20 // VOLCANO CHOIR – BYEGONE
Juxtaposing obscure lyricism with a direct hotline to your feels is Justin Vernon’s trademark. Reading him on a poetic level ensures that moments of outright clarity are few and far between, and his work with Volcano Choir when sojourning away from his good winter has often proved even more eccentric. Yet Byegone, the lead single from that collective’s second record, mustered one of the simplest, driving statements of Vernon’s musical career thus far to utterly essential effect: “Set Sail!”
Four times over, it’s the heart-in-hand, screaming into the void outcome of a steady, powerful build both in the song and Vernon’s career. Seemingly endlessly creative and collaborative it’s also almost Vernon’s credo, the driving essence behind his progression from Deyarmonymity to Bon Ubiquity. It’s a statement of progress and adventure in all things, deeply personal but maximalist in appeal.
That he then ends the song by singing “Tossing off your compliments wow, sexing all your parliaments” – possibly a convoluted reference to Chaucer’s Parliament of Foules and the ability to discern the gender of birds, which acts as a symbol of the subject of Vernon’s lyrics (either a friend, lover, or perhaps himself) lack of “confidence” despite their “competence” – is an immensely reassuring return to the incomprehensible norm.
19 // MODERAT – BAD KINGDOM
Bad Kingdom is lyrically all about best-laid plans going awry, whilst its sonic delivery is all about a plan being executed to perfection. Though driven by the elephantine in both the scale of that throbbing bass line and that literal trumpeting burst, the track’s sway is equally held by Sascha Ring’s gorgeous vocal delivery and the rising enveloping harmonies and swell of strings. It’s an exercise in balancing the gigantic with the delicate and the results can’t be argued with.
18 // THESE NEW PURITANS – ORGAN ETERNAL
On an album full of sprawling constructions and almost gratuitous experimentation, Organ Eternal was something small, and tight and steadfast to grasp onto. Where elsewhere, Field of Reeds is all meandering seven minute compositions, its first single instead revolves around a simple repeated melody, embellishing it with odd little echoes, string interludes, and These New Puritans’ trademark nonchalant vocal lines. It’s an elemental piece of music and, because of its tight structure, evokes the transformative more than any of the other tracks on the album. You can almost feel the time pass as you’re listening to Organ Eternal, washing over you with every new turn of its melody. This is These New Puritans creating their version of a single – a track perfectly constrained and immediately accessible, but also crammed full of the beautiful flourishes and ambition that characterised the very highest points of Field of Reeds.
17 // YEAH YEAH YEAHS – SACRILEGE
An absolute diamond amidst the rough and middling Mosquito, Sacrilege is all about power, whether it be the sexual politics of its utterly brilliant video, or the gospel choir which doesn’t just ignite a slow-burner but douses it in petrol and empties a box of matches. Karen O is the conductor – her electrifying performance directing the track’s momentum – on finest loud-quiet, monster-angel form, but this is undoubtedly the whole band at their finest, each element initially contained and steadily building within the trio before finally unleashing into the maximalist.
16 // THE KNIFE – A TOOTH FOR AN EYE
Totally unyielding and often unwieldy, Shaking The Habitual is an intensely powerful, passionate record, driven by and occasionally undone by the central question of its lead single: “When you’re full of fire, what’s the object of your desire?” The Knife have so much to say, and it’s so vital that they say it, that when the potency of their messages gets diluted – either by the simplistic iconography of wealth that adorns the album’s physical package, or the endurance test of quiet obscurity on tracks like Old Dreams Waiting To Be Realised – the disappointment of a missed opportunity feels all the keener.
A Tooth For An Eye is the antidote to all those worries. Karin and Olof set about using “dance as weapons” and the outcome is an exquisite amalgamation of their punk and electronic roots, colourful and charismatic, engaging and empowering, intelligent and invigorating. Their scattergun approach elsewhere is here at its most incisive: from the title’s inversion of the biblical phrase to highlight injustice, to the video’s two cents on gender stereotypes, to the lyrics which take aim at socio-political inequality, corrupt governance and property ownership in a manner far more concerned with the poetic as political than simplistic sloganeering.
