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The 2017 Round-Up: Albums of the year (1)

In no particular order*, we begin:

james-holden

James Holden and The Animal Spirits – The Animal Spirits

It feels appropriate to be opening with this after having seen their excellent live show just last night. James Holden is such an exciting artist to follow as he pursues his own tangent to the ‘established’ electronic music scene with single-mindedness and distinctive individuality. He describes this latest project, a collaboration with percussionists and wind players, as ‘folk-trance’ but I would definitely add ‘jazz’ in there as well. The shamanic, pagan energy of 2013’s The Inheritors is there, with a liberal spoonful of psychedelia and then improvising saxophones, clarinets and cornets sprinkled chaotically on top. The result sounds like no-one else (at least that I’ve heard) but there’s no way it would work without James’s deeply musical instincts at its core.

 

*I always open with this and it has never been true. I do put them in a particular order – I just make sure that order is as arbitrary as possible. Last year’s was in alphabetical order of the last letter in the album name; this year will be in reverse order of the total number of letters in band and album names. Just so you know. 

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The 2017 Round-Up: Honourable Mentions

I was amused to look back at my round-up of last year’s music and see that I felt it was an “off-colour year” – in comparison, this year has felt far more underwhelming. Rap and R&B seem to be particularly in the ascendancy and they just really don’t tend to do it for me. Perhaps I’ve just been looking in the wrong places and in years to come I’ll discover gems that I completely missed this year.

Anyway, there are some Honourable Mentions (and a Dishonourable Mention – see below!) – albums that were enjoyed but that didn’t make the hallowed Top 10.

Fleet Foxes, after a lengthy hiatus, brought us Crack Up, which was a rambling and ambitious Artistic Statement of an album. There’s much to admire but, for me, not quite so much to love. Still, it certainly deserves many more revisits…

Delicate Steve, whose 2014 album Positive Force cheekily made it onto my 2015 list, released This Is Steve, a raucous, cartoonish romp through his inventive guitar-led tunes. Plenty of fun, if not quite the lyrical depth and variety of Positive Force.

It’s a while since I enjoyed a new Four Tet album as much as New Energy, which took a simpler approach and more of a house influence than 2013’s Beautiful Rewind. It felt quite ‘off the cuff’, with both the positive and negative connotations of that metaphor.

Ernest Greene came back under his Washed Out moniker – having thoroughly enjoyed both of his early ’10s albums (Within And Without and Paracosm), I was looking forward to this one. Mister Mellow has some great tracks but at just 30 minutes (+ change) is a bit slight as an album, with its tagged-on multimedia version not really what I’m looking for.

Finally, my aforementioned Dishonourable Mention. After absolutely loving The Race For Space in 2015, I was very excited about Public Service Broadcasting‘s return this year. As I said at the time, their synthesis of great instrumentals, cleverly chosen audio snippets and an overarching theme marked an impressive step forward for a band that could easily have just gone further down the (albeit fun) novelty sample route of their debut. With Every Valley, they mis-stepped horribly. Going again with an overarching theme (fine), this time they went with the decline of the Welsh coal-mining industry. This makes for a dour album that doesn’t really know what it’s saying. Yes, it’s sad that this region has declined, and the government(s) of the day perhaps didn’t cover themselves with glory, but coal is an awful, dirty fuel that we shouldn’t be using anyway. This wouldn’t have been a problem if the songs themselves had been sufficiently good but sadly they aren’t. The snippets of sampled dialogue that worked so well on previous albums doesn’t work at all here because they add nothing to the music, or vice versa. On top of that, there are some real clunkers of actual songs, with singers such as the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield sounding sappy and overly sincere.  A huge disappointment. The band have great talent, so here’s hoping they bounce back quickly.

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (10)

nothing-tired

Nothing – Tired Of Tomorrow

Definite 90s revivalism going on here, with strong influences from two quintessential genres of that decade: grunge and shoegaze. What is it about shoegaze that makes it so enduring? As niche genres go, it has shown surprising longevity. In my opinion there’s something highly satisfying about the thick, seething guitar chords that envelop the listener. In Tired Of Tomorrow I can hear shades of Nirvana, Soundgarden and Sugar mixed with UK shoegaze (obvious reference My Bloody Valentine) – it makes for a meaty sound, quite heavy on the guitars, offset by some prettier, gentler songs.

