The Null Device

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And, with the end of the second plague year, here is the annual list of noteworthy records of the year:

  • Damon AlbarnThe 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 JosieCong! (BandCamp), and Viagra BoysWelfare 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 Cocker Darren 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 DoyleGreat 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.

  • FRITZPastel (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.

  • HalseyIf 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 MountainsPull 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 MoctarAfrique 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 EtienneI'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 SmallgoodsLost 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. ChristopherOf 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 BoyLimitless 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 TwinOokii 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.

As for the record of the year? If there were one, it would possibly be Fritz, The Smallgoods or noda yûki.

There is a Spotify playlist (of the tracks that were available there) here.

2021 cds lists music 0


Once again, at the end of this plague year, it's time to recap the music that came out over the past twelve months and soundtracked the year's events, or lack thereof. And while this year has been somewhat more fallow than previous ones, there was still good music, even if one didn't get to see it live. So here, as always, are the noteworthy records of the year:

  • beabadoobeeFake It Flowers (BandCamp)

    Beatrice Laus was born in the Philippines in 2000 and grew up in London, where she writes and plays songs under the name beabadoobee; Fake It Flowers is her debut album, and stylistically has a distinctive 90s alternative feel to it, stylistically echoing the likes of Pearl Jam, Alanis Morisette, Smashing Pumpkins and such. Though not entirely, as this is not 90s alternative music in a historical sense (whose grunginess was a dirty protest against, among other things, the yuppified gloss of corporate rock in the CD era) but 2020s pop drawing on influences from before the author's time, their original context now rendered inert. Also, as a product of the current digital era, this sounds somewhat cleaner and sharper, with the rough edges of 90s grungeternative filed off and details filled in. Bea's voice, varying from soft croon to belting soprano, floats above the overdriven guitar riffs in the way that, say, Kurt Cobain's enraged bawl didn't, and there is an intricacy to the arrangements beyond the immediacy of the 1990s Seattle sound, though above all, the songs all work as pop songs.

    The album starts with Care, whose title, in the grunge tradition, constitutes most of the chorus, belted over chugging riffs, and there's a very short guitar solo that sounds a bit like bagpipes in the break. The following song, Worth It, sounds like Alanis or possibly Avril crossed with You Think it's Like This-period Mirah. Dye It Red plays with hair-colour-as-rebellion (in its own way, as inevitable as Mod-revival bands writing about parkas and scooters), ending with a sweetly-sung “fuck you”. It's followed by a very short and equally charming, almost-acoustic ballad titled Back To Mars, and then Charlie Brown, with its quiet-loud-quiet dynamic. Other highlights include Emo Song, a ballad whose subtle delicacy is belied by the reductionist title, the gently understated Further Away, with its string arrangement, and Horen Sarrison, a wistful daydream of an outsider's love poem set to acoustic guitar and synthesised strings. Bea's love for antifolk singer-songwriters like Kimya Dawson and Daniel Johnston comes through in How Was Your Day?, a stripped-back acoustic number which wouldn't be amiss on K Records back in the day.

    (On a personal note: there is something uncanny about hearing music from one's youth reiterated by a new generation who were born after the fact. The Endless 80s Revival, from 00s Brooklyn electroclash to the ongoing synthwave subgenre, John-Hughes-credits “goth” to FM-radio gloss, was one thing, as that music was in the background of childhood, mostly just out of earshot. Vaporwave as well, with its hypnagogic distillate of music polished and unexciting enough for a million shopping-plaza escalators and other liminal spaces. However, as someone who went to parties where alcohol was consumed and the alternative music this references was on the stereo, the awareness of the passing of time hits a little closer to home. While I enjoy this record far more than I did 90s grunge (much of which, at the time, just sounded wilfully shitty), its presence does remind me of my own advancing age.)

  • Even As We SpeakAdelphi (BandCamp)

    Sydney's Even As We Speak were perhaps the odd one out in the Sarah Records family, their brightly coloured art-school bohemianism standing out in the 1980s British indiepop milieu like a cockatoo among robins. A few years ago, they returned after over two decades' hiatus with an EP; now they follow it up with a full-length album, one announced around a year earlier and alluded to for longer; they had the costumes (silver jumpsuits as if from an old sci-fi TV show) ready for their UK tour in 2018. The wait, however, has been worth it.

    The album opens with Someone, a polished indiepop song with an elegiac quality like Dubstar's “Stars” crossed with The Chandler Estate's Spies (No More); led in by programmed beats, and driven by a falling minor cadence worthy of 70s soul, it nods at midlife melancholy with wryly evocative lyrics. (That minor fall will be heard again in this album; a major lift, not so much.) It is followed by Forgiving, a more upbeat, guitar-driven pop song reminiscent of The Hummingbirds, The Go-Betweens and countless 60s girl groups. The combination of wryness and wistfulness returns in Sun, whose cheerful arrangements belie the ominously enigmatic lyrics in the verses (“give me the key to the garage, I'm building a weapon in there”). while Leaves evokes lost innocence, with Mary's voice accompanied only by what sounds like an accordion. Stronger and Blind play relationship misunderstandings, first as comic farce, then as mundane tragedy. Signs returns to the beat-driven sound of the opening track, climbing through a series of rising key changes whilst rhapsodising esoterically about hidden symbols and landing markers for extraterrestrial gods or similar. The final track, Light, reminds me of The Softies' album closer Perfect Afternoon, both in its melody (though not so much its sound) and its sense of wistful resignation.

    This is a beautifully crafted album, the work of a pop group in their creative prime, with a shadow of autumnal melancholy and a modicum of larrikin mischief, and builds well on their legacy from the Sarah years. The indiepop record of the year. I just hope that the next one doesn't take a few decades.

  • HachikuI'll Probably Be Asleep (BandCamp)

    The debut album from German-born Melbourne artist Anika Ostendorf, who describes her music as “dream pop with an avant-garde twist”, which is fair. Recorded mostly in her bedroom (not counting some live drums), I'll Probably Be Asleep is an at times hypnotic affair, constructed in layers of echoing guitars, Casiotone drum loops, synth pads, miscellaneous melodic lines and the occasional layer of howling feedback, and Ostendorf's vocals floating serenely over it. This is an artefact of the laptop era, of sound as digital layers cut and pasted at will, though gets its aesthetic and philosophical direction not from glossy computerised pop à la PC Music but from Hachiku's indie predecessors, with their Tascam 4-tracks, skronky guitar amps and Casio keyboards played on ironing boards. One could place this somewhere in the (admittedly capacious) space between The Motifs and Kate Bush.

  • I Like TrainsKompromat (BandCamp); SeemingThe Birdwatcher's Guide to Atrocity (BandCamp)

    Two records tackling the zeitgeist of our time (or at least the moment before the pandemic hit). I Like Trains are best known as a post-rock band from Leeds who made a name from epic songs about doomed adventurers and grand historical follies; Kompromat sees them move towards something more immediate, both sonically and thematically. Gone are the grand tragedies framed by sublime cathedrals of sound, and in their stead, a focus on the sinister machinations that led, among other things, to Brexit and the rise of Trump, rendered to a tighter, choppier, more compact sound in a more post-punk vein, its urgent pulse constrasting with the narrator's spoken-word vocals, in a world-weary drawl, telegraphing enigmatic phrases, cut and pasted like ransom note fragments from the shadows; dispatches from a grubby, paranoid, vaguely Le Carré-esque world in which all are compromised and complicit. Who is/are the narrator(s), and what is their propositions and/or threats?

    Seeming, meanwhile, is a project from Alex Reed, a 1990s goth scene veteran from the US (he literally wrote a book on the history of industrial music) who, in his work, has transcended the stylistic signifiers of the subculture, remaining attuned to the dark sublime but from a distinctly humanistic point of view rather than the trollish provocation so often found in the genre. The result is an album themed around the idea of ongoing, unstoppable collapse (ecological, social, political), seen more often than not from the intimate perspective of those living through it. It starts in dramatic fashion with The Fates, an ever-accelerating track structured around a rhythmic illusion, its (live) drumming accelerating before fading to a half-tempo version of itself, and doing it again, ushering in the mood of emergency. Go Small and Someday Lily switch to an intimate perspective; Other highlights include Remember To Breathe, an oasis of serenity in the postapocalyptic maelstrom, repeating its title as a mantra, Permanent, a harrowing pop song, recounting a historical tragedy, then whipping back, with brutal suddenness, to a far more personal one, and a cri de coeur against the injustice of the human condition (and fortunately Reed is a good enough singer to carry this), and the penultimate track, Learn To Vanish, which is almost a Fitter Happier for the times to follow, almost, but not quite, reassuring. If you liked Ulver's recent material, you may also appreciate this.

  • Laura MacfarlaneInto The Metalude / The Narrows / Future Obscura (BandCamp)

    While her band Ninetynine is on indefinite hiatus, with Cameron having moved back to Perth, Laura has been making music solo. Trapped in Melbourne during its strict winter lockdown, she used this time to make a trilogy of home-recorded solo EPs, each focussing on a different instrument: vibraphone, guitar and keyboards; which I will consider here as one, three-sided, work.

    The first record, Into The Metalude, is themed around the vibraphone, which Laura inherited from her jazz-musician father and made her own within the indie-rock domain. There are four tracks: Swim, with its block chords and Laura's vocals, sounds like a Ninetynine song stripped back to the basics. Echolalia follows, minor key arpeggios and vocals, like a flight through a darkening wood; Metalude has more of a sense of stillness to it, with simple chords and vocal harmonies, and Nightlight, the instrumental track closing the EP off, is a sugarplum fantasia that wouldn't be amiss in the score of an animated short film.

    The guitar record, The Narrows, is next. Coded starts with finger-picked guitar and vocals, in a 90s alternative feel that, at least at the start, wouldn't feel out of place next to beabadoobee; the title track is choppier and more uptempo, with the skronk and tension familiar from Ninetynine's oeuvre, and Tricky is a languid fingerpicked number reminiscent of Woods.

    The final third, Future Obscura, is the Casio keyboard record. Go Back To Where You Came From starts with two lines of trebly melody, building up for the chorus, in a very understated quiet-loud dynamic. Underneath The Crowded Sky starts with a built-in beat, with bass and melody lines, and almost an early-80s synthpop feel in places (if one suspends disbelief, one could imagine it's an early Human League demo or something). The title track's interweaving lines of melody recall Ninetynine's most keyboard-intensive works (such as The Cleaner). The record closes with an instrumental, Via Escalator, all rhythmic blips, reminiscent of Young Marble Giants by way of incidental music from a sci-fi TV show.

    The three records have their differences; to my ears, Future Obscura feels like the one that stands on its own most strongly (these days, the kids call that sort of thing “bedroom electronica” or something), while The Narrows feels, in places, like demos for, or a solo performance of, a Ninetynine record (you can hear the space where a bass, or Cameron's berserker drumming, would go); Metalude could go either way. In any case, it's great to hear new music from Laura.

  • MomusVivid

    This year's Momus album was recorded in his new home city of Paris, whilst self-isolating with Covid-19 symptoms; unsurprisingly, the virus dominates the album, whose songs have titles like Working From Home, Self-Isolation, Empty Paris and My Corona (which, it must be noted, shares nothing with the Knack song other than the nod in the title), and Momus' recent weltschmerz at the advance of the reactionaries in Britain and the US has been pushed aside, in places becoming an aching nostalgia about the days when your mortal foes were human ones you could actually see. Though, after all, if, as he once wrote, all the heroes of Valhalla weigh less than a virus, it could barely not be but so. Vivid's tonal palette, whilst similar to recent-period Momus, is perhaps more European, moving away from his attempts to reinvent primitive blues with Japanese folk instruments, which to my ears sounded a bit murky; the impression here is somewhere between John Cage and Jacques Brel, or perhaps the Weimar-era cabaret of the aforementioned Morality Is Vanity, with repetitive accordion notes being a recurring element.

  • SpunsugarDrive-Through Chapel (BandCamp)

    Their debut EP featured here last year, and now the Malmö band follow it up with their first full-length album, which arrives in a blaze of drum-machine barrages and white-hot blasts of precisely textured guitar noise. Spunsugar, as their name suggests, sound like they came from a moment some time either side of 1990, that milieu that's sort of shoegaze and not entirely Madchester baggy, which is probably more than a decade before any of them were born, though they have rediscovered that sound and made it their own.

    The album kicks off with Jawbreaker, which sounds not unlike a Lush song circa Spooky, all ethereal vocals floating over a swirl of shoegaze guitar propelled forward at a rapid tempo; and then venture into Curve territory with Happier Happyless: pulsing industrial synth bass, distorted funk guitar chops and vocals upfront with gossamer reverb, evoking the moment, some time around 1987, when goths started taking MDMA. The gothic-rock influences continue in Belladonna, with its Batcave drums and bass line and keening guitars. Time Enough At Last kicks in with tight, choppy verses motoring on before erupting into lush dreampop choruses. Video Nasty takes the pace down a bit, with a male vocalist taking over over some flanged picked guitar; things pick up with Run, a juggernaut of blast beats, spiky guitar and ethereal vocals, the lyrics evoking religious imagery.

    The thing that strikes me is how well executed everything about this record is. From the processed guitar tones to the mix of elements, and the composition; this is a maximalist affair, and there's always something around the next corner waiting to be stacked on, and yet it never becomes murky or overwhelming. The music both envelops, the way good dreampop does, and exhilarates with its rapid pace. A band to watch.

  • TangentsTimeslips (BandCamp)

    2020 saw a new record from the Australian improvisational ensemble, whose work falls into the space between post-rock, experimental jazz and laptop electronica adjacent to what used to be called “electroacoustic”. Polyrhythmic brushed jazz drumming mixes with glitchy beats, overlayed with piano, electronic drones, chromatic percussion, processed cello and a variety of digitally processed sounds, creating uneasy soundscapes slightly too abstract to get down to. The record opens with Exaptation, in a flurry of drums and chromatic percussion that, elsewhere, may have lead into a Stereolab song; here it remains sparser and more enigmatic. The second track, Vessel starts with jazzy percussion, soon joined by cello-as-bass, minor-key Rhodes piano licks, distant trumpets and processed recordings, sounding like Prop working with Teeth Of The Sea or something. Old Organs builds from a glitchy loop, Survival skitters along over a pattern of chords, glitches and unidentifiable textures, and Debris gets slower and heavier, with layers of piano and mallets bubbling over crunchy fuzz guitar; the closer, Bylong combines jazzy improvisation with a field recording of 100 carriages of prime Australian coal rumbling along the eponymous valley's freight railway, possibly being the first recorded work to bridge the worlds of Coltrane and coal train, before fading into shimmering delay.

  • ThibaultOr Not Thibault (BandCamp)

    The long-awaited return of Nicole Thibault, formerly of Minimum Chips (capsule summary: imagine Stereolab as a shambolic Australian indie band), now with a new band including members of young Melbourne bands such as Parsnip and The Ocean Party will be at once familiar and novel. Some songs, such as Drama and Spanakopita, could easily be Minimum Chips outtakes, while others diverge in various directions, hinting at tropicàlia, the cosmic baroque of Jane Weaver and the retro hauntology of Broadcast; the lyrics, meanwhile, turning inward to personal themes, and revealing a portrait of the artist anxiously kicking against the pricks whilst dealing with her own problems.

    The opening track, See The World, with its keyboard arpeggios, clunking bass and languid tempo, promises a lush baroque-pop sensibility, setting the stage for the album; Centrelink follows along, opening with a harpsichord line and building into a song about Australia's famously punitive welfare bureaucracy. (After the second chorus, the vocal melody of Centrelink returns, played on a trombone; this makes it the second of Nicole Thibault's songs about oppressive authorities to use that device, the first, of course, being, Clag's Security Man.) The next two tracks, Drama, and Wanting To Be Alone, are more introspective and Chips-esque, with their choppy rhythms and understated vocals, followed by two instrumentals: Componential, which takes a detour into Montero-esque psychedelia, and Continuer, which could have come from the score of an European film (perhaps Czech or Italian?) that aired on SBS and probably involved vampires and/or a witches' sabbat. In Chatty Cathy, Thibault softly enumerates stereotypes (“Debbie Downer, Bossy Betty, Bubbling Brooke, Negative Nancy”) reserved for women not considered well-behaved by Australia's conservative patriarchy. Its slow piano figures and a heartbeat-like drum evoke the feeling of sunlight through a window on a whitewashed wall, and the feeling of a comforting repression.

    The highlights of the album, though, are a pair of songs: Late Expectations and Later Expectations, which reveal a peak of sophistication far from the sunny shambolicism of Minimum Chips. In Late Expectations, Thibault's vocals float on a layer of reverb over synth pads, programmed percussion, driving synth bass and shimmering keyboards, waxing autumnal; the other bookend, Later Expectations, continues in that vein only with a more driving rhythm, propelled forward by a motorik 4/4 drum machine and bass guitar, with some funky bongos later coming in. In between them is Spanakopita, which could have been an outtake from Minimum Chips' Kitchen Tea Thankyou, and Treasure Trove, a cute baroque-pop bagatelle of harpsichord filigrees. The record finishes with two slower, sparser tracks, Moody Ghost and Too Much Time, though to me, they feel almost tacked-on, as if they were from a limited bonus CD rather than the main album.

    Or Not Thibault was an album I had been anticipating since I heard about Nicole's new project, and it does not disappoint. Hopefully there will be more.

  • UUSSWe Cannot Save You (BandCamp)

    The new project from Rhonda Simmons from 90s/00s Casio-and-guitar combo Origami and 767-era Ninetynine, now based in LA; whilst more expansive in tone than the Casiotone days, one wouldn't call this glossy. Running at just under 20 minutes and drenched in fuzz and reverb, their debut EP is reminiscent of Kathleen Hanna's work (in particular, Julie Ruin); highlights include the deconstructed 808-propelled lo-fi disco of SSADDISCO; Mercy, a piano ballad in which Simmons uses Autotune as a form of distortion, and the title track, with its jangly chorused guitar, distorted drum machine and violin accents. Oh, and there's also a rough-as-guts Pat Benatar cover.

With honourable mentions going to: 36 and zakè, Stasis Sounds For Long-Distance Space Travel (an ambient concept album, ostensibly intended to be programmed music for entering suspended animation for long space voyages; it came out before the pandemic exploded, though has only grown in relevance since), Aseul(아슬), Slow Dance (understated bedroom electropop from Korea), The Avalanches, We Will Always Love You (another four years worth of cratedigging and (perhaps more significantly) sample clearance paperwork brings another Avalanches record, and you know the deal: vintage soul/disco/lounge grooves and beats, with an all-star cast of guest appearances), Bananagun, The True Story Of Bananagun (fuzzed out psychedelic grooves tinged with Afrobeat and tropicália influences), Duncan Barrett, Raise The Effra! (the former Tigercats frontman continues his voyage into new-agey ambient electronics, and does so quite listenably), Glenn Bennie, Fade and Shimmer (Glenn of the Underground Lovers's solo outing takes the form of two EPs of shoegazey instrumentals; soft drones, electronics and reverb), David Bridie & All India Radio, Reconstructions (the Not Drowning, Waving frontman joins forces with Tasmanian triphopster All India Radio in a work of Eno-esque ambience, combining piano and electronics), Miles Brown, The Gateway (the thereminist from grindcore-turned-synthwave ensemble Night Terrors' solo effort goes into John-Carpenter-meets-italo-synthwave territory; 4/4 drum machines, pulsing synth bass sequences and coruscating arpeggios, and of course, the theremin; like the soundtrack to a lurid VHS film, or perhaps a video game), Cabaret Voltaire, Shadow Of Fear (now down to one original member, the Sheffield industrial pioneers deliver a project of uneasy beats for dystopic dance floors), Cable Ties, Far Enough (choppy, skronky high-tension garage punk from Melbourne, charged with adrenaline and incandescent with political rage; a Molotov cocktail tossed over the white picket fences of the Quiet Australians, or something like that), Carpenter Brut, Blood Machines OST (apparently a score for a scifi TV series, this sees the French horror-synth trio add some Vangelis to their John Carpenter influences), Cavern of Anti-Matter, In Fabric OST (Tim Gane's new one is a soundtrack to a Peter Strickland film), A.G. Cook, 7G (the PC Music impresario steps out from behind the glossy façade of his hyper-produced electropop with a 49-track box set of oddities, ranging from kid606-style breakcore to lo-fi pop; the artifice is still there, just not in the same order), Cuushe, Waken (returning after a five-year hiatus, the Japanese artist known for her chilled electronic pop steps it up a notch and takes it to the floor, with a new album propelled by driving beats), Haiku Salut, Pattern Thinker / Portrait In Dust (two soundtracks they recorded for short films; recommended for fans of múm, Jon Brooks or indeed their earlier works), Hamerkop, Remote (Annabel of New Zealand kosmische-pop project Bachelorette's new collaborative project, from her new home in Baltimore, Maryland; glistening synthesiser arpeggios, analogue fuzz and hazy reverb, though not quite as focussed as her solo works), Thor Harris, Doom Dub (what the title, and the skull on the cover, say; broken/distorted dub reggae with the theme of humanity's impending self-annihilation; Ben Frost and Lawrence English guest on tracks), Hatari, Neyslutrans (the Icelandic BDSM-themed industrial group who almost won the last Eurovision of the Before Times; generally snarly industriogothic EBM, with a bit of Squarepusher mixed into their Skinny Puppy), HTRK, Body Lotion EP (booming 808s and soft vocals drenched in postapocalyptic quantities of reverb, and underscored by grindcore bass; chilled and yet uneasy, in an almost Lynchian way), imugi 이무기, Dragonfruit (a duo from New Zealand, combining downtempo hip-hop, chilled R&B and Korean electropop influences), The Little Hands of Asphalt, Half Empty (London's indiepop powerhouse Fika Recordings brings us a slab of pastoral indiepop from Norway), Mighty Duke And The Lords, Caribbean Rollarama (a brass-driven party-rocking juggernaut from Melbourne, named after an outer-suburban roller link, where apparently Barack Obama now holds court, or so they say), Of Montreal UR FUN (hey look, it's Kevin Barnes TMI-ing about the exhilirating delirium of his new relationship and his anxiety about it, though this time in a (broadly) 80s-new-wave vein), Kelly Lee Owens, Inner Song (driving electronica and the odd ethereal pop fragment from the Welsh producer; a bit like Dntel or early Autechre in places; with a guest appearance by John Cale), Popular Music, ...Plays In Darkness (a collaboration between Zac Pennington of Parenthetical Girls and Australian composer Prudence Rees-Lee, Popular Music's debut album is a love letter to the myth of cinema; comprised of music from cinema (from old standards to show tunes to music from genre cinema; Willow's Song from The Wicker Man is here, as is Marianne Faithfull's song from The City of Lost Children) rendered with electronics, piano, strings, denatured with reverb and delay, and made uncanny, and in its own way, very 2020; file alongside Misty Roses), Salt Lake Alley, The Way It Feels (summery, hook-laden indiepop from Sweden (I think), albeit on a Spanish label), Singapore Sling, Good Sick Fun With... (the Icelandic psych nihilists' latest album sees them pay tribute to early rock'n'roll, including a cover of Summertime Blues, done with their usual buzzsaw guitar and digital delays), Warm Digits, Flight of Ideas (more propulsive, modernistic electro-krautrock from the Newcastle ensemble; as usual, there are guests, and this time they include twee-punk shouters The Lovely Eggs and indiepop combo The Orielles; perhaps we can expect them to play Indietracks if/when that comes back?), Wedding Guns, Blood In Everyone's Type (a side project of Clue To Kalo with a 4-track EP of wonky grooves coalescing from disjointed loops; file alongside Caribou), Die Wilde Jagd, Haut (the post-krautrock electronica project's new release continues where Uhrwald Orange left off, only moving away from discrete songs, consisting instead of four tracks, each exceeding 9 minutes)

The elephant in the room this year was, of course, Covid-19, which left little untouched. Shows and festivals were cancelled, recordings postponed, and some artists retreated to their home studios. Responses to the Rona varied; Chromeo recorded an EP, Quarantine Casanova, with song titles like Clorox Wipe and 6 Feet Away executed in their trademarked hypersexual Troutmanesque electrofunk style; meanwhile, the London disco allstars Article 54 followed up their Brexit-themed album of 2019 with a Rona-themed one in the same vein. Momus approached the subject less flippantly (though not, it must not be said, with complete earnestness). Shoegaze-adjacent ambient-electronic artist füxa captured the mood early on with an EP titled Sweeps & Beeps for Quarantined Peeps. And Darren Hanlon reminded us that we all cope in different ways.

Another recurring theme, which may or may not be unrelated, was a sense of liminal spaces. Some of that had been building up for a while (see also: vaporwave, and before that, currents in post-rock, shoegaze and ambient music), though it seems to have escalated. Haircuts for Men brought trip-hoppy instrumentals with moody chord progressions and titles like “My Wife Is On Tinder”, making a sort of desaturated vaporwave minus the consumer exuberance; not so much music for shopping malls as for the Backrooms. Cayn Borthwick , the saxophonist from Melbourne's NO ZU and Mighty Duke and The Lords, released a solo album of what could be described as post-punk lounge music: spacious, impressionistic soundscapes made of electronic sounds; sunny with a barely perceivable undertone of melancholia. And Eyeliner, (the vaporwave-adjacent side project of New Zealand synthpop artist Disasteradio) returned with Drop Shadow, a collection of disconnectedly upbeat music crafted with late-Shōwa-era digital wavetable synthesisers. And Popular Music's evocation of the film theatre could fall into this category as well.

The year was also a good one for rereleases, particularly in Australia. The legendary ambient/post-punk/avant-garde project Not Drowning, Waving and their sibling band My Friend The Chocolate Cake uploaded their back-catalogues to Bandcamp; meanwhile, Melbourne indie legends Lost & Lonesome started their own rerelease programme, uploading long-unavailable records by The Foots, Fred Astereo, Mid-State Orange and Lacto-Ovo, including two tracks recorded in 2003 and only mixed now; gradually, gaps in the historical record are being filled.

