Part 2 of my slightly self-indulgent Album of the Year countdown.
Texan post-rockers Explosions in the Sky have been producing their elaborate and expansive soundscapes for over 16 years, however The Wilderness stands out as possibly their best work. Opening with the stuttering synths of ‘Wilderness’, Explosions in the Sky do what they do best in building up tension to some extraordinary cinematic crescendos. However with The Wilderness the band have avoided much of the predictability that has plagued their albums since 2003’s The Earth is Not a Cold Dead Place. Whilst there are the euphoric highs that are as expected, they come as momentary peaks and often change direct unexpectedly such as on ‘Logic Dream’ which traverses from feelings of wonder to a foreboding dread and back again. The band pull together a number of musical strands with such ease and finesse it’s no wonder they’ve spent the last few years cutting their teeth producing film soundtracks, with standout track ‘Disintegration Anxiety’ acting as the exemplification of their ability to meld together sounds in such anthemic fashion. With The Wilderness Explosions in the Sky have truly created a rich tapestry of sound, an immersive listen.
Top Track: ‘Disintegration Anxiety’
One of the most out their picks who caught my imagination after I heard them on BBC 6 Music late one night were southern Algerian desert rockers Imarhan. A bustling self-titled debut album Imarhan stay true to their traditional musical culture whilst still utilising the modernity of western instruments such as electric guitars and synths to weave an intricate sonic patchwork of a record. In fact Imarhan is at its best when these two cultures intertwine to thrilling effect, particularly on standout track Tahabort which possess a high tempo funky groove. A band of truly skillful musicians, some of the technical fretwork is nothing short of exceptional on the quieter, more traditional ‘Id Isleigh’ and mesmeric ‘Idarchan Net’. As an album Imarhan takes up a range of emotional moods, racing between reflective harmonies and upbeat, ramshackle jams. Whilst there are many nods to western rock n’ roll in terms of the layering and even on ‘Assossamagh’ their use of guitar effects, its their use of traditional African instrumentation, rhythms and vocal delivery that gives Imarhan such a unique and refreshing sound.
Top Track: ‘Tahabort’
Wilco’s second album in as many years (their 10th ever) sees them depart from the grungy, fuzzy rock guitars of Star Wars in favour of a more country/folk-tinged sound. Schmilco, who’s title is a reference to the Harry Nilsson album Schmilson, takes a far more mellow approach as it softly meanders through more retrospective themes of love (‘We aren’t the World [Safety Girl]’), loss (‘Shrug and Destroy’) and frustration (‘Normal American Kids’). Schmilco strips back the layers to such an extent that it is almost entirely acoustic, with only the odd emergence of piano and electric guitar on tracks like the experimental ‘Common Sense’ and grief-stricken ‘Nope’, creating a melancholic ambiance that carries through the record. Whilst it is on the whole a fairly low-key affair, with Schmilco Wilco have shown their ability to turn their hand to different styles whilst still keeping it intelligent and interesting. A subtle and intimate record, that is up there with the year’s best.
Top Track: ‘Normal American Kids’
37. Porches – Pool
It was only at the point of writing that at this stage I realized I’d forgotten Porches’ Pool, an interesting synthpop album and brainchild of New York electronic musician Aaron Maine. Maine has on his latest record moved away from the hazy indie rock of previous album Slow Dance in the Cosmos in favour of a unique brand of bedroom electronica (with the album being recorded literally in Maine’s New York apartment). A swimming pool of ice-cold synths and delicate melodies and harmonies (of which also features Maine’s girlfriend Great Kline on backing vocals, who’s alter-ego Frankie Cosmos features later on in this list), Pool replaces the electric guitars of old for worbling keys and precise electronic beats. A newfound pop sheen makes Pool seem like a somewhat insular and cold album, tracks like ‘Be Apart’ evoking scenes of lonely nights in the city and ‘Braid’ acting as the perfect soundtrack to a Hipster house party. This is a record that sucks you in and proves Maine as one of the most exciting talents of the indie scene.
Top Track: ‘Be Apart’
Another product of the oh so exceptional 4AD label, D .D Dumbo may not be as well known as label mates Grimes, Future Islands or The National, however under the radar the Australian song-writer Oliver Hugh Perry has dropped one of the best albums of the year. An interesting and sprawling soundscape, Utopia Defeated flirts with numerous . A quirky indie-pop extravaganza amongst a sea of the unoriginal and bland. With lyrics exploring a subject matter as strange and diverse as walruses, UFOs and devil worship, Utopia Defeated is very much an archaic experimental pop album, delivered with a clean sheen and decorated instrumentation. Dumbo uses a wealth of scattered sounds to create the record, whether it’s the galloping rhythms of ‘Satan’ or the eclectic mix of electronic guitar, panpipes and horns of ‘Brother’ each track is delivered in such stylish and intricate manor. A cosmic thrill of a record.
