The last round-up of Staff CD Picks that we enjoyed last year….
Coming forth by day.
Undoubtedly the prime jazz singer of today, Cassandra Wilson celebrates the centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth in style. Tackling Holiday’s repertoire is challenging but she ambitiously takes this on with a big production, inviting the producer Nick Launay who has worked with Talking Heads and Arcade Fire. A huge variety of the arrangements are applied here but Wilson colours everything in her one-and-only sophisticated deep blues feeling, showing tremendous presence. Rebirthing Holiday’s soul in the 21st century, this is a memorable achievement.
The best of Soapkills.
Emerging late 90s in Beirut, Soapkills, often labelled as ‘Arab’s Massive Attack’, was the very first trip hop group in Middle East and became the underground superstar there. They don’t offer Massive Attack-like gorgeous dynamism as their productions were much cheaper, but the dark seductive voice of Yasmine Hamadan (you may remember her performing in Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive) and the sensuous Arabic flavour take us somewhere we have never been. Take a mystifying musical journey.
One-of-a-kind guitarist David Torn is a multitalented artist. Along with making his own music, he has done a lot of mixing and mastering (mostly for forward-thinking jazz musicians) and composed soundtracks (Lars and the Real Girl, The Wackness etc). Every now and then, he has issued acclaimed albums from ECM and made a unique contribution to the label. Sonically inventive, his music is all about ‘texture’, and this solo project finds him in a very meditative mood. Using only his guitar and electric oud, it’s probably his darkest, most personal album, yet exquisitely elegant. This jazzy ambient music may not be everyone’s cup of tea but it is truly original.
Epicenter / Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth.
The bassist and the composer Chris Lightcap has worked with prominent jazz artists such as Marc Ribot, Mark Turner and Jason Moran as well as rock/folk musicians like Glen Hansard. He assembled ‘avant-garde jazz all-stars’ for his innovative quintet Bigmouth. West African influenced rhythm and the shadow of Ornette Coleman come together with urban New York essence; the band presents complex yet groovy, enigmatic hybrid jazz. The album ends with the cover of Velvet Underground’s All Tomorrow’s Parties (from their debut album), which is simply marvellous.
Beirut, Sufjan Stevens, Beach House, Deerhunter, Kurt Vile, Joanna Newsom, to name but a few. In 2015, a lot of indie rock stars put out good albums and showed their mutuality. However, the biggest surprise came from this super group. Out of the blue, Wilco released a rather uneven, studio session-like new album. Surely they could have made a more organised, smooth-finish album, but after leaving the major label they seem to have rejuvenated themselves, and in fact, the songs and performance are of a top-notch quality which only this group can display. This album lasts only 34 minutes and is titled ‘Star Wars’ with a fluffy cat on the cover- it’s the best indie attitude of the year.
Silver bullets / The Chills.
2015 was also a good year for Kiwi indie music. The likes of Phoenix Foundation, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Don McGlashan issued fantastic new albums, and the most exciting and welcoming one arrived later of the year. Silver Bullets, the first new full-length album in nearly two decades from Martin Phillipps’ The Chills, is a dazzling pop album, proving Phillipps’ pop craftsmanship is still up there. With bouncing melody and catchy guitar riff, it offers perfect balance of cheerfulness and melancholy, and you never get tired of listening. It’s an indie pop music as good as it gets.
First full album release from pianist Brooke Singer and guitarist John Fitzgerald after the 2012 EP ‘Claimed by the Sea. Full of dreamy, melancholic landscapes. Singer’s lovely delicate voice, glides ethereally over Fitzgerald’s sinuous guitar lines.
Backed by Grammy-nominated American pianist Taylor Eigsti and NZ bassist Matt Penman, Bradley creates a series of original compositions based on Lovecraft’s work that are free and searching, yet also inherently melodic. There’s a dark sense of claustrophobia here, as well as a gentle playfulness.
Give up your dreams / The Phoenix Foundation.
The synths are pushed to the front on the new album. Fun and playful, the sound feels contemporary on some tracks & nostalgic on others, with shimmering arrangements & propulsive rhythms. Plenty of dry humour undercuts the upbeat funky-space meandering.
In the shallows.
A Portland transplant who spent her time honing the lyrics & arrangements of her debut, until the beautifully rich piano driven songs really shine. Tori Amos is an obvious starting point but there’s a lot happening musically with many other guitar driven influences at play. Great songs, great arrangements, great singing. What else is there?
Second Te Reo album from Kirsten Te Rito. Lush beats & smooth synths. Imagine the slinky, sensual sound of late night 90s club grooves/electronica reimagined for Te Reo.
More Americana styled songs from this Wellington five-piece, helmed by the alternately crooning & dark hued vocals of Ebony Lamb. Atmospheric. Perhaps their best work yet.
The court of love.
Singer/songwriter Emma Davey has been around for a while, performing at both WOMAD and WOW as a member of The Balkanistas. Her first solo album ‘The Court of love’ is a lovely set of self-penned songs. Her voice finds its home in the slower ballads that really work.
DJ/producer Chris Faiumu pushes the sound in a more processed & less organic direction, but there is till plenty of the classic FFD for old fans to enjoy here.
Down to believing.
Now 5 years on from her last album she is separated from Steve Earle with a young son diagnosed with autism. This results, unsurprisingly, in an album that may be her most personal & accomplished yet with a set of songs that shift through themes of anger, despair, defiance and ultimately hope.
Veruca Salt / Ghost notes.
Reuniting with the original line-up & original producer Brad Wood Louise Post & Nina Gordon deliver a new album that feels like a continuation of the music they were making previously; thrashy guitar pop with fierce harmonies, but welded to a deeper sense of the melancholy of regret and lost time. One of the rare reunions where the album doesn’t seem like a nostalgic cash-in, but forms a vital part of the bands discography.
The RCA Victor & T-Neck album masters (1959-1983) / The Isley Brothers.
Huge 23 disc journey through the various musical styles of the longest running & most influential R&B group in history. From Doo-wop, to rocking with Jimi Hendrix, to 70s funk & 80s smooth ballads. Includes plenty of bonus tracks, demos & a full unreleased live-in-studio album.
Have you in my wilderness.
I will recommend watching the whole KEXP live session that Julia and Co. threw a couple of months ago. Their drums, double bass, viola, Nord, and 3 voices tightly presents us with a solid and beautiful sound which is a pleasure to see. The album gives us added layers of neatly crafted effects and edits, which elevate the audiophile experience. One of my favorite albums of the past years.
I knew of Holly Herndon through her 2012 release Movement, one of my fondest albums of that year. Coming from a sonic arts background myself, I always enjoy seeing musicians on this field being popular and recognized for their expertise. ‘Platform’ offers a heavier and beat-driven flow that dances along Herndon’s main instrument; her voice. The climax arrives a little bit over the second half of the album with Lonely at the Top, one of the sexiest recordings of all time. I recommend headphones for a full-blown and intimate participation.
‘I am NOT one of your FRIEEENNNDDDS!!!!! WHO do you think you’re TALKING TO?!?!?!’ *grind-core beat and bass follows* This is the opening to ‘Dark Energy’s’ last song, leaving a taste of what just happened 10 songs before. From a minimalist and low-fi midi-stringed beginning the suspense sets in straight away: this could have easily been a darker and concrète version to Darth Vader’s march. Enter the meat grinder: a schizophrenic Ghost Train ride enjoyed by the like of ‘Merzbow’, ‘Aphex Twin’, ‘Die Antwoord’, ‘Clap! Clap!’and ‘Napalm Death’. Adult admission only.
Beach House have done it for me this year. ‘Depression Cherry’ finds them in different waters than they previously were with their much-hyped Bloom – album I did not at all clicked with. Looks like they dropped some heavy flower-power leaves on their tea, washing the melodies, tribalizing the beats, mellowing the voices, and detaining the whole thing. A perfect listen for a rainy day inside.