Were I to name a record of the year, it would be either Spunsugar's Drive-Thru Chapel or Thibault's Or Not Thibault.

One final note: you may have noticed that there are few major-label records here and almost everything has a link on Bandcamp. This is not just indie snobbery (not just — ed.), but rather an artefact of logistics in our time. These days, it seems that fewer and fewer new-release albums make it out to CDs, and of those, fewer and fewer make it to a local record shop. (The situation is particularly bad in Sweden, where I live, where Spotify seems to be to music consumption what the national oat-milk monopoly is to non-dairy coffee additives, and the big record shops mostly have a handful of new releases and a table of discounted “classic” records — if you have a gap in your Blue Öyster Cult collection, you're sorted — though JB HiFi in Melbourne was looking quite bare as well.) As such, my choices for getting something not on BandCamp are either to mail-order it to rip, paying postage (and often import duties) and waiting several weeks (as I did for the Momus album), or pay the full digital price for a lossy low-quality download from Apple Music or Amazon (which may be technically good enough for listening, except for the chagrin of knowing that the copy I paid for will forever lack those missing harmonics and transients, stripped out of it to shrink it down for 00s-vintage computer networks and MP3 players). This is enough of a psychological barrier to keep most of my purchases on Bandcamp (where, to be honest, some 90% of what I'm interested in can be found), with the herculean effort of ordering CDs reserved only for a handful of special cases, and the occasional gap filled at Rough Trade or Fopp on a visit to London (see also: Covid-19). (Of course, I could stream the records on Spotify and justify that as having “consumed” them this year, but that wouldn't be the same, would it? If you haven't bought a copy and stored it on a physical medium somewhere, it's not really in your collection, and is one record-label dispute away from disappearing forever as if it never existed.)

The good news is that more Bandcamp holdouts are joining; London shoegaze institution Club AC30 did this year, as did PC Music, Sonic Youth are putting their records up (starting from demos, live sessions and oddities like Ciccone Youth, though they've managed to get major-label-released albums like Daydream Nation up; I'm guessing it wasn't a Universal Music executive who made that call), and Melbourne indie veterans Underground Lovers are making noises about it (one remix compilation so far, with (hopefully) the possibility of back-catalogue to follow). So, if you're an artist on an independent label who don't do Bandcamp, ask them why the hell not?

If you use Spotify, there is the usual playlist here.

2020 cds lists music 0


It's the last day of 2019, and as such, here are the notable records of the past year:

  • Article 54The Hustle (BandCamp)

    In Australia, the rolling political unpleasantness is tackled by feral larrikin mashup artists; in metropolitan London, though, they do things differently. As is the case of Article 54, a crack team of London live music veterans led by Rhodri Marsden, charting the arc of the ongoing Brexit situation through the medium of lush 70s-style disco. Luscious soul strings, funky clavinet licks and wah guitar, along with ostensibly peppy yet slyly subversive lyrics and samples apparently culled from countless hours of talkback radio. The trajectory of the situation itself is evident in the arc of song titles: beginning with the ebullient Piece Of Cake, breezily asserting that “saying goodbye is easy as pie”, and ending on a more downbeat note with Hard Is Better, itself fading out into the sound of street protests. Freedom Of Movement, a 1970s-style light-music track chiding the foolishness of Britons who aspire to vamoose to Lisbon or Toulouse or set up home in Budapest or Rome, sounds Scarfolkianly redolent of the cheery propaganda of totalitarian regimes; Let's Go WTO, meanwhile, sounds almost like an old radio ad jingle for car insurance, while Backstop and Canada Plus wouldn't sound amiss in a Sardinian nightclub in 1982, and Alternative Arrangements has a groove worthy of Luther Vandross. Ironically smooth sailing.

  • BodikhuuRio/Bodianova (BandCamp)

    Tired: Scandinavians making chillwave electropop dreaming of Caribbean beaches. Inspired: Mongolians making instrumental hip-hop dreaming of Brazil. In this case, Bodikhuu, who works as a construction crane operator in Ulaanbaatar, but spends the winter, when it's too cold to work, making beats in his apartment with an Akai MPC and a stack of old Brazilian records to sample, and releasing his tracks digitally into the Mongolian hip-hop scene. Rio/Bodianova assembled from two such self-released EPs, consists of lush, intricately layered tracks infused with samba and bossa-nova, not a world away from J. Dilla. The image of the fabled Brazil of Bodikhuu's imagination permeates every track, with its tropical heat and breezy languor. The chill-out record of the summer.

  • Cigarettes After SexCry (BandCamp)

    No huge surprises here: if you loved Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut, this delivers another package of the same. Expect music with echoes of Slowdive/Mazzy Star/Julee Cruise/Cowboy Junkies/&c., androgynous vocals singing of longing and desire, catchy melodies, and track titles like Don't Let Me Go, Pure and, umm, Hentai. Cry follows on from Cigarettes After Sex's eponymous debut without any major changes, and without the mist of ambiguity that shrouded it, Greg Gonzales' songwriting persona has coalesced into a bit of a softboi cliché; yeah, he's constitutionally incapable of commitment and yet obsessively in love with you, likes porn and blowjobs, and yet finds tenderness and beauty in sleaze; a tender pervert for the generation who grew up on Vice Magazine, permanent austerity, climate catastrophe and cheap cocaine. Though I guess if you prefer more psychodrama with your libidinous pop, there's always Of Montreal.

  • Holly HerndonProto (Bandcamp)

    Herndon's previous albums combined academic experimentation with generative composition using Max/MSP with a raver's love of of electronic dance music and critiques of the interplay of technology and society; this next one is a bit of a divergence, having been arguably the first commercial album composed in collaboration with an AI. For this project (which also formed part of her PhD thesis), Herndon and her collaborators trained a sound-generating neural network named Spawn, and gathered groups of singers around its microphones to sing around it, drawing on the sacred and folk song styles of her native Tennessee, and then got it to gradually synthesise what it learned. We witness the AI learning, emitting choral drones and glitchy syllables and converging on an otherworldly song. This is intermingled with actual dancefloor bangers made using Spawn's input, with collaborators like footwork maestro Jlin.

  • Alice HubblePolarlichter (Bandcamp)

    Hubble, formerly one half of electropop duo Arthur & Martha, makes a solo debut with an album of warmly analogue music, half instrumental and half pop; at once a virtuoso showcase of electronic sound and a love letter to legendary practitioners such as New Order, Kraftwerk and OMD. Hubble is not merely a veteran pop songsmith but also has her finger on the (metronomic) pulse of this genre, and as such ends up hitting all the buttons. Highlights include the bittersweet pop of Are We Still Alone, the cubist pastoral of Atlantis Palm like a ride down the changing voxel landscapes a video-game Autobahn, the waltz-time electronica of Hunt For The Blood Red Moon, and Kick The Habit, arguably the best glam-rock anthem ever written from the point of view of a lapsed nun.

  • Jenny HvalThe Practice of Love (Bandcamp)

    As a musical artist, Jenny Hval has a reputation for fusing ethereal pop sounds with an intimacy and a sometimes visceral frankness, as evident on previous albums like Blood Bitch and Apocalypse, Girl. Her latest album is thematically a gentler affair, eschewing the body horror and (most of the) sex in favour of meditations on love, “love”, death, intimacy and other corners of the human condition, over beds of synth washes, clubby baselines, trancy arpeggios and programmed/sampled beats reminiscent of Dubstar, Decoder Ring or early-90s Momus. Hval's voice weaves in and out of the mix, singing in reverb, or whispering confessionally, sometimes joined by three other collaborators, including Melbourne's Laura Jean, and occasionally teasing the border between chillout and ASMR. The title track sits in the middle and borrows the conceit of The Velvet Underground's The Murder Mystery, with Vivian Wang talking about the word “love” on the left channel and, on the right, Jean about childlessness and regarding oneself as a supporting character, over ambient synth pads and arpeggios; the beats resume on the following track, Ashes To Ashes, an upbeat pop song about dreams of death. It doesn't have any lines as immediately memorable as Apocalypse, Girl's “I beckon the cupcake, the huge capitalist clit”, but it more than makes up for this in its enveloping lushness.

  • Sleater-KinneyThe Center Won't Hold (Bandcamp)

    The group's new album, with Annie Clark of St. Vincent producing, takes a departure from the punk-rock purism of their previous albums and towards a more electronic sound not too far from Le Tigre; more programmed beats and the odd synthesiser mixing in with the spiky guitars, live drums, handclaps and vocals. Thematically, The Center Won't Hold engages with the situation of the world in 2019, from social media to economic precarity, from the political situation in the US and abroad to the importance of personal bonds in the uncertain world, making a humanistic stand.

  • Star HorseYou Said Forever (Bandcamp), and SpunsugarMouth Full Of You (Bandcamp)

    There is a bit of a shoegaze moment taking place in Sweden right now, and these two bands are examples. Star Horse have been around for a few years, though have only released their debut full-length album this year, and are on the poppy side of shoegaze, sounding somewhat like Secret Shine, all ethereal vocals floating above a wash of processed guitars. If they don't get the support slot at the next Slowdive gig in Sweden, it will be a crime. Meanwhile, Spunsugar are a young band based in Malmö, and sound exactly how the name suggests: crunchy, drum-machine-backed shoegaze à la Catherine Wheel, with a touch of baggy and whatever Curve and Caligula were, and if you listen carefully, a hint of metal; clear vocals floating on an ethereal reverb haze over jangling guitars and fuzz. At the moment, they only have one four-track EP out, but with any luck, they should go far.

  • Teeth Of The SeaWraith (Bandcamp)

    The London dark-psychedelic ensemble's most recent album continues their line of uncategorisable yet compelling works (not to mention clever titles), and shifting it up a gear. The opening track, I'd Rather, Jack. begins like a grimdark Radiohead, before escalating into a postapocalyptic soundscape of the usual elements; grindcore chugging, spaghetti-Western guitars, coruscating synths, mournful mariachi-meets-Taps trumpets, Reznorian drones, though with nothing dominating the mix, but instead slowly building and twisting into unsettling yet compelling textures. Further on, Fortean Steed brings vaguely elfin ethereal vocals and picked acoustic guitars over an aurora of synthesiser textures, evoking a liminal state when the veil between this world and another is at its most diaphanous. Following this, VISITOR begins with pulsing synth arpeggios, soon joined by hair-metal guitar shredding and Ottoman/balkan-style drums, building to a cinematic crescendo over its eight minutes, and the closer, Gladiators Ready, ends the album with a rave in a wasteland (think Giorgio Moroder as the Doof Warrior from Mad Max: Fury Road and you'll have an idea). Brutalicious!

  • Underground LoversA Left Turn

    The Undies' second act continues into its third album, and shows no sign of losing strength. There's luscious dreampop (the opener, Feels Like Yesterday with its chorused strums and indiepop harmonies, and Dunes, with with guitars and delay floating over a chunky drum loop), vaguely kraut-ish indie-rock anthems (Bells, with its motorik crunch and harmony choruses, and Hooky, whose title may or may not come from its high-played bass guitar), techno synth pulses and those guitars, not to mention an anthem to the subjective experience of hanging out and partying, Melbourne-style (in this case, Seven Day Weekend, which threatens to turn into techno before the fuzzy riffage kicks in).

With honourable mentions going to: Agent Blå, Morning Thoughts (the Gothenburg band's latest, like a smoother, softer Makthaverskan); The Ballet, Matchy Matchy (soft-spoken indiepop about the travails of being single and gay in New York as if sung in a bedroom over a drum machine; like Magnetic Fields meets The Postal Service); Caterina Barbieri, Ecstatic Computation (luminous soundscapes of analogue arpeggios and reverb, made on modular synths); CHAI, PUNK (a slight misnomer, as it's more slightly skronkier-than-usual J-pop, with the usual Big Melodies underscored with driving bass guitars, and choppy sampling work reminiscent of early Shibuya-kei); Duncan Barrett, Seven Temples (the frontman of Tigercats turns his attention unexpectedly to ambient music, and it's pretty good somewhat new-agey with touches of IDM; layers of pulsating, shimmering synths weave in and out, over subtle field recordings, the odd rainstick and, in places, Barrett's trademark kalimba); Be Forest, Knocturne (Chiming minor-key guitars and pounding drums; like shoegaze/post-rock taking The Cure's Disintegration as a starting point); Bodywash, Comforter (post-Cocteauvian dreampop (or “cream pop” as they call it) from Montreal, nudging tentatively into pad-and-beat-driven electronica, a bit like Love Spirals Downwards' drum'n'bass turn or the German shoegaze band Malory); The Boy Who Spoke Clouds, Fields (the swansong from Melbourne's Adam Casey's solo project; languid compositions for guitar, organ and electronics, in the local post-rock tradition); The Catenary Wires, Til The Morning (Amelia and Rob return with more indiepop ballads for grownups, with their customary wit); Death And Vanilla, Are You A Dreamer? (the Malmö haunto-poppers were robbed when they weren't tapped to write the soundtrack to Midsommar; nonetheless, here's a new album, full of retro-styled hypnagogica that's almost gentle and reassuring); Haiku Salut, The General (a score to the eponymous 1920s Buster Keaton film, breaking the clichés of what a score to a silent film should sound like); Hot Chip, A Bath Full of Ecstasy (a luminous, euphoric affair, of coruscating dancefloor anthems and Autotune-driven quiet-storm numbers; a love letter to the power of dance music to connect people); Jens Lekman & Annika Norlin, Correspondence (a series of songs, alternately composed by Lekman and Norlin in correspondence with each other; witty and thoughtful); Parenthetical Girls, The Scottish Play: Wherein the Group Parenthetical Girls Pay Well​-​intentioned (if Occasionally Misguided) Tribute To the Works of Ivor Cutler (what it sounds like: Zac Pennington reëmerges with a set of covers of the late Scottish absurdist's oeuvre; with cover artwork by David Shrigley, no less); Seablite, Grass Stains and Novocaine (catchy indiepop from the Pacific Northwest, not that far from Rose Melberg's oeuvre); She Past Away, Disko Anksiyete (synthpop for goths, in Turkish; file alongside Cold Cave); Le Superhomard, Meadow Lane Park (lighter-than-Air Europop, like the aforementioned French Band fronted by Dusty Springfield or perhaps an ice-cool continental Saint Etienne; in places sounds like Dots And Loops-era Stereolab, in others, Apricot Records indiepop); U-Bahn, U-Bahn (angular Little Band-isms from Melbourne, with a tightly-wound DEVO-esque sensibility, though owing more to The Models than Kraftwerk's The Model); Vanishing Twin, The Age of Immunology (languidly hypnagogic, post-Broadcast, library jazz acoustic gtr, clunking bass, twinkling west-coast synths and Cathy’s vocals waxing Trishesque).

2019 was also a good year for rereleases; the obvious ones were Stereolab coming back from hibernation, reissuing their entire catalogue with generous liner notes and an abundance of bonus tracks (luxury vinyl optional) and touring it; though other than that, there was early-80s Melbourne new-waver Karen Marks' long-unavailable electropop gem Cold Café, queer pagan transgressives Coil's ice-cool club-techno soundtrack to the first (just about legal) gay sex education film made in Britain, and My Favourite's expanded version of the final album and arguable masterpiece of their first incarnation, The Happiest Days Of Our Lives.

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Alice Hubble, or Jenny Hval.

There is a Spotify playlist here.

2019 cds lists music 0


As 2018 comes to an end, here is once again my list of records of the past year:

  • Belle & SebastianHow To Solve Our Human Problems

    This year brought another Belle & Sebastian album with it, and Belle & Sebastian fans know what to expect. gently folky moments (Fickle Season), groovy mood pieces (the bipartite Everything Is Now), soul strings (Too Many Tears), not to mention titles like “A Plague On Other Boys” (which sounds not unlike one would expect a Belle & Sebastian song by that title to sound; file this one alongside Lord Anthony and The Cat With The Cream).

    The album opens with Sweet Dew Lee, in which Stevie wistfully reopens the wounds of an unrequited crush twenty years on, tormenting himself with what-could-have-beens and parallel-universe hypotheticals (hey, we've all been there), over a bed of bossa-esque guitar and analogue synth fuzz. The second track, We Were Beautiful, which is sonically probably the closest we'll get to Belle & Sebastian's foray into drum'n'bass, continues the theme of wistfully looking back on lost youth. Meanwhile, Best Friend is a classic B&S comedy of manners about flat-sharing, adulting and trying not to fall in love. (At times, the Belle and Sebastian universe sounds like a terrifying place, with romantic love being everywhere, seeping through the cracks like a gas, every glance crackling with oddly chaste sexual electricity.)

  • Carpenter BrutLEATHER TEETH (Bandcamp)

    Carpenter Brut are, in a sense, the anti-M83. Both bands hail from France, a culture that stands apart from the currents of Anglo-American pop culture, engaging with them on its own terms, and both bands trade in a French-made vision of fantasy-America. Though while M83's America takes its cues from John Hughes soundtracks, with its pastel-hued high-school romances and subcultural cliques, Carpenter Brut's America is a darker one, made from 1980s low-budget VHS horror films and Reagan-era paranoia about Satanic cults. A trio comprised of a keyboard player (with a stack of analogue synths), a heavy-metal guitarist and a drummer, their music falls at the more dystopian end of the “synthwave” genre (as the name suggests, synthesist and horror auteur John Carpenter was an influence, though far from the only one); the closest comparison I can think of is San Diego's Street Cleaner.

    Some tracks on LEATHER TEETH have lyrics, whose sometimes stilted phrasing adds to their over-the-top shlock (sample: “beware the beast inside your heart, when you're dancing in the dark, and the night's desire is burning with the Devil's fire”), while others serve to soundtrack movie scenes left to the listener's imagination (those who see them live get a visual aid in the form of video projections of imaginary movie fragments, presumably filmed at considerable effort by the band and their collaborators; expect unrealistic fake blood, rows of high-school lockers and shots of lurid newspaper headlines). Leather Teeth is their second album, and includes collaborators including Ulver's Kristoffer Rygg.

  • DubstarOne

    Dubstar were one of those bands of the 90s that were often lumped in with Saint Etienne; each juxtaposing the programmed beats and loops of hip-house and club pop with the an very English Dusty-Springfield-meets-Emma-Peel retro-cool, in each case delivered with vintage sang-froid by a Sarah. Unlike their southern opposite numbers, though, they disappeared around the turn of the millennium, with Sarah going on to the electroclash project Client and a number of industriogoth collaborations. Now, after almost two decades, they're back.

    Musically, One starts more or less where they left off, give or take a few decades of life experience. They're a duo now, without the chap who did the drum/sampler/sequencer programming, and so their music sounds less sequenced. The subject matter has kept up with the authors' age, and themes of divorces, legal injunctions (actual and as a metaphor) and drama at school gates come up in the characteristically wry lyrics about stereotypically knotty situations. Blackwood's (possibly unreliable) narrator will be familiar from the “Not So Manic Now” era: wry and a bit intense; just the song titles (“Why Don't You Kiss Me”, ”You Were Never In Love”, “Please Stop Leaving Me Alone”) bespeak the persona of a romantic actor who pursues her interests with the single-minded drive of the Terminator and, when things have gone south, writes a postmortem for the dalliance, replete with arch wordplay.

    In any case, the songs are all as catchy and compelling as the best of their first run. It's hard to pick highlights, but some might include “I Hold Your Heart” with it's Northern-soul stomp, “Waltz No. 9”, in triplet-time and second person, describes the listener's disintegrating life and foretells their imminent downfall, and the icily synthpoppy “Locked Inside”, or the bracing bucket of cold water that is “You Were Never In Love”. The album ends with “Mantra”, a 6½-minute track building to a climax of repeated wordless vocals, fuzzed guitar; I bet they could get a few extra minutes out of it live.

  • Haiku SalutThere Is No Elsewhere (Bandcamp)

    Haiku Salut make lovely, subtle soundscapes, and their third album is no exception. Haiku Salut's combination of electronic and live sounds feels even more seamless than before; glitchy beats, warm drones, synth arpeggios and tiny fragments of sound of unknown provenance fuse with chromatic percussion, melodicas, horns and the Haikus' signature French accordion. The harmonies and melodies feel ever more intricate and evocative. Highlights include the pulsating The More and Moreness, the splendidly titled I Am Who I Remind You Of, a 7-minute journey through a soundscape of glockenspiel, accordion and electronic beats, and the closing track, the lovely, subtle Shadows. File alongside Mogwai, Amiina or Tortoise.

  • Kero Kero BonitoTime 'n' Place (Bandcamp)

    The third album for the London J-pop trio is a somewhat skronkier affair; the songs are still melodious pop songs, redolent more of Harajuku than the Bromley bedroom they were recorded in, but the super-smooth PC Music-esque affectations are replaced by something somewhat less clean; chunky guitar riffage, vaporwavey digital synths and the odd YMCK-esque chiptune arpeggio and digital noise breakdown, slathered with reverb and distortion. Which echoes the record's anxious themes: songs about identity crises in the Instagram-influencer era, depression and worries about the precarious future. Highlights include the retro-styled baroque pop of Dear Future Self and the third-wall-breaking Only Acting.

  • Klaus Johann GrobeDu Bist So Symmetrisch (Bandcamp)

    Swiss electro-funk, you say? With lyrics in German, no less. Propelled by clunky bass guitar, warm'n'fuzzy monosynths, jazzy chords, funky riffs and drums (both live and programmed), Klaus Johann Grobe don't so much straddle the line between kitschy and funky as saunter playfully across it repeatedly. Like smooth midnight boogie-groove R&B stripped back to one-oscillator basics crossed with post-Can skronk and a touch of Kraftwerkian electropop, they present a sort of polyester modernism, conjuring up images of retrofuturistic mitteleuropäisch nightclubs at some point in the past half-century. Highlights include Zu Spät, which is the smoothest thing in at least one parallel universe, and the closing track, An Diesem Abend, a mighty grüv juggernaut which brings das Haus down.

  • Kosmischer LäuferVolume 4 (Bandcamp)

    The fourth chapter of Drew McFadyen's Ostalgisch krautrock project, coming years after the first three, as we all began to despair of the prospect of finding any more of Martin Zeichnete's tapes. Were this a real rerelease of actual long-lost East German Kosmische Musik, we'd be faced with the prospect of all the good stuff having been released, and the remainders being off-cuts, fragments and curios. It's not, though, and so each volume improves on the previous ones. the main part of Volume Four follows the preceding volumes in themes, providing Cluster/Harmonia/La Düsseldorf-style electronic instrumentals, ostensibly conceived for the DDR's Olympic athletes' training; here we have motorik beats and the odd Kraftwerk-esque synthesiser melody, at a methodical 150BPM. The second half, though, takes the form of a visualisation programme, ostensibly to bring focus to the athletes' minds; in place of the propulsive rhythm are ambient synthesiser drones and arpeggios, with a female voice reading out instructions. As ambient music, it works rather nicely; and perhaps future discoveries of Zeichnete's works will be those in this vein?

  • Let's Eat GrandmaI'm All Ears (Bandcamp)

    The teenage duo's second album is somewhat more polished affair, though with their own distinctive authorial voice. While previously they did everything themselves, here they bring onboard collaborators, most prominently The Horrors' Faris Badwan and PC Music artist SOPHIE, learn the tricks and terms of art of mass-market pop music and turn them to their own ends. The latter's influence can be heard in the poppier tracks, such as the single Hot Pink, with its J-pop-tinged girl-power R&B, only somewhat askew and with a Norfolk accent.

    While they have embraced the polish and artifice of pop production and added it to their formidable repertoire, they have not been subsumed by it, either thematically or stylistically. Their songs avoid the standard pop clichés—the love ballads, party anthems and melodramas of heartbreak and betrayal—and instead use the pop-song idiom to their own ends, with word-pictures of an inner life, with its passing thoughts and feelings. Stylistically, some songs, like It's Not Just Me and Falling Into Me, play with the elements of electropop to varying extents; others find a different way, like the bluesy 6/8-time Snakes & Ladders. Cool And Collected, a meditation on the anxiety of admiring (or perhaps fancying) someone, starts off with arid guitarwork reminiscent of Pygmalion-era Slowdive; and perhaps the highlight of the album for me is Ava, an understated piano ballad about a friend struggling with mental-health issues, which shows that Let's Eat Grandma are not beholden to their well-honed maximalism. The closer is the 11-minute Donnie Darko, the long, vaguely Underworldesque track familiar from their live shows, its techno pulse now underpinned with guitar riffing.

    Also, there's the best use of a purring cat on a record since Loney Dear's “The Year Of River Fontana”, so there is that.

  • MonteroPerformer (Bandcamp)

    The new record from musician and illustrator Bjenny Montero, and his first since moving to Athens (Greece, not Georgia) embraces the luscious maximalism and all-analogue artifice of 70s-vintage soft rock, wedding it to the vulnerability of his comics.

    The first track, Montero Airlines, starts with eight bars of minor-key piano chords; then the big drums kick in and Ben's vocals, with a cry for help; “it's not good for me to be all alone right now”. By the time we get to the verse, we learn that part of him needs a part of you and not just any boy is going to do. Another verse and chorus, and then the song switches into the ending, a jingle for the titular airline, wrought into an epic build-up of chorused vocals, drum breakdowns and multiple chiming guitars. The second song, Aloha, is even more envelopingly lush, all chiming guitars, vocal harmonies and an key change that feels like taking off into the sunset in a seaplane.

    The album continues in this vein, with flangers, Frippian talkbox, electric pianos, Mellotron strings, and beds of backing harmonies. Montero, it seems, is both a connoisseur of vintage pop and a perfectionist in the studio, build up lavish pocket symphonies out of everyday anxieties and melancholies. Caught Up In My Own World starts with Rhodes piano and flanged vocals, the choruses blooming in an explosion of chorused guitar and vocal aahs. Running Race builds up a lush soundscape around a kernel of self-doubt (“deep inside of me, no-one's home”), ornamenting it with classic psychedelic pop. Tokin' The Night Away is basically what it sounds like, a stoner anthem realised as if on a 1970s recording budget; “Destiny” brings a somewhat goofy rock-opera bombast, sounding like the musical number in which the mephistophelian villain tries to convince the hero to join him. The closing track, Pilot starts with a funky bassline and bongo-led groove, and cruises smoothly along before soaring to a climax that brings the house down on the album. It is also probably also the only song ever written referencing both the lights of LA and “Desperate and Dateless”. In any case, Performer is smooth sailing, and the biggest (by some definitions) Australian psychedelic pop record since Tame Impala. There's none more shmoopy!

