Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Four

Let's not waste time. These are our No. 1 albums of the year. 

Andy Welch

Steve Mason - Monkey Minds In The Devil's Time (Domino)

When I first heard Steve Mason was working on an album inspired by the London riots, I must admit I rolled my eyes a bit. With the notable exception of PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, which on first listen sounded like she’d become obsessed with military history but was in fact a clever satire of British foreign policy, modern political albums are, well, quite rubbish. Steve Mason’s doesn’t use imagery in the same way, instead going for a more head on approach and the fact it doesn’t sound as embarrassing as anything by Frank Turner or The Levellers is testament to how well-judged it all is. There are interludes, spoken-word extracts and old poems between songs, gluing the whole thing together while the songs themselves, ranging from odes to loneliness to brutal instructions for standing up to the government, are equal parts grit and euphoria. When the country seems increasingly doomed, its music as good as this that makes you feel all isn’t lost.

Matt Collins

Daughter - If You Leave (4AD)

Picking up for me where Sharon van Etten left off, Daughter have produced what’s called (but isn’t) an experimental folk album. In fact, it’s a beautiful record, with endlessly heartbreaking lyrics, shimmering electric guitars and twitchy rhythms throughout. I still play it at least once a day. Just brilliant.

Pranam Mavahalli

Jai Paul - Demos (Unofficial release)

What do you get if you mix Prince funk with J Dilla synths, add some Bollywood samples and bundle in some impassioned falsetto vocals? A horrific mess? Not in Jai Paul's hands. Somehow he takes these disparate elements and fuses them together in a manner that renders all other music boring by comparison. And that's just the opening track. I'm not sure what this record is, after all it wasn't officially released, and the ensuing fallout quickly turned into a farce. But it's easily the boldest, most addictive music I've heard all year. Jai, whoever and wherever you are, I salute you.

Ali Mason

Nancy Elizabeth – Dancing (Leaf Label)

Perhaps it’s because Nancy Elizabeth is in her own unassuming way utterly radical that she has yet to find the recognition she deserves. Dancing, her third album, continued the path away from traditional folk and towards something hard to place. Take ‘Debt’, which starts builds from familiar folk territory through layers of sitars and synths to a climax of “come on”s and handclaps before dropping back down to earth again. Or ‘Death In A Sunny Room’, which flowers from a two-and-a-half-minute piano-and-harp intro. ‘Shimmering Song’ dissolves to leave a single voice singing about the restlessness of romance, while ‘All Mouth’ and ‘Early Sleep’ are hypnotic sound installations. Singles ‘Heart’ and ‘Simon Says Dance’ are built from pure melody. Throw in themes of solitude and the passing of time, and this is truly extraordinary stuff from a genuine musical artist.

Guy Atkinson

Iron Chic - The Constant One (Bridge Nine Records)

A late entry into the number one spot, but a drunken train journey with this as my sole companion sealed the deal. Melodic punk music has never sounded so urgent, thrilling and fuckin' tuneful.

Dom Farrell

Phosphorescent – Muchacho (Dead Oceans)

There is barely a duff note on Muchacho. Matthew Houck’s 2010 retreat to a remote Mexican village for rambling and swimming served to sow the seeds for an exemplary alt-country/Americana record, tinged with equal parts sunshine and regret. Brilliantly written, wonderfully played songs are a staple and enough to waltz into a top 10 spot on their own. But everybody’s number one pick (apart from that year Ali didn’t like his) needs something more; something magical. Muchacho has ‘Song For Zula’. Lyrically, it pulls few punches – a brutally honest account of a relationship breakdown that remains defiant against total collapse. But as the pulsing delay of the bass guitar and snare drum bounce off one another and synth lines elegantly swirl, a song of undeniably uplifting beauty is built – as if Houck has had his heart ripped out and thrown at him, only to chest it down and volley it into the top corner. Goal of the season! Album of the year! Merry Christmas!

