The nearly men and women, here are the records that had their shot at glory on the final Musical Advent Calendar, but ultimately had to settle for second best behind Door 23.
Tame Impala – Currents (Fiction)
Tame Impala – Currents (Fiction)
Tame Impala has always been about the vision of one man, Kevin Parker, and his seemingly limitless imagination. Tame Impala's second album perfected what he'd started on the debut, but this is something genuinely exciting and new, moving forwards, like all the best psychedelic music does, rather than endlessly gazing backwards. Parker is no retro revivalist. It puts an interesting spin on the heartbreak theme, too, with Parker casting himself as the villain of his own creation. It's not a perspective we hear too much, but he's the one who did the leaving, which only adds to the uniqueness of the music.
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit (Marathon)
This album provided me with proof of two very important things: 1) That I am a dick. 2) That the condition is not irredeemable. I knew, peripherally, about Courtney Barnett for ages. I heard exclusively good things, mostly from good people, but I decided it wasn't my bag. I can't entirely recall why now, but when I finally buckled under the critical mass, I fell hard and fast. There's rawness and playfulness, knowingness and vulnerability and a stack of easy-on-the-ear episodic gems. I can't wait to hear more.
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds - Chasing Yesterday (Sour Mash)
Album number two from Noel Gallagher as a solo artist has arrived. Pre-release interviews went on about it being psychedelic, and that is definitely an overstated way of referring to a few nice guitar sounds. Closing track 'Ballad of the Mighty I' might be his best song in a decade or more.
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
An album inspired by the death of Sufjan’s wayward mother was hardly going to be a companion piece to We Are All Delighted People. The candour with which he looks back on the happy respite of his childhood summers in Eugene in delicate, sepia tones is almost too much to bear at times. Carrie and Lowell is an unflinching, soul-bearing experience. That you never find yourself longing for one of his gloriously daft songs about Superman or God knows what is a testament to its beguiling brilliance.
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)
Stevens has always been the sort of man ready to lay bare his emotions. He may hide them under lovely melodies and hushed vocals, but he has already had the ability to unsettle with a turn of phrase or passing detail. Given this record came shortly after his mother died, there are plenty of such moments on Carrie & Lowell. It is so nakedly emotional it can bring you close to tears, but you cannot turn it off. It’s too good, too gripping, too essential.
Hop Along - Painted Shut (Saddle Creek)
Frances Quinlan had been building towards her Painted Shut masterpiece for a decade, having formed Hop Along while she was still in school. Initially a dalliance into anti-folk, Hop Along have mutated into what at face value is a standard indie-rock quartet. Yet Hop Along are far from trad, Quinlan sees to that. Her singing voice is extraordinary: lilting and tuneful in places but growing increasingly gravelly (Bonnie Tyler-level gravelly) as the drama soars, the guitars clang loudly and lyrical stormy clouds descend, emoting with the don't-stop-me-now conviction of, say, a Corin Tucker or Tanya Donelly. Visceral and vital.
Bjork – Vulnicura (One Little Indian)
At first I found this album quite hard to listen to. Detailing a breakup, at first it felt too emotionally raw, with lyrics frank to the point of being uncomfortable. Listening to it felt almost voyeuristic. Yet the more I heard it, the more I became convinced that it's one of the Bjork's finest records. Right at the heart of the record is 'Family'. A song so incredibly staggering that six months on I'm still blown away it every time I hear it. Over the course of its eight minutes, it acts as a microcosm of the album as a whole – mirroring the way the tracks (and I suppose broken relationships in general) move from sorrow and darkness, to acceptance and finally optimism. Starting with dissonant, inchoate, droning strings, the music gradually rises and rises, before reaching a summit of intensity - and collapsing into a scattershot confusion of broken arpeggios that seek resolution yet never quite reach it. Then, as if from nowhere, things coalesce. The key switches from minor to major, the melody rises, and waves of synths gently lap over each other as Bjork sings “I raise a monument of love/There is a swarm of sound/Around our heads/And we can hear it/And we can get healed by it/It will relieve us from the pain”. Goddammit, I think it's incredible. It's about as good as music gets. If you've not heard it, listen to it. If you have heard it, listen to it again. It's perfection.
Benjamin Clementine - At Least For Now (Barclay)
I can't quite remember where I first heard Benjamin Clementine's 'Cornerstone', his truly beautiful song about his experience of homelessness, but I remember what a project it became to get hold of the actual 2013 EP on which it featured, which I eventually landed some time in early 2014 on import from France. Thankfully a copy of this album was much easier to acquire as it landed in my lap in March, since when it became something of an obsession. Clementine was raised on gospel and classical music, but has found his own voice amid a troubled life which took him from a harsh background in north London to the streets of Paris and back to London again, and he picked up plenty of jazz inflections along the way. Until a few weeks ago, this record was still devilishly hard to get hold of (unless a PR company sends you one). In attempting to buy it as a gift I struck out when trying several shops in and around his native north London and was about to turn back to the import market before a surprise but well-deserved Mercury win persuaded his label it might actually be worth distributing the damn thing.
Desaparecidos – Payola (Epitaph)
Desaparecidos – Payola (Epitaph)
The Jamie Vardy of my list (without the racism and hideous face). If you’d have told me at the start of the year that a post-hardcore band fronted by the mope from Bright Eyes would be one of my most listened to albums, I’d have thought there was something wrong with you. As it turns out, you’d have been entirely correct.
Four Tet – Morning/Evening (Text)
Kieran Hebden continues his quest to make spiritual music for atheists with an album divided into two tracks, 'Morning' and 'Evening', clocking in at about 20 minutes. While the concept sounds deceptively simple, these are not just obvious contrasts. 'Morning' builds slowly, the Indian vocal sample arriving as a shock at first but then weaving into the fabric of the music for much of the duration. There's a warm, analogue glow to the production, but still breathing space for a minute or two of pure electronica and a delicate, burbling coda. The Indian vocals resurface in the 'Evening' side, more fragmented and melancholy this time, but there is still no bruising beats as one might expect for a nocturnal flip. At times you can hear what appears to be a chirruping sound, as if surrounded by crickets in a moonlit field. I'm in danger of talking out of my arse a little here, but the music has that effect - you want to match Hebden's ambition and vision with a worthy response. With Morning/Evening, he has crafted two delicate, immersive and unpredictable suites of music here that sound at first like background music yet demand your attention, front and centre.