BEST OF 2018: Part 1 – 30-21

At least several people like to read my countdown of the year’s finest music around the festive season and I’m also fond of having a record of my preferences, so here goes a rather more compact format for the class of 2018. It has been a very busy December round these parts and so my traditional post by post reveal went out of the window. Instead, I’m going to go with some picture montages, rambling paragraphs and streaming links across three posts. As always, I’d love to know if you discover anything as a result of reading this or if you think I’ve criminally overlooked something. All suggestions welcome. Right then, shall we?

One of the joys of the occasional status I now possess as a music reviewer is that I can pop my head above the parapet as and when things strike me as interesting. This can mean wonderful stuff from my favourite bands or the chance to arrange some words in response to a collaborative effort by Sting and Shaggy. This actually happened, fact fans. As such, certain names will initiate a quick pitching email and such was the case with Number 30: Tell Me How You Really Feel’ by Courtney Barnett. In the review, I described it as “a slow-burning triumph” and that still rings true for me. It didn’t leap out at me at the time, but I have periodically revisited it across the year. Lyrics like “indecision rots like a bag of last week’s meat and I guess it’s hard to keep everybody happy,” are a delight and offer an obvious link from her previous record, even if the shiny jangle has been dialled back more than a bit.

For some people, 2018 has been the year of trying to figure out what happened to the luscious, sparse melody of Sub Pop favourites Low. They need not have spent so long pondering, as the luscious, sparse melody of Sub Pop types Luluc would likely scratch that itch. An Australian duo with a languid folk sound, opener ‘Spring‘ on Number 29: ‘Sculptor‘ by Luluc is an aural hug of the highest order while ‘Moon Girl‘ tiptoes around gloriously. It certainly suits a certain type of mood, but it’s a very fine album indeed.

Those who enjoyed last year’s Number 28 album by Molly Burch will likely enjoy this year’s Number 28: ‘First Flower’ by Molly Burch. Picking up where ‘Please Be Mine’ left off, this second outing features the cascading chorus of ‘Candy’, lilting jangle of ‘Wild’ and hiccuping rhythm of ‘True Love’. At times, it’s a little like if the idea behind the sound of She & Him had actually really, really worked, instead of being rather cynically shit. A joy of an album, but one which particularly suits sunshine.

Regular readers will know that I’m never happy unless I’ve got a jazz/pop/prog record on the go and 2018’s offering is Number 27: ‘Phase’ by Mildlife. It’s all the rage with the ‘online folk’, don’t you know, and vinyl copies have been hard to track down at times. Think Hot Chip going in on Stevie Wonder’s synth era with a fondness for a decent disco stomp thrown in for good measure. I’m not sure I could do it justice in 500 words, let alone a few sentences, but it needs to be heard. I suspect you’ll either love it or hate it. Hard to imagine anyone being utterly ambivalent about ‘Phase’. Start with ‘The Magnificent Moon’.

One of life’s great pleasures is browsing the wall displays in record shops, occasionally elevated to a place of sweet majesty when accompanied by some enthusiastic chat with the staff about current, less-obvious delights. Returning from a restorative jaunt to the unimaginably beautiful environs of West Wales in November, a pitstop in Cardiff meant only one thing: Spillers. Amongst the tote-bag load I acquired was Number 26: ‘Longest Shadow’ by Ivan Moult. The folk singer-songwriter genre can hide a multitude of sins and there are many dozens of uninspiring acts for every true gem, but Moult is one to cherish. From the ever-dependable team at Bubblewrap Collective, ‘Longest Shadow’ possesses a cover striking enough to draw me in at the counter and music involving enough to have convinced me to purchase within sixty seconds of opening track ‘Keep Cautious’. At times, he’s Ray LaMontagne without the years spent gargling glass and rough liquor, at others he’s ensconced in early Seventies Island Records. Utterly, utterly magical stuff to see you right in the dark hours of winter.

Ah, the Modfather. Dadrock. Look at that hair. Etc. Considering the baggage which adorns Paul Weller, what he has actually released in recent years is actually quite remarkable. The spark of energy that ran through 2005’s ‘As Is Now’ paved the way for ‘22 Dreams’, ‘Sonik Kicks’ and Number 25: ‘True Meanings‘ by Paul Weller. A musician who truly loves music, he has followed his muse for over a decade and taken some thoroughly enjoyable diversions as a result. This latest is launched by a glorious collaboration with Conor O’Brien of Villagers, ‘The Soul Searchers’, and features early teaser-track ‘Aspects’, which sounds like some fifty year old classic that is dizzyingly emotive. Largely a soulful acoustic set, Weller is in very fine voice and melodically at the top of his game. The cliches are a long way off on this occasion.

