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My Songs of the Year


Music has had a good year.  That's usually what happens in times of unrest.  I've been energised by a whole host of songs released this year, which may or may not be down to various political uncertainties. Unlike last year - when Angel Olsen's magnificent 'MY WOMAN' came along at the beginning of September and stole all the gravity - this year has felt a lot more equal.  Many songs this year have strutted up and slowly charmed the socks off me - nothing quite like Angel Olsen's 'Sister' did last year, but rather there were several very strong contenders for my song of the year.  

If we're talking about my most frequently-played track, Spotify tells me that Julie Byrne's 'Sleepwalker' wins.  When I first heard the start of it, I was convinced it was a Laura Marling song;  the finger picking at the beginning is really reminiscent of the Marling guitar style.  The confidence of that introduction had me sold even before a single word was sung, but when I heard her voice, I knew it would be a song I'd end up carrying around with me.  At the height of its powers, I spent an entire evening with a few glasses of sherry and this song on repeat.  


A month or two later, a similar song came along and again it had the same ability of fixing my gaze.  Bedouine's 'Solitary Daughter' is perhaps not as polished as 'Sleepwalker', but to me the spirit of the song is almost identical, written and sung by another searching soul, who had also absolutely found her voice.  I found the chorus wonderfully hypnotic, and it brought to mind a brilliant poem called 'Mourning' by Carola Luther, who I met in Oxfordshire last year.  It's hard to pick a favourite between the two because they've become something of a listening double bill.  If I try and choose 'Sleepwalker', then I think of something that 'Solitary Daughter' does so well, and if I try and pick 'Solitary Daughter', then something in 'Sleepwalker' jumps out at me.  I think they ought to stand together, if not as one, then as two that shouldn't be separated for too long.


Back in February, while I was on a stonemasonry placement at Woodchester Mansion near Stroud,  a fellow apprentice introduced me to a dance tune and my obsession lasted into early spring.  It was a remix of Paul McCartney & Wings’ 'Ninteen Hundred and Eighty Five'.  It’s not usually the type of song I go for, but I’ve always had an easy and intuitive love of house and dance music.  I understood the appeal, even though I've never really listened to much of it.  It may be something about the clear beat that runs all the way through these songs, or the way the human voice is often used sparingly in favour of electronic sounds, and through that the listener has the opportunity to attach their own meaning. It may just be the energy the really good ones seem to have.  Whatever it is, I always seem released in a small way after listening to a good dance track.  In this instance, the song is pushing nine minutes, and nine minutes in song terms is a great adventure, and it may be that adventure I was looking for.  I'd never heard the original song before, so it was a completely fresh song for me.  


Then two antipodean artists sung their way into my life.  First it was the Australian Julia Jacklin, whose sensational performance at the BBC 6Music Festival in March was a real wow moment for me.  When it finished, I went back to the beginning and watched it again.  I can almost say for certain that her 2016 album 'Don't Let the Kids Win' was my most-played album of this year.  When you find an album that's simple but not too simple, and strikes other important balances, you want to hold on to it.  It could be seen as the antithesis of the Angel Olsen sound - lighter, easier, less grungy, less broken - but a simple yet very effective tonic when things get on top of you.  I don't think she's quite found her sound yet, but she's very close.  I think she'll absolutely nail it on the next album. There are many highlights in this album, but 'Sweet Step' is my favourite. 


Meanwhile, a young woman from New Zealand was making waves on the world stage.  There is absolutely no doubt that Aldous Harding has found her voice.  In terms of my performance of the year, that accolade has to go to the Kiwi for this absolute beauty: 


I don't think any other song has received as generous a fist pump as the one this got from me.  It is so beautifully odd, but in a really reassuring way.  While many of the other songs in this list simply impress me on a technical level, this one goes a bit deeper.  I don't know what the hell it means, but that's rarely mattered to me.  A song should not mean, but be, like any form of great art.  Such is Harding's delivery (which you could also call a possession), and such is the way that her performance blends with the song that I wouldn't be surprised if the song came to Harding fully-written - perhaps while taking part in a séance or something.  I feel strongly about this one, and 'Party', the album this song is taken from, is one I can see ageing extremely well.  It features four or five songs that are easily as good as this one.  I expect great things of Aldous Harding.  Remember the name. 

