One thing I’ve particularly noticed about this year is there have been hardly any ‘song’ records which have really grabbed me. I’ve been much more excited about a lot of new electronic stuff.
1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
If I’d bothered to write up my albums of the year in 2011 you’d have seen Mr Hopkins’ name appearing at the top of the list alongside King Creosote for their brilliant and beautiful ‘Diamond Mine’ collaboration. Hopkins is an electronic producer who’s also worked with Brian Eno and Coldplay (!). On ‘Immunity’ he creates a lush and warm fusion between glitchy electronics and acoustic instruments to create some really original and engaging techno that sounds like nothing else I’ve heard. Creosote pops up again for some understated vocals on the last track, squaring the circle on a producer who I think is going to continue making brilliant music across genres for some time to come.
2. Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
Intriguing promotional campaign aside, a new Boards of Canada album after eight years was always going to be an event. One of the undisputed greats of electronic music, the duo pulled off the neat trick of returning with an album which bore their personal stamp throughout whilst also sounding like nothing else they’d done. Harsher, more abrasive, more drone based, with fewer of the unusual vocals samples or short interludes of their classics. Tomorrow’s Harvest creates its own unique mood, and evokes some sort of decaying post-urban landscape. Impossible to pin down, utterly unique, often imitated but never bettered – the return of Boards of Canada was something special indeed.
3. Daft Punk – Random Access Memories
Another very different electronic duo also made a return this year. I have little to add to commentary on ‘Random Access Memories’ other than to say how surprised I was to find it getting under my skin. Initially put off by the very very slick sound and lack of crunchy bangy synths, the couple of standout tracks kept me coming back until the rest of the album revealed its charms. Sure my 10 track reshuffled tracklist which drops some of the tat (‘Lose Yourself To Dance’ is fucking rubbish) is a much better album, but it would be the an act of wilful anti populism to deny that this is one of my most played and enjoyed records this year. ‘Get Lucky’ is the first number one record I’ve owned and adored in a very long time.
4. James Holden – The Inheritors
Holden wasn’t someone I’d really been aware of before this record, though as the leader of the Border Community label/collective he’s been in the shadows of plenty of other records I’ve enjoyed (Nathan Fake, Luke Abbott). This record is another wonderfully human electronic album. Managing to make the science and strategy of modular synthesis wonderfully organic, loose and natural sounding. Much in the way Boards of Canada breathe ghosts into their machines, Holden here evokes something primal and feral, always avoiding clichés of electronica both in structure and sound. Really special.
5. Darkside – Psychic
I adored Nicolas Jaar’s 2011 debut LP ‘Space Is Only Noise’, he’s now followed it with a collaborative album with experimental guitarist Dave Harrington. A mood piece, which manages to co-opt 70’s prog clichés into something unsettling and new – ‘Psychic’ begins with one of the most engaging pieces of drone/ambient music I’ve heard in a long time in the eleven minute long ‘Golden Arrow’. Building extremely slowly without ever becoming dull, the piece deconstructs itself as it goes along, every sound seems broken, fractured, and haunting. The rest of the album becomes, by contrast, more conventional, but remains epically odd. Harrington’s guitar work is the most noticeable addition – though it’s not all he contributes – it’s inventive and original without being showy or weird or over reliant on effects. It contributes to an album which really feels like one long piece. I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this wonderfully engaging record.
6. Low – The Invisible Way
The tenth album from one of my favourite bands. Low continue to find ways to reinvent themselves within their quiet, slow niche. After the relative dud that was 2011’s ‘C’Mon’ they’ve simply returned with a better set of songs, tighter, better sounding, returning some emotion to their lyrics, and with wonderful clean and bright production from Jeff Tweedy of Wilco. ‘Clarence White’ and ‘Plastic Cup’ are highlights, with Mimi Parker contributing more songs than she usually does – though nothing to quite match her finest work like ‘Laser Beam’. This is a brighter, warmer Low, though still with an undercurrent of malice and darkness. Special mention to Alan Sparhawk’s other band Retribution Gospel choir who released their third LP with just two tracks – both 20 minute garage rock freakouts that manage the impressive feat of actually being quite enjoyable to listen to.
