Best of 2021: 5-1

Inevitably, anyone who reads my monthly columns for Clash or scrolls past my turntable shots on Twitter will have a rough idea of what to expect as this list comes to its conclusion. Each year, numerous folk reckon they know what the top spot will be with varying degrees of success. Wonder no more, for here we go…

5. Manic Street Preachers ‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’

Nearly thirty years on from their debut, it is increasingly hard for the Manics to release a record without drawing comparisons to their past. With bassist and lyricist Nicky Wire’s fondness for regularly articulating and updating the mythology around the band, listeners are only too aware when they’re going for pop-rock with strings, as on 2018’s ‘Resistance Is Futile’, or capturing a “harrowing 45 year old looking in the mirror” for 2013’s ‘Rewind The Film’.

‘The Ultra Vivid Lament’ is a mutation of several different strands of their musical DNA, evoking some of the melancholic textures of 2004’s unfairly maligned ‘Lifeblood’, the angles of 2014’s ‘Futurology’ and even the luscious Bacharachian harmonies favoured on B-sides from the ‘Everything Must Go’ era. Having spent more time at the piano when crafting his 2020 solo album ‘Even In Exile’, frontman James Dean Bradfield foregrounds that instrument in many of these songs and it serves to open up the band’s sound.  

‘The Secret He Had Missed’ is yet another triumphant duet in a remarkable recent run, featuring Julia Cumming from Sunflower Bean and wearing the ABBA influence that can be found on a number of tracks especially proudly. Lyrically, it explores the differing experiences of artistic Welsh siblings Gwen and Augustus John, highlighting their preferred subjects and referencing a transformative event on Tenby beach. It is also one of numerous moments on this record where Sean Moore’s dexterity and energy as a drummer is prominent.

‘Quest For Ancient Colour’ is sublime, Bradfield’s performance seeming to pull away from the serene backing vocals as he sings of a nostalgic ache for an undefined but easier time. Opener ‘Still Snowing In Sapporo’ slowly unlocks a fond memory of Japanese tour in 1993 – “the four of us against the world” – with a taut bass and acoustic interplay nodding affectionately to The Cure, igniting from a reverb-drenched and pared-back introduction.

‘Into The Waves Of Love’ channels chiming, ‘Reckoning’-era R.E.M., guitar and piano almost tripping over each other in the early bars and even daring to go back to Rockville at the end of its chorus. A strident Roxy/Bunnymen hybrid, ‘Complicated Illusions’, is polished without feeling as synthetic as some of the excessively buffed pieces on ‘Resistance Is Futile’.

Not content with one fine guest, Mark Lanegan puts in a generously understated appearance on ‘Blank Diary Entry’, drawing out the ominous sense of emptiness in the lyrics. ‘Don’t Let The Night Divide Us’, meanwhile, picks up where ’30 Year War’ left off. “Don’t let those boys from Eton suggest that we are beaten” makes for an emphatic chorus that resonates on plague island. While subtle, this album captures the evolution of a band in their element once more.

As you may have figured from the length, that’s a full review I wrote for Clash. The vinyl cut is excellent, even if the pressing requires a game of GZ roulette. This album has endured through the autumn and it’s sincerely one of their finest. Great sleeve too.

4. Low ‘Hey What’

I have often found myself caught up in conversation with people who are displeased or even aggrieved at a band’s change of sound. I never really understand the logic, given that their catalogue prior to the moment of transformation isn’t wiped out by any shift in approach. If you loved them for a specific thing, continue to love them for it and, if this isn’t for you, leave it alone. As I explored in some detail back in 2018, the noise and moments of oppressive distortion on Low’s more recent work are not effects applied afterwards but fundamental components of the songs themselves. While it took me a little while to click with ‘Double Negative’, eventually my second favourite of that year, I went into ‘Hey What’ fully aware of what to expect and I do think they’ve evolved this alternative way of doing things rather wonderfully.

I’ll admit that I prefer the slightly trimmed version of opener ‘White Horses’ which opens the splendid vinyl cut of the album, reducing the wilfully confrontational ticking, jittering outro, but the song itself is pure Low. Alan and Mimi combine in that alchemical way they’ve been doing now for nearly three decades and the jagged, overloaded riffs are a delight. The ebb and flow of the sonic chopping on ‘I Can Wait’ forms its percussive structure, while the partially submerged vocals of ‘All Night’ perfectly suit the lyrics, “am I on the other side, so blind, so long, goodbye.”

‘Disappearing’ feels like it shares its DNA with some of the more stately processions on 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ – my album of that year, this lot have form – while the fabulous construction of the final track, ‘The Price You Pay (It Must Be Wearing Off)’, with its near a cappella opening which then mutates into a muscular, strident beat for its second half, is a fine demonstration of how this way of working is no less expressive or emotional than their earlier recordings.

