Honorable mentions

Numbers 25-21

Numbers 20-16

fifteenth: Swans – The Seer

Few albums are as evidently intended as career-defining masterpieces as The Seer is. Its two hours encompass everything that Swans have been, in all their different permutations, as they enter their fourth decade: grinding industrial assaults and drones, sweeping apocalyptic folk, quasi-doom-metal stomp. In every sense, this is an album as Defining Statement: Swans are going for broke here and aiming for the stars. If, taken all in one go, it can get wearying in its relentless confrontation and nihilism, that seems to be entirely the point: this isn’t meant to be pleasant. “Harrowing” would probably be a better term. But it’s undeniably mesmerising, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in its overwhelming, unrelenting power. It is a remarkable achievement, however you look at it.

fourteenth: Beach House – Bloom

The music of Beach House’s first two albums is haunted: it is the sound of empty rooms, gaudy old trinkets, incense and dust. In its claustrophobic spaces sat Victoria Legrand, melancholy, intense, in communion with some vanished spirit, a memory of something lost. Their third album, Teen Dream, was like a window being flung open and the world bursting in, a ray of light piercing the darkness. If Teen Dream was the first bright day heralding the end of winter, Bloom is high spring, warm, fecund, flowering, languid. Its songs unfurl themselves, appropriately enough, like flowers coming into bloom: delicate, contained beginnings exploding into brightness and colour. Beach House’s sound has never been this rich, but it’s arguable that something has been lost along the way: where a Beach House song used to be a perfect articulation of a moment of longing, an expression of desire or devotion, wrapped in evocative imagery that suggested a world beyond the borders of its verses, all too often the songs here slip into vage generality. I still think this is a great, great album, but it’s also the first Beach House album I wouldn’t unhesitatingly place near the top three for its respective year. But when everything connects – as it does in the commanding majesty of “Myth”, the Cocteau Twins-meets-The Carpenters lament of “Wishes”, the gorgeous flight of “Lazuli” – Bloom offers us a mesmerising new Beach House, where new-found confidence and clarity complicate their aching melancholy rather than obscuring it.

thirteenth: Purity Ring – Shrines

I initially dismissed Purity Ring as The Knife Lite, before this album burrowed its way into my heart. Shrines might hit some of the same notes and display very similar sonic textures to those of the Norwegian duo’s epochal Silent Shout, but the resulting effect soon reveals itself to be very different. Where The Knife are icy, Purity Ring are warm and organic, anchored by Megan James’  intimate, affecting voice adrift in its austere, electronic setting. In what must be a very deliberate irony, this is a proudly unchaste album, with the body, and the transgression of its boundaries, a primary theme: it’s an album of “weeping chests and trembling thighs”, where ribcages are torn open and holes are drilled into eyelids.  In “Fineshrine”, James pleads, “Cut open my sternum and hold my little ribs around you”: it’s a line that’s both startling and beautiful, a declaration of intimacy that’s equal parts unsettling and tender. It’s a fine tightrope to walk, but Shrines maintains that brilliantly uneasy balance throughout.

twelfth: Of Montreal – Paralytic Stalks

Is it suddenly no longer okay to like Of Montreal? I don’t get it. This astonishing, ambitious, raw, overreaching, grandiose album is easily their best since Hissing Fauna, Are You The Destroyer?, and if it doesn’t quite equal that unquestioned masterpiece, it’s a towering return to form after the slight misstep of False Priest. Kevin Barnes wraps his tales of destructive relationships, dysfunctional families and self-hatred, all delivered with his typically lacerating self-examination, in layer upon layer of ostentatious wordplay, theatrical flamboyance and ambitious arrangements that bridge the gap between synth-pop and twentieth-century avantgarde. It’s often ugly, chaotic, atonal and uncomfortable, but just as often (and frequently at the same time) it’s catchy, even danceable, hooks and melodies coming at you at the rate of several dozen per minute: it’s almost overwhelming and it definitely needs more than a few listens before it all begins to cohere. At the heart of it all, as always with Of Montreal, is a despairing soul tearing itself and its world apart, trying to get at something more beautiful: here, the violence is more apparent than ever, but the despair is no less keenly felt.

eleventh: Dum Dum Girls – End of Daze EP

If I were to judge an album’s quality purely by how much I’ve listened to it, I would have to conclude that Dum Dum Girls’ Only in Dreamswas one of the very best albums of 2011. And yet, this EP is a massive step forward, with new textures, spaces and intimacies emerging as the Girls’ sound receives a new dose of polish. The (very evident) set of influences at play here – 60s girl-group pop, riot grrrl, shoegaze – have never been as seamlessly synthesized into a whole that is distinctively the Dum Dum Girls’ own, and the five songs here are all, in their own way, astonishing. From the way “Mine Tonight” starts off as post-breakup dirge before reaching for the rafters in a chilling death-wish/premonition of a chorus,  to the way “Season in Hell” closes the album with a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel – “Doesn’t the dawn look divine?” – this miniature masterpiece takes the listener on a perfectly-judged, powerful emotional journey. Along the way, “Lord Knows” is surely one of the very best songs of the year.

