An "albums of the year" list. What should it be? What should it do?
Should it claim some objective truth, that the albums contained within are unequivocally the greatest works of musical art of the year - whether you underlings on the other side of the counter like them or not? Should it play things safe and try to collate the most popular (read: best selling) releases of the past 365 days?
Or should it be honest and personal, and attempt to shine light on a select few releases loved by the lister(s), in attempts to rectify any overlooking that may have (understandably) occurred?
We think the latter.
We may have broken a few unwritten rules within the "art of the list" (spoiler -- a compilation? Again?), but we don't care. Below you'll find a whole year of Stranger Than Paradise condensed into 10 beloved records picked by us three. We hope you'll find some magic you missed.
Lots of love,
Noreen, Phil, and Sonny xx
1. V/A - Sad About The Times
Opaque pink double vinyl LP, limited to 100 copies, exclusive to Stranger Than Paradise.
Imbued with a sense of "sad bliss”, this compilation of could-have-been-hits from 1970s North America - assembled by Keith Abrahamsson (Mexican Summer/Anthology Editions) and Mikey Young (Total Control/Eddy Current Suppression Ring) - drifts between acid folk strummers, soft rock whispers and jangly psych jammers, all crowned with entirely unique vocal performances. Every track tugs on the same very specific heart string, triggering an emotion familiar but difficult to describe.
Sad About The Times is one of those records that permeates your subconscious, floats around with you and plays in your mind when you're at your most contemplative or wistful. We haven't been able to get the music contained on these two discs out of our heads since its release back in May, and although it might be an unconventional choice for an album of the year, it truly has soundtracked our 2019 — both in the shop and in our personal lives. So it makes total sense to us…and we’re sure it will to you, too.
2. Jaimie Branch - FLY or DIE II: bird dogs of paradise
Exclusive 'Psychedelic Robin's Egg' coloured vinyl
Fly or Die, Jaimie Branch's incredible 2017 debut, was an immediate favourite for Stranger Than Paradise’s Sonny and, combined with solid releases by the likes of Jeff Parker and Makaya McCraven, cemented Chicago's International Anthem label as the most interesting contemporary jazz label in operation. Sonny took Noreen to go and see Jaimie Branch at Total Refreshment Centre soon after the release of Fly or Die and Noreen was instantly won over, both by Jaimie's playing and her personality - she's cool as fuck.
Parts of FLY or DIE II recall its predecessor; on 'simple silver surfer' and 'nuevo roquero eséreo', Chad Taylor's skippy drumming and the bouncy strings of cellist Lester St. Louis and double bassist Jason Ajemian provide the perfect trampoline for Jaimie's bursts of ecstatic trumpeting. New elements are present too - most notably the addition of vocals. In the current political climate, Branch has found it necessary to step away from the beauty of instrumental music: "...being this ain’t a particularly beautiful time, I’ve chosen a more literal path. The voice is good for that.”
Despairing over "a bunch of wide-eyed racists" that "think they run this shit" on 'prayer for amerikkka pt. 1 & 2,' and closing the album with "a love song to assholes and clowns," which builds to a thunderous crescendo, FLY or DIE II is a powerful and righteous second statement from a woman we didn't think we could hold in any higher esteem. We were wrong.
3. 75 Dollar Bill - I Was Real
Taking big influence from Northwest Africa - the electric guitar shredders of Mauritania and the trance-inducing spiritual Gnawa music of Morocco - as well as Western minimalism, psych and blues, 75 Dollar Bill hit a sweet spot out of time and place on I Was Real. The duo of guitarist Che Chen and percussionist Rick Brown are supported by a heap of extra instrumentation for their most accomplished record yet.
The near 17-minute title track conjures up visions of a Tuareg guitar band covering Faust and Tony Conrad's Outside The Dream Syndicate. ‘Tetuzi Akiyama’, the closest the record has to a pop song, feels like it's tearing through the desert on a motorbike; the percussion and bass chugging along like a reliable engine whilst distorted microtonal guitar and blistering baritone saxophone scrape against each other, throwing out sparks, bending strings as far as they can go, and forcing the vehicle into an impossible higher gear.
An accessible, no-nonsense, unpretentious blending of transcendent music from across the universe.
4. Michael Kiwanuka - Kiwanuka
Yellow vinyl edition with exclusive signed print
Considering Michael Kiwanuka’s 2016 album Love & Hate saw him catapulted to stratospheric acclaim - bagging him a Mercury Prize nomination, two Brit Award nominations, and an immediate spot at the top of the album charts - he must by now be well on his way to deep space. On Kiwanuka he reunites with Love & Hate production team Danger Mouse and Inflo (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it) and turns out another beauty, building on existing foundations, but pushing harder in every direction; strings soar higher, gospel vocalists transcend this realm; references are pulled from across eras and genres. With the aid of looping choir vocals, spare and soulful piano numbers, psych/fuzz-outs, occasional acoustic nods back to the Michael Kiwanuka of yore, and full-bodied, warm and velvety production, Kiwanuka fights battles both personal and political; is at once both huge and intensely private. It’s no wonder it has been tipped as an eleventh-hour addition to the most important albums of the decade. - Diva Harris
5. Jonny Dillon - Songs For A One-String Guitar
(All City Records)
Opening on idyllic dawn chorus birdsong with the beautifully named ‘Turning Invisible In An Imaginary Rose Garden One Evening’, the sublime Songs For A One-String Guitar marks a drastic departure in genre for Jonny Dillion - better known for his acid/analogue electro albums and all-hardware live sets under the name Automatic Tasty. Partially in the vein of traditional Irish music, and partially in that of primitive American finger-picked folk, Songs For A One-String Guitar sees Dillon masterfully wield his instrument as a multi-tool; at times tight and clinking like an overwound music box, at others fluid, florid and undulating.
