Albums of the Year 2016

2016 may not have been a great year (well let’s be honest, it was absolutely terrible), but there were plenty of great albums released. My ten favourites are listed below, but I’d also like to give shout outs to David Bowie, Cate Le Bon, Colin Stetson, Cross Record, PJ Harvey, Radiohead, Anna Meredith, The Julie Ruin, Frankie Cosmos, Factory Floor, Mitski, Xam Duo, Diiv & Danny Brown who all released wonderful records this year but didn’t quite make the list

10. Lisa Hannigan – At Swim

Lisa Hannigan’s first two albums were also excellent, but At Swim represents a new artistic peak for the Irish singer-songwriter. Her voice is as gorgeous as ever, but there is a new subtlety and depth to her songwriting, with songs managing to deliver immediate melodic hits yet still reveal new pleasures on each listen. The production from The National’s Aaron Dessner is also excellent, never do the arrangements overshadow the songs themselves, but the album is not afraid to step away from a standard folky palette to incorporate sounds from other genres (as in the electronica-influenced Undertow). An excellent album from an underappreciated artist.

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Albums I Love : King Creosote – Astronaut meets Appleman

I first saw King Creosote at a small arts centre in Sale, back in 2005, having turned up to watch Jose Gonzales who was in support. Despite being entirely unfamiliar with his material, he put on a great show, completely engaging the small audience with his stage patter, and his gorgeous Scottish voice, tinged with sorrow and regret. (I also seem to remember him kneeling on stage with his knees in his shoes for the song Bootprints, as if he were a tiny man, which is not something every lead singer does).By this point he had already put out 20 albums on his own Fence label, often in very limited quantities,  so delving too deeply into his back catalogue was always going to be tricky, but I’ve followed his career pretty closely since.

Every album King Creosote has released has had wonderful songs on it, but usually mixed in with a handful which don’t truly grab me. So whilst I love albums like KC Rules OK and Diamond Mine (his collaboration with Jon Hopkins), I wouldn’t have considered any of his albums all-time favourites. Astronaut meets Appleman may just have changed that. Pretty much every song on this album is essential from the brooding opener ‘You Just Want’ to the nine minute plus bonus track ‘The Long Fade’ which never outstays its’ welcome. It contains some of his catchiest, most immediate songs such as ‘Wake Up To This’ and ‘Love Life’, and others such as ‘Betelguese’ which don’t leap out at you in the same way, but ultimately reveal themselves to be just as beautiful. Even ‘Peter Rabbit Tea’ a child-sampling interlude (presumably his own child, but I don’t actually know) is charming, although I don’t know if I would have felt the same way before becoming a father myself.

He remains a fantastic lyricist, with a subtle, wry humour (I’m not going to quote lines here, as lyrics always come off worse on the page than in the song, but just have a listen), and the voice is as wonderful ever, perhaps my favourite of any current singer. The most impressive thing though is producing perhaps his finest work so many albums into his musical life. I used to think that almost all musicians produced their finest work early on, but this year King Creosote (and Nick Cave for that matter) have proved me very wrong.

Albums I love : Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

I’ve never been that close to the music of Nick Cave in the past. It may partly to do with my first exposure to his music being his duet with Kylie Minogue from his ‘Murder Ballads’ album, which is perhaps not the perfect place to begin. My next exposure to his work came with Mark and Lard’s parodies of two his songs on their Radio 1 show, and this, unfairly, established Cave in my mind as an overly po-faced, serious man, there to be taken the mickey out of.

Over the years, I heard plenty of his songs that I liked, and a few I wasn’t so keen on, but I never really made that emotional connection with his music that causes me to truly fall in love with an artist. In 2010 I moved to Brighton, where Cave also resides (Hove, actually). Cave had been hugely critically acclaimed, especially in more recent years, to the point where he almost seemed above criticism. I’m sure this was never entirely the case, but it seemed especially true in Brighton and Hove, where he was seen as a local hero in his adopted city, and the contrarian in me wanted to proclaim him as overrated, although the knowledge I did actually enjoy many of his songs (and not wanting to be a douchebag) usually  stopped me from doing so.

In July 2015, some time after I had left Brighton and started a family of my own, Cave’s 15 year old son Arthur, fell from a cliff and died. I felt for Cave and his family of course, and shuddered at the thought that I had walked along the underpass where Arthur had fallen many times myself, but the tragedy only briefly flickered across my consciousness, as other peoples tragedies are wont to do. I was no doubt too mired in my own minor trials and tribulations, to think much about what had happened to the Cave family.

Then, just a couple of weeks ago, came ‘Skeleton Tree’, Nick Cave’s first album since the loss of his son. It wouldn’t be true to claim the album is about that event, as most of the lyrics were written before it occured , even if many are eerily prescient (“You fell from the sky” is the first line of the album for example. However, the accompanying film to the album ‘One More Time With Feeling’ made clear the effect the loss had on the recording of the album, and even had it not, if you are aware of Cave’s, it’s impossible to separate the album from that event. Cave’s voice, usually a powerful, menacing thing is fragile, almost broken at times, and the structure of the album seems to mimic the journey of loss. Opener ‘Jesus Alone’ has an angry, raging quality, ‘Girl in Amber’ is plaintive and yearning. ‘I Need You’, is the sound of knowing but not accepting, a lost love, a broken heart. Closing track ‘Skeleton Tree’ has a dreamlike quality, and is as close as such an album can get to hope, an acknowledgment at least, that somehow things must continue.

