Archives for category: Albums of the Year

mbv 2

Further thoughts following up the original review/appreciaton: ‘mbv: A Remastered Review’ piece (https://tuppencedylan.wordpress.com/2013/02/14/m-b-v-remastered/)

What started as an attempt to be quick to respond to an unprecedented new album release ended up turning into a kind of ‘m b v’ journal. It also got confused by an intervention from real life that made me concentrate on something other than music for a week. I have tried to edit these ramblings. I don’t know how successful I have been. Dates and references may be all over the place. Beware repetition and mixed connectives. I’ve kept the production values hazy to retain an overall effect, don’t you know.

So I didn’t spend Saturday afternoon (February 2nd) and evening eagerly trying to be among the first people to get the new My Bloody Valentine album, listen to it twice and quickly post a review thus the massive outpouring of blogging that went on. The reviews are now appearing (February 5th) but no reviewer has had more than 3 days to get their head around the album. There were clearly no advance copies. You might as well buy it and do it yourself. You may even have an insight into the idea that maybe music journalists regularly knock something off during lunch rather than listen to a review copy over a week to get familiar with it. Is it any good? It’s a late 90s MBV album, what do you want exactly? If you are interested, if you already own ‘Loveless’ or more, then you are bound to like it. It’s that simple. Does it break new ground? Maybe it did but it doesn’t really break much now. How could a groundbreaking album even be humanly possible? Someone is supposed to have recorded consistently groundbreaking music over 5 years and then kept it in the vault for 15 and none of those ideas have since been developed, done to death or even started to sound dated. Impossible unless you believe Kevin Shields to be some sort of actual prophet.

However, some of the critical reception seems to suggest that this is an even more perfect album than ‘Loveless’. Now, it seems obvious to me that Loveless was far from perfect, ‘Soon’ already sounded dated when preceded by the rest of the album. It was recorded 18 months before, imagine 18 years… ‘Loveless’ is a seminal album but at the time it was one of many that came out in 1991. Nirvana were the biggest name in alternative music when ‘Loveless’ came out and would remain so in its wake. Shoegazing bands who borrowed heavily from My Bloody Valentine’s sound had vanished as a going concern by the mid-1990s when this ‘new’ album should have come out. Only Spiritualized really survived only to later become a tad predictable and Stereolab either took the scene forwards or backwards depending on your opinion, or the Stereolab album for that matter. We may joke about Ride going on to become a source of a new Bonehead in Oasis, but Shields was an extra in Primal Scream too. A lot of the reviews of ‘m b v’ seem to forget the context it would have had if it appeared way back when.

Of course, another reason to not take the announcements of an imminent release seriously was that there has been plenty of form in that department. Sudden announcements have been made before and turned out to be inaccurate. How do poorly remastered reissues result in a delay of over a year? The new album was supposed to be delivered before the end of 2012. Why am I going to waste Saturday waiting around for another rumour to play out false regardless of who starts it? Clearly plenty of people did. It is as if the sudden December announcement left fans almost feeling spoiled for choice after so little material for so many years and then this reaction ‘inadvertently’ created a massive blog hype machine of people checking daily for a new ‘m b v’ album like Marquez’s colonel waiting for his pension or J.R. Hartley tracking down a copy of ‘Fly Fishing’. Did New Order fans do this once ‘Lost Sirens’ became delayed? More on New Order to come. (Probably too much on New Order so that the point becomes laboured. The point is also weakened as ‘Lost Sirens’ is so dull, that I still can’t be bothered listening to it again for this piece…and still can’t now as I edit this for a second time.) Does this instead reveal something about MBV fans of the past 20-odd years? We are either still pissing around waiting for alternative albums to appear rather than mowing lawns or frantically barbecuing or our lawns and barbecues become instantly tedious when compared with a new album from a band from another era. Either way, we may have failed or missed a few boats somewhere along the line. Let’s start trying to pull ourselves together.

Indeed (no idea what this ‘indeed’ follows but I like it’s tone so it stays), on Saturday itself, the website crashed, trying to pay without Paypal was still proving impossible on Sunday afternoon in my case. However, after a break for a late lunch, I got myself an incorrectly registered Paypal account  (I still have to get back to them to sort out my account which is currently registered as being in both Shropshire and Chiapas for some reason) and downloaded the album fairly easily despite iTunes attempting to create two albums, the first of which just contained the opening track. By 7pm Sunday, I was using ‘m b v’ to soundtrack my Superbowl experience. I had spent an hour or more attempting to achieve this and it had cost me over a tenner, had they just stuck the album on iTunes I would have merely had to pay £6 at Mexican prices (actually 4 if a recent 3 for 2 offer on gift cards is factored in). Can’t quite see how we are supposed to be behind the self-releasing and publishing revolution on those figures. The sound is also poorer than my usual iTunes downloads and needs a boost of a good 20% to get the full effect on headphones much like an old Northern Soul collection. This could be deliberate as those old albums tend to be viewed with much more affection than an artificially loud recording that lacks both depth and substance. Oasis were guilty of this in the past and history shows the lack of depth it masks. However, this quiet album might have been drowned out by the tedious bombast of Britpop had it appeared in the second half of the 90s. The quality of sound and price of ‘Lost Sirens’ is better but this is like a teacher praising a child for an immaculately produced but ultimately vacuous essay.

The delays, the hold ups, the mistakes, the general fannying around and the cost had seriously irritated me before I began my listening experience. That may be why I was ready to bathe in backlash. I was wrong but also notice that the backlash seems to be disappearing as the week develops and reviewers have actually had time to listen to the album PROPERLY and reflect on something special rather than just vent their frustrations as I would have done on Sunday. However, Monday morning felt good with a new My Bloody Valentine album to enjoy afresh and which sounded so familiar as to be comfortable. It is a form of nostalgia, albeit a nostalgia for something that sounded like nothing else at the time of its release.

Did I give ‘Loveless’ the same attention? At the time I seem to recall being more of a Nirvana and Galliano fan. Yes, that is quite the combination. Good job I didn’t start a clothesline pushing lumberjack corduroy. ‘Loveless’ almost seem to deliberately arrive at a time when it would not attract too much initial excitement compared to what would ultimately grow afterwards. It’s reception and reviews of the new album do suggest a lot of people, experts even, only becoming fans long after the initial release. With ‘m b v’ the group have successfully created the exact opposite effect. I imagine that this will lead to ‘m b v: 1 year on’ articles arriving in Stereogum in about 11 months.

Too many reviews and reactions, more depth. (That note was written some time after reading through endless reviews)
This still seems to be something of an issue despite attempts at improving the responses after initial reviews had been rushed out. Time may be the enemy of the blogger but it is necessary for truly great music to take hold. I suggest we might just like to revel in that indestructible fact rather than frantically aim to disprove it by comparing ‘m b v’ to ‘Finnegans Wake’ just because Shields and Joyce are Irish and took years to follow up on their most fondly remembered work. ‘Finnegans Wake’ is a nightmare for any reader to deal with and may only work properly if read out loud with the emphasis in all the right places for the phonetic jokes to work. That is clearly very different to ‘M b v’ which may even be more accessible than ‘Loveless’. FW is more like Terrence Trent D’Arby’s 2nd album or ‘The Second Coming’ but with more depth.