I simply haven’t had enough time with Number 24: ‘Aviary’ by Julia Holter to do it justice, but my encounters to date have been stirring enough for it to be safely ensconced in this list. At ninety minutes long, it was never going to be an easy listen. But, unlike so many albums that one suspects are worthy but not actually enjoyable, it commands your attention throughout. The sonic experimentation and vocal layers are a fairly logical, if rather rapid, evolution from previous outings ‘Loud City Song’ and ‘Have You In My Wilderness’, especially if you’re familiar with 2011’s ‘Tragedy’. Avoid the temptation to try and sample it – either listen to the whole thing or don’t.

Quietly producing solo albums of the standard of Number 23: ‘Yawn’ by Bill Ryder-Jones is pretty much the norm for this artist. Looking back, I’m not really sure why 2013’s ‘A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart’ and 2015’s ‘West Kirby County Primary’ weren’t in my end of year lists. Both have much to recommend, although neither are as good as his 2018 offering. Somnambulant chugging is perhaps to be expected of an album with this title and it definitely has more than a hint of shoegaze about it. However, now that the twats who like free gig tickets and need website hits have decided shoegaze is ok again, that can’t be misconstrued as an insult. ‘No One’s Trying To Kill You’ is possibly the highpoint and definitely the place to begin if you’re looking for a taster.

2015 was a very strong year and a number of my top ten albums were by artists I’d not written about previously. At number three was the creator of this year’s Number 22: ‘The Future And The Past’ by Natalie Prass. Her distinctive and utterly endearing vocal style bowled me over back then and she continues to make wonderful music. After the Spacebomb slink of that self-titled effort, the 2018 follow up is a more disco and R&B affair which risks seeming a little lightweight on early plays. However, the songwriting remains up to scratch and ‘Oh My’ and ‘Lost’ are both glorious for different reasons. The former is an AM radio belter, the latter a stirring ballad. I’ll be honest, this would probably have been higher if the label hadn’t opted for a cheapo, coloured vinyl frisbee pressing via the good folk at GZ.

The info in my documents suggests that as New Year’s Day 2018 came to an end, I finished and filed my review of Number 21: ‘All Melody’ by Nils Frahm. The hints were there on 2013’s live recording ‘Spaces’, but this record marked quite the departure for a consistently impressive artist. Vocal tracks without lyrics, bleepy soundscapes and euphoric organ figures all play their part. Lovely artwork and a splendid Rough Trade bonus disc (‘Encores 1′ – later not actually exclusive after the chance to sell more overwhelmed the truth) all helped to make a rather special package.

The top 20 will follow soon…

30. Courtney Barnett – Tell Me How You Really Feel (Listen)

29. Luluc – Sculptor (Listen)

28. Molly Burch – First Flower (Listen)

27. Mildlife – Phase (Listen)

26. Ivan Moult – Longest Shadow (Listen)

25. Paul Weller – True Meanings (Listen)

24. Julia Holter – Aviary (Listen)

23. Bill Ryder-Jones – Yawn (Listen)

22. Natalie Prass – The Future And The Past (Listen)

21. Nils Frahm – All Melody (Listen)

BEST OF 2015: 5. Julia Holter ‘Have You In My Wilderness’

Having already made more genuinely special music in three albums than most artists deliver in a lifetime, Julia Holter has once again managed to find somewhere else to take her sound. In the time since 2013’s superlative ‘Loud City Song’, she has worked with reborn American folk artist Linda Perhacs, assisting in her first record in forty-four years, and contributed to a compilation album featuring a fine cast of artists interpreting unheard lyrics from another figure from folk mythology, Karen Dalton.

JH

Amongst all of this came a limited single release for a cover of the Bacharach/David composition ‘Don’t Make Me Over’, made famous by Dionne Warwick. A beguilingly understated reading which still maintained the emotional punch of the original, it hinted at an interest in the traditional confines of popular music. Much has already been made of the more conventional song structures favoured here compared to some of her previous work, most notably 2011’s ‘Tragedy’, based around Euripides’ ‘Hippolytus’, but any fears that this might somehow subdue the overwhelming imagination of Holter’s music are rapidly allayed.

The notion of wilderness mentioned in the title abounds on this record, with characters disappearing or escaping here, there and everywhere and the sonic space on some tracks creating that sense of confusion and isolation for the listener. Despite this, and perhaps the most notable change from what has gone before, ‘Have You In My Wilderness’ is an album that needs to pour out of speakers and occupy the room.

The layers of sound, as with her finest work to date, conjure aural pictures out of nothing, not least the lapping waves on ‘Lucette Stranded On The Island’. Partially inspired by a Colette story, ‘Chance Acquaintances’, in which Lucette has been wounded, abandoned and left to wake in a state of total confusion, the evocative nature of the music perfectly aligns with its story. The disorienting opening slowly evolves into a woozy shuffle before the water appears to come crashing over her at the song’s close.

Such ambition is perhaps to be expected from a fan of Joni Mitchell’s jazz phase and Miles Davis’ electric era, two remarkably coherent coordinates in the wilderness of these ten songs. The brushed-cymbal, jittery drums and spoken word, other-worldly vocals on ‘Vasquez’ combine to create something genuinely confusing, occasional moments of string-assisted clarity emerging from the mist.

