This year, I’ve been mostly listening to…

It’s that time of year again. A long time since I’ve blogged but you can always count on the fact that once the end of year lists start rolling in I won’t be able to resist sticking my two pennies’ worth in. I’m making a change from previous years; after reading this excellent article by Laura Barton I’ve decided to ditch the countdown approach of old. I’m simply going to share details of the albums that have given me the most musical enjoyment over the last twelve months. Commentary will be kept to a minimum – I’ll link to a taster to see if you might be keen and if you want to know more then leave a comment and I’ll respond.

The Decemberists – The King is Dead
An unashamedly rootsy album which sees a well-timed break from the concept approach favoured of late. Each track is stripped down to its core elements of throaty, impassioned vocal accompanied by music so raw it often feels like a live album. Slick production has been eschewed on this record and it set a trend which became a theme through the finer albums this year. Meloy always sounds great but whoever came up with the idea of getting Gillian Welch on board deserves the credit for turning a good album into a great one.

Death Cab for Cutie – Codes and Keys

The first DCFC album to embrace the more electronica approach of the Postal Service but with less immediate melodies. The album still boasts some great moments of Gibbard flair for memorable hooks- the title track could be straight off the latest Arcade Fire latest record. It was an album that took me a long time to like but really hit home when I listened to it on my iPod when running; it too easily becomes audio wallpaper when left as background music. Doors Unlocked and Open is probably the standout track – indulging a slow build intro as has worked on past records. It marks a contrast to the vapid ‘You are a tourist’ which is nothing more than Gibbard by numbers and was a baffling choice of lead single. ‘Stay Young, Go Dancing’ neatly finishes off proceedings as a reminder that the crafting of wistful grin inducing pop may not have dominated this album but is a gift that has not been abandoned.

Ages and Ages – Alright You Restless

A very very retro record. Listening to it feels like peering in on a boozy how down. Expect scruffy guitars, handclaps, group singing, and an urge to reach for a bottle of the good stuff. If you like the idea of Jack White singing Creedence then this will hit the spot. They’ve been described as ‘raw choral pop’ and I can’t think of a better way to describe them.

Wilco – The Whole Love

The latest offering from Tweedy and pals opens with statement of intent; fractured, mixture of beats and Tweedy delivering an almost ethereal vocal; bit of a red herring as rest of album is uniformly warm respectfully borrowing elements of White Album and Abbey Road to deliver delightful songs (Capitol city in particular is pure Lennon/McCartney). ‘I might’ is classic Wilco – essentially the sound Spoon et al have sought to ape with union if percussion and bass to create sense of direction. Unlike many albums this year (including some on this list) it feels like a complete work, carefully crafted to leave an impression rather than a collection of barely related songs.

Beirut – The Rip Tide

A little surprised they haven’t been more heavily promoted given the recent trend of Mumford etc. No bells or whistles here; beautiful vocal delivery conveys simply crafted emotionally gripping songs. One standout element is how brass is used to add gravitas. So many bands of late have thought chucking in a tuba automatically adds weight when in fact most of the time it overpowers the song; not the case with Beirut.

Fruit Bats – Tripper

The old adage that anything associated with The Shins is worth listening to holds true with Fruit Bats. The vocal at times is akin to Jake shears. Don’t let that fool you into expecting an album of disco pop. ‘Banishment song’ could be Air, with glacial, sparse arrangements reinforcing the sense that separate elements have been carefully and deliberately arranged to produce a clean soundscape.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. – It’s a Corporate World

Finally someone brought the fun to 2011. Flavoured with more than a light touch of hot chip this album pulses with innovation and a desire to entertain. There is a terrific flair for a hook and melody throughout the album balanced with a real ability to communicate both pleasure and introspection. To top it all off it contains a quite stunning Gil Scott cover.

Dawes – Nothing is Wrong

Honest simple melodic joy. There is an earnestness about Dawes which keeps them on the acceptable side of sentimental and encourages you to connect to the lyrics. If you are expecting unpredictable, innovative soundscapes then look elsewhere, but if you are partial to a bit of Josh Rouse and/or Jackson Browne then you really should give this a listen.

The Strokes – Angles

The posturing, ‘look at me’ cool of Is This It has gone and part of me is a little sad about that. However the switch from calculated indifference to bubbling exuberance has produced a gloriously positive record which is pitched firmly in the eighties. It might not scale the heights of Room On Fire (very few albums have) but this is destined for a place in my heart. For a large part of 2011 if you wanted a great going out record – this was it.