Why didn’t people react this way to ‘Lost Sirens’? I guess that’s the true value in not keeping a legacy going when uninspired. Essentially, that seems to be what Kevin Shields has done since 1994/5-ish when the rough demos for this album must surely have been recorded but left far from completion. Does ‘m b v’ sound dated? Yes, of course. The most substantial aspects of its recording  are at least 18-years-old. It does not sound as dated as ‘Lost Sirens’ which must have been recorded about 10 years later (I swear it only gets one more reference. They should have called it ‘n o’ for convenience). However, there are clues that suggest the album is from the vaults rather than a new idea or a reflection of where Shields is at in 2012. The Primal Scream remix (‘If They Move, Kill ‘Em’) sounds more modern than the first 6 tracks and they must surely pre-date it. Afterwards comes ‘Wonder 2’, the 2 tracks prior to it could be contemporaries of the Scream mix but ‘Wonder 2’ seems like the next step – which makes this album a summary of My Bloody Valentine 1992-1998.

That makes it hard to dislike. That makes it exceptional, like if The Beatles anthology series had turned up an entire album of unreleased tracks secretly recorded after the group had ceased to function and assuming they weren’t as dull as their solo work. Like the ‘Caribou Sessions’ bonus CD that you get with the Dennis Wilson ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ reissue that did so well and inspired so much affection a few years back. Affection is the only reaction possible from fans from the original era. Later fans who picked up on the legacy cannot fail to be blown away by 9 new tracks which are not completely new and thus reveal weaknesses compared to current sonic experimentalists. Television or Big Star’s comeback albums and so many others did little to add to their legacy, more taint it. Would you want your favourite cult band to release more albums after they were close to the zeitgeist than when they were it? Just ask Mission of Burma or Dinosaur Jr. fans, it’s a false economy. The new cannot be better than the old when there has been such a gap in development. In that way, this new album may promise more to follow now that a line can finally be drawn under the 1990s.

So is it any good then? (I have since decided that it definitely is.)

Initially I have to say I thought it quite bland. The muddy production and mastering don’t help. The sound quality on the mp3 means turning up the volume every time I listen to the album, which is a bit much if you have been listening to old My Bloody Valentine b-sides immediately before as happened later in the week. However, it is noticeably familiar from the very off. The album still hasn’t leaped out at me (after a day or two?) and still seems like it would have made for an excellent additional release in 2012 to draw a line under the 1990s. I initially view it as something like Can’s ‘Lost Tapes’ or even a good version of New Order’s ‘Lost Sirens’. ‘Loveless’ didn’t immediately grip me as ‘Nevermind’ did around the same time. I always felt that it was excellent but there was always room for improvement as ‘Soon’ seemed to spoil the end of the album as it sounded like it belonged elsewhere. ‘Isn’t Anything’, the ‘You made Me Realise’ EP and ‘Strawberry Wine’ were almost if not more enjoyable than ‘Loveless’ to my ears for a year or so. It was only later on in life that it became my go to MBV album above all others. I had also, presumably, stopped listening to Galliano by that point after being irritated by their appearance at Glastonbury 1994.

Then (not sure when) the listener starts reflecting.What would lost albums from other groups from this period sound like? Would they be any good whatsoever? Did anyone get excited by the lost Screaming Trees sessions that appeared a couple of years ago? Another issue to consider is whether this album would have been as well received then as it has been now? Oasis kind of blew subtlety out of the water in the second half of the 90s ands only Spiritualized seemed to come out of the shoegazing era relatively unharmed. (I know, I know, I said it already.)

A similar joy to ‘m b v’ can be found on the second Bark Psychosis album, ‘Codename: Dustsucker’ which appeared 10 years after their debut but didn’t create quite the same buzz. Err…that’s it on Bark Psychosis I guess, but both their albums are worth seeking out – especially if you find them in a clearance sale in El Salvador for about a fiver for the pair as I did.

Those last 3 tracks…I may have already covered all of this in my previous review.
‘Nothing Is’ is excellent in its relentless de-tuned glory. An excellent build towards the most talked about track, ‘Wonder 2’ which someone summed up simply as “relentless helicopters”, I forget who or where but can always credit it if someone tells me. It is a brilliant two-word review though. After hearing ‘Wonder 2’ a few times on e realises that it is the most developed sound in terms of progression but perhaps not the album track that you will return to repeatedly. That honour seems to fall to ‘In Another Way’ which does all the shimmery stuff in the right way and would make for great headphones in the bath listening. To some extent it is comfort food but it also hunts around and finds the uplifting melody that transports the listener that none of the first 6 tracks quite manage to do. This is the track that you will whistle or smile while listening to, much to the disbelief of the passing pedestrian – these are MBV melodies after all.

‘Isn’t Anything’ was my MBV album, complete with the introduction of fairly nondescript titles. The ‘You Made Me Realise’ EP lifted MBV to the status of fabled band for me and therefore I found ‘Loveless’ a little disappointing when it first appeared. The muddy production can’t have helped. The preceding EP suggested something odd and then the album returned to more familiar territory in a number of cases. ‘Strawberry Wine’ really needs to be properly reissued though it may not suit Shields’ tastes, it was a beautiful piece when it arrived, much more so than the scrappy yet exploratory ‘Ecstasy’ mini-LP. Prior to that, ‘This is My Bloody Valentine’ was weak, but single tracks like ‘Sunny Sundae Smile’ and ‘Lovely Sweet Darlene’ are not that far removed from future MBV sounds if only a little more cute and Sarah Records in style. One thing is clear, from 1988 onwards, MBV were always near the top of my lists of favourite artists even if I might not have realised this during their late 90s. The feelings inspired by ‘m b v’ tell me that if nothing else.

Can this album create a legacy like ‘Loveless’ managed to do? It shouldn’t. In 22 years, there should by now be plenty other superior albums which explore, remind and uplift in the same way without arriving way after the event. It has been incredibly well received. It probably averages higher review scores than ‘Loveless’ managed but would any of those reviewers dare go a step further and claim it to be a better album? A more perfect sound? Forever? Still, it beats listening to Hot Chip discussing Hall & Oates in interviews. ‘Wonder 2’ or ‘Maneater’? It’s not a difficult choice as to which will inspire the better music in the future if not the least derogatory. Blah, blah, blah etc.

ENOUGH!!! 

