EOY, MATTERS

ALBUMS OF THE YEAR // TOP 5

LONG OVERDUE. FOREVER RELEVANT. THE BEST OF 2013.

5 // DANIEL AVERY – DRONE LOGICaverySincerity fucking sucks. Or, maybe fairer to say is that the kind of sincerity you meet in most contemporary music fucking sucks. There are too many examples of artists who seem to work with the idea that the primacy of their voice and the ‘authentic’/’wholesome’ aesthetic and/or instrumentation that comes alongside this is sufficient material for the assertion that their emotional clout is at once distinctive and unique, yet still entirely necessary to communicate to the slumbering masses devoid of banjo and waistcoat. This aesthetic conceals a myriad of sins – from unendurably shit music to ideological complicity with some of the more po-faced violences of 2013/14’s politics to, again, some horrendously poor music.

 In spite of my definitely valid and not at all irrational disdain for this current brand of sincerity, there is a beauty to Drone Logic that I only seem to be able to describe as sincerity. And this seems to me to stem from the album’s thoroughgoing humanity and warmth. That doesn’t make it a sentimental album. At times Avery flirts so closely with club music vibes that sentimentality seems genuinely to be one 4/4 beat around the corner but one of his main skills on Drone Logic is embracing the joyous qualities of that driving club aesthetic before throwing a guitar pedal feedback loop or squelching synth line that carries on a euphoric melody but at a pitch or tone antithetical to any of nostalgic 90s fist bumping that might punctuate a night at Fabric. The kind of experimentation on display is an affirmative playfulness and openness. The surprises come more in the way of loops or sounds that throw away expectations but that make the results all the more rewarding. There is gratification aplenty, as there should well be with such beat-driven music, but the gratification never feels cheap or forced. Water Jump offers 3 or 4 such rewards throughout its 8 and half minutes without ever employing a predictable drop or malignant trope of Guetta euphoria. Knowing We’ll Be Here is about as close to a utopian impulse in 2013’s eclectic (and sometimes magnificent) vomit of club music – the voice seems rootless and able to appear at once and disappear just as easily but it is always willing you in, and when the beat reaches a boat-party, sun-drenched, melody-line climax Avery draws back to the bareness of the melody line and an increasing feedback-formed background to drift with us to the end of the record.

This all seems very cuddly and soppy. It is. That is because my fear of sincerity is not a fear of a display of emotion or a dislike of an art that actively attempts to engage the listener as an affective agent in their own right. It is because this album seems to manage to manoeuvre a display of these genuinely affecting gestures that seem to be so lacking in contemporary music whilst so much of this contemporary music breathily-and-oh-so-truly-fucking-honestly tells us it is making said gestures. Drone Logic invigorates some of the aesthetics of inclusivity so flaunted by those who experienced early rave culture without becoming nostalgic for that time in itself, seeking to re-engage club music’s ability to genuinely move and gratify its listeners whilst being very willing to throw in some surprises and to engage with materials and techniques not of the traditional club music ilk. For me this means it sits perfectly alongside some of my other favourite records of 2013. Whilst some of those records discomfort and unsettle, Drone Logic comes alongside them to offer the moments of respite that give you the energy to engage with the uncomfortable and the alienating.

 CHRIS BLEWITT

4 // KANYE WEST – YEEZUS

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How best to talk about Yeezus has been troubling me for quite a while. At its best, it is an album of the sublimely brash. At its worst, it is an album of the sublimely brash. So how to proceed with talking about an album that seems to be driven by its inherent contradictions has been causing me some (admittedly infrequent and incredibly context-specific) unease.

There could well be a book about the contradictions of Yeezus (hopefully as an accompaniment to David Harvey’s on the contradictions of Capital) but that book would probably be shit. The contradictions are numerous and visible but they really are what makes this such an enthralling album; I tried to summarise them all but stopped at sex/wealth brags vs. racial politics because you really don’t need me to tell you that it might sit uncomfortably for most to listen to album that openly and aggressively (and sometimes articulately) attacks the persistence of racism in a supposedly post-race society whilst at the same time being told that Kanye would like to combine oral sex with Asian women and a certain orangey-red sauce.

