Sufjan Stevens, Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly and James McAlister have made a collaborative album called Planetarium together that will come out on 4AD on June 9th.
Planetarium is a reimagined version of a project that first got under way some years ago and combines Sufjan’s often treated voice, McAlister’s beats, Dessner’s guitar, and Muhly’s instrumental compositions. It’s been described as “part rock odyssey, part electronic experiment, part classical opus”.
Stevens’ lyrics address “mythology, astrology, science, astronomy and the intricacies of human consciousness.”
The album began when Dutch concert hall Muziekgebouw Eindhoven commissioned Muhly to create a new piece and he enlisted friends Dessner, Stevens and McAlister, all of whom had been looking for the opportunity to collaborate on a larger scale.
After sketching the framework of the song cycle and performing the piece as a band – flanked by a string quartet and seven trombones – in various forms, the quartet put the project on hold for several years. Returning to the raw material in 2016, Stevens and McAlister reversed their typical process, taking recordings of the live show and adapting to the studio. “We had recorded all the arrangements and the live parts in a studio after our last performance,” says Stevens, “so years later when we all kind of settled down, we said, ‘let’s open Pandora’s box.’”
Stevens and McAlister worked to arrange Muhly’s symphonic framework and Dessner’s guitar virtuosity alongside their own lyrics and beats. Stevens became the driver behind the “song” part of the song cycle, his unique voice providing a clear and coherent center of gravity for the whole project.
In the time between Planetarium’s conception and release, Muhly wrote a new viola concerto and a commission for the Metropolitan Opera; Dessner released Trouble Will Find Me with The National, toured extensively and moved to Paris; and Stevens recorded and released Carrie & Lowell and, with McAlister, toured the album worldwide.
3. Halley’s Comet
7. Black Energy
12. Kuiper Belt
13. Black Hole
15. In the Beginning
Update: It’s 2016, I found this post and enjoyed it. I’ve now added a Spotify playlist of all of the albums available.
Below is a list of my favourite records of the ten years between the turn of the millenium, the year 2000 and 2010. Ranking these albums was led by a) what the album means to me and b) how often I’d listen to it. Each and every one of these albums blew me away repeatedly at some time between the ages of 18 and 27. Each one has something special going for it, something magical that brings me back to it. For that I can only thank the creators of each.
Without further ado, here are my favourite 50 albums from the decade. And remember, you can’t be wrong if they are your favourites.
Roisin Murphy’s third album is a sophisticated and layered album that furthers the career of an outlier and a creative artist, making accessible but avant-garde music that draws from pop, dance, disco and jazz.
From the elongated elegance of ‘Exploitation’ to the spooked ‘Gone Fishing’ to the warped ballad of ‘Unputdownable’ to the poppy bass-slung groove of ‘Evil Eyes’, Murphy creates duality throughout: intimate and anamorphic, detailed yet sparse, Glamourous yet grubby, Loungey yet dancy. Murphy remains the magnet at the centre of Hairless Toys as she has been throughout her career. Where-ever she goes, I will follow.
This is what 21st Century pop music is supposed to sound like.
Claire Boucher’s followup to 2012’s breakthrough Grimes album Visions is wildly different. Art Angels is the result of three years of growth, touring, a decision to scrap a previous album and an hardening of artistic resolve. Grimes’ has often talked about her love of pop music and on Art Angels she’s made her own version of it with sugar-rushing rhythms, bubble-pop melodies and bright instrumentation. The album feels like it has its own internal logic and palette and inherent in its DNA, is Grimes’ own split personalities, adept at pairing up for a screaming match with Korean rapper Aristophanes on ‘Scream’, delivering clattering guitar pop on ‘Flesh Without Blood’, roping in Janelle Monae for a EDM-style banger and my personal favourite ‘World Princess Part II’, an electro pop crescendo. Boucher continues to write her own story.
The Dublin electro band have made an album of joyous bangers.
For their second full-length, Le Galaxie enlisted the help of producer Erik Brouchek to solidify what most Irish music-loving people know from seeing the band live, that Le Galaxie are the best band for delivering gigantic song-led bangers built on dance music dynamism with live instruments.
Le Club feels like a victory lap, the band’s retro neon-electro having found new sinewy rhythms and strident sounds. Songs like ‘Put The Chain On’, ‘Streetheart’, ‘Le Club’, ‘Lucy Is Here’ and “Carmen’ already feel like modern Irish classics, the soundtrack to many a great festival night and gig. The new version of the Le Galaxie essential, the uplifting ‘Love System’ adds a sax-solo for extra celebration. A trip to Le Club is always fun.
