The Null Device
With 2015 drawing to a close, it's once again time for a list of the records of the year, so here it is:
- Belle & Sebastian — Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance
I have written more about this record here. In short, Belle & Sebastian continue to get more polished, add an EDM direction to a few of their tracks, and Stuart keeps his eye on the ladies. The rebetiko knees-up of The Everlasting Muse is probably the big surprise, though from sequencer-pulsed disco to string-saturated misfit melancholia, it's all good.
- Braids — Deep In The Iris (BandCamp link)
A new band originally from Calgary, Canada, Braids started off doing shoegaze but their sound has evolved since, taking more from the more syncopated and glitchy ends of electronica; Deep In The Iris combines grand piano, layers of electronic instruments and effects (reverbs and various forms of aliasing are used to interesting textural effect), breakbeats (and the drummer's amazing talent for mimicking a speeding MPC-1000 chopping up the Amen break, as evident at their live shows) and the frontwoman's voice, powerful and yet intimate. Highlights include Miniskirt, a piece of rage against sexism over layers of subtle yet glitchy electronics, which sounds like a post-rave Sinead O'Connor.
- Brideshead — Never Grow Up (BandCamp link)
If you have fond memories of the previous post-C86 indiepop scene—not the recent Brooklyn-based one with its fuzzy guitars and mildly gothy affectations, but the circumbaltic one, with jangly guitars, trumpets, handclaps and naïvely upbeat lyrics about love, music, the love of music, and music formats as metaphors for romantic love—this record is for you. Brideshead, formed in the 1990s in Wiesbaden, Germany, and influenced by the wave of indiepop coming out of Britain in the 1980s and the Swedish indie scene of the 1990s), were one of the bands on the German label Apricot (who also had Spearmint and Eggstone on their roster), and their aptly titled 2015 reunion album recaptures the summery feel of that soberingly long-past zeitgeist. (They even have one song, At 45 RPM, using the vinyl recording medium as a metaphor for romantic relationships, which is perhaps the most indiepop song concept possible.) File alongside The Electric Pop Group, Math And Physics Club and other popkids who keep the sound alive.
- Death And Vanilla — To Where The Wild Things Are (BandCamp link)
After having taken and perfected post-C86 indiepop, balearic electro, house music and synthpop, the Swedes turn their attention to that most English of genres, hauntology, or so the Ghost Box-esque cover art promises. The music itself follows that direction with some minor changes; there are no samples of old public-information films or received-pronounciation-accented voices saying unsettling things, and the mood is somewhere between Angelo Badalamenti's David Lynch collaborations and the brief and underrecognised wave of records that straddled the gap between trip-hop and hauntology (think Parsley Sound and the like). Death and Vanilla, the Malmö band responsible, have their roots in Scandinavia's black metal scene (and get their name from a Nick Cave lyric), though you wouldn't know it from the instrumentation; vibraphones, clunking bass guitar notes and fuzzy analogue synths underpin the sleepy valium-infused vocals.
- Holly Herndon — Platform
A leftfield record in several ways. Herndon (who has studied experimental electronic music at the graduate level) builds up tracks using samples of her own voice, as well as other sounds, processed through custom Max/MSP patches; chopped up, layered and reconstituted in a granular fashion. In some cases, the result is the popular song form by other means; in others, it's textural pieces. Sonically, much of Platform's palette consists of the human voice; sometimes it's reconstituted, chopped up and layered electronically into abstract forms; at other times, it's straight, (sometimes sounding more like choral, liturgical or early music; in particular, Unequal); the rest consists of abstract digital sounds (synthesizer drones, glitchy percussion) and fragments of samples, often ambiguously small. Don't expect something unlistenably difficult; while this is not, strictly speaking, pop (and it does make other leftfield pop acts like Björk and Grimes sound like Taylor Swift by comparison, by virtue of its unusual construction; though perhaps the hit factories of LA and Stockholm are retooling as we speak), the elements somehow coalesce, like a particle system of sound, to form some undeniably banging tunes. The themes also lean towards the leftfield: in Locker Leak, disembodied voices utter vaguely commercial-sounding nonsequiturs over Herndon's granular choral vocals and glitchy beats; Lonely At The Top, with ASMR artist Clare Tolan performing the vocals, is an imagined ASMR stimulation/therapy programme for oligarchs in need of relaxation, and Home touches on mass surveillance and the violation of having one's activities and innermost thoughts monitored by algorithms. Stylistically, though, Holly Herndon has invented a new futurism; the old ideas of what sounds cutting-edge no longer apply.
- Julia Holter — Have You In My Wilderness
Subtle yet maximalist baroque pop; there's a lot happening, but it doesn't get overwhelming. Equal parts Björk and Laurel Canyon, with more than a touch of Jherek Bischoff—esque orchestral sumptuousity; the sonic palette mostly eschews overtly electronic-sounding timbres, in favour of the orchestral; pianos, harpisichords, double bass and a surfeit of strings make their appearance, with judicious use of reverb. Highlights would be the opener, Feel You, and and the languid Lucette Stranded On The Island.
