Both very good, both very different, right? WRONG. They both use the sound of screams as percussion and, magically, both are good songs. There’s more than coincedence at work here. I put it to you that the effect of adding screams as percussion improves a song. I put it to you, reader, that this is true, and the onus is on you to prove me right (because I’m lazy and not particularly committed to my research). Show me more songs with screaming in them and let’s get this notional genre up and running. Onwards!
It was an odd year. With music a less dominant part of my life these days, what I came into contact with tended to be directly related to what I was writing or talking about for DIY or FFS. I heard about a a heap of great albums (I will never tire of great music writing), but the amount of pure listening I did was far than it has been. Which is why, as I sit with headphones over my ears and a full pack of chocolate buttons melting in my mouth, I’m finding it hard to decide. When the albums you’ve loved in a year have been far less listened to, the amount you can critically discern between them is a lot less than it might otherwise have been. But here we go.
Dum Dum Girls – Only In Dreams
After ‘Coming Down’ swept across the blogs, many, notably myself, were somewhat jazzed about the idea of a epic-scale, anthemic gloom-rock approach from the L.A. four-piece. We didn’t get it. What we got was an album that embraced a true idea of evolution in sound – a step along the girl-group, surf-punk, fuzz-friendly Ascent of Man chart if you will. It refined, retuned and ultimately improved in every way on the group’s debut and, with ‘Coming Down’ as centrepiece and ‘Hold Your Hand’ as finale, indicated what the next image of Dum Dum Girls might look like too.
Dum Dum Girls – Coming Down
Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo
This was a grower, and by “grower” I mean that I was completely unimpressed, put it aside in some distant corner of my iTunes library, lost the CD copy and forgot it had been released at all. Then, four months later, it was played at work and I realised how brilliant it is. I mean just great. That there is a grower. Mixing experimental ambience with the drive of classic rock, Smoke Ring… is a wonder, a beautiful comedown. The whole thing envelops you like warm rain, Vile’s voice soothing as drums pound and guitars chime all around you. Easy listening in the best possible way.
Kurt Vile – Baby’s Arms
Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever
There are some certitudes in life that we must be aware of. Examples: Every action has an equal and opposite reaction; Alan Rickman is the best; any Future of the Left release will make it onto my end of year list. EP though it may be, this is still one of the best collections of music this year. Maniacally leaping between styles (even within songs) throughout and even more maniacally approaching lyrical output (relationships, Joe Pesci, international relations) this is everything I could want from a FotL release: ferocity, insanity, hilarity.
Future of the Left – Polymers are Forever
Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – Come on Board
I promise I’m not being (too) wilfully obscure with this one. Yes, it may only have been available from the pair’s live shows, and yes it might have taken me a month to find the album artwork, but you can find it online. Somewhere. Whatever the difficulties, this is most definitely worth its placing. This the sound of two kindred spirits separated only by their particular decade of musical popularity. Each complements the other’s own brand of weirdness spectacularly, with Stampfel’s gurgling squeals and Lewis’ croaky drawl mixing to make the best set of badly sung anti-folk tales I’ve heard all year.
Peter Stampfel and Jeffrey Lewis – He’s Been Everywhere
The Antlers – Burst Apart
I don’t like this much as Hospice. But that was never really going to happen, was it? Frankly, the best complement I can personally give Burst Apart is that it isn’t Hospice and it still ended up as one of my albums of the year. A definite step away from the “concept album”-as-concept album, The Antlers treated this one as an experiment, simplifying into indie-rock (‘Every Night My Teeth Are Falling Out’), playing at being their heroes (the Kid A/Amnesiac-isms of ‘Parentheses’) or messing with new genres (the distorted soul of ‘Putting the Dog to Sleep’) and succeeding at each and every one. This doesn’t need to be Hospice anymore, it’s brilliant in and of itself.
