Radical Tenderness: An Interview with Kiran Leonard

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‘Radical tenderness’, Dani D’Emilia and Daniel B. Chávez write in their 2015 manifesto of the same title, ‘is to be critical and loving, at the same time’, it ‘is to not allow our existential demons to become permanent cynicism’. In the world we find ourselves in — call it the Trumpocene, the Anthropocene or simply late fucking capitalism — it’s difficult to resist this cynicism, to find productive ways of channelling the angst and frustrations that belong to us but also seem much more than us, that link our smallest actions to global feedback loops. How do we productively engage with events whose scales elude our usual modes of expression? Naming his latest album Western Culture, Kiran Leonard could be forgiven for falling short of doing justice to such a sweeping title, but that would be missing the point. As Leonard says:

as a phrase I think [Western Culture] is really funny, because when somebody says it it’s got these heavy grandiose connotations, like they’re drawing at the roots of something — but the phrase has no concrete meaning in itself. Any attribute you can apply to it, there are hundreds of examples throughout history where you can undermine it as a term. It’s not consistent.

The term Western Culture is one of many problematic signifiers that Leonard unpicks across the ten songs of his new record. With deft combinations of subtlety and sweep, Western Culture explores the poetry and politics that are possible in the present moment, casting a nuanced, historical long-view over the conflicts many other indie practitioners seem ill-equipped to sing about, let alone talk about. But maybe the lyric mode is its own conversation.

After reviewing Western Culture for GoldFlakePaint, I sit down to chat to the Saddleworth songwriter ahead of his gig at Glasgow’s The Hug and Pint, with support from mesmerising Heir of the Cursed (based in Glasgow via Dumfries and Kenya) and the otherworldly Ubaldo, hailing from Spain. What’s striking about the support acts is the stark intensity of their work: Heir of the Cursed weaving stories with her crystalline voice and guitar, Ubaldo sending the bustling crowd into trance with his splintering, almost meteorological arrangements. Leonard’s own performance explodes that intensity with a full band, shaking the room up with an irresistible sense that this was something to see. I find myself jotting odd tuning commentary on my phone: ‘Tom from MySpace this goes out to you, to a happier internet’.

I ask Leonard what kinds of crowds he typically gets at his gigs, and aside from the reliable 6 Music Dad demographic, there’s definite interest from younger audiences who find themselves drawn to what seems different. He mentions going to see Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma in London and being delighted to find ‘an amazing cross section between queer teenagers and 6 Music Dads’. It’s nice to see the demographics of gig-going crowds evolving alongside supportive stalwarts. Aside from the general enthusiasm of youth, part of this, I suggest, is due to a bit of innovation in the kinds of gigs folk are putting on now. In March, Leonard had a break before uni exams and ran his own solo tour. I caught him playing Mono alongside local artist/poet Jessica Higgins and experimental guitarist Jon Collin, an event billed as ‘late start feel good sit down heavy listening/viewing after hours party’. He’s also done the rounds of pubs and arts collectives, as well as Manchester Central Library.

Although Leonard admits it can be tricky to get people to respond in-depth to his lyrics, there’s something of a latent DIY energy in his work that crowds definitely respond to. The care he takes with his lyrics (you can read them, lovingly presented, for free here) is basically akin to poetry; but with the energy of math-rock rhythms and tendencies towards epic or eccentric riffs, even the more intricate or ‘difficult’ lines deliver a universal punch. It’s important to highlight this word lyric, because what Leonard does is play with voice, and I don’t just mean those Jeff Buckley-esque leaps of octave: he inhabits the lives of other characters, marries marginalised experiences with structural forces, pulls us into the harmony of chorus, makes literary use of his academic background. There’s a sublime quality throughout Western Culture that is nevertheless controlled by a narrative arc, where clamour is followed by quiet reflection, walls of noise by careful intricacy, suspension by release. You can tell Leonard has thought long and hard about the challenges involved in singing about the morass of chaos and apathy that we are faced with as millennials, human beings, selves and others, innocents and actants all at once. He writes about the sad decline of a man who loses his job and struggles to ask for help (‘Working People’) with the same deftness used to tackle a lecture delivered by a human rights lawyer (‘Exactitude and Science’). There’s a timeliness and timelessness across the album, which makes it as rousing as it is reflective. It offers both the noise and stillness we need in a time of insidious, pervasive war, migrant crisis, media confusion and mass extinction. With so many people and species and values lost on this planet, sometimes it’s all you can do to cling to a single voice, bask awhile in its quiet wisdom, which rises sometimes to a shout.

For it’s the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ that Leonard points me to when I ask him about the role of empathy in his work. D’Emilia and Chávez, both transfeminist activists and performance artists, describe the ‘Radical Tenderness Manifesto’ as an ‘embodied poetic exercise of resistance’, and you might say the same about tonight’s cathartic performance at The Hug. I sense that tenderness, for Leonard, is not just affective choice, but an ethical position to take as a maker of culture, a way of being radically self-reflexive, conscious and careful of one’s positioning and power in a world that demands immediate expression and response, a crowded echochamber where we fight to be heard. Radical tenderness asks for space, consideration, which isn’t always easy for anyone who spends a lot of time online.