Lorely Rodriguez’s personal yet brisk electronic pop debut.
With the graduation to a self-produced debut album, Lorely Rodriguez also makes the leap from pleasing hazy synth pop to a gilded form of dance pop. Rodriguez’s lyrics address what it’s like to be a young woman in 2015.
Rarely does a personal album brim with so much danceable briskness. Me makes use of of pleasing discombobulating rhythmic pop sequences, buzzing synths, bouncing bass, drum machine stabs and an clearly elevated confidence. No longer covered in gauze, Empress Of’s talent is greater than was initially suggested.
The Dublin band have made the highly-strung album of the year.
There weren’t more uncompromising sonic albums made in 2015 than this one and while it took its toll on its creators, their efforts have not gone unappreciated.
Holding Hands With Jamie is a bare psychosis, the breakdown of Dara Kiely soundtracked by dissonant, piercing and pulsing noise. Kiely spends howling into the pressurised turbulent wall of noise, fending off life expectations and minutiae.
The band match his intensity spectacularly with guitars that whirr and buzz like nasty synthesizers, drums that engulf the room in a live fashion and low-end that wipes the floor and shits on it afterward for good measure. The harshness of it all is a suitably foil for the discombobulating frame of mind that Kiely displays throughout. It sounds like post-punk, it sounds like garage-rock, it sounds like no-wave, it sounds like dirty bleedin’ techno.
The coiled wrestle between confrontation and escapism, both in the music and in the lyrics, is what makes Holding Hands With Jamie such an uncomfortable yet singularly brilliant album. That it uses the familiar language of rock music to do so makes it one of the albums of the year.
It’s been years since I’ve heard a song as beautiful and as heartbreaking as ‘Fourth Of July’, a song which narrates one of Sufjan’s final conversations with his mother on her deathbed. The first time I heard it, the tears instantly began to flow. I can’t think of another song in recent memory that had such a profound emotional effect on me. Turns out, I wasn’t alone. A quick glance through the comments section of the song on YouTube reveals that the song has struck a powerful chord with countless other people around the world, with listeners reporting that they found themselves bursting into tears upon hearing it in public places such as on buses and trains, at work and in coffee shops. It was the final song that I licensed for ‘An Taobh Tuathail Vol 7’ and only then was that jigsaw complete.
2. Dean Blunt – ‘On Wine, Hashish & Molly’
If someone told me that a track based on deadpan narration by a vocodered voice about the ups and downs of a night on the tiles would be up there with one of my favourite tracks of the year, especially a track that plays out over 23 entire minutes, I would’ve replied ‘not likely’. But the fact that it is, well, this can only be a a testament to the genius of Dean Blunt, whose back catalogue I’ve long admired since his Hype Williams days. The track is a fairly unorthodox cover version (OK, let’s call it what it really is: a complete and radical re-write), of a track entitled ‘Julia’ by Archangel, which was originally featured on his LP ‘The Bedroom Slant’ last year on the always brilliant Foom Music label.
3. Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment – ‘Miracle’
This is an epic track, full of unexpected swerves and irrepressible positivity. The intro comes on like Brian Wilson (no surprises, the album is called ‘Surf’) conducting the string section off some euphoric, long-lost Philly classic before the warm glow of the first vocal emerges and, eventually, the smooth and joyous rap. There’s quite the cast involved in the song and I’m not exactly sure who does what, but the main men are 21-year old Nico Segal (AKA Donnie Trumpet) and Chance The Rapper.
4. Moon Ate The Dark – ‘Sleepy Vipers’
There is so much to recommend on the latest LP from pianist/violinist Anna Rose Carter and producer Christopher Brett Bailey, ‘Moon Ate The Dark II’, but this is the undeniable highlight. The slightly eerie intro is deliciously misleading as it gives no indication to the heart-wrenching cello that first emerges around the 3 minute mark, performed by Carys Davies – easily one of the most beautiful, yet mournful sounds I heard in 2015 – that gently ebbs and flows to the tune’s climax.
5. Kendrick Lamar – ‘King Kunta’
‘I gotta bone to pick’. I can’t think of a single other track released in 2015 that featured as much of “The Funk” as this instant classic from the trailblazing talent that is Kendrick Lamar. I love everything about it: the bassline, the lyrics, the devastatingly confident yet nonchalant, tight delivery, not to mention those outrageously infectious backing vocals. Altogether now: ‘What’s the yams?’
