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

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

Best of 2016 – 1/4

The waiting is over. My favourite albums of 2016. All instant classics.

Angel Olsen – MY WOMAN

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An album of two halves, both of them exceptional. Not a single bad track and all of them delivered with real emotion. But why can’t I stop calling her ‘Angle’?

Marissa Nadler – Strangers

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If you like your indie artists communing with black metal merchants, then Strangers is for you. Marissa Nadler has come a long way since Songs III: Bird on the Water.

Damien Jurado – Visions Of Us On The Land

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I literally lost the plot a couple of albums ago. But Damien Jurado rounds off an epic trilogy with his very best offering to date. What’s next? A prequel? Yes, please.

Richmond Fontaine – You Can’t Go Back If There’s Nothing To Go Back To

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On their valedictory album, Richmond Fontaine add another essential release to their catalogue. If you don’t feel sorry for Little Joe on ‘Wake Up Ray’, then you’ve no heart.

Jim James – Eternally Even

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MMJ’s It Still Moves was already one of the standout re-releases of the year. But the Yim’s second solo album exceeded all expectations. And they were already very high.

Best of 2016 – 2/4

David Bowie – Blackstar

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It’s difficult to separate the music from the loss, but what a way to bow out. It’s worth adding ‘No Plan’ from the Lazarus soundtrack to the playlist.

Bat For Lashes – The Bride

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The Bride is an exhausting but exhilarating journey into the restless imagination of Natasha Khan. The songs may be full of elemental imagery, but the tone is quiet.

Wye Oak – Tween

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Outtakes from their last two albums presented as a new offering. It’s not the most promising start, but this collection shines nonetheless.

Kevin Morby – Singing Saw

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When the actual singing saw kicks in, you start to run for cover. It seems like it’s really out to get you.

Band of Horses – Why Are You OK

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Deceptively casual. Behind the seemingly good-time songs, demons were lurking. It wasn’t a confessional album, but it was more than just the soundtrack to a house party.

Best of 2016 – 3/4

Here’s a selection of vaguely Americana-themed albums that made the grade this year.

Miranda Lee Richards – Echoes of the Dreamtime

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If you like your Americana to take you on a trip, then Miranda Lee Richards is for you. Echoes of the Dreamtime was a sublime mix of moods, styles, and continents.

Bob Weir – Blue Mountain

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Talking of taking a trip, Bob Weir released a beautiful album this year. Largely written with or by Josh Ritter, the songs were wistful and the voice was wonderfully earthy.

Hard Working Americans – Rest in Chaos

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The Todd Snider-led supergroup released their second album. This time, the songs were mainly self-penned. Good choice. These guys work hard and play loud.

Hiss Golden Messenger – Heart Like A Levee

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HGM just get better and better. Perhaps it’s because MC Taylor writes from such a personal place. But then the songs sound gorgeous too. Good combination.

Treetop Flyers – Palomino

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Treetop Flyers wear plenty of influences on their sleeve, but Palomino weaved them together in a very satisfying way. And the lyrics were striking too. Looking forward to more.

Best of 2016 – 4/4

It seems to come around annually. It’s time to report the best music of the year. Here’s the first part of my 20 favourite albums of 2016. More to follow.

Dan Michaelson and The Coastguards – Memory

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With so many great musicians leaving us and with all sorts of political nightmares coming true, Dan captured the mood perfectly. Truly one of my most cherished artists.

Conor Oberst – Ruminations

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If you’ve just listened to the Dan Michaelson album and feel like you need a little musical pick-me-up, then don’t play Conor Oberst’s 2016 offering. It’s sparse. And good.

Andrew Bird – Are You Serious

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Andrew Bird answers his own question on this album. He is very serious. In fact, I passed by him on a very narrow corridor at a gig earlier this year. He was indeed very serious.

Devendra Banhart – Ape In Pink Marble

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By contrast, Devendra Banhart sounds like someone who’d liven up any party. Ape In Pink Marble was quiet, but a real hoot.

The Colorist and Emiliana Torrini

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The Colorist play all sorts of organic, recycled, authentic instruments. Emiliana Torrini sings a selection of her best songs. It’s a match made in heaven.

Best of 2013 – Part 1

Over the next four days, I am revealing my top 20 albums of the year. It’s in something approaching reverse order. Here’s part 1.

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

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In some utopian community somewhere, small children are being taught Nick Cave. They will emerge as highly erudite, yet slightly worrying human beings. They will talk to you in a language you understand, but which has so many words to read in between that your head soon starts to spin and won’t stop. The magnificent ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ is on the exam paper this year.