(Here, AGAIN, is the video to Song For Zula. If, by chance, you've had enough of this song yet, you can mix it up by listening to an entire hour of Phosphorescent playing live here)

Ian Parker

Arctic Monkeys - AM (Domino)

So yeah, it surprised me more than anybody. Neither of the previous two Arctics albums even cracked my top 24. To me, it's seemed like they were striking around for an identity ever since their debut, and without success. But while, as Steve succinctly noted earlier in the calendar, they seemed to have finally found it a long, long way from Rotherham, I'm going to take the Arsene Wenger approach here - you don't look at the passport, just the quality.

Rory Dollard

San Fermin - San Fermin (Downtown)

I loved a lot of music this year and probably could have filled second spot several times over. Nevertheless, I was lacking a cherry for the cake until this dropped in November - perhaps too late to get the attention it richly deserves. The brainchild of former classical music student Ellis Ludwig-Leone, San Fermin is a concept album of sorts and one that is unashamed to sound grown up and weighty. The instrumentation is at once understated and grand, with plenty of taut strings and soothing brass, but the real magic is in the interplay between the two lead vocalists. I've included two videos here - Sonsick as a standout single with a neat video - but check the contraband live video for the majesty of Allen Tate's velvety voice.

Steve Pill

Darkside – Psychic (Matador)

As I mentioned on door 19, it’s been all about the electronica and I’ve got through the entire top 24 without even finding room for superb albums by Four Tet, Rocketnumbernine, Holden and Lapalux (I never manage to agree with my own top 24s when I look back at them anyway, so I’m willing to bet I’ve got this wrong again). The one album that I was perhaps most sure about throughout all the deliberation was Psychic, a collaboration between Brown Uni alumni Dave Harrington and Nicolas Jaar. Multi-instrumentalist Harrington helped Jaar recreate his equally excellent 2011 album Space Is Only Noise on tour and the pair subsequently headed into the studio together, chucking out an entire remix of Daft Punk’s last album alongside this. If you want to get your head around the sheer awesomeness of Psychic, just cue up the first track, Golden Arrow – 11 minutes of epic electronica that somehow manages to recall Pink Floyd’s Meddle, 1980s Balearic house music and Aphex Twin at various junctures, yet still emerge with something utterly unique.

John Skilbeck

The Pastels - Slow Summits (Domino)

It began with an allegorical wet-weather warning, but it was warmth that coursed through an album that for me stood head and shoulders above all others this year. Formed over 30 years ago, founder member Stephen McRobbie remains at the helm, with Katrina Mitchell his long-time foil, and on Slow Summits a stellar supporting cast including Teenage Fanclub's Gerard Love helped to create a sweet doozy of an album. Mitchell sings ever so softly, and portentously, on the opening Secret Music: "Rain is falling in and out of time, in slow design through neon signs/ I wish you were here, dark and unclear as the night time traffic looks to me." Yearning and romance abounded within the band's first release since Two Sunsets, their dreamy 2009 collaboration with the Japanese duo Tenniscoats. For all the delicate charm of Mitchell's voice, McRobbie's burr rather defines The Pastels, and it remains central. "How did the burn become a river?" he broods on Night Time Made Us, "I was somehow passing by forever." It's a fond lament to the passing of time, and when Mitchell implores "Don't forget boldness/ Never roll your eyes/ Energise/ Think/ Be kind" on the gorgeously reflective closer Come To The Dance, it's a sunshine manifesto that's hard to resist. Like an old winter coat, Slow Summits tugs in places you don't remember it doing years ago. That's The Pastels' great gift.

1 comment:

  1. ‘Death In A Sunny Room’, which flowers from a two-and-a-half-minute piano-and-harp intro."

    Ali has clearly erred by picking the wrong Nancy Elizabeth track and missed out on a sure-fire Guy's Track of the Day. A cruel blow.

    Ian, perhaps you can extend the whole Wenger thing by claiming you "did not see" the Arctics' other brilliant albums?