❉ Liz Buckley on her top five favourite albums of this year. We have music, and dance. But mainly music, as dance needs room and no one can afford to buy a room in 2017.
So last year was, of course, resolutely awful, and we all naively tried to cheer ourselves with the promise that 2017 could only get better. And just like D:Ream were bloody wrong (and in hindsight, it was actually pretty odd to trust them), this year was, in all honesty, significantly worse… Granted, Bowie didn’t die again. Or so we think (never underestimate Bowie). In fact, there were definitely a lot less of the seemingly never-ending, extra painful celebrity deaths, but TELL THAT TO JOHN HURT AND KEITH CHEGWIN.
On the plus side, we have music. And dance. But mainly music, as dance needs room and no one can afford to buy a room in 2017.
These are my Top Five favourite albums of this year. May you find solace and redemption within these walls:
5. Bjork – ‘Utopia’
“As ever with Bjork, she manages to be many things at once – mainstream and avant-garde, innocent and filthy, violently happy, unearthly yet almost unbearably human.”
“You have to imagine something that doesn’t exist, dig a cave into the future and demand space”. This was Bjork’s mission statement for new album Utopia, as well as not a bad way of deciding to live your life. And indeed “Utopian” is actually the way frequent collaborators Matmos have described touring with Bjork, so it also seems she’s pretty damn good at creating the impossible dream.
Typically, her albums tend to be in direct reaction to one other and whilst her last, rather brutal release Vulnicura was billed as her “divorce album”, born out of the very raw (yet generously expressed) heartbreak and subsequent fall out of her separation from New York artist Matthew Barney, this new album she rather amusingly refers to as her “Tinder” offering. Not literally, she clarifies (although hey, there’s dating app humour – one lyric refers to “Googling ‘love'”), but a Tinder album in the sense that it’s the sound of hope and healing, of new possibilities and presumably, of trying to trust something alien you’ve downloaded to your phone despite some actually quite wise reservations.
As ever with Bjork, she manages to be many things at once – mainstream and avant-garde, innocent and filthy, violently happy, unearthly yet almost unbearably human. She has one of the few voices on the planet that can convey a huge range of emotions in a single note, whilst also sounding like… she’s not from the planet.
The whole album is heavily reliant on the sound of the flute, the flute also having been her second instrument to classical piano when at music school. It’s the instrument she credits for her latter day impressive lung power and she’s drafted in the Icelandic flute ensemble here to bring a sense of landscape to the sound. She says of the influence of Iceland itself on her work: “you have to be loud as the weather is strong… I’m not influenced by singers so much as blizzards”. Indeed, the chest wound she bears from her previous relationship seems filled during seven-minute opus (and first single) The Gate with the whole of the ocean.
The album features bird song, children voices, the sounds of the sea, of technology, thoughts of escaping, learning and of the future. Utopia is Bjork and I’m fairly sure should be protected by international law.
4. St. Vincent – ‘Masseduction’
“We’re told St Vincent is icy and detached, sarcastic but vulnerable, she’s unapproachable yet look, she stage dives. She hides her most emotional lyrics in upbeat choruses. Rolling Stone recently called her style ‘confrontational intimacy’.”
Annie Clark’s fifth album as St Vincent (or sixth if you include her album with David Byrne) actually marks her first Top Ten album in the US – so whether she likes it or not, her St Vincent character is now a bone fide superstar. And whether this fame does sit with any ease for her is the ongoing question. Having hired top-of-his-game pop producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift, Lorde), she certainly courted the mainstream with this latest offering but as a lyricist and press figure she remains at distinct odds with the gaze and the interpretation of the public.
Having featured various photos of her face on previous album covers, it’s a fairly clear that this time she’s showing… ahem… a new side of herself with a picture of a bent over arse. (Actually her friend’s arse at that. Arse credit: Model Carlotta Kohl). St Vincent’s promotion for the album featured a prepared “interview kit” of her answering pre-emptive questions to demonstrate her boredom with the regular rounds of uninspired questioning. “Insert question about women in the music industry!” begins one section, followed by “great question!” and “light banter!” whilst she reveals her glued on fingernails that spell out F-U-C-K-O-F-F.
