10) Charlie Christian- The Genius of Electric Guitar

You’ve got to love the boldness of some jazz titles.  Albeit this doesn’t come close to Ornette Coleman’s cockiness, it does show the direction Charlie Christian wanted the genre to take in the late 30’s and early 40’s when it was still in the moulding process into bebop.  The songs flow together in an upbeat parade, but it is Christian’s shining guitar work guiding the players through that makes it sound so unique.

 

9) Ornette Coleman- The Complete Science Fiction Recordings

Firstly, this is hands down my favourite jazz album cover I’ve seen in 2016.  I love how the fog and title blends together and informs the strange apocalyptic sounds Coleman puts you through.  The most obvious thing about this album is despite Coleman’s obvious abrasiveness and own version of melody- this one is the hardest to ignore.  Charlie Haden’s bass in ‘Law Years’ sounds as if it’s slapping directly on your shoulder.  And Ornette and Don Cherry’s saxophone/trumpet partnership have never sounded so direct and angry.

 

8) Kamasi Washington- The Epic

I needed a bit of time to digest this mammoth album when it came out last year.  I think I was put off by how high it was praised, and more thought it was more because it was a good jazz album in the 2010s- but wouldn’t have stood up to his influence, most obviously John Coltrane.  I’m happy to say that I overcame this prejudice.  Though The Epic may not exactly be breaking new ground, Kamasi and his team are obviously at the peak of their game and have carved a wonderful galaxy that I could float around in for a while.

 

7) The Necks- Sex

Being a single song, with the same bass line across the entire 56 minutes, you could almost mistake this for an ambient album.  Hell I even managed to fall asleep to it.  And it’s especially interesting how what to a new listener sounds as standard as jazz could get, with the piano going up and down a scale and everything fitting into line, this came out in the 90’s by the post-free-jazz pioneers the Necks.  It accumulates a wonderful sense of peace and calm as if there was nothing left to say but the three bass notes continuing into eternity.

 

6) Jim Hall- Concierto

I first found Jim Hall through the Undercurrents album he did with Bill Evans.  And yes, as with Evans’ piano, Hall’s guitar playing is so wonderfully white.  From the crisp clean opening standard ‘You’d Be So Nice to Come Home to’ you know this album is not about pain, lovesickness or anything deeper than the guitar itself.  Concierto is a wonderful album best enjoyed with a lazy Sunday breakfast.

 

5) Pharoah Sanders- Karma

I had the pleasure of seeing Sanders play at Ronnie Scott’s in 2016.  And though he looked like he was on death’s door and mostly played standards, he did have a light breathy solo piece to start the set which made it all worthwhile.  It may not have had the sheer energy as his accessible free jazz masterpiece Karma but it can from the same spiritual heart.  Very quickly through the furore you can feel the love bursting through, almost more than Sanders’ spiritual partner Coltrane’s Love Supreme.  And when the epic lead song ‘The Creator Has a Master Plan’ wanders into pure chaos you take an unusual comfort that you know Sanders will take care of you.

 

 

3) Stan Getz- Focus

If it wasn’t for me already mentioning The Epic before I would struggle to think of many concept jazz albums.  And none more so than Getz’s sheer beautiful Focus that makes total sense as one.  With fantastical pangs of Alice in Wonderland (‘I’m Late, I’m Late’) and childhood nostalgia (‘Once Upon a Time’ ‘A Summer’s Afternoon’) Getz pulls you down the rabbit hole and into an orchestral wonder that I can only really relate to you as like Fantasia.  His tender saxophone is so clearly his, and yet so unique from the warm bossanova of Getz/Gilberto or sweaty rooms of Roost Recordings.  I’m always blown away by the obvious beauty of this album and love coming back to it time and again.

 

=2) Alice Coltrane- Ptah the el Daoud and Journey in Satchidanada

I got into both these albums at the same time and have been inter-playing them so much it would be unfair to rate one above the other (although Journey’s artwork is about 100 times better than Ptah).  After a false start with her notoriously tricky album Universal Consciousness I was immediately hooked on these two albums.  They are experimental are strongly tap into Eastern vibes with ouds, harps and bells.  Yet each have a strong sense of direction and don’t languish in their meditation but carve each step with a confident foothold.  Ptah al Douad especially saved me on a Sunday afternoon in the autumn when I left a film that was truly so terrible and found myself hit by an existential dread of having absolutely nothing to do.  That album held me together as I ended up having a great walk round the Lea River Valley.

