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.

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.

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

Portland, Oregon-based Grouper (real name Liz Harris) can perhaps most easily be classified under the dream-pop label. Comparisons to the Cocteau Twins have been drawn, and while there is an element of truth in the analogy, it’s possible to overstress it – there is a hazy, blurry dreaminess to Harris’ music that sets them apart from the Cocteau Twins’ clearly defined, chiming melodies.

There are delicately beautiful, fragile melodies and fragments of gentle, pastoral folk here – Harris’ reverb-laden, whispered vocals and gently strummed acoustic guitar occasionally, as on “Heavy Water/I’d Rather be Sleeping” and “Invisible”, rise to the surface. More often, however, they are wrapped in a druggy, impressionistic haze of aural fog – this is music that washes over you in swirling, echoing waves of melodically ambient sound, sleepily soothing yet richly suggestive of deeper forces. The astonishing “Tidal Wave”, for instance, creates a sonic space that is intimate yet vast, suggestive of cold, desolate, windswept places as much as the private whisperings of a lover or a conscience.

This is powerfully atmospheric, richly evocative and hauntingly beautiful music. It feels like slowly waking up into tentative consciousness from a pleasantly deep, dream-rich sleep, and finding yourself, only half-awake, in an ancient forest, whispered to just beneath conscious hearing by a presence that could be benevolent forest sprites or something bigger and more disturbing. And if it’s more something that will slowly dawn on you over repeated listen than something that will grab you immediately, there is nonetheless an intense, hypnotic power to this album that makes it difficult to stop listening to it once it finally clicks.

Grouper on MySpace

listen to: silje nes

August 25, 2008

The Scandinavian folk scene has produced some of the most interesting music of the past few years. Artists like Lau Nau and Islaja have released hypnotically beautiful, if sometimes challenging, music that is unlike anything else I can name. Miles away from the unadorned voice-and-guitar songcraft of most traditional folk singer-songwriters (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these songs display complex, often assonant arrangements and unorthodox instrumentation that take a while to get used to, but that are well worth the effort.

Norwegian artist Silje Nes, who grew up in the town of Leikanger in Sognefjord, and now makes music in Bergen, is one of the newer additions to the scene, and one of the most interesting and rewarding. Her debut album, Ames Room, was released by Fat Cat earlier this year, and it’s a thing of immense beauty and intricacy. Always at the forefront is her gentle voice – at times coming close to a less mischievous, more ethereal Bjork, at others washing away in harmonic whispers. A muted, suggestively distant guitar plays a prominent role in most of her songs, but what is most interesting is what is happening around these folk staples.

Nes recorded the album herself, using a considerable number of instruments, including some she constructed herself, to create dense, layered arrangements. The result is that in the album’s aural universe, Nes is constantly surrounded by what sounds like a shambolic orchestra of rickety clockwork toys, all clicks, whirrs, hums, plinkety-plonk keyboard sounds and off-kilter percussion. In places Rain Dogs-era Tom Waits is distantly recalled, though the arrangements here are more fragile, threatening to fall apart at any moment but always just hanging together.

These arrangements may be complex and multi-layered, but the end result is not one of epic scope, but of a rich intimacy – each sound feels hand-made and lovingly worked on, making each song feel unique. There is a lot of variety here – “Drown”, an achingly gorgeous piece built around just-barely-plucked guitar notes and Nes’ beautifully multi-tracked voice repeating the enigmatic line “We’ll bring the water to the sea once more”, perhaps adheres closest to folk conventions, though the emphasis on its echoing ambience sets it apart. Other songs, like “Recurring Dream” and “Searching, White”, with their driving percussion and electronic basslines, actually develop nod-along grooves, while “Dizzy Street” almost sounds like a pop song. Elsewhere, as on “Shapes Electric” and closer “No Birds Can”, the emphasis is on the intricate soundscapes Nes conjures up rather than on songcraft. These disparate strands to make Ames Room a hugely promising debut, and one of the best albums of the year to date.

Silje Nes on MySpace