The Antlers – Parentheses
Radiohead – The King of Limbs
I genuinely can’t understand the backlash against this one. I know, I know, I’m a Radiohead douche but seriously, how can this be a bad album? “Not as good as In Rainbows,” fine, but a bad album? Nah. This is complex, beautiful songcraft with a spectacular generic twist halfway through – what introduces itself as a beat-heavy album, some naturalistic iteration of the aforementioned Kid A/Amnesiac era, between ‘Feral’ and ‘Lotus Flower’ becomes a more vocal affair, and with a hilarious non-sequitur punchline for the more desperate of us fanboys (that line in ‘Separator’) to boot. Time will prove people wrong on this one.
Radiohead – Separator
Bill Callahan – Apocalypse
Smog and Bill Callahan have been skirting around the peripheries of my music collection for years now, but have always seemed too revered, and perhaps too obscure, to simply dive into without a useful introduction. How kind of Bill to do that for me. Apocalypse is simultaneously traditional and experimental in its take on country-folk, sounding unmistakenly American, but in a distinctly literary fashion – this is more exploration (hence the experimentation) of a sound rather than a retreading of it. It makes for an album that’s as intriguing for its context as its overt content, and, by association, Callahan’s back catalogue looks just as enticing to me now.
Bill Callahan – Drover
Other Lives – Tamer Animals
There haven’t been many new bands in recent years that have grabbed me, shaken me awake and metaphorically said ‘LISTEN TO HOW AWESOME WE SOUND!’ like Other Lives did for me in 2011. Their music sounds so magnificently grand, so all-encompassing in its earthiness that it seems paradoxically unearthly (captured beautifully in their video for ‘For 12′). Clutching at the heady ambitions of classical music and expressive soundtrack work and roping it together with grounded, traditional folk sounds should simply not be this effortless, but they soar together somewhere in between in wonderful fashion. I need more of this in my life, and quickly at that.
Other Lives – Dark Horse
Timber Timbre – Creep On Creepin’ On
If Kurt Vile was a grower, this was a revelation. I was actively irritated with this album at first. Where were the folk creaks and strains I loved so much from before? Why was Taylor Kirk crooning? And what THE HELL was a saxophone doing there? It can’t be overstated that I’m an idiot. As Kirk himself sings on ‘Black Water’, ‘All I need is some sunshine.’ Once I saw that light, there was no turning back. Timber Timbre’s exercise in creepifying the sounds of old-fashioned pop is remarkable, showing the talent they have for subtly twisting the familiar into unsettling shapes in a completely new way.
Timber Timbre – Woman
Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen
This started at the top of my list and never left. It’s simply one of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard – and I’ve put enough thought into that to say it without pretence. I could expend mountains of hyperbole to explain that, but since Pearson himself kept it so simple, it would seem false to do so (that and I’ve done it elsewhere). What I will say is that this album can take your breath away, such is the depth of the emotions, it can drain you, such is the starkness of Pearson’s troubles, and it can (if I’m any example) completely affirm any pretentious belief you may have in the transcendent power of music. It may not be straightforwardly enjoyable, but by fuck is it satisfying, beautiful, devastating and incredible.
Part two of round-up day on MFAGW comes in the form of my Christmas Day show for DIY Radio, a (mercifully for some, I’m sure) mostly presenter-free episode where I played a stream of my favourite Folk Bloke tracks of the year. If nothing else, it’s a bloody good line-up of music – Bill Callahan, Alessi’s Ark, Saintseneca, Rob St. John and, obviously Josh T. Pearson all make appearances. If you want an hour of delightful music to reminisce on, stick it on and lay back.
Today is round-up day. I’d like to say that I’ve been inactive since before Christmas because I’ve been wracked by the critic’s uncertainty, a condition that has consigned me to bedrest due to the heavy burden of responsibility that lies upon me, a million watching eyes awaiting my decision that will make, and yes, break the careers of those I cast my unwavering, omniscient gaze over. But really I’ve just been drunk and/or sleeping for two weeks. But no more, for today is the release of the shortlist for the Blog Sound of 2012, and with it will come some other listy posts later in the day.
This whole Blog Sound idea was really rather exciting to me; a swathe of people who write about music discussing that music, but in a context that has historically been far removed from those involved in the BBC’s parent poll. What’s been most interesting in thinking about it though is that this separate group consciousness has become rather more visible throughout this year. In listening to the type of music journalist who would no doubt be involved with the BBC poll, more and more discussion has, for better or worse, centred around an artist’s blog buzz this year.
