[It Was A Very Good Year]: The Best Albums of 2014

2014 was an incredibly strong year for music, both from young hopefuls and from established acts. As always, compiling a list of only ten albums was like trying to choose between which limb you’d rather lose. However, the fact that it is a such struggle to whittle the year’s output down to ten albums is always a good sign that there’s plenty of new music to get excited about, and long may it continue that way. So, let’s kick this year off right…

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10. Jack White – Lazaretto
And in the blue corner, the genre-bending third man, weighing in at #10 this year is Jack White, whose Lazaretto came out swinging this summer. No other artist these days is so evidently firing on all cylinders, buzzing off their own momentum, but makes it look so infuriatingly effortless.

2014 Banner 99. Gemma Ray – Milk For Your Motors
Full of high drama, junkyard romance and dreamy noir, Milk For Your Motors has been successfully fulfilling my Nick Cave fix this year. Spangled guitars twinkle over shuffling percussion and carny organs, while Ray’s honeyed vocals drift effortlessly through this shadowy landscape. Simply gothic-tinged pop goodness.

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8. The Rails – Fair Warning
The debut offering from a married folk-rock duo with a fine pedigree. Their tales have an inherent universality and a healthy respect for folk tradition, but also display their confidence and capability to carve out a plot for themselves that feels totally contemporary. Fair Warning rambles, gambles, rocks and rolls.

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7. Sharon Van Etten – Are We There
I’ve always been a bit on/off with Van Etten, but this is her first record where she seems completely comfortable in her own skin, delivering yearning, accomplished rock songs that reflect a boldness which was shaky before. Replete with panoramic self-expression without resorting to navel-gazing, Are We There is acerbic, cathartic and triumphant.

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6. Interpol – El Pintor
The release of anything by NY’s best dressed is cause for celebration, but what I didn’t expect was an album that brimmed with the dark, beguiling magic that characterised their debut. Bassist Carlos D may be errant, but the remaining trio have created a surging album of nocturnal alt. rock that is quintessential Interpol.

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5. Smoke Fairies – Smoke Fairies
Beautiful, dreamy pop music of many depths that fuses elements of gentle folk, moody rock and soaring electro-pop with some of the most mesmerising vocal harmonies I’ve heard in a while. The Chichester duo have been doing this for years, but somehow they always slipped through my grip until last year. Still, better late than never, especially with such masterfully built melodies as Eclipse Them All and Your Own Silent Movie, an uplifting anthem for those who live their lives soundtracked by music. What can I say? I relate.

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4. Lee Fields & The Expressions – Emma Jean
I saw Fields, now 63, with The Expressions support Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings (who also released a stonking, hip-shaking record last year) in the autumn and for sheer energy and showmanship he blew every other act I saw in 2014 out of the water. That roaring energy is palpable on Emma Jean, which manages to take different facets of James Brown funk, Memphis soul and old-school R&B, and pull it off with inspiration and flair. Love, loss, life and struggle; it’s all here in spades and it never sounded so good.

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3. The Roots – …and then you shoot your cousin
For my money, The Roots are one of the most intelligent and significant forces in music today, and the only band that can allude to both Nas and Dylan Thomas in the space of two lines (Never). Making uncompromising use of samples and jazzy countermelodies, …atysyc is a concretely dense album full of discomfort that satirises and problematises the ubiquity of violence in society and the media. It’s exactly what hip-hop should be: a giant melting pot where disparate elements combine to reflect something of our nature. If you haven’t read Questlove’s article series How Hip-Hop Failed Black America, I really encourage you to do so.

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2. Mirel Wagner – When The Cellar Children See The Light Of Day
The second LP from the Finnish songwriter (and her first for Sub-Pop) is an elemental, earthy affair, which echoes John Steinbeck for the stark vividness of imagery and the dustbowl ghosts that seem to linger around these ballads. Her lyrics are heavy on blood lines and the tracks we make on the earth which holds our bones, while the plaintive brushing of acoustic strings seem to breathe the dust of ages. But, what resonates most is Wagner’s voice: Commanding, almost ancient in its unflinching directness, and laden with undeniable truths that bury themselves deep. Utter ragged glory and a masterpiece of songwriting.