 

1) Art Tatum- The Complete Pablo Group Masterpieces

I owe a fair bit to Coleman Hawkins’ Body and Soul for getting me into the old-timey jazz of pre-Davis and Coltrane.  And this 6 disc body of work by piano virtuoso (and I really mean that word) Art Tatum was waiting to let me in.  It may not have the power of Alice Coltrane, nor the emotion of Pharoh Sanders, nor the arrangements of Getz- but it has a deep sense of what jazz should be and what most would recognise jazz as, or at least as my dad said as we spent a great night with whiskey going through these standards.  And that’s not to mean that the music is cliche or stereotypical, because it isn’t, while one pianist would play 8 notes, Tatum could squeeze in 32 and never sound the same.  Instead it feels like the best kind of comfort food.  Not the one that’s too rich or too exotic that too much might be overwhelming, but like really really good mashed potato, staple, warming and relatable.

 

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10. The Caretaker- Everywhere at the End of Time

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James Leyland Kirby’s project under the Caretaker moniker was inspired by the Shining’s haunted ballroom scene, and has explored the nature of ageing and fading memory through beautiful ambient orchestral numbers.  So to some extent The Caretaker’s music is meant to sound the same.  The question is then, what makes one Caretaker work better than the other?  I believe it’s about balance, of at once holding the listener while also letting them slip away into the mist.  The listener feels at ease being carried from one foggy jingle to another, without feeling too weighed down nor intimidated to want to wake up.  Everywhere at the End of Time does this and takes it further by actually having recognisable tunes that you recall even after they slip away from you, which I believe will make this one of the Caretaker’s most memorable works.

 

9. Brian Eno- The Ship

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In some ways The Ship is comforting by being such staple ambient Eno: harking back to some of his most emotional ambient works such as The Pearl and Ambient 2 which he did with Harold Budd.  I also took pleasure in seeing Eno’s cloud of influences informing directly into his work.  The longest and first track The Ship about the Titanic most obviously harks back to label-mate Gavin Bryars’s own version of the event The Sinking of the Titanic, meanwhile the mumbles of Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing and the expansiveness of Stars of the Lid.  In fact the album turns into a medley influence all under the the ambient umbrella.  Under ‘Fickle Sun (II) The Hour is Thin’ we hear apocalyptic spoken word reminiscent of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and most blatantly Eno’s version of the Velvet Underground cover of ‘I’m Set Free’.  Some critics have rightly pointed out that some explorations are more successful than others, and not everything can be ‘ambient-ised’.  But it is one incredible journey all the same.

 

8. Jessie Lanza- Oh No

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Jessie Lanza was an extended journey for me this year.  Because though each song has it’s own glory, they’re all cut from the same cloth.  So I needed time to let her soft yet deep pop world sink in.  Yet I struggled to see where I could fit it in. Oh No was too quiet to listen to in the gym, but too loud to have in the back of the room.  And I can imagine in a loud club you can get sucked into the beats, but it felt like a tricky set song to get a house party dancing.  But this is why I like the album, because I’ve only been able to relate to what it isn’t.  The theme across the songs seem to be about love, but neither the sexualised nor the sugary kind that moves across pop- yet it includes both of them- making it all the more a mystery.  And the best kind of music is when you have to create extra space in your tastes to accommodate them.

 

7. Hamilton & Rostam- I Had A Dream That You Were Mine

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Hamilton Leithauser’s old band the Walkmen have been one of my most-listened to this year, so I was waiting until his new album with Vampire Weekend alumnus Rostam with anticipation.  It was more of concern than excitement.  The Walkmen’s final album Heaven and Hamilton’s first solo album Black Hours sounded like he was getting settled into dad-rock retirement of good-enough works, a la Wilco or Stephen Malkmus.  And on first listen I was sure this was the case, which sounded like nostalgic but forgettable numbers.  But on further listens I could see how he breaks the mould.  This probably has a lot to do with Rostam Batmanglij’s involvement who brought the pop boldness of his Vampire Weekend days so that there would be no resting on laurels.  And Hamilton rises to the challenge.  His voice has never sounded so great and so raw since the early Walkmen days.  And with this partnership, every song could just be a nice song, but together they take it the extra mile.

 

6. Anna Meredith- Varmints

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Varmints holds the honour of blowing me away on first listen.  By the time I got to the end of the percussive album opener ‘Nautilius,’ I wanted to build a Death Star.  Meredith came from the classical music background and broke into the electronic music scene from a totally different angle, which has made it very tricky to see what tradition she’s part of.  Instead she’s thrown everything in, from twee-pop (‘Something Helpful’), mad guitar licks (‘The Vapours’), and tons of percussion to create a maelstrom of fun.

 

5. Solange- A Seat at the Table

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My opinion on the difference between the Solange and Beyonce albums this year is all about surface.  Beyonce powers through with blunt fury and exposes everything in formation with ‘middle fingers up’.  Meanwhile Solange keeps everything underwater.  As reflected in the stoic face staring back at you on the front cover, she never loses her cool in the songs, but calmly and directly explains the pain she and her race have felt.  She documents the pain her mother and father feels in interludes, and openly confesses her exhaustion in ‘Weary’ without every breaking a note.  Her self-control and the acuteness of her message are what makes this album so powerful

 

4. Kevin Morby- Singing Saw

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Similar to Hamilton & Rostam, Kevin Morby wears his influences tightly on his sleeve, channeling the soft croon of circa-John Wesley Harding Dylan and with the fine-tuned lyricism of Cohen.  And at first I thought he was too similar, with catchy tunes but nothing of his own unique charm, and he soon faded from my playlist.  But for some reason I came back to his simple tunes a few months later and they just started spreading across my commute.  Morby just goes to show that simple songs may be some of the hardest songs to create if they want to last.