  • Moon GangsEarth Loop (Bandcamp)

    The first album-length release from analogue ambient electronic project Moon Gangs elaborates on the direction of his two EPs, though in a deeper, darker direction. Made with a bench of analogue synthesisers and sequencers played live, the result is luminous, foreboding cinematic soundscapes somewhere between Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter, replete with coruscating arpeggios, saturated sawtooth drones, skittering white noise and epic reverb tails. Highlights include Familiar Machines (which sounds like a more analogue Ben Frost) and the majestic Sea Circles, a 6½-minute megastructure of grandeur.

  • Them Are Us TooAmends and SRSQUnreality

    This year's twinned albums; the young Bay Area dreampop duo Them Are Us Too, tragically, were mentioned here in 2016, in the context of one of them, Cash Askew, having died in the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. At the time, they had been working on new recordings; some time later, these were reworked with the involvement of surviving member Kennedy Ashlyn, Telefon Tel Aviv producer Joshua Eustis and Askew's girlfriend and stepfather; which eventually was worked into the Amends EP, and released this year. Ashlyn went on to a solo project, SRSQ, also releasing a record later this year.

    Both records have their roots in 1980s dreampop/sophistipop, with a sound somewhere between the Cocteau Twins and Julee Cruise, with perhaps fragments of other things (The Cure? Giorgio Moroder?) shining through. Amends feels the more whole, with Askew's dreamlike guitarwork floating over the synth pads and underpinning Ashlyn's Fraserequely aethereal vocals. It starts with the sublime Angelene, its icy synth arpeggios, filter-sweep pads, gated drum machine and judicious use of tape delay setting Ashlyn's soaring soprano in an ornate frame worthy of Laura Palmer. The velvet darkness starts to close in with Grey Water, which ventures deeper into Cocteaus territory. Floor, with its rapid-fire drum machine, jagged guitar lines and Ashlyn's vocals soaring like if Siouxsie had been an actual banshee, could have probably filled the floor of a goth club 30 years ago. The final, title track, with its reverbed drums, synth pads, Ashlyn's soaring soprano and Askew's sublimely jagged guitarwork, is a fitting ending, providing a pastel-hued sunset for Them Are Us Too's closing credits, and giving an illusion of closure.

    Closure, however, is not how the real world works, which is evident in Ashlyn's debut as SRSQ, an album haunted by loss (SRSQ's Bandcamp page describes the project as “griefwave”). The album feels like a journey: starting with FM bells, vast reverb and an almost Dead Can Dance-esque sense of the transcendent, before the familiar 808 snap and sawtooth arpeggios kick in, going through ethereal dreampop (Cherish, which sounds like a synth-driven Cocteaus, and the Badalamenti-esque Procession), descending into a valley of shadow, of plaintive vocal lines and electronic drones, before emerging with the soaring, luminous climax of Only One. Askew's guitars, of course, are absent; instead, there are rich layers of electronics (mostly lush, though in places raw and harsh) beneath Ashlyn's majestic soprano. There is, of course, a void and a sense of loss, but also, one feels, a sense of mystery and hints of the sacred encoded in the aural language of the record; beyond the FM bells, expansive 80s-style reverbs and overtone-rich analogue synth timbres reminiscent of pipe organs coalesce to evoke the sensation of a cathedral-like space, there are, echoes of the score for a certain TV show, perhaps our secular society's closest thing to sacred mystery. One gets the feeling that this is not so much stylised genre pop music, such as, say, “dreampop” or “synthwave”, as something more transcendent crafted from its elements.

  • Die Wilde JagdUhrwald Orange (Bandcamp)

    Die Wilde Jagd (The Wild Hunt) are a duo, originally from Düsseldorf, but now based in Berlin. Uhrwald Orange (“Clockwood Orange” in English) is their second album, and falls somewhere between electronic and post-rock. It is mostly instrumental, with half the tracks clocking in at over 10 minutes in length and none shorter than six, though a few with lyrics sounding not unlike a German Velvet Underground. The tracks tend to evolve and progress, like hypnotic meditations of layered rhythms and textures; slightly too languid to be labelled “motorik”, with pulsing synthesisers, sitars, spaghetti-western guitars and the odd field recording. Highlights include the 15-minute “Kreuzgang”, which starts off like a library-music take on Joy Division-style post-punk bleakness before setting the controls for an altogether more cosmic void.

With honourable mentions going to: Beach House, 7 (somewhat busier than their previous albums, though with the familiar dreamy haze; Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember was involved in the production), Blood Wine Or Honey, Fear & Celebration (psychedelic Afrobeat/Tropicalia-tinged party grooves from Hong Kong, of all places; sounds in places like NO ZU, only even more lit), Cale Sexton, Melondrama (808 and 303-intensive electronic grooves, with enough atmosphere to not get boring or require pills to enjoy; reminiscent of some of Aphex Twin's Polygon Window work in places, only dubbier), Camp Cope, How To Socialise & Make Friends (choppy/skronky yet melodious Melbourne indie rock fuelled by MeToo-era rage and knowing when to go rough-as-guts; reminiscent in places of Origami or Bidston Moss), Caroline No, Swimmers EP (understated rock'n'roll balladeering from Caroline Kennedy (of The Tulips and 90s alt-rockers Deadstar) and friends), Cavern of Anti-Matter, Hormone Lemonade (the follow-up to 2016’s Void Beats is literally a more stripped-back affair, built up over rhythms from Holger Zapf’s homemade drum machines, overlaid with layers of analogue synths, guitars and noise generators), Clue To Kalo, There's No Radio/In The All-Night Bakery At Dawn (a joyously maximalistic electropop song, reminiscent of Caribou or Panda Bear), Empty Files, Shadows (a.k.a. NIN goes to the hipster disco), Phil France, Circle (warm analogue electronic instrumentals, too chilled to dance to, but with more happening beneath the surface; not too far from Jon Brooks' analogue pastorals), Frankie Teardrop Dead, All You Need Is Love And Fucking Peace (above-average contemporary psych-rock, with above-average self-awareness (for one, they're not named “Underground Jesus” or “Acid Death Cult” or something); titles include “Joy In Division” and “Lost Member Of A Fake Boyband“; expect fuzzed-out guitar and chorused vocals), Fufanu, The Dialogue Series (The Icelandic electropop band's latest effort, originally released as several EPs; has its ups and downs, but some nice tracks like Typical Critical), Hatchie, Sugar & Spice (the début record from Brisbane teenager Harriette Pilbeam is a short slice of catchy shoegaze-tinged pop that evokes the likes of The Sundays; one to watch), The KVB,Only Now Forever (Reverbed vocals in an understated croon, the cold snap of analogue drum machines and layers of guitars and pulsing synths baked into a warm fuzz; combining the cold feeling of post-punk with analogue fuzz, The KVB deal in a sort of kraut-goth-psych-pop, somewhere between Darklands-era Jesus and Mary Chain and Joy Division at their most detached and motorik, with perhaps a nod to Berlin-era Bowie), Melbourne Cans, Heat of the Night (more Melbourne indie-rock, with shimmering guitars and vintage affectations; i.e., Heart Turned Blue, a slab of rock'n'roll noir not directly inspired by Twin Peaks, and the Be My Baby-quoting Followed Home), Midday Static, Dreamcatcher (guitar and beat-driven ambience from one guy in Tulsa, Oklahoma; if you like Robin Guthrie and Ulrich Schnauss, you might like this), New War, Coin (broadly in a post-punk vein, yet somewhat more expansive in tone; angular yet dubby with biting basslines, urgently yelped vocals, and more than the average amount of synth atmospherics; reminiscent in places of Dogs In Space), Örvar Smárason, Light Is Liquid (The solo début from Örvar, of renowned Icelandic bands múm and FM Belfast; chilled, glitchy beats, icy pads, warm electronics, leftfield techno and vocals chopped up, vocoded and processed to within an inch of their life; highlights include Flesh and Dreams and the closer Cthulhu Regio), Red Red Eyes, Horology (Laura from Betty And The Werewolves' new band goes into post-Lynchian territory; echoes of Death And Vanilla or Sir), Say Sue Me, Where We Were Together (fuzzy, jangly, indiepop from Busan, South Korea, evocative of C86/Sarah indie in places; Old Town could be twinned with Anorak City), Soft Regime, “Hard Feelings” (An EP of bright, hyper-saturated electropop songs about holidays in Europe, aging socialites and the magic of dance music; ⅓ of Soft Regime is Tim Benton, of indie-electro heroes Baxendale, and Dickon Edwards (of Orlando, Fosca and a renowned online diary) guests on one song), The Spook School, Could It Be Different? (their third record and first on Slumberland; melodiously skronky tweecore with a theme of defiant resilience and the power to fill indiepop dance floors), Tangents, New Bodies (dubby/jazzy/skronky post-post-rock atmospherics with live instruments and electronics), Tigercats, Pig City (Tigercats go deeper into afrobeat territory, with a record of largely kalimba- and horn-section-driven grooves, reinventing Limehouse as a sort of futuristic Nairobi-on-Thames, informal spaces in the shadow of concrete structures, pulsing with a tight beat and as antifa as Gritty), Mr. Twin Sister, Salt (the latest from the Long Island group, combines chilled electronics and soulful vocals (with, at times, stylistic amounts of AutoTune), covering a stylistic gamut between drum'n'bass, jazzy R&B à la Sadé, cyborg neo-soul and dub; impeccably smooth), Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, Dirt (The Toronto band’s third album manages to be both weightlessly ethereal and ultra-heavy, combining prog-rock intricacy with elements of metal and lovesliescrushing-esque shoegaze), You Drive, You Drive (impeccably cool synthwave pop, with luminous electronics and icily detached female vocals, from Nashville of all places).

As always, there were noteworthy things from previous years I only discovered this year. This year's ones were Cigarettes After Sex (whom I ignored the first time around, partly because their name made them sound like some kind of dumb hipster marketing gimmick, but was blown away by at Primavera; languid, atmospheric songs of contingent love, somewhere between The Velvet Underground, Mazzy Star and Slowdive) and Client Liaison (groovy 80s-style electropop, impeccably executed, with stage presence to match; also discovered at Primavera).

Were I to designate a record of the year, it would be either Montero, Dubstar or Them Are Us Too; it's a tough choice this year.

In any case, there is a Spotify playlist here.

2018 cds lists music 0


2017 is almost over, and so, here are my records of the year:

  • Alvvays - Antisocialites (BandCamp)

    The Canadian indiepop band's follow-up to their self-titled album turns up the polish, sounding in places a bit like a bolder, more expansive Camera Obscura. Weighing in at a slender 32 minutes, with 10 songs, Antisocialites brings catchy melodies and even catchier choruses, jangly guitars, driving riffs, the odd keyboard pad, and upbeat anthems seasoned with tasteful amounts of alienation and angst. Highlights include the jangle-tastic twee-pop-night floor-filler Plimsoll Punks, the gorgeously shimmering, almost My Favorite-esque melancholia of Dreams Tonite and the epic closing track, Forget About Life (hint: if someone gives you a mix tape ending with this, they almost certainly fancy you).

  • LCD Soundsystem - American Dream

    The surprise comeback from a band that came to both epitomise a certain strain of New York hipsterdom and dissect it, laying bare its contradictions; returning a mere handful of years after their definitely-final farewell gig in Madison Square Gardens. Was it the wisdom of David Bowie, with whom James Murphy worked briefly on ★, that made him change his mind? Was it all a cynical marketing gimmick, or perhaps even a meta-art project toying with the concept of “selling out”? In any case, it doesn't matter, as the record is as strong as anything LCD have done before.

    There are a number of standout tracks here: Call The Police is a driving 7-minute party groove with more than a passing resemblance to All Your Friends; How Do You Sleep?, a wrathful indictment of a former associate (widely believed to be ex-DFA partner Andrew Weatherall), builds up through five minutes of pounding drums and sparse synthesisers, before exploding into the usual LCD groove juggernaut. And then there's the title track, which broaches James Murphy's trademark subject, the plight of the aging scenester. This time, this takes the form of a midlife existential crisis, narrated in the second person, equal parts sympathy and mockery; the subject, one gets the impression, is an aging American Nathan Barley, in toxic, chronic denial about pretty much everything, not least of all being well over halfway into his metamorphosis into a bum from a Charles Bukowski novel. The track is just over six minutes long, and its synthesised rock'n'roll ballad stylings and crescendos give it a mock-heroic pathos that is just perfect. The album ends on a personal note with the 12-minute Black Screen, where Murphy lets his guard down and addresses his late hero, mentor and eventual friend David Bowie (“you fell between a friend and a father”). A welcome return.

  • Jens Lekman - Life Will See You Now (BandCamp)

    The long-awaited follow-up to 2012's I Know What Love Isn't is an upbeat record. Jens has been getting more deeply into the production of his tracks, and is now at the culmination of his journey from indie-pop minimalism to a sort of cut-and-paste baroque, applying the playfulness that goes into his wordplay and storytelling to stacking up beats, loops and samples, and you can tell that he's having fun. As well as the big disco buildups he loves (What's That Perfume You Wear?, because the cure for a broken heart is to get down on the dance floor like nothing else matters, and the epic How We Met, The Long Version, equal parts funk and romantic whimsy), Wedding In Finistère ruminates on the passing of life milestones over a South African township-style groove, and the opening track sets up a theme, knowing one's life's calling, with an anecdote about a Mormon missionary and the death of Princess Diana recounted over some Wham!-doing-Motown grooves, built up and playfully stripped back as he breaks the fourth wall. Lekman, it seems, is as much a postmodernist as he is a romantic. Thematically, though, he has moved beyond his usual comfort zone of romantic love and its absence; two of the songs on this album confront that timely theme, the toxicity in masculinity, or in particular, the way its rules cut those subject to them off from meaningfully connecting with one another.

  • Loney Dear - Loney Dear

    Swedish melancholist Emil Svanängen made a name for himself as Loney Dear, a purveyor of romantic (in a Sorrows of Young Werther sense), and sometimes enigmatic, chamber-pop; intricate miniature sonic dioramas of longing and inner anguish. His new album, the first since 2011's Hall Music, sees him move further away from the woodsily acoustic sound of his earlier work and dive deeply into electronic sounds; which is not as great a change as one might imagine, as he has always had a thing for intricate arrangements with multiple parts coming together. It opens with a flight into darkness in the frantic, minor-key Pun, its unusual time signature, descending basslines and chorus of disparate elements sounding almost Radioheadesque. The third track, Hulls, is a ballad about fraught, complex relations, driven by fraught, complex minor-key harmonies; it begins with a muted one-handed synthesiser line and Emil's plaintive vocals, and, as is often the case, soars to a crescendo for that brief moment when the narrator's inner demons are in harmony with the celestial spheres. It is followed by Sum, which combines layers of pulsing electronics and shuffling beats with enveloping harmonies like the Pet Shop Boys at their most classicalesque. Isn't It You? is another high point, a simple but lovely miniature of pure, ill-omened longing, like the most hopeful point in a tragic opera. The album ends on an upbeat note with the splendidly titled There Are Several Alberts Here, which sounds probably not unlike what you'd get if someone commissioned Sigur Rós to write a love song.

  • Briana Marela - Call It Love (BandCamp)

    Marela's follow-up to her 2015 album All Around Us is a more expansive, ambitious and complex affair. Warmly intimate, melodic pop songs about the permutations of friendship, love and their absence, built up from layer upon layer of processed vocals, subtle beats, programmed basslines and the odd bit of live drums. Most of the work is done by Marela's voice, passing through various layers of effects, loops and digital artifice, carrying melodies and harmonies and the odd instrumental accents, complemented by the odd subbass synthesizer or crisp drum machine loop. Marela explores the liminal spaces between intimacy and artifice, and has made a particular space—layered, textured, at once warm and pulsatingly luminous, ethereal and immediate, technological and human. Highlights would include the opening track, Be In Love, which arrives in a waterfall of synth arpeggios and vocal harmonies and then erupts into a groove driven by live drums and synth bass, and the title track, a driving, major-key M83-esque electropop number spontaneously forming from the haze of granular sound particles. Recommended to anyone who wished that Holly Herndon wrote pop songs, wondered what The Softies would have been like as a 2010s electronic project or misses Sally Seltmann's New Buffalo recordings. (Not recommended, though, if you're allergic to reverb.)

  • Milk Teddy - Time Catches Up With Milk Teddy (BandCamp)

    Five years on from their debut, Zingers Melbourne's Milk Teddy have honed their craft further and delivered a shimmering mirage of slightly off-kilter perfect pop. The opening track, New York Rhapsody, kicks off with chiming guitar chords evocative of The Sea Urchins' Pristine Christine and chorused vocals recounting subjective snapshots of the narrator's travels; by the time this has faded into Rock'n'Roll Cretin, a short, melodious slice of vintage radio pop, which, two minutes later, fades out through a recording of an Australian-accented radio announcer talking, for some reason, about pasta, to a surf-guitar instrumental, you get the feeling that you've slipped into a parallel world of indiepop, a widescreen, technicolor dreamscape, melodious and with a hyperreal vividness, displaced in time by some unknown and possibly unquantifiable amount from the flattened languor of Melbourne's recent crop of “dolewave” indie. Other highlights include Gothic Skyline, with its FM keyboard accents and FM-radio polish, the pop romanticism of Iron Rose and the impeccably named closer, Too Young To Vote Too Old To Cry, with its echoes of The Beach Boys. Not sure if this is as good as guitar pop gets, but, in any case, it has to be pretty close.

  • Mount Eerie - A Crow Looked At Me (BandCamp)

    A chronicle of mourning; recorded by Phil Elverum in the room in which his wife, Genevieve Castrée (a musician and songwriter in her own right, who recorded as Ô Paon), died of cancer, and recounting, plainly, the many sad milestones as someone close passes away, the moments shared falling further into the past. Neither affected nor embellished, nonetheless, this is the heaviest thing one is likely to hear; infinitely heavier than a thousand corpsepainted Norwegians cookie-monstering about sodomitic necromutilation and such. Forget all the posturing darklings, this is death, and loss, and abject human anguish at its most primal and inevitable. There is no comfort or closure here.

  • My Sad Captains - Sun Bridge (BandCamp)

    London's My Sad Captains have recorded three albums, finding a middle road between languid, sun-dappled Americana and gently propulsive krautrock. Their fourth sees them change tack slightly, opening with a synthesizer instrumental reminiscent of Tangerine Dream. Not to worry: the guitars, unhurried vocals and gently motorik percussion come back in the next track. The rest of the album goes on from there; layered, languid, enveloping and mildly psychedelic in places, with the odd synth pad or bubbling arpeggio fitting organically into their sound. A welcome return, and a promising change of heading.

  • Ride - Weather Diaries (BandCamp)

    Thames Valley shoegaze bands' comeback albums seem to be like buses: you wait for ages for one, and then two show up at once. Compared to their peers in what became the shoegaze scene, Ride's sound was always relatively clean and free of the usual reverb/delay. Consequently, 20 years on, their sound stands somewhat apart from the genre, and a listener unaware of their pedigree would probably not classify them alongside the likes of Pinkshinyultrablast, perhaps filing them under the catch-all of “psych”. For their comeback album, they recruited by Erol Alkan, the studio alchemist best known for transmuting scraggly indie-rock into something functionally equivalent on the dance floor to house music. The result is a sound that's tough and sculpted, with a clarity and solidity to it; there is some reverb and delay, but it is kept under control. Guitars, with varying degrees of fuzz (though no washes of delay) dominate, though chorused vocals, analogue synths and even the odd clunky drum machine, emerge in places. This is an expansive album, with a good amount of depth.

  • Slowdive - Slowdive (BandCamp)

    When the newly reunited Slowdive announced, in 2014, their intention to record a new album, there were doubts. How would a new album stand up next to, say, Souvlaki or the early EPs? The risk of it being an inessential appendix to the real Slowdive records of the 1990s was a real one. Fortunately, this did not happen; in fact, it's safe to say that they've hit this one out of the park. The new album, confidently self-titled, (mostly) does not radically depart from the style of their first act, but builds on it and achieves the rare feat of surpassing it and establishing Slowdive's reputation anew. The opener, Slomo, picks up where Pygmalion would have left off had most of the band not left, drifting in like a mist from the sea on a wash of processed guitars and vocals. Almost seven minutes later, it eases into Star Roving, which with its choppy guitars and driving percussion sounds like something off the legendary early EPs only more refined. Star Roving was the first single, establishing that Slowdive were back and in classic form. The second single, Sugar For The Pill, opens with a ringing five-note motif; by the time it reaches the chorus, with its synth pads and Neil and Rachel's vocal harmonies, it's as if they've reinvented 1970s soft rock via shoegaze. But it's the tracks in between that stand out for me: Don't Know Why and Everyone Knows, with Rachel's voice soaring over the harmonious maelstrom of howling feedback and chiming guitars, which bring back the sense of the sublime that one encountered upon first hearing Alison or Avalyn. The last track, Falling Ashes, departs from the familiar Slowdive-as-we-know-them sound; opening with a solitary piano line, some understated guitars, with drummer Christian Savill's granular-synthesis experiments subtly filling the empty spaces; there is perhaps a bit of Mojave 3 in the stillness. A return that exceeded its high expectations, overshadows Slowdive's earlier albums; even more intriguingly, there are apparently more Slowdive songs which sounded too different for the comeback album, which makes one intrigued as to what they do next.

  • Moses Sumney - Aromanticism (BandCamp)

    A concept album about, as the name suggests, abstaining from romantic love in a world that valorises it. Sumney's musical backings sound, in places, ironically romantic in tone, with lush string beds and bossa-nova guitars evoking old easy-listening records (and, for a moment, another act who, a quarter-century earlier, queered/queried the subject of romance and intimacy, Blueboy); elsewhere, it's adjacent to trip-hop and R&B, and, in places, could pass for Radiohead. On top of this, Sumney's voice soars in falsettos evocative at times of 78RPM blues record.

  • Warm Digits - Wireless World (BandCamp)

    A curious thing happened to the genre of krautrock, sometime after the term was coined: it became a mostly British phenomenon, eventually merging partly with hauntology (a term which originated in the writings of Jacques Derrida before becoming a byword for pre-Thatcherite institutional kitsch) and memories of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. Warm Digits, from Newcastle, are another exemplar of 2010s British Radiophonic/Haunto/Krautrock spectrum (alongside the sequenced Ostalgie of Scotland's Kosmischer Läufer, the unironic retro-optimism of Public Service Broadcasting and the analogue pastorals of Jon Brooks), though this time leaning strongly towards the motorik end of the spectrum, with touches of disco. Two drummers propel the grooves forward metronomically, covered by synthesizer arpeggios, angular basses, taut guitar lines, and in some cases, guest vocals (Warm Digits don't include a vocalist, but have guests including Field Music, Devon Sproule and Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell), stacked layer upon warmly overdriven layer; the effect is somewhat stylised, if not mannered, though they do it well. As is often the case in this genre, the music is self-referential, being both stylistically and thematically about modernity, with songs like Always On and Fracking Blackpool touching on our dependence on technology and the bargains we make. If there were a highlight (and the level is pretty consistent across the album), it might be The Rumble And The Tremor, which veers into punk-funk territory.

