Graham Duff. Photo by Douglas Jones
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 “best of” list to Dangerous Minds.
30. Lonelady - Hinterland
With her second album, Lonelady (aka Julie Campbell) has truly hit her stride. The post-punk touchstones are clear – the chopping rhythms of Gang of Four, the short, looping riffs of Wire and the truncated funk of early A Certain Ratio (especially in the bass propelled groove of ‘“Into The Cave” which boldly quotes from ACR’s “I Fall”). Yet Campbell is also capable of crafting lucid pop. On the title track, her melodic phrasing almost lulls you into believing you’re listening to a superior Cyndi Lauper. But it’s when she suddenly unleashes a guitar solo that comes on like a tripped out Robert Fripp you know you are in the hands of a true mistress of sound.
29. Helen - Original Faces
At first listen, with its waves of fizzing, distorted guitar, rolling drums and partially submerged vocals, The Original Faces might appear to be a lo-fi shoegaze album. Although quite whether this is lo-fi or fau-lo-fi is hard to judge, as there are points when it feels like a clean studio sound which has been deliberately eroded. Not a solo artist, but a three piece band, Helen is the brainchild of Grouper’s Liz Harris. Yet frequently it’s Jed Bindeman’s fluid drumming which holds centre stage, with Harris’ guitar and Scott Simons’ plangent bass coalescing into a thick melodic cloud. Repeated exposure reveals that despite their noisy, rough corners, Helen’s songs have a genuine delicacy. This is an immersive and seductive collection of songs which worm their way under your skin.
28. Slug - Ripe
Sunderland-based Ian Black joins forces with Field Music’s Brewis brothers for some decidedly skewed art-rock. “Cockeyed Rabbit Wrapped In Plastic” and “Eggs And Eyes” clearly owe a debt to the melodic excesses of early Sparks, whereas the moody angularity of album closer “At Least Show That You Care” recalls Henry Cow. Black is fond of adorning his ostentatious prog structures with elements of dub and funk, and it makes for an album of quirk, strangeness and charm. Some of the music’s undoubted ambition is occasionally dimmed due to a slightly offhand production. However, with a little more focus, Slug could develop into something extremely special indeed.
27. AKATOMBO - Sometime Never
The 4th long player from Akatombo (aka Paul Thomsen Kirk) is a dense and brooding nest of instrumental electronica. And if the mood is one of displacement and impending apocalypse, it’s not without reason. Over the last two years, Hiroshima-based Kirk has been suffering from a debilitating and life threatening illness. Indeed, field recordings of hospital visits and treatments are woven into tracks with titles such as “Scans and Needles.” In terms of its atmosphere of bass driven claustrophobic dread, the album’s closest cousin is probably PIL’s Metal Box. Although clearly a long way from being a feel-good album, what remains is a testament to one man’s ability to not only survive, but to translate his illness and fear of the unknown into a compelling sonic world.
26. Teho Teardo - Le Retour a La Raison
The ever productive Teardo returns with a bold and intuitive collection composed to accompany several short abstract films made in the 1920s and 30s by the American surrealist Man Ray. Whereas many composers would have opted for a score which works comfortably as a background wash, Teardo’s compositions have a very clear identity and more than stand up to scrutiny without the visuals. The high points include “Hotel Istria” and “Rrose Sélavy” which showcase Teardo’s mastery of achingly beautiful sustained string arrangements. In contrast, Le Retour a la Raison spins into view on twitchy percussive loops before being swept away by maniacally circling violins, which eventually unclench to allow a mournful cello solo to blossom.
25. Big Brave - Au De La by Southern Lord
Montreal trio Big Brave are an intriguing band. Their drums, vocals, dual guitar, no bass line up is unusual, but certainly not unique (see Sleater-Kinney amongst others). Beyond that, one of the things which sets Big Brave apart, is their contrasting use of noise with space and silence. “On The By And By And Thereon” opens the album with chiming guitars and brief rests of quiet to dramatic effect. “Look At How The World Has Made A Change” sees Robin Wattie’s almost Bjork-like vocals floating over a gradually shifting landscape of humming guitars and ride cymbals, before building into the kind of alternately grinding and peaking dirge which recalls the early work of Sun O))). If you enjoy Merzbow or thisquietarmy, then Big Brave may well be to your taste.