 

3. Lambchop- FLOTUS

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Talk about a sudden swerve to the left.  This may be one of Lambchop’s best albums but I would not suggest it as an intro to their works.  Kurt Wagner has traded in his guitars for auto-tunes and- like any great visionary using instruments they’re not accustomed to- made us hear it in a totally different way.  FLOTUS drips with artificial warmth.  The best way I can describe it is as easy listening.  Each song carries you to the next, and with the intro and concluder being 10 minutes max, it’s hard to pin down which song you are at.  But like all great expansive albums, they are a world for you to explore every time, and especially for FLOTUS- one to get comfy in.

 

2. David Bowie- Blackstar

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How does an artist who’s cornerstone is based on weirdness and has been active for 50 years shock an audience?  Well I guess you could drop the f-bomb for the first time in your songwriting career, and then die a few days after its release.  I think the success of this album is Bowie managing to find a foothold with ‘not being at peace’. We hear his voice jar to a yelp in ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore’ and on ‘Dollar Days’ singing ‘it means nothing to me.’  And with his absolute closing song ‘I Can’t Give Everything Away’ Bowie does not close anything, but leaves us with Bowie saying he doesn’t have a suitable answer.  But deep down we don’t hear despair, but contentment, that Bowie was bold enough to create such hopeless music.  In my opinion this is Bowie’s answer to Scott Walker’s The Drift where he turned his back on everything and created exactly what he wanted to make.  And what better way to wrap things up.

 

1. Angel Olsen- My Woman

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I wasn’t the biggest fan of Angel Olsen’s previous album Burn Your Fire for No Witness. Her Edith Piaf, tragic love songs.  So I guess it comes down to taste that I fell in love with the Tammy Wynette, tragic love songs of her new album My Woman.  Every song holds it’s own as an emotional masterwork of unreciprocated love.  Helped along by some kick-ass instrumentals and visceral guitar solos Olsen goes into full-on emotion mode, to the point that you realise it was never really about the man he ditched her for the girl with ‘The Heart Shaped Face’.  It was about herself and what was important to her.  She bemoans ‘all my life I’d thought I’d change’ across the epic centrepiece ‘Sister’, but it’s in fact this outpouring of emotion that is really changing her.  Olsen exemplifies how at the most acute point of desperation one can feel most empowered.

Yet another list!

10. Deerhunter- ‘Breaker’

I love this song for its simplicity, how the verse is pretty straightforward and then it courses into a beautiful chorus, which then makes you rethink the straightforwardness of the verse.

 

9. Fetty Wapp- ‘Trap Queen’

This was my first foray into trap music mainly because this song was everywhere.  It has a perfect blend of harsh reality, genuine romance and plain weirdness that makes me enjoy it every time I come back to it.

 

8. Julia Holter- ‘Feel You’

I feel pretty guilty for not giving Julia Holter’s Have You in My Wilderness the time it deserved this year, especially considering I’ve loved all her work before and also because the album is clearly very good.  Something to work through in 2016 I guess.  Well one thing to salvage is the obvious beauty of her opening track, which hit me on first listen.

 

7. Beach House- ‘Somewhere Tonight’

This is the closing track on Beach House’s surprise album Thank Your Lucky Stars.  And honestly I could have easily picked any other of their really superb songs this year.  I chose this one because it struck a new feeling.  Victoria Legrand sounds sourly operatic and Alex Scally’s slide riff is perfect for this hazy barroom lament.

 

6. Panda Bear- ‘Tropic of Cancer’

So I belatedly realised that this is a sore dirge on a family crumbling due to a member becoming terminally ill.  This makes the powerful numbness this song evokes even more emotional.  It’s definitely Panda Bear at his most direct and creates a world similar to what I imagine such a scenario would be like.

 

5. Car Seat Headrest- ‘Something Soon’

This was a late find for me, at first it just seemed like yet another sad indie teen bloomer number, which it is don’t let me prove you otherwise.  But boy does it do it well.  The lyrics are sharp and funny (‘I want to stay inside all this winter/
filling out forms from a busted printer’) and their synthy lo-fi direction gives the song a surprisingly and emotional twist.

 

4. Jamie XX- ‘Gosh’

No matter how hard I’ve tried, I can’t get into Jamie XX’s album In Colour as a whole.  However this hasn’t stopped me putting his opener ‘Gosh’ on repeat.  I love how it’s an obvious banger, and especially when the drop happens that he feels comfortable just extending it by putting it an octave higher.  Unashamed fist-pumps did happen while jogging.

