To quote one of my favourite songs of all time, well it looks like we might have made it, it looks like we’ve made it to the end.
The final 5, the point in X-Factor where the novelty acts are kicked to the curb, the point in the premier league when only the elite and mega rich lurk, the crème de la crème, the best of the best. The point where brilliance become greatness, where we go from what was very good to the ones that live long in the memory and have the potential to start creeping into greatest album ever debates.
Perhaps i’m over egging it a little but here we are, the last 5 albums of the year, they’re all frankly brilliant. The sort of albums you can listen to time and time again and pick out something better each time. The sort of albums you pick a favourite track from and it changes on every listen. These put simply are outstanding, must listen, wonderful, wonderful records, and picking a winner from these was the toughest bit of this whole run-down. The top two has fluctuated near daily, in fact I’m still not entirely sure I’m not going to change my mind by the time I write it down!
Winners every one, ladies and gentlemen my top 5 favourite albums of the year…
NICK CAVE & THE BAD SEEDS – PUSH THE SKY AWAY (Bad Seeds Ltd)
The moment I saw this stunning album cover I think I knew that Nick & The Bad Seeds were onto a winner with this record. The stunning image of a suited Cave gesturing to the nude woman head in her hands, with the simple type writer written font, was so open to interpretation so full of intrigue and so beautifully simplistic, plus it said Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds on it, and let’s face it Nick and Co very rarely let you down. So what were we to expect from Push The Sky Away, now without the departed Mick Harvey as has been widely been reported this was essentially the exact same band as Grinderman. Now Grinderman were a fabulously, filthy and ferocious all out rock band, but they always had a sense of fun and a playfulness that meant they could never quite be taken as anything other than the musicians letting off steam and having the time of their lives. They made two records, both are remarkable but they weren’t Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, they had an entirely different feel. From the moment preview track We No Who U R was shown to the world it was clear that the work as Grinderman was not a preview of what was to come from the new Bad Seeds record. This was the serious, haunting, beautiful sound of Cave and the boys flexing their wings. Some people were initially underwhelmed, feeling that it lacked the energy that we’d come to expect, I even heard people call it boring. Personally I thought it was astonishing, slowly unfolding, gently meandering through moods and sonic textures. Cave’s gravely tone was complimented by stunningly cooed backing vocals, gentle piano and Martyn Casey’s unique bass playing which is prominently wonderful throughout this record. The song ends with the Cave hallmark creepy lyrics “We know who you are, and we know where you live and we know there’s no need to forgive” he’s certainly not suddenly become the man you want to take home to mother!
Water’s Edge, lyrically at least, sounds like something out of a US teen drama, but is actually talking about his life in his latest home Brighton. Watching the girls come down from the capital and be fawned over by the Brighton boys, if you’ve ever seen the stag do’s down at the Pier you see the sneering Cave’s point, he sounds like an old man peering out from behind his curtains with both disdain and lust. The whole thing leaves you feeling a little grubby, and Mr Cave is probably the master of that! Jubilee Street is better still, it’s a classic Bad Seeds tale of lust and prostitution, the gently meandering guitar, squalls of violin, and lyrics that really do show Cave’s not just another lyricist, he’s a genuine poet, “I am an embryo eating dark oxygen” isn’t something Liam Gallagher would come up with. It might just be the best single of the year, and it’s up there as one of the highlights of the bands phenomenal career. Mermaids, has the line “I was match that would put fire up her snatch” which genuinely makes me feel a tad sick, but musically it’s utterly beautiful. It’s that contrast between the gorgeous music and the dark lyrics that is the constant that makes this album work so well.
