Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Three

It's one of the hardest spots to fill on anybody's Albums of the Year list - number two. Who just missed out on the top spot? In Dollard's case, at least, it's something of a surprise...

Andy Welch

Richard Hawley – Standing At The Sky’s Edge (Parlophone)

By the time Hawley's fifth album Lady's Bridge rolled along, it seemed he'd gone as far as he could with the luxurious sound with which he'd won so many plaudits. Truelove's Gutter followed, and at the time sounded like a huge leap on from what had come before. Listening to Standing At The Sky's Edge, it's now evident what a transitional record that was. If Hawley's music had been sepia-tinged in the past – and it had, in almost every review – …Sky's Edge is every bit as bright and colourful as its sleeve. The opening track 'She Brings The Sunlight' finds Hawley in full psych mode, albeit a kind of swampy Britpop-flavoured take on the genre, and its threads run through other parts of the album, such as the swirling 'Down In The Woods', or cod-philosophical beast 'Leave Your Body Behind You'. There's still some Vintage Hawley, 'Seek It' in particular, as if he's taking a breather between the more thrilling moments. But that's where this album's brilliance really lies.

Matt Collins

Pet Shop Boys - Elysium (Parlophone) 

Just how much longer can an ageing pop duo like Pet Shop Boys keep going? When they delivered Yes in 2009, produced at the pop factory Xenomania, quite a lot longer seemed to be the answer. And Elysium seems to be intent on proving that point. More Introspective than Very, Elysium has a slightly darker thread running through it, as friends of the duo appear to be no longer with them ('Leaving'). But dance is in their blood, and 'A Face Like That' would not have been out of place on their classic Disco remix albums. Ignoring the ridiculous 'Ego Music', the album ends on a hugely hopeful high, telling us, like all great pop should, that everything is going to be all right.

Pranam Mavahalli

Four Tet – Pink (Text)

As a collection of 12”s, I guess this is not even technically a proper album. And yet, it's one of the records I've been drawn to most in the months since its release. I've always loved Kieran Hebden's work, and think this album is one of his most consistent. It appeals to both the clubby and experimental aspects of my taste, such as on 'Lion' below which starts off as a house tune and veers unexpectedly at the end to a thumb piano/kalimba climax.

Ali Mason

The Staves – Dead & Born & Grown (Atlantic)

When listening to Dead & Born & Grown, it’s easy to get hung up on the admittedly spellbinding harmonies. But harmonies are nothing on their own. They’re seasoning – and seasoning without anything to put it on is just salt and pepper. After listening to the album a couple of times through it becomes clear it’s the quality of the Americana-tinged songs that allows you to notice the sublime harmonies. The three Staveley-Taylor sisters have produced a rare thing: an album that grows as it goes along and improves with every listen. Every song has something extraordinary about it. In some ways the harmonies are so effective because they’re at odds with much of the subject matter – loss and loneliness and bleak landscapes. In the devastatingly fragile 'Facing West' on the line “I don’t think they I can do this any more” they seem to offer the narrator strength, while there’s a conspiratorial feeling to 'Mexico'. Perhaps, though, overanalysing it will spoil the magic, so I’ll stop there and let the most beautiful record of the year speak for itself.

Guy Atkinson

Title Fight - Floral Green (Side One Dummy)

Many of the bands on my list this year have hardly been shy about their influences and nowhere is this more apparent than with Title Fight's heart-wrenchingly brilliant second album. Gone (to a degree) is the aggressive punk of their debut to be replaced with a sound that owes more than debt of gratitude to Jawbreaker, Nirvana and other 90s alt-rock pioneers. But it's not just a copy and paste job - these sickeningly young swines have created an album that not only pays homage to their heroes but marks them out as one of the most talented bands in alternative rock.

Dom Farrell

The Shins – Port of Morrow (Columbia)

Shelve a band on the cusp of going nuclear for five years while noodling about on side projects with your cool producer mate before returning to said band and sacking half the members. It really is a good job James Mercer and his reconstituted Shins nailed Port Of Morrow following a pursuit of his muse at the expense of all else that might have been enough to make Neil Young blush. 'The Rifle's Spiral' fizzes, pops and pulses along like the evil twin of 'Sleeping Lessons' - the opener last time out on 2007's magnificent Wincing The Night Away - before lead single 'Simple Song' booms into view, all power pop and Springsteen hooks. A devastating opening trio is rounded off by 'It's Only Life', a show-stopping ballad on which Mercer croons beautifully with an eye towards those he's ticked off and left behind. His standing as the most tasteful of Anglophiles is done no harm by the Echo & The Bunnymen guitars that fleck 'Bait and Switch' and the Bowieisms of 'Fall Of '82'. Consistently magnificent melodies wrapped around clever metaphors and word play are there as well, while the arrangements barely waste a note. Here's hoping Mercer doesn't wait five years to trot out the follow-up.

