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: 3. Natalie Prass ‘Natalie Prass’

Towards the end of album opener ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’, Natalie Prass repeats the line “our love is a long goodbye” numerous times, each iteration slightly more pained than the last. It’s stirring stuff, but the bit which told me pretty much instantly that this would become a favourite record is the slightly fidgety “waiting on the train” that cuts across that phrase on several occasions. It’s delivered high, putting the spotlight on Prass’ unusual but affecting voice. It’s a fitting way to set out the stall for an album which, while driven by quite the musical collective, is all about a singular artist.

Prass

Much has been written about how this album ended up waiting on the shelf at Spacebomb Records after the unexpected success of Matthew E. White’s ‘Big Love’ several years back. ‘Natalie Prass’ was ready to go back in 2012, the same musicians working on both records as part of the label’s house band. Looking to do something not dissimilar to the classic soul labels of the Sixties and Seventies, White and producer Trey Pollard developed a knack for making limited resources stretch quite remarkably and the same luscious sound that greeted our ears with the co-founder’s debut is also present here.

Essentially a soul record with a few nods to musicals and country, ‘Natalie Prass’ documents heartache in impressively pithy fashion. The expansive rhythm section and warm orchestration that the Spacebomb team lend to proceedings make for something truly special. Some of these songs can be found online in early demo form and, while their charms are still evident, they have come a long way. ‘Your Fool’, in particular, had an openly retro twang that is some distance from the strings, horns and percussive strut it possesses in its current form. “You’ll come back to an empty house with a note signed sincerely, your fool,” is quite the refrain, especially when you learn that many of these songs were co-written with an ex. So effective is this particular lyric that it emerges again as ‘Reprise’ towards the end of the record, spaced out aspects of the original whirling around a  narration of those same words. It’s a curious, timeless manoeuvre which serves to further underline the old-school ethic at the heart of the Spacebomb project.

Each and every one of the tracks on the album are worthy of comment, for one reason or another. ‘Christy’ is a dour, string laden lament to a helpless love triangle, Prass’ vocal a part-sung, part-whispered ache of confusion and resignation. ‘Why Don’t You Believe In Me‘ is the most Matthew E. White-y of the songs here, initially evoking memories of the second half of ‘Brazos’ from the end of ‘Big Love’. For this, Prass uses the full range of her voice, building up to an accusatory chorus that demonstrates resolve in the face of sadness.

Violently’ starts quietly, light piano and some weaving electric guitar intertwining, only for the line “break my legs because they want to walk to you” to cut through as strings emerge from the background and convey a snarling frustration. They soar across the song as Prass explains “I’ve had enough of talking politely. The red is there, it’s all over me. It’s overlaid eloquently.” The rousing orchestration seems a little at odds with the message, but it’s a magical combination and one of the album’s numerous highpoints.

Never Over You’ and ‘Bird Of Prey’ both do the mid-paced swagger to great effect, the latter possessing a swooping chorus and some neat, understated ‘oooh-oooh’ back-ups in the middle-eight that will get under your skin. The record manages to be remarkably cohesive considering the willingness to nip about stylistically. Most striking is the final track, ‘It Is You’, which melds harp, flute and vintage, saccharine strings to sound like a defining moment from a musical. It should be jarring but it is an oddly apt way to draw together the beguiling strands of Natalie Prass’ talents. A piece which highlights the rather otherworldly quality of her voice underlines just what it is that makes the record such a compelling listen. It’s hard to imagine anyone not warming to this album. While it made for quite the summer record in 2015, it could well also prove a neat way to unite the family in the claustrophobic festive fug of the next fortnight. Wonderful songwriting, soul-tingling musicianship and truly affecting delivery make ‘Natalie Prass’ a genuinely special album.

***

I should also flag up the marvellous ‘Side By Side’ EP that was released recently. Recorded live in the Spacebomb studios, it features fresh takes on ‘My Baby Don’t Understand Me’ and ‘Christy’. Perhaps more noteworthy, however, is the choice of cover versions included. Anita Baker’s ‘Caught Up In The Rapture’ works neatly, Grimes’ ‘REALiTi’ is played straight, its modern jazz leanings pulled to the fore, but the third selection is arguably the best. Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Sound Of Silence’ finds the funk and builds around some wonderful organ playing into something irresistibly joyous. A curious diversion it may be, but a welcome additional release for those already smitten with the fabulous album.