally, at the 4.45 mark, the melody’s exploded and bent into all these wonderfully kinetic fragments, pulled about all over the place, with a sense of intense satisfaction and playfulness. The whole thing is so engrossing that – even on a fourth or fifth listen – I forget there hasn’t really been a beat yet, and it catches me by surprise when the drums-proper come in at 5.14, and the vocal hook almost exactly a minute later, to produce a late-blooming slice of disco perfection, cowbell and synth-strings all.

14. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.

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DAMN. is at once both tighter and punchier than jazz-rap opus To Pimp a Butterfly, yet messier and more flawed as well. It is simultaneously a spiritual album, and a gritty, corporeal one. The album is structured around these contradictory impulses, moving dialectically between unresolved oppositions: heaven and earth, ‘Love’ and ‘Lust’, a proud-sounding tune called ‘Humble’ against a humble-sounding tune called ‘Pride’. Then there is the whole playing-it-forwards-or-backwards thing, which would be gimmicky if it didn’t work so well at formally encapsulating the themes of time, choice and chance that Lamar explores on opener/closer ‘Blood’ and closer/opener ‘Duckworth’. But the real thrill, as always, is hearing Kendrick rap, which reminds me more than anything else of Coltrane playing the sax – he just takes flight.

13. Grizzly Bear – Painted Ruins

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Everything about Painted Ruins is dense and knotty. It is sequenced almost breathlessly, crescendoing, yes, but never bubbling down to anything less than a rolling boil. Every song is stuffed full of ideas and intricate moving parts. Whether it would be better if it opened up and breathed a bit more is up for debate, but there is a great deal of beauty and craft here, and, taken individually, perhaps the best batch of songs they’ve ever written. ‘Three Rings’ is my second favourite song of the year, twisting and thrashing its way towards a glorious pay-off; it contains everything I love about this band. ‘Systole’ is a late highlight, too, with the unexpected surprise of Chris Taylor on vocals, and the revelation that there are at least three great singers in this band of four unfairly talented musicians. You can hear the individual personalities of each of them (Bear’s expressive drumming, Droste’s choirboy harmonies) but they work together in perfect harmony. That’s the rare mark of a great band.

12. Juana Molina – Halo

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Halo, as its freaky cover art suggests, is skeletal — a bone yard — its bass-lines spines. In fact, everything here has the quality of backbeat, of bass and drums, of lithe rhythm. The synths have these hollow, marimba-like tones, like a bone being finger-drummed. There are frequent noises that sound like wind howling through hollow bones (which is presumably how flutes were first made?) and a noise in ‘Cosoco’ that sounds like a howling wind imitating an owl. The album’s title is a reference to the Argentine folk legend of the will-o’-the-wisp, known as the “luz mala” (Spanish for “evil light”), which floats above the ground where bones are buried. The hollow, natural, skeletal sound Molina has developed here proves versatile, moving from tracks that sound lightly funky and buoyant (‘Sin Dones’) to spooky and somnambulant (‘Lentismo Halo’). ‘A00 B01’ is the most delightfully strange song here: hollow woodblock percussion and little spindly threads of guitar over a synth loop that sounds like knuckles rolling rhythmically over the squishy buttons of an old mobile phone (and is later joined by a chorus of dying dial tones). Freaky magnificence.

11. Colleen – A flame, my love, a frequency

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Cécile Schott continues to restlessly redefine her sound with every album. Her music is fantastic, and deserves far more fans. Whereas early albums collaged acoustic sounds into new sonic landscapes, and her last couple revolved around the engrossing sound of the Renaissance-era treble viola de gamba (filtered, on the brilliant Captain of None, through a range of dub effects), A flame, my love features a slight, minimal palette of Critter & Guitari synthesisers run through a few Moog pedals. That’s it. And yet, there has always been a crystalline feel to what she makes, and this new sound emphasises that beautifully. It is transportive, transfixing music. Though her least organic-sounding record, it feels even more in tune with nature, full of lyrical images of bats swooping through the night as they hunt, of winter dawns and stars outshining us. There is a sadness, too, shot through the whole thing (“the world had nearly ended yet the sky was blue, and I came home with a fistful of fear”) one that becomes more present when one learns of the album’s back-story: Schott’s close brush with death in Paris on the night 2015 terrorist attacks. Death and life entwine in this music – one is never present without the other, and that is a source of both sadness and comfort.