With honourable mentions going to: Beaches - Second of Spring (a cavernous 76 minutes of psychedelic, motorik fuzz-rock from the Melbourne band) ¶ Boogie Idol - 音楽より遠く (described as “the perfect soundtrack to shopping for vegetables or riding an elevator”, this is a sort of Japanese vaporwave, influenced by 1990s Japanese commercial background music; to non-Japanese ears, it sounds exotic and somewhat retro-futuristic) ¶ The Bran Flakes - Help Me (the plunderphonic collagists return, with their characteristic playfulness; this is essentially the Generation X zine culture's analogue of vaporwave, brightly coloured sound sculptures made of the detritus of the 20th century) ¶ Jon Brooks - Agri Montana (Warm, Buchla-driven kosmische pastorals, inspired by vintage postcards and climbing hills in Wales) ¶ Children of Alice - Children of Alice (the surviving members of Broadcast, paying tribute to Trish with a track of eldritch, and very British, hauntological musique concrète) ¶ Even As We Speak - The Black Forest (the Sydney band, who were perhaps the most eccentric act to sign to Sarah Records, return after a few decades, with four tracks of sunny indiepop and a rocking cover of the Horst Jankowski lounge standard made famous by The Goodies' pirate radio episode; short but sweet, and hopefully a harbinger of more to come) ¶ Jakuzi - Fantezi Müzik (krautrock meets synthpop, in Turkish) ¶ Lindstrøm - It's Alright Between Us As It Is (the latest slice of bouncy good-time electro-disco from the prolific Norwegian producer; also features an appearance by Jenny Hval) ¶ The Luxembourg Signal - Blue Field (Moody post-punk indiepop from Beth Arzy (of the Sarah band Aberdeen) and friends) ¶ Makthaverskan - Ill (their third album shows the Gothenburg post-punk indie-pop combo polishing their sound further, with Maja's voice soaring over crisp guitars like something off a John Hughes film soundtrack) ¶ Kelly Lee Owens - s/t (ethereal vocals floating over sequenced Hackney-warehouse-rave electronics, with some interesting progressions; there's also a guest appearance by Oslo angsteuse Jenny Hval) ¶ Pasocom Music Club - SHE IS A (Japanese retro electronica, nostalgic for the vibe of boom-era Tokyo; sounds like electro-funk made with Korg M1 presets, which is, needless to say, not a bad thing) ¶ Hannah Peel - Mary Casio: Journey to Cassiopeia (A short concept album about a fictional spacefarer, performed with modular synthesizers and a brass band, could have gone either way, though Peel manages to pull it off. Coruscating arpeggios, classical arrangements and the odd choral voice meld seamlessly into a beguiling whole.) ¶ The Radio Dept. - Teach Me To Forget EP (released on the back of their 2016 album, this nonetheless stands on its own due to a few excellent additions and an overall cohesion; I've written more about it here) ¶ Raven - The Night Is {dark,silent,bright,loud} (the full-length debut from the Sydney avant-gardist and cellist, a series of instrumentals, made with cello, piano, the odd field recording and digital processing; atmospheric, and in places discombobulating) ¶ She-Devils - She-Devils (the full-length debut album from the Montréal duo, recreating 1950s rockabilly/lounge grooves with loops and beats; vintage-styled fun) ¶ Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - The Kid (Smith has moved in a more pop direction than her earlier works, though the songs here have a layered, psychedelic sensibility, like Pikelet with a Buchla) ¶ Street Cleaner - Payback 2 (a concept album, the concept being the incidental music from 1980s direct-to-VHS action thrillers, which was made entirely with synthesizers, as that was cheaper, and thus sounded incongruously crisp and futuristic; file alongside John Carpenter and 1980s video-game music) ¶ Tornado Wallace - Lonely Planet (chilled, funky electronic grooves falling somewhere in the space between yacht rock, Balearic electropop and incidental music for a travelogue, with perhaps echoes of Virgin Suicides-era Air. Sui Zhen makes a guest appearance. Smooth sailing, or perhaps a 747 taking off into a neon sunset somewhere near the equator.) ¶ Underground Lovers - Staring At You, Staring At Me (known briefly during its gestation as Melbournism, this album follows on from their 2013 return Weekend, this time not veering far from the Undies' art-rock stylings; Vince does get his TR-808 out on a few songs) ¶ VAR - Vetur (the Icelandic post-rock band's follow-up to their 2014 debut; sweepingly atmospheric as one would expect, and sounding in places like iLiKETRAiNS crossed with a heavier Sigur Rós) ¶ Jane Weaver - Modern Kosmology (the follow-up to The Silver Globe continues further along the kosmische-disco line, with analogue fuzz aplenty and echoes of Stereolab and Neu! in places; oh, and one of the members of Can shows up, but only to say something psychedelic about the cycle of life and death and such).

If I had to choose one record of the year, it be either Slowdive or Milk Teddy; two very different records, but both of them superb. I guess it would depend on whether one wants shoegaze or pop music.

As usual, there is a Spotify playlist here:

2017 cds lists music 0


It's the last day of another year, and time to take stock of the year's musical releases once again:

  • ANOHNIHopelessness (BandCamp)

    Formerly known as Antony Hegarty (of The Johnsons), ANOHNI is back, and she's angry. She has swapped the wyrd-folk trappings of her earlier career for electronic beats (produced in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke); the result is an album of songs, each taking on a different target, such as global warming and climate denialism (4 Degrees), NSA mass surveillance (Watch Me), the US's attachment, alongside the likes of Saudi Arabia and North Korea, to capital punishment (Execution) and drone-based targeted killings (Drone Bomb Me); over beats and synthesizer sequences, she sings resonantly, embracing the evil with scathing sarcasm, at one moment imploring to be killed as a gospel singer would for salvation, and at another welcoming the mass extinction of entire ecosystems and the burning of the world with demented glee. Some tracks have stood the test of time less well, though; Obama, a scathing excoriation of the outgoing president's failures delivered in a low monotone set to stark electronic drones and pounding drums, will look like a grim joke in the coming years; even more so if one counts the possibility that its sentiment may have helped swing crucial votes away from Clinton. (Perhaps, once they round up all the liberals in America and put them in camps, this will play on a loop on the loudspeakers?)

  • The AvalanchesWildflower

    A herculean feat of crate-digging and mixing—hunting down countless tonnes of obscure vinyl, sampling elements from them, and blending them into just over an hour of seamlessly chilled groove-collages—that has been some 16 years in the making (though, to be fair, a significant proportion of that was probably sorting out of sample clearance rights). The result is a soup of breakbeats, flute trills, rich strings, clunking basses, orchestral segments and vocals, chopped, looped, processed with judicious reverb and the occasional touch of phasing or delay. Several of the tracks feature guest performances from rappers, including Oakland oddball Del Tha Funkee Homosapien. Also, this is probably the most American cultural product from any Australians not named Baz Lurhmann; there's nothing on the record alluding at its Antipodean origins; instead, there's a sort of displaced-nostalgic reverie for the fabled fifty states as imagined by Australian kids brought up on a diet of American television and music, a magical land of golden summers, cool cars, snappy dialogue and brightly coloured breakfast cereals. This Aussie fantasy-America is, due to being constructed from original materials, slightly more real than the neon-hued French fantasy-America conjured by the likes of M83, but nonetheless differs interestingly from the real thing, as places seen from outside tend to do.

  • beGunAMMA (BandCamp)

    beGun is a producer from Barcelona, and AMMA is 11 tracks of chilled sequenced melodic electronic soundscapes, building up out of layers of warm synth pads, bass lines, subbass drones, melodic lines, FM texture sparse beats and the odd thumb piano, field recording and vocal sample (mostly from African traditional music, it seems. If you like that sort of thing done well (and this is), check them out.

  • Cavern of Anti-MatterVoid Beats/Invocation Trex

    The new band from Tim Gane and Joe Dilworth of the massively influential Stereolab veers off in a post-krautrock direction; metronomic, hypnotic rhythms, patterns and electronic treatments (one of their members is synth wizard Holger Zapf). The opening track, Tardis Cymbals is almost 13 minutes of TR-x0x percussion and synth loops in ¹⁴⁄₁₆ time or similar, with processed guitars and synths coming in and out over that, and could easily have been ten minutes longer. Blowing My Nose Under Close Observation continues in the motorik/electronic vein, albeit is shorter and in the more familiar ⁴⁄₄ time. More familiarly Stereolabesque elements emerge in the third track Insect Fear, with its phased drum loop and overdriven Farfisa chords echoing something from the Transient Random Noise Bursts era, and later in Echolalia; one almost expects to hear Lætitia singing about the human condition. Of course, she doesn't, and to Cavern's credit, nor does any other French-accented female vocalist show up and attempt to fill her place. There are, however, other guest appearances; Bradford Cox of Deerhunter sings on Liquid Gate, taking it into New Order-meets-Doves territory, and perennial psychonaut Sonic Boom expounds impenetrable theories of planetary folklore, neat and through a vocoder, over layers of synth arpeggios and treated guitars and cymbals on the track titled, appropriately, Planetary Folklore. Much of the rest of the record consists of combinations of similar elements: synthesiser arpeggios, metronomic rhythms; texture and repetition, closing with the lullaby-like Zone Null. Void Beats/Invocation Trex plants its flag firmly in the psychedelic/kosmische space, though manages to avoid sounding derivative or too in thrall to any specific influences, even Stereolab. A good contender the psych/kosmische record of the year.

  • The Chandler EstateInfrastructure EP (BandCamp), and My Favorite, Christine Zero/Killed For Kicks (BandCamp),

    Two uneasy halves of the Long Island new-wave cult heroes My Favorite, who (in their original incarnation) broke up some ten years ago. The current My Favorite is the project of frontman Michael Grace Jr., a self-styled Sicilian-American Mod/Goth/Morrissey acolyte, and Christine Zero is coruscating new-wave synthpop about a recurring theme of his, the intense lives and deaths of life's misfits (Grace, in his vocal delivery, gives a nod to David Bowie on this record, as he did to Bryan Ferry on the single that preceded it). Meanwhile, The Chandler Estate is the new band of My Favorite's angelic-voiced former frontwoman Andrea Vaughn, breaking almost a decade's silence; the first track, Spies No More is like Homeless Club Kids Part 2, ten years later, and yet as urgent and poignant and aflame with the sublime anguish of being alive as always (“so with the kid on my hip I'm asking you to dance / let's put the kid in the crib, it could be our last chance”). Let's hope there is more to come.

  • David Bowie — ★, and Leonard Cohen, You Want It Darker

    Of the titans of music who left the world in this year's musical Gotterdämmerung, Bowie and Leonard Cohen released albums shortly before doing so, and in both cases, the albums were, judged aside from their finality, local high-water marks of the artists' late periods; had providence seen fit to accord Bowie and Cohen a few more years each, both and You Want It Darker would have stood up solidly in their careers.

    ★ (or Blackstar, where Unicode isn't available), coming out three days before Bowie's death, raised eyebrows even before its significance became starkly apparent; eschewing the retro-rock nostalgia of its predecessor, the conspicuously self-quoting The Next Day, Bowie also broke from his regular collaborators, instead recruiting a then relatively unknown experimental jazz ensemble fronted by Donny McCaslin. The result is bold and uneasy; the titular opening track evokes a non-electronic Kid A for its first four minutes, then emerging into more melodically familiar, yet still lyrically oblique, Bowie balladeering. The secret the notoriously private Bowie was carrying emerges, in retrospect in places: in the claustrophobic edginess of Lazarus, and most obviously, the elegiac Dollar Days, where the New York-based Bowie laments the prospect of never seeing the English evergreens again, before telling the world (“I'm dying to... / I'm dying, too”); this is followed, chronologically and thematically, by the upbeat I Can't Give Everything Away, ending in a fade-out, as if truncated by circumstance before its time to end.

    Cohen's final album is less oblique or experimental, but nonetheless a bold statement from an artist in command of his great talents to the end. Varying in style from old-time soul/rock balladry (On The Level and the almost Lynch/Badalamenti-esque Leaving The Table) to darker, starker sounds (the sparse, bone-dry It Seemed The Better Way with its violin, Hammond organ and minimal bass guitar, and the titular opener, with its synagogue choir). Cohen's aged voice adds a smoky darkness and the gravitas of someone who has made his accommodations, on whatever terms, with the all-devouring Chronos; the subject matter tends towards the human condition; the complexities of relationships (Treaty), devotion (If I Didn't Have Your Love) and a foreshadowing of mortality (Leaving The Table). Cohen's wise way with words will be missed.

  • Kero Kero BonitoBonito Generation

    Kero Kero Bonito are a London-based trio, fronted by an Anglo-Japanese frontwoman, Sarah Midori Perry, and connected with the millennial club-pop powerhouse PC Music. Bonito Generation, their second album, is a polished affair, consisting of 12 playful, immaculately produced electropop songs, mostly in English, though with the odd verse in Japanese, about subjects like taking snapshots, graduating from university, the challenges and possibilities offered by big cities and the joys of idleness. The sound is crisp and glossy, shining like the neon of Shibuya, and borrowing heavily from the sonic language of Japanese pop and Shibuya-kei, down to the layers of 90s-era digital synths and autotuned choruses. (The veneration of smallness in the songs—about things like fish in bowls, getting out of bed in the morning—also feels very Japanese; though lyrics celebrating slacking off and subverting the surface meaning of a song about education (“I didn't learn a thing anyway”) remind us that this is a product of Britain, not superlegitimate Japan.) Highlights include the exquisite J-pop of Big City, the 2-step-infused floor-filler Lipslap and the punchy, euphoric pop of Trampoline. This is an album in bold primary colours.

  • Let's Eat GrandmaI, Gemini

    As the giants of music fell, one by one, over the past year, one could be forgiven for thinking that all that's left is X-Factor contestants, a thousand interchangeable forgettably tasteful hipster bands and Kanye West. Unless one sees Let's Eat Grandma, two 17-year-old girls from Norwich who have been making music together since they were 13, and who play about six instruments each. Well-versed in the idioms of pop music that they play with, they nonetheless do their own thing, unconstrained by commercial considerations; sometimes they eschew the standard verse-chorus-verse-chorus-middle-8-chorus-gear-change pop song structure in favour of multipartite songs with instrument swaps, tempo changes and layers of melody and countermelody, and sometimes they just reclaim the recorder as an instrument for use in dance-pop. The next best thing to seeing them live, their debut album is proof that the kids are alright.

  • Lindstrøm - Windings (BandCamp)

    Lindstrøm, along with his compatriot Todd Terje, are part of a new Norwegian school of house/electronica which is to mainstream dance music what the 1960s Batman TV series is to the big-budget cinema Batmen of recent decades; instead of the grim-faced muscularity of mainstream house and alpha-masculine swagger of brostep, there is a playfulness, a lightness of touch and a sense of palpable joy. His latest EP. Windings, is no exception; the three tracks, all between 6 and 9 minutes, motor on propelled by the 4/4 pulse of a vintage drum machine, into a landscape of analogue synth arpeggios, sequenced bass lines, sawtooth synth-brass stabs, filter pizzicatos and the odd keyboard solo, flowing and reflowing into melodies, all seasoned sparingly with the odd digital drum machine handclap and 808 cowbell for good measure. The three tracks, as the title suggests, wind their way through a sonic landscape at once familiar and novel.

  • Lush - Blind Spot

    In 2016, the 1990s shoegaze quartet Lush briefly came back, released a new EP, spent most of a year playing gigs and festivals around the world, and then spit up again, returning to the underworld of defunct bands. The one musical artefact of this revenance was this EP, containing four new songs that are unmistakeably Lush. As I wrote about it when it came out, it could almost be considered as an artefact from a parallel universe, one in which the conditions existed for them to have avoided the alternative-rock/Britpop hype whirlpool, instead building on their ethereal-yet-spiky sound to an audience of fans; in that universe, something like that could have some out some time after Split. In this one, however, it came out 20 years after they broke up, and so the key difference is that the songs are from that point of view. The opening track, Out Of Control, seems to be about the fraught complexities of the relationship between a parent and a child on the cusp of adolescence, written with the straight-talking intimacy that the younger Lush reserved for more youthful forms of intense emotion. Lost Boy, meanwhile, is a poignant tribute to their drummer Chris Ackland, who took his own life in 1996, (“I feel your fingers slipping out of my hand / now I've lost you, where'd you go to”), and the void his death left. This is a powerful record, among Lush's finest work, and the fact of its existence is a bittersweet one; it's great that it exists, but also sad that this is, finally, the end.

  • The Radio Dept. - Running Out Of Love

    The long-awaited return from the Swedish shoegaze-pop duo, last seen with an album six years earlier, aside from the occasional MP3 railing against fascism over electronic loops. As one might expect, the new album is a departure in several ways. Stylistically, the warm guitar fuzz and distortion-cooked beats have been (partly) replaced with cool, precise electronics (more specifically, with a reference point more specifically somewhere around Manchester, circa 1989); thematically, the wistfulness has been replaced by a righteous (if understated, in very Scandinavian ways) anger, at the rightward-leaning political situation, but also at their record label, Labrador and the injustice of recording contracts. (The latter has been resolved, the result being yet another imminent departure, for a label of their own.)

    The short opening track, Sloboda Narodu (Serbo-Croat, I believe, for “freedom of the nation”) sounds familiar enough, with its languid guitar licks and conga loop, but the familiarity doesn't last long. Swedish Guns addresses Sweden's huge arms export industry and its incongruity with the country's vaunted humanitarian reputation; it takes the form of a sarcastic marketing jingle, in minor key, set to dubby electro backgrounds like a more downbeat Ace Of Bass (which may be in itself a reference to fascism). We Got Game is a dubbed-out piece of pop-house, apparently about protests and/or police brutality. Occupied, sounds somewhere between James Figurine's wintry electronica and 1980s New Order at their most detached, all chilly synth pads, sequenced basslines and 808 cowbells. Can't Be Guilty and This Thing Was Bound To Happen are the closest to The Radio Dept's earlier works, albeit more electronic, and with the wistfulness feeling more, well, 2016 (as the album's title suggests, this is not the time for personal introspection), while Committed To the Cause takes a detour into Stone Roses/Happy Mondays-style baggy territory. The album's parting shot (at the comfortably apolitical, presumably) is Teach Me To Forget, (“So teach me to forget, 'cause baby you're so good at it”), icy sarcasm over a bed of cold gated synth pads.

  • The Second-Hand Marching Band & Benni Hemm HemmFaults, and ThrowsThrows

    Two vaguely folky British-Icelandic collaborations. The Second-Hand Marching Band are a large band from Glasgow that could be lumped into the broad category of “folk” if one isn't a purist, with the beards, vintage spectacles, stringed instruments, glockenspiels and accordions that the name suggests; here, they collaborate with Icelandic singer/songwriter Benni Hemm Hemm, producing a record of warm intimacy. Throws, meanwhile, are from somewhere near London, and have more soul influences, along with fuzzy analogue electronics; their self-titled album was, however, recorded in Reykjavík with a massed choir of beer-drinking Icelandic gents (at least if their performance at Airwaves is anything to go by).

  • Vanishing Twin - Choose Your Own Adventure (BandCamp)

    Vanishing Twin (for a while known, confusingly, as Orlando) is a band put together by Cathy Lucas, formerly of My Sad Captains and Fanfarlo. As the title suggests, this is an album of conceptual play, with pop meeting psychedelic improvisation. In some ways, Vanishing Twin is in the same fluid genre as Stereolab and Broadcast, only their end abutting the realms of exotica and library music. Highlights include the groove of The Conservation of Energy and the Yma Sumac-meets-Emperor Tomato Ketchup of the closer, It Sends My Heart Into A Spin.

With honourable mentions going to: Asher LevitasLit Harness (immersive ambient/industrial/noise soundscapes; uneasy listening about tranquility amidst chaos) ¶ Factory Floor25 25 (more minimal, x0x-driven electro-house music(k), going on as their debut started) ¶ Fatima al-QadiriBrute (the Kuwaiti-born New York electronica artist's latest release, a concept album about protests and their heavy-handed suppression, following stylistically from the arabesque dubstep of Asiatisch, only more, you know, 2016) ¶ The FireworksBlack And Blue (skronky post-C86 garage indie from London with attitude) ¶ GoatRequiem (the latest from the northern-Swedish masked “tribal” psychedelia combo, equal parts Rousseau and Amon Düül II) ¶ Hana MaruHana Maru (nice indie chamber-pop from Melbourne, with piano and violins) ¶ Steve HauschildtStrands (kosmische analogue electronic ambience, in a post-Tangerine Dream vein) ¶ I MonsterBright Sparks (a concept album, with booklet, about the history of analogue synthesizers, featuring the Moog, Buchla, ARP and Mellotron among others, and done rather well), Jenny HvalBlood Bitch (the follow-up to Apocalypse, Girl mixes deceptively nice-sounding electronic pop with themes of vampirism, menstruation, fraught romance and capitalism) ¶ Josefin Öhrn and the LiberationMirage (10 tracks of propulsive, motorik krautrock/psychedelia done better than most) ¶ The Julie RuinHit Reset (Kathleen Hanna's back with some righteously skronky garage-punk-pop) ¶ LadyhawkeWild Things (the LA-based Kiwi songwriter/producer turning her golden ear to late-80s FM-radio pop à la Diane Warren, with the electronic gloss cranked up and the occasional Millennial Whoop to remind us that it is 2016; somewhere between Taylor Dayne and Taylor Swift) ¶ The Leaf LibraryNightlight Versions and Versions (two variations on their last year's album, Daylight Versions; the former is drony instrumental takes; the latter, remixes by artists including Cavern Of Anti-Matter and Greeen Linez) ¶ MemoryhouseSoft Hate (the Canadian dreampoppers second full-length album goes bigger, with a more expansive sound, though keeping the understatedness at its core) ¶ MomusScobberlotchers (sonically leaning on samples of old Japanese records, as his recent albums have done, Momus engages with the rise of populist xenophobia and personal responses to it; titles include Neo-Weimar, Year Zero and What Are Facts?) ¶ Pascal PinonSundur (languid, minimal Icelandic folk-pop from two sisters, one of whom also is in Samaris) ¶ Penny OrchidsNo Maps (the London klezmerbilly quartet bow out in style) ¶ PikeletTronc (Surprising, comparison-defying songs crafted from wonky loops, improvised electronics, pianos and layers of voice) ¶ SamarisBlack Lights (the Icelandic chilled electronica trio's third album, and their first in English) ¶ She-DevilsShe-Devils EP (loop-based rockabilly-styled pop from two women in Montreal) ¶ ₩€$€‎₦ - ₩ALL OF PAI‎₦ (a boy-girl duo from Reykjavík, making an understated autumnal indiepop with electronic loops, keyboards and the odd acoustic guitar, sounding in places like Pipas, had they signed to a Berlin glitch label)

Were I to choose an album of the year, it would probably be The Radio Dept.'s Running Out Of Love, with Cavern Of Anti-Matter, Kero Kero Bonito and Lush as runners-up.

And then there were the 2015 albums I unfortunately only discovered this year, but which should have otherwise featured on a record: Josefin Öhrn's metronomic psych juggernaut Horse Dance was one such revelation, as is the indiepop yé-yé of Iko Chérie's Dreaming On and I was late in picking up The Spook School's rambunctious queer tweexcore opus Try To Be Hopeful and the darkly luminous Subcontinental dubstep of Aisha Devi's Of Matter And Spirit. But the most poignant member of this list would be Remain, from Californian duo Them Are Us Too. Their sound is somewhere between The Sundays and early-1990s American swirlygoth bands like Love Spirals Downwards, with maybe a bit of The Cure circa Disintegration; drum machines and synthesizers, immaculate processed guitars, the singer's powerful soprano voice and plenty of reverb, making for a work of ethereal beauty. Tragically, I only heard about them because one of them was one of the victims of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland. Rest in peace.

There is now a mix of tracks from these releases on Spotify, here.

2016 cds lists music 0


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 & SebastianGirls 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.

  • BraidsDeep 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.

  • BridesheadNever 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 VanillaTo 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 HerndonPlatform

    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 HolterHave 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 HvalApocalypse, 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 MarelaAll 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 OrderMusic 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 ImpalaCurrents

    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.)

  • TigercatsMysteries

    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.

  • YACHTI 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: AlpineYuck (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), BjörkVulnicura (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 WiresRed 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 BarnettSometimes 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), CuusheNight Lines (an EP of tastefully chilled electropop grooves from Japan's Cuushe; BandCamp), Desperate JournalistDesperate Journalist (taut new-wavey indie-rock by numbers; reminiscent of early My Favorite in places), East India YouthCulture Of Volume (a bit more pop than his debut; Carousel stands out as the highlight), Fever DreamMoyamoya (some fine shoegaze à la Chapterhouse/MBV from a young London band to watch), Four TetMorning/Evening (a 40-minute 2-track EP/album, combining Indian vocals with kosmische analogue synthesizer pulses and making an entrancing work; BandCamp), GrimesArt Angels (interesting and idiosyncratic hook-laden electronic pop; highlights include Flesh Without Blood and REALiTi), GwennoY Dydd Olaf (Welsh-language haunto-pop, not too far from Broadcast), Haiku SalutEtch And Etch Deep (the Haikus go on as they started, only (perhaps appropriately) a shade deeper, more intricate and more expansive), Jean-Michel JarreElectronica 1: The Time Machine (get your arpeggiator/sequencer/modular-synth fix here), The Leaf LibraryDaylight 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. GoreMG (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), PinkshinyultrablastEverything Else Matters (another good shoegaze record, this time from Russia), Purity RingAnother Eternity (more witch-house-tinged electropop from the Canadian duo), Sleater-KinneyNo Cities To Love (the riot grrrl pioneers return in fine form), Stealing SheepNot Real (playful electropop from Liverpool; the title track is my favourite), Teeth Of The SeaHighly 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.

2015 cds lists music 0


Once again, the year is almost over, so it's time to look back on the music of the past year; and so, here are the records of 2014 (in alphabetical order):

  • Ben Frost, A U R O R A

    Frost's most recent album sees him put aside the processed electroacoustic sounds he has used on previous records and instead start experimenting with electronic/dance-music instrumentation (as alluded to in one of the track titles, Diphenyl Oxalate, after the chemical used in glow sticks); though, by the time they've been put through his production process (whose details are a closely-held secret), the sounds are almost unrecognisable, Frost also collaborates with two drummers, who play in tandem. The result is layers of vaguely distressed textures; slow build-ups, often of corroded timbres, and intricate soundscapes, punctuated by bursts of searing, cathartic noise; contrasts between vast spaces and overwhelming intensity. Highlights include Venter and the closing triptych of No Sorrowing/Sola Fide/A Single Point Of Blinding Light. Sublime, in the Burkean sense of the word.

  • East India Youth, Total Strife Forever

    William Doyle, aka East India Youth, juggles the hats of songwriter, minimalist composer and producer of bangin' choons; as such, Total Strife Forever could be summed up, somewhat reductionistically, as two parts Hot Chip to one part Philip Glass. The opening track, Glitter Recession, seems to have begun its life as a piano piece in the Glassian vein, before being given a doing-over in Ableton Live; the result is an atmospheric buildup, easing into a more typically dance-music second track, albeit with an unusual 5-bar loop. Track three, Dripping Down takes it into more mainstream club-ballad territory, combining beats and basslines, a chorus of “soulful” gospel-via-Radiohead backing vocals, and lyrics with asomewhat introspective and soul-searching theme (as befits the inner-space exploration that so often happens when electronica meets songcraft). This segues into Hinterland (a rather good bleepy techno banger that transports you to a sweatily euphoric basement rave in Hackney), possibly the highlight of the album, before Heaven, How Long, (a techno-ballad of chemical alienation morphing, in its chorus, into a club floor filler), and Looking For Someone (which sounds like a spiritual for millennials). Doyle's more avant-garde tendencies reëmerge in tracks like Midnight Koto and Song For A Granular Piano, as well as the four-part title track interleaved throughout the record.

