Monday, December 24, 2012

The 100 (and a bit) best albums of the year 2012 Part 1: 100 - 75

The order here is inevitably slightly arbitrary. I make no apologies for inconsistencies of opinion and rating between original reviews and rankings in this list - relative opinions do change quite rapidly. It is probably best taken as simply a list of albums I've enjoyed in 2012, although the top 30 probably reflects my true favourites. I realise I have written next to nothing on this blog in 2012 and I hope this list goes some way in compensating for this paucity of activity - that is, if anyone remembers this place still exists! I've included links to my reviews of some of these albums for musicOMH if anyone would like to investigate further.

100 = Bill Fay - Life Is People (Dead Oceans) 
100 = Dexys - One Day I'm Going To Soar (BMG)

Here are two excellent albums that begin the list only because I didn't feel they were quite the solid gold masterpieces many well-meaning writers wanted them to be. Kevin Rowland's self-lacerating comeback definitely drags in its cabaret section, but is bookended by songs that rank with his finest. Vocally, he is in superb form throughout, and there's a thrilling vibe that captures the emotional rollercoaster of his words. We believe in his soul.

Bill Fay is a modest man who thoroughly deserves the success and acclaim he has achieved this year not least because he has no interest in such things. He remains an honest, peerless artist primarily directed by spiritual concerns. If the arrangements on Life Is People sometimes erred towards the staid and plodding, at its best it proved characteristically moving, particularly when Fay was more or less alone at the piano (his stately version of Wilco's Jesus etc and The Never Ending Happening). Sometimes, a sense of mystery and awe abounded (City of Dreams) and this also worked very well. If Life Is People sends a new audience back to his 70s Decca masterpieces, this will be a very good thing indeed.

musicOMH review (Bill Fay)
musicOMH review (Dexys)

 98. Calexico - Algiers (City Slang)

These days, it is fairly easy to predict what a Calexico album will sound like. If the band have hit a comfortable groove, then at least that sensation is a satisfying one, particularly given the affectionate detail and sensitivity in both their musicianship and their songwriting. Algiers had a much-trumpeted New Orleans dimension, although I'm not so sure this came through that strongly. In places it returned to the unfairly derided rock edge of Garden Ruin - but it also contained some of their most touching songs, Fortune Teller being a particularly fruitful example.  

97. A.C. Newman - Shut Down The Streets (Fire)

Carl Newman's solo work seems to be somewhat dismissed here in the UK. It's hard to fathom why, as there are few solo singer-songwriters this imaginative with melody. His songs remain unpredictable and surprising, in spite of the fact that he has developed something of a signature sound. Newman's colleague in the New Pornographers Kathryn Calder appears frequently here, adding strong vocals and some of her flair for instrumentation and arrangement appears to have influenced Newman too. This is power pop with individual quality and ambition.

96. Charlatan - Isolatarium (Type)

Unusual, swirling and hugely immersive synth soundscapes. A captivating and enthralling listening experience that keeps throwing up new details, shades and tones.The sounds here feel hazy, warped or refracted. It's disorientating, but at times oddly comforting too.

95. Jessica Sligter - Fear and the Framing (Humbro) 

A new name for me at the very close of play this year - and I'm very glad to have let this sneak in. Sligter deftly blends singer-songwriter conventions with approaches and colours drawn from the avant-garde.

musicOMH review

94. Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Big Moon Ritual/The Magic Door (Silver Arrow)

The Black Crowes always tended to be too slavish to a particular kind of canonical past for me (although their catalogue certainly has its moments). These two albums from Chris Robinson's latest project proved visceral and thrilling, however, not least because of the presence of some superb musicians (including the excellent Neal Casal). Totally unconcerned with commercial pressures, this exploratory, often improvisatory music felt compositionally faithful but also allowed for moments of brilliantly unhinged wandering.

93. Ry Cooder - Election Special (Nonesuch)

Cooder just seems to keep getting better, to the extent that even his throwaway releases sound brilliantly crafted. His satirical side has been getting a good look in recently - but for me this deft commentary on issues surrouding the US election was stronger than last year's Pull Up Some Dust and Sit Down. Cooder's late blooming talent as a songwriter shows no signs of dissipating and the playing remains dependably lucid and skilled.  

