My Favourite Albums and Tracks of the Decade

10 Oct

The following lists contain a bunch of albums and tracks that made a mark on me over the past decade and continue to resonate years later. Some are clever, some are dumb. Some have gone some way to innovate or influence but many don’t have that universal significance; they may simply be personal mementos or soundtracks to memories. Few would argue that ‘Complete Surrender’ by Slow Club is the artistic equivalent of Kendrick’s ambitious and groundbreaking ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’ but guess which one I would rather take on a desert Island? These lists, with their neat orders, therefore, are personal snapshots and are not designed to be authoritative in any one, strict sense. They are, in a roundabout way, the albums I have loved and listened to the most over the past ten years. I’ve divided them loosely by genre (which in and of itself is a challenge – how do you categorise an artist like Grimes, whose very existence hinges on her ability to blur the lines between genres?) in an effort to bring some coherence to the task.

If it’s hard to select my favourite albums of the decade then it’s harder still to select tracks – not least because individual songs are perhaps even more dependent on their context. How could one compare a delicate piano ballad like Paul Buchanan’s ‘mid air’ to Daft Punk’s inescapable and irrepressibly catchy ‘Get Lucky’? Ask me what my favourite song is and it will depend very much on my mood, the time of day, what I’ve had to drink and the activity I’m partaking in. For example; Nothing shook me quite like ‘212’ by Azealia Banks, a song that followed me around the clubs the summer I graduated from University. Nothing moved me quite like Perfume Genius’ ‘Mr Peterson’, a song so fragile and spare that its very existence almost feels impossible. If I’m being clear headed then no song summarises the decade as perfectly as ‘Love It If We Made It’ by The 1975, which is somehow the funniest, smartest and scariest post-modern pop song of the century. It sounds like right now. And yet this song I have listened to more than any other is surely ‘DVP’ by PUP, a driving punk anthem that sounds as if it could have been released at any point over the past thirty years. It’s not that any one of these songs is better or the best. You wouldn’t mosh to ‘Mid Air’ and you wouldn’t shed a tear for ‘DVP’. None alone are definitive or all encompassing. 

All that said, If I could choose just one album to represent this decade it would be Kanye’s ‘Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, an album which staggered me at the time and, miraculously, still has that capacity ten years on. Kanye’s audacity and ambition, his technical mastery, and his singular vision made it a truly groundbreaking record in 2010. It made me look at Hip Hop in a new way and everything that’s happened to the genre since has grown in its shadow. It was fascinating to watch Kanye untangle and wrestle with his own notorious neuroses. He was then, and still is, the most extraordinarily unique star and ‘My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy’ is perhaps the only moment in which he’s ever tried to face up to his own reflection. It’s deep and dippy and like nothing I’ve heard before or since. I still hear new things every time I spin it (which is often(.

So without any further ado…

Alternative Rock albums

  1. Lost in the Dream by The War on Drugs
  2. AM by Arctic Monkeys
  3. I Like It When You Sleep By The 1975
  4. Complete Surrender by Slow Club
  5. Avi Buffalo by Avi Buffalo
  6. Twin Fantasy by Car Seat Headrest 
  7. Currents by Tame Impala
  8. Congratulations by MGMT
  9. Suck It and See by Arctic Monkeys
  10. The Drums by The Drums
  11. At Best, Cuckold by Avi Buffalo 
  12. Teens of Denial by Car seat Headrest 
  13. Serotonin by Mystery Jets
  14. Lonerism by Tame Impala
  15. Modern Vampires of the City by Vampire Weekend 
  16. Light Upon the Lake by Whitney
  17. Sometimes I Sit and Think by Courtney Barnett
  18. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  19. Tranquility Base Hotel and Casino by Arctic Monkeys
  20. Father, Son, Holy Ghost by Girls
  21. I’m all ears by Lets Eat Grandma
  22. A brief enquiry Into online Relationships by The 1975
  23. Do Hollywood by Lemon Twigs
  24. Sunbathing Animal by Parquet Courts
  25. Skeleton Tree by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds

Alternative Rock tracks

  1. Love It If We Made It by The 1975
  2. Beach Life in Death by Car Seat Headrest
  3. It Feels Like We Only Go Backwards by Tame Impala
  4. Thinking of a Place by The War on Drugs
  5. Sex by The 1975
  6. Best of Friends by Palma Violets
  7. Everything Now by Arcade Fire
  8. Do I Wanna Know by Arctic Monkeys
  9. Light Up Gold by Parquet Courts
  10. Step by Vampire Weekend
  11. Undercover of Darkness by The Strokes
  12. Donnie Darko by Let’s Eat Grandma
  13. Beautiful Blue Sky by Ought
  14. Tell em by Sleigh Bells
  15. Helplessness Blues by Fleet Foxes
  16. Seasons by Future Islands
  17. Book of Stories by The Drums
  18. Avant Gardener by Courtney Barnett
  19. No Destruction by Foxygen
  20. Fizzy by Sleaford Mods
  21. Wreckin’ Bar by The Vaccines
  22. I Didn’t Think It Would Hurt to Think if You by The Heartbreaks
  23. Superball by Magic Kids
  24. Archie, Marry Me by Alvvays
  25. Zombie by Jamie T

