In 2017, Simon, myself and a gleeful bevy of guests played 981 pieces of music on Eclectic Kettle. As always, the annual traditional distilling to just five tracks makes for a slightly absurd proposition. But with the consternation and relentless trial of a year tainted by violence, sex crimes and the smear of tanning spray, there must be some satisfaction in noting its end. There was great music, so at least we'll take that with us to the next one.
Kelly Lee Owens' self-titled debut (Smalltown Supersound) was a triumph of electronic production. Whether Four Tet-esque instrumental like “Bird”, or mesmerizing vocal loops as on “Keep Walking”, the record is smart, expansive, danceable, and never dwells on itself; always shifting confidently.
Destroyer's 11th record, “Ken” (Merge), is full of big sounds and intense songwriting. There are tracks where Dan Bejar's voice and lyrical density dominate with his Dylan-like tone, while others employ synths and bass-driven melody reminiscent of New Order.
Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly & James McAlister released “Planetarium” (4AD), a substantive work built around our solar system, in a manner visited and worthy of composers throughout history. The record took some years, originating in a commission in 2011 and eventually completed last year, which is useful context when you recognize some very Sufjan chords harking back to his earlier work (particularly, consider his cover of the Castanets “You Are The Blood” on the “Dark Was The Night” compilation for Red Hot back in 2009 — also connected to Bryce Dessner, for that matter.) The album starts subtly and delicately with “Neptune”, and then immediately declares the full extent of its ambition with “Jupiter”, one of the most arresting pieces of music released this year. Awesome sound, and lyrics that capture our emotions toward the gas giant, it explodes with programmed beats to tremendous effect, an evocation of Portishead's “Machine Gun”.
If you're enjoying the record, I'll highly recommend pairing this with another favourite record from the year, Hannah Peel's “Mary Casio: Journey To Cassiopeia” (My Own Pleasure) — an instrumental release remarkably compatible with “Planetarium”, sharing the far-out synths and brass band sounds. (I tested this recommendation on Lily, to some success.)
Woods “Love is Love” (Woodist) is a real pleasure. An EP that does a beautiful job of maintaining its central “Love is Love” lyrical refrain across its six tracks. The 10-minute “Spring Is In The Air” a worthy centrepiece to the record.
Four Tet's 9th record, “New Energy” (Text) was a real surprise this year; building on the sound of his Morning/Evening release in 2015, the record is relaxed, coherent, and with a strong sense of direction and melody. A track like “LA Trance” stands out; a minimal premise develops with delicate intricacy. The record constantly gives its component parts a lot of space to be appreciated, feels exploratory but without sounding bare or stripped down. It's beats are head-nodding. A real delight.
And the rest? I learned an important lesson about resisting snobbish dismissal of records that might be adjudged “unnecessary”. This is obviously dumb, all the more so to write, but I was humbled by Alt-J's third release “Relaxer” (Infectious) so I'm calling myself out for my bullshit. It will sound familiar, but contains some brilliant songs, both the characteristic “In Cold Blood” (which the band broke down in a great episode of Song Exploder) and the sublime “Adeline”, whose choral climax has been one of my favourite things to listen to all year, ever since the whole record clicked into place for me, standing upon a sand dune overlooking Ocean Beach. Also overcoming my cynicism was LCD Soundsystem's awaited return “American Dream” (DFA). Does it sound like LCD Soundystem? Absolutely. Would I have been content living my life just with their original three records? Sure. Were the new songs absolutely phenomenal played live? God yes. Maybe it's a shame that the definitive spectacle around their original end is diminished, but I'm glad they're back.
Also back from hiatus, Los Campesinos! with “Sick Scenes” (Wichita), which since it had been a few years between albums and they hadn't toured their previous “No Blues” in the US, was really appreciated. There is splendor to be found both the irresistible energy of “Sad Suppers” and audacious alliteration in “5 Flucloxacillin” (“A peloton of OAPs cycling up behind me, shouting ‘step up your paces, we've got places to be’”).
And those who didn't make the list — Ride's “Lannoy Point”, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's excellent return “The Tourist”, Cigarettes After Sex’ self-titled album emerging after years, Elliot Moss' “Boomerang”, Andrew Hung of Fuck Buttons solo release “Realisationship”, Alvvay's sophomore “Antisocialites”, Tennis, and defying reasonable expectations Noel Gallagher's third solo album delivered glam pop stomps of immense satisfaction. Oh, and not to forget that we started the year devouring Run the Jewels RTJ3, dropped right on Christmas Day.
Here's to 2018, then.