Best of the year so far

I was over the Uncut website and I came across John Mulvey’s list of his favourite albums of the first six months of 2017. I like John Mulvey and his writing. This time, though, I was struck by the fact that the list included 60 albums, now increased to 66. With 26 weeks in the first six months of the year or just over 180 days, he has included on average about 2.5 favourite albums per week or one about every three days. Now, let’s assume that he has left the same number of albums off his list. This means he has devoted quality listening time to about five albums a week, or one for every day and a bit. In fact, this figure is a little generous, because there aren’t very many releases in the first couple of weeks of January. Now, John Mulvey is a professional music journalist. He listens to music for a living. It’s his job to spot good music quickly and he’s good at it. All the same, my guess is that he has devoted at most about a day’s listening to the albums he’s calling his favourites of the first half of 2017. That’s not very much.

Here are my top five albums of the year so far. They are all cherished listens. And quite some time has been spent with them. What’s more, last weekend saw the release of three albums – Fleet Foxes, Jason Isbell, and Kevin Morby – that are all candidates for a top five spot. But I’m still getting to know them. So, I’m not going to include them here. Maybe they’ll feature in December’s end-of-year list? In the meantime, here’s my summer solstice favourites.

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Conor Oberst – Salutation

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Ryan Adams – The Prisoner

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Holy Holy – Paint

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Frontier Ruckus – Enter The Kingdom

Jesu & Sun Kil Moon - 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth

Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds to the Decline of Planet Earth

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium

Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister – Planetarium

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This project began in 2011 when Nico Muhly was commissioned to write a song cycle by the Muziekgebouw Eindhoven. Originally toured in 2012, it’s taken a further two-and-a-half Martian solar orbits for it to finally find a terrestrial release. The mission is a tough one. Any concept album about the solar system has to navigate between Holst, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, and a Yes album from the mid-1970s. Inevitably, the temptation with an idea of this sort is to accentuate the ethereal and eliminate the material. But here the trajectory has been calculated to perfection. That’s in no small part due to Sufjan Stevens. In any context, his fragile, quavery voice instinctively communicates a sense of space. Here, it’s also liberally auto-tuned, giving it an extra-dimensional quality too. But it’s the combination of the voice and the lyrical content that really resonates. The words act as a resolutely earthly counterpoint to the infinitesimally large musical themes. “The youngest of children/ A cannibal addiction/ Innocent victim, bite mark, body part/ When in secret siege, we eat them.” If that’s Life on Mars, then the leafy suburbs of Western Europe will do just fine, thank you very much. For sure, there’s a certain disjointedness that echoes the recent outing by Bon Iver, but there are also tracks that would grace a genuine Sufjan Stevens album, notably ‘Mercury’, ‘Venus’, and ‘Neptune’. The result is like nothing on Earth. So, let yourself go. Take a trip to the Planetarium. And enjoy.

Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth

Jesu & Sun Kil Moon – 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth

Jesu & Sun Kil Moon - 30 Seconds To The Decline Of Planet Earth

Over his last few albums, Mark Kozelek has taken to incorporating fan letters into his songs. On his new album there’s just one. But the fan – Greg – really nails what makes Kozelek’s recent run of albums so great. “In the last few years”, Greg writes, “there’s been increasingly less and less distance between Mark’s experiences and the words that he writes, leaving the emotions uncovered and there for us all to tap into”. It’s well put and presumably Mark thinks so too. Like those other records, 30 Seconds … is yet another set of songs that rarely leave you indifferent. For sure, they can make you feel slightly uncomfortable. “Ask all the questions you want to and I’ll be polite, but I’m thinking fuck you ninety percent of the time”. They can also be plain funny, “After the show I’ll be back in my hotel room wackin’ my bone all alone, ’cause I’m nearly 50 and that’s just the way the wind blows”. But most of all there’s the sense of melancholy. The thought of what the future holds, “I’m feeling a little blue but not nearly as blue as I’ll be”, he says talking of his father, “when I won’t be able to call you”. And the sad stuff that’s in the present, “I couldn’t stop thinking of my sick friend, I was so distracted that I ended up leaving my wallet behind at a bank”. Once again, all of human life is here. There’s a song about visiting Laurie Anderson’s apartment, plenty of talk about Caroline and touring, a couple of references to Trump, a vignette about a show at SXSW, and mentions of cops, waiters, fans, and many more. And the music’s not too bad either.

