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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Brit Awards 2014

Brit Awards 2014 logo

You know you’ve been taking the piss out of the Brit Awards too long when you look at the current year’s shortlist and think “…well, at least it’s not as bad as last year’s.” You might disagree, and I’d very much understand that – perhaps I’ve just reluctantly come to terms with the fact that the Brit Awards are primarily designed to reward (chart) success first and musical credibility second. You’re never going to see Jon Hopkins or These New Puritans or Daughter or Savages or (insert other deserving British artist here) on these shortlists, and if you prefer your music to be prominently feature guitars then you’re largely out of luck – in much the same way as most ‘guitar bands’ are in the charts these days. This year’s selection of awards looks pretty lean at first glance, with no ‘Best Live Act’ and only three international categories, though what the Brits website doesn’t tell you is that the ‘Brits Global Success Award’ is returning after its introduction last year. ‘Best British Video’ will also be making a comeback after being absent for over a decade – apparently the nominations will be announced on the night and voted for via social media. While the sprawling mess of the Grammies is perhaps a little overkill, it does feel like the Brits could do with spreading its wings a bit and introducing some more genre-specific categories – we might see a few more interesting acts getting nominated that way…

Anyhow, let’s have a quick look at who might win, eh?

British Breakthrough Act
Bastille
Disclosure
Laura Mvula
London Grammar
Tom Odell

I briefly thought that the Brits had finally dispensed with public voting, but no, the British Breakthrough category continues its long tradition of being thrown open to the public. Sadly, my trusty method of judging who’s the most popular fell flat last year after Ben Howard won despite not having anywhere near the most fans on Facebook. However, that’s not going to stop me from using the very same method this year and declaring that Bastille will win this one – though it’s also because I reckon they’re the most likely to have the sort of obsessive fanbase who’d vote en masse for this sort of thing. London Grammar are probably the only other band who’d come close.

British Female Solo Artist
Birdy
Ellie Goulding
Jessie J
Laura Marling
Laura Mvula

Only one of these women has had a number one single (and, eventually, a number one album as well). That woman is Ellie Goulding, and I would be very surprised if anyone else wins this award. Any other result would seem a bit half-hearted on the Brits committee’s part, no?

British Group
Arctic Monkeys
Bastille
Disclosure
One Direction
Rudimental

What statement do the Brits want to make this year? You may as well rename the ‘Brits Global Success Award’ the ‘One Direction award for being One Direction’ again this year, and you’d think that would allow the judges to avoid making a potentially controversial choice here. But could they do the unthinkable and pull off a rare victory for pure pop music in this category? Or will the organisers pick the only ‘traditional’ choice and go with Arctic Monkeys, bucking the year’s predominant trends in the process? Or they plant their flag firmly in the ashes of ‘guitar music’ and proclaim Disclosure or Rudimental the winner?

I predict they’ll do none of these things and pick Bastille, which as far as statements go is roughly equivalent to a non-committal shrug.

British Male Solo Artist
David Bowie
Jake Bugg
James Blake
John Newman
Tom Odell

Well, we can safely say that David Bowie won’t win because the ‘token legend’ never ever wins. James Blake is mainly here because he won the Mercury Prize, but will that translate to Brits success? Probably not, though we can live in hope. Honestly, out of all of these I reckon John Newman might take it, if only because he’s got the most obvious hit single to play over the PA as he goes to collect the award.

British Single

Bastille – ‘Pompeii’
Calvin Harris feat. Ellie Goulding – ‘I Need Your Love’
Disclosure feat. AlunaGeorge – ‘White Noise’
Ellie Goulding – ‘Burn’
John Newman – ‘Love Me Again’
Naughty Boy feat. Sam Smith – ‘La La La’
Olly Murs – ‘Dear Darlin”
One Direction – ‘One Way Or Another (Teenage Kicks)’
Passenger – ‘Let Her Go’
Rudimental feat. Ella Eyre- ‘Waiting All Night’

I do love the way the Brits website can’t even be arsed to list the names of the songs. You’d think that would be quite important for a ‘Best Single’ award, no? Anyway, whilst looking them up on Wikipedia, I discovered an interesting fact – these 10 songs were literally the 10 best-selling singles by British artists in 2013. Look here if you don’t believe me – you’ll find these ten songs at numbers 4, 5, 11, 12, 14, 15, 20, 24, 29, and 32. It’s also worth noting that Lily Allen‘s godawful cover of ‘Somewhere Only We Know’ was number 11, so thank your lucky stars that this list wasn’t even worse. (Looking at last year’s list, exactly the same process seems to have been used, except there were 15 nominations rather than 10.)

Anyway, as for the award itself, I’ve genuinely no idea how they’re going to decide this one. If we go purely on sales figures it’s a straight fight between Passenger and Naughty Boy (4 and 5 in the year-end sales figures respectively). However, Ellie Goulding might also be in with a shout because she spent the longest time at number one (three weeks, compared to one or zero for everyone else). Fuck it, I’ll go with that logic and say she’ll win.

