One of the few privileges of being the one who runs this small blog is that I can make a ‘Best Of’ list and pass it off as ‘the’ Top 5. The Editor’s Choice. As if music is that neutral. Of course, it is not. In fact, even for me personally the format is artificial. These five albums are not the albums I have most played or most enjoyed this year; they are not my favourites, and neither are they what I consider the ‘best’ album in some ‘objective’ sense. Some are only on this list on the merits of a single song. Others made it because I went to a gig which made me recontextualise the music. What they all have in common is that these five albums illustrate the importance of music: the way it lifts you up, makes you fall in love, be yourself, and changes you philosophically. That’s what this list is about.
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5. Okkervil River – In the Rainbow Rain
If In the Rainbow Rain is not the album of the year, then Okkervil River may at least be my band of 2018. Initially, I was underwhelmed by the uneven follow-up to Stay, one of my favourites of 2016. But through the gentle magic of ‘Famous Tracheotomies’, which quite literally conjures The Kinks’ ‘Waterloo Sunset’, I entered a path of re-discovery. That song tells the stories of singers and poets who, like Okkervil’s frontman Will Sheff, have had a tracheotomie at some point in their life. This includes Ray Davies, who wrote ‘Waterloo Sunset’ about his time at St. Thomas Hospital ten year earlier. After Sheff has told Davies’ story, the synth kicks in with the ‘Waterloo Sunset’ theme. The effect is a time-transcending shock which at the same time gives new meaning to The Kinks’ original, fifty years later, and packs all that song’s emotional strength to use it in a calculated punch.
In the Rainbow Rain has a few other good tracks on it, such as the sprawling ‘The Dream and the Light’ and the cheesy ‘Love Somebody’. But it was seeing Okkervil River live that made me re-appreciate their older works. About that gig I wrote: “And so it all fits together, in the end. Okkervil River are a special band. They try to pierce through the layer of film that exists between us and the world, and between us and each other, and perhaps between us and ourselves. It is my secret theory that this is what music must do: imbue the world with realness through the intensity of the feelings it invokes in us. And tonight Okkervil River at least got at some sort of truth about all this.” I haven’t been able to stop listening to the oldies ‘Unless It Kicks’ and ‘For Real’ since then.
4. The Goon Sax – We’re Not Talking
The Goon Sax’ second album is on this list because it reminded me of how you can fall for a song fast, hard and sudden, just like – exactly like – falling in love. It happened with ‘We Can’t Win’, the most heartachingly beautiful brilliant indie pop duet in years. These were the first days of autumn, and I was feeling vulnerable, and before I knew it that song was on repeat for a day and then another. Worried and calm at the same time. Sometimes, confusion is a state of mind one can crave.
Compared to 2016’s Up To Anything, We’re Not Talking focuses less on the trivial complaints of teenage existence, and instead addresses the universal maladies of love and life. For a while, I thought that the result was empty; too universally true to be close to truth at all. But later, I realised I was mistaken. What defines We’re Not Talking is a sense of shared adolescent suffering, exemplified in the ‘we’ of the title. A sense, that is, that we’re not alone, but part of a pack of losers facing the absurdities of life and not always knowing how to deal with it. As I wrote in my review: “And that, in the end, is what The Goon Sax do so well: exaggerating normal feelings of normal people in a way that makes us feel special. It’s what indie music was made for.” The Goon Sax were in our Top 10 of 2016 too, so they’re promising to shape up as one of the better indie bands of this decade.
3. Lucy Dacus – Historian
Back in March, I compared Lucy Dacus to Sharon van Etten and Julia Jacklin and wrote that “all three have a tendency to become a little repetitive”. I continued: “I haven’t heard enough of Historian in enough detail to know if that will happen here too, but even if it does, it’s an amazing album and certainly one of the best of the year.” Writing now, I can only stand by half of that statement. Historian is obviously one of the best albums of the year, but it hasn’t become even a little repetitive at all. ‘Addictions’ is officially my most-played track of the year.
Historian, for me, hasn’t been a particularly personal or emotional journey (though of course it is both personal and deeply emotional). I love the album because it is musically interesting and lyrically clever – that is, because it is good. There’s the slow burn build-up of ‘Night Shift’, which starts as a folk ballad and ends with The Bends-era Radiohead-esque distorted squeal and electric guitars. Or there’s the aforementioned ‘Addictions’, with its subtle rhythms and brass section. From Lucy Dacus’ mouth, the lines take on their own lives, triumphantly raising or resignedly falling, or confusedly and complexly doing both. Finally, the lyrics are quick and witty, but uncover vast stretches of buried meaning, like the best novels do. From the startling opening lines “The first time I tasted somebody else’s spit / I had a coughing fit” to the seven-minute prayer ‘Pillar of Truth’, Dacus surprises and enthralls.
