Day of the Dead

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This is the second all-star indie charity album produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National. Both have benefited the Red Hot Organisation, which is an HIV/AIDS not-for-profit. The first, Dark Was The Night, appeared in 2009 and featured some great tracks, including ‘Brackett, WI’ by Bon Iver and a lovely version of ‘Lua’ by Conor Oberst and Gillian Welch. This time the format is different. Clocking in at approximately three-and-a-half weeks long (only a slight exaggeration), Day of the Dead is a 59-track collection of Grateful Dead covers. The performers comprise a who’s who of contemporary indie royalty. There’s Courtney Barnett, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Kurt Vile, Local Natives, and many, many more. With such a stellar cast of characters, it’s difficult to know how to parse the contributions, not least because the running order varies as a function of whether you’re listening to it as a download or CD. There’s some slightly wearying experimental work on the second half of CD 4, but there are also some real revelations, ‘Black Muddy River’ by Bruce Hornsby and DeYarmond Edison being one, and, hard though it is to believe, ‘Friend of the Devil’ by Mumford and Sons. What’s really nice, though, is that the vast majority of the tracks sound just like you’d want them to. Whether it’s The War on Drugs, Phosphorescent, Bill Callahan, or The National themselves, they inhabit their respective covers really well. Some people will bemoan a certain lack of noodling, choogling, and general guitar boogying. And others will be dismissive of the fact that there isn’t more experimental excess, though there’s always The Flaming Lips. But by generally paring back the potential for unbridled extravagance, the Dessner brothers and Josh Kaufman have produced a much more cohesive album than might be expected. So, support Day of the Dead. It not only helps a worthy cause, it’s also, whisper it, a really good listen.

Here’s my best-of-the-year Pt 2: The Antipodes

Once upon a time Liverpool, or San Francisco, or Seattle was at the centre of all that was good musically. Now, everything has gone south. Australia and New Zealand are currently where it’s at. So much so that they’re worthy of an end-of-year list all to themselves.

The Phoenix Foundation – Give Up Your Dreams

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This was a band that sounded like they were enjoying themselves. Loaded with irony, it didn’t come much better than ‘Bob Lennon John Dylan’. On the Pono version you can even hear a reference to Han Solo. How topical.

Holy Holy – When the Storms Would Come

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An instant classic. The four songs at the heart of the album – ‘A Heroine’, ‘History’, ‘If I Were You’, and ‘You Cannot Call …’ – should be played on repeat to anyone who thinks that guitar-based rock is a thing of the past. Au contraire, Holy Holy are a band of the future.

Nadia Reid – Listen to Formation, Look for the Signs

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There’s an unassuming quality to Nadia Reid that belies the confidence of the songs on her recent album. Moving through various styles, the constant presence is her voice, which is clear and lovely.

Lost Ragas – Trans Atlantic Highway

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Packed with slightly mournful, but beautifully played songs, Trans Atlantic Highway was a revelation. Think of The Byrds relocating to modern-day East Nashville. Well, it’s even better than that.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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What best-of-2015 list does not feature Slacker Barnett, you may ask? Well, there’s a good reason why. Great hooks and erudite observations of everyday and not-so-everyday life from the clever one who always sits at the back of the class. And all delivered in a refreshingly local accent.

Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit

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Often accused of slackerdom, there’s more of a post-punk ethos to Courtney Barnett’s new album. Forget Mac DeMarco. Think Ian Dury and the Blockheads, (early) Elvis Costello, (even earlier) Joe Jackson. The songs are played furiously, delivered in a genuine local accent, and the lyrics reference real-life places. This is music for the masses. This is a breath of fresh air. This is Courtney Barnett. And this record is a hoot. We’re introduced to “Oliver Paul, twenty years old, Thick head of hair, worries he’s going bald”. Then there’s Jen who “insists that we buy organic vegetables, And I must admit that I was a little skeptical at first, A little pesticide can’t hurt”. And here’s our protagonist in the swimming pool, holding her breath, trying to impress the boy in the next lane. “Felt my muscles burn, I took a tumble turn, For the worse, it’s a curse, My lack of athleticism, sunk like a stone, Like a first owner’s home loan”. If this is post-punk, then it isn’t characterised by the po-faced seriousness of some artists of that era. This is Jilted John for the mid-2010s. But it’s not all eat-on-the-run, soy linseed Vegemite sandwiches. There’s a moment of melancholy on ‘Depreston’, as would-be house-buyers go to view a deceased owner’s bungalow. There’s a touch of anger on ‘Small Poppies’ when we’re told “I dreamed I stabbed you with a coat hanger wire”. There’s also an above average number of references to death. And where’s the fun in that? In fact, what’s great about the new Courtney Barnett album is the refusal to be pigeon-holed as some sort of novelty artist. She may have a wonderful turn of phrase, but it’s not all clever couplets and pithy put-downs. There are some serious themes on this album. Themes worth sitting down and thinking about. In the end, if Courtney Barnett does have a post-punk ethos, then perhaps she most closely resembles The Boomtown Rats. There was a band whose first album just tumbled out of the speakers, who sounded like they were having great fun, who could wordplay with the best of them, and one of whose members went on to much more serious things. Who knows? Maybe one day it’ll be Courtney Barnett’s turn to save the world.

Pretty Much Amazing review

The Guardian review

Paste review

The Line of Best Fit review

Pop Matters review

Pitchfork review