This year has been fucking rough.
Every day a new catastrophe was dumped on our doorstep. From the political infighting of America’s Cheeto-Dust tyrant to Australia’s own refugee-torturing Liberal party, to the impending doom of the very planet, it’s been a major shit-show. But if there’s one thing that makes for brilliant music, it’s a shit-show. And, as a result of how truly awful this year has been, we’ve been blessed with some of the best records in a decade. Furthermore, the recent deaths of some beloved musos have made us newly aware of their brilliance. So, with this silver lining in mind, grab a drink, put one of the following records on the turntable, and let the chaos unfold.
Bottle It In by Kurt Vile
The timing couldn’t be better. Kurt Vile’s new record is perfect holiday music and it sounds… exactly like Kurt Vile. It’s a looser affair than ever and in the best possible way: the summery single ‘One Trick Ponies’ has Kurt jibing ‘I’ve always had a soft spot for repetition’ atop an unchanging, rollicking chord progression and a recurring chorus so comforting you never want it to end. His delivery refuses to follow a melody or fall on the beat, with lyrics that touch on the existential but remain as endearingly light-hearted as you’d expect. He sounds more at home in his sonic identity than ever before; within the first two seconds of lead single ‘Loading Zones’ you can tell it’s a Kurt Vile song. Overworked guitar, spidery in its melancholic intricacy, engulfs you without so much as a fade-in. Like Johnny Marr of The Smiths, Vile has an ability to build a song around simple minor chords and give it a grandiose, orchestral sound through endless layering of sparkling guitars, à la ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before.’ Similarly, Bottle It In’s centrepiece ‘Bassackwards’ immediately recalls the grand assertions of his 2013 masterpiece Wakin On a Pretty Daze. The fact that ‘Bassackwards’ is yet another hazy ten-minute magnum opus doesn’t detract from its value–it shows that Kurt Vile is perfectly happy continuing to refine what he does best.
Night of the Wolverine by Dave Graney and the Coral Snakes
South Australian songwriter Dave Graney is someone who consistently drifts beneath the radar. He’s always been on the periphery of the Australian music scene, lurking where greats like Nick Cave, The Go-Betweens, and Rowland S. Howard boldly stomp, but never getting the recognition he deserves. It’s time that changed. 1993’s Night of The Wolverine is a masterpiece of an album and one you need to listen to these holidays. Songs like ‘Maggie Cassidy’ deserve to be Australian rock classics on par with ‘Wide Open Road’ or ‘Under the Milky Way’ in their fatalistic contemplation of the Australian continent, and the bittersweet resignation of living a modest life on its sunburnt surface. ‘Three Dead Passengers’ sounds like the best folk song Bob Dylan never wrote–a track that could easily sit next to ‘Mr Tambourine Man’ on a tracklist. But better. And cheesier. One of Graney’s greatest gifts is to turn the shtick up all the way without compromising the sincerity of his music; the humour in his overblown delivery feels more like an in-joke than the product of a washed-up persona. Like any classic album, listening to Night of The Wolverine feels like catching up with an old friend over a beer. In other words, it reeks of the holidays. So, get your hands on a copy, matey, and breathe in the nostalgia.
I Need to Start a Garden by Haley Heynderickx
Haley Hendrickx’s debut LP feels like the anxious person’s manifesto. I Need to Start a Garden was quietly released in March, but is undoubtedly one of the best records of 2018 (and how will you join me in dubbing it best album of the year if you don’t listen to it before the year’s close?) Heynderickx’s fragile folk stylings call to mind singers like Angel Olsen or Vashti Bunyan, but infinitely more neurotic. For example, ‘The Bug Collector’ has Heynderickx attempting to glean divine consequence and retribution from everyday minutiae, saying of a centipede in her bedroom, ‘You swear to god that the fucker’s out to get you;’ and the lead single ‘Oom Sha La La’ contrasts a lamenting of everyday anxieties (‘the milk is sour’) with the urgent cathartic chorus, ‘I need to start a garden!’ She realises that instead of crying over spilled milk, she can find small solace in the natural world and the everyday. So, if this year’s left you hitting your head against the wall for missing the bus and struggling to find meaning in anything at all, this is just the album for ya. Turn it on and settle into a delicate moment soundtracked by somebody just as freaked out as you are.
Spencer P. Jones and The Nothing Butts (Self-Titled)
As the Dirty Three said, it seems some summers they drop like flies. This bastard of a year, 2018, took the legendary Aussie musos Spencer P. Jones and Conway Savage from us, so it’s fitting that we finish the year by remembering how brilliant their music was. The 2012 record Spencer P. Jones and The Nothing Butts showcases some of Jones’ best work outside the Beasts of Bourbon. The band is comprised of Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin of The Drones and Tropical Fuck Storm on guitar and bass, and James Baker of the Hoodoo Gurus and Beasts of Bourbon on drums. Such a gathering of music royalty guarantees one thing and, Jesus Christ, does it deliver. Dirty Aussie pub rock is exemplified on songs like the opener ‘Freak Out’, meanwhile, ‘When He Finds Out’ stands out as a singular masterpiece. It is an impeccable synthesis of Spencer’s knack for crafting a straightforward but perfectly balanced melancholic rocker, and Gareth Liddiard’s ability to descend into pedal-induced chaos in a way that feels cathartic rather than gratuitous. And what a way to remember Spencer. He wryly asserts on ‘Don’t Worry About Me’ that ‘My funeral was attended by the women I adored, don’t you worry about me.’ He sarcastically takes his legendary status upon his passing as a given. And he implores that we do not lament him, but remember him in his glory. And listening to this album is just the way to do it.
Nothing Broken by Conway Savage
The late Conway Savage, most prominently known as the pianist in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, has put out some brilliant solo work well deserving of further recognition. His 2001 LP Nothing Broken features bandmates from the Bad Seeds, such as Mick Harvey and Martyn P. Casey, so it is no surprise that the album’s sound closely resembles the broken beauty of the Bad Seeds’ albums at the turn of the century. ‘You Did as You Were Told to Do’ is a demented salsa that calls to mind Tom Waits’ work and serves as a musical blueprint for The Bad Seed’s ‘Abattoir Blues’. Meanwhile, tracks such as ‘Don’t Plan on Leaving Town’ and ‘These Are the Waves’ have the bittersweet folk sound typical of Tex Perkins–no surprise, given that Perkins’ bandmate Charlie Owen in ‘Tex Don and Charlie’ performs the banjo on Conway’s album. This record establishes that Conway Savage was not just an accessory to greater artists, but a musician whose touch shaped the sound of those he played with, thus altering Australian rock music history. So, give it a whirl. Allow its subdued and sorrowful beauty to seep into the hush of the holidays. Allow its delicacy to occupy the quiet moments. And allow Conway to live on. Suck shit, 2018.
Wanderer by Cat Power
Surely, you’ve listened to Cat Power by now. If you haven’t, go buy a copy of her new album Wanderer right now. This is one of the few records this year that can well and truly be considered essential listening for every person in the world, regardless of what your taste in music is. If you like bad music, the lead single ‘Woman’ is the most impeccable, well-rounded pop song all year. And Lana Del Rey sings on it, for god’s sake. There’s even a Rihanna cover. What more do you want? Meanwhile, if you like good music, Wanderer is the most complete synthesis of all of Chan Marshall’s styles yet. The first two tracks, ‘Wanderer’ and ‘In Your Face’ both use emotive, layered vocal harmonies, revealing Marshall’s fascination with American musical tradition (especially soul and gospel) that was most prominently explored on her 2006 LP The Greatest. Most of the songs on the album also feature her unique guitar playing, which is comprised of simple chord progressions in which extra strings ring out at random. Rather than appearing clumsy, this unwittingly creates unexpected melodies which, in their fleeting fragility, add a distinctly human element to Marshall’s work–a display of honesty and human frailty that demands empathy. This phenomenon is also typical of the guitar playing of the Dirty Three’s Mick Turner, who played on Marshall’s seminal 1998 record Moon Pix. In this way, the album is extraordinarily successful in tracking the trajectory of Cat Power’s life and career. It ends on an alternate version of its opening track ‘Wanderer’ played in the style of her moody early work, clearly illustrating both how far she has come, and how far she has strayed. But don’t buy into this indecision and uncertainty on Marshall’s part: ‘Oh wanderer, I’ll be wondering …’ Buy the album and decide for yourself. Because it’s the bloody best you’re going to hear for a while.
On the Beach by Neil Young
This album is a stone-cold classic, but one that upon mention frequently receives the excruciating reply, ‘I haven’t heard it but I’ve heard of it? Oi, Tame Impala are heaps good too, hey.’ Change that. Change it now, for fuck’s sake. For all of you listening to Kurt Vile and Ty Segall, it is Neil Young who preceded these contemporary rock gods, and there’s a good goddamned reason they bothered borrowing from him. The title track ‘On the Beach’ seems to have invented the A-minor chord, meaning that any musician who uses it is stealing. ‘Higgs Boson Blues’ by Nick Cave? What a blatant rip-off! Who the fuck does he think he is, Neil Young?! On the Beach also has the best guitar solo ever played. I’m serious. Further, the lyrics on the record have never been more relevant than they are today. Songs like ‘Revolution Blues’ have such immaculate and hilarious lines as ‘I hear that Laurel Canyon is full of famous stars, but I hate them worse than lepers and I’ll kill them in their cars,’ which rings especially true in a world full of Kardashians. Meanwhile, the line ‘Though your confidence may be shattered, it doesn’t matter’ from the song ‘For the Turnstiles’ reflects the degraded resignation defining our current political climate with depressing accuracy. So, if you love guitars and great hair, now is the perfect time to take it back to where it all began. On the beach, baby.