The Null Device
And, with the end of the second plague year, here is the annual list of noteworthy records of the year:
- Damon Albarn — The Nearer The Fountain, More Pure The Stream Flows (BandCamp)
First, I must confess to not having been a fan of Albarn, whom I had mostly written off, for understandable reasons, as an insufferable pillock. There was, of course, his time fronting the second least interesting band of the Britpop Band Wars, surfing the tidal wave of hype that buried forward-looking currents of British independent music under the dredged-up mud of sixeventies guitar rock, and ushered in a retrograde era of Mod cosplay and union-jack kitsch that prefigured the boomer tantrum of Brexit, and of course the various tics of his stage persona—the risible mockney accent, the appropriation of (a caricature of) English working-class identity—which gave the impression of a glib chancer, or what the psychologist Erich Fromm would call a marketing character, wafer-thin and existing entirely in the media. As such, I was pleasantly surprised by his solo album, which is quite a subtle work of introspective melancholia.
Albarn's connections to Iceland had been well known (he scored Baltasar Kormákur's 00s hipster comedy 101 Reykjavík, co-owned (briefly, it turns out) a trendy bar off Laugavegur, and in the Britpop era, there were apparently jokes on Icelandic TV about Reykjavík being full of babies with the patronymic Damonsson), though mostly seemed to have been coterminous with Iceland being fashionable, in the era between Björk's imperial phase and post-crash mass tourism. It turns out that Albarn's connection to Iceland is an enduring one; he wrote the album at his piano, looking out of the window at Mount Esja at the home near Reykjavík where he had lived for 24 years. And the connection to Iceland does show; not in a superficial way—there are no touristcore Sigur Rós pastiches here—but in a more subtle sense of space, and introspection that comes from spending time there; it is a country where one spends a lot of time, for better or worse, with one's thoughts.
The opening, and title, track begins with atmospheric strings; soon, Albarn's voice, aged and weary in a way somewhat reminiscent of late-period David Bowie, comes in, singing a quite lovely song, apparently of mourning to a lost loved one. The second track, The Cormorant, with its home-organ percussion and piano, is reminiscent of Radiohead circa Pyramid Song, or perhaps the oblique jazz-rock Bowie made while concealing Death's cold hand on his shoulder. The pace picks up with Royal Morning Blue, propelled forward by a 4/4 beat and driving bassline, and sounding like a closing-credits track. A highlight, in my opinion, would probably be The Tower of Montevideo, which with its home-organ beat, bandoneon riff and jazz saxophone, expresses longing for something gone in the language of magic realism.
The Nearer The Fountain is a lush yet stark work of ethereal beauty and artistic maturity, the work of an artist who has outgrown the hype and found a voice outside the marketing machine. Still, you may as well savour it, just in case his next creative endeavour is a Gorillaz NFT or something.
- Cong Josie — Cong! (BandCamp), and Viagra Boys — Welfare Jazz
Two different records, from opposite parts of the world, arriving, in their own ways, in similar territory; both are grounded in post-punk/new-wave takes on rock'n'roll, and both explore a demimonde of deviant or transgressive hypermasculinity. Cong Josie, the alter-ego of Nic Oogjes, of Melbourne party-rockers NO ZU, exploring a sort of Lynchian netherworld of outlaw masculinity, like Suicide working with Angelo Badalamenti, or perhaps a more muscular version of
Jarvis CockerDarren Spooner's Relaxed Muscle project, with songs with titles like I Want A Man and Leather Whip; saxophones bray over strictly sequenced synths and drum-machine handclaps, with Cong (or is it Josie?) playing a rockabilly crooner like a minor character from a David Lynch film, yelping and cooing in a libidinous frenzy. One notable song, Wedding Bells, recapitulates an almost lost tradition of rock'n'roll death ballads, in an anachronistically new-wave style.
