20: Steve Mason – About The Light
Self-awareness wasn’t always a quality Steve Mason was renowned for. Now, after years of dancing with the man looking back in the mirror, he’s embraced not the act of looking backwards and the shallowness of flogging a dead horse, but a present full of the possibilities this record gives him a new chance of making happen. ‘Who doesn’t want greatness?’, he’s recently asked himself – a question you’d consider rhetorical if posed by many other veterans of life’s slings and arrows.
19: The Japanese House – Good At Falling
It seems sometimes like fewer and fewer writers are willing or able to look at the emotional contours of wanting someone to want them back, to be honest with themselves about the raking scratches of infatuation, heartbreak, sex and regret which only love can bring. Amber Bain, aka The Japanese House, has written a love album in the grand tradition, one that takes an unflinching gaze at a relationship which collapsed around her whilst she watched on.
18: Vampire Weekend – Father Of The Bride
This preacher-confessional tryst isn’t the only story however, momentum also found in the twisted, rock n’ roll distress of Bambina and the angelically short 2021, a love song as direct and pointed as anything Koenig has ever written. Elsewhere, wily teammates are the go-to creative vehicle of choice as Mark Ronson whispers sweet nothings into the ear of This Life and The Internet’s Steve Lacy squares the hippy circle on Sunflower and the languorous, jazz daze of Flower Moon.
17: Starcrawler – Devour You
If there’s only so much superficial trashy rock and roll you can stomach, there is more depth than previously. No More Pennies adds some country guitar licks to the pot, and Call Me A Baby sounds like one of those gentle White Stripes duets that were found on most of their albums. She Gets Around opens with a pulsing underwater bass which heralds a more sinister, serious offering, while Born Asleep is FM rock, complete with sky kissing solo.
16: Hot Chip – A Bath Full Of Ecstasy
By their own admission, this is an album designed to be far more than the sugar rush of being banger smashed, and it wouldn’t be a Hot Chip album without moments of emotionally keyed in reflection. A Bath Full Of Ecstasy is the sound of the monkey who threw away his miniature cymbal, a mindful hedonist who traded repetition for a groove. Hot Chip prove with it that hope is still the answer, no matter that the question is something we want to leave behind.
15: Hayden Thorpe – Diviner
Diviner was written mostly at the piano, and at its core rarely employs much more than that. Such was his uncertainty at one point that Thorpe has confessed he considered releasing these songs pseudonymously before changing his mind; in many ways though the name makes no difference as the creator isn’t selling the past. You don’t always have to leave yourself to find yourself, but Diviner is a tattoo, new birdsong and a blank sheet of paper on which a man has made fresh signs in a new language.
14: Girl Band – The Talkies
By this point you are deep inside this record or will long ago have taken an escape pod. For those who relish confronting their own prejudices, at its core are Prefab Castle – a rave symphony for the maladjusted – and Laggard, the glorious soundtrack to a civilisation on the point of collapse. Ultimately Girl Band’s mere existence is assurance that answers, clarity and meaning are still disposable pretexts. The Talkies is a record which needs every sinew of your understanding.
13: slowthai – Nothing Great About Britain
Opening up and showing weakness like that in the sometimes macho world in which urban music lives is a brave choice, one that backs up releasing work called Nothing Great About Britain and parodying the country’s rigid institutions, especially if you see them as being the problem not the solution. But more importantly it shows that boys and girls everywhere can beat the nowhere trap many see as inevitable, , even if they don’t have 10,000 degrees of separation to stare up at from their bedroom window every night.
12: Fat White Family – Serfs Up!
Lyrically we’re often in familiar territory; Feet references anal sex while Bobby’s Boyfriend discusses prostitution at length. Whether or not that’s your cup of tea is a matter of choice, but abstaining for that reason would be short-sighted. Their previous albums were intriguing but hard listens. Serfs Up! is smoother in every way; the blackened tinfoil has been stripped away, the hands have been washed and the core has been soaked in glitter.
11: The Twilight Sad – IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME
This passive aggression has always been part of the band’s DNA – even the album’s title, according to Graham, has a degree of consciously ambiguous double meaning – but if the desire is to master for themselves the public’s chequered relationship with their music it’s the panoramic glide of Girl Chewing Gum and the unrelenting, muscular embrace of Auge Maschine that throws open the door, songs that take life in outsider-dom and turn its weakness and vulnerability into a different kind of strength.
