Category: Album of the Month

APRIL: GREY Area by Little Simz

Well, well, well. What a little belter this is.

Little Simz AKA Simbiatu “Simbi” Abisola Abiola Ajikawo (can see why she went for the shortened nickname) has been knocking around for a few years. I heard a couple of tracks that I really liked without falling in love with. She did stand out from her peers by seeming less interested in the beats of grime and more the classic beats of old skool hip hop.

So I admit it – I initially dismissed her a bit as a promising UK hip hop like a million before her that was full of promise but hadn’t quite delivered THAT track.

And then I heard OFFENCE. Jesus H Christ. What a ridiculous beast of a track that is. It became a genuine crossover that was being played on 6Music AND Radio 1 AND Capital (which I know, thanks to my kids).

Still, I approached this album expecting 10 tracks of more of the same. What I wasn’t expecting was such a rich, inventive brew, so full of creativity and painted on such a wide canvas.

Influences? Oh man, where to start? The nu-soul meets hip hop of Anderson .Paak and K-Os (of old!) on tracks like WOUNDS. SELFISH is basically a gorgeous RnB pop song but with a rap holding it together. VENOM’s flow feels like a grime style and BOSS is a great track 2 choice, smacking you right in the face. FLOWERS could be a collaboration with Cinematic Orchestra, and obvs Michael Kiwanuka is always a seal of quality.

So much to love on here – the live band and instrumentation gives it a blaxploitation film score vibe. Everywhere there are surprises – fresh samples, unusual arrangements. This is a really ambitious album made to aim high, and it nearly completely delivers.

Finally – oh joy of joy – it’s got NO SKITS and it’s a tight, punch 35 minutes long. How many hip hop albums could learn from this?

I notice she right at the top of the bill of one of the Coachella stages. She’s that good. Not surprised the US is noticing.

Any criticisms? Maybe her delivery and flow is a little bit monotonous at times, but lyrically it’s bloody brilliant – and she works around that by making each song such a uniquely constructed entity.

So yeah. I LOVE this album and I’m sure it’ll end up in my top 10 at the end of the year. How about you, Brothers?

March: Crushing by Julia Jacklin

 

I can’t pretend that I had even heard of Julia Jacklin until a month ago but Crushing makes me feel like I know her intimately.  I often pick an album from Metacritic’s highest scored new albums and commit to spending some real time with it. This year, I have found 3 albums in this way that I adore and considered for AOTM. I have decided to go with Crushing by Julia Jacklin as I find it the most emotionally connecting of the three. The instrumentation, production and arrangements take a back seat to hauntingly powerful yet understated lyrics. There are more upbeat moments on the album than the opening track that I’ve linked above but they are still melancholy and moody in their atmosphere.

This is the kind of album that makes me reconsider actions, words and relationships from my past. I find it rare that an album makes me feel as much as this album does and I love it for this.

The opening track is called ‘Body’ and is a beautifully written remembering of a difficult relationship captured in a 5 minute track of simplistic beauty. The story telling is compelling and affecting and paints pictures that you connect with instantly (or at least I do). Following this track the word ‘body’ appears in more than half of the remaining tracks and marks and openness and intimacy that makes me feel like I might just love Julia.

I don’t want to say much more than I have other than that I hope you connect with this in the same way that I have.

JANUARY – Assume Form by James Blake

 

So, I wasn’t really sure what I’d do for January AOTM. It’s been stressful and difficult few months and my best intentions of getting January finished by early new year came up short of nothing more than inspiration. I just didn’t see much interesting around, and I wasn’t listening to much new stuff either: even 6 Music wasn’t on much any more. The travails of a young family, brutal work and no downtime left me delving back into the past (Eno, mostly) trying to find some tranquility in the modern noise.

But then this arrived, almost serendipitously, out of the mist. And of course, James Blake was both a great option and an album that would server as a hopeful antidote to the current messy modern world. It’s only a bonus that I’ve been a big fan of his, but the question I wondered was: could another album of his songs do anything new? Perhaps it didn’t have to. His music was mostly only even in a genre of its own that – while he gained many imitators – he seemed to have his very own dubby, falsetto, reverb-heavy, then four-four slices of music that was both rich and warm then desolate and icy.

So what did I expect of this? Nothing, as I’d had no advance warning or visibility, and that’s sometimes no bad thing. In my first few listens here – a week or rotation has already been hugely enjoyable if embryonic in my opinions of this as a review at arm’s length – I’ve enjoyed much of what I’ve heard. For a songwriter and sonic experimentalist that has carved out such strange spaces over his previous albums, he’s also managed to take in emotional lyrics, albeit some that so feel wrapped up in his musical ambition that that skill is lost.

