Monday, December 26, 2016

Best Albums of 2016 (3/5)

30. Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein - Stranger Things OST

I usually wouldn't put soundtracks in this list but this stood out for a number of reasons. 'Stranger Things' garnered praise in the already crowded arena of subscription TV for its recreation not only of the aesthetic of a different age but also of the feeling experienced by those who lived through it all first time around. Much of the success hinged not simply on the visual depiction of mid 80s smalltown America or the Stephen King-esque storyline but instead lay in the viewer's sensory engagement - it actually felt like you had gone right back to primary school and were living and breathing it all with the mixture of fear, curiosity and innocence that characterises such a time in your life. Musicians have strip-mined 80s culture for every possible gem to be mixed into art aimed at adults but this was a first in actually making you feel like a kid again. 

29. Hieroglyphic Being - The Discos of Imhotep

Chicago's Jamal Moss was reared on loved-up House and Techno back in the Halcyon days of 89/90 and 'The Discos of Imhotep' is an earnest tribute to that era played straight and to the point. Stripped back to the music's basic components for maximum impact with minimum distraction, Moss manages to bury himself in period detail - right down to the Afro-Futurist imagery and an album cover that looks like it should be adorned with mildewed Our Price stickers - whilst somehow avoiding lapsing into wanton nostalgia. You could line this up against Richie Rich, Joe Smooth or any of the second summer of love Atlantic crossover crew and it would blend right into the pack. This'll make you feel the love, jack your body and party all the way to the promised land.

28. Exploded View - s/t

Made up of components from as far afield as Berlin and Mexico City it's hardly surprising Exploded View are such a bugger to pin down. There's a trickle of the cold sweat introspection of Tricky circa 'Pre-Millennium Tension' coupled with slivers of film noir David Holmes but this is actually a lot more front facing than you'd expect, each track leaving a distinct trail of breadcrumbs leading you back to a recognisable hook and intoxicating beat pattern. The band are happy to lurk in the doorway rather than stroll right in and explain themselves but they give you just enough to lure you in and soon the record's on repeat spins as you scour the landscape for clues to what it all means. 'Exploded View' are like a misremembered live act from an evening that later lapsed into wanton decadence you've tried to block out but somehow can't. They might just be onto something here.

27. Julien Gasc - Kiss Me You Fool

Having moonlighted as Stereolab's keyboard player for several years Julien Gasc has had ample time to get his kitsch on and this second solo LP shows off his songwriting chops in isolation for a sublime trip through velvet-lined Gallic pop. Gentle strains of mid 70s soft rock, kohl-eyed cabaret pop and warm analogue fuzz combine to fashion a listening experience that's mellow but fully engaging, fills and riffs rising to the fore as the waves dip and reveal the care and attention lavished on the production job. French language vocals throughout are a definite plus with Laetitia Sadler popping up on several tracks to lend the whole thing an air of strung out nonchalance and laidback continental cool.

26. Floorplan - Victorious

'House Is A Feeling' they used to say, something easy to recognise yet hard to distill and encapsulate. Generations of dance musicians since the original electronic boom of the 80s have drawn from the original Chicago House sound but few have ever really been able to replicate it and it's left to the original creators of the music to lead it forward into the present day. Like Hieroglyphic Being's Jamal Moss, Floorplan's Robert Hood has been around since those days and 'Victorious' sees him return to simple hooks and signatures from the golden age to develop them in sumptuous detail, turning the simplest ingredient into a throbbing dancefloor banger with the deft skill of someone accustomed to doing more with less. This is the difference between having your 20-something mate cook an old family recipe from a cookbook and his grandma preparing the same meal from memory - as is often the case, ain't nothing like the real thing.

25. Bloc Party - Hymns

I'll admit to feeling a little cynical about the prospect of a new Bloc Party record, particularly with half the original line up gone - could they really cut it having amputated the rhythm section that chopped out 'Helicopter' back in the day? Of course if you've heard Kele's solo stuff then any such fears are quickly dispelled and this team effort builds on his stonking 'Trick' LP from 2014 with a meatier sound that pairs the vocalist's dramatic lead with a new found collective momentum in guitar music. Above all 'Hymns' sound confident, Kele leading the band through unbridled optimism, serene introspection and guilt-free enjoyment of life's earthly pleasures - if 2016 yielded a better song about knockin' boots than 'Fortress' then I've yet to hear it. This is how you navigate the shift between musical eras, just clear your head and trust your instincts. Welcome back!