Lana Del Rey, whatever I might think about her, has no doubt been a product of the internet experience rather than any traditional music performance. Long before excited discussion of live shows or extravagent personal lives, we now see multimedia introductions – ‘Video Games’ became worthy of discussion by way of the images we were presented with. Del Rey has offered herself and a projected personality through degraded video footage and THOSE STUPID LIPS as much as through a louche vocal style. The purity of the internet music experience, an infinite plane with no other distractions to take away from what we choose to face ourselves with, is not as crystal clear as we might have thought. That said, the muddying of the internet waters has led to increased interest from circles who, a few years ago, might not have taken any notice. A few retweets of a Youtube clip by the right people and an artist can have their work played to literally thousands of people who might not otherwise have been interested before. Just on play on Spotify can notify every single friend on your Facebook timeline. These exponential connections will only keep growing and with it so will the interest in the source of the initial information, be that artist or, dare I say it, unwashed blogger.
So, with this in mind, it will be extremely interesting to see how each of these shortlisted artists fares this year. It may not be directly because of this post(or any other blog’s post of this list for that matter), but the potential for growth is now such that any of these five artists could have far more clout than they could have hoped for in previous years. What follows is the shortlist, in reverse order of votes, with personal comments about each. Only the list itself is as voted for by every blog.
In entirely the most positive way possible, Daughter’s Elena Tonra sounds like she could be a really dull popstar. This is positive, because she absolutely isn’t. Her breathy,angelic vocals hover gently over ambient soundscapes that constantly threaten a coherent melody. It’s an engaging combintion, taking what makes soft-rock’s most successful businesses so popular, puts it all behind a wall of fog and makes it actually worth expending some thinking (and listening) time over. I was already excited, now more so.
Displaying so many shades of popular 21st-Century indie bands that they’re practically shadowy, French Wives don’t strike me as much more than a baffling experiment in postmodern pastiche. That said, some of the interplay between in influences can make for some nice moments. Their seeming fascination with Classical instruments making Classical sounds (see: Vampire Weekend) jostling for space between punchy, oratory verses (see: Editors) and a fondness for big, showy chorus work (see: any stadium-bound indie act) results in a kinetic tumble of noise that just about resolves itself enough to seem reasonable. An odd choice, but one that could certainyl bear fruit.
I was a relatively early Beth Jeans Houghton supporter, but the more of her music I hear, the less I end up liking it. The casual, folky whimsy of the original recordings seems to be being replaced with a wishy-washy siren sound and, after seeing her at End of the Road this year, a similar onstage personality too. There’s no doubt it’s a more complex musical persona, but I just find it less interesting. That said, in the post-Florence world we all live in, with the right pop nous Ms. Houghton could go far (and given the fact that I liked Florence early on too, the signs are either good or bad depending which way you look at it).
The prevailing criticism of this London four-piece seems to be that they draw on Talking Heads rather heavily. I’m more aware of Two Door Cinema Club in their sound – a less venerable comparison perhaps, but not a negative one. That same high-register, major key guitar shuffle works its way through their newer tracks, a carefree, youthful look at guitar pop. Then again, the two older tracks on their Soundcloud page indicate a more nocturnal, synth-based sound so, frankly, god knows at what sonic crossroads this lot will end up at in the coming year.
I have to say, I’m a little surprised this came top of the list. It seems just about the least inventive choice of any of this list – a slumberous ’80s pop cool pervades each track, and the fact that I could sum it up that easily seems to say everything that needs to be said. Then again, it’s also the only choice that tallies with the BBC poll, which could provide the most interesting result of our own experiment, albeit with two very different conclusions. This could either signal what I had already mentioned, that blogs are beginning to have real (although indirect) purchase in the world of “tastemakers” or that us bloggers aren’t quite as different and forward thinking as we might like to believe. Either way, I think this poll has thrown up a lot to think about, and not just in terms of the music proferred, especially if it turns out Friends have made it to the top of the BBC list too (which wasn’t known when I published this).