Folk/Country/Singer-songwriter albums

  1. Carrie and Lowell by Sufjan Stevens
  2. U.F.O.F by Big Thief
  3. A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie
  4. Burn Your Fire For No Witness by Angel Olsen
  5. Have One on Me by Joanna Newsom
  6. Submarine by Alex Turner
  7. Titanic Rising by Wyes Blood
  8. Voyageur by Kathleen Edwards 
  9. Without Why by Rose Elinor Dougall
  10. On Your Own Love Again by Jessica Pratt
  11. Benji by Sun Kil Moon
  12. Tape Deck Heart by Frank Turner
  13. Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves
  14. Are We There Yet by Sharon Van Etten
  15. Something More Than Free by Jason Isbell
  16. Flaws by Bombay Bicycle Club
  17. Birthdays by Keaton Henson
  18. Mid-Air by Paul Buchanan 
  19. About Farewell by Aleala Diane
  20. Prisoner by Ryan Adams
  21. Beachcomber’s Windowsill by Stornoway 
  22. I’m a Dancer by Sweet Baboo
  23. Turn Out the Lights by Julien Baker
  24. I Speak Because I Can by Laura Marling 
  25. A Bad Wind Blows In My Heart by Bill Ryder Jones

Folk/country/singer-songwriter tracks

  1. Now Only by Mount Eerie
  2. The Only Thing by Sufjan Stevens 
  3. Mid Air by Paul Buchanan 
  4. Mr Peterson by Pefume Genius
  5. House Full of Empty Rooms by Kathleen Edwards
  6. Ben’s My Friend by Sun Kil Moon
  7. Your Love Is Killing Me by Sharon Van Etten
  8. Sister by Angel Olsen
  9. Lying to You by Keaton Henson
  10. Marked by EMA
  11. Flaws by Bombay Bicycle Club 
  12. Wrecking Ball by Ryan Adams 
  13. Motion sickness by Phoebe Bridgers
  14. Happy and Sad by Kacey Musgrives 
  15. The Greatest Bastard by Damien Rice
  16. Without You by Ryan Adams
  17. Have One in Me by Joanna Newsom
  18. Mystery of Love by Sufjan Stevens
  19. Night Shift by Lucy Dacus 
  20. Hey Ho by The Lumineers
  21. Shark Smile by Big Thief
  22. White Fire by Angel Olsen
  23. Pretend You Love Me by Sonny and the Sunsets
  24. Song for Zulu by Phosphorescent
  25. I’m a dancer by Sweet Baboo

Pop albums

  1. Melodrama by Lorde
  2. Red by Taylor Swift
  3. Progress by Take That
  4. 1989 by Taylor Swift
  5. 21 by Adele
  6. The 20/20 Experience by Justin Timberlake
  7. Art Angels by Grimes
  8. Caustic Love by Paolo Nutuni
  9. Natalie Prass by Natalie Prass
  10. In the Lonely Hour by Sam Smith
  11. Pure Heroine by Lorde
  12. Body Talk by Robyn
  13. + by Ed Sheeran
  14. Born to Die by Lana Del Rey
  15. Lover by Taylor Swift
  16. Nothing’s Real by Shura
  17. Lupercalia by Patrick Wolf
  18. Devotion by Jessie Ware
  19. Night Driver by Busted
  20. Emotion by Carly Rae Jepson
  21. 5 Seconds of Summer by 5 Seconds of Summer
  22. Family Jewels by Marina and the Diamonds
  23. 24K Magic by Bruno Mars
  24. Harry Styles by Harry Styles
  25. Immunity by Clairo

 Pop tracks

  1. Flesh Without Blood by Grimes
  2. Dancing on My Own by Robyn
  3. Royals by Lorde
  4. Video Games by Lana Del Rey
  5. Someone Like You by Adele 
  6. We Are Never Getting Back Together by Taylor Swift
  7. Love Never Felt So Good by Michael Jackson
  8. Mirrors by Justin Timberlake
  9. I Really like You by Carly Rae Jepson
  10. Everything Is Embarrassing by Sky Ferrara 
  11. Pink and Blue by Hannah Diamond
  12. Iron Sky by Paulo Nutini
  13. Pretty Girl by Clairo
  14. I Love It by Icona Pop
  15. Hotline Bling by Drake
  16. Sadness Is a Blessing by Lykke Li
  17. The City by Patrick Wolf
  18. What’s It Gonna be by Shura
  19. Perfect by Ed Sheeran
  20. Hollywood by Marina and the Diamonds
  21. Good Grief by Bastille
  22. Sign of the Times by Harry Styles
  23. Break Free by Ariana Grande
  24. Goodness Gracious by Ellie Goulding
  25. Heart Skipped a Beat by Olly Murrs