The intricate pop of ‘Sea Calls Me Home’ reinforces its themes of freedom through a joyous and carefree whistling part before a sax-break elevates the whole thing to another plane. Starting with lopsided clock chimes, ‘Everytime Boots’ is a country song of sorts, built around a gloriously playful and mischievous beat. As with much of ‘Have You In My Wilderness’, the music is as adept at telling the story as the lyrics it accompanies.

The album-closing title track at first seems to be a story of all-consuming love, but the lyrics also hint at a sense of possession and control, building towards the final words on the record: “why do I feel you running away?” The delicate backdrop moves through the gears, rising to a point of tension, highlighting the mixed message at the heart of the song. It is typical of a record where music and words are inseparably intertwined. It’s hard to imagine anyone else ever recording these songs, so indelibly does Holter leave her mark. Such has been the consistency of the run of albums from ‘Tragedy’ through ‘Ekstasis’ to ‘Loud City Song’, garnering praise from all corners, there is a risk that we might take such quality for granted. Just one listen will remove any such complacency.

BEST OF 2013: 9. Julia Holter – Loud City Song

Having crafted two remarkable records between the four walls of her house, ‘Loud City Song’ marks the studio debut for one of the most spellbinding talents making music today. While those early releases had their roots in classical literature, here  Julia Holter finds her inspiration closer to home and more modern times. Partly borne of a 1958 film adaptation of French novella ‘Gigi’, prompting thoughts of the voyeuristic nature of her native land of Los Angeles, ‘Loud City Song’ is an album that works hard to conjure a world and capture an audience. All three of Holter’s releases thus far are absolutely essential, occupying a world that sounds nothing like ours. ‘Ekstasis’ had caused a ripple when imported copies on RVNG popped up in Spring 2012 and the momentum leapt sizeably once Domino gave it a full UK release at the end of last year. Rise in Bristol put me onto it, when those original US pressings crept over and I was intrigued, if not immediately in love. It took me quite a while to fall in line with its wilfully unconventional sonic space, but once it had clicked I was obsessed with it for several weeks. This happened around Christmas last year and led to me picking up a reissue of her debut, ‘Tragedy’, an even more singular creation. It never quite scales the heights of her other work, but it is well worth seeking out. However, despite having got the bug and been convinced of the charms of ‘Ekstasis’, I wasn’t quite prepared for the fully realised beauty of ‘Loud City Song’.

The sense of conjuring a sense of the world through sound is prevalent across the record, especially on ‘Horns Surrounding Me’, which is driven by the looped sound of a slightly distorted parp, conveying the creeping oppression of the bustle at a city’s heart. Synths go off like fireworks, field recordings from a busy street drift in and out and the intensity ebbs and flows like rush hour traffic. It is a song unlike anything else on the record and unlike anything else released this year. Listen on headphones and it almost becomes too much. The relentless rhythm is luxuriously claustrophobic, a bit like the sensation of looking over the edge of a tall building – you know how it’s going to feel, and it’s not especially nice, but you do it anyway. It is a fascinating piece of music and one which makes you wonder how an artist ever conjures such a concept in the first place. It’s possible to have a crack at unpicking these phenomenal layers, but how do they coalesce in the first place? ‘Loud City Song’ is full of moments that make you want to listen again, more closely, more keenly, to hear exactly what’s happening.

‘Hello Stranger’ is one of the few songs to truly deserve the tag ‘ethereal’ that is so casually bandied about in record reviews. It drifts in, entirely out of time and place, and seems to hover overhead for its entire six minute duration. It is out of step with the cacophonous hum of the rest of the album and is all-encompassing, summoning you towards the light with open arms.  It is the warmest of baths, the biggest of hugs, the greatest of headphone moments. It is the purest of Holter’s vocals across the record and an interesting moment of serenity at its core.

Elsewhere, her voice often functions as an additional instrument, muffled and echoed or mellifluous and protracted. The amorphous sweeps of sound at times call to mind the beautiful headspace of Talk Talk’s ‘Spirit Of Eden’, with individual songs gradually seeming less important than the mood as a whole. However, the tone seems far less resigned than that record, even if its unshakeable vision can draw parallels. ‘Maxim’s 2’, with its curiously affected, Bjork-like delivery, rises to a quite staggeringly discordant crescendo. Several moments call to mind the glacial tinkering of Bjork’s finer moments and fans of ‘Vespertine’ – frankly, who isn’t? – will find a new best friend right here. The rather sober ‘He’s Running Through My Eyes’ serenely fills the massive gap left by the conclusion of ‘Maxim’s 2’.

‘This Is A True Heart’ sashays around, with an almost conventional indie-pop saxophone break that would make Jens Lekman melt, before ‘City Appearing’ appears to draw proceedings to a close in relatively sedate fashion, only for another sonic rumble to erupt several minutes from time. This an album that toys with the listener, plays with the senses and invades the heart. Quite where Julia Holter is going is anybody’s guess, but the journey is a true delight.