BEST OF 2012: 11. Dirty Projectors – Swing Lo Magellan

Quirky, engaging, obtuse. All words I’d previously have attached to the work of Dirty Projectors. I’d liked but not loved their output up to this point. Interested enough to give each new release a listen but not exactly twitching in anticipation. And, I suspect, this ambivalence allowed ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ to unwittingly lay siege to my brain in the week running up to the start of the Olympics this summer. An incorrectly labelled pre-order had resulted in me opting for the ‘deluxe’ edition of the vinyl for this one but the packaging – all tip-on gatefold sleeve and embossed lettering for both the cover and the included lyric sheet – caught my imagination and I ensured that the free WAV downloads provided were on the iPod before we set out on a summer jaunt near Brighton. From the hummed opening notes of ‘Offspring Are Blank’, past the fantastically over-egged pronunciation of the phrase ’About To Die’ in its chorus and on to the throbbing ‘Gun Has No Trigger’, the opening trio on this record are enough to get anyone hooked. And so it was.

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Day after day I would return to ‘Swing Lo Magellan’. It would rarely be my first choice but, at some point in proceedings, on it would go, again and again. It was catchy, it was clever and it was wonderfully arranged. David Longsteth’s vocals truly reach their peak on this record: masterfully controlled one moment, howling emotively the next. There is nothing wilfully awkward about this set of songs. It retains Dirty Projectors’ sonic quirks but puts the solid three minute so at the heart of its ambitions. And succeeds. The African influence on the guitar sounds is appreciable if not excessive, and – don’t worry – very much not in a Vampire Weekend kind of way.

Bucking the front-loaded album trend, two of the very finest songs on this wonderful collection reside on its second side. ‘Impregnable Question’ and ‘Irresponsible Tune’ are simple, vintage pop tunes. The piano on the former is foregrounded for the middle eight and, without being fancy, it is utterly spellbinding. Laden with hooks, if not attractive artwork, ‘Swing Lo Magellan’ is the surprise package of the year for me. It is one of two albums to truly change the way I think about a band. The other is still to come.

BEST OF 2012: 12. First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

As I sat idly picking at a Costa muffin and ruing my choice of hot beverage one afternoon in the west country town of Frome, a tune crept through the general hubbub and myriad pronunciations of the word latte. Clearly, Shazam was called for at this point, but the various sounds contributing to this magnificent atmosphere thwarted such technological wizardry. Instead, I attempted to scribble down what words I could discern being sung by two staggeringly beautiful female voices. Unfortunately, my transcription was far from complete and thus some experimental googling was required before I alighted upon ‘Waltz For Richard’ from First Aid Kit’s debut album, ‘The Big Black & The Blue’. Said album was duly sought out and several tracks in addition to that which had a-costa-ed me that afternoon struck me as rather splendid. But it didn’t prepare me for the consistent magnificence of ‘The Lion’s Roar’.

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The gorgeous early seventies American feel to Johanna and Klara Söderberg’s voices gently aches across this fine collection of songs, stirring and soothing in equal measure. The xylophone-enhanced sashay of ‘Blue’ possesses a wonderfully warm bass sound and the quality of production on ‘The Lion’s Roar’ is not to be underestimated. The resonance of a well recorded rhythm section is one of the true joys of listening to vinyl from forty odd years back and, from the very first play, I experienced the same sensation with this album.

And then there’s one of 2012’s finest narrative songs, nestled away as the second track. From the title onwards, ‘Emmylou’ is a wonderfully conceived and constructed tune, with a chorus so simple but charming that it truly never grows old. “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June, if you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too,” not only makes cunning use of country music based relationships, but also offers up a less than subtle hint as to the duo’s influences. The chorus is flat out gold and the whole song is an easy one to pick up: a guaranteed earworm without much exposure. The whole album possesses subtle but lasting melodic kinks and while I don’t doubt that it has soundtracked hundreds of polite dinner parties this year, it is a record with which to slowly, openly and happily fall in love.

BEST OF 2012: 13. Jessica Pratt – Jessica Pratt

Tucked away in a long, thin shop at the back of St Nick’s Market in Bristol is one of the finest second hand record shops I’ve ever had the luck to visit. It is a place where one can find both hard to locate pressings from the Nineties and mint copies of Sixties relics. Wall displays tease and taunt with the quite staggeringly splendid wares. Want to see an original Nick Drake pressing? A mono ‘Revolver’? Original pressings of forgotten treasures recently dug up by Light In The Attic? All this and more have graced this particular store in recent months and John, who runs the whole shebang at Wanted Records, is very particular about the stock he gets in. Not for him battered discs with barely half a dozen plays left in them. Hold these discs up to the light and you will be more than pleasantly surprised. Add in the fact that these records are reasonably priced and soon you’ll be happy to take a punt on something simply because it looks good. Which is exactly how I could imagine having come across the self-titled debut by Jessica Pratt. Except, of course, I didn’t, for it is a new and very recent release. But the presentation, both in terms of packaging and audio production, speaks of a time long gone and had I pulled this out of the same box as a few Joni Mitchells and a touch of Karen Dalton, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

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Yes, indeed, bold as this claim might be, this album would arguably not be out of place in such company. The black and white, textless cover, the frankly gorgeous back of the sleeve and the charming presence of a bit of gentle tape hiss throughout reveal a record which seems to have been frozen in time forty-two years ago. The truth is, I only purchased this album a few weeks before I set about finalising this list of albums of the year and I am, to a point, taking a wee punt in popping this as high up the pile of particularly splendid musical offerings of the past twelve months. I do this safe in the knowledge that it has lost none of its charm over the excessive number of plays it has received in a short space of time and is a very real contender for being one of those albums I mentioned just before I started counting down this list that end up neglected, only to rise in my affections. Well, balls to that and here goes. In with a bullet at 13 because it is utterly beguiling and if I change my mind I may have taken leave of my senses. Should that happen, please alert the authorities.

And what of the music I hear you ask, through gritted teeth and incredibly close to abandoning this almost stream of consciousness splurge of a review. Well, it has hints of those early Dalton tapes that have emerged in lieu of her having only recorded two studio albums, with delicately plucked acoustic guitar, occasionally background noises and that tiny bit of oh so utterly adorable creaking on the vocals. ‘Half Twain The Jesse’ should do the trick. Click the delightful artwork above and Spotify should allow you to undertake that particular pleasure.

As it goes, it was another record shop in Bristol that alerted me to this one. Adrian Dutt, Rise employee and man behind some of the finest gig posters you’ll see anytime soon, mentioned it to me in a tweet and implored me to seek it out. He was, of course, right. He also recently recommended Rachel Zeffira’s quite sublime ‘The Deserters’ which came out even later than this album and thus missed out on an almost certain placing in this list, if initial listens are anything to go by. He’s clearly a very wise man indeed. Enjoy either or both of these albums, why don’t you. If they do nothing for you, I’m not sure we can ever be friends.