An Awesome Wave, Alt-J
There have been a plethora of comment pieces this year lamenting the death of guitar music, but the Mercury Music Prize still went to an album that was played predominantly on guitars. However, this was no run of the mill indie album, incorporating influences from hip-hop and electronic music. Think of the guitar albums that have made a cultural impact this year. The list runs about as far as Alt-J and The XX, both artists operating outside of the indie norm. Guitar music as we know it IS dead on its arse.
But who cares when records like this and the others on this list are being made? What made Alt-J’s album unusual was also what made it excellent; Joe Newman’s hushed voice (at turns creepy and beautiful), Thom Green’s complex drumming, the baroque interludes, and the sporadic sampling.
Cambridge based having met at Leeds University, the band have spent nearly five years working on this record, and it shows. Every aspect is completely and utterly honed. Music aside, the cryptic but comprehensive lyrics and the brilliantly subversive video for Breezeblocks display the complete package.
Having spent so long working on their debut, and with the weight of expectation now upon them, it will be interesting to see whether Alt-J take the same route as The XX; a refinement of their debut, or something new entirely?
Channel Orange, Frank Ocean
This man might as well have been designed as the anti-Chris Brown. In place of the tedious machismo and vacuous chart-clogging dreck, Ocean gifted us with vulnerability and genuine personality. When he opens up (if somewhat obliquely) on 'Bad Religion' about his own awakening bisexuality, a topic far more controversial in African-American music than it ought to be, it's like a blast of purifying air through a genre that has often stunk more of masculine braggadocio than a boys' locker room.
Channel Orange is initially loveable for its guileless eccentricity, opening for no apparent reason with the sound of somebody firing up a Playstation, and daring to explore a parallel between modern-day strippers and Egyptian queens in what is surely the most tenuous yet unexpectedly effective metaphor-as-song of the year, 'Pyramids'.
It's finally memorable for its wonderful songwriting, with highlights like 'Super Rich Kids' and 'Lost' suggesting that any Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye comparisons might not have been entirely premature. These are tunes made for the bedroom and the beach party. By transforming growing pains and adult anxieties into the soundtrack for life at its most purely joyous, Ocean has crafted a triumphant debut LP.Nick Pierce
Devotion, Jessie Ware
The collaborative effort between Jessie Ware and Katy B, released quietly onto the web last week, came as no surprise; in 2011 Katy B bought pop to UK bass music, now Jessie Ware brings UK bass music to pop.
Having abandoned a promising journalism post with the Jewish chronicle, Ware began her music career on tracks by electro-bass merchants like SBTRKT before taking a step toward pop stardom with this, her long playing debut. The soulful pop route is a path well trodden, to great success in recent years by Adele et al, but Ware kept things original by collaborating with house producer Julio Bashmore and some of the writing team behind Florence Welch, all the while retaining her bass-heavy influences.
Whilst the writing and production were impeccable, the real ace in the deck here was Ware’s voice, which she manages to showcase without ever resorting to overblown histrionics. Ware has shown modesty and class with this restraint, and this serves to increase the impact when she does allow her voice to soar.
Ware displays modesty when interviewed too, “I’m just having fun trying to pretend I’m a pop star”, she says. Quite.
I can’t decide whether Lemonade’s Diver is the trendiest album this year or the most unfashionable. An album of house-infused synthpop from three Brooklynites, Diver goes equally for the head and the heart, and is equally at home on the dancefloor or your headphones.
Driven throughout by four-to-the-floor kick drum and ecstatic synths, the influence of MDMA and other uppers is clearly in force here; it is apt that one of the band’s previous releases was called “Big Weekend”. That’s not to say that the whole theme here is hedonism however, Callan Clendenin’s lyrics often display a tender touch, as on 'Softkiss' where he sings “When it’s cold do you still wear my coat?” It’s the kind of bittersweet detail that really grabs you.
The album carries with it a feeling of yearning, which is at once gorgeous and sad. It has a sugary sweetness, far from cheesy, that will have the listener coming back for one more hit again and again.George Bate
Instrumental Mixtape 2, Clams Casino
Whilst nominally a mixtape, this second collection showcasing the production work of Clams Casino (real name Michael Volpe) in fact manages so much more. It is telling that many reviews of the rap albums which utilised these beats often praise the rappers where the backed off and stayed silent, allowing the beat to “breathe”. But these tracks were much more than high quality rap beats. They actually functioned as songs in their own right and combined to make an album consistent, but not repetitive, album proper.
