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.

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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.

Quarterfaves: Apr-Jun

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The last three months have been very busy, both personally (I got married!) and musically (just impossible to keep up). There have been some high profile releases I won’t cover here (Arca, Perfume Genius, Fleet Foxes) but which which will likely feature pretty high up on my end-of-year list. (I blogged a little about the Arca already; the Fleet Foxes will almost certainly be my album of the year). Instead, as is the spirit of this ‘Quarterfaves’ thing, I want to highlight a few recent releases I’ve enjoyed that might have slipped under your radar, or else been forgotten already in the always-too-quick deluge of other new music.

Spirit of the Beehive – Pleasure Suck

If you like indie music and haven’t given this a spin, you should. It’s noisy and restless and messy, and just packed full of great little hooks which are never quite left to settle. That can make it a quite frustrating listen at times, but it also makes it an engaging one – the ‘pleasure’ of the hooks is ‘sucked’ out by the constant forward motion of the songcraft, like the end of a hoover sucking on your skin. (Which is strangely pleasurable in its own way of course.) This came out around the same time as Feist’s also-excellent album Pleasure, so the two are connected in my mind. They are antithetical approaches to the same theme: Feist is light and breezy where Beehive are dark and claustrophonic. I have listened to the two back-to-back a few times, and they make oddly fitting bedfellows.

Dali Vision – Hell on Earth

The bandcamp page for this describes it as “not-quite-easy listening – a kind of post- apocalyptic lounge,” which is pretty apt. It has that quality I like in music of being unshowily and quietly ambitious. It takes you places, surprises you, envelops you in new sound worlds, without making a big deal out of it. For a record called Hell on Earth, it is startlingly pretty. Hell on earth really sounds rather lovely. But maybe that’s the point? It’s alluring, but also just slightly unsettling, like the rug is going to be pulled from under you any moment. Which it never quite is. It’s always just about to. That makes it, for all its otherworldliness, an oddly rather 2017 record.

Karima Walker – Hands in Our Names

If you liked Julie Byrne’s record from earlier this year, then you might enjoy this, which has that similar feeling of total calm and peace. (I don’t want to overstate the similarities, as their approaches are pretty different, but there’s a mutual vibe I think.) Hands moves fluidly from simple folk songs sung on acoustic guitar into more abstract collages of sound and back again. The collaged moments are full of natural sounds, but also tape loops, droning bell-like tones, and washes of static, adding textural and tonal interest. The title track moves imperceptibly from two voices singing in rounds into overlapping echoes of the same voice, which is a particularly lovely movement – it reminds me a little of both Mountain Man and Julianna Barwick.

Luka Productions – Fasokan

Those who know me well know I love the music of Mali; but this record doesn’t really sound like anything else I’ve ever heard from the country. It sounds like a dreamy sci-fi, all space age drift and floating ambience, with sprinklings of more traditional Malian rhythms over the top. Luka is a beatmaker for local rappers, who apparently queue up outside his small studio in Bamako for his services. But this feels like a much more personal project. It has a slight New Age vibe to it; it is music that seeks to heal.

Clap! Clap! – A Thousand Skies

So much stylistic ground covered on this thing. It never stays in one place for long. Part of that is the number and variety of collaborators that head ‘clapper’, Italian beatmaker Cristiano Crisci, brings on board, lending different tracks different flavours. But it also comes from Crisci himself, who has a clear passion for sounds from around the world, and for blending live instrumentation with head-spinning electronic sounds.

Jlin – Black Origami

I mean this is insanely good and will probably make my year-end list so I won’t say too much here, other than the observation that this would make very strange but possibly quite excellent music to excercise to.

Laurel Halo – Dust

This only just came out last week, so not a lot of constructive things to say right now other than… Hmmmm…. Oooooh…. Aaaah…. (I think it’s her most confounding and interesting release yet. She’s just brilliant.)

