Category Archives: music

Favourite albums of 2018

My favourite album of 2018 is Double Negative by Low. Low are a fine band with a discography built up over 25 years that, while unshowy, must surely make any other band weep. Like the songs of, for example, Leonard Cohen, beneath what may appear like superficial gloominess has always been a beating heart of optimism and beauty. Double Negative is a departure, and my favourite Low album since Secret Name. Alan Sparhawk’s and Mimi Parker’s ordinarily ice-clear harmonies are buried within fuzz and distortion, often squeezed out as a Sparky’s Magic Piano-esque squelch. I’m a fan of deteriorated sound, that’s for sure, but amidst all this degradation the occasional surfacing of untampered-with vocals feel like glimpses of something divine. It’s the most wonderful album, and ‘Tempest’ is my favourite song of the year.

Modern soul isn’t usually my thing, but Childqueen by Kadhja Bonet absolutely is, filled as it is with gorgeous melodies and lush orchestration. For the most part, the best aural (as opposed to vocal) comparison I can think of is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, though there are shades of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic and Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, and the slick production of ‘Mother Maybe’ reminds me strongly of one of my 80s guilty pleasures, Sade’s ‘Smooth Operator’. I can’t think of another 2018 album that feels so pleasurable throughout its running time. In addition, Kadhja Bonet was responsible for the entirety of the album; everything written, sung and played, and she produced and mixed it too, which I find incredible.

The drone album I’ve enjoyed most this year is Rausch by GAS. It’s difficult to describe why one lengthy drone is preferable to another, but there’s a depth to these seven tracks that just, I don’t know, takes me away… It’s only now, listening carefully and attempting to analyse it, that I’m able to identify particular elements: tapping hi-hats, bass thrums, reversed cymbals. Previously, I wouldn’t have been able to describe what produced the effect, only that’s the whole is absorbing and hypnotic. For me, this album is up there with Biokinetics by Porter Ricks and What?? by Folke Rabe.

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Musical milestones

I’m pretty sure that by now everybody’s seen the recent Facebook meme of showing the 10 albums that you find important, right? Now that I’ve finished my 10-album, 10-day list I thought I’d post it here for posterity. I’m afraid I wasn’t able to stick to the rule of omitting any explanation of my choices…

#1 Victor Borge – Phonetic punctuation / A Mozart opera
I’ve chosen this album to represent my parents’ record collection, and the fact that when I was a kid I was more likely to listen to comedy than music. But also, I still think it’s hysterically funny, and the album cover is still one of my all-time favourites, and also matches my writing/editing occupation. I have the LP version framed and ready to hang once I get my attic office in order.

#2 The Beatles – 1967–1970
It’d be disingenuous to pretend that this album wasn’t the keystone of my discovering music when I was a kid. I’d heard ‘Penny Lane’ via a compilation tape (chosen because I liked fire engines) and ‘Let It Be’ on a French campsite (as close to a musical epiphany as a seven-year-old can have). I listened to the ‘Blue Album’ endlessly while I was growing up; it’s part of me.

 

 

 

 

 

#3 Tortoise – TNT   /   Gastr Del Sol – Camoufleur
TNT by Tortoise was responsible for shifting my listening from rock to post-rock and experimental music. And that self-effacing album cover! Tortoise were an important band to me, partly because they had so many side projects that would lead me into other areas. In fact, two members of Tortoise were in the original lineup of Gastr Del Sol, though by the time of CAMOUFLEUR the lineup was David Grubbs and Jim O’Rourke (with contributions from Markus Popp of Oval). Jim O’Rourke would lead me into new areas – via his indie stuff and then into far stranger listening territory. Gastr Del Sol’s CAMOUFLEUR came a little later, but is probably my favourite post-rock album.

 #4 Nick Cave – And No More Shall We Part
I know that many people would argue for other Nick Cave albums being more immediate, more visceral, plain better than this, but I adore it unconditionally. It’s one of the most literate and darkly funny albums I can think of, and it inspired my early attempts to write short stories as much as, say, John Updike’s RABBIT series of books did.

