Tagged: Album of the month

JUNE: RTJ4

Cometh the hour, cometh the album.
Sometimes a record captures a moment in time so perfectly, it becomes a symbol of that moment. I honestly believe that RTJ4 might be one of those records.

I don’t want to be a big review like we normally do, I’d rather we used this as a kicking off point for discussion – this is a ‘free album’ month after all, and we’ll get back to the proper AOTM for July.

But…I was thinking a lot about what Brother Nolan said on our live chat the other week, that he thought it was one of RTJ’s weaker releases. I don’t know about that. I know that I’ve listened to this RTJ’s album more than any other that has come out. BY MILES. Now, maybe it’s the times we’re living in, maybe it feels like even more of a reflection. But this is a lean, mean beast. Clocking in at 39 mins and 11 tracks, it’s the length of an album from the 1960s, not a hip hop album in 2020, which, let’s face it, is ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS TOO FUCKING LONG.

That brevity seems to give the Killer Mike and El-P a laser focus, and honestly, I don’t think there’s a wasted moment on this record. No, not every track is out there political. Yes, the conceit of them as two outlaws on the run (referenced on the opening and closing tracks) is a little obvious and they don’t go anywhere with it. Yes, Ooh La La is a total throwback tune (but come on, WHAT a tune).

But seriously, there are four or five cuts on here that are essential to anyone at any time. Guests are used really well – like, they bring something to the table every time. Pharell’s collab (along with a great cameo from Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha) on JUST is as good a thing as he’s done in a long time – what a fucking smart track that is, expressing something complex and angry at the same time, . And a banger too. PULLING THE PIN is straight out astonishing, the addition of Mavis Staples voice adding so much pain and anguish to the track. And the Gangsta Boo tune WALKING IN THE SNOW is, to my mind, as good a track as they have ever made. It’s so angry and articulate and it smacked me sideways when I first heard it.

Basically, I love it. I can’t stop listening to it. It’s gonna be one of my albums of the year. Over to you, brothers…

AOTM (May 2020) – Mac Miller ‘Circles’

Hi Brothers. Another lockdown AOTM. However, lockdown has nothing to do with why I chose this album by Mac Miller. This album was released in early Feb. so for me, it’s history pre-dates ‘all-of-this’ / ‘what-with-one-thing-and-another’ / insert your favourite ‘lock-down-euphemism’.

I could have chosen less risky AOTM options but figured that we all know what the Strokes sound like. Therefore I chose Circles by Mac Miller. Again, I cannot claim to be a an expert in this artist. I came to this early in 2020 when surfing through Meta-album-of-the-year sites. This album kept on showing up in the upper reaches of their meta-review scores. Also, it seemed to be one where the listener scores were very similar to the critics reviews which always makes me pay attention. So, without any further fannying around I downloaded the album, got stuck in and found myself listening to this loads.

I found it a rewarding album to listen to in full and in parts when time was limited. Tracks started to stick in my mind and the the tracks started to open themselves open. When you first listen to it I can feel really pleasant and accessible, it will make you smile and feel pretty good about life. However, I would be surprised if at some point (early on) you didn’t think it was a little dispensable … but I do think it deserves a little more attention. There’s obviously a big chunk of melancholy driving this album. I noticed that when the tracks started to unfold on repeated listens a comfortable but uncomfortable feeling started to creep over me.

It was this odd feeling that made me go back and read the reviews of the album. I think I am glad that I listened first and then read the reviews later. It turns out that this is a posthumous release. Mac Miller died in 2018 of an apparently accidental overdose. The Guardian described him as a capable but derivative frat-rapper (didn’t even know frat-rap was a thing) who started to experiment on later albums with a softer approach. He was a mult-instrumentlist who collaborated with the LA instrumental hip-hop crowd (Flying Lotus et al.). He was also in a long standing relationship with Ariana Grande, the end of which sparked his turn in musical direction.

