1. Spectrum—‘Highs, Lows and Heavenly Blows’
Most of my early morning commutes are a little under 45 minutes. For the ones that will take a little longer this is usually the album I go to with great enthusiasm. To me this is the most perfect of Pete Kember’s work as Spectrum. The songs are stretched and consistent throughout, but stylistically more varied than any other record he’s ever done. True, they could all stand to be a bit shorter, but another quality of this record that I love is that while they all could be shorter they are all exactly the right length. You are able to draw so much out of them and get to know them so intimately even on the first listen. The instrumentation is very spare and there is tons of space for the ambience to spread out. Usually Kember’s instrumentation is layered and incredibly dense, but the production on this record allows you to hear and appreciate every tiny subtlety. The songs also feature his most beautiful lyrics and his best singing. The closing suite of songs is probably the best with ‘Take me Away’ and it’s waltz time momentum which is perfect for the end of the pre-dawn hours as the sun finally starts to come out.
2. Sun Araw—‘Beach Head’
This record will always remind me of commuting to the Gold Coast at 4:30am. The delirium that I felt while working there created the ideal conditions for enjoying this album. It starts out slowly with the structure of ‘Thoughts are Bells’ dropping into place slowly, but so deliberately. Once it kicks in during the second half of the song the tone is set for the blissed-out reggae-inflected stretch of ‘Horse Steppin’ and then the dynamic ‘Beams’ that blends atmospherics with acoustic guitars and mesmerizing rumbling fuzz bass patterns with little in the way of a percussive beat. ‘Bridal Philly’ draws things to a close washing over your ears slowly, like the opening track, somehow tying everything you’ve heard together and letting it soak into your mind. I’ve tried listening to it during the daytime and it just doesn’t work. Too many distractions, too much brightness. This is an album that can induce the most perfectly sublime sleep-deprived hypnosis. It’s like a sensory deprivation tank unto itself.
3. Atlas Sound—‘Logos’
Bradford Cox’s best solo record is also a shoe-in for this category. All of the spaced-out acoustic softness is padded to the front of the album. The atmospherics are drifting, but the melodies and the chords are all so clear. ‘Walkabout’ has enough of a gauzy shell that the beat isn’t jarring at an early hour. ‘Criminal’ moves all of its dreaminess into the vocal, which builds up to the hypnotic and insistent repetition of ‘Shelia.’ Side two opens with the extended and meditative ‘Quick Canal’ which builds slowly and fades away slowly sucked into the vacuum it has created itself. After that the album becomes brighter and more clear-eyed with the title track closing things out at a brisk pace.
4. Beach House—‘s/t’
Of all of Beach House’s album this one is the best suited for the pre-dawn hours. It’s especially perfect for fall. The album has a very even sonic palette that conjures up oranges, dark reds, browns and blacks—all colours that bring Autumn to mind. This is the perfect example of something beat-driven that isn’t too overwhelming for a wee hours, sleep-deprived state. The songs are haunting and moody, but not overwhelmingly so and they are filled with enough hooks to reel you in without interrupting the carefully constructed atmospherics. ‘Master of None’ is the perfect example of a restrained earworm. Then there’s that excellent lo-fi, piano-driven hidden track with its vaguely menacing lyrics and extremely pitched-down guitars (at least that’s what I THINK those odd melodics swoops in the background are). It’s about as ghostly as a song can possibly be.
5. Clear Horizon—‘s/t’
This record practically got me through every early morning commute that I had to face last summer. The first track beckons you in softly and with little warning for what you are about to experience. The way that the songs is built is practically extra-sensory. By the time that ‘Sunrise Drift’ wafts in through the headphones the fact that it has absolutely no discernable beat and is basically only held in a song-like state by the drifting breathes of disjointed ambient melodies forming the most loosely-built of chord progressions under Jessica Bailiff’s slowburning vocal melody the fact that the album has been carrying you along through an extended dream-like state is made clear. After which the album slowly draws you out of this state peaking with clear-eyed closing track ‘Open Road’ with its hip-hop-esque overlapping beats and spiraling basslines. This is an album that draws you under and leads you back out again. How many albums can you say that about?!
6. Jessica Bailiff—‘s/t’
This is another one that I’ve been coming back to for about four years in this category. This album could be the pivotal proof for anyone wanting to make the case for perfect ambient singer-songwriter as a genre. There are very few examples and even fewer great examples, but this is definitely one of them. Somehow Jessica Bailiff has managed to make something ambient and atmospheric that sustains a clear mood and aesthetic across an entire album while keeping the instrumentation and songwriting distinct through each song. On the surface it seems so minimal as well, but during the quieter hours you can hear the tiny rhythmic details lingering just under the surface. This is one of the most deceptively minimal-sounding albums in existence.
