Albums of the Year 2015: #14 CC Not – Geo Fi

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Geo Fi is a lengthy EP of watery, experimental techno that adopts the aquatic vibes of Drexciya and gives them a new layer of glossy, hyper-modern paint. These 5 tracks of highly detailed but very understated techno have a beautiful, washed out ambience to them, but at the same time each track maintains a strong rhythmic core. ‘Attribution Link’, for example, has the kind of steady handclapped drums and melancholy synths that could have made it a fairly nondescript deep house tune, but CC Not chooses to slather it in echo and reverb until it sounds like the soundtrack to a party at the bottom of the ocean. Meanwhile, the watery churn of ‘Cylinder Avoidance Test’, full of squelchy laser sounds and rubbery acid synths, seems to me the aural equivalent of being stuck inside a giant washing machine: wet, disorientating, and probably kind of awesome (for 11 minutes and 58 seconds, at least). And closing track ‘Vtro V 2.0’ is perhaps the best of the five: a heady drift through zero-g deep space that steadily builds into a blissful acid techno climax. One of the most unique electronic releases of the year, and the perfect soundtrack to building robots or scuba diving.

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Albums of the Year 2015: #15 Thee Oh Sees – Mutilator Defeated At Last

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Thee Oh Sees’ Mutilator Defeated At Last is a ridiculously kick-ass synthesis of psychedelic and garage rock that is guaranteed to get your blood pumping. Filled to bursting with incendiary guitar licks and pummelling drums, this is an album that succesfully melds two rock styles into one cohesive whole. Opening track ‘Web’ immediately sets the tone for the rest of the record, kicking things off with some wonky psych guitars before exploding into a chorus full of gooey synthesizers and drum fills. And things get even heavier on the next track, as the psych-punk firestorm of ‘Withered Hand’ pulls the listener down into its swampy lair and locks the door behind them. Elsewhere, the keyboards in ‘Sticky Hulks’ are pure Doors adoration, and manage to emulate the 60s psych rock sound without ever descending into pastiche. Closing track ‘Palace Doctor’, meanwhile, contains some lovely, slinky bass playing and breathy, cooing vocals to bring the album to a fantastic finish. Highly recommended for all fans of psychedelic, garage and heavy rock.

Albums of the Year 2015: #16 Ought – Sun Coming Down

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Canadian post-punk quartet Ought’s second album, Sun Coming Down, is a herky-jerky missile shot straight out of 1979. Channelling Fear of Music-era Talking Heads and Television’s Marquee Moon, the band makes clear their love for the off-kilter rhythms and angular guitars of the 70s classics. But Ought have a breathless weirdness all of their own that is in large part thanks to the vocal acrobatics of frontman Tim Darcy – Darcy has an eccentric, speedy and somewhat nasally delivery that has the ability to warp even the most commonplace of lyrics into something spiky and supernatural. His habit of stressing unusual syllables in sentences(there were men for MILES, there were men for MILES) makes his singing unpredictable and incredibly compelling. He gives the impression of singing not in harmony with the music but perpendicular to it, with his strange yelpy poetry flying off at violent right angles.

Darcy’s lyrics, much like those of David Byrne, have a habit of turning unremarkable domestic subjects inside out, rendering them surreal and sinister. Album highlight ‘Beautiful Blue Sky’ (tied with Viet Cong’s ‘Death’ for post-punk track of the year) features a chorus of hilariously empty conversational pleasantries, which are repeated over and over again into an unnerving mantra. Darcy’s delivery starts off nasally and satirical, as if he was singing out of a dated American sitcom: “Hows the family? Hows the family? Hows the family?”. But as the guitars bring the song towards a spine-tingling climax that matches anything off Marquee Moon for quality, the lyrics are delivered in an escalating state of panic, as if the perfect suburban world they seem to inhabit was descending into madness: “BEAUTIFUL WEATHER TODAY! BEAUTIFUL WEATHER TODAY! BEAUTIFUL WEATHER TODAY!”. The effect is chilling and in my eyes stands out as the clear highlight of the record.

Opener ‘Men For Miles’ comes close, however, with its deft use of tension and release: the pre-chorus of the song constantly threatens to explode into a glorious mess of angular chords, but each time diffuses and settles back into the steady, galloping rhythm of Tim Keen’s drums. It leaves the listener constantly hanging on to the next part of the song, and demonstrates an instinct for punk songwriting that I think makes Ought a band with huge potential. While I can’t say that every moment on the record matches the giddy heights of Beautiful Blue Sky and a handful of other tracks, this is a band with a lot of personality and a lot of talent, and they’ve come out with one of the best post-punk albums of the year.

