My selection is partly influenced by my interest in Nordic music and therefore will be considerably different to everyone else’s at GIITTV but I’ve also thrown in a few leftfield, even off-the-wall contributions from other artists you may not be familiar with, while to my mind anyway, you should be. They are not in any particular order. Enjoy!
Anna Calvi – Hunter (2018)
‘Hunter’ is the culmination of everything Anna Calvi has worked towards since 2011 including two previous albums, both of which, like this one, were Mercury Prize-nominated. An intensely personal piece of work which took five years to perfect and one in which sexuality is deeply explored, she demonstrates again the dichotomy between the intense and dramatic guitar playing she is recognised mostly for and the delicate balladry of some of her songs. Surely the Mercury folk couldn’t deny her a third time, could they? They did.
St Vincent – St Vincent (2014)
Annie Clarke’s fourth, eponymous album and winner of the 2015 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Album, isn’t everyone’s preferred choice of her five to date but is my personal favourite as it (hate the phrase) seizes the zeitgeist perfectly with its ruminations on the digital age (‘Digital Witness’, ‘Huey Newton’) while throwing in a more human touch as she lullabies her sick mother (‘I prefer your love’) and reflects on unwarranted hope, in ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’.
That song by the way is my all-time favourite one of hers though she very rarely plays it live having said once in an interview, “I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done”. You can actually hear her voice crack at 3:05; it must have tremendously deep meaning for her. It was also the album which brought out the best in her stage performance art including two memorable performances, captured on ‘Later with Jools Holland’, of ‘Prince Johnny’ and ‘Birth in reverse’.
Of Monsters & Men – My Head is an Animal (2011)
The Icelanders burst on to the scene courtesy of the most popular track on this album and the most popular ever in Iceland, ‘Little Talks’. It became their benchmark, their yardstick, their leitmotif, the most streamed Icelandic ditty of all time to date (and possibly for ever) it was symbolic of an album of happy and ostensibly fairytale indie folk music with memorable tunes but with dark, foreboding lyrics and debateable song meanings.
Lyrics that depicted monsters (and men) fighting over dystopian futuristic cities built out of lava fields, pet dragonflies, polar bears and ‘the creatures of snow’ taking down the invading Queen Bee and her men (the allegory would please Greta Thunberg), battles with grizzly bears in the outback, the loneliness of old age in their frozen land. And suicide. The album also introduced the world to Nanna Bryndis Hilmarsdóttir’s unique voice, which croaks and fades on the last syllable of a line so you sometimes can’t quite make out what she’s saying. Later albums have been less playful in tone and more refined musically but MHIAA gets my vote partly for ‘Little Talks’ and partly for my favourite OMAM song, ‘Six Weeks’, the story of Hugh Glass’ adventures with bears and wolves (the one featured in ‘The Revenant’, which this song preceded).
Highasakite – Silent Treatment (2014)
They’ve undergone some severe personnel losses in the last couple of years and the remnants of Highasakite are still finding their feet again but when they released this, their first international album, it stayed in the Norwegian charts for almost two years, the longest period of any record before or since, placing them as the country’s #1 band for several years. Most of the songs, all of which were written by Ingrid Helene Håvik then embellished by the other band members, are concerned with domestic circumstances and strife rather than the international, political ones which seized her imagination in the later ‘Camp Echo’.
Not that you’d know. While their best-known and loved song, ‘Lover, where do you live’ concerned the death of a lover, one of my favourites, ‘Hiroshima’ had nothing to do with the Japanese city or atom bombs but might have a lot to do with the same subject matter as ‘Lover’. See what you think. This Rockefeller show in Oslo by the way is regarded as their breakthrough performance.
Fiona Apple – The Idler Wheel (2012)
Fiona Apple releases albums so infrequently (though there is still a faint glimmer of hope that one may yet come out this year) that there is only one to choose from in this timeframe, 2012’s ‘The Idler Wheel’ (the full title ran to 23 words). It probably isn’t her best either. By a slender margin I’d give that to 2005’s ‘Extraordinary Machine’ mainly because it contains my favourite Apple track, ‘Red, red, red’. Apple was a Grammy winner at 18 but her songs are too emotional and complex for a mainstream market even if she has sold over 10 million albums.
As I’ve remarked before there is no-one on the planet who bares her soul so frequently and openly as Apple does – on record and ‘live’ – and it’s a shame she hasn’t performed on stage here in well over a decade. I hope she does before her voice goes. Just listen to the way she savages one of her (many) ‘ex-s’ here on ‘Regret’, and the awesome power of the imagery. “I ran out of white doves’ feathers to soak up the hot piss that comes from your mouth every time you address me”. The poor bloke, he never knew what hit him. And some hugely imaginative percussion from her drummer/producer, Charlie Drayton.
