Tracksuite’s album of the year is this.
Not much was floating my boat in the early months of this year at all. Until April, when Venezuelan producer Alejandro Ghersi released his third album, the self titled Arca. I just couldn’t grasp his first two albums, Xen and Mutant (although fascinating and mind blowing) as any kind of 'whole' projects, but Arca the album is a wholly different beast. Where the others were overloaded platters of glitch and electronic clutter, this is choral and expansive, still electronic in foundation but creating beauty in the space. Ghersi was heavily involved in production and writing on the last two Bjork projects Vulnicura and Utopia and the influence the artists have had on each other is clear to see in their individual works. Where Bjork’s albums have left me cold, Arca exudes a kind of spiritual warmth. Despite being rooted in a dark place, it is powerful and uplifting. On vocal tracks, it is an almost religious experience.
Also in April came another self-titled album with more new interesting sounds and flavours. This debut, from Baltimore raised but now Hamburg based Sophia Kennedy, is released on the Hamburg house and techno label Pampa Records and utterly disarms you right from the start as it’s so far from what you’d expect from that label. Yes, you can hear the contemporary likeness with acts like Tune Yards and St. Vincent but, for me, I hear a seventies sound influenced by the clever wordplay, wit and playfulness of people like Dean Friedman, Louden Wainwright III, Kate Bush and Warren Zevon. The songs are equally bewildering and joyously simple in the way that I hear the best alternative pop (and also comedy) from that era, a time that appeared to be reacting to the extremes of politicisation and psychedelia from the previous decade. Opener Build Me A House could be a nod to the usual house music of the label as the name suggests, it builds and sounds like its going to break - but never does – and doesn’t need to. Stall set out and listener ears unsettled, Kennedy proceeds with a selection of brilliantly eclectic gems.
Towards the end of the summer there was very suddenly a lot of attention, chat and air time being given to a new reggae outfit called The Hempolics ahead of the release of their debut album Kiss, Cuddle and Torture Vol. 1 due out in September. Now, if an amount of people start calling someone the next big thing I tend to shut that option down just as a reflex. But I also took an immediate dislike to the moniker of ‘Hempolics’, a grating portmanteau reminiscent of posturing 90s hip hop outfits aimed at the teenage masses. And the artwork just seemed a rushed fit for the ‘radio friendly reggae roots unit shifter’ I took this band to be.
Then I heard the music.
It absolutely rootsed my socks off. It sounded nothing like the package it was presented in and I got knocked upside the head with the book which I had just judged the cover of. Still the name and presentation didn’t fit for me but I was now the one talking them up as the next big thing too. Ok, yes it is a polished sound and yes it’s radio friendly but that’s more down to the time and work that the band’s leader Grippa Laybourne has spent honing the project than a specific straight-to-radio production ethic. These tracks feel simultaneously joyously easy and yet time still evidently taken to create perfection. My fave is Me Love To Sing, a chunky reggae groover that will work on any dancefloor, festival stage or bedroom speaker. They strip it right back to a genuine roots feel on the likes of Warrior Sound and switch to a Massive Attack sound on Armed & Dangerous, brilliantly featuring the mighty vocal talents of Cojack and Paulo Nutini. They then throw open the big beats, builds and breaks for the excellent In My Brain featuring the inimitable vocal technique of Maxi Jazz.
Formerly known as Lynched, the band have changed their name to Lankum (after a child murdering villain from a ballad sung by an Irish traveller recorded in the early 70s). This feels like a far more suitable moniker for those that make this sound. Having tilled the soil and prepared the ground with the incredible Lynched album Cold Old Fire from 2014, this album from Lankum ‘Beneath the Earth and Sky’ came along in October and is a glorious new harvest. It's raw and visceral, dark and foreboding folk music that seems to grow from the earth in front of your ears. The backbone of the greatest tracks is the drone and I can't explain why that’s a good thing so you’ll have to trust me, it is. They produce this insistent tonal sound through their stuff, reminiscent of throat singing, that feels like mother nature herself guiding the music with a maternal hand. The first time I heard the opener ‘What Will We Do When We Have No Money’, I got goosebumps on my skin and I cried. Now sometimes that happens, when the music is so good and possibly I’ve nursed a whisky or two beforehand. However, I’ve listened to it many times since in complete sobriety and it's happened every single time. So that’s something.
In the same month (what an October that was), Denver based three piece The Yawpers released the incredible Boy in a Well, their second album on Bloodshot Records after their self released first album Capon Crusade and sophomore album American Man. Both of these were solid works of alt country rock n roll with memorable numbers like Silicone Love and Doing It Right but I hope they won't mind me saying that the maturity of approach and step up in songwriting class on Boy in a Well is quite something to experience. It’s structured as a concept album about an abandoned boy in France in World War I, and is a truly consistent, beautifully eclectic piece of musical craft, the like of which is very rare to my ears and so damn joyous when it comes around.
The band are apparently named after a line from a Walt Whitman poem that reads “I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”, and I can certainly advocate the fittingness of that for the majority of early work and still some parts of this album but it doesn’t do them justice anymore. Lead yawper Nate Cook is extremely capable of a barbaric scream comparable to Bon Scott and Brian Johnson when he wants, but the majority of the time he strips it back and controls it incredibly, even reminding me of my two favourite vocalists at times: Maynard James Keenan and Will Oldham. Hell, there’s even honey coated Elvis tones in there, but they could come from the harmonies of slide player Jesse Parmet, I'm not sure. Together with Noah Shomberg on drums, these guys have crafted a ride through an almost prog country soundtrack of heart wrenching blues, blazing rockabilly and seething punk psych, forging the sound of expansive Rock n Roll in freakout.
I also want to mention these:
So, that’s what I got. Tracksuite 2017 selection – now scroll on for the 50 Best Tracks of the Year playlist, if you haven’t already.