15 // JAMES BLAKE – RETROGRADE
For a man whose introspective music feels like mercury is constantly in retrograde, garnering the Mercury for an album containing a song entitled Retrograde feels far too well planned. The track itself sees Blake picking over the contradictory impulses that accompany love.
The distinctive production and vocal delivery encapsulate these contradictions and binaries: soaringly intimate, expansive and sparse, subdued yet interstellar. Lyrically they’re even more pronounced and confused, “Ignore everybody else, we’re alone now”, is both a necessity and an impossibility – no man or woman is an island – but the attempt to find solidarity and contentment in isolation is seen as vital to both personal and romantic growth. His position to the subject is to move on and make something new together whilst being true to the person you used to be… which is even more confused when seemingly derived from both naïve and mature impulses, selfless, patient attempts to help another and the selfish desires which inform those attempts. I give up.
14 // PHOENIX – ENTERTAINMENT
Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix wasn’t just a hard act to follow, it threw the kind of gauntlet down that most band might never be able to match again. Case in point, even before we get into the patient euphoria of Love Like A Sunset or Rome‘s delicate treatise on romantic melancholy and memory through the lens of collapsing empires, its armed with not one but two instantly classic singles straight out of the blocks. The distillation of four albums worth of consummate song-writing and Gallic poise into breathless three-minute pop songs granted us the sophisti-bounce and John Hughes sugar-rush of Lisztomania then 1901 in immediate riposte, fuelled by its transcendent multifaceted refrain, melding pre-chorus, chorus, post-chorus into a single musical megazord.
Tracks like those elevated the band to dizzying, Coachella-headlining heights in the years between their current magnum opus and Bankrupt! Equally, away from the stage lights, the band saw a time to reflect on success and contentment, musically and maritally. Entertainment is the ideal single to encapsulate all these elements: recapturing the attention of the masses after four years away, the challenge of matching let alone topping your previous work, reflecting on where your life has taken you, and moving on from the past. It takes each of those elements on step-by-step. Exhibit A, the impossibly shrill stacatto of the central chiming riff, capable of migraine inducing bobble-headedness, which is as arresting and memorable as anything the band have ever penned. Exhibit B, its simultaneous status as a fusion of and a development from those aforementioned towering singles, their equals in function and yet refreshing distinct in form. The integral part though is Exhibit C, the vocal and lyrical heart of the track. Entertainment finds Thomas Mars in a deeply meditative mode amidst his borderline manic synth-pop surroundings. He uses the celebrity industrial-personality complex as both metaphor and reality in matters of the his heart and through that holds his relationships present and past together, cynicism turning to self-empowerment as he ultimately realises that he’d rather be alone than have to live through the latter any longer. Phoenix knocked it out of the park this year. Again.
13 // FUCK BUTTONS – HIDDEN XS
On an album that deals with rising tension, cacophony and dread throughout – crashing, hammering, blistering, sinister as is its want – for it to close on ten minutes of such euphoria is like that first breath after emerging from under the water, aircraft landing, the final scene of Gravity, a summit reached. Building from a blissed-out twinkling template it encapsulates all of these – in essence, the simple glory of being alive – and moves ever outwards, constantly developing, rising, falling, encompassing and expanding until truly epic in the entirety of its scope. Hidden XS is anxiety dissipating, transfixing, transcendent, utterly glorious music, performed by two artistis at the top of their game.
12 // AUTRE NE VEUT – PLAY BY PLAY
Sat prettily on the front end of Anxiety, Play By Play was the perfect introduction to Arthur Ashin’s second album as Autre Ne Veut if only because it so perfectly embodied the titular feeling’s overwhelming restlessness – all that twinkle and bluster, the twitching drum beats, the semi-stutter of Ashin crooning “Baby”. However – maybe because it’s by far the best track on Anxiety – you always felt as though Play By Play was best consumed on its own – as the five minute slice of pop bravado and posturing that it really is, built from the ground up with layer upon layer of hooky, glorious R&B.
11 // KANYE WEST – NEW SLAVES
Kanye West is many things: hyperconscious and ignorant, crude and erudite, vapid and ambitious, ridiculous and brilliant. New Slaves is all of these things. It’s everything he’s been and done the last few years all at once: Yeezus, Swift-gate, Coachella, Air Yeezys, stage rants, Twitter diarrhoea, 808s and Heartbreak, the Zane Lowe interview, the Jimmy Kimmel interview, losing his mother, becoming a father, Runaway. It’s sparse and industrial. It seethes with hate received and given. It grows manic and breathless. It drops the mic. It erupts into a soulful, orchestral close sampled from a Hungarian rock band and featuring vocals from Frank Ocean. Obviously.
