For one reason or another (mainly fatherhood) I didn’t listen to as much new music as last year. And much of what I did listen to was played either as an accompaniment to WFH, or during quiet moments sat with a very young baby between 5 and 7am. Neither of which are conducive to really cranking the volume up and letting an album rip. Anyway, this list is just my opinion and essentially a snapshot of my year. There’s not a huge amount of logic behind the ordering, though it gets a little more refined nearer the top. Let me know what I missed, what you liked and hopefully there’s something new for you to discover…
25: Huerco S – Plonk
The fact this album sits in the murky intersection between ambient and minimal made it a WFH staple for me at the beginning of the year. Though that doesn’t feel like the most engaging way of listening to music, coming back to it now I’ve found that by the power of osmosis I’d absorbed much more than I thought. In a similar vein to Actress, the tracks recorded by Brian Leeds under his Huerco S alias are sketched in the faintest of lines and overlaid with subtle changes in light and shade. The music doesn’t seem to evolve so much as proliferate; drifting around the room like a cloud of mist. Though less arresting than 2016’s masterful ‘For those who have never…’, Plonk is a further development of his sound and is full of beautifully tactile sounds that seem to exist outside of time. Lovely stuff.
24: Ryan James Ford – Rules are meant to be Broken
The rules remain largely intact on this chunky EP of straight-up stripped down techno from Canada’s Ryan James Ford. A bracing hit of pulsing kick drums and deranged synths that only briefly lets up. This kind of thing used to be my bread and butter, but without the need for a bracing aural palette cleanser on the morning commute, less so now. Most of my music consumption has been sedentary this year and I would’ve liked to have given this more spins, if only to feel the old muscle memory creak into action when that BPM kicks in.
23: Of Montreal – Freewave Lucifer f<ckf^ckf>ck
You wouldn’t think the enforced social isolation of the pandemic would present any issues for auteur and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barnes, who has a tendency of sacking all their bandmates and regularly redefining Of Montreal’s new sound from the ground up.
But even for an artist who might get stuck in their own head more than most, Freewave Lucifer is a particularly claustrophobic record. Described best by the first track’s opening line “Welcome to the sensory overload chamber”, it’s a dense collage of popping electronics, largely impenetrable lyrics and freewheeling restlessness.
Not to say there aren’t the odd moments of off-kilter pop brilliance. For example, Nightsift is a slice of dark electro-pop containing of all things for an Of Montreal track, a chunky drop. And while the lyrics are almost Dadaist in their randomness, there’s still the odd hilariously Barnesque line to be found… “when people ask my gender, I just tell them I’m brunette’.
At 7 songs and 34 minutes, Freewave Lucifer feels a little thin as an album. And I doubt it’ll go down as a standout work among Barnes’ extensive and impressive canon, nor would I recommend it as a sensible starting point for anyone looking to explore Of Montreal’s music. Despite all that, it’s an entertaining and unpredictable listen, and a sign that Barnes’ restless musical exploration is far from over, though the dense arrangements and EDM-sounding electronics don’t play to Barnes’ strengths, and I just hope he finds his way onto more familiar territory again soon.
22: Actress – Dummy Corporation
Up next on this fairly randomly ordered list is an EP from the mysterious bucket-hatted man of electronic music, Darren Cunningham, aka Actress.
New Actress material this year was an unexpected treat as far as I was concerned. Dummy Corporation sees Darren Cunningham taking more of a longform approach for a change, with two of the tracks on this 5-track EP spanning a combined length of nearly half an hour.
Dream is a pretty straight up techno warmer, complete with muted diva vocal sample, pulsing bass and throbbing kick. The 18 minute title track is a deep dark dive into nocturnal murk, reminiscent of some of Richie Hawtin’s experiments as Plastikman. It made the perfect soundtrack to a 6am walk to the station, through freezing fog and deserted back alleys, although the music was spooky enough to make me look over my shoulder on more than one occasion.
The EP includes shortened ‘edits’ of two tracks, Dream and Fragments of a Butterfly’s Face, which seems kinda pointless on a digital release and means there’s not actually as much new music here as first seems…but they’re there if you want ‘em.