10. Moses Sumney – Aromanticism

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This is a very minimal album, naked as Sumney’s back, weightless as his floating body. Much of the music on this list – see numbers 9, 3 and 1 especially – is concerned with the connections we make with other people, the networks of relations that sustain us: with love, with friendship, with community. Aromanticism is, as its title suggests, an inverse of that – an album that feels alone without necessarily feeling lonely. It is about the pleasure of one’s own company. The brilliant contradiction is that it is also an album steeped in the language of R&B, a genre obsessed with love and sex and coupling – and it sounds, throughout, sumptuous, bodily, erotic, gorgeous. The tension between the overt romanticism of the music and the lonely aromanticism of the lyrics is the heart of this album. It’s also full of unexpected melodic and harmonic touches – the flute at the end of ‘Make Out in My Car’, that harmony on the last word of “I’m made of liquid trust” (‘Don’t Bother Calling’). The highlight is undoubtedly ‘Doomed’, one of the best songs of the year: Sumney’s vocal performance – a quiet, battered falsetto – is completely enrapturing, lifted up as the track progresses by deep, mournful synths that slowly crash in like waves. Breathtaking.

9. Laurel Halo – Dust

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‘Dust’ here is a term here with lots of implications and associations: of warmth and the analogue (in contrast to the cold, futuristic sound of Quarantine, or the dry, brittle Chance of Rain); of cosmic, interstellar dust clouds (picked up in the spacey titles like ‘Syzygy’, ‘Sun to Solar’, ‘Moontalk’); of dusty sounds found and collected (much of this record has a quality of being overheard); of dust motes swirling in a beam of light through a window. That last image captures how unstable this music feels, every sonic element constantly in motion, its relation to every other element in flux. And relations or networks are a key theme here. Much of this record seems concerned with what, or who, we surround ourselves with, something picked up in Halo’s bringing in multiple vocal collaborators for the first time. On ‘Jelly’, negative voices lick the edges of the track’s consciousness – “you don’t meet my ideal standards for a friend, and you are a thief, and you drink too much”. We can surround ourselves with such negative feedback, or we can surround ourselves with things that encourage us: the soft, enveloping vocal melodies on ‘Like an L’, or the bizarre encouragements (“then she licked my leg and gave me some sisterly advice”) of ‘Syzygy’. Just as things start to become a bit of a blur, the album is brought back into focus by late highlight ‘Do U Ever Happen?’, which is wonderfully surreal: a clumsy, slumbering beat, with Halo and a backing choir in two intertwining melodic spirals. This album is that rare thing: a genuinely avant-garde record that remains compulsively, repeatedly listenable.

8. Perfume Genius – No Shape

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I wrote a whole review of this already, so I will just fill this space up with a repeated claim: Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius. Mike Hadreas is a songwriting genius.

7. Jlin – Black Origami

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What impressed me most about Black Origami was the revelation that Jlin composed the tracks chronologically, in ‘real time’ if you like, starting at the beginning and working forwards, without going back and making edits. It’s like a very slow kind of improvisation. That such intricate, complicated tracks could be made in such a way is just insane to contemplate. The other thing I love about this album – and this is going to sound strange – is how meditative it is, almost in spite of itself. Of course, this is an overwhelmingly noisy record, an absolute barrage of rhythm, but it’s also full of tiny pockets of space. Rhythm, after all, relies on gaps, on tiny bits of silence and quiet. And the rhythms are so unrelenting that you can almost hear through them to the quiet; the concentrating, zen-like mind of the dancer as their limbs flail at inconceivable speed. Then there is the idea of origami, itself a practice of meditation, and that cover art, in which sheet metal (industrial rhythm) has been folded and folded (almost crumpled in places) to become something new: the perfect metaphor for this insanely brilliant, forward-thinking artist’s approach to sound.