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mbv

I took several stabs at writing about ‘m b v’ and still have a messy draft that I might attach to this once it is reissued in deluxe format in about 20 years but less than a year before I next write anything. This morning I opened my draft to find all the paragraphing deleted including the subtitles. It would happen for this album, wouldn’t it? The initial trouble with ‘m b v’ was other people (“they’re the worst!”) as every time I’d sit down to write about this latest musical event (for event read hype) of the year, someone else had beaten me to it by mentioning Stereolab, Spiritualized, Third Eye Foundation and many more little references. Reviews seemed to quote each other and, when read all at once, seem to blur into a multi-tracked buzz of excited riffing, just like the sound of My Bloody Valentine has always managed to do. There is something about the sound which makes music journalists reach for the thesaurus or even a guide to musical terms as agreed upon by the Melody Maker circa 1991. ‘Relentless helicopters’ was used somewhere and I like that. Just keep it simple but almost nonsensical…almost. After all, who is likely to read a review of this album as they think they might like it? Everyone who owns this album will already be a fan. The hype that has engulfed its release has ensured that anyone feeling a little left out must be totally alienated by the experience by now. Also, good sense would tell a music fan that it might be best to get into the early stuff first. This may be something that My Bloody Valentine now have in common with Bob Dylan and Neil Young among others.

The context is everything for this album. Is it just a matter of tidying up some old tapes that have remained unreleased for a long time? Is this the My Bloody Valentine equivalent, along with the ‘EPs 1988-91’, of Can’s ‘Lost Tapes’? If so, there will be no more to follow. So why announce live dates too? Surely this is then an old album that is finally seeing the light of day just like Dennis Wilson’s ‘Bambu (The Caribou Sessions)’ being tagged on to the excellent ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ reissue of a few years back. Hard for the late Dennis to tour that release, but had he been around, you think he might have as it went straight into the UK top 20 album chart, something the original never managed. However, ‘m b v’ has been released at a price of $16 or 10 pounds rather than simply given to loyal fans who don’t want to shell out cash repeatedly or won’t. Either this is because the material is more important than a bunch of unreleased demos or the shields estate needs a serious cash injection and so ‘Odds and Sods’ MBV-style has been knocked out. No, maybe that was a possibility but surely not so soon after the remasters finally emerged. A third possibility then emerges that this is an album that shows signs of being begun over 20 years ago and really has only just been finished off after initially being discarded. Do we honestly expect a musician to have stepped into a studio 20 years ago, recorded various tracks for a few years that then get abandoned for almost 15 more years and for those recordings to not be similar to anything else that has appeared in the interim? Impossible! This album is a good, no excellent, version of what New Order’s ‘Lost Sirens’ is. It has been released by a band stepping back into the arena rather than one seemingly torn apart by infighting between its two most iconic members. It may reveal weaknesses in terms of some areas sounding a little dated but this should more than adequately balanced off against the nostalgia advantage that the album has. Is nostalgia valid in assessing new music? I would say it is but it can ruin things if allowed to run out of control. Any further MBV release would have to move forwards quite significantly or risk becoming their ‘Be Here Now’.

This then is a new My Bloody Valentine album that will be toured. If it sounds dated or unfinished, we don’t care as we’d rather not wait another 20 years for its completion. The only negative aspect to its appearance would be if it were to destroy a legacy, a mere shadow of the band hastily packaged as a cash cow from recording sessions that cost too much money to go to waste. It is interesting that the ‘Loveless’ sessions and New Order’s ‘Sirens’ sessions both seem to have cost a quarter of a million as did sessions for Keith Moon’s disastrous solo album. Looked at like that, My Bloody Valentine represent value for money. No more preamble…

m b v

Even the lower case letters are a 90s throwback. At least they’re not printed in the lower right corner and followed by an ironic question mark though their position is not far off the former. Even the album title has an ambiguity of either being tossed off demos without a proper name, or is it the definitive self-titled album that isn’t a debut? Did ‘blur’ get there first?

‘she found now’
Begins with a gentle drum and everything’s soft, fuzzy and warm with it due to the characteristic effects of a womblike pulsing. Womblike pulsing? Why do MBV always have this effect on writing? This really is a simple opener which breaks no new ground except for being the first track on an album which people have waited 20 years to hear. It would fit well on the ‘Tremolo’ EP. The wash of warm fuzz acts as a portal into the world of the album. Background sound around the room, nearby traffic or a television across the way are now merged rather than drowned out, one might say they’ve been caught by the fuzz. Either way, attention is focused on the album as there is no other option. So many peers and alternatives to MBV have long become background music rather than dominating the actual background so effortlessly. Maybe that is a strength to the group that I have only just realised. So there we have a new album opening up something new in what we hear of a known band. This is no unreleased demo then.

‘only tomorrow’
Wonderful booming drum sound! Vocals and bassline surround them to create something slightly more forward-looking in approach, beyond ‘Loveless’. A wonderful, lazily discordant riff saws through everything else in a way that reminds me of Moonshake’s first EP…which, ironically, predates ‘Loveless’. So the overall feel has returned to Shoegaze ’91. There is no real progression just a development of the existing mbv stock sound. A simplistic beginners guitar solo adds another memorable track over the top of the familiar perhaps helping to disguise the lack of anything truly original. However, that guitar does serve to make the song memorable.

‘who sees you’
Now, surely this could be a ‘Loveless’ outtake. Everything about the opening suggests classic MBV. The drum intro leading into the uneasy drone which resolves itself into something familiar with repeated listens. It’s not that it’s bad, but it hardly acts as a memorable addition to what already exists. This could have turned up as a bonus track on the remasters and no-one would have noticed anything out of place. However, how repetitive can a band be if they don’t release anything for 22 years? That’s tha advantage of what used to be the problem with My Bloody Valentine. Expectation may have not been simply for more similar, formulaic material but almost anything would do. After a while of absorbing the fact that this track is not going to rewrite the genre, the listener may become beguiled by all the classic MBV hooks falling into place. It is dreamy and hazy again, like no band since. It does not, as some reviewers may claim, require drugs to be appreciated. Instead, it creates that soporific effect. We can just leave this alone as we’re simply happy that there is more. It would be great if Talk Talk, The Cocteau Twins and The Stone Roses could produce something unreleased that sounds this good but I doubt they can or will. The La’s might have something left in the can but Lee Mavers probably won’t let anyone ever hear it.

‘is this and yes’
Many MBV titles are meaningless but they usually make some kind of sense. An ominous gap may be exclusive to my download so I won’t over-analyse. The gap makes sense if we are to divide the album into thirds. The title may suggest something existed before and after its content – what ‘is this’? What is the question that is answered with ‘yes’? This is the part of the album that sounds most like Stereolab interlude though it is a tad long to be a mere interlude. The title might be explained by the words but I’m not sure there are any. Quite a mysterious little track that doesn’t seem to even feature a guitar as far as I can hear. Whether this sounded like Stereolab as they existed in the mid 90s is unclear, but what is clear is that this track heralds in a new sonic landscape to the MBV canon. Is this progression going to continue in the second third of the album?