 

3. Grimes ‘REALiTi’

To clarify this was Grimes’ original release (i.e. video attached), I found her album version a bit too over-produced for my liking.  And I think what made ‘REALiTi’ so beautiful was it’s raw natural appeal.  It borders on a perfect pop song, while also pushing the boundaries in classic Grimes fashion of what pop songs should be.

 

2. Drake- ‘Hotline Bling’

Of course this is on here.  If I’m going to try to say something that hasn’t already been said before (which would be tricky) it would be that this song is surprisingly simple and also hard to categorise.  It doesn’t pull at the heart-strings like most of Drake’s sad songs, and yet also doesn’t come anywhere near his ‘fuck-yall’ songs.  It’s true beauty comes in being an anomaly of weird phone terminology and confused feels, not just for Drake but for the world as we know it.

 

1. Destroyer- ‘Dream Lover’

For a whole summer/autumn this was my ‘I can do this’ song every weekday morning before stepping into the office.  It’s an entirely energy song- the sadness gets wiped off in wonderful self-pity (‘I feel I used to be more fun’), piledriving saxa-ma-phone, and of course Bejar’s closing croon of ‘DREEEEEAAAAM LOVER I KNNNNNNNNNOWWWWWWWW’

As I’ve probably said in all of my end of year lists, my favourite album of the year will inevitably be different a year later.  Indeed most of them don’t even make the list, as I’ve discovered has happened for 2014, which was Future Islands’ excellent Singles.

This time however I’ve tried my darnedest to try and get as comprehensive a listen to the best of 2015 before I make my list.  Likewise I’ve decided to be honest with myself and filter out the albums I feel obliged to put on, even though I may not have entirely enjoyed them.  This is why I felt it better to only do a top 10 list, rather than top 20.  This is so I’m certain that all the albums that make the list definitely deserve it.

Anyway, it’s probably better to call this a checkpoint of my favourite albums of 2015, and if I’m boring enough I might even follow up on how it’s changed a year later.

Hope you enjoy 🙂

 

10. Joanna Newsom- Divers

I loved Newsom’s first album, but was so intimidated by Ys. and Have One On Me to enjoy them.  However Divers was a bit more manageable and relatively simple, without removing a hint of her meandering, magical sound.  It also hits the heartstrings as hard as ‘Peach, Plum Pear,’ which can always be a reliable measurement of my enjoyment.

 

9. Sleater-Kinney- No Cities to Love

Though I didn’t feel the full punch as their last album The Woods, released 10 years ago No Cities To Love still hits very very hard.  Each song is a unique powerful pocket of force packed with Carrie Brownstein’s singular guitarwork, Corin Tucker’s banshee wail and Janet Weiss’ earthly drums.  It’s a huge amount of fun

 

8. Panda Bear- Meets the Grim Reaper

Panda Bear had the dubious position of being the first big-hitting album of 2015, which certainly worked in his favour.  Because on first listen Grim Reaper is a complex tangle of sun-bleached songs, with choruses hard to come by.  But after letting it sink in all the tangles seem to straighten and allow themselves to be enjoyed.

 

7. Destroyer- Poison Season

In some ways Poison Season is also one of the most disappointing albums of the year, mostly because it does not match up with his flawless previous album Kaputt.  This time Destroyer has dropped their chillwave vibes for old-timey rags and with some frankly dubious results such as ‘Forces from Above’ and ‘Midnight Meet the Rain’.  However these are balanced by total hits like ‘Dream Lover’, ‘Times Square’ and ‘Bangkok’.  And frankly based on Destroyer’s tendency to throw successful curveballs, I’m willing to sit through it time and time again.  Also kudos to probably the best album title of 2015.

 

6. Deerhunter- Fading Frontier

After the whole ego trip of Monomania it’s so nice to hear Deerhunter just having good relaxed fun, while producing very solid music.  Similar to Beach House and Animal Collective, Deerhunter seemed to have got themselves into outdoing themselves each album, which I think made their previous work Monomania a bit strained.  Fortunately there’s some great hits here, and Deerhunter have never seemed more comfortable in their sound.

 

5. Grimes- Art Angels

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As most people, I was a bit nervous about Grimes’ next album after the long-drawn-outness as well as the sour reception to ‘Go’.  Fortunately as everyone knows it’s been so well received.  I think one of Art Angels’ great triumphs is getting me to appreciate a sound so bubble-gummy, anime-esque that I’d immediately cringe in disgust to- and in some ways I think that is an obvious sign of when music is great.