Viagra Boys (not to be confused with the Icelandic band Vagina Boys), meanwhile, are a Swedish post-punk band. Welfare Jazz, as the name suggests, is an album with a concept, a slightly prurient sort of tour of a sensationalised underclass, played in the first-person by the artists in songs like Ain't Nice and Creatures. Coming from Sweden and its rock culture, it's probably a safe bet that the inspiration may come from Sweden's own raggare subculture, a sort of home-grown rockabilly petrolhead hooliganism that fetishises the idea of 1950s America. It's perhaps for the best that this doesn't extend to the music, because as anyone who has spent much time in earshot of a major thoroughfare in Sweden near the end of a month will attest, raggare music is awful, being essentially a beer-hall schlager with artificial Elvis flavouring. Viagra Boys, meanwhile, draw inspiration post-punk and new wave in general, including once again Suicide; there's probably more krautrock here than schlager. Oh, and there's also a quite decent cover of The Moldy Peaches' redneck misfit love anthem In Spite Of Ourselves.
- William Doyle — Great Spans of Muddy Time (BandCamp)
The latest release by Doyle, formerly known as East India Youth, takes a turn into introspective, pastoral art-rock. The product of a hard drive crash, a forced abandonment of perfectionism when reassembling the pieces; and, of course, a product of the current zeitgeist (the title comes from a phrase describing periods of depression heard in a gardening programme Doyle was watching, though it equally describes the formlessness of time during this pandemic), it feels, perhaps appropriately, like a disjointed work, going from Eno-esque new-wave to meandering instrumentals and a mechanical clangour to warm electronics; from too much feeling to an unsettled void. The opening track, I Need To Keep You In My Life, is all warm synth arpeggios and aching sincerity; And Everything Changed (But I Feel Alright) feels Bowie-esque, either his Berlin period or Outside. The standout track, though, would, in my opinion, be Nothing At All, fading in with sweeping strings, jittery electronics and home-organ percussion, and taking a very English resignation and blowing it up to a cinematic grandeur. Not a perfect record, but one whose imperfections are a testament of our current time out of joint.
- FRITZ — Pastel (BandCamp)
Tilly Murphy, of Newcastle, Australia, is FRITZ, and brings us a blast of pure indiepop euphoria, driven by crunchy riffs, catchy melodies, lush walls of fuzz and a beat you can dance to. There are more than echoes of C86/Sarah-era UK indiepop, the New York-centred C86 revival of a decade or two ago, as well as Australian 90s alternative pop like The Hummingbirds and Deadstar and with a hint of shoegaze in places; as far as more recent artists go, one could file FRITZ alongside the likes of Alvvays, beabadoobee or Spunsugar.
The album wastes no time in setting the mood with its opening track, Sweetie, kicking off with a barrage of crunchy guitar riffs, before Murphy's voice floats in a few bars later. It's followed by Arrow, a huge indie-pop anthem DJs would play to get everyone back on the floor. She's Gonna Hate Me is another adrenaline barrage of a song, in a Ramones-meets-Pastels vein, with vocals floating almost shoegazily over the maelstrom, and Gracie, Forgive Me sounds a bit like The Vaselines or someone. Die Happily slows down the pace a little going almost into ballad territory, an angular, insistent guitar riff opening into a lush chorus. U Keep Me Alive could be a lost Field Mice song, except for the extreme insectile AutoTune on the vocal, which, oddly, works. The final track, Jan 1, is everything you'd expect from a good closing track: starting slowly and building to a euphoric hands-in-the-air climax. Pure pop perfection; it's a pity that Indietracks is no longer, as I could see FRITZ tearing the roof off the outdoor stage as the sun set over the railway. In any case, an artist to keep an eye on.