He released a critically acclaimed album ‘Swimming’ in 2018 before his death. He left a significant amount of material that was developed by Jon Brion (friend, producer, composer) with the blessing of his family. Jon has kept the feel of Swimming (which he co-produced) on this album. Sparse, gentle, elegant and spacious production allows this album to flow around what turns out to be some beautiful lyrical content.

I rate this album. I keep coming back to it. It seemed perfect on the cold, dark commutes into Manchester … and on the cold, dark commutes home. It’s great music to cook to. It has a low-F-bomb-count. Low enough that Stacey’s never noticed so it gets plenty of air-time in our house. It also felt like the perfect album when it was 23 degrees last weekend. I think this will stay with me for a long time. I can hear loads of influences but nothing that I think is over-bearing. There are moments of Neptunes-esque and Neptunes-quality production that make me smile. It’s a lovely little thing. I hope you enjoy it.

February (reissue) – NO OTHER by Gene Clark

Welcome to a new year and a new decade, brothers. After a month off and all of us caught up with last year’s excellent music, let’s start off with a look back – with the reissue of one of rock’s great lost albums.

“Underrated” is a word we’ve discussed before; it is, of course, too easily used and often described things that have not been that highly rated for a good reason. As a bit of a vinyl junkie, and an aficionado of all things 60s and 70s, many are the ‘underrated’ albums I’ve bought, only to find they languished in obscurity for a damn good reason.

So let’s start with a bit of background for Mr Clark. Founding member of The Byrds, he quickly became the band’s main songwriter, and wrote an astonishing number of their well-known songs (Eight Miles High, I’ll Feel A Whole Lot Better, Set You Free This Time). I hadn’t quite realised what a creative driving force he’d been in the band – especially when you consider this is a band with Roger McGuinn and David Crosby in it. The band used to call him the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’, because of his incredible talent for mystical lyrics despite his humble background.

However, he didn’t stay in the band beyond the third album, partly because of a chronic fear of flying, and partly because the rest of the band were pissed off that he earned more because of the songwriting royalties.

I really like the Byrds, always have, and as a Beatles nut, I’m hugely aware of their influence on the band – it was the Byrds jangling 12 string Rickenbacker that got Harrison to pick up one of his own and start adding it to the Beatles sound – which you can clearly here from Rubber Soul onwards. But I wouldn’t say I *listen* to the Byrds that much. Like The Beach Boys, I hugely admire what they did, but I don’t check in with them much.

Like a lot of the counter-cultural American rock artists of that era, Clark’s solo work after The Byrds showed him flirting quite heavily with country rock, particularly with his Dillard & Clark albums with bluegrass guitarist Doug Dillard. It’s pleasant enough stuff, but Gram Parsons, another Byrds alumni, was doing this stuff so much better.

All of this is a way of saying – Clark was obviously an insanely prodigious talent, but once he left The Byrds, there was no suggestion he was about to do anything that groundbreaking in his musical career.

It’s 1974. Clark has briefly rejoined a reformed Byrds, and the resulting album impresses mega-producer David Geffen enough to sign him to Asylum Records. This is the hippest, hottest label in the US at the time – home to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and The Eagles. Geffen gives Clark a pretty whopping budget to go and make the album of his dreams….

What first hits you about the album is its ambition. Wikipedia helpfully describes this as “country rock, folk, gospel, soul and choral music with poetic, mystical lyrics”. It’s fucking extraordinary. Just listen to Strength of Strings alone. It’s a masterpiece:

(Eagle eared listeners of a certain age might recognised this as covered by This Mortal Coil on one of their albums. Perhaps it’s no coincidenc that it’s their label, 4AD, that put out this reissue.)

The other thing about No Other is that it also kind of sounds like everything – and then you remember that the ‘everything’ you’re thinking of came AFTER this record. Fleetwood Mac and Rumours in particular owe an enormous debt to the freewheeling genre-hopping of this album, as does some Dylan mid to late 70s output. As for the millennial era, this albums has clearly been a huge influence to a million bands, from Grizzly Bear (who’ve covered No Other songs live) to Arcade Fire to The National to every other flipping American indie band who’ve ever flirted with Americana.