 

4. Drake- If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late

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After not knowing Drake past ‘Just Hold On We’re Going Home’ I went on a bit of Drake odyssey this year, and boy was it productive.  Having started on his If You’re Reading This and then working backwards, and then back again I was struck by just how clear his vision is now.  Each song is so crisply bleak.  You’d never think someone would sound so said with so much self-assuredness to say ‘Oh my god, if I die I’m a legend’.  And as Drake has done countless times before on defining what a rapper should be- he has turned what has seemed to be a warm-up mixtape for the long awaited View from the 6 and which noticeably does not include ‘Hotline Bling’- and he’s made it into a classic.

 

3. William Basinski- Cascade

Since Disintegration Loops William Basinski often seems to be on the search for the perfect melody that he can extend and interrogate over an hour.  This time, without the deus ex machina that was the tape decay of Disintegration Loops, Basinski has found it.  The piano loop that plays for 40 minutes is tense and focused that every time it comes around you tighten up slightly more.  The atmosphere is haunting and beautiful, and for this reason I’ve had it on in the background of my 2015 too much that I’d like to consider.

 

2. Beach House- Depression Cherry

To me, Beach House’s discography from Teen Dream is flawless.  Teen Dream itself remains my second favourite album of the 2000’s.  But like a few people when Bloom came out in 2012 it wasn’t bad, and yet it felt disappointing.  It felt like Beach House had tried to adjust to their arena-sized setting, and were no longer true to themselves.  So it was with trepidation and almost anticipated disappointment that I awaited Depression Cherry.  The amazing thing is, quite similar to Deerhunter, instead of trying to match the hype- Beach House just stopped giving a shit and went back to what they liked.  And what we have is a wonderfully calm and in a weird way beautifully unimpressive album.  And the greatest feeling is knowing that I can gradually sink into it for years to come.

 

1. Viet Cong- Viet Cong

As I’ve probably mentioned quite a few times, like the Mario Kart racer in 1st place fearing the shadow of the blue turtleshell, this is probably the most insecure position on the list.  However, after a lot of painful analysis, the album which kept on cropping up as the most consistent, the most unique and most enjoyable was Viet Cong.  Like Panda Bear, this is partly down to the fact that, being released in January, I had the full year to let it sink in.

Taking influence from This Heat and Sonic Youth, Viet Cong have created as dark and confused a sound as their predecessors Women, but with more emotion and energy making them much harder to be ignored.  Viet Cong (or whatever they will change their name to be) don’t sing about love- they sing about existential despair and spend 13 minutes on ‘Death’.  They ‘don’t want to face the world/it’s suffocating suffocating’ and for one reason or another this sentiment struck me deep in 2015.

It’s been a while since I’ve been on this blog!  This has probably been more related to me not having much insightful to say on the music.  So what better way to getting back into blogposting than to do a review on a genre I love but have even less to talk about!

Jazz has been a constant with me for a few years now on such favourite scenarios as: on the tube, while cooking, when sitting in the bath.  They have the great quality have filling any scene so colourfully.  Hell I’ve even got into reading about jazz! I got through Miles Davis’ autobiography, which was good if you could try navigating around all the times he beat his wives.  I also read Geoff Dyer’s excellent ‘But Beautiful’ a collection of vignettes of some of the jazz greats’ sad lives.

So I’ve managed to whittle down to 10 the albums have stuck with me well this past year, hope you enjoy them!

 

10. Chick Corea- Now He Sings, Now He Sobs

Once you get past the insanely emotional/cheesy album title, you encounter a unique piece of work which immediately struck me on first listen.  It also serves as a handy bookmark where Corea moves from the standards to the later fusion work that he’s better known for.

9. Ornette Coleman- Change of the Century

To start if there was a list of cockiest album titles ever Coleman would be miles ahead (lol).  And it’s even funnier to think that Change of the Century almost seems to be competing with its predecessor The Shape of Jazz to Come in terms of overstatement.  But what struck me about this album is that it was not so much trying to depart from the shape of jazz as Coleman would later do in Free Jazz or Ornette! but actually try to find his place in its canon.  And it’s genuinely a pleasant experience, with his atonal style entirely at the forefront, to hear Coleman channel the music of greats like Dizzy Gillespie to create his own catchy vision.

8. Charles Mingus – Tijuana Moods

I had seemed to have gone off of Mingus for some reason last year.  Maybe I wanted something a bit more subtle to hard-hitters of Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and Mingus Ah-Um. Well Tijuana Moods certainly wasn’t the subtle answer.  But it is so full in its vision, range and theme that, in perfect fitting with Mingus himself, it was impossible to ignore.

7. Dexter Gordon– Our Man in Paris

Now while there’s some jazz musicians who I admire for their singularity and experimentation, Dexter Gordon I’d put as someone who plays the standards very very well.  Our Man in Paris just has an enormous sense of good old fun in it.

6. Max Roach- We Insist! Freedom Now Suite

I discovered this album while watching Ken Burns’ excellent ‘Jazz’ series with Abbey Lincoln’s encapsulating the suffering of the Civil Rights movement in a piercing wail.  I can’t think of any album more pointedly political, and with it more moving than We Insist.  It is also an incredible concept album in its such as the triptych ‘Prayer/Protest/Peace as the best example, which makes for certainly uncomfortable listening.

