BEST OF 2017: 20. Courtney Marie Andrews ‘Honest Life’

Although technically a 2016 release, this was picked up for a full release back in January of this year so I’m counting it. I make the rules for my own countdown anyway, so it doesn’t really matter. I could have three number ones, if I wanted to. And Mojo have got the definitely-a-2016-release A Tribe Called Quest album in their top five, so there are worse offenders out there. Anyway, this is Brexit Britain, so don’t go expecting things to make sense. Where were we?

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Courtney Marie Andrews has an incredibly powerful voice and it is undeniably the star of the show here, elevating some fine songwriting to something altogether special. ‘Honest Life’ is pretty much straight up country-folk, dealing in the primary colours of emphatic acoustic guitar and plaintive piano for the most part. Opener ‘Rookie Dreaming‘ sets the evocative landscape for what follows, proclaiming “I am a 1960s movie, I am an unwritten story, I am a when will I see you again?” It might lack something in grammar, but it makes up for it with its sense of absence.

How Quickly Your Heart Mends’ hinges on a fabulously emotive, simple and repetitive chorus while the aching harmonising on ‘Let The Good One Go’ dispenses with the need for much musical embellishment. ‘Irene‘ implores the titular character to go off and get whatever she wants rather than expecting the worst while ‘Table For One’ has a wonderfully hushed chorus, explaining “‘I’m a little bit lonely, a little bit stoned, and I’m ready to go home.” When the voice is this prominent, it’s hard not to be drawn in by the lyrics and they paint some engaging pictures. I can’t quite recall how I first happened to hear this album but it’s one that flies by, conjuring a mood and commanding your attention. As the manic nature of day to day existence starts to wane with the end of another year, few things will soundtrack the descending calm better than ‘Honest Life’.

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BEST OF 2017: 21. Laura Marling ‘Semper Femina’

It seems impossible that Laura Marling could already be on her sixth album. More striking, perhaps, is the sonic development over the nine years since the relative simplicity of 2008’s ‘Alas I Cannot Swim’. That said, there is more than a touch of the composed, intense brevity of ‘I Speak Because I Can’ about ‘Semper Femina’, a record that considers female identity and relationships between women.  ‘Wild Fire’, which reflects on how Marling appears in a friend’s diary, is a beautifully executed piece of Laurel Canyon soul, while ‘The Valley’ attempts to understand another woman’s palpable sense of loss assisted by a captivatingly measured string arrangement.

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Lead track ‘Soothing’ is a striking way to commence proceedings, the rhythm section’s simmering malevolence reinforcing the message “I banish you with love” as intimacy ends and the subject is told “you don’t live here anymore.” ‘Next Time’ reflects on regret, initially in delicately acoustic surroundings before a manic, fuzzy string break suggests that it might not be so easy to put the ghosts to bed. Having not enjoyed the act of self-producing 2015’s ‘Short Movie’, Marling recruited fellow guitarist Blake Mills to take control. His fondness for pushing familiar sounds beyond their natural confines has a subtle but defining impact upon these nine songs. ‘Semper Femina’ concludes with the melodic crunch of ‘Nothing, Not Nearly’, a hasty spoken-sung vocal almost pulling the band with it towards a swooning chorus before an abrupt end announced with footsteps, a closed door and birdsong.

Initial copies of the impressive vinyl release included a bonus disc featuring a live take on the whole album recorded in Chicago, which has since reappeared as the ‘Deluxe Edition’. It’s well worth seeking out still, as the set captures the loose, spiky magic that is often present in Marling’s early performances of new material and is more than just a means of peddling this unsurprisingly wonderful record. It’s no surprise for Marling to feature in one of my end of year lists and I’m conscious of the fact that she seems to be slightly lower down the list each time. I’m not sure if there’s a risk that I’m simply taking her brilliance for granted after such a consistent run of albums here, as this is right up there with the rest. Whatever the number next to it, ‘Semper Femina‘ is a captivating delight.

BEST OF 2017: 22. Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings ‘Soul Of A Woman’

I can’t really imagine anyone ever spending time with Sharon Jones’ work and not loving it. Few and far between are those entirely immune to the allure of soul music and her output was always visceral and enthralling, current and yet timeless. It still feels a little strange painting the context to this record with the past tense, but her death just over a year ago at only 60 seemed especially unfair for an artist who didn’t release her debut album until into what would be the final quarter of her life. The power, passion and momentum that Jones brought to her music would remain with her to the last, this album having been recorded around her treatment for cancer. Though it functions as a final statement, it is largely business as usual, and business was good.