But for the song ‘Light A Penny Candle’, written by Dillon’s uncle and tacked onto the end of a tribute to him (‘Requiem For Joe Dillon’) Songs For A One-String Guitar is completely wordless — but nonetheless speaks clearly of landscape, travel, family, loss, yearning and the search for home. An expansive yet blissful album to soothe the Sunday night dread. - Diva Harris
6. Greg Foat - The Mage
(Athens Of The North)
Greg Foat, who you may know as one half of Hampshire and Foat, has made one of the best and most time-spanning jazz records of the year. Here, Foat conjures up a cast of British jazz legends including guitarist Ray Russell and the sadly since deceased Duncan Lamont, alongside new key players like Moses Boyd and Malcolm Catto (The Heliocentrics) — to timeless effect. Foat himself takes key-twinkling duties, and Warren Hampshire appears on guitar and percussion.
The LP, released by Athens of the North, is imbued with a very British-feeling folkish mysticism, as well as notable influence from classic library music and 60s Italian soundtracks; The Mage even includes a cover of Pierre Piccioni's 'Endless Love' from the Colpo Rovente OST (as well as an instrumental take on Tim Buckley's 'Drifting'). It's a perfect accompaniment to misty mornings and moonlit meanderings and has taken a staple Sunday spot on the shop's soundsystem.
7.L’Epee - Diabolique
Exclusive-to-indies red vinyl
Though it contains songs of dreams and strange moons, is liberally laced with mantric bells, cymbals and tambourines, and might also give off a slight whiff of incense, L’Epee’s debut Diabolique - titled after Mario Bava’s 1968 cult action film Danger: Diabolik - is not quite as new-age as it may at first sound. The melding of the minds of French actress, model and singer Emmanuelle Seigner, Brian Jonestown Massacre frontman Anton Newcombe and psych-rock husband and wife duo The Limiñanas, L’Epee’s sound is as double-edged as the sword of the band’s name; serving tough-as-shit noir expanse alongside good old-fashioned breathy-but-bored sex appeal. File somewhere between the Velvet Underground, Whyte Horses and Unloved. - Diva Harris
8. Tala Vala - Tala Vala
Stranger Than Paradise special edition, limited to 30
Tala Vala combines the talents of award-winning film & TV score composer Ben Locket and John Roffe-Ridgard, producer and one half of the band Coves. Their self-titled debut LP is a beautifully constructed work born from multi-instrumentalism and studio experimentation, assembled in their local-to-the-shop Hackney studio. The album was expertly mixed by Jake Jackson, whose other credits include Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds' Skeleton Tree and Mica Levi's Under The Skin OST.
After the ever-trusty James Endeacott had raved about it to us, Ben from the band dropped some copies into the shop and we were instantly hooked. He's since become a great friend/drinking buddy of the shop. A brilliant listening experience that deserves way more ears and is surely going to remind us of this wonderful second year of Stranger Than Paradise when we're still spinning it years later.
9. Nivhek - After It's Own Death / Walking In A Spiral Towards The House
Pieced together during a residency in the Arctic Russian port city of Murmansk, After Its Own Death opens with ghostly reverb-drenched vocal harmonies familiar from Liz Harris' other projects (e.g. Grouper). But before long something starts to rumble beneath the ice, growing closer to the surface as if summoned by these chants. A deep, distorted morse code signal grows louder and more frantic until falling away, the last rumble rippling through the thick ice sheet before the voices return for a closing incantation. Then, to a soundtrack of suspended vibraphones, you crane your neck and follow the spectral funeral march treading directly overhead, high up above.
Side B feels more collaged; fragile guitar morphing back into vibraphone and then vocals. Field recordings of footsteps and undecipherable voices take us through an isolated arctic compound until we're suddenly thrown out into the roaring blizzard - snap back and the vibraphone returns. Perhaps we're in the afterlife now.
10. Rose City Band - Rose City Band
(Jean Sandwich Records)
Limited signed copies
Headed by Ripley Johnson of Wooden Shjips and Moon Duo (who also put out an excellent album this year), Rose City Band's debut is a country-psych choogle, chugging through a cosmic American landscape. It's got a real road movie feel, and would probably make a great alternate soundtrack to Two-Lane Blacktop. We've always felt that slow and steady wins the race with this kind of record, and it seems like that's the mantra over in Rose City too. Motorik road lines lead the way to heat-hazed guitar shimmers on the ever-distant horizon. The woozy vocals are making their way over there, one step at a time.
Reference points for the band included Relatively Clean Rivers, Jim Sullivan and Kenny Knight, and the record was mixed by Chris Cohen who lends his own easy-going vibe to the whole thing. It's a lovely, very replayable listen.