The important thing for me then, is to understand that the contradictions are perhaps the most obvious and immediate element of an album that denies the listener much of the cathartic and/or vicarious value that is expected of much mainstream hip-hop. It’s claustrophobic, relentless and West is sure as fuck willing to let us know that there is no listener-wish-fulfillment here – this is very much his outrageous life, and, unless you’re explicitly invited along, you’re expected to wait outside with his Benz (which you also may not look at for more than 5 seconds, and most definitely must not touch).

The production is impeccable, as would be expected of the gang West assembled for the album, and the album’s allure owes a lot to their work. It is not so much the much-referenced and not really actually-appearing minimalism that makes the production noteworthy. Rather, I would say that it is the boldness of structure. Of course there are plenty of interesting sounds flying around but they are hardly ground-breaking; the ambitious denial of comfort or catharsis comes from the beats’ circularity and repetition, alongside the structures in which the variety of samples appear. Send It Up is a perfect example. Sonically it seems like one of the less interesting tracks on the album, but the contorted, pitch shifting siren that runs throughout on the same melody makes it a thoroughly circular piece. King Louie’s perfectly malevolent monotone helps too, as we are caught with a repetitious robotism – forever on loop, always threatening to lead to some sort of Skrillex romp, always returning to the same melody, always maintaining the threat of what might come next, before a 25 second burst of a sample that has no aural trace or precedent in the previous 2 and a half minutes pulls the track to its end, of course with the looping melody still in tow. The same kinds of affects are induced in the insistent low-end throbs of I Am a God, for example, as well as that track’s skipping, stuck-in-purgatory beat that re-emerges throughout. Then of course there are the screams and gasps that punctuate the album, acting as the signifiers of a profound discomfort which articulate only that: a feeling, an unease, without feeling the need to explain themselves. Herein we find what is for me perhaps the greatest facet of the album’s denial of catharsis: it is an album of feeling and exclamations that is almost entirely devoid of explanation. And every hint of space or rest-bite is immediately undercut, Justin Vernon’s or Frank Ocean’s delightfully auto-tuned r’n’b emotivities are themselves too de-humanised to offer full emotional engagement, and when Ocean is allowed loose for those few seconds in the final minute of New Slaves it quickly fades away into the distanced, low-end rumble of Hold My Liquor.

 Of course there are an abundance of contradictions that do actually need to be considered and discussed. The brazen assertion of masculinity is defiant and pretty idiotic, for example, and cannot be excused by me simply saying ‘oh, but it’s the contradictions and the (relative) discomfort that make it such a good album’. The point is best understood that the abundance of exclamations without explanations is what make the album uncomfortable to its core, and therein lies its power.

CHRIS BLEWITT

3 // VAMPIRE WEEKEND – MODERN VAMPIRES OF THE CITY

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“…the gamut is once again being well and truly run sonically and thematically. Irish-folk inflections, reggaeton grooves and even a post-internet psychobilly freakout are all on the cards, alongside the high-necked riffery, Brooklynite balladry, vocal pitch-shifts, and harpsichord jams previously stocked in their locker.

Each new angle is approached with the same measured control which ensures that even if a certain aspect isn’t quite the right fit, it never upsets the whole. This is epitomised by the arabesque Worship You which incessantly shifts gears from break-neck to stratospheric between verse and chorus, gloriously straddling its middle-Eastern backing cries, frenetic synthesised guitar solo, and even moments of Joshua Tree-esque grandiosity, via the incessantly rumbling bedrock of marching drums throughout. There’s a freedom in their experimentations, which suggests that they’ve finally warded off the bug-bear of faux-outraged critiques of cultural colonialism (though they might have replaced this with furious SAAB enthusiasts). In fact, the sheer confidence with which they’ve continued extending this melange of genre, without losing the singularly important strength of writing the song as a song, has been one of the strongest and most rewarding elements of the band’s continued output.

