Tuesday, 18 December 2012

My Favourite Albums of 2012 Part 2

Right, let's pick up where we left off shall we? For those who missed part one, you can find it here.

5. Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Psychedelic Pill

Psychedelic Pill kicks off with the epic, 28 minute long "Driftin' Back". That sentence alone will probably be enough for you to decide whether this album is for you or not. Personally I love just being absorbed by Neil and the Horse's longer stuff and getting lost in my own world listening to it.

Having written his memoir Waging Heavy Peace, Psychedelic Pill finds Neil in a rather reflective mood.
On "Driftin' Back", he muses over the state of recorded music today ("When you hear my song, You only get five percent. You used to get it all") and how the advent of MP3's has killed sound quality. ("I used to dig Picasso, Then the big tech giant came along and turned him into wallpaper."). As if the point needed hammering home further, the title track which follows features particularly harsh production making it sound like your speakers have turned to cloth when Neil sings (the alternative version at the album's end is a God-send.)

"Ramada Inn" explores how love can last after routine sets in (and seems to be in reference to his wife and disabled son), while album closer "Walk Like A Giant" mulls over the ravages of time and how fickle his generation were in their drive for change("Me and some of my friends, We we gonna save the world... But then the weather changed").
A ragged, stunning piece of work.

4. Cat Power - Sun

2012 was a bit of a mixed year for Chan Marshall, A.K.A. Cat Power, to say the least. Coping with turning 40, splitting from her long term boyfriend and then having to see him marry Agyness Dean, and cancelling tour dates due to her ill health. Although she now seems in good spirits thankfully, certainly she feels well enough to lampoon herself on Funny Or Die:

She also made herself bankrupt funding the making of Sun, a move which should hopefully pay off in the long run financially (it was her label Matador's first record to debut inside the Billboard Top 10) and at the very least has resoundingly paid off musically. 

Lead single "Ruin" is a lively affair with driving keys and drums, bemoaning materialism, while opener "Cherokee uses the same devices to illicit a more haunting and affecting sound ("If I die before my time, Bury me upside down"). The production on the whole is pretty uncharacteristic of her previous chanteuse-ish reputation and as mentioned above some songs have much more pace than her previous work, but her vocals are still those of a woman laid emotionally bare, "Manhattan" is a particular triumph in this regard.

Hopefully the catharsis of this record will help Chan move forward.

3. Beach House - Bloom

More dream pop excellence from Baltimore-based Beach House. The pair are the kind of band you always kind of expect to find in the shadows, and that mystique is maintained on this, their fourth record. From the echoey riffs of Alex Scally's guitar to the lofty vocals of Victoria Legrand, the hallmarks of the bands sound which they'd excelled in using on previous effort Teen Dream are all here on a record that is undoubtedly more of an evolution than a revolution. But as the old adage goes "If it ain't broke...".

The opening half of the record in particular is a terrific atmospheric experience, as one song gently follows on from the previous one and the care and attention put into the songs becomes evident. The wistfulness of "Lazuli" and "Other People" are to die for, while the likes of "Wild" come close to matching previous revelatory moments such as "Ten Mile Stereo".

It's still difficult to not get misty-eyed when listening to a Beach House record, and this album is certainly an example of "more of the same" doing no harm.

2. Richard Hawley - Standing At The Sky's Edge

I think this will now make it my third entry where I gush over this album and Richard Hawley, but the only time I'll stop gushing over Richard is when he stops being excellent and I don't anticipate that happening any time soon.

Having said that, Standing At The Sky's Edge will have undoubtedly caused some alienation amongst those that love him for him crooning, nostalgic romanticism. The album is much heavier than previous efforts. 
The crashing drums of "She Brings The Sunlight", the big riffs of "Down In The Woods" and "Leave Your Body Behind You" and the bleak subject matter of the title track (taking the perspective of several people in harsh circumstances in the titular area of Sheffield Sky Edge) are all enveloped in production that ranges from psychedelica to shoegaze and gives the album a much darker tone.

The record is undoubtedly, by Richard's own admission, his angry record, written mostly in light of his differences of opinion with our current Government. But Hawley finds time to be gentle, and dare I say it at times frisky, too. "Don't Stare At The Sun" is a lovely little ditty about riding kites with his son, with Richard's voice as touching as it was on the heights of Cole's Corner. "Seek It" also finds Hawley keen to show affection, "you won't find another's eyes so blinded by love" he croons.
You also get the best of both worlds in brilliant closer "Before", with Hawley's voice virtually segregated from the dramatic guitars so that it has space to shine. A marvellous record. 

1. Chromatics - Kill For Love

As much as I love Richard (and his album was my favourite of the year for so long), this is undoubtedly the record I've spent the most time this year obsessing over.

Despite having losing out to Cliff Martinez in the running to compose the soundtrack to 2011's brutal indie film hit Drive, 2012 still managed to be a high watermark year for Chromatics head honcho Johnny Jewel. "Tick Of The Clock", a track from the band's 2007 album Night Drive which wound up featured in Drive, continued to give the band some exposure via its appearance in HTC's ad-campaigns this year. In addition, Jewel's continued obsession with music in film despite missing out on the Drive gig eventually led to the creation of Kill For Love, an absolute masterpiece.

Although the band are primarily one of the leading lights in the Italo-disco revival, the scale of ambition on this record has generated a veritable Smorgasbord of electronic music that is sure to cater to all tastes. Subtly reworked classics (their excellent cover of Neil Young's "Into The Black"). The throbbing, pulsing synth-pop of the title track. The hazy balladeering of "The River" (lead singer Ruth Radelet absolutely shines on all of these tracks). The moving ambient sequence of "These Streets Will Never Look the Same" and "Broken Mirrors". All are prime examples of how large a catchment area the album possesses with respect to the ways in which electronic music can move you (figuratively and literally). 

Most importantly despite this variety, the different tracks never sound disparate and the album very much stands as one you get the most joy from listening as a whole. From start to finish, the experience you feel listening to this record is, well, cinematic. You feel songs are placed at certain points in the album because of how they fit the narrative as much as how they fit in sonically. If "Into The Black" were the pre-credits introduction and "Kill For Love" the opening credits, then "Back From The Grave" would be the first plot point.

In addition to being a band of stunning artistry, they are also a band of stunning generosity. On Jewel's Soundcloud page not only will you find a stream of the album in full (which you can listen to below, or here if the embedding messes up), but also a download for outtakes from the album's sessions, and he's also made a drumless version of 11 of the albums tracks available here.

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So there you have it. It turned out to be a pretty cracking year for music. Here's to 2013, and Merry Christmas!