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1. Warpaint – Warpaint
Sounding like Laurel Canyon via The Twilight Zone, Warpaint’s crepuscular sophomore effort is darker and more seductive than its predecessor (something I didn’t think possible) and was my go-to soundtrack last year. Absorbing minimalist electronics and the vast deserts of Joshua Tree into their idiosyncratic, jam-oriented formula, Warpaint have created a brooding, delicious treat that taps into something thrumming in the subconscious. No other album last year exerted the same enigmatic pull on me despite being on constant rotation. If anything, it becomes more mysterious the more I think I know it and for that reason, it takes my album of the year.

So long, 2014, and thanks for all the great music.

What were your favourite music moments of 2014? Let me know in the comments below.

– Originally appeared on Hercules Moment.

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[Cover Me]: Gil Scott-Heron, Nils Lofgren & The White Stripes

There are good covers, and there are bad covers. These are some I think belong in the former category.

Gil Scott-Heron – ‘Me and the Devil’ (Originally by Robert Johnson)
Appearing on his final album, I’m New Here, Gil-Scott Heron transposes Robert Johnson’s stark ‘Me and the Devil Blues’ from the haunting Mississippi delta of the 1930s to the ghostly concrete structures of 21st century New York, trading six strings for brooding synths. As an artist who had only just returned to recording following sixteen years of multiple incarcerations and crippling addiction, the malevolent atmosphere and strained vocals on the track reflect that Scott-Heron knew his devils all too well.

Nils Lofgren – ‘Like a Hurricane’ (Originally by Neil Young)
As Neil Young readies to release A Letter Home, a covers album including songs by Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and Bert Jansch which chimed personally with Young, it seems appropriate to post a cover by sometime Crazy Horse member and current E Streeter, Nils Lofgren. Over nearly fifty years in music working with some of the 20th century’s defining musicians, Lofgren has proved himself to be rock’s most gymnastic guitarist, both in technique and on-stage antics. In this extended take from his own cover album of Neil Young songs, The Loner: Nils Sings Neil, Lofgren strips down the howling pain of Young’s electric original into a plaintive acoustic tearjerker with him soloing at his spellbinding best.

The White Stripes – ‘Baby Blue’ (Originally by Gene Vincent)
The White Stripes were never averse to taking old blues and injecting them with some garage-punk adrenaline, and here they crank up Gene Vincent’s slice of rock n’ roll gold to deliver a spine-tingling rendition in one of John Peel’s legendary sessions.

[From The Cutting Room Floor]: The White Stripes, Arctic Monkeys and The Doors

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Often, seeking out new music can feel like a treasure hunt (or sweeping a minefield, depending on how you look at it). And every now and then you will come across those completely unexpected diamonds-in-the-rough that appear in the form of B-sides, outtakes or bootlegged live cuts. Those happy moments where you stumble across something that stops you in your tracks and think ‘Why is this only a B-side?’. This feature is about digging out those deeper cuts that deserve more attention than mere relegation.

‘Let’s Shake Hands’ – The White Stripes
Not a B-Side, but given that only 2,500 pressings of this release exist and that it wasn’t featured on any of The White Stripes’s studio albums it certainly qualifies as rare. Landing in 1998 on a limited 7″ run of 500, this single marked The White Stripes’s first recording and as a statement of intent they don’t come more definitive than this. Racing along on Jack White’s frenetic riffing and Meg White’s relentless drum pounding before clocking in at just over two minutes, this is taut, visceral garage punk at it’s best. It was paired with their ragtime version of Marlene Dietrich’s ‘Look Me Over Closely’, showing that the band had more than one string to their bow and singled them out as one to watch

‘You And I’ – Arctic Monkeys Feat. Richard Hawley
Crediting themselves as The Death Ramps on the B-Side to 2012’s Black Treacle, a pseudonym the band had used previously to anonymously release limited singles, Arctic Monkeys shift into fifth gear on this speeding road anthem. Sheffield’s elder songsmith, Richard Hawley, gives his meanest whisky-and-cigarettes-stained vocal delivery before the band head full-pelt into some scuzzy and searing solos. The whole track drips with attitude and quite frankly blows A-side ‘Black Treacle’ out of the water.

‘Who Do You Love’ – The Doors Feat. Albert King
When you can tour with blues giant Albert King as your opening act, you know you must be doing something right. Although their live acts courted much controversy in the preceding year and Jim Morrison would suffer an apparent breakdown onstage later in the year, forcing the band as a live unit into early retirement, performing here in June 1970 in Vancouver it is impossible to deny the elemental force The Doors wielded onstage. With Albert King invited onstage to provide slide duties and powered by Ray Manzarek’s groovy organ hook, the band burn their way through Bo Diddley standard ‘Who Do You Love’. While during this period Morrison’s performances were something of a crapshoot depending on how intoxicated he was, during this concert he is at his roaring best, a blues shaman channeling energy from somewhere else. As one of the last recorded performances and with Morrison dead within a year, this concert remains a testament to The Doors’s short lived greatness live.

What are your favourite B-sides and rarities? Let me know in the comments below.

[It Was A Very Good Year]: 2012

Well, this list may seem somewhat late, but I wanted to expand on last year’s ‘Best Of’ to incorporate more than just ‘Best Albums’ and make sure it was right. So without further ado, here are my best moments from 2012…

Best Albums

SONY MUSIC ENTERTAINMENT CANADA INC. - Leonard Cohen

10.Leonard Cohen – Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen has always been old before his time and Old Ideas sees him wearing his age comfortably, like his well-cut suits. Though his output is resigned to a per-decade basis these days, these autumnal meditations on mortality show that Cohen’s bright star remains undiminished.

9. Hubbert

9. RM Hubbert – Thirteen Lost and Found

Reasons Why I Like Independent Record Stores #8: Hearing an album in-store that you fall in love with and buy immediately. Such was the case with RM Hubbert’s stunning collection of collaborations with friends and contemporaries.

8. Godspeed

8.Godspeed You! Black Emperor – Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!

What is there that can really be said about Godspeed, which hasn’t already been said? Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend! is Godspeed doing what they do best and is yet another jewel in their post-rock crown.

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7. Lee Fields and The Expressions- Faithful Man

Criminally underrated for over four decades and still howling like a man half his age, Lee Fields is finally getting the recognition he deserves. With the departure of Solomon Burke (R.I.P.) in 2010, Fields may be the last of the great soul singers and Faithful Man proves just that.

6. White

6. Jack White – Blunderbuss

Jack White has always had a sense of the American Gothic around his music and just one look at Blunderbuss’s cover, which seems like a modern version of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven, will give you a pretty good approximation of the album’s sound. Like a rag and bone man, White picks up scraps of whatever musical detritus is lying around and tinkers it into something which is new and recognisably his. Here, elements of traditional country and bluegrass are forged with White’s blues-punk sensibilities to create an album of astounding quality and musical ingenuity. Blunderbuss oscillates between riffy vitriol and melodic nursery rhyme, and my God does it sound good.

5. Chromatics

5. Chromatics – Kill For Love

There always has to be one album I stumble across while compiling these lists which shoots straight into it. This year it’s Chromatics’ Kill For Love, whose bewitching blend of 80’s electro-pop and Italo-disco snatched it a place in the top five. As with all Chromatics related projects (Desire, Glass Candy, Symmetry), there is a heavy focus on the cinematic and visual quality their music possesses. Here on Kill For Love, Chromatics deliver a collection of beguiling nocturnes presented in glorious Technicolor.

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4. Bill Fay – Life Is People

Full of sublimely soulful music, this album signals the return of a major songwriting talent. From the majestic opener ‘There Is A Valley’ to the contemplative closer ‘The Coast No Man Can Tell’, it is clear that Bill Fay has endured a lot in his absence from the music scene. But Fay delivers his experiences and tribulations without bitterness, just hard-won compassion. Gospel singers and triumphant instrumentation buoy up the record, while Fay delivers his perceptive lyrics in a bruised, yet magnanimous, voice. Tragic and sweet, this is an album about overcoming hardship and looking back on it from the other side with your love for humanity still intact.

