So, for a bit of a change of pace I’m moving outside of this blog’s usual remit to offer some music suggestions. I listen to an extremely varied set of sounds, both modern and more classic (currently going through a heavy Miles Davis kick), and as a sucker for a big ol’ list, I thought I’d compile together my recent favourites. Ironically, I’ve decided to exclude film soundtracks and scores for this, preferring to draw a line and look at albums of (sometimes) popular music that are offered to the public as entities by themselves.
A good album is like a good film. It is considered. Has pacing. Themes. A shape of its own. It’s a statement of intent. In the face of streaming services and single track downloads, it’s heartening to see the album still in such strong shape, especially with the recent vinyl boom.
This is the first part of a countdown. Let’s get things moving. Recommendations time.
50. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
One of the UK’s most revered songwriters scored a highbrow critical hit which also managed to crossover back in 2011 with Let England Shake, an album of songs reflecting on The Great War; an album that managed to be deeply melodic and nostalgic while simultaneously reflecting on perpetuating world tensions and conflicts of today.
Personal Standout: This Glorious Land
49. Brian Eno – LUX
Dispensing with soundtracks and scores doesn’t mean this list will be devoid of quiet, reflective moments. Ambient music is one of my favourite genres, one I wish I explored a lot further than I have already. Released by Warp, LUX showed that Eno was still a giant in this arena. A complex, questioning work.
48. Heather Leigh – I Abused Animal
Sparse yet intense, Leigh’s I Abused Animal is a startling collection that defies genre. It’s too violent to fit into folk moulds yet feels deeply connected to the earth. The album is filled with contradictions. At times Leigh’s voice sounds suspended in terrified entropy, fragile and unmoored, contrasted with moments of muscular confidence and deliberate pace. Great uneasy listening.
Personal Highlight: Quicksand
47. Miguel – Wildheart
2012’s Kaleidoscope Dream was a little more celebrated, but I’ve found myself spending a lot of time with last year’s Wildheart. Granted, it is uneven. The tail end reminds me a little too much of the over-trying typical of TV shows with panels of asshat judges, and “the valleys” isn’t nearly as sexy as Miguel thinks it is. But the peaks more than make up for the occasional troughs.
Personal highlight: Coffee
46. Matana Roberts – Coin Coin Chapter Two: Mississippi Moonchile
The second chapter of Roberts’ ambitious Coin Coin series changed tack somewhat, replacing longer pieces with a series of interconnected vignettes, each side of the record culminating in a vocal piece with some beautiful arrangements.
Personal Highlight: Amma Jerusalem School
45. Pharmakon – Bestial Burden
Caution: not for the faint of heart! Margaret Charidet’s solo noise act is a visceral experience, as her cover art often exemplifies. Bestial Burden is filled with guttural noises; coughs, retching and of course Charidet’s formidable vocal style. Some versions come to a close with her surprisingly faithful rendition of “Bang Bang”. No one’s going to be recutting Kill Bill to this anytime soon, though Pharmakon could give the blood splattered bride a run for her money.
Personal Highlight: Autoimmune
44. The Knife – Shaking The Habitual
Shaking The Habitual, the ‘proper’ follow-up to 2006’s Silent Shout, is gigantic. Sprawling 3 LPs and occasionally bottoming out into long stretches of discordant experimenting, it isn’t exactly user-friendly. But that’s part of the charm of this eclectic beast from an outfit still with a point to prove.
Personal Highlight: Raging Lung
43. D’Angelo And The Vanguard – Black Messiah
After everyone was done patting themselves on the back for their Best Of 2014 lists, D’Angelo surprise-dropped Black Messiah making everyone wish they’d waited for the real year-end proper. It’s cover art resonated with the unrest in America, the release of Ava DuVernay’s Selma, and the deliberately throwback nature of the recordings within.
Personal Highlight: Sugah Daddy
42. Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There
Last year Yo La Tengo quietly put out this collection as a semi-sequel to 1990’s Fakebook, largely comprising of cover versions and reworkings of their existing songs. This sort of thing is usually dismissed as a stopgap in a band’s career between ‘proper’ albums, but not so in the case of Yo La Tengo. It’s one of their quieter records, sure, but it’s also, for me, one of their loveliest.
Personal Highlight: Automatic Doom
41. Radiohead – The King Of Limbs
Easily dismissed due to its brevity as a lesser album in Radiohead’s discography, The King Of Limbs is the band’s most textural record to date. It’s stance in their catalogue may have been bolstered had “The Daily Mail”, “Staircase” and “The Butcher” been included instead of being released separately as promotionless singles, nevertheless this is a consistent, modest, comfortable collection which is a treat when picked apart.
Personal Highlight: Codex
40. Chance The Rapper – Acid Rap
I won’t pretend to know much about Chance The Rapper. I hit this ‘mixtape’ up recently on a tip and it’s been a frequent flyer on my iPod ever since. Evidently I’m far from alone on this, as the link below already has some 20 million views. Go on, add a few more.
Personal Highlight: Cocoa Butter Kisses
39. Boards Of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
One of the most eagerly awaited albums in memory, one preceded by a masterfully enigmatic marketing campaign fully aware of the obsessive detective work the Scottish duo’s die-hard fans are all to keen to participate in. The album itself feels like an ode to the space age. Nostalgic and futuristic. Cold and optimistic. Their best work? Tough to say that. But a worthy addition to their discography? Absolutely.
Personal Highlight: Come To Dust
38. Kamasi Washington – The Epic
The Epic. No kidding. Truth be told I’m still getting to grips with some of the distance worlds visited by Kamashi Washington’s sprawling near-three-hour intergalactic jazz odyssey. His association with Kendrick Lamar has helped pull The Epic into the spotlight of a crossover audience, myself included. I’m listening to a lot more jazz now. I’m digging into the history. Washington’s album is a gateway drug for an entire genre.
