Graham Duff by Russell Webb (2014)
Graham Duff is a prolific scriptwriter, producer and show runner. His latest TV show is the horror anthology series The Nightmare Worlds of HG Wells, starring Ray Winstone and Michael Gambon with a soundtrack courtesy of Damon Reece (Massive Attack) and Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins). He also created Ideal, the cult hit dark comedy that ran for seven series on BBC Three. As an actor he’s appeared in Doctor Who and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Aside from all of that stuff, Graham Duff is a lifelong music fanatic and each year he contributes his epic “best of” list to Dangerous Minds.
30. Pinkshinyultrablast - Grandfeathered
Pinkshinyultrablast hail from St. Petersburg, and couldn’t really be accused of trying to conceal their influences. Their name is taken from the title of a song by Astrobrite and their songs unashamedly summon up the golden era of shoegaze. There are shades of Lush, Ride and MBV here, but on tracks such as “Cherry Pit,” Pinkshinyultrablast bring plenty of their own contemporary inventiveness to the table. Theirs is a brisk and sparkling sound where song-craft isn’t sacrificed for the sake of effects pedals. It’s impossible to tell whether Lyubov Soloveva is singing in English or Russian, largely because her melodic vocals are meshed so thoroughly with the instrumentation. Whatever the language, this is pure class.
29. Nevermen - Nevermen
The word supergroup must be one of the music world’s biggest turn offs. However, this is one impressive line up of collaborators: Tunde Adebimpe of TV On The Radio, Doseone aka Adam Drucker of cLOUDDEAD and restless polymath Mike Patton of Faith No More. This is a mischievous and eclectic album which bounces from industrial beats to shredded art rock and a kind of grimy electro doo wop. Despite being a supposed collaboration of equals, there would seem to be far more of Doseone’s fingerprints on this release. Highlights include the abstract shuffle of “At Your Service” and the soulful “Mr. Mistake” which comes on like a more introspective OutKast.
28. Puce Mary - The Spiral
Frederikke Hoffmeier (Aka Puce Mary) may just have made her finest album. Puce Mary’s music is always discussed in terms of being “noise.” And it’s true that pieces such as “Night Is A Trap II” are loud, noisy and abrasive in the extreme. Yet there are plenty of moments on “The Spiral” where she uses not only subtle, delicate sounds but also intervals of silence. Hoffmeier’s urgent vocals are distorted and obscured by filters. The effect is almost like listening to someone singing through a gag. And if the title track sounds as if Martin Denny had been invited to soundtrack purgatory, then album closer “Slow Agony Of A Dying Orgasm” is a pure surge of power electronics.
27. Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Skeleton Tree
2016 has been a year ripe with albums of sadness and loss (see especially Blackstar and Not to Disappear) and Skeleton Tree is definitely one of the most moving. 2013’s Push the Sky Away saw the group operating in fresh sonic environments, experimenting with loops and looser structures and drawing on Cave and Warren Ellis’ extracurricular soundtrack work. Skeleton Tree continues that journey, accompanied by some of the most heart-rending poetry you will hear this year. “Girl In Amber” has an arrangement which is in total harmony with its tender lyrics, whereas “Jesus Alone” may be quite simply the best song Cave has ever written.
26. Immersion - Analogue Creatures Living On An Island
An album of seductive instrumentals which takes in a wide range of moods and energies. Their music is a kind of electro-kosmische—the sound of the 21st century, which nonetheless draws inspiration from German pioneers such as Cluster and Popol Vuh. And, like those groups, Immersion can create a world which is simultaneously devotional and sensual. Although it has its contemplative moments - such as the gently unfolding “Slow Light” - the majority of the album is powered by a strong sense of motion. “Nanocluster” is a tense and insistent composition. Coming over like the score to some futuristic spy film, it demonstrates Immersion’s skill at creating miniature sound worlds alive with detail.