International Female Solo Artist
Janelle Monáe
Katy Perry
Lady Gaga
Lorde
P!nk

Ok, process of elimination time – Janelle Monáe is too niche, Lady Gaga‘s last album felt like a relative flop despite going straight to number one, P!nk… well, P!nk somehow had the 20th best selling album of last year despite the fact it came out in 2012. What is life? Anyway, that’s not zeitgeisty enough for the Brits panel, so we’re left with Katy Perry or Lorde – established star vs. up-and-comer. I reckon they might actually go with the New Zealand up-and-comer, particularly after last year’s demonstration that the judges are willing to use the International categories to make themselves look a bit cooler.

International Group
Arcade Fire
Daft Punk
Haim
Kings Of Leon
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Surely Daft Punk are a shoo-in here, given that their chart success totally eclipses everyone else on the list? I mean, it’d be cute if Haim won and all but I just don’t think they’ve sold enough records.

International Male Solo Artist
Bruno Mars
Drake
Eminem
John Grant
Justin Timberlake

Well, they always find room for one total curveball eh? John Grant is easily this year’s most unlikely nominee in any category, but of course that means he’s probably not going to win. The field’s pretty open for any of the others to take the award though, so let’s go with the lowest common denominator and say Bruno Mars will win.

MasterCard British Album of the Year
Arctic Monkeys – AM
Bastille – Bad Blood
David Bowie – The Next Day
Disclosure – Settle
Rudimental – Home

Honestly, I was willing to give Bastille the benefit of the doubt – but then I actually listened to Bad Blood, and let’s just say I am now no longer willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. I’m pretty convinced that anyone else on this list would be a better winner, but realistically, given their combination of sales and critical success, it has to be Arctic Monkeys, right?

…right?

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“Baby You Left Me Sad And High.” – An Overly Personal Look At My Top 6 Albums Of 2013

It’s easy to forget in the flurry of lists that inevitably appears at this time of year, but music is ultimately a personal thing (…I don’t think that’s the first time I’ve said something like that on this blog). All told, this has been a pretty blockbuster year, particularly when 2012 felt relatively lean in comparison (to me, at least). With so many great records around, how do you decide the most worthy of praise? Personally, I keep coming back to the albums that have the greatest emotional resonance – and in that regard, 2013 has conspired to produce half a dozen records that align with the various emotions I’ve often felt this year. “…But I will not spill my guts out.”  – though if you read between the lines, perhaps I’ve come a little closer to doing so than I’d care to admit…

6. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Push The Sky Away

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Push The Sky Away

A friend of mine compared the words of Nick Cave to the ramblings of a madman when I was playing this record on a drive home, and to be honest, I found it difficult to refute him – but then, the line between madness and genius is one that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds have often straddled. Cave’s lyrics on Push The Sky Away may seem impenetrable on first listen, but focus on them a little more intently and you’ll find some surprising moments of clarity – and I’m not just talking about the year’s most oddly prescient reference to Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus (on ‘Higgs Boson Blues’).

There’s the wounded pride of ‘Mermaids’, whose opening lines suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks one evening (“She was a catch, and we were a match. I was the match that would fire up her snatch. There was a catch: I was no match.”), or the desperate longing of ‘We Real Cool’, perhaps epitomised by the line “Wikipedia is heaven, when you don’t wanna remember no more.” But its most stirring moment comes at the close of the album, with ‘Push The Sky Away’ having the quiet yet bloody-minded determination of a man close to breaking point – “You’ve gotta just keep on pushing, keep on pushing, push the sky away.”

5. Daughter – If You Leave

Daughter - If You Leave

Daughter – If You Leave

Honestly, Daughter could pretty much have been designed by committee to appeal to me. Beautiful shrinking violet of a singer whose voice is gentle while still having an undeniable power? Check. Lyrics about love, loss and heartache? Check. Set to a backdrop of swooning guitars and tasteful percussion? Check. Thankfully, If You Leave never seems as cynically conceived as that – indeed, it’s a record of such sincerity that one can’t escape the feeling that vocalist Elena Tonra might be nursing some serious emotional wounds.

Don’t get me wrong, the music is gorgeous, but it’s the way it combines with Tonra’s lyrics that really makes this album so special. She’s at her most affecting when she’s making the kind of desperate pleas that will no doubt go unrecognised by the one person they’re aimed at: “Don’t bring tomorrow, ’cause I already know I’ll lose you.” / “Please take me back to when I was yours.” / “Give me touch, ’cause I’ve been missing it.” But she’s also equally moving when dealing with other aspects of loss and heartache, as evidenced by ‘Still’s portrayal of a disintegrating relationship or ‘Youth’s bitter inability to let go of the past. Even ‘Human’, the one moment of defiant resilience on If You Leave, ends in defeat – “Despite everything, I’m still human… but I think I’m dying here.”

4. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

If Daughter have effortlessly captured the feeling of heartbreak on If You Leave , then Arctic Monkeys have created an unlikely yet perfect companion piece in AM – an album that focuses on romantic and sexual obsession. It’s there from the off with the sultry groove of ‘Do I Wanna Know?’ (“…if this feeling flows both ways?”), before ‘R U Mine?’ ramps up the ante and throws down the gauntlet to a desired partner – “Are you mine tomorrow, or just mine tonight?” It’s an album about being obsessed with someone whether you’re awake or asleep – “I dreamt about you nearly every night this week.” / “I just cannot manage to make it through the day without thinking of you lately.” – and also about trying to satisfy that desire (‘One For The Road’, ‘Knee Socks’).