Hopefully this teaser of a release is a sign there’s a new full-length on the way for next year. Either way, this is sufficient for anyone wanting their fix of dank electronic vibes in the meantime. Actress’ unmistakable sonic fingerprints are all over this – lo-fi production, vintage bleeps and blurbs – deceptively simple but with an uncanny way of burrowing into the hindbrain.
21: Junior Boys – Waiting Game
The Canadian duo’s 2004 album, Last Exit, has always been a perennial favourite of mine. One of those rare debuts where everything just seems to align perfectly. Jeremy Greenspan alternating between cocktail lounge croon and almost imperceptible breathy whispers, over minimal r’n’b production and glacial techno pads. I never really managed to get into any of their albums since but happening upon this brand new release by chance it seemed worth a listen.
Despite forays into more bombastic synth-pop in the interim, it seems the duo has come full circle in the last 18 years. Much of the aesthetic of Last Exit remains intact; Greenspan’s voice is as soft as ever, and at times the arrangements here are so sparse as to be almost sub-perceptual.
The only downside is that Waiting Game feels a bit lacking as an album, which is a shame as there are some beautiful tracks here. ‘Must be all the Wrong Things’ introduces proceedings very gradually with drones that build tentatively, and a bass-tone that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Men I Trust’s last album, oozing slick 1980s sumptuousness. ‘Night Walk’ then sashays in, like a lounge singer appearing from behind clouds of dry ice and cigarette smoke, but just as we get comfortable with the vibe, the track suddenly ends – so abruptly I had to get up and check the recording hadn’t skipped.
This happens again when the excellent ‘Thinking About you Calms me Down’ – which is crying out for a Carl Craig reworking along the lines of ‘Like a Child’, is suddenly cut short by a burst of noise – as if Junior Boys don’t want us to get too comfortable.
Despite its slenderness, Waiting Game is a lush album composed of the same qualities that make Last Exit such an enduring and alluring record. And listening to it again while writing this, I’m enjoying it more than ever. So maybe it’s time to dig into the rest of the boys’ back catalogue.
20: Kelly Lee Owens – LP8
The fact that Kelly Lee Owens’ third album is entitled LP8 is perhaps the least perplexing thing about this record. A self-conscious, serious and single-minded piece of work from an artist who was recently winning plaudits left and right for her crossover success, Inner Song, an accessible and diverse album with a broad enough vision to include a Radiohead cover, a collaboration with John Cale and a handful of vocal-led tracks, that seemed to cement Owens as something of a techno popstar.
If she’s trying to shrug off that mantle and upturn expectations with LP8 then she’s succeeded. It’s an album of sheer surfaces and monolithic compositions driven by Owens’ voice, layered and looped, by sparse piano notes and juddering percussion that rather than a drum machine sounds like it was produced by metal beams collapsing down a lift shaft.
I always think fair play to any artist who tries something completely different to what they’ve done before and resists any attempt to be pigeon-holed. Sometimes it results in a work of genius (Radiohead’s Kid A), sometimes utter failure (Moby’s Animal Rights), most of the time – as is the case with LP8 – the results are hit and miss.
The track ‘Anadlu’ for example, is poised and elegant; Owens intones the Welsh word for “breathe’ over gigantic pads and a tectonic metronome in a gradually expanding piece that evolves into a guided meditation. Elsewhere, the contrasting forces Owens tries to unite become less than the sum of their parts, and the monologues delivered straight down the camera fall flat. Indeed the combination of piercing hisses, along with lyrics that feel cribbed from the back of a student bar toilet door is enough to make the closing track, Sonic 8 almost unlistenable.
LP8 is a challenging and ambitious album from a talented artist, with results that are by turns beautiful and confounding.
19: Gabor Lazar – Boundary Object
Formidable electronics from the Hungarian producer. The eight tracks on Boundary Object were ‘performed’ live (using the customisable software application, Max) and released as is – a unique document of a creative process. I haven’t spent as much time with this one as I’d have liked, as it’s a record that demands your full attention. Futuristic, funky, unpredictable, lush, confusing…but also cool as fuck. I don’t know if androids dream of electric sheep but when they go raving it’s to Gabor Lazar.
