The Best Albums of 2013 Part 3 – #4 & #3

Part 3 of this year end round up. One more post to go.

4. Laura Marling – Once I Was An Eagle

Every Laura Marling album so far, once I’ve fallen in love with them, are 5 star albums. Every new Laura Marling album turns the old one into 4 star albums. She manages to progress at an epic pace. Once I Was An Eagle is, once again, her best record yet.

It’s a record in two halves. The first feels like a song suite. The tracks merge together, although the songs change. It’s an extended sequence of sex and passion. She is still writing about the clash that happens when a poetic young woman meets a charming young man. But in her songs, as epic as they are, covers so many emotions it’s almost overwhelming. She’s also abandoned that ‘Hissing Of the Summer Lawns’ jazzier stuff for something a bit more straight forward.

The songs. It opens with four that all go down as classics. Take The Night Off urgency sweeps into the lovely, seductive I Was An Eagle. It’s those moments, the sneaky changes (the jump to a high note, the introduction of drums, etc) that makes the suite side so great. The other song in the album title – Once – may well be her best standalone song, with an organ sound lifted straight from a Band record, a sound I cannot resist.

And her. Laura herself. Still a mystery, and still progressing at an unbelievable pace. She avoids the spotlight, and seems so out of time. Her music could be a lost folk record from the early 70s, yet she is defiantly of our time. And already she has been playing new songs on tour and they are all over YouTube. A true Artist in every sense of the word.

3. Melody Pool – The Hurting Scene

I discovered Melody Pool’s music through someone who knows her. I was given some headlines – there was break up, she sounds a bit like Joni Micthell (a pattern emerges…). Then I heard ‘Henry’, as breathtaking a dissection of an ex-lover as any Bob Dylan song. And I was hooked.

This is, I guess, a country album, but it’s very pop. Behind the dials (and recorded in Nashville) is Brad Jones, who has produced three of my favourite albums – Josh Rouse’s 1972 and Nashville, and Bob Evan’s Suburban Songbook. This album mixes the same pop smarts with country music ideas. Occasionally, it even rocks out. But in the end it’s the stories, this Melody Pool person, finding her voice and finding herself.

Henry is the standout, but it’s not indicative of the album. The title track and Lion On the Loose both rock out with a decent band. Somebody You’ve Never Met Before being the most devastating of the rockers. After 100 years of people trying to write about love, this young woman from the central coast has found yet another new angle.

Who knows where she’ll go. She could front a rock band, or she could be a troubadour. It seems she has that side to figure out. In the meantime, her voice and her songs are already there.

Best Albums of 2011 part 2: 5-3

3. Noah And the Whale – Last Night On Earth
(Mercury)

I didn’t expect much from this album. I picked up N&TW’s first two albums, listened to them a few times, and dumped them. And isn’t it lovely about music, and the world of music, that the only reason I gave this band another chance was I thought the album cover was kick-ass. Just look at it. Looks so cool. (It looks like Jim Jarmusch’s “Night On Earth” actually) It’s metropolitan. It’s modern. It’s exciting. That’s just the album cover.

Then the music. It’s basically Springsteen mixed with LCD Soundsystem. And yes, that sounds like high praise, but it’s true. The Springsteen thing is that rock ‘n’ roll escapism. “Tonight’s the kind of night where everything could change”. The idea that your dream is in reach, it’s just around the corner, and lets sing anthemic rock songs until we get there.

Then there’s the samples, the bubbles of synths and clatter of beats that gives the songs such urgency and excitement. It’s a long way from the folk rock of their first album. At 10 songs, it’s a short sharp adrenaline hit. The kind of album that would make a pop fan leave their home town and start a band.

And then an extra special mention to “Just Before We Met“. Every line is killer. The best song on this fine, fine album. You should hear it.

So these guys might still be second rate. Good records happen to bad bands all the time. But maybe not. I feel like the world needs more records like these. I know I do. If there’s one thing I need music for, it’s to remind me about the the greatness that is life if you’re brave enough to grab it.

 

4. Nick Lowe – The Old Magic
(Yep Roc)

For those not paying attention, Nick Lowe has been making some of the best music in the world for the last twenty years. Feeling his age, and not wanting to be an old man with long punk rock hair and reliving past glories, he decided to use his age to advantage. With silver hair, nice suits and classy, jazzy, dramatic songs – it is about as hip as music ever gets.

It is all about the songs. Gorgeous torch ballads about broken characters, shuffling through the rain, falling out of love, dealing with loneliness and joy in equal measure. Lowe has always been a great wit, and his lyrics continue to amaze. The stunning opener, “Stoplight Roses”, is a masterwork in paired down lyrics. It’s a vivid character study in 3 minute pop – and maybe the best song all year.