5. Sonny Rollins- A Night at the Village Vanguard

Sonny Rollins has been my greatest jazz musician discovery this year.  His live album A Night at the Village Vanguard perhaps best encapsulates his style.  In one way his sound is so minimal that it almost seems nihilistic, as if he was teetering on the edge of a great abyss of nothingness (see ‘A Night in Tunisia’).  But then why does it sound like they’re having so much fun as well (see ‘Old Devil Moon)?  So though perhaps not intended to, this album is incredibly chilling and also one of the most refined examples of Rollins’ singular sound.

4. Coleman Hawkins- Body & Soul

Body & Soul really hit the spot for me of old-school jazz.  Wonderfully slow and brimming with character with such numbers as ‘Beans Talking Again’ and ‘Woodyn You’.  This compilation of Hawkins’ early works inhabits a beautiful world and its still a pleasure going back into it every time.

3. Ahmad Jamal- At the Pershing/But Not For Me

This was already a hot record for me at the end of last year, but it has just kept on giving.  Jamal forges his own unique piano style, which takes the almost trickier route of standing out not through its abrasiveness but through calm precise assuredness.  Every track on here stands out as a masterpiece, while also adds to creating this album that you almost have to pinch yourself that such perfection is in fact a live album.

2. Keith Jarrett- The Koln Concert

The Koln Concert is supposedly the best-selling live jazz recording ever. However, it’s so unique that you’d almost hesitate in calling it a jazz record.  With a second-rate piano, Keith Jarrett spills his heart out over a live performance to such an extent you can hear his moans of ecstasy over the piano.  It is just amazing to think that an hour of potentially the most graceful moment in someone’s life was recorded so clearly, so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come.

1. Herbie Hancock- Maiden Voyage

This is probably my favourite album of any genre this year, and also baffling to think that Hancock only recorded this when he was 24 years old (my current age by the way).  Maiden Voyage is experimental without being overtly so, and instead seems to find subtle ways in time signature and scales to create a new world in this concept journey.  Like the best albums I’ve found something new to it after every listen.  Similarly it never lets you get entirely comfortable, but is always challenging your perception of what jazz is and should be.  I love that I still can’t entirely place it, but as my friends know I can very easily recommend it.  Special mention should also go to Hancock’s previous album Empyrean Isles which is mostly a prototype of what’s to come on Maiden Voyage and wonderful extension of the journey.

Fjm-iloveyouhoneybear

Boy is it hard to keep up a character in the music business. Lana del Ray had to fight the ghost of her former failed stage name Lizzy Grant. Meanwhile Father John Misty turned his back on 10 years of being plain old Josh Tillman. Both decided to exchange for a decadent sepia-toned 60’s version, where dry wit was held in high regard, and singing about sex was still a new thing. So how does it hold up 50 years later?

In his debut Fear Fun Misty managed to give fresh breath to old ballads. Audiences to his shows suddenly realised how much they’ve missed bandleaders who can wiggle their hips, lean on microphones seductively and give you a cheeky wink. The lyrics played with social commentary and debauchery in an amusing way (I’ve got my right hand stamped/In the concentration camps/Where my organs scream slow down man’). And above all Fear Fun bred hits: chorus, riffs, anthems.

Come his second foray into Father John Misty I Love You Honeybear, Misty goes conceptual- a scrapbook dedicated to his newly wedded wife Emma and also, as the press-release goes, a ‘concept album about some guy named Josh Tillman’.   So if Fear Fun as the title suggests was the “fun one”, Honeybear must be the album of reckoning, where you look past the playful asides and witty quips and Father John Misty bares his true self. Unfortunately, on closer inspection, it isn’t much.

It’s always admirable that Father John Misty tries to carve an overarching theme and even a plot into the album, putting the role of the album back on its pedestal where it belongs. Unfortunately this does also put the integrity of his “theme” on trial.   Throughout, we see Misty constantly striving for a different sound. He lets his songs grate to offset the listener towards the limits of their comfort zone, such as in the injection of ‘literally’s in ‘The Night Josh Tillman Came to Our Apt.’, the coy evasion of chorus in ‘Chateau Lobby #4’, or the curveball electronic track ‘True Affection’.

However to me these supposedly admirable wrenches that Misty throws in his works suggest cowardice rather than fearlessness. Musically or personally he keeps evading the hollowness of his own musical core. ‘True Affection’ feels just like a Postal Service rip-off, rather than Misty’s personal version. His evasion of chorus, which he hit so well in Fear Fun, offers nothing in return but buzzwords like ‘challenging’ or ‘uncomfortable wriggle of an album’ as his acclaimers Allmusic and Stereogum lavish him with.

