It can be hard to find things to say about every album, every year, so this time round I’m going to concentrate on a few more records I’d like to say a bit about. Beyond that, some albums fall neatly into some fairly obvious categories that don’t demand much explanation, so I’ve stuck a couple of lists at the end.
Overall I’m slightly surprised to find myself looking at this list and feeling it’s been a marginally disappointing year. As ever, there have been some albums I’ve loved and will love for years to come, but not much beyond that. Some that I’ve liked, certainly; but more that I’ve either been disappointed by or struggled to get along with. Is that a fair reflection on the releases, or a sign that I need to widen my horizons?
Still, let’s start with the albums I have things to say about…
Alistair the Optimist – Alistair the Optimist
This record was a big deal for me at the start of the year (and I declare an interest here) as I was involved in putting it out for work. Given that it was a charity record, one of the great joys of it was that it was also really good – no need for anyone to go along with it politely, as it was a quality product. The idea was for Alistair Banks, who has MND, to record an album while still able to play the drums; he succeeded, and picked up support from some interesting places along the way (some time in Peter Gabriel’s studio during the mastering, backing vocals from the wonderful Kathryn Calder). The result is an acoustic, folk-influenced album that can hold its own in any company. See here for details of how to buy it.
Cornshed Sisters – Tell Tales
It all suddenly burst into life for the Cornshed Sisters in 2012, with their album finally out and (seemingly) more gigs round the country than ever before. There are no direct comparisons for them, really – musically there are all sorts of influences in there, from folk to showtunes to Annie Lennox. The four of them rely on vocals, acoustic guitars and piano live, and the record is hardly any more orchestrated – it sounds no more and no less than one would expect from the live shows. Good work.
The School – Reading Too Much Into Things Like Everything
You know where you are with The School: thematically their songs can be grouped into “I’d like to kiss that boy”, “would that boy like to kiss me” and “that boy doesn’t want to kiss me any more.” Musically it’s textbook indiepop, with B&S and soul / girl group influences all going on. And the second album is basically that. It’s augmented by great presentation: white vinyl for them as care about such things, and a video for Why Do You Have To Break My Heart Again that’s a visual love letter to classic-style record covers – at once simple and incredibly deft (see it here). During their Indietracks set I slightly felt the songs off the previous album packed a bit more of a punch, but who cares really – I’ll happily take one of these records every other year thank you very much.
Future of the Left – The Plot Against Common Sense
After McLusky split up I somewhat wrote them off as a band I regretted never seeing live, and was only dimly aware that there was a successor band going on. I’m grateful to my old comrade-in-zines Al for switching me on to Future of the Left at perhaps the best possible moment, with an album widely hailed as their best (can’t comment) and a deserving winner of the Swn prize. It’s a noisy, shouty record, with the same maniacal imagery deployed as under McLusky: “Civilised people don’t fuck bears” and, ”I can show you how the generators work / but I cannot recognise my own face,” are firmly among my favourite lyrics of the year. Ironically, I have still not caught the madness live, as their autumn London show sold out.
Mark Knopfler – Privateering
Another couple of years, another mediocre album from Mark Knopfler. It’s ironic to think that Dire Straits changed their lineup, and developed their sound often quite radically, between albums; as a solo artist, however, when one might expect more freewheeling or experimentation, Knopfler has played consistently with the same set of musicians and produced very similar-sounding records for the last decade and a half. This is more of the same, only this time a double album. There are three or so good songs on it.
Ultrasound – Play for Today
The reunion of Ultrasound in 2010 was surely one of the most unexpected re-groupings of recent years – and, a cynic might say, one of the most pointless. This record gives the lie to that: it’s largely what the first album should have been, with mighty slabs of pounding rock from start to finish, sometimes degenerating a little into prog-ish backwaters, but always getting back on track quickly enough to be forgiven. Far better than most post-reunion albums; I doubt Suede can top it, somehow.
AC Newman – Shut Down the Streets
Best known as lead songwriter with the New Pornographers, AC Newman put out his third solo album this year. A marked shift from 2009’s punchy Get Guilty, it more recalled the clatter of the New Pornographers’ 2007 effort Challengers. But somehow it didn’t quite have the songs to make it work.