24. Mary Bell - s/t

In these censorious times naming yourself after a notorious child killer isn't exactly a short cut to daytime radio but Paris' Mary Bell are probably OK with that. Having built up a pretty solid live reputation over recent years the band's debut landed in late 2016 to frenzied anticipation and didn't disappoint, a spirited revival of old school riot grrrl vitriol and dead-eyed punk clamour. Issued via the local Collecif Semi-Conscient label who specialise in strictly DIY rabble-rousing the music's lost none of its original ground level piss and vinegar and provides a refreshingly frank dose of toilet venue catharsis as opposed to the more calculated rebellion doing the rounds internationally. Angsty, snarky and relentlessly focussed, 'Mary Bell' deliver on their initial promise and should give you everything you need to tackle 2017's challenges without fear or compromise.

23. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree

With 2016 attempting to take as many musical celebrities with it as it races towards its conclusion in a few days time we should be thankful guys like Nick Cave are still answering the phone, let alone making records this good. His previous LP 'Push The Sky Away' was lush enough to comfort the senses but this time round he's dialled it back to the core ingredients of piano, voice and the odd bit of industrial throb to stunning effect, beaming out from the edge of the universe like the hypnotic tone of an ageless deity. It's to his credit that he can master both the grandiloquent and the cavernously fragile without losing his balance between the two extremities and every note her lands as emphatically as his more bombastic material. Certain swords get sharper with age and old Mr Cave might just be in the midst of a late career purple patch here.

22. Oranssi Pazuzu - Varahtelija 

Black Metal provides ample creative space to those wishing to lead the listener down rabbitholes to disturbing underworlds and these Finns manage to thrill and unsettle in equal measure here over 70 minutes of warped psychedelic misanthropy. This sounds like a bad acid trip in a Nordic log cabin accompanied by your dad's record collection, musical cues from the flower power and prog eras hauled through traumatic distortion and melted down into something foul and pungent that nevertheless holds your gaze as it oozes across the floor. Their approach is fuelled more by a morbid desire to experiment rather than simply melt your face off - there's not a blastbeat in sight - and as the downward path unfolds you find yourself fascinated where it'll lead next. It may prove 'challenging' to casual visitors but 'Varahtelija' is one intoxicating headtrip.

21. DEAD - Voices

Another highlight of the Rennes music scene, DEAD are coming from a colder, harsher point on the local compass. 'Voices' eschews live action pulp in favour of a clinical drum machine led throb recalling Trent Reznor's malevolent tinkering on 'Pretty Hate Machine' or Andrew Eldritch's moody flights of fancy on those early Sisters releases. I initially gravitated towards this as it reminded me of fellow Gallic upper case fans FUTURE whose 'Horizons' LP was one of last year's highlights for me but in truth besides the reliance on electronic rhythms they're different beasts entirely and 'Voices' draws more from the pulse of classic coldwave and a deliberate inversion of Moroder-style disco to stimulate warmth only to dash it with blasts of freezing feedback. This was another album that got better with repeated listens as new sublevels were revealed with each visit, surely the ideal present for that black clad buddie of yours who hates Christmas.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Best Albums of 2016 (2/5)

40. Tallisker - Heliotrop

If I were doing a rundown limited to purely the best French releases of the year (oh wait, there's one right here) then these folks would probably come out on top. As it stands there's only an EP to work with so far but on this evidence Tallisker are one of France's brightest hopes for the future. 'Heliotrop' was born out of Paris but conceived in Glasgow and benefits from both the French capital's poise and the Scottish metropolis' fearlessness, rubbing up against 'Homogenic'-era Bjork and overlooked electro tinkerers Lamb for stylistic cues supplanted into today's wider musical horizon. Even at just five tracks the content reaches out across classical, jarring techno and weightless electro for the soundtrack to an imagined powder wig orgy in Marie Antoinette's Versailles. As an entrance it's flawless, here's hoping an album isn't too far behind.

 39. La Sera - Queens

I never bother reading the music press these days so I had no idea what happened to the assorted Vivian Girls components once their dead-eyed garage shtick fell from favour earlier in the decade. Turns out the band's Katy Goodman has ditched the fuzz and taken a turn for the rural with her new project La Sera which sees her buddy up (and maybe more) with one of Ryan Adams' band for a touch of sun-soaked country indie. There was a full length that dropped this year ('Music For Listening To Music To') which was a little too hayseed for my tastes but their tour EP 'Queens' is one heady delight from start to finish, Goodman radiating carefree glee like Belinda Carlisle at her late 80s pomp while the music coasts by on the 4AD side of country-flecked indie (think Tanya Donnelly or a cheerier Bob Mould). There's even a Led Zeppelin cover! This is a sweet, sweet listen.

