Favourite discoveries of 2018

 

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Every year, piles of new records accumulate in my room, and these are generally the barometer of my musical year. They’re the records that I wait for, get excited about, revel in, am occasionally disappointed by; they’re a large part of the event. But of course they aren’t the only ones. Over time, other LPs emerge from the woodwork, perhaps ones I’m already familiar with but have fallen out of favour, or maybe something I played once, wrote off and forgot about, only for it to be rediscovered years later on after I listened to it anew with fresh ears. And, especially with the advent of cheap second-hand CDs and easy availability on Spotify, often there are records that I’ve ignored for a long time, or have simply never heard of, that come into my life years after release and take over it for a few weeks or months. These are records, sometimes exalted, sometimes ignored and overlooked on release, that I become absorbed by, wondering how it is that I’ve never heard them before, how I’d lived without them for such a long time. It’s these records that I’m going to concentrate on mainly, with the odd one that’s been hanging about the house unloved for years as well. These are my favourite five past discoveries of 2018: they will raise your heart rate and you may need medical assistance. 

 

The Replacements – ‘All Shook Down’

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Though they cast a long shadow across the music world, I’d somehow managed to get as far as last year without ever hearing anything by The Replacements. Which is a shame because, despite feeling very much of its time, their mix of often blatantly commercial rock with a sharp punk edge still retains its power to thrill and move in equal measure. ‘Let It Be’ is my favourite Replacements record, but much has been written about that already and I have nothing more to add really. But ‘All Shook Down” is a more misunderstood LP, one that was either dismissed at the time as a sell out, or assumed to be much more of a downer than it actually was.

The latter is certainly a myth; aside from the washed out, gorgeously bleak title track and the calming presence of ‘Sadly Beautiful’, ‘All Shook Down’ doesn’t stray all that far from the joyous feel of those early garage punk days. There’s definitely a radio rock sheen on tracks like the infectious “When It Began”, where the smooth harmonies only confirm the impression of an album more in debt to the likes of Tom Petty than their indie rock scenester contemporaries. But they still rock out to fine effect on “Bent Out Of Shape” and “My Little Problem’, and their slacker appeal hasn’t really faded much, just matured a little along the way. You can hear it, seasoned with regret, on the otherwise upbeat ’Nobody”, and the beautiful, piano led closer “The Last”, where it never feels much like Paul Westerburg took on a great many responsibilities over the years, more that he got burned trying to avoid them. But as ever with The Replacements, it’s the keen melodic rush of the songs that makes “All Shook Down” a compulsive listen, lacking some of the bite of their early material maybe, but adding enough pathos down the line to more than compensate.

 

Deerhunter – ‘Monomania”

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This is a CD that I’ve actually owned since its release back in 2013. I bought it having enjoyed the singles on the radio, but somehow ‘Monomania’ was just too much for me back then, Bradford Cox’s distorted vocals too abrasive for my taste and the ramshackle nature of much of the first side seemed to me tedious rather than endearing. But tastes change over time and, when I returned to it last year, I found a different record to the one I’d dismissed five years previously. Sure, the early part of the album often sounds like it’s dropping to bits, but that’s very much part of its charm, especially on the lurching slow-mo punk of “Leather Jacket II”, a kind of aural equivalent of seasickness, where the seesaw guitar hook and Cox’s sloppy, sporadic vocal just about manage to hold the whole thing together. Indeed, a fair chunk of the LP feels like a pastiche of this kind of primitive garage rock, a rejection of Deerhunter’s usual clean guitar lines and swirling mischief, with Cox’s vocal permanently set on sneer and the guitars scratching around in a rudimentary way when they aren’t launching into bludgeoningly heavy powerchords.

But this is only half of the story, and much of the rest feels a lot more in tune with the classic DH sound, such as Lockett Pundt’s chiming shoegazer, “The Missing”, and the single ‘Back To The Middle’, a strutting, rhythmic tour de force with a sharp tongued lyric of betrayal. By the time that the warm, freewheeling closer “Punk” swings into view, it feels like Cox has broken his pattern in the best way possible, creating an album that alternates between twisted rock n roll and edgy, swaggering pop music, commercial enough to find favour in new places whilst needling enough to piss off plenty of the people who liked him in the first place. It’s always nice to hear a record with the confidence to bite the hand that feeds and ‘Monomania’ certainly has that in abundance. But it’s also a very fine album and one of Cox’s best.

 

Beat Happening – “You Turn Me On”

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Beat Happening were a band I’d dismissed in the past as tediously amateurish and led by someone who couldn’t sing: in short, I hadn’t got a lot of time for them. But their final LP, “You Turn Me On”, takes a different route from their other records, one that also allowed me to find a way into their more rudimentary earlier efforts, the ones that I’d previously disdained. At the heart of their sound is repetition, so it seems appropriate that this is an album which takes that approach to its most extreme limits. The two poles that hold it together are Calvin’s seven minute opener “Tiger Trap” and Heather’s nine minute centrepiece, the truly spellbinding “Godsend”, both of which are based around droning guitar patterns played ad infinitum. The result is a kind of trance-like beauty, where either could easily go on for twice as long and still wouldn’t wear out their welcome.