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One thing about lists like this: of course, they’re not exactly scientific. The order of these albums tends to change just about every time I revisit an album and discover new facets I had previously overlooked. Some albums I thought would rank highly dropped out of the top 25 entirely; others I kept revisiting until I had no choice put to push them up the ranks. Still others I forgot about until I dug them up again once I decided to compile this list and remembered quite how great they were.

Anyway…

Honourable mentions

Numbers 25 – 21

twentieth: Animal Collective – Centipede Hz.

A relatively weak Animal Collective album is still an Animal Collective album, and as much of a mess as this album is, there’s still an embarassment of riches to be picked out. Take the manic colourburst of “Today’s Supernatural”, all screams, yelps, restlessly shifting rhythms and guitar riffs layered haphazardly over keyboard lines. Take the weary, descending-dark melancholy of “New Town Burnout”.  Best of all, take “Amanita”, which opens with a fanfare worthy of some mythical Oriental court before concluding with a departure into the mystery of a fairy-tale forest, with the promise to “bring back some stories and games”. I can’t wait to see what they find in the woods.

nineteenth: Chromatics – Kill for Love

Kill for Love opens with a cover of Neil Young’s “Into the Black” that cuts to the very heart of the album. Young’s anthemic rock ‘n’ roll manifesto is distilled into a repetitive, skeletal guitar line, a simple canned rhythm, some washes of neon-tinged synth, and frontwoman Ruth Radelet’s weary, distracted vocal take. It’s atmospheric, aglow with garish eighties neon, but also tired, oddly listless and melancholy. And the same is true of the album as a whole, which, far from a weakness, is kinda the whole point: Kill for Love is derivative, its sounds are the corpses of 80s electro and New Wave and 70s disco,  drained of blood and life but strung up for one more dance, and in this way they speak perfectly of loss, alienation, longing and emptiness. Front-loaded with its catchiest songs, the album seems to go on forever, so much so that it feels like it doesn’t actually end – it just dies down into ambient passages and meandering atmospherics that go nowhere, until your attention drifts off and you forget it’s still on. This is an album that suggests that, far from burning out in a glorious arc across the sky, rock ‘n’ roll is deep in the throes of a long, protracted fade-away.

eighteenth: Jessica Bailiff – At the Down-Turned Jagged Rim of the Sky

On this album, Jessica Bailiff’s musical touchstones range from gentle, piano-led ballads, to dreamy shoegaze-influenced pop, to heavy, funereal dirges that almost verge on doom-metal territory. But she never sounds like anything other than herself: what brings it all together into a coherent whole is Bailiff’s sonic investment in the textures and atmospheres of drone, which gives her music a hazy, indistinct quality, as if it is coming from far underground – or from some private chamber of the heart. Bailiff’s music feels private, painfully intimate, and it invites the listener to stand still, share in the intimacy and discover its secrets.

seventeenth: Julia Holter – Ekstasis

Julia Holter’s remarkable debut album, Tragedy, announced her as a major talent from the word go; her follow-up underlines that fact. Here, Holter emerges into a new-found clarity, shedding some of the abstraction and harsh surfaces of her first album without sacrificing any of her idiosyncracies.  Ekstasis is possessed of delicacy, grace and ethereal beauty, but it is also purposeful, meticulous and fiercely intelligent, its erudite literary references and gorgeous harmonies and details suggestive of mysteries constantly on the verge of being deciphered.

sixteenth: Burial – Kindred EP

Or, How I Learned to Finally Stop Worrying and Love Burial. I admired his self-titled debut and Untrue more than I loved them, but Kindred is something else. Its soundscapes are dense, dark and bottomless, weighed down with a heavy inevitability and pulsing with an unnameable  but almost unbearable ache. This is the sound of the city at 4am, the music of the night still ringing in your ears, disappointments and fears welling up, the orange glow of street-lamps and the red tail-light snakes on the tired drive home ignite some existential dread that is too deep in the gut for words to find any purchase on it.