Top Track: ‘Walrus’
It was a long five year wait for the young electronic pioneer Nicolar Jaar’s follow up to the critically acclaimed Space is Only Noise (he was only 21 when it was released), but it sure didn’t disappoint. The Chilean-American composer returned last September with a fascinating record that flits between atmospheric loops and industrial beats and never ceases to surprise. The gargantuan opening track ‘ Killing Time’ lures you in with its calming chimes, tranquil piano riffs and later bleeping synth layers, before exploding into the distorted chaos of ‘The Governor’. The album has an over-riding political message, with Jaar juxtaposing the doo-wopping melodies with arresting lyrics on final tarck ‘History Lesson’ before transitioning into an archaic dénouement. An assault on the senses there is really too much to describe in a measly 200 word review other than for me to recommend you to give it a listen. It’s amazing how that in just six tracks, Jaar manages to create a tangled spider-web of sounds, an experimental masterpiece and the work of a great artist.
Top Track: ‘Killing Time’
Birmingham soul singer, Laura Mvula’s Mercury Prize nominated second album The Dreaming Room is well worth its place on the list. An off-kilter orchestral pop album, Laura Mvula has delicately crafted a musical representation of her idiosyncratic ideas, with ventures into soul, pop set to a backdrop off soft strings and stirring syths. The Dreaming Room is a versatile album that shifts from the angelic ‘Bread’ that bares the beauty of her voice to the retro soul of ‘Lucky Man’ that shows the true strength and power of her vocal ability, whilst the poignant and powerful ‘People’ showcases her talent for lyrics. Mvula utilises her impeccable ear for melody alongside her own invention to create an album where each song is radically different from the next and truly original. Mvula is very much a musical chameleon, prepared to go wherever her imagination will take her and ridding herself of the shackles of what is expected of pop music.
Top Track: ‘Bread’
Mitski is another artist that I was largely unfamiliar with before Puberty 2 in spite of her releasing a large body of work (four albums) in such a short space of time since 2012. A witty and confrontationally honest record, Puberty 2 mixes the loud and quiet grunge dynamics, with confessional folk lyrics whilst also throwing in a splash of brass and other oddities that make it such an original record. Gorging on her own emotional pain New Yorker Mitski Miyawaki has produced an album bleak in content but powerful in musical delivery as she grapples with the troubles of young adulthood to a score of distorted folk. Tracks range from the insular nature of ‘Happy’ and ‘Once More to See You’ and the bordering on classic rock bombast of ‘Your Best American Girl’, creating an indecisive aura that lives up to its title.
Top Track: ‘Your Best American Girl’
This was an album that had really escaped my knowledge until I interviewed Frank Turner last November and he picked it out as his album of the year. I was familiar with Samson’s work as lead vocalist and guitarist for Canadian indie rock band The Weakerthans but knew very little about his solo output. Samson’s third album Winter Wheat is his first since The Weakerthans’ hiatus, and is a showcase of everything that is great about Samson as a song-writer and musician. An intimate folk record that explores a number of narratives and perspectives, blurring a sense of triumphalism with melancholy to great effect. From the personal rambles of ‘Winter Wheat’ to the political muse of ‘Capital’, Samson flexes his lyrical muscles with a dusting of dry wit. This is folk music at its most bare and most effective, where the quiet guitar chords and occasional accordion are used as the vehicle for Samson’s pained and reflective lyrics.
Top Track: ‘Select All Delete’
Parquet Courts are another band who have been ridiculously prolific in their short timespan together, with 2016’s Human Performance marking their sixth album in five years. Lead vocalist Andrew Savage even likened the recording process of Human Performance to that of The Beatles’ White Album, another band that were inexhaustible in their output. However the two bands couldn’t sound anymore different, and that’s not a bad thing (who’d want a second Beatles anyway? We’ve already had an attempt at that with Oasis). Human Performance is a dusty 46 minute jolt of gloriously messy art-punk complete with intelligent wordplay and an intriguing exploration of everyday life and the mudane (such as the closing of their favourite Chinese restaurant on ‘I Was Just Here’ and sweeping up dust on the aptly titled ‘Dust’). On this record Parquet Courts have put together possibly their best collection of songs yet whilst still maintaining that DIY ethos that gives them their cutting edge.
Top Track: ‘Dust’