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.

Ys, Ten Years On

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I remember seeing Ys, before I’d ever heard it, in the record collection of a couple in Holland, old friends of my parents we were visiting in Amsterdam. The cover intrigued me: a portrait of a woman in something like a milkmaid’s clothes, with a garland of flowers around her blonde, plaited hair. In one hand she holds a sickle, in the other a small pinned butterfly or moth in a gilded frame. On the windowsill, a blackbird holds a cherry in its mouth; beyond it, mountains, trees, a river. It looked like something from another century, another land, and I suppose I assumed it was Dutch, maybe an old record from the 70s, when ornateness and indulgence were more in fashion. In fact, this trip was in late 2006, so the record would have just been released a few months, perhaps weeks, beforehand.

A decade on, and the record, though I’ve listened to it hundreds of times now, still has the same sense of mystery and intrigue about it, the same promise of being whisked away to another land. We are there, straight away, at the start of ‘Emily’: “a rusty light on the pines tonight”, “old smokestacks and the bale and the barrow”, “a mud-cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky had been breathing on a mirror”. But with closer reading, we realise how these drunk-on-language, natural images are hauntingly personal: beneath the metaphors, Joanna (or the narrator) is telling the story of how her sister comforted her during a failed pregnancy. That she does this almost entirely through closely observed natural imagery is remarkable. Her aimlessness following the loss is evoked in the way “peonies nod in the breeze, and while they wetly bow, with hydrocephalitic listlessness, ants mop up their brow”. What an astonishing image! Later she sees salvation in the stars: “the way the ladle leads to a dirt-red bullet of light” turns out to be an image of the big dipper, recalling the little meteorite poem that serves as the song’s chorus. Underneath thick layers of allegory and embellishment are stark, cuttingly true feelings, lump-in-the-throat emotions.

Newsom has a taste for unusual-sounding words – “pleiades”, “kith”, “yarrow”, “lissome”, “diluvian” – which I imagine might grate for some people. Hers are dense lyrics, certainly, and require a great deal of close reading: chasing down each mystery often uncovers yet more mysteries. They are also open lyrics, allowing for multiple readings. Yet they do offer answers, too, and careful research reveals that they are far from random, or chosen purely for sound’s sake. The last lines of ‘Emily’ are as powerful, even without the music, as any poetry I’ve read: “Joy, landlocked in bodies that don’t keep, dumbstruck with the sweetness of being, till we don’t be. Told: take this, eat this”. That slightly awkward “don’t be” is as painful and undignified as death is. And in the apparently Eucharist-referencing last image is one of the common themes throughout these five songs: transformation.

The lyrics, though, are only one part of the puzzle. More astonishing still is Newsom’s voice. I can just about understand why people might have a problem with it on The Milk-Eyed Mender, where she does tend to yelp and wail a little unpredictably (though I think it’s beautiful), but from Ys onwards, any complaints against her voice are ridiculous. It is an astonishing force, capable of a huge range of emotion and expression. Though it is a great pleasure to comb through the lyrics and try to unpick them, there is no need to do so to grasp their meaning, for it is all carried in the delivery. ‘Sawdust and Diamonds’, the simplest track (‘simple’ being, here, a relative term), is maybe the most powerful. Accompanied only by her harp, all that carries us through for ten minutes is that voice. The way she moves from what sounds like almost complete resignation in the opening lines (“From the top of the flight of the wide, white stairs, through the rest of my life, do you wait for me there?”), through the stirring of desire and the sense of hope awakening again as the song unfolds, is captivating: and indeed we finish with her wringing out about twelve different emotions from the word ‘desire’ itself, sung repeatedly towards the song’s close. Other vocal highlights include the delivery of the lines “scrape your knee it is only skin, makes the sound of violins”, in ‘Only Skin’, which get me every time, and the final, ecstatic eruptions of ‘Cosmia’: “and I miss your precious heart!”

And then, of course, there is the music itself. Van Dyke Parks, whose 1968 album Song Cycle is also a favourite of mine, provided orchestral arrangements for four of the album’s five tracks, and they are certainly an inseparable part of the albums charm, accentuating and colouring and countering its many subtle shades of mood and tone. But the star of the show is, of course, the harp itself. I cannot get into technical details here, not being a harpist, but the range of the playing seems, to me, astonishing. Her melodies always surprise. They are crafted to be as affecting as possible, to catch you out even on the hundredth listen. For an example, choose any moment on any song on the album. Really. Anywhere. Nowhere is the writing lazy or obvious, and yet for all its risk-taking, there are somehow no missteps. It’s 55 minutes of perfection.