Albums of the Year 2015: #17 Jim O’Rourke – Simple Songs

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Jim O’Rourke is a guy who makes a lot of music. If you check out his discography online you’ll find he’s released an album pretty much every year starting from the late 80s. Sometimes more than one, in fact: in 2015, O’Rourke has released a whopping five albums in collaboration with various different musicians. So it’s ironic that the most considered and accomplished of those albums is titled Simple Songs, and clocks in at a modest 38 minutes. We shouldn’t be surprised, though: O’Rourke’s last album to receive as much critical and commercial attention as this record was titled Insignificance, and it’s cover featured a characature of O’Rourke with some hefty manboobs and a lot of pink spandex. It’s as if O’Rourke is using his self-effacing humour to separate the more conventional side of his musical output from the avant-garde drone, glitch, ambient, and improv experiments he releases in between. He needn’t be so modest, though: Simple Songs is just as intricate as anything else he’s released, and hides a great deal of complexity behind a warm, welcoming exterior.

Musically, this album pursues a similar chamber pop/soft rock path to Insignificance, but this time around the emphasis is more on the former of the two. Nothing on here rocks quite like ‘All Downhill From Here’ did, but the variety of instruments that turn up on Simple Songs is a lot larger. Accompanying the guitars, drums and bass is a plethora of pianos, violins and other instrumentation that adds a lot of depth to the record. And as expected from a guy who produces almost as many records as he releases, each instrument here is clearly audible and tightly mixed. Little details make a big difference, like the violins quietly purring in the verse of piano ballad ‘Hotel Blue’, or the (I think) sitar in the bridge of ‘That Weekend’.

‘Last Year’ is probably the rockiest song on the record, and features a lovely guitar lick that turns up throughout the song in various different guises. But its used to particularly great effect in the chorus where the rest of the instrumentation pauses for just a second while the guitar bends off fierily into the empty space. The lyrics on this track, as elsewhere on the record, are enigmatically banal: ‘I lost my lighter round here / If you see the guy from last year / Say that he can keep it / I’ve got another one’. Whether this has some secret significance for O’Rourke or whether it’s just the first shit that came into his head while writing the song is anyones guess. And while we’re on the subject of enigmatic -I’m pretty sure ‘These Hands’ is a legitimately moving ballad about masturbation, but I might be wrong.

Straightforward, honest, and witty, this is an album that might be simple, but certainly isn’t stupid. And it’s another top quality release from Jim O’Rourke.

Albums of the Year 2015: #18 Earl Sweatshirt – Solace

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Solace is a one song, exactly ten minute long EP that finds former Odd Future rapper Earl Sweatshirt coming into his own as he moves even further away from the group and the sound which first brought him recognition. Here Sweatshirt doubles down on the dreary, spaced out sonics of his last two records and emerges with something that sounds truly unique. The music on this EP is just barely recognizable as hip-hop, sounding more like a plunderphonics record that’s splicing and manipulating old 1920s parlour-room music into something vaguely resembling a rhythm. Throughout its ten minutes, the song shifts between a series of frail, jittery instrumentals that sound ready to crumble to pieces at the slightest touch, while Earl spits his bleakest lyrics yet on top of them. Solace is a record about depression, and Earl uses it as an oppurtunity to exorcise his demons, but he never sacrifices any of the lyrical density and complex delivery of his rapping. He demonstrates the same talent for threading multi-syllabic and internal rhymes together which made him stand out as the most gifted lyricist in Odd Future:

“You can see it in my face, I ain’t been eatin’, I’m just wastin’ away
Looks like the way that River Phoenix went gon’ end up my fate
And when they drag me out the gutter, mail the ashes to my mother”

The unnverving, toneless voice with which Earl delivers these lines might fool you into thinking they were half-baked, but there’s craftsmanship behind the apathy contained within Solace. Even towards the end of the record, when the instrumental switches to a beatless fuzz of keyboards and Earl forgets his line but leaves the mistake in anyway, he still maintains a sense of purpose. You get the feeling that he doesn’t want to present you with a pristine, cleanly recorded and neatly gift-(w)rapped piece of music, but wants instead to be completely honest and show you the mistakes he’s struggling with.

It might have taken Earl Sweatshirt a few years to find his voice, but in the wake of Odd Future’s dissolution, he’s found a musical direction which suits him much better. Gone are the farty horrorcore synths and the controversy-baiting lyrics abot scat and rape, and in their place a vulnerable, honest EP that hints toward a bright (but perhaps also very gloomy) musical future for a talented young rapper.

Albums of the Year 2015: #19 Susan Alcorn – Soledad

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Soledad – a Spanish idiom which roughly translates into English as “maker of the shoe” – is the latest album from post-avant bongoist Susan Alcorn. On this record, we find Susan scandalously dropping the bongos entirely as she plunges into the several-stringed waters of the steel guitar and resurfaces with 55 minutes of brooding, flourescent tango music. Following the style of revered tango master Badlands De La Fuente, Alcorn chooses to forgoe all unnecessary instrumentation on this record and provides us with a silky, skeletal suite of songs which are composed of almost nothing except guitar and silence.

The album opens with title track ‘Soledad’, which sounds like both a funeral waltz and a Zelda dungeon theme at one and the same time as it meanders sadly through its eight minute runtime. Reworking the central riff of tango standard “Baby I Wanna Be Your Shoe”, Alcorn conjures a dark, moody, quietly beautiful landscape that sets the tone for the rest of the record. “Invierno Porteno” (‘Portentous Firestorm’) follows immediately after, briefly building into a sedated flamenco at the two minute mark before returning to the wide-eyed star-gazing of the title track.

“Adios Nonino” (‘Goodbye No-Shoe’) is considerably less moody and is the only track here which feels a bit aimless, but is followed by ‘Suite For Ahl’ which mixes things up by adding in a jazzy double-bass. Alcorn makes the steel guitar sound playful here, demonstrating a bit of tonal variety with the instrument. And the album closes with the 17 minute ‘Tristezas De Un Doble A’ (‘A Pair Of Insoles’), which is a steel guitar cover of The Proclaimers ‘500 Miles’ played backwards and at 0.25 speed.

Soledad is a steady album that requires a bit of patience, but, even without the bongos, this is a wandering and melancholy album thats perfect for walking at night and staring up at the moon. Or playing Link To The Past.

Albums of the Year 2015: #20 Beach House – Thank Your Lucky Stars

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Six albums in to a discography of heavenly, ethereal dream pop, I feel like I’ve hit a bit of a crossroads with Beach House. This is a band who have, in 2015, pretty much perfected their sound and stand as the uncontested masters of the genre. But at the same time, this is a band that have never diverged in any meaningful way from the basic musical formula they laid out on their self-titled debut. The five records that followed that album have essentially been a process of refinement, with each one being more densely and ambitiously produced than the last. Now, however, we find the band breaking with that progression and returning to a more stripped back sound in line with their first two albums. This is always a dangerous move for an established artist, and my worry before hearing the record was that Beach House would trade imagination for nostalgia, and, having failed to push their sound forwards, push it backwards instead.

To a certain extent, this is the case on Thank Your Lucky Stars. The album doesn’t have any real ambition to evolve the bands sound, and it doesn’t provide too many fresh ideas. But god damnit, this thing is so relentlessly pretty from start to finish that I can’t help but love it. When Beach House are serving up hazy lullabies as beautiful as ‘She’s So Lovely’ and ‘Somewhere Tonight’, it feels like a fools errand to complain that they aren’t releasing the post-reggae dream funk double album some people seem to want from them. The songwriting on TYLS is as sharp as ever, but it’s also economical, suited to fit the less grandiose presentation of the record. ‘All Your Yeahs’, for example, opens with 40 seconds of a steady drum beat and one guitar note repeatedly plucked, while Victoria LeGrand’s vocal croon introduces the songs central melody. Then, at the 40 second mark, the guitar shifts into the main riff of the track and LeGrand’s vocals are doubled to create the harmony. It’s a lovely effect, and it shows that Beach House, unlike so many boring shoegazey indie bands, refuse to hide mediocre songs behind a wall of dreamy post-production. Here, as elsewhere on the record, they aren’t afraid to strip their songs down to their most skeletal elements in order to put the pieces back together again.

This stripped down sound allows LeGrand’s vocals to take centre stage on a number of tracks, revealing the woozy prettiness of the lyrics beneath. Take these, for example, from album closer ‘Somewhere Tonight’: “pink and blue were dancing / empty floor, shadows lancing / somewhere, in a ballroom tonight”. LeGrand’s baritone vocals against the warm, wobbly synth chords and the lilting drums of this final track are spine-tingling, luring the listener into one last codeine slowdance to end the night. ‘Elegy To The Void’ is another highlight, a slow-building gloomy tune that returns to the darker themes found on August’s Depression Cherry. The second half of the track features some subtle, textural use of guitar feedback that sounds a bit like a car skidding off a road, or an animal screeching. It’s an unusual effect, and one of the more intriguing moments on the record.

Thank Your Lucky Stars might not quite reach the heights of Teen Dream or Bloom, but it’s another great album from a very consistent, though not particularly adventurous, band. It does leave me to wonder, though, with Beach House having now come full circle in their sound – where do they go next?