However, the most significant aspect of this confidence is translated in Koenig’s lyrical work. He maintains his almost FLARF-poetry aspect at points, notably on tracks like Finger Back and Step: the canny lyrical switch-ups which are occasionally conceived of as smart-aleck witticisms, the alternately ubiquitous and obscure reference-points critiqued as solely designed to throw off people like Chris Baio’s “long-lost cousin” Steve Buscemi. But this time round, more strikingly and powerfully than on their previous LPs, these idiosyncrasies are equally matched and even usurped by moments of pure directness, typified by the emotionally-shattering chorus of Hannah Hunt: “If I can’t trust you then damn it Hannah, there’s no future, there’s no answer.”

3.  In The Absence Of A god

 Where admiration firmly falls into the great ball-pit of the besotted though are Vampire Weekend’s ventures into spirituality. Themes of faith, death and after-life recur throughout, but they’re fully consecrated on the album’s (and perhaps thus far the band’s) crowning achievement Ya Hey. […] The band set about capturing a deep-set existential grief, a contradiction that works away at the heart of both the personal and international, with a celestial magnificence and an utter lack of pretence that Time magazine is trying to deny Generation Y.

The Ivy League bozos who once rapped about “wack calzone” weren’t supposed to be able to sing with such nuanced supremacy about a world that fell out of love with God.

But they did.”

EXCERPT FROM CTS’ RVW

2 // THESE NEW PURITANS – FIELD OF REEDS

These-New-Puritans-Field-of-Reeds

Pitting These New Puritans against the rescinded promise of a pop album wasn’t the smartest idea Jack Barnett’s ever come up with. Though he did manage to go back on it well prior to the creation of the Southenders’ third studio album, the inconsistency of suggesting uber-accessibility and then delivering fifty four minutes of orchestral sprawl dogged Field of Reeds for most of last year – even as it swept up general critical reverence, and waltzed to Drowned in Sound’s Neptune Award with hands firmly in pockets. Alienated Hidden fans griping in YouTube comment sections far and wide can attest to how difficult a piece of art it is, but ask anyone on the other side and they’ll tell you (flirting quite happily with music crit cliché) that Field of Reeds was one of the most immensely, intensely rewarding listens of 2013. Yes, you do have to revisit this album persistently – you have to play it at home before you go to bed, or use it as the antidote your commute – but only because it’s been made for precisely that kind of consumption. The convoluted song structures, the mechanically low drone of Barnett’s vocals, the palpable ambition of every brushstroke – rather than being problematic, these traits are precisely what lend Field of Reeds its power, building mighty structures of sound from that initial tread of piano in The Way I Do.

 This is an album that you open up and explore, and the landscape within is wholly and utterly enriched by the size and complexity of everything about Field of Reeds. It’s this ultimate selfishness which make it such a stunning listen from start to finish, because the album only cares, really, about sound and composition. Barnett is a cryptic, laborious writer of music, and you can feel it in the shape of the LP – that each song was made to collaborate with the tracks around it, with little to no regard for actual listeners. Even the most tightly choreographed, overtly accessible, track on the LP, Organ Eternal, is a slave to its position in Barnett’s grand scheme, providing the first graspable entry point to a record that’s otherwise gorgeously devoted to itself.

JOSH SUNTHARISIVAM

Field of Reeds will lead you astray. An archaic heft colours These New Puritans neo-classical behemoth, old light coming through to the present, hanging heavy like the air of rooms that have been long left unopened. Though surrounded by the ostensibly warmer elements of the orchestral or choral, there’s still a sense of sparse, circumlocutory cold, embedded in the keys of the resonator piano and crooked fragility of Jack Barnett’s voice, evidenced to the utmost on the album’s core V (Island Song) in particular. Consequently, even within the most accessible moment Fragment Two, the remit remains a kind of graceful oppressiveness, borne from the intimidating and yet enrapturing heart of darkness that lies within the album’s bounds.  It’s a record possessed of simultaneously transporting but paralysing beauty, reaching deep into your heart and psyche whilst remaining somehow always outside of reach, alien to full comprehension.

