It's 2014 and two albums are tussling for my attention. Far above everything else released during the year ‘Atamos’ by A Winged Victory for the Sullen and ‘Divide and Exit’ by Sleaford Mods are dominating my listening time. The first of these is a beautiful droning ambient-classical score to a modern dance piece; the second is a startling concoction of electronic loops and beats mixed with bitter, expletive-heavy snarling about the ugliness of modern Britain. Don't ask me to choose a favourite, I love them both equally. Don't even try to understand why I've chosen two albums that are emotionally and sonically poles apart, don't try and theorise about what this says about my fevered brain at the time. I just adore both of them. That is all.
I mention this because it's now 2016 and A Winged Victory for the Sullen and Sleaford Mods have returned. How do I react now? Well…
‘Iris’ by AWVFTS is a spacious film soundtrack album, full of sweeping strings and brooding keyboards, it has some breathtakingly moments but it feels less substantial than their previous albums. Unlike ‘Atamos’ or their eponymous debut, it doesn't fit together as a complete work. You feel that you need to experience the visuals to fully appreciate it.
It's a shame, but my ambient needs were met elsewhere this year, mostly by AWVFTS Erased Tape label mates Olafur Arnalds and Nils Frahm. Their ‘Trance Frenz’ is the result of an evening that the two spent together just improvising, you could dismiss this as doodling, but in the hands of Arnalds and Frahm, it's touching, introspective doodling.
Better still is Arnalds’ ‘Island Songs’, which is a quiet masterpiece. Inspired by his native Iceland, lonely strings and pianos combine with (occasional) native voices to evoke cold and wintery pieces. Then, there's the haunting harmonies of the South Iceland Chamber Choir on the sorrowful ‘Raddir’, the most spellbinding piece of music I've heard this year.
After watching the tranquil films that Arnalds made to accompany Island Songs I felt a huge shock to the system. I watched the video for 'TCR' by Sleaford Mods. Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn sit on a knackered sofa playing with their cheap Skaelextric-alike TCR. It’s a world away from the charm of Arnalds’ Icelandic calm, ‘Modern Life…’ as someone once observed, ‘…is Rubbish.’
‘TCR’ tells the tale of a middle aged man trying to escape the rigours of domesticity for the evening but finding no sanctuary in the pub. It may seem a little slight, a little too close to Half Man Half Biscuit for comfort. But Fearn's use of weedy punk guitar and bleeping keyboard loops make it a hypnotic listen.
The minimal chugging 'I Can Tell' is more familiar territory and the abusive ranting of your 'You're a Knottshead’ is a timely reminder of what a potty mouthed poet Williamson can be.
A more focused anger at the frustrations of modern lives can be found through the characters at the heart of Kate Tempest's ' Let Them Eat Chaos'. (I reviewed her startling live performance of the album here). Tempest is already a celebrated poet and novelist and her rap-style lyrics tell a captivating tale of trapped lives. Unlike Williamson, she offers a hopeful conclusion, imploring the world to 'Wake up and love more'. It's a dramatic and perceptive album.
If Tempest expresses her worldview by getting under the skin of her characters, then PJ Harvey stands back and delivers her observations in a reportage style on her 'Hope Six Demolition Project' album. Harvey travelled to Afghanistan, Kosovo and Washington DC to reports on the effects of war and deprivation. . Describing the tragedies of children that have ‘disappeared’ throughout the war in Kosova on 'The Wheel' she cries 'Hey little children, don't disappear' her band respond with a chorus of'I heard it was 28,000'. The scale of the massacres is often difficult to comprehend, but Harvey does this in a way that is chillingly effective. (And her tour show was a live event of the year...)
A lot of great music has poured out of my radio throughout 2016, sadly much of this was made by David Bowie, Prince, Leonard Cohen, Gregg Lake or produced by George Martin. As I write this, I know that‘Pictures of Matchstick Men’ by Status Quo will be filling the airwaves.
Of the living, Kate Tempest, Hannah Peel, Olafur Arnalds and Nick Cave have made the albums that I will cherish most from this year. Whatever darkness they have felt or observed, they have chronicled their emotions with a poignant sense of humanity.
I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a peaceful New Year.
Jason Lewis is a Birmingham based music, movie and arts obsessive. Jason's encyclopedic knowledge of 80s/90s Arts films is a debt to his embedded status in the Triangle Arts Centre trenches back then.