So the thing is, this blog has kind of been ditched over the last year. It was started so I would start writing before going back to uni, then I was at uni and too busy to write anything else, and since leaving I’ve started writing for other people. But something will come of Lillian Trotsky. Even if she does insist on starting sentences with ‘but’ and referring to herself in the third person, under an assumed name and a presumed incorrect gender. Shit, this blog is fun and I need to do more. So in many ways, the scraps below are means of an apology – for being lazy, for broken promises and for playing away. They’re also a way of actually addressing why I’ve picked these ten records as my favourites this year, particularly since this list has played a part in deciding the eventual year end lists at God is in the TV, WOW24/7 and Drowned in Sound, as well as what I’ve posted over at Open Ear over the year.
Enjoy. Have fun. Let me in on your thoughts. Merry Christmas.
1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity
OK, so this is a straight copy/paste from an article of mine that’s just appeared on WOW24/7 as it’s also their album of the year. I would say I see no point in repeating myself… but an amended version also just went up over at God is in the TV Zine as their No.3 pick… [I’m a whore, with only one trick to turn]
Justifying why one album is better than all others to yourself is a tricky business. Why is Jon Hopkins’ Immunity better than everything else released in 2013? Certainly it had an immediate impact, capturing my imagination from the first spin. It was obvious from that first listen that the album had depth, nuance and cohesion, and over repeat listens this has become only more apparent. Yet, while these things help, a lot, in making this my album of the year, it’s actually how Immunity relates to everything else I’ve loved this year that really sets it apart.
2013 has been a great year for electronic music, particularly the more instrumental end of things. I’ve found myself listening to more piano pieces than guitar riffs for the first time, and despite a long running passion for broad, textural electronica, I’ve found that there’s been a renewed focus on expanded soundstages in many of this year’s releases that has had me, at times, mesmerised.
Hopkins has succeeded in striking alchemical gold with an amalgam of electronic beats and analogue instrumentation, nothing new in that but it does capture the essence of what this year has been about in the realm of electronic music.
2. Zomby – With Love
A solid 80 minutes long, this is by far and away the best long-player of the year. Perhaps most interesting are the little nods and references, which come thick and fast, to earlier tracks. It’s not so much that he’s sampling himself, it’s more that he’s using the same palette in a different way – but the connection is clear. I think I love this album because it feels like a stretched and fucked Greatest Hits, where everything has been toyed with so much they’re now completely new songs. Think of it as a set of dubs maybe? Versions.
3. Nils Frahm – ‘Spaces’ (Erased Tapes)
OK, so I’m cheating again. Here’s my review for God is in the TV Zine.
Live albums tend to be the preserve of the completist, or at the very least the more inquisitive fan. Occasionally, however, they retain a wider appeal as a document of a band at their ferocious best as is the case with The Who’s ‘Live at Leeds’. At other times, they can highlight details of a band’s work not seen through studio albums, as with Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged’. Very few live albums succeed as a standalone piece, barely discernible in quality from the acts studio albums, though some like Talking Head’s ‘Stop Making Sense’ get close. Even fewer still manage to be the finest thing a band ever record, though the magnificent ‘Stupidity’ by Dr Feelgood is a notable exception.
With ‘Spaces’, which has been in the pipeline for two years, Nils Frahm succeeds in taking elements of each of the most important aspects of live albums, and combining them in a manner that not only captivates, but at times inspires awe.
Using a Juno synthesiser, Fender Rhodes electric and full-on Grand pianos, as well as tape delay and the natural acoustics of his surroundings, Frahm’s live sets are reasonably simple affairs. ‘Spaces’ takes an assortment of live recordings, some taken from reel-to-reel or cassette recordings, and arranges them into a work that feels both intimate and all encompassing. Frahm has referred to this as a ‘collage of field recordings rather than a live album’ and each track does have an aura of its own, marking it out from all the others in its subtleties. Indeed, in many ways this is a document of individual instances and the focus of tracks such as An Aborted Beginning and Improvisation for Piano, Laughs, Coughs and A Cell Phone attest to this in their capturing of unique moments of audience interaction that here become punctuation marks to the vagaries of the music. For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More, the longest track here at 16 minutes in an album an hour and 15 long, captivates as much with the use of the pounding of a toilet brush on piano innards as with the unexpected roar of audience adulation at track end.
‘Spaces’ is an apt title for an album that takes Frahm’s already emotive and affecting music and places it in a context that, when taken together, is nothing short of breathtaking. Through its reverberations, ‘Spaces’ displays a prescient sense of nostalgia that transports the listener to places they have never been before. Whilst all live albums capture moments and act as time capsules, no other live album has captured the feeling of meditative harmony that comes with the uncanny quite like this.
4. DJ Koze – Amygdala
Electronic records don’t typically provide a whole lot of narrative storytelling, yet with a little help from Apparat’s Sascha Ring, Caribou’s Dan Snaith and Matthew Dear, amongst others, we have here a record packed with playfully endearing tales. Analogue instrumentation in the way of bass and horns, in particular, flit in and out of the mix throughout making this a surprisingly warm and swaddling listen. This is not just the work of a great producer, this is the work of a great song-writer, and how often is that even considered in so much of the electronic world?