Dance/Electronic/experimental albums

  1. Random Access Memories by Daft Punk
  2. Our Love by Caribou 
  3. James Blake by James Blake
  4. Vulnicura by Bjork
  5. This is Happening by LCD Soundsystem 
  6. Settle by Disclosure
  7. It’s Album Time by Todd Terje
  8. Hurry Up We’re Dreaming by M83
  9. What is this Heart by How to Dress Well
  10. Immunity by Jon Hopkins
  11. In Colour by Jamie XX
  12. SBTRKT by SBTRKT
  13. Trouble by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
  14. Funk Wav Bounces by Calvin Harris 
  15. Within and Without by Washed Out
  16. Glow by Tensnake
  17. Swim by Caribou
  18. Glass Swords by Rustie 
  19. Sepalcure by Sepalcure
  20. Surf Noir by Beat Connection
  21. Personality by Scuba
  22. Compassion by Forest Swords
  23. Singularity by Jon Hopkins
  24. Safe in the Hands of Love by Yves Turner
  25. Compro by Skee Mask

Dance/electronic/experimental tracks

  1. Get Lucky by Daft Punk
  2. White Noise by Disclosure ft. Aluna George
  3. Coma Cat by Tensnake
  4. Dance Yrself Clean by Lcd Soundsystem
  5. Wildfire by SBTRKT
  6. Our Love by Caribou
  7. CMYK James Blake
  8. Ready for the World by How to Dress Well
  9. Black Lake by Bjork
  10. Gabriel by Joe Goddard
  11. I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times by Jamie XX
  12. In the Water by Beat Connection
  13. The Shrew Would Have Cushioned the Blow by Joy Orbison
  14. Delirium Dynamite by Todd Terje
  15. Warmer Places by Delorean
  16. Slide by Calvin Harris
  17. Amor Fati by Washed Out
  18. The Throw by Jagwar Ma
  19. Cheerleader by OMI
  20. Are You Leaving by Sassy 009
  21. Your Love by Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs
  22. Electricity by Silk City
  23. I Need Air by Magnetic Man
  24. In the Rain by Teengirl Fantasy
  25. You Weren’t There Anymore by Negative Gemini

Hip Hop albums

  1. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kanye West
  2. To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar
  3. RTJ2 by Run the Jewels 
  4. Take Care by Drake
  5. Good Kid Maad City by Kendrick Lamar
  6. Colouring Book by Chance the Rapper
  7. Goblin by Tyler the Creator
  8. Konichiwa by Skepta
  9. Invasion of Privacy by Cardi B
  10. Yezus by Kanye West
  11. Doris by Earl Sweatshirt
  12. Damn by Kendrick Lamar
  13. We Got It From Here by A Tribe Called Quest
  14. Sir Lucius Left Foot by Big Boi 
  15. Whack World by Tierra Whack
  16. Daytona by Pusha T
  17. Nothing Was the Same by Drake
  18. Yesterday’s Gone by Loyle Carner
  19. 1992 Deluxe by Princess Nokia
  20. Igor by Tyler the Creator
  21. Room 25 by Noname 
  22. Forest Hills Drive by Jay Cole
  23. Piñata by Freddie Gibb and Madlib
  24. Surf by Donnie Trumpet and The Social Experiment
  25. Atrocity Exhibition by Danny Brown

Hip Hop tracks

  1. 212 by Azalea Banks
  2. Monster by Kanye West
  3. Yonkers by Tyler the Creator
  4. Close Your Eyes by Run the Jewels
  5. Blessings by Chance the Rapper
  6. Backseat Freestyle by Kendrick Lamar
  7. How Much a Doller Cost by Kendrick Lamar
  8. i like it by Cardi B
  9. Headlines by Drake
  10. Man by Skepta
  11. French by Odd Future
  12. Super-bass by Nicki Minaj
  13. Shutdown by Skepta 
  14. Pretty Girl by Stefflon Don
  15. We the People by A Tribe Called Quest
  16. Niggas in Paris by Kanye West and Jay Z
  17. Ain’t Nothing Changed by Louie Carner
  18. Starships by Nicki Minaj
  19. New Slaves by Kanye West
  20. If You Know, You Know by Pusha T
  21. Funky Friday by Dave
  22. Earl by Earl Sweatshirt
  23. Vossi Bop by Stormzy
  24. All Night by Big Boi
  25. Black Beatles by Rae Stremmurd

Rock/Metal/punk/Emo albums

  1. Stage Four by Touché Amore
  2. You’re Gonna Miss It All by Modern Baseball
  3. Here and Nowhere Else by Cloud Nothings
  4. Days are Gone by Haim
  5. Transgender Dysphoria Blues by Against Me
  6. Sunbather by Deafheaven
  7. Opposites by Biffy Clyro 
  8. Morbid Thoughts by Pup
  9. Holy Ghost by Modern Baseball
  10. Yuck by Yuck
  11. Cody by Joyce Manor
  12. The Dream is Over by Pup
  13. Drenge by Drenge
  14. Need to Feel Your Love by Sheer Mag
  15. High by Royal Headache
  16. Love In the Time of Email by Antarctica Vespucci
  17. Worry by Jeff Rosenstock
  18. Neighbourhoods by Blink 182
  19. Wild Pink by Wild Pink
  20. Kill the Lights by Tony Molina
  21. After Laughter by Paramore
  22. Late Nights In My Car by Real Friends
  23. Talon of the Hawk by Front Bottoms
  24. Spanish Love Songs by Schmaltz
  25. Science Fiction by Brand New