18: Charlotte Adigéry & Bolis Pupul – Topical Dancer
At its best, the record is a much-needed yanking up to date of the ideals which birthed ‘dance music’ and rave culture – equality, freedom of expression, harmony, unity. Ideals which soon became hackneyed cliches, in the hands of producers looking to cash in by sticking a diva sample singing about “universal love” or some such, over a generic beat and calling it a banger. At a time when a new generation is confronting questions of identity and equality, and redefining gender and sexuality on their own terms, these ideals have never felt more in need of reassessing and protecting.
17: Bonobo – Fragments
The British producer Simon Green, better known by his longstanding Bonobo alias, is one of those few artists who successfully executed the transition from bedroom beatsmith to big-ticket draw. Thanks to Bonobo’s skilfulness as a producer and arranger, the vistas afforded by Fragments are lush and richly detailed enough to lose oneself in, with energy levels pitched perfectly in the sweet spot between chilled and energising, so you can let the music take you up or down depending on mood.
16: Blue Spectre – Silver Screen
Silver Screen – as the name suggests – is a cinematic affair, incorporating visual influences from the Golden Age of Hollywood, classic Westerns, film noir and new-wave. It’s an exciting debut from a band clearly enamoured with some of the lesser celebrated sounds of vintage rock and adept enough to shape them for their own spooky purposes.
15: Eels – Extreme Witchcraft
Eel’s 14th album (by my count) sees him reunited with producer John Parrish for the first time since 2001’s Souljacker, and there is plenty of that record’s distorted gritty sound in effect here. While not as idiosyncratic as his seminal early albums, and not as confessional as some of his more recent work, Extreme Witchcraft is still unmistakably Eels. It might not be the most groundbreaking album of the year but proof that E’s ability to effortlessly turn out catchy offbeat pop songs is undiminished.
14: King Buffalo – Regenerator
I don’t listen to this kind of music very often but sometimes it just hits the spot. There’s something about this brand of heavy psychedelic stoner rock that feels like the non-electronic equivalent of progressive trance. Sure, it’s infused with a leather bracelet-wearing new-agey joss-stick scent of naffness, but damn it sounds good when you’re high (or even when you’re not).
The band are a tight unit and masters of their chosen domain; playing this record loud is like taking a ride in a luxury sports car (I imagine) – each element perfectly compliments every other to create a sense of smooth and effortless power.
The lyrical content is unashamedly fantastical, all lone warriors making fated journeys across the surface of alien worlds. True to this ideal, King Buffalo manage to make each track feel like its own mini-epic, without ever letting things drag, with the effect that Regenerator punches above its weight, sounding heftier than it’s 43 minute length, and the band sounding heavier than merely a trio.
13: Brian Jonestown Massacre – Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees
Anton Newcombe’s always been a prolific artist. Even throughout the chaos and excesses of the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s many incarnations, breakdowns and reformings of the 90s, a lack of ideas or recorded output emanating from their creative mastermind was never an issue, although quality control might’ve suffered at times.
Those heady days have long passed now, though Newcombe’s creativity remains undiminished, directing operations from his studio in Berlin with a roving cast of guest musicians and past BJM alumni. It felt like for much of the 2010’s he was putting out practically an album a year; keeping up with all these along with his other side projects is a full time job so I tend to only dip in and out.
FDGT finds the band ploughing the same furrow they’ve been in for a while now: groove-heavy psyche propelled along by motorik rhythms, thick layers of fuzzy guitars and a fullness of production that some of their influences could only dream of. Ironically now Anton is sober, he’s creating music that would be far more mind-bending under the influence of narcotics than his riotous early output. The 22nd BJM album (by some counts) finds Newcombe in a gregarious frame of mind lyrically – there’s quite a few tracks that bear the hallmarks of having been written during the pandemic, with exhortations to stay positive, come together, throw off the shackles etc.
I initially found it underwhelming, but having given the album a proper airing at a decent volume, I think that might just have been a symptom of not playing it loud enough. There’s something about the high end and the filtering on a lot of the vocals here that just ends up sounding tinny on a pair of earbuds
So yeah…Fire Doesn’t Grow on Trees is a decent record, with an appealing sound, but I can’t help wondering if it’s too much to expect a few more surprises from an artist as gifted as Newcombe and his coterie? Whatever…with a discography this extensive, there’s always something new to discover.
12: Ariel Zetina – Cyclorama
Ariel Zetina draws on her Belizean heritage and identity as a trans woman to create a swirling kaleidoscope of restless techno. Currently based in Chicago and nominated this year for DJ Mag’s Breakthrough DJ Award, in creating Cyclorama Zetina combines global influences on a record that feels like a bottled distillation of the queer underground rave scene in which she operates. Ideal if you need something to put a spring in your step for this first grey and wet week of the year.
11: µ-Ziq – Magic Pony Ride
It can’t be easy for an artist like Mike Paradinas, who’s consistently been near the cutting edge of electronic music for the last three decades – whether through his own releases under multiple aliases, or the output of his influential Planet Mu label – to endlessly evolve his sound. To sound innovative and fresh but recognisably µ-Ziq enough to please his fans.
So it is that last year’s Scurlage sounded like something of a greatest hits, in particular covering his early period – the pairing of harsh industrial percussion and a sense of melody drawn from the early electro and synth-pop pioneers. Coming hot on the heels, Magic Pony Ride feels like a canter through µ-Ziq’s late 90s/early 00s purple patch – and the golden age of this kind of music in general – all squiggly breakbeats and melodies that are by turns wistful and playful and melancholic.
For anyone familiar with the artist or this genre, there’s not much here you haven’t heard before. But as far as I’m concerned that’s no bad thing – sometimes you just wanna hear someone doing what they do, really well. A joyful, creative record, bursting with energy.
10: Gwenno – Tresor
Tresor (the Cornish word for ‘treasure’) feels like an artefact that’s slipped over from a parallel world, a place familiar yet also fantastical. The album is simultaneously retro and futuristic, the folky and almost Medieval aesthetic is coated in sparkly electronic production, which truly shines like treasure.
All the lyrics are sung in Cornish, making them unintelligible to practically everybody, but it’s the perfect language for Gwenno’s mellifluous lilting voice, which flows across the record like quicksilver. I’ve no idea what she’s singing about; it could be the incantations of a mischievous woodland sprite. Stately, elegant, mysterious and playful – a true gem of an album.
9: Daniel Avery – Ultra Truth
With his fifth album, Avery has surely cemented his place as successor to the crown of his idols, Underworld, The Prodigy and the like. Demonstrating once again that dancefloor orientated techno and breakbeat can translate to a full album and in doing so transcend from pure hedonism to something more cerebral, mind-expanding and life-affirming. (Even if “Ultra truth” might be overstating it a tad).
And Avery does sometimes get caught up in his own myth-making. Like several artists (Leon Vynehall and Kelly Lee Owens spring to mind), he has a tendency to litter his albums with snippets of spoken word as if they’re delivering some kind of profound message. They really don’t add anything for me and I wish he’d just let the music do the talking (it’s not that deep mate).
That aside, Ultra Truth is chock full of belters. Wall of Sleep for weary blissed-out rave, Devotion for surging jungle, Higher for even more turbo-boosted jungle. And there’s plenty more thoughtful cuts: Spider for melancholy early 90s Aphex style ambient techno, Chaos Energy for layers upon layers of euphoria that ascends to a vertiginous climax; and Lone Swordsmen for a moving tribute to the late Andrew Weatherall, worthy of the great man himself.
All told, Ultra Truth finds Avery in full command of his craft seemingly able to produce magic time after time from the simplest of elements.
8: Plaid – Feorm Falorx
This one completely fell into my lap unexpectedly towards the end of the year so I haven’t spent a huge amount of time with it. A new release by electronic music journeymen Plaid is always worth checking out in my opinion, even if the latter half of their discography tends to blur together in my mind.
