There seems to be more brass than usual. This, in the year I started to learn the cornet. This is clearly a) the cause b) an effect c) sheer coincidence d) some unquantifiable combination of the above.
The list veers heavily to the folkier end of the spectrum.
Despite listening a lot of radio (3-4 hours a day for parts of the year) it only introduced me to a couple of tracks on the list. (Thesetwo.) (And, to be fair, they did play a couple of others I’d already been aware of.)
There was also a bunch of tracks that didn’t make it into the twelve, (some of which I’d begun writing up before I actually thought to count how many songs I’d picked) which I’ll throw in here:
One thing comes after another. I’ve tried to sequence this list with some sense of flow (albeit not as tightly/forced as last year) because music is never static - how each moment flows to the next is usually more important than what happening in any given moment.
Kaki King is an extraordinarily accomplished technical guitarist, watching her play, it’s a joy to see the dazzling layered tones coming from one guitar. The Fire Eater (from Glow but I went for the unnacompanied version) flows through several distinct regions, moving through different aspects of her style, from sparse tension building to rhythmic release and a gentler harmonic comedown.
But her playing never becomes tiresome, ego-driven showing off (as can be the risk). Despite the complexity there’s always a thread of beautiful simplicity to follow: no section is incomprehensibly dense, no transition feels bolted on or jarring, the playing never overwhelms the track. Beautiful.
Ok, I promise to stop complaining about my own one-track rule after this, but context is important. It’s why I prefer albums to singles. It’s why I still buy hard copies. It’s why I’m writing these.
North Sea Scrolls has done a lot to create context for itself: a concept album with spoken word introductions/narrations, an accompanying time-line, paintings, and live shows where they dress appropriately and use a projector to inject extra context into proceedings. Weaving a surreal, sprawling, interconnected, alternate history of our green and pleasant land. Context.
Fortunately, a heavy folk song about brutal morris dancers is gonna be awesome whatever the context.
My favourite part of the Matrix series is the haunted/glitching house segment of the Animatrix. It managed to be quiet and beautiful while remaining completely faithful to the rules of a world more obviously tuned for hectic thrills.
The Walkers Lament pulls off a similar trick, embedding a moment of stillness and beauty into a zombie apocalypse. A post apocalyptic folk ballad capturing the deep sadness of having to shoot your loved ones before they eat your brains.
It also manages the rather magical feat of not sounding like a new song. There’s something about the way the structure is stripped to the most resonant elements, where easy rhymes and certain lines invite a singalong on the first listen, that feels like it’s been passed through the refining process of an oral tradition.
Of course, even if the song had been around for years, I’m pretty sure Tara Bratton’s gorgeous performance would still count as a definitive version. A beautifully clear voice that pours a lot of heart into what could have been very alien subject matter.
I can’t help but think Call Me The Breeze is the wrong choice of single from Sugaring Season. Oh, it’s a lovely tune and I can see why it might be considered an easy entry point (especially in a market where Laura Marlin has been successful), but: Beth Orton is one of my absolute favourite singers and, from an album that acts as an broad yet subtle showcase for her voice, it’s a track which does little to accent the idiosyncrasies that make me love her voice so much.
Dawn Chorus has a relatively sparse backing of delicate guitar, warm double bass and shuffling brushed drums, where the vocal takes centre stage, vocals which are unmistakably Beth Orton, crescendoing in a rush of syllables that, through rhythm and repetition, shake off semantic shackles into a bubbling cascade of the human body as musical instrument: a sonic sculpture poured from a mould of lungs and vocal chords and tongue and teeth and a lifetime of singing, from cradle to studio. Lovely.
One difficulty in selecting individual songs is losing a sense of context. In the case of Dorcus, that loss is especially severe because its position on this list has a lot to do with how I first heard it.
It was a month of strange gigs, one of which was a night of electronic musicians, mostly sitting and poking at electronic musical instruments. Heck, one laptop musician may well have pressed play and sat checking Facebook for all I know. Kemper Norton alleviated this somewhat by having several instruments, walking around the stage to play/trigger different segments of the music.
But Dorcus*, played on the harmonium and with sung lyrics, stood adrift on the night as something magical. Now, I’m not the sort of preposterous snob who goes on about “real instruments” - any tool for making music is a “real” instrument – but I have to confess, the human voice is something that has a fundamental resonance. A human anchor in a sea of ethereal, electronic sound.