B’lieve I’m goin down…
If there’s sonething like Shoegaze music, then this would be Stonergaze. If you want to see how that looks like check this out. Kurt has composed one of my favorite summer soundtracks ever, thank you!
Carrie & Lowell.
Celestial is the best way I can describe the tunes of Carrie & Lowell. This is one of those albums you would put on in particular moments; to relax, to cry, to rejoice, to ponder, to love. I haven’t found much information about the production of it, but it is evident that tapes and analogue gear were key ingredients for the conception of this moody album. Beautiful.
To pimp a butterfly.
Something happened that evening I came across Good kid, m.A.A.d city, quite by accident, a bit over 3 years ago. I am by no means a hip-hop head, but I instantly felt there was something different in it. I had no idea who the album was by, or how old or how new… it didn’t matter. I played it several times before I bothered reading about this Kendrick Lamar – not that it changed anything at all, given that I was not worried about data; the music spoke for itself. There is little to say that isn’t being said about this release (which made it #1 to the majority of list I’ve seen around), but I thought I share the effect that this man can create in someone like me who feels very detached from the reality that’s portrayed alongside this conceptual album, built upon enough layers to make repeated listening an ever more enjoyable experience.
I’ve been pumping this on my show on RadioActive.fm on the past months. The album opens with Malukayi, a killer tune that gets us straight up into a cosmic afro-spacial trance trip. The video is as mesmerizing. Electronic and tribal, From Kinshasa will keep you dancing and wondering what’s on the dark side of the moon.
Sound & color.
Another much-hyped band whose 1st release (Boys & Girls) did not cut it for me. However, ‘Sound & Color’ finds lead singer and guitarist Brittany Howard taking her voice to new powerful levels. The rest of the band show the same confidence and hard rocking capabilities, delivering one solid tune after another. This is an album that also sounds great, so I’ve been enjoying it on my high-end setup at home.
LateNightTales / [compiled by] Nils Frahm.
One of the best LNT to date. Nils takes us to a journey of Eno-esque landscapes, Cagean tangents, and electronic fields of Orb’s proportions. From the Amazon.uk product description:”I’ve really got off on working on compilations lately. It’s such a wonderful way to delve deep into your music collection. My flat is now crammed with music media of all stripes, from an old hand-cranked 78 phonograph player to 45s and albums on vinyl, my beloved old cassette tape collection, even mini-disks and, lately, WAV and MP3s. It’s all music to me. After spending hours recording from all of these diverse sources, I started to play around with the tunes, layering them, sampling, looping certain parts, extracting phrases and using all the freedom that this allowed me. If I got a little carried away or stepped on anyone’s toes in my quest to do something interesting and original, then I apologise. Some things may have accidentally landed on the wrong speed, while other spooky happening have occurred along the way, whether it’s ghostly additions of reverb and delay or simply subtle edits or reproductions, they’ve all gone into the magical stew I’ve tried to create for your pleasure and edification. I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve had creating this compilation for you but, suffice to say, I hope it will be a nice journey for your mind and heart.”
Break-up album with groove, style and Demarco’s understated baritone voice. Sad, tender and honest but Mac invites all to drop in at the end of album, so maybe he’s just fine now?
Beat the champ / The Mountain Goats.
Lively concept album about professional wrestling that includes wrestling moves as titles(‘Foreign object’, ‘Choked out’), pop smarts and a real sense of warmth and connection to its damaged, bruised (and bruising) subjects.
Blood to bone.
I am totally in love with Gin Wigmore’s ‘Blood to Bone’ cd. It’s a little bit gritty and has great hooks and melodies. Every song’s a winner and if you wait a while after the last track there’s a surprise track – sorry for just ruining the surprise.
Jekyll + Hyde / Zac Brown Band.