Ian Parker

Richard Hawley - Standing At The Sky's Edge (Parlophone)

Standing At The Sky’s Edge takes about a minute to announce itself as a Richard Hawley album like no other you’ve ever heard before. In the 12 years since the former Longpig went solo he’s carved out a career making quiet, brooding, and beautiful albums. The last of them, 2009′s Truelove’s Gutter, was his most sparse, intimate and nakedly tender.Standing At The Sky’s Edge could hardly be any further away. As opener ‘She Brings The Sunlight’ explodes into life it stands as a statement of intent – towering, bold, and mesmerising. Guitars rip like buzzsaws, Eastern strings wash over the top, drums pound away and a shocking truth is quickly confirmed: Richard Hawley has gone psychedelic. This is speaker-filling, mind-blowing, earth-shaking stuff. Sheffield’s humble workaholic is no longer happy to stand back in the shadows – he sounds angry and he wants you to know it. To hear this noise burst forth from Hawley must be what it was like when Dylan first went electric.

Rory Dollard

Bruce Springsteen - Wrecking Ball (Columbia)

Let me set the context quite simply: My love of Bruce Springsteen knows no  earthly bounds. If he's touring, I'm there. If there's a record out, I want it yesterday. If there's a low to mid-level youtube clip of him talking at a rally, a university or a talk show I've seen it. Honest to goodness, he still makes me believe this music stuff is the most important, most exciting thing in the world. As such, critical neutrality can be tough but I still felt able to place his last record 23rd on my advent calendar a couple of years back. No such chance here. Musically, Wrecking Ball finds him in rude health - fusing his two best latter day sounds (the anthemic quality of 'The Rising' and the rootsiness of 'The Seeger Sessions') - and lyrically he dissects the cause and consequence of the financial crisis with a mix of wit, emotion and seething anger. It's exhilarating AND it matters. Score.

Steve Pill

Beat Connection – The Palace Garden (Tender Age)   

The minute the music press or bloggers have started to take the piss out of the name of a genre, you know it is time to move on, but whereas I could easily discard my Math Rock, Emo and New Wave of New Wave albums, I can't quite let the bile-wrenching term 'Chillwave' put me off some of the best albums of the last couple of years. Beat Connection's full-length isn't quite as shoegaze-y as some of its counterparts but still manages to do wonderful things with trapped-in-quicksand beats, echoing vocals and Ibiza sunrise synths.

John Skilbeck

Escort - Escort (Tirk)

The first time I played Escort to my wife, she likened them to a band that has shifted upwards of 150 million records. That band, ladies and gentlemen, was Boney M. I suspect Escort won’t do similar unit-shifting business or soundtrack as many wedding parties as the 70s hit-makers, but I took the comparison on board. It wasn’t wildly wide of the mark, but to these ears the Brooklyn band, who swell to a 17-person line-up for shows, bear a stronger comparison to the likes of Cristina and ESG, their fellow New Yorkers who 30 years ago were hawking a high line in sophisticated disco-funk around Hitsville, USA without ever connecting with the mainstream. Escort singer Adeline Michele has a sleek enough voice without it being too obtrusive for an act that demonstrates what makes the Big Apple such a fertile breeding ground. To make even the slightest impression there, it helps to be big and brassy, and Escort have those qualities. They have a debut album packed with swagger and attitude, some original and some a little borrowed, like my chosen track, first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1937.


  1. Wowzers! That is a bombshell from Dollard. I can only presume Ian has subbed in Black Keys as his number one as a justifiable punishment for this bylaws nonsense.

    Lost track of who might win overall. Alt-J and Jessie Ware were looking well placed but Hawley could well have made a decisive moved today I reckon.

    And, Ian, we all know what your number one is.

  2. Hawley has bagged it, surely. Could hardly believ me Bruce came out in second myself, but there we have it. Also, assuming nobody has it as their number one then it appears I'm the only person who picked Fiona apple. Absurd. A pox on all your houses

  3. Ali is also bang on, I've been confounded by the Alt-J love. I had t down for one mid-teens pick. Looks like I might have the wrong end of this one. Pretty sure he Maccabees are just landfill indie though

  4. Yeah, it's surely Hawley now. I haven't heard any Fiona Apple since the late 90s, maybe it's time to try again.

    By the way, has anyone else noticed that Guy seems to have given up?