Trummors – Headlands

Trummors – Headlands

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Trummors are Anne Cunningham and Dave Lerner, himself formerly of Ted Leo & the Pharmacists. Originally working out of New York, they’re now based in New Mexico. And they seem well at home there. Headlands is a mix of folky ballads, desert drone, and Topanga Canyon-era sounds. There’s also a cover of the Ian Matthew’s 1971 classic, ‘Hearts’. ‘L.A. River’ and ‘Hollis Tornado’ stand out, while ‘Breezin” is yet another candidate for the best song that Neil Young never wrote. To add to the mix, Anne Cunningham has a PhD in comparative literature, ensuring that there’s some method in the madness. This is Trummors’ third album. Rumours are that Headlands is their best. They’re right.

Eric & Magill – Peach Colored Oranges

Eric & Magill – Peach Colored Oranges

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Happy to recommend the new album by Eric & Magill.  With all the tracks coming in at under three minutes, Peach Colored Oranges is a lovely collection of dream pop vignettes. Inspired by travel, the songs communicate more a sense of space than location.  In their bio, Eric and Magill reference influences such as Nick Drake, Beach House, Mojave 3, and Neil Young. But discerning listeners might also hear echoes of Sufjan Stevens in quiet mode as well as their near homonyms, Lewis & Clarke. Highlights include ‘Tightrope’ and ‘A Softer Sound’. Peach Colored Oranges is available over at Bandcamp.

John Statz – The Fire Sermon

John Statz – The Fire Sermon

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Really pleased to announce that John Statz’s new album, The Fire Sermon, is now available worldwide. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, it follows his 2015 release, Tulsa, which was lovingly reviewed here. The two albums are wonderfully complementary. Strong on narrative, big on melody, they make you feel slightly wistful at the same time as they get your toes a-tapping. The vistas are huge. There are plenty of references to his beloved Colorado. But the stories are always local. People look back at the past, reflecting on what happened, and without necessarily being able to explain why. The opening track, ‘Cashmere’, sets the scene, with the full band playing impeccably.  A particular favourite, though, is ‘With Some Horses’, which could have been written by none other than Willy Vlautin. There’s also a cover of a Caitlin Harnett song, ‘Bad Man’, which provides a really nice take on the original. Disappointed to have missed him by only a day in both Bray and Nottingham on his recent European tour, but hoping to catch up next time and looking forward to more releases. The Fire Sermon is highly recommended.

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Live)

Sufjan Stevens – Carrie & Lowell (Live)

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Sufjan Stevens has done us all a favour. When the Trumpian apocalypse comes, when we’re sitting in our homemade shelter, when we’ve used up our final Nespresso capsule, and when the bars on our iPhone disappear for the very last time, then we can still put on Carrie & Lowell and realise that someone, somewhere is worse off than we are. For Carrie & Lowell is the ultimate feel-bad album. There’s not a moment of even faintly uplifting sentiment, never mind outright comic relief. Question: “What did you learn from Tillermook burn, or the Fourth of July? Answer: “We’re all gonna die”. Turning an album like Carrie & Lowell into a live show seems like one of those things artists do when they’re trying to escape from a major-label contract because of artistic differences. Yet, this is Sufjan Stevens. He runs the record label. More importantly, he also knows how to put on a live show. That’s not to say he turns the most maudlin album of 2015 into an all-singing, all-dancing musical extravaganza, but he does know how to play with tempo, pitch, and harmony to bring out the best of any material. Live, the original songs lose none of their intimacy. The creak of what seems to be the piano seat can be heard. But they also gain in stature. The orchestration is fuller. The song order is also slightly rearranged to create a little more drama. And a couple of non-album songs are added. Carrie & Lowell was already one of the great albums of the 2010s. This version complements it perfectly. It’s no fun fair, to be sure. But it is human life. Question: “What did you learn from Tillermook burn, or the Fourth of July? Answer: “We’re all gonna die”.

