A Baker’s (Two Thousand and) Dozen

Yet again, I don’t feel qualified to do an expansive rundown of my favourite albums of the year. Yet again, I’ve invested too much time into old albums by elder statesmen. And yet again, I’m still offering up a simulacrum of the detailed listocracy this blog used to annually host. Here, then, in chronological order, are thirteen albums I enjoyed this year:

Sharon Van Etten, Tramp. Of course it’s useful to have The National’s Aaron Dessner on production duty, along with all the talented friends he can cajole into the recording booth. But let that not take away from these smouldering confessionals, penned by a keen-voiced songwriter with a sophisticated pen. There are hints of Dessner’s day job, both in the languid slow-burn of something like “Give Out” and in the propulsive numbers like “Magic Chords”. But, as with the best female artists, the anguish is more primal than the resigned frustration we get out of someone like Matt Berninger. With a different producer, we could easily imagine Tramp’s follow-up connoting a PJ Harvey-like shape-shift.

Field Music, Plumb. Is it lazy journalism to put Field Music albums in these lists year after year? Well, not when each one demonstrates such a leap into distinct territory whilst maintaing the essential touchstones of what makes this band great. Eschewing entirely the bucolic ambience of Field Music (Measure)’s second half, and much of the first half’s chunky Led Zep infatuation, this album is taut and brief. A typical three-minute cut contains innumerable volte-face—shifts in instrumentation, tempo and mood. I suppose it’s closer to Tones Of Town, but seasoned with a few years’ more wisdom and war wounds. On songs like “A New Town” and “Choosing Sides”, the Brewis brothers sound gutsy and more-than-mildly peeved; the album’s more meditative moments (“A Prelude To Pilgrim Street”, “So Long Then”) are less pastoral and more in keeping with, say, the ruminating tone of Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy adaptation. (→full review here)

The Shins, Port Of Morrow. Astoundingly solid. And if that sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise, damn you. The production may be overly slick, but the songs are as charming as ever. In fact, in places, these are James Mercer’s strongest, most sophisticated compositions to date—listen out for the Scary-Monsters era Bowie-isms on “It’s Only Life” and “40 Mark Strasse”. When he needs to be more conversant with big-tent rock music, he does that with simple aplomb, as on “No Way Down” and the unimaginatively-titled “Simple Song”. And, now and again, he can strike gorgeous and unexpected note, hearkening back to very different eras and scenes: the Hawaiian folk of “September”, with its hauntingly beautiful couplets; the title-track, woozy and vanitas-laden. Throughout, Mercer brings his A-game to the lyrics, which poke around in the supposedly placid waters maturity brings; the key lines come right at the album’s close, Mercer conceding: “I know my place amongst the creatures in the pageant / And there are flowers in the garbage / And a skull under your curls.” (→full review here)

Chromatics, Kill For LoveThe best thing to do with an album this long and pondering and self-important and lustrous is to let it wash over you. Is it truly numinous, or just convinced of that quality? Over such a running time, answering that question is of nugatory benefit. Far wiser to submit to Johnny Jewel’s nighttime drive through a future-noirish city, rustling with sleaze and bristling with teenage escapism. There are a few interstitial passages that, in lesser hands, would have sounded turgid. Instead, they provide a framework for the less Tramadol-flavoured songs to cling to. Everywhere, as the opening track (itself a confident Neil Young cover) attests, there is blackness, punctuated by the need to “burn out” rather than “fad[ing] away”.

Spiritualized, Sweet Heart Sweet Light. Jason Pierce is at death’s door, and he thinks that’s pretty kosher. “In our haste to find a little more from life, we didn’t notice that we’d died,” he explains in “Headin’ For The Top Now”, atop a fuggy concoction of swirling guitars and junkyard organs that’s all his own. Elsewhere, there is acid-fried free-jazz skronk (“I Am What I Am”) and deranged, grandiloquent strings (“Mary”). In its scattershot aesthetics and a central, liturgical devotion to 1960s pop, this must surely rank as the true successor to Ladies And Gentlemen We Are Floating In Space, albeit one informed by experimental chemotherapy treatments rather than devil-may-care recreational drug use. (→full review here)

Beach House, Bloom. Though it moves at a glacial pace, this album’s soul is brazen and wide-eyed. Simple, elegant guitar parts lock with FM chimes, swept over by Santa Ana winds and bedded down by ostinato bass parts. The songs are interrelated and familiar, but not gratingly so. The universal tales of yearning and mystery and adventure are stretched out into an eternity courtesy of Victoria Legrand’s inimitable phrasing.