The Black Keys – El Camino

After a lot of reflective, introspective music threatened to engulf the musical landscape in 2011 thank fuck for the Black Keys. I am a lover of The Eagles of Death Metal and didn’t feel anyone else was quite capable of their raucous, scuzzy fun – then came El Camino. An absolute belter of a record that you want to start again immediately after it has finished. It might sound like an album stitched together from various other great rock bands but when it sounds like this frankly who cares?

The King’s Will – As The Power Falls

During the late summer surreal spectacle that was Manchester United’s humiliation of Arsenal, I was introduced through a friend to a fellow United fan. Surrounded by a sea of opposition fans in the heart of Highbury a friendship was quickly forged. Views on football, politics, etc were shared and all was will until it came to the issue of music. My new acquaintance revealed he was part of an electronica poetry outfit and he would love me to listen. As articulate and interesting as he seemed, the very idea of electronica poetry had me expecting a hellish cacophony of pretension which I would have to pretend to tolerate in a bid to appease my friend. Listen to the song below, chuckle to yourself at what a fool I was to doubt it, and then go listen to the rest King’s Will. Sometimes music is fun, but on a rare occasion music becomes necessary. This is the latter.

If you like and want to know more get in touch with the creator: @okwonga

Laura Marling – A Creature I Don’t Know

The heavenly Miss Marling seems to have taken on a more experimental approach and it works magnificently. Clearly overflowing with songs so rightly putting them out there (Ryan Adams style). This is admittedly less cohesive than her previous albums, yet triumphs as a collection of dazzling independent songs. Capable of epic and gentle – often in same song like on the captivating Don’t ask me why.

Radical Face – The Family Tree: The Roots

An album packed with deceptively intricate arrangements bringing together reflective lyrics and variety of instruments. At times the Bright Eyes influence is clear but I would not be surprised to find Elliot Smith cited as an influence. Like Beirut they seem perfectly pitched for recent trends and in my view are superior to some of the ‘new folk’ groups already enjoying considerable success.

Adele – 21

Yes I know, this makes me deeply uncool. How can I select something that has sold loads of records, been ruthlessly promoted and provided the first dances for countless doomed marriages. Yet when you ignore all that, you’re left with a woman with a phenomenal voice, connecting with and conveying the emotion of some quite brilliant songwriting. I don’t believe commercial success should make you unworthy of critical acclaim so this is mine.

Yuck – Yuck

Oh God, Yuck are like, so trying to be the Smashing Pumpkins… I’ve heard this and largely agree with it. However I do think some people get bizarrely hung up on influences – they aren’t ‘ripping off’ Corgan and co, rather are producing some of the finest reverb soaked music around in a style not a million miles away from the early 90s. I can’t see a problem with it myself and have spent many an enjoyable run/cycle/drive relishing every track which could easily be a single in its own right.

Ryan Adams – Ashes & Fire

By his standards Adams had been away for an unforgiveable length of time with fears that he might never be able to play again. Thankfully his creativity never left him and when the opportunity arose to get back in the studio the results are astonishing. It is far from a secret that I have long been an admirer yet if I’m honest the last two albums with The Cardinals were little more than decent. Ashes & Fire couldn’t be more different – inspired by Laura Marling, Adams rediscovered the fire to prove he is the finest song-writer of his (or arguably any) generation and the result is an utter masterpiece.


>Sounds like a Tim Burton movie…

>A slightly unsettling love of Laura Marling led to me deciding to have listen to these chaps – mainly due to the excellent name. The only other thing of interest I have discovered about them is the lead singer and writer is good friends with Robert Pattinson.