25. Strangers From Birth - There Is No Return
This is retro-futuristic electronica with a sense of both dystopian uncertainty and fun-seeking optimism. Ossian Ritchie and Mass Roman create a music full of sci-fi references and knowing touches. Live appearances have seen Strangers From Birth performing in elaborate space age costumes, accompanied by self-made films, light shows and audience interaction. However, shorn of the visuals, the music still delivers. Despite constant mentions of robots and androids, Strangers From Birth have a distinctly human soul. “Disco Taxi” and “Gravity” have something of the headlong bounce of early Daft Punk, whilst “Power Failure in Elevator B” suggests the heady electronic pulses of late 80’s Tangerine Dream. And, as song titles go, “I Remember A Time Before Nostalgia” takes some beating.
This is very much an album of one mood; mysterious, minimal and monochromatic. Raime have refined their sound, stripping back an already refined pallet of taut guitar, subtle samples and processed drums and percussion. And there are such claustrophobic levels of bass pressure on tracks like “Front Running” that it’s almost like listening to Industrial music filtered through the production techniques of Grime. Whilst Tooth may not scale the heights of their debut Quarter Turns Over A Living Line, Raime still prove that they have plenty to offer in their creation of tense and spartan soundscapes.
23. VUKOVAR - VOYEURISM
Saint Helens based Vukovar’s second album is described as “an alternative soundtrack to an unmade film.” The band are purveyors of a brand of bold, dramatic post-punk, unafraid to explore unusual sonic avenues. And yet Vukovar never sprawl. Clocking in at just under 35 minutes, this is a short, sharp and snappy album comprised of detailed and concise songs. The magisterial “Blood Garden” shows that melodically and lyrically, Vukovar are capable of a genuine emotional heft. Indeed, “Irreversible,” with its low slung bass line, gated snare and waves of guitar scree, could almost be the Joy Division of “Atrocity Exhibition” or “Colony.”
22. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down - A Man Alive
21. Savages - Adore Life
This may initially sound a little too quirky for some tastes, but there is something about the awkwardly named Thao and The Get Down Stay Down’s skewed take on folk rock which rewards closer scrutiny. A Man Alive is Thao Nguyen’s fourth album, and she has been hinting at greatness for some time. Yet, the odd strong song aside, (see 2013’s We The Common) until now she hasn’t fully delivered. Thao’s vocals are as ear-catching and distinctive as ever, but the sound here is richer and more diverse than before. “Fool Forever” sounds like a strange underwater dub workout and “Nobody Dies” spins off on an untethered fuzz bass driven groove, whereas “Millionaire” is a touching lopsided hymn to a much missed father.
Savages set the bar pretty high with their debut Silence Yourself and their combustive and uncompromising live shows. Their second album has been a long time in development, but it may actually have improved on their debut. Adore Life both opens out into a wider range of moods, whilst also pushing the band’s original signature sound into more extreme shapes. Opener “Evil” lashes out with dizzying post hardcore riffs and tumbling drums. At the other end of the spectrum, the more down tempo “Mechanics” and “Adore” both have a gorgeous late-period Banshees-like glimmer and glint.
20. DIIV - Is The Is Are
Coming out with the year’s most cryptic album title, DIIV have a sound which blends the uptempo side of late 80’s Cure with Sonic Youth-esque drone and angular riffage. And, on songs such as “Waste of Breath,” there are even moments of shoegaze bliss out. There is a seeming simplicity about some of the structures. Yet DIIV know how to get maximum impact out of relatively few sound sources. The highlight may well be the buzzing, bright-eyed optimism of “Under the Sun.” Here, as elsewhere, Zachary Cole Smith’s vocals are partially submerged in the subtle mix. This is a lengthy double album with 17 tracks vying for your attention, however the band still manage to produce a filler free experience.
19. Autolux - Pussy’s Dead
Third offering from this individual LA based art rock trio centred around drummer and vocalist Carla Azar. Autolux have been happily carving out their own niche for some while, but on Pussy’s Dead, producer Boots—who has previously worked with the likes of Beyoncé—helps them attain new heights. That’s not to say they’ve gone pop, as Autolux are clearly as devoted to dissonance and noise as they ever were. It may be Azar’s lush, flickering rhythms which dominate this album, but on the clattering gumbo stomp of “Brainwashers” it’s Eugene Goreshter’s fat, rubbery bass line which hooks you in. Meanwhile “Anonymous” sounds like some unholy marriage of Robert Wyatt and Last Few Days.