When year-end Best Albums lists start coming round, I always find myself slightly disappointed by their relative consistency. Why do the same batch of albums keep cropping up all over the place? Not that they would be bad choices, necessarily, but music is such a personal thing. We all listen to music for so many different reasons and get so many different things out of it. A list should say at least as much about the person compiling it as about the musical landscape of the year – so why does it seem like everyone was affected by exactly the same very small set of music?

Of course this is partly inevitable. We can’t listen to all the new music out there, so we need gatekeepers to skim the cream of the crop off the pile of thousands and thousands of records released every year. I don’t exonerate myself – I learn about most of the music I listen to from Pitchfork, same as any other pretentious hipster. You have to start somewhere, and certainly a lot of the music on my list is gonna be more or less exactly what you’d expect. I’ll just be happy if I can provide a couple of interesting surprises along the way.

So. With the honourable mentions out of the way, it’s time to start counting down the Top Twenty-Five proper.

twenty-fifth: DIIV – Oshiin

This year, this was the album for blissed-out summer drives to the beach and 4am drives home on suffocatingly hot nights, for heat-haze and the glare of too-bright sunlight, for the sleepy-but-sometimes-alm0st-eerie stillness of Maltese July afternoons. Deceptively simple, hummable tunes and driving rhythms frame intricate guitarwork that slowly reveals hidden textural depths, enough to sink into and lose yourself in.

twenty-fourth: Bat for Lashes – The Haunted Man

No denying it: after the grand beauty of 2009’s Two Suns, absolutely one of the greatest albums of the past few years, what I first heard in The Haunted Man was the sound of mild disappointment. I still don’t think it’s a match for the album that, for now, remains Natasha Khan’s masterpiece, but time and repeated listens have been kind to her latest. I’m not the first to point out that the two albums’ very different but equally striking cover images serve as the perfect metonym for the albums’ divergences. Two Suns is introduced by a kaleidoscopic Technicolor fantasia that references Catholic iconography, alchemical imagery, beloved 80s blockbuster cinema, bad stoner airbrush art and probably countless other details I missed – it’s maximalist, rich, gorgeous and utterly idiosyncratic. On the other hand, the Ryan McGinley-shot image announcing The Haunted Man (incidentally, probably the album cover of the year) is raw, grainy, stark and unadorned. It’s stripped-down and naked, both figuratively and literally, and likewise the album is sparser, less ornate, more direct, more honest. Still, the image is an arrestingly strange one, and ultimately so is this album – it’s a landscape of hauntings and ghostly figures, of voices lurking at the edges of songs. It’s strange, evocative, mysterious, and, yes, utterly idiosyncratic.

twenty-third: James Blackshaw – Love is the Plan, The Plan is Death

Blackshaw’s music feels like listening in to the eternal, interlocking circular harmonies of the celestial sphere, and glimpsing the fundamental order of things. If you think that sounds like hyperbole, you’re probably not familiar with his work. Here, his switch to a six-string guitar lends an earthier, campfire quality to his ethereal compositions, while “And I Have Come Upon This Place By Lost Ways”, his collaboration with Menace Ruine singer Geneviève Beaulieu, is both remarkable and entirely unlike anything Blackshaw has done before, hinting at tantalising new directions.

twenty-second: Grizzly Bear – Shields

Grizzly Bear make cathedrals of sound, imposing edifices that show the hands of perfectionists at work. Every detail reveals patience and painstaking craft. Still, it is not the sounds that make Grizzly Bear so special, but the space they create, a cavernous, lonely, hermetic nave for the band’s flawless harmonies and crashing percussion to reverberate in. Shields is their most towering, meticulous work, and also their most aching.

twenty-first: Passion Pit – Gossamer

Never has music this despairing and world-weary sounded so fun, bright and cheerful. Call it bubblegum pop with the bitter aftertaste of knowing the bubble has burst – nothing this year was as infectious, as great at making you want to dance or as merciless about making you feel bad at wanting to dance to someone’s misery.

To be continued.

I have probably listened to a lot more new music this year than any other year. This was partly due to changes in lifestyle that left me with ample spaces in my daily routine that could be filled by putting a new album on – public transport commutes, long walks, cooking alone. Beyond that, though, I guess I got to a point where the amount of new music I had listened to reached some kind of tipping-point and triggered my completionist impulses: if I had already listened to so much, I figured, I might as well try to listen to everything that sounded even vaguely worth listening to, and really be able to say that I had ‘done’ the year 2012, at least when it came to music.