For Leonard, the song that most engages with this idea of radical tenderness is ‘Unreflective Life’:

‘Unreflective Life’ is the song on the record most to do with [radical tenderness], but a lot of that is to do with misconceptions around internet use. The internet not as this thing that magnifies the self but instead the thing that disintegrates it. The metaphor I came up with to describe it was: if we think of narcissus as a figure that looks into the lake and sees his reflection, the computer sees every particle in the water and loses a sense of themselves. So there are strands I try to follow in that song: the first is the individual anaesthetised by the weight of history, they can see and access everything so how can there be a capacity for activity; the second strand is fascism — if we want to make a neutral generalisation of what fascism is, it’s an extremist desire for things to make sense. […] What I wanted to get across is that there’s almost like a desire to find something beyond this complete exhaustion by violence.

And of course violence is there in that search for meaning, it’s the wrench that stings in lyric, it’s the painful awareness of one’s complicity, one’s own frustrations, one’s disintegrated identity. But there’s an ancient, philosophical beauty in that search for meaning, even when manifested in the fraught conditions of the contemporary. While many musicians respond with sheer anger or apathy, aggressive walls of sound that do little but mimic the frustrated commuter’s journey on the London Underground, Leonard is striving for something genuinely different. He’s writing from the heart, he’s writing from the history of literature, he’s writing sensitively from different languages and cultures (Leonard studied Spanish and Portuguese at university); I’d wager that he’s making genuine attempts to swerve the passage of the western indie canon. And he does it with a humbleness, eloquence and care that inspires me to try harder with my own writing.

We talk about the lyric ‘fiction in leverage’ from ‘Exactitude and Science’ and Leonard suggests that ultimately the song is about how much of the Israel and Palestine conflict is

a question of maps and lines: how do we redraw, who drew what. That supplants the very real murderers and human beings. That’s an aspect of the Borges story [from which the song takes its title] that I think is very true, especially if you think about the way representation now more than ever preempts everything, the way that things are framed becomes reality.

Going back to his previous thoughts on the internet’s disintegration of identity, I suggest this is what web 2.0 does: maybe social media is a sort of map that constantly remakes itself and the world through targeted ads and data dissemination, these endless feedback loops that we navigate in the map, rather than with it. So all questions of identity and conflict, from something as individual as cultural selfhood or ‘brand’ to geopolitical conflict, are all about framing, the tailoring of fictions.

When asked if he writes consciously within a cultural context, Leonard responds:   

I feel like in terms of what I’m trying to do, maybe it’s not a question of communicating something but instead to assess what the value of that communication is. A lot of the songs on Western Culture are to do with this difficult paradox within art-making in the context of general communication and articulation. On the one hand, writing something in response to an event is — from most pragmatic points of view — a waste of time, and I think you see this in a lot of post-Trump art: a lot of it’s really bad, pointless and coming from an arrogant place. Being anti-Trump is the easiest thing in the world; organising against him is difficult but writing against him is a complete performance. One of the things ‘Exactitude in Science’ is about is that these kind of verbal responses are almost doomed to fail because they lack a physical activity in the world, yet at the same time it’s impossible to deny that the way these things are framed within language both changes the way that we interact within reality and also changes the way that that reality happens.

Art, then, has the power to structure reality. We can’t escape ideology, we can’t write from some ideal non-partisan position, we can’t deny that every little event in culture is contributing to the way politics, identity and such abstractions as space or time are framed. We can’t dismiss the complex identity politics of a pop song with ‘Oh it’s just a song, it doesn’t mean anything’. Even as this process becomes increasingly diffused with the internet, the album is a form that, like the lyric poem, bears a cultural weight. People still talk about albums on the radio; Leonard admits most of his gig-going audience is probably owed to coverage from BBC 6 Music. This isn’t an admission of hubris around the importance of music, but a humble statement about a cultural artifact and its wider dissemination. And hopefully a statement of hope. Albums express things, they are containers of multiple points of view, they provide escape from reality while changing the way we experience reality. They are points of contact, contrast, friction. Leonard elaborates:  

The central thing in ‘Exactitude in Science’ is a talk I went to given by an international human rights lawyer, which leads him into work around Israel and Palestine. Inevitably when he’s invited to talk about these things, he’s saying he’s doing all these things but he’s mostly failing, admitting that we’re not getting further with this. If there are active attempts to amend oppressive activities, what’s the point of verbal responses? It shows an interesting juxtaposition between framing the world through language and how that impacts on the world, especially with that incredibly complex and sad issue, which is totally a question about how we verbalise what genocide is. And the difference between that has an impact on the extent to which that genocide is perpetuated. So yeah, especially if we’re dealing with any of the big-2016 nonsense — it’s about thinking through when I’m speaking in the world, speaking against a thing, what world am I looking at, what world am I creating when I say these things, and what worlds are other people creating.

It strikes me that this is more succinctly and eloquently put than many of the academic perspectives I’ve come into contact with during my five years of higher arts education. Stepping back from who might be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex, entangled, deeply historical issue, we should ask ourselves what we are doing when we comment on something we might be involved in, or otherwise ‘simply observing’. What world do our opinions and comments contribute to? It resonates with so much about what we do when we make art of any kind, when we express anything in this cultural sphere or that. This admission of the gravitas of the speech act; awareness that what I am saying has impact, accumulates within a wider discourse, ripples across the water, does something.