To say it sounds like ‘pop music from an alien planet’, would be a pretty tired analogy were it not for the fact in Plaid’s case it’s entirely apposite. The combination of otherworldly sounds, futurism and machine intelligence tempered by warm-blooded human emotion (for what are the aliens depicted in most Sci-fi but reflections of ourselves?) has seen Plaid carve an idiosyncratic niche on the outer regions of electronic music’s solar system for nigh-on three decades.
With Feorm Falorx, they’re confronting that metaphor head-on, with the release being a concept album of sorts, i.e. a recording of a gig the duo played at the Feorm festival, on the fictional planet Falorx. The album’s accompanied by a graphic novel, plus dazzling artwork by Emma Catnip, and a far-fetched tale of Ed and Andy being converted to rays of light and beamed to Farlox to play this legendary gig.
Whether all that enhances the music for you is a matter of taste. Either way, Feorm Falorx is a compact and cohesive album that doesn’t stray far from the Plaid blueprint, sounding both cosmic and pleasingly familiar. There’s not a huge amount to distinguish it from their work over the last decade, and to be honest it’s not as striking as 2019’s Polymer (which took as its theme the inexhaustible and elastic nature of plastic), but it’s hard to find much to complain about.
Another solid transmission from two seasoned astral travellers.
7: 50 Foot Wave – Black Pearl
The latest collection of tracks from Kristin Hersh’s ‘other’ band, picks up from where Throwing Muses left off with Sun Racket in 2020. Guitars heavy as rivers of molten lead, Hersh sounding as acerbic, vital and cryptic as ever; lock-tight bass and drums intertwined round one another like a pair of mating snakes.
50 Foot Wave started off as an outlet for Hersh’s thrashier punkier songs, not that the Muses were ever laggards in either respect. Black Pearl follows the trend in Hersh’s recent work (including solo albums under her own name), and slows things down to a menacingly funereal pace. More than ever, the vibe of Hersh’s home of New Orleans seems to be infiltrating her music, both with its oppressive heat and moisture as well as powerful air of voodoo magick.
Album opener, ‘Staring into the Sun’ is an absolute ripper, bursting through the levee like a tidal surge of grungey guitars. ‘Fly Down South’ sounds like Kristin Hersh fronting Soundgarden, while the instrumental title track is a Yawning Man style desert rock jam, before things close out with the circumspect ‘Double Barrel’.
As always with Kristin Hersh’s music, Black Pearl feels like a mysterious gift – beautiful, dark, with something unknowable at the centre.
6: TVAM – High Art Lite
The year 2000 was a strange time for guitar-based music, between Britpop’s slide into mid-tempo blandness and before the explosion of “the New Rock Revolution”, spearheaded by bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes. Nu-metal and pop punk had exploded in the US, prompting a slew of copycat bands in the UK, which were shite at the time and have aged even less well.
All of which made an album like Primal Scream’s XTMNTR – an explosion of anarchic punk, breakbeat and free jazz noise unleashed at the dawn of the new millennium – an odd prospect. Although lauded by critics, it wasn’t seminal in the same way as Screamedelica a decade before, and despite the huge success of Radiohead’s experimentalism on Kid A and Amnesiac, rock bands dabbling in electronic music quickly became unfashionable again.
Anyway, XTMNTR casts a long shadow and is surely the musical touchstone for Joe Oxley, who as TVAM manages to capture an aesthetic so fully it merits its own subgenre. For the sake of argument, let’s call it electro-gaze, though that doesn’t do justice to the slew of styles – shoegaze, industrial, electro, psyche rock – that combine to become more than the sum of their parts.
Just like his debut, Psychic Data released 4 years ago, High Art Lite manages to sound both anthemic and underground; cult classic and best-seller. Where Psychic Data was a pastiche of the 1980s neoliberalist dream of a tech-powered future driven by outmoded technology like VHS, Fax and the Cathode Ray tube, High Art Lite skewers our relationship with celebrity, brands, art, reality TV and how some things appear to be realer than real.
