The Roots - How I Got Over
Given their committed work ethic and prolific output, I can probably be forgiven with having lost touch with The Roots a little after Game Theory. They are a band easy to take for granted. How I Got Over must surely rank among their best efforts. It's not ambitious and unwieldy like the superb Phrenology - rather, it's more a concise, tight affair showcasing the group playing to all their strengths. The grooves are righteous and, inevitably perhaps, there are plenty of collaborations. What is particularly exciting about How I Got Over is that the roll call of guests is unusual and intriguing. Right On effectively reworks Joanna Newson's The Book Of Right On into an insistent hip hop track, with surprisingly effective results. The sublime voices of Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian usher in the haunting overture A Peace of Light. ?uestlove's outrageously strong groove feel dominates the group's sound as usual and Radio Daze and Walk Alone are prime examples of the group's musical skill.
Janelle Monae - The Archandroid
Plenty has already been written about this sprawling, hugely impressive work and quite rightly it has been hailed in many quarters as one of the albums of the year. Janelle Monae has superstar quality - she is an assured songwriter with a strong voice and plenty of quirky charisma. Inspired by Fritz Lang's Metropolis, this album veers all over the place and then some, breaking the unspoken industry rule that often places artists in a straightjacket. It seems likely that there is no containing Monae, who is as happy on driving, memorable future pop such as Tightrope as she is on moments of striking vulnerability. I'm not yet convinced that The Archandroid is an unmitigated masterpiece though - sometimes Monae seems to have foregrounded sound and ideas at the expense of strong melodies. Still, it's an exciting and original achievement - and it's great to have an artist this bold and brave striving for a place in the mainstream.
Richard Thompaon - Dream Attic
Although the sound of the Richard Thompson band is by now very familiar, it's hard to imagine Thompson making a bad album. His songriting remains focused and powerful, whilst the sound of the ensemble, never as vividly captured as on this ferocious live recording, is tough and muscular. Thompson's robust, incandescent guitar playing remains a significant defining feature of his music but Dream Attic works well because the group can sink their teeth into some outstanding material. There are some great songs here that veer from the melancholy and moving (A Brother Slips Away) to angry responses to the financial crisis (The Money Shuffle). There are a number of artists continuing to make fascinating and confident musical statements late into their careers - Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and Emmylou Harris are all good examples. Thompson should definitely be included among their number.
Oneohtrix Point Never - Returnal
Emeralds - Does It Look Like I'm Here?
As open-minded as I am about music, I sometimes struggle with the breed of electronic composition that emphasises noise above rhythm or harmony. It is difficult to comprehend music that lacks any kind of rhythmic expression or interest. Yet these two albums, both issued on the excellent Mego album, strike me as great examples of how this kind of music can be done in a sophisticated way, without punishing the ears and testing the patience of its audience. Oneohtrix Point Never's Returnal is brilliantly structured, beginning with the most sonically abrasive textures before moving towards a surprisingly peaceful, hypnotic conclusion. The stormy fuzz threatens to conceal what appears to be a benevolent melodic streak lurking just beneath the surface. The Emeralds album is harder to pin down - but somehow both mysterious and graceful. It's main achievement is to produce an edited, more manageable take on the group's improvisational history without any sense of compromise or dilution. Both records share some of the hazy, blissful introversion of Fennesz's extraordinary Endless Summer. It's easy to see why Mego took interest in both releases.
Lorn - Nothing Else
This is another winner from Flying Lotus' Brainfeeder operation. It's a brilliantly dirty, intoxicating collection - full of slow but riveting beats and bursting with ideas. Much of the music seems dark, perhaps even tinged with sadness, yet it remains a curiously enjoyable listen. This music has a magnetic pull from which it is almost impossible to escape. Bass music may be at its zenith right now - it's hard to see how the music will develop beyond splintering into ever more numerous sub genres.
Broken Social Scene - Forgiveness Rock Record
For some, this has been something of a disappointment. For others, it represents a distillation of BSS' most accessible traits and a pruning of their more wayward tendencies. I'm not sure the latter is actually true. For sure, the album's first half is an irresistible blast of superbly produced, near-anthemic indie-rock. Once again, BSS have placed themselves at the far more imaginative end of this music. The playing is now crisper and tighter, but the arrangements are no less fascinating. Opener World Sick arrives on a bed of delicate, strage electronics, whilst Chase Scene and the fantastic Art House Director have a cinematic energy and vividness. The album's second half is less memorable and more obtuse. It feels like something of a struggle, and there's the sense that the whole thing may be a little overlong. Still - not being quite as good as their previous work, when those albums really did set a benchmark for quality and inventiveness in rock - is hardly that much of a crime.
Teenage Fanclub - Shadows
This is a classic example of the completely lazy misuse of that old journalistic cliche 'return to form'. Shadows is not a return to anything - it's far more a continuation of the hazier, lighter, less immediate style of songwriting Teenage Fanclub have been pursuing over their last couple of albums. Like Man Made and Howdy, it's a completely democratic affair - with Raymond McGinley's more elusive, subtle songs given equal weight. Norman Blake's slices of unashamed pop brilliance - Baby Lee and When I Still Have Thee - are the exceptions here. Prevalence comes from songs of gentle, considered reflection - The Past and The Fall from Raymond McGinley and Gerard Love's rather splendid Shock and Awe and Sweet Days Waiting (the latter a song delivered with such a light touch that it could easily fall apart). The album suggests a gentle acceptance of ageing and new concerns. It seems unlikely that Teenage Fanclub will make an album as crunchy and carefree as Bandwagonesque or as bright and chiming as Grand Priz again. But why should they?