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Rumors‘, for example, is remarkably life-affirming. I defy anyone to experience the rhythm and hiccuping guitar lick on that track and remain stationary. It’s a one hundred and fifty four second demonstration of the power of music as an emotional lightning rod. ‘Pass Me By‘ creeps along, guided by a beautiful organ part, while ‘Come And Be A Winner‘ feels like a distant, and entirely welcome, relative of ‘Thinking Of You‘.

These Tears (No Longer For You)‘ is a stately, Seventies orchestral soul workout with a dramatic soundstage and wonderfully grandiose strings. ‘Girl! (You Got To Forgive Him)‘ pulls a neat backing vocals to lead and back again manoeuvre across an intense rumble ahead of a mesmerising finale. As tempting as it is to read so much more into lyrics after a passing, ‘Call On God‘ is actually a 2007 recording that was completed posthumously. It’s a gospel belter written ever further back in Jones’ past, but it makes perfect sense as the final piece on the final record by a truly special artist. Despite original plans for a slow-paced, more orchestral album, the decision to bow out with a set that represents the artist’s breadth and vibrancy was a fine one. When the needle drops, Sharon Jones is very much still in the room.

BEST OF 2017: 23. LCD Soundsystem ‘American Dream’

When ‘Christmas Will Break Your Heart’ slipped into the world on December 24th, 2015, the rumours of an LCD Soundsystem return were rife and the internet fell over itself trying to get hot takes on Murphy’s un-retirement out into the world before clickbait took a day off for turkey. Confirmation of live performances soon followed and the inevitable consternation about tarnishing a legacy was unleashed. As the less prone to hyperventilation predicted, the unchecked emotional response has mutated with, firstly, fresh chances to witness the band’s joyous catalogue in the flesh and, secondly, talk of a new album. However, no amount of frenzied paragraphs would count for shit if the resultant record didn’t deliver.

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Nearly two years later, ‘American Dream’ is upon us, atrocious cover and all. James Murphy sure knows how to sequence a record, even if he has allowed an unprecedented tenth song onto the tracklist this time. The progression from ‘Oh Baby’ to ‘Black Screen’ is nuanced and enveloping, a slowly unravelling thread that you don’t notice until it’s got too long to tuck aside. Initial listens highlight a lack of pace, and it’s definitely more about textures than bangers, but there is an inviting coherence about this scratching of the itch.

The moments that come closest to where Murphy has been before are actually the least interesting. ‘Other Voices’ is a barely concealed Talking Heads reboot, a squiffy synth line the first sign of deviation and a robotic spoken word section neatly shifting things up a gear towards its conclusion. It’s one for the flailing limbs, and pretty joyously executed, but there’s much more interesting material surrounding it. ‘I Used To’, for example, is a shuddering, bleepy electro Joy Division, pushing LCD Soundsystem to darker, fuzzier terrain. It takes time to unfurl fully, its not especially inviting layers slowly arraying themselves across the soundstage.

After ‘All I Want’ from 2010’s ‘This Is Happening’ affectionately plundered Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, it’s the Scary Monsters era that propels ‘Change Yr Mind’. The howling Fripp guitar of tracks like ‘Fashion’ and ‘It’s No Game’ is aped with élan, while the lyrics feel like a more circumspect and less ironic take on ‘Losing My Edge’: “I’m not dangerous now, the way I used to be once. I’m just too old for it now. At least that seems to be true.” The artist to whom this track so brazenly owes a debt is just one of a number of losses to have impacted upon Murphy’s life since that last album, and the passing of time and mortality are all over the record’s lyrics.

The teaser tracks have neatly ticked a selection of boxes: ‘Call The Police’ is another slowly escalating, soaring riff-possessing, seven-minute stomper to add to the catalogue and ‘Tonite’ is a hip-thrusting delight, driven by lively synths and a borderline erotic bassline. The least immediate of the trio, the album’s title track, is perhaps the most effective primer for ‘American Dream’ as a whole. It is a hypnotically woozy soundscape, coming on like MGMT played at the wrong speed, shooting stars of melody cascading across the chorus. They’ve not attempted anything quite this delicate in the past and its composed wistfulness is one of the record’s emotional keystones.