24. Gwenno - Y Dydd Olaf
A Welsh language concept album apparently based on a 1970’s sci-fi novel. The idea might be interesting as a starting point, but it wouldn’t matter a jot if the songs didn’t cut it. And they do. Former member of The Pipettes: Gwenno Saunders seems to have found her true voice, trading in the kind of retro futurist pop which brings to mind Broadcast, or perhaps Saint Etienne at their most psychedelic. The majority of the tracks here roll along on dreamy synth lines underpinned by a featherlight motorik. Standouts include the wistful disco throb of “Golau Arall” which meshes soft detuned horn sounds with Saunders’ tumbling, breathy vocal.
23. Sleater-Kinney - No Cities To Love
Having disbanded a decade ago, following arguably their finest album The Woods, Sleater-Kinney return with a short, sharp jolt of an album. Ten songs. Over and out in 33 minutes with not a wasted note. Tracks like “Surface Envy” and “Hey Darling” prove that the band have lost none of their fire. It would be easy to read this as a set based around a more adult vision – to interpret the words as voicing the concerns of women who have matured. But in truth, this feels like Sleater-Kinney doing what they always excelled at, observing the world, finding it wanting and conveying that via choppy, angular guitar, propulsive detailed drumming and smart, biting lyrics.
22. Holly Herndon - Platform
Bay area composer Herndon produces a form of glitch-tronica which is multilayered, richly detailed and in constant motion. The album features minimal instrumental sampling, with Herndon preferring to take sounds from non-musical sources, primarily noises generated by laptop and internet use. Although everything is subjected to such intense processing, it becomes impossible to pinpoint the samples’ origins. And yet it’s the way Herndon samples and manipulates her own voice which intrigues the most – especially on the more pop-tinged pieces such as “Chorus” or “An Exit.” On the album’s centrepiece, the uplifting “Morning Sun,” she fashions a song form which recalls both Laurel Halo and Laurie Anderson whilst retaining her own clear identity.
21. Bjork - Vulnicura
Across her career, Bjork has covered many bases, from thoughtful yet obtuse electro ballads, to songs about living life on a molecular level, to pounding dance floor celebrations. Vulnicura, however is something different again. From the first note, it nails its colours to the mast as a break-up album. Lyrically, her descriptions of the act of separation veer from the deeply poetic to the near forensic, with loss of love depicted as a form of bereavement. The mix is in the hands of The Haxen Cloak (aka Bobby Krilic), but despite the fresh blood, the sparse and atmospheric string arrangements share a definite kinship with her masterwork Vespertine (2001), with “Stonemilker” especially, recalling the sweeping majesty of “Joga.”
20. Membranes - Dark Matter/Dark Energy
Over 25 years since the Membranes last album appeared, Dark Matter/Dark Energy shoots out of the traps with everything to prove. And goes on to pretty much prove it. John Robb’s original vision of a pummelling yet frequently joyful post punk/metal has aged extremely well. And the band aren’t afraid of going for the big themes; life and death, the birth and collapse of the universe and the fabric of reality. From the intense riffing of opener “The Universe Explodes Into A Billion Photons of White Light,” through to the ethereal drift of the closing moments of “The Hum of The Universe,” this is a powerful and epic album. Yet, thanks to the Membranes urgent bass driven repetition and jagged guitar work courtesy of Peter Byrchmore and Nick Brown, the band sidesteps bombast in favour of something much more vital.
19. Slaves - Are You Satisfied?
Slaves have much in common with Alternative TV (more of them later). Their music has serious intent yet tackles big themes with a refreshing lack of pretension. They clearly owe a debt to punk, but there is something very much of the 21st Century about their approach. A genuinely exciting live band, Slaves two man line up of lead guitar, drums and vocals deliver an edgy, direct and spartan garage band sound. Rather than over adorn the album with additional instrumentation and layers of overdubs, Slaves choose to keep their approach lean and sharp. Their lyrics, on songs such as “Live Like An Animal” and “Do Something,” are socially engaged but avoid political sloganeering, preferring to articulate something far more personal and oblique.
18. Inventions - Maze of Woods
Inventions is a collaboration between Matthew Cooper (aka Eluvium) and Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark T. Smith. The duo’s sophomore release is an elegiac album of haunting melodies and drifting diaphanous sounds. Yet to simply call it ambient would be to ignore the range of ideas and approaches on display. Highlights include the gently unfolding “Peregrine,” where Cooper’s assured yet delicate piano work takes centre stage, and “Slow Breathing Circuit” which sounds like some blissful union between Alice Coltrane and Arvo Part. There is a greater use of subtly manipulated vocal samples than on their debut, which contributes considerably to Maze of Woods feeling of human vulnerability.