38. Kaviar Special - 2

If you're looking for a spot of sloppy indie fun in France then head down to Rennes, gorge yourself on crepes and cider then trawl the numerous scuzzy bars and music venues to take in the finest the French scene has to offer. The city's mascots? Step forward Kaviar Special, an eight-legged behemoth belching out waves of seismic feedback, greasy haired motor riffs and choruses Ty Seagall would sell his granny for. This, as you've probably worked out, is their second LP on the unfeasibly cool Paris label Howlin' Banana Records and comes packed with echoic fuzz rock, gorgeous melodies and cool as fuck nonchalance. The pace is generally pretty laid back (I imagine these guys get up about 3pm) but when they put their foot to the floor and turn on the beef there's no resisting the groove they deliver. Tune in, turn it up and pour yourself something potent.

37. Ultimate Painting - Dusk

Very much the reluctant rock stars, these limelight-averse fellas have been hiding in a hedge for the last few years wearing 60s knitwear and not getting their hair cut but if they keep putting out records this discretely infectious then the good ship megastardom will surely sweep them up sooner or later. 'Dusk' is their third LP in as many years and sees them fill out their sound ever further - this is the sort of thing indie guitar bands knock out when they've been holed up in the country for a couple of months with a stash of brandy and old vinyl. Think Ride's Carnival of Light or the Roses' Second Coming, albums out of synch with the climate of their release but ultimately strapped to stand the passing of time. They continue to lurk in the shadows for now but some day soon their moment will surely come, in the meantime swoop on this as a private pleasure while you can.

36. Helms Alee - Stillicide

Seattle doesn't do delicate by the sound of things. Local talent Helms Alee tap into the city's vein of cacophonous low end rumble, vocals that sound like someone yelling over the rattle of an industrial wood chipper and percussion that feels like John Bonham trying to have it off with your leg after 16 pints. For all that 'Stillicide' isn't impenetrably thick - the band wipe the grease from their window often enough to have you gleefully pulling air guitar manoeuvres and there's enough boiler room groove to ride the slipstream of Clutch in full flight. In turns menacing, hypnotic and gut wrenchingly groovy, this is the sort of album to be appreciated either heavily sedated, belligerently intoxicated or somewhere safely between the two with a pair of headphones and no pressing engagements. Heavy, but perhaps not in the way you'd expect.

35. Mexrissey - No Manchester

Based on the premise of this album - Morrissey songs reproduced in Mexican Mariachi style - I was expecting pure novelty value but 'No Manchester' was actually a pleasant surprise. The Spanish language treatment suits the songs remarkably well and illustrate show well his music travels despite being rooted to exclusively English cultural signposts while a sprinkling of chilli powder and sunshine brings a new life to the humdrum indie plod of the originals. A choice few classics get a new lease of life here and it's very much respectfully done - Richard Cheese this most certainly ain't. My half-Mexican missus still sings along with the English lyrics but 'No Manchester' is a deftly executed cultural transfer that genuinely makes the originals sound great in a different way.

34. Sunflower Bean - Human Ceremony

'New Talent from Brooklyn' they said. I was therefore a little cynical when a friend recommended this lot to me but turns out the hipster quagmire still throws out the odd gem from time to time and 'Human Ceremony' was an instantly loveable indie debut packed with clever hooks and quirky ideas trimmed down to easily digestible size. Built on the basic guitar/bass/drums foundation with alternating boy/girl vocals the trio keep it reassuringly simple and achieve more with what they've got than most knob-twiddling studio boffins manage in a whole career, anchored in gorgeous melodies and well-drilled effects pedal noodling that stays the right side of 'experimental'. They're young, hip and good-looking but they've got the tunes to take them onwards and upwards so this is worth discarding the armour of cynicism for and ranks as maybe the best US indie debut of the year.

33. Subrosa - For This We Fought The Battle Of Ages

There's a tangible feeling at present that I've had trouble adequately describing of global politics having pulled the camera back abruptly obliging us all to regain focus in uncomfortable widescreen to fully understand the mood of our times. Placing yourself in what feels to many like an unforgiving void of warring tribes brings out sensations of panic and despair coupled with a weary acceptance that we must navigate a path forward and Utah's Subrosa were the band that came closest to encapsulating that mood this year with this stunning set of battle-hardened melancholy. Languid violin sits atop doom metal distilled to 300% potency with Rebecca Vernon's vocals chartering a course through the menacing landscape ahead. Tracks clocking in at 15 minutes average length feel like cycles rather than songs - this is an album that will take some digesting but the overall reward is more than sufficient. A truly unique feat and a fitting soundtrack for what's been quite a year.

