Bon iver – bon iver
It seems almost impossible to mention Bon Iver without recounting the story behind his debut album, 2007’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Following the break-up of his band and long-term relationship, man retreats to the woods alone and writes and records an entire album alone. The mythology of the album almost seemed to overwhelm it.
What’s remarkable about the second, self-titled, album from Justin Vernon under the Bon Iver moniker is how he is able to flesh out the ethereal qualities of his music, while still producing something that has an intangible mysticism behind it.
For this album Vernon has an entire band in tow; forsaking the stripped back acoustic loops of his first record for a menagerie of guitar styles, haunting keyboards and rumbling rhythm sections.
Each song on the album is named after a place; some real, some imagined. It’s a perfect fit for Vernon’s lyrics which flit between bafflingly obtuse and impenetrable surrealism, with endearingly specific and evocative fragments of memory.
The album opener, Perth, was partially inspired by the death of actor Heath Ledger, after Vernon was filming a music video with one of Ledger’s friends at the time of his death.
But the album’s most famous calling card is Holocene. It lopes in on a simple plucked acoustic guitar line before swelling up into a gorgeous mix of deceptively rich instrumentation.
Like so much of this album, it’s hard to say what is real and what is simply an invention of the imagination; but somehow, deep down, it touches something haunting, spiritual and emotional.
Key songs: Perth, Holocene, Calgary
Destroyer – kaputt
There are few bands with as misleading a name as Dan Bejar’s band Destroyer. While it may evoke howls of distorted guitars, crashing drums and shrieking banshee vocals, instead, with Bejar you’re much more likely to get a dose of Springsteen-esque Americana rock ‘n’ roll, a set of acoustic songs sung in Spanish or a 20-minute-plus long jam session reminiscent of early Pink Floyd.
Kaputt is a glorious mash-up of late 70s, early 80s soft rock with large swathes of jazz jams dotted throughout. It’s the kind of album which includes a song called Suicide Demo For Kara Walker, featuring lyrics written by the titular African-American artist Kara Walker, that were written on cue cards and plucked at random (sample “Wise, old, black and dead in the snow/ My southern sister…”), spaced out over about eight and a half minutes and featuring multiple lengthy horn solos. It shouldn’t really work, yet somehow it all seems to slide together effortlessly.
It’s the kind of unabashedly experimental artistic wankery that makes Destroyer such a fascinating and intriguing proposition. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the album’s title song. It’s a dream-like ode to the rock ‘n’ roll lifecycle, with some glorious harmonies, beautiful melodies and an absolutely stunning climax that drifts off into an otherworldly realm of prettiness.
Key songs: Chinatown, Suicide Demo For Kara Walker, Kaputt
M83 – hurry up we’re dreaming
The French group M83 sent the first decade of their career continuously trying to outdo their previous effort, continuously pushing themselves to go larger and larger with each new release. Frontman and lead songwriter Anthony Gonzalez’s mission was to try to distil the raw excitement, nervousness and limitless horizons of youthful escapades.
The height of the band’s ambitions is Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, a sprawling double-album that bounces back and forth from 80s leaning pop songs, to experimental electronic songs to lush soundscapes reminiscent of Sigur Ros.
Double albums are often bloated by an artist’s inability to cut enough songs off or fragmented by the sheer breadth of interests and recording sessions. But on Hurry Up We’re Dreaming each song feels integral and effortlessly part of the whole.
Chief among equals is Midnight City, a propulsive disco-tinged banger that encapsulates everything. It throws in a ripping saxophone solo to boot. It’s the perfect encapsulation of everything Gonzalez spent his career chasing.
In the intervening years, the band have released just one album (2016’s perplexing Junk), instead focusing on a series album scores and soundtracks. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is so good that it seems Gonzalez and co have never really even tried to top it.
Key songs: Midnight City, Wait, Steve McQueen
PJ Harvey – let england shake
“Let England shake…I fear our blood won’t rise again.”
With the United Kingdom fast approaching a new nadir in the coming weeks, it’s fascinating to revisit PJ Harvey’s haunting and prescient Let England Shake. The above quote is taken from the album’s opening minute, while Harvey spends the remaining 39 of the album touring the sometimes idyllic and often frightening underbelly of her homeland.
It’s a tale of love and hate, an awestruck recognition of all the wondrous beauty and history of a place with the crushing realisation of all the horror and hardship that has been endured for it to survive.
While much of the gaudy British nationalism that propelled its current political upheaval is based on victory in the Second World War, Harvey is more interested in referencing far less glorious times.
On Battleship Hill references the disastrous Gallipoli campaign (“On Battleship Hill’s caved in trenches / A hateful feeling still lingers Even now, 80 years later”), while The Words That Maketh Murder looks at the country’s campaign in Afghanistan (“I’ve seen soldiers fall like lumps of meat/ Blown and shot out beyond belief/ Arms and legs were in the trees”).
The first lines of Last Living Rose (“Goddamn Europeans/ Take me back to beautiful England/ And the grey, damp filthiness of ages”) may be the most accurate and damning words ever written about the Brexiteer cohort of Farage, Johnson, Rees-Mogg and co.
You can’t be sure if the current chaos is what Harvey had in mind when she wrote Let England Shake, but it certainly has never felt more relevant.
Key songs: The Last Living Rose, The Words That Maketh Murder, On Battleship Hill
Adele – 21 (Key song: Rolling in the Deep)
Arctic Monkeys – Suck it and See (The Hellcat Spangled Shalalala)
Atlas Sound – Parallax (Mona Lisa)
Beyoncé – 4 (Love on Top)
Cut Copy – Zonoscope (Take Me Over)
Fleet Foxes – Helplessness Blues (Helplessness Blues)
Florence + the Machine – Ceremonials (Shake it Out)
Foster the People – Torches (Pumped Up Kicks)
Gil Scott Heron & Jamie xx – We’re New Here (I’ll Take Care of U)
Girls – Father Son Holy Ghost (Vomit)
Gotye – Making Mirrors (Somebody That I Used to Know)
Metronomy – The English Riviera (The Look)
Nicholas Jaar – Space is Only Noise (Space is Only Noise If You Can See)
Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds – Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds (The Death of You and Me)
Radiohead – The King of Limbs (Lotus Flower)
Real Estate – Days (It’s Real)
SBTRKT – SBTRK (Wildfire)
St Vincent – Strange Mercy (Cruel)
The Vaccines – What Did You Expect From the Vaccines? (If You Wanna)
Yuck – Yuck (Get Away)