6. The Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck

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I am going to make a bold comparison here, and it is to Loveless. It is not that the two records sound similar, necessarily. But Loveless is a masterpiece, I think, because it strikes an exact balance: between masculine and feminine, between soft and loud, between melody and noise. And Pleasure Suck, too, captivates because of its exact blend of honey and vinegar, of sickly melted sugar and battery acid. From the first moments – what sounds like a violin playing in a blustery street; then a strum and a buzz; then a crash as a song starts seemingly in media res – it is clear that this is going to be a special record. And it doesn’t let up the whole way through, moving through what feel like fine slices of song cut into each other, or like slits in a spinning zoetrope. It is just the perfect blend of dissonant noise/ambience and catchy songs. If you have any interest in either of those things, please, listen to this.

5. Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind

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Is Mirror of Wind a fantasy album? Look at the miniature world of that still life: a bee, a magic crystal, an offering of red flowers, a mirror that reflects only mist, a candle in a cave, the tilt of its flame suggesting wind. Then listen to ‘Primeval Currents’, and hear how the sonic elements interact: strange instruments, producing sounds that feel recognisable (plucking, bubbling, chiming, buzzing) but which come from not-quite-identifiable sources (a mallet? a clarinet? a field recording of birds, or insects?). Or ‘Veils of Crocus’, in which instruments strum and drum, whoosh and whirl, swirl and conjure, punctured by flurries of voices incongruously chanting “cha cha cha”, as though we were on a beach somewhere. Or ‘Hex Prism Palace’, in which notes are bent out of shape in a temple on a distant hill. It is the music of places that don’t exist, that could never exist, except that they can exist through this technicolour world of sound – the music of imaginary worlds.

4. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up

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Crack-Up is the album I listened to in the early hours of the morning on my wedding day. It’s the album we had playing in our rented car, driving on our honeymoon through the spectacular, mountainous countryside of Perthshire, Scotland. ‘Third of May / Ōdaigahara’ – undoubtedly the best song of the year – was playing in my head the whole two weeks. That opening melody with its gorgeous, unexpected harmonies (“light ended the night, but the song remained”), and the cadence of Pecknold’s voice as he replies in solo (“and I was hiding by the stair, half here, half there, in the lashing rain”) puts a lump in my throat every time. It throws open the curtains to a nine minute journey through mountains, rivers, harmonies, drums, craggy valleys, guitars like dappled sunlight, pianos like water flowing over rocks. “To be held within oneself is deathlike, oh I know,” he sings, with almost unbearable emotion. If Crack-Up suffers from anything, it’s that ‘Third of May’ is too good, and that the rest can feel merely like a build up to, and release from, that towering centrepiece. But no, that’s ridiculous. ‘On Another Ocean’, ‘Fool’s Errand’, ‘I Am All That I Need’: these are the best songs Fleet Foxes have ever made, expanding their sound to the point that it literally cracks open, cracks up, and spills out all the light inside.