But it also touches on the situations that would lead these thoughts to occupy your mind – being too close to the one who used to love you (‘Fireside’), seeing an old flame and feeling like they could do so much better than their current beau (‘Snap Out Of It’), or simply being completely wasted (‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’). In the end though, ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ closes the album with the admission that Turner is ultimately following his heart rather than his libido – though he’d certainly like to satisfy the latter in the process.

3. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Wait a minute, isn’t this all supposed to be about feelings and emotions? What’s a largely wordless album of electronica doing here? And yet, the reason I love Immunity is precisely because Jon Hopkins manages to imbue his electronica with a sense of emotion. Perhaps it’s most obvious on the sensual, throbbing ‘Collider’, a song which bristles with a relentless sexual energy. It’s immediately followed by the most perfectly-placed comedown in ‘Abandon Window’, which is all stark pianos and ambient swells, together with the fireworks exploding in the distance, as if to emphasise some far-off celebration that the listener is barely part of. King Creosote also appears on the title track to add even more emotional weight to proceedings, with his distant, mournful voice delivering lines like “you said forever was unkind,” as the record comes to a beautiful climax.

But even outside of that, there’s joy to be had in the pure, propulsive techno of  ‘We Disappear’ and ‘Open Eye Signal’, or the way that the piano chords cut through ‘Breathe This Air’ like a moment of clarity. All told, Immunity combines relentless thrills with a melancholy comedown to create one of the year’s most smartly constructed and perfectly-paced records.

2. These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans - Field Of Reeds

These New Puritans – Field Of Reeds

Again, the latest record from These New Puritans might seem like an odd fit in this list. Were it not for the sheer emotional power of my number one album, Field Of Reeds would probably take its place thanks to its unquestionable compositional mastery. But under the surface, it too is an emotional record – frontman and chief composer Jack Barnett has stressed as much in interviews. The album is able to match the power of classical music to create feelings without words – epitomised by the lump-in-your-throat moment when ‘Organ Eternal’ reaches its crescendo – with the ability to be explicit with words in the manner of a pop song, as on ‘Nothing Else’ (“I pray that just for a minute, real life and dreaming swap places”).

Make no mistake, These New Puritans have crafted an emotional journey on Field Of Reeds – just not in a conventional manner. But then, one shouldn’t expect anything remotely nearing ‘conventional’ from the band these days – and that’s another reason why I love them. (You can find many more reasons in my review of the record over on Soundsphere Magazine.)

1. The National – Trouble Will Find Me

The National - Trouble Will Find Me

The National – Trouble Will Find Me

Over the past five years, The National have gone from being a band I like and casually listen to now and again, to one I absolutely adore. 2010’s High Violet was the catalyst (as I’m sure it was for many others), slowly winning me over and causing me to re-visit the copies of Boxer and Alligator that I already owned but had yet to truly fall in love with. By the time I had attended the ATP event that the band curated at the end of 2012, they’d captured a permanent piece of my (medium-sized American English) heart. All of which leads us to Trouble Will Find Me, whose mere existence made it an almost certain contender for album of the year in my eyes – but that didn’t stop it from having the settling-in period that all records by The National seem to have. But when it hit, it hit hard.

Pretty much every single song on this album has at least something about it that yanks at my heart or sets my mind racing – and I’m hardly even going to have room to mention the wonderful sonics on display, such is the intense nature of this record’s lyrics. ‘Demons’ describes a feeling of social inadequacy, (“But when I walk into a room I do not light it up. FUCK.”), ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ cuts to the heart of emotional turmoil (“I have only two emotions: careful fear and dead devotion. I can’t get the balance right.”) and ‘Graceless’ tackles feelings of self-loathing (“You can’t imagine how I hate this, graceless.”).

But many of the record’s finest moments concern matters of the heart. ‘Fireproof’ portrays the devastating realisation of a gulf between two ex-lovers (“You’re a million miles away, doesn’t matter any more.), the final lines of ‘This Is The Last Time’ perfectly sum up the bittersweet nature of lost love (“Baby you gave me bad ideas. Baby you left me sad and high.”), ‘Slipped’ mourns a would-be relationship that will never come to fruition (“I’ll be a friend and a fuck and everything, but I’ll never be anything you ever want me to be.”), ‘I Need My Girl’ captures the way losing someone can make us feel incomplete (“I can’t get my head around it, I keep feeling smaller and smaller. I need my girl.”) – I could go on and on, but I won’t. I’ll just leave you with one final example, a line from ‘Hard To Find’ that caught me completely off-guard when I wasn’t even listening to the album – I saw it while reading through the lyrics. “I’m not holding out for you, but I’m still watching for the signs. If I tried, you’d probably be hard to find.” 

The lyric “And if you want to see me cry, play Let It Be or Nevermind,” appears in the chorus of ‘Don’t Swallow The Cap’ – and I can’t help but think that, years from now, Trouble Will Find Me might be cited by some future artist as being similarly tear-inducing. It certainly has that effect on me sometimes.

