Monday, September 9, 2013

Top 25 Albums September 2013

I'm returning to my music blog after a summer break when my attention was turned to matters ursine. The time which has elapsed since my last roundup and an exceptionally strong autumn release schedule have given me more than usual difficulty in narrowing the selection down to 25, so I've had to be ruthless in pushing albums to my 'commended' section.

1) The Civil Wars self-titled (Americana) 9.5/10

This already sad album is made all the more poignant by the knowledge that The Civil Wars will not be touring it, and that it may be their last joint creation. Their strife has given it an edge lacking in Barton Hollow, and is a near perfect valediction. It's overwhelming tragic, full of regret and emotion; outstanding.

2) Volcano Choir Repave (indie folk) 9/10

Repave is compensation for the fact that Bon Iver is currently on hiatus. it's a beautiful album, with Justin Vernon's familiar falsetto, but compositions largely by his colleagues from Wisconsin. The highlight is Alaskans, but the whole is full of subtleties that reward close, repeated listening, and still sounds like a sequel to last year's stunning self titled album.

3) London Grammar If You Wait (indie pop) 9/10

The haunting singing of Hannah Reid combined with ethereal, XX like electronics have already made this album a favourite for next year's Mercury Prize. Some critics point to a lack of variety in the songs, yet its poignant beauty cannot be ignored. If You Wait has an otherworldly feel, and its simplicity is testament to the power of understatement.

4) The Weeknd Kissland (R&B) 9/10

It took several listens until I was convinced about the genius of Abel Tsefaye's first major label album. There's no doubting the production quality, which is so intricately layered that I wonder how he'll recreate it in a live context. Yet, it feels more homogeneous and mainstream than those shadowy mix tapes, less edgy. In the end though, it weaved its sensual spell over me, confirming Abel is indeed the saviour of PR&B.

5) Money The Shadow of Heaven (indie rock) 9/10

The Manchester group's debut album has bowled me over with its moving, shadowy, romantic sound. It's hazy and reverb soaked, Jamie Lee's falsetto voice sounding vulnerable and heartfelt. Whilst the atmosphere can seem bleak, it's beauty weaves a magical spell, gaining in profundity on repeated listens.

6) Typhoon White Lighter (indie rock) 9/10

This 14 piece band from Oregon is notable for its Arcade Fire like variety of orchestration and unexpected changes of tempo and melody. Occasionally I found it a little bombastic, but the overwhelming impression is one of heartfelt emotion. The Beirut like horn section is particularly effective, and whilst this is far from minimalist, the melodic energy is hard to ignore.

7) Julia Holter Loud City Song (indie pop) 9/10

Julia Holter's background in classical music is evident in here, but don't assume this is a dry, academic exercise: it's actually an explosion of creativity. Loud City Song is a concept album about LA, with an experimental, feel, the product of a fertile imagination. It sounds gorgeous, with a wider palette than her earlier records. It's definitely worth making the effort to immerse yourself in her world.

8) Nine Inch Nails Hesitation Marks (Audiophile Mastering) Industrial 8/10

I've written before about the surprising parallels between industrial and classical music: substantial art like this requires an investment in time and concentration before you can fully appreciate and understand it. Trent Reznor has produced an audiophile mastering of Hesitation Marks which helps you do just this at your leisure, with not just higher bit depth but a wider dynamic range. It may sound initially quieter, but there's far more contrast between loud and soft, which brings me back to the comparison with classical music. Hesitation Marks isn't a radical diversion in style from NIN's earlier work, but post hiatus the anger has been softened slightly. Reznor's creative fire is burning as strongly as ever.

9) Laura Veirs Warp and Weft (indie folk) 8/10

Recorded whilst the Oregon singer was pregnant with her second child, this is a mature album: the tempi are predominantly slow, and the songs carefully crafted. It's also a collaborative effort, with contributions from Neko Case, Jim James and members of The Decembrists. It's expressive, yet often understated, a thoughtful collection of reflective songs.

10) Washed Out Paracosm (indie pop) 8/10

Ernest Greene shows that chillwave doesn't have to sound static. Live drums and acoustic guitars significantly expand Washed Out's sound beyond electronics, and give a wonderfully lush feel. The integration of ambient sounds such as bird song is an effective touch, and the overall effect is life-enhancing and invigorating.

11) The Wild Feathers self-titled (roots rock) 8/10

This debut album provides much nostalgic fun: one reviewer said it sounds as if Tom Petty, Glenn Frey, and Ryan Adams all had a child together. They've produced an ideal upbeat rock album for a road trip, with great guitar work and vocal harmonies. Just don't expect too much originality.

12) Houndstooth Ride Out The Dark (indie rock) 8/10

I've been captivated by Katie Bernstein's hypnotic vocals on this rootsy debut from Portland, Oregon. A slight lack of polish adds to the authentic feel, even if the level of inspiration of the song writing sags slightly mid-album. The guitar playing by John Gnowski is captivating, and I can imagine that this band would be explosive live. Not to be confused with the also excellent Houndmouth, this is a must for lovers of relaxed Americana.