Like Gillian Welch, he’s found a sound and does it better than anyone else. It’s at once familiar and new. It’s retro, but hip. It’s old, but new. It’s all part of a reinvention that started with 1994’s “The Impossible Bird”, and Yep Roc saw it and reissued three albums from this period into a box set. I will even say that when the dust is settled, Lowe will be mainly remembered for his work in the last decade, not his 70s stuff. That’s how good this album is.

 

5. Laura Marling A Creature I Don’t Know
(Virgin)

My favourite album of 2010 was Laura Marling’s “I Speak Because I Can”. Another single (the far out cover of Jackson C Frank’s “Blues Run the Game”, produced by Jack White) and a whole new album came in 2011. It’s quite a pace, but maybe that’s right. Laura (or as I call her, Lozza), seems like the kind of artist that should have 20 albums under her belt.

This certainly feels like a “late-era” kind of album. Everyone compares her to Joni Micthell, but it took Mitchell til about album album number 8 (“Hejira”) before she gave up on writing pop hits in favour of following who restless muse. Marling has done it in three.

Sure, it’s weird. But wonderful. That muted organ, trumpet and cello that opens “I Was Just A Card” leads into a beautiful, jazzy place. Its one of many songs that occasionally stops dead. I hate reviews that talk about scales and keys and deep musicology – but if you like that stuff, this album is a banquet.

And she is still singing songs as if she is at the end of her life. She sings of children, old ladies and life’s biggest questions. And I guess that’s what makes her an important artist. But more interesting is how intimate these songs are. If you’ve not jumped on the Marling bandwagon, I suggest you start with “I Speak Because I Can”, and I’ll meet you at album 4 some time next year.

The Best Albums of 2010: 1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can

1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
Virgin Records

I speak because I can
To anyone I trust enough to listen
You speak because you can
To anyone who’ll hear what you say

-I Speak Because I Can

People will look back at the albums that made 2010 what they were. The albums that captured the moment – like Arcade Fire or Kanye West.

I will look back at 2010 through the lens of a little out of time album by Laura Marling.

It sounds like little else. Her wonderful first album was a folk surprise. But that album was young and romantic. Somehow, this girl of just twenty has returned sounding like she’s 80. As if she has lived a whole life and wants to tell you about it.

There are no pop songs on this record – which may be why it didn’t sell as well as one might have hoped. It’s a tough album. And her remarkable voice – it’s not exactly made for radio. Her songs – about the devil, of loveless marriages and lives wasted – are not exactly “Pokerface”.

She is also the finest female guitar player of her generation. In a Joni Mitchell sense – she plays with tunings and constantly comes up with hypnotic guitar work. Like her vocals and her songs – her guitar has found it’s voice on this album. Something distinctly Laura Marling. And that’s so fucking exciting.

So that’s one thing I want to say about this album. That it’s utterly brilliant but it takes some work. That it’s out of time, which makes it timeless. It’s as good as Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and I will be listening to this album for years.

I loved this album with all my heart. I heard the first track, Goodbye England, at the end of 2009. It was a wee Christmas single in advance of the album, and it is still my favourite track on the album.

These singer songwriter albums – every year there seems to be one great one – are such malleable polaroids. Their directness leads to opening your own heart. In the era of iPods, those musical memories have pictures.

So Goodbye England, which tells of the smart coats and scarves we were in snowy weather – it will always make me think of Hyde Park. Of friends, workmates and lovers, crossing near the pond, on our way to find a pub. Or the winter markets there, drinking mulled wine, in our jackets, scarves and coats.

And that’s what this album does for me. It puts images in my eyes, ideas in my head and feelings in my heart. The album worries – about growing old, of wasted lives, of not expressing oneself. Whether it’s the maid in Made By Maid or the wife in I Speak Because I Can, the album is full of ruminations about life. The dignity of a small one, versus the romance of a big one.

When you have no one else to talk to, sometimes you talk to your albums. I spent a lot of 2010 thinking about life, and what it means to have a good one. Whether to be successful but mute, or humble and loud. Being mute, and speaking, is a big theme of the album.

There’s a fair bit of love on this album. But not the romantic love – but something more rustic. Of living together, or making lives. And there’s plenty of God, Devils and Judgement Days. It’s old timey, in a Gillian Welch sense. These are big themes.

So more than anything else, I learnt something from this album. And it helped push my life in a new direction. To speak, because I can.

Best tracks: Goodbye England, Devil’s Spoke, I Speak Because I Can

Official site – Laura Marling

The official video for the first single – Devil’s Spoke

…and Goodbye England from Jools Holland

Top 10s of 2010 (so far)

It’s been a while between blogging. But lots of writing being done – just not so much the publishing.

So hence, a quick intermission.

Top 10 albums of 2010 (so far)

1. Laura Marling – I Speak Because I Can
(Virgin)

A huge leap from her already pretty great debut. A mournful album about growing up and womanhood, wrapped up in stories of timeless darkness. She mixes old time-y weirdness about husbands, devils and letters with stunning guitar playing and vocals. The name Joni Mitchell is bandied about a lot in reviews.

‘Women’ is not a genre, but it seems of late even the gals have forgotten that, with so many carbon copy pop stars out there. And here we have someone who doesn’t use her image (or her body) to sell her music. As she says herself – “There’s a mind under this hat“. That maturity is even more impressive when you take into account she wrote and recorded this album at age 19.

My favourite track by a long way is Goodbye England (Covered In Snow), and the singles so far are Devil’s Spoke and Rambling Man.

2. The Soft Pack – The Soft Pack
(Kemado/Heavenly)

This is turning into a year of great rock ‘n’ roll records, coming off several years of slim pickings. For me, the Soft Pack are leading the charge. Their sound is a perfect storm – short, catchy rock, great riffs, great voice, no excess. At 35 minutes, the album whizzes by at a pace, but the choruses and the hooks stick with you. It’s punk-y, it’s garage-y, it’s pop-py, it’s rock-y – it’s perfect.

This is a really easy album to fall in love with. It’s immediate and easy. Most people I play it for love it. Crackers like C’mon, Down On Loving and Answer To Yourself are hit songs. Then they even up the aggression on Pull Out. And then they pull it all back on the penultimate track, the laid back, sweet Mexico.

This still could be number 1 at the end of the year. I’ve been playing this non stop since February. Time will tell.

The film clip for Answer To Yourself features some of the cast from the movie Kick-Ass.

3. The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever
(Vagrant)

The Hold Steady have made themselves one of my favourite bands in the last few years. They do that “rock and roll can save you” thing better than anyone else around at the moment. Craig Finn is a believer – spouting lyrics mainly about rock, drugs, girls and other important things like that. Their 5th album is as good as their past works – just listening to it makes me feel alive, and that life will be ok.

Heaven Is Whenever is a different beast than their earlier albums. The loss of the keyboard player brought the guitars forward, and with them come some stunning slow moments. We Can Get Together is the absolute highlight – mixing songs about heaven with the band Heavenly, and how that drummer died. But ending with the most quoted lyric in reviews this year

Heaven is whenever we can get together
Close your bedroom door and listen to your records

It’s poetic, it’s romantic and it rocks. It’s what these guys do best. From the opening kiss of The Sweet Part Of the City throughout a healthy portion of rockers (Hurricane J and Weekenders are the best of them), it shows a slightly new sound but the same old heart and soul. And I think of this band, and Craig Finn, and the more I think he’s right about everything.

4. LCD Soundsystem – This Is Happening
(DFA)

For me, Sound Of Silver was one of the 5 greatest albums of the last decade, and I wasn’t the only one. So the pressure was on for James Murphy, main man for LCD Soundsystem, and their 3rd album. They do an admirable job. Although it lacks some of the highs of Sound Of Silver, it’s still a fantastic record.

Drunk Girls divided people, but it was fun bubblegum garbage like Song 2. But the depth of Murphy’s songwriting is better expressed elsewhere. I Can Change, All I Want, You Wanted A Hit – sort of crap titles but Murphy is totally in charge of these dance pop numbers. The sounds, the lyrics, the moods, the feel – all spot on.

There’s the stuff that has made LCD Soundsystem so legendary – chaotic messes that somehow stick together like Pow Pow. Beautiful ballads like Home. It’s all here, and again, I’m still listening to this record, discovering new things.

5. Hot Chip – One Life Stand
(EMI)

I don’t know what happened in the lives of Hot Chip since their last record, but they are in love and not afraid to show it. Two great records so far were full of humour and cheeky fun. This record is something new – it’s straightfaced and affectionate. Sometimes you are waiting for the smartarses to reveal themselves but they never do.

In a way, the songs are the simplest they’ve ever been. It’s a pleasant record. If the beats weren’t just a little too hard, and the synths weren’t a little too loud, these could be teen pop songs. As they are, they keep that Hot Chip-ness. It’s just that it’s Hot Chip, the love balladeers.

And to boot – video of the year so far.

The rest of the top ten so far are:

6. Spoon – Transference

7. Vampire Weekend – Contra

8. Teenage Fanclub – Shadows

9. Dr Dog – Shame Shame

10. Surfer Blood – Astro Coast

Obviously a lot more will be written at the end of the year. And some of my favourite artists are coming up to bat – Belle & Sebastian and Darren Hanlon amongst them.

It’s been a great year so far. Many records are just bubbling under, and still have six months to prove themselves as well…