Friday, December 28, 2012
The 100 (and a bit) best albums of 2012 Part 4: 25 - 11
25. Lau - Race The Loser (Reveal)
US producer Tucker Martine, who has also worked with the likes of Laura Veirs and The Decemberists (and who also worked on some demos with R.E.M. before the band stupidly junked them in favour of working with the ghastly Jacknife Lee) serves as the perfect foil for Lau's adventurous breed of folk music. The results are delightfully unforced, warm and enveloping, like a cloak. Perhaps Lau's part-improvisatory nature as a live band has been stripped back here in favour of something a little more planned - but it's a fascinating evolution, and one which emphasises many of their strengths, including the glorious vocals of Kris Drever. There are frequent unexpected and thrilling shifts in gear and mood, yet it all seems to make perfect sense. There's a strong sense that love, care and craft have gone into making this record.
24. Paul Buchanan - Mid Air (Newsroom)
In some ways, Mid Air is one of the year's simplest creations, in that it mostly strips away the sophisticated sheen of Buchanan's former band The Blue Nile in favour of delicate, quietly intense vocal and piano performances. The songs are similar in terms of mood, shape, theme, pace and harmonic qualities. The cumulative effect is a haunting beauty and touching fragility which prevents it from becoming boring - there are so many tiny details to observe and cherish. Much about this music is understated, but music and lyrics work brilliantly together and conjure vivid images in the mind. Buchanan has modestly described the album as a 'record-ette', but it stands tall on its own terms. Buchanan offers proof that simple does not have to mean simplistic. It's a real tribute to this album's achievement that it has made me want to spend some more time with The Blue Nile's catalogue too.
23. Sweet Billy Pilgrim - Crown and Treaty (EMI)
Bookended by moments of transcendental optimism, Sweet Billy Pilgrim's third album feels carefully structured in spite of Tim Elsenburg's admirable anything goes approach to sourcing musical inspiration. Whilst much of this music is bucolic and reflective, it also displays a much more nimble, groovy side to the band. Throughout, there is a stunning degree of attention to detail and the quality of sound and attack is consistently remarkable. Yet all the band's tricksy arrangements and obsessive production values would come to nothing were it not for Elsenburg's often haunting, always beautiful songs.
22. David Byrne and St Vincent - Love This Giant (4AD)
If this pairing had not been preceded by failry heavy advance publicity, it would not have been easy to see it coming. Yet the collaboration between David Byrne and Annie Clarke actually makes real sense, in spite of the gap between them in terms of age and experience. This sort of collaboration is commonplace in other forms of music, particularly the jazz and folk worlds, so there is no particular reason for it being unexpected in the world of art rock. Both musicians favour complex, intricate arrangements and unusual melodies. If this can sometimes lead to self-conscious experimentation at the expense of emotional involvement, this is not the case here. The deployment of a horn section over and above keyboards or guitars creates a sense of real joy and celebration, many of these staccato rhythms creating something urgent as well as fascinating.
21. Four Tet - Pink (Text)
As this is really a collection of singles in album form, I might well be breaking my own rules by including it. Still, I'm pretty sure I've done the same for the likes of Burial and Shackleton in the past, and this is simply too good to ignore, perhaps even the highlight of Kieren Hebden's recorded career so far. Following There is Love in You, the collaboration with Burial and now this, Hebden certainly appears to be on a hot streak. Part of this success appears to be grounded in Hebden's rediscovery of dance music tropes. The music collated on Pink feels like a successful merger of his more experimental impulses with the demands of the dancefloor.
20. Grizzly Bear - Shields (Warp)
Of the current bonanza of creative American independent rock bands, Grizzly Bear were the ones to really seize the moment upon their return this year. Not only did Shields sound bigger and more ambitious than Veckatimest, it also worked superbly on those terms, with bold melodies and structural complexities that felt woven into the tapestry of their songs-as-compositions. The contrasting individual personalities within the band seem to be less noticeable now, as it is beginning to feel like a true collective.
19. Padang Food Tigers - Ready Country Nimbus (Bathetic)
Padang Food Tigers have made a beautiful warm bath of an album here - its tantalisingly brief miniatures combining into a singularly blissful and evocative experience. Its combination of acoustic and electronic instruments with field recordings is gentle and decidedly appealing - we are left with something far from what could either be described as folk or electronica. The duo have very much created their own world and their own language here.
18. Michael Chorney and Dollar General - Dispensation of the Ordinary (Michael Chorney/Bandcamp)
This outstanding, spirited album from Michael Chorney's new band will get a full UK release on CD next year (and hopefully the band will be playing some shows over here too), but it's already available via Bandcamp. It's a potent blend of blues, American folk, improvisation and tinges of free spirited jazz, a fusing of ramshackle clatter with subtle, deep musicality. Chorney is an understated musician who knows that less can often mean more, and he has a keen ear for sonic detail. His voice has a homely, amiable, welcoming quality to my ears. His band are brimming with life and make strong personal contributions. The results are some timeless and hypnotic songs that keep revealing new elements with every play.