Some has said, critically or otherwise, that the album has an unfinished feel, but to me it is a masterpiece of arrangement. Instrumentation which was too dense or loud, could have overwhelmed Cave’s voice and lyrics, which are as good as any he has ever written. Allegorical at times, at others almost painfully direct. On ‘Ring of Saturn’ words almost tumbling over each other, on ‘Distant Sky’ each phrase drawn out, given time to breathe, including perhaps the most powerful line on the album “they told us our gods would forgive us, but they lied”. Cave’s long term collaborator Warren Ellis, adds perfect, subtle instrumentation to these songs, minimal pianos, gently pulsing electronics, touches of strings, occasional but expertly used backing vocals. The boldest, most successful choice on the album is the use of female soprano Else Torp to duet with Cave on the aforementioned ‘Distant Sky’.

‘Skeleton Tree’ is a deeply, deeply beautiful album, my favourite of the year, and perhaps the decade. No other album has made me want to listen to it repeatedly this way for a long time. But part of me never wants to listen to it again, and wonders why it appeals at all. For i’m not sure I could claim to have enjoyed this album. It moves me, close to tears. It compels me to listen, almost overwhelms me at times. But how can I enjoy the aftermath of such a tragedy? It feels voyeuristic, even ghoulish sometimes, to listen to these songs

Of course it is a question as old as music itself, why do we want listen to sad songs? Even my two year old daughter will sometimes ask to hear a sad song, and ask what it’s about. It’s not a question I can hope to answer, but for me I think has something to do with the need to understand, to share, to empathise with every aspect of the human condition. We can never truly understand an event such as this of course, even those of us who have experienced something similar, for every tragedy is tragic in its’ own unique way. Cave comes closer than anyone else could to making you understand, and makes me feel that, if the world throws the worst that it can at me, there will be someone out there who understands me.

When you listen to a song about an unrequited love, a broken heart, you know that some day the heart will mend. When you think of the loss of a child, you don’t know that it ever will. No music, no art, no matter how beautiful, can ever lessen a tragedy such as the one Nick Cave and his family have experienced. I can only hope that, one way or another, they can find some form of peace.

 

Album of the month : Colin Stetson – Sorrow

Given that two of my favourite artists (Cate Le Bon and PJ Harvey) released albums this month, I would never have expected my album of the month to be this, a jazz re-imagining of Gorecki’s third symphony.

I know little of jazz (although it has been growing on me recently), and even less of classical music, so I barely even have the language to describe this music, but I can grasp its’ stunning beauty. It makes me feel like that scene in the Shawshank redemption, where Tim Robbins’ character plays an opera record over the prisons’ PA, and for a more the inmates are transported from their lives to another world.

I’ve never listened to Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony (although given my Polish roots, and its’ massive cultural importance in Poland, perhaps I should have done), so I can’t comment on this interpretation against any other. I will say that the description of Sorrow as a jazz re-imagining of the work seems to overstate the case somewhat. Sorrow is still, broadly speaking a classical piece in both instrumentation and structure. There is some influence and instrumentation from the jazz world, but you never feel that you are listening to a jazz record.

To my ears, there is also a little post-rock influence there. I was not surprised to find Stetson has performed with Godspeed You Black Emperor! as there were times (during part 1 of 3 especially) that I thought I could have been listening to them. As I say though, my description of this music can in no way do it justice, I can only urge you to listen and enjoy, even if this is an area of music alien to you.

Album of the month – Tindersticks : The Waiting Room

Tindersticks have been around ever since I first started to take an interest in music back in the early 1990s. Despite that fact, I don’t think I could have recalled more than one of their songs this time last month (and that one song I could remember is only because it played a prominent role in an episode of The Sopranos). I’ve always been aware of their existence, and that they were generally well thought of, but had never got round to seeking out their music.

After reading some positive reviews of their latest album ‘The Waiting Room’, and with January and February proving a pretty fallow time for new music this year, I decided to finally take the plunge into Tindersticks world, and i’m so glad I did. From the atmosphere setting instrumental opener ‘Follow Me’ through to the gentle, dreamlike closer ‘Like Only Lovers Can’ almost every note is essential.

It’s hard to pick out highlights when I love almost every track, but I’ll give it a go. ‘Second Chance Man’ is glorious, full of luscious brass, like a more fragile Matthew E White. ‘Were We Once Lovers’ has an almost funk like rhythm and is centred around the devastating repeated line “How can I care if it’s care if it’s the caring that’s killing me?”. ‘How He Entered’ is a perfect, poignant spoken-word piece. ‘We Are Dreamers’ is a duet with Jehnny from Savages, full of menace and anger. But perhaps my favourite of all is ‘Hey Lucinda’, another duet with the now sadly deceased Lhasa de Sela. A  woozy ballad, with glockenspiel, brass, woodwind and accordion accompanying near perfect lyrics. Lyrics never read as well on paper as they sound when heard, but you’ll have to trust me that when de Sela sings “I could drink all this body could hold, but for the fear that I might fall over and break these brittle bones” shivers will run down you spine.

Tindersticks may never appeal to everyone, lead singer Stuart Staples’ voice is an unusual one, and some won’t get on with it. If you do, however, you will find ‘The Waiting Room’ a perfect little world, like walking into some classic black and white movie of which you’d somehow never heard. Now to go and investigate the rest of Tindersticks back catalogue and see what other delights are to be found.