2. Nap Eyes – I’m Bad Now
I wrote the following about Nap Eyes’ I’m Bad Now back in March and that’s pretty much still how I feel about this album:
“I had a conversation with Nap Eyes’ Nigel Chapman at last year’s End of the Road Festival in which we touched on many of the topics covered on I’m Bad Now. It is an existentialist album, as the opening track ‘Every Time the Feeling’ makes clear (“Oh I don’t know what’s worse / The meaninglessness or the negative meaning”). On most tracks, Chapman addresses himself, in a continuing self-interrogation. But unlike some strands of existentialism, Chapman’s doubts are focused on the external world: they concern the question of how we relate ourselves to the others around us. It’s a difficult question and the lyrics on I’m Bad Now are full of doubt: “You always try to be nice, but is it really the right way?”, Nigel asks on the jagged ‘Roses’.
Despite the uncertainty, the picture that emerges is one that values kindness and tolerance over justice and judgment (and I hope that in framing it that way, I’ve brought out the dilemma here; of course, everyone values kindness and tolerance, but at what cost?). In the interview, Nigel said: “When is it really good to morally judge people, either yourself or others? I certainly believe in morality and goodness and humanity, but as far as our own ability to nail it I’m sceptical. That’s my rebellion.” There are certainly religious undertones here (Jesus was a rebel in exactly this way, after all), and it is easy to imagine Chapman addressing god when he asks “if there’s a right road, would you kindly show me?” on ‘Judgment’. But these are questions we have to struggle with ourselves, and redemption comes from outside, not from above. Friends are of particular help, as illustred by ‘You Like to Joke Around With Me’, in which Chapman sings: “Last night my friends surprised me / Gestures of kindness I’d never expect”. And, on the importance of understanding: “But tuning yourself to catch another’s wavelength / Sure can make a difference in this world”. Again, this is not a platitude: tuning yourself to another’s wavelength also means letting go of your own values and seeing the world through someone else’s principles, and respecting that as much as possible.
The road to enlightenment, if it is to be had at all, is slow and frustrating. I’m Bad Now finishes not with a bang, but with the gently rocking ‘Boats Appear’. “Takes time to understand things / And the more you know the more you know you don’t know / I was just wondering why I handle things the way I do / You know, so slow”. I don’t like using the word ‘honest’ to describe a piece of music, but I think this is one of the rare cases where it wholly applies.”
1. The Essex Green – Hardly Electronic
Here’s what I wrote about Hardly Electronic back in August:
“Even before we started our attempts to move out of our first shared apartment, Kim and I had already had Hardly Electronic on repeat for days on end. Still, hearing the opening lines of ‘Sloane Ranger’ go “Pack it up” while filling up plastic boxes was a sadly serendipitous moment. And while we are (or were) Oxford, not London-based (and Cowley definitely isn’t Kensington!), for an American band The Essex Green manage to describe our strange English lives surprisingly well. For London, although not her current city, is the place where I’ve visited Kim for three years at places with post codes variously starting with ‘E’ and ‘W’. And so, more than most music, did Hardly Electronic become our music.
Part of the fun with The Essex Green’s first album in over ten years is to trace the connections and references to the music from the 60s and 70s that has inspired them. So could ‘Modern Rain’ easily be mistaken for a lost single from the early 70s, with it’s Electric Light Orchestra keys and Lennon-esque guitar solo outro. ‘In the Key of Me’ and ‘Slanted By Six’, with Sasha Bell on vocals, remind me of Renaissance’s pristine prog-rock tales on Scheherazade And Other Stories. And Chris Isaak is silently present in the melody of ‘Patsy Desmond’, whereas the underdog anthem ‘January Says’ has that Avi Buffalo vibe written all over it. This filling in the x and y in ‘x sounds like y‘ is not a pretentious game to keep the music afficionados busy (not just that, in any case); it is the process of embedding what is new and unknown into a pre-existent bed of connections made out of melodies knotted to memories. And so, more than most music, does Hardly Electronic become part of a tightly woven net that always breaks the fall.
And unlike moving out, this is always a generative process. Sure, that web can and will be altered, tightened or even stained, but it doesn’t contain bin bags brought to charity shops or temporary wardrobes in the form of suitcases filled with clothes. Thus the memories of those transient materials are transferred to the solidity of this immaterial net. And so the end of one thing – a house, an era – can become the beginning of something new. And so, more than most music, is Hardly Electronic as much a start as an ending.”
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And that’s it for 2018! We’ll have a few retrospective pieces trickling through over the coming few days and I cannot recommend our Best Of 2018 radio podcast and Beautiful 2018 spotify playlist enough, but from now on our eyes are set on twenty-nineteen (which is, incidentally, the tenth year of Beautiful Freaks’ humble existence!). See you then!
-- Caspar Jacobs, December 18, 2018