#5 Herman Düne – Not On Top
For the longest time, I considered Herman Düne my favourite band. They were charming, witty and, unlike most of the music I listened to, they were alive and there were lots of opportunities to see them play live – which I did, perhaps five or six times in total. I listened to a lot of ‘anti-folk’ at the beginning of this century, though few of the performers still have the same resonance for me as Herman Düne, who have soundtracked some of the happiest moments of my life.

 

 

 

 

 

#6 The Modern Lovers  – The Modern Lovers   /   Jonathan Richman – Jonathan Goes Country
Around 2005 I listened to little other than Jonathan Richman’s vast back catalogue, from his snotty Velvet-Underground-ish origins to his latter-day embarrassing-dad persona – both equally loveable. THE MODERN LOVERS and JONATHAN GOES COUNTRY were on constant rotation when I was working alone for long stretches in California. The former is one of the great proto-punk albums, and a tantalising suggestion of a path that Richman would decide not to take; the latter is a goofy experiment that shouldn’t work, but succeeds through its wholehearted charm. It’s my favourite music to drive to.
(My favourite detail about the change in direction after the release of The Modern Lovers in 1976: David Robinson left the group ‘due to frustration with Richman’s quest for lower volume levels’.)

#7 Lonnie Donegan – Rock Island Line: The Singles Anthology 1955–1967
Lonnie Donegan’s early singles are some of the most thrilling songs I know of: catchy, funny, utterly wild. When I discovered this fantastic compilation set in 2006 I described it as follows in a blog post:
“I can’t get enough of Lonnie’s rasping, distorted, chuckling voice. I love that he addresses his songs to ‘the boys’. I love his rambling introductions to the simplest of songs. I love the way that his songs feel spontaneous, and that when the band cuts loose it doesn’t even sound like they’re playing musical instruments. They’re beating on the walls and stamping on the floor and Lonnie is wailing through the white noise…”

#8 Steve Reich – Music for 18 Musicians
This was a total revelation to me when I first heard it around fifteen years ago, and set me off listening to modern composition and minimalist pieces. I think it’s utterly perfect.

#9 Gavin Bryars – Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet
One of the most emotional musical experiences I’ve had was the American Contemporary Music Ensemble’s performance of ‘Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet’ at the All Tomorrow’s Parties festival curated by Jeff Mangum in 2012. Rose and I had recently decided to start a family, and for whatever reason the repeated words of Bryars’ piece struck me as advice from a parent to a child. By the end I was in pieces.

#10 Oren Ambarchi – Grapes from the Estate
If any artist sums up my current listening preferences, it’s Oren Ambarchi. (Jim O’Rourke’s experimental work would come close second.) These days I most often listen to music while working, so it’s almost all instrumental. Aside from being absurdly beautiful, GRAPES FROM THE ESTATE is the most wonderful background to achieving a trance-like mindset.

Favourite albums of 2017

RICHARD DAWSON – Peasant (Domino). A departure from his previous work, in that he’s accompanied by a band, but Dawson’s ramshackle weirdness and Beefheartian tendencies are intact. ‘Soldier’ is my favourite song of the year, and includes my favourite lyric too: ‘Let’s betroth without delay / Pack the horse and ride away / Find some better place / Where we might raise a family / My heart is full of hope / I am tired, I am afraid / My heart is full of hope’.

BILL ORCUTT – Bill Orcutt (Palillia). Orcutt goes electric! Shimmering and abstract covers album with melodies I can never quite fathom. ‘Christmas on Earth’ is my favourite.

ROB NOYES – The Feudal Spirit (Poon Village). A traditional Fahey-style fingerpicking counterpart to Orcutt’s out-there album.

DEAN HURLEY – Anthology Resource Vol. 1 (Sacred Bones). Not only do they recall the happy, woozy weeks of David Lynch’s mind trip masterpiece, these soundscapes from Twin Peaks: The Return are incredible in their own right.