- Halsey — If I Can't Have Love, I Want Power
The most recent record for pop artist Halsey takes a turn for the darker, as the title, and Game Of Thrones-esque cover artwork, suggest. In it, she worked with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and the collaboration has borne fruit, as this is a work of smouldering intensity, whilst remaining in the form of well-written pop music; pop for a postapocalyptic wasteland. Opening with The Tradition, a slow, piano-driven track heavy with indictment; from there, it only escalates. Bells In Santa Fe brings a cinematic, electronic pulse, and foreshadowing lyrics, informing you that this is not a happy ending. Lilith lopes in on a breakbeat, with an air of ambiguous, almost Lynchian, seductive menace; Girl Is A Gun floats diffidently on skittering drum'n'bass beats and manic electronic pulses, as if soundtracking a gunfight in an action film, and You Asked For This brings us back to alternative-rock territory, not far from Placebo or Garbage. Then there's some country-adjacent finger-picking (Darling), and another stark piano-and-electronics-driven ballad (1121; one of the album's strongest points), some Disintegration-era-Cure-adjacent rock (Honey). I Am Not A Woman, I'm A God, other than staking out an audacious manifesto, goes perhaps the closest to Nine Inch Nails territory with its industrial beat. Then there's the dirty blues of The Lighthouse, and, finally, a ballad (Ya'aburnee), backed by muted guitars and equally muted electronics, which, in its foreboding gloom, is the If I Can't Have Love universe's closest thing to a love song; one could, at a stretch, call it a postapocalyptic version of The Postal Service's Such Great Heights. All this sounds like it could well be gratuitous, but Halsey's songcraft and delivery hold it up, there is a pain and passion there, not to mention an artful way with words. Even the darkest timeline needs its well-made pop tunes.
- Hazy Mountains — Pull Of The Moon (BandCamp)
Hazy Mountains is Julian Prott from Dortmund, Germany, who makes warm yet chilled-out electronica with an atmospheric, almost shoegazey aesthetic. They have been doing this for 10 years, apparently starting in the chillwave scene in the heady blog-house days of 2011, though I only learned of them this year with this album, which immediately grabbed me. 10 tracks of electronic instrumentals (some with vocal samples). In some ways, the closest comparison might be The Avalanches, only this is without the six-figure sample-clearance bill or guest rappers. Expect to hear warm pads, samples gradually easing in through filters, beats that are never overwhelming, and the odd burst of 70s-vintage disco-funk, French-filter-style, only more understated.
- Mdou Moctar — Afrique Victime (BandCamp)
Mdou Moctar is a Touareg guitarist, singer and bandleader from Niger, who was mostly playing weddings before coming to the attention of the psychedelic-rock crowd. His music is in the Touareg-desert-blues tradition that is reasonably well known now, combining that with psychedelic currents in a heady concoction, reminiscent in places of Amon Düül II or Goat. The opener, Chismiten, starts with a whirling dervish of overdriven guitars and hypnotic drumming, which accelerates as it hurtles towards its end. The hypnotic mood continues in the slightly more languid Taliat. and the serpentine groove of Ya Habibti. Other highlights include Layla, with a seemingly simple guitar figure, raw and arid, morphing into hypnotic polyrhythms, and the fuzzed-out wig-out of the title track that brings its own thunderclouds as it speeds into kosmische territory. A record best enjoyed lying on one's back in a darkened room with good speakers.
- Saint Etienne — I've Been Trying To Tell You (BandCamp)
Nostalgia is not new territory to Saint Etienne; they made their mark combining the sounds of post-acid-house club-pop with the shagadelic-60s retro references that ran through the Britpop era like the writing in a stick of Brighton Rock. Somehow they managed to avoid both being subsumed into the retrograde revivalism that culminated in Pretty Green menswear and the stratum of undifferentiable landfill indie, and the eerier currents of hauntology that led, via Broadcast, to Ghost Box and ultimately the folk-horror dystopia of Scarfolk, instead settling in the vicinity of a wistfully optimistic midcentury civic modernism. Their latest record comes from that optimism, though this time untethered from the usual pre-Thatcherite milieu and landing in the seemingly endless summer between New Labour and 9/11, a purer, more innocent time, when the world briefly woke up from history. Even its title sounds like a warning, which we obviously failed to heed, to turn back before it's too late. (Whether the nostalgia is for a world before a fall, avoidable or otherwise, or just for the artists' and listeners' youth, of course, is a question for the listener to contemplate.)
The record itself is a work of collage, necessarily created in isolation by the three members (with added contributions from film composer Gus Bousfield), largely from fragments of the music that tween poptimists had on their CD-R Discmans at the time; the post-Spice girl group Honeyz (me neither), and Natalie Imbruglia are two sources. This probably sounds a bit like vaporwave, a genre comprised of samples of Shōwa-era city pop, 80s quiet-storm R&B and shopping-mall background music slowed down, drowned in reverb and digitally mutilated into a haze of nostalgic reverie; indeed, Bob Stanley said that he was influenced by vaporwave and had been listening to it; however, while this uses the tools and techniques of the genre, it eschews its more jarring stylistic elements; this is, after all, Saint Etienne.
