A Kind of Magic: Ben Ward's 5 for 2019
San Francisco, United States
It’s traditional around these parts to publish an annual retrospective at the start of each new year. At the start of 2020, for whatever reasons around travelling and getting a bit lost in the writing (as you’ll see), I had only finished half the post. In the time since… well, what is time, anymore, anyway? While it feels slightly absurd to share a “Best of the year 2019” post now, seven-hundred-thousand lifetimes later, in very, very, very late March 2020 (ahem), the fact is that I still care a lot about these records — and about No Magic. I keep coming back, trying to finish this white whale of a blog post. I’d kinda like to get it out before I have to start thinking about the next one.
Here we all are, then. You, me and music, brilliant all year around. Even this year.
No Magic broadcast 44 unique episodes in its inaugural. I skipped a few for travel and holidays — as was the style of the time — although, the number does include an episode recorded in a hotel room in Minsk, Belarus. A personal record for remote broadcasting.
The No Magic format includes highlighting an album of the week — making this BFF.fm annual roundup a perfect way to summarise the year and reflect on the lasting stand-outs.
Kate Tempest — The Book of Traps and Lessons
Two years ago, poet, playwright and rapper Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos made this list. Viscerally capturing the swirling mess of western society under pressure. Twitching and convulsing, the record was a guttural cry into the storm.
Traps and Lessons opens with a reserved, plaintive piano: “I came to…” The protagonist — along with us all — regains consciousness. The tumult of Brexits and Trumps have shaken us through in the years between.
Emotional shell-shock at the collapse of post-history is an inescapable, magnetic draw of the record. In actuality, this full-length poem was being developed before Chaos was recorded. As such, it’s not necessarily intended as a sequel. But as the listener, you can’t help but hear it this way.
Traps seems to start in a place of delicate exhaustion. After the outpouring of cultural and societal rage in its predecessor, this tells of experiences much closer; of love, of personal tenderness. It begins reserved, and gradually grows in confidence; a nuanced composition with moments of beauty where lyrics glance bashfully to meet the listener, and occasionally pierce through its intimacy to strike at our collective experience, acknowledging the damage we’ve suffered.
This island of England
While most clearly discussing themes of British colonial amnesia, Three Sided Coin exists outside of time with a most perfect, breathless lament: “Oh! England” delivered with such desperate, mournful sadness, resonating with the events of recent years. In this one bar I find my own sense of helpless devastation realised.
Tempest’s lyrical tear continues: Intensity and depth always, but a nimble talent for threading the general into the deeply personal with the smallest imaginable stitch. It’s a record that you’ll find affecting, proactive, and ever rewarding as you find new resonance on repeat listens.
Instrumentally, the combined work of Dan Carey and Rick Rubin is exquisite, often meticulously patient to give the words all the space they need. There are deft choices that define the record: After a pause, I Trap You is thrown off-kilter by a carnival carousel organ, while it’s only on the penultimate track Holy Elixir where more contemporary, brooding synths are finally released. It’s a mesmerising dedication to the form of the record to exercise such restraint, and incredibly satisfying to hear. In her live performance of the record at The Fillmore this year, that sonic reward was all the more pronounced.
If you’re familiar with Let Them Eat Chaos, the arc and structure of The Book of Traps and Lessons will feel a little familiar, but the production is a step forward in its maturity. And like the previous record, for all the starkness throughout, Tempest also ends here with a defiantly hopeful take in People’s Faces. The record may put you through the ringer, emotionally, but it ends in triumph.
Frightened Rabbit/Various Artists — Tiny Changes
Let’s start with an essential confession: I missed Frightened Rabbit. I knew of them, and many of their Glasgow compatriots number among my favourite bands. When Scott Hutchison died in 2018, it was just after I’d discovered his band Mastersystem, and the news of his passing reached me via the impassioned outreach of bandmates and friends in the Scottish music community following his disappearance.
Tragedy is. For me, Scott’s death was one experienced over a surreal distance. Like someone you’d stood unwittingly close to at a gig, but never realised an introduction until too late. For so many, of course, his loss has been far more intensely personal, intimate; such is the fervour for Frightened Rabbit.
Tiny Changes: A Celebration of The Midnight Organ Fight — its full title — is therefore remarkable many times over. A project originally to mark the tenth anniversary of The Midnight Organ Fight, one which Hutchison was very much involved in prior to his suicide. By the time of its release, the weight of the work was one of tribute and celebration of its absent mastermind. A track for track recreation of the original record, each performed by a different artist or collaboration. The title lifted from the incredible lyric “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes on earth” in Heads Roll Off. While the covers herein do literally apply the term, finding their own angles on the original songs, inevitably the bigger parallel resonance is with the colossal contribution of this album and this band to its fans.
While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes on earth.