18. Solaris - Summer’s Edge
17. Charlie Hilton - Palana
Mark Spybey, and Richard and Mark Sanderson have constructed a curious album of wide-ranging textures. As Solaris, they exhibit an unforced experimentalism and commitment to an open-ended sound pallet which recalls This Heat or Metabolist. On “The Blasted Heath,” a series of widely spaced and muted power chords play out over a reverberating landscape of harmonica and flute. Meanwhile, “Max Meet Sonny” starts off like a backing track from Beefheart’s Ice Cream For Crow album. Yet it evolves through numerous stages, until by the end, it sounds like some lo-fi Morricone score. Other treats include the special needs jazz of “Private Pulsar” and the glitchy dub-scape of “Strides.”
16. Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith - EARS
Hilton is formerly a member of Blouse, a Portland-based band who have crafted two albums of spectral pop. But, as good as those album are, they pale in comparison to her debut solo offering. On Palana, Hilton has created the kind of cool, intelligent space pop which will surely appeal to fans of Broadcast and Death & Vanilla. On the title track, Hilton’s sweet yet detached vocal is perfectly set amongst a subtle guitar figure and washes of warm analogue synth. On album standout, “Pony” she creates a lush and propulsive sound-world which seems to combine elements of John Barry, My Bloody Valentine and Stereolab.
15. Oddfellow’s Casino - Dust
This is lush and sometimes spacious analogue synthesiser music. Smith composes on the idiosyncratic Buchla modular synth. On some tracks, this warm, fluid instrument is also accompanied by fluttering woodwind arrangements, and Smith’s off-centre vocals, which she deploys here more than ever before. Although this is sometimes minimal and atmospheric music, it is far from ambient. On the Philip Glass-like “When I Try, I’m Full,” there is a definite hyperactivity on display. And, on the album closer Existence In The Unfurling a mesh of bright arpeggios extends over a vivid, celebratory 11 minutes.
Since 2002’s Yellowbellied Wonderland, David Bramwell has been helming Oddfellow’s Casino through a series of intimate, thoughtful and moving albums, bound together by subtle arrangements and Bramwell’s affecting vocals. The band’s sound contains trace elements of Robert Wyatt and Belle and Sebastian, and Bramwell is not averse to moments of folk or jazz colouring. Ostensibly Dust is an assemblage of unreleased tracks, covers and alternative mixes, yet the album hangs together as a remarkably cogent whole. The covers include songs by Clearlake and Magnetic Fields, but the highpoint is undoubtedly the band’s version of “Mir”—originally written and recorded by Chimp—a beautiful and moving plea to rekindle a dying relationship.
14. Whyte Horses - Pop Or Not
Whyte Horses is the side project of Dom Thomas, co-founder of the crate digging Finders Keepers label. Although it is often French singer/guitarist Julie Margat who shines brightest here. The line-up also includes Ian Parton of The Go! Team, which certainly makes sense when listening to “Promise I Do.” With its bright and energetic arrangements, the track could almost be a lost Go! Team single. Elsewhere, “La Couleur Originelle” is a slice of summery pop underpinned by dirty guitar fuzz and “Feels Like Something’s Changing” is a floor tom driven psychedelic shuffle. Every tack on the album exhibits something unique. But what they have in common is they are all unstoppable earworms.
13. Dalek - Asphalt for Eden
For over a decade, Dalek has been releasing albums of diamond hard intensity. His take on hip hop is shorn of good time associations, sensuality and aspirational concerns. Dalek is pissed off and articulate, pointing out the frustrations and injustices of the world in dark tones. This is protest music, even if it often comes in at oblique angles and avoids easy slogans. The beats are heavy and visceral, whilst the musical textures are dense, murky and blasted with sheets of noise. At 39 minutes this is a short album, but on tracks such as the brittle and menacing “Guaranteed Struggle” or the mournful “Masked Laughter” Dalek makes every second count.
