Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty

I think it's pretty well known that if any member of our panel is prone to a corporate sell-out, it's Pranam. It was just a matter of time, but today's Musical Advent Calendar reveals not only our top five albums of the year, but also a fairly naked plea for the next record of jazz-fusion Sonic Youth covers Pranam produces to be delivered directly into mobile phones and tablets the world over as a tie-in to the launch of Apple underwear. 

Andy Welch
Ryan Adams – Ryan Adams (Pax Am)

"I look forward to your explanation of how Ryan Adams' best impression of his former self merits number five..." said one Ian Parker when I submitted my Top 24 this year. (Or 23 as it turned out, seems I can't count) Anyway, to our esteemed host Mr Parker and anyone else who'll listen, I'll say Ryan Adams is Ryan Adams' best album since Gold. As much as I've loved and obsessed over almost every one of his albums, I don’t think he's sounded as effortless and as natural as he does on this self-titled album since that wonderful second solo album. There are criticisms it's plodding AOR, and there are moments where that's true. It happens that I both really like plodding AOR, and that Ryan is capable of middle eights like the one in 'Stay With Me', that lift an otherwise competent-but-unremarkable song into the realm of the greats. Maybe I am wrong about placing this album so highly and Ian's right, but even if this is an impersonation of Adams' former self, he's tricked me into believing it's the real deal.

Rory Dollard
Elbow - The Taking Off And Landing of Everything (Fiction)

Okay, serious hats on for a moment. I had a big old hit of terrible family news in March while I was working in Bangladesh. For those who haven't idled away a few weeks in Chittagong, it feels a pretty long way from home. For my entire time away, this was pretty much the only album I could stomach. Guy Garvey is a wonderfully humanist writer - big on the small things and light of touch with the heavy stuff - and you could build a house on the foundations of those flat vowels of his. I know Elbow don't work for everyone - this panel included - but I'd buy any of them a pint for the way they shared the load a bit when I needed it.

Matt Collins
Teleman - Breakfast (Moshi Moshi)

Rising from the ashes of Pete and the Pirates, Teleman write the simplest tracks the indie kids have heard in a long time. The nasal falsetto vocals are nothing new but the understated synth lines sit perfectly on the messy guitars, and it’s genuinely hard to pick out a filler among all the killers on Breakfast.

Dom Farrell
Beck - Morning Phase (EMI)

By reuniting much of the backing band from 2002’s much-loved Sea Change and throwing them a loping Laurel Canyon-style songbook to get their chops around, Beck was arguably setting himself up for a fall. But the strength of Morning Phase is in songs that are so sublime and so beautifully played and arranged that further, immersive repeat listens feel at least as necessary as rifling through your collection for its decade-old companion album. Everything here unfolds in a contemplative golden haze of sunlight and sunset. A simple gorgeous record.

Andrew Gwilym
Manic Street Preachers – Futurology (Columbia)

I spent an awful lot of my younger years listening to the Manics and the Stereophonics. If you were a kid with a guitar growing up in south Wales they were proof that the dream was possible, in fact they were the reason I wanted a guitar in the first place. About a decade ago I was on the verge of losing complete faith in both bands. Lifeblood was out, and it wasn’t very good. Language, Sex, Violence, Other? was also out and that wasn’t very good either. But while the Phonics have wholly disappeared up Kelly Jones’ backside never to be worthy of a listen again, the Manics have responded with a string of very good to great albums. The run started on Send Away the Tigers and has continued through Journal for Plague Lovers, Postcards From a Young Man and Rewind the Film. But Futurology tops the lot, this is a powerhouse performance, a band treading new ground while still sounding unmistakably like themselves. Inspired by Simple Minds Empires and Dance this album flies out the gate and does not let up. Not so long ago the Manics would have made a right pig’s ear out of tracks like ‘Europa Geht Durch Mich’ and ‘Dreaming a City (Hugheskova) – just think back to ‘Miss Europa Disco Dancer’ on ‘Know Your Enemy’ -  not so here. This is a triumph.

John Skilbeck
Perfect Pussy - Say Yes To Love (Captured Tracks)

Favourite memory of Glasgow 2014, those Commonwealth Games that I spent largely split between a travel tavern and a windowless office? Must have been the jaws of senior management that dropped when I revealed on a welcome evening off that I’d been to see Perfect Pussy. It was that, or the decision by a weary but intrigued reporter to Google their videos on an office desktop PC. Or maybe it was the intensely fierce show PP played that previous night at Mono, supported by the excellent Tuff Love and Joanna Gruesome: three bands to save your life. Yeah, that was the highlight. Say Yes To Love was an unremitting barrage of insistent conviction, the unsparing lyrics of singer Meredith Graves fused to angry, seminal noise rock.

Pranam Mavahalli
Lone - Reality Testing (R&S)

I have very conflicted feelings about over the ubiquitous mobile phone. Yes, it's reduced face-to-face contact, there's something unnerving about constantly being connected to the virtual world, and I'm sure it's having a negative effect on my attention span. But then, there's apps like Shazam - which can name pretty much any track just by hearing it – that are absolute lifesavers. If it hadn't been for Shazam, I wouldn't have known that the storming track below, being played in Manchester Arndale's Super Dry was Airglow Fires was by Lone. I probably wouldn't have spent the next six months playing it on repeat. I might never have gone on to buy the album, and it probably would never have made my list. All hail Apple and the ubiquitous iPhone!

Ian Parker
Drive-By Truckers - English Oceans (ATO)

There was a point when it might have been over for the Drive-By Truckers. In the three years since Go-Go Boots was released, they've endured a mini-soap opera behind the scenes. Jason Isbell had already left because being in a band with his ex-wife Shonna Tucker wasn't panning out, and then Tucker upped and left and took her new boyfriend, guitarist John Neff, with her. Mike Cooley could be forgiven for being in the middle of a three-year writing block as all that went on. As they pondered the future, Cooley and co-frontman Patterson Hood took a break to release solo records and it seems Cooley's - a live album featuring stripped down versions of old DBT songs - did the trick in reinvigorating the songwriter within. English Oceans is the sound of a new DBT. Where once they prided themselves on having three songwriters and a three-guitar assault, all those dramas have persuaded Cooley and Hood that two is plenty, and they have returned with renewed focus. Cooley has rediscovered his touch, and while Hood's songs are the backbone of this record, it is Cooley who provides the stand-out moments in 'Shit Shots Count' and 'Made Up English Oceans'.

Guy Atkinson
Joyce Manor - Never Hungover Again (Epitaph)

Featuring one of the bangers of the year, 'Heart Tattoo', this third album from Joyce Manor is jam packed with scuzzy pop-punk gems that soundtracked much of my summer.

Steve Pill
Frazey Ford – Indian Ocean (Nettwerk)

Not the only ex-member of the Be Good Tanya's to figure in my top 24, but it's safe to say if you're going to come off like a cross between Cat Power's The Greatest and Stevie Nicks-era Fleetwood Mac, I'm gonna heart on you big time. Roping in the original Hi Records rhythm section was a masterstroke here, adding a smooth soul edge to Ford’s righteous country vignettes. September Fields for one is the soundtrack to sipping craft beer in the dive bar of your dreams. Oh and if Parky places this highly in his final 24 as well, he only has me to thank after he was all set to overlook it.

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