Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Best Albums of 2016 (5/5)

10. Amber Arcades - Fading Lines

There's always room in my life for a bit of sun-soaked indie , ever more so in 2016 when reasons to cower indoors in a paranoid funk seemed in plentiful supply. Amber Arcades is essentially Holland's Annelotte de Graaf keeping things jangly and uplifting over ten tracks of laidback indie rock with enough charm to be infectious without overdoing the cutie carefree thing. The basics are all there : hummable hooks, lilting guitar lines and de Graaf's mellow yet resolutely clear-headed delivery that makes an intricately constructed record sound virtually effortless. Think Alvvays' similarly loveable debut from a year or two ago, Cate le Bon's fluffier moments or even a lady's answer to Mac Demarco. Indeed there's no reason for this not to garner the same drooling praise the latter's 'Salad Days' hoovered up back in 2014. Her future looks bright.

9. Hinds - Leave Me Alone

I make a point of ignoring the majority of online music journalism but there was no escaping the deluge of enthusiasm directed at these gals when their debut dropped in January to kick 2016 off to a sloshy start. Fortunately neither the hype nor 12 months' wear and tear have taken the shine off this album and it's still the year's best example of how to put a bit of fun back into guitar music. Hinds are young, Spanish and well up for a good time and they manage to smush all those elements into every track here for a thoroughly enjoyable Iberian garage romp packed with choppy riffs, yowl along choruses and cheeky humour. I saw them tour it in February and they were obviously having a great time up there, beseeching the typically reserved Parisian crowd to 'Take off your bras!' (unfortunately I wasn't wearing one). The year's most loveable debut, bar none.

8. Nite Jewel - Liquid Cool

Indie electronica is a crowded field these days and I ain't got time to wade through most of it so I flick through new releases like an impatient kid at Christmas, tossing aside anything that doesn't immediately grab my attention and only locking in for the long haul if there's something really special going on. Fortunately there's always one album that stands out from the pack and this was it, a weightless rush of haunting funk pop from the elusive Ramona Gonzalez. Think '83 era mid-Atlantic radio pop suffused with that half remembered childhood dreamyness they channel so nicely on 'Stranger Things', in fact close your eyes and Gonzalez almost sounds like MJ's lost twin from the 'Thriller' outtakes. Throw in a cluster of some of the year's strongest pop singles ('Boo Hoo', 'Kissing The Screen') and you've got a perfect album for a parallel universe where 2016 wasn't so rough.

7. Wild Nothing - Life Of Pause

God I love this guy. Every time Jack Tatum steps up to drop another album (and this one comes on the back of three years' absence) I worry he'll have lost his magic touch but 'Life Of Pause' hit the bullseye once again with another string of shimmering classics. Calling this dream pop is slightly reductive as Tatum's rooted solidly in songs over soundscapes, the potent production job taking its cues from peak-era Talk Talk and Lloyd Cole for introverted melody and the full band sound gives the tunes enough momentum to really take root. That 'Cloudbursting' dry ice woosh from his previous albums is still there but it's been fed into something bigger and more dynamic, a more confident hybrid happy to bowl it straight rather than hide behind its fringe. I still can't pick a favourite between this and his first two so if you don't have 'em than grab all three and make up your own mind.

6. Cavern of Anti-Matter - Void Beats/Invocation Trex

If you were having trouble choosing between kooky analogue pop, stratospheric Krautrock and loop-fuelled modern shoegaze then fret ye no more for Cavern of Anti-Matter are here to save the day! This is basically one of the guys from Stereolab plus a couple of other hoary indie veterans noodling around in the studio but locking into some fantastic loops along the way and the ground they cover here is pretty astonishing. Tunes flit between the ten-minute forays into hyperspace and brief flashes of off the wall eccentricity but at no point do they test your patience and you end up wanting to spread the album out like a map to explore every hidden passage. This merges the best bits of Toy's first two records, Primal Scream's 'XTRMNTR', mid 70s Kraftwerk and that warm hypnotic thing Stereolab did so well in the late 90s. A thoroughly pleasant surprise.

5. Unloved - Guilty Of Love

I was sceptical about this album having naively assumed it was some shitty late period emo effort based purely on the bandname and title. As it turns out David Holmes' latest effort comes packed with his trademark smoky bass and cinematic judder coupled with some seriously seductive Nico-esque vocals from newcomer Jade Vincent. If the Hope Sandoval LP was this years's soundtrack to a lull in romantic proceedings then this is what should've be playing earlier when eyes first met across a dimly-lit nightspot. There's a large dollop of Phil Spector echo, the velvet-lined coo of the Shangri-La's and even moodier Nancy Sinatra and a production job that travels as deep into sultry hedonism as Portishead do into jarring introversion. If you're backed up at the tension thrown up by this year's events this was the album to shake it off to with a stiff drink, a sly fag and a night of earthly pleasures.

