In a brief interlude in the Xmas visits of mother and in-laws, I will try to finish what I started when I published my 50 albums of the year. First up, it’s time for the best singles. This has become rather a dull category in many blogs and magazines as they tend to mostly be outstanding from outstanding albums thus producing a shuffle of the already existing list. To this end, I will only be discussing singles and EPs that do not come from albums and stand alone as releases in their own right. I also think a list is a bit of a waste of space as there are sadly only a few candidates for this new criteria.
Well, sorry to be a populist but Burial is definitely near the top of the heap again. 2011’s best EP was ‘Street Halo’ and this year it’s ‘Kindred’. The extended tracks really seem to suit this format rather than getting buried in an overly long double CD album as many electronic artists would no doubt prefer. Instead, Burial takes the difficult and makes it accessible thus displaying a certain pop savvy that his music rarely suggests. The dark urban soundscapes summoned up seem a cliché in this day and age but if something is close to perfect then it becomes very hard to criticise even if no new ground seems to be broken despite what some may say about ‘Ashtray Wasps’. To these ears it sounds wonderfully familiar but not predictable or maybe music this good implants itself in the brain with such assurance that, after 10 months, it feels like it’s always been there. Another ‘EP’ of 2 extended tracks has emerged in December but is hard to listen to much when your mother is just dying to ask you to turn the music off. Initial impressions suggest something more abstract but ask me again in 10 months. Not many other electronica EPs gripped me though I did quite like Theo Parrish’s ‘HandMade’ EP which is some kind of deep house so I’m told but I really don’t pretend to be au fait with the terms of these things preferring instead the ‘if I like it, I’ll play it’ approach of John Peel.
A few indie singles have raised their impressive heads above the bland parapets set for them in the United Kingdom. Savages are unsurprisingly lauded over for being cool but in reality ‘Husbands’ sounds like that post-punk band you could never quite find when you rediscovered the music about 10 years ago thanks to that Rough Trade compilation. Palma Violets have also been hyped because they sound like the next nostalgically laddish thing. ‘My Best Friend’ is okay but sounds like it needs a bit of work. ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ on the flip sounds a little more interesting but could herald in a whole new generation of nostalgic bands making references to 70s/80s confectionary and sitcoms a la Lawrence’s Denim 20 years ago. Just wait for ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ by either ‘Spangles’ or ‘Pacers’. Much better was Charlie Boyer and the Voyeurs’ ‘I Watch You/ Be Nice’ which just went to prove that more bands should sound a bit like Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers, including Jonathan Richman and The Modern Lovers.
King Creosote had a busy year for EPS releasing 3 12″ singles that were also available for download and that seemed to help cement his reputation post-Diamond Mine without quite hitting the same heights. Obviously Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy featured ona few singles with a cover of Leon Russell’s ‘Hummingbird’ the pick of the bunch. However, the essential Will Oldham purchase of the year had to be the extended interview published by Faber & Faber that stretched to over 300 pages covering every release of his career thus guaranteeing that it immediately went out of date. Daniel Rossen’s EP merits a mention for being better than the Grizzly Bear album itself to my ears if no-one else’s.
Compilation albums have become a rarer beast as anyone can make one for nowt these days. Still, the Four Tet singles collection ‘Pink’ suggests he hasn’t lost his mojo even if his mojo has become a tad predictable. ‘Country Funk’ did exactly what it says on the sleeve as did a couple of Northern Soul compilations: ‘For Northern Soul Lovers Vol. 1′ represented the better value at a fiver on Amazon UK, but ‘Up All Night’ on Charly hit the right spot with more tunes even if many were familiar and it was really just a partial reissue of an old compilation. Basically, everyone needs a few Northern Soul compilations in their collection and either or both of these would suit fine.
Reissues were aplenty but seem increasingly uninspired in many cases. This criticism cannot be levelled at Can’s ‘Lost Tapes’ which serves as a more stimulating piece than a number of their proper albums. The My Bloody Valentine flawed remasters finally appeared along with a compilation of single tracks which was more essential. ‘Loveless’ came as a double CD featuring two different versions which are almost identical. In fact, I cannot think of any reason to listen to both. What is missing is a reissue of everything from the pre-Creation days as the world needs to hear ‘Strawberry Wine’ again as well as ‘Lovely Sweet Darlene’. Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy reissued his early work with the only alteration being a cardboard sleeve and the removal of all Palace references from them. Anyone forking out for these who already owns the originals will be most annoyed but they would have made it easier for new fans to follow the interview book mentioned above.
The Weeknd’s ‘Trilogy’ qualified as a reissue of last year’s 3 free to download albums, ‘House of Balloons’, ‘Thursday’ and ‘Echoes of Silence’. All are excellent and serve as a moody counterpoint to the more glamorous face of modern RnB. Abel Tesfaye is a truly talented artist who clearly has a lot more to give but may now need to develop more light and shade to surpass Frank Ocean’s critical appeal.
Is that it? Nicolas Jaar’s Essential Mix is still downloadable for nothing despite being one of the few mixes I would happily listen to more than twice. Soundtracks didn’t really do it for me as always though ‘The Man with the Iron Fists’ was the best Wu release of the year but that was because the expected new album has been put back until 2013 for the 20th anniversary. Also, a few remix albums appeared but none sounded interesting enough for me to bother with though I need to listen to The Twilight Sad one as it seems less perfunctory than the others in the few comments on it that I’ve read.
Right, I feel I’ve done more than enough listing and may swear off altogether next year as music journalism should be about so much more than just comparing lists. So who was the winner in these categories? The Weeknd was cooler as a free download but oozes class, Burial is essential in everything he does and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy remains prolific in all areas. However, the few of us who downloaded a little-heralded single by Moons (not The Moons) in the shape of ‘The Bloody Mouth (Watchtower Version)/Waves At Night’ which also came out as a 7″ in May. Pitchfork compared it with Phoenix but it sounded so much better to my ears. Proof that warmth can be wrought from synthpop or another singer songwriter who simply bans acoustic instruments in pursuit of an original sound. Either way, or others for that matter, both songs are wonderfully atmospheric and beautiful. The single was also a stab in the dark on a dull afternoon and that is usually how the best music hits you: right between the eyes when you least expect it. You can find it here:
The author is now sworn off lists for the time being and refuses to make predictions for 2013 except that he will enjoy it more than 2012.