Yes that time is here again. I don’t think there will be many new albums or EP releases between now and the end of the year so I’ve made my album choice now, with the singles selection to come later as there’s still time for some stellar ones in that category.
And once again I don’t have a huge album/EP selection to choose from. The one thing I know for sure is that if I’ve written about a full-length or extended play this year then it is automatically good enough for consideration for the ultimate accolade because I’m quite fussy about who I choose to review where albums are concerned!
It boils down to 10 artists in total and it’s one of the hardest tasks of the year to pick three of them, let alone the ultimate winner.
Soffía Björg (Iceland) – ‘The Company you Keep’ (album)
Marianne Sveen (Norway) – ‘Next of Kin’ (album)
Eberson (Norway) – ‘Between Two Worlds’ (album)
Color Dolor (Finland) – ‘Blurry Things’ (album)
Le Lac Long 814 (Sweden) – ‘Tessons Flottants’ (album)
Moyka (Norway) – The Revelations of Love (album)
Lydmor (Denmark) – ‘Capacity’ (album)
SkarWorx (Norway) – ‘Seed-X’ (EP)
Arttu Silvast (Finland) – ‘A Comforting Theory of Life’ (EP)
Sol Heilo (Norway) – ‘Solstice’ (EP)
The first thing I’ll say is that all the five Nordic nations are represented and that just happened, I haven’t ‘fixed’ it in any way. There is an ‘over-representation’ from Norway though with five artists and bands in that top 10 but that is representative of the way that Norway has become the musical driving force in the region in the last five years or so; something that is even recognised in Sweden!
Firstly, a few words about those that didn’t quite make it to the Top 3.
Norwegian father/daughter duo Eberson recorded and released their second album, ‘Between Two Worlds’, this year, partly as a response to the pandemic, as in giving it the finger. Unlike their first one it’s wholly instrumental, and couched in a dynamic jazz/blues/rock/prog fusion that is pretty well unique to Eberson as I see it. I said, “You can dial your radio around the world and you’ll hear precious little that is remotely similar to this, anywhere”.
I even went so far as to coin a new genre, Jazzerson. I concluded the review by saying, “this is one supremely talented duo and we should be grateful they’re here and now, and doing this” and gave the album 9/10.
‘Strange Highway’ –
Finnish duo Color Dolor won one of Finland’s top prizes for their previous album so there were big expectations for this year’s ‘Blurry Things’. And they didn’t fail to come up with the goods.
‘Blurry things’ is atmospheric, art-pop in its truest sense – each track capable of painting a colourful picture in your mind as if you’ve suddenly developed synaesthesia. At one and the same time it offers frailty, power and marvellous inventiveness, a rare combination. I gave it 8/10.
‘Blurry Things’ (title track) –
Le Lac Long 814 took up where the purveyors of la chanson française left off except that while they did it from Paris’ Left Bank or dingy Montmartre this duo of poet and musician work their magic from a remote village in central Sweden. And that work is incredibly nostalgic and so quintessentially French you can smell the Gauloises, onion soup and camembert. My remark was “M. Macron should stop whinging about Brexit, fishing rights and submarines and improve France’s Entente Cordiale with Sweden by getting this album played on Ėlysée Palace Radio. It’s a work of art and there should be a place for it in the Louvre.” I more than happily gave it 8/10.
‘La moirure du lac’ –
Norway’s Moyka is an artist who I once considered a little too derivative of Sigrid and Aurora in particular but with ‘The Revelations of Love’ she at least began to stamp her own style, throwing in ballads alongside her trademark big electronic bangers. It’s a concept album about “how I reconstructed myself from a broken heart using all the pieces I found along the way” and well worth 8/10.
‘Let me know’ –
Anyone who’s heard and preferably seen Denmark’s Lydmor will know what a fabulously talented artist she is, equally at home with fast-paced EDM and tender piano ballads. There is only one of the latter on her fourth album, ‘Capacity’ but there is a wide variety of atmospherically emotive styles as always, strong melodies, and her complex stories are replete with weird and wonderful characters, some of whom seem to have wandered straight out of the script for Twin Peaks.
“She pushes the envelope further every time she writes an album, she’s as predictable as a mutant COVID outbreak and she’s one of the most creative and explorative artists on the planet”. I gave ‘Capacity’ 9/10. (The review in this instance was in another publication).
‘Go Slow but Go’ –
Norway’s SkarWorx is a relatively new artist and the solo project of Øystein Skar, another supremely talented electronic musician (although he is equally at home with classical and jazz music) a member of pop trio Löv and once a member of Highasakite (in both cases along with Marte Eberson of Eberson). He released the first EP of a three-part trilogy called ‘Seed-X’ earlier this year.
