Here we go again. In 2018 the Eclectic Kettle playlist spanned 1073 tracks. With the show coming to an end there's much to reflect on, and I think I'll try to do that in a separate post. But as we went through the emotional rollercoaster of compiling the final episode, pulling some of our favourite tracks we'd ever played, I feel really good about how our show ended up sounding. Now, with that final Christmas Day broadcast edited and cued up, just time for one more “Parboiled…” post for me to reflect on our final year.
Before we begin, some important 2017 errata. Or bonus recommendations, if you prefer. Two of my absolute favourite, most essential records of this year …weren't. Algiers sophomore record “The Underside of Power”, fueled with passion and soul, and delivered atop ascendent grooves was released in June 2017. I don't know how I missed that. Or maybe I didn't but forgot to listen to the album properly? I owned their 2015 self-titled debut, even! Definitely a fuck up. However, 2018 brought me the opportunity to see the band play live (twice!) in Knoxville at April's highly recommendable Big Ears festival. Between that face-melting, and the state-of-the-world's continued compatibility with righteous anger, Underside of Power is as worthy a presence in 2018 as it ever will be. Play it loud.
Secondly, I must draw your attention back to Moses Sumney's “Aromanticism” — released in September of 2017. Sublime in voice and arrangements, Sumney's songs are stirring, with soul-drenched sonic warmth. The second single from the record — the transcendent “Quarrel” — served me well in 2018 as centerpiece of my speaker testing playlist, as the standing bass and delicate percussion is lifted on a warm swell of brass. Perfection.
What then of this year? As ever, I make no proclamation that theses five records are the best, or even superior to whatever would've been sixth. I will certainly click “publish” seconds before remembering something that suddenly feels essential. But I hope the selection here, crossing genres and styles, brings you some listening enjoyment. As always, you can Tweet to @benward or @bffkettle with your own thoughts and favourites.
Son Lux are a quite astonishing band. The amount of sound they create as a three-piece is notable, and blends together so intricately that the tremendous individual talents of guitarist and drummer Rafiq Bhatia and Ian Chang can disappear in the blissful wash of it all. Catching them live — as I got to do as they toured Brighter Wounds at The Independent this Spring — will blow your face off as their virtuoso instrumental talents burst through the walls of their compositions.
What you get on record, then, can feel dense, tightly winding itself around you in order to connect the hum and resonance of their sound to the very surface of your skin. Warming, engulfing atmospheres are punctured by off-kilter rhythms, and then thunderous, cinematic dynamics. “Dream State” is astonishing in this regard: Opening in a flurrying starburst of Philip Glass-esque orchestration, it accelerates suddenly through driving, throbbing synths, until its second half strains you under sheer gravitational force of wild spiralling drum breaks.
And then the album drops away into the vacuum of “Labor”. Forever delighting in the dynamic range of the band, this is a record you're at one with, led through the movements of sparseness and intensity by Ryan Lott's quivering, delicately enunciated vocal, baring ever-present vulnerability. It's affecting and spectacular.
Again, I must emphasise how important it is that you see this band live.
Tune-Yards are one of those symbiotic acts whose music makes you feel so good in such a pure and wholesome way, that in turn you feel really good for them when things go well. 2018 has me feeling really good for Merrill Garbus. This, the fourth Tune-Yards album has been a persistent presence in the year. The work on the Sorry to Bother You soundtrack was a great success: the band's sound a recognisable hook of the film and serving to ground it (even more) eclectically into the city of Oakland. And the live show sounded better than ever — including a spectacular Noise Pop billing supported by Thao and the Get Down Stay Down and Sudan Archives.
Even the way this album succeeds in itself is feel-good: The songs on this record preserve that sense of play and DIY creativity that you felt in Tune-Yards previous work, but adds more. There's maturation of sound through the addition of synths, club influence in the beats, reverb and disco strings. At various points it pulls you to your feet like a dance record. Yet the quirky wonkiness of it all remains. Even if the loops are more sophisticated, they're performed as playfully as ever.