Been Listening by Johnny Flynn & The Sussex Wit 

So it seems folk is cool now. Well bloody good stuff as despite having plenty of cringe worthy moments as a genre it has give us some glorious, magical music whether it be Nick Drake, Joan Baez or more recent gems like Rachel Unthank and The Winterset. That’s without mentioning the obvious (initials: BD, answers to Zimmerman). So I was intrigued to listen to this album and see if Flynn is next in line to follow the success of Marling and Mumford & Sons. In all honesty, I don’t think they will. The opening track Kentucky Pill sets things off to a flyer and had this quality been maintained I would be absolutely raving about ‘Been Listening’ but unfortunately such heights are only briefly rivalled on a couple of other occasions on this album. A little too much brass and some frankly irritating percussion too often overshadows the talents of a sparkling lyricist. Flynn is capable of composing charming phrases which unmask a predilection for Shakespearean prose – I’m thinking in particular of ‘prickled interest seizing pride’ from the charming, wistful ‘Been Listening’. This flair for language is also effectively employed on the album stand-out ‘Barnacled Warship’ telling the story of an eager recruits transition to disaffected military campaigner. This track in particular made me think of the wonderful Decemberists album ‘Picaresque’ which is high praise indeed. Perhaps an unexpected negative is the duet with Laura Marling on ‘The Water.’ Perhaps my love of Marling is impeding my ability to fairly judge Flynn but I couldn’t help but feel this track would be better without him. His voice simply doesn’t compliment hers and there is no sense of harmonic synergy. The bluesy ‘Howl’ which follows is far better and transports the listener to a smoky bar.Flynn closes the album with two  ballads;  the beautiful Amazon Love, which features Lillie Flynn (presumably a relative) from Noah and the Whale, is a far more successful duet as the vocals are much more in harmony to create a track of pure velvet. Album closer ‘The prizefighter and the heiress’ has ambitions to be an epic but despite being a pleasant listens falls short of the grand statement it hoped to be.

I feel like Flynn is capable of great things and would perhaps be better served following a separate musical path from his band who consistently seem at odds with the talented writer. This is an enjoyable album but feels overall like an opportunity missed.

Definitely one to watch but far from the finished article yet. As a caveat I suspect this could be a grower and I could well scold my middling initial rating. I’ll keep you posted (if you excuse the pun).

Six out of Ten.

>Freddie’s prize…

>Ok so the Mercury list was announced recently. ‘Who gives a shit?’ I hear you cry. Admittedly like all subjective industry awards it is a creative veneer for a basic sales push but I don’t mind that – in fact I celebrate it. It is something of a paradox that with so much music available on the internet and blogs aplenty for many people their contact with interesting, rich music is minimal. For many their main channels of musical exploration amount to national radio and video music channels. Thank christ for 6 music but that’s a blog for another time. The Mercury list is rightly considered a selection of creative, quality music produced by real artists as opposed to brands. The real value of the contest is not the contest itself but the fact that many people who otherwise would not come into contact with artists such as I Am Kloot will seek them out for a listen as a result of the Mercury list. Last year’s choice of Speech Debelle was widely criticised for being too clever, yet the real problem with the choice was it simply wasn’t very good.

So who do I think should win? Well having already established that the contest itself isn’t important I feel freed from the burden of significance. The early favourites are The XX and Dizzee Rascal. I have listened to both albums on a number of occasions and I fail to see the excitement in either. The XX is perfectly good background music but they are doing nothing that Stars for example don’t already do much more creatively. I’m a long term admirer of Dizzee and unlike some applaud his mainstream success yet no way can Tongue ‘N Cheek be regarded as his best work. It lacks the lyrical imagination and social commentary of Boy in Da Corner and though an above average pop album it shouldn’t win this award (a Brit is probably a dead cert). Any winner from four would for me be a fine reflection on the year’s music – Laura Marling, Wild Beasts, Mumford and Sons and Paul Weller. There is much to applaud about each of these artists. Wild Beasts are of course from the mighty Kendal and as a result are already winners in life. Two Dancers showed clear improvement on their first album Limbo Panto and they have a great talent for crafting interesting, challenging yet accessible songs. Mumford and Sons have rightly received huge acclaim on both sides of the atlantic, particularly for their mesmeric live performances. They seem to have come along at the right time with the door recently opened by Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses. These songs seem to have real soul and make a connection with the audience. If you like M&S I urge you to seek out Fanfarlo who I suspect will similarly cheer your heart. Weller has frustratingly not produced a great solo album with the possible exception of Stanley Road. How brilliant then that such a talent has put together a wonderfully coherent album of timeless songs. I’m not sure how much Wake Up The Nation is a document of our times but it is a fantastic album. Which brings me to my choice, Laura Marling ‘I speak because I can.’ Her first album was one of my favourites and I had high expectations for her follow up. Those expectations have been blown out of the water; the song writing has gone up a notch but the true masterstroke was enlisting Ethan Johns to produce who brings his unparalleled talent for bringing out the personality of the person behind the music. If you don’t already own this album what the hell are you doing?