Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 4. Taylor Swift ‘Reputation’

I think it’s rather sad that I feel I have to defend including Taylor Swift in my top ten albums of the year: it appears here with no apology.

I have two daughters, and I’m acutely aware of their need for strong role models – like Taylor Swift – as they navigate their way through the complexities, prejudices and injustices of the world. Even at the tender ages of 11 and 9, Swift speaks to them in a way that other quarters of the pop world don’t, and so they fully embraced the hype around Reputation when it was being readied for release with the same zeal as I would have approached a new Erasure or Depeche Mode album in my youth. As a father, that’s a wonderful thing to see, particular when the artist they’re excited about is earnest and on the right side of the tracks.

The second reason is simple – Taylor Swift’s music brings us closer as a family. This might seem like a bold, overblown statement, but it’s true. We listened to 1989 all the time when it was released – at home, in the car, on long holiday drives; we spent a week driving round Cornwall to the soundtrack of Swift’s Red, complete with all four of us singing along to ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’ and ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’ and engaging in critical discourse on which of the two was the better track. We’ve done the same with Reputation, engaging in spirited debates on each track like we’re at a Vienna salon at the turn of the twentieth century rather than on the school run.

But what of the musical qualities of Reputation that means it sits so high in this top ten? Well, even a pop novice can hear that these songs are just a little bit removed from the traditional hallmarks of popular music, even if they are squarely framed in a pop context; they are personal, oblique, a little subversive, bruised, angry, disappointed, political, mature and only occasionally completely lighthearted. The album also benefits from the hand of Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff, whose ability to bash out euphoric, massively transformative choruses – as is the case on ‘Getaway Car’ and ‘This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things’ here – has made his two solo albums such wonderfully intriguing listens.

I could also start a healthy discourse here on where the electronic music I typically write about ends and the electronics of modern pop music starts, but in practice that’s futile. There’s very little difference, even if people desperately want to believe that’s the case. Synths and clever electronic structures underpin the entire breadth of Reputation and not in a way that suggests pop music is appropriating the best ideas from purportedly more serious endeavours.

It’s a great record, by a great artist. Deal with it.

Listen to Reputation here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

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Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 5. Moon Hooch ‘Live At The Cathedral’

“The trio of Mike Wilbur, Wenzl McGowen and James Muschler may well have just written a whole new playbook for modern jazz.”
– Electronic Sound

It’s warm, sunny evening in July and I’m in a quiet little hotel near the Champs Elysées in Paris, with the loud and uncompromising sounds of New York trio Moon Hooch blasting out at neighbour-bothering volumes.

This was one of those albums that hit my inbox and initially went straight into the trash folder, only to resurface later when my editor at Electronic Sound put it on my list of things to cover that month. I felt like such an idiot for deleting it. Loved by luminaries like Iggy Pop and recorded here in the cavernous environs of the Cathedral of St. John The Divine in New York, Moon Hooch make an unholy punk-jazz racket that is entirely in the NYC tradition of James Chance & The Contortions. It’s bratty, electronically-augmented and wildly inventive, twisting New York’s venerable jazz legacy into incredibly creative new shapes.

Electronic Sound can be purchased at www.electronicsound.co.uk

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 6. Depeche Mode ‘Spirit’

“Not an album to listen to if you are remotely worried about the state of the world right now… The kind of album that is necessary for shining a light on our basest traits and for encouraging us to think differently all over again; in that sense, for the first time in a long time, Depeche Mode have judged this just right.”
– Clash

Honestly, I couldn’t bring myself to get excited about Depeche Mode‘s Spirit album. Partly it was because it was billed as being political, and I’m not an outwardly political person and nor do I especially gravitate toward albums with obvious political content. I was asked by Clash to write a piece explaining that Depeche Mode had always been political on some level, which seemed like utter nonsense until I started writing it. That piece can be found here; I won’t rehash it again but it’s a piece of mature analysis that I am particularly proud of.

‘Where’s The Revolution?’ did nothing for me when it was released, and I didn’t hold out much hope for the album. Being political had become trendy, with bands using music as a platform to make a political point, and I couldn’t get on board with it at all. But spending time with the album to write a review, also for Clash, unlocked something that I hadn’t especially expected to find.

My earliest drafts for the review were uniformly negative. I couldn’t reconcile lyrics about impoverished members of society with a band whose members variously live in Manhattan apartments and Californian mansions; it somehow seemed hypocritical on a very obvious level. But as I spent time time with Spirit I began to hear parallels with a very different album – Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On – and a certain similarity of poise began to emerge, especially in Martin Gore‘s lyrics for ‘Fail’ at the very end of the album.

Spirit did much to allow me to reconcile issues that I didn’t even know I harboured toward Depeche Mode, a band that have been part of my life since my teens. Consequently, I’m convinced that when, in decades to come, writers like me are asked to assess Depeche Mode’s legacy, Spirit will stand out as the band’s surprising yet defining late period statement.

Listen to Spirithere.

My review for Clash can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 7. Floating Points ‘Reflections – Mojave Desert’

“Sam Shepherd seems set to become one of his generation’s musicians to watch, and a potential legend in the making.”
Electronic Sound

Floating Points‘s Elaenia was my favourite album of 2015 by far, and was responsible for me beginning to realise that fusing electronics with jazz wasn’t quite as naff as everyone had told me it was. Consequently I was ridiculously excited to get the chance to review Sam Shepherd’s latest album for Electronic Sound, an album where he had moved from solo artist to de facto band leader.

Reflections – Mojave Desert is a major progression on from Elaenia, where the addition of extra musicians has allowed Shepherd to more precisely express what he was clearly to do back in 2015 but couldn’t when his only tools were samples and electronics. To fully understand the exacting process Shepherd went through to create the five tracks on the album, an accompanying film showed the group performing and collecting sounds amid the breathtaking backdrop of the Joshua Tree National Park.

The result is an album full of finely-wrought atmospherics and complex arrangements that showcases Shepherd’s strong appreciation of jazz music history and his ability to push things in a thoroughly modern direction.

Listen to Reflections – Mojave Desert here.

Electronic Sound can be purchased at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 8. The National ‘Sleep Well Beast’

The National are a band that I only listen to when I feel like life is piling up, even if I don’t necessarily recognise it at the time. It usually requires some distance from the problem at hand to see that you even had a problem. So it is now as I listen back to Sleep Well Beast some six months on from playing it near constantly, where I can only listen to this and decipher details and depth whereas at the time I was only really focussed on the gloomy texture of the music.

Despite its inevitably maudlin overtones – you wouldn’t want a National album to be any other way, after all – Sleep Well Beast is an accomplished album that takes the band’s framework and fleshes it out, much more so that ever before, with electronics and clever processing. I like to attribute some of this newfound, widescreen expansiveness to the work of members Scott and Bryan Devendorf’s separate work in LNZNDRF, whose self-titled album was among my favourites of last year.

These are songs that carry a particularly transcendent quality, having a considered, introspective quality that makes for a perfect soundtrack to a world wrecked by disbelief and despair, where there is beauty and levity if only you care to look for it. Consequently, they are perhaps the best songs this band have ever written.

Listen to Sleep Well Beast here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 9. RAC ‘Ego’

“Pop music really shouldn’t be this clever.”
Clash

There will be more on this topic later on in this countdown of my favourite albums of 2017, but these past few years have found me migrating back toward pop music, while at the same time maintaining a continual push toward music’s outer edges.

I reviewed producer and songwriter André Allen Anjos’s second album as RAC for Clash and found myself listening to it over, and over, and over for a decent chunk of the summer. In a world where countless producers co-opt guest vocalists to provide the vocals for songs they can’t sing themselves, Anjos stands out not through his black book – Rivers Cuomo from Weezer, Rostam from Vampire Weekend, St. Lucia – but his approach to a brand of smart pop that has a mature, enduring sensitivity as well as some very fine melodic credentials.

Listen to Ego here.

My full Clash review can be found here.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence

Documentary Evidence 2017 Top 10 Albums: 10. BRZZVLL ‘Waiho’

“An album of genuinely memorable riffs on jazz’s essential spirit.”
Electronic Sound

I’ve had another year of getting to write about incredible music, and choosing my seasonal top ten albums this year was especially difficult.

To kick things off, I’ve selected BRZZVLL‘s stunning Waiho, the new album from a Belgian seven-piece group who take the infinitely flexible template of jazz and infuse that with everything from hip-hop to the edgy big-band funk espoused by Talking Heads when they’d more or less doubled their line-up.

I reviewed Waiho for Electronic Sound.

Listen to Waiho here.

Buy Electronic Sound at www.electronicsound.co.uk.

(c) 2017 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence