Mediaeval Baebes – Of Kings And Angels
The words “Christmas album” – especially when used in tandem – are certain to evoke a deadly fear in all sane human beings, so I quite understand if anyone reading this thinks I’ve completely lost my mind when I admit that Of Kings And Angels is just that: an album of traditional seasonal carols. “Dave. Come on now, you’re just toying with us. We know you’re an atheist (or at least some vaguely pantheist-oriented type who does not believe in a God per se). Why on Earth is there an album of Christmas carols in your top 30?” An observation, then: you don’t have to be a True Believer to find this album hopelessly alluring and a feast for the ears. If I objected to any religious content in the lyrics of the songs I enjoy listening to, that’d cut out an awful lot of stuff that I really enjoy. Leaving aside the question of belief, what you’re left with here – as usual with the Baebes – is an album featuring songs that have often survived for hundreds of years, preserved as if in amber, beautifully sung. I can’t emphasise that last bit enough: the vocal performances here – often choral, but there are solos too – are truly wonderful. The Baebes have one hell of a pedigree in this respect, and if like me you can admire great performances for how they sound and can accept that sometimes the lyrical content is what it is because the songs were written hundreds of years ago, then you’re going to find a great deal to enjoy here.
No, it’s not my favourite Baebes album: I like to be challenged, and with a couple of exceptions, all of the songs here are so familiar that I can’t imagine playing this album as relentlessly as, say, Worldes Blysse, The Rose or The Huntress (my three Baebes favourites) – or indeed playing it at any time of the year other than over the holiday season, which necessarily limits its appeal. But for all that, I’m ready to call this as the best Christmas album I’ve ever heard. Refreshingly treacle-free, timeless and vocally quite stunning, this is an absolute delight: the sort of album that you can chill out to over the holidays and not feel even slightly tainted. Bonus points for you if you’ve not heard the Baebes before and this album inspires you to check out their other work. You won’t be sorry – their back catalogue is an unmitigated delight.
Favourite tracks: The Angel Gabriel, In Dulci Jubilo, The Coventry Carol
 Chvrches – The Bones Of What You Believe
Another album where the hype nearly scared me off. I’d only really heard fragments of a couple of songs for a while after the album was released, but one day whilst browsing the racks at Rise in Worcester prior to an Open University exam, I found myself really enjoying the album that was being played over the speakers in the store. Overcome with curiosity, I asked the guy behind the counter what was playing – it was this album. Minutes later I had bought it. Now that’s how you shift records ;-).
Chvrches are an interesting but not unprecedented hybrid, mixing synth-heavy indie pop with a shiny dance sensibility: if you’re looking for a guitar band, you’re going to be out of luck with this band; but that’s exactly the reason why you should never listen to something for the first time with expectations about style or instrumentation. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry sounds uncannily like Harriet Wheeler from The Sundays throughout – this is fulsome praise that should not be interpreted as criticism – but whilst Mayberry is fabulous throughout, it’s band members Iain Cook and Martin Doherty that really set the band apart by serving up a delicious synthpop concoction that takes in Depeche Mode, latter-day OMD and a number of ‘classic’ 80s bands whilst fully embracing the more evident electronica of contemporary dance acts. It’s this collision between synth-pop and outright dance influences that provides some of the real fireworks: such as the Moroder-esque stamp of We Sink, or that glorious moment (at 2:45) in Tether, where the song does an abrupt about face and goes all hand-waving trance on you.
It’s a joyous, celebratory record – even though there are moments where it gets reflective and introspective, even bittersweet, I can pretty much guarantee that this is an album that will leave even the most cynical of listeners with a smile on their faces after hearing it. The band’s evident enthusiasm for their influences is utterly infectious, helped by the fact that all of these tracks are addictively melodic and never outstay their welcome: Chvrches have early learnt the benefits of brevity in service to their material. If you’re content with some synth-led pop that packs a wallop, you’ll likely be as smitten with this record as I was, and as I remain.
Favourite tracks: The Mother We Share, Tether, Science/Visions
 Fuck Buttons – Slow Focus
I’ve been slow to get to grips with this duo: I, like many folk I suspect, had dismissed them as an attention-seeking novelty act based on their choice of name. I can’t even really put my finger on why I finally sat down with one of their records and gave them a try – just curiosity I suppose, wondering to myself why they have become so feted. However, I’m glad I forgot about those dangerous preconceptions and give Slow Focus a whirl, because frankly it’s magnificent :-).