13) mum Smilewound (indie pop) 8/10

I seem to have an affinity with Icelandic music, and there's no doubting the exquisite, subtle, and original feel of Múm's sixth album. It's experimental and complex, yet accessible, where angular melodies and beautiful cello and harp go hand in hand. A bonus track featuring Kylie Minogue is unexpected, as if to make the point that the unusual doesn't have to be challenging to appreciate.

14) Okkervill River The Silver Gymnasium (indie rock) 7.5/10

This album from Austin is toe-tapping, indie rock, far from revolutionary but expertly created from seasoned experts who've lived in this genre. The theme of the album is Will Sheff's upbringing in small town New Hampshire, but it's the upbeat music which sets the tone rather than the more ambiguous lyrics.

15) Old Bear Mountain Northwest Hymnal (indie folk) 7.5/10

Northwest Hymnal is an unpretentious, rootsy album, deeply rooted in the Pacific Northwest landscape which I love. It will appeal to lovers of nature and bluegrass, with plenty of banjo plucking and the charismatic voice of Wade Muncey. It's typifies a style of music you can stumble across in a small bar in Alaska; you can capture this rustic spirit on Bandcamp.

16) Coastwest Unrest High Times on Lowly Streets (indie rock) 7.5/10

I was alerted to this band from Las Vegas thanks to a review in The Owl Mag. The Fleet Foxes influences give a warm sound, enhanced by strings, and a Lumineers' like use of cello. They're a fusion of influences: predominantly upbeat, this is an album to cheer the soul.

17) Bronze Radio Return Up, On, and Over (indie rock) 7.5/10

This experienced group from Connecticut produce an extrovert, celebratory sound, stronger on catchiness than nuance. Some may find their positivity relentless, but I appreciate the folk influences, with the inclusion of banjo. Like Shake, Shake, Shake, this is a straight forward uplifting, fun record with echoes of Mumford and Sons.

18) Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros self-titled (indie folk) 7/10

ESMZ has a special personal significance, so it's with some sadness that I report that their third album doesn't quite capture the magic of that amazing debut. It lacks a standout track like Home, but is a step forward after the disappointing second effort, and there's no doubting the sincerity of their vibe. The moving final track is one of the strongest, but I wish their deliberately vintage sound wasn't so opaque. This is still a must for fans, though.

19) Snakadaktal Sleep in the Water (indie pop) 7/10
This young Australian group has produced an ethereal sounding, danceable pop record, with minimalist and shoegaze influences. I'm sure with maturity they will develop a greater variety of mood, but the pure vocals of lead Phoebe Cockburn give a dreamy air.

20) Braids Flourish / Perish (experimental pop) 7/10

Braids' second album has a wistful, experimental feel. Sometimes the Canadians' focus on lightness of sound makes the listener crave something more tangible, but there is a certain chilly, glacial beauty here. Ultimately I admire this dreamy electronica more than I love it, but it's a daring conception.

21) The 1975 self-titled (indie pop) 7/10

The 1975 are from my part of the world, and judging by their reception at Reading Festival, they're on the verge of a huge breakthrough. Their music is accessible and catchy, crafted to bring in the audience demanded by their major label. This album will provide much joy, and it's perhaps churlish to point out that a lack of originality or variety here. I wouldn't rule out a breakthrough in America.

22) Tallahassee Old Ways (indie rock) 7/10

This Americana from Boston has been unjustifiably neglected- they have a gorgeous, foot stamping sense of melody. The use of harmony adds to the emotional effect, and this roots rock album is perfectly executed, with a real sense of sweep.

23) Postiljonen Skyer (electro pop) 7/10

Postiljonen's dream pop from Sweden is heavily reminiscent of France's M83, to the extent that it might be considered to be derivative. The electronic sound is epic in its sweep, and whilst some may tire of the synthesisers, it's music to get lost in rather than analyse too closely.

24) Hayden Us Alone (indie pop) 7/10

Pitchfork disliked this Canadian album; perhaps it was too understated for their taste. Yet, it has an intimate personal feel, and I find its melancholy moving rather than depressing. A stripped down, simple and soothing album. Hopefully now Hayden's Wikipedia page no longer lists him as deceased, this album will gain some attention.

25) Still Corners Strange Pleasures (indie pop) 7/10

This British sophomore album has a wonderful sense of atmosphere, evoking the hazily nocturnal. It's influenced by the Cocteau Twins and M83 with its reliance on synthesisers, yet is stripped back. The outstanding feature is Tessa Murray's pure, haunting vocals.

20 Commended Albums

Boy and Bear Harlequin Dream
Cheyenne Mize Among The Grey
Cloud Control Dream Cave
Dirt Music Troubles
Eastbound Jesus Northern Rock
Foreign Fields Tucalosa EP
Goldheart Assembly Long Distance Sound Effects
Jason Isbell Southeastern
Jordan Reyne The Annihilation Sequence
Kissaway Trail Breach
Mree Winterwell
Natureboy The Sweep
North Mississippi Allstars World Boogie is Coming
Pat LePoidevin American Fiction
RY X Berlin EP
The Silent Comedy Friends Divide
Surfer Blood Pyphons
Truth and Salvage Co. Pick Me Up
Water Liars Wyoming
Volto Initare

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