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.

Albums of 2020: Oneohtrix Point Never- Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Album Magic Oneohtrix Point Never by Oneohtrix Point Never

Out of all the albums on my end of year list, this is the one I had to wrestle with the most. I never struggled with the album or its accessibility but it made me think long and hard about my albums of the year list and why I choose the records that go on it.

For almost as long as this blog, I have been a fan of Oneohtrix Point Never and have probably written about his music more than any other act. Two of his albums have already made it into my album of the year lists. Out of all the acts that I have talked about on my blog, his work is the stuff I return to the most throughout.

When making my album of the year list, I take a couple of things into account, which have in the past hindered records. Firstly, have I already said what I needed to say about them in another post, Secondly, is the album doing anything new that the artist’s previous work hasn’t done before. This album for me fails at both of these mini-rules I made up for myself. This is why I have struggled with putting it on my albums of the year list, even thought it is the record I have listened to the most this year.

Eventually, the elements I was wrestling with moved to the back of my thought process the more times I listened to the record, and eventually I knew it had to be on this list.

Up until this point, the OPN sound has been both massively defined and amorphous. His sound design and production is so individualistic it verges on the iconic, but since his album “Returnal,” he has always applied it to very different styles of music.

Throughout the past decade of his non-soundtrack albums, we have seen OPN apply his filter to, Rock, R&B and a large mix of electronic genre. He plays with the listeners memories of these genre; a technique that goes back even further to his massively influential “Eccojams pt.1” which looped small sections of mostly 80’s popular music to create washes of undefined nostalgia for the listener of a certain age. A fake dream of an idea, of what music was/is and what it can, can’t and maybe shouldn’t be.

In the past, that was the most interesting part of his work. Hearing how he took the feelings and soundscapes of music you are already attached to and shifted them into his world. On “Magic Oneohtrix Point Never” he goes one step more meta, using the music he’s made up to now as the progenitor for this album.

We’re treated to an audio ouroboros of his back catalog. The album shifts and uses techniques from previous records to create a collection of tracks that will be rewarding to long time listeners of his work, and a “technical greatest hits” for people who are new to his style.

It’s all here. The electronic ambiance of his earlier “Rifts” work, the aggressive pop sensibility of “Returnal,” the vocal sampling of “Replica”, the romantic digital sounds of “R plus Seven”, the vocal synth design of “Garden Of Delete,” and the R&B tinges of “Age Of.” All entwined to make a record that still manages to sound like a complete work, no matter how odd and disjointed the elements can be.

In every review of OPN, I always finish with a bewildered excitement around what he could possibly make next. What genre would he blend into the musical paste of his style. But this time I have a separate feeling. He could just stop. “Magic Oneohtrix Point Never” distills all of the work and techniques he has applied for just over a decade into one complete package. It could easily be a swansong to the work and a perfect sendoff.

However it could also be the beginning of something completely new. Maybe he will change the production style itself on a future record? I am always left with questions at the end of an OPN record however this is a type of question I have never asked before and that is the main reason I had to put it in my album of the year list.

“Magic Oneohtrix Point Never” does something I would have never expected. It holds a mirror up to the previous work, giving you a reflection of your own sentimentality towards the back catalog, and yet it still manages to surprise and leave you with even more questions as to how, why and when will this enigmatic approach stop creating amazing music that dumbfounds expectations.

Albums of 2020: U.S. Girls- Heavy Light

Heavy Light By U.S. Girls

“Heavy Light” continues an incredible track record for Meghan Remy, who under the name U.S. Girls has produced a collection of absolutely stellar experimental pop records.

The level of consistency across Meghan’s work is impressive, especially when you consider the genre her music sits in. Experimental pop can, by its very nature, play fast and loose with the form, and in doing so (even for the greats of the genre) it can easily result in misses. Yet “Heavy Light” never loses its pop sensibilities, even when the more experimental elements come into play.

The album opens with a couple of great instantly loveable tracks. “4 American Dollars,” with its hints of disco, and “Overtime,” with its driving percussion, provide some high energy and harken back to the 70’s; a golden age of the genre. Although the music and vocal delivery is exceptionally catchy, the lyrical content certainly reflects the darker times of 2020.

This continues through the album, underpinned by a collection of interview responses to questions that make up the tracks “Advice to Teenage Self,” “The Most Hurtful Thing,” and “The Color of Your Childhood Bedroom.” In this raw form, they show an open vulnerability that can be concealed under the musical accompaniments on the rest of the record.