4. Jagwar Ma - Every Now And Then

2013 saw the Aussie baggy revival hit its stride with Cut Copy's euphoric 'Free Your Mind' and Jagwar Ma's brashly confident debut 'Howlin' that drew in loose grooves, trippy guitar loops and that wide-mouthed gawp that Shaun Ryder made an effortless trademark back in the day. I was concerned the boys wouldn't be able to follow such a stellar entrance but three years touring it has given them the chance to get a feel for what really gets the crowd going and 'Every Now And Then' sees them come back with a steadier hand and a wider sonic palette to stunning effect. The three minute studio jams of their debut are built outwards into more complex yet equally danceable tapestries that reach the heights of Underworld, Leftfield or Primal Scream at their most unhinged yet the sound they craft here is entirely their own and one that can only improve on further as they move forward.

3. Dalek - Asphalt For Eden

The podium this year is steeped in anxiety, paranoia and a search for meaning in a world that increasingly fragmented. Ideal conditions for a new Dalek album then. Having sat uncomfortably between experimental hip hop and abstract extreme metal stools since their late 90s inception the trio had gone quiet of late but this strident return sees them refit the gasworks clang and skunk-soaked trepidation of their mid-noughties peak in the harsh light of the modern world. The beats are suffocatingly heavy, the vocals scrambling to stay one step ahead of total nihilism and the bass-heavy production provides the perfect answer to the non-stop barrage of opinion and invective served up to us daily in 2016. If you're looking for answers to today's harsh questions Dalek might not come through but this might be the perfect soundtrack to the frantic search for meaning.

2. Kate Tempest - Let Them Eat Chaos

When Kate Tempest's last LP 'Everybody Down' fell short of the commercial and critical success I thought it merited (it was my album of 2014) I was almost relieved that the intricately constructed hip hop narrative she'd constructed wasn't clumsily hijacked by zeitgeist-chasing loudmouths and overexposed to the point of losing its fine detail. Having scrutinised and brought to life one continuously evolving plot last time round she's split herself between separate strands taking place simultaneously across town this time with her deftly executed rap poetry chronicling the travails of several different protagonists united by one sleepless night. Her pinpoint emotional accuracy is matched by the frantic pace of her delivery as she builds up cavernous pressure only to push back just short of breaking point to leave you exhilarated once again. The girl remains in a field of her own.

1. Preoccupations - Preoccupations

The mood of the times isn't one of celebration, nor is it the time for narcissistic self-evaluation. What we listeners needed more than anything in 2016 was a vent, a channel to process the angst heaped upon the world over the last 12 months. Having come about in circumstances all too typical of our times following the sanctimonious clamour over their original moniker, Calgary's Preoccupations fed off the tension to fuel this flawless comeback record. Their tremulous post punk sounds overcrowded to the point of borderline meltdown here with stark song titles ('Degraded', 'Anxiety', 'Monotony') sculpting a emotional passage akin to a hollowed-out millennial refit of 'Dark Side Of The Moon'. In turns anthemic, cathartic and unflinchingly accurate, this was a set of tunes to diffuse the tension in your skull and set you up for the fightback. Just what the doctored ordered.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Best Albums of 2016 (4/5)

20. Dinosaur Jr - Give a Glimpse of What Yr Not

The key to musical longevity seems to be not losing sight of why fans started buying your records in the first place. Indeed, when Mascis, Lou and Murph hit the road again in the autumn I was struck not only by how warmly received they were but also by how sweet the new stuff sounds and 'Give a Glimpse....' stands up against any of their past glories. The laidback guitar melodies and breezy charm are still there and that loveable sugar crunch they perfected back in the day - widely imitated but never matched - hits home on every track of this remarkably solid late career highlight. Much like Teenage Fanclub's equally loveable 'Here' which dropped a month or two earlier this is the sound of a band who know how to pace themselves putting smiles on faces like only they can.

19. Los Noctambulos - Stranger

More gold from the Paris scene. Los Noctambulos sound like they've been scraped off a studio wall from the mid 1960s and reanimated for another tour, an echo-laden romp through the early garage days as flower power begins to loom round the corner. Think the sort of psychedelic pop they pump out in vintage clothes shop (Seeds, Bravos, Fugs, even early Mothers of Invention) tracked through a murky Parisian gig hovel in one of those converted wine cellars. I actually saw them play in such a venue and it was just as you'd imagine, plodding focus and zero eye contact with the audience but when the tunes are this good they don't need the showmanship. Grab 'Stranger' at a price of your choosing here and see if you agree with my diagnosis.

18. Eagulls - Ullages

This lot were one of 2014's most pleasant discoveries with their angsty debut so I was keen to hear what was in store for the follow up and 'Ullages' didn't disappoint. While their debut was wrought with pent-up energy and sardonic wrath, this new set of tunes takes longer, more calculated paces and comes at its subject matter with a touch more battle-hardened pragmatism, still just as frustrated but aware that simple catharsis won't cut it this time. They've never struggled to pen anthems but the likes of 'Euphoria' rise to heights beyond the scope of their early singles and the more you poke around here the more gems you'll discover. Consider this their 'Room On Fire', a second outing just as rewarding as the hit-packed debut but one that leaves a starker imprint once the hype subsides.

