Album Of The Year 2020: Perfume Genius- “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately”

Set My Heart on Fire Immediately-Perfume Genius

I really liked the previous Perfume Genius album “No Shape.” So much so that it made it onto my shortlist for albums of the year, but it just didn’t resonate with me as much as the other 5 records I ultimately chose in 2017. On his latest album, “Set My Heart On Fire Immediately,” Michael Alden Hadreas and producer Blake Mills have continued to develop the techniques from “No Shape” to make a record that will go down as a modern classic.

From first listen, this album stood out as something special. The vocals are always the centerpiece of the record. They’re both lyrically and melodically captivating, becoming the major hooks for the tracks on repeat listens.

The vocals treatment is massively varied throughout the album; from subtle traditional reverb to blown out distortion, regardless, they sit above the instrumental sections, still feeling part of them.

Their ability to make such varied processing of vocals still sound uniform throughout the record continues with the instrumentation.

There is a mix traditional rock and classical instrumentation, peppered with occasional synthesis, and it all vibrates with a glow of pure class. It’s a well produced album in the traditional sense. Instruments are well recorded and always reflect their desired qualities for each section. It denotes the team behind the record being all at the top of their game and applying their expert techniques to every minute.

But this quality also hides the experimental nature in the record, especially in its use of the stereo field, which create lush vistas for the listener that I’d usually expect to hear on field recordings rather than music. The stereo width immerses the listener in the record to create a dreamscape of perspective, where instruments float around in their positions and the vocals envelop you. Because the application of stereo is used in this way throughout the album, it never feels out of place to the listener. It allows it to feel stylistically far more traditional than it actually is.

If I was going to summarize what makes the record so great, its pretty much the obvious. Well constructed songs with memorable lyrics, and melodies executed and enhanced by top class production. This brings the message to the listener as clearly, and with as much emotionally resonance, as possible.

A collection of great songs on an album that shows them in their best light is never going to be a bad one. In this instance it is the best of the year.

Album Of The Year 2019- Angel Olsen- All Mirrors

Angel Olsen- All mirrors

Most of my favorite albums of this year have continued the overarching, modern musical tradition of breaking down genre and building their own styles in the process.

We have had nearly two decades of the internet’s effect on the music industry. For many of its downsides, it’s one undeniable positive is the accessibility of almost the entire history of music to anyone.

The latest artists and producers grew up with the ability to access any piece of music from history and be influenced by it, building their own method from this rich spring of knowledge. This has led to the creation of music that’s hard to tie down; both reminiscent of a nostalgic past and also full of cutting edge production techniques that could only exist in the modern studio.

What we’ve seen over the past five years is a refinement of these techniques. Raw and fresh ideas are always exciting to the listener. To then hone them into something both unique to the artist and yet perfectly presented is a challenge. Thankfully, many artists and producers are now achieving this.

All Mirrors by Angel Olson is my album of the year because it demonstrates the potential of blending modern and classical techniques to create its own sound, which in turn will be seen as a future classic.

The album radiates pure quality throughout. Emotive string arrangements underpin the whole thing, giving an air of the traditional. These organically rich textures, arranged to perfection, hide the more experimental choices in production and instrumentation, which vary massively across the track listing.

A perfect demonstration of this is just after the halfway mark with The Track “Tonight.” That is based around string arrangements, vocals and a traditional drum kit played with brushes, which then goes into the track “summer”. The production of “summer” is built almost entirely synthetically; driven with Drum machines, synthesizers and electric bass providing the accompaniment to Angel Olsens voice. They are massively different in style and sound design, and yet they don’t feel out of place next to each other on the record.

Even on the more “traditional” sounding tracks, processing is always used in unique and modern ways. This is especially true on the vocal tracks, which often have undertones of distortion and phasing, giving them an air of the unusual without ever becoming the motif of the piece.

But these elements never take over the album. On a passing listen, these more experimental embellishments are easily missed. Instead, they’re reserved as extra treats for the analytical listener, giving plenty of reasons for repeat plays.