7. Arcade Fire – Reflektor
An uneven album which categorically does not need to be as long as it is, but after a few listens starts to work its Haitian voodoo magic. Turning their back on alt rock/chamber pop tropes which were in danger of running out of steam after three albums, they’ve embraced a more rhythmic approach. Whilst it wasn’t quite the dance rock monster I was expecting when I heard LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy was producing, I got over my disappointment quickly enough and started to appreciate this record for what it was. At its best ‘Reflektor’ brings all the drama and borderline pomposity that made previous Arcade Fire albums great and adds some new elements which if anything succeed in toning down their increasingly preachy lyrics. Yes we all know the internet might be alienating us from the things that really matter in life (or maybe it isn’t), but how does an album focussing on that subject drag us back to reality? Surely another ‘Funeral’ with its unmatched elevation of the humdrum business of life and death with one’s family would be a better antidote. Overall though, this is a big tasty alternative rock album which brings some welcome new influences to my ears.
8. The Field – Cupid’s Head
Previous Field albums have contained one or two standout tracks for me, and then a few more which I struggle to recall. ‘Cupid’s Head’ feels much more of a piece. Not bringing anything noticeably different to the gradual evolution in Axel Wilner’s sound since his debut six years ago. This is sequenced techno with vocal samples, meticulous in its sound and arrangement, patient in how it introduces changes. Not grabbing frantically for your attention, content to ride the wave of its own sonic world until you choose to tune in. The absolute standout is ‘Black Sea’ 11 minutes of throbbing, juddering samples (seemingly of guitars) which sound like a million other electronic tracks but somehow seem to perfect those that have gone before. Halfway through a complete transition in the track manages to sneak up on you, a throbbing bassline takes over, and the whole mood of the track changes to become more sinister. Epic. ‘Cupid’s Head’ bypasses considerations about whether electronic music needs to innovate to be truly great and simply works. Everything in its place.
9. Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
My favourite Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds album is ‘The Best of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’, as Alan Partridge once almost said. It’s odd that I see someone so renowned as an auteur as something of a singles act. Push the Sky Away breaks the pattern. There’s no obvious ‘hit’, no clear standout – although the sweeping strings of ‘Jubilee Street’ tend to be the first sound that comes to mind. This is much more of a mood piece of an album. The supernatural figures, historical allusions, and classical characters of previous albums take a back to seat to more modern considerations like the Higgs Boson. This sounds much more like that work of a bloke who lives in Hove than some otherworldly gothic nutter – but is no worse for it.
10. Sam Amidon – Bright Sunny South
Amidon continues his path of unearthing and reinterpreting American folk music from the not too distant past, mixed in with a couple of modern pop songs (previously he’s covered R Kelly, this time Mariah Carey). Bright Sunny South feels much more like a live band playing together in a room compared to 2010’s ‘I See The Sign’ which was my favourite album that year and featured much more lush orchestration by Nico Muhly, electronic flourishes, and had the feel of a ‘studio record’. I guess I preferred that approach because parts of this record left me a bit cold – not least the ‘skronky free jazz sax solo’ which seems to be A Thing at the moment. Parts of it are gorgeous though ‘My Old Friend’, is a highlight with its bright sunny guitars building gently to a well earned climactic stomp. Great lazy afternoon music from a consistently interesting musician. I’d love to hear an album of original compositions by Amidon, if he ever felt like putting pen to paper.
Honourable mentions (in no order):
Julia Holter’s ‘Loud City Song’ for its unashamedly art pop songs about hats.
My Bloody Valentine’s ‘MBV’ for existing at all and for not being an absolute train wreck.
The Music Tapes ‘Mary’s Voice’ for being a minor otherworldly masterpiece.
Fuck Buttons ‘Slow Focus’ for being a new Fuck Buttons album.
Youth Lagoon ‘Wondrous Bughouse’ for being like a natural successor to Mercury Rev’s finest work.
Mat Riviere ‘Not Even Doom Music’ for being a wonderful, more widescreen take on his unique approach to songwriting.
The Focus Group ‘The Elektrik Carousel’ for being another great instalment in their unique ‘what the future sounded like in the past’ collage.
Autechre ‘Exai’ for being two hours of new Autechre music.
Land of Kush ‘The Big Mango’ for being an epic avant-jazz tribute to the Arab Spring.
Quiet Marauder ‘Men’ for being a baffling, hilarious, ludicrously ambitious tribute to the world’s second most popular gender.
Disappointing, must do better:
Four Tet ‘Beautiful Rewind’ – in which Kieran Hebden tries to reinvent jungle and makes a record I don’t want to listen to again, despite having good bits.
David Bowie ‘The Next Day’ – it’s not terrible, but if hadn’t come a decade after his last effort it wouldn’t be getting anywhere near the acclaim it’s had. Overlong, plodding in parts, lyrically it’s funny at times when I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to be. Some great moments on there but not as many as 2002’s ‘Heathen’, a much better late period Bowie record which probably got overlooked because it only took three years to make.
The Knife ‘Shaking the Habitual’ – seriously, what the fuck was this supposed to be?