Elsewhere, the grinding shock rock of Calvin’s “Pinebox Derby” shows that they were still capable of being brilliantly primal, while Heather’s “Noise” and “Sleepyhead” provide welcome injections of light and melody onto a frequently sharp edged record. Working with a “name” producer for the first time (Stuart Moxham of Young Marble Giants) certainly helped them come out of their no fuss comfort zone, though since I first heard this, I’ve explored past releases and come to the conclusion that many of the building blocks for this album were there right back at the beginning, just waiting to be brought to their fullest realisation (2015’s ’Look Around’ compilation charts this development across the years to fine effect). Overall, “You Turn Me On” is the brilliant culmination of Beat Happening’s belief that all you ever really need to create great rock and roll is the simplest of ideas and the aching desire to bring it into being. And I got used to Calvin’s voice in the end, it’s not so bad really.

 

LCD Soundsystem – s/t , 2CD edition

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This is a band that I had only a vague awareness of before last year, one I’d read about a lot but never felt the need to get around to. They were clever apparently, which is all to the good, but no one’s as clever as they think they are. They made a fusion of rock and dance music, which made me nervous straight away, as things with crossover appeal tend to fall badly between stools in my experience; I still wake up in a cold sweat after having nightmares about Baggy and Madchester. So when I finally picked this up for a pound (my curiosity having been provoked by reading “Meet Me In The Bathroom”, Lizzy Goodman’s excellent summery of the 00s New York scene), I didn’t really expect all that much. Really I just wanted something with ‘Losing My Edge’ on it, having investigated and found it to be as biting and funny as everybody said it was. But I wasn’t especially prepared to listen to the record solidly for the next couple of months and then buy everything else they’d ever released over the course of the following year. I did though, because LCD Soundsystem’s debut is ace.

It goes without saying that you should get the 2CD version. You won’t find it new these days, but you will get it cheap and it’s worth every one of the 100 pennies I invested in it. The main album is fine on its own, swinging between shouty club hits like the Kraftwerk sampling ’Disco Infiltrator’ and even shoutier rockers like the fierce, exhilarating “Movement”. It even manages to squeeze in a fine ‘White Album’ era Beatles pastiche, “I’m Never So Tired As When I’m Waking Up, and not make it sound like it’s dropped in from a completely different LP: James Murphy’s eclecticism offers the listener a good grounding in expecting the unexpected. But it’s the second disc that really makes this unmissable. ‘Losing My Edge’ is one of the songs of the century, offering just the right mix of ridicule and pathos to construct a kind of hipster Alan Partridge moment, whilst “Beat Connection’ and ‘Yeah’ manage to critique club culture at the same time as fuelling it with floor-filling masterpieces. In time, their sound would deepen and darken, but this is the original blast of noise from one of the most influential bands of the current century, with all their bases covered and everywhere still to go.

 

Dear Nora – “Mountain Rock”

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I’ve already covered my Dear Nora obsession on the blog last year but it seemed worth returning to this album as well, as it’s their best known and most intriguing work, if perhaps not actually their best (though it is up against stiff competition there). ‘Mountain Rock” is an album of brief, haunting vignettes, shifting frequently between gentle folk ballads, scraps of lo-fi pop and odd avant garde interludes. The ground constantly shifts under the listeners’ feet, so that the tracks come across less as one song after another, more as puzzle pieces that form a cohesive yet disorienting whole. Still, some of them more than stand out, not least gorgeous opener “The Lonesome Border Part 1”, where Katie Davidson seeks to square the “impossible, immovable” contradiction between constant personal change and the need for stability over a elegant solo guitar figure. Elsewhere, the warm, disarming “Oxygen and the Mellow Stuff” and the bucolic charm of “Make It Real” offer further highlights, but this really is an album that doesn’t lend itself to singles and needs to be heard in one sitting (don’t worry, it isn’t very long).

Dear Nora returned this year, as a direct result of “Mountain Rock” breaking through with a new generation of fans and critics after its re-release two years ago. But one of the interesting things about it is not that it’s been influential, but in fact how it seems to have stood alone; it is a record completely out of time, a product of influences certainly, most notably Bob Dylan, but one that has such a unusual take on them that it’s hard to imitate it in a way that keeps the same impact. In particular, blasts of noise like ‘West Nile!!” have an unnerving power to disrupt, giving “Mountain Rock” an uncomfortable, jarring edge and, alongside the constantly changing backdrop, there’s a sense that anything might happen round the next corner. The new LP ‘Skulls Example” didn’t really hit the same heights, but that was always going to be a challenge when following up a body of work so consistently excellent. The truth is that Dear Nora have already done more than enough to cement their place as one of the great American bands, and “Mountain Rock” is a prime example of why that’s the case.

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