So, these are dense, difficult, winding, intricate songs, ranging from seven to seventeen minutes long, that reveal more with each listen. But here’s some other adjectives I’d throw at the album too: catchy (there’s plenty of melodic hooks here, even if they’re not anchored to verses and choruses), fun (parts of ‘Monkey and Bear’, a recounting of an origin story of Ursa Major, are even funny, though it’s also maybe the saddest song on the record), effortless (that seems an odd choice, when so much effort has clearly gone into it, but it never sounds laboured; it wears its accomplishments lightly). I offer these to counter a prevailing idea about the album that I profoundly disagree with: that it is a difficult listen. Yes, effort in listening reaps, as it always does, reward. But the album makes such effort easy, because it always delights, carries you with it, extends a hand to you. It is generous, never off-putting. It is deep and powerful and absolutely serious, but it is also sprightly and even a bit silly, committing to its own quirks, wearing them proudly.

Her catalogue has deepened and broadened greatly over the last ten years, with the hugely ambitious and varied triple album Have One on Me in 2010, and last year’s gorgeous Divers, yet still nothing else sounds quite like Ys. Nothing spins quite the same magic web. If you’ve never heard it before, I envy you – you have such a treat in store. But I don’t envy you too much, because I’ve grown and changed with this album, and it’s become a part of me. And I look forward to the next ten years with it.

Quarterfaves: Jul-Sep

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It’s been rather quiet here of late in the icy waters of IMW, but here are a few things that have swum by and caught my attention. Non-exhaustive, in no particular order. Notably missing men with names like Frank and Nick, because you’ve read plenty about them already, great as they are. Also missing that sweet new Avalanches record, which I wrote about last month.

THE GASLAMP KILLER • INSTRUMENTALEPATHY

Much of the music here – indeed much of the great music of this year, from David Bowie to Nick Cave – is haunted by the spectre of death. William Bensussen made most of this record while recovering from a scooter accident which nearly killed him. It fits, then, into a mini-genre, the ‘hospital bed opus’, the most famous example of which would be J Dilla’s masterpiece, Donuts. But the mood of this is very different – for a start, Gaslamp’s record is a process of recovery, rather than a final bright burn like Dilla’s was. I first heard Gaslamp through his work on Gonjasufi’s still-excellent record A Sufi and A Killer, back in 2010. (Gonjasufi also dropped a new record this year, Callus, in August). This has all the weirdness of that record, but without the gravelly earthiness that comes from Sumach Ecks’s voice; it is spacier, dreamier, a voyage through the disoriented mind of someone recovering from trauma.

JENNY HVAL • BLOOD BITCH

Hval is always intriguing, lacing her haunting songs with political undertones. In a dark tent, its canopy covered in stars, I watched her pour a jug of water over someone’s head, the throb of ‘Female Vampire’ filling the space. Surreal. Any attempt to pin her down is probably futile. This is something of a concept album about vampires and menstruation. I think. Still unpicking. I first discovered her work on the truly stunning Meshes of Voice, her 2014 collaborative album with Susanna. This is more song-based than that work, but similar in its treading the line between unsettling and beautiful.

ELZA SOARES • A MULHER DO FIM DO MUNDO

With a title meaning ‘The Woman at the End of the World’, this is the post-apocalyptic sound of sambo sujo, or ‘dirty samba’: experimental, raw, ravaged by the scraps and scrapes of other genres, from jazz to rock to noise. Soares is new to me, but she’s apparently famous in Brazil as a voice of the under-represented, particularly black and gay women. Her voice is a force to be reckoned with, and the music sounds utterly vital.

CASS McCOMBS • MANGY LOVE

Every album Cass makes has at least one perfect song: a ‘You Saved My Life’, a ‘County Line’, a ‘Morning Star’. This time it’s ‘Medusa’s Outhouse’, one of the saddest he’s ever made. Cass pleads in a pained falsetto to ‘forget what hasn’t happened yet’, the music languid and longing. Halfway in and synths buzz through the mix like demented insects, the song shifting into an odd spoken word plea – ‘if it’s so easy, you try’ – before slide guitar comes in to rub salve into the wound. The two play off each other for the rest of the song. Elsewhere, the songs are by turns sad and hopeful, sweet and bitter, funny and serious.