So to summarise, “All mirrors” does something both incredibly difficult and yet blindingly obvious. It’s a collection of great tracks that never put a foot wrong, all of which are instantly recognisable. The tracks all vary in instrumentation and styles of composition, and yet, with excellent and innovative production, they’re unified as a whole piece of work.

In other reviews on previous years I have said the old cliche that a record is better than the sum of its parts. However In “All Mirrors” all of its parts are the best they can be. This results in an album of the highest quality; one that’s enjoyable both as an easy listen and an analytical one. It manages to take a strong vision with unique production and make it sound completely natural, and in turn, timeless. This type of development and refinement deserves not only my praise but its position as my favorite album of the year.


AOTY: Neil Cicierega- Mouth Moods

I fought with myself on this decision for the past month but I couldn’t let it go. I had to make Mouth Moods my album of the year. I know this is going to be a controversial choice and this review is going to be as much in defence of my position as it is praise of the album. But before we get underway I would recommend you all to listen to it, as part of its joy is the surprise you get on the first listen. It’s completely free to download and available here on Neil’s website:

To summarise, Mouth Moods is a remix album of popular music/audio throughout history made for comedic effect. Comedy may not have the same critical weight to it as drama. You rarely see comedy films or TV shows being nominated for the highest esteemed awards. But this doesn’t stop the genre being hard to achieve, especially in music. On Mouth Moods, Neil succeeds in creating the near impossible, by making a piece of work that stays funny on repeat listens. The album came out in late January of this year and I still can’t help myself from laughing out loud whenever I hear it.

Music is the soundtrack to our lives. Hearing a particular tune can take you back to a point of joy or sadness. It acts as a form of time travel ,stirring up memories and emotions from your psyche and Neil plays this nostalgia with reverential abandon. It works effectively because his choice of samples are so mainstream and woven into our culture that anyone with even a passing interest in music will get enough of the references to find the work funny. On it’s most base and often puerile level, Mouth Moods repeatedly surprises you by mixing songs together from completely different styles and genre and making it work.

Every listen, I will get about three tracks into the album before I’m dumbfounded and at this point I no longer try to rationalise what I’m hearing and just go with it. I allow the constant joking of the album to just wash over me and at that point the album has won. Leaving me in a hysterical stupor, grinning from ear to ear, as song after song continues to confound, tease and toy with me.

On the album getting the laugh is all that matters and Neil is happy to get it as cheaply or stupidly as he can. From using Homer Simpsons burp as a percussive section, to the song Tiger where he edits the song Eye of the Tiger to change the lyrics so it becomes about a man and his Tiger; It’s stupidity is often baffling but the commitment to it continues and escalates until you have to find it funny.

If the album was all just cheap laughs it wouldn’t have the staying power that it has. Neil manages to go above and beyond, with a deep attention to detail that only gets picked up on repeat listens. Whether it be hearing new smaller samples peppered throughout, to getting the more cerebral jokes and references. The album does a fantastic job of surprising you every time you apply further examination.

The tracks themselves aren’t the only things that have been thought about thoroughly. The album is structured brilliantly, with a focus on taking the listener on a journey. Smaller “skit” style tracks provide great bridges between the larger tracks. For example Revolution #5 sends up the Beatles Revolution #9 using Lou Begas Mambo number 5 as its sample. It’s a funny small joke in its own right. But it also sets the listener up for the next track, which mixes Dear Prudence with lyrics from Walk the Dinosaur by Was (not Was). This structuring helps enhance a collection of tracks into a complete work that outdoes itself time and time again.

By this point you can tell that I love this album but I haven’t yet got to why it’s made it to my top spot. Before I do I would like to defend some of the arguments against it. I have read several responses and criticism about this album around the internet and I’m sure those people will roll their eyes when they see that I’ve made it my album of the year. These are the same type of people however who like remix albums by acts like Girl Talk or 2 many dj’s, praise Burial for his use of samples and hold DJ Shadows Endtroducing as a masterpiece. All of the techniques employed by those acts are the same as Neil Ciciergra uses on this album. He matches if not surpasses them. The only difference is the emotional response that he’s aiming for.

I believe the opening track Starting Line is a perfect retort to those people. In it he uses a large collection of opening lines from songs used in the rest of the album. In doing so, he manages to create something that is catchy, addictive, packed full of joyous creativity and a great track in its own right. If the album was made up of tracks like this one and less of the more overtly comical Neil would be being held up by everyone as a modern master of mix culture.

The way he blends tracks that shouldn’t go together into something that does is comical. But at its best points it goes beyond that. The equal reverence he has for music from the critically acclaimed to the down right cheesy is clear, and by mixing them together he at times makes us question our own love for the music we hold close.

The first time I felt this was on the track T.I.M.E. where the Time soundtrack from the film Inception by Hans Zimmer and Johnny Marr is mixed with the vocals from YMCA by the village people. At first listen this is a surreal comedic mix of stupidity. But by the mid point of the song the dramatic music enhances the lyrics about a man struggling in his life over his identity. It adds a weight that was always in the lyrics of the YMCA but left as a sideline to the disco beat. By putting it front and center Neil Cicierega changes the listeners perspective on a song we have all heard countless times.

It’s this changing in perspective that makes this album so special. Even if it wasn’t his intention, Mouth Moods has a subtext that asks a music fan some hard questions. Why do you like what you like and hate other things? Why shouldn’t all music be respected to the same level? And if that’s true what level should it be respected? By being serious about not taking music seriously he shows it, and all art, for what it really is; essential to the human existence and yet also completely useless.

It’s an album that could only exist in the modern day. Created with help from the internet, and distributed and influenced by it, Mouth Moods is a perfect reflection of it in all its creativity and sillynes. It can be profound and profoundly stupid. It reflects a meme culture which is becoming increasing prevalent and a generation of people who have grown up in a world where information and art is easily accessible.

By sampling music from across his life Neil Ciciergra has created a sounscape that will stay timeless to anyone growing up over the past 30 years. A nostalgic trip that both trolls and delights you in equal measure. I haven’t had more fun listening to an album this year and yet I’m still finding more things to like about it. The haters are deluded. This is the Album of 2017; maybe not the one you want but the one the year deserves.

Album of the year: Ólafur Arnalds, Nils Fram-Trance Frendz

On 28th of July 2015 composers/multi instrumentalists Olafur Arnalds and Nils Fram met at Nils’s Durton Studio In Berlin with documentarian Alexander Schneider to play and record an evening of music and film the event. The outcome of which was this album Trance Frendz. It features no over dubbing (added instrumentation) so you don’t get the complexity found in any of the other albums on my list. What you do get though is a direct connection to the artists through their instruments. No elaboration or extension, just the raw, Improvised idea. The moment of creation in its purest form, recorded for all to hear and see.

The instrumentation features a different collection of pianos, keys, Synths and a glockensphiel. Although they are limited to only a couple of instruments a track. Each one has its own unique character and sound which subtly gives them an individuality. It’s this focus on detail that really exemplifies the record. Instruments are recorded naturally with plenty of room ambience which becomes a key feature in the organic and pure nature of the work.

Both artists have collaborated previously and have the same styles in their music. So they complement each other perfectly on these collection of duets. Creating a sound that varies from the light and playful to the darker more powerful tracks which feature prominent synthesis. However all of these tracks are chameleons. They seem to blend into many atmospheres. At quiet levels they can work as ambient pieces to play in the background of many settings, however turn up the volume and they immerse you in the sound of their world.

The hybrid nature of this release has made it quite hard to pin down to a year. Although the album was recorded and was available to view online last year. The distribution of the work on Vinal and CD box set, with their other collaboration work Loon, was staggered internationally with a UK release of this year. This is a mark of the times in many ways. Smaller artists and labels have to improvise in the distribution of hard copies but the digital domain allows a new and creative form of distribution. The ability to watch the live creation of this album on YouTube is another welcome addition to the music. Giving you and in depth look at how it was made, but also a further understanding behind he artists creating the work.

In a year of chaos and instability, times of self reflection and concentration have been a regular occurrence for me and this album has been its soundtrack. An escape from the surroundings into a simple but beautiful world. A demonstration of creativity in its purest most exiting form. It shows the positivity and wonder that we can achieve, even on the spur of the moment and if that isn’t the best thing to take with us into 2017 I don’t know what is:



Albums of 2016: Ian William Craig- Centres

When you set an FM radio far enough between stations you will hear “radio static” otherwise known as white noise. It’s a sound that can be harsh at loud volumes and has been used in torture and yet at low volumes is used to help people sleep and heal tinnitus.

Radio static is also the audio replication of the radiation left over from the Big Bang. A moment in time that shifted simplicity to complexity, bonded chemical structures of uncompromising beauty and jump started the messiness and wonder of creation. It’s all there in the speaker, sounds that have great force of complexity or simplicity, It’s just a matter of perception.

It’s in this vast wash of sound that you’ll find Ian William Craigs Centres. An album that covers vast spectrum of audio styles in both genre and expertise to create something that features both the wonder of creation and its destruction.

The album starts with the track Contain-Astoria Version, heavy synth pads underpin a distorted and pitch shifting vocal that blends the organic with the mechanistic. Halfway through the backing vocal loops drift away to leave room for a synth wall of sound that is distorting and falling apart as fast as it is coming together.

This engulfing power of electric instrumentation is in the epic scale of the cosmic. It’s unexpected but works brilliantly and this could summarise the whole album. Constantly going in directions that surpass your expectations. Places that have been there in other music but done in a way that is refreshing. More musical than the experimental noise sounds of artists like Belong, William Basinski and Tim Hecker yet with all there edge and power.

It then uses these soundscapes to squeeze in genre not usually associated with them. Stripped down Ballads and Choral music interweave the tape loops, field recordings and distorted synth lines to create rest bite from their intensity and also demonstrate the skilled classically trained singing of Ian William Craig. Something rare in more experimental music which is usually created by vocalists rather than singers.

I have often commented on my love for the bitter sweetness of in-tune electronics with slightly drifting vocals. but Ian William Craig proves that pitch perfect delivery also works incredibly well, especially when he pulls the vocals apart with tape degradation and distortion until they become the background ambiences they originally opposed.

Its this constant flow of build and destruction that makes the album so impressive. An album that surprises and excites me and continues to grow and develop on repeat listens. It manages to encompass a vast swathe of genre, music and production techniques over its long play time without loosing its style or vision.


Album of the Year 2015: Kendrick Lamar_To Pimp A Butterfly

Cover of To Pimp A Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar

On first listen and before I even started to enjoy or get my head around To Pimp A Butterfly I knew it was going to appear somewhere on my end of year list. Now many listens later, it not only stands out as the best album this year but would easily fit on my best of all time list.

The instrumentation on this album was the first thing that stood out to me. Kendrick Lamar has managed to gather a collection of incredible musicians to create a hybrid genre that celebrates the history african american music. Soul, Funk, Jazz, Hip Hop and R&B are all fused together in a way that is unique to this album.

Although these types of genre have been used in rap previously, the majority of the time these elements were sampled to create a very structured bed for the rapper. On To Pimp A Butterfly they are living, exuberant pieces of music that weave in and out of the vocal deliveries. Complimenting and respecting each other, allowing both the time to shine within the track.

This is a sound that could only come from a collective effort between all musicians on the album. Working together within the same environment. The whole sound feels organic and requires a great deal of restraint from Kendrick. In lesser hands (especially in Rap music) big egos would stand in the way of this style of collaboration, because it requires the release of some control from the main artist over the album. It’s clear that for Kendrick the message is more important than any individual throughout the album which allows this creative freedom.

Although the lyrics are often extremely personal and deal with Kendricks battles with self-worth, fame, success, poverty, gangster lifestyle and religion they manage to provide a strong and honest look at society and how ingrained racism is within it. He achieves this by having a deep understanding of himself and others, This is clearly a man who battles with his own thoughts and feelings on a daily basis and grapples with them throughout the album. On tracks like “Blacker The Berry” they are balls of rage pointing and venomous, on tracks “Alright” and “I” they are positive and uplifting feelings of beating adversity. The album also goes into the deepest areas of depression with the track “U” which shows Kendrick as a drunken suicidal mess. All tracks push forward interesting messages with layers of depth that reveal themselves on repeat listens subverting the expectations of the listener.

Every element of each track has been carefully thought about to suit the lyrics. From the genres blended together, to the production of the track. Each of which has been curated by a wealth talent including some of the most recognisable names in the industry. These producers and featured artists are always there to contribute to the sound of the track rather than just be a name to put on the album sleeve. This powerhouse of different talent manages to work within the album due to a strong curator. The conflicting styles of producers only clash when it is the desired effect and always result in a positive outcome.

The album is structured arround a poem that develops throughout, one sentence at a time. Kendrick will recite the poem up to a point before a few tracks related to the most recent sentence play and as the album continues more is revieled untill the poems completion, just before the albums denouement. This provides a great way to centre the album around a collection of themes, the structuring of which is brilliantly managed. Tracks about his personal struggles and the weight of oppression are shrugged off with powerful positive messages of hope before doubt starts to set back in.  These feelings cycle betweeen tracks over the entirety of the album.

It’s this rollercoaster of emotions and how they are portrayed lyrically and musically that keeps the album fresh throughout its 79 minute play time. As the final track “mortal man” arrives Kendrick admits his aspirations of following the footsteps of his idols, but also brings to light that our idols are human and can make mistakes. It’s up to us as an audience to accept them as humans as well as heroes. He asks the same of us, will we be there for him? He admits his faults openly and aims to be better. It’s this one last track of catharsis that sums up the personal themes of the album before its final political end, which arrives like a great twist in a film.

Concluding the poem he recites throughout the album he then starts to interview Tupac Shakur about his beliefs and struggles under a bed of free jazz. This interview was recorded twenty years before the release of To Pimp A Butterfly and manages to portray to the listener that things haven’t changed. The issues of poverty and inequality with african americans are still as prevalent today as they were twenty years ago.  Other reviews have commented on how this album has managed to arrive at the right time, portraying post-Ferguson emotions of anger and despair. I would argue that it says far more. That the events of the past two years are only the otcome of a continous struggle that has been on breaking point for many years and the album does this in a way that’s beautify poetic.

The album concludes with another poem relating to its title which ties the politics and the personal together, once finished Kendrick asks Tupac his thoughts on the poem to which there’s no reply. The question hangs there in infinite silence, leaving the listener with the question in their own heads. A question I always contemplate for several minutes after the album has finished.

As a white man from a small town in England I am far from the culture Kendrick is talking about and yet by the end of this album I have an empathy for its people greater than I ever have before. Kendrick Lamar is an Artist in its purest form, by expressing his life and situations openly with passion and belief he has managed to create something that only great art can achieve. A connection with me as the listener that breaks down the boundaries of culture and beliefs. To humanity in its purest form, our emotions.

To Pimp a butterfly Is hugely ambitious in every aspect, A main stream album that takes risks many alternative acts wouldn’t and manages to achieve them all with such clarity and purpose it leaves me more astounded on every listen. It its a pure expression from a single artist whilst also being an incredible collaboration between musicians and producers to the highest of standards. It manages to handle both being political and personal without ever becoming self-indulgent or condescending and leaves the listener questioning their own feelings and empathizing with a man, his culture and the greater society as a whole.  It’s no contest. To Pimp A Butterfly is the album of the year.