It wouldn’t be a Back Before Dark blog post if it wasn’t a week behind everyone else! I got a bit obsessive and insisted on going back to listen to all of the albums to make sure I was happy with the selections. With a bit more than half of the year behind us, it is time to reflect on all of the amazing music which has graced our ears in the last six months.
15. Big Thief – Capacity
Moody and vulnerable, Capacity explores family history through sparse, rudimentary indie-rock. When you’re listening to tracks like ‘Mythological Beauty’, you know that Lenker is telling you about difficult memories and harsh realities. At times, the level of insight can be disconcerting, as if you are intruding on a family discussion. Consequently, the language and imagery are vivid and often bleak. I felt that Big Thief’s debut Masterpiece had all the right ideas but struggled to convey them all. On Capacity, however, there isn’t a toe out of line.
14. Arca – Arca
We have Björk to thank for Arca finding his voice on his self-titled third album. By all accounts, the pair were in the car together singing for fun when she casually asked if he had ever thought of singing on his albums. With her support, Arca decided to open up about difficult issues on his songs. I can’t comment on what he is addressing since it’s all in Spanish but the language barrier can’t hide that fact that he is baring his soul for the listener. It’s definitely not an album everyone will enjoy but the dissonance and haunting vocals combine to create a disturbingly compelling, beautifully nightmarish soundscape.
13. Talos – Wild Alee
When I reviewed Wild Alee back in April, ‘Piece[s]’ was my favourite track from the album. I don’t know why I love this two-minute interlude so much but further listens have left me loving every track on Wild Alee. The subtleties of the album are quite extraordinary for a debut and repeated listens are generously rewarded. Wild Alee is also one of those records that absolutely must be seen live. It’s impossible for an album to capture the magic of a live Talos performance so be sure to catch him on tour.
12. Fionn Regan – The Meetings of the Waters
The Meetings of the Waters is a true stunner of an album, an escapism delight. To be honest, I’ve dedicated a decent amount of time to scratching my head and trying to figure out why the Bray singer-songwriter isn’t absolutely huge. To my ear, Fionn Regan is one of our island’s most talented musicians. His accomplishments with vast, ambitious orchestral arrangements are just as impressive as the tracks which just focus on him and his guitar. Then, just when you think you have him figured out, Regan throws in a track like ‘Babushka-Yai Ya’ and you’re blown away all over again. A definite contender for Irish album of the year.
11. Japandroids – Near to the Wild Heart of Life
Sometimes, all you want is a blistering rock anthem and that’s something that Japandroids have delivered more consistently than almost any other band. Near to the Wild Heart of Life sounds like a raucous, dream-fuelled road trip across America. The lyrics are unashamedly filled with the three key ingredients for arena rock: the girl, the road and the dream. This recipe is repeated on each of the eight tracks so it was probably a good idea to limit the album at 36 minutes. That way, the idea doesn’t become tired and it’s a lot easier to become engrossed in the blazing wall of sound.
10. Kevin Morby – City Music
City Music is Kevin Morby strongest album to date. While you could never accuse Morby of having the world’s greatest vocal range, he is a hell of a musician and he fits some wonderful ideas into this album. The record is half concept album and half homage to Morby’s influences. From the full-tilt Ramones tribute ‘1234’ to the slow, heartfelt ‘Come to Me Now’, he tries out a bit of everything to a great deal of success. City Music can feel sweet and intimate when it wants to but it’s also loud and obnoxious when it needs to be. Tie all of the chaos together with Morby’s lovesick songwriting and you’re onto a winner.
9. Real Estate – In Mind
When Matt Mondanile – one of Real Estate’s founding members – exited the band to focus on his work with Ducktails, I was a little worried about what it would mean for their next record. The sleepless nights were in vain, however, as In Mind is potentially Real Estate’s most enticing record yet. Their jangly indie-rock is still as sharp and enjoyable as ever but the band have addressed the slightly formulaic approach of their previous albums. Sure, you’ll hear sweet songs about little birds, the sky, etc but the musicianship is tighter than ever. Head to the ‘Two Arrows’ outro and you’ll hear what I mean.
8. Fleet Foxes – Crack-Up
Six years after Helplessness Blues, I wasn’t sure if the world really needed Fleet Foxes anymore. A week before the released of Crack-Up, I went on a binge of their music right back to the Fleet Foxes EP and instantly realised that I was wrong to think I had grown out of them. Crack-Up is a calculated and meticulously balanced album which maintains the essentials (the beautiful harmonies, wistful lyrics, etc) but experiments with new styles. To my ear, there is a distinct jazz influence on Crack-Up as it revels in measured silences and restraint. Furthermore, the six years away makes this album feel slightly like a comforting throwback, a trip back to a beautiful landscape you haven’t seen in years.