Through the smoke and mirrors of Father John Misty’s “Great Pretender” persona, what actually becomes most striking is how out-dated his musical smirks are. The sardonic superiority of the character from ‘The Night Josh Tillman’ “Of the few main things I hate about her, one’s her petty, vogue ideas’ comes straight from the Catcher in Rye-isms that were so popular in films a decade ago. The most compelling anachronism is from the title-track ‘Unless we’re naked getting high on the mattress/ While the global market crashes,’ which immediately took me back to the final scene of Fight Club.

See the issue with playing a character is like having a sex doll- it constantly requires re-inflation. Father John Misty has tried extending his character’s lifespan by raising the stakes, and unfortunately bit off more than he could chew. Maybe the most admirable thought is that he tried so hard at it, almost in the same way that he can admire a student who ends up spending four times harder at cheating on an exam rather than just revising for it.

This is fourth year I’ve compiled a year-end list, and I’ve been unpleasantly surprised that retrospectively, I’ve got most of my favourite albums of the year wrong every time.  Perhaps it’s a curse that as soon as dub my favourite LPs, they get retired to the archives, and I don’t listen to them again. There’s definitely the fact that I of course haven’t been able to soak in all the music of the year until a few years later, for example I just had a first listen to the Freddie Gibbs & Madlib Piñata, which has blown me away.   I’ve also not yet listened to the new D’Angelo album either. There was also a case of maturity: that often I was putting in albums because I felt I should rather than because I wanted to, best example would be the Bon Iver album in 2011. Or conversely for the sake of trying to put in the obscurest albums, regardless of whether they were enjoyable or not.

So this year round I’ve applied a bit more structure to my selection. I’ve rationed myself to 10 albums to help filter out the ones that had a significant impact on me rather than one’s I sort of enjoyed. I’ve also put extra emphasis on the innovators: the ones who have brought a new unique style to the table. Anyway, hope you enjoy reading it as much as I compiled it.

 

10) Run the Jewels 2: Run the Jewels 2

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I was a late bloomer to these guys. I knew of El-P and Killer Mike, and I even listened to the first RTJ albums, and liked the humour and energy. In fact I probably clocked more minutes of Killer Mike’s interviews than his music. But the universal acclaim the album was getting gave me no choice. However, that’s the thing- it’s so easy to enjoy. The beats are abrasive in a nice way, the energy is contagious, the lyrics crisp and clever, and there’s a just a beautiful level of maturity and self-consciousness that only two mid-lifers can maintain.

 

9) Land Observations: The Grand Tour

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Kudos to the most forgettable band name ever. Even several months after going back to his Soundcloud, I’d often be googling ‘Land Control’ or ‘Observation Geography’, which almost made the prize almost sweeter when I finally cracked the code could sink into The Grand Tour. The uniqueness of Land Observation’s sound has blown me away. The sheer simplicity and constantly treading guitar inspired a new kind of solid emotion in me, devoid of worry or even euphoria, that I’m still trying to pin down.  Thanks especially to Hal Rhoades and Nick Carling for showing me this guy.

 

8) Mac Demarco: Salad Days

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After St Vincent, Mac Demarco has been the great forger of his own legend this year. His sophomore album Salad Days is just as autobiographical as it is mythologizing. The lyrics focus on directly on Demarco’s personal life such as his girlfriend’s struggle to get a Visa in ‘Let My Baby Stay’ to his musical reputation being at stake in ‘Passing out Pieces’. In contrast the music is a hazy counterpoint- harking back to Shuggie Otis and enveloping Mac’s legend in mystique. While toned down compared to his excellent debut, Salad Days shows a more patient Mac Demarco who spends more time on themes and concepts rather than making bangers.

 

7) The War on Drugs: Lost in Dream

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This would win my vote for epic of the year. Frontman Adam Granduciel has taken no shortcuts here, which shows in each song lasting around five minutes. Indeed most choruses land around halfway through as well. And if you think Salad Days is hazy- this would be the equivalent to Salad Decades. I’m not even sure where I am in the second half of the album; where the last traces of hits like ‘Red Eyes’ and ‘An Ocean In Between The Waves’ seem to have happened ages ago- and are instead replaced with a Marc Knopfler on a triple-dose of Valium. If David Foster Wallace said that real art leaves you heavier than when you came to it, then The War on Drugs have got it spot on. I’m left at the end of it rubbing my eyes and slowly coming back from a deep sleep.

 

6) Swans: To Be Kind

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To Be Kind must be one of the first albums where Michael Gira may have released something as close to a single as he ever will. And he’s done it twice! This probably requires qualification: both ‘Oxygen’ and ‘A Little God in My Hands’ are over seven minutes long. But they’re catchy! And even seem to have choruses! And like the rest of the album they show Gira’s relentless construction of sonic monoliths that tower over a horrific skyline. Maybe I’m imagining it, but To Be Kind does seem to appeal a tiny iota more to a broader audience. But heaven forbid it means Swans are making any compromises. There’s bone-chilling cackles on ‘Just a Little Boy,’ scathing slave driver calls in the 34 minute ‘Bring the Sun/Toussaint L’Ouverture,’ and a bassline in ‘Oxygen’ that seems to chisel into your soul. It’s just that all this musical cruelty has been more accessible than anything Swans have ever done before.