92. Pelt - Effigy (MIE)

The tragic loss of Jack Rose could easily have dealt a blow to Pelt from which it might be impossible to recover. Instead, Effigy might just be their most compelling and sophisticated work - an elaborate, protracted revery and elegy both in touch with musical traditions and thrillingly contemporary in sound and approach. This has made me want to delve deeper into the work of both Pelt and Rose - artists with which I'm currently only cursorily familiar.  

91. Scott Walker - Bish Bosch (4AD)

It might have lacked the coherent terror of The Drift, but Bish Bosch compensated for this with a wry and sometimes uncomfortable sense of farce. At its best, it had an urgency and immediacy that sounded like a vehement warning, even when the fragmentary nature of Walker's compositions can feel confounding or incomplete. It's worth emphasising that nobody else sounds like this and, as is usually the case with Walker, it rewards repeated listens.

musicOMH review

90. Juju and  Jordash - Techno Primitivism (Dekmantel)

If techno is often a genre known for exploration through conscious limitation, this duo from Amsterdam make a refreshingly wide-ranging, questing form of the music. This is a long album made up mostly of long pieces - there's a strong sense of narrative to each one, with nuanced colours and a fluent, spellbinding musical language at work. Here is a powerful reminder of the capacity of music to create different worlds and to render the here and now blissfully irrelevant.

89. Mariee Sioux - Gift For The End (Almost Musique)

Much as I love Joanna Newsom, it always strikes me as at best odd and at worst unjust how little publicity has been afforded to the almost equally flighty and scintillating Mariee Sioux. This third album is in some ways her most assured and confident - she is more controlled and selective, with seductive and intriguing results.

88. Matthew Dear - Beams (Ghostly International)

Matthew Dear's journey from techno to bright eyed synth pop, via some sleek leather fantasy, is peculiar on the surface but in reality has sounded rather effortless. His detached, robotic voice is more prominent still here (often telling stories with a distinctly melancholy or solipsistic hue), but the music is more radiant and vibrant than anything he has attempted before.

87. Esperanza Spalding - Radio Music Society (Decca)

Along with Robert Glasper's Black Radio, this excellent album sparked a rather unfortunate and distracting debate within the jazz community. Is it jazz, or is it pop? If it's the latter, is its (relative) success a 'bad thing' for jazz as a genre? Frankly, why does anyone care? Jazz is in good enough health both in the US and here in the UK for it not to matter if one of its more accessible exponents veers in yet more commercial directions. Casting these concerns aside though, even a quick listen to Radio Music Society should reveal the care, knowledge and great ears that have gone into the arrangements. The rich harmonies and deep grooves should be food enough for any jazz fans - and pop listeners should embrace the chance to hear some more adventurous and challenging melodic lines.

86. Jessica Pratt - Jessica Pratt (Birth) 

Singer-songwriters often seem to be shouting to be heard, but Jessica Pratt's sublime and understated debut arrived with more of a sensuous whisper than a scream. The influences are transparent - 60s and 70s folk, Laurel Canyon, Joni Mitchell - but Pratt's stories have a quiet intensity and personal resonance of their own. Nothing is overheated or insistent - the dynamic is mostly hushed and gentle, and Pratt's exquisite delivery delivers much in very small gradations. Music with so little need to state its purpose tends to work through implication and suggestion - such is Pratt's distinctive talent. More please. 

85. Elephant Micah - Louder Than Thou (Product of Palmyra)

It begins with the rustle, rumble and quiet chaos of a rehearsal. Yet, for the loose off-the-cuff feeling of most of the music here, the songs feel breathtakingly literate and complete. They are miniature kitchen sink epics to place alongside the work of Mark Kozelek, Jason Molina or Will Johnson, and the breezy manner in which they are delivered often serves to mask some occasional and unexpected lapses into excoriating attack.  Like many of the albums on this list, it's also somehow unassuming - quietly casting its spell rather than insisting that you listen straight up. This is obviously a quality I admire more and more as I get older.

84. Partikel - Cohesion (Whirlwind)

Here is an energetic, exciting trio that manage to create all manner of suspense and suggestion without the presence of a chordal instrument. Whilst nominal leader and saxophonist Duncan Eagles is a fluent and articulate improviser, his rhythm section of Max Luthert and Eric Ford provide not just strong support, but also a sense of mutual adventure and experiment. Ford is rhythmically playful throughout, but also manages to draw an impressive range of colours and textures from his drums. Danger is never far away with this music, but the playing is assured and sensitive too, and the memorable compositions offer firm thematic grounding.