Jeff Caudill – Reset The Sun

Jeff Caudill – Reset The Sun

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Happy Record Store day. This week’s stand-out release is Jeff Caudill’s new 6-track EP/mini-album, Reset The Sun. It’s an alt-country road record about someone who has made “some questionable life decisions and is struggling with forgiveness and starting over“. Musically, it’s a ways away from Jeff Caudill’s previous work with Gameface. Here, we’re deep in the heart of Son Volt territory. And if anyone was disappointed with Jay Farrar’s recent blues-based album, then Reset The Sun can fill the gap very nicely. It’s country, but not Bro-Country. It’s rock, but not Dad-Rock. The song craft is exceptional. The break in the middle of ‘Tears In My Eyes’ is a particular favourite. And the playing is top notch, with the keyboards making a real difference on all the songs. So, if you looking for some slightly down-at-heart songs with a few upbeat hooks, then Jeff Caudill’s new release is for you. It’s available on vinyl and CD from all good record stores. And there couldn’t be a better day to try to track down a copy at one. Essential.

Fionn Regan – The Meetings of the Waters

Fionn Regan – The Meetings of the Waters

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There’s a rumour that Fionn Regan was thinking of giving up music for visual art. And five years on from his previous release, things are undoubtedly different this time around. There’s been a relocation eastwards. Those who follow him on Instagram will have already noticed plenty of Japanese references. Here, the cover art seems to reflect such a mood. He’s also set up his own record label, Tsuneni Ai, which means ‘Always Love’ in Japanese. Indeed, the new album finishes with a 12-minute ambient track of the same name. Taking up nearly a third of the record as a whole, it puts us firmly in Jim O’Rourke territory, another Japanese exile. This track is a radical departure for an artist who previously looked towards mid-60s Dylan or early-70s Nick Drake for his influences. Yet, whether it’s a bold new move from a restlessly creative artist or a musical distraction from someone whose head perhaps isn’t in the game any more is a matter of discussion. Because even after a five-year absence, The Meetings of the Waters seems more like a stop-gap offering than a mature piece of musical reflection. The title track would be at home on any of his previous albums. A couple of other tracks also work quite well. And there are some reassuringly Reganesque chord changes on ‘Euphoria’. But it’s all a far cry from The Shadow Of An Empire or 100 Acres Of Sycamore, his two classic albums from the early part of the decade. Rather than charting a new course, Fionn Regan seems to have reached a crossroads with his new record. He has to figure out what sort of sound he wants to make, indeed he has to decide what sort of art he wants to create. Let’s hope he makes the right choice.

Leeroy Stagger – Love Versus

Leeroy Stagger – Love Versus

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If the mere thought of listening to Father John Misty’s Pure Comedy makes you weary, then there’s a fine alternative out this week. Leeroy Stagger’s new release has hit the shops. The lead track was previewed here previously. The album doesn’t disappoint. In contrast to the industrial levels of solipsistic irony from the artist formerly known as J. Tilman, Love Versus is a more direct, a more honest offering. There’s an homage to Joe Strummer and Joey Ramone, a raucous singalong in ‘I Want It All’, and a bunch of tracks that deal with relationships, both the good, the bad, and the everyday. Perhaps the stand-out song, though, is the murder ballad, ‘Run Rabbit Run’. It features a clever break in the middle that changes both the sound of the music and the perspective of the story-teller. So, if it’s a case of Love Versus versus Pure Comedy, then there’s only one winner. And that’s no joke.