 

 

 

Quaterfaves: Jan-Mar ’17

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(This was a regular feature on the previous blog, and though it certainly falls into the “check this out!” category of music writing, it’s one I’d like to continue. It’s a quarterly round-up of my favourite recent releases, with an emphasis on those which are more likely to have slipped under the radar.)

Jasper Lee – Mirror of Wind

This is the best record that no one is talking about. Chamber pop meets jazz guitar meets esoteric film music meets… What is this record? I have no idea. Lee even makes his own instruments, with exotic sounding names like the ‘pyraharp’, which looks like this. There’s a tropical, swampy vibe hanging over the whole thing, belying his involvement in Them Natives. Just listen to it already.

PC Worship – Buried Wish

Abandoned spaces, junkyards, outsider art environments: these are the spiritual homes of this warped guitar music. The PCs being worshipped are piled up in a trash heap of plastic casing, cracked screens and wires. (Everyone is on their tablets.) It’s been a while since I’ve enjoyed a rock record this much. There’s the obvious appeal of a squawky, clanging number like ‘Blank Touch’, or the catchy, White Denim-esque ‘Rivers Running Sideways’, but some of the best stuff is hidden in the back half: warbly, uncertain compositions like ‘Flowers & Hunting’ and ‘Moons’, which sounds like something off an old Liars record.

Julie Byrne – Not Even Happiness

Whispered late at night. Its instrumentals are all dreamy caverns to get lost in, but it provides a guide from its beguiling beginning: follow my voice.

Kelly Lee Owens – Kelly Lee Owens

Been waiting for this for a while, and it doesn’t disappoint, though it’s a difficult record to fully grasp. No matter how much you turn up the volume, it feels too quiet. Quietness is built into it by design. You can never quite hear it clearly, as though it doesn’t want to be tied down or caught. Something like a chorus comes along unexpectedly in Jenny Hval collaboration ‘Anxi’, but then isn’t returned to; it slips away and escapes in a broken cascade of beats. ‘Lucid’ risks repeating its chorus, but its heavy reverb dissolves it before you can catch it anyway. But then, reverb heavy vocals are easy to make diffuse; that she manages to make the pattering hi-hats and bright flickers of synths at the end of the song feel the same is cleverer. Things start to build with the house-y thump of ‘Evolution’, and climax in the extended clatter of ‘8’ (an infinity sign turned on its side?), but it still all feels oddly shrouded in mist. And yet it is never vague, either. It refuses to be remembered, but also refuses to be forgotten.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah – The Tourist

The hugely underrated songwriter Alec Ounsworth returns with another record full of unfussily strange songs. Lead single ‘Fireproof’ layers insistent, squiggly guitar hook on top of insistent, squiggly guitar hook. ‘Unfolding Above Celibate Moon’ is both carnivalesque and celestial at the same time. ‘Better Off’ climaxes with one of his classic one-note vocal hooks. ‘The Pilot’ and ‘Loose Ends’ are wistful and longing. As on previous album Only Run, this feels like a second, more grown-up period for CYHSY, less wacky and unpredictable than their earlier work, but also subtler and truer. Ignore the general internet narrative about this band (victims of blog hype, diminishing returns, etc. etc.); they are consistently excellent.

Jay Som – Everybody Works

Following great records by Japanese Breakfast and Mitski last year, here’s further proof that Asian-American women are currently making some of the best indie rock around. (I don’t mean to lump these artists into a ‘scene’, though they have all toured together, so there’s definitely a connection there.) I like the title, where ‘works’ can be read as both a present tense verb (sounding like a mantra, as well as a twist on a certain R.E.M. song) and a plural noun (suggesting the tracks themselves are the ‘works’, of and for and by ‘everybody’). I also like the music, which blends in elements of Broadcast and The Microphones and (as Melina Duterte has repeatedly pointed out in interviews) Carly Rae Jepson, without losing its own strong sense of identity.

Alix Hyde – Wanderings

Difficult to find much out about this release online, other than the fact that Hyde also does illustrations, which are really lovely, and accompany the music perfectly. It’s slightly too busy to be called ambient (it doesn’t quite float into the background, but holds attention) yet it does have a diffuse, difficult-to-hold-onto quality that it shares with music of that sphere. The tracks mix different elements together like George concocting his marvellous medicines, so that you never quite know what’s round the corner: vocals unexpectedly arrive ten tracks in, first in the form of a looped sample in ‘All I Want Is You’, and then some soft, plaintive singing (Hyde’s own?) in ‘Heaven’. It’s wonder-full.

Albums of the Year 2016

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Here are TQR’s favourite albums of the year. Find a spotify playlist at the bottom of the post. There were, of course, many other great albums this year. Hovering just outside this top ten are Leonard Cohen’s haunting swansong You Want It Darker, Frank Ocean’s emotionally subtle suite Blonde, Kevin Morby’s brilliantly addictive Singing Saw, the surprise return of The Avalanches with Wildflower, as well as excellent releases from TQR favourites like Tim Hecker, Julianna Barwick and Lambchop. But as fine as those records are, here are the ten I’m most vouching for…

10 • KAITLYN AURELIA SMITH • EARS

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Much of Ears reminds me of evolution, of the fizzing, frothing, foaming soup at the beginning of time. But it also evokes human attempts to replicate evolution’s chemical concoctions, through things like the process artworks of Richard Serra and Morris Louis, or Pollock’s drips, or the randomly generated planets of No Man’s Sky. The criss-crossing wires of the Buchla synthesiser – a rare, impossibly complicated early electronic instrument, which Smith specialises in playing – look like a tangle of DNA strands, cross-pollinating and producing unexpected mutations and evolutions. Out of all these effervescent, electronic soapsuds come odd, unexpected bubbles of melody or song, often in the form of chant, as in ‘Arthropoda’ and ‘First Flight’, but sometimes in even more unexpected guises, as in what sounds like a flute appearing halfway through ‘Wetlands’, or a saxophone in ‘Rare Things Grow’. These song-bubbles sometimes resemble other artists – ‘Envelop’ reminds me of Julian Lynch, ‘Existence in the Unfurling’ of The Knife – but inevitably dissolve back into Smith’s unique potions.

9 • ANIMAL COLLECTIVE • PAINTING WITH

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Animal Collective’s music seems to exist well outside the zeitgeist now. It seems funny, in retrospect, that they went through a period of being popular and adored at all. Merriweather Post Pavilion, their most critically-praised album, is just as weird, overstuffed, chaotic and repetitive to these ears as the extreme high-and-low frequencies of Here Comes the Indian (long before it) or the demented kid’s TV themes of Painting With (long after it). My point is, they’ve always made music for outsiders, for weirdos. They like to play with things that teeter on the verge of annoying: meowing like kittens on ‘Leaf House’ from Sung Tongs, repeatedly dismantling, in a discordant clash, the gorgeous swells of ‘Daffy Duck’ from Feels. On the verge of annoying but, for me, never quite tipping into it: that’s what makes them thrilling. Painting With is much the same: the repeated trick of Lennox and Portner alternating each syllable of the vocal lines, the squelchy, rubbery synth sounds that you feel in your body, the ‘Wipeout’ laugh and snatches of Golden Girls dialogue flitting around in the mix. You either love this stuff or hate it. The criticism that such playfulness is childish is surely offset by the lyrics, which read as humble attempts at tackling serious subject matter: the environment, gender, the internet. And just as previous albums have had their own distinct sense of landscape (a treehouse for Sung Tongs, a campfire for Campfire Songs) these feel like Florida songs, the sounds repeatedly recalling the state’s mangrove swamps, as when the last word of “so many ways” on ‘Hocus Pocus’ seems to melt in the heat. “Floridada, floridada…”