Villagers – {Awayland}

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Meanwhile the B stream are studying Villagers. It’s no easy module. Far more words. And just as many abstruse allusions. But plenty of great songs to keep you going. Fair play to Conor O’Brien, {Awayland} was no ‘Becoming A Jackal’ part 2. Something special was lost, but much was gained in return. The difficult third album will be a true test.

Ducktails – The Flower Lane

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A Real Estate side project, Ducktails exceeded expectations. Whereas so many of the year’s bands aped the worst of mid-1980s, pre-Smiths, syntho-pop, Ducktails succeeded in persuading you that there was some good music in that era. There wasn’t, but Ducktails will do just fine, thanks. ‘Under Cover’ promised to be one of the best songs of the year and it didn’t disappoint.

Foxygen – We Are The 21st Century Ambassadors Of Peace & Magic

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It was a difficult year for Foxygen. But if this ends up being their one and only album together, then it will still have been worth it. Derivative? Check. Inspirational lyrics? Hardly. Good fun? Unquestionably. And great tunes? In abundance. Solo efforts from band members later in the year were underwhelming. So, let’s hope the guys kiss and make up and deliver another equally memorable album sometime soon.

Unknown Mortal Orchestra – II

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Great shuffly, yet psychy sounds from one of New Zealand’s finest exports. (Oh, and Portland OR’s too). They pulled off the same trick as Foxygen, by producing an album that sounded ultra-retro, but that was full of contemporary hooks. Most of the album was mid-tempo, but they showed they could rock out when they wanted to. More power to UMO.

Best of 2012 – Part 3

Here are my top 5 favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Lana Del Rey – Born To Die

She can’t sing. The lyrics were phoned in by a bunch of hacks. There are a couple of really dire sub-X Factor numbers. And yet. This is a great album. ‘Off To The Races’ is utterly compelling throughout. The way the song swoops to a close for more than a minute is just sublime. There are moments on the title track, on ‘Carmen’, ‘Blue Jeans’ that transcend the usual pop schlock. They create a world. A humid, slightly seedy world. It’s not Lana’s world. Or mine. But, so what? It’s about the power of imagination. A total fabrication, but a wonderful example of where music can take you.

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John Murry – The Graceless Age

John Murry was the total antithesis of Lana Del Rey. This was the most real album of the year. Many of the songs come straight from Murry’s own experiences. They weren’t pretty. He nearly died of an overdose and he recounts the events in some detail. The results ought to be morbid, but they’re not. They’re magnificent. Flawless. Life-affirming. The sound was full. The pace often brisk. And it was clever. “What keeps me alive will kill me in the end”, he sings on ‘¿No te da ganas de reir, Sènor Malverde?’.

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Lambchop – Mr M

‘The strings sound good, Maybe add some flute”. Mr M had the lushness of It’s A Woman. The songs were slow. And there was room in them to let them utterly envelop you. But they were all tinged with sadness. Scrap that. They were thoroughly marinaded in it. The album was dedicated to the late Vic Chesnutt. Maybe it took such a loss to produce one final great Lambchop record. If that was his last act, then he can surely rest in peace.

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Giant Giant Sand – Tucson

This album should not work. Apart from the fact that after nearly 30 years of writing songs, and at a furious pace, there should be nothing left in the tank, this was officially billed as a country rock opera. Well, maybe it did work precisely because Howe Gelb is such an experienced songwriter and also because it sounded nothing like what you might imagine a country rock opera would sound like. Eclectic. Individual. Simply unique.

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Field Report

Field Report are a serious proposition. It’s hard to imagine them having much fun, or even smiling. But, if that’s the price of such a wonderful listen, then so be it. The songs on this album lingered. They were given plenty of space in which to develop, evolve. Nothing was hurried. Sure, the lyrics were a little pretentious at times. But these were genuine, organic, hand-crafted songs.

Best of 2012 – Part 2

Here are my 6th-10th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Grizzly Bear – Shields

How do you follow an album like Veckatimest? The answer. Don’t record anything for a while and then try to scale things back a little when you do. The strategy worked. Shields wasn’t quite the tour de force of its predecessor, but it still contained some great songs with ‘Sleeping Ute’ probably the best of the lot. Better than that, it contained some sublime moments that only Grizzly Bear can conjure up. When the chorus kicks in on ‘Yet Again’, there’s only one band you can be listening to. There’s no bigger compliment.

