Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Thirteen

Behind door number thirteen of the Musical Advent Calendar, Dom's having a swinging time and Steve's playing Mario Kart, but between all of that we find time for our No. 12 albums of the year.

Andy Welch
Belle And Sebastian – Girls In Peacetime Want To Dance (Matador)

Awful title aside, this is the best Belle And Sebastian album since Dear Catastrophe Waitress. Opener 'Nobody's Empire', the most personal song Stuart Murdoch has written, sort of brings the band full circle. It's all about his seven-year struggle with ME, during which many of the songs from the band's first album, Tigermilk, were written. Listening to that now, it's incredible how far their sound has changed since then, and no one, not even Murdoch, could've envisaged a ninth album like this, with its nods to disco and actual dance music, rather than indie music you can dance to. After leaving Rough Trade with a rather limp collection of B-sides, this record proves there's life in the old dogs yet.

Rory Dollard
Ryan Adams - 1989 (Pax-Am)

It'd easy to kick off about the kitsch, get pissy about the provenance or switch back to the Swift but on its own terms Ryan Adams' latest detour is a more simple proposition than all that: it's just a really good record. Don’t question the motives - this is a guy who did a bluegrass cover of The Strokes' Is This It album a few months after its release and once put out eight albums of a capella rap on his website - just listen to the haunted lament of 'I Wish You Would' and tell me it wouldn't sit beautifully on Love is Hell.

Matt Collins
Admiral Fallow - Tiny Rewards (Nettwerk)

Scottish sons (and daughter - ed) Admiral Fallow are usually pretty adept at classic stompers with fairly outstanding lyrics (and always get extra points for singing in their actual accents). This is a more muted affair, but still has enough to keep the fans going till they cheer up again.

Dom Farrell
Unknown Mortal Orchestra - Multi-Love (Jagjaguwar) 

Guitar and production virtuoso writes break-up album. It’s a path trodden many times. But Ruban Nielson committing to record his joy, confusion and heartbreak from a polyamorous relationship he and his wife embarked upon with a woman he met on tour upon chucks us into unchartered territory. Nelson’s fretwork is once again wondrous but it is only one element in a densely layered, neon-tinged collection. UMO’s soulful edge is now emphatically funk and disco bolstered, with most of the rough edges from 2013’s excellent II polished away to shimmer like a whirring mirrorball. The subject matter is, therefore, given a perhaps unlikely singalong, hip-shaking airing - never more so than on the clipped funk tear-up of 'Can’t Keep Checking My Phone'. Throw your keys in the bowl and your hands in the air.

Andrew Gwilym
Bob Dylan – Shadows in the Night (Columbia)

In one way or another, Bob Dylan has been mining the Great American Songbook for a while. Every record since Love and Theft back in 2001 has had songs evoking the classic crooners of the Rat Pack era, be it ‘Bye and Bye’, 'Spirit on the Water’ or ‘Soon After Midnight’. This time he elected to cover rather than try and mimic that era of music with this collection of Sinatra standards. Given this is Dylan, we do not get ‘My Way’ or ‘New York, New York’, we get lesser-known Sinatra tracks, and it works wonderfully. Dylan’s well-worn vocals beautifully match the lovelorn sentiments of 'The Night We Called it a Day' and 'What’ll I Do'. His band are in glorious form making this one of the surprise stand-outs of 2015.

John Skilbeck
Girlpool - Before The World Was Big (Wichita)

Passing the buses that spit wannabe starlets onto the clogged streets of Los Angeles, Girlpool left their home city and crossed the United States for Philadelphia during the writing and recording of this debut album. Whether a capricious step, or calculated, relocation has done Before The World Was Big no harm. Girlpool are a stripped down, nonconformist, proposition, consisting of guitarist Cleo Tucker, bass guitarist Harmony Tividad, and their coarse, coagulating vocals. There are no drums here, and yet the teenage duo don’t miss a beat. It’s a scratchy, lo-fi record, Girlpool taking one leaf from the book of the miscreant Moldy Peaches, their spiritual forebears, and tearing another from a nursery rhyme compendium. On the standout Chinatown, the harmonising Tucker and Tividad ask: “Do you feel restless when you realise you’ve alive?” Youthful, on the move, wilfully ignorant of songwriting’s rulebook, Girlpool are going places. On the title track, they chant: “I just miss how it felt, standing next to you, wearing matching dresses before the world was big.” Yet classroom days are over. This is a class-topping graduation.

Pranam Mavahalli
Owiny Sigoma Band – Nyanza (Brownswood Recordings)

I assume that people will only have place for one Afro fusion album on their end of year lists. And for those who are into this sort of thing, I'm guessing that place will go to Mbongwanna Star (my choice a couple of days ago). But if we're comparing like with like, then this record is well worth a shout. It fuses African folk and Western music to winning effect, it's often thrilling and it's incredibly accessible. It might not be quite as out there as Mbongwanna Star, but its rhythmic invention and melodies make it well worth a listen.

Ian Parker
Jason Isbell - Something More Than Free (Southeastern)

Something More Than Free might be Jason Isbell’s fifth record since he left the Drive-By Truckers but in many ways, this felt like it had all the challenges of that difficult second album. Such was the brilliance of 2013’s Southeastern, it must have felt like the Elephant in the room when he was working on this. Southeastern had served as Isbell’s Fourth Step on the road to sobriety as he came to terms with the fall-out of his addictions, but Something More Than Free finds him in a very different situation - happily married, a baby on the way, and generally in a much better place. But heck, let’s stop comparing it and instead take it on it’s own merits. Isbell is one of the best songwriters at work today, and he’s maturing all the time. There’s a laid-back feel to the record, with previous big rockers replaced by country stomps, and at times it seems to lack real musical focus, but there isn’t a song on here without significant merits. 

Guy Atkinson
Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love (Sub Pop)

I’ve rarely seen such widespread fawning over a band as when Sleater-Kinney made their return earlier this year. Thankfully, no-one was left with egg on their face with the trio delivering a meaty and layered rock album that would, frankly, be beyond many bands going into their third decade.

Steve Pill
Rival Consoles – Howl (Erased Tapes)

There was a time when Rival Consoles meant the Mega Drive and the SNES, but I am 35-years-old now and have no time for such madness (apart from the odd quick bash of Mario Kart on Instead I must resign myself to headphone commutes in the company of albums like Howl. Coming out of the increasingly ace Erased Tapes stable, this is full of tape loops, church organs, bass drops and other eerie sounds that have a disquieting effect on me while sitting quietly on the Victoria line.


  1. I know this is roughly how the format is supposed to work, but best day yet or what? Great selection of tunes and I feel like a real drongo for leaving out Sleater Kinney in retrospect

  2. Guy's Track of the Day goes to Unknown Mortal Orchestra.