DEDEKIND CUT – American Zen (Ninja Tune). Wonderful washes of noise and hints of techno.

F INGERS – Awkwardly Blissing Out (Blackest Ever Black). Barely-there dark dreams.

BLUE IVERSON – Hotep (World Music). Twenty minutes of Dean Blunt’s soul and R&B doodlings. Far more compelling than that might sound.

HANNAH PEEL – Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (self-published). Is it my imagination, or has there been a glut of albums featuring synths and colliery brass bands this year? This was the best.

VESSEL – Nyt Alfabet (DME). Shakily soporific in the best possible way. And that voice! I’m melting.

ALDOUS HARDING – Party (4AD). Speaking of voices… I predict that next year Aldous Harding will conquer the world.

Book soundtrack: You Don’t Belong Here

I’ve created book soundtracks for all of my longer fiction (novels and novellas, both published and as-yet-unpublished), partly as a way of consolidating the tone, partly as an indulgence and a pat on the back and partly, typically, as a distraction activity during the final draft. The idea is to provide a musical teaser before reading the novel, or a soundtrack of a theoretical film adaptation, but not simply a background playlist.

Today Ginger Nuts of Horror published my article about book soundtracks, including the rules of my nerdy game (yes, there are rules and no, I don’t always stick to them. I won’t repeat the rules here (because you can read the full article instead), or the stories behind some of the track choices, but I don’t think it’s bad form to repost the Spotify playlist:

Favourite albums of 2016

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I know, I know. It’s too late for roundup lists. But a) the end of 2016 was crazy busy, and b) I love lists. So here are the albums I most enjoyed listening to in 2016, in no order:

  • KLARA LEWIS – Too
  • KAITLIN AURELIA SMITH – EARS
  • SARAH DAVACHI – Vergers
  • B/B/S – Palace
  • OREN AMBARCHI – Hubris
  • FENNESZ – It’s Hard for Me to Say I’m Sorry
  • LAMBCHOP – Flotus
  • DRONE – Reversing into the Future
  • JAN ST WERNER – Felder
  • GEORGIA – All Kind Music
  • MICA LEVI & OLIVER COATES – Remain Calm
  • KATIE GATELY – Color
  • NURSE WITH WOUND – Dark Fat

And my favourite 2016 reissues:

  • ANNA HOMLER – Breadwoman & Other Tales
  • LOW – The Exit Papers
  • THURSTON MOORE & TOM SURGAL – Not Me
  • ENNIO MORRICONE – Veruschka OST

Favourite tracks of 2015

  • Chorus by Holly Herndon – the catchiest pop tune that emerges only in glimpses, sung by a group of otters
  • A Walk Down Chapel by Jam City – woozy 1986ish tune from a BP garage compilation tape, half-heard from the back seat of my dad’s VW Polo
  • Price Tag by Sleater-Kinney – effortless, focussed, cool and cynical as fuck
  • Era of Manifestations by People of the North – seven and a half minutes of Kid Millions’ manic drumming, culminating in a squelchy frenzy that can only end with an abrupt—
  • Letter by Blood Warrior – sometimes just being lovely is OK and the ‘Oh Lord we were naked’ transition is wonderful
  • Against Archives by Felicia Atkinson – Carter Tutti Void laptop thumps from the next room along and wise whispering in this one
  • The Rest of Us by Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld – the album track that allows Stetson the freest rein, but Neufeld is vital to keeping the momentum
  • Shatter You Through by Daughn Gibson – his ‘Take on Me’, but better
  • In Service by David Thomas Broughton & Juice Vocal Ensemble – my favourite lyric of the year: “I deeply regret all events that did pass / I killed a man wi’ a broken glass”
  • My Love, My Love by Julia Holter – Julia Holter singing Karen Dalton’s lost lyrics is much as you’d expect until the oboe or an organ comes in and is that a train and it builds and builds and now there’s feedback and birdsong and maybe someone making a cup of tea and that was bloody beautiful
  • no.harm.do.no.wrong.Do.No.Harm.Do.No.Wrong.DO.NO.HARM.DO.NO.WRONG by Big Brave – simply enormous
  • Venus Fly by Grimes & Janelle Monáe – you should see my son dance to the bassy parts
  • Brickfielder by Mind Over Mirrors – best drone of the year; it’s so calm and still that you can hear what you like in there