3. Ocean

3. Frank Ocean – Channel ORANGE

What I suppose you could loosely term a concept album, Channel ORANGE is a sprawling collection of musical vignettes which moves between genres effortlessly, from hip-hop and jazz to funk and psychedelia  Themes of sex, love and other drugs are masterfully interweaved throughout the album, where quieter and more self-aware moments such as ‘Pilot Jones’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ sit comfortably amongst more audacious tracks such as ‘Bad Religion’ and club opus ‘Pyramids’. For me though, it’s the throwaway interludes such as ‘Start’, ‘White’ and ‘Not Just Money’ which really tie the album together and evoke an atmosphere of late-night misgivings. ‘Thinkin Bout You’ might also be one of the most simple and beautiful love songs I’ve ever heard. Channel ORANGE is quite simply an album that feels utterly original

2. Poliça

2. Poliça – Give You The Ghost

What a monster of an album. Poliça tread a fine line between warm intimacy and cool claustrophobia. Glacial synths and Channy Leaneagh’s echoing vocals provide a clinical frostiness, while resonant bass and cascading percussion give their sound an organic virility. These blend together into undulating waves that break against you in a way that is both sedating and stimulating at the same time. It’s a heady, intoxicating mix, which draws you in and envelops you on the first listen.

1. Augustines

1. We Are Augustines – Rise Ye Sunken Ships

This is a band that a friend from home turned me onto and for that I owe her a huge debt. Finally seeing release in the UK earlier this year, Rise Ye Sunken Ships was born out of the disintegration of Pela and the untimely deaths of frontman Billy McCarthy’s brother and mother. With McCarthy’s wounded heart stitched firmly to the record’s sleeve, We Are Augustines channel this emotional intensity into twelve beautifully crafted songs. Surging and uplifting, not since Eels’s Electro-Shock Blues has heartbreak and personal loss sounded so jubilant or indomitable.

Best EP

EP. Frabbits

Frightened Rabbit – State Hospital

State Hospital is a claustrophobic and chilly collection that seemed perfectly appropriate when it landed late last year, just as the Scottish winter started to kick in. There are very few moments of optimistic solace available on these brutally abrasive tracks (even ‘State Hospital’s anthemic refrain ‘All is not lost’ seems borne out of desperation), but there’s no denying the emotional truth delivered in their maudlin messages. State Hospital points to a style that is rougher than previous album The Winter of Mixed Drinks, but is no less complex for the un-sanded edges. And Aidan Moffat’s bitter drawl is always welcome as far as I’m concerned

N.B. I may not have appreciated State Hospital so much if I hadn’t also had Josh Ritter’s Bringing In the Darlings to thaw me out after. Equally wintry themed, but whereas State Hospital is the biting winds that make your eyes water, Bringing in the Darlings is the fire that warms you on those cold nights. Ultimately State Hospital is more varied, but Josh Ritter’s effort is definitely worth checking out as well.

Best Reissue

EP. MBV

My Bloody Valentine – EP’s 1988-1991

This was very nearly Massive Attack’s reissue of the twenty year old Blue Lines, which still sounds as fresh and intriguing as ever. However, for sheer repackaging and bang-for-your-buck I’ve chosen My Bloody Valentine’s EP’s 1988-1991, which collects the now-rare  You Made Me Realise, Glider and Tremolo EP’s with a few extras thrown in for good measure. Twenty years on, My Bloody Valentine still sound as kaleidoscopic and baffling as ever. And while their recent surprise follow up to Loveless (also reissued alongside this compilation), m b v, is worth the hype, this collection proves that the band had already made their mark and perfected their game before Loveless.

Biggest Surprise

Snoop Lion

Twenty years into his career, Snoop Dogg changes his name to Snoop Lion. You seriously couldn’t make this stuff up. Can’t fault him for not having a sense of humour though:

Let me know what your favourite moments from 2012 were =)

 Most of ‘Best Albums’ taken from my Hercules Moments article, with the exception of Frank Ocean (i.e. I changed my mind writing this up, sue me).