An acknowledged master of the synthesiser and a skilful experimentalist his talent is exemplified by the EP’s final track, in which he goes off in another direction from what has preceded it, the mysterious, ethereal song ‘Unicorn’ which is the only one to feature vocals.
Finland’s Arttu Silvast is a latecomer to this selection, having been featured only last week with his EP ‘A Comforting Theory of Life’ in which he attempted to create a “sonic futuristic lounge space where Pekka Saurin (a Finnish radio show host) would go through “monumental themes” about life on a podcast. That soundtrack would, by necessity, have to be comforting.
It is. QED.
I gave it 8/10.
‘A Comforting Theory of Life’ (title track) –
And with that to the ‘Top 3’, which in the Oscars tradition are in reverse order. After this lot, you know they must be good, and they are.
In third place is Sol Heilo’s ‘Solstice’, an EP. I have followed Sol Heilo’s progress since the Norwegian all-female band Katzenjammer broke up five years ago. She was the first of them to release an album, ‘Skinhorse Playground’ and then she put out an EP of acoustic versions of some of the songs on that album, followed by this EP this year.
During that time she has forged a reputation as a solo artist and has attracted a big following partly by putting herself around festivals in Norway and appearing on TV programmes where her endearing personality carried her through.
That smoky, and, let’s face it, damn sexy voice she has helps, along with the talents of her hand-picked band but in the main it’s the fact that she knows how to write great songs which has put her in the Top 3 of this list.
Some of the tracks have been around for a few years now but never laid down in the studio, while a couple are newer ones. Each of them has that unique Heilo stamp; you know immediately who it is. I gave it 9/10. This is what I wrote about one of the tracks. I’ll just leave it at that and you can check it out for yourself straight away. Do it!
“‘Lift your head’ (is) a song she said she never intended to share but eventually felt obliged to…it’s one equally appropriate to a bomb shelter in the Blitz, a storm shelter in tornado alley, or a pandemic. If you don’t get uplifted by it, especially when the choir (her own voice, multi-tracked) strikes up, your goose bumps must be on strike. Like she says, “it hits so hard you cannot breathe.” It should be the credits song for the film about the pandemic.”
‘Lift your head’ –
In second place is Soffía Björg’s album ‘The Company you keep’. Icelander Soffía, a horse loving country girl rather than a hipster 101 Reykjavik type, might not be well known to you but I’ve happily championed her for the four or five years since I discovered here because I’ve always been 100% certain that she was capable of writing an album as good as this.
Her first, eponymous album was excellent but this one delves even further into her personal life and, yes, the company she has kept, some of it not what she would have wanted, and with a passion. The first album was guitar-focused but on this one instruments such as the cello and trumpet play a major role, cementing a dark Nordic underbelly; as I described it, “a Nordic-noir drama series in song and verse”. And there’s almost as much death in it as there is in your average ‘metal’ bash.
‘The Company you keep’ is worth every bit of the 9/10 I gave it.
‘Judgement Day’ –
And so to the big one. Numero Uno. El supremo. Last year my selection, overwhelmingly, was the debut album (and later in life than for most musicians) of Denmark’s Gurli Octavia, ‘I could be blossoming instead’.
As soon as I started comparing it with Marianne Sveen’s ‘Next of Kin’ I knew who had to win it this year. Apart from the marvellous musicianship on show in both albums, and the vocal prowess of each of the ladies concerned, you have to admire the sheer, well, audaciousness I suppose, of a decision to put their private life not only on the line but open to public scrutiny.
In Gurli Octavia’s case her album focused on her fight against alcoholism, drug abuse and other events which had conspired to prevent her ‘blossoming’. In Marianne’s case she relates stories she has heard and experiences she has had as a nurse, encompassing subjects such as bullying, children having to take on the role of parents, and the plight of child refugees, and all underwritten by the circumstances in which the album was written, over a period of six years, while having to care for one of her children, who has been seriously ill. That story is told in the heartbreaking track ‘Airily Merrily’.
Very few artists can write albums like this without risking them becoming cloying. Neither of them is.
I concluded, “‘Next of Kin’ runs the full gamut of emotions openly and honestly as Marianne Sveen bares her soul, and helps convince you that we are all indeed kinsfolk. Whatever your mood you’ll find a song here to match it and if you’re in no particular mood you’ll very quickly develop one. That’s the mark of a true artist.”
I gave the album 9/10. I hardly ever give 10/10. Just twice in seven years. But this one came damn close. And yes, another Katzenjammer member of yore. How talented that band was and is, both collectively and individually.
‘Heavy enough to sink’ –
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