Hot Chip, In Our Heads. The responsibilities of family cross paths with the hedonistic desire to submit to the dance-floor. We’ve been here before, but now the lyrics are even more print-worthy, and the music is reaching back to a decade (the 1980s) typified by rainbow-coloured synth patches, extended 12″ mixes, and the advent of the compact disc. And somewhere in there, there’s still room for a congas-and-bongos breakdown (“Don’t Deny Your Heart”). (→full review here)

Dirty Projectors, Swing Lo Magellan. Everyone seems to think until now, Dirty Projectors’ discography has been a relentless tale of unnerving complexity, off-putting thematic abstraction, and supreme self-consciousness. Not so. 2009’s Bitte Orca tread similarly sweet and tender ground to this new album, albeit with the odd splurge of musical explosion. Here, there is yet more simplification of Dave Longstreth’s art, evinced most notably on the single, “Gun Has No Trigger”, an exercise in minimalism far removed from the band’s earlier works. Elsewhere, there is a smattering of politics, of social commentary, but, in the main, there’s love in the air (“Dance For You”, “Impregnable Question”). Of course there are knowing glances and playfulness that may be misconstrued as pretension (as on the opener, “Offspring Are Blank”), but this album represents a further softening of the Dirty Projectors brand.

Four Tet, Pink. Not intentionally an album, but winds up feeling like one. Limber out of the blocks (“Locked”), grapples with ambient textures in both halves “Jupiters”, “Peace For Earth”), rises to the occasion for a stone-cold fidgety classic (“Pyramid”), and glides back onto the landing strip with sure-footed jazzy piano and restless, wide-open bass (“Pinnacles”). Kieran Hebden’s amalgamation of all the lessons he’s learnt in his long career is an exciting, excitable ride. (→full review here)

Grizzly Bear, Shields. Even on their last album they knew how to explode. Then, it was a weapon deployed sparingly; here they blossom into a million fragments of colour and guitar and shrapnel and keyboard flourishes. The songs are epic in construction and evocative in their imagery. No-one could accuse them of being delicate shrinking violets on this showing: Shields aims for the bleachers whilst never losing sight of intricacy.

Flying Lotus, Until The Quiet Comes. In places more subdued than Cosmogramma; elsewhere, more badass. Like Noah Lennox demonstrated on last year’s Tomboy, bring a little more subtlety and variation to the party a) suggests you’re far, far ahead of the game, and b) doesn’t have to kill said party. This album is one for headphones and nighttime and bleeding your heart out.

Tame Impala, Lonerism. Looks backwards to psychedelia and forwards to the electronic producer’s mixing desk. You know you’re dealing with an auteur when the album’s sequencing defies convention and comes off the better for it. Tortured in its gestation, it sounds, inevitably, effortless. The tone is breezy whilst the lyrical content is anything but. You can play it by the pool, but listen too closely to the tossed-off expressions of isolation and existential crisis and you might not want to come out of the water. (→full article here)

Bat For Lashes, The Haunted Man. Overrated in some quarters. But for much of its duration, this album reveals Natasha Khan to be a supreme seamstress of songs even when working with a narrower palette of instruments to her usual junkshop approach. Her voice soars and whimpers and grasps like she’s truly living the stories she’s telling; behind her, bass tones plumb subliminal depths, and piano curios make her sound like she’s a lounge singer for the end of the universe. (→full review here)

This list is in no way exhaustive. Here are some albums I wish I had got round to hearing this year:

  • Japandroids, Celebration Rock
  • The Men, Open Your Heart
  • Swans, The Seer
  • Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!
  • Andy Stott, Luxury Problems
  • Lambchop, Mr. M
  • Actress, R.I.P.
  • Jessie Ware, Devotion
  • Grimes, Visions
  • Jam City, Classical Curves
  • Fiona Apple, The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do
  • Lotus Plaza, Spooky Action At A Distance
  • Julia Holter, Ekstasis
  • How To Dress Well, Total Loss

So I guess that cues me up nicely for 2013. And, just for the record, I’m fairly certain the best two songs I heard all year were Frank Ocean’s “Pyramids” and TNGHT’s “Higher Ground“. In the case of the former song, I only bought channel ORANGE a week ago, so given a bit more time it might well have displaced one of the albums in the baker’s dozen. My bad.

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