Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Musical Advent Calendar - Door Number Twenty-Four

So here it is, the final full day of the final Musical Advent Calendar. We're going to wait until tomorrow's bonus post - and that all-important overall top 10 - to get overly emotional, because right now we must crack on with our No. 1 albums of the year. Oh yeah, and wish a Merry Christmas to everyone.

Andy Welch
Laura Marling – Short Movie (Virgin/EMI)

Never let it be said I'm not predictable. Laura Marling's topped my list a couple of times before, and been a runner up, so in this final year of the Advent, it seems fitting that she should once again reign supreme. This record seems like the culmination of everything she's been moving toward since her debut. There's a coldness and cryptic nature to the lyrics that I love, and musically, it's great to hear all those electric guitars being plugged in. Even in a year as strong as 2015, so packed with greats that I couldn't find room for my beloved Richard Hawley, and weirdly forgot about Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, Foals, Bjork, Sleater-Kinney and Destroyer, this still stands head and shoulders above them all. What an artist. What a record.

Rory Dollard
Joanna Newsom - Divers (Drag City)

Until October 23, Courtney Barnett sat in the number 1 slot. But if this is to be the last Ragged Glories hurrah (am I allowed to throw in an 'if'? … come on Ian, let's talk again about the Ragged Glories podcast) I wanted something more. Something authentically breathtaking and remarkable. Deep down I knew Joanna Newsom would provide it and in truth I mentally slotted her into top spot before the end of track 3. In the past she's been wilfully tricksy - 17 minute free verse, self-referencing triple albums - but here she presents a rabbit warren of literate, lyrical philosophy and virtuoso musicianship in atypically accessible nuggets. This is an album to think to, to drink to, to stop for, to wallow in, to wander in, to ponder on and to marvel at. If there are any parts that don't make me do any of those things, well that's my fault and not hers. When the time comes for the obligatory reunion calendar in 20 years I'll still be unpacking this one.

Matt Collins
Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

A new album by Sufjan Stevens is always going to make it to the top of a lot of album of the tear lists just by virtue of the fact that it is his new album. Carrie and Lowell is a stripped back affair compared to his previous efforts, and this really allows the strength of the songwriting to shine right through. To say this is a breathtaking collection of indie folk songs with lush instrumentation would be an understatement. It is an unbelievable pleasure from start to finish.

Dom Farrell
Courtney Barnett - Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (Marathon)

Sifting back through my list, it seems to be more heavily comprised of miserable, whiny white guys than usual. Hopefully I can atone for this early onset male menopause by sticking Courtney Barnett’s tour de force of a debut at number one. The title induces a smirk and a chuckle and there are numerous lyrical gems to maintain this effect throughout. Barnett’s wit is jagged enough to slice through an under-ripe lemon and every bit as sharp as the juice within. It’s all carried by spiky new wave pop that slaps you across the face ('Pedestrian At Best', 'Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go To The Party') and gives you a sardonic nudge ('Depreston', 'Dead Fox') to equally great effect. The songwriting is exceptional and rarely misses a beat after the delayed chorus to Attractions-esque opener 'Elevator Operator' sends the record soaring. Like all essential albums, it’s devilishly hard to think of anything else you’d rather be doing that when you’re listening to Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit

It’s been a pleasure gentlemen, an absolute ruddy pleasure. 

Andrew Gwilym
Kurt Vile - B'lieve I'm going down (Matador)

This album secured top spot by the time the opening track had finished. ‘Pretty Pimpin’ is the best song I have heard by anyone all year. A guitar riff that worms its way deep into your brain, clever lyrics, expertly delivered. Catchy, wry, funny, and the album never lets up. Vile is on a real hot patch at the moment – his previous two albums were also exceptional – and he is going stride for stride with old pal and War on Drugs cohort Adam Granduciel in making top-notch album after top-notch album. This is only my second year on the advent calendar but I sign off content knowing this cracker is my final choice. Cheers and Merry Christmas folks!