32. Skee Mask - Shred

I like Techno that sketches out the walls of the space it lives within and invites you in to explore (and possibly have a bit of a dance) which is what Bavaria's Skee Mask manages with aplomb on this intriguing little album. His crate presumably features a hearty dose of 90s vinyl but influences are introduced with graceful restraint - there's shades of Future Sound of London at their most beanbag-friendly along with smatterings of 'Stella' era Jam and Spoon to ease the glide across a skyline dotted with skittering breakbeats and subtle infusions of strobe-bathed euphoria. This'll sit nicely alongside last years 'Immersion' LP from Ilian Tape cohorts Zenker Brothers, both of which will provide the ideal soundtrack to weaving your way through the city at night, winding down but senses still active enough to be tickled by the enthralling ingredients that bubble to the surface throughout. 

31. Huerco S - Those Of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have)

This albums is probably the latest addition to my list, popping up on my computer the day before I flew back to my parents having seen the missus off earlier that day. I was consequently feeling a bit lost and this proved to be the perfect antidote, a stream of ambient techno sufficiently withdrawn to sooth nerves but still layered with enough hypnotic detail to capture and hold attention. Since then I've had to try bloody hard not to wear it out and at present I'm actively looking forward to the opportunity to fall asleep to it on a Trans-Atlantic flight next week. 'Those....' is Eno's 'Music For Airports' filtered through Aphex Twin's less mischievous moments (circa Ambient Works Vol.2) to achieve a freezer-stunned serenity that stays fully intact throughout one captivating sequence. Consider it the highest of compliments when I say that this is the perfect music to send you to sleep.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Best Albums of 2016 (1/5)

It's list time!

Here are my favourite albums of 2016 in reverse order. I've paid good money for pretty much all of these over the last 12 months other than in the rare circumstances where the people that made them gave me a free copy :)

Hope you enjoy xxx 


50. Perturbator – The Uncanny Valley

Having cut his teeth playing guitar in various low-rent French Black Metal bands this guy decided to switch to synthwave a couple of years back and since then has been banging out some pretty infectious keyboard atmospherics in the vein of Vangelis’ Blade Runner soundtrack and fellow Parisian synthsters Minuit Machine. ‘The Uncanny Valley’ is an instrumental swoosh through early 80s cyberpunk culture and sounds like the sort of thing Arnie would chase you around a nightclub to in the first Terminator film. I could get up to some serious lurking listening to this (must be the underlying BM influence). As an aside the guy’s dad is apparently legendary 70s rock journalist Nick Kent – wonder what he made of all this? Grab the whole thing here for a price of your choosing.

49. Nothing – Tired of Tomorrow

Nothing’s debut ‘Guilty of Everything’ was a masterclass in controlled lucidity, the sound of mainman Dominic Palermo starting his conversion from tattooed hardcore bruiser to clear-headed shoegaze sorcerer. This second helping basically sees him level out and charter a course that touches neither periphery but instead charts a sublime middle route through all that is hazy, lazy and serene. Think mid 90s US fuzz rock (Hum, Helium etc) with an overhanging influence of the more guitar-heavy UK 1st wave shoegazers (Swervedriver, Adorable) and you’ve got an idea of where this is headed. Seeing them live presumably comes with the added novelty of witnessing guys that look like they punch holes in walls for a living playing material that makes Slowdive sound like Slayer by comparison.

48. Lust for Youth – Compassion

Synth pop is all about getting the feeling juuuust right – missing the target even by a fraction can mean the difference between ‘Don’t You Want Me’ and Cliff Richard’s ‘Wired For Sound’. Lust for Youth took aim at the metallic synth throb of Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’ on their last LP ‘International’ and ‘Compassion’ bowls it right down the middle again to equally satisfying effect. If you can imagine Midge Ure, Martin Gore and Andy Mclusky flogging their unreleased gems from 1984 to put their kids through university then this is probably what the result would sound like.