Painted in lurid primary colours that burst out of the speakers, like the bubbles of fizzing cola on the eye-popping cover art, High Art Lite is another masterstroke. Imagine if My Bloody Valentine and Boards of Canada decided to form a punk-rock supergroup, or if Bobby Gillespie and The Chemical Brothers had met on the Sunset Strip in 1984, it would sound something like this.
5: Gimmik – Sonic Poetry
Sonic Poetry is an expansive journey through lush sonic landscapes from Martin Haidinger, who was responsible for some minor classics of the early 00s IDM movement, both as Gimmik and one half of Abfahrt Hinwil. It’s always a pleasant surprise to see an artist resurface who you’d assumed to be long gone and working in a call centre, or whatever it is all the forgotten bedroom producers of yesteryear do nowadays.
All the hallmarks of Haidinger’s distinctly German brand of electronica are on show here: jerky robotic percussion, bright utilitarian melodies infused with impish energy and a meticulous attention to detail. The album feels both fresh and nostalgic, harking back to what is now a different era, and sounding bang up to date.
In an oversaturated field of DIY producers, producing by-numbers music, Sonic Poetry stands out as an exemplar, a collection of tracks that are just lush, lovely and very enjoyable to listen to. (Including the unabashed ‘Hello Mr James’, a fitting tribute to the grandaddy of bedroom producers).
4: Viagra Boys – Cave World
Hot on heels of their 202 album, Welfare Jazz, which skewered macho stereotypes and rock’n’roll masculinity, Cave World does that again and more. Taking in humankind’s descent from the primates, tracing our journey from nimble beings with ‘excellent short term memories’ to today’s troglodytes, trolls and keyboard toting conspiracy theorists. The music is just as pouding, visceral and full-blooded as Welfare Jazz, with even more scuzz and dirgey electronics in the undercarriage.
Punk Rock Loser’s narrator “ain’t’ your average normal dude”, who rocks a little gold chain and swigs on Promethazine and 7UP; and Ain’t No Thief’s just happens to own all the exact same shit as you, except he definitely didn’t steal it – maybe your grandma just happened to buy him the same jacket as a gift. And Baby Criminal tells of baby Jimmy who used to be a cute little baby, until he started microwaving batteries and turning squirrels into hats.
The shock humour and self-deprecating waster schtick is all very amusing but it’s when Sebastian Murphy’s lyrics show a bit of genuine vulnerability that he has more to say. Or when he turns his attention a little further, as on The Cognitive Trade-off Hypothesis, which situates that vulnerability in humankind’s original need to evolve language as a way of avoiding predators.
Whatever one chooses to see reflected in the unsavoury characters that populate Cave World, this album is an enjoyably breathless sweaty stomp through the modern day jungle, on a post-punk-disco-blues chariot.
3: Bibio – BIB10
Stephen Wilkinson has described his 10th album as Bibio as his ‘party album’. A continual genre-hopper, Bibio ties his varied releases together with a unifying sensibility, akin to the warmth and graininess of a faded family photo. Sometimes this manifests through his folky songwriting and plucked acoustic guitar, as on 2019’s pastoral Ribbons; or as lo-fi crunchy electronica on 2012’s Mind Bokeh (the latter title being a reference to how out-of-focus elements appear blurred in photographs).
On BIB10, he takes 70s disco and soft rock as his touch point, starting with the guitar wreathed in a gold satin shirt that adorns the album cover and filters everything through his unique lens. The album’s highpoint, a track called S.O.L., featuring previous collaborator Oliver St Louis, is a delightfully funky 70s disco number that would surely inject feelgood energy into any dancefloor. And on Potion, Bibio tries his hand at R’n’b with impressively spacious production, but these are the only two tracks that overtly qualify as party fodder.
While the rest of the album is impressively slick, BIB10 isn’t my favourite from Bibio. Its smoothness might be what lets it down, with no friction or crunch there’s nothing satisfying that really sticks in my ears. Even having this in heavy rotation for the last few months, a late album cut like Lost Somewhere still washes over me as if for the first time.
