For the first time ever, I am doing a double blog post about the best music of this year because there is simply too much to limit myself to just 10 albums (and any more than that in one post is just overkill). My long-list of favourite albums this year was around 120, my short-list numbering 45. To say it has been an amazing year for music would be an understatement. Of course, there is more to it than that. Having moved from Australia, where music streaming services are still slowly taking off and CDs are still a main source of music listening, to Sweden where CDs basically don’t exist and almost the whole country uses Spotify now, my ways of searching out new music have broadened and improved significantly.
So, without further ado, I give you #20 to #11 on my list today and the Top 10 will go online in the next couple of days. This is by far the most difficult list I have written in a long time, but it is a good mix of different genres as well as debut artists and older artists (I think the age range is from about 20 to 70). All of them will have a song, but some of the songs may be live clips if the studio recording isn’t available on Youtube to embed. I hope you all find something on this list you will enjoy!
Earlier this year, I went hunting for a lot of new folk bands that I had not yet discovered, using the “related artists” function on Spotify. This band came up a lot, related to other folky artists with animals in their names like Fleet Foxes and Band of Horses but with other obvious influences such as Neil Young. The album feels like a slightly psychedelic and slightly rock flavoured folk sound but catchy enough in the style of songwriting to ensure it remains crisp in sound and isn’t drowned out too much by swirling guitars, instead using the melodies and soft vocals to drive the music. A great new discovery for me!
French For Rabbits are a dream-pop duo who hail from New Zealand, which is suggested in their music which sounds like a warmth amidst the cold of the sea and the mountains. The delicate vocals of Brooke Singer (perfect name for her job) are balanced perfectly against the warm guitars and instrumentation from John Fitzgerald and other band members to create something altogether ethereal and beautiful. They themselves name similar artists as Mazzy Star, Laura Marling and Daughter, to give you some clues as to whether you may like this amazing debut album.
Snowbird primarily comprises of British keys player Simon Raymonde (perhaps best known for Cocteau Twins back in the 1980s-1990s) and the American singer-songwriter Stephanie Dosen. While older Snowbird songs seemed sweet but simple acoustic songs, this debut album is a deeply layered and beautifully textured work of art. Dosen sings in a manner simultaneously delicate and lush that glides gently over Raymonde’s haunting piano for most of the album, but with enough surreal instrumentation to make this a perfect album evocative of winter and places of mystic and wonder.
The Aussie band Augie March have had a strange history. Difficult to put into a single genre (and often put in the alternative and folk groups, although they defy conventions of both), they never strived for any kind of popularity. Then in 2006 their third album yielded the song One Crowded Hour which shot them to huge levels of fame nationally, and this led to an album in 2008 that was out of sorts and fairly unpopular. They took a long hiatus but this year returned with Havens Dumb – an album they have been working on for 3 years and which in my eyes is a return to form. The elegant but witty songwriting is back in full force and while the music is quirky and layered as ever, there is real beauty to be found in the instrumentation and especially the vocal harmonies. I was pleasantly surprised by this one.
Bunyan has said that this, her third album, will be her last. Her second album was released some 9 years ago in 2005, but her first album was released a whopping 44 years ago, in 1970. She gained huge popularity at the turn of the century when her sole album was re-released and she gained a sudden cult following among fans of the freak-folk movement that featured the likes of Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective (on whose records she has since featured). Despite these enormous lapses between albums, her style has remained similar between all three and this album is an absolute masterpiece. Her vocals are often described as being closer to whispering, shimmering over music that is both intense and hushed. A reminder that subtle is not the same as simple.
I have been listening to Jamie Cullum for a long time, since I was a teenager and he was mostly doing jazz covers of famous songs. Then he started writing more and more of his albums, producing my two favourite albums of his in 2005’s Catching Tales and 2009’s The Pursuit, both daring, funky and bold pop-jazz albums in their own way. Last year, his album Momentum totally failed to grab me. This year, he recorded what he himself refers to as his first pure jazz record. Each track here was recorded completely and organically with a single take and he has focused on lesser known jazz songs that mean something to him more personally. A clear highlight is “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” which sees him collaborate vocally with Gregory Porter. Definitely my favourite of his covers focused albums.
If you haven’t heard of Hozier or at least his most popular single “Take Me To Church” chances are you’ve been living under a rock. The Irish singer-songwriter has released a stunning album that seems a blend of blues, soul, rock and jazz, but trying to categorise the album is ultimately pointless. His voice is always the centre of his music as he showcases an enormous range from dark growling depths to soaring howls. He sounds far too mature for someone only 24 years of age, but it’s all part of the charm. This is an album that demands your attention from start to finish. Amazing debut.
George Ezra is another young singer, this time a 21 year old from England, who also possesses a deep and dark voice way beyond his years as his strongest musical weapon. His album is surprisingly easy to listen to overall, with some fairly average songs and some amazing sounding songs. But if you go underneath the surface you will find a darker side lurking behind most of his lyrics which add a haunting feel to his broody vocals. From daydreams of killing someone in the song Drawing Board to the intentionally misleading Cassy O which turns out to be about a clock and time itself and not a girl, he shows himself to be a songwriter of impressive depth which may just be the key to his longevity in this era of acoustic near-overkill. Of course, that voice will help as well! Also, you might want to watch this clip – Ian McKellen appears and is very funny!
Megan Washington broke into the Australian music scene in 2008 with her beautiful sweeping vocals, sometimes brutally honest song-writing and some playfulness in the way she told narratives with each song. After the mostly upbeat first album “I Believe You Liar” and the darker “Insomnia” long EP to follow up, her second album finds her at her absolute best. Half upbeat, half melancholy and slow, this album is filled with the sounds, tones and synths of a lot of 80s music without feeling like she is just copying it – she makes that sound new and current, urgent and very catchy. This album is quirky, clever, beautiful and masterful.
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade listening to Ray LaMontagne’s seventies-inspired melancholy crooning, his husky and emotive voice warming many the cold, wintry night. But for his latest album, he has teamed up with producer Dan Auerbach (also one half of mega rock band The Black Keys) to come up with an album positively bursting with sun-drenched melodies reminiscent of the sixties. There’s still a cosiness to these songs but more of a beach than a campfire cosiness. At times the bright and loud music threatens to drown out his voice, but overall this is a triumphant shift in sound for this bearded singer that was certainly part of my summer soundtrack.
That’s it for now! The remaining ten albums will appear in part two of this blog which I will write and post in the next couple of days. If you have listened to any of these albums I would love to hear from you – what did you think of them?