- 19 Dec 19
20. FKA Twigs - Magdalene (Young Turks Recordings) by Joey Molloy 9/10
FKA Twigs has kept herself busy since her jaw-dropping 2014 debut, LP1. She's immersed herself in various creative endeavours, performing in stage-shows, modelling high-fashion garments, and doing dance work with Spike Jonze. Now, she's back with her highly anticipated sophomore record, MAGDALENE. It finds Twigs fusing avant-garde alien sounds and pop sensibilities to brilliant effect: proof that she's one of the most ingenious musicians of her generation.
Nothing sounds quite like an FKA Twigs song. To try and map out all the eclectic references seems futile, as there's simply too much going on. The music is rooted in piano composition and mangled found sounds, with extraterrestrial production work from Nicolas Jaar. Her vocals sound at one moment operatic and the next distorted. Twigs always demands our full attention, holding us in a vice-like emotional grip that doesn't let go until this nine-song opus takes its final breaths.
First, there was the mesmerising single 'Cellophane', which has been hailed as one of the best songs of the decade: listen closely and try to pick up all the subtle instrumentation at work. Another highlight is 'holy terrain', featuring none other than trap-rap king Future. Here Twigs effortlessly navigates new musical ground, sounding more confident and bolder than ever.
There are stand-out tracks, but this is a record that functions best as a singular, holistic piece. MAGDALENE has layers, tells stories, and takes us into new dimensions. Ultimately, FKA Twigs delivers a stunning work of art that exceeds expectations on all fronts.
19. The Gloaming - The Gloaming 3 (Real World) by Pat Carty 9/10
This is very special music, albeit difficult to classify. It is traditional Irish music certainly, but there are classical elements and the type of minimalism that one might associate with Steve Reich, or even the Erik Satie of The Gymnopédies, especially in the sometimes hardly there at all yet absolutely central to the whole endeavour piano of Thomas Bartlett. Alongside the subtle, expressive guitar of Dennis Cahill – they combine like two hands of the one man on ‘The Pink House’ - he lays the foundation and floor upon which the fiddles of Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh are given room to dance around each other. The interplay between them, especially on the half-remembered dream from the cusp of wakefulness that is ‘The Lobster’, the joyous ‘The Old Road To Garry’ or the captivating ‘Sheehan’s Jigs’, is like the shimmering of light in the twilight time of day that gives this project its name.
I curse the stupid young lad I was for turning my back on my native language and I wish I had the learning equal to task of deciphering the lyrics of something as innately poetic as the nagging hangnail on the edge of consciousness that is ‘Áthas’. The notes provided tell me that both ‘Méachan Rudai’ – a second cousin twice removed of Elbow’s ‘Station Approach’ - and ‘Amhrán na nGleann’ which open and close this record are meditations on death, but it is possible to gleam that from the soul and the timbre of Iarla Ó Lionáird’s voice unaided. These are messages sent back from the place beyond language.
By letting air and light in at these often densely packed melodic streams, this collective of master musicians have transmogrified the Irish tradition into classical music fit to stand beside any of the celebrated European masters. If anything, this is more sparse and yet even more beautiful than the previous two records, Ó Lionáird having spoken of allowing “the music to breathe into a more mantric and transcendent space”. That’s the word I was grasping for in vain. Transcendent.
18. Rex Orange County - Pony (Rex Orange County) by Brenna Ransden 9/10
Mankind has been creating music since the dawn of time. While there are approximately a zillion ways to write a melody (yes, I did the math), copyright lawsuits abound. But fear not! Alex O’Connor, AKA Rex Orange County, has resurrected musical originality with his latest album, Pony.
This is the future of music.
Pony resides comfortably in the post-genre sphere. ‘It Gets Better’, for example, is impossible to classify. Is it the track played over a bank robbery scene? Would you hear it in a ’70s disco club? Will the Philharmonic play it at the NCH? It’s a whirlwind of a tune and by the end, you’re confused, exhausted, and somehow fully satisfied.
Twenty-somethings will ring in the New Year to ‘10/10’, raising a pint while singing, “But this time I took control/ And turned my shit round/ Sometimes you gotta cut a bitch out/ I’m living again.”
Meanwhile, haters will insist Pony sounds juvenile. After all, the singer reminisces on being naïve at 18 – though he’s only 21 and doesn’t even have kids or a mortgage! (I don’t either, I’m just imagining those are the toughest parts of adulting).
But instead of crumbling under pressure, O’Connor maturely reflects on the toll the past two years of adulation have taken, as well as the strength it gave him. “No point in feeling upset, won’t take my place on the floor/ I’ll stand up straight like I’m tall”, he croons on ‘It’s Not The Same Anymore’, over swooping strings and a soothing saxophone.
His next-generation synths and cinematic orchestral moments draw inspiration from, variously, former collaborator Randy Newman; retro video game soundtracks; and even Mr. Rogers. These are the sounds O’Connor and his fans grew up with, now seen through a fresh lens.
I repeat: this is the future of music.
17. Lana Del Rey - Norman Fucking Rockwell! (Polydor) by Ed Power 9/10
Lana Del Rey has, throughout her career, understood the potency of myth-making. So it is surely by design rather than accident that her best album yet arrives sheathed in one of the ugliest sleeves this side of the bargain bin at a “country and Irish” record fair.
Truly it’s atrocious. Del Rey is dressed in violent lemon, her arms around a bristly-haired chap rocking an aggressive norm-core look. The sky in the background fades from Instagram-y twilight blue to Bob Ross-style brush strokes.
The dude is Duke Nicholson, grandson of Jack. He’s also on the back of the vinyl edition, grappling with a sail. The precise nature of his relationship with Del Rey is unclear. On the evidence of her fifth long-player he will hope not to find his way onto her naughty list.
She is taking no prisoners. Norman Fucking Rockwell! feels like a calculated moving-on from the muse-to-David Lynch persona honed on her earlier work, in particular her debut Born To Die. “Goddamn, man-child/ You act like a kid even though you stand six-foot-two,” she coos terrifyingly on the title-track.
It’s an explicit diss to an acquaintance so convinced of his own genius he’s impossible to be around. “Often I’ve ended up with these creative types,” Del Rey elaborated to Zane Lowe. “They just go on and on about themselves.”
That sense of ushering in a Lana Del Rey 2.0 is borne through on the single ‘Fuck It, I Love You’. She’s no longer a daddy’s girl or prom queen crying on the porch in her new dress. Instead, she’s the one in control. Over a breathy Laurel Canyon melody, she tells a lover she’ll stay with him but on her terms – which means accepting, not ignoring his flaws.
It’s thrilling, as are the lulling soundscapes conjured with new producer Jack Antonoff (studio handmaid to Taylor Swift, Lorde, St Vincent and others). Here is where Del Rey most unashamedly connects to her past. As before, the guitars have a gauzy retro twang. And her vocals feel like they’ve got lost on their way from the ’60s Los Angeles evoked by Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
What shines through is the daring simplicity of her songwriting, and also her complicated perspective on being a woman in the world today. Love is tricky, the album argues. But a killer torch song can contain multitudes, even as it floors you with a knockout chorus.
16. The National - I Am Easy to Find (4AD) by John Walshe 8/10
The National had planned to take time off after the relentless album-tour-album schedule of the past few years, with each tour getting progressively longer as their audience grew.
Plans for a break were put on hold, however, after LA-based filmmaker Mike Mills (not the REM bassist) got in touch and proposed working with the band. The results are a 24-minute film starring Alicia Vikander, and also this 16-track, 68-minute album, wherein the Ohio quintet are joined by a host of female vocalists.
“It would have been better to have had other male singers,” says singer Matt Berninger, “but my ego wouldn’t let that happen.”
Opener ‘You Had Your Soul With You’ comes complete with a twiddly guitar coda and giddy rhythm reminiscent of 2017’s Sleep Well Beast. As a signpost to the rest of the album, it’s a bit of a wrong turn, however, as most of I Am Easy To Find is decidedly sombre.
David Bowie’s former bassist Gail Ann Dorsey showcases the quality of her voice throughout the record, and not just on that frenetic opener. She also adds her soulful tones to the string-drenched ‘Hey Rosey’ and the melancholy ‘Roman Holiday’, the latter a love letter to art, namechecking Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.
‘Hairpin Turns’ is a perfectly painted vignette of a moment in a relationship, which begins life as a straight duet with Dorsey, before Lisa Hannigan’s unmistakeable voice cuts through the ether. Hannigan’s instantly recognisable tones also add real beauty and depth to the atmospheric slow burn of ‘So Far So Fast’, and ‘The Pull of You’ – the latter a gorgeous love song, interspersed with weird spoken-word poetry, which also features Sharon Van Etten. It’s art, Jim, but not as we know it…
Elsewhere, ‘Quiet Light’ does that thing The National have made their own, combining a plaintive love song with edgy, offbeat rhythms. It’s a blueprint that also works on ‘Oblivions’, which juxtaposes a delicate piano ballad with a four/four beat, as Berninger trades lyrics with French chanteuse Mina Tindle, her voice a perfect counterfoil to his bruised baritone.