Some of his previous work is staggering – Digital Lion, Overgrown, Radio Silence – tracks that only get better with time, and so this has a high standard to follow. I’m not sure all of the LP hits those heights. Some of it is pretty cold, perhaps it’ll warm up over time, but there are some gems. It seems obvious but Where’s The Catch (above) with Andre 3000 at last breaks some of the constrictions of its companions that sometimes feels too forced and deliberately restrained. When beats are as crisp, and warmth flecks the darkness, you do wonder why he doesn’t want to break free as much elsewhere. I’d love to see more of that. However, the title track is wonderful, and while I am not part of the auto-tune crowd, Blake’s collaborations are inventive and interesting.

In short, it’s a work in progress, but I’m hugely enjoying having new James Blake in my life, and it’s just the sort of music to shut out the noise, the angst, the anger, the stress and the discord. I can, at least, salute that.

DECEMBER: Be The Cowboy by MITSKI

So just as we chose this for December, then comes along old Pitchfork to make this their #1 album of the whole year:

https://pitchfork.com/features/lists-and-guides/the-50-best-albums-of-2018/?page=5

Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t think this is the album of the year. I think it is VERY good. But I’m not sure I would go as far as Pitchfork. I always get the impression Pitchfork is so painfully curated as to hit its demographic, it’s hard to take their lists seriously. Mitski certainly hits all the right 2018 buttons – strong female voice, big leap forward musically with new album, touching on angst and loneliness and anger. You can see why they chose it.

I’ve been aware of Mitski for a while, and thought I’ve liked what I’ve heard, I’ve maybe not loved it. She’s certainly an interesting voice, but I’ve found her songs a little bit too indie and angular and maybe I’m searching for a touch more from them. But that is based on not spending a lot of time with them, so that could be hugely unfair.

And then I heard NOBODY. Oh boy. What a song. WHAT a song. It might be a late entry into my song of the year. Hell, it might even just knock GIRLFRIEND off the top spot. Aching, painful, searing loneliness that starts off plaintive and then turns into a bloody grandstanding DISCO song, complete with two key changes that take my breath away every time I hear them.

So maybe now I get Mitski.

NOBODY is probably an outlier on the album – it’s not choc-a-block with similar tracks – but there is something really interesting going on here. The album starts off with a song that I could take or leave, GEYSER, that suggests something generically indie, but it quickly picks up after that. WHY DIDN’T YOU STOP ME? is a stomping slab of St Vincent-style wonky pop. And off the album goes in all kinds of fabulous directions. Other highlights: include ME AND MY HUSBAND – a piano led belter of a pop song, PINK IN THE NIGHT – huge, emotional indie torch tune, LONESOME LOVE, which goes proper alt-country. And finally, closer TWO SLOW DANCERS is a lovely, electronic ballad that’s a fitting closer.

Another wonderful plus: song length! I love that so many of these songs don’t outstay their welcome. Thanks you Mitski for writing 2 minute songs that are exactly the right length. Please please God can some bloated rock dudes take note. You don’t need 2 guitar solos, a middle eight and a lengthy outro every time, got it?

However, those brief song lengths can occasionally be a hindrance – there are some songs that feel half-formed or don’t quite earn their place on what is a very good album. And that’s, for me, why it isn’t quite album of the year material.

Still, a strong end to a pretty strong year, I thought. Over to you…

———-

FINALLY: As a side discussion, shall we have an albums of the year chat, Brothers? Oh yes, I think we should!

Tuung – Songs You Make at Night

I offer a belated welcome to November my dear Brothers and a further welcome to ‘Songs You Make at Night’ by Tuung.

I know Brother David has a soft spot for a bit of Tuung, I don’t think Guy is familiar and I am not sure of Nolan’s history with the band but it was his post of ABOP on this blog that alerted me to the fact that this new album existed. I knew it was coming as they released Flatland earlier in the year and my wife and son loved it.  I was looking forward to it as I do with all Tuung albums but I will be totally honest, they usually fit into the ‘nice to listen to’ rather than ‘have to / love to listen to’. They are ‘nice’ albums, they go well with a Sunday roast with company that you’re unsure of (musically speaking). Almost nobody would actively dislike it. However, I think this album takes them across that ‘nice to listen to’ threshold into something else. I think this is my favourite Tuung album (heart) and I think it may be their best (head) too.

So what do you get? Folktronica. A term that makes my skin crawl so best to get it out the way early. Over successive albums they have become slowly more ‘tronica’ but only in their instrumentation. The tunes are still folksy but in an unmistakably Tuung way. There aren’t many (any?) bands that sound like Tuung. I have found a couple but they turned out to be Tuung side projects.