Lyrically there’s also a new theme running through Nick’s words, there’s the usual sex, violence, and disgust at self but also a new feeling of fear and intrigue with technology in the modern world. This is best displayed on the utterly genius Higgs Boson Blues, it’s the best thing to involve Miley Cyrus this year (even if it does sound an awful lot like Cave’s picturing her untimely death) It’s combines particle physics, the legendary tale of Robert Johnson and his kids watching Hannah Montana. If anyone can work out every reference in it, well played, but it’s so much fun trying to read Cave’s mind that it doesn’t matter. It yet another example of the genius on show throughout. It’s a fascinating record that even now 6 months or so later it’s only just unfurling it’s joys on every listen. You could listen to it for days and still pick out something new every listen. In a career this stellar it’s hard to say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, but the fact it’s even anywhere near as good as what they’ve achieved previously makes it a entirely stunning record.
KURT VILE – WAKIN’ ON A PRETTY DAZE (Matador)
On opening track Wakin On A Pretty Day Kurt Vile puts it beautifully simply “wakin on a pretty day, don’t know why I ever go away” it’s a recurrent theme throughout the album, a family man with a small child, who’s career is hitting new heights and as it does it see’s him travel further, be away for longer and generally miss the ones he love’s more and more. Previous album Smoke Ring For My Halo took Vile from something of an unknown, underground musician into someone who commands an audience all across the world. It’s not as simple as a man moaning about his fame, Vile’s talking about it but he’s not moaning about it. Others have fallen victim to the road, Mike Skinner’s tales of being an every day man of the people lost a lot of charm when he was a multi-million selling superstar, and even Win Butler’s line on the new Arcade Fire record “Do you like rock and roll music? Because I’m not sure if I do” was widely criticised in the press as a man moaning too much about the fame (though I think that perhaps a touch of irony was lost on some) So how does Vile jump the same criticism? Well firstly he’s hardly a multi-millionaire, a man at his level has to tour to make a living, not to just top up his coppers, and secondly it doesn’t feel like he’s complaining. He’s a man who’s just honestly discussing the difficulties of being a modern musician. His complaints of the road, are really just a man deeply in love with his home life, he seems so genuinely happy , a man in love with life and those who make it. It’s a wonderful personal record, he portrays the simple emotions of life wonderfully. It’s his ability to capture the subtly of life that is Vile’s trademark. There’s also a wonderful humour to his words. On Was All Talk he declares “there was a time when they thought I was all talk, now I’m being stalked by god” and later “makin music is easy…watch me” it’s a brilliant retort to those who doubted him earlier in his career. In Goldtone he confronts his stoner image “sometimes when I get in my zone, you’d think I was stoned, but I never as they say touch the stuff”. Indeed throughout the album there’s little gems thrown around for fun. Musically it’s just as good, there’s clear nods to Neil Young, and a touch of the stoner rock of bands like Kyuss but ultimately he creates a hazy sound all of his own. It’s easy to get lost in the album, you can let it float by and just enjoy the gorgeous moods he creates but there’s a depth to it too. At over an hour it could in a less brilliant set of hands become self indulgent and impenetrable, but the pure craftsmanship on show lifts it into a true gem of an album. Honest, heartfelt and genius, Vile’s a brilliant, once in a generation song writer and we’re lucky to have him!
MARK KOZELEK & JIMMY LAVALLE – PERILS FROM THE SEA (Caldo Verde Records)
Mark Kozelek, he the front man of Red House Painters & Sun Kil Moon gone solo, the Ohio born, boxing obsessed, gravel-toned frontman with a view of the world as unique as his vocal styling. Jimmy LaValle, he the main man behind post-rock/electronica masters The Album Leaf, San Diego scene hero, guitarist, come pianist, come electronic wizard. The result a match made in heaven!
Kozelek is a prolific musician, this year alone he’s released 3 records, and countless live albums. How he and LaValle came together I’m not sure, but it’s incredible how well it works. Kozelek’s vocals are part singer, part rapper, part spoken word poet. His words are equally unique, a story teller in the most literal sense, almost metaphorless it’s so bizarrely to the point, when everyone else is trying to be a poet, he’s a proper folk singer. He covers countless subjects, Gustavo is the tale of an illegal immigrant he got to work on his house before he was deported back to Mexico leaving him with a leaking roof, Ceiling Gazing is a brilliant tale of where his mind goes when he’s laying in bed tormented by insomnia, and in Caroline he even lists off all his favourite hotels, before moving onto his favourite topic boxing! This time he’s discussing when Manny Pacquiao had an easy night of Ricky Hatton, I don’t know for sure but it may well be the only song to ever mention Ricky Hatton!