3. Bjork – Utopia

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Bjork is making the best music she’s ever made. A tall claim, certainly, but it’s true. Vulnicura was a masterpiece, the strong contrast between its mournful strings and its stuttering, broken beats the perfect evocation of heartbreak and divorce. Utopia is its necessary inverse, its mirror image, the yin to its yang. The strings are replaced by flutes, and the flute arrangements, throughout, are almost unnecessarily gorgeous. Indeed, if there is one impression this album makes above all, it is of overwhelming, sumptuous, rapturous, relentless beauty. It is, by design, too beautiful. (The only reference point I can think of are the later films of Terence Malick.) It is too much. It is too long. There are too many interludes. There are too many flutes. Her voice is too expressive, too broken, too open, over-emoting, leaking all over the music. Because it is only in that excess that she seems able to heal the gaping chest wound opened up on Vulnicura, here “transformed into a gate where I receive love from, where I give love from”. The length of the album seems designed to incubate a kind of patience; this album will never work unless you give yourself up to it, listen to it the whole way through, with open ears and open mind. Because healing takes time. Because love takes time, and is work. Because it takes time to “imagine a future, and be in it”.

 2. Arca – Arca

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Part (though it really must be stressed it is only part) of Bjork’s recent success is her creative partnership with the young Venezeulan producer Alejandro Ghersi, a.k.a. Arca, who helped produce Vulnicura and provided some of the beats for Utopia. Bjork has described their partnership as the “best musical relationship she’s had” and as a “synergy when two people lose their ego”. And it goes both ways, because it was Bjork who encouraged Arca, on his latest, self-titled album, to open up his mouth and sing. His voice is a revelation. It is almost exactly what you would expect from his production work: brittle, bruised, aching. But it is also extremely versatile, and Arca covers a great deal of emotional ground, making sometimes violent swings in its mood, as from the alternately mournful/wailing and delicate/resigned ‘Coraje’, into to the aggressive ‘Whip’, and out into the chilled, almost danceable ‘Desafio’. The synergy of the voice and the beats is fantastic throughout, to the point that his body (for it is above all a bodily, or embodied voice) seems to melt into his machines, the distinction between them becoming liquid. One almost doesn’t notice that the voice has disappeared entirely by closer ‘Child’, a negative of opener ‘Piel’, in which an initially a capella melody is hummed almost under the breath, slowly opening out into a full-throated cry as it is joined by both high, whining and deep, foreboding lines of synth. The album is perfectly sequenced, and is utterly absorbing from start to finish. It gets so close to you, so bodily and intimate, that it feels almost dangerous, like licking or touching bare wire with wet fingers. There is never quite a cathartic moment – it’s all danger, desire, electricity, tension, eroticism, caress, fingers slowly closing round your neck but never quite squeezing.

1. Richard Dawson – Peasant

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What do you want from an album? Do you want to learn, in quite some detail, how to authentically wash and dye wool as if you were in the Middle Ages? Do you want to hear a man sing the words “he gives me a potato” in a Newcastle accent? Do you want to listen to an acoustic guitar being fingerpicked with so much vigour it sounds as though it might bleed? Do you want melodies that terrify you, or sooth you, or bring you to tears, or turn themselves upside down when you least expect it? Do you want to be surprised? Do you want to learn about the Pin of Quib, and the Bog of Names, and the Fortress of Long Wings? Do you want stories, or characters? A masseuse “tired of kneading the knots from the bulbous backs and necks” of men? A soldier with a “heart full of dread” and the “memories of kisses spilled upon his chin”? That is, do you want to be taken to another place? Another time? Into another body, or eleven? Can an album really do that? Peasant is the best album of the year partially because it does all those things. But also because it is an album about community. I moved into a new house this year, and it is the first time since I was a child in my parents’ house that I know both my next-door-neighbours’ names, and the names of the people in the houses next to them, and in the houses opposite. Our road is a small community, and people look out for each other. I am a naturally shy, introverted person who likes to spend a lot of time by myself – but even I can’t survive without a community of people around me. Not just people who I love and who love me, but also casual acquaintances, neighbours, workers, people who make stuff I need, who do jobs I can’t do, maybe even some people who might read the things I write. And yet, communities all around us are dissolving or splintering or splitting apart. The news brings daily doses of terror, new superstitions and lies, new failures of empathy. Lots of things might be to blame for this: consumerism, ‘social’ media, the loss of traditional social centres like libraries, churches, or clubs. But whatever the cause, it’s something we need to fight against. Dawson finds an analogy for all this in a world that disappeared over a millennium ago, but that feels startlingly familiar. Though the specifics are alien, the concerns of the characters he creates “in the kingdom of Bryneich” are our concerns. That is why this album is so deeply moving, so devastating. It is the year reflected in a muddy, medieval puddle; an unexpected, unlikely, baffling snapshot of 2017.