  • Fatima Al Qadiri, Asiatisch

    A relentlessly postmodern, multilayered cross-cultural mashup like something out of a William Gibson novel; a Kuwaiti-raised, Brooklyn-based producer's concept album about the futuristic Far East, titled in German for some reason, and executed in a dubstep/grime idiom. Asiatisch starts off with the appositely-titled Shanzhai, a knockoff of Sinead O'Connor's cover of Nothing Compares To U, performed on synthesized choir pads, with the vocals replaced with nonsensical lyrics in Mandarin. The interlude Loading Beijing ramps the cyberpunk up to 11, as affectless machinelike voiceovers seemingly announce the initialisation of the virtual reality that is Al-Qadiri's gritty, high-tech new Orient. Other tracks, with titles like Forbidden City, Dragon Tattoo (its very title a semiotic layer-cake, juxtaposing Orientalism and cyberpunk via a recent Swedish crime thriller; the song itself sounds like M.I.A. reinventing Warm Leatherette) and Shanghai Freeway, combine oriental (and occasionally Middle Eastern) scales, synthesized shakuhachis and subbass drones to create an impressionistic sound-painting of something sprawling, neon-lit and aggressively futuristic.

  • I Break Horses, Chiaroscuro

    The Stockholm electropop duo's second album is a decidedly darker affair than its predecessor, seemingly having picked up DNA along the way from witch-house, coldwave and/or the recent wave of neo-goth synthpop like Former Ghosts and Cold Cave, and having an brooding, elegiac majesty to show for it. The opener “You Burn”, with its heartbeat rhythm, slow minor-key piano chords and measured vocals, sets an ominous mood; this is followed up eight tracks, alternating icy detachment and urgency over layers of coruscating synth arpeggios, bass drones, pulsing sequencers, gothic/industrial drum machine patterns and cathedraline reverb, with titles like “Faith”, “Denial” and “Disclosure”; the album is bookended with “Heart To Know”, knowingly weary vocals over a stripped-back piece of dusty, distorted ambience somewhat redolent of Polygon Window (i.e., Aphex Twin)'s Quino-Phec.

  • Makthaverskan, Makthaverskan II

    Technically a 2013 release, but it was released outside of Sweden this year, so it scrapes in, and if anything qualifies, this does. Among some of the better C86-almost-meets-shoegaze indiepop of recent times, sounding in places somewhere between The Sundays and The Cure's poppier mid-80s moments, with tight bass lines, choppy processed guitars and punchy, reverb-drenched female vocals; a highlight is No Mercy, which burns with righteous energy.

  • Oh Peas!, Shades Of Intolerance (BandCamp)

    Welsh multi-instrumentalist Rosie Smith, who is also one half of post-punk duo Totem Terrors, makes an impressive solo début with a collection of varyingly askew yet technically meticulous bedroom-pop songs, a few spoken-word pieces and the odd instrumental, layered from a variety of instruments (guitars, keyboards, melodicas and such) and lyrics alternating between pop idioms, quotidian observations, and the odd touch of wry surrealism and clever wordplay (example: “take a book of poetry to your best friend's birthday party, read them every poem about love, hate, war or death”, “you're so much sexier since I found out that you had dyslexia”). Highlights include the opening track Thick Like Snow, the Casio VL1-and-skronk punk-pop of Peanuts And Pickled Onions (which almost reinvents the key concepts of Ninetynine's Wöekenender from first principles), and the closing track Warm World, which is sweetly romantic and yet not cloying, not unlike early Mirah. This record manages to be at once uncontrivedly sincere and technically accomplished. Look for Oh Peas! to go places.

  • Penny Orchids, Worse Things

    London's Penny Orchids theatrically straddle the spaces between the scabrous end of rock'n'roll and older, though not necessarily more salubrious, traditions such as sea shanties and outlaw balladry; one could compare them to the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave, though the artists they remind me of the most are two antipodean bands, The Paradise Motel and Mikelangelo And The Black Sea Gentlemen. It starts off in fine form with One More Drink, a nautical murder ballad of sorts, and then goes on from there. About half of the album is themed, being the story of an Irish immigrant named Maloney who falls in with old New York's Jewish mafia; it's set sometime between the late 19th century and the Prohibition era, and adopts a klezmer idiom, which the band manage to pull off respectably (indeed, if one were to coin a genre name for this album, it would be “klezmerbilly”). The album closes with Shell Beach, a wistful piano ballad sung by the Penny Orchids keyboardist Kate Dornan, whose voice sounds a little bit like Sarah Blackwood of Dubstar. Dornan has been doing more singing in new, yet-to-be-recorded songs, which can only be a good thing.

  • The Royal Landscaping Society, s/t (BandCamp)

    Another new band from Spain's increasingly vibrant indiepop scene, The Royal Landscaping Society wear their Sarah Records influences on their sleeves, and combine that with more electronics. This year, they played at Indietracks and released their eponymous début EP, on French online label Beko. The opening track, Goodbye, starts off a little like The Field Mice's Five Moments; the Sarah comparisons continue in the third track, La La La, which doesn't sound too far from The Orchids or similar bands; other tracks (such as Frost) lean more on the synthesizers and drum machines, though often adding a guitar, not unlike bands like Kuryakin. The EP proper ends on a mellow note with Early Sunrays, all guitar arpeggios and synth strings, but this is followed by three remixes, from other Spanish indie artists. As this sort of classic indiepop goes, there are few better examples from 2014.

  • Todd Terje, It's Album Time with Todd Terje

    They like to have fun with their house/disco/electro/whatever up in Norway, and Terje Olsen, aka Todd Terje (his pseudonym itself a tongue-in-cheek reference to Chicago house DJ Todd Terry), is no exception. The album comes with playfully colourful, retro-styled cover artwork, and starts with a short theme tune, followed up by two tracks (Leisure Suit Preben and Preben Goes To Acapulco), which sound like TV-show themes and surf the fine line between cool and cheesy. The pace steps up into an unselfconscious 80s-flavoured retro-disco with Strandbar (which means “beachable”, I think) and Delorean Dynamite, before suddenly dropping the pace with a cover of Robert Palmer's anthem of middle-aged coupled ennui, Johnny and Mary; it's glazed over in soft, glossy layers of mid-to-late-80s overproduction (listen to those delayed drum-machine handclaps!), and sung by a weary-sounding Bryan Ferry, who could be the sharp-suited, melancholy drunk riveted to his barstool at the end of the night, his tie loosened and a cigarette burning to a stub in his fingers. The highlight, in my opinion, is the bipartite Swing Star (whose first part, all ambient synth arpeggios and drones, manages to sounds uncannily redolent of the Reload (The 147 Take) remix of Slowdive's In Mind, and whose second part reprises this with beats); finally, the album ends on a high with the bouncy disco anthem Inspector Norse.

  • Jane Weaver, The Silver Globe

    Jane Weaver was hitherto known mostly as a “folk” singer in a Wicker Man-esque vein; her new album is a surprise in its maximalist intensity; a densely cosmic, psychedelic affair, stacked with propulsive grooves, analogue synthesizers and lush textures, and not too far from Broadcast or Stereolab. The opening (and title) track is 47 seconds of ambience, all analogue synths and tape delays, easing into the metronomic kosmische grüv of Argent; a Krautrock juggernaut which motors along on a wave of pulsing bass, filter sweeps and choppy guitars. Weaver's ethereal soprano floats over this, weaving a tale of technological enchantment, and setting the mood and the theme for the rest of the album. Next up is The Electric Mountain, a prog-rock ballad built up over a Hawkwind sample and analogue synth riff, its story-telling vocals sounding somewhat like a more sci-fi-influenced Wendy Rule. Arrows (apparently based on a meditation on the cycle between the feathers from killed birds and the arrows used to hunt them) is a lovely, languidly ethereal piece, Weaver's vocals, singing a repetitive mantra, melting into a clunking bass guitar, wash of reverb over string machine and home-organ drums, before segueing into the Casiotone-driven disco stomp of Don't Take My Soul, with its circus-style melody and country-style falsetto, which would probably be the obvious radio hit. Cells has a dreamy languor about it, sounding not unlike Saint Etienne as heard from another room whilst still waking up; the tempo goes back up with the cosmic disco of Misson Desire, which one could imagine as the theme song from an obscure, infinitely cooler Barbarella-analogue filmed in, say, Yugoslavia or somewhere during the early 1970s. (There are undoubtedly layers of reference and allusion throughout this work; Weaver's husband and partner in music is the arch-obscurantist curator Andy Votel, after all.) The album eases to closure, with a few more mellow, though no less intricate, tracks, before bidding adieu with Your Time In This Life Is Just Temporary, its reverbed barroom piano courtesy of BC Camplight. In any case, this is a record which reveals more with each repeated listening.

Honourable mentions include: Aphex Twin - Syro (his long-awaited return from the wilderness, with a collection of twelve tracks—apparently the more approachable material he has been working on, with several discs of other things waiting in the wings—makes this 2014's m b v; the tracks, with their layers of analogue synthesizers, sequencers, beats and the odd processed sample bridge the gap to James' earlier works; they tend towards the busier end of his oeuvre, rather than the more ambient), The Drink - Company (BandCamp) (Dan and David from promising post-rock combo Fighting Kites hook up with vocalist Dearbhla Minogue (apparently from the Irish branch of the family). The result is a combination of angular post-punk guitar/bass, between Life Without Buildings and Future Of The Left with touches of Congolese groove here and there); the thing that stands out is the vocals, which eschew the untutored, melodically constrained shoutiness that has been a marque of authenticity since punk rock, in favour of a melodious soprano more reminiscent of traditional folk balladry; perhaps this is a hitherto unexplored side of the collapse of the equation of lo-fi with authenticity? In any case, the effect works), FourPlay String Quartet - This Machine (BandCamp) (their first album entirely of original compositions, without the covers they started their career doing; their compositions have always been good, and here they grow even more sophisticated, whilst still keeping their sense of humour; higlights include the Romany knees-up of Moon Over The Moldau, the vaguely Middle Eastern Anti-Occident (remember, this is a band whose first album was titled Catgut Ya Tongue?) and the driving Space Party Awesomeness), Future Islands - Singles (new-wave angularity with “soulful” vocals vaguely reminiscent of Gnarls Barkley's cracked bluesman persona), Goat - Commune (freaky cosmic psychedelia, vaguely reminiscent of a more polished Amon Düül II), Hookworms - The Hum (psych-rock meets krautrock, done well; not too far from Wolf And Cub or The Assassinations), Momusmcclymont - Momusmcclymont II (Momus and David McClymont's second collaboration, combining funky grooves and sardonic wit, not to mention their anthem to the birth of the independent Nordic-socialist Scotland that was not to be, Yes), Mr. Twin Sister, s/t (having prepended the "Mr." to their name, the band formerly known as Twin Sister ramp the smooth maximalism up, going between deep house and late-1980s R&B; highlights include opener Sensitive, which goes from dreamlike arpeggios to a slow-jam like something Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis could have produced around 1989, and the Underworld-esque propulsive techno of Twelve Angels), My Favorite - Second Empire/Dance With A Stranger (only a 2-track single, and not strictly the original My Favorite—Andrea's still nowhere to be heard, which may be a dealbreaker for some fans—but a promising comeback; very much in a synthpop vein, with Michael Grace Jr. wearing his world-weariness with panache), My Sad Captains - Best Of Times (the Captains' latest record sees them perfecting their mix of pastoral laconicism and motorik repetition, and even getting funky at one point), Geoffrey O'Connor - Fan Fiction (the themes of glamour and desire are similar to Vanity Is Forever, but the yacht-rock trappings are replaced with Pet Shop Boys-esque synthpop stylings, and O'Connor comes across as less of a seducer and more of an observer who, were he not so discreet, would have explosive stories to tell), Samaris - Silkidrangar (the Icelandic trio's second album, combining sparse, chilled electronics with lyrics from Icelandic poetry, and building on their self-titled début last year), Spearmint- News From Nowhere (the veteran indie band's return sees their songwriting take on more mature themes, with wistful reflections on what could have romantically been replaced by pieces on vegetarianism, environmental degradation and the failures of past idealisms), Takako Minekawa and Dustin Wong - Savage Imagination (1990s Shibuya-kei star Minekawa is best known for kawaii pop songs like indiekid mixtape favourite Fantastic Cat; her return, made in collaboration with Dustin Wong (formerly of Ponytail and Ecstatic Sunshine) is a glorious katamari of joyous melody, with track titles like Pale Tone Wifi and Dioramasaurus), Woman's Hour - Conversations (possibly the smoothest indie record released this year; late-80s digital synths and a Berlin-meets-Sadé vibe). And, as far as rereleases go, the standout title would be St. Christopher's omnibus retrospective, Forevermore Starts Here.

The album of the year is, of course, Taylor Swift's 1989, but were it not, it'd be Jane Weaver's The Silver Globe.

As far as the gigs of the year go, the highlight would be a tie between the Slowdive gigs I saw; they were all great, but I'd say either the very first one at Hoxton Bar (for the “I'm watching Slowdive play live!!” factor), the one at Primavera, for its epic scale and energy, or the very last one at the Forum (by when they had had half a year of live gigs under their belt and some appropriately psychedelic visual projections to boot); they were all magnificent. I'll just say that watching them play what their cover of Syd Barrett's Golden Hair has grown into—a sonic cathedral of coruscating majesty—is the musical equivalent of watching the most breathtaking sunset one has ever seen, until its very last rays disappear below the horizon into the velvet night.

This, of course, is a very hard act to follow, but the very strong runner-up was seeing Loney Dear play with the 22-piece Norrbotten chamber orchestra in the north of Sweden (I caught the first two dates of their tour, in Luleå and Haparanda). They played a raft of new songs and a few familiar ones (though Loney Dear's songs tend to evolve as he plays with them; Harsh Words, for example, has since grown an intro of analogue white-noise percussion). The orchestral arrangements worked really well as well; they were good, without being too pretty. Honourable mentions would probably be the Icelandic post-rock band For A Minor Reflection, seen at ATP Iceland, the FourPlay String Quartet soundtracking Neil Gaiman's The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountain at the Barbican, and Ben Frost, seen at St. John's Church in Hackney.

For your listening pleasure and/or curiosity, there is a streamable mix taken from the records mentioned above here.

2014 cds lists music 0


As 2013 draws to a close, it's once again time to look back on the records of the year, and so here is this year's list (ordered by artist name):

  • Beaches - She Beats

    The second album for the Melbourne indie-rock combo features kosmische legend Michael Rother guesting on three tracks. Musically, it straddles the boundaries of shoegaze, post-rock and the more impressionistic end of rock. Layers of guitar fuzz drive forward, propelled by metronomic drumming, as bass and guitar lines interweave and play off each other and reverbed vocals float ambiently over the mix; at times, it sounds like the bastard child of Joy Division and My Bloody Valentine, or possibly the first Wolf and Cub album. The overall effect is vaguely mesmeric.

  • Black Hearted Brother - Stars Are Our Home

    A surprise collaboration from Neil Halstead (originally of shoegaze legends Slowdive, though ploughing folkier furrows in the decade or two since), his producer Nick Holton, and Mark Van Hoen (of IDM outfits Seefeel and Locust), which dropped late in the year on US indiepop label Slumberland, though sounding anything but twee, or, for that matter, folky; instead, we are presented with a coruscating slab of kosmische prog-disco, space rock and more than a hint of shoegaze; maximalist music which is not afraid of layeredness. Stars Are Our Home opens with the title track, a portentious minor-key electronic instrumental one would expect to have been brought into being on a modular synthesiser the size of a room (in reality, it may well have been made on a MacBook running Ableton Live like every other track these days, but such is modern life); this leads into the most Slowdive-esque track, the gloriously fuzzy (I Don't Mean To) Wonder; the rest of the album consists of a mixture of Halstead's languid vocals and honed songwriting, underpinned with combinations of strummed guitars, analogue fuzz, bold, crunchy drums and electronics both subtle and bold, often building up into layered, gleefully multitracked crescendos reminiscent at times of Caribou/Manitoba. One of the highlights was My Baby Just Sailed Away, a cut of supercool kosmische disco that motors through the darkness in a haze of analogue synth arpeggios and guitar crunch.

  • Factory Floor - s/t

    Factory Floor, a trio who originated in the industrial/noise scene in East London, purvey an album of ecstatic electro workouts which meld the icy cool of early-1980s New York disco à la Arthur Baker with the minimal club scenes of Berlin and Cologne and just a hint of Throbbing Gristle-style menace lurking beneath the glossy surface.

  • Haiku Salut - Tricolore

    The début full-length album from the band that formed from one half of The Deirdres treads a far less rambunctious, and slightly less twee, path. Eschewing the handclaps-and-glockenspiel mayhem of indiepop, Haiku Salut venture at times into cinematic chamber-pop reminiscent of Yann Tiersen (Los Elefantes, Lonesome George), Múm-style glitchy dreampop (Leaf Stricken) and the more pastoral ends of the post-rock spectrum (Rustic Sense of Migration), alternating between piano, classical guitar, various percussion, accordion and electronic beats.

  • Kosmischer Läufer - Volume One

    This year's faux-Krautrock record comes with a backstory of being a compilation of tracks composed in the 1970s and 1980s by "Martin Zeichnete", a young East German sound engineer who, because of his illicit listening to West German Kosmische Musik, was drafted by the Stasi to create training music for the DDR's athletes. Which is a more interesting story than it having been made by two guys in Edinburgh in 2013. With a bit of suspension of belief, this record creates a semi-convincing alternate-history Krautrock fantasia, like a less fanciful Endless House. Besides the implausible story and even more implausible digital crispness of the recording, it is a compelling and listenable piece of motorik electronica; if you like music self-consciously rooted in 1970s Germany (and aren't too fussy about it citing the wrong Germany), you might find this to be an enjoyable homage.

  • The Magic Theatre - The Long Way Home

    Seemingly tailor-made for those missing Isobel Campbell's Gentle Waves project, The Magic Theatre (from two of the members of indiepop cult heroes Ooberman) delivers a package of immaculately retro-styled and impeccably artful chamber-pop. Released on credible Madrid indiepop label Elefant, The Long Way Home has the widescreen Technicolor sheen of high-end 1960s productions, with sweeping strings and woodwinds and nary a distorted guitar to be heard. Of course, in 2013, making a record that sounds like this is a deliberate decision, and some would say an affected one. The record nails its stylistic colours to the mast at the outset with The Sampler, a fairy-tale account of making a dress for a ball, sung over sweeping strings and sugarplum bells; this is followed by It Was Glorious, an paean to a youthful summer and/or a soundtrack to Jack Wills catalogue photography. (There are vaguely posh undertones to much of this album, perhaps echoing él Records' faux-aristocratic indie in the 1980s.) Festival of Fire veers in a Bollywood-via-Wes-Anderson direction, while Cathedrals Of The Mind, a whir of erudite references, explores the complexity, and ultimate futility, of civilisation, with more than an echo of Windmills Of Your Mind to it; this song in particular seems written for the end credits of a vintage spy thriller. The highlight would be the lovely I Want To Die By Your Side, which sounds like a synthless Dubstar and will undoubtedly end up a fixture of many mix tapes and indiepop kids' weddings. The closing track, which is also the title track, ends the record on a high.

  • Samarís - Samarís, and Cuushe - Butterfly Case

    This year's odd couple of albums; this time the shared theme being chilled-out electropop from volcanic islands. Samaris hail from Reykjavík, Iceland; their self-titled album actually consists of two EPs released last year, but those were not widely available prior to being rereleased as an album this year. They make a sort of low-key electronic dream-pop, with subtle subbass, skittering beats, artful use of dub delay, the odd arpeggiated synthesizer and quiet vocals in Icelandic; I was reminded a little of GusGus' 1997 album Polyesterday; not so much by the sound, but by the feel of it. Meanwhile, Cuushe, who hail from Kyoto and Tokyo, are slightly more upbeat and (for want of a better word) electronic-sounding; though sharing the IDM influences; there are slightly more layers of synths, the tempos are a bit faster, and the overall impression is a bit more urban. Their vocals, often multitracked and layered, are in English on all but one song, and sound slightly reminiscent of Múm.

  • Underground Lovers - Weekend

    It has been a long time between records for the Underground Lovers; their last album was 1998's Cold Feeling, a homage of sorts to their influences (Suicide, the Velvet Underground, Neu! and New Order are all in evidence there). And those who waited 15 years would not have been disappointed; this album has all the elements one expected from the Undies' 1990s heyday; the skronky too-cool-for-school alt.rock guitar lines married with slightly obsolescent dance-music electronics (no wubwubs or mad drops here), the mild incongruity adding texture. The Go-Betweens' influence can be felt in places in the record, in some of the more wistfully reflective songwriting (such as in the almost shoegazey Haunted (Acedia)), and more explicitly in the track Riding, recounting a party in the bygone days of a scene. The lushness of the production is particularly evident on the quieter tracks, including the opener Spaces, and the stylish dream-pop of Dream To Me, which is a Bacharachian trumpet accent away from being a Birdie song. The album closes with The Lie That Sets You Free, a motorik workout on a par with Cold Feeling's Feels So Good To Be Free. This record carries its weight in years, as befits a band of the vintage of the Underground Lovers, and does so gracefully. All in all, a fine return, and hopefully not the last we'll hear from the Undies.

  • Veronica Falls - Waiting For Something To Happen

    The best New York C86-revival band to come out of London, Veronica Falls hone their chops for their second album, which is a somewhat more tightly-coiled, groovy and melodic affair than the affable scruff of their début, whilst maintaining a similar theme of stylised teenage drama executed in boy-girl vocal harmonies.

  • T.R.A.S.E. - Tape Recorder And Synthesizer Ensemble

    Not a new record per se, but a new find, consisting of demos and experimental recordings made by Mancunian teenage synth boffin Andy Popplewell in the late 70s/early 80s on synthesisers he built himself; abandoned for a few decades, it surfaced when Popplewell, now a middle-aged tape-restoration consultant, used his old tapes as an experimental subject for restoration, and then happened to chance upon obscurantist cratedigger Andy Votel, who was getting some tapes restored for his Finders Keepers reissue label. A lot less rough than one would expect; highlights include the proto-shoegaze of Harmonium, the beats of Electronic Rock and a cover of Gary Numan's We Are So Fragile.

And this year's honourable mentions go to: Beachwood Sparks - Desert Skies (summery Californian retro guitar-pop; formulaic as all hell, but done decently; a stylish haze of displaced nostalgia), CHVRCHES - The Bones Of What You Believe (2013's hipster-friendly electro smash; like a more euphoric, less witchy Purity Ring), Crocodiles - Crimes of Passion (Crocodiles' most poppy record so far, produced by Sune Wagner of Danish rockabilly pop combo the Raveonettes), Day Ravies - Tussles (a promising début from a new Australian band in a lo-fi/shoegaze/skronk vein; this will take more listening), Fuck Buttons - Slow Focus (a worthy follow-up to Tarot Sport and their Olympic opening ceremony appearance, albeit in a darker vein), Mazzy Star, Seasons Of Your Day (another in 2013's crop of comeback records, this time from the pastoral dreampop combo), Momus, with two releases; the stripped-down almost bluesy Bambi and MOMUSMCCLYMONT, the funky self-titled début of his collaborative project with David McClymont, the now Melbourne-based bassist of Scottish indie legends Orange Juice, My Bloody Valentine - m b v (a worthy and intriguing follow-up to Loveless; now let's see what they do next), Neon Neon - Praxis Makes Perfect (a concept album about an Italian Communist book publisher during the upheavals of the Years of Lead, executed in electropop/yacht-rock style), OMD, English Electric, and Pet Shop Boys, Electric (two similarly titled albums from two veteran synthpop acts bring two different approaches; OMD bring the gravitas of High Modernist heritage to the genre, as evident in tracks like Metroland, while the Boys take it to the dancefloor with some hard grooves and their usual wry lyrics), The Paradise Motel, Oh Boy (the Motel's concept album about Australian masculinity sees them change into a band almost unrecognisable from the haunting Tasmanian Gothic of their early EPs; this record starts with a ballsy, bluesy growl and goes on from there), Pikelet, Calluses (loop-pedal wizard Evelyn's latest goes into loose-limbed mutant-disco territory than Pikelet's previous works, with funky basslines and coruscating synth arpeggios melding with the exotic tonalities one has grown to expect), Still Corners, Strange Pleasures (Still Corners' second album is a brighter affair, with more of a spacious 80s dream-haze thing going on), Yo La Tengo, Fade (YLT's latest is a warm, layered and subtly idiosyncratic affair, building on their legacy, and doesn't disappoint), various artists, I Am The Center: Private Issue New Age Music In America, 1950-1990 (forget the airbrushed dolphins-and-rainbows kitsch and cynically made cash-in attempts for sale in crystal shops, this is a compilation of original compositions by various inspired individuals and eccentric experimentalists, complete with biographical liner notes, and, musically, is a lot more interesting and nuanced).

Nothing immediately jumps out as a record of the year, though Samarís and Underground Lovers are strong contenders; had Black Hearted Brother come out earlier, it could well have given them a run for their money.

My gigs of the year would be:

  1. Loney Dear, Majornas Missionsyrka, Gothenburg, 5 October; Loney Dear performing a number of songs, including some classics and a few new ones, accompanied by a chamber orchestra, in a rather lågom church next to a Gothenburg tower block. The orchestral arrangements were exquisite, and the whole experience was worth the flight to Sweden.
  2. Kraftwerk, Harpa, Reykjavík, 4 November; not having managed to see them in London or New York, I jumped at the opportunity when they announced a show in Reykjavík, making my second trip to Iceland of they year. The show was spectacular; more about it here.
  3. Haiku Salut, St. John's, Bethnal Green, 12 October; Haiku Salut playing in a church, accompanied by several dozen electronically controlled lamps that lit up in time with the music. A great show and a somewhat twee spectacle.

For your listening pleasure, there's a streamable mix taken from the records of the year here.