I find this album enchanting. Its a slice of calm and prettiness that I always find welcoming. It’s got all the lyrical quirkiness that I love (‘Crow’ is a lovely example). It’s got the bleeps and squelches accompanying the acoustic guitars and occasional woodwind that still sit so comfortably together. It’s more upbeat moments like Dark Heart that manage to feel part of the whole and not jarring.

The thing that made me choose this is that it is 11 strong tracks. The stand out tracks change each time you listen to it. I would like to think that this make it accessible  and enjoyable for all.  It won’t end up on may best of lists as i don’t think its breaking new ground but for me, its one of the albums that will come with me into 2019 and beyond.

October AOTM: Micha P. Hinson – and the British Broadcasting Corporation

Micha P Hinson has been on my radar since his debut ‘ Micah P. Hinson and the Gospel of Progress ‘. There was something about that album that ticked so many boxes for me. I think more than anything I bought him. It all seemed so honest and real; him and the album. 

Since his debut I have kept him on my peripheral, but more to the tone of having him on a playlist here and there and that’s about it. It wasn’t until a while ago when I was driving home in the middle of the night and heard his live version of “The Life, Living, Death and Dying of a Certain, LJ Nichols’ did this live album hit my radar. When I say hit, it was more of a punch in the face in the nicest of ways. WTF was this song; and why did it blow me away? The album was ordered; and a few months later you too now will be adding it to your collection. 

Live albums are a funny thing; thee aren’t many and there often is a very good reason for that. Not many artists can pull it off. This is less Eric Clapton on MTV and more sitting in a bar and hearing a guy sing his hart out to a half hearted audience. This album is raw; and highlights how raw Micha P. Hinson is as an artist. Hey, and it’s got the BBC stamp of approval… so that’s got to mean something right?

I will say that it took me a few listens to fully get into this album. Hayley still doesn’t fully get it. Although she has pointed out that since visiting the small town in Canada that I’m from she understands why I love it. 

His lyrics are solid but deep and work.  He doesn’t rhyme just to do so, his content is wholesome. ’Seven Horses Seen’ may just be my current favourite song; it’s catchy and brutal. I’ve changed the lyrics majorly and have started singing it to Olive… she likes my version. 

The ruggedness of his singing style isn’t for everyone, but it grows on you. I’m starting to think that he’s a guy that I would like to sit down and have a beer with. 

I’m mindful that this is a risky one. It’s not for everyone. But that’s why we’re here. Even brother Joey who is a fan of Micha P. Hinson may have mixed feelings about this album. If I can ask one thing of you; like a good bourbon it may be rough around the edges but give it a little time to sink in. 

I look forward to your thoughts. 

September – Chris

Yes, I’m late, but it’s worth it, I hope. This album is the first artist to land a second AOTM, and after the effect the first had on all of us, it seemed almost too obvious to revisit it when there’s so much other music around. However, it’s actually a choice that makes so much sense, because really, there’s a definitive break from the past, and perhaps the appearance of one of the most exciting pop music artists for a long while.

So, what did we learn from Christine And The Queens’ sparkling debut in 2016? An album that was a spring sleeper hit (two years after it surfaced in France), relaunched in a post-Brexit haze where we all needed some musical escapism. In my case, I was one of those wandering around in a teary, beery, existentialist haze at Glastonbury whose day was transformed by one of those ‘moments’ that makes the festival so magical. Christine And The Queens’ set on the Other Stage as the rain fell was one that’ll stay long in the memory. There’s no way a French artist complete with slickly choreographed dancers should’ve melted muddy hearts but Tilted, iT, Narcissus Is Back and Here were pop music of the absolute finest. Rubbery synths, crisp percussion, and beguiling vocals singing about love and loss that sounded as enticing in English as in French. A star was born. But… what next?

The answer, flippantly, would be ‘Chris’. But for Héloïse Letissier it was more than just a change of title. The relentless touring and punishing nightly dance moves had transformed her into a leaner being, and with her success came sexual conquests too, but not man or woman, more whichever took her fancy. Pansexuality, freedom and inspiration. Yet the sonic inspiration for Chris – ‘Christine’s androgynous, confident, male-world-view alter-ego – harks back to the 80s and 90s, where r’n’b was in a renaissance with Michael and Janet Jackson at the fore. You can almost hear the Jam and Lewis influence in tracks like Girlfriend and Doesn’t Matter. But it’s original, punchy hooks and oblique lyrical references that are all her own rather than borrowed from the past, as she explores pansexual conquests from the side of the male gaze.

The result is an album that feels it could only be made by a French artist, such is the ambition, and openly artistic musings that would be sniffed at in England. A staggeringly individual collection of songs where Letissier writes, performs and produces almost every single note, and that should fire her even higher into the pop firmament. Fantastique!