Monday, December 31, 2012

Not so much of a Top Ten, more of a list of favourites.

2012 is all but over.
I have to say that musically, in my opinion, it's been a very good year. Whilst there have been some albums released that have failed to live up to their hype, and others that should have by all sense and purpose been stonkers, yet turned out to be stinkers, overall 2012 has delivered some absolute gems.
Not only would I find it very difficult to limit my favourite albums to a Top Ten, but to then distinguish between those titles and produce an ascending order to reach an ultimate winner would have been impossible. I know this because I've tried several times. So my conclusion's been a bloody great year for music releases.

In no particular order, here's my favourite album releases of 2012:

Bloc Party "Four"
Not so much a return to form, but a much more confident sounds from them. I think it might have something to do with the lead singer getting his 'electronica' solo album out of the way. The rest of band seem to have pulled him back into their guitar and rollicking drum reigns, whilst occasionally allowing him some programming.

Elbow "Dead In The Boot"
Yes, I know it's not new stuff. But it's a brilliant collection of Elbow b-sides and unused tracks. It's Elbow doing what they do best. Soooo much better for me hear this album than struggle with "Build A Rocket, Boys", which I just can't get into.

Lucy Rose "Like I Used To"
Things to know about Lucy Rose....She's probably never gonna be a big name in the music world, she's best know for singing backing vocals with Bombay Bicycle Club, she's unbelievably cute and a lot of this album is about her broken relationships.

Purity Ring "Shrines"
Electronic jiggery-pokery, with samples, loops and a delicate girly voice. Nothing deep within the lyrics here, but it's pure bliss to listen to. Hooks a plenty can be found here, along with dreamily delicious vocals. It's a totally me album, this one.

Tame Impala "Lonerism"
This would have been in my top 10, but where...I dunno. A mashed up combination of spaced out hippies playing garage music, but who haven't grown out of listening to late Beatles stuff. It's trippy, it's psychedelic and it's bloomin' catchy.

Bat For Lashes "The Haunted Man"
I can't quite put my finger on just what I like about her style, but there's something deliciously different....something that sets her aside from many other female singer song-writers.

Martha Wainwright "Come Home To Mama"
I have to admit, this year has been the year I've really discovered Martha. I've listened to her previous albums, but never really been taken by them. After the second play of this latest album, I felt an urgent need to delve back into her past, and in doing so, I think it just made me love this new release even more.

Beach House "Bloom"
I don't really know anything about these guys, and I've been happy to keep it that way. It's an easy album to listen to, with some great hooks buried within the tracks. One of those albums that's all of a sudden over, and you realize you've quite happily listened to ten tracks and enjoyed all of them. It's quite a rare thing nowadays. Sounds like an album that was confidently recorded in somebody's bedroom. It's good and well worth a listen.

Two Door Cinema Club "Beacon"
Follow up to their excellent "tourist History" album and every bit as good. Whilst they haven't really matured in their sound, this is a good thing because I think they sound great just as they are. They were great to watch on Jools Holland a few weeks back. There's just something about them. It's pure guitar, driving drum patterns and clever lyrics all the way here.

Alt-J "An Awesome Wave"
 Ohhhhh man, what a fantastic album. The production is just genius. The over-dubbing....the preciseness of it all. I bloody love it. This would certainly be a contender for top 5, if not top 3. Superb vocal performances from all, not just the lead singer. The harmonies are just bliss. Some of the song arrangements are truly bizarre, but it so works. They must have loved every minute of recording this album. Fantastic!

Aiden Grimshaw "Misty Eye"
Yes, I know....a previous X Factor contestant, but don't hold that against him. An album full of deep hooks, a slight Moby tinge on the sound and production, some very clever lyrics and he's got a pretty good voice. I like it.

Cat Power "Sun"
Another album full of catchy numbers, showing some of the upcoming singer songwriters how it's done. Hypnotic and often random, she reminds me of Tori Amos, but in a much lower key. I can imagine her being a great live artist.

Lana Del Ray "Born To Die"
Video games was a great song. Blue Jeans was a great song. This album is choc full of great songs. Her vocal style isn't to everybody's taste, but I find it silky smooth, with a dollop of Marlboro Lights on top. Sensual and sexy. Some great lyrics to be found on this album.

Dry The River "Shallow Bed"
This album is just fantastic. Absolutely....amazing. There's a great review on this very blog, earlier on this year. Go read it. Then get the album.

Delilah "From The Roots Up"
I first stumbled on Delilah when she sang vocals on Chase & Status's "Time" track last year. Since then, I've been following her to see what she would produce in her own right, and whilst a lot of the album seems reliant on good producers behind the deck, she's released an album full of great tracks. The main focus seems to be on Low-Fi, chill out kinda vibes. There's a handful of uptempo tracks on here, but the overall feel is intense grooviness. She amazing voice. And "Go" is just a genius song.

Maverick Sabre "Lonely Are The Brave"
Another singer I picked up from involvement with Chase & Status. Again, a great voice in the old skool soul style. Passionate and emotive in his delivery, and that's where he wins me over. Groovy soul and beats are the main focus here. Tipping many a hat to sixties and seventies soul, whilst borrowing a little from Plan B and even Amy Winehouse, it's been done before, yes....but he does it well, save for a totally unnecessary  cover of an Otis Redding track.

The Maccabees "Given To The Wild"
A very well produced sound...Mature, accomplished, yet still a little edgy and raw. Very much the feeling of a concept album here, and yes, it totally sounds better played in full in the correct order, but that said songs like "Pelican" and "Child" stand their ground very well. Great orchestrations on this album. And I do so love great orchestrations.

Tina Dico "Where Do You Go To Disappear?"
She has a voice that just makes me wanna fall in love with her. There's lots more piano than acoustic guitar on this album. There's also a sharper production feel, not that that's a bad thing. The songs feel more comfortable, and her voice sounds more....relaxed.

Lianne La Havas "Is Your Love Big Enough?"
She's got a lovely voice, she plays guitar, she writes great songs. A mixture of styles on this album adds to its appeal. She touches jazzy, soul, rock and ballads with ease and it's of those things she does. The album sounds like it's been done by someone who's been recording and releasing for many years. Her lyrics can really touch the listener, so be warned.

Jake Bugg "Jake Bugg"
What's there to say about this guy. He's been all over the radio this year. His album was much anticipated. More importantly, it delivered. It touched Country, it's very ballady, it gets all twangy in places. He certainly doesn't 'fit', much to the annoyance of the pigeon-hole crew. Some great lyrics are buried in this collection of songs. The album is totally listenable and once again, this would probably be in my top five....somewhere.

Polica "Give You The Ghost"
Whooooooah. That's what I though when I first heard this band. I saw them on Jools Holland. Rewind. Watched them again. I couldn't quite make my mind up. Two drummers....great idea, yeah I like that. A girl on vocals who uses pedal effects as such to make her voice another instrument.....interesting. The album is what you would expect if you knew there were two drummers and a vocalist who really, really plays around with her vocals. Sometimes....sometimes, I find the drumming a little frustrating, because the timing doesn't feel right to me. It's probably intentional, those slight missed beats. It's bloody infectious though. There's some fantastic bass play on this album. A totally enjoyable ride of an album.

The Walkmen "Heaven"
Another album that would be very highly ranked in my list, if I could actually do one this year. The Walkmen have delivered a fantastic album this year, filled with great guitar riffs, melodic harmonies and twanging riffs and hooks that all sound like they've been chucked in a food blender along with Phil Spector. It's modern sounding, yet it sounds like it's been recorded on 2 pick up mic's in a garage on somebodys reel to reel tape recorder. Genius. It's probably their most commercial release, so for anybody that's been wondering about The Walkmen, this is the album to listen to.

So....I thought 2012 was a great year for music.
Agree or disagree?
I have some high hopes for 2013....

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Album Review: Keane - Strangeland

Keane - Strangeland

After a four year absence, the world's most famous piano recital band are back with their fourth studio album, Strangeland. Despite the time that's lapsed since 2008's Perfect Symmetry, Keane seem to remain as popular as ever, with Strangeland becoming their fifth consecutive number one album (the Night Train EP also hit #1) - a record only bettered by the Beatles.

So, is it any good? Well, the answer will rather depend on whether you're a fan of the quartet (guitarist Jesse Quin is now an official member of the band) or not. Eschewing the experimentation and 80's inspired electronica of Perfect Symmetry in favour of piao-led, radio-friendly pop, some critics have accused the band of 'scurrying back to their comfort zone'. And, there's no doubt that Strangeland is the album that millions of Keane fans were expecting after the global success of Hopes and Fears.

I'm less sure that Strangeland is as backwards a step than some believe. To me, it sounds like the band have learned over the last eight years how to make brilliant, melodic pop records and that Strangeland takes everything they've learnt and applies it to their unique sound last heard on Hopes and Fears. Watch How You Go takes over where We Might As Well Be Strangers left off, Day Will Come sounds like it was recorded at the Bend and Break sessions and the lovely Sea Fog closes the album in the mellow way that Bedshaped ends Hopes and Fears. And, with it's driving piano and catchy chorus, Disconnected is the natural successor to Somewhere Only We Know.

Featuring songs about the band's Sussex roots, the Times called Strangeland 'the album that Bruce Springsteen would have made if he was from Bexhill-on-Sea and not New Jersey'. Nowhere is this more true than on second single Sovereign Light Cafe - a perfect piece of Keane pop music which is destined to become an absolute favourite.

If you are looking for something less Keane-y then the deluxe version of the album features the unusual track The Boys and, oddly, the title track of the album itself.

I've been a huge Keane fan since day one and so, to me, they have never sounded better than this. Strangeland is effectively Hopes and Fears 2, albeit more mature, better produced and with a better selection of songs. Not a bad achievement.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Album Review: Marina and the Diamonds - Electra Heart

Marina and the Diamonds - Electra Heart

After the top five success of Marian Diamandis' debut album The Family Jewels, the 26 year old returns with her follow-up album Electra Heart, a character Diamandis has created.

Apparently, 'Electra Heart is the antithesis of everything that I stand for. And the point of introducing her and building a whole concept around her is that she stands for the corrupt side of American ideology, and basically that’s the corruption of yourself. My worst fear—that’s anyone’s worst fear—is losing myself and becoming a vacuous person. And that happens a lot when you’re very ambitious.'


Now, I was quite a fan of The Family Jewels. It's quirky sound and interesting songwriting grew on me the more I listed to it, and tracks like Shampain, Hollywood and I Am Not a Robot are great indie pop records. As for Electra Heart - well, I'm not sure what to make of it at all.

It's certainly a lurch to a poppier sound with opening track Bubblegum Bitch being co-written with Rick Nowels - a main I have had the pleasure of interviewing thanks to the fact he wrote Belinda Carlisle's late 80s hits Heaven Is A Place on Earth and Circle In The Sand. There are also collaborations here with Greg Kurstin (who's worked with the likes of Lily Allen, Little Boots, Sia, Kelly Clarkson and Ke$ha) and Steve Angello of the Swedish House Mafia.

I think Electra Heart starts off reasonably well, and then trails off into a sea of indifferent tunes which very much merge into one another. Alexis Petridis hit the nail on the head when he said 'there's clearly an interesting pop star somewhere in there' but I don't think this album is a forward step. It's actually made Marina less quirky and less original and while it may sell by the bucketload, it's simply not as interesting as The Family Jewels. At times she sounds like a second rate Lady GaGa; at others like David Guetta's latest vocalist. And on Homewrecker she seems to have tried to recreate the Pet Shop Boys' Left To My Own Devices but ends up sounding more like Flight of the Conchords doing Inner City Pressure. A major disappointment.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Album Review: Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation)

Counting Crows - Underwater Sunshine (Or What We Did On Our Summer Vacation)

It's been five years since the last studio album by one of my favourite bands, the Counting Crows. 2007's Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings was a lovely mixture of tracks, and so I was looking forward to hearing Underwater Sunshine - only their sixth studio album in 19 years.

Having read nothing about this record whatsoever, it was only when I recognised track eight as Travis' Coming Around that I realised this was an album of cover versions. Saying that, I only recognised a handful of the songs - four of them are re-recordings of covers they have already released - and so to me it all sounds like new Counting Crows music.

If you're not already a Counting Crows fan then this album isn't going to convert you. It's 15 songs in their inimitable country/rock style and the bands they've chosen to cover range from Teenage Fanclub to Fairport Convention. As I like the band, I unsurprisingly found myself really enjoying Underwater Sunshine. It's melodic, laid back and engaging in exactly the same way that each of their previous albums have been. I'm never quite sure what the point of a covers album is, but if you like the voice of Adam Duritz and the sound of his band, there's lots here to like.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Album Review: Dry the River - Shallow Bed

Dry the River - Shallow Bed

I have no idea what made me head to an obscure stage at Glastonbury in 2011 to see a new band called Dry the River. I'm not sure I'd heard any of their music at that time, but go I did, and even just 20 minutes there made me think that I wanted to hear more in the future.

I'd not considered this any further until I was looking for a 'Record of the Week' for my radio show the other week and, flicking through a list of new single releases, I happened upon the band's The Chambers and the Valves. I loved it on first listen, and so immediately sought out the band's debut album Shallow Bed  on its release a couple of weeks ago.

I absolutely love this record. Now, I'll admit that it won't be for everyone as a couple of people I know have trouble with singer Peter Liddle's unique but largely falsetto voice. I adore it, though, and the vocals coupled with some lovely instrumentation make this a kind of more guitar laden British Fleet Foxes. Some of the harmonies are immense, and there are highlights galore on this album from the brilliant No Rest to the stunning single Weights & Measures.

Dry the River have been compared to the Mumfords, but it's not a comparison I can really understand. Sure, their style may broadly be described as 'folk rock' but that's where any likeness ends. This record has far more heavy guitar, the songs are less instantly catchy and radio-friendly (and much better for being so) and more structured. Many start slowly before reaching a stunning climax; none more so than the brilliant album finale Lion's Den.

Shallow Bed may be an album that takes you a few listens to fully enjoy, but it's my favourite album of 2012 to date by a country mile. Definitely worth a listen.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Album Review: Gotye - Making Mirrors

Gotye - Making Mirrors

It's taken three albums and quite a few years for anyone outside his native Australia to notice Gotye - real name Wouter de Backer. The 31 year old has recently shot to worldwide fame with his UK number one single Somebody That I Used To Know and follows up this success with the international release of his third album, 2011's Making Mirrors.

I'll be honest - this album is something of a mixed bag. A couple of songs coming in at under two minutes lull you gently into his laid-back sound, before the smash hit (and brilliant tune) Somebody That I Used To Know takes over. Featuring guest vocalist Kimbra, it's a song that is almost the definition of a 'grower' and its acerbic lyrics will resonate with anyone who's no longer in contact with an ex-partner.

From then on, Making Mirrors is an eclectic mix of sounds and styles. I Feel Better is a Motown inspired pop belter which sounds as if it was swept off the cutting room floor of Cee-Lo Green's studio. In Your Light channels George Michael's Faith before turning into the perfect song for a sunny car journey while State of the Art sounds like a cross between the Alan Parsons Project and Thomas Dolby.

It's difficult to make an assessment on this record based on a couple of listens. It took me half a dozen listens to really begin to enjoy Somebody That I Used To Know and I think the album is similar. With repeated listens I suspect it could be a record which starts to get under your skin and I think it will take some time to fully appreciate the songwriting and delivery here. Making Mirrors is not an instant hit, but certainly one to come back to.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Album Review: First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar

First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar

You do have to be a bit patient when ploughing through albums by artists you haven't heard of. Clearly there's a bit of taking the rough with the smooth, but the joy is when you uncover a great record that you'd have never previously have considered.

First Aid Kit are sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg and they hail from a small suburb of Stockholm. The Lion's Roar is their second studio album, and a lovely piece of work it is too. The pair have been compared favourably to the Fleet Foxes, although it's an indier and more country tinged sound than, say, Helplessness Blues. I suspect that the comparison comes from the songwriting and beautiful harmonies that the sisters create on tracks such as Emmylou and In The Hearts Of Men.

Conor Oberst makes a guest appearance on the lovely final track King of the World by which time I was totally encapsulated by this record. I'd hesitate before calling them the Swedish Pierces, but it's the most appropriate comparison I can make. If you like the Foxes, the Staves and the Pierces then it's certainly a record you need to hear immediately.

The first excellent album of 2012. Hoo-blooming-rah.