8 • JESSY LANZA • OH NO

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This is infectious pop music, with an instrumental backdrop that is somehow both minimalist and stark, yet hugely varied in terms of its influences. Everything is polished and sharp and glittering, doing lots with little. Take ‘It Means I Love You’, which starts out with a house-y kick drum and some South African-sounding tabla, before drums straight out of a Chicago footwork track come in. And yet despite its variety of rhythms, the track is never cluttered, with Lanza’s hook cutting through everything like a knife through silk: “when you look into my eyes boy, it means I love you”. That seems a pretty strange thing to say: when you look at me, it means I love you. Does the singer just want someone to pay attention to them? Desire is perhaps the key theme here, treated subtly and complexly throughout. Her voice is also great throughout: I love the way it hiccups on the hook of ‘Going Somewhere’, the way it seductively draws you in on ‘New Ogi’ and then dismissively shrugs you off (“I say it to your face but it doesn’t mean a thing, no!”) on ‘VW Violence’. And yet, with characteristic subtlety, that last line could equally be read as insecure: as the singer worrying about being ignored. These moments of looking, of eye contact, appear throughout (“don’t look when you talk to me”) and always have an emotional tug to them. Also, great songs for dancing round the kitchen to.

7 • RADIOHEAD • A MOON SHAPED POOL

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I already wrote a whole post about this, so don’t want to add too much here. It’s Radiohead. It has ‘True Love Waits’ on it, an absolutely gorgeous, heartbreakingly sad version of ‘True Love Waits’ on it. It’s very good.

6 • DAVID BOWIE • BLACKSTAR

blackstarA record which hung over the whole year, “at the centre of it all”. A final, burning goodbye, “in the villa of amen”. Indelibly linked, of course, to Bowie’s death just a few days after its release. He knew he was dying, he kept it a secret from almost everyone, and he channelled that secret knowledge into a record which looks death squarely in the face, a record which is ready for death, which dances with it. A record which is fierce in its experimentation, forward-thinking where one might expect it to be maudlin or nostalgic. Honestly, I can’t get over that title track. It’s by turns eerie and sad and funky and transcendent. And then ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’ comes rumbling out the gate, consisting for more almost a minute of nothing more than an insistent drum beat and some odd flecks of sax and noise. “Man, she punched me like a dude!” Oh, Bowie. You can’t give everything away, but you gave us this.

5 • A TRIBE CALLED QUEST • WE GOT IT FROM HERE… THANK YOU 4 YOUR SERVICE

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Who knew we needed the Tribe back so badly? Hearing lead track ‘We the People’ for the first time was revelatory. Of all the comebacks this year, the Tribe’s felt like the most necessary. That instantly classic chorus – “all you black folks, you must go; all you Mexicans, you must go…” – will remind us for years to come of what it was like to be alive in this horrible year. Yet music like this is one potential antidote: ‘The Donald’ doubles as both a tribute to member Phife Dawg, who died from diabetes this year, and (without ever explicitly acknowledging it) a counter-narrative to another Donald trying to build his own self-aggrandising legend. The album somehow feels simultaneously like classic 90s ATCQ (IMW is a huge Low End Theory fan) and yet also completely current and relevant and necessary. Everyone is on top form, musically, vocally, lyrically. Like Wildflower by The Avalanches, it is startling that this album exists at all, and even more startling that it’s actually any good. But where Wildflower inevitably feels a little nostalgic, this feels bang up-to-date. Apparently, despite the large number of guests – Kendrick Lamar, Andre 3000, Jack White – everything here was recorded in the same room, in Q-Tip’s house. You can feel that spirit of togetherness throughout. It feels much needed.