And let’s not forget ‘Days Like These’. It’s a stone cold classic of their catalogue, opening with the partial harmonising of Alan and Mimi and somehow distilling the magic that one senses in the crowd at their gigs despite the clear studio impact. The almost ambient wash of its latter phase pushes and pulls individual elements of the early sections in such a way that keeps the listener on their toes, unsure if that soaring vocal line is going to return or not. More immediate than ‘Double Negative’, ‘Hey What’ is yet another superb Low album. Let’s be sure never to take them for granted.

3. Damon Albarn ‘The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows’

Seven years after his debut solo album proper, ‘Everyday Robots’, the pandemic ended up causing a follow up. In May 2020, a Boiler Room livestream offered up some stripped back versions of pieces which were designed to be part of a project inspired by his second home of Iceland that he had been due to tour at that time. As the return to live performance got pushed back further and further, the desire to use this writing and move on grew too strong. Always one to have multiple projects on the go, he decided to transform those soundscapes into songs and so, this slow-burning, beautifully arranged and gorgeously sung record came into being.

Named after a line from John Clare’s poem ‘Love and Memory’, which also provides the lyrical inspiration for the title track, it is a wistful, often mournful collection that truly feels like a quest to find beauty during confined, concerning times. That opening piece is a beautifully transparent evocation of grief, not least for the loss of Albarn’s close friend and collaborator Tony Allen in the early stages of the global shutdown. Setting up camp with a number of his regular supporting musicians and skewing towards older, less dependable equipment, this music both reflects recent times and seems to point a way out of them.

While it is often meditative, there are still a number of hook-driven delights woven into this body of work. ‘Royal Morning Blue’ feels in line with Albarn’s more solo-focused ‘The Now Now’ Gorillaz sound. ‘The Tower Of Montevideo’ has the woozy, wobbly wash of sound that harks back to Blur’s ‘Ghost Ship’ but which seems to drift skywards on a synth wash and some driven saxophone. And then there’s ‘Polaris’, which emerges as the sonic clouds disperse, hingeing on a coiled spring of a rhythm that sounds like it’s about to go off at any point. It slowly expands and pulls everything into its orbit, a little like a slightly more mid-paced ‘Souk Eye’, another of his rather overlooked corkers. It’s an album with which I’ve spent a great deal of time these past few months and I imagine that will only develop, given Albarn’s tendency to write songs which never stop growing.

Such majestic music deserves decent treatment and, thankfully, Transgressive have delivered on that front. Mastered and cut by John Davis at Metropolis, the parts for the various vinyl editions were sent to several plants. The standard black edition is a pleasingly silent Optimal pressing, while the rather costly deluxe edition features a white disc pressed at Spinroad in Sweden. This had some light surface noise on a few occasions, but preserved the excellent sonics of Davis’ cut, while the accompanying exclusive 7” of ‘The Bollocked Man’ was an Optimal pressing. For silent playback, go for the black but every edition sounds great.

2. Self Esteem ‘Prioritise Pleasure’

Sometimes the stars align for an artist and sometimes an artist makes it their time. Rebecca Lucy Taylor grabbed hold of 2021 and delivered a record which is often remarkable, full of hooks and possessed of as distinctive a sense of voice as any philosopher, theorist or author. That the wonderful people at YourShelf have also produced an accompanying text that is described as “part diary, part poetry…[a] collection of Rebecca’s thoughts, lyrics, draft and notes” gives you a sense of how important the words are for an album where the messages are clear and necessary.

It’s not always an easy listen, either because of subject matter or sonic onslaught, but that is one of the key aspects of its brilliance. This is lived experience as songs, with noise required to convey the reality of being female in the music industry and, frankly, the world. “It happened lately, as I willed a sunset to go quickly, always thinking what next. Never have I just enjoyed the moment, happening right now. I’ve never known how,” Taylor sings on the album’s title track. The list of actions which follow, each accompanied by the refrain “That’s just for me” act as a clear statement of making decisions based on their personal merit rather than in the context of the expectations of the Male Gaze and how it can make people question their own free will.

The moment at which I knew this record was special was the first play of ‘I Do This All The Time’. It’s a truly incredible track to release to radio and as a preview of an album. The spoken word sections are laced with humour but delivered with pure intent. The mix of monologue and emphatic, euphoric, BIG pop chorus is genius. That melodic expertise is right across ‘Prioritise Pleasure’ – try and listen to ‘Fucking Wizardry’ only one – and it makes these songs far easier to listen to than one suspects their inspirations were to live through.