The nation of Great Britain has reliably exported a certain sub-genre of electro-smeared indie-pop for a long, long time. Encompassing acts like Hot Chip, The Electric Soft Parade, Fujiya & Miyagi and their ilk, Teleman are worthy compatriots. “Family of Aliens”, their third full-length album, is a delight.
Mixing sunny, sweetly positive melodies, impassive but cheery vocals, tight rhythm and plenty of bounce with which to tap your feet, the record is a great listen. Songs are well crafted, and really pleasingly varied. From indie disco dancefloor fillers like the title track and “Fun Destruction”, the album balances the sugar-rush with well crafted songs really nicely.
If perhaps the superlatives for this record are less awe-struck than for Son Lux, you might be inclined to conclude that this record isn't the same, and you're right. But, where Son Lux and (spoiler alert) Low's records require your attention, Teleman have a record that's unglamorously accessible, but rewards you with song-craft and detail in its production that unwinds with familiarity.
Where other bands might try to make a record like this and you would tire of it, “Family of Aliens” has been a reliable part of my soundtrack all year long. It's a superior record, a fast friend to accompany you wherever.
Jon Hopkins’ “Immunity” was released just prior to Eclectic Kettle starting in 2013, and was a regular feature on our setlist throughout 2014. He probably instilled our “start with guitars, end with bleep bloops” pattern as much as any other artist (providing the impetus to pull in more electronic music, and through his collaborations with King Creosote really inspired we thought about handling that transition between genres.)
That he went five years between these records seems somewhat remarkable, although with his touring and production work it's not as if he was on hiatus. Perhaps the most immediately striking thing, given such a long gap, is that this record he's come back with, “Singularity”, does not seem terribly dissimilar to “Immunity”. At first, you consider whether the new record is merely an extension of the past work. It's not a concerning thought, since “Immunity” is an excellent record and “more of that” is a perfectly satisfying prospect. What becomes clear over repeat listens, though, is that “Singularity” is the kind of refined, matured, more considered, and honed work that's so illustrative of an artist growing.
Hopkins here demonstrates that he understands his sound, the mood and context in which it thrives, and this record doubles down on that. He's made a record that is the pinnacle of this version of himself. “Singularity” is the conclusive confluence of his skills as innovative producer, DJ, and soundtrack composer. The record has a consistent ambience, tracks flow together more cohesively, while he still revels in creating crunchy, complicated sounds. In his episode of Song Exploder featuring “Luminous Beings”, Hopkins describes how he tears apart his own compositions, distorting initial melodies through excessive chains of filters, crushing them into small loops that turn into beats. There's an obsession to his process that makes the music stand out. While comfortably footed in a genre, this record doesn't sound like anyone else.
Where Jon Hopkins' record presents an assured reaffirmation of his identity… where even to begin with Low? In preparing this article I had to go back to the record twice to remind myself that yes, “Double Negative” is brilliant, and not a weapon to be outlawed. How even to introduce it?
You may feel it is an affront. Aggressive, clipped distortions will have you questioning the integrity of your MP3 download, and in places worry if some part of your hi-fi is being damaged. At once, you may opine “Where are my Low!?” The Low of “Especially Me”, “Points of Disgust”, “No Comprendé”? Where is the delicate sweetness? As the maniacally compressed loop of “Tempest” tears into your ears, you clench. Indignant, impassioned, your body is trying to reject the record. You stare to the floor with your eyes scrunched tight but when they open you see the President, and Brexit, and Jair Bolsonaro, and the bees dying, and Elon fucking Musk and you fear that truly what you're hearing is the blood-curdled death-wail of all you love succumbing to the fire. The end. An EMP detonated a mile away, this is the roar of the national grid frying; the last thing you'll ever hear.
“Double Negative” is what professional critics refer to as a “challenging” record. This is true both in absolute terms, and also because your expectations of Low did not prepare you. In these trying times, such abrasion may not be what you want from your art. But, though it will demand your attention, I will insist that this record is not unanchored creative crisis. Instead it stands firm, facing down the demons of our age with everything we can feel. While it leads with seemingly impenetrable noise, you will find under the surface that Low are right here, their ear for the sublime and beautiful intact, wrapped in something dramatic, different, dangerous.