Most significantly though it’s a shot in the dark heard around the world. It’s one of the most famous, definitive human beings of our time not taking it anymore, trying to strip away the bullshit that surrounds and oppresses us all – even and especially his own – and fully lets loose on the institutions that facilitate and maintain that bullshit and oppression, whether it be in prisons or fashion houses, your neighbourhood or the White House. Kanye West is many things, but most thrillingly of all he’s a warts-and-all, leather kilt-wearing, God-complex possessing, extreme talent-having human being.
10 // NILS FRAHM – FOR – PETER – TOILET BRUSHES – MORE
Where Screws might have been all about rebuilding through limitation, Nils Frahm producing music that worked around a broken thumb, Spaces is all about swelling creative expansiveness, integrally melancholic but possessing glorious vitality. This composition is perhaps the finest distillation of all those elements, encountering Frahm as it does in perfect balance between classical patient stateliness and contemporary urgency. Stretching out to the utmost, venturing through a series of shorter sections but managing to be utterly compelling through them all – with the driving experimentalism of the Toilet Brushes portion particularly attention-seizing – this is an utter delight.
9 // DARKSIDE – PAPER TRAILS
Cold desert. A pronounced sense of longing. A quiet sense of dread. From the far horizon light creeps by, two moons chasing after one another in their quiet cat-and-mouse, and I wonder when the third will arrive in this long night. I’m surrounded on all sides by intoxicating space, space you can die in. I place one boot in front of the other.
The chill further sets in when I look at the canopy of stars above, the implacable, distant sentinels watching, judging. I think of the cleansing, violent flames I left behind me and the endless nowhere ahead of me. I pull my backpack closer to me and see my breath float upwards. So much space. So much potential now. “I told you I would find a place to go.”
8 // MOUNT KIMBIE – MADE TO STRAY
The first single from Cold Spring Fault Less Youth has been following me around all year. It was forged in late springtime and then foamed upwards and around my summer, bubbles popping at appropriate moments – mountains, radio studios, desks, road-trips, festival tents. It followed me to Bristol in November, where two bodies ushered it forth until it was snaking its way around The Fleece’s pillars and the corridors of my conscious. Now it’s at the top table it was always destined to reside.
It’s fuelled by this distinctive percussive core, this buzz that’s halfway between a heartbeat and that strange alien chirrup you get from speakers when a signal is incoming. In a way those are both instigative forces – physical and social – equally possessing an innate compulsive force, motivating interaction, action, movement. Made To Stray is all about instigation: the “reckless tracks of impulse” and codes of behaviour that drive us forward. Especially when the vocals kick in halfway through, it sounds like the duo recognising the entrapment of the artistic life they’ve chosen, the life of the road and “rough coasts” they find themselves in. On another reading, it sounds like a description of any drifter born into a post-anything lost generation, slaves and strays all at once. Mainly though, it sounds like the tinnitus I’m getting from listening to this song too much and too loud.
7 // JANELLE MONAE – Q.U.E.E.N.
In the videos of her breath-taking performance from Later… earlier this year, a white-suited Janelle Monáe skids round that all-too-familiar London studio with visceral energy, pitching every note of her sophomore LP’s flagship tunes – Dance Apocalyptic and Q.U.E.E.N – to polished perfection. Though such onstage attack might seem at odds with the fact that Monáe (alongside contemporary and collaborator Miguel) is responsible for some of this decade’s smoothest, most soulful RnB, the Atlanta-based Electric Lady has always seemed to take dismantling preconceptions as a personal responsibility – whether in her vocal support of individuality offstage, or in her track themselves. It’s precisely this which makes Monáe such a great writer of pop music, and there’s little doubt that Q.U.E.E.N is one of the loftiest peaks in a loftier-than-your-average discography.