47. The Parrots – Los Ninos Sin Miedo

The Spanish are well up for it most of the time so it’s good to see their new crop of garage rock bands bumping up the ladder. The Parrots followed Hinds into the partial limelight this year with this stonking LP that sounds like the soundtrack to navigating your way home through the sidestreets of Madrid after one cerveza too many. Banging out this kind of shtick isn’t going to ensure you a long and illustrious career so it’s all about first impressions and these lads waste no time in upping energy levels and banging out loose-hipped hymns to reckless living with a cheeky grin and a flair for pop hooks. ‘Los Ninos Sin Miedo’ isn’t reinventing the wheel by any stretch but one spin of this will leave you down a couple of items of clothing with a drink in the hand and a twinkle in the eye, I guarantee it.

46. Solar Bears – Advancement

Yes it's a daft name but bear with me will you? Hahahaha oh dearie me....This is essentially a younger and sparklier Boards of Canada, the same 70s nature documentary soundtrack tropes projected onto a wider backdrop of sound and colour. Maybe I'm reading too much into the title of the record but this feels less about analogue nostalgia and more about late night forays into new and intriguing lunar territory. I'm one to cherry pick electronic LPs for tracks to fuel my running playlists and 'Advancement' had its carcass picked clean in 2016 which is surely a sign of future classic status.

45. Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard – Y Proffwyd Dwyll

South Wales sound like the ideal location for taking copious quantities of mind altering substances and cranking out seismic stoner rock and MWWB take to their task with considerable aplomb on this scrofulous slab of cosmic brainfuck. Imagine Ozzy as a teenage Welsh chick coming off a bender so decadent that she’s forgotten what planet she lives on and you’ve got a handle on vocalist Jessica Ball’s frazzled delivery. There’s riffs that belch forth from the bowels of the Earth too and a honey thick trickle of melody throughout that’ll stop you from sinking under the lumbering weight of it all. Easy to take them as a lightweight alternative with a name like that but make no mistake, MWWB are upcoming heavy hitters to be reckoned with.

44. Teleman – Brilliant Sanity

It was apparent when Teleman’s debut ‘Breakfast’ dropped two years ago that this band came with a gameplan. World domination may yet elude them but ‘Brilliant Sanity’ is a step closer to it with another raft of indie radio gems so slick and streamlined you can picture the boys doing military style training jogs with their instruments at dawn and rehearsing so relentlessly you’d think Michael Jackson’s dad was stood behind them snapping his belt. Their sound takes its cues from class of ’74 art school pop (Sparks, Eno, Roxy Music) with a smattering of Devo kink to craft a record that’ll waste no time in working its charm although you get the impression they’ve yet still yet to peak. If you’re short on time and patience but are still curious of what 2016 has to offer in terms of new and exciting tunes then give these boys 15 seconds of your time, that’s all they’ll need.

43. Tanya Tagaq - Retribution

My musical horizons are no wider than anyone else's but I do have a special place in my heart for stuff I've never heard somebody do on a record before and this pretty much fills that bracket. If you can remember the mixture of fascination and WTF cultural abstraction that you felt hearing Bjork yowl her way through 'Birthday' for the first time then this will tickle the same nerves. Tanya grew up in arctic Canada on AC/DC records and puts on the sort of borderline terrifying live show that will have you quaking behind the sofa. 'Retribution' is the sound of Mother Earth warning mankind that she's about to lose patience with its destructive showboating. Strong stuff indeed.

42. Czarface - Fistful of Peril

The Wu dynasty continues! Czarface were one of my favourite discoveries of last year so naturally I wasn't looking for them to mess with the formula that made 'Every Hero Needs A Villain' such a delightful listen and 'Fistful of Peril' essentially picks up where they left off, packing in nods to comic book action culture across a production job lit up with the finest tricks of the trade employed by RZA across those stonking mid 90s Wu Tang solo records. The flow is smooth, the beats are rugged and smoky and every track bristles with colour and rhythmic invention. The angst that characterises much of modern hip hop is notably absent but stick this one on when you're looking for a moral boosting trip through classic rhyme thrills and you'll find everything you need for a good time.

41. Panagea - In Drum Play

There's a million and one electronic records out there so if you want to get any kind of profile then you've gotta be prepared to pop a wheelie from time to time to hold people's attention. Panagea understands this in the same way some of the 90s festival crowdpleasers (Propellorheads, Fatboy Slim) did - pick out the tropes that made you love dance music in the first place and pack out the record with reference points you know the listener will recognise. 'In Drum Play' is basically ten largely successful attempts to dazzle and delight, juggling rhythms and hooks like an Olympic swimmer twisting and turning on the way to the water. There's other records on this list to sit and ponder, this is one to react to on every listen. Well done sir!