BAT FOR LASHES • THE BRIDE

Another concept album, this one about a bride whose husband-to-be dies on the way to the alter. A few months ago I got engaged, so all this wedding malarkey is somewhat on my mind. The record is heavy on the ballads, and is carried, all the way through, by Natasha Khan’s incredible, malleable voice. Watching her perform this at End of the Road festival, wearing white, with candlelight flickering on the stage and her band all dressed up in wedding outfits, was truly spellbinding.

RYLEY WALKER • GOLDEN SINGS THAT HAVE BEEN SUNG

Hot on the heels of last year’s excellent and timeless Primrose Green comes another record that sounds dug up from a lost era. It’s all slow burning summer jams and fingerpicked grooves, warm and smoky and mellow. Odd grammar in the title, as does…

HIEROGLYPHIC BEING • THE DISCO’S OF IMHOTEP

The disco is of Imhotep – that odd punctuation. As though the disco, wherever it crops up its head, belongs to him: ‘the one who comes in peace’, the earliest known architect, engineer and physician in history. His structures now collapsing in fractured splinters of techno. Libations poured out to him from water jugs. Again with the poured water.

KLARA LEWIS • TOO

Music for between the hours of 0.00 and 4.00. Techno whispered to you in the dark – it reminds me, more than anyone, of Grouper, in its intimacy. Its melodies are blurry phantoms slinking through the corners of your eyelids.

Wildflower

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A few weeks ago in the New York Botanical Garden, the corpse flower (pictured above) came into bloom, releasing a stench variously described as smelling of rotting meat, sweaty socks, limburger cheese, human feces, and ‘lettuce when you take it out of the bag’. One six year old called it ‘worse than a thousand pukes‘. The flower takes ten years to come into bloom, a bloom which lasts for just a day, after which it dies. In New York, it is only the second time a corpse flower has successfully bloomed since 1939.

Many had been waiting a similarly long time – 16 years, to be exact – for Wildflower, the new album from the Avalanches. Such long waits create unreasonable expectations, and the idea of a “new Avalanches” had become something like the Chinese Democracy of bright, colourful, sample-based electronica. There was a good chance that, like the corpse flower, this wildflower’s bloom would turn out to be a horrid stink, an overthought, overproduced mess of incompatible scents, once-good ideas turned fetid and foul from too long in the think tank. I feared it might sour all the golden memories that have gathered around their essentially perfect debut, Since I Left You.

A relief, then, that as we gathered round waiting for this bud to finally bloom, it turned out not to be a corpse flower at all. Because Wildflower is fantastic. Take a deep breath of its heady perfume and find yourself intoxicated.

Records this complex and detail-orientated simply take a long time to grow, not to mention the headache of clearing so many samples. Now it’s here, the long wait doesn’t feel like an important part of the narrative anymore: this is simply the next step in the Avalanches’ evolution. Which means subtle changes – the introduction of guest vocalists, the added string-parts gliding over the rush – and a whole lot more of what they already did brilliantly: a potpourri of perfectly-chosen samples, all mixed and mingled into mind-altering new arrangements. Nobody does it better.

The Avalanches are easy-going perfectionists. The sounds, every micro-second of them, are considered and mixed to perfection, and yet, formally, their arrangement remains baggy and loose. So the whole thing feels almost improvised, thrown together, when actually it was painstakingly crafted over a decade and a half. ‘Frankie Sinatra’ reportedly went through over a hundred mixes to get it right, even after the arrangement had been settled on: yet it sounds like a ridiculous, out-of-control party.

Since I Left You felt like one long, sunstroke-induced dream, a hallucinatory journey complete with maps and ships and islands and beaches and tropical birds. Wildflower is still dreamy, but it feels a little more alive and ragged and unpredictable. Gone is the island paradise vibe – this feels more like a summer in the city, cramped and humid and buzzing with activity. ‘Live a Lifetime Love’ just bursts out the gates, the chatter of voices all around the mix. ‘The Wozard of Iz’ takes its classic 90s hip-hop beat and warps it in the sizzle of hot, smog-refracted sunlight. The sample of a child singing at the start of ‘Because I’m Me’ bursts with a youthful energy, crackling and spilling out in directions it’s not meant to. There’s a similar sensation in ‘Subways’, where the end of the line (“what you found”) seems to rush off with the beat. Honestly, it’s amazing how much life-force there is to this record, how in-the-moment it feels, for something that took so long to make.