The track’s signature spring-loaded guitar wobble is released from its cage almost instantly, then controlled and choreographed to perfection as the song evolves, sometimes teasing, sometimes entreating, but never once even considering the possibility of losing purchase on your earlobes. More layers build up above it, yes, but Q.U.E.E.N is never blatant or manipulative. It relies on its own infectiousness to do the dirty work – finding that part of you, however small or well-disguised it may be, that really wants to dance, before proceeding to feed it with soulful sound.
Sonically, there are all sorts of virtues here that could whip the ground out from beneath you, especially what with the way Monáe can blend throwback R&B with orchestral arrangements and seriously retro-sounding flourishes on the keys, barely pausing to catch her breath. Q.U.E.E.N. is as dynamic as the Electric Lady herself– at once both ecstatic and immaculately presented, switching from expansive string breakdowns and passionate rap to the playful and tongue in cheek – however, what really makes the song so damn special is that not only is it a further realisation of the Cyndi Mayweather concept that Monáe’s been pursuing since her first EP and a polished bauble of 24 carat pop, but that it’s also the most feminist, pro-individuality, pro-equality pieces of music to have ever got anywhere near 8 million YouTube hits.
At more than a few moments it can feel as though Q.U.E.E.N. is the embodiment of that strut Monáe seems to own so well, which lets you know she’s forever the ruler of her realm. This track is almost a manifesto for everything that Monáe wants to change about the world – whether that be the demonisation of the ‘other’, judgment, infringement upon people’s human rights – and it’s the fact it pulls off this idealism without a hint of self-congratulation that’s so very important. The sound of preaching has never been sweeter.
6 // LOCAL NATIVES – COLOMBIA
No band has spoken quite so intimately about loss in the last few years than Local Natives. On Gorilla Manor, a characterful, captivating, gorgeously harmonised number called Airplanes with lyrics about chopsticks and encyclopedias, flattened me totally one day when it finally struck home that it was about Kelcey Ayer’s grandfather. I’d somehow missed it.
Perhaps subconsciously I’d blocked out its true meaning due to the loss of my two grandfathers in the year the song was released. Both gone within the same year, both in a manner where I felt like I could and should have done more before they went, at the very least been more present. Similarly Airplane is a celebration of a man’s life, but it’s a celebration weighed down with sadness that he wasn’t better known to Ayer, buoyed by the knowledge that “when I leave my body for the sky, the wait will be worth it”.
There was however, no such block in place for Colombia though. This is an even more personal a song, Ayer outright naming his late mother Patricia and using the first person pronoun in his response to her every line of the song. Yet, despite being even more private, it’s even more direct in its deep connectivity. Now it’s not just about the loss of a person, it’s about the realisation that when that person has been lost, what that person did in their lifetime, who they were and how they were, can only live on as a part of yourself and others they leave behind. Memories of their grace create a legacy to uphold and live up to, and it’s impossible to know that what you’re doing is worthy of that legacy: “Every night I ask myself – am I giving enough?”
5 // EAST INDIA YOUTH – HEAVEN, HOW LONG
The waveform of Heaven, How Long shows a song that’s constantly growing, reaching ever towards the summit. It opens in synthesised ripples, initially gentle butterfly wings beneath a steadily-paced, reflectively-toned vocal delivery. It’s a sequence which continues to reverberate throughout the track, but the effect of those wings is that they incite the hurricane of noise that envelops the close. As Doyle reaches the central moment, an arms in the air, lung purging moment as he repeatedly asks “heaven, how long?” – a cry alternately spiritual, romantic, artistic – the growing urgency and noise rising up beneath him provides the song’s answer at the very least: now. Having growing ever-louder, ever-more layered, ever-more powerful and enrapturing, it eventually erupts into manic euphoria, which swoops in, carries you away and finally drops you flat on your arse.
4 // APPARAT – PV
So far as atmospherics and mood-setting go, nothing this year could compete with the bleak, shifting landscapes of Apparat’s Krieg und Frieden. Even Sascha Ring’s overwhelmingly popular collaboration with Modeselektor was eclipsed by the sheer quality both musically and conceptually of the German producer’s first foray into soundtracking theatre, which not only managed to stand as an album totally removed from the production of War and Peace it was originally written for, but to rush over vast cinematic spaces and considerable palettes of sound with fluidity.