[Sneak Peek]: Johnny Marr – ‘The Right Thing Right’

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‘Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine…’

Tomorrow morning Johnny Marr’s long anticipated solo album, ‘The Messenger’, will land. Halle-bloody-lujah for that. Like Jack White’s solo release last year, the anticipation and hype surrounding the album has been huge. Not that there has been any real lack of Marr material since the break-up of that band. Whether adding some of his magic to various outfits such as Modest Mouse or Billy Bragg (credited as Duane Tremolo), lending a hand to soundtracks or fronting The Healers, Marr’s output over his career has been so prolific and varied that he puts much younger and more popular musicians to shame.

I’m a sucker for ‘Side One, Track One’ moments which set the tone for the album, and as the first track on Marr’s debut solo album, ‘The Right Thing Right’ is definitely a statement of intent. Marr’s in-yer-face guitar and the anthemic call-and-repeat chorus self-referentially gestures towards Britpop, a genre which he had a massive influence on. Meanwhile, there is the unmistakable beat and groove of Motown records that acted as the bonding impetus for the Marr/Morrisey songwriting partnership in the first place. Marr’s vocals, and the track in general, drips with Northern-English attitude and reinstates Marr’s reputation for soundtracking the North. Moving away from the Alt. Rock riffage, other tracks on The Messenger will apparently feature more of Marr’s psychedelic influences which I am definitely looking forward to. Even as recently as ‘The Last Ride‘, Marr’s flair for trippy guitar histrionics remains as exciting as ‘How Soon Is Now’ or ‘The Queen Is Dead’.

Like The Smiths’s music, you’ll either love it or hate it (Oh, the obvious Marr-mite pun!). However, if ‘The Right Thing Right’ is any indication, Marr’s decision to make his solo debut thirty years into his musical career is motivated out of inspiration rather than pandering to demand and The Messenger is set to be a barnstormer.

The Messenger will be released tomorrow and Johnny Marr will embark on a UK tour in March 2013.

2011: It Was A Very Good Year….

Wow, this place has gotten dusty. I’ve found this blog very difficult to maintain in conjunction with balancing my degree, job and other time commitments, so unfortunately I haven’t been able to write as many articles as I’d desire. However, it is officially the Easter holidays and I’ve found myself with some free time so I figured I would show a face and work on some articles. To kick off I’m reposting a review of 2011 featuring my favourite albums from said year. This was originally uploaded on Hercules Moments, a music blog based in Aberdeen which is run by some friends of mine and which I contribute to on occasion. If you like what you see here, then check them out. If not, even more reason to go to their site. New content will be uploaded in the coming week, I promise. In the meantime, have a browse through what I personally deem to be the top ten albums to emerge from last year. Let me know what you think, whether you agree or disagree with my choices and why.

1. Anna Calvi – Anna Calvi

Released early this year, Anna Calvi’s majestic debut exploded into my consciousness and has occupied a space there ever since, and possibly always will. On her self-titled debut she creates dramatic guitar symphonies while her operatic voice rises above all, showing influences of Ennio Morricone, Roy Orbison, Jeff Buckley, Nick Cave and Nina Simone. What I love in her songs, along with the aforementioned artists, is her ability to create entire worlds with her music. Calvi’s songs play out like a movie scene lifted from Byronic prose: the teasing tango in the fleeting glances stolen between two lovers; the shadowy fumbling while the door key refuses to enter the lock; the midnight confessions in the candle light; the hearts left shattered like glass in the streets, while mourned love flows into the gutters. Calvi’s songs invoke crepuscular worlds of passionate trysts and broken vows, where living with your heart on the edge of a knife is the only true meaning of existence. These are worlds we have glimpsed in those rare instances in which we have briefly surrendered ourselves to purely living in the moment. In Calvi’s self-titled debut, these moments are eternal.
Full album review here.

2. Bon Iver – Bon Iver

There’s very little I can say about this album which I haven’t already said about it in my review earlier this year. I guess the only thing I can add is that this is an album that you simply need in your life and which still has the ability to move me despite having it on constant rotation since its release. Keep up the good work Mr. Vernon.
Full album review here.

