albums 2012

Top ten albums 2012

NB the 8tracks mix mostly doesn’t contain the same songs as the videos – for a fuller sample of each album, play both!

1. Robert Ellis – Photographs

My top ten albums list always seems to be topped by a country selection for some reason – it’s not deliberate, but after Jessica Lea Mayfield last year and Caitlin Rose in 2010, I’ve been most impressed this year by a man who’s in many ways a peer of the latter, both building on the best traditions of country music but relying on their own songwriting talents rather than the well-worn lyrical conventions of the genre. I reviewed this superb album in February, and there’s little to add. Since then Ellis has come to the UK a couple of times and played some excellent shows (see the gigs post), and the album has attracted some word-of-mouth buzz, but not a huge amount. Since then Ellis has popped up on the Nick Lowe country tribute album, and been preparing a new album for release in 2013, which from the tracks he’s previewed live looks set to be at least the equal of this. It’s a class piece of work, and I’m looking forward to many more years of music from Robert Ellis.

2. The Just Joans – Buckfast Bottles in the Rain

Motherwell’s finest, the Just Joans, have been live favourites ever since I first saw then at Indietracks in 2010. They marry the acute observation and wry humour of, say, MJ Hibbett and Ballboy, with the ability to pack an at time surprising emotional punch (Card From A Multipack remains probably the most devastatingly sad Christmas song I’ve ever heard) and a penchant for craftily sneaking in elements from other songs – from the Wonder Stuff to Steptoe and Son. On top of that, David Pope’s lyrics also betray a real talent for melancholy, and at times quite brave candour about personal insecurities. Their back catalogue is rather complex however, being mainly a set of limited-release EPs, most recently on the Wee Pop label. For this album – not quite their first, but that’s long out of print – it would have been easy for them to assemble all the live favourites – If You Don’t Pull, I Won’t Survive, Hideous Accident and so on. In fact, they’ve done something less obvious and more sophisticated, trawling the back catalogue to produce what’s effectively a concept album: side 1 is about life in the sixth form; side 2 takes us into university and the world beyond. I’m a sucker for coming of age films, so an album along the same lines is right up my street. Though it lacks many of the obvious cuts, and any vocals from Katie, as a package in its own right it works superbly and is all the more impressive for not playing to the band’s obvious strengths live. Closing track What Do We Do Now is in pride of place as the climax of the album, as it always is of the live set – and its melancholy reflection on teenage days from the adult perspective is all the more effective for coming at the end of that journey on the record. Fabulous stuff – I’m not sure whether there are any copies of the very lovely gatefold vinyl and CD package left; if not, hopefully it’s still available on download.

3. Sylvie Lewis – It’s All True

All of my top three albums have really lacked the acclaim they deserve as far as I can tell – to an even greater extent than usual for music I like, anyway. This is Sylvie’s third album, its release noticed by almost nobody at all, which is fairly tragic – it’s every bit as good as her two previous outings (label-released, and promoted at least to some extent). Based in Italy, Sylvie has clearly adopted a lot of continental influences into her music – it might be more fair to call her a chanteuse than merely a singer-songwriter. The songs are top-notch, Sylvie’s singing beautiful and the production perfectly-judged – attractive, but not over the top. Yet another high quality release – will Sylvie play a show or two in the UK to promote it next year?

4. Tigercats – Isle of Dogs

Tigercats are a band who know what they’re doing. The guitars are choppy, the vocals shouted in an Essex drawl, the rhythm tight and… a bit funky. I was tempted at first to describe them as a cross between Hefner and Television… but there’s a twist of Fleetwood Mac in there too, perhaps signposted by a track titled Stevie Nicks – indeed, most of the tracks seem to namecheck either people (Konny Huck [sic], Kim and Thurston, Harper Lee) or places in London (Coffin for the Isle of Dogs, Limehouse Nights, Banned at the Troxy). They’ve come a long way since I first saw them in 2010 (thought they were pretty good, but didn’t suspect there was such a great record in them), and they’re clearly still developing, with double A-side Cats Run Free already being a clear development of the sound. A second album in 2013? I hope so.