Overlooked Albums 2017

As an addendum to my Albums of the Year list (check that out here), here are ten more albums I enjoyed this year that feel overlooked or under-appreciated, that I haven’t seen on other end-of-year lists, or that I just wanted to point to and say “hey, this was good too”. This isn’t necessarily numbers 21-30 on my list; rather, it’s a chance to focus on things you may not have encountered elsewhere, or may have forgotten about. (For more, see my two Quarterfaves posts from earlier in the year). Spotify playlist at the end, with a whole bunch more stuff on it, most of it pretty experimental.

Julia Lucille – Chthonic

cthnoicIt has been a year of excellent ‘dream music’, from the return of shoegaze pioneers Slowdive to the ethereal threads of Julie Byrne. Overlooked and underrated is this gem from Dripping Springs based Julia Lucille, the same Texas town where Cross Record recorded the brilliant Wabi Sabi last year, which has a similar vibe – it’s clearly a town that seeps into the music. This is dream folk from the underworld (‘chthonic’ is a term describing spirits or deities from under the earth), its ethereal, diffuse atmospherics tempered by Lucille’s baritone guitar, which gives the songs this dirty, dusty, low-end quality, and offsets her very breathy voice. There is a contrast, too, between the gorgeous layers of harmonies and the little touches of dissonance. An album to let wash over you.

Sephine Llo – I, Your Moon

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Sephine Llo has the voice and the musical chops of someone with degree-level classical training, and a CV full of impressive jobs and achievements: stints at Westminster Abbey and Abbey Road, awards for composition and recording. And yet I, Your Moon feels charmingly homemade and instinctive. It’s the sound of someone who’s learned and absorbed all the rules and is now doing whatever the hell she wants. The instrumental background feels cobbled together from whatever found tools and sounds might best capture the emotion she’s driving at: the title track alone features a SH101 synth, a hulusi (Chinese gourd flute), strings, baritone guitar, a typewriter, the birds outside her window, guitar feedback, skin sounds… But it’s never kooky or eccentric for the sake of it. The album’s recording was interrupted by the death of her husband, and it is marked by an indelible sadness; but also, a slow climb back towards hope.

Avey Tare – Eucalyptus

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Dave Portner’s new album as Avey Tare was so deeply personal and unbeholden to expectations that one imagines he might not have released it at all. Indeed, this sounds like some lost new age classic uncovered in a basement somewhere, the kind of thing that would have made it onto Light in the Attic’s compilation I Am the Center. It is a strange, languid, meandering trip. This unhurried, relaxed sound was explored further on Animal Collective’s brilliant, also overlooked EP from earlier this year, Meeting of the Waters, which Portner recorded with fellow member Brian Weitz live in the Amazon Rainforest: if you like Animal Collective and haven’t checked this out, you’re doing yourself a disservice.

Nick Hakim – Green Twins

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First off: album cover of the year. But the psychedelic soul concoction housed inside is great, too, and feels both retro and thoroughly modern. Much of the production is pretty lo fi, with sounds fraying at the edges, dissolving; that complements the sensual, vulnerable vocal performance from Hakim. But the best moments are the unexpected production touches, like the weird crying baby sounds at the end of ‘Needy Bees’, or the way ‘Cuffed’ seems to melt towards its end, or the mishmash of backing vocals behind ‘Slowly’.