John Skilbeck
Chastity Belt - Time To Go Home (Hardly Art)

This Seattle band, four women in their mid-twenties who met at college, got treacherously drunk and started Chastity Belt as a campus joke, are wonderfully wayward and sharp-tongued, or that was certainly how it seemed on their spellcheck-challenging debut No Regerts. Singer Julia Shapiro also plays in Childbirth (find them behind door two) who are, in reductive terms, a feminist comedy band. But while wryly observant themselves, Chastity Belt have a darker side than the side project. Guitarist Lydia Lund plays tricksy, melancholic six-string, garlanding the edges of their post-punk stylings, while Shapiro's woozy voice drips with cold sarcasm one moment, before being flushed with indignation the next. She recoils at “just another man trying to teach me something” on 'Drone', and on the standout 'Joke' there are few laughs to be had. "Let's light everything on fire" is less a call to arms than a moment of breakdown, set atop an incongruously blissful instrumental melody. There are moments of light to partly offset such shade, but Time To Go Home ends with the title track and a dark realisation - "Everything is beautiful, because we're delusional". And on that cheery note, merry Christmas. Whatever will we do at this time next year?

Pranam Mavahalli
Africa Express - Presents Terry Riley's In C (The Orchard)

Taking two things you love and mixing them together doesn't always work. Marmite and peanut M&Ms make uneasy bedfellows. So who would have thought that African folk music and contemporary minimal classical could mesh so well? Oh but they do. Even if you have no interest either genre, I urge you to take a listen. This is beautiful, warm, hypnotic, spiritual and life-affirming music, played with verve and a fresh take and a fresh take on the classical canon, which if nothing else proves that music is a great leveller of spirits. In a world that looks increasingly chaotic and fragmentary, this album shines a light on the rare and unique power that music has to unite.

Ian Parker
Laura Marling - Short Movie (Virgin/EMI)

There has always been a frenetic element to the way Laura Marling has constantly reinvented herself, but Short Movie is the fullest realisation of that mood yet – stripping away her own comfort zone to truly challenge herself (“When you’re winning, you’re already losing” – from ‘Divine’). The frustration and loneliness Marling felt during a year living in the US - having followed her boyfriend there only to see the relationship end - is expressed in the most forceful, at times outright aggressive, album she has produced to date. This won’t be everyone’s favourite Laura Marling album (given the harsher edge it might take many fans time to get their ears around it) but it seems to most neatly explain her own story – that of a restless spirit who keeps pushing herself in new directions, even if the results might not always be comfortable. It’s what makes her the most interesting, most vital artist in her field.

Guy Atkinson
The Wonder Years – No Closer to Heaven (Hopeless Records)

I’ve been accused by one of my colleagues this year of pretending to like certain music to “be cool”. However, if there’s one thing that disproves that theory it’s my ongoing love affair with pop-punk. A staple of my end-of-year lists over the past five years, this latest effort by The Wonder Years continues to move the genre forward and ensures this 31-year-old won’t be growing up anytime soon.

Steve Pill
Sufjan Stevens – Carrie and Lowell (Asthmatic Kitty)

In a year of many excellent records but no true standouts, this has as good a claim as any to my top spot. Individually, the songs are impossibly pretty, harmonically adventurous and heartfelt slices of folk pop, but together they become more special again - a cohesive, conceptual whole in an era of 79p downloads and Spotify playlists. After a series of albums that have been too dominated by gimmicky themes (US states or robots), Sufjan instead tackles his absent mother and unusual family set up on each of these 11 tracks. The details are heartbreakingly precise ("she left me at the video store") and that high, forlorn register in which he sings is also strangely detached or numb in a way, furthering the feeling that the words are being sung without filter. Some reviews (or friends I've recommended this to) have said how bleak it sounds, but I honestly don't get that. To me this is the sound of a man coming to terms with his past and working it all out, stepping forward with hope and clarity. More to the point, while I admire the project, I've also played it endlessly too. So number one it is.

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