I was curious to find out if Leonard had much experience with a sense of cultural commons within the music industry. While his first two LPs were recorded at his parents’ house (Leonard grew up in a ‘really old farm, so the neighbours were never really an issue’), after label Hand of Glory picked that work up he had the opportunity to participate more in the Manchester scene, on a somewhat tangential basis. Leonard is clearly comfortable with making music on his own, and while he admits most of his attempts to form bands ‘never really worked out’, it’s clear he gels well with the musicians that play with him on this tour. What’s more interesting, however, in his response to this question, is a point he makes about representation in arts communities:

Music is often less receptive than other art communities to think about the contextual importance of their scene and representation within their scene. In Manchester there was quite a big debate around a venue which had an all-dude bill on a night, and when someone called them out and started a boycott it was surprising how that concept developed — the gig was eventually pulled and replaced with an open panel discussion on the day. I often feel like in art communities, because it’s grounded in theory from the get-go, people get it.

It will be interesting to see how this progresses in the next few years, whether the music industry will continue to take representation seriously and how this plays out in terms of the politics of promotion and access around diverse identities. Does DIY and self-release culture present a formidable challenge to the mainstream, whose macho Gallagher avatars still haunt the walls of many a Manchester pub?

Aside from this nuanced, socially responsible approach to music and lyric expression, we also talk about bands who do provocation in more direct ways. Specifically, our shared love of Death Grips. Leonard mentions a quote from Mark Fisher’s K-Punk about how Kurt Cobain is a symbolic embodiment of ‘the person who’s completely exasperated by the thing in culture where the best thing to play on MTV is a thing that’s against MTV’. If consumer capitalism subsumes all postmodern attempts at irony and critique, maybe we need something that’s ‘reactionary in the right way’, rather than simply ‘hostile and alienating’, as Leonard puts it. As an all-male band making noise rock, it’s important, he admits, to be aware of what the ‘imperative’ is here. For Leonard, Death Grips seem to get this spot on. He refers to their work as ‘genuinely funny and provocative, the real deal’: ‘they manage to make something on paper that could be incredibly macho and annoying, but I kinda like the character of MC Ride – I like his words, he’s a vulnerable figure in his lyrics, incredibly intelligent’. Not to mention the fact of the band crossing the line of business, and deliberately getting dropped from their label.

Maybe what we need in a time of crisis and fragmentation is a turn to something maximalist or long-form, sensorially and intellectually challenging, or (with regards to mainstream culture) simply ‘imperfect’ in some sense. Leonard agrees that there’s probably

a hunger for people to see a process where you work stuff out. I think art’s very prone to answering, because a lot of artists are very arrogant and think they have the answers, to say it in a plateau kinda way. But I think that’s really important — going back to what we were saying at the beginning of this conversation — to be against atrocity and fascism in a verbal way is easy, but it’s often more helpful, especially with something like the Brexit vote, to properly engage with the reasons for that, to take in the history. The way we think about the European vote is riddled with amnesia; I find it funny that nobody talks about the miners’ strike around this issue.

We’re almost out of time, and there’s still so much to unpack here. Kiran Leonard is someone you could share many a pint with and learn a lot from, but I’m also content listening to him as we sip water in the venue basement, the ethereal sounds of Ubaldo’s soundcheck leaking from upstairs. I ask him what’s next, now that he’s got his degree and some solid album reviews under his belt. I’m especially interested in whether he’s considered working with poetry or translation. Leonard tells me he’s ‘hoping to put a pamphlet out next which year which is a load of very short essays which are tangentially relevant to songs on this last record’ and also an exciting new double-CD release, which promises one side of ‘long abstract’, ‘kinda My Bloody Valentine but more through-composed’ songs and the other ‘more sparse acoustic songs’. ‘Something that’s got more space in it’. It’s only been about forty minutes and already I feel a lot of my worldly cynicism dissipate. There is still so much to be said for the world, and I want to hear it.

~

Western Culture is out now via Moshi Moshi.

 

Top 16 Albums of 2016

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Top 16 Albums of 2016

It’s never easy to compile a list like this. Albums by their very nature are dynamic; like books, their significance shifts over time as we build up new associations from listening to them over and over. I know it’s corny but I can’t help but think of that quote from Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights: ‘I have dreamt in my life, dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas; they have gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind’. Well, you could say the same thing about records. Any good album stays with me a long time and it’s so interwoven with memory and place and emotion that I could no longer just glance at its cover in a shop and shrug, it’s a good album. Give me a copy of American Idiot and I’ll wax lyrical about my political awakening, aged eleven; when I first discovered what teenage angst meant, when I decided it was hot to wear eyeliner and complain about dead-end jobs. When I realised you could make stories with music and create characters from songs; in fact, a whole mythology.

It’s becoming increasingly important to me to keep track of what I listen to. Month by month I’ve started to save new stuff onto Spotify playlists, where once I would fall back on the same old iTunes favourites, playlists I’d made years ago. Relying on shuffle or rehashing albums I loved five years ago and never bothering to look out anything new. Having a year away from university gave me the time to focus on music again; I realised that it used to be this massive part of my life that I’d since abandoned in favour of obscure literary theory (now I know they don’t have to be mutually exclusive…). I’ve started to write reviews for RaveChild , which has sort of taught me to listen to a song the way I’d read a text. I want to find the hook, the arrangement, the way all the different parts work together to evoke something. I’m listening for detail, texture, weirdness. It’s fun and sometimes hard work, but always rewarding. Now, often an actual musician will read a thing I wrote and maybe they’ll retweet it or like it or in some way show their appreciation. For someone whose writing has always been a solitary thing – confined to notebooks and extinct LiveJournal and MySpace accounts and only more recently a grownup blog – I can’t tell you how nice it feels for my writing to be out there, being noticed somehow. It’s so lovely. I really appreciate the opportunity to have a new outlet, and to discover so much good music while I’m doing it!

Anyway, to mark the end of the year like I did last year, here are my top 16 albums of 2016. I’m going to try and do them in order this year, bearing in mind the fact that this ordering probably changes in my head on a weekly basis. Basically, the first 16 are pretty arbitrary; I love all of the stuff listed and know that as soon as I’ve written this I’ll want to shuffle it around again.

1) Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

This is such a beautiful, highly-crafted album. For someone whose favourite Radiohead record is probably In Rainbows, but who also loves the jagged electronica of The King of Limbs as much as Jonny Greenwood’s cinematic compositions, A Moon Shaped Pool is a real treat. I remember when In Rainbows first came out and there was so much media controversy over its distribution method. I read about it constantly in NME magazine, without much sense of what the music was. Radiohead were a distant entity to me then, a kind of musical megalith that I wasn’t quite ready to approach. Well, a few years down the line I gave In Rainbows an actual proper listen (not just because ‘Nude’ was used in a Skins advert, I swear), and then fell in love. If you’re not properly acquainted with the band, you probably don’t realise how truly eclectic their music is.

A Moon Shaped Pool came as a surprise album to many, the prize release to all those who panicked over the band’s social media blackout. Still, the gimmick takes nothing away from the music. It’s so multi-layered, with orchestral textures and many lovely moments. It doesn’t reach the aggressive pitch as on some previous albums, and in turn feels more honest, stripped of the usual cynicism. A song like ‘Daydreaming’ feels like reaching a moment of nirvana-like sublimity, but it’s not an entirely happy state – its a kind of uneasy contentment, a bewildering dreaminess. ‘Burn the Witch’ is a fable for our times that provides a warning against falling back into what we so dismissively call the dark ages, when in fact 2016 bears the ugly imprint of small-minded times from history. ‘True Love Waits’ has been kicking around a long time now but I really love this mellow, slightly haunting yet effortlessly tender version.

I listened to this record all summer, walking home through the park after nights out, feeling the chords form soft over my inebriated senses. I began to crave Thom Yorke’s voice, the subtle croon and the way it bends so elastically over the high notes like rivulets in the tide. ‘The Numbers’ is a beautiful environmental song: ‘we are of the earth / to her we do return / the future is inside us / it’s not somewhere else’. Yet this is no hippie-dippy one world holism; there’s something unsettling about the future being inside us, about the world being up close, physically within us. The song’s rife with uncanny images, where anthropomorphism is reversed and where the boundedness of the human body is dissolved: ‘it holds us like a phantom / the touch is like a breeze’; ‘you may pour us away like soup’. Yorke forces us to confront these truths, but his tone is wistful rather than dramatic or didactic. You actually feel like you’re being carried away by that breeze as strings shimmer around you.

You can really fall into these songs, and they have a breadth (and breath!) that carries you away. The album feels loose, adrift, a little weary; but this refusal of tight structure and convoluted imagery is what grants A Moon Shaped Pool its sincerity. Pitchfork calls it ‘everyday enlightenment’, which seems fitting, since this album is less about cyborg dystopias and paranoid androids and more concerned with its humanist bent: whirlpools of emotion, the simple epiphanies reached in ordinary life. That’s not to say it’s lost its political freight; if anything, the themes of agency, government control, ecological disaster, technology and societal breakdown gather more strength for being more subtly disseminated.

READ FURTHER: ‘True Love Waits’

2) Angel Olsen – My Woman

Another album that more or less soundtracked my summer, or at least the tail-end of it. Olsen’s musical style really matures on this album but for me it was definitely a grower. I rather unusually fell first into ‘Heart-shaped Face’, a kind of quirky, languid ballad, sugar sweet even as it delivers something mournful. I love the album’s overall retro feel. ‘Shut Up Kiss Me’ is livelier than Olsen’s usual fare and is decidedly catchy and playful, with that haunting country voice doing its best gymnastics. ‘Intern’ feels a wee bit Lynchian, all atmospheric synths which satisfyingly never really build to a climax and instead dissolve into the jangly croons of ‘Never Be Mine’. It’s music to listen to while lying in a park, sure, or strutting down a preciously sun-drenched city street on your way to meet someone exciting. It’s also sophisticated enough to work really well live (Olsen had at least three guitars on her recent tour) and also to wrench your heart out in all the right places. Jewel in the crown track ‘Sister’ is a complete masterpiece. I might even go so far to say it’s my favourite song of the year. It builds up to this glorious solo and then the release that comes with the refrain all my life I thought I’d change is so cathartic, like doing something wild – plunging your head in freezing water to get over heartbreak. The video is glorious too – Olsen just has this devastatingly cute smile and the vibe is all cactuses, desert plains, pinkish skies and turquoise swimming pools. My Woman has a hint of psychedelia mixed in with its alt-country and indie folk, but ultimately it’s that beautiful warbling voice that really makes the record shine.

3) Kevin Morby – Singing Saw 

I first came across Kevin Morby on recommendation from a friend, and the song that hooked me was ‘Slow Train’, a lonesome, leisurely track which is duly adorned by the smooth melancholy of Cate Le Bon’s vocals towards the end. Singing Saw sees Morby developing the craft of atmospheric singer/songwriter folk, mixed in with a distilled tinge of Americana. Morby’s songs have an old worldly vibe, devoid of contemporary references and shrouded in a kind of wilderness mythology. A lot of the songs on this album are more upbeat than previous offerings and ‘Dorothy’ is really fun, a pop nugget as much as it is a song about music and the road. There’s a more expansive sound and the bass feels nice and crunchy, the harmonies always on point. Morby’s voice always has a kind of haunting depth to it which shines through as he stretches his vowels, as he threads his hypnotic melody over the pulsating beat of ‘Singing Saw’.  An album for listening to around a camp fire on a beach or rocky hillside; an album for toasting the end of summer to and glancing out towards the gathering darkness of winter.

4) Beth Orton – Kidsticks

This album, conversely, was perfect for kicking off summer. It’s bright, electronic; a little bit feisty, with plenty of pause for languid reflection. Orton has a way with surreal images, with unfolding a kernel of detail into an elaborated, looping song, as on ‘Petals’. Sometimes the album feels trippy, sometimes it feels very 1990s folk-tronica in the best way possible, all saturations of bass woven around Orton’s distinctly wispy voice. Still, the more focused commitment to synths feels properly contemporary, as on songs like ‘Falling’ which dabbles in a kind of bewitching minimalism. ‘1973’ feels super retro, while ‘Snow’ and ‘Moon’ are truly celestial super tracks, complete with super crunchy bass. It’s an album that you can listen to lightly, but also one that rewards more sensuous attention; its percussion and electronic elements are richly textured, with interesting effects. Overall, this album reminds me of all the sunshine we had in May, and all that time I sat lying in Botanics among the daffodils while on my break, looking forward to everything ahead.

FURTHER READING: Beth Orton live review 

5) Roddy Hart & the Lonesome Fire – Swithering 

A late-comer to the table, released less than a month ago, nevertheless Swithering managed to shoot its way up towards the top of my list. There’s something about Roddy Hart’s voice, its earnest attention to emotional inflections, its clarity which always sharpens and shines in whatever genre Hart applies himself to. Swithering is a really polished album, rife with loss and memories, with love and regret and empathy. The band have definitely benefited from Paul Savage’s input on production (see his previous work with, for example, Admiral Fallow), as the sound here feels more cohesive than on their debut. You can also tell that they’re growing more confident with expressing more traditional and indeed vernacular roots while having a bit of rock’n’roll fun, wearing their influences gleefully on their sleeve (everything from U2 to Aztec Camera and The National). This album got me through the difficult essay writing weeks when I needed something powerful to cut through the fog on long late night city walks.

FURTHER READING: Full album review 

6) Frightened Rabbit – Painting of a Panic Attack

Ah, good old Frightened Rabbit. I always think of them at this time of year, mainly because it brings back memories of December 2010 when I had a ticket to see them in Glasgow when I was still at school. All day I was looking forward to it, when during the last period I was sitting in the library and it started snowing. My librarian proceeded to gleefully torment me with the knowledge that all the trains would be cancelled, a fact she confirmed by duly consulting every available travel website and showing that trains between Ayr and Glasgow were having problems owing to the weather. I was so gutted that evening, watching the snow falling and wishing I was at that Frightened Rabbit gig. My friends and I sung ‘Poke’ at every party, deliberately mashing the words.

For a Frabbit fan, this album sort of has it all. As critics keep saying, it definitely sounds more polished; but there’s certainly the same old twist of raw Scottish melancholy. ‘Get Out’ feels powerful and cathartic, while ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’ moves close to old favourite ‘Poke’ and deserves pride of place in the Frightened Rabbit sad ballad cabinet. While the lyrics trawl familiar themes – alcohol, depression, heartache, existential anguish and urban boredom/depravity – there’s a renewed musical energy here which leaves a residue of hope to even the most despairing songs. I find myself yearning for the effortless way in which Scott Hutcheson’s vocals do acerbically emphatic social commentary, soothing harmonies and lyrical witticisms. Few bands could pull off a bitter reflection on the death drive of a broken class system and turn it into a poignant love song, as on ‘Die Like a Rich Boy’. Yes it’s grey-hued, Brutalist, a little bit miserable, but all of these things make sense through Frabbit’s zealously lyrical dissection.

7) Cate Le Bon – Crab Day

If ever there was a better, spikier, weirder art-pop album! Welsh songstress Cate Le Bon isn’t scared of being a bit out there. She compares herself to a ‘dirty attic’ and feels like geometry; her heart’s in her liver, she wants to be someone’s tenpin bowl, love is a coat-hanger. It’s like she’s inhaled a bunch of surrealist poems and swallowed some Cubist art and then vomited it all out in glorious rainbows, complete with very tasteful thumping drums and keyboard trills. Apparently, the album’s title is a reference to a fictional ‘Crab Day’ conjured up from the imagination of Le Bon’s young niece. This childlike playfulness runs through the album and gives it its flying spirit. If it makes sense, you could say that the songs are geometric: all jagged guitars, syncopation, weird angles, tessellating lyrics. The percussion is fun in a kind of skittish, school-practice-room way, all zany, trembling marimbas and thrashing drums. The electric guitars are clean and Le Bon’s voice pulls off a combination of artful dodgery, aphoristic declarations and crooning, cat-like mews. ‘Love Is Not Love’ provides a slice of relief from the stomping revelry and provides a languid ballad with curious little spikes of guitar and subtle brass. Overall, a record to have fun and enjoy your summer with.

