Here, at the halfway point of one of the most depressing years in recent memory (although, on a personal level, I’ve been enjoying it quite a bit) I thought it would be a fun idea to highlight some of the music that has made the Brexit debate, a general election that nobody wanted, and the first 150 days of the Trump presidency, a little more bearable:
My favourite LPs released since January
Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau – Self Titled
The virtuoso mandolin and piano duo came together with one of this year’s earliest releases, and one that I have found to be consistently excellent through the many (many) times I’ve listened to it in the last six months. The chemistry between the two musicians and their very clear love for improvisation and reinterpretation, makes their original compositions shine and brings new life to their covers. Chris Thile and Brad Mehldau puts some of this year’s best instrumental writing and performances to wonderful use in a style of music that could only have been created by these specific musicians.
Regina by Becca Stevens
Becca Stevens is a true original. Her song-writing style is unique to her and is constantly evolving. On Regina, Becca puts those talents to use in conjunction with a powerful concept, wonderful – and at times haunting – production, and a series of collaborators that help to elevate the experience, without diminishing the ability, creativity and quirkiness of the mind at the centre of it all. Regina, as a musical work, is just as regal, powerful and awe-inspiring as the idea for which it was named.
Powerplant by Girlpool
For their third release, indie duo, Girlpool, have crafted a more fleshed out version of their haunting, almost childlike signature sound for a brief, yet utterly gorgeous experience. Powerplant is unabashedly authentic – it’s aesthetically simplistic, but masks a whole host of beautiful intricacies. I love the rhythmic unison and eerie close harmonies in the vocal lines and the quirky use of chromatics in the instrumental lines. It’s a very stylistically distinct record, but that doesn’t prevent the duo from doing something memorable and different with each track.
Anti-Hero by Kneebody
Anti-Hero is, hands down, my favourite jazz album of the year so far. Very few bands, this far into their lifespan can retain the energy levels with which they began their musical journey, let alone raise them to the level that Kneebody has on this album. Anti-Hero is brash, frenetic and heavy, sonically, in the most satisfying way possible. The compositions are meaty, complex and physical, complemented by wonderful, nuanced improvisational performances from the whole band, particularly drummer, Nate Wood and saxophonist, Ben Wendel. Anti-Hero is an impressive statement from a band who, after 15 years of recording and releasing material, still have so much more to say.
Semper Femina by Laura Marling
I’ve always enjoyed Laura Marling’s voice and song-writing style, but her newest album, Semper Femina, is the first of hers that really caught my attention. On a purely instrumental level, this is the most sophisticated and varied album she’s ever released, and I think that change was all I needed to realise just how much brilliance Marling is capable of. This is also an incredible conceptually sophisticated record, offering a perspective seldom heard in popular music: an intimate statement about women from a woman’s point of view. The concept is delivered through ornate lyrics and sprawling instrumental arrangements, to create a phenomenal singer-songwriter record.
An EP well worth your time
Drive 2 Meet U by Turnip King
Turnip King really impressed me with their last full-length record, Laika. This year, the shoegaze band return with the quirkiest EP I’ve heard in some time. The record is a mixture of bizarre covers and originals, with the standout track being ‘Beauty on the Beat’, a wonderfully out-there original song that plays around with tonality, with a chorus which takes elements from the classic Disney song, ‘Beauty and the Beast’. This EP is likely to make you do several double takes during the course of its run time because you recognise things that you never expected to hear.
Unfortunately, whilst the first half of 2017 has brought a considerable amount of fantastic music, it has also brought, for me at least, a number of high profile disappointments:
DAMN. by Kendrick Lamar
To Pimp a Butterfly is one of the best records to be released in the last decade. For me, the main reason that the album was so far ahead of everything else was because of the musical direction. Kendrick’s lyrics are always incredible – at this point, that’s a given – but the instrumental work and the production on TPAB, in conjunction with those lyrical ideas was so potent, sophisticated, grand and most importantly, trail blazing, that it stood out as one of the most exciting hip-hop records of its time.
DAMN. neglects this spirit of ingenuity. Kendrick’s lyrics are nowhere near as cohesive as they have been, and the instrumentals leave a lot to be desired. The fact that Kendrick has essentially made a trap record is endlessly disappointing to me. The question that I came away from this album asking myself, was “Why would someone as singular as Kendrick Lamar feel the need to follow a trend?”
HUMANZ by Gorillaz
This album is not good. It feels less like a Gorillaz album and more like a collection of poorly realised tracks by popular musicians on which Damon Albarn is featured. Gorillaz haven’t released a truly cohesive album since 2005’s Demon Days, but this record takes the word “scattered” to a whole new level. The album is 26 tracks long, and only nine of those songs don’t feel like lazy afterthoughts.
Critics have called HUMANZ a political album. This is not a political album. There are a couple of moments over the 69 minute runtime that could be interpreted as anti-Trump sentiment, but for the most part Albarn is saying nothing on this record other than “Look how many friends I have!”