6. Kolomon Trax – ‘Trig Mix’
In a field in Co. Longford last summer, as dawn broke on a beautiful Saturday morning, my friend Phil Watson confided in me that he was setting up a new record label – Cavalier Records – with his good mate Tom Breslin. I knew straightaway that anything he would release would undoubtedly mirror the essence of the man himself: stylish, classy and intelligent, but with more than a fair dose of devilment. Phil and Tom spent months traipsing through Soundcloud links, looking to unearth unreleased jewels, until they happened upon Kolomon Trax, a producer from Frankfurt. Now, while I fully expected that their first release would bowl me over for all the previously mentioned reasons, I wasn’t seriously expecting them to release one of the tunes of the year… and at their very first attempt! The moment I heard ‘Trig Mix’, I felt like I knew it all my life. It has the deep sensuality of a record like ‘Can You Feel It’ by Mr Fingers, while managing a trick that only very few records ever pull off: which is of sounding of its time, yet also somehow sounding utterly timeless. I can picture the delight on some crate-picker’s face when (s)he comes across this in some other far-flung corner of the universe in a few centuries time. This is a tune that will transcend eras.
7. Ekoplekz – ‘A Caustic Romance’
Bristol producer Nick Edwards AKA Ekoplekz is a particularly talented maker of music. I’ve been quite fond of his work up to now, but this track – which kicks off his latest LP Reflekzionz – is probably the most moving track I’ve heard from him to date, a track which I played to death on the show this year. The shuffling drums and the poignant riff on the piano puts me in mind of some of Aphex Twin’s classic works and there are indeed shades of German dreamers such as Popol Vuh and Cluster about the track. Yes… it really is that good.
8. Prequel Tapes – ‘Inner Systems’
This is music to be appreciated on a good set of headphones, a track to soundtrack your dreams. The producer grew up listening to bands like The Cure, whose melodies beguiled him and would linger in his mind and haunt him for days on end. In his youth, he purchased some basic equipment, a Casio sampler and a drum machine and poured himself into his music. Later, through Clock DVA, The KLF and Future Sound Of London, he became fascinated with techno. More recently, he found old DAT recordings and VHS footage of his youthful recordings which – rather than treating as nostalgic artefacts – he instead reclaimed those previously lost sounds and made the music he always wanted to make, in his own words, creating “teenage recordings orchestrated into densely layered tapestries”. Even without any knowledge of the genesis of tunes such as this, there is no denying the feeling of ecstasy that it evokes.
9. ‘Midaircondo – Veins’
Lisa Nordström and Lisen Rylander Löve are Swedish-duo Midaircondo, who released their fourth LP, simply called IV, on Twin Seed last January. With an interest in avant-garde sound art, oddball electronica and melancholic pop, all their influences reach their zenith on this, the stand-out cut from the album and one of the most-played tracks on the show this year.
10. Four Tet – Morning Side
Kieran Hebden AKA Four Tet is the gift that keeps on giving. Rarely a year goes by without him contributing some vital record to the musical cannon (also, from this year, check out his remix of ‘Leave A Trace’ by Chvrches). The vocal sampled is from legendary Indian playback singer Lata Mangeskar’s ’Main Teri Choti Behana Hoon’, as featured in the 1983 Hindi movie ‘Souten’ (make sure to check out the original too: a gorgeous record). From such unlikely origins, we hear one of 2015’s most transcendental records, a record that takes up the entire of Side 1 of his Morning/Evening album and a record that will forever evoke the summer of 2015 in my memories.
The Sufjan Stevens that affected me the most was the one that revelled in the quiet, who kept things simple. Illinoise and The Age Of Adz are great records, sonically rich and ambitious. His stature grew, literally onstage with wings on a recent tour, where layers of sound were built up in impressive displays of song arrangements.
For his seventh album Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has put the wings back in the cupboard and returned to his folk roots. He’s also traded in the conceptual grandiosity for the devastatingly personal.
If there’s one thing you need to know about Sufjan and this album is that it is concerned with his absent mother Carrie (and by extension, his stepfather Lowell), who left his family in Michigan when he was a one year old and moved to Oregon. Carrie died in 2012 of stomach cancer and this visceral album is Sufjan addressing the monumental loss of his mother’s life and of her in his life.
Stevens spent a few summers with his mother as a child, who was troubled by depression and schizophrenia. Much of the album is drawn with that little amount of time he spent with Carrie. Interestingly, Lowell, his stepfather, stayed in touch after he divorced Carrie and went on to release music on Stevens’ label Asthmatic Kitty and is a director of the company. Losing a mother is unbearable but a mother estranged from her son has a profound effect.