- Jenny Hval — Apocalypse, girl (BandCamp link)
Norwegian avant-gardist Jenny Hval's latest album sounds like a therapy session set to music; Hval's vocal delivery varies from spoken-word to jazz vocals; she sings over electronic beats, sequenced synthesizer lines and other instruments; as the title suggests, the album deals with femininity, sexuality and the human condition, in a way that is wry, confessional and at times transgressive (example line: “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”). The final track, Holy Land, is sublimely lovely: well worth listening to the end of its 10 minutes.
- Briana Marela — All Around Us (BandCamp link)
I had the good fortune of seeing Briana Marela play at St. John's in Hackney, following Let's Eat Grandma, and bought the record on the strength of that. Marela, from Seattle, builds up rather lovely pop songs with loops of her voice and adding beats, melodic lines and subtle electronics on her laptop, with judicious use of reverb and delay. The songs glow and shimmer; they are intimate, introspective and yet encompassing and enveloping; reminiscent somewhat of The Motifs, Pikelet and early New Buffalo, or perhaps what Rose Melberg might have done had she grown up with laptops rather than guitars.
- New Order — Music Complete
Yes, without Peter Hook on bass, as the old joke goes, it's not New Order, it's The Other Two plus Barney; and the matter is complicated by Hooky suing the band essentially for going on under their existing name without him (they tried renaming themselves to Bad Lieutenant, but abandoned that plan in the face of a massive lack of interest). Nonetheless, Music Complete lives up to the cocky swagger of its title, and is perhaps the first New Order album in several decades to produce a palpable sense of excitement. This is mostly because they go back to what was their forte: combining ambiguous post-punk rock with copious amounts of euphoric electronics. The second track, Singularity recaptures the spiky edge of LowLife. After that, the album goes a bit Moroder, which, from New Order, can only be a very good thing; layers of precise electronic rhythms and textures like grids of coloured light. The midpoint of the album is Stray Dog, a tense instrumental, sounding like something off a film soundtrack, with a grizzled Iggy Pop delivering a spoken-word piece meditating on love and happiness, after which the guitars come back for a few tracks. The penultimate track provides a soaring climax, but the album is closed by Superheated, a breezy pop song whose staccato sequencer evokes early OMD. If you can live without Hooky's low-slung, high-played basslines, you may find this to be New Order's strongest album since the 1980s.
- Oh Peas! — Difficult Second Chair (BandCamp link)
“Sausage roll in the glovebox on the 2:01 to Bristol, the driver's looking at the road”, the opening track, Broke Yr Tv, begins over reverb-drowned guitar, before the song kicks in, a choppy strum, a Field Mice-esque bass guitar and drum machine and a Casiotone keyboard accompanying Rosie Smith's bell-clear soprano. The rest of the album consists of lo-fi skronk, new-wave angularity, echoes of vintage rock'n'roll, the odd nice pop melody, layers of multitracked bedroom-pop instruments, introspective spoken-word and a panoply of quotidian observations and clever plays of words (“the loneliness of the long-distance bus journey” being one example, and, indeed, the title being another). With her earlier work, she managed to catch the attention of no less than Euros Childs, and not only ended up playing support for his gigs, but getting him to sing and play Casio keyboard on one of the tracks.
- Tame Impala — Currents
The new album from the Australian psych-rock project which has been rocking festivals for the past few years is a lushly produced affair, combining elements of funk, dance music, yacht rock and perhaps even Bollywood scores in with its acid-bleached guitar and synth fuzz. Thematically, it is very much in the psychedelic tradition of being about internal, subjective experiences; Kevin Parker, the veteran psychonaut buffeted by the swirls and eddies of life, piecing together his seared psyche and writing catchy pop songs about it. Let It Happen foreshadows some ambiguous yet momentous change just under 8 minutes motorik beats, processed vocals and layers of synths; the second track, Nangs, is like an impressionist painting rendered in prog-psych electronica. Yes I'm Changing is a letter to someone (a friend? a partner/lover?) outlining why he must move on, half bidding goodbye, half inviting them to come along. Past Life is the album at its Bee Gees-esque apex of too-slow-to-disco smoothness; a song about unexpectedly seeing an old ex in the street shattering one's contentment with one's present-day routine, extended into four minutes of synth arpeggios, finger snaps and chorused and pitch-shifted vocals. (One could draw comparisons to Hissing Fauna/Satanic Panic-period Of Montreal, only without the perviness and period stylings.)
- Tigercats — Mysteries
Tigercats' second album is a more polished and (slightly) smoother affair (the B-side cover of Fleetwood Mac's Everywhere they did before recording it perhaps having foreshadowed the shift of influences). The opening track, Junior Champion, sets the scene with a shaker and two guitars leading into a languid ballad, using chess as a metaphor. Later, the groovy, synth-driven Wheezer goes further towards making a case for Tigercats as the true heirs to Architecture In Helsinki, and Sleeping In The Backseat is the album's big pop single.