5. Darren Hayman – The Violence / Lido

So this year we got a double-length album from the former frontman of a now long-defunct band, successful in their way but sometimes scorned as much as respected. But enough about Mark Knopfler. It can be easy to take longstanding presences on the scene for granted: last year I realised I’d been an idiot for not taking every chance I got to see Misty’s Big Adventure, and put it right; this year, I’ve had a similar sort of revelation about Darren Hayman. Ten years in, it’s worth reflecting on the shape of Darren’s solo career. Even during his Hefner days, he tended to write somewhat themed albums and collections of songs (his songs about men who’ve walked on the moon spanned, Hefner, the French and early solo records), and he’s been increasingly rigorous in this as a solo artist: early outings focused on British holidays and cafes, and were followed by a trilogy of albums about Essex. The Violence is the third of these, and unlike its predecessors is set in the past – it draws on the civil wars and Essex Witch Trials.

It’s interesting to hear Darren reflect on writing these songs in interviews and the videos he put on his site: he’s been conscious of the need to judge how much narrative a song can carry, and how to avoid turning the record into a history lesson. And he’s judged it aptly – many years of songwriting practice and experience have clearly paid off, with what is a supremely well-judged suite of songs. The instrumentation complements them too: it’s not seventeenth century as such, but it features abundant woodwind and unorthodox sampled percussion, giving it a distinctive and appropriately un-modern feel, even though what’s on offer is essentially a set of top notch pop songs. I’ve struggled with one or two previous albums because they have offered rather polite, low-key renditions of the songs, perhaps a symptom of being recorded piecemeal at home rather than live (you’d never guess from the restrained reading on Pram Town that the song Big Fish often provides a late-set rave-up during Darren’s live shows, for instance); The Violence does the same to some extent, but it’s far less of a problem – if anything, it suits the songs. It’s a supremely strong record from a man at the absolute top of his game.

I’ve also slightly cheated here and included Lido, Darren’s instrumental album about open-air swimming pools – there doesn’t seem much point discussing it in a separate post. The idea of a man known for his lyrics producing an album of instrumentals, let alone the idea of an album of instrumentals being themed about something, illustrates Hayman’s commitment to doing the new and interesting rather than the obvious and expected. The results proved much more engaging than I’d anticipated – far from being the niche item I’d perhaps expected, it’s very melodic and highly charming. Lovely.

6. Hospitality – Hospitality

A debut album from a band previously unknown to me, Hospitality crossed my radar thanks to a recommendation on the Anorak forum. They’re three-piece from the US, but produce rather more rich music than that might suggest. I’d be tempted to describe it as a cross between Camera Obscura and Laura Veirs – it certainly appeals to the UK indie fan, but ultimately it couldn’t really be mistaken for a British record. Poptastic stuff – I hope they might come to the UK for a show or two next year.

7. Evans the Death – Evans the Death

If you’d told me at the start of this year I’d have Evans the Death in my top ten albums, I’d have raised a quizzical eyebrow at you and no mistake. This frighteningly young band have been around on the scene, firmly in the Fortuna Pop orbit, for a couple of years now, and I’d long struggled to see the fuss. Perhaps it’s because their strengths seem to rest mainly on distinctive lead vocals, plus a great drummer and even better lead guitarist – live, there can seem to be a bit of a disparity between these and the contributions of other band members. But the half-set I caught at Indietracks was a bit of a revelation – somehow on a big stage and, when standing back a bit, the songs resolved themselves with a clarity I’d never grasped before. I picked up the album and it stayed on my MP3 player for most of the rest of the year – it’s a satisfying, tuneful racket, and probably works better as a package than as individual songs given single releases. It’s also been very well produced: there are lots of nice touches with layered vocals and so on, but it never bogs down the songs or makes them seem in any way less direct. One of the most pleasant surprises of the year.

8. The Futureheads – Rant

For a good few years now I’ve been wondering where the Futureheads might be going. After three albums all in the same vein, I rather felt I didn’t need a fourth and so never picked it up. Did they have anywhere left to go? It turned out they did: this isn’t just a departure from their previous formula, it’s a hugely radical departure. They’d always made great use of layered vocals, so in hindsight it makes perfect sense to produce an a capella record. It works so well not just because of the performances, but also the song selection: the sequencing of old Futureheads songs, folk outings and modern covers has been got just right, and the songs all bend brilliantly to the Futureheads’ commands (indeed I got a bit of a shock when looking up some of the numbers I wasn’t familiar with, to find what they originally sounded like). An audacious and impressive record.