17. His Clancyness - Isolation Culture

If I was writing this list purely on album concepts then Bologna's His Clancyness would probably be top of it. 'Isolation Culture' attacks the ambitious theme of modern technology failing in its aim to bring us closer together only to leave us flailing in a widening void of understanding and to their credit they manage to pull it off on the back of a slow burning cocktail of wiry post punk and hypnotic noise rock. The sound of alienation and confusion throbs and crackles throughout but they've succeeded in keeping their lens clean to render it all in glorious detail for one enchanting listen that merits the journey. Like the contemplative Mediterranean cousin to Preoccupations' stunning debut, 'Isolation Culture' deserves to serve as a stark reflection of how 2016 felt at the time.

16. Audion - Alpha

'Techno in it's purest sense' is how Audion's Matthew Dear describes his work. I'll offer no argument to that. 'Alpha' is stacked just how I like it, deep and wide enough to walk around in and explore the variety of textures on offer. Dear channels Laurent Garnier and Dave Clark at their finest to combine beefy low end with metallic clanks and squelches for a slowly unfolding tapestry of infectious bleepwork that will charm on first listen yet withstand multiple return journeys. Like Clark's self-titled LP from a couple of years back, 'Alpha' worms its way to Techno's core only to swim back out in a dozen fascinating directions, each time reviving familiar tropes and chucking in some explosive new ingredients for good measure. This is well worth keeping your frequency clear for.

15. Winterfylleth - The Dark Hereafter

Seeing the skies cloud over and feeling the temperature drop can chip away at morale but there's something strangely rewarding about harsh winds and pissy weather if you are willing to tackle it head on. Manchester's Winterfylleth are no strangers to grimness and stagger their release schedule to drop the perfect soundtrack to autumn's inevitable onslaught with albums typically surfacing just as the cold kicks in. 'The Dark Hereafter' continued a faultless run of form when it landed in October, tightening the band's focus slightly from haggard stompathons to more sprawling slabs of grinding melancholy culminating in the 13-minute epic 'Green Cathedral' which might just be the best thing they've ever done. The best British metal band of their generation, their star continues to rise.

14. Gloria - Gloria In Excelsis Stereo

There's definitely a whiff of patchouli oil around the Paris indie scene at the moment and that's no bad thing if you ask me. There was no better example of the current wave of Gallic psychedelia than Gloria's long-awaited debut that landed in November with an instantly loveable mix of flower power pop and jangly Byrds-esque melody. Cavernous organ and warm guitar throb provide the momentum but it's those gorgeous three-way female vocals that really allow these tunes to take off and fly, slowly building up to massive choruses that are tailor made to fill the room. I was lucky enough to see the release party for this LP and it's safe to say the band have the style and sound to take this much, much further so for now savour the French scene's best kept secret of the year.

13. Lone - Levitate

The years may be flying by for most of us but it's forever 1992 in British producer Matt Cutler's studio and 'Levitate' was his latest addition to an already outstanding oeuvre of revivalist breakbeat rave that cooks up the genre's most potent ingredients in a heady new recipe. His standard approach of one part blue sky skittering (see Acen's 'Trip II The Moon') and one part cavernous clubland shudder (Zero B's 'Lock Up') works wonder once again although things run to a tighter schedule here with no time wasted as he deals up retro rave gold dust across like XL's finest playboys back in the day. His grasp of the genre is knowing enough to avoid unflattering comparisons with the ghastly fluo revival of a few years back and 'Levitate' is 33 minutes of near perfect tape deck rave.

12. The Men - Devil Music

Having smashed out an album every year since the decade before taking 2015 I was starting to wonder whether Brooklyn's finest had hung up their gloves when their gap between releases stretched to almost two and a half years so I was more relieved than anything when 'Devil Music' sounded the return of Brooklyn's finest in November. Having veered off into their own brand of AOR clatter over the last couple of records this one sees them pare back to the custard pie garage bluster of 2011's 'Leave Home', two minute bangers jostling for attention before the vehicle breaks off into unchartered territory with belching sax, warped 60s psych and outright abstract noise. Always the same yet always different, they're always a welcome visitor.

11. Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions - Until The Hunter

Mazzy Star's 'Seasons Of Your Day' brought the band's much loved soft focus coo back into the limelight a couple of years back and Hope's wasted no time in re-establishing herself as a unique voice in a swamp of woozy soundalikes. If 'Seasons' owed more to the serene acoustics of mid 90s Mazzy, this new Warm Inventions offering tracks back to the 3am paranoia of 'She Hangs Brightly', an album engraved on my memory after I spent several hours listening to it on loop during a night coach trip across central Europe a few years back. The haunting shiver of that record courses through 'Until The Hunter' and the gorgeous Kurt Vile duet 'Let Me Get There' is her strongest collaboration since she was sharing mics and more with Jim Reid. She rarely disappoints and this is no exception.