Richie Egan’s fifth album is a collection of serene electronic songcraft.
For most of his creative endeavours as Jape, Richie Egan has been juxtaposing traditional guitar-based songwriting with electronic synth textures.
The fifth Jape album, This Chemical Sea, made with band member Glen Keating, is the first released since Egan uprooted his life and family to Malmö in Sweden and that distance has encouraged a clarity of vision that translates to these two sides being more suitable bedfellows than ever.
There’s soft transparency to the production helped greatly by David Wrench who mixed and mastered the album, and whose considered imprint can most recently be heard on top notch productions from Caribou, FKA Twigs and Jungle; three of the best sounding records of the last year. Those albums have a clear spaciousness that they share with This Chemical Sea.
This Chemical Sea often feels like its floating above the physical and unmoored from the sum of its parts, that give the songs a unique identity in the Jape discography. It is a collection of serene electronic songcraft: meditative, lucid and unbound.
The xx’s producer’s solo album draws on the past to make its own multi-chromatic template.
Jamie Smith has always been the xx’s weapon in the front view. He might be a shy boy, skulking in the background but the music he creates speaks for itself through its refined use of space and dynamics. On the second album from the xx, Co-Exist, you could feel the desire to self-express ready to burst out. Jamie had already worked with Gil Scott-Heron and proved himself to be an vital collaborator across the generations.
Before the release of In Colour, Jamie spoke of feeling nostalgic for a dance music in the UK he never really experienced due to age. As he toured and collaborated, Smith felt distant from his London home and set about creating a sound collage of his country’s dance music past that resulted in ‘All Under One Roof Raving‘.
In Colour has that idea writ large across its running time. Beginning with the thunderous stomp of ‘Gosh’ simultaneously throwing back to early ’90s jungle music and the siren synth strains of electronic forefathers Orbital. ‘Seesaw’ featuring the xx’s Romy Madley-Croft, brings in electronic pioneer present and past Four Tet for a co-production hand.
When not nodding to the past, Jamie Smith’s productions have warm resonance to them. But it’s the album’s two singles that set it apart while embedding the past in the current. ‘I Know There’s Gonna Be Good Times’ is a sunshine dancehall pop anthem with Jamaican MC Popcaan and Atlanta rapper Young Thug that samples The Persuasions’ ‘Good Times’ and ‘Loud Places’ is given high feeling by the Idris Muhammad ‘Could Heaven Ever Be Like This’ sample and Romy Madley-Croft’s search for lost solace in the club.
Ghostface Killah & BadBadNotGood
Young jazz instrumentalists and OG rapper create a sterling hip-hop album.
Toronto jazz hop live band trio Badbadnotgood have been known to perform live with rappers, most notably with Tyler, The Creator. But their full-length with Ghostface Killah finds taut new grooves for the band to play on an album that was one of my most repeated of the year. I played a lot of tracks from it on my TXFM show.
DOOM, Danny Brown, Tree and Elzi contribute and while Ghostface often sounds like he’s on autopilot, it’s endlessly listenable. Badbadnotgood are the real stars of the album, creating twinkling vintage soul music for the backdrop.
Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment
Chance The Rapper and an all-star cast make a vibrant positive album.
Both listening to the music that Chance The Rapper makes and watching him navigate the music industry is a joy. Last week, Chance was the first ever independent (unsigned to any label) musician to play Saturday Night Live, a long overdue feat.
This year, Chance The Rapper cemented his immense promise and talent, while keep room in the spotlight for his Chicago friends, Nico Segal (Donnie Trumpet, Peter Cottontale, Nate Fox and Greg Landfair Jr.
Together, they concocted a trippy psychedelic jazz pop stage musical with an all-star cast that also includes Busta Rhymes, Erykah Badu, Janelle Monae, B.o.B., J. Cole, BJ The Chicago Kid, Jeremih, Raury, Big Sean and King Louie.
That the Social Experiment’s uplifting soulful gospel-dripped ethos shines so brightly on the same track as Busta, Monae and B.o.B as it does on ‘Slip Slide’, just suggests what magic and talent is on display here. Surf isn’t a rap album. It’s a vibrant uplifting celebration of life.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra
The true story of polyamory charges this colourful hi-fi album.
From psychedelic rock outlier to pop flirter, Ruban Nielson dispensed with the weirdo Captain Beefheart lo-fi disposition and give us something with clarity from the heart.
His third album is driven by the self-doubt and anguish of the aftermath of a polyamorous relationship. Rather than make fucked up lo-fi music, Nielson has made super-fi music from a fucked up situation, which made for more striking resonant music than ever before.
A difficult album about grief and estrangement wrapped up in beauty.
For his seventh album Carrie & Lowell, Stevens has put the wings back in the cupboard and returned to his folk roots, while trading conceptual grandiosity for the devastatingly personal – addressing the monumental loss of his mother’s life and of her in his life (his stepfather is a director of his label Asthmatic Kitty).
The music is sparse, evocative, stripped-bare and beautiful. Stevens’ doesn’t embellish much musically but he doesn’t compound the hurt and pain in his words with more aural clues. It is an album of grief but there is no definitive 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.
The start of someone great.
Las Vegas kid Shamir Bailey’s debut album on XL Recordings is the most fun release of the year. Vegas is a perfect place for a party and its reputation for hedonistic weekenders plays into the hands of Ratchet, a brashy album about good times, bad times and identity set to live beat-driven electro disco/house. Pitched down vocals contrast Shamir’s breezy androgynous voice which gives Ratchet a unique teenage energy.