PV, the song at the centre of the LP, actually represents something of a microcosm of Krieg und Frieden, and Ring’s unusual willingness to push listeners way out of their comfort zones is on full show here. From the moment its whir cuts deep into the afterglow of Blank Page, PV starts slowly panning over the disquiet of which Ring has become a master choreographer. It’s one of the most uncompromising pieces of music to have been released this year. And when the four-minute mark arrives, PV suddenly lurching forwards, you’ll struggle to pay attention to anything else.
3 // ARCADE FIRE – REFLEKTOR
Reflektor rattles into being with a distinctive sound: the sound of one of the world’s biggest bands firing the engine up once again.
This is not the same hurdy-gurdy wielding launcher of a thousand imitators that burst out of Montreal in 2004. It’s Grammy-award-winning-Arcade-freaking-Fire, crashing back to earth out of the aether (or carefully executed, just shy of-ubiquitous, borderline irritating marketing campaign, depending on your tolerance for these things).
It’s a release first properly interacted with via a subversive, Google-collaborative interactive video set in Haiti that involved you wave your phone at your webcam like a right dickhead. Oh, and then putting out an Anton Corbijn directed, black-and-white disco-ball fixated bobble-headed weird-fest for good measure.
It’s a song made up of the sort of component parts – 7 minutes upwards of James Murphy-produced, Bowie-featuring, bongo and horn-laden, orchestral disco about the corruption of our capacity for legitimate interconnection in the internet age – that only they could pull together and still get played on the radio. Fuck yeah.
2 // VAMPIRE WEEKEND – HANNAH HUNT
Often even worse the break-up itself is the realisation of the decline beforehand, of sand slipping through your fingers, moments becoming lost in the rain, memories blowing away in the summer breeze. You look back to when the rot set in and you find it goes back even further than you thought: the weeks become months become years you could have changed. You review incidents that meant nothing at all at the time in a new light, and suddenly find them to be crucial turning points. Whilst the exterior was being kept intact, the inside was steadily eaten away. Then it all caves in.
Ezra Koenig tells a story of road-trips, mistrust, and heart-break that’s carried by a woozy, strange and transportive kind of bliss at the out-set. It’s a trap. Those spare delicate rhythms, atmospheric sound and harmonies drop out all of a sudden and then the dams burst. Drums break through, floods of piano erupt, and with them Ezra’s voice breaks, the production making it feel as though he’s singing from somewhere far away but at the very tippest top of his voice. Then it’s all gone again, fading out as the seeming suddenness is shown to be the final act of inarrestabile decline. Now there’s nothing left at all.
Hannah Hunt, might well be the purest, most sophisticated track the band has yet written. They’ve never been more subtle, and yet they’ve never been more purposeful and direct than the emotionally shattering second repeat of the line: “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.” It still kills me every time eight months later.
1 // JON HOPKINS – OPEN EYE SIGNAL
Open Eye Signal deals in tides of physicality, in frenetic energy, in the pulse of the crowd coursing through you.
The title refers to the effect that opening feedback has upon you. It’s the sunrise – whether the one that awakens you from slumber or the one that emerges indifferent to your existence at the end of an all-nighter – and with it the primal, pagan innate response that accompanies it. Despite your bleary eyes, it’s the moment when you feel the world awakening, a new day in your veins.
From there it builds through its buzzing, low-end MS20 riff and rattling percussion, steady and incessant as its surrounding atmosphere becomes adorned with angelic vocal samples and abstract drones.
When the tempo shifts up another notch at the 6-minute mark and that pummelling, deafening throb kicks in even harder there’s nothing else you can do. You’re already transfixed, you’ve made it this far, but now you’re not even present, a puppet, your head, heart, hips, and hooves all perfectly in sync with the mercy and will of Hopkins.
Open Eye Signal is the keystone to the record it lays at the centre of. The first track Hopkins finished recording, it encompasses all the elements, waves and brushstrokes – ambient, urgent, hypnotic, enthralling, sonorous, cage-rattling, loud, quiet, high, low, epic, spontaneous and euphoric – that make Immunity such vital, magnificent listening. It’s also utterly distinct, a fusion of light and dark matter, electronic sophistication and human ingenuity that meant, in a year that has been positively oozing with brilliance, it still shone even more radiantly than the rest.
Thank you for everything. Here’s a playlist: