“Serpentine Prison,” the first solo album from Matt Berninger, that distinctive singer in the majestic National, is less grandiose and adventurous than his band’s output. Co-produced by the legendary Booker T. Jones, it has a smoothly sonorous, spacious sound, almost laid back. Accomplished sessions musos buttress Berninger’s oh-so-distinctive world-weary upfront voice in a gorgeous mix that sits equally as lockdown solace, study background, or car music. As with the National albums, Serpentine Prison seems a seamless whole, pulled together by that gentle soundscape and Berninger’s elliptical, poetic lyrics. As ever, his concerns are solipsistic, but in that fine manner that invites the listener to identify with deep personal concerns. Every one of the ten tracks seeps into the listener’s mind; I found myself humming snatches at odd times of the day. Standout songs include Berninger’s nihilistic voice on “Take Me out of Town” burrowing into my soul as he sings “Swear to God, I’ve never been so burned out”; the Hammond organ solo alongside the softly-softly anthemic chorus of “Loved So Little”; and the swaying, piano-led bleakness of “All For Nothing.” In spite of the downbeat nature of Berninger’s concerns, there is something wondrously hopeful in the listening experience of Serpentine Prison that speaks to us in pandemic times.
Eluvium, aka Matthew Cooper is my favorite musician in the broad field of ambient music, a territory I’ve largely left alone since a deep fascination through the 1960s to 1980s. “Virga I” is the first in a new series and this time the versatile Cooper has fashioned a wonderful album of three pieces in the style of real, genuine ambient music as I experienced it first with the music of Tangerine Dream’s Phaedra and then Klaus Schulze. Long looping songs, apparently generated by sounds and tunes under the presence of algorithms, whoosh and flow and ebb in a hugely satisfying aural panorama suited to both late night immersive listening and alluring lockdown work background. The first twenty-minute piece seems to herald arrival, the second shorter one is more “here,” and the third piece ebbs off into the distant, but really, all three are part of a vast, emotional whole that had me gasping with admiration. Virga I is not for everyone, for it really is suffusing and anti-rock, but for anyone ever attracted to Brian Eno and his notions of ambience, it is a 2021 highlight.
Such a welcome surprise! Five months after Folklore beguiled me, now we have “Evermore,” a luscious reprise of her new softly melodic, world-weary folk rock. Evermore follows Folklore in its style, all lulling piano, percolating keyboards, trembling guitar figures, allied to her emotive soft-whispery voice and intelligent storytelling lyrics. The sure touch of Aaron Dressner at the production desk matches Swift’s songs like lock and key. Highlights among the generous fifteen tracks include the gorgeous “‘Tis the Damn Season,” on which Swift croons “it always leads to you in my hometown”; the stunning recollections of an abandoned relationship in “Coney Island” contrasts Swift’s honeyed vocals with Matt Berninger’s gravely baritone; and another super sonic collaboration with Bon Iver on the title track.
Low-key indie folk-rock that sat easily on my turntable, “Off Off On” impressed without upturning my world. Kate Stables’s gentle vocals reveal impressionistic lyrics over crafted arrangements that can branch into jazzy sax and brass. Recommended as a whole, with standout tracks being the softly chugging “Coming to get you nowhere” and the building “Started again.”
The homespun 60s-ish cover of “Swallowing the Sun” promises folk-rock and gentle melodies, and Steve Robinson, an English folkie who has spent two decades in a US band (The Headlights) and touring with Roger McGuinn, delivers on those promises. On his aptly named Sunshine Drenchy Records, he delivers eleven ear worms of folk-rock or folk-pop , all of them instant lockdown companions. Dave Gregory, one of my heroes from XTC, adds stunning guitar on two songs, especially impressive on “Needle in the Red,” a lustrous song of despair. So many blessed associations whizzed around my sonic mind as I basked in this stellar album—Wesley Stace, late-season Jayhawks, Elliott Smith, even the Microphones—all of them smart yet eschewing fat production. Highlights include the deliriously joyful “Dizzy Love Song,” sun drenched indeed; the Beatleesque “Mr Empty Head”; and “Milk and a Dash,” straight out of my 1960s and with a memorable chorus of “memories make us, then they take us down.” Swallowing the Sun seems certain to register in my top albums of 2021.
“Whoosh!” is a whoosh indeed, a synthesis by a revered band in their 70s of a musical genre they helped invent. It’s always been tempting to equate Deep Purple with Ian Gillan, the Purple vocalist with the screamingest, purest, most expressive voice of them all, and on this, their 21st album, he is in classic (if no longer screamy) form. But really, the heart of the band is the drum/bass combo of Ian Paice and Roger Glover, and they pound out thirteen varied yet unmistakable heavy metal/psych/boogie songs. Throw in eclectic keyboardist Don Airey and super guitar noodler Steve Morse, and you find that every track, even the more stock standard tunes, jumps out of the gate and delivers. They sound just like the show I went to in Festival Hall in Melbourne in the early 70s and while that seems ossified, it is also a source of comfort. Standout tracks are the chugging, raging “The Long Way Round”; the band interplay, straight out of the 1960s, and the easy majesty of Gillan’s vocals on “Nothing at All”; and the echoes of Gillan’s vocal harshness on his attack on politicians, “No Need to Shout.” Whoosh! is not for you, young music fan, but it’s plenty solid and fine.