5. L. Pierre – The Island Come True
While DJ Koze may be a great producer showing himself to be a great song-writer, here under his L. Pierre guise we find Aidan Moffat proving that he’s not only a great song-writer but also a great producer. Made up from samples of old reel-to-reel tapes, complete with tape hiss, this is a work that sticks to the Aidan Moffat formula of using the uncanny and the nostalgic to move the listener. ‘Sad Laugh’ is a standout track of the year in the way that tape hiss becomes percussion and the vocal track towards the end takes a path that is both sweet yet saddening.
6. Mogwai – Les Revenants OST
How on earth a soundtrack album got into my albums of the year list I’d normally not be able to say. It’s easy to explain this one though – it’s Mogwai and it’s fuckin’ great! I first heard the EP version of this, before getting to know it as an album and then as the soundtrack to the marvellous Les Revenants/The Returned – the Canal+ telly show that I’ve been blabbing on about to anyone who’ll listen all bloody year. This is exactly what you’d expect from a Mogwai album; emotive, instrumental, transcendental and worth playing loud. Sure, you don’t get the visceral impact of full-bore Mogwai guitar attack, but when you can bask in pieces that are up there with ‘Christmas Steps’ in their beauty, then who can complain?
7. Tim Hecker – Virgins
Here’s another already published at God is in the TV Zine. They’re good people, who publish great stuff, you should go check them out.
Much like the universally acclaimed Ravedeath, 1972 Tim Hecker’s new release demands a lot of the listener. Hecker’s work is, above all else, textural and often requires consideration and empathy from the listener before it becomes decipherable, let alone accessible. In this respect Virgins is much like its predecessors. In other ways, however, it differs from his most recent work, containing a softer palette of textures and a percussiveness that breathes a certain bodiless life into the proceedings.
As might be expected with an album titled Virgins, there is a recurring theme of innocence that runs through this work, often in a hymnal, lyrical sense. Yet this innocence, which often sparkles with life, is repeatedly underscored by a foreboding or a threat of what is to come. It is not dark per se, rather it is a continual suggestion of uncertainty and change. At times there are stuttered hints at a revelation but all too often we return to where we were; keening for something that we’re wary of yet feel is inevitable, or confused and alone not knowing what has just been missed.
In spite of this, as far as Hecker’s work goes this is a relatively open work, and only ‘Live Room’ feels punishing in its oppressiveness. Elsewhere there is always some space, some light, some escape, perhaps particularly so in ‘Live Room Out’ which is far warmer and looser than its companion piece.
The biggest surprise is saved for last, however, when after an album full of uncertainty ‘Stab Variation’ provides a transcendent moment. With the atmospheric subterfuge lifting, and Hecker’s love of leaving hints of source material shining through, the narcotic remnants of a distant house track are revealed.
Virgins highlights the acute focus Tim Hecker brings to his work, both though the carefully constructed textural waves that keep the listener continually guessing what is to come as well as through the rich and intimate live recording that keeps the listener engrossed throughout.
8. future of the left – How to Stop Your Brain in an Accident
We had to get this far before we found a loud, full on rock album? What an album it is though. Choppy guitars, drilled percussion, a few deviations into keyboard-led, electric noise that has become familiar as future of the left have grown into one of the most interesting and relevant guitar bands we have. What exactly it means to be relevant I’m not actually sure… apparently it’s lyrics about BBC-paedophilia and the best guitar riffs of the year. I’m starting to think that these guys are the closest we’ve come to the Butthole Surfers on this side of the Atlantic. Aye, I think they’re THAT good. Also, check out their Christmas song ‘The Real Meaning of Christmas‘.
9. CHVRCHES – The Bones of What You Believe
So much has been said already about CHVRCHES, and there’s no doubting you’ve heard at least something from this great album. Though I enjoyed driving around in the last days of summer to this one, it’s the way that it has hooked itself to me as my ‘Go to’ album for a run that has made me realise how great it really is.
It’s so easy for an album that was anticipated, and in some quarters hyped, so much to be a bit of a let down on release. The fact that this one not only defied expectation but stands up to regular, repeat listens mark it as something special. It’s also great to see an indie-pop band wearing their morals and politics on their sleeves, particularly with Lauren’s much talked about Guardian article and the lesser known TYCI gig this past weekend. This is how to do a debut.
10. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away
I’ve an admission to make here. I love Nick Cave. He’s written some of the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, from ‘Release the Bats’ to ‘Stagger Lee’ and a whole lot more. The thing is though… I’ve never really fallen in love with his albums, instead finding them hit and miss and generally considering them solid rather than anything more quixotic. So to say that this is the album that has suddenly made me click to the Bad Seeds would be a fair way of describing my feelings for Push the Sky Away if it were not such an understatement. Instead, this album captures exactly how I’ve always felt about Cave’s best songs and captures this feeling in an album that works, in total, for me for the first time. The strange thing is that’s not to say this contains Cave’s best songs, though with ‘Jubilee Street’ and ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ we’re getting close, instead it’s simply his most solid set yet, and somehow that has a beauty all of its own.