Favourite albums of 2015

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Dream a Garden by Jam City (Night Slugs)
A few years ago my friend Charley and I did a series of Spotify mix swaps, with each one based on an agreed theme. It was good fun, but the theme that killed off the game for good was titled ‘Found a c90 on the floor of my dad’s VW Polo’ – that is, recent songs that sounded like they could have been released circa 1986 and therefore have been part of our childhoods. Every song on Dream a Garden could have been included in that mix. On first listen, I could have sworn I’d heard these songs before, or versions of them. They’re dated without being self-consciously retro, sweet enough to have been plausible FM hits, filtered through analogue tech and the sound of windscreen wipers.

 

Platform

Platform by Holly Herndon (Rvng Intl.)
It’s easy to imagine looking back at this album in ten years and saying, “That’s where it all first came together.” We’ve heard fractured laptop-pop before, but Holly Herndon manages to fuse pop melodies, techno washout bliss and still have room for moments of Laurie Anderson weird vocal tricks and art-gallery-installation introspection, all without losing momentum. That an album of this weight has standout songs is remarkable, but ‘Chorus’ and ‘Home’ are absolute earworms.

 

Other albums fan 1

Art Angel by Grimes (4AD) for its joyousness and for demonstrating a savvy, self-sufficient alternative to manufactured pop. No Cities to Love by Sleater-Kinney (Sub Pop), for its immediacy and for shitting on all other rock albums this year, apart from Olimpia Spendid by Olimpia Spendid (Fonal). Au De La by Big Brave (Southern Lord), for call-and-response guitars that The Quietus described as ‘like two steel mills groaning to each other’.

 

Other albums fan 2

Sintetizzatrice by Anna Caragnano & Donato Dozzy (Spectrum Spools) for Berberian Sound Studio-style wooziness and melodies that float just above head height. Simple Songs by Jim O’Rourke for its effortless evocation of Harry Nilsson at his best. f(x) by Carter Tutti Void (Industrial) for providing a worthy studio successor to 2012’s Transverse. Never Were the Way She Was by Colin Stetson & Sarah Neufeld (Constellation) for its cold, precise beauty.

 

Other albums fan 3

Letter Ghost by Blood Warrior (Immune), for Baptist General-esque fragile indie-folk that felt immediately familiar, in the best possible way. Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens (Asthmatic Kitty), Apocalypse, Girl by Jenny Hval (Sacred Bones) and Sliding the Same Way by David Thomas Broughton & Juice Vocal Ensemble (Song, by Toad) for their honesty and frankness.

Compilations

Highlife

My favourite compilation released this year is Soundway’s Highlife on the Move: Selected Nigerian & Ghanaian Recordings from London & Lagos 1954-66. Everything else can basically go to hell, but the Earthly 6 mix by Jam City is good and the Late Night Tales mix by Nils Frahm is lovely.

2015 reissues

Reissues

Finally, Domino’s Weird World imprint rereleased The Magic Bridge (2011) and The Glass Trunk (2013) by Richard Dawson and you know what? They’re incredible. For me, the only reissues that come close are the I Crudeli OST by Ennio Morricone (Cherry Red) and 1971 Revolutionary Spiritual Afro Jazz Sounds From Exile by Ndikho Xaba and the Natives (Matsuli).

Favourite albums overall, new to me, from any year

Other than 2015 titles, my first big discovery this year was The Ascension by Glenn Branca (1981). The Adding Machine by Arnold Dreyblatt (2002) scratched a similar itch. And I can’t believe I’d never heard Watusi by The Wedding Present (1994), but I’ve now more than made up for the omission.