1. Villagers ‘Fever Dreams’

Despite our hopes in January, 2021 proved to be another year which necessitated some musical comfort blankets. Most luxurious of all was Villagers’ majestic album ‘Fever Dreams’. Last year’s tenth anniversary vinyl release of Villagers’ debut, ‘Becoming A Jackal’, made all the more stark the evolution of Conor O’Brien’s songwriting. Its indie-folk charms remain bewitching, but the inventive, hook-laden and soulful incarnation that took shape with 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ is fully realised on ‘Fever Dreams’. Having pushed in a more electronic direction with that previous record, using samples and programmed beats, this set of songs found their groove at the hands of his band.

Recorded in the year preceding the original lockdown and then manipulated in those strange months that followed, this is an album of release which attempts to turn away from relentless, oppressive digital connectivity. Early single ‘The First Day’ builds and builds, serving as a hymn to opportunity and a confident statement of intent. ‘Full Faith In Providence’ offers a fragile contrast, guest vocalist Rachael Lavelle gradually weaving around O’Brien and a vintage piano, while the guitar parts on ‘Circles In The Firing Line’ land somewhere between Pavement and Graham Coxon at his most frenetic.

At seven minutes long, album highlight ‘So Simpatico’ gradually expands into a hypnotically beguiling meditation on devotion. Conor O’Brien’s underrated but genuinely remarkable voice has never sounded better than on this album, with this opulent track its highpoint. The effortless mid-paced early-Seventies soul rhythms are irresistible and the sax break – yes, it has a sax break – is a lyrical and affecting intervention, which then continues in the background as if to underline the explosive physical and mental impact of love. “Little did I know, you were here all the time,” repeats O’Brien on a track which manages to be enormous and enveloping without ever becoming bombastic. Tired minds, aching souls and the ever so slightly broken can find inspirational and uplifting balm right here.

Having always enjoyed Villagers’ releases, it was 2016’s acoustic reworking of moments from their catalogue for Domino’s short lived ‘Documents’ series – ‘Where Have You Been All My Life?’ – that elevated them in my affections. Suddenly, Conor O’Brien’s songwriting made much more sense and I wrote about it at that year’s end. I’ll never tire of recommending that album, which is an all-time favourite, and since that connection formed I have awaited each new release with genuine excitement. 2018’s ‘The Art Of Pretending To Swim’ was great but ‘Fever Dreams’ is very possibly Villagers’ most ambitious and endearing record to date. Essential.

BEST OF 2015: 2. Low ‘Ones And Sixes’

Some bands possess alchemical elements that ensure that their music is distinctive and compelling. The Smiths had Marr’s peerless guitar work, The National have Bryan Devendorf’s otherworldly drumming and Low truly take off when the voices of Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker combine. Twenty-one years after their first, the Minnesotan trio have crafted an eleventh album that employs new textures around those magnificent vocals and deviates from a path upon which they seemed to have settled. My album of 2011, ‘C’Mon’, is a beautiful, at times luscious, record and the clarity of 2013’s rather subdued ‘The Invisible Way’ suggested that the scuzzy, unsettling sounds to which they had gravitated in the mid-Noughties were consigned to the past.

Low

Ones And Sixes’ is sequenced so as to ensure such assumptions are quickly shattered. Sparkhawk has spoken recently of his restless desire not to plough the same furrow too consistently and, while it might make a neat quip to describe this as their last record channelled through the noise of 2007’s ‘The Great Destroyer’, there’s rather more to it than that.

The subterranean bass that drives ironically titled opener ‘Gentle’ is so ferocious that it partially obscures Parker and Sparhawk at various points. The weary march of the distorted drums sets the tone for what lies ahead, flagging up the chaos out of beauty motif that runs throughout ‘Ones And Sixes’. Many of these songs may well have worked with the gentle Jeff Tweedy production of their last outing, but here, with B.J. Burton at the controls, they are pushed, pulled and mangled out of shape to devastating effect. Early teaser ‘No Comprende’, with an insistent jagged riff initially setting the brooding pace, is torn apart at the three minute mark, Parker’s vocals eventually offering some balm after moments of turmoil.

Despite the shift, the textures are far less ugly than their previous noisier endeavours, with the harmonies and melodic uplifts of recent work still very much in play. ‘Spanish Translation’ starts like the synth breakdown in a house track before the band’s vintage wall of sound heft thunders in on the chorus. The electronic pulse of ‘Into You’ sets up a multi-tracked Parker vocal on one of a number of songs which seem to tackle the highs and lows of the intimacy necessitated by twenty-two years bound together by band and marriage. The finest of these is ‘What Part Of Me’, on which vocal duties are shared to predictably beautiful effect around a naggingly catchy chorus.

