Friday, 28 November 2014

#1: FKA Twigs - LP1

Every cross-pollination between genres and production styles; every patchwork snatch of texture ripped from an old TLC chorus, or a Missy Elliot beat, or a whole Aaliyah song; everything that popular music has been creating, or borrowing, or straight up stealing in the last ten years: as bold as it sounds, you can't help but feel like it all was building up to this album. This is the generation that gave us James Blake, The xx, and Aluna George, artists who looked back at the decade of their childhood without irony, without cringing or sneering, but with a genuine love of where those artists were taking their sound, and where that sound could go in the 21st century. So LP1 was born, addict in utero to that silky-smooth R'n'B sound. The first half of the record is a masterclass in minimalist production, with Tahliah Barnett's seductive whisper front and centre, although album centrepiece and single of the year 'Two Weeks' dominates with as much power as grace, with uncompromising lines like 'I can fuck you better than her' dancing around the incremental throb of the chorus' maximalist synths. Later on, Barnett hints at her former career as a backing dancer in 'Video Girl', though by now you're codeine-woozy from how gloriously rich the whole thing is, and there's a good chance that any meaning the words might have will have to be relayed to you afterwards.

#2: Run The Jewels - Run The Jewels 2

Everything about Run The Jewels has been fittingly anti-establishment since day one. Enter stage left: El-P, the self-styled 'New Yorkian' who founded Definitive Jux in the late '90s, a label which became home to some of the brightest stars of the new century's independent scene, and a producer famed for his dark, futuristic production style (in the man's own words: 'i swear to god i could make a beat with a banjo and a church organ only and someone will call it 'dystopian sci fi''). Enter stage right: Killer Mike, a seasoned MC from the Deep South who came up with Outkast and T.I., but spent more time delivering political rants against the neoliberal orthodoxy than playing for the camera. Even the name they came up with for their official joint venture was a dig at the pomp and ceremony of Kanye and Jay-Z's ego project. On the second LP, imaginatively titled Run The Jewels 2, the duo up the ante, enlisting Zach de la Rocha (!) to throw added political fire behind 'Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck)', and taking aim wherever they smell bullshit and/or corruption: 'The fellows at the top are likely rapists / But you're like, "Mellow out man, just relax, it's really not that complicated" / Well pardon me, I'm guess I'm just as sane as you explained / Or maybe sanctifying the sadistic is deranged.' Elsewhere we get some clumsy blowjob humour in 'Love Again (Akinyele Back)', but for the most part, the pair find the zenith of their capabilities in bouncing off each other, and El's production is as hot as ever. Fun and intelligent, often in the same breath, this is what hip-hop should be all about. Keep watching that throne, boys.

#3: A Winged Victory for the Sullen - Atomos

'Ambient music,' according to Brian Eno, 'must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.' On Atomos, Adam Wiltzie and pianist Dustin O'Halloran have found that sweet spot, and in doing so, wrested a degree of import away from post-rock, formerly the thinking millennial's flavour of seven-minute meditations. While Wiltzie has been working on ambient music with Stars of the Lid since 1993, the musical landscape has remained flush with guitar bands attempting to recreate the epic feel of a classical performance; Sigur Ros, in particular, achieved the unlikely in taking hushed reverence into the rock arenas. Today, artists like Tim Hecker, Ludovico Einaudi and Grouper are (mostly) dropping the drums and guitars in favour of a purer spirit: what we have taken to calling modern classical. The spirit is abound here, and each track, marked by a roman numeral - interestingly, IV is missing - offers a gentle coda, before swelling into something grander, and then washing away again like the passing of the tides. And at those swells, at the moment of euphoria, you suddenly focus; not because the idler moments were dull, but because it was designed to be that way. Both spells are key, and produce an experience that manages to be simultaneously passive and captivating. The old man was right after all.

#4: Sharon Van Etten - Are We There

Following on from 2012's much-loved Tramp, 2014 found Sharon Van Etten in playful mood. While the former LP clung to traditional indie rock singer-songwriter tropes, sculpting out a sonic palette used to great effect by PJ Harvey in the '90s, Are We There sounded fresh and ready to branch out. Self-produced on this occasion, Van Etten set her voice to drum machines, synths and outright love songs, without any of it sounding staid or saccharine. Part of this came about by sitting her most heartfelt gestures next to a robust sense of humour. 'People say I'm a one hit wonder,' she muses, 'But what happens when I have two?' If the cocksure attitude isn't enough, we get the confession to follow: 'I washed your dishes, but I shit in your bathroom.' The album ends with a burst of laughter, one of those in-studio outtakes that sometimes feel like a contrived attempt to humanise the artist. Here, it sounds genuine, rounding off the confidence and joy that comes from an artist performing at the top of her game.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