 

5) Real Estate: Atlas

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I said in my intro that I had put extra emphasis on the innovators of 2014 for my list. Real Estate have done the opposite, and just carried on what they were doing before- their pleasant suburban surf-rock jingles- except this time better. What more, they don’t even have the strength of an obvious single like ‘It’s Real’ or ‘Beach Comber’ as before. Instead, as if it were possible, they’ve relaxed a bit, without getting too dozy as I found seemed to plague them on the later tracks of their earlier albums. Similar to Mac Demarco, Real Estate have got comfortable in their sound enough that they no longer need struggle to prove its merit. Instead they seem to be having the most fun here- with the nice hunky dory ‘How I Might Live’, the catchy riff nabbed from Slowdive in ‘Primitive’, and the suburban nostalgia pervading throughout all their music in ‘Talking Backwards’. Atlas maps out a pretty flawless 40-minute journey from beginning to end.

 

4) Vashti Bunyan: Heartleap

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Vashti Bunyan said this would be her last album she will make, and what better a send off. Bunyan has the unique ability to make a sonic space that you can get instantly cosy in. The songs don’t so much stand out as blend together into a beautiful medley of guitar, harp and piano- stamped with Bunyan’s fragile voice. Except this cosiness is counterpointed by a proximity to ‘The End’. Even the first song of the album seems like Bunyan’s swansong, where you are left waiting for the last note to be played and the silence to follow thereafter. Though this does not compare as well to Bunyan’s other two albums in potential, there is something unfathomably human about Heartleap that will help maintain its legacy. It is the blend of a farewell and inevitability that makes this the most telling albums about death, and how one can hopefully come to grips with it.

 

3) Sun Kil Moon: Benji

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In contrast to Heartleap Mark Kozolek uses death as a source of inspiration for his song-stories. Here we are given an entirely new style of songwriting, or at least a new chapter in the confessional genre. Kozolek’s urge to describe causes his lines to collapse into the next, while still maintaining their own natural rhythm. His brutal honesty, such as the family friend in ‘Jim Wise’ who mercy-killed his wife, is mingled with casual humour, such as turning his meal ‘blue crab cakes’ into an impromptu chorus in ‘Ben’s My Friend’. He discusses his childhood, his sexual awakening, his professional life in a bildungsroman as rich as a Tolstoy, and really goes to show how much one can fit into an LP. This year Sun Kil Moon has tremendously raised the bar for anyone else trying to challenge the role of the singer-songwriter- and I’m anxious to see how anyone would attempt to top it.

 

2) Iceage: Plowing into the Fields of Love

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This third album is not Iceage reinventing themselves, since that would assume that they had already settled on something before. These punk pioneers have kept to the fundamentals of punk by doing whatever they want to do. The key is to keep on moving and Plowing into the Fields of Love is the best testimonial of their mentality yet. We have country-punk in ‘Lord’s Favourite’ we have crooning in ‘Against the Moon’, we have Echo and the Bunnymen string and percussion accompaniments in ‘Forever’. The only consistency is Iceage’s style to keep it as loose as possible, that makes you wonder how they can even finish a song. And with this looseness you get an uncompromising energy that made them by far the best live show I’ve seen this year as well as a monumental album showcasing this Danish band’s staggering potential.

 

1) Lewis: L’Amour

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Yes I’m aware this is a reissue. But considering L’Amour probably only sold around a hundred records when it was first released in the 80’s merits it to have a proper welcome. And hasn’t it just? Not only was the mystery of that handsome romantic recluse given him an international following but it also enabled three of his ‘lost’ albums to be released this year. They even managed to find the guy in Canada, who apparently is still recording and, almost typically, would like no royalties from the reissues. Fortunately, Lewis lives up to all the hype. The first time I listened to his first and most impactful album L’Amour, I immediately had to play it again. He sucks you into a beautiful unthreatening dream world like Heartleap and Lost in Dream– but more than ever it feels so personal, that I’ve often felt hesitant to share it.

Lewis has injected a tenderness beyond cheesy, as expected with song titles like ‘I Thought the World of You’ and ‘Let’s Fall in Love Tonight’, and almost twists your arm to start loving the hotel lobby kind of music that you felt you were born to despise. And behind all these pillow-talk croons, there is a synth flowing behind, almost independent of the musical proceedings guiding us through Lewis’ gallery of love letters. Above all, there is nothing hollow about the music. Lewis does not mock what we have come to observe as the most saccharine kind of 80’s synth pop, but instead embraces it at a bridge directly to his soul, and I think we will need to wait a few more decades to feel such a pure achievement.