3. The Horrible Crowes – Elsie

The Gaslight Anthem have been one of my favourite groups to emerge in recent years so when I heard that front man Brian Fallon had released a side project I was naturally interested. What I did not expect was anything as moving or as powerful as Elsie. Teaming up with his English guitar tech Ian Perkins, Fallon lets himself explore darker themes of loneliness and heartbreak in a more stripped down outfit than the plugged in sound of The Gaslight Anthem, showing influences of Greg Dulli on ‘Ladykiller’ and ‘Behold the Hurricane’ and Tom Waits on ‘Mary Ann’ and ‘I Witnessed a Crime’. For all these comparisons though, especially ones to Bruce Springsteen in The Gaslight Anthem, Fallon is ultimately his own musical personality and if the point ever needed proving (it didn’t), Elsie proves just that.

4. Kurt Vile – Smoke Ring for my Halo

This is an album which I only got around to listening to just over a week ago, but which impressed me so much that it shot straight up this list when it came to writing it. Immaculate songwriting all delivered in Vile’s laconic and hazy vocals which float over the soporific, sun-dappled guitar melodies. The perfect thawing treatment for the cold outside, like staring deep into the Californian summer skies.

5. Danielle Luppi & Danger Mouse – Rome

Both a tribute to the soundtracks of Ennio Morricone and in itself a soundtrack to the city of Rome, this album is the product of a long collaboration between American producer Brian Burton AKA Danger Mouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi. Gathering the original musicians from Morricone’s soundtracks, most of whom are now well into their seventies, and Jack White and Norah Jones to provide vocal duties, Burton and Luppi managed to pull off an audacious and ambitious project with great success. Melodious and majestic, this is a soundtrack of authenticity whose example I hope others will follow in the future.
Full album review here.

6. Eddie Vedder – Ukulele Songs

In revealing his long-lived passion for the diminutive Hawaiian instrument, Eddie Vedder delivers a collection of tasteful and profoundly moving songs, the subtle high register of the ukulele contrasting perfectly with his deep baritone vocals. Having already proved himself a competent solo artist away from Pearl Jam with his soundtrack to the Sean Penn film Into the Wild, Vedder continues this trajectory with poignant airs and a stunning duet with Chan Marshall AKA Cat Power on ‘Tonight You Belong To Me’.

7. PJ Harvey – Let England Shake

Let England Shake has erupted silently over the year, gradually gathering pace and intensity like a storm before sweeping the lead position in many critical reviews of 2011 and claiming this year’s Mercury Prize Award, making PJ Harvey the only artist to ever receive the award twice. Harvey admits that this is a difficult album due to the ambivalent subject matter of patriotism and the violence that shapes one’s country (‘Our land is ploughed by tanks and feet, / Feet marching’, The Glorious Land). Aided by long-time collaborators Mick Harvey & John Parish Harvey, PJ Harvey has created a collection of edgy songs that strike an uneasy nerve and that have taken on a prophetic tone in light of the riots across England earlier this year, further cementing Harvey’s reputation to defy expectations.

8. Josh T. Pearson – Last of the Country Gentlemen

After spending a near decade in the wilderness after the implosion of Lift to Experience, Josh T. Pearson emerges with a collection of raw, reflective confessionals that literally tug at the heart strings. Well, not literally obviously, but about as close as you can get without a scalpel. From the self loathing epistle of ‘Woman, When I Raise Hell’ to the caustic rant of ‘Sorry With a Song’, Pearson’s frantic performances cut straight to the bone in a similar manner to Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and affirm the return of a musical force. Welcome back Mr. Pearson.

9. Tom Waits – Bad As Me

When people talk about art, this question will often arise: how many times can you reinvent the wheel? In the case of Tom Waits, who has tinkered and hammered his particular wheel to the point where it resembles a jagged mobian strip more than a wheel, people may be wondering how much life the old dog has left in him. Though this album may not be a great departure from the Waitsian canon (Working class misfits spending their nights drunk in a gutter, but still looking at the stars etc. etc.), there is no denying that Waits always delivers the goods. Waits always approaches subjects from a unique angle (‘Last Leaf’, ‘Pay Me’) and chucks them out with musical sensibilities you simply can’t find anywhere else. Another Swordfishtrombones or Mule Variations it ain’t, but when the output is this good there is no need to teach old dogs new tricks.