12. Ben Lukas Boysen - Spells
The opening “Vell” is a gorgeous weave of glowing keyboard textures with sparingly plucked cello. This sets the scene for an instrumental album of subtle moods. Many of Boysen’s compositions have an exaggerated sense of space. On the initially spartan “Sleepers Beat Theme,” Boysen lets up to ten seconds pass between single piano notes. But when Lara Somogyi’s gently ascending harp melody begins to fill the gaps the piece attains true beauty. This is a suite which definitely takes time to give up it treasures. But it will seriously reward your attentions.
11. Preoccupations - Preoccupations
There is something of Interpol about both Matt Flegel’s vocals and Preoccupations’ deftly shifting songs. The arrangements are often intriguing and on many of the songs, it’s the rhythm section, rather than guitars or keyboards, which are foregrounded. Preoccupations—the band formerly known as Viet Cong—do not often dwell on the good things in life. Their titles alone—“Degraded,” “Monotony” and so on—show that their focus is on anxiety, uncertainty and darkness. And yet, this album still contains moments of life affirming euphoria. “Memory” takes over 11 minutes to move from a tense throb through to a soaring Echo and the Bunnymen style wall of sound and out the other side to a restlessly shifting slab of dark ambient noise.
10. Julianna Barwick - Will
Following a relatively quiet couple of years, Barwick returns with her finest album yet. Will is a suite of gentle and contemplative songs which highlight her emotive, yet largely wordless vocals. With its spare piano notes and simple vocal figures, the spacious echoes of “Big Hollow” recall the wide expanses of Brian Eno’s Music For Airports. Then, following eight pieces of atmospheric and votive music, the album concludes with “See, Know”—a track which strikes out into a different territory. A steely synth arpeggio loops over and over, insistent and pleading, until, in its final minute, the sound is subsumed by a sweet plangent keyboard and Barwick’s balming vocals.
9. Cotton Mather - Death of the Cool
Fifteen years after their last album, Cotton Mather return without a hair out of place. In fact, this is probably their finest set since 1997’s flawless Kontiki. The band still sound like The Beatles circa ’66-68—with hints of the restlessness of Guided By Voices and the direct charm of Squeeze—all served up with rough edges and a take it or leave it grin. But songwriter and lead vocalist Robert Harrison has a melodic and structural sensibility all his own. On “Never Be It” he shows he’s lost neither his romantic wit nor his Lennon-esque vocal chords, whilst “Water Raging,” with its punchy, up tempo brass arrangement, would sound quite at home on The White Album.
8. Map 71 - Sado-Technical Exercise
Although the duo of Andy Pyne and Lisa Jayne have been performing and recording for a number of years, this is Map 71’s first full length album. Pyne favours an edgy sound, largely dominated by pummelling live drums and starkly pulsing synths. Rather than using verse/chorus structures, Jayne’s unaffected spoken word delivery is a mix of abstracted stories and slanted observations. Tracks such as “Pick Ups” could almost be Heathen Earth-era Throbbing Gristle. Yet occasionally, as on the twitchy electro tinged “Tough Blondes,” the duo hint at a slightly more mutant pop territory. This a is rich, dark and uncompromising debut album from a very individual band.
7. Mitski - Puberty 2
Brooklyn-based Mitski Miyawaki’s sophomore album is a seductive yet prickly affair which seems to revel in uncertainty and self-questioning. This is indie rock turned on its head. Almost all the songs here are short, uncluttered and to the point. Many of them eschew traditional structure and don’t bother with middle eights or solos as such. But these are still recognisably songs which, despite the frequently fuzzy and distorted instrumentations, display catchy melodies and serious hooks. Highlights include the 60’s girl group homage “Once More to See You,” the slowly building “Best American Girl” and “My Body’s Made of Crushed Little Stars” which consists of a just a snarling vocal and a heavily distorted and rudely thrashed electric guitar.