The record consists of eight tracks, all somewhat chilled and understated. Beats skitter beneath dubby bassline, with Sarah Cracknell's voice floating in, an ambiguous siren; occasionally a fragment of field recording. Some of the tracks evoke stylish midcentury-modern spaces, like if Orwell's Moon Under Water were a dimly-lit cocktail bar; others (such as Little K) don't sound that far from the imagined informational-film soundtracks of Cate Brooks' The Advisory Circle, though the only ghosts in these wires are those of our younger selves.
As we stare down climate apocalypse, war, resurgent fascism, potential zombie apocalypses and/or Cthulhu only knows how many rona variants yet to come, Saint Et have provided us with a refuge, if only an illusory one.
- The Smallgoods — Lost In The Woods (BandCamp)
The Smallgoods, were a fixture of the Melbourne indie scene of the 00s, with their epically hooky, harmony-rich power-pop; now, some nine years after their farewell gig, they return in fine form. Lost In The Woods had been in the works for a year or two, and it shows, being a somewhat grander proposition than the relatively straight-up guitar-pop of their old records; broader in style and instrumentation, and having picked up extra players (significant among them Janita Foley, of Aleks and the Ramps/Denim Owl).
The opening track, The Hours, opens with a piano and builds from there into the album's first lighters-in-the-air ballad; the pace picks up in the second track, Where've You Been All This Time; propelled by a bongo-driven beat and a guitar line somewhat reminiscent of The Go-Betweens' Streets Of Your Town, it presents a slice of life (apparently a sequel to Good Afternoon, with the philandering salesman of the original meeting the consequences of his actions), in a drily laconic style not far removed from The Lucksmiths, if they had epic choruses in their songs. On With The Show sees The Smallgoods returning to another theme—showbiz—familiar from their previous incarnation, replete with flanged electric piano, synth-brass fanfares and vocal harmonies. Satellite is a slightly more introspective piece of low-key power-pop, rendered lush with shimmering guitars and some elegant chord progressions, building up to something grand; it perhaps sounds the closest to their earlier records. The Last Red Sunday (Fanfare), the penultimate track, is the album's second big ballad, with Foley adding vocals to the chorus, and trumpets in the chorus.
Lost In The Woods is a welcome comeback, and a bold opening to what hopefully will be a fruitful second act for The Smallgoods. It's great to have back; maybe Mid-State Orange can be next?
- St. Christopher — Of Angels and Kings (BandCamp)
They were one of the most beguiling bands on Sarah Records, with a sound far more expansive than one would expect from an indie band from late-1980s York, and a sweeping, at times oblique, widescreen romanticism equally far from the C86-era milieu. After Sarah, they released a few records and played the odd gig (I recall them tearing the roof off the 100 Club in Soho some years ago), though otherwise maintained silence. Of Angels And Kings, their first record in 10 years, dropped with little announcement. The first impression is that it's a lot louder and skronkier than their Sarah-period output; literally the first thing you hear is an overdriven guitar. Glenn Melia's voice soon comes in, lithe as ever, soaring and swooning, though not always managing to stay above the skronk. A few songs in, the shimmer familiar to Sarah-era St. Christopher fans returns, with songs like The Shiver Tree, Stornoway and Ursula showing their trademark cinematic romanticism. (This is a romantic record, though less the teenage romance of the rock'n'roll 7" than a courtly romance, in Technicolor on the big screen.) The record reaches a peak with the penultimate sort-of-title track, Everybody Loves The Rain, before bringing the house down with One Star Too Many. It's good to hear from them again.
- Talkshow Boy — Limitless Light (BandCamp)
What's this, you say? Could it be that the renegade master is back with the ill behaviour? Yes, it is. There's probably a parallel universe where Talkshow Boy kept going apace, independently inventing PC Music-style hyperpop after the maximalism of his tracks reached a critical mass (after all, both he and A. G. Cook are the cultural heirs of breakcore enfant terrible kid606). In this universe, though, he eschews the hypersaturated ultragloss, keeping it lo-fi, but instead leaning into breakbeats, 8-bit sound chips, granular noise, though at times skirting hyperpop territory, or perhaps threatening to crash its party.