Punk/metal/emo/Rock tracks

  1. Dvp by Pup
  2. Your Graduation by Modern Baseball
  3. I’m Not Part of Me by Cloud Nothings
  4. Younger Us by Japandroids
  5. Just Can’t Get Enough by Sheer Mag
  6. Hard Times by Paramore
  7. If I Could Change Your Mind by Haim
  8. Biblical by Biffy Clyro
  9. Friendly Ghost by Harlem
  10. Fuckmylife666 by Against Me! 
  11. We Used to Wait by Arcade Fire
  12. Young Pros by Bass Drum of Death
  13. I Remember by Bully
  14. Best Intentions by Hodera
  15. Popular Music by Life
  16. Late Nights in my Car by Real Friends
  17. Madness by Muse
  18. Arlandria by Foo Fighters
  19. Wasted Days by Cloud Nothings
  20. Queen of My School by The Lemon Twigs
  21. 21st Century Breakdown by Greenday
  22. Bloodsports by Drenge
  23. Sixteen Saltines by Jack White 
  24. I Love You All the Time by Eagles of Death Metal
  25. Cutting Class by Cerebral Ballzy

R&B/Soul albums

  1. Channel Orange by Frank Ocean
  2. House of Balloons by The Weeknd
  3. Lemonade by Beyonce
  4. Wild heart by Miguel
  5. Blond by Frank Ocean
  6. 4 by Beyonce
  7. Woman by Rhye
  8. Process by Sampha
  9. LP1 by FKA Twigs
  10. Drunk by Thundercat
  11. Lost and Found by Jorja Smith
  12. Cupid Deluxe by Blood Orange
  13. The Electric Lady by Janelle Monae
  14. Nostalgia Ultra by Frank Ocean 
  15. Unbreakable by Janet Jackson
  16. Mirrorwriting by Jamie Woon
  17. Black Messiah by D’Angelo
  18. CTRL by SZA
  19. Beauty Beneath the Madness by The Weeknd
  20. Hive Mind by The Internet
  21. Take Me Apart by Kelela
  22. Isolation by Kali Uchis
  23. Devotion by Tirzah
  24. Apollo XXI by Steve Lacy
  25. A Seat at the Table by Solange

R&B/Soul tracks

  1. Pyramids by Frank Ocean
  2. BTSU by Jai Paul
  3. What You Need by The Weeknd 
  4. My Baby Don’t Understand Me by Natalie Prass
  5. Take Care by Drake
  6. Losing You by Solange 
  7. Bad Religion by Frank Ocean
  8. Can’t Feel my Face by The Weeknd
  9. Just Hold On We’re Going Home by Drake
  10. Love on Top by Beyonce
  11. Fuck You by Car-Lo Green
  12. Blinded by your Grace by Stormzy 
  13. Don’t Matter to Me by Drake
  14. Open by Rhys
  15. Leaves by Miguel
  16. Climax by Usher
  17. Gee Up by Kindness
  18. Best Thing I Never Had by Beyonce 
  19. Man Down by Rihanna 
  20. On My Mind by Jorja Smith
  21. Young Dumb and Broke by Khalid
  22. No Sleep by Janet Jackson
  23. Want to Want me by Jason Durelo
  24. Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke
  25. Jealous by Labyrinth 
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Review Roundup

5 Oct

The Futureheads ‘Power’ 

Post-punk legends The Futureheads have returned with ‘Power’, their first album in seven years, to a somewhat muted reception. Times have changed and The Futureheads with their art-school credentials, punk rock enthusiasm and Northern accents are at odds with almost every current trend. Which is why this is a very welcome comeback. ‘Power’ is a looser update of their signature sound, somewhat lacking in the cleverness and quirkiness of their still brilliant debut. Nonetheless it still conveys more personality than most bands are capable of producing. It’s perhaps not surprising that after nearly a decade away there is a rustiness to the songwriting – some clunky chord changes here and there, lyrics that labour the point and occasionally awkward melodies – but the likes of ‘Good Night Out’ and ‘Listen Little Man’ are spiky reminders of the band at their best. It’s good to have The Futureheads back.

6.5/10

(Sandy) Alex G ‘House of Sugar’

House of Sugar’ is a throwback to the earnest, almost quaint, indie albums of the last decade. With his honest, emotive songwriting and delicate arrangements, Sandy Alex G is able to strike resonating notes on a variety of topics. You can most evidently hear echoes of Elliot Smith in the aching, yearning melodies of ‘Southern Sky’ and ‘In My Arms’ but I’m reminded of less obvious songwriters as well – the likes of Woodbine and Adem. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that all of the above are part of the Domino roster, a label that has always nurtured sensitive, quietly experimental, singer-songwriters. Alex G is no stranger to the weirdness either, as much of the record’s second half demonstrates. On ‘Project 2’ and ‘Bad Man’ he uses sound collages and an odd array of synthesisers to simulate a sense of dread and foreboding. He goes back to basics at the album’s end with the strange and strangely moving ‘Cow’. ‘House of Sugar’ should be Sandy Alex G’s big breakthrough.

