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.
So, another year ended and some great music from January the first to now. Aside from the albums of the month, there’s been some brilliant music, and here’s a bit of mine, so what’s yours?
Albums – (aside from our albums of the month, where my top 3 was AM, Pale Green Ghosts and Modern Vampires Of The City, but more of that later)…
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: I know this has got a lot of stick, but it’s been an essential album since it came out. It’s a change, it’s distorted, overlong in places (not in my opinion really), but it’s a step forward and brave doing it.
David Bowie – The Next Day: How do you manage to record an album in secret as one of the biggest artists in history and release it without anyone knowing? God knows, but even better is that it’s a great album. An elder statesman still on form, and some of his best work in 20 years.
John Hopkins – Immunity: Electronic album with emotion and atmosphere? This nailed it for me. I can’t wait to see him live.
James Blake – Overgrown: I did an air punch when this won the Mercury. It was a leap on from his first, and something that managed to combine the booming, hollow reverberation of dubstep with a very intimate vocal and melody. I wish I had 10% of this guy’s talent. It’s mesmerising music.
A Sagittariun – Dream Ritual: Another electronic pick, but one of the most inventive albums I’ve heard all year. Shades of so much of the music that first introduced me to clubs, but way more than that. (I wrote about it here: http://www.4clubbers.net/2013/music-reviews-161/).
Haim – Days Are Gone: Love it or hate it, it’s not hard to agree this is brilliant pop music. Bits of Fleetwood Mac, 70s soft rock, hip-hop (seriously) and modern guitars, there’s nothing else really like it about this year. And the hype was outlasted. I still love it, even if I’ve listened to it to death.
Phoenix – Bankrupt!: Another festival-inspired album, but more great pop music. A band that’s dismissed as being hipsters, but they can write a tune to remember. Their gig (hazily) at Glastonbury convinced me completely.
Daft Punk – Random Access Memories: Ok, so the hype was relentless, the single, Get Lucky, played almost (almost) to the point where it got too much, but there’s something great about an album that goes big on traditional production. Strings, horns, guitars, on a massive studio desk, and not Pro Tools. A complete contrast to most of music in the charts today, and therefore a GOOD THING. It’s not perfect, but then what is these days?
Luke Solomon – Timelines: An unsung hero of UK house music, this album was much more than 12 dancefloor tracks. It was personal, it was poignant (in the case of Lonely Dancer, Solomon’s tribute to Kenny Hawkes) and it was wandering, in fact it’s everything a house music album usually isn’t. That’s why I loved it (and I reviewed it here: http://www.residentadvisor.net/review-view.aspx?id=12961)
Atoms For Peace – Amok: What do Radiohead do when they’re not making their own music? If you’re Thom Yorke then you’re assembling a superband (Flea from the Chilis, Nigel Godrich and more) and making haunting, fractured music that skirts between electronic and guitars. It’s pretty unique – and acquired taste too – but their gig at the Roundhouse was incredible.
Midlake – Antiphon: A late entry but one of my favourite American bands. They may be minus their frontman now, but this is just as good as their previous work. Lush, ethereal, wistful, painful, and sensational.
As for the rest? Singles and gigs were many, and here’s my highlights:
Tons really. Mostly electronic, as that’s what I get and what I listen to, but there’s been a lot of great ones around. Obvious ones and less so.
Todd Terje – Strandbar: You’d have to have been a hermit to miss this, but what a track. Ubiquitous, and no less catchy after the 50th listen.
Bonar Bradberry – 3two5: 50% of PBR Streetgang, it’s a cut of grooving house that is both deep and energetic, and those vocals… we didn’t know Bonar had it in him!
Deadstock 33s – The Circular Path: One of many of Justin Robertson’s alter egos, this is a rollercoaster cut of acid-tinged house that makes you want to find a sweaty basement and stay there until it’s light. Genius.
Jammhot – Chrysalis: Leeds outfit debut on Saints and Sonnets sounded like 90s garage hijacked on a spaceship and brought back 20 years later. In a good way.
Dan Mangan – About As Helpful As You Can Be Without Being Any Help At All: A great title, a total fairground of a record. Every time I listened to this, it felt like I was walking down a street to the closing titles of my own film. Superb, and cinematic.
Daft Punk – Get Lucky: Obvious, yes. Still brilliant though. However you may hate it, hearing this will always mean summer 2013.
Justin Timberlake – Suit & Tie: The album may not have lived up to it, but this was the best thing he’s done in years and showed a lot of the noisy r’n’b nonsense of late just how it should be done.
Vampire Weekend – Ya Hey: Infectious, and better than Diane Young for me. A great album from a band I couldn’t really love before, but this changed my mind completely.
Ms Mr – Hurricane: I saw them for the first time at Glastonbury, and they were brilliant. This was the standout single from an album that helped fill an LCD-shaped hole.
Jagwar Ma – What Love: Another Glastonbury epiphany, like a sweaty Aussie rave build on the Stone Roses and Madchester’s hedonism.
Phoenix – Entertainment: Opener of a poptastic album from the French outift. The video’s almost as good (and odd) as the song itself.
David Bowie – Valentine’s Day: What a comeback, and what a record. A clever pun in the chorus, and a brilliant guitar hook. It’s like 1974 all over again.
Arctic Monkeys – Do I Wanna Know: Sheffield’s finest reborn as a west-coast power pop band. Many hated it. I loved it.
Haim – Don’t Save Me: I could’ve picked about five, but this was one of a great clutch of radio-friendly songs that you can’t stop singing. Seeing them in March next year can’t come too soon.
Arcade Fire – Reflektor: The opening single of an album that’s divided opinion. But this was a statement of intent, and you can see James Murphy’s fingerprints all over it. Seven minutes plus of majesty that revealed more and more every listen.
John Grant: It may have toured Pale Green Ghosts, but both solo albums got an outing, and the fragile singer with the molasses voice proved even better live. Mesmerising.
XOYO Loves – The Coronet in November gave us DJs (Lindstrom, Waifs and Strays, Aeroplane and Greg Wilson) but it was live sets from Crazy P and Hercules and Love Affair that topped it.
The Reflektors – Ok, so Arcade Fire, but who cares? Seeing a band that big in a venue like the Roundhouse and them playing from their new album and back catalogue, while the whole crowd was dressed up like a circus…. I wish I could do gigs like this every week.
Despacio – not a gig specifically, but James Murphy and 2ManyDJs’ own disco in December was a glorious throwback to pre-superclubs, lasers, glitter cannons and jets. Just an amazing soundsystem and brilliant tunes, for 5 hours.
Glastonbury – So many bands, so many memories. Some missing ones too. Haim, Ratpack, Rolling Stones, Seasick Steve, Phoenix, Jagwar Mar, Ms Mr, Chic, New Build and all sorts of other shenanigans. Going back here reminds me there’s nowhere else that comes close to it, anywhere.