Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Three

So close. So, so close. But is second place really the first loser? There don't seem to be too many losers behind Door 23 of the Musical Advent Calendar.

Andy Welch
Wild Beasts – Present Tense (Domino)

I think I've got a (former) Ragged Glories panellist, Ali Mason, to thank for hearing Wild Beasts' first album. And the first time I saw them I was with him at ATP in Minehead, so let's call their fourth album hitting the No. 2 spot on my list this year a metaphorical pouring one out for his absence. It's a remarkable album; so measured, so well put-together, it's just flawless. I'm really surprised it didn't propel them to seriously huge things, so packed is it with melodies and memorable songs such as 'Sweet Spot', 'Pregnant Pause' and 'Simple Beautiful Truth'. I talk about openings of albums being strong, but the closing half of Present Tense is as strong an end to an album as I've heard this year. Maybe Hayden's falsetto will stop them from being true world-beaters, who knows? But Present Tense is a brilliant band's best album to date. 

Rory Dollard
St Vincent - St Vincent (Loma Vista)

You'll have heard about this eponymous record being the belated realisation of St Vincent's talents, but that's wrong because 2011's Strange Mercy was knock-your-socks off brilliant. You'll have heard that her collaboration with David Byrne somehow liberated her creative juices a couple of years back, but that's wrong because there was only one solid gold rock star in that pairing and it wasn't the dude from Talking Heads. You'll have also heard, from a variety of polls, that this is hands down one of the records of the year and even I couldn't disagree with that. She understands the pop game as well as anyone since Madonna, she relishes the presentation as much as David Bowie, she's the funkiest guitarist in the business and she's filthier than Rihanna. Sold, sold, sold and sold.

Matt Collins
Horse Thief - Fear in Bliss (Bella Union)

While their description as a psychedelic folk rock band might be a bit more out there than they really are. Fear in Bliss is a terrific record that could easily slip under the radar. Gentle guitars, and driving melodies from start to finish, with finger drummable tracks to boot. Awesome.

Dom Farrell
St Vincent - St Vincent (Loma Vista)

Building on the excellent foundations laid by 2011’s Strange Mercy, Annie Clark might well have delivered her masterpiece. From the infectious synth riff that introduces 'Rattlesnake', everything about St Vincent bulges with brash confidence and brilliance. The excesses of the MySpace (remember that?) and Facebook age that Clark witheringly pulls apart on 'Digital Witness' means that the journey from the bedroom to the front page of music monthlies can be a swift one. While this is, in many cases, a good thing, the 21st century consequently lacks for bona fide pop stars combining rare talent and a kind-of-forgotten otherworldliness. It has one in St Vincent. Clark’s last two albums and stage shows, from her remarkable guitar playing to her high-heel shuffle dance, scream star quality. The influence of collaborator David Byrne is evident on St Vincent  but the vision is entirely Clark’s throughout a thrilling statement of intent.

Andrew Gwilym
Sharon Van Etten – Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

There’s a load of great music out there, as clearly evidenced by the depth and breadth of the selections made on this blog alone throughout this month. The really special stuff is the song that stops you in your tracks, that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end and then leaves you to ponder a moment in splendid isolation. Sharon Van Etten’s fourth album Are We There has two of those moments in the opening three tracks, and it doesn’t stop there. After the wonderful, gently building opener ‘Afraid of Nothing’, there is little to prepare you for the cathartic, fiery ‘Your Love is Killing Me’. The lyrics, like a lot of the album, are uncomfortably frank and delivered behind an almost martial beat. ‘Break my legs so I won’t run to you/Cut my tongue so I can’t talk to you/ Burn my skin so I can’t feel you/Stab my eyes so I can’t see/You like it when I let you walk over me’ sings Van Etten with an audible tension in her tremulous vocals. Stunning.

John Skilbeck
Ought - More Than Any Other Day (Constellation)

Meet Guy’s track of the day. But don’t let that put you off. Too late, right?

Ought "Today More Than Any Other Day" from Constellation Records on Vimeo.

Pranam Mavahalli
Caribou - Our Love (City Slang)

Dance music is the new folk. Say what? Well if you think that an important component of music is the shared experience, then I’d say it’s hard to see otherwise. In the sixties audiences sat cross-legged obediently listening to singers with acoustic guitars. Now the shared experience is more about the rapture of hearing pumping music in large warehouses. And what makes Caribou's latest record so special for me is that it takes the songwriting intimacy of the folk tradition, but blasts it through a contemporary dance music lens. It might not be the first time that this has been attempted, but it's carried out splendidly here. I think this is Caribou's most emotionally affecting record, and is all the better for it.

Ian Parker
Sharon Van Etten - Are We There (Jagjaguwar)

Of all the albums in my top five this year, I've probably listened to this the least. Not because it's not brilliant, but, in its way, because it is. This is not background music. Are We There demands all your attention, whether you were planning to give it or not. These songs convey such raw emotion, it'd be foolish to attempt to do anything else while they're playing. Van Etten has taken a huge step forward from 2012's Tramp, delivering in full on her promise of combining powerful songwriting and inventive stylings. Brilliant stuff.

Guy Atkinson
Against Me! - Transgender Dysphoria Blues (Xtra Mile)

Not many bands make their most interesting album 17 years into their career, but then again not many bands' frontmen become a frontwoman and make an album about gender dysphoria. Essential listening, even if angsty punk ain't usually your bag.

Steve Pill

Caribou – Our Love (City Slang)

When Our Love's opening track 'Can't Do Without You' dropped this summer it almost singlehandedly took a slot in my top 3, before I'd even heard the rest of the album. The heartfelt vocal loop builds slower than a Brazilian football stadium but when it finally hits fever pitch at around the three-minute mark, the brief rush is more thrilling, dayglo and wondrous than listening to MGMT's debut album played on 45rpm while scoffing Haribo. If you've followed Dan Snaith's early career via the Big Beat psychedelia of Manitoba's Up In Flames and the warped 1960s pop of Caribou's breakthrough 'Melody Day' single, this new direction all sort of makes sense. Like Four Tet before him, he has left behind the tangled web of folktronica and is looking for something simple, direct and dancefloor ready, without sacrificing any of his earlier passions. He manages that throughout Our Love, from the garage-throwback of Julia Brightly and the flute-looped tribalism of Mars to the proggy, dubby house of 'Your Love Will Set You Free'. In all, it's a brilliant soundtrack to South London night buses and perhaps even a step above 2010's near-flawless Swim.

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