Picking just ten albums out of the pack is always a tricky thing. This site has reviewed around 500 pieces of music this year from throw-away pop singles to album length progressive flights of fancy, from the well trodden grounds of classic rock to cutting edge experiments which are creating a whole new musical future. Add to that the fact that I am lucky enough to largely write about music I find interesting, which means if it even makes the page there is something I like about it. Anyway, below is 10 of the standouts of the year, I could write another 10 articles like this, but I won’t, better you explore the site and make your own mind up. Enjoy, comment, discuss and leave the cash in a brown envelope in the usual place! (I wish)
Music is cyclical, we all know that, 30 years seems to be the recognised time span for music to drop off the fashion radar long enough to seem cool or cult and be rediscovered and reinterpreted by a new musical generation. Brit-pop was a re-discovery of sixties guitar bands, punk was the distilled spirit of rock’n’roll for generation feeling similarly lost and even grunge had its roots in the garage rock and nascent metal scenes of a previous generation.
My own musical future-nostalgia moments, however, lie in an altogether more ambient place. Once the punks had shown us that making music was not just something for the dedicated, or indeed talented few, a whole movement of back bedroom aspirants began rewiring cheap keyboards and running battered guitars through homemade effects pedals and the result was glorious.
The sonic landscape that they described was one of drifting beauty and sharp angles, of raw guitars and delicate minimalism, of ethereal atmospheres and of industrial noise. It was supported by fledgling record labels such as 4AD and Sarah Records and was gathered into journalistic gangs and given names like dream-pop, shoe gaze, new-wave, underground-pop and new romanticism.
And if the likes of Kate Bush was proving that such new and defiant approaches could sell records via the more traditional model, bands such as The Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance and even The Birthday Party where the street corner punk hustlers pushing their own, more confrontational but no less beautiful sonic dreams.
And today, the circle has turned and those once lost, sweet sounds are finding their way into modern music once more as musicians discover that same acoustic beauty in the dusty corners of parents record collections and incorporate them into their own musical visions. Torchbearers such as Shameless Promotions gather and collect both new takes on the past as well as bands that have been carrying the flag for all these years. The Veldt’s reverb soaked soul, Ummagma’s chilled delicacy, the cavernous majesty of Tombstones In Their Eyes and Black Needle Noise building music for movies you haven’t dreamt of yet are the centre of that new exclusive universe.
Bands such as Fassine come at these sounds from another angle, one which links chilled ambient dance with futuristic pop, which is both massively commercial yet effortlessly cool, a chart headed Trojan horse to spread subtle influences through a musical charm offensive.
The one advantage of staying close to music for so long is that you get to see a new generation get excited, deconstruct and redefine the sounds that made you fall in love with music in the first place.
This new wave of bands both pull nostalgic heartstrings and point the way towards a bright new dawn and for that I can’t thank them enough.
Fassine has been leaving a trail of acoustic breadcrumbs like a musical Handsel and Gretel…but with an extra Handsel, all year. That enticing journey has finally paid off with this masterful collection of chilled and forward thinking tracks and whilst those following the teasing trail are going to be fairly familiar with what is at the end of the journey, it is great to have the music collected in one neat package.
And if the songs were lapped up as individual releases, as a complete package Gourami underlines the chilled and sweeping majesty which flows through their music. In turns it wanders dream-pop landscapes, ambient minimalism and futuristic dance spaces, sonorous chilled alt-pop, ultra cool indie vibes and even neo-classical grandeur.
All interesting places in their own right but thread them together end to end, weave elements of one through the other, cross boundaries and push through generic barriers and you have nothing less than a bright new horizon for pop music to walk towards. Hopefully others will follow their example, break conventions and explore new musical territories but they must realise that as they wander wide-eyed into these new sonic pastures, they will see three sets of foot prints ahead of them and quite possibly another trail of breadcrumbs.
Fassine has been teasing us with chilled and sophisticated tracks accompanied by intriguing videos for months now as they pave the way for Gourami, the latest, long awaited full album. This last chapter before the big reveal sees them at their most minimal, a beat cloaked in whispers and anticipation, the trip-hop vibe of the fledgling Portishead, the fragility of Warpaint and the ethereality of SPC ECO meeting in a loving embrace.
Neo-classical charm is threaded through futuristic beats, plaintive electronica washes through vocal delicacy, dance floor culture is turned into smoke and anagrams and dream-pop vibes soak into a wholly new sensual and understated EDM sound. This minimalist vibe even runs through the video, a hypnotic monochrome affair, again just lyrics and (hoof) beats, hypnotic and understated matching the slick and spacious music that drives it.
We have known for a long time that the pending album is going to be well worth waiting for, what has been floated out into the world so far has been wonderfully enticing, their track record has revealed impeccable taste and musical finesse, and if that isn’t what the world needs right now I’ll eat my Kate Bush albums.
There are many perks of being in a band, one of the less obvious ones is being perfectly equipped to pay tribute to your musical heroes, those who shaped your formative years and who may have even been the reason for you taking up musical arms in the first place. Fassine are no strangers to the idea of paying tribute your heroes, their cover of XTC’s That Wave saw them merge the original’s acid-tinged, hazy psychedelic vibe with their own future-pop sound to great effect. Here they set their sights on an even bigger figure.
Ursa Minor sees the band write their own musical love letter to David Bowie’s Berlin years and the ambient nature of the songs found on the albums Low and Heroes in particular. This feels like a drifting neo-classical passage built from a collision of cool technology and warm instrumentation with cellos drifting through electronic landscapes and celestial vocals weaving their way through the backbeats, softening the edges like a dusting of snow.
I’m always amazed at the Fassine‘s ability to create music that feels wonderfully chilled yet so dynamic at the same time, ambient yet anthemic, a quality which is built from clever choices of space and texture rather than merely where you set the volume control. Yet again they have set a benchmark for nu-pop, ambient dance or whatever it is they do….the Ursa may be minor, but what they have created here is major achievement.
It initially seems like an odd step for my new, favourite purveyors of ultra-chic, hi-concept, cinematic, alt-pop to cover my home town’s most famous musical sons, but once you get your head around the idea you realise that there is a lot of wonderful warped, psychedelic middle ground. The common zone on this very specific Venn Diagram is a fascinating place, one that sees Fassine bring new textures, depths and subtleties to an already unique piece of music.
If XTC’s original saw the band pushing the boundaries of the acid-laced, sunshine pop that has always close to Andy Partridge’s heart, Fassine remain true to the spirit of the original, the music evocative of the titular wave and awareness of that wave being an analogy for the overwhelming power of love. And whilst it would be sacrilege to wander off of the beaten track too much and to presume that the track could benefit from any major musical reassessment, what Fassine do is pay homage to a band that they clearly love and add their chiming electronica and the slick musical lines that are the hallmark of their music.
I’m not normally one for covers, but this comes from the heart, is reverential and is the perfect way to bring XTC to a new audience, this song is 25 years old and I’m sure there are fans of Fassine who weren’t even born at the time that Nonsuch, the album that brought the song to the world, was released. And you can tell that the choice of this as a cover is right when both the sound of XTC and Fassine seem to mingle in effortless fashion, blurring the lines between the original and the modern revisit.
If you are going to cover a song, do so for the right reasons. That Wave in its slightly new but ultimately familiar trappings is back for all the right reasons.
When I was trying to describe the sound of last year’s single Sunshine, I resorted to words like bleak and minimal but on reading back what I wrote I wish to change my plea, m’lud. Subsequent listens to that track followed by the arrival of this new single has made me look for a better choice of words. Let’s start with slick. There is a clean limbed, unfussy, classic grace to their style of pop, if pop it even is…that seems like too restrictive a term, one which conjures a whole bunch of images which don’t even come close to doing justice how forward thinking and progressive this track is.
I now realise that their music isn’t minimalist at all, it is just that the fine gossamer threads and elegant textures are so well constructed, so closely woven, that whereas with most music you can see the mechanics at work, with Fassine you can’t even see the join. This is a tantalising glance at what chilled dance music can be, what pop is capable of if it stopped chasing the dollar and started chasing perfection. It may sound as if I am over selling the case somewhat but give it a few years when everyone is trying to emulate the musical eloquence of Fassine and I will just copyright the phrase “ I told you so” and retire comfortably on the proceeds.
With debut single Sunshine, Fassine take dance music to a new place. The glossy pop veneer is stripped away to leave a bleak soundscape of Berlin Bowie minimalism, stark industrial grooves and elegantly wasted and sensual vocals. More akin to a futuristic film noir soundtrack than anything suggested by the song title yet still strangely engaging, via it’s delicate, transient nature, mercurial rhythms and glitchy beats. This is the music of late night solitude but also of the dawn breaking after a night of excess. This is the soundtrack to memories of youth and a glimpse into the future. This is cinematic pop music distilled to its very essence and is all the better for it.