Album of the Year: The (not so ) Shortlist so far

You don't need to do that to a record to have sexual relations with it.

The prez grooves to the albums on my Album of the year short list.

Middle of the year, Far-out that flew by! Mostly because I’ve been preparing for becoming a parent and partly because I’ve been studying flat-out since February, but the abundance of great new albums has had something to do with it! The electronic world, in particular is on a mighty roll in 2013. With new releases from The Knife, Lusine, Boards of Canada, Archie Pelago, Shapeshifter John Hopkins and of course Daft Punk already out and with more to come from Bop, Etherwood and Avicii this year is catering well to anyone with a synthy bent. Not all the albums on my (not so) short list are electronic though, so to see which albums made it through to my short list, read on.

Lusine – The Waiting Room (2013, Ghostly International.)


Long-time readers of the blog this used to be might remember my love affair with the music of Jeff McIlwain and  my track-by-track review of his last release. I hotly anticipated A Certain Distance and played it to bits once it was released. I then spent two of the next four years waiting for the next album. The Waiting Room was delayed by several months, but it came at a time where I really needed the musical solace. I got back to my town of study to find the flat I was going into had been rented out from under me so  ended up sleeping on the floor in a classmates flat while I tried to find somewhere to live, and it was a cherry on the top of the generosity and hospitality shown by my classmates.

It’s hard to imagine that the album disappointed me when i first put it on, but there was a greedy bastard part of me (that arguably exists in all of us) that was like “Yes, It’s here! …now what?” Listening back to it subsequently has, however shut the greedy bastard right up. McIlwain has matured his sound a little (something that all the AotY nominees currently have in common) and has given us a deeper level of his thinking-man’s IDM. Incorporating more acoustic instruments on tracks like Without a Plan and featuring the benevolent, warm vocals of his wife Sarah on Get The Message and By This Sound (one of the standout tracks for me) The vocals are fully-formed song lyrics, too. They seem to have replaced McIlwain’s traditional chopped-up vocals, although we did get a bit of a taster in 2009 with Crowded Room. Playing back any of the tracks on Lusine albums (or any releases under his variations of that moniker) instantly take me back to hot, hazy, sunny summers and this is no exception. On the one day of the year we actually get Summer in New Zealand I cram as much McIlwain as I can into the day’s listening. The Waiting Room is destined to be another one of those Summer classics, and it was an unopposed shoe-in for Album of the Year…

Until this happened.

Boards of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest (2013, Warp Records.)

This is not just the tale of an album eight years in the making. It’s a tale of a clever marketing campaign and a rabid fanbase. In Mid-April, after months of rumors in forums the whole Internet over, six-digit codes started showing up all over the world. In record stores on highly-limited-edition LPs, on BOC fanpages and on NPR’s All Songs Considered  radio show. Once the fans put the number strings together with a URL hidden in the banner at the Twoism forum site they unlocked this:

The Internet basically exploded at this point. Electronica-heads started treating this hotly rumoured album like the second coming. The first album in almost a decade from two of the undisputed masters of electronic music as we know. I wasn’t about to treat it like I would Jesus coming back, but I was certainly pretty amped!

So what did the legions of BOC fans the world over get well ahead of the time their pre-orders were projected to arrive? Well we got a healthy dose of nostalgia for a start. Mike Sandison and Marcus Eoin’s trademark analog sound, glowing with tape saturation and warbly, detuned oscillators takes you slightly out of the real world for the 63 minutes Tomorrow’s Harvest runs. That it felt so short originally triggered that g.b. instinct again, but the strength in this new album is that it’s a grower. From the morning after it arrived on my phone I listened through the whole thing over and over again that weekend, through headphones and on my hi-fi at home. After two plays I just couldn’t get enough, and it’s still not like the tracks are phenomenally different to anything I’ve heard from Boards of Canada before. yes, they have subtly brought their traditional sound into the 2010s while parts of it remain firmly in the 1980s but the music of Boards of Canada has such a strength in being largely timeless.

It’s normally a bit of an indictment to say the opening track of an album is your favourite, but as opening tracks go, Gemini has become the new yardstick. Jacquard Causeway and Palace Posy are among the other standout tracks on the Tomorrow’s Harvest. Sandison and Eoin have included plenty of their shorter-form pieces on the album as well, something that seems like it’s a let down until you listen to them over and over and see just how much the duo can pack in to a sub-three minute song, let alone something twice that length.

So the advent of Tomorrow’s Harvest certainly shook up my short list, but it wasn’t the only album to do so, and some of them weren’t even electronic.

The Flaming Lips – The Terror (2013, Warner Bros.)

I have had a soft spot for the ‘Lips’ since my year 12 maths teacher introduced me to Wayne Coyne’s madcap psychedelia in high school. I regard select tracks from The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots as a formative part of my musical adolescence. The thing is, I’ve never been into an entire Flaming Lips album. The Terror, even in the individual, shuffle-ready version available digitally, changed that for me. From the controlled chaos of the opening bars of Look, the Sun is Riding… to the repeating mantra of Always There…In Our Hearts I was hooked on this album and didn’t want it to end. It’s an odyssey of feelings, a journey through a numb dystopia that larger-than-life frontman Wayne Coyne seems to think we are already living in:

“We want, or wanted, to believe that without love we would disappear”, that love, somehow, would save us. That, yeah, if we have love, give love and know love, we are truly alive and if there is no love, there would be no life. The Terror is, we know now, that even without love, life goes on… we just go on… there is no mercy killing.” – Wayne Coyne in a press release for the album.

I don’t know what it is about the band’s sound that has changed to hook me on the whole album. Maybe it’s the extra harmony, maybe it’s the eulogic, haunting guitar and synth sounds that come to a head on the album’s title track. Maybe it’s deeper than the sound of the album, it could be that the lyrics resonate something even I’m not aware of in my own psyche ..or I could be over thinking the whole thing and it’s just that all the little things about Lips’ albums past have come together in the right way to make this the first full-length Flaming Lips record I’ll own in it’s entirety (hopefully as a double vinyl birthday present, I’d love to hear how the non-shuffle ready version goes!).

The National, Trouble Will Find Me (2013, 4AD)

Matt Berninger has always sounded twice his age to me. The first time I heard Alligator I genuine thought he was getting on for the same age as my dad. His baritone sounds like that of a man who has already lived through everything he sings about. Who knows, Berninger may have already crammed 50+ years of living into his life to date. This album is on the shortlist for one of the same reasons the Flaming Lips album above. It’s the first time I’ve been into the entirety of a record by this band. It’s nice to dip back into guitar-driven music at times, too. The national provide the sort of guitar music that can accompany most of the things I do. While the content of the album is another re-hash of the fallen human condition, this time it seems like the failings of people are something you could almost smile about. The standouts for me are Demons, a song about someone who thinks they’ll change eventually, once they get their sh…act together first and Pink Rabbits which will forever be a song I associate with being warm on a cold winter’s night for some reason. Darn imprinting.

Will Trouble Will Find Me stand the test of time? According to some bloggers it’s already dead. Personally I’m not sure they’re right, but more plays of this album will definitely convince me as to whether or not they’re wrong.

So that’s how my short list is stacking up at the halfway point of the year. I’m not expecting it to stay like this for very long since I’m still waiting on the forthcoming release from Russian microfunk master Bop as well as a new album the most humble metal guitarist I’ve ever come across, Tosin Abasi, with his band Animals as Leaders. They could shake things up even further, not to mention something that could still possibly come in and blow away the entirety of my shortlist to date.

There’s still six months to go. Musically, at the very least, they’re going to be interesting.