And who wouldn’t love that. I know I do. But does she want us to? The joke is never not on you. Or beyond you. Or subject to change. Always having been a mass of intriguing, unknowable contradictions, marrying the extremely approachable with the absurd, St Vincent is beyond arch (often called Dadaist) and her statements are always up for interpretation rather than here to actually elucidate. In a recent interview with The New Yorker where she’s being measured for a skintone, skintight suit, the journalist is so spun out/around by what’s seems to be real and what seems to be art/artifice, he wonders if the tailor is a stooge booked purely for him to write about. And maybe he was. Or maybe the journalist didn’t exist. Maybe the journalist was Annie with a trilby press hat on. I just don’t know anymore.
So we’re told St Vincent is icy and detached, sarcastic but vulnerable, she’s unapproachable yet look, she stage dives. She hides her most emotional lyrics in upbeat choruses. Her lyrics for New York are wonderfully raw and real: “I have lost a hero/I have lost a friend/but for you my darling/I’d do it all again“, a lyric which quite frankly makes my heart ache. She’s often called secretive and unduly private whilst in the same breath she’s also described as being too confessional (certain songs on the current album have been interpreted as being about her relationship with model Cara Delevigne, who herself sings backing vocals on Pills billed as Kid Monkey. An in-joke no doubt. Probably. Don’t get it.). Rolling Stone recently called her style “confrontational intimacy”. “Go for lyrics that people will tattoo on their arms” her producer told her. She writes about suicide freely and often, which is unusual for a supposed ice queen. She was asked why she’s never written about her father, currently doing a long term prison stint for fraud and her response was that she’s written a whole album about it (Strange Mercy). Journalists, keep up.
In a rare moment of helpfulness, Annie once commented, “Songs are like prophecies. They can be stronger than you are. I figured out years ago that if everything is absurd then there is nothing to be afraid of”. I like you Annie. I hope I’m meant to.
3. LCD Soundsystem – ‘American Dream’
“Some fans genuinely saw LCD Soundsystem’s return as a betrayal… but betrayal has never been so sweet. With songs as joyous as I Used To and Oh Baby, I personally couldn’t be happier to have them back.”
Well, that was embarrassing. James Murphy said he was leaving but it seems he forgot his brilliant fourth album when he took his coat so he’s had tocome back. Luckily we didn’t hide in the kitchen hoping he’d fuck off. James is brutally aware of how daft he could currently look, having had a grandiose farewell gig at Madison Square Gardens as recently as 2011 (on April 2nd, mind, not the day before). In this new collection, there’s the self-mocking of Emotional Haircut about clinging onto a rockstar image whilst fighting middle age and Change Yr Mind, which takes a deep gulp whilst looking at the Comments section of their reunion news (Never look below the line, James!) – “I can’t make you a promise/we’re not professionals“. Some fans genuinely saw LCD Soundsystem’s return as a betrayal… but betrayal has never been so sweet. With songs as joyous as I Used To and Oh Baby, I personally couldn’t be happier to have them back.
Bowie’s influence is all over the record to the extent you almost feel it’s his comeback record too. Black Screen is seen as a direct explanation of how Murphy was too scared to be more involved in the recording of Bowie’s Blackstar album, having been asked to co-produce but nervously settling for just a couple of minor percussion credits alongside his longtime hero. NME called lead single Call The Police “Bowie-esque”, there’s a track called Tonite (case dismissed) and Change Yr Mind couldn’t be more ’70s Bowie if you asked Adam Buxton to drink four straight vodkas and sing any song he liked. Murphy tried to pick himself up from the David-grief by asking Leonard Cohen to perform a spoken word section at the end of one track but Cohen died a few days after James thought of it. There’s clear nods of homage to Lou Reed and Alan Vega, neither of whom lived to hear the result. James: try not to think of anyone, we’re all frightened.
Loss features almost as heavily as rebirth for a comeback album, How Do You Sleep? (the title in reference to the Lennon song attacking McCartney after their fall out) is a not even thinly disguised attack on his now estranged DFA label cohort Tim Goldsworthy: “One step forward/and six steps back”. Wembley! This one goes out to fall outs everywhere!