Find a Spotify playlist containing all these albums here.

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Some Brief Thoughts On Arctic Monkeys @ Manchester Arena

It’s occurred to me that with the exception of writing small novels about music festivals (as evidenced here and here), I don’t really do all that much live reviewing any more – in stark contrast to the halcyon days of Myspace blogging, in which I felt compelled to write a review of pretty much every gig I went to at one point (I think that may have actually lasted for at least a year, if not longer). Sadly the new Myspace design appears to have eaten everyone’s blogs, so I can’t revisit those relatively youthful days – thanks for nothing, Justin Timberlake.

Anyway, now that my writing demands (outside of this blog) are a little more structured and I have a job to contend with, I don’t really feel as inclined to write stuff about random gigs I attend, beyond throwing out the odd thought or summary on Facebook or Twitter. After all, it’s nice to approach a show without an overly critical head on and just enjoy it every once in a while.

Tonight’s Arctic Monkeys gig inadvertently proved to be an exception that rule, and I’ve kinda ended up with more thoughts than can be conveniently shoved into a Facebook status – and this not-really-a-review is the result.

– My position in the venue was kinda weird. Having missed or passed up the opportunity to buy tickets when they were previously on sale, I bought what was literally the last ticket available on the arena’s website after stumbling across it by chance – because it was looking sad and lonely and I really wanted to see the band before the end of the year. Rather than attempt to describe my position, here’s a shoddy picture I took on my phone during the show.

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Arctic Monkeys at Manchester Arena

Surprisingly, this off-to the side view was actually ok for the most part – the band certainly aren’t any further away than you’d expect them to be when sat on the second tier of a big arena, it’s just a bit odd that they spend the entire show facing in a completely different direction. Sound was actually ok up there too, at least to my non-audiophile, non-technical ears. It’s still weird for me to think that I once saw Arctic Monkeys in tiny, 200-300 cap venues 8 years ago, but it’s gratifying to see that they’ve very much grown into their role as a stadium band.

– It would be unprofessional to gripe about the setlist in a review, but this is neither professional nor a review, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do. The focus on material from AM was not unexpected, but to play three quarters of the record and not include ‘Knee Socks’ seems pretty criminal. However, its omission did mean that we got ‘I Wanna Be Yours’ instead (at least, if you compare the Manchester setlist to the one from Newcastle the night before), so I’m ok with that – espeically as I was thinking how I wanted to hear that song just before they played it. We also got ‘Fireside’ as a bonus, presumably thanks to the fact that Bill Ryder-Jones was around to play his guitar part, and also guest on three or four other songs while he was at it.

The one trade I’m definitely not ok with is that Newcastle got ‘Do Me A Favour’ (quite possibly my single favourite Arctic Monkeys song) and we got… ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’. Now, I don’t mind ‘No. 1 Party Anthem’ on record, but its nonchalant pace doesn’t really make it a particularly great live track – it’s no ‘Do Me A Favour’ in that regard, that’s for sure. Then there’s also the issue that long-standing set-closer ‘505’ appears to have been retired entirely in favour of playing ‘R U Mine?’ as the last song of the encore. I guess I know how fans of ‘A Certain Romance’ feel now…

To be fair, Arctic Monkeys are now at that point where they have enough material to draw from that they’ll never be able to please everyone – I suppose my desire to hear tracks from the second album rather than the first just makes me a cooler-than-thou version of the bawdy guys who were singing ‘When The Sun Goes Down’ while waiting for the encore.

– Speaking of older songs, I don’t know if it’s just me but it felt like a few songs had been slowed down a touch, like a record played at slightly the wrong speed. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it (it could just be a measure to avoid fatigue), but maybe the band are starting to tire of playing certain tracks, but are near-obliged to do so anyway? ‘I Bet That You Look Good On The Dancefloor’ and ‘Dancing Shoes’ were the most obvious culprits to my ears, but I swear even ‘Brianstorm’ received a little tweak in the tempo department. Then there’s ‘Mardy Bum’, which has pretty much been offered up to the crowd as a semi-acoustic singalong.

There was one newer song that had a fairly significant change though – ‘Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?’, which was dropped into a minor key and took on a slightly menacing air in the process. It works reasonably well though, so it’s not so much a complaint as an observation.

– Despite these niggles and gripes, it was still a very accomplished set – you only have to look at the setlist to see that the band are basically at the point where they’re just playing hit after hit after hit. Sure, some of the new songs fit into that mould better than others  – aside from the singles, ‘One For The Road’ and ‘Arabella’ in particular feel like they could be future staples – but there were only two or three songs you could consider duds in an otherwise consistently crowd-pleasing set. Even seemingly unlikely songs like ‘Reckless Serenade’ got a huge reaction from the crowd, as well as unexpectedly giving me a ‘lump-in-my-throat’ moment – affirmation, perhaps, that even after eight years and five albums, I care about Arctic Monkeys as much as I ever did.