Personal Highlight: Change Of The Guard
37. Liars – WIXIW
Liars are a different band with every album, making the compiling of any future ‘best of’ package a logistical nightmare. Their restlessness is one of their greatest attributes, of course. 2012’s WIXIW saw them step away from the raucous garage rock of Sisterworld toward a more reflective, electronic sound. The album vies between contemplative moments that recall the likes of Kid A to the kind of swaggering avant-pop songs that litter their career. They’d busy things up for their next effort, but this may be my favourite of theirs.
Personal Highlight: No. 1 Against The Rush
36. Deerhunter – Halcyon Digest
The ‘headphones’ album is something of an eye-rolling concept, but Halcyon Digest really fulfills such a moniker. Bradford Cox and his band package up a fairly traditional indie alternative sound in a dreamy miasma of sounds and subtleties. Since it’s release they’ve pointedly avoided replicating it’s sound (the scuzzy Monomania, the brief simplicity of Fading Frontier), possibly because they’re aware lightning like this doesn’t often strike twice.
Personal Highlight: Earthquake
35. Vijay Iyler & Wadada Leo Smith – A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke
The fourth collaboration between Vijay Iyler and Wadada Leo Smith but the first I’ve had the fortune to encounter. There’s a yearning, mournfulness to Smith’s trumpet that is countered with exceptional delicacy by Iyler’s piano. Subtle but vital electronic touches in the mix make this collection feel extremely intimate. A contemplative alternative to the maximalism of Kamasi Washington if you’re looking to approach modern jazz from the outside. Trust me; I’m finding my way myself.
Personal Highlight: Passages
34. Battles – Gloss Drop
Generally considered something of a letdown from the press I read at the time of its release in 2011, Gloss Drop is actually my pick of Battles’ output to date. Following the departure of their regular vocalist (a relief for some), the band outsourced to various guests who all add their own something to proceedings, but a majority of the album’s real gems see the core band exercising their tight, angular sound.
Personal Highlight: Inchworm
33. Jamie xx – In Colour
Following the much-of-a-muchness of The xx’s second album Coexist, I didn’t really keep my ears out for this one when it dropped last year, but word-of-mouth prevailed and I was eventually brought under its spell. A compact journey through popular dance culture with an omnipresent London feeling. It hits peaks and troughs, but the good far outweighs the bad.
Personal Highlight: Loud Places
32. Swans – To Be Kind
The second gigantic album released by Swans in just a couple of years, To Be Kind showed that The Seer was no late-career fluke and that the long-running band have as much energy, aggression and vitality as a hundred clumsy upstarts trailing in their wake. The current controversies surrounding Gira are troubling, and I can’t possibly speak for their veracity, but the size and scope of the music is without question.
Personal Highlight: She Loves Us
31. Autechre – Oversteps
Specious and chilly, but a textural plethora of pleasures, Oversteps is one of the best albums in Autechre’s esteemed career. The pioneering electronic duo’s sound has grown especially intense over the last decade or so, and there’s plenty to enjoy in that respect, but where albums like Exai or Untilted feel like intellectual exercises, Oversteps has a humanity about it that hits more emotional notes.
Personal Highlight: D-Sho Qub
30. Vince Staples – Summertime ’06
I begrudge the fact that the vinyl edition of Summertime ’06 is sold for approximately £50, as though the loophole of it consisting of two separately released 30 minute suites constitutes a viable reason for doubling the price and then some. Still, I’m tempted, because this is some of the most vital hip-hop I’ve heard in years. Staples is a name to look out for. Bleak, intense, brutal and genuine.
Personal Highlight: Summertime
29. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away
On first approach Push The Sky Away seemed like a rather modest release from Cave, whose preceding LPs with both the Bad Seeds and with Grinderman had been notable for their bluster. Quickly, however, PTSA proved itself one of the finest records in an exemplary career, imbued with the constant threat of combustion. It lends the record a tension that cuts into the dark beauty of the songs. Sometimes a whisper is more powerful than a bellow.
Personal Highlight: Higgs Boson Blues
28. Kendrick Lamar – To Pimp A Butterfly
A monumental release for hip-hop this decade, in truth it took me a little while to warm to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. I had soaked myself in good kid, m.A.A.d. city and it’s follow-up seemed a much harder prospect. It was worth a little effort. This is a daring piece of work that sees it’s creator ambitiously attempting to change the shape of popular music. What’s more, it seems to be working.
Personal Highlight: How Much A Dollar Cost
27. Run The Jewels – Run The Jewels 2
I’d been a fan of El-P for several years and somehow missed out on his first Run The Jewels collaboration with Killer Mike (guilty admission; it’s still on my to-catch-up-on list). A friend pestered me to listen to this, volume 2, so I did. I owe that friend a drink. RTJ2 is a dense, dazzling piece of work, one that grows more impressive with each listen. These guys are nearer 40 than most of your average artists who’re considered cutting edge these days. Our culture prioritises youth when envisioning innovation. Run The Jewels make a powerful case for respecting your elders.
Personal Highlight: Close Your Eyes And Count To Fuck
26. Swans – The Seer
30 years in the making according to the press notes that preceded it’s release. Said notes referred, of course, to the career the band took to get here. The Seer is huge. I’m relatively new to the band (this was my first Swans album), but their gigantic influence in bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor is evident when prying open these epic tracks. Bruising repetition pays dividends here. Get locked into the cycle. Forget about time. Dissolve into it. Submit, submit, submit…
Personal Highlight: Mother Of The World
Top 25 later in the week to come…