Arc Iris – Icon of Ego (2018)
The New England indie-pop prog trio, once an eight-piece but reduced by necessity and now on a fairly obscure southern U.S. label, came of age with their fourth album, which examines the concept of celebrity, fame, and idol worship, asking what makes an icon? Well, for my money (another obsession of theirs) there are three here. I haven’t heard a trio produce this depth of sound since the 1970s, and Jocie Adams’ lyrics are sheer joy from start to finish. A class act that deserves far more recognition than it has but unfortunately while they tour the U.S. incessantly they rarely leave those shores.
Nightwish – Decades (2018)
It’s difficult to select a ‘best’ Nightwish album as there are many songs on each of them that I find immensely attractive and bearing in mind they’ve had three quite different female singers in their 23 years of existence for each of whom Tuomas Holopainen carefully and individually crafted his epics according to their vocal style. So the logical choice is a compilation, and their most recent album. (Studio album nine is being recorded right now). ‘Decades’ brings together what most (not all) people would consider to be their greatest work and includes their three extended concept opuses – ‘Ghost Love Score’, ‘The Poet & the Pendulum’, and ‘The Greatest Show on Earth,’ in which they did a Bill Bryson and attempted to tell the story of evolution in 22 minutes.
But the sample song here is none of those. Rather – and remember this is a metal band – it is the classically structured yet at the same time almost Abba-like ‘Storytime’, originally from the album ‘Imaginaerum’ (2011) and featuring their second singer, the Swede Anette Olzon, complete with its references to Gaia, Alice in Wonderland, Never-Never Land and Peter Pan. Also a firm live show favourite.
Katzenjammer – Rockland (2015)
Perhaps an odd choice to some but I continue to have enormous respect for the Norwegians who have been on hiatus since 2016 following the departure of one of the four members. The all-girl band wasn’t regarded as ‘the female Beatles’ for nothing, compiling exquisite ballads alongside rock, country and even Balkan and gypsy styles and always with a serious underlying message such as ‘Lady Grey’ (dementia), ‘Wading in deeper’ (the suicide of Virginia Woolf), ‘A Bar in Amsterdam’ (the Anne Frank story), the mysterious, dystopian ‘Lady Marlene’ and ‘Virginia Clemm’ (the death of Edgar Alan Poe’s wife).
In the main a live band that toured relentlessly for almost 12 years to every corner of the globe they only recorded three albums, and ‘Rockland’ only shortly before they broke up. In it they had started to move in a different direction; it was less manic and while every song retained the indelible melodic stamp of Katzenjammer they started to experiment lyrically and musically; it might be their ‘Revolver’. The title track even alluded to Allen Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl’ and the philosophy of ‘The Beat Generation’. It’s sad that their limited recording schedule meant they never laid down a broader body of work.
Sleater Kinney – No Cities to Love (2015)
Another band that was on hiatus, in their case for 10 years, Sleater Kinney released their comeback album in 2015 (and since when another – The Center won’t hold’ – was released, in August this year, produced by St Vincent and accompanied by the departure of drummer Janet Weiss). Either album vies for this accolade but ‘No Cities to Love’ just wins it on the strength of the fact it reminded us what we’d missed for a decade – thumping, precise, post new wave, post punk anthems and possibly the best they’ve recorded.
Arcade Fire – The Suburbs (2010)
Following two stratospherically popular albums in ‘Funeral’ and ‘Neon Bible’ which established Arcade Fire as global indie darlings, they justifiably won the 2011 Grammy for Album of the Year for ‘The Suburbs’, the first indie band ever to do so, to the great chagrin of Eminem, Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Reminiscing on the respective childhoods of Win Butler and Regine Chassagne in Houston and Montreal the album carried notably less angst than ‘Neon Bible’ (for my money their best album) and a wide range of styles from gentle fireside ballads (‘Wasted Hours’) to outright rock (‘Ready to Start’; ‘Month of May’) to the remarkable ‘Suburban War’ which is two separate songs in one.
It also featured their first real attempt at a dance track, namely Chassagne’s ‘Sprawl II (Mountains beyond Mountains’). Regrettably that was the beginning of their downfall as far as I’m concerned as they unwisely signed up James Murphy to part-produce their next album ‘Reflektor’ and it was all downhill after that, tanking with ‘Everything Now’, which still isn’t a bad album, it’s just not in the same league as the first three. I’m not convinced they’ll make another album even though they are contracted to Columbia Records for one. Over 10 years ago Butler said he couldn’t see himself still doing this in 10 years time and both he and Chassagne have strong political instincts, with another U.S. election looming.
‘Month of May’. (Best video quality that exists today, many Arcade Fire videos have been removed from YouTube since they changed record labels).
Lydmor – I told you I’d tell them our story (2018)
A relatively new artist, but only internationally. Lydmor (Jenny Rossander), a product of the Aarhus electronic scene, had released two domestic albums in the Danish market before disappearing to Shanghai for six months to seek inspiration during which time she wrote this album, which was largely based on her experiences there.
She is a rarity in the business as an artist who can write and perform in at least two totally contrasting styles and also combine them for optimum effect. I saw her in multiple personas at the Iceland Airwaves festival, performing on the piano in a manner highly reminiscent of Fiona Apple (an artist she followed avidly as a teenager) and then just two hours later in full synth-pop/EDM mode. Had I not known it was the same artist I would not have guessed it. And other styles will surely evolve in time.
This album was a perfect vehicle for her to experiment beyond her original work, there are Chinese influences throughout it, the lyrics, much of which are concerned with money, power and abuse, are always cutting edge, and she constantly teases reactions out of her audience in a similar way to Apple’s modus operandi. It was a breakthrough album which catapulted her into a series of festivals this year and with another album in the works there will undoubtedly be greater exposure in the UK in 2020.
For the sake of highlighting the contrast I mentioned earlier, one video here is from this year’s Roskilde Festival (‘Soft Islands’ which is on the album), and one from a different kind of performance altogether (Naked Session). The latter is 17 minutes long so I suggest ‘Lamppost Light’ @ 14:00.
Pom Poko – Birthday (2019)
A Norwegian band of highly skilled conservatoire-trained musicians that has rightly had a great deal of exposure on the BBC this year, Pom Poko took a long time to record and release an album. They’ve built a reputation as one of the most spectacular live acts on the circuit but in ‘Birthday’ they’ve created a unique, angular sound with influences that range over indie-pop, hard rock, punk, and West African music, not to mention the jazz obsession the entire Norwegian nation seems to have. There are many ingredients in the pot but the dish served up has a unique flavour. There is absolutely nothing derivative about Pom Poko, or this album.
Gordi – Reservoir (2017)
In an Icelandic newspaper recently I read a comment by an arts critic that Australia hadn’t produced any decent music since Men at Work. Yes, it was a tongue-in-cheek remark but there is a degree of ignorance about the great work that female singer-songwriters in particular are doing in that country, such as Stella Donnelly, Hatchie and Olympia to name but a few.
Top of the heap for me is Gordi (Sophie Peyten), a folktronica artist from Sydney who has somehow managed to marry a writing and performing career with qualifying as a doctor. That is probably why she has only managed a couple of visits to the UK in five years and one album, despite having opened for the likes of Bon Iver, Of Monsters and Men and Highasakite.
The album title, ‘Reservoir’, is her way of describing the nebulous space into which she delves whenever she wants to write a song but which is not one in which she could dwell forever. She’s blessed with a tremendous contralto voice, rare for a contemporary musician and a great sense of rhythm, many of her songs based around inventive beats. Performing the songs on this album live it is evident that she is living them.
Jenny Lewis – On the Line (2019)
Jenny Lewis burst on to the scene in 2006 as a solo artist (with support from The Watson Twins) with ‘Rabbit Fur Coat’, a superb country and gospel-influenced album which would be my selection were it not so far detached from the timeframe of this review and one totally different from what she’d been doing with Rilo Kiley. Both of her two subsequent albums, ‘Acid Tongue’ and ‘The Voyager’ were a little hit and miss by comparison but she returned to form this year with ‘On the Line’.
Five years after ‘The Voyager’, which dealt with her difficult relationship with her walk-out father, having turned 40 and seen her mother die from illness directly related to a lifelong heroin addiction, she wrote an album pervaded by a sense of loss and one tailor-made for some heart searching and soul baring.
Summoning the likes of keyboardist Benmont Tench (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers), top session drummer Jim Keltner, Don Was (Was [not Was]), Beck, Ringo Starr, and – ahem – Ryan Adams, Lewis produced here an album chock-full of melody, cutting-edge lyrics, wit and with her adopted home of Los Angeles written right through it.
Lissie – My Wild West (2016)
Having moved from her Illinois birthplace and pitched up in Ojai, a small town in California that’s the trendy U.S. equivalent of Hebden Bridge, Lissie decided to move back to her roots in 2015, this time a farm in Iowa, and this album chronicles her life in Ojai and her reasons for making the reverse journey back east. Fittingly, the final track is titled after the town.
She’s always been able to find a tune but excelled herself on ‘My Wild West’ while proving her credentials with songs possessing genuine gravitas such as ‘Daughters’, which was inspired by women like Liberia’s Leymah Gbowee, who helped lead her country to elect their first female president, and girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai). Also, ‘Hollywood’, a warning about pursuing a dream beyond the rainbow and the poignant ‘Sun keeps risin’’, dedicated to an aunt who died from Motor Neurone Disease.
Sol Heilo – Skinhorse Playground (2017)
One spin off from the demise of Katzenjammer (above) was that the members were able to forge solo careers of their own. Two of them are about to release albums while one of them, Sol Heilo, already has done, together with an acoustic EP replicating many of the tracks on it.
‘Skinhorse Playground’ represents a fantasy land first envisioned in her childhood dreams. The album was penned during a time of personal unrest ironically during the peak of Katzenjammer’s career. Its appeal to me comes from the wide variety of subjects tackled: sudden displacement into an alien, changing country (‘America’); the downside of life on the road (‘London is trouble’); a finger to those not to be trusted (‘Killing Karma’) a life cut short (‘Closer to the sky’), a dystopian future for her homeland (‘When my country died’) and the ultimate statement of optimism and hope, (‘Walk a little further’).
AURORA – Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1) (2018)
AURORA’s star has burned brightly since her debut album ‘All my demons greeting me as a friend’ in 2016 and she was going to figure in this list somewhere. The sudden release of its successor took many off their guard at the end of September 2018 and she has released another one since, ‘A different kind of human (Step 2).
As it only has eight tracks, ‘Infections of a Different Kind (Step 1)’ is regarded as an EP but I’m not going to split hairs and apart from the fact that it includes her personal breakout song ‘Queendom’ the main reason I’ve opted for this album is that the title track is simply beautiful. She describes it herself as “the most important song I’ve ever written”.
Susanne Sundfør – Ten Love Songs (2015)
Any of Susanne Sundfør’s four studio albums since 2010 could have been included here but I chose the third, ‘Ten Love Songs’, because It was her international breakthrough, a commercial and critical success that debuted at number one on the Norwegian album chart and won Sundfør three Norwegian Grammy Awards in the categories of Best Album, Best Producer and Best Pop Artist.
While it spawned four successful singles: ‘Fade Away,’ ‘Delirious,’ ‘Kamikaze,’ and ‘Accelerate,’ the main reason I chose ‘Ten Love Songs’ is that it includes what I consider to be the best track she’s laid down except for perhaps ‘The Brothel’ in the 10-minute epic ‘Memorial’, which combines a pop song, a piano concerto, a symphony and a soaring ballad to round it off. Few others are capable of doing that.
Anna von Hausswolff – The Miraculous (2015)
Again, a particular album is a hard choice with someone like Anna von Hausswolff. Her powerful, ethereal sound, manufactured out of electronic instruments, huge cathedral pipe organs and her incredible voice and encompassing pop, drone, prog, and metal, is omnipresent on all of her four albums since 2010.
I narrowed it down again by way of individual tracks which defined the album. 2012’s ‘Ceremony’ came close because in ‘Mountains Crave’ she anticipated the adoption of environment protest into songs long before Coldplay grandly announced they wouldn’t tour their new album for ecological reasons, from Jordan.
But in the end I opted for ‘The Miraculous’ largely on the strength (and I acknowledge I shouldn’t really do this) of one track which to me represents everything that von Hausswolff is about – ‘Evocation’.
Baron Bane – LPTO (2010)
Something a little different again for the last one and included for personal reasons as Baron Bane – introduced to me by a Swedish guy I’d come across online while we were both defending a British artist from troll abuse – was my entrée into Scandinavian and Nordic Music, almost a decade ago now. A part-time band in that its members are in other bands, are freelance and have other interests in the music business including a recording studio and label, Baron Bane is in the indefinable area that lies between indie-pop, electro, prog and psych. This track, ‘And the flare will spark’ from LPTO, is my favourite and features Ida Long, also a solo artist and from the same town, on lead vocal. I saw it performed live three years ago and won’t forget it. One of the best bands you never heard of.
Several albums just missed the cut, such as those from Torres, Sigrid, Lail Arad, Elle Mary and the second from FKA Twigs, released this month. All female singer-songwriters as are many in the list. That’s the future as I see it.