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Let’s Get Cynical About: The Mercury Prize (2013 Edition)

It’s once again that time of year, where the Mercury Prize shortlist appears and we all bitch and moan about its strengths and weaknesses and argue about who should and shouldn’t have been included. For my money, These New Puritans have been robbed again, and I was expecting Daughter to be a shoo-in. One of the odder suggestions I saw a few people make was that Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds should have been nominated – while Push The Sky Away would have absolutely been deserving of a nod, its inclusion would have required some very lax interpretation of the nomination criteria. There’s also a prevailing train of thought that the Mercury panel has once again played it pretty safe – the list contains five number one albums, seven artists who have previously been nominated (if we include Jon Hopkins’ collaboration with King Creosote, Diamond Mine, which was nominated in 2011), and only one record that had sold less than 20,000 copies worldwide before the nominations were announced (thanks to Clash’s Mike Diver for that factoid – read his excellent article on the Mercury Prize here). It’s certainly not as bland or mediocre a list as last year’s, but it’s difficult to argue that it’s much more challenging. All that aside, however, the list has been chosen – so all that remains is to offer you my opinion on this year’s twelve shortlisted albums.

12. Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula - Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula – Sing To The Moon

Laura Mvula is in possession of a perfectly fine voice, but there’s really not a lot to be said about Sing To The Moon apart from that it’s terminally boring. Aside from the jazzy ‘Green Garden’ and the twinkly ‘She’, nothing really held my interest – I can only listen to so many ballads before I wish I was listening to something else. Definitely a slot that could have been taken by a far more exciting album – the idea that this got nominated ahead of the Daughter record just seems absolutely ridiculous to me.

11. Rudimental – Home

Rudimental - Home

Rudimental – Home

The fact that Rudimental are nominated for this year’s prize seems weird somehow. Let’s be clear, Home isn’t total dross or anything – it’s a mostly solid and surprisingly varied dance record that does a decent job of blending together different electronic genres –  but it doesn’t feel like it’s pushing any boundaries. Besides, the album already went to number one, and you’ve almost certainly heard its two best songs (‘Feel The Love’ and ‘Waiting All Night’) if you have found yourself located in ‘tha club’ at any point in the last year – add all of that up and you end up with an album that struggles to really justify its inclusion on the shortlist.

10. Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg - Jake Bugg

Jake Bugg – Jake Bugg

I’ll openly admit that Jake Bugg is the kind of artist who’s hyped to the point that I actually just want to find an excuse to dislike him – but his self-titled debut album isn’t it*. He does a pretty good line in skiffly, observational snapshots (‘Taste It, ‘Lightning Bolt’), but his attempts at balladry are a little bit more mixed, which is a shame, as the album seems to include more of the latter, with nary an upbeat song to be found after ‘Trouble Town’. The slightly psychedelic-sounding ‘Ballad Of Mr Jones’ suits Bugg’s voice fairly well, but ‘Broken’s overblown, maudlin backdrop seems to overstate his ability to tug at the heartstrings. While Bugg’s words generally seem authentic, it’s fair to say that the way they’re presented isn’t exactly original – all told, you’ll think Jake Bugg is amazing if you like Dylan-esque singer-songwriters and happen to think that Arctic Monkeys began and ended with Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not (protip: they didn’t, but we’ll get to that later). Which is all well and good – but it’s not Mercury-winning material.

*The shoddy Arctic Monkeys rip-off he released as his latest single, on the other hand…

9. Disclosure – Settle

Disclosure - Settle

Disclosure – Settle

Much like Rudimental, my appreciation of Disclosure is mostly limited to their singles. They’ve got some undeniably good tunes, though ‘Latch’ and ‘White Noise’ probably remain the best, with an honourable mention going to the London Grammar-featuring ‘Help Me Lose My Mind’. But as it stands, I’m just not that interested in listening to a whole album of deep house, no matter how accomplished it may be. Sorry chaps.

8. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling - Once I Was An Eagle

Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

It seems that Laura Marling has surpassed herself with Once I Was An Eagle – it’s both her longest and her most critically acclaimed album yet. But while the critical acclaim is pretty much spot on, the running time proves to be an issue – it honestly feels a bit drawn out, and you could absolutely split the record down the middle into two separate albums. However, if you can’t get enough of Marling’s timeless, world-weary songwriting then this record will prove to be a bountiful pleasure, as apart from the pointless ‘Interlude’ that’s pretty much what you get from start to finish. Myself? I can hardly fault the record, objectively speaking, but do I feel particularly compelled to come back to it? Not really.

7. Villagers – {Awayland}

Villagers - {Awayland}

Villagers – {Awayland}

I’m probably going to look a bit silly putting this above Laura Marling’s album, but for whatever reason I find Villagers to be the more engaging storytellers. I think it’s because, with Conor O’Brien involving his bandmates in the writing process more than last time round, the end result is a more expansive and varied sound. Highlights for me were ‘The Waves’, ‘Nothing Arrived’ and ‘The Bell’, but it’s a pretty solid listen throughout. If you like well-crafted, interesting folk-rock, then {Awayland} will definitely work for you.