Musically he’s found his best partner yet, Kozelek is an incredible guitarist in his own right, but put together with Jimmy he’s created something that’s just wonderful. The use of beats and bleeps here suits his delivery perfectly. The incredible subtly it’s put together with creates the perfect tapestry for Mark to weave his words over.
There’s so many highlights to this fascinating album! You Missed My Heart, if you’re not listening could easily be interpreted as a beautiful ode to lost love, and in a way it is, but it’s also a harrowing tale of man killing the man his wife cheats on him with, pinning her to the floor by the throat as he lists of what he loves about her and being shot dead by the police, nothing simple there! What Happened To My Brother? is just that an ode to his brother, be he lost or deceased i’m not sure which. Closing track Somehow The Wonder of Life Prevails finds him in oddly positive form (by his standards), yes it’s a list of terrible events that have happened to people he knows but ultimately he notes despite all the horrors, life has a way of ticking along. It’s sad, moving and gorgeous. It’s a little reminiscent of Eels a man who himself has admitted that so many horrors struck his life that eventually you can’t even get sad about it anymore, you just keep on going, and yes somehow the wonders of life prevail, and this album is one of the most wonderful things you’re likely to get your ears around. It’s the highlight of both men’s career so far, and it’s a complete triumph, and definitely the most underrated album of the year.
THE NATIONAL – TROUBLE WILL FIND ME (4AD)
Whenever The National release an album it’s an occasion for great excitement. I remember well the day Trouble Will Find Me came out, realising I wouldn’t be able to make it to a shop for a good 24 hours I was in a quandary, await the vinyl copy I knew wouldn’t be with with me for a while, or spend the extra £7.99 to get it immediately, it’s a measure of how highly I rate The National that it wasn’t even a difficult decision, and it’s a measure of how good this, their 6th album, is that I don’t for a second regret the decision.
Such is the demand of music lovers for The National that when a new album enters the world you’ve probably heard half the songs before, be it TV performances, tiny desk concerts or any of the multitude of you-tube clips. Like waiting for a christmas present it’s difficult to resist a peek before it’s actually the big day. I’ll admit it I couldn’t resist, I’d see the Q Concerts, I’d seen NBC, I’d downloaded the preview single Demons and listened to it hundreds of times. In some ways I wish I hadn’t, there’s something magical about that first listen to a new record when you know nothing that’s coming, but such is the subtle beauty of this bands recorded output that there’s still, even now months, and hundreds of listens later, so many beautiful moments still unfurling.
So what’s new here? If you’ve heard Boxer and High Violet, Alligator and Sad Songs For Dirty Lovers, what new tricks do The National have up their sleeve? It’s a matter of evolution not revolution certainly, but there’s new delights at each twist and turn of this beautiful record. Take the opening track I Should Live In Salt with its muddied acoustic guitar and pulses of electric is a fantastic sound, while here on this track, and indeed throughout the album, Matt is on fascinating lyrical form, it took a touch of research but whilst this track could easily be interpreted in many ways it’s actually about the difference between Matt and his brother, who’s tour documentary Mistaken For Strangers I’m very excited to see when it reaches screens over here.