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (9)

hanssen-transit

Hanssen – Transit

Irritatingly only realised physically on cassette* (although thankfully also digital), this is Hanssen‘s follow-up to the excellent Seven Years Week from 2014. Transit is a little more lively and beat-driven than its predecessor but retains the same dense, kinetic electronic style, which I love. I think the influence of minimalists, such as Steve Reich, on the dance music world are so clear here, with busy, intricate patterns and rhythms repeating, overlapping and intersecting with each other. My only criticism, as with last time, is that it’s all over too quickly!

*(seriously, can this particular hipster phase die out now, please? I mean, I get the vinyl thing – they may be expensive but they do have a certain warmth of sound and the large packaging allows for the artwork to be displayed nicely – but cassettes really had no redeeming features beyond homemade mixtapes.)

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (8)

nicolas-jaar

Nicolas Jaar – Sirens

There’s no point trying to pigeon-hole this genre-wise, as it’s absolutely all over the place. Where his breakthrough debut album (Space Is Only Noise) was very consistent in sound and style throughout, this is the complete opposite, packing an enormous amount into its relatively short running time (and only 6 tracks) without ever feeling rushed or over-stuffed. As you can probably tell from this attempt at a review, it’s pretty difficult to get any sort of handle on but that only adds to its compelling nature. In sewing it all together into a coherent whole, the one thing abundantly clear here is Jaar’s talent as a producer.

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (7)

the_midnight_sun

C Duncan – The Midnight Sun

C Duncan‘s excellent debut album, Architect, somehow fell between 2015 and 2016 for me, and didn’t make it onto my 2015 list, although it might well have done so in retrospect. This follow up came remarkably swiftly but doesn’t seem to be compromised in quality in any way. You can hear his classical training in his tasteful but also rich approach to harmony, and his melodies have a curious old-fashioned quality to them, as if they have been in a time capsule since the 1930s, before rock ‘n’ roll was invented. On The Midnight Sun his self-produced accompaniment is almost purely electronic, a dreamlike sheen of synths with some lovely minimalist arpeggiated motifs. He imbues it with just enough energy to keep things bouncing along until the gentle lullaby-waltz of closing number Window.

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (6)

mint-julep-broken-devotion

Mint Julep – Broken Devotion

Here Keith Kenniff (whose solo record as Helios was one of my favourites last year) pairs up with his wife, Hollie, on vocals for some gorgeous electro pop. I find Keith Kenniff’s work quite compelling – he just seems to have perfect judgement in production and a very musical ear for melody and harmony. This album is much more energetic than his tranquil Helios material, with some driving tempos and quite thick, almost shoegaze-y synths.

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (5)

radiohead-a-moon-shaped-pool

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

After 2011’s The King Of Limbs, which I found admirable but difficult to love, Radiohead’s return this year was another stylistic change in direction, and probably closest to Amnesiac (2001) in feel. There is much to enjoy here, in a rich and varied collection of songs, some of which I understand have been live staples, in some form, for years. I would pick this purely on the strength of the first five songs: propulsive opener Burn The Witch, gentle piano-led Daydreaming, Decks Dark‘s gorgeous and haunting harmonies, pastoral and folky Desert Island Disk, and the fantastically ominous, insistent Ful Stop. Such variety of mood and instrumentation, but always compelling. The second half fades a little in comparison but ends on a strong note with the gentle, but haunting True Love Waits.

 

The 2016 Round-Up: Albums of the year (4)

weval

Weval – (self-titled)

I am amazed that this superb album didn’t get more exposure this year. It is a compliment that I have been really struggling to find comparisons: the closest touchstone I can come up with is Caribou‘s excellent Our Love (2014), although this is definitely the shade to Caribou’s light. Both share a similar restraint, employing aural spaces to allow listeners to fill in the blanks. These spaces exist in time but also across the aural field, with Weval employing a limited number of instruments – clipped electronic beats (brilliantly augmented by crisp live percussion), often just a single synth and voice, often down-pitched (a nice contrast to the frequent chipmunk-ed high-pitched vocals in dance music).

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