CTS

1 // JON HOPKINS – IMMUNITY

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Immunity sounds like the Hadron Collider in the hands of the Old Testament god. It deals in awesome hammer-strikes of physicality amidst enveloping swathes of ethereality. Songs revolve around phrases like frozen moments in time, each revolution revealing something, casting new light and unearthing new perspective in the strange buoyancy of the space between punch and floor.

A key turns and we’re off. We Disappear serves as the album’s Rosetta stone – running the gamut from hard to soft, from stratospheric to granular – an ultra-condensed 4:50 microcosm by which we can glimpse if not yet fully understand all that will follow. Then Open Eye Signal (which as you know, we love an inconceivable amount) comes into being like a machine-made sunrise coursing through the veins of the morning, and all the more biblically awful for it.

Breathe This Air teases with all-out enormity before dissipating into breathless, peaceful chimes, before Collider takes on the mantle of that abandoned enormity and enters the boxing ring. Jangling with nervous electricity it drowns the stifled sexuality of its vocal samples in ever-building, ever-pounding polyrhythms and encompassing, enrapturing production. It’s scrambling, it’s titanic and it’s all too much: the record topples under the weight of this central moment of collision and collapses into a rare moment of silence.

Amidst this seismic fracture emerges Abandon Window in all its finely-tuned warmth, opening the door to the space of practically perceptible peace which dominates the latter half of the record. Throughout these tracks especially – though it serves to retroactively heighten its presence in the preceding tracks also – the classical roots that have allowed Hopkins to grow to such heights are foregrounded. The atmosphere of Form By Firelight, Sun Harmonics and Immunity is simultaneously sparse and yet holistically possessed of all his song-craft, using the gorgeous, resonant poetry of those titles as both guide and canvas for the elements in that atmosphere to weave their magic. Titanic keys, undulating throbs, spine-chilling chimes, percussive stutters and heart murmurs, hymnal vocals, soaring tides of static – all expertly packed in and on one another, extending and elevating the overarching kaleidoscopic mood-scape.

Immunity is a reconciliation, the fruit of a 34 year old explorer’s 9 months of recording, a record of a somehow meagre sounding 8 tracks running for a transcendent 60 minutes. It’s a reflection and a fulfilment of all that Hopkins has been – from the early disillusionment and eventual abandonment of his early work through to the roles he wears so lightly today: sublime soundtracker, Eno contemporary, Coldplay and Creosote collaborator, possessor of a monolith of truly modern electronic music. It contains multitudes of endless subtleties; your impulsive, uncontrollable movement constantly rearticulating between aggression and beauty; moments of peace that hint at storms in the distance. It’s android music, ushering forth compelling, utterly human emotion through supposedly cold machines. It’s Jon Hopkins’ finest work so far and a promise of so much more to come.

CHRISTOPHER T. SHARPE

Being preposterously overdue on the AOTY lists has now become a weird tradition at Arbiter of Taste. It ends now. Thank you for your patience x

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EOY, MATTERS

AOTSOTY // TOP 20

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:

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MATTERS

MATTERS // MERCURY PRIZE // INNATE ADAPTIVITY

 

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JOSH SUNTHARISIVAM

Underneath the crystal clear folk warbling of King Creosote was where I first encountered the handiwork of Jon Hopkins.  Then there was the soundtrack to Monsters, 2010’s tense, low-budget sci-fi romance, where the veteran producer’s noises snapped quietly at the heels of the central lovers as they trekked through the alien-infested belt of northern Mexico.

The looming silhouette of Hopkins was definitely a collaborative one. It wasn’t until Immunity then, that Hopkins’ music first confronted me as isolated from any collaborative dimension (or should I say in the lead up to Immunity’s release, when Open Eye Signal’s angular, antagonistic synth line forced its way between my ears and summarily refused to vacate that space).  The delay made it all the more astounding.