Like many, I came to the Avalanches through the manic funhouse romp of ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’. The spiritual successor to that song here is ‘The Noisy Eater’, which is perhaps even sillier, and features some great guest verses from Biz Markie, and a kid-choir singing the unmistakable first verse from ‘Come Together’. (I imagine that sample must have been a nightmare to clear, but let’s be thankful Pat Shannahan managed it, as it makes the song). But while there are few moments like this of uninhibited crazy, there are also tinges throughout of sadness, regret, nostalgia, hope – a whole range of emotions. ‘If I Was a Folkstar’, with guest vocals from Toro Y Moi’s Chaz Bundwick, is particularly wistful. The warped vocals of ‘Sunshine’ hit exactly the right balance between happy and sad that the band have spoken of aiming for. Nostalgia is, of course, the key emotion in Avalanches’ music, and Mark Richardson, in his spot-on-as-usual review, made the point that Wildflower engages in a kind of double-nostalgia: nostalgia for the seventies refracted through nostalgia for the nineties. Even the cover art does this: it’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On refracted through Screamadelica.

I can’t help but wonder how long we’ll have to wait for the next one. Another sixteen years? I’m not sure I mind. If it takes this long to make records this good, then so be it. I’ll be there, gathered round with my headphones, waiting for it to bloom.

The Blues Are Still Blue

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The blues are blue, the colour of deoxygenated blood in the veins; the blues are red hot; the blues are grey, the colour of smokestacks. The blues are not pink prosecco, though I was humming twelve bar blues melodies this week as I poured out glass after glass for gussied-up graduates, as un-bluesy work as can be, though at least it let me rhyme ‘bubbles’ with ‘troubles’. For blues songs are work songs, their twelve bars cycling through the workday like a hand going round and round a clock.

Why ‘the blues’? The name probably came from a 17th-century English expression, “the blue devils”, referring to intense visual hallucinations set on by alcohol withdrawal. ‘Blue’ became slang for ‘drunk’; ‘the blues’ for ‘agitation’ or ‘depression’. In some U.S. States there are still ‘blue laws’ prohibiting the sale of alcohol on Sunday. To be blue, then, is to be drunk and sad. If the blues is workday music, then it’s also music for the end of the day, guzzling down pints in the bar after. In Southern juke joints, couples grind their hips together, a dance known as both ‘the slow drag’ and ‘the blues’. A ‘bluesman’ accompanies them on the guitar. This is how the blues was born.

But going back before that: why ‘blue’ to begin with? Why always this blueness, leaking over everything? Why blue devils, blue funks, blue coats, blue notes, blue states, blue gowns, blue streaks, blue moons, blue blood? Why out of the blue and into the blue and bolt from the blue? Why blue screens of death and blue walls of silence? Why talk until blue in the face? Why screwed, blued and tattooed? And just what is in the blue blazes?

Why does music and art, especially, seem so enamoured with this colour above all others? Why Blue, Kind of Blue, Blue Train, Blue Lines? Why ‘the blues’ but not ‘the greens’, ‘the creams’ or ‘the violets’?

In the beginning there was no word for blue. The word does not appear in the Odyssey, in the Icelandic sagas, in the Koran, in the Bible, in the Hindu Vedas. In these ancient texts, the sea is wine dark, the sun is red, the moon shines silver, but the sky is never blue.

Every language evolves its colour words in roughly the same order. First come words for black and white, or else for light and dark. Next — and this is true of every language ever studied around the world — is red. First black, then white, then red: for a moment the whole world is like a White Stripes video. Then, after red, yellow and green appear, usually in that order. Then others: purple, orange. But in every language ever known, the last colour to be named is blue. The blues are hidden: hard to hear, hard to see.

Perhaps this is why we sing them, paint them, write them endlessly: magic them into existence.

There are whole books on the colour blue, hundreds and hundreds of pages spent trying to understand it.

Here’s Christopher Moore, in Sacré Bleu: “Blue is the sky, the sea, a god’s eye, a devil’s tail, a birth, a strangulation, a virgin’s cloak, a monkey’s ass. It’s a butterfly, a bird, a spicy joke, the saddest song, the brightest day. Blue is sly, slick, it slides into the room sideways, a slippery trickster. Blue is beauty, not truth. True blue is a ruse, a rhyme; it’s there, then it’s not.”

Here’s William Gass, in On Being Blue: “There are whole schools of fish, clumps of trees, flocks of birds, bouquets of flowers: blue channel cats, the ash, beech, bird, bluegills, breams and bass, Adalusian fowl, acaras, angels in decorative tanks, the bluebill, bluecap, and blue billy (a petrel of the southern seas), anemone, bindweed, bur, bell, mullet, salmon, trout, cod, daisy, and a blue leaved and flowered mountain plant called the blue beardtongue because of its conspicuous yellow-bearded sterile stamens.”