Emotional Haircut’ is tonally at odds with its neighbours but is curiously fitting as the penultimate song. A regimented rock track, it does occasionally waft a little close to the world of U2’s latter-day attempts to convince themselves they’ve still got it, ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Get On Your Boots’ especially, but is saved by the brutally sparse verses. Despite such unflattering associations, it’s a perfect contrast with the starry-eyed release of ‘American Dream’ prior to it, and a strange wire wool palette cleanser for concluding track ‘Black Screen’. At twelve minutes in length, it is impossible to imagine that piece as anything but the closer. Think the second side of ‘Low’, but in the summer: warmer in both senses. The gently colliding synth motifs engineer a lulling looseness, like an infant trying to grab at bubbles on the breeze.

There remains, however, one track more remarkable even than the record’s enigmatic finale. As if to make amends for invoking gurning Noughties Bono elsewhere, his early Eighties incarnation seems to hover over parts of the album’s nine-minute midpoint, ‘How Do You Sleep?’ After a long, tense build with judicious use of reverb, scratchy, ever-intensifying strings add a tension that takes time to be resolved. The truly immersive peaking synth stabs that then clamber all over the song almost force the vocals into the distance. There’s a redemptive hint when the beat emerges on the five-minute mark, but it’s the moment that Murphy unleashes a little falsetto midway through the track’s final third that truly releases the pressure.

LCD Soundsystem may well have disappointed fans who felt they had loved and lost, cherishing the potency of their grief, when they stepped out on the stage again. They may well have risked a legacy built on a triumvirate of largely wonderful albums by venturing back to the studio also. But, in returning to the project that best suits his sense of adventure, James Murphy has done nothing to tarnish what has gone before. ‘American Dream’ is a darker, more diverse record than its predecessors and a more human one too. In realising the difficulty of allowing himself to indulge in what he had chosen to end, Murphy has found himself driven to justify LCD Soundsystem’s rebooted existence more than ever before. It’s still imperfect, but even its flaws are worthy of note. The long goodbye is now followed by quite a lengthy return. Long may it last.

This originally appeared on the Clash website, hence the rather lengthier nature of it.

BEST OF 2017: 24. Bing & Ruth ‘No Home Of The Mind’

From the artwork inwards, this is a work of stately beauty. I mentioned recently how much I love the variety of steers I get from independent record shops and this was another one where I spotted it in a display rack and was intrigued. If one were to construct a Glass/Frahm continuum, then ‘No Home Of The Mind’ would sit somewhere in the middle. There’s none of the wilful eccentricity of some of the latter’s work here, but his lyrical intensity is definitely present. It’s not a record from which one cherry picks the odd track: full immersion is advised. Which is not to say it doesn’t work as background ambient music, but the deft ebbs and flows will be missed without focus. As music to get lost in during the wee small hours when, say, looking after a small child goes, this is quite special. It’s also music for journeys, specifically leaning against the train window with headphones in kind of journeys.

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The seamless transitions between pieces mean you can get be consumed by it on repeat and quickly lose track of where it starts and finishes. David Moore, the man who is neither Bing nor Ruth but the central artist behind the name, has a knack for building refrains that hover above varying drones. On ‘The How Of It Sped’, the repetition is quite intense and the unsettling low groans below only serve to underline this point. ‘Is Drop’ rises up out of very little into a curious, rolling crescendo that morphs into something resembling a siren.

To All It’ captures the sensory disconnect of walking around a normally busy place in its quietest moments, everything seeming to occur a second or so after you are expecting. ‘Flat Line / Peak Color’ is, in contrast, a fairly nimble piece, gradually evolving into quite a presence, manipulating the listener’s emotional responses via intensity and pace. The pivot around the six minute mark is an odd release when it comes, but I’ll leave you to experience that without further description. The album ends with ‘What Ash It Flow Up’, a fine example of how the other musicians involved in the project combine delicately below the main event of the piano playing. Across just over six minutes, they often coalesce, with Moore’s keys only fleetingly rising out of the collective consciousness. It’s a fittingly subtle way to conclude a delicate but stirring album. Give it time to breathe and it’s sure to work its magic.

