10. The Caretaker- Everywhere at the End of Time
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.