2013 cds lists music 1


And now, as usual, here is my annual list of records of the year:

  • Aleks & the Ramps - Facts

    Melbourne's Aleks and the Ramps have made a career just on the music side of the border between music and comedy, being a bit like a Doug Anthony Allstars with a stronger focus on musical composition and arrangement. Facts, their first record in three years (and their first since the departure of Janita Foley) follows in this. It sounds slightly smoother and more polished, with layers of shimmering keyboards, guitars (ranging from languid slide to funky African grooves and the odd crunchy power chord), the odd banjo and ooh-aah backing vocals forming pop melodies that reach an almost loungey smoothness at times, serving as a bed for Aleks' laconic, deadpan croon, delivering a continuous stream of zingers like “it's hard to breathe in the back of a horse costume, or pay attention to the tension in the room”, “now he never leaves the house looking less than presidential, as he studies all the bridges for their suicide potential”, and “meanwhile back on the Serengeti, my shirt's still smelling all cigarettey". I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Tigercats.

  • Beach House - Bloom

    With Bloom, Beach House have transitioned to being the closest thing to a Cocteau Twins for the 2010s; they're different, of course (the guitar work doesn't sound quite like Robin Guthrie's, and the vocals are in comprehensible English), but subjectively, the experience of listening to Bloom is like that of hearing the Cocteaus' Victorialand was; the way that the songs come together, build up and envelop the listener. Beach House's previous albums didn't quite gel for me, but this is the one where it all comes together.

  • Crocodiles - Endless Flowers

    The latest from the San Diego garage-rock classicists, Endless Flowers; it's somewhat more light-hearted than the Dionysiac/Baudelarian darkness of their previous works, perhaps due to happy romantic circumstances in the frontman and songwriter Brandon Welchez' life; No Black Clouds For Dee Dee certainly appears to be dedicated to his new wife, Dee Dee from NYC86ists the Dum Dum Girls. Nonetheless, the Crocodiles do a certain kind of studied yet louche underground rock'n'roll really well, and got quite a few spins where I am. Highlights would include Electric Death Song, Sunday (Psychic Conversation #9) and Hung Up On A Flower, a paean to narcotic languor which ends with the drummer reciting poetry in German through a Space Echo.

  • Eccentronic Research Council - 1612 Overture and Purity Ring - Shrines

    Two quite different records with a few common themes running through them. Both are predominantly electronic, albeit in different fashions; the warm analogue radiophonica of the ERC contrasting with the icy autotuned crispness of Purity Ring. Both have a connection to the eldritch; 1612 Overture is a concept album about the Pendle witch trials, juxtaposing those with the inequities of Cameron/Clegg Austerity Britain, while Purity Ring's vocals juxtapose a Cronenbergian body-horror imagery with a sheen of airbrushed eroticised glamour associated with commercial pop music. And finally, both albums lift their forms from underground trends; The Eccentronic Research Council (who consist of two musicians–one of whom was in early-2000s Mancunian chilled-beat mongers I Monster, best known for the German lounge orchestra-sampling Daydream In Blue—along with solidly Northern actress Maxine Peake providing the monologues) borrow wholesale from the hauntology milieu pioneered by the Ghost Box label, with their faded retro-modernist cover art featuring geometric forms and Helvetica, and their name, like The Advisory Circle and the Moon Wiring Club, evoking a fantasy pre-Thatcherite Britain of ghost-haunted analogue circuits and a vaguely socialistic yet faintly ominous technological optimism. (And then there's the opening track being titled Autobahn 666, and starting with synthesizer arpeggios and sampled car sounds; I'm fairly sure I've heard something like that before somewhere.) Purity Ring, meanwhile, take the Witch House/goth-crunk trend that all the cool kids in Brooklyn were into a few years ago and run with it for a good distance.

  • Jens Lekman - I Know What Love Isn't

    The Swedish crooner and sometime Melbourne resident's first full album in five years, and a welcome return. It's less upbeat than his previous album, 2007's Night Falls Over Kortedala, with Jens having gone through a breakup before writing it, though this is welcome; as a songwriter, he does melancholy better than contentment. (I thought Kortedala was a bit too cheerful, and generally skipped the romcom-in-a-pop-song that was Your Arms Around Me when it came on). And while it is tinged with melancholy, Jens' pop sensibility manages to keep it from being a downer; there is a lushness to its arrangements, and, of course, to Jens' voice. Highlights include The World Moves On (a story of romantic (mis)adventure in Melbourne's inner north on the hottest day on record), I Want A Pair Of Cowboy Boots, and the bare, elegiac Every Little Hair Knows Your Name, which, along with its reprise, bookends the album.

  • The Rosie Taylor Project - Twin Beds

    Leeds' The Rosie Taylor Project made their appearance in 2008 with This City Draws Maps, an 8-track album of understated folk-pop songs for overcast days, all finger-picked guitars, breathy vocals and the odd trumpet and glockenspiel, somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne bands like Gersey or Sodastream. On their 2012 follow-up on London's Odd Box label, the sun breaks through the clouds as the band finds more of a groove. The first track is a two-minute quasi-instrumental, starting with synth pad, with a dubby bass guitar and drums joining in; the second track, For Esme, gets things moving, with an almost mariachi-esque trumpet. The rest of the album manages to combine the introspective lyricism of its predecessor with a more elaborate production and some catchy grooves, the height of which is probably Sleep, which almost reinvents disco from first principles. Keep an eye on these guys.

  • Still Flyin' - On A Bedroom Wall

    Not quite the full album of polyester-smooth yacht rock I was expecting after Victory Walker, though these guys sure know how to rock a party. On A Bedroom Wall sees Still Flyin' take a more electro/new-wave direction, almost meeting Cut Copy in the middle. If all the hipsters in your town were wearing cleats for some portion of 2012, this album could be the reason.

  • Tender Trap - Ten Songs About Girls

    It's fair to say that Amelia Fletcher is no underachiever; having co-founded the groundbreaking Sarah Records indiepop bands Talulah Gosh (whose other alumni include 2012 Turner laureate Elizabeth Price) and Heavenly a quarter of a century ago, she has maintained a presence in the genre all the while becoming the senior economist overseeing mergers and acquisitions in the UK, possibly making her the most senior civil servant with an active recording career. The latest album by her current band, Tender Trap, stands solidly alongside her earlier bands' classic output. Ten Songs About Girls is a record firmly in the Talulah Gosh/Heavenly style, honing and perfecting it and even in one song (Step One) laying down a template-cum-manifesto for it. Highlights include the opening track, Train From King's Cross Station (is that a nod to Betty and the Werewolves' Euston Station?), with its spiky punk guitars and bass and cupcake-sweet girl-group harmony vocals, Leaving Christmas Day (a song about breaking up with someone over his creationist beliefs, which will have a place on indiepop-for-atheists mix tapes next to McCarthy's Should The Bible Be Banned?) and the lovely, poignant Memorabilia, an account of a long-lost relationship in the past through a box of badges, mix tapes and letters. Unlike the works of other veteran indie acts (like, say, Tracey Thorn, The Would-Be-Goods and Saint Etienne), Tender Trap have eschewed writing songs set in later adulthood, staying in the boyfriends-and-girlfriends milieu of an extended adolescence set sometime between the heyday of C86 and now; this works well for them.

  • Tigercats - Isle of Dogs

    Tigercats have become one of my favourite London bands recently, and their début album captures the energy of their gigs as well as can be done. Their sound is a tightly angular, ecstatically rhythmic, Afrobeat-tinged post-punk party pop, in some cases shading into Architecture In Helsinki territory (such as Limehouse Nights). Highlights include the opening track, a manifesto for the gentrification-besieged Isle of Dogs, The Vapours, which gets its name from a dream of 1980s new-wave one-hit wonders, and the epic roof-raiser Banned At The Troxy. I'd love to see these guys on a bill with Aleks & The Ramps.

  • The Wake - A Light Far Out

    Glaswegian indie veterans The Wake's previous record was 1994's Tidal Wave of Hype, released by Sarah Records in the wake of Madchester and as Britain's indie underground was exploding into the marketing phenomenon known as Britpop. 17 years later, they return, opening the third chapter of their recording career. A Light Far Out does not sound like either The Wake's starkly monochromatic Factory material nor the almost baggy grooves of their Sarah material, though there are echoes of their material; their melodic basslines, synth pads and an air of wistfulness, augmented with subtle and skilful use of electronic music elements such as granular delays and glitchy loops. The opening track, Stockport, starts with a familiar jangly guitar and melodic bass sound, accompanied by subtle electronics, and soon builds up into something lusher, yet with a yearning quality not unlike The Field Mice, a combination which recurs on If The Ravens Leave, the contemplative Methodist and the layered instrumental Faintness. Carolyn takes over vocal duties on the gentle and yet almost sinister Starry Day, a song with a hint of the Wicker Man about it. A highlight is the 9-minute title track, which is given time to evolve, through gentle guitar arpeggios, vocals and then languid seascapes of synths, subtle electronic beats and, eventually, violins. All in all, a welcome return, and a very strong record in its own right.

With honourable mentions to: Jherek Bischoff - Composed (a nice set of instrumentals from the other guy from Parenthetical Girls), Carter Tutti Void - Transverse (two former members of Throbbing Gristle and up-and-coming electronic ecstasist Nik Void reinvent the idea of “trance music” along similar lines to New Order's Video 5-8-6), Dead Can Dance - Anastasis (DCD pick up where they left off, with just a little more electronics), DIIV - Oshin (driving, motorik guitar/bass/drums workouts, with reverbed vocals floating above; just barely missed the top 10), Dntel - Aimlessness (Jimmy's latest effort, which sounds more like Life Is Full Of Surprises than Dumb Luck to me), Greeen Linez - Things That Fade (1980s Japanese City Pop-flavoured hauntology from two English blokes based in Cambridge and Osaka), Heligoland - Bethmale EP (five subtle, gently shifting soundscapes from the Paris-based, Robin Guthrie-connected Melburnian shoegazers), Memoryhouse - The Slideshow Effect (Memoryhouse return with a fuller lineup and an album more in a rock/pop idiom than their EPs), Milk Teddy - Zingers (languid yet slightly dishevelled and somewhat leftfield guitar-based rock by a new Melbourne band), Momus - Bibliotek (One of Mr. Currie's two contributions this year, this one without a collaborator, in the cut-and-pasted electronic chanson style he now favours), Peaking Lights - Lucifer (interestingly dubby arrangements of lo-fi electronics, home-organ beats, tape delays and sparse vocals), Saint Etienne, Words And Music By Saint Etienne (the thinking indiekid's Kylie contemplate the meaning of pop music and the passing of time), Sunbutler - Sun Butler (Momus and Joe Howe's second collaboration following Joemus), Swans - The Seer (a record of brutal, transcendent ecstasy which makes Grinderman sound like Michael Bublé by comparison), The 2 Bears - Be Strong (in two words: “Dad House”; in more words: late-thirtysomething blokes who know more about dance music and cratediggers' classics than most flex their production muscles and have fun doing it), Ultraísta - Ultraísta (the Radiohead producer's own effort, which sounds like late Radiohead minus all guitars and Thom Yorke's new-world-order weltschmerz but instead substituting motorik rhythms, layers of warmly detuned analogue synths, fuzzy drones and hypnotic female vocals), WeShowUpOnRadar - Sadness Defeated (somewhat more stripped back than the Nottingham project's previous EP).

Had I to choose an album of the year, it would be either Tigercats' Isle Of Dogs or The Wake's A Light Far Out; two very different records it would be very hard to choose between.

The rerelease of the year would have to be Clag - Pasted Youth, which is more of a retrospective compilation of the Australian twee-punk band's releases and live gigs, long unavailable except on badly digitised MP3s, now remastered and accompanied with liner notes. Were there to be a track of 2012, it would be Peaking Lights' Lo Hi.

For your listening pleasure, there is a mix here.

2012 cds lists music 0


And now, here is my list of notable records of 2011:

  • Architecture In Helsinki Moment Bends

    With their previous album, released way back in 2007, AIH shook off the "twee" label and let rip with some nitro-charged machismo; now, four years later, they turn to the daggy side of the force. Moment Bends celebrates all the elements of mainstream pop that filled the airwaves in the 1980s by building them into a neon edifice to vintage electro-pop kitsch. It's all here: synth licks you swear you've heard before in a mid-80s movie soundtrack or album (is that Glenn Frey? And over there, you can just about hear Control-era Janet Jackson), shimmering arpeggios, a plastic reggae riddim here (in the opening cut Desert Island), some synth brass there, even the odd gear change and Clearmountain break for the sake of completeness. The word "chillwave" may come to mind, though AIH differ from the chillwave aesthetic in their eschewal of the gauzy haze afforded by shoegaze-style reverb and delay; everything here is clear and upfront, with the possible exception of the lyrics, which, in AIH fashion, would be a little too oblique for the 1980s-vintage Top 40. File alongside the new M83 double album.

  • Constant Light, Mag - Amplitude

    Released as a download on Constant Light's Bandcamp page, the Melbourne duo's debut, Mag - Amplitude consists of a mere six tracks, varying in length between 2 and 10 minutes, and falls somewhere in the post-rock/instrumental spectrum, driven by bass guitars, synthesiser patterns, processed guitar and layered textures. The influences range from the kosmische musik of 1970s West Germany to the monochromatic drone of 1980s New Wave (Factory Floor captures the mood of a certain Manchester label and takes it for a ride down the Autobahn). Half of the album is taken up with a three-piece composition, Dreams of Dreams Denied, which opens with languid acoustic guitar and harmonica figures, like Morricone meeting Mogwai, drifts through layers of shifting texture, motors on into a driving rhythm propelled by guitars and drums, before coming to rest in a glorious finale of coruscating synths.

  • Geoffrey O'Connor, Vanity Is Forever

    The capsule summary sounds almost like the punchline to a hipster joke: "Inner-Melbourne coolsie makes yacht rock album". On the surface, this is what Vanity Is Forever is: Geoffrey O'Connor, the fey, long-haired frontman of twee-pop combo Crayon Fields has come back with a radical image change. Gated drums, syrupy synth keyboards, and the kind of production that sounds like a million dollars in 1980s money; only the label (Guy Blackman's credible Melbourne indie Chapter Music) and year of release hint that this wasn't recorded in an bleedingly expensive studio in Aruba. As for Geoffrey, he has, well, "grown up" is perhaps not the right cliché, though as he himself puts it, embraced the artifice of it all; his previous sound of 1960s-vintage pastoral innocence, naïve almost to the point of childlikeness (itself arguably an artifice) has been buried beneath a sheen akin to Bryan Ferry in his imperial phase, with touches of Italianate chintz worthy of the San Remo Ballroom. Geoffrey's old façade of elfin faux-naïveté reappears in places (particularly in Like They Say It Does, where he pushes it almost to the point of self-mockery), though the album is in a much more adult mode, hinting copiously at the exhilarating heights of erotic passion with a new lover (voiced, in one song, by Melbourne's own Jessica Says), and mentioning offhandly that it's going on her indolent soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend's credit card. An intriguing change of direction, and a stylishly crafted album that picks its references well.

  • Hong Kong In The 60s, My Fantoms

    Their first full-length non-instrumental album (before they had an EP and an instrumental album), and it's as subtle as you'd expect, starting off with the dreamy Casiotone-driven ballad of When You Were Dreaming, and proceeding to the bossa-tinged, synth-accented You Can Take A Heart But You Can't Make It Beat, before foraying into a Les Petits Chasseurs Du Son, an instrumental interlude which sounds like Wendy Carlos scoring a Dario Argento film. The rest of the album is in a similar vein, mixing subtle pop with the odd cinematic pretension (such as Theme From King Of Chinatown), before drifting off with the ethereal Shadow Of The Bear.

  • I Break Horses, Hearts, and Korallreven, An Album By Korallreven

    Two albums, both from Sweden and exploring the spaces between electronica, shoegaze and what, for lack of a better word, may be termed "indie rock". Korallreven are the latest practitioners of the improbably-named Swedish Balearic Pop subgenre, and, for the most part, don't veer wildly from the footsteps of predecessors like Air France and Boat Club. (Swedish Balearic, for what it's worth, is somewhere between chillwave and the Café Del Mar chillout compilations that were big about a decade ago; think pulsing synthesizers punctuated with acoustic guitars, bongos and reverb-drenched vocal fragments; tropical-holiday-island imagery and a production sensibility informed by shoegaze.) Having said that, Korallreven (a duo, one of whom plays in Stockholm shoegaze-pop combo The Radio Dept.) are pros at it and do it well, doing for the subgenre what pop veterans Empire Of The Sun did for indie-dance in Australia. I Break Horses, meanwhile, started off as a duo and grew into a band; they're not part of the Balearic scene, though explore their own space a similar space; their album consists of layers of electronics, guitars and live drums, with songs evoking the likes of My Bloody Valentine, Suicide and New Order, as well as more recent bands like M83 and The Radio Dept.

  • The Leaf Library, Different Activities, Similar Diversions

    The long-awaited full-length début from the London motorik pop combo (available from their BandCamp page) alternates between driving rhythms backed with choppy guitars and washes of Casiotone keyboards and more languid moments of hushed vocals backed by layers of subtle instruments; equal parts Yo La Tengo and Stereolab with perhaps a hint of Aphex Twin in places. This album is understatedly lovely, and gets its beauty from artful arrangements of texture and repetition. It sits well alongside both Constant Light and Hong Kong In The 60s.

  • My Sad Captains, Fight Less, Win More

    Their début album made my list of 2009, and I've been eagerly awaiting their follow-up; I'm glad to say that it does indeed live up to my expectations. It doesn't depart far from their sound. Fight Less, Win More is an appropriate title; its laconic pop sound could scarcely be less combative, and its catchy melodies and literate lyrics are hard to resist. It stays mostly in an understated, vaguely pastoral indiepop vein, driven by clean guitars, drums, low-key vocals and the odd Mellotron, though toys with krautrock dynamics in places (the motorik crescendo of The Homefront Pt. II, and the rhythm that propels Heavy Lifting forward). Other highlights include the anthemic Little Joanne, the opening cut Orienteers, which evokes a number of pastoral pop groups from Melbourne, and Resolutions, which ends with fuzzy guitar.

  • Still Corners, Creatures Of An Hour

    One of the more intriguing bands to come out of London in recent years; Still Corners are equal parts Broadcast, early Paradise Motel and the Twin Peaks soundtrack; their debut album, released on Sub Pop, keeps true to the dreamlike quality of their 7"s and shows, with Tessa's lovely vocals floating spectrally over swirling organs, keening guitar feedback, clunking bass guitars and the odd drum machine. The whole album has a subtle, somewhat unreal quality; it doesn't sound like something belonging to any specific place or time. Highlights include the opening track Cuckoo, the previously released Endless Summer, with its Be My Baby-quoting opening, and the unseasonably summery The White Season.

  • Veronica Falls, Veronica Falls

    The latest in a decades-long game of transatlantic stylistic ping-pong: in 1980s Britain, the movement that became known as C86 reacted against expensive overproduction and/or the yuppie excesses of the Thatcher era by returning to the basics of guitar-and-drums pop music circa the 1960s updated for the post-punk era. (This was the 1980s, when synthesisers and studio effects cost real money.) A few decades later, hip bands from Brooklyn like The Vivian Girls and Crystal Stilts dusted off C86 and made it their own. Now, Veronica Falls (a band formed from veterans of several London and Glasgow bands) takes the New York sound and brings it back. The result is a slab of tight garage rock with choppy guitars, boy-girl harmonies and classic themes of love and death like something out of a pulp paperback from the 1950s. It doesn't break much new ground, but it does what it does well.

  • various artists, The Endless House Project

    Ostensibly a rerelease of the brief recorded works of an art collective, as short-lived as it was improbable, that flourished in a futuristic studio-discotheque behind the Iron Curtain in 1973, prefiguring kosmische krautrock and Detroit techno; in reality, almost certainly a more recent work of counterfactual history, presenting a fantasy view of a glamorous European avant-garde, with an almost Wes Andersonian unreality that could only be imagined from the splendid isolation of the English-speaking world. The Endless House Project works both as an exercise in hauntology (as long as one suspends one's disbelief about its geopolitical impossibility; which is where being British, and taking a vaguely orientalist view of the European continent as an exotic whole, might help) and as a collection of retrofuturistic analogue electronica. The opening track, Ostend (Invisible Cities) by one "Johannus Arpensium", starts with mighty, swelling synthesiser chords that soon break into driving, proto-Kraftwerkian arpeggios zooming down luminous highways with vocoded vocals. From there, we are led on a tour of retrofuturistic utopias and dystopias, expressed in analogue electronic music: ominous chords play over rhythm tracks of electronic clicks, as European-accented voices intone obliquely. Other tracks, meanwhile, (like Ernest Kantor's Jealousie (Escape To Outer Space) and Rasmus Folk's luxurious yet melancholic Coupe) are almost weightlessly breezy. the whole thing ends with the last work ostensibly played at the doomed Endless House, in which mastermind Jiri Kantor asks why it all happened so quickly and then leaves the stage, leaving the synthesisers to run by themselves and foreshadowing New Order's stage shows circa 1983. The album (sold only directly, in physical format, by an outfit named Dramatic Records) comes in an envelope with postcards giving capsule biographies of the ostensible composers of the pieces, a motley crew of European playboys and avant-gardists with names like Felix Uran, Klaus Pinter and Earnesto Rogers.

With honourable mentions going to: Evan Abeele, Lineage EP (an understated instrumental album from one half of Memoryhouse; subtly lovely), Amor De Dias, Street of the Love of Days (Lupe from Pipas and Alasdair from The Clientele's new project; languid bossa-tinged pastoral pop), Apparat Organ Quartet, Pólyfónía (the Icelandic kraut-pop combo's first record in about six years sees them get less heavy and more chiptuneish), Bachelorette, Bachelorette (the New Zealand electronica artist's final album under that name is a more organic affair than the previous ones), Brave Irene, Brave Irene (Rose Melberg (of The Softies/Tiger Trap)'s latest project goes back to an upbeat garage-pop style; should fit well alongside All-Girl Summer Fun Band), Girls' Names, Girls' Names and Minks, Over The Hedge (two bands doing a slightly gothy, in a John Hughes way, 1980s-influenced guitar pop), Greeen Linez, Greeen Linez (a revival of 1980s boogie groove as instrumental electronica; look for it in a mixtape or DJ set near you), Help Stamp Out Loneliness, Help Stamp Out Loneliness (Dee from the Language Of Flowers' new band, in a new-wave-tinged pop direction), Jens Lekman, An Argument With Myself EP (Jens' first recorded work in some years reveals a more Afrobeat direction; the title song also recounts a drunken walk across the north of Melbourne, and the somewhat maudlin reflections on said walk), Loney, Dear, Hall Music (slightly less bleak and more organic than the predecessor; the closing track, What Have I Become? is particularly lovely), M83, Hurry Up We're Dreaming (the latest instalment in their journey sees them put aside the John Hughesisms of their last album and sound more like Toto or The Police, all yelped vocals and gated drums, only with more synths), Memoryhouse, The Years (technically disqualified as it's a rerelease of last year's EP, with a few new tracks, tough it bodes well for their upcoming album), Ringo Deathstarr, Colour Trip and Spotlight Kid, Disaster Tourist (two great contemporary takes on classic shoegaze; the first from Texas, the second from Wales), Xander Harris, Contamination (a Bandcamp-released EP of synthesised instrumentals, which borrows from electro-industrial, ambient and kosmische musik and does so well), Zola Jesus, Conatus (with her pop melodies, electro-industrial synthpop backings and dramatic voice, Zola shows us the middle ground between Lene Lovich and U2).

Were I to anoint one title as my record of the year, the accolade would probably go to My Sad Captains.

2011 cds lists music 4


Poptimist Tom Ewing has written a future history of the 2020s CD revival:

But for the fans, the music is still at the core. Unlike today's collaborative, crowdsourced, and automatically generated playlists, a CD's tracklisting is fixed, and the CD-burning scene is an opportunity for music lovers to show their deep individual loves of music, its sequencing and presentation. The 74 Sessions is one of many CD-burning clubs and groups-- some ban members from remixing or mashing up material, others ask people to theme their CD-Rs. Chantal Fielding, who runs the Prismatic Spray trading club out of Rochester, NY, loves the way CD-Rs make her focus her fandom. "You've got all this information, literally everything you look at you can find out everything about it right there, and for music that means there's no mystery anywhere. So saying no, you can't explore endlessly, you have to reduce it down-- it's powerful."
The romance of CDs in Ewing's 2020s world isn't just about working within finite physical constraints, like a sort of music-curatorial Lomography; while there is that, and undoubtedly an element of nostalgia as the hipsters and scenesters of the day relive hazy early childhood memories of the CD age (you've probably seen these kids, being wheeled through Stokey or Fitzroy in three-wheeled prams, dressed up in their Ramones onesies), a lot of the physical media revival would be driven by a backlash against the network-centric age of social software, recommendations, playlists and crowdsourcing, and the ever-hungry target-marketing apparatus beneath the surface. (Or, as one of the interviewed CD fetishists says, "when you can't see what the product is and someone's still making money, the product is you.")
While earlier physical-music movements fought to preserve analog formats in the face of digitization, CD revivalists see music's physical existence as a rebuke to a world where people's digital presence has overtaken their physical one. "It's not just about the music," explains Wolfe. "Words like 'social' and 'sharing' became absolutely twisted. It used to mean things people did together, now it's about how well you fit into algorithms. We leave snail trails of data everywhere, and all 'social' means now is that two trails have crossed and somebody's making money off it. Forcing people to collaborate for a fuller experience helps restore some of the real idea of 'social.'"
Wolfe sees CD-R revivalists as part of a 'post-social' wave of digital mischief-makers and situation-builders, in the tradition not of industrial or noise culture but of Fluxus and Neoism. He's sympathetic to "troll artists" like bot-creators and recommendation-scramblers. A friend of his was involved with the 'artificial hipster' Karen Eliot, a digital taste bundle whose infiltration of music friendship networks in 2020 caused scores of trusted playlist generators to start throwing in 00s tracks like "Starstrukk" and "My Humps".
Another dimension of CD revivalism would, of course, be the sonic characteristics of the medium; the brittleness of 44kHz 16-bit audio compared to what everybody's listening to in the future. Of course, the revival would take this even further; much as 2000s "electro" ramped up the electronicness of 1980s synthpop by throwing in anachronistically vocoded/robotised vocals, some participants in the CD revival will go beyond the limitations of the CD and start playing around with low-bitrate audio compression, with subsubcultures of hipsters settling upon a right form of crappiness as a cultural touchstone.
The sound on most CDs Wolfe releases is deliberately low-bitrate, with a glossy, uneasy, skinny sheen that's a stark contrast to the lossless warmth of most streamed music. Some fans call lo-bit music "ghostwave", because, as Hall Of Mirrors act Cursor Daly puts it, "you start listening to stuff that isn't there, phantom sound-- your ears are filling in the gaps. Below 128 kbps you're essentially hallucinating sound, no two people hear the same thing. Loads of CD nerds were neuroscience majors."

cds culture dead media music retro society 3


Another year is drawing to an end, and once again, it's time to look back on the past year in music. So here's my list of the top records of 2009, in alphabetical order.