My one complaint with Bibio is that his music can sometimes feel a little saccharine, with its folky guitar playing and heavily treated vocals, so he always sounds as though he’s singing in soft focus. Coupled with the soft rock guitar styling and laid back groove, this can get cloying over the course of the album. It’s only a small complaint though, and while it’s not a highlight in his storied discography, Bibio should be mightily proud of reaching this milestone, and of producing such a rich and varied body of work.
2: Suede – Autofiction
Of all the albums released last year that I heard, two of them stand a clear head and shoulders above the rest. Two instant classics that I’ll come back to time and again for years to come. It’s arbitrary which one takes the ‘top spot’ but one of these bands came 2nd last year’s run down so it seems only fair to do it this way round.
So coming in second is Suede’s ninth album, Autofiction, and fourth since their triumphant return in 2013. Autofiction sounds like a band playing with the world at their feet and nothing to lose, just like when they burst onto the scene 30 years ago. And it cements beyond any doubt that this late career run of albums all but matches their heroic 90s phase.
Autofiction shines with a fierce white-hot heat; the sound of five musicians completely in tune with one another, playing without thinking and just holding on for grim life, or death. Brett Anderson belts out choruses like a man possessed, singing his heart out into the night, in a way that makes you want to leap around and sing along like a teenager all over again (appropriately enough, there’s a track here called ‘15 again’, opening with the most Suedey of couplets, ‘Nothing is as bad as the time we kill / Sitting in the bathroom, in kitten heels).
Ageing, fatherhood and the loss of innocence are all tackled – including the death of Anderson’s mother back in 1989 – but despite these reflective themes, Autofiction is anything but ponderous. Rather these weighty topics are lunged at head-on, across 10 fraught and exhilarating punk anthems, plus one slower ballad, ‘What Am I Without You’, to close out the twilight of the album, much like the haunting ‘The 2 of Us’ on Dog Man Star, or the world-weary ‘Chemistry Between Us’ on Coming Up.
Other highlights include, ‘Shadow Self’, ‘Personality Disorder’ and ‘The Only Way I Can Love You’, the last of which had me seriously fighting back to the urge to sing along to in a train carriage recently (a bad idea). But anyway, the whole album is wall to wall killer, showing Suede can give any young band a run for the money – in terms of energy, add to that 30 years of wisdom, life, regret, triumph and everything else.
1: Dry Cleaning – Stumpwork
So here it is, top of my list for 2022 – a band also responsible for one of my favourite albums of 2021. With Dry Cleaning’s debut, New Long Leg, arriving to wide acclaim and the band’s distinctive sound and aesthetic seemingly fully formed, they could’ve easily fallen into the difficult 2nd album trap.
Where Florence Shaw’s lyrical collages on NLL depicted someone emerging from their 20s and perhaps a serious break-up, navigating awkward social engagements through the lens of an endless social media feed, Stumpwork finds our narrator stumbling into the post-pandemic, post-Brexit, post-truth daylight, bruised and battered but with a world-weary optimism. Best summed up by the lyric, “Things are shit / But they’re gonna be, OK”.
The band have expanded their sound in all directions. Some tracks recall the jangle-pop sound of their early EPs, whereas elsewhere they indulge the experimental tendencies hinted at previously. This makes Stumpwork a more difficult beast – less immediate and in your face – and one that takes time to become familiar with. Depending on my mood, this can be a good thing – sometimes I want the beautifully crisp drum fills and delicious squally feedback of Liberty Log to just roll on indefinitely.
Despite sagging in the middle, all told, Stumpwork is a triumph. Shaw continues to be a lyrical genius; every track is littered with throwaway gems, illustrating how profundity is built from the mundanity of everyday life (e.g. the arrival of a ‘shoe organising thing’ being the catalyst for a fresh start). Her delivery is exceptional; the economy with which tiny pauses and cadences are freighted with meaning (“is everything alright…with you?”). And there’s something I can’t get enough of in the sound of her voice, maybe it could be likened to the ASMR sensation some people experience listening to combs being rubbed, all I know is there’s something hypnotic in her utterance of phrases like “Costa costa cups” or “big soft bed club”.
If pressed, I’d have to say I still prefer New Long Leg of the two, but Stumpwork is more than a worthy follow-up and the work of a band on top of their game.