17. Sleaford Mods - Key Markets
Having spent several years developing their distinctive clipped rhythms and verbal invective well beneath the radar, Andrew Fearn and Jason Williamson are now faced with the task of maintaining their integrity and purity whilst caught in the media glare. Yet, judging by Key Markets, they don’t seem even vaguely phased. “In Quiet Streets” is a torrent of bile and wit, whereas “Tarantula Deadly Cargo” is a classic skeletal nod along. But there are fresh developments too, with “Rupert Trousers” musical backing traversing the smoky, glitchy terrain of prime era Tricky. Although I’m certain they abhor the idea, Sleaford Mods are well on their way to becoming national treasures.
16. Bambi Davidson - Brunswick
Six lengthy compositions make up this album of strangely affecting post-rock. Unlike the majority of artists, German band Bambi Davidson don’t feel the need to restrict themselves to one set of stylistic moves. As a result, Brunswick is an album of some variety. The shuffling percussive groove of “Cattle” is gilded with twinkling electronics, varispeed guitar treatments and a longing vocal. Elsewhere, the stripped back, bass driven “Artist,” recalls Tago Mago era Can. Interestingly, for a band working in the post-rock arena, there isn’t a trace of angst or fretfulness about Bambi Davidson. Rather, on album closer, the sensually undulating ‘Hubble’, they sound like a group happily gliding off into deep space.
15. Alternative TV - Opposing Forces
Sniffin’ Glue fanzine editor Mark Perry formed ATV in 1977. Yet despite such impeccable punk credentials, ATV were never hidebound by the genre’s orthodoxies. From the very start, their sound included elements of reggae, dub, spoken word and experimental noise. In many ways, ATV could easily lay claim to being the original post-punk band. Opposing Forces is their first album in 14 years. Yet, despite the long lay off, ATV have re-emerged with one of their strongest albums yet. On “French Girls,” “Opposing Forces” and “Hello New York” Lee McFadden and Clive Giblin’s guitars buzz and slice through the mix with Dave Morgan’s tight, spare drumming providing the perfect bedrock to Perry’s arresting lyrics and matter of fact vocals. A forceful and focussed album, and crucially, one which has the vitality and urgency of a debut.
14. Roger Robinson - Dis Side Ah Town
In recent years, the acclaimed dub-poet Roger Robinson has been perhaps best known as vocalist with King Midas Sound. But here, on his debut solo album, Robinson places his carefully crafted words in a sonic setting which recalls the digital reggae sounds of the early 80s. The musical backing comes courtesy of Disrupt, who might not have the rough and tough edges of King Midas Sound, yet clearly has a strong grasp of digital dub dynamics. If “Strictly,” recalls the foggy spaces of African Head Charge, “It Soon Come” takes a more abstract approach, stripping the track down to just a rattling hi-hat and waves of distortion. A feeling of dread (in both senses of the word) suffuses these recordings, with Robinson’s meditations on societal ills and his rich, deep voice recalling Linton Kwesi Johnson.
13. Blur - Magic Whip
Despite the 12 year gap, this actually sounds like a completely natural follow on from 2003’s Think Tank. Like that album, the lion’s share of the songs here have a melancholic or introverted mood, with tracks often seemingly built from the slightest and scratchiest of textures. But the result is possibly Blur’s most soulful set yet. “Thought I Was A Spaceman” and “Terracotta Heart” have an aching heartfelt tone which speaks of insight conferred by the passing years. But there are also playful pop moments too. Witness the alternately chugging and soaring guitars of “I Broadcast,” or the supremely catchy “Ong Ong” - a classic Blur sing-along which could come from almost any era of the band’s evolution.
12. Coil - Backwards
Recorded in New Orleans in 1992, but never officially released until now, Backwards finds Coil very much caught in the amber of the times. Here, their renegade electronics are still under the influence of the acid drenched club beats which had characterised their previous album Love’s Secret Domain. Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson significantly reconfigured these recordings for the 2008 album The New Backwards. But this iteration, mixed by Danny Hyde, is more closely based on the original sessions, with some songs unrecognisable from later versions. Highlights include the dreamy, glassy synths of “A Cold Cell” and the flawless “Heaven’s Blade,” wherein John Balance’s exhortation to “Just cut yourself with heaven’s blade” is underscored by a rolling drum pattern and a serpentine violin figure.
11. Aisha Devi - Of Matter & Spirit
Aisha Devi’s debut album builds on her Conscious C*nt EP, with a sound palette encompassing blissed out synth drones, intensely throbbing electronic rhythms and heavily treated vocals. Often cited as being part of the Vaporware movement, Devi’s songs seem to exist at some intersection between the dance floor, the chill out room and a ritualised space. At her best – on tracks such as “Kim and the Wheel of Life” - Devi creates music which suggests both metaphysical abstraction and raw physicality. Imagine The Knife collaborating with Oneohtrix Point Never whilst under the influence of copious amounts of MDMA and you’re on your way to Aisha Devi. The urgent keening melodies and helium infused vocals are definitely an acquired taste, but this is a strong and daring debut with its own vision.
10. Anna Von Hausswolff - The Miraculous
The sound at the core of this album is the 9,000 pipe organ in the Church of Acusticum Concert Hall of Piteå in North Sweden. Yet it shares equal importance with Von Hausswolff’s passionate multi-octave voice, ethereal electronics and glacial doom metal guitars. The centrepiece is the eleven minute epic “Come Wander With Me/Deliverance.” It starts off as an unlikely cover of a song from an episode of The Twilight Zone - although it almost sounds like Elizabeth Fraser essaying a funereal cover of The Who’s “The Rock” - before segueing into a monumental one chord riff. But this doesn’t reduce the music to brute force. Rather, like SWANS, von Hausswolff seeks transcendence through the power of forceful repetition. But there is light and optimism here too. “An Oath” is tender and uplifting and ‘Stranger’ is a sweeping Morricone-esque ballad. The Miraculous is music on a truly grand scale.
9. Liberez - All Tense Now Lax
Liberez are a genuinely experimental group and their refusal to adopt one style pays real dividends here. The muted title track is sweet, minimal but uneasy, with a subtle synth drone, a winding piano line, a woman’s voice, recorded as if from a phone speaker several feet away. “Stop Breathing” builds from a swarm of tinnitus drones into a sort of smoochy yet glitchy subaquatic dub. On “Grateful Family,” Liberez erect a wall of dense John Cale style viola/violin, whilst somewhere in the mix, there’s a vaguely disengaged female vocal which nevertheless grabs your attention. “How Much For Your Brother” sounds like Throbbing Gristle circa DOA. Liberez have a very open ended approach to their music and it makes for an album which slides from the seductive to the confrontational without missing a beat.
8. Thighpaulsandra - The Golden Communion
Despite this being his 6th solo album, Thighpaulsandra (aka Tim Lewis) is still best known as an arch-collaborator, having worked with Coil, Spiritualized, Julian Cope, Cyclobe and Elizabeth Fraser. To say he displays a broad mastery of styles would be understating things somewhat. “Valerie,” evolves across 8 minutes from a Stockhausen style gong and tape experiment into a very 1968 psychedelic song about watching flowers grow, into a giddy prog keyboard excursion, into a smooth Steely Dan workout, through to a strange Coil-esque soundscape. On the other hand, “On The Register” tops off black metal riffing with a rowdy chorus of “You’re a fucking peado!” And, at 27 minutes, “The More I Know Men, The More I Like Dogs” could be a horror film soundtrack masterminded by Faust. This expansive triple album has a blazing confidence and a very wide scope indeed.
7. Visionist - Safe
With his debut album, Visionist (aka Louis Carnell) has fashioned an unusual and arresting sonic environment, which utilises the musical grammar of Grime as a springboard to experiment with the futuristic and the ethereal. This is an album characterised by warm, twitchy synth lines, skittering rhythms and disembodied vocal fragments. The oddly moving “Sincere,” is almost entirely composed of distorted, alien sounding voices. But the high point may well be “Tired Tears, Awake Fears,” which uses a shivering electronic pulse and a disjointed vocal line to conjure up the sound of an angelic chaos. Would it be overstating it to claim that Safe is to Grime what the first Burial album was to Dub Step? That is to say Visionist may have just created a new musical off-shoot. Hypnagogic Grime anybody?
6. Carter Tutti Void - f (x)
The second album from Chris Carter, Cosey Fanni Tutti and Nik Void sees the trio take their signature style into a heightened realm. Whereas their debut Transverse was worked up from a recording of a live gig at the Roundhouse, f (x) was created from studio performances. Consequently there’s both greater detail and an added dramatic sweep to this album. Carter’s thick churning electro rhythms and murky pulses provide the bedrock, with Tutti and Void introducing multiple layers of heavily processed guitar. There are occasional fragments of vocals nestling in the mix too – single words or lines so intensely manipulated that their meaning becomes subsumed by the overall sound. Every track manages to both engage the head whilst simultaneously delivering a hefty physical impact.