#5: A Sunny Day In Glasgow - Sea When Absent

A Sunny Day In Glasgow have crafted a hard-earned career in dreampop, a genre that often spellbinds critics without challenging the radio-friendly unit shifters. On Sea When Absent, they've managed to keep the dream while playing up the pop, to sparkling effect. Jen Goma contributed vocals to the last Pains of Being Pure At Heart album, and you can feel a little of their crossover indiepop appeal present here, none more so than on the incredible 'Golden Waves', a finale that remains lo-fi while defying all lo-fi sensibilities, and a song seemingly built around choruses that channels Katy Perry as much as Cocteau Twins.

#6: Ian William Craig - A Turn of Breath

Ian William Craig is primarily a painter, so it's no mean feat that he's also created one of the albums of the year. It is identifiably the music of a visual artist, one who creates in broad strokes of colour and texture. Someone described the album as sounding 'like devotional music pulled out of the wreckage of a burnt church's cellar and played at slightly the wrong speed,' and there's a truth to that. A Turn of Breath is at once ecstatic and esoteric, turning ideas over as quickly as they fold, cutting and chopping soundscapes like a seasoned turntablist DJ. A lot of music is described as 'haunting', but 'Before Meaning Comes' truly sounds as if it was previously occupied by the spirit of a more hopeful tune, channeling a devotional tone as much as it desecrates something long since past.

#7: Kate Tempest - Everybody Down

Did you see Kate Tempest at the Mercury Prize ceremony? Jon Snow was visibly besotted. He wants to know what she's doing next: a novel? Yes, of course, she's already writing a novel, based on the characters in Everybody Down. What's impressive is that none of this seems unlikely. Listening to the prodigal poet's debut album is a revelatory experience, in which all facile comparisons fall short. The Streets? Please. This is character-based storytelling on a level that hasn't been seen in music since White Light, White Heat, and even then, the blow-by-blow accounts of a generation brought up on Primark and WKDs are barely comparable. The fact is that Kate Tempest is a ridiculous talent, not just in storytelling, but in matching those narratives up to meter and rhythm. She's a rapper and a poet, and if there's a young ginger kid in Britain setting hearts alight, Ed Sheeran is well overdue to be laughed off the stage.

#8: Owen Pallett - In Conflict

In album opener 'I Am Not Afraid', Owen Pallett deliberately uses the pronoun 'ze' to avoid gendering the protagonist. While his last album, 2010's sumptuous Heartland, had dealt mainly with 'author/subject binary', Pallett stated that he 'wanted to immediately establish that these definitions within In Conflict are more fluid.' The idea prevails throughout the record, and while it is lyrically less attached to the idea of authorship, In Conflict simultaneously strikes a more personal tone than the previous record, or any of his work under the Final Fantasy moniker. The stunning 'Infernal Fantasy', a Brian Eno collaboration based on a young LSD trip that ended in near-anarchy, talks about 'hallucinating as we try to make each other come', while 'Soldiers Rock' attempts to marry the personal to the political. While there are a few more duds here than Heartland carried, Pallett remains one of the few musicians working today to whom the word 'genius' could reasonably be attributed.

#9: Adebisi Shank - This Is the Third Album of a Band Called Adebisi Shank

Math-rock vanguards Adebisi Shank split up in September this year, shortly after bequeathing this shiny parting gift to the world. If you're not familiar with the band, or indeed the bemusing concept of 'math-rock', then perhaps you'll be familiar with the concept of Having a Tremendous Amount of Fun While Constantly Wanting to Punch The Air Out of the Sheer Fucking Joy of It All. That is the power that Adebisi Shank wield, summoning it like a Power Ranger beckoning his or her Zord. Do you understand? 'Big Unit' sounds like Biffy Clyro, in a world where Biffy Clyro are amazing. 'Turnaround' sounds like Vampire Weekend, Morris dancing on acid. 'Mazel Tov' sounds like 'Sledgehammer' playing through the Labyrinth Zone on Sonic 1. And if all that sounds like the worst kind of wacky, hyperbolic, journalistic claptrap, I invite you to listen and disagree. And you can thank me later.