6. David Bowie – The Next Day

David Bowie - The Next Day

David Bowie – The Next Day

While many of the other ‘token’ awards seem to have been done away with this year (there’s not a jazz act in sight, and both Laura Marling and Villagers can hardly be considered tokenistic, having both being nominated before), the ‘token veteran’ award is still alive and well. It’s fair enough in this case though, as 2013 has given us a doozy in the surprise return of David Bowie. Really, Bowie could have released an album of avant-garde spoken word or impenetrable noise and people would probably have still lapped it up, but we’re fortunate enough that The Next Day is actually pretty good – particularly in its more reflective moments (‘Where Are We Now’, ‘You Feel So Lonely You Could Die’, ‘Heat’).

5. James Blake – Overgrown

James Blake - Overgrown

James Blake – Overgrown

If I had one major problem with the self-titled debut from James Blake, it was that it was a bit inconsistent. Fortunately, Overgrown addresses that problem fairly well. That’s not to say that there aren’t any definite standouts – step forward, ‘Retrograde’, ‘Overgrown’ and ‘Life Round Here’ – but there’s less of the weird quasi-experimental stuff and more actual tunes in general. ‘Retrograde’ in particular shows that Blake has a head for a hook, both instrumentally and vocally – and while there are times in the latter half of the record where you might wish him to demonstrate that more readily, it’s still a definite improvement over his debut.

4. Foals – Holy Fire

Foals - Holy Fire

Foals – Holy Fire

The more I think about it, the more I realise that the career trajectory of Foals is very similar to that of The Horrors – except without the critical derision of their first record. But if Total Life Forever was their Primary Colours, Holy Fire is very much their Skying – a confident, accomplished refinement of the expansive sound that they’d already demonstrated so well on the previous album. In Foals’ case, not only did their album hit number 2 in the UK, it also spawned a top 40 single (the infectious ‘My Number’) and acted as a prelude to their first major festival main-stage headline slot at Latitude. Not exactly what you might have predicted for a math-rock band from Oxford, but deserved success nevertheless.

3. Arctic Monkeys – AM

Arctic Monkeys - AM

Arctic Monkeys – AM

Let’s stop and be honest with ourselves here – Arctic Monkeys don’t need this nomination, particularly for an album that was released a mere two days before the shortlist was announced and was a pretty much guaranteed number one record. We’re not quite at Adele levels of monumental pointlessness, but we’re close. However, unlike 21, AM is actually a good album – it’s not an NME 10/10-they’re-basically-the-next-Beatles (though perhaps that review may yet prove prescient), but it’s definitely worth more than the 5/10 that Drowned In Sound’s Jazz Monroe gave it. In my eyes, it’s a solid 8 or maybe even a 9 – the only problem for me is one of pacing, in that the mid-section consists of the album’s only iffy track (‘I Want It All’), and two slow tracks back-to-back, which does both of the latter songs a disservice in my eyes. Still, it wears its hip-hop influences on its sleeve whilst still sounding very much like Arctic Monkeys, which is only a good thing in my eyes. It’s possible that AM might top both Silence Yourself and Immunity in my end-of-year list, but in terms of being nominated for the Mercury prize, it only seems right to put it below those two records.

2. Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages - Silence Yourself

Savages – Silence Yourself

At this point you probably fall firmly on one of two sides when it comes to Savages – the “they’re derivative and they suck!” side or the “they’re amazing!” side. If you’ve read anything I’ve written about them previously then you probably won’t be surprised to hear I fall into the latter camp. Either way, Silence Yourself is not about to change anyone’s opinion regarding the band. To these (naive?) ears, it sounds more urgent and vital as any post-punk record I’ve heard in quite some time, never mind the fact that they’re an all-female band (which ought not to be a big deal but is nevertheless all too noticeable in our present time). You can argue that it’s cynical and calculated all you want, but the end result is undeniably powerful.

1. Jon Hopkins – Immunity

Jon Hopkins - Immunity

Jon Hopkins – Immunity

I know I’ve been giving previous nominees a hard time this year (regardless of how good their album is), so logically speaking I should do the same to Jon Hopkins. However, there are two things that separate him from the other six artists with previous nominations – 1) he’s only been nominated for a collaborative work, not his solo material, and 2) remember that I mentioned how only one of these records had sold less than 20,000 copies before its nomination? That’s Immunity. Which is a crying shame because it’s a fantastic record – I’m by no means the biggest electronic music fan in the world, but something about this album really struck a chord with me. I think it’s the way that Hopkins somehow manages to imbue his music with a sense of emotion – no better emphasised than on ‘Collider’, which is possibly the most sexual song I’ve heard all year. And I don’t mean ‘sexual’ as an arbitrary positive adjective, I mean that it has all the intensity that you ought to associate with actually having sex. It also contains the most brilliantly-placed track on a record, with the sparse, reflective ‘Abandon Window’ providing the perfect comedown after the previous four tracks of pulsating, forward-thinking electronica. But not only would Immunity be a worthy winner in its own right, it also feels like the most deserving winner in terms of nudging the ‘general public’ towards music they may not have heard before – and I think, with a shortlist of increasingly obvious choices, Jon Hopkins might just be the winner the Mercury needs.