  • Animal Collective - Merriweather Post Pavillion

    Animal Collective's new record, released at the start of the year, took their sound further away from their psych-folk roots and into the realm of dubby electronica, with the help of producer Rusty Santos. Expect washes of delay, percussive polyrhythms and soaring vocals somehow making their way through the electronic haze. They followed it up at the very end of the year with an EP, Fall Be Kind, turning up the layering and sampling the Grateful Dead.

  • Arthur & Martha - Navigation

    The London-based electropop duo's long-awaited album, combining the synthpop of New Order at their most Kraftwerk-influenced and guitar-led indiepop which (cliché warning!) wouldn't have sounded amiss on Sarah Records circa 1991. Highlights: there's the obvious Kraftwerk homage of Autovia, the vocoder-driven Squarewave To Heaven and the mighty electronic buildup of This City Life. It's all good.

  • Ben Frost - By The Throat

    This unanimously grabs the title of "best record of 2009 featuring the grim snarling of dire wolves". Adelaide-born, Reykjavík-based Frostí's latest album is an assemblage of frosty, shadowy ambiences, with stark electronic waveforms, minor-key melodies and processed field recordings (breaths, thuds and the aforementioned wolves), rounded off with references to The Cure and Twin Peaks. File under "dark ambient".

  • Cold Cave - Love Comes Close / Memory Tapes - Seek Magic / Rainbow Arabia - Kabukimono / The Very Best - Warm Heart of Africa

    Not so much a record as a clutch of four forming a trend; they're all electronic, a bit to the left of pop though not in the realm of "electronica". Cold Cave are a trio whose sound is a sort of synth-driven new-wave with nods to 1980s gothic rock (highlights: "Life Magazine"). Memory Tapes makes layered tracks, mixing electronic and organic sounds, building up and stripping down and building up again, and turns them into songs (highlights: pretty much any track; let's say Stop Talking). Rainbow Arabia are a US outfit who craft a sort of electronic exotica for the post-(new-)rave generation (let's call them "electroxotica"), celebrating the global other with exotic scales on synths, drum samples and song titles like Holiday In Congo and Kabukimono (highlight: let's say Harlem Sunrise). The Very Best is a collaboration between Malawian musician Esau Mwamwaya and French/Swedish/London-based (delete as applicable) production team Radioclit, and sounds like what 1980s electropop would have sounded like had it been invented in Africa (highlights: let's avoid the obvious bits—the Ezra Koenig and M.I.A. collaborations, the AIH sample—and say Chalo, which starts with an epic synth riff and follows through in appropriate fashion). Together, they fight crime form part of the sound of 2009.

  • Crayon Fields - All The Pleasures Of The World

    The long-awaited record from the Melbourne twee-pop combo; pocket-sized pop symphonies, most of them expressions of love for an unnamed second person (sample lyric: "I'd mess up my collar just to feel you correct it"), with ringing guitars and the occasional string arrangement; in places it sounds like a twee version of The Clientele. Without a doubt the most fey record in this list.

  • The Drums - Summertime

    Simple, summery guitar pop done well, with good melodies and harmonies. It's not groundbreaking, thematically or stylistically, but it's an old formula, slightly updated and done better than most. Highlights: Saddest Summer, perhaps.

  • Hong Kong In The 60s - Willow Pattern Songs

    A six-track EP by a band comprised of two librarians and a BBC researcher, playing Casiotone keyboards and guitars and citing Stereolab, Sean O'Hagan, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, Dario Argento and 1960s Hong Kong pop as influences, and a brilliant one as well, reminiscent of early Minimum Chips EPs in its understated feel. I've listened to this one a lot this year.

  • Jónsi & Alex - Riceboy Sleeps

    Iceland's second entry in this year's list, from the frontman of Sigur Rós and his boyfriend. It's wordless soundscapes, though lighter and more blissful than Sigur Rós; one could say that this is the yin to Frostí's yang.

  • My Sad Captains - Here & Elsewhere
  • They're from London, but remind me more of Melbourne bands like The Smallgoods, Gersey and even the (sadly departed) Lucksmiths. Multilayered melodies and harmonies, plays on words and buildups of unassuming lushness, not quite threatening to go into shoegazing territory in places, make for a very listenable record, and a promising band.

  • The Pains of Being Pure At Heart - self-titled

    In a lot of ways, 2009 was the Pains' year. A New York band, though wearing their classic British indiepop influences on their sleeves and given to touring the UK with an almost suspicious regularity, the Pains released their self-titled album early in the year, with songs like This Love Is Fucking Right (see if you can spot the reference there) and Teenager In Love becoming cornerstones in the soundtrack to 2009. Not content to rest on their laurels, they followed this up with an EP, Higher Than The Stars, bringing more immaculate indie-pop, guitar fuzz and stories of young lives and fraught situations; nonetheless, they can only have one entry in this list, and it'll have to be the album.

With honourable mentions going to: Aleks & The Ramps, Midnight Believer (it's good to hear a new album from them, though a bit more understated than Pisces vs. Aquarius), Atlas Sound, Logos (nice summery ambient pop; the guest appearances by Panda Bear and Lætitia Sadier are particularly good), The Brunettes, Paper Dolls (the New Zealanders move further from their doo-wop retro-pop roots, in style if not in themes; they're still the band who sing about boys and girls holding hands and feeding ducks, but it sounds like they've been listening to a lot of Architecture In Helsinki), Decoder Ring, They Blind The Stars, And The Wild Team (the project, always hovering in the spaces between electronica and post-rock, moves further into post-rock territory), The Depreciation Guild, Dream About Me (only a 7", and sold out except in MP3 form, but a damn fine song for the shoegazers out there, with the same sort of dreamy romanticism as Slowdive's "Alison"), The Horrors, Primary Colours (though only Sea Within A Sea really grabbed me), Loney, Dear, Dear John (a darker record from Emil; where I could hear unrequited longing in the predecessors, in this one, time has run on, the flame has sputtered out and the cold shadow of death looms all too near; or at least that's what it says to me), Misty Roses, Villainess (more genre-movie-quoting loungecore from the transatlantic duo), Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix (immaculately assembled pop from Paris), various artists, Dark Was The Night (a collaboration between 4AD and the AIDS charity Red Hot, consisting of indie bands doing folk standards and their own pieces; there's a thread of the longing for human intimacy running through the record, and perhaps an echo of This Mortal Coil in places). Not to mention three rereleases from significant artists: Another Sunny Day's London Weekend (on Cherry Red, with bonus tracks, including an entirely unexpected OMD cover), Spearmint's extended edition of A Week Away (weighing in at almost twice the original's length, thanks to the generous helping of bonus tracks) and, of course, Kraftwerk's magisterial box set, The Catalogue.

Were there a gong for the record of the year, it'd have to go to The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart.

2009 cds lists music 2


And now, here come the lists of things of the year. Starting with the top 10 records of 2008 (in alphabetical order of artist's name, as usual):

  • Animal Collective - Water Curses

    The futurefolk combo's follow-up to last year's Strawberry Jam, a 4-track EP further building on their textured yet organic sound. Highlight: Cobwebs, which sounds a little like something Björk might well have done.

  • Cut Copy - In Ghost Colours

    Australia's Modular label have been the toast of the electrofashionista elite of London and New York, and the core of a mass youth movement in Australia (one now hears disparaging descriptions of vast hordes of "mogans", unsophisticated fluoro-shirted teenage party kids from all over the suburbs and provinces of Australia, sharing musical tastes with the hippest of Shoreditch and Williamsburg's hipsters; how funny is that?), but they do release some good stuff from time to time. Case in point: Cut Copy's second album, which combines the vogue for 1980s New Wave stylings (cribbed both from international sources (listen out for the Peter Hook-esque melody lines) and Australian 80s top-40 sounds) with electro/house the way Australians like it (i.e., muscular, body-conscious and not too chi-chi or pretentious), and manages to make something quite listenable out of it, a collection of well-formed pop songs driven by coruscating synths, 4/4 dance beats, melodic vocals and the odd jangly guitar and glockenspiel. Highlight: the opening cut, Feel The Love, is a good start, starting as pop and morphing into something more clubby like a disco Transformers robot.

  • The Deirdres - Why Do My Glasses Give You The Heeby Jeebys?

    The Deirdres, a young unsigned band consisting of seven kids from Derby, are, in my opinion, one of the most exciting indiepop bands in the UK now. This self-released CD-R (the first versions had handmade photo-collage covers, and buyers got a raffle ticket to decide which one they got) shows that they're as good in the studio as they are at live shows, sounding in places like a more melodic Los Campesinos! or a much more compact I'm From Barcelona. These kids deserve to go a long way (and three of them are currently in Australia, gigging with The Motifs and Summer Cats). Highlights: Milk Is Politics is more typical of the exuberant pop mayhem of their live shows, and Rise And Fall is just sublime.

  • Eine Kleine Nacht Musik - s/t

    Another Modular release, this time from an American artist lovingly taking off the more electronic end of krautrock (think Harmonia, Tangerine Dream and such). With titles like Feuerprobe, Bardolator and Götterdämmerung, this album wears its inspirations on its sleeve, but it does what it does well. Highlights: perhaps the penultimate track, Das Regenecho.

  • El Guincho - Alegranza

    Influenced by Afrobeat, Tropicália and 1970s Canary Islands psychedelic rock, this record is a collection of loop-based Latin party music, assembled by a hipster from Barcelona. Imagine Panda Bear making party-rocking grooves, and you'll have some idea of what this sounds like. Highlights: Antillas perhaps?

  • Glass Candy - B/E/A/T/B/O/X

    What you get when some people from the DIY hardcore punk scene decide that Italo-disco is where it's at. As much influenced by cult 1970s Italian horror movies as 1980s Italian disco anthems, this brings a somewhat askew take to the genre. Highlights: Their cooler-than-ice take on Kraftwerk's Computer Love, followed by the Goblin-esque eerieness of Last Nite I Met A Costume.

  • Momus and Joe Howe - Joemus

    A collaboration with Glaswegian glitchcore mentalist Joe Howe (Germlin/Gay Against You), Momus' latest album sees a combination of influences; perhaps conscious of the youthful cutting-edge electronica Howe brings to the party, Momus digs into the past somewhat, covering a Cliff Richard teenage heartbreak anthem and a Ryuichi Sakamoto piece (the lovely Thatness and Thereness). This was somewhat overshadowed this year by Momus' decision to post the MP3s of his Creation-era albums online in his blog, but is still worth a listen. Highlights: Fade To White

  • Moscow Olympics - Cut The World

    The grey days of 1980s Britain, with their anomie and internal alienation, have become a golden age of indiepop to some; certainly, to Moscow Olympics, a group of kids from Manila, the Philippines, who plant their flag halfway between the Glasgow of Orange Juice, the Manchester of Factory Records and the Bristol of Sarah Records, with perhaps a slight lean towards Gothenburg. Cut The World, their debut EP on Swedish (where else?) indiepop label Lavender, sound for all the world as if they emerged from beneath the leaden skies of mid-Thatcher-era northern Britain with a defiantly optimistic song in their hearts, sounding like the Bodines with Peter Hook on bass and Keith Girdler (of Blueboy) on vocals. The EP continues in this vein for seven tracks, before shimmering away in a Slowdive-esque crescendo; this is as perfect a slice of C86-esque indiepop as one could hope for. Highlights: the opening track, What Is Left Unsaid is a good one.

  • Parenthetical Girls - Entanglements

    A lavish piece of 1960s-style symphonic pop splendour. The music is exquisitely orchestrated, wrapped sumptuously around finely-crafted words which, through baroque circumlocutions, tell a story of a torrid romantic tragedy, somewhere between Romeo and Juliet and Lolita, filtered through a sort of gauzy Technicolor impressionism. Highlights: the tango-infused cover of Windmills Of Your Mind is one.

  • Vampire Weekend - s/t

    Yes, it has been hyped to death. Yes, they're a bunch of privileged urban haute-bourgeoisie taking the music of the global downtrodden and crafting from it songs about the lives of the wealthy ("lobsters' claws are as sharp as knives"; see, a UHB's life is not without its hazards). But at the end of it, they do what they do quite well, combining Afrobeat influences, chamber-music strings, clever lyrics and good songs. Which doesn't mean you can't laugh at some of the toffishness. But who outside of a posh university would write a song titled Oxford Comma? Highlights: start anywhere on the album; the opener, Mansard Roof, is a good a point as any.

With honourable mentions going to Pelle Carlberg - The Lilac Time (with some great songs, such as the transparently B&S-esque 1983 and a song about how crap Ryanair is, how can you go wrong?), I'm From Barcelona - Who Killed Harry Houdini (their second album, which is not quite as exuberant as their debut, though still good for a fix), Los Campesinos - We Are Beautiful, We Are Doomed (the limited-edition second album from the Welsh tweexcore combo; good, but next to The Deirdres, sounds a bit too shambolic in places), The Motifs - Cross Paths (most of the tracks on this came out last year, which is why it's not in the top 10; otherwise, it's excellent), Slow Down Tallahassee - The Beautiful Light (girl-group indiepop with attitude from Sheffield). I'd probably have added Fleet Foxes to one of these two lists, had I ordered their CD earlier. As for things which didn't make it: well, the new Hot Chip album didn't grab me as much as the previous one did, and 2008 was the year Of Montreal disappeared into a vortex of self-parody. Their live shows should still be good, though.

If I were to choose a record of the year, 2008's would be Moscow Olympics' Cut The World.

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I recently received in the mail a new EP by a band named Moscow Olympics, and have been listening to it rather a lot (as is evident in my stats). Anyway, I think this is a cracker of a record, and possibly the début of the year.

I found out about Moscow Olympics' Cut The World via the indie-mp3 blog (though had heard the band mentioned before), and ordered a copy. Soon enough, an envelope arrived bearing Swedish postage stamps and containing a CD, its cardboard case printed with photographs of the interiors of 1980s East German apartments.

The record itself starts strongly, with gated drums straight out of 1988 and the plaintive ringing of a guitar line; within the first 30 seconds of the first track, What Is Left Unsaid, it is obvious that this is going to be a slice of classic indiepop in the post-C86 vein. Choppy guitar chords, wistful chord progressions, tensely wound rhythms and Hookier-than-thou melodic basslines are reminiscent of the likes of The Bodines, Factory-era Wake or something from Manchester before it became Madchester; just listening to the record, one is transported back to northern England in the 1980s, to visions of row houses snaking their way downhill under the leaden glow of grey skies; views from grotty bedsit windows, the BBC on the telly, and the miners' strike in the headlines. Which is all the more unusual, as the band hail not from Thatcher-era Grey Britain but from Manila, in the Philippines. Yet, obviously, they are driven by a deep love of 1980s British indie-pop, as this record is imbued with its spirit, with all the awkward exuberance that still keeps this genre fresh and relevant.

The next two tracks go on as the record started; in the fourth track, Safe, the vocals, which already were low in the mix and washed with reverb, blossom into full-blown shoegazing à la Slowdive or Secret Shine. Meanwhile, track 6, Ocean Sign, ramps up the New Order influences, with extra-Hooky basslines; it almost sounds like something off Low-life. The finale and title cut starts innocuously, but rises to a crescendo of gloriously delayed guitar, like a brighter, sunnier version of Slowdive's Primal (the closing track from their first album), before exiting gloriously in a tail of shimmering reverb.

I'm tipping this to be one of my records of 2008. Well done, Moscow Olympics.

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And now, with 2008 knocking on our door, it's time for the annual lists of things of the year.

acb's top 10 records of 2007 (by order of artist):

  • Aleks & The Ramps, Pisces vs. Aquarius

    The more eclectic edge of the recent crop of great new artists coming out of Melbourne; Aleks & The Ramps play epic, lavishly structured pop songs with banjos, glockenspiels, a few synths and Casio keyboards and the odd crunchy heavy-metal chord and dry-as-dust lyrics about car crashes, paranoid schizophrenia and the sensation of waking up (un)dead. Highlights: No Sé Si Es Amor, a pretty impressive Spanish-language cover of Roxette's "It Must Have Been Love".

  • Animal Collective, Strawberry Jam

    A boundary-breaking, and very catchy, slab of left-of-leftfield psychedelic folk, sounding like a futuristic village celebration, combining a pastoral folk-rock feel with layers of instruments and electronics, along with world-music influences (one can hear elements of South African township songs in places) and quite good melodies. Highlights: Fireworks, For Reverend Green.

  • Beirut, The Flying Club Cup

    Zach Condon reprises his amazing début with a new album, with the Balkan sounds of his previous work largely replaced by those of old France, and it doesn't disappoint. Highlights: Cliquot, Cherbourg

  • Julian Nation, We Are All Writers

    Another brilliant young songwriter from Melbourne, Julian Nation is three parts Jens Lekman to two parts Lucksmiths and a bit of Stuart Murdoch, and crafts pop songs with clever lyrics and without choruses, over multi-tracked melodies with guitars, basslines, piano, glockenspiels and handclaps; his début recording is released through Book Club Records. Highlights: 1992, All The Capital Cities' Names.

  • LCD Soundsystem, Sound of Silver

    Before New Rave™ was even a twinkle in a NME hack's eye, when there were no fluoro T-shirts in high-street shops, there was DFA Recordings and LCD Soundsystem; now, James Murphy returns with a new album, furthering his vocation of updating New York's mutant-disco sound for the present day, and doing a bang-up job of it. This album is more of a mature effort than their first album, with more solid songs; a collection of party-rocking jams, finished off with the Lou Reed-esque piano ballad "New York I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down". Highlight: All Your Friends

  • The Motifs, Away

    An unparalleledly lovely collection of 24 pop songs (plus one remix), small and perfectly formed, written and recorded by an indie-pop genius and multi-instrumentalist named Alexis Hall in her North Fitzroy bedroom. The Motifs has since evolved into a band, have gotten support slots for well-known international bands touring Australia, and are getting much-deserved acclaim from all over the world; Away may be purchased from Japanese indie label Lost In Found, and there's now an EP out through UK label WeePOP! (which I haven't yet heard). Highlights: right now I'd say Dots and Set Of Wheels, though it's all good.

  • Of Montreal, Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer

    This record dominated the first half of 2007; equal parts psychedelia, prog-rock and upbeat pop; funky basslines, falsetto harmonies, intricate chord progressions and layers of glitchy electronics, it's a record that can turn on a dime between being Prince and Pink Floyd (as it does, in Labyrinthian Pomp). It works as exquisitely assembled (and somewhat epic) pop music, whilst avoiding the realms of pop cliché, and the musical arrangements remains sufficiently interesting to hold one's attention. Highlights: "A Sentence of Sorts in Kongsvinger", an jolly, upbeat pop number about the narrator's nervous breakdown, followed by the lengthy krautrock-tinged epic "The Past Is A Grotesque Animal". Oh, and see them live if you get the chance.

  • Panda Bear, Person Pitch

    If someone left a stack of Beach Boys, Caribou and My Bloody Valentine records out in the hot Portuguese sunshine and they all melted together, the result might sound somewhat like this. Highlights: hard to pick one, but "Bros" is a good track, as is the opener, "Comfy in Nautica".

  • Pop Levi, The Return To Form Black Magic Party

    The bass guitarist from Ladytron makes a solo début with a sound grounded in the early 1970s, with its haze of drugs and free love; a bit gimmicky, but well-made, with some good songs, and a fun record to listen to. Highlight: From The Day That You Were Born

  • Radiohead, In Rainbows

    Much more has been said about the way this album was released than about the actual album itself, so one could be forgiven for thinking that it is all hype. However, this is not the case; this is a rock-solid return to form for Radiohead, who come back with the sorts of rain-hued sketches they made a career of. If anything, the contrast between this and Thom Yorke's (somewhat less compelling) solo album demonstrates the indispensable influence of the rest of the band. Highlights: Weird Fishes/Arpeggi

As for the record of the year? That would have to be The Motifs' "Away".

Honourable mentions go to: Architecture In Helsinki, Places Like This (a pumping, funky muscle car of a record, which sounds like Cameron has been mainlining the Cookie Monster's steroid supply since In Case We Die), and Soft Tigers' Gospel Ambitions and The Brunettes, Structure and Cosmetics (two records for those who find AIH's new direction too macho); Butcher Boy, Profit In Your Poetry (the great Glaswegian tradition of indie-pop has some worthy heirs keeping it alive), iLiKETRAiNS, Elegies To Lessons Learnt (everything you'd expect from the Leeds collective; post-rock dynamics and lyrics about subjects such as the Black Death, assassinated Prime Ministers of the early 19th century and Donald Crowhurst; were they around 20 years earlier, they'd probably be classified as "gothic rock"); Jens Lekman, Night Falls Over Kortedala (which has its moments, though seems to have lost some of the poignancy and melancholy of his earlier works); Midnight Juggernauts, Dystopia (which stands apart from the electropunk/wolfdisco/nu-rave crowd, as while some others are all attitude, the MJs have good songs and a pop sensibility, as well as grooves to rock the trucker hats off the trendies); Pikelet, s/t (another promising new talent from Melbourne, this time making pop songs with a loop pedal, accordion and percussion); School Of Two, s/t (slightly shoegazey lo-fi electropop from Jason Sweeney, of Prettyboycrossover and Simpàtico) and Mist & Sea, Unless (another Jason Sweeney project, this time working with Vince Giarruso of Underground Lovers).

Next: my list of the gigs of 2007.

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I recently acquired a copy of the special edition of the new Morrissey album, Ringleader of the Tormentors.

I must say that I was impressed by the packaging design. Those who have seen the CD package will know that it is styled on classical records. However, only when you open it up do you notice that the disc itself is designed to look as much like a vinyl record as possible, black on the underside (like the old PlayStation CDs) and with vinyl-like ridges along the top (like the Verbatim Vinyl CD-Rs). Which was a rather nice touch. I suspect that only the limited-edition copies may have this:

The album itself is not bad either; it's a more optimistic album than a lot of Morrissey's previous work, including You Are The Quarry, with songs like At Last I Am Born ("once I was a mess of guilt because of the flesh, it's remarkable what you can learn once you are born"), not to mention Dear God Please Help Me, whose Moz-angsty title belies its hopeful, upbeat tone. It's as if, having left socially atomised Los Angeles (and, before that, grey Britain) behind for the dolce vita of sunny Rome, Morrissey has found somewhere he feels content, made peace with his past (as evidenced in On The Streets I Ran) and decisively buried his awkward celibate image (you have undoubtedly heard about the "explosive kegs" lyric, and possibly about his mystery romance in Rome).

Musically, it follows on from Quarry. Moz's lush quasi-falsetto is still there, couched in equally lush arrangements. Among collaborators on the album are producer Tony Visconti (who has worked with David Bowie, among others), guitarist/lyricist Jesse Tobias (that's Mr. Angie Hart to the JJJ listeners in the audience), and the legendary film composer Ennio Morricone, who does a string arrangement on Dear God. Oh, and there's also a children's choir, though it's kept unobstrusive and appropriate.

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And here are my records of 2005, in no particular order:

  • Machine Translations, Wolf on a String*. Six tracks, subtle and impeccably produced, layering guitars, electronics and understated vocals, and with a great deal of thought in the arrangements and compositions. The title track is hauntingly lovely, and Miss China and Paris Road are low-key pop gems. The other three tracks are good too.
  • Broadcast, Tender Buttons. Their last album was a bit bland compared to The Noise Made By People; this one is a return to form. It's like early Stereolab playing on a Game Boy, all sparse, motorik grooves, gloriously dirty aliased waveforms and Trish's dreamy vocals.
  • Sambassadeur, Between The Lines EP. A four track EP, released in Sweden last year but the UK only this year, from another good Swedish indie band. They also released a quite decent album later this year, but for some reason, this grabbed me more. The title track of the EP is a joyous piece of upbeat indie-pop; the other tracks are fitting B-sides, pop songs with guitar, trumpet, melodica, and a bit of shoegazing feedback and Mary Chain-style fuzz.
  • Holidays On Ice, Playing Boyfriends and Girlfriends* Classy, polished indie-pop from various established Australian musicians, including Angie Hart of Frenté/Splendid; has echoes of Yo La Tengo. Even though the idea of a group of thirtysomething Australian band veterans releasing a record with an unbelievably fey title and a naïve picture of kids playing in the snow (presumably somewhere in Northern Europe or North America) on the cover does seem a tad contrived, the product is eminently listenable. Highlights include the upbeat pop of Sailor Girl, Speak-n-Spell-driven semi-instrumental Spell Happiness, the board-game-referencing (though not AIH-referencing) glock-pop of Fingers crossed and some of the instrumentals.
  • Minimum Chips, Kitchen Tea Thankyou* This one took me by surprise. After getting used to the Chips putting out one EP every few years, I did not expect them to drop an entire album one year after their last EP. But they did, and we get almost 50 minutes of Minimum Chips goodness: modular organ grooves, jagged guitar jangle, sophisticated Continental pop sounds filtered through Melbourne/Brisbane indie-rock, and Nicole's floating vocals, more "aaah" than "ba ba ba". ("Lady Grey", in particular, could be descibed as "Golden Brown", had it been written by Stereolab about tea rather than The Stranglers about heroin.) A few of the tracks were familiar from Minimum Chips gigs two years ago, and had only made it onto record now.
  • Robin Guthrie and Harold Budd, the Mysterious Skin film score Possibly the best thing Guthrie has put out since Victorialand. Ethereal and moody, like golden sunlight in a dream. The film was quite good too (though somewhat more disturbing).
  • The Winter Ship, Teardrops EP*. Four tracks of shoegazing post-rock goodness, with rather nice string arrangements, from the Melbourne instrumental outfit. Swimming Through A Narrow Space sounds not unlike Mogwai's Helicon 1 only with words. The other tracks are no less lovely.