Clam’s secret in turning his beats into songs is his method of vocal sampling; he manipulates samples in such a way that syllables remain intact, but so that words become unintelligible. In this way they remain unobtrusive as rap beats but still retain the level of feeling of more conventional vocals and a cohesive (almost verse-chorus-verse) structure.
The production is murky, but never sloppy, and they create a feeling poignant and yearning but non-specific. This has been a rarity in rap music until recently, where any display of emotion was taken as a sign of weakness. One of Clam’s main customers, A$AP Rocky alluded to this when he described Clam’s beats as “ambient” but “hard”.
Clams could quite easily have become a professional producers and make stacks of money on the strength of what is here. Instead he has committed to continuing his training as a physical therapist. Let’s hope the working life doesn’t stop him from making beats.George Bate
Lonerism, Tame Impala
Tame Impala are one of those bands who effectively allow you to imagine that you're living through that sepia-hued utopia of late 60s, early 70s psychedelia that you secretly envy your father having experienced enough of at first-hand to flagrantly embellish.
What you want is exactly what you get: extended, blissful jams and glam-rock stompers about how nobody understands and who gives a damn anyway, delivered with the sort of 21st century studio expertise that makes it all sound better than the originals ever could, except in your dreams. Heavenly. If you're gonna buy it, you'll want it on vinyl.Nick Pierce
The Money Store, Death Grips
If punk is dead, then Death Grips mark its return as a leering zombie. Lobotomized, perhaps, but still possessed of enough antic energy to munch on flesh. Their noise actually sounds as if it is decomposing, samples and hooks regularly falling away to expose the bare bones underneath: Zach Hill's pounding drums and Stefan Burnett, resident vocalist and nutter, berating and howling like a poltergeist locked in the closet. Each track carries the reek of horrible death and dirty sex, and so it exerts an irresistible allure.
But these punk rockers aren't content to lurk down some dark alley; they want to get in the club. On such almost dancefloor-friendly bangers as 'I've Seen Footage' and 'Hacker', they manage it. And lord help the bouncer who tries to chuck them out.Nick Pierce
The Seer, Swans
Chief shaman of post-rock pioneers Swans, Michael Gira, has described the outfit's double-album opus as a record thirty years in the making. But when you listen to it, far from merely evoking several decades of innovations in rock music, it sounds like aeons of prehistoric time have been condensed into 120 minutes of unstoppable, immoveable sound.
Every track is a standout. The monolithic intensity of 'Mother of the World' and 'Apostate', with their spectral electronics and berserk guitars, put Phil Spector's own wall of sound to shame. 'A Piece Of The Sky' shifts tectonically from crackling fires to ghostly choir to propulsive rock'n'roll to tender ballad.
Taken altogether, The Seer's scope and uncompromising vision is simply breathtaking. It's a 2001 Space Odyssey or Altered States for your speakers: ascending from the quotidian struggles that usually preoccupy popular music, beyond good and evil, to the edge of sanity and the brink of epiphany. And by god does it rock.
Until The Quiet Comes, Flying Lotus
Music producer du jour Steven Ellison's follow-up to his much-acclaimed Cosmogramma LP might not be as compulsive, accessible or immediate, but it's damn near as beautiful. Indeed, this time out Ellison is less interested in sailing to new sonic horizons than he is in luxuriating in those exotic waters he's already discovered. Until The Quiet Comes is the same heady blend of free jazz, electronica and soul, only even more effervescent and nebulous than before. It's a cocktail for the ears and liable to get you just as light-headed.
On the face of it Visions should not be a good record. Created in the space of three weeks by a Canadian pixie-goth whose interviews could quite easily read as those of a narcissistic concept artist (on video she comes across much nicer), and who once attempted a journey down the Mississippi river on a house boat, on a self imposed mixture of amphetamines, fasting and isolation, Visions should have been heavier on pretence than substance.
Fortunately what we got is an astonishing record which straddles the emotional and conceptual with poise, and perfectly encapsulates the state of music in the “post-internet” (a term coined by Grimes herself) age. Drawing from a wide range of influences, made accessible by the vast archive of the web, Visions displays a clear lineage from many areas of popular (and not so popular) music, whilst managing to be an entirely original creation. Amongst the sounds that could e heard on this most post-modern of records were the shuffling techno of Autechre, the ethereal magic of Cocteau Twins, and the sheer joy of earl Witney.
Following such a sidestep in her musical style (Grimes’ previous two albums were bizarro efforts in spooky minimalism, with a sonic palette drawn mainly from Eastern and African music) it will be interesting to see where Claire Boucher goes next, having claimed to have moved on entirely from the kind of music she was making with Visions.