So why is it so underrated? Why wasn’t it sitting next to Rumours in your parents’ record collection? Well, when Geffen heard what Clark delivered him, he lacked the vision to understand it. He thought it was a piece of shit, and berated Clark both privately and publicly, then spent nothing promoting it. That, along with frankly bizarre 1920s looking cover that gives no hint of what was inside, meant that Gene Clark’s incredible album bombed.

He never recovered from the devastating disappointment, and fell into the depressingly familiar cycle of drugs and addiction, and though he staggered on through the 80s, he never made an album of this stature again. Addiction eventually took his life aged only 46, in 1991.

What he has left is an album that can genuinely stand shoulder to shoulder to much of the greatest rock music of the era. And you can hear in that plaintive voice that he is delivering the album of his life. It is a tragedy too often told in the music industry that an artist has die before their work is appreciated. It’s never truer than with Gene Clark and No Other. Let’s at least be grateful that the ‘Hillbilly Shakespeare’ got to make his masterpiece.

*Bonus album* Holding on to a Dream – sir Was

While we’re a-waiting for FKA to drop, I thought I’d share an album that has really got under my skin. sir Was is a dude from a remote Swedish village and this is his 2nd album.

It was this collaboration with Little Dragon on the album that first caught my attention. You might have heard it, 6 Music have been rinsing it, and I put it on that recent comp I posted on here:

So then I checked the album out. First couple of times I listened, I thought – yeah, this is quite cool. But it’s pretty downbeat and quite minor, and maybe I won’t stick with it for long. But I did. I really did. I keep coming back to it and playing it, and it has totally got me.

So here’s the thing – it is one of the most undefinable sounds I think I’ve ever heard. It’s not dance music really, not at all, but it feels like it’s made my someone with those sensibilities. But his voice and the production also sounds like lush 70s West Coast pop. And then there are other really interesting tracks that sound like – yes, really – This Mortal Coil and Cocteau Twins. In fact, this album could easily be on 4AD.

It really is the most beguiling mix of stuff. And the three tracks I’ve posted on here (the only ones on YouTube) are the more obvious end of the album. But I’d be really interested in what you think when you immerse yourself in it. It’s not a long album and it’s very easy and enjoayable listen. But what I love is how it’s opened itself up, the more I’ve listened to it. It had hidden depths. I flipping LOVE it when music is like that.

So there you. An October bonus. Check him out.

SEPTEMBER: Metronomy Forever

So, after a month of for summer hi-jinx – getting married! moving house! raising kids! Listening to music! – we’re back, back, back!

So here’s the long-awaited new offering from a band that are very beloved of this parish. Off the back of a pretty sweltering run of belting singles leading up to the album, the question on everyone’s lips (well, mine anyway): have they finally made an album that can stand up to their masterpiece, THE ENGLISH RIVIERA.

But then it’s never easy with Metronomy, so even answering that question is quite tricky. Joe Mount is such a wilful bastard, and clearly likes doing whatever the fuck he wants, and never more than on this 17 track album that features 6 instrumentals. Chasing the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame is not top of Mount’s aims in life.

The answer is YES and NO at the same time, and because it’s Metronomy, I think you probably know what I mean. It is undeniably the band’s strongest offering in years, and thought Summer 08 had a couple of belting tunes on it, I personally don’t think they’ve made a properly cohesive album since Riviera. For the record, I thought Love Letters was a steaming pile of crap.

Forever has two very very big things going for it. Firstly, it has a really wonderful set of songs on it. From Lately to Salted Caramel Ice Cream to Insecurity to The Light to Sex Emoji (yes, even Sex Emoji), this is an album overflowing with funky, fresh ideas and the kind of Metronomy songs you long for – the kind you’d end up adding to a Best of Spotify compilation.

The second thing I love about this album is that it really does feel like a complete piece of work. Songs flow into each other, and even some of the instrumentals, which I initially found indulgent and overly-long, really start to come alive (a work trip with a lot of walking around London with my headphones changed my view on these). You can hear Morodor and early Daft Punk and even some kind of freak folk influences on some of these, and I think it’s quite brave of Mount to go for it, when you could have just have made a very tight 9 track belter.