6. The Fall - Wise Ol’ Man
Whilst this could be considered a minor work in The Fall’s substantial catalogue, there is enough invention and experimentation on display on this mini-album to ensure it’s worthy of your attention. The title track rides out on Kieron Mellings’ pounding percussive rhythms, as Peter Greenway’s jagged guitar growls menacingly around Mark E. Smith’s belligerent vocal. Significantly however, this collection seems largely dominated by Elena Poulou’s strident monophonic keyboard lines and drones. Especially on the krautrock inflected “Dedication” and the dark, robust instrumental “All Leave Cancelled (X).” However, the fact that Poulou has now left the group can only lead us to speculate on where Smith might be steering The Fall’s sound next.
5. Bully Fae - Defy A Thing To Be
This is a strange brew of abstracted beats, volatile electronics and queer personal politics. Bully Fae is part performance artist, part art comedian, part rapper. Her flow is unpredictable, with a storyteller’s ear for a stinging turn of phrase. The raps are full of eyebrow-raising comments and unexpectedly witty juxtapositions. The musical backing is frequently ultra-minimal yet still full of twitching, jerking detail. “Fuckery Bitch” may suggest the spacious cut and paste worlds of cLOUDDEAD, but the transgender anxieties of “Sissy Fatigue” summon up a vision of Atari Teenage Riot slowed to a near funereal pace. In a year of strong and distinctive albums, Defy A Thing To Be sounds like nothing else.
3. David Bowie - Blackstar
Unlike the more band-grounded sound of the group’s previous album, this is very much Wire as a studio augmented construction. Here, Wire’s guitar bass and drums are joined by keyboards, loops, mellotron, mandolin, lap steel and, on the tightly circling “Internal Exile,” even a trumpet. Colin Newman’s production means even the smallest gesture is accorded some recognition. On “Still,” Graham Lewis’ melodic bass line threads its way through Newman and Matthew Simm’s wall of major chord guitar euphoria. The stand out piece is almost certainly the luminous, beatless drift of “Position Forward,” wherein the band show their mastery of a defiantly 21st century psychedelia.
It’s impossible to listen to this album without becoming entangled in both the shock and emotions summoned by Bowie’s passing and the deeply personal nature of the lyrics. There can be little doubt that, with the text of this collection, he was carving out his own final statement. And yet, putting all that to one side, musically this is Bowie’s strongest and most inventive album since 1995’s 1. Outside. Like that album it’s a dark and detailed set, which privileges mood, atmosphere and stark dramatics. The highlight may be “Girl Loves Me,” a piece of morphine-paced sidereal funk, partly articulated via the nadsat of “Clockwork Orange.” 2013’s The Next Day may well have suggested Bowie still had good work in him, but what we couldn’t have predicted was that he still had some of his very best work in him.
2. SHIELD PATTERNS - Mirror Breathing
Shield Patterns’ 2014 debut album marked this Manchester duo out as ones to watch. Their debt to both Kate Bush and, to a lesser extent Massive Attack, was clear. And yet, there was a quality to their songwriting and their production which also suggested something quite unique was in the process of being birthed. Mirror Breathing is a gorgeous follow up album of sensuality, tenderness and strength. Its closest cousin may well be Bjork’s Vespertine. From the echoing ethereal cello led atmospherics of “Glow”—in which they are aided by the considerable talents of Julia Kent—to the more tough free-jazz tinged noise of “Balance & Scatter,” this is all gold.
1. Daughter - Not To Disappear
In just a few years, Daughter have risen to become one of our most arresting and individual bands. Lyrically, vocalist Elena Tonra displays an unwavering skill in her articulation of themes of mental frailty, bereavement, family sadness and the disappointments of romantic relationships. Indeed, with its narrative of encroaching dementia, “Doing The Right Thing” might just be the year’s most mournful song. Dementia—something which affects so many, yet is so little discussed—is a subject which seems to hover over the album like a mist. Yet, despite the overall sense of low spirits, on the beguiling “To Belong,” we can hear a fragile optimism blossoming through the cracks. And, due to Remi Aguilella’s hectic skittering drums on “No Care,” there is also a moment of true fuck-you euphoria. But with Daughter, it’s always the sad songs which hit hardest. Their 2013 debut If You Leave, was an impressive calling card. However, with Not To Disappear, Daughter have truly mastered the art of the melancholic sublime.