10: (Sandy) Alex G – House Of Sugar
Thematically the album picks apart the conflicts at the centre of a person’s soul: the twin anxieties of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin whilst being curious about, and in fear of, how you may be perceived by others. It’s touched on lyrically but it’s really the album’s technique of adding alternating layers (one of warmth, one of disharmony) that demonstrate the nature of humanity, being both sugary sweet and sinisterly discomforting.
9: FEET – What’s Inside Is More Than Just Ham
Perhaps this deliberate spurning of opportunities is due to the belief that your talent will take you places, as was the case for the band when they ended up in the Hampshire old people’s resort so laconically celebrated in Chalet 47. But the modern disposability, both of feelings and attitudes, they ride so well is best skewered on Petty Thieving’s breakneck punk, the joy of taking things you don’t need being one of the present’s most self-absorbed distractions.
8: Angel Olsen – All Mirrors
Tonight is arguably the album’s eeriest track. Harking back to the ‘folk night in a dimly lit countryside bar’ atmosphere at play on Olsen’s earlier works, this is the first aural sign that she is now cleansed of the emotional chains tying her to the past lover. Wispy vocals make way for a moving string section outro before Chance draws a near-masterpiece of a record to a striking conclusion with a lengthy rival to Skeeter Davis’ The End Of The World in its majestic purveyance of hazy 60’s pop balladry.
7: LIFE – A Picture Of Good Health
The spoken word finale New Rose In Love takes this angst, paranoia, acceptance and need for expression and turns it into a fifty second tablet of performance art, Yorkshire fire and brimstone from little packets shaken out for the eager and unwashed. A Picture of Good Health is that record: relentless, seedy, unhinged, partially brilliant, never less than trying to get off its head or into yours. This is the sound of what happens to people who live at the end of the line, the shadows whose options are a tick list of one.
6: W.H. Lung – Incidental Music
More than anything however, this backdrop is in the music of dreams, or being a dream, insubstantial but without boundaries, explorations and exhortations told from above the fog of consciousness. Incidental Music’s vision-in-chief is Inspiration, a procession of folded over verses with guitars in ever more concentric patterns, tempo on the ebb and flow right up to a reverb drowned precipice which yawns in front of the listener from the depths of somewhere far, far close by.
5: black midi – Schlagelheim
Amidst all the arguments this album will inevitably stir up, there’s more than a kernel here of young genius at work. Schlagenheim may eventually shred the tense, dry as hell funk which it begins with, but the ultimate blasts are one of a rare precision. Closer Ducter is by contrast a journey, a story made up from foreboding, tension and crescendo, poetry and science torn to pieces in a frenetic, disorientating finish that defies description.
4: Jessica Pratt – Quiet Signs
The glacial pace of its creation has no bearing on the richness and ethereal fascination of the material. On Poly Blue a flute spirals gaily, pirouetting around sing-song tones whilst the almosts and nothings are as happy and intimate as a stolen kiss. Like those, Quiet Signs is a series of simple pleasures, on Silent Song words pipe innocently about a state of mind that harbours both love and regret: ‘Soft, sweet as the air/I longed to stay with you/Or did I belong to my song?’.
3: Dave – Psychodrama
It’s the record’s simplicity that makes it work. Dave has realised the demons and desires he and others face and is talking directly to them, not hiding behind them. This kind of honesty isn’t just harder than it looks, it takes an awareness most could never admit to. And to make this voice a truly compelling and integral listen is an amazing achievement. Psychodrama hides behind nothing, musically, lyrically or conceptually. It’s a beautifully simple and honest record that says precisely what it means.
2: The Murder Capital – When I Have Fears
It’s also a journey of absolutes: during the pressure build-and-release valves of opener For Everything the choices are all or nothing, no space or meaning to be found in between. At the other end, in waiting lies Love Love Love, on which McGovern feels in numbness neither ecstasy nor despair: ‘In the room where it took place/In the rain, the romance lay/My heart stood still’, the chorus just words without a place to stay. In this desolation, the sheer polarity these songs seem bound to, lies their fascination.
1: Fontaines D.C. – Dogrel
Dogrel closes with Dublin City Sky, a rolling shanty as close to anything MacGowan has ever growled out, two sets of misty eyes scraping themselves up from horizons which will soon be no more, if they ever even were. Both are windows onto the souls of geniuses flawed but Fontaines D.C., via this brilliant slash of poetic trauma, seem to have got the rest of it all figured out, a band tied to the apron strings of a city which once made fortunes and sheltered paupers.