You play it again. Maybe you doubt your own ears, worried that maybe you listened wrong, somehow. You know Low. You still recognised them, subconsciously. As your brain recoils, you'll start to see the path they took: The brilliant “Not A Word/I Won't Let You” collaboration with S. Carey for 2016 Record Store Day. The distorted drum machine of “Gentle” opening “Ones and Sixes” hint at the inspiration (and shares producer BJ Burton.) Nor have Low ever shied from being noisy — consider the crunching electric guitar of “Nothing But Heart”, from 2011's excellent “C'mon”.
Calming from the shock, you'll listen again and begin to find that within its spine-coated shell is nestled a record of raw ambition and purpose. Low's 12th album over their 25 year career doesn't sound like a creative panic. It doesn't sound like running away from any established sound. It is not under duress. It's an incredibly opinionated interpretation of what they do so well, attuned to the inescapable harrow of the moment. Through it the reward is huge: Underneath throbbing bass drum, the choral harmonies of “Dancing and Blood” are beautiful. Sustained vocal drones provide relief from the onslaught of the album opening. “Always Trying To Work It Out” is a classic Low ballad plucked from anywhere in their career, listened via radio telescope. The album releases its grip momentarily on “Dancing and Fire”. Through familiarly delicate, clean electric guitar and twilight atmospherics, it's a chance to consider the record so far, contrasting the overwhelming intensity that's otherwise ubiquitous.
The record sounds like doom, and as you familiarise yourself that feeling doesn't go away. You weren't wrong to be afraid. But this record reaches out from the black smoke swirl, grabs you by the hand, looks you in the eyes with unwavering urgency. It's a friend, but we need to go right now. You believe it. This record is raw power. It's astonishing. It's experience itself. Even when it's hard, you know it's right for this moment.
What else? Lots of stand out excellence. Thom Yorke's “Susperium” lead from “Susperia” is a stand-out moment of tear-inducing beauty on a soundtrack that as a whole is surprisingly listenable with a handful of great pieces of songwriting. Recurring show favourite Hannah Peel followed 2017's “Mario Casio” release with the transformative remix LP “Particles in Space” — normally I shrug a little at such supplemental output (see Alt J's “Reduxer” remix compilation, which doesn't do anything for me), but this is special. While you'll recognise themes from the source material, “Particles…” creates new music so different from the original work, really great electronic and dance compositions. So good it almost made the main list.
Franz Ferdinand maintained their status as one of the best singles bands on the planet with “Always Ascending”, an indie disco stomp of trademark absurdity that, in wearingly consistent form, rather over-inflates expectations for the album of the same name. Gruff Rhys (who I had the pleasure of interviewing back in the autumn) released “Babelsberg”, packed with slices of sublime melody and beautiful orchestral arrangement reminiscent of the 1960s pop greats.
Open Mike Eagle (who has been celebrated in previous annual round-ups) put out his first EP on his own AutoReverse label. “What Happens When I Try To Relax” is a short, tight slice of his trademark rap, with some deliciously melodic composition to whit I'll point you to “Microfiche”. And while we're enjoying rap, Cut Chemist's “Die Cut” features a host of great vocal guests throughout, but I have to highlight the closing track “Die Cut (Wrap)” which is delivered with such breathtaking velocity and lyrical wit that I can't help but break into laughter every time it ends.
2019 is mere days away. With it, my new show, No Magic, will be broadcast for the first time right on January 1st at 8pm. I'll probably be jet-lagged from returning from the UK, but that never stopped us before. (And it's important not to set your expectations too high right away.) Expect us to reflect on some of these 2018 records a bit while trying to plough a new furrow for whatever the new show is going to be. I hope you can tune in, or subscribe to the podcast.
Eclectic Kettle has been a blast, 2018 gave us some great music. Now, on to the next one.