However, let’s not kid ourselves. Any 17 track album has superfluous filler. Hell, even The White Album’s got Bungalow Bill and Wild Honey Pie. The second half of the album is perhaps lighter on the really strongest stuff, and it starts to sag a little. And there are moments when Mount’s use of repetition – which he uses SO cleverly in his songs – is just too self-indulged. Mount himself jokingly said the album was pretentious and too long when he was asked about it. Or maybe he wasn’t joking. Who knows?

So sure, in time I’ll probably flick past the odd track or two. And there are moments that are a lot less than necessary. But mostly, it feels vital and fresh and 20 times more interesting than anything most artists are doing, let alone after nearly two decades (yup!) of making music.

Metronomy Forever? You betcha.

JULY: Kevin Morby – Oh My God

Welcome to ‘Oh My God’ by Kevin Morby. This apparently is his 5th album. Described by some as a secular Gospel Rock album. I’d never heard of Mr Morby until I googled best albums of the year 2019 (so far) and he kept popping up on everyone’s lists. I was going to Barcelona for a week with work and I like to take new albums on trips like that. If the albums work for you then they always remind you of the place and time which I love. I always take new tracks / albums on holidays for this reason too.

My route into this album was relatively easy. I always like Dylan’s gospel phase … and I’ve grown to … at least respect Leonard Cohen, through the good work of my wife Stacey. The influences on this album are obvious but for me never over powering and Kevin (hee hee) always makes it sound like his own (there’s even a little Father John Misty and Lou Reed in there too).

This album has some of the best writing I’ve heard in a while. Each track is a memorable tune. Some more than others naturally but I love this album from start to finish and could find a place in many different types of mix tapes for all the tracks. Lyrically I find this album strong as an ox. I think the sequence of tracks is close to perfect … and the instrumentation is right up my street. Bongo’s and Congos? Tick. Church Organ? Tick tick tick. Listen to Hail Mary – best organ use since Rolling Stone by Dylan? Layers of brass? Oh yes. Harps? Yes. It’s mostly guitar and piano driven but the above instruments make this sound rich and demanding of a closer listen.

I have no idea how you guys will receive this … but Oh My God. I love it.

June AOTM: J.S. Ondara – Tales Of America

I must admit, I fell across JS Ondara by a mistake. Well the internet said I should give him a go. It’s worth looking into the story how JS Ondara got to where he is today. In short he’s a guy from Kenya that fell in love with American music and decided to move to America to make what he loved from the country that the music continues to use as a muse. He moved to Minneapolis because that’s where Bob Dylan came from. A bit unexpected but it seems to have done the trick.

 

This name of this album is very apt. Not because he lives in America and he’s telling stories (though that is exactly what it is), but because in my opinion he’s a perfect example of a singer songwriter from North America that depicts the continent and what it offers. One that has taken so many influences from across the genres and cultures, boiled them in a pot, added some of himself and (ping) he’s done….. JS Ondara presents his Tales of America.

 

This album started off as a Sunday afternoon album I played whilst making lunch and moved to a go to for me the more I listen to it. I encourage you to take some time to dig into the lyrics. He covers allot. Love, life, and even social media. Peoples day to day struggles and victories. I get the Dylan influence. He’s a story teller. I like how there are hints of his accent; though the only track it really stands out on is his letter to his current home on ‘God Bless America’.

 

I’ll tell you why I like him and this album. It’s wholesome. It gives me what early Neil Young and Ryan Adams albums have. He’s got soul, his lyrics are solid and the boy can sing.

 

I had the pleasure of seeing him in Manchester in the spring. I highly encourage you to see him if you get a chance. He’s the real deal. I see him as a guy that will build a following through his live show.

 

America is (mostly) a country of immigrants. A country of a million stories. A million songs. Everything needs fresh eyes, and in this case a folksinger from Kenya that has taken a screen shot of the America he lives in. Is this album a classic? Perhaps not now. It may be one day. I’d say it’s a first chapter in what could be an interesting story.

 

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?

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.