8/10

Midland ‘Let It Roll’

Midland don’t care a jot for the hierarchies of taste – which initially makes their shameless throwback sound quite jarring. You won’t have heard anything like this for a while. Their preference for flares, cowboy boots, moustaches, honky tonk sounds, slide guitars and unadulterated tales of revelry make Midland anachronistic on both aesthetic and musical levels. But this allows them to cut straight to the heart of whatever subject they’re tackling, bypassing notions of cool and artifice altogether to examine what lies underneath. What initially scans as hokey ultimately feels authentic and reassuring. The poses they’re pulling are too naff to be anything less than sincere. If the uptemp rockers (particularly the jaunty ‘Mr Lonely’) are a little too much, even for died in the wool country fans, then the ballads strike exactly the right tone. ‘Cheating Songs’, ‘Fourteen Gears’ and ‘I Love You, Goodnight’ are heartbreaking highlights.

8/10

Blink 182 ‘Nine’ – Review

28 Sep

‘Nine’ is Blink 182’s ninth album (the title gets no points for originality) though it’s so far removed in almost every conceivable sense from their early run of peerless pop punk that you might not recognise it as the work of the same band. This is a numbingly repetitive modern emo-pop record that doubles down on its predecessor’s concessions to modern tastes. It sounds calculated and airbrushed to the extreme. Track after track uses a similar formula; the quiet/loud bait and switch, the liberal use of ‘woahs’ and ‘yahs’ that echo endlessly in the background, the countless lyrics that mirror Adam’s Song’s juvinella twenty years down the line. As opening track ‘The First Time’ draws to a close, you will know everything you need to about ‘Nine’.

Blink 182 have been a massively influential and criminally misjudged band who deserve a thorough critical reappraisal. Their fine run lasted from 1997’s classic Dude Ranch to 2011’s underrated comeback ‘Neighborhoods’. But In 2019 even they seem unsure of what their strengths are and how exactly to utilise then. To wit, their early classics go down like acid spiked candy drops; they’re bright, tangy and subversive. A bright mix only highlights their strengths, which is why the poppy ‘Enema of the State’ serves as both their best and best selling record. But this time Blink bend their back too far to blend in. The mix is frazzled, the auto-tuning and excessive EQ’ing absolutely stifling. More fundamentally, the hooks and choruses are as generic and faceless as the stuff served up by Imagine Dragons, Fall Out Boy and Twenty One Pilots.

On ‘Nine’ Blink 182 bring their hang ups and neuroses well and truly in to middle age. This is an album of pot belly bass lines, receding licks and Botoxed melodies. Worse than that, it has the facade of miserable, adult seriousness. It’s a moody and pretentious regression rather than the serious reinvention it’s being presented at. A stream of melancholy pours from beginning to end, never letting up enough to allow for the gags and innuendos that helped make ‘Enema of the State’ and ‘Take off your Jacket and Pants’ so enjoyable. It lacks the real, hard earned thoughtfulness of their untitled project from 2003 as well, which reckoned with similar themes in far deeper and more interesting ways. On that album they tackled New Wave balladry, experimental instrumentals, spoken word and Space Rock jams. This record’s touchstones are phoned in angst, EDM and Soundcloud Rap. The tempo and mood rarely shifts to accommodate anything original.

At one point Mark sings ‘I Remember your voice but it’s only an echo’ which is exactly how you will be feeling at that point. New member Matt Skiba, has all the chops but none of the personality of the departed Tom DeLonge. His overly processed vocals and predictable riffs serve to make each contribution interchangeable with the one before and after. He’s at his best on ‘No Heart to Speak of’ which is also the song that sounds most like a product of his day job Alkaline Trio. Here his vocal style (he always sounds like he’s shouting to his girlfriend from the other side of a busy supermarket) is complimented by a wall of fierce, buzzing guitars. Travis Barker also uses the song as an opportunity to flex his still impressive beat making. It’s Barker who continues to drive and challenge his Blink bandmates but even he can’t save this mess.

The album never truly descends in to the absolute pits – and this is a band familiar with the pits, as anyone who has heard ‘The Mark, Tom and Travis Show’ will attest to. In fact I’m sure any number of these songs would sound decent in isolation. ‘Darkside’, ‘Happy Days’ and ‘Blame It on My Youth’ are all reasonably catchy. The problem comes when you collect fifteen of them together, blitz them to hell in the mix, and then try to call it an album. ‘Nine’ ends with a song called ‘remember to forget me’ – it’s probably sage advice.

3/10

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Sam Fender ‘Hypersonic Missiles’- Review

26 Sep

Sam fender is a young, socially conscious writer with talent and tenacity. He also has genuine charisma, a jawline carved out of rock and piercing blue eyes (these things surely matter when you’re being anointed the heir to Springsteen’s crown?). His debut, ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ is a ragtag collection of well meaning, emotive rock music that finds the middle ground between The War On Dugs and Lewis Capaldi.

