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: 17. Nils Frahm ‘Solo’

Regular readers will be accustomed to my frequent raving about the music of Nils Frahm. I could happily drone about for at least thirty minutes about why ‘Wintermusik’ is one of the greatest records in my collection and many is the time I crank up ‘Says’ from ‘Spaces’ to initiate the early amour for those folk hitherto unaware of his charms. I don’t think it’s extreme to urge you to purchase pretty much his entire catalogue without delay, so much faith do I have in the capacity for his music to win over new audiences. Prior to a recent Q&A I hosted at Rise Music in Bristol, I had the rare pleasure of wandering around the shop floor with the event’s subject, Jon Savage. We shared tips and debated the merits, or otherwise, of the current music scene. My contribution to his shopping that day was compelling him to pick up several of Frahm’s records. I can only assume he loves them.

Nils

2015 has certainly been a year for Nils Frahm records. As well as ‘Solo’, which has taken the slot in the list but not as any intended slight upon these other titles, he has released ‘Music From The Motion Picture Victoria’ – a tense, drone-favouring, fuzzy soundscape, a superlative Late Night Tales compilation – mixing recordings of old 78s with ambient music, field recordings and jazz and a collaborative double album with Olafur Arnalds, more on which later. Add in a quite wondrous live tour and 2015 has been quite the year for this remarkable artist.

Solo’ is largely in the delicate, lyrical mould of ‘Wintermusik’ and ‘Screws’ but recorded on a giant, twelve-foot tall upright piano. Pulled from nine hours of improvisation, it was initially released to celebrate Frahm’s musical holiday Piano Day’ on March 29th and has lingered long in the mind ever since. ‘Wall’ conjures the more insistent, hypnotic and energetic sense of noise that he can deliver so well on stage, while ‘Four Hands’ is as sweeping and enchanting as its title suggests. The record is designed to help raise funds for the creator of said enormo-kit, David Klavins, to build his even more substantial dream piano. The intriguing circumstances around its release aside, ‘Solo’ is more than just a side note in Frahm’s body of work.

And then came the collaborative release. I reviewed it for Clash and my thoughts are reproduced below…

The ambient landscape has been dominated in recent years by the superlative output of Erased Tapes, a label with a distinctive aesthetic and an ear for the remarkable. Multi-instrumentalist and increasingly renowned composer Ólafur Arnalds and inventive pianist and producer Nils Frahm have, rightly, garnered the majority of the plaudits. The former specialises in spacious, aching and sometimes unsettling piano-driven atmospherics, while the latter traverses terrain from modern classical right the way through to intense electronica. Both have catalogues deserving of more than casual perusal but does their individual brilliance translate when the two friends work together?

In a word, yes, although the first disc of this set is, by its very nature, quite a disjointed listen. Originally intended as a means by which to collect together recordings released across several EPs and a limited edition 7”, the album doubled in size when Arnalds and Frahm improvised a further seven pieces whilst beginning promotional duties. Proceedings commence with a swirling, synth-heavy selection previously released as ‘Loon’. The dubbier touches of Frahm’s 2013 release ‘Spaces’ are at play once again, ‘Wide Open’ a particularly joyous wash of slinky percussion and juddering layers. ‘W’ and ‘M’ take a darker turn, with subterranean rumble replacing the wide-eyed delirium of their neighbours.

The three tracks which follow were released for Record Store Day in 2012, demonstrating that the major label reissue cash cow can offer unexpected treats. Titled ‘a1′, ‘a2′ and ‘b1′ in honour of their place on the original vinyl, the ‘a’ pair are delicate swathes of sound built up over time in both Berlin and Reykjavik, while ‘b1′ is a lengthy piece given resonant depths by the additional presence of cellist Anne Müller.

The main disc concludes with a pair of tracks recorded in Frahm’s studio three years previous, with both artists at the piano. They have the intimate acoustics of 2011’s ‘Felt’, ‘Life Story’ beginning with the sounds of the space being set up for the ensuing freewheeling performance. While the three movements have their own distinct natures, they deserve the wider audience that this collection will allow.

Trance Frendz’ is the endearingly playful name given to an unexpected burst of creativity recorded when filming a session to promote the compilation. Each piece is named after the time in the night when it emerged and the mood clearly mutates. While ‘20:17′ and ‘21:05′ possess a somnambulant hush, by the time ‘23:52′ comes around the synths are a grandiose presence, building out of droning notes into a buzzing, fidgety crescendo. Once ‘03:06′ rolls around, a bleary haze of nocturnal calm descends.

For a spontaneously hewn collection, the second set is curiously complete, containing as it does two remarkable musicians at the peak of their powers, operating without fear or expectation. With a little over one hundred minutes of music spread across these two discs, there is plenty to take in. As a document of four years of on-off collaboration it is fascinating and for fans of either artist it’s pretty much essential.

BEST OF 2013: Erased Tapes

As somebody who buys an awful lot of records, it’s always a delight when you find a label you can resolutely trust. You see their logo on an album and simply know it’ll be worth buying. Several years ago, I wrote about how Bella Union had reached that point for me and, after another faultless year, to that lists gets added the quite beautiful work of Erased Tapes.

Always ones to obsess over the presentation of the music, independent label Erased Tapes opted to mark its fifth anniversary with a beautiful, handmade box set containing all new material from its impressive array of artists. Established by self-styled ‘kooky German’ Robert Raths, its catalogue to date has featured modern classical music alongside a little post-rock and minimalist electronica. As I said, buy a record bearing their name and you won’t go far wrong. I’ve previously written about the wondrous music of Nils Frahm in some detail, including a recent piece on the majesty of ‘Spaces’ which made Number 6 in my countdown. Olafur Arnalds and Peter Broderick are the other two artists whose music drew me to the quite remarkable output of this really rather special label. Their delicately packaged CDs and meticulously designed vinyl pressings have always represented the care and belief that is central to how Erased Tapes is run. In 2013 alone, they released a remastered version of Broderick‘s ‘Float’ as ‘Float 2013’, Frahm‘s afore-mentioned ‘Spaces’ along with a reworked version of his ‘Juno EP’, Lubomyr Melnyk‘s exquisitely epic ‘Corollaries’, a stunning EP by Rival Consoles and an EP by upcoming talent Douglas Dare entitled ‘Seven Hours’. All this, plus the must luxurious and ambitious title of their entire existence.

ET CV

This beguiling box is a truly fitting monument to a label that really views the music as art to be cherished. I initially balked at the price – and I’ll tell you now, it really isn’t cheap – but this is about getting ten tracks you won’t find elsewhere spread across five splendidly presented seven inches in a delicately crafted box. If you price it according to your average shop bought singles, then it’s not a bargain, even taking into account RSD. But that’s not really the point of ‘Collection V’. In a sea of records, this is one item I can lose an afternoon with. The diverse music in this set has become an event, a ceremony, a spectacle thanks to the distinctive and reverential way in which it has been presented. To me at least, several of these artists deserve such a pedestal, and the music held within does not disappoint.

The headline acts here may be new tunes from Arnalds, Broderick and Frahm, but there’s no filler in this fine collection. Anne Muller‘s ‘Walzer Fur Robert’ is a glacial, modern classical merry-go-round, whilst World’s End Girlfriend‘s ‘Bohemian Purgatory Part 2 (NSKG version) is a pounding sound collage that is unlike anything else here, but which sounds ferocious with a gentle crank of the volume. Codes In The Clouds deliver a skittering, spin-dry wash of guitar, whilst the A Winged Victory For The Sullen Chamber Orchestra brings proceedings to a close with a curiously drifting piece, a little like somebody trying to weave music out of the sound of massed musicians warming up. Rival Consoles, whose recent ‘Odyssey EP’ is a must listen, rope in Broderick for an uncharacteristic vocal, beamed in somewhere from soul music of the early Eighties. Broderick is in majestic form for his own piece ‘Give A Smile In 5‘, with Frahm offering up ‘Little Boy In A Space Suit’ which will warm the hearts of ‘Felt’ fans in an instant. Kiasmos were my revelation, with skittering beats and the dramatic sense of slowly building release in ‘Driven’, while The British Expeditionary Force‘s ‘End Of The New End’ is a slinky little piano-driven bit of lo-fi indie. Arnalds’ ‘Happiness Does Not Wait’ aches in the same stirringly lyrical way that so much of his best work can, and it remains a delight to think of how he played such a crucial part in one of the year’s TV highlights with his soundtrack to ‘Broadchurch’.

As much as the exquisite packaging makes this an item to treasure, it is not an elaborate exercise in clearing out the cupboards. These newly recorded songs make for a quite beguiling compilation in their own right and a fitting introduction to a label that has yet to put a foot wrong. The songs were only made available digitally on Christmas Eve, making the box exclusive to vinyl for six months and providing purchasers with a festive gift. If the price rules you out, the £8 master tape download available by clicking the picture above seems an absolute steal for the music found here. However, if you are a vinyl obsessive who has been mulling over this set, I can emphatically assure you that you’ll not regret it. Some items are genuinely unique. Some imprints are truly special. ‘Collection V’ is a bold celebration of magical artists on a magical label which actually warrants the tag ‘deluxe’. A fitting monument to my label of the year.

BEST OF 2013: 6. Nils Frahm – Spaces

I’ve never really seen the point of live albums. They don’t actually serve to reignite the visceral thrill of having seen an act, nor provide the vicarious thrill to those who’ve never had the pleasure. Often deployed as contractual filler, on occasion they throw up an interesting reinterpretation or two, but rarely serve as the go-to titles for any artists. Thankfully, this isn’t really a live album, more a collection of expertly-selected and delicately-woven field recordings, covering two years of performances by one of my absolute favourite artists, Nils Frahm. His music played during the signing of the register when I got married this summer and I continue to point everyone I can in his direction. I’ve yet to have the pleasure of seeing him live, and ‘Spaces’ doesn’t really do much to address that. In many ways, however, it is the first album of his to really capture the breadth of his quite remarkable talent. Where previously he has worked to various limitations – ‘Wintermusik’ was originally a festive gift for family, ‘Felt’ was recorded within a piano deliberately muffled to be playable in the small hours and ‘Screws’ was confined by a broken digit – this feels like an album with no boundaries. When I crafted my 105 words for Clash on this wonderful record, I describe it as the “sound of an artist unleashed”, and I think I was onto something. This is not a career overview, nor is it simply a collection of new music. It is a mutation, a collage, of the sounds that pour out of Frahm. His lyrical playing and knack for finding the precious spaces between the notes are why I treasure records like this one so much.

‘Spaces’ is comprised of eleven tracks and seventy six minutes chosen from over thirty concerts Frahm recorded in a two year period. Some things here will be instantly recognisable to those already immersed in his work – a beautifully expanded ‘Said And Done’ from ‘The Bells’, a suitably demure ‘Over There, It’s Raining’ from the same record and a bare take on ‘Familiar’ from ‘Felt’ – while others offer strange subversions and melding together of previously released tracks. ‘For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More’ is a staggering, near-seventeen-minute long collision of material from the recently reissued ‘Juno’ single, whereby he recorded two pieces for Peter Broderick after the fellow Erased Tapes artist loved the sound of a synthesiser Frahm had in the studio, and utterly essential afore-mentioned album, ‘Felt’. If you want to get a sense of the many directions this man’s truly special music can go in, then that elongated piece may be the best place to start. The synth stabs gradually recede into uplifting washes of sound before the whole thing branches off and Frahm plays the inside of his piano with, er, toilet brushes. Frantic piano accompanies and the track starts swirling towards a brash crescendo. It’s one for the headphones and loud on the speakers.

The new material is fairly remarkable also, with the eight minutes of ‘Says’ having drawn particular praise from all over. It’s a sublime synthesiser piece which gently bubbles through five minutes of tranquil layers before exploding into a conflagration of all of the instruments Frahm uses on stage, producing the aural equivalent of shooting stars in the closing ninety seconds. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of music released this year and reason enough to get hold of this album. ‘Hammers’ wheels along at a frenetic pace, sounding not unlike early Noughties Radiohead, while ‘Improvisation For Coughs And A Cell Phone’ pretty much does what it says, capturing and reacting to the presence of others in the room.

What drew me to this man’s music in the first place was his indefatigable desire to play with sound, see where it can go and ride out the results until they all make sense. The control of the tracks he has previously released always seemed to demonstrate his ability to be deft and to be precise. ‘Spaces’ captures all of that exploring, that enthusiasm and that passion as it was being poured into his work. Watch the clip above of a take on ‘Toilet Brushes-More’ to see the sheer delight on Frahm’s face as the room responds to his efforts and you get a sense of what’s happening here. ‘Spaces’ may not give me the sense of having seen him live but it really does offer a different, or at least enhanced, take on what it is this most remarkable of artists can do. If my raving over ‘Screws’ last year didn’t prompt you into action then, for your sake, I hope I’m up to the task of enthusing you this time.

In the sleeve notes, Frahm says: “I guess ‘Spaces’ works best if you put it on a record player, with your phone and computer turned off, imagining you were in one room with me, where I play for you.” It certainly warrants such focus, revealing its breathtaking layers to anyone willing to look. The vinyl edition will make it out some time in the new year, once a decent test pressing has finally been managed, and it will be a very special thing indeed. However, on this occasion, I would suggest you don’t want to wait. Seek this special record out now and use it as a lift during festive lulls, take it with you on crisp New Year’s walks and embrace it as the artists suggests. It’s easy to be evangelical about an artist when they’re this good.

BEST OF 2012: 15. Nils Frahm – Screws

Everyone has a couple of artists about whom they are evangelical. You buy their albums for other people, certain titles get kept in a permanent spot by the hi-fi and when nothing else quite hits the spot you reach for their catalogue. This last year, one of mine has been Nils Frahm, whose piano-based music toys with my mind in a way which is both beguiling and unnerving. The thrill of good music is one of my great pleasures in life. The unspoken connection made when a record or performance takes off is majestic. But, very occasionally, you hear music which seems to chime with your soul, stop your thoughts and lay siege to your brain. For me, Frahm’s ‘Wintermusik‘ is one such example. I have lost track of how many times I have played that in the months since I finally got hold of it. It is heartbreakingly simple, utterly enthralling and quite fabulously crafted. Which is all the more remarkable when you learn that it was only ever originally intended as a Christmas gift for his family and friends. If I could afford to, I would offer to buy a copy for every person who reads this piece, in the hope that it would bring as much pleasure to you as it has me.

Nils12

Long introductions aside, and having since also released 2011’s best kept secret ‘Felt‘, Frahm unleashed ‘Screws‘ initially as a free download accompanied by a blog post explaining its creation. When you ply your trade and earn your crust by playing the piano, a thumb break is pretty much disastrous. Such circumstances befell Frahm early in 2012 but, rather than accept defeat, he crafted these nine pieces, all playable with one digit fewer than your average ivory tickler possesses. Going against doctor’s orders, these beautiful and sparse solo piano tunes came together during the empty late nights left when Frahm had to cancel his commitments due to the injury. ‘Screws‘ is blessed with the same emotive simplicity that made 2009’s ‘Wintermusik‘ such an essential listen and, while he regards it as something of a temporary stopping point en route to something more fully formed, ‘La‘ is one of several tracks to float free of the speakers and deliver an emotional punch.

As with much of the Erased Tapes output, once you’ve heard one piece by one of their artists, you’ll want the lot. And, when it comes to Frahm, I cannot urge you strongly enough to let ‘Felt‘, ‘Screws’ and, of course, ‘Wintermusik‘ into your world. Enjoy.

Screws is still available as a free download, including a delightful 24 bit lossless option. Fans are in the process of reworking it here.