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Let’s Get Cynical’s ‘Stuff I’ve Enjoyed In The Last Month Or So’ Roundup

So, hi again, it’s been a while, and that’s largely my fault for being lazy with this whole thing. Without further ado, here’s a bunch of stuff I’ve enjoyed recently (or somewhat recently).

Arctic Monkeys

You’ve probably already heard this, but if you’ve been living under a rock for the past month then you’d best crawl out from under it and watch the video below. Matt Helders recently hinted that ‘R U Mine’ could be strongly indicative of what the next Arctic Monkeys record might sound like – and that’s a very good thing.

2:54

The self-titled debut record from 2:54 (which is out on the 28th May, by the way) looks like a more thrilling prospect with every track they release, and swirling siren-song ‘You’re Early’ is no exception. Check out the smoky video for the track below:

One thing I noticed about the track is that those drums have a definite air of Wild Beasts about them – so I suppose it makes some sense that said band have remixed the track, with added vocals from Hayden Thorpe to boot. There’s an interesting contrast between the two versions – while the original tantalises with words unspoken (“I just wanna be close…”), Thorpe wastes no time in filling the blanks (“…to you baby”). Then again, that’s pretty much what we’d expect from Wild Beasts, isn’t it?

2:54 – ‘You’re Early’ (Wild Beasts Remix)

Lone Wolf

Another man with a new album due this year is Paul Marshall, otherwise known as Lone Wolf – it’s called The Lovers, and he recently previewed the first track from it. It’s called ‘The Swan Of Meander’, and you can hear it below.

Lone Wolf – ‘The Swan Of Meander’

While the warm synths and expansive drumbeat make this somewhat of a departure from the dark, folky sound of The Devil And I, the luscious guitars and Marshall’s captivating vocals mark this out as the work of Lone Wolf. Do we call him post-folk now? There’s no concrete release date for the new record, but it’s due some time this autumn.

The Hundred In The Hands

I don’t think I ever properly expressed my love for the debut LP from The Hundred In The Hands, but it’s pretty damn special. So I was very much pleased to hear them announce that their new album Red Night will be released on June 11th. The first sample from it comes in the form of ‘Faded’, which you can listen to right here.

It’s certainly an atmospheric opening gambit, with floaty vocals, dreamy synths and chiming guitars all alluding to the night-time setting that the album’s title suggests. And while it’s a great track in its own right, it also very much feels like something that’s going to make a lot of sense as part of a greater whole – I look forward to seeing what exactly that greater whole comprises of come June. Why is their only UK show in London though? *sadface*

Bonus! Extra-Curricular Writings:

I also wrote reviews of the following albums in the past month or so – they’re all great records, so do have a look:

Sleigh Bells – Reign Of Terror (for Muso’s Guide)

Stalking Horse – Stalking Horse (for Soundsphere Magazine)

Team Me – To The Treetops! (for Muso’s Guide)

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Let’s Get Cynical’s Albums Of The Year 2011

Here we are once again then, my top 10 albums of the year. Or rather, my top 11, thanks to the fact I’ve decided to have two number one albums, ignoring traditional numbering conventions in the process. I love the two albums in question for completely different reasons, and as such I couldn’t bring myself to pick between them. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s run through these albums in reverse order…

10. Battles – Gloss Drop

Battles - Gloss Drop

Despite the loss of Tyondai Braxton, the remaining three members of Battles soldiered on regardless, and Gloss Drop is the result. While perhaps not quite reaching the heights of debut full-length Mirrored, the new record feels undoubtedly more fun – and no more so than on the grin-inducing organised chaos of ‘Ice Cream’, which features the brilliantly nonsensical vocals of Matias Aguayo. Elsewhere, Gary Numan features on the blisteringly relentless ‘My Machines’, ‘Inchworm’ bounces playfully along, and album opener ‘Africastle’ sees the band sounding as tight as ever – just a few reasons why Gloss Drop is absolutely a triumph agains adversity.

9. Braids – Native Speaker

Braids - Native Speaker

On Native Speaker, Braids have provided one of the finest pairs of opening tracks you’ll hear all year. ‘Lemonade’ sees vocalist Raphaelle Standell-Preston cooing seductively over bubbling, sparkling backdrop, before ‘Plath Heart’ sees the band kick into mesmerising, oddball indie-pop mode in earnest. The rest of the album is pretty good too – the blissed out ambience of ‘Glass Deers’ and the clastrophobic menace of ‘Lammicken’ being particular highlights.

8. The Duke Spirit – Bruiser

The Duke Spirit - Bruiser

The Duke Spirit are perhaps one of the UK’s most undeservedly underrated bands, and listening to Bruiser will certainly do nothing to harm that reputation. The album makes its way from full-throttle bluesy rock numbers such as ‘Surrender’ and ‘Everybody’s Under Your Spell’ to more thoughtful, heartfelt tracks like ‘Villian’ and ‘Homecoming’, via the sultry stomp of ‘Procession’ and the dark, convulsing bassline of ‘Bodies’. The fact that all this comes together as a remarkably cohesive whole makes Bruiser one of the most consistently strong records I’ve heard all year.

