At this point in a year, I customarily provide my Top 10 albums thus far, but over the past six months, despite thinking I might have enjoyed some twenty musical offerings by now, my listening has been paltry. Eight albums, barely one a month!
I did hear amazing stuff. Virga I from the prodigious talent of Eluvium was the highlight, but it’s a niche taste, long-form ambience that reminded me of Klaus Schultz from the 70s! Matt Berninger’s Serpentine Prison ear-wormed me for weeks with its poetic, lilting songs. And who could resist the indie folk-pop magic of Swallowing the Sun by Steve Robinson? But none of the other five albums ranked over 7/10.
It’s not that I don’t long to be blown away by a diet of superb modern music. The problem has been long brewing and it is twofold. Firstly, background listening seems to annoy me during this phase of life and dedicated loungeroom listening is history. Secondly, I have not lucked upon an efficient, enjoyable means of garnering and triaging new rock music. The result is that listening is not part of my life in the way that reading and watching is, and, even more relevant, what I hear is mostly old-person shit that is, at best, tired.
No solution readily pops up. But I’m not ready to retire my ears (even though all my friends have done so) and I’ll attempt to address the issue over the coming months.
To me, the best rock music listening experiences revolve around the voice. That’s a generalization, certainly, but remarkable vocalists, singing on song, transform ditties into compelling songs. Thus too with Another Sky, fronted by Catrin Vincent, with a high voice tinged with a falsetto-like dark timbre. “I Slept on the Floor” is the British band’s thumping, ambitious, post-rock debut, and by the second track, with Vincent plaintively singing “Fell in love with the city as I fell out of love with you” before lovely raging guitar, you know this is special. Blistering personal and political lyrics underpin a dozen memorable songs. Whether booming in stadia or whispering over pianos, Vincent dominates but the rest of the band more than hold their own as they channel Radiohead and a dozen other grand UK bands. Standout tracks include the coruscating “Avalanche,” the catchy “Let Us Be Broken” and the pounding “Brave Face.” I Slept on the Floor has been a highlight of my 2021 listening and I eagerly await its follow-up.
“Invisible Cities” is yet another soundtrack by Adam Wiltzie and Dustin O’Halloran (A Winged Victory for the Sullen), this time for a dance performance. The thirteen tracks seep drama and slow flair, all distinct yet of a whole. Soundtracks are, of course, background rather than inspiration, but Invisible Cities rewards the lockdown ear. Highlights include the oozing drone and sepulchral keys of “So that the City Can Begin to Exist,” reminiscent of long-forgotten Klaus Schulze; in “The Celestial City,” the dread of a distant choir and soft horns atop pulses and distorted jangle; the un-ambient buzzsaw distortion field at the end of “There Is One of Which You Never Speak”; and “Total Perspective Vortex” in all its boiling magnificence.
“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.