The music is sparse, evocative, stripped-bare. Stevens’ doesn’t embellish much musically but he doesn’t compound the hurt and pain in his words with more aural clues. It’s actually a beautiful-sounding album on the surface. Seven Swans, his 2004 acoustic album inspired by Bible songs is the closest comparison. It is an album of grief (On that subject do read Niall Crumlish’s far superior review of this album for State.)
There are questions that go unanswered – “what could I have said to raise you from the dead?”. In both the album’s opening track ‘Death With Dignity’ and ‘Eugene’ Stevens longs to be near his mother. He sings of “this empty feeling” on ‘Should Have Known Better’ and asks “I wonder did you love me at all?” on ‘The Only Thing’. There is searing hurt. “Should I tear my eyes out now? Everything I see returns to you somehow,” he sings on the same track.
His mother, “Erebus on my back” gives an imagined reply on ‘Fourth Of July’ – “did you get enough love, my little dove?” There is much rumination of Stevens himself as a person in the reflection of Carrie through his relationships on ‘John My Beloved’ and ‘Drawn To The Blood’. “What’s left is only bittersweet / for the rest of my life, admitting the best is behind me,” he sings on ‘Eugene’.
There is no answer to grief or estrangement. There can be acceptance, reconciliation, mourning and forgiveness. “I forgive you mother I can hear you,” Stevens sings but there’s much pain to get through. Carrie & Lowell offers catharsis for Stevens and consolation for others in his difficult exploration.
Last night, a select Dublin audience got a full headphones listen to Sufjan’s new album Carrie & Lowell (March 27th), an album that addresses his mother’s death and which pats down his sonics to the folk-style of his earlier work.
Next Tuesday, Sufjan Stevens fans will get a unique opportunity to hear the musicians new album Carrie And Lowell over two weeks before its released.
The Dublin listening party hit capacity in the first few days but I have THE LAST two wristbands for the event in Douglas Hyde Gallery, where 100 people will gather to hear the album through wireless headphones in a communal space from 6:30pm on Tuesday March 10th. Douglas Hyde Gallery was the scene of Sufjan’s first gig in Ireland.
– Carrie & Lowell LP pre-ordered for them from Tower Records. Collect on release day 27 March.
– 2 wristbands to listening party on March 10th 6.30pm at Douglas Hyde Gallery (collected from Tower on 10 March before party)
Sufjan Stevens’ seventh album called Carrie & Lowell due on March 27th. The album is named after his mother and stepfather and addresses his mother’s death in 2012. It strips back his sound to arrangements that would be more akin to the folk style of Seven Swans than the bombastic busyness of The Age of Adz.
‘No Shade In The Shadow Of The Cross’, the first song is an indication of that, a contemplative finger-picked song.
The album will be played for the first time at listening parties and the Dublin one will take place where Stevens’ first Irish gig took place in October 2004 – the Douglas Hyde Gallery. On Tuesday March 10th, a very limited number of fans will get to hear the album two weeks before hand. To gain access to the party, pre-order the album on CD or vinyl from Tower Records on Dawson Street (also online) and you will get two wristbands to the event where the album will be played through wireless headphones.
It’s has been roughly five years since Sufjan Stevens last toured Europe. His artistry was a different prospect then. Having released the ambitious Illinoise album, he was the height of his singer-songwriter folk fame. With nowhere to go within the boundaries of the genre and to escape the gimmicky non sequitur of the 50 States project, Stevens created The BQE, a multimedia production about the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. The ambition carried over into the All Delighted People EP and The Age of Adz (pronounced Odds), released last year – a sprawling and somewhat difficult album with its heart in time with electronic pulses yet ornate with traditional instruments.
Sufjan’s 2011 live show is the premium way to experience The Age Of Adz. To do justice to the songs, the live set is a bombastic experience. Last night’s show (in the true sense of the word) was largely a dramatic reading of the new album. It began with a cacophony of squalling voices, a test of the Olympia Theatre’s acoustics before a slow-building version of ‘Seven Swans’ erupted in colour and sound. Slowly the extent of the setup is revealed to us: an 11 piece band, neon clad band uniforms, front and back screen projection, choreographed on-stage dancing, impressive suitable visuals and giant angel wings.
I know I shouldn’t be writing about this. You know I shouldn’t be writing about this. But I am. This song is a mashup taken from Illinoize by Montreal-based producer Tor which largely unsuccessfully hammers together Sujfan Stevens tracks with the likes of Aesop Rock, Big Daddy Kane, Gift of Gab (Blackalicious), C.L. Smooth, Outkast, Brother Ali, and Grand Puba. I know, I know. Most of it is garbage but this song is worthy.