It begins with the most unapologetic homages to The Boss you’re likely to hear this side of The Gaslight Anthem – ‘Hypersonic Missiles’ and ‘The Borders’ – and these are also the record’s most successful moments, marrying underdog ambition with borrowed bombast. The sax solo that appears towards the end of the former feels earned and necessary to release all the built up tension. 

But too many songs sink in to a predictable spiral. If you had a pound for every sax solo that emerges through the feedback then you would have enough change to buy another copy of the album. What is invigorating and rewarding on the opening track is diminished by overuse. The record’s second half in particular is weighed down by a formulaic repetitiveness that undoes so many of the early gains. But the songs are catchy. Early singles ‘Dead Boys’ ‘ Will We Talk’ and ‘That Sound’ are all anthemic and punchy, even if it’s hard to differentiate much between them. There is a little more sonic variety in the second half, where Fender experiments with soulful balladry and introspective yearning, never really in a convincing way.

Fender has an observational lyrical style that pitches him somewhere between Alex Turner and his idol, Bruce Springsteen. Frustratingly, if somewhat endearingly, Fender has none of their clarity of thought. He frequently lets his more impulsive ideas carry him away (‘I eat myself to death, feed the corporate machine, I watch the movies, recite every scene, God Bless America and all its allies…’). On worst offender, ‘White Privillage’, he shifts narrative perspectives without care and fluctuates between sincerity and irony so haphazardly that it becomes impossible to sieve between the two. ‘The Borders’ with its depictions of bullying, domestic violence, and brotherly binds sends a similarly confusing message. Hopefully he will learn to tone it down and rein it in because there are moments of real thoughtfulness that flower from the compost.

‘Hypersonic Missiles’ is a confident debut that continually implores the listener to question our assumptions and pre-made characterisations about ‘the big issues’ – masculinity, respect, sovereignty, friendship. Fender approaches these topics from a position of empathy and – I mean this in the best possible way – ignorance. He never sound pretentious or preachy, which is easier said than done when you’re discussing loaded topic such as white privilege. It’s an uneven and sketchy album at points (as debuts are want to be) but there is enough promise here to suggest a bright future for Sam Fender.

6/10

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Lana Del Rey ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ – Review

21 Sep

Last July as England were throwing away a World Cup semi-final against Croatia, Lana Del Rey quietly released the eight minute ‘Venice bitch’, a woozy meditation on fading summer, fading love, fading youth. It was her finest single in half a decade. She’s been gradually putting out songs ever since; the more accessible ‘Mariners Apartment Complex’, the tragic ‘Hope is a Dangerous Thing for a Woman to Have’ and a throwaway cover of Sublime’s ‘Doin Time’. Somewhere in between she told us that the album would be called ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’, which is perhaps the most perfect Lana Del Rey album title you could imagine.

On the front cover, Del Rey is sailing off in to the sunset wearing a bright green windbreaker. An American flag is draped over the yacht, while California literally burns in the background. Lana’s arm is outstretched, inviting the listener towards her and her handsome accomplice (Jack Nicholson’s grandson no less). It’s an evocative, dreamlike imagine, rendered in a painterly hue, complimented by pop-art font. Classic Americana with a twist. It’s also a diversion from her usual imagery; the first cover where the singer isn’t dressed in white, or standing in front of a car. It’s brighter and more adventurous than that. Both literally and metaphorically it depicts a departure, which the music follows through on.

On ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ there is a careful turn towards balanced perspective, one that dials down the myth making just enough to let the light in. The result is no less grandiose or indulgent – in fact quite the opposite – but it does feel like a more sophisticated evocation of her ambitions. Del Rey is one of the the most written about, discussed and dissected pop star of all time. Here she turns the focus away from herself, using her talents to unknot the mythologies of American pop culture, even as she continues to swoon over its perversions. This love affair has clearly become more complicated over the past couple of years, and her writing has kept pace.

Del Rey has been capable of clever statements from the very beginning of course – ‘Video Games’ is one of the most distinctive debut singles in pop history – but her writing has sometimes lacked nuance. By the time of third album ‘Honeymoon’, the constant dirge of metaphors and similes, mostly used to describe the cloying, destructive aspects of dependent love, became tiresome. On ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ everything comes in to focus. Her observations are sharper, funnier, the scope is wider and more knowing, the characters are more developed. While she retains a tendency to draw from archetypes, her characters feel less like cliched sketches and more like constructive critiques. Her depiction of a complicated ‘man child’ on the opening track sets the tone and song after song finds her wrestling with notions of conflict and complicity in a thoughtful way. Her descriptions are complicated and three dimensional while her conclusions are ambiguous. This is a songwriter who will not be boxed in.