Sea of Bees – Orangefarben
Sometimes the mood or feel of an album is its main asset; the languid warmth of Orangefarben is hugely enjoyable, even if the songs never massively resolved themselves from each other to me. It doesn’t help in telling them apart that they all have one-word titles; Gone and Alien are highlights, while Leaving (a cover of Leaving on a Jetplane) is unnecessary.
Iris DeMent – Sing the Delta
One of the real treats this year was Iris DeMent’s first album of original material for twelve (or even m0re?) years. It’s a piano-driven, authentic, tuneful, gospel-y slice of the South that draws in rather than alienating. It’s unambiguously sung from the perspective of a family woman in middle age, as emphasised by the cover portrait of Iris, almost aggressive in its honest presentation of her. A truly distinctive record.
There are a few more records I rather liked. Tender Trap returned with Ten Songs About Girls; the follow-up to 2010’s Dansette, Dansette, and a record that makes me inclined to think Amelia Fletcher’s on the best run of form of her musical career.. Meanwhile, I never consciously considered Metric‘s synth-heavy Synthetica a particular favourite, but it was one I kept returning to on my MP3 player.
The year has had its disappointments too. I’ll probably never be the Cribs‘ greatest fan, but bar lead single Come On Be A No One, their new Marr-less album didn’t do it for me. Much hyped, Visions by Grimes also boasted an utterly superb single, Oblivion… but the rest of the record was classic similar-but-not-as-good fare, and by the end of the album I’m invariably struggling to remember why I liked it. Similarly the Noisettes record boasted a superb piece of pop perfection – That Girl – but the rest of the album seemed to be a mish-mash of styles that didn’t add up to anything very satisfying.
This year has also left me wondering what next for Allo Darlin’: still the, well, darlings of the indiepop world, their second album had some stand-out tracks but overall was a grower if you’re feeling generous, and just not as good as its predecessor if you’re not. Seeing them live at KCSU, it did rather feel as though the new album tracks were something to be got through before being rewarded with the old stuff – never a good sign. What can Elizabeth Morris offer as a songwriter that we’ve not already heard? And can the band truly cross over; if so, does it need a change of setting from that dependable champion of quality indie Fortuna Pop? I’m fond of Allo Darlin’, but I worry for them. Wouldn’t say no to a Bill Botting solo project though – what an asset to the band he is.
A couple of albums from indie favourites snuck out at the end of the year, that one might have expected to come out in 2013 rather than in the run up to Christmas. The first was Wildlife, the third album by The Lovely Eggs: it sounds much like their previous records, fun, eccentric, at times demented and often noisy; I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With instantly became one of my favourite songs of the year (and a rival to Don’t Look At Me I Don’t Like It for the title of Holly’s Best Song Since Why Did You Let My Kitten Die?), while the rest of it had me smiling, no doubt inexplicably to others, as I walked to work. The second record did rather less to provoke smiles: Moves by the Singing Adams is a fairly miserable affair, more so than I can recall Steven Adams having produced before either on his own or with the Broken Family Band. That said, it’s also fairly concise, musically more adventurous than past efforts and still full of Adams’s characteristically acute lyrics. Both records made for an enjoyable end to a musical year that had threatened to tail off a bit.
List 1: another very good album by…
- The Shins – Port of Morrow
- Jesca Hoop – The House that Jack Built
- Elbow – Dead in the Boot
- John Hiatt – Mystic Pinball
- Calexico – Algiers
List 2: albums that are probably pretty good but that I didn’t really get into that much
- Laura J Martin – The Hangman Tree
- The Maccabees – Given to the Wild
- Sharon van Etten – Tramp
- Richard Hawley – Standing at the Sky’s Edge
- Mary Epworth – Dream Life
- Gossip – A Joyful Noise
- Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America
- Strawberry Whiplash – Hits in the Car
- Katzenjammer – A Kiss Before You Go
- Corin Tucker Band – Kill My Blues
- Paul Burch and the WACO Brothers – Great Chicago Fire
- Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man
- Dingus Khan – Support Mistly Swans
- Orca Team – Restraint