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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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.


Albums of the year 2015

I knew that  2015 was going to be a good year for music when Sleater-Kinney, Belle & Sebastian and Bjork had all released albums within weeks of its’ start. Pretty much every artist whose albums I look forward to released one in 2015. The only downside to which is that there were many new (or new to me) artists who released great albums but couldn’t quite squeeze into my top 10. Haiku Salut, Ultimate Painting, Kendrick Lamar, Holly Herndon & Sleaford Mods are all albums well worth checking out. But on to the list (Spotify playlist of all ten albums below)

10. Joanna Newsom – Divers

Joanna Newsom is one of my all time favourite artists, and the person whose song this site is named after, so after waiting  5 and a half years for a new album, expectations were high to say the least. So, for Divers to simply be a very good album was a slight disappointment. It lacks the epic scope of Have One On Me or Ys, and the direct melodies of The Milk Eyed Mender, but is intricate, always interesting and more musically varied than anything she has produced before. Released late in the year, it may have time to grow on me yet. Even a slightly underwhelming Joanna Newsom album is better than most albums released any year.

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Albums of the Year 2014

I think we can all agree that if there’s one thing we need more of , it’s albums of the year lists. I’ve always been a bit of a list-maker, although I’m better now than when I was a kid. I used to be constantly making lists of my 20 favourite songs, and even used to try and predict the next weeks top 40 every week (quite why I’m not sure). Although this blog is ostensibly on fatherhood and music, part of me thinks that it’s just an excuse for me to make a list from time to time. So, if you haven’t already been already been swayed by the millions of other lists telling you that The War on Drugs or St. Vincent albums are the albums of the year, here’s my selection:

10. Karen O – Crush Songs

I suspect some Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans may have been disappointed with this collection of demo-like recordings, more sketches of songs than songs themselves. However, I like my music more fragile than most, and loved the gentle beauty of Karen O’s voice, especially on opening track ‘Ooo’

9. The Bug – Angels and Devils

I spoke of feeling slightly uncomfortable with some of the lyrics on a previous post, but it remains an excellent album. The slow blissful electronica of the first half making quite a contrast with the angry hip-hop of the second. Might have been higher, but I suspect it’s one of those albums that sounds best through a massive sound system, which I sadly do not have (and would probably wake the baby in any case).

8. Todd Terje – It’s Album Time

In a year where a lot of the music I’ve heard has been quite serious in one way or another, this is the most fun album I’ve heard. The house/electro/disco mix reminds me of when I first started clubbing at Bugged Out at Nation in Liverpool. Most of my friends later started going out mainly to techno nights, which were great, but people often took the music very seriously rather than, you know, just enjoying it and having a dance. It does verge on cheesy at times, but is overall a fantastic collection

7. The Juan Maclean – In a Dream

I first listened to the Juan Maclean around a decade ago, due to their links with LCD Soundsystem, one of my favourite bands (especially live). I quickly dismissed them as mediocre, but when I heard the fantastic single ‘A Place Called Space’ this year, realised I may have been wrong. Nothing on the album quite lives up to that, and like LCD Soundsystem they tend to wear their influences on their sleeves, but given a few listens the expansive electro-pop on the rest of the album won me over.

6. Aphex Twin – Syro

I don’t need to add much to the millions of words written about this album. Unsurprisingly, after a 13 year gap, not his finest work, but even an average album by his standards is better than almost any electronic album released this year.

5. Deerhoof – La Isla Bonita

Almost certainly the best album released this year to share a title with an early Madonna track. Deerhoof flitted around the edge of my consciousness for many years as a band that I thought I might like, but never got round to listening to (I think confusing them with Deerhunter didn’t help). The likes of ‘Paradise Girls’ on this album made me glad I finally did. The most exciting thing when discovering a band relatively late in their career is the delights that may await in the back catalogue.

4. Flying Lotus – You’re Dead

Jazz/Electronica/Hip-hop hybrid concept album about death? Yes, please! The new jazzier direction seems to have divided fans and critics, but I think it really worked, despite not being much of a jazz lover. The collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and Snoop Dogg were perfectly judged, and I loved the woozy paranoia of ‘Descent into Madness’

3. Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean

I never think of The Be Good Tanyas as one of my absolute favourite bands, but I do listen to them a lot more than some others who more readily spring to mind. Often the solo albums from members of favourite groups are a disappointment, but this is far from it. The voice is as wonderful as ever, the songs a match for anything from her former band, and whilst the sounds is similar, it’s smoother and more soulful somehow. In a year in which I’ve not heard many great singer/songwriter albums, this really stands out.

2. Eno/Hyde – High Life

This one was a real surprise. I own a number of albums by both Brian Eno and Karl Hyde’s previous band Underworld, but they’re both artists I’ve admired rather than loved and don’t tend to actually listen to that often. So I expected the same from this collaboration, an album I could listen to once or twice, appreciate, and then file away and never listen to again. Actually it’s a revelation. Whilst you can hear elements of both artist’s previous work, it very much has it’s own sound, combining Krautrock, African rhythms, funk, electronic music and more. The closest comparison I can make is an updated version of the Brian Eno/David Byrne collaboration ‘My Life in he Bush of Ghosts’. Tracks unfold gradually, but build in the most mesmerising way and suddenly nine minutes have passed which felt more like three. Well worth a listen for fans of either artist.

1. Peals – Walking Field

Now, technically (and actually) this was released in 2013, but it was my favourite album of the year, and it’s my blog so I make the rules. Plus, I’m fairly confident no-one cares even slightly what criteria I use to make this list. I wrote about the album back in August:

I would add that my favourite albums are often those that remind me of a certain place and time. The debut albums by The Strokes and The Streets will always take me back to my first post university houseshare, playing FIFA and Mario Tennis and listening to those two albums constantly. And similarly, this Peals album, as well as being a wonderful piece of music in its’ own right, will always take me back to the first year of Frida’s life.

So, those were my albums of 2014. No all time classics in there, but what surprises me more than anything is that I managed to find the time to discover 10 albums that I liked enough to include (as well as a few others that didn’t quite make the list). Any recommendations, please do leave a comment below, they may well end up on next years list!

Happy New Year all!