Limitless Light kicks off with All-Time Low, a nostalgic lament turned into a dancefloor workout. The title track comes in, starting with glitched breakbeats, then turning into a pop song and piling on the layers. (r)aëlian boy, one of the few pop songs referencing a UFO cult, is a relatively mellow number, propelled by a bouncy bassline and the usual digital noise, followed by Unclimbable Mountain, a more upbeat track which starts sounding like something from one of Talkshow Boy's earlier records, before tapering into more dubby territory. Other tracks of note are Unwinnable Gameshow, a foray into the sonic possibilities of the Commodore 64 SID chip, using its waveforms with Talkshow Boy's usual stylistic mania, and the closing track We're Camf (KP instrumental mix) (which I'm guessing may be a reference to the late Daphne Camf, of Rat Vs. Possum/NO ZU/SaD), which is as close to straight-ahead house as Talkshow Boy gets.
- Vanishing Twin — Ookii Gekkou (BandCamp)
Through their tenure, London's Vanishing Twin have made a name for themselves as heirs to the stylistic tradition inaugurated by the late Broadcast, and with good reason; they have similar elements (the combination of analogue electronics and chromatic percussion, reference points in midcentury incidental music, library jazz and the avant-garde ends of pop, and Cathy Lucas' voice sounds in places not unlike Trish's), and this is perhaps even more so in their latest release, which is one of the groovier records of the year. The title meaning “big moonlight” in Japanese, which is also the title track, a seductive lead-in drawing one through the veil to the liminal zone, its polyrhythms giving a subtle feeling of disorientation. Phase 1 Million with its wah guitar and cowbell-led groove, sounds a bit like some of the funkier incidental music in The Goodies. Zuum sounds like Can scoring an Irwin Allen B-movie, with a snake-charmer's oboe floating above a myriad of bleeps and bloops and Valentina Magalotti's funky drumming; The Organism stays in this sci-fi world, and In Cucina moves to other cinematic genres. Other highlights are the vocoder-driven kinetic jazz-funk of Light Vessel, the jittery groove of Tub Erupt and the final track, The Lift, bringing the record to a climax of angular yet fluid kraut-funk. A big leap forward for Vanishing Twin, who in future will be cited as an influence in the way that Broadcast or Stereolab are.
With honourable mentions going to: Adult Oriented Pop, 06:15 AM (a band from Stockholm, doing maximalist psychedelic-pop grooves, somewhere between M83, Tame Impala and Mild High Club, with references to Crowleyan occultism), Astral Brain, The Bewildered Mind (another Swedish band, sounding somewhere between The Advisory Circle and a more summery Death And Vanilla), Caligula, Broken (in the 90s, Caligula were a sort of Australian answer to Curve, combining shoegaze and madchester stylings for a domestic audience; their comeback, Broken, in its maximalist bombast, is the record Australia will win Eurovision 2022 with if they have the good sense to enter it), CHAI, Wink (the Japanese indie band's new one is glossy yet slightly lo-fi, combining crunchy breakbeats, chiptune arpeggios and the smoothness of city-pop), Clairo, Sling (dreamy and sometimes baroque folk-pop with a touch of Laurel Canyon about it), Dummy, Mandatory Enjoyment (choppy guitars, motorik beats and transistor organs, a bit like early Stereolab in places), Dry Cleaning, New Long Leg (spoken-word over angular new-wave rock like a London Life Without Buildings), Haiku Salut, The Hill, The Light, The Ghost (the Haikus' latest record is a more meditative, subtle affair, filled with space; mostly driven by piano, strings and tuned percussion, though with some of the glitchy electronics of their prior works), Heligoland, This Quiet Fire (the Melbourne-via-Paris band's latest record is their richest yet, at once substantial and ethereal; you can just about tell it's produced by Robin Guthrie, though that doesn't overwhelm Karen's voice or the band's musical direction), Alice Hubble, Hexentanzplatz (Hubble swaps nuns for witches and builds on her previous work; the album and sounds much as its name suggests; kosmische synthpop with an European disco sensibility), Japanese