The album’s most notable moments come in its final quarter. ‘Landslide’, clocking in at almost ten minutes, is a shape-shifting epic which brings to mind some of the most mesmeric mantras from Spiritualized’s career, torn asunder by some ferocious guitar work by Sparhawk. It’s breathtakingly ‘big’, especially in contrast to the studied calm of ‘The Invisible Way’. Despite this grandiose landmark, the true treasure comes just before it. ‘Lies’, occupying a far more modest four minutes of the record, is another of the duets, although Sparhawk sits far further forward in the mix. Its true beauty, however, comes from the ascending synth line which peppers the chorus. It’s a trick that Low have never deployed previously and it is, however implausibly, as emotively powerful as the vocals behind which it resides.

There will be those who favour the delicately rounded corners of the band’s recent work ahead of the scuffed up layers present on ‘Ones And Sixes’, but don’t be fooled by any early disorientation. The band’s strengths are here in abundance, but they are reimagined, twisted into new shapes and given a visceral intensity that is utterly irresistible.

BEST OF 2013: 10. Low – The Invisible Way

There are few voices at large in music today as striking, pure and transcendant as that of Low‘s Mimi Parker. Witnessing her singing live is a total surrender: like an act of hypnosis, the performance is so utterly absorbing nothing else exists. In an age of incessant talking at gigs, Low still find themselves playing to hushed reverence. The remarkable control coupled to a voice with such power is a joy to behold on every single listen, and on ‘The Invisible Way’ it is a more regular occurrence than ever before. Parker takes lead on five of these beautiful songs and, while Alan Sparhawk is hardly restricted by concrete tonsils, it’s perhaps the main reason to celebrate Low’s tenth studio release.

The fact the band have such a distinctive sound, largely as a result of those two captivating voices, can mean they get taken for granted a little. ‘The Invisible Way’ promos were sent out  a little over a year ago and by this stage in the run up to last Christmas, I was just getting to know its many charms. And then some bastard leaked it. As the big day dawned, the music of a band hardly rolling in cash was being eagerly downloaded for free across the world. This is hardly new behaviour, but what was really grim viewing was the explosion of ‘me me me’ posts across message boards and Twitter as people rushed to be the first to offer an ill-informed and largely foetal opinion of this subtly textured record. Before 2013 had even begun, dozens upon dozens of listeners had tossed aside an album with which they had spent forty, or even at a push eighty, minutes. “Bit samey” was the preferred epithet of these musical fidgets. I mention this because, looking back in recent weeks, I was conscious of the fact that I had let it drift into the background somewhat in a way ‘C’Mon’ never did and never has. Partly, I suspect, this was down to never getting a quiet vinyl copy and partly it was as a result of having had early access during the end of last year. As I wrote in 2011’s list, that last record was a particularly special discovery for me and I carried all of those emotions and attachments into my response to ‘The Invisible Way’. I loved it. Nothing sparkled quite like ‘Try To Sleep’, but these songs are certainly on a par with that album as a whole.

Returning to it as part of finalising this list, it was like finding a favourite item of clothing you’d somehow forgotten ever buying. I’ve been playing it a lot in recent weeks and it is a less plush album that its predecessor, but no less affecting. ‘Plastic Cup’ gets things underway, uncoiling wonderfully to a chiming middle eight with soaring backing vocals and glistening guitar, while the lyrics play their own games come the end of the song. The metronomic ‘Amethyst’ is a classic Sparhawk/Parker duet, with sparse piano, acoustic guitar high up in the mix and elongated vowel sounds aplenty. The cascading, enveloping piano rush at the start of ‘So Blue’ is irresistible, giving way to a quite remarkable performance from Parker, supporting herself with a delicate back-up to the truly magical main vocal. It is, quite sincerely, one of the finest things the band have ever recorded and fills the room and your thoughts with ease.

I’ve already alluded to the wonders of the track ‘Holy Ghost’ when writing about Mavis Staples‘One True Vine’, upon which a cover of it features. That album was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, who also took the helm for this record, coaxing out a fulsome soundstage for this most delicately minimalist of bands. He hasn’t built in unnecessary layers to add heft, but has managed to present their music in a rich, warm fashion that may surprise those who have previously struggled to fully engage with Low’s work. Take the pulsing drums of ‘Clarence White’, for example. They are foregrounded but not aggressive at the song’s start, but they seem to almost fall in line when the chorus appears, taking their place within a rich but simple collection of sounds.

The piano/Parker pairing is used to great effect across ‘The Invisible Way’, ‘Four Score’ a far more muted track than ‘So Blue’ but still serving to demonstrate the true majesty of Mimi’s voice, something which is also at the centre of  ‘Just Make It Stop’. It almost shimmies along, fidgety percussion driving forth a glorious tune and pushing Parker at a pace that is far less common for her but no less effective. Sparkhawk returns for the lullaby-like ‘Mother’, which offers some personal reflections amongst more hopeful tones, and ‘On My Own’ which skips into view before taking a far darker turn around the two minute mark. Fuzzed chords descend and the song starts to unravel, Sparhawk’s guitar feeling like a weapon being used to hack away at the track, while pretty piano continues resolutely unbowed. The repeated refrain of “Happy Birthday” over the track’s final minute seems withering and insincere, leaving a tense air at its climax, only for ‘To Our Knees’ to pop up and make you cry.