I soon found out this was impossible. Here’s the thing: there is so much great music being produced. So many wonderful people doing amazing things that it feels rude not to lend them your ears and listen to the product, time, and hard, hard work. But there’s only so much time in a year, and so many albums I can listen to. There’s probably an album I haven’t even heard of out there somewhere that blows everything on my list out of the water.

Anyway. This is the list. This is my list, and I make no pretense to objectivity or to this list representing a complete overview of the most culturally relevant releases of the year, or of its accounting for every major genre and movement. It’s simply a link of what I liked, what moved me, what stuck with me enough to keep me listening to it over and over.

First off, today, the honorable mentions – the albums I loved but couldn’t quite fit into the top twenty-five. In alphabetical order, it’s…

Brikkuni – Trabokk

So it seems there was some sensitivity beneath the brash confrontation of Kuntrabanda. Of  course, now that the EFAs have made them household names all over Europe stardom will probably go to their heads. It was fun while it lasted.

Cloud Nothings – Attack on Memory

The alt-rock 90s live!

Daphni – Jiaolong

Dan Snaith’s side-project doesn’t hit the same grace notes or touch the same raw nerves as Caribou, but you can tell how much fun he’s having, and it’s infectious.

Jens Lekman – I Know What Love Isn’t

Witty, smart, tender, melancholy. It’s good to have you back, Jens.

Krallice – Years Past Matter

I’m not necessarily big on metal, but I do have a soft spot for the vein of black metal that veers towards noise, unpredictability and elemental chaos rather than cheesy riffs, and this provided my recommended yearly dose of that.

Liars – WIXIW

Few bands can reinvent themselves so totally and yet still sound like no-one but themselves. Keywords this time round: texture, repetition, atmosphere.

Lower Dens – Nootropics

Understated, but sneakily so: this is an album that slowly reveals tremendous force with repeat listens.

Frank Ocean – Channel Orange

Or: the one that’s topping everyone else’s list and taking over the world. I must say it took me some time to get into Ocean, but there is warmth, craft and massive ambition here: this is an album of great empathy and keenly-observed detail.

Frankie Rose – Interstellar

Because sometimes, all you need is a dose of crystal-clear, chime-perfect, dreamy new-wave pop.

Sharon van Etten – Tramp

Van Etten adheres so closely to the broken-hearted confessional female singer-songwriter trope it’s almost parodic, but when she carries it off with such intensity of feeling, it really doesn’t matter one bit.

Sleep Party People – We Were Drifting on a Sad Song

My sound of Copenhagen.

Stolen Creep – Throw Your Heart to the Sea EP

So yes, a very good friend of mine is in this band. But that’s not the reason why their brand of early-90s-alt-rock-by-way-of-Warpaint was one of the most promising local releases of the year.

John Talabot – fIN

Dark, uplifting, soothing, floor-filling – trying to describe fIN sounds like a list of contradictions. That’s why it’s so great.

The Walkmen – Heaven

Hardly what you’d call a new direction, but the Walkmen add enough nuance and subtlety to their sound to make this a clear improvement over Lisbon. 

Wild Nothing – Nocturne

Few people can craft a guitar tone as perfectly as Jack Tatum. While there’s nothing here that hits the highs of “Chinatown” on Gemini, this is still music to sink into.

If any confirmation were needed, last night’s packed gig at MITP underlines what has been obvious for the past couple of months: Brikkuni have become the first bona fide superstars of the Maltese alternative scene. Yesterday’s gig united virtually every subculture, from punks to indie kids and literati, under one roof, mixed in with curious casual observers checking out what all the fuss was about. The turnout wasn’t just impressive – I don’t think MITP has ever been quite so crowded, and it goes some way towards illustrating the impact Brikkuni have had on the local scene.

I realize I haven’t written about the album itself, though I don’t think much else needs to be said. That it’s the best piece of recorded music to ever come out of these islands has become a cliche, but it’s no less true for that – and nor should it be taken as damning with faint praise. I consider Kuntrabanda one of the albums of the year, irrespective of country of origin, and, in conjunction with this year’s also-excellent Areola Treat EP, it suggests that the time has come to stop thinking of local music as somehow handicapped or disadvantaged. Kuntrabanda may not be a perfect album, but it can hold its own with the best of them, and the reason isn’t just that it’s a polished, musically inventive, exciting piece of songcraft. What truly makes the album great – and, unfortunately, what makes it virtually unexportable – is that it recombines all the genetic traits of Maltese culture – band marches, ghanja, spaghetti westerns on late-night Sicilian channels – into a whole that seems both intimately familiar and thrillingly new. It’s like a shift of a few degrees in viewpoint that suddenly makes everything fall into place. Before Kuntrabanda – and I realize this is entirely a failing in my own make-up as a writer – I couldn’t imagine good music being made in Maltese, or any art – music, but also films or novels – so specifically Maltese in character. Now, anything seems possible.