Here’s Maggie Nelson, in Bluets: “Over the past decade I have been given blue inks, paintings, postcards, dyes, bracelets, rocks, precious stones, watercolours, pigments, paperweights, goblets, and candies. I have been introduced to a man who had one of his front teeth replaced with lapis lazuli, solely because he loved the stone, and to another who worships blue so devoutly that he refuses to eat blue food and grows only blue and white flowers in his garden, which surrounds the blue ex-cathedral in which he lives. I have met a man who is the primary grower of organic indigo in the world, and another who sings Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ in heart-breaking drag, and another with the face of a derelict whose eyes literally leaked blue, and I called this one the Prince of Blue, which was, in fact, his name. I think of these people as my blue correspondents, whose job it is to send me blue reports from the field.”

Just as there are connoisseurs of wine, says Collette, so there are connoisseurs of blue.

Can the companies help us out? Can market research?

Facebook is famously so blue because blue was Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite colour. Google, too, have shown a love for the colour, or rather discovered our own. They once tested users of Gmail with 40 different colours of ink – that is, colours of link – to see which they clicked on most. The blue-ish links were the most popular.

We follow blue, draw into its blueness, as if it might lead somewhere magical.

Heinz once tried out making different coloured ketchups – purple ketchup, blue ketchup – but gave up on it because consumers didn’t believe it was real ketchup. The Dutch have an expression, “dat zijn maar blauwe bloempjes”, which means “those are nothing but blue flowers”, which means “what a load of old nonsense”.

We disbelieve blue, resist its blueness, as if it might lead somewhere dangerous.

Let’s turn now to the painters, to the colour collectors.

Here’s Van Gogh, in a letter to Emile Bernard: “There is no blue without yellow and without orange, and if you put in blue, then you must put in yellow, and orange too, mustn’t you?”

Here’s Kandisky: “If two circles are drawn and painted respectively yellow and blue, a brief contemplating will reveal in the yellow a spreading movement out from the centre, and a noticeable approach to the spectator. The blue, on the other hand, moves into itself, like a snail retreating into its shell, and draws away from the spectator. The eye feels stung by the first circle while it is absorbed into the second.”

Here’s Cezanne: “Nature is more depth than surface. Hence the need to introduce into our light vibrations represented by the reds and yellows, a sufficient amount of blue to give the impression of air.”

Here’s Raoul Dufy: “Blue is the only colour which maintains its own character in all its tones. It will always stay blue. Whereas yellow is blackened in its shades, and fades away when lightened; red when darkened becomes brown, and when diluted with white is no longer red, but another colour – pink.”

Here’s Yves Klein: “Blue has no dimensions; it is beyond dimensions… All [other] colours arouse specific associative ideas… Blue suggests, at most, the sea and sky, and they, after all, are in actual, visible nature what is most abstract.”

Here’s Matisse: “A certain blue enters your soul. A certain red has an effect on your blood-pressure.”

Here’s Picasso: “When I haven’t any blue I use red.”

Here’s Gauguin: “If you see a tree as blue, then make it blue.”

Hitler, by contrast, wasn’t a fan: “If artists do see fields blue they are deranged, and should go to an asylum. If they only pretend to see them blue, they are criminals and should go to prison.”

Just as painters cannot seem to dispense with the colour blue, nor with the idea of the colour blue, neither can music shy away from either ‘the blues’ (which leaves its fingerprints on everything from rock & roll to R&B to funk to jazz to samba), nor the idea of ‘being blue’. Perhaps every musician goes through their ‘blue period’, their touching on sadness and pain. Some wallow here for whole careers, mining truth from misery. Some offset essentially happy music with tinges of sadness, like a yellow-heavy painting tainted with blue.

Bill Evans, in the liner notes to Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, describes a Japanese visual art in which the artist is forced to be spontaneous. He must paint on a thin stretched parchment with a special brush and black water paint in such a way that any unnatural or interrupted strokes will destroy the line and break through the parchment. Erasures or changes are impossible.

He is describing, in an offhand way, Davis’s improvisations, but he also suggests an art in which something is at stake. True blue, as they say. Blueness equalling truthiness.

And yet, blue remains mysterious too, ambiguous and unknowable. We still we feel like Mallarmé, haunted by blue’s blueness: “Je suis hante! L’azur! l’azur! l’azur! l’azur!”