9. Shrag – Canines

From live shows in 2011 and early 2012 previewing the new material, some people took the conclusion that Shrag were going more melodic. When the album eventually did come out – somewhat later than everyone had hoped – this proved a bit wide of the mark: Show Us Your Canines and On The Spines of Old Cathedrals certainly head into more melodic territory (the latter becoming a bit of a New Order pastiche in its second half), as do Flinching at Forever and You’re the Shout to some extent. But the other song in that vein from the preview shows, Trains That You’re Not On, ultimately got relegated to b-side status, while elsewhere the songs continue to be choppy and shouty: Devastating Bones, Tears of A Landlord and Chasing Consumations, for instance, while a bit tighter and more polished, are unambiguously the same old Shrag. The choppy guitars, feverish imagery and shouty vocals are well recognisable from the past, and as strong as they ever were – if anything, rather than being more tuneful they’ve got heavier and more aggressive. All told, Shrag continue to count as one of the most worthwhile bands in the country for my money.

10. The Wave Pictures – Long Black Cars

The trouble with talented, prolific musicians can be that if you’re not in at the start, it can be hard to know where to begin with a back catalogue that has quickly got very extensive. This has been the year when I’ve tried to get my head round the Wave Pictures, having finally been converted at a couple of great live shows. For the uninitiated, I’d describe them as a cross between Hefner and early Dire Straits – but I may be the only person to whom that would sound at all attractive. Long Black Cars, however, is probably as good a jumping-off point as any, if you need one: the songs are the expectedly unexpected stories and eccentric vignettes. It’s not as scratchily produced as some past outings, but not needlessly smooth either. It was followed by David Tattersall’s solo guitar instrumentals album (which appears only to be available if you buy the vinyl), and no doubt there will be a new Wave Pictures album in 2013. I’m looking forward to it already.

2012 – the Very Rest Of (2)

Here’s the second round-up of my favourite tracks from 2012, ahead of the top ten albums countdown…

  1. The Cribs – Come On, Be a No-One
  2. Tally Ho! featuring Rose Melberg – 02 Kid
  3. Cornshed Sisters – Dance at my Wedding
  4. Grimes – Oblivion
  5. Singing Adams – Black Cloud
  6. John Hiatt – I Know How to Lose You
  7. Noisettes – That Girl
  8. The Lovely Eggs – I Just Want Someone To Fall In Love With
  9. Ultrasound – Beautiful Sadness
  10. Alistair The Optimist – In The Wake
  11. Waco Brothers & Paul Burch – Flight to Spain
  12. Metric – The Wanderlust
  13. Iris DeMent – There’s a Whole Lotta Heaven
  14. Mary Epworth – Long Gone

Albums 2012: the mop-up

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

2012 – the Very Rest Of (1)

I’ve done a few 8tracks mixes of music from 2012. There’s a run down of tracks from my top 10 albums, but before that there are two mixes of various other tracks I heard over the year. Some, but not all, come from albums outside the top 10 (and a round-up of those is to follow). Here’s the first one.

  1. Future of the Left – Failed Olympic Bid
  2. Withered Hand – Heart Heart
  3. Tigercats – Cats Run Free
  4. Emmy the Great – Fade Into You
  5. Sea of Bees – Gone
  6. Young Romance – Follow On Your Own
  7. Pris – A-Bomb in White Heat
  8. Laura J Martin – Spy
  9. MJ Hibbett – The Stores of Not to Be
  10. Mark Knopfler – Go, Love
  11. Major Lazer feat. Amber Coffman – Get Free
  12. Jesca Hoop – When I’m Asleep
  13. Caitlin Rose – Lately I’ve Let Things Slide
  14. Field Mouse – You Guys Are Gonna Wake My Mom
  15. Ambrosia Parsley – The Answer (Tim & Becky’s Wedding)

I’ll also share here probably my favourite video of the year, from The School.~