 

BEST OF 2017: 25. The Magnetic Fields ’50 Song Memoir’

Finally, an answer to the question “how do you avoid being defined by a triple album containing sixty-nine love songs entitled ‘69 Love Songs’?’ Just make outlandish projects something that you do. ‘50 Song Memoir’ is, at its most basic level, 28% less grand than the original 1999 effort, and it’s not quite as musically staggering either, but very few things are. If you don’t know that first collection, it’s well worth investigating. Whether it’s for the deliciously delivered ‘The Book Of Love’ or the bizarre ‘Fido, Your Leash Is Too Long’, there is a joyous disregard for ‘the rules’, such as they are, on that album. A recent Domino vinyl box set is still in print, should you fancy luxuriating in it all.

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But what of this 2017 release? Can Stephin Merritt do it again? Having taken an odd route through self-imposed rubrics (either genre or title related) on the three albums that followed ‘69 Love Songs’ across the Noughties, he then offered up 2012’s ‘Love At The Bottom Of The Sea’ without a concept and, it later transpired, without much staying power either. After a gap of half a decade, this latest, loosely autobiographical set provides a song for every one of the first fifty years of his life. The stylistic variety this necessitates plays to Merritt’s strengths, reigniting the frenetic weaving across eras and genres that a grandiose format enables.

The ham-fisted disco of ‘Hustle 76′ is one of a number of highlights, offering an entirely legitimate opportunity to hurl your limbs around for three minutes while Merritt gives his best dancefloor-banger delivery. ‘Me and Fred and Dave and Ted’, representing 1993, recounts a time of being “young and vaguely in love” with a fond detachment, while 2003’s ‘The Ex and I’ is somehow hilarious despite being so overtly pleased with its one, admittedly rather clever, lyrical conceit: “now every evening ends with XXX ex sex.”

As always with Merritt’s work, the lyrics are well worth a whole study of their own and, thankfully, the packaging of this set more than delivers. I can’t vouch for the CD sized edition, but the vinyl box contains a just-smaller-than-A5 notebook replica with all of his handwritten pages and an uproarious twenty-eight page interview conducted by writer Daniel Handler, who you may know more naturally as Lemony Snicket. It’s not cheap, it’s not an easy listen and it’s not perfect, but it is a tremendous representation of exactly what The Magnetic Fields can do. Put aside a few hours and dig in.

BEST OF 2017: 26. Miles Mosley ‘Uprising’

As I’ve mentioned before, there are several radio shows to which I ration my exposure as a result of the number of musical purchases they consistently inspire. One is Gideon Coe’s evening show on 6 Music and the other, from the same stable, is Gilles Peterson’s glorious Saturday afternoon slot. Early in 2017 he ‘dropped’, as I believe modern parlance necessitates, a track by Miles Mosley entitled ‘Reap A Soul’ that was so immediately thrilling that I was searching for a parent album to pick up before it had made it to the two minute mark. It took a while to find somewhere with the initially limited pressing in stock. (After a low key indie release, it was subsequently picked up by Verve and reissued in the summer.) I liked the record so much, I was even willing to endure a slightly imperfect vinyl pressing just to have it on the turntable.

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There’s a muscular swagger to a piece like ‘Abraham’, bedecked with a gloriously playful piano line, and a vulnerability to the languid ‘More Than This’ that hinges on some aching organ lines. The later then explores around the halfway point, refusing to accept the situation mentioned in the lyrics.  There’s some Stevie, some Curtis and plenty of more modern soul jazz licks across these eleven tracks, crafted by a man who also plays bass in Kamasi Washington’s remarkable band. In turn, Washington lends his tenor saxophone playing to a number of these tracks and if that isn’t enough to make you at least give this a listen, I don’t know what else to try.

Heartbreaking Efforts Of Others’ is flat out incredible, building from a slightly uneasy verse to an emphatic horns and strings propelled chorus that feels barely tethered to earth. ‘Tuning Out’ is a dramatic outpouring ahead of the Latin swirl of album closer, ‘Fire’, which has little in common with what has come before. ‘Uprising’ is a pretty diverse collection of songs, traversing genres and moods at will. And what of that remarkable track, ‘Reap A Soul’? Swinging verses give way to a frenetic chorus, with strings that truly soar. It’s an album suffused with joy and bursting with talent.