10. William Tyler – Modern Country (Merge Records)
Nashville-based guitarist William Tyler might not dabble with the world of lyrics, but impressively that didn’t seem to stop his latest album Modern Country from sounding vital, politically active and important. In our eyes the finest instrumental album of the year, Modern Country is a tribute to the fading image of rural America, that as William put it, “still exists on the back roads, in the small towns and on the AM radio stations.” Whilst not overtly a commentary on his countries recent elections, Modern Country taps into that feeling of the slowly fading power of the American dream.
Modern Country is a record that seems to look everywhere for inspiration, whilst the great folk guitarists, Leo Kottke, Michael Chapman, Bert Jansch, all remain key influences, it also nods in less obvious directions; The Great Unwind has the expansive sound of Pink Floyd, Kingdom Of Jones has more than a touch of Penguin Cafe Orchestra, while Highway Anxiety at times could have been Tortoise or Do Make Say Think. It’s easy to sideline instrumental music as background music, or a future film score in the making, but on Modern Country, William Tyler showed sometimes you can say a lot without saying a single word.
9. Ryley Walker – Golden Sings That Have Been Sung (Dead Oceans)
While his previous output had unquestionably alerted the world to the musical talents of Ryley Walker, what they arguably lacked was enough of the man behind the music. That all changed with this year’s offering, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung. Moving away from the plaintive and sometimes pastoral imagery, this record seems to tap into the reality of Ryley’s life and his native Chicago. With the imagery of dive bars, friendships and the difficulty of being away from the world you know, Golden Sings That Have Been Sung feels like Ryley’s most honest work to date.
Musically too, Golden Sings is a record that feels more confident and ambitious. The hypnotic guitar work of The Halfwit In Me, the jazz-tinged percussion of Funny Thing She Said, this record sounds like a prodigious talent comfortable in the niche he has carved for himself. Best of all is The Roundabout, probably one of the most understated singles of the year; atop a bed of fluid guitar work, rolling bass and muted electronics, Ryley channels his inner Sixto Rodriguez as he lays to tape a tale of returning home from the road, drunken conversations with old friends and bad credit in your favourite bar. Whilst his self-deprecating lyrics might peg Ryley as a halfwit or a wise ass, listening to this record it is hard to see him as anything other than a star in the making.
8. Jess Williamson – Heart Song (Brutal Honest)
Consisting of just seven tracks and released through her own Brutal Honest imprint, Jess Williamson’s second album, Heart Song, is something of a low-key affair. Yet something about the melodies, something in the lyrics, something about Heart Song just keeps bringing us back.
Heart Song is a wonderfully emotive collection; Jess’ breathy vocals, often little more than a whisper, draw your ear close and demand you take in every one of her bruised and beautiful words. “As long as I am alive, you’re not alone” she sings on Snake Song as if she knows her very existence depends on that bond, on the stunning opening track, Say It, she notes, “you ask what is the matter, I can’t say it“; her voice becoming a guttural gasp, as if holding back a flood of pained tears. Best of all is See You In A Dream, a twanging piece of heart-break country, with a pounding Be My Baby drum beat and a sultry meander of electric guitars – it’s the best alt-country track you’ll hear this year. Musically, this is gloomy, gothic country, all twanging slides, fluttering acoustics and distant pounding percussion. There’s some Tom Waits’ barroom skonk, a bit of Sharon Van Etten’s open-hearted honesty and a touch of Josh T. Pearson’s intensity – and it’s every bit as good as that sounds. Heart Song is an album that slowly weaves its ways into your life, but once it has you under its spell, it’s intoxicating, addictive and unforgettable.
7. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree (Bad Seeds Ltd)
Outside of David Bowie, there was probably no more discussed and analysed album this year than Skeleton Tree. You surely know the story by now, mid-way through recording Skeleton Tree, Nick Cave was struck by personal tragedy with the death of his son Arthur. Exactly how much of the album preceded or followed the event, it was almost impossible to not hear the spectre of grief hanging heavy over the entirety of Skeleton Key.
In some lesser writer’s hands Skeleton Key could have been a painful mess, but if there was one person you’d back to perfectly tread the line between sentimentality and anger, it was Nick Cave. His entire career has been spent writing in the darker echelons of the human mind, but here he seemed to walk amongst the darkness he previously narrated – this darkness, this pain, this was reality. What Skeleton Key does so well is steer clear of being a tribute, this isn’t an album about death, this is an album about grief, and a brutally honest one at that; when in Magneto Nick sang, “the urge to kill somebody was basically overwhelming“, you could tell he meant it. Skeleton Key is quite possibly the finest album ever written about the process of grieving, and its ability to cripple and shape every aspect of your life; it offeres no resolution, no light at the end of the tunnel, just an all-encompassing monolith to loss – it is also, almost coincidentally, a masterpiece.
6. Amber Arcades – Fading Lines (Heavenly Recordings)
If she didn’t exist an A&R man would have probably dreamt up Annelotte De Graaf; quite possibly the most stylish woman in the world, a voice like a particularly wonderful angel and a back story that takes in working as a legal aid to the UN War Crimes Tribunal before she gave up her job, and her life savings, to fly to New York and record her debut album. Listening to her stunning debut album, Fading Lines, it is hard to feel you haven’t been cheated a bit when they were handing out the good stuff in life.
Fading Lines is the sound of hazy sunshine, of warm summer evenings; if an album could walk, Fading Lines would strut confidently about the place looking utterly fabulous. Dripping with sweet melodies, a gentle wistful sense of melancholy and solid, motorik drum beats, Fading Lines is a perfect blend of sweet sun-drenched indie and spell binding dream-pop. It is an album littered with highlights, the numerous false-endings and re-emergences of opening track Come With Me, the Bossa-Nova sway and out-of-this-world spacy vocals of Pepetuum Mobile, the subtle country twang the slide guitar injects in Apophenia. Probably the finest moment is the brilliant penultimate track, Turning Light, a blur of processed beats and menacingly fluttering synths, it drifts by in a blur of hypnotic beauty, well worth it’s six-minute run time. Fading Lines is the sort of album where you simply press play, sit back and let it gently drift over you – and you don’t regret it.
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