8) Crystal Castles – Amnesty (I)

Woah, where to begin with reviewing a Crystal Castles album! I suppose the band had a lot to prove, having replaced iconic singer Alice Glass for a third party, Edith Francis. Nevertheless, Francis stepped up to the mark and it’s certainly possible to listen to this album and still appreciate it as authentically Crystal Castles. Not only are the band donating profits from record sales to Amnesty International, but they’re providing a much-needed blast of searing catharsis to shock us out of the apathetic slump that 2016 has brought upon much of us. Opening track ‘Femen’ develops its looping, rasping rhythms out of a haunting chorus of voices which dwindle and build like sound blowing back against the distant ceiling of a massive church. The heavy pulse of bloated synths is back on ‘Fleece’, and ‘Char’ shows off Francis’ vocals at their purest, reminiscent of the dreamy 80s vibes of disco-indie outfit Chromatics. ‘Enth’ makes you want to thrash your hair and limbs around wildly and fling glowstick fluid across the room. Final track ‘Their Kindness if Charade’ layers fragments of vocal samples over shimmering synths which reach a kind of clubland pulse over muted drumbeats, withdrawing again into the melancholy quietude of Francis’ stripped back rendering of impenetrable lyrics.

FURTHER READING – Crystal Castles live review

9) Hannah Peel – Awake But Always Dreaming

I picked this album because it’s such an ambitious piece of art in its musical range, yet manages to return always to its thematic focus on memory, dementia, heartache and lost connections. It’s got an orchestral expansiveness, Peel’s cut-glass voice, the twinkling music box, showers of synths and a dialogue between energetic pop songs and atmospherically experimental tracks like ‘Octavia’. Peel riffs constantly on Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and as such there’s a visionary element to her songs which maps the inner space of the mind onto fictional landscapes and metropoles. It reminds me of walking along the Clyde at night with the wind howling in my ears, a sort of mad feeling in the city as it bristles against the death of autumn and the coming of winter, the lights shimmering across the river.

FURTHER READING – Full album review 

10) The Pictish Trail – Future Echoes

Rather shamefully, I hadn’t heard of Johnny Lynch, aka Pictish Trail, until I opted to review his latest album, Future Echoes. In all honesty I picked the album because I liked the sound of the artist’s name; a customer at work once asked me if I was a pict. I’ve started telling the Mormons in the street that I’m a witch because I can’t be bothered being converted on my way to the shops. Anyway, Future Echoes. What an album! Johnny Lynch is a busy man; he runs Lost Map records which is based on the Isle of Eigg and houses an array of talent, including Randolph’s Leap, Kid Canaveral and Tuff Love. Still, he’s managed to find the time to put together an album which feels tight, exciting and something a little bit different.

It tackles time: history, futurity; things shifting, changing, preserving. It should be called pastoral psych-pop, because that is a generic label worthy of Pictish Trail’s particular brand of Scottish melancholy, based in a strong tradition of indie rock and inflected with ethereal dream pop vibes. Lynch has a distinct, sonorous voice which reaches some really heartfelt expressions amidst dramatic strings, pulsing synths and loops. There’s an honesty to the lyrics and a Twilight Sad atmosphere to many of the songs, but Future Echoes is also splashed with funk and disco. You could actually dance to it, especially on tracks like ‘Dead Connection’ and ‘After Life’. I thoroughly enjoyed dissecting this record for a review and the lesson I learned was to keep picking things I hadn’t heard of before because god knows there’s a lot of good stuff out there to discover.

FURTHER READING – Full album review

11) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds – Skeleton Tree

I have to make another embarrassing musical confession and admit that this is the first Nick Cave album that I’ve really properly listened to all the way through. I once found some mp3s of his older stuff which my Mum’s friend had left on our computer, but I think I was too young at the time to appreciate that dark, resonant voice, the subtlety of Cave’s songs. This record has won me over. It’s rich and melancholic even in its sparsity. I’m detecting a trend this year with a move towards a sort of deep minimalism – think David Bowie’s Black Star and Leonard Cohen’s You Want It Darker – which nevertheless maintain sort of jazzy vibes even as the mood is enigmatic and slightly sinister.

This is a very serious album, not to be taken lightly. Cave lost his teenage son in a horrible accident last year, and I don’t think it’s cliché to say that grief seeps through every note, even though most of the lyrics were written before his son’s death. Nevertheless, Cave never loses control; it’s a sustained release of emotion which trickles its mournful truth across spacious and poignant tracks. He paints stark images with thick, vivid brushstrokes, which curl back on each other as the lister is multiply interpellated by the lyrics:

You’re an African doctor harvesting tear duct
You believe in God, but you get no special dispensation for this belief now
You’re an old man sitting by the fire, you’re the mist rolling off the sea
You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?

Death here isn’t just personal, it’s cultural, global. ‘Anthrocene’ is a riff on the term ‘Anthropocene’ which more or less refers to the current geological age initiated by the human interference in the structure of the earth (basically triggered by the industrial revolution and the extraction of fossil fuels). It’s one of the most unsettling and beautiful songs about climate change I’ve ever heard. Like much of the album, it makes use of loops and dissonant synthesisers. On ‘Jesus Alone’, there’s the repeated drone that sounds like the hurt cry of a glitching, dying bird. ‘Anthrocene’ is spooky and hazy, imagining the dissolution of the earth from the position of dark forces, of animals and plants and the lost people who inhabit this broken earth. It tackles the sense of strangeness that relates to our coming to terms with ecological disaster; which, as Timothy Morton would argue, is a necessary stage of grief, a process of mourning: ‘When you turn so long and lovely, it’s hard to believe / That we’re falling now in the name of the Anthrocene’. What sounds like an address to a woman, a beautiful dancer, probably refers to the turning of the earth, the passing of seasons which still exist, lingering, even as carbon emissions pollute the atmosphere. The song is structured around Cave’s measured vocal delivery and the sweetly sad, rising and falling harmonies. ‘Rings of Saturn’ kind of reminds me of R.E.M (‘E-Bow The Letter’) drenched in a black black oil.

I like music which breaks with conventional song structures and Skeleton Tree certainly does that. It’s mesmerising, atmospheric, strange. You have to listen to it many times.

12) Blood Orange – Freetown Sound

A far livelier offering, yes, but one no less struck with historical trauma. It deals with the ever-prescient issue of racial injustice, but also joyfully samples a vibrant array of black culture, including spoken-word poetry and retro R&B grooves. There’s a fantastic drum solo on ‘E.V.P’ which glides in among the chorus of voices. Hynes’ voice is divine throughout and there’s something so addictive about lots of his beats. It’s quite an eclectic album, ranging from instrumental to the jazzy ‘Love Ya’ to funk to the dreamy nostalgia of ‘Augustine’ and fat synths and male/female dialogue of ‘Best to You’. You could compare this album to something by Michael Jackson or other fresh offerings of contemporary R&B. My knowledge of the genre is so limited that I’m not going to attempt to make comparisons. Freetown Sound feels really unique, a bursting bag of colourful tricks and collaborators. It resonates deeper than most pop records on the charts these days. ‘Hadron Collider’ is a looping ballad which sucks you in with its pure vocals and shimmering piano. I first came across Dev Hynes in his incarnation as Lightspeed Champion and that kind of melancholy blend of humour and sadness is retained somewhat in Blood Orange’s project, only now the message is more cultural than purely personal. It’s an educative album as much as a fun one.

13) Conor Oberst – Ruminations

This album sort of came out the blue for me; I’m normally hyper-aware of any imminent Oberst recordings on the horizon, but it was a pleasant surprise to hear that not only could I get my hands on a ticket for a UK tour date but also that I could access some new material. Ruminations is old school Oberst mixed with a new, bittersweet maturity. Don’t be fooled by the harmonicas; while there is a political undertone to his lyrics (especially on ‘A Little Uncanny’), Oberst is here focused on introspection as opposed to outward-looking troubadour. The recordings feel a little bit strained and raw, but this is the kind of authentic frisson old-school Oberst fans crave. The sort of warbling attic recordings from the pre-I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning era. As the title implies, these songs are all extended thoughts which extend the personal to the political. Despite the minimalism, Oberst doesn’t hold back on the visceral lyrics. Where songs seem to paint a vision of isolation, of wandering confusion, there’s always something powerful to hint at possible connection: ‘Tomorrow is shining like a razor blade / And anything’s possible if you feel the same’. In ‘Tachycardia’, thoughts hit ‘like cinder blocks’.

The passing of time is a major theme of this album but there’s a sense of timelessness to the songs, as if they open up the compositional space of the wee hours where all the dark thoughts pour. It’s quite hard to listen to these songs in daylight; not because of some gothic spirit but because out of the cover of darkness these songs make the real world seem a little too obscene – too cluttered, crowded, vibrant, excessive. While the narrator of Oberst’s songs notices sweet little everyday details – ‘the checkout girl has a thing for me’ – all these miniature epiphanies are swallowed up in a general apathy: ‘I just wanna get drunk before noon’. Still, Oberst’s analysis of modern life bears an honesty which transcends pure nihilism. In ‘Gossamer Thin’, his warbling voice recounts a clandestine relationship where two unexpected partners come together. The narrator admits, ‘it’s no business of mine / They can love more than one at a time’, but this open-mindedness is qualified by an acknowledgment of the thinness of our emotions in an age when we constantly push ourselves to the edge, wearing our identities down as we spread them freely across the world and the internet: ‘you are who you are and you are someone else’. Whenever Oberst brushes up against philosophy, he never seems to make a didactic point but rather leans into the yearning for transcendence: ‘’Cause the mind and the brain aren’t quite the same / But they both want out of this place’.