This was Brikkuni’s first gig after the album launch; for the first time, their audience came to the show knowing the songs inside out. This couldn’t have been more obvious yesterday – every single one of the songs on Kuntrabanda has become an anthem. Familiarity hasn’t dulled the impact of these songs; rather, it has further energized the audience. Half the crowd was singing along from beginning to end, and the scorching, energetic set had the feel of a victory march – Brikkuni have won their place, now it’s time for the celebration. 

Among all the familiar songs, of course, a standout moment was the inclusion of the band’s first new post-Kuntrabanda song. If there’s anything to complain about in Kuntrabanda, it’s that Mario Vella’s lyrics too often fall back on bile, sarcasm and satire – it works, and it’s the basis of the most anthemic songs on the album, but it does give rise to the mistaken impression that Brikkuni are a Xtruppaw-like “joke” band, and I can’t help but wonder what Mario can do with more varied material. The newest addition to the repertoire at yesterday’s gig, “L-Ufficju”, suggests they’re on the right track – a mellow (by comparison) ballad that makes bittersweet poetry out of the daily grind, it’s an encouraging indication of a band attempting to widen their horizons and not resting on their laurels. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.

Illustrating the missing link between PJ Harvey’s early 90s output and the abrasive end of hardcore, Made out of Babies’ third album ranks as one of the most satisfyingly gruelling listens of the year. It’s difficult to say whether these songs would be compelling without Julie Christmas’ remarkable voice, but it’s irrelevant -her versatile cords are never far from the forefront.

To say that Christmas’ vocal range is impressive is an understatement. On opener “Cooker” alone, she delivers an almost Bjork-like warble that soars into a full-bodied, powerful tones before exploding into ragged, gut-wrenching screams. It is this ability to shift from contained tension to savage ferocity at the drop of a coin that colours this album’s jagged and unpredictable emotional register.

If the rest of the band’s contributions struggle to match the raw power of their attention-grabbing frontwoman, there is still plenty to admire. Musically, The Ruiner never veers too far from the hardcore formula – and perhaps it’s a slight occasional reliance on off-the-peg moshpit riffing that keeps the albums from the ranks of the truly great. Nonetheless, there is more than enough variety and impressive craft here to keep one’s interest – from the grandiose melodic tones of “Invisible Ink”, perhaps the most immediately palatable song here, to the taut tension and relentless drive of “Grimace” and the driving, violent rhythms of “Bunny Boots”, the latter matched by Christmas’ most histrionic performance. For a good proportion of the album, Made Out of Babies pull off the tricky combination of strong melodies with quasi-metal intensity and power; in their finest moments, the effect is staggering.

Ultimately, The Ruiner is going to put off as many people as it attracts. It’s too bleak, unsettling and ragged to be an addictive listen, and it does make for an exhausting forty-two minutes. Nonetheless its impact is undeniable, and, even if it’s just slightly let down by a (very) occasional slide into the cliches of the genre, it comes, on its own terms, close to greatness.

Made Out of Babies on MySpace

kuntrabanda!

September 5, 2008

In 2006 a little band called Brikkuni played two shows – one in Scaremongering’s Memento Mori exhibition in Valletta, the other, a few days later, in a hay-strewn Poxx Bar – and instantly proved themselves to be possibly the most exciting Maltese band since, well, ever. Their mixture of local and foreign folk influences, a harsh satirical eye, carnivalesque pop energy, inventive songwriting and rich instrumentation set them apart from the unambitiously derivative output many local bands unfortunately fall into. Not only did it sound like something new, it sounded like an idiosyncratically Maltese take on pop music, with its own distinct character that could not have emerged anywhere else. More importantly, their gigs were capitalized, italicized Fun, and the local scene was left wanting more.

Then…they went under the radar.

Now, with some changes in lineup, they’re back, with big news. They’ve been working hard on debut album Kuntrabanda!, which shall be out soon. Some shows are also planned for the near future, though details are still unavailable. If you’re already acquainted with the band, you need no encouragement. If you aren’t – make some space in your schedule.

You can listen to a couple of (unmastered) tracks from the album by following the link below. Those present at the 2006 gigs will remember the songs…

Brikkuni on MySpace