‘if i am’
More new sounds. This time a distorted wah-wah that might have allowed this track to fit on to a Kevin Shields solo album around the time of his ‘Lost in Translation’ work. However, for all the joy of a new sound we seem to be developing a line and length approach to the pace of the tracks. This song seems to chug along at much the same pace as ‘only tomorrow’ and ‘who sees you’. Of course Oasis’ debut chugged along at a metronomical pace but there the Britpop links must end. Instead, this sounds like Echo Lake or The History of Apple Pie could have included a version on their recent albums and the original author never be discovered. After a couple of minutes this listener found himself asking ‘is that it?’ It seems it really is it and that I should just let my guard down and enjoy it for all its classic MBV broken walkman stylings. That broken walkman reference has certainly been used before, possibly about ‘Loveless’.

‘new you’
Dated like ‘Soon’ by the time ‘Loveless had appeared? This would be fine as a ‘Lost Tapes’ track but not really on a new album. A kind of MBV-lite go pop. Comparing it to The Farm as I read elsewhere seems to go a bit too far but maybe it is not too cruel to suggest that this lighter track may have paved the way for a Bilinda Butcher solo career had it appeared sooner than 2013. What makes this track irk? The warm fuzz has been reigned in. This would now not seem out of place on the weaker major label Cocteau Twins albums but in a more tidied up form. Might this have sat comfortably next to a less commercial Pulp had it arrived on schedule? It certainly could suit a Jarvis vocal. Now we pause to see if anything emerges on further listens…no, definitely a bit dull. It suggests that they may have had to come up with something that Island might have wanted to release. It fails. It’s saving grace is that it acts as a good counterpoint to all the fuzz. It signs of the predictable section of the album and leads us into the considerably more gory final third.

‘in another way’
Distortion, that familiar Beatlesey drum loop, grinding sounds at the higher end and we’re off. This track feels like another era of the group altogether compared with the first 6 tracks. This and what follows feels like it belongs together with other similarly confrontational material while the rest of the album was almost an attempt to produce something Island could handle. This track has a beautiful chopping rhythm mixed with slightly dated keyboard sounds. This is the beautiful noise that we craved. This instantly puts cynicism at rest. This is what Paul Weller thinks his last album sounds like. It doesn’t. Noel Gallagher will have become instantly jealous of this sound too. Countless shoegazey bands, both past and present (should the present wave be described as Shoegazi?), have tried to capture this sound. Those from the past will be envious while those from the present may now go back to college. Really, what this song does is fairly simple and is not as earth shatteringly profound as these words may suggest it is. However, we can be sure that the emergence of this melody was not simple as it took 20 years to arrive. Still, making the complex sound simple and the simple sound complex is another great trait to My Bloody Valentine that always left mere imitators seeming laboured in comparison.

‘nothing is’
Barring certain moments in ‘You Made Me Realise’ and ‘Feed Me With Your Kiss’, this is the most aggressive sound MBV have achieved yet. It’s a shortly held record as they surpass all three in the following track. For now though, this is altogether rather heavy with looped drums and everything else. This brings in the aggression that Loveless kind of lacked when compared with those earlier sounds. This marks MBV out as a band that could have got heavier, darker and closer to American alternative music. It’s a thrash and a highly enjoyable one. As another almost interlude, it seems that more than just a solitary track should follow it. Does the ending we are building to then point a way forward into new material? Could this happen in the not too distant future, maybe in 10 years or so?

‘wonder 2’
Another loop? Are we now under attack? It sounds that way as the “relentless helicopters” song kicks off and maintains its onslaught throughout its full 6 minutes.It feels like everything is speeding up and slowing down simultaneously. Is that possible? Vocals emerge, which rhythm are they supposed to follow for a cue? Well anyone ever work out the lyrics? This  is chaos. This does not sound like Third Eye Foundation, this is more primal. This is wonderful. Beautiful and, yes, relentless. Smooth and choppy like a large washing machine with helicopter blades. What on earth does that even mean? This would blow the listener away on large speakers and will be ferocious live. It already sounds like it needs remastering. Towards the end it gets even louder and the washing machine helicopter thing seems to transform into a plane and disappear over some magical horizon after its highly enjoyable bombardment. This wins back drone attack from the United States airforce in the name of music.

There, done it. Have tried to avoid references to shimmering/cascading cathedrals/towers of sounds. Sorry about the washing machine helicopter thing. I kind of did the summing up in the beginning. Of course it’s excellent, what more do people want? Over to you, Talk Talk and The La’s but best leave it alone reformed Stone Roses.

matthewewhite

An early big 2013 hype in the alternative hipster universe comes from a man giving off the aura that says ‘Don’t make me famous, I don’t need it. But if you must…’ Contrived? Only in so much as this album appeared last year on Hometapes/Spacebomb or Spacebomb/Hometapes depending on where you look, took a few by surprise and then suspiciously disappeared from my radar presumably so that Domino can reissue it in the UK this year. Neat move for an ‘indie’ label, but they have always been a bit corporate in their behaviour like demanding that The Fall improve the quality of their one Domino album. The nerve!

The album has been described in rather hallowed terms already and as a true original despite the fact that this has been done many times before. That is not to say that it is not welcome when it happens as, when a group nails the classic cosmic American album in contemporary times, it can still be lauded and applauded like Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ or Plush’s much delayed ‘Fed’ for a more similarly soulful vision. They sound warm and familiar from the off but they also sound unlike any particular contemporary style that they can be definitively filed under. Instead they have nostalgic production values and definite links with the past through a guest appearance or even just a familiar riff or style. This album has the same timeless quality. However, the hype creates suspicion. It seems unfounded but may also point to a lack of real inspirational music these days with tunes and stuff. Last year was a great year for very good music but it was not a good year for very great music. In reappearing at the start of this year, it seems that music critics have almost tacitly agreed that this was the classic that got missed last year. However, this is an album featuring seven songs and no filler. It was recorded in a week but clearly grew organically prior to that. The listener doesn’t walk away with a vague impression of a sound that is cool, a fault that seemed to me to be the weakness in last year’s albums from The XX, Grizzly Bear, Tame Impala, Beach House, The Dirty Projectors and Animal Collective among others.

To the tracks!

‘One of These Days’ opens the album up in understated fashion. This is a mellow slowburn of an opener which inspires immediate groove-based nodding like so much slightly altered southern rock seems to do. It kind of reminds me of the opening to The ‘Meridian 1970’ compilation album from a few years ago – sure, things will get groovy, but not yet – its time to build something. I am talking music here rather than with Rizla papers. Bongos appear with subtlety – something that’s hard for the average bongoist (?) to achieve. This now gives a feeling of The National Trust’s marvellous ‘Dekaggar’ debut from over 10 years ago now. As rich brass blends into the overall sound, you realise that certain elements of this album are going to work in the same way that Mercury Rev’s ‘Deserter’s Songs’ did, updating or maybe just revisiting the Cosmic American songbook for a wild slightly ‘out there’ ride, but hopefully without the vocals of a Muppet this time. Plush maybe another reference point, less successful but owners of ‘Fed’ tend to view it as essential. The pace doesn’t seem to change, something more upbeat is seemingly imminent. However, the atmosphere is sweet and loving with repeated images of lying together. It may also be relevant that the first chorus is just hummed, perhaps a message that we should not be looking too deeply into the lyrics as they could be anything judging from the first chorus on the album. The whispered vocals make life difficult for anyone without a lyric sheet, or he really does sing ‘So much beauty in the face of soup’, which is a wonderful image but sadly ‘and it fades too soon’ is the second half of the sentence.

‘Big Love’ is less sweet. The voice now claims to be a barracuda and a hurricane or is this just bluster and bravado in the face of the end of something important? This sounds more like the classic album opener (‘Let’s begin to spiral’) or the more accessible single that betrays an album’s more reflective nature by dressing it up in a more mainstream shuffle that echoes Krautrock just to keep in with the in-crowd and that begs for ‘interesting’ remixers. It could also be described as sounding like a lost U2 album recorded after someone in their employment had just informed them that The Beta Band were fashionable but had no songs. But this would be harsh. The bassline wanders around wonderfully and again additional percussion is called upon to fill out the rhythm which now features hand claps. This could be introduced as a new Django Django single and no-one would bat an eye except to reflect that, like The Beta Band before them, they seem to be getting closer to developing an actual hit.

‘Will You Love Me’ sounds more classically southern in style and less fried. The string driven build of ‘Deserter’s Songs’ is present again and now I’m starting to understand The Band references. This will become Uncut’s favourite new album of the year. Who else could get a mention? Brightblack Morninglight? The Guardian have already mentioned Bill Callahan and Marvin Gaye, which I like but there’s a lighter feel to the arrangements than Smog which breaks down this more deadpan delivery and Marvin links often seem good at the time but are always wildly inaccurate. ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ is echoed and even credited. Now the feeling is a fear of abandonment and the loneliness that may follow.

‘Gone Away’ has a simpler, almost campfire tone to its opening. Brass slowly emerges and strings before a hi-hat marks the rhythm. A chorus resolves yet another build and we can relax, for a while. More gospel-tinged than prior material, the song breaks the rhythm down just as we hear ‘He will tear your kingdom down’ before that rhythm rebuilds back towards the fade out. Rhythm is our saviour then, led by a funky gospel vibe. This song carries a lot of emotional weight and questions why a girl, White’s little cousin in fact, is in heaven and asks why she was taken. It depicts the family as clinging to the cross ‘with trembling and fear’. The relationships that affected mood in the first three songs now seem trivial when placed next to this loss. We are entering a darker place now as the family’s kingdom of innocence is broken and torn down by God. The song does feature strong echoes of ‘What Are You Doing in Heaven Today?’ by Washington Philips, a gospel song that does not overstate and can get a message across in a secular way too.

‘Steady Pace’ sets itself up with an awkward but jolly rhythm. The swagger of ‘Big Love’ may have partially returned. However, rhythm and melody resolve conflict in a beautiful chorus that dismisses the fuss of the arrangement experienced thus far. This leads into something of a classic funk breakdown again before reintroducing the confusion of earlier. It seems quite complex and chaotic but the craftmanship shines through in the structure. The brass has an afro-funk feel later on before yet another melody appears before the fade out. Is this southern prog? No, its complex but warm. It is the exact opposite of the detached Brooklyn hipster soundtrack of 2012 and possibly the antidote to it. This is to southern soul what ‘Django Unchained’ is to the Spaghetti Western: an exaggeration, an homage and yet still fresh and vibrant. Less blood though.

‘Hot Toddies’ are possibly the most well-rounded depiction of alcohol that exists. Who can argue against a hot toddy? They’re great for a cold and suggest companionship in front of a warm fire rather than reviving a collapsed drunk outside in freezing weather. This beautiful wintry song, complete with ‘frost on windows’ also echoes Mercury Rev but brings in the percussion and the breakdown again. That’s the third breakdown followed by slow build in as many tracks. Perhaps the opening three tracks served to set the scene before a trinity of musical traumas are recovered from leading to a salvation suggested in the final track. In the meantime, the ominous build which follows the breakdown adds percussion again in a Beta Bandesque kind of way before a few psychedelic strings and a brief, free sax solo finish things off. We haven’t had one of those yet. It was only a matter of time as Matthew E.White also leads a jazz band, Fight The Big Bull in his spare time. Maybe the jazz influence is what is strikingly original in an album which at the same time also feels like an homage.

Lush strings followed by triumphant brass introduce the lengthier album closer, ‘Brazos’ is presumably about crossing the longest river in Texas. However, Brazos in Richmond, Virginia appears to be a tamales joint so I could be wrong. This now sounds prettier than Mercury Rev trying to be cute and a lot more sincere than much of Plush. I get The Band comparisons now. Very religious, very gospel – all crossing the river and what not –  but seems sincere and certainly is beautiful. Crossing this river was also important in the drive west of the settlers which explains the ‘strangers in this land’ and ‘They say that white folks are never lazy’ references in the lyrics. This could easily be a traditional American song but for lyrics like ‘Take it easy baby’. Once again the bass leads change through a breakdown and a full on gospel climax seems ready to break out. In fact, as the rhythm resolves itself, it becomes reminiscent of an RZA rhythm that The Black Keys could only dream of recreating. Meanwhile, the chorus over the top of this is lifted from a religious Jorge Ben track, ‘Brother’. Those offbeats that clash with the rhythm are classic Ringo. At the end of it all, maybe a funky ‘Nixon’-era Lambchop is suggested but religious too. Like someone has finally woken up Brightblack Morning Light. A little like ‘Love Spreads’ too.

matthew_e_white_hopscotch_4

The links and references could continue, in fact most readers could probably accurately improvise a couple of their own by now. Essentially, this seems to be an album that deals with a certain religious doubt that may stem from the end of an important romantic relationship for the voice though it may not have meant so much to the other half of it. It seeks answers but doesn’t find much beyond the standard response of Jesus saves. The doubt is the confrontation with the great unknowable element of religion that Graham Greene was so drawn to and it seems to also be a draw for Matthew E. White. Water is used frequently as a motif thus suggesting being reborn or at least cleansed. As the man was raised by missionaries, this isn’t hard to understand but perhaps this album shows how a religious understanding has provided the singer with support in his life. How can a truly southern album exist without the soul? Ask Primal Scream. However, the album does also seek to enjoy life either through a hollow bluster in ‘Big Love’ or taking life at a ‘Steady Pace’ or even taking ‘it easy baby’ in ‘Brazos’ and, as stated before, who doesn’t enjoy ‘Hot Toddies’?

This album does live up to the hype and does sound like an instant classic. It seems genuine, sincere and filled with soul. It is religious but does not seek to preach. It wears its influences on its sleeve, but does not seem derivative. This is an album that will be remembered by those who give it just a little of their time. Following it up will be very difficult, especially if this was just ‘Big Inner’s luck.