‘Where Is Her Head’ features Eve Owen, the daughter of actor Clive Owen (a huge fan of the band). The frenetic percussion contrasts with a gospel-esque lyric of disaffection, while the martial tattoo of ‘Rylan’ is probably the most quintessentially National song here, and wouldn’t feel out of place on Alligator.
The haunting title track features a beautiful vocal from the extremely under-rated Kate Stables, better known as This Is The Kit, sounding like a modern-day Kirsty McColl alongside Berninger’s Cohen. “You never were much of a New Yorker/ It wasn’t in your eyes,” they sing, while Berninger quotes from Guided By Voices’ 1994 classic, ‘Echos Myron’.
Their fellow Ohio-ians are not the only other artists referred to. Elsewhere, Berninger acknowledges finding solace in REM’s incredible Life’s Rich Pageant throughout the glorious ‘Not In Kansas’. This is amongst the finest things the band have ever recorded, a seven-minute effort referencing everything from German conceptual artists to Annette Bening, intercut with a weird but beautiful lullaby from Dorsey, Hannigan and Stables.
It’s the closest the normally oblique Berninger gets to being political, as he sings, “Ohio’s in a downward spiral/ Can’t go back there anymore/ Since alt-right opium went viral.”
More difficult to love than most of the band’s recent records, I Am Easy To Find nonetheless rewards repeat and listening. It took this reviewer upwards of a dozen plays before it finally worked its subtle charms, but trust me, it’s worth the investment.
15. Hozier - Wasteland Baby (Island) by Jackie Hayden 9/10
It’s been half-a-decade since Hozier’s ‘Take Me To Church’ conquered charts and hearts, making Wasteland, Baby! one of the most enthusiastically awaited albums for some time. A year in the making, the LP has a generous 14 tracks, all of which showcase an artist at his creative peak.
‘Shrike’ and the somewhat apocalyptic title track will be familiar from last year’s Nina Cried Power EP, while the cracking singles ‘Movement’ and ‘Almost’ raised anticipation to fever pitch. Notably, the latter – a soul classic in the making – shows a more carefree Hozier, and there’s plenty more in that vein from the man with the golden voice. The sturdy ‘The Plan’ is a powerful number about grit and resilience, and the Paul Simon-like ‘Nobody’ is a celebration of life and love.
Elsewhere, ‘As It Was’ beautifully utilises Arabic rhythms, while the expertly crafted ‘Would That I’ is vintage Hozier. There’s a beguiling slinkiness to ‘Talk Refined’ courtesy of the silky vocals, and ‘Dinners & Diatribes’ kicks off like a 21st century ‘Last Train To Clarksville’, before morphing into an irresistible floor-filler. Heading towards the final strait, ‘To Noise Making (Sing)’ is sheer gospel joy, while the spellbinding title tune ends proceedings on a high.
With this sophomore effort, Hozier has not so much reinvented himself as confirmed his place in the pop premier league. His voice and band sound as big as ever, but the intensity has been leavened with some lighter touches, born of a mature confidence. In addition, the Bray man has the uncanny ability to marry his influences – including Bowie, Lennon, James Brown and John Coltrane – to a very personal sensibility. With Wasteland, Baby!, it looks like Hozier has another major hit on his hands.
14. Foals - Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Pt. 1 (Warner Records) by Stephen Porzio 9/10
Foals are evolving: could it be that they are happier than in the past? They are certainly playing sunnier music. replete with poppy keyboards and giant choruses. Tunes like ‘In Degrees’ and ‘On The Luna’ radiate an almost tropical quality – a good thing surely with summer festivals on the way. ‘Sunday’, meanwhile, is a stadium anthem in waiting. A tune about the importance of friendship in turbulent times, its epic climax will leave festival punters’ in awe.
That’s not to say Foals have ditched their weird side – but even the more experimental tunes here also have arena-filling potential. Six-minute single ‘Exits’ is constantly shifting form, yet it is as catchy as anything on the record. Lyrically, the tune – like much of the album – explores contemporary concerns like climate change and Brexit: “I’m so sorry if I kept you waiting around / I wish I could figure it out / But the world’s upside down.” It is indeed.
‘White Onions’ – with its pounding guitars and Yannis Philippakis’ growling vocals – is as close to QOTSA as Foals have ever sounded. Even the slower, more haunting ‘Café D’Athens’ and closer ‘I’m Done With The World’ include infectious xylophone melodies and lush, whirring synths that worm their way into your brain.
The second installment of Everything Not Saved... follows in the autumn. If it’s as good as this, it could be the making of Foals.
13. Bon Iver - i, i (Jagjaguwar) by Ed Power 8/10
Justin Vernon has come a long way from that summer in Galway when he sold mobile phones off Eyre Square and blew his hard end paycheques at Supermacs (snack boxes were a favourite, he once confided to Hot Press).
Vernon’s fourth album as Bon Iver ventures further down the rabbit hole of post-folk esoteric pop that has become his signature. It’s a journey he’s been on ever since his 2007 debut album marked the arrival of a new force in introspective songwriting.
That record’s straightforward every dude angst made him a star. But fame wasn’t to his liking and in the intervening decade he’s worked at shedding his image as the thinking person’s long-faced folkie. With i,i he certainly lives up to the unofficial pact he has struck with fans that each new Bon Iver record will be progressively more bonkers.
Here there are collaboration with dad-rocker Bruce Hornsby on a Thom Yorke type fluttering dirge about homelessness (‘U (Man Like’). He also tackles politics on the anti-Trump ’Sh’diah’ – featuring Polica’s Ryan Olson – and with climate change dirge ‘Jelmore’.
But between the cracks you may still catch glimmers of the Justin Vernon of season’s past. Relationship angst bubbles up on the chain-clanking ‘Naeem’. “Can’t we just patch this up? / And I cannot seem to carry it all,” he croons amid the heavily processed ennui.
Vernon would clearly like to be thought of as an artist who transcends genre and fashion. But almost despite itself, i,i argues that he can never quite escape the sensitive everyman within. That may be a cause of frustration to Vernon. Fans, however, will be delighted to hear him circling back.
12. Dave - Psychodrama (Neighbourhood) by Paul Stokes 7/10
Dave is an artist with many talents. A rapper, producer, songwriter and more, he often finds himself pulled in many directions at once. Now, after a nearly four-year build up, a jumble of singles and two EPs, his debut studio album is here – and he’s still doing everything at once!
Distant saxophone licks (‘Location’), distorted vocal samples (‘Streatham’), and bellowing strings (‘Lesley’) make for a sound that variously echoes the grandiose trap of Travis Scott’s Rodeo; early Chicago drill; and the modern dancehall/Latin pop-rap of Drake. There is also, however, an undeniable element of pop songwriting to many of these songs: think Lil Durk by way of Adele.
Dave is clearly aiming for something massive with Psychodrama: two of the album’s climactic closers – ‘Lesley’ and ‘Drama’ – clock in respectively at 11 and seven minutes. Lyrically, they are notably ambitious: the former is a story about a pregnant woman and an abusive boyfriend; the latter a treatise on family, and sacrifice on the way to success. Both are highlights, but many of the shorter numbers also stand up impressively, brimming as they do with charisma, confidence and energy – even if Dave does play it a bit at safe at times. Despite the occasional lack of depth, with Psychodrama, Dave – still only 20 – has delivered a highly promising debut.
11. Vampire Weekend - Father of the Bride (Columbia) by Stephen Porzio 8/10
“Getting to the top wasn’t supposed to be this hard,” Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig croons. Yet, their first few albums made it look easy. Bursting onto the scene with their self-titled debut in 2008, their chirpy vocals and worldbeat melodies were endlessly replayable.
Father Of The Bride arrives nearly six years after 2013’s more contemplative Modern Vampires Of The City. Following the departure of the group’s key member and multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij, would Vampire Weekend return to their bouncy up-tempo roots, or continue to grow into something different? They do both.
Acoustic guitars and story-driven lyrics take centrestage on opener ‘Hold You Now’, a glorious duet between Koenig and Danielle Haim. The story of a man visiting his ex-lover on her wedding day, it’s both infectious and mournful. If it wasn’t for the bonkers-but-brilliant sampling of Melanesian choral music on the refrain, you might not know it was Vampire Weekend.
The first of many country-tinged duets with Haim, alongside the similarly emotional ‘Married In A Gold Rush’ and ‘We Belong Together’, it sets the tone for FOTB, blending the darker lyrics of Vampire Weekend’s later work with the diverse instrumentation and samples of their earlier records. There’s a roster of collaborators involved (including Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth and Jenny Lewis), encouraging them to explore new sounds.
‘Big Blue’ is like their take on ‘Blue Moon’, backed by ambient reverb and detuned guitars. With its flamenco stylings, ‘Sympathy’ is sexier than Vampire Weekend have ever sounded, with Koenig preaching the benefits of self-confidence. The stripped back ‘Unbearably White’ is a haunting ballad about a couple’s fading romance, comparing the situation evocatively to an impending avalanche.
On ‘How Long’, apocalyptic musings merge with Talking Heads-style art-pop, while ‘Sunflower’ feels ripped from the ’70s, blending psychedelia with soul. Much of FOTB is Vampire Weekend delighting in the room to experiment. The Haruomi Hosono-inspired ‘2021’, feels more like a sketch than a song. Overall though, this is an enthralling record.