4 • IAN WILLIAM CRAIG • CENTRES

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Like Lambchop’s Flotus, Craig uses vocal processing here in genuinely unexpected and creative ways. The record is bookended by two equally vital versions of the same song, ‘Contain’. The opening ‘Astoria Version’ sputters into life with a distorted drum pulse, which gives way to a distant squiggle of what sounds like the decayed corpse of a melody, something deep into one of William Basinski’s decay processes. And then Craig starts singing – in his astonishing, operatically trained voice – through heavy auto-tune. It’s unexpected even a dozen listens in and yet, as the song builds and builds into a ten-minute waterfall of noise and drone, it begins to make sense. Equally captivating, and equally unexpected after the hour-plus of experimental ambient music that has preceded it, is the closing ‘Cedar Version’, a tender, lo-fi ballad with strummed acoustic guitar. I guess expectations are all about context. Between those two bookends, the record dissolves into all kinds of shreds of emotive texture and tone. It is an album which uses the language of ambient music – that is, essentially, background music – in such a way that it utterly absorbs attention while listening. I don’t move, I just listen.

3 • ELZA SOARES • A MULHER DO FIM DO MUNDO

elzasoaresA record made by a woman with more life and grit and chutzpah than most artists a quarter of her age. A samba record that sounds nothing like you’d expect a samba record to sound like. A record by a 79-year old with a song called ‘Pra Fuder’, translation: ‘To Fuck’. A record which, like Beyonce’s and Solange’s, explored what it means to be a black woman in 2016. A record carried by incredible musicianship, but even more by that incredible, malleable, all natural force of Soares’s voice, a voice which, like Leonard Cohen’s on You Want It Darker, has gained layer upon layer of complexity and character as it has aged. A record which opened and closed with the raw acapella power of that voice. A record by a woman at the end of the world, do fim do mundo.

2 • NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS • SKELETON TREE

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It just starts. Thwack: you’re hit with a wall of texture. These are songs built on what sound like great slabs of texture, cross-cuts through the surface of the earth, layers of sediment packed on top of each other, millions of years of accrual. And atop these huge, rich slices of instrumentation, mixed well above them like the voice of God, is Cave’s gravelly spoken poetry. It is impossible not to be moved by these songs – it is some of the darkest and most pain-wracked music I’ve ever heard. “You’re a young man waking covered in blood that isn’t yours.” Is that an image of birth, or death? Impossible to know. I’m trying not to mention Cave’s son’s death, but it is impossible – though much of this music was written beforehand, that horrible event has inevitably seeped its way into the album. The whole thing is a desperate prayer: “with my voice, I am calling you” goes the first track; “I called out, I called out, right across the sea” goes the last. The first five songs are overwhelmingly dark, almost hopeless, but cracks of light do appear towards the record’s end. Yet I almost find these songs – ‘I Need You’, ‘Distant Sky’ – even more difficult to listen to, the sound of a man trying to escape from his pain. And then, the soft catharsis (a strange oxymoron, but I don’t know how else to put it) of the closing title track: breath-taking.

1 • ANNA MEREDITH • VARMINTS

varmintsOpening with the astonishing alarm call that is ‘Nautilus’, everything about this album is surprising, thrilling, and constantly catches you off guard. Example: the opening track builds and builds, horns and synths locked in an increasingly intense battle in the air, and then finally, finally, almost three and a half minutes in, the drums kick in, and they seem to slow the track down. How does she do that? Like many others on this list, Meredith combines apparently disparate influences into something startling and new: classical, dance, pop, guitar rock, experimental noise, ambient. It’s all here, and yet it somehow (to use an old cliché) adds to more than the sum of its parts. My appreciation of this music deepened enormously after seeing it performed live in September: her joy in performing was palpable, and the musicianship involved in actually making this cacophony of sound was astonishing. Though there is certainly sadness and uncertainty and anxiety in this music – as on the yearning ‘Scrimshaw’, the pent up nervousness in ‘R-Type’, the freaked-out sideways-glancing of ‘The Vapours’ – the album repeatedly arrives at small moments of hope. It refuses to give up that little spark of hopefulness. In a year in which so many tongues were occupied with lies and slander and hate speech, in which overt racism and sexism has become more acceptable and widespread, in which many people preferred to make bitter jokes and snap judgements rather than trying to understand opposite points of view, Varmints dares us instead to “say something helpful”. And I think that is why I liked this record more than any other this year. I found it helpful. I found listening to it helpful. It was a light among so much darkness.