An electronic duo, they make a hell of a racket: what Fuck Buttons do is a bit like spacerock but without the guitar solos. Through immense swathes of looping electronic synth feedback, their lurching, almost industrial rhythms drive their music along, often with a tangible sense of menace. Essentially they often sound a bit like Tangerine Dream and Rammstein playing together – and if there’s not enough to get you salivating, then I don’t know what else to say ;-). Opening track Brainfreeze pretty much does what its title describes – an epic 8 minute voyage to the nether regions of your darkest subconsciousness, it sets out their stall for the rest of the album quite magnificently. Year Of The Dog mutates Jean Michel Jarre into Philip Glass and back again in a thoroughly unsettling manner, whilst Stalker is every bit as creepy and sinister as its title implies. Not a particularly sunny album, then, but if you like your electronica sturdy and rough around the edges, this is an absolute blast from start to end. I can sense I’ll be spending some money on their back catalogue in the near future.
Favourite tracks: Brainfreeze, Sentients, Stalker
 System 7 and Rovo – Phoenix Rising
Ah, you can always depend on Steve Hillage to deliver the goods. In a 30+ year career that has yet to serve up anything less than great, the man has turned his hand to prog, electronica and dance with equal success, first with psychedelic heroes Gong, then as a solo artist par excellence and as the lynchpin of dance project System 7. Here he takes on both genres at once, melding the techno thump of System 7 with the prog voyagings of Japanese band Rovo. The most wonderful thing about this fusion is that it works just so well – prog may not be perceived as the most fitting bedfellow for dance music, with prog’s fetishism for “authenticity” an analogue instrumentation, but the dance and the prog melt and flow into each other beautifully throughout – unlike so many other collaborative projects, you really can’t tell where one band begins and the other ends.
This all-instrumental album is a showcase for a great many things: besides being a great advert for how well dance and prog can be fused together, it’s a great advert for the virtuosity of the members of Rovo – their rhythm section is positively on fire throughout – and for the rhythmic drive of System 7, where melody is never forgotten but serves as the hook on which everything else is hung. More than anything else, though, this album is a fabulous showcase for Hillage’s simply unbelievable guitar playing: effortlessly versatile, shimmeringly beautiful and intricate but also awesomely powerful and extraordinarily melodic, it’s a welcome reminder from one of the world’s best guitarists that he can still serve up amazing playing despite the fact that he focuses much of his energy away from extended soloing these days. Hypnotic, joyous, and utterly mesmerising, this is one of the best instrumental albums I’ve heard for a very long time. If you’re a Hillage fan that hasn’t followed his work with System 7, this is the album for you – it may well open your eyes to a whole other side of Hillage’s extraordinary career. Here’s hoping that this welcome fusion of styles and genres isn’t a one-off.
Favourite tracks: Hinotori, Love For The Phoenix, Sino Dub
 Boards Of Canada – Tomorrow’s Harvest
These guys have been serving up top-notch ambient electronica for over a decade now (anyone who knows me has probably had to listen to me raving unreservedly about their album Geogaddi before now, a HippyDave favourite for some time now). They don’t turn out albums rapidly, but when one arrives, it always has my strict attention. This time around, they have really hit the jackpot, though. Tomorrow’s Harvest is a beautifully rendered album, feeling like the soundtrack to deep space voyages and landings on remote planets somewhere in remote reaches of the galaxy. Spooky and otherworldly, yet often richly textured, warm and womb-like, every track has a strong melodic core and becomes naggingly familiar and even haunting very swiftly.
Part of Boards Of Canada’s strength, and one of the things that sets them apart, is their richly analogue sound. It’s easy to imagine the band clustered around archaic analogue synths in the studio; their music lacks the icy precision of so much modern electronica and has the sort of fuzzy edges and imprecise nature of some of the early work of the 70s synth pioneers like Jean Michel Jarre and Tangerine Dream. If you like that sort of thing, this will be right up your street; if you don’t, then it’s probably that most dangerous of things, the perfect gateway drug ;-). Dreamlike and remarkably consistent, it has a tangible atmosphere yet manages to avoid the typical electronica trap of being overly aimless and unmemorable – I can’t recommend it enough, to existing Boards Of Canada fans who haven’t snapped it up yet or newbies alike.
Favourite Tracks: Reach For The Dead, Split Your Infinities, Come To Dust