Musically, the album is for dancing, guided by the production of Nick Sylvester, analogue synths blare like sirens, cowbells ride a 4/4 beat, saxophone creeps and classic dance music never feels far away. Ratchet feels less like an infatuation but the start of someone great.
Father John Misty
A marquee album about love and cynicism..
I Love You, Honeybear has Josh Tillman, playing a version of himself as Father John Misty for the second time in album format after seven solo albums, inspired by his recent marriage and the experiences that lead to it. Lovestruck, starry-eyed, filled with grand declarations but weighted down with inner cynicisms that temper the highs, it’s an entirely real depiction of a man, who on the surface, has passed through the marriage milestone with an experience of a magnetic strong relationship with another, but which also acknowledges the internal struggle of someone whose character wiring is fatalistic about their place and mankind’s route through the world.
The title track serves as a thematic introduction to this idea and pitches Tillman and his wife as insurgents of the world who will watch it burn sure, but they’ll do so together – “My love, you’re the one I want to watch the ship go down with.”
No matter how good things are, there’s always a niggling feeling that it’s all going to disappear. “How many people rise and think ‘Oh good, the stranger’s body’s still here / Our arrangement hasn’t changed?,” he sings on the ballad ‘Bored In The USA’, a song which lists all the things that make modern life shit like Tillman himself on ‘The Ideal Husband’.
But there’s hope in love as well as potential hurt even if Tillman’s version is constantly buttressed by bleakness. “I haven’t hated all the same things / As somebody else / Since I remember” goes ‘Chateau Lobby #4 (in C for Two Virgins)’, suggesting shared cynicisms are as important as shared interests too.
The instrumentation on the album is positively epic, as deep as the explorations into the anxious minutiae of the self in his lyrics. Large-scale orchestral flourishes, a mariachi band, organs, psychedelic folk vistas, pianos, classic-rock guitars and whirling 70s instruments. It has a movie-score level of grandeur which is suitable for tackling the big L word.
Kevin Parker creates a wistful psych-synth pop cosmos.
With Currents, Tame Impala steps out of the psych rock shadow into a new beginning and Parker provides the soundtrack to his own evolution. ‘Yes, I’m Changing’ sings of that shift: “And if you don’t think it’s a crime you can come along, with me”.
The psych rock is still at the base. Tame Impala’s third album glitters with disco balls and glam stomps, while retaining his falsetto-led wooziness and ’70s tie-dye vibe in the process. A overall reliance on Parker’s floating falsetto, an embrace of dynamics and an increasing employment of electronic textures means that Currents ends up closer in its exploratory tones to Daft Punk’s wistful cosmos than Pink Floyd. Parker has referenced hearing the Bee Gees while on mushrooms as a catalyst. That certainly helps explain the falsetto that Parker has drawn out of himself, which recalls those soulful brothers, albeit smudged with a haziness they never considered.
Crucially, these Currents songs are Parker’s best. The album lilts and laps between chilled out/spaced out (‘Nangs’), stomping glam synth-rock (‘The Moment’ / ‘The Less I Know The Better’ / ‘Reality In Motion’), groovy low-end (‘Yes I’m Changing’ / ‘New Person Old Mistakes’) and standout psych-soul (‘Cause I’m A Man’). The album’s big track ‘Let It Happen; has trailed that ambition and reach. A seven minute powerhouse of heady synthesizer psych synth-rock grooves with a CD stuck-on-a-loop passage, stirring fake strings, crunched guitars and a disembodied Parker. It’s a year-defining song (which was accompanied by the remix of the year) on a career-defining album.
To Pimp A Butterfly
The most essential album of the year from an artist who pushed himself into a new league.
That I never got around to writing about To Pimp A Butterfly since its release in March is a testament in part to how much there is to unpack over its sprawling 80 minute running time. It’s not a rap record, it’s soul, jazz and rap protest record. Lamar’s previous album good kid, m.A.A.d. city was a compelling street-level retelling of his early life but TPAB zooms to the macro of Black America: encountering the black struggle, culture, net worth seduction, personal happinesss, police brutality, hypocrisy and beyond.
Despite its many ideas and movements, and its repeated and increasing reciting poem weaving itself around each song, To Pimp A Butterfly is a joyousm insightful and engaging listen: endlessly detailed with players like Bilal, Thundercat, Sounwave and Anna Wise operating at their peak. They are only surpassed by Lamar himself, who delivers his words with a ferocity unmatched.
It’s dense and experimental but it’s also filled with absolute monster tunes like the funky ‘King Kunta’, the smooth R&B of ‘These Walls’, the daring anger of ‘The Blacker the Berry’, the gliding ‘Momma’ and a live version of ‘i’ that collapses with crowd bickering among them
It’s telling that the mantric ‘Alright’ was adopted by the Black Lives Matter campaign in a year when racial violence reached a depressing peak in the U.S., Lamar speaks for and to a generation and a people. There is still much to unpack.
Niall Byrne is the founder of the most-influential Irish music site Nialler9, where he has been writing about music since 2005 . He is the cohost of the Nialler9 Podcast and has written for the Irish Times, Irish Independent, Cara Magazine, Sunday Times, Totally Dublin, Red Bull and more. Niall is a DJ, founder of Lumo Club, event curator and producer of gigs, parties & events.