It has a similar effect thanks to it’s position on Carn, the rest of the ep provides context with Kemper Norton’s woozy, “slurtonic” atmosphere. But I’m picking individual tracks: I can’t just site the rest of the ep. Fortunately, it’s bloody good in its own right.
It builds on a drone with washes of static and slurtronic ambience in a way that hardly draws attention to itself, but provides an open space for the warmth and beauty inherent in the human voice. The immediacy and character that can be heard in singing is hard to beat, and this song showcases that in a gently poignant way.
*Given that I went to the gig a while before the ep came out it’s possible I’ve gotten muddled up with a different track. Nonetheless, the effect is equivalent and Dorcus is a sublime track either way.
“Weird/strange/odd/not-normal” is only an insult from someone scared of new things.
At the very least it should be neutral, but personally I love that feeling of acclimatising my brain to the unfamiliar. Which I mention because I’m struggling to find a more precise description for Quetev Meriri than beautifully strange. A conclusion doubtless accentuated by the fact I don’t speak Hebrew, but also an inherent part of the disorienting collage of sounds coming from their music.
There’s a lot of gorgeous brain melting stuff on BeEle HaYamin, but Illuminations ג has the added bonus of cramming a lot of brain twisting stuff into a rather short span of time. I’m a big fan of density, and cramming animal noises, discord, off kilter timing, springy noises and a piano pushed into music box territory, into less than two minutes is welcome blast of dense strangeness.
There are two main kinds of Christmas song: one is tinsel and stockings, excitement and bright colours; the other is curled in front of a fire on a cold night, a full belly and a glass of mulled wine. Madam’s interpretation of the Coventry Carol is certainly the later, although I think someone’s spiked the wine.
It’s a 16th century carol and one of my favourites. It has a beautiful, tragic melody and, usually sung as a choir, uses some harmonies that are somewhat strange to modern ears. It also focusses on the death of countless children which is a minor story beat in most tellings of the Nativity.
On top of a gorgeously fragile vocal and ominous cello line, Madam accentuate the strangeness and the darkness with various studio techniques. I particularly like the heavily panned reverse reverb on the drum.
It may not be the most joyous of festive tunes, but it is an marvellously sinister version of an incredible carol.
Diversions Vol. 2 is a warm, effortlessly moving album combining the folk tradition and charm of the Unthanks with the rich, expansive sound of Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band. If I had to pick one song, and I do (it’s the rules), it would have to be the utterly magnificent King Of Rome.
Musically stunning and emotionally moving, it’s a truly wonderful song about a somewhat unlikely subject: pigeon fancying.* If you’d told me 2012 would find me welling up in the street as the radio plays a song about a pigeon being blown off course I, well, I might have believed you, but it’s still kinda surprising.
It’s a superbly constructed piece of storytelling, establishing the pigeon as a source of everyday hope and joy, before throwing all his dreams into peril. The warm, intimate vocals of the Unthanks carry every beat of the story, illuminating every moment of yearning, defeat and victory. There’s a deeply personal concern for Charlie: even “I told you so” is sung with love.
And Charlie’s response catches in my throat every time.
Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band paint the picture with a subtle brush, holding back when a light swell carries the mood and pushing to the forefront when emotional release is needed. The instrumental section towards the end builds layer upon layer, lifting up on shining wings through radiant sunset clouds, always finding home.
I’ve avoided ordering this list in any sort of ranking, but if I had this probably would have been number one. Every element is exceptional and they work together in beautiful harmony.
*Despite picking a song about pigeon fancying played by a brass band, I am, in fact, a southerner. I know.
There are few things as satisfying as musicians who know their instruments and each other well enough to let the music go wherever it wants without fear. That golden point where each musician is worthy of centre stage, but never slips into the realm of overbearing ego likely to trample the emergent beauty of a heartfelt collaboration.
Lepistö and Lehti push their instruments far and wide (honestly, I discovered a bunch of different sounds I didn’t know an accordion could make) completely backing each other up at every turn, making the sound of accordion and double bass a phenomenally rich and diverse combination.
Kaksi (fittingly enough, the Finnish for “Two”) spends the first half with a pulsing accordion sound providing a space for bowed double bass to roam and play, before switching roles for the accordion to take centre stage. It’s a deceptively simple structure where each musician has his chance to shine, but each trusting their partner enough to know when to step back. The pulsing builds to a transition point (and again at the end of the track) of a tight, fluid interplay where the both complement each other stunningly.