YACHT — I Thought The Future Would Be Cooler
YACHT are the late-period Boing Boing of electro art-rave; very LA, compulsively futurismic, playful, somewhat cartoonish, and mixing subversiveness with unapologetic commercialism. Their latest album is no exception: gorgeously produced, multi-coloured, multi-layered chopped'n'screwed post-DFA electro-rave brain candy. The theme, as the title suggests, is technomalaise, partly in a where's-my-rocket-car Jetsons-kitsch sense, and partly in a Google/Facebook/NSA/email-spam weltschmerz sense. On listening to it one does get a sense of cartoonish flatness, of mashing up various levels as if they were semantically neutral ingredients; hence we get lyrics referencing Tinder ennui and drone strikes alongside each other. Because of this flatness, it's hard to tell where the boundaries between irony and sincerity, and between critique and complicity, lie; as one example, the album was promoted by being made available whenever the much-criticised predatory transport broker Uber had surge pricing in LA; whether this was a cross-promotion, critique, the former disguised as the latter or vice versa, is an open question. The album has its highlights: the opener, Miles And Miles, is an eight-minute electro juggernaut; War On Women suspends the postmodern irony to make a serious point, and I Want To Fuck You Till I'm Dead (in which Claire waxes poetic about her intentions for the second person, who, one gets the impression, is a really hench yet soulful twentysomething “creative entrepreneur” of some sort in London) has the playfulness of a lost Talkshow Boy song.
Honourable mentions include: Alpine — Yuck (the Melbourne band move from the Scandinavian-Balearic sounds of their earlier work towards a more laptop-R&B vibe), Beach House - Depression Cherry (lush and enveloping; a fine successor to Bloom; BandCamp), Björk — Vulnicura (an exorcism of the sundering of her relationship with her long-time partner, from the first doubts to the terrible, numb aftermath—the whole Kübler-Ross; lush yet harrowing), The Catenary Wires — Red Red Skies (Amelia Fletcher and her husband and long-time bandmate Rob Pursey's latest project eschews the indiepop shimmy and skronk for a more understated and (dare one say) mature vibe, somewhere between old country 78s and the Go-Betweens; Throw Another Love Song On The Fire would be the standout track), Courtney Barnett — Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit (wordy indie songwriting in a distinctly Australian voice over real rock riffs, somewhere between The Lucksmiths, Pavement, Sonic Youth and a coolsie Chisel), Cuushe — Night Lines (an EP of tastefully chilled electropop grooves from Japan's Cuushe; BandCamp), Desperate Journalist — Desperate Journalist (taut new-wavey indie-rock by numbers; reminiscent of early My Favorite in places), East India Youth — Culture Of Volume (a bit more pop than his debut; Carousel stands out as the highlight), Fever Dream — Moyamoya (some fine shoegaze à la Chapterhouse/MBV from a young London band to watch), Four Tet — Morning/Evening (a 40-minute 2-track EP/album, combining Indian vocals with kosmische analogue synthesizer pulses and making an entrancing work; BandCamp), Grimes — Art Angels (interesting and idiosyncratic hook-laden electronic pop; highlights include Flesh Without Blood and REALiTi), Gwenno — Y Dydd Olaf (Welsh-language haunto-pop, not too far from Broadcast), Haiku Salut — Etch And Etch Deep (the Haikus go on as they started, only (perhaps appropriately) a shade deeper, more intricate and more expansive), Jean-Michel Jarre — Electronica 1: The Time Machine (get your arpeggiator/sequencer/modular-synth fix here), The Leaf Library — Daylight Versions (more languid and contemplative than their previous albums, eschewing (most of) the Stereolabesque motorik buildups of their earlier work in favour of a more pastoral, cozy feeling, with a warm, pre-used sound palette), Martin L. Gore — MG (an instrumental affair, following on from his Vince Clarke collaboration, VCMG, only without the Clarke's dancefloor-friendly influences; i.e., 55 minutes of frosty, vaguely post-Depechey noodling with synths, beats and electronic effects; pairs well with ambiguous footage, ideally in black and white), Pinkshinyultrablast — Everything Else Matters (another good shoegaze record, this time from Russia), Purity Ring — Another Eternity (more witch-house-tinged electropop from the Canadian duo), Sleater-Kinney — No Cities To Love (the riot grrrl pioneers return in fine form), Stealing Sheep — Not Real (playful electropop from Liverpool; the title track is my favourite), Teeth Of The Sea — Highly Deadly Black Tarantula (not too far from Ben Frost, with its post-industrial drones, ominous moods and (perhaps scenery-chewing) obsession with the Burkean sublime that's evident in song titles like Field Punishment and Have You Ever Held A Bird Of Prey; the album closer, Love Theme From 1984, is rather lovely, somewhat reminiscent of New Order's Elegia; BandCamp).
Were I to choose an album of the year, it'd probably be Holly Herndon's Platform, with Briana Marela's All Around Us as a runner-up. There should probably also be a special mention for Björk; while her album didn't finish in the top this year, her influence is on at least three of the albums that did.
Anyway, here is a companion mix on 8tracks.