A delicately simple backdrop supports another stirring Parker vocal for a song which looks at how love can endure and withstand whatever life throws at it. It is a beautiful end to a genuinely beautiful album. I got married in the summer and we gave all of the guests a compilation of songs for each year of our relationship so far. Each track represented something significant from a given time and, for 2013, we chose ‘To Our Knees’, reflecting the shared joy of witnessing Low at The Trinity in Bristol this April. It seemed a fitting way to close that collection, just as it so perfectly rounds out ‘The Invisible Way’.

Looking back over what I’ve just written, it now seems a little odd that his record is only at Number Ten in this list. Perhaps I’ll reflect on that in the near future and figure I got it wrong. Suffice to say, what really matters here is that if anyone is reading this having not heard the record, you should rectify that immediately. Low are a very special band who make very special music and I am thrilled that they are able to provoke so much in me. Long may that continue.

BEST OF 2011: 1. Low – C’mon

The slow fade, the chiming and immersive backdrop, the delicate lullaby of the vocal – all combine to form the most startling opening to an album this year. Within a minute I was certain that I was going to adore this album and by the time it had finished the only thing I wanted was to hear it again. Few songs are so obviously classics on first listen that when one emerges, it’s like the first flutters of falling in love. ‘Try To Sleep’ is a bold choice as first track because it leaves a lot to live up to for the nine tracks which follow. Not that that seems to be a problem.

Low1

You See Everything’ is the first of Mimi Parker’s big numbers on this record, a glorious track with a grand sound and a hypnotic charm, taking the wash of luxury applied to the album’s opener and running with it. While ‘Witches’ is a fine example of how a different producer can eek out new things from old sounds. The bold, spacious and gnarled guitar lines which have graced so many of the band’s records are present, but set as part of a much bigger wall of sound, with driving percussion and the chiming gloss of the opening pair still operating underneath. Production duties are shared between the band and Matt Beckley, who has previously worked with Avril Lavigne, Leona Lewis and even the Backstreet Boys. Not that that is in anyway obvious, beyond the slight sheen given to the album’s more grandiose moments.

The constant use of the tag ‘slowcore’ does Low no favours, suggesting as it does that their music is melancholia bordering on the bleak whereas one of the most bare tracks on ‘C’mon’ is not overly gloom in its actual sound. ‘Done’, below lyrics telling us “if you see my love, tell her I’m done”, has an aching lap steel from Nels Cline which underpins it, emotive and rich. Sad songs don’t make sad people. That logic is imbecilic and lazy, just like happy songs don’t make for happy people. Think of the savings the NHS could make with a Girls Aloud album. A gentle ache is often euphoric in its execution.

Take Parker’s crowning glory, ‘Especially Me’, which opens with the sparkling line “Cry me a river, so I can float over to you”. A slow thud keeps time while an atmospheric wash of sound, with Alan Sparhawk very low in the mix, slowly gathers momentum behind her hymnal vocal. The stirring string break which captures the conflicted emotions at the heart of the song is so utterly enthralling that when, thirty seconds later, the song ends, you’re just left hanging. Only the very best music really manipulates your emotions and ‘C’mon’ can certainly do that.

The second half of the record opens with ‘$20’, which it’s probably fair to say has plenty in common with Low records of old with its minimal sound and meditative delivery. Nevertheless, the occasional jagged strums of electric guitar maintain a certain edge, in keeping with the sinister undercurrents of old, even if the album as a whole is far lighter affair than recent releases. This idea is fully explored on ‘Majesty/Magic’, which starts in a similar vein but then builds into a crescendo of drums and guitar, with a pulsing energy and the feel of the threat of a far off storm.

Nightingale’ has the same sloping, soulful guitar sound which emboldened the album’s opening tracks and the chorus is heavenly, swooping down in its closing line with a grace and elegance that is simple yet breath-taking. The song washes over you, like the early hours of hazy summer light, leaving you prone for the eight and a bit minutes of ‘Nothing But Heart’. This track, more than any other here, highlights the power of this band’s sonics. Having gone loud(ish) with ‘The Great Destroyer’ and electronic with ‘Drums And Guns’, this offering serves to remind us that Low are capable of manipulating a soundstage in a fashion few can replicate. Over its duration, as the additional instruments appear including a gorgeous guitar break, the song gradually gets louder, until Parker unexpectedly makes an appearance around the six minute mark. It’s a wondrous piece of music and something which feels like the perfect way to end such an accomplished album.