7. Jens Lekman – Life Will See You Now
Life Will See You Now is a sweet, poppy album which may ostracise some listeners who will find it a bit too twee. If you inspect below the bouncy disco, samba and calypso, though, you will find a deeply personal album with deceptively heavy stories – there’s illness, heartbreak and unresolved emotions. Such deeply emotional music has never sounded so happy. If you let him, Jens Lekman will take you on a wonderful journey of wild adventures, bizarre characters and unforgettable encounters. The way the productions blend together is inspired. You will find violins mingling with calypso on some tracks and some downright wonderful disco on others. This album is about as fresh as it gets.
6. Mount Eerie – A Crow Looked at Me
A Crow Looked at Me is one of the rawest, most heartbreaking albums I’ve ever heard – let alone this year. Written in memoriam of Elverum’s wife, Geneviève Castrée, the album is a difficult and, in a sense, disturbing listen. It feels like you are almost intruding on his grieving process – A Crow Looked at Me was recorded in the room in which Geneviève died, largely using her own instruments. On this album, Elverum often abandons conventional musical notions and digs down to music’s core purpose – to connect with the listener in order to express and share emotions.
5. Winter Aid – The Murmur of the Land
My personal favourite Irish album of the year so far, Shane Culloty’s debut album is both familiar and obscure. As I said in my original review, “on his debut album, Winter Aid sounds accomplished and extremely ambitious and it is very clear that he has no interest in threading well-worn paths. I know that there are many acts who blend electronic aspects with folk but I’ve never heard anyone sound like this. The Murmur of the Land aims extremely high for a debut album but it definitely hits its mark.”
4. Slowdive – Slowdive
Possibly the greatest poison chalice in music is the reunion album. Let’s face it, when you go away for an extended period of time you had better come back with your A-game. Not many bands can pull off this trick but Slowdive are no ordinary band. 22 years in the making, Slowdive may actually be stronger than their 90s heyday. Heartbreaking, uplifting, alienating and comforting, this record makes you feel everything at once. By taking time apart to explore new projects, Slowdive have returned with renewed vigour. Perhaps this pooled experience is the reason the soundscapes sound far richer and atmospheric than anything they have produced before.
3. Mac DeMarco – This Old Dog
I’ll be honest, I was getting a little bit bored of Mac before the release of This Old Dog. Another One didn’t do much for me and I was beginning to question why I loved him in the first place. I have no trouble admitting that I was wrong to doubt the Mac – This Old Dog is superbly catchy and memorable from start to finish. It’s a far more mature record than Salad Days which is appropriate since that album was all about growing up. Now, Mac is reflecting on his past relationship, heartaches and values through well-balanced and heartfelt balladry.
2. Lord Echo – Harmonies
You may have read my rave review of Lord Echo’s third album back in May. Having honed his production skills with The Black Seeds, Mike Fab has been producing timeless rocksteady and afrobeat for the last seven years. I only heard of him just before the release of Harmonies when Gilles Peterson couldn’t stop singing his praises. This album is a true breath of fresh air. A breath of fresh air which has floated across the globe and captured the most exotic essences along the way. It’s spaced-out at times, soulful at other times and just downright groovy most of the time. An essential listen.
1. Kendrick Lamar – DAMN.
I’m not entirely sure how to explain this but DAMN. doesn’t feel as pivotal or groundbreaking as To Pimp a Butterfly. In terms of its flow and atmosphere, it is has far more in common with good kid, m.A.A.d city. Together, though, Kendrick’s last three releases are a formidable trilogy with three very different messages. DAMN. bookends this trilogy by cementing him as the best story-telling rapper in recent years. The production is just outstanding, from the lo-fi ‘PRIDE.’ to the ultra-clean ‘LOYALTY.’ Unsurprisingly, the lyrics are just as good. Kendrick is on top form and as cutting, aggressive and ironic as ever. In Trump’s America, Kung-Fu Kenny may be the most importance voice in music.
With forthcoming releases from Arcade Fire, The National, The War on Drugs, LCD Soundsystem, Vampire Weekend, St Vincent and loads more, it will be interesting to see if Kendrick Lamar can hold the top spot until December!