Singer/songwriter Sandi Rose Plunkett, known as Half Waif, delivers a sumptuous, loping synth-pop sophomore album with “The Caretaker.” Her songs sashay atop lovely keys and bass and gentle drums, with her ethereal voice drifting or swooping in and out. The impressionistic songs always contain a kernel of lovely melody and her lyrics seem to address solitude, longing, and a search for meaning. I liked the moody vocal overlay on “Halogen 2”; the plaintive, slow start to “Blinking Light,” bursting into its soaring chorus; and the gorgeous chant of “be the one you wanna be” on “My Best Self.” Some of the tracks of The Caretaker suit the lockdown breaks between Zooms, others could be listened to in the car with windows down. Light-footed yet deep, it’s a welcome 2020 musical contribution.
In 2020, as in 2019, I struggled to source a vibrant, eclectic roster of albums; struggled to find listening time; and struggled to interpret my emotions and thoughts. Nonetheless I experienced the joy of these ace albums (three rated 9/10. four at 8/10, and three at 7/10):
Ghosteen is another sublime treasure from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Unflinching in dealing with grief and love, the musical mood is keening sparseness.
Perfume Genius is Mike Hadreas, and on Set My Heart on Fire, his floating tremulous falsetto, which can thicken into semi-menace, is set off beautifully by sumptuous production.
The stories of Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit on Reunions are reason enough to listen with pleasure. The melodies, the musical power, and Isbell’s emotional voice, make this a special work.
My favorite for the year, rarely off my turntable, is Angel Olsen’s rough yet triumphant set of basement tapes to last year’s most upbeat marvel, All Mirrors. Trying to single out the highlights of Whole New Mess is a waste of time.
Doves are back and they sound the same and that sound is superb and their songs on The Universal Want drag you back to listen and listen. Stadium rock designed for a lockdown room.
Sharp lyrics, triumphant singing, and excellent musicianship lift Walking Like We Do by The Big Moon out of the U.K. indie ruck.
British bands star in any year’s Best Of, and Every Bad by Porridge Radio, is a raucous yet melodic delight, a gorgeous romp.
Another return to our ears after absence is the latest from Bright Eyes. Conor Oberst offers his usual introspective, hip lyrics on Down in the Weeds, Where the World Once Was, but it’s the inspired band writing and musicianship that sheet the ornate songs home.
On Giants of All Sizes, Elbow is brooding and rumbling, quite pissed off. Another splendid creation.
Only Magic, the wistful, unforgettable indie pop-folk magic of Teleman frontman, Tom Sanders.
“The Universal Want” leapt out of the past, only the fifth album by a revered trio and their first output in over a decade. And immediately, it’s the sound, that hyper-produced, studio-glistening aural combination, that is recognizable. When the opening track of “Carousels” pauses from its pompous, backbeat-led verse to announce the chorus of “Oh, I’m going to take you down,” the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Such a classy presentation! Such dread in a single line! Singer Jimi Goodwin’s world-weary, sighing voice has lost none of its brilliance and the playing and production are immaculate, so it is the songs that have to judged, and on The Universal Want, the tunes are excellent, not transcendent but excellent and melodic, and hey, what more can we ask for? “For Tomorrow” sounds like a Coronavirus prayer and pledge, “Cathedrals of the Mind” is a weary gem, and the title track is a five-minute opus that begins strummed and small and ends huge and profound, before Radiohead’ing out. There’s nigh a wasted moment on The Universal Want.
The first solo release from Tom Sanders, frontman of brilliant folk-indie-pop-rock outfit Teleman (itself born from the ashes of a wonderful band now lost in the sands of time, Pete and the Pirates), “Only Magic” sounds like lockdown and wonderfully so. I couldn’t help thinking of the vibe of Taylor Swift’s two lockdown albums: the simple, expansive arrangements, the focus on the voice and lyrics, the reflective tone of both music and words. Kicking off with a nostalgic, personal ditty, “Most of the Time,” which lifts off into a bittersweet chorus with his transcendent high vocals, this album is an immediate keeper. Put it on, switch to repeat, repeat, repeat, every song a minor hit. Soak up the acapella “boom cha” vocal bass and pellucid voice on “Baby All You’ve Got,” with its eerie closer. Whistle the bouncy gentle melody of what seems to be an ode to airplane travel, “Touch Down.” Such a sad but uplifting mini masterpiece is Sanders’s ode to childhood, “Being Human.” Only Magic is a deep and triumphant album, one immediately recognizable to those stuck inside but instantly transportable to the car radio once lockdown lifts. Recommended without reservation.