Art Feynman – Blast Off Through the Wicker

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I first discovered Luke Temple through his Here We Go Magic project, an occasionally brilliant band who were always a little uneven. The name change with this new album seems to mark a renewed, refreshed energy, and these are funky, detailed, expressive songs that please the Talking Heads lover in me. Apparently there are no loops or drum machines on the whole thing, though it sounds constructed entirely from such materials; that might explain its baggy, lively charm.

Sam Amidon – The Following Mountain

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Amidon’s first album to consist only of his own songs (he’s known for recording mostly covers, an approach steeped in the idea that songs that don’t belong to any one person; ‘folk music’ in its oldest, truest sense), The Following Mountain is in every other way vintage Amidon: genuinely odd, jazz-infused folk songs, sung in a gravelly, distinctive voice. It becomes better as it progresses (though the lovely ‘Juma Mountain’ is an early standout), finishing with a twelve minute folk-jazz-improv freakout which was apparently the initial source of the other eight songs.

Ryuichi Sakamoto – async

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This album exists for the dead of night – I’ve only listened to it around midnight, or in the early hours of the morning, when I’ve been unable to sleep. It is haunted music. Most tracks consist of only a couple of elements, delicately balanced – not quite in sync, as the title suggests. Sakamoto is obviously a prolific and highly regarded artist, though he was new to me this year (I came to him through his influence on the also excellent Visible Cloaks album, Reassemblage). This album – full of gentle surprises – has been a great introduction. 

Various Artists – Mono No Aware

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Mono No Aware, a compilation of artists on the Berlin-based PAN label, manages to sound like a distinct, complete work without erasing the identity of the individual artists. That’s a difficult balance to achieve with any compilation, but even more so with ambient and experimental noise music, where sounds can easily bleed into one another. But each track here feels like a new voice temporarily becoming audible, like a face glimpsed through the fog. The title is a Japanese term for the awareness of impermanence (literally “the pathos of things) and it is the perfect title for this haunting collection.

Lawrence English – Cruel Optimism

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Pillows and clouds of soft noise, breaking on a distant horizon. It’s like a perfect meeting of William Basinski’s disintegration and Richard Skelton’s natural earthiness. English is a very erudite, thoughtful composer from Brisbane, Australia; his attention to detail in creating what is essential very amorphous music is what lifts it above other ambient sounds of this ilk. If you liked GAS’s Narkopop from earlier this year, definitely check this out.

The Green Kingdom – The North Wind and the Sun

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Somewhere between ambient and pastoral, instrumental folk, with occasional twinkling, celestial elements like the xylophone on ‘Rusted Relic I’. Reminds me a little of Rameses III’s album I Could Not Love You More. Very gentle, very peaceful. Out on Lost Tribe Sound, which is a fantastic label, home of the absurdly prolific William Ryan Fritch (who also used to release stuff as Vieo Abiungo). Everything on that label is worth a listen.

Surprise! Surprise!

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I listen to music all the time and all I ever really want is to be surprised.

This week I’ve been listening to lots of Arthur Russell. To discover Russell’s haunted avant-disco in the present day is to hear it through the mouths of ghosts, tainted and stained by all the artists who have been influenced by him. It is impossible to get rid of this context — of his death, of his legacy. The echoes of his echoes. It is not just Russell singing, but everyone who has paused at Russell’s singing in the past, who has his smudgy thumbprint on their ear. And everyone who has written on him, read or not. (And so it is, now, my voice too).

And yet it is still surprising. It still sounds totally and utterly new. Not just because of the unusual combination of sounds — the tortured, drenched sound of his cello colliding with his disco beats — but because of the spirit inside it, his unique voice. A colour or emotion, a hue that is unusual and distinctly his.

 

This is the case with all great music. It is like Ezra Pound’s idea of literature – “news that stays news”. Whatever order you hear them in, the classics stay new. They leap the narrative forward again. They build on what came after them. They develop their influences.