It’s one of a number of outstanding slower numbers here, This Is The Last Time, is particularly wonderful! It’s again the acoustic guitar, which is becoming yet another weapon in the bands fearsome musical arsenal. They combine it so beautifully with pulses of organ and electrics. The intro alone is one of the most thrilling pieces of music I’ve heard this year, but when the always brilliant drumming flutters in it elevates the songs still further, it’s frighteningly brilliant for something so simple. Lyrically it’s classic National, a tail of wanting what you can’t have, or perhaps having what you can’t truly want. As they put it “jumping in the swamp” once more with someone who you repeatedly have to make the rest of the world “see what’s so great about”, before he later notes “I am in trouble, I’m seeing double, this changes everything”. Like many of the other brilliant albums this year I could easily list nearly every track on here as a favourite, I Need My Girl is a subtle beauty, a picked guitar line joined by, those beautiful fluttering drums, and latterly crashes of what having seen it done live is a highly distorted guitar being crashed neck first into the floor, though it’s turned down so low it becomes far more subtle than it has any right to be.
Sea of Love is a ferocious, faster, number. Guitars chugging in at breakneck speed, as the drums pound behind them. Matt Berninger is at his frantic, stressed sounding best, one minute laconically nothing “if I stay here trouble will find me” before breaking suddenly into a yelping, violent, rousing chorus of sorts as he notes “sorry I hurt you, but they say love is a virtue don’t they?” it’s thrilling, and highlights a feature of their music which is in my opinion key to their success, the change of gear is thrilling, they seem to effortlessly slip from quiet introspection, into roaring, yelping rock and roll. It’s just so bloomin’ clever, but made to seem entirely natural in their seasoned hands.
Perhaps best of all is Pink Rabbits, where piano comes to the floor, and Matt’s ability to spot a melody is stunningly demonstrated. Vocally he never seems to take the obvious route, chasing melodies as he put it in one interview. For such a notoriously, regimented band this has a free and easy air, though as they admitted there’s 100s of different versions recorded, so perhaps sounding free and easy is the ultimate musical challenge. Every lyric is a treat, from the self-referential “I was a white girl, in a circle of white girls in a park” which recalls Alligator’s All The Wine, to the heartbreakingly beautiful “I’m so surprised you wan’t to dance with me now, I was just getting used to living life without you around”.
In the end it’s another chapter in a brilliant career, I once met someone who told me The National couldn’t be my favourite band, that they hadn’t yet achieved enough, well surely now they’ve reached that level, they’ve gone from underground phenomenon to genuine titans of the music scene, and long may the thrilling ride continue, it’s a simply brilliant record!
BILL CALLAHAN – DREAM RIVER (Drag City)
When I first put the new Bill Callahan record on earlier this year, I must admit I wasn’t expecting it to come to this. His previous output with Smog and his earlier solo work whilst brilliantly competent and at sometimes delightful, to my ears had never hinted at a talent that could make a record this beautiful, this clever and indeed a record I’m delighted to call the album of the year.
I’m recalling old ground of course as I’ve already reviewed Dream River previously (you can read the original review HERE) but needless to say it’s just as good, if not better than I said it was back then.
I think the key theme I noted before is perhaps what makes this record jump out from Callahan’s earlier work, whilst he’s always taken a wry look at the world, he now seems to want to be part of it, less the smutty fiend of old and now a man finding a touch of happiness, just a touch mind, I don’t like my musicians too overly happy.
I implore you to listen to this record, there’s such beauty in his words and Dream River is such a worthy winner. In fact as we sign off this entire years output, I’ll just simply post the script of my favourite track of the year, from yes, my favourite record of the year, it’s one that’s blossomed and has never been far from my ears since I first heard it. It’s a beautiful thing and one I genuinely believe will stay with me forever. I really am a lucky man…
You used to take me up
I watched and learned how to fly
No navigation system beyond our eyes watching
I always went wrong in the same place
Where the river splits towards the sea
That couldn’t possibly be a you and me
Sometimes you sleep while I take us home
That’s when I know we really have a home
I never like to land
Getting back up seems impossibly grand
We do it with ease
Danger, I never think of danger
I really am a lucky man
I really am a lucky man flying this small plane
I like it when I take the controls from you
And when you take the control from me
I really am a lucky man
I really am a lucky man flying this small plane
Eyes scan the path ahead and all around