The reformed, but hopefully not too reformed, Afghan Whigs

The reformed, but hopefully not too reformed, Afghan Whigs

I read somewhere that this was nominated for cover version of the year. Not a bad choice. A slow build of a song that peaks in intensity after the lyrics have faded. It’s under-stated but threatens more to come. Dulli’s voice seems to constantly suggest something more extreme to come and yet manages to remain in check. How will a new song with the intensity of ‘What Jail is Like’ come across? Will one arrive? The promise of ‘Lovecrimes’ would suggest something even better to come.

‘Lovecrimes’ is one of two cover versions that the Afghan Whigs gave away online last year to celebrate their return to the live arena. Reports from these concerts suggest that they have been a wonderful return to form from a band that always had something left to prove. Back in the 1990s they were never quite the zeitgeist. As grunge took off they developed in popularity but were always outsiders from Cincinnati to the Seattle-based party. They sounded a bit southern and soulful at a time when it was better to be north-western and alienated, though they oozed the latter but in a  more adult and relationship-based form. They covered The Supremes’ ‘My World is Empty Without You’ with a wonderful injection of malice and yet the very idea of covering The Supremes would have sent most grunge fans running for the hills. Their album ‘Gentlemen’ from 1992 was superb and is highly recommended as a place to start and yet it never quite managed to fully get them into the mainstream public conception. Frontman Greg Dulli was viewed as difficult and his stage persona viewed as macho at a time when artists were supposed to scream to reveal their vulnerability. Lyrics may have suggested otherwise and perhaps his persona was more honest than others around the scene of the time. The somewhat ‘Debonair’ macho-loverman persona never seemed to be a problem for Nick Cave and/or his fans. Would The Afghan Whigs ever have got away with an album of murder ballads? What would they have done with Kylie? Subsequent albums seemed to see a shift towards diminishing relevance despite good reviews. Final album ‘1965’ was a wonderfully soulful ride that barely raised a ripple and seemingly got buried by their label. Nowadays it has become more and more expensive through Amazon UK – £16 at the moment when, just a few years ago, I recall it could be picked up from the same company for next to nothing. The increase suggests that the demand is out there for new material or even deluxe reissues. They could even reissue the promo ties and cufflinks that accompanied ‘Gentlemen’. Very smart they were too, though I’m not sure I’d stretch to £200 on ebay as some fool once did.

Grunge cufflinks? £200 a go.

Grunge cufflinks? £200 a go.

This glimpse of the new, 21st century Whigs along with ‘See and Don’t See’ (also available from their website) immediately sounds familiar to fans. Many of us were only fully made aware of the band through the soul covers novelty aspect at the time and took it from there. Lyrically, Ocean’s (you know I mean Frank and not Billy, right?) song immediately introduces sex and metaphorical bullets which seems appropriate for his interpreters. Perhaps the shuffle beat and strings seem a little dated, or do they hark back to the era where the Afghan Whigs got left behind and from which they now re-emerge? Either way, moody, light trip-hop will delight the dinner party crowd who still love their ‘real’ vinyl authenticity as it was when they started to buy music more seriously, or when they left it behind. Y’all know who you are. For me though, the only thing that spoils the oozing sexual tension of ‘Lovecrimes’ is the repeated “Murder, murder, murder she wrote” which suddenly brings an image of Angela Lansbury to mind and that’s really ruined the mood for personally speaking but, you know, whatever floats your boat.

LANSBURY!!!

LANSBURY!!!

paul buchanan 1

WARNING: The article below may also contain references to Deacon Blue and possibly traces of nuts.

Beauty in Brevity seems a somewhat trite and yet accurate way to some up this album that took me over 6 months to finally get around to downloading. I can blame a limit in funds/time/the stupid amount of music one man can process, but, if anything, I was put off by reputation as I’ve never quite got around to The Blue Nile and worry about having another Prefab Sprout in my life as that is what they seem to have mutated into in my mind. This would not normally be a problem but does have serious potential consequences because a similar thing happened one dreary summer afternoon working at ‘the record shop’ back in ’88 when I briefly, ever so briefly mind, fell for Deacon Blue’s ‘Raintown’ though, in my defence, I am pretty tight and a deluxe cassette with about 90 minutes of music on it seemed too good an offer to refuse despite the fact that it so very obviously was. That sodding dinghy! I blame Thursday afternoons in Oswestry. Onywey, (hmm…patronising, vaguely dialectic style adopted to discuss music from Glasgow simply must stop) I kind of had The Blue Nile figured as a bit too slick at the time and really not too punkrock. There is also the small matter of feeling like I needed to get to The Blue Nile first before attempting to appreciate a solo album from their singer …but wait a minute, their first two albums are now remastered as double discs with lots of bonus material? Hmm…It’s happening again.(“Set it up again!” – pipe down Ricky Ross!) And Mid Air’s brevity is now boosted by a deluxe edition with 10 extra tracks too! All the signs were there, I had to go for it. I did also like the couple of tracks I’d heard on free compilations. It still clocks in at under an hour, something Neil Young might want to consider after ruining ‘Psychedelic Pill’ with seemingly endless jamming. However, my gnat’s chuff-esque* approach towards music kind of negates the whole beauty and brevity angle.

Back to Buchanan, the songs appear and disappear in a flash of 2 to 3 minutes and are then gone, ‘tiny epiphanies’ – says The Independent which brings ‘Dubliners’ into my thoughts. I guess this made previews somewhat redundant as a way of sampling the delights held within. It also stands in contrast to The Blue Nile who featured just 7 songs on each of their first 2 albums and with considerably more complex musical accompaniment too. Maybe this is why the album is so very different to what I would have expected. That a certain aim for perfection lies within these little musical vignettes is certain and yet the casually tossed off 2 minute pop song is where music begins and ends for some of us. A first listen in the afternoon led me into this wonderfully heartwarming and/or broken world despite the irritation of the carwashers below the apartment resorting to the Easyvac far too close to our building once again. It framed an afternoon. It may have allowed me to wallow in melancholy, it made the concentration on finishing the excellent book I was hitherto reading undisturbed was now diminished, yes, it’s fair to say that the album had gripped me on first listen even if said listen came a little too late for to allow for consideration among my albums of the year. It’s safe to say that, had I picked this up back in May when it first appeared, it would have made my top 3 with ease. During my second listen, I had already decided this is a classic and most likely the best album I would have heard all year if it hadn’t been for that memory of mistakenly feeling an empathy with Deacon Blue. Why couldn’t I have got into The Blue Nile’s ‘Hats’ that summer? Put it down to misguided youth and the chart orientated policy towards stock in a provincial record shop that shunned the word indie rather than ‘dinghy’.

