This has been a weird year for music. Save the really sad War on Drugs/Sun Kil Moon fight, it feels as if not much has really happened. U2 and Coldplay both released albums, but they were sort of under the radar and highly average. They weren’t bad – they had their moments – but they weren’t particularly memorable either. It kind of sums up most of the music this year. Lots of great songs, not many great albums. And not many ambitious ones either. This year my list is rounded out by Seeds and Content Nausea by TV On the Radio and Parkay Quartz – two very solid albums by bands that are kind of set in doing what they do; last year it was Yeezus and Reflektor – two crazy albums by major names. Sure, you can say Kishi Bashi’s Lighght was weird and ambitious, or that Beck’s Morning Phase was ‘big’, but very little felt like a real gamble.
The albums that did feel like the artists were trying something, that felt like they had a spark of abandon, are the ones that I loved most. The heavyweights of my list all had that quality. St. Vincent felt like a statement, telling everyone that a new rock diva had arrived, grey fuzz of hair and exploding guitar in tow. Futurology felt like an album made by men decades younger than the Manics are. It felt wild and energetic, willing to push off into weird new directions and shift up sounds. It did all that and still felt essentially them, and bittersweetly nostalgic for it. Hot Dreams was an album that seemed to both pastiche and perfect musical tropes, harking back to 50s crooning and playing it against an insidiously creepy backdrop. It sounds bizarre, but it works. Because it’s so bizarre. Luminous felt like a move back to something raw, loose, and not so damn cold. The Horrors aren’t a band making albums with huge critical expectations any more, not the way they did with Skying. Skying went down well, but it wasn’t exciting. Momentum dropped off with it. Luminous doesn’t have that pressure of being ‘Next Big Thing’, so what we got was freer, funner, focused.
Maybe that stuff was out there and I just missed it, but this year felt like it lacked something to miss. FKA Twigs was probably the biggest shake-up, but I found her cold and pretty dull. Interesting, but dull. So instead we have a list that collectively says “Yeah, it was pretty good I guess. Nothing special”. Plenty of albums worth revisiting, but most trips, as with Lana del Rey’s Ultraviolence and Mac de Marco’s Salad Days, are highly guided ones, with token stops to familiar highlights.
For some this year those highlights were good enough on their own – East India Youth being alternately dazzling, and then unengaging atmospherics; Young Fathers at times invigorating and fresh, at others a bit of a mess; and Spoon, for the most part, recapturing the invention and energy that become so routine.
They Want My Soul stands out in particular as an unexpected surprise, the spacey production really reinvigorating a staid formula. It’s still liable to lapse into this formulaic feel, but the new texture is always appealing, and produces some thrillingly new sounds.
They Want My Soul still lacked that ability to really hook into you, though (with the exception of Let Me Be Mine), and that’s a problem that plagued a lot of the albums I heard this year. Wild Beasts’ Present Tense was a great album when it first landed. Sweet Spot and Wanderlust remain standout tracks of the year, and there are some other choice moments, too; I gave it a high rating at the time, and I largely stand by that. At the same time, though, I really haven’t listened to it since. I kind of forgot it existed. The same thing happened with Spoon, and with Sun Kil Moon, and with Beck, and with Owen Pallett, and with Lana del Rey. They’re all great albums, but they lack that lasting power that something really special has. Last year I named Monomania my album of the year, and that ability to just kind of hang around was exactly why. I never forgot about that album all year, even when I didn’t hold it as highly as others. When these albums first came out I was more enthusiastic about them, but that didn’t stay. They lacked a killer hook to them.
Not only that, but, although most of the albums featured were highly cohesive works with a great sense of atmosphere, they just lack that ‘album’ feel. It’s a structural issue, but a lot of these albums are let down by filler that pads the really great stuff. Something great doesn’t have filler; it’s interesting all the way through. You listen to the whole thing, or at the very least not the same cycles.
There is a clear divide between the upper echelon and the rest this year. Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There, probably the biggest grower of the year, is still an album that I listen to in cycles. It gets elevated by virtue of that cycle taking in about half the album, and that half being universally excellent, but that still leaves half an album just sort of floating around. Owen Pallett trims that down to a few tracks that pull you out of the experience (those bits when you find yourself more engaged in your phone or your laptop than the music, only to suddenly realise that four tracks have gone by without you noticing), and The Horrors bring it down further, whilst also being more explosive in the process. Timber Timbre, the Manics, and St. Vincent are always interesting. And that made all the difference.
When the year comes to a close and I look back at the music that happened, I’m always interested by what new acts came my way that year (or that I just learned to like). There are some you can tell will hang around for years to come as a regular place to turn to when scouring my iPod; others are just something to keep an eye on. Last year I was given the gift of artists like Julia Holter, Juana Molina, Mutual Benefit, John Grant, Parquet Courts, Money and Grant Hart. These are all acts I still listen to frequently, and some, like Mutual Benefit and Julia Holter, have only grown and grown over the past year. Others, like Bill Callahan, True Widow, Thee Oh Sees, Goat, Fuck Buttons, Villagers, and Phosphorescent, I’ll just remember I kinda like.
This year I can look on most of my list and say I wasn’t a fan before. It spins a list that previously looked sort of sad and mediocre into something that actually fills me with pride. St.Vincent in particular stands out as an artist I’ve fallen so head over heels in love with that it seems baffling to think I’ve only liked her for a year. And I’ve only liked the rest of her work for half of that. I don’t know how I got by.
Sharon Van Etten has emerged as a songwriter who I like not only as a musician, but for seeming like someone you might actually want to talk to (Lana del Rey and Bradford Cox look away now).
Young Fathers have given me the meaningless pride that they were my pick for the Mercury Prize, and have made some interesting music, too.
Sun Kil Moon and Amen Dunes have given me more sort of downbeat white singer-songwriters to find immensely boring as a concept, but endlessly intriguing to listen to.
Wild Beasts and Future Islands have reminded me once more that everything should stay as close to the 80s as is humanly possible, with the latter also becoming my favourite act in the world to watch live. If I could make Singles my album of the year based on nothing but crazed dancing and terrifying howls then I would.
And Timber Timbre, a worthy runner-up, deserve special mention for making music that made me laugh. And not in a bad way. In an incredibly accomplished way. Any band that has the gusto to end a track with two dozen horn flourishes deserves all the love in the world.