10. Ghostpoet – Peanut Butter Blues & Melancholy Jam

Straddling a fine line between dub/grime and beat poetry/jazz, Obaro Ejimiwe has created an album which is by turns amusing, contemplative, frustrated and melancholic, but always with a sharp focus on a modern day narrative. This is an album which feels utterly contemporary providing a high resolution snapshot of living in 2011.

[Album Review]: Danger Mouse & Daniele Luppi – ‘Rome’

‘We touch the walls of the city’s streets’

When renowned producer Brian Burton a.k.a. Dangermouse and Italian composer Daniele Luppi met in 2004, the possibility of collaborating was always on the cards: ‘We really hung out like friends and exchanged a bunch of records and ideas […] I guess we appreciated each other artistically’, claimed Luppi. In 2006 Burton called Luppi into the studio to help him arrange Gnarls Barkley debut ‘St. Elsewhere’, and it was clear once in the studio that the conducive, creative chemistry between them meant that working together was a certainty. Inspired by the Italian soundtracks of the 60’s and 70’s, most notably the works of Ennio Morricone, they set off on a five year project, snatching time in the studio when they could. They assembled the original musicians from the aforementioned soundtracks, whilst also recruiting eager youngbloods Jack White and Norah Jones along the way to ‘star’ in the plot as hero and heroine respectively. The end product ‘Rome’ is an international labour of love, presenting the sound of secret trysts, broken dreams and aspirations of entangled lives on the winding streets of Rome.

By using the original musicians from the old Morricone soundtracks gives the music an archival feel, like the music is seeping its way out of a forgotten film reel can left in a dusty store room in Rome. Everything is in vintage black and white and as with those old black and white films the only colour to be had is in the soundscapes blotted onto that celluloid canvas. The nasally guitar slinks in and out like a cat, poking its head around the odd corner, while the military drums keep a restrained urgency present in the search for something on these sun baked streets. Meanwhile, the strings, organs and sublime vocal harmonies of the reunited Cantori Moderni swirl around like an unanticipated breeze that coaxes you down one street, then another.The experienced, septuagenarian musicians allow you drift away in an atmosphere that would, for the most part, be found absent if ‘Rome’ were recorded with contemporary session musicians. Burton and Luppi knew that if they were going to do this project then they were going to have to go the whole way, because there is a sense of authenticity and a breath of life present here that simply cannot be bought.

The album is divvied up pretty equally between tracks starring Jack White, tracks starring Norah Jones, interludes and instrumentals and are arranged in a way that feels naturally progressive thanks to Burton and Luppi’s arranging skills. Jones brings her husky vocals to the table, breathing life into the sultry seductress of the story. Her relaxed and jazz informed vocal delivery perfectly reflects the confident predator prowling her territory. Meanwhile, White duets with himself in both his trademark shaking falsetto and his tobacco chewing cowboy drawl, one dubbed on top of the other, adding an element of urgent self conflict to his character on tracks such as ‘Two Against One’ (‘I get the feeling that it’s two against one, / I’m already fighting me, so what’s another one?’). Jack stated that in writing for the part he tried a different approach: ‘I drove around in a car listening to that music, and I had a handheld recorder in my hand, and I sang to all the instrumentals, all the songs, and I just sang whatever came to my mind as I drove around Nashville’. This approach makes as much sense in listening to the album as it did in making it, since the album truly comes to life when passing the scenery by, even scenery as antithetical to Rome as the outskirts of Coventry or the M4. It just works.

The only thing missing I’d say is a track in which Jack and Norah duet, where the two characters finally meet. However, it is probably better that they don’t; lives often brush against each other, but do not necessarily meet. By leaving these lives unconnected the search continues and the search is what ‘Rome’, the city and the album, is all about.

‘Rome’ is available from record stores now.