83. Tim Hecker and Daniel Lopatin - Instrumental Tourist (Software)

Bit of a dream team, this, probably to the extent that it couldn't really go wrong. This mostly improvised collaboration may, for me at least, lack the emotional pull of Hecker's Ravedeath, 1972, but it does contain some fascinating sound worlds that often play with our expectations. There's also much more specific musical information than one might expect from two artists predominantly preoccupied with sound collage and drone. I hesitate to dip my toe into the 'hauntology' debate, but there does seem to be a sense of a journey through forgotten, neglected worlds here. 

82. Lindstrom - Six Cups Of Rebel/Smalhans (Smalltown Supersound) 

2012 has been a particularly productive year for Lindstrom, with these two releases offering very different sides of his musical personality. With Smalhans, a streamlined mini-album, we are in familiar cosmic synth territory and the results are predictably irresistible. Six Cups of Rebel, however, is a very different beast and proved more divisive. For me, it was a wonderful surprise - a true flight of fantasy that found one of electronic music's leading figures branching out into increasingly weird and risky territory, blending organ music, compositional minimalism, trancey grooves and rampant wildness. 

81. Raime - Quarter Turn Over A Living Line (Blackest Ever Black) 

That I found myself enjoying this album tremendously as the end of the Mayan calendar loomed cannot be entirely coincidental. Raime's debut felt like a more articulate and natural documentation of perpetual apocalypse than Godspeed's decent but overly-familiar comeback. In fact, this often feels like the soundtrack to a surveillance state, with helicopter blades whirring and all manner of menacing sound choices. It's dark, mechanistic and sometimes brutal - but there's a humanity lurking within these cages too. 

80. John Surman - Saltash Bells (ECM) 

A 'solo' album from John  Surman, with its use of multiple saxophones and clarinets, as well as multi-tracking techniques and synthesisers, can no longer offer the shock of the new. Indeed, much of Saltash Bells could have been recorded at any point during Surman's illustrious career. Yet its expressive playing and meditative qualities could only have come from Surman - and his immediately recognisable sound is all over this very fine, typically evocative collection. 

79. Demdike Stare - Elemental (Modern Love) 

This lengthy set compiles some EPs released by Demdike Stare in the wake of their outstanding Triptych 3CD set. It's quite challenging to digest and maybe lacks something in the way of conceptual coherence - but it is brilliantly moody and stark nonetheless. They remain masters of the slow build - often delaying pivotal moments for as long as possible in the service of music that is full of auditory nightmares and ugly tensions. 

78. Oriole - Every New Day (F-IRE) 

In the relatively long gap between Oriole releases, guitarist and composer Jonny Phillips spent time living in Cadiz. If anything, the experience seems to have strengthened his resolve and identity as an artist. Every New Day amplifies all of the qualities inherent in Oriole's music so far - mellifluous, touching melodies that glimmer and dance, the rhythms of the world delivered in informed but unshowy fashion and a rich, evocative band vibe that honours the places and memories that inspire the music. There is a lightness of touch and maturity throughout.

musicOMH review

77. LV - Sebenza (Hyperdub) 

If the admirable intentions of the Africa Express tour sometimes tend to fall flat when rhythmically advanced West African acts combine with the more rhythmically and harmonically stilted end of UK drongey indie, here is a fusion of several musical cultures that works brilliantly. The resulting music, which blends UK bass music with the sounds of South Africa, is effervescent and joyous, as one might expect, but it also has a harder edge that serves as a compelling juxtaposition. Featuring contributions from Kwaito duo Ruffest and Spoek Mathambo, this is a true meeting of minds that demands to be heard. 

76. Sylvie Lewis - It's All True (Sylvie Lewis)

That Sylvie Lewis is not more widely known is a great injustice. This is her third album and follows deftly in the footsteps of its predecessors, although perhaps this time with a little more confidence in its style that harks back to the American standard repertoire. There's a sprinkling of cabaret and musical theatre, but Lewis' unhurried, wry delivery is always a complete delight, somehow combining both art and artifice. This collection is mercilessly concise but, as a result, it is free from excess. It is a brilliant encapsulation of her effortless way with words and melody. 

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