From the atmospheric title track onward, it is obviously going to be an evocative journey with just piano, minimal string sounds with maybe the occasional horn accompanying a vintage croon as an elemental synergy is used to capture the singer’s feelings for a woman who is seen everywhere. The buttons on her coat, memories and her presence in mid air create a melancholic tone but one which could also suggest contentment. Marriage is referred to but not necessarily the result, perhaps the relationship ended but remains with the singer still and, though this is somewhat maudlin, he does not necessarily find this crushing. Instead, this woman is everywhere as she seems to have passed from the concrete into the abstract somehow – maybe it was the trapeze accident or, hopefully, that’s a metaphor as the song also states ‘only time can make you/ The wind that blows away the leaves. Has she becomes Hardy’s ‘(The) Voice’? It all seems very personal to me rather than the observations of a “bemused bystander” as suggested elsewhere, then again a highly effective persona always seems personal and, at some psychological level, must be. I guess it’s like separating the methodology from the psychology as I recall a German actor who played a Nazi once say.

A reference to ‘the virgin birth’ in the first track is continued into Saint Martha in ‘Half the World’ as well as a reference to ‘the astronaut in God’s good sky’ which suggests a meeting of the human and the celestial though not as incongruous as to suggest man taking on the role of God. However, the story of Martha and her brother, Lazarus, may give this song a more personal dimension as the album was written in the aftermath of the death of a close friend. Clearly he or she, the ambiguity is retained throughout, is now seen everywhere if we follow ‘Mid Air’ and yet this ‘astronaut’ of ‘Half the World’ is waving his last goodbye.

Religion and family seem to play a central role in the themes of the album and may be suggested at other times. In ‘Mid Air’ ‘the girl I want to marry/ upon the high trapeze/ The day she fell and hurt her knees’ maybe a convenient rhyme or could suggest checking out of the circus to turn to religion where the praying can indeed hurt the knees. It may also be stated that the quiet nature of tha album does not necessarily lead to a depressing experience though beginning ‘Wedding Party’ with ‘It’s a good day for a landslide/ there are tears in the car park outside’ may suggest otherwise and the song eventually develops a picture of a depressing argument between a couple attending a wedding.

‘Mid Air’ has a poetic if minimal feel to its lyrics. The working title was ‘Minor Poets of the 17th Century’ after a poetry anthology Buchanan purchased from Oxfam. I have already suggested Hardy’s influence on ‘Mid Air’ whilst the astronaut of ‘Half the World’ seems to echo Yehuda Amichai’s ‘My Father in a White Space Suit’ numerous other links or similarities can be found. ‘Wedding Party’ and ‘Cars in the Garden’ seem to have echoes of early Larkin without the shock of profanity which is perhaps unnecessary in the post-Larkin age of poetry. ‘Two Children’ could be Plath or Hughes on parenthood, though again this could suggest a doomed relationship – Plath and Hughes as a couple would certainly fit as the characters in ‘Wedding Party’ any road. However, amidst all these rather gloomy links, it must also be said that the lines and their rhymes have a rather childlike quality that would suit Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence’. The imagery seems deliberately basic at times almost giving a child’s perspective in places or, possibly, the numbed perspective of grief. The latter is suggested by background information that tells us the album was written in the early hours (or ‘wee small hours’ to link with Sinatra when he wasn’t a happy bunny) after the death of a close friend as mentioned previously. The fact that something gorgeous emerges from this grief may reflect the way we come to terms with grief as I understand it – the seventh stage: acceptance and hope.

I guess this album also wears age on its sleeve with references to children and the past and yet it is hard to imagine that its beauty would not have an effect on a younger audience too even if that may negate any potential commercial clout. In some ways it reminds me of ‘The Magical World Of The Strands’ by Michael Head and the Strands, though this album’s disappearance seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment it appeared yet the beauty is there in this case shimmering through a haze of quite dedicated heroin use and, even more damaging for the soul, an initial appearance as a Dutch import. There is no suggestion of a druggy dimension to ‘Mid Air’ just a poetic album that may get left behind in the modern rush for bombast. ‘The Boatman’s Call’ has also been mentioned by reviewers but I feel Ol’ Nick would strangle the beauty of these songs with his rudimentary baritone. Elsewhere I have read of this album being the point where Paddy McAloon and Tom Waits meet. While it has none of the larger than life persona suggested by the latter, it would be great to hear a similarly stark album from Prefab Sprout. Mark Hollis could perhaps do something similar if he pulled himself together and stopped relaxing on Talk Talk royalties generated by Gwen Stefani and her ‘pals’.

I also love the brilliant consistency in terms of chart performance represented by the performance of each Blue Nile release and this solo album. Whilst debut album, ‘A Walk Across the Rooftops’, only made 80 in the album charts, the 4 subsequent studio albums have been released about 7 or 8 years apart with chart positions varying between 10 and 14. Nice and dependable, much like a couple arguing at weddings but happily raising children whilst dreaming across the rooftops to elsewhere. On the other hand there is also a sense of the end of life and the end of the relationships. What I like a lot about the album is the happy blending of the concrete and the abstract, the surreal and the mundane and also, as just referred to, the dependable and a sense of ending. Not only does this make the album enjoyable, but researching every review led to uncovering lots of profound comments which sometimes reveal very little (well, this is music journalism so what do cynics expect?). The Irish Times** sounded confident in stating that the title track was brief but with a ‘vivid aftertaste’ and yet quite what was so vivid about this synesthesia they managed to leave to the imagination. Was it the buttons? If she is ‘The Chocolate Girl’, then maybe but I hope she isn’t.

* – As tight as a…

** – The album creates this ambiguity not poor journalism. It’s that good is my point. Maybe my poor journalistic skills have created further ambiguity…I’ll shut up now.

A slight apology to Deacon Blue – the grating nature of your music is personally irritating once it becomes a memory of something bought that I wished I hadn’t (see  first footnote). At least you’re not Danny Wilson or China Crisis.

Single of the Year.

Single of the Year.

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:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnUl21gc_Fo

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.

I have been looking forward to completing this less and less and have put it off as whenever I sit to type, another end of year list with another new album at number one appears from somewhere. There really do seem to be more than enough of these things now and so its time to wrap mine up as it increases in chronic insignificance by the minute. I’ve done a top 50 albums for a few years now, here’s this year’s lot:

Dexys - One Day I'm Going to Soar. My favourite album of the year.

Dexys – One Day I’m Going to Soar. My favourite album of the year.