’Norman F****** Rockwell’s songs catch Del Rey in the act of escaping herself and her complacency. She has always been a slippery persona, inhabiting a character but bristling at the idea of being deconstructed or analysed. Where exactly Lizzy Grant ends and Lana Del Rey begins has been a central question of the criticism surrounding her though it’s never been something she has been interested in untangling. For now at least, she’s restless, hunting down a feeling that is always just beyond arm’s reach. On ‘Bartender’ she flees from the housewives of Laurel Canyon to hook up with a bartender 60 miles away. ‘I bought me a truck in the middle of the night, it will last me a year if I play my cards right.’ On ‘The Next Best American Record’ she’s shooting down the 405 to attend a happening party. A couple of other songs find her making similar moves down long, dusty roads. It’s as if she is in a permanent state of fluctuation, which in turn lends the album a long, unrolling vibrancy.

If the title and cover wasn’t clue enough, ‘Norman F****** Rockwell’ rests comfortably in the lineage of classic American art. There are striking echoes of mid 70’s Elvis on the bombastic centrepiece ‘The Greatest’, which also references The Beach Boys, Kanye West and the end of the world. Elsewhere she recalls Marilyn Monroe in her mannerisms and Springsteen in her fascination with outcasts. But she never totally sounds like anyone other than Lana Del Rey. She has perhaps the most unique sound of any contemporary pop star, and her vision has never been so fully realised before. The simplicity of the arrangements and the space given over to allow instruments to breathe, suggests an assured ease with her own style. Notes stretch and linger, strings move so slowly in the background they almost seem to be melting. Everything wanders. The production is of a certain classic vintage; only the strangely placed cover of ‘Doin Time’, and the odd ripple of programmed beats, concede anything to contemporary pop production. And vocally of course it’s a tour de-force. The audacity of her style underlines the links to mid 20th century balladeers like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. Her sometimes stormy, sometimes breathy versatility puts her above and beyond more technically gifted but conservatively minded singers like recent collaborators Ariana Grande and Miles Cyrus.

‘Norman F****** is a lot, and the meandering pace makes the album feel even longer than its 80 min run time. It would have benefited from being a couple of tracks shorter and a little snappier in the middle. But by this point you should know what to expect from a Lana Del Rey album and indulgence is sort of the point. Ultimately this is a cohesive, classy pop album that flirts with American nostalgia but is at its best when it explores very contemporary questions. Del Rey has compressed great complexity in to her most stripped back and spacious album to date; an album full of darkness and light, sadness and tentative hope.

8/10

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Whitney ‘Forever Turned Around’ – Review

11 Sep

In 2016 Whitney formed out of the ashes of The Smith Westerns. They seemed to arrive with a sound that was instantly their’s; a loose, sometimes very loose, treatment of classic rock, classic soul, classic indie, classic folk, that smudged the edges between genres. It seemed to come so naturally to them, so easily. Perhaps this has been a detriment in the long run – ‘Forever Turned Around’, their sophomore album, sounds effortless in both the best and worst senses of the word. It’s an album so laid back you could blow it over with an inevitable sigh.

Whitney can turn out the kind of melodies that melt over everything like butter under the sun and If anything ‘Forever Turned Arround’ is even softer than its predecessor. The duo’s observations have been slightly sharpened by a draining touring cycle and the indulgences of the road but their songs are smooth and easy going, very nearly to a fault. In its weakest moments ‘Forever turned Around’ resembles patio music; the sort of low-effort/low-reward indie rock that fills the air at summer barbecues. 

With its muted emotions and undeniably proficient but rather bloodless performances, the album doesn’t pack much of a punch. It starts with a so-so, mid paced burner, ‘Giving Up’, and loosens even further as it progresses. You can imagine the songs being recorded in a haze of marijuana smoke. Jazzy, Instrumental highlight ‘Rhododendron’ practically rolls and lights itself. This is in contrast to ‘Light Upon the Lake’ where longing and nostalgia spilt out of every unpredictable melody and errant guitar line with a real sense of potent clarity and purpose. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is tastefully, confidently arranged but somehow lacks direction.

Nonetheless, the moments of serene beauty are impossible to ignore. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is as pretty as indie gets in 2019. The lush, woolly tones don’t fail to wash over you. You’ll hear gently spiralling guitar lines, the sort of baselines locked in storage since 1973, horns, percussion and falsetto harmonies honed after years on tour. The album has been given a warm, spacious mix that sounds both charmingly lo-fi and masterfully produced. 

There is one lyric from the typically chilled ‘Friend of Mine’ that sums up Whitney at this moment in time: ‘you’ve been sleepwalking and it seems like your further away everytime.’ With their descriptions of clouds hanging over pines, long cold winters and rivers rolling, the band are nonchalantly picking the low hanging fruit. These are exactly the kind of songs you would expect them to knock out in their sleep. ‘Forever Turned Around’ is aesthetically pleasing and almost totally empty in the middle; a disappointing follow up to one of the best debut albums of the decade.