“You’ve got numbers on your phone of the dead that you can’t delete and you got life-affirming moments in your past that you can’t repeat“, sings James. And we all have a big snotty cry.
2. Mogwai – ‘Every Country’s Sun’
“This is an incredibly deft, beautiful yet easy record of nuance and substance… It both captures how you feel and informs how you feel, and I couldn’t have greater admiration for musicians who can manage both in the same body of work.”
This album is absolutely fucking stunning. From the moment I unwrapped it I haven’t stopped playing it, and without fail within the first few bars I’m in tears. Thank God the band have dual-career of writing soundtracks alongside their day job as this is the soundtrack to… life. It both captures how you feel and informs how you feel, and I couldn’t have greater admiration for musicians who can manage both in the same body of work. Especially without the aid of lyrics.
Album opener Coolverine has the emotional depth and shoe-gazey meandering of career-pinnacle Cure and you never want it to end. Not bad for track one. There’s rare spacey vocal track Party In The Dark, which enjoys the jangly indie goth that The Jesus & Mary Chain would happily put their name to, and they never happily do anything. It’s an incredibly deft, beautiful yet easy record of nuance and substance, progressing way beyond walls of sonic noise or Krautrock influence. It feels at once like it always existed and like it should never end. The end title track is euphoric and The Guardian described the album as “music that seeks to somehow navigate a pathway through life’s eternal chaos”. When a track from this record appears on the radio, I have to have a sit down. Overwhelming.
1. Beck – ‘Colors’
“Neither retro nor modern, the new album is an upbeat and delicious fusion of EDM, 80s mainstream pop, NYC hip-hop, 60s folk, daft cod reggae and all that’s in-between… Pretty damn adorable as well as pretty damn infectious.”
This, THIS my friends, is what 2017 was crying out for: A tidy, controlled explosion of fun, Colors is a 40-minute bouncy castle-hire of pure, unadulterated, giddy joy; a head-shot of children’s party streamers shot from a clown cannon straight through your tired, tinnitus-riddled ears. And it will heal you. If only for the prescribed forty minutes.
It’s the thirteenth studio album from Beck, and has been a long time coming in more senses than simply that: The first sessions for the record were as long ago as 2013 and the first single from it, Dreams was released back in 2015. Then the finished album had additionally been put on willing hold since late 2016 as overdue impeachment-to-be Trump was sworn in and we were all sworn out – the mood was spoilt for everyone, including for this record.
But patience is a virtue, and Beck was determined to bring the happiness that his band have on stage to the metal-cold speakers in your front room. And I can vouch that he manages just that – having been lucky enough to see him play the tiny Electric Ballroom in Camden the night before this album was released, the band played a Pharrell-level-of-happy set of crowd pleasers, greatest hits (pretty selfless for an album launch) and even a tribute to the Clash (they were in London after all) and to Tom Petty (he’s dead after all). Basically a supergroup with members of Jellyfish and Red Kross loyally sticking by Beck’s side for many years now, the band exchange glances and smiles as if to say, “Hey! You know this song too!” which is both pretty damn adorable as well as pretty damn infectious.
Neither retro nor modern, the new album is an upbeat and delicious fusion of EDM, 80s mainstream pop, NYC hip-hop, 60s folk, daft cod reggae and all that’s in-between, built sky-high on the strong foundations of external influences to create swathes of fresh air-ideas and most welcomely, non-stop bangers. No one song is simply the proud owner of a Hulk-strength chorus but each track has more hooks than Abu Hamza’s wardrobe.
Play “I’m So Free” LOUD and you will not be able to stay still. What Beck has made you is the world’s biggest tonic. You bring the gin and we’ll get this party started.
❉ Liz Buckley is a manager and compiler at Ace Records. Liz has also written about rock and pop for various publications and websites including We Are Cult, and in 2016 was one of ThatLot’s 30 Amazing Women You Should Follow On Twitter. Read our Cult & A with Liz here!