Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-One

Beck as Heston Blumenthal. Steve Pill as Phil Daniels. And Jack White as a Yorkshire vicar. If that's not enough, we've got our No. 4 albums of the year behind Door 21 of the Musical Advent Calendar.

Andy Welch
Damon Albarn – Everyday Robots (Parlophone)

I was well and truly Team Oasis during the great Britpop wars of 1995. So much so when 'Roll With It' went up against 'Country House' I hid all my Blur CDs in a box under my bed and pretended I'd never heard them. I'm now (a lot) older and (a tiny bit) wiser. Wise enough to recognise Damon Albarn's considerable talent. I've always thought his non-Blur projects have had moments of brilliance, but suffer as a whole, like he could compile the greatest ever career retrospective, but I'd have to be paid a lot of money to listen to most of Dr Dee again. Everyday Robots, however, is a classic from start to finish, even Mr Tembo. It's about an elephant, you know? Did anyone mention that? I was a little disappointed with the downbeat mood at first, but the more I listened, the more I fell for the songs, from the simple beauty of 'Lonely Press Play', the sublime switch at 4.14 in 'You & Me', and the neo-gospel of 'Heavy Seas Of Love', which for my money is one of the very best songs he's ever written.

Rory Dollard
Jack White - Lazaretto (Third Man Records)

I went to a carol service a couple of weeks ago where the vicar made some fairly edgy gags about the Virgin Mary and Snapchat. It was kind of funny, but didn't stop him delivering a super serious Christmas message after the laughter died down. That guy is the Jack White of provincial Yorkshire Christianity. Because I'm sure of two things: 1) when he's yelling and hollering and riffing his way through his 2014 blues-rock reboot tongue is lodged semi-permanently in cheek. 2) regardless of that, nobody believes in this stuff more than him. It's a bit of paradox but once you've reconciled with it the whole Jack White pictures falls rather neatly into focus.

Matt Collins
First Aid Kit - Stay Gold (Columbia)

Any First Aid Kit album automatically gets a place in my top 10 albums of the year, such is their talent for producing Americana-tinged records of such high quality. All the key ingredients are there - gorgeous harmonies, crafted tunes and a maturity way beyond their years. This one adds a note of sadness slightly inevitable for a band that’s been on the road for so many years, but it’s even more to their credit that they don’t express it tritely.

Dom Farrell
Spoon - They Want My Soul (Loma Vista)

Having never been completely aware of the previous decade’s most critically acclaimed band according to Metacritic is probably one of the many reasons that my contributions to this blog are something approaching a complete shambles. In what may have been a bid to uphold the integrity of this fine institution, Ian pointed me in the direction of Spoon’s latest release and I’ve been making up for lost time ever since. They had me within the first minute of opener 'Rent I Pay' - They Want My Soul’s chugging, stomping opening track - as the grinding guitars panned from left to right and back again. There are countless more little bits of magic like this to delight the musical nerd within and yet the album as a whole hangs together nicely, never quite becoming overly smart-arsed.

Andrew Gwilym
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness (Jagjaguwar)

This album came perilously close to being left out of my top 10, but I was nagged by the feeling I would be committing a heinous crime in electing to leave it out. A few last-minute listens convinced me of this and so here it is, pretty high up in the top 10. Angel Olsen, once of Bonny Prince Billy’s backing band, struck out on her own with Half Way Home in 2012, a roots based pondering on the ways of the heart. That was good, this is stunning. Olsen’s voice is absolutely captivating, it leaves you hanging on her every word. There is more range than previously. ‘Hi-Five’ is the most delightful track here with its couplet of ‘Are you lonely too? Hi-Five, so am I’ but the centrepiece is the brooding near seven-minute epic ‘White Fire’. Leonard Cohen must hear it and be convinced it is one of his own, but it is all Olsen and all wonderful.

John Skilbeck
Marissa Nadler - July (Bella Union)

A stately masterpiece, Marissa Nadler’s July presents balladry tinged with ennui and gloom but bearing the occasional sense that the darkest days will have passed once, or indeed if, the next sunrise comes. She tells stories, stark and always descriptively vivid, that are timeless, that certainly would not be pegged to her generation. These are songs to last through the ages, with a hint of Leonard Cohen at his most stripped back and restrained. 'Dead City Emily' is a haunting poetic puzzle, hinting at being locked into a relationship, and at seeking solace in quite the wrong place.

Pranam Mavahalli
Clark – Clark (Warp)

A huge sounding journey of a record, packed with tracks that bang as standalones, and yet which cohere as all great albums should. It succeeds in sounding otherworldly, yet oddly human too. The last track 'Everlane' is among the most beautiful pieces Clark has produced.

Ian Parker
Beck - Morning Phase (EMI)

If I'm going to a supposedly fancy Italian restaurant for the first time, I don't think about what to order. I get the spaghetti bolognese. Not because I'm unadventurous - honest - but because if I'm wanting to test their mettle, I want to know they can do something special with something that's run of the mill. Where am I going with this? Who knows, but hear me out. Beck is in the Heston Blumenthal category of musicians - records like Mellow Gold and Odelay are a musical snail porridge, but - just as I imagine Heston does a mean beans on toast - it shows the depth of his talent that, when all the effects are stripped away, Beck can write raw songs of a special beauty. This is why Sea Change was always my favourite Beck album. At least until February, when a record billed as the sequel, Morning Phase, came along 12 years later and surpassed it.

Guy Atkinson
The Twilight Sad - Nobody Wants to be Here and Nobody Wants to Leave (Fat Cat Records)

Everything this band touches turns to gold in my eyes and this latest effort has been a warm, smothering blanket during these grim winter nights.  

Steve Pill
Lone – Reality Testing (R&S)

I've not lived in Manchester for the past seven years but, like Phil Daniels and his beloved park, there will always be a bit of my heart devoted to it. It always makes me happy to discover great music made by Mancs and none more so than Lone. And now, after his early hip hop stylings and the sunburnt psychedelia of 2012's Galaxy Garden, comes his career best in Reality TestingIt's an album that manages to stir up all sorts of nostalgia for nights out in Manchester, while still sounding effortlessly assured and fresh. 'Restless City' is like a lost Fat City cut, all downbeat jazziness and US import hip hop guest spots. 'Aurora Northern Quarter' meanwhile captures all that is good and bad in its namesake area, from strident Sankeys-ready pianos to that lounge-y wine bar beat that only ever sounds good in the red-brick bars north of Piccadilly Gardens. 'Airglow Fires' is the clincher though, six minutes of post-Warehouse Project euphoria that instantly feels forward-thinking yet familiar. It's been a while, Manchester, but it sounds like you're in good hands.

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