If you take away the question response tracks, you are left with an album that on the surface sounds (and is structured like) a classic pop record. Its blend of different styles is perfectly paced, moving tempo and energy throughout. This is then elevated by the context the lyrics put them in.

Not one track on this album deals with the emotional simplicities of lust/love that you would hear in more traditional pop. Instead, it weighs up complex, difficult narratives and nuanced characters under the guise of more accessible music. Songs of struggle and suffocation are polished competently with a veneer of quality production and memorable melodies, but it is how they play off each other that makes the record such a great one.

Meghan Remy has demonstrated again her exceptional abilities as a singer, writer and producer. Her high standards could make it easy to overlook “Heavy Light,” but I urge you not to. Although released in early March, it remains one of the best records from 2020.

Albums of 2020: The Soft Pink Truth- Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase

Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase by The Soft Pink Truth

Without a doubt the biggest musical surprise for me this year was this album. I came to it knowing absolutely nothing about it or the people behind it and was absolutely blown away.

After doing some research, I found out that the project was spearheaded by Drew Danial; part of the wonderfully experimental electronic band Matmos who’s ability to create great music from almost anything I have always found inspiring.

However, Matmos has always been a band that I have found more cerebral than emotionally resonant. Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase manages to strike a balance between the two.

The instrumentation is far more traditional but the focus is always on the instruments textural nature. This use of more traditional instrumentation allows you as a listener to latch onto the sounds, playing on our historical memories of music throughout our lives, and yet taking them in compositional directions that are fresh and exiting. The melodies are often hard to grasp – verging on the ambient – and yet the emotional weight they carry is at times profound.

The album flows between tracks with such ease that, when listening to it as a whole, its hard to differentiate between tracks. Instead, you notice the change in mood as the album progresses through darker more sinister sections to uplifting and almost angelic moments of sheer audible bliss.

You are sent on this bold voyage of musical and emotional discovery at a brisk pace that never lingers for too long on a motif, melody or musical idea, putting you as the listener in a flow state reminiscent for me of the work of Neu! but with a greater depth and distance covered. It remains fresh and inspiring throughout, constantly shifting, developing and collapsing into new and exciting territories.

Out of all the albums this year, this is the one I wish I had created myself. It shows a mastery of a completely alternative approach to music production, and yet creates something that still connects with the listener on a fundamental way that makes it easy to forget its experimental nature. I have loved every second of the musical journey it takes you on. It is a journey I look forward to experiencing many times in the future.

For any fans of albums as a complete piece of work, “Shall We Go On Sinning So That Grace May Increase” should not be missed.

Albums of 2020: Moses Sumney- Græ

“Græ” was a record I came to with little knowledge of, other than some favorable reviews. From first listen I was stunned by its scope; a twenty track double album that flutters between genre and instrumentation effortlessly due to some incredibly talented and bold production.

I was perplexed by the albums aesthetics but after some research I realised I shouldn’t be. The albums credits feature some of the people at very cutting edge of music over the past decade. Acts who’s own work I have adored. Daniel Lopitan (Oneohtrix Point Never), Ian Chang (Son Lux), Shabaka Hutchings (The Comet is Coming), James Blake, Thundercat, and the list goes on. They all manage to put their unique styles on individual tracks of the album, as a whole proving in this instance that too many cooks can make an exemplary broth, a full tasting menu, and win a Michelin star.

With all this input it would be easy to think the album would be sporadic and yet, throughout all its changes in genre and influences, it still manages to hold together as a complete work. Jazz, Folk, Alternative Rock, neo-classical and experimental electronic genres all weave with each other, creating an adventurous but unified listening experience.

It’s a testament to Moses Sumney’s vocal ability, which manages to unify the production further, weaving between styles that could easily derail a performance. Its quite a feat when tracks on an album that are so complex when analysed sound effortless when in general listening.

The only weak point on the album falls on the listener. If not given the correct amount of attention, the album can be easily missed as a modern classic.

During the finalising process for my albums of the year, I shortlist a collection of possible contenders and put them on a playlist for further analysis. When the music wasn’t my full attention e.g. when driving to work or playing in the background when cooking, Græ can conceal its qualities and complexity. But if you shine the light of your full attention on the record, it reveals a kaleidoscope of audible treats that continue to impress throughout its entire play through.

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: http://www.neilcic.com/mouthmoods/

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.

AOTY: Farther John Misty_Pure Comedy

With a large collection of music that all resonated with me, this years runners-up list was hard to finalise. But Pure Comedy by Father John Misty became a must on repeat listens.

The album starts with the birth of a human being and continues with these high aspirations as Joshua Michael Tillmans lyrics reflect on the current world and our place in it. With a mix of wry cutting satire, these songs show us the world of 2017 better than any other album this year. At times they bring a smile to your face with their quick-witted joviality but can just as quickly turn into biting critiques of our current society that at times are so close to the bone they hurt.

The feeling that things are slowly spiraling out of control and we’re hapless to stop it may be a key element of the album but it never wades into the depths of despair. Instead it decides to point and poke fun at the world; both at the society at large and also closer to home, as the personal life and career of the artist are held with the same mix of self-deprecation and humor.

Without the comedy and elements of self-reference the album would end up sounding preachy. Instead Father John Misty sounds less like a prophet pointing out our flaws and more like a hapless observer caught up in all the chaos with us. When he does put himself in an authoritarian position it is often in defense of the people or to reflect some of the hypocrisy in his own beliefs, and that helps bolster the songs even further.

The lyrics may be the driving force in this album and are treated as such, but that doesn’t stop the arrangements and production from enhancing the experience. Traditional singer song writer instrumentation of guitar or piano often underpin each track, yet crescendo with full band instrumentation to lush orchestral accompaniment with great effect.

On Pure Comedy Father John Misty has continued to put forward a pleasing sound with quick-witted lyrics that provide both a reflection and a stark relief to the world of 2017. For that it deserves its place on my list.

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AOTY: Ryuichi Sakamoto-async

Ryuichi Sakamotos’ career is a long and influential one. Over 40 years he has been either a driving force or at the forefront of many electronic music genre including techno, house, ambient, experimental and syth-pop. He’s also written classical music and composed for video games and films, winning him nominations and awards around the world. Async shows that he still has the ability to create personal artistic expressions that resonate with the audience.

The first solo album since his throat cancer diagnosis in 2014. Async clearly reflects the affect it has had on the composer. The minimal instrumentation on this album is often degrading either structurally or aesthetically, creating a constant development in the sound pallet. After several decades working with both electronic and classical composition he can blend the two flawlessly and without loosing the characteristics recognisable to his work.

Most tracks feature a single melody that will then be accompanied by sparse mixes of instrumentation and experimental sound design to enhance its mood. Although often somber and introspective, the music always has a restrained elegance. The emotions portrayed aren’t abrasive but reveal themselves slowly, They create a mood which you succumb to over each track’s play time; moods that stick with you long after the album finishes.

This album is never forceful or instructive. Subtlety is its strength. A masterwork in expressing Ryuici Sakamoto’s mood during its creation. Reflecting on his life and his previous works with his choice of instrumentation and composition. Async creates a strong connection between you the listener and the creator and by its conclusion you really feel like you understand his aims and feelings during its process of creation. Proof that there’s still new and interesting things to be said by a prolific and influential figure. Let’s hope it continues.

AOTY: Talaboman- The Night Land

Talaboman is a collaboration between acts Axel Boman and John Talabot, who’s album fin, released in 2012, is still one of my favorites to this day. Its mix of field recordings with deep house, which favors sound design and atmosphere over dance floor vibes, makes for a fantastic listen and comes highly recommend. Since 2012 I have anticipated a sequel to this album and The Night Land is the closest to it yet.

The album shows its hand on the opening track Midnattssol. It broods with unusual organic instrumentation, especially the percussion, which bubbles underneath the drones, pads and recordings from around the world. It hints at the dancefloor, providing space for the a power and drive that never arrives. It’s a style that continues throughout the album creating tracks that hold your attention through anticipation until they become hypnotic fluid soundtracks to dark nights. A musical comedown to harder club music.

This style of dance music can be hard to do because it doesn’t have the abrasive push that forces people to sit up and listen. Without talent it can easily disappear into the background but Talaboman manage to keep it fresh with a mix of interesting design that blends original and traditional sounds associated with dance music. These sounds continually evolve throughout the tracks allowing the repetitive rhythms and melodies to anchor the track without getting stale.

Whether The Night Land will have the same effect on me as fin does five years later is still to be seen. However it has held its place in regular play for me for the past nine months making it a must as one of my favorites for the year.

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