6.5/10

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Taylor Swift ‘Lover’ – Review

30 Aug

‘Lover’, Taylor Swift’s seventh album, doesn’t begin gently. ‘How many days did I spend thinking about how you did me wrong, wrong, wrong / lived in the shade you were throwing till all of my sunshine was gone, gone, gone.’ This is the Taylor Swift we encountered on ‘Reputation’ – back arched and eyebrow raised, railing against the enemy. But gradually, and wonderfully, she starts to loosen and exhale. She adopts a playful tone, audibly laughs at points, and sing-speaks to really emphasise the indifference she now claims to feel about the subject of the song. The musical backing feels equally nonchalant – a simple baseline, clipped rhythm and some subtle horn flexes. This is a deft, invitational opening that at once dispels the sour aftertaste of ‘Reputation’s ‘Look What You Made Me Do’, ‘Ready For It’ and ‘This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’.  

‘Lover’ is almost instantly a more generous album than its predecessor. With steely melodies and unfalteringly urban production, ‘Reputation’ sought to update Taylor Swift’s image in the mould of younger pop stars. On ‘Lover’ she embraces her own idiosyncrasies and interests, producing music very much in her own classic style – that whip-smart blend of candy coated country and throwback pop. This is a subtly ambitious, experimental update of that sound that matches ‘Red’s biographical specificity with ‘1989’s sophistication. Last time around she infamously said ‘I’m sorry, the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now.’ This time she’s back, with a lot to say. 

The album ostensibly explores the myriad of love – it is called ‘Lover’ after all (the working title ‘Daylight’ would have been far better) – but that is true of every Taylor Swift album and this one diverges from that subject as much as any other she’s made (see the unfortunate, socially charged ‘Me’, ‘You Need to Calm Down’ and ‘The Man’, all best forgotten and all, inexplicably, chosen as singles). This time she seems, perhaps, more understanding of her theme, more self aware and self referential. It feels more knowing and as a consequence less fallible. Ultimately It’s a mature statement on a subject she knows inside out.

There is a familiarity to these songs, a sense that they belong to her tradition (which couldn’t really be said of ‘Reputation’). She exploits the ways in which melodies and motifs can evoke memories and prior connection. On closing track ‘Daylight’ she sings ‘I once believed love would be burning red, but it’s golden daylight’. Not only does this have echoes of a simile she used on ‘Red’, it also refers to that album’s liner notes, where she wrote ‘there’s something to be proud of about moving on and realising that real love shines golden… maybe I’ll write a whole album about that kind of love if I ever find it.’ Seven years on and here we are. like the best artists, Taylor Swift has created her own world with these special associations. For fans of her past work, there is so much about ‘Lover’ that will instantly catch your ear and make you feel connected.

She engages with the broad theme of love on multiple levels, many of them surprising, asking us to forgo our pre-made characterisations while challenging our perceptions about what she is capable of. she is flaunting her lyrical talents, demonstrating a command of language that compares to any of the great songwriters at their peak. She once again proves that she is capable of extended riffs, subtle metaphors as well as plain spoken accessibility – often in the same song. Take highlight ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’, a song built around a clever extended metaphor. ‘I look through the windows of this love, even though we boarded them up/ Chandelier still flickering here cos I can’t pretend it’s okay when it’s not’. The song is dripping in relatable sentiment but is far too clever to curdle in to sacherine.

Swift’s writing has never been tethered to Country music per-se but it continues to borrow resonances from that genre. Here, ‘Get Better Soon’ most clearly uses Country motifs (plucked guitar, melancholy fiddle, gorgeous harmonies) to strike a sentimental  note, somewhere between despair and determination, in a song that record’s her mother’s ongoing cancer struggle. It’s as poignant and moving as anything in her back catalogue, full of raw insight and subtle imagery. That it follows ‘London Boy’, an unbearably fizzy ode to a Posh Brit, and proceeds ‘False God’, with its thin allusions to oral sex, speaks to how ‘Lover’ catapults from the sublime to the ridiculous in a way that almost seems designed to divide her audience. Sandwiched in between the brilliantly romantic ‘Afterglow’ are the two dud singles (more enjoyable in the context of the album perhaps but no less bewildering). The Giddy love song ‘Paper Rings’ sits between two break up anthems. This is what Taylor Swift enjoys. Her music doesn’t aspire to be definitive. She has an inherent distrust of pretension and indulgence and creates a sense that every word is sincere and meaningful. Happy, sad, up, down, serious, frivolous all meet together. Get Better Soon’ is no more or less important to her than ‘London Boy’ or ‘False God’. ‘Afterglow’ means as much as ‘Me’. Lover is a menu, take your pick.

In an influential 1950 essay, Charles Olson wrote that the poet needs to ‘go down through the workings of his own throat, to the place where breath comes from, where breath has its beginnings, where drama has come from.’ This is exactly what Taylor Swift has done on ‘Lover’. It truly does feel like a deep dive; an excavation of her deepest feelings, brought to the surface and presented as clear, crystallised pop music. There is a bravery to this, particularly when Swift has fought against misogyny and unfounded criticism for being so emotionally forthright. ‘Reputation’ was defensive and calculated as a consequence of that criticism. ‘Lover’ is defiant in a far more self-assured way – she sounds confident and comfortable in her own skin. No longer picking unnecessary fights, she’s too far ahead to engage with people stuck in her past.

8.5/10

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