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Anais Mitchell – Young Man in America

Anais Mitchell also faced the ‘how do you follow that’ syndrome. Her previous release, Hadestown, was truly unique. With some help from Bon Iver and others, she retold a version of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, setting it in Depression-era US. On this album, she reverted to the individual-song format, but more than one told its own story. The title track itself was a version of the Great American Novel. And when the protagonist of ‘Shepherd’ loses his pregnant wife, there’s not a dry eye in the house.

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Band of Horses – Mirage Rock

Band of Horses are bad boys, aren’t they? They have the tattoos, the bad teeth, and they always look like they’ve just got out of bed. So they’re best when they rock out, right? Wrong. It’s when they slow down that they’re at their best. ‘Slow Cruel Hands of Time’ is an old theme, but it’s told beautifully. ‘Long Vows’ and ‘Heartbreak on the 101’ likewise. And why did they ever leave ‘Reilly’s Dream’ off the main album? It’s as good as ‘Detlef Schrempf’ and, to Horseheads, that’s saying something.

First Aid Kit – The Lion’s Roar

Swedish AM-friendly country rock. On paper, that’s not a great combination. But, two things make this record stand out. One, the songs are really strong. Two, boy, can these guys sing? The Söderberg sisters make Crosby, Stills and Nash sound like a bunch of old hippies. Oh, hang on. Anyhow, a good rule of thumb is that if a song sound timeless, then it probably is. And the ones on this album sound like they’ve already been around for a very long while.

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Paul Buchanan – Mid Air

Paul Buchanan’s most recent collection of musical pointillism was beautifully executed. Neo-impressionistic pictures of life at its most ordinary, combining to form an experience that was at once melancholy and uplifting. Only the slightest orchestration. Mainly just the singer, a piano, and some affecting melodies. It was as much the delivery of the songs as the songs themselves that made this such a rewarding listen.

Best of 2012 – Part 1

Here are my 11th-15th favourite releases of 2012, in no particular order:

Jack White – Blunderbuss

The best way to enjoy Jack White’s album was to forget what it was about. Was it about Meg? Was it about Karen? Was it about both? Did she – whoever it was – really do those things to him? Did he ever really say those things to her? Who knows? Who cares? In Jack’s head it’s probably about all of these things, none of them, and many others as well. Like the impenetrable cover, which must mean something but who knows what, the trick was to sit back and listen to the song craft. There’s great playing, great tunes, great drama. It’s more enjoyable than most White Stripes albums.

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Adrian Crowley – I See Three Birds Flying

Ah, this was the album with the lyric: “And I tried to write, The Saddest Song In The World”. Well, good news, Dr Crowley, you’ve won first prize. Sure, I have a soft spot for the miserabilists, a penchant for the self-pityers, an attraction to the artists of anomie, but Adrian Crowley can out do them all. He makes Leonard Cohen seem virtually jolly. But it’s not all melancholy madness. “I see three birds flying”, he sings, “One will steal your rings and, One will make you sing, And one will lead you home”. Full of wonderful imagery and poetic lyrics. This is a fine album.

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Jim White – Where It Hits You

A great thing about most of Jim White’s songs is that when they get going they often move along at a decent pace. There’s usually a good rhythm underpinning the subtle orchestration. And when he does slow it right down, then there’s always something going on in the music. Some sound. Some texture. All of which means that the songs never get boring. Plus, there’s a real sense of the south. Of chairs swinging on the porch. Of someone who’s been through quite a bit and wants to reflect on it. And, for once, not in a way that’s achingly sad, but with the sense that, hmm, that was really something.

Damien Jurado – Maraqopa

This was the latest of a string of fine albums by Damien Jurado over the last few years. He’s never going to make the big time. He’s never going to sell out big theatres. Commercially, probably the best he can hope for is to get a song played on an episode of a top US TV programme. But this doesn’t diminish the fact that he’s a wonderful songwriter. On this album, he added just a touch of psychedelia on a couple of the tracks and it sounded really good. That’s right. Just a touch. Richard Hawley please take note.

Simone Felice

Simone Felice told some of the best stories of the year. Some of them were even true. Homicidal Native Americans. Perverts from Jersey. Michael Jackson. Characters you’d cross the road to avoid. Simone Felice brought these and host of others to life in gentle-sounding songs, but ones with a hint of menace nonetheless. His retelling of the story of Charles Manson and Sharon Tate is particularly chilling. But it’s when he dreams of taking a chance and running away with Courtney Love that the shivers really kick in.