14) Cat’s Eyes – Treasure House

It’s been almost a decade since I last bought a copy of NME with Farris Rotter (aka Badwan) and the rest of The Horrors plastered extravagantly across the cover. I’ve always been slightly in love with his dark, seemingly careless yet somehow still tender voice, the beautiful, New Romantic hair, the hint of eyeliner. Cat’s Eyes are an alt-pop duo, combining Faris’ sultry croon with the ethereal soprano of Rachel Zeffira, an Italian-Canadian composer. Obvious comparisons include 1960s girl groups (The Ronettes), but there’s a haunting dissonance to Cat’s Eyes lulling, cinematic style. Tracks like ‘Be Careful Where You Park Your Car’ and ‘Drag’ epitomise this jangly sixties vibe, but then you’ve also got the celestial minimalism of ‘Everything Moves Towards the Sun’, a song which hinges on delicate xylophone arpeggios, Zeffira’s melodic voice and faint drumbeats. This album feels vintage, a little bit gold standard. I like to listen to it at nighttime, when the sky clears and if you get away from light pollution you can see the stars in the park. Treasure House gilds everything around me in a kind of grandeur. I bought this album  after first hearing ‘Treasure House’ which sounds like opening a beautiful music box and melting into the taste of rich Belgian truffles, laced with a kind of muscle relaxant which makes reality slow down into a silken haze. It’s a real treat, a tender record that has its fizzy, upbeat moments as much as its mournfully reflective ones.

15) Palace – So Long Forever

I had the pleasure of catching Palace recently for a headline gig at King Tuts. While they’re a band who really come into their own onstage, all elasticated vocal harmonies and twinkly guitars, So Long Forever is a really solid debut album. It feels polished and atmospheric in the way that The Maccabees’ Marks to Prove It felt more expansive than its predecessors; here, however, Palace have skipped the cutesie twee-pop phase and delivered from the start a fresh kind of bluesy-indie. The record has a lot to offer. There’s the languidly jangly ‘Live Well’, the kind of song you want to listen to on the last day of summer, waiting for the sun to set with your school friends, nostalgia glowing on the distant horizon. Sweet and upbeat. Then there’s the looser ‘So Long Forever’ and the trembling urgency of ‘Break the Silence’. While Palace have an array of decent singles, they don’t crowd their album with them and instead give space to lots of new songs which melt together in a carefully detailed bluesy masterpiece. As you can say, I like the word bluesy, and keep using it because I feel it perfectly describes the loose, hazy feeling of the songs, the way they are tied to their lyrics and melodies like a boat on a complicated river. ‘Bitter’ is just perfect. It’s catchy in a strange way; you find yourself falling over the stretchy chorus, the bright guitar, the clean bass. Plus Leo Wyndham has such a lovely voice. Sometimes it sounds a bit like the lead singer of Little Comets; in fact when I first heard Palace I assumed they were also from Newcastle. There is less of the rush of a fast-paced London indie scene here; instead you have a refreshingly chilled collection of tracks which really take their time and pay attention to detail.

FURTHER READING – Live review 

16) The 1975 – I Like It When You Sleep For You Are So Beautiful Yet So Unaware Of It

Please don’t judge me for choosing the pink-hued bombast of the 1975’s sophomore effort for my list. It’s more than just a guilty pleasure; for me, it represents a glint of hope within mainstream pop music. It shows there’s room to do something interesting beyond constant rehashes of what we now derisively call EDM, the auto-tuned formula perfected in Radio 1-loving R&B. I won’t rant anymore about that (you can hear much more eloquent rants on the subject from Laura Marling on her excellent podcast, Reversal of the Muse). The 1975 showcase an array of influences, from Bowie to INXS, but they don’t just flaunt their inspirations with a citational ironic sneer; rather, they recuperate 80s music, its pomp and flamboyance, to comment on the narcissism of the selfie-era, to make self-referential pop that actually seems intelligent but still deliciously fun and sugar-coated enough to become a chart darling.

From the Pete Wentz-worthy album title to lengthily indulgent instrumental tracks, this is an album which unashamedly revels in itself, in the album as an elastic art form. It’s definitely a love/hate thing, and somehow I’m drawn to it. It’s simultaneously painfully honest and ridiculously silly. The way Matthew Healey sounds so vulnerable on ‘Somebody Else’ and ‘Nana’, the pop crooning of ‘She’s American’ and the melancholy ‘A Change of Heart’. Then there’s ‘Love Me’, the extravagantly OTT and catchy lead single completed with twangy INXS guitars, cheesy 80s synth flourishes and a playful vocal delivery. It’s the kind of album that makes your teeth hurt, but there’s plenty of wee gems in there to savour.

And everything I couldn’t include but still loved dearly:

Agnes ObelCitizen of Glass
Biffy Clyro – Ellipsis
Black MarbleIt’s Immaterial
Bloc PartyHymns
Bon Iver22 A Million
C Duncan The Midnight Sun
DiivIs The Is Are
DJ ShadowThe Mountain Will Fall
Emma PollockIn Search of Harperfield
Fair Mothers Through Them Fingers Yours and Mine
GoGo PenguinMan Made Object
Honeyblood Babes Never Die
Jimmy Eat World Integrity Blues
King CreosoteAstronaut Meets Appleman
Leonard CohenYou Want it Darker
Let’s Eat Grandma I, Gemini
Martha Ffion – Tripp (yes, it’s an EP and not an album but I’m gonna cheat with this one)
Minor VictoriesMinor Victories
Modern Studies – Swell to Great
MogwaiAtomic
PinegroveCardinal
PolicaUnited Crushers
Randolph’s LeapCowardly Deeds
Soft HairSoft Hair
Sunflower BeanHuman Ceremony
Teenage Fanclub – Here
TeenCanteenSay It All With A Kiss
The AvalanchesWildflower
The Last Shadow PuppetsEverything You’ve Come to Expect
WarpaintHeads Up
Wild Nothing Life of Pause

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