7. Sharon Van Etten—‘Because I Was in Love’
Sharon Van Etten’s debut is an acoustic-driven affair that is carried by little else than her trademark vocal close-harmonies and her nylon-stringed acoustic work. The subject of the lyrics are a love bordering on the obsessive. It’s also her only album where she manages to weave a loss for words into her songs to make the mood more effective—what I’m talking about here is the chorus of ‘Haven You Seen’ and the repetitive use of the word ‘damn’ in ‘Holding Out.’ She does so much with so little here and exerts a control that’s rarely seen in this type of singer-songwriter album. Normally such spare arrangements fall victim to an ‘err on the side of too little’ approach, but here some of the songs are fleshed out with some charming subtleties and mixed in with straight up guitar and voice recordings. I’ve always felt that the arrangement of ‘Tornado’ on this record was far more effective than the live, full-band version of the song. The fact that this appears to be a formula she will never revisit makes this set of songs all the more powerful. Plus the lovelorn themes of the lyrics are perfect for an early-morning state of mind.
8. Hope Sandoval & the Warm Inventions—‘ Through the Devil Softly’
My instinct is to put Sandoval’s first solo record with the Warm Inventions (‘Bavarian Fruit Bread’) in this category, but it’s actually her second, ‘Through the Devil Softly,’ that fits the category better. Plus I can’t argue with the considerable amount of time I’ve spent listening to this record on my way to work for a 5:30am shift. For all of its acoustic-based minimalism, ‘Bavarian Fruit Bread’ has nothing to equal ‘Lady Jessica and Sam’ or ‘Satellite’ in the yawning gaps of space filled by the desolate ring of reverb and the echo of every mournful guitar strum. It’s hangover-friendly calm has only been surpassed by the recent Mazzy Star single ‘Common Burn.’ It’s the point at which hangover music overlaps with pre-dawn music. Even more lush, full-band tracks like ‘Trouble’ fall easier on the ears than the strung out euphoria of ‘Around my Smile’ while you’re riding on a train car filled with a hodgepodge of sleeping homeless people, wasted post-partiers fighting off their comatose blackouts and bar workers. The lyrics are also there for you to take or leave depending on your preference.
9. Thee Oh Sees—‘Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion’
This album has always made me marvel at how a band from San Francisco was able to make the perfect winter album. Even without the visual aid of the vaguely haunting settings where the band performs these songs on the accompanying DVD, the hazy narcosis of these songs is so strong that it gets into your bones. This is a period in the Thee Oh Sees’ history that has largely been forgotten as well, which is a shame. This beautiful side of John Dwyer’s songwriting will probably be doomed to live in the shadow of the band’s unparalleled powers as the present day avatars of visceral, acid-fried, screamy, psychedelic garage rock. In the small hours the quiet grace of these songs is almost overwhelming. Even paint-peeling rockers such as ‘Block of Ice’ and ‘Ghost in the Trees’ get a nice fear-and-loathing sheen on this record.
10. Grizzly Bear—‘Yellow House’
Similarly to ‘Thee Hounds of Foggy Notion’ with Thee Oh Sees, the atmospheric, layered, acoustic, creaky weirdness of ‘Yellow House’ is a sound that Grizzly Bear will probably never visit again despite the fact that the sound they make here could easily sustain lesser bands for entire careers. Opener ‘Easier’ unfolds slowly and innocently enough making some of the biggest movements that the record will during the course of its sprawling, meandering ten songs. ‘Knife’ is as lively and wide-eyed as it gets here. The rest of the tracks move forward only to stutter to a stop and start several times as they roll along—the gaps in these spaces are often filled by heaving layers of unidentifiable sound. ‘On a Neck, On a Spit’ does this every few bars, for example. ‘Marla’ is where the ghostliness of the vocal layering and floating strings reaches its graceful apex of beauty. ‘Colorado’ does nicely to wind things down slowly and steadily. Nothing on this album happens too quickly and the warmth wrapped around every sound makes it perfect for early morning listening. One of the greatest achievements of their newest album ‘Shields’ is that they are able to distill the experimental, haunted quality of ‘Yellow House’ into the poppiness and accessibility of ‘Veckastimest.’ To me, though, this is as good as it will ever get.