published: 26 /
in 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' Ben Howarth provides an alternative list of excellent albums of recent years that have tended to miss out on other ‘best of’ lists.
Ah, July.... time to take stock, sweep up the debris and start making lists of your favourite albums of the year.
When did this start to happen? I already struggle with seeing the ‘albums of the year’ lists being published at the start of November each year, but now it seems that vitally important task can’t be done successfully unless the compilers already decided over half of it five months earlier.
Amazon began July with a list of 50, which allows plenty of room for a lot of my personal favourites to be left out. Hot on their heels, Drowned In Sound surveyed readers and writers for a list of eleven, and even with completely different choices, managed to miss all my favourites as well.*
The main purpose of these lists is to check that you’ve not missed any genuine gems. I realised that I’d been spending too much time outdoors this year when I looked at the two lists mentioned above. Not only had I personally listened only to a small amount of the albums mentioned, but there were a high proportion that I’d never even heard of.
Music buying can often be a cosy experience, especially these days when so much can be done online with just one click. Gone are the days of trawling racks to find that not a single record John Peel played the night before seems to exist in the real world. Instead the only demanding aspect of record buying in the digital age is rushing downstairs in the early hours of Saturday morning to rescue your Amazon order from the postman who couldn’t fit it through the letterbox.
My habit is to stick loyally to the bands whose previous albums I enjoyed. So that means I have bought recent offerings from the Wave Pictures, Drive By Truckers, Akron/Family, Roddy Woomble, Emmy The Great, and Okkervil River, but haven’t found the time to listen to well received albums from the Fleet Foxes, the Dears, the Antlers, EMA, Tim Hecker, or the mega sellers from Adele or James Blake. If it wasn’t for album of the year polls, I might struggle to listen to any brand new bands at all, which would obviously be a glaring oversight.
It’s a tricky thing to balance. How many albums have you bought on the strength of the star ratings, only to eventually spend more time reading the reviews than listening to the record?
Roddy Woomble’s album, on the other hand, met polite but non-committal reviewers, most of whom marked the album three out of five. This might be fair from the perspective of the random buyer. But, to this devoted fan, ‘The Impossible Song and Other Songs’, is one I’ll clearly be listening to for years to come. An album of songs largely about 19th century crafting communities in the Scottish highlands manages to be both highly personal and playfully fun.
Meanwhile, the Wave Pictures let no-one down with another set of their distinctive indie-pop. This one, recorded in Darren Hayman’s living room, is warm and cosy, with a surprisingly high proportion of dreamy ballads. You don’t look like an intellectual by liking the Wave Pictures, but you can at least claim excellent taste.
The albums that haven’t quite worked for me are the ones that seem to be aiming hardest at critical acclaim. Emmy The Great’s debut album is going to be an all time favourite. I played it over and over, constantly amazed by how imaginatively she turned the details of everyday life into poignant pop. On the follow up, Emmy seems to be trying a little too hard, and in attempting to say more, she lets the themes swamp the detail. I’ve only had this album a few weeks, and it was clearly designed for multiple listens. It’s too early to tell if it’ll get them in my house.
‘I Am Very Far’ by Okkervil River has the feeling that it might be a career defining classic. It’s grand and bold, and seems to build cleverly on their output without repeating earlier tricks. But, so far, it hasn’t quite clicked. I keep listening to it, largely because their last three albums are so good, and I can’t bear the thought that this one isn’t.
Come back in December, and see if these two end up in my albums of the year list. In July, it just seems far too early to tell.
But it seems like July is list season. And I love lists, particularly of CDs. So, instead of albums from this year that I’ve not made my mind up about properly yet, here’s an alternative list – albums from recent years that didn’t make any lists at the time, but have proven to have a much longer shelf list since. All come highly recommended – and you can find out whether Fleet Foxes merit five stars in a few years time.
1. Air – Talkie Walkie: I’ve mentioned this album in this space plenty of times before, but I still can’t understand while this dazzlingly inventive, tuneful synthesis of the past and future isn’t better known. So many people like the comparatively bland ‘Moon Safari’, and they’d like this much much more.
2. Drive By Truckers – Pizza Deliverance: Initially, I had ignored their earlier albums mainly because of the silly titles and cartoon sleeves, but this contains everything I like about ‘Decoration Day’, but with the sense of delight that only new bands ever really produce.
3. Jason Lytle – Yours Truly, The Commuter: Having let his Grandaddy bandmates go, Lytle has fun with strings, synths and choral backing vocals. It’s his best set of songs since ‘The Sophtware Slump’, and that makes it a very good set of songs indeed.
4. Merz – Moi Et Mon Camion: No one seems to be able to market the fantastically talented but thoroughly unphotogenic Merz, which is a tragedy because this blends pop, soul, electronic and blues in bafflingly original ways. ‘Presume Too Much’, in another years, would have become a standard.
5. Saint Etienne – Tales From Turnpike House: Once guaranteed a good review by virtue of being able to write it themselves, these mainstays of the inky music press finally lived up to their billing when their old friends had moved to the broadsheets. A classic example of an album that sounded merely OK on release, that has aged very well.
*To be fair to Drowned In Sound, they admit their exercise is basically a “as some sorta traffic-hungry, link-bait”, and to be even fairer, it’s an interesting read with some novel assessments of the year thus far, which you can read here - http://drownedinsound.com/news/4143043-half-year--dis-11-favourite-albums-of-the-first-half-of-2011