* these are Australian releases with no overseas releases; you can buy them from here or here.

Honourable mentions go to Architecture In Helsinki, In Case We Die, Broken Social Scene's self-titled album (which I received only in the last days of the year, too late to fully get into, though I get the feeling it may be a grower), LCD Soundsystem's self-titled album, The Magic Numbers' self-titled debut (which has some strong guitar-pop tracks, though is a bit bland in places, and may not be a proper CD in all territories), Momus, Otto Spooky, Francis Plagne, Idle Bones (which has a few good songs and a lot of meandering ambient field recordings; were the ratio reversed, it'd be quite impressive), and Suburban Kids With Biblical Names, #3.

It was also a good year for rereleases, with the entire Field Mice back-catalogue seeing the light of day again, in the form of new releases of Snowball, Skywriting and For Keeps, all extended with non-album tracks, and all three Slowdive albums (Just For A Day, Souvlaki and the exquisite Pygmalion) being rereleased—the first two with bonus discs full of EP and live tracks—through Sanctuary; meanwhile, neo-shoegazer Ulrich Schnauss's first album, Far Away Trains Passing By, is seeing the light of day again (good to see that Domino are using their NMECarlingnuwaveartrock windfall for good).

My gigs of 2005:

  • Belle & Sebastian playing If You're Feeling Sinister at the Barbican. They brought their second album to life really well, and played a few other favourites before and after it.
  • My Favorite, playing at Underbelly, 17 June. The last ever gig they did in the UK before breaking up. Their brand of immaculate, upbeat, New Order/OMD-influenced pop with lyrics of suburban alienation and existential angst really appealed to me.
  • One of the three Architecture In Helsinki gigs I caught on their two UK tours; let's say, for the sake of argument, the one at the Dublin Castle in Camden. Their live performances seemed a lot tighter and more energetic than they were when I saw them back in Melbourne.
  • Broadcast at Koko. They brought their new album to life quite well, and played some of their old tracks too.

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Freedom To Tinker has a tutorial on how to create "copy-protected" CDs, describing how the protection works:

Notice that the tracks are grouped into two sessions -- essentially two independent CDs burned onto the same disc. Unprotected CDs that combine audio and data files contain audio tracks in the first session and a single data track in the second. The only difference in the passive protected CD you just created is that the second session contains two tracks instead of one. ... This simple change makes the audio tracks invisible to most music player applications. It's not clear why this works, but the most likely explanation is that the behavior is a quirk in the way the Windows CD audio driver handles discs with multiple sessions.
For an added layer of protection, the extraneous track you added to the disc is only 31 frames long. (A frame is 1/75 of a second.) The CD standard requires that tracks be at least 150 frames long. This non-compliant track length will cause errors if you attempt to duplicate the disc with many CD drives and copying applications.
It says that this only works on Windows. I wonder whether this is the same scheme as used by EMI Australia, circa 2004. Their scheme resulted in errors reading the table of contents under Linux, with tracks having anomalous lengths. Strangely enough, it only worked on some drives: a then-recent Pioneer DVD drive choked on it, but an old 24X CD-ROM (borrowed from a beige G3 Macintosh) had no problems.
Despite these limitations, who wouldn't enjoy finding a homemade copy-protected CD in their stocking? They're a great way to spread holiday cheer while preventing anyone else from spreading it further.

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Never ones to allow reality to get in the way of the Great War on MP3 Terrorism, Sony BMG, the company behind the copy-protected CD rootkit, have announced that they will be adding copy protection to CDs in Australia. Perhaps someone in the Australian office missed the memo about DRM having been thoroughly discredited throughout Sony BMG by the recent rootkit fiasco. Though the company has announced that the CDs will magically prevent users from making copies without causing the problems that affected users of their CDs in the US, so that's alright then.

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It looks like Sony's CD copy protection compromises Macintoshes too; at least if you're trusting enough to enter the administrator password. Which just means that Sony's copy-protection geeks haven't found a local privilege-escalation exploit in MacOS X that they can use. (I'm sure that Sony would believe that they are within their rights to do this because their prerogative to control access to their intellectual property by all means necessary overrides the user's right to maintain the integrity of their computer, and the ability to use it to potentially use Sony's IP in unapproved ways.)

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I picked up a copy of The Clientele's most recent album, The Violet Hour, today. As far as sound goes, it's much the same sort of thing as their previous album, Suburban Light; reverbed vocals and slide guitars and live drums, a bit like a less twangy, more ethereal Mojave 3, or perhaps like the Warm Inventions with male vocals instead of Hope Sandoval.

Anyway, this CD came with a data section containing two MPEG files of videos for various songs. These videos take the form of two monochrome Super 8 movies, and suit the music perfectly. The Reflections After Jane video consists of shots out of the window of a moving train at passing houses and trees, reflections of trees and the sky in puddles, and two blokes walking along a path. It appears to have been filmed in the environs of London or nearby, and makes no attempt to hide the everyday nature of its setting. We see rows of terrace houses, post-war brutalist tower blocks and semi-detached suburban houses go past, amidst the everyday magic of the play of light. Which, I suspect, is the whole point of the title of their first album.

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A quick review of various items which arrived at my PO box today:

  • Various artists, "Romantic and Square is Hip and Aware": a Smiths tribute album featuring mostly guitar-based jangly indie-pop bands who can probably trace their lineage back to Manchester's Finest. They're not bad, though many of them don't add much in the way of new ideas to the originals; don't look for too many radical reinventions here. Brazilian band Pale Sunday's bossa-tinged take on I Know It's Over is quite good, Anglo-Spanish popsters Pipas do a slightly dubby take on This Night Has Opened My Eyes and Jason Sweeney does a good Morrissey impression over bedroom electronics. Meanwhile, Australia's national indie band The Lucksmiths' take on There Is A Light That Never Goes Out sounds much like the original, only as a duet, deviating from the master about as much as Neil Finn's version from some time ago, while The Guild League's take on Panic has a jaunty, slightly brass-bandish take on it. The liner, by someone from The Snowdrops (who cover Bigmouth Strikes Again) notes are much the usual autobiographical tale of growing up awkwardly in the bedsits of Thatcher's England with one's Smiths records. (via Traffic Sounds.)
  • Harvey Williams, California: I had the MP3s for this, and decided to get the CD. In the decade or so between Another Sunny Day (who brought us bedsit anthems like Anorak City and the unforgettable You Should All Be Murdered; check the filesharing nets for them) and this 1999 release, Harvey Williams had mellowed somewhat, bringing a CD of piano ballads, both touching and satirical, with a wry, and very English, turn of phrase, about the usual boy/girl situations. In a parallel universe, some of these have probably been picked up by Working Title for a London-based Gwyneth Paltrow romcom and Harvey has become the next Badly Drawn Boy. But there are some nice tracks here; the Bacharachesque instrumental Introducing..., for one.
  • The Autocollants, Why Can't Things Just Stay The Same?. Lo-fi sweet indie-pop which starts off OK, though sounds a bit samey in places. Perhaps it's the production (the guitars sound like they were recorded on a four-track in someone's bedroom), or perhaps Laura Watling's voice is just that much too breathy for prolonged listening.
  • Stereolab, 2004 Tour CD: whilst the groop don't look like visiting Australia this year, a copy of this 3" disc has made it into my hands courtesy of an American source (ta, bfd!). Contains three tracks, with the exquisitely Labbish titles "Banana Monster Ne Répond plus", "Rose, My Rocket-Brain!" (subtitled "Rose, Le Cerveau Electronique De Ma Fusée!"), and "University Microfilms Limited". And, yes, it's quite good; this isn't mere filler. The first track has an epic, multipartite quality akin to the best of the Lab, in its 5 and a half minutes, the second one sounds like the output of an automatic Stereolab song generator (in a good way), and the third one's not bad either.

I also got a copy of that CD of HP Lovecraft-themed retro fonts. Had I paid any more for it, I'd be disappointed; some of the letter spacing is a bit inconsistent, and more annoyingly, all the fonts have "HPLHS" as the style (where "Bold", "Italic" and so on should be), with the different weights and slants in each family showing up as separate faces. I suspect that the designers are not professional typographers (btw, who would call a font "Italic"?)

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It looks like there's a new Slowdive CD release coming out on the 24th; titled Catch the Breeze it's presumably a best-of/retrospective, though details are scant. Oddly enough, it's not being released by Sony but by some outfit named Castle.

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The Onion AV Club's Least Essential Albums of 2003 list includes things like awful poet Jewel's Britneyfication (I'm surprised Liz Phair didn't make it onto the list; though perhaps she was 2002), Russell Crowe's pub-rock band, and the usual dodgy tribute albums, band members' solo albums and the obligatory Tupac necrophilia. (They also give a gong to Dave Gahan's solo album, in which they have a dig at Martin Gore's Counterfeit2, which I thought was quite decent.) (via Rocknerd)

Meanwhile, the Graun has a list of 50 things we'd like to see less of in 2004.

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I picked up the Kill Bill vol. 1 soundtrack CD today. Like film soundtrack CDs (well, the better ones, anyway), it's a bit of a mixed bag, though has enough good moments to make it worthwhile. Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) is, of course, beautiful and haunting, and Bernard Herrmann's Twisted Nerve is a very stylish piece of retro ambience. Luis Bacalov's The Grand Duel (Parte Prima), taken from the score of some old film, is spaghetti-Western music in the Morricone tradition, and I'm sure I have heard Zamfir's The Lonely Shepherd before. I wasn't too fond of RZA's contributions, particularly Ode to Oren Ishii, a rather gratuitous piece of gangsta rap. (I suppose it makes marketing sense to have it there, though, and it probably beats having LL Cool J rapping about whatever cardboard-cutout character he played in his latest film.) The CD is padded out with loops of drumming and sound effects created by RZA for combat sequences; listening to them is not unlike listening to an electronic-music magazine CD of free samples.

One annoyance: they only put a bit over a minute of Neu!'s Super 16 on the CD. Given that the disc clocks in at 59 minutes, they could have fit the whole track on it. Though perhaps it'd have cost them higher licensing fees or something.

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My copy of the new Ninetynine EP, Receiving the Sounds of Science Fiction just arrived. I've posted a brief write-up to ninetynine_fan. I'll probably write something more detailed later, possibly for Rocknerd.

Executive summary: it's all good.

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First impressions of the 3 CDs which arrived in the mail today:

  • Stereolab - Instant 0 In The Universe. The groop are back in fine form; this album follows on from their earlier material, in classic Stereolab fashion. Lætitia appears to harmonise with herself on one track, which works. This is more the jaunty Stereolab than the experimental Stereolab. No huge departures, though the last track does go a bit disco-y towards the end. I rather like it.
  • Spearmint - My Missing Days - much like their earlier albums; spiky powerpop with Shirley's impassioned vocals. Some tracks have string arrangements; the songwriting is pretty good too.
  • The Pastels - The Last Great Wilderness Only 24 minutes long, and most of it is short instrumental themes, ostensibly for a Wicker Man-style film. There's one song with Katrina singing, and a "sleazy electropop" track featuring Jarvis Cocker, which seems, at least to me, a bit bland.

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Pitchfork's list of the 50 most common CDs in secondhand shops, each bagged with Tanya Headon-esque exactitude. The words "shoegaze", "grunge" and references to Dawson's Creek/90210 and aging yuppies disposing of their Lollapalooza merchandise upon moving to the suburbs come up repeatedly. (via VM)

Though I think they were entirely unfair to Lush's Lovelife (a good record, even if it is somewhat more mainstream than Split; tell me that Runaway or Olympia aren't good songs, and 500 (Shake Baby Shake) doesn't have a classic pop appeal).

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The new Ninetynine mini-CD is out, and it's called Receiving the Sounds of Science Fiction (how's that for a cool title?). So how do you get it? Well, you can't buy it, but you can get it by joining the Dark Beloved Cloud singles club. No, it's not a dating service. To join, you send your details and six hand-decorated 3"x3" cards (which will become the artwork for other people's singles) to a PO box in New York.

If your creative skills aren't up to it, you can always wait for the UAR Australian rerelease next year, which apparently will have bonus tracks. (I wonder what those will be; new original material, remixes, live tracks, or multimedia content?)

(Thanks to Leigh for the heads-up)

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I got the limited-edition CD version of the new Radiohead album yesterday (from the US, where it's available on proper CDs). I haven't listened to the whole thing yet, but I've noticed some differences from the preview: there are additional, rather faint, voices at the start of the first track, for example. Disappointingly, however, they've cut the entire third verse out of The Gloaming, reducing it in length by some 50 seconds.

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I've just ordered Radiohead's Hail to the Thief from the U.S. The local copy, you see, is "copy controlled" (i.e., distributed on a deliberately defective CD which doesn't work in some computer CD-ROMs and other devices). It works well enough if you run Windows and run a player application on the CD, not minding the poor quality of the low-bit-rate WMA versions provided and having to have the disc in the drive the whole time and trusting EMI's proprietary player program not to spy on you, delete your MP3s or fux0r your registry out of malice, stupidity or both, but if you use Linux, you're SOL. Unless you're lucky and your CD-ROM drive ignores the "Copy Control" voodoo and lets you rip everything without a hitch; but IMHO, that's not good enough, and if the local EMI subsidiary disagree, they can do without the hefty subsidies I've been paying them over the years. And with the peso being at a high, ordering from the U.S. is affordable again.

This isn't the first EMI disc of which I've ordered a Red Book copy from abroad. A while ago I picked up Goldfrapp's new one, Black Cherry (which is OK, though not as good as Felt Mountain; and it does seem that she's trying to be fashionable and jump on the '80s tinny-synth neo-electro bandwagon like everybody else), and Martin Gore's Counterfeit2 (which is very, very nice; basically a collection of covers, done with the combination of cold electronic glitches and bleeps and aching humanity that Depeche Mode fans will feel right at home with; I'd say it's probably better than any Mode since Violator, in fact). I also picked up the quasi-official fan edition of David Bridie's Hotel Radio (which is also excellent, and not as far from Martin Gore's territory as one would think).

Of course, some EMI titles have fallen by the wayside; for example, I probably won't be bothered to import the new Placebo album.

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Information on CD copy-denial systems and how they work.

I got my hands on four EMI Copy Controlled pseudo-CDs today, for research purposes. One of them appears to be a regular Red Book CD with no bogosities, but the other three have corrupt TOC data. It's funny because generic IDE CD-ROMs, like the one on my old Mac, rip them perfectly, whereas both the DVD and CDRW drives on my Linux box choke. More on that later.

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I picked up the new Seascapes of the Interior album, All Safe, All Well today. (I won it from 3RRR's Local and/or General show last night.) It's pretty impressive; six tracks, ranging from just under 2 to 20 minutes, lots of lush, multi-instrumental textures with piano melodies, guitars, synths, violins, chromatic percussion and sampled voice fragments; very atmospheric and textured. And that applies to the packaging too; the disc came in a two-part sleeve of very rough recycled paper (mine still has pieces of newspaper classified ads visible; your mileage will doubtlessly vary), printed in monochrome and with a window cut in the outer sleeve.

Seascapes are launching this CD at the Great Britain Hotel this Friday; I probably won't be able to make it, as the once-off Strange Tenants reunion is on that night. Oh well.

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A somewhat iffy review of the new Massive Attack album in the Graun. To be honest, I'd agree with much of it; a lot of the songs go on for too long and yet somehow seem somewhat flat, at least compared to Mezzanine. Though it's not all that bad an effort.

Indeed, on the only occasion when 100th Window props itself up and makes a point, you wish it had stayed supine. A Prayer for England concerns child abduction and murder - an issue virtually ignored by the media in recent years and thus in desperate need of the boost in profile that only a protest song on a chill-out album can deliver. It's certainly difficult to argue with the thesis - infanticide is a bad thing - but a point this facile hardly warrants O'Connor's finger-wagging fire-and-brimstone routine. By the second verse, she is addressing God as "Jah", an affectation that recalls a wackily hatted student reaching for his bong. At this point, one's thoughts do turn to murder, but not quite in the way the song intends.

(Is 100th Window the 18 to Mezzanine's Play? Discuss.)

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I've been unusually disciplined so far this year, with regards to CD buying. I'm trying to keep my habit under some measure of control (for reasons which will become apparent later), and not to grow my collection too rapidly. So far, the total number of CDs I have has only increased by two.

Over the past two weeks I picked up Flunk's For Sleepyheads Only, an OK piece of chill-out electronica from Norway. It hasn't really grabbed me; the version of Blue Monday there, incidentally, is a bit irritating IMHO. (Aside: why is it that every cover of that song ends up sounding disappointing; we had Orgy's whiny mall-goth take on it, Pee Wee Ferris' cheesy commercial-dance cover (don't ask), and Flunk's, while not dire in the way that they were, is still disappointing.)

Last night, I picked up local spoken-word artist Klare Lanson's Every Third Breath; which is mostly ambiguous cyberbabble over glitchy, vaguely Björkish electronic beats and bleeps (proviced by Cornel Wilczek, aka Qua), replete with lyrics written in cod-XML. It's technically quite good, though whether it'll have lasting appeal remains to be determined.

Today I went to Dixon's Recycled and picked up three more CDs, though sold three which I wasn't likely to listen to anymore. One of my new acquisitions were plunderphonic art piece Deconstructing Beck (on a classy unprinted CD that just screams "copyright violation"). Another was an equally (if not more) choice find; one of the Least Essential Albums Of The '90s. That's right, dear readers; I'm now the proud (but only in an ironic sense) owner of The Adventures Of MC Skat Kat & The Stray Mob. It'll sit proudly in the bulldada section of my record collection, next to Acid Brass, my Wesley Willis CDs and Spaced Out: The Very Best of Nimoy/Shatner.

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A brief review of a few of the CDs I picked up in the UK (well, the ones I've had a chance to at least partially digest), in alphabetical order by artist:

  • Ballboy, Club Anthems 2001: File alongside The Smiths and Belle & Sebastian. The spoken-word track about space travel isn't bad, and Sex Is Boring, which bags house music and club culture, also has its charms.
  • Below The Sea, the loss of our winter: Credible guitar-driven post-rock instrumentals from France. tropic of cancer is probably my favourite track so far. Unfortunately, my copy seems to have a defect which results in a fluttering noise when played; though one could argue that it's not as noticeable as it would be in other musical genres.
  • Bis, The End Starts Today: some remixes from their most recent album, along with their speech synth-driven cover of Love Will Tear Us Apart, which is probably the highlight.
  • Clan of Xymox, Medusa: A combination of reverb-heavy 80s studio rock, minor-key synthpop and goth-club floor-filler material, with the distinct touch of 4AD about it; a sort of Frankie Goes Eurogoth. Check out the heavily-processed guitars, rapid-fire drum machine patterns and po-faced Brendan Perry-meets-Andrew Eldritch vocals, as imitated by every other dodgy Cleopatra band from the US Midwest since, though this is a notch above all that.
  • Colourbox, Colourbox: Another 80s 4AD outfit, this time doing electronic dub instrumentals. They went on to form M/A/R/R/S, you know.
  • Cure, The, Collectors Curiosities Vol. 2: With Carnage Visors and numerous B-sides and no reference to the band on the disc itself (presumably to evade copyright audits at the pressing plant), this is another one of those London market specials. The "bonus tracks performed live in a recording studio 1984" certainly adds to the air of suspiciousness of the entire package.
  • Curve, Come Clean: Curve-by-numbers; crunchy overcompressed beats and overdriven guitar whines and Toni's distorted vocals and textures of analogue synth warbles and bleeps. I suppose that's the nice thing about Curve records; you know what to expect, and you're not disappointed. All much of a muchness, though Beyond Reach is nice.
  • High Llamas, Buzzle Bee and Snowbug; somewhat twee, post-Beach Boys/Bacharach melodies. Sort of like Stereolab without the difficult bits. (Indeed, Tim and Lætitia appear on the latter disc, as does producer John McEntire.) Good background music, though not the most compelling records ever made.
  • James, Laid: I picked this up for the title track, and because it was cheap. For some reason, they sound more Australian than British to me; not sure why. Perhaps they sound a bit like the Go-Betweens or the Triffids or someone, or otherwise give a sense of wide spaces and harsh sunlight in their music?
  • Miss Kittin & The Hacker, The First Album: minor-key neo-80s synthpop with disjointed, emotionless Euro-accented vocals, and KOMPRESSOR-style songwriting.
  • Primal Scream, Autobahn 66 promotional single: just the 3-minute version of the track. Blah.
  • Spearmint, Songs for the Colour Yellow: their early works, with 1960s power-pop touches; not as baggy as A Week Away or as bowlie as A Different Lifetime. Interesting to hear that they recycled the melody of the title track for one of their subsequent songs.
  • Trembling Blue Stars, She Just Couldn't Stay CD single: No, he's still not over her. Though isn't that the whole point of Trembling Blue Stars? Compelling, but in the way car accidents are.
  • Will To Power, Journey Home: early-90s LA studio outfit, best known for their cover of 10CC's I'm Not In Love; I remembered them for Koyaanisqatsi, their spoken-word rant over a slickly-produced electronic background, going on about corporate domination, animal research and damage to the environment from a gun-toting anarchist perspective (think early Moby meets an arts-degreed Eric S. Raymond). That and the Nietzchean sleeve notes add a touch of eccentricity to the rather overproduced, vaguely Madonna/Lewis Martinee-esque bulk of this CD. I wonder what Bob Rosenberg ended up doing after this; producing commercial dance music, or retreating to a cabin in Montana? Either sounds equally likely.

    Anyway, I picked this up for something like 50p at the cheapo branch of Music & Video Exchange, and am quite pleased with that. If I end up doing DJ sets, you can probably expect Koyaanisqatsi to end up in them, next to other curiosities.

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Hmm... Ninetynine's The Process comes out on Monday, and already have a page for it. The track listing looks very promising (and the excerpts I've heard on 3RRR do too). The artwork doesn't seem to have the same indie-geeky quality of previous albums (they've ditched the graph paper, I see, along with the numerical album title thing), but it's probably appropriate, as their sound has become more fluid and organic and, dare I say, more mature.

Right now, I can't wait to get my hands on a copy of this disc.

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An Israeli company has developed CD-ROMs which cannot be copied. The CDs contain a smart card with a photodetector and LED and a chip containing a decryption key; to decrypt itself, the software requests the key from the card. Though I'm skeptical about the practicality of such a system; CD-ROM drives are read-only devices, and whether or not the software can control the laser enough to communicate with the chip (to send requests for codes) seems rather uncertain, given that it's not part of any standard that drives have to comply with.

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In live music news, Ninetynine have completed recording, mixing and mastering their new album. It'll be titled The Process and should be out in 3-4 weeks.

(I dragged myself along, doped up on pseudoephedrine, to see them tonight. They put on an intense show; more so than you'd expect from a group of people who had been up for 48 hours putting the finishing touches on an album. And they're playing in about 2 weeks' time at the Rob Roy.)

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Angry Robot reviews the new Curve album, which is only available by mail-order from a UK niche retailer. Sounds promising, though I'm not sure if I'll buy it; I've already got 3 Curve albums I don't listen to much and mail order from the UK is expensive. (Besides which, they never got back to me about the remix I sent them.)

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Oh yes, I picked up the new Piano Magic album, Writers Without Homes, today. Currently am halfway through it. The packaging is very nice (4AD's house design firm v23 were involved), and so far, the album sounds mellow and understated, with poignant bits of atmosphere, song and spoken-word about lives, stories and such. I think it'll take a few listens to fully get into though.

When I watch old films in which animals appear, I get sad because those animals are certainly dead now. And that certainly prompts my private epitaph and I have to say it out loud "That dog is dead. That cat is dead. That horse is dead..."

Interesting to see that Simon Raymonde, of Cocteau Twins/This Mortal Coil fame, is involved on some of the tracks here. (This sort of cross-pollination, I've noticed, is something characteristic of 4AD acts; what, with This Mortal Coil, and Robin Guthrie producing the first Lush album, and so on...).

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Looks like Curve have a new album out, The Adventures of Curve, and this time they're self-publishing and self-distributing, after the recording company dropped the ball with their last release. That's what to get when you sign to a major label and you're not Limp Bizkit or Puddle of Mudd or some other fashionable yoof-metal outfit, I suppose.

Meanwhile, further down on the page, it appears that the new CD from Californian swirlygoth-turned-drum'n'bass outfit Love Spirals (formerly Downward) is out, and the description sounds somewhat interesting. I may have to give it a spin next time I'm near Heartland. (via Cos)

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A propagandistic News Corp. article about the evils of coin-operated CD duplicators, how they threaten to kill musical artists, and how outrageous it is that they're perfectly legal, as a result of our inadequately lax copyright laws. (Keep in mind that News Corp., along with Disney, is one of the major advocates of legally mandating copy-protection in all electronic devices in the US.)

NEW machines installed in Adelaide convenience stores make the illegal copying of the latest CDs and computer software - which costs artists and software designers millions of dollars - as easy as buying a loaf of bread.

It also makes legal copying of CDs you already own, for backups or use in the car, for example, or of your band's demos, or whatever, easy. But we all know that consumers have no legitimate reason to copy CDs.

The machines are able to operate under the same legislation as public photocopiers, where the burden of responsibility for copyright breaches lies with the user and not the owner of the equipment.

How much do you want to bet that there'll be legislation in parliament to remedy this promptly?

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I just picked up the EP Freckles, by local band Minimum Chips. So far, it's pretty good; I'll have to look out for them live. (Graham, you should probably check them out as well, as they sound a bit Stereolabesque.)

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