5. Death and Vanilla - Where the Wild Things Are
This Swedish three piece utilise a sound pallet which will be familiar enough to fans of hauntological pop, with Broadcast and early Stereolab being obvious touchstones. But it’s Death and Vanilla’s extremely detailed arrangements and their melodic strengths – especially in their keyboard and harpsichord lines – which elevate their songs into a world of their own. The group employ a whole battery of analogue instrumentation, including moog, mellotron and vibraphones. Yet their biggest strength may well be Marleen Nilsson’s honeyed and detached vocals. The album’s centrepiece, “California Owls” starts out as delicate, shimmering muzak tinged pop, before developing into a constantly peaking celebration of sound. To Where The Wild Things Are… is haunting, baroque analogue pop which revels in the unexpected.
4. William Basinski - Cascade
If the US minimalist composer William Basinski had never released anything other than his groundbreaking Disintegration Loops (2002-2003) he would still be assured a place in the history of 21st century music. The fact he continues to create work of beguiling beauty is a cause for celebration. Cascade is a 40 minute exercise in sustained grace. Like all Basinski’s work, it’s deceptively simple. A light, optimistic piano motif loops over and over, swimming around in a sea of echoes and reverb, creating multiple microtonal variations. The cumulative effect is both mesmerising and touching. When, around the 33 minute mark, the piano loop slowly fades to be replaced by what sounds like a cluster of gentle synth tones, there’s a palpable emotional shift which lifts the composition skywards. If you haven’t discovered Basinski yet, Cascade is the perfect entry point.
3. The Fall - Sub-Lingual Tablet
Mark E. Smith has always had a perverse approach to the creation of Fall albums. Gigging continuously and constantly introducing new material into the set. Then, when the songs are fully honed, taking the band into the studio – not necessarily to capture the songs at their live peak, but usually to deconstruct them via oblique studio interventions. Whilst guitarist Peter Greenway’s Beefheartian guitar riffs form the basis of most of the compositions, the mix tends to favour Kieron Mellings’ robust drum patterns and Elena Poulou’s striking monophonic synth work. “Quit iPhone,” “Pledge,” “Junger Cloth” and “Facebook Troll” all see Smith railing against the absurdities of the digital age, with lyrics which are frequently laugh out loud funny. Still the supreme example of the experimental garage band. Still The Fall.
2. AnnaBel (Lee) - By the Sea & Other Solitary Places
A perfect late night album, AnnaBel (Lee)’s debut is a seductive set of spectral beauty, created by gifted producer and arranger Richard E and vocalist Annabel. There’s a pleasingly woozy, out of focus feeling to songs such as “Invisible Barriers” and “Could It Be The Siren Loves?,” with Annabel’s emotive voice recalling the bruised grace of a young Billie Holliday. Meanwhile, Richard E’s production conjures up a grainy, isolated world, where a haunting hybrid of lush strings, electronic beats and acoustic instrumentation vie for breathing space. It might take a few listens for the joy of this album to kick in, but when it does, you’ll find yourself surrendering to AnnaBel (Lee)’s opiated torch songs and abstracted downtempo tunes.
1. Wire - Wire
2013’s Change Becomes Us saw Wire hitting a career high, and it was always going to be a tough act to follow. Yet their latest self-titled album sees the group effortlessly continuing their late period purple patch. Wire is an album of contrasts. “High” is one of the band’s trademark miniatures – two verses, two choruses, a middle eight and a fade, all done in less than two minutes. At the other end of the spectrum, “Harpoon” is 8 and a half minutes of grinding Sabbath-like riffage. And, somewhere in the middle, is the irresistible “Swallow” - an example of the nagging two note ear worm which Wire excel at creating. Colin Newman’s crunchy yet luminous production serves the material well, with his rhythm guitar work and Matt Simms’ fx driven lead given space to mesh and clash. Lyrically Graham Lewis mixes oblique reportage, skewed social comment and decidedly cryptic love songs. Whilst Robert Grey’s drumming remains a masterclass in the power of percussive minimalism. If you’re looking for comparisons with the band’s previous work, Wire sees them positioned somewhere between the summery motorik pop of “A Bell Is A Cup…” and the shadowy psychedelia of Chairs Missing. All in all, a pretty smart spot to be sitting.
Honorable mentions go to…
Autobahn, Beach House, Laura Cannell, Consumer Electronics, Death Grips, Deerhunter, Drinks, Dutch Uncles, Flying Saucer Attack, Grimes, Immersion, Laurel Halo, Jenny Hval, Ibeyi, It Hugs Back, jennylee, Jlin, Kode 9, The Lucid Dream, Map 71, Drew McDowall, Micachu & The Shapes, Pearson Sound, Oneohtrix Point Never, Max Richter, The Pop Group, Romare, Sexwitch, Then Thickens and Young Husband.