Breakfast, Jubilee (subtle electronic pop; surely you've heard it), Hollie Kenniff, The Quiet Drift (dreampop doesn't come any dreamier than this; an enveloping blend of strings, vocals and reverb-drenched electronics that makes the Cocteau Twins sound like Black Sabbath by comparison), HTRK, Rhinestones (HTRK explore country/americana, sort of), Kero Kero Bonito, Civilization II (technically a 3-track EP, but also the second half of an album, whose more ominous first half came out last year; two upbeat J-pop-styled tracks and seven minutes of euphoric house), The KVB, Unity (Angular new-wave electropop the odd choppy guitar and architectonic/modernistic affectations, with titles like "Sunrise Over Concrete" and "Structural Index" and lyrics like "modular factory living"; influences would be Kraftwerk, OMD, New Order and Le Corbusier), Loney Dear, A Lantern And A Bell (Loney Dear & co. finally recorded their great new songs, though in a sparse, stripped-down form; I wrote more about it here), Makthaverskan, För Allting (the Gothenburg indie combo are back; lush guitar-based indiepop with elements of shoegaze), Massage, Still Life (classic indiepop with a touch of shoegaze, with echoes of The Field Mice/Mary Chain/1000 Violins/Milk Teddy), Meemo Comma, Neon Genesis: Soul Into Matter² (mostly ambient digital electronica/IDM/musique concrète inspired by the eponymous anime series and Jewish mysticism), Mr Twin Sister, Al Mundo Azul (a sleek, swaggering slice of dancefloor euphoria with echoes of 80s Miami from the Long Island indie band, better known for their hazy reverie), Monnone Alone, Stay Foggy (Marky & co.'s latest; catchy pop songs with a mildly psychedelic fug of fuzz), Nation Of Language, A Way Forward (coruscating, motorik yet romantic electronica proudly wearing its new-wave synthpop influences on its sleeve), Noda Yûki,Soda Sickness (a five-track EP of playful yet groovy instrumental electronica, recorded by the composer whilst confined, for some reason, to his Osaka home last year, unpretentiously titled things like Broken Refrigerator and Boy And Cat), Geoffrey O'Connor, For As Long As I Can Remember (the Melbourne sophistipop artist's latest is a collection of duets, with the likes of Laura Jean, Nicole Thibault and Sui Zhen; it's also a pandemic record, of course, so emotionally much of it is wistfully reminiscent of better times; expect smooth sounds and the odd arch lyric), Hannah Peel, Fir Wave (lush, luminous, evocative analogue electronic ambience, with samples from Delia Derbyshire's radiophonic compositions), Still Corners, The Last Exit (if Twin Peaks was set in the US Southwest, this is what the soundtrack would sound like), Swansea Sound, Live At The Rum Puncheon (a C86-era supergroup, with Hue from The Pooh Sticks, Ian from Death In Vegas and Amelia and Rob from everywhere else, bring indiepop with tongue firmly in cheek; features the hit* single ”I Sold My Soul On eBay”), Tape Waves, Bright (lush, fuzz-driven dreampop, an equal distance from Galaxie 500, Yo La Tengo and Lovesliescrushing), Jane Weaver, Flock (Weaver, who had the record of 2014 here, leans fully into pop whilst maintaining her usual cosmic avant-garde sensibilities; where else would you find post-Spice sassy R&B-pop referencing Hammer horror films; the closing track, Solarised, stands out in particular).
How would I describe this year musically? Well, the rona is still raging, and people are somehow making their own adaptations. There's perhaps a lot of introspection in music and arts, as adventures in the outside world give way to those in inner space. My list of noteworthy music could well have been different had there been more gigs or festivals to attend.
As every year, there were records I only discovered after the fact, which were not eligible for this year's list. This year, perhaps my most noteworthy discovery was an artist named yeule; they're from Singapore, nonbinary, and currently (I think) based in London. The music they make is a glitchy, ethereal electropop that sounds somewhere between Björk, cuushe and Briana Marela. Anyway, their 2019 album Serotonin II was a big revelation; they have a new album coming out next year, which I look forward to.
There is a Spotify playlist (of the tracks that were available there) here.