1.  Dexys – One Day I’m Going To Soar
2.  First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar
3.  Sharon Van Etten – Tramp
4   Forward Strategy Group – Labour Division
5.  The Sea and Cake – Runner
6.  The Walkmen – Heaven
7.  Kendrick Lamar – good kid, m.A.A.d. City
8.  Killer Mike – R.A.P. Music
9.  Six Organs of Admittance – Ascent
10. The Chromatics – Kill For Love
11. Giant Giant Sand – Tucson
12. Cody Chesnutt – Landing on a Hundred
13. EL-P – Cancer for Cure
14. The Chris Robinson Brotherhood – Big Moon Ritual
15. The Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory
16. Bob Dylan – Tempest
17. Actress – RIP
18. The Men – Open Your Heart
19. Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
20. Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas
21. Lee Ranaldo – Between the Times and the Tides
22. Japandroids – Celebration Rock
23. Dr. John – Locked Down
24. Mark Lanegan Band – Blues Funeral
25. John Talabot – Fin
26. Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball
27. Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti – Mature Themes
28. Frank Ocean – Channel Orange
29. The Twilight Sad – No One Can Ever Know
30. The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
31. Goat – World Music
32. Django Django – Django Django
33. Death Grips – The Money Store
34. Grimes – Visions
35. Toy – Toy
36. Screaming Females – Ugly
37. Errors – Have Some Faith in Magic
38. Andrew Bird – Break It Yourself
39. The Allah-Las – The Allah-Las
40. The Dirty Three – Toward the Low Sun
41.  Woods – Bend Beyond
42. Liars – WIXIW
43. Tame Impala – Lonerism
44. Billy Hart – All Our Reasons
45. ‘Allo Darlin – Europe
46. Holy Other – Held
47. Nas – Life is Good
48. Dinosaur Jr. – I Bet On Sky
49. Laurel Halo – Quarantine
50. Beak – >>

This has been a good year for good albums as far as I can tell. I have quite liked a hell of a lot of music and have at times thought that some of it was very good. Excellence has come in small amounts, brief flashes on otherwise less essential sounding albums. There’s about a minute on the Toy album which sounds like the best thing ever but it is a pinnacle they fail to maintain. Plenty of hyped or supposedly big, important albums left me feeling nonplussed. At least the XX album was short in its dullness, Toy dragged, Grizzly Bear sounded promising at first but nothing much new has emerged after the first few listens and I think I actually prefer Daniel Rossen’s EP, Dirty Projectors did quite well when I thought they might have soared and I preferred the first Tame Impala album’s raw quality which seems a little airbrushed out of ‘Lonerism’. Hot Chip seem to have become the electro 1oCC, Calexico sounded dull and I won’t touch that half-baked idea of an album that Flaming Lips farted out with a bargepole (hmm…seems there are 2 ways to read that sentence and one sounds painful). I keep listening to the excellent-sounding Spiritualized album hoping to remember something about it afterwards, but I can’t and so it must be dull to my ears even if I do like the sound. Was Frank Ocean THAT good? It strikes me as being filled with promise but not as fully realised as The Weeknd trilogy. How good can a song that uses Forrest Gump as a metaphor actually be? Even the strong albums released by the elderly didn’t quite excel for me, except for Dexys which was a surprise. Dylan’s ‘Tempest’ was almost great but that Titanic song followed to a tribute to John Lennon which really does suggest that Bob has only just found out he’s dead kind of ruin it. Leonard Cohen’s album has some powerful songs but lacks a little colour and shade for me. I have no idea what Neil Young though he was up to this year but I find it baffling that he actually gave up smoking weed this year as his book and two albums with Crazy Horse suggest the opposite. Dr John’s album was excellent, sounding like Captain Beefheart singing soul with Tinariwen in places –  a wonderful combination of desert and delta. The only real, consensus I can find on lists and including my own opinion, would be Sharon Van Etten and the fact that had that Burial EP been an actual album, it would have won album of the decade by now.

Everything But The Young Marble Giants?

Everything But The Young Marble Giants?

Well, that’s the moaning out of the way so what about positives? The Dexys album is a fine, fine thing. A Celtic soul concept album of the highest order. Sure, his singing voice leaves a little to be desired and isn’t really acting his age but the world needs that these days. The songs stand out and stick in the mind as well as being blended with familiar riffs and melodies too. An album about never settling down from the mind of a man in his 50s seems appropriate for this year as so many of the better albums of the year have been made by performers over 50, even 70 – Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Dr. John, Bruce Springsteen, Lee Ranaldo, Giant Giant Sand as well as Billy Hart’s album on ECM (this year’s token jazz effort?)  but perhaps not the two Neil Young efforts though two in a year seems pretty unsettled too. Even the 40 somethings seem to be doing good things especially as I never thought I’d become a fan of Chris Robinson back in his Black Crowes days.

First Aid Kit are probably the best Swedish country duo of sisters I’ll ever hear. Wonderful harmonies Especially on the sublime ‘Emmylou’. Sharon Van Etten seems to harmonise with herself at times. Either of these albums could have been the best of the year or possibly a little lower. Essentially it was hard to separate whether I was impressed or genuinely into these albums at times, though ‘Emmylou’ does tip the balance in First Aid Kit’s favour. It’s all been very nice so far despite the messy break up documented on Dexys’ album. However, things change with Forward Strategy Group. Industrial influences creep into their classic techno sound to create something both unsettling yet surprisingly infectious and not anonymous at all. Then rounding out the top 5 is a very under-rated album from The Sea and Cake, ‘Runner’, which seems like a career high by a large margin. Songs seem important rather than the lush sounds that have dominated recent albums although the mini-album, ‘The Moonlight Butterfly’ did point the way to this achievement. Now regret not going to see them live in Mexico City last March.

'Runner' - a return to form for The Sea and Cake.

‘Runner’ – a return to form for The Sea and Cake.

I could run through the whole 50 like this but sense that would get a little wearing as so many little summaries of this year’s albums have been produced in the past month that googling them or even just checking in with www.albumoftheyear.org should pretty much cover every possible opinion there is to express. Better to focus on mentioning less popular selections like the already mentioned Forward Strategy Group and The Sea and Cake. For example, no round-up I’ve seen seems to have mentioned that Giant Giant Sand’s album is one of Howe Gelb’s best, that the Chris Robinson Brotherhood really can cook up a groove or that Lee Ranaldo has politely laid down a gauntlet for Thurston and Kim to try to improve upon. Screaming Females, Woods and The Cloud Nothings all weighed in with impressive albums this year and my belated discovery of Errors has opened up a world of electro-Mogwai tunes. This morning, I have been blown away a little more by the Dr. John album and it strikes me that this is the problem with the list that I have above. Maybe by June next year I’ll be able to look back on the best albums of 2012 but for now they are still finding their mark even 6 months or more after buying them. Writing this paragraph has made me realise that I haven’t heard the Errors album for a while and need to do so again. This could keep happening for a long time and suggests that 2012 might end up being a rich year for music once compared with what is to come.

Enough! Apologies for any repetition, but its hard to spot mine from what I’ve already read in countless other lists. I should have known that writing a piece about the pointlessness of end of year lists (https://tuppencedylan.wordpress.com/2012/10/31/end-of-yearmonthweek-lists/) would immediately lead me into doing exactly that. As a result, I have deliberated over a messy list on a piece of paper for weeks rather than actually thinking about something with a little more substance to it. Ultimately, that’s why lists should be avoided but also why they are so enjoyable. I should write in more depth about some of these albums in the future, but for now you can expect singles and compilations/reissues etc. lists to follow but feel quietly pleased that I’ve overcome a problem if they don’t.