I began working backwards, increasingly staggered by his intense versatility and skill as a jack-of-all-trades from just a fleeting glance at his heaving CV. A writing credit for Life in Technicolor (the choice cut from the apex of Coldplay’s popularity sampling Light Through The Veins), a brief stint as Imogen Heap’s keyboard player, an association with – and therefore the acquisition of talent via osmosis from – Brian Eno and Leo Abrahams. Then there’s the mass of proto-Immunity noise called Insides: criminally overlooked by the majority of everyone everywhere in the world (ever).

Now when I took a step back to admire the landscape of Open Eye Signal – the unrelenting reconsideration of that synth line, squashing and squelching and pushing forward – I could see it all, the outcome of all those steadily snowballing encounters, experiences and experimentations: the sheer brilliance of it (and the sheer brilliance of him!).

Immunity deserves to win the Mercury Prize because it plays so fast and loose with the boundaries between electronic and non-electronic music, and still manages to make an effortlessly cohesive job of it.  The sparse, wonky loops and lopsided beats that make up the most propulsive sections of the album (the likes of Collide’, Open Eye Signal, and the back end of Breathe This Air), are brought to life with sheer attention to detail, Hopkins wringing the tautology out of even the most repetitious tracks, whilst the conversely spacious second half seems to wallow more contently in its own ambient noise.

Much has been made of the supposed concept of the album – these eight songs plotting the arc of your average night out – but Hopkins’ real skill lies in the way he can make electronic music sound like it’s been hand-crafted.  Whether it’s weaving the vocals of King Creosote into the gaps of the title track, drifting through Abandon Window’s abstract sound, or even cracking out the opening trial-by-fire that is the asymmetric beat of We Disappear, you feel as though these tracks really were created – like his Boiler Room might lead you to believe – improvised in a quiet room, with the company of three or so Kaoss Pads, rather than on a laptop.

As it is they’ve actually been deconstructed and subsequently rebuilt to maximise the spontaneity and ‘live’-ness of his performances. What this means is that not only has the man made one of the best electronic albums of the year, but that he’s made an album that ain’t just for denizens of Resident Advisor and Beatport.  This is electronic music at its least alienating. No, you probably won’t love it on first listen, but Immunity can as easily weave its slow-burning magic on us self-professed indie boys as it can on EDM fanatics.  It’s a crossover that’s far more ambitious than Settle’s ever could be because it doesn’t compromise on genre. It works in subtleties.

Immunity doesn’t sound like an album that was made in a year.  And when you consider all the sorts of conceptual contributors that Hopkins cites – from hypnosis, to nature, to the affect music has on listeners – it seems ever more unlikely that an album coming from such a variety of fragmented directions could ever have been birthed in such a straightforward period of composition.  But this is why Immunity is special – because it benefits from all the collaborative experience that Hopkins picked up as he wound his way towards it.  The likes of Diamond Mine and the soundtrack to Monsters are shadowy presences.  If you were to listen carefully enough, you could probably hear Viva La Vida too.

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MATTERS

MATTERS // LOVING THE CREW

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The good ship Arbiter is setting out on brave new seas, and in response to the conch’s call, a hardy crew has assembled.

Reviews, essays and all manner of creativity from this lovely lot will be appearing before you even know it. However, before we get to all of that, it seems pertinent to introduce you to each of them. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a handful of these freshly plucked writers/artists/creators, giving them to chance to spin a few words in order to give you a sense of their individual niches within the grand, Technicolor Arbiter of Taste pillow-fort we’re building.

They’re picking their Top 5 moments of 2013 thus far, plucking the ripest fruit from the tallest branches of everything this spectacular year has offered up so far. An embarrassment of riches has been piled up in near-all musical climes over the last eight months, and so the intention is that – as well as an opportunity for a meet-and-greet – these short lists will be a handy guide for all and sundry within our present Cave of Wonders

Are you sitting comfortably?

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