And yet, ‘Something’s Turning Over’, a strummed folky song with gorgeous harmonies and little more than three minutes on the clock, serves to leave things on a musically optimistic note, even if the lyrics suggest otherwise: “just because you never hear their voices, don’t mean they won’t kill you in your sleep.” That this is then followed with a ‘la la la’ coda to close suggests there’s more than a little wry smile behind this supposedly gloomy duo.

There have been some very impressive, massively emotional and beautifully produced albums released this year, but very few have combined all three of those elements. Within that already tiny list, there is only one album which I have already installed on my favourite records of all time list, which I have played at least once a week for most of this year and which I would buy every single one of you if I could afford to. It is ‘C’mon’ by Low and it is a bloody triumph.

20 from ‘11 so far – Part 2

I like lists. Even a brief browse of the site should make that pretty clear. Following on from numbers 20-11, which you can find here, read on for the second half of Just Played’s Top 20 albums from the first half of 2011.Where I’ve already reviewed the album in question there is a link through to it, and all albums have a listen link to Spotify and a buy link through to the marvellous Rise site, who’ll sort you out with the tunes pretty sharpish. Feel free to agree, mutter abuse or supply your own lists below. Right then…

10. Metronomy – ‘The English Riviera’ (BECAUSE MUSIC)

METRONOMYEssentially a very well constructed pop record, ‘The English Riviera’ is a suave and polished beast, blessed with hooks to die for and seductively nimble bass lines. Recent single ‘The Loop’ is an insidious electro-burst, lodging itself in your head for days on end, while ‘Everything Goes My Way’, with the gorgeous vocals of Roxanne Clifford, is a lazy summer smash in waiting. It’s only relatively recently that this has moved from being a pleasant little record I play when the sun shines to a favourite from the year so far. When you really listen to it, which is to say put down books, iWotsits and magazines and just concentrate, the really rather beautiful production hits you. Pick apart the bits of ‘She Wants’ on a decent pair of headphones and I suspect you’ll be suitably impressed. Oh, and the only thing this has in common with the band’s earlier incarnation is the band name on the sleeve. Be not afraid.

Listen / Buy

9. The Low Anthem‘Smart Flesh’ (BELLA UNION)

Low Anthem SmartEveryone having caught up thanks to Bella Union picking up the initially self-released ‘Oh My God Charlie Darwin’ in 2009, there was a great deal of interest in this record and it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed. As almost every review mentioned, this was committed to tape in a disused pasta sauce factory but that fact is actually significant as some of the recordings on here are utterly breath-taking. The size of this alternative studio is discernible on a number of occasions, particularly on some of Ben Knox Miller’s haunting vocals which were recorded in umpteen different ways. Still veering between fragile, meditative reflections on the human condition and all out Dylan-cum-Waits rackets, this is the band’s defining moment thus far.

“The sound of ‘Smart Flesh’ is like nothing you’ve ever heard before. Listen carefully to ‘Golden Cattle’ and it’s quite clear that lead vocalist Ben Knox Miller’s affecting performance is being picked up from afar; emptiness never sounded so good. ‘Love And Altar’ has a similarly airy feel, the attention to detail in creating this distinctive, raw sound utterly staggering. Miller sounds as if his vocal is being left somewhere in the past, the other voices in the band harmonising beautifully around him. It’s impressive through speakers but a listen via headphones left me more than a little choked up.”

Read the full review

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8. Tom Williams & The Boat – ‘Too Slow’ (WIREBOAT RECORDINGS)

Tom Williams Too SlowFollowing on from a number of excellent EPs, this is a heart-warmingly splendid debut outing from one of Just Played’s favourite bands. A genuine music fan and somebody who has spent some years truly crafting his sound and maturing as an artist, the Tom Williams who fronts this tremendous band has a distinctive and charismatic yelp which drives these largely wonderful songs. While their folky origins still show through from time to time, things took a slightly darker and spikier turn on the debut, with lead single ‘Concentrate’ sounding heavier than it ever had before. Lyrically there’s plenty to get your teeth into, the lines “they don’t know my dad, he’s this town through and through. Old school, fifty-something balding racist, and so his mates are too,” are so splendidly evocative they’ve proved to be a popular search term for people finding my original review of the record. Ultimately, fans of narrative-driven indie will find much to love here but even if that’s not your bag, I’d urge you to have a listen to this really very impressive debut.

“‘See My Evil’, having previously been the lead track on an EP of the same name, makes an appearance near to the end of the record. It sounds just as shudderingly splendid as it did that first time: like a grubby Arcade Fire after a night in a dark room with a fine malt, headphones and a copy of Jeff Buckley’s ‘(Sketches For) My Sweetheart The Drunk’.”

Read the full review

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7. Alessi’s Ark‘Time Travel’ (BELLA UNION)

alessiA bewitching stage presence and an angelic vocal make Alessi’s Ark very easy to love and this album is yet another triumph for the good folks at Bella Union. Finely crafted folk is elevated towards greatness by the stunning voice of Alessi Laurent-Marke, which is utterly beautiful throughout. Openers ‘Kind Of Man’ and ‘Wire’ should be enough to have you sold but, failing that, skip to one particular song. ‘Maybe I Know’, an impressive retooling of the Lesley Gore pop stomper, tells the tale of a cheated upon partner realising that the gossip is all about her and will break your heart. With the aforementioned vocal talents of Alessi, it will have you on the verge of tears. It’s the standout moment on an album which rarely dips below excellent and the old school songwriting and airy, summery production will leave you utterly spellbound.

Listen / Buy

6. Fleet Foxes – ‘Helplessness Blues’ (BELLA UNION)

Fleet FoxesAfter the somewhat unexpected love-fest which greeted their debut album, things seemed a little less gushing this time around, which is unfortunate as ‘Helplessness Blues’ is actually the superior release. Opener ‘Montezuma’ picks up from where we left off, all cascading harmonies and gently plucked folksy guitar, but don’t be foolish enough to subscribe to the hipster notion that this is an album of wet, hippy-dippy, breakfast-knitting nonsense – because it really isn’t. ‘Battery Kinzie’ is a gloriously plinky-plonky little number which sounds like something straight out of the late-Sixties/early-Seventies Elektra stable, while ‘Lorelai’ shuffles along beneath a wash of harmony, the musical equivalent of that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you witness a particularly beautiful sunset. A logical follow-up to their self-titled debut then, and a fine, fine collection of songs.

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5. Elbow – ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ (FICTION)

Elbow BuildHow do you follow up a record as utterly beguiling as ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’? Well, it would seem it can be done, on this evidence. Take the completely unnecessary ‘The Birds (Reprise)’ out of the equation and you’re left with ten delicately crafted tracks which, as I pointed out in my Clash review back in March, take in the best bits of their career to date. The pressure was off and the band could do pretty much whatever they wanted to…and they did. With Guy Garvey’s national treasure status pretty much assured and another stunning Glastonbury performance chalked up, it seems strange to say that I was faintly underwhelmed by ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ at first. It’s a more subtle record than its predecessor, built around gently uplifting mantras and airy piano refrains. Recent singles ‘Open Arms’ and ‘Neat Little Rows’ both demonstrate the continued knack for meticulously measured epics but be sure to seek out ‘Lippy Kids’ and ‘The Night Will Always Win’, the latter balancing on a simple little piano line as Garvey croons “I miss your stupid face, I miss your bad advice.” Craig Potter’s sympathetic and spacious production remains a delight and however much other albums may be more exciting or more ground-breaking, I find myself returning again and again to this more than most.

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4. Kitty, Daisy & Lewis – ‘Smoking In Heaven’ (SUNDAY BEST)

KDLAfter a solid and well-received debut, these analogue purists with a knack for good old-fashioned rock and roll deliver a follow up which oozes class and continues to floor me on each successive spin. Sounding fifty years out of time and traversing genres without concern, it is unlike anything else you will hear this summer. And you really must hear it. Boldly commencing with the ska-infused ‘Tomorrow’, the album ranges from straight up rock and roll through raucous R’n’B and folksy swing. A band at ease with their sound, the utter joy at the heart of these songs is conveyed explicitly throughout, most notably on ‘Messing With My Life’ and ‘Don’t Make A Fool Out Of Me’. Forget the fact that Jools Holland probably loves this and console yourself with the fact that Mark Lamarr is also probably quite keen too. Although I’d generally advocate vinyl as the way to go for every single title in this list, ‘Smoking In Heaven’ is available as a superlative double wax pressing and it is truly the only way to properly hear this brilliant album.

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3. Gruff Rhys‘Hotel Shampoo’ (TURNSTILE)

Gruff Rhys HSThe top three are very hard to separate at the moment as they’re all pretty special. After the homespun charms of ‘Yr Atal Genhedlaeth’ and ‘Candylion’, Gruff Rhys has pulled out all the stops for his third solo outing. While those earlier albums were charming and intermittently ace, ‘Hotel Shampoo’ is as good as some of the Super Furries’ finest. Recent single ‘Honey All Over’ evokes his home band in their ‘Phantom Power’ pomp, while ‘Christopher Columbus’ forces a distorted ska sound through the electronic burbles of ‘Guerrilla’. The album hangs together well and although the singles form the opening salvo, things don’t flag towards the end. ‘Conservation Conversation’ squawks and honks away as only a song built around a repetitive phrase playing on the similarity of two words can, while ‘Softly Sophie’ deliberately wrong-foots you off the back of the playfully falsetto chorus. Only Gruff could pull off the potentially nauseating title “If We Were Words (We Would Rhyme)” and the track itself is a delight. In short, this isn’t just his best solo album, but also one of the best albums out there featuring Gruff full stop.