Then this guy called Rostam came along.  He had that Vampire Weekend sound, which isn't suprising given that he was in Vampire Weekend - but it was better.  'Bike Dream' charmed the 6Music DJs with his smiley, summery delivery and managed to do what Jamie XX did a few years back: he put some distance between himself and the band that made him famous and succeeded in the side project.  And in both cases did so spectacularly.  My favourite on his album 'Half-Light' is 'Gwan'.  It's a dreamy piece with a spine-tingling final verse.  




While considering the songs for this blog, I had a band in mind that have had a wonderful 2017.  The Brooklyn band Big Thief have seen their album 'Capacity' cited in many critics' end of year 'best of' lists.  In truth, I haven't had much of a chance to listen to it, but the song 'Mary' caught my attention in the autumn and something about it really resonated.  I didn't know whether it was strong enough to feature in this list, but then Radcliffe & Maconie played it on their 6Music afternoon show a few weeks back and that helped me fully understand its appeal.  It may have been because it was played in the relative peace of a traditional workshop - aside from the tap-tap-tap of letter carvers, or it may have been something in the way the sound bounced off the stone before it got to my ear, or the space it was given outside of where I had played it previously.  Whatever the reason was, it sounded small and enormous at the same time, and hearing it in this new setting sold it to me all over again.  It's an anthem of sorts if you turn the volume up. And that's why it features in this list.



Then a secret band came along with an absolute banger.  Invisible Minds have received so much love for 'Yo Mae Leh' that it may just tempt them out of their self-imposed anonymity. It's the most exotic and hypnotic sound on the list - it's hard to compare them accurately against anyone.  They're a result of what would happen if Tame Impala or Animal Collective explored a West African sound.  And what a brilliant sound it is - and I for one will be among those frothing at the mouth to hear more.  



At the end of November, I sent a message to a Wisconsin band called PHOX.  I'd been in love with a song of theirs called '1936' for two or three years, but it was only in September that I really gave the whole album a listen.  I listened to it on repeat for most of September and having gone some way towards digesting it, I sent them this fan e-mail a few months later: 

*** 

Dear Phox, 

I’ve been listening to your album a lot recently. Thank you so much for it! Everything about it is top class: the songwriting, Monica’s voice, the arrangements - and the instrumentation, which is especially exceptional. It just oozes quality. 

I'm a big fan of poetry and when I heard the line “Oh this scarlet lust has got its claws in me” from 'Noble Heart', I thought it was better than all of contemporary poetry put together. 

I hope very much that the hiatus is just a hiatus. It would be a real shame if we never got to see a second album. There aren’t many albums that I consider to be both technically brilliant and totally charming. I look forward to seeing you all perform in England when you do get back together. 

From a big fan, 
Tom 

***

It's hard to pick a favourite on this album, but because the e-mail references "Noble Heart', I will choose that.  I hope they do get back together.  


I think that covers my absolute favourites of the year.  And now for the cover of the year: I found this cover while trying to search for a song that my mum was trying to describe to me.  She said it struck a chord with her, but couldn't remember the name of the singer or when exactly it was on. My clues were as follows: it was on a Jools Holland show, it was a female singer and the performance contained lots of drummers, including one very tall long-haired drummer.  My first question was: "Was she French?'  "Maybe," she replied.  It sounded like something Christine and the Queens would do, but then I remembered Camille's unique performances on Jools Holland.  After about 15 minutes of searching, I found it.  



But this wasn't the song I was drawn to, even though it's a very good one. While I was searching, I found a cover of Chuck Berry's 'You Never Can Tell' by Elise LeGrow and I was mesmerised both by the song and the singer.  She would have performed this song twice: once for the live show and once for the recorded show.  I  believe this is the live version.  I love her stillness in it.  I've probably watched this at least 30 times.


And the music-related text message of the year?  In the year that Joanna Newsom had a baby, this came courtesy of my mum: 



An excellent year for song.  May this trend continue into 2018!

Honourable mentions include 'Ratio' by Floating Points, 'You Never Knew' by Haim, 'K' by Cigarettes After Sex, 'Dawning on Me' by Villagers, 'Boyfriend' by Marika Hackman, 'Nobody Cares' by Superorganism, 'Die Young' by Sylvan Esso, 'Don't Delete the Kisses' by Wolf Alice, '3WW' by Alt-J, 'Put Your Money on Me' by Arcade Fire, 'Wait For Signal' by Tricky

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