7. Vessels – Helioscope

Vessels - Helioscope

The second full-length record from Leeds post-rock titans Vessels, Helioscope once again demonstrates the breadth and depth of their musical ambition, from the incessant, ever-shifting dynamics of opener ‘Monoform’ to the euphoric crescendo of ‘All Our Ends’. Of particular note is the beautifully understated ‘Meatman, Piano Tuner, Prostitute’, which features a gorgeous vocal turn from Stuart Warwick – but the album is a breathtaking ride from start to finish.

6. Los Campesinos! – Hello Sadness

Los Campesinos! - Hello Sadness

The most recent set from Los Campesinos! sees them adopt a more mature sound at points. Sure, Hello Sadness still features bursts of youthful exuberance (‘By Your Hand’, ‘Songs About Your Girlfriend’) and Gareth’s lyricism is as devastating as ever, particularly on the chorus of the title track. But songs like ‘The Black Bird, The Dark Slope’ and the heartwrenching ‘To Tundra’ feel like the sound of a band pushing harder than ever to surpass themselves – and succeeding.

5. Arctic Monkeys – Suck It And See

Arctic Monkeys - Suck It And See

There is a school of thought that suggests that Arctic Monkeys have become progressively worse with each passing record. Anyone who thinks this, however, is utterly mistaken – Suck It And See is the sound of a band both very much comfortable in its own skin and sounding as effortlessly confident as ever. From gorgeous indie-pop (‘She’s Thunderstorms’) to wilfully ridiculous rock stompers (‘Brick By Brick’), they barely put a foot wrong here. Alex Turner is also on fine lyrical form, demonstrating his tender side with tracks like ‘Piledriver Waltz’ and ‘Love Is A Lazerquest’, as well as his trademark wit on ‘Reckless Serenade’ and ‘Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair’. Doubters gonna doubt, but Suck It And See is a fine addition to the Arctic Monkeys canon regardless of what they think.

4. The Horrors – Skying

The Horrors - Skying

While not the quantum leap forward that 2009’s Primary Colours represented, Skying saw The Horrors consolidate their sonic progression with another fine collection of songs – as well as finally earning a deserved chart breakthrough, (on their own terms, no less). From the driving, hook-laiden likes of ‘I Can See Through You’ and ‘Still Life’ to sprawling, brilliant epics ‘Moving Further Away’ and ‘Oceans Burning’, Skying moulds The Horrors’ myriad influences into a sound that is very much their own.

3. Wild Beasts – Smother

Wild Beasts - Smother

The baffling omission of Smother from the Mercury Prize shortlist turned out to be but a minor blip in the continued ascent of Wild Beasts. The band adopted a more pared down, less-is-more aesthetic than on previous records, which has been exquisitely combined with their thought-provoking, intimate lyricism to produce one of the year’s most stunningly beautiful records.

2. Zola Jesus – Conatus

Zola Jesus - Conatus

It’s impossible to talk about Zola Jesus without mentioning *that* voice, and for good reason – her operatic tones are some of the most powerful and distinctive you’ll hear today. But equally striking are the varied electronic soundscapes that she wraps around that arresting voice, and her third album Conatus proved to be no exception. Be it the spacious, ominous sounds of ‘Avalanche’, the glitchy industrial whirring of ‘Vessel’, the hypnotic likes of ‘Hikikomori’ and ‘Ixode’, or the fragile melancholy of ‘Skin’, it’s a consistently captivating record that deserves recognition as one of the year’s best.

1 (The Head). PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

PJ Harvey - Let England Shake

Objectively speaking, Let England Shake is one of the year’s most outstanding artistic achievements, and I’d personally rank it as the best thing PJ Harvey has ever put her name to. To take on the subject of war without resorting to “WAR IZ BAD” tubthumping is commendable in itself – Harvey takes the far more restrained approach of narrating the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of the soldiers who were there. In doing so, however, she paints a more damning portrait of war than any protest song could ever hope to – and that’s the true genius of Let England Shake. I’ll stop there – it’s not as if I haven’t gushed about this album enough already.

1 (The Heart). Johnny Foreigner – Johnny Foreigner Vs Everything

Johnny Foreigner - Johnny Foreigner Vs Everything

For me, no band is better at making music that feels absolutely vital to my life than Johnny Foreigner, and with Johnny Foreigner Vs Everything, they’ve done it absolutely on their own terms. While there’s still plenty of the rapid-fire anthems they’re most well known for (‘What Drummers Get’, ‘You Vs Everything’), it’s the slower songs that really make this album for me – tracks like ‘200x’ and ‘Johnny Foreigner Vs You’ fit the band like a glove by allowing Alexei’s lyrical prowess to shine through. Deeply personal and yet instantly relatable, I can almost guarantee you’ll take far more than a handful of lines from these songs to heart – this is an emotional heavyweight of an album, but one you won’t mind being knocked off your feet by time and time again.

You can find a Spotify playlist containing all these albums right here.

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(Some Of) The Songs Of The Year So Far.

Seems that everyone and their blog is talking about their ‘X best albums of the year so far’. Screw that – but here’s a bunch of songs instead. A few of these might not be my absolute favourites from their respective albums, but I’m just working with what I could find on Soundcloud. That said, here they are, in no particular order of preference. Continue reading

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