Because you might know the story but you haven’t read it until you’ve actually read it, and in the reading the story is reimagined, determined by the order of each fragment. No one listens in order. No one is born listening to the earliest recorded alien warble, only to grow up with the forties aged four and the sixties aged six, crawling forward through the years, slowing as the amount of recorded music exponentially increases. That would be silly. No one swallows the narrative of music whole. It only exists, insofar as it does even exist, as various, overlapping, contradictory and above all piecemeal versions, assembled out-of-order.

To hear Vashti Bunyan’s Just Another Diamond Day today is to hear the ideas of Devendra Banhart’s Rejoicing in the Hands and Joanna Newsom’s The Milk Eyed Mender clarified, purified — a reverse expansion.

To hear Can’s Ege Bamyasi today is to hear every ‘Vitamin C’ breakbeat lifted from it reimagined again as live drums. Like when I saw the entire DJ Shadow album Endtroducing… (widely credited as the first album to consist entirely of samples of other records) played by a live band, complete with two voices reading out all the sampled snippets of speech. (A magical live show — the absolute passion for that album by everyone on stage could be palpably felt.)

And more embarrassing examples abound — the surprise that the Pulp Fiction soundtrack did not, in fact, “pump it louder”. The no-surprise of the fourth, the fifth, by the time I actually got back through the thicket of covers to the real ‘Hallelujah’.

(Ironically, every time I listen to OK Computer, it’s ‘No Surprises’ that catches me out, sequencing-wise. I always forget it’s coming.)

Yet this ahistorical listening is of course supplemented with historical learning. It’s not like I take in Bunyan or Can without context. My point is simply that there’s no such thing as historical listening because we can’t un-hear the things that come chronologically later. One could draw a line and only listen going forward, to things on their release date — but you’d actually end up hearing less really new things, because most of the really new things are actually old things. History tends to repeat itself. To go forwards you have to (mostly) go backwards.

So it is that the two newest albums I’ve heard this year were released in 1972 and 1983: Lal & Mike Waterson’s Bright Phoebus and Midori Takada’s Through the Looking Glass. Why? Because they sound like nothing I’ve heard before, couple with the simple fact(s) that I’d never heard them (or of them) before. Both were reissued this year to wide re-acclaim, re-reviewing (re-re-viewing). Their physical rerelease not only pleased collectors but gave them a chance to be re-released— the dove exploding from the cage — and heard as though new again, by new ears.

It is easy to equate newness with technology, synthetic sound, fragmentation, formal experimentation. In fact, the newest-sounding, actually historically new album of 2017 is, to these ears, Richard Dawson’s Peasant. This glorious, ambitious, compassionate, moving, bloody, terrifying, uplifting album is about as far away from ‘now’ as one could hope to get — it is ‘set’ (so to speak) in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Bryneich, in pre-medieval northern England, about a thousand years before recorded music began. Listening to it, you are transported back into that time, as Dawson tells the imagined stories of different members of that community (‘Beggar’, ‘Prostitute’, ‘Scientist’, ‘Soldier’). The instrumentation, too, manages to conjure something of the muddy, rural, and above all (and in all its senses) dark age in which these songs are set. That is, it actually sounds old. So why does it also sound so new? Because it says things about community and society that need to be said and heard in 2017? Partially. But also because it just sounds, once again, like nothing I’ve ever heard before. A new way of sounding, a new way of feeling, a new way of thinking.

Surprise. Equal parts emotional flip-in-the-tummy and intellectual startling. Both jolt awake, increasing attention and focus. How does this square, though, with the kind of somnambulant music that seeks not to jolt but to lull us? Is there not good music which acts as lullaby, as balm, or even as wallpaper? Forms which are antithetical to surprise? Where is the surprise then? I propose it is in the dreams induced. You don’t have to pop a balloon and make a bang to surprise someone. You might tie a thousand balloons to their chair and let them drift off, see new shapes in the clouds. There is such a thing as a soft surprise. A new tint of light. That is what it means for music to be truly psychedelic — the slow surprise of consciousness expanding.