17. Tetras - Pareidolia (FSS)
This is not only some of the year's wildest, darkest music, but also some of its most patient, unfurling slowly in protracted crescendos over four lengthy improvised pieces. It is often built on repetitive bassline ostinatos and organ drone, but there are also expressive colours, often provided by percussion. It's a heavy, grim listen at times, albeit in the best possible way. I wouldn't normally link elsewhere from here, but I have to credit Scott McMillan for mentioning this to me, and his piece over at The Liminal is well worth reading, particularly given how intelligently it places it in a broader context harking back to Miles Davis' electric fusion.
Tetras At The Liminal (Scott McMillan)
16. Richard Skelton - Verse of Birds (Corbel Stone Press)
Richard Skelton is not one for producing easily digestible work. More often than not, his output has been multimedia, with music designed to evoke place, memory and experience that can also be found detailed in accompanying literature. Verse of Birds is a particularly unforgiving 105 minutes, but it benefits hugely from the investment of time needed to appreciate it as a whole. The music was written and recorded on the west coast of Ireland, and it certainly has a weather-beaten, coastal feel to it. With this and Landings, Skelton's music seems to be offering a richness and depth all of its own, with unusual textures and harmonics crafting recreating landscapes through sound. Skelton's music also seems to capture the inherent complexity of human emotion - although not celebratory, it is also not straightforwardly dark or melancholy. It is music that is open to moving wherever experience and nature guides it.
15. Alasdair Roberts and Mairi Morrison - Urstan (Drag City)
It felt like this excellent album was somewhat overlooked in 2012, possibly at least due in part to Sam Lee's justified dominance of the folk scene. Still, Alasdair Roberts remains Scottish folk music's most seasoned and radical exponent, and this collaboration with Gaelic singer Mairi Morrison yielded lively, sometimes tempestuous results. This is folk music with visceral energy and restless forward motion - it is without doubt respectful of the traditions and stories of the past, but it also kicks them screaming into new life. Hearing Roberts' distinctive voice in this new context also offers new perspectives on his work.
14. Hallock Hill - A Hem Of Evening (MIE)
Tom Lecky's work as Hallock Hill continues to be mysterious and engrossing. A Hem of Evening (what a lovely title) is something of a departure from what we have heard so far, at least in structural terms. Comprised of two long pieces (quaintly described as Side A and Side B - I love this), it is a meandering, ponderous work in the best possible way. That being said, the music here also seems consciously limited to a small palette of notes, and Lecky keeps returning to particular note choices as a kind of axis, or perhaps a clarion call. His guitar sound is even more magical here, reverberating beautifully, and leaving gentle overtones in the silences. Like most of Lecky's music, it feels subtle on first listen, and then cumulatively bewitching. It is an unassuming, modest reimagining of the possibilities of the guitar.
13. Hildur Gudnadottir - Leyfdu Ljosinu (Touch)
This is a truly remarkable achievement for the Icelandic cellist and composer - a single take single 40 minute piece of music recorded live at the Music Research Centre at the University of York and captured without any post-production intervention. The piece was performed without an audience, which in part accounts for the eerie sense of stillness at the music's core, a reminder of just how important environment and location is for any recording. The title translates as Allow The Light, and the calm, centred music has a sense of small cracks permitting light to shimmer through. Space and silence are used to maximal effect, and the whole piece is delivered with patience and understanding. There is an empathy at work here, particularly in the way in which Gudnadottir blends her voice with its surroundings, in spite of it being the product of the work of a solo musician.
12. Tim Berne - Snakeoil (ECM)
From a point of view of scandalous unfamiliarity with his work (save for a couple of palpably intense improvised concerts at the Vortex), Tim Berne is rapidly becoming one of my favourite musicians (at least in part due to a lovely evening spent with Tom Ward and Cath Roberts at the very end of April 2012). Being an ECM release, Snakeoil might prove somewhat divisive as it does soften some of the sharper edges of his compositional voice. The chamber acoustuc intimacy of the sound clearly suits the ECM aesthetic, although the music is largely free from cliches, and definitely has Berne's distinctive imprint. The pieces are both lengthy and breathtakingly adventurous, and the mood shifts radically between the melancholy and the exuberant. With clarinetist Oscar Noriega, keys man Matt Mitchell and drummer Ches Smith, this is a new and exciting chapter in Berne's career - another reinvention.
11. Henry Threadgill's Zooid - Tomorrow Sunny/The Revelry, Spp.(Pi)
Much as I adore the music on this concise, hugely exciting set, if I can indulge myself a little, the thing I most love about it is the final track. This finds the full credits for the album being read aloud. This is a brilliant repost and solution to the problems of the download era. Personnel and recording credits are crucial to any understanding of jazz and how the music has developed and, yes, continues to develop. Threadgill is one of this music's great pioneers, being one of the earliest experimenters with hybridising improvisation and avant garde contemporary composition. Understanding his current mindset also requires some knowledge of his supporting players - not least Liberty Ellman's unique, often perplexing guitar lines and Elliot Humberto Kavee's dexterous, intricate drum grooves. There is little sense of barlines or structural breaks. It is a seamless, flowing, and fearlessly uncompromising approach to arrangement and composition. The Zooid ensemble, now twelve years old but still sounding radical and fresh, is an ecentric array of instruments and these musicians do not just adapt to the demands of Threadgill's approach, but they have served to enhance and develop it. This is difficult, challenging music, but it is also so exciting and turbulent as to leave you breathless.