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2. Bill Callahan – ‘Apocalypse’ (DRAG CITY)

Bill Callahan ApocalypseCold Blooded Old Times’ was my first exposure to the majesty of Bill Callahan via the ‘High Fidelity’ soundtrack, back when he was still plying his trade as Smog. After an experiment with brackets, he finally opted to operate under his own name with 2007’s ‘Woke On A Whaleheart’. I returned to the fray with the luscious ‘Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle’ in 2009 and quickly sought out the majority of his back catalogue. While ‘A River Ain’t Too Much Love’ may well be my preferred Smog outing, the slightly less polished sounds of ‘Knock Knock’ and ‘Red Apple Falls’ also appealed and ‘Apocalypse’ is perhaps the closest of all of his ‘solo’ outings to the sound of his previous project. Opener ‘Drover’ sets the tone: low-key band performance, largely deadpan half-spoken, half-sung vocals, occasional bursts of feedback and anxious fiddle. It’s a spectacular way to start a record and all seven of the songs in this set are distinctive and memorable in their own way. Most immediately worthy of attention is the raw, lop-sided throb of ‘America!’ which has even been described by less self-conscious reviewers than I as “funky.” ‘One Fine Morning’ is a strung out, near-nine-minute finale which concludes with Callahan singing the album’s catalogue album in lulling tones. Which is, clearly, unutterably cool. But for the sheer magnificence of the album which tops this list, this would be an easy contender for album of the year and you certainly won’t regret the investment.

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1. Low ‘C’mon’ (SUB POP)

Low CmonI absolutely adore this album; I’m still playing it weekly and I can’t imagine ever tiring of it. The first time I played it, I fell in love and little has changed in the months since. Even if you think you know what Low do and find it hard to imagine ever rhapsodising so verbosely about any of their output, you really should put aside forty-five minutes to spend in the company of ‘C’Mon’. I’ve always quite liked them: their ‘Christmas’ EP regularly gets a dusting down come December and ‘Drums And Guns’ went down well enough but I had little else from their back catalogue and I wasn’t waiting with baited breath for this album’s arrival. Despite all of this, ‘C’Mon’ is my most played album of the year to date, by far. Alan Sparhawk’s keening vocal on opener and first single ‘Try To Sleep’ was all it took. The chiming and immersive backdrop feels soothing and luxurious and it is as welcome a tonic at the end of a long day as cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. The almost somnambulant pace of old is still present in part, but the delicate jangle, used so well on the aforementioned festive offering, is foregrounded here more so then ever before, and it is a triumph. Having tried loud (‘The Great Destroyer’) and electronic (‘Drums And Guns’), it’s been suggested that this is the band returning to what they do best and, frankly, I have no problem with that when it results in ten songs as imperious as these. ‘Especially Me’ and ‘Something’s Turning Over’ are further examples of  vocals balanced meticulously atop shimmering instrumentation, the former allowing Mimi Parker creep out from the, nevertheless beautiful, dueting role she takes on ‘You See Everything’ and ‘Done’. Several months ago, I told one purchaser of the album that if they didn’t like it, I’d give them their money back myself. They’ve not asked for any cash as yet and I don’t imagine you would either.

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2011OTR

March Reviews

Time to mop up my spillages in the review pages of Clash Magazine again. Two of these have already had the full works in recent weeks and another will be soaked in a torrent of hyperbole any day now, but I still rather like bunging these up here.

Elbow Build

ELBOW – ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ (FICTION)

Safe in the knowledge than an audience awaits, Elbow’s fifth album finds the band doing exactly as they please. Combining the expanses of their debut, the delicate melody of ‘Leaders Of The Free World’ and the beautiful production of ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’, ‘Build A Rocket Boys!’ is a band in full flight. While its subtle charms take time to emerge, let ‘The Birds’ and ‘High Ideals’ take a few laps around your head and the love affair will be back on. Beautifully produced and blessed with Guy Garvey in fine voice, it’s a small but perfectly formed step forward.

I keep meaning to do a big piece on this album but I can’t imagine that anybody who likes Elbow hasn’t already bought it. It’s a gorgeous sounding record – an impression far further enhanced by the majestic double 45rpm vinyl pressing – and I stand by the comment about it needing time. My first few plays were actually slightly disappointing and I was left wondering where the majesty was. It is, rest assured, very much present but it really repays multiple plays and it’s every bit the tremendous follow up we all knew they’d deliver.

Continue reading “March Reviews”