#10: The Hotelier - Home, Like Noplace Is There

Emo's back! Which emo? Too poppy for the emotional hardcore scene of late '80s Washington, D.C.; too polished for the early '90s of Cap'n Jazz and the rest of the Midwestern scene. I'm going to be honest: we're probably closer to Jared Leto country here. But don't let that put you off the incredible songwriting craft here. 'An Introduction to the Album' is something of an understatement, building the song's sublime melody into a full-band jam to yell along to as it climaxes. From there it's nothing but slick emo-rock brilliance, as one track segues into another and several 'woah oh oh' chants rise and fade. 'Your Deep Rest' almost jumps the shark, an impossibly dramatic song about a protagonist who 'called in sick from your funeral' and contemplates the formalities associated with such occasions altogether, bringing to mind My Chemical Romance and their equally ridiculous 'Helena' in the process. If all that sounds a little pretentious and adolescent to you, your best course is to steer clear. But if you ever held a secret guilty pleasure for Taking Back Sunday, you could be in for a treat.

#11: Broken Twin - May

'I was looking for a title that was simple, and not giving too much away, reflecting the songs,' says Majke Voss Romme on her bio. 'Also it represents a time of year that seems to fit the songs. Spring is a time when everything is changing. It’s a hopeful season.' You would be forgiven for not instantly recognising these themes in May, which sounds as glacial and heartbroken as anything released this year. While 'Sun Has Gone' offers an obvious point of reference, it's the run stretching from 'Out of Air' (note Romme's trembling vibrato delivery of 'running down my spine') towards the album's close that really shines. Nils Gröndahl adds violin to the sparse piano and vocal arrangements, and finds his finest moment on the intense melancholy of 'In Dreams', though the contribution serves only to lengthen the shadows. If there are green shoots to be found here, it's in the dawn that is imagined at the other end of May's darkness.

#12: Johnny Foreigner - You Can Do Better

And they did. Now a four-piece with the addition of long-time artistic contributor Lewes Herriot, the band sound tighter than ever, and the disappointment of Johnny Foreigner Vs. Everything's overwrought stab at grandeur long feels like a long time ago. You Can Do Better is probably the band's most concise collection of songs - there's still the token nod towards might loosely be considered a ballad ('Riff Glitchard'), but on the whole, the softer elements are employed sparingly to complement the more buoyant tracks. The album reaches a glorious peak with 'Le Schwing', a song which encapsulates everything wonderful about Johnny Foreigner: interlocking guitar riffs, playful back-and-forth vocals from Alexei and Kelly ('And it’s on.' 'And it’s off.' 'Yeh it’s on.' 'No, it’s off.' 'No, it’s off.' 'Yeh it’s off.' 'No, it’s on!' etc.), and the chaotic guitar frenzy that any attempt at a middle eight inevitably descends into, eventually pierced by the return of the killer chorus. I feel like I should have grown out of the base-level hit to the pleasure receptors that this kind of pop-punk offers up, but I'm so glad that I haven't.

#13: Sia - 1000 Forms of Fear

Perhaps the one backhanded criticism you could lay at Sia's door is that everything here sounds like a hit. 'Chandelier' sets the tone, and rightly so: in a year that gave us 'Drunk In Love', it still sounds like the most ambitious pop song of the year. In one respect, this makes the record feel less cohesive, lacking the ebb and flow of a traditional long player experience; it's also an absolute treat, a Best Of to match any of the money-spinners she writes for more famous pop stars (Rihanna's 'Diamonds' and the ubiquitous David Guetta collaboration 'Titanium' spring to mind). Amid a handful of serviceable ballads, Sia really shines when she lets rip, with 'Burn the Pages' and 'Free the Animal' showcasing her talent for the kind of bombastic writing and production that sticks in your head for days. And when that kind of magic keeps Beyonce, Eminem, Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and a host of others knocking at her door to collaborate, it's probably no wonder 1000 Forms of Fear sounds like solid gold.

#14: Perfume Genius - Too Bright

If the music video for 2012's 'Hood' (drag-glamour playtime meets crippling insecurity) was the document that revealed a feisty side to Mike Hadreas, then Too Bright was, in spells, positively sassy. Opening track 'I Decline' gently ushers listeners in with the stripped-back, major key sadness of his previous two records, only for 'Queen' to storm in, kiss the prettiest boy in the room, tell everyone to fuck off, and leave again. Elsewhere, there were new adventures in finger-clicking soul ('Fool') to synth-backed screams ('My Body', 'Grid') jostling among the more traditional whispered sadness. These leaps between styles are a little jarring in places, and there's nothing here to match the masterpiece that was Put Your Back N 2 It, but Perfume Genius in experimental mode is still miles ahead of almost everyone.