Every track here is well realised, it’s a worthy, even transcendent version of the album that long-time fans of Frightened Rabbit have found much to celebrate Scott’s work. For me personally, this record brought Frightened Rabbit to my fresh, naive appreciation. Listening to the record, I feel gratitude — I am so very thankful that this recording shares with me not only versions of the songs, but through the performances also the experiences of this music for these artists. It feels like being admitted, welcomed even, into the wake that many people needed for this band.
Craig Finn’s version of Heads Roll Off is a stand out, as is former Sky Larkin Katie Harkin’s stripped down My Backwards Walk with Sarah Silverman. Ben Gibbard takes Keep Yourself Warm into his own familiar style, and Daughter’s version of Poke is just brilliant — wrapping the song in their distinctive synth crescendo, lifting it to a new place of elation.
Where the record peaks, inescapably, is in the performance of Floating in the Forth. In the song, Hutchison contemplates a fantasy that would eventually resemble his end. To listen to it in the context of this reflection is devastating, and so knowledge of The Twilight Sad’s very close relationship with Frightened Rabbit feels important; the bands have been close since their start. “Who else could have touched that?” James Graham told The Guardian. ”It scares me that we did that song. But I felt that we, as his friends, could step up and do it.”
The loud, blown-out, discordant Twilight Sad sound comes across as unbridled catharsis. It’s incredible, and it’s the only way it could have been done.
Hæloes — Any Random Kindness
British synth-laden trip-hop four-piece Hæloes released their second LP Any Random Kindness. Every time I come back to it I’m struck by how tremendously listenable this record is, and how it straddles a set of styles so effectively. Their self-professed “cinematic” sound is paraded immediately in opening track Another Universe. Patient lush strings, and a warm, swelling chord progression underneath Lotti Benardout’s bare vocals eventually breaking out into a beat, before shifting perfectly into the two beat-led tracks that fellow.
Hæloes sound is unashamedly familiar to others in the scene; The xx, Daughter, Chvrches, and London Grammar are all recognisable peers. The record is accessible, in that regard, but to be clear, it’s less like an assortment of those sounds and more of an intentional and quite conclusive realisation of these influences. This record soars with satisfaction, and understated euphoria.
The record makes a few more blatant references: You might at moments be transported into Emile Sandé’s Heaven, while Kyoto retreads the melody of Thom Yorke’s Guess Again! so closely it made for one of the most perfect mixes we’ve ever done on the show. And throughout, the trip-hop and throwback beats will be a delight to anyone who appreciated Jamie xx’s revival of the 90s-era on his solo record in 2015.
It’s a testament to this band that they pull off a record that rises above the weight of its influences and scene. It’s cool, a little trendy even, and a lesser attempt would get lost in the wash. But Hæloes consistently shine through with their ear for melody, patient resonance, variety and compelling genre-smushing. It’s a constantly uplifting success of a record.
Mexico City Blondes - Blush
Mexico City Blondes hail from just down the California coast in Santa Barbara. Probably not close enough to BFF.fm’s Bay Area hub to honestly call them “local”, but, still, Blush is an album that fills you with a modern sense of the sunshine-drenched California that we share.
A lush combination of electronic beats and indie-rock sensibilities, the record opens overflowing with relaxing chill, reminiscent of Morcheeba’s Big Calm. As it grows it expands though, with some tracks fitting conveniently close alongside the Hæloes record (see above), while album highlight Crimson channels Portishead as swirling surreal dream, rather than icy tension.
A delightful soundtrack for driving down Route 1.
Karen O and Danger Mouse - Lux Prima
Lux Prima, an auspicious, 9-minute long, 3 act, synth-slathered theme for an imagined sci-fi B-movie. The 12” single debuted at the end of 2018 and set high expectations for the album of the same name. Released in March, the record is the triumphant collaboration between Karen O of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and super-producer Danger Mouse (whose production and collaboration credits at this point since his breakthrough Grey Album mashup bootleg are as innumerable as they are remarkable.)
Beyond its epic, cinematic introduction the album unfolds into a masterclass of pop composition, punctuated by a for-the-ages great Karen O single Woman, which takes her familiar YYY delivery and iconic squeal, but sets it against a northern soul beat. It’s a great combination.
Other great things that came out this year? Angel Olson’s All Mirrors is great. Cinematic Orchestra’s To Believe has some remarkable moments, and the opening tracks with Moses Sumney and Roots Manuva are standouts for the year. DJ Shadow returned with Our Pathetic Age, which while substantial in its double-album ambitions, most certainly amounts to his best record in a fair old while. The balance of his sound and his collaborators seeming now at its most natural.
The Soft Cavalry’s self-titled debut is tremendous, as is Thom Yorke’s third solo effort Anima. Hot Chip’s A Bathfull of Ecstasy might’ve had the worst typography of the year, but did gives us Why Does My Mind, which more than makes up for it with euphoric escapism.
I feel really good looking back at the whole list of records-of-the-week that were played on No Magic. I think they hold up! Check out the archives to judge for yourself.